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The Grantholder's Palace was five hundred meters ahead of Milligan when the artillery prep landed, just as planned. The first rounds were high-capacity shells detonated by zero-delay nose fuzes, so that the blasts blew chunks from the exterior walls instead of going off inside the six-story building. The shockwaves rocked Milligan about a second after the orange flashes.

The shells were to provide entry for the assault squad, not to kill the occupants. The squad would do the killing.

The city's power grid went out at the same time, though occasional vehicle headlights marked the streets Milligan skimmed over. The AI of Milligan's suit sharpened the amplified-light view of the palace with mapped images from the data bank. So far as the squad was concerned, this mission was a scramble with no time for practice, but the intelligence base was remarkably complete. Somebody'd known what was coming.

The windmilling figure in powered battle armor flung skyward by the ground-floor shellburst wasn't part of anybody's plan. The cyborg who was supposed to go in low on the south face while Milligan hit the top floor had hot-dogged. He got to the target just as the entry salvo did, and the shockwave flung him out of control.

The cyborg had a name, all four of them did, but the humans of the squad's Fire Team One used letter calls in the rare instances they had anything to say to members of the other fire team. This cyborg was Gamma. He was at roof height, flailing in smoke and the debris of terra-cotta cladding, when the remainder of the artillery prep arrived: cargo shells delivering anti-armor sub-munitions to clear the palace-roof defenses.

The Grantholder had a small particle-beam weapon and a pair of powerful lasers, all in separate turrets. The sub-munitions chose specific targets and punched self-forging fragments through them, destroying the weapons and killing the crews.

The blast-formed uranium projectiles riddled Gamma's powered battle armor with similar ease. The scuttling charge sucked the suit in with a white flash and a blast more powerful than those of the artillery rounds.

"My shell was a dud!" shouted Porter. "Cap'n, shall I cut my own?"

A shell that didn't burst would only knock a head-sized hole in the light brick that covered the building's load-bearing concrete frame. Porter could blow an entrance in the wall herself, but she'd have to hover on her jets while she did so. That would make her an easy target for everybody in the Gendarmery camp adjoining the palace to the north and east.

"Hit the ground floor south, Porter!" Milligan called. He paused before the smoke-streaming hole, a rectangle three meters wide framed by concrete beams, revectored his jets, and jumped for his own entrance five stories up.

"Roger that, Porter!" Wittvogel agreed. Porter was already correcting her curved approach to bring her around to the south of the building.

Porter had been supposed to go in on the east side of the fifth story. Captain Wittvogel had the roof and Platt—who was new, plenty of simulator time but no combat missions—would take the fourth story, believed to be servants quarters.

The cyborgs had the three lower stories and the basements, as much as anything to keep them out of the way of the humans of Fire Team One. The cyborgs weren't really squad members any more than they were really human. They didn't take orders well, and they didn't worry about damage to friendlies so long as their own kill rate stayed high. Putting Porter in with Fire Team Two was dangerous, but not as dangerous as wobbling fifteen meters in the air like a shooting-range pop-up.

The hole into the top floor was identical to the one at ground level. Because the building's cladding didn't support any weight, it was the same thickness at all levels. The palace had its own generator. Lights were on inside, though they merely backlit swirls of smoke from bedding ignited by the shellburst. The suit switched to Imaging Infra-Red before Milligan had a chance to.

Milligan hesitated in the air, letting gravity and his upward inertia come into balance before he made the next move. He jetted his suit forward, chopping the fuel-feed with the same motion. When his foot touched the crossbeam, he was walking rather than flying.

There were three doors into the huge bedchamber by which Milligan entered the palace. The explosion had blown off the doorpanels. Somebody stepped into the center doorway, shouting a question. Milligan riddled him/her with the railgun in his right forearm. He meant it for a short burst, but he fired a full hundred rounds before the AI shut the circuits down to cool.

