Storm Force: Book Three of the Last Legion Series (2 page)

BOOK: Storm Force: Book Three of the Last Legion Series
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“A strong team,” Angara said.

“Strong enough to flipping come back and have what we need, I hope,” Hedley muttered.

• • •

Minutes later, the
velv
whined to life, lifted from the tarmac, and, without ceremony or clearance, climbed for space.

CHAPTER
2
N-Space

“I think,” Dr. Danfin Froude said, “I might have a theory on why the Confederation has forgotten us.”

“You’re assuming the whole damned thing hasn’t just fallen apart, which is reassuring for somebody like me who’s on the Imperial Payroll,” Yoshitaro said.

He, Alikhan, Froude, and Heiser were in what passed for the
velv
’s wardroom. Dill and Jaansma had the watch.

“Is that truth,” Alikhan asked, “or are you being metaphoric? I ask, because, if I have become one who fights for pay, should I be concerned with my own wages?”

“He’s being cute,” Ann Heiser said.

“Then,” Alikhan continued, “why is it our duty to concern ourselves with the fate of the Confederation?”

“Wouldn’t you give a damn,” Njangu asked, “if all of a sudden your loveletters home weren’t getting answered?”

“You mean, if all of the worlds of the Musth appeared to have vanished?” Alikhan was silent for a moment. “At first, I think not terribly, since obviously you are talking about the government, not the people themselves.

“As you know, we Musth pride ourselves on our independence, our solitary thinking. But we are deceiving ourselves, at least to a degree.

“So of course, if I heard nothing from my own worlds, I would want to know what happened.”

Froude was about to say something, when Alikhan held up a paw.

“Bear with me for a moment,” he said. “For my thinking is not complete.

“There would be more than just curiosity. To think I, or any of my race, would deny that we care about the many generations that have put us where we are, made us what we are … that would be the thinking of a savage.”

Froude nodded somberly. “We know that we still have some order, some civilization. Therefore, it devolves upon us to accept the responsibility of investigating the disaster and, if possible, rectifying the situation.

“Though thinking that we’re the only ones in the galaxy who care sounds rather egocentric, or possibly I’m using the wrong word, and I should be saying we’re veering close to solipsism.”

“Words,” Yoshitaro said. “Let’s go back to your grand theory, Doctor. That’ll pass the time until the next jump, and make me forget about my stomach bounding around.”

“The problem is not only ships from Cumbre bound for Confederation ports not returning, but no ships from Centrum or other Confederation worlds arriving at all, as well as a blackout on all subspace communications, correct?

“Consider this,” Froude continued. “There are a certain number of navigational points that are convenient to reach the Cumbre System. Most of those pass close to or within the twin systems of Larix and Kura.

“It’s certainly well established that Protector Redruth would like to add Cumbre to the two systems he controls.”

“I think you’re belaboring the obvious,” Heiser said.

“Whuppin’ up on a dead horse is how we’d put it,” Yoshitaro said.

“Let us consider our problems,” Froude went on, unruffled. “First, coms from the homeworlds. Easy to black out, since the transmission points
all
pass through Larix/Kura. I looked that up, by the way. One problem solved. Ships bound for the Confederation are seized by Larix/Kura. That’s already known. We have tapes.”

“Which leaves only one other question, which is the one that screws the goat,” Heiser said.

“Very vulgar, Doctor,” Froude said. “But that’s easy enough. Suppose the Confederation is having its own set of problems.”

“That’s obvious, too,” Yoshitaro said. “Garvin and I saw that when we were raw recruits, just passing through Centrum.”

“Suppose our dear friend Redruth has informed the Confederation, oh what a pity,” Froude said, “the Cumbre System appears to have fallen into chaos and anarchy. Would the Confederation bother sending anyone out to check?”

“Maybe once, maybe twice,” Yoshitaro said. “Maybe not at all.”

“And those ships Redruth could easily destroy,” Alikhan said, “since the Confederation would still think of him as an ally.”

“Just so,” Froude said. “Now doesn’t that conveniently account for our isolation?”

“Which means,” Njangu said, “we’ve got to tromp all over Redruth before we can find out about the Confederation. Which we knew a long time ago.”

