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A Story of The Fleet

The receptionist facing Captain Kowacs wasn't armed, but there was enough weaponry built into her desk to stop a destroyer. Her face was neutral, composed. If she was supposed to do anything besides watch the Marine captain, she was fucking off.

This was like going through a series of airlocks; but what was on the far end of these doors was a lot more dangerous than vacuum.

The inner door opened to admit a guide/escort—Kowacs' third guide since hand-delivered orders jerked him out the barracks assigned to the 121st Marine Reaction Company.

His company, his Headhunters. And would to God he was back with them now.

"If you'll come this way, please, Captain Kowacs," said the guide.

This one was a young human male, built like a weightlifter and probably trained as well as a man could be trained. Kowacs figured he could take the kid if it came to that . . . but only because training by itself wasn't enough against the instant ruthlessness you acquired if you survived your first month in a reaction company.

Captain Miklos Kowacs had survived seven years. If that wasn't a record, it was damn close to one.

Kowacs was stocky and powerful, with cold eyes and black hair that curled on the backs of his wrists and hands. The Fleet's reconstructive surgeons were artists, and they had a great deal of practice. Kowacs was without scars.

On his body.

"Turn left at the corridor, please, sir," said the escort. He was walking a pace behind and a pace to Kowacs' side. Like a well-trained dog . . . which was about half true: if the kid had been only muscle, he wouldn't have been here.

Here was Building 93 of the Administration Annex, Fleet Headquarters, Port Tau Ceti. That was the only thing Kowacs knew for sure about the place.

Except that he was sure he'd rather by anywhere else.

Building 93 didn't house clerical overflow. The doors were like bank vaults; the electronic security system was up to the standards of the code section aboard a Command-and-Control vessel; the personnel were cool, competent, and as tight as Nick Kowacs' asshole during an insertion.

"Here, please, sir," said the escort, stopping beside a blank door. He gestured. "This is as far as I go."

Kowacs looked at him. He wouldn't mind seeing how the kid shaped up in the Headhunters. Good material, better than most of the replacements they got . . . and Marine Reaction Companies always needed replacements.

He shivered. They'd needed replacements while there were Weasels to fight. Not any more.

"Have a good life, kid," Kowacs said as the blue highlights in the doorpanel suddenly spelled special projects/teitelbaum with the three-stars-in-circle of a vice admiral.

The door opened.

Nick Kowacs was painfully aware that he was wearing the pair of worn fatigues he hadn't had time to change when the messenger rousted him; also that the best uniform he owned wasn't up to meeting a vice admiral. He grimaced, braced himself, and strode through the doorway.

The door closed behind him. The man at the desk of the lushly-appointed office wore civilian clothes. He was in his mid-40s, bigger than Kowacs and in good physical shape.

Kowacs recognized him. The man wasn't a vice admiral. His name was Grant, and he was much worse.

I thought he was dead! 

The man behind the desk looked up from the hologram projector his blunt, powerful fingers toyed with.

He grinned. "What's the matter, Kowacs?" he said. "You look like you've seen a ghost."

Grant gestured. "Pull a chair closer and sit down," he said. He grinned again. There was no more humor in the expression the second time. "Hoped I was dead, huh?"

Kowacs shrugged.

The chair along the back wall had firm, user-accommodating cushions that would shape to his body without collapsing when he sat in them. The one Kowacs picked slid easily as his touch reversed magnets to repel a similar set in the floor.

Keep cool, learn what hole you're in, and get the hell out. 

Nobody likes to talk to the Gestapo.

Though if it came to that, reaction company Marines didn't have a lot of friends either.

Assuming the office's owner was the vice admiral in the holographic portrait filling the back wall, Teitelbaum was a woman. In the present display, she wore a dress uniform and was posed against a galactic panorama, but there were probably other views loaded into the system: Teitelbaum and her family; Teitelbaum with political dignitaries; Teitelbaum as a young ensign performing heroically in combat.

Special Projects.

"You work for Admiral Teitelbaum, then?" Kowacs said as he seated himself carefully.

"I'm borrowing her office," Grant said without apparent interest. He spun the desk projector so that the keyboard faced Kowacs, then tossed the Marine a holographic chip. "Go on," he ordered. "Play it."

Kowacs inserted the chip into the reader. His face was blank, and his mind was almost empty. He hadn't really felt anything since the Weasels surrendered.

The message was date-slugged three days before, while the 121st was still on the way to Port Tau Ceti. An official head-and-shoulders view of Kowacs popped into the air beneath the date, then vanished into another burst of glowing letters:


FROM: BUPERS/M32/110173/Sec21(Hum)/SPL
TO: KOWACS, Miklos Alexievitch
SUBJECT: Promotion to MAJOR

Effective from this date. . . .  


Kowacs looked across the desk at the civilian. The air between them continued to spell out bureaucratese in green letters.

Grant's face was too controlled to give any sign that he had expected the Marine to react visibly. "Here," he said. "These are on me."

He tossed Kowacs a pair of major's collar tabs: hollow black triangles that would be filled for a lieutenant colonel. "Battledress style," Grant continued. "Since it doesn't seem that you have much use for dress uniforms."

"I don't have much use for any uniforms," said Nick Kowacs as his tongue made the decision his mind had wavered over since the day he and his Headhunters had taken the surrender of the Khalian Grand Council. "I'm getting out."

Grant laughed. "The hell you are, mister," he said. "You're too valuable to the war effort."

The data chip was reporting Kowacs' service record to present. Part of the Marine's mind was amazed at the length of the listing of his awards and citations. He supposed he'd known about the decorations when he received them, but they really didn't matter.

His family had mattered before the Khalians massacred them.

And it mattered that the 121st Marine Reaction Company had cut the tails off more dead Weasels than any other unit of comparable size.

