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David Weber

"Citizen General Fontein is here, Sir."

Oscar Saint-Just looked up as Sean Caminetti, his private secretary, ushered a colorless, wizened little man into his office. No one could have looked less like the popular conception of a brilliant and ruthless security agent than Erasmus Fontein. Except, perhaps for Saint-Just himself.

"Thank you, Sean." He nodded permission for the secretary to withdraw, and then turned his attention fully to his guest. Unlike most people summoned to Saint-Just's inner sanctum, Fontein calmly walked across to his favorite chair, lowered himself into it with neither hesitation or any sign of trepidation, waited while its surface adjusted to the contours of his body, then cocked his head at his chief.

"You wanted to see me?" he inquired, and Saint-Just snorted.

"I wouldn't put it quite that way. Not," he added, "that I'm not always happy to visit with you, of course. We have so few opportunities to spend quality time together." Fontein smiled faintly at the humor Saint-Just allowed so few people to see, but the smile faded as the Citizen Secretary for State Security went on in a much more serious tone.

"Actually, as I'm sure you've guessed, I called you in to discuss McQueen."

"I had guessed," Fontein admitted. "It wasn't hard, especially given how unhappy she was to move ahead on Operation Bagration."

"That's because you're a clever and insightful fellow who knows how much your boss is worried and what he worries about."

"Yes, I do," Fontein said, and leaned slightly forward. "And because I know, I've been trying very hard not to let the suspicions I know you have push me into reading something that isn't there into her actions."

"And?" Saint-Just prompted when he paused.

"And I just don't know." Fontein pursed his lips, looking uncharacteristically uncertain. It was Saint-Just's turn to incline his head, silently commanding him to explain, and the citizen general sighed.

"I've sat in on almost all of her strategy discussions at the Octagon, and the few I wasn't physically present for, I listened to on chip. I know the woman is a fiendishly good actress who can scheme and dissemble with the best. God knows I won't forget anytime soon how she out-foxed me before the Leveler business! But for all that, I think her concerns over the possibility of new Manty weapons are genuine, Oscar. She's been too consistent in the arguments she's made for those concerns to be feigned." He shook his head. "She's worried about moving so aggressively onto the offensive. A lot more worried, I think, than she lets herself appear at Committee meetings, where she knows she has to project a confident front. And," he added unhappily, "I think that because she's really worried, she's also very, very pissed off with you for pushing her so hard against her own better judgment."

"Um." Saint-Just rubbed his chin thoughtfully. Erasmus Fontein was, with the possible exception of Eloise Pritchart, the most insightful of StateSec's commissioners. He didn't look it, which was one of the more potent weapons in his arsenal, but he had a cold, keenly logical mind and, in his own way, he was just as merciless as Oscar Saint-Just. More than that, he'd been Esther McQueen's watchdog for the better part of eight years. She'd fooled him once, but he knew her moves better than anyone else . . . and he was a hard man for the same person to fool twice. Which meant Saint-Just had to listen to anything he had to say. But even so . . .

"Just because she's genuinely concerned doesn't mean she's right," he said testily, and Fontein very carefully didn't allow his surprise at his superior's acid tone to show.

It was very unlike Saint-Just to reveal that sort of irritation, and the citizen general felt a sudden chill. One thing which made Saint-Just so effective was his ability to think coldly and dispassionately about a problem. If personal anger was beginning to corrode that dispassion in Esther McQueen's case, her time could be far shorter than she guessed. Worse, Fontein wasn't at all sure he was prepared to dismiss her concerns, whatever Saint-Just thought. He'd had too many opportunities to see her in action, knew how tough minded she was. And, he admitted, had seen her physical and moral courage much too close-up for comfort during the Leveler revolt. He might not trust her, and he certainly didn't like her, but he did respect her. And if there was any basis to her fears, then however rosy things looked at this moment, the People's Republic might find in the next few months that it needed her worse than ever.

"I didn't say she was right, Oscar." Fontein was careful to keep his voice even. "I only said I think most of her concern is genuine. You asked me if I'm suspicious of her and a part of my answer is that I think a lot of her reluctance to charge ahead with Bagration was unfeigned."

"All right." Saint-Just puffed air through his lips, then shook himself. "All right," he said more naturally. "Point taken. Go on."

"Beyond her apparently genuine concerns over her orders, I really can't say she's given me much to work with," Fontein said honestly. "She staked out her claim to authority in purely military affairs the day she took over the Octagon, and she works her staff, and herself, so hard that even I can't manage to sit in on all the meetings she has with planners and analysts and logistics people and com specialists. She works best one-to-one, and no one could fault the energy she brings to the job, but she's definitely got a firm grip on the military side of her shop. You probably know that even better than I do." Since, he did not add aloud, you were the one who told me I had to let her get a grip on it. "I don't like it, and I never did. Nor have I made any secret about how much I don't like it. At the same time, she has a point about the need for a single source of authority in a military chain of command, and the results she's produced certainly seem to have justified the decision to bring her in in the first place.

"I don't think she's been able to sneak anything past me, but I can't rule it out. As I say, no one could possibly keep pace with a schedule as frenetic as hers. There've probably been opportunities for side discussions I don't know anything about . . . and I still haven't figured out how she made her initial contacts before the Leveler business, when all's said. I have a few suspicions, but even knowing where to look—assuming I'm right and I am looking in the right places—I haven't been able to come up with any hard evidence. That being the case, I'm in no position to state unequivocally that she hasn't managed to do the same thing again at the Octagon.

"And let's face it, Oscar, she's charismatic as hell. I've watched her in action for years now, and I'm no closer to understanding how she does it than in the beginning. It's like she uses black magic. Or maybe it's a special kind of charisma that only works with military people. But it does work. She had Bukato out of his shell within weeks of taking over, and the rest of the Octagon's senior officers followed right behind him. And she managed to send Giscard and Tourville out ready to take on pseudogrizzlies with their bare hands, even though you and I both know from Eloise's reports that Giscard was suspicious as hell of her reputation for personal ambition. If anyone could inspire one of her subordinates to risk trying to do an end run around me to set up some clandestine line of communication, she's the one. I haven't seen a single trace of that, or I'd already've been in here bending your ear about it, but we can't afford to take anything for granted with a woman like her."

"I know." Saint-Just sighed and tipped his chair all the way back. "I was never happy about bringing her in and giving her such a long leash, but, damn it, Rob was right. We needed her, and however dangerous she may be, she produced. She certainly produced. But now—"

He broke off, pinching the bridge of his nose, and Fontein could almost feel the intensity of his thoughts. Unlike almost anyone else in State Security, Fontein had read the doctored dossier Saint-Just had constructed when McQueen was brought in as Secretary of War. He knew exactly how that file had been manicured to make McQueen look like the greatest traitor since Amos Parnell—indeed, to brand her as a previously undetected junior partner in the "Parnell Plot"—if it became necessary to remove her. Unfortunately, Parnell was back among the living after Harrington's escape from Cerberus and spilling his guts to the Solly Assembly's Committee on Human Rights, and—

The rhythm of Fontein's thoughts broke as a sudden insight struck him. Parnell. Was his escape from Cerberus an even larger factor in Saint-Just's intensified suspicions of McQueen than the commissioner had previously guessed? The ex-CNO's return to life had definitely shaken a lot of the old officer corps. They'd been careful about what they said and who they said it around, but that much was obvious. And after the victories Twelfth Fleet had produced under her orders, McQueen, for all the Navy's original wariness about her ambition, was almost as popular with, and certainly as respected by, its officers as Parnell had been. She must seem like some sort of ghost of Parnell to Saint-Just, and the neutralization of her edited dossier had hit him hard.

It was ironic, really. When the time bombs had been planted in that dossier, they'd been seen as little more than window dressing. There'd been no real need for anyone to justify her removal when StateSec had been shooting admirals in job lots for years, since no one in the Navy would have dared raise even a minor objection. The entire purpose had been to provide Cordelia Ransom's Propagandists with ammunition to dress up the decision and be sure the Republic's public opinion was pointed in the right direction. But now that McQueen had become so popular with both the public and the Navy, that sort of justification for removing her had become genuinely vital. And just when it had, Parnell had escaped from Cerberus and discredited everything in it.

Saint-Just's weapon had been knocked from his hand when he most feared he needed it, and perhaps that, as much as his frustration over her refusal to agree with his analysts, helped explain the way in which his habitual self control had frayed in this instance.

"She produced," Saint-Just went on at last, "but I think she's become too dangerous for us to keep around. Someone else—like Theisman—can go on producing now that she's gotten the Navy turned around. And we won't have to worry about someone like Theisman trying to overthrow the Committee."

"Does that mean you and the Citizen Chairman have decided to remove her?" Fontein asked carefully.

"No," Saint-Just replied. "Rob is less convinced she's a danger. Or, rather, he's less convinced we can afford to get rid of her because of the danger she represents. He may even be right, and whether he is or not, he's still Chairman of the Committee . . . and my boss. So if he says we wait until we either know we don't need her or we find clear proof she's actively plotting, we wait. Especially since Bukato will have to go right along with her. Probably most of her other senior staffers, too, which makes it particularly imperative that we be certain the Manties are really on the run before we dislocate our command structure so severely. But I expect Bagration to pick right up where Scylla left off, and if it does, then I think we will have proof we don't need to hang on to a sword so sharp it's liable to cut our own heads off. Not when we've got other swords to choose from. And in that case, I expect Rob to green-light her removal."

"I see." Despite himself, Fontein felt an inner qualm. For all his own reservations about McQueen, he'd worked closely with her for so long that the announcement that she was a dead woman, one way or the other, within months hit him hard.

"I don't want to rock the boat," Saint-Just went on. "Not now that Bagration is just kicking off, and certainly not before Theisman gets here and gives us someone reliable to hand Capital Fleet to. And above all, I don't want to do anything that will make her realize her time is running out. But I think it's time we started building a dossier to replace the one we can't use anymore. I want a nice, clean, convincing paper trail to 'prove' she was a traitor before she gets shot resisting arrest, and we can't throw that kind of thing together at the last minute. So I want you to sit down with Citizen Colonel Cleary and begin putting one together now."

"Of course." Fontein nodded. There was no chance in the world that Saint-Just would take overt action against McQueen until Pierre authorized it. The StateSec CO's mind simply didn't work that way. But it was very like him to attempt to anticipate and put the groundwork in place ahead of time. The collapse of the original "proof" of McQueen's "treason against the People" only made him more determined than usual.

"Remember," Saint-Just said firmly, unwittingly echoing Fontein's own thoughts, "this is only a preliminary. Rob hasn't authorized me to do a thing, and that means you're not authorized to do anything except gather information and begin assembling a file. I don't want any mistakes or unauthorized enthusiasm that gets out of hand, Erasmus!"

"Of course not, Oscar," Fontein replied just a bit cooly. Saint-Just gave a small nod in response, one with a hint of apology. One reason (among many) Fontein had been chosen for his position was that he would no more act against McQueen without Saint-Just's specific order to do so, except in a case of dire emergency, than Saint-Just would have had her arrested or shot without clearance from Pierre.

"I know I can rely on you, Erasmus," he said, "and that's more important to me and to Rob right now than ever before. It's just that waiting for the coin to drop with McQueen has stretched my patience a lot thinner than I ought to have let it. I have to keep reining myself in where she's concerned, and some of it just spilled over onto you."

"I understand, Oscar. Don't worry. Cleary and I will put together exactly the sort of file you need, and that's all we'll do until you tell us otherwise."

"Good," Saint-Just said more cheerfully, and shoved up out of his chair with a smile. He walked around his desk to escort his visitor out and, in a rare physical show of affection, draped one arm around Fontein's narrow shoulders.

"Rob and I won't forget this, Erasmus," he said as the door from his private office to its waiting room opened and Caminetti looked up from his own desk. The secretary started to rise, but Saint-Just waved him back into his chair and personally escorted Fontein to the door.

