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"The blackcollar forces are the elite warriors of this upcoming conflict of ours—the best chance the Terran Democratic Empire has of surviving the Ryqril war machine being launched against us."
For no particular reason the words flashed through Allen Caine's mind as he stood alone in the darkness. Words of hope, spoken originally by the TDE's chief military head at the first Special Forces Training Center commencement in 2416. The hope had been short-lived, of course. Two years later the war had begun: thirteen more and Earth itself had finally surrendered to the humiliation of Ryqril occupation troops and puppet governments.
And as for himself, Caine wasn't feeling especially elite at the moment. Nor, for that matter, much like a warrior.
So much for the wisdom of the past.
A faint scraping noise reached his ears, snapping his mind back to the immediate problem at hand. Somewhere between four and ten men—seven, he thought, from the sounds—were out there in the sparse woods, closing in on him with lasers and flechette guns at the ready. Against such firepower Caine's own shuriken, nunchaku, and slingshot didn't seem like a hell of a lot.
Especially considering his opponents weren't blind.
Automatically, before he could relax them, his eyes strained against the opaque goggles. Damn you, Lathe, this is ridiculous, he thought once. Taking a quiet breath, he forced, his mind to relax and concentrate.
He had four of his opponents firmly placed: two ahead and to the right, one behind and also on his right, one dead ahead. The other three weren't so certain, but he at least knew they were somewhere to his left. Whether they knew exactly where he was or not wasn't clear; but it was clear some of them were getting too close for safety.
And blinded as he was, Caine's only hope was to take the initiative before they tripped over him.
Carefully, making no sound, he dipped his left hand into his thigh shuriken pouch and drew out a stack of five stars. He shifted one to his right hand, took a deep breath ... and rose suddenly to his knees, hurling four of the stars rapid-fire at his known targets.
All four stars were away before the shout of discovery came from his left. Caine sent his fifth shuriken in the direction of that voice and dived into a forward roll just as a flechette gun opened up. The darts missed him completely, and the gun's sound gave him yet another target. Ending his roll on his knees, he scrabbled a shuriken from his belt pouch and threw it. Someone gurgled and Caine again hit the ground.
And froze, listening. The woods had gone silent. Had there in fact been only six, not seven, attackers?
Abruptly, Caine's tingler came on: Bandit bearing twenty-five degrees, under cover.
So there was a seventh man ... but for the information to help him, Caine now needed to remember which way was north. Kinesthetic memory would have that, if he could relax his mind enough for the proper psychor technique to draw it out. There? ... there. Twenty-five degrees east of that ... there. Ten degrees left of dead-on. Sliding a finger under his right sleeve, Caine tapped out his own tingler message: Specify bandit's cover.
No response. Probably a small bush, Caine decided. Large trees seemed to be rare in this area, and a bush would at least provide the visual protection a sapling wouldn't.
Visual protection from a blind man. Though a thick enough bush would also provide some protection against the throwing stars, too. Caine was just reaching for the release strap of his slingshot when a sudden sound barely a meter away threw him into instant, violent reaction.
Ducking his head, he shoved off the forest mat into a flat somersault, rolling on his shoulders and kicking straight, out at the unseen figure his ears, had said was in front of him. His heels caught something solid, knocked it backward. He leaped after it, snatching his nunchaku from its hip sheath and swinging it toward the sound of the crash. The thirty-centimeter hardwood stick, swinging like a buzz saw from its plastic chain, connected with a hollow thud ... and as Caine drew a three-pointed shuriken into a push-knife grip, a shrill whistle split the air. Caine slid off his goggles, blinking in the sudden sunlight, and looked down at his opponent as he got to his feet.
Rafe Skyler was a big man to begin with, and with the heavy armor he was wearing he looked positively monstrous. "I think I'm glad I couldn't see you," Caine told him. "You look like a giant sculpture of a beetle."
Skyler chuckled as he got easily to his feet. "A lesser man might take that as an insult," he commented, unsnapping his helmet and lifting it off for examination. On the top was a flaming-red mark a few centimeters across. "Good shot," he said approvingly. "Clean hit, with enough force to break even a Ryq's skull." Craning his neck, the big man looked down onto his chestplate and the twin red marks left there by Caine's heels. "Nice," he said.
"Of course," a voice behind Caine added, "ideally you shouldn't have let him get that close."
Caine turned, feeling the rush of mixed emotions that always, on some level, accompanied his interactions with Damon Lathe. A blackcollar commando commander—corn-square for short—doyen, of the remaining blackcollars on Plinry, Lathe had saved Caine's life at least twice and had succeeded in pulling the younger man's first Resistance mission to success out of what had been wet ashes indeed.
