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Chapter One

Hansen saw the blast bubble like an orange puffball above the building roofs three kilometers away. He stuck his head out the side-window of his chauffeured aircar and heard the whump! over the rush of wind.

"Don't get us above—" Hansen started to say, but the car was already sideslipping to lose altitude and take them the rest of the distance to the crime site in the shelter of the buildings. The drivers who rotated through Commissioner Hansen's duty list were the best in Special Units. This one, a human named Krupchak, didn't want to enter the sight radius of the bandits' heavy weaponry any more than Hansen did.

Hansen's visor was split into three screens: the top showing the view from one of the units already at the crime site; the center clear for normal sight; and the bottom running a closed loop from the incident that set up the current situation. Hansen's own viewpoint showed nothing but faces from the ground traffic gaping upward at the aircar which howled above them with its emergency flashers fluttering at eye-dazzling speed.

The Civic Patrolmen on-site were busy blocking streets and trying to evacuate civilians already in what was clearly a combat zone. They weren't interested in the building at 212 Kokori Street where the bandits had holed up, except to keep from being blown away by the shots spitting—and sometimes slamming—from the top story of that structure.

Hansen set his remote to one of his own Special Units teams which had already arrived. Hansen's people (some of them female and not a few of them inhuman despite the complaints from bigots) were for the moment setting up fields of fire to block the bandits if they tried to escape. They were ready and willing to make a frontal assault if the Commissioner gave them that order.

The target was a fortress. Special Units would make a frontal assault on it over Commissioner Hansen's dead body.


The structure was part of a row of cheap two- and three-story apartment buildings built long before the twenty-nine-year old Hansen was born. The windows of the top floor now bulged with the soap-bubble iridescence of a forcefield. A white Civic Patrol hoverscoot stood abandoned outside the building's front entrance.

Kokori Street wasn't a slum. The Consensus of Planets didn't permit slums in or around the capitals of any of its 1200 worlds; and besides, there were few real slums anywhere on Annunciation. Still, though there wasn't any trash in the street, the buildings' cast facades were dingy and sculpted in curves which flowed according to tastes superseded decades before.

The district's residents generally staffed the lower tiers of the city's service industries—but they had jobs, because residence in a planetary capital for periods longer than three months required that a household member be gainfully employed. Here on Annunciation, the Consensus fiat was enforced by the Civic Patrol—backed up by Special Units if necessary.

Ousting unemployed squatters could be a nasty job, but the worst casualties were usually a broken nose or a wrenched knee. This job was uniquely dangerous, but there was nobody in Hansen's section (and few enough in the Civic Patrol) who wasn't glad to have it.

The Solbarth Gang. It had to be Solbarth, the criminal whose genius was equalled by his ruthlessness. Inhuman ruthlessness, the news reports said; and this time the news reports were precisely correct.

One of Hansen's people was trying to get an update on the situation within 212 Kokori. Behind a Civic Patrol forcefield barricade parked a nondescript van. A SpyFly the size, shape and color of a large cigar burred from within the vehicle.

The little reconnaissance drone was scarcely visible until it arced to within a meter of the building's sidewall. There it exploded as ropes of scintillance.

Whoever was inside had an electronic flyswatter; which figured, if it was Solbarth.

A man jumped from a second-floor window, stumbled, and ran three steps toward the portable forcefield one of Hansen's units had set up at the intersection kitty-corner from the target building. A black sphincter dilated in the villains' protective screen. A blue-white flash cut the runner's legs from under him, long before he reached safety.

The body thrashed.

Just a civilian caught in something that was none of his business. Would've been smarter to hide under the bed until it was all over. But then, if Special Units opened up with the kind of firepower necessary to overwhelm the gang's forcefield, the whole block would melt into a bubbling crater.

That wasn't going to happen.

"Support," Hansen said, cueing the artificial intelligence in his helmet. "Is the building's climate control in metal ducts?"

A green light winked even as the Commissioner's last syllable rose in an interrogative.

