Retief of the CDT: Information about this great science fiction series and two fan fiction short stories
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Jamie Retief is the two-fisted diplomat-hero of the future created and made famous by Keith Laumer. In spite of the narrow-sighted blundering of Retief's fellow diplomats, he manages to keep on top of things and resolve impossible galactic disputes through misrepresentation, trickery, cynical humor, and a few right uppercuts. The political machinations are ridiculous, the aliens beyond belief, and Retief's solutions always entertaining. If you've never tried a Retief adventure, run, don't walk, to your nearest bookstore or library and look him up. You'll never be sorry.
The saga of Retief's adventures, and glacial climb in rank in the CDT (Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne) is recorded in 38 short stories and 7 novels. Unfortunately, these stories are only available in collections that skip back and forth through his career. The following list provides my best guess at the chronological order in which his adventures took place. It was compiled by using dates provided for the historical records of few of the stories, his rank, the rank of Ben Magnan (his next-in-line superior), references made in some stories to happenings in others, position in anthologies, and finally, copyright date. Question marks indicate that the information wasn't provided in the story. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time such a list has been compiled. I hope it helps you enjoy the stories more.
While they are all excellent, the stories highlighted in cyan are my favorites and I would recommend them to be read first to anyone wanting to sample Retief.
Story Title.................... Published in............. Date Retief's rank Magnan's rank
Birth of a Diplomat... Fan Fiction by W. Schmidt .. 2939 .... civilian .... 3rd secretary
Protocal........................ Retief Unbound......'.... 2940 3rd secretary 2nd secretary
Saline Solution................ Retief at Large............. ? .........'.. ? .............'. ?
Wicker Wonderland .......... Retief at Large ........... ? .........'.. ? ............... ?
The Brass God ................ Retief at Large ......'..... ? ..3rd secretary .. 2nd secretary
Castile of Light................ Retief at Large........'.... ? ........'... ? ............... ?
Ultimatum ................. Retief: Diplomat at Arms . 2940 .3rd secretary .. 2nd secretary
Sealed Orders ................ Retief Unbound ......... 2941. 3rd secretary ........ ?
Cultural Exchange ........... Retief at Large ............ ? .............?....... 2nd secretary
Giant Killer ............ Retief: Emissary to the Stars .. ? .............?....... 2nd secretary
Garbage Invasion ... Retief: Emissary to the Stars .. ?... 3rd secretary ......... ?
The Negotiators .... Retief: Emissary to the Stars .'. ? ............ ? ...... 1st secretary
Hoob Melon Crisis .. Retief: Emissary to the Stars .'. ? ...3rd secretary 1st secretary
Troubleshooter ..... Retief: Emissary to the Stars '.. ? ...3rd secretary .......'.. ?
Troubleshooter ..... Retief: Emissary to the Stars '.. ? ...3rd secretary .......'.. ?
Retief's Peace ........ .............Novel.. .' ............. ? .. 2nd secretary ...........? ......... NEW!!!
Forest in the Sky ... Retief: Emissary to the Stars ''. ? ..2nd secretary... 1st secretary
Trick or Treaty ....... Retief: Emissary to the Stars . ? ............ ? ................ ?
Mechanical Advantage ...... Retief at Large ........... ? ..2nd secretary .......... ?
Dam Nuisance .................. Retief at Large .........'. ? ..2nd secretary... 1st secretary
Grime and Punishment ...... Retief at Large ............ ? ............ ? ................ ?
The Forbidden City ........... Retief at Large ........... ? ..2nd secretary... 1st secretary
The Piecemakers ............. Retief at Large ............ ? ............ ? ................ ?
Ballots and Bandits ........... Retief at Large ........... ? ..2nd secretary... 1st secretary
Pime Doesn't Cray ........... Retief at Large .........'... ? ............ ? ................ ?
Retief's Ransom ................ Retief Unbound ........'.. ? ..2nd secretary .. 1st secretary
Retief in the Ruins .......... Retief in the Ruins ......... ? ............ ? ................' ?
There is a Tide .............. Retief in the Ruins ......''.. ? .'.2nd secretary .......... ?
The Woomy .................. Retief in the Ruins .......'.. ? ..'2nd secretary .. 1st secretary
Retief's War ........................ Retief's War .........'.. ? ...2nd secretary ........'. ?
The Return of Retief ....... The Return of Retief ....'.. ? ...2nd secretary ......'... ?
Retief and the Pangalactic Pageant of Pulchritude ... ? ............ ? ................. ?
Reward for Retief ............. Reward for Retief .......'. ? ...2nd secretary .. 1st secretary
Retief and the Rascals .... Retief and the Rascals .... ? ...2nd secretary .. 1st secretary
Aide Memoire ...................... Retief Unbound ...... 2948 ......... ? ......... ambassador
Policy ................................ Retief Unbound ...... 2949 ......... ? ...........'......?
Palace Revolution ................ Retief Unbound .....'. 2950 1st secretary ...........?
The Prince and the Pirate ..... Retief Unbound ....''.. 2951 ......... ? ............'.'...?
Native Intelligence ....... Retief: Diplomat at Arms ''. 2953 1st secretary ...........?
Courier ...................... Retief: Diplomat at Arms .'. 2954 ......'... ? .................?
Protest Note .............. Retief: Diplomat at Arms .''. 2955 .......'.. ? .................?
Truce or Consequences Retief: Diplomat at Arms ..... ? .. 1st Secretary ............?
Retief and the Warlords . Retief and the Warlords .... ? .. 1st Secretary ............?
Internal Affair ................... Retief of the CDT ....'... ? .. 1st Secretary ............?
The Secret ................ Retief: Diplomat at Arms .''... ? ..........'... ? .................?
Retief to the Rescue ....... Retief to the Rescue ...'... ? .. 1st Secretary ........''...?
Diplomat-At-Arms ..................... Retief ................ ? .. Officer-Agent ........ Minister
Joint Maneuvers..... Fan Fiction by W. Schmidt ...'. 2958 .. 1st Secretary... Ambassador
All of the short stories are available in several anthologies containing different mixes. For example, there is only one story different between Retief Unbound and Retief: Envoy to New Worlds. Be warned that it may take some digging to find them all. Also, a couple of stories were rewritten to fit better with a new selection of stories. Usually these changes were limited to Retief and Magnan's ranks.
I'm currently rereading the entire Retief sage, carefully looking for additional clues to make this list more accurate. I'm also doing it to discover why the last four pages of Retief to the Rescue (a novel) and Truce or Consequences (a short story) are identical. (The answer is that they are the same story. Truce or Consequences was written in 1966. Retief to the Rescue was written in 1983 and uses the same plot. The only significant differences are that names of races, characters, and planets were changed and the story expanded to novel length. I wonder why Mr. Laumer did this. He has repeatedly demonstrated that he has an outstanding imagination and I should have thought it would not have been a challenge to think up a new concept. For myself, I prefer the much shorter Truce or Consequences. The short-story format is perfect for Retief.)
In February, 2005, I received an email from Mr. David Platt explaining that in 1971 Mr. Laumer had a stroke and that it impaired his writing ability. Consequently, recycling older short stories into novels was necessary. Books from this later era may also have inconsistencies in the stories, the result of Mr. Laumer's presumed reduction in cognitive powers and the unwillingness of his editors to help him maintain his quality.
Retief's Peace is a 2005 novel by William Keith with permission from the estate of Keith Laumer. Mr. Keith uses slightly different ranks than Mr. Laumer so placing this story is difficult. He refers to Retief as a 2nd undersectretary, which I assume is between a 3rd and 2nd secretary. I hesitated to include this story because as I read it I didn't feel it sounded like a Keith Laumer Retief story.
Conspicuous by their absence are stories relating how Retief decided to pursue a career as a diplomat and his eventual retirement. I've employed my humble talents to write two short fan fiction short stories to provide completion to the series. They are posted below. I hope you enjoy them.
I recently received an email from Mr. Roland Volz, the most knowledgeable Retief expert I know. He explained that the dates listed in the preambles to several of the stories are not the dates the adventures took place, but the dates of the records of those adventures. I've reread the preambles in question and have to say that Mr. Volz is 100-percent correct. (Thanks, Roland!) How I missed this obvious fact I'll never know. I am deeply indebted to Roland for letting me know about this mistake and I apologize to anyone whom I mislead.
