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A Story of The Fleet

Most of the Headhunters were experienced enough to know that the Bonnie Parker'd been hit—that bone-jarring clang! wasn't just re-entry turbulence.

"Instead of coming in on the deck . . . ," Kowacs said, continuing with his briefing. Barely identifiable holographic images wavered in front of his helmet and the helmets of his troops, poised at the cargo bay doors, " . . . the Jeffersonian militia we're supposed to bail out managed to drop straight down into the middle of their objective, a Weasel air-defense installation."

The Bonnie Parker was still under control. Not that there was a damn thing the 121st Marine Reaction Company in her belly could do if she weren't. The Headhunters crouched in two back-to-back lines, ready to do their jobs as soon as their ship touched down and her long doors opened.

As it was, there wasn't half enough time for Kowacs to tell his troops exactly what their job was.

There wasn't half enough information, either.

The landing vessel bucked. The hull screamed with piercing supersonics like those of a gigantic hydraulic motor—then banged again into the relative silence of re-entry.

Not another hit: a piece tearing loose as a result of the first one.

Not a good sign, either.

Corporal Sienkiewicz, Kowacs' company clerk—and bodyguard—was nearly two meters tall and solid enough to sling a shoulder-fired plasma weapon in addition to her regular kit. She grinned in a close approximation of humor to Bradley, the field First Sergeant, and murmured, "Bet you three to one in six-packs, Top: we don't ride all the way to this one."

"They figured they could keep the Weasel's heads down with suppression clusters until they landed," Kowacs said as he watched the gray, fuzzy holograms his helmet projected for him. Instead of a Fleet hull, the Jeffersonians had used their own vessel—and crew; that was bloody obvious—but their cameras and real-time links were to Alliance standard. "And then the missile launchers couldn't depress low enough to hit their ship."

The air-defense installation was a concrete pentagram of tunnels and barracks, with launchers at each point. The crisp outline danced in the holograms with the electric dazzle of anti-personnel bomblets going off. A red flash and mushroom of smoke marked the Khalian's attempted response: as soon as the missile left its hardened launcher, shrapnel exploded it.

In synchrony with the detonating image, the Bonnie Parker's hull banged.

This time it was another hit.

"Cockpit to cargo," rasped the PA system, distorting the voice of Jarvi, the Command Pilot. "Three minutes to touchdown."

The Jeffersonians—those dick-headed anarchists—must have been carrying five times the normal load of suppression clusters; that and luck were what had saved their asses during the drop.

The extra weight was also why the image of the ground beneath their landing vessel was expanding at such a rate.

"They made it that far," Kowacs continued; his voice cool, his guts cold and as tight as his hand on the stock of his assault rifle. "They landed with the bay doors open, and about half their assault company jumped before the boat was stabilized."

Blurred images degraded a stage further as the editor—an artificial intelligence aboard one of the orbiting support vessels—switched to the feed from the helmet of one of the ground troops. Shouting soldiers, very heavily equipped and logy with the weight of their hardware, lurched to the ground and sprayed streams of tracer into Weasels popping from hatches in the surrounding concrete walls.

The installation had been hardened against air attack. It wasn't intended for defense against infantry landing in its interior.

A shadow fell across the tumbling holograms. The viewpoint changed as the Jeffersonian looked over his shoulder and saw his landing craft balloon away from him with half the troops still hesitating at its doors.

The men who'd jumped weighed at least five tonnes. That sudden release had caused the pilot—already fighting excessive descent speed—to let his craft get away from him.

The ship bounced up ten meters on thrust. Before the pilot could get it back on the ground, one of the launchers had belched a line of smoke. The missile was still accelerating when it hit the landing craft, but its warhead didn't need the boost of kinetic energy to do its job.

Tendrils of burning metal trailed from the edges of the hologram where glare hadn't blanked the camera. Then the entire picture went dead.

"There's a magazine in middle of the installation—" Kowacs said, continuing with the briefing notes assembled from panicked, scrappy messages received in orbit after the landing craft and its booster link were lost.

The light banks in the Bonnie Parker's bay went out. The yellow emergency system came on and the forward doors, port and starboard, started to clam-shell upward. They opened about half a meter, enough to let a frigid, high-altitude wind scream and blast the Marines. Then they jammed.

Somebody started to pray in Kowacs' earphones. Because the system was locked for the briefing, the voice had to be one of the platoon leaders he'd known for years—but he didn't recognize it.

"—in which many of the friendlies have holed up awaiting rescue," Kowacs continued as if his palms weren't wet and icy, as if part of his mind didn't wish a flash like the one that ate the Jeffersonian craft would end this.

Sergeant Bradley slipped between the lines of Marines, patted one on the shoulder. The high-pitched prayers stopped in mid-syllable. It didn't matter who it'd been, didn't matter at all.

For a moment, Kowacs had thought it might be his own voice.

"We'll land—" he began, speaking louder instinctively though he knew the system would compensate for the wind-rush by raising the gain in the Headhunters' earphones.

The Bonnie Parker's emergency lighting flicked out, then back. The starboard rear door, the one which the Weapons Platoon faced, cycled upward without stopping.

"Cockpit to cargo," said the PA system in O'Hara's voice. If O'Hara was speaking, it meant the command pilot had her hands full.

Or was dead.

"Rig to jump in sixty seconds. I say again, rig to jump."

"Headhunter command to cockpit," Kowacs said, tripping his helmet's liaison channel. The four platoon leaders had stepped out of line without needing the orders there was no time to give, checking their units' newer members who might never have made a wire-discharge jump in combat. "Will we be in guidance range of the target?"

There was a clatter as Weapons Platoon jettisoned its belt-fed plasma weapons and their ammo drums out the hatchway. The guns were too heavy to be supported by the emergency wire-discharge packs that were all the Headhunters had available now.

