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"Well, now, Mr. Tremaine. Would you look at that?" Sensor Tech 1/c Yammata tapped his display, and Scotty Tremaine leaned close. To the untrained eye, the faint blotch of light in the center of the screen could have been anything; given what they'd been looking for, he knew it could be only one thing.

"How big?" he asked.

"Well," Yammata manipulated controls and frowned thoughtfully, "I figure they're shielded, Sir—I sure can't get a good read on the user end—but the feeder beam seems to be peaking at about two hundred kilowatts." He looked up and met the ensign's eyes expressionlessly. "That's a lot of juice for a bunch of Stilties."

"It is, indeed, Hiro," Tremaine murmured. "It is indeed." He shook himself. "What's the location?"

"Sixty-three klicks west-southwest of the Muddy Wash Valley, Sir," Yammata replied. He tapped another light blotch, smaller but much brighter. "That's their direct feed station, but it must be a relay. It's on the side of a ridge, well below its crest, and I don't see any up-link."

"Um-hum." Tremaine watched the display for a few more seconds while the pinnace's low-orbit sweep took it towards the horizon. Then he nodded and clapped the sensor tech on the shoulder. "Good job, Hiro. I'll make sure the skipper knows who spotted it."

"Thanks, Sir." Yammata grinned, and Tremaine turned to his NPA com officer.

"Punch up the ship, Chris. I think the Old Lady will want to know about this."

* * *

"It looks like you were right, Honor." Dame Estelle Matsuko's face was distinctly unhappy on the com screen. "There's something there, anyway, and whatever it is, it certainly isn't legal. The entire Mossyback Range is off limits, and so is the Mossyback Plateau."

"It doesn't necessarily follow that it's a drug lab," Honor pointed out, and Dame Estelle snorted.

"Of course it doesn't—and if you can say that three times in a row with a straight face, I'll buy you a five-course dinner at Cosmo's."

Honor chuckled at the reference to Landing's most expensive, and exclusive, restaurant, but then she sobered.

"You're right, of course," she admitted. "And even if it isn't the lab, it's still illegal. The question, I suppose, is what you want to do about it, Ma'am."

"What do you think I'm going to do about it?" Dame Estelle's expression was grim. "Barney Isvarian is putting together a raiding party right now."

"Do you need any additional manpower? I could land some of Captain Papadapolous's Marines—?"

"I expect we've got all the troops we need, but thanks. I'll check with Barney. If he thinks he needs some help, I'll certainly let you know," Dame Estelle said gratefully.

Major Barney Isvarian, Medusan Native Protection Agency, slithered forward through waist-high knobs of shemak moss and tried to ignore the chemical stench of its sap. His mottled fatigues and body armor weren't as good as the Corps' reactive camouflage, but they blended well with the monotonous background. The hugely out-sized insects that served Medusa as "birds" swooped and darted above the moss, and he made himself move even more slowly to avoid startling them. Unlikely though anyone was to be looking this way and notice a sudden eruption of bugs from the moss, it was still possible, and he had no intention of blowing this operation now.

He reached the crest of the rise and paused to catch his breath as Sergeant Danforth eased up beside him. Like Isvarian, Danforth was an ex-Marine, and he unlimbered his massive plasma rifle with reassuring competence. Alloy and plastic clicked as he mounted the one-hundred-fifty-centimeter weapon on its bipod, inserted the heavy power pack, and snapped the electronic sight into place. He hit the self-test switch with his thumb, then nodded and burrowed the stock into his shoulder, peering through the sight at the buildings below.

Isvarian checked his own sidearm, then raised his electronic binoculars to survey the same scene, and his lips pursed in grudging admiration. No wonder the aerial shots hadn't shown anything. The Corps itself couldn't have done a better job of concealing the place.

The structures were clearly off-world in origin—sturdy pre-fabs that might have come from any planet—but they were buried almost to the eaves, and their roofs had been covered in sod. Rolling knobs of shemak grew across them, completely breaking up their outlines, and he was willing to bet there was a hefty layer of insulation under each of those roofs to prevent any betraying heat signature. That would only make sense, particularly with the volcanic springs two klicks east of them. Waste heat could be ducted to them and lost forever in their natural cover.

