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Attack of the Bounty Hunters
by Steven Gordon
Foreward: Who are the Graftonites?
They were the most fearsome gunmen in the galaxy. Everyone knew
what they were capable of. People trembled in their presence. All it
took was the mere mention of their name.
It was a curious world, Grafton II, at first an uninhabited, lush
planet. It was several years before the first settlers started to
notice something different about themselves. Their reflexes started to
speed up. They could move and dodge more quickly, and of course, shoot
more quickly as well. At first, that skill was largely used for
But as time passed and their new found abilities matured, word
spread about what the Graftonites were capable of doing. Graftonites
suddenly found that their abilities were in demand on other planets.
Suddenly, the life of a hard working pioneer had little allure for
these settlers, compared to the life of adventure and excitement (and
not to mention enrichment) that the galaxy had to offer.
Fifty years later, the four most common professions on Grafton
were pretty much set for centuries to come. In order of popularity:
Graftonites became feared throughout the civilized galaxy for
their exceedingly quick reflexes. But as individuals they were only a
threat to those they had been hired to capture, or kill. A capable
Graftonite gunman could take on three or four other soldiers, outdraw
them, and kill them all before any could fire a shot.
But what would it take to stop an army of Graftonites? They would
be almost unbeatable.
It was fortunate that the Graftonites, fiercely independent by
nature, had never organized. Each one did his or her own thing.
At least, until Mo Quandry came along.
In a stadium on Quandry's personal property, he stood on a stage,
surrounded by hundreds of cheering Graftonite gunmen in the bleachers.
Quandry was a tall, dark haired man, with a single scar running down
the side of his face. He had a certain hardness in his brown eyes, a
hardness uncommon even for a Graftonite. He wore the blue denim that
was the popular dress of all Graftonites, with a blaster holstered to
one side, and a traditional Graftonite weapon, the slicer, holstered to
"My friends," he said, standing before the gathering of assembled
Graftonites. "Our time has come! No longer will we be content working
for the sheep, living off the pocket change they pay us for running
their errands while they get fat and rich. Why settle for a handful of
credits when it can all be ours!"
The crowd roared.
Quandry started pacing. He seemed to be looking through the
crowd, picking out individual faces. "The sheep have nothing but scorn
for us. But even more than that, they fear us!"
The crowd roared again.
Quandry suddenly stopped moving. "As proof, see the spy they have
placed in our midst!"
He snapped his fingers, and two Graftonites were instantly at his
side. Quandry pointed, and a very surprised looking spectator in the
audience found himself surrounded by Quandry's men.
"Bring him up here!" said Quandry.
The spectator was brought to the stage. One of the guards handed
Quandry the spectator's blaster.
"Who sent you to spy on us?" Quandry boomed.
The man looked frightened, but said, "I... I am no spy."
Quandry stood for a moment, as if considering that answer. Then
he looked at the man's blaster. "Not a bad weapon."
Almost quicker than the eye could see, Quandry fired off a series
of shots with the man's weapon. They exploded all around him, only
inches from the man's hands and legs.
Quandry aimed the blaster at the man. "Now, who do you work
"The L-league," said the man.
"You see!" said Quandry. The crowd roared.
"We will no longer do your bidding while you skulk in the
shadows, like a coward!" said Quandry. The crowd roared again.
"If you want to confront us, you must do it face to face!" said
Quandry. He tossed the man his blaster, and took several steps
The man sweated, but didn't raise his blaster.
"Are you afraid?" said Quandry.
"I don't want to fight," said the man, now trembling.
"Nevertheless, by trespassing on my property, and spying, you've
picked a fight," Quandry roared. "Look how cowardly the sheep is!"
The crowd roared again.
"Now draw," said Quandry, staring the trembling man down.
"You can outdraw me. You have faster reflexes, I wouldn't stand a
chance," said the man.
"All right," said Quandry. He slowly drew his own blaster, and
laid it down on the ground. Then he drew his slicer, a long, thin foil.
He thumbed a contact on it, and the foil glowed as a thin energy field
enveloped the length of it.
"Now you have no more excuses," said Quandry. "Draw."
Still trembling, the man didn't raise the blaster. He took a step
"You have exactly three seconds before I come after you," said
Quandry. "One... two..."
The man raised his blaster, and fired. But he might as well have
been moving in slow motion, for Quandry dodged out of the way of the
blast, raised the slicer, and gave a quick, horizontal slice with his
The man didn't even have time to scream. He fell to the ground,
in two distinct and separate thuds.
Quandry raised his glowing slicer into the air.
"This will be the fate of all sheep who oppose us! Let us take
from them what is rightfully ours!" he yelled. "Together, we will rule
"Victory!" he shouted.
"Victory!" the crowd shouted back.
They shouted it over, again and again, as Quandry continued to
excite the crowd. With their super reflexes and gunfighting abilities,
who would be able to stop them?
Chapter 1: The Column Gets Involved
The League of United Planets was the most powerful coalition of
colonized planets in the galaxy. It was administered by an elected
government on the planet August and stood for human rights and
democratic representation. A very large bureaucracy administered its
programs and a slightly less large military defended it. In addition,
the League had a number of external intelligence agencies working for
Stellar Intelligence was the largest, most well known, and most
respected agency--and the least competent.
At the other extreme, the most capable intelligence agency was
one without the staff or the resources or even the public relations of
Stellar Intelligence. What it did have was superb operatives. This
agency was simply known as the Column.
And in the Column, the most capable agents were known as Level
One Agents. There were traditionally only eight of those, who were
known, for a very obvious reason, as "The Eight." And of those eight
most capable agents, perhaps the very most capable agent in all the
League was at that moment performing vital work... in an insane asylum.
For the first time in a very long time, superspy Clifford Croft
was almost at a loss for words.
"...just because," Croft finally said. "Do I really have to
explain why it's a bad thing to light someone's clothes on fire?"
Croft was speaking to one of the Column's gamma operatives, a
fire starter named Red Sally who could literally start fires with her
mind. They were deep underground, in a secure sub basement in Column HQ
Sally glared at Croft, her blonde hair turning a hint of red as
the room temperature around her rose slightly. "It's not like I
actually hurt someone."
"I don't think the deputy secretary appreciated the first degree
burn on her right arm," Croft said.
"First degree? That's nothing," said Sally dismissively.
"She's an important government official, and important government
officials don't appreciate being lit on fire," Croft persisted.
"It was an accident," said Sally.
"Was it?" Croft said. "Or was it just coincidental that her
jacket burst into flame when she asked if you were emotionally stable?"
"I am emotionally stable!" Sally shouted, wisps of steam coming
out of her blonde hair, which was starting to look more and more red.
"And I only lit her jacket on fire, if she had only taken it off
promptly, she wouldn't have gotten a scratch!"
"The point is that the deputy secretary should never have needed
a fire safety course in order to visit here," Croft said. "And you need
to learn that."
"All right, I'm sorry," said Sally. "I won't ignite anyone
"You've promised that before," Croft said. "The doctors think you
need some practical training."
"I don't care what the doctors think!" Sally snapped.
Croft snapped his fingers and took a few steps back from Sally.
Attendants in metal fire resistance suits and visors came running
forward, on cue, carrying large books. They stood between Sally and
Croft, and held the books up, all around Croft.
"What's this all about?" said Sally. "Say, those are my books of
Red Sally was well known in the institute for writing feverish
poems, mostly involving fire.
"So they are," Croft said. "Consider this an object lesson in
controlling your powers."
"What do you mean?"
"I have some frank things to say to you," Croft said. "And I have
some concern how you will take it."
"I can take some constructive self-criticism, I suppose," said
"Good," Croft said. "Because remember that your books are
surrounding me." The orderlies in the fire protection suits held up the
"First let's start with your temper," Croft said.
"Who says I have a temper!" Sally yelled.
"Everyone," Croft said. "And I'm not only talking about the
people you've injured. People are afraid to be around you, Sally. They
think if they say the wrong thing, they'll burst into flames."
"Lies!" said Sally, her hair half-red, and positively steaming
"So nothing I could say could cause you to start a fire, then?"
"No!" said Sally.
"Well then, Sally, let us talk about your poetry," Croft said.
"Have I told you that I have actually read some of it?"
Sally's expression turned grim.
"I can't say I think much of it," Croft said, in a carefully
modulated tone that was just the slightest bit derisive.
Her hair was all red now.
"Your poetry has no rhythm."
A curtain of steam rose from her.
"And all you do is write about fires. That gets old, real quick,"
Sally glared at Croft.
"And for another, your spelling and grammar are awful. What
educated person spells conflagration with a u?"
The air in the room became sweltering hot.
Croft could see that things were reaching a boiling point,
perhaps literally. It was time for the final push. "I read some of your
poems to the guys upstairs, and they actually laughed at the
Sally screamed, and a jet of flames shot out from her hands. The
orderlies cringed, even in their fire protective suits, as did Croft.
But the flames shot backwards, not forwards, engulfing an unoccupied
table and a set of chairs in flames. The flames shot out again, and
again and again, as Sally glared at Croft, perspiration running off her
Finally, Sally started gasping, and the flames stopped. Orderlies
rushed forward with fire extinguishers.
Sally wiped some of the perspiration off of her face. "You see?"
she said. "I never touched you. I can control it."
"Why am I here?" Croft wondered aloud.
Croft was still wondering this as he left the gamma section and
went to the Column HQ cafeteria. A fellow operative named Preston was
"How did it go?" Preston asked him.
Croft shrugged. "The usual."
"Why did you get picked for this assignment?" Preston asked,
vocalizing a thought that had been on Croft's mind.
"The Chief volunteered me," Croft said. "I told her one of the
doctors should do it. I'm not a psychiatrist."
"What did the Chief say?" Preston asked.
"She said she wanted Sally trained and she wanted someone who
could get an aggressive reaction from Sally, and she said I was very
good at that," Croft said.
"She thought you'd be good at getting Sally angry?"
"No, just people in general," Croft said.
"Um," said Preston. He suddenly sniffed in Croft's direction. "I
take it the lessons in fire control aren't going well."
"What makes you say that?" Croft asked.
"Well, for one thing, your clothes smell of smoke," said Preston.
Croft sniffed his clothes, and made a face.
Croft's wristcomm beeped. Startled, he looked at it; it was the
Chief calling. He didn't answer it.
"What are you waiting for?" Preston asked.
"You don't suppose she could already have been informed about
some minor non-structural fire damage in the institute?"
"You'd better answer it."
Croft did so. The Chief was not calling about the fire damage.
She was calling him, instead to an unscheduled meeting in a certain
When he arrived the Chief gave him her warm and familiar glare.
Mitty Benchly was new to the job of director of the Column, but she had
quickly taken an instinctive dislike to Croft. She was a shrewd,
elderly looking woman with the eyes of a hawk.
"Mr. Croft," she said, giving him a warning glare. "The Chief of
Staff will be joining us at this meeting," she said, indicating a
dignified, middle aged man sitting in a fine, eight piece suit, flanked
by aides. The aides only wore six piece suits. They were obviously
Croft paused. The Chief evidently expected a response, and she
probably wouldn't appreciate a witty one.
"That's, uh, very nice," Croft said carefully.
The Chief glared at him.
"Hello, Mr. Chief of Staff," said Croft.
The Chief of Staff, seeing that Croft was a mere employee, gave
him the slightest of nods. It oddly reminded Croft of the same kind of
greeting he used to get from a mutant shetland pony he once owned.
"Have a seat," said the Chief sharply. "Lights!"
The lights dimmed. "This briefing will be led by our second
deputy chief analyst for sector intelligence, Sylvia Tane," said the
Chief , indicating a young blonde woman. "You may begin, Ms. Tane."
"What is this about?" Croft whispered to the Chief.
"Be quiet and find out," the Chief advised. She raised her voice.
"Ms. Tane, we're waiting."
"Ah, yes," said the young woman. She pressed a button, and an
image of a blue-green world appeared on the holoprojector. "You are all
undoubtedly familiar with Grafton II. It's a planet notorious for its
gunmen for hire. Until now Graftonites have operated individually for
different employers, some working against our interests, some working
for them, but most engaged in activities unrelated to our interests."
"Until now," the Chief prompted.
"Ah, yes." Another holoimage appeared, this one a moving image
showing Graftonites in battle, firing blasters as they ran and weaved
across the area in view. They moved so incredibly quickly that their
images blurred, only solidifying when they stopped to momentarily
steady their aim.
"This holo transcript was taken from Grafton IV, another planet
in orbit around Grafton. The inhabitants from Grafton IV aren't members
of the League, but rather are independent, like Grafton II.
Unfortunately, they don't have the speeded up reflexes of their
neighbors on Grafton II," said Tane.
"What we're seeing, gentlemen, is an attack on the Zytrilium
depository on Grafton IV," said the Chief.
"Groups of Graftonites are occasionally hired to stage armed
raids," said one of the generals. "As long as it doesn't concern a
League world, why do we care?"
"Because when the Graftonites took the Zytrilium, they didn't
leave," said the Chief. "They stayed behind and took over the entire
That started some murmuring in the audience. That wasn't typical
"Next image, please!" the Chief said, taking over the
The image of a dark haired man appeared on the screen. "This is
Mo Quandry, the leader of this new group of Graftonites," said the
Chief. "As far as we can tell, he's the one who organized this
invasion." There was more background chatter at the mere mention of the
"Invasion, gentlemen. There is no way to minimize it," said
Benchly. "If the Graftonites are getting organized, and have started to
invade a neighboring planet, who is to say whose planet will be next? A
League planet, perhaps?"
"The Graftonites are formidable fighters, but we outnumber them
more than a thousand to one. They only have one planet with a
population of what, 50 million?" said one of the generals.
"Actually, the figure is closer to eight million," said Tane, the
"Eight million! What is that against a population of hundreds of
billions?" said the general.
"And they have no space force to speak of," said an admiral. "How
did they even get to the planet they're invading?"
"According to our remote sensors, they used a civilian transport,
escorted by fighters. No more than 300 Graftonites were involved in the
invasion," said the Chief. "And Grafton IV, their target, has a
population of 40 million."
"You're saying that 300 Graftonites took over a planet of 40
million?" said a general. "That's impossible."
"Facts on the ground would indicate otherwise," said the Chief.
"They have a quite solid hold on Grafton IV."
"Have we spoken with their government, sounded out their
intentions?" one of the civilians asked.
"There is no government," said the Chief.
The murmuring increased.
"What do you mean?" said the civilian who had spoken up earlier.
"Every planet, even a small colony world, has to have a government. "
"There is no government," the Chief repeated. "Tane?"
"There is no planetary government," Tane repeated. "You have to
remember, these are fiercely individualistic people."
"Impossible!" said one of the Admiral. "Who provides for
"The citizens do. Nearly every citizen has their own airfighter,
and quite a number own spacefighters," said Tane.
"Who provides for social welfare?" a civilian analyst asked.
"The citizens provide for themselves," said Tane. "All essential
services are privatized. Living on Grafton isn't a cheap proposition.
That's part of the reason that the planet's so underpopulated."
"What about schools?" This question came from the Chief of
"They're privatized," said Tane.
"Privatized?" said the Chief of Staff, looking puzzled. "But who
sets the curriculum? Who instills the citizen's duty, the social
conscience, the sensitivity training-"
"They don't seem to do that very much. Besides basic reading and
writing, I do know they train a lot with guns," said Tane.
"Maybe that's when they get the sensitivity training," Croft
The Chief of Staff looked incredulous. "Children training with
guns? What about the justice system, police?"
"There is no justice system, or police, or laws," said Tane.
"There is no crime, legally speaking."
"But... what if one civilian gets robbed, or attacked...."
"Then that citizen can use his gun and hunt down the attacker,"
said Tane. "That's another reason that Grafton II is underpopulated. If
you're not good with a gun you don't tend to last long there."
"How does the population respond to murders?"
"If a particular killer incenses the locals with his choice of
targets, locals can band together to hunt him down," said Tane. "There
is a limited form of local government. Water, sewage, and roads are
provided by limited local authorities, the equivalent of county
governments here. They function by assessing a property tax, which is
set on a sliding scale based on the property owner's fighting ability."
"Fighting ability? What does that have to do with anything?" a
"The county authority hires as its tax assessor a gunman, the
best it can find, but usually someone with average or slightly above
average gunfighting skills. The tax assessor goes from home to home
assessing the property tax for each establishment. Before the assessor
sets the tax, he takes into account how formidable the owner of the
home is. Because the owner can appeal the ruling by attempting to kill
"How barbaric!" said the civilian.
"If the tax assessor/gunman knows he's a faster draw than the
owner, he assesses a relatively high fee, figuring that the owner will
find it more reasonable to pay than to go up against him. If the gunman
thinks the owner is faster than him, then he assesses a relatively low
amount, figuring that at such a low amount the owner won't think it
worthwhile to kill someone he hasn't been paid to kill."
There was a lot of murmuring now in the conference room.
"So there's no central government at all?" asked one of the
"Sometimes Graftonites get together to discuss issues. When a lot
of Graftonites, say a 100 or more, get together, it's called a Grand
Meeting, or Grand Gathering," said Tane.
"And that's all the government they have?"
"About a hundred years ago there was a movement to get a lot of
Grand Meetings together to elect representatives to form a national
government," said Tane.
"What happened?" a civilian asked.
"The delegates met, but given their fiercely individualistic
nature, they could only agree on two things, and disbanded," said Tane.
"One of them was their planetary national motto, 'Live Free or Die'.
"What was the other thing they agreed upon?"
"Not to allow guns in the debating chamber," said Tane.
The murmuring grew louder.
The Chief raised her voice to cut over the side discussions. "We
have an embassy on Grafton, of course, to represent the interests of
our people there, but very little information about the current
"What about our Column operatives on Grafton?" said one of the
generals. "What do they say?"
The Chief pressed a button. An image appeared of a man, lying on
the ground with a burn in his forehead. "The agency chief doesn't say
"Neither do his deputy operatives," the Chief added. The image
expanded to show two other people in a similar condition. "Meanwhile
our embassy staff are huddled in their offices, afraid to come out.
Since they don't have a government of their own, the Graftonites don't
think much of the concept of diplomatic immunity, I'm afraid."
"Where do we go from here?" asked the Chief of Staff.
"We need more information about this Quandry and his intentions,
and what the situation on the ground is," said the Chief. "That's why
I'm going to send another agent in."
"One agent? Will that be enough?" said a general.
"I'm sending the best," said the Chief, looking meaningfully at
Ten minutes later Croft was seated in the Chief's office. He
started in with his first question even before she took her seat.
"Why do I always get the suicide missions?" said Croft.
"You're one of the Eight," said the Chief. "You're one of our
leading trouble shooters."
"It's funny that I never hear about any of the other seven being
sent on these one-way missions," said Croft. "Why don't you send a
"I would, if we had a Graftonite operative, but we don't," said
"Why don't we hire one? We've done it before."
"Because I need feedback from one of our own, not a Graftonite
operative," said the Chief. "We've been trying to hire a Graftonite to
accompany you, but anti-League sentiment is on an upswing there,
undoubtedly thanks to our friend Mo Quandry, and we'll be lucky if we
do find someone by the time you land there."
"Do you really expect me to outgun a Graftonite?" said Croft.
"You'll have to rely on your cunning," said the Chief. "You'll be
dressed as and will pass as a Graftonite when you're in public. When
you meet with people in private you'll have a different cover, as a
League diplomatic official."
"I'm going to pose as a Graftonite? Who thought up that crazy
idea?" said Croft.
"I did, Mr. Croft," said the Chief coldly. "Mr. Croft, may I be
"By all means."
"I don't like you," said the Chief. "I don't like your frivolous,
headstrong ways. I've read your lengthy service records; my
predecessors found you irritating too. But you have an uncanny knack
for survival, and that's something we need here. If it will help stroke
your precious ego, we're sending you in because we think you have the
best chance for survival."
Croft paused. "That's very flattering. But if you're going to
send me there, I'm going to need some help."
"I was actually thinking along the same lines," said the Chief.
She appeared to changed the subject. "What did you think of Ms. Tane's
"It was good, what little you let her give," said Croft.
"She's very knowledgeable about the Graftonites. One of our top
analysts in the area," said the Chief.
"Are you suggesting I take a non-operative on a mission?" said
Croft, suddenly comprehending. "I'm going to have a hard time enough
protecting myself, I can't babysit-"
"I'm not suggesting anything," said the Chief. "I am ordering you
to take Ms. Tane. Your service record indicates a tendency to disregard
cultural norms and a failure to appreciate local culture-"
"We're not talking about a touristy visit here-"
"Silence!" the Chief thundered. "You will take Ms. Tane and that
is the end of it. I need to find out what the Graftons are up to and we
need to understand their culture to understand them. Ms. Tane will
provide invaluable assistance. Now, is there anything else?"
Croft opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again. "Yes. A
"Denied. Gamma operatives-"
"-are limited in number and strictly intended for critical A-1
missions," said Croft. "I know, I've heard it all before. If the
Graftonites are planning to invade other planets, I'd say that's
The Chief paused for a moment, considering. Then she looked up at
Croft, sighing. "Who do you want?"
Croft also considered for a moment, then he said, "A telekinetic
would be nice."
"A telekinetic," said the Chief, punching some buttons on her
keyboard. "You say it as if we had a whole warehouse of such operatives
available." She pressed another button and the holoimage of two faces
appeared in the air.
"The Clapper and the Bopper," Croft groaned.
"Which will it be?" said the Chief.
Croft considered, trying to decide which one was less brain
damaged. Gamma operatives had special abilities, but almost all of them
had "personality quirks", some more serious than others. The Clapper
had a tendency to clap his hands continually, which was irritating, but
was not nearly as annoying as what the Bopper did.
"The Clapper," said Croft.
"Very well," said the Chief. "There's a freighter leaving
tomorrow. We've booked special passage for you."
"Thanks," said Croft. He got up, and turned to go.
"I want regular reports. I intend to run your mission myself.
There are to be no headstrong actions without consulting me. Are we
"Are we clear?"
"Yes, I will only take headstrong actions that meet with your
approval," said Croft, feeling very much the child.
The first thing that Croft did after leaving the Chief was to
send a quick message using his wrist comm. Then he started deeper into
the complex towards one of the most heavily guarded section of the
base--the Gamma section. He had been there just a few hours ago to
administer Red Sally's "therapy", and now he had to return there once
His ID was checked several times at several checkpoints staffed
with heavily armed guards, before he finally found himself in a large
room filled with screaming, shrieking individuals.
Croft tried to filter out the noise.
"No, no, it's my toy, mine, mine, mine!"
"I must have 15 raisins with my dinner, not 14, not 16, but 15!"
"Do they thank us? Does anyone ever thank us? No, no gratitude."
Croft tried to blot it out as he approached a trainer in a white
uniform. He asked her a question. She pointed to a room down the hall.
Croft had just reached the door when a flame spurted out of the
open doorway, almost burning him. He jumped back, waiting for the flame
to subside, before entering.
"Hey, what do you think you're doing?" said Croft, seeing Red
Sally as he entered. "You almost burned me!" So much for the morning
"Told you (clap clap) you might burn someone (clap clap), told
you (clap clap)," said a skinny man to one side of the room.
"Sorry, I didn't see you," Red Sally grinned, a sheen of
perspiration on her head as her hair color slowly turned blonde.
"We just had a lesson in controlling your powers this morning,"
said Croft. "Didn't any of that stick with you?"
"What lesson?" said Red Sally, looking momentarily puzzled. And
then, frowning, she concentrated. "Oh, you mean that."
Croft turned to the Clapper. His real name was Robert Clerk, but
to everyone here he was just the Clapper. "I'm here on a mission."
"Mission?" said the Clapper. His eyebrows perked up, and he
looked excited, like a pet promised a walk outside.
"We're going to Grafton," said Croft. "Have you heard of
"Is it pretty?" said the Clapper.
"Very pretty," Croft assured him, automatically falling back into
liespeak. Actually, though, Grafton II was mostly untamed forest
woodlands and mountains. It really was pretty. But the truth wasn't
foremost in his mind right now. "Come along now."
Croft was successfully escorting the Clapper to the door when Red
Sally said, "Take me with you!"
"Not possible, Red," said Croft.
"This is going to be a dangerous mission-"
"Dangerous?" said the Clapper, his face contorting.
Oh oh, wrong thing to say. "Dangerous for Red, not for you,"
Croft corrected. "We're going to a planet of people who like to pick
fights. With your temper-"
"Who says I have a temper!" said Red Sally. Steam rose from her
hair, which started to turn faintly red again. The room grew warm.
"Sally, you're not going to win an argument by committing arson,"
said Croft. "And if you create a tantrum and start a fire again, I'll
have you put in the ice room."
"Oh...." The heat started to dissipate. She took a few steps
forward. "Take me with you. Please!"
"No," said Croft.
"Please!" said Sally again.
"No!" said Croft, wagging a finger at her. "Stay!"
"Good girl!" said Croft, in a rich voice intended for puppies.
"We'll send you a holocard." He turned to the Clapper. "Let's go."
As they left the facility Croft inured himself to the screams and
yells. But one voice in a forest of conversation caught his ear. "Never
grateful, never grateful, no.... do not try the first hamburger, not
the first one, Croft!"
But when Croft turned to find the person who had spoken, he was
Two hours later, after dropping off the Clapper and running some
other errands, Croft made his way to the roof, on the 392nd floor. It
was only there that one could appreciate the majesty of August, the
capital of the League and the Alliance, one great city of skyscrapers
spread out over most of a continent. Here, near the palace at Sarney
Sarittenden, the bulk and height of the buildings were especially
The sun beat down at him and the wind whipped at his body as he
walked on the crunchy green turf. A man in a chef's hat stood cooking
on the far side of the roof, on an old fashioned grill. Croft slowly
walked towards him.
"Really, Levi, I don't know what you see in all this," said
"I like outdoors," said the man. His name was Levi Esherkol, and
he was one of the most brilliant scientists working for the Column. But
he also liked to cook. Levi pressed down on the meat, and the dripping
juices raised a fire which surrounded the burgers. "Ready, I think."
"Levi, I don't have time for this."
"Always time for quality food," said the cook. He handed Croft
the hamburger. The smell was delicious. Croft's first instinct was to
bite into it, but then, remembering something he had heard, lifted the
bun and looked at the burger. "Levi!"
Croft showed him the burger. There was a bug mashed on top of it.
"How that get there?" said Levi. "Sorry." He took it away and
gave Croft another.
After careful inspection, Croft bit into it. It was really good.
"Eh? Eh?" said Levi, watching his expression. "Use specially
flavored hickory chips. You like?"
"Um," said Croft, chewing a bit and then swallowing. "I like, I
like. But Levi, about the problem I commed you about-"
Levi looked down at Croft's boots. "I look in service, file, your
boot size 10.1, correct?"
Levi reached behind the grill and handed Croft a pair of black
boots that looked identical to the one that Croft was wearing. Levi
looked pleased with himself. "I even got color right!"
"Yes, Levi, but I already have boots, and how is this going to
protect me from Graftonite gunmen?" said Croft. "I was expecting some
sort of portable forcefield-"
"Don't have portable forcefield, certainly not on short notice,"
"What do you have?"
"Look in boot," said Levi.
Croft raised the right boot and looked inside, but only saw
"No, left boot!"
Croft did the same with the left boot, but only saw the same
"No, not look!" said Levi. "Feel!"
Croft started to put his hand in, but Levi grabbed his arm.
"Gently!" said Levi.
Croft, nodding, cautiously put his hand in. He felt an unfamiliar
lumpiness on the roof of the interior of the boot.
"The padded area?"
Levi nodded. "Gas injector. Step on foot with other foot, and
injector will send compressed gas injection through skin."
"What kind of injection?"
"Accelerant. Experimental," said Levi. "May accelerate bodily
functions fast enough to temporarily compete with Graftonites."
"Experimental," said Levi. "Works on chimps for short periods."
"Chimps," said Croft. "Will this make me faster than the
"Not sure," said Levi. "Depends on your bodily chemistry, and
"Maybe I'd better ask a chimp," said Croft.
"One more thing. Watch out for side effects."
"What side effects?" Croft asked.
"Dizziness. Maybe some nausea," said Levi. "Not likely life
threatening. Only lost one chimp."
"Only one?" said Croft.
"Not directly related to serum," said Levi. "Chimp fell off roof.
Wrong to test it up here, but was nice sunny day."
"Oh," said Croft. "It still sounds dangerous. Isn't there
"Best can do on short notice," said Levi. "Do you have few
"Then all I can give."
"Well, that's all I can ask for, I guess," said Croft. "I'm
bringing the Clapper, maybe that will help even the odds."
Levi gave a short laugh, as if Croft had said something amusing.
Croft turned to go, but was called back after only a few steps.
"Looking for new meat recipes, Graftons famous for. If time, can
Croft thought about the danger the Graftonites posed to the
galaxy, and he said, "You bet, Levi. Recipes. Priority one."
Actually, Grafton really was famous for its meat dishes. That was
one of the many useless things that Croft learned on the tedious trip
to Grafton II. Sylvia Tane was a veritable fountain of information,
telling him much more than he wanted to know about Grafton. Croft had
actually briefly been to Grafton once before, very briefly, but he had
to admit that Sylvia knew a lot more than he did.
"Did you know that over 90% of the population are dedicated
carnitarians?" said Tane. Carnitarians; that meant they only ate meat.
"No," said Croft.
The Clapper sat quietly, watching the conversation, clapping
softly. He generally only clapped when he was nervous, or bored, or if
the weather were just right.
"They refuse to eat fruits or vegetables," said Tane.
"Fascinating," said Croft. "Is there anything in your database
that tells us how to win a gunfight against them?"
"Gunfight? You're not planning to challenge any Graftonite, are
"No," said Croft. "I was thinking of the other way around."
"It is not uncommon for Graftonites to challenge others to
gunfights, but only if they feel insulted, or if they don't get what
they want," said Tane. "My advice is not to insult any of them and to
give them whatever they want."
"I wonder if any of our late operatives insulted the
Graftonites," said Croft.
"I did notice from the holoimages that all of them had their
blasters out," said Tane. "If someone challenges you, simply refuse to
"Haven't you ever heard of Graftonite killers? They'll kill me
whether I defend myself or not," said Croft.
"Well, certainly, there are some of those in Grafton society. But
there is also a strong cultural belief in the fair fight."
"The fair fight?"
"Yes," said Tane. "That all gunfights should be one on one. That
a Graftonite shouldn't be attacked by surprise, or sniped at long
"A code of conduct for a planet of killers," said Croft dryly.
"Don't dismiss it so casually, Mr. Croft," said Tane. "I've read
of instances of Graftonites who disregarded the rules who were hunted
down and killed by their neighbors. Some of them take these things very
"What about the Graftonites who hire themselves out as killers?"
"Yes, they also have a code of conduct, of sorts," said Tane.
"But their victims are almost always non-Graftonites, so the same rules
may not apply. But as long as no one has been hired to kill you, you
should be all right. After all, you're a sheep."
"A what?" said Croft.
"That's what Graftonites call non-Graftonites. Sheep. It's meant
as a visual metaphor for the weak, those unable to defend themselves.
It's meant disparagingly, but actually may help us," said Tane.
"Well, sheep are looked down upon, but they're also pitied. If
someone simply killed a sheep without cause, his neighbors would look
negatively on that," said Tane.
"Uh huh," said Croft, aware that despite what Tane said, any
Grafton could kill them for any reason he wished. Then another thought
struck him. "But we're not posing as off-worlders, as least not in
public. We're supposed to be posing as Graftonites, so we won't even
have that theoretical protection."
"Well, that was the Chief's idea. I can't be responsible for
that," said Tane.
The Clapper clapped twice.
It was going to be some trip.
Chapter 2: Basking in the Hospitality of the Silencer
Croft drew his blaster lightning with lightning speed, appraising
his opponent in the mirror who drew just as fast as he did. Studying
his stance for a moment, he holstered his blaster and drew it again.
"You won't need to do that," said Tane. "We're going to pass for
Graftonites. Nobody's going to challenge us."
Croft gave a short laugh. "Graftonites are always challenging
"They only challenge people who they think are weak," said Tane.
"They don't challenge each other unless it's over something really
important. Since we will be posing as native Graftonites, we shouldn't
have any trouble."
"No trouble," Croft repeated. He drew his blaster again. This
time, he thought he was slightly faster. Good. He turned away from the
mirror and set his blaster to the test setting. Tensing again, he drew
his blaster and fired immediately, hitting a crate some twenty feet
away. Not bad, but not good; he had been aiming for the crate above the
one he had actually hit.
"No matter how much you practice, you'll never be as fast as the
natives," said Tane.
Croft hadn't told her about the accelerant that Levi had given
him. It was still experimental, Levi had said. Only to be used as a
last resort. Croft wasn't enthusiastic about injecting a barely tested
drug into his system, but if he were faced with a Graftonite killer, he
would have no choice.
"A more productive use of the time would be spent reviewing the
data on Grafton," said Tane. "We will be landing on Regular in just a
"Regular?" Croft said idly, continuing to practice quickdrawing,
firing, and reholstering his weapon.
"Their capital, and, it appears, their only city," said Tane. "If
you can call a locale of only 50,000 people a city."
"Only 50,000 people? And that's their only city?" said Croft.
"What about the other almost eight million Graftonites?"
"They're all spread out, all over the countryside," said Tane.
"You see, it's things like this you should be learning, and not playing
with your weapon. I can help."
"You want to help?" said Croft.
"If I can," said Tane.
"Can you move right over there?" Croft asked, indicating the
crates he had been targeting. "I need to practice on a human shape."
When the freighter touched down, Tane said, "I hope you spent at
least some time figuring out a course of action. The Chief's initial
orders are to find out more about this Quandry and what his intentions
are, but we have been given some latitude in how we approach this. I
suggest we begin by reviewing the local media database-"
"Fine, you do that," said Croft. "But I didn't come all the way
here to review their local media database."
"Then what do you plan?"
"First we pick up our contact," said Croft. After substantial
effort Column had ultimately succeeded in hiring a local Graftonite to
accompany them for a premium. Given the anti off-worlder sentiment, it
was lucky they had found anyone at all. His name was Tallas Carper, and
that was all Croft knew about him.
"We'll drop by a friend's place," said Croft.
"May I remind you that we're here on official business," said
"I think you just did," said Croft.
Croft and Tane stepped out onto the tarmac at the Regular
Spaceport. Although it was the largest spaceport on the planet, it
didn't have connecting tubes to the arrival terminal as most spaceports
did. Most of the traffic that came through Regular was cargo freight;
if Graftons needed to travel off-planet, they used their own
spacefighters or small transports.
A mile away, Croft appeared in the crosshairs of a sniper scope.
"I have him," said the slightly accented voice. "They did send
Croft, as we predicted. Shall I kill him?" the sniper asked.
"Fool!" said his superior, a woman with light brown straight hair
whose eyes flashed as she grabbed the sniper rifle away from him.
The sniper and the other members of the observation team looked
up at her with surprise.
"Don't you think it would be the tiniest bit suspicious to kill
Croft in so public a place?" said the woman.
"Yes Major, but-"
"And don't you think that at this range a kill would be far from
certain? You might only wound him, and put him on alert."
"Yes Major, but-"
"And wouldn't it be wiser to first find out what he's doing here,
and what his mission is, before liquidating him?"
"Yes Major," said the sniper. "But you are only observing our
mission and so I thought-"
"What you most obviously did not do was think," said Major Nancy
Kalikov of the Slurian Special Tasks Bureau (STB). "Follow him, learn
what he's doing and what he knows. Once we find out what he's up to,
then we may kill him."
They entered the arriving building. To Croft's surprise, there
was no customs inspection. Tane had told him that their luggage
wouldn't be inspected, but he hadn't believed it.
"Customs inspections only occur when there are governmental
regulations and tariffs regarding imports and exports," said Tane.
"There are no such rules. This isn't even a public spaceport. It's
But there was one line they had to stand in before they left the
spaceport. When they got to the head of the line, a bored looking
Graftonite said, "200 credits."
"200 credits? For what?" said Croft.
The Graftonite looked at him oddly. "Import tax."
"But how can there be an import tax if there's no government?"
Croft asked, forgetting for the moment that he was supposed to be
playing the part of a native Graftonite and if he were a native he
would have known about such things.
The Graftonite, who, like all Graftonites was armed, sighed.
"This spaceport is a private facility. Nothing here runs for free. "
"But 200 credits, simply for the ability to walk out of here?"
"If you're poor, don't come to Grafton," said the Graftonite. His
hand casually went down to the area around his holstered weapon. "Are
you saying that you're challenging the entry fee?"
The Clapper's eyes grew round.
"No," said Croft quickly, paying for him and Tane and the
"Thank you," said the Graftonite coldly.
As they stepped out of the terminal Croft found himself blinking
in the bright morning sunlight. Everyone around them was wearing blue
denim pants and jackets, almost as if it were a national uniform. Of
course, given the ruggedly individualistic nature of the Graftonites,
there could never be any such thing as a national uniform.
Croft, Tane, and the Clapper were clad in blue denim too, all
part of the Chief's plan to have them pass for Graftonites.
"Where's our contact?" said Croft, looking around. There were a
few Graftonites standing around outside the terminal, but none made eye
contact with them. Croft keyed up a picture of Tallas Carper on his
personal data unit, then looked around. He didn't see anyone who looked
like Carper in the area.
"I told him when we were arriving," said Tane.
"Did you also tell him to meet us here?" said Croft.
"I think so," said Tane. After a pause, as she tried to reconcile
her memory with what she wanted to believe, she said "I presumed that
The Clapper clapped twice.
Croft sighed and rolled up his left sleeve to reveal his personal
comm unit, while simultaneously pulling up the comm code for Tallas
In seconds he was speaking to their contact.
"My name is Clifford Croft," said Croft.
"How alliterative," said the stone cold voice on the other end.
"We're here, at the spaceport in Regular," Croft said.
"Good to know," said Carper.
"Why aren't you here?" Croft asked.
"I haven't received the first installment of my payment," said
the even voice.
"Our arrangement was to pay you on a weekly basis, at the end of
the week," said Tane, speaking into Croft's comm.
"I'm altering our arrangement," said Carper. "I want to be paid a
week in advance, effective immediately."
Croft put his hand over the comm unit. "Are you sure you couldn't
find anyone else?"
Tane shook her head. "No one wants to work for off-worlders right
Croft took his hand off the comm unit. "Just a moment."
He took another device out of his pocket with a small keyboard,
and started typing away. Then, a minute later, he returned to the wrist
"Just a moment," said the voice. Then, "Confirmed. What are your
"How long would it take you to get to the Regular spaceport?"
"About four hours."
Croft sighed. "Forget it. Just meet us at the following address,"
he said, providing him with a specific location. After signing off, he
glared at Tane.
"What?" said Tane.
"We'd better go rent a groundcar," said Croft.
The groundcar, like everything else on Grafton, was expensive.
When Croft tried to negotiate the price, the owner said, "Perhaps you'd
prefer going to my competition."
"Where is your competition?"
"I have none," said the proprietor. "Only off-worlders need to
rent groundcars, and we don't get many of those."
"But 500 credits a day is outrageous," said Croft.
"If you're poor, don't come to Grafton."
Croft sighed, paying. It wasn't his money, after all, but he
disliked being gouged under any circumstances. Plus, he was sure that
the Chief would micromanage his expense reports.
They drove for several hours in silence, only occasionally
punctuated by brief outbursts of clapping.
"Does he always do that?" Tane said irritably after one outburst.
"Yes. I've even seen him do it in his sleep," said Croft. He
stopped at a crossroads to study the onboard map (which had cost 20
credits extra per day).
Then he turned off the paved road onto a dirt road. They had a
bumpy ride for the next hour.
"Roads are one of the few services handled by the local
governments," said Tane.
"Obviously they haven't quite finished the job," said Croft, as
the groundcar skimmed over a bump.
"Their financial resources are quite limited, as I mentioned
earlier," said Tane. "As I told you, their only source of revenue is a
real estate tax on homes with-"
"Inferior gunmen, I know," said Croft.
After another hour they arrived at turn off the road which had a
big sign that simply read, "Keep out." And then, in much smaller
letters underneath, it also read, "Bodies of intruders will only be
returned at next of kin's expense."
"I think we're here," said Croft, carefully checking the map
"Your friend lives here?" said Tane.
"Friend is a strong word," said Croft. "I'm not sure Graftonites
have friends. Call him an acquaintance." He drove the groundcar past
"Are you sure he won't consider us intruders?" Tane asked
"Oh, he just puts up that sign to scare people," said Croft. "The
Silencer is a pussycat."
"His name is the Silencer????" said Tane. "He sounds like a
"I hear he spent millions on focus groups to find the right
name," said Croft, with a straight face.
A moment later they came upon an enormous ranch house surrounded
by evergreen trees. Rows of colorful flowers were planted in front and
exotic butterflies hopped from one petal to another.
A Graftonite stood on the porch.
Croft, Tane, and the Clapper cautiously got out of the groundcar.
Instantly the Graftonite's blaster was in his hand, though Croft
hadn't seen him draw it.
"I guess you can't read," he said simply.
"Wait!" said Croft, raising his hands slowly in the universal
surrender gesture. "I'm here to see the Silencer."
"Who are you?"
"I'm his friend," said Croft, directly contradicting what he had
said to Tane only minutes earlier.
The man gave a hoarse laugh.
"What's so funny?" Croft asked.
"The Silencer hasn't got any off-worlder friends, sheep."
"He does have one, and his name is Clifford Croft," said Croft.
"If you kill me without asking the Silencer first, he'll be very angry
The man noticed Croft's tone and paused for a few seconds,
obviously weighing the pros and cons. Would the Silencer really be
upset if he shot this intruder? Or was this stranger bluffing?
There's no telling what might have happened next if another voice
hadn't interrupted the gunman's train of thought.
"Ted! Put that blaster down," said a woman who had stepped out of
the front door onto the porch. "What did I tell you about shooting
people without permission?"
They turned to see a woman with brown wavy hair. She was wearing
the traditional Graftonite blue denim jeans but also a brown leather
vest, the first non-blue color they had seen anybody wearing since they
had arrived. She also wore two pearl handled pistols, one holstered on
The Graftonite immediately lowered his gun. "The Silencer's
standing orders are to shoot-"
"And my standing orders are to get their names first."
"I've already gotten his name," said the Graftonite. He nodded to
Croft. "This sheep claims he knows the Silencer."
"He does," said the woman. "And it's not polite to call our
guests sheep, at least not to their face." She turned to Croft, and
gave a real smile. "Clifford Croft, what a surprise! What brings you
Croft turned to face the Silencer's wife, Annie Oakley. It was
not the name she had been born with, of course, but as the winner of
the gold medal in the Galactic Trick Shooting competition five times
running she was entitled to be called whatever she wanted.
"Hi, Annie. I'm here to see the Silencer. I need his help," said
"John's a bit busy right now getting ready for a mission," said
Oakley. "But I'm sure he can spare a few minutes for you. Follow me."
They followed her into the spacious house through a maze of
rooms. They arrived at a room filled with equipment and provisions
where a tall, thin man with dark hair was filling up a rudsack. He
happened to be facing away from them when they entered.
"John, I have some unexpected guests to see you," said Annie.
"Tell them I'm not here."
Croft cleared his throat. "It's a bit too late for that."
The Silencer turned around, allowing surprise to show on his
face, but only for a moment. "Croft. What are you doing here?" he said,
as he continued to pack.
"I need your help," said Croft.
"Sorry, I'm off on a mission," said the Silencer. He looked over
at his weapons rack, picked out two blasters, and weighed one in each
hand, as if deciding which one to bring. Frowning, he made a decision,
putting both in the rudsack.
"This is important," said Croft.
"So is my mission," said the Silencer.
"What is it?" said Croft.
"Bounty hunt," said the Silencer.
"I'm talking about preventing a war."
"I'm talking about collecting a big fee."
"I see," said Croft. "John, I'm here to talk with you about Mo
"He's no concern to me," said the Silencer.
"He will be if he plunges Grafton into war against the League."
The Silencer closed the rudsack, lifted it up, and turned to
Croft. "As long as he stays off my property, doesn't try to take a cut
of my bounty, and keeps away from my lovely wife, I really don't care."
He walked past Croft to Annie, and gave her a perfunctory kiss.
"Bye killer," he said to her. "I'll see you in two weeks, maybe
ten days if things go even easier than I expect."
"I'll see you, John," Annie said, watching him go. She seemed
awed for a moment, but when the Silencer left the room, she quickly
snapped back to the present. "I'm sorry John was in such a rush,
Clifford. Would you like a drink before you go?"
They sat out on the porch drinking vorsk, a coarse local liquor
that burned Croft's throat after the first sip.
"So you're here about Mo," said Annie. "It's no surprise,
"What's it all about, Annie?" said Croft.
"He's been stirring people up, saying we aren't getting true
value for our labor," said Annie. "He says that we're the best fighters
in the galaxy, which is true, of course. But the controversial part
he's talking about is upping our compensation rate."
"How, by unionizing?"
Annie laughed. "We already have the bounty hunter's guild. No,
Quandry is saying we should simply go out there and take what we want."
"Like he did on Grafton IV," said Croft. "Only he didn't simply
rob the planet, he actually occupied it."
"Yes, that was unusual," said Annie. "His people have effectively
taken over. They collect the taxes, tariffs, and fees, and are getting
quite wealthy, I'm told."
"How many people does he have there?"
Annie shrugged. "50, maybe 100."
"He controls an entire planet with only 100 people?"
"I suppose," said Annie. "You look surprised."
"Well, you people are fearsome warriors, but can 100 of you
really stand up against a 100,000 man army? Or a blockbuster bomb?"
Annie laughed again. "You think in such conventional terms,
Clifford. Yes, if you lined up 100 of us against 100,000 of you, we'd
only manage to kill a few thousand of you before we were taken down.
However, that's not the kind of war that Quandry waged."
"What kind of war did he wage?" Croft asked.
"You'll have to ask him," said Annie. "I wasn't there."
"You seem remarkably unconcerned," said Croft. "Don't you care if
Quandry drags Grafton into a wider war?"
"I'm not involved," said Annie. "In fact, 99% of Graftonites
"What?" said Croft, looking surprised.
"Oh, he has his supporters, and a lot of sympathizers, maybe,
though since they don't take many polls here, his level of support is
hard to tell," said Annie. "But if you're asking how many blasters he
has behind him for action, well, it can't be more than a few hundred,
maybe a thousand or two."
"So you think we're blowing this out of proportion," said Croft.
"Not at all," said Annie. "He's gaining strength all the time;
even I can see it. And a few thousand Graftonites can conquer a lot of
Croft still couldn't understand how a handful of Graftonites,
however skilled they might be, could take over an entire planet. It was
a matter that merited further investigation.
"But things didn't really start going crazy until Rel Cadwalader
was killed," said Annie.
"Cad--who?" said Croft.
"Cadwalader," said Annie.
"Who is he?"
"Who was he," Annie corrected. "A bounty hunter. He was gunned
down a few weeks ago."
"I would think that can happen in your line of work, even to a
Graftonite," said Croft.
"Yes, but it's seldom done by one's own employer," said Annie.