"Remember," he said, pausing for one last word before Fontein left the waiting room for the public corridor beyond. "It has to be solid, Erasmus. When we shoot someone like McQueen, we can't leave any loose ends. Not this time. Especially not when we're going to have to make such a clean sweep at the Octagon along with her."

"I understand, Oscar," Fontein replied quietly. "Don't worry. I'll get it done."

* * *

Esther McQueen was working late—again—when the door chime sounded.

She glanced at the date-time display on her desk and grinned wryly. This late at night, it had to be Bukato. No one else worked quite the hours she did, and of those who might work this late, anyone else would go through her appointments yeoman. Now what, she wondered, would Ivan have to discuss with her tonight? Something about Bagration, no doubt. Or perhaps about Tom Theisman's impending arrival to take over the reorganized Capital Fleet.

She pressed the admittance button, and her eyebrows rose as the door opened. It wasn't Bukato. In fact, it was her junior com officer, a mere citizen lieutenant. Citizen commodores and citizen admirals were a centicredit a dozen around the Octagon. No one paid all that much attention to the gold braid and stars walking past them in the halls, and a mere citizen lieutenant was literally invisible.

"Excuse me, Citizen Secretary," the young man said. "I just finished those signals Citizen Commodore Justin gave me this afternoon. I was on my way to his office with them when I realized you were still here, and it occurred to me that you might want to take a look at them before I hand them to his yeoman."

"Why, thank you, Kevin." McQueen's voice was completely calm, without even a trace of surprise, but her green eyes sharpened as she held out her hand for the citizen lieutenant's memo board. Despite his own conversational tone, the young man's features were drawn for just a moment as their eyes met, and McQueen's breathing faltered for the briefest instant as she saw the flimsy strip of paper he passed her with the board.

She nodded to him, laid the board on her desk, keyed its display, and bent over it. Had anyone happened to walk into her office at that moment, all they would have seen was the Citizen Secretary of War scanning the message traffic her staffer had brought her. They would never have noticed the strip of paper which slipped from the memo board's touchpad to her blotter and lay hidden beyond the holo of its display. And because they would not have noticed it, they would never have read the brief, terse words it bore.

"S says EF authorized to move by SJ," it said. Only that much, but Esther McQueen felt as if a pulser dart had just hit her in the belly.

She'd known it was coming. It had been obvious for months that Saint-Just's suspicion had overcome his belief that they needed her skills, but she'd believed Pierre was wiser than that . . . at least where the military situation was concerned.

But maybe I only needed to believe that because I wasn't ready. The thought was unnaturally calm. I needed more time, because we're still not ready. Just a couple of more weeks—a month at the outside—would have done it. But it looks like waiting is a luxury I've just run out of.

She drew a deep breath as she hit the advance button and her eyes appeared to scan the display. Her free hand gathered up the thin paper, crushing it into a tiny pellet, and she reached up to rub her chin . . . and popped the pellet into her mouth. She swallowed the evidence and hit the advance button again.

Thirty percent. That was her current estimate of the chance of success. A one-third chance was hardly something she would willingly have risked her life upon, or asked others to risk their lives on with her, if she'd had an option. But if Saint-Just had authorized Fontein to move, she didn't have an option, and thirty percent was one hell of a lot better than no chance at all. Which was what she'd have if she waited until they pulled the trigger.

She paged through to the final message in the board, then nodded and held it out to the citizen lieutenant. Incomplete though her plans were, she'd been careful to craft each layer independently of the layers to follow it. And she could activate her entire strategy—such as it was and what there was of it at this stage—with a single com call. She wouldn't even have to say anything, for the combination she would punch into her com differed from Ivan Bukato's voice mail number only in the transposition of two digits. It was a combination she'd never used before and would never use again, but the person at the other end of it would recognize her face. All she had to do was apologize for mistakenly screening a stranger so late at night, and the activation order would be passed.

"Thank you, Kevin," she said again. "Those all look fine. I'm sure Citizen Commodore Justin will want to look them over as well, of course, but they seem to cover everything I was concerned about. I appreciate it." Her voice was still casual, but the glow in her green eyes was anything but as they met the com officer's squarely.

"You're welcome, Ma'am," Citizen Lieutenant Kevin Caminetti said, and the younger brother of Oscar Saint-Just's personal secretary tucked the memo board under his arm, saluted sharply, and marched out of Esther McQueen's office.

Behind him, she reached for her com's touchpad with a rock-steady hand.

* * *

Citizen Lieutenant Mikis Tsakakis sighed mentally as he followed Citizen Secretary Saint-Just down the hallway from the lift shaft. By tradition, the night security assignment for any public figure was supposed to be less demanding than the task of protecting the same individual during normal business hours. And Tsakakis supposed that there had to be some basis for that traditional belief, even though his own experience scarcely supported it.

All of Oscar Saint-Just's personal security team knew that the Citizen Secretary for State Security liked to work late. Unfortunately, he also liked to work early. In fact, he had an uncomfortable habit of going in to his office at utterly unpredictable hours, especially when some particular crisis or concern hovered in the background.

No one could fault the hours that he put in, and none of his subordinates were about to criticize the work habits of the second most powerful man in the People's Republic of Haven. But that didn't mean that Tsakakis and his people liked it. Unlike Saint-Just, some of them actually preferred a semi-regular schedule with comfortable chunks of time allotted to such mundane concerns as sleep, or perhaps a modicum of a social life. A little time with a wife or husband on some sort of predictable basis wouldn't have come amiss, either.

Not that any of them would ever consider complaining about their charge's schedule. That would have been . . . unwise. Even more to the point, it would have been a quick way to get themselves removed from the citizen secretary's protective detail, and for all its worries and inconvenience, there was fierce competition for that position. Outsiders might have been surprised to discover that, yet it was true. It wasn't so much that StateSec's personnel loved their commander, because in truth he wasn't a particularly lovable person. But they did respect him, and however the rest of the universe might see him, he was normally unfailingly polite to the people who worked for him. Besides, the only State Security assignment which offered greater responsibility or prestige—or chance of promotion—was the Citizen Chairman's personal detail.

Still, protecting the most hated man in the entire People's Republic was scarcely a tension-free vocation. Only a lunatic would think he had even the most remote chance of penetrating Saint-Just's security screen, but historically speaking, lunatics had an unfortunate track record of success. Or of at least taking out the odd bodyguard in the attempt. All of which tended to keep one on one's toes.

It also helped Tsakakis to take his boss's unpredictable and inconvenient work schedule with a certain philosophical acceptance. Yes, it made his life difficult. But it also made it even more difficult for a potential assassin to predict the citizen secretary's movements with any degree of confidence. And if his principal's habit of disordering all of the citizen lieutenant's carefully worked out schedules without warning kept his entire team off balance, it also prevented them from settling into a comfortable, overconfident rut.

Tsakakis reminded himself firmly that staying out of a rut was a good thing, but it was unusually difficult at the moment. He had no idea what could have inspired the citizen secretary to get up four hours early, but it would have been helpful if he'd mentioned the possibility that he might do so before he turned in for the night. If he had, Tsakakis and the normal daytime security commander could have coordinated their schedules properly. As it was, the citizen lieutenant had been forced to screen Citizen Captain Russell—again—to alert her to the fact that Citizen Secretary Saint-Just would not, in fact, be at home where she expected to find him when she and her people reported for duty. The citizen captain was as accustomed as Tsakakis himself to such sudden and unpredictable alterations, but that didn't make her any happier about being awakened at two in the morning so that she could start waking up all of the rest of her people, as well. It hadn't made her any less grumpy, either, and even though she'd known it wasn't Tsakakis' fault, she'd torn a strip off his hide just to relieve her own irritability.

Tsakakis grinned at the memory of Russell's inspired vituperation and pithy comments on his probable ancestry. The citizen captain had been a Marine sergeant before the overthrow of the Harris Government, and her tongue's roughness was renowned throughout State Security. Tsakakis had enjoyed more opportunities to observe her style and vocabulary than most, and some of those opportunities had been less than pleasant, but he'd always recognized that he was in the presence of an artist, and he wished that he'd had his com unit on record to capture this morning's effort for posterity. He wasn't certain, but he didn't believe that she'd repeated herself even once.

They reached the citizen secretary's private office, and Tsakakis wiped the grin off of his face and assumed his on-duty expression as Saint-Just disappeared into his inner sanctum. The citizen lieutenant took a few seconds to inspect the positioning of the rest of his seven-man detail in the public corridor and the outer office assigned to Saint-Just's personal secretary, then opened a discreetly ordinary door and stepped through it. He crossed the floor of the cramped room beyond, seated himself before the surveillance panel, and brought the system online.

As public figures went, Oscar Saint-Just was more willing than most to accommodate the desires of his bodyguards. A lifetime as a security professional in his own right had a tendency to help a man appreciate the difficulties of his security staff's duties. And the fact that no more than a few trillion people would have liked to kill him gave a certain added point to his responsiveness. But there were one or two places where he drew the line, and one of those was his steadfast refusal to permit an armed bodyguard actually in his office. Tsakakis would have been happier if he'd been allowed to stand his post where he could keep the citizen secretary directly under his own eye, but he knew how fortunate he was not to have to put up with the sort of eccentric whims and all too frequent temper tantrums that came out of someone like Citizen Secretary Farley. And at least Saint-Just didn't raise any fuss over electronic surveillance.

Tsakakis unsealed his uniform tunic and hung it over the back of another chair, drew a cup of coffee from the urn in the corner, and settled himself comfortably for another thankfully dull, boring watch.

* * *

Major Alina Gricou swore with silent venom. Damn the man! They'd known he had a penchant for unpredictable movements, but why in hell had he had to pick this night, of all nights, to suffer from workaholic insomnia?

She forced her temper back under control, but it was hard. Her strike team packed the cargo compartment of the unmarked civilian air van claustrophobically, and she found herself longing for a proper assault shuttle's com systems with an almost physically painful intensity. She could feel her people's tension like an extension of her own. Every one of them knew the official plan as well as she did, which meant that all of them also knew that the operation's carefully choreographed timing had gone straight down the crapper.

Gricou didn't know why the execution code had been sent now, with so little warning—there hadn't been time for neat, orderly briefings—but she suspected that she wouldn't have liked the reasons if she had known what they were. All of the ones which occurred to her had to do with things like security breaches, and the thought that their targets' SS security teams might be waiting for them had not been a palatable one.

And now this.

She closed her eyes and forced herself to think things through. If she absolutely had to, she could use her battle armor's internal com to contact General Conflans, but that had to be a last-ditch option. She wasn't particularly concerned about the security of the encrypted transmissions, but StateSec maintained a round-the-clock listening watch, and any military-band transmissions from unmarked civilian vans hovering just outside the residential tower which the commander of State Security called home were likely to arouse all sorts of suspicions.

All right. If he wasn't here, there was only one other place he could be. And maybe that was actually a good thing. Gricou had never truly been happy about going after Saint-Just at home. Killing civilians in job lots was what StateSec did, not what she did, but she'd known going in that collateral civilian casualties would be unavoidable if she and her strike team met any organized resistance in a residential tower. But if he'd gone into the office early, there wouldn't be any civilians around. Or not any innocent ones, at any rate. Of course, the downside was that StateSec HQ was scarcely what someone might call a soft target. But at three in the morning, the on-site security people's guard was bound to be down at least a little, and she had what was supposed to be the complete, current blueprint of the tower in her armor's computers. Best of all, no one would expect for a moment that anyone could be insane enough to go after the ogre in his own lair.

Getting in shouldn't be a problem, she concluded. Getting out again might be another matter, but if they succeeded in taking Saint-Just alive, they'd have an extremely persuasive spokesman to get them past the defenses. And if they didn't succeed in taking him alive—or at least in killing him—then they and all the members of their families were extremely unlikely to survive the scorched earth purges which were certain to follow. Nausea churned at the thought, but she didn't have time for that. The operation had been planned to send her team in after Saint-Just and Captain Wicklow's in after Rob Pierre, simultaneously and before anyone else moved, in order to get them in before any general alarm could be raised, and Wicklow had no way to know that Saint-Just had picked this morning to be elsewhere. Which meant she had to make her decision quickly.

