Galactic Bounty [McCade Series Book 1]
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by William C. Dietz
Category: Science Fiction
Description: A traitor is on the loose. A treacherous navy captain plans to sell military secrets to the alien Il Ronn. The only man who can stop him is Sam McCade. Betrayed by his friends, stalked by his enemies, McCade is the only one standing between a terrifying alien threat--and the unimaginable devastation of the Terran Empire?
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, 1986
eBookwise Release Date: April 2008
17 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [386 KB]
Reading time: 241-338 min.
From his vantage point at the bar, McCade could watch the entire room. It was saturated with smoke and noise and filled to overflowing with people. Cadien was there somewhere. McCade could feel it. An evil presence. A hunted animal gone to earth. But where? All sorts of people mixed and mingled in a swirl of movement and color. There were miners just in from the asteroids eager to live out fantasies devised a million lights away. There were long-haul freighters, the stink of their sweat still on them, celebrating the end of a three-month run. Navy men drank and laughed, trying to forget the fear and boredom of patrol along the frontier. And yes, there were also those like McCade himself. Hunters of men, watching and waiting for one of the many faces they'd memorized, hoping that tonight they'd make the big score. Among them moved drug vendors, thieves, and prostitutes, all plying their various trades. All were welcome in Floyd's Pink Asteroid Bar and Grill. All helped make Imperial Earth possible. None were welcome among its more refined pleasures.
McCade slid off his stool. His stained leathers creaked slightly as he stood. Alien suns had darkened his skin and etched deep lines around his gray eyes. Under thick black hair, his features were strong and even. A muscle twitched in his left cheek. He moved with the smooth confidence of a man well aware of his own ability. His right hand brushed the grip of the slug gun worn low on his right thigh.
He felt the familiar flutter of fear low in his gut as he began to circle the room. Cadien scared the hell out of him. Psychopath. Professional assassin.
Butcher. Cadien was all these and more. On New Britain he'd fulfilled an illegal assassination by blowing up a yacht along with its owner. In the past he'd committed many lesser crimes and gotten away.
But this time Cadien had gone too far. Among those who died on the yacht was the Emperor's favorite niece. A price was placed on Cadien's head. One million Imperial credits, dead or alive. Every hand was turned against him, so Cadien ran. From planet to planet and from system to system. Bounty hunters followed--men like Sam McCade.
Since the cost of creating and operating an Imperial police force was considered prohibitive, interplanetary law enforcement was carried out by bounty hunters. They were a strange breed. Both hated and feared, loners mostly, they were forever excluded from the society they served. Planetary law enforcement officers resented them, and placed them on a par with those they hunted. Citizens often romanticized them, imagining their lives to be both glamorous and exciting. But no one wanted them around for longer than it took them to do their job. So bounty hunters were constantly on the move.
For a few credits at any public terminal, they could punch up a current list of Imperial fugitives, including their names, known histories, habitual weapons, and most important of all, the reward offered for their capture or termination. Occasionally the reward would be conditional, specifying that the fugitive must be brought in alive, but most often dead or even proof of death was just fine. Having picked a fugitive, the bounty hunter could request and receive a hunting license for that particular person. Capturing or killing a fugitive without a license was considered fortuitous, which meant no reward.
A record number of bounty hunters had requested licenses on Cadien, including Sam McCade. One million credits was an unusually high reward. But time passed and Cadien had proved to be both cunning and elusive, so most of his pursuers gave up, turning their attention to other less difficult prey. But McCade was tenacious, and a million credits was a lot of money--enough to buy a ship of his own.
For a bounty hunter a ship was both a status symbol and a tool, a means of catching more fugitives. But at times that goal seemed distant indeed. Expenses had consumed most of his money, and the trail was growing cold. But finally, just when McCade was about to give up, a paid informer led him to Cadien's mistress. It took time, and the rest of McCade's money, but the information she provided had led him to the Pink Asteroid. He was broke, and liners were notoriously expensive, so to get there he'd been forced to ship out as third mate on an ore freighter. It had touched down on Imperial Earth three days before. Each night he'd waited for Cadien to show. Maybe tonight would be the night.
As he moved, McCade's eyes continually scanned the crowd, comparing each face with the memprinted image of Cadien burned into his mind. Some eyes met his in open challenge. Those he ignored. Others slid away. Those he followed, checking and comparing. Toward the center of the room he noticed a miner who looked a lot like Cadien. Casually he moved between the tightly packed tables to get a better look.