The AI had accessed the data from Central Records; probably out of Building Inspection, but the exact provenance of the information didn't matter. Every scrap of data about this building, its residents—and the villains believed to be holed up here—had been sucked into a huge electronic suspense file within seconds of when the shooting started. Any extant knowledge that Hansen might need waited at the tip of his tongue.

The trouble was, quite of lot of what Hansen needed to know would be available only in the after-action report on the operation; and Commissioner Hansen might or might not be alive to examine the data then.

"Top to Orange Three," he ordered, letting the AI punch him through the chatter of the unit he'd just watched launch the SpyFly. "Put one into the building's ventilation system. Use a One-Star."

The 1* class drones were old and slow, but they had double-capacity powerpacks and were rugged enough to airdrop with their lift fans shut down.

"Sir, they've turned off the air system 'n the louvers 're down!" the Orange Three team leader replied in a voice half a tone higher than normal.

"Then it'll take the SpyFly a bloody while to burn through the louvers, won't it?" Hansen snarled. "So get on the bloody job!"

"Hang on, sir," his driver warned. The aircar bounced to a dynamic halt behind the forcefield barricade at the intersection.

A streak of flame washed from the villains' hideout. The portable forcefield pulsed like a rainbow, but it absorbed the burst without strain.

Regular police fired a sparkle of stun needles, but the temporary opening in the villains' forcefield had already closed. The Special Units teams held their fire the way they'd been ordered to do.

Polarized light cast a blue wash over everything on the other side of the barricade. The legless man halfway to the intersection had stopped twitching. Another plasma bolt licked from the far side of the building, silhouetting the roof moldings with its brief radiance.

Hansen glanced at the video loop running across the bottom of his visor. It displayed the sensor log of the patrolman who'd arrived to investigate a reported domestic disturbance.

The cop had been a little fellow and young, to judge from the image of him recorded in reflection from the building's front door as he entered. He was whistling something tuneless between his teeth. As he climbed the stairs, he checked the needle stunner in his holster.

He'd been a little nervous, but not nearly as nervous as he should've been.

It was all a mistake. The reported loud argument had been in District 9, not here in District 7. An administrative screw-up that normally would've meant, at worst, that a family argument blossomed into violence because the uniformed man who could've stopped it had been sent to the wrong place.

No sign of a domestic argument now. Knuckles rapping on a doorpanel; Who's there? muffled by the thick panel, and "Civic Patrol! Open up!" sharply from the cop whose equipment was recording events and transmitting the log back to his district sub-station; standard operating procedure.

Maybe if the patrolman had been a little less forceful in his request—

But that was second-guessing the man on the spot, and Hansen wasn't going to speak ill of the dead.

The video image of the door opened. Before the figure within was more than a blur, the universe dissolved in a plasma flare that the victim didn't have time to understand.

Hansen got out of his vehicle. The air smelled burned, from the forcefield and the weapons the villains were using; from the hellfire dancing in the Commissioner's mind.

His jaws hurt. He'd been clenching them as he watched the patrolman die. Hansen's muttered order cleared his visor of both the remote and the recorded images, but the fatal plasma burst continued to blaze a dirty white in memory.

Bad luck for the cop, knocking on the wrong door. And very bad luck indeed for Solbarth.

Four Special Units personnel squatted behind the forcefield they'd stretched between their vehicles. Two sighted over plasma weapons; one had a wide-muzzled projectile launcher; and the fourth, the team leader, carried the forcefield controls, a pistol, and long knives in both of her boots. They were all dressed in light-scattering camouflage uniforms which blurred their outlines and hid anything that an opponent could use for an aiming point.

The team members kept their faces rigidly to the front, pretending they didn't know the Commissioner was standing behind them. "Pink Two to Top," Hansen heard the leader say. "Are we clear to fire?"

The question didn't come to Hansen through the commo net, because the Commissioner's AI blocked out all the idle chatter that would otherwise have distracted him from the real business of solving the problem.

