Hal K'Rin -- headman of the Rin Clan, leader of the Tenebrea -- stepped from his dusty concrete shed into the prison yard. His bones and joints ached, having absorbed the cold from the concrete floor where he'd slept. He squinted at the Klamdara sun that would soon heat this desolate repository of traitors. The yellow orb peered over the stone walls, casting long shadows. K'Rin shielded his sore eyes, pressing his thick hand to his forehead.
At the base of the wall, Feld Jo'Orom's ossified body lay on a pallet, his eye sockets staring up, the once bright rings beneath his eyes turned slate gray. A thin shroud of red dust covered the black and gray uniform of the Tenebrea. Jo'Orom's jaw was agape, his dried lips peeled back, showing yellow teeth. The prison commandant, D'Cru, had ordered the body prominently displayed to intimidate the prisoners.
K'Rin closed his eyes and remembered Jo'Orom alive, training the young Tenebrea to serve the Rin Clan, to fight and survive. He missed Jo'Orom's good counsel as much as his companionship. In his mind, K'Rin addressed the image of Jo'Orom: How did I get us into this awful situation?
K'Rin's memories stirred Jo'Orom's voice that answered predictably, with the same admonition: Hal K'Rin, you may look into your past, but don't stare.
I can't help but stare, K'Rin thought. I started us down this path. My father warned the council about clone manufacturing in the Cor Ordinate system, and the council ruined him. I formed the Tenebrea with your help to monitor the Ordinate -- and to vindicate my father. I infected you, old friend, with the Quazel Protein that killed you. I infected all of us, and I can't undo what I've done. Instead of vindicating my father and saving Jod, I have managed only to lead us all to this prison.
K'Rin gazed upon Jo'Orom's body. K'Rin had infected himself and his Tenebrea with the protein to ensure discipline, assuming that he'd always have the Quazel enzyme to administer or withhold -- the ultimate guarantor of loyalty. Now, he was ashamed of his cynicism. The Tenebrea were as loyal as ever -- perhaps more so, since their brotherhood was now nailed to mutual suffering, a suffering he'd caused. He regretted his arrogance, his vain assumption that he'd always have the enzyme -- that he needed it at all.
And K'Rin was embarrassed for misreading his enemies on the Jod Council. I believed Pl'Don and the council would look at the physical evidence and see the dangers inherent in the Cor Ordinate's cloning program.
K'Rin glanced down to observe a sightless notsig beetle trying to climb over his frayed boot: stymied yet stubborn. It clawed at the dust with its hind feet, reaching the sole of his boot with forelegs. Feathery antennae tried to make sense of the obstacle, too close to the problem to have perspective. My boot might as well be a mountain. The council and the Fleet are as blind as this notsig beetle. K'Rin lifted his boot and let the beetle shuffle ahead in the dust, resuming its straight path apparently to nowhere. He raised the heel of his boot to crush the beetle, but a thought prevented him: This beetle's blindness is natural; the council's blindness is culpable.
I tried to make them see. I sent the Tenebrea throughout the galaxy to track the Cor Ordinate's ability to use clones as a weapon. I set into motion the events that drew Andrea Flores into this conflict...
K'Rin turned his thoughts to Andrea Flores, the Terran woman he had brought into his Tenebrea. He had sent her to Cor to spy, to find hard evidence of the Ordinate's intentions. Not only did she get the evidence, she exceeded her goal by triggering a clone insurrection, indeed, leading an assault into the Cor capital city, Sarhn. Andrea's improvisation, although fateful, amused him. And you, Andrea, you certainly stirred the stinging Z'la creeper's nest. At least you're safe. K'Rin whispered hoarsely, hoping his thought might reach out into the stars, "Find your way home, Andrea. Go back to Earth and live."
Pairs of languorous Jod marines stood in patches of shade, their weapons draped over their thick shoulders. Instead of helmets, they wore loose caps to cover their pale, hairless heads. The guards engaged in conversation, trying to fight the tedium of Klamdara isolation. They kept one wary eye watching their own officers. More than the prisoners, they feared opprobrium. A season earlier, they feared the Tenebrea, K'Rin's own guard.