I've left these dates in the chronological listing above because even if they don't reflect when the adventures took place, they none-the-less appear to reflect the chronological order of these adventures as evidenced by the consistency of these dates with references to earlier stories within later stories.
Mr. Volz estimates that the actual Retief adventures took (will take?) place sometime in the 27th or perhaps 28th century A.D. Precision isn't possible because of dearth of information upon which to base such an estimate and certain inconsistencies in the Retief stories.
Equally important is that Mr. Volz provided a link to an Retief story I'd never read before. Diplomat-At-Arms is supposed to have been the first Retief story that Mr. Laumer wrote and paradoxically, takes place near the end of Retief's career. I have to warn people who want to read this story that it is so different from the rest of the stories that if the names "Retief" and "Magnan" hadn't been used I wouldn't have recognized it as Retief. There is no humor, Retief is downcast, worried about his career, and he and Magnan are bitter adversaries instead of tolerant friends as in the rest of the adventures. Some of the terminology used in this story is different from the other stories.
Keith Laumer drew from his experiences as a vice consul in the US Foreign Service in 1950s Burma to create the Retief of the CDT series. It was a tumultuous time in diplomatic circles because established policies and protocols were defended by an old guard of career diplomats at the same time that the diplomatic corps was being inundated by new, younger diplomats with more practical approaches to resolving international problems. This conflict between entrenched dogma and more aggressive, active problem solving is a constant source of humor in the Retief series.
Mr. Laumer once mentioned in an interview that he envisioned Retief as looking like Cary Grant with jet black hair.
The only direct references to our date system happens in The Garbage Invasion. In this story Magnan comments about the Mainland Chinese on old earth, or Red Chinese, as existing 600 year in the past. That places our intrepid diplomats at around 2566. Later on in the same story reference is made to a previous diplomatic incident in 2899 A.D.
(Useful terms to know for understanding the relative positions of the characters mentioned in the series.)
Ambassador: Highest diplomatic official, represents the leader of his representative government. (Extraordinary means he is the non-resident ambassador. Plenipotentiary means he has the power to speak for his leader.)
Minister: One step below an ambassador. He leads the mission in the absence of the ambassador. Ministers represent their leaders without having the power to speak for them. A minister plenipotentiary has the same powers as an ambassador but doesn't have quite the same rank. Technically, a Minister heads a legation, not a mission or chancery.
Charge' de Affaires: Head of the mission when the ambassador or minister is absent. This is more of a position than a rank. A junior diplomat may be assigned Charge' de Affaires (or under extraordinary situations a minister or ambassador) for a minor mission or in emergencies.
(All of the above officers are classed as senior officers. The ones below are junior officers.)
Counselor: Executive manager of a mission.
1st Secretary: Senior worker-bee in a mission. Sectretaries are men and women in the diplomatic corps that run the mission in addition to carrying out special tasks handed down from the senior diplomats.
2nd Secretary: Middle-rate worker-bee.
3rd Secretary: Entry level worker-bee. The lowest official diplomatic position.
(In today's diplomatic corps, the average time-in-grade before moving from one secretarial level to the next is two years.)
Attache': A man or woman not in the diplomatic corps who is assigned to a mission to act as an expert in a given field. They can be civilians, military or even foreigners from the state to which the mission is assigned. Attache' examples are: military attache', translator (language attache'), press attache' and cultural attache'.
Embassy: Officially the ambassador's residence.
Chancery: Official offices where the work of the mission takes place.
(Many times these terms are used interchangeably and in the real world, merged into a single facility.)
Mission: The name of the offices and diplomats assigned to represent the interests of their government to a foreign government. Headed by an Ambassador.
Legation: A lower-level mission. Headed by a minister or lower diplomat.
Concordat: A treaty with the Pope's signature. (I'm not sure if this has any relation to Condordiat Era mentioned in the Retief stories.)
Consulate: Second tier chancery in an important city of the state to which a mission has been sent. For example: Britian has an embassy/chancery to the USA in Washington DC and consulates in major cities like Los Angeles and New York.
Protocol: This has two meanings. First, it can refer to the official method or manner of performing an act or carrying out a task. Second, it can refer to a written agreement that is less formal and carries less power than a treaty.
Consul-General: A unique rank assigned to a military officer of the rank of general who is also a senior diplomat.
NEW!!! Aide Memoire': A written summary of an important document. Also, a mnemonic device used to remember something. (In the context of the Retief stories it is occasionally humorously used as a title, implying the person to which it is associated is little more than a memory storage device.)
Note: If you feel like you're the only one in the world who's heard of Retief, be assured that you're not alone. This page gets over 3,000 visitors a year so there are a lot of people out there who are interested in our hero-diplomat.
If you've read all of the published Retief adventures and hunger for more, I hope you'll give the following two stories a try. Thank you.
RETIEF SHORT STORIES!!!
Coverart by Bob Adragna
adapted by Wayne Schmidt
Part 1: Birth of a Diplomat
Part 2: Joint Maneuvers
(Jump to this story)
BIRTH OF A DIPLOMAT
first adventure, A.E. 2939)
by Wayne M. Schmidt
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
This book was written for not-for sale, not-for-profit, purposes, and as such, does not intend to infringe on any legally-held rights, including, but not limited to, those held by Keith Laumer or Ace Books.
"Disaster!" Chief of Mission Underknuckle bellowed as he burst into the conference room, his face crimson with ambassadorial indignation.
The twenty members of the diplomatic staff seated at the solid platinum conference table each leaned back in turn attempting to hide behind his neighbor. The wave of motion would have won awards at a Pangalactic synchronous swimming competition.
The ripple reached the end of the table and the last man in line, junior aide and third secretary Ben Magnan, nervously cast about for someone to hide behind, found no one available and decided his best course for self preservation was an attitude of assumed insider knowledge. "Golly, sir," he said with as much conviction as his reedy voice allowed. "I agree and I'm with you one hundred percent. As soon as you decide how to resolve the issue I want you to know I'm ready to fill out the paperwork needed to address this situation. In fact," Magnan said rising and inching toward the side door. "I'll go start organizing the forms right away. Just let me know-"
"Halt!" Underknuckle ordered.
Magnan froze as if caught in a Groaci stun beam. "Sir?"
A smile softened the edges of the Ambassador's frown, then the frown darkened as he turned his attention back to the rest of his staff, skewering each with a sour look. "I'm glad that at least one member of my staff is on top of things; it's a pity, however, that it happens to be the most junior member. " Underknuckle's voice dropped an octave. "This does not bode well for the upcoming promotion cycle."
As one, everyone at the table leaned forward and began nodding their heads, agreeing that the situation was indeed perilous and something must be done.
"You're probably concerned about the fleet of Groaci ships encircling the planet," military attaché Hinkle offered. "I can have a fleet of peace enforcers here in three days to neutralize the threat."
Not to be outdone, James Ackerman, Aide Memoire to the team's current assignment on Floom, butted in. "If you're concerned about the apparent lethargy on the part of the natives toward our gift of a Yankee Stadium-type sports arena, I'm sure once the natives view a few world series videos they'll perk up." Ackerman perked his own eyebrows up in a gesture of hopeful approval.
Hy Felix, the press attaché, commented sourly, "I doubt it, considering the Floomians don't have arms capable of holding a bat much less pitching a ball."
Don Edwards, the staff's medical expert, said, "The Floomians lethargy is more likely caused by a nutritional deficiency. Since they are one of the few sentient plant-based life forms we've encountered, it's difficult to analyze the problem but I believe the soil they root in may be deficient in some critical element. Perhaps once we determine what it is we could ship in a couple of million metric tons of the stuff and solve the problem."
More problems and suggestions were proposed as voices competing to be noticed filled the room. Underknuckle let his staff build up a head of steam then cut them off. "Enough! It's obvious you are all, with the exception of Magnan, completely ignorant of the true nature of the peril about to engulf us all: paperwork." The ambassador plopped his soft corpulence into an executive-issue hip-o-matic powered swivel chair and huffed out a sharp breath to emphasize his displeasure.
"Too much paperwork?" a junior secretary asked.
