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A Story of The Fleet

"Captain Miklos Kowacs?" asked whoever was sticking his hand through the canvas curtain to tap Kowacs on the shoulder as he showered with his men. "Could I have a quick minute with you?"

"Whoo! I dropped the soap, sweetie," called one of Kowacs' Marines in a falsetto. "I'll just bend over and pick it up!"

Kowacs lifted his face to the spray of his shower for an excuse not to look at the guy interrupting. The horseplay of his unit, the 121st Marine Reaction Company—the Headhunters—was as relaxing to him as the steamy hammering of the water. He didn't want to think about anything else just now, and he didn't see any reason why he should.

"If I was Nick Kowacs," he said, "I'd have just spent six hours in my hard suit, picking through what used to be the main spaceport on this mudball. Bug off, huh?"

He turned his head slightly. Some of the water recoiling from him spurted through the gap in the canvas to soak the intruder in its rainbow spray.

"Yeah, that's what I wanted to check," the voice continued flatly. "I'm English—I've got the Ninety-Second—and we—"

"Hell and damnation!" Kowacs muttered in embarrassment as he slipped out through the canvas himself. The decontamination showers were floored with plastic sheeting, but the ground outside the facility had been bulldozed bare and turned to mud by overflow and the rain. It squelched greasily between his toes.

"Sorry, Captain," he explained. "I thought you were some rear echelon mother wanting to know why I hadn't inventoried the week's laundry."

"S'okay," English said. "The Haig's about to lift with us, and I needed to check one thing with you about the port."

The Ninety-Second's commander didn't carry Kowacs' weight; but he was a hand's breadth taller, with curly hair and the sort of easy good looks that made him seem gentle to somebody who didn't know English's reputation.

Kowacs knew the reputation. Besides, he'd seen eyes like English's before, pupils that never focused very long on anything because of the things they'd seen already.

Kowacs had eyes like that himself.

Sergeant Bradley, the Headhunters' field first, slipped out of the shower behind his commanding officer. "Anything I can do to help, sir?" he asked.

Stripped, the noncom looked as thin as a flayed weasel. He was missing one toe, a plasma burst a decade before had left half his scalp hairless and pink, and much of the body between those two points bore one or another form of scarring.

"No problem," Kowacs said—and there wasn't, but it was nice to know that there was always going to be somebody to watch his back. It kept you alive in this line of work; and more important, it kept you as sane as you could be. "Captain English heads up the Ninety-Second. This—" shifting his gaze to the taller officer—"is First Sergeant Bradley."

"Toby," said English, shaking with Bradley—both of them with hands wet from the shower. "Not 'captain' yet anyway, though maybe after this last one . . ."

"Hey!" said Bradley with enough enthusiasm to ignore the fact that English was obviously distracted. "You guys did a hell of a job on the port! Nothin' left but rubble and cinders. Say, they got you looking for that weasel commando that shot up Post Bessemer two nights ago?"

"Ah," said English. "No, we're about to lift. As a matter of fact—"

Bradley didn't need the glance Kowacs gave him. "Sorry, sir," he said as he ducked back into the shower facility. "Damn good to meet you!"

English spent a moment marshaling his thoughts after Bradley had left the two officers alone again—if alone was the right word for men standing beside one of the main roads crisscrossing the huge base.

Base Thomas Forberry—named to commemorate symbolically the hundreds of thousands of civilians whom the Khalia had murdered—had been woodland and farms gone to brush when the Fleet landed to retake Bethesda less than a month before. Now it had a hundred kilometers of perimeter fence with bunkers and guard towers; a nearby spaceport and naval dockyard ten times bigger than the port that had served the planet before the Khalian invasion; buildings to house more people than there were indigenous humans in the portion of the planet now under the Fourth District Military Government installed here at Base Forberry—

And seven thousand five hundred hectares of mud—the inescapable result of any military construction project save those undertaken in deserts, ice caps, or vacuum.

"Ah," said Kowacs—he'd have helped English say what he needed to if he'd had the faintest notion of what it was. "Bradley was right. I don't think—" he paused; but it was true, so he said it, "anybody could've done a better job on the port than you guys did. You'll get your second star for sure."

"Had a lotta help from the indigs," English said, letting his eyes slant away toward the horizon. "They got us through the perimeter, you know?"

"No shit?" said Kowacs. He hadn't heard anything about that.

He was vaguely aware that he was standing stark naked beside the road. Some of the admin types who'd landed when the shooting pretty much stopped might take that badly, but modesty wasn't a useful virtue among troops who spent most of their time either in the field or packed into the strait confines of a landing vessel.

"I guess . . ." said Toby English with a diffidence that must have been as unusual to him as it would have been in the man to whom he was speaking. "That what your sergeant said was the straight goods? Nothing left at the port?"

"Oh, look, man, I'm sorry," said Kowacs who finally thought he knew what was bothering the other officer. "Look, we recovered two of your people. But the third one, the suit transponder still worked but there was half the tail of a destroyer melted across him. Nothing we could do, but we tried."

"Thanks," said English with a smile that was genuine but too brief for that to have been the real problem. "Dead's dead. Don't mean nothin'."

"Yeah," said Kowacs, agreeing with the meaning rather the words. "We've all sent home eighty kilos of sand with a warning to the family not to open the coffin."

"Ah," English continued, looking away again. "I guess you'd've checked if there was any bunkers under the Terminal Building? I thought there might've been."

"No bunkers," Kowacs said, keeping the frown off his forehead but not quite out of his voice.

"That was downwind of one of the destroyers that cooked off," he continued carefully. "The fission triggers of her torpedo warheads, they burned instead of blowing. But it was hot enough that our suits are still in there—" he pointed toward the plastic dome of the decontamination building, "and they thought we ought to shower off pretty good ourselves."

English smiled falsely. "Yeah," he said. "Look, lift-off was twenty minutes ago, and—"

Kowacs put a hand on the other Marine's arm to stop him. As gently as he could, he said, "There were a lot of bodies inside, but only indigs and weasels. No Marine equipment. What happened out there?"

English shrugged and said, "Don't matter a lot. I told you, the indigs got us through the perimeter. I think most of 'em got out again before things started to pop, but—the On-the-Spot agent running the unit, Milius . . . She was keeping the weasels occupied inside the Terminal Building."

He met Kowacs' gaze with clear, pale eyes of his own. "She had balls, that one."

"Trouble with sticking your neck out . . ." said Kowacs softly, looking toward a distance much farther in time than the horizon on which his eyes were fixed. "Is sooner or later, somebody chops it off."

"Don't I know it," English agreed bitterly. His voice and expression changed, became milder. "Don't we all. Look, I gotta run."

He paused, then added, "Hey. If it can't be the Ninety-Second gets those weasel hold-outs, I hope it's you guys."

"I hope it's us lifts-off tomorrow," Kowacs called to the taller officer's back; but English was already busy talking to a truck driver, bumming a ride to the spaceport and a no-doubt-pissed naval officer.

The Ninety-Second was one of the half-companies shoe-horned into Fleet combat units instead of being carried in a purpose-built landing craft the way the Headhunters were. People whose proper business was starships generally didn't have much use for the ground-specialty Marines . . . but at least the destroyer Haig hadn't lifted off while the Ninety-Second's commander did his personal business.

Most of Kowacs' marines were done showering and had filed back into the changing room. They'd have to don the same sweaty uniforms they'd worn for six hours under their hard suits while searching the shattered port, but the shower had raised their spirits.

Bradley was still waiting behind the canvas. So was Sienkiewicz, who looked as tough when naked as she did with her clothes on—and who was just as tough as she looked.

The twenty nozzles down either side of the canvas enclosure were still roaring happily, spewing out water that had been brought twenty kilometers through huge plastic aqueducts. The drains that were supposed to carry it away were less satisfactory. At least half the water spilled out of the enclosure and found its own way slowly toward the lowest point in Base Forberry.