The guards utterly ignored the once formidable K'Rin, once an admiral in the Jod Fleet, now condemned for treason by the Council of Elders and the council's leader Hal Pl'Don.
Treason? K'Rin chaffed. Hal Pl'Don and the council are traitors -- or worse, they are fools. K'Rin had long believed that the Ordinate, a human species transported to the Cor system, would eventually challenge the Jod with clone armies. The council admonished him to respect Cor neutrality, but he was, after all, the Chief of Offworld Intelligence. Andrea's raid into Sarhn forced the conflict into the open. Then I most certainly blundered. I assumed that Pl'Don would put Jod's security ahead of his enmity toward the Rin Clan. I was so wrong, but what could I have done differently?
K'Rin felt a trickle of blood spill from his nose. A drop of the dark red fell at his feet, leaving a black pock in the dust. He raised a bloodstained cloth to wipe his upper lip.
K'Rin turned his thoughts to the present. The Quazel Protein is slowly turning us to stone: killing us. How ironic. The odds for escape are terrible. The odds of surviving another sixty days are worse.
K'Rin hoped he might still lead them off Klamdara and to a cache of enzyme aboard the freighter Kam-Gi. His Tenebrea believed he would succeed -- somehow. He must. If the battle turned against them, they would fight to the death. K'Rin promised that he would not order a retreat. If they did not succeed in freeing themselves from Klamdara by the strength of their arms, then death would free them from the torment of the Quazel Protein.
K'Rin was acutely aware of his own symptoms. His joints ached. He was reduced to hoarse whispers as his larynx stiffened, making all speech painful. So far, his vision remained unimpaired, but he knew that myopia was beginning to affect some of his warriors.
K'Rin walked among the small huts. Small groups of Tenebrea stood at attention at the rickety doors as K'Rin passed. He read the twinge of pain in their faces as they forced themselves erect out of respect for his rank. He looked each of his afflicted warriors in the eye, saying nothing.
Words were painful; therefore, every word spoken had purpose. The Tenebrea longed to hear one word: Attack!
Their uniforms were frayed about the collars. Their sleeves were stained with their own blood wiped from their upper lips.
Their prison diet had reduced them to sleek animals. Their uniforms hung loose on their large bones. Their eyes were sunken into their hairless faces. The rings beneath their eyes -- each ring denoting a decade of life -- appeared darker. Even the bright yellow ring of childhood had turned a dark amber. The Quazel poisoning...
Despite their wan appearance, the Tenebrea were still physically strong. K'Rin saw the sinewy strength in their arms and legs, less supple for sure, but eager to strike. His warriors paced the prison yard like hungry carnivores, disciplined yet impatient. They held their heads up, watching the inattentive guards, occasionally glancing back at K'Rin -- always waiting for the word. Every warrior knew that with the arrival of the next supply ship they would escape Klamdara or die trying. With a look, K'Rin told them: Soon. We'll take them soon.
A younger Jod walked stiffly to catch K'Rin. He croaked, "Sir, staff meeting."
K'Rin nodded and followed Kip into a concrete building. The room was bare of furniture. The four officers sat on their haunches in a semicircle waiting for K'Rin. The walls were streaked with rust leaching from the iron-rich sands used in the mortar. Bal'Don and a handful of younger officers started to rise, when K'Rin preempted them. "Sit."
K'Rin hunkered down, eye level with his staff. He turned to the oldest in the group, Bal'Don, and hoarsely asked, "Supply ship?"
Bal'Don shook his head and croaked, "Delayed."
Kip, Bal'Don, and the rest of the staff knew the explanation that they pieced together from snatches of information gleaned from the guards. The Jod Fleet was standing down for a diplomatic show of goodwill for the Cor Ordinate government. Consequently, Fleet logistics churned in disarray, and Klamdara was a low priority in the present scheme of things. Cor's ministers would soon visit Jod, inspect the Jod Fleet, and begin diplomatic relations. Recently, the Klamdara commandant, D'Cru, had taunted K'Rin, claiming that Jod was about to open a new epoch of peace -- a peace that K'Rin had tried to sabotage.
