Agent of RuinBy Alice C. Aldridge
The Tac officer's voice echoed through the cavernous auditorium, the only lecture hall large enough to hold all twelve wings of the senior class of the Federation Space Academy for the class scheduled to begin at 0700. Despite mandatory attendance ordered by the Academy's Commandant, the room was nearly empty for the series of lectures, entitled "Urban Guerilla Warfare--Tactics and Operations." A sudden addition to the curriculum that had been made at the suggestion of the head of Space Command, Supreme Commander Servalan.
Like his fellow cadets, Falcon Wing Second Del Tarrant considered the lectures a waste, cutting into the scant sack time he managed to eke out from a schedule already overloaded with academics, drill, and simulator training. The course supposedly pertained to the minor violent eruptions of a few political malcontents and would be taught by some upstart who hadn't even attended the Academy. Del had little interest in planetside matters. He was the top pilot in his wing and, after graduation, expected to be assigned to the best ship in the Fleet, not ground operations. He saw absolutely no use for a course in Urban Warfare.
Unfortunately, his tendency toward reckless acrobatics and grandiose displays of his flying expertise had left him with a less than sterling disciplinary record. The fifty demerits threatened for cutting this class wouldn't just result in a week of punishment drill, marching up and down the Quad in full kit. It meant a visit to the Commandant's office and the kind of black mark on his permanent record that could seriously affect his future in Space Command.
So he was attending the class -- reluctantly. Hoping to use his long cultivated talent for sleeping with one eye open to get through what would likely be a drearily boring and totally worthless series of lectures.
He shifted uneasily as Commandant LeClerc's gaze raked across the nearly vacant hall, his hard-planed, austere features flushed with embarrassment and outrage. Normally the call to attention was a mere formality before they were seated and the lecture or demonstration would begin, but not this time. Instead, the slender dark-haired woman who had been seated at LeClerc's side stepped forward, whispering in his ear.
Del could not hear what she said, but the Commandant's face flushed more darkly as he gestured abruptly to the Tac officers and ordered with a coldly suppressed fury. "I want the entire Senior class here in five minutes!"
Since the Commandant had not given the cadets present permission to stand at ease, Tarrant shifted his weight imperceptibly into a slightly less braced position that allowed him to remain at full attention for prolonged periods without too much discomfort. Or falling out, which would be a disaster under present circumstances.
In less than five minutes, the remainder of the class was quick marched in, uniforms in disarray, their expressions a mixture of shock and outrage. As they were held at strict attention, LeClerc paced angrily back and forth in front of the delinquents, berating them in a coldly furious tone of voice while the woman behind him listened with a catlike smile of satisfaction.
Judging by his expression of distaste, it was obvious the Commandant did not approve of the abrupt curriculum addition, nor of the officer giving the lectures; a brash outworld upstart, who had clawed his way up through the ranks, rather than graduating from the Academy. Still, there were certain political realities to be faced and he could ill afford to offend the head of Space Command.
"This course and the expertise of its instructor are being offered to the Academy by the generosity of newly appointed Supreme Commander Servalan." LeClerc gestured to the stunning woman sharing the dais with him. She inclined her head graciously at his perfunctory introduction.
Clasping his hands tightly behind his back, LeClerc continued in a grim voice. "The lectures are in response to a growing unrest that began on the Outer Worlds but is insinuating its poisonous influence into the heart of Federation power on Earth itself! It poses a threat to the Rule of Law as it eats away at the very foundations of order and structure in our society. Fortunately, under Supreme Commander Servalan's regime, the necessary stringent measures are being taken against this threat."
He paused in his pacing to glare at the still fidgeting cadets, his voice a low menacing growl.
"I cannot believe that the officer candidates attending this Academy would be so shortsighted as to deny themselves the opportunity to learn appropriate methods in dealing with this new danger to the Federation. I've instructed the Tac officers assigned to the Senior class to take note of all cadets whose compliance with my direct orders was less than timely and issue the appropriate number of demerits as an incentive to increased diligence in the future!"
Del blew out a soft sigh of relief at his narrow escape. The Commandant's laser gaze raked across the ranks of sullen faces. "I presume this impromptu summons won't need to be repeated for the remainder of the lectures?"
"At ease!" he thundered into the resentful silence and after a few brief seconds of shifting and shuffling, the class seated themselves and activated their transcribers.
One of the Senior Tac officers, Major Selfridge, stepped up to the lectern intoning flatly, "Due to the classified nature of these lectures, no recorders may be used. All written notes will be turned in at the end of class to be reviewed for possible violation of Federation Security Act 3987, subheading C, before being returned to their owners."
An urgent flurry of hands were raised from the rear seats and reluctantly Major Selfridge recognized one of the cadets. "Yes, Mr. Carnuso?"
"How are we supposed to study for any tests if our notes are confiscated at the end of each lecture?"
There was a disgruntled murmur of agreement from the other cadets until figure standing relatively unnoticed just inside the doorway stepped forward, his coarsely accented voice cutting across that low-voiced dissatisfaction.
"Why don't you let me answer that, Major?"
Selfridge stared with cool distaste, reluctant to relinquish the podium, "Of course, Commander Travis. If you'll wait just a moment until you're formally introduced."
Travis strode impatiently to the front of the classroom, "Let's dispense with all this ceremonial bullcrap. I only agreed to do these lectures on street warfare to escape the tender mercies of rehab techs at the Medical Center. It'll take them another month to fit me for a heavy duty prosthetic and beating my gums to a bunch of wet-eared cadets beats shuffling papers behind a desk at HQ--barely." He gestured mockingly at the coughing, fidgeting audience, "Since you all obviously agree with me that this course is a waste of time, let's get these classes finished ASAP."
Intrigued by this outspoken honesty, Tarrant took a closer look at the compelling figure before them. Despite the vigor of his stride and the powerful timbre of his voice, the officer was obviously recovering from grave injuries. His left arm was missing, its sleeve pinned carelessly to the shoulder of his severe black uniform and a similarly stark patch covered most of the left side of his face, barely concealing the raw ooze of half-healed laser burns.
With a sudden shock, Tarrant recognized one of a nearly extinct breed. The frontline officer who would lead his men into hell, blast out its fires, then bring the survivors out if he had to carry them on his back.
Still, he shuddered at this sudden confrontation with brutal reality. Like most pilots he believed himself untouchable--immortal. Even if he died in one of the glorious ship to ship combats that he'd fantasized about for so many years, he'd imagined he would go out in a blaze of glory like a shooting star. But before him stood a grim reminder of the human wreckage such battles often left behind.