"That's a rog, Headhunter," O'Hara bellowed, his words broken either by static or by the sound of an electrical fire in the cockpit. "Some of you, at least. But you'll need to find your own way home."

First and Third Platoons were reporting ready in the holographic heads-up display in front of Kowacs' eyes. The green dot for Weapons appeared as he switched back to the unit push and said, "We've got one door so we'll jump by sticks, Delta first, then Gamma—"

Second Platoon winded READY but Kowacs continued with what he'd intended to say, "—then Alpha, last Beta. Your helmets have the coordinates downloaded. They'll guide to the intended landing zone—"

"Jump!" screamed the PA system. "Jump, damn you!"

"Go!" said Kowacs.

Weapons Platoon cleared the doorway, one Marine holding back a micro-second until Bradley shoved him from behind. Third Platoon was already pushing into position from the opposite side of the bay, hunched forms fumbling with the reels of wire attached to their equipment harness.

Nobody'd expected to jump until seconds ago. They'd been ready to throw their jump gear away as soon as the Bonnie Parker touched down. Now they realized that if the reel unhooked, they'd freefall while the thirty-meter wire floated in the air until its powerpack could no longer polarize the charges at its opposite ends.

"Gamma, go!" snapped Lieutenant Mandricard, and Third Platoon was in the air before Kowacs had thought they were ready. A couple of the men were a step behind the others. They dived for the opening, so graceless and massive in their loads of combat equipment that they looked like pianos tipping over a balcony.

He only hoped they'd get their tumbling under control before the dischargers deployed. If two wires fouled, their charges shorted and—

"Alpha—" ordered Lieutenant Seeley over the command net. She was muscling to the hatch one of her Marines who'd stumbled when the Bonnie Parker bucked; as the ship did again, making the whole platoon wobble like ten-pins but without falling until Seeley completed, "—go!"

The jump door was empty. The bay of the Bonnie Parker lighted with crackling brilliance as one of Second Platoon's newbies hit his manual deployment switch while checking his jump reel one last time.

The wire lashed about like a demented cobra, shorting its juice every time a coil touched metal. Within two seconds, the sparks vanished into a net of purple afterimages. The Marine stood stricken—and his wire lay limp and useless.

"I'll get him, Placido," Kowacs said, stepping to the newbie before the Second-Platoon lieutenant could. Kowacs let the sling hold his assault rifle. His right hand slipped his own jump reel from his belt, fingers working the catches with the ease of smooth practice, while his left stripped the newbie's dead unit.

"Go! Beta," Kowacs ordered. Placido hesitated between the door and the newbie. Not all of his platoon was in position; those who were, jumped—and the remainder followed raggedly, each Headhunter lunging out as soon as there was open space before him.

The newbie would have jumped too, jerking himself away from Kowacs before the fresh reel was in place. Instinctively the kid preferred to die rather than to be left behind by his unit.

No problem. Corporal Sienkiewicz gripped the newbie's equipment harness, and nobody she held was going anywhere. Kowacs finished hooking the reel, slapped the kid on the shoulder and shouted, "Go!" as he turned to take the spare unit Bradley had snatched from the equipment locker five meters away.

Sienkiewicz flung the kid across the Bonnie Parker's bucking deck, putting her shoulders into the motion. He was bawling as he sailed through the hatch with Lieutenant Placido beside him.

"Here, sir!" Sergeant Bradley shouted, lobbing the replacement discharge reel toward Kowacs because the Bonnie Parker had begun to vibrate like the blade of a jackhammer. Kowacs raised his hands, but the gentle arc of the reel that would save his life changed into a cork-screw as the landing vessel tried to stand on her tail.

One of the bay doors torqued off into the airstream. Kowacs couldn't tell where the discharge reel went because all sixteen of the bay's emergency lights blew up in simultaneous green flashes. Kowacs was tumbling, and when he could see anything it was the great cylinder of the Bonnie Parker above him, dribbling blazing fragments of itself as it plunged through the dark sky.

The Bonnie Parker'd been a good mount, a tough old bird. To the Marines she carried into one part of Hell after another, she'd been as good a friend as hardware could be to flesh and blood. But this was a business in which your luck ran out sooner or later. The Bonnie Parker's luck had run out; and the only difference between the landing vessel and Captain Miklos Kowacs, dropping unsupported through the atmosphere of a hostile planet, was the size of the hole they'd make when they hit the ground.

"Location," Kowacs ordered, and his helmet obediently projected a hologram read-out onto the air rushing past. Three kilometers from the intended target area, which didn't matter now, and, according to the laser altimeter, forty-seven hundred meters in the air.

Very shortly that wouldn't matter either, but the numbers weren't spinning down as quickly as Kowacs would've thought. Spreading his arms and legs slowed him enough that, even with the weight of his gear, he might not be travelling more than, say, thirty meters a second when he hit.

The commo still worked, though there was a hash of static from jamming, other communications, and the band-ripping petulance of plasma weapons.

"Six to all Headhunters," Kowacs said on the unit push. "We're going to be landing south of the target, most of us. Attack the south face. See if you can get some support to knock down a section of the wall. I don't want any unnecessary casualties, but remember—unless we move fast, the Weasels won't've left us anybody to rescue."

Kowacs took a deep breath without closing the communication. Then he said the rest of what he had to say. "Delta Six, I'm passing command to you. Acknowledge. Over."

"Roger, Six," said Lieutenant Woking in a voice as calm as Kowacs had tried to keep his own. He wasn't the senior lieutenant, but he'd been in the 121st longer than the other three, and Weapons Platoon would be on the ground first.

Nobody was going to argue with Kowacs' final order, anyway.

"Everybody get an extra Weasel for me," Kowacs said, unable to see the useless holograms for his tears. "Headhunter Six out."

Somebody grabbed his right hand.

