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Cross the Stars
By David Drake
Baen BooksISBN: 0-671-57821-9
Chapter OneA hologram of a tank, bow-on as it plowed through a brushfire, filled most of the wall behind President Hammer's desk. Either by chance or through Hammer's deliberation, the tank was Two Star-Danny Pritchard's unit twenty years before, when he had been a sergeant in the Slammers and not Hammer's chosen successor.
"Hey, snake," the President called cheerfully when he saw it was Pritchard who had entered the office unannounced.
Hammer tilted away the desk display which he had been studying. He had not let age and the presidency blunt all the edges of his appearance. If Hammer's hair was its natural gray now, then it was still naturally his own. His shoulders and wrists would have done credit to a larger, younger man. There was a paunch below desk height that had not been there five years before, however. No practical amount of exercise could wholly replace the field work of the lifetime previous. "Had a chance to glance over the proposal from Dominica?"
"Glance, yes," Danny said, perching himself on the arm of an easy chair instead of the seat. The fabric responded to his weight, squirming in an attempt to mold itself to his contours. Pritchard preferred a solid bench, so he gave as little purchase as possible to the luxury with which Hammer disarmed visitors. "I like the idea of having somebody else pay for part of our army, sure ... and, well, train it while things are quiet here on Friesland. But I think Dominica's too far if we-needed the guns back in a hurry."
Danny popped the rolled notes he held against his knee. It was a sign of the nervousness which he otherwise controlled. "Thing is, Alois," he continued to the older man, "that isn't what was on my mind right at the moment." He smiled. "Even though it should have been."
Hammer snorted. He spun his desk display toward his Adjutant and heir presumptive. "Teitjens sent this over as background before he briefs me on the slump in heavy equipment export projections. I'd sooner listen to you, on the assumption that I'll at least understand your problem when you've finished."
"Yeah, well," the younger man agreed. "The problem's easy."
He slid down into the cup of the chair after all. The office walls were a slowly-moving fog-blue, almost a gray. Pritchard slitted his eyelids. The hologram behind the President could have been a real tank on a skyswept plain. "We got a homeworld query on one of our veterans. Do you remember Captain Don Slade?"
Hammer nodded calmly over his clasped hands. "Mad Dog Slade? Sure, I remember him. He was the one man I really wanted who insisted on retiring when he heard his father'd died. Home to Tethys, wasn't it? The Omicron Eridani Tethys, I mean. I offered him a duchy here on Friesland, too, Danny."
"Via, he was a duke back home, Colonel," Pritchard said to the blurred man and to the tank. "He was the next thing to a king there if he'd wanted to be." The Adjutant opened his eyes again and sat as erect as the cushions would permit him. "We were-well, he did me a favor. We were friends, Don and me. Tell the truth, he didn't much like to be called Mad Dog."
"Well," Hammer said with a laugh, "if he'll come back, I'll call him Duke Donald or any curst thing he chooses. Not because he's a friend of yours, Danny-though that too-but because you can't have too many people like Slade on your side." The President did not precisely frown, but his face lost most of its laughter. "Among other reasons, because if they're on your side, they aren't on the other guy's."
"I think Don had had about enough of sides when he left here," Pritchard said. He looked up at the ceiling and remembered his big, black-haired friend in the spaceport at their last meeting. "He said he was ready to spend the rest of his life fishing like his grandfather."
"Fishing?" Hammer repeated in angry amazement. "He was going to go from one of my tank companies to fishing?"
It was his Adjutant's turn to laugh. Danny gestured with his notecards and said, "Well, fishing on Tethys isn't that different from the sort of jobs we gave M Company, Alois. There's a lot of water there, and the things that grow in it are pretty much to scale, from what Don told me....
"But the thing is," Pritchard added, sobering, "Don didn't get there. We got a query from-" he checked the uppermost card from habit rather than from present need- "Marilee Slade, asking if Don were still on our establishment."
"Not in two years," Hammer said with a frown. "Mother? Or Via! Not his wife, is she? Don didn't take home leave in, well, at least the ten years since I promoted him to ensign."
"Seems to be his sister-in-law," the younger man said. Hammer had already swung the display back around. The President's fingers were calling up Slade's personnel file and planetary data on Omicron Eridani II-one of a trio of worlds named Tethys by their original settlers. "Brother's widow, I'd guess, from the way the query was worded," Pritchard continued. "Never talked much to Don about why he'd joined the Slammers, but I sort of gathered this lady had something to do with it. Also he was the younger son, that sort of hereditary nonsense." The Adjutant's eyes met those of the childless President. There was iron in the grin of each man.