"Rel did the mission, but when he went to collect his bounty, his
employer tried to cheat him, only paying half. When Rel refused to
accept it, he was gunned down."
"Ouch," said Croft. "But I find it hard to believe that a typical
Graftonite could simply be gunned down."
"Anyone can, if you have the element of surprise, and five people
jump out of an alley with guns blazing," said Annie. "That was the
other galling thing about it. It wasn't a fair one on one fight. It was
a surprise hit, and five on one at that. That really rankled people
almost as much as the hit itself."
"What do you mean?"
"On Grafton when someone calls out someone else, it's almost
always one-on-one," said Annie. "It's considered sportsmanlike. The
combination of Rel's employer first trying to cheat him and then kill
him in such an unsporting way enraged people here. They kept
broadcasting holos of the hit over and over on the local networks. It
was only a few weeks later that Quandry riled up enough supporters to
invade Grafton IV."
"There was a holo recording of the death of this bounty hunter?"
"Yes, I think it was recorded by a security holovid," said Annie.
"I'm surprised you don't know all this already, this is all public
knowledge; don't you have any operatives on Grafton?"
Croft, remembering the images of the dead operatives, said, "We
have some, ah, holes in our surveillance network."
Annie was about to reply but suddenly frowned as a groundcar
pulled up in front of the ranch. Her hand instinctively snaked down to
one of her pearl handled pistols. She wasn't expecting guests.
She was silent, watching, as a man in blue denim with his right
arm in a sling stepped out of the car. Seeing Annie, he nodded
respectfully, keeping his good arm well away from his holstered weapon.
The newcomer turned to Croft. "You Croft?" he asked gruffly.
Croft nodded. "You must be Tallas Carper."
The man nodded.
"What happened to your arm?" Croft asked.
"I scratched it," said Carper, suddenly giving Croft an
unexpectedly hateful glare.
"Well, the cavalry is here," said Croft. "Thanks for the drink,
and the information, Annie."
"You barely touched your drink," said Annie wryly. "Feel free to
give John another try when he gets back."
"I may do that," said Croft.
As she entered the house Croft turned to face his team.
"So now that we're all together, what do we do?" Tane asked.
"I think the most obvious thing to do is to pay Mr. Quandry a
visit," said Croft.
"I don't think he likes off-worlders," said Tane. "That may not
be very safe for us."
"Then it's a good thing that the Chief cleverly had us disguise
ourselves as Graftonites."
The Clapper clapped.
"What's with him?" Carper asked, giving the Clapper a sharp
"He has enthusiasm," says Croft. "Shall we go?"
Chapter 3: The Face of the Enemy
They tapped into one of the local online information networks
(for a fee, of course--nothing was free on Grafton II), and quickly
discovered that Quandry was holding a Great Gathering on a ranch in the
middle of the continent the following day. It was too far to go by
groundcar, so they had to rent passage on a private transport. With a
maximum of prodding, Carper located a transport they could rent. Croft
steeled himself for the outrageous price they had to pay and simply
billed it to one of the Column's unmarked accounts, but he knew he'd
have a lot of explaining to do to the Chief afterwards. What kind of
spy had he become when he had to spend half his time filling out and
justifying billing forms?
During the trip out Croft tried to size Carper up. He studiously
avoided eye contact with all of them, finding a bulkhead much more
interesting to stare at. He also defied all of Tane's attempt to start
a conversation with him.
"So, what do you normally do for a living?" said Tane.
Carper glared at her. She timidly stared back. When it became
obvious that she wasn't going to look away, he said, "I answer stupid
"I'm just trying to be friendly," said Tane.
"Be anything you like," said Carper generously.
Tane looked at the cast on his arm. "Does your injury hurt you?"
Carper turned to face her. "What are you implying, sheep?" he
said his voice cold. His good hand strayed close to his holster.
Tane started to tremble. "I... I..."
"Are you saying I'm weak?"
"No, most certainly not!" said Tane.
Carper relaxed his good arm, and some of the tension seemed to
"Are we paying extra for attitude?" Croft asked.
Carper turned to glare at him now.
"The only reason I'm asking is, because if we are, I'm happy to
say we're getting our money's worth," said Croft.
It was a very long and quiet trip in the transport after that.
When they touched down in a small, private clearing, they rented
a groundcar. They drove to an estate of a wealthy rancher who was
permitting Quandry to use his estate for the Grand Meeting.
"As it is a Grand Meeting, or Great Gathering, as it is sometimes
called, there could be anywhere from 100 to 500 people here," said
Tane, as they entered a small stadium on the grounds.
"Doesn't sound so large," said Croft.
"On a world of only eight million, with such rugged
individualists, it's considered significant," said Tane.
The bleachers filled up rapidly. They looked for seats.
"Watch it, sheep," said a Graftonite, pushing past Croft.
Croft checked his anger, probably saving his own life. He saw
some available seats and went for them, but by the time he got there
another Graftonite walked right in front of him and sat down. "You're
blocking the view, sheep," said the Graftonite, staring at him.
They eventually found seating on the upper edges of the
bleachers. As they sat down a pair of Graftonites sitting in front of
them turned around and looked distastefully at them. "I didn't know
they allowed your kind here, sheep."
Croft looked at his denim clothes, and turned to Tane and
muttered, "This disguise is working really, really well."
Just how were the Graftonites able to determine that they were
off-worlders just by looking at them? Croft resolved to find out.
He tapped the man in front of him on the shoulder.
That was a mistake. The man whipped around, his blaster pointed
No one spoke for a moment. The man waited for Croft to draw.
Croft slowly raised his hands and gave a watery smile.
"You got a death wish, sheep?" said the Graftonite.
"I just want to know what makes you think we're off-worlders,"
The man snorted, shook his head, and turned around to face
Croft looked at his companions; Tane looked frightened out of her
wits; the Clapper looked idiotically content; and Carper looked like he
wished he were somewhere, anywhere else.
In a few minutes the bleachers were filled. Croft took a quick
count of the audience; there were well over 1000 people there. Maybe
Annie Oakley had underestimated Quandry's appeal.
A tall, dark haired man with a scar running down the side of his
face stepped out into the arena, flanked by several guards. He had a
blaster on one hip and a slicer strapped on the other. His image was
amplified on holograms projected above and around the arena.
Croft recognized him immediately. It was none other than Mo
Quandry. Quandry stood there for a moment, boldly basking in the
attention of the crowd.
Immediately, there were wild cheers from the audience. The
cheering went on for a while, until Quandry gestured with his hands for
it to subside. Reluctantly, the audience went silent.
"Thank you, my friends," said Quandry. "As many of you know, I'm
a man of action, not words, so let us get down to business. By now you
have all seen the following."
The large floating holograms suddenly showed a grainy side
street. A Graftonite could be seen standing there, in the middle of the
"You can't be serious," said the Graftonite. "I delivered on my
end of the contract. Now you pay up."
"I'm afraid I can only afford to pay half," said the man the
Graftonite was speaking to. While the Graftonite's features could
clearly be seen, the other man was largely off camera--only his hands
and body could be seen.
"That's not acceptable," said the Graftonite.
"I was afraid you might say that," said the man.
Suddenly, the image they were watching panned wide to show the
image of blasters poking out of several surrounding buildings. They
discharged almost simultaneously, even as the Graftonite was drawing
The Graftonite fell to the ground, his eyes open, as blood
dripped from his body. Dark boots walked by his face.
"If I had known Graftonites worked so cheaply, I would have hired
more of you," the figure chuckled.
There were screams and roars in the arena as the image faded. It
took Quandry several minutes to quiet them down far enough so that he
could be heard over the amplification system.
"You see!" he yelled. "They didn't even give him a chance! That's
the way the sheep fight!"
He was greeted by more yelling and jeers.
"But now see how we fight!"
A new holographic image appeared, that of Graftonites running and
shooting in a different setting. Dimly, Croft guessed that these must
be scenes of the invasion of Grafton IV. The Graftonites there didn't
have the accelerated reflexes of their cousins on Grafton II. But they
did have a substantial standing army. How did these Graftonites conquer
the planet so easily?
The answer wasn't forthcoming from the holo that was being
showed. Graftonites jumped and shot and ran rapidly, moving almost too
quickly for the holo to record. But what they were shooting at and what
the overall tactical position was couldn't be determined. The images
were also put together from small clips, making it difficult to clearly
see the larger picture. Intentionally so?
But the clips served their purpose.
"See what happens when we unite, when we take the fight to the
sheep!" said Quandry.
There was a thunderous applause.
"There will be no more jobs for piddling fees, no more
exploitation of our labor!"
There was more applause. The Clapper, unable to restrain himself,
started joining in.
"We took Grafton IV like it was an apple waiting to be plucked!"
The crowd roared again.
"But never let it be said that we do not seek peace," said
The crowd was silent, expectant.
"I propose a new... paradigm for dealing with other planets."
There was widespread laughter at Quandry's use of the word
"Since we are stronger, more equipped, and yes, superior, in
every way, to other planets, we will suggest to each inhabited planet
that they pay us a... fee, a fee for protection," said Quandry.
The crowd roared with approval, clapping wildly. So did the
"If a planet peacefully pays its assessed fee every year, we too
will leave them in peace," said Quandry. "But if they do not, they will
feel our wrath!"
The crowd roared.
In a room deep inside the stadium, a group of Graftonites looked
at the monitors.
"Where?" said one of the Graftonites, the one in charge. His name
was Janson Rocco, and he was Mo Quandry's chief of staff.
"I had it a moment ago," said one of the Graftonite security men,
panning the image across the stadium bleachers. Suddenly, he saw what
he was looking for, and stopped the panning. "There!"
The image showed Croft, Tane, and the Clapper, sitting around
other Graftonites. To an uneducated eye, the image didn't look odd,
especially when everyone was clapping. But it was when everyone stopped
clapping that the oddness became apparent--the Clapper didn't stop
"Sheep, sir," the security man reported.
Rocco snapped his fingers. "I want them removed."
"Alive?" The security man inquired.
"At least one of them, yes, for questioning," said Rocco.
"Do you care which one?" said the security man.
"Not really," said Rocco, turning away.
Two men suddenly materialized on either side of Croft and his
team. "You will come with us."
The other Graftonites in the audience, who were still listening
to Quandry, turned to give Croft a withering stare.
"Did we sit in reserved seats?" said Croft, giving a little
"I'm not going to ask again, sheep," said the Graftonite coldly.
Croft looked over at Carper, who was carefully looking away.
Perhaps their bodyguard, with only one good arm, didn't feel fast
enough to take on two of his countrymen. Were they going to be taken to
a quiet place to be killed? Possible, but unlikely. The Graftonites
didn't seem to go in for the subtle approach. If they wanted him dead,
they could shoot him right here. The other Graftonites would probably
applause such a move. No, they were probably wanted for interrogation.
That didn't sound very good either, but their options were limited.
Croft knew he could never outdraw a Graftonite, much less two of them.
All right, they would play along, for now.
Nodding, Croft got up. Tane, the Clapper, and Carper followed.
They were led to a small room without windows where a serious
looking Graftonite awaited them. They weren't disarmed, which only half
surprised Croft. After all, the Graftonites would probably love it if
they tried to draw their weapons. The two Graftonites stood guard
behind them, undoubtedly silently hoping for this turn of events.
"Who are you?" asked the Graftonite behind the desk. It was
Rocco, Quandry's chief of staff.
"My, ah, name is Clifford Toft," said Croft. "I'm from Regular."
"The truth, sheep," said Rocco, in bored tones.
"All right," said Croft, giving Tane a I-told-you-so look. "My
name really is Clifford Toft. I'm leading a special diplomatic envoy
from the League."
"You've got some nerve showing up here. What are you doing here?"
"Assessing the situation," said Croft. That seemed to be what a
diplomat would say, right? He was abruptly aware that if the man behind
the desk didn't like his answers, he wouldn't leave the room alive.
"Assessing..." said Rocco, looking away as if he were thinking,
weighing options, alternatives. Croft felt as if the decision came out
the wrong way, he would be dead.
Rocco turned back to Croft. "And what have you assessed so far?"
"Um," said Croft, not sure how much leeway he had to lie, even
for a diplomat. "I was... impressed that Mo Quandry is looking for a
Rocco gave Croft a cynical stare. He considered for a moment
longer. Then he nodded. "All right," he said. He snapped his fingers.
His guards opened the door.
"Is that 'all right, you can go?' or 'all right, shoot them'?"
"I think you'll find out when you get outside that door," said
Rocco. "Now get out of here and hope we never meet again."
Croft got up slowly. "How can I hope we never meet again if I
don't know who I just met?"
"The name is Janson Rocco. I'm Mr. Quandry's chief of staff,"
"Really? Could you arrange a meeting with Mr. Quandry?" said
Rocco chuckled. "The only time you and Quandry will meet is if he
shows up at your funeral. Now get out of here before I change my mind."
Croft nodded, slowly leaving. But he noticed that Rocco gave
Carper a disproving stare as they left.
After they had left, one of the security men said, "What shall we
do, boss? Shall we tell Mr. Quandry-"
"You will tell Mr. Quandry nothing!" Rocco snapped. "I don't pay
you to talk."
"I will tell Mo what needs to be told. For now, simply follow
them. There's something not quite right about that so-called diplomatic
Croft drove the groundcar off the grounds of the ranch. "We'll
never be in danger," said Croft, his voice in a whiny imitation of
Tane's. "We'll pass for Graftonites. No one will figure out who we
Tane reddened. "It was the Chief's idea," she said.
"And you assured me it would work," said Croft. "It almost got us
"I don't understand how they recognized us as being off-
worlders," said Tane.
"Well, maybe we should ask an on-worlder," said Croft. "How were
There was silence in the groundcar. Croft carefully pulled over
to the side of the road and turned to Carper. "I'm talking to you."
Carper gave Croft a withering look. "It should be obvious, even
to a sheep."
Croft kept his anger in check. "You're an employee; answer the
question, em-ploy-ee," he said, purposefully dragging out the last
Carper's face darkened, and anger flared in his eyes. He didn't
speak for a moment, but when he did, his voice was soft. "It should be
obvious. It's everything. It's the moron with the idiotic expression on
his face. It's you and the woman with your defeatist body language and
"If I'm translating this correctly, then, we don't act arrogant
enough to be Graftonites," said Croft. "Hm, where did I go wrong?"
Tane said, "There are probably subconscious facial cues embedded
in the Graftonite culture-"
"Shut up, Tane," said Croft. "The only thing that matters is the
end result, which is that our cover is blown."
"We still have our secondary cover as diplomats," said Tane, not
showing any offense.
"Somehow I don't get the impressions that these guys put much
weight in the concept of diplomatic immunity," said Croft.
"Then why did they let us go?" Tane asked.
"I don't know," said Croft. "Maybe they're not ready to create a
bigger diplomatic incident by killing a League diplomat."
"From Quandry's announcement, it sounds like he's ready to
blackmail the League for a major cash infusion," said Tane.
"Yes, that's how it appeared, didn't it?" said Croft. "Or maybe
he was just saying what they wanted to hear, to drum up more support
for his cause. And that's not the only thing."
"What do you mean?" Tane asked.
"Isn't it curious that this incident with the murdered Graftonite
seems tailor made for Quandry's purposes?" said Croft.
"Well, bounty hunters do get killed, even Graftonite ones," said
"Yes, but seldom in a way calculated to incur maximum ire among
the Graftonites, and seldom is it conveniently recorded on a holodisk,"
said Croft. "Did you notice anything else unusual about that holoshow?"
"What do you mean, unusual?"
"Have a look," said Croft, producing his own holoprojector. He
had had the sense of mind to record the event as it unfolded. Now it
produced a smaller version of the shooting they had seen in the
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
A quarter mile back down the road.....
"What are they doing?" asked one of the Graftonites with the
"Just sitting there, in the ground car," said the other.
"Just sitting there?"
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Another quarter mile farther back....
"What are they doing?" said one of the agents.
"The Graftonites tailing them are just sitting there, watching
Croft, who is also just sitting there."
"Just sitting there?"
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The holorecording of the execution of the Graftonite Rel
Cadwalader finished playing in the groundcar.
"Well?" said Croft, turning to Tane.
"Well what?" said Tane.
"The Chief said you were good," said Croft.
"Stop taunting me and tell me what you think you see," Tane
"Watch." Croft slowly replayed the events, providing the
"Here we clearly see Cadwalader's face... then the camera pans
directly left... but for some reason we only see the body of his
employer, not the face. If the camera went left, how did the head get
lopped out of the picture? Now watch as the camera pans out to show the
blasters appearing." The image replayed. "Do you see it?"
"There's no way a camera positioned in such a way to catch
Cadwalader could also pan the entire alley. It would have had to
capture areas outside of its view, or be able to see through walls,"
said Croft. He moved the replay forward again, to show the body of
Cadwalader on the ground, and the black boots standing by the fallen
Graftonite's face. "Isn't it convenient that the security cam panned
down once again, so that we couldn't see the face of the attacker?"
"Maybe the security cam was a multitasking unit that took a
variety of pictures, and those were the images that Quandry selected."
"Why? Why would Quandry purposely obscure the pictures of
Cadwalader's employer and attackers?"
"I don't know," said Tane.
"And how do you explain the wide angle shot?"
"It could be from another camera."
"It... could... be... from... another... camera...," said Croft,
slowly and derisively, like a mentally retarded person.
"Obviously, you disagree," said Tane coldly.
"Obviously," said Croft. He closed his eyes, and reclined his
"What are you doing?"
"Thinking," said Croft. He opened them again. "We've got to dig
some more into this."
Croft ignored the question. "But before we do, we have one last
matter to deal with." And he was looking at Carper as he said it.
Carper showed no visible reaction.
"We were confronted by two Graftonites in the stadium today,"
said Croft. "And you didn't lift a finger to protect us."
"Why would I?" said Carper, looking angry and puzzled at the same
"Hm, I don't know, maybe because we're paying you to?" said
"That's not what I was hired for," said Carper.
"Really?" said Croft. "What exactly were you hired for?"
Carper shrugged. "To be a guide."
"To... be... a... guide," said Croft, in that same slow, derisive
tone he had formerly reserved for Tane. "Tane? You made the
arrangements to hire him, didn't you?"
"Well?" said Croft.
"What terms did you hire him under?" Croft asked.
"He, um, was hired to guide us," said Tane. "But I presumed he
would also protect-"
Croft interrupted her. "Tane, have you ever heard the old saying,
when you PRESUME, you PRE-pare our SUM-mary execution?" Without waiting
for a response, he turned to Carper. "All right, how much would it cost
to hire you for what we really hired you for?"
"Bodyguard," said Croft promptly.
"Five hundred thousand."
"Five hundred thousand?" said Croft, disbelievingly.
"Five hundred thousand a day," said Carper.
"Five hundred thousand a day," said Croft, in a mocking tone.
"Payable in advance," Carper added.
"Oh, that goes without saying," said Croft, in an even more
mocking tone. He paused, choosing his next words carefully. "Isn't that
a bit above market rates, even for Grafton?"
"I don't think so," said Carper. "Given the anti off-worlder
sentiment, I don't think you'll be able to hire anyone else on
"But you know full well we're not going to pay you half a million
credits per day."
"Yes," said Carper, giving an unfriendly smile.
"Because you're sheep," said Carper. "I don't like you. And I
certainly don't want to protect you."
"Then why are you working for us at all?"
Carper raised his bandaged arm. "My last job knocked me out of
commission for a few weeks. This is easy money."
"Easy money," said Croft. What was he being paid for, if not to
protect them? "You've been paid for the entire week in advance?"
"Consider the next six days a gift," said Croft. "Get out of the
Carper stared at Croft. "Drop me off back at the transport."
"No, Croft!" said Tane. "The ch-" she broke off, looking at
Carper. "The boss said we had to keep him on."
"We'll see about that," said Croft.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Of course you have to keep him on," said the Chief. "He's a
local, he knows the situation on the ground." The holo of her image
scowled at him. Croft had rented a few rooms at a nearby ranch for the
night (at skyhigh rates, of course) and was now duly reporting to the
"He's also hostile, and won't lift a finger to help us," said
"Croft, you look at everything in black and white. He may be a
little antagonistic, but he can also be a source of information," said
"I'm not keeping him on, he's just as liable to shoot me in the
"You are keeping him on, unless you want to be recalled
immediately and subject to court martial!" she said, glaring at him.
Court martial? What did she think this was, the military? More IQ
problems at the top. But Croft resisted the impulse to comment. The
"What else do you have to report?"
"I think there's something fishy about that holovid of
"So? What implication could that have?"
"I'm not sure, until I investigate more."
"I think your time would be better spent meeting with local
opinion leaders and gauging Quandry's level of support."
"Isn't that something that the real embassy staff can do?"
"The real embassy staff are holed up in their embassy, afraid to
come out. This is a job for you, Croft."
Croft sighed. "All right."
"One thing. Your orders that we pose as Graftonite hasn't
worked. Not a single person has been fooled."
"A tribute to your skill as an infiltrator, I suppose," she said.
"You have a nice day," said Croft, cutting the contact. He
frowned for a moment, as if listening to empty air. Then he walked
silently to the door, and then quickly opened it. Tane came tumbling
in, as if she had been standing by the door.
"So I guess there's no need for me to reiterate our orders," said
"We're to interview local opinion leaders," said Tane.
"Yes," said Croft. "Starting with friends and relatives of
"Croft, we're supposed to focus on opinion leaders."
"Who's to say that they aren't opinion leaders?"
Chapter 4: The Tragic Story of Rel Cadwalader
"Get me the station chief," Croft said irritably, staring into
the small comm unit.
"The Chief is busy at the moment," said the operative at the
other end. "Can I take a message, Mr..... er,"
"Croft. Clifford Croft. Level One agent," Croft.
"You're one of the eight?" said the operative. "I'm sorry, sir,
just a moment."
"Bureaucrats," Croft snorted. He had been trying for the past 20
minutes to get through to someone in a position of authority at the
Column branch on the planet Whenfor. Tane had done a little research
and discovered surprisingly little about the death of Rel Cadwalader,
but she had managed to find out that he had been killed while on a
mission on Whenfor.
The station chief appeared on the comm. Croft identified himself
and repeated his request. "And I need this done ASAP."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Croft, but we're a little shorthanded at the
Croft peered around the image of the station chief to see the
people in the background. "Is that Preston? Get me Preston."
"Mr. Preston is preparing for-"
"Now," said Croft, in a low voice.
Preston shortly appeared on the screen. "Hey, Croftie, what's
"Preston, I need some information quickly," said Croft. "I need
you to find out everything you can about the death of one Rel
"Cliff, I'm on a stakeout that starts tomorrow-"
"Which dovetails perfectly with my needs because I need results
by tomorrow," said Croft. "This is important, Preston."
Preston sighed, then nodded.
"Good. I'm downloading a holo and some other information which
might be useful," said Croft, pressing a button. "Can you also do some
digging through the Grafton database network as well?"
Preston shook his head. "I certainly won't have time for that.
Why don't you ask the Database Espionage division?"
"Because by the time I get all the proper approvals-" Croft
caught himself in mid-sentence. "Wait a minute, I have an idea. Croft
out." He terminated the contact, and started another.
The irritated face of Levi Esherkol appeared on the screen. In
the background could be seen bright sunshine, and a grill. Levi wore
his white chef's hat.
"Who bothering me now-" he started to say, but then his growl
turned into a smile. "Croft! How did accelerant work?"
"Much as I'm delighted to be your first human test subject, Levi,
I haven't had the opportunity to try it yet," said Croft. "I'll try not
to test it near the edge of any rooftops," he added, remembering what
had happened to that errant chimp.
"Um," said Levi, turning to flip some burgers on his grill.
"Hard at work, I see," said Croft.
"I work hard, I deserve break," said Levi philosophically.
"Well, it's good that I'm catching you when you're just coming
off a break, because I need a favor," said Croft.
"Did you get those Grafton meat recipes I ask for?"
"I'll have them right after you do a little digging into the
Graftonite network," said Croft.
"I a chemist, not a-"
"Computer expert. Electronics experts, physics expert, mechanical
engineering expert," said Croft. "I'll keep the list short because
we're both busy. You know as well as I that you're a genius in every
kind of science. You're so smart that you complete a full day of work
for the Column in a matter of minutes, which is why you have so much
time to putter about with your food. The only thing that puzzles me is
why a brilliant mind like yours is obsessed with cooking."
"Cooking, good cooking, hardest thing of all," said Levi,
applying a pinch of unidentified seasoning to the burgers. "I have to
work on the mashed potatoes soon, can get to point?"
"I need you to tap into the Grafton network and find out
everything you can about the late Rel Cadwalader."
"Late? You kill?"
"No, I didn't get there in time to do the honors," said Croft.
"He died a particularly suspicious death."
"What am looking for?"
"Um," said Levi, turning again to apply the seasoning. A fire
leapt up out of the grill, forcing him to move some of the burgers to
the edge of the grill. Obviously, Croft had bumped up against the
limits of the cook's attention span.
"Yes?" said the cook
"Did I mention I need this by tomorrow?" said Croft.
"Thank you, Levi," said Croft, disconnecting.
He turned to find Tane standing patiently in the background.
"Now, who can honestly say the Column is dysfunctional?" said Croft.
"We're supposed to be checking with local opinion leaders," said
"And so we shall," said Croft. "Have you set up that appointment
with that Anderson fellow?"
"Yes, he's agreed to meet us," said Tane.
"How nice," said Croft.
"Well, you know how people here feel about off-worlders. It's
amazing that anybody's willing to meet us," said Tane. "Still, as the
publisher of one of Grafton's largest news services, perhaps he's a
"We can only hope," said Croft, his tone betraying his distinct
lack of interest. "Shall we collect our baggage and go?"
"Baggage?" said Tane.
Croft opened the bedroom door, and the Clapper, a big smile on
his face, rushed out, clapping vigorously.
They were able to take the groundcar to their destination, the
home of the Cargon Press Syndicate. Carper knew the way there so he
drove, but Croft kept a wary eye on him.
When they arrived, Croft was surprised by the strong layer of
security they had to pass through--the whole building was fenced off,
there were not one but four guards at the front gate, and an ugly
turret, presumably for air defense, protruded from the roof. However,
much to Croft's surprise, neither he nor Carper were disarmed. Croft
guessed that on Grafton, politeness was more important than security.
Before they entered the building, Croft nodded to the Clapper.
The Clapper gave a wide, idiotic, ingratiating smile.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Several hours earlier, Croft had come into the Clapper's bedroom. He
had been smart enough to get separate bedrooms for each of them; it was
well worth the expense to get a solid night's sleep away from the
nearly constant clapping.
"I need your help," said Croft.
"Help?" said the Clapper, looking puzzled.
"Have you wondered why I brought you on this mission?" Croft
"Why you brought me?" said the Clapper, like a parrot.
"It wasn't just for your conversational skills," said Croft.
"You like talking to me?" said the Clapper, breaking out into a
great grin as he clapped again.
"Yes, it's great fun, especially with all the applause," said
Croft. "But what I really need is an edge over these Graftonites, if
I'm forced to fight one."
"You have Grafton man for that (clap clap)," said the Clapper.
"No, Grafton man isn't going to (clap clap) help," said Croft,
imitating the Clapper as a way of peacefully venting his frustration.
"But you are going to help."
"I am?" said the Clapper, surprised by the concept.
"You are a telekinetic," said Croft.
"No, don't try to pronounce it again, just leave the
multisyllabic words and other heavy lifting to me," said Croft. "But
it's occurred to me that if you can move objects, that you can also
The Clapper considered. Then he nodded.
"If a Graftonite attacks me, or is about to attack me, I want you
to move him."
"Push him to the ground. Knock him off balance," said Croft.
The Clapper looked puzzled.
"Anything to give me an edge. I can never be as fast as they are,
but if you knock them off-balance at a crucial time, that could give me
the edge I need. Do you understand?"
The Clapper gave a broad smile.
"I hope you understand, and you're not just giving an idiotic
smile," said Croft. "Because if an assassin gets me, can you guess who
he's going to go after next?"
The Clapper considered this one... "Uh... the talking lady?"
"Before the talking lady."
"Before the other Grafton."
The Clappers grin faded. "Me?"
"Clap Clap!" Croft clapped twice.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
They entered the building housing the Cargon Press Syndicate.
There was an armed guard at nearly every turn in the corridor. Croft
wondered why there was a need for such heavy security. This was a press
organization, not a bank.
He was still puzzling over this as they were led into Tolbar
Anderson's office. He was a tall, bearded man with thinning hair. Like
every other Graftonite, he wore a blaster, of course.
"Mr. Toft, sit down," said Anderson. "It's so nice to meet an
Tane, in setting up the interview, had used their "diplomatic
"I'm surprised to hear you say that," said Croft. "I didn't think
off-worlders were especially welcome right about now."
"Well, some people may feel that way, but one thing you learn on
Grafton is that there's no unanimity of opinion," said Anderson. "We're
too individualistic to agree on anything in very large numbers."
"That's part of the reason I'm here," said Croft. "I'm trying to
gauge the level of support that Mr. Quandry has."
"It's hard to tell, we don't usually take opinion polls," said
Anderson. "They're too dangerous."
"Dangerous?" said Croft.
"People don't like being annoyed with pesky questions around
here, Mr. Toft," said Anderson. "I imagine you have holo marketers on
"Well, those of us with listed numbers do," said Croft. He didn't
have enough down-time at home to experience it personally; nor was his
number listed. But he knew the practice of unsolicited holo marketing
existed; banks of holomarketers worked 25 hours a day, calling to sell
their piles of worthless junk. Holomarketing was very irritating, and
numerous laws were passed against it; but that didn't slow the industry
"Just as we have no polling, we don't have unsolicited marketing
on Grafton," said Anderson. "Most people will simply ignore an
unsolicited contact, but then you've got your deadly 10% to worry
"The deadly 10%?"
"Not a precise figure," said Anderson. "But it represents the
fraction of the population who will feel strongly enough to shoot the
"Even holosolicitors?" said Croft. "What do they do, shoot the
Anderson took a deep breath. "No, they trace the offending call,
go down to the offices, and execute one or more of the salespeople.
It's really put a crimp on the unsolicited marketing business."
"I can imagine," said Croft. "So you have the same problem with
"To a lesser degree. Polling doesn't irritate people as much as
unsolicited sales pitches, but every so often you run across an angry
Grafton, and, well-"
"What about solicitations from beggars?" said Croft suddenly.
"There are no poor people on Grafton, Mr. Toft," said Anderson.
"If someone's poor-"
"They shouldn't come to Grafton, yes, I think I've heard that
before," said Croft. "But what if someone happens to be a poor
"A poor Graftonite?" said Anderson. "What do you mean?"
"Poor. No credits," said Croft. Didn't Anderson know the meaning
of the word?
"Oh, that kind of poor," said Anderson, brightening. "I thought
you were referring to marksmanship. No, we don't have that kind of poor
"You mean because you have a social safety net, welfare payments-
Anderson gave a short laugh. "Mr. Toft, we have virtually no
government, so we certainly have no payments as you describe. No, if a
Graftonite is poor, he gets a job. Usually, if he's a good shot, he
gets a job in our traditional export industries--bounty hunting,
repossessing important objects, people removal, etcetera etcetera."
"What if he's not a good shot?" said Croft.
"Then he might get a job in our small business community," said
Anderson. "Not all of us are gunmen by trade, you know."
"What if he can't get a job in your small business community? I'm
surprised your lack of a social welfare system hasn't caused people to
turn to crime."
"No, Mr. Croft, we don't even need police for that, the poor
don't turn to crime," said Anderson.
"If a Graftonite is a good shot, he can easily get a job in one
of our traditional lines of work. If he's a bad shot and tries to steal
from one of his fellow citizens, he'll quickly be killed," said
Anderson. "The good marksmen can make more money working off-planet,
and they know it. The bad marksmen won't live very long if they try to
steal from the good marksmen, and they know it. It's a perfect system
that leaves our society almost crime free."
"So what happens to the poor, bad marksmen?" Croft wanted to
Anderson gave a cold smile. "They often attempt to do something
beyond their means."
There was an awkward pause for a moment. Then Croft tactfully
changed the subject. "So your journalists must be from that other
category, people who have turned to business and who aren't, as, ah-"
he was unsure how to phrase it without causing offense.
But Anderson, understanding his meaning immediately, gave a big
laugh. "You needn't worry, Mr. Toft, I don't get offended easily. But
you're totally wrong; our journalists aren't gunmen who can't cut it;
quite the opposite, we only employ journalists from the top ranks of
our marksmen community."
"Why? Why would you need to?" Croft asked.
"Because-," Anderson stopped. "I keep forgetting. You have, I
believe they are called, libel laws on your League planets, correct?"
"So if the press publishes something objectionable, a person may
sue in court to seek recompense, correct?"
"Something like that."
"Well, we don't have any courts on Grafton."
"No courts?" said Croft, surprised. "Oh--you have no government,
so I guess that follows."
"Correct. So since we have no way of pursuing legal remedies
against reckless journalists-"
"You kill them," said Croft, immediately understanding. "The
writers. That's why you have such tight security here."
Anderson nodded. "You never know when someone will get ticked off
by an article. One time many years ago someone came in here, guns
blazing, demanding to know who did the weather. Didn't like our
"What did you do?"
"I shot him," said Anderson. "But only in the leg. He was
obviously mentally deranged. His family had him shipped off-planet to
an asylum, I believe." Anderson paused. "But as you see we have to be
very careful of what we write about."
"So sensitive topics have to be covered by your best gunmen?"
"No, the degree of sensitivity is not the most important factor,"
said Anderson. "The most important thing is who we're going to write
about. If we're writing about someone who doesn't have a reputation,
we'll assign that to one of our junior journalists. But if we're
writing about, say, one of our Olympic marksmen, we'll only give that
to a senior columnist, or perhaps even our managing editor, if the
subject of the article is a silver medalist or above."
"I see," said Croft. "I guess that aggressive journalism isn't
exactly the order of the day."
"Not at all! People wouldn't subscribe to our database if we
weren't aggressive," said Anderson. "But we pick our fights."
"Meaning you only cover those who aren't good shots."
"I wouldn't put it as blatantly as that, but there is something
to what you say," Anderson admitted.
"So, how did you cover the death of Rel Cadwalader?" Croft asked.
Anderson grimaced. "Is that what you're really here to talk
about? How did you know?" He looked from Croft's face to Tane, to the
Clapper, to Carper, and back to Croft again.
"Know what?" said Croft, looking puzzled.
"Then you don't know," said Anderson. "If so, it's just a funny
coincidence you came here to talk to us. Though I heard that some of
the other press syndicates had the same problem."
"The family said they didn't mind us writing about what had
happened to their son. But when we started digging for details, we got
"Don't," said Anderson.
"So the family told you not to investigate?" said Croft. "Does
Cadwalader come from a family of marksmen?"
"The request didn't come from the family," said Anderson
"Anything you say here is strictly confidential," Croft assured
"Well, it doesn't really matter if you know, as long as it
doesn't get around that it came from me," said Anderson.
"You have my assurance it won't," said Croft.
"It was Mo Quandry," said Anderson immediately. "You have
probably heard of him."
"I've heard the name, somewhere," said Croft. "Why did this
Quandry care what you wrote about Cadwalader?" said Croft. "Did
Cadwalader work for him?"
"No. There was no direct connection between the two. That was one
of the things we wanted to look into. Understand, Mr. Croft, that off-
planet deaths at the hands of sh-, begging your pardon, one of your
kind, is pretty rare. That piqued our curiosity enough to investigate
the matter. But Quandry shut us down. Said if we looked into it any
more he'd send one of his Olympic marksmen after us. He has gold
medalists working for him. We took him seriously."
"Huh," said Croft. "What do you think he's really up to?"
Anderson shrugged. "There's obviously something about the death
he wants to keep quiet. Maybe there's some details about it that would
prove embarrassing to him."
"I don't know," said Anderson, shrugging. "Right now we're too
busy working on other articles to investigate further. We're working on
a great human interest piece right now about a former silver medalist
who's gone past his prime."
"Coincidentally, the target of that article won't be someone who
can shoot back at you."
"Not very effectively," Anderson grinned. "And now, my time is
quite limited. I wish you well, I really do." He stood up suggestively
to signify that the interview was over.
Croft thanked him and got up to go.
Croft turned around.
"One last parting piece of advice. Do you plan to live a long
Croft considered. "I hope to."
"Would you like some advice for staying alive?"
"If it's good advice."
"If you want to live, get off Grafton."
Croft raised an eyebrow.
"Don't get me wrong, I'm not threatening you," said Anderson.
"It's Quandry. He's stirring people up. There's no telling what will
happen to off-worlders when things explode."
Croft touched his blue denim. "But I'm traveling incognito."
Anderson laughed and showed him to the door.
As they drove back to their lodging, Croft said, "All right, what
did we learn?"
The Clapper clapped.
"Ok, you learned a new rhythm," said Croft. "Sylvia?"
Tane said, "I don't think we learned anything about Quandry's
level of support."
"But we did learn that he's hiding something about the death of
"That's off-profile for our mission," said Tane. "We should be
focusing on who we will interview next."
"Good! While you're doing that, I'll check in with Preston and
Croft called them the following morning. He spoke to Preston
"There's no police report," said Preston.
"No police report?" Croft frowned.
"We located the alley where the incident happened, based on the
holo you sent. No one in the area claimed to witness the incident or
even hear the sound of blaster fire."
"They could be lying, they probably don't want to get involved,"
"Possibly," said Preston. "But I also did a quick forensics sweep
of the crime scene. There was no sign of blaster fire."
"Are you sure?"
"There's no sign of blaster fire in the area around the
incident," said Preston definitively. "If the marksmen only hit
Cadwalader, that would make sense. But if any stray energy bolts
missed, and hit the walls around him, there should be residual scorch
"A Graftonite marksman might not miss his target."
"But supposedly the ones who killed Cadwalader were ordinary
people," said Preston.
"Supposedly," said Croft. He paused, then said, "What did you dig
up on Cadwalader's employer?"
"Nothing," said Preston.
"Nothing I could find in a day," said Preston.
"So let me get this straight. Nobody saw anything; nobody heard
anything, there's no police report, no sign even of a firefight, and no
sign of Cadwalader's employer. Your conclusion?" Preston wasn't a
genius of course, not even in Croft's league, but he was one of the few
people level headed enough that Croft at least listened to.
"One possibility is that whoever killed him was so powerful, so
connected, that they were able to cover up a murder without leaving any
"But not so powerful or smart since they overlooked a
holorecorder," said Croft.
"I couldn't even find any sign of a holorecorder in the area,"
said Preston. "Perhaps the killer taped the execution as a warning to
"Or perhaps Cadwalader wasn't killed," said Croft. "Perhaps
Quandry staged this event to stir up the Graftonites and gain support
for his agenda."
"That's the other possibility," said Preston.
"That's what I'm starting to think," said Croft slowly.
"So what do you do?" said Preston.
"I find Cadwalader."
"That sounds dangerous," said Preston. "I mean, he's a
Graftonite. What happens if you find him and he's not in a friendly
"I'll tickle him," said Croft. "Thanks, Pres."
"Be careful, Croft," said Preston. "These Graftonites are really
"Quick witted?" said Croft, raising an eyebrow. "I don't think
so. Worry about them, not me. Croft out." He pressed a button,
terminating the link, and then made another call.
All Croft saw was a big cloud of steam, making him wonder if he
had connected properly. But in seconds the hissing steam cleared,
showing Levi pouring something into a large pot.
"Levi," said Croft.
"Eh?" said Levi, looking up. "Why you always call when I
"Maybe because you're... always cooking," said Croft. "What did
you find out?"
"Did not tell me I would have to infiltrate private networks,"
"Private, public, what difference does it make?" said Croft.
"No public data networks on Grafton. Many private. Had to break
into several of them. Only gave me one day."
"Let me guess, it took you two hours," said Croft.
Levi shook his head, as he sprinkled something into the pot.
"Only one hour; what you think I am, retarded?"
Croft sighed. "Levi, what did you find out?"
"Dead man not very dead."
"I had already surmised that. But how did you find that out?"
"Still withdrawing credits from private account."
"Wouldn't that be a bit conspicuous?"
Levi gave Croft a pitying look. "First he transferred money to
alias account. Then he started doing withdraws. If was doing it under
real name would not have taken me one whole hour of work."
"Where is he, Levi?" said Croft.
"Wires traced to this location. Uploading," said Levi, hitting a
button with a large wooden soup spoon. "Since I do work for you, will I
get medal too?"
"Sure, Levi." Croft eyed the flashing indicator to one side
indicating the upload was complete.
"What about meat recipes?" said Levi.
"Still working on it, Levi. I'll talk to you later," said Croft.
Then, as if remembering something, he said, "Good work."
"Out." Croft cut the connection. He sat in silence for a moment,
then went into the other room where Tane and the Clapper were.
"I've been making a list of names of people I think we should
talk to," said Tane. "There's the head of the bounty hunter's union, a
local industrialist, an olympics official-"
"I have a name for you to add to the list," said Croft. "Rel
"You want to talk to a dead man?" said Tane.
"Dead men don't withdraw money from their account several days
after they've died," said Croft, showing Tane the readout.
Tane looked at it. "It could be a number of other explanations,
such as someone else taking his money. But you're right, from the looks
of it, it's certainly suspicious, to say the least."
"The least," said Croft.
"If he did withdraw those sums, that means he's still alive, and
exposing him could unravel Quandry's plans."
"Good thinking," said Croft dryly.
"We should inform the Chief and ask for instructions."
"No," said Croft. "I'll handle this myself."
The Clapper clapped.
"Let me amend that," said Croft. "The Clapper can come too. You
"You want me to stay here?" Tane asked.
"It could be dangerous."
"Oh," said Tane. "I really think we should talk to the Chief
"You are absolutely forbidden to talk to the Chief first," said
"Why? She might approve of your plan," said Tane.
"She also might not," said Croft. "If she agrees to my plan,
there was no need to contact her. If she disagrees, then contacting her
was a bad idea. Either way, there's no useful reason for contacting
"But me no buts," said Croft. "And not a word about this to our
tame Graftonite guide, you understand?"
Tane nodded. "You don't trust him?"
"I don't trust anyone," said Croft.
Tane gave him a hurt look.
Croft sighed. "But, in a relative way, my level of distrust for
Carper is measurably deeper than my distrust of you. Does that make you
"Why do you distrust me?" said Tane.
"It's nothing personal," said Croft. "But I never met you before
last week. You work for a different organization with different
"Stellar Intelligence and the Column both work for the League,"
said Tane. "You have a very suspicious nature."
"When you get back to August, check the database for the list of
killed in action agents. They were the trusting ones," said Croft. He
turned to the Clapper. "All right, it's showtime."
The Clapper bounced up and down with a big smile on his face.
Their destination was far enough away that they had to rent air
transport and a ground car at the other end. As Croft negotiated with
the owner of the transport the Clapper wandered off and muttered
something, but Croft didn't pay attention; the Clapper often muttered
to himself. Similarly when they arrived in the transport and Croft
again negotiated to rent a ground car, the Clapper went off on his own
for a few minutes. But like any obedient pet, he didn't stray far. When
Croft was ready to go he found the Clapper muttering and fidgeting by
the back of the groundcar.
"Let's go," said Croft simply.
Several hours of driving later they arrived at a large ranch
surrounded by woods in all directions. It was very... isolated.
"Are you ready?" said Croft, turning to the Clapper.
The Clapper gave a watery smile and nodded like an eager puppy.
"I can't tell you how much confidence you give me," said Croft,
getting out of the ground car.
As they moved towards the ranch somebody stepped out on to the
front porch. It wasn't Cadwalader; Croft had studied his holo and this
didn't look like him.
The man looked at Croft coldly. "What do you want?"
"I'd like to talk to the owner of this home," said Croft.
"A business proposition," said Croft.
"He's not interested. Go away," the man suggested.
"How does he know? I haven't even told him what it is yet," said
"Don't push your luck, sheep," said the man. His hand strayed
down to his blaster. "Leave now while you can."
"Ok," said Croft immediately. He started back to the groundcar,
still keeping an eye on the Graftonite.
A curtain of uncertainty crossed the Graftonite's face, as if he
were weighing several different courses of action, and then he drew his
blaster. "Just a minute," said the Graftonite, changing his mind.
Croft, seeing the rapidfire motion of the man's hand, instinctively
ducked behind the groundcar as a blaster bolt whined over his head.
This was it. Pressing hard against the side of his boot, Croft
heard the slight hiss of the accelerant being injected into his foot.
Suddenly he felt a warm current of electricity run through his
body. Casting aside all caution, he jumped over the car, pulled out his
blaster, and started firing. As he fired, he couldn't help but jump and
dodge in different directions. It was if he were all rubbery and
bouncing around like a toy. None of his shots came near the Graftonite.
But if he was having trouble hitting the Graftonite, the
Graftonite was having the same trouble hitting him. All of Croft's
jumping and weaving around made him a difficult to hit target, even for
a Graftonite. Still, the Graftonite's bolts were closer to Croft's
bouncing form than Croft's shots were to the perfectly still
A shot whizzed over Croft's shoulder. "Clapper!" he shouted,
still bouncing around and shaking as he fired again.
The Clapper looked out of the car window. He didn't even come
out. Suddenly, the Graftonite spun around, facing away from Croft. He
turned around again to face Croft, blaster firing, but then he spun
away again. Soon he was spinning like a top, with blaster bolts firing
"Hee, hee hee hee!" cackled the Clapper.
Croft gritted his teeth and willed himself mightily not to move.
For a moment, he managed to still himself so that he was only
vibrating. He aimed carefully, breathing slowly, and squeezed of a
The Graftonite stopped spinning and fell to the ground, a smoking
hole in his chest.
Croft collapsed to the ground, breathing heavily. But at least he
was facing the ranch when the front door opened and out stepped not one
or two but three Graftonites.
Three Graftonites! Croft felt exhausted. There was no way he
could take them.
All had blasters in their hands.
"What's going on?" said their leader. He looked at the body on
his porch and then to Croft.
Croft, trying to act as normally as possible, got to his feet.
"He wasn't being very friendly," he said, in a cold voice.
"Who are you?" said the Graftonite, squinting angrily at Croft.
"I'm looking for Rel Cadwalader," said Croft, trying very hard
not to shake from the aftereffects of the drug. If he had the Clapper's
help, could he take these three on? Probably not. His hands started
vibrating. In a moment, like it or not, he would start bouncing around
"Wrong answer," the leader snarled, raising his blaster.
Suddenly he gave a scream. His arm holding the blaster was on
Suddenly, everyone noticed a young woman with reddish blonde hair
standing to one side. Faint wisps of steam rose from her hair.
"Drop your weapons if you want to live!" she yelled, grinning
like a maniac.
Thus challenged, the other two Graftonites instinctively raised
their blasters, but the woman was quicker, sending bursts of flame at
all three Graftonites. Flames burst out in other directions as well,
but it was the Graftonites who were the main targets. Their entire
bodies lit on fire and they ran around screaming, until they collapsed.