He swallowed a sour curse as he reflected on the fact that the whole damned base had been built right under the NPA's nose. Admittedly, their hands had been full with other matters, but this was more than any single night's work. His people had had every opportunity to spot it going in, and they hadn't.

Well, they were about to make up for that, he reflected with a certain grim satisfaction.

He lowered his glasses and keyed his com twice without speaking, then waited. No one answered with the matching double click that would have indicated a perimeter team not yet in position, and he raised his glasses once more.

Not a sign of life, he mused. Just the silent, moss-covered roofs and walls. That showed more confidence—or stupidity—than he would have allowed himself. There should have been at least one lookout, however good they thought their camouflage was. But Isvarian wasn't the sort to look a gift horse in the mouth; if his opponents chose to give him the advantage of complete surprise, he certainly wasn't going to object.

He raised his wrist com to his mouth, never letting his eyes waver from the scene before him.

"Go," he said quietly, and idling turbines screamed to life fifty kilometers to the south. Six armed NPA skimmers rose on their counter-grav, pointed their noses north, and leapt ahead at full power.

Isvarian held his glasses steady as the mounting roar of turbines swept up from behind him. It was faint, at first, little louder than the distant wind, but it grew by leaps and bounds as the skimmers roared forward at over nine hundred kilometers per hour. They exploded over Isvarian's perch in a wave of man-made thunder, battering him with turbine wash, and made one screaming pass above the outlaw base. Two of them killed velocity with savage power, going into a perfect hover directly above the buildings, and the other four peeled out to the sides, spreading to encircle the base before they grounded and popped their hatches.

Armed NPA cops poured out of them, eight from each grounded skimmer, and moved rapidly forward under cover of their transports' dorsal turrets, spreading out as they went. They advanced warily, half-crouched, weapons at the ready, but still there was absolutely no response from the structures, and Isvarian frowned. Half-buried or not, the occupants of those buildings would have to have been stone deaf to miss that thunderous arrival. Surely at least one of them should have poked his head out to see what as going on!

He was raising his com once more to order his strike commander to hold his positions when something cracked viciously from his left. He wheeled towards it as a terrible, gurgling scream sounded over the com, and a second flat, sharp explosion echoed over the rolling terrain. He saw a spurt of smoke this time—gray-white smoke, surging up out of the moss—and then the echoes of the two explosions were drowned in the rippling whine of pulse rifles on full auto.

Bright, spiteful flashes of white fire blossomed as the pulse darts shredded the moss about the burst of smoke like some crazed threshing machine, and Isvarian shook himself out of his momentary paralysis.

"Check fire!" he barked. "Check fire, damn it!"

The pulse rifles fell silent in near-instant response, and he darted a glance back at the base. Still no sign of life, and his strike party—frozen as the crackle of combat erupted behind them—began to move forward once more as it ended. They moved more quickly now, rushing to close with the buildings before anyone else got any ideas about opening fire, and he turned back to the flank. The stinking smoke of burning shemak floated on the wind, rising from the moss the darts had torn to ruin, and he coughed.

"This is Leader-One," he barked into the com. "What the hell happened over there, Flank-Two?"

"Leader-One, this is Flank-Three," a voice replied. It was flat and tight, over-controlled, and it wasn't Flank-Two. "Matt's dead, Barney. Don't know what it was. Some kind of projectile weapon, but not a pulser. Blew a hole the size of my fist through him, but it didn't explode."

"Oh, shit!" Isvarian groaned. Not Matt Howard. He'd been due to retire in two more years.

"Okay, Flank-Three," he said after a moment. "Make a sweep of the area and find out what the fuck happened. And be careful, we don't want any more sur—"

The terrible, end-of-the-world concussion blew him flat on his back as the entire base erupted in a red-and-white fireball of chemical explosives.


