- Author: Tom Godwin
Read book online «—And Devious the Line of Duty by Tom Godwin (novel books to read .txt) 📕». Author - Tom Godwin
the Line of Duty
Sometimes the most diligent and loyal thing
an old man can do is fumble,
drink beer, and let a young man get into trouble....
Illustrated by Schelling
"We're almost there, my boy." The big, gray-haired man who would be Lieutenant Dale Hunter's superior—Strategic Service's Special Agent, George Rockford—opened another can of beer, his fifth. "There will be intrigue already under way when this helicopter sets down with us. Attempted homicide will soon follow. The former will be meat for me. You will be meat for the latter."
Rockford was smiling as he spoke; the genial, engaging smile of a fond old father. But the eyes, surrounded by laughter crinkles, were as unreadable as two disks of gray slate. They were the eyes of a poker player—or master con man.
"I don't understand, sir," Hunter said.
"Of course not," Rockford agreed. "It's a hundred light-years back to Earth. Here on Vesta, to make sure there is an Earth in the future, you're going to do things never dreamed of by your Terran Space Patrol instructors there. You'll be amazed, my boy."
Hunter said nothing but he felt a growing dislike for the condescending Rockford. Only a few weeks ago President Diskar, himself, had said: For more than a century these truly valiant men of the Space Patrol have been our unwavering outer guard; have fought and died by legions, that Earth and the other worlds of the Terran Republic might remain free—
"I suppose you know," Rockford said, "that there will be no more than four days in which to stop the Verdam oligarchy from achieving its long-time ambition of becoming big enough to swallow the Terran Republic."
"I know," Hunter answered.
Jardeen, Vesta's companion world, was the key. Jardeen was large and powerful, with a space navy unsurpassed by that of any other single world. A large group of now-neutral worlds would follow Jardeen's lead and Jardeen's alliance with the Verdam People's Worlds would mean the quick end for the Terran Republic. But, if Jardeen could be persuaded to ally with the Terran Republic, the spreading, grasping arms of the Verdam octopus would begin to wither away—
Rockford spoke again:
"Val Boran, Jardeen's Secretary of Foreign Relations, is the man who will really make Jardeen's decision. I know him slightly. Since my public role is that of Acting Ambassador, he agreed—reluctantly—to come to Vesta so that the talks could be on a neutral world. With him will be Verdam's Special Envoy Sonig; a wily little man who has been working on Boran for several weeks. He seems to be succeeding quite well—here's a message I received from Earth early this morning."
Rockford handed him a sheet of the green Hyperspace Communications paper. The message was in code, with Rockford's scribbled translation beneath:
Intelligence reports Verdam forces already massed for attack in Sector A-13, in full expectation of Jardeen's alliance. Anti-Terran propaganda, stressing the New Jardeen Incident, being used in preparation for what will be their claim of "defensive action to protect innocent worlds from Terran aggression." Terran forces will be outnumbered five to one. The urgent necessity of immediate and conclusive counter measures by you on Vesta is obvious.
Hunter handed the paper back, thinking, It's worse than any of us thought, and wondering how Supreme Command could ever have entrusted such an important task to a beer-guzzling old man from Strategic Service—a branch so unknown that he had never even heard of it until his briefing the day before he left Earth.
He saw that they had left the desert behind and were going up the long slope of a mountain. "The meeting will be on this mountain?" he asked.
Rockford nodded. "The rustic Royal Retreat. Princess Lyla will be our hostess. Her mother and father were killed in an airplane accident a year ago and she was the only child. You will also get to meet Lord Narf of the Sea Islands, her husband-by-proxy, who regards himself as a rare combination of irresistible woman-killer and rugged man-among-men."
"Husband-by-proxy?" Hunter asked.
"The king worshiped his daughter and his dying request to her was that she promise to marry Lord Narf. Narf's father had been the king's closest friend and the king was sure that his old friend's son would always love and care for Lyla. Lyla dutifully, at once, married Narf by proxy, which is like a legally binding formal engagement under Vestan law. Four days from now the time limit is up and they'll be formally married. Unless she should do the unprecedented thing of renouncing the proxy marriage."
