Enjoy this free ebook! Write me and tell me what you thought
of this book (at Steve2 "at" allreaders.com)!
Feel free to save this at any time in your hard drive
by clicking on "file" in the upper left hand corner than
"save as" so you can finish reading it at your leisure.
Escape from Altera
By Steven Gordon
It was a time of war.
The United League of Planets was at war with the Slurian Union.
Even before the war was over it was being referred to on the
League side as "The Second Slurian War". (The Slurians called it "The
Second War of Liberation".) The League, a relatively democratic group
of free societies, had been attacked once again by the brutal Slurian
As war went, it was massive. Thousands of spaceships squared off
against each other in space; millions of soldiers fought over planets
that had the misfortune to be at the front lines. Millions perished, or
were wounded, or captured.
The League kept their prisoners under strict detention. Slurian
prisoners never starved, never froze to death, and were provided with
at least minimal medical care. Their treatment, while exemplary, was
within the guidelines set by the Graftonite Accords.
But the Slurians, while a reluctant signatory to the Graftonite
Accords, never observed any of the terms. They looked down on prisoners
as cowards, or simply a commodity, another source of expendable slave
labor. Since the Slurians had ultimate confidence in winning this war
(as they did all their wars), they felt there were little or no
consequences to working their prisoners to death. After all, the
Slurians treated their own people this way; why should foreigners be
treated any better? As a result, prisoners were treated the same, or
even worse, than Slurian civilians in labor camps.
This was the state of affairs as the war raged on...
Part I: Idaho J. Took's Story
Chapter 1 Out
From the Personal Log of Battle Lieutenant Idaho J. Took
My hands are still shaking. It's been several months since I've
been released from the military hospital on Erratta, but my hands are
still shaking. Just thinking about it gives me the shivers. I was a
prisoner of war for nearly three years. I saw men, both League and
Slurians, die by the hundreds. These weren't anonymous blips killed by
a long distance missile, or even people killed in close quarters
battle; these were people who dropped off through starvation, or
exhaustion, or exposure to the elements. They were murdered, or
I had taken several sets of notes of my experiences but they were
repeatedly confiscated by the camp authorities; finally when I reached
Mount Perm I was able to write a set of notes that I was able to
smuggle out with me. At first, when I was in the sickbay on the Glory
and even later, in the military hospital on Greenfields, I could hardly
think. I was suffering from starvation, exposure, and half a dozen
illnesses. I had terrible nightmares. Now, I've started calming down. I
thought I could finally write about it. Now that I get the shivers
again, maybe I was wrong.
But I don't want to wait to write about it before I forget; I
mean, I can never forget the gory details, but it's the little details,
the faces, the people, that I don't want to forget. So let me once
again try to start and tell what happened.
It started a little over three years ago, in what was to become
the pivotal battle of Bangor. It turned out to be one of our biggest
victories in the war against the Slurians; the Second Slurian War, that
is. We were losing the war with the Slurians; they had, once again,
surprised us, luring our politicians, and by extension, our military,
off guard. We were struck, off balance, by superior forces, and were
losing ground rapidly.
That's when they put Battle Admiral (now War Admiral) Norman
North in charge. He started to turn things around immediately. But it
wasn't until Bangor that the tide was turned.
Unfortunately, I never realized that Bangor was the turning
point. I participated in the Bangor campaign; I was with one of the
squadrons making a feint deep in Slurian space. My job was to convince
the Slurians that the Glory was where it wasn't.
Unfortunately, I was shot down. It wasn't until years later that
I learned how successful my mission had been, how the Battle Admiral
had crushed the Slurians, how he had finally been promoted to War
Admiral for his efforts. My Slurian captors, trying to paint the worst
picture of everything, told me that the Battle Admiral's fleet had been
destroyed and that their fleets were conquering League space left and
right; I wasn't so weak from torture as to believe everything of what
they told me, of course, but I didn't know quite what to believe,
either, and fear of my "failure" haunted me for nearly all of my
I remember being on the Glory. That's Battle Admiral North's
ship, a relatively new command carrier, a combined battleship and
fighter carrier, one of the best and most renown in the fleet.
We had just received our mission briefing. The mission we had
been assigned was dangerous; but that was why, in the Battle Admiral's
own words, he had sent my squadron in.
"Iday," he said, putting an arm on my shoulder, "It's a dangerous
mission. You have to penetrate deep into Slurian space without being
detected. If their heavies catch you, we won't be there to back you
up." He looked me deep in the eyes to emphasis the seriousness of the
But I already knew that. I stared back at him. "And you've picked
me for this one-way mission because...."
"You're a survivor," said the Battle Admiral, not flinching from
my gaze. "If anyone can survive, you can."
"You shouldn't believe everything my public relations expert puts
out over the hyperwave.," I said.
The Battle Admiral gave me an odd look, the type he often does
when I crack a joke. I'm never sure if he finds it amusing or not.
My squadron was sent out in specially retrofitted Harmony-14's.
Normally, we would have taken our Wildcat 122-A's, but Harmony fighters
could carry more fuel internally and could carry larger external fuel
tanks. On the downside, however, they weren't nearly as capable
fighters as the 122-A's.
"But your mission isn't to blow anything up," the Battle Admiral
had said. "I mean, you'll blow a few things up just to get noticed, but
your primary mission is to get noticed."
"And to survive," I had added. But I was already having second
and third thoughts when I saw the battered hull of the Harmony-14. Our
entire squadron was being shipped out to the battlecruiser Royal Line,
which would carry us as close as possible to the infiltration zone.
Two days later, we launched. A silent squadron of 12. We were
forced to keep radio silence, which I think made my nerves worse.
Normally I like to chatter with the squadron. This time we could say
nothing. Occasionally one of the other Harmony 14's sidled up to me,
and I exchanged hand signals and worried glances with a wingman.
They all knew what the odds were. But they also knew our mission
was vital. We had to convince the Slurians that we were in the area
We jettisoned our external fuel tanks before we got in-system. It
was important that we looked like short-ranged fighters. A normal
squadron of Harmony-14's without external tanks wouldn't have a
cruising range much more than a Wildcat's. It would have been more
credible to use Wildcats, but Wildcats, with their smaller external
tanks, couldn't get out this far.
We picked up the battlestation in orbit around the second planet
fairly quickly. That would do. I broke radio silence, ordering the
I would've preferred to squeeze off one shot and then leave, but
that would have been uncharacteristic of a real attacking force. So I
lashed into the battlestation with my lasers, carefully avoiding the
barrage of fire coming out towards me. It really wasn't much of a
danger, not to a skilled pilot; those defending lasers couldn't really
hit anything so small, so fast.
I was having such a good time blasting away that I almost didn't
notice the pursuing force until they were on my short range sensors. In
all fairness to me they must have come up from the planet's surface; a
large number of cruisers, destroyers, and smaller craft. Good.
After this attack, the Slurians should be convinced that the
fleet was nearby, and divert even more ships to this sector. After all,
how could short range fighters have come this far on their own?
"Break off," I said. Our mission was over. How successful it had
been would only be determined in an after-battle analysis. For now we
had to evade pursuit and make our way to a gas giant two systems over,
where a refueling tanker was waiting for us.
We headed out of orbit, splitting up in different directions, so
the Slurians couldn't follow all of us. Unfortunately, I was one of
those they chose to follow.
One especially speedy destroyer was closing. It must have been
the Slurian's own version of a fast attack destroyer. It started firing
on me; I took evasive action.
Suddenly, there were four blips behind me.
Fighters. Badger 17's. And they were catching up even more
I had to turn and fight. I've analyzed that decision at least a
million times in the past three years. I still think it was my only
I spiraled behind one fighter as a second got behind me. I
quickly lined up and got my shot, but just as I was spinning away I
felt a jolt, and the ship spun out of control.
Spinning wildly, I attempted to regain control while all the
controls flickered around me. I regained control, pulled out of the
spin, assessed the damage, and spun again to evade pursuers, all in the
space of two seconds. The Battle Admiral's faith in me was well placed;
you don't get to be the squadron leader of a "B" squadron if you're not
a top pilot. Not on the Glory you don't.
The damage wasn't fatal, but it wasn't good; one of the Harmony's
four engines had been knocked out.
That meant I would never be able to outrun the Slurians. Sure, I
could do some fancy moves to keep them off my tail, but not for two
solar systems. I checked my scanner. I was still close to Volvograd.
Well, that was it then; I'd have to go to ground.
I didn't bother to radio my wingmen; they all had orders to go
their separate ways; it wasn't until three years later that I learned
how many of them had survived (eight).
I winged into the Volvograd atmosphere, madly zigging this way
and that, leaving a squadron of undoubtedly very frustrated Slurian
Badger pilots behind me. My wings started to glow with the heat as I
came in on a steeper angle than I should.
I'd like to say that in the few seconds that I took to enter the
atmosphere that I checked my scans and considered the best place to
eject over. Unfortunately things were moving a little too quickly even
All my instrumentation was flashing wildly, systems were failing,
the Badgers were closing, and the ground was coming up too quickly....
I leveled the Harmony out and it groaned; and I did a sudden
horizontal U turn into a nearby cloud cover. The Badgers followed; it
would be impossible to lose them on sensors; but perhaps I could get
out of visual range, just for a few seconds.
I set the autopilot and then, taking a deep breath, pressed the
I was being shot into the air at fantastic speeds. My blood was
rushing. And then, below me, I saw the planet's landscape. I cringed
inwardly. Isn't that odd, an ace pilot like me, being afraid of
But of course, I hadn't activated my emergency gravitator yet.
Nor did I for several seconds.
My emergency gravitator was fitted in my backpack behind me. They
hadn't figured out how to make full fledged gravitators small enough to
fit into such a small space, so what I had was a "gravitator light",
with limited power, that should slow me down sufficiently so that my
impact wouldn't be too hard... as long as I didn't activate it for more
than two minutes; that was the trick; the gravitator only had enough
slowing power for two minutes.
I grimaced as I watched the ground closing. Waiting a few seconds
more, I activated it.
Then, slowly, my descend started to slow. Then I noticed the fall
becoming more gradual.
I didn't want it to get too gradual; if the gravitator ran out of
power, I would fall straight to the ground without any braking power.
My altimeter said I was still 200 feet over the ground when my
gravitator gave the 15 second warning beep. Gulping, I turned it off.
I started to plunge down to the ground again.
I meant to turn it back on at 100 feet, but I was falling so fast
that it kicked in at about 70 feet. The ground was still coming too
fast.... I was still falling as I hit the ground.
Ooof! My feet hit with a mighty jolt and I felt a tremendous pain
in my legs as I rolled to the side, as I had been trained to do.
I lay there for a second, fearing the worst.
Then I spoke my first words on Volvograd. "I'm fearing the
worst?" I said to myself. "I'm already on a planet crawling with
Slurians, with no way home; how much worse can a pair of broken legs
Cautiously I sat up, and then tenderly stood up. I winced as I
flexed my legs. I was bruised, but nothing was broken.
"There," I said. "Maybe this day won't turn out so badly after
Suddenly a pair of Badger 17's streaked through the air.
"Time to celebrate later," I muttered. I grabbed my emergency
supply pack and started walking rapidly, the best I could do for the
moment on my weakened joints.
I was in an area of great open spaces. There was no sign of
civilization anywhere around me. There was some woods in the distance.
That looked like a good destination.
A Badger flew overhead, so low that I was forced to duck.
Undoubtedly he was radioing all his little friends. As it overflew a
second time the wind knocked me to the ground.
As I stood up I realized the Badger hadn't fired on me. They
wanted me alive; probably for interrogation. Well, that was a good
thing; I wanted me alive too.
As I reached the trees I could already see a pair of shuttles
getting ready to land on the green, not a half mile away.
I had perhaps a ten minutes head start, no more.
I started running.
Ten minutes isn't much time to escape capture in an open field.
But in a forest ten minutes one can blend into the forest, if one is
good enough, and fast enough.
An hour later, puffing for breath, I took a break behind a tree,
giving my abused legs a break. Does it sound improbable that I escaped
from my pursuers? They had come quickly in response to my sighting, so
they probably weren't equipped with search parties--there was only a
pilot in each shuttle and a minimal crew in each ship. Such a small
number of people could hardly comb the forest for me.
By now, of course, more reinforcements would have arrived. My
primary duty was not to get captured; if I were interrogated and
revealed the real location of the Battle Admiral's fleet, all our plans
would be lost. Actually, I hadn't been told the exact location our
fleet would be attacking from, but I did know enough to tell the
Slurians where the fleet wasn't; and if they made me talk, all our
efforts would have been wasted.
I had to evade capture then, for at least two days, maybe three.
After that the battle would be joined, and it wouldn't matter what the
Slurians learned from me; it would all be old news.
The sun was setting and it was starting to get cold. I noticed a
small path in the forest, and peered through the dim light as best I
could. I couldn't see anyone. Should I take the path? I could go more
quickly that way than trying to blaze a path through the forest, which
was more dense in this area. I decided to take a risk and take the
I walked quickly, alert for the slightest sound, of a snapping
twig or plant squashed underfoot. I heard sounds of animals in the
forest but thought I could distinguish them from real people. I walked
quickly, too quickly, and had to stop myself as I entered a clearing.
There was a small farmhouse at the edge of the clearing, and a
barn. There was a light in the farmhouse.
I immediately thought of the barn. I knew I couldn't hide out
there; that would be the first place the Slurians could look.
But there could be food there. I had enough concentrated rations
to last a week, but could always use more. More importantly there could
be local clothes there I could use to blend in with the population; my
uniform would give me away immediately. If I could dress like the
locals perhaps I could go into one of their cities, find a ship and
The wonderful image in my mind was so persuasive that I didn't
realize I was daydreaming until I was close up to the barn. I heard
some small noise from the house but none from the barn. Drawing my
blaster I cautiously entered.
I found some livestock in the barn, a pair of cows that had seen
better days and a few scrawny chickens, but no food. What I did find
was a shirt and a pair of overalls.
I made the fateful decision to put them on. This was another
point in time I thought much of in retrospect; would things have been
different if I hadn't put on civilian clothes? There's no way to know
for sure now.
I slipped into the Slurian clothes and buried my own under a pile
of hay. By the time they were found I would be long gone.
The Slurian clothes were made of a rough material that itched,
and they didn't look all that clean. Well, they would have to do.
The sun was starting to set and it was getting cold. A gust of
cold wind blew by me as I stepped out of the barn. It would have been
tempting to try to spend the night there, out of the elements, but I
wasn't a total fool.
I continued on the path. As I walked I could occasionally see
farmhouses in the distance. When the last bit of light from Volvograd's
distant sun faded, and all I had was the dim light of the stars to
navigate, I decided to take a break.
I took a ration bar out of a pocket. It had an unnatural
chocolately taste to it, as if someone tried to make something other
than chocolate taste like chocolate. Biting back my nausea, I took a
drink out of my water flask.
Water. That would be a problem, even before my food ran out. I
had passed a stream before I had arrived at the farmhouse, but in my
haste had simply run past it. Well, there would be others.
I snapped out of my daydreaming when I heard a crackle in the
forest. I turned around and peered as best I could into the dark
Then I heard another snapping sound, and then another, as if
someone were walking through the forest. Someones, by the sound of it.
I immediately ducked behind a bush. Peering through a few
strands, I saw a squad of people walking down the path, carrying rifles
and wearing goggles. Soldiers.
At least, they must be soldiers, unless the local farmers took to
wearing night vision goggles at night.
I resisted the impulse to run; night vision goggles or no, they
couldn't see me through this bush.
I slowly watched them pass, and then headed in the opposite
I had no clear idea what I was doing. The standard protocol for
a pilot who's forced to eject is to activate his homing beacon for
pickup. Since I was several billion miles inside enemy territory, that
didn't seem to be a feasible option.
The secondary protocol was to try to hole up until rescue. But,
as I've mentioned, since I was REALLY deep inside enemy territory, that
protocol didn't hold too well either.
Beyond that it was up to my Tookish imagination to determine what
to do. This planet was inhabited by the Slurians, therefore it must
have a spaceport. Spaceports must have spaceships. Spaceships,
especially small ones, could be stolen. All I would have to do is evade
capture, pass for a Slurian, locate the spaceport, break in, steal a
ship, evade pursuit, and get back to League space.
"Easier said than done," I said, speaking for almost the first
time since I had arrived on this planet. "Maybe I should simply wait
for the Battle Admiral to conquer the planet."
The Battle Admiral. The attack. It was scheduled to start in two
days. I had to evade capture for at least that long.
I walked in the forest for as long as I could, but eventually
exhaustion took its toll. I decided to lay down in a small clearing,
just for a few minutes. Just a short rest.
I felt something jabbing into my arm. I opened my eyes, blinking
in the harsh sunlight, to see three figures pointing long things at me.
They looked like blaster rifles. They looked like Slurian soldiers
holding blaster rifles.
I tried to think of something to say in Slurian. Unfortunately,
my Slurian vocabulary, never very robust, didn't extend much beyond
"Yes!" "No!" "Very good!" and "Pretty, pretty!". But I had to try
something. Maybe I could pass as a civilian.
One of the soldiers babbled something to me, undoubtedly in
Slurian. I slowly started to get up.
The soldier repeated what he was saying. I think he was expecting
a response. I considered my options.
"Nyet," I said, in flawless Slurian, hoping it was a yes or no
The Slurians looked puzzled. Obviously, it wasn't.
I tried mumbling something incoherent to them, trying to act like
a disgruntled farmer who simply decided to spend the night in the
forest. I slowly turned away and took a step.
Several blaster muzzles poked into my back. I froze. A hand
frisked me, pulling out my blaster hidden in my jacket.
My obviously League made blaster.
"You got me, fellas," I said, in English. No point in pretending
anymore. "Which one of you is going to take me to the General
One of the soldiers barked a command.
I shrugged, looking puzzled. The soldier slammed the butt of his
rifle against my face. I fell to the ground.
Another soldier yanked me to my feet.
The soldier who had hit me barked again, pointing with his rifle.
I rubbed my sore jaw and glared at him. "You realize this is
going into my report to the Human Aide Society."
The soldier jabbed me with his rifle.
"All right, all right," I sighed, and started walking.
The Slurians walked around me in a protective cordon, weapons
raised. One of them turned to me, and grinned. "You out of it. For you,
war over," he said, in broken English.
"We'll just see about that," I said, with false bravado.
It wasn't until three years later that I realized he was right.
Chapter 2: Interrogation
"Took. Idaho J., War Admiral, 5408224," I said, for something
approaching the 50th time. I had always wanted to be a War Admiral; if
I were going to lie, why not lie in style?
By the way they were growling at me, my interrogators obviously
didn't believe me. Or understand me. Not one of them spoke a word of
System English. Which was good; it would buy me some time.
"Geblah blah!" one of them said accusingly. He wore the uniform
of a Major of the feared Loyalty Police, with the trademark red
The Loyalty Police. They were answerable to almost no one. All
Slurians, regular army included, feared the Redcaps.
"Blah blah!" I responded.
I received a slap across the face which stung. Maybe my accent
It had been several hours since I had been brought into a nearby
military base. Several hours. I must have been on this planet at least
24 hours. I knew in a general way that the attack was scheduled to
occur in two to three days. All I had to do, then, was hold out for 48
hours. After that, I could tell them the truth. After that it would do
It should be easy; it might take them days just to find someone
who spoke English.
"Geblah!" said the Major. A newcomer entered the room, a
redhaired fellow wearing a Colonel's shoulderboards.
"Sorry, I only speak League English," I said, with an
ingratiating smile. "Don't they teach you anything in school nowadays?
It's that public education system, you know."
The Colonel stood close to my chair and stared at me.
"My, that's a nasty scar you've got down the side of your face,
chief," I said. "Did your laser shaver malfunction?"
The Colonel glared at me.
"This is great," I said. "I can insult you all I want and all you
can do is stare at me. If we can just keep this up for another day or
two everything will be perfect."
"I am afraid we do not have that kind of time," said the Colonel,
speaking in flawless League English. I jumped. The Colonel smiled.
"Yes, of course we understand your language," said the Colonel.
"I myself spent several years working for a Congressman on
Greenfields," he said, now taking on a subtle Greenfields accent.
I looked at the face, and then the uniform. This was no ordinary
The Colonel picked up a datapad. "Took, Idaho J., Battle
Lieutenant, attached to the Command Carrier Glory, Battle Admiral
Norman North commanding. Last known position: in charge of Beta
Squadron, also known as "Took's Tigers". 74 non-cumulative years of
combat flying experience."
I said nothing, but my face must have betrayed me.
"You see, we are not without our resources," said the Colonel. He
started to pace around my chair.
I still said nothing.
"My report says you are one of the Battle Admiral's most valued
pilots. But it also says you are a joker, a foolish one," said the
Colonel, standing behind me. He clamped his arms on my shoulders, and
reached down close, so his mouth was next to my left ear.
"I do not suffer fools lightly."
I gulped, and then he was walking around to face me again. "We
are aware of the imminent attack of your fleet. We know the details."
"Then you won't be needing me," I said, starting to get up.
One of the husky guards standing by my chair raised his blaster.
I slowly sat back down.
The Colonel looked bored. "We just want some confirmation. What
is the Glory's current location?"
I said nothing. Obviously he didn't know where the Glory was.
The Colonel leaned down so he was at eye level. "Don't make me
"Took," I said. "Idaho J. Battle Lieutenant, 54-"
I yelled as I was shot in the back by a blaster. It was set to
low, or else I would have stopped feeling anything, but my left
shoulder blade felt like it was on fire.
That was just the beginning. For the next few hours I was
tortured mercilessly. I was shot repeatedly, beaten, shot, and
interrogated. But my answers were always the same.
"Took. Idaho J-" I would rarely get to my serial number before
the attack would begin again. I ached all over my body. I thought I
would pass out from the pain.
"I will ask again," said the Colonel. "Where is the Glory?"
"I... I..." I gasped, trying to stall for time. The Colonel
nodded. The guard raised his blaster.
"Stop!" said a new voice. It came from behind me, so I couldn't
see who it was.
But the Colonel could. His face whitened. Even in my debilitated
state, a small piece of my brain found this interesting. Who could get
this kind of reaction from a Redcap?
A man in an all black uniform stepped into view. The uniform was
made of some kind of material that stood up on its own, and came
complete with high collars. My mind blinked; where had I read about
such uniforms before.
"Major," gasped the Colonel, saluting.
Since when did a colonel salute a major? Especially a Loyalty
Officer. Who did even the Loyalists fear?
The Major, the man in black, said, "What have you been doing?"
"Fool!" said the Major. "You will kill him before you get
anything useful." The Major turned to look at me. He stared with cold
"My hero," I mumbled.
The Major grabbed my jaw. "You think I have come to rescue you,
Idaho Took? Do you know where I am from?"
I shook my head; like the rest of my body, it hurt. I couldn't
"Then obviously you have never heard of Special Tasks."
Special Tasks. The elite infiltration and assassination unit of
the Slurian Secret Police. Even the Redcaps were afraid of them.
I looked at the Major with obvious fear in my eyes. I found
"I see you have heard of us," said the Major pleasantly. His eyes
flickered to the Colonel. "Leave us."
The Colonel left without saying another word, taking his guards
with him. Now, if I could untie myself from the chair, all I would have
to do is overpower the Special Tasks Major to escape.
"What shall we talk about?" said the Major, giving a small smile.
"How about the weather?" I croaked.
It was then I noticed that the Major was carrying a small case.
He opened it, taking out something. "Unfortunately, I do not have time
to banter with you. Even more unfortunately, we are not near one of our
interrogation facilities, so I must make do with cruder means."
"There's a lot of unfortunate events going around lately in the
Slurian empire, isn't there?" I said.
The Major leaned close to my face, and stared me in the eyes. For
a moment he said nothing. Then, suddenly, he whipped his hand into
view. Before I could cry out he had pressed something against my neck.
I cried out as I felt a hiss.
In a matter of seconds, I felt my mind grow numb. Suddenly, I was
unable to concentrate.
It seemed like hours passed. Meaningless words were said to me; I
said meaningless things back. I had no idea what was going on. Finally,
after an undeterminable time, I slowly felt the pain returning to my
head, and things started to clear up slightly.
The Special Tasks Major was sitting there, entering words into a
datapad. After a few minutes he looked up, and smiled as he noticed the
expression on my face.
"Ah, I see you've returned," said the Major. "I could have
finished this report outside, but I couldn't leave without thanking
"For the location of the Glory. As well as your fleet's tactical
plans," said the Major.
"You're lying," I said. "I don't know the exact location of the
The Major looked at his pad. "But you know where it was, and
where it won't be. When you left it, the Glory and its accompanying
fleet were near pulsar SR-52, waiting to launch an attack, were they
I said nothing, but I suppose I looked shocked, because the
Major gave a smile, and nodded.
"Your flight was simply a ruse to convince us that the Glory was
nearby, as if we wouldn't notice that the Glory was using atypically
long range Harmony fighters," said the Major pleasantly. "Of course now
we know the real truth."
I was simply numb.
"Thank you," the Major continued. "You've been most cooperative."
He pressed a button on the desk. "Unfortunately, my ability to reward
you is most limited."
I heard booted feet coming in the room behind me. The Major
looked beyond me. "Take special care of him." And then he left my field
The Colonel stepped into view, smiling wickedly. "Be assured, we
They knew where the fleet was.
I had told them where the fleet was!
Don't panic, I told myself. Don't panic. I lay on the hard wooden
board in a small cell. I didn't know the exact location where the
attack would occur; my only mission had been to convince them that the
attack would occur here, at Volvograd. But now they knew that was a
ruse, and they also knew where the Glory had started from, if not where
it was actually going to attack.
What had the Battle Admiral said? That the attack would take
place in two or three days after I arrived at the diversion point. Let
me think. I had eluded capture for about a day after I had been shot
down. The 5,000,000 credit question was, how long had it been since I
had been caught? I wasn't sure.
If 48 hours had passed, then it would be too late; the fleet
would already be underway, and/or about to attack. But it didn't feel
like two days had passed; had the Slurians been tipped off in time?
If they had, then I would be single handedly responsible for the
loss of the entire fleet.
I tried to get some sleep, but couldn't; but it wasn't the pains
of low intensity blaster fire torture that kept me awake.
It was only a few hours later when the guards came for me.
Another interrogation session? What more did they need?
"Come!" they said, each grabbing me by one arm. They force
marched me down the corridor. What was the hurry?
Before I knew it I was in a groundcar, surrounded by guards. The
groundcar seemed to be moving unusually quickly. They definitely seemed
to be in a hurry.
"What's going on?" I asked.
The guards looked away and said nothing.
I was taken to a landing strip where a shuttle awaited us. I was
hustled aboard and even before we had reached our seats the shuttle had
taken off. As I momentarily stumbled to the ground I tried to figure
out what was happening. Had the Battle Admiral's attack been
successful? Were the Slurians now in full retreat?
Even if the attack had been successful, the attack was planned to
take place at least two sectors away. It was very unlikely that a
victory there would have any immediate effect here. No, that couldn't
be the reason for all the hurry.
We were taken to a ship where I was kept in solitary confinement
for several days. Food was brought to me at regular intervals. Despite
my best efforts to provoke the guards, no one said anything to me.
An indeterminable time later I was bustled into the shuttle again
and we started to descend. Since I wasn't in the pilot's section I
couldn't see where we were going but I did notice the more relaxed
attitude among the crew. Whatever had bothered them on Volvograd wasn't
an issue for them here.
As the shuttle landed and I was taken to the exit ramp I felt a
strong gust of cold air. I instinctively shivered and my eyes stung as
I tried to refocus.
The environment around me was white. There was snow everywhere;
on the ground, on top of the buildings, in the air. We had landed in
the middle of a snowstorm on... where?
The Slurians were notorious for locating their prison and labor
camps on inhospitable worlds. Perhaps this was one of them.
I was put into a groundcar and taken for a short drive. In short
order we arrived at what looked like a military base. I was put into
It was several hours later when the guards called on me again. I
was taken to an office where another Redcap awaited me. This time it
was a Major, but a woman. Even from behind the desk I saw that she was
attractive. Blonde, with a good figure. She glanced up at me and nodded
for me to take a seat.
"So here we have the famous League spy," she said, in accented
"I get good press," I said, hoping to throw her off-balance
She stood up and moved around the desk, and I saw that she really
did fill her uniform quite well.
"You find me attractive?" she said, obviously noticing my stare.
"Are you asking me out?" I asked. "Maybe we could go out, get a
cup of borsch-"
My words were cut off as the Major slapped my face.
"Do not toy with me, League swine!" she said, her eyes flaring.
"If I'm famous, don't you know it?"
She slapped me again, harder. "Your name."
That really stung.
"Idaho J. Took."
I let her lead me through all the basic details. She started
asking mundane details about my personal life, the names of my parents,
where I grew up, where I went to school, when I enlisted in the space
forces, things like that. I was too tired to resist. There didn't seem
to be any harm in telling her these things, and I had to husband my
strength for the important things.
Her questioning got more and more specific. What was the first
ship I had been posted to? What had I majored in in the academy. I
still didn't see any harm in telling her these things, but wondered
where she was leading with this.
After an undetermined time the questioning stopped.
"Take him back to his cell," the Major said.
"That's it?" I said, getting up uncertainly.
"For now," said the Major.
I was taken back to the cell, where a cup of water and three
tasteless slices of bread awaited me. This, evidently, was dinner.
The next morning I was summoned back for another interrogation. I
noticed the Major was asking the same questions again: Name, rank, etc.
"Perhaps I can save some time if you just check your notes from
yesterday," I said hopefully.
"Silence!" she said, slapping me across the face. "Are you
telling me how to do my job?"
I looked down, admiring her tight fitting pants. "No, just making
"You are in no position to make suggestions," said the Major.
"Now, what was your mission?"
"To attack Volvograd," I said. That should have been obvious, by
The Major slapped me again. "Your real mission."
"That was my real mission-"
"You are a spy. What was your mission here?" she demanded.
"I'm a talent scout for a holomodeling agency." I asked. "Are you
looking for a new line of work? I think you have the legs for it."
She slapped me again. "You think this is a joke?"
I smiled genially.
"You think because I am a woman I will go easy on you?"
I said nothing.
She more closer to me. She matched eyes with mine. Slowly she sat
down in my lap, her legs straddling mine. She put her arms around me.
She moved her lips close to mine.
"Is this what you would like?" she asked.
I wet my lips nervously. "Well, I was thinking of some
candlelight, maybe some soft music-"
Suddenly she banged her head against mine, hard.
"Ow!" I cried as I felt waves of pain.
She slowly stood up.
"Things will not go so easy for you, spy," said the Major.
After another break I was called back again for interrogation.
"Let us start again," said the Major. She started asking me about
my life. I answered her questions, but stumbled a few times.
"I thought you said you were 24 years of age when you entered the
"I did," I said.
"You just said you were 25!"
"Did I?" I said. "Well, my birthday was right around then and-"
The Major caught me up on a number of discrepancies. I had said
so many things that there were bound to be minor discrepancies; but
that's what they were, all minor. Every time I said something slightly
different, she would jump on me,
"You can't even keep your lies straight!" said the Major. "You
said earlier you had six months of simulation training, and now you say
"A few, yes, that means six," I said. "What's the difference?"
"More lies!" Another slap.
I had several more interviews like that, where the Major quibbled
over minor points. But her anger at those "discrepancies" of my past
was nothing compared to her rage when she questioned me about the
"You are a spy!" she charged, not for the first time. "What was
"To find out if you are a natural blonde," I said.
I started to get grinded down by these tiring sessions. They
seemed to be asking the same questions over and over. The only reason I
could think that they were doing this was to wear me down.
And the Major was getting tougher on me.
"Do you know what we do to spies?"
"I am not a spy."
"You are a spy, and you can be shot," said the Major.
"Under the Graftonite Accords-"
The Major slapped me. "The Graftonite Accords only apply to
prisoners of war! You are a spy!"
I said nothing.
"Aren't you?" the Major insisted. "You were caught in civilian
clothing. You are not a Slurian national. The only people who wear
civilian clothing are Slurian nationals and spies!"
"I'm not a spy," I said, suddenly panicking. "I changed clothing
in order to avoid capture. When I landed-"
"Irrelevant!" said the Major. "You were dressed as a civilian,
you are a spy. I can order you shot right now!" She noticed my grim
expression, and spoke more definitively. "If you do not cooperate I
will have you shot!"
I started to tremble inside. I knew she meant it.
"If you do not cooperate, your next session may be your last.
Think about it! Guard!"
I was taken back to my cell. As I collapsed into the plank/bed, I
certainly had a lot to think about. I hadn't realized the risks of
assuming civilian clothing. Would they really shoot me?
That begged another question. Why were they being so tough on me?
The Special Tasks people had already obtained the most important
information; they must have known that I was a pilot, not a spy. The
Glory had long since gone into battle; whatever had happened, had
already happened. There was no longer any useful information he could
give. Then why were they interrogating me so brutally?
Perhaps the only way they could kill me was if I admitted I was a
spy. But if I refused to say I was a spy, I'd still have a chance of
being treated as a prisoner of war. It wasn't a great fate to look
forward to, but it was better than being dead.
So in my next session with the Major I continued to resist. But
she only got tougher. When I entered her office I sat down, as I had in
The Major looked up, matched eyes with one of my guards. The
guard kicked me behind the knee, sending me sprawling to the ground.
The Major nodded, and one of the guards pulled me up.
"I did not give you permission to sit," said the Major, her face
giving a beautiful scowl. "Your name?"
"Took, Idaho J.," I gasped through the pain.
She went through all the basic questions. Then she moved onto
more detailed questions.
"What was your mission?" She asked, for the millionth time.
"To attack Volvograd," I said.
The Major nodded, and one of the guards struck me. I fell to the
ground again. After a moment's pause, the guard kicked me. The pain was
immense. These were no girl slaps.
"What was that for?" I cried.
"I did not give you permission to lie down," said the Major. "Now
I slowly got to my feet.
"Again, what was your mission?"
I half looked at the guard and wet my lips. "I told you, to
"Unacceptable!" said the Major. "You are a spy. You must have had
a hidden purpose in coming here."
"I am not-" Suddenly a punch in my back sent me sprawling.
"What was that for?" I said, struggling to get up.
"For contradicting me," said the Major.
This went on for a very long time. The Major wanted to know who I
was spying for and what my mission was. As I was not a spy and had no
mission the interview turned out to be very long and painful.
After an undeterminable time the Major slammed her fist on the
desktop. "Lies, lies, all lies!" Her expression changed. "Perhaps it
would help if you had a more comfortable chair?"
A new chair was wheeled in. This one had metal armrests and all
sorts of electrical devices attached to the headrest. The Major looked
pleasantly at me for a reaction. I obliged by slowly shaking my head.
I was lifted by two giant guards and carried struggling into the
chair. They strapped me down and fitted something against my head. I
felt the hum of power as one of the guards turned a knob. Suddenly the
chair started to vibrate.
"Let us start with setting two," said the Major.
The guard operated a control and I felt/heard a funny kind of
scratching sound in my head.
"Now, let us begin again," said the Major. "Your name."
I answered her questions, but the scratching sound/feeling grew
distracting. As the interrogation continued the Major turned up the
intensity, so it was all I could do to concentrate.
"When did you graduate from the academy?" she asked, for the
"Ah...." I said, trying to concentrate. The scratching feeling
was very loud in my head now.
"Answer!" said the Major.
"How do you expect me to concentrate when you have that thing
burning into my brain!" I snapped.
The Major slapped me. "It's meant to prevent your lies! Stop
trying to formulate evasions and answer my questions! Admit you are a
"I am no spy."
"Liar!" she said, suddenly striking my face. Then she paused. "We
know more about you than you think, Idaho J. Took. Does the name
Clifford Croft mean anything to you?"
"Do not pretend you do not know it," said the Major. "You have
met him before, yes?"
"Once or twice, maybe," I said.
"So you admit it!" The Major shrieked.
"He is a spy. You associate with him. You are a spy."
"I happened to cross paths with him during an investigation," I
said. "He talks to a lot of people. That doesn't make them all spies.
He probably even talks to Slurians; that doesn't make them spies
either." Suddenly, my tired mind caught up with what I was saying. "Oh,
ok, the Slurians he talks to probably are spies."
"What was your mission?" The Major demanded.
"I had no mission," I said, blinking rapidly. "I mean, no non-
military mission. I'm a soldier, not a spy. Ask the Special Tasks guy
who interrogated me at the-"
At the mention of the words special tasks the Major looked
enraged. "We have nothing to do with them! Whatever happened between
you and them was between you and them! Do not mention them again unless
you wish to be disciplined!"
The interviewing process went on and on. The device didn't seem
to prevent me from lying, but it did prevent me from thinking clearly.
Answering a simple question became a struggle. Finally, when my answers
totally stopped making sense, I was disconnected from the device.
"You are pitiful," said the Major, curling her lip. "Take him
I collapsed into a deep sleep the minute I was brought back to my
cell. I never noticed the hardness of the wooden plank.
It seemed like only minutes had passed, however, before I was
called back for another interrogation.
"Again?" I said wearily?
"What do you mean, Idaho Took?" said the Major.
"You just had me here five minutes ago."
"That was eight hours ago," said the Major, giving a small grin.
I think they were messing with my perspective of time to help
disorient me. Now, in retrospect, I'm not sure how long those
interrogations lasted or how many there were once they started using
the chair. All I vaguely remember is saying the same thing over and
over. But I don't think the Major was satisfied, because she continued
to slap me and accuse me of lying.
"Face it," I said wearily. "I'm not a spy."
"You are a spy! What are the battle plans of the Glory?"
"If I were a spy, I wouldn't know that," I said. "Only a military
officer would know that. Are you now saying I'm a military officer and
not a spy?" The buzzing in my head was intense as I tried to
concentrate on what I was saying.
The Major gave a deep laugh. I sat there dully watching her.
"You do not know, do you? We no longer need the Glory's plans,"
said the Major. "Your fleet is destroyed. The Glory is burning in
space. Your precious Battle Admiral is dead."
I looked at her to try to gauge the truthfulness of her
She nodded. "It was all because of you. You gave away their
position. You caused the deaths of thousands of your fellow officers
"No!" I shouted.
"Yes!" the Major cried. "Now our fleets are crashing through
League space, liberating wide sectors of territory. And we have you to
"No!" I cried again.
"Admit your guilt!" said the Major. "Admit it!" She watched me as
I melted down. In retrospect I could see that this was the climax she
had been building towards, all the days of wearing me down, all the
torture, and this was she had been building to; to try to break me with
the knowledge that I had led to the destruction of my own fleet.
But something tough inside of me resisted. "No..." I said weakly.
The Major looked at me, obviously disappointed. She spat on me,
and said, "Take this feeble creature back to its cage."
There were no interrogations for the next several days. I took
that as a good sign and stewed in my cell. The food was very simple,
bread and water, neither of which was very tasty. But slowly I began to
regain my strength.
Suddenly the guards came for me and, wearing leg irons and
manacles, I was taken to a different room in the complex. A courtroom.
A man speaking heavily accented English shook my hand. "You are
Idaho Took, the spy?"
I nodded at the first part, then quickly shook my head at the
The man ignored the contradiction. "I am Suli Andrichev, your
state appointed defense counsel."
"You're on my side, and you introduce yourself by calling me a
"I think the best legal strategy is to admit your guilt," said
The presiding judge, a stern looking man wearing the uniform of a
Slurian Colonel, complete with medals, banged the gavel into order.
Great. A military trial.
The man spoke in Slurian, but a helpful translator at his side
spoke in Standard English a few seconds after the judge did.
"Case number 958089308, State versus the Idaho Took spy. Idaho
Took, you have been convicted of espionage and spying against the
Slurian Union. How do you plead?"
"Guilty, your honor," said Andrichev.
"Just a minute," I said. "I'm not pleading guilty."
The translator translated my remarks. The military judge looked
pained. He said, through the translator, "What is this? You cannot
plead one way while your lawyer pleads another."
"I reject my counsel, your honor, I wish to defend myself."
The judge consulted one of his assistants for a moment. He seemed
unsure how to deal with this minor unscripted turn of events.
Finally he said, "You may do so, but I warn you that you would
benefit from experienced counsel," said the judge.
"It's a risk I'm willing to take," I said. It was actually no
risk at all. What could be worse than this state lawyer?
"You are relieved," said the judge.
Andrichev showed a pained look on his face and nodded. He turned
to me one last time. "I don't advise this."
"Why do you care so much?" I asked. "Do you get a commission for
every client who's convicted?"
"For every case I represent, yes," said Andrichev.
"I guess that means you won't be able to buy as much borsch this
month," I said pityingly.
"Enough," said the judge, banging his gavel. Andrichev left the
"How do you plead?" The judge asked.
"Not guilty, your honor," I said.
"You will not address me as your honor; this is not the corrupt
League justice system. You will address me as respected chairman or
sir," said the judge through the interpreter.
"Yes sir," I said.
"Now, do you have anything to say before judgment is confirmed?"
"Yes," I said.
The judge waited. "Well?"
"Doesn't the prosecution present its case first, so I know what I
need to rebut?"
The judge sighed. "Haven't you been listening? You have already
been convicted in absentia. It is up to you to prove your innocence."
"How can I prove my innocence when I haven't heard the case
The judge spoke as if he were explaining to a child. "The
evidence is classified, you could not be present for it."
"I see," I said, and I really did. This really was a show trial.
"Now, do you have anything to say before your sentence is
I paused. Nothing I said would make any difference.
"I repeat, do you have anything to say?"
"Just one, sir," I said. I pointed to the judge's medals. "You
got those through mail order, right?"
The translator blanched but translated my remarks. The judge
looked confused and spoke to the translator again. Then the judge
He slammed the gavel.
"Your guilt has been confirmed. You are hereby sentenced to 30
years in a labor reform camp for your espionage," said the judge. "And
one additional year for insolence."
The guards motioned for me to stand up.
31 years? In a Slurian labor camp? I was stunned.
"You can't do that!" I said, as the guards started to drag me
away. "I'm a prisoner of war! I'm a prisoner of war!"
But to them, it didn't make any difference.
Chapter 3: Labor Reform Camp 94
I have to admit that I wasn't in the best of moods. Maybe it was
the torture talking. Or maybe it was the still unconfirmed knowledge
that the information I had revealed under interrogation had led to the
destruction of our fleet, and perhaps even our loss in the war. Or
possibly it was the starvation diet, or even the fact I was crowded
into a very tight truck compartment with 20 other people. It was hard
to say what was simultaneously aggravating and depressing me more.
Still, packed into the truck, I had my first contact with anyone
outside of my interrogators and the military judge since I had arrived
on this planet. Which made me wonder exactly which planet this was.
I tried to ask one of my fellow captives. But I didn't have much
luck. None of them, it seemed, spoke League English. We were so tightly
packed into the truck that I was sandwiched between two fellow
prisoners who hadn't bathed in a while. They all seemed to be Slurian
civilians. Political prisoners?
They seemed to be talking to themselves in Slurian, but that
didn't help me. After an indeterminate amount of time the truck
stopped. We must have arrived. Armed guards opened the truck, and I was
relieved to have some fresh air. But it was bitterly cold. I wasn't
dressed for winter and the wind ripped through my thin shirt and
trousers. I grabbed my jacket more tightly. At least the Slurians had
given me back my military uniform before I had left the prison. It had
been an odd measure of kindness that I never fully understood.
As I hopped out of the truck I saw nothing but snow as far as the
eye could see, aside from several other trucks behind and in front of
us. I quickly figured it this was not our final stop but was a bathroom
and food break. Everyone did their business quickly and then we lined
up for some half frozen bread. There was nothing to drink. Prisoners
scooped up snow and put it into their mouths. I, being incredibly
thirsty, had no other choice either. I put a small amount in my mouth
and winced. The snow stung my tongue but started to melt.
No one was eating their bread as they shoveled snow into their
mouths. I soon found out why. In only a few minutes we were herded back
into the compartment and sealed in, with nothing more to drink.
Once we were back inside the relative warmth of the compartment I
tried to bite down hard on the bread, but it was so cold it was solid
like a block of ice. I hurt several teeth biting down. After that I
soaked it in my mouth to warm it up so it would be chewable. Eventually
I got it down.
This pattern continued for several days. The truck hovered a few
feet above the ground as we moved across the countryside. If we were
going so far I wondered why we didn't just fly there.
No one had tried to escape during any of our rest breaks, but
perhaps that was unremarkable; in this snowy wasteland, not dressed for
the weather, where would one go?
The interior of the compartment had poor ventilation and it was
difficult to breathe. But at least I was reasonably warm, surrounded by
all these bodies. Still, it wasn't comfortable; when we lay down to
sleep, there was always someone on top of me, and the floors were none
To my delight I finally found someone who could speak English,
"You Richman," said the prisoner.
"The name is Took," I said.
The prisoner didn't say his name.
"Can you tell me where we are?" I asked.
"Inside truck," said the prisoner.
"Ha ha," I said dryly. "I mean, what planet?"
The prisoner looked at me oddly. "Altera."
"Altera." Altera. The death planet, the penal colony for Slurian
slaves. I had heard of it. This was the ice planet where the Slurians
operated many of their labor camps. I had heard of Altera. Our
information was very sketchy about it, mostly because no one we knew
had ever escaped from the planet to talk about it.
"How long you in for, Richman?" the prisoner asked.
"31 years," I said. "Actually, it was 30 years, but I got an
additional year for insolence. You?"
The prisoner laughed.
"What's so funny?" I asked. "Were you sent here for insolence
"You were sentenced 31 years?" said the prisoner.
"Why, is that a relatively short sentence?" I asked hopefully.
"You be dead in two," he laughed.
"I don't think that's so funny," I said.
It must have been close to a week later before we got to our
destination. At first, I thought it was another bathroom break. When
we got out I saw nothing in all directions. But then I noticed the
guards motioning us forward, and saw beyond the first truck a small
building of some kind. There were at least several hundred prisoners
here; were we all going to fit in there?
And then I saw that the road had ended by the building. We had
stopped here before there was no more road left.
The wind swept snow around us; we were lined up and we started
marching into the gentle hills, beyond the building. I was freezing
The guards were shouting something. One of them came up to a
prisoner next to me, and shoved him, shouting to him, and motioning to
The prisoner, in broken English said, "Walk to the left, walk to
the right, you will be shot."
I opened my mouth to ask what that meant when the march started.
Boy was it cold!
I tried to cheer myself by thinking that we were probably just
being marched over the hill. But as we got over it I saw another set of
Two hours into the march I realized that we were in this for some
time to come. How did they expect us to survive in this weather? The
guards had winter coats, and even they shivered in the cold.
Inevitably, it took a toll on the prisoners, none of whom were dressed
On the first day several prisoners dropped into the snow during
the march. Sometimes fellow prisoners would hurriedly try to help them
up. Those that didn't get up were dealt with by the guards. From time
to time I saw someone drop out of formation. A guard would go up to
them and a moment later I would hear the distinct whine of blaster
They didn't care whether we lived or died. I felt myself freezing
but actually considered myself lucky; most people didn't even have
jackets; my flight jacket provided me with some of protection; in
retrospect, it may have saved my life.
We stopped for the night in a small thinly wooded valley. We were
given the same frozen bread ration again, but at least here we could
have all the snow we wanted. It was much more bitter melting it in our
mouths when we were cold in the outdoors. The guards lit fires and
posted guards on the perimeter. We huddled together to try and stay
warm, but it was impossible to do.