OK, he'd been spooked, but he was all right n—

Movement in both the other doorways. Snap-shot right, railgun again but the trigger-pull as gentle as a mother's kiss. The target was wearing a breastplate that absorbed kinetic energy from Milligan's ring penetrators. As a result, they flung the body backward instead of simply killing him/her.

The local in the left doorway fired an electron beam. Milligan's sensor displays flared white, though the internal read-outs didn't jump.

Later in the mission there might have been a problem, but for the moment Milligan's suit was in blueprint condition. The shielding held. His weapon switches were live, however. A transient tripped a pulse from the laser in Milligan's left forearm, pointed at nothing in particular.

The palace's interior walls had a cinder block core. That glowed white when the laser ripped the sheathing away. Upholstery and ornate wooden furniture exploded into flame. The local ducked or was driven back by the fireball. Freed from the electron beam's overload, Milligan's sensors clicked back on.

He fired a short burst waist-high through the wall—the core was tough, but it wouldn't stop depleted-uranium ring penetrators moving at 5.5 kph. The local staggered into the open again, stumbling over his/her dropped electrogun.

This time Milligan's laser was aimed and waiting. His pulse ripped the target.

Milligan strode through the corpse, burst by its own super-heated body fluids, and into the large office beyond. His shoulder jounced the edge of the doorway, deforming the metal jamb and crumbling cinder blocks.

The suit had switched back to straight optical. The carets Milligan didn't have time for indicated there were people in the office, half a dozen of them, ducking behind desks and consoles. Trying to hide, trying to find cover from which to snipe at the unexpected intruder . . .

Milligan toggled his weapons' switch to frag, pointed with his left little finger to select a five-meter range, and twitched the finger six times across the arc of the room.

The anti-personnel grenades choonked from the launcher on his left shoulder. They burst in the air with saffron flashes, hurling out a sleet of glass whiskers. The shrapnel wouldn't do more to powered battle armor than buff the paint, but it carved flesh from the bones of unprotected humans.

When screaming figures leaped from where they'd hidden, Milligan snapped railgun projectiles through them to finish the job. Because of Ambassador Razza's orders, he didn't want to rake the consoles themselves with his penetrators.

Porter had a friend in the Earth Embassy here on Monticello. For 'friend' read 'lover'. Milligan didn't know which sex, and that sure-hell wasn't a question he was going to ask Porter.

While the squad suited up for the mission, Porter said, "You bet Razza wants to keep this operation secret. She wants to secretly transfer Dupree's credit accounts to her own bank."

The cyborgs must have heard the comment, but none of them reacted. Even if true, it was non-essential information so far as they were concerned, like the color—gray-green—of the walls here in the embassy basement.

Milligan looked at her. "Do you know that?" he'd asked.

"Do I know the sun's going to come up tomorrow?" Porter sneered. She was blond, stocky and very short—less than a meter-fifty. Maybe because of that, Porter made a point of being the toughest person in any group. With the force multiplier of her powered battle armor, she could come pretty close.

Platt stared at Porter and said, "No, Corporal. It's a secret mission because until we get the proof that the Grantholder is communicating with the Throgs, Grant Dupree is still an ally so we can't move openly. Don't you remember? The ambassador explained it all herself."

Even Milligan blinked at that. Porter shook her head and said, "My God, kid, you really are as stupid as you look." She rapped her knuckles on the concrete wall. "Here, I'd like to sell you this building, hey? A nice, solid place. You can make a bundle on resale."

Platt blushed. "There's no call to insult me just 'cause I'm new," he said.

"Porter, Platt," Captain Wittvogel said. "Get your gear on, all right? We load on the truck in one-five minutes, and I want time to bring everything up to spec if it doesn't check out."

A plus of the mission was that they didn't have to insert from orbit. A slightly modified civilian semi-trailer would carry the squad to within a klick of the unsuspecting target.

