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Children were crying all around the chief exobiologist of the SSC starship Bellatrix and the woman in her green Terravegan uniform wanted to cry with them. In ten years with the Tri-Fleet's Strategic Space Command, Lieutenant Commander Madeline Ruszel had never seen such wanton slaughter.
Terramer had been a trial peace colony in the New Territory of the galaxy, populated by clones of races representing one hundred twenty federated planets. A Rojok squadron had managed to reduce it to a smoldering ball of dust in a matter of minutes. An unprovoked attack against a defenseless continent of colonists. A dream of peace gone black in the sleep of treachery. She glared at the turmoil around her. The legendary code of ethics of the Rojok field marshal, Chacon, had gone up in smoke, along with ten million colonists.
She finished the sutures in a quick cytoplasm job on a young Jebob national and gave him a reassuring smile while she checked his vital signs with the bionic mediscanner built into the creamy flesh of her wrist. The scanner, standard SSC issue, contained its own diagnostic tools, medication synthesizer and modem. Her patient's thin, blue-skinned face tried to return the smile, but even her strongest painkillers hadn't assuaged the agony of the massive radiation burns on his young body.
She stood up and eyed her medic teams. "Let's speed it up!" she called to them, brushing a long strand of red-gold hair away from her sweaty temple. "I want this group of pilgrims evacuated in ten minutes!"
She avoided the pressured glares of her team. "I know, I know," she murmured, "what do you think we are, a bunch of bloody magicians?"
They were working against time trying to patch up what few survivors the shoot-and-strafe air attack had left. Human and alien children wept softly in a nightmare chorus, looking for parents they'd never see again. The children, she thought, were the worst. The radiation was most damaging to young flesh, and of a kind the Rojoks hadn't used in the early days of the warfare. It was highly resistant to conventional treatment.
She joined Dr. Strick Hahnson at the prefab communications dome that the engineering squad had assembled in minutes, and leaned wearily against the transparent hyperglas.
"We're running out of morphadrenin" she told the husky blond human life-science chief. "Some of these younger ones won't make it, regardless. Strick, what in God's name did the Rojoks hope to gain by this?"
"Ask their commander-in-chief, Chacon," he replied harshly. "We've got worse problems. The comtech can't get through to HQ and I can't find Stern."
She glanced up at him. "He went scouting for the sci-archaeology group. I had hoped he'd take some ship police with him, but you know the captain. Strick, the Jaakob Spheres were on that ship, not to mention two VIP Centaurian diplomatic observers. The Rojoks may have taken more than lives here."
He nodded wearily. His blond hair was wet with sweat, and damp splotches made patterns on his green uniform. He looked worse than she felt.
"How many casualties?" he asked.
"About three hundred wounded to lift, if that's what you mean; and those are just the aliens under my jurisdiction. Human survivors number about two hundred more."
"Where are we going to put them?" he asked idly, glancing up at the gleaming orange sky where radiation danced in pale blue patterns. "What about that message, son?" he asked the young comtech in the dome.
"The interference isn't clearing, sir. I still can't get through." The boy's head lifted. "And I can't raise Captain Stern, either. He doesn't answer my commbeam."
Strick glanced down at the scowl on his slender companion's face. "We'll give him five more minutes."
Her pale green eyes swept over the carnage and the ruins of the small jem-hued shops and marble streets to the wooded area beyond. "If anything's happened to those Centaurian diplomats
" She sighed heavily. "The Council would have had a bloody war of its own holding the Holconcom back, in any case. Now, with two of their own people involved, there's no way."
"Which means we'll finally have a half chance of winning this damned war," he told her.
"Amen." She watched the medics loading casualties into the self-propelled transparent ambulifts. "Watch my boys, Strick. I'm going to find Stern."
Holt Stern strode out of the green tangle of the forest into the clearing where the main settlement had been. He brushed against a spiny moga tree and a ripple of pain shuddered down his arm. Holding it, he glanced around the camp at the neat rows of prefab medical domes where his medical specialists were concentrated.
The personnel were familiar. He knew them. But something about the maze of green uniforms worn by the Strategic Space Command disturbed him. His lapse of memory disturbed him more. It was as if his past life were gone, and only the present remained. And the throbbing in his temple was especially unpleasant.
A rustle of leaves made him freeze at the edge of the forest.
He turned to find the face that went with the husky feminine voice. Madeline Ruszel paused beside a drekma tree. The exobiology chief was flushed with fatigue. Beads of sweat ran down from the mass of red-gold waves at her temple to the corners of her full young mouth. She frowned up at him, marring the Grecian delicacy of her face.