Hansen stepped over to the team leader, put a hand on her shoulder, and said, "We'll get where we're going, Pink Two. Don't worry."

"Sorry, sir," one of the plasma gunners said, though the reason he thought he needed to apologize was beyond Hansen's understanding.

Nobody needed to apologize. No matter how good your training was, no matter how much on-line experience you had, there were going to be tics and glitches in a real crisis. People said things, people forgot SOP . . . sometimes people shot when they shouldn't've, and even that was forgivable if you survived it.

Training went only so far. Situations like this went right down into the reptilian core of the brain.

With his fingers still resting on Pink Two's shoulder, Hansen said, "Support. Give me a fast three-sixty of the target site. Left side only."

Hansen's artificial intelligence began walking him visually around the apartment building. Remote images from other police personnel were remoted to the left half of the Commissioner's visor, changing every ten seconds to proceed around the site in a counterclockwise direction.

A patrolman in an apartment to Hansen's right poured a stream of stun needles toward the gang's hideout. There were brief sparkles on the forcefield and occasionally a puff of dust from the plastic facade. Raindrops would have been more effective than the one-gram needles were at this range.

On a roof halfway down the block, Special Units personnel stripped the tarpaulin from the 4-cm plasma weapon they'd just manhandled from an armored personnel carrier. Two other teams watched tensely from behind the forcefield they'd erected to shelter the gun installation. They knew the weapon could probably batter through the villains' protective screen; but they knew also that the sidescatter of powerful bolts hitting powerful armor was likely to incinerate every unshielded object within a kilometer of impact.

Ten seconds later a white aircar picked out with gold braid skidded to a halt behind a forcefield manned by Civic Patrol personnel. Holloway, Chief of the Capital Police, got out. He was still trying to seal his bemedaled uniform blouse over his fat belly.

An aide lifted a pair of slug-throwing hunting rifles out of the car and handed one to Holloway. Both men aimed as a police technician spun narrow loopholes in the protective forcefield so that his superiors could fire at the hideout.

No one but Special Units personnel was permitted to use deadly force. No one.

The AI cycled to the next image around the circle. Hansen's mouth was open to bark an order that Holloway, even Holloway, would obey—or else—when his right eye saw a whorl gape in the villains' forcefield. Solbarth must be using tuned elements so that merely presenting a weapon opened his shield wide enough to fire. That sort of hardware was too expensive even for Special Units.

And the weapon being aimed in Hansen's direction this time wasn't a plasma gun.

"Watch it!" he screamed, and, "Down!" to the personnel near him who thought their forcefield protected them from the villains' fire.

Hansen flattened, pushing the team leader out of her crouch and hoping the three men had sense enough to obey without asking questions. There was a flash from the momentary hole in Solbarth's protective bubble.

A ten-kilo war rocket arched down on a trail of thin smoke.

The missile skimmed the top of the police forcefield—which would have halted it harmlessly—and detonated in thunder on the pavement behind Hansen and his people.

The blast hurled the Commissioner's car—was the driver clear?—onto its side. The pavement shattered. Howling shards of missile casing pocked facades for twenty meters in every direction. Bits that struck the inner face of the forcefield hissed and melted as their kinetic energy was transformed into heat.

Hansen's ears rang. The men around him were all right, and his driver was getting out of the aircar with a dazed look on his face.

A rifle bullet whacked the hideout's facade and ricocheted over Hansen's head.

Hansen took a deep breath. "Top to all units," he said in a voice that rattled like tin in his own ears. "Cease firing. All units cease firing. I am Commissioner Hansen, and this site is under the jurisdiction of Special—"

Three bullets smacked the villains' forcefield where it bulged from one of the third-floor windows. The projectiles melted in showers of white sparks. The muzzle blasts of the rifles echoed down the corridor of building fronts like a burst of automatic fire.