"You won't have to wait for me," Porter muttered, slapping closed the inspection port on her railgun magazine. As she tested joint movement manually, she went on, "Look, Platt, there's no way Razza would come in on this drop with us if it was Hegemony intelligence we were after. This is for her bank account, pure and simple, and she doesn't trust anybody else to oversee that."

"Corporal," Captain Wittvogel said.

Porter grimaced but didn't turn to face him.

"Corporal," Wittvogel repeated.

The captain was tall and rangy. The gray in his reddish hair could have been a genetic quirk, but he certainly wasn't a kid. He didn't raise his voice often, but neither did he expect to be ignored.

Porter turned and braced to attention. "Sir," she said.

"Politics aren't our job, Corporal," Wittvogel said softly. "OK?"

"Sorry, sir," Porter agreed. "I—mission nerves, I guess. I talk too much."

Captain Wittvogel grinned tightly. "If you weren't nervous," he said, "I'd think you didn't have the sense God gave a goose. But don't let's go spooking the newbie, OK?"

The squad finished check-out and suiting up without further discussion, except for the cyborgs. Two of them argued about whether or not the greater hardness of tungsten penetrators was a good trade-off for the higher sectional density of depleted-uranium railgun ammo.

If there'd ever been a time to worry about the why of this mission, that time had ended when the sides of the semi fell down and the assault squad launched from the heart of Dupree City. Right now, Sergeant Terrence Milligan shared a building with over a hundred people who wanted him dead. It wasn't just Ambassador Razza's orders to 'Leave no witnesses!' that kept his trigger fingers twitching.

The office proper was clear. Enhanced IIR, reading body temperatures through the walls, indicated a swarm of locals in the chamber beyond. Heat from the grenade blasts had melted a fusible link, sliding an armored fire door across the double-width archway joining the rooms.

"Milligan!" Captain Wittvogel ordered. "Prep an entrance down to five, but don't blow it yet!"

"Sir, I haven't cleared—" Milligan began, though his hands were already unlimbering one of the three frame charges he carried for this mission.

"Now, dammit!" Wittvogel ordered. "I know what's clear, and I know nobody's dealt with five yet!"

Milligan flopped the charge on the flooring, hardwood over a base of structural concrete. He spaced his weapons' selector down one and toggled on external.

A local fired an anti-armor grenade that punched a head-sized mousehole from the other side of the cinder block wall. Milligan looked up from an echo-sound of the floor, making sure that he wasn't setting the frame charge above an internal wall on the fifth story. He spat three railgun rounds to either side of the mousehole.

Folded for carriage, the frame charge deployed into a meter by two-meter rectangle of explosive tape as soon as Milligan pulled it from its holder. The objective side was convex, with capsules of adhesive which the operator could release with a slap to the top if the charge had to be tacked in place.

A local with a back-pack laser fired through the hole, searing away half Milligan's helmet sensors and sending his armor's environmental system into overload before he could lurch away from the swept area. The office was full of smoke. The suit went back on IIR, and the short laser pulse Milligan directed at the mousehole diffused badly in the murky atmosphere.

"Fire the frame charge, Milligan!" Captain Wittvogel ordered.

Was he standing on the rectangle of explosive? He hopped sideways again. Bullets raked the office, harmless but sawing on Milligan's nerves when they ricocheted from his armor. Locals were prising back the firedoor. He triggered his railgun toward the wall and detonated the frame charge with his left index finger.

Though the trough shape focused the explosive's effect against the flooring, the blast still knocked Milligan another step sideways. That was good, because a local used the mousehole to fire a kinetic-energy hittile that wasn't a damned bit affected by the smoke which shrouded Milligan's laser into near uselessness. The rocket-driven tungsten slug snapped at Mach 5 through where Milligan should have been, through the block wall, through a concrete beam with a blast of sparks from the reinforcing rods, and out into the night.

The hittile would have punched at least into the powered battle armor if Milligan had been in its path.