"Are you okay?" she asked professionally.
"Yeah. Sure. I just took a pretty hard blow on the temple. Fell over some wreckage." He glanced toward the forest and a hand went to his brow. "I found the sci-archaeo group. Their ship crashed about seventy meters away. Better send out some lifts. The Rojoks left them in pretty bad shape."
"Crashed?" Her pale eyes widened. "Stern, the Spheres?"
"I didn't take time to check," he said flatly. "The diplomatic observers are damned near dead. Better get moving before they're all gone to glory."
"On my way." She eyed him. "Stern, the observerstwo of them were Centaurian, weren't they?"
He took a minute to answer. The sound of the word gave him sudden chills. "I only saw one. Like I said, I didn't take time to check too closely. Move out, will you?"
She started to say something, but she turned suddenly and broke into a run toward her medics.
Stern strode quickly toward the comtech's hut. "Report, Mister," he said.
"Still no luck, sir," the boy replied. "Even with my boosters I can't even weed out the interference between here and HQ. There's no way to get a message home until it lets up."
Stern's eyebrows jerked. He turned his gaze to the camp, carelessly observing the medics. Sensations tugged at his memory, but they were too vague to grasp. The sight of the bodies, mutilated by massive doses of radiation, didn't affect him at all. Not even those of the children. Why should it? he thought. They were only clones. Duplicates of a dozen alien races whose originals didn't have the guts for a colonization attempt in the New Territory.
"Sickening, isn't it?" Dr. Strick Hahnson asked, ambling up at his elbow. "The last hope of a war-torn galaxy, gone down into the dust of treachery. How long did it take those ten planetary federations to agree to this? Five, ten years? It only took the damned Rojoks one solar hour to atomize it."
"Stow the poetry," Stern told him. "This is a rescue hop, not a"
"Sir!" the comtech interrupted. "I've got a bogie! She's two AU and closing like a trambeam!"
"Configuration?" Stern asked quickly. "Is she a Rojok, Mister?"
"I can't classify her, sir." The comtech searched his readout screen. "She's making speeds I don't believe, and she scans too light to be a standard warship."
Stern sighed angrily. "Well, can't you make identification from her commbeam?"
"She isn't carrying one, sir. Her signals are too quick for my analybanks. I'm sorry, Captain, but this one's beyond my experience. I've never read anything like her."
"Keep trying." Stern raised his eyes upward. The skies were brighter than ever with spreading blue glowing radiation. Megabeam radiation, settling on the scarred surface of the planet.
"Hurry it up!" he called to the medics. "Leave the Jebobs and Altairians for nowwe'll send a relief ship back for them. Concentrate on the casualties that are ready to lift!"
He turned away from the shocked looks of the medics and back to the comtech. "What about it, Jennings?"
The young comtech shook his head. "She's positioning to assume orbit, sir."
"Beam Higgins on the Bellatrix. Tell him to throw up his screens and prime his main batteries. As soon as he can make a visual ID, I want it. And if she's a Rojok" he thought for a minute "if she's a Rojok, tell him to get the hell out of here and get the data to Lawson at HQ. Got that?"
Stern strode out through the makeshift medical prefabs, where specialists in sweat-soaked uniforms were fighting time and the lack of supplies to save life.
He whirled at the urgency in Madeline Ruszel's normally calm voice, putting a hand to his temple. The pain was back. The tall young officer slowed down from a run just in time to avoid colliding with him.
"We've got it
the sci-archaeo group," she panted. "The medtechs are bringing them in now. Stern, you'd better come with me."
"Strick," he called to Hahnson, "get your people together. Jennings," he told the comtech, "I want an ID on that bogie the second you get it. Okay, Maddie, let's go!"
"It's the Centaurian boy," she said when they were out of earshot. "He's wearing the blue and gold colors of Alamantimichar."
Stern felt his neck hairs bristle. "The Royal Clan? My God!"
"That's not all. His sister was with him, according to the ship passenger roster, and she's missing. And so are the Jaakob Spheres. Two of the sci-archaeo scientists were subjected to mind taps. They're little more than vegetables. Two others are missing. The Centau-rian boy's much worse."
His hand went to his dark, wavy hair. "There'll be hell to pay now. Those Spheres contained the DNA of every member race in the Tri-Galaxy Council. If the Rojoks have them
"The possibilities are endless." She stopped at one of the ambulifts. "Look at this."
