Attack of the

Bounty Hunters

By Steven Gordon

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Forward: 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.  

            The Graftonites. 

            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 hunting. 

            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: 

            Bounty hunter. 

            Gunman.

            Mercenary. 

            Killer.

            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 the other.

            "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 for?"

            "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 backwards. "Draw."

            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 backwards.

            "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 blade.

            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 the galaxy!"

            "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 it.

            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 on August.

            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 again."

            "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 poetry!"

            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 Sally guardedly.

            "Good," Croft said. "Because remember that your books are surrounding me." The orderlies in the fire protection suits held up the books.

            "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 now.

            "So nothing I could say could cause you to start a fire, then?" Croft said.

            "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," Croft observed.

            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 amateurish-"

            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 brow.

            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 there.

            "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 conference room.

            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 less important.

            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 planet."

            That started some murmuring in the audience. That wasn't typical Graftonite behavior.

            "Next image, please!" the Chief said, taking over the presentation. 

            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 I-word. 

            "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 analyst.  

            "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 planetary defense?" 

            "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 Staff.

            "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 muttered.

            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 civilian asked. 

            "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 the assessor." 

            "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 generals. 

            "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 situation." 

            "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 much." 

            "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 Croft.

  

            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 Graftonite?" 

            "I would, if we had a Graftonite operative, but we don't," said the Chief. 

            "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 frank?" 

            "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 presentation?" 

            "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 gamma operative." 

            "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 priority A-1." 

            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. 

            "Croft?" 

            "Yes?" 

            "I want regular reports. I intend to run your mission myself. There are to be no headstrong actions without consulting me. Are we clear?" 

            Croft sighed. 

            "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 again.

            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 training session.

            "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 Grafton?" 

            "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. 

            "Why not?" 

            "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!" 

            Sally stopped. 

            "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 gone.  

 

            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 dense. 

            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 Croft. 

            "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!" 

            "What?" 

            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?" 

            Croft nodded. 

            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," said Levi. 

            "What do you have?" 

            "Look in boot," said Levi. 

            Croft raised the right boot and looked inside, but only saw darkness. 

            "No, left boot!" 

            Croft did the same with the left boot, but only saw the same thing. 

            "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." 

            "May?" 

            "Experimental," said Levi. "Works on chimps for short periods." 

            "Chimps," said Croft. "Will this make me faster than the Graftonites?" 

            "Not sure," said Levi. "Depends on your bodily chemistry, and formula." 

            "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 anything else-" 

            "Best can do on short notice," said Levi. "Do you have few weeks?" 

            "No." 

            "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.

            "Croft?" 

            "Yes?" 

            "Looking for new meat recipes, Graftons famous for. If time, can you-" 

            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 you?" 

            "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 fight." 

            "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 distance." 

            "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 seriously." 

            "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. 

            "How?"  

            "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 each other." 

            "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 few hours." 

            "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. 

            "And then?" 

            "We'll drop by a friend's place," said Croft. 

            "May I remind you that we're here on official business," said Tane. 

            "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 privately owned." 

            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 Clapper. 

            "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 was self-evident." 

            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 Carper. 

            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 now." 

            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 comm. "Done." 

            "Just a moment," said the voice. Then, "Confirmed. What are your instructions?" 

            "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 again. 

            "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 the sign.

            "Are you sure he won't consider us intruders?" Tane asked anxiously.

            "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 professional gunman."

            "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 with you." 

            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 each thigh. 

            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 here?" 

            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 Croft. 

            "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 Quandry-" 

            "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, really." 

            "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 aren't involved." 

            "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 planets." 

            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?" said Croft. 

            "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." 

            Carper snorted. 

            The Clapper clapped. 

            "What's with him?" Carper asked, giving the Clapper a sharp glance. 

            "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 questions." 

            "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?" said Tane. 

            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 evaporate. 

            "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 at Croft. 

            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," said Croft. 

            The man snorted, shook his head, and turned around to face forward. 

            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 conversation. 

            "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 his weapon. 

            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!" said Quandry. 

            The crowd roared again. 