The rectangle of floor sagged from one short side instead of falling cleanly. The concrete was reinforced by wire mesh, not rods. Strands the charge hadn't severed acted as a hinge, popping one by one under the weight of the 15-cm thick slab. A laser blazed up through the hole.

"Get him!" screamed a local as the firedoor jerked up its sloping track against the force of gravity a hand-span at a time. The next room must be huge to have allowed the hittile's backblast to expand without the overpressure killing everybody enclosed with it.

Milligan placed short bursts through the door opening and the riddled wall. His left hand snatched an incendiary bomb from the carrier on his right hip which balanced the frame charges. He didn't dare let the railgun overheat or he was fucked for good and all.

He dropped the bomb through the opening onto the fifth story. As he did so, the chamber from which the locals fired at him belched flame past the firedoor, out the mousehole, and through every hole Milligan's penetrators had picked in the block wall.

"Coming through!" Captain Wittvogel called. The hypersonic crack of his railgun firing single shots punctuated the words. "Coming through, Milligan. Don't shoot!"

The firedoor, driven by the full strength of a suit of powered battle armor, shot along its track and banged against the stops. Wittvogel strode through the archway, troll-huge and the most beautiful thing Milligan had ever seen. The door slid down again, shutting off the sea of fire beyond.

Captain Wittvogel surveyed the office. The chamber from which he'd entered was a conference room, wrapped now in flame but no danger to a fully-armored soldier. Air sucking through the mousehole helped to clear smoke from the office.

"Clear to come down, sir," he called on the general channel. Switching to line-of-sight laser commo, he added to Milligan alone, "The pick-up boat's on the roof, and Razza's in it."

Wittvogel's bomb satchel hung empty. He must have thrown his load of three incendiaries together. The railgun merely brought mercy to the locals still twitching in the flames. "Your charge and the missile backblast covered the hole I put in their ceiling," he explained. "It doesn't do to get too focused in this sort of business."

The steel emergency hatch to the roof beside the building-center elevator shaft opened. A rope-and-batten ladder dropped. Two men carrying locked cases, technicians of some sort, wobbled down into the office. Their eyes through the goggles of their respirators looked terrified.

Milligan's incendiary bomb had driven back the shooters on the fifth story briefly, but now a laser probed the hole in the office floor again. A workstation, constructed primarily of inert plastic, burst into flame. The technicians were hunched beneath an unbearable weight of fear. They crawled to a console served by armored leads.

Milligan leaned toward the hole. He pulsed his own laser twice without bothering to aim. Wittvogel laid a frame charge on the floor three meters from the existing hole. "Wait till I go," the captain said. "Then come in, but don't forget I'm down there too."

"No!" Ambassador Razza ordered as she dropped from the roof wearing a light powered suit. Because the ambassador didn't have experience with the servos, she overcorrected and banged into the elevator/utility column. "Wittvogel, you stay here and guard me."

She glanced at the cowering technicians. They'd opened their cases and were attaching leads to the console's input slots. "Get to work, damn you!" she added.

Milligan looked up. He couldn't make eye contact with his captain through their armored suits. As he tried, he realized there weren't any options anyway. He swore softly.

Wittvogel took a bomb from Milligan's satchel. A lanyard jerked loose the safety pin. The charge would go off at its next contact. A fragmentation grenade, dangerous to the techs and the equipment, bounced up out of the hole but fell back onto the fifth story before it exploded.

"Your choice," the captain said.

"Mine," Milligan replied. With luck, the locals would concentrate on the new opening while Milligan dropped in through the original one. He fired his laser through the hole, keeping to an angle that protected him from a direct reply but might bounce his beam usefully from the wall of the chamber below.

All hell was breaking loose in the Gendarmery camp. Somebody there had been alert enough to fire at Kappa, the cyborg who was supposed to enter the palace from the north and clear the basement while his partner—Porter, as it turned out—took care of the ground floor.