She turned to the pilot.

"Turn us around, Pete. It looks like we're going calling on the Citizen Secretary at his office, after all." She bared her teeth in a predatory grin. "I hope he won't be too upset that we didn't call ahead for an appointment."

* * *

Mikis Tsakakis yawned and stretched, then grimaced and reached for his coffee cup once more. Few things were more boring than watching someone else sit at a desk and do paperwork. But boring was good. Any bodyguard would unhesitatingly agree with that sentiment, he reflected, then snorted in mild amusement at his own thoughts and took a sip of coffee.

He glanced at a side display that monitored traffic around the tower. What happened outside was neither his concern nor his responsibility, but at this motherless hour any distraction was welcome.

Not that there was very much to see. StateSec's critical departments worked around the clock, of course, but the population of the tower was less than half as large for the night shift, and the air car parking garages were correspondingly sparsely occupied. He skimmed idly through the various levels, and grimaced again. There was no real difference in the light levels within the vast internal caverns, yet somehow they seemed dimmer and more deserted at such an early hour.

He watched a civilian air van ease in through one of the automated security portals and quirked an eyebrow. The van was unmarked, but then, a lot of SS vehicles were unmarked, and he wondered what covert operation this one was assigned to.

* * *

Alina Gricou very carefully did not sigh in relief as the security systems accepted the admittance code. General Conflans had assured her that they'd managed to get their hands on valid perimeter security codes, and she trusted the general with her life, or she wouldn't have been here in the first place. But she was also a veteran who had learned the First Law of Combat decades ago: Shit Happens. She made it a point to assume that any intelligence briefing would be full of crap, because that way any surprises would be pleasant ones.

Unfortunately, she'd had very few surprises in that particular regard.

This time looked like an exception, however, and she watched the schematic in her visor HUD as her pilot worked his carefully casual way towards the proper parking stall.

* * *

The sound of explosions woke him.

He didn't realize at once that they were explosions. He hadn't slept well in years, but he'd managed to sleep far more deeply tonight than usual, and at first, he thought it was simply a distant thunderstorm. But as he roused from sound sleep to groggy wakefulness he realized that it couldn't be thunder. The Chairman's Suite lay at the very heart of the People's Tower, and it was far too well soundproofed for mere thunder to disturb its occupant.

He roused further and sat up quickly in bed, and his pulse quickened as more explosions sounded. They were coming closer, and he rolled out of bed and fumbled his bare feet into a pair of shoes even as his hand darted under the pillow and came out with a heavy, military-issue pulser.

The door to his bedroom flew open, and he spun in a half-crouch, pulser rising. The man in the sudden opening flung his arms up, and Rob Pierre just barely managed not to squeeze the firing stud as he recognized one of his bodyguards.

"We've got to get you out of here, Sir!" the StateSec sergeant exclaimed.

"What's going on?" Pierre demanded. "Where's Citizen Lieutenant Adamson?"

"Sir, I don't know." The bodyguard's voice was tight with tension, and the words slurred as they tripped over one another with the clumsiness of panic restrained only by the iron rigor of training. "They're coming at us from the roof and from below, and they've got heavier weapons than we do. Please, Sir! There's no time for questions—you've got to go now, or—"

Pierre was already hurrying towards the door. The fact that the citizen sergeant didn't even know where Adamson, the commander of his personal security detail for over two T-years, was said terrifying things about what must be happening outside his bedroom. But the man who had made himself master of the People's Republic of Haven was not the sort to stand paralyzed, like an Old Earth rabbit caught in a ground car's headlights, in an emergency. The StateSec sergeant's shoulders relaxed ever so slightly as the man he was responsible for protecting with his own life began to move, and he turned and stepped back out into the hallway first.

Pierre was almost surprised by the power of his own fear as the entire tower seemed to quiver to the fury of explosions and approaching combat. He'd thought that after so many death warrants, so much blood, he and Death were old friends. But they weren't, and he was astounded to discover that despite all his weariness and all the times he had wished there were some way—anyway—to dismount from the tiger of the People's Republic, he wanted desperately to live.

A haze of smoke and dust hung in the luxuriously carpeted passageway, and he could hear the wailing warble of fire alarms as temperature sensors responded to the inferno ripping its way towards his suite. The citizen sergeant had been joined by three other StateSec troopers. One had a light tribarrel, but the other three carried only pulse rifles, and, aside from the citizen sergeant, not one of them was from his regular detail. But the obviously scratch-built team seemed to know exactly what they were doing, and with the citizen sergeant directly behind them, they formed a flying wedge, moving down the corridor at a half-run. Pierre knew they were headed for the emergency dropshaft hidden in his private conference room, and he spared a moment to pray that whoever was behind this attack didn't know about the shaft or where it emerged.

And then, suddenly, it didn't matter whether they knew or not. Pierre felt the overpressure on his back as another explosion, louder than any of the others, roared behind him. The citizen sergeant spun around to face him, right hand bringing up his pulser while his left reached out, grabbed the Citizen Chairman by the collar of his pajamas and literally flung him further up the passage. Pierre's feet left the floor, and he sailed forward like some ungainly bird, until one of the pulse rifle-armed StateSec men caught him and slammed him to the floor.

Citizen Chairman Rob Pierre felt the StateSec trooper's weight come down on him. Knew the bodyguard was protecting him with his own body. Saw the citizen sergeant go down on one knee, raising his pulser in the two-handed grip of a man on a pistol range. Heard the tribarrel wine and hiss as a chainsaw of darts sizzled back up the passage. The citizen sergeant was firing now, full auto, filling the air with death, and none of it mattered at all. The figures striding through the smoke and newborn flame where the explosive charge had breached the corridor wall loomed up out of the inferno like ungainly trolls, swollen and misshapen in the soot-black of battle armor. The hurricane of pulser darts sparkled and flashed with spiteful beauty as they ricocheted from that armor, but not even the tribarrel was heavy enough to penetrate it. The ricochets were a lethal cloud, rebounding from the armored figures to lacerate what was left of the corridor walls, and Pierre knew that every one of his bodyguards must realize that they had no chance at all against Marine battle armor.

Yet all four of them stood their ground, pouring their futile fire back down the passageway, and then one of the armored attackers raised a grenade launcher. The launcher steadied, and the last thing Citizen Chairman Rob Pierre ever saw was the way the StateSec citizen sergeant flew backwards as the grenade impacted directly on his chest before it detonated.

* * *

The shrill sound of the alarm took Tsakakis completely by surprise.

For a moment, he didn't even recognize which one it was, but then he saw the flashing light on his com panel, and his heart seemed to stop. Sheer disbelief held him paralyzed for perhaps two breaths, and then the heel of his hand slammed down on the outside line's acceptance button.

"They're coming right over us! We never saw them on the way in, and—"

Explosions and the sound of weapons fire formed a hideous backdrop for the desperate voice, and then a final, louder explosion chopped it off with dreadful finality, and Mikis Tsakakis went white. He hadn't recognized the frantic voice, but he was certain he'd known the speaker. He knew every member of the Citizen Chairman's personal security detail.

His brain seemed to be frozen by the sheer impossibility of what must have happened. Thought was momentarily beyond him, but training substituted for it. His left hand hit his own alarm key as if it belonged to someone else, and his right hand had already drawn his pulser before he was even fully out of his chair.

The strident howl of the alarms was almost enough to drown out the thunderous roar of chemical explosives as the passengers from the unmarked civilian van triggered their breaching charges.

* * *

Major Gricou led the way through the shattered security door. Properly, she knew, she should have let Sergeant Jackson take point, but that was a lesson she'd always had just a little bit of difficulty learning. Besides, in this situation out in front was where she needed to be, so Jackson could just keep himself busy watching her back.

The sudden clangor of alarms had taken her by surprise, but only for a moment, and she congratulated herself on her timing. She knew what had to have alerted whoever had sounded them. It couldn't have been the detection of her own team, because not even StateSec was stupid enough to warn a hostile assault force by setting off alarms all over the frigging building before their response teams were in position to strike. Which meant something else must have caused it, and she knew what that something else had to be. But although the news that someone had attacked Pierre was bound to throw SS HQ into a tizzy and send their security personnel to a higher state of alert, there wouldn't be enough time for it to do them any good. In fact, the confusion which rumor and counter-rumor must inevitably engender would actually help her.

She couldn't expect that confusion to last for long. Whatever she might think of StateSec's morals, its personnel were too well trained for that. But for at least the next few minutes, all the training in the world wouldn't be enough to offset the sheer stunning surprise of the discovery that a coup attempt was underway. And while the surprise lasted . . .

She stepped through the breach, turned to her left, and sent a screaming pattern of death howling down the corridor from her flechette gun. The SS file clerk who'd stood gawking at the night-black troll emerging from the cloud of dust and rubble didn't even have time to scream.

* * *

Tsakakis' team members reacted almost as quickly as he had. They were already opening the special wall lockers for the heavy weapons stored in them and assembling in the secretary's outer office by the time he made it out of the surveillance room. But just like him, their reaction was one of trained reflex and guard dog instinct which scarcely consulted their forebrains at all. They had no idea at all what was happening.

"Someone just attacked Citizen Chairman Pierre!" he barked, and saw his own shock in their expressions. "I don't know what's happening at that end," he went on tersely, "but it didn't sound good. And if this is some kind of coup attempt, the Citizen Secretary has to be on the same list, so—"

The office door flew open, and half a dozen weapons swung towards it. The uniformed citizen sergeant who'd opened it flung out his hands to show they were empty just in time, but he scarcely seemed to notice that he had just come within a few grams of trigger pressure of dying.

"They're coming up from the garage!" he gasped. "Don't know how many. They blew their way in. At least a dozen of them—in battle armor! Not more than one level away!"

The door to Saint-Just's inner office opened, and the citizen secretary stood in the opening, a long-barreled military style pulser in his right hand, but Tsakakis barely glanced at him.

"John! You and Hannah are right here on the Citizen Secretary. Al, you, Steve, and Mariano take the lift shafts. I want Isabela and Janos on the emergency stairs. Nobody gets through without my personal authorization—is that clear?"

Heads nodded, and taut-faced bodyguards dashed for their assigned positions.

"What about me, Sir?" the citizen sergeant demanded.

"If they're in battle armor, you need a bigger gun, Sarge," Tsakakis told him with a grim smile, and reached back into the locker for a plasma carbine. "You checked out on this thing?"

"Not in the last nine or ten months, Sir. But I guess it'll come back to me in a hurry, won't it?"

"It better, Sarge. It damned well better."

* * *

Gricou forged ahead down the hallway. Somehow, Jackson had managed to get in front of her anyway, and her armor audio pickups brought her the whining thunder of the sergeant's flechette gun as he spun to fire a short, professional burst down a cross corridor.

A thin haze of smoke eddied down the hall, and she heard the sound of small arms fire from behind, as well. So far there was nothing dangerous behind her, but she didn't begin to have enough people to hold open a line of retreat to the parking garage, so she wasn't trying to. Her rearguard's job was just to keep the lightly armed regular security types off her back until she got her hands on Saint-Just. Once they had him, they'd have the only door key they needed. But if they didn't get him . . .

She checked her HUD schematic again, and grunted in satisfaction. Less than three minutes since they'd detonated the breaching charges, and they were only one floor below their objective.

Ahead of her, Jackson charged the lift doors. A stream of pulser darts cascaded off his battle armor, but he turned straight into them and triggered his flechette gun. Someone shrieked in agony, and the pulser fire chopped off abruptly. The sergeant started to punch the lift button, but Gricou's sharply barked command stopped him.

"We're taking the direct route!" she told him, and beckoned for Corporal Taylor and her demolition charges.