"Fuck you," said Nick Kowacs distinctly. "The war's over."

"Don't you believe it, mister," Grant replied. There was only the slightest narrowing of his cold blue eyes to indicate that he'd heard everything the Marine had said. "We've got a real enemy, now—the Syndicate. The humans who've been using the Weasels for their cannon fodder. The people behind the whole war."

Kowacs shut off the projector. The list was reminding him of too much that he usually managed to forget while he was awake: hot landings . . . civilians that neither god nor the Headhunters had been able to save from the Khalians . . . Marines who hadn't survived—or worse, who mostly hadn't survived.

"I don't . . . ," Kowacs muttered.

"We'll be raising mixed units of our best and the Khalians' best to go after the Syndicate," Grant said. "You'll want to be in on the real kill, won't you?"

From his grin, Grant knew exactly how Kowacs would feel about the suggestion of working with Weasels. It was the civilian's response to being told to fuck himself.

"Besides," Grant went on, "What would you do as a civilian, Kowacs?"

"I'll find something," said the Marine as he stood up. "Look, I'm leaving now."

"Siddown, mister!" Grant said in a tone that Kowacs recognized because he'd used it often enough himself; the tone that meant the order would be obeyed or the next sound would be a shot.

Kowacs met Grant's eyes; and smiled; and sat in the chair again.

"Let's say that you're here because of your special knowledge," the civilian said. Grant could control his voice and his breathing, but Kowacs saw the quick flutter of the arteries in the big man's throat. "If you know who I am, then you know too much to think you can just hang up your uniform any time you please."

But I wouldn't have to work much harder to be buried in that uniform. 

Aloud, Kowacs said, "You didn't call me in here to promote me."

"You got that right," Grant said, his voice dripping with the disdain of a man who doesn't wear a uniform for a man who does. "We've got a job for you and your Headhunters."

Kowacs laughed. "What's the matter? Run out of your own brand of sewage workers?"

"Don't push," said the civilian quietly.

After a moment, Grant resumed, "This is right up your alley, Kowacs. The Syndicate used cut-out bases in all their dealings with the Khalians, so the Weasels don't have the locations of any of the Syndicate home worlds. But we think we've got the coordinates of a Syndicate base—so you're going to grab prisoners and navigational data there before the Syndicate realizes they're at risk."

Kowacs frowned as he considered what he'd just been told. There had to be a catch. . . . 

"All right," he said. "What's the catch?"

Grant shrugged. "No catch," he said.

"If there wasn't more to this job than you're telling me," Kowacs said, unsure whether he was angry, frustrated, or simply confused, "we wouldn't be briefed by the fucking Eight-Ball Command, mister. Is this some kinda suicide mission, is that what you're telling me?"

But that couldn't be right either. Normal mission-control channels hadn't shown any hesitation about sending the Headhunters on suicide missions before. 

And the Headhunters hadn't hesitated to go. 

"Nothing like that," said Grant. "It's safer than R&R—you won't even risk catching clap."

Kowacs waited.

"You see," Grant continued, "you're going to use A-Potential equipment for the insertion. All points are the same point to the device you'll ride in. The Syndicate won't have any warning."

That was the fucking catch, all right.  

The 92nd MRC had tested A-Pot equipment on Bull's-eye. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it got them dead. Dead wasn't the scary part of the stories Toby English and his Marines had brought back from that operation, though. . . .

"I . . . ," Kowacs said. " . . . don't know how the guys are going to react to this. Seems to me that maybe a unit that's already got experience with—"

"Wrong, Major Kowacs," Grant said. He didn't shout because he didn't have to shout. "You know exactly how you and your company are going to react. Because it's orders, and everybody knows what happens to cowards who disobey orders in wartime."

For a moment, Kowacs couldn't see anything for the red film in front of his eyes. When his vision cleared, he noticed that one of the civilian's hands had dropped out of sight behind the desk.

There was no need for that. The room's automatic defensive system which would trip faster than a human could if somebody tried to attack the man in Admiral Teitelbaum's chair; and anyway, Nick Kowacs wasn't out of control, was never out of control. . . .

"As a matter of fact," Grant said in what was almost a conciliatory tone, "the Ninety-Second was the original choice for the mission, but they're still in transit. They've been switched with the back-up company. Yours."

Kowacs swallowed. "You got the coordinates from a captured Syndicate ship?" he said, sure that he'd be told that sources and methods were none of his business. He had to change the subject, or—or else.

Grant smiled again. "From the mind of a prisoner. Before he died. The prisoner you captured on Bull's-eye, as a matter of fact."

"From his mind?" the Marine repeated. "How did you do that?"

"Pray you never learn, mister," Grant said.

"Right," said Kowacs as he got to his feet. He wondered whether his escort was still waiting outside the door. Probably. "I'll alert the company. I assume formal briefing materials are—"

Grant nodded. "Already downloaded to the One-Twenty-First data bank," he said. "I'll take the lock off them immediately."

"Right," Kowacs repeated. He reached for the latchplate of the door, then changed his mind and turned.

"Just one thing, Mister Grant," he said. "My Headhunters aren't cowards. If you think they are, then come on a drop with us some day."

"Oh, I will," the civilian said with the same mocking, terrible smile as before. "As a matter of fact, Major Kowacs—I'm coming with you on this one."

* * *

"Our job," said Nick Kowacs in the personnel hold of the intrusion module, "is to—"

The high-pitched keening of a powerful laser cutter rose, drowning out his voice and thought itself.

Sergeant Bradley glanced around flat-eyed, looking for the source of the noise. It came from somewhere between the module's double hulls. He started for a hatch, wiping his palms on his fatigues to dry the sudden rush of sweat.

Kowacs grabbed the sergeant with one hand as he put his helmet on with the other.