In an unusual twist of justice, that point was the parade ground surrounded by base headquarters and the offices of the military government, located in a valley where they couldn't be sniped at by the few Khalia still alive on Bethesda.

"Everything copacetic, sir?" Bradley asked with a smile to suggest that he hadn't been listening through the canvas while the officers talked.

"No problem," Kowacs grunted. And there wasn't, not one you could do anything about. Couldn't help the dead, like English had said. "Let's get back to barracks and find fresh uniforms."

"Ah—we were wondering about that, sir," the field first sergeant said. "The trucks are still pretty hot, even after we hosed 'em off."

Kowacs shrugged as he strode toward the changing room. "It's that or walk," he said. "I'll get 'em into a drydock over at the naval base as soon as I can, but Marine ground equipment is pretty low priority over there.

"And this place—" he waved toward the closed chamber in which robot arms were scrubbing the hard suits, "isn't big enough to hold trucks."

Sienkiewicz laughed in a throaty, pleasant—feminine—voice. "What's the matter, sarge?" she asked Bradley. "You expect a little low-level radiation to kill us?" 

All three of them laughed, but there was no humor in the sound.

* * *

The summons set off the bell and red flasher at either end of the barracks: it was a Priority One call. Marines threw down their mid-afternoon tasks and jumped to arms even before they heard the specifics of the message.

There was only one thing on Bethesda now that could justify a Priority One call to the Headhunters. A single Khalian unit, an infiltration commando, hadn't died in heroically useless defense with the hundreds of thousands of other Khalia. The hit-and-run attacks of that surviving handful of weasels had been making things damned hot for the invasion forces.

The problem was beyond the equipment and experience of the Alliance troops that made up the bulk of the ground elements involved in Bethesda's recovery.

But it was made to order for the 121st Marine Reaction Company.

Kowacs slid on his helmet. "Go ahead," he said as his hands fumbled with the shirt he'd hung over the back of the chair he was sitting on. The information would be dumped into the unit's data bank, but he liked to get his orders directly as well. It made him feel that he was involved in a human process, not just an electronic game.

Of course it would be the computer which decided whether they made the strike by truck or loaded onto the Bonnie Parker to drop straight onto the weasels, trading longer preparation time for faster transit to the target area. Computers were great for that sort of computation, but humans—

"Captain Kowacs," said the synthesized voice of an artificial intelligence. "You are directed to report to District Governor, Admiral the Honorable Saburo Takami, immediately."


"A vehicle has been dispatched for you. It will arrive in one-point-five minutes. That is all."

"Aye, aye," Kowacs said dazedly, not that the electronic secretary would have given a damn even if it hadn't broken the connection already. Priority fucking One.

He'd set it up so that all Priority One calls were slaved through the barracks loudspeakers. Everybody was staring at Kowacs as he stomped toward the door, sealing his shirt front while his hands were full of the equipment belt which he hadn't had time to sling on properly yet.

"Daniello," he called to his senior lieutenant, "hold the men in readiness."

Nobody bothered to ask what they were to be ready for.

Corporal Sienkiewicz was already waiting outside with bandoliers of ammunition and two unloaded assault rifles. She handed a set to her commanding officer.

Because of the weasel raids, the military government was still treating the Fourth District as a combat zone. Personnel leaving Controlled Areas—bases and defense points—were ordered to carry weapons at all times, though the weapons were to be unloaded except on approved combat operations.

And Sienkiewicz was right: there was no telling what Kowacs was going to hear from Admiral Takami, or how fast the District Governor would expect him to respond.

It was just that Kowacs didn't like to have a gun around when he talked to administrative types. It turned his thoughts in the wrong directions.

The jeep was strack and expensive, running on vectored thrust instead of the air cushion that would have been perfectly satisfactory on the plastic roadways of the base. The vehicle arrived within seconds of the time the AI had given Kowacs; and the driver—an enlisted man—had a voice almost as superciliously toneless as that of the machine when he said, "My orders are to transport one only to District Headquarters."

"Then your orders were wrong," said Kowacs as he and Sienkiewicz got into the jeep. He hadn't intended her to come, and he didn't need a bodyguard at District Headquarters—the sort of guarding that the big corporal could do, at any rate.

But neither was some flunky going to tell him he couldn't bring an aide along if he wanted to.

The jeep sagged under the weight of a big man and a very big woman. Cursing under his breath, the driver lowered the surface-effect skirts and pulled back into traffic on the air cushion's greater support.

Base Thomas Forberry was loud with vehicles, construction work, and the frequent roar of starships landing or lifting off from the nearby port. During lulls in the other racket, Kowacs could hear the thumping of plasma cannon from the perimeter. Some officers of the units on guard duty were "clearing their front of areas of potential concealment."

Blasting clumps of trees a kilometer away wouldn't prevent the infiltration attacks the surviving Khalia were making; but it did a little to help the boredom of guard duty in a quiet sector.

The civilian detention facility lay along one side of the road. Scores of wan indigs stared out at the traffic, careful not to come too close to the electrified razor ribbon that encircled the prison camp. The military government had already started rounding up Bethesdans who were reported to have collaborated with the Khalia. They'd be held here until they'd been cleared—or they were handed over to the civilian authorities for trial.

When the Fleet got around to setting up a civilian administration.

"Poor bastards," Kowacs muttered, looking away from the bleak hopelessness of the internees as the jeep crawled past at the speed of the trucks choking the base's main north-south boulevard.

Sienkiewicz shrugged. "They live in the same barracks as us," she said. "They eat the same rations. They sit on their butts all the time without a goddam thing to do, just like we do."

Kowacs met her eyes.

"So tell me where their problem is?" she concluded.

"Same place ours is," Kowacs agreed without much caring whether the driver could hear him also. "And we're going there now."

* * *

The parade square in the center of Base Forberry had been covered with plastic sheeting as soon as the three-story Base HQ and the District Government building were finished—and before crews had completed the structures on the other two sides of the square. Tracked machinery had chewed up half the sheeting and covered the remainder with mud of a biliously purple color.

It was the same color as the silt which had seeped into Admiral Takami's office when storm winds flexed the seams of the pre-fab building.

Kowacs saluted as carefully as he could, but he'd never been much of a hand at Mickey Mouse nonsense. The District Governor frowned—then scowled like a thunder-cloud when he noticed the Marine was eyeing the purple stain along the edge of the outer wall.

The other naval officer in the room, a commander with good looks and only a hint of paunch, smiled at Kowacs indulgently.

"Well, Kowacs," Admiral Takami said, "Sitterson here tells me we need you in this district. I'm not going to argue with my security chief. What's a government for if not security, eh?"

"Ah?" Kowacs said. He couldn't understand what the governor meant.

He prayed that he didn't understand what the governor meant.

"What the governor means," said Commander Sitterson in a voice as smoothly attractive as his physical appearance, "is that the ground contingents are all well and good for large-scale operations, but we need a real strike force. The governor has had the 121st transferred from Naval command to the Fourth District government."

Well, Kowacs had never believed God listened to a marine's prayers.

"Well, I'll leave you men to get on with it," Takami said dismissively. "I have a great deal of work myself."

As Kowacs followed the security chief out of the office, he heard the governor snarling into the microphone embedded in his desk. He was demanding a work crew with mops and scrub brushes.

"I thought you'd rather hear about your reassignment from the governor rather than from me directly," Sitterson said in the anteroom. "Not a bad old bird, Takami. Won't get in the way of our carrying out our job. Did you keep the car?"

"No sir," Kowacs said. He was trying to grasp what had just happened to him and his unit. He couldn't.

"No matter," Sitterson said, though his frown belied his words. "We'll walk. It's just across the square."

He frowned again as he noticed that Sienkiewicz, carrying both rifles, followed them out of the building.

"My clerk," Kowacs said flatly.

