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Lorenco Esteban stepped out of his office into the humid oven of a Santa Cruz summer afternoon and scratched his head as a tiny spacecraft slid down towards Santa Cruz's weed-grown landing apron. The immense plain of ceramacrete stretched away in all directions, vast enough to handle even the largest Navy cargo shuttle, but it was occupied only by a single dilapidated tramp freighter in the livery of the Sternenwelt Line. The tramp was already cleared for departure with a full cargo of wine-melons, and given her purser's persistent—and irritating—efforts to negotiate some sort of real estate deal, Esteban was heartily ready for her to clear the field. Not that she was placing any strain on Santa Cruz's basing facilities.

No one was quite certain why Santa Cruz had been given such a large field in the first place. It dated from the First Quern War, and conventional wisdom held that the Navy had planned to use Santa Cruz as a staging area against the Quern. That was only a guess, of course, though it made sense, given the Santa Cruz System's spatial location.

If the Navy had so intended, its plans had fallen through, yet the incongruously enormous field remained, though only a fraction of it was used with any sort of regularity. Ciudad Bolivar, Santa Cruz's capital and only real city, lay fifteen kilometers to the northwest, just outside the old Navy Reservation. The area to the immediate northeast was a vast expanse of melon fields—most of which belonged to Esteban himself—and few people visited the field under normal circumstances. Despite the Sternenwelt officer's efforts to buy up crop land, there was little about the sleepy farming planet to attract even casual commerce. Wine-melons brought a decent price, but only a decent one, and no official presence had ever shown even a passing interest in Esteban's homeworld. Until today, at least, he thought, and scratched his head harder as he recognized the Concordiat Navy insignia on the incoming shuttle's nose.

It looked like one of the new Skyhawk three-man shuttles, though he couldn't be certain. He'd never actually seen one, only read about them in the periodic updates the Navy still sent to the attention of "CO FLT BASE SANCRUZ." In his own mind, Esteban was positive the computers on the other end of those updates had no idea who the current "Commanding Officer, Fleet Base Santa Cruz" was. He hoped they didn't, anyway. The probability that Concordiat officialdom had simply forgotten Santa Cruz's existence was much less disturbing than the possibility that the Navy considered a farmer with no military background and who'd never been off-planet in his entire seventy years a suitable CO for anything, much less a "fleet base."

Now he watched the Skyhawk (if that was what it was) deploy its landing legs and settle gracefully onto them. From what he'd read of the Skyhawks, they were hyper-capable for short hops—no more than forty or fifty light-years—and that made a certain degree of sense. The shuttle could have made the run from Ursula, the sector capital, under its own power without diverting a regular vessel from some useful duty. Of course, that left the question of just why the Navy would go to the bother of sending anyone to Santa Cruz in the first place.

The hatch popped, and Esteban ambled over as a trim, wiry man in an immaculate uniform swung down the hull handholds. Esteban couldn't place the uniform, though something about it tugged at the back of his memory, and he paused with his hands in his pockets as the newcomer jumped the last meter and a half to the ceramacrete and stood looking about him.

"Morning, stranger."

The uniformed man turned at the greeting. He said nothing, but Esteban took his hands from his pockets when those cold, grey eyes met his. It wasn't anything the stranger did. There was just something about those eyes, as if they'd seen too much, done too much, that sent a faint and formless chill down Esteban's spine. The stranger's gaze held his for a moment, and then the mouth below those eyes smiled pleasantly.

"Good morning," its owner replied. "Could you tell me where I might find the field officer of the day?"

"Shoot, son, you're lookin' at him." Esteban grinned wryly. "Officer of the day, maintenance chief, approach officer, and customs inspector in one. That's me." He held out his hand. "Lorenco Esteban, at your service."

"Merrit," the stranger said in a peculiar voice, then shook himself and took the proffered hand. "Captain Paul Merrit, Dinochrome Brigade. Ah, let me be sure I understand this. You're the entire base ops staff?" Esteban nodded. "The whole thing?" Merrit pressed.

Esteban nodded again and opened his mouth, but the sudden, raucous whine of the Sternenwelt tramp freighter's counter-grav units drowned his voice. Both men turned to watch the battered ship climb heavenward, and Esteban saw Captain Merrit wince as the vibrations from the poorly tuned drive assaulted his inner ear. Esteban himself was accustomed to the sort of casually maintained vessels which (infrequently) visited Santa Cruz, and he only shook his head until the tramp rose beyond earshot, then turned back to his visitor.

"Yep, I'm all they is, Captain. You seem sorta surprised," he observed.

"Surprised?" Merrit's smile was small and tight this time. "You might say that. According to my brief, a Commander Albright is supposed to be in charge here."

