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Operation Active Cloak


Major Arthur Farrell's bones vibrated to the howls of the generators braking the captured Kalendru starship to a soft landing in the main military port of the world Unity planners had labeled Maxus 377. The engineers hadn't bothered to jury-rig displays after they gutted the ship's hold for the assault force. If the strikers of Company C41 wanted, they could tap visuals from the flight deck onto their helmet visors and look at the warped-looking Spook structures they would attack in the next few seconds.

Farrell didn't bother to watch. Instead he rechecked his stinger. He wore crossed bandoliers of ammo packs and dangling blast rockets; a medical kit; two supplementary communication units; two knives—one of them powered, the other with a shorter fixed blade that could double as a climbing spike; and a packet of emergency rations. The integral canteen of Farrell's back-and-breast armor held two quarts of water, but he carried an additional three gallons in a backpack. The weight slowed him and made his armor sag brutally against his shoulders, but the cost was worth it to him.

When you're pinned down in the hot sun, thirst is the worst torture. Worse than the ripping pain of your wound, worse even than the stench of your friend's half-burned corpse on the ground beside you. Art Farrell knew.

The starship quivered, still twenty feet above the ground though she was nearly in equilibrium with the field her generators had induced in the magnetic mass on which she was landing. "Wait for it!" ordered Captain Broz, C41's executive officer, over the command channel.

Nadia Broz was following standard operating procedure, but on this mission there wasn't any risk that a striker would unass early. Normally C41 inserted aboard a purpose-built landing vessel. The hatches opened minutes before contact. For Active Cloak camouflage rather than speed was the requirement. At touchdown the flight crew would blow explosive bolts to separate the outer bulkheads from the skeleton of support members, but until then the freighter's hold was sealed like a prison cell.

"Hey, I think I changed my mind," a striker called over the ship noises. There was brittle laughter.

Kurt Leinsdorf stood stolidly at Farrell's shoulder as he always did during an insertion. On C41's table of organization, Leinsdorf was a communications specialist. In reality he was Farrell's bodyguard, a huge, strong man who carried a single-shot plasma cannon in addition to his other weapons and equipment.

"I wanna be a Strike Force ranger . . ." sang Horgen, a Third Platoon striker. "I wanna live a life of danger . . ." 

The starship sank the last few feet like a leaking bladder. Wait for it, Farrell mouthed, but no sound passed his dry lips.

A locator chart overlaid the upper left quadrant of Farrell's visor: seventy-eight green dots, each one a striker. They were crammed too closely together at the moment for him to count them individually. Every one was a veteran: not only of combat, but veterans of C41 itself.

Strike Force companies were prefixed B, C, or D depending on their size. C-class units had a nominal strength of one hundred personnel. C41 had received eight replacements since the last operation, but Farrell decided not to bring them along on a mission as rough as Active Cloak looked like being. The replacements were good people or they wouldn't have passed Strike Force screening after they volunteered, but they hadn't worked with C41 before. There was no margin here for somebody who misunderstood an order or reacted in an unexpected way.

The Spooks had a civilian colony of five hundred thousand on Maxus 377 in addition to the logistics bases that served their military on fourteen worlds. There was no margin at all when C41 seized the planet's main port ahead of the full-scale Unity invasion.

The tripod landing legs touched the ground in sequence. The freighter rang in three descending notes. "Go!" Farrell shouted, unheard over the clangs of the bolts shearing. He and a dozen other strikers shoved at the toppling bulkhead.

They'd landed just before local noon. Sunlight quivered through heat waves from the port's white concrete surface. Anti-emitter missiles launched in snarling cacophony from the freighter's upper cargo deck, homing on every operating radio-frequency antenna within their ten-mile range.

Major Arthur Farrell hit the ground running, headed for the port administration building with his headquarters group and two squads of Third Platoon. C41 had begun the invasion.

The rest of the Unity armed forces better follow soon.


The pair of Spooks in the cab of the maintenance vehicle goggled to see the recently-landed freighter fall apart as they drove past. Sergeant Guilio Abbado killed them both with a single burst from his stinger before he jumped to the ground.

"Three-three to the truck!" Abbado shouted. Most of his squad was already running toward the eight-wheeled vehicle. It slowed but still coasted forward after the driver died in a spray of coppery blood. Horgen and Glasebrook leaped aboard, flinging the dead Spooks out of the way. Horgen managed to turn the vehicle before it plunged into an open sump, but she couldn't seem to find the brakes.

One of the Spooks hung out the open door. Abbado kicked the body the rest of the way to the ground as he climbed into the cab beside Flea Glasebrook. The other five strikers of Third Squad, Third Platoon clambered onto the back of the vehicle, shooting at any visible Spook to keep the enemy's panic boiling.

Horgen goosed the throttle. She steered east and accelerated without needing orders.

The truck was a godsend if you believed in God, which Abbado more or less did. The navy flight crew had landed the captured freighter on the magnetic mass nearest the port's northwest corner according to plan. Abbado could see the sense of that, since the port garrison's compound and the administration building were immediately north of the site and the transient military barracks were adjacent on the west.

The trouble was 3-3's objective, the huge maintenance hangar along the east edge of the field, was almost four hundred yards from the ship. That was a hell of a long way to run across bare concrete with a combat load. By the time the exhausted strikers got to the hangar, the Spooks would have had time to wake up.

They were waking up already. A hundred-foot-wide segment of hangar door had been open when C41 appeared. It was closing now, rolling down from the building roof. "Don't stop!" Abbado said, not that there was any likelihood Horgen had planned to.

Abbado hooked his left arm around the frame of the shattered windshield and sprayed a crackling burst from his stinger across the shadowed figures moving within the hangar. Two of them flopped to the ground; one sprang up again and limped out of sight behind his fellows.

The stinger's coils accelerated 15-grain projectiles to 10,000 feet per second. The pellet wasn't effective beyond 500 yards, but the strikers carried rockets to handle the occasional distant target. Stingers had the impact of a grenade on a target at short range. With thousand-round ammo packs containing both pellets and a fresh power supply, they were the weapon of choice for the sudden assaults in which C41 specialized.

The truck had a three-man cab, but the three weren't supposed to be humans in battle gear. The Kalendru were long-limbed, gray-skinned humanoids. From a distance they appeared hairless, but if you looked closely you saw that their skin was covered with fine down.

Kalendru were on average taller, slimmer and significantly quicker than Terrans. Because Spooks weren't as strong, their troops carried lighter, less-powerful weapon loads. A striker learned fast, though, that if you missed your first shot the Spook was going to get in the second one.

Horgen had the truck up to forty miles an hour. Immediately ahead the hangar door closed with a rattle that Abbado hoped meant it was fairly flimsy. "Hang on, boys!" he said as he pulled himself into the cab and crossed his arms over his faceshield. "The party's about to start!"

They hit the quivering door with a crash louder than the battle going on all over the spaceport.


Each of the two 16-round cannisters of plasma cartridges weighed a hair over forty pounds, and there was the weight of the air-cushion dolly besides. Striker Esther Meyer liked to tell herself she was as tough as any man in C41, but right at the moment she was glad Sergeant-Gunner Bloch and Santini, the other loader, had paused to lift her dolly from the hold instead of leaving her to struggle with it alone. Meyer could keep moving despite the heat and constriction of her hard suit as long as anybody, sure; but hefting a full ammo dolly was largely a matter of mass and peak strength.