“Still,” Froude said, “it’s nice to have a few good theories on our side.”

“That may be,” the Musth said. “However, in my mind, it raises a rather terrible thought, at least for you humans. Assuming that your Confederation is as large and powerful as we Musth believed it to be, does not that mean the Confederation’s woes must be rather greater than anyone can easily imagine?

“Does not that also mean if we manage to deal with Redruth, and then proceed into the Confederation, we well may be biting off a great deal more than is swallowable, since problems an empire cannot solve most likely would be impossible for a mere solar system?”

The three humans sourly considered each other.

“I think,” Froude said, “Alikhan’s logic is unassailable.”

“Thank the Bouncing Baby Buddha,” Yoshitaro said, “a low-ranking ossifer like I am’s only gotta worry about one disaster at a time.”

The intercom beeped.

“Stand by for Second Jump.”

• • •

“All right,” Garvin said, having been replaced on the bridge by Alikhan, “why aren’t you getting out? You couldn’t be that goddamned absentminded as to forget your termination date.”

“I sure was,” Njangu said. “Not that I especially liked you reminding me of it back there.”

“Sorry,” Garvin said. “I was trying for a little joke.”

“Little laugh. Ha.”

“No, I mean I really am sorry.”

“Forget about it,” Njangu said.

“All right. So you went and swallowed the shilling again, or however the phrase goes, whatever the hell a shilling is,” Garvin said. “I thought you were the balls-out hater of the little blue machine that used to be part of the big blue machine.”

“Yeh, well, it still looks like the only way to go, at least for right now,” Njangu said, uncomfortably. “I don’t see anything having changed since the last time we talked about sleazing quietly offstage.

“Which brings up something.
Your
bustout date’s what, two E-months after mine? What’re you going to do?”

Garvin looked at his friend. “Now I see why you got assed at me back there. Damned uncomfortable question, isn’t it?”

“Why?” Njangu asked. “You’ve got a bootiful lady, gazillions of credits just sitting around waiting to be spent. Hell, if you lust after danger, you could always go a-mining and get your head squashed down one of her shafts … sorry, don’t take that the way it seemed to come out … or go exploring for minerals on one of the ice giants.”

“It’s still an uncomfortable question.”

“Which means you’re going to reenlist?”

“Probably.”

“Why?”

“You expect logic from a goddamned soldier?”

Again the intercom sounded: “Stand by for Third Jump.”

• • •

“Here’s the sitrep,” Ben Dill said briskly. A system projection swung lazily in the air between him, the other pilots, Jaansma, Yoshitaro, and the two scientists. “We’ve got four possible exit points into the Larix System. Here, which is the logical point for landing on the fifth planet, Larix Prime, here, which is the alternate, here, which is way the billy-blue-blazes out in nowhere, or here, sneakily hidden just quote above endquote Five.

“I’d suggest we use that one, then sort of leisurely slither down, maybe take a polar synchronous orbit waaaay out, and put our snoopers back to work.”

“That’s what we theorized back on Cumbre,” Jaansma said. “We’ve had nothing that’d suggest we were wrong, have we?” He looked around. “ ’Kay. Make the final jump.”

• • •

“Emerging from hyperspace,” the synthed voice announced.

“All
right
, and here we are,” Dill announced. “Mrs. Dill’s favorite son’s provided a nice view of Larix down there and SON OF A BITCH!”

He slapped sensors, and hyperspace blurred around them again. Garvin had time enough to see a single blip on a screen, a subscreen showing a familiar ship in detail, the bigger screen suddenly show two blips, and the subscreen show a missile launch.

“Now we get cute,” Dill said. “Alikhan, gimme two random jumps.”

Garvin keyed the throat mike. The crew was already at action stations.

“All stations, stand by. A Larix patrol ship was waiting for us when we came out of N-Space.”

“I’ve got a tentative ID on the sucker,” Yoshitaro said, from a weapons station. “I think it was one of those flashy-ass Nana-boats Redruth stole when he highjacked us.”

“Class confirmed,” a technician reported. “Nana-class it is.”

An alarm shrilled.

