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By the Horns (Chapter Cover Art)

Chapter 58 - By the Horns[]

TDF Field Headquarters
Tabernas Wastelands, New Vallis
Taurian Concordat
November 22nd, 3025

Edward kept all expression removed from his face as the guards ushered in the ‘delegate’ from Michael Hasek-Davion. The officer was dressed in the field uniform of the AFFS—albeit covered with dust—although he lacked any (visible) weapons. And at that thought, Edward’s lips did twitch; his guards would certainly have made sure that there were no hidden weapons as well. In fact—and now Edward smiled a grim smile—he was reasonably certain his guards had strip-searched the man outside . . . and done a cavity search in addition to a complete scan for metal, ceramic, or plastic objects that could be used as a weapon.

The man—one Colonel Malachi Russert—stopped some distance away from Edward and he came to attention and rendered a smart salute.

Edward did not return it, nor did any of his officers. As the silence grew oppressive, Russert slowly lowered his hand and he stood there at parade rest.

“I understand that you bear a message for me?” the young Taurian asked as he poured himself a glass of water—and did not offer the messenger any.

“I do, Lord Calderon,” Malachi answered. And Edward’s lips twitched again.

“My rank is Subaltern, Colonel—you will use that title to address me. I should note, however, that it is Marshal Cory Calderon who commands the defenses of New Vallis,” he said with a nod of his head to the older man seated beside him.

“Here to beg your way out of the trap, FedRat?” Cory asked. “You can surrender now and be sent to a penal colony for five years—or you can dance at the end of a noose.”

Malachi nodded and then he smiled. “The problem with that is . . . I work for Quintus Allard, Marshal Calderon—Subaltern Calderon.”

Edward arched one eyebrow. “Really? I suppose that you have some code phrase which can confirm that?”

“I do—but you are not likely to possess the challenge,” Malachi answered. “However, if you can contact New Avalon my story will be confirmed.”

“We are under an Interdiction, Colonel Russert,” Edward replied. “That would be a bit difficult to accomplish—however, we have no need to contact New Avalon to confirm your story,” and he nodded to one of the guards who left the command tent. Only to return a moment later with Ardan Sortek in tow.

“Marshal Sortek!” Malachi snapped as he came to attention.

“It’s Colonel Sortek—commanding officer of the Foxhounds mercenary battalion.” He paused and considered the man and then he shrugged. “I’ve never seen him before—but the AFFS is a large organization and if he works for Minister Allard I doubt that I would have encountered him.”

“He claims to have a recognition phrase, Ardan,” Edward said. “You do know those, correct?”

“Some of them,” Ardan answered with a frown. “Hello darkness, my old friend.”

“You would pick that one,” muttered Malachi. “Life is a lemon and I want my money back.”

Ardan nodded. “It’s a valid counter-challenge, Lord Calderon.”

Edward leaned back in his chair. “Tell me then, mister secret agent-man—why is Michael Hasek-Davion still alive?”

Malachi flushed hotly. “I didn’t—and I don’t—have authorization to terminate the brother-in-law of the First Prince, the Duke of New Syrtis.”

“And if you had authorization? Would Michael be dead—or would you still be in his command staff wondering how the hell you are going to escape?” Edward asked bluntly.

The Davion officer jerked, his jaw dropped, his eyes widened. And then he bit his lip and forced himself to calm down. “If Hanse Davion issued an order for me to kill Michael, Subaltern, then Michael would be dead right now.”

“Fair enough,” Edward answered. “Why did he send you here?”

“To convince you that we are not invading the Concordat—that the Fusiliers are refugees seeking asylum from the tyranny of Hanse Davion,” Malachi answered with a slight smile.

“I would be a fool to believe that—do you think I am a fool, Colonel Russert?” Edward asked.

“No.” The Colonel paused and then he sighed. “As a fall-back, Michael offers to give you the Fusiliers on a silver platter—in exchange for transport off-world to a . . . ‘neutral’ power. For himself and a handful of trusted aides.”

“Ah,” Edward sighed as he considered the officer. “Why would Michael think I would consider such a deal—when I have the troop strength and firepower to defeat his Fusiliers without letting the Rat go?”

Malachi exchanged a glance with Ardan, who nodded, and then he sighed. “Because he is offering you the accumulation of two decades of dirty little secrets of the Davion family and their government. Secrets that will—would—cause Hanse Davion great difficulties at home and abroad.”

“Tempting,” Edward mused, but then he tapped the desk top. “But it is rather like trusting a snake. Frankly, I’d rather see him hung than risk getting bitten.” And then the heir to the Protector smiled again. “He does command a great loyalty—the majority of his forces are following him to their doom.”

“Duke Michael doesn’t trust the common soldier, Subaltern,” Malachi answered. “Only the vetted crews of the DropShips and command-level officers heard your broadcast—the vast majority of low-ranking officers, NCOs, and enlisted personnel are not even aware the Eighth hasn’t made their landing on schedule.”

Now Edward frowned and he sighed. “We need your radio encryptions in that case, Colonel—I will give your . . . common soldiers . . . one more chance at preserving themselves. After that, when your water starts running low,” Edward shrugged. “That is when we will attack and annihilate Michael and his Fusiliers.”

“He is expecting that.”

“I do not doubt it, Colonel. You have his latest troop dispositions?”

Malachi nodded. “As of two hours ago,” and then he paused. “The crew aboard my VTOL are fanatically loyal to His Grace—and the bird is armed.”

Several of guards drew in a quick breath of air, but Edward just nodded. “Ardan?”

“Foxhound Actual to Hound Three Six—take the chopper,” the AFFS officer turned mercenary (officially, at least) spoke into a microphone. And from outside the tent came the roar of autocannon and the scream of missiles . . . and a lone VTOL on a pad half a kilometer away simply disintegrated under the weight of fire of an entire company of the once-and-future Davion Heavy Guards.

Edward smiled again. “They will present no threat to this headquarters, Colonel Russert. Show me where Michael is deploying—and tell me what his plans are.” he ordered.

And with a sigh, Malachi walked over to the map. “The Duke has deployed in three separate formations that are moving east-north-east along this line of ad- . . ..” he began.

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