"I say again, cease fire," Hansen ordered. "Special Units personnel, enforce my orders by whatever—"

The left half of Hansen's visor had cycled back to a view of Chief Holloway just as the fat man's body rocked back under the recoil of his powerful rifle. Hansen fully expected one of his people to stitch the Chief's ass with stun needles, but he hadn't said that.

Actually, he hadn't gotten the order completely out of his mouth before the back of Chief Holloway's limousine geysered metal and plastic, then collapsed in flames. Somebody from Special Units had put a plasma round into the vehicle.

Well, Hansen's personal motto was that no means were excessive if they got the job done. Holloway hurled the rifle away and curled up in a ball. His aide tried to shield the Chief's body, but the disparity in size of the men made the attempt ludicrous.

The delicate flicker of stun needles hitting the villains' forcefield stopped also.

Hansen stood up. A black spot in the center of a window spat plasma at him. He flinched as the bolt coruscated fifty centimeters from his face.

He drew his own pistol. "Pink Two," he said, wishing he could remember the woman's name. "Get ready to open the screen for me."

"You'll shoot, sir?" the team leader asked.

"For me, damn you!" Hansen shouted. "Me! Not a gun!"

He'd have to apologize later.


He'd been this scared before, so scared that his palms sweated and muscle tremors made the fine hairs on the surface of his skin crawl. Sure, he'd been this scared.

But he'd never been more scared.

"Now," Hansen said very softly. He leaped forward as the forcefield collapsed momentarily to pass his body.

It was thirty meters to the front of the building. Hansen had covered half the distance in ten quick strides when a hole like Hell's anus spun in the bulging forcefield above him.

The Commissioner's pistol snapped two high-velocity projectiles through the opening before the villain within could fire. The mirror of the protective forcefield dulled momentarily as its inner face absorbed the plasma bolt triggered in a dying convulsion.

Hansen was doing this job because he wouldn't order any of his people to do it, and because it had to be him anyway.

But nobody in Special Units was better qualified to handle it, either.

Motes of plastic drifted in the sunlight beneath 212 Kokori, bits snapped from the facade by stun needles and shrapnel from the villains' own weaponry. They had one hell of an arsenal in there. This wasn't a police action, it was a war . . . or at any rate, it'd degenerate into a war if Hansen's try here failed.

Hansen looked back the way he'd come. Squat figures, mere shadows behind the polarized sheets of forcefields, waited with mechanical passivity.

He was panting, as much from tension as from the sprint. The villains' forcefield bulged from the windows above him. It was driven hard enough to reflect light, not merely shadow it. Solbarth must have his own fusion generator. . . .

But even Solbarth couldn't fight the Consensus.

"Support," Hansen said. "Give me a lower-quadrant remote from the four-centimeter's guns—"

The sight picture, broad field in acquisition mode, from the crew-served weapon directly across from 212 inset a quarter of Hansen's visor. He could see himself as a tiny figure in the corner of the image, staring at the bulging fortress above him.

"—ight," Hansen's mouth said, completing the order that the AI had already obeyed.

He heard the crack! of a plasma weapon firing somewhere from the back of the building, but there was no time to worry about that now.

"Solbarth!" he shouted. He tilted his visor up, losing the panoramic image that he'd need for warning if—

"Solbarth!" Hansen shouted again, his voice no longer muffled by the shield in front of it. "This is Commissioner Hansen. I'm giving you a chance."

"Kommissar?" said the voice that Hansen's artificial intelligence had passed to his ear. "Orange Three. We've got the SpyFly in position outside the last set of louvers. Do you want us to burn through?"

"We don't need a chance from you, Hansen," called a cold, clear voice from a window on the third floor. "You'll be old and gray before we run out of supplies."

"Orange Three, not yet," Hansen muttered. He desperately wanted images from within the hideout, but he knew that this reconnaissance drone would be zapped like the others if it left its protective screen of metal too soon.

Hansen cocked his visor at a 45° angle, open enough for him to shout past it. He peered at the distorted quadrant of panorama—which his AI immediately reconfigured to meet its master's needs.