Surprisingly the lecturer, Commander Travis, seemed to feel no shame about his mutilated body. Instead, he flaunted his injuries, pivoting slowly so the whole class could get a good look at him. The harsh gleam of his remaining eye stabbed across the room, pinning each of them to their seat.
"Take a good look . . . all of you! This is the real test of how much you learn in this class. When you actually face your enemy on the killing ground to decide which one falls and which one walks away to fight again. But to men like Blake and the rabble he leads, there are no rules of engagement, no order of battle. Surprise is their only nemesis and ruthless suppression the only way to end their threat."
Despite Travis's uncouth outworld accent and the bluntness of his language, Tarrant found himself mesmerized by the officer's words. There was a savage animal vitality to the man regardless of his disabilities. This inner fire transcended his physical limitations, touching off a similar spark within Tarrant. Transforming his naive idealism into a fierce commitment to stand for order in a galaxy under seige by the forces of chaos.
Though Del was totally engrossed by the lecture and charisma of the speaker, after the cadets were dismissed he found himself caught up in a cluster of disgruntled fellow pilot-trainees.
"Bloody waste of time that's all it was!" Eagle Wing Second Wallace complained bitterly. "We're pilots! We'll be out in space, with the fleet. Not crawling though dingy back alleys, like foot-pounding BEM bait. We don't need `Urban Warfare--Tactics and Operations'! You want to clean out the vermin, just let the fleet melt their dirty warrens into slag!"
"And kill off your hardworking Gammas and Deltas, along with your rebel malcontents." Gryphon Wing First Marks commented smoothly. "Hardly the most efficient way to keep a planetary population in line."
"Oh yeah?" Wallace sneered. "A little terror just inspires the survivors to work that much harder, besides making sure they know their proper place--on their knees."
"Or in the case of their sluts--on their backs," snickered someone behind Del.
"You idiots are missing the point," Dragon Wing First Krieg observed with derision. "You don't think our new Supreme Commander graciously supplied this lecture and the services of Commander Travis to the Academy just for our benefit, do you?" He steepled his fingers, studying his fellow cadets. "There have been rumors about Servalan's climb to power . . . and the bodies she's stepped on and over to get there. Starting with Major Kasabi, when she was at the Academy."
Suddenly Krieg had everyone's attention. Kasabi's disaffection and dismissal from the Academy Staff years before was still the stuff of barracks speculation. Had she truly been teaching treason as her accusers had claimed or did she simply have the misfortune of having the wrong personal loyalties in an increasingly politicized Space Command? It made all of them think twice about their politics . . . and their friendships.
Krieg was studying his nails, pretending casual disdain, while he continued in a coldly pragmatic tone of voice. "Rumor has it that Travis was on the fast track to high command until someone arranged for him to lead the Special Operations Team that went after Blake. Not exactly a plum assignment for a fleet officer with Travis's reputation but it might have worked to his advantage, if things had gone according to plan."
"They didn't . . . now his fate serves as a warning to the rest of us about being in the wrong place at the wrong time . . . without powerful friends to pull you out. Travis only remains in Space Command at Servalan's whim as an example of the `threat' of rebel malcontents like Blake. A grotesque specter that she can parade before the High Council to demonstrate the necessity for increasing the authority of Space Command and furthering her own political ambitions."
Krieg looked up, giving his fellow cadets a dazzling yet chilling smile. "And that, my dears, is the real lesson behind this little exercise in time-wasting."
Tarrant remained silent as the other cadets drifted away, muttering among themselves, angry, amused or simply bored. He tried to ignore Krieg's so-called revelations, unwilling to believe that Commandant LeClerc would be a party to such deliberately cynical political manipulation. But the cruel smile on the Supreme Commander's face still haunted him.
Glancing at his chrono, Del hurried back to his room to study the operations logs that he'd dug out of the archives for his session in the Academy's flight simulator later this morning.
His stomach rumbled loudly, reminding him that he'd skipped breakfast to be on time for this morning's class. Del thought about grabbing a quick bite before the simulator session, then decided against it. If the opportunity presented itself to implement the breakneck strategy he'd uncovered, he didn't want to disgrace himself by depositing secondhand protein pack all over the inside of the cockpit.
To Tarrant's dismay when he reported to the simulator, the proctor for the operation was "Prissy" Pritchard, the most ultraconservative, by-the-book flight instructor at the Academy. Any operation not meticulously detailed in the Order of Battle then cosigned by three admirals was arrant heresy in his eyes. With a morose sigh, Tarrant decided that today would not be a good day to execute nonstandard tactical operations or exercise his usual flamboyance.
He sat meekly during the briefing as Prissy dispensed his pedantic directives. The training exercise was a recreation of the Battle of Rusalka Prime against the Thusok Hegemony. The logs he'd studied earlier were from the Phoenix Squadron's flanking maneuver of the Thusok hive ship during that historic battle. It had been a suicidal attack with a 95 percent casualty rate but it crippled the command ship, allowing the Eighth Fleet to emerge victorious despite being outnumbered and outgunned by almost two to one.
Tarrant thought he'd found a way to improve the survival figures and still have the same devastating effect on the Thusok command ship. But Major Pritchard would undoubtedly disapprove of the daredevil, unconventional approach that it required. He slumped in his seat glumly listening as the proctor outlined the rigidly orthodox operation that would result in his squadron being hammered mercilessly as they tried to evade the Hegemony's picket ships. With a sudden shock, he realized that Prissy was addressing him.
"Mr. Tarrant, your Wing First reported to the infirmary earlier with stomach cramps and diarrhea. You will be leading Falcon Wing during this exercise. Please make the change in your operations log and fill his slot in the wing's deployment."
Tarrant shuffled his data cubes and printouts nervously, trying to hide his surge of elation. Wing First! In command of the whole Falcon Wing! It would give him the perfect opportunity to carry out his maneuver, despite the proctor's unimaginative battle plans. Even Prissy wouldn't get too upset if his action resulted in the same outcome, only with fewer casualties? Would he?
Del stared at the proctor's meticulous tunic, with every medal and ribbon aligned micrometer perfect. "What the hell," he mused defiantly. "Even if Prissy goes ballistic, it probably won't cost me more than another ten or twenty demerits--tops."
Strapping himself into the cockpit, Del pulled the special helmet on, carefully aligning its neuro contacts with his temporal and occipital lobes. Then he ran down the preflights, feeling the ship come alive under his hands. Even knowing it was just a simulator, he reveled in the sensation as the ship seemed to become an extension of his own body. The engines' vibrations throbbed through his spine like great wings, as they wove tachyons and space into thrust. Sensor arrays fed images directly into his brain, complex webs of electromagnetic impulses, all whispering their secrets, awaiting his commands. But best of all were the weapons, neutron blasters and plasma bolts, pulsing under his fingertips like lightning bolts in the fist of an ancient warrior god.