            "But never let it be said that we do not seek peace," said Quandry. 

            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 paradigm. 

            "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 Clapper. 

            "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 clapping. 

            "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 smile. 

            "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 peaceful solution." 

            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'?" said Croft. 

            "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," said Rocco. 

            "Really? Could you arrange a meeting with Mr. Quandry?" said Croft. 

            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." 

            "Yes sir." 

            "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 envoy."

 

            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 are." 

            Carper chuckled.

            Tane reddened. "It was the Chief's idea," she said. 

            "And you assured me it would work," said Croft. "It almost got us killed." 

            "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 we recognized?" 

            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 word. 

            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 feeble expressions." 

            "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 Tane. 

            "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 stadium. 

 

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

 

            A quarter mile back down the road….. 

            "What are they doing?" asked one of the Graftonites with the field glasses. 

            "Just sitting there, in the ground car," said the other. 

            "Just sitting there?" 

            "Yeeeep."

 

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

 

            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?" 

            "Da."

 

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

 

            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 snapped. 

            "Watch." Croft slowly replayed the events,  providing the commentary. 

            "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?" 

            "See what?" 

            "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 head. 

            "What are you doing?" 

            "Thinking," said Croft. He opened them again. "We've got to dig some more into this." 

            "Why?" 

            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 time. 

            "Hm, I don't know, maybe because we're paying you to?" said Croft. 

            "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?" 

            "Y-yes." 

            "Well?" said Croft. 

            "Well, what?" 

            "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?" 

            "For what?" 

            "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 Grafton." 

            "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. 

            "Then… why?" 

            "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?" 

            "Yes." 

            "Consider the next six days a gift," said Croft. "Get out of the car." 

            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 Chief. 

            "He's also hostile, and won't lift a finger to help us," said Croft. 

            "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 the Chief. 

            "I'm not keeping him on, he's just as liable to shoot me in the back." 

            "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 moment passed. 

            "What else do you have to report?" 

            "I think there's something fishy about that holovid of Cadwalader's death." 

            "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." 

            "Anything else?" 

            "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 Croft dryly. 

            "We're to interview local opinion leaders," said Tane. 

            "Yes," said Croft. "Starting with friends and relatives of Cadwalader." 

            "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 moment-" 

            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 happening?" 

            "Preston, I need some information quickly," said Croft. "I need you to find out everything you can about the death of one Rel Cadwalader." 

            "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?" 

            "Anything suspicious." 

            "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. 

            "Levi?"

            No response.

            "Levi!" 

            "Yes?" said the cook 

            "Did I mention I need this by tomorrow?" said Croft. 

            "Uh...." 

            "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 Tane. 

            "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 forward-thinking journalist." 

            "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 asked. 

            "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. 

            "Te-le-k-" 

            "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 move people." 

            The Clapper considered. Then he nodded. 

            "If a Graftonite attacks me, or is about to attack me, I want you to move him." 

            "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." 

            "Other Grafton?" 

            "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 off-worlder." 

            Tane, in setting up the interview, had used their "diplomatic envoy" persona. 

            "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 your planet?" 

            "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 one bit. 

            "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 about." 

            "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 solicitor." 

            "Even holosolicitors?" said Croft. "What do they do, shoot the offending hologram?" 

            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 polling?" 

            "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. 

            "Beggers?" 

            "Your poor?" 

            "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 Graftonite?"

            "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 on Grafton." 

            "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. 

            "Why not?" 

            "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 know. 

            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?" 

            Croft nodded. 

            "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 forecasts." 

            "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?" Croft asked. 

            "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." 

            "What 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 the word." 

            "The word?" 

            "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 uneasily. 

            "Anything you say here is strictly confidential," Croft assured him. 

            "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."

            "Such as?"

            "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. 

            "Mr. Toft?" 

            Croft turned around. 

            "One last parting piece of advice. Do you plan to live a long life?" 

            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 Cadwalader." 

            "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 Levi."  

 

            Croft called them the following morning. He spoke to Preston first. 

            "Well?" 

            "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," said Croft. 