He had just decided it wasn't Cadien when something tugged at his arm, and the miner's head exploded. He turned, dropping to one knee. His gun roared three times. The heavy slugs tore Cadien's chest apart. A woman screamed. Suddenly everyone wanted to be somewhere else. The crowd pushed toward the doors and streamed outside.
McCade's left arm hurt. Cadien's slug had passed right through it before hitting the miner. He clutched it as he walked over and looked down at the miner's crumpled body, dully wondering who he'd been, why he'd died, and whether anyone else would care. A trail of red dots followed him over to Cadien. He'd seemed larger than life, almost superhuman, as McCade had tracked him across the stars. But dead, he looked small and empty. McCade would have preferred to bring him in alive. But sometimes they didn't give you any choice.
His arm hurt more now and was covered with blood. The bastard had nicked a vein or something. His vision was fading. He was falling. He heard distant voices. They didn't seem to make any sense. "Tourniquet ... under arrest for..." Rough hands grabbed and lifted. There was an explosion of pain and then nothing.
He struggled to clear his vision. Gray ceilings and walls swam into focus. Wherever he looked he saw surveillance sensors. Made obvious to intimidate? McCade smiled wryly. If so it was working. His left arm was numb. Turning his head he tried to see it, but couldn't. From the shoulder down it disappeared into an automedic. The machine hummed softly as it speeded the healing process along. It was a standard, navy model. As was the bed, the room's single chair, and everything else in sight. No doubt about it, somehow he'd wound up in a navy brig. The Pink Asteroid was located in Santa Fe. So they'd probably taken him to Earth Fleet Base, which sprawled across most of New Mexico. But why? McCade didn't know ... but somehow he felt sure that he wouldn't like the answer. He felt very tired, or was it just that the automedic was pumping a sedative into his system? He decided it made very little difference and fell asleep.
When he awoke he felt better. The automedic was gone. His left arm was bandaged and sore but seemed able to move normally.
Silently a section of wall slid back. A man stepped into the cell. "Hello, Sam. It's been a long time."
He was strongly backlit, and it took McCade a moment to recognize him. Walter Swanson-Pierce. A little older, hair dusted with gray, but still trim and fit. Never a friend, but not exactly an enemy either. More like a friendly adversary. But that was a long time ago. While time had passed, it had done nothing to change the smile that rang slightly false, the eyes that reflected vain arrogance, or the face still a shade too pretty for a man. Still, some things had changed. The gold rings on Swanson-Pierce's immaculate, space-black sleeve were those of a full captain. Lieutenant to captain in ten years. Not bad. Good old Walt had done well for himself. McCade felt sorry for those who'd been in the way.
Squinting into the light, McCade replied, "Hello, Walt. Since you're in, I might as well ask you to sit down. You will anyway."
The other man crossed the room with a smile. "It's nice to see you've retained your sense of humor." He lowered himself gracefully into the skeletal form of the chair. "Yes, it's been a long time. Those were the days, weren't they, Sam? The old Imperial wasn't much compared to today's battleships. Still we showed the pirates a thing or two, didn't we? By god we were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed back then!"
"Cut the crap, Walt," McCade replied. "The Imperial was a stinking old tub that could barely lift off-planet, and you know it. And we weren't bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. More like hungry, tired, and scared shitless. Let's get on with it.... What're you doing here? Or, more to the point, what am I doing here?"
"Why, Sam," Swanson-Pierce said. "I see your charming directness hasn't changed a bit! In answer to your question, you're the guest of the Imperial Navy, recovering from wounds suffered while ridding the empire of a dangerous criminal. Or so it says in this morning's news. By the way, the Emperor sends his thanks." Swanson-Pierce leaned back, the hint of a smile touching his lips.
McCade grimaced. "Walt, you know where you and the Emperor can shove it. I don't want your hospitality. I just want out. Now."
Swanson-Pierce frowned in mock concern. "Sam, you really must be more circumspect. Imagine! Telling the Emperor to shove it. Why some would call that treason. Fortunately I know you jest." His look hardened. "As for leaving, wherever would you go?"
