Back | Next

A Story of The Fleet

The Red Shift Lounge was the sort of bar where people left their uniforms back in their billet, so the sergeant who entered wearing dress whites and a chest full of medal ribbons attracted the instant attention of the bartender and the half dozen customers.

The unit patch on the sergeant's left shoulder was a black shrunken head on a white field, encircled by the words 121st marine reaction company. The patch peeped out beneath a stole of weasel tails, trophies of ten or a dozen Khalians.

The Red Shift was part of the huge complex of Artificial Staging Area Zebra, where if you weren't military or a military dependant, you were worse. Everybody in the lounge this evening, including the bartender, was military: the two men in a booth were clearly officers; the two men and the woman drinking beer at a table were just as clearly enlisted; and the stocky fellow at the far end of bar could have been anything except a civilian.

But no uniforms meant no insignia, no questions about who had the right to go find a mattress with who . . . no salutes.

And none of the problems that occurred when somebody figured a couple hot landings gave him the right not to salute some rear-echelon officer.

But down-time etiquette didn't matter when the guy in uniform was a sergeant from the Headhunters, the unit that had ended the war between the Alliance of Planets and the Khalia.

The War between Civilization and Weasels.

"Whiskey," ordered the sergeant in a raspy, angry voice.

"I thought," said one of the officers in diffident but nonetheless clearly audible tones, "that the One-Twenty-First shipped out today on the Dalriada at eighteen hundred hours."

The clock behind the bartender showed 1837 in tasteful blue numerals that blended with the dado lighting.

"For debriefing on Earth," the officer continued.

"And the parades, of course," his companion added.

The sergeant leaned his back against the bar. Something metallic in his sleeve rang when his left arm touched the dense, walnut-grained plastic. "I couldn't stomach that," he said. "Wanna make something of it?"

"Another beer," said the stocky man at the other end of the bar. His voice was mushy. The bartender ignored him.

"No, I don't," said the officer. "I don't suppose I would even if I were on duty."

"Bartender," called his companion. "I'll pay for that whiskey. As a matter of fact, sergeant, would you like to—"

He paused. The first officer was already sliding out of the booth, carrying his drink. "Would you mind if we joined you?" his companion said, getting up and heading for the bar before he completed the question.

"Naw, I'm glad for the company," the sergeant said. "I just couldn't take—I mean, peace with the weasels? We had 'em where we wanted 'em, by the balls. We shoulda kept going till this—" he tugged at his weasel-tail stole "—was the only kinda weasel there was!"

"I'm proud to meet a member of the Headhunters," said the first officer. "My name's Howes—" he stuck out his hand "—and my friend here is, ah, Mr. Lewis."

Beyond any question, the two men were Commanders or even Captains Howes and Lewis when they were in uniform.

"Sergeant Oaklin Bradley," the Headhunter said, shaking hands with both officers. "Sorry if I got a little short . . . but 'cha know, it tears the guts outa a real fighting man to think that we're going to quit while there's still weasels alive."

The bartender put the whiskey on the bar. Bradley's back was to him. The bartender continued to hold the glass for fear the Headhunter would bump it over.

"You were there at the surrender, I suppose?" Howes said as he picked up the whiskey and gave it to Bradley.

The woman, an overweight 'blonde' in a tank top, got up from the table and made her way to the bar. She was dead drunk—but familiar enough with the condition to be able to function that way.

"Aw, Babs," said one of her companions.

Earlier, the trio at the table had been having a discussion in loud, drunken whispers. Just as Sergeant Bradley entered the lounge, Babs had mumblingly agreed to go down on both enlisted men in an equipment storage room near the Red Shift.

If her companions were unhappy about losing the entertainment they'd planned for the evening, it didn't prevent them from joining her and the two officers in the semicircle around the uniformed hero at the bar.

"Oh, yeah," Bradley said. "I was there, all right." He'd waited to speak until chairlegs had stopped scraping and everyone was close enough to hear easily. "We landed right in the middle of the weasel Presidential Palace or whatever. . . ."

"High Council Chambers," Lewis murmured.

"Yes, yes, I'd heard that," Howes said. His eyes were greedy as they rested on Bradley's fringe of weasel tails. "The Khalians worship strength, so just reaching their capital put the Alliance on top of their dominance pyramid."