* * *

Tsakakis checked the charge on his plasma rifle again, and then scrubbed sweat from his forehead. Was he making the right call? Or was his decision to fort up the worst one he could have made? It had been automatic, made without any true consideration at the conscious level, but that didn't necessarily make it wrong.

One set of instincts screamed at him to get the citizen secretary the hell out of here. No one seemed to have a clue about what was truly happening, and the earbug of his personal com brought him only confusion and panic while State Security's duty personnel tried frantically to somehow bring order out of chaos. The only things he knew for certain were that someone had attacked the head of state and that other attackers were actually here, inside the building. That should have made putting distance between them and his charge his number one priority. But he didn't know where else there might be attackers, and he did know that there was nowhere else on the planet where there were more StateSec reinforcements than right here in this building. All he had to do was keep Oscar Saint-Just alive until those reinforcements could arrive.

* * *

Corporal Taylor's charges exploded, and the ceiling of the corridor disappeared. Flame and debris erupted out of the sudden breach, and one of Tsakakis' team members became a mangled corpse. But two others were waiting, and Sergeant Amos Jackson died instantly as two plasma bolts slammed into his armor almost simultaneously.

Alina Gricou swore harshly as what was left of the sergeant fell back through the hole. Pulser darts and flechettes were no threat to battle armor; plasma rifles certainly were, and what the hell were they doing here?

Fresh alarms wailed as the thermal bloom of the plasma which had killed Jackson started fires, both here and on the floor above, but that was the least of her worries. It would take more than a fire to inconvenience someone in battle armor, but if there were plasma rifles waiting up there, then things were about to turn really ugly.

"Taylor, Bensen, Yuan! Grenades—now!"

* * *

Tsakakis recognized the sound of exploding grenades, and his jaw clenched. They were coming from the lift shafts. He'd been afraid of that, and a sharp spasm of grief twisted him. StateSec's institutional paranoia over its commander's security meant his people were probably more heavily armed than their attackers had anticipated, but aside from the limited protection from the anti-ballistic fabric of their tunics, they were completely unarmored.

More grenades exploded, and he heard someone screaming endlessly, terribly over the team's dedicated channel.

"John! Take Hannah and get out there and back up Al!"

Citizen Corporal John Stillman nodded curtly and jerked his head at Citizen Private Flanders, and the two of them headed out into the smoke.

* * *

"Now!" Gricou barked, and another pair of Marines vaulted up to the next floor. Even in a planetary gravity, their armor's exoskeletons made it a trivial feat. What was not trivial were the acquired gymnastic skills which made it possible for them to twist like bipedal cats in midair to bring their weapons to bear. Their flechette guns whined and thundered, belching death, but it took precious instants for their armor sensors to find a target. They tried to compensate by laying down suppressing fire, but the sole surviving bodyguard covering the waiting area around the lift shaft wasn't where they'd expected him to be. Their flechettes blew corridor walls into fragments and dust, and one of them saw him and swung his weapon towards him in the same instant that he pressed the firing stud.

The Marine died a fragment of a second before him . . . but only because plasma bolts traveled at near light-speed and flechettes didn't.

* * *

John Stillman and Hannah Flanders raced past the uniformed citizen sergeant and flung themselves to their bellies with their plasma rifles trained down the hallway. Neither of them liked lying in the middle of the corridor that way, but without battle armor, they had to respect the danger zone of their own weapons. The thermal bloom from a plasma rifle was vicious, which meant neither dared to get in front of the other, and that they couldn't get too close in against the walls. It also explained why having a citizen sergeant they didn't know and had never trained with behind them was one more worry. The last thing they needed was to have him start blasting away over them with his plasma carbine!

But then the citizen sergeant suddenly became a very minor concern. Stillman just glimpsed the vague loom of a figure through the wavefront of smoke rolling down the passage towards him, and raised his heavy weapon. Unfortunately, he was dependent upon the unaided human eye, while the Marine headed towards him had the full capabilities of her armor's sensors. She "saw" him—and Flanders—before he'd even realized she was there, and the blast of flechettes tore both of them apart.

The Marine shouted in triumph and headed down the corridor, but even her sensors couldn't see through solid walls, and the StateSec citizen sergeant who suddenly rolled out of a side passage ahead of her with his plasma carbine ready came as a complete surprise.

* * *

"Get up here, Isabela and Janos!" Tsakakis barked into his com. "They're coming up the lifts, not the stairs!"

He heard the sergeant whose name he didn't even know open fire out in the corridor, and his instincts screamed at him to get out there and help him. But cold intellect kept him where he was even as the last two members of his team obeyed his command. He loathed himself for it, but he did it.

* * *

Alina Gricou followed Corporal Taylor down the hall, and she felt Death's hot breath on the nape of her neck. It was taking too long. They had to get to Saint-Just's office before his bodyguards had time to regroup and realize they had to get him out of here, and these unarmored maniacs and their plasma guns were screwing her mission profile all to hell. They didn't have a chance against battle-armored Marines, but they didn't seem to care. Why in the name of God were they so willing to die to protect a butcher like Oscar Saint-Just?

Another StateSec noncom loomed up in the smoke and dust. Even through the crackle flames and the background noise of the grenade explosions and pulser fire from her two remaining rearguards, she could hear the unarmored man coughing and wheezing, but that didn't make his plasma carbine any less deadly. Taylor went down as the lethal bolt seared its way through her armor, and Gricou screamed a curse as she dropped to one knee and her flechette gun ripped the corporal's killer apart.

Private Krueger charged past her, and she hurled herself back to her feet to follow him. She and Krueger were all that was left now, aside from the two men fighting frantically to cover their rear, but they were less than thirty meters from Saint-Just's office. Krueger was as aware of the need for haste as she was, and he'd opened the distance between them while she was still rising from her firing crouch. He was almost at the door to Saint-Just's outer office—a door that gaped ominously open—when the plasma bolt came screaming down the corridor and cut him in half.

Gricou didn't waste the energy to curse this time. She only returned fire, hosing the passage with flechettes. Someone went down ahead of her, then someone else, and she charged forward, praying that neither of the bodies had been Saint-Just. The chance of getting out of this alive had become miniscule whatever happened, but if she'd killed him there was no chance at all. Yet somehow the near certainty of her own death had become secondary, almost—not quite, but almost—unimportant, as long as she could know that Oscar Saint-Just was already dead. And if he wasn't, then she had to catch up with them before the bodyguards ahead of her could get him to safety.

* * *

Mikis Tsakakis knew he would never forgive himself, but it had worked. The last two members of his team, people he had worked and trained with for over three T-years, were dead, and he'd used them as bait. He had deliberately recalled them, knowing they would run directly into the attackers, and they'd done just that.

And just as he'd hoped, the attackers had assumed that the two of them must be the rearguard of the security detail trying to get the Citizen Secretary to safety. It was the only answer that made sense, because surely no unarmored bodyguard would have been so stupid as to charge to meet someone in battle armor, no matter what they were armed with. Coupled with the open office door and the total lack of fire from it, all the attackers could conclude was that they were too late. That the Citizen Secretary was already gone . . . and that their only chance for success was to overtake him before he got away.

The citizen lieutenant made himself wait two seconds longer, and then he stepped out into the corridor.

There was only one of them left, a corner of his brain noted with near-clinical detachment, and from the sounds of combat coming from behind him, whoever they'd left to cover their rear was in serious trouble as the StateSec reserves converged upon them. Which made the battle armored figure moving rapidly away from him the only real remaining threat.

He brought the plasma rifle up into firing position, and everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. He had time to realize that for some reason he didn't even hate the person he was about to kill. He ought to, but he didn't. Perhaps it was because at that moment he hated himself too much to spare any hatred for another.

But whatever the reason was, it didn't matter.

* * *

Alina Gricou had one instant to realize she'd been fooled.

Her sensors detected the lone figure behind her the instant it stepped out into the corridor, but that wasn't soon enough. She was still trying frantically to turn when the plasma bolt struck her squarely in the small of the back.

* * *

Esther McQueen looked up from the tactical holo display in front of her as a Marine captain and two corporals ushered two more "guests" into the Octagon Work Room. The cavernous chamber, with its huge holo displays, plots, and communications consoles, made a perfect CP for her, although she rather suspected that her lords and masters on the Committee of Public Safety couldn't be too pleased at the use to which she was currently putting it. Citizen secretaries Avram Turner and Wanda Farley certainly weren't, at any rate—not to judge by their half-murderous, half-terrified expressions. They made as mismatched a pair as ever, and the furious, frightened glares they turned upon her indicated that they were anything but glad to see her, but McQueen was delighted to see them. At least that part of her plans had gone off as scheduled. Aside from Oscar Saint-Just and Pierre himself, her commando teams had made a clean sweep of the entire Committee. She had all of its members, now, and she allowed herself to feel a faint glow of hope that she might just pull this off after all.


If only they'd managed to take Saint-Just out cleanly! Or at least to take Pierre alive. Esther McQueen had never understood the underlying dynamic which allowed a man like Saint-Just to feel personal friendship for anyone, yet she'd seen ample proof of the StateSec commander's personal devotion to Rob Pierre. If she'd had Pierre in her hands, Saint-Just would have dealt. She knew he would have. But the Citizen Chairman's bodyguards had put up too good a fight, and her people had been too rushed for time to avoid collateral damage. The Chairman's Guard whose members mounted the normal sentries outside the People's Tower were much too lightly armed to seriously threaten battle armored Marine Raiders, but the heavy StateSec intervention battalions were another matter entirely. That was why her planning had stressed the imperative need for speed, not numbers—for forces small and agile enough to get in and out again before the intervention battalions could arrive—from the outset. And that, in turn, was how Rob Pierre had wound up caught in the crossfire.

McQueen regretted that as she had regretted very few things in her life. Not because of any great love for the Citizen Chairman, and certainly not because she'd intended to spare him indefinitely. If one thing in the universe had been certain, it was that she would have had no choice but to stand him up against a convenient wall eventually, and probably sooner rather than later. Which was a pity, in many ways, because for all of his failings, Pierre truly had managed to turn the corner on the fundamental structural reforms the People's Republic's economy had needed so desperately. But he would simply have been too dangerous to be allowed to live, and having profited from that sort of mistaken judgment on the part of the Committee's master, Esther McQueen would not make the error of extending it to anyone else.

Saint-Just would undoubtedly have realized that, but McQueen felt certain that he would have at least paused to negotiate if she'd managed to sweep up Pierre in her net. Not that anyone would ever know if she'd been right.

"Have we heard anything from Admiral Graveson?" she asked.

"No, Ma'am," Lieutenant Caminetti replied. The young man looked remarkably calm, under the circumstances, but she could see the fear for his brother in his eyes. "She hasn't responded at all."

"She may not even have gotten the heads-up signal, Ma'am," Ivan Bukato pointed out. "We never had an opportunity to test that com link."

"I know. I know," she agreed unhappily. And if Amanda didn't get the word ahead of time, she almost certainly didn't have time to warn anyone else before the shit hit the fan. Damn Saint-Just and his purges! All I needed was one more week, and Amanda would have known ahead of time.

"If Graveson didn't get the word, then we can't count on Capital Fleet at all," she said aloud. "It's almost certain that Saint-Just got the word to his SS units before anyone else in the Fleet realized what was happening. And if they're just sitting there, cleared for action and ready to shoot, nobody could possibly come out on our side without being blown out of space before they even got their sidewalls up."

"But at least they don't seem to be coming in on Saint-Just's side, either," one of her other staffers pointed out.

"Of course not!" McQueen snorted. "You think anyone in StateSec is going to be crazy enough to let regular Navy units clear for action at a time like this? If they ever did manage to get their wedges and walls up, it's a better than even bet that whoever they wound up shooting at, it wouldn't be us!"

"Agreed." Bukato nodded, but his face was tight with worry. "But it may not matter what the Fleet does. I don't like the reports coming in from the western part of the city, Ma'am."

"They're not too good," McQueen agreed, "but they're actually better than I was afraid they might be." She turned back to Caminetti. "What do we hear from General Conflans?"