K'Rin envisioned the Jod Fleet in synchronous orbit above the capital city of Heptar waiting like sitting ducks for the Cor Ordinate. Another bitter irony, although not my fault. K'Rin believed in the iron Law of Unexpected Result. His own humiliation and incarceration on Klamdara was a case in point. He believed the Cor Ordinate would not come for the expected peace; rather, they'd come to destroy the Fleet and thereby decapitate Jod: galactic war. And he, having prepared his whole life to defend Jod, would miss the battle -- another unintended result.
K'Rin asked, "Weapons?"
Bal'Don nodded solemnly. "All." He reached into his black tunic and withdrew a metal phalange, a blunt rusted rod scraped to a ragged point on the concrete floors, tapered to a serviceable point. He handed the weapon to K'Rin. "Yours."
"Thank you." K'Rin peeled open the breast flap on his tunic and hid the weapon. "Soon," he reiterated his promise.
Andrea watched her warm breath disappear into the bitter cold of Cor's winter. She stood at the mouth of a cave, refuge of the wilderness clones, looking into the rapid onset of night. The steep volcanic mountains cast long shadows. She felt like one looking up from a deep pit. The last tint of indigo disappeared into a pitch-black sky shimmering with stars. Cor's waxing moon cast a pale light over the snow. Tall snow-laden pines stood like slump-shouldered giants guarding the entrance of the cave.
She stood in the moonlight. Her brown eyes glistened. The dry cold bit her cheeks, adding a tinge of red to her olive skin. The cave's humid thermals blew at her neck. She shrugged and tightened her parka, tucking her straight black hair into her upturned collar. She adjusted her harness. Her heavy pack and a pair of snubbed snowshoes lay at her feet.
On the trail winding between trees and rock, a dozen wilderness clones packed three sleds. The first sled held rifles, bundled like wood and lying on heavy sacks of ammunition. The clones cinched the leather straps hard, anticipating a fast and rugged march to the Benwoi, now repaired, and ready for deep space travel.
Andrea looked at the multitude of stars. One of the distant specks of white lost in the jumble of the crisp sky was the Jod sun. Somewhere in the Jod system was the prison planet, Klamdara. There, K'Rin and her comrades, the Tenebrea, were incarcerated, waiting to die from Quazel poisoning. She knew that Brigon's small company of wilderness clones -- just thirty-five combatants -- was the only slim hope to save K'Rin. And K'Rin was the only -- and slimmer -- hope for saving the starving and persecuted clones here on planet Cor. Andrea was not optimistic. However, her pessimism was irrelevant. They had no other option except to flee the immediate conflict and merely postpone the inevitable. The NewGen clones were due to hatch in large numbers shortly. The scales of military power would soon tilt permanently in favor of the Cor Ordinate. And the Ordinate were pitiless. Time was short.
"Andrea." She heard her name echo from the cave walls.
"Here," she answered. Andrea's lips were dark, almost purple from the cold.
H'Roo Parh followed her voice and found her. He wore the gray and black uniform of the Tenebrea, and carried a bulging rucksack. He also carried a bulky parka in the crook of his arm. H'Roo was tall for a Jod and less thick than most. He said, "Brigon sends word that we leave in ten minutes. I spoke with Eric. He was at the infirmary helping Dr. Carai take care of Tara."
"He was?" The news pleased Andrea, who only yesterday had belittled Eric for not showing more concern for his wounded mate. Andrea asked, "How is Tara?"
"The bleeding from her arm has almost stopped. Dr. Carai thinks he can save her eye." H'Roo drew a line on his own face where Tara had suffered a gash. "The left side of her face may suffer some paralysis -- nerve damage. These clones have only the most primitive medical tools. Carai can't regenerate the nerve or eliminate the scar without the proper tools. He doesn't even have a surgical laser: he had to cut off her frostbitten toes with a blade." H'Roo grimaced at the thought. "If we could get Tara to Jod, we could build her a new arm. Carai will do the best he can here."