Stingers and the 4-pound rockets most strikers slung from their belts already raked the port area. Fourth Platoon (Heavy Weapons) was the last out of the ship. With their full armor and bulky loads they'd have needlessly slowed less heavily equipped strikers.

There was no return fire as yet but it'd come soon enough. When it did, the maneuver platoons would be damned glad of 50-pound missile launchers and the plasma cannon.

Sergeant Bloch was a big man who looked gigantic in his polished white armor. His dolly supported the cannon itself and a three-round belt of ready cartridges. Twenty yards to the northeast was a pit holding a transformer beneath surface level where it didn't interfere with starships being hauled across the port in giant cradles. Bloch hunched toward it at a dead run. The pit was the best cover in his sector.

All Fourth Platoon personnel wore hard suits. The crews handling the triple launchers had to worry about the backblast of their own heavy missiles, and a mist of ions as hot as a sun's corona bathed the cannoneers as soon as they began to fire their belt-fed weapons. The armor's protection from enemy counterfire was a secondary concern.

Meyer heard the high-pitched scream of Spook lasers in addition to the snarl of stingers and the crackWHAM! of the strikers' rockets. The port's surface flared white at the corner of her eye as a beam burned concrete to glass and quicklime. The Spooks were awake, though for the moment they seemed to be spraying the landscape in panic.

Bloch stepped into the waist-high transformer pit and wrestled the gun onto its bipod in firing position. Santini simply pushed the ammo dolly in ahead of himself. The cannisters were padded against shock, but a direct hit from a laser might penetrate. The best result the crew could hope for then was a low-order explosion that might not kill them. If the bead of deuterium at the heart of each cartridge detonated, hard suits weren't going to make any difference to the resulting thermonuclear explosion.

The captured freighter erupted smoke and another sheaf of anti-emitter missiles. Those were launched automatically when the unit's artificial intelligence sensed Kalendru-type radio frequency emissions. The streak of light that ended in a lightning-sharp explosion in the transient barracks was a missile from one of 4th Platoon's triple launchers. That was fast work, but the team had set up beside the ship because there wasn't any cover in their direction anyway.

Meyer jumped her dolly into the transformer pit and followed it. Bloch fired his ready ammunition in three ravening pulses as fast as the gun would cycle. The ringing air glowed like the heart of a rainbow.

"Feed me!" the sergeant screamed as Santini dragged a 16-round belt from one of his cannisters. "Feed me!"

As she opened a cannister one-handed, Meyer looked over the rim of the pit. She dialed up her visor's magnification. The gun was placed to cover the main highway entering the starport from the north. Seven miles up that road was the planet's largest military base, code-named Active Grid for this operation. That was probably where the tank at which Bloch was hammering had come from.

The plasma bolts had grounded the huge vehicle in an iridescent fireball, but they hadn't destroyed it. Air shimmered in a corona discharge as the tank's generators rebuilt its magnetic shielding.

The Spooks were awake, all right.


The front door of the guard barracks started to open while Striker Caius Blohm was still twenty yards from the building. He fired one of his penetrator grenades through the panel. An instant later the warhead's atomized fuel mixed with the air and detonated, blowing splinters of the door in one direction and the charred fragments of the Spook in the other.

Blohm liked to be on point. In this war the choice was to be quick or dead, and the Spooks were plenty damn quick. Your best chance of survival was the Spook's hesitation, and if you hesitated you were handing him your head as well as maybe the heads of the strikers behind you. Technically the building's ground floor wasn't Blohm's responsibility, but this wasn't a time to stand on ceremony.

Blohm trusted himself not to hesitate. Never. Not so much as a heartbeat.

First Platoon's objective was to clear the garrison's three-story barracks. The planners had nixed putting a heavy rocket into the structure because the port command center might be either in the barracks or in the administration building.

The command center would be hardened. Burying it in the rubble of the upper floors wouldn't keep the Spooks in the center from using their outlying gun and missile positions to blow the hell out of first C41, then any Unity vessel that appeared on this hemisphere of the planet.

Blohm and Sergeant Gabrilovitch were C41's scouts. They'd been assigned to lead the four survivors of the platoon's understrength First Squad through the top floor of the barracks while the remainder of the platoon took care of the lower stories. If there was a control room in the basement, Lieutenant Kuznetsov wanted to be able to open it without worrying about Spooks coming down the stairs behind her.

At the base of the wall Blohm armed his jump belt. He paused and bent over when he heard the roaring ignition of one of Heavy Weapons' 50-pound rockets. An instant later the transient compound to Blohm's left disintegrated in a green flash and a thunderclap.

The rocket warheads pulsed electricity through an osmium wire whose resistance blew it apart with enormous force. Batteries stored energy more efficiently than chemical high explosives. The bursting wire propagated shockwaves at several times the rate of HE, giving the warheads great shattering force. The blast slapped Blohm hard, but it didn't send him tumbling as it would have done had it hit him while he was airborne on the jump belt.

Blohm looked up the barracks' facade, then triggered his belt. The four self-stabilizing nozzles lifted him vertically at a controllable ten feet per second. He hovered beside the window he'd chosen for entry and fired a penetrator through the pane. The projectiles were fuzed to burst a tenth of a second after impact and spray their filling into the space beyond.

The blast blew the remainder of the pane—clear thermoplastic rather than glass—out past Blohm in a gulp of red flame. He pulled himself through the opening and unlatched the jump belt with his left hand as soon as he was into the smoldering corridor beyond. The belt still had another thirty seconds or so of fuel, but the weight was more of a hindrance than any possible gain it could offer the striker now. The ground wasn't so far away that Blohm couldn't jump down without serious concern.

The bodies in the hallway looked like charred logs. The explosion had destroyed the light fixtures and filled the air with swirling hot smoke. The faceshield of the striker's helmet offered light enhancement and thermal imaging as viewing options, but neither would have helped a great deal under these conditions.

Blohm didn't bother. He had four rounds left in the magazine of his short-barreled grenade launcher. He ran down the hall, firing one round into each room as he passed. Because the fuze required impact to arm it, Blohm shot through the wall if the door was already open. He had to hope that the internal partitions would be thin enough for the grenade to penetrate.

Blohm compensated reflexively when explosions rocked him from side to side. He wasn't thinking or seeing as a human does. He'd programmed himself like a machine to accomplish a particular task as fast as possible.

"Coming through!" Gabrilovitch shouted. The hall darkened as the sergeant's armored body filled the window sash.

Blohm crouched against the wall as he reloaded. The launcher wasn't a weapon he particularly liked, but he'd spent the voyage out practicing with it until he could perform all the necessary operations instinctively. It was hard to breathe. His helmet filtered toxins, but the fuel-air grenades had used up a lot of the available oxygen.

There were three rooms left on the corridor. The Spook troops in them could have used the pause to ready their own weapons, but there was no time to worry. Just to act.

Blohm straightened. Gabrilovitch's stinger rasped behind him as the sergeant shot a body that was still twitching after the grenade went off.

Blohm lunged forward, firing three times in a single flowing motion. Between the first shot and the second he heard Gabrilovitch scream, "Cease fire! Cease—"

But the words didn't penetrate until Caius Blohm had completed his mission.

"—fire! They're not soldiers, they're kids!"