"Right," Kowacs said over the general frequency. "Lids on." He looked to see which of the new replacements needed to be nudged by their neighbors before they figured out that the rest of the briefing would be conducted by radio even though the Headhunters were all in one room together.

"Our job," Kowacs went on, "is to capture personnel, data banks, and anything that looks like it might be navigational equipment. We aren't going in to blow the—"

The laser shut off. A woman with commander's collar pips on the uniform she wore under her lab coat walked into the bay with two male technical representatives, speaking among themselves in low voices. Heads turned to watch them.

Sergeant Bradley grimaced.

"—place up, we're going in to gather information before the enemy blows it up. We've only got seventeen minutes. That's one-seven minutes, period. Anybody who—"

The trio in lab coats gestured Marines away from a portion of deck and knelt down. One of the tech reps took an instrument from his pocket and placed it cup-end down on the decking. He frowned at the result; the commander growled at him.

"—loses sight of the mission will have me to answer to," Kowacs continued.

"And they'll wish they'd never been born!" added Sergeant Bradley. The field first sergeant got enough venom into the justified threat to take out some of his frustration about the way the briefing had to be held.

And the way the mission was shaping up.

Kowacs was holding the briefing here because the module's hangar was the only space in the huge headquarters complex both big enough to hold a hundred Marines—and cleared for this particular dollop of Sensitive Compartmentalized Information. Unfortunately, the module was still under test, and the technical crews dialing in the hardware had precedence over the briefing.

The Marines who were about to ride the hardware into the middle of enemies worse than the Khalians couldn't argue with the priority, but it didn't make life simpler.

Kowacs touched a stud on the control wand a Grade P7 Fleet technician had given him. For a wonder, the system worked perfectly. The hold's circular bulkhead was replaced by a holographic display, the simulated interior of the Syndicate base the Headhunters would be attacking.

"We'll be landing inside the docking bay," Kowacs said as a slow hammering sound began to work its way across the ceiling above him. "In all likelihood it'll be under atmosphere, but we'll be wearing ten-minute airpacks for an emergency."

The two tech reps got up and walked toward the hatch, a rectangle with rounded corners in the midst of a holographic gantry. The commander followed them, shaking her head. She turned in the hatchway to frown at the deck she'd been examining.

"Suits?" asked Laurel, a squad leader in 3rd Platoon.

"Weapons Platoon will be in suits," said Kowacs. "They'll provide security for the module. The remainder of us'll be travelling light. We'll fan out in three-man teams. You'll all have pre-briefed objectives, but don't hesitate to divert to grab anything that looks like it might be valuable."

Something popped within the hulls. The encircling holograms vanished. All the lights in the bay went out. First the display, then the lights, came back on moments later.

Somebody swore bitterly.

Corporal Sienkiewicz—the tallest, possibly the strongest, and certainly the toughest member of the 121st—looked bored as she lounged against a bulkhead covered by the image of an open corridor. She knew what the Headhunters' job was this time out—and she knew her own job on every operation, to cover Kowacs' back and keep him alive till the next time. The whys and hows of the operation didn't matter to her beyond that.

"Sir," said a newbie named Bynum—five years a Marine but on his first operation with the Headhunters. "I looked this boat over and she don't have engines. No shit."

"The ship," said Kowacs harshly, "is none of our business. Do you hear? The ship just gets us there and brings us back."

"S'posed to bring us back," somebody muttered in what should have been general silence.

"Listen!" Kowacs snarled. He had to take a tough line, because they all knew this could be a rat-fuck, and the only way his Headhunters were going to go through with it was by rigid obedience. "If there's any of you who don't think you want to chance life in a reaction company any more, I'll approve your transfer now. Want to be a cook? A recruiter? Just say the word!"

Nobody spoke. A number of the Marines looked down, at the deck, at their hands.

They were a good bunch, the very best. They'd charge Hell if he ordered it . . . only in part because they knew if it came to that, Nick Kowacs would be leading from the front. 

The laser cutter shrieked as it bit into an interior bulkhead again.

"Is this an Eight-Ball Command job?" ask Lieutenant Timmes of Weapons Platoon.

"Yes, it is," Kowacs said flatly.

He looked around the crowd of hard faces and the blank visages of Marines who had opaqued their helmet visors. "If anybody's got a problem with that, the transfer offer still stands."

"No problem," said Timmes. "Just wanted to know."

"Them bastards," said a sharp-featured trooper named Fleur. "You never know what they're playing at."

Kowacs suspected Fleur had been a disciplinary enlistment—volunteer for a reaction company or face a court martial—but Kowacs had no complaint to make of the Marine. He didn't guess any of the Headhunters, himself included, were good civilian material.

"You don't know what anybody who's got any real authority is playing at," Kowacs said. He was restating the argument by which he'd more-or-less convinced himself. "It's just that people like you and me at the sharp end, we don't see the regular sort, the admirals and Sector Commandants. The boys in Interservice Support Activity, they may be bastards but they're willing to put themselves on the line."

"Gotta give 'em credit for that," chuckled Bradley.

The laser cutter had stopped. The sergeant removed his helmet to knuckle the bare scar tissue of his scalp.

"I don't gotta give 'em a fuckin' thing but a quick round if I get one in my sights," muttered Fleur.

Kowacs opened his mouth to react, because you weren't supposed to shoot putative friendlies and you never talked about it, neither before nor after.

Before he could speak, Sergeant Bradley changed the subject loudly by asking, "D'ye mean we don't gotta wear those fucking A-Pot hardsuits that the Redhorse had all the trouble with on Bull's-eye?"

Kowacs looked at his field first. Bradley gave Kowacs a half wink; Bradley and Corporal Sienkiewicz would straighten out Fleur, but it didn't have to be now and in public.