            "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 marks." 

            "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?" 

            "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 traces." 

            "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 others." 

            "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 mood?" 

            "I'll tickle him," said Croft. "Thanks, Pres." 

            "Be careful, Croft," said Preston. "These Graftonites are really quick." 

            "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 cooking?" 

            "Maybe because you're... always cooking," said Croft. "What did you find out?" 

            "Did not tell me I would have to infiltrate private networks," said Levi. 

            "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." 

            Levi grimaced. 

            "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 Cadwalader." 

            "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 stay here." 

            "You want me to stay here?"  Tane asked.

            "It could be dangerous." 

            "Oh," said Tane. "I really think we should talk to the Chief first." 

            "You are absolutely forbidden to talk to the Chief first," said Croft. 

            "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 her." 

            "But-" 

            "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 feel better?"

            "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 agendas."

            "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. 

            "About what?" 

            "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 Croft. 

            "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 Graftonite. 

            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 aimlessly. 

            "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 discrete shot. 

            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 again. 

            "Wrong answer," the leader snarled, raising his blaster. 

            Suddenly he gave a scream. His arm holding the blaster was on fire. 

            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. 

            "Hello, Sally." 

            Red Sally, her hair bright red now under the morning sun, gave a little smile. 

            "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 asked. 

            "I was assigned 'fire control exercises'," she said, making a face. 

            "Do you remember why you were assigned these exercises?" Croft asked. 

            "They said I couldn't control the flames," said Sally. "But they're wrong!" 

            "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 very instructive." 

            "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?" 

            Sally nodded. 

            "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 burned face. 

            "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 the body." 

            "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 questions asked." 

            "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 background. 

            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 me?" 

            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," said Croft. 

            "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 were burned." 

            "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 appeared. 

            "Who's that?" 

            "The sheep who appeared at your rally. Says his name is Toft, a League ambassador." 

            "Yes, I remember your mentioning him," said Quandry. "He had a lot of guts, showing up here. But surely he couldn't have killed Cadwalader." 

            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 Rocco. 

            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." 

            "Carper?" 

            "The sheep." 

            "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 was… chimplike." 

            "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. 

            "Levi?" 

            "No," said Levi. "No ideas yet." 

            "What about an energy shield?" 

            "Too bulky." 

            "Some kind of armor?" 

            "None available." 

            "Nothing?" 

            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. 

            "What-" 

            "Shhh!" said Croft. He paced some more, thinking intently. Then he paced even more. Then he stopped, and smiled at Tane. 

            "An idea?" 

            "Maybe," said Croft. "If I can't outdraw them, maybe I can out think them." 

            "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 others-" 

            "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." 

            "Why?" 

            "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 shoot you." 

            "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 Clifford?" 

            "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?" 

            "No." 

            "Did you know that 29% of unlicensed people locators allow themselves to be bribed out of completing their mission?" 

            "No-" 

            "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 Ribbers. 

            "So bounty… people locators in your union are more professional?" 

            "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 uncomfortable.

            "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 us." 

            "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 look… unprofessional." 

            "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 politics." 

            "But we're only talking about exercising your right of free speech-" 

            "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 up-" 

            "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 want?" 

            "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 provocation." 

            "I see," said Croft, not trying very hard not to let his disappointment show. 

            "You have to understand, he has some gold medalists working for him-" Ribbers was interrupted by a buzz on his desk. He pressed a button. "Yes?" 

            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." 

            Another response. 

            "If he refuses, send the groundskeeper. He's a retired bronze medalist, you know," said Ribbers. He pressed a button and ended the conversation. 

            "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. 

            "Mr. Ribbers?" 

            "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. 

            Carper laughed. 

            "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 Croft.

            "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 gun. 

            "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 Croft. 

            "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 suspiciously. 

            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, defenseless diplomat!" 

            "Get up," the Graftonite muttered. 

            "Pleeeeassseee…. Don't…. kill…. meeeeeeeeee…….," Croft sobbed. 

            "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 your gun." 

            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 olympic medalist. 

            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 sensitive." 