“And the bastard was fast enough to put a tracer on us and make the jump, too,” Dill said. “Ho-kay. Hang on to your belly buttons.” He turned to Alikhan. “Gimme a point on … better, behind, one of Larix frigging Five’s moons. We’ll duck and consider.

“Coming out … YOW!”

“I have a launch,” a technician said, tonelessly, as she’d been trained. “On target. Impact one-zero. Counterlaunch ready … ready … fired. Three-missile spread … missile closing … closing … hit! Missile destroyed.”

“Jump!” Dill said, and the
velv
shuddered, went in, out of hyperspace, and Larix was on screen again, partially obscured by a moon. “Awright.
Aksai
pilots, man your stations.”

The com crackled. “Already there,” Boursier said quietly. “Bolted down and ready to launch.”

Another, heavily accented voice came. “Tvem in placcce. Ssstanding by, ready to fight.”

“And here those frigging weasels come again,” Dill said. “Two of ‘em, this time.
Aksai
pilots, launch.”

He ran fingers across controls. Magnetic grapples released the
aksai
, and they darted away from the
velv
, toward the two Larix patrol ships.

One Nana patrol ship launched a missile, which had its guidance system scrambled by a tech aboard the
velv
.

“Nice,” Yoshitaro said, “to be fighting somebody using the same frequencies you’ve got.”

Dill jinked the
velv
again, then again as the two
aksai
slammed in against the patrol craft. One launched from head-on, the other from center high. The Nana launched a single countermissile that went wide, both Cumbrian missiles slammed into the ship, and there was nothing but incandescent gas.

The other ship went for hyperspace, just as a second launch exploded just to the Nana’s rear.

“I do not know if I ssstruck that ssship,” Tvem said.

“If you didn’t,” Boursier said, “you shit-sure worried it some.”

“Alikhan,” Dill ordered, “set up for a jump, back the way we came. One jump, then a blind jump, then back on track.”

“I obey.”

“I have two other ships on-screen,” a tech said.

“Launch stations,” Dill said. “Stand by.”

“Standing by, sir.”


Aksai
, get your little heinies back aboard.”

“But boss — ”

“That’s a frigging order,” Dill snarled. “I don’t want those waggly-ass Goddards to make a mistake and blow you into smithereens. Move, move, move, or I’ll leave you for the vultures!”

Obediently the two
aksai
swung close to the
velv
, and dull thuds sounded as the couplers reconnected.

“Weapons, do you have those buggers in your sights?”

“Affirm …”

“Locked in, Ben.”

“Launch one … launch two …”

The Goddards were six-meter-long shipkillers normally carried by the Force’s Zhukovs, although they were originally built for deep-space war. Launch tubes had been added by Force machinists after the
velv
was purchased, and the missiles’ Target-Acquisition systems modified for longer range.

“Homing … homing … homing … miss!”

“Stand by to jump,” Dill said.

“Hang on a second,” the second Goddard technician said. “I’m almost — ”

“Jump!” Dill ordered, and Larix, moons, missiles, and patrol ships vanished.

“Aw, Ben,” the tech complained. “I coulda got me a little gold star on my control panel.”

“Countdown to Second Jump, seventy-four seconds.”

“You take it,” Dill told Alikhan, swinging away from the control panel to Garvin’s station. “That was about a big fat bust.”

“To put it politely,” Garvin agreed.

“You know what I think?”

“You know what I frigging
know?
” Garvin said. “Those bastard were laying for us.”

“Sixty-three seconds to jump.”

“Njangu,” Garvin said. “Somebody’s leaking like a sieve. Somebody on D Cumbre.”

“No shiteedah, boss,” Yoshitaro said. “Let’s get on back home, so I can start pulling people’s toenails out and find out who.”

CHAPTER
3
Cumbre

One jump short of the Cumbre system, Yoshitaro sent a coded message
EYES ONLY
to Jon Hedley, requesting all com units scan for transmissions from out-system. He hoped he’d get lucky.

An inbound signal was picked up. The recipient retransmitted it on another frequency, but there the trail ran cold. The Force cryptoanalysts weren’t able to break the code.