Andrea looked up in disbelief. "Carai is staying?"
H'Roo nodded. "Yes."
Andrea looked around and lowered her voice to a whisper. "H'Roo, these clones are starving to death. His chances are better with us on the Benwoi."
"He'd rather take his chances with the clones." H'Roo put on his parka and pulled the hood over his hairless scalp. His small delicate ears were bluish from the cold.
Andrea glanced back. The dim artificial light in the cave sparked her brown eyes. "Did he say why?"
"He doesn't want to go back into K'Rin's service -- especially back to Yuseat. He said, K'Rin can rebuild the Yuseat Lab and manufacture the enzyme without him." H'Roo patted his rucksack. "We have eight hundred doses of enzyme right here. Carai will reduce the raw crown gall into more enzyme while we are away."
Andrea nodded knowingly. "Just as well. Carai is no warrior. His biggest challenge is going to be keeping these clones from eating him -- thin though he is."
H'Roo pulled his hood closer over his hairless head and pink ears. "Dr. Carai is articulate. Sentient beings don't eat creatures smarter than themselves."
Andrea chuckled lowly. "Happens all the time."
H'Roo pursed his thin lips in disgust and carried his precious rucksack to a sled. The fresh snow crunched beneath his large boots. Andrea watched from a distance as he gesticulated, trying to make the sled master understand the critical importance of the enzyme. The clone nodded indifferently and strapped the medicine down with the same care shown any sack of ammunition. H'Roo found the other four Jod and they stood together, stamping their feet trying to keep warm.
A female clone, Chana, led a large group of clone warriors from the cave shadows. She bent at the waist under her heavy load: two backpacks and a pair of new carbines slung over her shoulder. She paused briefly to stand by Andrea. The shorter, thick-waisted clone looked up at Andrea with a slow smile. Raising an eyebrow, Chana said, "I'm coming, too. I guess Brigon needs me after all."
Or you need Brigon...Andrea said nothing. Rather, she looked down into Chana's upturned eyes, deep chestnut-brown eyes. Sad eyes. Chana had full lips on a large mouth set in a square jaw. Her facial bones about the eyes were exaggerated due to months of malnutrition. Her straight black hair, oily from lack of bathing, showed a couple streaks of premature gray. She wore her parka loosely open. Andrea saw that Chana wore body armor, picked from a dead Cor soldier.
Brigon had planned to leave Chana behind, but he had not anticipated his heavy losses at the South Mountain ambush. Brigon still would have left Chana behind, except that Andrea insisted that they take at least thirty-five experienced fighters to Klamdara. Chana could fight. She trudged away to the sleds where she unshouldered her burden.
Andrea watched. Chana was a strong woman: broad shoulders and hips, a thick waist, yet all muscle. She had a stubborn strength -- not athletic, but enduring. She had braided her black hair to make herself more attractive. At the nape of her neck was a simple mark, a tattoo visible only when her hair was set up. The tattoo was the shape of an eye, burnt orange in color. She helped the others adjust the loads, and in short order, the sleds were secure.
Eric reluctantly followed Chana's group to the sleds. He gave Andrea a perfunctory glance. He had wanted to stay behind with his mate, Tara. He didn't know why. Grievously wounded, having lost her arm, Tara was no longer functional. Her wounds unsettled him. As a clone, he didn't know to behave around a clone bereft of her functions. Andrea knew Eric's predicament: he did not understand raw pity and he sensed this missing quality in himself. The Artrix seemed better suited. On a more practical point, Eric wanted to stay behind to organize the clones in Brigon's absence. But Eric acceded to Brigon's loose authority. Brigon needed Eric's fighting skills on Klamdara, and he didn't trust Eric to manage the clones' affairs in his stead.
Andrea felt a hand on her shoulder. Her first reflex was to resist the touch. Then Brigon's voice said, "Walk with me to the head of the column."
