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Agent of Ruin

By Alice C. Aldridge
Page 1 of 7

"TENNNNHUT!"

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.


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Alice C. Aldridge

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