I had a nightmarish night, the cold preventing me from falling
asleep for more than a few moments at a time. In the morning, several
of the prisoners didn't wake up. They had frozen to death. Other
prisoners fought to steal their pitiful possessions, and in moments
there were several naked corpses on the snow. I can't say I approved of
what the others did, but I understood their motives; an extra shirt or
layer of trousers could mean the difference between life and death.
The guards checked off names from a datapad and in moments had us
going again, simply leaving the bodies behind, exposed to the elements.
For the next two days my teeth were chattering. The cold was bad
enough, but we were only provided with 6 slices of bread, once per day;
that was hardly enough for these kinds of marches.
On the beginning of the third day I periodically started to
sneeze, and knew I was getting sick; if I caught a fever, that would be
the end of me.
Finally, though, at the end of the third day, we saw something in
the distance. As we got closer we saw it was a camp, a series of
primitive buildings surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers.
We had arrived.
We were processed in a dimly lit hut that had no internal heating
but was infinitely warmer than the outdoors if only because we weren't
exposed to the elements. We were each handed a winter jacket, a pair of
pants, and gloves. The winter jacket wasn't as substantial as what the
guards wore but it fit nicely over my flight jacket and would provide
additional warmth. The pants also happened to be my size, but the
gloves were too small-they were so small that I couldn't fully fit my
hands into them. I tried to go back to exchange them but when I
attempted to go back in line a stern faced Redcap blocked my way..
"These gloves are too small," I said.
The Redcap just stared at me. I might have well been
speaking Tirian to him.
I showed him the gloves, and my hands. Surely he would understand.
The Redcap just shoved me forward.
We were led into the chilly outdoors again. It cold! Even though
I now had two jackets-the flimsy camp jacket over my own, and the
flimsy prison trousers over my own, and a pair of gloves too small, I
still felt cold. We spent nearly an hour standing around. I tried to
ask my fellow prisoners what was going on but none I could find spoke
any System English.
Finally an important looking man stepped onto a stage, flanked by
guards. He seemed strutting and self-important. This, I assumed, was
the camp commander or some sort of senior guard.
The Slurian stood in front of the shivering masses. He looked
like a tough fellow, a Redcap with a scar across his face. I saw from
his shoulderbars that he was a colonel. He took off into some kind of
speech, and while I didn't understand what he said, but his tone was
clear in conveying a clear sense of contemptuousness for his charges.
At the end of his speech we were dispersed to barracks. The "beds" were
little more than a wooden shelf. Every time I moved to a shelf someone
was quicker and stood in my way. Finally I found an empty shelf, one of
the last ones.
I soon found out why this one was available. It was by the door. Every
time the door open, an arctic draft came in.
I looked more closely at my "bed". It was a simple wooden shelf. There
wasn't even any pillow, though I noticed that some people had put skins
over their shelves to soften them up. I hardly had time to contemplate
redecorating when a Redcap came in and said, "Tuch! Tuch, tuch!"
I looked curiously in his direction. The guard looked at me
"Tuch?" he said.
"Have you come to tuck me in?"
The guard looked at a datapad. "Idaaho Tuch," he said.
"Took," I said. "That's me."
The guard didn't know what I was saying but seemed to understand
my acknowledgement, because he yanked me by my arm out of the barracks.
It didn't take very much guesswork to figure out where I was being
taken as a few moments later I found myself in the Colonel's office. It
was almost as austere and depressing as our barracks; I idly wondered
if his posting was a punishment for him too.
The Colonel looked up at me. "You are Idaho Took, the spy?" he
asked in uncertain English.
"I'm Idaho Took," I said. I was too weary to argue the other
"I am Major Colonel Alexi Tromov," said the Colonel. He stared at
me appraisingly. "It is very unusual to have one of your kind here. We
don't often get foreign spies." He looked me over, as if I were a new
kind of entrée he had never seen before.
"It's probably even rarer to get a foreign spy who doesn't speak
Slurian," I commented.
The Colonel gave a nasty smile. "Yes, you make joke. We see how
much you are laughing after a week here. I tell you what I tell other
prisoners. Obey, and you live, at least for the present. Disobey, or
try to escape, and you will be shot. You will receive no special
treatment. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Colonel Major," I said, with a straight face.
He glared at me. "It is Major Colonel." He gestured curtly to the
guard, who took me out.
We were roused at the crack of dawn the following morning. We
were fed a small bowl of green peas I later learned was called kem. Kem
was absolutely tasteless. There was water (cold) to go with the kem,
which was tasteless too. That was one of the things I would miss most
at Labor Camp 94; the loss of taste. I was given a steady diet of
little else other than kem and watery kem soup; I soon forgot what
other things tasted like.
After that hearty breakfast I was put into a detail that was
marched out of camp. The guards gave the same warning I had heard
repeatedly when we had been marched to the camp. "March one step to the
left, one step to the right, and you will be shot." What did that mean?
It was only later I understood. They meant that if you took one
step out of line, even a stumble, that you would be killed.
The march began. As we marched I watched everything around me. The area
immediately around the camp seemed absolutely deserted. Given the three
days it had taken us to march here, and the complete absence of roads,
I could believe how isolated this area must be.
We were well guarded as we marched through the woods. But even if
I could get away, where could I go, in this cold wilderness? Without
food, or directions, I would be dead from exposure or hunger within a
We were led to a vertical shaft. The guards gestured us to get on
and we did. The lift went plunging down vertically into the ground. I
nervously eyed the rock walls around us.
We went down several hundred feet before it stopped. We were in a
I had heard about the death mines of Altera, but I never knew
whether to believe the stories or not. They said that they worked the
miners to death; and that if they didn't die through exhaustion,
prisoners eventually died in mining accidents.
We were given helmets with lights on them and laser drills. I was
surprised at the last, until I saw that the drills had been adjusted so
that the beam extended only a few inches beyond the discharge point;
the balky devices could hardly be used as range weapons. They were also
almost too heavy to pick up and aim.
I grew more and more uneasy as we were herded deeper and deeper
into the tunnels. The walls were getting narrower and narrower and the
ceiling lower and lower. What if there was a collapse? The Slurians
wouldn't bother to dig us out, I was sure.
Finally we were assigned a rock wall to work on. The guard said
something unintelligible (in Slurian) and the prisoners started to
work. When I didn't go with the rest of them, a guard came up to me and
said something menacingly.
I shrugged my shoulders.
The guard pointed to a shiny substance in the rock wall.
"Oh," I said. "All right." Now I understood. They were after the
shiny metal. I raised the heavy drill and started to work. Periodically
a team pushing a hover cart came by and collected the rock we cut out.
We were allowed only one short break during the day; when the
workday was done and we came out, it was already almost dark outside.
Not that daylight meant much on this planet; it seemed to be
continually overcast here.
I was exhausted when we got back to the camp. And hungry, too.
But all that awaited me was another small bowl of kem and a glass of
water. My stomach was growling menacingly. How did people survive on
such a starvation diet?
The answer, of course, is that many of them didn't. You would
think the Slurians would take at least minimal care of their slave
labor force so they could do the necessary work. Perhaps the Slurians
had so many prisoners that a few more or a few less here and there
didn't matter to them. Or perhaps the lives of prisoners were worth so
little to them that they simply didn't care.
I went through several more days of this. One time a rock deposit
came crashing down mere inches away from my feet. It was just a lucky
thing I wasn't hit. I didn't know what happened to prisoners who were
too injured to work, but I could guess; for one thing, the camp didn't
have a hospital.
I was minding my own business the following day eating my kem in
the mess hall when suddenly I felt someone standing behind me. I slowly
A mean looking prisoner stared at me.
"Gumah borah," he said.
My exhausted mind didn't even try to process this one. "Gumah
borah to you too."
"Your food," he said, in broken English.
"What about it?" I asked.
"You have had enough, Richman. Give,' he said.
"I don't think I'm finished," I said.
Suddenly there was a second and third man standing behind the
newcomer, and they all looked rather unfriendly.
"You give, now."
I sighed. I really was tired. "You really want it?"
"I really want it," said the prisoner, reaching for my bowl.
"You got it," I said, landing a punch on his forehead. He cried
and fell back.
Both his companions moved forward to attack me. They had the
advantage of numbers but I had the advantage of strength. Yes, I was
exhausted, but I had only been at it for a few days; my attackers had
been toiling at slave labor with only a near-starvation diet for years,
and were much weaker than I was.
One of them tried to grab my arm, and I sent him flying to the
ground. The second landed a punch on my shoulder, but it only took a
few seconds more to take care of him. In seconds all three were on the
Not taking my eyes off them, I sat down to finish my meal.
It wasn't until I got outside that I was confronted. I was
surrounded by a dozen or more prisoners. Several of them held wicked
looking homemade knives.
I said nothing.
One of them stepped forward. He was a tall man, wearing an
elegant fur coat. "So, you are the new Richman," he said, in accented
"I'm not rich," I said warily. At the time I was too tired to
think about the subtlety of his statement-the new Richman? What had
happened to the old one?
"You are League," said the man. "You have five hovercars and
holographic television. You have mighty skyscrapers and plentiful food,
and many thin blonde women for recreational procreation."
"That's not true," I said. "I mean, the wipers on my hovercars don't
work, my skyscrapers are among the shortest in town, and I've always
been short on the thin blonde women for recreational procreation." Just
what sort of propaganda had these people been exposed to?
"You are Richman," he persisted.
"At the moment, I don't have much in the way of riches," I said.
"That ok," said the man, and he actually laughed slightly. "My
name Antonio. We can help each other, you and I."
"Really?" I said.
"You need protection," said Antonio. "There are people in the
camp who will hurt you."
"There are?" I said.
"Yes. We can protect you, Richman."
"In return for..."
"Nothing much," said Antonio. "Your obedience. And a small food
"A small food tax," I said. So that's how it worked. The strong
stayed strong by forcing the weak to give up part of their food
I eyed the gangsters with their knives. It was time to be
diplomatic. "May I think about it?"
"Of course," said Antonio. "Think about it all you like. Until
He and his gang melted away.
What was I to do? I couldn't even ask anyone's advice because no
one else spoke League English (or would admit to doing so). The minute
I lay down on my plank bed I tried to consider my options. Could I
complain to the camp guards? I wasn't so naïve to think that would do
I started to consider other options, but despite the hardness of
the plank in my back and the lack of a pillow I was exhausted. Before I
knew it I heard the shouts of the guards, telling us to get up.
"What?" I said, unaware of what had happened. Suddenly, I
realized I had fallen asleep. It seemed like only a few minutes had
We were being lined up for breakfast. What was I going to do?
I was going to resist, that's what, I groggily decided. I could
barely survive working in the mines on the limited rations we were fed;
if my rations were cut even further, I would surely die.
I stood in line eyeing my companions warily as the cook slopped
something into my bowl. I looked at it closely. Kem gruel. I started to
move to a table to sit and eat, when four burly men surrounded me.
"Gebarlnopla," one of them said.
"Good morning to you too," I said warily.
Without saying a further word two grabbed my arms and the other
two grabbed my bowl. I struggled wildly as they scooped some of the
contents out of my bowl, paused, and scooped some more.
"For resisting," one of them said in heavily accented English. He
nodded and the guard dumped me and the bowl on the ground. Fortunately
I caught it before it spilled over.
I got up and dusted myself off. My morning portion had been
reduced by half. I sighed and moved to take a seat. But no sooner had I
sat down then two other burly prisoners surrounded me.
"What?" I said, looking up.
"Tax," said one of them.
I pointed to my bowl. "I just paid the tax!"
"That for Antonio group," said the one, in broken English. "We
with Baroshikov group."
I got up, intending to fight for my remaining ration, when one of
them tripped me, sat on me, while the other went for his bowl. When
they allowed me to get up again, my bowl was empty. I could hear howls
of laughter in the background.
I felt hungry and worn out. How would I possibly survive now?
As I was wearily marched to the mines I tried to think what the
Battle Admiral would do. After a moment of muddled thinking, I realized
that Battle Admiral North would never have permitted himself to be
captured in the first place. And besides, this was not a matter of
military strategy; this was a matter of survival.
Survival. Instinctively, the name of Clifford Croft came to my
mind. He was a senior operative with the Column, the League's elite
undercover security service. We had crossed paths once or twice, and I
had seen Croft survive some difficult situations like this. What would
Croft do in a situation like this? My tired mind drew a blank.
The lack of sleep and food took its toll on me in the mines.
Twice my flagging attentions almost caused me to drop the heavy laser
drill on my foot. A mine cart traveling behind me sideswiped me,
sending me to the ground. A guard rushed up, brandishing an electrowip.
He yelled something. I struggled to move.
He struck out with the electrowhip, and a painful current lashed
through my body. I yelped and instinctively sprang up.
"Glablurblurinosh!" the guard yelled.
"All right, all right, I'll nosh, I'll nosh," I said, painfully
raising the laser drill.
At the end of the twelve hour work shift I stumbled back to camp.
Feebly I wondered how I was going to protect my dinner ration. If I
didn't eat tonight there was no way I was going to survive the next
Sure enough, when I trudged out of the mines that night and
received my kem ration I immediately felt a hard object in my back.
"We do this easy, or sharp?" a voice hissed.
To weary to resist, I handed over my bowl.
My assailant emptied some of my kem in another bowl.
"Good boy," he said in accented English, handing me back the
bowl. Barely half the original contents remained. I could swallow it
all in a few good gulps. I tried to eat it slowly, but then thought
about the other gangs. I swallowed it all in seconds. It was barely
enough to whet my appetite. I felt light headed. I didn't know if I was
going to keel over from hunger or exhaustion.
All I know is that I have no memory returning to the barracks or
even collapsing on my shelf. I didn't even feel the hardness of the
rough wood underneath me.
The thing that did wake me up was a persistent tugging at my
feet. At first I thought that I was dreaming, but as I opened my eyes I
saw people crowding around me, and one of them was tugging at one of my
fleet issued boots!
I tried to get up to resist but two of the bandits held me down
while the third pulled off one and then another boot, not particularly
caring what he did to my feet in the process. When they let go I heard
laughter as they raced out of the barracks.
I sat up weakly. Now what did I do? If I went outside without my
boots, I would surely get frostbite. I looked around in the dim light
generated by a wood burning stove on the other side of the barracks.
Someone, perhaps my assailants, had been kind enough to drop some rags
on my bed.
"Rags? What am I supposed to with rags?"
"You rap them around your feet, Richman," said a voice.
I was startled; I hadn't been aware that anyone else in the
barracks knew League English.
I sat up and grabbed the rags, least they be stolen too. I tried
wrapping them around my feet over my fleet issued footclothes but they
"No, not like that," said a heavily accented voice in the gloom.
A man dropped down from an upper bunk and wrapped one of them for me,
tucking in the ends. He waited, looking at me. "You do other."
I tried my best to imitate him. It wasn't as neat, but it didn't
"Thanks," I said, looking up. "What's your-" but when I looked
up, he was gone.
My feet were freezing the next day. I tried to petition the
guards to get a fresh pair of shoes, but only got a blaster rifle butt
for my troubles. After my half breakfast and half dinner I collapsed on
the wooden shelf again. I couldn't feel sensation in my toes. Were they
frostbitten? I found I was too tired to care.
In the middle of the night I felt someone tugging at my jacket.
Not my prison jacket, but my fleet jacket underneath.
That was the last straw. I fought to get up, even knocking over
one of my attackers.
"Stop this!" I yelled. "What are you all, some kind of Bugsy
The bandits, who had been trying to hold me down, stopped as if
"Bugsy Spagetti?" one of them said, in heavily accented English.
I must have looked almost as surprised as they were. "You're all
a bunch of thieves."
"You know Bugsy Spagetti?" one of the bandits said.
"Know him?" I said, my mind foggy.
"Know Bugsy Spagetti story?" said another.
"Story?" I said groggily. "Well, I've read a few of his novels."
"Do it!" said the first bandit.
"Do what?" I said.
"Tell Bugsy story."
"What?" I said.
"Tell Bugsy story. If one we not heard, you can keep coat."
I really wasn't a big Bugsy Spagetti fan, and it had been at
least a decade since I had read one of his books. He was a hack writer
who had written several hundred holographic novels about the lives of a
particular group of gangsters. His books were all formulaic, relying on
a recipe of blasters, sex, violence, and betrayal, and it was rumored
that he had a staff of ghostwriters constantly grinding out new ones. I
had read one or two of his books out of curiosity, but really didn't
remember much of the details.
I tried my best to remember the one I did. "Vincenzio's
Betrayal," I said, looking for a reaction.
I was greeted by cautious smiles. Evidently, they didn't know
I started telling the story. What I didn't remember I used my
imagination to substitute for. The gang started to get bored when I got
into plot details, so I would frequently digress into shootouts and sex
scenes to keep them interested. After three "chapters", one of the
bandits stopped me.
"Enough," said the bandit. "Must get sleep. You continue
One of the bandits moved to take my coat, but the head bandit
said something rapidly in Slurian, and the bandit recoiled.
I dropped off to sleep the minute my head touched the platform
Evidently entertainment was a valuable commodity here. Well, that
made a certain amount of sense. There were no holovids here, no
performances or even news from the outside world, as far as I could
see. Anything that could bring a distraction from the misery of the
camp would be valued, just as clothes and food were.
This continued for four more days. The story kept the wolves at
bay. Indeed a rumor started that I was the author himself, Bugsy
Spagetti, and I did nothing to dispel the notion. More and more of the
barracks would listen in every night. I noticed one particular thin
bearded man watching me keenly; he had a different, more sophisticated
look that stood out from the crowd, but we never talked.
As for me, I was just glad to keep my fleet jacket, but my feet were
still freezing, and the cumulative lack of sleep and food was doing me
Finally I resolved to do something about it. At dinner one night,
I quickly swallowed all my food in two gulps before the jackels could
steal half of it. Two of them were on me immediately, but I pushed
One of them glared at me, as if to attack, while a third stepped
forward. It was Antonio. He looked at me, and at his men, taking in the
situation immediately. He muttered something in Slurian to one of his
men. Then he looked to me.
"Better sleep lightly tonight, Richman," he said.
I panicked after dinner, seeking out the bandits who were
listening to my nightly stories. They wouldn't help me. All my stories
would buy was immunity from them.
I sought out one of the guards, tried to explain my problem. He
either didn't understand or didn't want to, giving me a shove towards
I felt the eyes staring at me as. They all knew.
"Can anyone help me?" I said. There was silence. "I've been
entertaining you every night. Surely that's worth something."
Again there was silence. Everyone looked away. In the distance I
could see the thin bearded fellow watching me curiously, but he said
No one would help. I settled down in my shelf for the night . My
hand tightly gripped an object in my fleet jacket. My eyes were wide
Several minutes passed in silence. My eyes adjusted to the dim light
from the distant primitive wood burning stove. My eyes were on the
entrance to the barracks.
Nothing happened for a few minutes. And then a few more minutes
passed. Maybe Antonio had been making an empty threat.
The barracks door swung open. Two, three, four men entered. They
scanned left and right, until they saw me. They headed my way.
As the first one got close to my bunk he reached down to grab me
and pull me out of there. At the same time I pulled the hand from my
pocket and thrust out. The thug, used to compliant victims, wasn't
expecting that. I stabbed him in the shoulder with a sharp rock, the
only weapon I could find on short notice. He howled and drew back.
The other thugs drew short but wicked looking homemade knives,
made out of bent and twisted blackened metal. I gulped. There was no
way I could dodge three of them.
The thugs closed in...
"Stop!" said a clear voice in accented English.
The thugs turned to see the thin bearded man. They stopped
moving. Why were they afraid of him?
The man turned to me. "Your name and origin?" he said in the same
"Bugsy Spagetti, from the League," I said. Perhaps this was a big
The bearded man stared at me. "You are not Bugsy." It was a
I grimaced. He knew. "But I can tell his stories!"
"I am not interested in his stories."
The jackels turned to me, a pure look of delight on their faces.
"But you are from the League?"
"Yes," I said, not sure where this was going.
"Have you seen many worlds?"
"Many," I said. "I was a pilot."
The man stared at me for a long moment. So did the thugs, as if
they were waiting. Then the man turned to Antonio and spoke a single
That prompted a long string of invective from Antonio. His thugs
turned to face the thin bearded man.
The thin man gave a thin whistle. A giant stepped forward. A huge
man clad in fur skins. He looked down on the thugs like one about to be
given new playthings.
Even though Antonio's men outnumbered this giant, they were
plainly cowed. Antonio spoke a few words to the bearded man, who
nodded. Antonio motioned for his thugs to leave. In a moment they were
nothing but a memory.
"I have just saved your life, Richman," said the bearded man.
"Now you must repay me."
I opened my mouth to ask what he meant by that, but the bearded
man had already turned away. The giant gently grabbed me by the
shoulders and propelled me after the bearded man. He took me to a large
bunk with luxurious furs draped over it. He motioned me to sit on the
edge of it. The giant simply sat on the floor, making him a few feet
less taller than me.
"I am Kerensky. Your name?"
"Idaaho Tuch," said Kerensky. "An interesting name."
There was a pause.
"What is it you want?" I said, eyeing the nearby giant uneasily.
"Information," said Kerensky.
"I have no military information," I said guardedly. Suddenly it
occurred to me that these might be plants, put here by Slurian military
Kerensky gave a laugh. "I have little interest in that. I want to
learn about your worlds. Your cultures, your societies, your economies.
Even as 'liberated citizens' we get very little unfiltered information
about your culture, and in here we get even less. What world were you
"Greenfields," I said.
"Then tell me about it."
I spent the next hour describing life on Greenfields, even though
it had been decades since I had been there for any length of time.
Kerensky listened attentively, peppering me with questions, taking in
every word. When I started to falter, my head bobbing, he looked me
over. "You are very weak."
"I have been on half rations since I got here," I said.
"You will not survive long in the mines," said Kerensky. He
looked me over with an appraising eye. "If you are to survive long
enough to tell me what I want to know, we will have to get you to
"There's a hospital?"
"Do not get hopes up," said Kerensky. "Prisoner hospital simply
shelves, like these, with few medical supplies, no trained doctor. But
prisoners get full rations, no work. Perhaps we get you in."
A third man appeared out of the darkness, and said something
sharply to Kerensky. Kerensky said something sharply back to him. The
new man looked disparagingly at me.
At this point I decided that I would have to learn Slurian. I
simply was at a tremendous disadvantage. I was smart enough to know,
however, that this new guy didn't care much for me.
"Is very difficult to get into hospital," said the new man. "Only
10 prisoners can be in hospital at any given time. Will have to trade
many favors to get you in."
Kerensky said something sharply to the new man. The discussion
seemed to be over. Kerensky gestured with his head, and the giant
escorted me back to my bunk.
As I lay down the giant looked at me, and said, "Tuch?"
"Took," I said.
The giant pointed to himself. "Sasha."
Sasha? This giant had a girl's name?
The oddness of the situation didn't prevent me from falling
Chapter 4: Establishing an Equilibrium
Early the next morning I hobbled over to the hospital, a smaller
version of the barracks building we were housed in. The walls on the
inside were white, and the place looked cleaner than the barracks, and
the wooden shelves had sheets on them, but otherwise it looked much
like our barracks. There were no scientific equipment, no examining
tables, no medicines I could see.
Kerensky spoke and then argued with someone in charge, from the
looks of it a fellow prisoner wearing a tattered white lab coat. I
would have loved to have understood what they were saying, but all I
could see was that they were arguing. The man in white was pointing to
the beds and shaking his head, and Kerensky argued more furiously.
Finally Kerensky dug into a pocket and shoved over something small
wrapped in white cloth.
The man, without even looking, shook his head. Kerensky took out
a second white clothed package.
The man considered, waiting.
But Kerensky didn't produce a third cloth wrapped object.
Finally, the man nodded, and pointed to one of the beds.
Kerensky turned to me. "It's done."
"What was that all about?" I said, as Kerensky led me to one of
the bedding areas.
"He was just arguing about the price," said Kerensky. "I could
only afford to put you here for two days, not more. Then you must be
"For work in the mines, and to tell me more," said Kerensky. "I
have spent a lot on you, you had better be worth it."
And so, for two days, I rested! As long as I kept to my bed no
one bothered me, except during the periodic inspection by the Redcaps.
They didn't seem to inquire too closely about my illness, leading me to
believe that they, too, had been paid off. Some of the patients here
were genuinely ill, and some of those moaned quietly from time to time,
but I was so consumed with exhaustion that I blotted them out of my
And the food! A full serving of the tasteless kem, plus parts of
a long unidentifiable bitter root. I shuddered as I bit into it, and
actually spat it out on the ground. Another prisoner scooped it off the
floor like a pelican and swallowed it whole in his mouth.
He was right. Any food, however vile tasting, was better than
nothing. Gritting my teeth the next time, I broke the root up into
small chunks and forced myself to eat it. It settled uneasily into my
Two mornings later after breakfast I was ejected, deemed "cured",
though I had received no examination or treatment, and sent back to the
mines. I endured another grueling day of mining, but nearly 48 hours of
almost continual sleep and increased food rations gave me more
endurance. I knew however, that I would not survive for long in the
mines under any condition. Prisoners were expected to work six and a
half days a week, and the half day of "free leisure" could be partially
or totally consumed by punishment detail or mandatory state lectures.
But if one were very, very lucky one might get five or six extra hours
of sleep on Sundays, between inspections and head checks.
I was curious to see what would happen at dinner that night.
Would Antonio and his thugs ambush me, or was I still protected? I
found that answer immediately after I received my bowl of kem when I
found Sasha, the giant with the feminine name, standing at my side. He
motioned me to a far off table, where Kerensky and someone else sat.
Kerensky's dining companion made a disparaging remark as I sat
"In English, for our guest, Valonikov" said Kerensky sharply.
The man glared at me. "I think we have wasted a lot of time and
effort on this one."
"If he gives me the information I want, neither will be wasted,"
said Kerensky mildly. But however softly he said it, the man,
Valonikov, looked rebuked.
"Now," said Kerensky, "Tell me more about your League worlds."
I spoke rapidly, trying to prove my worth to him. He seemed
fascinated by everything, our economic system, our culture, even the
latest fashions on August. We talked into the night, and for several
nights after that. Kerensky seemed satisfied with the answers to his
questions, and all went well.
Until one night, as I was turning in, Valonikov said to me, "I
think your time is just about up, Richman."
I stiffened. "What do you mean?"
"The Professor has learned nearly all he needs to know from you.
Soon your time will be over."
"What do you mean?" I said again.
Vannikov gave me a condescending stare and walked away, laughing
The next morning I asked Kerensky what he meant. He gave
Valonikov a sharp glare, but said, "I am protecting you, but protection
comes at a price. As long as you give useful information, you are
"And once I tell you everything I know?"
"Then you will be on your own again," said Kerensky.
Oh oh. Then I would be chased by the gangs again, beaten up, and
half starved to death. I couldn't allow that to happen.
That night I told more details about life on League worlds. For
the first few days everything was going well. But I noticed that
Kerensky's questions, formerly coming in rapidfire, were becoming less
frequent. At times he looked bored. Valonikov would give me sly
glances. I knew my time was running out.
Kerensky wasn't interested in "popular literature" such as Bugsy
Spagetti. What else did I have to offer him?
I noticed the topics that excited him the most were discussion of
League politics and economies. When I first told him how everyone was
able to vote in free elections, he scoffed.
"Come now, we have heard that before. It is all League
propaganda. Your large corporations decide the results of your
elections in advance."
And then I spent a half hour arguing with him to convince him
that the League really did have a participatory democracy. He also had
trouble believing other facets of life-that there were no internal
passports, that people could travel freely, that anyone could start any
business they liked without permission, even post their thoughts freely
on the interstellar information network.
"And they would not be insulted, if they offended your
"More likely they would get their own show," I said. And then
that sparked an idea.
In my discussions with Kerensky I started asking him questions,
challenging his assumptions and beliefs about political systems. I did
it in a gradual way, still providing more information than I received,
but over the next few days we spent more time arguing politics,
culture, and economics, than we did discussing the nature of the League
Valonikov noticed it immediately. He even said, in plain English
for me to hear, "He has told us all he knows. Let us be rid of him
Kerensky paused for a long moment.
Then he looked at me, and nodded.
Valonikov gave a low whistle and Sasha the giant appeared.
"You have told us much of what you know," said Kerensky.
"I can tell you more!" I said desperately, eyeing the giant
"That will not be necessary," said Kerensky. "Sasha!" He spoke
rapidly in Slurian, and then, in English, "Idaaho friend. Protect."
The big blonde giant looked down impassively at me.
"Sasha protect," he said in a deep voice. He extended a big hand.
Cautiously I extended mine. He grabbed it carefully without crushing
it, shook it.
I looked curiously from the giant to Kerensky.
"You have smart mind," said Kerensky. "Very rare here. You may
"If I am to join your group, I have one condition."
Kerensky raised his eyebrows at my audacity.
"I'll continue to teach you about my world, but I want you to
teach me your language."
Kerensky looked impassive for a moment. Then he broke out in
smiles. "Agreed, Idaaho, agreed."
"Call me Iday," I said.
Over time I learned a lot about my associates. Most of the
prisoners were organized into gangs which protected and extorted from
them at the same time. A few, like Kerensky, had the protection of
strong individuals like Sasha.
Kerensky, as it turned out, had been a professor at Sluria
Polytechnic, one of the leading universities on Sluria. A professor of
political philosophy, I enquired?
No, a leading subatomic physicist. For many years Kerensky had
worked on top secret classified weapons programs for the Slurian Union.
A hero of the revolution, he had been decorated numerous times. It was
only when he started to question the political system that he got into
trouble. First he was banned from classified work, and then repeatedly
arrested and harassed. The Slurians gave him many chances to "reform"
himself, but he refused. So they sent him here, effectively a death
Valonikov was quite the opposite. He was a common thief who
Kerensky had befriended. Each helped the other, in their own way.
And Sasha? Much to my surprise, Sasha was really an intellectual;
not only that, but a professor of political philosophy! I admitted my
disbelief to Kerensky. "How could this silent giant be a professor of
"Size means nothing," said Kerensky coldly. "And he was not only
silent. Before they took his family away and sent them to camp, he was
"What happened to his family?"
"They are here," said Kerensky.
"Where?" I said.
"They are here," said Kerensky. He spoke no further on the
Things started to stabilize after that. I was no longer harassed
by other prisoners. I could fall asleep at night on my shelf without
fear of being robbed. I had the luxury of eating my entire portion of
But it wasn't enough. My feet, wrapped in thin rags over my
footclothes, were freezing. Kerensky got me a pair of work shoes two
sizes too large with a large gash in the left foot. I used rags to make
the fit tighter and to seal up the gash as best I could. That helped
But the work was still killing me slowly. Digging in the mines
was wearing me out. If I didn't work fast enough, a guard would slash
me with an electrowip, and then kick my prostate body, telling me to
get back to work. And the work was dangerous-every day or two a
rockfall would injure or kill a group of prisoners. All the guards
seemed to care about was making their quota.
And if that wasn't enough, the kem diet wasn't enough to sustain
me. I was literally starving to death on full rations.
"Naturally," said Kerensky one night at dinner. "That's why the
average lifespan for mine workers is about six months."
"For the hardy mine workers," Valonikov sneered.
I looked at Kerensky's bowl. He seemed to have more kem, and even
a few roots in his bowl. He caught my gaze.
"Workers are fed based on their jobs," said Kerensky. "I work in
administration, have an easier job, and get more food."
"How do I get a job in administration?"
Kerensky gave a laugh. "They are highly sought after."
"What about another job, like... working in the kitchen?"
Kerensky gave a deeper laugh. "That are the most sought after
"Then what is available?"
"Officially? You must stay where they put you. But perhaps I can
get you something else."
"Something else" turned out to be a job on the construction gang.
The work, while still labor intensive, wasn't nearly as badly as work
in the mines. I was sent to work in a group with another prisoner
named Kolya, who instantly befriended me. He didn't speak any League
English, but by now I knew enough Slurian to get a rough understanding
what was said around me.
We were working on constructing a new building for administration
under the watchful eyes of the guard, when Kolya pulled me aside and
said in Slurian, "What are you doing?"
"Working," I said.
"No Richman," said Kolya, laughing. "Is time for some tufta." He
pulled me farther inside the partially completed structure.
"Toughta?" I said.
"Tufta," said Kolya.
"What does Tufta mean?"
"It is.. business word. It means they pretend to pay us, we pretend to
"But if we don't work, we'll get beaten by the guards!"
"Look, Richman," said Kolya, peering out of the structure and
pointing where we could see out. From our angle, the guards could not
be seen, nor could they directly see us.
"Won't they come and investigate?"
"That is why we bang this," said Kolya, picking up an iron rod
and banging it at irregular intervals.
"What if they don't see us?"
"That is why every few minutes one of us must go into view and
pretend to work."
"If we don't work, won't we eventually get caught?"
Kolya laughed. "You have much to learn, Richman."
Kolya became my teacher. He showed me how to build hollow walls,
to build with fewer beams than the plan called for, and to get things
done in the quickest and most sloppiest ways.
"But won't it be obvious that this building was poorly built?" I
Kolya laughed again. "Of course! But plan only calls for
building, not well built one. Is expected that everything is poorly
Kolya also adopted a waste-not, want-not attitude, selling some
of the "excess" work materials on the camp's black market to generate
some income. The guards, who might've been blind to our lack work,
surely were aware when we carried goods off-site. When I saw Kolya hand
a guard something wrapped in cloth I didn't ask questions.
Gradually I started to accumulate some small measures of
prosperity. I obtained some cloth rags to put over my wooden shelf to
make it a bit softer. It wasn't as luxurious as the furs that a few of
the gang leaders had, but it was something. I even managed to gather up
enough rags to bundle up in a small pillow!
Worried that my little bits of rags would be stolen, I talked to
Kerensky. He confirmed that all your possessions should constantly be
carried around to prevent theft. But he said not to worry about
"Simply mark them in a small way, and if someone steals them, I
will send Sasha to do the laundry."
I nodded. "You know, I'd love to get my boots back."
"And I would like a pleasure cruise around Sluria."
The message was clear; being a member of Kerensky's group didn't
entitle me to get help righting past wrongs.
But meanwhile my Slurian was improving, and my health was stable.
I suffered from a series of minor colds, and I always felt the chill of
the wind, even through my two jackets, but I started to feel that I
could survive from day to day. With Kolya's help I worked less than
half a day every day, leaving much time to loaf, and think.
Once I could speak basic Slurian I started talking to the other
prisoners. It was both fascinating and chilling to learn how they had
been plucked out of society to be sent to the Alteran death camps.
There were some obvious dissidents like Kerensky, of course, but many
others were sent here for little or no apparent reason.
Some common criminals-rapists, thieves, and murders were mixed in
with us. But one man I met was sentenced for ten years for making a
joke about the ruling Govitbureau. Another man was serving a twenty
year term for not reading the party newspaper one day. Really!
It came about like this: the man (whose name I think I will
wisely withhold, for his own safety), came into a communal dining hall
and struck up a conversation with his immediate boss. He made an
offhanded remark about farm production and praised the Minister of
Agriculture. The problem was that the Minister of Agriculture had been
sacked the previous day and declared an enemy of the state, bent on
sabotage. The man had been too busy to read the party newspaper that
morning and as a result was sent to Altera for praising an enemy of the
state. I began to see how current events could be a life or death
Others were sent here for the crime of "economic sabotage", which
meant underperforming ridiculous work quotas, accidentally damaging
work equipment, or simply being unlucky enough to be selected to be a
scapegoat for others' failures. Did your laser drill break during
mining? Was this the third time this had happened this season? That
might be economic sabotage.
Did a groundcar you serviced crash, injuring a party member (or
worse yet, a member of the Loyalty Police?). You could be charged with
attempted assassination. You might not even make it to Altera.
Did your work unit consistently underperform its work quota? Did
your coworkers, under the helpful pressure of the Redcaps, identify you
as the saboteur? Welcome to Altera!
Were you related to someone who was a convicted saboteur-a wife,
husband, brother, father or son? Perhaps you were complicit as well.
Welcome to Altera!
I even had the curious experience of meeting someone whose crime
had been not lying enough about work output. This fellow had been an
economist in administration, charged of reporting progress of the work
units in his section. He falsified the results to show that the work
units were barely making their work quota (while the actual result was
much worse). After a few years of doing this he got caught: the center
sent Loyalty Police in to audit him, and they found out what he had
Why had he gotten audited? The center got suspicious when they
saw that this group of work units were just meeting quota, while other
work units in the same area were reporting that they were regularly
exceeding or even meeting double their quota. In other words, this
fellow got arrested for not telling a big enough lie!
Once they were sent here prisoners' lives meant nothing. Few
prisoners survived long enough to serve their sentences, and the
authorities clearly didn't care, as long as a fresh flow of prisoners
replaced them. This was how the Slurian system worked. By using slave
labor, the system kept costs down. Funneling the dissidents into the
system was only an incidental benefit. I was told that life at other
labor camps wasn't as harsh as it was on labor camps on Altera, but
that conditions at prison mines and factory and farms around the
Slurian Union could hardly be considered a picnic either.
And on top of it all the Slurians expected us to "reform"
ourselves, by attending their weekly political lectures on Sundays.
At first I laughed it off. We only had half a day off on Sundays-
why would anyone choose to waste a precious hour of it listening to a
political lecture from a Redcap? Attendance wasn't even mandatory.
But Kerensky warned me that most of the camp attended. He told me
that careful note was made of who attended and who didn't, and that the
Redcap guards paid "special attention" to those who didn't attend.
So I attended. The first few weeks I had no idea what was going
on, but gradually as I learned Slurian it started to make sense. Well,
actually, "making sense" might be the wrong way to put it, because what
political officer Captain Sergei Olov said made no sense of any kind.
"Communitarians," he said, using the official Slurian term,
"witness the generosity of the great Slurian Union! Though you have
committed vile crimes against the Community, you have been given a
chance to reform yourself through work. The State has generously
provided you food, clothing, and shelter, and a productive use for your
time to repay your debt to the Community."
"But you must not only reform yourself through labor, you must
reform the very corrupt thought patterns that brought you here in the
first place. Who here wants to be a good member of the Community?"
Everyone wearily raised their hands.
"You want to be good community members, but you must reform your
thoughts, and then your actions will follow. Your selfishness is what
brought you here-"
And on and on and on. But it got a little bit interesting when
Captain Olov started to describe the wonders of the Slurian system.
"Our system takes care of everyone, the poor, the sick, the
unwell, while creating an industrial economy that rivals any economy in
the galaxy! Unlike the greeders of the League, we don't leave people to
die of hunger on the streets-"
At that point I raised my hand. Questions were encouraged, though
few if any were asked.
Captain Olov looked at me. "Yes, a question? Identify yourself."
"Idaho Took," I said.
Olov looked startled, then a strain of recognition crossed his
face. "Yes, the Greeder spy. Would you like to make a political
"Uh, maybe later," I said. "I just want to make a tiny correction
to your comment."
"A correct?" Olov looked puzzled.
"About people dying in the streets," I said. "It doesn't happen.
No one dies of hunger in the League."
"Of course they do," said Olov. Then a thought struck them. "Or
perhaps you are being literal. It is well known that your disposable
worker class is often taken to death camps, left there to die."
"You mean death camps where they are given little food and
clothing, and worked to death?"
Kerensky looked up at me like I was crazy.
"Ah, you admit it!" said Olov.
"Yes, I admit it," I said. "We have death camps on our coldest
ice worlds, where we regularly work prisoners to death, and feed them
nothing but small bowls of kem."
The smile immediately disappeared from Olov's face. "I would
watch what you're saying, spy. I can see it will be a long road to
reform your thoughts."
He returned to his lecture. "As I said, our Communitarian system
has created the strongest economy in the galaxy-"
I raised my hand again.
"Yes, spy?" said Olov, a bit wearily.
"If your economy is so great, how come you are a net importer of
food, and why is the industrial output of August alone greater than
half your entire-"
"Lies! All lies!" Olov screamed. "Guards! Have the spy taken to
the therapy room!"
Two Redcaps came over and grabbed me. They lead me forward to the
entrance to the room, where Olov stood.
"Perhaps a few days in a therapy room will help you become a
positive force in the community," said Olov.
"Uhhhhh," was all I could think of to say.
They dragged me to the detention center, a sinister lockup area,
where they gave me a single order. "Strip."
They couldn't mean what they said. It was incredibly cold!
Perhaps they were giving me new clothes....
But when I stripped down to my undergarments they simply pushed me into
a cell. The cell was incredibly small, with not enough space to stand,
and barely enough space for me to sit in. It was completely dark. The
floor was damp. Shivering, I felt around the walls of the cell. They
were damp too! I also felt a cold breeze. How could I feel that, in a
sealed cell? My hands grazed the low ceiling. There was a small shaft
in the ceiling, big enough to stick my hand in. That's where the
freezing air was coming in. They were purposefully piping in cold air
from the outside to torture me!
My teeth clattering, I sat in the dark. At some point I fell asleep,
only to wake up freezing a few minutes later. The cold prompted me to
have fierce nightmares.
I had no sense of the passage of time. It seemed like I was in there
for days. And they weren't even looking in on me or feeding me! Were
they starving me to death?
I tried to calm down. I decided to take a trip in my mind. I couldn't
move more than four inches in any direction, so I moved four inches
forward. Closing my eyes, I dreamed I was in August, enjoying the
technological wonders of the League's capital. Then, moving four inches
left, I imagined I made another trip, to Greenfields, wandering around
the places I grew up. Then I moved four inches backwards to go to
Karis, and then right to Aridor, making trips to other places, like
Tiria and London II. The cold didn't seem to be quite as intense as I
imagined other places.
The light blinded my eyes as the door opened. I think I had been
asleep because I felt groggy. I heard a screamed order to get out, and
I crawled out on my hands and knees. I vaguely remembered getting
dressed, and was mildly surprised to find that my flight jacket hadn't
been "appropriated" by the guards. Then I was brought back to my bunk,
and I didn't remember any more...
...although, perhaps I imagined it, but I thought I heard
Kerensky over me, saying, "Stupid Richman... very stupid."
Chapter 5 Fighting Back
"I am very disappointed," said Major Colonel Tromov. He paced
back and forth in front of us as we stood at attention in the
blistering wind and snowfall.
"You lazy dogs have not been meeting you work quotas," said
Tromov. Actually, he said something a little more severe than lazy
dogs, but the entire concept doesn't translate well from Slurian.
He marched back and forth in his fashionable Redcap boots. While
we were shivering he certainly wasn't, with his triple insulated
"I was sent here to reform you, to make you into good
communitarians," said Tromov. He paused. "Perhaps it is my fault.
Perhaps you have taken advantage of my laxity and goodwill. It is
painful to do so, but work time on Sundays will be increased an
additional two hours a day. Also, no care packages will be distributed
this month. That is all."
We were dismissed, and I saw Kerensky shaking his head. "I guess
the guards are hungry," said Kerensky. "Someone must have bribed him
pretty big to get our care packages."
"We get packages?"
"Certainly," said Kerensky. "The Slurian Union is a highly
communitarian society, remember."
"I remember, I remember," I said. "How would I go about sending a
Corporal Zyto Filitov was the labor camp's "postman". Could it
really be so simple as writing a letter and handing it in?
No. First, of course, one had to get access to a datapad to write
a message. The "post office" only had three datapads, and these were
reserved months in advance for the use of the other prisoners.
I looked at the three datapads in the room. None were in use. I
pointed this out to Corporal Filitov, who simply harrumphed and turned
But by now I was learning the ways of the system and easily
bribed Filitov for access to a datapad to write a letter. My "business"
of selling stolen construction materials with Kolya had taken off and I
now had a small supply of Slurian currency.
"All right. You may have five minutes," he said generously.
I quickly sat down and started typing. I had decided in advance
to write to my mother. Knowing the letter would probably be censored, I
It is Idaho. I am alive and well. I just want to let you know that I am
a prisoner of war being held by the Slurians. Please contact my unit
and let them know I am ok. If you can, please send food and warm
clothing as soon as possible to this return address. I promise to do
better and not to get caught in the next war.
Your loving son,
I wrote the address and turned it into Filitov. He casually
looked at it, and then at me. "Nyet," he said.
"What do you mean?"
Filitov crossed off all the sentences except the first two.
"What's wrong with the rest?" I asked. "What's wrong with saying
I am a prisoner of war?"
"You are not a prisoner of war," said Filitov. "This is not a
prisoner of war camp. This is a camp for thought reform. You are a spy.
You are not a military prisoner. Furthermore, you are not allowed to
give military information."
"What military information?"
Filitov gave me a stoney stare. "Telling your mother to relay
this information to the military."
"But-" I was about to say that my mother probably would anyway.
But if I said that then this irritating Slurian bureaucrat might not
let me send any letter at all.
"What about requesting food and warm clothing?"
"That was your cleverest line of all. You are surreptitiously
conveying the propaganda that we do not provide you with everything you
I licked my licks. "What if I just asked for a care package in
general... would that be all right?"
Filitov considered, then nodded.
I turned back to the datapad.
Filitov barred me.
"Datapad is booked up months in advance."
Sighing, I paid another bribe.
It is Idaho. I am alive and well. I just want to let you know that I am
being held by the Slurians. If you care to, feel free to send me a
package at this return address.
Your loving son,
I kept it short in the hopes that it wouldn't be rejected. But
Filitov only shook his head again.
"Your letter says nothing nice about the Slurian Union."
"What does that matter?"
"You are using community resources to send this message. You
should at least show some gratitude to something in the community."
"You want me to say something nice, about here?"
Filitov looked adamant.
I thought for a moment. "All right."
After another bribe, I started again. I got stuck in one part,
though; what could I say that was nice about this place? Finally, I
started writing again.
It is Idaho. I am alive and well. I just want to let you know that I am
being held by the Slurians. The cross country skiing is great here. If
you care to, feel free to send me a package at this return address.
Your loving son,
Filitov looked at the message. I cautiously held my breath. Then,
he nodded. But he started typing vigorously, changing my message.
"Hey, what are you doing?"
"Must change wording of message. You are convicted spy; you may
be attempting to use key words to send out code. I will change words
but keep meaning," he assured me.
I got a look at the final text:
Dear Female Parent
It is Idaho. I am very well and prospering. The Slurians are holding me
for my crimes. They are very gentle and patient with me. The cross
country skiing is also very good.
Your obedient son,
"You took out the part about sending the package!" I said.
"That was not necessary to put in."
"And what's this about the gentle and patient part? I never said
"You must have a more positive attitude," said Filitov. He
pointed to the door. My audience was over.
Well, at least my mother would find out I was still alive. If the
message got through. I was still skeptical as to whether they really
would transmit the message.
But a few weeks later I DID get a reply. I was handed a paper
printout which read:
I am so very glad to hear from you. Your. I am. Heard from War. Sent
I showed the message to Filitov. "Was the transmission garbled?"
"No," said Filitov. "Came through clearly. But rest was
"What could my mother possibly tell me that would be censored?"
But Filitov simply gave me a stony stare.
"Well, what about my package?"
"But you have it now!"
"Packages are given out on Tuesdays," said Filitov firmly.
As I left the post office I pondered my mother's message, reading
it again over and over. I felt good that she and the rest of my family
knew I was still alive. I reread the words. "Heard from War".
Obviously, she was trying to tell me something about the war. But what?
It was a funny sentence, even though it was censored. You don't
hear from a war, you hear about a war. Maybe she was writing that she
heard from the war front, or a war correspondent. Then I looked more
closely at the words.
The word War was capitalized.