The shot hadn't damaged Kappa, but it deflected him from his orders, never a hard result to achieve with a cyborg. Kappa was rampaging through the Gendarmery camp, blowing up tanks and other heavy equipment. The gendarmes' attempts to engage the swift-moving target only increased the carnage in their own dense ranks.

Milligan pulled the last incendiary from his satchel. "Ready!" he called.

Wittvogel blew the frame charge. Milligan hurled his bomb into the hole before him. He leaped into the inferno with his laser arm outstretched. Three railgun projectiles rang on his suit before he hit the floor.

He was in it bad. The fifth story was a single room built around the utility shaft. It was a barracks for the Grantholder's bodyguard, and there were at least a dozen soldiers in or getting into powered battle armor. The local suits weren't up to Hegemony spec, but they were plenty good enough to win at twelve to one odds.

"Scrambler! Scrambler!" Milligan screamed as his laser ripped a local point-blank and two more powered suits spun from the empty fireball of Wittvogel's bomb to engage the real threat. The entrance round had broken up when it hit the solid casing of the utility shaft. Strewn explosive burned red, adding color to the spluttering white of the incendiaries.

Milligan curved his right middle finger back to his palm to bring up his weapons display. A rocket banged into his breastplate and ricocheted off. He staggered. The warhead didn't have time to arm before it hit him, but it went off with an orange flash and a huge Wham! on the wall it struck next.

The display read emp. Milligan fired the scrambler grenade toward the armored local twenty meters away, across the big room. Another scrambler spat down from Wittvogel on the sixth floor an instant after Milligan got his away.

There was nothing in particular to see when the electromagnetic pulse generators went off. The cold reaction didn't even burst the scrambler's thermoplastic casing. Milligan couldn't see anything anyway, because the emp shut down his powered battle armor as surely as it did the local suits.

Everything went black. Milligan's terrified breathing roared in the absence of the normally-hissing environmental system.

Scrambler grenades burned out circuits, whether the electronics were operating or on standby but connected to a power source. Equipment on the floors above and below five, shielded by wire mesh/concrete barriers, wouldn't be affected. All circuitry on the fifth story fried.

Milligan reset his suit by forcing his left index finger against his thumb. When the mechanical switch connected, the suit's duplicate control boards, then the sensors, came back to life.

Wittvogel leaned down through the hole shooting. Local battle armor, frozen in weird postures when the metallic muscles lost power, were easy targets. Suits blazed in the laser flux. The redundant circuitry of Hegemony powered battle armor was expensive, beyond the ability or desires of Grant Dupree's financial arbiters. The local suits would be cold metal until someone carried them to a major repair facility.

Nobody was going to get a chance to do that. A tell-tale indicated Milligan's weapons were live again. He ignored the suits and aimed instead at movement, soldiers scrambling out of their useless armor. Railgun slugs picked the locals off before they could find hand-held weapons with which to reply.

The last bodyguard pounded at the elevator's call-plate, though he must have known that the emp had burned out those circuits too. Milligan's projectiles snapped through the body and sparked red against the elevator's metal door beyond.

"All clear, Captain!" Milligan called. His voice was a shrill squeal that reminded him of how frightened he'd been.

"Fourth story clear!" Platt reported an instant later. "But it was soldiers, not servants."

Special duty gendarmes, Milligan presumed. The newbie wasn't good enough to have handled a roomful of powered battle armor by himself.

"Captain, I've got the ground floor clear," Porter said, her voice a half-step higher than usual, "but there's something in the base—"

The palace shook. Porter's voice cut out.

Milligan switched to a remote view from Porter's display. The upper left quadrant of his screen fuzzed with empty static, telling him what his gut already knew: nothing was broadcasting on that channel.

There was a white flash from the middle of the Gendarmery camp. A hypervelocity missile had skewered Kappa like a butterfly on a pin. The cyborg's scuttling charge destroyed the evidence of Hegemony involvement.