The man at the end of the bar stared into his empty mug, turning it slowly and carefully as if to make sense of his distorted reflection in the bottom.

"We killed so many of 'em you could float a battleship in the blood," Bradley said, licking his lips. "Never felt so good about anything in my life. We blew our way into the very fucking center of the place, caught all the weasel brass with their pants down . . . and Cap'n Kowacs, he said we had to let 'em surrender instead of burning 'em all the way we shoulda done."

Bradley tossed down his liquor in a quick, angry motion, then slapped the empty glass on the bar. Babs shifted closer so that one of her heavy breasts lay against the Headhunter's biceps.

"Well, it did end the war," Lewis said, examining his fingernails and looking vaguely embarrassed for disagreeing with the hero.

"That part of the war!" Howes retorted sharply. "There's still whoever it was behind the Khalians to begin with."

The bartender refilled the whiskey glass.

The Headhunter at the bar of the Red Shift Lounge remembered. . . . 

* * *

In the belly of Dropship K435, Captain Miklos Kowacs squinted to focus on the image of their target. His holographic display stayed rock-steady as they dived toward the huge Khalian complex, but Kowacs' own eyes and brain vibrated like dessert gelatine.

Speed through an atmosphere meant turbulence, and the lord knew that to survive, the Headhunters were going to need speed as well as electronics that spoofed the Identification: Friend or Foe signal from the weasel fortress.

Every second Marine in the three line platoons carried a man-portable rocket launcher. 'Man-portable' because men were carrying them, not because they were light or handy. Most of the Marines who didn't have launchers lugged three-packs of reloads.

The rockets were to disable the missile launchers of the Khalian base. Even when that job was done, the Headhunters wouldn't have to go underground after the weasels: three of the Marines were strapped under 30-kilo tanks of DPD gas—

Which was designed to sink through the tunnels of a Khalian burrow and kill every living thing that breathed it.

There'd been plenty of room aboard the Attack Transport Dalriada, the K435's mothership, but the Headhuters were over-equipped to fit comfortably onto the dropship itself. Marines squatted shoulder to shoulder, bumping one another and cursing bitterly. . . .

Knowing, among other things, that the weight and bulk of the rockets which the mission required meant that they'd had to leave behind the body armor which they'd otherwise have been wearing during an assault like this.

Of course personal armor wouldn't matter a damn if the ship bit the big one while they were all aboard her.

The units aboard the Dalriada's other seven dropships had normal missions: land on the fringe of a defended area and attack. The 121st was different. Last time out, the Headhunters had captured a Khalian courier vessel; now the whole company was shoehorned into a secret weapon that pretended to be a weasel ship, telling the target not to fire on them as they raced down to cut Khalian throats.

There were various ways the local weasels could configure their IFF. Faint lines across Kowacs' hologram display recorded the burning tracks of the first two drones sent ahead of K435. At the third try, the fortress hadn't fired, so Operations was betting that K435 could get in untouched if it sent the same IFF response as that last drone.

Operations bet a single hundred-Marine chip. The Headhunters were betting their lives.

" . . . seconds to touchdown!" the flight deck warned. A break in transmission erased the figure, but if they were seconds close, K435 was well within the defended envelope.

"Wait for it!" bellowed Sergeant Bradley over the unit frequency as he saw inexperienced troopers rise to jump out before the dropship landed.

No missile explosion, no hammering flares from autoloading plasma weapons. They were all going to live—

Until the weasel ground personnel got done with them. That was fine. Weasels were what the Headhunters had come to meet.

Too many new Marines on this drop. There'd been too fucking many casualties in the Bullseye operation. . . .

Kowacs felt a minuscule lift in K435's bow as the shock of the vessel's approach was reflected from the ground. An instant later, the braking motors fired at full thrust and hammered the rows of squatting Headhunters down against the deck plating.

"Now!" Kowacs, Bradley, and all four platoon leaders shouted as explosive bolts blew away the dropship's hatches and the 121st Marine Reaction Company, the Headhunters, lurched into action.

The world was bright and hot and smelled like brown flames.

An orbital-defense missile roared up from its launcher as the Marines shook themselves out onto the flat roof of the fortress. The sound of the three-tonne missile going supersonic just above the launch tube was ear-splitting.