"Albright?" It was Esteban's turn to be surprised. "Heck, Captain, Old Man Albright died, um, let me see. That'd be . . . that's right, thirty-two T-years ago, come June. You mean t'say Sector thinks he's still alive?"

"They certainly do."

"Well ain't that just like a buncha bureaucrats." Esteban shook his head in disgusted resignation. "I commed Ursula Central personally when he died so sudden like. He asked me t'kinda look after things till his relief got here, on account of my place's just over the hill yonder and I used t' help him keep the beacon on-line and like that, but I never expected to 'look after' 'em this long."

"You informed Central?" Merrit seemed to find that even more surprising than the news that Albright was dead. "How?"

"Sure I did. 'Course, I had to use civilian channels. Old Albright didn't last long enough t'give me command access to his official files—it was a heart attack, an' iffen I hadn't been here when it happened, he wouldn't even'a had time to ask me t'look after the field—so I couldn't use his Fleet com. But I musta sent nigh a dozen commercial band messages the first couple'a years." He tugged on an earlobe and frowned. "Now I think on it though, I'll be danged if anyone ever said a word back t'me 'bout anything. They just keep on sendin' stuff t'the 'base CO,' never even by name. You don't think those fool chip-shufflers back on Ursula—?"

"That's exactly what I think," Merrit sighed. "Somebody, somewhere may have receipted your messages, but they never got filed officially. Central thinks Albright's still in command here."

"But the old man'd be over a hunnert an' twenty by now!" Esteban objected. "That's a mite old for an active duty assignment, ain't it?"

"Yes, it is," Merrit said grimly, then sighed again, straightened his shoulders, and managed a wry little smile. "Mister Esteban, I'm afraid your planet hasn't had much priority back at Central. For some reason we still haven't figured out, Santa Cruz was set up with a dedicated high security com link when the Navy put in its installations here. That link doesn't exist anymore, but no one told the communications computers it didn't."


"Meaning the automated com sections haven't accepted any update from you because it didn't have the proper security codes. In fact, they've been systematically deleting any messages that pertained to the Santa Cruz Detachment from memory because they didn't carry valid security headers. That seems to be what's been happening, anyway, though no one noticed it was until very recently. Put simply, Mister Esteban, Central isn't exactly current on the situation here."

"If you say so, I'll believe you, son," Esteban said, "but durned iffen I can see how even Central could expect someone Old Man Albright's age t'handle a job like this. I mean, shoot, it ain't like there's a lot of business—" he gestured at the vast field, occupied now in solitary splendor only by the Skyhawk "—but poor old Albright was pretty nigh past it while I was still in high school, iffen you know what I mean."

"I know exactly what you mean. Unfortunately, the original records on Santa Cruz went up when the Quern hit the Sector Bolo Maintenance Central Depot on Ursula during the First Quern War. That's when Central lost the Santa Cruz Detachment's dedicated com-link, as well. They've taken steps to reactivate the link now, but anything you've gotten from the Navy must have come in over the all-units general information net."

"So you're sayin'—?"

"That no one at Central knew how long Commander Albright had been out here . . . among other things."

"You know, Captain," Esteban said slowly, "the way you said 'among other things' kinda makes me wonder when the second shoe's gonna drop."

"Really?" This time Merrit's smile held an edge of true humor, albeit a bit bitter. "Well, I hope it won't make too many waves when it falls, Mister Esteban." He raised his wrist com to his mouth. "Lieutenant Timmons?"

"Yes, Captain?" a female—and very young—voice replied.

"You have now accomplished your solemn responsibility to deliver me to my new duty station, Lieutenant. If you'll be good enough to unload my personal gear, you can get back to civilization."

"Are you sure about that, sir?" the voice asked.

"Yes, unfortunately. I would, however, appreciate your informing Central that their records are even more, ah, dated than I warned them they were. Tell Brigadier Wincizki I'll update him as soon as I can."

"If you say so, sir," Lieutenant Timmons agreed. "Popping Bay One."

A hatch slid open as Timmons spoke, and a cargo arm lowered two bulky gravity skids to the ceramacrete. Merrit pressed a button on his wrist com, and both skids rose three centimeters from the paving and hummed quietly off towards the faded admin building. The captain watched them go, then nodded to Esteban, and the two men walked off after them while the hatch slid shut once more.

"Clear of drive zone, Lieutenant," Merrit said into the com. "Have a nice trip."

"Thank you, sir, and, um, good luck." Timmons sounded a bit dubious, but the shuttle rose on a high, smooth whine of counter-grav. It arrowed up into the cloudless sky with far more gentility than the freighter, then vanished, and Esteban looked at Merrit.

"Pardon me iffen I seem nosy, Captain, but did you say Santa Cruz's your duty station?"