            "That was no luck," said Tane. "How did you know that would work?" 

            "Simple psychology," said Croft. "I know the Graftonites like fair fights. So I tried to make the fight as unfair as possible--in my opponent's favor." 

            "Very clever," said Tane admiringly. 

            "Perhaps you'll put in a good word for me with the Chief," said Croft dryly. 

            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 Rocco. 

            "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 cupboards. 

            Rocco said, "There were people around, they might not have liked it…." 

            "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 storage area. 

            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 our operations?" 

            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 crouch. 

            "We're still working on phase two," said Rocco. He lazily stretched out his legs under the table. Suddenly, he felt something solid. 

            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 at it. 

            "What?" said Rocco. 

            "I've always thought it was too small," said Quandry. "Get a bigger table." 

            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," said Quandry. 

            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 advance. 

            There had never been so much paperwork in the olds days.

            Sighing softly to himself, Croft moved to the window and made his escape.   


 

 

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 blackmailed?"

            "Of course not," said the Chief. "That's totally against our principals."

            "Totally," said Croft.

            "On the other hand, we are considering extending development assistance-" 

            "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 about it." 

            Tane looked puzzled but plowed on. "Have you heard anything useful?" 

            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 Tane. 

            "Tagan?" 

            "Of Tagan Industries. It's the biggest corporation on Graftonite." 

            "With a population of only eight million people, how big can that be?" 

            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 being followed." 

            "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 off-worlders." 

            "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 closely!"   

 

            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 Tagan. 

            "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 it." 

            "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 sell." 

            "We have a little competition here and there," said Tagan. "But most weren't able to withstand the rigors of competing against us." He didn't elaborate. 

            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 Croft. 

            "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." 

            "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 settled?" 

            "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 pay." 

            "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 electronoculars. 

            "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 man. 

            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 man?" 

            "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 killer. 

            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 you?" 

            "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 was going. 

            "So you admit, if I could take you by surprise, that I can outdraw you." 

            "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 Rocco. 

            "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?" 

            "Apparently so." 

            "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 groundcar. 

            "Sheep," said Carper dismissively, before Tane could answer. 

            "Sheep care about the Olympics?" said Croft, deliberately playing dumb. 

            "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 Carper. 

            "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 matters." 

            "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 pitying look. 

            "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 in yellow." 

            "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." 

            "What then?" 

            "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 neighbors." 

            "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?" Croft asked. 

            "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. 

            "Eh?" 

            "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 know?" 

            "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 instant. 

            At that moment he knew the reason behind peoples' fear of a "gold medalist". 

 

            Methlid Okuna was the current head of the Graftonite Olympics committee. He gave them a broad smile as he welcomed them into his office. 

            "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 asked. 

            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." 

            "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." 

            "Junior League?" 

            "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 asked. 

            "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 moving targets." 

            "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." 

            "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 asked. 

            "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 population." 

            "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 League?" 

            "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 Okuna.

            "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 Carper. 

            But as they turned to go, they heard a voice say, "Just a moment." 

            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. 

            Croft nodded. 

            "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 his body. 

            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 moved." 

            "I didn't," said Croft, nursing his burn.

            "Now pick up another apple, and put it on your head," said the leader. 

            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 headed off. 

            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." 

            Croft nodded. 

            "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," said Croft.

            "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." 

            "Why?" 

            "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," said Traker. 

            "Us…?" 

            "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." 

            "What areas?" 

            "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, indicating Carper. 

            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 go. 

            "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 assassination.

            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 blaster.

            “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 me.”

            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 gunfighters.”

            “Who said anything about killing him?” said Croft. “And in case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been handling Grafton killers quite well lately.”

            “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, Clifford.”

            “The reagent.”

            “The reagent.”

            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 while.”

            “I’ve been here,” the Clapper grinned.

            “Never mind. Get over to my apartment.”

            “Huh?”

            “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

deficient.”

            “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 later.”

            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 clear shot.”

            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 apartment.

            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 were there?”

            “A lucky guess,” said Croft. “Come on.”

 

            They once again conferenced with the Chief over a secure holotransmission.