A Headhunter fired her hand-held rocket launcher while she was still aboard K435. Backblast made that a dangerous trick—but this wasn't a desk job, and starting to shoot instantly was a pretty good response to the shock of landing and the missile launch.

The weasel missile tube was built into the fabric of the fortress. The small Marine round guided for the center of the opening, then fired a self-forging fragment straight down the tube's throat. Even if the armor-piercer didn't penetrate the launcher cap while the next anti-orbital round was being loaded, it was almost certain to jam the cap in place and prevent the weasels from using that tube again.

The weasel fortress was a jumble of huge flat boxes, with point-defense plasma weapons inset at each corner and heavy missile batteries buried deep in their cores. K435 was supposed to have landed on the highest of the twenty to twenty-five cast-concrete prisms, but that hadn't worked out: a box to the west overlooked the one on which the Headhunters were deploying, and the weasel plasma guns could depress at any instant to sweep the whole company to a glowing memory.

"Delta, check 220," Kowacs ordered his Weapons Platoon. His helmet's artificial intelligence put him at the top of the pyramid of lieutenants assigning sectors and sergeants high-lighting specific targets for the Marines of their squad. "Clear the high—"

There was a deafening crash and a blast of static—a plasma discharge radiated all across the radio-frequency spectrum.

Corporal Sienkiewicz stood beside Kowacs because her strength and ruthlessness made her the best bodyguard he could find in a company of strong, ruthless Marines. She'd just fired her hand-carried plasma weapon, a heavy tube that looked delicate against her husky two-meter frame.

A Khalian gun position vanished; then the whole top edge of the concrete prism stuttered with dazzling plasma bursts and long tendrils of quicklime burned from the concrete and spewing away in white-hot tendrils. Delta had its own belt-fed plasma weapons set up on tripods, and they didn't need Kowacs' orders to tell them it was everybody's ass if they didn't nail the close-in defenses before some weasel brought the guns under manual control.

The noise of plasma weapons, rockets and rocket warheads made it hard for Kowacs to think, much less hear any of the message traffic on his earphones. Although Kowacs' helmet damped the worst of the racket, shockwaves slapped the skin of his face and hands like huge, hot raindrops.

Squad leaders with echo-location gear were using the noise to map all the surfaces of the Khalian fortress. When holographic images on a sergeant's helmet visor indicated a missile tube in his squad's sector, he relayed the target to a Marine with a rocket launcher.

The Headhunters' top-attack rockets ripped and snapped all across the concrete jumble. Occasionally a blast of smoky yellow flame indicated that one of the big Khalian missiles had blown up within its launcher.

But the Khalians weren't shooting any more.

Kowacs turned around so that his unaided eyes could confirm what his visor display already insisted. Through the skeletal ribs of K435 and across the fortress, as well as on his side of the landing vessel, nobody was firing except Kowacs' own Marines.

Missiles didn't rise to engage the ships in orbit. Plasma weapons didn't chew themselves new firing slits so that they could bear on the Marine landing force. . . . 


There was a momentary lull in the gunfire as the rest of the Headhunters realized the same thing. Then Sergeant Bradley screamed, "Door opening!" on the primary unit push, and three rockets streaked simultaneously toward the northwest corner of the block on which the Marines had landed.

The leaves of the hidden steel trapdoor rang like bells as they flew apart under the impact of the self-forging fragments. There were swatches of fur in the blast debris also.

"Double it!" Kowacs ordered, but there were already three more rockets in the air and three more sharp explosions over the sally-port, chopping weasels into cat's meat before their counterattack had time to get under way.

Kowacs was more agile than most of the Headhunters because he was burdened only with his personal weapons. He began running toward the shattered trapdoor, shouting, "Gas carriers to me!"

You'd've thought the rocket blasts would've kept the weasels down for at least a few minutes. More furry, yellow-fanged heads popped out of the sally-port before Kowacs got out the last syllable of his order.

He shot as he ran, spraying the area with a dozen ricochets for every bullet that counted—but ammo was cheap, and at least a dozen other Headhunters were firing along with their captain. The vivid white fireball of a plasma burst hid the target momentarily; Sie had saved back one charge for an emergency like this.

The weasels had been waving something. 

More weasels rose out of the half-molten pit where the trapdoor had been. They vanished in a maelstrom of bullets and grenade fragments.

Kowacs paused twenty meters from the sally-port to reload. A Marine with one of the green-painted gas cylinders caught up with him. Sienkiewicz was giving the fellow a hand with his load.