A man in a white lab coat entered the hold and began making his way through the listening Marines. For a moment he was anonymous, like the noises in the hull and the other intruders who'd been focused on their technical agenda.

"I don't know," the newly-promoted major said. "I'll have to—"

The big technician in the corner of Kowacs' eyes suddenly sharpened into an identified personality: the man in the lab coat was Grant.

"Fuckin' A," Sienkiewicz muttered as she drew herself alert.

"I'll take over now, Kowacs," the spook said with as much assurance as if the Headhunters had been his unit, not Nick Kowacs'.

Grant wore a throat mike and a wireless receiver in his right ear, though he had no helmet to damp out the ambient noise if the laser started cutting again.

He stared around the assembled Marines for a moment, then looked directly at Kowacs' bodyguard and said, "No, Corporal, for this one you'll be using the same stone-axe simple equipment you're used to. If you tried to open an A-Potential field inside an existing field—the intrusion module. . . ."

He smiled at the big woman. "You wouldn't like what happened. And I wouldn't like that it screwed up the operation."

Grant met the glares and blank globes of the waiting Headhunters again. "For those of you who don't know," he said, "my name's Grant and you all work for me. You'll take orders through your regular CO here—" he jerked his left thumb in Kowacs' direction without bothering to look around "—but those orders come from me. Is that clear?"

Beside the civilian, Kowacs nodded his head. His eyes held no expression.

"And since you work for me . . . ," Grant resumed as he reached beneath his lab coat, "I've got a little job for one of you. Private Fleur—"

Grant's hand came out with a pistol.


Grant tossed the weapon to Fleur. It was a full-sized, dual-feed service pistol, Fleet issue and deadly as the jaws of a shark.

The Marines nearest to Fleur ducked away as if Grant had thrown a grenade. Kowacs, Bradley, and Sienkiewicz were up on the balls of their feet, ready to react because they'd have to react; they were responsible for the unit and for one another.

"Private Fleur," Grant said, "I'm afraid for my life. There's somebody planning to kill me. So I want you to clean my gun here and make sure it's in perfect working order for when I'm attacked."

Nobody spoke. Other Marines eased as far away from Fleur as they could. Even without combat gear, the Headhunters packed the hold. English's 92nd MRC was a demi-company half the size of the 121st. . . .

Fleur stared at the civilian, but his hands slid over the pistol in familiar fashion. He unlatched one magazine, then the other, and slammed them home again.

"Careful," added Grant as he grinned. "There's one up the spout."

"I . . . ," said Fleur

If Fleur's trigger finger tightened, Kowacs would get between the private and Grant . . . but he'd have to be quick, since Sie would be going for him and Bradley was a toss-up, Kowacs or Grant or Fleur, the only thing sure being that the sergeant would do something besides try to save his own hide.

"My cleaning kit's back at the billet," Fleur said. He swallowed. "Sir."

"Then you'd better return the gun, boy," said Grant. "Hadn't you?"

Fleur grimaced. For a moment he looked as though he were going to toss the weapon; then he stepped forward and presented the pistol butt-first to its owner. Fleur's hand was dwarfed by that of the civilian.

The laser started cutting again. Grant aimed his pistol at the open hatch. Marines ducked, though nobody was in the direct line of fire.

Grant pulled the trigger. The flashcrack and the answering crack of the explosive bullet detonating somewhere out in the hanger removed any possibility that the weapon had been doctored to make it harmless.

The cutter shut down. Technicians shouted in surprise, but nobody stuck his head in through the hatch.

Grant put the pistol away under his lab coat. "All right, Fleur," he said. "You're relieved. Go back to your quarters and pack your kit. Your orders are waiting for you there."

Kowacs felt exhausted, drained. Sienkiewicz gripped his shoulder for the contact they both needed.

"Your new assignment's on an intra-system tug," Grant added. Then, as harshly as the pistol shot of a moment before, "Get moving, mister!"

Fleur stumbled out of the hold—and the Headhunters. A few of the Marines flicked a glance at his back; but only a glance.

Grant exhaled heavily.

"Right," he said. "This is going to be a piece of cake, troops. The bastards won't know what hit them. There's just one thing I want to emphasize before your major here gets on with his briefing."

He grinned around the bay. Sphincter muscles tightened.

"The module will be on-site for seventeen minutes," Grant went on. "That's not eighteen minutes, it's not seventeen minutes, one second. Anybody who isn't aboard on time spends the rest of his life in Syndicate hands."

"You see," the smiling civilian concluded, "I couldn't change the extraction parameters. Even if I wanted to."

* * *

An electronic chime warned that the Headhunters were three minutes from insertion.

The hatches were still open. The intrusion module's bulkheads were hidden by images, but the hologram was not a simulation this time. The present view was of the hangar in which the vehicle had been constructed and the twelve sealed black towers surrounding the module at the points of a compass rose. The towers would presumably launch the module . . . somehow.

"Everybody's aboard," prompted Sergeant Bradley, stating what the green bar in Kowacs' visor display already told him.

"Grant isn't aboard," Kowacs said, finger-checking the grenades which hung from his equipment belt.

"I don't get this," complained a Marine to no one in particular. "We can't ride all the way from Port Tau Ceti packed in like canned meat. Can we?"

"Fuck Grant," said Sienkiewicz.

The eighteen members of Weapons Platoon carried the tubes, tripods and ammunition of their belt-loaded plasma weapons. Their rigid hardsuits of black ceramic stood out from the remaining, lightly-equipped Marines like raisins in a pound cake.

Kowacs saw Grant's image coming across the hangar floor with long strides. The civilian wore fatigues, but he carried what looked like a briefcase. His commo helmet was non-standard.

Grant's pistol hung muzzle-up in a harness beneath his left armpit.

"Right," said Kowacs. "Six to all team leaders—" his helmet's AI switched him automatically from the private channel he shared with Bradley and Sie to the general command frequency "—administer the gas antidote to your teams, then dose yourselves."