"Yes, that reminds me," Sitterson replied. "I'll want one of your men on duty at all times in my outer office. I have living quarters in the building, you know. I can't be too careful."

Kowacs' skin burned as anger drove blood to its surface. "Ah, sir," he said. "We're a Marine Reaction Company."

"Well, I want men who can react, don't I?" Sitterson retorted.

Kowacs said nothing further.

Security Headquarters was kitty-corner from the government building, a hundred meters away; but Kowacs had never thought Sitterson needed the vehicle for any reason but status. It was a windowless single-story structure, three times as long as it was wide—a module rather than a pre-fab. The door was at one end; Sitterson buzzed for admittance instead of touching the latch himself.

The door opened to reveal an aisle running half the building's length. There were four closed doors to the left and eight barred cells on the right. The individual civilians in five of the cells leaned with their arms against their sides and their foreheads resting against the back wall.

It was an extremely painful position. The petty officer who'd opened the door had a long shock rod with which to prod any of the prisoners who sagged or touched the wall with a hand.

"Interrogation rooms," Sitterson said, gesturing toward the closed doors. He chuckled and added with a nod toward the cells, "I like my visitors to see that we mean business, here. This is the only entrance to the building."

"What have they done?" Kowacs asked in a neutral voice.

"That's what we're here to find out, aren't we?" Sitterson replied with a broad grin.

One of the women in the holding cells was sobbing, on the verge of collapse. Kowacs lengthened his stride, drawing the security chief a little more quickly with him to the door at the far end of the aisle.

They weren't quite quick enough into the office beyond. As Sienkiewicz shut the door behind them, Kowacs heard the reptilian giggle of the shock rod loosing its fluctuating current. The woman screamed despairingly.

The senior petty officer behind the huge desk threw Sitterson a sharp salute without getting up. He didn't have room enough to stand because of the data storage modules in the ceiling, feeding the desk's computer.

Sitterson tried to project a sense of his own power—but the quarters assigned his operation were a far cry from even the jerry-built luxury of the District Government Building.

Fleet officers assigned to admin duty on the ground weren't usually the best and the brightest of their ranks. That was something Kowacs had to remember—though he wasn't sure how it would help him.

"Colonel Hesik has reported, sir," said the petty officer, nodding toward the tall, intense man who had leaped to attention from the narrow couch opposite the desk.

"Wait here, Hesik," Sitterson said as he strode between desk and couch to the room's inner door.

Kowacs eyed—and was eyed by—the tall man as they passed at close quarters.

Hesik's uniform was of unfamiliar cut. It was handmade, with yellow cloth simulating gold braid on the pockets, epaulets, and collar tabs. The slug-throwing pistol he wore in a shoulder holster was a Fleet-issue weapon and well worn.

Hesik's glare was brittle. Kowacs wouldn't have had the man in his own unit in a million years.

Sitterson's personal office had almost as much floorspace as the governor's did, though the ceiling was low and the furnishings were extruded rather than wood.

On the credit side, the floor didn't seep mud.

"Have a seat, Captain," Sitterson said with an expansive gesture toward one of the armchairs. Another door, presumably leading to living quarters as cramped as the reception area, was partly screened by holo projections from the interrogation rooms they had walked past. In the holograms, seated petty officers confronted civilians standing at attention, nude, with their clothes stacked on the floor beside them.

"We'll be working closely together, Captain," the security was saying. "I don't mind telling you that I regard this assignment as an opportunity to get some notice. It's a job we can sink our teeth into. If we handle the situation correctly, there'll be promotions all around."

The bearded civilian in the projection nearest Kowacs was babbling in a voice raised by fear and the clipped sound reproduction, "Only eggs, I swear it. And maybe butter, if they asked for butter, maybe butter. But they'd have taken my daughter if I hadn't given them the supplies."

"Ah, Commander," said the Marine, wondering how he'd complete the sentence. "I'm not clear why my unit rather than . . ."

Rather than anybody else in the universe.

"Your daughter was involved in this?" asked the hologrammic interrogator. "Where is she now?"

"She's only eight! For god's sake—"

Sitterson made a petulant gesture; the AI in his desk cut the sound though not the visuals from the three interrogations.

The security chief leaned over his desk and smiled meaningfully at Kowacs. "I know how to handle collaborators, Captain," he said. "And so do you—I've heard what went on on Target. That's why I asked for the 121st."

For a moment, Kowacs couldn't feel the chair beneath him. His body trembled; his mind was full of images of his drop into the Khalian slave pens on Target—and the human trustees there, with their torture equipment and the abattoir with which they aped the dietary preferences of their Khalian masters.

Every trustee in his sight-picture memory wore the features of Commander Sitterson.

Kowacs didn't trust himself to speak—but he couldn't remain silent, so he said, "Sir, on Target the prisoners were turning out electronics, stuff the weasels can't make for themself."

He lurched out of his chair because he needed to move and by pacing toward the wall he could innocently break eye contact with the security chief. "That stuff, giving the weasels produce so they don't put you on the table instead—that's not collaboration, sir, that's flat-ass survival. It's not the same as—"

But the words brought back the memories, and the memories choked Kowacs and chilled his palms with sweat.

"Well, Captain," Sitterson said as he straightened slightly in his chair. "If I didn't have responsibility for the safety of the hundred and forty thousand Fleet and allied personnel, stationed in this district, I might be able to be as generous as you are."

The commander's stern expression melted back into a smile. "Still," he went on, "I think your real problem is that you're afraid you won't see any action working with me. I'll show you how wrong you are.

"Send in Colonel Hesik," he told his desk. The door opened almost on the final syllable to pass the tall man.

Kowacs started to rise but Sitterson did not, gesturing the newcomer to a chair.

"Hesik here," the commander said, "was head of the resistance forces in the district before our landing. He's been working closely with me, and—" he winked conspiratorially toward the Bethesdan, "I don't mind telling you, Captain, that he's in line for very high office when we come to set up a civilian government."

Hesik grinned in response. The scar on his right cheek was concealed by his neatly groomed beard, but it gave his face a falsely sardonic quirk when he tried to smile.

"Tell Captain Kowacs what happened to your unit three months ago, Hesik," Sitterson ordered.

"Yes sir," said the indig—who had better sense than to try to make something of his shadow "rank," which if real would have made him the senior officer in the room. He was willing to act as Sitterson's pet—for the reward he expected when the Fleet pulled out again.

"We were organized by Lieutenant Bundy," Hesik said. He kept his eyes trained on a corner of the room, and there was a rote quality to his delivery.

"Technical specialists were landed six months ago to stiffen local resistance," Sitterson added in explanation. "Bundy was a top man. I knew him personally."

"We were hitting the weasels, hurting them badly," Hesik resumed. His voice had bright quivers which Kowacs recognized, the tremors of a man reliving the past fears which he now cloaked in innocent words. "There were other guerrilla units in the district too—none of them as effective as we were, but good fellows, brave . . . Except for one."

The Bethesdan swallowed. As if the bobbing of his Adam's apple were a switch being thrown, his head jerked down and he glared challengingly at Kowacs. "This other unit," he said, "kept in close touch with us—but they never seemed to attack the Khalia. Avoiding reprisals on innocent civilians, they explained."

One of the hologram civilians had collapsed on the floor. Her interrogator stood splay-legged, gesturing with a shock rod which did not quite touch the civilian.

"And perhaps so," Hesik continued. "But we heard very disquieting reports about members of that unit frequenting the spaceport, where the Khalia had their headquarters. We tried to warn Lieutenant Bundy, but he wouldn't believe humans would act as traitors to their race."

"Kowacs here could tell you about that," Sitterson interjected. "Couldn't you, Captain?"

Kowacs spread his hand to indicate he had heard the security chief. His eyes remained fixed on Hesik.

"They called us to a meeting," the Bethesdan said. "We begged the lieutenant not to go, but he laughed at our fears."