Hammer grunted approval at whatever he saw on his display. "Council of Forty runs the place," he muttered. "Hereditary oligarchy. You know, I like the look of some of these average metal prices. Might be worth our while to ask for quotes, especially on the manganese. Either they sweat their workers like I wouldn't dare, or they've got a curst slick operation."
He gestured over the desk with an upraised palm. "But I don't suppose you thought you needed me to clear a trace on Don Slade, did you? Shoot."
"He left here on a tramp full of hard-cases. He was in a hurry and he wouldn't listen to reason," Pritchard said to the ceiling. "Golf-Alpha-Charlie Five Niner. I located a survivor on Desmo and got the story. Fellow'd gotten to Desmo on an Alayan ship. Don had been aboard the Alayan, too, but he'd gotten off at a place called Terzia. Produces medicinals. Place got one or two tramp freighters a month, so it shouldn't have been a bad place to trans-ship."
Pritchard shrugged himself out of the chair again and began to pace the large, austere office. "No question of coercion," he continued. "The survivor says Don tried to talk them all into working their butts off in the jungle or some such thing. Don was free to go, just like the others he was with-and they all lifted off."
Compared to Hammer, the brown-haired Adjutant was tall. He slapped the notes on his left palm. "What the problem turned out to be is that Terzia's refused landing rights to every ship that's approached it since the Alayans lifted off. It could be chance; but chance or not, the result's the same. For over a year, Don's been caged there as sure as if he was behind bars ... and he may be that, too, for anything we know otherwise."
Hammer was playing with the controls of his display again. "Terzia's got real-time commo," the President said in the mild voice that he used when his brain was busy with something besides the words he was speaking.
"Yeah, and that's funny," said Pritchard. "I got the impression that the place was virtually pre-industrial. Exports some high-purity natural medicinals, but nothing in quantity. No quantity that there'd be a Stadtler Communications System, unless the economic pyramid comes to a pretty sharp point."
The President nodded. "One projection system, one Transit launch, one of a lot of things. One Don Slade right now, though that wasn't going to show up on a Commercial Movements Summary, was it?" Hammer's fingers tapped the surface of the display gently. "Though that may be a flaw in the compiler's outlook, not Terzia's."
Hammer got up from his chair also. He ambled past the hologram. Beyond that wall of his office were the grounds of the Presidential Palace, lushly beautiful and maintained for no purpose but the President's enjoyment. Hammer did not object to the gardens, but it was at his orders that the crystalline window giving onto them had been replaced by the hologram. He saw the palace grounds only through the windows of his armored limousine as an incident of travel. "Right now, it's the projection system that matters," he said aloud. "You'll have Margritte handle it?"
Danny nodded at the reference to his wife. "We've got a few other people supposed to be trained on the Stadtler rig," he said. He rubbed his lower back and ribs absently with both hands. "Sometimes it works for them, sometimes it doesn't. With Margritte, it works, and I hope to blazes there's somebody on Terzia that good too...."
Danny Pritchard had made a point of wearing civilian garments ever since the day of Hammer's inauguration. His present suit was as soft and smooth as the creamy shimmer of its color ... and it was acutely uncomfortable on a body that suddenly felt the need for battle-dress again. "Alois," the Adjutant continued, "that leaves a couple questions."
"Margritte has a blank check," Hammer said. "If they won't listen to reason about Slade until she threatens that we'll land a Field Force regiment, she can do that."
"Terzia's a full seventy Transit minutes away from us," Pritchard said flatly. "They may think they're far enough away to be safe, so they don't have to listen to us."
Hammer turned. He was no longer the paunchy ruler of a complex industrial world. He was a commander whose troops had stormed Hell a score of times before and might do it again.
"If they won't listen to us, they'll listen to our guns, won't they?" Hammer said. His voice was as hard and sincere as the bow of the tank behind him. "Slade broke up a Guards Regiment with one tank company and a battalion of half-trained militia. If the Guards had taken the port behind us, Danny, you and I wouldn't be standing here, would we? Though our skulls might still be on poles out front."
Pritchard shrugged like a dragonfly beginning to pull free of its cocoon of soft, cream fabric. "I'd roughed out some contingency plans," he said as he turned to the door. "I'll work on specific movement orders while Margritte tries to get a connection with Terzia."
"Tell them," Hammer called to his Adjutant's back, "that I don't know if we can release Don Slade alive by force. But I'll promise to burn their planet for his funeral pyre if we can't."
For some moments after the door closed, Hammer continued to stand where he was: silhouetted against the bow of the tank.
Excerpted from Cross the Stars by David Drake Excerpted by permission.
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