Grant entered the module. The hatches closed.

There was barely enough room for equipment and the ninety-three personnel aboard the spherical vessel; if the Headhunters' line establishment had been at full Table of Organization strength, Kowacs would have had to cut some people from the operation.

What the Marine who'd complained didn't understand—what Kowacs didn't understand, though he accepted it—was that the Headhunters weren't traveling through space, not even sponge space, on this operation. They were using the Dirac Sea underlying the universe, all universes and all times, to create congruity between a top-secret hangar in Port Tau Ceti and the Syndicate base they were about to attack.

At least that's what they were doing if the notion worked. The closer Kowacs came to the event, the less likely it seemed that the notion could work.

"Hold still, sir," said Bradley, the administrative head of the team to which Kowacs belonged operationally. He jerked the tab on the front of the major's blouse.

The integral injector pricked Kowacs as it filled his bloodstream with chemicals. The drug would provide a temporary antidote to the contact anesthetic sprayed from bottles which every third Headhunter carried for this operation.

The chime announced two minutes.

Grant turned his briefcase sideways and extended its legs. When he opened the lid to expose the keyboard and display, the case became a diaphragm-high workstation. Despite the crowding in the bay, the Marines gave the civilian plenty of room.

A Third Platoon team leader pulled his own tab. He collapsed jerking as reaction to the drug sent him into anaphylactic shock.

Lieutenant al-Habib, the platoon commander, pushed toward the casualty, swearing in a combination of concern and fear. Everybody was supposed to have been reaction-tested before now; and testing was a platoon responsibility.

Kowacs' eyes narrowed, but he said nothing. If he and al-Habib both survived the operation, al-Habib was out of the Headhunters.


The warning chimed one minute. The holographic displays vanished, leaving the bulkheads bare for the moment before the hold's lighting flickered and went off. Grant's face was lit from below by his workstation, making him look the demon Kowacs was sure he really was.

The lights came on again, but they were red.

Kowacs opaqued his visor. He figured he could keep his expression neutral, but he didn't want to bother any of his people if by chance they correctly read the terror behind their major's eyes.

The module drifted. It was more than weightlessness. Kowacs had the horrible feeling that he was rushing somewhere but had neither control nor even sensory input, as though his vehicle were skidding on ice in pitch darkness. He heard some of his troops screaming, and he didn't blame them.

The world switched back with the abruptness of a crystal forming in a supersaturated solution. The lights became normal; holograms covered the bulkheads again.

The holograms didn't show the hangar. They didn't show anything at all, just a gray blur without even a spark to pick it out.

Grant was talking angrily, but his helmet contained his words. His big, capable fingers rapped a code into the keyboard. The gray blur shifted slowly through violet to a green like that of translucent pond scum. Though the color changed, it remained featureless.

"What's hap'nin to us?" somebody demanded sharply. "What's—"

Sergeant Bradley's knife poised point-first in front of the panicked Marine's right eyeball. The blade wouldn't penetrate her visor, but its shock value was sufficient to chop her voice off . . . and if she'd taken time to reflect, she would have known that the edge could be through her windpipe before she got out the next syllable.

"Hey, Grant," Kowacs called.

Grant continued talking to someone on the other side of his communications link. His anger was obvious even though his words were inaudible.

Kowacs raised his visor and leaned across the workstation from the opposite side, putting his face where the civilian couldn't ignore him.

Grant's fist clenched. Kowacs grabbed his wrist and squeezed.

For a moment the two powerful men struggled, as motionless as neighboring mountains. Sienkiewicz moved just out of the range of Kowacs' direct vision, but Kowacs didn't need help.

The civilian relaxed. His mouth formed a command, and the shield of silence dropped away from his helmet. "What the fuck do you want?" he snarled.

"Where are we?" Kowacs whispered. Everyone in the module was watching them, but only the nearest Marines could hear the leaders over the hiss of nervous breathing. He shook his hand, trying to get feeling back into it.

"There's nothing wrong," Grant said. "We're not where we're programmed to be—or when we're programmed to be—but there's nothing wrong. If they can't straighten it out, we'll just return when the seventeen minutes are up."

We hope, Kowacs' mind added, but that wasn't something even for a whisper.

"Right," he said aloud. "I'm going to calm everybody down; but Eight-Ball Command pays, understand?"

Grant probably didn't understand . . . yet. 

Kowacs didn't key the helmet intercom, opting for the more personal touch of his direct voice.

"All right, Marines," he bellowed. "We're on R&R for the next fifteen minutes or so, courtesy of the Special Projects Bureau. But you all know the Fleet—what we get's one room and no sandy beaches."

Sienkiewicz laughed loudly.

"Hey," called al-Habib, "you can keep your sand if you find me a cathouse!"

Kowacs grinned broadly at the lieutenant whose quick understanding had just reinstated him in the Headhunters. "Naw, Jamal," he said. "When you join the Marines, you get fucked over—but you don't get laid."

This time the laughter was general. The holographic light bathing the walls shifted slowly back to gray.

Kowacs lifted his helmet to scratch his close-cropped scalp.

"Okay, now listen up," he resumed in a tone of command. "This is a good time for you all to go over your missions again by teams. The delay doesn't mean that we're off the hook. Even Special Projects—"

Kowacs waved toward Grant, bent over his workstation. "—and Eight-Ball Command are going to get things right eventually. I want us sharp when the times comes. Understood?"

"Yes sir!" came from a dozen throats, and no more eyes filled with incipient panic.

"Then get to it!" ordered Sergeant Bradley.

Helmet-projected maps began to bloom in the midst of three-Marine clusters, teams going over the routes they expected to take through the hostile base.