He grinned, shaking off the momentary intoxicating sensations as the hatch to the simulator was closed, sealing him and his fellow cadets into the tomblike darkness. The claustrophobic sensation lasted only a moment until the program was activated, transporting them in an instant to a desperate confrontation above a burnt out world circling a dying red star.
Falcon Wing was to lead the diversionary attack against the swarm of picket ships that surrounded the Hive command vessel. Tarrant signaled his wingmates, outlining their new tactics and gambling that Prissy would be too busy ordering the other wings into a perfect configuration to notice Falcon Wing's change in vector.
Outside the simulator, Commandant LeClerc was guiding Servalan and Travis through the monitoring center that controlled the battlefield scenario and recorded the cadets' responses. Obviously bored by the routine training exercises, the Supreme Commander turned to LeClerc impatiently,
"Yes, yes. Well, that's all very fascinating, Commandant, but I have other duties to attend. I'm sure Commander Travis will find these displays of expertise . . . quite edifying."
LeClerc nodded stiffly as the Supreme Commander made her departure, barely able to conceal his distaste for the sullen outworlder brooding darkly behind them. Travis's answering glare was equally disdainful, staring around at the control center's pristine bloodless hardware, remembering the gritty, do-or-die conditions of his own training, years before. Even worse was the presence of a proctor barking orders to the wings to dress up their formation like this was some kind of parade ground flyover rather than a combat operation.
Suddenly his eye narrowed as he recognized the scenario on the viewscreen and spotted one rogue wing ignoring orders to join the precision flying demonstration. He watched with growing interest as the wing broke away from the suicidally precise ranks and peeled off into a diversionary tactic that looked startlingly familiar.
He leaned forward, past the stunned proctor, picking up a headset in order to eavesdrop on the Wing Leader's orders. Despite the fact he was deliberately disobeying his superior's directives, the wing leader's voice was supremely self-assured.
The proctor-- Major Pritchard according to his ID badge-- finally spotted the errant wing in the overall confusion and ordered sharply, "Cadet Tarrant, you're off your assigned coordinates. Bring your wing back into formation . . . at once!"
"Sir, if you would permit my wing to carry out a diversionary strike on this vector, I believe we could achieve the same results with a 60 percent reduction in casualties."
Pritchard screeched like a violated virgin, his face turning beet red at the Wing Leader's temerity. "You are bordering on insubordination, cadet! Battlefield tactics are not your concern. Now bring your wing back into formation before I have you strung up by your thumbs!"
There was a momentary breakoff in the signal followed by a loud burst of static in the callback.
"Please . . . repeat . . . Maj . . . signals . . . ing up . . . not . . . hear . . . orders?"
A tight smile replaced Travis's usual dour expression as he recognized the Wing First's ruse in switching on defensive screens without boosting his comm signal. That should give the foolhardy youngster long enough to carry out his plan without Pritchard's overbearing interference. It might also provide him an excuse, albeit a flimsy one, should Pritchard demand a disciplinary board. Even if the FSA didn't advocate innovative tactics, they should, at the very least, acknowledge success as its own justification.
Pritchard's face was florid, his lips trembling with indignation as he hit a small red button off one side of the instrument panel. Moments later a three-man security squad with fully charged weapons quick marched into the room to stand at attention just outside the simulator. Accompanying the security detail, LeClerc's expression was thunderous as he as he ordered the squad flatly, "Check your weapons and verify full power."
Hardened as he was to the usual harsh discipline within the ranks, Travis could hardly credit that the Academy would use such extreme measures to quash a potential outbreak of original thinking in one of their own cadets. Was unquestioning obedience the only military virtue currently acceptable to the Senior Echelon . . . with any hint of original thinking stamped out as ruthlessly as Blake's insurrection?
Smiling bitterly to himself, Travis strode over to the Commandant's side. "I don't think the Supreme Commander would approve of your action, LeClerc."
LeClerc glanced at him irritably. "This is an internal disciplinary matter, Commander, and no concern of yours."
"Servalan is always concerned with promising material within the cadet ranks."
"Promising?" LeClerc reacted incredulously. "Cadet Tarrant is a troublemaker, arrogant, insubordinate, and unconventional. I hardly believe the Supreme Commander would approve of such a disruptive influence within the officer corps."
Travis's feral gaze raked across the Commandant. "Oh, you'd be surprised at what she approves of, LeClerc."
The training scenario was winding down to its bloody, exhausted conclusion. Surprisingly, there were almost twice as many surviving Federation craft registering on the screens as predicted by the computer's tactical projection.
With a sour expression LeClerc stood beside the simulator as the dazed, sweaty trainees stumbled out, glancing nervously at the armed detail off to one side. Finally a tall angular cadet with dark curls that still managed to look disheveled despite the extremely short Academy cut strode out and the Commandant barked sharply "Cadet Tarrant! Stand to attention . . . right now!"
Del's flushed cheeks paled at the presence of the armed detail but he stood resolute even in the face of LeClerc's icy rage. Travis allowed himself a sneaking admiration for the pure brass balls on the boy.
"Do you have any last words, cadet, before I order your summary execution for gross insubordination and defiance of a superior officer . . . in the face of the enemy?"
Tarrant's voice was a cracked whisper, "Yes sir. The tactical formation that Major Pritchard ordered had a projected casualty rate upwards of 90 percent for the operation. I uncovered files in the archives that projected less than 50 percent casualties, while still achieving the tactical objective . . . destruction of the hive ship."
"What files?" LeClerc demanded harshly.
"The log of Phoenix Squadron," Travis answered low-voiced before Tarrant could speak. "His wing flew Rik Hunt's original tactics for the attack on the hive ship at Rusalka Prime."
LeClerc answered in a brittle tone, "Yes, and nearly all his squadron was lost in the same explosion that destroyed the aliens. Flamboyant theatrics are not an acceptable substitute for sound military strategy. Major Pritchard's plan maintained the squadron in precise formation for mutual fire support against the Thusok forces until they were able to attack the central hive ship."
"Judging by what I saw on screen, Pritchard's 'precise formation' had its ass caught in a meatgrinder with no way out. Without Tarrant's diversionary action, none of those wings would have survived long enough to reach the hive ship," Travis spat.
Pritchard sputtered in outrage at LeClerc's side. "This degree of insubordination-- disobeying a superior officer in the face of the enemy-- demands summary execution!"
"So you prefer an obedient dead Wing First over a survivor who exhibits adaptability and original thinking?" Travis's voice rang sarcastically.
"The Academy has no place for original thinkers," LeClerc answered in an icily correct voice."We do things by the book, by the rules, and by the numbers."