Kowacs twisted. Another Marine, anonymous with his faceshield lowered, but Bradley beyond doubt. The field first hadn't deployed his own static discharger yet. It wouldn't support two, not heavily-equipped Marines. That'd been tried, and all it meant was that the guy who'd fucked up took his buddy with him.

"Let go!" Kowacs shouted without keying the commo. Bradley's muscles were seasoned to holding his shotgun ready for use through the shock of combat jumps; Kowacs couldn't pull his hand free.

Corporal Sienkiewicz grabbed Kowacs' left hand. As Kowacs looked back in surprise, the non-coms popped their discharge reels simultaneously.

When the long wires were powered up, static repulsion spun them off their reels in cascades of purple sparks. They acted as electrical levers, forming powerful negative charges at the top of the wire and in the air beneath the reel itself. Their mutual repulsion tried to lift the man to whom the reel was attached—for as long as the powerpack could maintain the dynamically-unstable situation.

Static dischargers weren't perfect. Jumping in a thunderstorm was as surely suicide as it would have been with a conventional parachute, though because of lightning rather than air currents. Still, a Marine—or the artificial intelligence in the Marine's helmet—could angle the wire and drop at a one-to-one slant, regardless of wind direction, allowing precision as great as that a landing vessel could provide.

It wasn't safe; but nobody who volunteered for a Marine Reaction Company figured to die in bed.

"This isn't going to work!" Kowacs shouted over the wind-rush.

"It'll work better than remembering we didn't try," Sienkiewicz shouted back. "Start pickin' a soft place to land."

The non-coms were taking a calculated risk which they felt was part of their job; just as Kowacs himself had done when he gave the newbie his discharge reel. Not much he could say about that.

What the hell. Maybe they'd make it after all.

Vertical insertions were scary under the best conditions, and a night drop was that in spades. Though the laser altimeter gave Kowacs a precise read-out, his eyes told him he was suspended over the empty pit of Hell—and his gut believed his eyes.

Dull orange splotches lighted three sections of the blackness, but there was no way to judge the extent of the fires. Burning cities, burning vehicles—or the burning remains of landing vessels like the Bonnie Parker, gutted in the air by Weasel defenses.

Occasional plasma bolts jeweled the night with a sudden intensity that faded to afterimages before the eye was aware of the occurrence. Even more rarely, a secondary explosion bloomed at the point of impact, white or orange or raw, bubbling red. Even the brightest of the blasts reached Kowacs' ears as a distance-slowed, distance-muted rumble, barely audible over the rush of air.

They seemed to be plunging straight down. "Top, are you guiding?" Kowacs demanded as his altimeter spun from four into three digits and continued to drop.

"Are you nuts?" Sienkiewicz said before Bradley had time to reply. "We got enough problems keeping the wires from tangling as it is. Sir."

"Oh—roger," Kowacs said in embarrassment. He should've thought of that. When he gave himself up for dead, he seemed to have turned off his mind.

And that was a real good way to get your ass killed.

They were low enough to see a pattern of lights beneath them, half a dozen buildings within a dimly-illuminated perimeter. A vehicle with powerful headlights carved a swath through the darkness as it drove hell-for-leather toward the compound. For good or ill, the three Marines were going to land within the perimeter at about the time the vehicle entered by the gate.

"When we touch down—" Kowacs started to say.

His altimeter read 312 meters one moment—and 27 a micro-second later as a starship glided beneath them, black-out and covered with radar-absorbent resin.

Somebody—Bradley or Sienkiewicz—swore in amazed horror. Then both non-coms twisted, fighting to keep their lines from crossing and shorting out in the roaring airstream.

Kowacs, hanging from his friends' hands, watched the ship make its landing approach. His mind took in details of the vessel and the movement around it, considering options coolly—

Because otherwise he'd think about a crackle of energy above him and a sickening drop for the last hundred meters to the ground. Dead as sure as five kilometers could make him.

"Ready!" he called. The ship had crossed under them, then slowed to a near halt just above the ground. They were slipping over it again on the opposite vector, neither descent quite perpendicular. Steam and smoke rose from the center of the compound, swirling violently in the draft from the ship's passage and her lift thrusters. The vapors formed a tortured screen where they were cut by the blue-white headlights of the ground vehicle that had just raced through the gate.

The ship was Khalian. Her vertical stabilizer, extended for atmosphere travel, bore the red hen-scratches that the Weasels used for writing.

"Now!" Kowacs ordered. The three Marines tucked out of the pancake posture they'd used to slow their descent, letting the ground rush up at a hell of a clip. They sailed over a metal-roofed building and hit rolling, short of a second structure—warehouses or something similar, windowless and austere.

Bradley's line still had enough of a charge to splutter angrily when it dragged the roof and grounded. Sienkiewicz was thirty kilos heavier than the field first, even without the weight of her plasma gun and the other non-standard gear she insisted on adding to her personal load. Her line popped only a single violet spark before it went dead.

Close. Real fucking close.

And it wasn't over yet.

Kowacs had been as prepared as you could be to hit the ground faster than humans were intended, but Bradley had released his right hand a fraction later than Sienkiewicz had dropped his left.

Kowacs twisted, hit on his left heel, and caromed like a ground-looping airplane instead of doing a neat tuck-and-roll as he'd intended. His left knee smashed him in the chest, his backpack and helmet slammed the ground—and when he caught himself, his rifle sprang back on its elastic sling to rap his hip and faceshield.

Pain made his eyes flash with tears. His hands, now freed, gripped and aimed the automatic rifle.

Pain didn't matter. He was alive, and there were Weasels to kill.

"Helmet," Kowacs said, "translate Khalian," enabling the program against the chance he'd hear barked orders soon.

"Clear this way," whispered Bradley, pointing his shotgun toward one end of the five-meter alley between warehouses in which they'd landed. He spoke over Band 3 of the radio, reserved for internal command-group discussion. The low-power transmission permitted the three of them to coordinate without trying to shout over the ambient noise.