Now, anyone could have done that for emphasis, but not my mother. A
journalist for nearly 200 years, she was a stickler for such details.
She wouldn't capitalize the word war in general unless it were part of
a proper name.
A proper name. Maybe War was a person. War could be some part of
War Captain. Did I know any War Captains? No.
No, still didn't ring a bell.
Some military official had told my mother something important. But who
I raced through my memories a second time. Did I know any
officers with the War rank? Not closely. Perhaps she was referring to
some military spokesman. But why bother to mention him by name?
And if the war was really going badly for the League, why would
the Slurians censor what she had to say?
That was my first inkling of hope.
I went back to the post office on Tuesday and collected my
package. It had been opened, of course, but a number of items were
missing. I knew this because my mother had been thoughtful enough to
provide a list.
I didn't bother complaining to Filitov and simply went through
what was there. Heavily enriched nutritional crackers. A tin of pears.
Winter gloves! I wonder how the guards had missed those. I guess their
gloves were good enough for them. I tried them on over my homemade
mittens. My hands instantly warmed up.
So did my morale.
After that I was never in danger of starving to death. I received
packages on an irregular basis, and was able to scrounge for food on
the camp's black market. While I was still malnourished and underfed, I
had a relatively easy job and my main enemies were cold, and
The repression! The guards were worse than cruel. The head guard
was a burly master sergeant named Kilikov. He treated us like sacks to
be moved around and put to work. He would on rare occasion assault a
prisoner, but usually he left that work to his subordinates. He turned
a blind eye to all the beatings, humiliation, and torture that went on
in the camp.
The torturer in chief was Sergeant Maxim Korky. Despite the cute
name, he was one of the most brutal of the guards. He carried around an
iron club and every day would hit at least one prisoner with it,
sheerly for fun. The prisoner, who would be hit for any or no reason,
would invariably suffer broken bones or internal injuries. Sergeant
Iron Club was feared by all.
Another official who wasn't exactly a profile in humanity was
Corporal Ivan Ushenko. He liked to humiliate the prisoners. He would
have a prisoner stand in front of a big pile of snow, scream "Beaver!"
and expect the prisoner to burrow into the snow mountain using only his
hands. Any part of the prisoner which was not submerged would get hit.
Prisoners who didn't burrow quickly enough out the other side would
Another of Ivan's favorite games was even worse. He would take a
prisoner to a pool of water covered by thin ice, and scream, "Fish!".
The prisoner would be expected to dive into the frigid water, and Ivan
use his electrowip to snare the prisoner, like a fishing rod, if the
prisoner came out too quickly. More than one prisoner died in the
Another variant on the game was "Rabbit" where prisoners had to
hop through snow that was very deep; if they weren't nimble enough,
they would sink in.
And of course, the most common torture was exposure to the
elements. Prisoners would be stripped down to their undergarments and
tied to the gate. If they were let down in time usually only their
extremities would be frostbitten.
Beatings were the rule rather than the exception and the
authorities usually looked away. Whether this was part of the
institutional sadism designed to keep the prisoners down or simply a
matter of disinterest on the part of the authorities was never made
clear to me.
Everyday when we stood at lineup we had to fight to prevent
ourselves from trembling to see who would be made an example of that
day. No one knew who would be picked.
I was told that it was possible to bribe the guards but that it
wasn't easy. Some guards like Ivan wouldn't accept bribes. I mostly
kept out of their way, accepting minor beatings when I had to.
Another dangerous game we were forced to play were the foot
races. At irregular intervals, we were called out to race the other
prisoners around the perimeter of the compound. This in and of itself
wasn't the dangerous part; the dangerous part was that the prisoner to
arrive in last place got beaten up by the guards.
But even this sadism was insufficient for Ivan. Most of the
prisoners knew they were safe as long as they weren't in the back of
the pack, and so didn't run very feverishly; so Ivan changed the rules
and dictated that the last few prisoners would be beaten. He never told
in advance how many a "few" could be--it could be five, it could be
ten. And the prisoners were forced to run in smaller groups so that
there was a greater chance they would be in the last five or ten.
That only increased the terror, which, of course, was Ivan's foremost
goal. The sadist loved seeing the look of fear on our faces. He
scheduled runs right after work shifts, ensuring that we would have to
run when we were most tired. More than one prisoner simply collapsed
into the snow from exhaustion in midrace, and more than a few died from
exhaustion or the beating that followed.
When that game ceased to be amusing, Ivan thought of others. At
times he forced two prisoners to fight. A prisoner would be forced to
batter his opponent senseless. But Ivan wouldn't be satisfied until
there was "blood on the snow." If he wasn't sufficiently satisfied,
both prisoners would be beaten. Many times friends were purposely
forced to fight each other.
But the situation touched me most personally when Kolya was
killed. He was tapped to play a game of "Rabbit" with Ivan and he sunk
into a huge snowdrift. His body was never found.
I decided at that point that Ivan had to go. I spoke about the
matter with Kerensky.
He shook his head. "You are fool, Idaaho Tuch," he said. "You
will never succeed. Even if you do, do you know what they will do to
"I'm not thinking of killing him myself," I said.
Kerensky looked puzzled.
"I was hoping that the Slurian guards would help."
Kerensky shook his head. "You do not have enough to bribe a guard
to kill another guard."
"That's not what I mean," I said. "Who of all the officers hates
Kerensky shrug his head. I handed him some of my hard earned
(stolen) credits. "Spread some money and find out."
Kerensky came back with the answer two days later.
"Good," I said.
"What do you plan?" said Kerensky.
"The less you know, the better."
To make my plan work, I needed the services of three prisoners--a
forger, someone who worked in administration, and a thief.
I found the thief first, a man named Raffen. He was a criminal
inmate, sentenced here for a wide variety of theft and armed robbery.
Unlike the others, he didn't haggle over price, only the job itself.
"Who you want me to rob?" he said bluntly.
"No one," I said with a smile.
"Then what you paying me for, for charity?"
"I don't want you to take something from someone, I want you to
give something to someone."
Raffen looked at me suspiciously. "Who?"
I looked around. There was no one about. "If I tell you, you have
to agree to do it."
"All right," I said. "But if I tell you, and you tell anyone
else, I'll kill you." By this time I had gained some rough edges in
Raffen just looked at me.
I told him who the intended target was and what I wanted done.
"What is on this thing you want me to plant in his pocket?" said
"You don't need to know that," I said.
Raffen looked at me.
"Job is risky," he said.
"I'm sure there are a few dozen other petty thieves I can find
who might find the risk acceptable," I said.
Raffen paused, then nodded. "All right. But pay first."
"When the work is done," I said. I really had learned the ropes
My second task was to find someone in administration, and then a
forger. It turned out my two tasks could be combined into one when I
found a prisoner named Kantiprev. He worked for administration and was
a master forger. In fact, he worked for administration because he was a
master forger. He would regularly forge glowing recommendations in the
guards' personnel files, giving raises and promotions to nearly any
guard who bribed or threatened him. Unfortunately he was not so
generous with the prisoners.
"What is it you want?"
I explained I simply wanted a few words typed in and printed out.
"That will cost you two bowls of kem," Kantiprev sniffed. "What
is it you want typed and printed?"
I handed him a handwritten document on a scrap of paper I had
managed to secure.
Kantiprev's eyes widened as he quickly read the paper. "Why could
you possibly want this?"
"That's not all I want," I said. "I need a signature forged on
the bottom." I told him which signature.
Kantiprev shook his head vigorously. "No. It is too risky. I will
I named a price, in stolen gembles, the Slurian currency.
Kantiprev shook his head.
Kantiprev shook his head again. "No."
"Let us discuss the philosophy of the matter," I said.
"What philosophy?" Kantiprev said.
"I'm glad you asked, because we have one of the foremost
professors of philosophy here."
Sasha stepped into view, casting a large shadow over Kantiprev.
"I won't be intimidated!" said Kantiprev.
Sasha simply folded his giant arms.
"No!" said Kantiprev.
Sasha took a step forward.
"All right!" said Kantiprev. He looked up at Sasha, and said,
"But why are you involved?
"Because," said Sasha, "It is nice to be nice to the nice."
I got everything I needed, and I was just giving Raffen the final
instructions, when none other than Corporal Ivan himself strode up to
"Richman!" he said. He was flanked by two of his leering cronies.
I turned around. Raffen melted into the background.
"You have time for talk, you have time for little game!"
I tried not to show the fear on my face.
"You will play game of Gopher!" said Ivan.
They led me to a large snowbank inside the camp. A group of
guards were gathered here for the entertainment. I saw one unmoving
prisoner being dragged away.
"Get ready!" said Ivan
I looked at the huge snowbank. I had to dive into that and tunnel
my way to the other side before I suffocated. There were several tunnel
entrances in front of me, dug by past players of the game, no doubt,
but there was no telling how far each tunnel went. A player might have
frozen midway through a tunnel, or a tunnel might have collapsed.
Gopher had a high fatality rate.
I wasn't interested in playing the odds. I wondered what Clifford
Croft would have done in a situation like this.
I didn't have much time to consider, because at that moment Ivan
I dived into the snowbank, choosing one of the tunnels higher up
along the bank. I had no intention of risking my life in this suicidal
game; so instead of tunneling across the bank, I started tunneling up.
As I dug through the icy snow I felt myself gasping for breath,
not only from my efforts but the dwindling oxygen supply. As I dug
deeper and deeper the oxygen level decreased.
I was wheezing for air when my hand scooped a bit of snow above
me. It was brighter, somehow. I kept digging, and then I felt my hand
go through. In seconds I poked my head up.
I was near the top of the bank, in the middle, not on the other
The guards were jeering as I slowly pulled myself out of the
Ivan yanked me down when I got close enough. "You cheat, Richman,
you cheat!" he yelled. He punched me, sending me to the ground, and
started beating me. Other guards joined in.
Prisoners watched from a short distance away, but didn't dare
interfere. I can't pretend it felt good, but at least when it was over,
I was still alive.
I was vaguely aware that someone brushed by Ivan. "Here, let me
help you," said a familiar voice. I tried to open my eyes but they were
caked with blood. I blinked hard and found Raffen, helping me away.
He half carried me back to the barracks.
"Is it done?" I managed to rasp.
"Yes," said Raffen. He led me into my bunk, where I collapsed.
Some time later I heard my name called. I opened my eyes to see
the giant, Sasha. "Idaaho, how are you?"
"Swell," I said, wincing in pain. "When is Lieutenant Kirshenko
coming on duty?"
"He is on now," said Sasha.
"Then I must go now," I said, struggling to get up. I felt a
surge of pain through my left leg. Had I broken it? Gently, I tested it
to see if it could support my weight. It could.
"You are too weak," said Sasha.
"No choice," I said. "If we don't do it now, we may not get
I limped out of my barracks and slowly and painfully made my way
to a guard post. Kirshenko stood there, talking with two other guards.
But stepping in front of them was Corporal Ivan. Had he discovered my
"What are you doing here? This area is restricted!" said Ivan.
He started to kick me again.
I fell down, crying, "Kirshenko! Lieutenant Kirshenko." Ivan only
kicked me harder.
The kicking stopped.
Kirshenko looked down at me. "Why do you call my name?"
"I have important information," I gasped.
The guards snickered.
"Really?" said Kirshenko. "Well, then tell me what this important
information is. But I warn you, if it is a sham, we will take you and
your information and put you in the cold cell."
The cold cell. "I have, I have information about a traitor." I
slowly sat up.
This got their attention.
"What are you saying? Speak quickly!" said Kirshenko.
"There is a traitor here, one who is dedicated to overthrowing
the Slurian's Communitarian State," I said.
"Who is this traitor?" Kirshenko asked.
I pointed a finger at Ivan. "It is him."
Ivan immediately launched a kick at me, but I dodged out of the
"Halt!" said Kirshenko, drawing his blaster and firing into the
air. He looked sternly at Ivan, who stopped moving.
Kirshenko looked sternly at me. "Do you know what the penalty for
making false charges is, Richman?"
"They aren't false," I said. "I can prove it.
"Really?" said Kirshenko. "Do so now." He looked skeptical.
Obviously he was expecting to take me to the cold cell in a moment, or
"His pocket," I gasped. "There is a note in his pocket,
describing his intention to overthrow the Slurian Union."
Kirshenko looked at me oddly. "How would you know what is in his
"I saw him write the message and put it there," I said.
Ivan snarled and started to lunge at me, but Kirshenko gave a
shout and he stopped in place again.
"What of this, Ushenko?" he said, turning to Ivan.
"This is ridiculous!" said Ivan. "Richman is a convicted spy!"
"It is ridiculous," Kirshenko said. "And if he is lying, he will
be severely punished. But first, empty your pockets."
"You are accusing me?" said Ivan.
"Guards!" said Kirshenko. His men pointed their blasters at
"Stand very still, community member," said Kirshenko. He moved
forward to put his hands in Ivan's jacket pockets.
"There is nothing there!" said Ivan.
Kirshenko carefully put his hands in.
I took a deep breath.
Kirshenko searched for a moment, and then turned back to me as if
to say he found nothing. But in his hands he held a small scrap of
paper. He read it aloud.
"The Slurian Union must be destroyed. It is a false citizen's paradise.
I Ivan Ushenko must do everything I can to destroy it. I will commit
acts of sabotage, espionage, even assassination to achieve my goal."
Ivan turned pale. "That's ridiculous! I can see that's typed
print! One of the prisoners must have typed it and stuffed it in my
"Really?" said Kirshenko. "They why is your signature also
affixed to the bottom?"
"It must be a forgery!" snarled Ivan.
"We shall see," said Kirshenko. "Guards! Disarm the corporal and
take him in for interrogation."
Snarling, Ivan reached out for me again, but the guards grabbed
him, and hauled him away. "You will pay for this, Richman! When I
return you will wish you were dead, dead!"
Two days later I found out Kirshenko's fate. His signature had
been verified and under interrogation (torture), he had admitted to a
wide range of crimes. I found myself called to the Commandant's office.
Major Colonel Tromov said, "I find myself in the odd position of
thanking you, Idaaho Tuch." He fell silent.
I waited. I presumed that was the thank you.
"You're quite welcome," I said.
"I still have some unanswered questions," said Tromov. "Such as,
why would a convicted League spy help the Slurian Union?"
"Well, surely that should be obvious," I said, making Tromov
looked startled. "I have been listening to Captain Olov's political
lectures. I have become convinced that the Slurian system is just."
"Really?" said Tromov, his eyes narrowing.
"Yes," I said. "After all, doesn't your ideology say that the
Imperialist League worlds will soon fall and join your Union?"
"And that the people of the League will accept your ideology?"
"So if it's inevitable, why is it so hard to believe that I have
"Because you are a convicted spy," said Tromov. "Your words have
the superficial ring of truth but I still sense capitalist deception
underneath. I do not know for certain what really transpired here. But
henceforth you will be watched more closely."
"I'll try to be a model Slurian citizen, to set an example for
"See that you-" Tromov's eyes narrowed. "See that you do."
I got up to leave. "Just one more thing, sir."
"Isn't there a reward for turning in traitors?"
Tromov paused. "Yes, there is."
"200 work units, a week off or the food equivalent, I recall."
"Yes," said Tromov distastefully.
"I'd prefer the extra food, sir."
Tromov wrote a note on his datapad. "Very well," he grimaced.
I turned to go. "Oh, one other thing. What became of Corporal Ushenko?"
"That does not concern you."
"He has been given a ten year term and assigned to labor camp
30," said Kantiprev.
"Hopefully they'll discover he's a former guard and kill him," I
"No doubt his friends will protect him and give him another
identification," said Kantiprev. "They were the ones who arranged for
him to be sent there."
"Why?" I asked.
"It is an data processing camp near the equator," said Kerensky.
"It is reputed to be one of the softer camps."
"What made you think your preposterous plan would even work?"
"What do you mean?"
"Did you really think the guards would believe that Ivan would
write an incriminating note and carry it around with him?"
"Listen," I said. "You guys live in a society where if you tell a
suggestive joke you get sent to a labor camp. I didn't invent your
paranoia, I just took advantage of it."
"Oh," said Kerensky. "That makes sense, from that perspective."
"I wish we could have done better for Ivan, though," I said. "He
doesn't deserve the soft life, even as a prisoner with a ten year
"Oh, his life won't be soft, nor will he last ten years," said
"What do you mean?"
"He's being sent to Camp 99," said Kantiprev.
Kerensky looked stunned.
"What is that?"
"Radioactive ore mining," said Kantiprev.
"I thought you said he was going to the other labor camp-"
"Those were his initial orders, but they got changed by someone
in administration," said Kantiprev, with a straight face.
"I see," I said. "How long will he last doing... radioactive ore
"Perhaps a month."
"A month? But surely they give proper protective equipment-"
Kerensky gave me a haven't-you-learned-better look.
Well, I had gotten justice for Kolya, then.
All I had to do now was figure out a way to escape.
Chapter 6 Back in the Boots
But before escape one must think of survival. I was no longer in
danger of working myself to death. I was able to sell construction
supplies to buy myself supplemental food, but the job was getting
riskier and less profitable. The guards were demanding higher and
higher bribes for looking the other way when I stole equipment, and
some guards wouldn't be bribed. If I was discovered by one of them I
would be sent to a cold cell, or even worse.
So I needed a better job. I had arrived in the spring and snow
was still on the ground. In fact, snow was still on the ground year
around on most of the planet, and we were in the northern hemisphere.
As spring turned to summer and summer turned to fall, I knew that my
meager prison clothes would not be sufficient for the brutal winter.
Kerensky told me that winter days were routinely below -10 fahrenheit,
and with the wind chill felt something like -40.
"How do people survive that?" I asked.
"They don't," said Kerensky. "Unless they're well dressed." He
looked me up and down, and shook his head. I was wearing old prison
clothes over my fleet jacket. My fleet jacket was nice but wasn't meant
to protect me from subzero temperatures. Similarly my two pairs of
pants--fleet issue and prison issue--were even more inadequate. I still
had the slashed workshoes on my feet, with inadequate footclothes
underneath those. The only bright spot were the gloves my mother sent
I had been spending most of my increasingly meager black market
gembles on food, but obviously I had to turn my attention to other
matters. But the price for black market clothes or furs were
exorbitant; if I saved all the money I was making and didn't spend any
of it on food, maybe in about six months I could afford a fur jacket.
But by that time winter would be passed, and so would I.
So I had to get something warmer, now.
I asked Kerensky for advice.
"You could capture an animal and skin it," he said, with a small
"Ha ha," I said. "Now, a real answer, please."
"You need better job, Idaaho," said Kerensky.
Kerensky shook his head. "Have no influence in anywhere good. "
"But you work in word processing-"
"Straw boss hates me, from other faction. May be kicked out soon," said
Kerensky. Everyone, it seemed, had troubles.
So what was I to do? "Could I get a job in the kitchen?" I could
sell food that I could swipe from the kitchen; not only that, but I
would have a lot more to eat!
Kerensky gave a big laugh. "That is most coveted job, Idaaho."
I was silent for a moment. Kerensky seemed to be thinking too.
Finally, he said, "I have idea."
I looked enquiringly at him.
"Garbage detail?" I said.
"Is not easy job to get, but may be possible," said Kerensky.
"Why would anyone want to work on garbage detail?"
"Not just garbage detail, officer's garbage detail," said
"What's the difference?"
Kerensky gave me a foolish-you look. "Even here, officers throw
out many things in garbage that have value. Sometimes even scraps of
food. You can use, sell to get better clothing."
"How would I get this job?"
"Is very difficult. Must bribe garbage officer, and straw boss in
charge of garbage detail."
"How do I do that?" I asked.
Kerensky shrugged. "You must find way."
I decided to tackle the straw boss first. A fellow prisoner, he
might be easier to bribe. I needed his approval not to get a job on the
garbage detail but to get a job in the specific part of the garbage
detail that dealt with picking up the officer's garbage.
The straw boss was a woman. This was not uncommon, though there
were more men than women in the camp. her name was Mirya. I approached
her, told her what I wanted.
"You are the Richman," she said suspiciously.
"Yes," I said, not eager to bargain the point.
"But I will not hold it against you," said Mirya. "I will give
"For only 500 gembles."
"500 gembles!" That was significantly less than what I had stored
"Working with officer trash is very prestigious job," said Mirya.
"I don't have 500 gembles."
"You are Richman," said Mirya, as if she expected I had brought a
bank with me.
"Look at me, do you see any riches?" I said, indicating my shabby
Mirya did look at me, and her eyes narrowed. "Wait a minute. I
remember something. You are Spaghetti?"
"Yes!" I said promptly. "Bugsy Spaghetti."
Mirya took a deep breath. "I am one of your biggest fans! Can you
tell me when your next book coming out?"
"Uh, not for a while," I said. I was in a Slurian labor camp;
what did she expect?
Mirya said, "I will let you have job, if you give autograph."
An autograph? "Sure."
"And 200 gembles, of course," said Mirya.
I nodded. I could barely afford that, but it was in the realm of
"Now, you know that job will cost 50 gembles a month."
"50 gembles?" I said. "Where am I supposed to get that?"
"From selling garbage."
"That's a lot to expect from garbage," I said. "Can't you take a
Mirya looked disgusted. "I already do, Richman. I only get 10
gembles. Lieutenant Lakmanin gets the other 40."
Lakmanin. The Redcap in charge of the garbage detail. He's the
one I had to go to next.
The only problem is that after paying Mirya the 200 gembles I
would only have a handful of gambles left, not enough to pay any
exorbitant bribe that Lakmanin would demand.
This time I resolved to do things the smart way. Before I
approached Lakmanin I spread a few gembles around to learn about him.
It turns out that Lakmanin wasn't exactly a happy Redcap officer.
Well, to put it more broadly, very few Redcaps were happy. That
was partially because of their natural disposition--after all, what
kind of Slurian joins the Loyalty Police? But with Lakmanin there was
a more specific source of his unhappiness. The gossip I heard was that
he had told his family, which was back home on Sluria, he was in charge
of a rocket defense platoon. Evidently prison duty was considered a
very unprestigious sort of assignment for the Redcaps.
But knowing this little tidbit and taking advantage of it was two
different things. I spent several days in thought before I came up
with a solution. I approached Lieutenant Lakmanin at a guard post one
day, with a piece of paper in hand.
"Greetings, communitarian sir," I said, saying the proper words.
Lakmanin didn't even bother to glance at me. "Get out of here,
"I was wondering if I could be of some assistance to you."
"There are no positions available on the garbage detail," said
Lakmanin, sounding quite bored. I guess others had approached him
"Even if I could offer you something... unique?" I asked.
"What do you mean?" said Lakmanin, looking at me for the first
time. "You're the Richman."
"Be warned that I have no interest in Bugsy Spagetti or anything
else in your decadent League culture."
"I understand that," I said. "But perhaps there is a way I can
"I understand you're having some problems with your family-"
Lakmanin's blaster was drawn and pointed at me. Evidently I had
approached the issue in an insufficiently nurturing way.
"Speak your next words most carefully, Richman," said Lakmanin.
"I... just thought your family might enjoy this..." I said,
holding out a piece of paper, as I trembled. If this generated an
Lakmanin snatched the paper with one hand, using the other to
still point his blaster at me. He stared at the drawing and frowned.
"What is this?"
He stared at the drawing. It was a detailed sketch of him,
standing in front of a platoon of rocket troop.
"A portrait, sir," I said. "I understand that many prominent
officers have them. This one shows you with the rocket troop."
A flicker of understanding spread across Lakmanin's face. "Your
drawing skills... are somewhat impressive, Richman. How did you draw my
face so well?"
I obtained a copy of his likeness from Kantiprev. "From memory,
"Hm," said Lakmanin, the wheels in his mind obviously turning.
"But the inks you used are crude."
"If you get me access to a terminal, I can create a much better
electropainted version for you," I said eagerly.
"Hm," said Lakmanin again. He considered.
I held my breath.
"Come with me," said Lakmanin.
He took me to an office and sat me down in front of a computer.
"You have one hour," said Lakmanin, handing me the drawing. "If you
attempt to gain access to our network, or fail to complete your task on
time, you will be shot."
I nodded. Gaining access to their network wasn't part of my plan,
and with the time constraint, I had to concentrate on doing a good job.
I got to work. Luckily I had some skill has an illustrator, which
is what gave me the idea in the first place. I worked as quickly as I
could, trying to draw my best. I was finishing in a sweated hurry just
as Lakmanin came in.
"Let me see," he said, pushing me out of the way.
He looked at the image on the screen while I sweated further.
"Not bad," said Lakmanin. "Not bad at all, actually."
"Does this mean I get the job?" I asked, perhaps too eagerly.
Lakmanin snorted. "I never said anything about a job, Richman."
"But I did this for you-"
"And saved your own life," said Lakmanin. "A fair trade." He
paused. "How much can you afford to pay for the job?"
"I have no money," I said. And, after paying off the straw boss,
that would be almost true.
Lakmanin seemed about to toss me out of the office. Then I saw an
idea light up in his eyes. He pushed me aside, and punched up a few
images on the screen. All of them were young, attractive women.
"Do you recognize any of these, Richman?"
I shook my head.
"That one is the Irena Berman, the star of such famous films as
'Comrades in Arms' and 'Four Workers in the Dormitory'. The others are
stars as well. Do you think you can do them?"
"Draw them?" I asked.
Lakmanin shook his head. "Just the face. I want you to supply the
Supply the bodies. He wanted me to create fake nudes of his
favorite movie stars. Now I understood. "I think so."
"Then you have job."
So I became a garbage sifter. Sometimes I found small bits of
uneaten food, but more often than not the most lucrative items I found
were bits of leather, fur, small pieces of metal, anything that could
be cannibalized into something else. I didn't really enjoy the job of
sifting through the smelly trash, and I had a lot of competition. Once
we hauled the trash to the dump, which was off limits to all other
prisoners, all of the garbage workers would immediately scurry over the
piles, looking for anything useful. At the time I didn't think much of
it, but in retrospect I found racing against other to sift through
disgusting trash to be... pathetic. Yes, pathetic, that's the word I'm
Ironically, my most lucrative calling wasn't in garbage. Once I
learned there was a market for it I started producing other
pornographic drawings for other guards. That earned me a very nice
living until other prisoners started to get into the act. Fortunately
there were relatively few prisoners who could draw well, so I could
still command a good piece of the fake pornography market.
As a result it was only two months before I was able to afford a
fur coat. It was homemade, and not nearly as warm as what the Redcaps
wore. It also stunk of snow leopard, which gave a clue as to its
origin. But that on top of my prison jacket on top of my flight jacket
produced some degree of warmth. Shorter thereafter I also acquired a
fur hat. I even eventually added a blanket to my bed.
I talked to Kerensky about that. How could we leave anything in
our bunks without fear of having it stolen?
"It's a constant fear," said Kerensky. "But if you get something
like a blanket, create a small identifying mark in the corner. Then, if
it gets stolen, go after the person who has taken it. Beat him
senseless, and recover the item."
"Oh." That seemed simple enough. I still had some doubts, though,
but when I eventually got a small blanket no one touched it; they knew
I was protected by Kerensky's group. I even got a bunch of small rags
to make into a makeshift pillow. By now the hardness of the boards
underneath me didn't bother me; I was so exhausted at the end of the
day that I dropped right off to sleep.
I even managed to trade for a better bunk It was no accident that
my first bunk was near the door, so that when it opened I would get the
full force of the breeze. I traded with a less fortunate prisoner who
had a bunk farther back for a reasonable amount of gembles.
The only thing that still bothered me were my shoes. They were
clearly inadequate for the weather. My feet, while not suffering
frostbite, were very cold. While I was thinking about how to obtain a
better pair, I notice a familiar set of footwear walking across the
compound one morning.
My military fleet boots. The ones that had been stolen during my
first days here.
Without thinking I chased after the man, giving a shout.
The man turned around. He was a big, burly fellow with a dirty
beard. He gave me a what-do-you-want look.
"Those are my boots," I said in Slurian. I looked down. Sure
enough, they were my fleet boots.
"You want trouble, Richman?" said the big bruiser.
"I want my boots back!" I said.
"Take them," said the man.
I looked at the big bruiser. I couldn't take him and he knew it.
After waiting a moment, he gave a caustic laugh, and walked off.
I discussed the situation with Kerensky. After I explained, he
"Well?" I said.
"What?" said Kerensky.
"Aren't you going to help me get my boots back?"
"How can I do that?" Kerensky asked.
"Get Sasha to help me," I said.
"Sasha is not a piece of equipment to be loaned out," said
"But I thought I was part of your group now," I said.
"You are, but we will not simply assault someone because you
request it," said Kerensky. He turned away. The audience was over.
Getting an idea, I tapped him on the shoulder.
"What?" he said irritably, turning around.
"I was curious about Sasha," I asked.
"What about him?" said Kerensky.
"Why does he have, a, well-"
"Girl's name?" said Kerensky. "On Sluria it is somewhat common
for boys to have this name, but it is sometimes also meant as an
insult, for a parent who wanted a daughter instead..."
"So they give their son a girlie name?" I asked.
"If it does not kill them, it only makes them tougher."
"I think I've heard that somewhere before," I said.
"But do not mention it with him, he is very sensitive about it."
"Oh, I won't." I promised, automatically falling into liespeak. I had
the information I needed. An idea rapidly formed in my head.
At our next lineup I made sure to stand near the big bruiser, and
to make sure that Sasha was standing next to me as well. We stood a few
feet in front and to the right of the big bruiser.
I turned around and looked at the big bruiser until I got his
attention. He finally noticed and stared back at me, giving a sarcastic
Just what I needed.
I turned back to Sasha. "Sasha," I whispered, for it wasn't
permitted to talk aloud during rollcall.
He looked startled, and gave me a wide eyed look. He knew the
kind of trouble we could get into.
"Sasha!" I hissed, looking left and right without moving my head. So
far, the Redcaps hadn't noticed.
"Yes," he reluctantly whispered.
"There's a man who's been making fun of you," I said.
"A man who's saying that you have a girl's name, and that you're
really like a girl, maybe even really a girl," I said, rapidly
stringing together barely coherent thoughts.
Anger flashed in his eyes. "Who?"
I turned and motioned with my gaze. Sasha could clearly see the
big bruiser smirking in my direction. Or perhaps our direction?
Sasha said nothing else and turned forward. But I remember that
famous principal that every action has an equal and opposite reaction,
and sure enough, right after we were dismissed, Sasha immediately
turned and went over to the big bruiser. Before the big bruiser could
react Sasha thrashed him. He knocked him down and pounded him with his
The other prisoners watched while a pair of concerned guards
When Sasha was done, I simply walked up to him and pulled off my
boots. The man groaned as he attempted to focus his eyes. The snow
around his head was bright red.
I peered down at him.
"We always could have done this the easy way," I said.
So I had enough clothes to survive the brutally cold winter.
That's not to say that I wasn't cold most of the time, but at least I
had enough clothes to prevent myself from freezing.
But I'm describing things in reverse order. Before clothing my
first priority was food.
The basic staple at Labor Camp 94 was kem--kem, kem stew, kem
paste, every variety of the tasteless peas you could think of. That was
part of the torture, the total loss of taste. Except for the very rare
care package I received with food that managed to pass through
"customs", I almost totally lost my sense of taste.
That's why irnoy was so popular. Irnoy was a large white root of
some plant that could survive in the cold soil here. It was incredibly
bitter, some parts more than others. The part at the thin end of the
root was bitter enough, but as you went down the thicker end it got
more and more bitter. The first time I bit into the root I simply spat
it out. And that piece, I later learned, was from the thin end.
But over time I learned to tolerate irnoy and even, I hate to
say, come to look forward to it. Any taste, even a bitter one, was
better than no taste at all. Losing the sense of taste is not as severe
as losing the sense of sight or hearing, but it does take its toll--
after awhile, you look forward to anything that has any kind of taste.
That's why the irnoy root, which was provided to us in small amounts on
an occasional basis, was such a treat.
And that's all the food we were ever given. Kem and irnoy and
water. Occasionally I would notice a tiny piece of potato slip through
into the watery kem soup, and it tasted delicious. I asked Kerensky
"It just means the officers were not efficient in stealing that
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Well, we are officially allocated a small amount of meat,
potatoes, and other food per month, you know," said Kerensky. "It's in
the camp regulations."
"Then why don't we see any of it?"
"The guards steal it, and the kitchen staff takes what's
leftover, when they can," said Kerensky. "But every so often the odd
potato or other vegetable slips through. Once I ate a piece of carrot.
I thought I was dreaming or crazy, but Sasha saw it too. But the cooks
get severely punished if they are caught serving food that should be
stolen for the officers. I remember one time we all found some potatoes
in our stew and the next day the cook was taken out and shot."
"So what do we have to do to get some real food?" Up to know all
I knew how to get on the black market was some kem and irnoy root.
"There's not much you can do. Are you a good hunter?"
"I'm not sure, why do you ask?"
"If you were, you might get a position on the hunting parties,"
said Kerensky. "Every animal you kill, they let you keep and cook the
right paw and tail."
"The right paw and tail? That's not very much meat."
"No, but it does give flavor to the kem," said Kerensky.
"Why would anyone agree to hunt for the guards under those
"Well, they do get a tiny sliver of meat, but more importantly,
they get flavor in their food. Have you ever stuck a cooked rabbit's
tail into a steaming bowl of kem? It gives off a delicious taste."
"Sometimes you can bribe someone in the hunting parties to bring
you back some bark."
"When you boil it, that can give some taste to the water too."
"Uh, I was thinking of getting some real food," I said.
"Ah, Richman! This is not a five star League restaurant!" said
Kerensky, having a good laugh at my expense.
Hmm. I started thinking again.
"You know, if you want some meat, there's always the dog," said
The dog? I wondered.
"The Commandant's dog," said Kerensky.
Oh. What everyone referred to as the "dog" was actually a mutated
wolf that was the Commandant's official mascot/pet. The animal was free
to roam the compound without interference. The guards didn't have to
worry about keeping an eye out for it, because the animal, Fidov, could
take care of himself. The beast weighed well over 100 pounds and had
four inch fangs. Every so often the beast would maul a prisoner who got
in his way, much to the amusement of the guards. We learned early on to
"What about the dog?" I asked.
"Kill him, and eat him."
"How do I do that?" I asked.
But Kerensky had already turned back to whatever it was he was
reading. Once again, I would be on my own.
I went outside the barracks and stared at the wolf creature who
was trotting around in the distance. Normally I would never think of
killing a semi-domesticated animal for food, especially a dangerous one
who could defend itself. But Fidov had mauled a good number of my
fellow prisoners, and wasn't very popular with any of us. But still,
could I eat him?
A rumbling in my stomach. I guess I could. But how to take on the
beast? I didn't even have a spear. The best I had was a small knife I
had managed to fashion during my time at the construction site. That
would not be enough to take out Fidov. Unless I could cut his throat in
his sleep? But the animal would hear and/or smell me coming.
I needed a more sophisticated plan. As I stood there Sasha came
up to me. "I heard you talking. You are thinking about it, yes?"
"Yes," I said.
"It seems difficult," said Sasha. "I do not think you can kill
"Thanks for the encouragement."
"But perhaps if you had help you might." Sasha looked at me.
That was all I needed to get me going. We started planning.
We needed four people to act as decoys, dangerous jobs. We found
few volunteers until we promised them a substantial amount of meat. We
needed four people to distract the guards--they would want some meat
too. We needed skilled cooks--we had only two stoves in our barracks
and we would have to cook a lot of meat quickly, so we had to promise
them some meat also. And finally we had to promise to give at least a
bite of meat to everyone in the barracks, to keep them quiet. But still
after all was said and done Sasha and I would have the lion's share of
the meat, because it was our idea and we would be taking most of the
When we were ready, our decoys approached Fidov. Fidov growled
menacingly, showing his fangs. One of the prisoners yelled "Boo!" and
the chase was on.
The first prisoner ran towards the barracks. But Fidov was much
faster. However, before Fidov closed on the first prisoner, a second
prisoner hit Fidov with a stick. Fidov changed course. And then a third
prisoner came in, hitting Fidov with a stick, and Fidov changed course
I've heard on ancient Earth they did something similar with
larger animals called bulls, but to me this seemed more dangerous
because our decoys were basically unarmed. Still, for the lure of food,
they did it.
Gradually they maneuvered Fidov to the barracks, specifically a
narrow outdoor corridor between two barracks that would be hidden from
the guards and suit our purposes perfectly.
Fidov ran in one end--to find me waiting there, with a long pole
in my hand. Behind him, Sasha appeared, with another long pole, stolen
from the construction area. Snarling, Fidov ran towards me. I ran
forward as well to generate momentum. The corridor was so narrow that
there was little need to aim, but still I felt nervous, watching the
snarling beast run towards me. When we impacted, the force of it sent
the pole from my hands. I quickly realized I missed; instead of
impaling the animal, I had merely smacked him on the side of the head.
The animal, groggy, shook its head and tried to get its bearings.
I reached for the pole. But before I could raise it again, the animal
was on me. I had only the thin pole to keep his jaws away from me as it
slashed me with its claws.
"Raaaa!" it cried as its mouth was only inches from my face.
Suddenly the creature stiffened, jerked, and collapsed on top of
I squirmed out from underneath it, to find Sasha standing there,
his pole impaled in the beast's gut.
"Well, that was easy enough," I said, wiping the sweat off my
brow. I moved to touch the body, but Fidov reared his head and roared
Grasping my pole I clubbed the wolf creature until it stopped
moving. Breathing heavily, I said again, "There, that seemed easy
We had to get the meat all cooked before our duty shift began the
next morning. We cooked feverishly through the night but it was a lot
of meat. We ended up giving everyone more meat than I planned and we
all stuffed ourselves until we felt sick. The meat had a tangy flavor
and under normal circumstances I wouldn't have touched it but I was a
long, long way from normal. It was the best tasting food I had had in
months, given the alternatives of kem or irnoy.
The next day I again ate as much as I could, and took the
remaining meat and sold it on the black market for a tidy sum; I was
reluctant to part with the food, but I didn't want to have "evidence"
on my hands either. Hard as it may sound to believe, but I even passed
on my kem breakfast that morning.
It was only two days later that we got word from the Commandant's
office that he was wondering if anyone had seen Fidov. But no one had
any information to offer him, just the grin of well-fed prisoners.
When the tail of Fidov showed up on the steps to the Commandant's
office, Major Colonel Tromov came out and screamed at us for a full
hour. I guess he was very attached to his dog.
But even Fidov was just a blip on the screen. I was always trying
to think of ways to get more and better food.
"Why don't you try Chekov?" Kerensky suggested.
"He has food to trade?" I said.
"No," said Kerensky. "But it is well known that he makes food
"He sells spices?" I asked.
But Kerensky, as was typical of him, would say no more.
So I sought out the prisoner called Chekov. He was hardly more
than a boy, making me wonder how he had been sent here.
"Chekov-" I began.
He raised a finger. "Mr. Chekov."
I sighed. He looked little more than a boy. But everyone here had
complexes, and it seemed like a simple request.
"Mr. Chekov," I said. "I have come to-"
He knew immediately why I had come. "You want better tasting food."
"How did you know?" I asked.
Mr. Chekov sighed. "That's the only reason people come to talk to
I got the impression he was lonely.
"See me at lunch," said Chekov. Then, as an afterthought, he
added, "And bring five gembles."
I wondered what this was all about but I did see him at lunch and
after I had paid him he motioned for me to hand over my bowl of kem. I
handed it over, and he actually put his finger in it, which sort of
disgusted me. But then he concentrated, and the bowl started to sparkle
When he looked up at me, and handled the bowl back, he waited.
Experimentally I put a piece of kem in my mouth.
My eyes widened in surprise. The kem actually had taste! It was
mild, it wasn't much, but compared to what I was used to, it was
tremendous. It was kind of a lettucey taste and it was delicious.
"If you want it to taste even better I can do it for ten
gembles," said Chekov. He looked bored, as if he had said and done this
many times before.
"How do you-"
"I don't know," said Chekov, anticipating the question. And then
he was gone.
I consulted with Kerensky that evening. "Mr. Chekov has special
talents," was all he would say.
That was for sure.
I periodically used Mr. Chekov's services after that. I tried to
engage him in conversation but he was distant. I wondered what had
brought him here but didn't ask.
Still, with my occasionally care packages, the consumption of
Fidov, and Chekov's services, I managed to stay merely on the
borderline of malnutrition, which was better than most of the
Chapter 7 Something Odd
But our time at Labor Camp 94 wasn't all about starving and
dying. We tried to have a little fun where we could. We played cards,
indoors, and when the weather permitted, we played bocci outside.
I'll never understand the Slurian fascination with bocci, the
game where you roll little balls so that they hit one another, but
every Slurian I met seemed fixated by it. Naturally, since there were
no bocci balls here they played with snowballs. They could seem to do
this in all kinds of weather, and so fascinated were they that just
ignore the temperature around them.
And then there was my kind of fun, getting back at the Redcaps. I
quickly found an ally in this with a prisoner named Korolev
Korolev was a practical joker who, predictably, had been sent
here for making a string of impolitic jokes about the Slurian system.
But that didn't get him down. Nothing seemed to depress Korolev.
Whenever the guards were harsh with us, Korolev would say, "Hey, don't
get angry. Just get even."
He would do little things, but enough to irritate the guards and
get himself in serious trouble if he were ever discovered. His
signature prank was to hit guards on the back of the head with
snowballs. Such was his skill that he could curve throw a snowball so
that it would appear to come from a completely different direction.
Many of us would just watch with fascination whenever we saw Korolev
standing around in the prison yard. We knew he had a snowball in his
hand, just waiting for a guard to turn his head away, just waiting for
Korolev was long suspected by the guards, but whenever they did a
snapsearch, they never found any snow on him. I asked him once about
it. "Where do you keep the snowball when you're searched?"
"In one place they never look," said Korolev, gesturing to his
underwear. I doubt he was serious, but with Korolev, one never knew.
Another favorite tactic of Korolev was the avalanche trap. When
no one was looking Korolev would scamper onto the roof of an
administrative building and pack up the snow over the door in such a
way that it would come tumbling down on anyone who opened it. One time
we got really lucky and the commandant, Major Colonel Tromov himself,
came out the door and was suddenly clobbered by several cubic feet of
He made us stand at attention for an entire day but no one
revealed the perpetrator. It was worth it just to see the expression of
rage on his face as he marched back and forth in front of us and
But Korolev's problems were that he always tried to test the
limits, trying to hit officers with his snowballs even when they
weren't looking directly away from him. But somehow he never got
His special targets were our VIP's. Every so often senior Slurian
officers would visit the camp, to inspect or do whatever it was that
Slurians do. Korolev would consider it his special mission to "get"
The guards, wise to past snowball "assassination" attempts,
started a new routine of forming a ring around a visitor as soon as he
emerged from his groundcar. That way they would surely see anyone
throwing a snowball at the visitor, in this case a full redcap colonel.
Korolev stood leaning against the barracks, clearly watching the
visitor arriving, his hands in his pockets, whistling softly.
"How are you going to get that one, Kory?" a prisoner asked.
The circle of guards opened up so that the visiting colonel could
make his way from the groundcar to the administrative building. The
Colonel walked up the snow covered path and-
Suddenly he slipped as the ground collapsed underneath him and
the Colonel sank into two feet of snow. The Colonel yelled in rage and
actually hit one of his assistants who tried to get him out of the
Korolev gave a small smile.
"How did you manage that one?" I asked.
Korolev said nothing, but continued to smile.
Not all our visitors were Redcaps. Once in a very long while we
were visited from officials from the Interstellar Human Rights
Coalition. The IHRC inspected and visited the Slurian camps, just as
they inspected League camps where Slurians were held prisoners. I was
altogether surprised to see the IHRC; after all, this was not, as I was
kept being reminded, a prisoner of war camp, but a labor reform camp,
largely for Slurian civilians.
The Slurians were probably doing it for public relations. During
the visit, brand new clothing was taken out of storage, blankets were
issued, and we were given full meals of carrots and potatoes--real
carrots and potatoes! After they left, of course, the clothes and
blankets were confiscated, and we weren't fed for a full day because,
after all, we had already "over eaten". Each prisoner had to sign for
each article of clothing and blanket and if that prisoner didn't return
what was given he was sent to a cold cell, which tended to encourage
And then there was the IHRC itself. Officially neutral, it was
perceived to be pro-Slurian, always eager to point out "human rights
abuses" on League worlds but largely silent about those in the Slurian
Still, this was a chance to get a message out about the
"How?" Kerensky asked. "Interviews are conducted with handpicked
prisoners in front of all the guards. If you try to say something you
will be taken away to a cold cell."
A cold cell. I shivered merely at the thought. I didn't want to
go back there.
"But we have to get the word out about conditions here."
"What will that do?" said Kerensky cynically.
"It will embarrass the Slurians, and put pressure on them to
improve conditions for us."
"Richman, you do not understand anything," said Kerensky
cynically. "All you will do is get yourself sent to a cold cell, or
"What about it?" I said, raising my voice to the others listening
in the barracks. "Is everyone happy here with the way things are going?
Are you all so beaten that you don't want to even try to protest?"
"We protested once," said a voice from one of the shelf beds.
"Many of us were shot."
"All I'm talking about is getting the word out," I said.
"How?" Someone asked.
"We'll pass one of the visiting officials a note," I said.
"Who will do that?" Sasha asked.
I looked around. The barracks were silent. Then someone stepped
out of the gloom. It was Korolev.
"Normally, I would just snowball them," said Korolev.
The officials from the IHRC nodded approvingly as they listened
to a prisoner speak about the conditions at Camp 94. They had already
seen the full meals we had, the good bedding and clothes, and the easy
working conditions (obviously, they weren't shown the mines), and the
full stocked prison hospital.
A prisoner stood in a circle with several IHRC officials,
surrounded by guards and other prisoners who knew well enough to keep
"Yes, we are treated quite well here," said the prisoner dully.
There would be no retribution; this was no snitch or camp stooly,
simply a prisoner who had been promised an extra bowl of kem for
cooperating. Most of us would have done it.
The IHRC officials were all smiles. "And the guards, what do you
think of them?"
The prisoner cast a worried glance at the armed guards around
him. "Uh, they're very nice, we play cards together."
"Very good," said an IHRC official, rapidly scribbling notes into
his datapad. This would be great material for the documentary he was
putting together for transmission on the League network.
"And the food?"
"Very nice, food is very nice," said the prisoner, also with a
notable lack of enthusiasm.
"Good, good," said the IHRC official, not paying attention to his
affect in the slightest.
Suddenly a snowball came whizzing over the heads of the ring of
prisoners around the interview circle and smacked a guard in the face.
And then a second one came, smacking another guard.
The guards yelled, brandishing their weapons, and moved to break
out of the circle, to find the perpetrator. They pushed prisoners out
of the way and they plowed their way out. In the confusion, I brushed
by one of the IHRC officials and put something in his hand.
When order was restored (the guards, of course, didn't find the
mystery attacker, but reinforced the "chat session" with another dozen
guards outside the circle of prisoners), everyone could see an IHRC
official reading a piece of wrinkled paper.
"What is this?" said the IHRC official.
I looked at the IHRC official in dismay. What was he doing?
"What?" said Sergeant Maxim "Iron Club" Korky, the torturer in
chief of the guards.
"I have just received a piece of paper with the most astounding
content," said the IHRC official. "It said that the prisoners are
regularly worked to death. It says that the prisoners are tortured and
killed, and malnourished-"
"Let me see that!" Iron Club growled.
The IHRC official actually handed over the paper!