Travis sneered, "Which makes it so much easier for Graves Registration to fill out their casualty lists."
LeClerc stared at Travis for a long moment, as though seeing him for the first time; past the brash, uncouth facade to some deeper truth. He cleared his throat before turning back to the shaken cadet.
"Well . . . the boy did base his plan on a prior battlefield strategy, which could be considered a mitigating factor, despite his impulsive actions." His baleful glare impaled the youthful offender. "Of course, there will be a disciplinary hearing on your actual disobedience during the training scenario. Until then, you're confined to your barracks on bread and water rations except during class, drill, or simulator practice . . . or when marching your two extra hours of punishment drill daily for the next month."
Tarrant groaned to himself, almost wishing Commander Travis had not spoken up and allowed LeClerc to put him out of his misery earlier. At least the end would have been quick and relatively painless. With two extra hours of drill, on nothing but bread and water rations, he'd be dying by inches over the next month as he struggled to keep up with his classroom assignments, inspections and other duties.
To his surprise, the scarred officer spoke up again, his voice softly mocking, "I've got a better idea, Commandant. I'm stuck here, killing time lecturing your cadets on Urban Warfare, for another six weeks while Medical completes the cybernetic hookups to my shoulder. I'm not familiar with the Academy's schedule or physical layout. Why don't you assign him to me as my striker and guide dog until his disciplinary board convenes? That should keep both of us out of your hair."
LeClerc glared dourly at the Space Commander. He was hardly a paragon of military discipline for any of the Academy's students to emulate. But judging by the appalled expression on Tarrant's face, the cadet found the idea of serving as the Commander's menial and errand boy distasteful in the extreme. If nothing else, the arrangement might teach the arrogant young bastard a lesson in humility.
"Very well, Commander. Cadet Tarrant will serve as your striker until a disciplinary board rules on his actions today . . . and I wish you well of him."
Tarrant paused in his self-imposed task of polishing Travis's boots to an eye-blinding sheen, studying his distorted reflection in their ebony surface. Despite his qualms at being assigned to the bluntly outspoken officer, he found the actual demands on his time remarkably light. After a cursory exploration of the Academy's training facilities, Travis spent most of his at the Medical Center, enduring the painstaking neuromuscular hookups that would allow the attachment of a fully functional cybernetic replacement for his missing arm. Somewhat surprised that the procedures did not include replacement of his missing eye as well, Tarrant had grown too wary of the commander's increasingly volatile temper to question him further.
It was a disturbing change from his first few days as Travis's striker, when the officer had been open and civil, even deigning to answer Del's questions about his motives for saving him from the Commandant's wrath.
A sarcastic smile had curved across his scarred features, "Maybe I just wanted to ram a pointed stick up that pompous ass, cadet, and you looked like a likely candidate."
Then his face went suddenly grim and distant. "Or maybe I was just grateful that anyone still remembered Phoenix Squadron."
"You seemed very familiar with the maneuver we flew."
"I was Hunt's Ops specialist. I helped draw up the attack plan . . . and flew as his wingmate."
"How did you survive?"
"Sheer luck," Travis spat, his eye turned dark and inward. "But good or bad depends on your point of view."
"We'd finally received the replacement fighters we'd been requesting for the past month just before the mission. We had barely enough time to do systems checks for major glitches, but not to fly them under combat conditions. It was a toss-up whether we should stick with the ships we knew, hoping they'd hold together for one more mission or go with new, untested fighters. Rik and I ran a tactical simulation on the ops computer two nights before the battle. Based on the performance specs, the mission had a casualty projection under 20 percent."
"What happened?" Del's voice was a choked whisper.
"The replacements had a minor flaw. The engines would shut down when overheated, leaving the pilot a sitting target. Someone in Design and Development lined his pockets at the cost of Phoenix Squadron's blood . . . and the Senior Echelon hushed it up, leaving everyone to believe Hunt was a suicidal glory hound instead of a shrewd, cautious pragmatist."
Travis's harsh glare fixed on the cadet. "I'd made several non-reg changes to my weapon systems and didn't have time to undo them before the mission. So I kept my old ship, rather than risk being written up by some rear echelon supply clerk for 'damage to Federation property, noncombat related'. That was the only thing that saved me from going out in a blaze of glory with Hunt and the rest of the squadron."
Tarrant listened, with a cold knot in his stomach. to Travis's description of that battle, disturbed by the Commander's open contempt for the Senior Echelon. Despite his own problems with rigid and unimaginative instructors within the Academy, such revelations seemed heretical coming from a senior officer, even an outsider like Travis.
"So, instead of dying with my wingmates, I got lucky-- merely banished to peace-keeping details on the Outer Worlds, until Supreme Commander Servalan recalled me to Earth, to deal with Freedom Party troublemakers. Which is how I wound up here--maimed and scarred-- lecturing indifferent cadets on the finer points of urban warfare."
After that brief, unexpected candor, the Commander retreated into silence, despite Tarrant's attempts to draw him out further.
"Stick to your books, cadet, and don't borrow more trouble than you've already got."
Though it was obvious Travis wasn't fully recovered from his injuries, his classes were unconventional and often intriguing. There was session spent in total silence, where every cough, paper rattle, or even deep sigh, brought a harshly snapped, "You're dead, cadet! Now, stand at attention by the wall until I dismiss you."
To Tarrant's dismay, normal class bells were suspended that morning and they spent almost four hours 'practicing stillness'. The next day, Travis lectured them on the necessity for learning to remain quiet and absolutely motionless for long periods of time; whether on surveillance, waiting in ambush, or hiding from pursuers.
They also played several versions of "Fox and Hounds" as part of the commander's training in the finer points of "search and destroy" against rebel outposts.
While the classes were mentally challenging, Travis's offduty demands on Tarrant's time and energy were few, leaving the cadet more time to think than was good for him. Unfortunately, his classmates were deprived of similar opportunities.
The addition of the Urban Tactics class to an already overfull schedule of academics, drill and combat simulation only added more stress to an already volatile state of affairs. The situation was compounded by LeClerc's contempt for Travis, which became glaringly obvious to the cadets themselves after the first exam.
The group gathering in the common room after the grades were posted was grimly outraged and Tarrant was the target of their animosity by virtue of his association with the much despised Travis.
"...flunked three-quarters of the class outright!" Wallace rumbled. "The proctors have scheduled a remedial tutorial for the next three evenings. Now we're losing sleep morning and night because of this worthless make-work course!"
He glared resentfully at Tarrant. "But I don't suppose you're losing much sleep though, unless Travis keeps you up late . . . sucking his cock for a passing grade!"