"Holy Mother of—!"

Ensign Tremaine swallowed the rest of the phrase as a towering plume of smoke and dust spewed up from the base. An entire NPA skimmer cartwheeled away from it almost lazily, bouncing end-over-end across the ground for fifty meters before it disintegrated in a fireball all its own. One of the hovering skimmers vanished, plunging straight down into the inferno as some flying projectile smashed into its counter-grav coils and it lost lift. A fresh explosion roared up out of the chaos, and the last of the six skimmers staggered drunkenly across the sky. It careened downward, barely under control, and its port engine ripped away as it hit. The pilot lost it—dead, unconscious, or simply overpowered by the uneven thrust that spun his crippled mount in a wreckage-shredding ground loop over the rough terrain—but at least it neither exploded nor caught fire.

"There, Skipper!" Hiro Yammata snapped. "Oh-six-five!"

Tremaine ripped his gaze from the deadly chaos below him, and an ugly light blazed in his normally mild eyes as he saw the sleek, high-speed aircar darting out of its camouflage. It rocketed forward, accelerating madly as it streaked away, using a knife-edged ridge of rock for cover against Isvarian's stunned perimeter force.

"Ruth! Get me a pursuit vector on that son-of-a-bitch!" Tremaine snarled, and the heavy pinnace dropped like a homesick rock as Kleinmeuller chopped her counter-grav back to zero. She did more than that; she dropped the nose almost perpendicular to the ground, lined it up on the fleeing aircar, and gave her air-breathing turbines full throttle.

The pinnace shrieked and bellowed down the sky, and Tremaine hit the arming button. He'd never fired a weapon at another human being in his life, but there was no hesitation in him as the targeting screen flashed to life. Nor did he even consider calling upon the aircar to halt; he was no policeman or court of law, and its sudden flight on the heels of the explosion was all the proof of murder he needed. His lips drew back over his teeth as the target pipper moved steadily towards it, and his finger caressed the trigger grip.

The fleeing aircar's pilot probably never even realized the pinnace was there—not that it mattered one way or the other. His craft had the speed to out-distance anything the NPA had, but no pure air-breather could run away from a Fleet pinnace.

The pipper merged with the aircar, a tone sounded, Tremaine's hand squeezed, and a two-centimeter laser ripped its target into very, very tiny pieces and scattered them across the endless moss like tears of fire.

Dame Estelle was deathly pale on the briefing room com screen, and Honor knew her face showed her own shock. The triumph of finding the lab at last had turned to dust and ashes on her tongue as the commissioner recited the casualty figures. She should have insisted on using Papadapolous's Marines, she thought wretchedly. At least they'd have been in battle armor.

But she hadn't. Fifty-five dead and six wounded. Over ninety percent of the strike team had been killed, and every one of the survivors was injured, two critically. And one of the perimeter team was dead, as well. Sixty-one men and women, wiped away or hospitalized in the space of two minutes. It was a staggering blow to the small, tight-knit NPA, and she felt physically ill over the role she had played, all unknowing, in creating that slaughter.

"Dame Estelle," she said finally. "I'm sorry. It never occurred to me that—"

"It's not your fault, Honor," Matsuko said wearily. "Nor is it Barney Isvarian's, though I think it's going to be a long time before he accepts that. There had to have been a leak at our end. They must have known we were coming."

Honor nodded silently. The trap Isvarian's strike team had walked straight into had been deliberately designed to kill as many of them as possible. The druggers had evacuated well before the raiders arrived, but they could have blown their base any time they wanted to. They'd waited until the ground team was right on top of it, and that made it cold-blooded, deliberate murder.

"At least Ensign Tremaine nailed the ones who set it off," Dame Estelle went on. "That's something. I'd have liked to have prisoners, but don't you dare tell him that. He did exactly what I would have done."

"Yes, Ma'am." Honor managed a wan smile. "I'll tell him you said that, not chew him out for a perfectly normal combat response."