Croft only got a partial view of this spectacle as he was too
busy jumping and bouncing around. It was several minutes before he
could still himself again. Breathing heavily, he gripped the edge of
the groundcar to keep himself still and stared at the smoldering
bodies. He looked up at the woman and tried, despite the drugs in his
system, to speak in a level voice.
Red Sally, her hair bright red now under the morning sun, gave a
"I suppose it's too much of a coincidence that you just happen to
be here several hundred miles from the nearest town on Grafton at the
same time as we are," said Croft.
Sally gave a wider grin as she went to the groundcar and closed
the trunk. The trunk. She had been in the trunk.
Croft looked at the Clapper. The Clapper cringed.
"You brought her," said Croft. "You smuggled her on the transport
while I was negotiating with the pilot, and did the same with the
groundcar." How could he have been so dumb to fail to keep a closer eye
on the Clapper?
"Don't blame him," said Sally, walking casually up to Croft. Her
body was still steaming. "I made him do it."
"I thought we left you on August," said Croft.
"Why do I never get any action?" she said, making a face.
"Do you remember what you were assigned to do on August?" Croft
"I was assigned 'fire control exercises'," she said, making a
"Do you remember why you were assigned these exercises?" Croft
"They said I couldn't control the flames," said Sally. "But
"Have you looked around recently?" said Croft.
The ranch was on fire. Actually, not just the ranch, but the
plants and trees around the ranch as well.
"Oh," said Sally. "A little bit of collateral damage. Sorry about
that." She considered. "Wait, what am I doing apologizing? I just saved
your life!" Her hair started to steam again.
"Thanks for that, but I was handling the situation well enough on
my own," said Croft. He felt strong enough to stand now. He got up,
took an experimental step, only felt a slight tremor. Good. He made his
way over to the body of the lead Graftonite.
"Perhaps I should have stood aside and watched how well you
handle those three Graftonites," said Red Sally. "It would have been
"Instruction is what you need," said Croft. "I'm taking you back
to the transport and arranging a flight back to August for you."
"I'm not leaving!" said Sally, as sparks of fire spit out of her.
"You need me!"
"I could certainly use you if you could control your instincts,"
said Croft. "But the first time a Graftonite gives us a dirty look,
you'll burst into flame. That's not very inconspicuous."
"Inconspicuous, who cares?" said Sally, taking a few steps
forward to avoid the new brushfires around her.
"You may think you did well taking these three out, but what if
you don't always have the advantage of surprise, or if there are five
or ten of them?" said Croft. "We can't always afford to go in with guns
blazing, or in your case, torches burning." He paused. "Now, are you
cool enough to get into the car?"
"Are you sure? They made me put a hefty deposit on it, and I
don't want any scorching on the seats."
Sally nodded again.
"All right then, let's go," said Croft.
Before leaving he looked at the ranch. There was flames
everywhere. No way to investigate further. Then he turned to the
bodies, which were lying blackened on the ground. Something caught his
eye about the leader. He gingerly turned over the body with his boot.
The face was burned, but not completely.
Croft took out a datapad and stared at an image, and then at the
"What is it?" said Sally.
"Well, I don't think we'll have to spend any more time searching
for Rel Cadwalader," he sighed.
He stood up and eyed the raging fires around them. What a day.
Chapter 5: A Visit to the Quandry Ranch
"But I didn't kill him," Croft explained for the fourth time.
"His death might have been avoided if you hadn't gone off on this
unauthorized mission," said the frowning holoimage of the Chief.
"It was Sally," said Croft. "Her presence on my unauthorized
mission was most definitely unauthorized. So don't blame me. Besides,
we found out a crucial fact: Cadwalader was alive."
"Was is the operative word," said the Chief. "And then there's
"What about it?"
"Why didn't you recover the body? That would have been concrete
evidence that Cadwalader hadn't died in some shootout on Whenfor."
"Well, I can't deny that," said Croft. "But while I wouldn't have
flinched at the thought of carrying around a charred corpse, if we had
publicized what we found, there might have been some uncomfortable
"Such as?" the Chief asked.
"Such as how did said corpse get burned almost beyond
recognition? I suppose I could have told them that a supersecret gamma
operative with pyrotechnic mental powers (from a section we don't even
acknowledge the existence of to the outside world), burned him to a
crisp. But even if we put aside the security breach involved, I think
such as disclosure would have served Quandry's purposes."
"How so?" The Chief asked.
Croft wanted to slap his head and frustration and call the Chief
an idiot, but resisted the impulse. "Quandry is basing much of his
campaign on the fact that Cadwalader was killed by outsiders under
unfair circumstances. If we reveal that an outsider, namely big red
here, burned him to death before he had a chance to fire his weapon,
that wouldn't have significantly improved the situation," said Croft.
"We could attribute his death to another cause--an accidental
fire, perhaps," said the Chief.
Croft made a face. "The Graftonite who rented us the transport
and the Graftonite who rented us the groundcar knew we were in the
area. Sooner or later the incident would be traced to off-worlders."
"Do you think that will happen now?" the Chief asked.
"I'm not concerned them that they will publicize it, if that's
what you're asking," said Croft. "If they do, they will also have to
answer some uncomfortable questions as well, such as how this formerly
dead person was killed a second time. So I think this situation is
basically a no-win for either side." Croft brightened. "A tie. That's
not so bad, is it?"
"I don't see it that way at all," said the Chief. "You had the
chance to discredit Quandry and failed."
"I keep telling you it was Red Sally. Don't blame me if you can't
put a lock on the looney bin," said Croft.
Clap, clap! "I heard that!" came the Clapper's voice from the
The Chief paused, as if straining for another thought, and then
she slumped, and sighed. "Well, what's done is done."
"I've found that to be true too," said Croft.
"Then continue on your original mission," said the Chief.
"Ah, can you refresh my memory....?"
The Chief glared at him. "Meet with local elites and attempt to
gauge Quandry's popularity. Try to find out what he's up to and see if
local leaders can be brought over to our side. I know that Tane has
come up with a credible list of local leaders for you to meet with."
"Very credible, I'm sure," said Croft. "All right. Just one more
thing. As I might have mentioned, it's entirely possible that this
incident will be traced back to me and my cover, what little I had,
will be blown. What do I do if a bunch of Graftonite gunmen come after
The Chief raised an eyebrow. "You're a level one agent; I'm
surprised you need to ask."
"We're not talking about your typical adversaries here," said
Croft. "I think a Graftonite on life support could shoot quicker and
faster than any off-worlder can."
The Chief paused, and tried to think of an answer. "Well, as a
diplomatic envoy you should have diplomatic immunity," said the Chief.
"I'm not sure that will mean very much to Graftonite killers,"
"It will have to do," said the Chief. "I've spent enough time on
this matter as I can. Report back at regular intervals. And one more
thing, Mr. Croft." She leaned closer into the pickup for emphasis. "No
more slipups." Her holoimage faded.
Croft turned to Tane, who had been standing in the background.
"Simply delightful, wouldn't you agree?"
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Dead?" said Quandry, looking stunned. "How?"
"We're not sure," said Rocco. "He and the guards we put on him
"Burned," said Quandry, looking puzzled. How had that happened?
"How odd. Do you think someone is trying to tell us something? Is there
any idea who did this?"
"Actually, we're fairly sure," said Rocco. "There were some sheep
in the area at the time." He pressed a button, and a holoimage of Croft
"The sheep who appeared at your rally. Says his name is Toft, a
"Yes, I remember your mentioning him," said Quandry. "He had a
lot of guts, showing up here. But surely he couldn't have killed
Rocco pressed another button, and an holoimage of Carper
appeared. "He's not alone."
"The sheep has hired some local muscle?" said Quandry. "Perhaps
that explains things. Who is he?"
"I checked him out. Tallas Carper. Strictly small fry," said
Quandry said nothing for a moment, staring into space.
"What do you want me to do?"
"I'm thinking," said Quandry. He stared a moment longer. Then he
turned and faced Rocco. "Kill him."
"If he really is a diplomatic envoy, that could put us at odds
with the League," said Rocco.
"One would hope," said Quandry.
"Isn't that a bit ahead of schedule?" said Rocco.
"Not any more," said Quandry.
"And what about Carper?"
"He's not a priority. But when you send someone to eliminated
this sheep, make sure he's good enough to take Carper too, just in
case," said Quandry.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"I think I now know what went wrong with your chimp," said Croft.
The holoimage of Levi frowned, looking sad even in his classic
chef's outfit. "Not understand; jumping around everywhere?"
"And dizzy and disoriented, yes," said Croft. "Didn't you see
that in your chimps?"
Levi considered. "Saw some wild behavior, yes, but thought it
"Well, I guess this teaches me a lesson about volunteering to be
a test subject in your lab," said Croft. "Levi, seriously, I'm
desperate here; is there anything you can send me that can protect me?"
"Let me think," said Levi. He hummed softly to himself as he
kneaded some dough in front of him. Croft let him work at it for a
minute, then decided enough was enough.
"No," said Levi. "No ideas yet."
"What about an energy shield?"
"Some kind of armor?"
Levi considered again. "No."
"Then I guess it's up to me," said Croft, trying to keep the
bitterness out of his voice.
"You master spy," said Levi. "You survive."
"Thanks," said Croft. "I can't tell you how much that means.
Please don't let me interrupt your important cooking. Be sure to bake
something tasty for my funeral," he added, signing off.
"Do you really think we're in danger?" Tane asked.
"I think you'd have to ask that question of the last agents who
preceded us," said Croft obtusely.
"But they're all-"
Croft abruptly got up and started pacing around the room.
"Shhh!" said Croft. He paced some more, thinking intently. Then
he paced even more. Then he stopped, and smiled at Tane.
"Maybe," said Croft. "If I can't outdraw them, maybe I can out
"What does that mean?"
"You'll see," said Croft. "Now, about these very important
meetings you're arranging-"
"I've scheduled a meeting with the head of the largest bounty
hunter's union on Grafton tomorrow. I'm still working on several
"Good, good," said Croft. He would need at least a day to get the
electronics he needed ready anyway. "Just don't schedule anything for
the day after tomorrow."
"I'm going on a little trip," said Croft.
The following morning Croft, Tane, the Clapper, and Carper found
themselves at the office of Tendan Ribbers, the planetary head of the
Union of Graftonite People Locators. They had sent Red Sally back to
August, while the sullen Carper once again accompanied them.
"I'm surprised that he's agreed to see us, especially on such
short notice," Croft commented, as they walked to Ribbers' office,
which was in the heart of Regular.
"He seemed almost oddly eager to meet with us," said Tane. "I'm
not sure why."
"Maybe because it's a trap?" said Croft.
Carper gave a dry laugh.
"Something amuses you?" Croft asks.
"If one of us wanted one of you dead, we wouldn't need anything
so elaborate as a trap," said Carper. "We'd just come up to you and
"But that wouldn't be very sporting, would it?" said Croft. "What
about the Graftonite sense of fair play?"
"Oh, he'd give you a chance to draw your gun," said Carper. "It
would be a fair one-on-one contest, as fair as a battle between one of
you and one of us could be."
"Fair, hmm," said Croft, filing that information away. The
beginning of a plan was forming.
They went inside, were announced, and very shortly was in the
office of Tendan Ribbers.
A fat Graftonite. Ribbers was the first fat Graftonite they had
ever seen. Of course, he had a gun strapped around his waist, but it
almost looked comical on him. Still, Croft was almost certain that
Ribbers could outdraw him on any day of the week.
"Come in, come in, sit down, sit down," said Ribbers, giving an
automatic smile. "So good to see representatives of the League here."
"Your welcome is most... unexpected," said Croft. "I was under
the impression that Quandry-"
Ribbers waved a hand dismissively. "Don't get me started on
Quandry. Part of a very small band of malcontents which is trying to
give Grafton a bad name." He smiled again.
"You don't like Quandry?" said Croft.
"It's no secret, Mr. Toft," said Ribbers. "May I call you
"By all means," said Croft.
"Clifford, Quandry's nothing but a troublemaker, a bag of hot
silesium gas," said Ribbers.
"So do most of your bounty hunter members-"
"Bounty hunters?" said Ribbers, frowning.
Croft cast a look at Tane, as if wondering if he were in the
right place. "I thought-"
"I'm the chief steward of the Union of Graftonite People
Locators, yes," said Ribbers. "But we're no bounty hunters, Clifford."
"So... what are you?" said Croft.
"We're people locators. We locate people, and bring them to
whomever pays us."
"No offense intended, but that sounds a lot like bounty hunting
to me," Croft commented.
Ribbers laughed. "Bounty hunting is a crude term for
unprofessionals, people who give our entire industry a bad name. Did
you know that 44% of unlicensed people locators purposefully inflict
pain on their bounties?"
"Did you know that 29% of unlicensed people locators allow
themselves to be bribed out of completing their mission?"
"Did you know that an astonishing 54% of unlicensed people
locators break local laws to complete their missions?"
"I guess I knew it was some number, but didn't know the exact
percentage," Croft admitted.
"It's amateurs like them who give our members a bad name," said
"So bounty... people locators in your union are more
"Of course," said Ribbers. He held up a small disc. "A code of
conduct. Rules of regulations, for locating and capturing bounties and
dealing with employers. Even rules for the humanitarian handling of the
captured sheep in transit--begging your pardon, Clifford."
"No offense taken," said Croft. "So your members are kinder,
gentler... people locators."
"There's no reason for our industry to be a cruel one. We pride
ourselves on locating our targets, and acquiring them with a minimum of
hassle. In fact, when our targets hear that a Graftonite has been hired
to locate them, they only hope that it's one of us."
"I guess only the lucky ones get caught by you," said Croft,
wondering what happened to the people who were "returned" to the
employers who put out the bounties.
"Absolutely! We've made people locating a respectable, humane
process," said Ribbers.
"So do most... people locators belong to your union?" said Croft.
"Nearly all the respectable ones do," said Ribbers.
"Ah.... If you included the unrespectable ones in the totals,
what percentage would that be?"
Ribbers paused. "Well, that's hard to say," he said, looking
"Maybe you could write it down?" Croft asked.
Ribbers sighed. "About a quarter of people in the profession work
within our union." He added defensively, "In a fiercely individualistic
society such as ours that's actually quite an achievement-"
"And the other 75%? Do they work with other unions?"
Ribbers shook his head. "As I just said, Clifford, we are a
fiercely independent people. No, the rest are freelancers. They are so
strong willed that they don't see the benefits--did I mention the
benefits? Full medical, dental, and death benefits?"
"No, you didn't."
"Our locators are even insured for up to two million credits for
accidental injury or dismemberment. That's why potential employers come
to us. They know if an innocent third party accidentally gets shot by a
people locator they hire, they're in good hands if they're working with
"It all sounds very... professional," said Croft. "So how do your
members feel about Mr. Quandry?"
"Oh, he's so unprofessional," said Ribbers. "Did you know he was
once a member of the Union?"
"Really?" said Croft.
"He tried a takeover, a number of years ago. Didn't have the
votes," said Ribbers. "People saw right through him."
"What did they see?" said Croft.
"Well, he has no honor. Totally unprofessional," said Ribbers.
"I'm glad you feel that way," said Croft. "He's trying to muster
support for some very dangerous and aggressive policies."
"I agree," said Ribbers.
"He could destabilize the situation and make all Graftonites
"I agree again," said Ribbers.
"That's why if you were to speak out against him-"
Ribbers held up a hand. "Mr. Toft, I don't get involved with
"But we're only talking about exercising your right of free
"And then he can exercise his right to bear arms," said Ribbers.
"What do you mean?"
Ribbers shook his head. "Mr. Toft, you really need to become more
familiar with our political system."
"I didn't gather that you had one," said Croft. "But if you speak
"Sure, I can convene a gathering, or maybe a great gathering, and
speak my mind," said Ribbers. "But if Quandry or one of his lackeys
doesn't like what I have to say, they may call me out."
"Call you out," said Croft dumbly. "What about your fiercely
independent streak? What about exercising the right to say whatever you
"We do--if we think it's worth the consequences," said Ribbers.
"Don't get me wrong, I don't agree with what Quandry is doing. But
unless he's going up directly against the Union--and he isn't--I can't
take the risk of sticking my neck out without some sort of
"I see," said Croft, not trying very hard not to let his
"You have to understand, he has some gold medalists working for
him-" Ribbers was interrupted by a buzz on his desk. He pressed a
The voice on the other end was projected directly to Ribbers.
Croft could only hear Ribbers talk.
"What does he want?" Ribbers asked.
They didn't hear the response.
Ribbers looked at Croft. "I see." He considered for a moment.
"Well, tell him to stay off the grounds, then."
"If he refuses, send the groundskeeper. He's a retired bronze
medalist, you know," said Ribbers. He pressed a button and ended the
"I'm afraid our time together is at an end," said Ribbers.
"What was that all about?" said Croft.
Ribbers looked away, as if debating what to say.
"There's a gentleman waiting outside," said Ribbers.
"Waiting... for what?"
"He's waiting for you," said Ribbers.
"Who is he?" said Croft.
"I didn't catch the name," said Ribbers.
"Well, what does he want?" said Croft.
"To kill you," said Ribbers.
Croft pondered for a minute. The brashness of the act stunned
him. Someone had simply walked into Ribber's establishment and
announced he was here to murder someone. On any other planet he could
call the police. But here there was no police, no laws, only the power
of the gun.
"He's waiting, just outside your office," said Croft, his hand
snaking down to his blaster. Not that that would do him much good. How
could he outdraw a Graftonite?
"Oh, no," said Ribbers. "I won't tolerate a contract killing here
in the building. Here at the Union we do have standards, you know."
"So you sent him away?"
"No. He's waiting for you outside our building."
"Do you have a back exit?" said Croft.
"No," said Ribbers. He stood up. "I'm sorry you have to die, but
it's been nice talking with you." He left the office without shaking
hands or making eye contact.
Croft, the Clapper, Tane, and Carper sat alone in Ribber's office
for a long moment.
Then Tane said, "What are we going to do?"
Croft stood up. "We're going to leave."
"But you'll be killed!" said Tane.
"I'm not very killable," said Croft.
"Do you see something funny?" said Croft.
"You don't have a chance," said Carper. "There's no way you can
outshoot one of us." He chuckled.
Croft pressed a button on his comm. "Then it's a good thing I
just canceled your next paycheck."
Carper immediately stopped in midlaugh.
"Is there something you want me to do?" Tane asked.
"Well, I wouldn't advise you to stand right in front of me," said
"What's the plan?"
"Let's go outside and see," said Croft, as he started for the
door, trying to look more casual than he felt.
"Did you really cancel my next paycheck?" Carper asked.
"Now who is the nervous one?" Croft asked.
They left the building. A man stood there expectantly. A crowd
had formed around him. Obviously, the word had spread that there was
going to be some action here.
Croft exited first, keeping space between him and Tane and the
Clapper. He didn't care where Carper was standing.
Carper nodded slightly to the man, keeping his good arm away from
his weapon as he stepped aside. The man nodded slightly to him. Carper
had made his intentions clear; he wasn't getting involved.
"Hello," said Croft, slowly walking forward. He kept his hand
well away from his blaster. "Can I help you?"
The man still hadn't drawn his gun, but he stood there, staring
at Croft intently, waiting for Croft's slightest move towards his own
"I'm here to kill you, sheep," said the man.
"May I ask why?" Croft said, still walking forward. He was only
about 20 feet away now.
"Because I feel like it," the man grinned.
"If I've done something to offend you, please let me know," said
"You offend me, sheep," the man spat.
Croft was now five feet away from the man. There was no way a
Graftonite, or anyone else, could miss at this distance.
"What're you doing, sheep?" said the man, eyeing Croft
The crowd held its breath.
Croft slowly went down on his knees in front of the Graftonite.
"Please!" he said. "Please don't kill me!"
The Graftonite looked at Croft in disgust.
"Pleeeeeease!" said Croft, starting to cry. "I'm just a humble,
"Get up," the Graftonite muttered.
"Pleeeeassseee.... Don't.... kill.... meeeeeeeeee.......," Croft
"Get up," said the Graftonite. "I have a schedule to keep. You're
going to make me late for my next appointment. Stop crying and draw
Croft turned to the watching crowd. Still sobbing, he wailed,
"I'm simply defenseless! This isn't going to be a gunfight, this is
going to be an execution!" He started crying even louder.
The Graftonite took a step back and quickly turned to eye the
crowd, his attention not straying from Croft for more than a second. He
didn't like what he saw even in this quick scan of the area. People
were muttering and shaking their heads.
"Pleeeease, I'm helpless heeeeeere!" Croft wailed again.
The muttering in the crowd grew louder. The Graftonite hesitated.
He was only slightly reluctant to kill the wailing Croft. What
concerned him more was the crowd. If one of them objected to this
execution, he could be called out. And someone in the crowd could be an
Looking down at Croft, his expression hardened as he made a
decision. Quandry had paid him to make a real kill, not to execute
livestock. "Get out of my sight," said the Graftonite. "You disgust
me," he said, with real revulsion in his voice.
"Yes... yes... thank you.... Thank you...," said Croft, still
sobbing uncontrollably as he crawled away. He slowly got to his feet,
acutely aware that the Graftonite could shoot him in the back as he
slowly made his way through the crowd, around the corner.
The sobs immediately cut off as Croft turned the corner. He
turned and waited for his approaching companions.
"Very clever," said Tane.
"The crybaby defense," said Carper. "You were lucky this time,
sheep. Next time there may not be a crowd, or a killer who is that
"That was no luck," said Tane. "How did you know that would
"Simple psychology," said Croft. "I know the Graftonites like
fair fights. So I tried to make the fight as unfair as possible--in my
"Very clever," said Tane admiringly.
"Perhaps you'll put in a good word for me with the Chief," said
He had done it. He had survived an encounter with a hostile
Graftonite without resort to any of Levi's tricks, and he had survived.
"What do you mean, he let him walk away?" Quandry thundered. It
was the following evening and only now that Quandry had learned the
news. He sat in his spacious multiroom office on his ranch.
"The man made a spectacle of himself, weeping and helpless," said
"So? Why didn't he just shoot the sheep?" Quandry raged. He
abruptly got up and went into the adjoining room, opening a food
storage unit. There were several of them in the room; crouched behind
the side of one of them, only partially obscured from view, was
Clifford Croft, dressed in black from head to toe.
Quandry carried a sandwich back to the other room, apparently not
noticing the odd shape sticking out of the side of one of the
Rocco said, "There were people around, they might not have liked
"Who cares what they liked!" Quandry exploded. He looked down at
his sandwich, as if something was missing, or something puzzled him.
Quandry got an odd look on his face, as if he were trying to
remember something. Suddenly, he went in quick strides back to the food
Quandry looked around slowly, as if scanning for something. Then,
in purposeful steps, he moved to the food storage unit that Croft had
been hiding behind, went to it, opened it, pulled out a drink, nodded
to himself, then closed the unit, returning to the other room.
"If there had been a silver or gold medalist in the crowd, they
might've caused trouble," said Rocco.
One of the food units in the other room opened. Croft snuck out.
He planted something under one of the units, then crept out of the room
through another doorway.
"I don't care!" said Quandry savagely. He swept his hand across
his desk, accidentally knocking his drink over. He quickly righted the
bottle, but the damage was done, and several of his papers were wet.
"Let's continue this in the dining room," he said.
They both entered a nearby dining room. Neither apparently
noticed the dark shape under the table.
"I want you to fire him and find someone else who can do the job
right," said Quandry, chewing vigorously. "Now, what's the status of
He kicked out vigorously with his foot, just missing Croft's head
by an inch. Croft leaned backwards just barely in time, still in a
"We're still working on phase two," said Rocco. He lazily
stretched out his legs under the table. Suddenly, he felt something
Rocco look startled. He started to look down under the table when
he felt a sharp kick from the object he had just touched. "Watch where
you put your clumsy legs, you just jabbed me," Quandry snapped,
finishing his sandwich. He took a long drink and said, "I don't want to
hear about delays. Get working on it."
He abruptly got up from the table, and looked down thoughtfully
"What?" said Rocco.
"I've always thought it was too small," said Quandry. "Get a
He and Rocco left the room.
Croft, covered in sweat, got out from under the table. He tiptoed
to the doorway, waiting for the sounds of footsteps to recede.
He had planted eavesdropping devices in several rooms of the
ranch. He had wanted to wire the entire ranch, but Croft sensed his
luck was running out and that it was time to go. He walked silently
upstairs, to the bathroom. He had entered through the second story
bedroom window, and he intended to exit the same way. He had special
climbing gloves on that could grip almost any surface, so climbing down
would not be a problem.
But just as he got to the bedroom he heard footsteps rushing
behind him. He dashed inside, hiding behind the door.
Heavy footsteps entered the bedroom. And then the footsteps
stopped, just inside the door, and a voice, said, "What?"
It was Quandry.
Croft heard a faint voice in the distance say, "There's a new
report you need to see."
"Hang on, I just want to change into more comfortable boots,"
He entered the bedroom and immediately turned left to one of his
closets. He cast a quick glance at the empty space on the other side of
the doorway and then looked into the shoe closet. He took off his
boots, picked out a new pair, and sat on the edge of the bed, humming
as he put them on.
Then he walked out of the room, and his footsteps grew distant.
Croft stood up from behind the far side of the bed, where he had
been lying. He reflected that this would have been a good opportunity
to assassinate Quandry; he could have shot the Graftonite in the back.
Croft grimaced; he didn't feel any special need for "fair fights"
like the Graftonites did, but he wasn't at all sure that killing
Quandry would solve the problem. Besides, the Chief probably would want
to be consulted on little things like political assassinations in
There had never been so much paperwork in the olds days.
Sighing softly to himself, Croft moved to the window and made his
Chapter 6: The Industrialist And The Olympics Official
"I don't think we're getting anywhere with this," said Croft. He
was in another endless conference with the Chief, with Tane at his
side. Croft hated these constant consultations with the Chief. It made
him feel like a heavily supervised child.
"What do you think, Sylvia?" said the Chief. Croft noted the
Chief's familiarity with Tane. The Chief liked Tane. Tane was her pet.
Tane glanced worriedly at Croft. She clearly didn't want to
alienate Croft, but she also didn't want to get dragged down with him.
She took a breath and said, "I think Ribbers could be a moderating
influence, but political space in Grafton is limited."
"So limited you can get shot if you say something someone doesn't
like," Croft translated.
"As a political actor, according to the Keman-Nolan political
science model for a developing world with only informal governmental
structures, Ribbers is behaving like the classic rational actor man-"
"Rational in that he doesn't want to get shot," said Croft,
continuing to translate.
"But if we can create more political space, perhaps an
enlightened dialogue in the community, we may get more prominent non-
state actors to express their views."
"Are you suggesting we call the Graftonites together for a
fireside chat?" said Croft.
"I think we can if we approach the proper non-state actor elites.
For example, your friend the Silencer is very well respected-"
"My friend the Silencer is no one's friend, and if you called him
a non-state actor elite he'd either laugh at you or shoot you, or
both," said Croft. "He's not going to do anything for us unless there's
something in it for him."
"But surely we can convince him that what is good for Grafton is
good for him-" said Tane
"The Silencer isn't a dummy," said Croft. "If there's a civil war
going on outside his house he won't get involved unless it spills over
onto his front lawn."
"Well, then maybe we can use other non-state actors to enlarge
the political debate," said Tane.
"Who did you have in mind?" the Chief asked.
"I've identified several other individuals who are respected
Graftonites who might help," said Tane. "A prominent industrialist, a
leading Olympics official, and a major weapons manufacturer."
"And what makes you think that any of those will offer to help,
or even be sympathetic to our cause?" said Croft.
"You'll have to convince them," said the Chief.
"I'm a spy, not a diplomat," said Croft.
"This time you'll need to be a little of both," said the Chief.
"We have diplomats for this," said Croft. "Wait, I forget,
they're afraid to come out of their embassy, right?"
"They're under a security lockdown for their own protection,"
said the Chief. She changed the subject. "Now listen, Croft. Quandry's
demand that other worlds make 'security' payments to Grafton has caused
quite a stir."
"I'll bet," said Croft. "Is the League going to let itself be
"Of course not," said the Chief. "That's totally against our
"Totally," said Croft.
"On the other hand, we are considering extending development
"So you are considering paying," said Croft.
"It would not be for blackmail, it would be for local economic
development," said the Chief.
"I see," said Croft. "And you think this will defuse the crisis?"
"Once the moderates see that we are ready to deal, the hardliners
will have to go along or lose support," said the Chief.
"Right," said Croft. He managed to keep a straight face until the
Chief signed off.
When the Chief's image faded, Tane turned to him. "Why didn't you
tell her that you had planted listening devices in Quandry's home?"
"For the same reason you didn't," said Croft.
"You threatened me with bodily harm if I did," said Tane.
"Exactly," said Croft. "It was only common sense to say nothing
Tane looked puzzled but plowed on. "Have you heard anything
Croft, not being able to listen to hours of tapes, was using a
computer program that filtered out blank time and mundane conversation
to present him with condensed highlights. So far he hadn't heard
anything tremendously interesting but he had just planted the devices
the day before. "Not yet."
"Then you'll have time to attend a meeting with Mr. Tagan," said
"Of Tagan Industries. It's the biggest corporation on
"With a population of only eight million people, how big can that
By galactic sizes, not so big. But Croft soon learned that Tagan
industries had a monopoly or near-monopoly on a wide range of products
and services produced on Grafton, from roads to building equipment to
clothing to technical tools to electronics and more. Tane had arranged
a meeting with the organization's President, Til Tagan, whose offices
were on a large tract of land outside the capital, Regular.
Carper led the way, driving them there in a rented ground car.
Croft, looking lazily behind them as he drove, said, "I think we're
"By whom?" said Tane.
"I don't know," said Croft.
"What if it's another Graftonite killer?" said Tane.
"I don't think a second one will be taken in by tears," Carper
said, chuckling nastily.
Croft looked at Carper, started to say something, stopped, and
then said something other than he had first intended. "You're only
working for us because we couldn't hire anyone else. You said that
Graftons didn't want to work for off-worlders. And yet Ribbers didn't
mention that the members of his union had any qualms about working for
"That's off-planet, sheep," said Carper. "Out of sight of other
Graftons. It's a world of difference working for a bounty off-planet,
for a real job. Being led around by sheep on Grafton like a trained
seal, however, is another story."
"So you're a trained seal," Croft remarked absentmindedly. But he
frowned as he said it. He sensed there was something important he was
missing here, an idea that wasn't quite crystallizing, but he wasn't
quite sure what it was. The more he tried to grab at it, the more it
slipped away. Just what had he been thinking?
"We're arriving at our destination," said Carper, slowing the
groundcar to a halt. "If they're going to shoot you, they'll probably
do it now."
Croft looked behind them. The other car had slowed to a halt too,
some two blocks away. Whoever it was, they weren't coming to challenge
him in close combat.
Could it be a sniper with a long distance rifle? That wasn't the
Grafton way. But anything was possible here. Croft took out a pair of
electrobinocs and trained them on the distant car.
He found himself looking into a groundcar with two occupants,
both of whom were using electrobinocs pointed at him.
"Fool, Yuri! I told you we shouldn't have followed him this
closely!" said one of the occupants of the other groundcar, putting
down the electrobinocs.
"We would have lost him otherwise," snarled the one called Yuri.
"So he knows we are here. We are still keeping an eye on him."
"The Major will not like knowing we were discovered," said his
companion. His name was Samov.
"Then the Major doesn't have to learn that inconvenient fact,"
said Yuri. "She is not our direct superior."
"But she is with the Bureau of Special Tasks-"
"We will answer all questions asked of us, but volunteer
nothing," said Yuri. "They're going into the building now. Watch
When Croft saw that they were merely being observed, he decided
to take no action and to proceed with the mission. They entered the
building and announced their presence. Within a few short moments, they
found themselves before Til Tagan.
Til Tagan was a tall, dark haired man like most Graftonites. He
greeted Croft with a nod as he, the Clapper, Tane, and Carper took
seats in his office.
"I'm very impressed what I hear about your company," said Croft.
"You represent the largest company on all of Grafton-"
"Not just represent, but own," said Tagan.
"All of it?" said Croft.
"Yes, Mr. Toft."
"I thought a company this size would be publicly owned-"
"We don't place much stock in publicly owned companies," said
"I'm amazed that your company has managed to branch out into so
many areas," said Croft. "Everything from heavy construction to linens.
I'm really surprised you don't have more competition."
"Well, you have to understand that Grafton is an unusual market,"
said Tagan. "We have the population of a province spread out over an
entire planet. A small market in a large area is difficult to serve,
and not many companies think it's worth the effort."
"Does that explain why prices are, ah, marked up a bit?" Tane
asked, choosing her words very carefully.
"Precisely," said Tagan, not taking offense. To the contrary, he
seemed to be proud of monopoly pricing. "It's the difficulty of serving
such a geographically distributed market that reduces economies of
scale and forces higher prices. That's why if you're poor-"
"You shouldn't come to Grafton," said Croft. "Yes, we've heard
"Did you know I invented it?"
"Invented what?" said Croft.
"The slogan," said Tagan. "If you're poor, don't come to Grafton.
My company invented the slogan, it's used in all our marketing pieces.
Graftons always think prices are too high and are always grumbling. We
realized a marketing campaign was in order. So we came up with the
slogan, 'If you're poor, don't come to Grafton'. Ingenious, isn't it?"
"Your slogan implies that Grafton is the home to the well-off
elite who shouldn't mind paying higher prices," said Tane. "And if they
do mind, then they're not in the elite."
"Precisely," said Tagan, beaming. "You have quite an analytical
mind, Ms. Tane."
Tane smiled back.
"Your higher prices have nothing to do with the fact that you're
a monopoly, does it?" Croft asked.
"Of course not!" Tagan assured him. "We use the most efficient
monopoly market pricing models."
"Uh huh," said Croft. "Still I'm surprised you don't have any
competition at all, given the wide range of products and services you
"We have a little competition here and there," said Tagan. "But
most weren't able to withstand the rigors of competing against us." He
And Croft didn't see any reason to ask him to. He had a pretty
good idea what had happened to the competition. Not that he cared. His
mission wasn't to audit Tagan industries, but to enlist Tagan's help in
the fight against Quandry. They had had more than time for small talk,
it was time to get to the point.
"I'm sure you've heard about Mo Quandry and his movement," said
"Yes, of course," said Tagan.
There was silence for a moment. Then, seeing that nothing more
was forthcoming, Croft asked, "May I ask your feelings on the matter?"
"I support a peaceable solution to the dispute," said Tagan.
"That's a relief," said Croft. Perhaps Tagan could be an ally.
"I think the matter will be settled peacefully, once the other
planets start shouldering their fair share."
"The security fees," said Tagan.
"You mean, the blackmail payments?" said Croft.
Tagan smiled. "I believe your government is publicly calling them
'economic assistance grants'. I think once the League starts paying its
fair share, that the matter will be resolved."
"So... you think this is simply an economic dispute, and once
Quandry gets his 'development grants', that everything will be
"Of course!" said Tagan. "Ambassador Toft, on Grafton, everything
is about money. Once your League settles on a price with our people,
I'm sure that amicable relations will resume."
"And it doesn't trouble you that these are essentially blackmail
payments, backed up by threats to attack the League?"
"Mr. Toft, the language of politics really boils down to the
language of business. One side needs something, and the other side
offers a price," said Tagan.
Croft looked at him shrewdly. "Let me guess; Tagan Industries
would get a share of the 'development grants' that the League would
"And why should it not? We are the largest promoter of economic
development on the planet. What's good for Tagan Industries is good for
Grafton," said Tagan.
Croft winced. It sounded suspiciously like another slogan. But
he pressed on. "But what if the League doesn't make a deal with
Quandry? What if this spirals into a major war?" Croft asked.
"I'm sure that won't happen," said Tagan smoothly. "And now, my
time is quite limited..."
Tagan immediately got up, and gestured to show Croft to the door.
Obviously, the interview was over.
He lead them outside his office.
Meanwhile, back in the spy car...
"There's a man waiting outside the building," said Samov, peering
through the electronoculars.
"Who is it?" said Yuri, sitting on the groundcar.
"Looks like a Grafton killer," said Samov.
"They are all Grafton killers," said Yuri, reclining on the hood
of the groundcar.
"Having fun?" said a new voice.
Samov snapped to alertness; Yuri, fumbling, fell off of the car.
"Major! You did not announce you were coming-"
"And obviously anyone can simply walk up to your observation post
without being noticed," said Major Nancy Kalikov of the Slurian Special
Tasks Bureau. "What is your report?"
"They have been inside for nearly half an hour," said Yuri.
"They are coming out now," said Samov, still peering through the
"There is a Graftonite killer waiting for them," said Yuri. "I
think we may have our Croft problem solved for us."
"If you think that, you're a bigger fool than I give you credit
for," said the Major coldly. "Samov?"
"Croft sees the man. The man is standing there. Croft is
approaching the man slowly...."
"Don't think you're going to get away this time with a crying
fit," said the man pleasantly. There was no spectator crowd this time
to help Croft; unlike the last time, there were no other Graftonites
around, except for Carper; and Carper had made it clear he wouldn't
lift a finger to help him.
Croft slowly approached the man, his hands carefully away from
his blaster. This was not the same assailant he had faced the last
time. "Do I know you?"
"I'm the man who's going to shoot a hole in your head," said the
Croft took a few steps closer. His hands went slowly to the belt
of his holster. He undid it and let it lose; his blaster, and his
holster, slid to the ground. "Are you really going to shot an unarmed
"Yes," the man spat.
Meanwhile, from two blocks away...
"He's dropped his weapon," said Samov. "But I don't think that
trick is going to work."
"I think we may finally see the end of Croft," said Yuri happily.
The Major glared at him but said nothing
Croft took a few steps closer to the gunman.
"That's not necessary, I can hit you at any distance," said the
Croft, now about ten feet away, stopped. Perfect.
"You're very confident, aren't you?" said Croft.
"Against you?" And by his tone nothing more needed to be said.
"So even if I had my weapon, you're confident that you could
outdraw me, correct?"
"Correct," said the killer.
"But can you conceive of a circumstance where I could outdraw
"No," said the killer, giving a slight chuckle.
"Sure you can," said Croft. "What if I shot you from behind, and
you didn't even know I was there?"
"Well, sure, I suppose," said the killer, wondering where this
"So you admit, if I could take you by surprise, that I can
"You wouldn't be outdrawing me, you would be taking me by
surprise, there's a difference," said the killer. "What's this all
about? You're right here in front of me."
"I am, but...." said Croft, his eyes widening as he looked over
the killer's shoulder.
The killer, almost more quickly than Croft could see, jerked his
back and forward again like a blur. "Nice try," the killer sneered.
"I didn't try anything," said Croft. "I just wanted to establish
that if I took you by surprise, I could outdraw you."
"Enough talk," the killer snarled.
Croft could see that the gunman was about to reach for his gun.
Croft did nothing visibly, only tilting his right boot up slightly. But
inside the boot his big toe was pressing down, hard.
There was a slight whistle in the air and the Grafton looked
startled. He reached for his gun but his arm froze as he touched it.
With a giant expression of surprise, he fell backwards on the ground.
Croft looked down at the body. Looking carefully, he pulled a tiny
needle from the man's leg. Getting down he whispered into the man's
ear. "It's only temporary. But I am grateful that its effects are
almost instantaneous. Next time, don't be so sure of yourself."
Two blocks away...
"What happened?" said Samov. "He just fell down."
"You underestimated him, again," Major Kalikov snapped.
Yuri raised a sniper rifle. "Let me kill him, Major.
The Major knocked the rifle away. "That will not get us the
answers we need!"
"Then what will?"
"I will," said the Major. "I will get the answers from him. Then
Clifford Croft can be eliminated."
"An unfair trick," said Carper, curling his lip as he looked a
the unconscious gunman.
"As unfair as a Graftonite taking on an unarmed man with slower
reflexes," said Croft. He turned to Tane. "What next?"
"We have to meet with a senior Olympics official," said Tane.
"Let's go play," said Croft dismissively.
Tane glared at him.
The Clapper clapped joyously.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"He escaped? Again?" said Quandry.
"He had some kind of weapon in his boot. It was concealed," said
"I am beginning to get the idea that this is not a typical sheep
diplomat. Diplomats don't typically have needle guns in their boots."
"Agreed," said Rocco.
"So he's trying to stir up opposition against me?" said Quandry.
"And he thought he was going to get anywhere with Tagan?"
"He's only an annoyance, but when I say I want someone dead,
they'd better be dead," said Quandry. "Send someone else, send several
someones, just get it done."
"Yes sir," said Rocco.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Who cares about the Olympics?" said Croft, as they rode in the
"Sheep," said Carper dismissively, before Tane could answer.
"Sheep care about the Olympics?" said Croft, deliberately playing
"Only a sheep would fail to understand," said Carper.
"Maybe you'll explain it then," said Croft.
"On most worlds the Olympics only celebrate sheep sports," said
"And on Grafton...."
"We find out who the best marksmen are," said Carper. "Our
contests show who the best of the best are, in the only thing that
"The only thing that matters being the ability to shoot a
weapon," said Croft, interpreting.
Carper glared at him.
"There's more to it than that," said Tane. "It's also tied into
the color war concept."
"Color war?" said Croft.
"Every two years Grafton has the Olympics, but every four years
at the same time they also have color war."
"What, exactly, is color war?" Croft asked. He ignored Carper's
"Every four years every resident of Grafton is divided into four
teams-Blue, Purple, Green, and Yellow-"
"Orange," corrected Carper. "No Graftonite would be caught dead
"Orange," said Tane nervously. "Team leaders are selected from
among the most respected members of society, and they select their
senior staff based on established rules. Most of the general population
is assigned to a team by random lottery."
"Then they fight," said Tane. "For the month leading up to the
Olympics, everyone drops what they're doing, spend a week in training,
and then a month fighting as an organized army to beat the other
forces." She paused. "Of course, no one gets hurt, not usually.
Blasters are set to stun."
"Why is this such a big event?" Croft asked.
"Proving yourself as a gunman, or gunwoman, is the most important
thing for a Graftonite to do," said Tane. "This gives people a chance
to prove themselves and test themselves repeatedly against their
"So the entire planet simply drops what it's doing for a month?"
"Well, it's not mandatory, I don't think they get 100%
participation, but most people do," said Tane.
"How does the planet run if everyone is off at play for a month?"
"Run?" said Tane.
"I forget, no government, no industry, except for monopoly
incorporated," said Croft, referring to Tagan Industries. "So if we're
supposed to be talking to 'non-state actors' we should probably be
talking to a past or current leader of one of these color wars."
"You already have," said Tane.
"According to my research, your friend the Silencer was the head
of Blue Army; he even won two wars in a row," said Tane. "Didn't you
"The Silencer is not a sharer," said Croft.
They knew they were getting close to the Olympics practice
grounds when they heard the sounds of weapons fire. They passed not one
or several but dozens of different kinds of firing ranges, where
Graftonites blazed away at incredible speeds. As they drove by Croft
saw several objects fly into the air and one gunman, blasting away with
five, precise shots, shoot them all down in little more than an
At that moment he knew the reason behind peoples' fear of a "gold
Methlid Okuna was the current head of the Graftonite Olympics
committee. He gave them a broad smile as he welcomed them into his
"A rare treat! We seldom get off-worlders here," said Okuna,
smiling broadly as he gestured for them to sit. There was a window
built in behind him that showed a broad view of a stadium where various
gunmen were practicing.
"Are off-worlders forbidden to compete in your Olympics?" Croft
Okuna looked puzzled. "Of course not! They just know that it's
futile to do so. An off-worlder could never compete with a Graftonite,
"Of course," said Croft.
"Mind you, there are always exceptions. We do attract some of the
best gunmen in the world for our junior league Olympics."
"For lads 15 years and under. Some of the off-worlders
occasionally provide reasonable competition."
"You let off-world children compete against your children?" Croft
"No, that would hardly be fair, would it?" said Okuna. "We let
off-world adults compete against our children. We waive the age
requirement for off-worlders for obvious reasons."
"Obvious reasons," Croft repeated dully.
"They provide good competition for our children," said Okuna.
"They seldom win, of course."
"Of course," said Croft. "But if all your events are shooting,
how many can there be?"
"We have over 50 sporting events," said Okuna. "We have trick
shooting, distance shooting, precision shooting, the triathalon-"
"Triathalon?" said Croft.
"Blaster, blaster rifle, and blaster cannon," said Okuna. "We
also have gunnastics-"
"You mean gymnastics, don't you?" said Croft.
Okuna glared at him. "Gunnastics. It's mostly a women's sport-
while twirling around on the bars or in midair they have to shoot
"Interesting," said Croft.
"What else, let me see... in the winter there's downhill skiing
shooting, figure skating shooting-"
"Figure skating shooting?"
"Elegant skating while shooting targets," said Okuna.
"Participants get judged on form as well as accuracy." He paused. "We
also have team sports, such as military soccer, and more traditional
ones, such as the 200 meter sprint-"
"A running race?" said Croft. "Let me guess, the racers have to
shoot targets as they run."
"That's ridiculous," said Okuna. "The contestants have to shoot
the racers. Stun shots, of course."
"Of course," said Croft.
Okuna stared at Croft, wondering if he was being sarcastic.
"Let's get down to business. What brings you here?"
"We're very concerned about Mo Quandry and his supporters," said
Croft. "We're trying to... sound out prominent members of society to
find out what level of support he has."
"Quandry. Oh," said Okuna. Abruptly his expression changed. "If
you're asking whether I'm a big fan of Quandry, the answer is no."
"He has no honor," said Okuna. "Five years ago he was a senior
official in the Orange Army-that's our color war, you understand."
"So I've heard."
"Well, let's just say he engaged in a series of... questionable
maneuvers that nearly got him ejected from the war."
"What kind of questionable maneuvers are we talking about?" Croft
"That's not important," said Okuna. "Some folk-not me, you
understand, but some-say that he cheated. Of course, to make a public
accusation of cheating-"
"Can open you up to a double barreled lawsuit, I understand,"
said Croft. "But if Quandry has a reputation for being a cheater, why
does he have such a following?"
Okuna made a dismissive sound. "I don't think he does. Oh, a
certain percentage of the population may sympathize with his goals, but
his hard base of support can't be more than one or two percent of the
"One or two percent, that doesn't sound so bad," said Croft.
Okuna stared at Croft. "There are 8 million of us, Mr. Toft. Two
percent is 160,000. Do you have any idea what 160,000 can do to the
"Do you think he's going to attack the League?" said Croft.
"It's not my job to speculate," said Okuna carefully.
"If you convened a great meeting, spoke out against him, you-"
"If I spoke out against him, that wouldn't be very polite," said
"He would kill you?"
"Or have one of his men do it," said Okuna.
"That wouldn't be very polite either," said Croft.
"No, it wouldn't." Okuna gave a small smile.
"If he represents such a small percentage of the population, why
does he have everyone scared?" said Croft.
Okuna sat up, looking angry. His hand dropped down behind the
desk. His voice cold, he said, "Are you calling me a coward?"
"No! No, of course not," said Croft soothingly. "It just seems
that... well.. people don't want to publicly criticize him."