At least they’d located the first reception point, on a moon of J-Cumbre’s.

“I am not one for Electronic Intelligence,” Yoshitaro complained. “Hard to backstab a computer, which doesn’t sound like much fun, anyway.”

“We’ve got more than enough who are,” Hedley soothed. “Your trade’s murder from a ditch, which is a rarer specialty.”

“Thanks, I think. Then I’d like to borrow a couple-three techies, and me and a few I&R crunchies’re on our way back out to J-Cumbre.”

“Plus one,” Hedley said. “You’ll need Rumbles.”

“Rumbles? What kind of frigging name is that?”

“No worse than Njangu Yoshitaro.”

“You racist bastard. Sir.”

• • •

Rumbles poked one eye over the rocks, scanned the area. Nothing moved. He moved forward, found cover behind a hillock of frozen oxygen.

“There it is, sir,” Rumbles’s operator said. “See, on the infrared scan, we get a little blip. Probably from its solar charger, or maybe battery.” The operator was named Tanya Felder, held the rank of
Finf
, and looked more like a ballet dancer than a robot wonk.

She, like the other soldiers, was suited against the moon’s unbreathable and mildly corrosive atmosphere. Felder’s head and upper body were hidden by Rumbles’s operating center, something that looked entirely too much like the front half of a coffin, but kept Felder from being confused between real and artificial input. Inside the box were screens, sensors, and controls, all linked to the robot, a few hundred meters away.

Rumbles was a new addition to the Force. He was half a meter high and wide, and about a meter long. He had variable binocular lenses front and rear, sensors in every range his builders could think of, ran silently on padded tracks. Extendable claws capable of lifting or pulling over two hundred kilos were folded, crablike, across his bow. “He” had a range of about three kilometers, and was armed with a stubby blaster below his forward eyes. The robot could be fitted with a host of accessories, depending on its mission.

“You want us to take it from here, boss?” Monique Lir asked. She and the other five I&R soldiers were sprawled on line near Felder, weapons ready.

“Uh-uh,” Yoshitaro said. “I love you all too much to find out if that mother’s booby-trapped. Stand by. Tanya, you want to run Rumbles in a little closer? We’re still in the exploratory stages of the operation.”

“Yes, sir.” Felder still wasn’t used to the I&R practice of calling superiors by their first names or simply “boss.”

Rumbles moved out of cover, followed the low ridgeline.

“Here,” Felder said. “I’ve got a better view now, straight visual. Patching to you, sir. The transmitter’s about twenty-five meters from Rumbles.”

The small screen below Njangu’s faceplate swirled, showed a nondescript section of the frozen world, clicked to a higher power, then again. Njangu saw a gray semicylinder almost hidden in a rock outcropping.

“No sign of any attendants,” Felder said.

Yoshitaro considered. “Can you tell which end of that transmitter’s the front?”

“No, sir.”

“All right. Hung for sheepsies, hung for lambsies, and all that. Go in, slow. Record everything.”

“Already am. Sir.”

“Sorry.”

The cylinder grew larger on Yoshitaro’s screen.

“Any transmission from the station? I’m assuming it’s completely automatic.”

“Nothing, sir.”

“Stop at about three meters, while we figure out how we’re going to grab it.”

“Four meters away, and ready to — ”

Yoshitaro’s screen went blank, and Felder’s legs jerked. A ball of red fire flashed ahead of the team, and the shock wave came, then, a few seconds later, the rock under them shook.

“Tricky bastards, aren’t they?” Yoshitaro said. “Felder, did it get your robot?”

“Y … yes. I’m getting no vital signs.”

“All right, troops.” Yoshitaro got to his feet. “I don’t think there’s anything worth looking at, but let’s wander forward and take a gander. Don’t get close to anything. Booby traps can go bang more than once.”

Felder slid out of the control compartment. Njangu gave her a hand up, unplugged the commo Une into her leg.

“Sorry about Rumbles.”

Felder snuffled. A bit surprised, Yoshitaro glanced in her faceplate, saw tear streaks on the woman’s face. He didn’t say anything as they headed for the destroyed transmitter.