"No!" Underknuckle roared. "Too little! Recent studies have proven that the success of any mission is determined by the tonnage of paperwork generated by the on-site staff. The greater the amount of paperwork, the more promotions filter down from head office. Last month's shipping manifests disclosed the appalling fact that this mission's output is twenty percent below the bureaucratic average. Underknuckle leaned forward. "I will not tolerate this situation. You will each triple the number of reports generated by your respective offices, and no cheating by duplicating previous studies. I want each document to be original. By the end of next month I expect to break the record Ambassador Grossblunder set during the Beem-Jorgenson conflict."
Faces blanched around the table. Magnan's trembling voice was the first to find itself. "Heavens, sir. That effort stripped the trees off three forest worlds. To top it we'd have to decimate four."
Underknuckle nodded approvingly. "Two coups in one meeting, Magnan? Outstanding. I'm glad to see that in addition to being the first to help resolve this problem by volunteering to immediately generate more paperwork, you also recognize the need for ample logistical support. I'm placing you in charge. Report to me tomorrow with your progress. That is all." The Ambassador stood and stalked out of the room.
Magnan collapsed in his chair. Half the staff eyed him with envy of having won the Chief of Mission's approval, the other half smiled knowingly of the folly of volunteering, or being volunteered, for anything.
Hy Felix patted him on the shoulder. "Don't worry, Ben. You'll soon learn the fine art of keeping a low profile in the conference room."
Ben Magnan scuttled out of the chancellery's rear door with his thin arms wrapped around a large brown paper bag, and ran into what felt like a brick wall. He peered around the edge of the bag to discover he was staring at the waistline of blue overalls stretched over hard muscle. He craned his head to stare up at the space-weathered face of a man in his mid twenties who stood at least six foot three.
The man smiled down at him. "You okay?"
Magnan hastily looked around the enclosed rear of the Terran consulate to Floom. They were alone. Magnan glanced back at the man, took in the firm jaw, broad shoulders leading to strong arms, the scars on the man's knuckles, and hastily drew back. "What... what are you doing back here?" He nodded at the ten-foot wall topped with razor wire that enclosed the rear of the building. "The grounds are supposed to be secure."
The man twisted easily at the hips to regard the wall. "I guess I learned a healthy disregard for barriers when business calls for it." He turned back. "Compared to jumping through the bureaucratic hoops you diplomats force freight carriers through, hopping a wall is simple."
At the mention of paperwork, Magnan's eyes opened in hopeful anticipation. "You have paperwork you need to file?"
The man nodded. "I tried the front door but all the receptionist would do is schedule an appointment three weeks from now to get an appointment to discuss my problem. I need to lift in two days. I thought a rear door might expedite things."
"You're a ship's captain?"
"Pilot-captain of the Odyssey out of Terra. I've got a shipment of energy converters scheduled for delivery on Sphinx in a week. I landed here to give the crew shore leave and now can't depart because a Groaci fleet has jammed the airspace. The tower won't let me move until they depart."
"Hmmm," Magnan said to himself. "Emergency planet lift-off permit, Form G17-a. That's a quadruplicate-copy form requiring extensive justification attachments. I should be able to run it up to a good ten pounds if I use extra heavy paper." The little man's features brightened. "Follow me. We'll get right on it."
He turned and headed back into the building. The larger man didn't move. "What about your trash?'
Magnan tried to draw himself up with dignity, but a weak chin wasted the effort. "Trash? That would be beneath the offices of a third secretary. These are important documents entrusted to me for disposal."
The young man picked up a banana peel that had fallen out of Magnan's bundle and tossed it back in. "Of course." He then plucked the bag from the diplomat's hands and heaved it in an arc that ended in the consulate's gold-plated dumpster, where it landed with a liquid squish. He stepped up to Magnan and held out a callused hand. "My name's Jamie Retief, shall we get to that paperwork?"
They headed into the building.
Retief sat by a window in the bar, savoring a glass of dark Bacchus wine as he stared out at the landscape, what there was of it. Floom's landmass consisted of a single continent one hundred miles in diameter. The Floomians lived in a one-story, mud-structure city that was only a hundred meters wide yet stretched around the entire continent, which was as flat as polished glass. What appeared to be giant turnips covered the plain to the horizon. From time to time, one of these disconnected itself from the soil and began working its way toward the city.
A native bartender glided over to Retief's table. Viewed up close, the Floomian's turnip shape resolved itself into a meter-wide flattened ovoid with a central stalk that ended in a four-inch round sky-blue eye. The creature moved around on a ring of root-like tentacles on the underside of its bulbous body. A second ring of longer, thinner tentacles rose up around the body and held a number wine flasks. "Top off your glass, Retief mon?"
"No thanks, Umzum." This'll do fine." He studied his waiter. The round body was shriveled and covered with an irregular pattern of darkening blotches. "If you don't mind my mentioning it, you look a little droopy today."
Umzum relaxed his walking roots and thumped to the floor. The blue eye hung. "That's a truth, Retief mon." He swung the eye toward the window. "I need to get back to the rooting field and soak up some ozmium."
"I thought you did that two days ago."
"That's a truth, mon." The eye hung lower. "Used to be a day's stay in the field kept a fellow going a month, but what with the topsoil only being ten-inches thick and the population boom there isn't enough left to sustain a bulbling a week. At this rate my race would have been extinct in ten years."
Retief took another sip. "Would?"
"No offense to you, Retief-mon, but your terran friends have granted Floom's mineral rights to the Groaci. The fleet that's grounded you is carrying strip-mining units that are going to scavenge every molecule of ozmium from the soil. After that, I figure we've got two months, max."
"Any place you can get more?"
The Floomian simulated a human sigh by lowering its clasping tentacles halfway to the floor. "It's a complex organo-chemical compound only found on Floom. There's unlimited amounts locked in the bedrock but we have no way to break it loose."
Retief swirled the burgundy liquid in his glass. "You filed a protest at the consulate?"
"President Umtak announced he managed to get an appointment to do so first of next year, sir-mon. Too bad for us it'll be too late."
Retief checked his watch, stood to leave. "I have an appointment with one of the consulate staff. I'll see what I can find out."
Umzum nodded glumly and moved off. Retief headed for the door.
Magnan beamed as Retief strode the office. "You'll be happy to know that your paperwork is done." He said patting a two-foot high stack. "This sets a new record for single-action page count for departure authorization. I finagled to have your case classed as an emergency humanitarian aid mission. That alone took two reams. When combined with my paperclip loss report, Underknuckle is sure to give my weekly efficiency report a gold star."
Retief lifted the top sheet off the stack and appeared to study it. "I understand the Groaci have claimed mineral rights on Floom."
Magnan bobbed his head. "Right. They start landing their harvesters this afternoon and in twenty-four hours the entire continent will be mined."
"Sounds a little rough on the locals."
Magnan shrugged. "Well, yes. But, Underknuckle scored a diplomatic coup by limiting the duration of their stay to only one day. He received a citation for environmental conservation for it."
"Then the Groaci responded by shipping more strip-mining units to one planet than ever in the history of intergalactic operations. In one day the entire surface of Floom will be processed and the Floomians doomed to starvation."
"Put in that light, it does suggest the ambassador's conservation plan is not without flaw."
"The destruction of an entire race doesn't bother you?"
Magnan's features pinched in upon themselves. "Some." He brightened. "But I'm new to the Corps Diplomatique Terrestienne. I'm given to understand that in time you learn to ignore things like responsibility and guilt."
"I'm beginning to understand a lot about Terran policy. How did the Floomians manage to sign away their rights to something they need to survive?"
"Ah. Actually, they didn't. A secretary in the typing pool accidentally entered an X in the 'yes' block instead of the 'no' block of the Groaci's request for mining. Regrettable, but by the time the error was discovered the forms had already been forwarded to Earth Central. By then, of course, it was too late to do anything about it."
"Admitting to an error would look bad on the Ambassador's evaluation?"
Magnan smiled. "You have good insights on diplomatic work. Maybe you should consider a career change."
"It's a seductive offer. I've an uncle who's a con man and another who sells used spaceships. A familial tendency toward cheating might be helpful."
Magnan nodded. "Worthy credentials indeed."
"I think I'll stick to the family shipping business. All we have to worry about are pirates and asteroid belts."
"Probably safer in the long run."
A thunderous rumble shook the building. Magnan and Retief stepped to the window in time to see a Groaci heavy-lift shuttle lower a machine the shape of a combine harvester but five stories tall and as wide as a football field near the edge of city and facing inward toward heart of the continent. Half a minute later, a second harvester joined it, then another. After five minutes the line of harvesters stretched out of sight. Floomians hastily uprooted themselves and scuttled between the towering machines toward the safety of the city.