Okuna nodded, and eased back in his chair. "You have to
understand that he has gold medalists working for him. And even if
people don't like him, they're not going to stand up unless they're
involved. And whatever he's doing, it doesn't involve most of us."
"But if he plunges Grafton into an interplanetary war-"
"He can't plunge Grafton into anything. He doesn't represent the
government because we have no government," said Okuna.
"Don't you think if he attacks the League that the response may
spill over and affect your fellow Graftonites?"
Okuna shrugged. "I'll deal with that when I see it happen. But
I'm not going to get involved when there's no direct danger to me or my
interests--nor, do I suspect, will anyone else."
Croft nodded slowly, getting up. "Do you mind if we walk around
the grounds a bit?"
"Not at all," said Okuna. He gave them a phony smile and
eagerly showed them to the door.
When they got outside Tane said, "Well, it looks like he won't
help us either."
"Are you really surprised?" said Carper.
They walked to a nearby target range where Graftonites were
blasting away. Croft didn't say anything for a while, as he thought of
what to do. He watched Graftonites decimating paper targets. If only
brute force could solve their problems.
"Let's get back to the groundcar," said Croft. "I want to get
back to our quarter to check, ah, things." He didn't want to mention
the listening devices he had placed in Quandry's ranch in front of
But as they turned to go, they heard a voice say, "Just a
They turned to see a few Graftonites staring at them, guns in
hand. One of them beckoned for them to come forward. Croft, seeing
little choice, slowly did.
"You're off-worlders, aren't you?" said one of them.
"See, I told you so," their leader said, grinning to his
companions. "We were wondering if you could help us out."
"Help? How?" Croft asked.
"Hold this in your open hand," said the leader. He dropped a
bucket of apples on the ground in front of Croft, and reached in and
handed Croft an apple.
Then he took a few steps back.
"Why do I get a bad feeling about this?" said Croft.
The leader stepped back farther and raised his blaster. "Now
stand very still!"
He squeezed the trigger. Croft, cringing, saw a beam of light,
and felt heat in his hand. When he looked at his hand he saw the
cindered remains of the apple. The blaster wasn't set on stun.
"Now pick up another apple."
Croft reluctantly complied, holding it as far as possible from
One of the Graftonite's companions aimed carefully, and squeezed
the trigger. The blaster flared out, incinerating the apple, as well as
singing Croft's index finger.
"Oh!" said Croft, grabbing his finger.
"Sorry," said the Graftonite, laughing. "You shouldn't have
"I didn't," said Croft, nursing his burn.
"Now pick up another apple, and put it on your head," said the
Croft did nothing.
"Do it!" said the leader, raising his blaster.
Croft, seeing no choice, picked up the apple, and thought about
his options. He didn't have many. He looked at the Clapper. There was
no way the Clapper could use his power to distract so many Graftonites.
"Now put it on your head!" said the leader. "Do it!" He aimed his
blaster for effect.
Was this Graftonite one of the killers sent after him? Or was he
just trying to have fun at Croft's expense? He had no way of knowing,
but he had to know, because a mistake would be fatal.
Croft was still paralyzed, trying to figure out whether the
leader would really shoot him if he didn't comply, when a new voice
said, "What's going on here?"
They turned to see another tall, dark haired Grafton standing
there. He looked grim.
"I said, what's going on here?" the man said. Frowning, he said,
"Don't make me ask again."
"We were just doing some target practice," said the leader, his
tone markedly different now.
"With fully charged blasters? On real people?" said the man. A
man who Croft thought he recognized.
"He's only a sheep. We wouldn't have hurt him," said the leader.
The newcomer just stared at him coldly.
Gulping, the leader said to his friends, "Come on, guys," and
The newcomer slowly approached Croft. "Why is it every time I see
you, you're always getting shot at?"
As he came closer Croft recognized him.
It was Traker Fields.
Graftonites were killers, and they were bounty hunters, but they
took on many other professions as well, and one of those were serving
as mercenaries, operating in small teams. There were individual
mercenary units that had legendary reputations throughout populated
space. And the leader of one of the most famous units was standing
before Croft. Traker Fields.
Croft had met Traker Fields before, but usually in combat
situations. Their paths had crossed before, but never on Grafton. Like
most Graftonites, Traker was neither allied with or against the League,
but Croft had found him to be an honorable man.
Croft extended his hand. "Usually when we meet you're the one
getting shot at."
Traker took his hand, shaking it. "I seem to recall a fair share
of hostile fire aimed at you." He gave a small smile. "What brings you
to Grafton? No, let me guess, you're here about Quandry."
"Well, you can have him," said Traker. "If you shot a hole in his
ugly head I wouldn't shed a tear."
"You don't care for him?"
"He's a cheater, a liar, a dishonorable Graftonite. We'd be
better off without him," said Traker.
"That's bold words, on a planet where free speech can be fatal,"
"So what?" said Traker.
"Aren't you worried that your opinions will get back to Quandry."
"No," said Fields coldly.
"And what of your fellow mercenaries. Are they also against him?"
said Croft, getting the first glimmers of an idea.
"Quite the opposite!" said Traker. "I'm just about the only
mercenary who's not on his side."
"Who do you think led off on the invasion of Grafton IV? Hired
mercenaries, of course. Most of us are hoping that a wider war will
break out; it will give us more work."
"But you already have work."
"Mo pays better. He gives us a generous share of the spoils,"
"Not me," said Traker impatiently. "I'm basically out of it."
"Out of it?"
"I'm taking a vacation from the profession," said Traker. "I'm
trying to get in shape to compete in the next olympics."
"Maybe the triathalon, or precision shooting," said Traker. "Say,
the word has been going around that Quandry has put a hit out on some
nosy off-worlder. That wouldn't be you, would it?"
"Anything's possible," said Croft.
"You'd better be careful. Is this your bodyguard?" he said,
Carper gave a bitter laugh.
Croft shook his head. "He's just along for comic relief."
Carper glared at Croft but, after a quick glance at Traker,
decided not to react.
"Still, you'd better watch your step," said Traker, turning to
"Maybe you can help us," said Croft. "We're looking for people to
speak out against Quandry."
"Speak out against him? Why would I do that?" Traker asked.
"He may plunge all of Grafton into war," said Croft.
"Hm...." said Traker.
"Hmm... what? What does that mean?" said Croft.
"I'm trying to decide if that's good or bad," said Traker. "A
good war might shake people up. They're getting pretty complacent
lately, even for Graftonites."
Croft sighed. "It's been great talking to you, Traker."
"Try to stay out of trouble, Croft."
For once there wasn't an assassin waiting for them as they
returned to the groundcar. Croft said nothing for much of the journey
back. Once they reached their rented quarters, Tane asked, "What are we
going to do?"
"I'm going back to my room to think," said Croft. "I want to
spend a few solitary hours without being shot at or threatened, and
then I want a good night's sleep. We'll talk further in the morning."
Without saying another word he entered his room and closed the
door behind him. As he turned around to walk further into the room, a
woman stepped out of the shadows, a blaster pointed straight at Croft's
chest. "I've come to kill you, Clifford Croft."
Chapter 7: Exploding Tempers
Major Nancy Kalikov of the Slurian Special Tasks Bureau stepped
out of the shadows. The Slurians were the sworn enemy of the League,
which Croft worked for, and Special Tasks was one of their elite
espionage bureaus. Their specialty was high tech theft... and
Croft looked at the determined woman as she glared at him, her
gun held rigidly in her right hand, pointing straight at him.
"Do I get to make a statement before you shoot me?" Croft said.
He took a step forward. The blaster didn't waiver.
"Maybe," said Kalikov. "What kind of statement?"
Croft took another step forward. "A request."
"That's far enough!" said the Major, raising her blaster
slightly. Then, "What request?"
Despite the order to halt, Croft took another step forward, so
that his face was only inches from hers. "A kiss," he said.
He hesitated for only a moment, judging her expression, and then
reached out and kissed her on the lips. He pulled back, staring at her.
Then he reached forward and kissed her again.
This time she moaned slightly. "Oh Clifford," as she lowered the
"I've missed you," Croft said softly.
"We don't have much time," said Kalikov.
"Then let's make the best use of it, shall we?" said Croft.
Later, Croft was lying in bed with his arm around Kalikov.
"So what are you doing here, Clifford?" said Kalikov.
"Isn't it obvious?" said Croft.
"There's some thought that you might be trying to forge an
alliance with the Graftons."
"Is this your thought, or your superiors?" said Croft.
She reached over and kiss him. "Come on Clifford, you can trust
He kissed her back. "Yes, I know. For the record, I'm not here to
establish an alliance. The most obvious explanation is also the correct
one. I'm here to stop Quandry."
Her eyes widened.
"You have an objection?" said Croft.
"You can't kill him, Clifford. He's one of their best
"Who said anything about killing him?" said Croft. "And in case
you haven't noticed, I've been handling Grafton killers quite well
"You spotted our lookouts," said Kalikov, making a face.
"Of course," said Croft. "Special Tasks doesn't make them like
they used to."
"They are amateurs, NGB, not even attached to Special Tasks,"
said Kalikov. She abruptly got up and started to get dressed.
"You have to go?"
Kalikov nodded. "I must report."
Croft admired her slim form as she dressed. "You know, you don't
have to report. You could defect."
Kalikov struggled into her pants. "You know that's not possible,
Agents in Special Tasks were drugged with a slow acting poison to
ensure their fidelity; unless they periodically received the antidote,
they would die.
"We could try to synthesize an antidote," said Croft.
"Others have tried," said Kalikov bluntly. She put on her shirt
and looked at Croft. They stared at each other for a long moment. Then
she reached forward and gingerly kissed him.
"Take care of yourself, Clifford," she said.
In a moment, she was gone.
Yuri watched curiously as the Major finished buttoning her blouse
as she sat down in the ground car. She glared at him.
"Do you have something to comment?"
"No, Major," he said.
"I have the information we need," said Kalikov. "If you wish, you
may kill him now."
Yuri allowed himself to look surprised.
"At least you may try. I neither official endorse or disapprove
of such action," said Kalikov. "Unofficially, I will offer some advice,
if you request it."
Yuri, gulping, nodded.
"Do not attempt to kill Croft at a close distance. I would mount
two snipers on the roof of the building opposite the apartment he is
staying at. When he comes out in the morning, they can kill him even
before he sees it coming."
"Thank you, Major!"
"Do not thank me," she said. "Success or failure will be on your
own head. Now arrange for someone to take me to the spaceport. I have
to report back."
"I will report on Croft's death to you in the next hyperwave."
"Very good," she said, without any emotion.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The next morning, two Slurian NGB snipers perched on the top of a
nearby building. They had their scopes trained on the door of Croft's
apartment. There was no other exit.
"This should be easy," said one of them, named Victor.
"If it would be easy, the Croft pest would be dead long ago,"
said the other, named Tyusha.
"He will not even see it coming," said Victor.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The Clapper heard a buzzing sound in his apartment. He grinned at
the comm unit. It continued buzzing. After a few more seconds of
grinning blankly at it, he pressed a button on it. Croft's image
appeared on the screen.
"Where have you been?" said Croft. "I've been calling you for a
"I've been here," the Clapper grinned.
"Never mind. Get over to my apartment."
"Leave your apartment, and come to mine," said Croft. "Would you
like me to draw a map?"
The Clapper clapped. "That would be great!"
"Just get over here," Croft sighed, terminating the connection.
The Clapper nodded and headed to the door of the apartment. He
didn't wonder why Croft had called him over the comm unit when
previously Croft usually came for him personally. He opened the door to
the outside. Brilliant sunlight streamed in.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"There!" said Victor, seeing someone come outside the residence.
"That's not Croft," said Tyusha. "That's the mental
"Why does Croft bring it with him?"
"I do not know," said Tyusha. "Nor do I care."
They both watched the Clapper, grinning like a maniac, as he
stumbled his way to Croft's apartment. When he got there he pressed the
buzzer at the door.
"This is our chance!" said Victor. "Aim carefully!"
They watched through their scopes as the door opened. Their
fingers tightened on the trigger as they scanned inside the open door.
But there was no one there.
After a pause, the Clapper stepped in. He stood there for a
moment before looking puzzled, and then he closed the door behind him.
"What is going on?" said Tyusha.
"Patience," said Victor. "They will have to come out sooner or
Actually, it was sooner. After only a moment's pause the door
opened again. Once again they took up firing position, waiting for the
first sign of Croft.
"Wait until he is out in the open," said Victor. "We must get a
But only the Clapper stepped out of the door.
"It is the deficient again!"
But the door remained open behind him.
"Croft will be coming any second!" said Victor.
They were so focused on the door that they didn't at first notice
what the Clapper was doing. He was looking up and around, squinting his
eyes in the morning sunlight.
"What is the deficient doing?" said Victor.
Tyusha didn't have a chance to answer, because all of a sudden
she felt an enormous tug and with a scream was pulled over the edge of
the roof. Victor barely had time to look over and see her fall before
he, too, felt an invisible force pull at him, jerking him over the edge
of the rooftop.
"Is that the last of them?" came a voice from inside the
The Clapper grinned. "I think so."
"How reassuring," said Croft dryly, exiting the apartment.
"How did you know?" said the Clapper.
"What?" said Croft.
"I could barely see the peoples on the roof, and then only when
you told me where to look," said the Clapper. "How did you know they
"A lucky guess," said Croft. "Come on."
They once again conferenced with the Chief over a secure
"So Tagan wasn't receptive to our arguments," said Croft.
"But why?" said the Chief.
"I think we can understand this better from the perspective of an
appropriate economics model," said Tane. "According to the Hanlin
model of monopolistic and ogopolistic actors, profit maximization is a
senior priority of economic actors. Conflict can be seen as a way to
surge the demand curve upwards, shifting both price and quantities-"
"He thinks he can clean up if there's a war," Croft translated.
"Ah, yes," said Tane. "I was getting to that."
"Didn't you try to tell him that a war could disrupt his
business?" said the Chief.
"We tried," said Tane, "But he wasn't receptive,"
"Probably because he's a typical Hamline monopolistic actor,"
"Hanlin," said Tane, glaring at Croft.
"What about your meeting with the Olympics official?" said the
"He was sympathetic, but not willing to get involved in the body
"For fear someone would shoot his political body," said Croft.
"Has everyone been cowed into silence by Mo Quandry?" the Chief
"Many of them have," said Croft. "But for most of them, they take
a very narrow view of their self-interest. If it's not directly
affecting their bottom line at that very moment, they're not
"Hm..." said the Chief. She turned to look at something outside
the range of the holographic imprinter.
"Quandry has called a meeting with local diplomatic
representatives next week to try to iron out differences," said the
"You mean, to present his demands," said Croft.
"Probably," said the Chief. She paused again, and then made a
decision. "I want you to keep trying. Meet with more local elites-"
"MORE local elites?" said Croft. "I think we've met them all!"
"As well as a local psychologist," said the Chief.
"Respectfully, Chief, I'm feeling fine-"
"Not for you, Mr. Croft," said the Chief. "We need a better
understanding of the Graftonite psyche so we can best learn how to deal
with Quandry. Consult a local expert and see what insights you can
Croft said, "Actually, Chief, before I start gleaming, I think
there's a better use that my time can be put to."
"Really, Mr. Croft? And what would that be?" Her voice was as
cold as a stone.
"Checking out a warehouse on the outskirts of Regular," said
Croft. "I have a feeling that there might be something interesting to
"What is the basis of that feeling?" the Chief asked.
"It's just a feeling," said Croft.
"All right," said Croft. "I put several listening devices in
Quandry's ranch. I was listening to excerpts last night and he
mentioned something about receiving an important shipment yesterday."
"You conducted a covert operation without consulting me?" said
"I also had dinner last night without consulting you, and
extracted useful information from a Slurian agent without consulting
you," said Croft. "Do you manage the affairs of the other seven Level
One operatives this closely?"
The Chief restrained her rage to digest this latest news. "The
Slurians? What are they doing here?"
"Watching me, mostly," said Croft. "They're also trying to find
out what Quandry is up to."
"And how exactly did you find this out?"
"I, ah, interrogated one of their agents," said Croft.
The Chief glared at him. "What did you learn about this
"Not much. They only referred to the fact that it was important,"
said Croft. "So rather than go in search of mental help, I'd like to
check this out."
"You'll do both," the Chief decided.
"That's a very bold compromise," said Croft generously.
"I may not be impressed by your attitude, Mr. Croft, but you do
get results," said the Chief. "But if you no longer get results, I will
no longer feel the need to endure your attitude. Am I clear?"
"As clear as transparent steel," said Croft.
After the Chief signed off, Tane said, "Why do you purposefully
and repeatedly antagonize her?"
"She's micromanaging me," said Croft. "And more importantly,
she's also wrong."
"This business of talking to elites is a waste of time," said
"It's a useful method of gathering information," said Tane.
"For a researcher, perhaps," said Croft. "But I'm an operative.
That's a derivative of the word "operations". If I wanted to be a
reference librarian, I'd work in the dictionary department at the Grand
Tane ignored the slight. "Are you going to this warehouse today?"
"Then you have time to meet some more elites."
"As long as no one accuses me of being an elitist," said Croft.
"Whatever happened to the idea of talking to the common man?"
"We have encountered several of those," said Tane. "Most of them
tried to kill you."
"The elite it is, then," said Croft.
"This is crazy," Croft said, as Carper drove them to a suburb of
"Bigree Industries is the largest weapons manufacturer on
Grafton," said Tane. "That certainly makes Bigree a powerbroker."
"I'm not denying that," said Croft. "But he's very likely to be
sympathetic to Quandry. Arms dealers like wars. Quandry is trying to
start a war. Why are we wasting our time here?"
"You never know," said Tane. "True, according to a rational
economic actor model, you might think that Bigree would be a supporter
of Quandry's efforts. But I took a chance and established holocontact
with the company. Very quickly I found myself speaking to Mr. Bigree
himself. And I have to say, I found him very sympathetic to our cause."
"How so?" said Croft.
"That's what we have to find out," said Tane. "But perhaps he
thinks he can get larger weapons contracts with the League than he can
with Quandry. Maybe he knows that doing business with Quandry is bad
"Did he say that?"
"No," said Tane. "But he was very friendly. I have a feeling we
can pick up an ally here."
"Hm," said Croft. "We'll see."
When they arrived, Croft, Tane, and the Clapper were quickly
escorted to Bigree's office. Carper waited for them in the groundcar.
Salmon Bigree was a friendly man with a strong handshake.
"Thank you for coming," said Bigree, giving a big smile to each
Croft and his companions started to sit down.
"Oh, I wouldn't bother sitting down," said Bigree.
Croft froze. "What do you mean?"
"You won't be here long enough," said Bigree. He pressed a button
on his desk and a gunman entered through a side door. "You've been on
the move so frequently that it's been difficult to track you down. I
appreciate you coming to us."
"You're on Quandry's side," said Croft.
"Or he's on my side, it's all a matter of perspective," said
Bigree. "Of course I support his efforts! Once the war gets going, just
think of all the arms contracts my company will get! We don't merely
manufacture hand lasers, you know; we also produce the heavy stuff-
shipboard weapons systems, missiles, the works. This conflict will be
very, very profitable to us, and you're not going to be allowed to
Croft looked at the gunman who was standing alertly in the room.
Suddenly, he noticed something odd; the gunman had no holster! He
didn't even seem to have a gun in his hand.
Bigree noticed Croft's stare. "I see you're confused. Can it be
that you've never seen a zipgun before?"
And then the gunman flexed his wrist Croft saw, on the other side
of the gunman's palm, a small box that was glued or attached to his
"What is that?" said Croft.
"A zipgun," said Bigree. He turned to the gunman. "Perhaps you'd
care to demonstrate."
The gunman nodded. He merely pointed with his hand, and a beam of
light stabbed out, streaking a mere inch above Croft's right shoulder,
leaving a small but smoking hole in the wall.
"I didn't say to shoot a hole in my wall," said Bigree, looking
noticeably annoyed. "That will come out of your pay. Take this
outside." He looked down, already absorbed in his own work again.
"If you're busy, perhaps we'll talk again another time," said
"I don't think we will meet again," said Bigree. "Goodbye, Mr.
The gunman gestured, and Croft, Tane, and the Clapper walked
single file out of the office.
"I told you we shouldn't have come," Croft hissed to Tane. "But
nooooo, you said he could be an ally."
"So what are we going to do?" Tane whispered.
"Get shot, probably," said Croft.
The gunman marched them outside the building, and then said,
"That's far enough."
Croft turned around to face the gunman. "Are you simply going to
"If you like, you're welcome to try and outdraw me," said the
gunman, looking amused.
"Not very sporting, considering you don't have to reach for a
gun," said Croft. And at that moment he pressed down hard with his
right boot. An anesthetic needle shot out and buried itself in the
gunman's lower leg.
The gunman's smile didn't waver a fraction of an inch. It was
only a few seconds later when he didn't fall down that they realized
something was wrong. Reaching down, the gunman casually pulled out the
needle and pulled up his right trouser leg. It was encased in a layer
of white plastic.
"That wasn't very sporting either," said the gunman, standing
tall again. "Your mistake was not killing your last opponent so he
couldn't live to tell what trick you used on him. Did you really think
that would work twice?"
"Maybe not," said Croft. He wet his lips, thinking quickly. "But
do you still intend to offer me a fair fight?"
"A fair fight?" said the gunman, still amused. "How can a fight
with a sheep be fair?"
"I think the only reason you're so confident is that you have one
of those cheat guns," said Croft.
"I'm sure I could outdraw you with a regular blaster," said the
"Why don't you go and get one?"
"You're not getting away that easy," said the gunman. "This is
boring me. Draw!"
"Wait!" said Croft. "What if I could arrange a fair test, here
"You say you're a better gunman than I am, correct?"
"There's no doubt about it," said the gunman.
"Well, there's no doubt you can outdraw me with that thing," said
Croft. "But how are you for accuracy?"
"Sure," said Croft. "I mean, it's easy to shoot a person, a
person is a big target, especially at this distance. But what about a
smaller target?" Holding up a restraining hand, Croft very slowly moved
inside his jacket and pulled something out.
An apple. Actually, an apple he had saved from the Olympics the
other day when he had first considered this idea.
"What are you proposing?"
"I'll toss this apple into the air. We both wait until it reaches
its maximum height. The first one of us who can shoot the apple after
it reaches its maximum height is the better marksman."
"I know I'm the better marksman," said the gunman. "What do I
have to gain from this?"
"If you're afraid, of course, I can't force you to do it," said
Croft. "But if you simply kill me, you'll always know that you let an
off-worlder, a sheep, make you back down from a challenge-"
"Throw the apple," said the gunman, his voice cold. "Go ahead!
Then I have to kill you and go about my business."
"Whatever you say," said Croft. "Just remember, it doesn't count
if you fire before it reaches its maximum height."
"Whatever," said the gunman. "Just do it."
With one hand Croft tossed the apple into the air with as much
force as he could. With his other hand he simultaneously drew his
The gunman waited until it reached its maximum height and then
casually aimed with his finger and shot the apple out of the air. He
looked down again to make a caustic remark to Croft when suddenly he
saw Croft's blaster discharge and he felt a very painful explosion in
Looking very shocked and surprised, the gunman, openmouthed,
dropped to the ground wordlessly.
"The quicker they make them, the dumber they make them," said
"Especially if you don't fight fair," said Carper, who walked up
"You were watching the whole thing?" said Croft.
"I have nothing else to do," said Carper.
"You wouldn't have helped out, would you?" said Croft.
"I don't interfere with fair fights," said Carper.
"Even one with these," said Croft, pointing to the zip guns.
Carper knelt down and examined it. "I've heard about these but
never seen one." He looked up at Croft. "I don't think they're very
fair in duels; but then, I don't think what you did was very fair
Croft turned to Tane. "We've finally found a job for him; he can
That night there was extra security on warehouse 44 in the
industrial district. Graftonite guards patrolled along an electrified
fence; electric monitors and sensors ringed the perimeter.
Clifford Croft restrained a laugh as he observed this from the
roof of the warehouse, inside the perimeter. These security measures
would have deterred most ordinary people, even many agents. But for
him? Hah! It was so pedestrian that it wasn't even worth describing his
Croft opened a hatch on the roof and slid down onto a catwalk. He
saw Graftonites roaming among large stacks of crates of all sizes. The
mark of Bigree Industries was prominently stamped on all of them.
Taking out a small scanner, he cast it in front of the nearest
boxes, and moved from one stack to another.
Weapons, weapons, and more weapons... There was enough here for a
small army. But these were merely handguns. Quandry had talked about
receiving a special shipment. What was so special to be found here?
Croft's attention was fixed on some very large crates, each two
stories tall, that were sitting under a spotlight. Two Graftonites were
roaming around it. He would have to time things precisely to get
between the two without being seen by either.
Croft crept between them and got close to the crates. He looked
down at his scanner briefly, while still looking about in all
directions. What he saw made him frown. He crept along the side of the
crate, careful to keep some distance of the Graftonite ahead of him.
The other Graftonite behind him would be turning the corner and would
see Croft in a few seconds....
A few seconds later, the Graftonite behind Croft turned the
corner. He looked ahead of him and continued walking. A few steps took
him to a large hole in the crate. The Graftonite passed by without even
Inside the crate, Croft waited until the footsteps receded and
then quickly risked a bit of light from a handflash. What he saw made
The crate was filled with large anti-ship missiles. Mo Quandry
must have something bigger in mind than gunfighting.
But Croft recognized that these were surface to air missiles,
primarily defensive in purpose. Did Quandry fear an attack? That didn't
make sense. Quandry was the one doing the attacking.
Shutting down the light, Croft considered his options. Sabotage?
He didn't have the right equipment.
But that shouldn't stop a truly capable infiltrator. Croft risked
a brief flash of light again. He saw an inspection hatch for one of the
He narrowed the scope of his handflash to a tight beam and opened
it up. He started manipulating wires... the activation mechanism was
there, the timing mechanism there.... Good....
Several minutes later Croft worked his way out of the crate, and
then the warehouse, and then over the fence. The guards inside the
fence didn't even notice him leaving.
He had only walked a few feet from the fence when he heard a
voice say, "You certainly took your time."
On any other planet Croft would have whirled around, his blaster
drawn or firing. But here Croft merely froze, and then turned around
A gunman stood outlined in the dim starlight.
"You didn't detect me entering," said Croft.
"No," said the gunman. "I followed you here. I was debating
whether to raise the alarm, but feared you might escape. I decided it
was safest to wait until you came out. I see my assessment was
"Are you here to kill me?" said Croft.
"Correct," said the gunman.
"May I ask why?"
"For a very important reason," said the gunman.
"Which is?" Croft asked.
"Because I'm paid to," the gunman said. "I'm aware how you
tricked previous operatives, so I don't think I'm going to give you any
more time to-"
"Wait!" said Croft. "I'm working for Quandry!"
"What?" said the gunman. "Impossible. Quandry sent me to kill
"When?" said Croft. "When did you get the order?"
"Two days ago," said the gunman."
"Things have changed," said Croft. "I've reached an accommodating
with Quandry." He tried to conceal his nervousness. That warehouse
would explode at any minute. And he was still too close.
"An accommodation," said the gunman skeptically. "Does this
accommodation include sneaking into Mr. Quandry's private warehouse?"
"I'm an infiltrator," said Croft. "I've reached an arrangement
with Mr. Quandry where I'm to test his security. That's what I was
"You can't seriously ask me to believe this," said the gunman.
But there was a bit of doubt in his voice.
"I have proof," said Croft. "If you'll allow me to reach into my
jacket, I have a copy of the contract, with Quandry's signature."
The gunman paused, and with each passing moment Croft expected to
be blown up by the warehouse just a few dozen feet away. But he said,
"All right, take it out. But slowly."
Croft gingerly reached into his jacket. He pulled out a folder
paper, carefully holding it by the lower right hand corner. Still
holding it by that very corner, he handed it to the gunman.
The gunman took the paper and unfolded it, peering at it in the
dim starlight. "There aren't even any words here!"
"I know," said Croft.
The gunman gurgled something, and then collapsed to the ground.
Croft quickly walked over to the gunman, who was lying rigid on
the ground but still conscious. "While the paralysis isn't lethal, I'm
afraid you won't be around to tell anyone else about this particular
He started running for the trees. A few second later, the
The whole area was engulfed in flame. The explosions continued
for several minutes, as other munitions ignited, creating a cascading
"What do you mean, it blew up!" Quandry roared. "What was the
"We're not sure, sir, but the body of the assassin we sent after
Toft was found on the grounds," said Rocco.
"Toft, Toft, and again Toft!" said Quandry. "Who is this man?"
Two men were escorted into Quandry's office.
"I can tell you who he is," said one of them. "His name isn't
Toft, it's Clifford Croft, and he's an agent with the Column."
"The Column? I thought we eliminated their stationpost on
Grafton," said Grafton.
"He's not a local operative," said the newcomer. "He's one of the
"A Column Eight operative," said Quandry. "That would explain a
lot." He looked hard at the newcomers. "And you are telling me this
"Sluria only wants peace and friendship with you," said Samov,
one of the newcomers.
"Peace and friendship," said Quandry.
"Yes, an alliance," said Samov.
"But we do not want an alliance with you," said Quandry.
"What do you want, then?" said Samov.
"Tribute," said Quandry. "A billion credits a year, for
"For starters," said Quandry. "The Slurians can afford it."
"We will never pay blackmail payments," said Samov.
"Then take a message back to your people-" Quandry broke off in
mid-sentence. "No, I have a better idea. Instead of taking a message
back to your people, I think you will be the message. Take them away."
"What? What?" said Samov.
Samov and his companion were pulled out of their seats by
"Leave their bodies in a public place, where they will be found
relatively quickly," said Quandry.
"Wait, you can't just kill us-"
"Actually, I can." Faster than they could see, Quandry raised his
right hand and pointed at each of the Slurians in rapid succession. A
thin beam of light struck their foreheads, and they collapsed to the
Rocco looked at the fallen Slurians in disgust. "Now we have to
carry them out."
"Be glad that's all you have to do," said Quandry. "I want this
Croft taken care of. I don't care how you do it. Send bronze medalists,
silver medalists, whatever you need. Even multiple operatives."
"Multiple operatives?" said Rocco.
"You heard me. Move!" Quandry barked.
Chapter 8: A Meeting With Mo
"Surface to air missiles?" said the Chief. "What on August would
they use those for?"
"You mean, what would they have used them for?" said Croft,
grinning, accentuating the fact that he had destroyed them.
The holo of the Chief nodded, grinning slightly. "Very well, Mr.
Croft, you have earned a bit of praise. But what was their purpose?"
"I don't know," said Croft.
"Have you gleaned anything else from your listening devices?"
"Not really," said Croft. Most of the conversations he had
monitored were mundane. Either Quandry held his important conversations
somewhere else, or he had figured out that his ranch was being
"Then continue with your primary mission. Talk to more elites."
"Chief, every time I talk to elites I get attacked by gunmen."
"You seem able to handle yourself well."
"There's a limit to the number of tricks even I can pull," said
"All right," said the Chief. "Spend one more day at it and then
we'll regroup and consider our options. Agreed?"
Croft mumbled something.
"Very good." Her holographic image faded.
"She seemed almost pleased with you today," said Tane.
"Yes, very nice," said Croft, distracted. "So, where are we going
today so someone can shoot me?"
"I've set up a meeting with one of the foremost psychiatrists on
Grafton," said Tane.
"Good, I feel I need to have my head examined," said Croft.
The Clapper clapped.
"And make sure you book some time for the Clapper as well," Croft
"-I'm not a psychiatrist, Mr. Croft," said Arn Arco.
Croft, having monitored the grisly conversation where Quandry had
learned of his identity, realized there was no longer any reason to
operate under his alias.
"Not a psychiatrist?" said Croft, casting a glance at Tane.
"Well, perhaps I am the closest thing to a psychiatrist on
Grafton," said Arco. "You have to understand, there are no mentally ill
people on Grafton."
"Let me guess; 'If you're mentally ill, don't come to Grafton',"
said Croft wryly.
"Yes, well, if by that you mean that there aren't a lot of social
services here for the mentally ill, you're correct. In fact, the
mentally ill don't survive very long here," said Arco.
"And why is that?" Croft asked, although he already guessed the
"The mentally ill tend to be ill-mannered in public; and on
Grafton, if you're ill-mannered, it's best if you be a good gunfighter;
unfortunately, the mentally ill rarely are," said Arco.
"So if I were a paranoid schizophrenic with a gold medal from
your shooting Olympics, I'd do just fine here?"
"I wouldn't phrase it that way, but... well, actually, the way
you phrase it works too," said Arco. "But getting back to what I am, I
am a culturist."
"Ah... sociologist, you might call it. I study the culture of
Grafton, our dynamics, what makes us what we are on a societal level."
"I see," said Croft. "I'm curious; how much demand is there
for... your kind of work here?"
"None," said Arco promptly, with a smile. "I mostly publish my
papers in off-planet journals. I have to supplement my meager income by
hiring myself out to kill people."
Croft raised an eyebrow. He felt his body temperature rise
slightly, and he shifted in his seat.
Arco smiled again. "Oh, I have a code of ethics, Mr. Croft. I
only kill those who have killed others. It's so unfortunately rare for
people in my profession to have such ethics, wouldn't you say?"
Croft thought it was time to tactfully change the subject. "Ah,
getting back to the purpose of our visit-"
"Ah, yes, you want to learn more about the culture of my people.
But that would take years, Mr. Croft. Can you be more specific?" Arco
"For years the Graftonites have been content to hire themselves
out as bounty hunters and bodyguards and the like," said Croft. "Now
all of a sudden they're all stirred up and talking about war. Can you
tell me why the sudden change?"
Arco nodded. "The answer is simple, Mr. Croft. It resolves around
"You are probably familiar with the death of Rel Cadwalader,
"It really enraged people," said Arco. "Not because he was killed
(because a number of people are killed every day on Grafton), but in
the way he was killed. A sneak attack by multiple opponents."
"But I have seen Graftons attack in groups before, or launch
surprise attacks," said Croft.
"Were they one on one encounters?" Arco asked. "Or was the
Grafton vastly outnumbered, or part of a group attacking another group?
The rules for war are different, you see. But one on one encounters are
supposed to be fair. The rule of law has been replaced by the rule of
ability. If one cheats the rules, one risks societal disapproval."
"Which can be quite lethal, I see," said Croft. "But you were
explaining how this ties in with the current situation."
"Well, the unfairness of his death enraged the population. It
cast sheep-begging your pardon, off-worlders in quite a bad light.
Previously, off-worlders hadn't been held in the highest of regards,
but they were never as intensely disliked as they are now."
"Because they don't kill by the rules?" Croft asked. "Because
they don't play right?"
"Play right? Yes, that's one way of putting it," said Arco.
"There is another strand to it, of course, the fight for civil rights."
"So Quandry is invading other planets to fight for all of your
civil rights?" said Croft.
"Precisely!" said Arco. "We on Grafton believe that one should be
rewarded based on one's ability. For centuries we've taken jobs as
bounty hunters, killers, item locators, and other high risk positions.
While our pay has been higher than what you would think of as
traditional professions, it has still only been a fraction of the
"How do you mean?"
"For example, an associate of mine recently was hired to
terminate a business rival on Selekaris," said Arco. "This rival ran a
multimillion credit business which was a competitor to the client who
hired my associate. My associate was paid 75,000 credits to eliminate
the rival. But the elimination of the rival led to the collapse of the
rival's company, leading to gains of millions of credits for the
client. Imagine that! A gain of millions of credits, and my associate
was only paid in five figures."
"I almost feel sorry for the killer," said Croft ironically.
Arco frowned. "I note your sarcasm, Mr. Croft. But consider that
the rival had bodyguards. It was a dangerous mission. With the reward
so high, my associate should have had a greater share of the rewards,
because it was his superior ability that made it possible to eliminate
"Then why not do something more peaceful, such as going on
strike," Croft suggested.
"In our culture, invading other planets is the equivalent of
going on strike," said Arco. "It's our way of getting noticed."
"It certainly works," said Croft.
"I'm surprised that a scholarly 'culturist' such as yourself
would endorse such violent means," said Croft.
"But I don't," said Arco.
Croft looked surprise.
"I merely said I understand the cultural imperative. I didn't say
I agree with it."
"No. No offense, but off-worlders can't help being inferior to
us, they should be pitied, I think, rather than punished."
"A most enlightened perspective." Croft commented.
"I support a more moderate solution," said Arco.
"Quandry is promoting a conference next week to work out a
solution involving the payment of transfer fees to cement galactic
"You mean the blackmail payments."
"I prefer to think of them as economic exchanges which will
promote greater harmony," said Arco.
"What if the League doesn't pay up?"
"Then the results could be most tragic, for the League," said
"Do you really want to see a wider war?"
"As I've stated, I do not."
"Then what can we do to stop it?"
"I'm not sure you can," said Arco. "Quandry has done an
extraordinary thing, uniting our people."
"Uniting? I thought he only has one or two percent of the
population who actively supported him."
"For one or two percent of Graftons to agree on anything is
considered unification," said Arco. "And a much greater proportion of
the pollution sympathizes with him."
"Is there any way he can be discredited? What if he publicly
showed fear or cowardice?" said Croft.
"Mo Quandry? That's highly unlikely, Mr. Croft," said Arco.
"Well, is there any way we can change cultural norms, then?"
"Certainly," said Arco. "Become a Graftonite, win some gold
medals, hold a large number of great gatherings, face down your
opponents in combat, and persuade people to believe in your cause."
"I'm not sure we have the time for that," said Croft.
"Then your government had better be prepared to pay," said Arco.
They went outside Arco's suburban office. It was a hot day on
August, and Croft felt an unusual amount of perspiration.
Tane looked at him oddly.
"Something wrong?" said Croft.
"You look... different," said Tane.
"Different how?" said Croft.
"I don't know, but ever since we left this morning to go to Arco,
you've looked somehow different," said Tane.
"Do I look like myself?" said Croft reasonably.
"Yes, basically," said Tane.
"Then that's sufficient," said Croft.
They walked to the groundcar. Standing there waiting for them was
"Don't tell me, we're in a no parking zone," said Croft.
The Gunman stood very still, watching Croft, waiting for him to
"Before you shoot, will you at least tell me who you're here to
kill?" said Croft reasonably.
"Croft," the gunman spat.
"Well, then you can't shoot me."
"Can't I?" the gunman leered. He looked at Carper. Carper looked
Croft noticed that. "What's wrong?"
"It's Alat Bates," said Carper.
"Is that supposed to mean something?" said Croft.
"He's a quick shooting silver medalist," said Carper. "You don't
stand a chance."
Croft turned to face the now grinning gunman, who was undoubtedly
pleased to have been recognized.
"I don't need any special chances," said Croft. "Because you've
got the wrong guy. For you see, I'm not Clifford Croft."
"Nice try," said the gunman. He looked amused, enough so that he
took out a small datapad which had a picture of Croft's face on it.
Bates held it up.
Croft nodded. "Yes, that's Croft, but as you can see, I'm not
The gunman was about to ask what he was talking about, when Croft
casually reached up and carefully pulled on his own face. Pieces of his
forehead, nose, and cheeks started to come off, revealing a face
underneath that was very different.
The gunman gasped.
"As you can see, you fell for the decoy," said Croft.
"Maybe I should just kill you anyway," said the gunman angrily.
"Why? Have you been paid to kill a decoy?"
"Then why reward your boss with something more than you were paid
for? If you were paid to kill me, I could understand that. But are you
really going to give your boss a free kill?" said Croft reasonably.
The gunman snorted and stalked off.
When a moment had passed and there was no sign of his returning,
Tane allowed herself to exhale and looked at Croft.
"I believe your real question is, 'who'?" said Croft. He pulled
at his face again, and another layer of plastiform came off, revealing
his real face. "It was getting hot in here. I'm glad we're done with
these interviews, because I'm all out of tricks."
Putting on (and taking off) two layers of disguises is not
something for an amateur; but no one had accused Croft of being an
amateur in hundreds of years.
When Croft got back to their apartment he checked his listening
devices. Quandry had already heard the news and was raging about it.
"Of course it was Croft, you idiot," came Quandry's voice.
"But boss-" came Bates' voice.
"Don't 'but boss' me," said Quandry. "I'm going to give you one
more chance. Don't fail me again."
"Yes boss," said Bates.
"Now get out of my sight."
His footsteps receded, while a new set took their place.
"Has the latest shipment arrived?" said Quandry.
"Yes," came a voice that Croft recognized as Rocco's.
"Did it all arrive?"
"Yes, the bombs are all there."
"Good," said Quandry. "Where are you storing them?"
"In Regular. We're temporarily storing them at 1572 Uantra
street," said Rocco.
"I don't want them in an office building, I want them here!" said
Quandry. "That Croft pest is still on the loose! I want them moved here
first thing tomorrow!"
The footsteps receded.
"What kind of bombs?" asked the Chief.
"He wasn't specific."
"First surface to air missiles and now bombs," said the Chief.
"While at the same time he is convening a peace conference."
"Maybe he's trying to keep his options open, in case the peace
"Or perhaps he intends to blow up the peace conference," said
"What would he have to gain from that?" said the Chief. "That
wouldn't help him make more money. And where would the surface to air
missiles fit in? No, we don't have the whole story."
"Perhaps he ordered the weapons to shore up his flank among the
hardliner faction in his organization," said Tane. "Perhaps that show
of force will give him the political room to open negotiations."
"Do you actually believe the things you say?" Croft marveled.
"It's a possibility," said Tane. "There are bound to be differing
elites with different ideas for strategy even within Quandry's own
group. If we negotiate with him in good faith and strengthen the
"Chief, the League can't seriously be considering making
blackmail payments to Quandry, can they?" said Croft.
"Blackmail payments? Never," the Chief assured him. "However, as
I've already said, we might be willing to contribute to an economic
development fund, to cement a bond between our two people and reduce
"I think it will be very dangerous to go forward with this
conference," said Croft.
"It's not my decision to make," said the Chief. "I share your
concerns, Mr. Croft. That's why you need to investigate further. Go to
this warehouse and find out what these bombs are. Then we will talk
more. The conference is in two days, and we don't have much time."
"Right," said Croft, signing off. He turned to Tane, "Well, at
least we didn't waste any time talking about our meeting with Arco."
"That wouldn't have been a waste of time," said Tane. "He
provided some useful insight into the culture of this planet."
"What useful insight?" said Croft. "Name one useful thing he said
that could be of any use to us."
"He told us that Graftonites have a certain angst about off-
worlders that may be appeased by an economic development fund," said
"Yes, they want money, a lot of it," said Croft. "I already knew
"Do you always rush to conclusions, Mr. Croft?"
"Pretty much," said Croft.
That night Croft drove to the office building where the bombs
were supposed to be hidden. He brought Carper along with him, but had
mixed feelings about doing so.
Last time he had gotten caught as he had left the warehouse
containing the missiles. He wanted to be able to get away quickly if
needed and having Carper at the controls of the groundcar waiting for
him would help shave precious seconds off their escape.
But he didn't know how Carper would feel about his breaking and
entering; Carper knew he was going to break into the building, though
Croft hadn't told him about the bombs. If Carper had any qualms about
it, he didn't say so.
Croft bypassed automated security measures and slipped into the
building. It was a modest three story building. It appeared deserted.
It should only take him a few minutes to run through each floor. But he
was not expecting what he saw inside.
The building was empty. Completely empty-no office equipment,
furniture, or anything, just a giant empty building.
This meant trouble. Croft immediately got out of there, and ran
for the ground car-
Only to find four Graftonites waiting for him.
All had their blasters raised.
Carper was leaning against the groundcar, with an odd expression
on his face. The four Graftonites had him in their line of sight, but
they were primarily facing Croft. Bates was among them.
Bates made eye contact with Croft. "If you reach for anything,
we'll shoot you. If you try anything, we'll shoot you."
"We?" said Carper, frowning. "All of you against him?"
Bates turned to Carper. "You're Carper. Do you know who I am?"
Carper nodded. He knew that Bates was a silver medalist.
"Then don't get involved," said Bates. He gave Carper a smug
Bates and his men tensed up, looking carefully at Carper for any
sign of reaction. At the slightest hint that he might reach for his
blaster, they would draw.
Carper hesitated for a moment, and held his breath. Then he
nodded, and some of the tension dissipated.
"What are you doing working for this off-worlder anyway?" said
"Money," said Carper simply.
"Do you really care what happens to this one?" said Bates,
Carper shook his head. "In fact, I dislike him rather intensely."
"Then why don't you join us?" said Bates. He studied Carper
appraisingly. "Why don't you come back and talk with us?"
Carper considered for a moment, then nodded.
Bates walked over to Croft, his gun pointed straight at him.
"You're very lucky, you know."
"Lucky?" said Croft. "How does getting caught make me lucky?"
"Mr. Quandry wants to see you," said Bates. "That means you get
to live for at least a few more hours."
"It's nice to be wanted," said Croft, as Bates plucked his
blaster out of his holster. One of his men came forward and patted
"Off with your boots," said Bates.
Croft opened his mouth to protest.
"If he tries anything, kill him," said Bates.
After Croft had removed his boots, Bates turned and gave him a
smug smile. "This way, please."
The ride back to Quandry's ranch was quiet and uneventful. Croft
tried to think happy thoughts, but wasn't having very much success.
Finally, they arrived at Quandry's ranch and Croft was taken to his
"So we finally meet," said Quandry.
Croft shrugged, as if it was inconsequential to him.
Quandry motioned with his head. "Sit down, Mr. Croft," said
Quandry, grinning at Croft hesitated, then sat down. Behind him he was
flanked by two Graftonite killers.
"You've led us through quite a chase," said Quandry.
"I hope it was entertaining," said Croft.
"Not really," said Quandry, his face going stone cold.
"So what brings me here?" said Croft. "Have you decided to give
Quandry laughed. "I don't think so, Mr. Croft. No, I brought you
here to get some information."
"You are one of the most senior agents of the Column. I want to
know what your people know about our plans and what you reported to
them before we discovered... these....," he said, holding up one of
Croft's listening devices.
"Your discussion about bombs was all a setup to capture me,"
"If you've only realized this now, you're not quite as clever as
your reputation suggests," said Quandry. "Yes, once we discovered the
devices, I thought of the plan to capture you."
"I didn't think you were that bright," said Croft.
Quandry's face was hard with rage, and he pointed a finger at
Croft. Croft could see a zap gun box mounted on the back of his hand.
"Take care, Mr. Croft. I have only to twist my finger slightly upwards
to burn a pretty hole in your forehead."
"I wouldn't be able to give you very much information with a
pretty hole in my forehead, would I?" Croft asked. "But I'm not very
good at talking about me; what about you? What do you hope to gain by
this peace conference of yours? Surely you can't believe the League
will give into your blackmail demands."
Quandry leaned back and grinned again. "On the contrary; there
has been active discussion of funding development projects on Grafton."
"But surely not on the scale you're looking for," said Croft. "Do
you really think they're going to negotiate and give you everything you
"Who said anything about a negotiation?" said Quandry, his grin
shrinking into a small smile.