And why the hell hadn't he been smart enough to tell the machine to do that?

"Solbarth, I'm offering you your lives," Hansen said. He could hear other muffled voices from the lower floors of 212 Kokori, civilians praying or weeping into their shielding hands. "It's more than—"

The helmet beeped to warn Hansen and flashed a red carat over the remoted image on his visor, but his gunhand was already rising, pointing—taking up the slack on the trigger. An arm thrust a wide-mouthed mob gun through the window five meters above the Commissioner's head.

Hansen fired twice. The villain's weapon rang and bounced off the bloody transom before dropping to the street. There was a bullet hole through its bell muzzle, and a separate hole through the wrist which the screaming gunman jerked back within the forcefield.

"You won't open this can with the toys you've brought out so far, Hansen," Solbarth said, as calmly as if the wounded man's whimpering was only the whisper of wind. "When you do requisition what you'd require . . . if you do . . . then this whole district will be radioactive for a decade."

The bare skin of Hansen's hand and chin stung from the whiplash muzzle blasts of his pistol. The shadows of Special Units stirred restively behind their forcefields.

"Solbarth," he called, "if you don't surrender to me now, I'll have the building cut away beneath you. For all I know, your forcefield may hold; but that won't matter to you, because you and everything else inside the field're going to be shaking around like the beans in a maraca as you drop into the sub-basement."

The silence was so deep that Hansen could feel the pulse of the villains' forcefield through the fabric of the building.

"The lower floors are full of civilians," Solbarth said. Hansen thought he heard a tremor of color in the gang leader's voice, though 'emotion' would have been too strong a word for it.

"Solbarth," Hansen said, "I know you . . . and you know me. This is a Special Units operation. I answer to no one until it's complete. And I promise you, Solbarth, that I'll do exactly what I told you I'd do."

Very softly, almost subvocalizing, he added, "Orange Three, go ahead. Support, switch my remote."

"A starship," the cold voice demanded. "A starship and your word that we'll be allowed to take it and leave, Hansen."

"Your lives, Solbarth," the Commissioner repeated flatly. "And the rest of your lives to spend on whatever hellhole or prison asteroid the Consensus chooses to send you. But I promise you your lives."

The remote quadrant of Hansen's visor suddenly melted into an image of the gang's hideout. All the interior walls of the third story had been removed. The cases of food and water suggested that Solbarth hadn't been entirely bluffing when he'd said they could withstand a siege.

Not years, though. Not the dozen males and three females still moving.

A corpse had been dragged into the center of the room. The moaning man, his right hand hanging by a scrap of skin, still huddled beneath the window at which Hansen had shot him.

The female who'd just gotten up from the protective-systems console to join the argument was a Mirzathian, skeletally thin and over two meters tall. The SpyFly whose sensors were recording the scene made a bright pip on the holographic screen the Mirzathian was supposed to be minding. The touch of a key could have pulsed the drone's electronics fatally, but neither the Mirzathian nor any of the other gang members had time to spend on that now.

Solbarth was a male of average height, with a pale complexion and features of perfect beauty. He was wearing a loose-fitting suit of rather better quality than the clothing of most residents of District 7. He moved languidly, but Hansen's practiced eye could still identify the bulge of a pistol high on Solbarth's right hip.

When Hansen wore a business suit, that was where his own holster rode.

"He won't really spare us!" the Mirzathian shouted.

"He won't really blast all them civvies!" a heavy man with a shoulder-stocked plasma weapon boomed simultaneously.

"He didn't come here," Solbarth said mildly, "here—" he gestured down in the direction of Hansen, standing beneath the overhang "—to lie to us. He's Hansen, and he's quite mad . . . but I think he's telling the truth."

"Look, whadda we got to lose?" whined another gunman. "Look, they blast us or we wind up drinkin' our own piss 'n starvin', right? So whadda they do to us worse if we do chuck it in now?"

"Wait," said Solbarth.