Sergeant Iron Club scanned the paper, and rapidly turned red.
"Who gave you this propaganda?" Korky asked.
The IHRC official said, "Well, let me see, I think it was a
fellow of medium height-"
No, this couldn't be. The IHRC official was actually cooperating
with the Slurians! I couldn't believe this.
"-and kind of thin-"
"We need a more specific description!" Korky barked.
I slowly melted away into the crowd.
Retribution began immediately even as the IHRC officials were
heading out the prison gate. All the goodies that had been handed out
were taken back. We were held in formation for hours, as they demanded
answers, and a number of prisoners were beaten. But to their credit
none of the people in my barracks betrayed me.
They hadn't been able to identify the person who had passed on
the note, but the investigation didn't stop there. Although the camp
didn't have advanced forensic equipment, they had one big lead--the
note was written in my handwriting!
The very next day every prisoner was given a datapad and a stylus
and made to write the words "executed by guards" in their own
handwriting four times over. Those were three of the words that I had
written in the note, but I don't think the guards chose that phrase
purely at random. The IHRC were already gone and the guards could do as
The stylus was handed to me. Sergeant Iron Club himself stood
over me, wielding his famous weapon.
"Write, Richman," he said.
Trying not to tremble, I wrote the words once, then twice, then
three times, and then four times. The theory was that falsifying ones
handwriting was nearly impossible to do consistently if you had to
write the same thing over and over. Iron Club immediately grabbed the
datapad and compared the handwriting to the note.
I stood there, stoically looking forward.
Iron Club leaned forward and glared at me.
I took a deep breath-
And Iron Club moved on to the next victim.
Faking a different handwriting style is difficult. More difficult
is writing in the same style consistently. However, I had some skill as
a painter and a sketch artist, and standing in line for an hour I
actually had time to think about how I would write the letters. After I
had written the first set of "executed by guards" I simply looked to my
first example to replicate my second, third, and fourth example.
Probably only a skilled artist could have done it, so I guess I was
Over time I gradually got to know more of the people in my bunk,
and could recognize them on sight. But one person I had trouble meeting
That was his whole name, just Lettle. I first inquired about him
when I noticed the empty bunk/shelf in one corner of the barracks.
"Oh, that's Lettle's bed," one of the prisoners told me.
But I never saw anyone sleep there. I asked other prisoners, but
they assured me that Lettle slept there. How could this be, if I had
never seen this Lettle before?
Curious, I asked what this Lettle looked like.
"Short, brown hair," said Kerensky.
"Big, blonde," said Sasha.
"Thin guy with a scar down his face," said Korolev. "Very
noticeable, you can't miss it."
No one else had mentioned such a prominent scar. At first I
thought Korolev was joking, but when I realized that everyone else was
giving such disparate descriptions, I knew that something odd was going
on here. How could one person look so different to different people.
I found out that night as I lay down on my shelf and prepared to
go to sleep. A head popped down and said, "Hi! I hear you've been
asking for me!"
It was a thin man with brown hair. I had never seen him before.
He was smiling broadly. That in itself was odd. "Are you-"
"Call me Lettle," said the man. "You're Idaaho Tuch."
"That's right," I said.
"I hear you're from the League. That sounds exciting. Can you
tell me a little about it?"
"What would you like to know," I said guardedly.
"Oh, almost anything," said Lettle. "Population, geography,
culture, technology, history--where would you like to start?"
It was almost as if he were a researcher writing a book. Lettle
didn't ask me any questions that Slurian intelligence wouldn't already
know--for example, when I talked about August, he asked me how many
continents it had and what the population was. These were all publicly
The questions he asked me also seemed odd in another way too.
They were all very broad. Unlike the other prisoners, he seemed less
interested in individual stories about life on August. He seemed
interested in the bigger picture, and seemed disappointed that I didn't
have aggregate statistics available on industrial production and
I managed to break in at one point and ask him a question or two.
Who was he? What was he doing here?
"I'm a prisoner, just like you!" Lettle grinned.
"I don't think so," I said. "I'm a League prisoner of war."
"Well, then just like the others," Lettle grinned.
"You're not very forthcoming," I said.
I heard a noise behind him.
"Wups, got to go, talk later!" said Lettle. He stood up and
disappeared in the gloom of the barracks.
I started to sit up to see where he had went, but the poorly lit
barracks didn't let me see very far.
Korolev came up to me. "I heard you talking. Who were you talking
"Lettle," I said, looking around. I got up and went to Lettle's
bunk. It was empty.
"Yes, he's quite a chatterbox," said Korolev. "Talked my ear off
at dinner yesterday."
"Did he?" I asked. "That scar on his face--how ugly is it?"
"Oh, I was joking about the scar," said Korolev.
"You were?" I asked.
"Sure," he said.
"So he's just a thin guy with brown hair?" I asked.
"No, he's a hefty guy with blonde hair," said Korolev, looking
"Are you being serious now?" I asked, scanning his face intently.
"Because either there's more than one Lettle, or something very
strange is going on."
I considered the possibilities that night in bed. Maybe Lettle
was a master of disguise. But why would he keep changing his
appearance? It made no sense.
I interviewed some more of the prisoners over the next few days
and I found out several puzzling facts. Lettle did indeed have a number
of different appearances. People claimed to have seen him in the
barracks, in the camp yard, at work, at meals, and other locations like
on a march. But the one fact I found most interesting was that in no
case could I uncover had Lettle been seen by more than one person at
"You've been asking a lot about me," said Lettle, grinning again
as his head popped out of the gloom by my bedside.
"Yes," I said. "I'm curious about you." I tensed up. Was Lettle
going to try and kill me?
"You've shown more curiosity than the Slurian prisoners. Is
curiosity more of a League trait?"
I relaxed. He was clearly still in research mode.
"Perhaps," I said. "For example, I find it curious that you
"Why shouldn't I smile? It's a friendly thing to do, and I find
it puts people at ease," said Lettle.
"Yes, but someone constantly smiling in a labor camp looks odd.
This isn't a happy place."
"Hm, I didn't think of that," said Lettle. And then, all of a
sudden, he stopped smiling. "You're pretty sharp, Idaaho. Are most
people in the League as smart as you?"
"Mostly not," I confessed. "Another interesting thing about you
is that only one person has seen you at a time."
"What does that mean?"
"It puzzled me at first," I said. "After all, in a crowded camp
such as this, how could you only appear to one person at a time? And
then I realized there was a way you could do it."
"If you weren't really there," I said. "If you were a telepathic
projection in my mind."
"Gee, what an interesting idea," said Lettle, rapidly taking
notes. "Do Slurians commonly have the telepathic ability?"
"No," I said, "but perhaps some aliens do."
"Aliens? What do you know of aliens?"
"Not much," I said. "But I know of an alien who looks like a
large rat and has special powers. If he exists, there might be others."
"What is this large rat called? Where can I find him?"
"I'll answer your questions if you answer mine," I said.
Lettle cocked his head, as if he were listening for something.
"Ooops, talk later, gotta go!" And he was gone.
I didn't bother getting up to follow him in the gloom. I had a
fair idea what was going on now.
"An alien, here?" said Kerensky. "Why?"
"To find out more about us," I said.
"Why would it come to a labor camp?" Kerensky asked.
"Maybe it just happened to stop here first. Or maybe it's
sampling all aspects of Slurian society," I said.
"There's no such thing as aliens," Valonikov snorted.
"Wrong. We have one in the League. He's called a Capybara."
"A Capy- a what?"
"Think about it. Doesn't it seem odd to you that you all think
that Lettle looks different.
"We don't think that," said Mr. Chekov.
I had each of them give a description of Lettle. Each one of them
said something different. They all looked surprised.
"How come we never noticed this before?" said Korolev.
I kept quiet, trying not to insult my bunkmates.
"Maybe he's not an alien, maybe he's one of us with special
powers," said Kerensky. "After all, Mr. Chekov can do unusual things.
Perhaps another prisoner can too."
I shook my head. "You can tell by the questions this guy is
asking. He's totally clueless about human society. He smiles all the
"Now that you mention it, I did think that was odd," said
"So what do we do?" said Korolev.
"I don't think he means us any harm," I said. "But we should try
to pump him for information."
"Maybe he can help us escape," I said.
"If he's an alien, maybe he has a ship," I said. "The two often
"How could he land a ship here, undetected?"
"He's an alien," I sighed. "It's possible that his technology
might be even more advanced than the Slurian Union's."
The others chewed on this for a while.
Lettle appeared again several times over the next few days, but
not to me, not until several days had passed.
"Well, you've really ruined it for me," said Lettle, appearing
next to me as I leaned outside the barracks. Other prisoners walked by
without noticing him.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"The others aren't answering my questions anymore. Now they're
asking me questions!"
"Sorry to disrupt your work," I said.
Lettle sighed. "I'm going to have to leave and conduct my
"Have you ever considered going to August?"
Lettle nodded. "Now that you've told me about it I'm thinking of
making a visit."
"Take me with you."
"Take me with you, and I'll give you a personal tour," I said.
Lettle said, "That's quite impossible."
"I travel alone," Lettle grinned. "But you are quite an
interesting person. I've enjoyed meeting you."
"It doesn't have to end now," I said.
"Perhaps we'll meet again," said Lettle, as he started to fade.
"That wasn't what I meant!" I yelled after him.
"I know," Lettle grinned, and he disappeared.
A few minutes later, the ground shook around us. A small...
something darted into the sky. The prisoners gaped, the guards,
shouted, and in seconds, it was gone.
Chapter 8 Escape
Escape! It was every prisoner's dream.
Well, maybe not every prisoner. Some prisoners never believed
they could escape. Others gave up over time. But some still had the
I was one of them. After nearly two years in Labor Camp 94, the
time had come.
At first, I hadn't considered the possibility of escape. I had
enough trouble just staying alive in the camp. But as I have already
described my situation stabilized and my work and food improved, to a
And then there was the discouraging terrain. Even if one could
escape from the camp, there was nothing but ice and snow for miles
around. We weren't remotely near a small town, much less a spaceport.
And then there was the war. I knew, sooner or later, that one
side or the other would win, though I was naturally hoping the League
would win, and I would be released. But as one year passed and then two
I saw this wasn't happening. From the crude Slurian propaganda that
came our way I knew the war was still ongoing; by my count we had been
told that the main body of the League fleet had been destroyed 19
times. But if there had been an armistice, or if one side had won, I
would have known it. The war was still continuing, and for me 'waiting
it out' was no longer an option.
The restlessness built up in me. Finally, I broached the topic of
escape with Kerensky.
He gave a broad laugh.
"Richman, you have been here two years, have you ever heard of
"Do unsuccessful escapes count?" I asked. But I knew. I had seen
the prisoners brought back, not always alive.
"The guards usually try to bring them back alive, unless they
killed a guard to escape," said Kerensky. "But many are brought back
dead. Do you know why? Because they couldn't survive the elements. The
cold. The snow. The lack of food."
"But we can dress warmly. And save food to bring with us."
"Where?" said Kerensky. "Where would we go? We are 100
Slurmometers from even the nearest small town, assuming you can find
your way there. And even if you got there, the locals would turn you
"For the reward, Richman," said Kerensky, taunting me by using
that name again.
"Hm. But there must be some way to escape," I persisted.
Kerensky turned away.
The next day Raffen, the thief, approached me. "I hear you are
"Where did you hear that?" I asked.
"You looking for comrades to escape with, yes?"
I looked at Raffen. He had helped me once to get rid of Corporal
Ivan (of course, I had paid him for his efforts). Could he have turned
and become a spy for the camp? Maybe, or maybe not.
"What do you know?" I asked.
"I know someone who is escaping, can give you name, yes."
"So?" I asked.
"10 gembles," said Raffen.
Well, that was certainly in character. I sighed and handed over
the gembles. "Now, who?"
"I am, Richman," said Raffen.
"I think I want my money back," I said.
"No, relax, not just me, some friends, too."
"Fellow thieves?" I asked.
Raffen looked hurt. "Biznezmen. Come, I take you."
Warily, I followed him to another barracks. He led me to a man
with a pasty looking beard who was sitting next to a man with thin
"Bolshoy, this is Richman. Richman, Bolshoy," said Raffen.
"I hear you are thinking of escape, Richman," said Bolshoy.
"Can you say it a little louder? I think some of the guards at
the front gate haven't heard you," I said.
"They do not care," said Bolshoy. "If you were not a Richman you
would know this. Why do you think the night watch is so lax? And yet so
few of us try to escape. Why, Richman, why?"
"You are stupid Richman. Look around you! There is nowhere to
"Then how are you going to escape?" I asked.
"I will tell you... for 50 gembles."
"Oh now," I said, thinking I was figuring out the scam now. "If I
go with you, I pay you with my skills."
Bolshoy laughed. "Richman, what skills do you have?"
I turned and headed towards the door of the barracks, convinced
this was a scam.
"Wait!" said Bolshoy.
"We?" I asked.
Bolshoy indicated himself, Raffen, and the man with the narrow
eyes. "This is Kostiprev."
"What is your plan?" I asked.
"We sneak out at night. Over the wire," said Bolshoy, lowering
his voice. "Three day walk from here is transport station, where new
prisoners come. We sneak in returning transport, get to Oshtakov.
Then, we get to Smolensk, sneak about transport, get off planet."
Smolensk. There was a spaceport at Smolensk. Already, I had
learned valuable information, though I had no idea where Smolensk was.
"All right," I said. "When do we go?"
"In two nights. Must bring enough provisions for one week."
I nodded. I could get that much on the black market, though it
would seriously drain my gemble reserve.
On the appointed night I waited a few hours and then got up. I
walked past Kerensky's shelf. His eyes were open and he watched me go,
but he said nothing.
It was very dark outside, only punctuated by the dim camp lights
and the searchlights at the perimeter. I stealthily made my way to
He wasn't there. Suddenly, I realized I had been set up.
"Hiss!" I heard.
From around the corner of the barracks building, a hand waved to
me. I cautiously went around the corner and saw Bolshoy, Raffen, and
Kostiprev. So far, they hadn't betrayed me.
"We go now," said Bolshoy.
We made our way to the perimeter. There were searchlights but
they were relatively few and easy to evade. We made it to the fence, in
a section between the watchtowers. It was a simple seven foot tall mesh
wall, and helped each other climb over it.
As we crossed over I realized it was too easy. This camp had
never been built to prevent determined escape; the camp must instead
rely on its isolation to keep the prisoners in.
Easy or no, I knew they would send search parties after us in the
morning once our escape was discovered. We had about four hours to get
as far from here as possible.
We trudged into a nearby forest, and made some circular track
patterns to try and confuse any pursuit.
When the sun rose Bolshoy told us to keep walking. We had to get
some distance between us and the camp. We walked all day into the
evening. If I thought it was merely cold during the day when we were
marching, it became frigid at night when we stopped to sleep.
"We should set a watch," I said, to which they all agreed. I took
the first watch; after two hours, I woke Kostiprev.
The next thing I knew there was sunlight in my eyes and I heard
the sounds of dogs barking in the distance. I looked around; the others
were fast asleep.
"Idiot!" I said, giving Kostiprev a good kick.
He groaned, and that woke up the others as well.
"What?" said Bolshoy groggily.
"Dogs!" I said.
We started moving immediately. We could hear the dogs some
We did a lot of running that day. To my surprise, we eluded them.
Perhaps the dogs had trouble sniffing us out in the snow.
That night I made it perfectly clear that if anyone fell asleep
on watch that I would take personal offense. This time I let Bolshoy
take the first watch, and I went to sleep.
I was very tired, so I don't know what precisely woke me up. It
couldn't have been the quiet munching sounds; it might have been the
sounds of someone rustling in the snow besides me. All I know is when I
opened my eyes I could see Bolshoy sitting by me, munching food. My
I checked my pockets and did a quick inventory. Sure enough, some
of my semi-frozen kem was missing. Bolshoy, seeing signs of my
awareness, backed a few steps away.
"What are you doing?" I hissed, jumping up.
"Just eating some supplies," said Bolshoy.
"My supplies!" I said.
"No, it was my food," Bolshoy insisted. He quickly swallowed and
I glared at him for a moment. Then I lay back down on the snow,
some distance from the others. "I have a suggestion for you," I said.
"What is it?"
"When it's my turn to take a watch, you'd be better off calling
my name from a distance," I said. "Because if I detect anyone coming
near me, I'm going to kill him."
Bolshoy said nothing.
We trudged through the snow for two more days. At the end of the
third day, I said, "Where is it?"
"We must be close to the station," said Bolshoy. "Perhaps another
hour or two of walking. We see after we get some rest."
We didn't find the station later that day.
Or the next day.
Or the day after.
It was on the end of the fifth day, we were exhausted, and we had
run out of food--the others had eaten more of theirs, and mine, then
they should have, for our supplies should have lasted a week.
"Do you know where we are going?"
"Yes," said Bolshoy, as we trudged along in the snowy forest.
"Then why haven't we arrived at the station yet?"
"Perhaps we are a little off course."
"Look!" said Raffen.
In the dusk we could see a dim light ahead. It was a single
cabin, in the clearing.
A cabin, out here in the middle of nowhere?
We crept closer and investigated. It was a small cabin; peeking
in the windows, we saw an elderly woman tending a fire. She was cooking
something that smelled wonderful.
We looked at each other and nodded.
We entered the cabin and the old woman gasped and dropped a
"Don't be alarmed," I said, in heavily accented Slurian. "We
don't want to hurt you. We just want some-"
"Hey, what have we got here?" said Kostiprev. Standing in the
corner, looking very scared and very young was a thin blonde woman.
The old lady stepped between Kostiprev and the girl. "Don't hurt
"No one is hurting anyone," I said. "We only want some food."
"And a place to sleep for the night," said Kostiprev, looking at
"Yes," said Bolshoy.
I didn't argue the point.
The woman obviously wasn't happy to have us there, but she acted
civilly. We ate bread and vegetables that tasted wonderful, though
after a steady diet of kem anything would taste good.
After dinner we settled down for the night. Kostiprev and Raffen
wanted to sleep in the old lady's bed but I vetoed that.
We all slept on the floor except for one of us who would be on
"I will take first watch," said Kostiprev, licking his lips as he
looked at the young girl. She withered under his gaze.
I went over to Kostiprev. "What are you doing?"
"Me?" said Kostiprev. "Nothing."
"We're only here for the food, and the night's rest. Understood?"
"Who put you in charge, Richman?" said Kostiprev.
I stared hard at him. "I did."
Kostiprev looked at Bolshoy and Raffen. Both were carefully
"All right," said Kostiprev.
I nodded, and lay down on the rough wooden floor next to Bolshoy
and Raffen. The floor was hard, but at least we were protected by the
elements. "Wake me in two hours," I said.
I lay down and closed my eyes, but purposely willed myself not to
All was silent for several minutes. I wondered what we were going
to do tomorrow. We were obviously lost. Perhaps we could persuade the
old lady to give us directions.
All of a sudden I heard a muffled gasp, and then another. I sat
up silently. I saw Kosttiprev, with his hand over the young girl's
mouth as he leaned over in bed.
"Let her go," I said, getting up.
"Go back to bed, Richman," said Kostiprev, not even turning to
"Let her go," I said again.
"Or what?" said Kostiprev
"Or I'll slit your throat," I said, pressing one of the old
lady's blades against his neck.
Kostiprev slowly released her and stood up. He glared at me for a
moment. Then he gave an insincere smile. "I was just making small
"Ha ha," I said.
Kostiprev carefully lay down on the ground next to his fellow
thieves. They exchanged glances I found hard to decipher. What had I
gotten myself into?
"It's ok," I said to the now sobbing girl. "We will not hurt
I stood watch for the entire night.
The next day we prepared to go. Kostiprev and the others acted
like nothing had happened. We took some of the old lady's food, but I
made sure that we only took a few days worth. The others didn't like
I thought we were all set to go when the old lady yelled
something, and I saw something shiny in Raffen's hands. He was taking
the old lady's jewelry.
"No!" I said.
Raffen looked sullenly at me.
"Put it back."
Raffen looked at Bolshoy, who slowly nodded.
What a great team we had there.
I started very much to fear for my safety. It didn't take an
interstellar drive scientist to analyze the looks the three were
casting among themselves. The cold, fatigue, and hunger didn't need to
drive my paranoia; would they kill me in my sleep the following night?
At that point I decided that if we didn't reach the transport
station that night that I would slip away and head off on my own. It
had to be safer than sticking with these uncertain allies.
But things came to a head in an entirely different way late in
the afternoon. We saw something in the distance. Something large, in a
big clearing in the forest.
As we got closer my jaw dropped.
It was a labor camp.
Not just any labor camp, but labor camp 94. I recognized several
of minor peculiar differences of the watch towers.
We had been walking around in circles for day.
The others looked just as shocked as I was. We immediately hid
behind a clump of trees.
"What do we do now?" I said.
"This is perfect," said Bolshoy.
"Perfect?" I said. "How can this be perfect?"
"Now I know where camp is, I can get accurate fix on transit
station," said Bolshoy. "We have supplies for a few days, I can guide
"You're the one who got us lost in the first place!"
"Trust me," said Bolshoy.
"Somehow, I don't think I do," I said. I took a few steps
backwards from the others. "I'm going off on my own."
"You fool! You get caught, and lead them to us, Richman!" said
"If you want to leave, leave your food," said Kantiprev.
"What?" I said.
"Your food," he said, and in his hand I saw the glitter of a
knife. Probably one of the old lady's. He started to walk towards me,
with a gleam in his eye.
"All right," I said, sounding frightened. "Here it is," I said,
dropping food on the snow with one hand.
But Kantiprev kept coming. "I must search you." His knife was
firmly in his hand.
The time for talking was over. He had about as much intention of
searching me as I had of leaving my food with them. As he raised his
knife to swing I jabbed out with my knife, which I had kept hidden, and
stabbed him in the shoulder.
He shrieked, and fell to his knees.
Bolshoy and Raffen both ran forward, brandishing knives of their
They chased after me.
It was like a nightmare, being chased so close to the outskirts
of the camp.
They closed in on me, and encircled me. Bolshoy's knife flashed,
and I ducked under it, and ran further.
They kept pursuing. They must have thought I still had food.
Or maybe they didn't like what I had done to Kantiprev.
My lungs were bursting with fatigue. I saw them running behind
me. I couldn't get away. I certainly didn't have the energy to fight
both of them. There was only one thing left to do, though I hated it
I started running in a different direction.
They kept following-
Until we came to a clearing.
The front gate.
A surprised guard looked at me as I popped into the clearing.
"Halt!" he cried, as Bolshoy and Raffen turned tail.
I collapsed into the snow, my hands up, as I heard the crackle of
blaster fire behind me.
More guards came running up, and a circle of blaster rifles
surrounded my face.
Not the best way to end a day.
Chapter 9 The War Captain Takes Charge
The surprising thing was, they didn't return me to the camp. Not
for long, anyway. I was briefly kept in confinement until a time when I
was put, under armed escort, in a transport. Then I was driven under
guard for several days and was taken to another facility. It wasn't
long after that that I found myself in a familiar office, flanked by
familiar guards, facing a familiar face.
"So, we meet again," said the beautiful blonde Redcap Major who
had brutally tortured me. "What brings you back here, spy?"
I didn't say anything.
She hit me with an electrowip, and I screamed.
"I asked you a question!"
"I tried to escape."
"Not very well, from what I gather," said the Redcap Major. She
knelt down to face me. "What was your mission?"
"My mission?" I asked stupidly.
She hit me in the face with the electowhip, and I screamed
loudly. It was several minutes before I was able to get beyond the pain
to even her what she was saying.
"What was your objective?"
"I was just trying to escape," I moaned. "I have no objective.
I'm not a spy."
She hit me again with the electrowhip. I think I passed out this
time because the next thing I remember is that I was in a cell.
The torture went on for a few days, I think. My memory was hazy,
but I remember it was very painful. She asked me about Kantiprev,
Bolshoy, and Raffen, and I freely admitted they were spies, but that
didn't satisfy her either. Finally, too exhausted to stand, I was
propped up in front of her desk.
"I trust we have taught you the downsides of attempting to
escape," said the Major.
I said nothing.
"I asked you a question!" the Redcap Major said sharply, raising
"Yes," I said thickly.
"Yes Major," I said.
She nodded, looking satisfied. "Take him."
The next solid memory I have is back at Labor Camp 94. Several
days must have passed as I was transported back, but I don't remember
those either. The first thing I do remember is standing before Major
Colonel Tromov's desk in a daze.
"Do you realize what you have done?" he said. "Do you?"
"Escaped?" I said.
He slapped me in the face.
"Take him to a cold cell," he said.
"Duration?" a guard asked.
Tromov looked me in the face as he said it. "Standard."
That was two weeks.
Most prisoners froze to death or died of pneumonia in two weeks.
It was practically a death sentence, and he knew it.
They took me to the punishment cells and stripped off all my
clothes except my underwear. Then they dumped me in the cold cell. My
tortured mind dimly felt the chill. My teeth started chattering
I think I started to freeze almost immediately. In my weakened
condition, my resistance to the cold was even less than it had been the
last time, when I had only been sent to the cold cell for a few days. I
was so weak that I didn't even have the energy to eat.
And then, the cell door opened, and something was tossed into my
cell. My flight jacket and my trousers. Dimly, I put them on.
They weren't enough to keep out the cold, but they did keep me
alive. I had to be careful of my feet, for they were still bare, but as
long as I sat crosslegged I could get some circulation. Gradually, my
mind started to return to me and I found the strength to eat the meager
rations they left me.
I survived the two weeks, but when I got out, I could barely
stand or even put on my boots. I was taken immediately to the camp
hospital, where I spent the next week. In the relative warmth of the
hospital and on full rations, I slowly started to recover.
As I recovered I wondered what was happening. How did I get
clothes in the cold cell? How had I gotten a week in the hospital?
By the time I was released I had recovered somewhat and had
figured out part of it. I went immediately to Kerensky. He didn't even
look at me, paying attention to a datapad. He was always reading one of
his many books.
"You're back," he said.
"I'm back," I agreed. "May I ask two questions?"
Kerensky didn't answer.
"It took bribing," said Kerensky. "A lot of bribing."
"And my second question: Why?"
Kerensky put down the datapad. "Because although you made a
mistake, you still have potential."
"Potential? Potential for what?"
Kerensky lowered his voice. "Potential for escape."
"What do you mean?"
"We are going to get out of here," said Kerensky.
"We? Who are we? I thought you said escape was impossible," I
"Not with the right people. We almost made it, last time."
"Who is we?" I asked.
"Sasha, myself, one or two others... and the other Richman."
"The other Richman," I said. My mind raced.
"He is taken from camp to camp, only here for short periods of
time. He has been here for over a week. I have persuaded him to delay
our escape attempt until you were well. When I told him about you, he
"What other Richman?" I said. "Someone else, someone from the
"Yes," said Kerensky.
"A soldier, like me?"
"Yes," said Kerensky. "He is brilliant, but he is one of their
trophy prisoners, under constant guard and interrogation."
"Why didn't you tell me about this other Richman, ah, League
"He is not often here," said Kerensky.
"Wait," I said, getting a bad feeling. "You say he's one of their
trophy prisoners. And he's brilliant. What is his name?"
"His name?" said Kerensky.
"Yes, his name," I said.
"North," said Kerensky.
"North? Norman North?" I said.
"North," said Kerensky, looking slightly puzzled.
They had captured the Battle Admiral. They had him here, and I
never even knew it! Maybe they had been telling the truth about
destroying the fleet. Maybe-
I had to see him.
"Where is he?" I said.
"Barracks Four," said Kerensky. Then, frowning, "Or was it
I fast marched to the barracks in question.
I raced to Barracks Four. I'd search all of them if I had to. I
was going so fast that I didn't stop and think why the Battle Admiral
would be put in a labor camp. All I knew was that I had to see him.
I ran into Barracks Four. It was dark and crowded. I started
moving down the rows of wooden planks that served as beds.
"North," I kept saying. "Admiral North."
I went from one row to the next. The prisoners looked at me like
I was a madman. I kept repeating the name, over and over, as I walked
rapidly, scanning the faces in the dim light.
I was moving so rapidly that I almost missed it. A back of the
head, with that familiar dark black hair. And on the edge of the
shoulders in the dim light I could barely make out military epaulettes!
"Battle Admiral," I said.
The figure, which was lying faced away from me, didn't move.
"Battle Admiral North," I repeated.
The figure stirred, as if coming out of a light sleep. In the
darkness I saw eyes starring at me.
"It's me, sir, Lieutenant Took."
The man sat up in the bed, and his face came into the light.
The man wasn't Battle Admiral Norman North.
I was so pumped up that I didn't feel the immediate shock of my
disappointment. Now that I could see him better, I could see that this
was a military man, a League military man. But his uniform wasn't navy
blue; it was army light green.
I looked at his faded rank insignia. A captain. No, a War
Captain. War ranking wasn't given out easily, even at the Captain
level. Just who was this man?
The man's eyes studied my face rapidly, taking in my expression,
and then he looked down at my tattered navy uniform. Instead of saying
something obvious like "You're military" he said, "What unit were you
I hesitated, a dozen thoughts coming to my mind.
He seemed to anticipate, quickly looking left and right. "Come
on," he said.
He took me outside behind the barracks. It was cold there, but at
least we would have some privacy.
"You're wondering if I'm a spy," said the War Captain. "Put here
to get information from you. That means you must be of special interest
How had he arrived at that conclusion? But he was right.
The War Captain nodded, even though I hadn't said anything.
"Navy officer," said the War Captain, glancing at my flight
jacket. He studied my bearing. "No, not quite. Navy fighter pilot."
"You were probably shot down," said the War Captain. "But why are
you here in a labor camp?" He paused. "You were captured in civilian
"You mentioned Admiral North. You probably thought I was him,"
said the War Captain. He stared me in the eye. "You don't just know of
him, you personally served under him. Am I right?"
I was speechless. How did this officer know so much about me?
The answer was quickly forthcoming.
"Allow me to introduce myself," said the man, coming to a
decision. He stuck out his hand. "War Captain Emmett North."
"Emmett North?" I said, extending my own hand automatically.
"Admiral Norman North is my uncle."
When I managed to close my mouth I suddenly realized the truth of
it. This man had the same skill that Admiral North did, to size up a
situation instantly. He even had a slight resemblance to the Battle
Admiral, the same straight black hair, the same high cheekbones....
We exchanged stories. The War Captain had been captured
relatively early in the war. He was part of an expeditionary brigade on
Caronol when the brigade's support fleet was ambushed and had to pull
out under heavy fire. Caronol was subsequently invaded and the brigade
was assaulted by overwhelming numbers. Most of the survivors
surrendered within the first week; but the War Captain's company lasted
nearly a month, and was only captured when the Slurians saturated the
area with troops.
When the Slurians discovered who they had, they offered to trade
him for several Slurian Admirals. But the League wouldn't agree. They
threatened to treat the War Captain as a spy, with the implication that
he would be shot, if the League didn't agree to the trade. But the
League still didn't give in.
They didn't carry through on their threat and execute the War
Captain, but they did put him in the labor camp, and they let the
League know it.
"So how long have you been here?" I asked in a low voice.
"Nearly three years," said the War Captain.
"How have you survived so long?" I asked.
"It hasn't been that bad," said the War Captain. "Half the time
they take me away for interrogation. The food and living conditions in
the interrogation cells are usually better than what we get here."
How could he be so nonchalant? My interrogations were terrible.
He must be made of some really tough stuff. Of course, if he was
related to the Battle Admiral, he must be.
But that explained why I hadn't seen him before. He had been away
"All the information I have by now is long out of date, of
course," said the War Captain. He winced involuntarily, as if from some
hidden pain. "But the Slurians do try to be thorough."
I opened my mouth, then closed it, then opened it again.
The War Captain looked at me.
"I... may be responsible for your uncle's death," I said grimly.
The War Captain's expression didn't change in the slightest.
I told him the entire story, my mission, how I had been caught,
the basic details of my interrogation. Yes, I was revealing classified
information. Even if this were some sort of trick, even if we were
somehow being monitored, the information the Slurians would be
receiving would be concerning battle plans that were two years old.
There was no way such plans could be useful to them now.
The War Captain sat silently as I told him how the Slurians had
informed me that the Battle Admiral was dead and the Glory was burning
He sat that was for a minute, making me nervous. Then he turned
to me and said, "And you believed them?"
"I.... I don't know what to believe."
"Well, if you want to believe something, you can believe you're
not responsible for the death of your Admiral, or, of even greater
consequence, the destruction of the seventh fleet," said the War
"You were interrogated with truth serum. You aren't trained to
resist that. You had no choice but to tell what you knew, and from what
you said, you resisted as long as possible," said the War Captain. "So
even if you told them anything, it wasn't your fault."
"It was beyond my power to prevent," I agreed. "But if what they
said is true, then I am the cause of the destruction of the fleet." I
depersonalized it as the War Captain had done, referring to the fleet
rather than the Battle Admiral.
"If what they said were true," said the War Captain calmly.
I stared at him. "You don't think it's true."
"If it were, they would have told me so during one of my many
interrogations," said the War Captain. "I am repeatedly taken in for
interrogation, and if they had managed to kill Battle Admiral Norman
North, I think they might have mentioned it to me." He was smiling now.
"And then there's something else."
"What?" I said.
"During one of my interrogations, one of my interrogators made a
slip of the tongue, a rather important one," said the War Captain.
"What?" I said again.
"My interrogator referred to Norman North as the 'War Admiral'."
The War Captain paused to let that implication sink in.
"This only happened once, but if it's true, that would mean that
Admiral North did not die during the attack," said the War Captain.
"Furthermore, if he were promoted, it indirectly implies that his
attack was successful."
"So.... I'm not responsible...."
"Mind you, this is all theoretical, but based on what I heard-"
"Wait a minute," I said. "I got a censored letter from my mother.
She made reference to something with the word War in it. The 'W' was
capitalized. Maybe she was referring to-"
"War Admiral Norman North," said the War Captain. "It must have
been quite a victory."
"If it was quite a victory, what are we still doing here, as
prisoners, two years later?" I asked.
"The Slurian Union has a large fleet and one battle could hardly
be decisive unless all their ships were massed together against all our
ships, which as you know is hardly the norm for space battles," said
the War Captain. "Also, Altera is in the far hinterlands of Slurian
space. It is very possible that the War Admiral has been gaining ground
over the past two years, but his fleet hasn't reached here yet." And
then he gave a brilliant smile. "Now it all makes sense."
The War Captain gave me a piercing look. "The Slurians evacuated
you rather quickly off of Volvograd, where you were captured, didn't
"Well, yes," I said.
"Did you ever wonder why?"
"I just guessed they wanted to interrogate me further somewhere
else," I said.
"Really?" said the War Captain. "Really? There was no one on the
entire planet capable of interrogating you? I hardly believe that."
"Then why do you think I was taken off-planet?"
The War Captain spoke in a whisper. "Because I believe the League
was about to take over Volvograd. It's probably been in League hands
for the past two years."
"But... Volvograd was supposed to be a feint. We were only
supposed to make the Slurians believe that we were going to attack
The War Captain gave me a calculating look. "You told me the War
Admiral sent you to make this feint in a squadron of Harmony fighters.
"Harmony's have the extra range we needed to get there," I said.
"But the standard fleet fighter is a Wildcat. The Slurians know
that the Harmony is a longer ranged fighter."
"But we jettisoned our external fuel tanks before we got in-
The War Captain shook his head. "It was a double feint. The War
Admiral was using you to convince the Slurians that he wanted them to
think he was attacking there, while he would be attacking somewhere
else. In reality, I think, the War Admiral was planning all along to
attack the exact same place where you did, only two or three days
later, enough time for the Slurians to shift the bulk of their fleet
away from the Volvograd system."
I quickly thought of the implications of this. "So... the War
Admiral lied to us-"
"Did he tell you exactly where he would be making his attack?"
"No, but he clearly said that the Volvograd maneuver was a
feint," I said. "Do you think he planned for us to get captured and
"No," said the War Captain. "I don't think capture, torture, and
interrogation was a part of his plan. But on the other hand, he was
certainly aware that capture was a possibility. Perhaps the deception
of attacking with Harmony fighters would be enough to convince the
Slurians that the Glory was elsewhere. But if you were captured, yes, I
can see the War Admiral giving you disinformation to pass on to the
I paused for a moment. Then I jumped in the air and shouted,
"He's alive! He made it!"
"Quiet!" the War Captain whispered harshly, looking around.
"Don't attract attention to yourself."
"You don't understand what I've been carrying around for over two
"I understand, but we all have to do our duty," said the War
I suddenly thought about the constant interrogations he had been
subjected to. They must have been awful. But he endured it, staying
calm and levelheaded. I'll bet the Slurians never got any information
out of him.
The War Captain watched me calm down and nodded slightly,
"So... what do we do now?" I asked.
"We escape, of course," said the War Captain.
"But if the fleet is on its way here-"
"I've said no such thing," said the War Captain.
"I've presented a theory, nothing more," said the War Captain. "I
believe this theory to be true, but even if it is, it could take months
or more years for the war to end. Even if I'm right and we were
victorious at Volvograd, the fleet might have been stalemated after
that. Either way I'm not going to sit around and simply wait to be
rescued. An officer's duty is to escape and return to friendly lines."
"Then why haven't you escaped earlier?" I said. I knew he had
been here for several days already.
"I've been waiting for some time to be transferred back to this
"What so special about this camp?" I asked.
"There are individuals here whose skills can help us successfully
The War Captain looked me over. "You'll be introduced to them
shortly. We've been waiting for you to get out of the hospital before
"Why?" I asked. "You didn't even know me."
"I knew you were a League military officer. That was enough for
me," said the War Captain. "I won't leave a member of our military
Just like on Caronol, I thought.
The War Captain continued. "And your own special skills can be
put to use as well."
"My own special skills? I didn't do too well on my last escape
attempt," I said.
"You made a poor choice of colleagues to escape with," said the
War Captain. "Kerensky has been filling me in on your, shall we say,
colorful history here. I can use a man like you on our team."
"Yes sir," I said, feeling a glow inside.
We resolved to meet two days later to plan our escape.
Seeing the War Captain really gave me a shot in the arm. It was
like having the Battle Admiral himself here. The War Captain seemed to
have the same ability the Battle Admiral did, the ability to quickly
size up a situation and arrive at the best course of action. Seeing him
here boosted my morale tenfold.
But first I had the aftermath of my own situation to deal with.
For one thing, I was demoted to mining work. I couldn't survive
more than a week or two of that. For another, there were the survivors.
I learned that Bolshoy and Raffen had attempted to flee and had
been shot dead for their efforts. Kosttiprev, however, was another
story. He was taken alive and had recovered from his knife wound. The
word around the camp was that he wanted to inflict one on me.
"We'll have to reason with him," said the War Captain calmly.
Shortly thereafter Kostiprev was pinned down in the snow by two
of Kerensky's men. Sasha held a giant rock over his head, and one could
see the strain in Sasha's face as he tried to keep the heavy object
from crushing Kostiprev.
"Please pay careful attention," said the War Captain. "We don't
have much time, as even Sasha cannot hold that small boulder for very
long. Are you listening?"
"It's come to my attention that you have certain negative
feelings towards this man," said the War Captain, indicating me. "I'm
asking you to change your attitudes, to forgive and forget. Do you
think you can do that?"
Kostiprev struggled a bit against the people holding his arms
down. The boulder above him started to shake as Sasha's arms weakened.
"I don't think you have much time to consider your options," said
the War Captain mildly.
Kostiprev glanced fearfully at the rock above him. Then,
grimacing, he said, "All right."
"Can you be more explicit?" The War Captain asked.
The boulder started to shake more. "Cannot hold much longer,"
"I will not hurt Richman," said Kostiprev quickly, his eyes glued
to the boulder.
The boulder came down with a wump behind Kostiprev's head as
Sasha let it go. The War Captain gestured for Kostiprev to be freed. As
Kostiprev stood up and glared at them, the War Captain said, "I trust
that your intentions were made in good faith. If not, the rock will
still be here, waiting for you."
As they walked away I said, "Thank you."
"It was nothing," said the War Captain. "In your branch of the
military, it would simply be considered giving support to your
"Ah, thanks for the covering fire," I said.
Chapter 10 A Determined Escape
We stood whispering behind a barracks shortly after sundown. The
dim camp lights provided a little illumination. The War Captain was
there, of course, as was Kerensky, Sasha, Korolev, Mr. Chekov, and
another prisoner I didn't really know except by name, Baransky.
"I have called you all here to discuss our escape," said the War
Captain. Simple, direct and to the point.
"I have no interest in escape," said Baransky. I was surprised;
then what was he doing here?
The War Captain said, "I understand your feelings-"
"No, you don't," said Baransky. "I almost froze to death in the
cold cell they put me in. But I'll bet your cell in Redcap headquarters
was a lot warmer."
"It was," said the War Captain, and now his voice was getting
chillier. "I also had the torture, the interrogations, and the beatings
to keep me warm."
Baransky seemed put off. In a gentler tone, he said, "So why you
want to do it again?"
"I'd rather fight for freedom than be stuck here, waiting for my
"But we are not called in for interrogation as you are," said
"No," the War Captain admitted. "All you have to deal with is the
bitter cold, the backbraking working conditions, and the starvation
level diet. And, of course, no freedom, or hope of freedom whatsoever."
We all heard the sounds of the wind curling around the barracks.
"Well?" said the War Captain.
"I just don't want to get caught again," said Baransky.
"It's a risk we all take," said the War Captain. "But each of you
have valuable skills which should help us escape. Your skill, Baransky,
is as an outdoorsman; you can identify plants that are safe to eat and
help us trap and kill animals for food. Sasha is stronger and can walk
father than all of us. Korolev is skilled at impersonations. Kerensky,
I think we all agree, has a wide knowledge of Slurian society at large.
And we all know what Mr. Chekov can do."
"And what of this one?" Baransky asked, pointing at me. "He went
out, got caught immediately."
"Lieutenant Took is very resourceful," said the War Captain.
"How?" Baransky persisted.
"Just look at him," said the War Captain. "Reasonably well fed,
by Camp 94 standards. He has extra layers of fur that most prisoners
don't. He's survived here for two years without outside assistance. I'd
call that resourceful."
Baransky paused, then nodded grudgingly. "All right, what is the
"First we must gather some equipment. You should all horde enough
food for at least a week's travel. More specifically, Korolev, I would
like you to obtain circular pieces of glass, no more than three or four
inches in diameter. Kerensky, I need a thin sliver of a magnetic
material. Lieutenant Took, I need you to get a small cage, one with a
swinging trap door that can trap an animal weighing approximately five
"Where am I going to get that from?" I asked.
"If you have to, make one," said the War Captain.
"Are you counting on bringing a pet with us?" I asked.
"Just do as I request," said the War Captain.
"What is our escape plan?" Kerensky asked.
"We will leave between eight and eleven days from now," said the
"Why so long?" Korolev asked.
"In eight days the holiday of Worker's Celebration Day is
observed. The guards, even those on duty, will be quite drunk."
"So we should leave on the eighth day, then," said Korolev.
"Although the holiday is officially one day long, in most
quarters it is observed by several days of drinking, where supplies
last," said the War Captain. "We are also looking for a day when snow
"Why?" Kerensky asked.
"To cover our tracks," said the War Captain patiently.
"And what direction are we going?" Baransky asked.
"I will reveal that shortly after our departure," said the War
"Why not now?" Baransky frowned. "Do you not trust us?"
"Trust is always an issue," said the War Captain. "But not the
prime one here. Consider the costs and benefits. If I tell you this
information now, there is no way you can use it productively. So there
is no benefit to telling you now. But if you are taken in and
interrogated, the Reds could get this information from you. So there is
a potential cost to telling you now."
"So you are just protecting us," said Baransky, with a slightly
"Let us meet again in 48 hours to discuss our progress," said the
I tried to scavenge some materials to build the cage the War
Captain wanted, but, truthfully, I was exhausted. Work in the mine was
wearing me down, and I didn't have any extra gembles to buy more food.
Once again I was slowly being starved and worked to death.
The War Captain looked me over with a critical eye at our next
meeting. He really was like the War Admiral, in that he could take in a
situation at a glance and arrive at the proper conclusion.
"You're exhausted," he said, breaking into my tortured
explanation as to why I hadn't procured the cage. "You're the only one
of us working in the mines, correct?"
"You're never going to make it for another week, certainly not in
any shape to escape," said the War Captain, with a certain finality.
What did that mean? Was he going to leave me behind?
The War Captain turned to Kerensky. "How much do you have in the
"Not much, considering the supplies you want us to get," said
"Do we have enough for another week in the hospital?"
Kerensky shook his head.
"Then buy him four days worth, starting three days before our
first projected departure date," said the War Captain. Then, as an
afterthought, he added, "But don't buy four days all at once. Buy them
one day at a time."
"Will be more expensive!" said Kerensky.
"I don't want anyone, even a fellow prisoner, to know the exact
date that Lieutenant Took will be leaving the hospital. They are
watching us and undoubtedly know he has joined our group."
"They are watching us?" I said.
The War Captain gave me an "of course" look, then said, "You'll
have to spend two more days in the mines, but it should be easy after
that, you'll have time to rest up. Can you last two more days there?"
"I think so," I said.
"Don't worry about the cage, I'll get that myself," said the War
Captain. He turned to Korolev. "Now, have you procured my glass
"It wasn't easy," Korolev grumbled, rummaging in his pockets.
"I'm sure it wasn't," the War Captain agreed, watching as Korolev
carefully unwrapped several small circles of glass.
"Only four?" said the War Captain, looking concerned.
"Best I could do. Will be enough?" Korolev asked.
"That depends on Mr. Chekov," said the War Captain. He took one
of the glass circles, and handed it to Chekov.
Chekov nodded, and started concentrating.
"What is he doing?" I asked.
"He's making it better," said the War Captain cryptically.
What did that mean? I knew Chekov could make food taste better,
somehow. What did that have to do with glass? What could he do with
Chekov concentrated for a while. Then he gasped, and opened his
The War Captain gingerly took the glass from his hand, and stared
at it in the dim light. He shook his head, dropped the glass, and
crushed it under his boot.
He handed the second one to Chekov.
Chekov concentrated again.
When the War Captain took the glass from him, he frowned again.
"It's just foggy again," he said quietly. "Try to concentrate like we
"I try, Keptin," said Chekov. "But never done this before."
"You can do it," said the War Captain, putting a hand on his
shoulder. "This is the last one. Give it your best try."
The last one? There was a fourth glass circle to be tried to. Was
the War Captain unaware of it?
Chekov, looking noticeably worn out, tried again.
This time when the War Captain took the glass and examined it, he
gave a rare smile. "It works!"
"Resolution ok?" Chekov asked. "Can try to improve-"
"It's good enough," said the War Captain. "We can't risk messing
with it." He picked up the last glass circle, and handed it to Chekov.
"Now we have something easy for you. Just make this one clear."
Chekov concentrated, and in a moment handed it back to the War
Captain, who nodded. "Thank you." He turned to the rest of us. "That's
the show for today, gentlemen."
I did my two weary days in the mines and then got to rest in the
hospital. I really needed the time there! Slowly, my weary body started
to recover. I knew I would be called to leave on the third or fourth
day, so I slept as much as possible, to store up energy.
Kerensky visited me on the morning of the third day. "Is a
problem," he whispered.
"What?" I said.
"Baransky has been taken."
"Do you think-"
"Not to think," said Kerensky.
"What do we do?"
"Richman says you stay here," said Kerensky.