Meyer's helmet highlighted movement on the panorama display at the lower edge of her visor. Three Spooks were running toward the rear of the gun position.

She turned, bouncing her armored hip against the transformer as she raised her stinger. Her burst went wildly high. The Spooks dropped into a sunken track twenty feet from the transformer pit. It held one of the cogged tramlines that spiderwebbed the port to haul ships after landing.

Meyer should have been watching the south. The cataclysmic destruction of the tank had drawn her attention three miles down the road in the wrong direction. She didn't know where the Spooks had come—

Two more Spooks ran from the underside of a starship a hundred yards away. They weren't wearing uniforms, but one had a laser, and the bag the other carried probably wasn't full of apples. Their long legs covered ground as fast as a shadow spreads when the sun goes behind a cloud.

Meyer shot the leader with the satchel. The second Spook fired as he ran, but his laser threw up chunks of concrete nearer his own feet than his target. Meyer sighted and sawed the slim body nearly in half. The Spook's corpse hit face down, but his toes pointed in the air.

A 50-pound rocket lit, blasted from its launcher, and banked in a screaming turn that took it southward out of the port area. Meyer could see the target only as a series of dots low in the distant sky. A dot and the missile's tracking flare merged. A flash that grew into a fireball filled several degrees of horizon.

The target was probably a personnel carrier, armored against small-arms fire but still light enough—unlike the hundred-ton tanks—to fly. All the dots vanished. Only one had been destroyed, but the others would have to slow down and hug the ground during the remainder of their approach to the battle.

The visor would magnify by up to a thousand times, but Meyer needed as broad a range of vision as possible to do her own job. She'd almost gotten herself and the rest of the crew killed by looking in the wrong direction.

A Spook threw a grenade out of the tramline. It landed short and went off in a yellow flash. The shock buffeted Meyer; a few fragments cracked against her armor. She fired at the top of the trench, blasting powdered concrete from both sides without harming the Spooks below. One of them popped up ten feet from where Meyer was aiming and fired his laser. If he hadn't been more concerned to duck back to safety than to aim, he'd have burned her head off.

Meyer swung her stinger and shot holes in the air. Two more grenades sailed from separate points along the tramline. The grenadiers weren't showing more than a hand and wrist for a fraction of a second. One grenade landed wide, but the other bounced toward the lip of the transformer pit.

"Down!" Meyer screamed to the gun crew as she hunched low. Fragments of casing and concrete flew in all directions.

The plasma cannon stopped in mid-burst when the grenade exploded. Bloch bellowed a curse. One of the cannon's bipod legs had been blown off. Santini stuck his left forearm under the gunbarrel to support it.

A second tank, starkly terrible in the glow of ions from bolts which its shielding had shrugged off, glided around the wreckage of its sister vehicle.

Meyer jumped out of the transformer pit and ran toward the tramline. Sooner or later the Spooks were going to throw a grenade into the pit. If the blast didn't kill the strikers outright, it would stun them for the fellow with the laser to finish off.

She was ten feet from the tramline when a grenadier raised himself to throw. He saw Meyer's armored figure stumping toward him and dived back with a gobble of horror. The Spook with the laser rose an instant later. Meyer was standing almost on top of him. Her stinger blew him inside out.

Without lifting her finger from the trigger, Meyer hosed the two grenadiers cowering against the cogged track. Sparks, concrete dust, and bits of flesh sprayed from where the pellets hit.

Meyer turned toward the transformer pit. The cannon was firing again. Only a series of plasma bolts in rapid succession could hammer through a tank's magnetic shielding. The tank halted as its fusion powerplant shunted all available power from the lift fans to the shield. It wasn't enough. A moment later Bloch's sixth pulse of thermonuclear energy hit the tank itself.

The shockwave spalled the inner face of the armor across the fighting compartment. The Kalendru crew were all dead before the next round ruptured the powerplant's containment bottle in a greater secondary explosion.

Meyer hadn't noticed her hard suit's weight and chafing when she charged the Spook position. Now she felt drained and dizzy. She sucked at the teat supplying water from the integral canteen as she took a second step toward the pit.

A black spot flecked the sky at the corner of her eye. Meyer threw herself to the ground. She was still falling when the missile launched from Active Grid plunged into the transformer pit.

The concrete rippled, slamming Meyer on the chest. She flipped onto her back like a pancake. The walls of the pit channeled the blast and fragments skyward, but the gun, the crew, and the transformer itself vanished utterly in a white flash.

Where the hell was the rest of the Unity invasion force?  


The steps to the admin building's second floor were individually taller and more shallow than those of human structures. The Spook running down them hooting had no trouble until Leinsdorf ripped his white tunic to bloody shreds an instant before Farrell got his stinger on target.

A striker with smoke still curling from the nozzles of her jump belt appeared at the top of the stairs. She shot the Spook again as he toppled forward.

The floor plan of the port administration building was almost circular: almost, because of Kalendru distaste for right angles and constant-radius curves. The ground floor was a bullpen with office cubbies around the outer walls and an open concourse in the center.

Farrell didn't suppose there could be a design that would have provided a better kill zone for the volley of grenades and 4-pound rockets his strikers sent through the clear facade of the building as they charged. There'd been twenty-odd Spooks present, but only one or two had survived long enough to be killed by stinger pellets. The upper story must be broken into smaller spaces.

Strikers now crouched at the side windows and the door to the parking lot behind the building. Farrell's visor overlaid images from the helmets of a guard from each quadrant. The ghost viewpoints were each an eighth-field 30 percent mask across the top. They interfered to a degree with Farrell's normal vision, but he was used to operating that way. He had to keep track of everything that was happening or else he'd get his people killed.

The breaching charge went off in the armored stairwell opposite the main doors. The electrically-generated pulse sounded like starships colliding: sharp, metallic, and immensely loud.

The well channeled the backblast upward to tear a ten-foot hole in the bullpen ceiling. Farrell hoped none of the squad clearing the second floor had been standing in the wrong place. A striker with a grenade launcher chugged his entire magazine through the opened door at the bottom of the stairs.

The stairwell belched red flame. Two strikers went in with their stingers pointed. Spooks couldn't carry the weight of armor sturdy enough to survive the grenade blasts, but it was possible that the first door opened onto an anteroom and the real control room was still sealed.

Farrell instinctively started to follow his troops; Leinsdorf blocked him without hesitation. Art Farrell was a big man. Leinsdorf was bigger and even stronger.

Leinsdorf's job was to keep the major alive. When that meant stopping Farrell from doing something stupid, Leinsdorf did whatever had to be done.

Nadia Broz carried a jamming rig instead of extra weapons. While shooting was still going on she'd attached the jammer to an antenna lead from one of the building's wrecked consoles. An anti-emitter missile had cut the roof mast while C41 unassed, but the stump was sufficient for Nadia's purposes.

She glanced up from her display and caught Farrell's eyes on her. "The port defenses shut down when we blew the vault," she said, shouting over the racket instead of using helmet commo to speak to Farrell ten feet away. "The missile batteries at Active Grid are live, though, and the base has links to the sensors here. There's nothing I can do about that."

"We've got support coming," Farrell said, wondering how many of his people were going to die before that support arrived. "They may be hitting Active Grid already."