"I did."

"But iffen you expected Albright t'still be in command, they must not'a sent you out t'take over field ops—not that I'd mind, you understand—and danged if I c'n think what else you might be needed for."

"That, Mister Esteban, is a question I've asked myself quite a few times over the last year or so," Merrit agreed with yet another of those oddly grim smiles. "While Central may not have noticed Commander Albright's demise, however, it has finally noticed another little oversight. I'm here to inspect the Bolo and assume command if it's still operational."

"The Bolo?" Esteban stopped dead, staring at Merrit in disbelief, and the captain raised his eyebrows in polite question. The older man gaped at him for almost a full minute, then shook himself. "What Bolo?" he asked in a more normal voice, and it was Merrit's turn to frown in surprise.

"Bolo Two-Three-Baker-Zero-Zero-Seven-Five NKE," he said mildly.

"Y'mean t'say there's a Bolo on Santa Cruz?" Esteban demanded.

"According to Central there is, although—" Merrit surveyed the age-worn field with a sardonic eye "—Central does seem to be a little confused on several points, now doesn't it?"

"But what in tarnation is a Bolo doin' here?"

"We're not entirely certain," Merrit admitted, "but the records we do have seem to indicate that it was deployed to Santa Cruz early in the First Quern War."

"That must'a been dang near eighty years ago!" Esteban protested.

"Seventy-nine years and ten months, as a matter of fact," Merrit agreed. Esteban just stared at him, and the captain shrugged. "I told you Central's records went up in the Quern raid, Mister Esteban, but HQ's best guess is that it was deployed here to deter the Quern from raiding Santa Cruz. I realize it was a bit before both our times, but the initial Quern attacks took the Navy completely by surprise. We lost control of two-thirds of the sector before we could get enough capital ships in here to take it back, and the sector governor of the time may have been afraid the Quern would hit Santa Cruz before the Navy could restore the situation."

"Hit Santa Cruz? Why in tarnation would anyone want t'raid us?" Esteban waved both arms at the decaying landing field. "Ain't never been anything here worth stealing, Captain. This here's the backside of nowhere."

"Not really." Esteban blinked as Merrit disagreed with him. "Oh, you've always been a farming world, and I'm not saying there was ever anything here worth raiding for, but your system's in a fairly strategic spot. The Navy's pre-war strategic planning had included the possibility of using Santa Cruz to stage operations against the Quern, you know. Until Hillman and Sixth Fleet smashed their spearhead at Quellok and obviated the need to, that is."

"Maybe," Esteban said dubiously, then chuckled. " 'Course, even if that was true then, there ain't no cause for anyone t'be interested in us now, now is there? I mean, there ain't no more Quern t'operate against!"

"That's true, I suppose. On the other hand, now that they've charted the jump points to open up the Esterhazy Sector, you may see a lot more shipping moving through here." The two men had reached the welcome shade of the admin building, and Merrit paused to sweep his eyes back over the field. "Santa Cruz is well placed as a natural transfer point for cargoes and passengers moving through to Esterhazy—or, for that matter, down from the Camperdown Sector—and you've certainly got a nice big field."

"Wouldn't happen t'be that's why Central finally got around t'taking a look our way, would it?" Esteban asked shrewdly.

"It could be, Mister Esteban. It could indeed be. In the meantime, however, I have my own responsibilities to look after. Is there anywhere around here I could rent or borrow a vehicle?"

"Shoot, son, I can do better'n that," Esteban said with a huge grin. "Seeing as how I'm the base CO and all, I reckon I can let you use the vehicle park. I got a nice little recon skimmer I can let you have."

"You do?" Merrit sounded surprised, and Esteban's grin grew still broader.

" 'Course I do. I might not'a known anything 'bout your Bolo, Captain, but when the Navy pulled out, they left most'a their base vehicles behind in the depot over there. We've even got most of a battalion of old Wolverine heavy tanks tucked away in there."

"They're still operable?"

"Accordin' t'the depot diagnostics they are. The Militia—what there is of it—trains with 'em every four, five months. Don't see any harm in it. After all, they're as outa date as the whole field is, and iffen the Navy was interested in 'em, it shoulda taken 'em with it when it pulled everything else out. Still, I promised old Albright I'd look after 'em for him. Old fellow was always pretty decent—taught me a lot about 'tronics and system maintenance when I was a snot-nosed kid—so I figured it was the least I could do for him."

"Well, in that case, I'll take you up on that skimmer, Mister Esteban," Merrit said.

"Lorenco, Captain," Esteban said, holding out his hand once more. "We don't stand much on formality out here, and iffen you're gonna become a Cruzan, y'might as well get comfortable."



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