"I want to help," I said.
"Stay here," said Kerensky, and he left.
That night the War Captain snuck into the hospital. He tapped me,
instantly waking me up. He silently motioned for me to follow him.
I followed him outside the hospital building.
"What's going on?"
"We're leaving," said the War Captain.
"Did they release Baransky?"
"No," said the War Captain. As we talked he carefully watched the
pattern of searchlights, waiting for the right time.
"You think he talked?"
"Unlikely, or we would all be in custody now," said the War
"Then why are we leaving?"
"He is still in custody. He may break at some point," said the
War Captain. "They knew enough to arrest him. We have to leave now.
Move!" he said, running to another barracks as the searchlights moved
We linked up with Korolev, Kerensky, Sasha, and Mr. Chekov. Each
were carrying little bundles; Korolev handed one to me. I discovered it
contained my favorite food in the whole world, kem. I also noticed that
Korolev carried a small, homemade cage, and something seemed to be
squirming inside of it.
We made for the perimeter fence. Although we had to dodge
searchlights, it was little more difficult than the first time I had
escaped with the thieves.
As we walked into the forest I saw the War Captain looking at
something in his hands as he took his bearings. Then he started us
"Unless something unexpected happens, we have about six hours
before our departure should be noticed. Perhaps the drunken state of
the guards will buy us an extra hour or two, but no more," said the War
We started trudging in the snow. "Can you tell us now where we're
going?" I asked.
"To the station," said the War Captain.
The station. That was the place where my escape group had headed
the last time. Well, it made a certain amount of sense; that was the
only area where we could obtain long range transport to get out of this
area. But I worried how tightly it would be guarded.
I said as much to Kerensky.
"Not to worry," said Kerensky. "The man is genius."
"If he's anything like his uncle, I'm sure he is," I said.
The War Captain spun around. "I am not him."
We said nothing.
"If you are expecting him, his level of genius, you are sure to
be disappointed," said the War Captain. "I'm just doing what makes
common sense." He spun around and started walking again.
Nobody said anything for a while.
We had only walked for two hours when the War Captain turned and
said, "All right, that's far enough."
He stopped, and fumbled with his jacket.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
The War Captain worked on ripping open a seam of his military
jacket. "Something mildly atypical occurred during my last
"What?" I asked.
"Whenever I left for interrogation I always wore my military
jacket. But one times the guards purposely stripped me of my jacket and
threw it on the floor of the cell before my interrogation."
"Why did they do that?"
"That time they used electroshock on me, and I suppose the jacket
would have gotten in the way," said the War Captain, matter of factly.
"But when I got back to my cell, I noticed, even more curiously, that
my jacket was in a different position than the guards had left it." He
continued to work on a seam on his jacket.
"You noticed this after electroshock torture?" I said, wondering
how he could have been so focused.
"Yes," said the War Captain simply. "I did nothing while I was in
the cell, but when I got out-ah, here it is." The War Captain extracted
a small metallic object from inside his jacket.
"A tracking device?" I said.
The War Captain nodded.
"So they've been able to track us for the past two hours," I
"Keep in mind that they do not yet know we've escaped," said the
War Captain. "When they do, they will follow the immediate tracks we
laid coming in this direction. But they may also rely on this," said
the War Captain. "The cage, please," he said to Korolev.
Korolev handed him the cage. The War Captain very carefully
opened it up and extracted the animal. It was a white rabbit!
My mouth watered. I had had some rabbit once, it tasted very
The rabbit had some sort of homemade collar on it. The War
Captain put the tracking device inside the collar, then dropped the
rabbit to the ground.
The rabbit looked up at the War Captain.
"You may go now," said the War Captain.
The rabbit immediately scampered off.
"It will take them some time to track that," said the War
"But we've already started towards the transport station," I
"Which is why we must now change direction," said the War
As we started marching he explained. "The station is a trap. They
are always notified long before any possible escapee can reach the
station. The station is so small that it is easy to seal off the area.
Therefore, we will not go to the station."
"But... where else can we go?"
"It's a region of small villages to the north," said the War
Captain. "From there we make our way to Tomsk, a medium sized city, and
then we get transport to Smolensk, the closest spaceport."
"How far away is Smolensk?" I asked.
"About 2000 miles," said the War Captain.
"That's the closest spaceport?"
"The only one in this hemisphere," said the War Captain.
"Wait," I said. "I thought the transport station was the only
thing in the area around the camp. How long before we hit these small
villages you mentioned?"
"They are about 200 miles to the north," said North.
"200 miles? Won't that take us weeks?"
"I estimate 14 to 15 days, given the snow and the difficulty of
the terrain," said the Battle Major.
"It's so far..."
"That's why they will not think to look for us there," said the
Battle Major. "Hopefully it will snow soon and cover our tracks."
"What about the food supply?" Korolev asked.
"We have enough for 7 days, which I think we can stretch to 10
days. If Baransky was here, he would be the one to tell us which fauna
was edible and help us hunt for animals."
"And since he isn't?"
"We will have to do it ourselves," said the Battle Admiral.
I looked at him in the dim light, and wondered if he were mad.
And then I remembered what he had said. He wasn't Norman North. He
wasn't nearly infallible.
And yet he had an air of confidence, as if he knew was he was
But madmen sometimes acted this way too.
Did all those years of torture and interrogation affect his
judgment? Were we going to perish in the snow?
Korolev jabbed me in the ribs and grinned. "I'll bet you sad we
let the rabbit go now, eh?"
We didn't see any sign of pursuit the first day, or even the
second. It did eventually snow, covering our tracks. They were probably
out hunting the rabbit. I could only imagine a platoon of Redcaps,
holding a tracker, watching the signal move from tree to tree, but not
seeing anyone there. I wondered what the expression would be on their
faces when they discovered what they were really following.
But we did start to see signs of pursuit on the third day. An
atmospheric fighter streaked across the sky. As luck would have it, we
were in an open region, in an area between two forests.
As soon as the War Captain heard the supersonic boom he said,
"Get to ground!"
We all plunged down into the snow. A moment later we heard the
plane fly over us. In another moment it was gone.
The War Captain slowly got up. "The danger from fighters are
minimal. They are going too fast to see very much. But if they send
slower shuttles and transports, we'll have to be more careful."
Over the next few days we did see the occasional shuttle and
transport, scanning the surrounding area. But none came close to us.
"They have a wide area to search," said the War Captain. "After
all, they now have no idea where we have gone."
"Perhaps they will think we have perished in the snow if we don't
appear soon," said Kerensky appropriately.
"Perhaps," said the War Captain. "But the Redcaps don't give up
The way he said it, I wonder if he was referring to some torture
they had done to him.
Things started to get dicey when we ran low on food. On the ninth
day our limbs were sore and we ate the last of what we had. We had
tried several times to hunt for small animals, but hadn't been
"What will we eat tomorrow?" Kerensky asked.
"Leaves," said the War Captain.
"Are you joking?" said Kerensky.
"No," said the War Captain. "I estimate we are about five days
out from the villages."
"Assuming we have been going in right direction," said Kerensky.
"Oh, I think so," said the War Captain. He took out a small
device. I leaned over and looked at it. It was a homemade compass!
"Where did you get that from?" I asked.
"Actually, Kerensky procured it for me," said the War Captain.
"He obtained some ore with magnetic properties. It was just a matter of
thinning it down so I could get a needle sized chunk onto something
small and flat like this," he said, holding up the compass. "It's not
perfectly accurate, but I am confident that we have been going
generally in the right direction."
"What if we starve before we get there."
"Possible, but unlikely," said the War Captain. "Snow is
plentiful, therefore so is water. We can survive on water for five
days, though we won't like it."
"We've been doing about 15 miles a day; will we be able to keep
up the pace without food?" I asked.
"That's the only concern I have," the War Captain admitted.
Two days later we were stumbling through the snow. Every hour or
two someone would stumble and fall down, and we'd have to wait for him
to get up. Kerensky and I were by far the weakest. I tried to keep
going, but I didn't have the energy. After one time when I collapsed
the War Captain crouched down by me. He spoke a few words, and looked
Slowly, I nodded. I got up, and didn't fall down again for some
time. And when I did, I got up again almost immediately.
Our pace was definitely slowing down, however. Two more days
later there was no sign of any villages, and we were all stumbling
around. Our rest breaks were more frequent and more prolonged. Perhaps,
if we were lucky, we were making 7 or 8 miles a day. Maybe. It was the
cumulative fatigue that was getting to us.
Each day we would do fewer and fewer miles.
Finally, Kerensky plopped down on the snow, some distance from
me. Then Korolev did. Then Mr. Chekov did. I plopped down, waiting for
them to get up.
The War Captain went over and spoke to them. I didn't hear what
he said, but they didn't get up. Then he and Sasha came over to me.
"How are you, Lieutenant?"
"I can go on a little more, sir," I said. Painfully, I got to my
feet. My legs were extremely sore.
"Good," said the War Captain grimly. "You and Sasha and I will
"What about the others?"
"If we can get help and get back to them, we will," said the War
"Shouldn't we wait, rest...."
"We are all near collapse," said the War Captain. "We are all
slowly dying of starvation. Our only chance is to find some food ahead
and bring it back to them. If we are sufficiently near a village,
perhaps we can do it."
"And if we aren't?"
"We have no choice but to continue," said the War Captain.
"What does Kerensky think about this?" I asked.
"Why don't you ask him yourself?" said the War Captain.
I painfully made my way to Kerensky. He shook his head as he saw
me approach. "I cannot go any farther, Richman. My legs."
"What about Korolev and Chekov?" I said, pointing to the other
two a few dozen feet away.
"They are in the same condition."
"Well, we can rest, wait for you to get better-"
Kerensky gave a crooked smile. "We are all not going very much
farther. Go and get help, if you can."
He seemed resigned to dying, which alarmed me.
But it also spurred the Tookish instinct in me to survive, and I
started off again with the War Captain and Sasha. We were all tired;
even Sasha was staggering from with each step.
It wasn't a few minutes later that the War Captain said, "What's
"What's what?" I said.
I squinted, and saw a dot on the horizon. As we got closer, I saw
it was a cabin.
And there was smoke coming from the chimney!
"I see someone, get down," said the War Captain. We all plunged
down in the snow.
The War Captain, while lying on his belly pulled something out of
his coat. As I lay near him, I noticed it looked like a piece of paper
wrapped around two pieces of glass, one at each end.
"What's that?" I asked.
"My binoculars," said the War Captain.
So that's what he had been making with Chekov. Chekov had been
"improving" one of the glass circles to turn it into a lens.
"What see?" said Sasha.
"I see a middle aged man, standing outside the cabin," said the
"He probably has food," said Sasha.
"And perhaps a radio," said the War Captain.
"You think he would turn us in?"
"There is undoubtedly a substantial reward," said the War
"We'll die if we don't get food and shelter," I said.
"I know," said the War Captain. "I'm debating whether to ask for
help, or to capture and kill him."
He paused at great length, studying the man through the lens. I
wondered what he was looking for.
After a time the War Captain stood up, and started walking
towards the cabin. Sasha and I followed him.
The man saw us about halfway there. He simply stood there,
staring at us. As we got closer, however, he took a few steps back.
"Don't be afraid," said the War Captain, in almost perfect
Slurian. "We aren't going to hurt you."
"What do you want?" said the man, looking frightened.
"Food," said the War Captain. "We're starving."
"Who are you?"
The War Captain paused. "We're escaped prisoners, from the labor
The man licked his lips nervously. There was a pause for a
Then he said, "Come in. I will feed you."
We entered his cabin. It was very small, with just enough space
for a bed, kitchen, and shelves. It reminded me of the old lady's
The man set down food in front of us, which we started to gobble
down furiously, never taking our eyes from the man. It was kem, but it
"You are not Slurian," said the man, indicating me and Sasha.
"No," said the War Captain. "We are from the League."
"The League," said the man, looking jumpy.
"We aren't going to hurt you," said the War Captain. "We just
want a little food, for us and our friends."
"Out there, on the ridge," said the War Captain. "They are too
weak to come."
"Three," said the War Captain.
"How far have you come?" the man asked.
"We think about 250 Slurmiles," said the War Captain.
"On foot?" said the man, looking at us as if we were mad.
"The labor camp gives us incentive to persevere," said the War
"I know," said the man. "I used to be there."
His name was Romanov, and like many of the inhabitants of Altera,
he had been sentenced to a labor camp for a period of time, and then,
when his sentence was officially over, "released" to internal exile
here on the planet. But Romanov refused to live with the others, and
built a cabin for himself here.
As we gathered food to take back to the others, Romanov offered
to accompany us. It was at that point that I knew he could be trusted.
We raced back as fast as our tired feet could take us. It took
nearly an hour to get there. When we did we found three bodies, lying
in the snow.
I bent down by Korolev's body, and shook him, calling his name.
He opened his eyes "What took you so long?"
We helped them back to the cabin. They were in bad shape but
luckily it wasn't an impossible distance, although a walk that took us
one hour to get there took us two hours to get back. After the others
had eaten there was barely space enough for us to sit on the floor,
much less lie down, but most of the others had already passed out.
"I have heard about you," said Romanov. "When I last went into
the village. There is a substantial reward for you."
"How far is the village, and in what direction?" the War Captain
"It is a day, in that direction," said Romanov, pointing. "But I
would not advise it. They will turn you in."
I fell asleep as he and the War Captain talked. I think I woke up
in the middle of the night, worried, perhaps, that Romanov would turn
us in, or kill us in our sleep. But everyone around me, was asleep, all
except Romanov. He was sitting there in a chair, watching us with tears
in his eyes.
"You have nothing to worry about me," said Romanov. "Go back to
sleep," he said.
I did so.
Romanov fed us well the following morning, and insisted we stay
the day. Kerensky and Korolev could barely walk around, and the rest of
us were in not much better of a position. We offered to help him with
his chores, but he declined; nevertheless Sasha accompanied him around
the cabin, helping wherever he could, especially when he went outside
to feed some goats he had penned up behind the cabin.
That night he fed us quite a rarity--goat meat. We protested that
we didn't deserve it but Romanov said the sight of us was quite a
reward in and of itself.
"What kind of reward do you mean?" I asked.
"People beating the system," said Romanov.
"How?" I asked.
"By surviving," said Romanov.
The next day we felt sufficiently better to start walking again.
Romanov gave us enough supplies to last for several days. He even
apologized that he could not give us more. We exchanged many hugs and
thank yous, and then came a startling remark.
"You... you League," he said to me, in broken system English.
"Yes," I said, not sure where this was going.
"Please... win war soon. Free our people," he said.
I nodded, unable to say more.
We started off at a slow but steady pace, saying nothing for much
of the first day. I think the old man had had quite an effect on all of
us. I don't think any of us worried that he might turn us in.
We came upon the first village he mentioned within a day, but
because we had sufficient supplies, we went around it, walking a little
to the right side of a road. It was on the second day from the cabin
that we saw our first patrol.
The War Captain eyed them through his binoculars.
"What do you see?" I asked.
"There are only two of them, but of course they are armed," said
the War Captain. "They don't look particularly alert, which suggests
they don't yet know that we are in the area. The dirt around the
ground looks particularly upturned, suggesting these or similar
soldiers may have been here before. This may be a semi-permanent
checkpoint, having little or nothing to do with us."
I was very impressed with his deductive reasoning, but by this
time I knew him well enough to avoid complimenting him.
We circled around the patrol. The binoculars proved invaluable,
helping us spot several patrols before they spotted us. Another piece
of good planning on the War Captain's part.
We passed several villages in our travel. It was only when we ran
out of food again that the War Captain huddled us around.
"We have some bad news and some good news," he said. "The bad
news is that we are out of food. We will have to take the risk of
raiding a village for supplies, after nightfall."
"The good news is that we are very much on schedule. I would
estimate that we're less than 50 miles to Tomsk, the medium sized town
I mentioned. Once we're there we can hopefully get transport to
Smolensk, where we can steal a ship."
"So only 50 more miles of walking?" I said.
The War Captain nodded. "Perhaps three to four more days. But
from this point on the danger only increases. We have to steal not only
food but clothes, and gembles to buy transport tickets. We will not be
able to circumvent patrols as we have been able to here, and we will
have to bluff our way around them. Our journey will not be as
exhausting, but it will be substantially more dangerous."
We all listened solemnly. We had our first dangerous encounter
that night when we had to choose a farmhouse to rob from. The War
Captain waited until all the lights were out and then he sent Korolev.
"Korolev? Why just Korolev?" Kerensky asked.
"Because he is stealthiest," said the War Captain.
"But one person will not be able to steal much," I said. "If they
wake up, we can all simply run away."
The War Captain shook his head. "Right now we have the tactical
advantage. They don't even know we're in the area. That's why we've
seen so few patrols. Once they know we're here, they'll flood the area
with their men. This way is much less risky. Go, Korolev."
Korolev left with a grin. The War Captain watched his progress
with his binoculars in the dim light of the village.
Korolev didn't even try the door, instead opening and creeping
into a ground floor window of a dark cabin.
And we waited.
Several minutes passed.
"Do you think he got caught?" I asked.
"The lights are still out in the farmhouse," said the War
Captain, studying it with his binoculars.
"Then what's taking so long?"
"Be calm, Lieutenant," said the War Captain.
At that moment Korolev crept out the front door. We could see he
was carrying two large sacks.
He crept back towards us. The first sack was filled with food;
the second was filled with clothing.
I didn't ask him what took so long. I did ask him, with a wink,
"Did you leave anything behind?"
"Sink was too hard to lift," said Korolev.
We changed into the clothes. None of them were perfect fits, but
given that ragged clothing was considered high fashion on this prison
planet, I didn't think we would be noticed.
It was at that point that the War Captain and I had our first
argument. He wanted me to ditch my flight jacket and pants and boots,
but I felt a strong resistance to doing so.
The War Captain sighed. "I understand your feelings, but they are
"How will they see them?" I said. "I have a fur coat over my
jacket, common pants over my own, and my boots are largely covered by
"What if you're searched?" said the War Captain.
"It's a risk I'm willing to take."
"So you're willing to risk your freedom... for your clothes,"
said the War Captain.
I stood my ground. "I've come a long way with this jacket and
The War Captain sighed and shook his head, as if to say, "It's
As we walked towards Tomsk we had to pass through several
villages But the War Captain had us hide near the entrance to each
village so we could pass through at night. This doubled our travel time
but the War Captain insisted.
"We're going to have to deal with people in Tomsk," said
Kerensky. "And most of us speak fluent Slurian."
"Fine, then we'll do it in Tomsk," said the War Captain. He had
So we actually ran out of food, five days later, as we reached
the outskirts of Tomsk. I'm told Tomsk was the biggest city for
hundreds of miles around. I think it had about 5,000 Slurians, and no
building was taller than three stories.
"Should we ask where the public transport is?" Kerensky
whispered, noticing the people walking by on the streets. I think some
of them were staring at us.
The War Captain shook his head fractionally. Doing so would
expose us as outsiders. On the other hand, walking around too long
aimlessly could also expose us. Tomsk wasn't that big.
The War Captain stopped, looked around, considered the lay of the
town, and started off in a different direction. Sure enough, twenty
minutes later, we came to a small building with a sign on it that read
We had saved or stolen enough money for the purpose of buying
tickets to Smolensk. The War Captain had Kerensky go to the ticket
booth to buy tickets for all of us, and then had a second thought and
changed his mind, and had each of us go and buy tickets on our own, all
except me, in ten minute intervals. Evidently he didn't trust my
mastery of the Slurian language because the War Captain bought my
ticket for me.
"Any problem?" said the War Captain, talking out of the corner of
his mouth we walked away from the station.
"No," said Kerensky, also looking around. "But transport does not
come until tomorrow morning. We should go back into forest until then."
"No longer possible," said the War Captain. He pretended to
stretch his arms. "Don't look behind me, but there are two Redcaps
slowly following us."
"You think they are on to us?"
"Probably not," said the War Captain. "But if they follow us into
the forest that might be deemed suspicious."
"Then what would not be suspicious?" said Kerensky.
"Let's go to a public restaurant," said the War Captain.
We entered a dirty, dark restaurant and stood on line while a
tired looking chef served bowls of lumpy oatmeal. We each paid a
nominal fee and then sat down and ate.
The Redcaps hadn't followed us in.
"Maybe they went away," said Sasha.
"Or maybe they're outside," said the War Captain.
We ate in silence. "What do we do next?" I asked.
The War Captain stood up, and went to the cashier and asked a
question. When he returned he said, "There's a boarding house just
around the corner. I suggest we stay there."
"Do we have enough gembles to do so?"
The War Captain shrugged. "Everything seems cheap here."
When we went outside the Redcaps were nowhere to be seen. But
then we spotted them again, seemingly staring at us from a block away.
"If they're suspicious, why don't they stop us?" I asked.
"That's not how they work," said the War Captain. "If they knew
for sure who we were, they would move in. They're probably just
suspicious of us because we're strangers. They'll watch us on general
principles, and see what we do. As long as we give them no reason to be
suspicious, they may leave us alone."
"May?" I said.
"That's the word I used, Lieutenant," said the War Captain.
We entered the boarding house. A middle aged man and woman stood
behind a desk.
"Can I help you?" he asked.
"We'd like a room for the night," said Kerensky.
"For how many?"
"Six," said Kerensky.
The man peered suspiciously at us.
"I have two rooms. Four gembles each," he said.
Kerensky paid the money.
"Dinner is included. You can wash up at the end of the hall."
The rooms didn't have running water, of course.
We made our way to the rooms. Some of us rested before dinner but
the War Captain always kept someone on watch at the door and the window
outside. He had a worried expression on his face and I wasn't sure why.
We were the only guests at dinner, I guess Tomsk didn't get a lot
of visitors. The man sat with us while the woman and a daughter served
The man asked us a number of questions--where were we from? Where
were we going? How long had we been here? Kerensky parried these with
various vague answers.
"So... if you're from Smolensk, you must have tried the public
cafeteria, the one opposite the bank," said the man.
Kerensky said nothing, but continued to eat.
"None of you?" said the man. He turned to me. "What about you?"
I had kept silent because of what I had been told was my poor
"Right now we're just concentrating on your fine food," said the
The man looked at us for a moment, and then said, "Don't worry,
you can trust me."
"Trust you with what?" asked the War Captain.
"I know you're escaped prisoners," said the man.
"Why would you think that?" the War Captain asked.
"A group of you, coming into Tomsk, without an apparent purpose,
boarding here, waiting to go to Smolensk... it's obvious," said the
man. "But do not worry, I will not betray you."
"That's reassuring," said the War Captain.
"But you have to be careful, there is a big reward out for you,"
said the man.
The War Captain said nothing.
"I would suggest you stay in tonight. Don't leave until right
before your transport comes in the morning. If the Redcaps come, I'll
send them away."
"Thank you," said Kerensky.
After dinner we all went upstairs to our rooms.
"What do you think?" Kerensky asked.
"We have two minutes to get out of here," said the War Captain.
He looked out the window, saw two Redcaps across the street. "They are
probably waiting for reinforcements. Let's move!"
We escaped through the back entrance. On the way out we saw the
man, and he tried to yell something. I gave him an enormous kick in the
rear, sending him sprawling. Quite satisfying, really.
We ran towards a nearby river. We weren't more than halfway there
when we heard the hoot hoots of alarms rising in the city.
"I think we've been found out," said the War Captain.
"So where will we hide until the transport comes tomorrow?" I
"I don't think you understand the situation," said the War
Captain. "There will be no transport for us."
Looking behind us, I could see a squad of soldiers or maybe
Redcaps in pursuit. It was hard to tell in the dimming light.
We reached the river. It was relatively narrow, but not frozen
over. Luckily there was a small footbridge there.
"Quickly, get across!" said the War Captain, leaping onto the
We all got across. The bridge had thin wooden floorboards that
creaked heavily. They seemed partially rotted away. It was a relief to
The Slurians were only a minute or two behind us.
"Wait," said the War Captain, grabbing Mr. Chekov by the arm.
The War Captain nodded to the bridge.
"You want me to make it better?"
"No. Make it worse."
Chekov leaned down to the ground and touched the wooden
"We don't have time for this!" I said.
"Quiet!" the War Captain commanded.
The Slurians reached the foot of the bridge. They noticed us
standing at the other end, and slowed down, brandishing their blasters.
I could see now that they were Redcaps.
Chekov, gasping, stood up, and nodded.
The first few Slurians walked across the bridge, their guns
leveled at us. Just as they reached the halfway point, however, there
was a crack and the floor underneath them collapsed. They screamed as
they hit the icy waters below.
We started running as the others opened fire from the far bank.
But their shots were inaccurate and we were able to make a getaway.
What followed for the next few days was a game of cat and mouse.
We were short on food and had to raid villages, but the Slurians knew
we were in the area and flooded the region with manpower.
I think we started to get desperate the day we lost Korolev.
We sent him foraging for food at a farmhouse one evening. Only it
turned out to be a trap. The lights came on, and from our distant
vantage point we could see Korolev running out of the house, pursued by
He gave them a merry chase! He ran this way and that, and at one
point not one but several platoons of Redcaps were chasing him. At one
point he climbed up on a roof, and we could see Redcaps climbing up on
all sides to get to him; but then he jumped down, and ran past them.
He was eventually caught when more and more Redcaps appeared, and
they simply formed a circle around him. He ran against the edge of the
circle, trying to break out, but they grabbed him.
We heard him screaming as they took him away. "It took an entire
company of you incompetents to catch me! Cowards! Cowards!"
"We'd better get out of here," said the War Captain.
We started to scramble away, but as luck would have it, I twisted
my ankle on a rock, and fell.
"Can you walk?" said the War Captain anxiously. We were still
near the village.
I stood up and tried to walk, but felt a surge of pain, and fell
"We must leave him," said Kerensky.
The War Captain looked at Chekov inquiringly.
Chekov said, "Yes, Keptin." He knelt down by me.
"What are you going to-"
Suddenly his hands were on my ankle, and I felt a warmth there.
Chekov concentrated hard for a moment, as sweat formed on his brow.
Finally he stood up, looking tired.
"How is that?" the War Captain said.
I stood up, and tried the foot, feeling only a fraction of the
"No time," said the War Captain. "Let's go!"
The War Captain's plan had relied on the Slurians not knowing the
general area we were in. Now that they knew, it would be very difficult
to get past security.
"But we have to try," said the War Captain. "If we simply keep
raiding villages for food, it's a losing proposition."
"What do you propose?" Kerensky asked.
"We steal transportation and get out of here."
"The only groundcars we've seen are here in Tomsk," said Kerensky
slowly. "And nearly all of those belong to the Redcaps."
"Yes," said the War Captain. "I'm not denying it's risky. But
staying here is riskier."
The others agreed. The next day we reentered Tomsk and found a
groundcar parked outside a public cafeteria.
The War Captain gave us our orders. "Kerensky, you, Sasha, and
the Lieutenant go inside and buy some food for our trip. Lieutenant,
let Kerensky do all the talking."
"Ok," I said.
"What about me, Keptin?" Mr. Chekov asked.
"You're going to help me steal that groundcar," said the War
Captain. "The occupants are bound to be inside the cafeteria, so play
it cool, fellows."
We nodded. Kerensky, Sasha, and I went inside while the War
Captain and Chekov went to the groundcar.
As we walked up the stairs of the two story building and went
inside, we noticed two Redcaps sitting in a corner, eating a meal. "You
get the food," I whispered. "I'm going to the bathroom for a minute." I
knew they would have running water there and I wanted a drink. Whatever
food and drink we bought here would be severely rationed over the
I went into the bathroom, which thankfully was empty. There was a
window that gave a faint breeze from the outside.
Suddenly, I heard a faint voice yell, "It's a trap!"
I looked out the window, and saw Redcaps surrounding Chekov and
the War Captain. Two of them were grabbing him and trying to gag his
I immediately turned to leave the bathroom when I saw the door
opening. I stood behind it as the following entered in this order: a
blaster, a hand, an arm, a shoulder and a head. I gave the head a nasty
chop and it fell to the ground.
A Redcap. I took his blaster and opened the door a crack and
peered outside into the cafeteria.
It was crawling with Redcaps. They must have been disguised as
common eaters. Sasha and Kerensky were surrounded.
I licked my lips, wondering what the War Captain would do in this
situation. I had a blaster, but I would be greatly outnumbered. Should
I put on the Slurian's uniform and try to impersonate him? With my
accent, such an impersonation was unlikely to succeed. Nor did I have
Should I escape out of the window? I was on the second floor but
could survive the drop. No, the Redcaps outside would catch me. Think,
Took, think! What would the War Captain do?
I looked around. It wouldn't be long before another Redcap came
into the bathroom to investigate.
And then I looked up, and it was as if the War Captain had used
telepathy to send me a mental message. I adjusted the setting on the
blaster to slow burn, and started cutting a hole above one of the
Luckily the Slurian ceiling and roof above was made of very thin
plaster. I had a hole. I climbed up on the sink, up the hole, and onto
The roof was curved, sloping up to the top at the middle, and I
had to crawl to be careful not to be seen from the ground, as the
building was only two stories tall. I'm afraid I was in view of some
Redcaps as I crawled to the highest point.
But I heard no shout and in a few seconds I was on the other
side, sliding down the back side of the roof. They obviously hadn't
been looking in my direction.
I slid down to the ground and started off at a run.
I was all alone now, with the security forces of the entire
planet against me.
Chapter 11 "Escape is Impossible"
I was on the run for an entire day before I twisted my ankle
again and fell to the ground in the middle of a road, in total agony.
This was not entirely a coincidence. Mr. Chekov had not succeeded
in entirely healing me from my last trauma there. Malnutrition and
exhaustion had made my body susceptible to a number of minor illnesses.
This time I didn't even trip over a rock; it just seemed to be the
angle at which my foot touched the ground as I walked/ran.
The funny thing was, as I lay there on that road, I wasn't
thinking about capture, or escape, but the War Captain. Had he been
right when he said he didn't have the genius of War Admiral North?
Admittedly, he had gotten captured, but the odds had been heavily
stacked against us from the beginning. I think he had successfully, and
safely, gotten us over a hundred miles from camp and had kept us free
for two weeks. His last act, the shouted warning, was the decisive
factor in determining our freedom.
Of course, his decision to steal the car had proved to the be the
end for most of our expedition. Would the War Admiral have walked into
the trap? Would he, out of options, have selected this choice? Perhaps
there were some battles that cannot be one. More than once I've seen
the War Admiral withdraw from a battle not to his liking.
But he has always regrouped and attacked again. I hoped wherever
he was, that the War Captain would do the same.
"You are hurt," came a feminine voice.
I stiffened, and turned over, to see a young, attractive woman
standing over me. "Yes," I said in Slurian, careful not to say more.
"I take care of you," she said. "Can you walk?"
With her help, I got up and balanced on one foot. But I couldn't
stand on the other. She acted as a crutch, helping me into her home,
which was just down the street. At this point, I had few options.
Once she had me inside the home, a small two room cabin, she
said, "My name is Natasha." She looked at me for a response.
I didn't know what to say.
"You are not Slurian," she said.
"How can you tell?" I said.
"Because you are so handsome," Natasha said. "You are one of the
"Are you going to turn me in?" I said grimly. Could I hobble out
of there? I didn't think so.
"Let us talk of that later," she said. "For now, let me see your
I took off my mucklucks and boots and socks, to reveal a very
"We must apply heat to that, it will help the healing," she said,
starting to boil some water.
Natasha took care of me that night. It didn't take much to
realize that she was lonely. Most of the young men had been conscripted
for the war. I slept on her bed that night, and was a little surprised
when she lay next to me and hugged me as I slept.
The next day I tested the ankle. I was making progress; I could
stand on it, with some discomfort. But I still couldn't walk. It would
take several days to get me back into shape.
I started to have confidence that Natasha would not turn me in.
She fed me and took care of me. But her behavior at night started to
worry me. On the second night she started kissing me. I gently pushed
her away. Then again, later in the night, the same thing.
It wasn't that I found her unattractive; she had long, flowing,
black hair, although she did seem to have the intelligence of a
grapefruit plant. It's just that, given my current circumstances,
romance didn't rank very highly among my priorities. I was
malnourished, temporarily crippled, and under intense stress.
Meanwhile, my leg was recovering. The next day I felt well enough
to limp around. I suspected that, given my current rate of recovery,
I'd at least be able to walk by the following day, and something made
me uneasy enough to decide to leave the next day.
Unfortunately, I made the mistake of telling Natasha that.
She started crying. "You're going to leave me? All alone?" She
wept some more.
I attempted to console her, but I also kept a close eye on her,
for fear she would report me.
That night she served me a strange tasting soup. I only thought
it was odd because of the unusual vegetables in it, but had second
thoughts as I suddenly became very drowsy. In fact, I had trouble
keeping my eyes open.
"Why don't you get some rest?" she said, dragging me to the bed.
I suddenly woke up in the middle of the night. I knew immediately
I had been drugged. I tried to move my arms and legs, but couldn't.
Natasha had used leather belts to tie my arms and legs to the bedframe.
"Ah, you're awake and rested," she said.
"Are you going to turn me in?" I said fearfully.
"Idaho! I would never do that!" she said. She started to undo my
"What are you doing?" I asked. Actually, though it seemed pretty
She lowered my trousers, and then removed her own clothing. I
might have admired her figure, if I weren't malnourished, tied to a
bed, and feeling the weight of several platoons of Redcaps chasing me.
"Do you like what you see?" said Natasha, standing so I could
"Ah, yes, well, that's all quite nice, but-"
Natasha started to lay down on me, rubbing against me.
Unfortunately, she started to get me excited despite myself, which
seemed to excite her. I couldn't help myself; it had been years since I
had... company of this kind. In just a few moments she had created the
conditions she was looking for, and she took full pleasure from it.
Natasha groaned as she grinded on top of me. She seemed to be
having a great deal of fun. I was just worried that her cries would
attract the Redcaps.
She seemed to go on for hours and hours. When she was done, and
both of us were exhausted, she dismounted and gave me a quick kiss.
"You were wonderful, Idaaho."
"I'm even better when I'm untied," I said.
"No," she said. "You can never leave me."
She couldn't keep me tied up forever.
She fed me while I was tied up. She put a potty under me to take
care of my other needs. And at night she came to me again, turning me
on so I would turn her on, so to speak.
This continued for three more days. I tugged and tugged on the
straps holding my arms and legs but the leather straps were strong and
Meanwhile I was starting to worry that my muscles were
atrophying. After a few more days of this, I would no longer be able to
walk. Maybe that's what Natasha was looking for, waiting for that
moment when she could untie me because I would no longer be able to
"Love me!" cried Natasha that night, as she pulled down my pants
and tried to get me excited again. I gritted my teeth and tried to
resist, but it was ultimately futile.
How would I get out of there? I didn't have a clue.
And then something very unexpected happened the following day.
I heard voices outside. Natasha looked outside the window.
"Sshh!" she said. "Redcaps. You stay quiet. I will deal with them." She
I could only vaguely hear her voice as she talked to them. As I
listened for a moment or two, I could sense that the conversation was
quickly winding up.
And then I thought of an idea. Yelling out.
Natasha hadn't bothered to gag me, believing that I would never,
ever turn myself in to the Redcaps.
Indeed, the prospect of prison, labor camps, and torture didn't
appeal to me.
But my chances of escaping on my own here were zero.
The thing that I'm embarrassed about is that I didn't even pause
or take any time to consider my decision. I was so miserable I just did
I yelled out.
Nothing happened, but outside it was silent.
I yelled again, and as I was yelling, the Redcaps burst through
"My heroes!" I said sarcastically.
One of the Redcaps turned to Natasha, who suddenly tried to spin
a story of how she was keeping me captive for them. The Redcap slapped
her, and she fell to the ground.
As they untied me and propelled me to the door, she still
persisted, grabbing my leg. "No!" she cried. "Don't leave me! Love me!
One of the Redcaps, a young officer, looked down at her and at me
"So, we meet again," said a familiar face.
The blindfold was taken off and I saw the blonde Redcap major
standing before me. I was tied to the interrogation chair in her
"This was the last one, Major Almorsa," said one of the Redcaps.
Well, at least I had a name now.
"Did I not say you would regret it if we met again?" she said,
looking hard at me.
"I've been having memory problems lately," I said.
Major Almorsa put her face close to mine. "I will help you to
I'm not going to recount the torture, only to say it was very
unpleasant, like last time, and the beatings were worse. One slightly
positive effect of the sleep deprivation is that I didn't remember very
much of the details afterwards.
The beatings went on for several days, but I could sense that her
heart wasn't really in it. I certainly hadn't told her anything useful.
Finally, she said, "You are wasting my time! Guards! Get him
ready for transport!"
Major Almorsa put her face close to mine. "I hope you've enjoyed
our little encounter."
"Oh, every moment," I assured her.
"Because this will be our last encounter," she said. "You have
caused us enough trouble, little man. On your next escape attempt, we
have received authorization to put 'shoot on sight' in your file. There
will be no more interrogation, no more sweet talk."
She watched me as the implications sunk in. If I tried to escape
again and failed, there would be no further chances.
The next thing I knew, I was bundled on a shuttle. I assumed this
was the first leg of my trip back to Labor Camp 94.
I couldn't have been more wrong. I could see out the window of
the shuttle an enormous mountain looming in the distance. As we got
closer, I couldn't help but gasp. It was huge. It looked like a giant
vertical pillar rising out of the earth, made of stone. The incline
angles were 90 degrees, or more. There would be no climbing that.
As the shuttle gained altitude I saw that the surface on top was
relatively flat, with vegetation. "That's where we're going?" I asked.
One of the Redcaps nodded. "Mount Perm."
"Perm," said the Redcap. "Our most secure prison facility. You
will find no way off this mountain, unless you jump, Richman." The
other Redcaps in the cabin laughed at this lame attempt at humor.
The shuttle landed on a landing pad outside the encampment. To
one side was a series of fields with tall stalks. I wondered what they
grew here. On the other side was the camp. The Redcaps escorted me to
the front gate.
One of the things I noticed immediately was that the guards at
the gate were not Redcap. They were regular Slurian military. Did the
military also maintain labor camps?
Salutes were given, receipts were signed, and I was turned over
to them. The guards took me to the commandant's office. He turned out
to be a balding Slurian military officer named Colonel Tenov.
Colonel Tenov was typing something on a screen when I came in. He
continued typing for a minute more before turning to me.
"Ah, Idaho Tuch," he said, checking a readout. "Take a seat,
I stared. It was the first time I had heard that word come out of
a Slurian's mouth. I sat.
"You are the latest troublemaker to be sent here," said Tenov
mildly. "I presume the Redcaps didn't tell you where you were going or
I shook my head.
"Yes, they are sometimes short on words," said Tenov. "This is a
camp for prisoners of war who have repeatedly caused trouble by
attempting to escape. Some of them are actually quite good at it. But
not here." He punched up an image of the mountain on the screen. "As
you can see, we are over two and a half Slurmiles up in the air. The
way down is nearly entirely vertical. Even if you were to fashion ropes
and spikes, you would be unlikely to make it. And long before you made
it, we would find you, if you were lucky."
"And if I were unlucky?"
"The Redcaps would find you," said Tenov. "I see you have a shoot
on sight order attached to your file. We are not barbarians; we
understand it is the duty of officers to try to escape. But here it is
not possible. And if you try, though we know it is your duty, it is our
duty to make life unpleasant for you."
"Wait a minute," I said. "This is a prisoner of war camp?"
"Yes," said Tenov, giving a small grin. "I see from your record
that you have spent over two years in civilian labor camps. Very
"Ha ha," I said, deadpan.
Tenov stared at me. "You may find life a little easier here but
no less strict. We are brutal when we need to be, but not for, how do
you say it in English "kicks" or "fun". Obey, and you will not be
harmed. You will be provided with adequate food and clothing, and you
will serve shifts on the farming team."
"We grow our own food here, so as not to be a burden on Slurian
society," said Tenov. "We also grow a special crop... for export." He
paused, and he got an unusual look in his eyes. "The only amenity you
will not find here is mail."
"This is a punishment camp, and mail is a luxury." For the first
time, Tenov looked away from me, staring at the wall behind me. There
was obviously more to the story than that. If they didn't want us to
find out what was going on in the outside world, why not simply give us
And then Colonel Tenov looked at me again, and said something
shocking to me that no Slurian had ever asked before.
"Do you have any questions?"
I shook my head.
"Sergeant Pigli," said Tenov. And then he was looking away, back
at his screen.
A fat sergeant took me away. "The colonel likes you, I can
tell," said Pigli.
"Oh, I'm flattered.
"Everything he said was true," said Pigli, as he walked me across
the compound. "If you behave and don't get into trouble, no one will
hurt you." He paused. "I notice the bruises on your face. Did the
Redcaps do that to you?"
"Yes," I said.
"Shameful," said Pigli. "Well, you won't find those bastards
I was a little surprised by his attitude. I knew that the
military had some rivalry with the Redcaps, but didn't realize that
there was this level of dislike. Maybe it just had something to do with
things going on at this camp.
Pigli took me to a barracks, which was filled with a delight to
my eyes: League soldiers--army, navy, even pilots, by the faded
uniforms they wore.
"Hey!" said a man with sergeant stripes. "We haven't seen a new
face in a while!" He jumped up to shake my hand.
"Just a minute, Sergeant Bailey!" said Pigli sternly. "I have not
yet introduced the new prisoner. Prisoners, this is Lieutenant Idaaho
"Tuch?" someone asked.
"Took," I said.
"What ship did you serve on?"
"Where are you from?"
"Are we winning the war?"
There were so many questions coming so fast. "I don't know," I
said, answering the first question last. "I've been a prisoner in
civilian labor camps for two years."
That raised another babble of questions.
"Hold it, hold it," said Sergeant Bailey. "He should report to
the Colonel, first."
The other soldiers looked disappointed. Then I remembered they
didn't get any mail. No wonder they were starved for news!
Sergeant Bailey took me to the senior officer, Colonel Crawford.
Crawford, I learned, had been a regimental commander who had been taken
prisoner nearly four years ago.
Crawford interviewed me at some length, asking very specific
questions. I started to get the idea that he was suspicious of me for
some reason, and said as much.
"Forgive me, Lieutenant," said Crawford. "But the Slurs have been
known to plant spies among us. I'm just trying to get all the facts. As
a matter of fact, you have quite a credible reference."
"I do?" I asked. I hadn't recognized anyone I had met so far.
"Have him come in," said the Colonel.
The door opened and none other than War Captain Emmett North
"War Captain!" I said. "When did you get here?"
"Just a few days before you did," he said. "It's good to see you,
"Do you know what happened to the others?"
The War Captain shook his head. "We can only hope they were sent
back to the labor camp." There was a certain irony in how he said it.
That was the best possible fate they could have hoped for.
"Like you, they determined I was too great of a security risk,
and sent me here," said the War Captain. "Apparently, we're the first
newcomers to arrive in nearly six months."
"What does that mean?" I said.
"Either that there aren't a lot of determined escapees, or there
are fewer newer prisoners coming into the system," said the War
"That means we're winning the war!"
"Not necessarily," the War Captain corrected. "It may simply mean
the front lines are stalemated."
"Oh," I said. "So what do we do now?"
"Escape again, naturally," said the War Captain.
Since the War Captain had vouched for me personally, they let me
into the details of their plans.
"How can you possibly hope to escape off this huge mountain?" I
asked. "I'm told it's unclimbable."
"Who told you that?" Sergeant Bailey said. "The Slurians?"
"It is climbable," said the War Captain. "But only by expert
climbers in good shape. The Colonel was correct when he told you that
long before you got to the bottom, your absence would be noticed, and
they would find you."
"How do you know what Colonel Tenov told me?" I asked curiously.
The War Captain and Colonel Crawford exchanged glances. "We are,
at times, able to listen in on the conversations in his office."
"A bug?" I said.
"Nothing so sophisticated, Lieutenant," said Colonel Crawford.
"Simply a man lying in the gap between the floorboards of his office
and the ground."
Oh. Then I noticed how all the barracks were elevated above the
"That's to make it easy to spot diggers," said Crawford. "But
they don't often look under their own buildings."
"So how do you dig a tunnel?" I asked.
"Carefully," said Crawford.
"But even if you do dig a tunnel... and get out... and somehow
get down the mountain... what then?"
"We estimate the nearest village is over 200 miles away," said
Colonel Crawford. "But we aren't certain. No one's gotten that far."
"Has anyone ever successfully escaped from here?"
There was a pause. Then, "No."
"So why do we-"
"Because we're officers, and it's our duty!" snapped Colonel
Crawford. He turned to the War Captain. "Perhaps you have the wrong
"No, I don't," said the War Captain. He looked at me. "There's
something else, isn't there?"
I nodded unhappily. "While I was in the gentle care of the
Redcaps, they told me if I ever was caught escaping again, I'd be
executed, on the spot."
"That's what they told me as well," said the War Captain softly.
Chapter 12 A Very, Very Unexpected Visitor
They seemed to think I had established a good rapport with
Sergeant Pigli, so I was assigned to get information and favors out of
him. It turned out he could be bribed with food, which, while not in
great supply, was more freely available than it had been in the Slurian
Each of us had an assigned task. Corporal Barry "Digger" Bayonne,
despite his low rank, was in charge of the digging crew. He had dug
several tunnels out of the camp already.
"What happened to them?"
"They got discovered," he said.
"So what do you do?"
"We build more," he said cheerfully.
"Can't they just use seismic detectors to spot you the minute you
start digging?" I asked.
"They could, if they had them," said Corporal Digger. "But
everything here is very low priority, low tech. We even farm with hand
"I noticed the vegetable farms, but then there is that tall crop,
with the curly leaves-"
"Yes, you mean Kat."
"Highly addictive, very rare," said Digger.
"Why do they grow it here?"
"It only grows in a thin atmosphere, for some reason," said
Digger. "We're a mile up, so it's perfect here. And since we're near
the equator, we get warmer weather than the rest of the planet."
"Yes, it must be at least 30 degrees fahrenheit today," I said.
"That's a pretty warm day," said Digger.
Half Commander Gary Dalton was the gadget man. He would take bits
and pieces of devices or equipment that the men managed to steal and
turn it into usable items. For example, he somehow managed to turn a
stolen hoe into three shovels. I'm still not sure how he did that. He
was also very good at producing civilian clothing and identity papers.
"Identity papers?" I asked.
"Yes, they still use papers here, not electronic ID's," said
Dalton. "They're only a few thousand years behind the times on this
planet. It's a conscious decision, you know; the Slurians don't want to
expend any resources here on this planet, except for us, that is."
I gradually met the other prisoners. It was nice to be back among
my own kind, even if my happiness was tempered by the fact that I was
in prison. But there was no torture, beatings, or mistreatment, with
only one or two exceptions. And Sergeant Pigli was downright friendly.
But there was one prisoner among us who wasn't a League soldier,
and I ran into him purely by accident, about a week after I arrived.
He was a tall, dark hair man with a mildly angry look on his
We stood on line together for food. "Hello, I don't think I've
met you before," I said.
The man said nothing.
"The name is Idaho, Idaho Took," I said. "That's with three o's,
The man still said nothing.
"You won't get much out of him, Idaho," said Sergeant Bailey.
"That's the Whisperer."
"That's what we call him, anyway. I'm not sure what his real name
As we were served our food (kem, with bits of carrots for
flavor), I sat down next to Bailey. "He's not wearing a military
uniform. What service was he with?"
"No service, not that I know of," said Bailey. "He's a
"A Graftonite!" I said. Graftonites were a race of gunfighters
with superfast reflexes. "What is he doing here?"