There were in the order of 50,000 Kalendru troops quartered at Active Grid. The sprawling base was targeted for massive strikes: initially from orbit, followed by dedicated ground-attack vessels making low-level passes. The crucial low-level phase couldn't begin until the Kalendru hemispheric defenses had been knocked out.

It would take the Spooks hours, maybe days, to bypass the control net centered on the vault Farrell's strikers had just opened and destroyed. The missile artillery at Active Grid could pulverize C41, though.

The jammer provided a partial defense. Terminal guidance made artillery accurate to within ten feet. If the missile depended on data loaded into it before launch, accuracy dropped to a Circular Error Probability of sixty-five feet.

The captured freighter erupted when half a dozen Spook rounds hit it in rapid succession. The starport and military base had been designed and built as a mutually-supporting pair. Buried cables linked sensors in the port area to consoles at Active Grid, allowing the Kalendru gunners to refine their targeting with sensor data. While the result wasn't as good as terminal guidance, it was good enough for targets the size of a starship.

Pretty quick it would dawn on the Spooks they could now shell the port administration building off the map without harming any of their own people.

"The building's secured, sir," reported Sergeant Bastien, the acting commander of Third Platoon. "Shall I shift a squad across to help Abbado?"

A 50-pound rocket slammed from its launcher, supersonic within the first twenty feet of flight. The missile screamed downrange.

C41's plasma cannon were firing also. One of Farrell's overlaid remote images showed a huge explosion in the distance along the highway. The shockwave reached him in two pulses, through the ground and an instant later on the air. Leinsdorf, restive as he looked across the concourse and out the back door, unslung his single-shot plasma weapon. Another Spook tank was maneuvering past the mushrooming tombstone of the first.

"No, withdraw both squads to the warehouses," Farrell ordered. "Abbado has to take his chances. Nobody's going to make it across that bare concrete till the fleet takes care of Active Grid."

He turned. "Nadia," he said, "leave the jammer set up, but we got to get out of here. The—"

Farrell's visor flashed red, indicating a signal from orbital command. One of his supplementary commo units was a dedicated link to the flagship.

"Primrose Charlie Four-One, this is Primrose," an emotionless voice said. "The operation has been aborted. A large Kalendru fleet is approaching the planet. Can you extract your unit yourself? Over." 

"Primrose, hell no!" Farrell said. At the corner of his eye he saw another missile hit the remains of the freighter. "Primrose, for Chrissake, get us a strike on Active Grid. They've got the port observed. They're chewing us up and you won't be able to get a boat in. Over!"

"Charlie Four-One, Negative," the voice said. Farrell wondered if it was an AI program speaking. No, a computerized voice would have more feeling. This was a human officer who wasn't going to let emotional loading get in the way of precise communication. "If possible, withdraw your unit to a site out of Kalendru observation and await pickup. Primrose out." 

Out was the operative word. C41 was shit out of luck.


One of the strikers who entered the barracks behind Caius Blohm had clamped a line to the sash for them to leave by. It was about the only useful thing anybody in 1-1 had accomplished during the operation.

Blohm rappelled down the side of the building. First in, last out. The grenade launcher slapped against his breastplate each time he braked with his gloved palms. The weapon was heavy. He'd locked in a fresh magazine to replace the one from which he'd fired three rounds.

His boots hit the ground. The ship that brought C41 was a shattered wreck, the upper half molten. Another missile hit the derelict, lifting a mighty fireball. The Spooks used chemical explosives. The general level of noise was so high that the blast didn't sound particularly loud.

Blohm glanced up the way he'd come. Flames wavered sluggishly from several of the third-floor windows. The fuel-air bombs had ignited fabrics, paper, splintered furniture. Spooks didn't have hair to burn, not really, but the explosions had charred the victims' flesh deeply.

There'd been a lot of them on the top floor of the barracks. Over a hundred, Blohm figured, judging from the one room he'd taken a good look into after Gabrilovitch shouted at him.

Kalendru females were shorter and even slimmer than the males, and they were never members of the fighting forces. Some of the burned corpses were females but most were children. Maybe dependents, maybe overflow from civilian facilities on the south side of the field. Certainly not combatants. But certainly dead.

And very certainly killed by Caius Blohm. He'd completed the job before anybody else arrived. Nothing wrong with his reflexes, no sir.

He ran past the shattered transient compound, following Gabrilovitch. A Spook missile hit twenty yards away and blew a hole in bare concrete. Again a red fireball pulsed upward through sooty black smoke. The air zinged, but none of the fragments hit Blohm.

If a missile went off at his feet, it might burn his shattered body as black as that of the Spook child on the threshold of the room Blohm had looked into.


The good news was that the hangar door ruptured when the truck hit it. Stiffeners sang like guitar strings, parting the welds that anchored them to the edges of the track.

Horgen skidded all eight wheels as she braked. There was nothing to hit in the left bay except bodies and whatever gear the Spook repair staff had dropped when the strikers drove into them shooting.

Abbado's visor reacted automatically to the lower light levels within the structure. He pointed his stinger toward a group of Spooks trying to get behind a large toolcart and held the trigger down. The fishtailing truck ripped the stream of pellets across the Spooks and they all dropped.

The bad news was that a Kalendru corvette filled the hangar's central bay.

This was a land-force logistics base, not a fleet repair facility. There weren't supposed to be naval vessels present, not even relatively small ones with their Tokomak powerplant lifted half out of the cylindrical hull on a gantry. Spooks swarmed up the ramped hatchway. Mostly they were maintenance staffers clothed in motley blues and grays, but a few were mauve-uniformed naval personnel.

An officer with a tuft of black feathers on either epaulet fired a laser pistol at Abbado. The Spook blew two divots from the truck's door before Abbado killed him. Glasebrook leaned through the shattered windshield and fired a rocket into the corvette's airlock, shredding the officer's body and a half dozen other Kalendru. Horgen had dived from the truck, so the backblast didn't fry her.

The hatch rotated closed. The edge mated solidly with the coaming despite the fact that a Spook's arm lay across it.

Abbado jumped. There'd been nearly a hundred Spooks in the hangar when the heavily-armed strikers entered. Now, seconds later, the only Kalendru still visible and moving were those who thrashed in their death throes.

Some Spooks hid beyond the corvette or behind pieces of equipment, but they weren't an immediate concern. The ones still alive aboard the vessel were a real threat.

The corvette's armory probably held enough small arms to outgun all the strikers in C41, but even that was a secondary danger. If the crew got the ship's main battery in operation, it was Katy bar the door for the whole operation.

"Fire control!" Abbado said. The code phrase keyed his words to Lieutenant Whichard of Heavy Weapons Platoon. "Give me a rocket soonest, mark!"

He focused his eyes on the ship's closed airlock and blinked twice. That highlighted the image his helmet was transmitting to Whichard and—Abbado prayed—to the sergeant of one of the rocket batteries. "Break, Three-three personnel take cover! Out."

By this time all six heavy rockets might have been launched or destroyed by Spook counterfire. If there was a round left, Abbado couldn't be sure it would bear on the target. At such short range the rockets didn't have much room to maneuver between launch and impact.

The one certain thing was that 3-3 would get the support if it was possible. There wasn't a more important target on the base. Nobody'd dreamed there was going to be a warship in the hangar. The planners might have scrubbed the whole operation if they'd known.

