Read an Excerpt
By Timothy Zahn
Baen BooksCopyright © 1983 Timothy Zahn
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBlazing down from a clear blue sky, the mid-morning sun seemed to be making only token effort to drive away the cold snap that had interrupted spring for most of central Europe. Tightening his collar against the northerly wind blowing off Lake Geneva, Allen Caine picked up his pace a bit. It would have been nice to ride at least part of the way, but only the uninformed waited for autocabs in eastern New Geneva on Victory Day. Most of the vehicles had been preempted early in the day to take government officials to the stadium for the annual rally celebrating the end of the Terran-Ryqril war. Caine had half expected the cold to keep participation to a minimum-loyalty-conditioning didn't extend to anything as trivial as rallies-but there would be several Ryqril there and New Geneva's officials clearly knew which side of their bread should stay off the carpet. Already Caine had heard the muffled roars of two cheers, and he was a good three kilometers from the stadium. An amazingly unashamed display of hypocrisy, he thought bitterly; and at this, the twenty-ninth year of such pageantry, one of the longest lived. A visiting stranger would have concluded the Terran Democratic Empire had won the war.
The streets at this end of town were bustling with business as usual-the common people treatedVictory Day with sullen indifference-and Caine had no trouble blending into the throng. He'd only come to New Geneva two weeks ago-a slightly late twenty-sixth birthday present, he considered the trip-but already he felt like a native. Like every other group of people on Earth, this one had its own characteristic gestures and mannerisms, the learning of which had been Caine's most recent task. Combined with his clean-cut appearance, such preparation would permit him to pass, if necessary, as a student, a rising young executive, or-if he trimmed his beard in the proper fashion-a member of one of the city's semi-professional guilds. Of course, it wasn't really a question of whether or not he could pass muster on this side of the city, but since he wouldn't be crossing to the government end for some weeks yet, he wasn't especially worried. Presumably he'd be prepared for that by then.
His clothes were a bit on the thin side, but Caine arrived at his destination before he was too badly chilled. Sandwiched between two bars in a lower-middle-class part of town was a small tape-and-book store with faded volumes of Dickens and Heinlein in the front window. Entering, Caine stood just inside the door a moment, letting his eyes adjust to the relative darkness. A few meters away, lounging by his cash register, the store's proprietor eyed him. "Getting any warmer out there?" he asked.
"Not really," Caine replied, glancing around the store. Three or four other men were browsing among the shelves. Looking back at the owner, he raised his eyebrows. The other gave a fractional nod and Caine moved off down one of the two aisles, pretending to study the titles as he did so. Taking his time, he worked his way to the back. There, half hidden behind a wide shelf, was a door with a faded "Employees Only" sign taped to it. Waiting until all the customers were facing away from him, Caine slipped silently through the door and into the cluttered stockroom beyond. He squatted down in the middle of the old tile floor and gave a gentle push on one of the tiles. Clearly, he was expected; the two-meter square of concrete floor pivoted open without resistance. He stepped into the pit, his feet finding the wooden stairs there. Crouching down, he let the concrete block rotate shut above him; and as he did so a metal bar slid silently across its underside, locking the trap door in place. Turning, Caine headed down the dimly lit stairway.
A short hallway awaited him at the bottom of the stairs; and at the end of the hall was a door. Opening it, Caine stepped through into a dark room. The door closed itself behind him.
And abruptly a blinding light flashed on. He threw an arm up to protect his eyes and took an involuntary step backward. "Who are you?" a voice demanded.
Caine's response was immediate. "I'm Alain Rienzi, aide to Senator Auriol," he snapped. "Get that damn light out of my face!"
The spotlight winked out and other, more muted lights came on. Through the purple blob floating before his eyes Caine could dimly see three men and a woman seated around a low table. "Excellent," one of the men said, fiddling with a shoebox-sized gadget. "No hesitation, no recognizable 'liar's stress,' and just the right amount of arrogance. He's ready, Morris."
Another man nodded and gestured to Caine. "Sit down, Allen," he said in a gravelly voice.
Caine took the indicated chair and looked around at the others, and as his eyes recovered, his heart began to beat faster. This was no routine meeting; the four people facing him were probably the top Resistance leaders in all of Europe. The man with the box was Bruno Hurlimann, a former captain in the Terran Star Force; the second man was Raul Marinos, who'd been planning and executing sabotage operations against the government and even the Ryqril's own military bases for most of the past twenty-nine years; the woman was Jayne Gibbs, a former member of the long-since dissolved Parliament; and "Morris" was General Morris Kratochvil himself, the last commander of Earth's final defense efforts. None of them looked their proper ages, of course; despite government controls, enough bootlegged Idunine was getting to the Resistance via the black market to keep even the ninety- two-year-old Kratochvil at the biological equivalent of forty. Caine had met all four of them at one time or another, but he'd never seen them together in one place. Something important must be happening.