Magnan pointed at the line of technological megaliths. "Those are new automated Mark-12 mineral harvesters. They use high-power ultrasonics to pulverize the top twenty feet of soil then field extractors pull out whatever materials have been programmed for collection. Each can hold a thousand tons of material before a servicing unit flies in to collect the load. The Groaci plan to girdle the continent and clean it off in a single sweep."
"And the Floomians?"
"Once this prior commitment is satisfied, the corps will start paperwork to address their plight."
"It'll be too late to help them."
Magnan shrugged. "That's the way of the corps: paperwork first followed by vigorous inaction."
"Ever think of trying direct action and forgetting the paperwork? You might get better results and leave less evidence."
Magnan blanched. "No paperwork! That could lead to anarchy!"
Retief smiled. "There's always that hope."
Outside, gathering twilight had lengthened the shadows cast by the low Floomian city. Retief regarded the first harvester that had landed. In the gray of its shadow, a spindly creature with five eyestalks jutting out of the top of its round head stood at a console near one of the massive treads and appeared to be punching buttons. "Perhaps I'll take a look at one of those units for myself," Retief said.
Magnan eyed him. "You wouldn't be considering interfering with corps policy, would you?"
Retief smiled down at him. "I consider all sorts of things. Maybe someday I'll let you in on them over a drink."
Magnan opened his mouth. Retief cut him off by waving his launch release in the air. "Thanks for getting this through channels. Have to go." He sailed out the door.
Magnan dithered a minute, then followed.
Retief stepped up behind the four-foot tall alien and tapped one of its narrow shoulders. The creature spun around so fast three of the five gold-plated eye shields adorning its eyestalks clattered to the ground. Retief picked them up and dropped them into a palm ringed with lobster-like claws. "You dropped these?"
The alien turned all five eyes up to glare at him. "To avoid stealing up behind noble Groaci commander or endure his vengeance, soft one. To state your business here, then to depart faster than immediately."
It produced a small but deadly annihilator-class handgun. Before managing to point it at Retief's middle, the big man's hand snapped out and twisted it loose.
The Groaci stepped back. "You dare attack a peace-loving member of the Groaci military? To reconsider such rash action against your betters, earthling."
Retief idled with the weapon. It discharged, melting a small crater in the soil inches from the Groaci's left foot. The alien jumped to the right. "To be careful, cull of drones. To avoid injuring supreme Commander Slith of Groaci expeditionary force to Floom."
"Sorry. You know how accidents can happen." The gun's muzzle drifted toward the point where the alien's neck connected its head to its greenish torso. "Now, since we're having such a pleasant conversation, why don't you tell me what you're doing?"
The Groaci pulled himself up to its maximum height. "To refuse to discuss classified information."
Retief thumbed the gun's safety off and on a couple of times.
Sweat broke out between the alien's eyestalks. "To agree to some discourse in the interests of intergalactic chumship." He patted the massive tread to the harvester. "To be checking the programming of one of our exhalted harvesters. Everything is programmed as planned. Once started, all operations are automated and require no personal to run. To have nothing else left to do here. To depart myself. Goodbye now!"
The Groaci made to leave but ran into Retief's outstretched arm. "No need to leave yet, you were doing so well." He pointed at the console with the gun. "How does it work?"
"So simple that even a lowly terran could operate it." He pointed a claw at it. "To activate by pressing the large green button, then enter the molecular formula for what you wish to collect. All other activities are preprogrammed."
"You plan on collecting a compound the locals call ozmium?"
"It has unusual properties as a fertilizer. We plan to ship it back to Groaci to boost field production of zerp fungus."
"And the locals?"
Slith shrugged nervously. "To not matter to me what happens to local bucolics after mission complete. Afterward to spend weeks basking in the warm sand pits of home instead of dwelling upon the fate of menials."
Retief looked down the endless line of harvesters. "This seems like a lot of investment for a little fertilizer. Besides, I happen to know the zerp fungus commodities are in a slump because of over production." He placed the gun's muzzle against an eyestalk. "What are you're really up to?"
The Groaci gulped. "To promise not to tell?"
Retief nudged the eyestalk.
"To accept that as agreement. Floom is uniquely positioned to be useful in a military, ah... exercise planned in the near future. Regrettably, it's inhabited."
"So you strip the soil of ozmium, all the Floomians die, and you move in claiming the planet's uninhabited."
"To have a ready grasp of intergalactic politics." Slith edged sideways. "To grant permission to depart?"
Retief slipped the gun into his pocket and nodded. The Groaci scuttled away into the darkness toward the Floomian city. From behind one of the low mud huts, one of his eyestalks extended to watch the earthling.
Retief stood in the darkness, staring down at the softly glowing pads of the control panel. The faintest crunch of gravel brought his hand up with the Groaci's blaster pointed in the direction of the sound. His free hand snapped on a flashlight. Its beam caught Ben Magnan full in the face.
"Oh. Hello there, Retief. Gracious, imagine bumping into you out here." The little man dabbed at perspiration beginning form on his brow. "Some coincidence, isn't it?"
Retief lowered the gun and leaned his head to one side as if re-evaluating Magnan. "Is it?." He turned back to the pad and began stabbing buttons.
Magnan leaned forward to see what he doing. "You wouldn't be interfering with issues best left to professional diplomats, would you?"
Retief closed the panel and strode off toward the next harvester. "I've been accused of worse."
Magnan planted himself square in front of the larger man. "I must insist that you desist in doing whatever it is you are doing. These units belong to the Groaci and I can't permit you to interfere with them least you instigate an intergalactic crisis. That's the job of professional diplomats like myself.
Retief looked down at him. Sweat began dripping down Magnan's forehead. Retief gave him a crooked smile. "You've just given me an idea I may live to regret. But, in the meantime I need your help."
He spun Magnan around and pushed him toward the next harvester's control panel. "Start entering this code," he rattled off a sequence of keystrokes, "and do so to as many harvesters as you can."
"Relax, Ben," Retief said. "Help me with this and I'll clue you into how you can beat Underknuckle's paperwork deadline."
Magnan's face lit up. "Really?" He began punching pads. "Then I'm your man."
Retief gave the line of harvesters a hard look. "There's too many for the two of us reprogram. We need help."
"Perhaps the natives?" Magnan offered hopefully without looking up.
"Mr. Magnan, I think you're finally getting the idea," Retief said and headed off in the direction of Umzum's bar.
Retief sipped at a tankard of malted ale from Kandar as he scribbled out a complex series of keystrokes on a sheet of paper. He handed the sheet to Unzum. "Think you can do it?"
The native quickly bobbed his single eye. "No problems, Retief-mon. I'll got a facsimile transmitter in the back room. It'll be spread around to everyone within the hour and they'll get right on it."
"The Groaci are so confident in their automation technology that the units aren't being guarded so you shouldn't be interfered with. Still, you better jump on it. Those units are due to role at dawn."
"Not to worry, sir-mon. We'll get the job done." Unzum scurried away.
Retief walked over to the window and stared inland, his view of the vast Floomian plain blocked by the wall of harvesters. He took a slow sip of ale, then sighed and keyed his private communicator to life. The image of his second in command took form out of a blur of static. Behind him Retief could make out the Odyssey's control room.
"We're ready to depart. What orders, Captain?"
Retief gave him a wry smile. "There's been a change in plans."
Ambassador Underknuckle leaned back in his chair and laced thick fingers over his bulging middle. "Gentlemen, seldom are we in the diplomatic corps privileged to witness a coup so completely satisfying to all parties involved."
Hy Felix popped up. "Except to our sticky-fingered friends the Groaci?"
Underknuckle frowned, "I disapprove of your use of the invective in such close association with our longtime adversaries, er... , associates, Hy." The Ambassador's smile returned. "But yes. Excepting them everyone's quite pleased. In fact-"
The doors to the conference room burst open and Commander Slith stormed in. "My outrage! My protest! To lodge sternest language against vile terry interlopers who dare intrude themselves into Groaci endeavors!"
"Why Slith, old friend," Underknuckle said. "Whatever can be the matter?"