            “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,” said Croft.

            “Hanlin,” said Tane, glaring at Croft.

            “What about your meeting with the Olympics official?” said the Chief.

            “He was sympathetic, but not willing to get involved in the body politic-“

            “For fear someone would shoot his political body,” said Croft.

            “Has everyone been cowed into silence by Mo Quandry?” the Chief asked.

            “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 interested.”

            “Hm…” said the Chief. She turned to look at something outside the range of the holographic imprinter.

            “Chief?”

            “Quandry has called a meeting with local diplomatic representatives next week to try to iron out differences,” said the Chief.

            “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 gleam.”

            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 find there.”

            “What is the basis of that feeling?” the Chief asked.

            “It’s just a feeling,” said Croft.

            “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 the Chief.

            “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 shipment?”
            “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.”

            “Wrong?”

            “This business of talking to elites is a waste of time,” said Croft.

            “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 August Database."

            Tane ignored the slight. “Are you going to this warehouse today?”
            “No, tonight.”

            “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 Regular.

            “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 for business.”

            “Did he say that?”

            “No,” said Tane. “But he was very friendly. I have a feeling we can pick up an ally here.”

            Carper snorted.

            “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 of them.

            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 interfere.”

            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 hand.

            “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 Croft.

            “I don’t think we will meet again,” said Bigree. “Goodbye, Mr. Croft.”

            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 shoot me?”

            “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 gunman.

            “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 and now?”

            “Test?”

            “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?”
            “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 blaster…

            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 his chest.

            Looking very shocked and surprised, the gunman, openmouthed, dropped to the ground wordlessly.

            “The quicker they make them, the dumber they make them,” said Croft.

            “Especially if you don’t fight fair,” said Carper, who walked up to them.

            “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 either.”

            Croft turned to Tane. “We’ve finally found a job for him; he can referee!”

 

            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 entry.

            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 looking.

            Inside the crate, Croft waited until the footsteps receded and then quickly risked a bit of light from a handflash. What he saw made him gasp.

            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 primary warheads….

            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 slowly.

            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 correct.”

            “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 you.”

            “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 doing tonight.”

            “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 trick.”

            He started running for the trees. A few second later, the warehouse exploded.

            The whole area was engulfed in flame. The explosions continued for several minutes, as other munitions ignited, creating a cascading effect.

 

            “What do you mean, it blew up!” Quandry roared. “What was the cause?”

            “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 eight.”

            “A Column Eight operative,” said Quandry. “That would explain a lot.” He looked hard at the newcomers. “And you are telling me this because….”

            “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 starters.”
            “A billion!”

            “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 Graftonite guards.

            “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 ground.

            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 monitored.

            “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 Croft.

            “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 added.

 

            “-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 answer.

            “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.”

            “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 asked.

            “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 fairness.”

            “Fairness?”
            “You are probably familiar with the death of Rel Cadwalader, yes?”

            Croft nodded.

            “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 reward.”

            “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 the rival.”

            “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.

            “Thank you.”

            “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.”

            “Do you?”

            “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.

            “Which is?”

            “Quandry is promoting a conference next week to work out a solution involving the payment of transfer fees to cement galactic unity.”

            “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 Arco.

            “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 a gunman.

            “Don’t tell me, we’re in a no parking zone,” said Croft.

            The Gunman stood very still, watching Croft, waiting for him to draw.

            “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 shocked.

            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 him.”

            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?”

            “No.”

            “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.

            “What…. How….?”

            “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!”

            “Yes, Mo.”

            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 conference fails.”

            “Or perhaps he intends to blow up the peace conference,” said Croft.

            “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 moderates-“

            “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 tensions-“

            “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 Tane.

            “Yes, they want money, a lot of it,” said Croft. “I already knew that.”

            “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 grin.

            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 Bates.

            “Money,” said Carper simply.

            “Do you really care what happens to this one?” said Bates, indicating Croft.

            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 Croft down.

            “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 office.

            "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 up?”

            Quandry laughed. “I don’t think so, Mr. Croft. No, I brought you here to get some information.”