General Kratochvil might have been reading Caine's mind. "I'm afraid your orientation has come to an abrupt end, Allen," he said. "We're moving things up drastically. All the cards have unexpectedly fallen into place, and you're going to be leaving for Plinry in just under twenty hours."
Caine's mouth felt a little dry. "I thought I was going to have to replace Alain Rienzi first for a few weeks."
"So did we," the general said, "but it turns out that's not going to be necessary. Rienzi left yesterday on a private vacation and doesn't seem to have told anyone where he was going. It was the perfect opportunity, and we decided to take it."
So much for the rest of his training ... but if he wasn't going to be spending much time with government people he could probably get by without it. "You've got Rienzi tucked away?"
Marinos nodded. "Picked him up this morning. No problems." He gestured to an envelope on the table. "There's his ID-suitably altered, of course-and the rest of your stuff."
Caine picked up the package, careful not to bump the mushroom-shaped "bug stomper" which sat in the table's center, electronically blanking out any nearby monitoring devices. Opening the envelope, he withdrew a blue ID, a wallet containing both government and personal credit plates and several hundred marks in crisp TDE banknotes, and an unconfirmed ticket for the distant world of Plinry. "The ticket is basically just a reservation," Marinos explained. "You'll need to have your ID checked at the 'port before you can board."
The face on the ID was long and a bit thin, framed by a carefully coiffured mass of brown hair-a clean-shaven replica of Caine's own. But there were also a set of thumbprints and retinal patterns sealed under the supposedly tamper-proof plastic-and those patterns were duplicated in a heavily guarded computer system not ten kilometers away. "You're sure my prints and patterns have made it into the government's records?" he asked Marinos.
"It's all been taken care of," the other said, his offhand tone belying the difficulty of what must have been one hell of a job. Broaching Ryqril security was no joke.
"We don't yet have authorization for you to examine the Plinry archives," Kratochvil said, "but it'll be here by six this evening. If you're lucky all you'll have to do is walk in, spin your yarn about a book, pull the proper record, and cut out." He gave Caine a tight smile. "In practice it's never that easy, of course. But I expect you'll be able to handle most problems they throw at you."
Caine nodded. Though he'd never been on any actual missions, he'd had the best combat and psycho-mental training the Resistance could offer. "What's the latest military situation, and how is it likely to affect conditions on Plinry? The Ryqril will probably have a base there, right?"
"We expect so, but it shouldn't bother you any." Kratochvil turned to Hurlimann. "Captain?"
"The reports of a big Ryqril victory over the Chryselli near Regulus appear to be true," Hurlimann said, his manner reminding Caine of a college lecturer. "However, it seems to have cost more than they admit. Already they've pulled two Elephant-class troop carriers and a full wing of Corsairs from various bases on Earth and sent them off, presumably to the Chryselli front. If there's a base on Plinry the same sort of mobilization may be going on there. But that shouldn't be a problem; as long as you've got the proper papers any extra confusion will be to your advantage." He smiled. "And for our purposes, the more the Ryqril are tied up in Chryselli territory, the better."
"As I said, the cards are falling right," Kratochvil said. "By the time you get back with the information we hope to have crews ready to leave." He glanced around at the others. "Was there anything else?"
"Assistance on Plinry," Jayne Gibbs murmured.
"Oh, yes. Allen, we haven't had any contact with Plinry since it was captured thirty-five years ago, so we don't know what you're going to be walking into. We expect a political structure like Earth's-a group of Ryqril ruling through a loyalty-conditioned human government-but we have no way of confirming that. If you have any problems you should try to contact whatever underground has been put together there and enlist their aid."
"Assuming there is one," Caine pointed out.
"True," Kratochvil admitted. "Still, I have hopes that General Avril Lepkowski survived the planet's capture. Mark that name, Allen; if Plinry has an underground, Lepkowski will probably be the man in charge of it. There were also nearly three hundred blackcollars there at the end-some of them may also still be alive."
Blackcollars. Caine straightened a bit at the word. He'd never met any of those superbly trained guerrilla warriors, but their wartime exploits were legendary. Only a few still existed on Earth, and most of those had destroyed their uniforms and disappeared into the general population. The handful who remained in active service were reportedly harassing the hell out of the Ryqril in North America.
