Click on image to enlarge.
by William C. Dietz
Category: Science Fiction
Description: Colonel Stell and his band of mercenaries yearn for a place to call home. To them Freehold is like a bright diamond in the vast universe. But its desert conditions, economic instability, social disarray, and political turmoil render the planet perfect for takeover. Willing to fight anything that stands in their way, Colonel Stell and his small crew contend with all who seek to dominate their planet, even vast interstellar empires. Their success will not be determined by their size but by their resolution to create a home for themselves.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads, 1987
eBookwise Release Date: January 2002
62 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [337 KB]
Reading time: 217-305 min.
The incredible heat of Freehold's sun beat down on the little pre-fab hut, turning its interior into an oven. In spite of the air conditioning, sweat poured off Bram's face as he bent over the open connector box. His blunt, capable fingers made the last connection and he straightened with a groan. His short, stocky body ached from hours of bending over.
The problem was sand. The problem was always sand. Sand in the windings, sand in the gears and, this time, in the connector box. Somehow the damned stuff managed to penetrate the triple-sealed box and pile up till it shorted out half the weather hut's instrumentation. And on Freehold, weather reports were very important indeed.
Bram picked up the tool pak, slipped his arms through the straps, and pulled it up onto his back. He snapped on his polarized goggles, sealed his sand suit, checked the action on his autorifle, and hit the release switch by the door. It opened, and he stepped out into the blowing sand, allowing the door to hiss shut behind him. Cursing steadily, Bram fought his way up the side of the first dune. Halfway up his legs were already tired. He knew it could be far worse, however. In fact, it was a nice day by local standards. Wind a steady fifteen miles an hour, with gusts up to thirty, temperature a cool hundred and five in the shade, if you could find any shade.
He felt the air conditioning in his sand suit shift up a notch as he struggled the last few steps to the crest of the dune. He paused there for a moment to catch his breath and wonder why he'd been stupid enough to come on foot. "Gotta stay in shape," he'd told his wife. Screw that. Next time he'd ride. He turned, eyes automatically sweeping the horizon. Sand storms, the huge tuskers called Sandies, lots of things could catch the unwary on Freehold. At first he thought it might be a mirage, a common enough phenomenon on Freehold, but deep down he knew it wasn't. The smoke boiling up to be whipped away by the wind was all too real, and the characteristic shimmer of the settlement's force field had disappeared. Something was very wrong.
Bram began to run, leaping and jumping down the side of one dune and then struggling up the next. His feet sank into the soft sand, his breath came in short gasps, and cold lead filled his stomach. With heart pounding, he started up the final slope toward the distant point where sand met sky.
Like all the working settlements on Freehold, Sweet Hole occupied a large circular depression below the planet's average surface. About ten miles across, the depression--or "hole"--was almost split in two by a huge subterranean river that surfaced at the south end of the crater and disappeared underground again at the north end. Surrounding the depression on all sides was a steep embankment of wind-driven sand. Bram got down and crawled the last few feet of the embankment, careful not to break the skyline. Sergeant Sanderson, the regimental drill instructor back on his native New Britain, would have been proud of him. Somewhere in the back of his mind he could hear Sanderson screaming, "Keep it down, Bram, or somebody'll blow it off!"
He kept it down as he neared the edge of the embankment and the wind brought him the stench of burning plastic and rubber. Smoke rolled up to be caught by the wind and jerked away. The muffled sound of gunfire confirmed his worst fears. Wriggling closer to the edge of the crater, he unclipped the binocam from its place on his chest and pressed the viewfinder to his eyes. Careful to shield the powerful lenses from any possibility of reflection, he pressed the zoom control--and flinched as a terrible scene of death and carnage leaped up to meet him. While part of his mind screamed, another part, carefully trained many years before, remembered to flick on the binocam's memory. It would tape everything he saw.
Sweeping the binocam from right to left, he saw that the battle was almost over. The battered black shape of the pirate shuttle dominated the scene, crouched in the middle of the settlement's main plaza like some sort of evil god, dispatching armor-clad demons to do its bidding. A veil of vapor and smoke swirled around it. Pirates darted in and out of the smoke on nameless errands, while others carted loot into the shuttle, and a handful continued to fire at the few remaining defenders.
Bram's heart pounded in his chest as the binocam found and held a view of the last of his friends and neighbors. They were fighting from behind a hastily erected barricade. He gagged, and almost turned away, when he saw that the barricade was made of bodies--bodies who had once been friends. But he forced himself to look, to bear witness to the horror below, knowing the binocam would preserve what he saw, hoping that with this record others could avoid the same fate.
So he watched. He watched as seventy-two-year-old Slim Hana took two slugs in the chest, and still managed to bury his knife in a pirate throat, slipping the blade in just above the man's armor. He watched the ten-year-old Barry twins aim and fire a gun twice their size, before an energy beam cut them down. Tears ran down his cheeks as he watched the pirates jump the barricade and prepare to rape his wife and daughter.
The beep from the binocam signalled maximum storage. Quickly removing his emergency locator beacon from a pocket, he turned it on, shoved it and the binocam into a weatherproof bag, and pushed it deep into the sand. When they came, they'd find it. Then he stood, careless of the skyline, and shrugged off the tool pak. Assuming the stance of a trained marksman, he brought the auto rifle up to his shoulder, blinked his eyes clear of tears, and carefully sighted in. With infinite care, he shot his daughter and then his wife. Then, sweeping his weapon in a careful arc, he methodically picked off the half-naked pirates who'd surrounded them. Bram paused for a moment to make sure he'd killed them all, uttered a long primeval scream of rage, and ran down the embankment, his weapon chattering in his hands, waiting for the inevitable impact.