He leaned closer to the window above Hansen and called, "Commissioner, there's something that you don't know about me. How can I trust—"

"I don't know that you're an android, Solbarth?" Hansen said. His words echoed uneasily, in his ears and weakly through the radio link from the SpyFly that had penetrated the hideout. "Sure I do. The offer stands."

"You promise," Solbarth said forcefully. "But the Consensus wipes androids that vary from parameters, Hansen. You can't promise for the Consensus."

Hansen wiped the lower half of his face with his left hand. Sweat glistened on his skin, but his mouth was as dry as the pavement.

"Solbarth," he said, "you're a murdering bastard and I'd've strangled you with my own hands if I could. But I'm Hansen, I'm Special Units, and here I'm in charge. For this moment, I am all twelve hundred worlds of the Consensus."

He took a deep breath. "They can fire me for making this deal if they like. But the Consensus will stand by my deal . . . or by god, Solbarth, the Consensus will deal with me. On my honor."

The image of Solbarth turned to face his henchmen. "I think," he said with delicate insouciance, "that we should take the offer."

"I say you're fucking crazy!" the Mirzathian snarled. She snatched up an antitank launcher and leaned toward the window.

Hansen wasn't sure he'd ever seen a man draw and fire as swiftly as Solbarth did . . . though Solbarth wasn't technically a man. The contents of the Mirzathian's skull splashed the inner face of the forcefield and sputtered. With their velocity scrubbed away, bits of bone and fried blood tumbled out the window and fluttered past Hansen to the sidewalk.

There were two more shots from within the hideout; the heavy man collapsed around the plasma weapon cradled in his arms. Either he'd been planning to use it, or he'd looked like he had . . . or, not improbably, Solbarth was making a point to the remainder of his gang in the most vivid fashion possible.

Other weapons clattered to the floor of the hideout. A small man covered his face with his hands and cried, "I'm clean! I'm clean! Don't shoot me!"

"Hansen!" Solbarth called without turning his eyes from his fellow villains. "We accept your offer. Warn your men that we're coming out!"

The android's left hand keyed a series of commands into the protective systems console. The window above Hansen gave an electronic whine. The forcefield went translucent an instant before it vanished altogether.

"All units, hold your fire," Hansen said. "The subjects are surrendering. I repeat, the subjects are surrendering. Blue teams, prepare to secure the prisoners. Orange teams, be ready to move in with the medical staff. There's a wounded prisoner, and we won't know about the residents here until we check."

The SpyFly showed Solbarth gesturing the last of his subordinates down the stairs with a negligent wave of his pistol. The slim android set the weapon carefully on the floor, bowed toward the closed heating duct whose paint had blistered when the SpyFly burned through a hole for its sensors, and left the room.

Hansen couldn't tell whether or not the bow was ironic. Perhaps not.

"Blue teams," Hansen said, "I want you to accompany the prisoners to the detention center after you turn them over to the Civic Patrol. There'll be no accidents along the way."

He swallowed. "Whatever it takes, there'll be no accidents."

Six Special Units personnel jogged from their positions in the building across Kokori Street. They held both nets and electronic restraints.

The first of Solbarth's men poked his head through the entrance door. His mouth was bent into a smile like the rictus of the last stages of tetanus, and his eyes were glazed with fear. Blue One gestured to the villain as though he were a dog to be petted.

The man glanced aside at Hansen, then bolted into the arms of the personnel waiting to immobilize him. A second gang member scuttled out behind the first.

Hansen was still holding his pistol. He tried to holster it, but his hand was shaking too much for him to manage that operation. Swearing under his breath, he set the weapon down on the sidewalk in front of him and clasped his hands together.

There was commotion at the intersection where Hansen's car lay on its side, but he couldn't tell what was happening since the portable forcefields were still—properly—in place.

Chief Holloway waddled down Kokori Street from the other direction, at the head of a contingent of Civic Patrolmen. Holloway's white uniform was streaked and blackened. His face was maroon. Blood pressure might prove fatal though the nearby plasma bolt had not.