Tarrant's blue eyes flashed dangerously as he buried both hands in Wallace's tunic, drawing the burlier cadet close as he demanded tightly, "Would you prefer to retract that scurrilous accusation . . . or have me ram it down your throat?"
Despite the fact he outweighed the lanky Tarrant by ten kilos, Wallace mumbled a sullen apology and shrugged out of his grip.
Tarrant dropped his fists in disgust, pivoting to flay his accusers with a contemptuous glare, "Yes, I did pass that test . . . by the skin of my teeth. But Commander Travis has nothing to do with our grades. LeClerc assigns different instructors to monitor the lectures, then writes the test from their notes. Spot who's monitoring and you can figure out what kind of quiz it will be. Last week it was Major Pritchard."
The cadets muttered in disgust. Prissy's obsessive attention with totally irrelevant minutiae was the bane of their existence. Given Commander Travis's loose, unstructured lecture style, it was almost impossible to predict what asinine, pointless detail Pritchard would fasten on for their exam. Still . . .
As the group glared at Tarrant, Krieg spoke up, a calculating gleam in his eyes. "Even if an Academy instructor writes the test, Travis is still required to approve it. You're the only one with access to his quarters. It would be easy for you to make copies and pass them on to the rest of us."
"Don't be a fool," Tarrant snapped. "You know the penalties for cheating as well as I do. Besides, if the whole class suddenly aces the exam, they'll know we cribbed it."
"But the whole class won't see that copy, Del. Just wing leaders . . . and a few select chums. Besides this course isn't part of the standard curriculum. Just politically motivated make-work. Occupational therapy for the Space Commander while his cybernetic rebuild is done. Utterly useless to our future careers--like PreAtomic Military History or unarmed combat drills."
Tarrant bit back his protests at Krieg's sneering dismissal of the two courses that he enjoyed the most. He was well aware that the majority of cadets agreed with Krieg's disparaging view.
Still, there was the matter of the Academy's Code of Honor, outmoded as it might be, and his own reluctance to violate Travis's trust.
"Why should I take the risk?" he demanded bluntly. "If it's such nothing course, who even gives a damn if we pass or fail?"
"Let's just say we don't want to appear ungrateful to Supreme Commander Servalan, since our future careers in Space Command will likely depend on her good will." The smooth calculation of that reply galled Tarrant and he glared at Krieg and his cronies in distaste.
"I'll . . . consider it. But don't get your hopes up. Commander Travis is a hard man . . . not someone whose anger I'd care to provoke."
"He spends most of his time in medical, Tarrant. Make the most of your opportunity," Wallace bit off snidely.
Tarrant ignored the jibe, returning to Travis's quarters and his duties as striker with his mind in a turmoil.
To his dismay, the Space Commander was already there. His was face ashen and pinched with pain as he slumped against the wall, attempting to unfasten his tunic, one-armed. Tarrant hurried to help him into a chair just before his knees completely buckled.
"Where the hell were you, cadet?"the Commander grimaced irritably. "Anytime you aren't actually in class or drill, you're supposed to be here . . . ready to obey orders."
"Sorry sir. Some of my wingmates were discussing . . . recent test scores and the makeup exam. Asking if I would . . . coach them."
"Pass them the next Urban Tactics exam, you mean," the commander rasped, startling Tarrant with his shrewdness. But before Del could deny it, the officer shrugged wearily. "It's no concern of mine how LeClerc runs this menagerie. The real test of whether you learned anything would be going up against the likes of Blake or Shivan . . . and surviving."
Travis shrugged out of his heavy tunic, letting it drop to the floor. Tarrant starred with morbid curiosity at the raw flesh of Travis's left shoulder, the truncated absence of his arm giving the Commander a lopsided, hunchbacked appearance. There was a tangle of exposed wires projecting from the sloppily bandaged wound site and Travis shivered uncontrollably, bare-chested in the cool room air, as a clammy sweat dripped from his unshaven chin.
"Lay out my dress tunic, boy, with full medals and brass," he rasped. "There's an important Senatorial function this evening and Servalan requires my presence . . . as the center attraction."
Tarrant protested as Travis lurched to his feet, staggering toward the fresher.
"But, sir, you're ill. . . . exhausted. Surely the Supreme Commander doesn't expect you to attend a social function in your present condition?"
The Commander laughed bitterly, "I'm her showpiece. Pathetic wreckage that she flaunts before the Council to demonstrate their folly in reprogramming Blake rather than ending his menace forever, even at the risk of creating a Freedom Party `martyr'. She also hopes my display of a loyal officer's 'heroic sacrifice" will shame the council into increasing her authority to put down political unrest. My carcass--dead or alive--is merely one more steppingstone on her climb to power."
Travis stepped under the fresher's ice cold needle jets, clenching his teeth to keep them from chattering. Meanwhile Del readied his dress uniform, attaching medals and ribbons from historic battles he'd studied at the Academy, as he brooded on Travis's bitter diatribe.
Surely, the officer was mistaken about the Supreme Commander's ambitions and her reason for demanding his presence at this meeting with the High Council. Blake had been mindwiped and rehabilitated into a loyal citizen of the Federation, even denouncing his co-conspirators. Without his charismatic leadership, the Freedom Party was little more than a few disaffected malcontents, scarcely requiring Space Command's attention. Yet, Travis had implied that Servalan believed otherwise and was determined to act on that belief, no matter the cost.
Gray-faced, with his teeth chattering, despite the blast of heated air from the fresher's blowers, Travis stumbled into the room. Tarrant guided him over to the chair and hurriedly began to help him dress, neatly pinning the tunic's empty sleeve and making sure that all the commander's medals were in the correct order.
As the two mutoids assigned to escort him to the function arrived at his quarters, Travis brushed his hair back from his forehead then dismissed Tarrant for the evening.
"I think I can get undressed without your assistance, cadet. Go catch up on your sleep and try not to acquire any more demerits."
Although his duties as Travis's striker exempted him from the usual cadet bed check, Tarrant rarely used the privilege. But tonight he was extremely uneasy about the commander's debilitated condition before leaving and despite his dismissal, Del resolved to fulfill his obligations as he saw fit.
Honorable intentions aside, the heavy schedule of classes and the physical demands of his training left him heavy-eyed. He slumped, dozing, in a chair just inside the fresher's dressing area, not hearing anything until he was awakened by muted voices in the main room. His head jerked up and he almost scrambled hastily to his feet when he suddenly recognized the Supreme Commander's silken tones. There was a cold menacing note to her voice that sent a shiver of apprehension down his spine, freezing him where he was, out of sight but eavesdropping shamelessly.
"...unmitigated disaster, Carnell! I thought you had him under control?!"
A second voice replied smoothly, "I do, ma'am. His hatred for Blake is growing. It's just a matter of time."