Andrea relaxed at the sound of his voice. "Oh, it's you," she said as a way of apologizing for pulling away.
Brigon pulled at his tawny beard and raised his eyebrows as if to respond, Who else? "Tell your friend, H'Roo, to join us. We have yet to figure out how to get off Cor without being intercepted."
Admiral Brulk held a model of a J-Class attack ship in his hand. In gold leaf, the ship's hull number J-480 reflected the soft light from his desk lamp. The Cor Ordinate had not commissioned a military vessel for almost a hundred years. He refurbished the Lynx Colony shipyard just two years ago. He considered the design and manufacture of J-Class ships a marvel, second only to the design and manufacture of the NewGen clones. He mused: the Lynx shipyard met their goal. My plan is coming together...He carefully set the model on the glass shelf with other trophies of his career.
The rest of Brulk's office was dimly lit. Through the large plate-glass windows, an insipid evening twilight muddled in. Fresh snow sat on the windowsill, softening the right angles of the otherwise stark room. A stack of reports sat unread on his desk.
Most of the Cor Security Ministry staff had ended their day and gone home to their families. Admiral Brulk didn't have a family, which was just as well as far as he was concerned. Brulk wore his dark blue battle uniform. Five gold pips on his collar indicated his rank. His short military hair, fading brown, was speckled liberally with gray. Otherwise, he looked like an aggressive young man in his uniform. Brulk felt fresh despite his recent space travel. His body was still on Lynx Colony time. He planned to return soon, so he felt no need to adjust his biorhythms.
He consulted his daily schedule: 6:40 p.m. Dr. Sandrom, 7:05 Lt. Botchi. The brass clock on his wall showed 6:39. He set the thin screen aside, then aligned three crystal paperweights on the top of his desk. Just so, he thought. He smoothed his hands over his clean desk -- clear except for the silver tray and tea setting. He pulled the cozy off the white porcelain pot and poured two cups.
Dr. Sandrom walked into the room. Without looking up, Brulk commented, "Doctor Sandrom, punctual as ever."
Sandrom bowed slightly. Sandrom looked old and frail, with thinning white hair and neatly trimmed goatee. His crisp blue eyes mirrored his vigorous intellect. Behind Sandrom stood two large young figures, identical in complexion, mousy brown hair, and physique. They wore simple uniforms. Both stood six foot five inches tall: powerful arms and legs. They stood with their backs to a bookshelf, seemingly disinterested. Sandrom motioned to the pair. "Admiral, I brought you two NewGens that you can use for demonstrations -- to the council, to the citizens, whomever. By giving them a simple command, I can transfer them to your control. You can put these two to work right away."
Brulk looked up. "Excellent. Are we still on schedule at Qurush?"
"Yes." Sandrom smiled and took his seat. "I accelerated the schedule as you asked."
Admiral Brulk rose halfway from his seat. Reaching across his desk, he handed Sandrom a cup of tea. He said, "Thank you for making the journey to see me on such short notice. I want to get down to Qurush to see you work, but I have so much to do: the final details at Lynx and -- " Brulk grumbled, " -- keeping the Prefect and her ministers informed."
"A short hop from Qurush -- " Sandrom returned the courtesy, " -- much shorter than your trip from the Lynx Colony."
Brulk furled his brow and thought: True, I should be with the fleet instead of spending time holding Madame Prefect's hand. He said, "I wanted to go over some last-minute details before I leave for Jod."
"Yes, Admiral." Dr. Sandrom pulled a small data card from his pocket to take notes. Sandrom carefully intimated, "I heard the rumor that Sarhn faces organized resistance from some renegade old-order clones. Frankly, I was alarmed to hear that the first fifty NewGens I sent to Sarhn were destroyed in a skirmish. Did our NewGens not perform to specification?"
Brulk pursed his lips and suppressed his anger: "Your NewGens performed precisely to specification. Unfortunately, the officer in charge did not. We will not waste any more of your valuable commodity, I assure you."
Sandrom nodded somberly. "A pity to lose those fifty, but soon you'll have more than enough NewGens."