Kowacs leaned toward Grant again. He expected the civilian to be visibly angry at being made a laughingstock to defuse tension, but there was no expression on the big man's face.

Which proved that Grant was a smart bastard as well as a bastard; and that wasn't news to Kowacs.

"I'm in contact with echelon," Grant said. "Everything is proceeding normally."

"Except we're not where we're supposed to be," Kowacs said. Bradley and Sienkiewicz were close behind him—everything was close in the module's hold—but they were facing outward, watching the company for their major.

"They've refined the parameters," Grant said. "We should be able to turn around at the end of seventeen minutes and go in immediately, without docking."

"Fine," said Kowacs without expression. "That's almost as good as having the shit work right the first time."

"Just have your troops ready to go, mister!" the civilian snapped. "Got that?"

"You bet," said Kowacs as he straightened. "You just get us to the target; we'll take it from there."

And they did.

* * *

The alarm chimed, the interior lights went red, and the intrusion module was within a cylindrical bay large enough to hold a liner—or a battleship. The trio of courier vessels docked there at present were dwarfed by the volume surrounding them.

"Artificial gravity and standard atmosphere!" Kowacs shouted, relaying the information that other Headhunters might not think to check on their visors, as the hatches—only two fucking hatches, as though this were a bus and not an assault craft!—opened and the dozen Syndicate maintenance people visible in the bulkhead displays gaped at the module that had appeared in their midst.

Bradley was through the hatch first because he had the shotgun and it was the close targets who were dangerous—though none of the Syndicate personnel, all of them human, seemed to be armed. The woman a hundred meters away, running for a courier vessel, was probably the biggest problem because she'd been smart enough to react.

Kowacs shot her. He was second through the hatch because the 121st was his company, not Sie's, however much the corporal might want to put her body out there first when the action was going to start.

The target flopped on the walkway with her limbs flailing. There were dots of blood on the back of her tunic, and a great splash of scarlet and lung tissue blown by the keyholing bullets onto the walkway where she thrashed.

Taking prisoners had to wait until there were enough Headhunters out of the module to secure the area.

Bradley ran for the corridor marked D on the maps from Eight-Ball Command and 6 in yellow on the girdered lintel. Kowacs followed his field first toward what was the transient wing of the base according to data sucked from the prisoner's brain. The major fired a short burst into a glazed office, shattering the clear panels and sending the staff to cover behind banks of short-circuiting equipment.

As usual, Corporal Sienkiewicz carried the considerable weight of a shoulder-fired plasma weapon in addition to her regular gear. She lighted the bay with a round of plasma into the nose turret of both courier vessels on her side of the intrusion module.

The dazzle and crack! of the miniature fusion explosions forced their reality onto the huge room. One of the turrets simply slagged down, but ammunition detonated in the other. Balls of ionized gas bubbled through the vessel's open hatches.

The navigational computer of that boat wasn't going to be much help to the spooks back at Port Tau Ceti, but the raiders couldn't risk somebody arming the turrets before teams detailed for vessels in dock got aboard the couriers.

Coming back without the desired information was better than not coming back. Even Grant, monitoring all the teams from the belly of the module, would agree with that.

Bradley carried a bottle of stun gas. It was a volatile liquid intended for contact application, though the fumes would do the job if they had to. The sergeant directed the bottle's nozzle into the office Kowacs had shot up, angling the fine jet so that it sprayed the terrified personnel hiding behind their bullet-riddled equipment.

Pickup teams would secure the prisoners later, though they'd be stacked like cordwood beneath Headhunter boots during extraction. Provided casualties didn't clear too much of the module's hold. 

The corridor formed a Y. Bradley followed the left branch, as planned.

There were rooms on both sides. The third door down quivered as though in indecision. Kowacs riddled it. He was switching to a fresh magazine when the fat man in garish silks and ribbons tumbled out into the corridor, still clutching his pistol.

He'd have been a good one to capture—if that had been an option compatible with Kowacs staying alive.

Belt-fed plasma weapons fired short bursts from the docking bay. Timmes' platoon was taking an active definition of perimeter security. Light reflecting down the corridor angles threw momentary harsh shadows.

The docking bay was out of Kowacs' direct sight. He could have viewed the module by switching his visor to remote images, just as he could follow the progress of any of his Marines either visually or by a digital read-out.

He didn't bother. The Headhunters were too experienced to need their major looking over their shoulders—

And anyway, their major had enough on his own plate.

An emergency barrier began to slide across the corridor twenty meters ahead.

"Down!" Kowacs shouted as his left hand snatched a grenade from his equipment belt. He flung the bomb sidearm as he flattened.

A pair of security men in helmets and uniforms ran from a cross-corridor just beyond the sliding barrier. They leveled sub-machine guns. Bradley sent an arc of stun gas in their direction, but the bottle didn't have quite enough range and Kowacs, sliding on his right shoulder, couldn't twist his assault rifle on-target fast enough to—

The anti-tank grenade struck the barrier, clung for an instant, and went off with a deafening crash. The barrier bulged inward, jamming in its track. The shaped-charge warhead blew a two-centimeter hole through the metal and cleared the corridor beyond with a spray of fragments and molten steel.

The shockwave skidded Kowacs back a meter from the blast area. The frangible casing powdered harmlessly, as it was intended to do, and commo helmets saved the Headhunters' hearing.

"Go!" Kowacs cried.

Sienkiewicz was already on her feet and past the barrier, the near limit of the station's transient accommodations. The corporal paused beside the first door to make sure Bradley was ready with his stun gas, then smashed the panel open with her boot.

Bradley sprayed the interior with his nozzle set on mist. The gas glowed like a fluorescent rainbow in the flicker of distant plasma discharges.

Another team sprinted past Kowacs and broke left at the cross-corridor. Automatic fire blasted.