Hesik leaned toward Kowacs. "We walked into an ambush," he said. "The only reason any of us got out alive was that Lieutenant Bundy sacrificed his life to warn the rest of us."

"Doesn't sound like selling butter to the Khalians, does it, Captain?" Sitterson commented in satisfaction.

"Them?" Kowacs asked, thumbing toward the hologram interrogations.

"Not yet," said the security chief.

"But," Hesik said in a voice bright with emotion, "my men have located the traitors, where they're hiding."

"Up for some real action, Captain?" Sitterson asked. "You said you were a reaction company. Let's see how fast you can react."

"Download the coordinates," Kowacs said, too focused to care that he was giving a brusque order to his superior. He'd taken off his helmet when he entered the building. Now he slipped it on again and added, "How about transport?"

Sitterson was muttering directions to his AI. "You have trucks assigned already, don't you?" he said, looking up in surprise.

"You bet," Kowacs agreed flatly. "Priority One," he said to his helmet. "This is a scramble, Headhunters."

His helmet projected onto the air in front of him the target's location, then the route their computer had chosen for them. That decision was based on topographical data, ground cover, and traffic flows along the paved portion of the route.

"How many bandits?" Kowacs demanded, pointing a blunt finger at Hesik to make his subject clear.

"Sir," said Daniello's voice in the helmet, "we still don't have the hard suits back from decontamination."

"Twenty perhaps," said Hesik with a shrug. "Perhaps not so many."

"Fuck the hard suits," Kowacs said to his First Platoon leader. "We got twenty human holdouts only. Pick me and Sienkiewicz up in front of the security building when you come through the parade ground."

"On the way," said Daniello.

"We're going too," said Commander Sitterson, jumping up from behind his desk as he saw to his amazement that the Marine was already headed for the door.

"Please yourself," Kowacs said in genuine disinterest.

It occurred to him that the weasel commando in the area might have human support. And a group of turncoats like these could tell him something about that—if they were asked in the right way.

* * *

Satellite imagery reported seventeen huts in the target zone, which made Kowacs think Hesik had underestimated the opposition. By the time the four trucks were in position, each in the woods half a kilometer out from the village and at the cardinal points around it, Kowacs had better data from long-term scanning for ion emissions and in the infrared band.

The Bethesdan was right. There couldn't be as many humans at the site as there were dwellings.

For the last five kilometers to their individual drop sites, the trucks overflew the woods at treetop level on vectored thrust. It was fast; and it was risky only if the target unit had more outposts than seemed probable, given their low numbers.

"Probable" could get you dead if one guy happened to be waiting in a tree with an air-defense cluster, but that was the chance you took.

"Hang on," warned the driver—Bickleman from Third Platoon. Kowacs didn't trust somebody assigned from the motor pool to know what he was doing—or be willing to do it in the face of enemy fire, when people's lives depended on their transport bulling in anyway.

The truck bellied down through the canopy with a hell of a racket, branches springing back to slap the men facing outward on the benches paralleling both sides. A limb with a mace of cones at its tip walloped Kowacs, but his face shield was down and the scrape across his chest was nothing new. He held the seat rail with one hand and his rifle with the other, jumping with the rest of his unit as soon as they felt the spongy sensation of the vehicle's underside settling into loam.

The bustle of Third Platoon taking cover briefly, then fanning out in the direction of the village, was only background to Kowacs for the moment. He had the whole company to control.

Bradley and Sienkiewicz covered their commander while he focused on the reports from the other three platoons—"Position Green," the drop completed without incident—and the hologram display a meter in front of him which was more important than the trees he could see beyond the patterns of light.

"Advance to Amber," Kowacs said. A blue bead glowed briefly in the holographic heads-up display projected by his helmet and all the others in the unit, indicating that the order had been on the command channel.

They moved fast through the forest. The Headhunters were used to woods—as well as jungles, deserts, or any other goddam terrain weasels might pick to stage a raid—and here speed was more important than the threat of running into an ambush.

Kowacs couldn't see much more of Third Platoon than he could of the rest of the company. The undergrowth wasn't exceptionally heavy, but there were at least two meters between each marine and those to either side in the line abreast.

"Gamma, Amber," reported the Third Platoon leader, somewhere off to the left. Kowacs knelt with the rest of the unit around him, rifle advanced, waiting for the remaining platoons to reach the jump-off point.

"Beta Amber"/"Alpha Amber," reported Second, and First Platoons in near simultaneity. There was a further wait before Delta called in, but they were the Heavy Weapons Platoon and had to manhandle tripod-mounted plasma guns through the undergrowth.

Anyway, Delta had reported within a minute of the others, not half a lifetime later the way it seemed to Kowacs as his fingers squeezed the stock of his rifle and his eyes watched green beads crawl across the ghostly hologram of a relief map.

The only difference between Position Amber and any other block of woodland was that it put each platoon within a hundred meters of the village. The huts were still out of sight, though Second and Heavy Weapons would have clear fields of fire when they wriggled a few meters closer.

"Alpha, charge set," reported Daniello whose platoon had the job of driving a small bursting charge a meter down into the soil.

"Beta, sensors ready," answered his Second Platoon counterpart who had set the echo-sounding probes on the other side of the village.

"Fire the charge," Kowacs said.

As he spoke, there was a barely audible thump off to the right and somebody shook his arm to get attention.

"What's going—" demanded Commander Sitterson, whose helmet received all the unit calls—but who didn't have the background to understand them.

He didn't have sense enough to keep out of the way, either. Kowacs was very glad that because of the angle, he hadn't swung quickly enough to blow Sitterson away before understanding took over from reflex.

"Not now, sir!" he snapped, turning slightly so that Sitterson's head didn't block the pattern of lines dancing across his display as the unit's computer mapped the bunkers and tunnels beneath the village in the echoing shock waves.

There weren't any bunkers or tunnels. The target was as open as a whore's mouth.

"Was that a shot?" the security chief insisted. Hesik lay just back of Sitterson, his face upturned and the big pistol lifted in his right hand.

"Assault elements, go!" Kowacs ordered as he rose to his feet himself, so pumped that he wondered but didn't worry whether the wild-eyed Bethesdan colonel was going to shoot him in the back by accident.

First and Third platoons swept into the village clearing from two adjacent sides, forming an L that paced forward with the sudden lethality of a shark closing its jaws.

"Everyone stay where you are!" Kowacs boomed through the loudspeaker built into the top of his helmet. The speaker was damped and had a strong directional focus, but it still rattled his teeth to use the damned thing. Still, he was in charge, and the holdouts in the village had to know that.

Even if it meant that he'd catch the first round if the fools tried to resist.

The civilians in plain sight seemed scarcely able to stand up.

Two women—neither of them young, though one was twenty years younger than Kowacs thought at first glance—were scraping coarse roots on a table in the center of the straggle of huts. Beside them on a straw pallet lay a figure who might have been of either sex; might have been a bundle of rags, save for the flicker of lids across the glittering eyes, the only motion visible as the line of rifles approached.

"Don't move, dammit!" Kowacs bawled as a man directly across from him ducked into the hut.

There was a pop and a minute arc of smoke from Bradley's left hand—the hand that didn't hold the leveled shotgun. The smoke trail whickered through the doorway as suddenly as the civilian had—then burst in white radiance, a flare and not a grenade as Kowacs had half-expected.

Bawling in terror, the man flung himself back outside and danced madly as he stripped away the flaming rags of his clothing while the hut burned behind him. A marine knocked him down with his rifle butt, then kicked dirt over the man's blazing hair.

Both platoons were among the huts in seconds. "Empty!" a voice called, and, "Empty!", then, "Out! Out! Out!"

Three of them tried to get out the back way as somebody was bound to do. That was fine, always let 'em think they had a way to run. The dazzling whipcrack of a plasma bolt streaking skyward, all the way to the orbit of the nearer moon, caught the trio in plain sight.