Brulk lifted the porcelain teapot and offered to refill Sandrom's cup. "Excellent. I'll hold you to your word." Brulk wagged a finger in a friendly way. "Your NewGen technology will change the history of Cor and the galaxy."
Sandrom smiled and leaned forward with his cup and saucer to catch the steaming amber liquid. "You give me too much credit. The concept was yours. I am just your technician."
Brulk cut the mutual admiration short, asking bluntly, "How soon can you run the Qurush facility using only NewGen labor?"
Sandrom looked up from his tea and smiled as if anticipating the question. He set his cup down on the side table, allowing a dramatic pause before his answer. His blue eyes sparked with his triumphant news. "Eight weeks. We are hatching about ten NewGens per day now. We are training those hatchlings to run the Qurush facility, and with the increased labor we can increase production to one hundred per day. Already we have plans laid to expand the facility. With access to the boundless resources of the ocean, and expanding NewGen labor, I see no limit to the number of NewGens we can produce. However, we do need more computing power."
Brulk reached out and grabbed Sandrom's thin hand and pressed it between his two beefy hands. "And you shall have it!" Brulk got up and posed a question delicately. "Dr. Sandrom, how soon can we relocate Qurush's civilian population and make Qurush a military facility?"
Brulk paused. A shadow quickly passed over his face until he realized the question came from his stalwart supporter. Then, he brightened. He said frankly, "I must delicately manage conflicting priorities on the council. To be blunt, the less our civilians know about Qurush's capacity, the better. Do not share any of your records."
"I'll do as you say, Admiral Brulk. How shall I explain this secretiveness to other Ordinate scientists?"
Brulk was annoyed by the question. "You tell them nothing. We need the NewGens for security as we cancel the old-order clones. Unfortunately, most of the civilian population wants the NewGens brought into service to prop up their standard of living, and too many in our government agree with the civilians. The government seems to think we can make this transition without inconveniencing anyone. They don't realize that we must secure our frontiers before we can improve our standard of living. Some sacrifice is necessary to ensure our future. We Ordinate are in a struggle for our very survival."
"I agree with you. I'll tell them nothing."
Brulk forced a smile. He oscillated between demanding agreement and disdaining yes-men. "I cannot be distracted by petty competition for resources. I need the Qurush facility secured from our own people because I need the Qurush output to remain secret. So I want the civilians relocated before the facility begins high-volume production."
Dr. Sandrom nodded solemnly. "I understand completely."
Brulk added, "A few days from now, I'll lead 480 J-Class ships to the Jod system. The Jod government expects that we come to negotiate an arrangement brokered by the Chelle. However, such an arrangement would place us within the Jod hegemony as part of their damnable Alliance." Brulk's eyes widened as he leaned down to share his triumph with Dr. Sandrom. "The Jod have assembled all their capital ships in one place as a gesture of goodwill and to demonstrate their might. The Chelle assure us that they are lined up as if for a parade. They won't be able to use their starboard or port weapons without hitting each other. Our ships, piloted by your NewGens, will fly right through their defenses with quark torpedoes. The Jod do not expect an attack. Nor will they expect that our pilots are NewGens, obediently emulating themselves as they fire their weapons at point-blank range."
Dr. Sandrom congratulated Brulk. "An excellent trade. We can build J-Class ships and hatch NewGen pilots much faster than the Jod can rebuild their Fleet. I commend you, Admiral Brulk. Your strategy is pure genius."
Before Admiral Brulk could accept Sandrom's compliment, a middle-aged woman wearing the tan duty uniform entered the room. Without apologizing for the intrusion, she said, "Sir, Lt. Botchi is here as you requested."
Brulk turned slowly. His countenance fell into a storm of deep-seated anger, but he willed himself to an equivocal humor. "Send him in. Then, you go home."
"Thank you, sir." The woman left. Sandrom also got up to leave.
Brulk then turned to Sandrom and said in a low voice, "Please stay. You might find this interview interesting. This is the officer who wasted your fifty NewGens."