Which, now that they were down with no wind-rush to blur other racket, seemed considerable.

"Clear mine," echoed Sienkiewicz, covering the opposite direction with her rifle while they waited for their captain to get his bearings.

"Are there doors to these places?" Kowacs asked, pretending he didn't feel a jabbing from his ankle up his left shin—and praying it'd go away in another couple steps. He slouched past Bradley to a back corner. The two males curved around the warehouses in opposite directions, like the hooks of a grapnel, while Sienkiewicz covered their backs.

In the other direction, the starship's lift jets snarled and blew fragments of baked sod into the air. A siren, perhaps mounted on the vehicle the Marines had seen arriving, wound down with a querulous note of it own.

The buildings backed up to the perimeter fence. None of the inhabitants had interest to spare from the ship that had just landed in the center of the compound.

"No door here," Bradley reported from the back of his building. He spoke with a rising inflection, nervous or just quivering with adrenalin looking for a chance to kill or run.

"We'll go this way," Kowacs muttered to his team as his left hand switched on the forty-centimeter cutting blade he'd unslung in anticipation. The unloaded whine changed to a howl of pure delight as its diamond teeth sliced into the corrugated metal wall of the building.

This was the sort of job for which the cutter was intended, though the 'tools' wouldn't have been as popular in Marine Reaction Companies had they not been so effective in hand-to-hand—hand-to-paw—combat. Kowacs swept the powered blade in a wide arc while the non-coms poised to rake the interior if anything moved when the wall fell away.

Kowacs' mouth was open. To someone outside his head, he looked as if he were leering in fierce anticipation.

In reality, he was stiffening his body to absorb a burst of shots. Weasels inside the warehouse might decide to fire into the center of the pattern his cutter drew, and the first he'd know of their intention was the impact of bullets sparking through the sheet metal.

Three quarters of the way around the arc, Kowacs' blade pinged on a brace; the section wobbled like a drumhead. Sienkiewicz leaped at the wall behind the heel of her right boot, burst into the dark warehouse, and sprawled over a pile of furniture stored there.

"Bloody Hell!" she snarled as she rolled to her feet, but their helmet sensors indicated the warehouse was cold and unoccupied. Kowacs and Bradley were laughing as they clambered over the accidental barrier.

Kowacs swept his eyes across the clutter, using sonic imaging rather than white light. Sienkiewicz had tripped on a sofa. Like the rest of the furniture stored in clear film against the back wall, it was ornate, upholstered—

And quite clearly designed for humans. Short-legged Khalians would find it as uncomfortable as humans did the meter-high ceiling of a Weasel bed alcove.

"Let's go," Kowacs said, but he and his two Marines were already slipping down the aisle between stacked cubical boxes of several sizes. The glare of whatever was going on in the center of the compound flickered through the louvered windows at the front of the building.

Sergeant Bradley's load of combat gear bulked his wiry form, changing the texture of his appearance in a way that it didn't his heavily-built companions. He was taking shorter steps with his right leg than his left, and the twitch of his pack amplified the asymetric motion.

Kowacs glanced at him.

Bradley looked back, his expression unreadable behind the faceshield. "No problem, cap'n," he said. "We ain't holdin' a track meet."

He pulled a five-unit grenade stick from his belt, poising his thumb above the rotary arming/delay switch that would tell the bombs when to detonate.

Kowacs didn't have to see Bradley's face to visualize the smile that was surely on it.

The sort of smile a cat wears with its teeth in a throat. The sort of smile Kowacs himself wore.

The windows were narrow but the full height of the front wall. They flanked a door whose crossbar had a manual unlocking mechanism on this side. Sienkiewicz worked it gently, holding her plasma weapon ready, while Kowacs and Bradley peered through the louvers.

The only light in the warehouse was what trickled through the windows themselves. There was no possibility that those outside would notice the Headhunters preparing for slaughter.

The Khalian vessel was small for a starship, a cylinder no more than sixty meters in length; but, unlike the Bonnie Parker, it wasn't designed to land outside a proper spaceport. The pilot had given up trying to balance on his lift jets and had dropped to the ground. The narrow-footed landing legs, intended to stabilize the ship on a concrete pad, carved through the flame-blackened sod like knifeblades; the belly of the craft sank deep enough to threaten an explosion when the jets fired again on lift-off.

The hundred or more waiting humans crowded close, some of them yelping as those behind pushed them against still-hot metal. Vapor puffed from the starship as an airlock started to valve open.

A big air cushion vehicle with polished brightwork, its wheeled outriggers lowered for high-speed road travel, pushed close to the airlock with a careless disregard for the clamoring pedestrians. As a ramp extended from the starship, the car's door opened and a plump, self-important man got out. His multi-colored clothing was as rich and obviously civilian as the vehicle in which he'd arrived.

"Say when," Sienkiewicz demanded, her foot poised to shove open the door and fire her plasma weapon. She had no view of what was going on outside. "Say when!"

"Sir, what the Hell is going on?" Bradley whispered. "These aren't—I mean, they're. . . ."

"Sie," Kowacs said in a calm, soft voice, "fire directly into the airlock, then flatten yourself. Top, you and I will throw grenades with three-second—" his own thumb armed a bundle of mini-grenades just as he knew Bradley was doing with his own "—delay, air burst."

"And duck out the back, cap'n?" asked the field first.

"And rush the ship, Top," Kowacs corrected with no more emotion than he'd shown when going over the munitions manifest three weeks earlier in Port Tau Ceti. "There won't be time for anybody aboard to close the lock. Not after Sie lights 'em up."

The man from the car strode up the ramp. The rest of the crowd—all males, so far as Kowacs could tell—jumped out of his way as if he were still driving his vehicle. The starship's inner lock had opened, because when the fellow reached the top of the ramp, a human in a black-and-silver uniform appeared from inside the vessel and blocked his way.