• • •

“So we know a transmission came in from Larix … nobody else in the Universe cares enough about us to send even a birthday card,” Jaansma told Angara. “That box on J-Cumbre picked it up, bounced it somewhere else.

“There wasn’t anything to salvage when the bastard blew but a handful of fragments. I’ve got those out for analysis, and I’ll bet all we get is that the transmitter was made from materials not common in the Cumbre system.”

“What next?” Angara asked.

“Things are going to be flipping sticky from here,” Hedley said.

Garvin and Njangu nodded glumly. “I’m assuming what we’re looking for is one head agent, and a bunch of little guys, who may be double-flagged and not know who they’re really working for,” Garvin said. “I’ll also bet that transmission we intercepted was telling that agent about the oops there off Larix, and that, well, they sort of missed the intruders, but thanks for the tip anyway and keep us posted.”

“If I were the spy, who I think needs a name, call him Snoopy,” Njangu said, “I’d get my young ass into a nice safe hole and pull it up around me until the smoke blew away. Jon’s got intercept operators riding that frequency the initial signal came in-system on, with zed results so far, and I’ll bet more big fat zeroes to come.”

“Ideas?” Angara asked.

“One,” Garvin said. “And it’s not a good one. The problem is, we’ve got no goddamned clue as to how we’re leaking, or where. We were sloppy the last time we went to Larix, and there were too many people in the know.”


Very
flipping sloppy,” Hedley agreed. “We should have nailed Snoopy a long time ago. Let’s make a probably valid assumption that we’re talking about one Snoopy, not a dozen or so. My flipping justification for that is I believe we can be dumb-ass enough to miss one superspy, but I flipping refuse to countenance the idea there’s more underfoot.

“So let’s consider that he goes at least back to those guns that Larix/Kura shipped in back during the ‘Raum rising. We didn’t get him then, were mostly lucky we were able to grab the bangsticks.

“Next, how much you want to bet Snoopy was somehow involved with that flipping explosion that took out Aesc, and started the Musth War?”

“No takers,” Angara said. “Especially since not one single freedom fighter bigot has claimed credit for killing that Musth. Two big operations, one perfect, one stopped by accident, and we’ve got to assume he’s been feeding Redruth everything we do for a long time. We’ve got to nail him before we can do a full-scale move against Larix/Kura.

“You said you had a rotten idea, Jaansma.”

“We set up another sortie, this one for Kura. But this one should look real only till the ship lifts off. We watch in every direction while we’re putting it together, hoping to snag our boy.

“The problem is, of course, is that it’ll put everybody around Kura on full alert for a while, which’ll queer any attempt to really do a sneak against them for the near future. Plus, if we don’t get Snoopy, what’s the follow-up? I’m blank.”

“This is the third time I’ve heard you boot that idea around since last night,” Njangu said. “I don’t like it any better than you, or than I did the first time. But maybe there’s a way to make it nastier, so our friend doesn’t catch on.

“The only problem is it’ll screw somebody’s life up for a good while, and there’ll always be those who don’t get the correction later. We nail an innocent, loudly shout we’ve got Snoopy, and hope the real agent relaxes enough to get careless.”

Hedley thought, then pulled at his nose.

“That’s definitely shitty, Njangu. I think we ought to try it. But let’s not just screw up one guy’s flipping life. Let’s go for half a dozen.”

From
Matin:

Force Breaks Spy Ring

Scandal Rocks Legion Ranks

By Ron Prest’n

Leggett City — Six ranking officers of the Confederation Force were arrested early this AM by the military’s internal counterintelligence section, and charged with espionage and high treason. The six, whose ranks range from
Haut
to
Alt
, are accused of being members of a deep-cover spy ring, working for an unnamed extrastellar government.

Matin
, however, with its usual skill, learned from confidential sources that the government is almost certainly that of Larix and Kura, once considered one of Cumbre’s closest allies, but now regarded as having imperialist designs on our system.

Mil
Jon Headley, head of the Force’s Intelligence Section, told Loy Kouro,
Matin
’s publisher, that this ring has been operating for some time. “We estimate these agents have been working against us since at least the Troubles with the ‘Raum, and further are likely involved with the assassination of Musth Leader Aesc, which began the recent misunderstanding with that culture.

