Read an Excerpt
Blackcollar-The Judas Solution
By Timothy Zahn
Baen BooksCopyright © 2006 Timothy Zahn
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe breeze whistled gently through the forest glade, rustling through the tree branches and sending mottled patterns of light and shadow across the rolling, grassy ground. Behind the trees, the majestic peaks of Plinry's Greenheart Mountains could be seen, the last of the previous winter's snow still clinging to them.
The young man standing in the center of the glade couldn't appreciate the view, of course. For one thing, his close-fitting blindfold didn't allow through even a glimmer of the warm sunshine. For another, he had far more urgent matters on his mind than mountainside scenery.
On the opposite side of the glade, standing well out of the way beside a thick tree, Damon Lathe raised an arm, his hand tracing out a rapid-fire succession of hand signals. Caine, Skyler: move in. Pattern two.
Lifting his own arm, Allen Caine acknowledged the order. Then, feeling decidedly awkward in the thickly padded practice suit, he started across the glade. A third of the way around the circle, Rafe Skyler, his normal hefty bulk looking grotesque in his own suit, did likewise.
The two men had covered perhaps three-quarters of the distance when the young man's head turned slightly, his right ear now pointing toward Caine. Caine froze in response, a flicker of sympathyrippling through him as the other moved his head back and forth a few degrees. It hadn't been all that long ago that Caine himself had been in Will Flynn's position, standing blind in the center of the circle and trying to sense his opponents' approach. And, at least in Caine's case, silently but roundly cursing the whole ridiculous exercise.
Around the circle, Skyler was still moving inward. He'd made it another two steps when Flynn's head turned again, this time in the big blackcollar's direction. Lifting his arms into combat stance, Caine started forward again.
And without warning, Flynn did a long slide-leap toward him, twisting his arms and torso around like a berserk corkscrew and sending a spinning kick sweeping straight toward Caine's head.
Even as Caine reflexively dropped into a crouch he saw that the kick was going to be short. A quick leap forward, a quick midsection punch and leg sweep before Flynn could finish his kick and get his leg back under him, and they'd get a chance to see how well the trainee could fight on his back.
Flynn's foot shot past above and in front of Caine's face, exactly where he'd anticipated it would go. Shoving off with his back foot, cocking his right fist for a punch, he leaped to the attack.
And staggered backward as a pair of somethings thudded hard into his ribs and upper thigh.
He looked down. Embedded halfway into the padding were a pair of black, eight-pointed shuriken throwing stars.
Flynn finished his kick and spun around toward Skyler, and Caine looked across the clearing at Lathe. The other gave him a tight smile and drew a line across his throat with his finger. It wasn't a standard blackcollar hand signal, but the meaning was clear.
For Caine, the game was over.
Grimacing, he nodded and backed up. Setting his personal pride on hold, he shifted to analysis mode and settled in to watch the rest of Flynn's test.
* * *
The exercise was over, and Caine had had time to get out of the suit and take a shower, when Lathe appeared at his room at the blackcollars' lodge. "So what did you think of Flynn's technique?" he asked as he came in, closing the door behind him.
"Odd but interesting," Caine said, studying the older man's lined face and gray-flecked goatee as he snagged a chair and pulled it over. Damon Lathe had been a commando commander-a comsquare-during the losing war against the Ryqril thirty years ago. Instead of continuing a guerrilla-style fight after Earth's defeat, though, as other blackcollar and special forces units had, he and the remnant of Plinry's blackcollars had chosen instead to pretend to settle down under the alien domination. For nearly three decades they'd played the role of bitter but demoralized veterans, allowing themselves just enough of the youth drug Idunine to let their outer appearances age normally while still maintaining their muscles and joints and stamina, nurturing their strength and hope against the chance that one day they'd find an opportunity to strike one final serious blow against the Ryqril overlords.
That opportunity had come two years ago, when Earth's Resistance leaders had discovered the key to five hidden war-era Nova-class warships and had sent Caine to the Plinry archives to dig out their exact location. The end result had been a reactivation of the Plinry blackcollars, and five new warships in the hands of the Resistance and their alien Chryselli allies.
Five ships hadn't made that much difference, of course, considering the vast fleets arrayed on both the Ryqril and Chryselli sides of the battlefront. But it had made enough. Two of the ships had gone directly to the Chryselli, while the three kept by the Resistance had been pressed into service transporting humans around the TDE, Resistance agents as well as ordinary travelers, breaking the travel monopoly hitherto held by Ryqril-loyal government and business people.
The Ryqril hadn't been happy about the loosening of their travel restrictions, but they'd accepted the new status quo with the recognition that it was the lesser of many possible evils. If the Resistance had tried using their Novas as military weapons, harassing Ryq bases in the TDE or trying to foment open rebellion, the aliens would have been forced to pull some of their own warships off the battlefront and hunt them down. That would have bought the Chryselli a brief respite at best and the TDE nothing at all. As long as the Novas functioned exclusively as passenger liners, even passenger liners for undesirables like Resistance agents, they weren't worth the risk and effort of destroying.