            “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,” Croft realized.

            “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’m surprised.”

            “Surprised?”

            “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 want?”

            “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 diplomats.”

            “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 demands.”

            “Purposefully unreasonable demands,” said Croft, suddenly understanding.

            “At which time they’ll be regrettably executed.”

            “You  never intended for the League to accept your terms,” Croft realized.

            “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 plan.”

            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.”

            “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 operatives.

            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 money.

            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?”

            “Not really.”

            “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 Miller.

            “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 dismissively.

            “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 executed.”

            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 will pay.”

            “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 Graftonites.”

            “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 negotiate.”

            “You’ve got a point,” said the Chief. “What, then, are our options?”

            “I could attempt a rescue,” said Croft.

            “The nearest Column team is more than four days away,” said the Chief.

            “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, trembling.

            “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 bargain.”

            “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 Silencer.

            “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 Silencer.

            “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 the bills.”

            “John, we have more than enough credits, and you know it,” said Annie.

            “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 fee.”

            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 Annie.

            And then slowly one gunman dropped to the ground, and then so did the other.

            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 the windows.

            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 to Annie.”

            “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 first.”

            “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 circled above.

            It was starting to be one of those days.

 

            “How do we reason with them? Let them know we’re not a threat?” said Miller.

            “I think they already know that,” said Ambassador Yardin grimly.

            “You don’t really think they’re going to execute us, do you?” said Miller.

            “No, not for another four hours,” said Yardin. He turned to Ambassador Rukanan, who was eyeing the food on the table but eating nothing.

            “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 here.”

            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 sentry.

            “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 Rukanan.

            “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 while.”

            “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 exchange.

            “He was probably trying to sell us out to the Graftonites,” said Yardin nonchalantly.

            “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 hostages in.

            Hm…

            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-distance sniping-“

            “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 won’t work.”

            “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 League personnel.”

            “What about Slurians?”

            “What about them?”

            “If you’re going to rescue your people, why not also rescue ours?”

            “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,” said Croft.

            “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?” Yuri asked.

            Croft pretended to consider for a moment. “Well, since you ask so nicely, there is one small thing you can do.”
            “Yes?”

            “We need a getaway vehicle.”

            “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 ambassador’s death.”

            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, over there?”

            The Clapper looked at the terrace. It looked like a nice terrace.

            “Can you?”

            “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 stopped.

            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 approaching Grafton.”

            “League?”

            “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 order?”

            “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 look good.”

            “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 underestimate him.”

 

            Red Sally gave a small gasp as she plonked down on the third floor terrace.

            “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?”

            “No.”

            “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 say anything.

            “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 exits-“

            “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 survival.

            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 after Rukanan.

            “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 face.

            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 walls.

            It was a few seconds before someone started screaming, “Fire! 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 hostages outside.

            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 flames.

            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 instant.

            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 scanner.

            “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 with them.”

            “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 again?”

 


 

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 slightly.

            “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?”

            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 bridge officers.

            “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 answer.

            “Admiral-“ said Croft.

            Suddenly they felt a small explosion, and then another, and then another.

            “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 wants.”

            “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 proportional.”

            “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 small smile.

 

 

            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 Lillard did.”

            “Explain.”

            “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 invasion.”

            “The next one?”

            “It’s not going to stop with Karis,” said Croft.

            “I’ll talk with the President about deploying the fleet,” said the Chief.

            “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 brains.”

 

            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.

            “Such as…?”

            “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 Sarittenden.”

            “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 transports.”
            “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 subordinates-“

            “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 right now.”

            “Blow the enemy out of the sky!” said Lillard. “Have them target the transports.”

            “But Admiral-“

            “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 here!”

            “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 now.”

            “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 seconds later.

            “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 know.

            “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 officer.

            “Then forget about them,” said Lillard. “Target those transports!”

            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 chair, scowling.

            “I told you she wasn’t ready,” he said. His name was War Admiral Adam Lafferty.

            “What was your solution to the problem?” said another, Battle Admiral Kenna.

            “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 resentment-“

            “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 fast