They didn't flatten on the ground or raise their hands, just froze in place and awaited the cross fire which would vaporize them if it came. Marines from Second Platoon threw them down and trussed them scornfully.

"He can't move, he's wounded!" a woman was screaming desperately from the hut beside Kowacs. That didn't sound like an immediate problem, so he glanced around for an eyeball assessment of the situation.

Everything had gone perfectly. The one hut was afire. Several Marines held an extra weapon while their buddies grasped the civilian who'd been carrying it. The woman didn't have to tell anybody that the fellow two of his men were dragging was wounded. Kowacs could smell the gangrene devouring the prisoner's leg.

The only shot fired was the warning round from the plasma weapons placed in ambush. Very slick. So slick that it probably looked easy to Sitterson and Hesik, pounding up from the treeline where they'd been left flat-footed by the Marines' advance.

The elder of the women who'd been preparing food cried shrilly at Kowacs, "Why are you here with guns? We need help, not—"

Then she saw Hesik. Kowacs caught her by one arm and Sienkiewicz grabbed the other when they saw what was about to happen, but it didn't keep the old woman from spitting in Hesik's face.

The Bethesdan colonel slapped her across the forehead with the barrel of his pistol.

The younger of the pair of women broke away from a marine who was more interested in the drama than in the prisoner he was holding. She jumped into the dark entrance of a hut. The three marines nearest lighted the opening with the muzzle flashes of their automatic rifles.

The prisoner flopped down with only her torso inside the hut. Her legs thrashed while one of the Marines, more nervous or less experienced than the others, wasted the rest of his magazine by hosing down her death throes.

The air stank with the oiliness of propellant residues. Hesik looked dazed. He was making dabbing motions with his right hand, apparently trying to put his weapon back in its holster. He wasn't even close.

"Right," said Kowacs, angry that his ears rang and that a screwup had marred a textbook operation. "Get the trucks up here and load the prisoners on while we search—"

"Not yet," ordered Sitterson. Everybody paused.

"Hold him," Sitterson added to the marine gripping the man—boy, he was about seventeen—with his hair singed off. "You too—" pointing at Sienkiewicz. "Make sure he doesn't get loose."

The big corporal obeyed with an expression as flat as those of Kowacs and Bradley while they watched the proceedings. She gripped the boy's left elbow with her own left hand and angled her rifle across her chest. Its muzzle was socketed in the prisoner's ear.

Sitterson took something from his pocket—a miniature shock rod—and said to the boy in a caressing voice, "Now, which of this lot is Milius?"

"Go to—," the boy began.

Sitterson flicked him across the navel with his shock rod. It gave a viper's hiss and painted the midline hairs with blue sparks. The boy screamed and kicked. Sienkiewicz interposed her booted leg, and the security chief punched the prisoner in the groin with the rod.

"Sir!" Kowacs shouted as he grabbed Sitterson by the shoulder and jerked him back. "Sir! People are watching!" He tapped his rifle on the side of his helmet where a chip recorder filed every aspect of the operation for rear echelon review.

Sitterson was panting more heavily than his physical exertion justified. For a moment, Kowacs thought the commander was going to punch him—which wasn't going to hurt nearly as much as would the effort of not blowing the bastard away for doing it.

Instead, the security chief relaxed with a shudder. "Nothing to worry about," he muttered. "Not a problem at all. What's your unit designator?"

"Huh?" Kowacs replied.

Sienkiewicz was spraying analgesic on the prisoner while the other marine stood between the boy and any possible resumption of Sitterson's attack. Maybe they were worried about what their recorders would be saying at a courtmartial.

Maybe they didn't like Sitterson any better than their CO did.

Sitterson stepped behind Kowacs, holding the marine officer steady when he started to turn to keep the security chief in sight. Kowacs froze, waiting for whatever was going to come, but there was no contact beyond Sitterson's finger tracing the serial number imprinted in the back of the helmet rim.

"There," he said as he let Kowacs face around again. "I'll take care of it when we get back. I'll have the file numbers of all the recorders in this company transferred to units in storage on Earth."

Kowacs looked blank.

"That's the way to do it," Sitterson explained with an exasperated grimace. "Don't try to wipe the data, just misfile it so nobody will ever be able to call it up."

"Where're those trucks?" Bradley demanded to break the sequence of words and events. The vehicles were arriving with their intakes unshrouded for efficiency, howling like demons and easy to hear even for ears deadened by rifle blasts.

Two Marines came out of the hut where the woman sprawled. One of them carried a sub-machine gun he'd found inside. The other held, of all things, an infant whose wails had been lost in the noise and confusion of the raid.

"Check it for bullet splinters," Kowacs ordered with a black scowl, knowing that if the baby had taken a round squarely it would have bled out by now.

"It just needs changing, sir," said Sienkiewicz unexpectedly.

"Then change it!" Kowacs snapped.

"All right," said Sitterson. "I think you're right. We'll take them back to headquarters for interrogation."

Marines faced outward toward the treeline with their weapons ready—just in case. The trucks bellowed in, brushing the upper limbs with thrust and their belly-plates.

Switching to the general unit push because he couldn't trust his unaided voice to be heard as a truck settled in the clearing before him, Kowacs asked, "Bradley, how many we got all told?"

"Thirteen with the kid," the sergeant replied, flashing Kowacs a double hand plus three fingers to reiterate his radio message. "That fits, right?"

Bradley frowned, then added, "Fourteen with the mother."

"Yeah, they'll need that too for identification," Kowacs said with no more emotion than the static hiss of his radio. "But we'll sling it to a cargo rail, all right?"

The draft from the truck exhausts stirred the burning hut into a mushroom of flame, then collapsed it in a gush of sparks spiraling into several of the huts downwind.

"Beta, Delta," Kowacs ordered on the command channel. "Pack up and let's split before it turns out there's an explosives cache where the sensors missed but the fire doesn't."

"Come on, come on!" Bradley was demanding on the general frequency. "Three prisoners to a truck. And secure them to tie-downs, will you? They're going to tell us things."

Commander Sitterson had begun to sneeze. The vehicle exhausts were kicking up dust, smoke, and the smell of the corpse being dragged past him.

Kowacs really wanted to be away from this place, though he didn't have any objective reason for the way it made him feel. The only problem was, when they got back to Base Forberry, the interrogations were going to resume.

And if the "Milius" the security chief was looking for was the same woman Toby English had been talking about, Kowacs didn't think he was going to like that much either.

* * *

As the trucks hovered at the base perimeter, waiting to be keyed through the automatic defenses by the officer of the guard, Commander Sitterson said, "Well, Kowacs. Now that you're under my command, I want you to be comfortable. What can I do for you? Are your barracks satisfactory?"

"Huh?" said Kowacs. He'd been watching the prisoners lashed to the forward bulkhead, the burned kid in the center with an old woman on either side of him. "Barracks? Nothing wrong with them. They leak a bit." So does the governor's office. "But you know, there is something you could maybe do . . ."

"Name it," Sitterson said, beaming.

The column got its go-ahead and vectored out of hover mode with a lurch. One of the women called the boy "Andy" when she asked if he were all right.

Andy told her to shut her mouth and keep it shut.

"Well, these trucks," Kowacs explained. "We couldn't decontaminate them properly after we searched the spaceport this morning, just hosed 'em off. If you've got any pull with the yard facilities, maybe you could get us time in a drydock to—"

"Trucks?" gasped the security chief. He half-rose from his bench seat before he realized how far out over the road that left him poised. "This truck hasn't been decontaminated?"

"Sir," Sergeant Bradley interrupted with a flat lie, delivered in as certain a tone as that of the Pope announcing Christ is risen. "They've undergone full field procedures and are perfectly safe. But we may have to spend twelve hours a day for the next month aboard them, so we'd like to be twice safe."

"Yes, well," Sitterson said, easing back down on the bench with a doubtful expression. "I understand that. Of course I'll take care of it."