“We’ve suspected the existence of such a network for some time,” Headley continued, “but continued our investigation until we were sure we had discovered all agents. We then made our arrests, and have all suspects in custody at a remote location, where full debriefing will be made.”

Confessions are expected, and the trial will be public, and is expected to be held within the next three months, as soon as the military judicial system finishes preparing its case …

“Son of a bitch couldn’t even spell my name right,” Hedley complained.

“It could be worse, boss,” Garvin said. “He could’ve asked for pictures of those poor bastards we’ve got hiding out in the boonies until the heat goes down.”

“Why couldn’t we have just arrested Kouro?” Njangu said. “He makes a pretty good enemy agent, from where I sit.”

Loy Kouro was Jasith Mellusin’s ex-husband, an abuser, and a longtime enemy of Garvin’s. He also had been one of the most eager collaborators during the recent Musth War, and had been jailed after the Musth defeat by the Force. Criminal charges hadn’t stuck, but there were several megacredit civil suits pending.

“That’s what I like about you,” Garvin said. “Every now and then, you
do
stick up for your friends.”

“Have to. You owe me too much money.”

“Awright, you two,” Hedley broke in. “Phase I is under way. Now, let’s … oh shit. Forgot to tell you. Both of you are due at sixteen hundred hours on the parade ground. Full dress.”

“What for?”

“Reenlistment ceremony. You’re going to provide an awesome example for the new blood.”

Garvin and Njangu stared at each other in horror.

“No way out?”

“Not a chance,” Hedley said firmly. “This is the old man’s idea.”

“Aw, shit! Can we at least get drunk afterward?” Njangu moaned.

“You have my permission to go drinking this evening, and the Legion’ll pick up the tab,” Hedley said. “Just be able to function by dawn, or thereabouts.”

“You see,” Garvin said. “The Force never takes away with one hand but what it gives with the other. I’ll go call Jasith for transport.”

• • •

“I thought you boys were very pretty out there, marching around and saluting everything from flags to lapdogs,” Jasith Mellusin said as she zigged around a shuttle lifting off, ignoring the horn blast, and dropped her lim neatly into the valet parking area of the Shelburne Hotel. “Still are, in fact.”

Garvin started to preen a bit, then saw Jasith’s tongue sticking well into her cheek.

“So why didn’t you let us change?” Njangu complained. “You think I
like
going out in this costume? Makes a man too noticeable when he might want to slide out in an unobtrusive manner.”

“But you’re with me,” Jasith said. “Which means you’re not only going to be pretty, but well behaved, too.” She slid out of the lim’s pilot compartment as she spoke, hand automatically extending a bill to the attendant with the casual arrogance only the very rich knew.

“Good
and
pretty, both? How goddamned dull,” Njangu said. “I coulda called a shuttle and had a lot less hassle.”

“But not the company of somebody as lovely as I am,” Jasith said. “Besides, one of my friends may be here and lonely.”

“Jasith Mellusin,” Garvin said. “Pimp to proper patriots.”

She kicked him accurately in the shins, then yelped. “That’s why sojers wear boots,” Garvin said smugly. “Heavy boots.”

“C’mon, you two,” Njangu said. “Alcohol calls.”

The Shelburne was D-Cumbre’s most exclusive hotel, the social center for politicians and Rentiers. Oddly enough, the management also welcomed the Legion’s Intelligence and Reconnaissance section. Or, if welcome wasn’t precise, no one from I&R had been barred so far, as long as her or his credits clinked.

The main entrance was a sweeping semicircular drive, with low steps leading into the main reception area, with walls of tiny antique glass panes.

As Garvin, Jasith, and Njangu went up the steps, the door slid open, and Loy Kouro came out, walking with the precision of the very drunk. Flanking him were two very large men. All three wore evening dress.

The following happened very quickly:

Kouro noticed Jasith and Garvin, and his face reddened.

Jasith and Garvin pretended Kouro didn’t exist.

As the two parties passed close, Kouro leaned over and said something in an undertone to Jasith.

Her eyes widened, her face went white, and her hand came up to backhand Kouro.

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