"To play not the fool with me, littermate of drones. To know perfectly well that Groaci legal rights to collect the ozmium on this planet have been confounded. During the night, agents provocateur in your employ changed the settings of the harvesters. Instead of ozmium, my cargo holds are packed with worthless silicates, which was not discovered until the twenty-four hour time limit had passed. To be ruined! To demand instanter retribution!" The Groaci's throat sacks quivered with rage.
Underknuckle nodded his ponderous head sympathetically. "I see your problem, Slith. But surely you're not implying one of my staff were involved?"
The Groaci thrust a claw in the direction of the far end of the table where Magnan was attempting to cower. "To have seen that one consorting with another terry responsible for assaulting me earlier. To accuse him of interference. To request that he be extradited to Groaci there to entertain the masses as he hangs from punishment hooks prior to his execution."
Magnan turned white.
"Tut, tut," Underknuckle admonished. "I can assure you that even a low-grade diplomat such as Secretary Magnan knows better than to interfere with another race's political endeavors. Isn't that right, Ben?"
Magnan nodded vigorously.
"There you have it, Slith: assurances from both myself and Ben that no one in this mission was involved in your recent contretemps. What more could you ask for?" The Ambassador offered the Groaci an innocent smile.
"To not have heard the end of this, soft ones. To rue the day our paths crossed." Slith turned and stormed out of the room.
Underknuckle turned back to his staff. "Excitable little fellow. I doubt he has much of a career to look forward to unless he can get better control of himself. However, back to more pleasant matters. As the sharper of you may have picked up, some, er... technical malfunction happily prevented the collecting of the Floomian's ozmium. Not only that, but the harvesters broke up the bedrock twenty feet deep releasing enough ozmium to last the natives countless millennium. The Floomian government has forwarded a formal letter of appreciation to the Terran head office and their gratitude, in turn, is filtering back down to us in the form of bonus points on the promotion boards."
"As if that wasn't enough, I'm happy to report that while our paper output hasn't quite matched that of Grossblunder's record, it has succeeded in jamming two shipping lanes to Earth, more than enough to satisfy Earth Central. We can all thank Secretary Magnan for this great victory."
Heads turned toward the junior officer, who lost some of his pallor in the glow of approved attention. He explained: "Someone suggested, that is to say, I had the idea of leveling a requirement on the departing Groaci fleet that they had to match the weight of off-shipped material with paperwork at the rate of one hundred pounds to the ton. They were in such much of a hurry to depart that they complied before checking their holds."
Everyone nodded approval. Underknuckle cleared his throat to redirect attention back to him. "In acknowledgement for his outstanding work, it's my pleasure to inform you all that Ben has been promoted to Second Secretary."
Applause echoed around the room.
"Finally, I'm delighted to announce a new member to the Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne: Third Secretary Jamie Retief."
Retief stepped through a side door, resplendent in the powder-blue slacks and cut-off waist jacket approved for conference meetings before twelve noon on weekdays. "Gentlemen," he nodded in response to a new wave of applause. The hand clapping faded as they stood to shake his hand and discovered that he stood head and shoulders above everyone in the room.
Retief stepped into Magnan's office. "Ambassador Underknuckle has assigned you to be my mentor while I learn the ropes."
Magnan smiled and indicated a chair. "Good to have you on the team, Retief. Although I'm not sure how well your style of diplomacy is going to work."
"I plan to keep a low profile."
"Probably a good idea. Your ship?"
"I promoted my second in command to captain and sent him on his way. We've cut a deal where I provide the ship, he does all the work, and we split the profits."
Magnan nodded. "It's always good to have something to fall back on, just in case." He drummed his fingers on the dark wood of his imported temwood desk, peered out the window, glanced at Retief, then looked away again.
"What's the matter, Ben?"
Magnan stared at him a moment. "Why'd you do it? You were the captain of your own ship. You could have gone anywhere, done anything. What made you decide to join the corps?"
Retief offered the thin man a crooked smile. "The way you folks handled the Floomian affair told me that none of us were safe out here. It reminded me of the old cliché: 'If you can't beat them, join them.' It sounded like the safest thing to do."
"Gracious, Retief. That almost makes us sound like the enemy."
Retief's smile broadened. "Only to those who know you."
by Wayne M. Schmidt
"Gracious," Ambassador Magnan exclaimed looking out the transport ship's portal. "That certainly doesn't look like the focal point of an intergalactic crisis."
A muscular shadow engulfed the Ambassador's slight form as First Secretary Jamie Retief leaned close to peer out at Greenbelt, the planet spinning below them. It was earth-sized, with shallow light blue oceans covering ninety percent of its surface. Two rings of island continents circled the sphere at the sub-tropic zones. Each island had a broad expanse of pure white sandy beach surrounding a lush green interior. The greens were different shades, as if each island supported a single species of plant.
Retief's eyes narrowed. "It's certainly not the sort of real estate the Groaci normally want. I wonder what they're planning?"
"There is no accounting for those five-eyed, sticky-fingered..." Magnan straightened. "That is to say, our esteemed colleagues in the goal of galactic development."
Retief gave him a wry smile. "You had it right the first time."
The ship's intercom bared to life. "The shuttle's ready. Launch's in ten minutes. Git your stuff and selves aboard or wait till the next launch in twenty-five standard hours." It clicked off with a loud electrical pop.
Magnan humphed. "I do wish these ship captains would treat us diplomats with the respect due to members of the Corps Diplomatique Terrestreinne."
Retief turned away from the window with a wry smile. "They almost act as if they know us."
The shuttle bucked as it plowed through the upper atmosphere, then settled down to a smooth arc halfway around the planet to the capital island. Larger than the others, one and two-story buildings painted rainbow colors formed a ring bounded by beach on the ocean side and a park-like garden occupying the entire center of the island. The shuttle put down on a white landing pad outside a low sprawling palace.
Magnan brushed smooth the powder blue waist jacket of his mid-afternoon semi-formal Ambassador's uniform, class three for semi-developed planets. "Well, let us go meet the natives. Humans, I think."
Retief slipped his waist jacket over his broad shoulders. "The first settlers were a university team sent out to study Greenbelt when it was discovered. They were drawn by the fact that it's the galaxy's only planet with a fresh water ocean. They liked the place so much they remained after the study concluded. That was two hundred years ago. Today the planet has a population of one hundred thousand."
Magnan blanched. "And all of the current inhabitants are descended from that small gene pool? Chronic inbreeding must have surely taken toll by now. We will have to remember to talk slowly and use simple words."
"Like a CDT staff meeting?"
Magnan eyed his junior. "I worry that after sixteen years in the CDT you've never fully embraced the Corps."
Retief smiled. "I prefer to keep my suits clean. But you don't have to worry about the locals keeping up. According to the dossier, Greenbelt's immigration laws are strict, only permitting the healthiest, most intelligent people in. The planet itself is a paradise. One small moon circles the planet every five days causing a mild tide that raises the level of the fresh water ocean enough to automatically water crops on the shallow islands. Imported crops pushed out the indigenous species. There are no weeds or pests to worry about. Each island is dedicated to a single crop. The oceans are too shallow to support storms so the weather's always mild."
The shuttle's hatch clanged open. Outside, three men in blue jeans and beige, long-sleeved shirts rolled to their elbows stood facing the ramp. They stood nonchalantly with muscular arms crossed over barrel chests.
Magnan whispered out of the side of his mouth to Retief. "Common stevedores, probably here to help us with our luggage." He raised a pale hand to them. "You there. Hello. Our bags are behind us on the landing. Just come this way, thank you."
The men smiled at each other, shrugged, and walked up the shuttle's extended ramp. The tallest, who came close to Retief's six-foot three, spoke. "You the CDT big wigs?"
"Yes, my good man," Magnan said. "If you'd be so kind..." He extended a hand toward two large trunks behind him.
"Sure. Glad to help." He nodded to his companions who hefted Magnan's trunk to their shoulders and started down the ramp. Magnan followed, imploring them to take care they didn't drop it. The taller man wrapped a ham-sized hand around the handle to Retief's trunk and heaved. Nothing happened. He tensed, corded muscles bulging along his arm. The trunk stained up half an inch then fell back to the floor.
"Allow me," Retief said. He gripped the trunk in both hands and jerked it to his shoulder. "Lead the way."
The man smiled and stuck out a hand. "Name's Gregor. You're not the usual sort of diplomat we see out here."
Retief returned the shake with his free hand. "Retief. You work at the spaceport?" he asked as they started down.