For a moment the two men shouted at one another in a language Kowacs didn't recognize. The man in uniform unexpectedly punched the civilian in the stomach, rolling him back down the three-meter ramp. The crowd's collective gasp was audible even over the hiss and pinging of the ship's idling systems.

"Sir," begged Sienkiewicz, staring at the blank panel before her. "Sir! When?"

The plump man got to his feet, shouting in fury. A figure stepped from the ship and stood next to the man in uniform.

The newcomer was a Weasel. As it barked to the man in uniform, the translation program in Kowacs' helmet rasped, "What are we waiting for? Don't you realize, even now a missile may be on the way."

"Ready," said Kowacs, his rifle verticle, gripped in his left hand, and the stick of grenades ready in his right.

The uniformed human turned to the Khalian and barked.

"Shoot that one," the helmet translated, "and we'll cram the rest aboard somehow."

The Weasel raised a sub-machine gun. The plump man leaped back into his car with a scream.

"Go," whispered Kowacs.

Sienkiewicz kicked the warehouse door thunderously open an instant before the lightning flash of her plasma bolt lit the night.

The jet of plasma spat between the two figures in the airlock, struck a bulkhead inside the ship, and converted the entrance chamber into a fireball. The blast blew the Weasel and the uniformed human ten meters from the lock, their fur and hair alight.

Anybody inside the starship had burns unless they were separated from the entry chamber by a sealed door. As for the crowd outside—

Kowacs' and Bradley's grenade sticks arced high over the crowd before the dispersion charges popped and scattered the units into five bomblets apiece. The bomblets went off an instant later with the noise of tree-limbs breaking under the weight of ice.

Shrapnel ripped and rang on the front of the warehouse; the crowd flattened like scythed wheat.

Kowacs was up and moving as soon as the last bomblet went off. There was a spot of blood and a numb patch on the back of his right wrist, but nothing that'd keep him from functioning. The grenades spewed glass-fiber shrapnel that lost velocity fast in an atmosphere, but it wasn't completely safe even at twenty meters. Closer up, it—

Sienkiewicz slipped on bloody flesh as she tried to fire a burst from her rifle into the men at the fringe of the grenade explosions. Her shots went off into the night sky, but that didn't matter. The survivors that could move were running away, screaming; some of them blinded; some scattering drops of gore as they waved their arms in terror. . . .

The dispersion charges had spread the bombs well enough that most of the crowd wasn't running.

The Khalian from the ship thrashed in its death agonies on a sprawl of humans. Kowacs' rifle burped three rounds into it anyway as he passed and Bradley—half a step behind—blew off the creature's tusked face with his shotgun.

They weren't so short on ammo that they couldn't make sure of a Weasel.

Kowacs hit the ramp first and jumped it in a single stride despite the weight of his gear. His team faced around reflexively—just as he would have done if one of the others had been in the lead. Bradley fired at the backs of the survivors to keep them moving in the right direction. It was long range for the airfoil loads in his weapon, but one of the targets flung up his hands and dropped a meter short of shelter.

Sienkiewicz put surgical bursts into the windscreen, then the engine compartment of the ground vehicle. The idling turbine screamed, then the fans died and let the skirt flatten. Yellow flames started to flicker through the intake gratings.

A solenoid clacked behind Kowacs as a survivor in the starship's cockpit tried desperately to close the airlock, but the jet of plasma had welded something or fried part of the circuitry.

Kowacs rolled into the ship-center room the plasma bolt had cleansed. A meter-broad circle'd been gouged from the hull metal opposite the lock. Anything flammable at sun-core temperatures was burning or had burned—including a corpse too shrunken to be identified by species. Open hatches lead sternward, toward two cabins and the sealed engineering spaces, and to the left—forward, to the cockpit.

Kowacs fired right and jumped left, triggering a short burst that sparked off the ceiling and bulkheads of the passageway it was supposed to clear.

None of the bullets hit the Khalian running from the cockpit with a sub-machine gun in one hand.

Kowacs hadn't expected a real target. He tried to swing the nuzzle on, but his right side slammed the deck so his shots sprayed beneath the leaping Khalian. The only mercy was that his opponent seemed equally surprised and tried clubbing the Marine with its sub-machine gun. The Weasel had sprung instinctively on its victim instead of shooting as reason would have told it to do.

"Nest-fouling ape!" shouted the translation program as the sub-machine gun's steel receiver crashed on the dense plastic of Kowacs' helmet. The creature's free hand tore the Marine's left forearm as Kowacs tried to keep the claws from reaching beneath his chin and—

Bradley fired with his shotgun against the Weasel's temple.

Kowacs couldn't hear for a moment. He couldn't see until he flipped up the visor that'd been splashed opaque by the contents of the Khalian's skull.

The hatch at the other end of the short passageway was cycling closed. Kowacs slid his rifle into the gap. Its plastic grip cracked, but the beryllium receiver held even though the pressure deformed it.

Bradley cleared a grenade stick.

"No!" Kowacs shouted. He aimed the Weasel sub-machine gun at the plate in the center of the cockpit hatch and squeezed the trigger. Nothing.

"Sir, they'll be protected by acceleration pods!" Bradley cried. "This'll cure 'em!"

The grenade stick was marked with three parallel red lines: a bunker buster.

There was a lever just above the sub-machine gun's trigger, too close for a human to use it easily but just right for a short-thumbed Weasel. Kowacs flipped it and crashed out a pair of shots.

"We need the ship flying!" he cried as his left hand reached for one of his own grenade sticks and the hatch began to open. He tossed the stick through the widening gap and leaped through behind them.

The bundle wasn't armed. The Khalian pilot was gripping a machinepistol in the shelter of his acceleration pod, waiting to rise and shoot as soon as the grenades went off. He didn't realize his mistake until Kowacs' slugs ripped across his face.