Stern leaned a hand against the transparent cylinder and looked in through the blue antiseptic mist. The Centaurian boy inside looked as though someone had taken an old-fashioned straight razor to him, from head to toe. He'd been tortured.
Stern watched him curiously. He was a member of an alien race called the Cehn-Tahr from the central star system near the Algomerian Sector. A Terravegan starship crew in stasis came out of deep sleep into first contact with a military group. Not knowing they'd been in space so long, they thought they were in the young Alpha Centauri system near old Earth and called the aliens Centaurians. The name stuck. That, Stern recalled, was the joke of the millennium, when the predominant life forms of Alpha Centauri turned out to be bacteria. These aliens were an ancient race, said to be as much feline as humanoid, although only their eyes had feline characteristics. Old Legends, in fact, linked the Cehn-Tahr to Cashto, the cat god of Eridanus.
Their emperor, Tnurat Alamantimichar, had formed a commando unit called the Holconcom and gone out to conquer neighboring star systems. To date, he had one hundred and twenty of them under regional governors with democratic parliaments.
The alien boy seemed completely human except for the pale golden skin that peeked out from the sleeves and neck of his one-piece suit. His ears, his body, were like any human's. He had no tail or fur. But then his head turned, and Stern had to fight the urge to back away. The gently elongated eyelids opened over black orbs that sent chills the length of his body. They weren't human eyes. They were the eyes of some human cat, slit-pupiled, unblinking and tortured with pain.
"Don't let it bother you," Madeline said gently. "They have that effect on all of us when we see them for the first time. It's the eyes."
"Cat-eyes," he murmured, but the chills still came. He wondered at his own reaction. The sight shouldn't have frightened him. He'd seen textdiscs of the race often enough.
"Not precisely," she said. "Cat-eyes don't change color. Centaurians' do. Each color stands for a separate emotion. There's blue for concern, green for amusement, gray for curiosity, brown for angerthat's a generalization, of course. It's more complicated when several emotions are at play. Biologists have wondered about that ability for ages."
"His are black," he remarked.
"That means pain and/or death. I'll explain someday. Stern, he needs medication. It's a breach of protocol that carries an automatic court-martial if I give it. I don't have a choice."
"Go ahead," he said. "I'll sit on the hot seat with you."
She smiled up at him. "Thanks."
She reached inside the ambulift and laid the bionic wrist scanner against the boy's thin chest, activating the compact unit's drug bank with her free hand. Pressing lightly, the laserdot was triggered to hammer the drug deep inside the frail chest. She withdrew her arm.
The boy's eyes dilated. "Creshcam," he whispered softly. Then, all at once, the great cat-eyes closed gently and his chest went flat.
She slammed the wrist scanner back through the hatch of the ambulift and laid it against the boy's throat. An eternity of seconds went by before she straightened wearily and, glancing at Stern, shook her head.
"Captain!" the comtech sang out. "The intruder's visual! She's a Centaurian warship, and I'm getting signals from a scout about to leave her!"
"Tell Higgins to keep his distance," Stern called back. "We can't take on the Rojoks and the Centaurians at the same time. And get the ship police out here!"
"Now just how the hell did that Centaurian ship know what happened here," Stern murmured thoughtfully, "when we haven't even been able to get word to HQ?"
"Beats me," Madeline said wearily. "I just hope this is a congenial group of Centaurian regulars. If it isn't
"Go find Strick," he told her. "He's the only man we've got who can translate that cat-eyes garble. He served with them once."
"On my way."
"Yes, sir. Scout confirmed. She's on a descent course."
"SPs, line up on my flank," Stern told the ship police as they rushed into view. "Greshams out, on heavy tranquilizer force. Fire only at my order." He turned to the medics. "The rest of you, into the scouts and back to the ship. Move!"
The tension was electric as the taciturn men took their positions. The medics, with their charges in the ambulifts, scattered into the nearby scouts. Hurriedly they secured the hatches and began to gun the lightweight crafts up into the radiation-marked skies.
The pain in his temples subsiding now, Stern drew his Gresham and gripped the jeweled emerillium power pack tightly in his hand as the alien scout came into view overhead.
She was sleek and her burnt-copper hull drew the mingled sun and radiation onto a blemishless surface only to scatter the light in strange patterns against the ground.
With unnerving speed, not to mention precision, her pilot set her down in the middle of the remaining prefab medical domes and ambulifts. Noiseless until now, a soft hum radiated outward from the bubble dome and suddenly died.