"Near it. I'm Greenbelt's Ambassador. Joe and Mack," he pointed ahead to the two men placing Magnan's trunk into the back of a six-seater pickup truck, "are the chief's of the Department of the Interior and Defense."
"You don't put on much of a front on Greenbelt."
Gregor shrugged. "Waste of time. Out here, a man is judged by the load he can carry and how well he carries it, not what he looks like." He regarded Retief. "I have a feeling you'd fit in."
They came up along side the truck. Retief dumped his load into the bed; the vehicle's suspension sagged. Magnan was on the far side having Mack help him up the step into the rear seat.
"Not sure about him," Gregor said.
"Don't underestimate Mister Magnan. He's famous for bearing up under the paperwork generated by two Consuls."
They got into the truck's front seats and Gregor drove off. Magnan leaned forward. "Retief, I assume these good fellows are transporting us to the official welcoming committee. I must say that I expected them to meet us at the spaceport."
Greger turned around and extended his hand. "Consider yourself met, Ambassador," and made the introductions.
Magnan's eyes bulged. "You're the government's representatives? But-"
Joe gave him a friendly poke in the ribs. "Don't worry about it. We're not stuffy about who does what on Greenbelt. A job's a job. It doesn't much matter what it is, helping a guy with luggage or negotiating a treaty, they all have to be done and rate about the same."
Magnan chewed on this as the truck speed toward the palace, the city's only three-story building. Surrounded by white marble columns that would have shamed the builders of Athens, it glistened in the warm yellow light of Greenbelt's sun.
"Where are you taking us?" Retief asked Gregor.
"To see the queen."
"Queen?" Magnan exclaimed. "You are a monarchy, then?"
"Elected monarchy. Having one leader speeds up decision making and cuts down on overhead. We elect a new sovereign every five years, unless the current ruler turns out to be a dud. In that case we kick them out and hold emergency elections."
"Indeed," Magnan said. "There must be a lot of competition to win an election. To win a king or queen's salary-"
"No salary," Mack explained. "The boss works for free. We found that eliminated a lot of problems. The only people willing to take on the workload are those sincerely interested in helping Greenbelt."
"Why," Magnan said. "What a quaintly simplistic system."
"Don't knock it, bub," Mack said. "It's worked for two hundred years."
"No, No, Of course not." Magnan tried to make himself small.
"Who is the current queen?" Retief asked.
Gregor braked near a broad door on the side of the building facing the spaceport and climbed down. "Ask her yourself. The royal reception chamber's just inside."
Retief and Magnan fell in line behind Gregor. They passed down a short corridor lined with opalescent columns to a broad, high-ceilinged room. A large round oak table dominated its center. A slim figure dressed in soft brown slacks and white cotton shirt bent over it, studying the contents of an open folder.
Gregor made a flourish. "Your highness, I have the honor to present to you the Corps Diplomatique Terresteriene's Ambassador to Greenbelt, Mister Benjamin Magnan and First Secretary Jamie Retief. Gentlemen, her most serene highness Queen Elisabeth Anne Montgomery the First, Ruler of-"
The woman at the table straightened to a full six feet and turned, her waist-length red hair sweeping a wide arc and flowing behind her as she smiled warmly and approached with a hand out. "Call me Becky, Mister Magnan. Like you, I'm just another working stiff," and took Retief's hand.
He returned the smile and without releasing her hand said, "I'm Retief. The Ambassador's behind you."
Her blue eyes flashed mischievously. We'll have to see what we can do about that." She turned and frowned.
"Down here, your highness," Magnan said.
She lowered her eyes and gave him a smile almost as warm as the one offered Retief. "Welcome to Greenbelt, Mister Ambassador. It's a pleasure to have you here."
Magnan bowed low. "The pleasure is mine."
"I assumed that being the Head of Mission you would have arrived with a complete staff."
Magnan's small face pinched uncomfortably. "Yes, well. You see, what with the current situation as regards the Groaci claim to Greenbelt-"
The queen's eyes sparked fire. "They have no claim. We colonized this planet one hundred years before the Groaci knew it existed. Now they come in with a claw full of paperwork saying it's theirs. We won't stand for it. I won't allow it."
Magnan mopped his balding forehead with a handkerchief. "Of course. Of course. I can appreciate your situation. But you have to understand that the galaxy is a big place and in the interests of advancing terran interests it's sometimes necessary to sacrifice certain assets-"
The queen stepped close to him. "Greenbelt is not an asset. It's people and history and land. We'll die here rather than-"
Retief stepped between them. "I sure the CDT prefers to keep the dying to a minimum."
A door slamming open brought their heads around. A Groaci in gold-plated grieves and emerald encrusted eye shields strutted boldly toward them. "To avoid making rash assumptions, soft one," he said to Retief, who towered head and shoulders over the alien's spindly form. "It is well known that natural mass extinctions are beneficial to the development of other species."
"Wing Commander Slith!" Magnan said. "What are you doing here so soon. The approved takeover time table didn't have you scheduled until...." He broke off under the glare from Queen Elizabeth's studied examination. "That is to say that it's always nice to welcome a fellow diplomat."
"That's Planetary Ruler Slith, if you don't mind, Magnan." He held out a crumpled document in a lobster-like claw. "To read this CDT sanctioned Transference of Domain which proclaims me the duly appointed administrator of Greenbelt."
Magnan reached for the document but Slith snatched it back out of reach. "To be honored that you accept my word for it. Now, permit a few of my agricultural assistants to escort you to your rooms where you will await my pleasure."
Twenty Groaci carrying Mark IV crater guns marched into the room, their body armor clinking with each step. The tallest of the group snapped to attention. "Sir, Squad leader Sinth at your command."
"To lock up these interlopers immediately."
"Aye, sir," Sinth exclaimed and turned to his squad. "To require volunteers. The first six in line, step forward."
The selected volunteers goggled each other with their eye stalks briefly, then assembled in front of Sinth. "To form pairs, each to take one earthling. Remaining troops will remain on guard around the palace."
The Groaci paired up and herded Elizabeth, Magnan and Retief off down a hallway to the left.
"Gracious," Magnan said over his shoulder to Retief. "My duty here may end up being the shortest Chief of Mission assignment in CDT history."
"Let's hope it isn't because yours is about to become one of the shortest careers."
Elizabeth led the way with Sinth and two guards struggling to keep up with her long-legged pace. She stopped abruptly, causing the guards to crash into each other. As they scrambled to their feet, Sinth stammered out in broken English, "To demand to know why you stopped without warning, vile trespasser on newly claimed Groaci property?"
She stepped close and jabbed a red lacquered nail into his bony thorax. "These are my quarters, and if you don't mind I prefer to inhabit them alone." Without waiting for approval, she pushed open the door, stepped inside, and slammed it in their faces.
The Groaci fluttered throat sacks in indignation, a lost gesture since it was made to a locked door. "To remain on guard here, litter mates of drones," Sinth yelled at the two guards. "To be watchful. If she escapes, you'll rake waste nubs out of my sand pit until your execution date"
They flanked the door, guns at the ready.
Sinth turned all five eyestalks toward Magnan and Retief and glared. "To be wise and cooperate, soft ones. To remember how common it is for Groaci weapons to misfire."
All four remaining guards had their guns pointed at the earthling's midsections.
Magnan bobbed his head. "Oh, yes. We know how accidents like that can happen and are only too glad to avoid doing anything that might precipitate an unfortunate incident."
Sinth nodded, then eyed Retief. "And you?"
"The last thing I want is for a gun to go off in the wrong direction."
"Guards," Sinth said. "Lock them up," and stormed away.
They shoved Retief through the next door, which turned out to be a guest suite and after securing the window and ripping the phone out, locked him in. He listened as the guards marched Magnan into the suite to his right.
Retief counted to one hundred to let the guards' attention drift then examined the room. It was a standard diplomatic suite with rich temwood furnishings, deep soft Yalkan feather bed, and gold fittings in the bathroom. He studied the Slague chrome steel lock on the window, grabbed the edge of the sill and heaved upward. Muscles tensed along his arms and across his back. There was a splintering sound and the window flew up.
Retief eased out of the window. Off to the left, the clattering of Groaci armor gave away the outside guards' positions. Keeping flat to the wall, he worked his way to the next window on the right. He peered in and saw Magnan pacing. Retief grabbed the frame of the window's top sill and pulled down. The wood shattered and the window slid open.