"Well, if you're not there to negotiate... wait, I see, you're
going to take them hostage," said Croft. "But that won't work. The
League still won't pay billions to free a bunch of low level
"Who said anything about taking them hostage?" said Quandry, that
odd small smile still on his face.
Croft looked at Quandry, generally puzzled for a minute. Then,
with a tone of disbelief, he said, "You're simply going to kill them?"
"Not simply," said Quandry. "They will indeed be taken hostage
for a short period, while we wait for your League to accede to our
"Purposefully unreasonable demands," said Croft, suddenly
"At which time they'll be regrettably executed."
"You never intended for the League to accept your terms," Croft
"I admit I was worried when I received feelers from the League
saying they might pay several hundred million credits a year. That was
when I had to increase my demand to several billion," said Quandry.
"But why are you turning down easy money?" said Croft.
Quandry just looked at him and continued to smile.
"If you accept the money the crisis will ease and you won't have
a rallying point," said Croft. "This whole exercise is an attempt to
rally support for your cause. You're going to provoke the League into
attacking Grafton, so you can increase your base of support."
"Very good, Mr. Croft," said Quandry.
"But this makes no sense. Do you really want a full scale
invasion of Grafton?"
"There will be no invasion," said Quandry bluntly. "But I will
get what I need. How much of what you've said does your League know?"
"All of it," said Croft.
"I think not," said Quandry. "Your diplomats have agreed to
attend our meeting, which is set to start in the next two hours. I
hardly think they would agree to simply show up for their own
execution, do you?"
Croft said nothing.
"But your League must have some suspicions, which is why they
sent you. I want to know what they know, and how they will react to our
Croft said nothing.
"I could kill you in an instant," said Quandry, half flexing his
finger at Croft. Croft forced himself not to stare at the finger.
"But threats of death are probably wasted on you," said Quandry.
"Anticipating this, I have called in a specialist."
"One who specializes in pain," said Quandry. "I think you'll find
him most instructive. Unfortunately, you'll have little time to
appreciate it as his subjects rarely survive for very long." Quandry
checked his chronometer. "He will be here in a short time. In the
meantime, we'll find a nice place to put you." He nodded slightly and
the Graftons around him gestured for Croft to get up.
"Goodbye, Mr. Croft," said Quandry.
"That has a ring of finality to it," said Croft.
"So it does," said Quandry. "Take him away."
Croft sat glumly behind a force field in an underground level of
Quandry's ranch for several hours. He was rather depressed. He didn't
have any great love for diplomats but even they didn't deserve to be
slaughtered. At least Tane and the Clapper were free.
But what could they do? Tane was an analyst, and the Clapper had
the mind of a child. They were both good in what they did, but were not
And what of Carper? Croft had hardly been surprised when the
Graftonite had switched sides. Still, there had been something odd
about Carper's conversation with Bates... even though he didn't like
Croft, Carper hadn't seemed happy to see Croft captured.
Well, maybe his unhappiness would be assuaged when he got his
first paycheck from Quandry. That's all Graftonites cared about, their
Croft heard a door open in the room outside the forcefield, and a
guard said something to the newcomer. The newcomer said something back.
There was silence for a moment, and nobody moved or said anything.
Croft wondered what was going on when he heard blaster fire
outside of his view, and then a crumping sound as someone fell to the
ground. His eyebrows went up as Carper, holding a smoking blaster,
stepped into view.
"I knew they had visiting hours here but I didn't think you'd be
the first to sign up," said Croft.
Carper stared at Croft expressionlessly, as if he were
considering something. Then, making a decision, he reached out and
deactivated the forcefield.
Croft gingerly stepped out, seeing for the first time the smoking
body of the guard on the ground. He looked inquiringly at Carper.
"I still don't like you," said Carper.
Croft continued to look inquiringly.
"Maybe I liked what they did, but not how they did it," said
Carper. "Maybe there was something about them that annoyed me. Maybe I
didn't like the fact that there was four of them against one. Maybe
there was something in Bates' smile I didn't like. Maybe when he, an
accomplished silver medalist, challenged me, a guy with a busted arm,
to stand down, I found something unfair."
"And now?" said Croft.
Carper raised his blaster, pointing it at Croft. "The only way
you'll get out of here is if you're under armed escort."
"And what about you?" said Croft.
"I think I'm going to leave Grafton for a while," said Carper.
"Until things settle down. My arm is almost healed. I can find work to
keep me busy."
"I'm sure you can," said Croft. He paused. "Would it mean
anything if I thanked you?"
"That's what I thought."
Chapter 9: Attack On The Conference
League Ambassador Don Miller sampled some refreshments as he
eyed the crowd. The entire diplomatic corps was here, not just senior
diplomats but midlevel staff as well from all the major embassies. The
League was there in full force, of course, but also there were the
diplomats from the Directorate, the Slurians, the Kalaspians, the
Tensorites, and all the other major interplanetary governments.
Quandry had wanted it this way, extending broad invitations to
all the embassies, to bring their entire staff. After being cooped up
for weeks in their embassies because of the hostility of the local
population, most of the embassy staffs had accepted, even if they were
a bit wary. Quandry had capitalized on the weariness and especially the
gullibility of the diplomats, which, as it turned out, was not very
difficult to do.
Grafton was a difficult planet under the best of circumstances.
It had no government to speak of, so there were no unified authorities
to deal with. The planet didn't recognize the concept of diplomatic
immunity, which meant that embassies were not considered sovereign
territory and diplomats could be shot or even killed without due
process. Not that that had happened, even during this current period of
ugliness. The local Graftons took a patronizing view towards them,
referring to them as 'sheep', and as long as the diplomatic corpse took
pains not to offend anyone there were no problems.
As least until several weeks ago. Several embassy staffs were
threatened by hostile mobs, and they fled to their embassies, and soon
no off-worlder was leaving any embassy for any reason.
But Quandry had given them his personal assurances of safe-
conduct to and from the meeting hall and Miller was pleased that he had
delivered. There were Graftonite guards around the building who were
unfailingly polite, and the hall was well stocked with excellent food,
which Miller thought was a good sign. Quandry was taking pains to treat
them well. That meant only one thing: he was prepared to deal.
Miller approached the Slurian ambassador, a man named Stod
Rukanan. He was Miller's counterpart on Grafton, as much as any Slurian
could be. Of course, all members of the Slurian foreign service were
almost automatically also members of various branches of the Slurian
Secret Police, usually the NGB, but that didn't mean that they couldn't
be civil with each other.
Rukanan eyed him coming warily, rapidly gobbling down food from a
tray, like an animal fearing that it would be taken away at any moment.
Slurians were like that.
"Ambassador," said Miller, by way of greeting.
"Um," grunted Rukanan, as he eyed Miller warily. He continued to
eat, only stopping when the tray was empty. Miller wondered if there
was enough to eat in the Slurian embassy.
"This is an auspicious beginning, don't you think?" said Miller.
"What makes you say that?" said Rukanan, looking about for
something else to eat.
"The banquet hall is very well provided for. Perhaps Quandry is
prepared to be reasonable."
"You are very foolish if you trust Quandry," said Rukanan.
"It's my understanding that Slurians never trust anyone," said
"That's why we always win," said Rukanan.
"Do you?" said a new voice.
They turned to see Ambassador Steve Yardin of the Directorate.
"It seems to me that the Slurian Union has had some reverses of late."
"All lies and enemy propaganda," said Rukanan, waiving a hand
"The industrial accident that blew up your largest powerplant on
Sluria, reports of low harvests and food shortages on Ufranda Prime,
further reports of unrest-"
"As I said, all lies and propaganda," said Rukanan. And then, as
an afterthought "But even if they were not all lies, they would be
exaggerations, not under my jurisdiction, and caused by bad weather."
"Well, I suppose that covers all the bases, then," said Yardin.
"I wonder when our host will make an appearance?"
They didn't have to wait long. Part of the room darkened and a
hologram of Mo Quandry appeared.
"A hologram?" said Miller. "Why doesn't he appear in person?"
"Greetings, noble diplomats," said the hologram. "As most of you
know, I am Mo Quandry. I want to thank you for taking the time to come
to our conference."
"How are we supposed to have a conference when their main
negotiator won't appear in person?" Yardin wondered.
"Perhaps appearing in person might anger hardliners in his
faction," Miller theorized.
"We've had a lot of discussion and argument over the past few
weeks regarding our proposal to have your governments make economic
development grants to our planet. While most of your governments have
accepted the idea in principal, the amounts they've offered have been
insultingly small," said Quandry. "Take the League, the biggest and
richest federation of planets. They offer a meager 500 million credits
in aid a year, when we requested 20 billion. They might as well not
have bothered to respond."
"We've gone back and forth for some time but the numbers have not
moved markedly in our direction. That's why we've called this
conference, to resolve our outstanding issues," said Quandry. "After
analyzing the problem in depth with a blue ribbon panel of political
scientists, we realize the problem is that we aren't getting the
attention of sufficiently senior government officials on your
homeworlds. With your cooperation, we have figured out an efficient way
to deal with this problem."
He paused, and if by signal, Graftonite gunmen streamed into the
room. The crowd started to murmur with trepidation.
"You will be held at this facility for the next 50 hours. Your
governments will be told that if they do not agree to pay, you will be
The murmur grew into a roar.
Quandry raised the volume of his broadcast. "Naturally, I'm sure
it will not come to that. We are all civilized people, aren't we? You
will be kept comfortable and safe during this period, but you will not
be allowed to contact your governments." He paused. "One last thing: I
ask, for your own safety, that you do not attempt to leave or interfere
with my diplomatic representatives. I would not want to needlessly
create a diplomatic incident."
Graftonite gunmen fanned through the room, carrying weapons
detectors. Their detectors flashed when they scanned two Slurian
diplomatic representatives. The Slurians moved to draw their weapons-
and were shot dead before they could get their hands on their blasters.
"If you want to live, drop your weapons now," said Rocco,
speaking loudly. After a moment's hesitation, there was a clatter as
weapons were dropped to the ground. The gunmen fanned out and picked
them up. Once they were done scanning the crowd, they took up positions
along all the exits.
"This is not good," said Miller. "I'm not sure if my government
"I'm certain my government won't," said Yardin.
Yardin turned to Rukanan, who before Yardin had a chance to ask
the question, bitterly said, "What do you think?"
"Well, then perhaps we will be rescued," said Miller.
"We don't have more than a handful of military guards at our
embassy," said Yardin. "And none of them would have a chance against
"Our situation is the same," said Miller.
Rukanan said nothing.
"We're changing the scramble code every half second, but even
that is no guarantee," said Croft, eyeing the hologram.
"Elements of the Eighth Fleet are already on their way to
Grafton," said the image of the Chief. "But it's unclear if they're
going to make it in time or not."
"Is negotiation not an option?" said Tane.
"You're wasting your time," snapped Croft. "He wants to execute
the captives, but he needs an excuse to do so. He's not going to
"You've got a point," said the Chief. "What, then, are our
"I could attempt a rescue," said Croft.
"The nearest Column team is more than four days away," said the
"When I said I, I meant 'I' as in 'I' singular," said Croft.
"That compound is ringed with Graftonite guards. How do you
propose to rescue the ambassadors while holding off all of the
Graftonites on your own?"
"I don't know... yet," said Croft.
"I'm leery about a haphazard rescue attempt," said the Chief.
"What alternative do you have?" said Croft.
The Chief was silent for a moment. Then she said, "You do have a
reputation for achieving the very difficult."
"I have a good publicist," said Croft.
"All right," the Chief said finally. "We have no other choice.
What is your plan?"
"I'm afraid you can't micromanage me this time, because even I
don't know all the details of my plan yet and I can't tell you what I
don't know," said Croft. "I'm not even certain it will be possible to
rescue them all safely. I may only be able to rescue a handful of
people. I'll try to do what I can." Before the Chief could respond
further, he said, "Croft out." And cut the connection.
"I rather like that," said Croft.
"I know you did," said Tane. "What can I do to help?"
"You see that spot?" Croft asked, pointing to the ground.
"Where I'm standing?"
"Yes," said Tane.
"I need you to man that position," said Croft.
"Why? For how long?"
"Until further notice," said Croft.
"How can that help?" Tane asked.
"You're an analyst, not an operative," said Croft. "No, this work
is only for the operations guys." He reached out and put a brotherly
arm around the Clapper.
The Clapper squealed and pulled away. "Not to touch!" he said,
"Let's go and have a look at that building," said Croft. He
turned to go, but saw something out of the corner of his eye. He turned
back to the Clapper.
"Is there something you want to tell me?" Croft asked.
The Clapper looked nervous, avoiding eye contact. "...noooo...."
"Are you sure?"
The Clapper nodded.
"Then can I ask a question?" said Croft. "Just a little one?"
The Clapper, considered, then nodded.
"Why is there a fire coming out of the bathroom?"
Red Sally stepped out of the bathroom, a small flame coming out
of her fingers. "I got bored," She complained.
"You came back to Grafton against orders because you got bored,
or you lit a fire because you got bored?" Croft asked.
Sally thought about that one for a moment. "Both."
"I thought I told you to return to August," said Croft.
"I followed your orders," said Sally, making a face. "I did
return to August. But then I got bored again. I'm tried of training
exercises. All they do is try to do is to keep me from starting fires."
"They're such villains, I know," said Croft.
"Please don't send me back," said Sally.
Croft started to say something, stopped, and started again. "All
right. Maybe we can use you."
Sally smiled and actually jumped into the air for joy.
"On one condition!"
"What?" said Sally.
"You must not ignite any Graftonite without my permission."
Sally considered, looking crestfallen. "You drive a hard
"Don't pout," Croft advised.
Croft parked the ground car outside a familiar home. Although
time was of the essence, he needed to recruit some more help for what
was sure to be a tough job. He got out of the car and looked at the
Silencer's home. He had commed Annie and found out that the Silencer
had returned from his latest mission. If he could persuade the
Silencer, perhaps the best gunman of all the Graftonites, to help, it
would be much easier to rescue the hostages.
Annie met him at the door. "Clifford! Good to see you again." She
was wearing her trademark old-style cowboy hat and brown leather skins.
"I wish the circumstances were better," said Croft grimly.
"Yes, I heard the news," said Annie.
"Is John in?" said Croft, knowing he was.
"Let me take you to him," said Annie.
She led him into another room where the Silencer could be seen
packing up items into a backpack.
"Shouldn't you be unpacking?" said Croft.
"I did that last night," said the Silencer. "I just got another
job, I'm heading out again."
"There's a lot of demand for your services," said Croft.
"There usually is for the best," said the Silencer.
"I was hoping I could hire you," said Croft.
"I'll be happy to talk about it when I get back," said the
"I kind of need your help now," said Croft.
The Silencer stopped packing for a moment and looked Croft in the
face for the first time. "To rescue the diplomats."
"I'd pay double your fee."
"It's suicide. That building is ringed with gunmen," said the
"Meaning you couldn't do it?" said Croft.
"Well, I didn't say that," said the Silencer. "But you have to
understand, it wouldn't be me going up against ten or twenty people; I
would be going up against ten or twenty Graftonites. And some of them
probably know how to shoot. What you need is a commando team."
Croft knew that. He had already tried flashing Traker Fields by
comm, but had been quickly turned down.
"I'd love it if I could get one," said Croft. He noticed that the
Silencer had started packing again. "John, I really need your help. Do
you know what will happen if they're not stopped?"
The Silencer shrugged.
"It could mean war," said Croft.
The Silencer shrugged again. "It won't affect my work."
"John, maybe we should listen to him," said Annie.
"Annie, I love you, but you have to restrain your philanthropic
impulses," said the Silencer. "Charity work is nice, but doesn't pay
"John, we have more than enough credits, and you know it," said
"It's the principle," said the Silencer. "I'm not going to risk
my life unless there's something in it for me."
"There is something in it," said Croft. "I'll double your normal
No change in expression.
"I'll quadruple it," said Croft desperately.
The Silencer hesitated, then said, "Tempting though it might be,
I've already committed to another employer. To be honest, I think your
mission is too crazy for one person to take on. So what if a few paper
pushers get shot? There are always more to take their place."
"Yes, that may be true," said Croft. "But the League will take
particular offense to having its paper pusher shot. I happen to know
there's a League fleet on the way here."
The Silencer said nothing.
"What happens when the League fleet start bombing the planet?"
The Silencer shrugged. "As long as they don't bomb my house,
that's fine." He resumed packing.
"I'm sorry, Clifford," said Annie.
"So am I," said Croft, grimly. He started to turn away.
"You're a fool if you try to free them by yourself," said the
Silencer. "These aren't Slurians, or Happy Worlders. These are
Graftonites you're going up against. You'll get yourself killed."
"It looks like I have no choice," said Croft.
He walked to the front door and stepped out on the porch. Two men
stood outside waiting for him.
Croft matched stares with them for a moment.
"Are you here to kill me, or just delivering the mail?" said
Croft, tensing up.
"We're here to kill you," said one of the men.
"Wait a minute," said a new voice.
Annie Oakley stepped out onto the porch. Her pearl handled
pistols gleamed in the brilliant daytime sun.
"Two against one?" said Oakley.
"We have our orders," said the first gunman who had spoken.
"It's not enough that you have to challenge an off-worlder, but
you need two against one to do it," said Oakley. "Shame on you."
"He's eluded us before," said the gunman. "If I were you, I'd
stand out of the way."
They waited for her to move. Annie considered for a moment. Then
she said, "I don't think so."
All was almost completely silent as everyone tensed up. Croft and
Annie stared at the gunmen. The gunmen stared back. There was a slight
sound of the morning wind.
Croft readied himself. There was no way he could outdraw those
two. His only chance was if Annie could take both of them. He knew she
was good, but good enough to take on two Graftonites?
He wasn't going to be the one to draw first. He was so slow in
comparison to the other Graftonites, that drawing would be an
invitation to shoot him.
Something clicked in the lead gunman's expression. His muscles
tensed, he reached for his gun almost faster than Croft could see-
There was a brilliant exchange of blaster fire, one shot whizzing
right by Croft's face. Before Croft's gun was halfway out of its
holster, it was over. Both gunmen were still standing there. So was
And then slowly one gunman dropped to the ground, and then so did
Croft cautiously felt himself over. He wasn't hit. He turned to
Annie. She gave him a small smile.
"Thank you," said Croft sincerely.
"I'm not the only one you have to thank," said Annie.
"What do you mean?" Croft asked.
She turned back to the house. There was a small hole in one of
Annie looked up with a small smile on her lips. "I know what you
did. You can come out now."
The Silencer stepped out of the door. "There were two of them. I
didn't want you to get hurt," he said.
"You shot them?" said Croft.
"One of them," said the Silencer. "I couldn't let anything happen
"There were only two of them," said Annie simply.
The Silencer turned to her. "What did I tell you about killing
people at home? I thought we always agreed to consult with each other
"They were about to kill Clifford, your friend," said Annie.
"It's rude to let a guest get shot in our home."
"Hm," said the Silencer. He went back inside without a word.
Annie suddenly saw something that made her eyes widen. "Look at
this!" She said, pointing to a scorch mark on the porch. She wet her
fingers in her mouth and tried to rub off the mark. She looked worried.
"I'll have to get that repainted."
Croft turned to eye the two bodies on the front lawn. Vultures
It was starting to be one of those days.
"How do we reason with them? Let them know we're not a threat?"
"I think they already know that," said Ambassador Yardin grimly.
"You don't really think they're going to execute us, do you?"
"No, not for another four hours," said Yardin. He turned to
Ambassador Rukanan, who was eyeing the food on the table but eating
"Lost your appetite?" said Yardin.
"How can I be hungry at a time like this?" said Rukanan.
"Unless our governments come up with billions of credits, this
could be our last chance to eat," said Yardin. "Unless..."
"Unless what?" said Rukanan.
"You must have agents here," said Yardin.
"Agents?" said Rukanan, looking innocent.
"Every member of your foreign service is an agent," said Yardin.
"I resent that implication!" said Rukanan. "In any event, they
were all disarmed."
"But not all your agents are here," said Yardin. "Spies are your
number one export. You must have some operational teams in the field
Rukanan said nothing. Slurian Security had a number of
operational teams on Grafton. He had actually expected rescue several
hours ago. Each passing minute made him more nervous. If he were going
to get out of this alive, he would have to do so on his own.
The gunmen were concentrated largely near the exit, on one end of
the grand ballroom. Rukanan went over them, but was stopped by an armed
"Get back to your flock, sheep," said the guard, pointing the
muzzle of his blaster at Rukanan's nose.
"I want to speak to the man in charge," said Rukanan.
The man said, "I'm only going to say this one more time-"
"Wait," said Rocco, stepping forward. "What do you want?"
"My name is Stod Rukanan, I'm the Slurian-"
"I know who you are, sheep," Rocco snapped. "What do you want?"
"I have a proposal for you," said Rocco.
"The only proposal we're interested in is several billion credits
from your bosses," said Rocco. He checked his watch. "And it doesn't
look like they're going to deliver."
"We can get the money to you, but it will take more time," said
"Unfortunately, you don't have much more time," said Rocco. He
gestured for Rukanan to be taken away.
"Wait!" said Rukanan. "I have personal funds. Kill the others-the
Leaguers, even my own staff. But spare me and I can make it worth your
"You don't have anything I want," said Rocco contemptuously.
Rukanan was given a friendly shove to indicate that the
conversation was over.
"I wonder what that was all about," said Miller, eyeing the
"He was probably trying to sell us out to the Graftonites," said
"But we're all in this together!" said Miller.
"You know the Slurians," said Yardin philosophically.
Croft lay on the ground outside the building where the hostages
were being held.
He studied the building with his electronoculars set to infrared. There
were entrances in the front and back that were tightly guarded. But
there was also an open terrace on the third floor. Unfortunately, the
were no other nearby buildings they could gain access to it from.
Quandry had been careful to pick an isolated building to hold the
Croft panned the electronoculars in other directions. A glint
caught his eye...
"What do you see, Ostrav?" Yuri asked.
"Several guards, patrolling around the building," said Ostrav,
looking through his electronoculars. "We could take them out with long-
"Correction," said a new voice.
They both turned, guns raised, to see Clifford Croft standing
behind them. His blaster was pointed squarely at them.
"You might get one, or two, but the minute the light from the
first target shot out of your barrel the Graftonites would have your
position pinpointed and you'd be dead," said Croft.
"We must rescue our ambassador," said Yuri.
"And the rest of your staff too, of course."
Yuri waved his hand dismissively. "Yes, I suppose."
"Only the big bosses matter, eh? I'm surprised, given how
egalitarian Slurian society is reputed to be," said Croft.
"What are you doing here?" saidYuri.
"I'm here to tell you not to throw away your lives. Your plan
"And you have a plan?" Yuri asked.
"Maybe," said Croft.
"You really think you can rescue everyone?"
"I didn't mention rescuing everyone," said Croft. "My focus is on
"What about Slurians?"
"What about them?"
"If you're going to rescue your people, why not also rescue
"Let me get this straight," said Croft. "A few days ago you tried
to have me killed. And now you're asking me for a favor?"
"That was not us!" said Yuri.
"No," said Ostrav.
"Oh no, not you, that must have been some other Slurian agents,"
"It wasn't us," said Yuri. "But even if it were, we were acting
under orders and had no choice."
"Are you a lawyer?" Croft asked, recognizing arguments in the
alternative when he saw one.
"What will it take to get you to rescue our ambassador as well?"
Croft pretended to consider for a moment. "Well, since you ask so
nicely, there is one small thing you can do."
"We need a getaway vehicle."
"One that can fit about, oh, 200 captive diplomats."
"200?" said Yuri. "What did you have in mind?"
Croft told him.
"And where would we bring it?"
Croft told him.
Yuri looked at the building. "Impossible!"
"Quite possible," said Croft. "But, if you'd rather I just rescue
my own people...."
"We'll do it," said Yuri. Then, looking suspiciously at Croft, he
said, "Why are you trusting us?"
"I'm trusting you because if you don't show up, I'll kill your
ambassador myself. Before I launch this mission I intend to record
delay a personal message to your security services detailing your role
in this mission. If I don't return in time to cancel it, your people
will know that it was your incompetence, or treachery, that led to your
Yuri looked relieved. "You are prepared for betrayal. Your
actions make sense."
"I'm glad we can all feel good about it," said Croft. "I want you
to be there in exactly... two hours from now."
"Two hours! We have no time-"
"In two hours and 4 minutes the ambassadors will be killed. I
suggest you get moving," said Croft.
Yuri looked at Ostrav, who nodded, and they both headed off.
Croft made his way back to Red Sally and the Clapper.
"Talking to friends?" said the Clapper, grinning moronically.
"Ahhh... no," said Croft, rapidly thinking how he would classify
the Slurian NGB agents.
"Do I have to wear this?" said Red Sally, looking distastefully
at the formal dress she was wearing.
"It's quite nice," said Croft, offering no further comment.
He picked up the electronoculars again and studied the movements
of the guards. He felt confidence that there was a gap big enough for
him to get through them, but not enough time to climb up the side of
the building to the third floor terrace without being seen. He'd have
to get up there almost immediately, like with an external lift, or...
Croft turned to the Clapper. "Can you lift people?" he asked.
"What?" said the Clapper, repeating his most commonly used word.
"Can you lift me into the air?" said Croft.
"I... I think so," said the Clapper. He tried to clap his hands
together but Croft held them shut.
"Can you lift me three stories into the air, onto that terrace,
The Clapper looked at the terrace. It looked like a nice terrace.
"What?" said the Clapper.
"Lift me up there, and then Sally?"
"I don't know," said the Clapper.
"Well, we're all about to find out," said Croft.
Croft studied the situation for some time, waiting until the
guards were in the optimal position, and then ran to the building and
waved his arm, giving the signal.
The Clapper waved back. Like an idiot.
This was not according to plan. A Graftonite guard was going to
be coming around the corner any second now.
In the gloom Croft saw Red Sally punch the Clapper in the arm and
say something while pointing at Croft.
Suddenly he felt himself jerkily lifted into the air, first a few
inches, then a few feet, then he started to float higher, and higher...
A guard came around the corner. Croft was only seven feet above
him. If he even looked slightly up...
There was no shout, or blaster bolt, and the guard simply
continued walking. But Croft started to sink. Terror gripped him.
Then, just as suddenly, he started to climb again. Climbing...
climbing... his rate of ascent slowed. By the time he almost reached
the third floor terrace he was ascending at a crawl. Finally, he
He was still several feet short of the terrace. Reaching up, he
was barely able to grab the edge. Laboriously, he pulled himself up and
over the edge.
Croft reached out and activated his comm.
"That was close," he whispered, putting the receiver in his ear.
"It drained him. It's going to take a few minutes for him to send
me," came Red Sally's voice.
"We don't have much time."
"Want me to just go in and flame them?"
"No," said Croft.
They waited a few minutes. Time was passing.
"It doesn't look like they're going to pay, Mo," said Rocco,
speaking to a holo of Quandry in the privacy of a small room.
"I should hope not," said Quandry. "Sensors are detecting a fleet
"Looks like it," said Rocco.
"Will they get here in time to interfere?"
"Doesn't look like it. They won't get here for another two hours,
and it will take them another hour to send down troops," said Quandry.
He checked his chrono. "And there are only 47 minutes left before our
deadline. Are all the holorecorders in place and in good working
"Yes. I checked them myself."
"Good," said Quandry. "We'll only get one take at this. I want
holos of this massacre to be broadcast throughout League space. Make it
"We will," said Rocco grimly.
"One last thing," said Quandry. "Any sign of that Croft pest?"
"None," said Rocco.
"He may still try something. Be on your guard."
"He's only one sheep," said Rocco.
"He's one of the Column Eight," said Quandry. "Don't
Red Sally gave a small gasp as she plonked down on the third
"Come on, let's go," said Croft, before she could catch her
breath. "And don't ignite anything until I tell you to."
"You always say that," she grumbled.
They silently climbed down a small stairwell. As they got to the
bottom they started to hear noise from the captives. They also saw two
Graftonites, their backs to Croft and Red Sally, standing guard. Croft
silently gestured Sally back up the stairs.
"What now?" said Sally.
"Plan B," said Croft. He went back up to the second floor and
entered a small room, which was empty, and walked carefully, measuring
his footsteps. Then he took out a small cutting torch...
"There's less than 20 minutes left," said Ambassador Miller,
standing by a refreshment table next to a wall.
"It doesn't look good," said Ambassador Yardin grimly.
"Do you really think they'll execute us?" said Miller.
"They're Graftonites," said Yardin simply. "They do this kind of
thing all the time."
"Oh, I wish I had never been posted here!" said Miller. "It's all
my wife's fault. She-"
"Shhsh!" said Yardin. "Do you hear something?"
"What?" said Miller.
They stood still for a moment. "I thought it was a small hissing
sound. But it stopped," said Yardin.
"I don't hear anything," said Miller. "But I do smell
something... like a burning smell, maybe."
Suddenly they heard a rustle under the table. They started to
look down when a voice whispered, "Act normally!"
They immediately stood straight.
"I'm here to rescue you," came the soft voice.
"You are?" said Miller. "Are you with the League?"
"Yes," said the voice.
It was Croft, of course. "Now both of you stand so that guards on
either end of the room can't see between you."
Miller and Yardin did so.
Using their bodies to shield him, Croft came out from hiding
through the hole in the wall he had cut beneath the table. He had cut
his way down from the second floor to a small room next to the ballroom
and cut his way horizontally across from there. In a moment Red Sally
emerged with him. Both were dressed in formal diplomatic clothing.
"I still hate this dress," Red Sally hissed.
"Keep your voice down," said Croft, through gritted teeth as he
checked to make sure that none of the guards had seen him coming out
from underneath the table. None did, but one of the ambassadors, eyeing
him curiously, was slowly approaching.
"How many commandos are there?" said Miller.
"None," said Croft.
"None?" said Miller. "Not even you?"
"Well, then, how many soldiers?"
"None," said Croft.
"Is there anyone else besides you and this young lady?"
"Not really," said Croft.
Miller looked stunned. "I hope this is not a joke. We are
scheduled to be shot in less than 15 minutes!"
Ambassador Rukanan approached, with an odd expression on his
face. "I don't think I've seen either of you before."
"Stod, he's here to rescue us," said Miller, before Croft could
"You? How many soldiers do you have with you?" Rukanan asked.
Croft sighed. "None. But we don't have time for this. I need you
guys to create a distraction, just for a few seconds, by one of the
"There's absolutely no way I'm going to help you," said Rukanan.
"A rescue team of one? You'll surely get us all killed!"
"It doesn't seem like you have a lot of options," said Croft.
"Now, this distraction I need-"
An idea suddenly occurred to Rukanan. If he informed the
Graftonites of the plot, they might spare his life. After all, one man
had no chance of rescuing him. This, then, was his only chance of
His mind made up, he started running for the group of guards
guarding the exit. "Help!" he cried.
Miller stood paralyzed with fear, as he watched their only hope
of escape go to pieces.
But not everyone stood still; Yardin snarled something and ran
"Help, help!" Rukanan cried, as he approached the guards.
They all looked at Rukanan, their weapons raised, as Yardin
tackled him from behind.
"You dirty Slurian!" he cried, landing a fist into Rukanan's
The Graftonites laughed, enjoying the spectacle.
"Well, that's a diversion," said Croft philosophically. He turned
to Sally. "Get going. And whatever you do, don't let them see you
starting the fire. Remember, we want it to look natural."
Sally edged closer to the side of the room where the guards were
watching Yardin wrestle with Rukanan. Rukanan kept trying to say
something but Yardin kept punching him in the face.
While the guards were not so distracted that anyone could have
slipped out, their attention was definitely not on Red Sally.
Her hair started to smoke, and flames reached out and hugged the
It was a few seconds before someone started screaming, "Fire!
The Graftonites turned to see the area around the exit covered
with flames. The Graftonites looked around to see what they could use
to fight the flames but there were no fire extinguishers. The crowd
started screaming and fleeing to the other side of the room. The guards
at the exit looked startled and alarmed.
Rocco took in the situation. The fire was getting close to the
exit doors. If they stayed inside they would be trapped. But if they
all went outside...
That was it. This was a rescue attempt. Their goal was to get the
Rocco considered his options. Mo wanted a holorecording of the
diplomats being shot. But maybe being burned to death would suffice.
The holorecording equipment might survive long enough to record that.
"Out, out, everyone out," said Rocco, speaking to his fellow
gunmen. They cleared out; when the last one was outside, he said, "Is
that everyone? Seal the doors!"
They used their blasters at a lower setting to seal the doors.
Inside the ballroom the fire was spreading throughout the room.
Diplomats were screaming and running around in panic.
Croft fired a blaster into the air.
"Quiet!" he yelled.
The noise level temporarily subsided.
"If you want to live, follow me," he said.
Croft started running for the internal stairwell....
Rocco tried to tap into the internal holorecorders from his wrist
comm, but he was having trouble. He wanted to see the end live, as it
happened. But all he was getting was static. Finally he pressed the
right combination and an image of the ballroom appeared, burning in
A ballroom that was substantially empty.
Completely empty of people, in fact, as far as he could tell.
Had they escaped? How could they have escaped? Where?
And then Rocco heard a roar and looked up, as a small transport
slowly descended on the building, and everything became clear in an
The transport touched down on the rooftop; there was barely
enough room for it and the burgeoning crowd, most of which Croft had
forced to stay in the stairwell.
Once it touched down and the hatch popped open they ran for it.
Croft was among the first to reach the transport's cockpit.
"Do you realize this building is on fire?" said Yuri. "It could
collapse at any minute!"
Even from the rooftop view in the cockpit Croft could see flames
licking at the upper sides of the building. The interior support beams
must be getting very hot about now....
"We should leave!" said Ostrav. Blaster fire was intermittently
hitting the ship around them. It must be the Graftonites. Fortunately,
they couldn't get a very good angle of attack from the ground.
Croft eyed the side scanner. People were still streaming into the
"Not yet," said Croft.
The ship trembled as something shifted inside the building. They
waited a long second before it settled again.
"We are leaving!" said Ostrav, reaching for the controls.
The cold muzzle of a blaster touched the back of his neck.
"When I say so," said Croft calmly.
They waited another few seconds that seemed to pass very slowly.
The ship shifted again, just as Croft saw the last of the
stragglers board the ship.
"Now!" said Croft.
Ostrav grabbed for the controls. The ship lifted off to a hail of
blaster gunfire from the ground. It hovered for a minute, jolted
downwards as a stabilizer was hit. The ship pitched down slightly,
until the other stabilizers compensated, and then the ship took off.
"That was close," said Yuri.
"Where should I set course?" said Ostrav.
"There are League ships in orbit," said Croft. "We'll rendezvous
"The League?" said Yuri. "I don't think so. Set course for
Sluria. All non-Slurians will be interned and eventually returned to
their place of origin."
Croft was about to say something when he felt a blaster against
his gut. "Correction," said Yuri. "All non-Slurians except for state
enemies will be returned to their place of origin."
Yuri gave a grin and Ostrav chuckled. They both looked very happy
until Yuri's blaster suddenly grew so hot that he yelped, dropping it
on the ground.
Croft easily pointed his at the other two. "Thanks, Red," he
said, not looking behind him.
"That was good," said Red Sally. "Can we go back and do it
Chapter 10: The Fleet Steps In
The transport landed in the main landing bay of the Battleship
Majestic, and a large number of very shaken diplomats slowly emerged.
Medical and support personnel were waiting to take them away. On
Croft's say-so the Slurians were put under guard.
"I'm looking for Clifford Croft," said a officer.
The Clapper came forward and gave a moronic grin. The officer
looked at him. "Are you Croft?"
"What do you think?" said Croft, stepping forward.
"Admiral Lillard wants to see you," said the officer.
"I'm used to being in high demand," said Croft dryly.
The officer made a deprecating face, but led Croft to the bridge.
Before they got there, however, they felt something and the ship shook
"What was that?" Croft asked.
"I don't know," said the officer.
They hurried to the bridge.
A middle aged admiral sat in the battle chair. Admiral Lillian
Lillard was one of the few women Admiral in the League fleet. She was
often compared to a crusty, weather beaten boot. And that was one of
nice things people said about her.
The officer led Croft to the Admiral, and saluted.
Admiral Lillard looked Croft up and down. "This is Clifford
Croft looked Admiral Lillard up and down, and turned to the
junior officer. "This is Admiral Lillard?"
"Your levity is ill-timed," said Lillard.
"Admiral, they're launching a second wave," said one of the
"A second wave of what?" said Croft. But he only had to check the
holoviewer to see what was going on. The Graftonites were lobbing anti-
ship missiles from the planet at the fleet.
Anti-ship missiles. Either Croft hadn't destroyed them all, or
Quandry had procured another shipment.
Croft eyed the trail of the ten or so slow moving missiles.
Surely Quandry didn't think he could destroy the fleet with a
relatively small number of missiles.
"Anti-aircraft batteries on full," said the Admiral. "Target
their launching points."
"Admiral," said Croft.
'We're a little busy now, Mr. Croft,' said the Admiral.
A holoimage of the launching points appeared in the air. They
were all clustered at one point on the eastern seaboard.
"They're launching from a very narrowly confined area," said
Admiral Lillard. "Not very smart. Set main lasers."
A narrowly confined area? Croft eyed the image closely. That was
Regular! All the launchers were in Regular.
Why, with so much open space over a nearly completely empty
planet, were all the launchers clustered in Regular, the only real city
on the entire planet?
It didn't take Croft more than half a second to figure out the
"Admiral-" said Croft.
Suddenly they felt a small explosion, and then another, and then
"Damage?" said Lillard
"All ten offensive missiles destroyed," said an officer. "The
destroyer Janson reports minor damage from a close interception."
"Prepare to fire," said Lillard.
"Admiral, you have to withdraw," said Croft.
Lillard turned to Croft. "We are under attack, Mr. Croft. What
kind of message would we be sending the Graftonites by running? That
would only encourage their aggression."
"Normally I would agree," said Croft. "But Quandry wants you to
fire back! That's part of his plan!"
Lillard cocked an eyebrow. "Then the warmonger will get what he
"Lasers targeted," said the weapons officer.
"Fire!" said Lillard.
Brilliant stabs of light shot out from the Majestic. On Regular,
deadly beams thundered from above, incinerating launchers, but also
nearby streets and buildings. The explosions started fires which
spread. In moments, a third of Regular was on fire.
On the Majestic, a magnified holoimage of the city could be seen.
"Launchers destroyed," reported the weapons officer.
"Cease fire," said Lillard. "We'll keep our response
"Believe me, you've done more than enough," said Croft.
Lillard glared at him.
"See what the offworlders have done to us," said Quandry. He was
speaking at a great gathering, where a holoimage of Regular displayed
above him. The fires were largely out, but wisps of smoke could still
be seen rising here and there. Blackened and partially destroyed
buildings could also be seen.
"What did you expect?" said one Graftonite, standing up. "You
lobbed anti-ship missiles at them."
"Yes, that's true," said Quandry. There was a murmur in the
audience. "But I only did so after I was attacked. I was willing to
reach an honest parley with the offworlder diplomats; what I found
instead was a commando team sent in to assassinate me."
The murmuring rose to a roar as the image of the burned out
building where the diplomats had been held came on the screen. Then an
earlier image of a transport hovering above the building appeared.
"They landed a commando team from the roof and tried to
assassinate me; when that failed, they tried to set the building
afire," said Quandry. "Should I have sit still for this?"
"No!" some cried.
"Should we sit still for this?"
"No!" more cried.
"Then join me, and help us teach the Leaguers a lesson they won't
soon forget!" said Quandry.
The crowd was chanting his name now. Quandry allowed himself a
Croft was on a transport headed back to August with Red Sally,
the Clapper, and Tane when he heard the news. The Chief broadcasted on
a secure holo.
"The Graftonites have invaded Karis," said the Chief. She didn't
have to wait long for this to sink in. Unlike Grafton IV, the previous
planet to be invaded, Karis was a full-fledged member of the League.
This was nothing less than a direct attack on the League itself.
"I'm not surprised," said Croft cooly. "Not after what that idiot
"Quandry wanted to provoke an attack. That was why he was going
to slaughter those diplomats," said Croft. "Only since I rescued them,
he had to work a little harder at it. By getting us to attack Regular,
he helped unite the Graftonites behind him."
"But his attack was unprovoked," said the Chief.
"Have you checked the latest newsfeed from Grafton? That's not
how he's portraying it," said Croft.
"Will the entire population believe it?" said the Chief.
"The entire population doesn't need to believe it," said Croft.
"All Quandry needs is to convince a minority of the population to carry
his war to us. And that's what he's done now."
"Well, we certainly have to resist him now," said the Chief.
"Certainly," said Croft. "Or, at the very least, stop the next
"The next one?"
"It's not going to stop with Karis," said Croft.
"I'll talk with the President about deploying the fleet," said
"Good," said Croft. "If we have any chance of stopping them, it's
in space. Just make sure you get an admiral with a little bit of
Admiral Lillard watched as reinforcements arrived to help enforce
the blockage off of Grafton II. There was now a similar blockage off of
Grafton IV and Karis. Nothing was getting in or out.
If the intel could be believed, the Graftonites had invaded Karis
with little more than space fighters and a handful of transports.
Lillard's capital ships could handle the transports, but fighters
required a different tactic.
Lillard eyed the Command Carrier Glory, which had been detached
from regular duty and assigned to her. She established communications
with the ship. In seconds a holoimage appeared on the bridge.
"Admiral," said the grizzled looking officer staring at them.
"Captain Harkness," said Lillard.
"I've heard things are quite a mess," said Harkness. Harkness
wasn't the regular Captain of the Glory; he had been pressed into
service at the last minute when the assigned captain had fallen ill.
Harkness had protested that he didn't have the experience to command a
Battle Carrier, but evidently his superiors thought that his skill in
commanding battleships would carry him through. Either that, or they
didn't have any other carrier captains available on very short notice.
Lillard glared at him, interpreting his remark as criticism. "You
only have to be worried about the present, Captain. I want an airtight
cordon around Grafton II. I want two squadrons in continuous CAP around
the planet at all times, and the other four squadrons on active duty
ready to launch."
"Continual active duty?" said Harkness. "Admiral, how long is
this going to be for?"
"Until further notice."
"Admiral, I'm no genius, but having six squadrons on active duty
will wear down our resources very quickly. It's only meant to be done-"
"When ordered," said Lillard. "And it is an order, Captain."
Harkness grunted something.
"Did you say something, Captain?" said Lillard.
"Just that this isn't the kind of working vacation I planned,"
said Harkness. "Glory out."
Battle Lieutenant Idaho J. Took sat in the cockpit of his Wildcat
98-J looking very annoyed. As the commander of Wildcat "C" it was now
his squadron's turn to sit on "active ready" status. That meant the
pilots had to sit in their cockpits of their very still and unmoving
ships in the Glory's landing bay. In eight hours, maybe, his squadron
and Wildcat "D" would get a chance to replace Wildcat "A" and "B" on
patrol. Took flicked on his comm switch.
"Obe, you there?"
"No, I transferred to the seventh fleet two weeks ago," came back
Ensign Obe's voice.
"I think my sense of humor is rubbing off on you," said Took.
"Or rubbing against me, in the wrong way," Obe suggested.
"I can see you're testy too," said Took.
"It's all this waiting," said Obe.
"Are you sure it wouldn't be anything else?" said Took.
"Well, I don't know, let's see," said Took. "The Captain is gone.
Our new Captain knows nothing about fighter combat. We're about to face
the fastest gunslingers in the galaxy."
"Being fast with a blaster doesn't automatically mean they're
fast in a cockpit," said Obe.
"Don't you know anything about Grafton?" said Took. "Everyone has
a starfighter. That's how they get around. I hear they have fewer miles
of electric road on the planet then they do in all of Sarney
"Don't believe everything you hear, Iday," said Obe.
"I don't," said Took. "But the problem is, I tend to believe most
everything I say."
"A convoy is launching; forty fighters, eight long range
"It looks like another invasion force," said Lillard. She
reflected. "Just how do they take over an entire planet with such small
forces? Never mind. Launch fighters."
"Wildcat "C", rendezvous with Wildcat "A" at the following
coordinates," came the voice over Took's helmet. He eyed the
coordinates which were pouring onto his screen.
"Understood," said Took. "Launching." He pressed the launch
button, and was pushed back into his chair. He had just cleared the
Glory launch tubes when he heard the cries for help over his comm. It
was Wildcat "A". They were in trouble.
"Squadron C, full thrusters," said Took immediately. It would cut
down on their fuel available for combat maneuvers, but time was of the
essence. His Wildcat 98 J accelerated to the max. It was a pity they
didn't have the new Wildcat 110's like Wildcat "A" and "B" did, but now
wasn't the time to worry about that. He had to make do with the
resources at hand.
Took checked his sensors. He could see the rapid images of ships
darting around each other. There must be quite an active dogfight. He
should be close enough to see it visually...
Took saw nothing. Then, suddenly, he saw a piece of debris whip
by him. Then another, then another. His trained eye knew the obvious
immediately. It was all Wildcat hulls. Took tried to raise the squadron
leader from Wildcat "A". There was no response. Then he broadened his
message to anyone from Wildcat "A".
"What's happening?" said Admiral Lillard. She had Captain
Harkness on holo.
"Just a moment," Harkness growled. He was talking to another
officer whose voice couldn't be heard.
"Captain!" said Lillard. She demanded his attention.
"We've lost contact with Wildcat "A"," said Harkness bluntly.
"If you can't contact the squadron commander, try one of his
"You don't understand," said Harkness. "The entire squadron. It's
been destroyed. Just a minute." They saw him receive another battle
report. He conferred with another officer.
"There are four survivors from Wildcat B. They're trying to link
up with "E" and "F". Wildcats "C" and "D" are engaged in heavy combat
"Blow the enemy out of the sky!" said Lillard. "Have them target
"Carry out my orders!" she said.
"Target the transports, sure," said Took, as he received the
order. He was having a hard enough time just dodging the fighter that
was on his tail. The only thing that had saved him so far was that the
pursuing fighter periodically diverted momentarily to destroy "easier"
targets, but the fighter always returned to his tail. "Obe, need help
"I can't help you," said Obe. "Every time I try to turn and
acquire one, they simply flit out of the way. I've got one on my tail
"Time to go on the offensive," said Took. He did an inverse
corkscrew maneuver, twisting the ship violently. He watched with
satisfaction as his pursuer overshot him... only to return to his tail
"Well, that bought me a good five seconds," said Took. Suddenly
there was a blinding flash as one of his wingmen was blasted out of
existence. The other pilots started to call for help.
On the bridge of the Glory, Harkness watched without expression
as a holoimage of the battle played above him. Every few seconds one of
the lights indicating one of the ships would wink out.
"What's the situation, Captain?" came the holoimage of Admiral
Lillard. "How many transports have been destroyed?"
"None," said Harkness. "Our fighters are getting slaughtered."
"Slaughtered? With two to one superiority?" Lillard asked. How
could this be?
"Our pilots can't keep up with them," said Harkness. "More than
thirty ships have been lost already."
"Thirty? How many of those are Graftonite?" Lillard demanded to
"None," said Harkness. He signaled for his fighter officer.
"Withdraw the fighters."