Sitterson wanted the prisoners at his headquarters, not the internment facility. The trucks and their heavily armed cargo wallowed through traffic to the parade square, drawing looks of interest or disgust—depending on personality—from the rear echelon types they passed.

The Headhunters were in dual-use vehicles with enough power to keep a full load airborne without using ground effect. They could have flown above the traffic—except that above ground flight was prohibited by base regulation, and Base Thomas Forberry came under Naval control instead of that of the district government. The Shore Police would have been more than happy to cite Commander Sitterson, along with Kowacs and all four of his drivers.

When the trucks grounded in front of the Security Headquarters, dimpling the plastic matting, Kowacs' men began unfastening the prisoners and Sitterson called into his helmet microphone, "Gliere, open the holding cells. We'll keep all the prisoners here for now."

Kowacs couldn't hear the response, but as the building opened, Sitterson added, "Oh—there's a body also. Have someone from forensics work it up for identification and then take care of it, will you?"

"This isn't right!" shouted the boy, Andy, as the marines to either side of him manhandled him along faster than his burn-stiffened legs wanted to move. "You should be helping us! You should be helping us!"

"Come on ahead," Sitterson ordered Kowacs. "I want you with me during the interrogation. They know you mean business."

"Right," Kowacs said on his command channel. "Daniello, you're in charge till I get back. Keep everybody in the barracks, but we're not on alert status till I tell you different."

He strode along beside Sitterson and Hesik. The Bethesdan colonel seemed to be recovering somewhat, but he hadn't spoken since the prisoner made her ill-advised leap for a weapon.

Or for the baby. Well, a bad idea either way.

Sienkiewicz was a half-step behind him. Kowacs looked over his shoulder—looked up—and said, "Did I tell you to come along, Corporal?"

"Yessir," Sienkiewicz said. With her extra bandoliers of ammunition and grenades, and the heavy, meter-long plasma weapon slung behind her hips against need, she looked like a supply train on legs.

Hell, he did want her around.

The cells were open and empty. The guard and the trio of petty-officer interrogators saluted the security chief as he stepped past them, then roughly took the prisoners from the marines and pushed them into the cells—the men alone, the women in pairs. One of the women held the infant. The doors clanged shut when the cells were filled.

In the outer office, Sitterson said, "You can wait here." Not as brusque as "Wait here," but the same meaning. His entourage—Kowacs a big man, Sienkiewicz huge, and Hesik looking thin and trapped—glanced at one another and at the petty officer behind the desk. There wasn't enough room for any of them to sit on the couch.

"Gliere," the security chief said as an afterthought on his way to his private quarters. "Get the number from Kowacs' helmet and see to it that the recordings go to File Thirteen. The whole company. You know the drill."

"Yes sir," Gliere replied. "Just a minute while I take care of the cells."

The non-com was watching miniature holos of the holding area. He touched a switch on his desk. Another of the cells closed with a ringing impact.

Sitterson was back within five minutes. He was wearing a fresh uniform; the skin of his face and hands was pink with the enthusiasm with which he had scrubbed himself.

Kowacs hoped the security chief never learned how hot the trucks really were. He'd order a court-martial, beyond any question. It was easy to forget just how nervous rear echelon types got about their health and safety.

"All right," the security chief said brightly. "Let's get down to it, shall we? Gliere, we'll take the man in the end cell."


"He thinks he's tough." Sitterson added with a laugh which Hesik echoed.

Kowacs said nothing. He tossed his automatic rifle to Sienkiewicz and gestured her to stay where she was. The corporal's grimace could have meant anything.

Andy tried to walk when they moved him across the aisle into an interrogation room, but he was barely able to stand. He had no clothes to strip off. The sealant/analgesic Sienkiewicz had sprayed on from her first aid kit had dried to mauve blotches like the camouflage of a jungle animal.

When the door shut behind them, the boy wavered and caught himself on the room's small table.

"Attention, damn you!" Sitterson ordered, pulling out his shock rod.

"Why are you doing this to me?" the boy cried. Delirium, drugs, and the decay toxins loosed by his injuries turned his voice into a wail of frustration.

"Why didn't you turn yourselves in?" Sitterson shouted. "Why were you hiding out with your guns?"

"We did call in!" Andy said. "And your toady Hesik said wait, he'd send vehicles for us."

"Liar!" Hesik said as he swung the butt of his pistol at the boy's mottled forehead.

You don't learn a damned thing from dead prisoners, and the blow would have killed had it landed.

It didn't land because Kowacs caught the Bethesdan colonel's wrist in one hand and twisted the weapon away with the other as easily as if Hesik were a child.

"Sir," Kowacs said to the security chief. "I think this'll go better if you and I do it alone for a bit, you know?"

"He'll lie!" Hesik said. The marine wasn't looking at him, but his grip was as tight as it needed to be.

Kowacs shrugged toward Sitterson. "He'll talk," he said simply. "Dead, he won't talk."

Sitterson's expression was unreadable. At last he said, "Yes, all right. You and I. Hesik, wait outside. Don't worry."

"He'll lie!" the Bethesdan repeated, but the tension went out of his muscles and Kowacs let him go.

Kowacs handed back the pistol. His eyes were on Hesik, and they stayed on him until the door closed again behind the Bethesdan.

"We can have him back anytime," Kowacs said without emotion to the prisoner. "We can leave the two of you alone, or we can help him with you. If you don't want that, start talking now."

"You think I care?" the boy muttered.

But he did care. He was naked and hurt, badly hurt. Kowacs was huge in his helmet and equipment belt, still black with the grime of the raid; and the marine was a certain reminder of how thorough and ruthless that raid had been.

"Tell us about Lieutenant Milius," Sitterson said. He started to wave his shock rod before he realized that the threat of Kowacs' presence was greater than that of temporary pain. "Where is she?"

"Dead, for God's sake!" the boy blurted. "She was in the terminal building when everything started to go. Ask the marines we took in there. They'll tell you!"

Sitterson slapped him with a bare hand. "You're lying! You're covering for a traitor who murdered a fellow officer!"

It wasn't a powerful blow, but it knocked Andy back against the wall. He would have slumped to the floor if Kowacs hadn't caught him and jerked him upright.

"Hesik told you that?" the boy said. His lip was bleeding. "All right, sure—she shot that bastard Bundy. They came to us, told us to back off—we were stirring up the weasels too badly."

Kowacs released the boy when he felt him gather himself and straighten.

"Milius told 'em go fuck 'emselves," Andy continued with real venom. "And your precious Bundy, he says, if she won't stop for him, maybe the weasels will take care of the problem. That's why she blew the bastard away. I just wish we'd taken out Hesik and the rest of the mothers in that cell then when we had the chance."

"Lying little swine!" Sitterson cried. He grabbed the boy by the hair with one hand, throwing him against the wall while he poked the shock rod toward the prisoner's eye.

The singed hair crumbled. Sitterson's hand slipped in a gooey pad of sealant and serum from the burned skin beneath.

"Sir," said Kowacs as he slid between the collapsing boy and the security chief who stared at his hand with an expression of horrified disgust. "We made a mistake. If these guys are the ones got the Ninety-Second into the port, then they're straight. Even if they did shoot your o.t.s. agent."

"If!" the security chief repeated. "He's a dirty little liar, and he's covering for a traitor who didn't come near the port during the assault."

"No sir," Kowacs said. He was standing so close to Sitterson that he had to tilt his head down to meet the eyes of the senior officer. "Milius did lead them in. And she did buy it during the attack."

Sitterson flung himself backward, breathing hard. "Who the hell says?" he demanded. His left hand was clenching and uncurling, but his right held the shock rod motionless so that it did not appear to threaten the marine.

"Toby English," Kowacs said. "Lieutenant English, CO of the Ninety-Second."

Sitterson looked at the Marine. "You're . . ." he began, but his voice trailed off instead of breaking. He swallowed. "Oh, Christ," he said very quietly. "Oh Christ help me if that's true."

