Against the odds, p.1
Against the Odds, p.1Elizabeth Moon
Against the Odds
by Elizabeth Moon
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright (c) 2000 by Elizabeth Moon
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
A Baen Books Original
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
Cover art by Gary Ruddell
First paperback printing, December 2001
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Against the odds / by Elizabeth Moon.
Sequel to: Change of command.
PS3563.O557 A73 2000
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Production by Windhaven Press, Auburn, NH
Printed in the United States of America
Baen Books by Elizabeth Moon
Oath of Gold
The Deed of Paksenarrion
The Legacy of Gird
Once a Hero
Rules of Engagement
Change of Command
Against the Odds
(with Anne McCaffrey)
(with Anne McCaffrey)
The Planet Pirates
(with Anne McCaffrey & Jody Lynn Nye)
For Kathleen and David
Non omnis moriar
As usual, I have many people to thank for help, including some who prefer not to be listed; you know who you are, and you know I appreciate it. David Watson and Kathleen Jones, for hours of brainstorming and for their collection of useful references, but most of all for wanting the story so badly that they restored my ability to tell it. The weekly fencing crowd (Allen, Andrew, Beth, Connor, Sean, Susan, Tony, Brian, etc.) for varied expertise that included such things as damage control on an aircraft carrier and the characteristics of large cables under tension, an evening of editorial commment, and especially for allowing me to work off my tension by poking them with swords. Clive Smith and Christine Joannidi for bits of physics, the history of an Anglo/Greek trading family, and the best Yorkshire pudding in central Texas. Those who hang out in my SFFnet newsgroup and provide facts, ideas, and general support (in this case, a double dose of thanks to Cecil, Howard, Julia, Rachel, Tom, and Susan.) Carrie Richerson for her ability to detect mushy spots in characterization. My husband Richard for the worst pun in the book. Our son Michael for patience with a writing parent. Michael Fossel, M.D., Ph.D., for stimulating discussions of rejuvenation. Ruta Duhon for weekly doses of sanity even when writing gets wild.
Mistakes and errors are all mine, not theirs.
Note to Readers
Readers familiar with Change of Command will notice a temporal overlap between the last part of that book, and the first part of this one. Here the first chapter starts between the mutiny and the second assassination.
Newcomers may wish a bit more background.
The Familias Regnant is a political assembly of great families, now spread across hundreds of solar systems. Centuries ago, they combined their individual family militias into the Regular Space Service, which has the dual mission of policing the spaceways and defending the Familias from external attack.
In the previous book, Change of Command, longstanding dissension and unrest in the R.S.S. came to a head and elements of the Fleet mutinied.
The mutineers first struck at the Fleet training planet, Copper Mountain, freeing some of the prisoners from a high-security brig on a remote island. The rest they massacred. Their original plan had included taking over a weapons research facility, but loyalists managed to prevent that, at least for the moment. Unfortunately, the mutineers managed to destroy their transportation: the loyalists are marooned.
Fleet Weapons Research Facility
A cold wind swept the barren top of Stack Two; Ensign Margiu Pardalt's eyes ached from squinting into it. Broad daylight now; the wind had long since swept away the bitter stench of the seaplane fires. Where were the mutineers? Surely they would land, to snatch the weapons they knew had been designed here. Had the message she'd tried to send using the old technology actually reached anyone, or would the mutineers get away with their whole plan? And when would they come . . . when would they come to kill her?
"This is stupid," Professor Gustaf Aidersson said. Bundled in his yellow leather jacket over his Personal Protective Unit, with a peculiar gray furry hat on his head, he looked more like a tubby vagrant than a brilliant scientist. "When I was a boy, I used to imagine things like this, being marooned on an island and having to figure out a way to get home. I had thousands of plans, each one crazier than the one before. Make a boat out of my grandmother's porch swing, make an airplane out of the solar collector, take the juicer and a skein of yarn, two cups, and a knitting needle and make a communications device."
Margiu wondered whether to say anything; she couldn't feel her ears anymore.
"So here we are, on the perfect island, full of challenges. I should be improvising rappelling gear to go down the cliffs, and something to construct a sailboat . . . I actually have built a boat, you know, but it was with wood from a lumberyard. And I sailed it, and it didn't sink. Of course, it wouldn't hold all of us."
"Sir," Margiu said, "don't you think we should go back inside?"
"Probably." He didn't move. "And there is not one thing on this blasted island to make a boat or an airplane out of." He gave a last look at the blackened stain that had been their transport. Then he looked at Margiu and his mouth quirked in a mischievous grin. "There's only one thing to do, when the bad guys have all the transport . . ."