"What?" said Lillard. "I gave no such order. I order you to
pursue and engage!"
"Withdraw them now," said Harkness, ignoring her, speaking
directly to his comm officer.
The comm officer looked hesitant.
"I take full responsibility," said Harkness. Another light winked
out on the screen. "Do it."
"Harkness, you'll be court martialed for this," said Lillard, her
face a mask of rage.
Harkness snapped, "It wouldn't be the first time."
"That coward," Lillard fumed. She opened another comm line.
"Fleet Battle, this is Admiral Lillard. All capital ships are to pursue
those transports. I want them disabled or destroyed, immediately."
The Grafton fighters broke off from the Wildcats almost
immediately after they stopped pursuing the transports and turned back
towards the Glory. Took gave a sigh of relief . If the Graftonites had
wanted to, they could have blasted many more of them out of space
before they had reached the Glory.
The battleship Majestic, supported by a quartet of heavy
cruisers, bore down on the transports. The fighters turned their
attention to these capital ships. Racing across their hulls, they
blasted away at sensors, gun emplacements, and engines.
Admiral Lillard felt the Majestic give another shudder. "Why
haven't the anti-aircraft lasers disposed of them?"
"Admiral, they're too fast for our AA lasers," said the weapons
"Then forget about them," said Lillard. "Target those
But the Majestic was losing gun emplacements almost as fast as it
could target them. The situation was the same with the other cruisers.
One of the weapons emplacements managed to get online, however, firing
at a transport. The shot scored a near miss, and they could see the
transport sputter with damage.
"Good," said Lillard. "Keep going."
The fighters as if on cue changed tactics after that, targeting
their engines. In a few minutes the capital ships were either
defenseless or without engines.
Lillard watched on the screen as the image of the fleeing ships
faded away, and her career along with it. How would she explain it? A
numerically inferior force had disabled an entire fleet, killing dozens
and injuring hundreds.
For a moment Lillard thought of the Glory. It was a command
carrier with capital weapons of its own. The Glory was undamaged; if
she replaced Harkness and took command... the results would be the
same. Lillard was enough of a realist to realize that. What, then,
would she say to fleet command?
It was called the Complex. It was the command and control center
for the combined armed forces of the League. Located in the heart of
Sarney Sarittenden, it was a large bunker complex that extended beneath
the city. In one especially secure room, deep underground, a group of
senior admirals sat, watching reports.
One of them, a man in a War Admiral's uniform, sat back in his
"I told you she wasn't ready," he said. His name was War Admiral
"What was your solution to the problem?" said another, Battle
"North," said Lafferty simply.
"That's always your answer," said Kenna. "But sending Admiral
North in breeds a certain resentment in the ranks. It makes the
military look impotent, as if only he can solve our problems. The
"Obviously extends to some of those in this room," said War
Admiral Lafferty calmly.
"Gentlemen," said a new voice. It was War Admiral Carnaby, the
Chief of Staff. He expected a certain code of conduct in this room.
"I've just briefed the Chief of Staff. He wants to know why the
engagement went so poorly. We outnumbered and outgunned them by every
method we can measure."
"Except that they're much faster than us," said Lafferty. "I
think we've now learned that their exceptional speed isn't limited only
"Gentlemen, I need options," said Carnaby. "What should I tell
the Chief of Staff?"
They were silent for a moment. No one seemed to have any ideas.
"Well?" said Carnaby.
"I don't know the answer," said Lafferty. "But I suggest I know
"There you go again," said Kenna.
"This is a serious crisis," said Lafferty. "Two planets have been
invaded in two weeks. How long do you think it will take for them to
launch another invasion?"
"How do they capture planets so quickly?" another admiral asked.
"From the intel I've seen, they only invade with a few hundred
"That's an issue for the army and the intelligence community to
find out," said Carnaby. He had to keep the group focused. "Right now
my issue is space defense. What am I to tell the Chief of Staff?"
"Tell them you're sending Norman North in," said Lafferty.
"Any other suggestions?" Carnaby looked around. He wasn't against
using Admiral North; but he liked to have other options to consider.
But the other admirals were silent. They had no other ideas. Much as
they were jealous of Norman North, they knew that he was their best
chance to fight the Graftonites.
Carnaby turned to an aide. "I'm going to meet with the Chief of
Staff now. I want you to set up a holomeeting with Battle Admiral
Norman North in sixty minutes."
The image of Battle Admiral Norman North appeared in the Complex
conference room, broadcast in scrambled code from his private office on
the battleship Westwind. Although he was "only" a three star Battle
Admiral (only a four star War Admiral or five star Victory Admiral
ranked higher), his previous string of successes on the battlefield
inspired awe among both military and civilian alike. He was the best
military mind the League ever had. He could analyze a situation almost
instantly, predict possible and probably results, and plot the best
countermeasures while others were still debating the first step to
take. But while his ability inspired a great deal of support, it also
created a great deal of jealousy too, causing him to sometimes be
sidelined when great events were taking place.
"Battle Admiral," said War Admiral Carnaby, by way of greeting.
"Admirals," said North cautiously.
"You are of course familiar with the Graftonite situation," said
"I've been reading the intel," said the Battle Admiral guardedly,
not wanting to admit too much familiarity with the situation.
"There are indications that the Graftons are gearing up to launch
another invasion, this time using Karis as a springboard." said
Carnaby. "We want you to take a fleet to stop it."
The Battle Admiral nodded. "My resources?"
"You can use whatever's in the area," said Carnaby.
"I want the Glory back," said the Battle Admiral promptly.
"That's doable," said Carnaby. He knew that the Battle Admiral
was sentimental about his old ship. "But the Glory has lost about forty
percent of its fighters, and thirty percent of its pilots. It will take
at least two weeks to get new fighters-"
"We don't have two weeks," said the Battle Admiral. "Just give me
the Glory, and as many battleships and heavy capital ships you can
"Most of the Graftonites are in small fighters," said Carnaby.
"They move so fast that your AA lasers won't be able to intercept
"Understood," said the Battle Admiral. "But get me those ships."
And then he added, almost as an afterthought, "I'll contact Captain
Harkness directly regarding the rendezvous."
"That will be impossible," said Carnaby. "Captain Harkness is
under arrest for insubordination and mutiny."
"That won't work. He won't be able to command the Glory very well
in a cell," said the Battle Admiral, being deliberately obtuse. "You
told me I could use whatever was in the area."
Carnaby considered. If it were any other officer, he could simply
order North to drop the matter. But this was Battle Admiral Norman
North. Still, Harkness had disobeyed orders.
"Norm, he disobeyed the direct order of a superior."
"A stupid order," said North. Only an officer with his stature
would risk being this blunt with the Chief of Staff. "Battle analysis
shows that not a single enemy fighter was taken out, while we lost 39
of our own. Our fighters had no business being there. By ordering the
retreat, he saved lives. If Harkness is to be at a court martial, it
should be as a witness, testifying at Admiral Lillard's court martial."
Carnaby hung his head. "All right. But I'll have to clear it with
the Chief of Staff."
"Do so," said the Battle Admiral. "And one last thing." He
transmitted a data stream, a list of munitions. A number of eyebrows
Carnaby nodded, "We'll get these to you quickly." Signing off,
North's image faded.
"How did he have that list of munitions ready made?" Kenna said.
"He must have known we were going to contact him."
"Be glad he's able to anticipate," said Lafferty. "That's one of
his greatest strengths."
"Good to see you again, sir," said Harkness, as Battle Admiral
Norman North entered the bridge of the Glory.
"Myster," the Battle Admiral smiled. He spent the next moment
greeting the other senior officers on the bridge.
"Battle Admiral." "Good to see you, sir." "Welcome back," they
"It's good to be back," said the Battle Admiral. He turned to
Harkness. "What's the situation?"
"The Majestic and the heavy cruisers are still out of action,"
said Harkness. "We've been joined by three battleships, and two
battlecruisers should be here within four hours."
"And my special cargo?" The Battle Admiral asked.
"The cargo landed just before you did," said Captain Harkness.
"The tech teams have already started work on them. But I still don't
"Later," said the Battle Admiral. "According to the latest intel,
their next invasion could launch as soon as tomorrow. I want to see the
chief engineer, the weapons officer, and the starfighter commander in
my quarters in fifteen minute intervals, starting in thirty minutes."
"Sir. Yes sir," said Harkness. He looked at the others. They
didn't know what the Battle Admiral had in mind either. But they
trusted him; that was all that mattered.
The starfighter commander entered the Battle Admiral's quarters.
He had been so busy that he hadn't had the time to look up his name. So
when the Battle Admiral looked up he was very surprised.
"Lieutenant Took?" said the Battle Admiral.
"Battle Admiral," Took saluted.
"You're the starfighter commander?" said the Battle Admiral. "I
thought you were in Command of Wildcat "C" or "D"." The senior
starfighter commander was always in Command of the alpha squadron, and
was almost always a captain or major.
"Now I am," said Took.
The Battle Admiral took it in immediately. "The starfighter
commanders of A and B...."
"A and B went in first," said Took. "Everyone was lost in A; four
pilots from B survived, but not the squadron commander."
"It must have been awful," said the Battle Admiral grimly.
"That's an understatement," said Took, equally grimly. "I can't
say that morale is very good."
"That's understandable," said the Battle Admiral.
"When are we getting reinforcements?" Took asked.
The Battle Admiral held his hands out wide, to indicate the ships
on a holodisplay . "This is it."
"A couple of capital ships?" said Took. "What about fighters?"
The Battle Admiral shook his head. "Intel says they won't reach
us in time. Not before the next invasion fleet heads out."
"We'll be cut to ribbons again," said Took.
"Not if I have any say about it," said the Battle Admiral.
"Sir, they're simply faster than we are. We can't match their
The Battle Admiral sighed, coming around his desk. He put an arm
around Took. "Do you think your pilots can hold out against the
Graftonites for two minutes?"
"Two minutes?" Took said.
"Or maybe three," said the Battle Admiral. "Not more than that."
"What are you talking about?" said Took.
"They won't have to fire a shot," the Battle Admiral assured him.
"We're going to win without firing a shot?" said Took.
The Battle Admiral explained his plan.
"That's quite a plan," said Took, after he had heard it. "Is the
"It's never been used quite like this before," said the Battle
Admiral. "I have a full tech team working on the retrofitting. But
you'd better go down to landing bay two to supervise the
"Yes sir," said Took. He turned to go. "You really think we can
"With luck," said the Battle Admiral.
"And you on our side," Took added.
The next day Captain Harkness gave the Battle Admiral a status
report. "The retrofitting on the Wildcats is almost complete."
"Good, good," said the Battle Admiral. "I noticed a resupply ship
arrived a few hours ago."
"Yes," said Harkness. "They're carrying D-34's, our largest ship
killing missiles. But Admiral, those are only for use against other
capital ships. Do you intend to use them against small fighters?"
The Battle Admiral gave an enigmatic smile.
"That's a bit of overkill, isn't it?" said Harkness. "It won't
"Why not?" said the Battle Admiral.
"The D-34 are huge, lumbering missiles. With their super
reflexes, the Graftonites will shoot down the D-34's before they get
"Under normal circumstances, I expect so," said the Battle
Harkness cocked an eyebrow, but said nothing.
The intelligence reports were right on the mark; a small fleet of
starfighters and transports could be seen leaving the orbit of Grafton
"Sir, sensors detect forty nine fighters and eight transports!"
said the sensor officer excitedly.
"I see them," said the Battle Admiral calmly. "Launch all Wildcat
"Wildcats launching," said the starfighter commander.
The War Admiral turned to Captain Harkness and pointed to a
holomap. "Captain, have the following ships redeploy here, here, here,
and here," he said, pointing to positions on the map with an
electropointer. Coordinates immediately sprang up at those positions.
"That will cast a pretty big circle around those fighters," said
Harkness. "But we don't have enough ships to prevent them from slipping
through the gaps."
"Understood," the Battle Admiral said. Though Harkness was
puzzled by his strategy, he knew better than to question it, and he
quickly gave the orders to the other capital ships.
Battle Lieutenant Idaho J. Took commanded the squadrons going
into battle. He couldn't help feeling a wave of fear as he noticed the
rapidly approaching sensor blips.
The Battle Admiral's voice came over the comm. "Remember, Iday, I
want you to deploy the special cargo within two minutes after you make
contact. I want as many enemy fighters in the zone as possible, while
minimizing the risk to you and your crew as much as possible."
"Understood," said Took. He issued orders to the other squadrons.
The Battle Admiral eyed the scene on the holomap. When the
fighters had closed to a certain distance from the Graftonite invasion
fleet, the Battle Admiral opened the interfleet comm. "Now," he said.
"Launch all D-34 missiles."
Giant shipkiller missiles spat out from launch tubes throughout
the fleet. As the fleet was encircling the Graftonite force, the giant
missiles came from every direction, slowly roaring towards the enemy
fighters. There was only one problem; the Wildcats were between the
Graftonites and the missiles.
The Graftonite commander, a silver medalist named Tron Uorlo, saw
what was coming, of course.
"They must think their fighters can tie us down sufficiently so
their missiles can close with us," said his wingman. "But I can't
believe that they would sacrifice their fighters to get to us."
"The sheep have become desperate," Uorlo sneered. "Those fighters
are no threat; we can safely ignore them." He set his comm to
interfleet. "Attention escort force: ignore enemy fighters. Target
shipkillers with antiship missiles. Once those are wiped out, we'll
take out the sheep fighters at our leisure. Just like last time."
The Wildcat 98-J's closed to visual range, and then they were on
top of the first wave of Graftonite fighters. Almost immediately Uorlo
noticed something was wrong; the Wildcats weren't trying to fire on
them. Not a single one had opened fire. Instead, the Wildcats were
maneuvering to get closer to the rest of the fighters.
"Wildcats... release!" said Took. He pressed a button, and a
small munitions package dropped off from the weapons rack of his ship.
Seconds later, similar munitions dropped off the other Wildcats.
Uorlo, busy targeting the shipkillers, didn't focus his attention
on the Wildcats until his proximity alarm blared.
Suddenly, his short range sensors were filled with blips. There
was a sudden explosion near him as his wingman was blown apart.
Uorlo sheered to the right to narrowly avoid a homing mine.
"Incoming!" he shouted over the comm, and then he was too busy dodging
munitions to say anything else."
Each Wildcat had deployed four homing mines, each programmed to
home in on any target without the proper FOF (friend or foe) code.
Several Grafton fighters were taken by surprise, and destroyed; the
rest caught on quickly, and suddenly had to divert attention to avoid
being hit. Slowly, one by one, they were blasting the mines out of the
But they were so focused on the mines that they didn't notice the
rapidly fleeing sensor images of the Wildcats. And they certainly
didn't have time to focus on the incoming shipkillers.
The fighters were still engaged with nearly a half of the homing
mines when the first of the shipkillers got into range. The first one
detonated a quarter mile out from the nearest Grafton fighter, but that
was enough to send several Grafton fighters spinning out of control.
Others scored more direct hits, vaporizing fighters.
Captain Harkness watched the battle unfold on the Glory. "Never
have so few blown up so much to destroy so few."
But the Battle Admiral had a smile on his face. The mission had
been a complete and total success. He also noticed that all the
Wildcats had gotten away. No casualties.
When the last missile had detonated and the last explosions had
faded, they did an intensive scan of the area. The region was filled
And nothing else.
They had destroyed 100% of the Grafton invasion fleet.
250 Graftons had been killed. Zero League soldiers had been
killed or wounded.
For the League fleet, a loss of 250 soldiers would be bad; for
the Graftonites, with their much smaller population, the psychological
impact was catastrophic.
"They're not going to take this well, Mo," said Rocco.
"I didn't ask your opinion!" Quandry screamed. He paced in his
office back and forth, clutching a blaster. His aides kept very very
Finally he calmed down a bit and said, "All right. What are our
"People are going to want to know how the sheep killed 250 of
us," said Rocco.
"Then we don't talk about it," said Quandry.
"The League surely will," Rocco pointed out.
"Maybe," said Quandry. "They don't know how many we lost. We can
say it's all lies, sheep propaganda."
"And what about the families of those who are lost?" Rocco asked.
"We'll buy their silence one by one," said Quandry.
"That could be expensive," said Rocco worriedly. "The families
would undoubtedly demand a large amount of credits for their silence.
If they would be content with any amount."
Quandry looked at him. "We have the resources. I'll talk with our
"Do you think they'll want to pay?" Rocco asked timidly.
"I'll make them see the wisdom in it," said Quandry grimly.
"Congratulations, Battle Admiral!" came the holo of War Admiral
Carnaby. The other admirals in the Complex also rushed to offer their
When the cheering had died down, North nodded fractionally.
"Thank you, sirs. Very kind of you. But now is not the time to
"What do you mean?" War Admiral Carnaby asked.
"We've dealt them a severe blow, but it's just one battle," said
North. "We also had the complete advantage of surprise. They were
overconfident, and bunched up their fleet together. If anyone has half
a brain on their side, they'll disperse their next attack fleet. That
won't make the use of D-34 missiles very practical."
"But you can still use the homing mines mounted on your
fighters," said Battle Admiral Kenna.
"Now that they know what to expect, they will shoot down those
mines," said Battle Admiral North. He pressed a button, and a holoimage
of the battle appeared to the side. "I have reviewed the telemetry. We
knocked out eight of their fighters immediately with the mines in the
first 30 seconds. But after they figured out what was happening, our
mines didn't knock out a single enemy fighter. They avoided the mines,
and shot them down. The only purpose they served was to distract the
Graftonites until the shipkillers arrived."
"So what do you recommend?"
"This," said the Battle Admiral, and another holo appeared on the
screen. "Smaller concussion missiles that can detonate around the area
of the Graftonite fighters and disorient them long enough for our
fighters to move in and take them out."
"Won't the enemy be able to shoot them down?" War Admiral Carnaby
"Not as easily as the shipkiller missiles," said the Battle
Admiral. "And not as easily if there are many concussion missiles. Now
that we've forced the Graftons to operate in smaller groups, they will
have a harder time protecting themselves. Conversely, however, we will
have a harder time tracking them down."
"But you feel this strategy will be successful?" War Admiral
"Presuming we have an adequate supply of these missiles, and
presuming an invasion fleet the size of the one we just encountered, I
estimate we could stop a quarter to a third of the next invasion
force," the Battle Admiral estimated.
"A third!" The murmuring in the Complex was audible to the Battle
"Perhaps a quarter," said the Battle Admiral. It was important to
be honest about their chances.
"Surely you can devise a strategy with a higher chance of
success," said War Admiral Carnaby. This was Battle Admiral North he
was talking to; surely he could come up with a better solution!
"No," said the Battle Admiral. "Not unless we had new
"New technology? What kind of technology?" War Admiral Carnaby
"I have theorized that a giant forcefield or focused energy
draining device might work," said the Battle Admiral.
War Admiral Carnaby looked at the other admirals, who looked
puzzled. "We have no such technology."
"Precisely," said the Battle Admiral. "Gentlemen, this war will
not be won in space. If it is to be won, it will need to be won on the
The other admirals looked uncomfortably at each other. Never
before had the Battle Admiral admitted that an enemy couldn't be
Carnaby saw the confusion and indecision on the others' faces and
turned to the Battle Admiral. "Battle Admiral, we'll get back to you."
The image faded.
"They don't believe you," said Captain Harkness, stepping out of
The Battle Admiral squinted, as if he were looking into the
future. "They'll spend a few hours trying to think of alternatives.
When they fail to think of any, they'll realize I'm right."
"Then how will we stop them?" Harkness asked.
"That's a problem for the army," said the Battle Admiral. Then,
looking thoughtful, he said, "Or the Column."
The Chief listened dispassionately as the Chief of Staff and War
Admiral Carnaby argued back and forth. Other senior League officials
and officers jumped in.
"If the military can't stop them, why don't we just blow up the
planet?" said an undersecretary for defense.
"Isn't that a little extreme?" said one of the admirals.
"They've invaded the League!"
"One planet," the admiral corrected. "Besides, this may come as a
surprise to you, but we don't even have the ability to blow up a
"You can bombard it from orbit, can you not?" asked the
undersecretary. "Pound it until you destroy everything down there." He
made it sound simple.
"It's not that easy," said War Admiral Carnaby.
"It is that easy," said the undersecretary. "They have almost no
ground to orbit defense, so what's the problem?"
"The problem is several thousand spacefighters," said Carnaby.
"We've only been fighting the small fraction of the population which is
against us. Imagine if the entire population were united. No fleet
could hold off thousands of spacefighters. In any event, what would we
bomb? There are only two small cities on the entire planet. The entire
population is spread out over the countryside. Each citizen's
starfighter can be parked or hidden almost anywhere-in a field, in a
cave, under a tarp. We could bomb the whole planet for years and not
get ten percent of them."
"We have to do something," the undersecretary persisted.
"I agree," said the Chief, speaking for the first time. "Speaking
for the Column, I think we need to find some other area of
"Your super agent was on the planet and he didn't find any
vulnerability," said the undersecretary of defense. He couldn't resist
sticking the bureaucratic knife in and twisting a bit.
"Clifford Croft gathered important information," said the Chief
sharply. "And in case it escaped your notice, he rescued the entire
diplomatic delegation to Grafton almost single handedly."
The undersecretary said nothing.
"What do you suggest?" the Chief of Staff asked.
"The Graftonites are able to take over entire planets with only a
few hundred of their fighters," said the Chief. "Many of these planets
have tens of thousands of soldiers to defend them that were somehow
nullified. If we can find out how the Graftonites do it, we may be able
to put a stop to it on the ground."
"That sounds like a good idea," said the Chief of Staff. He
started to say more, but was interrupted by an aide, who whispered
something in his ear.
He looked grave.
"What is it?" said Admiral Carnaby.
"An invasion fleet launched from Karis evaded the blockading
fleet, and is even now attacking Greenfields," said Carnaby.
"You are to divert immediately to Greenfields," said the Chief.
The quarter sized holo flickered in the small cabin of the transport.
"I got your preliminary message," said Croft. "You want me to
find out how they're conquering these planets so easily."
"That's your secondary objective," said the Chief. "Your primary
goal is to prevent the capture of the Greenfields fleet. Battle Admiral
North believes that the fleet will be seized and used in future
"Chief, I'm not a battalion of marines," said Croft. "Isn't this
a bit outside my line of work-even you can't expect me to capture an
entire fleet single-handedly."
"But sabotage is in your line of work," said the Chief coldly.
"Oh," said Croft. "How do I get there? If they control the
"Battle Admiral North's fleet has been relieved at Grafton II at
his own request; his fleet will arrive in orbit just a few hours before
you do. He will supply any assistance you need."
"Mr. Croft, I can't overstate the importance of this mission. It
is vital you uncover how the Graftonites are successfully invading
these planets. Our efforts to interdict them in space has had only
limited success at best."
"I'll do my best," said Croft.
The holoimage faded.
Croft turned to Tane. "Why is it I never get the easy ones?"
Chapter 11: Getting Answers on Greenfields
The small transport maneuvered into its final landing approach to
the Command Carrier Glory.
"That's a big ship," said Tane, eyeing the large turrets on top.
"I hope you'll enjoy their fine dining and dancing facilities,"
said Croft, as he maneuvered the transport into the landing bay.
Suddenly walls, floors, and ceiling rushed into the space around him.
"What does that mean?" said Tane.
"It means you're going to stay here while I check out the
situation on Greenfields," said Croft.
She objected immediately. "But I don't-"
"But you do," Croft corrected her.
Suddenly, he felt rather than saw the heat of a flame behind him.
"You can spontaneously combust all you like, but you're not going
either," said Croft. The craft started to slow to a halt. "And I
appreciate your not starting a fire while I'm landing the transport."
"You always leave us behind," came Red Sally's voice. "Why?"
"Maybe because this time I really need to travel undercover, and
undercover is not your specialty," said Croft.
"What about you?" said Sally. "You tried to pass for a Graftonite
and they spotted you a mile away."
The transport was at a stop now. Croft turned to Sally and said
simply, "That was because I was stuck with you and Tane. There was no
reason to even try. You've never seen me in action for real."
"Good to see you again, Clifford," said Battle Admiral Norman
North, shaking his hand vigorously.
"Same here, Battle Admiral," said Croft. "I just missed you on
Grafton; I hear you replaced Admiral Lillard right after I left."
"Yes," said North. He sighed. "It's a very difficult situation
we're in. The Graftonites are very tough fighters." He gestured behind
Croft. "I think you know Lieutenant Took."
Idaho Took nodded. Croft nodded fractionally. He wondered what
Took was doing here. Maybe he was here to help the Battle Admiral
brief him on the situation.
The Battle Admiral pressed a button and a holoimage of the
Greenfields spaceport appeared. "As you may know, Greenfields has
fallen to the Graftonites."
"Fallen?" said Croft, his mouth dropping open. Greenfields was a
medium sized industrial planet. It had only been invaded a little less
than four days ago.
The Battle Admiral nodded. "Our primary concern is to disable or
destroy the Greenfields fleet."
"If it's still on the ground, why not just blast it from orbit?"
"That's what we did on Karis," said the Battle Admiral. "But
they've learned from that mistake." He pressed a button and the image
zoomed in. They could see several ships; and surrounding them were
groups of people.
"Hostages," said Croft glumly.
The Battle Admiral nodded. "If we take out the ships, the
hostages will be killed by our own fire. We need to disable those ships
without blowing them up, in such a way that they will not be easy to
"Is there such a way?" Croft asked.
The Battle Admiral nodded. "You'll need to knock out each ship's
virtual integrator. That's in engineering. Lieutenant Took will be able
to show you where they are."
"I appreciate the thought, but I'm working alone," said Croft. "I
need to be able to convince people I'm a Graftonite, and I can't do
that if I have to babysit-no offense, Lieutenant."
"None taken," said Took, rolling his eyes.
"How will you know where to find the integrator?" said the Battle
"How does he know?" said Croft. "He's not an engineer; if you can
tell him where to find it, you can tell me."
"Hey, I'm in the same room with you, there's no need to talk to
me like I'm not here," said Took.
"You're right that you can be instructed as easily as Took," said
the Battle Admiral. "But how will you carry the explosives?"
"In a briefcase," said Croft.
"Even using miniaturized explosives, it will take more than one
case to carry enough explosives for 27 ships," said the Battle Admiral.
"You need him."
"Took," said Took. "The name is Took."
"I can carry two cases," said Croft, purposely trying to be
"That will make you even more conspicuous," said the Battle
"Or I can hide the second briefcase until I empty the first one,"
"And how do you suppose to plant the explosives?" said the Battle
Admiral. "If they have guards or technicians in engineering, how do you
propose to distract them while planting the explosives at the same
time? Remember, you need to avoid raising suspicions until you have
planted all the explosives."
"Oh," said Croft. He seemed to pause for a moment, thinking of
alternatives. Then he turned and looked over Took critically.
"Why do I suddenly feel like someone's retarded younger brother?"
Slowly, Croft turned back to the Battle Admiral and nodded, ever
"All you have to do is be silent, can you manage that?" Croft
said. He and Took were alone in a storage room.
"Silence? No problem. I majored in silence at the academy," said
"Then all we have to do is work on your look," said Croft.
"My look?" said Took. "I thought we were going to go down in
typical Grafton clothes."
"We are but that's not what I was referring to. Stand straight."
Took stood straight.
"No, perfectly straight."
Took stood straighter.
"Now, walk across the room."
Took started to walk, but Croft stopped him halfway.
"No, no," said Croft. "You're walking like a starfighter pilot.
You need to walk like a Graftonite."
Took frowned. "And that means...."
"Watch me." Croft walked across the room. "Notice the relaxed way
I'm walking, but with calm, wide strides."
"Are they going to spot me from the way I walk?"
"You bet," said Croft. "Now practice it."
Took spent the next half hour walking back and forth, receiving a
steady stream of comments and criticisms from Croft. Finally Croft
"Did I do it right?" Took asked.
Croft made a face but said, "It will have to do. Now, the last
thing we have to work on is your expression."
"My expression?" Took said.
"You have to do something about that goofy look," said Croft.
Took looked hurt.
"I don't mean to offend you, but arching your eyebrows and giving
a wide grin is the quickest route to getting us shot as spies," said
Croft. "I want you to practice looking serious."
Took scrunched up his face.
"No, not in pain, merely serious," said Croft.
Took tried again.
"Not so intensely," said Croft. "We're looking for a bored kind
"Bored serious?" Took said.
"Watch me, and try."
Took worked with Croft for much of the next hour. They were
interrupted, however, by a crewman who entered the storage room. He
looked at Took, who had a deadly serious expression on his face.
"Sorry sir, I was just... I'll come back later," said the
crewman, hastily leaving the way he had come.
Took turned to Croft, giving a wide grin.
"Now if you can just get the same reaction from the Graftonites,
you'll be ready," said Croft.
The two seater Graftonite starfighter zoomed through the
atmosphere towards the capitol, which was also named Greenfields. Took
was piloting while Croft sat in the back. The League had specially
procured a Graftonite starfighter. They had also obtained the trademark
blue denim clothes that Took and Croft now wore.
"So let me get this straight," said Took. "I'm told you tried to
impersonate a Graftonite on Grafton and failed. So what makes you think
it will work here?"
"I didn't really try on Grafton," said Croft. "I had a lot of
extra baggage with me that made an undercover role impractical."
"And what about me?"
"You're a smaller amount of baggage," said Croft.
"Very nice," said Took. Then, after a pause, "You know, if we're
caught, they will probably do not very nice things to us."
"Probably," said Croft.
"Isn't it tough being an infiltrator, knowing that can happen to
you at any time?"
Croft shrugged. "You try not to think about it; and if you're any
good, it doesn't happen. I've been on so many missions, I've just
stopped thinking about it."
"That's not very comforting."
"I don't work in the comfort department," said Croft.
They reduced altitude rapidly; it was only several minutes later
when they could make out ground features, that Croft directed Took to
land on a small road near the spaceport.
"Isn't this kind of conspicuous, landing on a road?" said Took.
"Graftonites land anywhere they want to," said Croft. "And today
They got out of the starfighter, making sure to carry their
briefcases filled with explosives. If they were searched, they would
quickly be discovered.
"For such a thin thing, this is pretty heavy," Took complained.
"Pretty combustible, too," said Croft.
"You mean... it can be detonated by blaster fire?" Took asked.
"I wouldn't worry about that," said Croft. "If the Graftonites
are shooting at you, they're unlikely to miss you and hit your
"How reassuring," said Took.
The streets seemed almost empty. They could see a few people on
the street, but they quickly turned away when they saw Croft and Took.
"Something's got them scared," said Took.
"Perhaps it's the invasion," said Croft dryly.
"I still don't believe that a handful of Graftonites could
conquer an entire planet," said Took.
"Believe what you like," said Croft.
They walked to the edge of the spaceport, and then Croft turned
abruptly away and headed in the opposite direction.
"What's going on?" Took asked.
"We need to get some information first," said Croft. He saw a
single Grafton standing on guard at a street corner. Perfect
"Where are we going to get this information from?"
"Don't ask any more stupid questions," said Croft. "Be absolutely
quiet now and remember the facial expression I taught you."
"Yes sir," said Took. But his heart raced wildly. Croft had never
before been successful in fooling the Graftonites. Would his act work
now? Croft was supposed to be one of the best infiltrators. But could
he pull this off?
The Graftonite saw them coming. He was armed not only with a
blaster but a laser rifle as well.
He stared coldly at Croft. When they got close he said, "That's
far enough. What are you doing here?"
"Special assignment," said Croft bluntly, speaking in a very
"What special assignment?" said the Graftonite skeptically.
Croft looked coldly at him for a moment, but gave no answer. Then
he turned to Took, saying only two words. "Come on."
His attention shifted momentarily to Took, who hoped that he
looked and walked like a Graftonite.
"Halt," said the Graftonite.
Croft stopped, and turned to face the Grafton again.
"You don't have clearance to be here. I'll have to check with the
Captain," he said, reaching for his comm unit.
"Halt," said Croft, in an identical tone to the Graftonite.
"We're on special assignment, direct from Mo Quandry himself. No one is
to be notified." he said, nodding to a building in front of them.
"I'm going to need more than that," said the guard, his face
etched with suspicion. He lowered his laser rifle, and quicker than
Croft could see, drew his blaster. "Where's your authorization?"
Croft glanced at Took, and nodded. Took took a datapad out of his
denim jacket, and slowly handed it over to the Graftonite.
"What's this?" said the Graftonite, looking down at the datapad
with one hand while holding the blaster in the other.
At that moment Croft arched his foot upwards and pushed down hard
with his heel. A needle shot out of the tip, catching the guard in the
foot. He yelled and fell to the ground, firing his blaster.
The shot flew only inches above Took's right shoulder.
"That was too close!" said Took.
Croft paid him no attention; instead, he went rifling through the
Graftonite's clothes until he found another datapad.
"All right," said Croft. "Get the body out of sight while I go
through this." Even as he spoke he rapidly sifted through the
information. It contained an organizational list of the invaders, a
list of commanders.... Good. That should be enough.
After a short walk, Croft and Took approached the main gate to
the Greenfields Spaceport.
"Let me do all the talking," said Croft calmly.
There were four guards at the main gate.
"Major Tan Zoo, Captain Philmert Roh, Zarias Company.."
One of the Graftonites looked suspiciously at Croft. "I'm in
Zarias Company, and I don't know you."
Croft looked bored but maintained the calm detachment. "I'm part
of a special team of internal security that's just been attached to
"What is your purpose here?" said the Graftonite.
"You don't have the clearance to know that," said Croft coldly.
He started to walk past the Graftonite.
"Halt!" cried the guard.
Croft slowly halted and turned around. "You're starting to
irritate me," he said in a deadly voice.
The sentry paused, considering. "I'll have to clear this with the
Captain first," he finally said. He was apprehensive of Croft, but at
the same time, he had his orders, too.
Croft slowly walked up to the guard, and now there was clear
irritation in his features. "You will do no such thing. My orders are
to check on security first, and then report to the Captain. If you
alert him first, I'm not going to see how your security is organized.
If I don't get a real picture of what's going on here I'll report it to
my boss, and I report directly to Mr. Quandry."
The sentry paused, looking indecisive. "But my orders-"
"Son, let me give you a word of advice," said Croft. "Are you a
"No," said the sentry.
The sentry shook his head.
"Then I don't think you want to mess with me," said Croft. He
turned to Took. "Come along."
Without waiting for a further answer, they started walking.
"What if they shoot us in the back?" said Took, as they walked.
"Shut up," Croft hissed.
"What if they alert their Captain?" Took wondered.
"Shut up," Croft said again. He didn't need this kind of doubt.
They made their way to the landing pads. They could see hostages
under guard surrounding each ship. The hostages looked miserable. Croft
didn't risk any eye contact with them. Croft made his way to the first
ship, did the required bullying/intimidation, and got them on board.
They headed directly to the engine room.
The first engine room was completely empty. Croft planted the
So was the second. Croft worked quickly.
But there were two Graftonite techs in the third, and they were
"I didn't hear anything about an inspection," said one of the
Croft just gave him a cold glare. He started to move among the
columns of machinery.
"What are you doing back there?" said the unhelpful technician,
straining to see what Croft was doing.
Took suddenly spoke up. "I need your assistance," he said,
pointing to one of the panels. "Why did you set the configuration this
"Rogga can explain it to you," said the first technician,
indicating the second technician, as he attempted to peer after Croft.
"Perhaps you weren't listening," said Took coldly. "I want you to
explain it. Don't make me ask again."
The technician turned around to face Took. He was a technician,
but he was also a Graftonite, and this was clearly a challenge. He
seemed to consider his next move, eyeing Took as if measuring him up.
Then he took a few steps towards Took.
Took tried hard to appear impassive.
The technician said, in a low voice. "What is your question?"
Croft safely planted the bomb while Took kept the technicians
When they got outside the ship, Croft muttered, "Good work."
"I think I'm going to collapse," said Took.
"Not until we get back to the Glory," said Croft as they walked.
"That man might have shot me."
"Very possibly," said Croft. "Now be quiet."
He hurried his step. They didn't have that much time.
The bombs couldn't be set off by remote control since there was
too much metal for a signal to reach inside the engine rooms of those
ships. Therefore they had to be set using timers. There were 29 ships
on the field; figuring 15 minutes per ship, Croft had set the first
bomb to go off in eight hours, and the second in 7 hours 45 minutes,
reducing the timer for each bomb.
But although they moved quickly, sometimes they fell behind
schedule. Once they were held up by an officious Graftonite as they
tried to board a cruiser; another time it took several minutes to
sufficiently distract an engineering officer so they could plant the
bomb; a third time they simply got lost searching for engineering.
So with only twenty minutes left they still had five ships left
"What do we do?" Took asked, well aware of the time limitation.
Croft looked at the five remaining ships. The largest was a heavy
cruiser. "We go for that one," he said, still walking calmly.
"And the others?" Took wondered.
"Nothing we can do," said Croft.
"The War Admiral won't like it," said Took.
"Then he can come down here and plant the rest of the explosives
himself," said Croft. Personally, he thought knocking out 25 out of 29
ships would be an amazing job, given the circumstances.
They entered the cruiser, went to engineering, and planted what
was to be their last bomb. Then they started walking quickly to the
"We have maybe seven or eight minutes before the first bomb goes
off," said Croft. "We have to get off this base before then."
"Will that be enough time?" said Took. By the tone of his voice
he didn't think so.
"Just barely enough, I think," said Croft, who thought so but
But when they reached the ship's exit ramp, they found two
Graftonites waiting for them. One of them wore a Captain's insignia.
"Who are you?" said the Captain bluntly.
"Identify yourself," Croft responded frigidly.
"I am Captain Ult Garrison, Commander, Zarias Company," said the
Croft responded with their cover names. Then, without further
word, he started walking away.
"Just a moment, Major Zoo," said the Captain. "I've recently
learned from my sentries that you've been attached to my company."
Croft stopped in his tracks.
"Rather odd that I wasn't notified, don't you think?" said
Croft turned to face Garrison. "You were to be notified once I
finished my inspection," he said, his face mottled with anger.
"And why is that, Major?" said Garrison. "And just what is it
that caused you to inspect every ship?"
"I don't have to answer questions from a lower ranking officer,"
said Croft coldly.
"And I've never heard of a higher ranking officer being put under
the command of a lower ranking one," said Garrison. "Why don't we walk
back to my administrative building and verify your credentials?"
Croft peered harshly at Garrison. "Certainly. Once I've completed
"NOW, Major," said Garrison.
A small smile appeared on Croft's lips. "Are you challenging me?"
Garrison paused, and gave a small nod.
"Very well," said Croft. "Please permit me a minute's delay while
I hand my notes over to my subordinate." He indicated his briefcase,
and motioned for Took to come over. Casually, and very slowly, Croft
handed the briefcase to him and whispered, "Get ready to shoot them."
"They're Graftonites," Took whispered. "We don't have a chance!"
Croft glanced at his watch. "In eight seconds....."
"What's going on there?" said Captain Garrison.
"Nothing," said Croft, turning to face Garrison. Took stood to
the side, both briefcases by his feet, leaving his hands free.
Garrison faced him, ready to draw.
"I'll count to five," said Croft. "Will that suffice?"
"Fine," said Garrison.
"One... two... three...."
Where was the explosion? Why wasn't it going off?
Garrison stood, watching expectantly. "Shouldn't four come next?"
"Quite right," said Croft. "But I seem to have lost my momentum."
If those explosions didn't go off, he wouldn't have any chance of
distracting the Graftonites, and they would shoot him dead.
Garrison waited expectantly.
"Two..." said Croft, waiting as long as he dared.
Garrison waited again.
Finally, as the pauses got longer, Garrison lost patience.
"Enough of this-"
Suddenly, the ground shook all around them; Garrison and his aide
stumbled, momentarily losing their balance.
But Took and Croft had been expecting this. They drew their
blasters and fired. Even though they were off balance, Garrison and his
aide drew their blasters, and they fired too.
Croft hit Garrison with the first shot, just as a shot whizzed by
him; and then his aide, already having fired once, turned to orient on
Croft. But the aide was slowed by his attempt to maintain his balance,
and his second shot went wild; Croft squeezed off a second shot,
hitting the aide, who fell to the ground.
What had happened to Took? Croft looked around to find Took on
the ground, bleeding.
"I'm hit," said Took, grabbing his side. Croft quickly went to
his side and saw where he was hit. It looked bad.
The sounds of explosions could be heard all throughout the
spaceport. Graftonites were running around looking confused. But that
wouldn't last long.
"Leave me," said Took. "There's no way you're going to get out of
here with me."
"Shut up," said Croft. "Can you walk?"
"No," said Took.
"I'll take that for a yes," said Croft. "Get on your feet!" He
pulled Took up. Slowly they hobbled away. Took gritted his teeth
against the pain.
"We're not going to the front gate," Took gasped.
"No we're not."
"I'm too weak to get over the fence," said Took.
"We're not going that way either," said Croft.
They hobbled painstakingly to one of the few remaining ships they
hadn't sabotaged, a medium sized transport. But as they got to the ramp
a Graftonite came running up to them. "Everyone is to report to their
duty post," said the Graftonite. He looked at Took. "You have wounded?"
"Yes," said Croft. "Get a medic."
"Will do," said the Graftonite. Suddenly he paused. "Why were you
trying to get into the ship?"
"Medical kit," said Croft, still dragging Took.
"All right," said the Graftonite, suddenly understanding. He took
off at a run.
"We'd better get out of here now," said Croft. He closed the
airlock, dropped Took on the deck, and ran for the cockpit.
Croft had the ship in space in several moments. There was no
ground fire; the only question was whether there would be any airborne
pursuit. He checked the sensors as the ship gained altitude... and then
heaved a sigh of relief. Only when he had set a course for the orbiting
Glory and made contact with the fleet did he go back to Took.
Took was bleeding away, and unconscious. Croft bandaged him up as
best he could.
"Hold on, hold on," he muttered.
He ran back to the control room and signaled the Glory. "We need
medics to meet us on arrival, we have a medical emergency."
Croft landed the small ship in one of the Glory's landing bays as
quickly as he could. A medical team rushed into the ship as soon as he
landed. He watched with concern as Took was taken out on a hoverbed;
they were pumping new blood into him even as he was being transported.
"Will he make it?" Croft asked one of the medics.
The medic shook his head. "He lost a lot of blood. It's too soon
Croft made his way to the bridge, where the Battle Admiral
"25 out of 29 ships," said the Battle Admiral. "You did a good
"Tell that to Lieutenant Took," said Croft.
"He knew the risks when he volunteered for the mission," said the
Croft looked surprised.
"That's right; he was a volunteer. Didn't you know?" the Battle
Croft shook his head.
"That Took, he's a real adventurous one. He'll be a real fine
starfighter commander when he makes captain, one of these days," said
the Battle Admiral.
"Assuming he survives the night," said Croft.
The Battle Admiral pressed a button. "Doctor Farb? This is
Admiral North. What's the situation on Iday?"
"He's lost a lot of blood," said Farb.
"Is he going to make it?" the Battle Admiral asked, keeping his
"I think so," said Farb. "We've given him a transfusion and are
sealing his wounds now. His condition is starting to stabilize, but
I'll know more in a few hours."
"Keep me posted," said the Battle Admiral. He closed the comm,
and turned back to Croft. "Get some rest, Clifford."
"A short rest," Croft said. "I have to go back down there again."
"So soon?" the Battle Admiral looked surprised.
"The Chief wants to know how they conquer planets so easily."
"But they'll be doubly alert after this attack," said the Battle
Admiral. "They may even have holos of your face."
"I'm used to fame," said Croft, lifting his chin.
But as it turned out, Croft didn't have to go back to Greenfields
the next day. The orders came from the Chief herself, in a secure line
in the War Admiral's office.
"I have been ordered to delay your mission," said the Chief. She
looked irritated, as if she didn't like getting orders from others.
"I thought you wanted me to find out how the armed forces of
Greenfields were conquered so quickly," said Croft.
"We do," said the Chief. "But an expeditionary force of five
thousand League marines arrived in orbit around Greenfields a few hours
ago, and the President wants to send them down to retake Greenfields. I
can't expect you to go down in the middle of a shooting war."
"I just got the notification an hour ago," the Battle Admiral
"Just a moment," said Croft. "According to the intel I received,
Greenfields had an armed forces of some 40,000 troops, not counting
another 40,000 reservists. And they were conquered by the Graftonites."
"Apparently so," said the Chief.
"So can you explain to me how 5,000 marines are going to succeed
where 80,000 troops failed?" Croft asked. He didn't understand the
logic behind it.
"It is believed that there are only a few hundred Graftonites on
Greenfields," said the Chief. "Since we have total air and space
superiority, as well as ten to one odds, it is believed that the
marines can retake the planet."
"All very nice... but you didn't answer my question," said Croft.
"Wouldn't it be nice to find out what happened to the other troops
before we send in more?" He turned to the Battle Admiral. Wasn't he
talking sense? Could the others understand him?
The Battle Admiral nodded. "That's just the argument I made to
the joint chiefs."
"They decided otherwise," said the Battle Admiral simply.
"The Graftonites have just launched an invasion of Mezzanine,"
said the Chief. "At this rate, they'll conquer the League in two
months. It was decided that we can't afford to wait."
"All right," said Croft, throwing up his hands. He turned to the
Battle Admiral. "I'll simply enjoy your fine dining and dancing
facilities until I'm needed again."
General Morgan Pottan listened to the reports of the first
landings on Greenfields. He had sent in an expeditionary battalion to
secure a landing area. What he got was a surprise, even to him.
"Report," he said, speaking to the major in charge via holocom.
"Area secure," said the Major.
"Casualties?" General Pottan asked.
"Resistance?" Pottan asked.
General Pottan thought this extremely unlikely. They had landed
near the capital, where the concentration of Graftons was said to be
greatest. So the Graftons hadn't resisted their landing at all? They
must be planning to ambush them on the ground. Well, he wasn't going to
play into their hands.
"Your orders, sir?" the Major asked.
"Hold and wait," said Pottan. "I'm bringing down the entire
division. When we're all down, we'll move together." After all, there
was safety in numbers.
Unfortunately, that's exactly what the Graftonites wanted. They
wanted all the troops on the ground. Or rather, to be more specific,
General Pottan; he was the key to their victory.
Once the division had grounded, Pottan ordered company sized
units to branch out. He monitored the situation from a command post in
the center of their landing area, a field a few miles south of the
"I hear you're recovering," said Croft, eyeing the bandages
wrapped around Took's side.
"Rumors of my recovery are vastly exaggerated," Took groaned.
"We got them."
"You mean, you got them," said Took. "I think he hit me and I
missed, even though I knew what was coming and he didn't."
"Don't be too hard on yourself," said Croft. "You faced off two
Graftonites and lived to tell about it."
"How did you know we would be able to take on those two Graftons
when the ordinance exploded?" said Took. "It only threw them off
balance for a second or two."
"I didn't know we could take them," said Croft.
"Really," said Croft. "But we didn't have a lot of choices at
"Oh," said Took, absorbing that information. Suddenly he felt
glad just to be alive. "What's going on now?" he asked.