The projectile was much more powerful than the one which had narrowly missed Milligan on the sixth story. It had been launched from the ground floor of the Grantholder's Palace.

"I'll get the bassid!" rumbled Alpha, the cyborg covering the second story; a statement rather than a report, and purely rhetorical.

"Alpha, hold where you are until—" Captain Wittvogel ordered.

A laser fired on a lower floor, then metal belled. Alpha had cut through the elevator door, then kicked the tags of metal away so that he could jump into the shaft. You might as well pray as give orders to a cyborg who'd already made up his/her/its mind. There was at least a chance that God would listen to you.

Milligan pulled the second of his frame charges free of its holder and deployed it on the scarred concrete floor. A quick echo-sound indicated the fourth story of the palace was laid out on the same pattern as the fifth: a single room divided by frail partitions rather than structural walls.

Whoever was in the palace basement had proved they could take out Hegemony soldiers one at a time. That meant—to anybody but a kill-focused cyborg—that the squad's survivors had to join in order to meet the threat with massed firepower.

Milligan, Platt, and Beta could link on the fourth story, moving through the floor of the fifth story and the ceiling of the third. Elevators and staircases were easy: easy ways to die. You never used them in a hostile building.

Unless you were a cyborg in a hurry. Alpha dropped on his jets to ground-floor level. The palace rocked with the backblast of another powerful hittile, punching through the elevator door and Alpha's breastplate before the cyborg could even start to cut his way clear with his laser. White fire flashed up the shaft and bulged the doors beside Milligan.

A frame charge went off on a lower story. Platt or Beta, probably Beta because Platt was too shook, yammering to the captain for direction. All the kid needed to do was hold what he'd got, help was coming.

Milligan triggered his frame charge. The blast shocked dust waist-high across the open room. The slab sagged but didn't fall cleanly. Milligan stamped on it, breaking one side loose.

He switched his remote to Beta. It took a moment of disorientation before Milligan realized the cyborg was looking down, not up, through a freshly-blown entrance hole. Instead of forming with Platt on the fourth story, Beta had decided to go after the unseen hostiles alone.

Milligan kicked at the hanging slab again. It broke apart. Half of the concrete sandwich swung to either side of the hold before tearing loose to fall.

In the upper left quadrant of Milligan's display, a ten-square meter section of the second-story's flooring lifted to a frame charge fired from below. Beta, poised on the third story, aimed both laser and railgun. The cyborg's arms, extended to fire, showed at the lower edge of the remote viewpoint.

Shattered concrete crumbled beneath a blanket of roiling dust. Metal glinted. The cyborg opened fire.

Milligan dropped through his opening to the fourth story. On the remote image, powdered lime blazed fiercely white as it drank energy from the cyborg's laser.

The hostile hurled itself upward, firing a hypervelocity missile as it came. Beta's laser flux deformed but could not deflect the projectile. The cyborg, struck squarely, lurched back from a hammerblow instead of a penetrating rapier thrust.

The hostile was a Throg in powered battle armor, tripodal and seemingly the size of a dump truck. Either the operator was twice as big as any Throg Milligan had ever seen before, or the aliens who built the suit had retained their natural shape while constructing something more nearly akin to a tank than powered battle armor.

As Beta tumbled away from the hittile's punch, the Throg finished the job with the laser in one of its triple arms. The remote image degraded momentarily, then blanked into the snowy emptiness of death.

Milligan switched off the remote channel. "Captain," he called, surprised that his voice didn't quiver, "we've got a Throg in armor, a mother-huge one. Platt and me are going to need help soonest. Soonest!"

Platt had cleared most of the unarmored locals on this story with laser and fragmentation grenades. The single room was a sea of ruddy flame. Smoke veiled the optical spectrum while the heat played hell with Milligan's IIR, despite low-pass filters which excluded the fire proper.

The building shuddered. A suit as massive as the Throg's made things jump just by walking. Milligan launched an Eye Fly in vague hope that he could thread it down to the third story to watch what the Throg was doing.