"Good." Dame Estelle scrubbed her face with the heels of her hands and straightened her shoulders with a visible effort. "Actually, I'm afraid what happened to Matt Howard worries me even more than what happened to the strike team," she said, and Honor blinked in astonishment.

The commissioner's mouth twisted at her expression, and she rose from behind her desk, turning the com terminal to direct its pickup at her coffee table. A strange weapon lay on it, looking very like some crude version of a pulse rifle, except that it had neither a magazine nor a proper stock. Instead of a vertical butt stock, it ended in a flat, horizontal arc of curved metal, perpendicular to the line of the barrel.

"See this?" Dame Estelle's voice asked from beyond the pickup's range.

"Yes, Ma'am. What is it?"

"This is what killed Matt, Honor. My people tell me it's a single-shot, breech-loading flintlock rifle. One built for a Medusan."

"What?!" Astonishment startled the response out of Honor before she could stop it, and Dame Estelle's hands appeared on her screen as the commissioner lifted the clumsy-looking weapon.

"That was my response," she said grimly. "This—" she touched the curved metal arm "—is the butt plate. It's made of metal because there's no decent wood on the planet, and it's shaped like this because Medusans don't really have shoulders. It's designed to go across the firer's chest to absorb the recoil, but that's not the most interesting part of it. Look."

She turned the weapon on its side and gripped a small knob on the trigger guard, then cranked the entire guard through a half turn. A plug of metal dropped vertically out of the barrel, and the commissioner lifted it to show the opened breech to the pickup.

"It's a very ancient form of breech-closure for nitro-powder weapons, though I understand it usually operates in line with the barrel, not vertically." Dame Estelle's voice was almost distant, a dry, lecturer's voice like a buttress against her own shock. "It's called an 'interrupted screw,'" she went on. "Basically, it's nothing more than a long, coarse-threaded screw with the threads cut away on two sides so it only takes a half-turn to engage or disengage it. One of my com techs is an antique weapons buff, and she tells me it's the only practical way to achieve a gas-proof breech seal on a weapon that uses loose-loaded propellant. They shove a hollow-based projectile of soft lead about eighteen millimeters in diameter in here, put the powder behind it, and close the breech."

Her hands demonstrated on the screen, and she turned the weapon on its side.

"Then they pull back this hammer, which opens this little pan, and they put more loose powder into it. When they pull the trigger—"

The S-shaped hammer snapped forward, striking the lump of flint in its jaws against the roughened inner surface of the pan lid, and a brilliant spark flashed.

Dame Estelle dumped the weapon back onto the table and returned to her desk, swinging her terminal until she looked out of it at Honor once more, and her face was grim.

"A Medusan could reload this a lot more quickly than we could," she went on. "If he puts the butt directly over one of his arms, he could actually reload and re-prime it with that arm without even lowering it from firing position with the other two. And it's a lot longer-ranged and more accurate than you might think. The barrel is rifled, and the explosion of the powder—old-fashioned black powder, not even nitro-cellulose, they tell me—spreads the hollow base of the projectile, forcing it into the rifling and spin-stabilizing it. It's no pulse rifle, Honor, but according to my weapons buff's best guesstimate, this thing is probably accurate to two or even three hundred meters . . . and we have no idea how many of them are out there."

"Dear God," Honor murmured, her mind racing as she envisioned thousands of Medusans armed with those primitive but deadly weapons.

"Exactly," the commissioner said harshly. "It's crude, very crude, but that's because someone took considerable pains to make it look that way. The actual manufacture is quite good, and, given the current Medusan level of technology, it's an ideal weapon for them: simple, sturdy, and within their own manufacturing capabilities, even if only barely. But there is no way—no way—this many sudden advances could occur naturally in one lump. My com tech tells me it took centuries for Old Earth to advance from crude, fuse-fired smoothbores to anything remotely like this. In fact, she insists no one on Old Earth ever produced one that incorporated all of these features, except for something called a 'Fergusson Rifle,' or something like that. And that one never went into mass production. So—"

"So at least the design had to come from someone off-world." Honor's voice was equally harsh, and Dame Estelle nodded.