"A League force has landed on Greenfields to try and retake the
planet," Croft said.
"What do you think will happen?" Took asked.
Croft shrugged. "They'll die, probably."
Battle Admiral Norman North monitored the battle from his ready
room, just off the main bridge of the Glory. His face looked tense as
he sat silently. Captain Harkness sat at his side.
Technically the Glory was supposed to be in position to lend air
support to the marines, but so far, they needed none of it. All they
could do was sit and wait.
A squad of marines circumnavigated a city block. It all seemed
empty. Too empty. Then, all of a sudden, two figures approached them.
The marines relaxed when they saw that the newcomers were also marines,
in the same uniforms they wore.
"Where did you come from?" the squad leader asked.
"Delta company," said one of the newcomers. "We have to deliver a
message to your captain."
"Why not use the comms?"
"They could be monitored; this message has to be delivered
personally," said the newcomer. "Can you detail one of your men to take
"Sure," said the squad leader.
Croft entered the Battle Admiral's office. "Any news yet?"
The Battle Admiral shook his head. "We're still waiting."
Croft sighed. "I've never been good at waiting."
"Me neither," said Captain Harkness.
"Why don't we spend the time trying to figure out how a few
hundred Graftonites conquered an army of 80,000 soldiers?" Croft said.
"Just a moment," said the company commander, a Captain, as the
three men entered his tent. He was busy studying a datapad so he didn't
look up until he heard a thunk and saw one of the three men drop to the
ground. "What is this?" said the Captain..
The two men drew blasters. "Don't move unless you want a big hole
in your ugly chest."
"What do you want?" the Captain asked.
"Take us to see your colonel," said one of the men.
"I mean, a few hundred Graftonites can't physically kill 80,000
men, can they?" Croft said.
"Not unless they have some kind of super weapon," said the Battle
"Super weapons have never been the Graftonite style," said Croft.
"Still, if they have invented a weapon that can immobilize large
numbers of soldiers-"
"Then why haven't we heard of this weapon before?" said Croft. He
shook his head. "No, I've got a gut feeling that this is something
decidedly low tech."
The two men guarding the Captain entered the Colonel's
headquarters. There were four men in the room, including the Colonel;
in seconds, only the Colonel was conscious.
"Who are you? What do you want?" the Colonel sputtered.
"We have a special message for General Pottan," said one of the
"I mean, even Graftonites can't beat 80,000 men in open combat,"
"Perhaps they did it stealthily," said the Battle Admiral. "Using
"That would take a long time," said Croft.
"Keep in mind that that 80,000 figure includes reserves," said
Harkness. "If you give the Graftonites the advantage of surprise,
perhaps the Greenfielders couldn't mobilize their reserves. That
reduces their base numbers to 40,000."
"Which still gives them something like 80 to one odds," said
The two Graftonites escorting the Captain and the Colonel had
been joined by three other Graftonites leading a pair of majors, so by
the time they entered the General's headquarters there were nine of
"What is this?" said Pottan, as his men were quickly disarmed.
"It's very simple," said the Grafton leader. He stood close to
Pottan. "This war is over."
"What do you mean?" Pottan said.
"You are going to order your men to surrender," said the
Pottan gave a bitter laugh. "You must be joking."
The Graftonite casually aimed and shot a hole in the captain's
General Pottan froze.
"And that was just the Captain," said the Graftonite. "We have a
few majors and a colonel in this room. How much do you value them?"
"I don't know either," said the Battle Admiral. "We have too
little information." He checked his chrono and frowned. "We should have
heard back from General Pottan by now." He activated the comm.
"General? This is the Battle Admiral."
There was silence for a moment.
The Battle Admiral spoke again. "General Pottan?" He pressed
another button. "This is the Battle Admiral. I'm having trouble
contacting the surface. Check the comm."
The Battle Admiral looked up.
"Not a troubling sign, one would hope," said Croft.
"One would hope," said the Battle Admiral grimly. They waited a
minute before the report came back.
"Sir, there's nothing wrong with the comm. They're just not
"A comm failure?" said Captain Harkness.
The Battle Admiral looked cynically at Harkness.
"Don't look at me," said Harkness. "It's just my job to present
dopey alternatives." He paused. "We could send a recon squad down to
The Battle Admiral pressed another button. "Sensors. I want a
real-time sensor image of the marine landing area."
The holoimage came in a few minutes later.
The encampment was empty.
"All gone," said the Battle Admiral.
"Maybe they used some kind of weapon that vaporized our troops,"
Croft eyed the holoimage closely. "No battle."
"What?" said Harkness.
"There's no sign of a battle. No bodies, no damage to any of the
equipment or tents or buildings. It's simply as if everyone walked
"It must be some kind of new weapon," said Harkness. "Maybe
something that disorients the troops."
The Battle Admiral studied the image. Then he said, "Nothing's
changed. We still don't know what's going on down there."
"We could send a team of our own," said Harkness.
"So far there's only been one person who's gone down there and
come back to tell about it," said the Battle Admiral.
"Is this the part where I volunteer?" Croft asked. "All right,
all right. But first we need to do a little contingency planning. I
have a feeling that this time getting in will be a lot easier than
The Battle Admiral raised his eyebrows.
"Take us with you!" said Red Sally. Tane looked pensive. The
Clapper was jumping up and down.
"This isn't going to be a picnic," said Croft. "While Grafton
nominally wasn't hostile territory, this planet is a war zone. We'll be
shot on sight."
"That's only if they get the chance," said Sally. She had been
cooped up on the Glory for several days, and was frustrated.
"All right," said Croft. "You can come."
"Can I (clap) come too (clap)?" the Clapper eagerly asked.
"Yes, of course, the more the merrier," said Croft. He looked at
Tane. "But you'd better stay here."
"For once, I agree with you," said Tane. She didn't want to go
into a war zone.
"Good," said Croft. He turned to the Clapper. "But before we go,
there's a small routine we need to work out. Are you any good at
They took a small transport down to the planet. As they landed,
the Clapper said, "Hee hee! Your face looks funny, Croft!"
"Thanks," said Croft, trying hard not to sweat under the
plastiform that remolded his face. "Your analytical comments and
opinions are always appreciated."
Red Sally had a thought. "After your first bit of espionage, and
the subsequent marine landing, how do you know the Graftonites won't
track our landing and arrange a hostile reception?"
Croft's only answer was to raise an eyebrow as he drew his
blaster and opened the hatch to the outside.
Outside, a half dozen Graftonites stood there, with blasters
"All right," said Croft. "Get moving!"
The Clapper and Red Sally, looking surprised, headed down the
The Graftonites looked confused.
"Surrender," their leader said
"No," said Croft. "I'm not surrendering my prisoners. I won't let
you take the bounty for them."
The leader did a double take. "Who are you?"
"Plo Lake," said Croft. "Zarias Company."
The leader checked a datapad. There was indeed a Plo Lake in
Zarias company. Croft knew it too; that was one of the names he had
taken from the stolen datapad.
Croft handed over a datapad. The leader checked it, nodded, and
handed it back.
"What happened to you?" said the leader. He thought it a bit odd
that this Graftonite was all alone, separated from his unit.
"I was taken prisoner," said Croft, saying as little as possible.
The Graftonites looked surprised. "The sheep took you prisoner?"
"They hit me from behind," said Croft coldly.
"All right," said the leader. "That's more understandable. What
"I escaped," said Croft simply. Again, the less said, the better.
He abruptly changed the subject. "These sheep are senior diplomats.
There should be a good bounty on them."
"These are diplomats?" said the leader, eyeing Sally and the even
more eccentric looking Clapper.
"Yes," said Croft. "And I want to take them in myself."
"All right," said the leader. "You can turn them in at our
division HQ. It's moved. I'll give you the new coordinates." He punched
in a set of coordinates in Croft's datapad, and handed it back.
"Thanks," said Croft cooly. That was nice of the Graftonite, to
let him know the location of their headquarters. "All right, you two,
"Just one more thing," said the leader.
"Yes," said Croft, getting a chill down his spine.
"When you were captured, did you see this man?" said the leader.
He held up a datapad, which displayed Croft's face.
Croft looked at the face closely. "No," he shrugged. "Why, is he
"He is a wanted spy," said the leader. "The award for his
capture, dead or alive, is now 50,000 credits."
"Dead or alive?" said Croft.
The leader nodded.
"Then I'll be on the lookout for him," said Croft.
Croft marched Sally and the Clapper off at gunpoint. When they
had gotten far enough away, Croft said to the Clapper, "You don't think
I look so ridiculous now, do you?"
"I didn't know you were trying to disguise," said the Clapper. "I
just thought you were trying to look better."
"Speaking of faces, the next time we're surrounded by
Graftonites, can you try not to look so happy at the thought of being
captured?" Croft said.
The Clapper put on an exaggerated weepy face. "Better?"
Croft sighed. "I suppose anything is."
"When are we going to stop skulking around and fight?" Red Sally
"Uh, I don't know if you were paying attention during the mission
summary, but we're here to gather information, not fight," said Croft.
"Or have you forgotten how fast these Graftonite reflexes are?"
"They can't shoot if they're on fire," said Red Sally smugly.
"What a team," Croft sighed again.
They went to the administrative HQ. Croft figured that either
some of the prisoners were being held there, or someone there would
know where the prisoners were being held. All he would have to do is be
officious and ask for directions.
And if Croft had encountered an ordinary Graftonite, he might
have succeeded. Unfortunately, Croft ran into Billy Kanner.
Billy was a 17 year old Graftonite who hadn't quite grown up yet.
He loved shootings, and competitions, and challenges, and it was just
pure luck that he hadn't been killed in a duel yet. He considered
fighting a game, a sport to be enjoyed, which is why, had he stayed on
Grafton, he probably would've been dead within a year.
As chance happened, Billy signed up with Quandry's mercenaries to
get action on other planets, channeling his aggressive energies away
from challenging other Graftonites and probably saving his life.
His superiors had quickly noticed Billy's frivolous attitude and
penchance for picking fights, and had placed him on administrative
duty, figuring he was more of a danger to their own troops than the
enemy. Billy hated administrative duty; it made him restless for
So when Croft went up to Billy and asked him where the prisoners
were kept, Billy was primed for action.
"Did you capture these yourself?" he said eagerly.
"Do you mind if I have fun with one of them?" said Billy. "The
Red Sally boiled with rage. Her hair started to turn a light
"No," said Croft quickly. "Which way to the detention
Billy looked at Croft. "They don't look so tough. What's the
matter, can't capture any of the tough ones?"
Croft looked coldly at Billy. He had no idea what kind of game
this kid was playing.
"Come on," he said, gesturing for Sally and the Clapper to walk
away with him.
"Don't turn your back on me!" Billy yelled.
Croft slowly turned around. Several other Graftonites, attracted
by the volume of Billy's voice, were gathering. A fight seemed to be in
the offing, and Graftonites loved to witness fights.
"You seem awfully soft for a Graftonite. Turn your prisoners over
to me!" said Billy.
"I don't have time for this," said Croft coldly. He looked to the
other Graftonites for support, but they weren't getting involved. That
was the Graftonite code; one-on-one, a fair fight.
"Didn't you hear me?" said Billy. He suddenly stood up. "I'm
Croft stood speechless for a moment. He didn't know what to do.
There was no way he could take Billy. His only chance was to bluff it
"Come on," said Croft, gesturing for the Clapper and Sally to go.
Suddenly, moving almost quicker than Croft could see, Billy
reached over and plucked the blaster from Croft's holster.
"You're no Graftonite!" said Billy. "He's an imposter!"
Other Graftonites, already coming to this conclusion, raised
their blasters and closed in. There was no way they could escape now.
Croft, sighing, raised his hands. So did Sally. So did the
Clapper (though even above his head, he clapped his).
"So you are the Clifford Croft spy," said his interrogator. "I
have heard a lot about you."
Croft picked the remaining bits of plastiform from his face. His
disguise hadn't been meant to stand up to close inspection. The
Graftonites evidently had been impressed by his reputation; his
interrogator was Colonel Chapman, one of the senior leaders of the
"I can't say I've heard anything about you," said Croft. "Maybe
you need a better publicist. Would you like the name of mine?"
"You have caused us a lot of trouble," said Colonel Chapman.
"There is a general liquidate on sight order concerning you."
"You're going to put me into a juice machine?" Croft asked.
"Joke all you like," said Chapman. "You won't joke when you're in
front of the firing squad."
"Why aren't I in front of one now?" said Croft.
"First I wanted to find out something about you," said Chapman.
"You are the first worthy adversary we've encountered."
"Worthy non-Grafton adversary, you mean," said Croft. While he
idly fenced with the Colonel, his mind was racing, thinking about
possibilities for escape.
"Yes, that's what I meant," said Chapman. He gave Croft a steady
look. "I was... curious. I can't help but wonder if you have some
partial Graftonite genetic heritage that explains your abilities."
"Sorry!" said Croft. "I hate to put a crimp in your eugenics
theory, but genetics have nothing to do with your abilities. Anyone who
goes to Grafton and spends enough time there gets the speeded up
reflexes. If they ever figure out how to export whatever's in the air
or water that does that to other planets, everyone will have the
"Yes, well, those who are actually born there seem to have a
higher level of ability," said Chapman. "I thought perhaps your
bloodline-well, never mind." He paused. "What of your grotesque
"What about them?" said Croft.
"The woman, and the retarded anorexic?" the Colonel asked.
"Oh, you mean the Clapper," said Croft. "He's just a little
"What purpose do they serve?" Chapman asked.
"Mostly, comic relief," said Croft.
"You know, I could turn you over to one of our real
interrogators," said Chapman.
"You could," said Croft. "But that wouldn't be nice to do to an
adversary you respect, would it?"
"No," said Chapman. He poured himself a drink. "Don't get me
wrong, Croft. We're not equals. But you do seem to have a superior
ability, for your race. It is just a pity for your side that there are
so few of you."
"You think you're going to win, do you?"
"It is inevitable," said Chapman.
"Are you quite sure? It might be merely evitable," said Croft.
Chapman looked confused.
"You are few, and we are many," said Croft. "What would happen if
we cluster bomb the entire surface of the planet Grafton?"
"Our population is very spread out," said Chapman. "It would
require a tremendous amount of ordinance."
"Give us the incentive and we'll do it," said Croft.
"By the time you act we will be spread out on all your planets,"
"Yes," said Croft. "Actually, I'm curious how a few hundred of
you can control a planet of millions."
"It's not so difficult," said Chapman. He paused. "It will not
reveal any special secret to let you know that we have recruited
mercenaries in support positions."
"Mercenaries?" said Croft. "You mean, more Graftonites?"
Chapman shook his head. "Non-Graftonites. We have already
recruited thousands on the planets we have acquired. They are
maintaining law and order."
"Why don't you just use Graftonites?" Croft asked.
Chapman grinned. "Graftonites are more expensive."
"Meaning you still have supply problems," said Croft. "Is that
how you conquer these planets? Using these non-Grafton mercenaries?
When you invade a planet, our sensors show that you send in just a few
hundred at a time."
Chapman smiled again, but said nothing.
"Unless... the non-Grafton mercenaries are already in place
before you land on the planet," said Croft. "Is that how you do it?"
Chapman continued to smile enigmatically and sip his drink.
"No," Croft decided. "Even a few thousand non-Graftons couldn't
take over an entire planet. And you said before that you were forming
these non-Grafton units on planets after you had already taken them
"Did I?" said Chapman. He gave a small smile.
"So how do you do it?" Croft asked. "How are you conquering these
"I'm afraid there are some secrets that must be kept even from
you, Mr. Croft," said Chapman.
"Why?" said Croft. "If I'm about to be executed, what does it
matter?" He was pressing the matter as best he could.
Chapman paused, as if considering, weighing the possibilities,
and then shook his head in the negative.
"Why not?" Croft persisted.
"If I tell you, there are only two possible outcomes," said
Chapman. "Either you'll die with the knowledge, in which case there is
no harm done. Or else you'll escape, and tell your sheep friends, in
which case there is harm done. I don't see what I have to gain from
either outcome; therefore, I decline to tell you."
"Do you really think I can escape from here? Surrounded by
Graftonites?" Croft tried to sound reasonable.
"Probably not," said Chapman, checking his chrono. "And you are
scheduled to be executed in less than an hour. But still, it's not good
to take even small chances. Guard!"
A Graftonite entered. "Take Mr. Croft to a cell." He turned to
Croft. "The safest thing to do would be to execute you right now, of
course. But I'm recalling some of my troops in the field to witness
your execution. It's for the morale, you understand. But don't worry,
you won't have to wait more than a few minutes."
"You're very comforting," said Croft.
Chapman turned to the guard. "I want him physically guarded, and
I want him behind a secure force field. If you fail, I'll call you out
The guard nodded.
Croft slowly let himself be marched to the detention area. Each
step marched him to an area that would be difficult, if not impossible,
to escape from.
Sure, Croft was an expert infiltrator. Given enough time, he
could escape from any prison. But could he escape from behind a force
field, guarded by a Graftonite with super reflexes, in the space of
only a few minutes? That was expecting a lot, even from him.
Could he try to overpower the guard marching behind him? It was
chancy under normal circumstances; the guard had a blaster pointed at
him. But this wasn't just any guard; this was a Graftonite, with super
reflexes. His chances of overpowering him were... small.
They had stripped him of most of his devices. That was one of the
reasons he was barefoot; they had discovered the needle gun in his
As Croft marched closer and closer to the detention area he
realized he was running out of options.
He felt a little cheer, however, when he saw several cells sealed
behind force fields. There were several civilians in one cell, and in
the second were Red Sally and the Clapper.
The Clapper gave a squeal as the field was lowered and Croft was
shoved into the cell. The field was immediately raised again. A guard
stood watch over them.
"So how do we escape, how do we escape?" the Clapper yelled.
Croft glanced at the guard. "A little louder please, in case he
didn't hear you."
"HOW DO WE ESCAPE?" the Clapper screamed.
Sally said, "Quiet!" and the Clapper shrank back. Sally turned to
Croft. "What do we do now?" She asked, in a low voice. "I warn you, I'm
"I'm sorry you're uncomfortable," said Croft. "But I've got
bigger problems. I'm scheduled to be executed in a few minutes."
Sally made a dismissive noise.
"What?" said Croft.
"You're not really going to let them do that, are you?"
Croft looked at Sally. For just a split second, her degree of
confidence in him astonished him. They were locked behind a forcefield,
surrounded by Graftonites, and Sally expected him to escape. Not just
escape, but escape easily.
Did she expect too much of him? Had she overestimated his
Croft gave Sally a withering look. She was still awaiting an
answer to her question.
"No, of course not," said Croft. The old bravado was back.
Even before they had been captured Croft had anticipated the
possibility of capture, and had roleplayed through the permutations in
his mind. He knew that he might be searched for his devices. Therefore,
he needed another method of escape. That's why he had rehearsed one
such scenario with the Clapper before they had left the Glory.
Croft turned to the Clapper. "I need you to act normally," he
said, in a low voice.
The Clapper acted confused.
"I mean, to act like you're not doing anything," said Croft.
"I'm not doing anything," said the Clapper.
"You will be, ok? I just want you to act like you're not," said
Looking confused, the Clapper nodded.
"Now you see that force field control? There, against the wall?"
The Clapper nodded.
"You see the second blue button?" Croft had been watching when
the force field was activated; and the controls resembled others he had
seen in the past.
"Yes," said the Clapper.
"Get ready to press it," said Croft. "But before you do, do you
remember the thing we rehearsed?"
The Clapper nodded.
"You think you can do it?" Croft said.
The Clapper shrugged. Whether that was a yes shrug, a no shrug, a
I-don't-know shrug, or a shrug for a completely different question he
had asked yesterday or last week, Croft couldn't be sure.
"Very inspiring," said Croft dryly. "All right, press the
Reaching out, the Clapper used his ability to press the button.
Immediately, the forcefield blocking their cell dropped.
The Graftonite on guard noticed this immediately and had his
blaster out. "What's going on?"
"One of my friends dropped the force field," said Croft,
gesturing into the room beyond the cell.
"What friends?" said the Graftonite, quickly looking around while
keeping his weapon pointed at Croft.
Croft took a step out of the cell.
"Don't move another step!" said the Graftonite.
"Give up," said Croft. "You're surrounded."
"By whom?" said the Graftonite.
"Invisible troopers," said Croft. "Elite League
"Invisible? I never heard of such a thing," said the Graftonite.
"Of course you haven't; they're top secret," said Croft. "They're
using a new form of cammo armor that renders them invisible."
"I don't believe you," said the Graftonite. "I'm going to call
for assistance." He reached over for the control panel.
"Halt!" said Croft, giving the Clapper a meaningful look.
The Graftonite froze in midstep. Something had just jabbed him in
"Don't move," said Croft, taking another step forward. "He has a
blaster on you."
The Graftonite slowly started to turn around to see who had a gun
on him, but the jab came stronger this time.
"If you move again, he'll shoot," said Croft. He moved forward to
the nervous Graftonite. Would the Graftonite be so nervous as to shoot?
Time to find out. Croft plucked the weapon from his hand. He
reset the blaster to stun.
"Tell him not to fire," said the Graftonite.
"Don't fire," said Croft, to no one in particular. Then he fired
on the Graftonite, who slumped to the ground.
"All right," said Croft. "There are still guards beyond this
room, and we have to figure a way out of here."
"Croft," said Red Sally.
"They're going to come for me in a few minutes, and we have to be
gone from here," said Croft.
"Croft," said Sally.
"I have to think of a plan-"
"Croft!" Sally yelled.
"What?" said Croft.
"One of the men, in the other cell," said Sally. "I think he's
"How important could he be?" said Croft irritably.
"He told me he was the President of Greenfields."
Croft focused on the four men in the other cell. The President?
He would certainly know how his planet had been conquered so quickly.
Croft dropped the forcefield.
"Thank you!" said one of the men. Croft wasn't sure which was the
President. There would be time to sort that out later.
Croft considered the possibilities. He could try to cut through
one of the walls. But the chances were good that there would be a
Graftonite on the other side. No, the only way out was the way they had
"All right," said Croft. "We're going out the way we came. Sally,
I want you to handle everything in front of us."
"Handle?" said Sally, her eyebrows raised.
"Burn," said Croft. "You do know how to burn things, don't you?"
Without waiting for the obvious answer he turned to the Clapper. "You
handle anything behind us we miss."
The Clapper opened his mouth-
"Push them off balance. I'll do the rest," said Croft. He turned
to the four men. "You! Politicians! No talking, no speeches, just stay
in the middle of our little convoy, and keep up if you want to live."
They started walking. As soon as they entered the next room, they
saw two very surprised looking Graftonites.
"What-" one of them started to say.
Red Sally sent forth a burst of flame that burned them where they
stood. There wasn't time to be gentle, and they had to get out of
there. Her blonde hair started to turn red.
They went through another room and ran down a corridor. Sally
launched bursts of flame to send Graftonites ducking for cover. That's
what worried Croft. Graftonites who ducked into side rooms could come
back out when they had passed and shoot them from behind. So Croft kept
concentrating on the rear. When two Graftonites emerged from rooms
behind them, he shouted, "Now!"
The Clapper looked tense and both Graftonites went spinning to
the ground as if pushed by an invisible force. Croft shot them and
moved on, always keeping an eye in front of him to make sure that
Sally was going in the right direction. She was perspiring heavily now,
her hair color a solid red.
Although the Graftonites had faster reflexes, Croft and his
people had the advantage of surprise. The Graftonites had never seen a
woman shooting bursts of flame, and the sight of it sent them running
for cover. They moved quickly in the narrow enclosed space of corridors
where Sally could focus her flame it could work.
But Sally was getting tired. Her hair, now a bright red, was
As they made it to the entrance, they saw a squad of Graftonites
running towards them from a few hundred feet away.
"Come on!" said Croft, running in the opposite direction. He
looked up at a nearby building, and saw something that caught his eye.
They entered the adjacent building; Sally had to give a blast
twice to get people scrambling out of the way, but generally this
building seemed less populated then the Graftonite administrative HQ.
Croft headed for the stairs.
"Up?" gasped Red Sally. "Do you know what you're doing?"
"Come on!" said Croft.
They started climbing. They had only reached the third flight,
however, when the politicians, huffing, said they couldn't go anymore.
"Would you rather die?" said Croft sharply. "Come on, it's only
two more flights, come on!"
Luckily, it was a low lying building. But that wasn't the reason
Croft had picked it.
They got up to the roof, even as they could hear sounds of
pursuit on the stairwell.
"Why didn't we take the lift?" Sally gasped.
"Too dangerous," Croft snapped, running to the edge of the
Good. Exactly as he thought.
This was the downtown area of Greenfields. There were a network
of elevated forceways that connected buildings to each other. This
building connected to another building which in turn connected others.
They would use these forceways to escape.
"Come on, get over the forceway," said Croft.
The others started scrambling over. Below them, on the ground,
Graftonites fired up at them. But their blaster bolts, while accurate,
only scattered under the forcefield underneath their feet.
Just as they crossed over to the other side their pursuers broke
out onto the roof they had just left.
Croft rapidly looked around for the controls to terminate the
forceway. But they weren't there.
In a split second that made sense; they had just left a
government building; surely the controls for the forceway would be on
the other side, for security reasons. The side they had just left.
Croft had planned to cut the force field to prevent their
pursuers from following. This would put a minor crimp in his plan.
Or maybe not. Croft grabbed the Clapper, who squealed. "See those
forceway controls?" he said, pointing to a small panel on the edge of
the rooftop they had just left.
"Press the button to shut it down!"
The Graftonites were scrambling towards the edge of the roof
where the forceway was.
"Which button?" The Clapper asked.
"All of them!" said Croft.
The Graftonites, four of them, were scrambling over the bridge.
In seconds they would be on the other side. On the same roof, with
The Clapper scrunched his face. Nothing visibly happened.
"Hurry..." said Croft, just as the first Graftonite was seconds
away from crossing their end of the forceway.
Suddenly, the forceway flickered and faded. The expression on the
face of the closest Graftonite turned into one of amazement. Both his
arms and his feet started to flounder. The last thing they saw was a
shocked look he gave them as he fell to the ground.
"He he he, he tried to fly," said the Clapper.
"It's only five stories, maybe they survived," said Croft. What
was he saying? Why should he care-those Graftonites were coming to kill
him. He turned to the others. "Come on, rest time is over. Let's get
They crouched under a pile of bushes in a small city park.
"Why don't we head back to the transport?" said Sally.
"Undoubtedly that's the first place they'll be waiting for us,"
said Croft. "No, I think we need to be a little less predictable." He
unrolled the cuff of his sleeve, revealing a small electrical device.
One of the few things the Graftonites had missed.
Croft pressed a button, and said exactly one word. "Pickup."
He waited, then there was a staticy reply. "Location."
Croft pressed another button, sending a quickburst that would
enable the Glory to lock onto their location, but hopefully not
sustained enough to enable the Graftonites to do the same. The Glory
was expecting it; the Graftonites weren't.
"What do we do now?" said Sally.
"Now, we wait," said Croft. He said it nonchalantly, but Croft
hated waiting. He wasn't any good at waiting. He was fidgeting already.
"If you had that device, why didn't you call for help when we
were locked up?" said Sally.
"I wasn't sure that help could reach us in time," said Croft. "Or
even if the Battle Admiral's troops could shoot their way in without
getting us all killed." He turned to the four politicians, who looked
exhausted. "All right, which one of you is the President of
One of the men nodded slightly. "I am Zun Buchot."
"Nice name," said Croft. Politicians didn't impress him. "Would
you mind telling me how a few hundred Graftonites conquered your entire
planet in a few days?"
Buchot nodded. "They took over!"
"Uh, can you be any more specific?" Croft said, working hard to
keep the sarcasm out of his voice, at least until Buchot gave him the
information he needed.
"They took us hostage."
When he saw a similar lack of comprehension, Buchot elaborated,
slightly. "They sent undercover hostage takers."
"Undercover hostage takers?"
"They disguised themselves as common citizens, or even as our own
soldiers, and took our senior government officials and military
officers hostage. Then they forced our surrender."
"That's it?" said Croft. He had been hoping for something more
elaborate. "No super weapon? No fifth column activists?"
"They used their skill and speed to defeat our security. Since
they could get in anywhere, they could capture us with ease," said
"And your troops?"
"Disarmed, and confined to barracks," said Buchot. "They have
started bringing in non-Graftonite mercenaries to replace them."
"They must have done the same to the marines we sent in," Croft
mused. "Well, that's an important piece of information, to be sure. Our
only remaining task now is to survive long enough for pickup and to
live to tell it."
Chapman paced back and forth furiously. Seven men were dead, four
seriously injured, and he had already commed Quandry to let him know
that Croft had been executed! Now Croft had escaped with the President
of Greenfields, one of their most prized prisoners. The information he
had could never be allowed to make its way back to the League.
"Sensors detect a transport," said one of his officers.
"Looks like... three miles south of the capital."
"Deploy all available forces there! I want that transport taken!"
Chapman said. It seemed they were coming to pick Croft up. Well,
Chapman would have a surprise in place for him.
They could hear the sound of the transport heading over the city
park and then moving farther away.
"They're going the wrong way!" said President Buchot.
"Quiet," Croft hissed. "There may still be patrols in the area."
The transport settled down in an abandoned lot just a few miles
south of the city. In just a few minutes a squad of Graftonites
"Looks like we got here ahead of the spy," said the squad leader.
He drew his blaster. "All right, let's take the transport." His men
moved forward cautiously. The minute the Graftonites came into contact
with the transport, an internal sensor bleeped, and-
The transport blew up.
"What happened?" Colonel Chapman snapped.
"I don't know... sensors are registering an explosion," said his
"I can't," said the officer. "I've lost contact with the squad.
Wait, I'm getting a connection with new troopers who just arrived on
the scene." The officer listened for a moment.
"They say the transport is totally destroyed."
"Good," said Chapman with satisfaction.
"Sir, but I'm reading a shuttle, coming in fast."
"Several miles north of us."
And his forces were clustering south of the city. Suddenly it
became clear to Chapman. The transport had been a decoy. "Redeploy the
troops! And get me air command."
The shuttle touched down on a lawn just feet away from their
concealed location. The ramp opened and four heavily armed troopers
jumped out, weapons at the ready.
"Run!" said Croft.
They sprinted for the shuttle. It seemed to take forever for them
to get fifty feet. The troops held their fire as they ran forward.
Croft was the first in the shuttle, followed by Red Sally, the
Clapper, and the politicians. The marines efficiently closed the hatch
"We made it!" said President Buchot.
Croft turned to the pilot. "Get us out of here, fast."
The shuttle lifted off.
Even as they were clearing the atmosphere they could detect signs
of pursuit. More than fifteen enemy starfighters. The Graftonite
starfighters were faster than the shuttle. Quick calculations showed
that in two minutes they would be firing range.
And it would take ten minutes to get back to the Glory.
Croft signaled the Battle Admiral from the shuttle. "We're in
trouble," he said.
"Help is on the way," said the holoimage of the Battle Admiral.
Even as he spoke, two squadrons of Wildcats streaked past them,
heading deeper into the atmosphere. But the Wildcats would be no match
for the Graftonites.
"Battle Admiral, in case we don't make it, they're using hostage
taking teams to decapitate the leadership and force their troops to
surrender," said Croft.
"Acknowledged," said the Battle Admiral.
Whatever the Wildcats were doing, they did it quickly. Thirty
seconds later, the Wildcats were streaking in the other direction,
retreating back past the shuttle, heading back into orbit.
"They're running away?" said President Buchot incredulously. He
saw that Croft had felt compelled to report to the Battle Admiral
immediately. Maybe the Battle Admiral, now having the information he
needed, had decided that they were expendable.
"We'll be in enemy weapons range in 60 seconds," said the shuttle
Croft said nothing, studying his fingernails. One of them needed
a little trimming.
"Can't you go any faster?" said Buchot.
"No," said the pilot. A few seconds later he studied the sensors
and said, "30 seconds." And then, "Wait. They're veering off."
"I'm detecting new sensor blips."
"Homing mines," said Croft. "But they won't hold them more than a
minute or two. Just enough for us to get a good lead again. Gun it as
fast as you can."
"I am," said the pilot. He noticed several new blips on the
sensors, coming from the fleet. "What are those?"
"Don't worry about those," said Croft. "Just get us back. The
Glory is coming in on a low orbital approach."
After about two minutes of silence the pilot reported, "They're
coming after us again."
"They've destroyed the homing mines," said Croft. "Still, we've
bought another two minutes."
"We're still four minutes from the Glory," said the pilot.
Suddenly, several large shapes flew past the shuttle. "What were
those?" said the pilot.
"D-34 shipkillers," said Croft. He turned to the passengers. "I
suggest you hold on to something."
"They'll shoot them down," said the pilot.
"No they won't," said Croft.
The D-34's detonated just before they came within weapons range
of the Graftonite fighters. They weren't close enough to destroy the
fighters, but were close enough to shake them up. Even the shuttle,
which was farther away from the impact, was quite rattled up.
"That should buy us another two minutes," said Croft, feeling the
lesser shockwave of another explosion."
"We're still three minutes from the Glory," said the pilot.
"Then it will be a race, won't it?"
The Wildcats had reformed around the shuttle to protect it,
trimming their speed to match the shuttle's.
Croft watched a speck grow bigger on the screen. It was the
"They're closing in again!" said the pilot. "Interception in
The Glory was larger on the screen now. But all a Graftonite
would need was a shot or two to take out the shuttle.
"Twenty seconds!" said the pilot.
The Wildcat escorts veered off to intercept the Graftonite
fighters. But the Graftonite fighters didn't even react.
"Ten seconds!" said the pilot.
Suddenly, they heard/felt a big rumble around them. From behind
them came a huge ship. The Battleship Majestic! It had positioned
itself between the shuttle and the approaching Graftonite fighters,
That was something even the Graftonites had to notice. They
veered off to avoid crashing into the battleship, and scrambled to
In those remaining seconds, the shuttle touched down in the
Glory's landing bay.
For a moment, the shuttle was silent. Then, over the comm, they
heard, "Croft? Croft?"
"Just like clockwork, Battle Admiral," said Croft. "Exactly as we
"So now we know their secret, we can deter future invasions
simply by putting increased security around our political and military
leaders," said the holographic image of the Chief. Her image flickered
slightly as the descrambler worked to keep up with the decoding of the
"It won't be that easy," said Croft. "Remember, it's Graftonites
we're talking about. But if you put your Presidents and Generals in a
room with a hundred guys with guns, yeah, I think that will effectively
put their invasion plans out of business."
"What about the planets they have invaded?" said the Chief.
"Five, by our current count, four of which are League planets."
"I guess we don't care about Grafton IV because it's not in the
League," said Croft, with more than a bit of sarcasm.
"We can send in the troops," said a new voice. It was the Chief
of Staff himself, who like other senior officials was involved in this
holomeeting. "Now that we know what to expect, we can protect the
troops we send in."
"It won't be quite that easy," said Croft. "From what I've
learned, you're not just facing a few hundred Graftonites on each
planet; I think they've hired non-Grafton mercenaries to shore up their
"Nothing can match the might of the League armed forces."
"I'm sure," said Croft, unconsciously falling back into liespeak.
"Mr. Chief of Staff, if you'll excuse me, I'm exhausted and need some
rest. If everything is well in hand...?"
"Of course," said the Chief of Staff. "Good work, Mr. Croft. Your
name will figure favorably in my report to the League President."
"Very nice, sir," said Croft.
The holographic link faded.
The Battle Admiral turned to Croft. "Of course, it's not going to
be that easy."
"Of course not," said Croft.
And it wasn't.
The League sent in troops to try and liberate its four planets,
but the mercenary and Graftonite forces resisted bitterly. Losses
mounted on all sides. The League had an enormous population advantage
over the Graftonites and their allies, but with advances in technology
the League had shifted to a smaller, more professional force; that was
why a planet like Greenfields, with millions of citizens, had an active
armed forces of only 40,000.
Still, the League armed forces vastly outnumbered the
Graftonites; but there was a limit as to how many could be transported
to a planet at any given time. All this meant that the League could
wage war, but victory would be slow, and bloody.
Two weeks later the League had beachheads it was slowly expanding
on two of the four planets; but the Graftonites responded by
reinforcing their garrison of non-Graftonite mercenaries.
"Where are they getting the resources to hire thousands of
mercenaries?" the Battle Admiral asked.
It was a good question; Croft wondered that too. He went back to
his quarters to review the datapads he had collected from various
Graftonites during his expeditions to Greenfields. He had noticed
something before that had briefly caught his attention; now he returned
In a few minutes he was convinced he had found something of
importance. He got Levi on the comm. For once Levi was actually at work
in his lab.
"You have my meat recipes?" said Levi eagerly.
"Sorry, Levi, I've been busy with this little invasion thing,"
"You always make excuse."
"I need your help, Levi," said Croft.
"You always ask for help," Levi grumbled.
"Levi, I promise, if you help me just one more time, I will get
you your Graftonite meat recipes." Croft knew how to handle Levi.
"Promise?" Levi peered out at him as if measuring his
"Have I ever lied?" Croft asked. "To you?" he quickly amended.
"What is it you want?" Levi sighed.
"I've been reviewing the datapads of some of the Graftonites I
encountered," said Croft. "The Graftonites were all paid from off-
"Off which planet?" Levi asked.
"Off of Graftonite," Croft said.
"So their leader, Mo Quandry, is a Graftonite. Why would he pay
them from off-planet accounts?"
"Maybe he get better rate of return with off-planet account,"
"Levi, you're a genius but you don't understand the Grafton
mind," said Croft. "Graftonites trust non-Graftonites about as far as
they can throw them. There's no way a Graftonite like Quandry is going
to keep his money off-planet unless...."
"Unless someone else is supplying the money."
Croft transmitted some data. "I want to find out who, Levi."
Levi opened his mouth.
"As soon as possible," said Croft.
Levi tried to speak.
"Today, Levi," said Croft
"All right," said Levi. "But you owe me recipes."
"How can I forget?" said Croft.
It didn't take a day; indeed, with Levi's computer skills, it
only took two hours, after which he immediately reported to Croft. And
then two hours and ten minutes later, Croft established a holocontact
with the Chief.
"The Chief is unavailable, Mr. Croft," said a functionary.
"Tell her it's important," said Croft.
"I don't think that will have any effect."
"Then tell her Clifford Croft says it's important."
The functionary sighed and left the screen. When he returned he
said, "She'll see you. But she's not happy."
"Who is, in these troubling times?"
The Chief appeared on the holo, looking drowsy. "Do you have any
idea what time it is here, Mr. Croft?"
"No, and I don't really care," said Croft. "Listen, I have an
important piece of information for you."
And when he did, her eyes widened.
When he was done, Croft said, "Worth waking you up for?"
"An acceptable judgment call, this time," said the Chief. "Just
don't make a habit of it." She paused. "Investigate, and get back to
"Croft out," said Croft. He terminated the connection. He
wondered whether he should take the Clapper and Red Sally with him. No,
he wouldn't need them. Not for this. They would whine, of course. Maybe
he could slip away without telling them.
"This meeting of the Whenfor division of the Claritan Corporation
will come to order," said the Whenfor Division President, Kenson
Manding, sitting at the head of the board room.
The Claritan Corporation was the largest multiplanetary
corporation in the galaxy. It sold almost every variety of product.
There wasn't an industry that the Claritan corporation wasn't involved
in, not a planet where it didn't have some sort of corporate presence.
The Claritan Corporation had only one agenda, and that was to make
money. Lots of it. Unfortunately, that often meant squeezing the
competition or the consumer. And sometimes the Claritan Corporation did
some not so nice things in the process.
"Marketing, report," said Manding.
"We've done a special push on our new five ounce action pack
flavor juice," said Marketing. "But we're still getting flack from the
government that we call it 'juice' when we don't have the requisite 2%
of real juice in the mix."
Manding sighed. "We've been over this before. Can't we find some
cheap crap to squeeze into the juice? Isn't there something cheap we
can use? Lemons? Mutated oranges?"
"Too expensive," said another corporate officer.
"We must have something," said Manding.
"We have found a juicy moss on one of the recently discovered
planets that might fit the bill," said the logistics VP. "The moss is
plentiful and cheap to collect."
"What does this moss taste like?" Manding asked.
"A little like furniture polish," said the logistics VP. "But we
can add more flavoring to cover that."
"Wait a minute," said Manding. "Moss isn't a fruit."
"I think I can reach the right person in the government to get it
classified as such," said the governmental affairs VP.
"Oh," said Manding. "Problem solved. Next?"
"We're still getting complaints about the ground cars we
manufacture with the faulty accelerators," said another VP.
"Faulty accelerators?" said Manding.
"Remember, we saved money by using those Slurian components... in
one out of ten cars, they sometimes cause uncontrollable acceleration
when one presses on-"
"I remember now," said Manding. He turned to the Legal VP. "You
should have the solution."
Manding sighed. Had seven years of law school been wasted on him?
"Include a disclaimer on new cars saying that there can be acceleration
problems. If they're aware of the problem, we're not responsible."
"What about existing cars we've already sold?"
Manding rolled his eyes and considered. "Tell owners to bring
them to their dealerships. Put the cars in the back for the day and
then return them two weeks later, and tell them the problem is fixed."
"Begging your pardon sir, that won't fix anything."
"But it will postpone the problem," said Manding. "What's next?"
Suddenly, the door burst open and none other than Clifford Croft
"I told him he couldn't go in, sir," said a functionary,
following him in.
"Shut up and sit down," said Croft, pulling a blaster.
The functionary yiped and quickly took a seat.
"Everyone put your arms on the table. If I see anyone reaching
for your hidden panic buttons, I'll shoot the offending digit," said
The officers complied. Manding smiled. "You seem familiar with
our standard procedures. Do we know you?" It would only be a matter of
time before security or some other assistant checked up on him. In the
interim, he would stall for time.
"I know you," said Croft. "I've had... interactions with your
"Who are you, and what do you want?"
"The name is Clifford Croft," said Croft.
Manding looked puzzled. "Croft... Croft.... Were you the one who
interfered with our-"
"Probably," said Croft. "But that's not why I'm here. I have a
certain objection to one of your corporate operations."
"If you have a problem you should talk with our customer
complaint hotlines," said Manding.
"I've decided to speak directly to the supervisor," said Croft
grimly. "Now, what are you doing with the Graftonites?"
"Graftonites?" said Manding. "What Graftonites?"
Croft shot a fist-sized hole in the desk next to Manding. "If you
lie to me again, my aim will only improve."
"Now, I know you've been making payments to Mo Quandry's little
army. The question is, why," said Croft. "You already operate on many
of the planets that were attacked. What do you get out of it?"
Manding looked nervous.
"Now would be a good time to answer," said Croft, taking aim with
"We get... certain concessions," said Manding.
"Can you be more specific?" said Croft.
"We have... contracts for administration," said Manding.
"To administer?" said Croft. "To administer what?"
"The planets?" said Croft. Suddenly, it made sense. The
Graftonites weren't interested in administration; only action. So they
hired the Claritan corporation to manage the captured planets for them.
By totally controlling a planet's economy, the Claritan corporation
could make a thousand times whatever revenue they had been previously
making in their various industries. They could tax competitors at any
rate-indeed, they could even shut down competitors and build
monopolies! The possibilities were almost endless.
"And let me guess-you pay for the invasion up front, and in
return you get to keep all the goodies once you start 'administering',"
said Croft. "Maybe you pay the Graftonites a percentage off the top."
"Something like that," said Manding faintly.
"Doesn't it bother you that you're helping a dictatorship take
over the galaxy?" said Croft. "Haven't you ever considered that they
could one day turn against you?"
"It seemed like a good deal at the time," said Manding lamely.
"I see," said Croft. His mind was racing. This could blow things
wide open. But he needed proof. "All right, where is it?"
"The contract," said Croft. "The contract between you and
"There is no contract," said Manding.
Croft fired again, blowing off the right armrest on Manding's
chair. Manding grabbed his arm, which felt the edge of the impact.
"There is no contract!" Manding repeated. "No contract here!"
"What do you mean?" said Croft.
"Do you really think a deal of this magnitude could be negotiated
by a branch office?" said Manding. "It's all done through the home
office. All of it!"
Croft considered. He raised his blaster. "If you're lying...."
"I'm not!" said Manding earnestly.
"All right," said Croft. "I guess I have to pay a visit to your
home office. Can I rely on your discretion not to warn them in
"Of course," said Manding.
"And your associates here?" Croft asked.
"Yes, them too," said Manding, trying to sound reassuring.
"Good," said Croft. He turned to the stunned board members.
"Please, don't let me interrupt you any further. Feel free to go about
He turned and left.
Manding immediately called security.
But by the time they got there, Croft had disappeared from the
Roger Balit, President of the Claritan Corporation, sat in his
office reading the daily datastream when he heard a knock at the door.
He didn't even look up as Zilcho Tun, his executive aide, entered the
"I'm still reading the daily report," said Balit. "What is it?"
"It's Quandry," said Tun. "He wants money."
"Quandry always wants money," said Balit, continuing to read the
"He says that under the contract he's entitled to another twenty
million credits now," said Tun.
Balit looked at Tun, who seemed to wince slightly when stared at.
"On what grounds?" Balit asked, turning back to his morning report.
"Paragraph 7(k) of the contract," said Tun.
"7(k)," said Balit, frowning. "7(k)? There is no 7(k)."
"Perhaps we should examine the contract, just to be sure," said
"All right, I'll get it out of the safe, in a minute," said
Balit. He rapidly scanned the rest of the daily report. As he scrolled
down the page he stopped, and then scrolled up. Reading closely, he
said, "When were you going to tell me about Croft?"
"It says here that corp intel indicates that Clifford Croft is on
his way here," said Balit. "Don't you think that's just a little more
important than Quandry blathering about another payment?"
"Sir, I'm already on top of it," said Tun. "I've increased
security all around the building.
"The exterior walls?"
"Yes," said Tun. "And I've doubled the guard around and inside
the building. Trust me, sir, no unauthorized person can get in."
"I hope you're right," said Balit. "I've heard of this Croft.
He's a Column Eight agent and one of their top infiltrators."
"I'm sure his reputation is inflated," said Tun.
"Never underestimate your enemy," said Balit. He sighed. "All
right, where were we?"
"All right," said Balit. He got up, went to a wall, and slid a
picture aside, revealing a safe with a keypad combination. He turned
to Tun. "You know, just in case, I think it would be better if we had a
few security guards here when I opened this up. I could easily see this
Croft character lurking around somewhere waiting for us to open the
Tun said nothing.
"Call security and have them send two men."
Tun did nothing.
"Didn't you hear me?" said Balit.
"I heard you," said Tun, drawing a hidden blaster.
"What are you doing?" Suddenly, it became clear. "You, Tun? A
traitor? How did they get to you?" said Balit.
"No one got to me," said Tun.
Balit looked confident. "Put down the gun," he said, taking a
"If you take another step in my direction there will be a nice
view between your ears," said Tun.
Balit stopped, and frowned. "You won't get out of here alive."
"You're probably right," said Tun. "But I will."
"What are you saying?"
"I said, you're right, that Tun has no chance to get out alive.