McCade sighed. Swanson-Pierce clearly enjoyed toying with him, and for the moment there wasn't much he could do about it. It reminded him of junior officer's mess when they'd both been aboard the Imperial. As the most senior lieutenant--his commission had predated McCade's by a week--Swanson-Pierce had always enjoyed playing games with those junior to him. Not so much with McCade, who refused to be intimidated, but especially sub-lieutenants and midshipmen.
McCade forced a smile and said, "I'll tell you what, Walt, you let me out of here, I'll toddle off, collect the reward for killing that dangerous criminal you mentioned, and then I'll check into a nice hotel." McCade smiled hopefully.
"Well I'd like to Sam, I really would," Swanson-Pierce replied gravely. "But there is the matter of the Imperial Claims Board."
"The Imperial Claims Board?" McCade asked, dreading the answer.
"Why yes," the naval officer replied innocently. "All claims for reward stemming from the death of a fugitive from Imperial justice must be dully considered and approved by the Imperial Claims Board," he recited. Swanson-Pierce watched to see if McCade would take the bait--just as he had taken it so long ago.
"Since when?" McCade asked through clenched teeth, unable to resist.
"Since yesterday," Swanson-Pierce answered happily, the game won.
For a moment the two men stared at each other. Swanson-Pierce with barely disguised glee, and McCade with disgust verging on hatred. Now he remembered why they'd never been friends. Straining for control, McCade asked, "How long will it take for my claim to be approved?"
"That's really hard to say," the other man replied thoughtfully. "The Board's just getting organized, and of course they'll want to agree on some rules and what not, why I suppose it could take months!"
"In that case," McCade said grimly, "I'll just leave and wait for my claim to clear." He sat up and swung his feet over the side of the bed. A wave of dizziness and nausea swept over him.
Swanson-Pierce summoned up a look of fatherly concern. "I really couldn't allow it, Sam. You're obviously not up to snuff." He paused judiciously, regarding McCade through steepled fingers. "I hesitate to bring this up, considering your health and so on, but there is one other small difficulty. It seems you're under arrest. Something about discharging firearms within the city limits."
McCade allowed himself to fall back against the pillow. Obviously Swanson-Pierce still wanted something, and he'd have to provide it before he could go. "All right, Walt," McCade said wearily. "You've had your fun. Now cut the bull. Exactly what do you want?"
The other man smiled as he rose from his chair. Walking toward the door he shook his head in pretended amazement. "Sam, you'll never change." He turned in the doorway. "Get some rest, Sam. We'll talk again soon." He stepped out of the cell and the door slid silently closed behind him.
For some time McCade lay there, rigid with frustration. He'd done it.
He'd tracked Cadien halfway across the empire, damn near got his ass blown off, and earned a million Imperials in the process. Right now he should have been getting drunk, getting laid, and getting ready to pick out his ship. Roughly in that order. Instead, a naval officer with a sadistic sense of humor had gone to a great deal of trouble to lock him up. Why? Nothing came. One by one he ordered his muscles to relax. Gradually they obeyed and finally he sank into the oblivion of sleep.
He awoke with the sun in his eyes. The wall in front of him had become transparent. Outside, the huge naval base sprawled to the horizon. In a way, it symbolized the entire planet. As the center of a vast empire, Terra was almost entirely dedicated to the various branches of government, the military, scientific research, and of course the pleasures of those so engaged. He sat up and swung his feet over the side of the bed. He felt better. His arm was still a little stiff, but the pain had almost disappeared. There were clothes draped over the chair. Moving gingerly he stood and shuffled over to them. His worn leathers had disappeared and been replaced by a new set in navy black, without insignia of course. Everything fit perfectly. Except the memories. Those belonged to someone else, someone younger. Someone who'd believed what they taught him.
The door slid open. McCade accepted its unspoken invitation and stepped outside. Two Imperial marines stood waiting in the corridor. Both snapped to attention. McCade smiled. The hand of steel within the velvet glove. Just Walt's way of letting him know where he stood.
The larger of the two marines wore the chevrons of a section leader and the confidence of a professional. Bright brown eyes looked straight ahead from under bushy brows. When he spoke, his lips barely moved. "Will you accompany us, sir?"