"Sure, you can ask Toby," Kowacs said. "The Haig lifted off this morning, but you can send a message torp after her for something this important."

"He's off-planet?" the security chief asked. His face regained the color it had lost a moment before.

"Yeah, but—"

"That's all right," Sitterson interrupted, fully himself again. He opened the door. "We'll adjourn for now, Captain."

Gesturing toward the petty officers waiting for direction, he added, "Two of you, get this one,"—Andy was on the floor, unconscious from shock or the medication—"into his cell and hold him. Just hold them all until I get back to you."

"Sir, I—" Kowacs began.

"Return to your unit and await orders, Captain," Sitterson said crisply. "This operation has been a success thus far, and I don't intend to spoil it."

Kowacs didn't like to think about the implications of that while he and Sienkiewicz hitched a ride back to the barracks on a fuel truck going in the right direction. He didn't like to think about Colonel Hesik's smile, either.

But he couldn't forget either thing.

* * *

Kowacs was typing his report, hating the job and hating worse what he was having to say, when Bradley and Sienkiewicz pushed aside the sound-absorbent curtains of his "office."

"Bugger off," Kowacs said, glaring at the green letters which shone demurely against the white background of the screen. "I've got today's report to do."

"Figured you'd get Hoofer to do that," Bradley said. "Like usual."

Kowacs leaned back in the chair that was integral with the portable console and rubbed his eyes. Hoofer, a junior sergeant in First Platoon, was good with words. Usually he'd have gotten this duty, but . . .

"Naw," Kowacs said wearily. "It's knowing how to say it so that nobody back on Tau Ceti or wherever gets the wrong idea. And, you know, burns somebody a new one for shooting a woman in the back."

"She shouldn't have run," Sienkiewicz said.

"Right," said Kowacs. "A lot of things shouldn't happen. Trouble is, they do."

He looked expectantly at the two non-coms. He was waiting to hear why they'd interrupted when they, of all people, knew he didn't like company at times like this.

Bradley eased forward so that the curtain surrounding the small enclosure hung shut. "We went for a drink tonight at a petty officers' club with Gliere, the Tech 8 in Sitterson's office. The Mil Gov bars have plenty of booze, even though you can't find enough to get a buzz anywhere else. He got us in."

"Great," said Kowacs without expression. "If you'd brought me a bottle, I'd be glad to see you. Since you didn't—"

"Thing is," the field first continued as if he hadn't heard his commander speak, "Gliere's boss called him back after the office was supposed to be closed."

Kowacs raised an eyebrow.

"Pissed Gliere no end," Bradley said. "Seems Sitterson wants him to clear the data bank of all records relating to the bunch we brought in today. Wants it just like that lot never existed—and the file overwritten so there aren't any gaps."

Nick Kowacs got up from the console. The chair back stuck; he pushed a little harder and the frame bent thirty degrees, out of his way and nothing else mattered.

He began swearing, his voice low and nothing special about the words, nothing colorful—just the litany of hate and anger that boils from the mouth of a man whose mind is lake of white fury.

"What does he think we are?" Sienkiewicz asked plaintively. "They were on our side."

"Right," said Kowacs, calm again.

He looked at his console for a moment and cut its power, dumping the laboriously created file into electron heaven.

"That's why it's Sitterson's ass if word gets out about what he did." Kowacs continued. He shrugged. "What we all did, if it comes to that."

"They're still in the holding cells," Bradley said. "The prisoners. I sorta figure Sitterson's going to ask us to get rid of that part of the evidence. 'Cause we're conscienceless killers, you know."

"Except the bastard won't ask," Sienkiewicz said bitterly. "He gives orders."

"Right," said Kowacs. "Right. Well, we're going to solve Sitterson's problem for him."

He sat down at the console again, ignoring the way the damaged seat prodded him in the back.

"Sergeant," he said, "book us to use the drydock late tonight to wash the trucks—between midnight and four, something like that."

"Ah, sir?" Bradley said. "The main aqueduct broke this afternoon. I'm not sure if the naval base has water either."

Kowacs shrugged. "Sitterson said he'd get us a priority," he said. "We'll operate on the assumption that he did."

"Yessir," said Bradley.

"Who do you have on guard duty at Sitterson's office tonight?" Kowacs went on.

"I haven't finalized the list," Bradley said unemotionally. "It might depend on what his duties would be."

"The doors to the holding cells are controlled by the desk in Gliere's office," Kowacs said.

"Yessir," Bradley repeated. Sienkiewicz was starting to smile. "I got a lot of paperwork to catch up with. I'm going to take the midnight to four duty myself."

"So get your butt in gear," Kowacs ordered. He powered up his console again.

"Sitterson ain't going to like this," Sienkiewicz said with a smile that looked as broad as her shoulders.

Kowacs paused, glancing up at two of the marines he trusted with his life—now and a hundred times before. "Yeah," he agreed. "But you know—one of these days Toby English and me are going to be having a drink together . . . And when we do, I don't want to look him in the eye and tell him a story I wouldn't want to hear myself."

As his men slipped out to alert the rest of the company, Nick Kowacs started to type the operational order that would be downloaded into the helmets of all his troops. Green letters hung in the hologram field, but instead of them he saw images of what would be happening later in the night.

He was smiling, too.

* * *

A jeep, its skirts painted with the red and white stripes of the Shore Police, drove past the District Government Building. Neither of the patrolmen spared more than a glance at the trucks hovering at idle along the four sides of the otherwise empty square.

Kowacs let out the breath he had been holding.

"Hawker Six," Bradley's voice whispered through the helmet phones. "They don't want to come."

"Get them out!" Kowacs snarled without bothering about proper radio discipline.

There were more vehicles moving along the main northsouth boulevard of Base Thomas Forberry. Every moment the Headhunters waited was another chance for somebody to wonder why a truck was parked in front of Security Headquarters at this hour.

Eventually, somebody was going to come up with the obvious right answer.

"On the way, Hawker Six," Bradley replied.

They'd raised the sidings on each vehicle, so that you couldn't tell at a glance that the trucks held the entire 121st Marine Reaction Company, combat-equipped.

You also couldn't tell if Kowacs' own truck carried thirteen internees—who would revert to being Bethesdan civilians as soon as the trucks drove through the Base Forberry perimeter on their way to the naval dockyard three kilometers away.

If everything worked out.

"Alpha Six to Hawker Six," reported Daniello, whose platoon waited tensely in its vehicle on the south side of the square. "A staff car approaching with a utility van."

"Roger, Alpha Six," Kowacs replied.

Officers headed back to quarters after partying at their club. Maybe cheerful—and maybe mean—drunks looking for an excuse to ream somebody out. Like whoever was responsible for trucks parking in the parade square.

"Hawker Five—" Kowacs muttered, about to tell Bradley to hold off on the prisoners for a moment.

He was too late. The first of the Bethesdans was coming out between the arms of two Marines, just like he'd been carried in. Andy, a boy trying to look ready to die; and with his injuries and fatigue, looking instead as if he already had.

"What—," Andy demanded.

Sienkiewicz stepped close, ready to club the boy before his shouts could give the alarm. Kowacs shook his head abruptly and laid a finger across his own lips.

The car and van whooshed by, their headlights cutting bright swathes through the ambience of Bethesda's two pale moons. The van's axis and direction of movement were slightly askew, suggesting that the driver as well as the passengers had been partying.

"Listen, kid," Kowacs said, bending so that his face was within centimeters of Andy's. "We're going to get you out of the perimeter. What you do then's your own look-out. I don't think Sitterson's going to stir things up by coming looking for you, but Hesik and your own people—that's your business. Understood?"

"Whah?" Andy said. The rest of the prisoners were being hustled or carried out. Andy stepped aside so that they could be handed into the back of the truck. "Why are you doing this?"

"Because I'm fucking stupid!" Kowacs snapped.