But I won't find it particularly challenging."
Still keeping the blaster on Balit, Tun carefully removed his
"Croft," said Balit, his eyes widening.
"Tun decided to sleep in and take a sick day today," said Croft.
"He'll wake up in a few hours with no ill effects. I can't say the same
for you, however, if you don't open that safe."
Balit said coldly, "You'll never get out alive. We'll do a
special shareholder resolution on you, Croft."
"Right now I'd be more worried about my blaster giving you an
impromptu audit," said Croft. He shoved the blaster into Balit's side.
Balit said, "Even if I open the safe, you won't be helped by
getting the contract."
"Then you should have no objection to giving it to me," said
Croft. He pointed his blaster more firmly. "Decide."
Without a further word Balit opened the safe. Croft had him move
back and reached in and removed a group of papers.
"Only one of them is the contract, you shouldn't need the rest,"
"But it's always fun to have something to read on my trip home,"
said Croft. "And now I must take my leave of you. I'm afraid I'm going
to have to stun you so I can make my getaway."
"You've made a powerful enemy today, Croft," said Balit.
Croft shrugged. "You'll have to stand in line." He shot Balit,
who fell to the ground.
When Balit returned to consciousness, Croft was long gone. A very
apologetic Tun attended to him.
"I'm so sorry sir he took me by surprise-"
"Shut up," said Balit.
"But the contract, sir, what do we do-"
"We do nothing," said Balit.
"Nothing?" said Tun.
"Nothing," said Balit. "It's a minor embarrassment, at worst. But
there shouldn't be any harm done."
"No harm? But what when the Graftons learn of our deal with
Balit shook his head. "It won't change a thing." He changed the
subject. "But a subject that does concern me is building security. An
intruder managed to get both inside and out of the building. Where was
our chief of security during this time-"
"Ah, he was-"
"Terminate his employment contract," said Balit. "Immediately."
"Ah, yes sir. But what do we do with-"
"His body? Leave it in the main security office for a few days.
As a reminder to those who fail me," said Balit.
Even before Croft had returned to August the information he
discovered had been relayed to the Chief; it was only a matter of hours
after that that the information was rebroadcasted to Grafton, on every
communication frequency. In a matter of minutes, the news was out.
The Claritan corporation was bankrolling the invasions. A
holocopy of the contract showed that in return for certain concessions
on the conquered planets, the Claritan corporation would pay a large
sum to Quandry and his soldiers.
The news hit Grafton quickly. This should be the beginning of the
end of Quandry, or so Croft thought.
But only a non-Graftonite was surprised by the response the news
Quandry didn't bother to deny the contract. In fact, he
acknowledged it. Furthermore, he was lauded by the other Graftonites,
who considered him a good businessmen.
As Quandry himself put it in one of his broadcasts, "Yes, I got
the sheep to finance the invasion of their own planets, and arranged
for a hefty payment for all of us! What could be wrong with that?"
Apparently, none of the Graftons thought there was anything wrong
with that. It was, after all, all about money.
"So what do we do now?" said the holographic image of the Chief.
Croft, sitting in his transport, shrugged.
"You are not paid to shrug, Mr. Croft," said the Chief. She
obviously was not happy.
"I don't have an answer at the moment," said Croft.
"You spent so much time researching the culture on Grafton," said
the Chief. "Didn't that give you any insight?"
"Not really," said Croft. But even as he said it he knew it
wasn't true. Actually, something he had been told seemed to percolate
in his mind, as a half-finished thought. If he could only figure out
what it was....
"I have an idea," said Tane.
"The Graftonite reflexes are at their peak when they are on
Grafton," said Tane. "But when they leave Grafton, they gradually lose
"That's true, but that takes years," said Croft.
"Well, someone is going to have to occupy those planets," said
Tane. "We can play on that fear."
"How?" Croft asked.
"By broadcasting propaganda into Grafton," Tane said. "Tell
people that if they invade other planets, they'll slowly lose their
reflexes and become no better than what they call sheep," said Tane.
"It might work," said the Chief slowly.
"And it might not," said Croft.
"Let me clear this with the Chief of Staff," said the Chief.
"Of course," said Tane deferentially.
"Of course," Croft parroted.
A few days later the first transmissions began.
"Why risk your life off-planet? All you'll succeed in doing is
lose your edge. Each day you spend off Grafton degrades your reflexes.
Imagine what your reflexes will be like in a year, or two years? You'll
be no better than the sheep!"
Transmissions like that were blanketing the Grafton airwaves for
It didn't take long to judge the response, from the monitoring of
the domestic Graftonite networks.
Much of the response was simply laughter. By hiring non-
Graftonite mercenaries to keep the order, and the Claritan corporation
to manage the economy, only a handful of Graftonites need remain on
their conquered planets, and even they could be rotated off-planet at
It was obvious, in just a few days, that this propaganda blitz
"So it didn't work," said the holo of the Chief.
"That's correct," said Croft. Sometimes he admired her insightful
"Any other suggestions, Ms. Tane?" said the Chief, and her voice
had an edge to it.
Croft casually turned his gaze to Tane.
"I... I...," Tane stammered. Then, "I'm sorry, Chief."
"This is simply perfect," said the Chief. "I have a meeting with
the Chief of Staff in 30 minutes. What am I going to say?"
"Not very much, apparently," said Croft absentmindedly. But his
mind wasn't really focused on the conversation. He was thinking of
something else. The fighting. The fighting was the key. Or rather, the
culture of fighting. But how could that be used in their favor?
The Chief glared at him. "Mr. Croft, this is not the day for your
lame attempts at humor. I'm warning you, I'm running out of patience.
Normally, I can tolerate your kind of foolishness, but given the
enormous pressure, you're pushing me over the limit-"
"Of course!" said Croft, sitting upright.
"What?" said the Chief.
"Why didn't I think of it earlier?" said Croft.
"What?" said the Chief.
"You gave me the final piece of the puzzle!" said Croft.
"I did?" said the Chief.
"We all know what a kind, loving, sweet nature you normally
have," said Croft. "But circumstances have driven you to a short fuse.
You yourself just said so."
"I fail to see-"
"It's the same with the Graftonites. They're normally a sensitive
bunch of bounty hunters and guns for hire," said Croft. "What turns
them into an interplanetary army bent on conquering the league?"
"It's Quandry. He's stirred them up," said the Chief.
"Let's be specific. He's stirred them up with that sham story of
the executed bounty hunter," said Croft.
"So why can't we do the same thing, in reverse?" Croft said.
"I fail to follow," said the Chief. She looked really confused.
Croft sighed. "Why don't we stage our own incident, showing a
Grafton bounty hunter executing an employer, and broadcast it?"
"How will broadcasting that incident to the Grafton population
help us?" The Chief asked.
"No, I understand now," said Tane, realization dawning on her
face. "We don't broadcast it to the Graftonites, but everyone else. To
all the other planets that hire Graftonites."
"People will stop hiring Graftonites," said Croft. "Already this
invasion has put somewhat of a chill on new hires, I imagine. But if we
show a Graftonite executing an employer, that will really put a stop to
"I think I see," said the Chief. "Once Graftonites stop being
hired for off-planet work-"
"You'll have a base of dissatisfied people, who will put pressure
on Quandry to stop," said Croft.
"Really quite ingenious," said the Chief. "If it works, that is.
What is it you need, Mr. Croft?"
"Merely the offices of a holoproduction facility," said Croft.
It took a week of work before it was ready. When it was
broadcast, it hit the League worlds with the impact of a D-34
The following holonews broadcast was typical: "-and security cams
actually caught the murder as it happened."
The image shifted to a bounty hunter facing his employer. The
positioning of the camera prevented the audience from seeing the
"I'm here for my payment," said the Graftonite coldly.
"You've already been paid," said the employer.
"This?" the Graftonite laughed, holding up a stack of currency.
"That was the agreed upon amount."
"I'm changing the agreement," said the Grafton.
"What do you want?" said the employer.
"Everything," said the Grafton. "I want you to sign over all your
savings to me."
"All?" said the employer. "Are you out of your mind?"
The Grafton gave the employer a small push. "It's going to be
ours soon enough anyway."
"What... what do you mean?"
"If I don't get it, our people will when they take over your
planet. So you see, it's better to give to someone you know," said the
Grafton. His tone hardened. "Now get on that terminal and start
The employer, looking very nervous, nodded and moved slowly to
the desk. But as he sat down he pressed something under the desk. An
"Not smart," said the Grafton. He fired his weapon, blowing the
man's head off.
"Did you have to make it so graphic?" Tane asked.
"Yes," said Croft. "People aren't going to stop hiring Graftons
if all they have to fear is a little flesh wound."
"It looked very convincing," said Tane. "Did you use experienced
"There were no actors," said Croft. "There were no rooms, either.
It was all virtual."
"Well, I hope it works," said Tane.
"We'll see," said Croft.
Two weeks later Croft was back on Grafton. He would have liked to
come back sooner, but Croft couldn't make his plan work more quickly
than this. When he showed up at the Silencer's ranch, he was
unsurprised to find that the Silencer was in.
"You again," the Silencer growled.
"Don't mind John," said Annie. "He's just in a bad mood."
"It's that idiot bounty hunter who killed his boss," said the
Silencer. "It's causing all the bounty hunting work to dry up.
Everyone's afraid to hire Graftonites."
"That's a shame," said Croft. He tried to sound as sincere as
The Silencer looked sharply at Croft for any sign of irony or
"Of course, the bounty hunter isn't entirely to blame," said
Croft. "I imagine if Quandry weren't invading planets left and right
that people wouldn't feel so threatened."
"That may be," said the Silencer. "But there's not much I can do
"Actually, there is," said Croft.
"Don't start again," said the Silencer. "I'm no politician."
"No, you're just one of the most respected men on Grafton," said
Croft. The Silencer started to reply but for once Croft was faster.
"I'm not asking you to do anything for me, Silencer. Do it for
The Silencer paused. "What do you expect me to do?"
"Hold a gathering. Tell people that these invasions are causing
business to dry up," said Croft earnestly.
"They'll never listen," said the Silencer, apparently rejecting
the idea out of hand.
"You won't know until you try," said Croft, on a cautiously
The Silencer sighed, looking away for a moment. Then he looked up
at Annie, who had been silent all the while. She nodded slightly.
"All right," the Silencer growled. "But I still think it's a dumb
"What is it?" said Quandry, not even bothering to look up as
Rocco entered his office.
"Trouble, boss," said Rocco.
Quandry looked up and glared at Rocco. "Can you be any more
"The Silencer is holding a gathering to turn people against the
"The Silencer?" said Quandry, frowning.
"He has known links to the sheep on August," said Rocco.
"The Silencer is a mercenary like everyone else; he works for
pay," said Quandry. "Do you think he's being paid for this?"
"I don't know," said Rocco. He paused a moment. When Quandry
didn't say anything, he said, "What do you want to do?"
"I'm thinking," said Quandry, weighing the alternatives. Then,
finally, he said, "I want him taken care of."
"The Silencer????" Rocco sounded incredulous.
"Do it," said Quandry, returning to his data screens.
The gathering was held in a local sports arena. And to top it
off, Annie, with a little prompting from Croft, had arranged for the
event to be broadcast on all available comm networks.
"Do you think we'll have any trouble?" said Croft, nervously
watching the crowd gather. Several hundred people had already showed
up, and more were at the gate. The Silencer could really draw them in!
"Trouble?" the Silencer asked.
"From Quandry's people."
Croft eyed the crowd nervously. One shot from a long distance
sniper rifle could take the Silencer out.
The Silencer made a derisive noise. "Let them be dumb enough to
try." He turned to Croft. "You'd better stay out of sight."
When the crowd had entered and taken their seats, the Silencer
strode out onto the platform at the center of the stadium. There was
suddenly a spontaneous applause in the bleachers. The Silencer
acknowledged it calmly, even as it lasted for more than a minute. Many
of the people here were his fans.
"Thank you," he finally said, which was an uncharacteristic
phrase, for him. He paused and then continued, speaking into his throat
comm. "I'm a man of few words, so let me get to the point. These
invasions are cutting into-"
He read the speech, much as Croft had written it for him. When he
was done, the crowd was silent. The Silencer stared at the audience.
"Well? What do you think?"
The silence didn't last more than a second. There were a babble
of voices all around.
Some people were clearly against the invasions, and wanted them
to stop. But others felt that it was irrelevant what the "sheep"
thought, and that if money from bounty hunting dried up, there would
still be more money to be made from the invasions. The debate raged
back and forth for nearly two hours, with the Silencer saying little.
Finally, at the end, the meeting broke up without agreement.
"Well, we tried," said the Silencer philosophically, when they
had returned to the ranch.
"That's it?" said Croft. "That's all you have to say?"
"What more can we do?" said the Silencer.
"We persuaded some people," said Croft. "It's a start."
"What would you suggest?" said Annie.
"Hold more gatherings. Try to persuade other people."
The Silencer looked at Croft distastefully. "I'm not a
politician, or a big talker. There's a reason I'm called the Silencer."
"But we can't just give up," said Croft.
"Sure we can," said the Silencer.
"But what about your work?"
"I can still get work," said the Silencer. "I'll just have to
work a bit harder to get it."
Croft tried to think of something to say to counter that. He
looked at the Silencer, who was now ignoring him, and then at Annie.
Annie just shrugged her shoulders helplessly.
They were interrupted by a knock at the door.
"Tell them I'm not joining anything, Annie," said the Silencer,
heading into another room.
Annie went to the door. When she opened it up, she found herself
faced with an unfamiliar Graftonite. She also noticed two Graftonites
behind the newcomer, both looking grim.
"Yes?" said Annie.
"I'm here to assess your house, Ma'am," said the man.
Croft listened curiously from within the house. As he had already
learned, real estate taxes were one of the few taxies levied on
Grafton. Under the system set up by the locals, assessors came and
assessed the value of each property, and the higher the assessment, the
higher the taxes. But another curious factor that came into play was
the quality of the gunfighter who owned the house. Since the property
owner could challenge the assessment by threatening to shoot the county
assessor, counties typically charged lower assessments on homes owned
by superior gunmen, to reduce the likelihood that they would challenge
the assessment by shooting the assessor. A gunman, even a superior one,
might risk a gun fight if he were assessed high taxes; but if the taxes
were kept low, even a crack gunman was unlikely to start a fight.
Annie frowned. "Our ranch isn't due to be reassessed for another
"The county supervisor has issued a proclamation," said the man.
"And I don't recognize you," said Annie. "You're not the regular
"I'm specially deputized by the county, Ma'am," said the man. "My
name is Clem Arnot."
"I recognize the name," said Annie. "You're a silver medalist,
are you not?"
"Yes, Ma'am, Olympics of '04, I'm flattered you recognize my
name," said Arnot.
"Very well, would you like to come in to look at the house?" said
"Not necessary, Ma'am," said Arnot. "I'm ready to provide an
"Without even looking in the house?"
"New rules, Ma'am," said Arnot.
Annie paused, suddenly feeling tense inside. She heard footsteps
moving very softly in the background behind her. "Very well, then. What
is your assessment?"
"We're assessing your ranch at 50,000,000 credits," said Arnot.
"That will lead to a tax of 1,200,000 credits."
"50,000,000 credits? 1,200,000 credits!" said Annie. "Not only is
that nearly quadruple our last valuation, but that's more than seven
times the rate we were taxed at last time."
Arnot swallowed hard. "I realize that, Ma'am. But the amount is
supposed to be paid in full, immediately on assessment."
Annie stared hard at Arnot. His hands hadn't moved, but were down
by his sides. His two men, however, had tensed up.
After a moment's pause, Arnot said, "Ma'am, are you going to pay,
or do you want to challenge your assessment?"
Annie looked at him, and then at his two assistants. "Surely
you're not proposing to make me fight three of you at once."
"If you choose to challenge your assessment, I'm afraid so,
"The rules have always been that it's a one on one fair fight,
with the owner versus the assessor alone," said Annie.
"The rules have been changed, Ma'am," said Arnot. He tried to
resist tensing up. "What is your decision, Ma'am?"
The door, which had been halfway open, was pulled open further
from the inside.
"I'll handle this," said the Silencer coldly.
He stared at Arnot for a moment, and Arnot withered in his gaze
as if he were slowly being burned where he stood.
"So," said the Silencer slowly. "It's not enough to put a ringer
in the place of the assessor, a silver medalist ringer, but you have to
go three on one, is that it?"
"Your prowess is well known, Silencer," said Arnot.
The Silencer spoke to Annie, without turning his gaze away from
Arnot. "Annie, get inside."
"I'm not going anywhere, John," said Annie.
"Wives," said the Silencer, giving a rare smile. He stepped in
front of Annie. He looked at the two men accompanying Arnot. "I don't
recognize either of you. Are either of you senior medalists?"
The men shook their heads slowly.
"It seems you didn't come prepared," said the Silencer.
"Yes I did, Silencer," said Arnot.
Two more men stepped out of the bushes.
"Meet John Lancing, distance shooting bronze medalist, '54," said
Arnot. "And Saw Maran, motion shooting silver medalist, '48 and '57."
He looked at the Silencer's face for any sign of fear. Now the Silencer
would have to take on five of them, and three of them were senior
"A double silver medalist, hm?" said the Silencer, addressing
Maran. "But you never could be number one, could you?"
Maran stared at him coldly. "Test us and see."
"So it's not enough to have five against one," said the Silencer.
"And it's not enough to have three medalists against one. I also see
you have those zip guns on the back of your hands, so all you have to
do is point to shoot. I assume Mo Quandry sent you; my only question
is, is he so short of men that he wasn't able to send anyone else?"
"Are you challenging your assessment, Silencer?" said Arnot,
taking a slow step back.
The Silencer nodded. "I'm about to. But first, Annie, get back in
Croft watched intently from the edge of a window frame, keeping
himself out of direct view of the others. He knew he didn't have the
reflexes to help here, but was fascinated to see what would happen
The Silencer paused, as if considering what to say next, and even
half turned his head to say something, and then, almost faster than
Croft could see, his blasters zipped out, one in each hand, and was
blazing away. Annie's gun was out too, though Croft couldn't say
exactly where in the chain of events it left her holster.
There were several flashes of light, and then silence.
In the time it took Croft to turn his gaze away from the Silencer
and Annie to the ground outside, he saw five bodies, sprawled on the
The Silencer casually stepped out onto the porch to make sure
they were dead.
"You could have coordinated better, John," said Annie. "I almost
didn't draw in time."
"Nonsense," said the Silencer. "You know my half turn move better
than anyone." He kicked the bodies each in turn, observing no sign of
life. Then he casually walked back to the porch, and eyed something on
one of the beams. A scorch mark.
"Another one. We'll have to get that fixed too," said the
Croft came out onto the porch. "That was incredible!" he said.
"Really?" said the Silencer.
"You took out five of them!" said Croft.
"It wasn't like any of them were even gold medalists," said the
Silencer. "And I let Annie take one of them."
"Two of them, John," said Annie. "I also got Maran."
"He was dead before your shot hit him," said the Silencer.
"We can argue about that later," said Annie.
The Silencer turned to face Croft, and his expression was cold.
"I'm not very happy with you," he said, looking hard at Croft.
Croft resisted the urge to run away. "What do you mean?"
The Silencer slowly approached Croft. "You got me involved. If I
hadn't gotten involved, this wouldn't have happened. You've forced me
to kill people without getting paid. And they're going to only send
more and more people that I'll have to kill, also without getting
paid." He now stood almost face to face with Croft. "I don't work for
free; how do you plan to compensate me?"
"John!" said Annie, getting between him and Croft. "Don't blame
him. You decided what to do for yourself. Clifford didn't make you do
The Silencer turned away for a moment. He didn't say anything.
One moment passed into another.
Croft looked wordlessly at Annie. She motioned him to keep quiet.
What was the Silencer thinking? Was he really debating whether to
The Silencer let himself be bathed in the wind outside his home
for a moment. They heard the low rustle as the wind swept by the trees.
Then, when the wind had passed, he turned around.
"All right," he said, clutching one of his blasters.
"All right, what?" said Croft, gulping.
"It has to be done," said the Silencer.
Annie moved in front of Croft. "John, what are you talking
"I'm going to kill Mo Quandry."
"Are you sure this is a bright idea?" said Croft.
"What do you mean?" said the Silencer.
"I mean here we are, you, me, and Annie, in a lone ground car,
approaching Mo Quandry's stronghold on Grafton," said Croft. "Who's to
say that a group of his men won't just wipe us out?" He had an image in
his mind of the ground car being surrounded by gunmen. The gunmen would
open fire, raking the car with blasterfire before even the Silencer
could move or react.
The Silencer snorted derisively, and the image in Croft's mind
"Well?" said Croft.
"You don't understand, Clifford, that's not the way things are
done," said Annie. "Fighting other than one-on-one isn't honorable."
"But that's exactly what they did at your ranch," said Croft.
"We were all alone there," said Annie. "Quandry wouldn't do
anything like that in public, even in front of his own men."
"I'd just feel more comfortable if we had brought some allies of
"If you're feeling uncomfortable, we can let you off here," said
Croft said nothing.
They approached the sentry gate. The Silencer stopped the ground
car and lowered the window, to face a pair of sentries.
One of the sentries looked at the Silencer, then, looking
obviously startled, gave a second look to confirm what he thought: this
was the Silencer?
"Do... do you have an appointment?" said the sentry.
"I'm here to see Quandry," said the Silencer, his voice low and
"I suggest you let me in," said the Silencer.
The sentry looked nervously at the second sentry, who also looked
nervous, confused, and dazed, all in the same instant.
"I'm not going to ask again," said the Silencer calmly, making no
move towards his weapon.
The sentry, who was standing up with easy access to his blaster,
had an advantage over the Silencer. But he didn't feel lucky. "Opening
the gate, sir."
The gate opened. The ground car moved forward.
"So far so good," Croft muttered. He eyed the Graftonites in the
compound. What was there to prevent a group of them from ganging up and
shooting them all dead even before they stepped out of the ground car?
If the Silencer was concerned, he didn't show it. He parked the
ground car in front of what looked like a main building. When he got
out, another sentry said, "Sir, you can't park there."
The Silencer just looked at the man; recognition dawned on the
man's face, and he took a step back.
It was like that with everyone they encountered as they walked
into the building. The Silencer stopped twice to ask for directions.
Even though he didn't identify himself, answers were quickly
They shortly found themselves in a large office. A Graftonite sat
behind the desk.
"Where is he?" the Silencer asked bluntly, not bothering to
identify himself or even to explain further who he was referring to.
"I'm in charge," said the man. "He's not here."
"Where is he?" said the Silencer.
The man said nothing.
"I'm not going to ask a third time," said the Silencer. "As I
suspect you're not the only one who knows where he is, I consider it
fair warning to let you know that you're quite expendable."
The Graftonite shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "He'll kill me
if I tell."
The Silencer's blaster was out and in his hand and pointed at the
man's head. "Even if that's true, you'll live a longer life than the
The man sweated, staring at the blaster pointed at him. He made
no move for his own weapon; he knew who the Silencer was.
"August," he whispered.
"What?" said the Silencer.
"He just left a few hours ago for August," said the Graftonite.
"That's all I know!"
"If you're lying, I'll be back for you," said the Silencer
They went back to their groundcar. Croft expected some kind of
ambush before they left the compound. But, much to his surprise, there
"I guess I'll never understand you Graftonites," said Croft.
The Silencer said nothing.
"We should have stayed and sweated out the full truth from him,"
said Croft. "We don't know what Quandry's plans for August are."
"That doesn't concern me," said the Silencer.
"Why not?" Croft asked.
"I don't need to know what he's doing in order to kill him," said
the Silencer coldly. He didn't like all these questions.
"But how will you know where on August to find him? It's a big
"He'll make his presence known," said the Silencer, sounding
annoyed. "Now keep quiet."
Annie turned to the backseat and put a finger to her mouth. Croft
Croft angled his starfighter behind the Silencer's as they headed
towards August. He saw the tinny holo of the Chief on his
"Quandry's coming here?" said the Chief. "Where specifically?
What is his plan?"
"Ah, I didn't get full details on that."
"What can he possibly accomplish here?" said the Chief. Then a
thought struck her. "He can't... no, he can't be planning to invade
August, can he?"
"The orbital blockade tracked a group of twenty fighters that
slipped out of orbit several hours ago," said Croft. "That's not enough
for an invasion force, even for Graftonites."
"Still, I'm going to put our ground forces on alert and seal up
the airspace above the planet. We'll have the skies filled so tightly
with our ships that no one will get through."
"Chief, do you really believe there is any blockade that these
people can't get through?" said Croft wearily.
The Chief blinked. "You're quite right, of course, Mr. Croft.
Well, we'll just have to do the best we can. You say that your Silencer
friend is going to kill Quandry."
"That's the general plan, yes."
"How will that help us? How will that prevent Quandry from being
replaced by a deputy who will carry out his policies?"
"Well, it won't," said Croft.
"Then why are you planning to have him killed?"
"I'm not," said Croft. "Perhaps I wasn't clear. This isn't
exactly my plan. It's the Silencer's idea."
The Chief looked surprised. "Well, you should dissuade him from
it. We can't eliminate Quandry until we have fully thought out the
"I'm afraid I don't have much influence in this area," said
Croft. "The Silencer's pretty upset with Quandry."
"Why?" said the Chief.
"He didn't like the taxes," said Croft bluntly.
The Chief looked confused. She didn't understand that at all.
Croft thought of the bodies of the five dead gunfighters. Then he
thought of something Annie had said. And then, at that moment, it came
"Chief, I have it," said Croft.
"I know how to stop the Graftonites in their tracks. I know how
to stop the invasions, and how to make Quandry lose all his support. I
also know exactly how to do it," said Croft.
Croft checked to make sure the channel was scrambled. It was.
Still, he didn't want to risk having the transmission intercepted and
decoded. "I can't explain right now. But trust me. I think I know how
we can discredit this entire invasion movement."
The skies around August were indeed sealed up by the time
Quandry's two squadron of fighters reached orbit-there were all
varieties of battleships, monitors, cruisers, and fighters
crisscrossing the planet, eagerly on the alert for intruders.
Quandry and his men slipped through the blockade effortlessly.
League fighters zoomed down in pursuit, but they arrived too late;
Quandry's fighters zoomed over their destination; and when they got
there, each Graftonite pilot ejected, sending their fighters crashing
harmlessly into the sea off the east coast of August. It was a measure
of skill that Quandry's men sent their fighters out of harm's way; for
even they appreciated the beauty and majestic construction of Sarney
Quandry and his men drifted downwards on portable gravitators. In
moments they were on the grounds of the capital. In the distance they
could hear the first sounds of the pursuing fighters. But they would be
too late. Way too late.
President Lo Rareen was just sitting down to lunch with some of
his cabinet when the door burst open. A palace guard ran in. "Sir,
we've got to get you out of here."
The sound of blaster fire could be heard in the distance.
Rareen dropped his electronapkin. "What is it?"
"We're under attack!"
"Here, in the capitol?" said Rareen.
"Yes," said a new voice.
Several men in denim stood at the door. The guard turned, his gun
And was shot. He fell to the ground.
The Graftonite who had shot him stepped forward. "Allow me to
introduce myself, Mr. President. My name is Mo Quandry."
"I'm picking up some kind of alert," said Croft, adjusting the
comm in his fighter.
"Listen to channel 42," came the Silencer's voice.
Croft turned to the channel. A holo of a broadcaster appeared. "-
just moments ago Graftonite terrorists stormed the palace itself.
Gunfire was heard inside. There is no word on whether League President
"I told you he would tell us exactly where he is," said the
"What can he hope to accomplish by this?" said Croft. "Does he
really think he can get the League to surrender by grabbing the
President?" It didn't make any sense to him.
"It doesn't matter what he thinks," said the Silencer.
"Because in two hours he'll be dead," said the Silencer, in a
tone that didn't tolerate any argument.
By the time they had landed their fighters at Sarney Sarittenden
Spaceport, they heard the rest of it. Mo Quandry was holding the
President and several cabinet members hostage. He wanted a ransom of
200,000,000 credits. If he didn't get it, the President and the cabinet
members would be killed.
"He can't seriously believe the League will pay such a large
amount," said Croft.
"It doesn't matter what he believes," said the Silencer.
"Because you're going to kill him, I know," said Croft. "But I am
still wondering what he's attempting to do. Does he really expect the
League to pay?"
"Of course not," said Annie. "It should be obvious." And it was,
to a Graftonite. So she explained it to him. "He plans to execute your
President to get your League to take harsher measures against Grafton.
That in turn will turn even more of the population against the League.
I think perhaps John's gathering was not quite the failure that you
might've thought it was."
"Oh," said Croft. "But if he kills the President, does he really
expect to get out alive?" They were close to the capital now. The area
was swarming with troops. It didn't seem to Croft that even Graftonites
could escape such a tight net.
"Yes," said Annie simply.
At that moment Croft's comm beeped. It was the Chief.
"Croft, where are you?"
"In a ground car close to Sarney Sarittenden."
"I'm on the way there myself," said the Chief. "The Graftonites
have the place sealed off. Does your Silencer think he can get in?"
Croft looked at the Silencer. "I imagine so."
"You must impress on him that the number one priority is to save
the President," said the Chief.
"He doesn't impress easily," said Croft.
"This isn't a joke, Mr. Croft," said the Chief. "If you go in
there, I am holding you personally responsible for the consequences."
"Personally? I'd like to keep our relationship on a professional
level," said Croft.
"Chief, I have to go. The Silencer is about to go in, guns
blazing, and I have to make sure he doesn't shoot the wrong people,"
said Croft. He cut the comm even as she started speaking again.
Croft raised his voice. "Did you hear what the Chief said?"
There was no answer from the front seat.
"We want the President alive," Croft said.
There was silence again.
The Silencer slowly spoke. "If he doesn't get in front of my
target, I won't shoot him."
"Why don't I find that very reassuring?" Croft wondered.
"You can't seriously believe that they're going to pay you," said
Quandry turned to Rareen. "You'd better hope that they do."
"What are you really trying to accomplish here?"
Quandry paused for a moment, as if he were considering whether to
reveal his plan. On the one hand, it was important to keep it secret;
on the other, he never liked passing up an opportunity to show how
clever he was.
"All right, I'll tell you," said Quandry. "We're going to kill
"What?" said Rareen. "You mean, if they don't pay?"
"Pay, don't pay, whatever," said Quandry. "You've got to die."
Rareen was speechless for a moment. Finally a single word came
out of his lips. "Why?"
"I'm having some recruitment problems at home," said Quandry. "I
need your military guys to take some action which will help rally
support to my cause."
"So you're going to kill me, the President of the great League of
Planets, all for some petty political maneuvering?"
"That's about right," said Quandry. "Except I don't consider it
so petty. The only reason you're still alive right now is that I may
need proof you're still breathing until the deadline passes."
"If you're going to kill me, why didn't you simply do it without
a hostage ransom?" said Rareen.
"Don't you know anything about politics?" said Quandry. "I need
to look like I was forced into it. What kind of politician are you?" he
Rareen started to answer.
"Don't say anything," said Quandry. "You're starting to annoy
"Listen, I can help you in other ways," said Rareen. "If your
hardliners are pushing you into this-"
Quandry drew his blaster and pointed it at Rareen. "Not. Another.
The Silencer got as close as they could get to the palace at
Sarney Sarittenden and then they got out of the ground car. Croft's ID
got them into the security perimeter but not through it. A major in
charge refused to let them go any further.
"I've already sent a platoon in, and none of them came out," said
the Major. "What does one guy think he can do?"
The Silencer just looked at him.
"Let us go in and see, Major," said Croft. He tried to sound
The Major looked apologetic. "I'm sorry, but I don't have the
The Silencer, moving in a blur, took the Major's blaster from its
holster and pointed it at him. "We've wasted enough time."
"You-you're one of them!"
"If I were one of them, you'd be dead," said the Silencer. "I
suggest you escort us to the perimeter before I decide to switch
The Major, gulping, nodded.
He walked them through to the forward sentries. They all saw the
Silencer had a gun on the Major, but he nodded, ordering them to let
the Silencer, Annie, and Croft through.
When they had gotten to the forward post the Silencer handed the
Major back his blaster. The Major looked at it as if he were
considering turning it on the Silencer.
The Silencer simply looked at him.
The Major holstered his gun.
"A wise decision." said the Silencer.
"You won't get in," said the Major. "They have marksmen at every
"He has a point," said the Silencer. He turned to Annie. "I know
better than to ask you to stay behind."
He turned to Croft, who he noticed for the first time was
carrying a briefcase. "I can't guarantee your safety."
"In these crazy times, who can guarantee anything?" said Croft
"You can't do much fighting carrying that."
"I'm not planning to fight," said Croft.
The Silencer said nothing.
They entered Sarney Sarittenden. One way or another, it would end
Chapter 12: The Final Battle in Sarney Sarittenden
"I can see you," said the Silencer, staring off into the gloomy
corridor. Bodies of League marines littered the ground all around them.
There was no response.
"Just because you're peeking out from 100 feet away doesn't mean
I can't see you. Or shoot you," said the Silencer calmly. "Come out now
or I'll demonstrate it."
Slowly two figures stepped out of the gloom. Both had rifles.
They cautiously stepped forward.
"Who's there?" they said gruffly. Their hands tightly gripped
their rifles. They were still ready to fight.
The Silencer didn't answer, but stepped forward, followed by
Annie and Croft.
The sentries' eyes widened when they saw the Silencer. "Silencer!
What are you doing here?"
"I'm here to see Quandry," said the Silencer.
"About what?" said one of the sentries.
The Silencer looked around. "This is a mighty expensive looking
place he's living in. I'm here to reassess his taxes."
What did that mean? "We can't let you through, Silencer," said
the sentry. "Our orders were to let no one through."
"But I'm not no one," said the Silencer ominously.
The sentries didn't respond. They seemed unsure what to do.
That told the Silencer that he needed to push harder. "There are
two ways of doing this," said the Silencer. "But either way, I'm going
The sentries glanced at each other. Then, they slowly nodded.
"Thank you," said the Silencer coldly.
The Silencer, Annie, and Croft walked by. As they passed Croft
looked behind them, to see if the guards would shoot them down from
behind. They didn't.
That only confirmed his theory. It was their code of conduct. His
plan could work.
"They're probably being held in the central rotunda," said Croft.
"Go straight and then right, you can't miss it." He started to turn
towards a set of stairs.
"Where are you going?" asked the Silencer.
"You know, that's the first sign of genuine curiosity I've seen
from you in some time," said Croft, purposefully being evasive. For
once let the Silencer guess what he was up to.
The Silencer looked at Annie, shrugged, and started forward.
When they reached the entrance to the rotunda they heard someone
shout, "Hold it!"
The Silencer stopped.
Four guards stepped out of the entranceway.
"You're not allowed here."
"I'm going in," said the Silencer.
The guards looked at each other, silently conferring. They looked
at the Silencer, weighing their options. Finally, they said, "All
right. But just you."
The Silencer considered this. Then he slowly nodded.
"No way am I letting you go in there alone!" said Annie.
The Silencer spoke as if he hadn't heard her. "Just be aware,
gentlemen, that this is my wife; and if anything happens to her, I'll
find you and make you wish for a quick death." He stood face to face
with them. "Do we understand each other?"
The guards, some of them trembling, nodded.
The Silencer turned away from them and entered the rotunda.
There were a dozen of Quandry's handpicked men there, standing
guard over the prisoners, a very worried looking bunch who were sitting
on the floor. One of them was the League President, Rareen.
Croft could see the whole situation very clearly. He had climbed
four flights of stairs and was looking at the room through a small
window built into the side of the ceiling of the rotunda. None of the
Graftonites had noticed him. Croft rapidly opened his briefcase. It
contained two devices. He rapidly assembled the smaller one. It was a
holorecorder with a boom mike.
The Silencer recognized Mo Quandry. Quandry stepped forward,
flanked by two of his men.
"You must be the Silencer," said Quandry. "It's quite an honor to
"I wish I could say the same," said the Silencer coldly.
Quandry smiled, letting the comment slide. "I'm afraid you've
"Yes, you've fallen into bad company," said Quandry. "You're here
to save the sheep." His eyes flickered to Rareen, who was trying his
best to be invisible.
"I don't care about the sheep," said the Silencer. "I'm here for
Quandry said, "So the sheep have hired you to kill me." He raised
his voice. "No Graftonite lets a sheep tell him what to do."
"It wasn't a sheep that made me want to kill you," said the
Silencer, never taking his eyes off of Quandry. He raised his voice as
well. "It was the five men you sent to kill me."
There was a murmur among Quandry's men. They didn't like the
sound of that. Was that really true? Had Mo sent five men to kill the
Silencer? Even those aligned with Quandry didn't like the thought of
"I'm going to offer you one better," said the Silencer. "A fair
fight, you against me. I challenge you."
The murmuring grew louder.
"I don't think so," said Quandry. "That doesn't sound very fair
to me. I'm a gold medalist, but I'm no Olympics champion many times
"Then I suggest you surrender," said the Silencer.
"I don't think so," said Quandry. He snapped his fingers. The two
men at his side stepped forward. "Do you recognize these gentlemen?"
The Silencer said nothing.
"Cal Carpan, who took the gold in race shooting in '24," said
Quandry. "And Mar Topogican, a quadruple gold medalist in distance and
The Silencer noticed now that all three were wearing zip guns.
They wouldn't even have to spend time drawing their weapons, all they
would have to do is point their fingers and fire.
Croft recognized the dangerousness of the situation immediately.
Back at the ranch, the Silencer had faced down five opponents, but he
had had Annie to help them, and none of those had been gold medalists.
Now there were three gold medalists facing him. This could be beyond
the Silencer's ability to handle.
Croft rapidly assembled the second piece of equipment in his
case. In seconds he had assembled a very nasty looking sniper rifle. He
held it up and aimed it. At the very least, he could take out one of
"So maybe you want to reconsider," said Quandry.
"Maybe you want to reconsider," said the Silencer in a chilly
voice. He looked towards Quandry's other men. "Three against one!" he
said, raising his voice. He looked at Quandry's other men. "How is that
a fair fight? Do any of you have a problem with that?"
Even Quandry's handpicked commando squad looked very
uncomfortable. One of them started to speak up.
Quandry shot him a glare, and the man stopped in midsentence.
"So this is the new Grafton you're building, where three or five
against one is considered a fair fight," said the Silencer.
"We do what it takes to win," said Quandry. He suddenly tensed.
"Either join us, or leave, or pick up your weapon."
The Silencer considered for a moment, as if weighing whether he
could take on the three of them. One moment grew into two, and two
moments grew into three.
Croft's grip tightened on the sniper rifle. He aimed at one of
the gold medalists on the right. He had no way of knowing who the
Silencer would aim for first, but he had to try to help. He kept his
aim as steady as he could.
The tense silence continued, but as time wore on Quandry grew
less tense. He even gradually started to break out into a smile. The
Silencer was scared! He was actually scared! He opened his mouth to
make a witty comment, when there was an explosion of light.
From the gallery, Croft instinctively pressed the trigger. He
only had time for one shot, before everything became quiet again.
They were all standing there. The Silencer, and his three
Then one of Quandry's gunmen fell to the ground; then another;
and then Quandry himself.
The Silencer shuddered, clutching his side. He pulled his hand
away, and felt blood. He staggered forward, unintentionally dropping
The rest of Quandry's men in the room simply watched him.
When the Silencer was face to face with one of them, he spoke
slowly. "Get out of here."
The Grafton turned towards his fellow commandos, nodded, and they
left. Croft didn't bother wondering if they could slip out past
security; he was running down to the rotunda.
But by the time he got there Annie was already there, slapping a
bandage against the Silencer's side.
"You fool, I told you not to handle this alone," said Annie.
Croft heard the sound of rushing footsteps, and saw out of the
corner of his eye that League soldiers were entering the room. The
captive politicians cried out for them like children who had been
separated from their parents.
The Silencer, lying on the ground, said, "I didn't think it would
be any problem," he said.
"Three gold medalists?" said Annie.
"Topogican was the only real threat," said the Silencer. "As for
Carpan, anyone can win an award in race shooting."
Croft looked over at Quandry, who had was lying on the ground
with a big gash in his chest.
"A politician," said the Silencer dismissively. He coughed, and
pain wracked his face.
"Lie still," said Annie. "We'll get you to a doctor."
"It's a scratch," said the Silencer contemptuously. "Just a zip
gun hit." He turned to Croft. "Thanks for trying to help. But I had
everything under control."
"What do you mean, trying to help?"
"Your beam hit Carpan about a half second after mine did," said
Croft stared wordlessly at the Silencer.
"This place must have a security holo, you can check it out,"
said the Silencer.
"I have something better than a security holo," said Croft.
League President Rareen was on his feet, slowly being escorted
from the room. "Wait, wait," he said. He turned to the Silencer, who
was still on the floor.
"Thank you, thank you," said President Rareen.
The Silencer looked coldly at President Rareen.
"You saved my life!" said Rareen. "If there's anything I can do-"
"Money would be nice," said the Silencer immediately. "Maybe,
forty or fifty million credits."
The President looked speechless. Behind him, the Chief of Staff
rolled his eyes.
"I assume your life is worth that much," said the Silencer.
"Annie, give him our bank account number."
Annie handed the President a pre-printed card. He numbly took it.
"It was a pleasure saving you, Mr. President," said the Silencer.
The President nodded numbly. And then he was hustled away.
"You think he'll really pay?" said Croft.
"Either that, or one of your agencies will," said the Silencer.
"I don't work for free, you know."
"I know," Croft sighed. He stood up, looking at the ornate
rotunda around him. So it had all ended here. Quandry was dead.
But his army and movement lived on, at least for the moment.
But little did anyone know that this movement was about to be
unraveled. Only Croft knew that the end of Quandry's movement was very
The holo was broadcast onto Grafton and all the other worlds the
Graftonites had taken over. The effects were almost immediate; within a
day, many of the Grafton occupiers were flying back to Grafton II.
Within two weeks, only a handful remained on the other planets, and,
seeing their position was untenable, they also left for home.
"Don't believe it," said Levi Esherkol, reclining in an easy
chair. "Seem too easy. Like simply turning a switch on and off."
"That's because you don't understand the Grafton mind," said
Croft. He and Levi and a number of others were reclining on the roof of
the Column HQ. A number of Gamma Operatives were running around,
shouting, and making odd noises.
"Then maybe you explain," said Levi.
"The Grafton code of honor prized fair fights above all else,"
said Croft. "Think about it. It was rooted in practicality. With no law
to speak of on Grafton, each Graftonite had to survive by his ability
with a gun. That equalized things for one on one combat. It deterred
senseless attacks, because a Grafton considering attacking another
Grafton knew he could get shot in the attempt."
"But think about what would happen if groups of Graftons banded
together and attacked an individual Grafton. Gangs of criminals would
terrorize the planet. The Graftons realized this, and created their
code of conduct for a 'fair fight'," said Croft.
"Ah, I see," said Levi. "When Quandry refused to do fair fight-"
"and the entire Grafton population saw it, his movement was
discredited," said Croft. "It also helped that his senior underlings
stood by and let it happen; that helped discredit even more of the
"But still, Graftons in this for money, not honor, and that not
Croft smiled. "The Graftons were never really into this in the
first place. They had to be maneuvered and manipulated by Quandry to
start their war of conquest, so it didn't take that much to turn them
against it. Our gathering on Grafton started the ball rolling. Why do
you think Quandry was here? He knew he was losing support and had to
goad the Alliance into making another attack to shore up his base of
support. Since the Graftons were never really interested in wars of
conquest in the first place, it didn't take much to get them out of
"But Graftons like to fight."
"As individuals, yes. But not in groups, not in large armies
(aside from small mercenary teams), and not to take over territory.
What would Graftonites do with a planet once they took it over? I
suspect most of them were clueless. No, most of them wanted to operate
on their own to make a quick buck. That's their nature."
"You were smart to record battle," said Levi.
"Thanks," said Croft. "Of course, I had to do some retouching of
the holorecording. The image of my laserbolt, for example, had to be
painted out. We didn't want it to look like the Silencer had any help
from some outside sheep, did we?"
"With Graftonites out of business, I presume blockade lifted?"
"Yes," said Croft. "For once the Chief persuaded the Chief of
Staff to take my advice and leave well enough alone. If we demanded
reparations that could just restart the troubles we had."
"And what about Claritan corporation?"
"What about them?"
"They cooperate with invaders, have many interests on League
worlds. How were they punished?"
Croft frowned. "To my knowledge, they haven't been."
"Oh, there's an investigation in the legislature; they'll report
back in ten years or so, and then maybe Claritan will have to pay a
"Small fine, for trying to take over League."
"They are quite an important corporation with many interests in
League worlds, remember," said Croft. "Disrupting their operations
would disrupt planetary economies."
"And politician bankrolls," said Levi.
Croft watched the gamma operatives walking, yelling, and playing
around the roof. One of them walked by Croft, and hissed, "Yes, Croft
is very pleased with self, always congratulating, self-congratulating."
In the background Croft could see the Clapper clap.
Red Sally was at a grill, apparently cooking food from her
Croft turned to Levi. "What are they all doing here?"
"They don't get out much," said Levi.
"And why are you letting Red cook? Is there something wrong with
your grill?" Croft watched flame spout from her fingers, cooking a
hamburger. Sally chuckled with delight.
"Nothing wrong with grill," said Levi. "Which remind me, what
about Grafton meat recipe you promised?"
"Levi, I, ah,"
"Levi, I was a bit busy," said Croft. "You know, saving the
League from invasion, preventing a presidential assassination, that
sort of thing."
"Oh," said Levi, pouting.
Croft reached over into a carrier bag, and took out a datapad.
"Here," he said.
Levi's eyes brightened. "Recipes?"
"200 of them from among the best chef databases on Grafton," said
"You remembered!" said Levi.
"I know how to take care of my own," said Croft.
"So what you do now?" said Levi.
"I'm up for some vacation time," said Croft. "The Silencer and
Annie have invited me to stay with them on their ranch while the
Silencer recovers. I think I'll take them up on it."
"Silencer not know that you responsible for fake holographic
murder scene and reduced bounty jobs, no?"
"No," said Croft. "And I think that bit of information is best
kept between us."
"You think it safe to go back to Grafton now?"
"I don't think there will be any trouble," said Croft. "After
all, it was a fair fight."
Croft got up and looked at the view of August around him. The
buildings glittered in the morning sun. He smiled, and stretched. Who
knew what tomorrow would bring?
Author's Notes, August 28, 2002
So ends "Attack of the Bounty Hunters" (originally "Attack of the
Graftonites"). As I write more and more books, I find I produce them in
segments. I started writing this book, stopped in the middle for a few
months, wrote "Rise of the Standard Imperium", and then came back and
finished this book. Furthermore, when I came back and wrote the second
half, I wrote the last chapter first, followed by the second to last
chapter, and so on until I moved back to the middle of the book. I find
I enjoy writing more and more of my books this way, and since I have an
outline to work with, I always know where I'm going (or coming from).
You can find more of my books available at www.CliffordCroft.com
Attack of the Bounty Hunters 114
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