Abbado threw himself on the hangar floor and tugged a personal rocket from his bandolier. He twisted the base cap to extend it and arm the rocket. A 4-pound rocket was unlikely to do serious harm to a starship's hull, but unless Whichard came through they were the best 3-3 had to go on.

A striker threw an electrical grenade into the cab of the travelling hoist above her. The sharp blast flung the operator out in a shower of glass. Both electrical and fuel-air grenades had specific advantages. Electricals offered fragmentation and higher peak impulse, but fuel-air provided incendiary effect and greater total impulse.

Abbado had heard arguments on the subject go on for hours, but the truth of it was that the choice was personal whim. Combat troops like to claim that their decisions are in some objective sense "right," but they know in their hearts of hearts that they'll probably die for no better reason than that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"Three-three," the squad channel warned in a voice that wasn't Whichard's. "Shot!" 

The eight strikers within the huge hangar crouched in the best shelter they could find. Over the general chaos, Abbado heard the crack of a rocket igniting.

The hangar's central door burst inward from the supersonic shockwave and the missile that detonated against the corvette's airlock. The hangar roof billowed up from the joists. Sheared rivets rained onto the floor.

The rocketeers had set the fuzing circuit for point focus because the warship's hull was too thick to be pierced by an omnidirectional blast. The pulse ruptured a cone of wire, forming the electrical equivalent of a chemical shaped charge. The shockwave forged a thin disk of uranium into a molten spear that struck like an asteroid.

The corvette rocked on its landing struts. The heavy-metal spike blew a hole big enough to pass a fully-equipped striker through the center of the hatch. The blast skidded Abbado three feet backward on the smooth floor, and his ears rang despite the cancellation pulse his helmet produced to save his hearing. He scrambled to his feet and ran for the opening, clasping the rocket in his left hand and the stinger in his right with the buttplate against his biceps.

It didn't occur to Guilio Abbado to order his strikers to follow him. It wouldn't have occurred to them to do anything else. If they hadn't been that sort of people, they wouldn't have been in C41.

Two strikers fired rockets through the opening before they charged. Glasebrook threw in a fuel-air grenade. That was useful for the purpose of clearing defenders from the corridors nearest the hatch, but the airlock focused the thumping explosion and knocked Abbado flat on his ass. By the time he got up, Horgen was into the ship ahead of him.

Abbado was on her heels, though he had to shove Jefferson aside. Rank hath its privileges. At a mental level pretty well buried for the moment, Abbado was afraid to die; but he was more afraid that his squad wouldn't follow him the next time if they had the least doubt that he was willing to lead from the front.

The airlock's inner valve had been half open before most of the outer door hit it and tore it off its hinges. Horgen was left-handed so she turned right down the smoky corridor. Abbado went left, sternward.

Although the Kalendru had pulled the main powerplant, the corvette's internal lighting was on. There must be an auxiliary power unit somewhere. If the lights worked, so would the guns and missile launchers.

Abbado swept the corridor with his stinger for the second and a half it took to empty the magazine, then fired the rocket in his left hand. He didn't have a target—any target, though slender bodies writhed on the decking—but he needed his hand free to reload the stinger. Launching the rocket was faster than throwing it away.

As Abbado knelt, Jefferson stepped by him and hurled a grenade into a weapons bay. A Spook jumped from behind the control console and shot the striker in the face. The grenade detonated, blowing the shredded Spook against the ceiling.

Abbado tugged an electrical grenade off his belt left handed and threw it into the compartment's opposite bay. A Spook hopped up from that console also. Abbado and Glasebrook shot him together. As the body fell back, Glasebrook tossed a fuel-air grenade on top of it.

When the bomb blew, the two strikers ran to the last compartment sternward. Neither man sent a grenade ahead to warn the Spooks they were coming. They'd worked together so often in similar situations that they coordinated without overt signals.

The Kalendru repair crew had removed the compartment's upper plating in order to lift out the powerplant. A sailor was trying to climb out of the ship through the large opening. Glasebrook shot him.

An officer's mauve-clad legs lay in the well where the Tokomak had been bolted. Abbado's randomly fired rocket had hit him in the chest.

Two Spooks waited by the bulkhead just inside the corridor hatch. One of them managed to trigger his laser as Abbado's stinger tore them point-blank. The saffron pulse ruptured a pouch of stinger reloads and gouged a collop from the sergeant's breastplate beneath.

Abbado, Glasebrook, and Foyle an instant behind hosed the lockers and netting-secured bundles that festooned the aft compartment. Stinger pellets hit too hard to ricochet, but the long bursts ripped sparks from the fittings and bulkheads. The compartment roared like a megawatt short circuit, giving the air a lambent neon radiance.

Forward, a pair of fuel-air explosions thumped. There was a sharper blast and the corvette's lighting went off. Horgen or one of the strikers with her had found the APU.

Abbado reloaded. There were no Kalendru alive aboard the ship. The seven pips on the corner of his faceshield indicated that they'd only lost Jefferson in clearing the vessel, better than he'd figured. Last year on Mulholland—two years ago?—Abbado and Jefferson had drunk their way through a case of whiskey they'd stolen from an admiral's private suite.

"Three-three come on, we're not done here," Abbado ordered. "We've still got a hangar full of—"

"C41, all personnel," Major Farrell's voice broke in over the command channel. "Evacuate the port area soonest and reform in the equipment storage lot behind the warehouses west of the concrete. We'll set up a perimeter there and wait for pickup. Soonest, people, soonest! Out!" 

"What the hell?" said Flea Glasebrook. He'd been counting stinger magazines remaining. His index finger still pointed to the pouch he'd reached when the call came.

Abbado tried to suck a drink of water. He coughed and spewed it across the inside of his faceshield. "Three-three to the truck," he ordered when he got his voice back. "Watch that there's not somebody waiting when we come through the hatch."

He hoped the truck still worked. He really hoped the truck still worked. He was afraid to think any farther ahead than that.

— 3 — 

Blohm lay in the crawlspace beneath a warehouse, ten feet back from the wall. He could see wedges of the port through half a dozen of the open ventilators, but he was practically invisible from the outside.

A pair of Kalendru crouched at the base of a freighter in the middle of the field. They held shoulder-stocked lasers. Blohm aimed his stinger and squeezed twice: separate short bursts rather than a single long one. The projectiles' vaporized driving bands fluoresced in the dimness.

Pellets that missed sparkled like fairy dust against the starship's hull. The Spooks toppled. Blohm scrambled a few feet sideways. Somebody might have noticed the vague flicker from his stinger's muzzle.

You've got to be fast. You've got to act without thinking. Otherwise you're as dead as a child in a fuel-air blast.

On a corner of Blohm's visor was a remote image from Sergeant Gabrilovitch. Gabe had retreated with most of C41 behind the line of warehouses. The lot there was half the size of the huge landing field. It held thousands of vehicles and pieces of heavy equipment in open storage ready for transshipment, but even that quantity of matériel didn't fill the space. The pickup ship could land without scratching its paint on the Spook hardware.

If a ship arrived. If anybody in C41 was alive when it arrived. But worrying about that was somebody else's job.

A vehicle drove through one of the smashed doors of the huge maintenance hangar across the port. Blohm aimed, dialing up the magnification of the stinger's holographic sight while keeping his visor at 1:1 for breadth of field.