"I'm not sure of his story. He doesn't talk much," said Bailey.
"But I think he got caught up in the fighting between the League and
the Slurians, and he got captured."
"I can't imagine any Graftonite getting captured," I said.
The Whisperer turned and glared at me.
"Oh, sorry," I said, lowering my voice.
The Whisperer spoke, in a very soft voice, "You can imagine it
when you're surrounded by two divisions in heavy battle tanks."
He stared at me a moment further, which made me fearful. Then he
"I don't think I started off on the right foot with him," I said.
Life settled into a routine. We farmed, we dug tunnels, we
planned, we improvised. It took some time to dig a tunnel, and we were
a camp that was simply filled with escape artists. It was only
inevitable that every so often one of us would attempt to escape.
One of the masters of the escape attempt was a fellow named
Lieutenant Riley. He held the record for largest number of escape
attempts. He usually escaped outside the camp, while on farming duty.
The farming area was outside the camp, but still on the mountaintop,
and the area was surrounded by guards.
But that didn't stop Riley from improvising. One time as we were
being escorted back to the camp there was a bend in the road and Riley
was out of sight of the guards for a few seconds. He ducked into a
ditch, took out a blanket covered with dirt and leaves, and covered
himself with it. The guards never noticed.
Another time while on workbreak some of the prisoners built a
snowman near the fields. The guards took no notice of it until a
headcount showed that Riley had disappeared--he was inside of it.
Perhaps Riley's most audacious escape attempt occurred when he
simply walked out of the front gates, impersonating Sergeant Pigli.
Dalton helped him modify a uniform, and he stuck some pillows under it,
to simulate Pigli's obesity. They even made a mock blaster to match
Then, one evening, he headed to the front gate. Riley had
practiced imitating Pigli's voice, and in fact was quite a good mimic.
The guards at the front gate were completely taken in, and they let him
Unfortunately, each escape ended in failure. Although it Riley
had successfully escaped beyond the front gate several times, he was
usually caught attempting to scale down the mountain. The mountain was
a mile high, and scaling down its length, even with rope and other
equipment, simply took too long. Once a prisoner was discovered
missing, the first thing the guards would do is call in a shuttle to
circle around the mountain. There, usually on the side of some part of
the mountain face, they would find the dangling prisoner.
The punishment for attempted escape was always the same: two
weeks in isolation. But this was no cold cell, there was no torture or
other beatings. The Slurians treated us as professionals.
My fellow prisoners were fascinated by my connection with War
Admiral North. None of the others there had ever served under him, and
they plied me with all sorts of questions. Actually, they were
fascinated by War Captain North, since he looked a little like the War
Admiral, and talked a little like him too. Although I had no news of
the war to tell them, they always loved to hear stories of the battles
I had fought under the War Admiral.
I kept in close contact with Sergeant Pigli, as I became his
designated contact for goods and information. We would bribe him with a
little food to get what we want--usually innocuous things like
blankets, pieces of wood, or ink, which we could turn to our own
purposes. Sometimes, however, we would get information.
"So, how goes the war?" I asked one evening, as I stood outside
the barracks with Pigli.
"Now, Idaaho, you know I am not allowed to divulge classified
information," said Pigli, scolding me. By this time I learned that he
hated the war, hated being a conscript, and wanted nothing more than to
go back to Sluria and resume his native profession. He was a tailor,
actually. When Riley was caught impersonating him, Pigli demanded to
know who had made his uniform. At first, we refused to tell, figuring
that Pigli would take some sort of revenge, but Pigli assured us that
was not the case.
When Dalton admitted doing it, Pigli shook his hand and gave him
a small piece of chocolate.
Why? Because his uniform was getting worn out, and now he had a
I don't want to present a picture of chummy guards being friendly
with us. Most kept a cold, professional distance. A few were borderline
cruel. They had a job to do and they did it. Most didn't want to be
there and would have preferred being somewhere else.
But Pigli was an exception. He was a chatterbox, and though he
never intentionally helped us, he sometimes let something slip through.
"Come on, Pigli, you can tell me," I asked. "Why isn't the war
"We still have some, ah, mopping up to do," he said, giving a
"Don't give me that," I said. "I hear you've been giving people
the same mopping up line for years."
"Idaaho, I only know what is told to me. Officially, we are
continuing to win the war at a fantastic rate."
Pigli looked around. There were no other guards.
"Let's just say that Slurian war bonds wouldn't be a good buy
now. But you didn't hear that from me."
"So we are winning the war," I said, reporting to Colonel
"As we surmised. But it could still take years to end," said
Crawford. "Therefore, we must proceed with our escape plans."
"Even assuming you manage to finish one of your tunnels without
being detected, how do you plan to get us off the mountain?" I asked.
"That will be explained in time," said Crawford. "In the
meantime, I want you to work with Corporal Jensen on your speech."
"Your accent," said Crawford. "When Jensen is done with you,
you'll speak Slurian flawlessly."
So I started lessons with the corporal. He taught me to properly
speak all forms of Slurian--low, medium, and high. A lot of it depended
on the inflection.
"No, no no," said Corporal Jensen, one time when I pronounced the
"What did I do?"
"You pronounced it using a high Slurian inflection."
"You changed the meaning of the word from 'ticket' to
'prostitute'," said Jensen.
"That's not so bad," I theorized.
"You'd be given away instantly if you tried to buy a ticket to
somewhere," said Jensen. "Please keep practicing. Sir."
So I practiced.
The Slurians knew we were building tunnels, of course. Every so
often they would find one of them, and weeks of work would go down the
"All according to plan," said the War Captain.
"Plan? What plan?" I said.
"We make a smaller series of dummy tunnels for them to find, from
time to time. That distracts them from our real tunnels."
"On a need to know basis," said the War Captain. The Colonel had
made him our chief strategist, which everyone agreed made a great deal
Finally, after I had been there a few months, we were ready to
make our escape. One of the tunnels was ready. Ten prisoners were
chosen to make the escape attempt. I happened to be one of the ten
(through the War Captain's influence? I'll never know). We were given
civilian clothes and forged documents, painstakingly constructed over
the past few months for Half Commander Dalton.
"Can you tell us now how we're going to get down the mountain?" I
"We're going to climb down the mountain," said the War Captain.
"What will stop them from picking us off the side of the mountain
when they discover we're missing?" I said.
The War Captain indicated a rough model of the mountain made out
of clay. "Do you see this fissure here, along the north face?"
"We think there's a crack there, perhaps a cave, large enough to
hide in. We'll hide there until they conclude, logically, that we're
already off the mountain."
"Has anyone actually seen this cave?" I asked.
The War Captain shook his head. "Only from a distance. We'll
explore it when we get there."
If it's there, I thought silently.
But then, the day before we were supposed to go, our tunnel was
We were so close!
"This can't be a coincidence," said Colonel Crawford.
"No, it can't," said the War Captain.
As it turned out, we had a spy in the camp. But the story of how
we uncovered his identity and exposed him was nothing compared to an
event that occurred the following week.
An unscheduled shuttle landed on the mountaintop. Some senior
officials entered the base.
We tried to get a man under the Commandant's cabin, but security
was too tight. It wasn't until after the officials had left and the
shuttle had lifted off that we could get a man under there. What he
heard was only the aftermath of whatever had happened.
"He seemed really shaken up, sir," said Sergeant Bailey, who had
been the appointed spy. "He kept saying that they can't do it, that it
wasn't right, that it was all wrong."
"But what is 'it'?" said Colonel Crawford.
"I don't know, sir," said Sergeant Bailey. "But Tenov, he sounded
"Maybe the war is over," I said brightly. "Maybe we won. That
would upset him."
"He wouldn't refer to it as a wrongness," said the War Captain,
his eyes gleaming. "I wonder... what could possibly upset a military
officer? Besides defeat in battle."
"Unprofessionalism," said Colonel Crawford. "The Slurian military
despises the Redcaps for their unprofessionalism."
"Unprofessionalism about what?" the War Captain said.
Then even stranger things happened. A campwide meeting of all the
guards was held, except for a few at the perimeter. It was so secret
that it was held outside the gates of the camp, out of hearing range.
When the guards came back, they looked dazed and sullen.
Even Pigli looked shocked.
"What's up, Pigli?" I asked, as he came by.
He just walked passed me, shaking his head.
The other shoe dropped a week later, when a transport landed. A
platoon of Redcap soldiers got off. A platoon of Slurian military
officers got on. One of them was Pigli.
"I just came to say goodbye," he said to me, with his pack on his
"Why?" I said. "What's going on?"
"You'll find out soon enough," said Pigli. His eyes averted, he
added,. "I... I am sorry, Idaaho. I would not do things this way."
He turned and left, not looking back, even after I called out his
The Redcaps took over positions inside the camp. Rumors abounded.
The Redcaps were taking over; the Redcaps intended to kill us; we all
didn't have long to live.
It was with great trepidation that we were called to rollcall
right after the Redcaps arrived. We all stood at attention at the side
of the Pit. The Pit was a great hole in the compound that lead for
miles down. Occasionally one of the guards joked about dropping one of
us in it, because you could drop something down there and not hear the
sounds of it hitting bottom for almost a minute. Rumor had it that the
Pit extended all the way to the base of the mountain, but we found the
interiors, like the exteriors, virtually unclimbable, so we could
hardly explore it as an escape route.
We stood at attention nervously as we saw the new Redcap guards
in place with their blaster rifles.
But the regular military was still there too, in the watchtowers
and on the walls and outerfence guard. Colonel Tenov came out of his
office. A Redcap major came up and stood at his side.
Looking extremely unhappy, Tenov stepped forward and addressed
"Attention prisoners. From this day forward we will have new...
assistance. Half the garrison has been shifted back to active duty.
They are being replaced with special units of the Loyalty Police, under
the command of Major Semvarsk."
That must be the Redcap standing by his side. He had a smug smile
on his face. Not a good sign.
"The military... will still be in overall control of the camp,
especially perimeter security. The Loyalty Police will assist in
interior security. That is all." He abruptly turned, and headed back
into his office.
What exactly was going on here?
"It couldn't be a reaction to anything we've done," said Colonel
Crawford, back in the barracks.
"Something must have happened," I said. "We must be winning the
war. They probably called up that platoon to fight because they're
running out of reserves."
"Perhaps," said the War Captain. "But I'm not convinced that
that's what's really happening. One more platoon will not make much of
a difference in the war effort. Colonel Tenov is genuinely unhappy
about something, and I don't think his unhappiness is confined to the
loss of a platoon."
"Of course, he's losing some of his authority to a Redcap
officer, who would want that," said Colonel Crawford.
"Perhaps," said the War Captain again. "But-"
Suddenly the door to the barracks burst open, and Redcaps swarmed
in. "Inspection!" one of them yelled.
We stood at attention at our bunks.
The Redcap leading the inspection looked vaguely familiar. Then,
when he got closer, I recognized him. And his eyes widened when he
It was Sergeant Maxim Korky. Sergeant Iron Club, from Labor Camp
It was a small planet.
"So, Richman, we meet again," said Korky. He lifted up his iron
bar, and slammed it into my stomach. I doubled over to the ground.
The other soldiers yelled out and started to jump forward, but
Korky's men raised their blaster rifles.
"Let me introduce myself!" he said loudly. "I am master sergeant
Maxim Korky. Major Semvarsk has appointed me his personal... liaison to
you scum. It's my job to keep you in line."
"I have some news for you," he said. "We are no longer running a
luxury hotel. Effective immediately, escaping prisoners will be shot on
sight. Work hours will be increased, and the rather exorbitant rations
you receive will be cut. Are there any questions?"
Colonel Crawford spoke. "Assaulting one of my men without cause
is a violation of the Graftonite accords."
Sergeant Iron Bar walked slowly to Colonel Crawford, slowly
waving his bar. If he hit the Colonel I knew there would be blood
spilled, and most of it would be ours. They had the blasters, not us.
Iron Bar looked Crawford up and down. Crawford cooly returned his
"You are the one called Crawford."
"Colonel Crawford," said Crawford.
Iron Bar hooked a thumb. "Take him to Major Semvarsk."
Two Redcap guards moved to grab Crawford. He shrugged them away
and started walking on his own.
"The rest of you," said Iron Bar,"...the rest of you can talk to
Richman here to find out what kind of treatment you'll get."
He and his men left.
Two prisoners bent down to help me up. I felt a pain in the gut
but I didn't think he had broken any bones. I had been lucky, this
We waited anxiously for Colonel Crawford to return. When he
didn't, the next ranking officer, Major Ingushetti, a tough as nails
marine major, went to see Colonel Tenov, he returned with an enraged
"The Colonel has been put in solitary," he said.
"Why?" Sergeant Bailey asked.
"For behaving insolently to that new Redcap Major."
That did it. We all went on strike; we went in the courtyard and
sat down and refused to move, refused to work. The Redcaps yelled at
us, screamed at us to get up, even kicked us. When that didn't work,
one of them fired his blaster rifle over our heads.
I felt my heart hammering, but I didn't move.
The blasterfire got Colonel Tenov out of his office in a hurry.
"What is this?" he said.
"The prisoners are being disobedient," said Major Semvarsk. "I
may have to make an example of a few of them."
"We want Colonel Crawford released!" one of the men shouted.
One of the Redcaps went over and gave the prisoner a vicious
"Stop!" said Colonel Tenov. He turned to the Redcap Major.
"Release Colonel Crawford immediately."
"You're punishing him for nothing and they know it!" said Tenov,
apparently not caring that we were listening. "Now, we need this
workforce alive and cooperative to get the Kem harvested. Are you going
to file the report after they mutiny and you murder half the
Major Semvarsk glared at Tenov, and for a moment I thought he was
going to escalate things another notch. But then he cooled down and
nodded. "Release the Colonel," he said.
We actually clapped as Colonel Crawford was let out.
"Don't think you've won anything, dogs!" said Semvarsk. "I will
be watching you. And if any of you get out of line, you'll think
solitary confinement will be a picnic!"
Things went downhill from there. Our food ration was cut, as
promised, and our work hours were increased. But at least the work
wasn't as grueling, or as dangerous, as working in the mines.
But the Redcap abuse of our men steadily increased. First they
called us names; then they pushed or slapped us; then they administered
minor beatings; then they broke bones and openly used torture.
Our appeals to Colonel Tenov went unanswered. His office was now
off-limits to us, and only rarely could we get a spy under his office.
The regular military men in the watchtowers, on the fence line, often
looked away, out of the camp, whenever the Redcaps became abusive. They
knew better than to interfere with the Loyalty Police.
Corporal Iron Bar picked on a number of us, but for some reason
he developed a special disliking for the Whisperer. He would often pick
him out of line and taunt him. "You're not so tough, are you
Graftonite? Show me how tough you are?"
He would punch and kick the Whisperer, but that only worked once;
even in his beaten state, the Whisperer had much faster reflexes than
Sergeant Iron Bar, and the first time Iron Bar attacked, he found
himself on the ground, spitting out blood and wondering what happened.
Thereafter he started using an electrowhip on the Whisperer, with
blaster armed Redcap soldiers standing in backup. He would whip the
Whisperer with little or no provocation whatsoever. Sometimes the
Whisperer would get in a punch, or a kick, but Iron Bar would only whip
him harder. One time Iron Bar whipped him so much that he stopped
moving. But that didn't stop Iron Bar. I think he meant to kill the
Whisperer that time.
Sergeant Bailey ran over to the Whisperer's body and checked for
a pulse. He found it, but it was faint. "He's barely alive," said
"Get out of the way," Iron Bar growled.
"What? So you can kill a defenseless man?" said Bailey. He
gulped. "If you're going to whip a defenseless prisoner, whip me."
"All right," said Iron Bar, raising the electrowhip.
"And me," said another prisoner, stepping forward.
"And me," said another, and then still another came forward.
Iron Bar raised his whip again, but scowled. This wasn't giving
him the kind of pleasure he was looking for. He stomped off, looking
The Whisperer survived, but he took many days of bed rest before
he returned to even a shadow of his former self. When he regained
consciousness, he had a private conversation with Sergeant Bailey.
Well, it was almost private; I was eavesdropping.
"You," said the Whisperer simply. "Why?"
"I would have done it for any innocent person," said Bailey.
"I'm not sure... I would have done it for you," said the
"That's not important," said Bailey.
"Maybe it is," said the Whisperer. And then he dropped off to
It was three whole months after the Redcaps arrived that we
learned the total, awful truth; it was Sergeant Bailey, who had been
spying under Colonel Tenov's office, who heard the news. He looked
stunned, really stunned.
"What?" we all said.
He was in shock, almost speechless. "The war," he managed to get
out. He was almost in tears.
"The war... is over," said Bailey.
"What, Bailey?" I said. "Did we lose?"
"No!" said Bailey. "We won the war!"
"Then why are you crying?" I said.
"We won the war over three months ago!" said Bailey.
Over three months ago. And we were still prisoners of war. It
didn't take the brightest bulb to figure out what had happened. The
only question was... why.
The Colonel, the War Captain and I requested an interview with
Colonel Tenov. After repeated requests, we got it.
Tenov looked haggard and pale. Of course. It was all clear now.
"Why are we still here?" said Colonel Crawford.
"What do you mean?" said Tenov nervously.
"The war is over," said Crawford. "It's been over for some time."
Tenov bit his lip. "I know," he said unhappily.
"Why have we not been told? Why have we not been released?"
"I didn't think they were serious," said Tenov. "Even when they
set it up, I thought it was a contingency plan."
"What was?" said Crawford.
"Didn't you ever wonder, why you never received any mail or were
allowed to send any?"
"We were told it was part of being in this punishment camp," said
"Wrong," said Tenov, shaking his head. "The minute you were
transferred here, you were immediately listed in our official records
as dead, deceased, shot while trying to escape. The authorities felt
that you had used up so many resources in your repeated escapes that
you needed to spent the rest of your life working off the debt."
"You knew all along?"
"I hoped they would change their minds when the war ended. I
thought maybe they would use you as bargaining chips. Perhaps a change
in administration would change the policy-"
"But that didn't happen, did it?" the War Captain asked.
"No," said Tenov. "When the war ended, the Redcaps wanted to take
total control over the installation. We knew what would happen if they
did. You would all be slaughtered! There was an internal fight in the
bureaucracy. A compromise was reached."
"You would stay in overall control, while the Redcaps would run
"But that didn't really happen, did it?" the War Captain asked.
"The Redcaps really run this camp, don't they?"
"Yes," said Tenov. He couldn't even look at us. "I'm sorry for
what's happened to you. I tried to resign, but... but... I was not
"You have to help us, get a message out-"
"No!' said Tenov. "I am a loyal Slurian, I will not-"
"A good thing," said Major Semvarsk, bursting into the office
with a few of his Redcaps. They had obviously been listening from the
outside. He turned to Colonel Crawford. "Any more questions?" he
So they were keeping us here out of spite. Spite, anger at losing
the war, whatever you want to call it. There didn't seem to be anything
we could do about it.
Except redouble our efforts to escape.
But the Redcaps had been even more thorough at detecting our
tunnels. No tunnel ever got more than 20 feet before it was found by a
Redcap. They simply were too observant.
"So we will simply have to construct a new tunnel in a place they
won't think to look," said Colonel Crawford.
"Where would that be?" I asked.
"Under the Commandant's office."
Under his office! We could only sneak people there on an
irregular basis at best. But Crawford was right; the Slurians almost
never looked under there.
We began work on the tunnel. But work was slow, because of our
irregular access to the area under his office. In the meantime more of
us were beaten. One of the prisoners was killed and thrown into the
Pit. There was a riot after that that resulted in the deaths of three
more of us.
Meanwhile work on the tunnel progressed. Corporal Digger had
almost made it to the wire when something very unexpected happened to
me at lunch one day.
I looked up from my very boring meal of Kem and saw a very
League superspy Clifford Croft.
I blinked; could it really be him?
"Croft?" I said.
He matched stares with me. Stares of recognition. He really was
here! Maybe he had been sent to rescue me.
"You've been sent to rescue me!" I said.
"Quiet!" said Croft sharply. He sat down opposite me. "You
couldn't be more wrong."
"I wasn't sent here to rescue you," said Croft.
"Then... the War Captain! You were sent for him," I said.
"Who?" said Croft. "I was sent here to rescue him," he said,
pointing to the man sitting right next to me.
The Whisperer, for once, had a very surprised look on his face.
Part II: Clifford Croft's Story
Chapter 13: An Unexpected Employer
The Time: Four weeks earlier
I maneuvered my ground car through the narrow road into the
parking area, careful not to trample the flowers on the left or right.
The Silencer had shot people for less.
I got out of the ground car and made my way to the front porch of
the ranch. It was a hot, sunny day on Grafton, and I waved my hand to
shoo away some flies. I wondered if the Silencer shot them.
Or maybe he was just quick enough to squash them with his
I pressed the button by the door and waited. The Silencer knew I
was here, of course; he just liked to make people wait. No, it wasn't
that he liked to make people wait, he just was never in a hurry to
cater to the convenience of others.
Which made his request for me to come here doubly puzzling.
He opened the door. "Clifford," he said bluntly.
Triple puzzling. He never, ever called me Clifford. What was
going on here?
He escorted me into a spacious living room decorated with animal
hides. I sank into a soft chair by an inactive fireplace. A young woman
came into the room.
"Clifford," she said.
"Annie," I said. The Silencer glared at me. I wondered if he
glared at everyone who said his girlfriend's name.
"So nice of you to come," said Annie. She took a seat, and
gestured for the Silencer to do so. Looking reluctant, he sat down.
"Well, I was on vacation-"
"I know," said the Silencer bluntly. "We've been waiting."
"Waiting?" I said. "For what?"
"John needs your help," said Annie.
The Silencer looked hard at her.
Annie shifted uncomfortably. "Let me rephrase that."
"I need your services," said the Silencer.
I raised an eyebrow. The Silencer needed something from me? This
would truly be a first.
The Silencer looked at me.
I looked at the Silencer.
He looked back at me.
"What do you need my help with?"
The Silencer paused for a few seconds more, perhaps basking in
his victory. "As you're no doubt aware, the Slurian War ended a few
"I think I read something about it on the interstellar network,"
"Under the terms of the armistice, each side was supposed to
release all prisoners of war," said the Silencer. "One of them was my
"Your brother?" I said.
"Martin," said the Silencer.
"He joined up and fought for the League?"
"Not exactly," said the Silencer. "From what I understand, he
just got caught up in the fighting."
The Silencer paused.
"Martin got captured."
Wow. What an admission to make. I knew the Graftonites looked
down on that.
"It was on one of the planets the Slurians took over earlier in
"How did you know this?"
"We got a letter from him a year ago, some time after he had been
captured. That was about a year ago."
"We thought about staging a rescue," said Annie.
"A rescue? In the middle of the war?" I asked.
"But by that time the war was clearly going the League's way,"
said Annie. "It was reasonably clear that in a few months it would all
be over. And it was."
"Martin never returned," said the Silencer. "When the prisoners
were released, he wasn't one of them. We made inquiries, and were told
he was shot while trying to escape."
"That's very sad," I said. I looked sharply at the Silencer. "You
don't believe them."
"Do you believe anything the Slurians say?"
"It's certainly possible," I said. "If your brother is half as
determined as you are, he certainly would have tried to escape. And a
Graftonite without a blaster can be shot like anyone else."
"I'll excuse your ignorance," said the Silencer coldly. "But we
were prepared to consider the possibility that he was dead, until I
spread some credits around and did a little research." He handed me a
I looked at it. It was a list of names and dates.
"What is it?"
"A list of prisoners 'shot while trying to escape'," said the
"That's a lot of people," I said, frowning. "But I'm not
surprised that the Slurians would be this brutal."
"Then I did some research on some of the names," said the
Silencer. "Many of them were among the most capable officers in your
"That's logical, as they would be most inclined to be able to
stage escape attempts." So far, the Silencer was just grasping at
"But the bodies were never returned," said the Silencer.
I raised my eyebrows again. That got my attention.
"I had several of the repatriated prisoners interviewed. Standard
operating procedure was that prisoners shot while or after escaping
were brought back and their bodies were displayed as an example to the
others. A large number of the names on this list were never brought
back to have their bodies shown to their fellow POW's."
My expression changed. "That's the first thing you've said that
makes some sense." I knew standard Slurian procedure well.
"They're alive. I talked to prisoners at the last camp my brother
was stationed at. After his last escape, his body was never brought
"You think the Slurians are still holding onto him? And other
"It wouldn't be the first time," said the Silencer.
"No, it wouldn't," I said. "But why?"
"The why doesn't matter," said the Silencer. "Only the where, and
the who." His expression hardened.
"What do you want from me?" I asked.
"I want you to locate my brother, and if you can, extract him."
"And if I can't?"
"Just let me know where he is."
"If they are holding him prisoner, he's going to be under some
pretty heavy guard."
"Just let me know where he is," said the Silencer simply.
I paused, considering. I had earned a well deserved vacation, but
I knew I couldn't turn down the Silencer's request. He may only care
about his brother, but I had broader concerns. If there were League
POW's still in Slurian captivity, I wanted them freed!
I didn't let any of that show on my face, however.
"How much?" I asked.
"How much what?" said Annie, looking startled.
"How much will you pay me to rescue your brother?"
"After all the times John has helped you-"
"And he's been more than well paid for it every time," I said.
"More than once he's extorted an unusually high price for his services
when he's been critically needed."
"That's because you wanted the best."
"And now you want the best," I said.
The Silencer nodded slowly. "How much do you want?"
I paused, for dramatic effect. "Ten million."
"Credits?" said Annie, as if she couldn't believe her ears.
"I'm supposed to be on vacation," I said lazily. "What you're
proposing is not only less than restful, but could be very, very
The Silencer said nothing.
"How much is your brother worth, John?" I asked. "Name the
The Silencer gave me an angry look.
I worked to maintain my external calm. Let him know what it feels
like to be extorted for a change!
"Ten million," said the Silencer, gritting his teeth. "If you get
him out. But if you only locate him, you get three million."
"Four," said the Silencer.
"Are you bargaining for your brother's life in credits?" I asked.
I put my hands out to put a halt to this ridiculousness. "I'll tell you
what. I'll rescue your brother for free."
"What?" said Annie. "Then what was all this talk about money
"To make a point," I said, staring meaningfully at the Silencer.
"But maybe free is not the right term. I do want something in return."
"What?" said the Silencer.
"A favor," I said.
"What?" said the Silencer again.
"I don't know," I said. "But sometime in the future, when I come
to you with a problem, you have to help me, without holding me up for
millions of credits."
The Silencer considered. "Only once."
"I know your brother isn't worth more than one favor," I said.
The Silencer's eyes flared.
"Clifford, why are you acting this way?" Annie said.
"Because this is the treatment I get every time I ask him for
help and I'm tired of it," said Croft. "Maybe when the blaster's in the
other hand now he'll appreciate how it feels."
"Do we have a deal?" said the Silencer.
"If your brother's alive, I'll find him," I said.
Then I instantly regretted saying it. What if his brother were
alive but I couldn't find him? I shouldn't have been so definitive
But I'm the best infiltrator there is. If anyone could do it, I
I did some research first, in the computer banks of the Column.
For secure access I had to return to the Column offices, which raised a
few eyebrows because I was officially on vacation.
"Aren't you on vacation?" said one of my noisy coworkers.
"Yes," I said, typing away. "I find this fun."
"You know, you're only supposed to use the records for official
I turned and looked at her. "You know, it's not polite to
criticize a fellow intelligence officer, especially one who is senior
That put her in her place. It took another hour or two of
searching, but I got the information I wanted.
Then I booked a trip to Sluria.
Sluria, the vacation paradise of the galaxy!
Ok, actually it was a rather drab planet. And commercial flights
had only recently been reestablished. But I had a feeling I'd need my
own ship for this, so I took one of the Column's unmarked scoutships. I
knew they wouldn't object much, after the fact.
As Sluria didn't have an overwhelming number of tourists from the
League, especially since we had ended a bloody war with them, I posed
as a rich Rurrian eccentric on vacation. Rurria was a strong ally of
Sluria, and I could speak Slurian with a Rurrian accent quite
I made my way through customs, had my false ID examined and
reexamined, paid the appropriate bribes, and was on my way. Half the
research I had done at the Column had been to locate one address, a
simple apartment on the residential side of the capital.
I went there and let myself in. I sat and waited, amusing myself
with the owner's computer terminal.
When the door to the apartment opened a few hours later, I was
more than ready.
"What are you doing here?" snarled Torgi Rostov.
"It's good to see you again too," I said.
He moved to draw a weapon, but I was quicker, drawing my blaster
first. I had managed to hide one or two things from the quite thorough
customs inspectors, including a detachable blaster. "Drop it."
"Now take a seat," I said.
He sat down opposite me. "What is this about?"
"I need a favor," I said.
"I already did you a favor," Rostov snarled.
"In return for saving your life," I said. "Is your life only
worth one favor?"
"It was in return for not killing me."
"As I recall the exact circumstances, you were trying to kill me,
and I spared you," I said. "That particular fact pattern seemed to make
you quite needy."
"I already helped you once."
"So you did but I need some help again."
I sighed. "Well, maybe we can trade."
"What if I can prove that one of your agents is embezzling state
money for his own purposes?" I said.
Rostov shrugged. "Why should I care?"
"This agent does not work with Slurian intelligence, but rather
Slurian military intelligence. It's a rival agency. Don't you guys hate
"If I were to give you the name of this agent, you would
undoubtedly get a medal for exposing him."
"Let's not exaggerate," said Rostov. "What do you want?"
I took a breath. "A number of League military people are still
being held prisoner."
I watched his reaction carefully. Rostov didn't have one.
"I want to know where they are."
"No," said Rostov immediately.
"The trade doesn't interest you?" I said.
"What if I sweeten the offer?" I said.
"How do you mean?"
"What if I tapped into the stolen money, traceable from the
terminal in your apartment, and arranged for some of that money to be
deposited in an account with your name on it."
Rostov said nothing.
"And then what if I anonymously informed your bosses that you
were stealing state money as well? I don't think you'd get a medal of
any kind then."
"All right," said Rostov. "But it will take some time to get the
"Why?" I asked.
"The camp is run by the military, and they keep their own
"So you do know about it."
"I have heard rumors," said Rostov. "Give me a week or two-"
"You have two days," I said. "I will return to your apartment in
two days. I expect you to be here at 7 PM, two days from now."
I didn't wait for him to answer, but got up to leave, very
careful not to show him my back as I left the apartment.
Well, that should start the wheels turning.
Two days later I was calmly sitting in Rostov's apartment again.
I hadn't been idle the entire time; I spent the time acquiring some
items I thought would be useful. As I sat in his apartment I turned on
the music. All I could find was Slurian opera, but it would do.
Rostov walked in the door, right on time.
But he was followed by half a dozen men, all with blasters
"What's this?" I said.
"Here is the spy, Clifford Croft, as I promised," said Rostov,
making a small frown as he heard the noise of the opera.
I sighed, pressing hard on my right toe. "Oh, you have betrayed
me," I said. "This is such a surprise."
"If you're so surprised how did we catch you?" said Rostov,
blinking a bit.
Suddenly he heard the sounds of two of his men collapsing to the
ground behind him.
"You didn't," I smiled.
Rostov looked confused, started to raise his blaster, but he
collapsed, along with the rest of his men.
I sighed, getting up. I had anticipated betrayal, of course. So I
had planted a canister of exceptionally fast acting knockout gas in the
room. It was an expensive kind, virtually colorless and odorless. The
only thing I couldn't mask was the sound of the gas escaping from the
canister, which is why I needed the opera. I, of course, had nose
filters plugged in and ready.
When Rostov awoke he was tied up in a warehouse. I smiled
encouragingly at him.
"Ready to talk now?"
Rostov snarled at me.
"All right," I said, getting up. "I guess I'll have to let your
bosses know about that money you embezzled."
"Altera!" said Rostov.
"What?" I said.
"They're on Altera."
"The death planet. It figures," I said. "Where on Altera?"
"I don't know," said Rostov.
"Sorry?" I said.
"I really don't!" said Rostov. "It's military. I was lucky to
find out that much."
"Well, that's something," I said. "I guess that information is
worth not reporting you to your boss." I started to leave.
"Wait!" said Rostov.
"Aren't you going to untie me?"
I paused, remembering the ambush. "No, I don't think so."
So I embarked to Altera. I felt confident that Rostov wouldn't
betray me (again), if only because doing so could bring some unpleasant
subjects to the attention of his superiors--such as the missing money,
and exactly who told me about Altera in the first place.
Altera was a "closed" planet, even by Slurian standards, which
made it very difficult to visit. I did a little research and found out
the Rurrians had a mining operation there, so I simply adjusted my
profile and became a Rurrian mining executive.
Once I landed on the planet the first thing I realized was that
it was cold. Really cold. There was snow everywhere. I shivered as I
wrapped my jacket more tightly around me.
I won't bother with the small details of how I broke into the
local military base or accessed their computer. I punched up a list of
holdings on the entire planet. Suddenly, the globe became dotted with
I'd have to narrow it down a little. A prisoner of war camp
probably wouldn't have more than a company guarding it; I narrowed down
bases with less than 200 men.
Many of the dots disappeared.
They certainly would have at least a platoon or two guarding it.
I eliminated bases with less than 50 men.
Many more dots disappeared. But there were still a few dozen
What else, hm? The prisoners would undoubtedly be put to work. I
searched for work camp installations.
Five installations appeared. I started punching up lists of
prisoner names at each installation.
It was a place called Mount Perm. Really isolated, on a
mountaintop. I looked at an image of the mountain. A mile up. It looked
unclimbable. This was going to be a tough one. How was I going to get
I'd have to fly in.
A few hours later I landed my scoutship just outside the camp. I
could see from the troops shouting and assembling outside my ship. My,
they seemed quite agitated.
The only thing that surprised me when I got out was that most of
the troops were Redcaps. The loyalty police. I thought the military was
After a quick search, they hustled me with unnecessary roughness
to the commander's office. The sign on the desk said Colonel Tenov, and
I saw he was regular military. But to his side stood a bloodthirsty
Redcap major. What was he doing here?
"Robert Clarity," I said. "I'm a journalist."
"Why are you here?"
"I'm doing a story on the prisoner of wars you're still holding."
Most of the blood drained out of Colonel Tenov's face. "Can you be
helpful and set up some interviews for me?" I asked.
"We should interrogate him for what he knows, and eliminate him,"
said the Redcap major.
Tenov glanced sharply at him, then turned back to me. "How did
you hear that prisoners were here?"
"It's common knowledge, all over the League. I read an article in
August Today on it about a month ago," I said.
Tenov gave a sarcastic grin. "I hardly think it is common
knowledge in your League."
"Let me have him, just for an hour!" said the Redcap major.
"May I remind you, Major Semvarsk, that I am still in command of
this installation?" said Tenov, giving the Redcap a nasty glare. He
turned to me. "I think what we shall do first is verify Mr. Clarity's
identity. Then we shall decide on a course of action." He pressed a
button and spoke rapidly in Slurian; an aide entered the office, and
took a holo of me as well as my prints.
"We should interrogate him immediately!" said Major Semvarsk, in
"I will not torture someone, possibly a civilian, without urgent
reason," said Colonel Tenov.
"But it may take weeks to verify his identity!" said Tenov.
"Perhaps a few days," said Tenov. "We have him and he isn't going
anywhere. If it turns out he is lying, I will turn him over to you."
"Either way, he can never leave this facility," said Semvarsk,
still in Slurian.
Sighing, Tenov nodded. He turned to me and spoke in System
English again. "We will take you now to meet the prisoners you
"Good, if I can just get some film equipment from my ship-"
"Your ship will be impounded," said Tenov. "You have trespassed
on a closed military installation, which is a high crime. While we
determine what to do with you, you will stay at this facility. Major
Semvarsk, escort the prisoner out."
Semvarsk escorted me to the prisoner compound. "I cannot wait to
get some time with you."
"I can't interview everyone at once," I said. "You'll just have
to wait your turn."
But I turned as I noticed a whine. My ship was taking off,
The ship was kind of an integral part of the escape plan.
The Slurians hadn't invented a prison yet that could hold me.
The prisoners eyed me curiously, as if they weren't used to
seeing new faces. Many wore tattered or faded military uniforms. I
casually walked to one place that seemed crowded with people; it turned
out to be a cafeteria. I entered and started searching for my target,
remembering the holoimage I had memorized.
I saw him sitting at a table eating a small dish of something. He
looked a lot more battered and worn down then he did in his photo but I
guess that was to be expected.
I went over to the Whisperer. But before I could say a word, I
saw another familiar face. Military. Tack, Tuch... Took.
We locked eyes.
"Croft!" he said. "You're here to rescue me! I can't believe it!"
Chapter 14 The Cavalry Arrives
"Prove it," said Colonel Crawford.
"What?" said Croft.
"You say you're some superspy here to save us," said Crawford.
We were standing outside in the compound.
"Sir, I know this man," I said. "He really is with the Column."
"That may be," said Crawford. "But he no longer has a ship. What
can he do for us?"
"You want a demonstration of my abilities, is that it?" said
"That would be nice," said Crawford.
"Wait here... just a few minutes," said Croft. "Would you do
We waited a few minutes, wondering what kind of demonstration
Croft would provide.
Five minute turned into ten minutes which turned into fifteen
Crawford may have thought Croft was stalling, but I knew better.
Suddenly I noticed someone waving to us--from the OTHER SIDE of
the fence. It was Croft.
We looked at him. He stopped waving. He was directly underneath
one of the guard towers.
"How did he do that?" Crawford said.
A half hour later when Croft returned we still didn't find out.
"Are you satisfied?" Croft said.
"How did you do that?" Crawford asked.
"A bit of stealth, and misdirection," said Croft. "A lot of trade
"Can you get us all out this way?"
"I wasn't hired to get you all out," said Croft.
"Are you saying the League didn't send you?"
Croft nodded. "I was hired by a private individual, to get him
out." He hooked a thumb at the Whisperer.
"But surely as a member of the Column, a League agency, you have
"I'm officially off-duty, sir, on vacation," Croft said.
"So you will simply take off with him, and leave all of us here?"
"Are you ordering me to help, or asking for it?" Croft asked.
"I guess I'm asking for it," said Crawford.
"That's a little better," said Croft. "I took this job only when
I heard that you guys might still be alive. I am here to help you-"
"But you just said-"
"But not to take your orders," said Croft. "It's my show or no
show. All right?"
Crawford took a deep breath. "All right. Can you use that
maneuver to get us out of the camp?"
"No," said Croft.
"No? Just no?"
"That's the short answer," said Croft. "A longer answer is that
you don't have the skill to walk silently behind guards or make
distracting noises in other locations to make them look the other ways.
I could train you, but it would take a few years."
"Then what's the solution?"
"I escape, and call for help," said Croft.
"I thought your ship was gone," said Crawford.
"It is; that will just make it more challenging."
"How many of us can you take with you?" Crawford asked.
"I planned on just taking him," said Croft, indicating the
"How do you plan to get him outside the wire?"
"I'm still working on it."
"We can get him outside the wire, if you'll take some others."
"I can't carry the whole camp on my back," said Croft. "The key
here is stealth. The more people I take, the more difficult is it to
blend in." He sighed, looking at me. "All right. I'll take Took. The
War Admiral will probably want his pet back."
"There's one more person we'd like you to take," said Crawford.
"War Captain Emmett North."
"War Captain? Emmett North?"
"His nephew," said Crawford. "He's been treated especially badly
"Indeed? I'd like to meet him," Croft said.
The War Captain stepped out of the shadows.
Croft's eyes widened. "You look a little like him."
"So I've been told," said the War Captain.
Croft said, "All right, how do you propose to get them over the
"We have a tunnel that's almost done."
"We're almost under the fence now. Two or three more days of
digging should do it."
"We don't have much time," said Croft. "They've sent in my holo
for analysis. I'm surely listed somewhere in the Redcap files. Perhaps
in more than one place."
"You don't have to worry much about that," said Crawford. "All
requests from this place have low priority. It will probably be at
least a week or two before the bureaucrats get to it and process a
"If that's true, then we're all right," Croft said.
"Now, how do you plan to get off the mountain?"
"Well, we could sneak onto one of the supply transports that come
here," said Croft.
"Impossible," said Crawford. "Not only do they have the
transports under tight guard, but they search it top to bottom before
they lift off."
"They won't find me."
"Additionally, they do a head count in camp right before liftoff,
and if anyone is missing, the transport doesn't move."
"Oh," said Croft.
"Does that ruin your master plan?" Crawford asked.
"No, I have a backup plan," said Croft.
"You're going to try and climb down the mountain?" Crawford said,
ready to present the problems with that.
Croft shook his head. "No. We'll just jump off."
"Jump off?" said Crawford. "Please be serious."
"I am serious," said Croft. "We'll use chutes.":
"That would be great, if we had any."
"Not gravchutes," said Croft. "But regular chutes."
"What do you mean?" Crawford said.
"Hundreds of years ago, pilots bailed out of aircraft and used
large circles of cloth to slow their descent."
"Cloth? Are you serious?" said Crawford.
"I've actually done it, in Column survival school training," said
"For what altitudes?"
"About 1000 feet," said Croft.
"Well, this mountain is over a mile high, close to 6000 feet,"
"It should work," said Croft.
"You'll get killed," said Crawford. "Those archaic devices will
"Well, then, the alternative is that you can all stay here."
"I'll go," said the Whisperer suddenly.
"I will too," said the War Captain. "I've studied these devices,
called parachutes, and they worked at high altitudes."
I was silent.
"Took?" said the War Captain.
"I... uh... sure," I said.
"Fine," said Crawford. "Let's say you get down the mountain in
safety. Do you know how many hundreds of miles it is to the nearest
"No," said Croft. "Nor do I care."
"How many days provisions do you think you can carry?" Crawford
"One or two should suffice," said Croft.
Crawford turned to us. "I don't know anything about this
gentleman, but he sounds mad to me."
"He's not just with the Column," I said. "He's one of the Eight.
The best of the best."
We had all heard of the Eight, the top ranked elite operatives.
Crawford paused, and looked at Croft. "If you don't need food,
then what else will you need?"
"Bows," said Croft.
"Bows, and arrows," said Croft. "Three of them." He looked at
each of us. "And you must practice on them."
"I don't know what I'm doing," I said, as I practiced with the
improvised bow and arrow inside one of the barracks. The string for the
bow had been relatively easy to get; the curved wood for the bows had
been harder. I was practicing indoors because practicing outdoors would
have raised too many questions.
The problem was that with all the crowded bunkbeds inside I had
about as much chance of hitting a fellow prisoner as I did a target on
the far side of the room.
"Just keep doing it," said Sergeant Bailey.
I aimed at the target, and squeezed off a shot. The arrow flew
across the air, landing into a pillow that Corporal Jensen was
currently lying on. His eyes widened as he saw the shaft protruding.
"There's something wrong with these arrows," I growled.
The Whisperer raised his bow, and fired three arrows in quick
succession. Bullseye, bullseye, and near bullseye. He looked at me
"All right, I'll try again," I said, raising the bow. "Everyone
I pulled back on the string, aimed carefully, and released the
At that minute the door to the barracks opened and Croft came in.
The arrow missed his face by inches, imbedding into the door besides
Croft looked momentarily startled. Then he removed the arrow from
the door, came over to me, and took the bow and arrow away. "I'll take
over the bow and arrow duties for you," he said.
Croft was insistent that we be ready to go as soon as possible.
Colonel Crawford wanted a few extra days of digging--each extra day
meant we could emerge a few feet farther from the fence on the other
But Croft was getting nervous. Perhaps with good reason.
Major Semvarsk eyed Croft curiously in the courtyard. "Do I know
you?" he said, in accented English.
"You look a little familiar."
Croft looked quickly at the Redcap; he did not look familiar to
him. Then he turned away.
"Stand still!" said the Major. "Let me see your face."
"I think I've seen a circular on you," said the Major.
"A notification," said the Major. "We are periodically notified
about leading enemies of the state, and provided with likenesses of
them. Yet, if you are a simple journalist, it is highly unlikely you
would be on such a list, no?"
"Maybe your government didn't like the article I wrote about the
table manners of your general secretary."
"Silence!" said the Major. He looked at Croft. "I don't remember
where I have seen your face before, but I think I have. When the
identification scan returns, we may have some further talking to do,
you and I."
"Maybe I can get an interview," said Croft, looking totally
After a leisurely walk around the compound Croft returned to
Crawford and told him what had happened.
"We don't have much time."
"It will still be some time before your identification check
comes in," said Crawford.
"Where are we on the tunnel?"
"We're seven feet past the fence."
"That's where we were yesterday."
"We were unable to dig today because we couldn't get a man under
the commandant's barracks. They were watching too closely."
"That Redcap may remember where he saw me at any time," Croft
said. "We have to leave soon. Do two more days of digging, dig whatever
you can, and then we go."
"Two days will hardly be enough-"
"It will have to do," Croft said.
The next day again Major Semvarsk looked oddly at Croft, as if he
were still trying to place an unfamiliar memory. Croft smiled boldly at
him, which only seemed to enrage Semvarsk further.
"What do you find so amusing, Richman?" said Semvarsk.
"I finally remember where we met," said Croft.
"Yes?" said Semvarsk.
"It was a journalists conference on August about 20 years ago.
You were a correspondent for Slurian Farming Today."
Semvarsk slapped Croft in the face, sending him sprawling to the
Croft, rubbing his face, got up slowly. "Major, if you want to
have dinner together, you don't need to make an excuse."
"We will share more than dinner when I find out who you are,"
said Semvarsk. "You do not act like a timid writer, Richman. You act
like a spy."
"If I were a spy, would I act like a spy?" I said. "In fact,
since spies by their nature pretend to be something else, how can one
describe acting like a spy?"
Semvarsk stared at me.
"This is a case of classic Slurian paranoia. I'm actually
cowriting a book on the subject with a psychiatrist who specializes in
the area. Are you sure you won't give an interview?"
Semvarsk glared at him and stomped off.
"Why do you taunt him?" I asked, genuinely curious.
Croft shrugged. "Because he tauntable."
The next day was supposed to be our last day. In the afternoon,
however, Sergeant Bailey came running into the barracks. "Croft!
Croft!" he yelled.
"What?" said Croft.
"They know who you are!" he said, gasping because he was out of
"I was under the barracks, I heard the ID come in. They're coming
for you now!"
Croft ran for the barracks door.
The door swung open-
And Major Semvarsk stood there, grinning widely. Guards with
blasters backed him up.
"So, not just a spy, but a Column spy," said Semvarsk. "One of
the Eight, in fact. What a catch."
Croft said nothing.
"I think we will have to forgo the dinner, but I can promise you
some other kinds of entertainment. Sergeant Korky!
Iron Club came forward and grabbed Croft by the arm.
"Take the spy to solitary. We will begin our interrogation there
shortly," said Semvarsk to Iron Club. "I regret that our time together
will be brief, as a shuttle is being sent for you tomorrow. But we will
make the best of our time together," he smiled.
Croft smiled back.
We watched in shock as he was dragged away.
Our plan was in shreds now.
What would we do?
Chapter 15 Escape from Altera
We held a conference in Colonel Crawford's barracks that evening.
Could we escape without Croft? Our chances were slim.
What else could we do? Could we stage a rescue, break him out of
We were still discussing our options when Croft came into the
barracks, limping slightly. "Hey guys, how's the escape plan coming?"
We just stared at him.
"We're supposed to escape tonight, you know," said Croft. "I
still think that is a good idea."