More weasels leaped from the fortress. Kowacs aimed but didn't fire. Other Marines ripped the fresh targets into gobbets of bloody flesh.

The weasels were waving white flags. 

"Cease fire!" Kowacs shouted. Still more weasels were coming up. "Cease fire!"

There were ten or a dozen unarmed Khalians in the next group, all of them waving white flags. Some were females.

A Headhunter fired his assault rifle. One of the tripod-mounted plasma weapons vaporized the weasels with three bolts.

More weasels came up from the crater.

"Cease fire!" Kowacs screamed as he ran forward, facing his Marines as he put his body between them and the Khalians.

Facing most of his Marines, because Sie was on one side of him and Sergeant Bradley was on the other. Both non-coms were cursing their captain, but not so bitterly as Kowacs cursed himself and the command responsibility that made him do this when he should've been shooting weasels.

Nobody shot. Nobody spoke. Kowacs' panting breath roared behind the constriction of his visor.

Kowacs slowly turned to face the weasels again. His lungs were burning. He flipped his visor out of the way, though that left him without the heads-up display if he needed it.

There were twelve Khalians. They stood on the lip of the crater, waving their small square flags. Each weasel had its nose pointed high in the air, baring the white fur of its throat. Their muzzles were wrinkling, but Kowacs didn't know whether that was a facial expression or just a reaction to the stench of blast residues and death.

Miklos Kowacs had killed hundreds of weasels during his Marine career. He'd never before spent this long looking at a living one.

"Helmet," he said, "translate Khalian."

He splayed the fingers of his left hand, the hand that didn't hold a fully-loaded automatic rifle, in the direction of the weasels. "You!" he said. "Which of you's the leader?" as the speaker on the top of his helmet barked the question in weaseltalk.

None of the Khalians wore clothing or ornamentation. The one on the left end of the line lowered his nose so that he could see ahead of himself, stepped forward, and chattered something that the translation program in Kowacs' helmet rendered as, "Are you Fleet Marines? You are Fleet Marines."

"Answer me!" Kowacs shouted. "Are you in charge?" The concrete seemed to ripple. It was solid, but Nick Kowacs wasn't solid just now. . . .

"We wish to surrender to Fleet Marines," the weasel said. He was about a meter forty tall, mid-breastbone level to Kowacs. "Are you Fleet Marines?"

"Goddam," Bradley whispered, his scarred left hand wringing the foregrip of the shotgun he pointed.

"You bet," said Nick Kowacs. His brain was echoing with screams and other memories and screams. "We're the Headhunters, we're the best." Weasels never surrendered. "You want to surrender this whole fortress?"

"That too," said the weasel. "You are fighters whom we respect. Come below with us to receive our surrender, Fleet Marine."

Sienkiewicz laughed.

"Bullshit," Kowacs said flatly. "You tell your people to come on out, one at a time, and we'll see about surrender."

"Please," barked the weasel. "You must come into the Council Chamber to take our surrender."

"Bullshit!" Kowacs repeated.

He risked a glance over his shoulder. The three Marines with gas cylinders, kneeling under the weight of their loads, were in the front rank of waiting troops. "Look, get your people up here, or—"

The Khalians had no equipment, but they had been born with tusks and sharp, retractile claws. "Then I have failed," he speaker of the group said. He raised a forepaw and tore his own throat out.

"—almighty!" Bradley blurted as Kowacs choked off his own inarticulate grunt. The weasel thrashed on the seared concrete, gushing arterial blood from four deep slashes. The furry corpse was still twitching when a second Khalian stepped forward.

"Come into the Council Chamber with us, Fleet Marine," the new envoy said. "Only from there can the surrender be broadcast to all."

"No!" shouted Sergeant Bradley. The weasel raised his paw; sunlight winked on the clawtips.

"Yes!" shouted Captain Miklos Kowacs, feeling the ground shiver like the dying weasel before him.

"Ah, sir?" said one of the Marines carrying a gas cylinder. "All of us?"

Lieutenant Mandricard, the senior platoon leader, had faced his platoon around to cover the Headhunters' rear while the rest of the Marines were shooting weasel pop-ups. He glanced over his shoulder at the company commander.

