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Agent of Ruin

By Alice C. Aldridge
Page 2 of 7

"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?"

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Alice C. Aldridge

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