Most of the villains had left the building. Blue One was giving crisp orders to the Civic Patrolmen arriving to accept prisoners cocooned in restraining nets. Some civilians poked their heads from the lower-floor windows, able now to savor the adventure they'd survived . . . and how close it'd been, might they never know!

Hansen was tired. He was as tired as he ever remembered being.

"Kommissar!" cried the team leader whose concern was obvious despite compression of the radio signal and the minute speakers in Hansen's helmet. "This is Pink Two, and something's—"

The warning crunched to silence, though Hansen could vaguely hear Pink Two continuing to shout behind the barrier.

"Commissioner Hansen," said a voice more mechanical than any machine needed to be in a day that AIs could manufacture surds and sonants with greater life than those of any rhetoric teacher. "You are summoned by the Consensus."

Something—a spindle of black fuzz, taller than a man—drifted through the forcefield blocking the intersection. There was another spindle beside the first.

Hansen had never seen anything like them.

The portable forcefield sputtered and vanished.

"Not now," Hansen said. The sweat on his palms was suddenly cold. "I've got to—"

Hansen's visor went opaque. His helmet was dead, screens and speakers alike. He took the helmet off.

His hands no longer shook. He didn't glance down toward his pistol, but his toe, with a motion that might have been only a twitch, located the weapon precisely.

Solbarth stepped from the entranceway. The android froze, his blank eyes taking in Hansen and the creatures which slid toward the Commissioner at a walking pace.

The two spindles were hazily transparent. An aircar—Hansen's own aircar, torn but upright again—drifted along behind the creatures, a hand's breadth above the pavement.

No one was aboard the vehicle. Krupchak, the driver, gaped at Hansen from beside the personnel of Pink Two.

"Commissioner Hansen, please get in the car," said the mechanical voice.

It sounded exactly as it had before, even though Hansen was no longer wearing his helmet.

"I had the authority at this site," Hansen said hoarsely. "You have no grounds to remove me without a hearing."

The spindles moved to either side of him. Hansen's skin tingled. Close up they still looked transparent, but he thought he saw something in the black tendrils as well as between them.

The vehicle's power door opened. "Commissioner Hansen," the voice repeated, "please get in the car."

Hansen obeyed, shifting his foot slightly so that he didn't scuff the pistol. One of his people would take care of it. . . .

Fifty meters away, Chief Holloway licked his lips. He looked as though he were watching a pornographic display.

The door shut after Hansen. The two spindles drifted through the plastic panels, into the driver's compartment. Hansen didn't see them fold or shrink, but their peaks didn't quite brush the vehicle's blast-pocked headliner.

"Sir, should we—" shouted one of the Special Units personnel as he leaned from a roof with his plasma weapon half-pointed.

"No!" Hansen cried. He stuck his head out the shattered side window and shouted, "No, everybody get on with your duties."

He didn't know what was going on, but he knew that it wouldn't be helped if his own people started shooting.

The aircar slid in a tight circle and accelerated as it started to rise.

"I have full authority from the Consensus for everything I've done here," Hansen said, knowing that in truth, he'd always claimed whatever authority he needed to get a job done and trusted that he could make it stick after the fact.

That had always worked. Until now.

"The Consensus is not interested in your actions here, Commissioner Hansen," said the voice. The words sounded in the Commissioner's mind, seeming to have nothing to do with the creatures which were escorting him. "The Consensus has need of you on a planet called Northworld."

The car had risen to 300 meters and was moving at a speed that made the wind howl through the many shrapnel holes. Other air traffic was avoiding their arrow-straight rush.

Hansen frowned. "What's Northworld?" he muttered.

The creatures—or the voice—must have been able to hear him despite wind noise, because Hansen's mind rasped with the words, "The Consensus will inform you of what you need to know, Commissioner Hansen. In good time."

For the first time in his life, Commissioner Nils Hansen realized that there might be more to the Consensus of Worlds than simply the bureaucracy of control of which he himself was a part.

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