That was silly. He didn't have time to control the little remote sensor. Anyway, the reinforced-concrete flooring would limit the information it sent by spread-band radio as badly as it did Milligan's direct sensor inputs.

"Platt, up to the sixth floor," Captain Wittvogel ordered. "Milligan, cover him and follow. If it's just one Throg, then three of us can handle him."

"That's a lie!" Ambassador Razza broke in unexpectedly. Milligan had forgotten she was present, with a suit that gave her full access to the squad's commo net. "There aren't any Throgs here! You're trying to trick me so that I don't get the, the data!"

Platt, halfway across the big room, slapped a frame charge against the ceiling above him. "No you idiot!" Milligan shouted. "Use the hole I've—"

"Ambassador, you'd better withdraw n—" the captain began.

The floor directly under Platt quaked upward in a gush of flames fanned to multiple brightness by the Throg's frame charge. Shattered concrete avalanched away, leaving a black square instead of support.

Platt reacted fast, firing his jets, but he didn't have the instinctive control that was the only thing that might have saved him. The newbie's powered battle-armor banged into the concrete ceiling and ricocheted down to the blazing floor.

Milligan's laser licked the Throg's central arm as the alien aimed another hittile. The rocket motor blew up in the launching tube with a spew of yellow flame.

The Throg lifted through the hole it had blown in the floor. Its laser, pulsing with a flux so dense that airborne particulate matter exploded from the beam's path, caught Platt on his second bounce. Bits of the newbie's armor flew off in sparkling arcs before the scuttling charge devoured the remainder.

The Throg's third arm flailed in Milligan's direction, ripping out railgun projectiles. Though the Throg had three weapon stations, the single mind controlling them couldn't split its attention any better than a human's could. The slugs plowed the ceiling and blazing floor, but none of them touched Milligan as he leaped for the only shelter sturdy enough to withstand his opponent's power: the utility shaft, a square-section tube of structural concrete.

Milligan fired as he moved, lighting one of the Throg's leg joints white for the instant it took to punch part of the railgun's hosing burst through the weakened armor. The Throg stumbled, skewing the creature's laser response into a touch of scarlet pain across Milligan's buttocks rather than a finishing blow.

It took luck to wreck the Throg's knee while shooting on the fly, but you didn't get that kind of luck unless you were good to begin with. Milligan crouched beside the utility shaft, aware that neither luck nor skill would preserve him much longer.

The Throg's heavy armor would be clumsy in open terrain, an easy target for a human who knew what he was doing. In a point-blank slugfest, though . . .

The hovering Eye Fly's signal in Milligan's remote quadrant showed the Throg edging clockwise around the shaft, slowed by injury but still mobile. Milligan matched the creature centimeter by centimeter. Both armored figures were close to the concrete.

"Captain Wittvogel," Milligan said. "I really need some support down here."

He couldn't break for the hole in the ceiling or through an exterior wall. The alien would catch him on the fly, as it had Platt and the cyborg out in the Gendarmery camp. Milligan and the Throg were here on the fourth story together until one of them died.

If the ambassador didn't believe there were Throgs in Grant Dupree, then the purpose of the mission was just what Porter had claimed: to loot the Grantholder's credit accounts. But Razza had been wrong—

So Porter was dead, and they were all going to be dead very shortly. The only good thing about the situation was that the Throg had weaponry powerful enough to flick the pick-up boat out of the air. The ambassador couldn't abandon her armored infantry and expect to survive herself.

The Throg tried a bank shot with its laser, ceiling to support beam. The backsplash bathed Milligan unpleasantly, but the surfaces weren't good enough reflectors to make the attempt dangerous. Concrete glowed white, fading slowly as it cooled.

A laser slapped briefly on an upper story. Milligan didn't know what Wittvogel was shooting at, but eventually the surviving gendarmes were going to get organized enough to take a hand. "Captain—" Milligan said.