"His last report was that all three battalions from the spaceport have come over, Ma'am," the lieutenant replied quickly. "One of them is on its way here to reinforce the Octagon perimeter. The general is personally leading the other two to support Brigadier Henderson."

"We just got word from Colonel Yazov, Admiral McQueen!"

McQueen turned towards the commander who had just entered the conference room, and despite the thick haze of tension hovering about her, she felt an undeniable urge to smile in satisfaction. One way or the other, no one in this room would ever use that stupid, sycophantic "Citizen" crap again, and it felt unspeakably good to put on the persona of an admiral once more instead of wearing the ill-fitting, quasi-civilian mask of secretary of war.

"The Colonel estimates that at least a third of the atmospheric defense units are coming over to our side," the commander went on. "He says he thinks we can swing still more of them if we keep hammering away at our message. For now, he feels confident that he can at least keep any of the satellite bases from getting organized strike elements into the capital's airspace."

"And the units already in capital airspace that haven't come over?" Bukato asked with poison dryness.

"Those the defensive grid will just have to handle," McQueen told him. "And at least the bastards haven't started lobbing nukes at us yet."

"Yet," Bukato agreed. "But do you really think Saint-Just won't use them if he figures the situation is going south on him?"

"If he could get them through to the Octagon without major collateral damage, yes," McQueen said. "I think he'd use them in a heartbeat under those circumstances. But as long as the grid is up, he's not going to get through it with anything short of a saturation strike, and that would rip hell out of the entire city. After what happened last time, I don't think he'll dare take that chance. Our isolated neighborhood, yes; that he'd nuke. But not the city in general. After all, it won't do him any good to kill all of us if the way he does it outrages the rest of the Fleet so badly that they'll turn on him regardless of what his SS goons do. And it would, you know, Ivan."

Bukato grunted. The sound could have indicated disagreement, but it didn't. No one could be absolutely certain how the People's Navy would respond to yet another, even more massive use of nuclear weapons in Nouveau Paris, but the admiral was almost positive that McQueen was correct. Too many millions of civilians had already been killed, and with all of the Committee except Saint-Just in McQueen's hands, someone in the Fleet was virtually certain to take his chances on survival if he could only get a clean shot at the StateSec commander if Saint-Just was stupid enough to destroy another huge chunk of the capital.

"All right," McQueen said crisply. "So far, except for Capital Fleet and the fact that we didn't get Pierre or Saint-Just in our initial strikes, things seem to be going pretty much to plan. Ivan, I want you and Commodore Tillotson to stay in close communication with Conflans and Yazov. Captain Rubin, you're in charge of the Octagon defense grid. If they don't have our transponder codes, then they don't cross the threshold into our airspace, understood?"

"Understood, Ma'am," Rubin replied grimly.

"Major Adams, you're in charge of coordinating our garrison units with the grid. Stay close to Captain Rubin and see to it that your man-portable air defense units are put in the best places to back up the grid."

"Aye, Ma'am!" the Marine major barked.

"Ivan," McQueen turned back to Bukato, "where did we stick Fontein?"

"We've got him under guard in your office, Ma'am."

"My, how appropriate," McQueen murmured, and even here, even now, one or two people surprised themselves by laughing aloud at her wicked smile. She grinned back at them, then gave her head a little toss. "I think we can safely say that friend Erasmus is a realist and a practical man," she told Bukato. "He really does support the Revolution, but once he knows Pierre is gone, I suspect that we can swing him over to our side if we can convince him that Saint-Just is going down, too. Or at least into pretending that he's come over to our side, which would be almost as good in the short term. If I can talk him into endorsing our broadcasts, we should be able to split StateSec between him and Saint-Just. At least, it would certainly hamper Saint-Just's ability to deploy his damned intervention battalions!"

"I can't fault that, Ma'am," Bukato said, "but I'm afraid he may be just a bit harder to turn than that."

"You may be right," she replied much more grimly. "On the other hand, if I screw the muzzle of a pulser far enough into his ear, I think I can convince him to follow me anywhere."

She smiled at her followers again, and this time there was no humor at all in her expression.

* * *

Oscar Saint-Just's habitually expressionless face was carved granite as he sat in the office just off his emergency HQ and listened to the latest reports.

"Sir, the troops are getting worried!" a citizen brigadier half-blurted as he burst into the Citizen Secretary's office. "They're hearing rumors that the Citizen Chairman is—well—"

Saint-Just turned his head, and the panicky report slithered to a sudden stop as the citizen brigadier quailed before those icy, basilisk eyes. The officer swallowed hard, and Saint-Just let him sweat for perhaps fifteen seconds while he held him pinned under his pitiless gaze. Then he spoke, very coldly and precisely.

"The troops will do what they're told to do, Citizen Brigadier. As will their officers. All of their officers. We are now operating under Case Horatius. You will so inform all unit commanders, and you will also inform them that any measures of summary justice they may feel are necessary are approved in advance. Is that clear?"

"Y-Yes, Sir," the citizen brigadier said quickly. He turned on his heel and hurried out of the office even more rapidly than he had entered it, and Saint-Just permitted himself a faint, bleak, death's head grin. The citizen brigadier was an idiot if he hadn't already figured out that Case Horatius was in effect. Although, in fairness, it might be shock rather than stupidity, for Esther McQueen had managed to take them all by surprise . . . again.

Saint-Just closed out the background chatter of combat reports and frantic requests for orders and rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. What in God's name had kicked the woman off now? Surely she had to have realized Rob wasn't about to have her shot before he knew that the Manties and their allies really were on the ropes! Was it simply that she'd hoped to achieve surprise? If so, she'd succeeded, but for all the ferocious efficiency with which the first stage of her coup had been executed, it was obvious to Saint-Just that the follow-up stages were far less solid.

Not that they have to be all that solid, he admitted grimly to himself. The bitch got Rob. A fresh pain of purely personal anguish stabbed at him, and he suppressed it sternly. There was no time for that. Not now. And she's got all the rest of the Committee in the Octagon with her. If she can get them to sign off on her actions, then—

A buzzer sounded the distinctive signal which informed him that the communication staff manning the secret, hidden command center which Tsakakis and Citizen Captain Russell had hustled him off to had just picked up a transmission they felt had sufficient priority to interrupt whatever else he might be doing. He grimaced at the thought of fresh tidings of still more disaster, but he also lowered his hands and reached out to stab one of the keys on his communications panel. The combat chatter vanished instantly, and his mouth tightened as Esther McQueen's voice replaced it.

"To all loyal members of the People's military! This is Citizen Secretary of War McQueen. The Revolution has been betrayed! I have received positive confirmation that Citizen Chairman Pierre has been murdered—murdered by his own State Security 'bodyguards' at the direct orders of Oscar Saint-Just! The reports available to me are still unclear as to what could have prompted the Secretary for State Security to commit this heinous crime, but the simultaneous attempt to take myself and all other members of the Committee into custody clearly indicates the existence of a far-reaching and dangerous organization of traitors within State Security. I call upon all loyal members of StateSec to remember that your oaths of loyalty are to the Revolution, the Committee, and to the Citizen Chairman, and not to the personal ambition of a man who has betrayed all of them! I call upon you to resist his illegal orders and his treasonous attempt to seize complete, personal power from the legitimately designated organs of government. Refuse to assist him in this despicable act of treachery and betrayal!

"To the regular branches of the People's military, I say this. State Security is not your enemy! Only those individuals within it who choose to serve the purposes of a would-be tyrant and dictator are your foes! As you have so valiantly defended the People and the Revolution against outside enemies, so now you must defend them against internal enemies—enemies who are far more deadly than the Manticorans and their puppets because they strike from the shadows like assassins. I call upon you to honor your oath to the service of the People and the Committee of Public Safety!

"This is not a struggle in which ships of the wall have a place. Whatever Oscar Saint-Just may choose to do, we of the legitimate Committee of Public Safety refuse to turn Nouveau Paris into a wasteland of wreckage and bodies. We hold the Octagon, and we will defend it by whatever means are necessary, but we neither request nor will we tolerate nuclear or kinetic strikes within the area of the Capital! Should you be ordered by Saint-Just or his minions to carry out such strikes, you are instructed to refuse those orders, no matter what threats may accompany them.

"What the Committee most urgently requires at this time are additional loyal ground and atmospheric combat troops. I need not tell any of you how powerful the State Security intervention forces in and around Nouveau Paris are. I hope and believe that many of the personnel of those intervention battalions will remember their oaths to the Committee and refuse to participate in this naked effort to suppress and destroy all that Citizen Chairman Pierre fought so long and so hard to accomplish. But it must be anticipated that many others in those battalions will accept the illegal orders of those officers who have allied themselves with the traitor Saint-Just. The defenses of the Octagon are strong, but we cannot resist a mass attack out of our own resources for an extended period. It is essential to the survival of the Committee that loyal forces relieve the Octagon and escort the civilian members of the Committee to safety. I therefore call upon all Marine and Planetary Defense officers and charge you, as Secretary of War and in the name of the legitimate members of the Committee of Public Safety, to move at once to the relief of the Octagon and the suppression of any and all forces loyal to the traitor Oscar Saint-Just! In this moment of—"

Saint-Just stabbed the communications button again, and this time his expression was a vicious snarl as McQueen's voice died.

She was good, he admitted. Every word vibrated with sincerity, passion, and outrage. He wouldn't be at all surprised if even some of his own StateSec people believed her, and he had no doubt at all that a large majority of the regular military would want to believe her. How could they want anything else, when she was the one who had led them to victory and he was the one who had ordered countless of their fellows and their fellows' families executed? And with Rob dead, they could believe her if they so chose. However senior to her his membership on the Committee might be, both of them were simply "citizen secretaries." She had as great a claim to legitimacy as he did . . . at least for anyone looking from the outside into the chaos and confusion which she had sown across Nouveau Paris. Worse, she did indeed have every surviving member of the Committee in the Octagon with her, and he and Rob had spent years stamping out any hint of defiance among the Committee's membership. Now McQueen had physical control of all those sheep, and Saint-Just had no doubt at all that she could . . . convince at least the majority of them into signing off on her version of what had happened. As for any of them who declined, he was sure it would turn out that they had been tragically murdered by traitorous StateSec units before McQueen could rescue them from his murderous minions.

And that bit about forbidding any nuclear or kinetic strikes on the capital—that was downright brilliant! It snatched the moral high ground right out from under his feet, and at the same time it posed a threat which was almost certain to hold his own SS-crewed warships at bay. Citizen Commodore Helft had already destroyed two superdreadnoughts which had looked like moving to support McQueen, and at the moment, the rest of Capital Fleet's ships were under the guns of Helft's battle squadron. He could undoubtedly destroy dozens of them before they could bring up their sidewalls, but there were too many of them for him to count on getting all of them before the survivors got him. And thanks to McQueen's orders, it was virtually certain that at least some of them would try to stop him from bombarding the capital, even at the risk of their own near-certain destruction. And once he started killing them in large numbers, their consorts would almost certainly react, for how could they know where Helft would stop if they didn't stop him.

Someone else knocked on the frame of his open office door, and he looked up to see a citizen colonel whose name he could not recall.


"Sir, we just got another report from Citizen General Bouchard." The citizen colonel paused, and cleared his throat. "Sir, the Citizen General says that his attack has been stopped. I'm . . . afraid they took heavy casualties, Sir."

"How heavy?" Saint-Just's expressionless tone never wavered, and the citizen colonel cleared his throat again.

"Very heavy, I understand, Sir. Citizen General Bouchard reports that both of his lead battalions are falling back in disorder." The citizen colonel inhaled deeply, and straightened his back. "Sir, it sounds to me like what he really means is that they're running like hell."

"I see." Saint-Just regarded the citizen colonel with a sharper edge of interest. "What actions would you recommend, Citizen Colonel?" he asked after a moment, and the officer met his eyes squarely.