"How did you..."
"That Master Sergeant, the one who majors in malice...."
"Well, let's just say that Iron Club will only be eating soft
foods for a while," said Croft. He flexed and unflexed his fist, as if
it were sore. "But we have to leave now."
We got ready. Each of us carried a package. Before we left,
Colonel Crawford had a last word with Croft. "Tell the League about
us," said Crawford. "Let them know we're here."
"You can be sure I will," said Croft. "Now that I have firm proof
that you guys are alive, I'm sure the League won't stand for this."
"Good," said Crawford, giving Croft a firm handshake. "Good luck,
"Thank you, sir," said Croft.
We scuttled out of the barracks in the darkness. Croft guided us,
telling us when to move and when to be still, watching the searchlights
and guards movements carefully. Stealthy we crept up along the side of
the commandant's barracks. Then we went underneath.
We dug a bit in the earth and found a large rock. We over turned
the rock and saw a dark hole. We went down it.
We had a jury-rigged flashlight that Half Commander Dalton had
built but Croft, who was in the lead, had it in front and barely any
illumination showed behind him.. The tunnel was very small, and I had
to mentally fight to keep back my fears of claustrophobia.
We wiggled through the narrow tunnel in silence. At one point I
felt dirt splattering my face from above, and I involuntarily cried
Everyone immediately stopped moving.
"Quiet!" Croft hissed.
"Is this tunnel safe?" I hissed.
"Yes, the inspectors checked it last week," Croft whispered back.
"Now keep quiet!"
We crawled some more. It seemed like hours, but probably was just
several minutes. I felt a few other drips of dirt on my head, and
wondered what it would be like to be buried alive.
After a while, however, Croft stopped ahead. What had happened?
Had there been a cave-in?
But then I saw in the dim life Croft crouch upwards and poke with
an object, one of the homemade shovels. He dug for several minutes.
"How much air do we have in this thing?" I whispered.
"Enough," said the Whisperer. However, I'm not sure if he was
answering my question or telling me to be quiet.
Then I heard a small, crunching sound, and I saw a faint glimmer
of light at the end of the tunnel. I saw Croft poke his head out. Then
he brought his head down, and spoke to us.
"We're only a few feet outside the wire. But they're all looking
inside, not outside. Crawl on your hands and knees and make for the
trees," he said.
He started first, heading out at a crawl. Then went the War
Captain. Then it was my turn.
I climbed out of the hole like a crab on my hands and knees.
Behind me the bright searchlights of the camp were playing this way and
that. I resisted the urge to look up at the guard tower. I crawled
towards the trees.
The Whisperer followed behind me.
After a short distance, we made it.
Hiding behind a cluster of trees, Croft nodded approvingly.
"Good," he said. "Now we go to the edge."
To the edge of the mountain.
It didn't take long. Ten minutes later we were on the edge,
looking down. All I could see was blackness.
Everyone opened their "parachute". Croft helped me into mine.
They had improvised a harness connected to several sheets that had been
sewn together. I resisted the urge to ask whether this would work.
When Croft was ready to jump he said, "Try to jump as far forward
as you can. You don't want to hit the mountainside as you go down.
We'll regroup at the bottom."
And then he jumped.
The War Captain followed.
Then it was just me and the Whisperer.
"What are you waiting for?" I said.
"Croft gave me orders," he said.
"What orders?" I asked.
The Whisperer pushed me off the cliff.
I had done jumps before, but nothing like this. At first it
seemed I fell in a sudden acceleration. But then the sheets above me
seemed to catch the air, and I slowed. In moments my descent seemed
almost gentle. To my right I could see someone else below me, I wasn't
I hit the ground rolling. At least I had been trained in this
aspect. It was a hard impact but not as bad as I feared.
"It really worked," I marveled.
"Come on," said Croft. "We have to go."
"How far are we going to get before Iron Club wakes up and alerts
the guards?" I said. "You should have killed him."
"Probably," said Croft. "But I'm actually counting on him to wake
up and alert the guards."
Suddenly, we heard the faint sounds of klaxons above us.
"Good," said Croft. "Right on schedule."
We ran a only a few hundred feet into an open area near a clump
of trees. Then Croft stopped.
"What are we doing?" I said.
"Stopping," said Croft.
"But they will find us," I said.
"That's the idea," said Croft.
"Isn't it about time you briefed me on the rest of your plan?" I
As dawn broke several hours later a shuttle appeared. It circled
around the mountain higher up, and then gradually lower. The white
sheets from our parachutes, left out in the open, were quite a
So was Clifford Croft, sitting on a big rock, waving at them.
The shuttle touched down.
Six Redcaps emerged, their blasters drawn.
They slowly approached Croft.
"Hi guys," he said.
He let them get within a few feet of him.
"Where are the others?" said one of the Redcaps.
"They're around," said Croft truthfully.
Suddenly, an arrow buried itself in the back of one of the
Redcaps. A second arrow missed by a wide margin. A rock flew out and
hit one Redcap in the head. He screamed, falling. Another rock hit a
second Redcap in the head; he, too, fell to the ground.
Croft sprang up and started to wrestle with one of the Redcaps.
The remaining two Redcaps looked around to find the source of
their attackers. Suddenly another arrow came whistling out of a thicket
of trees, hitting the Redcap in the chest. A second arrow also came
out, seemingly without aim.
The last Redcap fired his blaster into the trees. In response,
another fist sized rock came out, hitting the Redcap square in the
head. He fell to the ground, oozing blood.
The Whisperer ran for the shuttle, while, the War Captain and I
ran out from behind the trees to assist Croft. But by the time we got
there the Redcap was on the ground, unconscious or dead.
The shuttle started to take off just as the Whisperer reached the
ramp. He disappeared inside as the shuttle lifted five feet, ten
feet... and then suddenly crashed down on the ground.
"I hope he didn't damage it," said Croft mildly.
We ran for the shuttle. We saw the Whisperer standing by the body
of a Redcap pilot.
"Why didn't you get rid of the body?" said Croft, hastily
dragging it out.
"I don't take out the trash," said the Whisperer.
I climbed into the pilot's seats and started checking the
"Is the ship all right?" the War Captain asked.
"We'll soon find out," I said, pressing the button for liftup.
The shuttle groaned and creaked a bit as it left the ground. But
in seconds we were airborne, and the main engines could come into play.
"Check the onboard map," said Croft, coming back into the
cockpit. "Set a course for Smolensk, and fly as close to the ground as
you can, to evade their sensors."
I checked the onboard map. Smolensk was about 1200 miles away.
We should get there in under three hours.
The Whisperer watched as I expertly piloted the shuttle above the
treetops and hills we had to go over. "Well, at least you can do
something well," he grunted.
"You're looking at the B squadron commander of the Command
Carrier Glory," said the War Captain. "There's no one else I'd rather
have at the controls."
I grinned; it was nice to be appreciated for something.
This was some nice escape! The shuttle couldn't take us off-
planet, but it could get us directly to the spaceport. No walking and
trudging hundreds of miles. I said as much to Croft and thanked him.
"I don't like labor intensive escapes," Croft smiled.
We flew nearly the entire distance there before Croft had me set
down in an isolated area outside of the city.
"We made it! We really made it!" I said, as I set the ship down
in an open field.
"Calm down," said Croft. "There's got to be a general alert out
for us, and anyone with half a brain will know that we're heading for
the spaceport. We'll probably have to get through a division of Slurian
Redcaps whose only job will be to shoot us on sight. Now change into
your civilian clothing like the rest of us and let's be on our way."
We not only had civilian clothing but civilian ID papers that
Dalton thought would stand up to detection. Croft had given the papers
a measured examination and grudgingly nodded, but even he had no way of
knowing if they would stand up to close inspection.
We walked in the forest a short distance before reaching a dirt
road. We started on that dirt road to the city. It wasn't long before
we saw a checkpoint in the distance.
"Should we go around it?" I asked.
"This isn't going to be our first checkpoint nor our last," said
Croft. "We all have blasters now. If worst comes to worst, we'll use
"What if they point their blasters at us first?" I asked.
"You forget, we have a Graftonite with us," said Croft simply.
The Whisperer had been the one throwing the rocks before. He
didn't care for the bow and arrows. He had taken out most of the guards
with rocks! He was probably several times deadlier with a blaster.
(For the record, I was the one who missed with every arrow I
shot. That's why it was nice to have my piloting skills appreciated. It
was good to be appreciated for something!)
The four of us walked up to the checkpoint.
There were four Redcap guards on duty. "Papers," said one of
We handed them over. The guards studied them, then looked at us.
"It says here you are cafeteria workers."
"Yes," said Croft, in fluent Slurian, without a trace of an
"Where are you going?"
"It is late in the morning to be going to work, is it not?"
"Not if you work the afternoon shift," said Croft, looking and
The guard stared at us for a moment longer, then returned our
papers. He nodded at us to move on without saying a word.
When we had gotten some distance down the road, I said, "You
handled that so well!"
"That's my job," said Croft. "If you had done several thousand
infiltration missions, it would be routine for you too."
Gradually we entered the city of Smolensk. Another two hours of
walking (and another checkpoint) later, we found ourselves on paved
streets with people walking by. None of them appeared to pay us any
Croft took us into a restaurant where we bought a meal with some
of our hoarded gembles. There were several Redcaps there eating as well
but we ignored them, just as the other diners did. But I nervously
remembered the restaurant where I had almost been caught before...
"We have several challenges still facing us," said Croft,
speaking in a soft voice he knew would not carry beyond the table.
"Number one, we have to find out where the spaceport is. Number two, we
have to go there. Number three, we have to scout out its defenses and
procedures. Number four, we have to get in. Number five, we have to
steal or get onboard a ship. Number five will be the hardest part."
"Why?" I asked.
"If we steal a ship, we'll be pursued immediately and probably
caught by the military," said Croft softly. "Our best bet is to buy a
ticket to get us out of here."
"To League space?" I whispered.
"You won't find flights to League space from this planet," said
Croft. "Remember where you are. But we may be able to get to a
relatively less protected Slurian planet where we can steal a ship or
find another way to escape."
"What do you propose?" the War Captain asked.
"We need a groundcar, and directions," said Croft. "Let me get
both while you remain here."
"You don't want us with you?" the War Captain asked.
"No, it's easier if I do this alone," said Croft.
"Won't they be suspicious if we simply sit here after we've
Croft shrugged. "Buy some drinks. I shouldn't be gone more than a
half hour or so."
We agreed. Croft got up and left.
"He's really great, isn't he?" I asked.
"You don't get to be a Column agent, much less one of the Eight,
if you don't have the skillset to match," said the War Captain. "I get
the impression that there's no prison or jail that could hold him for
We talked for a while, and I noticed that the Redcaps who had
been eating got up and left, which made me feel easier.
A half hour later, however, Croft had not returned.
A half hour turned into 45 minutes which turned into an hour.
"Do you think he's been caught?" I hissed.
"I don't know," said the War Captain.
"Should we go?"
"If we do, we'll be permanently separated," said the War Captain.
"Let's give him another half hour."
At that moment, however, a group of Redcaps entered the
restaurant. They started asking everyone for papers.
When they got to our table, they asked for our papers. We handed
The officer in charge, a Redcap Lieutenant, looked at our papers.
"It says here you're cafeteria workers. Why aren't you at work?"
"We work the evening shift," said the War Captain, in fluent
"At which establishment?" the Redcap asked.
The War Captain paused, only slightly. "On the east side of
The Redcap noticed the slight pause. "You didn't answer my
question. What was the name of that establishment?" he asked.
What did we do next? Anything we said next would surely be
checked and found out to be a lie. We weren't prepared for this level
The Redcap called some guards over with a wave of his hands.
"Stand up!" he said.
We slowly stood up.
"You are all coming with me," said the Redcap.
"What do you mean?" said a new voice.
It was a new Redcap, standing behind the Redcap Lieutenant. All I
could see was that the new Redcap was a Major, from his shoulder bars.
"Sir! I did not see you. These individuals have suspicious-"
"These individuals work for me, and are not your concern,
Lieutenant," said the Major, speaking perfect High Slurian. "They are
on a mission for me right now, and your presence is jeopardizing this
mission." The Major stepped into view, revealing the impeccably dressed
"S-sir," the Lieutenant stammered. "I am sorry, I had no idea-"
"I can see you have no ideas," said "Major" Croft, speaking in
crisp High Slurian. "Now get your men out of here. The last thing we
need is this kind of attention."
The Lieutenant sent his men packing in a hurry.
"Sorry I'm late," said Croft. "I had trouble finding a uniform my
The groundcar was parked right outside. Croft did the driving.
"Do you know where the spaceport is?" I asked.
"How did you find out?"
"The owner of this uniform told me," said Croft. "That's why I
was gone longer than I expected. He required a little persuading."
As we headed towards the spaceport we saw truckloads of Redcap
troops moving in every direction. The military was certainly stirred up
here. I remarked as much.
"They have a lot at stake here," said Croft. "If you guys get
out, everyone finds out about your buddies."
"So much at stake, just for the spite and arrogance of keeping us
prisoner," said the War Captain.
"That's the Slurian mentality, spite and arrogance," said Croft.
"That's what caused them to start two wars with us. On the other hand,
it's also what caused them to lose two wars with us."
We were stopped at another checkpoint. Before the Redcap
Lieutenant in charge could ask for papers, Croft barked, "What's this
all about, Corporal?"
The Lieutenant looked at Croft's shoulder bars. "It's, ah,
"Are you contradicting me, soldier?"
"N-no, sir," said the Lieutenant.
"Then let me pass," said Croft.
The Lieutenant nodded, and Croft went ahead.
Ahead, in the distance, we could see the flat stretches of the
spaceport. We were getting close.
"Don't celebrate yet," said Croft. "You can expect their defenses
to be even stiffer as we get closer to the spaceport."
"What can we do?"
"Hope we don't run into any Redcap officers higher than a Major,"
said Croft. "There's no way I can show the original Redcap's ID papers
and attempt to pass for him. Redcap ID's were much more elaborate and
harder to forge, especially without the right tools."
We were stopped at another roadblock as we got closer to the
spaceport. This time, the officer was a Captain, and he was backed up
by a squad of soldiers. The defenses were getting thicker. And this
time, the Captain was not quite as easily intimidated.
"Are you going to waste my time too, Captain?" Croft said icily.
"No sir," said the Captain. "Can you just tell me your name,
"For the record," said the Captain, holding up a datapad.
"Major Surov," said Croft, giving a Redcap glare.
"Thank you sir. You may proceed."
As we drove Croft said, "Not good."
"I couldn't give the name of the real Redcap I impersonated, in
case they've already found his body."
"His body?" I said.
"There was no time to be gentle," said Croft. "Remember, there's
a shoot on sight order for you guys. So I picked a random name. Chances
are they're going to feed it into their tactical command database, and
when they don't find a match, we'll be stopped with a little more force
"What can we do?" the War Captain asked.
"I don't see us getting to the spaceport through traditional
routes," said Croft. "I say we get rid of the car and walk the rest of
the way. We'll burn out way through the security fence and see if we
can sneak onboard a ship."
Suddenly, he paused. "Cancel that."
"What?" I said.
"We're being followed. By a truckload of troops."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes," said Croft.
"What do we do?" I said.
"We control the circumstances of our encounter," said the War
"For once, our thinking overlaps," said Croft. He turned off the
main road and slowed down.
"Aren't you going to try and get away?" I asked.
"They only suspect us now. If we do that, they'll know for sure,
and we'll be up to our necks in Redcaps."
Croft parked at some sort of building, it looked like a
warehouse. He went inside, motioning for us to follow.
The part of the warehouse we were in seemed empty at the moment.
Croft said, "Wait here."
We did. But I peered out of the corner of an open window.
The troop truck had arrived. An officer got out. I gulped.
He was a Major too.
He and Croft had words. Croft grew animated. I heard him refer to
"important business." He seemed to gesture for the Redcap Major to come
inside with him.
As they walked in Croft said, "As you can see, Major-" in mid
sentence Croft chopped him on the back of the neck.
"I'm bringing the squad in. Get ready," said Croft.
Croft went outside. "Squad leader! The Major wants you to bring
your men in."
The squad filed out of the truck and followed Croft inside the
warehouse. As soon as most of them had entered, I, the Whisperer, and
the War Captain let them have it, with blasters set on full.
I gunned down one and I think the War Captain too, but in the
same time the Whisperer gunned down five or six of them. It was those
Two remaining soldiers were retreating, running out the door. The
Whisperer ran after them, and two shots rang out.
We went outside, and saw two Redcap bodies on the lawn. "All
right, back in the groundcar," said Croft. "We won't be able to cover
this up for-" Suddenly, we all saw two more troop trucks coming onto
the narrow lane. They must have been called.
"Run!" said Croft. "I'll hold them off!" He grabbed me by the arm
for a brief moment. "Don't try to escape--they'll be ready for that.
Hole up until I can get help from the outside."
I nodded, and started running. In seconds, we were out of view of
what happened next, so I must rely on Croft's account
I ran over to the first troop carrier even as it was still
moving. "Spies! Saboteurs!" I shouted.
"Which way did they go?" said the Redcap in charge, a Captain.
"That way," I said, pointing in the opposite direction that the
others had ran.
"Troops, dismount!" said the Captain. The troops started to run
in the direction I indicated.
I was about to head back to the ground car, when the Captain
said, "Sir, just a moment."
"I must get back to headquarters."
"I have been ordered to ask you to wait here," said the Captain.
In the background, another truck and a military jeep pulled up.
Things were getting entirely too active here.
"I have no time for this, Captain," I said.
"Sir, I must insist," said the Captain.
"Are you giving me orders?" I said, my eyes flaring.
"I am," said a new Redcap, who appeared around the side of the
This Redcap wore a Colonel's uniform. A Colonel outranked a Major
in any army, even a Redcap one.
I remained calm. Every second I remained undetected was another
second the others could use to escape.
I gave a brisk military salute. "Sir!"
He saluted me back. "Your name?"
"Major Surov," I said.
"What happened to the other three you were escorting?" the Redcap
"These were intelligence assets I was using to obtain
information. We were ambushed by traitors here. I called for
reinforcements, but they were ambushed as well."
"Indeed," said the Colonel. "What was the nature of the mission
here? Who authorized it?"
"Sir, I am under orders not to reveal any more."
I bit my lip. Of course, I couldn't reveal that. I had no idea
what name to give. "Sir, I am not at liberty to say more."
"Let us then return to headquarters, and perhaps you will be
inclined to speak to General Uralz more freely," said the Colonel.
It was phrased as a request, but it wasn't. "Yes sir," I said.
I rode in the jeep with the Colonel and two guards in the back. I
noticed out of the corner of my eye that the Redcaps were still combing
the wrong area, so even if they were suspicious of me, their suspicions
were hardly confirmed. I could and would use that uncertainty to my
Now that I was free of my "deadweight", so to speak, I could
utilize my full abilities. My situation was serious. I was being taken
to an enemy stronghold, where my false identity was about to be
discovered. The enemy hadn't discovered who and what I was yet, so that
still gave me some freedom to maneuver.
I entered a building swarming with Redcaps. The guards left but
the Redcap Colonel still escorted me and there was no way I could
escape from him without an incident.
We entered an outer office, and the Redcap asked for Corporal
General Uralz. I presume, from the relatively low rank, that this
general was only in charge of security in the area around Smolensk.
I entered the office with the Colonel to find a balding bearded
man staring at me. "This is the one?" he asked.
"This is," said the Colonel.
"Major... Surov, we have no record of your being sent here," said
Uralz. "I want to know who sent you and what your mission was?"
Ah. They thought I was from a different faction. Even within the
Redcap military there were different factions.
"I'm not at liberty to say, sir," I said.
Uralz stood up from behind his desk and stood in front of me. "I
am the authority here! You will become at liberty to say or I will have
you sent to a labor camp!"
"All right," I said nervously. "But it must be just between the
three of us. Colonel, would you please close the door behind you?"
The Redcap Colonel did, and General Uralz leaned on the front of
his desk. "All right, what is this all about?"
"It's about this, sir," I said, smashing the butt of my blaster
hard into his face. I turned around and saw the Redcap moving to draw
his. I fired, and in a second he was missing his head.
I had set my blaster to "maximum kill"; when it came to Redcaps,
I had no inclination or interest to be gentle. I knew what kind of
butchers they were.
The sound of blasterfire must have resonated outside because I
heard the alarm sound. Instantly without hesitation I jumped out of the
Redcaps were running around everywhere. I knew from experience it
would take at least a minute or two for them to get my description to
the troops. They would be looking for a rogue Redcap major.
I went over to a supply closet and called the nearest Redcap. He
wasn't an officer but would do.
Two minutes later, an announcement blared the following: detain
I, however, as a Redcap private, was able to get off the base
without detection, passing several clusters of Redcaps who paid no
attention to me.
Sooner or later they would figure everything out, but it was too
late for them in many departments--first, Took and the others had a
good long head start. Second, it would take them some time to realize
they were looking for a Redcap private. By the time they did, I would
be an ordinary citizen, relying on my original forged ID.
But there were thousands of Redcaps flooding the city. They would
all be looking for me. The spaceport would be trebly guarded. Therefore
that was one place I couldn't go. What were my other options?
In a moment, I had it. An idea for another destination. It would
be risky, but it was doable.
The next twelve hours I played cat and mouse with the Redcaps.
They knew I was in the city somewhere and they were searching for me. I
managed to bluff my way past several checkpoints before they caught on
to me. Then it was just a matter of run, chase, and hide.
I walked down a city block, catching my breath. For the moment, I
had eluded them.
Then I heard a shout. I had been spotted. They knew me on sight
now. The chase was on again.
They chased me from block to block. Every time I tried to duck
and hide, someone else would spot me and shout. This went on for what
seemed like a long time, but was probably no more than ten minutes or
so. The number of pursuers only seemed to increase as time went on. For
my pursuers, it seemed I was engaged in a series of random, spur of the
moment movements to get out of their cordon.
Finally there came a point in time when I was running in one
direction, with pursuers behind me, when I saw pursuers running towards
me. I looked around. There was no escape. I ran into the building to my
left. I started to climb the stars; a few moments later, I heard
thundering footsteps behind me.
I pounded the stairs as rapidly as I could, as speed was more
important than silence. I didn't even consider branching off onto a
floor to hide out; they would undoubtedly seal the building and search
floor to floor. I gasped for breath as I climbed another flight, the
sounds of pursuit getting closer. But the building was only eight
stories or so tall; the end would be quick in coming.
I reached the roof almost out of energy. But I had to keep going.
I ran out on the roof and, a little disoriented, ran over to one side
of the edge of the building. I saw the street below me. I ran over to
the other side and saw another rooftop, lower down, not eight feet
And just at that moment the first of my pursuers reached the
rooftop. They screamed at me to halt.
I started to run over the rooftop. In top condition with a
running start, such a jump shouldn't be much of a problem. But I was
hardly in top condition.
I flew over the roof... I saw the gap below me. I was falling...
Then I screamed as I hit the edge of the roof below me. I had
just made it; the fact that this roof was lower down rather than level
with the first roof had made it easier. But I had badly twisted my
ankle as I landed, and I felt incredible stabs of pain.
In just a few seconds first one then two then three of my
pursuers jumped onto the lower rooftop where I lay. They all pointed
blasters at me.
I slowly and wearily raised my hands.
The chase was at an end.
Chapter 16: The Last Stand
One week later
The War Captain, the Whisperer and I had managed to evade
detection for several days after our botched attempt to enter the
spaceport. The War Captain decided it would be too dangerous for us to
make another attempt, and we relied on his assessment.
"So what should we do?" I had asked.
The War Captain advised that we should go to ground for a few
days, and then figure out a way to get to a transmitter so we could get
help from the outside. Where we would find such a transmitter and how
we would get access to it was left undiscussed. For now our main
priority was survival.
Teams of Redcaps were on our trail. Every time we would hide out
in some basement or attic, we would only stay a short time before the
War Captain, looking outside and perhaps seeing something we didn't,
would say it was time to go. More than once we heard the sounds of
sirens right after we made such an abrupt departure. It was impossible
to tell how the War Captain knew that pursuit was closing in, but he
seemed to have that talent. We were all nervous because we knew that no
one, not even the War Captain, was infallible.
"We?" Well, all right, at least I was nervous. The Whisperer
showed no emotion. The War Captain merely looked grim.
We evaded pursuit for about a week, hopping, it seemed, just one
step or less ahead of the Redcaps. They had so many teams combing the
area that it was difficult to keep from being spotted.
Finally the War Captain pursed his lips and made a decision.
"It's time for us to leave the city."
"I don't think we'll be able to get on mass transport," I said.
"And even if we steal a vehicle, there will be checkpoints."
"Which is why we have to walk out, through the countryside."
"The countryside," I said. "And where are we going?"
"A town called Kermeda," said the War Captain.
"How far away is that?"
The War Captain pursed his lips. "70 miles."
70 miles. In the snow. And we were already exhausted.
"We don't have enough provisions to get there," I said.
"Then we'll hunt for game," said the War Captain.
"And what do we do once we get there?"
The War Captain paused. "We go to ground."
In other words, there was no plan. Even the War Captain had run
out of ideas.
Or had he? Perhaps a tactical retreat was the best thing to do.
Sure enough, the War Admiral had done it enough times to prove the
tactic valid in some situations. But perhaps we should discuss it
"Let's go, then," said the Whisperer bluntly.
We made our way out of the city on foot, constantly watching for
patrols. We headed west, and in two days came to the bank of a large
"We must cross," said the War Captain.
I looked at the wide river. If we swam, we would surely freeze to
He paused. "There may be a bridge farther to the south."
We started walking again.
Suddenly we heard a sound in the distance. On the horizon, I
could see a dot getting bigger.
And there was no cover on this windswept plain.
"Start digging," said the War Captain sharply.
We started digging furiously as the sound got louder. From the
sound of it, it was a patrol plane of some kind.
As it got close we climbed into the hasty holes we dug and
covered ourselves up, leaving only a little space for air.
The patrol plane swept over us. We could hear the noise of its
engines quite clearly now.
We waited a moment, and then the plane swept away. The sound
started to dissipate.
A few moments later, however, the sound grew louder. It made
another pass over our position, and then another, and then another.
I heard someone getting up. "You can get up," I heard the War
Captain's voice say. "They've found us."
We found no avenue of escape, so we started a fast march to the
south. If we could get to a bridge or a forest before pursuit caught up
to us, there was a slim chance we might escape. But ahead all we saw
what a flat plain along the river.
The patrol plane followed us in a lazy pattern.
"They're not firing on us," I said.
The Whisperer said nothing.
"There will be shuttles here soon enough," said the War Captain
calmly. "We need to find cover or escape by then."
"How long do we have?" I asked.
"Perhaps thirty minutes," said the War Captain.
I looked at the horizon. There was no sign of a way to escape.
Perhaps thirty minutes later, several shuttles came into view on
There was still no way to escape. The War Captain stopped
walking, and so did the Whisperer and I.
"I wonder how they found us," said the Whisperer
"We had no time to cover our tracks," said the War Captain.
Our tracks! I hadn't even thought of that.
"But that wasn't enough," said the War Captain. We watched the
shuttles close in. "They probably had satellite photos mapping every
inch around the city, watching for movement. With our limited assets,
and their overwhelming manpower and technology, we never stood a
The gravitators were getting very close.
"So what do we do now?" I asked.
"Do?" said the War Captain.
"What's the plan?" I said, getting desperate, as I watched the
gravitators move into position to land.
"There is no plan," said the War Captain. He started to dig in
the snow around him.
"What are you doing?"
"If I'm going to die, I'd like to take a few of them with me," he
said, building up the snow around him, as if that would protect him
from blaster fire.
"What if we surrender?"
The War Captain gave a mirthless smile. "We're marked for death,
"There must be something we can do!" I said. "I'm a Took, and
Tooks never give up!" I turned to the river at our backs. "Let's swim
"You'll freeze to death before you get halfway across," said the
"At least we'd have a chance," I said.
"I don't think so," said the War Captain.
"Why don't you at least try?"
The War Captain turned to me. "If I'm to die, I want to take a
few of them with me," he repeated.
The shuttles landed in a ring around us, about 300 feet away.
Troops started to disembark. We lay prone behind our makeshift
fortifications, blasters drawn.
The troops formed a ring around us. It looked like a platoon,
"I'm sorry," said the War Captain suddenly.
"For what?" I asked, startled.
"Sorry I couldn't be him," said the War Captain.
We watched the troops slowly approach, blaster rifles raised.
"You've got nothing to apologize for," I said. I raised my
blaster and got ready.
The Redcaps advanced. They didn't even bother asking for our
surrender. They intended to kill us, plain and simple.
The ring closed in... 250 feet.
Our blasters could be aimed effectively up to about 70 feet. It
wouldn't be long now.
So this was it. The end. I couldn't believe it!
I cast a quick glance at the river. As a last resort, I decided, I
would jump in.
I heard a noise on the horizon.
Another shuttle approached. No, it wasn't a shuttle, but a small
The troops stopped moving. They seemed to be confused.
The transport landed outside the zone where the shuttles had
parked. Several figures exited.
They calmly made their way through the Redcap lines unmolested.
Obviously, these were backup units.
But they didn't look like Redcaps. For one thing, they were in
civilian clothes. And there were only three of them. Were these senior
government officials? It was too far away to see them clearly.
The three went up to a Redcap officer. They had some kind of
discussion with him. It seemed very animated.
And then... nothing. The three started walking towards us. As
they got closer I could see they only had blasters, and even these were
holstered. But I grabbed my blaster and aimed cautiously.
"Hold your fire!" said the Whisperer, in the loudest voice I had
He stood up. I waited for him to be cut then, and then stood up
myself, where the War Captain already stood.
"Took your time in getting here, didn't you?" said the Whisperer
One of the newcomers just looked at the Whistler. "Better late
than never," said the man, whose name I would later learn was The
There were three of them, and I was to learn later, two of them
were the Whisperer's brothers, called The Silencer and the Ken Pilot.
The Silencer was reputed to be one of the top gunslingers on Grafton,
the mercenary-high-speed-quick-reaction planet. And the Ken Pilot was
reputed to be one of the best pilots, and not a very bad shot either. I
had heard of the Silencer by reputation, but not the Ken Pilot, whose
exploits which made him famous occurred just shortly before I had been
captured. Neither did I know third person, whose name was Annie Oakley,
but from the name I should've guessed that she was a gunfighter too.
"So what's the deal?" The Whisperer asked, no nonsense.
"I offered them terms of surrender."
"And they didn't accept?"
The Whisperer looked over at Annie. "Why did you bring her?"
The Silencer looked irritated. "I told her we could handle it."
"Handle it?" I said. "There's at least 50 men out there."
The Silencer didn't even look at me. "They gave me a minute to
persuade you to surrender."
"That's nice," said the Whisperer. He said, "Are you ready?"
A gunfight! Just the six of us against 50! I gulped. "I guess
The Whisperer looked at me coldly. "I didn't mean you. When the
shooting starts, try to stay down."
"We both should," said the War Captain. "They know what they're
The Silencer nodded slightly.
"How can the four of you can take on 50 Redcaps????"
The Silencer shrugged fractionally, as if the question were
They heard a harsh whistle blowing behind them. The Redcaps
started to move in.
-and suddenly the Graftonites were diving to the ground and
Their blasters shouldn't have been effective at this range, but
they were, partially because the enemy was all bunched up together, and
partially because the Graftonites were top shots.
The Redcaps started to fire back, but it took them precious
seconds to realize that they couldn't aim effectively at prone targets
70 feet away. They started to kneel down, or crawl forward, firing in
the hopes that a stray bolt would hit.
Bolts sizzled all around me. I tried to fire back but at this
distance I wasn't sure I'd hit anything.
Some of the Redcaps, yelling wildly, started to charge. The
Silencer, The Whisperer, Annie Oakley and the Ken Pilot mowed the first
line down but they kept coming.
Some Redcaps got close enough to get accurate shots. One of them
aimed at the Silencer while he was shooting someone else.
Without pausing the Silencer swung his body around, finished
shooting the Redcap he was aiming at, and killed the Redcap aiming at
him, while moving his body a third time to avoid another Redcap aiming
The rapidly ducking and dodging Graftonites confused the Redcaps,
who keep trying to establish a steady aim. The Ken Pilot purposely
dodged around one Redcap so another Redcap accidentally fired on the
first one. The Silencer was like a blur. And Annie Oakley was dropping
Redcaps at a rapid rate.
And then in seconds it was over.
The field was littered with bodies. In the distance, we could see
two Redcaps running away. The Silencer calmly waited a few seconds, as
if counting to ten, and then shot the two distant Redcaps dead. I guess
he wasn't happy about the treatment they had inflicted on his brother.
I slowly got up to find myself unshot. The others were also
unhurt, except for the Whisperer, who got grazed by a blaster shot in
"Clumsy of you, little brother" said the Silencer, even as he
moved to bandaged the Whisperer's arm.
"Clumsy of him?" I said. "There were over 50 of them!"
"They were only Redcaps," said the Silencer dismissively.
"What?" I said.
The Silencer turned to the Whisperer. "Do we have to rescue him
When we got back to the transport I was in for another surprise:
we found none other than Clifford Croft waiting for us.
"You got the message out," I said stupidly.
Before Croft could reply the Silencer spoke.
"We can handle all the obvious issues later. Right now we'd
better leave and get off-planet before they put two and two together,"
20 minutes later, we were in space.
Four days later, we were on Erratta. I was free. Free!
Chapter 17: How Did Croft Do It?
Several days earlier:
I lay on the rooftop as the two Slurian guards looked at me,
their blasters drawn. One of them said in Slurian, "Shall we take him
back for interrogation?"
"No," said the second, and I saw he was a more senior lieutenant.
"Our orders are to eliminate him on sight."
He watched for the recognition to dawn on my face, and he
actually smiled as he aimed his blaster.
"You can't do this," I said, struggling to sit up.
"Why not?" said the Redcap Lieutenant.
"Because I'm on the territory of a foreign government."
The Redcap looked confused. "What do you mean?"
"When we dropped down onto this rooftop, we dropped down into the
Rurrian embassy compound."
The Redcap laughed. "You think that's going to help you?" He
pointed his weapon more steadily at me. "Who's going to stop me?"
"Uh, actually, they will," I said, pointing.
The Redcaps heard a shout behind them. There were now two more
guards on the rooftop, with blasters drawn.
Only these guards wore the uniforms of Rurrian marines. And their
weapons were pointed at the Redcaps.
"Hands up!" they shouted.
The Redcap dropped his weapon, only turning to give me a look of
My flight of escape hadn't been entirely so random. I knew
exactly which roof I had landed on.
Inside the Rurrian embassy compound.
My escape wasn't quite as easy as it sounds. The Rurrians, while
not a puppet government of the Slurians, did have an alliance of sorts
with the Slurians, and they didn't want to upset their mining
concessions with the Slurians.
However, I had low friends in high places in the Rurrian
government. Two interstellar phone call later I found myself in the
office of the Director of Consular Affairs at the embassy.
"You have created quite a situation for us," said the Director,
pouring a cup of gauche. "Would you like a cup?"
I shook my head. The steaming brew concoction was not my choice
"Normally we would turn you over to the Slurians," said the
Director, matter of factly. "But it seems the second deputy minister of
defense does not want this to happen. I'd be curious to know how he
came to owe you a favor."
"It's a long story," I said.
"I'm sure it is," the Director sighed. "Normally we would smuggle
you out. But the Slurians have surrounded the embassy. We won't turn
you over to them, but I don't see how you can escape. And you can't
simply stay here," he added pointedly.
"Does your hospitality extend for four days?" I inquired.
"Four days? I suppose so," said the Director. "What will happen
"I'll leave," I said simply. I had made two interstellar calls;
only one of them had been to the Rurrians.
I spent the next few days inside. I knew the Slurians were
surrounding the compound, and didn't want to give them the slightest
excuse to snatch or even snipe me. The embassy staff was nervous, but I
Four days later my ride arrived--a small transport, landing right
in the courtyard.
The Silencer, Annie Oakley, and a man I didn't know stepped out
of the transport, ignoring the Rurrians who were running around
"Right on time," I said. "How many men did you bring?"
"We're all here," said the Silencer.
"What did you mean? I told you to bring troops!"
"Just tell us where he is, Croft," said the Silencer.
"Well, I don't know exactly where-"
"You brought us all the way here and you can't tell me where my
brother is?" said the Silencer, getting a dangerous glint in his eyes.
There were shouts in the background. "We'd better get out of
here," said Annie.
We climbed into the shuttle and I explained the situation
"If we could tap into the Redcap network, maybe I could find out-
"We wasted all this time getting here, and I'm not going to waste
any more," said the Silencer. He landed the shuttle in the middle of a
major thoroughfare, not far from the embassy. I could see Redcaps
scrambling through the street to greet us.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
The Silencer moved to the shuttle's door. The other man went with
him. "Wait here," he told Annie. He and the other men stepped out the
door. After a few seconds, Annie, her hands on her pearl handled
What followed was carnage. I heard sounds of massive blaster
fire, screams, and sirens. Five minutes later the Silencer, not even
sweating, returned, as the other man escorted a Redcap in at gunpoint.
Annie brought up the rear. I saw the Redcap was a Captain.
The Silencer put the muzzle of his still warm blaster to the
man's head. "Where are they?" he said, in that deadly voice of his.
"I... I don't know," said the Redcap, in Slurian.
"Translate," said the Silencer.
"He doesn't know."
The Silencer tensed on the trigger.
"Wait!" I said.
"What's the problem?" said the Silencer. "We'll get you another
"You may not be asking the right question." I spoke to the Redcap
in Slurian. He spoke rapidly, now eager to help. He gave me his
datalink, and told me the appropriate codes to press. I studied the
readouts for a few seconds.
"Well?" said the Silencer coldly. Intellectually I knew his
blaster wasn't pointed at me, but I broke out into a cold sweat.
"Just a few more seconds," I said, reading rapidly. Then, "The
latest intel has them fleeing the city on foot to the east. Forces have
already been dispatched to intercept them."
"How old is that last report?" said the other man, speaking for
the first time. I noticed now that he looked a bit like the Silencer.
"30 minutes," I said grimly. They had a head start.
The Silencer looked at the prisoner grimly, and then, lowering
his aim, shot him fatally in the chest.
"Hey!" I was no big fan of the Redcaps, but that was excessive.
The Silencer ignored me, moving to the pilot's console.
I strapped myself in, and Annie sat next to me.
"He's very angry about how they've treated Martin," said Annie.
"I think he's going to kill every Redcap he sees until we get Martin
back." She glanced worriedly at his determined expression. "And maybe a
few more after that."
"Who's the other guy?" I asked, gesturing to the copilot seat.
"That's David, John's brother," said Annie.
"And that's all you brought? Why didn't you bring anyone else?" I
"David and John felt they could handle it. They didn't even want
me coming, but I insisted," said Annie. She looked at me. "You look
terrible. How have you been doing, Clifford?"
When we located the Whisperer, near the river, I noticed the ring
of shuttles around their positions.
"We're too late," I whispered.
The Silencer ignored me. "What do you think about a direct
landing in front of them?"
The Ken Pilot, as I learned he was called, shook his head. "Their
blaster fire could damage the shuttle. Land outside the circle."
"Land? There must more than a platoon out there, without any
cover at all!" I said.
I was ignored. The ship touched down.
"You can stay here," the Silencer said dismissively to me.
"Aren't you going to need all the help you can get?" I said.
"You'd just get in the way," said the Ken Pilot.
"I'm starting to notice the family resemblance," I said.
The Silencer turned to Annie. "This time I want you to stay
"You don't give me orders, John Norman," said Annie, looking cold
The Silencer paused, as if considering what else to say. Then,
shrugging slightly, he opened the door.
I watched as they silently made their way through the Redcap
lines. The Redcaps, who didn't initially know what to make of them, let
I punched up the amplification on the external audio input to
hear what was going on.
"Who are you?" said the Redcap officer, speaking in Slurian.
"We're here for the prisoners," said the Silencer.
"You are offworlders," said the Redcap, switching to accented
English. "Surrender is the only option."
"I agree," said the Silencer.
There was silence for a moment.
"Well?" said the Redcap officer. "What are you waiting for?"
"For you to put down your guns," said the Silencer.
"Do you want to die right here?"
"Do you know who we are?" said Annie Oakley. "We're Graftonites."
A murmur went through the nearest Redcaps. They didn't know
English, but they did know the word Graftonites.
The officer instinctively took a step back. "But there are only
three of you."
"We're all gold medalists," said Annie. "Do you know what that
means? And you're speaking to the Silencer."
"Silencer!" said the officer. He moved so that one of his men was
now between him and the Silencer. Regaining some of his courage, he
said, "But there are only three of you! You have no chance."
The Silencer said nothing, merely continuing to stare at the
The officer stammered, and lost his nerve. "You may go, but you
must tell the others to surrender! Go now! I will give you five
The Silencer, Ken Pilot, and Annie turned to walk towards the
prisoners, all the while keeping an eye on the Slurians around them. If
the Slurians ordered them to open fire....
But the Slurians didn't. Maybe the Redcap was a man of his word.
Or maybe he just wanted to get the Silencer far enough away so the
officer wouldn't be his first target.
As they came close the Whisperer greeted them. "You sure took
your time getting here."
After the battle, we all escaped in the transport. The Ken Pilot
took the controls. The shuttle had a fake ID, but that wouldn't help
them in the immediate vicinity of the planet while the alarm was
But with the Ken Pilot's legendary flying, they managed to escape
off-planet without attracting pursuit. Since the Silencer had
thoughtfully killed all the Redcaps in the area, it took the Loyalty
Police some time to figured out what had happened. By the time they had
sounded the alarm for a rogue transport, it was too late.
"You made it," said Took. He looked at me gratefully. "Thanks,
"He was of some minor assistance," the Silencer admitted.
Annie gave a small smile.
"Minor assistance?" I said. "You owe me a big favor, Silencer!"
"How do you mean?" said the Silencer.
"You promised me a favor if I rescued your brother."
"You didn't," said the Silencer.
I opened my mouth, closed it, and opened it again. "I told you
where he was. That was certainly instrumental; you were prepared to pay
five million just for that information."
"You were willing to pay five million to rescue me?" said the
Whisperer, looking interested.
"Actually, the top figure was ten million for a full rescue," I
"Well, how about it, Silencer?" I said.
"I'm busy piloting," said the Silencer.
"John!" said Annie, kicking the Silencer in the leg.
"All right," said the Silencer. He actually turned to look at me.
"One favor. And only one." He paused, considering. "But if you want me
to kill a lot of people, you have to pay for blaster charges and
incidentals," he stipulated
"You're a real man of your word, John," I said grimly. Now I had
a favor owed to me; that could come in handy, someday.
Chapter 18: Getting Justice on August
It took me several weeks to get readjusted to the life of a free
man. Physically, I was suffering from borderline starvation and
exhaustion.. But psychologically, the adjustment was much greater. When
you lock up a man for years and suddenly make him free, it takes him
time to readjust. For example, the first two weeks I couldn't sleep on
a normal bed; I had to sleep on the floor.
I also couldn't go to eating regular meals all at once; my
stomach couldn't handle it. But the flavors! To taste the flavors of
different foods again was incredible! I had had different foods from
time to time during my escapes, but this was different by an order of
magnitude. Eating become not just a chore but a pleasure once again.
But the worst was the nightmares, the nightmares of punishment,
torture, and fear of execution. I would constantly dream of being
chased by the Redcaps. Sometimes in my dreams I would be caught, and
sometimes I would escape, but always I would wake up in a cold sweat.
I still had those nightmares even years later, but it was the worst the
first few months. I just couldn't believe I was finally free.
Croft came to visit me in the hospital.
"How do you do it?" I asked.
Croft looked at me quizzically.
"You're in a job where you're constantly being chased, with the
fear of capture or execution. How do you do it?"
Croft paused, and then looked at me. "How do YOU do it?"
"Go up into a fighter every day with the fear of being shot
"Oh," I thought reflexively. "Well, I'm very good at what I do,
and because I control my own fate, I don't think it will happen to me."
I looked up at Croft, who only looked at me with mild interest.
When I got out of the hospital I was given some downtime. Since
the war was over, there wasn't exactly any burning need for fighter
pilots. But I received a personal message from a military official,
issuing an open invitation for a visit. Only a week later, I took it.
And so I found myself shuddering a little with nostalgia as my
shuttle landed on the Command Carrier Glory. The Glory still had some
marks of battle--there was a new scar along the left side of the ship,
and a puncture hole along the top, which was slowly being patched by a
repair team, and this was months later, after the war had ended. I
wondered what the Glory had looked like right at the war's end.
I made my way to the bridge, only to be greeted with surprised
looks and greetings from the bridge crew. They had been told I was
alive but obviously didn't expect to see me so soon, all except the
Captain who merely pointed and said, "He's waiting."
When I entered the Battle (now War) Admiral's office, I saw him
indeed waiting for me.
"Iday," he said, standing up and shaking my hand. He gave me a
firm looking over before releasing me, as if he were scanning.
"Welcome home," said the War Admiral, gesturing for me to take a
seat, which I did.
We exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes, and then, as was
only natural, we talked about my fateful mission.
"So it was a double feint the entire time," I said.
The War Admiral nodded. I had figured this out some time ago, but
to finally get it confirmed from him meant something.
"Mean for you to be captured, and give false information, no,"
said the War Admiral. "I assure you, Iday, that was never part of the
plan. It was a risky mission, but your presence, not your capture, was
meant to convince the Slurians that we were attempting to feint and
attack elsewhere. Naturally you weren't told our real objective in case
you were captured, but our plan didn't rely on you getting captured and
releasing false information."
I believed him. The War Admiral had never lied to me. "So when I
was quickly bundled off of Volvograd-"
"That was because we were about to take Volvograd," said the War
Admiral, looking amused. "I saw your debrief. Right about the time they
told you the Glory was 'burning in space', our task force was closing
on the planet. If we had only been a few hours sooner-"
"Don't blame yourself," I said.
"But I do," said the War Admiral. He looked away for a moment.
"We knew you were in a labor camp. When you were reported dead, and no
body was repatriated, we should have investigated further. You were in
that camp for nearly a year after the war ended."
"And so was your nephew," I said evenly.
"Yes," said the War Admiral grimly. "We had been told that he
died too, along with everyone else who was put in that camp. They
intended to keep the prisoners forever." He paused. "The problem is
that we stopped the war too early. We accepted their offer of a truce,
which turned into a permanent armistice, rather than pushing for their
"Pushing for their surrender would have resulted in more lives
"True," said the War Admiral. "But in the long run it would have
saved lives. The Slurian Union, which now has launched two major wars
against us, still exists. The same government is there, and once it
rearms, I have no doubt it will do so again. And since they didn't
surrender, we have no way of knowing how many other prisoners they are
"But at least we can do something for the prisoners on Altera," I
said. I saw the War Admiral's expression fall. "Right?"
The War Admiral said, "Our Interstellar Affairs Department has
been 'looking into it'."
"What does that mean?"
"For the past few weeks they've been making discrete inquiries.
But the Slurians still deny the camp exists."
"Discrete inquiries? We should go in there in force-"
"Which will almost certainly restart the war," said the War
Admiral. "We have to approach this most carefully."
There was a buzz, and the War Admiral pressed a button. "Yes?"
And then. "Send him in."
A familiar face walked in.
"Croft! I thought you'd be back at work by now," I said.
"I would have been, but the War Admiral politely made a request
to the Column that I make myself available," Croft said. "My Chief was
overjoyed to comply."