No target. It was a Spook truck, all right, but there were three strikers in the battered cab and others clinging to the back. Abbado was bringing his people back, most of them at least. A pair of missiles hit close enough to stagger the vehicle, but it continued to accelerate. Two of the left-side tires were flat, giving the truck a shimmy.

Blohm wished he was alone on a planet. No decisions to make, no responsibilities. Nobody to worry about but himself.

Something rustled; the local equivalent of a rat, or perhaps just leaves blowing. Blohm didn't look away from the ventilators, his firing slits. His helmet would warn him of any infrared source corresponding to a human or a Kalender. Even a Kalender child.

Three Kalendru ran out of the distant hangar. Two had lasers; the Spook in the middle lifted a long launching tube to his shoulder.

Blohm shot the rocketeer first. The Spook dropped his tube and staggered backward, but he stayed on his feet.

This was long range for a stinger. The pellets depended on kinetic energy for their effect, and air resistance scrubbed off velocity. Kalendru lasers had better performance than stingers at ranges of three hundred yards and beyond, but it wasn't often you had to worry about shooting the breadth of a starport.

Blohm raised his point of aim slightly for the second target. The burst hit the Spook in the face and throat. He flung up his hands and fell backward.

The third Spook looked around wildly. Blohm nailed him in the upper chest, then gave him a second burst when he didn't go down. That Spook and the rocketeer collapsed together in a tangle of spindly limbs.

Blohm hoped Abbado made it clear. Well, he'd done what he could.

There was lots of room in the crawlspace. The extruded-metal joists were several feet off the ground across most of the building. A guy could live in a space like this if he had food and everybody left him alone. He'd have no decisions to make at all.


The truck went over a sunken tramline at forty miles an hour. They must have crossed the same trench headed for the hangar, but Abbado didn't remember the jolt being so bad. The present condition of the truck's running gear probably had something to do with it.

Glasebrook bounced high enough to dent the cab roof with his helmet. He shouted a curse.

"Quit bitching, Flea," Abbado said. "There's people who'd pay good money for a ride like this!"

A shell landed where the truck had crossed the tramline seconds before. Horgen dragged the steering yoke to the right, fighting the vehicle's tendency to drift left because of the flat tires on that side.

"They can have my fucking ticket then!" Glasebrook said. He fired at a freighter on which nothing moved but wisps of smoke from all the open hatches.

More shells hit, well behind and this time to the left of the truck. Horgen continued to steer right. Her elbow rang on Flea's breastplate.

A heavy weapons squad had set up in a pit near where C41 landed. Abbado couldn't tell whether they'd been a rocket or a plasma cannon crew, because a shell had scooped everything out and sprayed it high in the air like ejecta from a volcano.

Bits of hard suit lay in a circle around the pit where they'd fallen. None of the pieces was larger than a gauntlet and half a forearm. One of the strikers lay spreadeagled nearby with a full complement of appendages attached to the armored torso. Blast effects were funny things. Sometimes you'd find a corpse with all his clothes blown off but not a mark on his skin.

"Hang the hell on!" Horgen said as she fought the yoke. She wanted to turn into the alley between the warehouses and the collapsed ruin that had been the big transient compound, but the vehicle wasn't responding the way it should.

The truck was supposed to steer all eight wheels, but there seemed to be more damage than just the flat tires. Glasebrook gripped the right horn of the yoke and forced it down against whatever was dragging.

The truck skidded. Metal shrieked, but they were turning, they were going to make it.

Movement caught the corner of Abbado's eye. He turned his head and looked squarely at the shape waddling into the port from the north.

Abbado pointed his stinger by instinct, but he didn't bother firing. While doing so would definitely get its attention, he could piss out the truck's window and have just as much chance of damaging a Kalendru tank.

* * *

"They're eight minutes out," Nadia shouted to Farrell. He'd handed responsibility for orbital communications to her when they left the jammer to automatic operation in the admin building. "They'll be approaching from the west. One vessel."

It'd be a tight squeeze getting C41 aboard a standard landing boat intended for fifty strikers. Of course they didn't have the usual amount of heavy equipment on this extraction.

And again, a fifty-place vessel might be about the right size.

Farrell was in the cab of a construction tanker with plow-like nozzles on the underside to inject plasticizer into the ground. It was in the row nearest the back of the warehouses. Leinsdorf squatted beside Farrell, nursing his plasma tube and looking grim. Captain Broz stood on the tread of the giant earthmover adjacent. Farrell liked having Nadia close because of her electronics skills, though that increased the risk he and his XO would buy it simultaneously.

The rest of the strikers were spread through the ranks of Kalendru vehicles, mostly near the back of the field. The Spook artillery hadn't begun targeting the storage field.

Spook sensor technology was excellent, but the amount of metal and electronics in the park were perfect concealment for the scattering of humans. C41 was going to need all the help it could get to stay alive until the boat arrived.

If the boat wasn't shot down. If Primrose didn't abort the pickup for reasons that a mere striker wouldn't understand. If the boat didn't land on the wrong fucking side of the planet, because that was sure the way C41's luck had been running so far.

If Art Farrell got his people aboard the pickup vessel, his job was over. Even if the ship blew up in the next instant, it was no longer his responsibility.

The Kalendru who'd been in the port area when C41 arrived were either dead or cowed into keeping their heads down. The locals had reacted fast, but they weren't most of them soldiers and they'd been up against the best. The Spooks' quick individual responses meant they'd been mowed down in uncoordinated firefights against humans with better weapons, better armor, and better aim.

The Kalendru whose APCs had landed in the scrub woodland south and west of the port were infantry operating in formed units. There were already several hundred of them and they should have been dangerous, but so far every Spook who reached a firing position had been killed instantly.

The Kalendru infrared signatures made them stand out like flags against the foliage and damp ground. Human troops wouldn't have been any better off. The strikers could track targets crawling forward for hundreds of yards. When a Spook raised his head, several stingers or a 4-pound rocket blew him apart. Sun-heated equipment hid C41 as effectively as absorbent sheeting could have done.

The orange digits 3-3 lit a corner of Farrell's visor indicating a priority report from the squad leader, Sergeant Abbado. "Six, a tank's entered the field from the north. We're observing, but we don't have shit to stop it. Over." 

Farrell switched to visuals from Abbado on the left side of his visor. The Kalendru tank was an opalescent dome moving onto the field with the care of a blind man. It was too wide to pass through the space between the transient compound and the end warehouse without touching, but the tank's armored sides would simply brush the rubble apart.

"Three-three," Farrell said, "take firing positions but don't do anything till I get there. Out."

He grimaced to Leinsdorf and ordered curtly, "Come on. Nadia, you're in charge."

"Five minutes!" she called back.

C41 didn't have five minutes before the tank had joined them in the storage lot. The pickup boat would have to abort if there was a hundred-megajoule laser waiting for it.

The magnetic shielding that protected the tank against directed-energy weapons was also its main weakness. The flux was so dense that it bent light itself: the driver and gunners looked out through a rainbow curtain as dazzling as the light-shot mist at the base of a waterfall. Inertial guidance took the vehicle over mapped terrain and computer enhancement aided image resolution, but the tank crew still had to grope across the landscape unless it dropped the shield. Besides the blindness, the laser couldn't fire while the shield was in place. The tank was limited to its secondary battery of projectile weapons.