Kowacs pointed a finger at Mandricard and said over the general push, "Gamma Six, you're in charge here until I get back, right? If that's not in—" how long? "—six zero minutes, finish the job."

He nodded toward the gas cylinders. And smiled like a cobra.

"Sir," said Bradley, "we can't do this."

Kowacs looked at him. "I gotta do it, Top," he said.

"Hold one," said Corporal Sienkiewicz. She'd unharnessed one of the gas carriers and was now—

Godalmighty! She was molding a wad of contact-fuzed blasting putty onto the tank of gas. If she dropped the heavy cylinder, the charge would rupture it and flood the whole area with DPD!

"Right," Sienkiewicz said as she examined her handiwork. "Now we're ready to go down."

Bradley swore coldly, checked his shotgun, and said, "Yeah, let's get this dumb-ass shit over with."

Kowacs hadn't told Sie and the sergeant to accompany him; but he knew they wouldn't accept an order to stay behind. "G—" he said to the Khalian envoy. His voice broke. "Go on, then."

The eleven surviving weasels scrambled into the blasted entrance. Kowacs strode after them.

"I'll lead," said Sienkiewicz.

"Like hell you will," Kowacs snapped as his rigid arm blocked his bodyguard's attempt to push past.

The entrance was a stinking pit. A crowd of weasels, all of the carrying flags, filled the floor below. The metal staircase had been destroyed by the first volley of rockets; since then, the Khalians had been scrambling up wooden poles to reach the roof and their deaths.

Shattered poles, corpses, and charred white scraps of cloth covered the concrete floor on which living weasels pushed and chittered in a cacaphony that the translation program couldn't handle.

"Back!" barked the Khalian envoy, raising both his clawed forepaws in symbolic threat. "To the Council Chamber!"

The Khalian mob surged down the hallway like a shockwave travelling through a viscous fluid. There were lights some distance away, but the Headhunters' blasts had destroyed the nearest fixtures.

Kowacs looked down, grimaced, and dropped. His boots skidded on the slimy floor.

"Watch—" he said to his companions, but Sie was already swinging herself down. Her right hand gripped the edge of the roof while her left arm cradled her lethal burden like a baby.

Bradley must've thought the same thing, because he said, "Hope the little bastid don't burp," as he followed into the Khalian fortress.

"Come this way!" ordered the envoy as though he and not the Headhunters were armed. The weasels' demonstrated willingness to die made them very hard to control.

Pretty much the same was true of Marines in the reaction companies too, of course.

The ceiling was so low that Kowacs, stocky rather than tall, brushed his helmet until he hunched over. He expected to hear Sie cursing, but the big woman didn't say a word. She was probably concentrating so that she didn't drop the bomb in her arms and end all this before—

Before it was supposed to end. Not necessarily different from the way it was going to end anyway.

The hallway curved. For a moment, Kowacs' helmet picked up the crisp commands of Gamma Six as Mandricard put the Headhunters in as much of a posture of defense as the featureless roof permitted. Reception faded to static, then nothing at all.

They came to a bank of wire-fronted elevators and a crowd of waiting Khalians. "Come with me," the envoy said as he stepped into the nearest cage.

The cage was small and low; three humans in battlegear and a Khalian filled it uncomfortably. As the elevator started the descend, Kowacs saw a horde of weasels pushing into the remaining cages.

Bradley began to shake. The muzzle of his gun wobbled through tight arcs. "It stinks . . . ," he mumbled. "It stinks."

He was right, of course. The air circulating in the Khalian burrow smelled of Khalians, and that was a stench worse than death to a man like Bradley, who'd seen what the weasels left of his little daughter on Tanjug . . .

Or to a man like Nick Kowacs, whose family had been on Gravely when the weasels landed there.

Kowacs shivered. "Top!" he said harshly. "Snap out of it. You're not going claustrophobic on me now."

Bradley took off his helmet and squeezed his bald, scarred scalp with his left hand. His eyes were shut. "It's not the fuckin' tunnels," he said. "Not the tunnels. All these weasels. . . . I just, I wanna—"

Bradley's fingertips left broad white dimples on his skin when he took his hand away. The weasel envoy watched the sergeant with bright black eyes.

No one spoke again until the cage stopped and the Khalian repeated, "Come with me," as his paw clashed the door open.