Rockford drained the last of the beer from the can. "Those are the characters involved in our play. I have a plan. That's why I told Space Patrol to send me a brand-new second lieutenant—young, strong, fairly handsome—and expendable. I hope you can be philosophical about the latter."
"Sir," Hunter said, unable to keep a touch of stiffness out of his tone, "it is not exactly unknown in the Space Patrol for a man to die in the line of duty."
"Ah ... yes." Rockford was regarding him with disturbing amusement. "You are thinking, of course, of dying dramatically behind a pair of blazing blasters. But you will soon learn, my boy, that a soldier's duty is to protect the worlds he represents by whatever actions will produce the best results, no matter how unheroic those actions may be."
"Attention, please." It was the voice of the pilot. "We are now going to land."
Hunter preceded Rockford out of the helicopter and onto the green grass of a small valley, across which tall, red-trunked cloud trees were scattered. Pale gray ghost trees, with knobby, twisted limbs, grew thickly among the cloud trees. There was a group of rustic cabins, connected by gravel paths, and a much larger building which he assumed would be a meeting hall.
He turned, and looked into the brown eyes of a girl. Her green skirt and orange blouse made a gay splash of color, her red-brown hair was wind-tumbled and carefree about her shoulders, in her hand was a bouquet of bright spring flowers.
But there was no smile of spring in the dark eyes and the snub-nosed little face was solemn and old beyond its years.
"You're Lieutenant Hunter, aren't you?" she asked in the same low, quiet voice.
"Princess Lyla!" There seemed to be genuine delight in Rockford's greeting as he hurried over. "You're looking more like a queen every day!"
Her face lighted with a smile, making it suddenly young and beautiful. "I'm so glad to see you again, George—"
"Ah ... good afternoon."
The voice was loud, unpleasantly gravelly. They turned, and Hunter saw a tall, angular man of perhaps forty whose pseudogenial smile was not compatible with his sour, square-jawed face and calculating little eyes.
He spoke to Rockford. "You're Ambassador Rockford, here to represent the Terran Republic, I believe." He jerked his head toward Princess Lyla, who was no longer smiling. "My wife, Princess Lyla."
"Oh, she and I have been friends since she was ten, Lord Narf."
"And this young man"—Narf glanced at Hunter—"is your aide, I presume. Lyla, did you think to send anyone after their luggage?"
A servant was already carrying their luggage—and cases of Rockford's beer—out of the helicopter. Hunter followed the other toward the cabins. Narf, in the lead, was saying:
"... Ridiculously primitive here, now, but I'm having some decent furniture and well-trained servants sent up from my Sea Island estates...."
The cabin was large and very comfortable, as Rockford mentioned to Princess Lyla.
"I'm glad you like it," she said. "Val Boran and Envoy Sonig are already here and we'll meet for dinner in the central hall. I thought that if we all got acquainted in a friendly atmosphere like that, it might help a lot to...."
"That reminds me"—Narf glanced at his watch—"I promised this Boran he could have a discussion with me—Vesta-Jardeen tariff policies. I suppose he's already waiting. Come on, Lyla—it will do you no harm to listen and learn a bit about interplanetary business."
For a long moment she looked at Narf silently, her eyes thoughtful, then she said to Rockford, "If you will excuse us, please. And be prepared for Alonzo to come bounding in the minute he learns you're here."
She walked beside Narf to the door and out it, the top of her dark hair coming just even with his shoulder.
"And that," Rockford said as he settled down in the largest, softest chair, "was king-to-be Narf, whose business ability is such that all his inherited Sea Island estates are gone but the one Lyla saved for him and who owes a total of ten million monetary units, to everyone from call girls to yacht builders."
"And she is going to marry him?" Hunter asked. "Marry that jackass and let him bankrupt her kingdom?"
Rockford shrugged. "You may have noticed that she doesn't look the least bit happy about it—but she is a very conscientious young lady who regards it as her most solemn duty to keep the promise she made to her father. For her, there is no escape."
"Your first duty will be to cultivate a friendship with her. I'm going to use her, and you, to get what I want."
