The events I’m going to tell you about took place fifty-one years ago, at the tail end of the Russ Rebellion.  The Russ colonies had been destroyed after fifteen years of fighting, but there were still some pockets of resistance.  We had just taken part in the assault on Tavic, a rebel base on the fringes of Abell 2029.  Actually, we had been held in reserve, and Cal was irritable as hell.  Even Vanessa was avoiding him.

The assault had not gone well.  We were expecting to be shipped out on some kind of rescue mission; reports from the front indicated that the over-confident Quadrant kids were getting waxed in record numbers by the desperate Russ.  When our orders finally came through on the Mastercom, Cal sat there for a long minute.

“QAK71, do you acknowledge,” asked the utterly lifeless voice of Quadrant Mission Control.  Cal took a deep breath, his face malevolent.

“Order received.  Coordinates, Lieutenant Gold?”

“Just coming in, Captain,” said Vanessa in her husky, perpetually just-getting-over-a-cold voice.  We only talked to each other that way when Mission Control was listening.  Otherwise, instead of “Lieutenant,” “Captain,” “Ensign,” or whatever, it was “Shit-For-Brains,” “Bonehead,” and “Slapdick.”

The reason Cal was so fried, of course, was that we were about to go from waiting in the wings to being sent out of the theater for coffee and donuts.  It seems there was this colony on a planet way out in the ass end of the beyond.  The last communication anybody had had with it was a distress signal received the first night of its existence.  Its escort vessel had been the Q.S. Intrepid, missing and presumed destroyed since that night.  The theory was that the Intrepid had been among the first casualties of the rebellion, probably ambushed by a squadron of Russ as it orbited peacefully above the new colony.

And now that the rebellion was sputtering out — tell that to the soldiers who were dying on Tavic — some member of the Quadrant Board had begun thinking about all the minerals, and the timber, and the energy, and the tourism, and the agriculture, and all the other exploitables just lying fallow out there.  So he or she had called a member of the Quadrant High Command, who had called a member of Quadrant Mission Control, who had called a certain peevish former brigadier general named Cal Vickers and told him to go check it out.

Unfortunately, we had to go with him.

*                         *                         *                         *                         *

From one of Chief Petty Officer Morris Qualls’ lasermails to Portia Tritt:

Dear Mama:

As you know, I have a little bit of a leave coming to me, since I haven’t taken one in quite a while.  I was going to take it at the end of this month and come to see you all, only now I can’t.  That’s because we have to go way out into the middle of a big galaxy (about 50 times the size of our Milky Way) called Abell 2029 to see what happened to one of the Quadrant’s colonies that nobody’s heard from in quite a while.

It will take us a long time to get out there — maybe as long as six months — and then we will likely have to spend some time ascertaining the situation and aiding the remaining colonists, if any, but they are likely to all be dead as no one has heard from them.

Anyway, we were called away from our duties on the front lines at the battle for Tavic, which I’m sure you’ve all heard about on laservid.  The battle has been going on for quite a while, fortunately none of us on the Thalasso were seriously hurt.

So we are on our way to this colony, which I am very excited about.  As you might guess, that’s because my work in biology and meteorology could put me at a considerable advantage on a planet that nobody but the Exploration Force and some dead colonists has seen.  This could be my chance to finally make my mark.  As you said in your last letter, I might make better money in private industry, or at Quadrant Biotechnic, or somewhere like that, but being with the Quadrant Fleet is very exciting.  There is always some adventure calling us.

Some bad news about that experiment I was telling you that I couldn’t wait to try.  Kelly (you remember meeting him last year; he’s our Senior Engineer) helped me to attach the apparatus to the nose of the Thalasso, and I was getting some very interesting readings on the comparative radioactivity of distant and proximate suns along our starpath.  You remember how I worked out a way to redraw our navigational charts based on that data.  Anyhow, I was very excited about the way it was compiling information.  But two days later some space debris smashed my equipment flat, so I’ll have to wait and save up some more money for parts before I can replace it and try, try again.  Oh, well.

Will close for now.  We are all well, thanks be to God.  Give my love to little Betty, and Desmond, and Garret and Elrader.  I think of all of you all the time.

Love, Morris

*                                   *                                 *                           *

Excerpt from the journal of Sergeant Feodor Vuksov:

Conditions are growing quite desperate now.  We have received word that Quadrant forces are poised for the final assault on Tavic, our last great stronghold.  It hurts my heart to think of the months I spent at Tavic, when the rebellion was new and strong.  We would march down those broad streets thirty abreast, singing anthems, our very souls bursting with pride.  Then, it seemed as though our great cause could not but succeed.

That was before Smolenkaya and the rest betrayed us to save themselves.  If we had stood together, we might have forced the Quadrant to the bargaining table.  They would have grown weary and perhaps granted us some of the autonomy we deserve over our own lives and homelands.

Instead, we are fragmented into scattered bands of renegades.  We kill just to live now, like common brigands.  And nothing can stop the iron boot of the Quadrant from descending once again on the necks of our people.

I still have faith in General Aleksandr, however.  He is a very great man who, I believe, sees far beyond the impossibility of our present situation to a time when we can form new coalitions with other oppressed peoples.  In his current illness, he is relying heavily on General Vasily Gorchev and on Colonel Taras Borovitch.  But Gorchev is not the man Aleksandr is, and Borovitch seems chiefly interested in terrorizing the men.  I fear we will accomplish little until General Aleksandr is himself again.

In the meantime, we are three hundred on a troop transport designed for two hundred.  We have only one fighter left which is fully operational.  The others need parts which we can no longer get or repairs which we have no way to make.  Food is low, water is rationed.  The stench in the general quarters is intolerable, and some of the men are getting sick.  We must find a safe haven, and soon.


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