Kowacs couldn't guess how deep in the earth they were now. There was a sea of fur and tusks and chittering weasel voices outside the elevator. Many of this crowd wore ornaments of brass and leather, but Kowacs didn't see any weapons.

He stepped out behind the envoy, watching the passageway clear before them and wondering if the Khalians would close in again behind the three humans.

It didn't matter. They were in this, he and Top and Sie, as far as they could get already. At least the tunnel ceiling was high enough for humans, even the corporal with her burden of death.

The envoy led through an arched doorway. The chamber within was huge even by human standards.

The chamber was full of Khalians.

The smell and sound and visual impact stopped Kowacs in his tracks. One of his men bumped him from behind.

Kowacs closed his eyes and rubbed them hard with the back of his left wrist. That made it worse. When he didn't see the room filled with weasels, his mind quivered over the memory of his mother, her gnawed corpse thick with the musk of the furry monsters that had—

"No!" Kowacs screamed. The distant walls gave back the echo, cushioned by the soft susurrus of breathing mammals. There was no other sound.

He opened his eyes.

A group of Khalians was coming forward from the crowd. There were twenty or more of them. They wore jewelry and robes patterned with soft, natural colors.

They were very old. Some hobbled, and even those weasels who were able to walk erect had grizzled fur and noticeably worn tusks.

Weasels don't wear clothing. . . . 

There was a great sigh from the assembled company. The aged Khalians gripped their robes and tore them apart in ragged, ritual motions. Some of them were mewling; their facial fur was wet with tears. They fell to the floor and began writhing forward, their throats and bellies bared to the Marines.

The weasel in the center of the groveling line gave a series of broken, high-pitched barks. The voice of Kowacs' helmet translated, "Khalia surrenders to you, warriors of the Fleet Marines. We are your subjects, your slaves, to use as you wish."

Come to the Council Chamber, the weasel envoy had said. The High Council of Khalia. They weren't surrendering this fortress— 

"Khalia surrenders—"

They were surrendering the whole Khalian race! 

"—to you, warriors of the—"

Bradley's shotgun crashed. Its airfoil charge was designed to spread widely, even at point-blank range. The load sawed through the chest of the Khalian speaker like so many miniature razors. The weasel's tusked jaws continued to open and close, but nothing came out except drops of bloody spittle.

The aged Khalian nearest the dead one began to chant, "We are your slaves, warriors of the Fleet Marines. Use us as you will. We—"

Sergeant Bradley's face was that of a grinning skull. He'd dropped his helmet in the elevator cage. There was no reason left behind his glazing eyes. "You'll die," he said in a sing-song voice, "you'll all—"

He fired again. His charge splashed the skull of the corpse.

"—die, every fucking—"

Kowacs gripped the shotgun barrel with his left hand. The metal burned him. He couldn't lift the muzzle against Bradley's hysterical grip.

"Put it down, Top!" he ordered.

The moaning of the crowd was louder. Waves of Khalian musk blended sickeningly with powder smoke.

"—are your subjects, your—"

Bradley fired into the dead weasel's groin.

"—weasel in the fucking uni—"

"Down!" Kowacs screamed and touched the muzzle of his assault rifle to Bradley's temple where a wisp of hair grew in the midst of pink scar tissue. Kowacs' vision tunnelled down to nothing but the hairs and the black metal and the flash that would—

There was a hollow thunk.

Bradley released the shotgun as he fell forward unconscious. Sienkiewicz looked at her captain with empty eyes. There was a splotch of blood on the green metal of the gas cylinder and a matching pressure cut on the back of Bradley's skull, but the sergeant would be all right as soon as he came around. . . .

"On behalf of the Alliance of Planets," Kowacs said in a quavering voice, "I accept your surrender."

He covered his eyes with his broad left hand. He shouldn't have done that, because that made him remember his mother and he began to vomit.

* * *

"Hey, Sergeant Bradley," said one of the enlisted men in the Red Shift Lounge, "let me get 'cha the next drink."

The man in whites toyed with his stole of Khalian tails. "We shoulda kept killin' 'em till everybody had a weasel-skin blanket!" he said. "We shoulda—"

Somebody came into the bar; somebody so big that even Sergeant Bradley looked up.

The newcomer, a woman in coveralls, squinted into the dim lounge. She glanced at the group around Bradley, then ignored them. When she saw the stocky man at the far end of the bar, she strode forward.