"Yes. One of the most rigid requirements of a Strategic Service man's character is that he be completely without one."
Rockford was asleep in his chair an hour later, three empty beer cans beside him. Hunter watched him, his doubt of Rockford's competence growing into a conviction. Rockford had spoken knowingly of his plan—and had done nothing but drink more beer. Now he was asleep while time—so limited and precious—went by. He hadn't even bothered to reply to Hunter's suggestion that perhaps he should call on Val Boran and counteract some of Envoy Sonig's anti-Terran propaganda.
Hunter came to a decision. If Rockford was still doing nothing when morning came, he would send an urgent message to Supreme Command.
He went outside, to find a servant and learn how mail was handled.
Gravel flew as overgrown feet tried to stop, and something like a huge black dog lunged headlong around the corner and into his legs. He went to the ground head first over the animal, acutely aware as he went down of the fascinated interest on the face of a not-so-distant servant.
"I sorry, Rootenant."
He got up, to look down at the doglike animal. There was a concerned expression in its brown eyes and an apologetic grin on its face. He recognized it as one of the natives of the grim starvation world of Altair Four. The Altairians had emigrated to all sections of the galaxy, to earn a living in whatever humble capacity they could fill. Many were empathic.
"I run too fast to meet, Mr. Rockford, I guess. Are you hurt, Rootenant?"
He pulled a cloud tree needle out of his hand and looked grimly down into the furry face. "In the future, try to look where you're going."
"Oh, I rook, awr right. I just not see. My name is Aronzo, Rootenant, and I stay here awr the time and guard everything for Princess Ryra. I prease to meet you and I wirr run errands for you, and do things rike mair your retters, for candy or cookies, which I are not supposed to eat much of, but Princess Ryra say not too many wirr hurt me—"
"Mail letters?" Hunter's animosity vanished. "I'm sorry I was rude, Alonzo—all my fault. I may write a letter to my dear old mother tonight, and if you would mail it for me in the morning—"
Rockford left ahead of Hunter and it was a minute past the appointed time when Hunter reached the meeting hall. He heard Narf's loud voice inside:
"... Boran must have stopped to watch the sunset. Told him I wanted everyone here on time—"
The low voice of Lyla said something and Narf said, "Not necessary for you to defend him, my dear. I made it plain to him."
A new voice spoke from behind Hunter:
"It seems I have annoyed Lord Narf."
He was a tall, black-eyed man, with the dark, saturnine face of an Indian. There was a strange, indefinable air of sadness about him which reminded Hunter of the sombre little Princess Lyla.
"You're Val Boran, sir?" he said. "I'm Lieutenant Hunter—"
Inside, Narf sat at the head of the table. On his left was Lyla, then Rockford. On his right was a spidery little man of about fifty, his slick-back hair so tight against his skull that it gave his head the appearance of a weasel's. His lips were paper-thin under a long nose, like those of a dry and selfish old maid, but the round little eyes darting behind thick glasses were cold and shrewd and missed nothing. He would be Verdam's Special Envoy Sonig. Hunter appraised him as a man very dangerous in his own deceptive way.
A servant showed them to their places at the table. Rockford and Val Boran exchanged greetings. The moment everyone was seated, Narf said, "Dinner tonight will—"
"Excuse me," Lyla said, "but Mr. Sonig hasn't yet met—"
"Oh ... the young fellow there—" Narf gestured with his hand. "Rockford's aide. Now, ring the chime, Lyla. Those forest stag steaks are already getting cold. I killed the beast myself, gentlemen, just this morning; a long-range running shot that required a bit more than luck...."
The dinner was excellent, but no one seemed to notice. Narf was absorbed in the story of his swift rise to eminence in the Vestan Space Guard. There were humorous incidents:
"... Can't understand why, but I seem to attract women like a magnet. I'm strictly the masculine type of male and I approve of this but it can be a blasted nuisance when you're an ensign going up fast and your commander finds one of your blondes stowed away in your compartment...."
And there were scenes of tense drama:
"... Made a boyhood vow that I'd never settle for anything less than to always be a man among men. Seem to have succeeded rather well. When I saw the crew was almost to the snapping point from battle tension I knew