The team leader spun and fell. His Number Two dropped her bottle of gas and dragged the leader beyond the corner of the main corridor, across from Kowacs.

The Number Three, under cover also, started to lean out to return fire with his automatic rifle. Kowacs waved him back, then whipped a cluster of fragmentation grenades around the corner with a motion that exposed none of his body.

The cluster rebounded as a unit from the far wall of the cross-corridor, separated into its component sections with a triple pop, and detonated in a white sleet of flame and glass shrapnel.

Kowacs dived into the corridor in the shadow of the blast. Bradley was beside him and Sie covered their backs, facing the opposite direction in case company tried to intervene down the other leg of the cross-corridor.

There were three uniformed Syndicate personnel in the corridor, two sprawled on their faces and a third staggering toward safety as a barrier ten meters away slid to seal the hall. Kowacs and Bradley both fired.

The security man flung his arms out and lurched forward. His back was splotched with slits from the airfoil charge of Bradley's shotgun; there were three neat holes between his shoulders—Kowacs' aiming point.

The barrier ground to a halt. The security man's body might not have been enough to stall out the motor, but his helmet was. There was just about enough room for a man to squeeze through the opening between the barrier and its jamb.

Somebody on the far side of the barrier fired. The bullets ricocheted through the gap, howling like banshees and all the more dangerous for the way they buzzsawed after deforming on the corridor wall.

"Cover me!" screamed the other team's Number Two. She bolted past Kowacs and Bradley, snatching up her bottle of gas as she ran.

Kowacs poured the remainder of his rifle's magazine through the opening. Bradley unhooked a grenade cluster. His shotgun's pattern was too wide to get much of the charge through the opening at that range, and the airfoils wouldn't ricochet effectively anyway.

A bullet zinged past the running Headhunter, close enough to pluck a pouch of ammo from her belt and half-spin her, but she reached the dead zone behind the barrier without injury. She fumbled with her bottle of gas. Bradley's arm went back with a grenade cluster.

"D—" Kowacs shouted, but he didn't finish the "Don't" because there wasn't much chance the sergeant would miss the risky throw—and anyway, Bradley was going to do what he pleased in a firefight, whether Nick Kowacs thought it was a good idea or not.

The grenade cluster arced through the narrow slot and burst with a triple flash waist-high above the corridor floor. At the blast, the Number Two poked her gas bottle into the opening and began to spray a mist of anesthetic into the other side of the barrier.

The firing slackened. A woman in the bright, loose clothing favored by Syndicate bigwigs slumped across the opening and lay still. A pistol slipped from her hand.

Unexpectedly, the Headhunter dropped her gas bottle and collapsed also.

The fucking seventeen-minute delay. The gas antidote was wearing off! 

"Headhunter Six to all personnel," Kowacs said as he lurched to his feet and another Syndicate bullet whanged through the slot. "Stop using gas! The antidote's—"

Sienkiewicz fired the last round from her plasma weapon through the opening. The wall thirty meters down the corridor bloomed in a sun-hot fireball as the jet of directed plasma sublimed the metal-and-ceramic structure into vapor in a microsecond.

"—wearing off!" Kowacs completed as he hit the slot a step ahead of Bradley, who'd been that much slower getting to his feet, and two steps before Sie, who rocked back with the violence of the bolt she'd unleashed.

The major went through sideways. His equipment belt hooked on the edge of the barrier anyway, twisted but didn't hold him.

The corridor dead ended. The four rooms on the left side were glowing slag from the plasma charge. A security man knelt in an open doorway across from where the bolt had hit. He'd dropped his rifle and was pawing at his eyes, possibly blinded already and certainly dead when Kowacs walked a one-handed burst across his chest.

The shooters didn't know anything worth carrying back to Tau Ceti. 

The end door on the right side was a centimeter open when Kowacs saw it, slamming shut an instant thereafter. He hit its latch bootheel-first, springing fasteners that were intended for privacy rather than security.

The interior lights were on. There were two people inside, and a coffin-sized outline taped to the back wall of the room. The people were a man and a woman, both young, and they were starting to lock down the helmets of their atmosphere suits.

The man's gauntleted hand reached for the sub-machine gun across the bed beside him. Kowacs fired, but Bradley fired also and at point-blank range the rifle bullets were lost in the plate-sized crater the shotgun blew in the target's chest.

The back wall exploded outward. The outline had been drawn with adhesive-backed explosive strips, and the vaguely-familiar woman detonated it as she finished fastening her helmet.

The other side of the wall was hard vacuum.

The rush of atmosphere sucked the woman with it, clear of the Headhunters' guns. Loose papers, bedding, and the helmet from the corpse sailed after her.

The mask of Kowacs' emergency air supply slapped over his nose and mouth, enough to save his life but not adequate for him to go chasing somebody in a proper suit. The suit's maneuvering jets would carry the woman to a regular airlock when the raiders left and it was safe to come back.

The room lights dimmed as the atmosphere that scattered them into a useful ambiance roared through the huge hole. Kowacs reached for the male corpse, lost his balance and staggered toward death until Sie's huge hand clamped the slack of his equipment belt.

"Let's go!" she shouted, her voice attenuated to a comfortable level by the AI controlling Kowacs' headphones. "We're timing out!"

"Help me with the body!" Kowacs ordered as the three of them fought their way back into the corridor. The wind was less overmastering but still intense.

"We don't need dead guys!" Bradley shouted, but he'd grabbed the other leg of the body, clumsy in its bulky suit.

"I got it," said Sienkiewicz, lifting the corpse away from both men. She slammed it through the gap at the barrier in what was half a shove, half a throw.

"We need this one," Kowacs wheezed.

The corridor was empty except for Syndicate corpses. Headhunter pickup teams had gathered the casualties as well as the loot and headed back to the module. It'd be close, but Kowacs' team would make it with ten seconds to spare, a lifetime. . . .