After all, the Ryqril probably reasoned, there was little a handful of zealots could do against their vast, loyalty-conditioned bureaucracy.
"'Interesting' wasn't exactly the word I was thinking," Lathe said dryly, bringing Caine's thoughts back to the present. "He nailed you good with that double shuriken throw."
"That he did," Caine conceded, suppressing his reflexive flicker of embarrassment. As Lathe had frequently mentioned, there was no place for pride or ego in this business. "I never even saw him draw them."
"It's a trick Mordecai taught him," Lathe said. "He draws the stars as he starts into the kick, one in each hand, then uses the momentum of the spin to throw them. He doesn't even have to bend his elbows, which means his arms are out ready to whip across the head of anyone who might have tried to move in on him during his spin."
Caine nodded. "I should have guessed it was one of Mordecai's moves."
"Actually, Mordecai usually uses his nunchaku as the second move instead of stars," Lathe said. "And at the moment, Flynn still misses almost as often as he connects. But he's improving."
"I'd definitely recommend he keep at it," Caine said. "It's a technique well worth developing."
"I agree." A shadow seemed to cross Lathe's face. "It's really a shame he'll never be a blackcollar."
"It's a shame about a lot of them," Caine said, an old ache tugging at him. The drug called Backlash, given in a carefully prescribed regimen during training, permanently altered a person's neural biochemistry, doubling combat speed and reflexes and turning what would otherwise have been merely a superbly skilled martial artist into a uniquely lethal blackcollar.
It was a transformation Caine had wanted for himself ever since his first encounter with Lathe's team. His first choice of mission as a team commander, in fact, had been to take a small group of trainees back to Earth a year ago in hopes of locating the formula in the still intact Aegis Mountain stronghold in the mountains west of Denver. But they'd come up dry, at least on the Backlash formula.
What they had found in Aegis might ultimately prove to be even more significant in the long run. Still, for now, the bottom line was that neither Caine nor Flynn nor any of the other trainees had any chance of becoming true blackcollars. "Maybe someday," he said.
"Maybe," Lathe agreed. "By the way, did you hear that Galway was back?"
Caine lifted his eyebrows. "He's back? In one piece?"
"I'm rather surprised myself," Lathe said. "Even granted that none of what happened in Denver was his fault, I'd still expected the Ryqril to take out at least some of their frustrations on him."
"And if not the Ryqril, certainly whatever was left of Denver's Security hierarchy," Caine agreed, frowning. "Do we know whether or not he's resuming his position here?"
"Not yet," Lathe said. "Of course, from Earth's point of view, sentencing him to continue as Security Prefect of Plinry might be considered sufficient punishment in itself."
"We can hope," Caine said, and meant it. Loyalty-conditioned or not, Galway nevertheless genuinely cared about Plinry's citizens. After living under Assistant Security Prefect Hammerschmidt for most of the past year, Caine would be more than happy to have Galway back. "I wonder if he'll be inviting us to visit him in the Hub anytime soon."
Lathe shrugged. "If not, we may be able to arrange an appointment ourselves."
Caine smiled. The Hub, the section of Plinry's capital city, Capstone, where the government people lived and worked, cowered behind a tall, sensor-equipped wall guarded by armed loyalty-conditioned Security men whose main purpose was to keep out the general, non-loyalty-conditioned public.
But then, dealing with walls and guards was a blackcollar specialty. "Let's at least let him settle in first."
"And see if he's actually staying," Lathe agreed, standing up. "Anyway, Flynn should be about ready for his debriefing. You want to help Skyler run Pittman through his paces later?"
"Absolutely," Caine assured him. As far as he was concerned, if the formula for Backlash was ever discovered, Pittman would be right there in line with Flynn.
"Good," Lathe said. "I'll see you then."
* * *
Lathe was halfway down the wide lodge staircase when the tingler on his right wrist came to life, tapping out rapid-fire blackcollar code onto two sections of skin: Lathe: Lepkowski calling; urgent.
He slid two fingers beneath the sleeve of his black flexarmor turtleneck shirt. On my way, he tapped back.
Hamner Lodge, located in one of the most picturesque areas of the Greenheart Mountains and convenient to Capstone, had once been a retreat for hunters, hikers, and other nature lovers. After the Ryqril Groundfire attack devastated the majority of the planet, the lodge had been largely abandoned. A few years after the TDE's surrender, the blackcollars had reopened it, using it as a place where the old embittered veterans could get together to relive the glory days.
Or so the Ryqril and Security forces had been led to believe. Once the enemy had come to that conclusion and serious surveillance had ended, the blackcollars had turned the lodge into a quiet headquarters, running secret combat training for some of Capstone's youth and slowly turning it into what they hoped would someday be a fully operational command center.