The War Admiral grinned. As a certifiable war hero, he had a
disproportionate amount of influence, even more than a typical Admiral.
Or War Admiral.
"I want the two of you to go to the Interstellar Affairs
Department and meet with the deputy secretary in charge of Slurian
affairs," said the War Admiral. "Find out what's going on and report
back to me." The War Admiral gave Croft a knowing look, as if more was
involved than I had been told.
"You've both seen the camp, firsthand," said the War Admiral.
"You're our only eyewitnesses who are currently available."
"Yes sir," I said, saluting. Croft, not a military man, waved a
bit with his fingers and gave a knowing smile.
The Interstellar Affairs building was one of the largest
buildings on August, the capital of the League. It was 250 stories high
and was an entire block in length and width. The building, of course,
had a number of secondary annexes around August, and of course operated
hundreds of embassies on other planets.
Croft was relieved of his blaster by security on the ground
floor, which annoyed him.
"Why do you think you'll need your gun for?" I asked, as we
entered a crowded elevator.
"You never know. We're dealing with bureaucrats," said Croft.
The other occupants of the elevator, probably bureaucrats, gave
Croft an odd look.
Croft took another blaster out of his jacket, and appeared to
check the settings, ignoring the stares aimed at him.
"How did you sneak that in?"
Croft gave me a look. "It's a stealth gun."
"Are you planning on using it?"
"It depends on the level of cooperation we get," said Croft.
The elevator stopped at a floor. Everyone else rushed off, even
though it wasn't their floor.
Croft put his weapon away and chuckled.
"You enjoyed that," I said.
"Didn't you?" he replied.
Deputy Secretary Robert Rye had a wide, spacious office with an
unobstructed view of the palace, Sarney Sarrittenden proper. He was on
a holocall when we came in, though it was shielded so we couldn't see
who he was talking to. He waved us in, and gestured for us to sit down,
even as he continued talking.
"Yes, yes Sergei," said Rye.
He heard something we didn't hear and laughed. "Very good! We
have those too!"
The conversation continued on for several minutes, then ten
minutes, then fifteen, then twenty. We couldn't really figure out what
it was about until Rye started saying more explicit details.
"Yes, of course we will have your favorite borsch at the banquet.
And I've arranged to have the tablecloth you requested too."
Rye went on and on, discussing details of the meal, completely
oblivious to our presence.
I know my temper was boiling over, so I wasn't surprised when
Croft got up and went over to the other side of the desk, where he
could see the hologram of Sergei.
"What is this?" said Rye.
"Sergei, I'm afraid the deputy secretary is going to have to call
you back," said Croft. "A crisis has just erupted in appetizers that he
has to attend to." He pressed the terminate button, and Sergei faded
before he could respond.
Rye's eyes bulged out of his sockets. "What did you do?"
"Get your attention," said Croft coldly. "We're here on business
a little more important than the size of the napkins at some Slurian
"That wasn't just 'some Slurian banquet', as you so quaintly call
it," said Rye. "This was a meal set up for our annual diplomats
banquet, the first such banquet, I might add, since the end of the
"Sorry to disrupt your food diplomacy," said Croft wryly.
Rye look disgusted. "Don't be a fool. I was trying to reestablish
a human connection with my counterpart at the Slurian foreign affairs
ministry. The damage you have wrought-"
"May have an incalculable impact on your dessert menu," said
"Who are you to think you can speak to me like this?" said Rye.
"Who sent you anyway?" He started looking at his appointments screen to
get more information.
"Admiral Norman North," said Croft. "War Admiral Norman North."
"Norman North?" said Rye, looking momentarily confused.
"The hero of the Slurian War," I said helpfully.
"That's Norman North with three n's," I added.
"Oh," said Rye, slightly deflated. Perhaps he thought he could
just throw us out.
"We've come to talk to you about a menu of items slightly less
palatable than borsch and Slurian cantaloupe," said Croft.
Rye looked startled. "Thanks for reminding me, I forgot to write
down that Sergei wanted cantaloupe." He jotted a quick note on a
"We're here to talk about the Slurian prisoners of war," said
Croft. "Prisoners, I might add, who are being held after the end of
"Ah, yes, I believe I got an electronic message about this," said
Rye. "If memory serves I had one of my underlings do some research on
this; in fact, he completed quite a fine research memo, if I recall."
"Do you recall what the fine memo said?" I asked.
"Yes, it looked into the existence of the so-called detainees,
but failed to find any evidence to substantiate your claims."
"Evidence?" said Croft. "I've seen the prisoners firsthand."
"And I was a prisoner there," I said.
"Yes, yes, I have read summaries of your report," said Rye. "But
we need objective proof. Did you take any holos of the camp, or the
"My film got confiscated in customs on the way off Mount Perm," I
said sarcastically. "Are you saying you don't believe us?"
"Not at all," Rye said. "I just need evidence to present my
diplomatic counterpart with."
"Send a team to Mount Perm! You'll find them there!"
"Oh, I'm sure Sergei would never allow that," said Rye.
"Why?" Croft asked.
"Altera is a closed planet. We wouldn't want to insult their
pride by demanding to see one of their closed facilities."
"Not when we're at this fragile juncture of reestablishing
relations," said Croft.
"Exactly," said Rye, without any irony.
Croft looked at me. "Onwards and upwards?"
"I did a little research," said Croft. "The Secretary's office is
on the top floor. The penthouse."
"It figures," I said, getting up.
"Wait a minute," said the Deputy Secretary. "You can't just barge
into the Secretary's office!"
"I think we can," said Croft, pressing a small button on his
wrist comm as he too stood up to leave. "But don't let us interrupt
your important work. Try to negotiate some good appetizers for our
side, if you can."
"I'll call security!"
Croft shrugged as we walked out.
We actually made it to the penthouse floor before security caught
up with us. The penthouse floor was lush, with smooth lighting and wall
to wall carpeting in the latest August styles.
"Hold it right there," said a diplomatic guard, pointing his
blaster at us. He had several guards backing him up.
The door to another elevator opened behind us, and we heard
someone stepping out. "Who exactly are you pointing that blaster at,
We didn't have to turn, because we recognized the voice and saw
the shocked expression on their faces.
It was War Admiral Norman North himself.
"We're here to see the Secretary," said the War Admiral.
The guards' eyes caught the glittering sets of silver eagles on
his collars, and they instinctively lowered their weapons.
Henry Fance was the Secretary for Interstellar Relations. The
press dubbed him a "moderate", perhaps because he issued measured
statements and when he did take action, it was usually of a limited
sort, such as to "wish the Slurians could do better when it comes to
human rights" or to hope that the Rurrians "adopted a more developed
attitude" when it came to impounding League merchant ships.
The press also called him a "pragmatist", perhaps because he
understood, pragmatically, that Slurians were Slurians and nothing was
going to change that, so if you accept the fact that there were
Slurians out there and one had to deal with them, it didn't make sense
to unduly aggravate a major negotiating partner with charged rhetoric.
This pragmatic, moderate man was the chief diplomat in the League
and the man whose office the War Admiral, Clifford Croft, and myself
"War Admiral North," said Fance. "This is a surprise."
"Forgive the interruption, Mr. Secretary," said the War Admiral.
"But I have a matter of utmost importance to bring to your attention.
"Yes, the situation with the prisoners," said the Secretary. "Mr.
Raye briefed me on your way up here. Have a seat, gentlemen."
The Secretary checked one of his data screens.
He looked at Croft. "You must be Clifford Croft, the daring
Column agent who discovered this prison camp."
"Yes sir," said Croft.
The Secretary's gaze turned to me. "And you must be the valiant
Idaho Took, who escaped from this prison camp, with the help of Mr.
Croft and some... irregulars."
"Yes sir," I said.
"Now that I know who you are, what can I do for you?"
"Mr. Secretary, we want our POW's released," said the War
"I understand your impulse, War Admiral, and share your sentiment
myself," said Secretary Fance. "However, it is not as easy as you put
"The Slurian Union, while ostensibly a dictatorship, is actually
composed of differing factions which strive for power--in the party, in
the bureaucracy, in the military, in the intelligence services, and of
course, in the loyalty police," said the Secretary, giving me a small
smile. "Your men are being held by a hardline faction."
"Go on," said the War Admiral. But he already knew where this was
"We can apply pressure for your mens' release, but doing so would
only strength the hand of the hardliners."
"How so?" the War Admiral asked.
"The hardliners would use our demands to show that we are
belligerent, and agitating for another conflict. The balance of power
would tilt in their direction, and they might rearm, and precipitate
"Mr. Secretary, that's preposterous," said the War Admiral. He
ticked off points on his fingers. "Point one, it is perfectly
legitimate to ask for all our prisoners of war back. We returned all of
theirs. Point two, if there is any belligerence, it is on the Slurian
side, for they are violating the armistice they just signed which
promised the return of all prisoners. Point three, the hardliners are
in control. They are the ones who launched the war. Point four, they
are rearming, and will continue to do so, no matter what we say or do.
And Point five, if we can't trust them to keep the armistice on a
simple matter such as return of prisoners, there will be war again, and
sooner than any of us want."
The Secretary sat in silence for a moment, gazing for a moment
outside his window which gave him a splendid view of the presidential
palace. Then he turned back to us.
"Admiral, admiral, admiral. You don't understand. Diplomacy and
politics are not black and white issues like a war. Believe me when I
say I want those prisoners of war back just as much as you do. If it
were up to me I would have had them released months ago-"
"You knew," said the War Admiral suddenly. "You knew they were
there, and weren't being released."
"I assure you-"
The War Admiral turned to Croft. "Is this possible?"
"Possible," said Croft. "There are a number of intelligence
services that report to the President, and the secretary gets high
level briefings every day just as the President does. Maybe even the
Column knew about it; I can do some digging and find out."
The War Admiral looked at the Secretary. "You knew," he said,
"I assure you-"
"We are wasting our time here-" said the War Admiral getting up.
We stood up as well.
"Where are you going?"
"We'll see what the President has to say about this," said the
War Admiral. Ordinarily, a military officer, even an admiral, wouldn't
have access to the President, but the War Admiral had just saved the
League from destruction; surely he could get an audience with the
President if he requested it.
"He already knows," said Fance defiantly.
The War Admiral turned around to face Fance.
"What do you expect us to do?" said Fance. "Start another war?
For what? To rescue 200 men?"
"They are our men, who fought for us," said the War Admiral.
"We lost several hundred thousand men and women in this war,"
said Fance. "I suspect we'd lose a lot more than 200 if we went in
there with force."
"The Slurians are weak. We currently have the military
"That, sir, is a military opinion," said Fance. "The war is over,
War Admiral. We may not like the peace. The peace is not perfect. But
keeping the peace is the most important thing, and if those 200 men
have to give up their freedom to keep the peace, then they will
continue to serve the League."
"Not in that way," said the War Admiral. "Not under my watch."
He turned and left. We followed in his wake.
Two days later Croft and I were in the War Admiral's office on
"You met with the President."
The War Admiral nodded.
"What did he say?"
"He expressed unhappiness with the situation," said the War
Admiral. "He promised to personally press the issue with the Slurians."
"In other words, nothing will get done," Croft said.
The War Admiral nodded. "I've offered to take a task force across
the border to rescue them. My request has been turned down."
"But they're there. Over 200 of our own people, and perhaps
more!" I said.
"I know," said the War Admiral.
"What's really going on, sir?"
The War Admiral looked away. "We've just come out of a long and
bloody war. The politicians don't want to risk another one."
"But we can't just leave them there!" I said, jumping up.
The War Admiral looked at me. "Believe me, Iday, I wish there was
something I could do. I wish I could take the Glory in there right now
and rescue every last one-"
"But that would upset the Department of Interstellar Relations
and our new Slurian buddies," I said bitterly. "I get the picture."
I felt so restless. I turned to go.
"Iday, where are you going?"
I turned back to the War Admiral. "Sir, with respect, if you knew
your cousin was still trapped on that planet, would you simply do
The War Admiral considered. "I... I'm not sure what I would do."
"Well, neither am I," I said.
I was ablaze in anger. I couldn't let them down. This wouldn't
end here. I wouldn't let it.
Croft grabbed me by the arm. "Come with me," he said. "I know
someone who owes me a favor." He turned to the War Admiral. "I believe
the Lieutenant is still entitled to a few weeks leave?"
"He can take all the time he needs," said the War Admiral, his
face without expression.
"We'll be in touch," said Croft.
Chapter 19: Return to Altera
"No," said the Silencer.
Croft and I had immediately gone to Grafton to ask for the
Silencer's help in freeing the captives. We sat in his living room
with Annie, the Ken Pilot, and the Whisperer. I was glad to see that
the Whisperer looked much recovered from his ordeal.
"No?" said Croft. "I seem to remember that you owed me a favor."
"It would have to be a favor that I could deliver upon," said the
Silencer. "There's no way that one person can go in there and liberate
all those captives. I'm a gunman, not an army."
"You took care of two platoons easily enough," said Croft.
"I risked my life to take out two platoons," said the Silencer.
"And I did it for family." He looked at Annie. "We're not doing it
"There are 200 League men there rotting away in prison."
"They have my sympathies," said the Silencer dryly.
"They were fighting for your freedom too," Croft said.
"Grafton was officially neutral in the war."
"That's bull," I said. "If the Slurians had won, it wouldn't have
taken them long to turn their attention to Grafton."
"They were welcome to try," said the Silencer.
I looked at their faces. Annie looked sympathetic but said
nothing. The Ken Pilot said nothing and was unreadable. The Whisperer
looked a little sad.
"What about you, Whisper?" I said.
The Whisperer looked up at me. "What about me?"
"Don't you have any feelings for the people you left behind?"
The Whisperer said nothing.
"I seem to remember that one of them even saved your life.
Sergeant Bailey, I recall," I said. "He stood up and offered to take a
whipping for you, when you were half-dead. Don't you feel that if no
one else, you owe Bailey something?"
The Whisperer said nothing.
"Come on, Croft," I said, getting up. "We've obviously come to
the wrong place. We'll do this ourselves."
"You'll be killed," said Annie, speaking for the first time.
"Maybe," I said. "But we'll die for something important--loyalty
and honor. Enjoy your money and long lives," I added bitterly.
We had gotten halfway to the door when a voice said, "Wait."
Croft and I turned around.
It was the Whisperer.
"All right," said the Whisperer.
"Don't be a fool," said the Silencer.
"I owe them," said the Whisperer.
"If you go there and get caught, don't expect me to come and bail
you out again," said the Silencer nastily.
"I won't need to," said the Whisperer, his expression hardening.
"I'll take a mercenary team. Traker Fields."
"Traker?" said the Silencer. "Ha! That will run you at least ten
"I have the money," said the Whisperer.
"You were always the sentimental one," said the Silencer
The Whisperer looked over at the Ken Pilot who was staring
emotionlessly at the ceiling, and then back to the Silencer. "Yes, by
comparison with the rest of our family, I guess I am."
He turned to Croft and I. "Let's go."
We hired a Graftonite commando team led by the legendary Traker
Fields. Graftonites were well known for hiring themselves out as bounty
hunters and killers, but also on occasion lent themselves out in small
groups to fight limited military actions. Thus it was I sat in a medium
sized long range transport ship with Traker Fields and seven other grim
looking Graftonites, not counting the Whisperer.
"How are we going to get into Graftonite space?" I asked.
"We'll sneak across," said Croft. "I know a few tricks."
I tapped some keys. "I see you've equipped the ship with a
Slurian transponder. Is it current?"
"It wouldn't be any good if it weren't," said Croft.
Suddenly, another ship appeared on the scope. It was a destroyer!
"We're not in Slurian space yet," I said. "Is it one of ours?"
"Yes," said Croft immediately, as if he were expecting it.
A holoimage of a naval officer appeared before them.
"Transport 98741, this is the League Destroyer Ferris," said the
officer. "I have a passenger who wishes to disembark. Prepare for
"Understood, Ferris," said Croft.
I gave Croft an odd look. Obviously, he wasn't sharing more
information than he needed to. He caught my look, and gave me one back.
"Well?" I asked.
"I'm used to working alone," said Croft simply.
The ships were only docked for a moment when the larger
destroyer detached and headed away. Croft resumed course towards
"Just like that?" I asked.
"Just like that," said Croft.
"Who or what did we take aboard?" I asked.
"Me," said a new voice.
I looked up to see the War Captain. "You're coming with us?"
"I wouldn't have it any other way," said the War Captain grimly.
"Did the War Admiral have anything to say about that?" I
wondered, wondering if North would've approved.
"Yes," said the War Captain simply. Then I peered more closely in
the dark cockpit and saw there was something different about his
uniform. He was wearing majors bars now.
"Congratulations on your promotion, War Major," I said.
"Thanks," said the Major. "Actually, it's Battle Major. I'm told
I was actually promoted in absentia three years ago, because of the
work I did on the evacuation of Caronol."
Caronol. The place where he held the rearguard action that
enabled thousands to escape. Well, his reasons for being here were
"I have some modest ideas that may help you with your assault on
Mount Perm," said the Battle Major. "You'll have to strike quickly, if
they get wind of what you're doing, they may massacre the prisoners."
"Glad to have you along," said Croft.
"Will you get in trouble for being with us?"
The Battle Major laughed. "Like you, I'm also on vacation."
We made our way into Slurian space. With time on our hands, I
chatted with the Battle Major. Not that he was the most avid
conversationalist, but he was a chatterbox compared to the Graftonites.
Croft chipped in from time to time when he had something cynical to
To my surprise we arrived without incident at Altera. Evidently
Croft's forged transponder worked. Croft spent much of the time working
out the final details of the rescue operation with the Battle Major and
the Whisperer and the Graftonite commander, Traker Fields.
"We will be detected the minute we land anywhere but the main
field at Smolensk," said Croft. "Therefore we land there. Luckily
enough, our first objective also happens to be in Smolensk."
The image of a redcap officer appeared on the screen.
"Who is that?" I asked.
"Captain General Vladimir Lysoko. He's the deputy commander of
administration for all Redcap prison camps. We're going to take him
hostage to help ensure our escape," said Croft. The image shifted to a
building. "Column intelligence indicates we'll find him here, at a
Redcap security building about 10 miles from the spaceport."
"We're lucky he's so nearby," I commented.
Croft said, "It wasn't luck. The Slurians have beefed up security
around the planet since we started making diplomatic noises about the
prisoners. Our last check showed several cruisers in orbit and
reinforced ground teams. They know or suspect we may make a rescue
attempt. Lysoko is in charge of security for this area so he is
personally here to make sure things are secure. Since Smolensk is the
main spaceport his presence near it is entirely logical."
"But what the Slurians fail to realize is that his presence is
the greatest risk to their security," said the Battle Major. "Once we
have him we should be safe from attack."
"How do you know that?" I asked. "He's just a general, and a
lower ranking one at that." At least I think he was--the Slurian
command system was a bit confusing. Captain General? I think that was a
lower ranking general.
"If he were an ordinary Captain General, you might be right,"
said Croft. "But he's a Redcap Captain General. He can order higher
ranking regular generals around, and probably does."
"But will they value his safety?" I asked.
"I think so," Croft said. "His brother will make sure of that."
"A prominent member of the Slurian Central Committee."
"Oh," I said. I can see they really researched this out.
"Now, without further interruption, let me continue. The ship
will land. I and a team of two Graftonites will get off and retrieve
the General. I will radio ahead to the port authorities that we are
waiting for permission to unload. You will all wait here and do
nothing. You should be unmolested for a number of hours until I return.
"Can you really take him with only two Graftonites?" I said.
"Our intelligence indicates he only has seven or eight
bodyguards," said Croft.
"Oh," I said.
We touched down at Smolensk as planned. A few hours later we
heard the sporadic sound of blasterfire. Croft and the two Graftonites
returned, pushing a bound and gagged Redcap with them. I got to the
"Liftoff," said Croft.
I did so. The ship took to the air.
"The coordinates have already been punched in, follow them," said
"What about pursuit?"
"If they get close, that's what we have this fellow for," said
Croft. He gave the silverhaired Slurian Redcap a squeeze by the
shoulders. The Slurian, who was still gagged, glared at him.
We closed rapidly on Mount Perm. "So are we going to get Lysoko
here to order them to surrender?"
"No," said Croft.
"No?" I asked.
"No," said the Battle Major. "Under ordinary circumstances we
would. But if Major Semvarsk is in charge, he's a fanatic, he might
simply slaughter the prisoners out of spite."
"So what do we do?"
"We go in stealthily, and we go in shooting," said the Battle
The plan called for me to pilot the transport way above Mount
Perm while the rest of them used gravitator chutes to land silently.
"No," I said. "I want to be there."
"You will be, when you land to get us out of here," said Croft.
"No," I sighed.
Croft turned and looked at the Battle Major.
"Don't ask me to stay behind," said Emmett North. "I have to be
"Then I guess, once again, that I will stay behind," said Croft.
"Can you handle him?" North said, indicating the tied up Slurian
Croft pulled out his blaster and pounded the butt on the man's
right hand. He gave a yelp.
"I think so," said Croft.
I was used to gravchutes. I slowed as the flat surface of Mount
Perm approached. It was early morning and only faint rays of light
could be seem illuminating the mountaintop. I stayed in formation with
the Graftonites, who were aiming to land a short distance outside the
I eyed the camp in the distance. I used my scope to check out the
And then I blinked. There was no sign of movement.
There was no signs of guards.
There were no signs of anyone.
"I don't see anyone," I said over the comm.
"Maintain radio silence," said a curt voice I recognized as
Traker Fields, the mercenary commander.
And then the ground was rushing up on me. I adjusted the
gravchute controls so that I had a relatively soft landing. By the time
my feet touched the ground, the other Graftonites were out of their
chutes and making faces as they waited for me and Emmett North. Well,
at least the Battle Major didn't have superhuman reflexes.
We marched towards the camp, ready for anything. When we were a
hundred feet away, Traker Fields held up his hand for a halt.
He scanned the perimeter.
Still no sign of anyone. Not even guards in the guard towers.
Traker gestured for some of the Graftonites to make flanking
maneuvers. Then, giving the Whisperer a glance, he stood up, and calmly
walked towards the front gate, his blaster rifle at the ready.
When he was about twenty feet away there was a massive explosion.
The front gate blasted outwards. There was a burst of smoke, and
then laser and blaster fire surged through the void, towards our
As the smoke cleared we saw soldiers running out, firing wildly
in our direction. Not just soldiers, Redcaps. All of them.
Unfortunately for the Redcaps, our men were all prone in various
areas around the front gate. They started firing too, but each of their
shots were carefully aimed.
It was a slaughter. In less than a minute every redcap was lying
on the ground, unmoving.
Traker Fields calmly got up and dusted himself off. He had hit
the ground the instant the gate had exploded. He paused, gazing around
him, then gave a small whistle. Instantly, the other seven Graftonites
jumped up, and followed him. So did the Whisperer, the Battle Major,
There was sporadic resistance inside the main gate as small
groups of Redcaps attempted to spring ambushes. A Graftonite would
walk around a corner, and find several Graftonites with their fingers
on the triggers. But they couldn't match the speed of the Graftonites.
There were sounds of blasterfire, and screams, but the screams were all
The Battle Major and I entered one of the administrative
buildings. One of the doors were locked. We blasted it open, and were
quite surprised to see what we found....
It was Colonel Tenov, and his regular military men. None of them
seemed to have weapons.
"You," said Tenov simply.
"What happened here?" I asked.
"Shortly before you arrived a reinforcement company of Loyalty
Police arrived. One of them, a Major, relieved me and my men of
command," said Tenov, gritting his teeth. He probably was especially
annoyed to be relieved by a lower ranking official, but the Redcaps
didn't let rank get in the way.
"Are our men still here?" I asked.
Tenov was silent.
"If you won't help us, you're not exactly in a position to fight
us, either," I said.
"No, the Loyalty Police took away our weapons, so we are unable
to fight with them," said Tenov, looking only remotely distressed.
I nodded, and turned to the Battle Major. "Seal up this door.
There's no other way out." I didn't even reflect on the rank that I was
giving orders to a senior officer. Since this was an unofficial
operation, did rank even matter? But Emmett North simply nodded and
closed the door as I left, showing by his actions that he concurred
with my decision.
I turned and headed for the barracks. I had no great love for
Colonel Tenov, he had never treated us kindly, but my anger was
reserved for the Redcaps.
By this time the Graftonites were cautiously closing in on the
barracks, having eliminated a number of deadly ambushes. I did a quick
count and found that all of them were still standing. It was amazing
that none of them had been harmed.
Though, perhaps, considering that they were Graftonites, perhaps
it wasn't so surprising.
One of the Graftonites kicked open the door to one of the
barracks. A hail of blaster fire cut him down.
In an instant the Whisperer was at the barracks, firing into the
windows. In seconds Traker Fields and two of his men were doing the
same. After a few more seconds there was silence. The Whisperer went
over to the body of the Graftonite who had fallen, and reached down to
feel for a pulse. Then he looked up at Traker Fields, and shook his
The Whisperer and Traker Fields entered the barracks. A few
seconds later there was one shot fired. And then another. And then all
was silent as both left the barracks.
Several Graftonites converged on another set of barracks. They
kicked open the door, and-
a stream of prisoners emerged, with a look of disbelief in their
eyes. Prisoners were rescued from three more barracks. They had all
been packed tightly in there, waiting to find out what would happen.
The Graftonites started to herd them towards the gate when the door to
an adjacent barracks opened, and more Redcaps came rushing out, and
started firing on the prisoners.
The Graftonites cooly gunned them down. Even when more Redcaps
emerged from another building, the Graftonites managed to fire in two
completely different directions without losing their cool. Redcaps fell
to the ground, and only a few could get off a stray shot.
When the Redcaps stopped coming out, Traker Fields took out his
comm. "What?" he said simply.
"I've been trying to call you for several minutes," came Croft's
"I've been busy," said Fields calmly, shooting a Redcap darting
between the barracks even as he talked to Croft. Although he saw the
fleeing Redcap only for a split second, we heard a splash in the snow
indicating the Redcap had fallen.
"Sensors have picked up a lot of ships coming this way. I have to
"The area is not fully secure," said Fields, firing again as if
to make his point.
"No choice," said Croft, and we could hear the roar of the
transport dropping down above us.
Traker Fields detailed several of the Graftonites to escort the
prisoners to the transport, while the rest of us searched the remaining
Much to my surprise, a Redcap with his hands up popped out of one
of the barracks. "Do not shoot," he said, giving a big grin.
It was Sergeant Maxim Korky, Iron Club himself.
My teeth clenched as my hands tightened on my blaster.
"I am not armed," said Korky, his hands slowly lowering. "You do
not shoot unarmed people in your League, do you not?"
I raised my blaster.
"No we don't," said Emmett North, putting a restraining hand on
Korky's grin only grew wider.
"We'll take him back for trial in the League."
Korky's grin slowly faded.
We led Iron Club out of the barracks. We were walking by the Pit
when we came face to face with the Whisperer.
"So, you made it too," said Korky. "A pity," said Korky. "If we
had had only a little more time together-"
The Whisperer reached out and smacked Korky in the face. He went
spinning to the ground.
Korky, blood spurting from his face, looked up to see the
Whisperer with his blaster in hand.
"League does not shoot unarmed men," said Korky.
"I'm not in the League," said the Whisperer softly.
Korky looked worried.
"Get up," the Whisperer grated.
Korky stood up.
"Turn around," said the Whisperer, his gun pointed at Korky's
head. He was going to kill him, execution style.
"No, Martin," said Emmett North. "This isn't the way."
"This isn't your way," said the Whisperer.
"We don't execute people in cold blood," said Emmett North. "Let
us put him on trial."
"A League trial?" said the Whisperer. "Will he get the same kind
of justice that your League sought for us?"
Korky turned to face the Whisperer. "Execution is not the act of
a civilized society," he said, making sure he had eye contact with the
At that moment, I gave a shout as I saw Korky draw a hidden knife
and dart out at the Whisperer.
He might have been moving in slow motion, however, as the
Whisperer seemed to leisurely wait until the knife was at its farthest
point before knocking it away. It fell into the Pit.
"That was my favorite knife," Korky grinned. He knew now that the
Whisperer wouldn't kill him.
"Then why don't you go and fetch it?" said the Whisperer, and he
bodily tossed him into the Pit.
There was a loud, long scream for a moment, which was punctuated
by a thud, and then a silence.
"If you're through playing here, we've got to finish up here and
get to the ship," said Traker Fields. The transport had landed and the
prisoners were filing onboard, escorted by the Graftonites. "Are we
I looked around. There were two small sheds left, on opposite
sides of the compound. "We just have to check out those two sheds.
Martin and I can handle it."
"Good," said Fields. "Meet you at the ship."
We split up and each headed for a shed. I reached one of them,
and opened it up. Dark. Empty. Cautiously I went inside.
Suddenly a hand came out of the dark and chopped the blaster from
my hand. A Redcap stepped into the light. A very familiar Redcap, with
shoulder length blond hair.
"Major Almorsa," I said, rubbing my sore wrist. "Colonel Tenov
said he was relieved by a Redcap Major, but I didn't know it was you."
"I was sent here to bolster security," she said, stepping into
the dim light provided by a window.
"Good job," I said.
"Silence!" she said, smacking me in the face. "Do you remember
what I said to you would happen if we met again?"
Her hand was tight on the blaster.
"You said you'd kill me," I said.
"Yes," said Major Almorsa, smiling as her finger tightened on the
Suddenly there was a splat! as the window shattered and a thin
laser bolt hit Almorsa in the forehead. Her mouth agape, she collapsed
wordlessly to the ground.
I left the shed, to find the Whisperer casually walking up to me,
holding a sniper rifle. "I thought you might need some help," he said.
Suddenly, a fighter streaked through the air, blasting the ground
around us with blaster fire.
"Run!" shouted the Whisperer uncharacteristically raising his
We made for the ship.
The fighter made several more passes, firing at us. Several times
chunks of dirt were blown up around us, and at one point the Whisperer
elbowed me out of the way of a blaster strike. After some more dodging
and weaving we reached the transport, which, curiously, was not being
The ship was lifting off even as we were closing the airlock.
I struggled to get to the cockpit even as the ship accelerated
"-convinced them that firing on us wouldn't be the best thing for
the Captain-General," Croft was saying as he gunned the ship out of the
atmosphere. "But they'll probably need some more convincing before
they'll let us go."
The transport headed out of the atmosphere, hotly pursued by
fighters who fired bursts of energy around the transport. They were
obviously being careful, though, not to hit the ship.
"This will change once we break orbit," said Emmett North. "Then
they will disable the engines and board us."
"Take the controls," said Croft, indicating for me to sit in the
copilot's seat. I did so, while Croft made his way to the bound and
gagged Captain General. Croft removed the man's gag.
Lysoko spat at him. Croft carefully hit him in the face. "No
"Surrender now, League pig, while you have the chance."
"Why would I do that?" said Croft.
"When my men board this ship, you will be lucky if you aren't
taken alive," said Lysoko.
"But not with your help."
"Croft! There's a battleship ahead of us!" I said, trying
unsuccessfully to keep the panic out of my voice.
"Get on the comm and tell them to stand down," said Croft.
Lysoko said nothing.
Croft slapped him again. "Do it!"
"Excuse us for a moment," said Croft. He dragged Lysoko into the
room just behind the cockpit.
I heard a scream, then another, and then moans. A moment later,
Croft returned, dragging the General. I couldn't help but notice that
not only did he look disheveled but he had tears in his eyes.
"What did you do?"
"I'll show you the holovid later," Croft snapped. "Open a comm
I did so.
Croft merely looked at Lysoko. Shuddering, Lysoko spoke rapidly
The voice on the other side spoke argumentatively.
Lysoko yelled at the voice. He was speaking quickly, but I think
he threatened to have the family of the battleship commander executed
if he didn't obey.
"Yes, sir," came the voice over the comm.
The battleship backed off.
Croft switched off the comm. "Very goooood," he said, as if
speaking to a child.
Lysoko glared at him. I wondered what had transpired between
The battleship, as well as elements of a Slurian fleet, followed
us at a respectful distance as we made our way to League space. Croft
had dissuaded them from making a rescue attempt, but they obviously had
second thoughts about simply letting us go.
However, at the edge of Slurian space, we picked up another fleet
on our sensors.
"A trap?" I said nervously.
"Check the ID's," said Croft.
I did, breathlessly. But even as the idents were coming in, we
received a transmission.
"Unidentified transport, this is the Command Carrier Glory of the
7th fleet. Identify yourself."
We did, quite happily, I might add.
"You will be leaving Slurian space in... eight seconds. Prepare
to dock with the Glory. We have medical and support personnel waiting
"Glory, what brings you way out here?" I couldn't help but ask.
The voice of War Admiral Norman North could be heard. "Routine
I looked at the Battle Major, and we exchanged wide grins.
A month later I reported back for active duty on the Glory. The
War Admiral was waiting for me in his office.
"That was a fine piece of work you did, Iday," said the War
Admiral. "If it had been a League operation, you would have received a
We both laughed. Amazingly, we had rescued all the prisoners
without a single casualty, all except the Graftonite who had been lost
in our initial attack.
"I just wonder if there are any other prisoners out there who are
still being held," I said.
"There's no way to know for sure," said the War Admiral. "Not
unless we conquer the Slurian Union."
"Will it come to that, someday?"
"They haven't given up," said the War Admiral. "They'll be back."
The War Admiral must have noticed me frowning, because he said,
"I was just thinking of some friends I escaped with when I was a
prisoner in the Slurian labor camp. I got separated from them, and
don't know what happened to them."
The War Admiral shrugged. "There are some things that will never
I nodded, but I spent just a few seconds more wondering about the
fate of Korolev, Mr. Chekov, Sasha, and especially Kerensky.
The Time: Several hundred years after the end of the story
The Place: The Palace of Rulers, Pushkin, the former capital of the
"An interesting account, Idaho," said the man, sitting behind the
desk. "I wish I had read it earlier."
"Thank you, Mr. President," I said. "But I published this account
of my time in the Slurian labor camps a long time ago."
"Well, it was a banned book here, until we got the Slurian regime
off our backs," said the President. "I think people will still have
trouble believing some of the tales of your account. Many of the worst
crimes of the regime were not commonly known."
"That's why I've come to you," I said.
"I will make sure this book is published far and wide and made
available to everyone," said the President.
"So, you have no objections with the content?" I said.
"Objections?" said the President of the Pushkin Republic, looking
"Well, I did make you appear a bit like an aloof intellectual in
the story," I said.
President Kerensky laughed and put an arm around me. "Don't worry
Idaho, I'll have my writers improve those parts of your story before it
So ends "Escape from Altera", my 16th novel. Originally, this story was
supposed to focus on Mount Perm with the labor camp being only a small
appetizer, but things turned out in reverse, and I consciously found
myself skipping on some side stories, such as the discovery of the
Slurian spy among the prisoners at Mount Perm, to keep the story
It's been almost a year since I wrote my last book, I'm going to
try and step up the pace. I think my next book will be a story entitled
"Still the Most Dangerous Game", telling the story both of a powerful
Graftonite who hunts people for sport, and an early introduction into
Steven Quick's Directorate. I am very conscious of the fact that with
each successive book I am going farther and farther back in time, but
this is often how I write. I also write my books in an out-of-order
fashion. I wrote the first 35,000 words of "Escape from Altera", then
wrote the last 10,000 words of the novel, then wrote the middle part. I
guess I like the beginnings and the ends the best.
August 21, 2003
When I finish a novel, I often find a number of interesting scenes to
portray that don't quite fit in with the dramatic pace of the book.
Even when they don't fit in, I often include them after the end. I call
them "clipped scenes." This book has only one: it was supposed to be a
prologue to the story, describing the treatment of Slurian prisoners in
League detention centers, and to show the abilities of a major
character. But some readers commented that putting this part at the
beginning of the story was confusing, since the focus of the story was
on League prisoners in Slurian prisons, not the other way around. But
it's a brilliant little piece of writing, so I've enclosed it below.
A brief view from the other side: How Slurian prisoners fared in League
The location: Slurian internment camp #3 on Greenfields, a League
Captain Stanley Baronnikov squinted in the sunlight as he watched
the new arrival exist the commander's office. He had been there for
over an hour. That itself was unusual. Perhaps he had been subject to a
more elaborate interrogation than other new arrivals.
Or perhaps the new arrival was a spy, a plant by the League.
They, after all, knew that the Slurian prisoners were up to something.
Barronnikov watched the man step slowly into the open as two
guards walked him towards one of the interior gates. The gate opened,
he stepped through, and the gate closed behind him. The man turned
around to watch the gate closing with mild interest, as if he were
already casing the defenses.
When he turned forward he started moving towards the barracks.
Baronnikov saw that he was wearing the frayed uniform of a pilot in the
The man gave Baronnikov a hard stare, as if he was sizing
Baronnikov up even while Baronnikov was doing the same to him. The man
matched stares for a moment, and then started to move into the barracks
Baronnikov held out a restraining hand. The man looked at the
hand and then Baronnikov. Baronnikov removed the hand. "Not there,"
said Baronnikov, in broken English. "You must be debriefed."
"I must speak to your senior officer," said the man, speaking for
the first time in fluent Slurian.
"First debriefing," said Baronnikov. He pressed his foot against
the barracks, and on signal two Slurian prisoners came around the
The newcomer stared at them coldly as they moved to flank him. He
turned as if to say something to Baronnikov, and then his arms moved
quickly. The two Slurians dropped to the ground, pain etched on their
The newcomer looked at Baronnikov. "And now, the senior officer."
Captain-General Sergei Phantov sat behind the desk. The desklamp,
pointed at the newcomer, barely illuminated his face.
"You say you are secret agent," he said.
"A little louder," said the newcomer. "A few of the guards
outside may not have heard you."
The man had identified himself as Major Usan Popov of the
Internal Security Special Tasks bureau.
That in itself had raised General Phantov's eyebrows. The man-he
had given his name as Oscar Denniken-said that when he was captured he
had posed as a space force fighter in order not to attract special
scrutiny. Where and how he was captured he refused to say.
"What was the nature of your mission?" Phantov laughed.
Denniken gave a short, amused laugh.
Phantov tried to control his temper.
"Colonel, actually," said Denniken.
Phantov paused. If this was really a colonel in Special Tasks, he
must be quite senior. Colonels in Special Tasks were known to order
around Generals in the armed forces.
Phantov made himself take a deep breath before continuing.
"Colonel, then. You must understand that we have no way of verifying
Denniken said nothing.
"We have no other Special Tasks officers here who can identify
"I would be surprised if you did," said Denniken stonily.
"The camp authorities have tried to plant spies among us before,"
"But I am a spy," said Denniken.
Phantov looked startled for a moment, and then puzzled. Then he
gave a short laugh.
"Very well," he nodded. "We will accept your story, for now,"
"What are your escape plans?" said Denniken.
"What?" said Phantov.
"Your escape plans," said Denniken. "When do you plan to escape?"
Phantov looked at an aide to his side, as he considered how to
"I must get back to my unit," said Denniken. "I have vital
information I must report. If you do not have a plan, I will have to
escape on my own."
"We've been working on something," said Phantov guardedly. Even
the camp authorities knew that, so he was giving nothing away.
"For how long?"
"Several months," said Phantov.
"Several months!" said Denniken. "And you are still here? What
are you waiting for?"
The aide looked frightened, as if he were not used to people
talking to the general in this way.
"There are still some supplies we need to obtain," said Phantov.
"To steal, you mean," said Denniken. "Tell me what you need and I
will get it for you.
Phantov considered. If Denniken were a spy for the camp
authorities, he would be taking a risk in telling Denniken what they
needed. But not an overwhelming one; even knowing what items would be
needed would not be enough to uncover the specific location of their
tunnel. And if Denniken were legitimate, he could help them to escape
"I'll have my people draw up a list," said Phantov.
"Good," said Denniken. He got up to leave.
"Colonel?" said Phantov.
Denniken turned around.
"Just one more thing," said Phantov.
"Yes?" said Denniken.
"How goes the war?"
Denniken's face was blank for a moment. Then he said, "Quite
well. The last I heard we had blasted another of their fleets and were
gaining on all grounds."
"Thank you, Colonel," said Denniken.
After he had gone Phantov turned to his aide. "What do you
"If he's a plant, he's very gutsy," said the aide.
"I agree," said Phantov. "He certainly acts with the arrogance of
a Special Tasks officer." He paused. "Draw up a list."
"We will see what he obtains and how he obtains it. That may tell
"But what if he is a spy?" said the aide.
"We will just have to watch him closely," said Phantov. "You know
how important our escape is. We're not just talking about our own
personal freedom here; we're talking about victory in the war."
The aide nodded.
"And that brings in one more thing," said Phantov.
"About the war?"
"Yes," said Phantov. "He lied to us about it." Even here, in the
camp, he knew that the Slurian Union was losing the war. The last two
spies the camp tried to plant weren't sophisticated enough to know that
a Slurian's first duty was to pass positive propaganda. This was either
a new kind of plant... or Denniken really what he said he was.
Denniken looked at the list with raised eyebrows. There were
obviously items here that no prisoner could hope to acquire. He said as
much. The Slurian who was assigned to him, Baronnikov, quickly
indicated which items were most needed; none of the "impossible" items
were on the list.
Denniken eyed Baronnikov cynically. He had given in too quickly
to Denniken's objections; obviously, the impossible items had been his
first test. If he had procured them, Phantov would've been certain that
he was a spy-for the League.
He spent the next few days casing out the camp and getting chummy
with the guards. Baronnikov remarked as much.
"They have access to supplies," said Denniken. "I would prefer to
procure supplies only from loyal Slurians, but our options are limited
"And what have several days of smalltalk gotten you?" Baronnikov
Denniken took several small electrical components out of his
pocket. "I believe these are three of the things you asked for."
General Phantov was kept informed of his progress.
"He says he got two of them from a hovergenerator, and bribed a
guard to bring in the parts to make the third component," said the
Phantov raised an eyebrow as if asking a question.
"It's certainly possible," said the aide. "We ourselves have
bribed guards for small things."
"Then why did we not bribe them for this?"
"We couldn't," said the aide. "It would have been too obvious.
Denniken was smart to ask for it in pieces."
"And the components from the hovergenerator?"
"Obviously obtained from one of the vehicles in the inner
courtyard. How he got there and obtained them I do not know."
"He is Special Tasks," said Phantov thoughtfully. "For him, it
might be possible." He thought in silence for several moments. Then he
turned to the aide.
"Have him brought to me."
"With your help we will be ready to escape in three days," said
"You're welcome," said Denniken. "When do I see this escape
tunnel of yours?"
"In time," said Phantov.
Phantov paused. "I have another task for you."
"What kind of task?"
"There is more to this escape than you know," said Phantov.
"Really?" said Denniken.
"There is one among us whose escape is more important than all
the rest," said Phantov. "It is vital that this person get back to
"Why?" said Denniken.
"Let's just say that this person has vital intelligence that must
"There's someone else from Special Tasks here?" said Denniken.
"No, not Special Tasks," said Phantov.
"External Espionage?" said Denniken.
Phantov smiled. "Someone with important information."
"Who is he?"
"You'll meet him during the escape. It will be your task to get
him back to Slurian territory." He sat back to watch Denniken's
"This is not my task," said Denniken. "It will be difficult
enough for me to slip through League security on my own. I will not
babysit another. He is a spy, let him get back on his own."
Phantov frowned. This was not the reaction he was expecting;
certainly not from a plant. Denniken, then, might actually be what he
appeared to be.
"He may be an operative, but he is not Special Tasks. He does not
have your skill. That is why we need your help. This is very
important," said Phantov.
"How important?" Denniken asked.
Phantov said nothing.
"If you're asking me to risk my life, possibly jeopardize my
escape, you have to let me know what I'm doing it for," said Denniken.
Phantov said, "I can't tell you."
"Then we have nothing more to say," said Denniken, getting up to
"Wait," said Phantov.
Denniken turned around.
"The intelligence concerns a League spy ring on Sluria. Our agent
has all the names!"
Denniken paused. "How many spies are we talking about?"
Phantov wet his lips. "I don't know the exact amount; but several
dozen, I believe."
Several dozen! That might be the entire spy network on Sluria!
Denniken slowly nodded. "Very well. When do I meet this person?"
"The night of the escape. We will pair the two of you together
once we are over the wire."
The small tunnel was crowded with escapees. But Denniken was near
the front of the line. He noticed the small electrical device humming
on a shelf on the wall, built with components Denniken had provided; it
would disrupt the League's underground sensors.
Denniken waited impatiently for the signal. He didn't like small
spaces, and the fact that it was cramped with escapees didn't make it
Finally, the line started to move. At the end of the tunnel there
was a homemade ladder. Denniken climbed up. He found himself in the
woods, just beyond the camp. Behind him he saw the searchlights and
guard towers, only feet away. Denniken, like all the rest, were in
civilian clothing; he smoothed his jacket, self consciously squeezing
the lower right hand corner.
He saw Baronnikov motioning to him from behind a tree. Denniken
crept there under cover of darkness.
"Are you ready?" Baronnikov asked.
"I am supposed to meet someone," said Denniken.
Baronnikov gave him a pitying look.
"You?" said Denniken. He eyed the line of escapers climbing out
of the tunnel. "You are the operative?"
Baronnikov nodded slightly.
"All right, let's go," said Baronnikov.
Denniken pressed the lower left hand corner of his jacket again.
Baronnikov, noticing, suddenly looked alarmed. Denniken reached forward
and gave Baronnikov a punch which sent him to the ground.
Suddenly, giant floodlights appeared, blanketing the area.
"Halt, or we'll fire!" came a commanding voice.
Blanketed in the light, everyone froze.
Several platoons of League troopers, walking in a line through
the forest, encircled the escapees.
"All right, hands up," said the troopers.
General Phantov, looking bewildered as he was pressed against a
tree and frisked, said, "What? How?"
Suddenly the camp commander, a Colonel Grady, came into view.
"This is the one you want, Colonel," said Denniken, pointing to
Baronnikov, who was only now getting to his feet. "He's the spy."
"Traitor!" Baronnikov snarled, reaching for Denniken's throat.
Denniken easily ducked past his attack and landed another punch which
sent him to the ground. Two troopers grabbed him.
"I'm no traitor," said Denniken, in perfect Slurian as he
approached Phantov. "I'm just no Slurian," he said, in perfect English,
to Colonel Grady. He turned to Phantov. "Thank you. We had heard rumors
that one of the POW's here was a spy with information that could hurt
us, but we never could identify the spy. I appreciate your help."
"Good work, Croft," said Colonel Grady.
"Croft?" said Phantov, looking confusedly at Denniken.
"Column. One of the Column Eight, actually," said Croft. As
Phantov was led away, he said, "Tell your friends!"
His name was Clifford Croft and he was a top infiltrator with the
Column, a supersecret League spy agency. He always got the toughest
assignments; initially he had resisted this assignment.
"Who cares if a few inconsequential prisoners escape? It will
give the guards some good exercise to chase them down," Croft had said.
But then he learned that one of the prisoners was a spy whose
information could lead to the deaths of dozens of top operatives. That
changed his tune immediately.
Croft watched as the unhappy Slurians were led back to camp.
"Are all your missions like this one?" Colonel Grady asked.
Croft rolled his eyes. "This was a vacation."
Thank you for reading my book! If you'd like to send me feedback
you can do so at http://www.allreaders.com/feedback.asp or by clicking here
You can find more of my books by coming to www.cliffordcroft.com or