"Make them give it to us," he said, and headed inside so abruptly that Margiu was left behind. She caught up with him as he went in the door.
"It's a desperate chance . . . but by God it'll be fun if it works," he said. He looked around the room at the scientists and military personnel who were also stranded. "Listen—I have an idea!"
"You always have an idea, Gussie," one of the scientists said. Margiu still hadn't sorted them all out by name. They all looked tired and grumpy. "You probably want us to make an airplane out of bedsprings or something . . ."
"No. I thought of that, but we don't have enough bedsprings. I want the mutineers to bring us an airplane and give it to us."
The professor launched into an enthusiastic explanation. In the few seconds from outside to inside, his idea had already developed elaborate additions. The others looked blank.
Major Garson was the first to nod. "Yeah—the only way to get transport is to get them to give it to us. But it's not going to be easy. They've got a lot more troops topside than we have . . . they can scorch us with the shuttle weaponry, for that matter."
"So our first job is to convince them we're not that dangerous," the professor said. He had taken off his hat and shoved it into a pocket; his thinning gray fringe stuck up in untidy peaks.
"No . . . that's right. And except during the firefight last night, we've been mostly undercover. But they'd be stupid to come in carelessly," Major Garson said. "Never count on the enemy to be careless."
"But—" The professor held up his hand a moment, then nodded. "But suppose, using Margiu's radio apparatus, we give them what looks like accidental clues. We try to contact them, pretending to be mutineers fighting with scientists—"
"No, wait!" That was the skinny man with wild black hair. Ty, Margiu remembered. "Look, they know the loyalists have the radio now. Suppose we send a message, like we hope it'll bounce around to mainland, begging for help. And then break off. And then an hour or so later, there's a message to them from some of the military pretending to be mutineers, and then—"
"How would the mutineers know how to use that equipment?" Garson said. "It's nothing Fleet-trained people would know unless they happened on it somewhere else, like Ensign Pardalt. And besides, it's too fragile. It could get shot up in a firefight."
"Suppose we say the radio's the loyalists'," Margiu said. The others looked at her. "And we're begging for help from the mainland, like he said." She nodded at Ty. "But of course it doesn't come. We sound more and more desperate—we talk about being hunted by the mutineers, about the people killed in the explosions of the planes, and then the food shortages—the mutineers have all the supplies . . ."
"Yes! That's good," the professor said. "And we'll move the thing around, so when they trace the signal they'll know someone's trying to stay in hiding—and then we'll take it underground . . ."
"We'll need a visible force of baddies," the major said. "A squad'll do for that. Local uniforms . . . and PPUs can look like anything, with the right setting. We've got the suitcoms for local—have to have our people stay in character."
"So . . . what are we going to do if we get the shuttle? They can always shoot us down before we get anywhere."
"Not that easy if they come down with one of the combat troop shuttles, sir," said one of the neuro-enhanced Marines. "They're hardened and highly maneuverable."
"Which brings up—who's going to fly it?"
"I'm shuttle-qualified," said one of the pilots. "Ken's not, but Bernie is."
"If you're qualified to fly troop shuttles, why are you on seaplanes down here?"
"Fleet has a lot more shuttle pilots than seaplane pilots," the pilot said, spreading his hands. "Only a few of us mess around with the old-fashioned stuff."
"Bob . . . what about Zed?"
"On a shuttle, LAC size? No problem, Gussie. It'll fit, and we can use it. Like I said, it'd hide something the size of this island, let alone a shuttle."
The professor glanced again at Garson. "Then, Major, if you'll divide us into loyalists and mutineers—giving me the tech-trained people—and set up a scenario for us to act—"
"We'll have to do something about those bodies. . . ." Garson said, and gestured to some of the men.
* * *
Margiu had never had close contact with scientists before this, and if she'd thought about them at all, she'd had a storycube image of vast intelligence applied step-by-step to some arcane problem. They would be solitary, so they could concentrate; they would be serious, sober, abstracted.
They would not, for instance, waste any moment of their precious preparation time playing some incomprehensible game that involved a singsong chant, puns, and childish insults, dissolving into laughter every few seconds.
"Your starfish eats dirt," the professor finished.
"Oh, that's old, Gussie." But the others were grinning, relaxed.
"So now—we're going to get them to bring us a ship, and then let us fly away?"
"We'll have Zed on—they won't see us."
"They'll see the moving hole where we were," Swearingen said. "It's a lot harder to hide things in planetary atmospheres.
"Not with Zed," Helmut Swearingen said. "We've solved that problem, or most of it. The thing is, all they have to do is hit a line across our course—and since we have to fly to the mainland—"
"Why?" the professor asked; he had found a cache of candy and spoke around a lump of chocolate. "It's the obvious thing, of course, but being obvious won't help us now. At the very least we can zig and zag . . ."