"Get the stern cabins," Kowacs ordered. "The cockpit's clear."

Kowacs glanced behind him at the control panel. Undamaged: no bullet holes or melted cavities, no bitter haze of burning insulation.

No obvious controls either.

"Fire in the hole!" Bradley's voice warned over the helmet link.

Kowacs stiffened. Grenades stuttered off in a chain of muffled explosions; then, as he started to relax, another stick detonated.

"Starboard cabin clear," Bradley reported laconically. He'd tossed in a pair of sticks with a two-second variation in delay. A Weasel leaping from cover after the first blast would be just in time for the follow-up.

Ruined the pelt, of course.

The cockpit's four acceleration pods were contour-to-fit units that, when activated, compressed around the form within them. Three of the pods were shrunken tight to hold Khalians like the corpse in one of them, but a side couch was still shaped for a human.

"Port cabin's locked!" Bradley shouted, his voice from the helmet earphones a disconcerting fraction of a second earlier than the same words echoing down the passageway at merely the speed of sound. "Sir, want I should blast it? Can you back me?"

Humans could fly the damned ship.

It was just that none of the humans aboard could fly the vessel. And if Kowacs understood the implication of what that Weasel cried a moment before the plasma bolt gave him a foretaste of eternal Hell, the ship was their only prayer of surviving the next—

"Cap'n," Sienkiewicz reported, "I got a prisoner, and he says—"

Kowacs was already moving before the radio transmission cut off in a blast of static, hugely louder than the crack of the plasma weapon that caused it.

Sergeant Bradley crouched at the corner of the stern passageway. Bradley's shotgun was aimed at the stateroom he'd found locked, but his head craned back over his shoulder as he tried to see what was going on outside the vessel.

Kowacs skidded in the blood and film deposited on the deck of the central cabin when plasma-vaporized metal cooled. He made a three-point landing, his ass and both bootheels, but the captured sub-machine gun was pointed out the airlock where Sienkiewicz stood.

The plasma weapon was on Sienkiewicz' shoulder; a glowing track still shimmered from its muzzle. One of the warehouses was collapsing around a fireball. A surviving local must've made the mistake of calling Sie's attention to him.

"Move it! Move it, dog-brain!" she bellowed to somebody beneath Kowacs' line of vision. "Or by god the next one's in your face!"

As Sienkiewicz spoke, the translation program barked in Weasel through her helmet speaker. She couldn't've captured a—

Kowacs stepped to the corporal's side, then jumped so that the fat civilian scrambling up the ramp in blind panic wouldn't bowl him over. It was the gorgeously-clad fellow who'd strode up the ramp before—and been knocked down it by the human in uniform, with a promise of death if the Headhunter attack hadn't intervened.

"Waved his shirt from the car, Cap'n," Sienkiewicz explained. As she spoke, her eyes searched for snipers, movement, anything potentially dangerous in the night and sullen fires. "I thought. . . . Well, I didn't shoot him. And then he barked, you know, that the place was gonna be nuked but he could fly us out."

"Sure, you did right," Kowacs said without thinking it even vaguely surprising that Sienkiewicz apologized for taking a prisoner alive.

"Quickly, the cockpit!" the machine voice in Kowacs' ear demanded while the prisoner's mouth emitted a series of high-pitched barks. "They'll surely destroy this base any moment. They can't allow any sign of our installations!"

The fellow was still in a panic, but the way he brushed past Kowacs proved that he'd regained his arrogance. He looked clownishly absurd: he'd ripped a piece from his shirt-front to wave as a flag, and at some point recently he'd fouled his loose, scintillantly-blue trousers as well.

"Sir!" Bradley cried. He'd enabled his speaker along with the translation program, so barks counterpointed his words. "This cabin! We can't leave it!"

"Watch it, then, for chrissake!" Kowacs snarled as he strode with the prisoner into the cockpit.

The prisoner slipped as he tried to hop over the Weasel in the passageway. He muttered what must have been a curse, but the words were in the unfamiliar language in which he and the uniformed man had argued before the Khalian appeared.

Somebody fired at the ship with a machinegun—from the side opposite the airlock, so there was no response from Sienkiewicz. The light bullets were no threat to hull plating, but the CLANG-CLANG-CLANG, CLANG-CLANG-CLANG, CLANG-CLANG-CLANG wound Kowacs' mainspring a turn tighter with each short burst.

The prisoner flopped down into one of the center pods. It conformed to his body like a work-piece in a drop forge, spreading sideways and upward to support him in an upright position. Kowacs knelt on the deck beside him, holding the muzzle of the sub-machine gun near the prisoner's ear.

Holographic displays curtained the blank consoles, meshing unexpectedly with a kaleidoscopic fragment of Kowacs' memory.

When he'd dived into the cockpit, aiming and firing before the hunched Khalian could respond, there'd been similar flickers of light over the plastic consoles. They'd died with the seated pilot—but they came up automatically as soon as a living intellect sat before them again.

The prisoner's finger twitched. Six columns of red light mounted higher. The ship rocked gently, dispelling Kowacs' doubt that an obvious civilian would be any better able to fly the damned thing that the Headhunters themselves were. The prisoner was shaking them loose from the soft surface instead of powering-up abruptly and blowing one or more of the blocked nozzles.


The machinegunner had shifted to a position from which he might be able to accomplish something. Kowacs hunched lower, but the bullet ripping through the airlock buried itself in a bulkhead on the third ricochet. The sniper had moved.

Sienkiewicz was all right: her plasma weapon crashed out its last charge. The blast that followed was much too great for a belt of ammunition or a few grenades. The machinegunner must've taken cover in a warehouse—without considering what might be in the cases around him.

"The Weasels are going to nuke this place?" Kowacs demanded of the man beside him. His speaker's barking translation was almost as irritating to him as the bullet impacts had been.