Magnan jumped, then relaxed as Retief climbed in. "Are you okay?"
"Yes, of course," Magnan answered. "Heaven's, Retief. You've smudged your suit, to say nothing of violating the security Slith set up for our safety."
"And here I thought we were being held prisoner."
"Not at all, my dear boy. I'm sure that as a career diplomat himself, Slith has the greatest concern for our safety."
"I didn't know we were in danger."
Magnan scuffed his feet. "Well, no. But I'm certain he has his reasons."
"So do I and I intend to find out what they are." Retief turned back toward the window.
"Oh, Retief. You wouldn't be thinking of interfering with Slith's plans? That is... ah... "
Retief turned back. "What are you trying to tell me without telling me?"
Magnan mopped his brow. "Well, it's just possible that Slith does have some justification for his claim."
"Now that you mention it, I suppose so."
"We gave him Greenbelt?"
"No! Of course not. At least, it wasn't our idea. We really had no choice. Slith showed up at Headquarters a month ago with perfectly filled out paperwork transferring control of this sector to the Groaci Sphere of influence, in quintuplicate no less. There was nothing we could do."
"How about saying 'no'?'"
Magnan blanched. "Good Lord, Retief. Surely you can't suggest the CDT would descend to taking a direct action by openly confronting a problem? You should know by now that we employ subtler approaches."
"Like giving the enemy everything they want and hoping they'll go away?"
Magnan's eyebrows raised in bewilderment. "Of course. It's worked in the past."
"Except for the settlers on the planets we sacrificed."
Magnan shifted uncomfortably. Retief slipped the rest of the way out of the window. Magnan rushed forward and whispered to him. "Do be careful. And if you happen to meet Planetary Director Slith, don't forget to give him my regards."
"It'll be the first thing I do, right after I get out his line of fire."
Retief bent low and crept along the wall, keeping in its shadow. The clinking of Groaci armor came from all directions in the compound, but they guards were out of site. He passed under the Queen's quarters and made for a pair of French doors just beyond her window. Through the panes of the doors, he watched as Slith bent low over the reception room's central table, studying large sheets of paper. A guard came in, made a report, and Slith stormed out of the room. Retief opened the door and stole over to the table.
The papers held diagrams of the Greenbelt system showing the sun and the only other planet, as desert world, a quarter of the way further out than Greenbelt. In close solar orbit, he picked out two dozen specks too carefully spaced to be natural planetoids. Retief glanced through a status report, nodding grimly to himself. Off to the right, he heard the clatter of metal grieves on chitinous shins. Slith was returning.
Retief ducked out the French doors and silently made his way back to the Queen's quarters. He tapped on the window. Elizabeth appeared instantly, her hair fiery red even in the dim light of dusk. Off to his left, the sound of armor grew loud.
She threw up the sill. "Get in, quick."
Retief dove in and she lowered the window. He climbed to his feet. "They didn't lock you in?"
"They tried after securing you two." She held up a letter opener. "As a girl I made a hobby out of picking locks.
"Your highness is a woman of hidden talents."
Her eyes flashed with mischief. "Wait 'till you get to know me better."
Illumination from Groaci flashlights shown in through the window. Retief ducked out of site just as a Groaci head, resembling a human fist with five eyestalks stuck on it, thrust itself against the window. The queen walked over, smiled sweetly, and jerked the drapes closed.
Retief stepped to her side. "We need a spaceship."
"There's the Imperial barge."
"I was hoping for something with a little speed and muscle."
She grinned. "We don't call her Intimidator for nothing. Follow me."
She opened the window, listened and leaned out. The guard was just rounding the corner of the building and moving out of site. "Now!" she whispered and gracefully slipped down. Retief followed.
They hit the ground running. A short sprint got them to the compound's perimeter. Retief easily heaved her up over the wall to the spaceport and jumped over after her. She dashed across the dimly lit field to a long shadowy mound. Far beyond it, he could make out the bright running lights on three Groaci cruisers scattered across the landing field.
Elizabeth swarmed into an open port and threw on an interior light. In its glow, Retief saw what the imperial barge was and smiled. He clamored in after her. "Some barge," he said as he caught up to her.
"Out on a rim planet, you have to be practical. Although Intimidator's trimmed out with enough luxuries to bed a hundred dignitaries, she's equipped with a full arsenal: paired MacPherson infinite-repeating plasma guns fore and aft, Jorganson planet-wreckers amidships, and twenty phased beam cannons to fill in the blank spots. Hull armor's half a meter thick and she's got enough legs to outrun anything in the sector, certainly anything the Groaci can throw at us."
A frantic rattling outside caught their attention. Retief glanced through the hatch and quickly slammed it shut. "Company."
A hollow ting sounded through the bulkhead as one Groaci unloaded a crater gun at the ship.
Retief hurried forward toward the control room. "Sounds like the Groaci are following their policy of shooting first and making up the answers after the evidence is buried. We'd better lift."
Elizabeth dashed around him. "I'll fly, you take weapons."
They burst into the control center: a small round cabin filled with glowing red, orange and yellow lights and a sweeping window providing an unobstructed view forward. Elizabeth threw herself into the captain's chair in the center of the room and began pounding actuators. Indicator lights blazed green as the great ship came to life. Retief had just settled in front of the weapons consul when Intimidator surged upward on flaming thrusters. Down below, Groaci scattered in panic.
Elizabeth slammed the engine controls to max and the ship thundered into space. "Where to?" she asked.
"Straight into the sun."
She threw him a sideways look, but punched in the coarse. The ship spun on its axis and dove toward the tiny blazing sphere now beaming through the forward portal.
She swiveled in her chair. "What gives?"
"I happened to catch a glimpse of Slith's plans for Greenbelt. The Groaci have orbited twenty-four huge reflectors close to your sun. They intend to redirect solar energy toward Greenbelt to raise its temperature thirty degrees."
The queen blanched. "That'll cook our planet and kill every thing on it."
Retief nodded. After the oceans evaporate all that'll be left will be hot sand, perfect for the Groaci."
Determination hardened her eyes. "And we're going in to destroy the reflectors."
"It's not that simple. If we did, the Groaci would simply replace them, after reducing this ship and us into disassociated atoms."
"Then what can we do?"
Retief smiled. "I have an idea."
The ship sped toward Greenbelt's sun.
Blinding light poured in through the portal. Elizabeth straightened in her chair. "We must be there."
Outside, Greenbelt's sun blazed with unrelenting brilliance. Off it's left limb, a solid dark circle with a diameter ten times Intimidator's length rapidly grew until it filled the view port. A burst of light irrupted from its top edge and the ship bucked.
"The Groaci must have installed automated defense systems," Retief said. "The reflectors are too close to the sun to be permanently manned." He keyed a targeting program into his console and Intimidator jumped as a salvo of white-hot plasma swept toward the disc, vaporizing its weapon. Space fell silent.
"Looks like you got it," she said.
"That was the easy part. Now it's your turn. Take us around and dock with the servicing module on the back side."
She swung the ship around the plain of the disk and nudged into the docking bay. Retief hurried out of the cabin. "It'll take me ten minutes. If anyone shows up, break seal and get out of here."
He returned nine minutes later. "One down, twenty-three to go. Fire her up, we've got three hours before the system's due to come on line."
She rammed the throttle to full. "That'll be cutting it close. Intimidator's fast but we've a lot of space to cover."
The ship blasted away from the reflector.
They docked to the last reflector with half an hour to spare. Retief ran for the port. "Looks like our luck's going to hold-"
Intimidator slammed sideways, throwing Retief and Elizabeth to the deck. She jumped up and studied the sensor console. "We've got three incoming ships. It's my guess they figured out what we were doing and waited here until we showed up."
Retief hurled himself out of the cabin. "As soon as I get outside I'll seal the port. Take off immediately."
"Right," she said.
Retief ran through the ship and out through the hatch, slowing only long enough to hammer the close switch on the outside hull.
He hurried down the short docking umbilical to the small programming room at the disc's heart. On his left was a computer consul built into the wall. He began entering the now familiar keystrokes required to reprogam the disk's aiming protocols. Twice, he felt shutters vibrate through the disk's structure. "Damn that girl," he said through gritted teeth. He fisted the large green actuate pad, waited for the light to turn amber indicating that the new coordinates had been accepted and then smashed the console so it couldn't be reprogrammed. Turning to the defensive system, he rammed its control bar all the way over from resist to annihilate, as he had in the other reflectors, and welded it in place with a hand blaster. He ran from the room.