The communications room in the lodge's basement had been one of their first upgrades, despite the fact that at the time there had been no one out there for them to talk to. It had been as state-of-the-art as they could manage, with long-range transmitters, encryption systems, and-most importantly-overlapping bug-stomper systems to make sure no one was able to slip any eavesdropping devices into the room.
Chelsey Jensen was seated at the panel when Lathe arrived, his eyes shifting back and forth between the monitor displays. "How's the reception today?" Lathe asked as he closed the door behind him.
"I think we may have some ears to the door," Jensen said, tapping one of the displays. "If we do, though, it's a very slick tap. The signal shows barely a whisker of perturbation."
"Doesn't sound like anything Hammerschmidt's got," Lathe commented, sitting down beside him. "Unless Galway brought some new equipment back with him."
Jensen shook his head. "There hasn't been enough time for them to set it up," he pointed out. "I'm guessing this is Ryqril stuff."
"Stolen from someone else, no doubt," Lathe murmured. "Probably the Chryselli."
"Could be," Jensen said. "If it was, they're taking a huge risk using it on Lepkowski. Most of the Novak's upgrades are also Chryselli, which means there's a fair chance he's already nailed the tap."
"Could be," Lathe said, studying the other out of the corner of his eye. The Novak, one of the recovered TDE warships, had cost the life of Jensen's best friend, and even after nearly two years there was a discernable catch in his voice whenever he mentioned the Novak's name. At such times his mood, which sometimes seemed to have settled into a permanent twilight, went a little darker. "Have you had any kickers from him?"
"Not yet," Jensen said. "Probably waiting until you were here."
"Let's find out." Picking up the microphone, Lathe keyed it on. "This is Lathe," he said. "Welcome back to Plinry, General."
"One of my very favorite spots in the whole universe," Lepkowski said dryly. "How've you been, Comsquare?"
"Bored out of my skull," Lathe said. Very favorite spot/universe-kicker given; out of my skull-kicker acknowledged. The Ryqril were indeed tapping into the conversation, but Lepkowski didn't know whether or not they'd broken the current encryption. It was more or less what Lathe had expected. "Any interesting passengers to drop off?"
"No interesting passengers, but some very interesting information," Lepkowski said. "I'm told the Ryqril are in the process of setting up a tactical coordination center on Khala."
Lathe exchanged looks with Jensen. "How complete a center?"
"Very complete," Lepkowski said. "Full comm feeds and couriers from every unit in the sector, including a large chunk of the local battlefront. Full data analysis and assessment section. Full decision-making capabilities, including a permanent half circle of command-rank Ryqril there to make them."
"Interesting, indeed," Lathe murmured. "Why Khala? Wouldn't one of their own worlds do better?"
"Not necessarily," Lepkowski said. "For one thing, Khala's actually closer to that part of the battlefront than any of their own worlds. More importantly, I think they've finally tumbled to the fact that we and the Chryselli are genuine allies, and that it's not just a marriage of convenience."
"Even if it's mostly one-sided at the moment?"
"Even so. And since allies try very hard not to slaughter each other's civilians, putting the center on a captured TDE world actually makes it safer than it would be on one of theirs."
"Safer from the Chryselli, anyway," Jensen murmured.
"But only from the Chryselli," Lathe agreed. "How close is it to a sizeable human populace?"
"It's right on the edge of one," Lepkowski said. "It's at the western edge of the capital of Inkosi City, with the city on one side and scattered forest and farmland around the rest of it. You interested in taking a look?"
"Very much so," Lathe said. "What's our timeline look like?"
"I'll be heading to Shiloh as soon as I drop my passengers. After that, I'm swinging past Magna Graecia and Bullhead. That puts me back here in about six weeks."
"Good enough," Lathe said. "Any idea how far along the center is?"
"According to my source, the overall construction is complete and they've almost finished with the equipment setup," Lepkowski said. "If their ramp-up schedule parallels human patterns, I'm guessing they'll be fully operational in three to four weeks."
"Which means that in six weeks they'll still be settling in and working out the last kinks in their security system," Lathe concluded. "Perfect."
"If you think that's perfect, wait'll you hear this," Lepkowski said, some grim satisfaction creeping into his voice. "My source for all this is a fine upstanding Khalan citizen named Kieran Shaw." He paused dramatically. "Tactor Kieran Shaw."
Jensen muttered something startled-sounding under his breath. "A tactor?" Lathe echoed, feeling a little stunned himself. "I didn't know any senior officers had survived the war."
"He was wearing a blue-eyed dragonhead ring," Lepkowski said. "Unless you think he's just a comsquare who gave himself a promotion."
"Unlikely," Lathe said, looking down at the silvery dragonhead ring on his own right hand and the red stones of its eyes. "Has he got anyone with him?"
Excerpted from Blackcollar-The Judas Solution by Timothy Zahn Copyright ©2006 by Timothy Zahn. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.