"My own opinion, precisely. Some greedy idiot has jumped the Medusans' ability to kill one another—or us—by something like fifteen hundred T-years." The Resident Commissioner looked strained and old, and her hand trembled slightly as she brushed hair back from her forehead. "He's brought this abortion in through my security, and he's turned it over to the nomads in the Outback, not even to the Delta city-states. Even if we nail him, there's no way to put this genie back into the bottle if he's taught the Medusans how to build the things. In fact, they're bound to figure out how to make heavier weapons—real, honest-to-God artillery—so unless we want to take over the role of guaranteeing the Delta's security with off-world weaponry, we're going to have to encourage the city-states to learn how to make the goddamned things just so they can defend themselves! And worst of all, our forensic people think the Medusans who killed Matt were hopped to the breathing slits on mekoha—the same off-world mekoha we've been seeing clear on the other side of the Mossybacks."

"But . . . why?" Honor asked slowly.

"I don't know," Dame Estelle sighed. "I just don't know. I can't think of a single commodity on this planet that could possibly be worth this kind of investment, Honor. Not one. And that," she finished softly, "scares me a lot worse than if I could."

The quiet hum of the buzzer turned raucous when no one answered, and Andreas Venizelos jerked up out of his sleep with a muffled curse as it broke into a series of abrupt, jagged bursts of sound, guaranteed to wake the dead. The lieutenant dragged himself to his feet, rubbing sleep from his eyes while he stumbled across his darkened cabin. He hopped on one foot, yelping as a bare toe collided painfully with some invisible obstacle, then half-fell into the chair before the com terminal. The buzzer was still screaming at him, and he glared at the chrono. Oh-two-fifteen. He'd been in bed less than three hours.

This, he told himself savagely, had better be damned important.

He raked a hand through sleep-tousled hair and punched the audio key with his thumb, refusing visual contact in his disheveled state.

"Yes?" He didn't—quite—snarl the word.

"Andy?" the blank screen said. "This is Mike Reynaud."

"Captain Reynaud?" Venizelos straightened in his chair, rags of drowsiness fleeing, and frowned.

"Sorry to disturb you," Reynaud continued quickly. "I know you just got in a few hours ago. But we've had some traffic up here I think you should know about." The ACS commander sounded anxious, possibly even a little frightened, and Venizelos's frown deepened.

"What sort of traffic, Captain?" he asked.

"A Crown courier boat came in from Manticore about an hour ago and headed in-system," Reynaud replied. "It didn't stop for inspection, of course—" Venizelos nodded; Crown couriers had absolute precedence and complete freedom of passage anywhere in Manticoran space "—but I just got a look at the passenger manifest."

Something about the way he said it touched Venizelos with dread, but he bit his lip and waited in silence.

"It's Klaus Hauptman, Andy," Reynaud said softly. "I don't know what he's doing on a Crown courier, but he's here. And he's headed for Medusa. After what happened with the Mondragon, I thought, well . . ."

His voice trailed off, and Venizelos nodded again to the unseeing pickup.

"I understand, Captain Reynaud. And I appreciate it." He rubbed his eyes for a moment, then inhaled deeply. "It'll take me a few minutes to get dressed, Sir. Could you warn the com center I'm on my way up and ask for a scrambled channel to Fearless?"

"Of course, Andy." The relief in Reynaud's voice was manifest, and he cut the circuit. Venizelos sat motionless, staring at the silent terminal for long, slow seconds, and his mind raced.

Civilians, no matter how important, had no official business on Crown courier boats. But Klaus Hauptman wasn't just any civilian. It would have been very difficult to refuse him passage. In fact, Venizelos doubted anyone had dared tell Hauptman "no" about anything for decades. Yet how he'd gotten here mattered far less than why, and Venizelos could think of only one possible reason for him to come, especially in secret aboard an official government vessel rather than openly aboard a civilian transport.

He rose and reached for his uniform trousers.


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