"Back from the shaft, Milligan!" Wittvogel ordered. "Now!"

So far as Milligan could see, moving away from the concrete shelter would be suicide. He obeyed anyway, in a soldier's reflex. Captain Wittvogel didn't give orders just because he liked the sound of his own voice; and anyway, there wasn't a good choice available.

Milligan jumped for a corner, his back to a support beam. The Throg sprang awkwardly around the edge of the utility shaft, its railgun and laser pointing. The missile Milligan detonated had wrecked the launcher as well.

The sensors of Milligan's suit quivered but didn't fail in an attenuated electromagnetic pulse. The Throg collapsed in a pile of battle armor, no longer powered because the scrambler had destroyed its control circuits.

Milligan heated the back of the Throg's neck joint with his laser, then sent three penetrators through like icepicks into the alien's brain before it could reset its suit. Scuttling charges began to destroy the armor, working inward from the limbs.

Milligan's helmet recorder had full evidence of Grantholder Dupree's treasonous congress with the Throgs. He lifted through the fifth story and back up to the smoke-wrapped office on the sixth.

The technicians hugged one another instinctively. Wittvogel and the ambassador were faceless in their armor.

"Captain, how did you do that emp?" Milligan blurted, using modulated laser to keep the discussion private.

Wittvogel picked up a technician bodily and tossed him through the roof hatch. On spread-band radio, audible to Razza as well as Milligan, he said, "I cut the shielding on a power lead with my laser and popped a scrambler beside it. The EMP travelled down the cable trunk in the central shaft. The conduit gave the pulse a linear form, so it didn't fry your suit too."

Razza headed for the hatch, climbing rather than trusting her control of the suit's jets. Holding the remaining technician in his arms, Wittvogel added loudly, "That trick was the only way I could save Ambassador Razza's life."

As soon as the ambassador's legs were clear, Wittvogel jetted upward. Milligan followed the captain so closely that exhaust turbulence banged him into the hatch coaming as he exited. He scarcely noticed the shock after everything he'd been through.

The boat was ready to go, its thrusters puffing a mist of ionized reaction mass. The small craft's hull was armored, but its real protection tonight was the sparkling chaos in the Gendarmery camp. Cooked-off rockets and projectiles lofted by the explosion of their neighbors drew glowing arcs across the sky. Warheads which landed in Dupree City set off secondary blasts among the house and vehicles.

Ambassador Razza jumped into the boat. Wittvogel set his armored hand in the hatchway, unblocking the track only when he and Milligan were aboard also.

Acceleration flung them all to the rear of the compartment. The technician Wittvogel held was moaning with relief.

"Sir," Milligan said. The hot surface of his armor raised a wisp of haze from the plastic liner of the bulkhead against which he leaned. He was still using laser commo. "Why did you have to cut a lead? The emp would've travelled down the conduit sheath itself, wouldn't it?"

The boat's rhythmic buffeting implied that the pilot was holding them so close to the deck that the terrain-avoidance system had to boost them to clear trees. Grant Dupree's air defenses weren't likely to be a danger, but there was no point in taking chances.

The captain turned so that his helmet-top laser communicator pointed directly at Milligan. "If I hadn't cut the input lead to the data bank," Wittvogel said deliberately, "then the scrambler wouldn't have cleared the main accounts as well as the copy these techs had already made. They could have retrieved it again."

Wittvogel opened his arms. The technician scrambled free on all fours, sobbing loudly.

"Nothing I could do was going to bring back Porter and Platt," the captain said. "And anyway, soldiers die."

Ambassador Razza had opened the faceplate of her helmet. Her skin was white; sweat glittered on her cheekbones and upper lip. Milligan wondered if she realized yet that the scrambler grenade had converted her plans of wealth into electromagnetic garbage.

"But I didn't think anybody ought to get rich off my people's death," Captain Wittvogel added, in a whisper as harsh as a leopard's cough.


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