That calm response only infuriated the Supreme Commander further. Her next words were as brittle as though chipped from a glacier. "We may not have that time, Carnell. Samore was there tonight . . . watching him! Sentimental old fool. He believes Travis is salvageable, that he can still serve the Federation in an advisory capacity, formulating strategy against other dissidents . . . now that Blake has been neutralized."
"And that doesn't fit in with your plans, does it, Madame Supreme Commander?" That calm voice was dangerous, razor-edged menace concealed under its smooth accents. Tarrant held his breath, praying that neither of the pair would suspect the cubbyhole was occupied.
"Samore is a moralistic fool; too soft to use the stern measures necessary to stamp out Blake's dangerous ideas. I require someone strong and ruthless enough to crush these dissidents like the vermin they are. Someone with good reason to hate Blake so he'll obey any order I give him . . . blindly, without question. "
"That may be . . . difficult, ma'am." An acid edge simmered within those bland tones. "Travis has never obeyed anyone that blindly, not even during his earliest years within the ranks"
"Then erase his memories, puppeteer, and reprogram him so I have his unquestioning loyalty, no matter what I demand."
"Modification is rarely successful in males, particularly strong-willed and independent individuals like Travis."
Tarrant barely managed to suppress a gasp of horror at the puppeteer's dispassionate response. The modification process was used to transform incorrigible misfits into mutoids, removing their disruptive influence from society and making them marginally useful to the Federation. Del could not believe the Supreme Commander would even consider, much less suggest such treatment for a loyal officer like Travis. The whole conversation seemed unreal, almost nightmarish, but he was too stiff and cold to be safely asleep in his bunk.
The sound of a sharp slap recaptured Del's attention. "Don't be deliberately obtuse, Carnell. Travis's brain is still as deadly a weapon as his body once was. I want that weapon at my disposal, not shattered by the modification process. Surely a psychostrategist as skilled as yourself can guarantee his loyalty without dulling his wits?"
The puppeteer was silent for a long moment but when he spoke again, there was a sly, speculative note in his voice. "Erase his past. Give him a new background, maybe even a new face. Condition his loyalty to the Federation from the very beginning so he'll be more responsive to commands, easier to control."
"Condition that loyalty to me first, Carnell. Then the Federation."
"Of course, Supreme Commander. How could you doubt me?"
"Very easily, my dear psychostrategist." The icy note in the Supreme Commander's voice had thawed slightly, replaced by honeyed venom. "Your own allegiance is questionable at best."
"It's always for sale to the highest bidder, ma'am, and right now that's you."
There was another dangerous pause, thenTarrant heard two sets of footsteps, one of them stumbling, being half-dragged into the room. There was a muffled grunt and the cot creaked as something heavy was roughly dropped onto it.
"You seem to have everything under control at the moment," Carnell offered a mock salute. "With your permission, I'll withdraw until tomorrow, when we begin the reprograming."
"Very well, Carnell. Just be sure you get it right this time."
Del breathed an inaudible sigh of relief when the puppeteer departed, though he wasn't out of the woods yet.
"Shall I undress the commander, ma'am?" intoned the mutoid guard.
"No, leave him. The way Joban kept refilling his glass, I doubt he'll even remember where he was tonight. It hardly matters. Once Carnell is finished, Travis will be little more than a weapon . . . my weapon."
She gloated over the unconscious officer, brittle scorn edging her voice, "Samore and his coterie thought they'd found someone they could use against me. A survivor conscripted off a backwater world and indoctrinated with their antique code of military virtues, in hopes of 'saving the Federation'. I wonder how they'll react when they discover his new loyalties."
The malice in that voice chilled Tarrant to the bone, leaving him shaken with disbelief as the sharp tattoo of her heels receded down the hall, accompanied by the mutoid's heavy tread.
Del sucked in lungfuls of air, tainted by the heavy scent of her perfume, and massaged his legs, that had grown numb with accumulated tension during that nerve-wracking vigil. As he muttered a silent thank-you to Travis for the "useless" class in silent surveillance, the Supreme Commander's words echoed through his mind with all their terrifying implications.
Servalan had just ordered a psychostrategist to mindwipe and reprogram Commander Travis. A punishment supposedly reserved for the worst misfits within Federation society! The fate of dissidents and malcontents . . . like Blake! How could she even suggest such action against a loyal officer; one who'd served the Federation and fought its enemies for years?
Tarrant sat there for long moments, shocked by this revelation of how Space Command "took care of its own," recalling Krieg's earlier snide remarks about Travis falling afoul of someone powerful within the Senior Echelon. Seeing the brutal truth behind those rumors left a bitter taste in his mouth and filled him with a sudden resolve to help Travis escape the Supreme Commander's scheme.
If what Servalan had said was true, Travis had at least one powerful advocate. Fleet Warden Samore. If the Space Commander was warned of her plans beforehand, possibly he might be willing to skip his morning session at the MedCenter and escape the puppeteer's clutches--temporarily at least. Then Travis could inform Samore---
Tarrant's fists clenched in frustration. Inform Samore of what? That in the middle of the night, a junior cadet had overheard the Supreme Commander plotting to have one of her own officers mindwiped and reprogrammed! With no proof, it would be his word against hers. If he wasn't actually laughed out of the Academy for inventing such an outrageous tale, he'd likely find himself dismissed as mentally unfit. Still his mind raced, searching for some escape for the dour commander who had earned his grudging respect.
Glancing at the wall chrono, he stifled a groan. It was after midnight and he'd been up since 4:30. No wonder he couldn't think straight. He'd settle Travis for the night, then get to bed himself. Tomorrow morning they'd both be rested and alert and able to devise a suitable strategy against Servalan
Del stared blearily at Travis, sprawled on the narrow cot. Then with a grunt of effort, he pried off the senior officer's boots then stripped off his high-collared, be-medaled formal tunic. So exhausted he could barely keep his eyes open, Tarrant threw a blanket across Travis's limp body before collapsing in the chair beside the bed.
"Just close my eyes for a second," he muttered to himself, "then get back to the barracks."
His head sagged against his chest and he began to snore softly.
Suddenly he was being shaken until his teeth clicked together, a harsh voice grating in his ears, "What the hell are you doing, sprawled there drooling, cadet? I dismissed you before I left."
Tarrant knuckled his eyes, trying to rub the sleep out of them as he yawned, "Wanted to make sure you got back okay. You looked . . . ill."
Travis straightened up, wincing as he rubbed his hand down his unshaven chin. "I doubt you were much help, unless you know of a sure-fire hangover remedy." He glanced at the wall chrono irritably "Besides inspection is in fifteen minutes and I don't think you want to stand it rumpled, unshaven, and wearing yesterday's uniform."