On the other hand, he'd also lied to Caine on several occasions, sent him around the red-herring track more times than Caine cared to remember, and had virtually reduced him to pawn status on that same mission. And to top it off, for the past seven months Lathe had been the one running Caine through Plinry's brand-new floating blackcollar academy.
Which had included a lot of this brand of tooth-grinding test.
Stepping to Caine's side, Lathe glanced over Skyler's armor. "Not bad," he said. "You also got three fast kills and two slow ones with your shuriken. The last one, though, you nearly missed. Let's go to the lodge and run the tapes."
Skyler was looking upward. Caine followed his gaze, found the tiny black dot hovering far above. "Smile for Security's cameras," Skyler suggested.
Caine considered sending an obscene gesture instead, decided not to bother. Replacing his shuriken in its pouch, he followed Lathe back through the trees as, all around him, the "dead" returned to life to await the next victim.
It was really rather sobering to see the performance on tape.
Seated before the screen, his mind replaying his own memones as he watched, he listened to Lathe's running critique. "... here you lost half a second in the backward underhand throw.... Good roll, but he should by rights have nailed you on his next shot.... Skyler may have been too quiet to hear, but you should have sensed his approach.... Late, but a good takedown anyway."
The tape ended, and Caine uncurled his fists. "So what's the verdict?" he asked. "Are you graduating us now, or do I have to wait until the next time the Novak heads for Earth?"
Lathe set his elbows on the desk in front of him, fingering the ring he wore on the middle finger of his right hand as he gazed into Caine's face. Caine's eyes dropped to the ring: a silvery dragonhead, its batwing crest curving back over the knuckle, its ruby-red eyes proclaiming its owner to be a blackcollar comsquare. A symbol of ability, dedication, and sheer fighting power ... and for Caine, a symbol too of what he intended to do with his new skills.
"You'd like to wear-the dragon, wouldn't you?" Lathe asked into his thoughts.
"Not without earning it," Caine told him.
Lathe shrugged fractionally, his eyes still on Caine's. "We could grant you a special exception, provided we could find an unused ring to fit you."
"What good would that do?" Caine snorted. "I want to be a blackcollar, not just dress like one."
Lathe pursed his lips. "If we had any Backlash, you'd be the first to get it. You know that."
Caine nodded. Backlash—the code name for the drug that had been the heart of the whole blackcollar project. Given in a tailored dosage pattern, it permanently altered a man's neural chemistry, effectively doubling his speed and reflexes in combat situations. Backlash, and Backlash alone, had allowed the blackcollars to successfully pit their low-tech, low-profile weaponry against the more sophisticated Ryqril equipment and, in many cases, come out ahead. Shuriken and nunchaku passed detectors set for lasers and high-metal projectile guns without raising a ripple; Backlash speed and blackcollar marksmanship turned them into deadlier weapons than they had any right to be.
But there was no Backlash on Plinry, and no indication that it still existed anywhere else in the TDE ... and if that was true, the first generation of blackcollars would also be the last.
Lathe was speaking again, and Caine snapped his attention back to the blackcollar. "But without it, you and your team are about as ready as we can make you," the older man said. "So if you want to talk to Lepkowski about travel arrangements, this is the time to do so."
Caine licked his lips briefly. The moment he'd been aiming at for the past year ... the moment when he would leave the relative safety of Plinry and strike out on his own against the Ryqril puppet government on Earth.
But there was no way he was going to show his private uncertainties before Lathe. "Good," he said briskly, getting to his feet. "Is the general still here?"
"He will be for another two hours. Then a shuttle's due to take him back up."
Caine nodded. "Okay. See you later."
General Avril Lepkowski's room at Hamner Lodge was small and sparsely furnished, as befit a man who'd spent perhaps a total of six days there in the past year. A cot, a desk and pair of chairs, a computer with scramble/code capability—brought down from one of the Nova-class warships Lathe and his blackcollars had dug out of decades-old storage from under the Ryqril collective snout a year earlier—and, of course, one of the ubiquitous "bug stompers" that seemed to sprout around the lodge and environs exactly like what their mushroom shapes suggested. Caine eyed the device dubiously as he entered the room. At the moment a good bug stomper was supposed to be proof against all known electronic monitoring devices, but that was bound to change someday. Unfortunately, no one would immediately know when that happened.
"Be with you in a minute, Caine," Lepkowski said, eyes on something tracking across his display. Nodding silently, Caine took the chair beside the desk, from which the screen was out of view. Whatever Lepkowski was working on, it was probably none of Caine's immediate business ... and both Lathe and Lepkowski were very big on the compartmentalization of secrets. If you didn't need to know, you weren't told. And you didn't ask twice.
A minute later the older man sighed and leaned back in his chair. "Damn them all back to hell," he muttered.
"Trouble?" Caine asked.