A moment later, a young officer walked into the room and paused to let his eyes adjust to the shadowy light. Despite the cool dry air, perspiration beaded on the young man's upper lip. His eyes settled on Brulk.
Brulk's voice was cold but polite. "Botchi, I brought you here to explain your fiasco in the South Mountains."
Botchi's voice cracked, "I can explain."
Brulk stepped closer to the younger officer. "As I recall, I told you not to become engaged. I told you to use all other means to investigate the crash site, and not to use troops, didn't I?"
"Sir, we had reason to believe the crashed ship was the Benwoi. We had to be sure they had not seen our fleet assembling at Lynx." Lt. Botchi refused to allow Brulk to put the entire disaster on his shoulders. "Sir, you approved the mission."
"I did not approve such a fiasco. How dare you suggest otherwise?"
"We were ambushed, sir, by large numbers. We had no idea..."
Brulk interrupted Botchi's weak protest. "You lost a third of Sarhn's security troops: one hundred twenty-four dead, fifty-two wounded. You lost all the NewGens. Is that correct?"
"Yes, sir." Botchi lowered his eyes.
Brulk asked coldly, "Why didn't you die with your men? Why are you here? Why are standing in my office without a scratch, reporting to me that you lost your entire command?" Brulk didn't give Botchi time to answer: the implication was that Botchi was a coward.
Botchi's cheeks reddened at the suggestion. He glanced at Dr. Sandrom, who witnessed this humiliating rebuke.
Brulk snapped another question. "And ships? How many losses?"
"Two gunships and one hovercraft."
"You..." Brulk checked his wrath. He took a deep breath. "So we must assume that the wilderness clones now have the weapons and ammunition from the two gunships. Our garrison force is roughly cut in half, and why? Because you did not follow my orders! You had to risk everything to satisfy your curiosity."
"Sir," Botchi defended himself, "I believed that the wreckage in the valley was the Benwoi, stolen by the Terran female."
"I don't give a damn what you believe; I gave you orders. The Benwoi is of no consequence -- not then, not now!" Brulk stepped forward, causing Botchi to retreat.
Brulk's words stung Botchi and he lowered his eyes for the first time. He murmured, "We had no idea the wilderness clones had such numbers and weapons. When we get more NewGens, I'll take a regiment in and clean out the valley."
"No!" Brulk yelled, losing his composure. His jaw muscles tightened. "Let the winter kill them. My plan is to contain them and starve them -- not to engage them. Not to agitate them into armed conflict! Don't you understand? Even now, the clones outnumber us ten thousand to one. We are at the most dangerous crossroad of Cor's history. We must simultaneously neutralize the Jod Alliance and replace the old-order technology with NewGens. And you would jeopardize everything -- my life's work -- because you believe," he said the word mockingly, "that you must personally confirm an insignificant crash site."
"I understand, sir. I won't let..."
"No, you don't understand!" Brulk wagged his finger in Botchi's face. "You shall conduct no operations in the wilderness until I return from Jod. You shall keep all our assets inside Sarhn to protect our strategic resources from any threat from either the precinct or wilderness clones. Is that perfectly clear? You are not to take a single soldier outside that wall." Brulk pointed through his window. "Not until I return to give you explicit direction."
Botchi raised his eyes and said, "But, sir, with all due respect, what if you do not return?"
Brulk dropped his arms at his side and studied Botchi for a minute. Then, he shook his head slowly and turned to Dr. Sandrom. He asked softly, "Would you please transfer control of the two NewGens to me now?"
The white-haired doctor rose from his cushioned seat. "Yes, Admiral Brulk." He turned to the pair of NewGens standing in the shadows. He made a hand signal directing four fingers of his left hand to his mouth and the four fingers of his right hand toward Brulk. He said, "Accept Brulk commands." The two NewGens turned their heads in unison to face Brulk.
Realizing that he now had control, Brulk spoke directly to the two NewGen clones. "Take Lt. Botchi into the courtyard and kill him."
Copyright © 2002 by Bill Fawcett & Associates, Inc.