The sudden smile made her almost attractive.

Bradley's hand closed on his fresh drink. "If there's still one weasel left in the universe," he said, "that's too many."

"Sar'nt?" murmured the drunken blond. "Whyn't you'n me, we go somewhur?"

"Hey, cap'n," said the big woman to the man at the far end of the bar. "Good t' see you."

"Go 'way, Sie," he replied, staring into his mug. "You'll lose your rank if you miss lift."

"Fuck my rank," she said. Everyone in the lounge was looking at them. "Besides," she added, "Commander Goldstein says the Dalriada's engines 're broke down till we get you aboard. Sir."

She laid the man's right arm over her shoulders, gripped him around the back with her left hand, and lifted him in a packstrap carry. He was even bigger than he'd looked hunched over the bar, a blocky anvil of a man with no-colored eyes.

"You're always getting me outa places I shouldn't a got into, Sie," the man said.

His legs moved as the woman maneuvered him toward the door, but she supported almost all of his weight. "Worse places 'n this, sir," she replied.

"They weren't worse than now, Sie," he said. "Trust me."

As the pair of them started to shuffle past the group near the door, the woman's eyes focused on the uniformed man. She stopped. The man she held braced himself with a lopsided grin and said, "I'm okay now, Sie."

"Who the hell are you?" the big woman demanded of the man wearing the Headhunter uniform.

"What's it to you?" he snarled back.

"This is Sergeant Bradley of the 121st Marine Reaction Company," said one of the enlisted men, drunkenly pompous.

"Like hell he is," the big woman said. Her arms were free now. "Top's searching bars down the Strip the other direction, lookin' for Cap'n Kowacs, here."

Kowacs continued to grin. His face was as terrible as a hedge of bayonets.

The group around 'Sergeant Bradley' backed away as though he had suddenly grown an extra head.

The imposter in uniform tried to run. Sienkiewicz grabbed him by the throat from behind. "Thought you'd be a big hero, did ya? Some clerk from Personnel, gonna be a hero now it's safe t' be a hero?"

The imposter twisted around. A quick-release catch snicked, shooting the knife from his left sleeve into his palm.

Sienkiewicz closed her right hand over the imposter's grip on his knife hilt. She twisted. Bones broke.

The knife came away from the hand of her keening victim. She slammed the point down into the bar top, driving it deep into the dense plastic before she twisted again and snapped the blade.

"Big hero . . . ," she whispered. Her expression was that of nothing human. She gripped the weasel-tail stole and said, "How much did these cost 'cha, hero?" as she tore the trophies away and flung them behind her.

The bartender's finger was poised over the red emergency button that would summon the Shore Police. He didn't push it.

Sienkiewicz' grip on the imposter's throat was turning the man's face purple. Nobody moved to stop her. Her right hand stripped off the uniform sleeve with its Headhunter insignia and tossed it after the stole.

Then, still using the power of only one arm, she hurled the imposter into a back booth also. Bone and plastic cracked at the heavy impact.

"I'm okay, Sie," Kowacs repeated, but he let his corporal put her arm back around him again.

As the two Headhunters left the Red Shift Lounge, one of the enlisted men muttered, "You lying scum," and drove his heel into the ribs of the fallen man.

Kowacs found that if he concentrated, he could walk almost normally. There was a lot of traffic this close to the docking hub, but other pedestrians made way good-naturedly for the pair of big Marines.

"Sie," Kowacs said, "I used to daydream, you know? Me an old man, my beard down t' my belt, y'know? And this little girl, she comes up t' me and she says, 'Great Grandaddy, what did you do in the Weasel War?'"

"Careful of the bollard here, sir," Sienkiewicz murmured. "There'll be a shuttle in a couple of minutes."

"And I'd say to her," Kowacs continued, his voice rising, "'Well, sweetheart—I survived.'"

He started to sob. Sienkiewicz held him tightly. The people already standing at the shuttle point edged away.

"But I never thought I would survive, Sie!" Kowacs blubbered. "I never thought I would!"

"Easy, sir. We'll get you bunked down in a minute."

Kowacs looked up, his red eyes meeting Sienkiewicz' concern. "And you know the funny thing, Sie," he said. "I don't think I did survive."

"Easy. . . ."

"Without weasels t' kill, I don't think there's any Nick Kowacs alive."


Back | Next