"We need this deader . . . ," he continued as they pounded down the hallway against the lessening wind-rush. Sie had the body. "Because he's wearing . . . ensign's insignia . . . on his collar."

The module was in sight. A man stood in the open hatch, Grant, and goddam if he didn't have his arm outstretched to help jerk the latecomers aboard.

"Fleet ensign's insignia!" Kowacs gasped.

* * *

The receptionist looked concerned, and not just by the fact that Major Kowacs carried a full load of weapons and equipment into her sanctum.

Or as much of his weapons and equipment as he hadn't fired off during the raid.

The escort, rising and falling on the balls of his feet at the open door of these third-tier offices, was evidently worried. "Come this way, please, sir," the youngster said. Then, "He's been waiting for you."

"I been waiting for a hot shower," Kowacs rasped. Powdersmoke, ozone, and stun gas had worked over his throat like so many skinning knives. "I'm still fucking waiting."

The escort hopped ahead of Kowacs like a tall, perfectly-groomed leprechaun. Kowacs could barely walk.

The adrenaline had worn off. He seen the preliminary casualty report—with three bodies not recovered. There was a ten-centimeter burn on the inside of his left wrist where he must have laid the glowing barrel of his assault rifle, though goddam if he could remember doing that.

There were bruises and prickles of glass shrapnel all over Nick Kowacs' body, but a spook named Grant insisted on debriefing him at once, with your full equipment, mister. 

The door flashed special projects/teitelbaum an instant before it opened.

"Where the hell have you been?" snarled Grant.

His briefcase lay open on the desk. A gossamer filament connected the workstation to the office's hologram projector. Fuzzy images of battle and confusion danced in the air while the portrait of Admiral Teitelbaum glared down sternly.

"I had to check out my people," Kowacs said as he leaned his blackened rifle against one of the leather-covered chairs. He lifted one, then the other of the crossed bandoliers of ammunition over his head and laid them on the seat cushion.

"I said at once," the civilian snapped. "You've got platoon leaders to baby-sit, don't you?"

"I guess," said Kowacs. He unlatched his equipment belt. It swung in his hands, shockingly heavy with its weight of pistol and grenades. He tossed it onto the bandoliers.

God, he felt weak. . . . 

Grant grimaced. "All right, give me your helmet."

Kowacs had forgotten he was wearing a commo helmet. He slid it off carefully. The room's filtered air chilled the sweat on the Marine's scalp.

The civilian reversed the helmet, then touched the brow panel with an electronic key. Kowacs knew about the keys but he'd never seen one used before.

Line Marines weren't authorized to remove the recording chips from their helmets. That was the job of the Second-Guess Brigade, the rear-echelon mothers who decided how well or badly the people at the sharp end had behaved.

Grant muttered to his workstation. The ghost images shut down. He put the chip from Kowacs' helmet directly into the hologram reader. His own weapon and shoulder harness hung over the back of his chair.

"Didn't your equipment echo everything from our helmets?" Kowacs asked.

He remained standing. He wasn't sure he wanted to sit down. He wasn't sure of much of anything.

"Did a piss-poor job of it, yeah," the civilian grunted. "Just enough to give me a hint of what I need."

He scrolled forward, reeling across the seventeen-minute operation at times-ten speed. Images projected from Kowacs viewpoint jerked and capered and died. "Too much hash from the—"

There was a bright flash in the air above the desk.

"—fucking plasma discharges. You know—" Grant met the Marine's eyes in a fierce glare, "—it was bughouse crazy to use a plasma weapon in a finger corridor. What if the whole outer bulkhead blew out?"

"It didn't," said Kowacs. "You got complaints about the way the job got done, then you send somebody else the next time."

Grant paused the projection. The image was red with muzzle flashes and bright with pulmonary blood spraying through the mouth of the man in the tattered spacesuit.

"Smart to bring back the body," Grant said in a neutral voice. "Too bad you didn't capture him alive."

"Too bad your system didn't work the first time so we could've kept using the stun gas," Kowacs replied flatly. The parade of images was a nightmare come twice.

Grant expanded the view of the dying man's face. "We've got a hard make on him," he said. "There was enough residual brain-wave activity to nail him down, besides all the regular ID he was carrying. Name's Haley G. Stocker, Ensign . . . and he disappeared on a scouting mission."

"A Syndicate spy?" Kowacs said.

"That's what the smart money's betting," the civilian agreed.

He backed up the image minusculy. The blood vanished like a fountain failing, the aristocratic lips shrank from an O of disbelieving horror into the sneer the ensign bore an instant before the bullets struck.

"Only thing is," Grant continued, "Ensign Stocker disappeared thirty-five years ago."

He looked at Kowacs and raised an eyebrow, as if he were expecting the Marine to come up with an explanation.

"Bullshit," said Kowacs. "He's only about twenty. He was."

"Close," the civilian agreed. "Twenty and a half standard years when you shot him, the lab says."

He let the projector run forward. The spy, the boy, hemorrhaged and died again before his mind could accept what was happening.

"I don't get it," said Nick Kowacs. He heard a persistent buzzing, but it came from his mind rather than the equipment.

Grant looked . . . tired wasn't the right word, lonely wasn't the right word, but. . . . Grant had paid a price during the operation too—

Or he'd never have been talking to a line Marine this way.

"It looks like we still don't have all the bugs out of the A-Pot intrusion system," Grant said. "The best we can figure now, the second pass was early. Thirty-five years early."

He spoke to the voice control of the holographic reader. The image paused, then expanded.

The face of the woman who'd escaped was slightly distorted by the faceshield of her helmet, and she was considerably younger—

But the features were beyond doubt the same as those lowering down from the portrait of Vice-Admiral Teitelbaum on the wall behind.


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