McCade almost laughed. As if he had a choice. He nodded, and together they moved off. One marine fell in ahead and the other behind. Down corridors, through halls, along autowalks and, on one occasion, two hundred feet straight up a vertical shaft using some kind of new anti-grav field. He was impressed. He hadn't been to Terra for years and had forgotten what it was like. Everywhere, he saw purposeful activity and new technology--little things, many of them, but still new.
In spite of the empire's vast size, Terra was still the principal source of new technology. That fact had helped her remain at the center of human endeavor instead of being relegated to its past. In 3,112 years of recorded history, man had inhabited hundreds of worlds. Many had never seen Terra and never would. But for the most part all still thought of Terra as home.
By the time they arrived in front of huge, ornate doors, McCade was tired. They'd come a long way and his arm had started to ache. As they approached, two more marines snapped to attention. They seemed to come in pairs, like bookends. To McCade's surprise they opened the heavy doors by hand to let him pass. Their deference indicated the status of whoever he was about to meet. Or the ego, he reflected sourly.
As he entered, he noticed that the room was simply but elegantly furnished. A long walk across plush carpet carried him to a large desk. The chair behind it stood empty. The top of the desk was bare. But deep in its black surface a star map could be seen, accurate in every detail. He recognized many systems and planets. Imperial stars were colored silver, and, in spite of the empire's size, they were few against the immense backdrop of space. Between them tiny red sparks flew, which McCade supposed were navy ships, continually striving to bind the empire together.
"Impressive isn't it?" Surprised, McCade looked up into amused blue eyes. The sound of the man's entry had evidently been lost in the thick carpet. His white hair suggested age, but his movements retained the quick precision of youth. His face was round and unlined, yet there was a profound weariness in his eyes. His simple white robe bore no mark of rank. He needed none. The feeling of power surrounding the man was almost palpable. His smile seemed genuine and McCade found himself responding in kind. "Please be seated, Citizen McCade," the man continued. "I'm Admiral Keaton."
The floor behind McCade extruded a formless-looking chair. As McCade sat down, the chair quickly molded itself to the shape of his body. He'd never seen one like it. He was amazed.
Admiral Keaton! The man was a legend. He'd helped build the Imperial Navy under the first emperor. Then he'd shaped it, molded it, and used it to further expand the empire. Later he'd commanded the fleet that defeated the pirates near the planet Hell. McCade knew because he'd been there, aboard the Imperial.
"First allow me to apologize for the considerable inconvenience we've put you through, though, as you'll see, this is a matter of grave concern to the Empire." The Admiral's tone was that of one equal addressing another on a problem of mutual concern. In spite of his distaste for the military, McCade couldn't help feeling complimented. "I'm aware, of course," Keaton continued smoothly, "that your separation from the navy wasn't entirely voluntary."
"A court martial rarely is.... Voluntary, I mean," McCade replied dryly. He remembered the cold empty feeling as he entered the enormous wardroom of the Imperial Facing him from behind the semicircular table were nine senior naval officers. One for each planet in Terra's system. Each had commanded a ship in the Battle of Hell. Their verdict was unanimous. Guilty. McCade could still see the grim satisfaction deep in the eyes of his commanding officer, Captain Bridger. He felt the familiar surge of anger and hatred sweep over him and pushed it back as he'd done a thousand times before.
Admiral Keaton nodded knowingly. "For what it's worth ... I would have favored a less severe punishment than dishonorable discharge. I think we both realize that Captain Bridger's personal feelings may have colored his judgment. However you did choose to disobey a direct order. As I recall, you admitted that. And once Captain Bridger brought formal charges, the Court had little choice." Keaton paused, regarding McCade with a thoughtful expression before going on. "Of course, no one but the Emperor can change such a verdict after the fact."
McCade's thoughts churned. Had he just heard a veiled hint? If so, at what? His commission reinstated for services rendered? If so, why the heavy-handed approach from good old Walt? Surely the Admiral must be aware of the kind of leverage Walt had used to get him here. Of course he was. The carrot and the stick. He was being expertly conned. He didn't know what was coming--but he felt sure it would be a real lulu.
"I'll get to the point," Keaton said. "There's an important service you could render. Though I realize you may feel little loyalty to the Empire ... I think you know it's necessary. The alternative is anarchy."