"I don't have any firsthand information, Sir." The citizen colonel spoke with much less hesitation, as if what he'd already said had broken some inner reserve. "From the reports I've seen here, though, I don't think Citizen General Bouchard is going to get through on the ground. They've got too much manpower and firepower, and, frankly, Sir, they're much better trained for this sort of standup, toe-to-toe fight than we are."

"I see," Saint-Just repeated in a somewhat colder tone. "Nonetheless, Citizen Colonel," he went on, "and notwithstanding the inferiority of our own troops, this mutiny must be suppressed. Don't you agree?"

"Of course I do, Sir! All I'm saying is that if we keep hammering straight down the same approaches into their teeth, we're going to take insupportable casualties and fail to achieve our objective, anyway. At the same time, Sir, it looks to me as if they can't have much of a central reserve within the Octagon itself—not of ground troops, anyway. They've got more forces moving towards them from half a dozen Marine and Navy commands, but their reinforcements aren't there yet. I believe that the organized units we retain on the ground in the vicinity would be better occupied throwing a cordon around the Octagon to keep additional mutinous units from reaching it. While they do that, we should move Citizen Brigadier Tome's brigade up to support Citizen General Bouchard while we bring in reinforcements from outside the capital. If we have to, we can put in a frontal assault once we have the manpower to carry through with it despite our losses. In the meantime, Sir, I would recommend that we keep as much pressure on them with air attacks as we can, but without committing ourselves to a serious attack and the losses it would inevitably entail."

Saint-Just regarded the other man thoughtfully. No doubt there was a great deal of military logic to what the citizen colonel had just said. Unfortunately, this was as much a political confrontation as a military one, and every hour that McQueen continued to pour her appeals into the listening ears of the regular military units in the Haven System moved the political balance further in her favor.

"I appreciate your candor, Citizen Colonel . . . Jurgens," he said, squinting a bit as he read the name off of Jurgens' name patch. "And if Bouchard's people are falling back anyway, then no doubt ordering them to assume a defensive stance, at least temporarily, makes sense. But there are other factors to consider here, as well."

The citizen secretary rubbed his forehead—the equivalent in him of another man's raging tantrum—then shrugged.

"Please pass my instructions to Citizen General Bouchard to hold his positions and use his reserves to seal the approaches to the Octagon while he reorganizes," he went on after a moment. "Then ask Citizen Brigadier Mahoney to step back in here."

"Yes, Sir! At once!"

* * *

"General Conflans reports that his forces have linked up with Brigadier Henderson's and that the enemy has broken off the attack!"

Someone in the War Room raised a half-cheer at the news before he could stop himself, but McQueen only nodded calmly. A part of her wanted to cheer herself, for Conflans' report was the best news she'd gotten since the last of the Committee's members had been rounded up. His attempt to take the StateSec intervention battalions in the flank must have succeeded, and that meant that the ground forces immediately available to Saint-Just had been effectively neutralized.

She glanced at her chrono. Strange. Time had felt as if it were dragging past with glacial slowness, yet over five hours had passed since her commando teams kicked off the operation.

Five hours, and I'm still alive. Now that I've gotten this far, I guess I can admit to myself that I hadn't expected to be alive by now. But if Gerard is right and Bouchard really is pulling back, then it sounds as if the momentum is by God slipping over to our side after all!

She recognized a familiar danger sign, and made herself step back from her own enthusiasm.

Careful, woman! Get yourself all overconfident and stupid, and Saint-Just will put your head on a pike in the People's Square by evening!

She turned to Bukato.

"Tell Gerard to turn over to Henderson the moment he feels sufficiently confident to do so, and to get himself back here to the Octagon," she said crisply. "And tell him to bring as big a reinforcement with him as he thinks he can without weakening Henderson dangerously."

"Of course, Ma'am," Bukato replied. "You think it's time to begin thinking about planning an offensive of our own?"

"No," she said grimly. "I think it's time that we reinforced the Octagon's ground forces as much as we can." Bukato's eyes widened in surprise, and she laughed harshly. "If Gerard and his people have convinced him he can't get through on the ground, Ivan, then he's going to try something else. He has to, because the clock is on our side."

"But that's crazy, Ma'am," Bukato objected, less like a man who thought she was wrong than like one who truly believed she was. "The defense grid would blow them apart!"

"You know that, and I know that, but does Saint-Just know that?" she returned with a shark-like grin. "And even if he does know, does he care? Bottom line, Ivan, he still has a hell of a lot more firepower planetwide to draw upon than we do. I don't think he could get through the grid, either, but we might both be wrong, and he only has to get lucky once. Besides, they're only people, and he's got plenty more where they came from if he breaks this lot."

Bukato looked at her for a moment longer, as if he wished that he could disagree with her assessment, then nodded.

"Yes, Ma'am. I'll pass those orders right away."

* * *

"We've got the airstrike and assault echelon organized, Citizen Secretary."

Saint-Just looked up as another of his senior staffers stepped through the office door to make the report.

"They've been fully briefed?" the citizen secretary asked.

"Yes, Sir."

"Then send them in."

"Immediately, Sir!"

The staffer hurried away, and Saint-Just looked down at his desk and its sophisticated communications panel once more. He hoped the assault shuttles and sting ships he was about to commit to battle could do the job, just as he hoped their pilots truly accepted that they had no choice but to fire on the other members of the Committee of Public Safety. Whatever happened, the integrity of the state must be maintained. He was in a fight for his own personal survival, for Esther McQueen could never afford to leave him alive after this, any more than he could have afforded to leave her alive. But there was more at stake here than mere survival. McQueen might well prove as effective as a political leader as she had proven as a military leader. In the judgment of history, it was entirely possible that she would be considered a far better head of state than Oscar Saint-Just could ever hope to be. But that didn't matter. What mattered was that she had killed Rob Pierre. That wherever she might lead the People's Republic, it would not be to the destination Pierre had chosen, and Rob Pierre had been not simply Saint-Just's friend, but his chieftain.

Perhaps Esther McQueen had never fully understood that, but it would have changed nothing if she had. For all of his blandness, all of his famous lack of emotion, Oscar Saint-Just had the soul of a feudal clansman, and he would have his vengeance.

* * *

"Tango Flight, this is Tango One Lead. The mission is a go. I say again, we are go for the attack."

Citizen Lieutenant Angelica Constantine closed her eyes in pain as the strike leader's voice came over the com. She couldn't believe it. No, that wasn't right. She could believe it; she simply didn't want to.

She opened her eyes once more and watched her HUD as the icons began to shift and change. Forty StateSec atmospheric sting ships just like her own formed the true heart of the strike's power, although a dozen pinnaces would lead the way. She didn't envy the flight crews of those lead ships. They were individually far more capable—and dangerous—than any sting ship, but that scarcely mattered, because there was virtually no chance that any of them could survive to penetrate the Octagon's defenses, and their crews knew it. Their true function was simply to draw the defenses' fire. To distract and confuse the tracking and fire control crews in hopes that a handful of the despised sting ships might get through.

Constantine knew all about the attack plan, and she gave it no more than a twenty percent chance of success. And even that estimate, she knew, might well be wildly over optimistic. The attack had been ordered and organized with ruthless, reckless haste in a desperate effort to get it in while McQueen and her accomplices might still be in the process of securing control of the grid. If they hadn't gotten control of it, or if their control was still less than complete, then at least some of the attackers might manage to get through. But if they did have full control of it . . .

Not even the Levelers had dared to challenge the Octagon's on-site defenses, and she wondered now why Citizen Secretary Saint-Just had never had the defense grid disabled or at least placed under SS control. A lot of people, all too probably including Angelica Constantine, were about to die because he hadn't, and fear flickered and simmered in her mind like some dark fire.

Yet however frightened she might be, fear explained only a part of the knot of despair resting in her chest like a lump of cold iron. Her husband, Gregory, was also State Security . . . and assigned to the Octagon security staff. She had no idea if he was even still alive, but whether he was or not wouldn't change a thing. And it probably didn't much matter either way. Not really. The Legislaturalists had built the Octagon like a fortress, because that was precisely what it was: the command nexus for all of the Republic's armed forces, and the central facility charged with the air defense of the Republic's capital, as well. Tango Flight would do its best to break through and disable at least some of the defense grid's fire stations with precision guided munitions in hopes of opening a hole for follow-on assault shuttle waves to exploit. Success was unlikely at best, but now that Citizen General Bouchard's hastily mounted ground assault had turned into a bloody shambles, it would take hours—possibly days—to organize a proper assault out of the wreckage, and God only knew how the situation could change in that much time. McQueen's coup attempt had to be crushed before still more of the regular armed forces rallied to her, and if this attempt failed, the only way to stop her was to flatten the Octagon around her ears. Which would also mean burying Gregory in the rubble right along with her.

The only redeeming factor was that Angelica would probably be dead even before him.

"Tango Flight, execute!" Tango One Lead barked.

* * *

"Here they come, Ma'am."

Esther McQueen's raised hand interrupted the latest report from Lieutenant Caminetti, and she turned quickly to the huge main plot at Captain Rubin's announcement.

Normally, that plot was used to display the locations and status of every unit of the vast web of fortifications and fleet units stationed to protect the Haven System from any foreign attack. Now it showed something which very few of the people in the War Room had ever seen on it, even in drills: a detailed holographic map of the City of Nouveau Paris and a hundred-kilometer radius around it. The map was scabrous with the red blotches of identified threats and a thinner scattering of green friendly units, and she felt a familiar stab of tight-mouthed tension as a deadly cluster of tiny crimson arrowheads appeared upon it.

Her trained gaze identified each of the plot's icons as readily as someone else might have read a newsfax, and her eyes narrowed.

"Those poor bastards."

She glanced to her right at the soft regretful murmur, and Ivan Bukato shook his head as her eyes met his.

"We have lock," someone announced, and McQueen turned her attention back to the plot as sighting circles reached out to entrap the arrowheads.

"They must know they don't have a prayer," Bukato said quietly, and she shrugged.

"Of course they don't," she agreed absently. "And whoever ordered them in knows it, too. But she might be wrong, so she's spending them to find out for sure whether or not we managed to secure the grid before some StateSec loyalist could disable it. Or possibly in an effort to distract us from something else."

Bukato's eyes flicked once from the plot to the unyielding, almost serene profile of the diminutive woman beside him, and then he returned them to the display with a tiny shiver.

* * *

An angry war god smashed his palms together, and the mangled wreckage of a pinnace spewed itself across the smoke-tinged blue skies of Nouveau Paris.

It was not alone. The battle steel hatches of massively armored ground emplacements flicked open like striking serpents, and mass-drivers hurled anti-air missiles out of them at four times the speed of sound. The missiles' impeller wedges flashed to life as soon as they cleared their launchers, and they howled in on their targets like vengeful demons. The pinnaces leading Oscar Saint-Just's airstrike never had a chance, and then it was the sting ships' turn.

The transatmospheric craft had come in high, but the pure air-breathers lacked both their ceiling and their speed. The best that they could manage was little more than mach three, but they compensated by coming in in terrain-riding mode. They shrieked in barely two hundred meters above the ground, weaving their ways between the ceramacrete mesas of the People's Republic's capital city's administrative and residential towers, and fresh missiles streaked to meet them.

Not impeller wedge missiles this time, because hardwired software imperatives made it impossible for the defense grid to fire such weapons at any targets at less than five hundred meters' altitude. A hit by one of those weapons on any tower would inflict catastrophic damage, and so, as if in some bizarre effort to level the playing field, the slower and lower sting ships could be engaged only with less capable old-fashioned reaction drive missiles.

But if the field had been leveled slightly, it remained uncompromisingly tilted in the defense grid's favor. The system's designers might have denied the grid the use of impeller wedge missiles, but it had scores of launch stations, and at least ten missiles targeted each of the incoming attackers.

It wasn't a battle. It wasn't even a massacre. Not one of the attackers survived to reach its own launch range of the Octagon, and fireballs and explosions rocked the heart of Nouveau Paris as bits and pieces of men and women and once sleek attack craft thundered down from the heavens.