"Yes, but so far only at the annoyance level." Lepkowski gestured at his screen. "The Karachi 's last intelligence sweep through the TDE indicates the war front with the Chryselli has shifted again, and the damn Ryqril convoy routes have changed accordingly. Means we're going to have to detour around Navarre and maybe New Morocco if we don't want to run into anything big."
Caine grimaced. The huge Ryqril war machine which had overrun the TDE thirty years earlier was currently locked in combat with the Chryselli Homelands, and the legged furballs were giving the Ryqril a distinct run for their money. It was the only reason Lepkowski's three Novas were being allowed to wander around loose, in fact—the Ryqril simply couldn't afford the front-line ships and time it would take to chase them down. But that didn't mean a ship that just happened to bump into one of the Novas wouldn't take a shot at it. "You going to have any trouble hitting Earth?"
Lepkowski shook his head. "None at all—Earth's way off the convoy routes. I understand your team's riding with me."
"News travels fast," Caine said. Of course, Lathe would have given Lepkowski advance notice of the team's graduation. "Tell me, General, do you have any ideas about where military secrets on Earth might still be preserved?"
Lepkowski's eyebrows rose slightly. "Any particular secrets you had in mind?"
Caine took a deep, breath, suddenly afraid this was going to sound either stupid or boastful or both. "As a matter of fact, yes," he said between stiff lips. "I want to find the formula for Backlash. The blackcollar drug."
If Lepkowski thought the goal ludicrous, it wasn't immediately evident. For a long moment the general eyed Caine in silence, his face giving away nothing. Then he twitched a shrug. "Nothing like starting at the very top of the list. I suppose it's occurred to you that other people have undoubtedly gone on the same treasure hunt over the past thirty years, and that there's no evidence anyone's succeeded yet."
The thought had crossed Caine's mind. Frequently. "True. But maybe they were looking in the wrong place."
"And you expect me to know the right places?"
"I know you were in charge of this sector before the Ryqril took it. Surely you knew most of the military safe drops on Earth and elsewhere."
Lepkowski snorted, a wry smile touching his lips. "Safe drop. I haven't heard that term in years. Your tutors had a definite military bias."
"General Morris Kratochvil was one of them."
"Kratochvil." The age lines around Lepkowski's eyes seemed to deepen. "A good man ... No, Caine, the formula for Backlash wouldn't have been put in any safe drop. If it still exists, it'd have to be in one of the Seven Sisters."
Caine frowned. He'd heard that term before.... "Those were the seven top command/defense bases, weren't they? One per continent, roughly."
"Right." The general nodded. "Major, secrets of all sorts would have been stored there. Unfortunately ... well, maybe there's a way to check." Leaning forward again, he began working his keyboard. "We've got some orbital maps of Earth from our last flyby a few months back. Thirty years is a long time, but the force necessary to destroy one of the Sisters ought to have left some lingering scars."
Within a very few minutes that prediction was painfully borne out. Six of the seven spots Lepkowski pointed to were in the middle of either slowly eroding blast craters or unnaturally defoliated wildernesses. Or both.
The seventh ...
"Almost completely untouched," Lepkowski murmured as he tried various image-enhancement programs and topographical reconstructions. "Incredible. How could they have missed it?"
"Where is the base, exactly?" Caine asked.
Lepkowski did something to the keyboard and a topographic overlay appeared on the orbital photo. "Here," he said, tapping a wide mountain peak. "Aegis Mountain, about thirty klicks west of Denver, North America. Major highway passes north of it here; the entrance opens onto it about here."
Caine stared hard at the image. No defoliation; certainly no obvious crater. "What are those things up there to the north?" he asked, pointing to a pair of slightly off-color patches.
"Uh ..." Lepkowski tapped keys. "Neutron missile scars, I'd say. Probably from the war—they don't look recent."
"Could that be how the base was neutralized? Saturation neutron bombing?"
"No, Aegis had better shielding than that. But you're right—the base was neutralized somehow. The Ryqril surely wouldn't have left a fully manned and armed base sitting untouched on the doorstep of a major metro area."
"Maybe they didn't need to destroy it," Caine suggested. "Maybe they got inside and took it over."
"In which case you might as well scratch any plans to get in yourself." Lepkowski rubbed his chin. "Hard to believe, though. Once the base was locked down no one should have been able to get in without bringing the whole mountain down on top of himself."
Caine bit at his lip. "Maybe it was unlocked, then. Surrendered to them."
Lepkowski was silent a long moment. Then he shook his head. "No, that doesn't sound right, either. Kratochvil wouldn't have given Aegis away. And neither would the local commander."
There was another pause. "So what's your end-line assessment?" Caine asked at last. "Is there any use in my looking for Backlash there?"
Excerpted from The Backlash Mission by Timothy Zahn. Copyright © 1986 Timothy Zahn. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted September 28, 2009
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