McCade didn't know if he believed that or not, but he certainly knew the theory. The Academy instructors had hammered it home day after day. It was the basic tenent underlying the Emperor's rule. There had been a confederation once. But there were too many stars, too many systems. Each had a point of view, special needs and special problems. Each saw itself as the center of the human universe. An entire planet had been set aside as a capital. It was populated with millions of representatives sent to vote on behalf of thousands of worlds. But the democratic process constantly broke down into endless bickering and squabbling. Nothing effective was accomplished because decisions always called for sacrifice by one or more special interest groups. Eventually a coalition of systems seceded from the Confederation. A bloody civil war followed. Finally after years of conflict a strong and brilliant leader emerged. He amassed a great armada and used it to conquer all the planets then held by man. His supporters proclaimed him emperor ... and the Empire was born. His rule proved reasonable and consistent, preferable to the profitless anarchy of war. Eventually, most became willing subjects. However a stubborn few fled to the Empire's frontiers. There they eked out a marginal existence on uncharted worlds, or raided the Empire's commerce as pirates. Now the first emperor's son ruled, and little had changed.
Admiral Keaton paused as though gathering his thoughts. "We can also offer what we think is generous compensation for your services."
McCade would've sworn there was a glint of humor deep in the Admiral's eyes. "In addition to helping you resolve your legal difficulties, we are prepared to offer you a first-class ship. I believe such a vessel is central to your future plans." Admiral Keaton allowed himself an amused smile.
Blast them! McCade thought. They were leading him around like a child. He knew it, they knew it, and right now there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it. Forcing an even tone and sardonic grin, McCade said, "You're too generous, Admiral. You offer to pay me what's already mine, and throw in the ship I could have bought with it to boot. Terrific. It's a great deal. But before I agree ... I'd like to know what's involved. So let's skip the bull and get on with it. What do you want? And why me?"
For a second McCade saw anger flicker in the other man's eyes and wondered if he'd pushed Keaton too far. But then the anger vanished to be replaced by a grim smile.
"All right, maybe I deserved that, McCade.... So, as you put it, I'll skip the bull. As for what we want, well, you did the Empire a service when you tracked Cadien down. We want you to find another fugitive for us and bring him back." The Admiral paused for a moment and said, "Failing that, we want you to kill him."
McCade experienced a sinking feeling. Whatever the game was, it obviously involved high stakes.
Keaton looked at him appraisingly. "As for why we picked you, well, you have quite a reputation in your, ah, chosen profession. I'm told your peers hold you in very high esteem. What's more important, however, is that you know the fugitive, how he thinks, what makes him tick. And that may well give you an edge in finding him. And last but not least ... you just happened to be in the right place at the right time."
"Or the wrong place at the wrong time," McCade replied sourly. "Who am I supposed to find?"
"Captain Ian Bridger," Keaton replied grimly. "Ironic, isn't it?"
Totally insane is more like it, McCade thought. Find Bridger and bring him back dead or alive. Deep down he knew a part of him would enjoy tracking Bridger down. And they knew it, and were counting on it. But what had Bridger done? Whatever it was must be big.
"I'm already starting to feel underpaid," McCade said. "I want the bounty for Cadien, plus the ship, plus let's say, half a million for Bridger." He was as much interested in Keaton's reaction as in getting what he'd asked for.
The Admiral smiled crookedly. "The offer stands as is. If you succeed, we'll consider a bonus. Otherwise, I suggest you prepare for a long stay while the Claims Board gets organized and then considers your case."
For a moment McCade just sat there, wishing he could see some way out, but finding each possible door closed to him. With a sigh he said, "All right, you've got a deal. What exactly did Bridger do?"
"Swanson-Pierce will fill you in," Keaton replied, his face remote now, already considering the next item on his agenda for the day. "Good hunting, McCade." And with that, the Admiral shimmered and disappeared, leaving only an empty chair.
Suddenly McCade realized Keaton had never been there at all. Some kind of holo? If so, it was the best he'd ever seen. Thoughtfully he got up and made his way across the plush carpet to the massive double doors. They opened on silent hinges, and as he stepped out of the room, the four marines snapped to attention.
"Ready sir?" asked the section leader who'd brought him.
McCade nodded. "Yes, thanks, Section."
Together the three men started down the corridor. McCade noticed it was busier now. Glancing at his wrist term, he saw it was almost noon. People were heading for lunch. Moments later, as McCade and the marines rounded a corner into a crowded hallway, the assassins made their move.