* * *

"My God," someone blurted. "Assault shuttles?"

McQueen didn't even turn her head to see to it was. It didn't matter, and even if it had, she could not have taken her eyes from the plot as a fresh wave of icons appeared. There were dozens of them, each a StateSec assault shuttle with up to two hundred fifty men and women aboard, and they streaked straight towards the Octagon as if their pilots actually believed that the sacrifice of the sting ships might have somehow distracted the tracking systems from their own approach. She watched them come, and an ancient phrase out of the history of Old Earth whispered in the back of her brain.

"C'est magnifque, mais ce n'est pas la guerre," she said very softly.

* * *

"Dear God in Heaven."

Oscar Saint-Just didn't even turn his head, and his stonelike expression never wavered. He felt certain that the staffer didn't realize that he'd whispered his half-prayer aloud. But even if the man had, and even if he'd been foolish enough to mean it as a criticism of Saint-Just as the man who had ordered the mission, the citizen secretary would have chosen, just this once, to ignore it.

His eyes never flickered as he watched the icons of the troop-laden second-wave assault shuttles streak into the teeth of the Octagon's defensive fire. They came in at just over mach three, but they had come in higher than the sting ships had, and the impeller wedge missiles slashed into them with lethal efficiency. They had better ECM than the sting ships, but nowhere near enough of it to make any real difference, and the missiles ripped them apart effortlessly. Only two of them got close enough for the energy weapons on the Octagon's roof to engage them directly.

The last assault shuttle went down, taking its embarked company of StateSec ground force troopers with it, and the silence in Saint-Just's office could have been chipped with a knife. The SS commander watched the displays tally the horrendous casualty numbers with an unyielding basilisk gaze, then gave a tiny shrug.

I had to try. Badly as it turned out, my other options were even worse. And now, bad as they are, they're all I have left.

He inhaled, and turned away from the displays to seat himself once more behind his desk.

* * *

"And now Citizen Secretary Saint-Just knows for certain who controls the grid," Esther McQueen murmured softly, turning from the main plot to survey the direct view screens. Fires and secondary explosions filled them, and for all the serenity of her tone, her eyes were cold. "I do hope that whoever passed on the order for this attack survives to be captured," she went on in a nearly conversational voice.

"I'd like to . . . discuss his choice of tactics with him myself, Ma'am," Bukato agreed.

"I agree that they never had a chance of breaking through, Ma'am," Captain Rubin said respectfully, "but as you yourself pointed out, I don't see that they had any real choice but to try."

"I realize that, Captain," McQueen said after a moment. "But it was a forlorn hope from the beginning, and whoever actually ordered those shuttles in should have realized that the instant we mowed down the sting ships. And if she did, and if she'd had an ounce of moral courage, she would have told Saint-Just that sending those shuttles into the same defenses was nothing but an act of murder. It never had any real chance of succeeding as a serious attack, and if it was only a probe, he'd already drawn the response that should have told him everything he needed to know with just the sting ships. There was absolutely no point in taking the additional casualties."

"Which doesn't even consider how many civilians must've been killed or injured when the wreckage landed," Bukato pointed out grimly.

"No, it doesn't," McQueen acknowledged. "But we can't really get too sanctimonious about those casualties, Ivan. We're the ones who fired the missiles that brought them down, after all. And I suppose that in the ultimate sense, we're at least as responsible as Saint-Just for any civilians that got killed. If we hadn't made our move, he would just have had us quietly rounded up and shot and none of this would have happened."

"I know that, Ma'am. But at least we're trying to minimize collateral casualties."

"True, and it's also true that Saint-Just and Pierre between them have killed more of the Republic's citizens than the entire Manty Alliance put together, so replacing them as the new management has to be an improvement any way you slice it. But we do have a certain selfish interest at stake here, as well, don't we?"

She smiled thinly, and to his own immense surprise, Ivan Bukato actually chuckled.

* * *

"What's the latest status report from the port?"

Saint-Just's conversational voice had the impact of a screamed obscenity in the silent, lingering aftermath of the destruction of Citizen Brigadier Tome's entire brigade. All eyes snapped to him, and then a staffer shook herself and cleared her throat.

"I'm . . . afraid the news isn't good, Sir," she admitted. "We've got a little more information now, and it looks like McQueen managed to get Citizen General Conflans slipped into the spaceport garrison's chain of command without our noticing. The latest estimate is that virtually the entire garrison went over to him in the first twenty minutes—that's where they got the manpower to stop Citizen General Bouchard's attack." The staffer paused, then drew a deep breath. "And I'm afraid that's not all, Sir," she went on in a slow but determined tone. "Communications reports that Citizen General Maitland has just joined Citizen Colonel Yazov in announcing his open support for the mutineers."

"I see."

Saint-Just refused to allow his voice to show it, but the news about Maitland and Yazov hit him hard. Yazov had been the first StateSec officer to declare his support for McQueen. A mere citizen colonel might not seem all that significant in the great scheme of things, but no one knew better than Saint-Just how much success or failure at a moment like this hinged on perceptions and the reactions of frightened, confused human beings to those perceptions. And that had made Yazov's defection a body blow. The citizen colonel had been handpicked for his apparent loyalty and devotion, as much as for his capability, when he was assigned to be in Nouveau Paris spaceport as the competent executive officer that the political appointee who officially commanded the capital city's primary space-to-ground link required. As such, his defection raised frightening questions about what other "handpicked" officers McQueen might have reached.

That was bad enough, but now Yazov seemed to have convinced his titular CO to join him, and their joint public endorsement of McQueen's version of what was happening was even worse. If even StateSec officers claimed to believe that Saint-Just was truly the traitor and that McQueen represented the legitimate Committee and its interests, then the steady, ultimately fatal erosion of his position would become inevitable.

They're driving me to it, he thought almost calmly. They're not going to leave me any choice. And if I do it . . .

He closed his eyes for a moment and made himself face the implications of the decision rumbling down upon him with the inexorable power of Juggernaut. It represented what was probably his only hope of crushing McQueen before the balance of power slid too far in her favor. He dared not wait while even more of the regular armed forces stationed here in Nouveau Paris went over to her, and especially not if more of his own StateSec personnel began to follow Yazov's example.

This thing had to be settled now, before it got completely out of control. In a worst-case scenario, the fighting could drag on for days or weeks, and every hour would increase the odds that still more of the Navy and Marines would throw their allegiance to the Octagon. Even if they didn't go over to McQueen, other officers might began to get ideas of their own. An ambitious man might very well see an opportunity to carve out a power base of his own while Saint-Just and McQueen were locked in a death grapple which would prevent either of them from dealing with him. And even if that didn't happen immediately, and even if Saint-Just managed ultimately to suppress McQueen's rebellion, the damage would still have been done as far as any hope for his own legitimacy was concerned. The longer this dragged out, the more people would be tempted to believe her version of what had happened. Some of that was going to happen whatever he did, but at least a rapid and ruthless resolution might help to minimize the damage.

And what happens when everyone realizes just how far you're prepared to go, Oscar? Will it frighten them into behaving themselves? Or will they wonder just how much they really have to lose with you in charge?

Oscar Saint-Just stared into the pitiless unknown of the future, and if a man with so much blood already on his hands had dared to believe in God, he would have prayed to be spared what he saw there.

* * *

"I may be overly optimistic, Ma'am," Ivan Bukato said, "but I believe we may just have turned the corner."

He and McQueen stood side-by-side, gazing into an immense viewscreen that showed a panoramic view of the smoke and wreckage strewn about the Octagon's approaches. Morning had given way to afternoon. Now afternoon was slowly yielding to a red-tinged and bloody evening lit by the pyres of two more waves of assault shuttles and strike aircraft. They had been blown apart by the defense grid just as efficiently as their predecessors, and General Conflans had cut his way through the confusion to the Octagon with the equivalent of almost a complete Marine regiment.

"I think the timing of Maitland's announcement may have been decisive," the admiral went on. He waved one hand at the main plot, where the spaceport now showed a solid, friendly green, then jabbed a finger at another block of green. This one indicated one of the neighboring administrative towers, and it had been the blood red of State Security less than five minutes before. "When an entire SS intervention HQ decides to 'support the legitimate members of the Committee' against its own commander, it actually begins to look like we'll pull this off after all."

"I'd hesitate to start making any long-term retirement plans just yet," McQueen said with a wry smile, "but it does look as if the momentum is slipping over to our side. Maybe I should go have another discussion with Fontein."

"All joking aside, Ma'am, that might not be a bad idea," Bukato said seriously. "Like you, I expected him to cave in sooner than this, but now that rank and file StateSec people are coming over to us, maybe you could convince him that endorsing your position is the best way to minimize the ultimate bloodshed."

"You may have a point," McQueen conceded. "Erasmus and I are never going to feel all warm and fuzzy about each other, but I believe the man is genuinely committed to stability and the minimization of wholesale destruction. And I think he's hardheaded enough to recognize the inevitable when it looks him right in the eye."

"I'm afraid I'm a bit more cynical about his ultimate motivations, Ma'am. But it's beginning to look to me like the tide is coming in, and whatever his commitments may be, I don't think he wants to drown."

"You could be right to be cynical. And the bottom line is that it doesn't matter whether he signs on with us out of principle or out of self-preservation, now does it?"

"No, Ma'am, it doesn't. Not in the short term, at least."

"In that case, I think I will go have another little chat with him. Mind the store for me, Ivan."

"Yes, Ma'am."

* * *

"Get me Citizen General Speer on a maximum security line," Saint-Just said. His voice was almost as emotionless as it had been at the very beginning, but only almost, and one or two of the taut-faced, anxious officers staffing his HQ glanced at one another.

"Yes, Sir," his com officer said quickly. "Where would you like to take it?"

"At my desk," the citizen secretary replied, and his chief of staff quickly gathered up the other officers with his eyes and shooed them all down to the far end of the room.

Saint-Just hardly noticed. He sat square-shouldered behind his desk, and waited while the communications system connected him to the woman who commanded every State Security trooper in the city of Nouveau Paris. It didn't take very long, but the small handful of seconds seemed endless and yet all too fleeting. Then his com's display blinked alive with Rachel Speer's strong-boned face.

The pickup at Speer's end was adjusted for wide focus. He could see the hustle and bustle of her own staff in the background, and even now, one corner of his mouth tried to quirk into a smile. There was no chance at all that she'd simply forgotten to narrow the field of view. She wanted him to see all of that energetic effort . . . and to remember it when the time came to assign blame for this unpleasant afternoon.

"Citizen Secretary," she greeted him. "I'd like to say it was a pleasure to see you, Sir. Under the circumstances, however, I doubt that you'd believe me if I did say it."

"As ever, Rachel, you remain a mistress of understatement." Saint-Just's voice was poison dry, and Speer's face went instantly blank. There were several different ways his reply could have been taken, and it was obvious that she didn't much care for most of them.

Saint-Just let her worry about it for a moment, but he didn't really have time for such minor matters, and he cleared his throat. The small, harsh sound wasn't loud, but Speer's eyes narrowed as she heard it.

"The reason I'm screening you," the citizen secretary said flatly, "is that I've decided that we cannot permit this situation to drag out any further. Citizen Colonel Yazov and Citizen General Maitland's defections were bad enough, but now Citizen Brigadier Azhari has gone over to McQueen, as well . . . and he appears to have taken his entire HQ with him."

"Sir, I assure you that I had absolutely no reason to suspect that Azhari was even considering such a betrayal!" Speer broke in. "I'll have his family picked up immediately, and—"

"I didn't say it was your fault, Rachel," Saint-Just said flatly, "and assuming that you and I both survive, there will be time to deal with his actions later. I only mentioned them to make the point that we can't afford to delay any longer. So I am authorizing and directing you to execute Bank Shot immediately."