Del jerked upright in a panic. He'd slept until nearly 5:30! There was barely enough time for him to dash back to the barracks, shower and change, much less get his gear set out properly for the senior officer's inspection! He started to bolt for the door, then suddenly remembered the deadly conversation he'd overheard the night before.
Catching Travis's arm as the officer headed for the fresher, Del blurted out in a rush. "Sir, you've got to stay away from the MedCenter this morning. The Supreme Commander was here last night, when you were brought back to your quarters. She was talking to psychostrategist about having your memories erased and reprogrammed!"
Travis stared at the cadet for a moment, before answering drily, "That penalty seems a bit extreme for mere public intoxication. And I do recall that all the wives present were so fat and frumpy, I doubt I got drunk enough to make a pass at any of them. You've been sniffing too much brass polish, boy, spouting off wild notions like that."
Tarrant gritted his teeth in frustration. It was worse than he feared, even Travis did not believe him, despite his own openly expressed distrust of Servalan's motives. Still, Del was determined to convince the officer that he was telling the truth!
" But it's true, sir. I overheard her plotting with this psychostrategist -- Carnell, I think his name was -- about the best way to guarantee your unquestioning loyalty."
Travis shrugged, "Why bother with wreckage like me when she has the best of Space Command willing to jump through hoops for her?"
Del paused for a moment, desperately trying to pull his thoughts together so Travis didn't dismiss his warning out of hand. If the Commander wouldn't cancel his medical appointment outright, maybe Tarrant could persuade him to take an escort. That might be enough to cause Servalan to have second thoughts about her illicit plot.
"She wants you as a personal weapon. Blindly obedient to her -- and any order she gives against Blake's fellow dissidents."
"Why go to all that trouble?" was Travis's embittered response. "I'd gladly wring Blake's neck if he hadn't already been reprogrammed as a `loyal, useful Federation citizen.' The sooner his seditious followers are eliminated, the better."
Travis shoved Tarrant toward the door, ordering harshly. "Get back to your barracks, cadet, and stop wasting my time with this nonsense."
Tarrant ground his teeth in frustration. But before he could think of some other way to convince Travis of the danger, the second warning bell sounded.
Years of conditioned obedience would not permit him to ignore it and he sprinted madly across the grounds separating the VOQ from the cadet barracks. Moments late he arrived red-faced and out of breath, barely in time to shave and change and throw his kit together for morning inspection.
His overnight absence had been noticed and Wallace and his cronies made sniggering remarks about it. Whispered leering speculations that set Tarrant's temper to boiling and he lunged at the Wing Second, gripping his tunic fiercely.
"Shut your lying mouth, Wallace or I'll . . . "
The Tac officer's leather-lunged order broke off the confrontation as both cadets snapped to attention at the foot of their cots. The inspection was agonizingly thorough and Tarrant was gigged with another fifteen demerits for minor violations in his usually spotless gear.
The second bell for class had rung before the Tac officer dismissed them, making the entire wing late for Travis's Urban Tactics class. As they straggled in, Travis raked their tardy ranks with a gaze as blistering as a volley of laser-fire before continuing with his rapid fire lecture on everyday substances and devices that could be used by insurgents to construct devastatingly lethal weapons.
"Most liquid fuels can be used in messy explosive devices powerful enough to wipe out half a battalion. The same goes for many common household, industrial, or even farming chemicals. In certain combinations, the compounds are so volatile and unstable they result in carnage among the civilian populace rather than the Federation troops they're aimed against. But the rebels are committed fanatics determined to disrupt Federation authority regardless of the number of innocent bystanders they kill or maim in the process."
"Unless we act with the necessary force, terrorism will continue to spread. Feeding on our hesitation like a cancer, seeding its malignant cells throughout the civilized worlds. Only stringent measures will excise this virulent spread of anarchy and unrest whenever it occurs."
Del shivered at this dire description of a Federation officer's duties. Suddenly his bold dreams of heroic battles and glorious victories seemed childlike and naive, like sand castles eroding in the harsh tides of the real universe. While Travis himself was in danger of being dragged under by the dark undertow of Servalan's ambition.
When the cadets filed out after class, Krieg nudged him, whispering in a smooth barely heard voice, "Midterms are next week, Tarrant. Wallace overheard that the proctor was delivering the test to Travis's quarters later today. His usual medical appointment is after lunch, which gives you the whole afternoon to slip it out and make copies."
Tarrant tried to pull away, determined to make one last effort to warn Travis.
"Something's come up and he may decide not keep that appointment today."
Krieg's grip tightened, "Don't interfere, Del! I warned you that Travis was an object lesson to all of us. If you want to survive at the Academy or in Space Command, you can't go it alone. You need to start cultivating the right sort of friends--like your fellow Wing Firsts who need a passing grade in this course. Now are you going to do your part or waste your time catering to a crippled has-been?"
"Don't push your luck, Krieg," Tarrant snarled, pushing past the other.
Glancing around, he spotted Travis heading for the Administration building, his long purposeful stride taking him nearly all the way across the parade ground before Del could break ranks to go after him. As he rushed across the field determined to catch Travis and try to reason with him one last time, two black clad figures stepped out of the early morning shadows. Travis appeared startled by their sudden appearance, gesturing angrily until one of them pressed her hand to the side of his neck and the Commander slumped between them. As Del watched in dismay, Travis was dragged to a waiting ground car and dumped roughly in before it sped away.
Tarrant stared after the departing vehicle with his fists clenched in frustration. The Supreme Commander left nothing to chance; not even the reconditioning of a disaffected cripple like Travis. Turning, Del strode grimly to his next class. The leaden despair congealing in his chest threatened to extinguish the last sparks of youthful invincibility that had enabled him to endure years of abuse at the Academy.
Krieg and his cronies were right. It wasn't what you knew but who you knew that guaranteed your survival in Space Command. Even Travis--outsider that he was--knew that much . . . although it had done him little good. The only sure way to advance in the FSA, indeed within Space Command itself, was to cultivate powerful friends and not make dangerous enemies, especially among fellow "officers and gentlemen" who he might need to guard his flank or smooth his path to promotion in the years ahead. If the only way to ingratiate himself to those fellow officers was to steal a copy of the exam from Travis's quarters, then it seemed a small enough price to pay.
Everyone knew the Academy's Code of Honor was an antique from the earliest days of the Federation. As laughably outdated as the motto "Duty. Honor. Sacrifice," that they were supposed to live and die by within the service. Yet even as Del tried to rationalize what he intended to do, he wondered why he felt so soiled, so tainted by the only practical solution to the problem.
Even Travis himself had expected nothing else.