Farrell ran toward the channel he expected the tank to use. The driver might plow directly through the warehouses, but that risked filling the drive fans with debris and immobilizing the vehicle. Though the intake ducts were kinked and protected with several sets of baffles, sand and tiny pebbles showered from a collapsing building could still choke the fans.

Farrell's quartet of 4-pound rockets rattled against his breastplate as he jogged along a line of vehicles. Leinsdorf had a dozen more. The bodyguard almost never fired rockets during an operation, but he carried a triple load on general principles. Even if Abbado and his strikers had used up their rockets in their assault on the hangar, Farrell and Leinsdorf between them carried enough for the purpose.

The magnetic shield didn't affect projectiles—in either direction. The tank's outline quivered within the iridescent dome as an automatic cannon fired at the block of warehouses, perhaps the only target the gunner could make out. Explosions clocked at half-second intervals.

The 4-pound rockets wouldn't do more than scratch the tank's paint. Even a 50-pounder—the last of them had disintegrated an APC that rose to scan the storage field for targets—couldn't have penetrated the tank's armor. A volley of light warheads might cause the Spooks to lower their shielding for a moment to see what was happening, though.

What would be happening then was Leinsdorf nailing the tank with his single-shot plasma weapon.

The roar of the tank's fans staggered Farrell as he stepped into the gap between buildings. The walls channeled sound the way a tidal bore focuses surf. Though the tank was only halfway across the port, its shimmering mass filled the field of view.

Abbado's strikers squatted in the wreckage of the transient compound. They'd slewed a heavy truck across the middle of the open space, but that was more to draw the Spooks' attention than in any hope of blocking the tank.

The tank fired a dozen explosive shells into the truck, which shuddered on its suspension. Tires and upholstery began to burn. Rounds that missed burst among vehicles parked in the field beyond.

Leinsdorf drew Farrell down in a crouch at the corner of the warehouse. He was waiting for the shooting to stop before they darted across the open space. The tankers couldn't see a moving figure through the enveloping rainbow curtain, but Leinsdorf didn't want his major to run into a random shell.

Though Farrell knew he might as well. His plan wasn't going to work. The crew of this tank had seen two of their sister vehicles blasted by the strikers' plasma cannon. They weren't going to risk lowering their shield for even an instant, and not even Art Farrell could blame the pilot of the extraction vessel for refusing to land on top of a Kalendru tank.

No member of C41 was going to survive the operation.

— 4 — 

"C'mon, Meyer, get your ass in gear!" Santini screamed. He was wearing a sweatband and a fatigue shirt with the sleeves cut to fringes, the way he did when he worked out in the weight room on board ship.

Esther Meyer opened her eyes. Had she been drinking? Her head buzzed and the whole universe was a rainbow blur.

"Move it, Meyer!" shouted Sergeant Bloch, gesturing her forward with a sweep of his arm. "We got a tank to take out!" 

The rainbow was sunlight distorted through the magnetic shielding of a tank. Santini and Bloch were dead, so dead that she'd be breathing bits of them if it weren't for the hard suit's filters.

The tank moved no faster than a blind man walking. A rigid-walled plenum chamber enclosed the air cushion which supported the massive vehicle. Air blasting beneath the skirt's lip skidded Meyer an inch along the concrete, but the tank was going to miss her.

A salvo of 4-pound rockets spat from somewhere the other side of the slagged-down freighter in which C41 had inserted. The warheads twinkled harmlessly on the bow slope. The tank's secondary armament chugged a dozen explosive shells in reply, sending distorted images across the shield's filmy surface.

It'd take a fair-sized meteor to damage a tank's frontal armor with mechanical effect. If strikers were using personal rockets, it meant they didn't have anything better.

We've got a tank to take out.  

That was a job for Heavy Weapons, and it looked like the call was for Striker Esther Meyer. Bloch and Santini might be willing to trade. . . .

Meyer rolled into the gutted transformer pit. The plan of action formed in her mind as her muscles acted. The tank didn't shoot at her. She was probably just a shadow through the shimmering distortion.

Darkness, brightening in a microsecond to a quivering ambience like the sun viewed from under water. The circuitry had amplified the apparent view through Meyer's visor. The tank's skirts danced no more than a finger's breadth above the field's surface. Her helmet enhanced to normal viewing levels the light coming through that crack, though objects' edges were slightly fuzzy.

Wind like a tornado's shearing boundary layer pounded Meyer, shaking and bruising her despite her hard suit. Her helmet suppressed as much of the noise as possible, but the low-frequency harmonics made all her muscles quiver.

Air pressurized by four fans supported the vehicle's hundred-plus tons. The forty inch high walls of the plenum chamber held the air in a resilient bubble, spreading the vehicle's weight evenly over the ground. The tank could glide over surfaces in which wheels or treads would have bogged.

The weight didn't go away, though. Meyer's hard suit kept air pressure from crushing her, but the fans' output ducts buffeted her like water from a millrace. Against it, she fought her way from the transformer pit to where she could look up into one of the fans. She still had the pair of 4-pound rockets hanging from her belt.

On the tank's upper surface the inlets to the drive motors were screened and baffled. The output duct into the plenum chamber was angled for protection from mines, but there was only one coarse grating downstream of the nacelle. Scrabbling forward to keep up with the tank's slow advance, Meyer pulled a rocket from her belt and twisted the cap to arm it. She aimed it up the duct, trying to keep the nose straight against the roaring, bone-shaking gale. Strike Force warheads didn't have arming-distance delays: risk was the striker's responsibility.

Ignition and the bang of the warhead blowing apart the grate were lost in the thunder of the fans. Bits of casing cracked against Meyer's armor. She didn't know if any fragments had penetrated.

Meyer armed the second rocket. It was getting harder to fight the wind. She was afraid she wouldn't be able to aim the rocket even the short distance to the nacelle. Her brain responded to crushing fatigue by pulsing waves of color across her vision.

She fired. For an instant she thought the blue glare was another trick of her mind. Her visor muted the light instantaneously. The fan duct was a tube of arcing electricity and reflections as the nacelle destroyed itself. The solid column of air that had rammed Meyer as she squatted in the duct had ceased.

Metal shrieked over the rumble of the remaining fans. The skirt's lip was rubbing against the concrete. Three fans could no longer support the tank when the open duct of the fourth vented the pressurized cushion to the atmosphere.

The tank skidded to a halt, trapping Meyer beneath its armored mass.

The tank settled, closing the gap between skirt and concrete. "But we got the fucker, sarge," she whispered as darkness closed in.


Blohm fired at the twisted image of the tank's main gun, a high-powered Cassegrain laser. The chance of getting a pellet through the tiny objective opening to damage the mirrors within wouldn't have been high even if Blohm had been able to see the target clearly, but it was the best option going.

The magnetic dome in his sight picture changed hue. One of the intake ducts was arcing. The ionized particles couldn't penetrate the magnetic shield, so they swirled around the tank like swarms of angry blue hornets.

The tank slid to a halt. The scream of metal on concrete was so penetrating at close range that for a moment Blohm saw double. A pall of white dust rose around the vehicle, the ejecta of a four-inch trench pulverized from the starport's surface.

Blohm locked a fresh magazine into his stinger's butt well. Instead of firing, he paused to see what the changing situation would bring.

The tank tried to lift on the thrust of three fans. Air backed mournfully through the fourth duct. The shimmer of magnetic shielding vanished. The crew was throwing overload power to the remaining engines in order to get the tank moving again. The power plant didn't have enough headroom to accomplish that and meet the enormous drain of the shield at the same time.