"Not them, you fool!" the prisoner snapped, rocking the ship up ten degrees to port. Kowacs clutched the back of the pod for support. "They don't have brains enough to be concerned. It's the Clan Chiefs, of course, and they're right—" the ship rocked back to starboard, "but I don't intend to die."

"Sir, we're gonna blow the hatch," Bradley reported flatly. Sienkiewicz could back him up, now. The holographic display that took the place of cockpit windows showed one whole side of the compound mushrooming upward in multi-colored secondary explosions.

But a charge heavy enough to blow a bulkhead still wasn't a great idea in the confined space of a ship this small.

"Hold it, Top," Kowacs ordered. "You—prisoner. Can you open and close the door to the port cabin from here?"

"Yes," the prisoner said, grimacing. One of the red columns abruptly turned blue. All six disappeared as the man's finger wagged. The ship settled at a skewed angle.

"Wait!" Kowacs ordered. "Open it a crack for a grenade, then close it again?"

"Yes, yes!" the prisoner repeated, the snarling Khalian vocables seasoning the emotionless translation from Kowacs' headset. "Look, you may want to die, but I assure you that your superiors want me alive! I'm the Riva of Riva Clan!" He made a minuscule gear-shifting motion with his left hand.

"Top! Here it comes!" Kowacs shouted.

Bradley and Sienkiewicz had already been warned by Kowacs' side of the cockpit conversation and the clack as the hatch's locking mechanism retracted.

The corporal cried, "Got 'em!" Her automatic rifle fired a short burst to keep Weasels clear of the gap while Bradley tossed in the grenade. The hatch hadn't quite cycled closed again when the scattering charge momentarily preceded a quintet of sharp pings—not real explosions.

"Shit, Top!" Kowacs cried, squeezing his helmet tight to his knees and clasping his forearms above it. "Not a—"

The bunker buster went off. The starship quivered like a fish swimming; the holographic display went monochrome for a moment, and flexing bulkheads sledged the vessel's interior like a piston rising on its compression stroke.

"Think we oughta give 'em another, Top?" joked Sienkiewicz with the laughter of relief in her voice.

They were okay, then, and both the ship and its controls seemed to have survived the blast. Kowacs could even hear the hatch start to open again, which said a lot for the solidity of the internal divisions on Weasel ships.

"Idiots!" said the prisoner—the Riva, whatever that was; "clan" might only be as close a word as Weasels had to the grouping The Riva headed. "Suicidal fools!"

Kowacs didn't know that he could argue the point. Thing was, doing the job had always been the Headhunter priority, well above concern for side effects. Bradley's bunker buster would sure as Hell've done the job.

Its bomblets sprayed fuel, atomized to mix completely with the surrounding air. When the igniter went off, the blast was somewhere between a fire and a nuclear explosion. If the hatch hadn't resealed the moment before ignition, the pressure wave could've pulverized more than the contents of one cabin.

The Riva's hands wriggled. Four of the flatlined red holograms blipped upward as he fed thrust to selected jets. The starship lifted a trifle, though not as much as it had when the bunker buster went off.

Sergeant Bradley stepped into the cockpit. Kowacs turned with a smile to greet him. They'd survived thus far, and they were about to shake clear of ground zero as the prisoner played the ship with the skill of a concert pianist on a familiar scherzo.

The ship wasn't going anywhere serious with the airlock jammed open, but they could shift a couple kilometers and start hollering for recovery. A captured ship and a human prisoner who'd thought he could give orders to Weasels—that was enough for anybody, even the Headhunters.

Bradley was a man of average size who looked now like a giant as his left hand lifted The Riva from his seat and jerked his face into the muzzle of the shotgun. Bradley had killed often and expertly. There was utter cold fury in his face and voice as he whispered, "You son of a bitch. Why didn't you tell me? Why didn't—"

"Top," said Kowacs, rising to his feet and making very sure that his own weapon pointed to the ceiling. He'd seen Bradley like this before, but never about another human being. . . . 

"—you tell me?" Bradley shouted as his gun rapped the prisoner's mouth to emphasize each syllable.

Sienkiewicz had followed the sergeant; her face bore a look of blank distaste that Kowacs couldn't fathom either.

The ship poised for a moment with no hand at its controls. When it lurched heavily to the ground, Bradley swayed and Kowacs managed to get between the field first and the prisoner who was the only chance any of them had of surviving more than the next few minutes.

"I got 'im, Top," Kowacs said in a tone of careless command, grabbing The Riva by the neck and detaching Bradley by virtue of his greater size and strength. "Let's go take a look, you."

He dragged the prisoner with him into the passageway, making sure without being obvious about it that his body was between the fellow and Bradley's shotgun.

Didn't guarantee the sergeant wouldn't shoot, of course; but there were damn few guarantees in this life.

The cabin door opened inward, which might've been how it withstood the explosion without being ripped off its hinges. Smoke and grit still roiled in the aftermath of the explosion.

Kowacs flipped down his visor and used its sonic imaging; the ultrasonic projection sources were on either side, and the read-out was on the inner surface of the faceshield. Neither was affected by the fact he'd forgotten to wipe the remains of the Weasel off the outside of the visor.

The cabin'd been occupied when the grenade went off, but Kowacs' nose had already told him that.

Five bodies, all human. They'd been huddled together under the bedding. That didn't save them, but it meant they were more or less recognizable after the blast. Two women—young, but adults; and three children, the youngest an infant.

Weapons would have survived the explosion—stood out against the background of shattered plastic and smoldering cloth. There hadn't been any weapons in the cabin.

"You son of bitch," Kowacs said in a soft, wondering voice, unaware that he was repeating Bradley's words. "Why did you do that? You knew, didn't you. . . ." The sentence trailed off without a question, and the sub-machine gun was pointing almost of its own accord.

"Why should I save the heir of Kavir bab-Wellin?" blurted the prisoner, spraying blood from lips broken by the sergeant's blows. "Kavir would have killed me! Didn't you see that? Just because I became The Riva over his father, he would have killed me!"