Kratochvil was still speaking, "I'll try to get a few more names of people who may be on Plinry before tonight. I'll also make up a micro-letter of introduction for you in case you find General Lepkowski. It'll be a bit risky to carry, I'm afraid, but I think it'll be worth having. Of course, that decision's up to you." He stood up, Caine and the others following suit. "I think that's all we can do right now. Be here at six tonight for the rest of your papers and any final instructions we can think up. You might as well keep the beard until then; it's unlikely you'll run into any of Rienzi's acquaintances out here but there's no point in taking chances. Also, starting at noon today we'll be on a two-hour security cycle in the bookstore upstairs. Watch for that."
"Good." The general reached over the table and grasped Caine's hand. "I may not be here tonight when you arrive, so I'll say my farewells now. You're very valuable to us, Allen, and of course we want you to be careful and protect yourself. But at the same time, this is probably the most important mission we've undertaken in twenty years, and I'm not exaggerating when I say that any chances for a free Earth depend on you. We may never again be able to send a person off-planet on this kind of quiet probe, and you know the impossibility of getting the information by force. Don't let us down."
Caine looked the general straight in the eye as he shook the other's hand. Kratochvil's brown eyes were clear, alert, and-thanks to Idunine-relatively young. But there was something else there, too, something no youth drug could touch. Ninety-two years of life, thirteen of them spent in a losing war and another twenty-nine endured under enemy rule, had aged those eyes in a way that suddenly made Caine feel like a child again, and the confident statement he'd been about to make evaporated from his lips. "I'll do my best, sir," he murmured instead.
It was five to six as Caine, buffeted by the usual throngs of homeward-bound workers, once again approached the bookstore. The Victory Day festivities had long since ended, and the streets were once again buzzing with autocabs and the occasional private car. The pedestrian traffic wouldn't clear out for at least another hour, he knew; plenty of time to slip in, get his remaining papers, and still have a crowd to lose himself in when he left.
He was almost there, and was starting to work his way through the press so he could cross the street, when something in the window froze the breath in his lungs. With a two-hour cycle, the window display would have changed three times since his morning visit. By now the Heinlein should have been rotated ninety degrees and a tape cassette should be resting against the Dickens. But the cassette wasn't there; the display was still in its two o'clock position. Someone forgot, was his first hopeful thought; but it emerged stillborn. There was only one explanation, and he knew it.
Sometime in the past four hours, the bookstore had been raided.
The possibility of such a thing had always been there, of course, but it had never before happened this close to him and the shock was numbing. In the absence of conscious control his training took over, walking him past the bookstore without any visible hesitation, and by the time his brain began to clear he was two blocks away and safe.
Safe. But for how long? If the government had been watching the bookstore they knew he'd been there four times in the past two weeks. Even if they didn't yet attach any significance to that they would eventually find out about him. Surely at least one of the four Resistance leaders had been there when the Security forces came, and was probably even now undergoing verifin or neurotrace interrogation. Caine had to escape ... but to where? The Resistance had established numerous bolt-holes, but none of them could be trusted now. Kratochvil and the others had had the best psychor training available, but even that wouldn't hold against a neurotrace reader for very long. Eventually, they would break ... and when they did the government would be able to hunt him down anywhere on Earth.
It took a second for that to sink in; and as it did so Caine became aware of the thick packet in his inside coat pocket. Rienzi's ID, a small supply of money ... and a round-trip ticket to Plinry. Clearly, if Kratochvil had been captured, the Resistance in this area was probably doomed-but that didn't necessarily mean his mission was. If he could enlist the aid of General Lepkowski and the Plinry underground, there was still a slight chance of pulling this off. Slight, hell-microscopic. But what other choices were left? And if it fell apart anyway, he would at least have the minor satisfaction of making the Ryqril chase him down over eight parsecs of space.
It took him just under an hour to return to his apartment, shave off his beard, change his clothes, and destroy all documents pertaining to Allen Caine. Then, carrying the more expensive luggage suitable to a minor government official, he took an autocab to the western end of the city. Rienzi's ID got him through the fence with no trouble, and for the first time in his life Caine entered New Geneva's government sector.
The first hurdle-the guard at the gate-had been passed; but now Caine faced an unexpected problem. He had eleven hours till his ship's six a.m. liftoff-far too long to spend at the 'port. But if he checked in at a hotel, he would have to show Rienzi's ID, and the less he waved that around the better.
The solution was obvious. Redirecting his autocab, he went to the 'port and dropped his luggage into a locker. Then, using the cash Rienzi had so thoughtfully provided, he launched himself on a one-man tour of western New Geneva. Between the bars, restaurants, and pleasure spas, he got through the night without being recognized. Finally, as the first hint of dawn touched the eastern sky, he returned to the 'port.
Excerpted from Blackcollar by Timothy Zahn Copyright ©1983 by Timothy Zahn. Excerpted by permission.
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