"Not forever . . . we have to come down somewhere."
"Maybe," the professor said. "And maybe not. Suppose they think we've blown up or something. We could toss fireworks out the back—"
"Oh come on, Gussie! The fake explosion while the real vessel gets away is the oldest trick in the book." Swearingen looked disgusted.
"Because it works," the professor said. "All it has to do is distract them long enough for us to make a course change. Two points define a straight line: they have takeoff and the explosion. If we aren't at an extension of that line, they'll have no idea where we are."
"It's ridiculous! It's all straight out of storytime. I have to agree with Helmut—"
"There's a reason for stories being the way they are," the professor said.
"Yes, they're for the stupid or the ignorant, to keep them out of our way while we do the work . . ." Swearingen said.
"Can you even name one time in real life—not your pseudo-history—when someone faked an explosion and escaped in a vessel the enemy thought was blown up?"
The professor blinked rapidly, as if at a long sequence of pages. "There are plenty of ruses in military history—"
"Not just ruses, Gussie, but that hoary old cliche of faking the explosion of an engine, or a ship, or something . . ."
"Commander Heris Serrano," Margiu said, surprising herself. "When she was just a lieutenant. She trailed a weapons pod past a fixed defense point, and when it blew it blinded the sensors long enough for her to get her ship past. Or Brun Thornbuckle, during her rescue, sent the shuttle as a decoy after landing on the orbital station."
"You see?" the professor said, throwing out his hands. "A hoary old cliche still works."
"It works better if you keep them busy thinking about other things," Margiu said.
"Like what?" one of the others asked her.
"Anything. Because you're also right, if they see the shuttle taking off and then it disappears, and then something blows up, they're going to be suspicious."
"So we don't have it disappear until just at the explosion."
"We have Zed, but the controls aren't that good. Not yet."
Silence for a long moment. Then one of the pilots said, "Look—the shuttle will have a working com, right? The bad guys will want to be in touch with the shuttle crew."
"Yes . . ."
"So we continue our little charade on the shuttle. Suppose . . . suppose we talk about the weapons we've recovered. We're trying to see how they work—"
"They're not going to believe their people would do something that stupid."
"But—" Everyone turned to look at Margiu. She could feel the ideas bubbling up in her mind like turbulence in boiling water. "Suppose the bad guys—ours, I mean—said they also had the scientists—and they were questioning them—and they found out one of the things was a stealth device. And they wanted to try it, to see if it really worked—"
"That would explain the disappearance. Good, Margiu!"
"I still think they'd be suspicious."
"Spoilsport." The professor sighed, and rubbed his balding head. "But you're probably right. Let's see. Our pseudo-bad guys question the scientists . . ." He pitched his voice into falsetto. "Please don't hurt me—I vill tell you effryting."
"Good lord, Gussie, what archaic accent is that?"
"I don't know—I heard it on a soundtrack years ago. Don't interrupt . . . so the scientists act like terrified victims and maybe that can be overheard. And then they turn Zed on, and it works—"
"And it's still as transparent as glass,
"So I'll scratch it up—YES!" The professor leaped up and danced in a circle. "Yes, yes, yes! Brilliant. Scratchy, like old recordings, old-time radio—break-up—"
"What?! Damn it, Gussie, this is serious—"
"I am serious. I am just momentarily transported by my own brilliance. And yours, and Margiu's here." He calmed down, took a breath, and went on. "Like this: the normal takeoff, the threats of the bad guys, the terror of the scientists. But then, when they—we—turn Zed on, it doesn't keep working. It sort of—" he waggled his hand. "Sort of flickers. They hear an argument—more threats, more piteous pleadings, curses at some fool who—I don't know, kicks the power cable or something. The shuttle is there, then it isn't, then it is—but always on the same course. A voice shouting in the background: be careful, be careful, don't overload it, it wasn't designed for—! And then the explosion, and then the course change."
A long silence this time, as they all digested what the professor had said. He mopped his face, his head, and pushed the crumpled, stained handkerchief into his pocket.
"It does explain everything," Swearingen said. "It gives them more to think about, more complications."
"It seems to give them more data," said Bob. "But all the data are false. It might work."
"So what we need is something to make a big bang, that will look like a shuttle blowing up on the bad guys' scan from upstairs . . . which we can get far enough away from before it blows that we don't also blow . . ."
The group dissolved as the scientists wandered off. Margiu, used to direct orders and a clear set of directions, felt let down as she followed the professor down one passage after another. Were they ever going to go to work? And what would Major Garson think, with her just wandering around idly watching someone who seemed to have very little idea what he was doing.
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