As he'd figured, Intimidator was still docked. He broke seal just long enough to slip through and yelled forward. "I'm in! Get us out of here."
Sudden acceleration slammed him into a bulkhead. Sounds of ripping metal echoed through exterior plating as the ship tore loose from the docking port without disengaging. Retief struggled to his feet and pressed forward. Intimidator swung left, right, up and down in a series of jarring maneuvers. Between sudden shifts in direction, the hull reverberated from multiple impacts.
Retief struggled forward and dove into the weapon's chair. "Status?"
Tension put an edge to her voice. "Three cruisers have us surrounded. A larger fourth ship is stationed between us and Greenbelt."
Retief's fingers flew over the fire control panel. "Take us straight for the larger ship."
She pulled hard to port and Intimidator's cannons opened up on the three cruisers. They exploded in showers on incandescent embers.
The queen smiled over her shoulder at him. "Isn't vaporizing the Groaci fleet going to create something of a diplomatic incident."
He shrugged. "Paperwork'll be a little tricky, but I've handled worse."
"I bet you have-"
The ship slammed hard to port and the lights dimmed.
"What was that?" she asked.
Retief, studied his readouts. "My guess would be Hellbore plasma cannon, at least a ten-ton caliber. We're facing a Groaci battleship."
"Can we take her?"
"Only one way to find out."
Retief triggered every weapon on board in a blinding broadside.
Outside, the Groaci ship reeled as the discharge collided with it. The great ship began to yaw.
"How are we doing?"
A fist hammered Intimidator. The lights faded even more. Half the ship's indicators flashed red, then went out.
Retief pursed his lips. "We've hurt her, but not as much as they have us. There's only one chance-" He jumped to her control board and began throwing switches. Their ship's drift became more pronounced and they picked up an end for end tumble. Finally, he smashed the palm of his hand onto the internal power control switch. Intimidator fell into darkness.
She stared at Retief. "You're faking our death?"
He smiled. "I certainly hope that's the case."
Retief leaned against a bulkhead by the front view panel and relaxed. "Peaceful, isn't it."
Elizabeth joined him and placed a hand on his arm. "Yes, for as long as it lasts."
Intimidator's slow tumble gave them a sweeping view of the stars, one of the reflectors, Greenbelt's sun, and finally the aft end of the Groaci battleship. At the moment its central engine nozzle was fully framed in the port, Retief calmly walked over to the fire control panel and pressed one button. Intimidator's forward plasma gun fired a salvo directly into the Groaci ship's open exhaust. It tore into the engine, exploding the fuel bays. The ship disintegrated in blue-white brilliance.
Debris showered Intimidator, gouging its hull.
She clapped her hands. "It worked! How-"
"I charged the weapons before shutting off the power. To the Groaci it looked as if we were dead. They turned away exposing their one weak point."
Elizabeth and Retief struggled to get her back on course back to Greenbelt, but the best they could do was a slow crawl.
"Heaven's, Retief," Magnan said. "Who could imagine such a turn of events?"
"I'm sure whoever it was wouldn't want to admit it." Retief responded.
Magnan eyed his junior warily. "This affair has the flavor of your unorthodox methods of diplomacy. You wouldn't happen to know anything about it?"
Retief pulled the blue velvet tail jacket of his CDT issue suit for wearing at super-ultra formal occasions and smiled. "How could I? As I explained, Becky&ldots; that is Queen Elizabeth and I, were marooned on the imperial barge for a month until we drifted back close enough to Greenbelt to be spotted. For once I have the perfect alibi."
Magnan squinted at him, then brightened and looked around at the palace's reception hall. Groaci officials resplendent in their gaudiest eye shields chatted with high-ranking CDT diplomats and representatives from the closest neighboring planets.
Magnan sighed happily. "It's going to be a major hallmark in my career, the way things turned out. While the accidental destruction of the Groaci fleet during practice maneuvers was unfortunate, saving Greenbelt and creating a new world capable of habitation is all being credited to me. To bad you were adrift in space while all of this was happening. Gracious, whatever did you find to do for a whole month in a dark ship? As I understood it, there was barely enough light to see your hand in front of your face."
Retief smiled. "We made up games to pass the time."
"Well, I'm just glad you made it back safely. It was fortunate the Groaci accidentally aimed their reflectors at the second planet instead of Greenbelt. It's even larger than this planet and because it was already a desert planet, they won't have to wait so long to move in. Odd they didn't think of that in the first place."
Retief leaned in. "They probably wanted to Groaci-form Greenbelt to get rid of the human inhabitants then work on the other planet at their leisure. As it is, they'll have to settle for one."
Magnan's face darkened. "Greenbelt won't be safe with a Groaci planet so close."
Retief indicated the stage. "I think her highness is about to address that issue."
Queen Elizabeth, gowned in flowing white that shimmered in the palace lighting, stood for attention. "Ladies and gentlemen, diplomats and officers...." she began.
Magnan whispered at Retief. "Strange that she separated those groups."
Retief smiled. "You think so?"
The queen continued. "Thank you all for coming here tonight. As you know, the Groaci have agreed to work with the citizens of Greenbelt to improve conditions on the system's out-laying planet. Thanks to their efforts that planet, now named New Groaci, will be ready to accept settlers in one month."
A light applause echoed across the hall.
"Additionally, their action has pointed out the need we rim planets have for a unifying body to insure that each planet's sovereign rights are upheld. For that reason we are again indebted to them because I am happy to announce that earlier this afternoon, nine neighboring planets have formed an alliance to do just that. Due to a regrettable oversight, the Groaci delegation did not receive their invitations until it was too late for them to attend. However, now that the alliance exists, and I should point out has assembled a sizable defense fleet to enforce the status quo, they are cordially invited to join."
Loud applause irrupted from everyone in attendance&ldots; except the Groaci who stood in stunned silence.
"Retief," Magnan exclaimed. "Did you hear that? I'm certain I can claim some responsibility for the alliance. My career portfolio is looking better by the minute."
The queen waited for the applause to die down. "On a personal note, I'm delighted to be able to share an important announcement with all of you."
Retief slipped a folded sheet of paper out of a breast pocket and handed it to Magnan. "You better read this, Ben."
Magnan, unfolded it, read, and his eyes bulged. "Retief! You're resigning? You can't. What will you do? Where will you live?"
"I've secured a job here on Greenbelt. It's going to take a lot of time so I've decided it's only fair to resign from the CDT."
"Job?" magnan asked. "What job could be so tempting as to lure you away from the glorious life of a diplomat."
Everyone around them caught their breath and a hush fell over the crowd. Retief and Magnan turned toward the stage. Queen Elizabeth had placed her hands on her tiara, gently lifted it off, and placed on a velvet cushion behind her. "I am hereby abdicating my office and bestowing those duties on my husband to be and Greenbelt's next king, His Royal Highness Jamie Retief."
Retief turned long enough to shake Magnan's hand and then pushed through the crowd to join her on the stage. A moment of stunned silence passed, then the audience exploded with applause.
Retief and Magnan leaned over glasses filled with the finest Bacchus Brandy. The crowd had departed and they were sharing a final drink.
"What ever will I do without you, Retief?"
"Elizabeth and I discussed that while we were adrift."
Magnan gave him an eye.
Retief shrugged. "We discussed many things. The upshot is that the new alliance would have more clout back at CDT headquarters if it had a permanent representative on Greenbelt. We hoped you'd take the job. It would be a great way to finish off your career. Besides, you'll never find a nicer place to live. Who knows, we may even find a potential Mrs. Magnan for you."
"A permanent post? It's tempting." Magnan sipped his drink several times, then smiled. "I accept. I figure you'll need me around to help you out with delicate diplomatic situations."
Retief laughed and finished his drink. "I wouldn't want to work with anyone else." He shook Ben's hand and stood.
"You're leaving? It's early."
"The queen and I are going to work on some joint maneuvers."
"Ah, yes. The alliance's new fleet." He stood as well. "Perhaps I could be of assistance."
Retief waved him back down. "Thanks, but no. This is strictly an internal affair... something best kept under covers."
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