Somebody shot at the hull again. Either they were using a lighter weapon, or anything seemed mild after the bunker buster had crashed like a train wreck. Sienkiewicz eased to the airlock with her rifle ready, but she wouldn't fire until she had a real target.

"I'll . . . ," Bradley said in a choked voice. He pulled another grenade stick from his belt.

Kowacs was so calm that he could visualize the whole planet, nightside and day, shots and screams and the filthy white glare of explosions.

"No, Top," he said.

He was aware of every one of the ninety-seven Marines in his Headhunters, the living and the dead, even though only Bradley and Sienkiewicz were within range of his helmet's locator. He was walking back to the cockpit, carrying The Riva with him; ignoring the chance of a bullet nailing him as he stepped in front of the airlock—ignoring the burst Sienkiewicz ripped out at the target her light amplifier had showed her.

"Cap'n?" said the field first, suddenly more concerned than angry.

Kowacs dropped the prisoner into the chair out of which he'd been jerked.

"Fly us," he ordered flatly. Then he added, "Helmet. Project. Course to target. Out," and a glowing map hung in front of the ship's holographic controls, quivering when Kowacs' helmet quivered and moved the tiny projection head. The pentagonal air-defense site shone bright green against a mauve background.

"Fly us there. Land us in the middle of it with the airlock facing the pit in the center.'

The Riva's hands made the same initial gestures as before: raising thrust to alternate jets, making the holographic map shiver in wider arcs. He didn't speak.

"Sir, have, ah . . . ," Sergeant Bradley said. He was too good a soldier—and too good a friend—to let anger rule him when he saw his commanding officer in this unreadable mood. "Have our boys captured the place? Because otherwise, the missile batt'ries . . . ?"

He knew Kowacs hadn't gotten any report. Knew also there was no way in hell the One-Twenty-First was going to capture the hardened installation—not after they'd been scattered by the emergency drop and left without the belt-fed plasma weapons that could've taken apart the concrete walls.

The ship see-sawed free with a sucking noise from beneath her hull. All six thrust indicators shot upward. A streak of blue flashed as the vessel shook violently, but the hologram cleared.

They began to build forward speed. Air screamed past the open lock.

"Their computers'll identify us as friendly," Kowacs said.

His eyes were open, but they weren't focused on anything in particular. His left hand was on the prisoner's shoulder as if one friend with another. The muzzle of the sub-machine gun was socketed in The Riva's ear. "There'll be a lock-out to keep 'em from blasting friendlies, won't there, Riva old buddy?"

"There is, but they can override it," barked the prisoner nervously. He was too aware of the gun to turn toward the Headhunters as he spoke. "Look, I can take us to a safe place and you can summon your superiors. I'm very valuable, more valuable than you may dream."

"Naw, we gotta pull out what's left of a Jeffersonian assault company," Kowacs said calmly. "We'll do it fast. Weasels don't think about electronics when you surprise 'em"

"This is madness!" the pilot shouted. "They'll surely kill us all!" There were tears of desperation in his eyes, but his hands kept the ship along the course unreeling on the holographic map.

In two minutes, maybe three, they'd be there. No longer'n that.

"If we can't do it, nobody will," Kowacs said. "The Weasels'll finish 'em off, every damn one of 'em."

Light bloomed with dazzling immediacy a few kilometers behind the ship. The two Marines braced themselves; their prisoner squeezed lower in his acceleration pod.

The vessel pitched. Cabin pressure shot up momentarily as the pressure wave caught them and passed on to flatten trees in an expanding arc.

They were still under control.

Sienkiewicz stepped into the cockpit, moving carefully because of her size and the way the open airlock made the ship flutter in low-level flight. The empty tube of her plasma weapon, slung at buttocks height, dribbled a vaporous fairy-track of ionized metal behind her.

"I just take orders, Miklos," Sienkiewicz said, marking the words as a lie by using Kowacs' first name. "But it was them decidin' to do it their own way that got 'em where they are. I don't see why anybody else needs to die for some anarchist from Jefferson."

"Because it's our job, Sie!" Bradley snapped, his anger a sign that the big corporal spoke for at least part of his own mind as well.

"Two karda to your goal," whispered Kowacs' earphones, transforming The Riva's nervous chirps without translating the Khalian units into human ones.

"No," said Kowacs. "A job's not enough to die for."

He pulled the sub-machine gun from the grip of the Weasel he'd killed in the next pod. They'd need everything they had to give covering fire while the Jeffersonians scrambled aboard.

Bradley took the weapon from his captain. "Better range to the wall than a scattergun," he said.

"I want you to watch our pilot," Kowacs said.

Bradley dropped his shotgun into a patrol sling with its muzzle forward beneath his right arm. He smiled. "Naw, our buddy here knows what I'll toss into the cockpit if the ship starts acting funny before you tell 'im to move out. A bunker buster'll work just as good on his type as it does on little kids."

"Right," Kowacs said without emotion. "Let's move."

"We're Alliance troops," he went on as they filed down the passageway to their positions at the airlock. "So're the Jeffersonians, whatever they think about it. Maybe if we get this crew out, they'll tell their buddies back home that it's a big universe."

He took a deep breath, "If the Alliance don't stick together," he said, "somebody sure God's going to stick it to all of us. One at a time."

Deceleration stresses made the Headhunters sway. A stream of red tracers—Fleet standard, not Khalian—flicked from the ground and rang on the starship's hull.

Their target's broad concrete rampart slid beneath the airlock.

What Kowacs didn't say—what he didn't have to say—was that there'd always be men who acted for safety or comfort or personal pique, rather than for their society as a whole. The five burned corpses in the cabin behind them showed where that led.

It wasn't anywhere Miklos Kowacs and his troops were willing to go.

Not if it killed them.


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