There was an orange flash to the south. Kowacs' boots felt the shock a moment before the air transmitted the explosion to his ears, it must have been a hell of a bang to people who weren't a couple kilometers away like Kowacs was.

"Motor pool," Sienkiewicz said, making an intelligent guess. "Late night and somebody got sloppy, drove into a fuel tank." Shrugging, she added, "Maybe it'll draw everybody's attention there."

"I'd sooner all the guards were asleep, like usual," Kowacs replied with a grimace.

"Hawker Six," Bradley called. "Some of these aren't in the best of shape. It'll hurt 'em to be moved."

"They'll hurt a lot worse if we leave 'em for Sitterson, Hawker Five," Kowacs replied. "Get 'em out."

"Alpha Six to Hawker Six," said Daniello. "Two vans headed north. They're highballing."

"Roger, Alpha Six," Kowacs said. "No problem."

What could be a problem was the way lights were going on in the three-story officers' quarters lining the boulevard in either direction from the square. The blast had awakened a lot of people. The officers gawking out their windows couldn't see a damn thing of the motor pool, now painting the southern horizon with a glow as red as sunrise—

But they could see Kowacs' trucks and wonder about them.

Two marines stepped out of the building with an old man who hung as a dead weight. Bradley followed, kicking the door closed behind him. The sergeant held his shotgun in one hand and in his left arm cradled a six-year-old who was too weak with fever for his wails to be dangerous to the operation.

"Here's the last of 'em, sir," Bradley reported, lifting the child to one of the marines in the vehicle.

Andy looked at the sergeant, looked at Kowacs, and scrambled into the truck himself.

"Watch it!" warned Daniello's voice without time for a call sign.

Air huffed across the parade square as the two vans speeding north braked to a halt instead of continuing on. One of the vehicles turned in the center of the square so that its cab faced the District Government Building.

"What the hell?" muttered Kowacs as he flipped his face shield down and switched on the hologram projection from his helmet sensors. His men were clumps of green dots, hanging in the air before him.

The van began to accelerate toward the government building. The driver bailed out, to Kowacs' eyes a dark smudge on the plastic ground sheathing—

And a red dot on his helmet display.

"Weasels!" Kowacs shouted as he triggered a long burst at the driver. His tracers gouged the ground short of the rolling target, one of them spiking off at right angles in a freak ricochet.

Most of his men were within the closed trucks. Bradley's shotgun boomed, but its airfoil loads spread to clear a room at one meter, not kill a weasel at a hundred times that range. Where the hell was—

The weasel stood in a crouch. The bullet that had waited for Kowacs to take up the last, least increment of trigger pressure cracked out, intersected the target, and crumpled it back on the ground.


The square hissed with a moment of dazzling brilliance, false lightning from the plasma gun Corporal Sienkiewicz had unlimbered instead of using the automatic rifle in her hands when the trouble started. Her bolt bloomed across the surface of the van, still accelerating with a jammed throttle and twenty meters from the front door of the District Government Building.

The explosives packed onto the bed of the van went off, riddling the building's facade with shrapnel from the cab and shattering every window within a kilometer.

Kowacs had been steadying himself against the tailgate of his truck. It knocked him down as the blast shoved the vehicle sideways, spilling Headhunters who were jumping out to get their own piece of the action.

But the explosion also threw off the weasels in the second van who were spraying bright blue tracers in the direction from which the marines' fire had come.

Klaxons and sirens from at least a dozen locations were doing their best to stupefy anyone who might otherwise be able to respond rationally.

Kowacs lay flat and aimed at the weasels. There was a red flash from their vehicle. Something flew past like a covey of banshees, trailing smoke in multiple tracks that fanned wider as they passed. Twenty or thirty rooms exploded as the sheaf of miniature light-seeking missiles homed on the folks who were rubbernecking from their barracks windows.

It was the perfect weapon for a Khalian commando to use to spread panic and destruction as they sped away in the night in a Fleet-standard van—presumably hijacked at the motor pool, where the previous explosion didn't look like an accident after all.

The missile cluster wasn't a goddam bit of good against the Headhunters, blacked out and loaded for bear.

Only a handful of marines from each platoon was clear of the hampering trucks, but their fire converged on the Khalian vehicle from four directions. Tracers and sparks from bullet impacts flecked the target like a festival display—

Until Sienkiewicz's second plasma bolt turned it into a fluorescent bubble collapsing in on itself.

One of the weasels was still alive. Maybe it'd been in the cab and shielded when the bolt struck the back of the van. Whatever the cause, the weasel was still able to charge toward Security Headquarters, firing wild bursts from its machine pistol.

You expected the little bastards to be tough, but this one was something special. Kowacs himself put four rounds into the Khalian's chest, but it had to be shot to doll rags by the concentrated fire of a dozen rifles before what was left finally collapsed.

Kowacs rolled to his feet. His whole left side was bruised, but he couldn't remember how that had happened. He flipped up his face shield and called, "Cease fire!" on the command frequency.

Sienkiewicz's second target was still burning. Fuel, plastics, and weasel flesh fed the orange flames. There was only a crater where the first van had blown up, but burning fragments of it seemed to have started their own little fires at a dozen places around the parade square.

Kowacs switched to the general Base Forberry push and crashed across the chatter with a Priority One designator. "All Fleet personnel. The Headhunters are in control of the vicinity of the Mil Gov complex. Don't fire. Keep your heads down until we've secured the area."

Kowacs turned around.

"Bastards got in through the aqueduct," Bradley snarled beside him. "Sure as shit."

Light from the open door to Security Headquarters blinded Kowacs.

"Kowacs!" shouted Commander Sitterson, a shadow behind his handheld floodlamp with the dimmer shadow of Colonel Hesik behind him. "What are you doing? And where are the—"

Andy stuck his burned face from the back of the truck beside Kowacs.

"You traitor!" Sitterson screamed at the marine captain. "I'll have you shot for this if it's the last thing I—" and his voice choked off when he saw that Kowacs had lifted his rifle to his shoulder because that was what you were trained to do, never hip-shoot even though the target's scarcely a barrel's length away.

And Kowacs couldn't pull the trigger.

Not to save his ass. Not in cold blood.

Not even Sitterson.

When Kowacs heard the first shot, he thought one of his men had done what he couldn't. As Sitterson staggered forward, dropping his light, Colonel Hesik fired his pistol twice more into the commander's back and shouted, "I'm on your side! Don't hurt me! I won't—"

The muzzle blast of Bradley's shotgun cut off Hesik's words as completely as the airfoil charge shredded the Bethesdan's chest.

"I was wrong about how the weasels got in," Bradley said in the echoing silence. "Hesik was a traitor who led 'em here before he greased his boss."

Liesl, CO of the Third Platoon, had gotten sorted out from his men and was standing beside Kowacs. "Gamma Six," Kowacs said, nodding as he slapped a fresh magazine into his rifle, "get aboard and get this truck over to the dock for washing, just like we planned."

"Aye aye, sir," Liesl said. Bickleman was driving again. He boosted engine thrust as soon as he heard the order. The vehicle and its cargo began to move with marines still lifting themselves in over the tailgate.

"Alpha Six," Kowacs said on his command frequency, "secure the boulevard to the south. Maybe there's not another load of bandits, but I don't like surprises. Beta Six, spread your men out and search the trucks we nailed. And watch it."

There was a long burst of automatic fire, but it came from a barracks and wasn't aimed anywhere in particular. Somebody whose room had taken a Khalian rocket had survived to add to other people's confusion.

"Headhunter Command to all Fleet personnel!" Kowacs said. "Stop that wild shooting or we'll stop it for you."

All the real problems were over for now. Kowacs didn't think he'd ever be able to tell the true story. Maybe to Toby English over a beer.

That didn't matter.

All that mattered was that he didn't have to admit, even to himself in the gray hours just before dawn, that he'd murdered thirteen civilians to cover an administrative error.


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