Despite the logic of his arguments with himself, Tarrant was still reluctant to take that final damning step. At first he tried to convince himself that the plot he'd overheard was simply a nightmare; a fatigue-drugged delusion. But the Space Commander did not return to his quarters that night or the six nights following, Tarrant's final desperate hope began to fade.
The situation was made worse by the Academy's refusal to acknowledge Travis's absence. Early every morning the class still convened, with mandatory attendance scrupulously checked by the Tac officer. Then for the next two hours they sat at silent attention, with every cough, mutter, or shift of position meticulously noted by the class proctor and demerits issued at random. As the frustration and resentment of his fellow cadets simmered toward a boiling point, Tarrant was forced to act.
Yet as he rifled through the papers on the Space Commander's desk, searching for the exam, Tarrant still felt like he was betraying a trust. Not just to the scarred officer, but to himself. He throttled those misgivings brutally, continuing his hasty search until a menacing purr brought him up short.
"The midterm is in the bottom right-hand drawer."
He didn't recognize the voice at first. It had the usual refined accents of one of the Academy's Alpha rank instructors, but there was a harsher edge to it. He straightened slowly, intending to protest he was merely neatening the room, fulfilling his duties as Travis's striker. As he turned to face his accuser, a momentary rush of elation filled him.
It was Travis!
Or at least it appeared to be, until Del studied him more closely. Though he still had the same rugged features that declared his origins as much as his coarse offworld accent, they were somehow different. As though they'd been smoothed off and polished somehow, bringing him closer to the typical inbred Alpha ideal. Oddly, the laser-ravaged half of his face remained untouched.
His missing arm had been replaced with a naked framework of plastic and steel. Tarrant could tell by the circuitry and power couplings that it would not be an ordinary prosthetic. Instead there were linkages for some kind of laser device. Once installed, Travis would become little more than another lethal weapon in the Supreme Commander's arsenal.
Del drew himself into a full cadet brace, with the damning test folder gripped in his hand and met Travis's eye. He sought some sign of emotions that he'd seen there earlier; righteous anger, grudging respect, even a distant wary camaraderie. But no trace of humanity remained. There was only the cold unblinking stare of a predator; a walking, breathing engine of destruction. The Supreme Commander had achieved her ambition . . . and her vengeance.
Travis struck with the speed of a cobra, his artificial arm clutching Tarrant's throat cruelly, threatening to crush his windpipe. "So you're just like all the rest, an undisciplined weakling."
Tarrant gazed calmly into that abyss of madness within his superior's eye until suddenly a momentary sanity broke through, like embers flying up from a dying fire. Travis's grip on Tarrant's throat relaxed, as the mechanical arm dropped lifeless to his side. The two men stared at one another -- one soul already lost and damned and the other on the fast track down that same road to perdition.
"Get out," Travis croaked. "You've got what you came for."
The test was crumpled in Tarrant's sweaty hands and he was tempted to hurl it in the other man's face, denying his guilt and pretending the whole incident had never happened. But Travis's savage gaze impaled him, like some insect mounted on display.
"Get out, now!" The voice did not have the smoothly menacing tones he'd heard when Travis entered, but was raw-edged and rough, like that of the officer he remembered."Now--while you still have a chance! Before they snare you the same way they did me."
"Now, cadet!" The voice rose to a maddened scream as Tarrant scrambled out, slamming the door behind him.
Sprinting across the parade ground, he didn't slow down until he reached the barracks. He stuffed the crumpled exam papers inside Krieg's footlocker as he'd been instructed, then stripped off his sweat-drenched uniform and headed for the showers. Icy water sluiced down his body and Tarrant finally yielded to the emotions he'd locked deep inside for the past week. As bitter tears of anger and frustration coursed down his cheeks, he couldn't tell if the tremors that wracked his body were the result of fear-- or pity.
Early the next morning, Commandant LeClerc announced that the Urban Warfare Course was canceled, with no further explanation given. The Senior Wing breathed a huge sigh of relief, though snide gossip circulated next two weeks that the real reason for Travis's sudden recall was the Supreme Commander's discovery of the erotic potential of his new prosthetic. The test Tarrant had stolen was worthless now and the empty betrayal of his principles left the taste of ashes in his mouth.
Life at the Academy quickly returned to normal. The minor disruption of its regimented routine caused by Travis's abrupt appearance and disappearance vanishing as though he had never existed. Only Tarrant was still affected by the outcast officer's unsettling influence. Despite the fact that he'd delivered the stolen midterm, Tarrant's fellow Wing Leaders still mistrusted him. His conscience had nearly overruled his self-interest and the majority of his classmates regarded that as a potentially fatal character flaw they would not easily forget. Thus, his chances of living long enough to pin on his wings were growing smaller each day.
When the Supreme Commander visited the Academy again several weeks prior to graduation, Del stood at attention in the first row with the other Wing Leaders, with an unobstructed view of Space Commander Travis's final transformation.
The outworld misfit been made over into the model Alpha officer, with his neatly precise haircut, meticulous uniform, and polished diction. But his proud independence and outspoken brashness had vanished as though they had never existed. While Servalan prowled the cadet ranks with a predatory gleam in her eye, on the lookout for likely new additions to her personal staff, Travis strode at her side as mechanically emotionless as one of her mutoid guards.
The Supreme Commander stopped in front of Tarrant. Her golden gaze wandering across his lean muscular body, while she stroked his cheek with one blood red nail.
"A likely looking prospect, don't you think, Travis?"
Travis's cold black stare flicked across him with contempt. "A troublemaker and misfit according to LeClerc's records, Supreme Commander."
"Pity," she shrugged, moving on to the next cadet.
Even as Tarrant breathed a small sigh of relief at his escape from Servalan's clutches, he couldn't help feeling increasingly bitter about the whole situation. It was common knowledge that the Supreme Commander staffs enjoyed her sexual favors, then were guaranteed quick promotions and command of the best ships. And Travis's fate was a chilling example of the reward for courage and sacrifice.
Tarrant stared at the cold stone walls that loomed upward and grey claustrophobic dome beyond that left the Academy grounds in permanent shadow. The atmosphere remained as grim as the distant, hostile expressions around him. Once he'd believed that Space Command offered him the freedom of the stars and a chance to prove his courage and skill, but now he recognized the absurdity of that dream.
Studying the shattered ruin of a once brilliant and loyal officer, now little more than Servalan's lapdog, Tarrant acknowledged this final bleak lesson from the Federation Space Academy.
"I won't let them break me," he whispered. "There are other ships out there, bigger and faster than anything in the Fleet . . . and one day I'll pilot the best of them!"
As his blue eyes glittered with reborn hope, Del Tarrant allowed his dreams to take him beyond its confining walls to the freedom of the stars beckoning beyond.
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