Citizen General Speer's expression tightened, and her eyes widened ever so slightly. Saint-Just watched her reaction carefully, and he was rather reassured by what he saw. He'd been half-afraid that she might object or argue, but she'd obviously had time enough to realize that Bank Shot was a possibility from the outset. And it was equally obvious that whatever she thought of the notion, she was not about to risk anything which might be construed as less than total loyalty at this particular moment in the history of the People's Republic. Still . . .

"Sir, have you considered warning McQueen about the possibility of Bank Shot?" she asked very carefully.

"I have. And rejected it," Saint-Just said flatly. He held her eyes unflinchingly, then waved one hand in a small gesture. "The woman is a realist, Rachel, so you might be right; if we tell her what we can do to her, she might at least try to negotiate some settlement. But we'd also have to tell her how Bank Shot works if we expected her to believe us, and we can't risk the possibility of her stalling just long enough to locate the hole in her defenses and plug it."

Speer was silent for another ten seconds, then nodded.

"Yes, Sir. I understand," she said after only the briefest pause. "I'll begin the evacuation at once, and—"

"I don't think you did understand me fully, Citizen General," Saint-Just interrupted in a voice whose tone of icy calm surprised even him. "I am instructing you to execute Bank Shot immediately. There will be no evacuation."

"But, Sir! I mean, I realize the situation is critical, but we're talking about—"

Speer failed to keep the consternation out of her expression, and Saint-Just saw something very like horror in her eyes, but he cut her off brusquely.

"I understand precisely what we're talking about, Citizen General," he said, still in that icy voice. "As I just pointed out, however, whatever else she may be, McQueen is no fool. If she sees us evacuating any towers outside the immediate vicinity of the Octagon, she's entirely capable of realizing what's coming just as if we'd warned her intentionally. Which would put the ball in her court, if she chose to go back on the air. What if she figures it out and appeals to Capital Fleet to prevent it?" He shook his head. "No. There's no way of knowing where things might go, so I will repeat myself once, and once only. There will be no evacuation. Is that understood, Citizen General Speer?"

Rachel Speer opened her mouth, then closed it again. For perhaps three seconds, she said nothing at all, but then she nodded.

"Yes, Sir, Citizen Secretary. I understand."

* * *

"—so I believe it's time that you reconsider your position, Citizen Commissioner," Esther McQueen said calmly. She sipped coffee from the Navy cup in her hand and smiled ever so slightly as Erasmus Fontein drank from a matching cup. She found herself forced to genuinely admire the people's commissioner's air of calm composure, and she was determined to appear just as composed.

"You manage to make it sound so reasonable, Citizen Secretary," the StateSec man observed after a moment. "Unfortunately, Citizen Secretary Saint-Just might not find it quite so sensible of me."

"Oh, come now!" McQueen chided. "You know as well as I do how little legitimacy Saint-Just can command on his own. I have all of the rest of the Committee here in the Octagon, and two-thirds of them have already agreed to publicly support me. StateSec officers are even beginning to come over—not in enormous numbers yet, perhaps, but to come over. More to the point, perhaps, Capital Fleet hasn't made a move. They may not have opened fire on their StateSec watchdogs, but Saint-Just hasn't been able to get them to fire on us, either, and you know what that means as well as I do. It's been over fifteen hours now, and he hasn't been able to suppress us, and he's the one whose support base is eroding out from under him. When the rest of the Committee comes in on my side, he's finished."

Fontein sipped more coffee, buying time to think before he responded, and she was content to let him. Both of them knew how critical it was for Saint-Just to defeat the challenge she represented quickly. That would have been vital under any circumstances, but with Rob Pierre dead it became even more crucial to Saint-Just's hope of survival to crush any challenge to his own authority quickly. As the Revolution's watchdog, Oscar Saint-Just was undoubtedly the most hated single individual in the entire People's Republic of Haven. If any alternative to him even looked as if it might be viable, his hold on power would become far worse than merely precarious.

Fontein lowered his cup and stared into it for several seconds, then raised his head and looked squarely into McQueen's eyes.

"You might be right about that," he said finally. "But Oscar may just surprise you yet. And even if he doesn't, even if you actually manage to pull it off, what in God's name pushed you into trying it in the first place? My God, woman! You may pull it off, but you had to be insane to risk everything on one throw of the dice this way! And please don't try to tell me that you were 'ready' for all of this. I've been assigned to you too long not to recognize when you're improvising as you go along."

"Of course I'm improvising," she told him. "I didn't have much choice when you and Saint-Just decided I had to go, but I won't pretend that I had all of my own plans firmly in place." She shook her head. "I never thought Pierre would authorize my removal before we knew for certain that the Manties were on the ropes."

"What are you talking about?" Fontein demanded, and McQueen's eyebrows rose at the genuine surprise in his voice.

"Please, Citizen Commissioner," she said. "I won't pretend I was happy to learn that Saint-Just had authorized you to move against me, but I decided that I should consider that was only business, not personal. Under the circumstances, it's hardly necessary for you to try to pretend he hadn't, though."

"But he—" Fontein began, then cut himself off. He stared at her for several seconds, and then chuckled with absolutely no humor at all.

"I don't know why you think Oscar was planning to remove you any time soon," he told her, then waved one hand in the air as he saw her expression of disbelief. "Oh, I'm not saying that he hadn't decided you had to go, Citizen Secretary. I'm only saying that anything he and I discussed was at a very preliminary stage. The, ah, evidence preparing stage, one might say. In point of fact, I was instructed not to act against you in any other way without his specific authorization, because the Citizen Chairman hadn't authorized him to act."

It was McQueen's turn to be surprised. Almost against her will, she found that she actually believed him, and she began to chuckle herself.

"It would have been much simpler all around if you could have just told me that, Citizen Commissioner," she said after a moment. "If I'd had just two more weeks to put things together, Saint-Just never would have known what hit him, much less had time to respond! Still, I suppose all's well that ends well."

"I still believe that congratulating yourself on victory could be a bit premature," Fontein said. "On the other hand, you're right about Oscar's failure to suppress your little mutiny quickly. And if you truly do have the rest of the Committee in your pocket, I suppose the odds are that you really will manage to pull it off in the end. I trust you won't think any less of me if I admit that I would prefer to survive rather than to die a principled but useless death. I don't suppose you'd care to troll any offers of high office under the new regime under my nose to entice me to shift allegiance, would you?"

"I can if you want me to," McQueen replied. "Of course, you're not stupid enough to believe me if I do. No, Citizen Commissioner. I don't believe I trust your cupidity enough to attempt to bribe you with the offer of a platform from which to intrigue against me in turn. What I'm offering you is a chance to sign on for the record, with the understanding that afterward you will be provided the opportunity to slip away into quiet and obscure retirement on some nice Solarian planet of your choice with a comfortable pension tucked away in some Solarian bank. I believe you know me well enough to know that I'll keep my word about allowing you to retire . . . as long as you do retire. And that if you don't retire, I won't make the mistake Saint-Just did and leave you alive to make problems in the future."

She smiled pleasantly at her people's commissioner, and as if against his will, Fontein smiled back.

"Such candor is rather refreshing," he observed. "And I suspect that I can legitimately convince myself that lending you my public support is actually my duty on the grounds that anything which brings the fighting to a close quickly will reduce both the civilian casualty count and the probability of long-term instability for whatever regime replaces Citizen Chairman Pierre's."

"So you'll publicly endorse my authority?" McQueen pressed.

"Let's just say that I'm inclining in that direction. I would, however, like the opportunity to speak with the members of the Committee who are currently your . . . guests first. Both to assure myself that they really are your guests, and also that you're not, ah, exaggerating the level of support you enjoy from them."

"I believe that can be arranged, Citizen Commissioner."

* * *

Esther McQueen stepped back into the War Room. Bukato looked up from a conversation with Captain Rubin and General Conflans and started to walk across to her, but she waved him back to his conference. It looked like they were discussing something important, and good as her news was, it would keep.

She folded her hands behind her, and turned back to the visual display of the smoke and flames littering the Octagon's approaches. Lights were coming on in the residential towers outside the actual defense grid perimeter, and she shook her head.

Look at that, she thought. A goddamned war going on less than three kilometers away, and I'll bet two-thirds of them are just sitting there watching out their windows while we kill each other! What a hell of a thing when the citizens of the capital city of what's supposed to be a civilized star nation have seen so much bloodshed that they don't even head for the hills when it starts up all over again.

She shook her head again and watched the red disk of the setting sun dropping behind the tops of the towers to the west of the Octagon.

Maybe I should decide to take it as a compliment—a sort of comment on their faith in the accuracy of our fire control! She snorted. They probably figure one bunch of politicos is as bad as another. God knows I would, in their place, by now. I wonder if they really care which of us wins, or if they'd just prefer for us to finish one another off for good and get it over with?

She gazed at the setting sun a moment longer, then drew a sharp breath, and turned briskly back to the War Room. There were things to do and people to talk to, and she had a lot to accomplish yet.

I didn't really expect to make it to noon, she told herself. But I did, and however hard I work at restraining Ivan's optimism, I really do think he's right. We've got the bastard. He needed to nail us by nightfall, and he hasn't.

* * *

"Sir, you have a com request from Citizen General Speer."

This time, Oscar Saint-Just didn't even acknowledge the information. He only reached out and pressed the stud to accept the call.

"Citizen General." He nodded to the woman on the display, and she nodded back.

"Citizen Chairman." Saint-Just's face tightened ever so slightly as someone applied that title to him for the first time. There was a subtle message in Speer's choice of words, and he wondered if perhaps she might have more of a point than he realized . . . or chose to admit to himself, at least.

Just how badly do I want Rob's job? I know that I've always told myself that only a madman would want it, but did I really mean it? And if I did, then why aren't I on the com to McQueen right now, trying to work out some sort of compromise to end this thing without killing any more people? Vengeance for Rob is all well and good, but isn't it just possible that there's something else at work here, as well?

Not that it mattered.

"I am ready to proceed with Bank Shot," Speer went on formally, and Saint-Just nodded once more.

"Then do so," he said calmly, and fifteen kilometers away from his office, Citizen General Rachel Speer pushed a button in her own command room. A signal flashed out from that button over a secure landline connection that no one outside the innermost circles of State Security had ever even suspected existed. It reached a relay hidden in a subbasement of the Octagon, and from there it flicked to its final destination.

The fifty kiloton nuclear demolition charge whose presence not even Erasmus Fontein had known about detonated, and the Octagon, Fontein, the entire surviving membership of the Committee of Public Safety, Ivan Bukato, and Esther McQueen and her entire staff became an expanding ball of flame in the heart of Nouveau Paris.

The thermal pulse flashed outward, followed moments later by the blast front itself, and the towers around the Octagon took the full fury of their impact with absolutely no warning. Many of the inhabitants of those towers had fled hours before; the majority had not. They had taken cover, but the towers were over a kilometer in height and half a kilometer in diameter. Their mass and bulk had seemed sufficient to protect those sheltering deep at their cores, and so they had been . . . so long as the combatants restricted themselves to chemical explosives.

They were not proof against the cataclysmic eruption of fusion-born plasma in their very midst, and the fireball of the Octagon's destruction enveloped them like the fiery breath of Hell itself.

At least those man-made mountains of ceramacrete were tough enough and huge enough to channel the blast. They acted like a breakwater, protecting the city beyond them with their own deaths, and their sacrifice was not in vain, for "only" one-point-three million citizens of Nouveau Paris perished with them.

* * *

Oscar Saint-Just's office was two-thirds of the way across the city from the Octagon, and the office itself lay at the very heart of its own tower. Not even the eye-tearing brilliance of a nuclear detonation could penetrate that much alloy and ceramacrete, but the entire stupendous edifice trembled as if in terror as the shockwave rolled over it. The deeply buried landlines of the government's secure communications system were fully hardened against the EMP of the explosion, and Rachel Speer's image on his com display didn't even flicker.

Nor did her gaze, as she looked out of the display into his eyes.

"Detonation confirmed . . . Citizen Chairman," she said softly.



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