Blohm could see the squat laser tube clearly for the first time. He hadn't fired more than a half-second burst into it before the dazzling radiance of a plasma bolt struck the turret. That didn't surprise him. Nobody survived in C41 unless he was fast, and Kurt Leinsdorf was damned near as fast as Blohm himself.

Blohm swapped magazines again. Part of him wondered how many kids Leinsdorf had killed over the years.


The red mask of a priority message flicked three times across Abbado's visor. "C41, two minutes!" his helmet ordered. "All strikers commence withdrawal. Out!" 

"Time to go, kiddies!" Abbado said after he pulled his own boots clear. Rubble shifted when the automatic cannon raked the transient compound, though nobody'd been hit by the shells themselves. He paused an instant to make sure his strikers were all moving.

The tank moved, but it was drifting like a cloud. Its guns were silent. The crater glowing in the turret face was the only exterior sign of damage.

Abbado's legs wobbled for a few steps before he found the rhythm. He followed Glasebrook, the last of his strikers, toward the pickup point. Two missiles hit the transient compound. A salvo of at least a dozen landed an instant later in a fury of noise, black smoke, and debris.

Major Farrell rose from the shelter of the warehouse. "There's a striker—" he shouted. Abbado looked back.

The tank erupted a hundred feet from where the plasma bolt hit. A white-hot plume ate away the turret, spattering ash and molten metal to all sides. For a moment the huge vehicle continued to drift; then the skirts grounded again. The hull sank slowly as the walls of the plenum chamber softened and collapsed.

A striker in a hard suit climbed from the tramline the tank had crossed just before it stopped. The figure moved toward safety through the fiery drizzle.

Farrell started to go back. Leinsdorf grabbed him.

"We'll cover him!" Abbado called. Glasebrook was with him; the rest of 3-3 had paused among the first line of parked vehicles.

Leinsdorf nodded gratefully. He half-walked, half-carried the major ten strides toward the pickup point before Farrell gave up and jogged willingly on his own. Thunder pulsing intermittently from the west might be the extraction boat.

Abbado sighed and armed his remaining rocket. He and Glasebrook would help the striker from Heavy Weapons—carry him, needs must, because whatever the guy'd done was damned sure the reason that tank wasn't squatting on the pickup point right now. But first the striker had to make his own way through the circle of debris that only a hard suit could survive.

And maybe the boat would still be waiting when the three of them got to the pickup point.

* * *

The range to the hilltop where the pair of Kalendru were setting up a clip-fed rocket launcher was nearly a thousand yards. Farrell could see them clearly, magnified a hundred times in his stinger's holographic sight, but he either couldn't hit them or the pellets didn't have enough energy at that range to put the targets down.

The extraction boat would land in the center of the storage lot. As strikers withdrew toward that point, C41's base of fire collapsed. Now the Kalendru could raise their heads long enough to observe and engage the strikers.

Farrell lay full-length on the roof of an APC swathed in anti-oxidant fabric. He took a deep breath and squeezed a short burst from the trigger as he breathed out. The stinger's butt was against Farrell's shoulder and he gripped firmly with both hands. Even so the weapon's slight recoil jerked the magnified sight picture up from the target.

A Kalendru shell hit between a pair of tarpaulin-covered trucks and detonated with a bang. The whole line of vehicles shuddered away from the blast. They'd been stored without fuel cells, but fabric and lubricants started to burn. Some of the Spook troops must be observing for the batteries back at Active Grid.

If the extraction boat didn't come soon, there wouldn't be anybody to extract.

Farrell lowered his weapon onto the distant target again. One of the gunners jumped up and clawed at his face. The other Spook was staring behind him at the roaring western sky. Farrell's finger squeezed without his conscious volition. As he did so, another striker's rocket hit the Spook weapon. Gun and crew vanished in a blue-white flash.

The boat came in low. It was a flattened cylinder eighty feet long and twenty wide, with the hatches already open along the rear two-thirds of the hull. Oval intakes sucked air through a fusion torus. The gas—any atmosphere would do—was expelled as high-velocity plasma to drive and support the vessel until it reached an altitude from which its magnetic drive could push against the planetary field. Lasers and light shells sparkled against the boat's blackened armor as it overflew the Kalendru infantry.

"C41, go! Go! Go!" Nadia Broz shouted over the command channel. "All strikers aboard in sixty seconds!" 

The landing boat hovered, then dropped hard onto the field. The pilot landed with the thrusters shut off to avoid endangering nearby strikers. Three Spook missiles detonated twenty feet above the vessel. Smoke drifted from the point defense turrets in the bow and stern. The triple shockwave rocked the boat but didn't damage it. Strikers started jumping aboard.

Something blew a sullen smoke ring from the Spook-held woods. The fighting had lit several fires. One of them had reached a case of ammunition or grenades.

Farrell looked over his shoulder. Dust and varicolored smoke rose from beyond the warehouses. Some of the buildings were burning also. Farrell's eyes didn't see any strikers that his visor's location chart had missed.

"For Chrissake come on, sir!" Leinsdorf snarled. He gripped Farrell's shoulder and slid him off the APC by main force. Farrell had stopped to provide cover while his strikers withdrew, so he and Leinsdorf still had a hundred yards to run to the boat.

The coil guns in the pickup boat's two lateral blisters raked the Spook positions. The weapons worked by the same principle as stingers but flung half-ounce projectiles. Trees shattered and rock outcrops disintegrated into sparks and lethal fragments.

Salvos of three or four shells each dived on the boat at intervals of a few seconds. Most of the rounds blew up in midair. Clouds of dirty black smoke spread above the vessel. The point defense system cycled flechettes so fast that the mechanisms screamed like saws instead of crackling.

Two of the Spook rounds hit the ground west of the boat. A striker went down; a buddy helped him to his feet. Because the missiles had been badly aimed, the defense system hadn't bothered to engage them. The software targeted only threats to the vessel itself.

Pain crackled along the right side of Farrell's chest. He flipped his visor up so that he could breathe without the constriction of the helmet filters. He should have switched to his oxygen bottle instead. The atmosphere was hot and metallic, sharp with ozone. His legs moved like wooden stumps.

The pickup boat was ten yards away. Strikers in the open bay fired toward the Spook infantry. Abbado and Glasebrook helped the hard-suited striker climb the high step and flop forward on the deck.

Nadia Broz was waiting at the flank of the ship. "Come on!" she screamed. The pilot blipped his air pumps. The thruster inlets honked air and a burp of iridescent plasma seared the ground.

"Go!" Farrell shouted to the pilot on the ground-to-air channel. He turned his head for one last check on any of his people who might be staggering toward pickup without the helmet that ID'd strikers on the locator circuitry. More shells were shrieking down.

Leinsdorf and Broz each grabbed an arm and together hurled their commanding officer aboard the pickup boat. An intense red flash silhouetted them and flung them after Farrell. A shell had landed just short of the vessel.

The boat lifted. The hatches were already closing.

"Medic!" Farrell shouted. He tried to sit up against the weight of Leinsdorf's torso. "Medic!"

The strikers' body armor had performed very well, but there was almost nothing left of either Leinsdorf or Broz below the waist.

"Medic, for the love of God!"  


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