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A Whiff of Grapeshot

S. M. Stirling

AUTHOR'S NOTE: readers may be amused to learn that both the climax of this story and the archeological methods described therein are closely modeled on real events which took place in the Eastern Mediterranean in 1795.


The Committee of Public Safety of the People's Republic of Haven rarely met in full session. There were security reasons, for one thing; for another, since the purge of the Parnassian faction, the rivalries had gotten too savage. Two dozen men and women sat stiffly along the long table the new regime had inherited from the old Legislaturalist government. The room had a restrained elegance of dark wood and creamy panelling that spoke of that older era, as well. Say what you liked about the Hereditary Presidency and its elitist flunkies, they'd had good taste. Much good it had done them when the jaws of his trap closed on them.

Well, at least we're not shooting at each other, Chairman Robert Stanton Pierre thought wearily. Yet. There were times when he wondered who was worse, the profiteers who swarmed over the State like flies, or Cordelia Ransom and her grim incorruptibles.

Out at Trevor's Star the navies of the People's Republic and the Star Kingdom of Manticore were shooting at each other. Men and women were dying by the thousands to buy the Committee more time. By God, he was sick of these cretins wasting it!

"Citizens," the Chairman of the Committee of Public Safety said coldly.

That brought silence. He gave a wintry nod. Those rivalries were not helping the war effort of the People's Republic, but they were making it less likely that enough of the other Committee members would combine against him . . . and he knew with a leaden certainty that none of his possible replacements would do as well. His eyes slid of their own volition to the head of State Security. Saint-Just's face was calm as always, his appearance so utterly unremarkable that the only thing noticeable about it was its own extreme inconspicuousness. Oscar could do it. But State Security had inspired too much hatred along with the fear, not least among the People's Navy. Nobody would accept the head executioner of the purges as head of state. More, the first move of any new head of the Committee would be to purge Security, which meant that Security had no choice but to keep supporting him.

And Oscar knows better. We've been in this together too long. The paranoia was getting to him. Oscar Saint-Just was as reliable a friend as he had on the Committee.

I hope, he thought. When you're riding the tiger, you can't dismount. He had no choice but to bring himself and Haven through and out the other side of the crisis. Cordelia Ransom smiled back at him and nodded. And I need her too. Ransom was the one who'd built up the Committee's propaganda machine, who'd lashed the Dolists out of their apathy. She'd overseen the public carnival of blood as they fed the Legislaturalists and their families to the People's Courts, and then convinced the masses that the Star Kingdom of Manticore was their deadly enemy.

It was blind, it was stupid—it was beyond stupidity, it was self-contradictory—and it tied his hands completely. His power was unassailable, but only as long as he took the great billion-headed beast in the direction it wanted to go. And she has helped me mobilize the Dolists. The vast parasitic horde that had dragged the old regime down with their incessant demands for more and more of the BLS—Basic Living Supplement—were thronging into the People's Navy and Marines, into the shipyards and war-factories. Giving up their bread and circuses. Begging, demanding to work, willing to really learn, which was something the People's Republic hadn't been able to get them to do in what passed for an educational system in generations. The sheer power of it was exhilarating and terrifying all at once; it was the only force he could imagine destroying the huge mass of social inertia that had been dragging down his nation all his life. If only they could win the war . . .

Then they could relax, then he could do something positive with the power he'd bought at the cost of so much of his self and the capacity to sleep without hauntings. Yet if he hesitated for an instant, it would all come down on him. Ransom's True Believers were waiting, and behind them factions whose fanaticism was so grotesque it chilled even the golden-haired Cordelia. LaBoeuf and his Conspiracy of Equals, for instance, the Levelers.

We've woken the Beast, he thought. Well enough, as long as we can ride it. But what if it begins to think as well? 

"We're here," he went on bluntly, "to consider a major change in our overall policy. As you know, we've reinvigorated our armed forces with a policy of meritocratic egalitarianism."

Meaning we killed everyone we thought wasn't reliable and everyone who showed any sign of incompetence.

"But we've reached a point of diminishing returns with the . . . austere policy instituted immediately after the Coup."

Meaning we've got a young, energetic, competent, utterly terrified officer corps. And the latter is beginning to outweigh the benefits of the former. 

The departed Legislaturalist scions who'd run the Navy before hadn't been any loss. It was time for the Committee and its political officers to remember that the new breed owed everything to the new regime. For that matter, the professionals and conscripts who'd provided the rank-and-file of the old regime's navy were being diluted by the tidal wave of revolutionary volunteers pouring out of accelerated training courses.

"We have to alter—" he began, then looked up in astonishment as a door burst open.

"Sir!" the Committee Security Force officer said. "Sir, we've got an emergency."


Citizen Admiral Esther McQueen didn't particularly like the Committee of Public Safety. Not that it hadn't done her a good turn or two; it had swept the Legislaturalists out of her way, and without a patron she'd never have risen far in the Navy of the People's Republic under the ancien regime. Killing all the Legislaturalist ruling families, and shooting everyone else who didn't give a convincing imitation of loyalty, and anyone who lost a battle to the Manties, had created very rapid promotion for the survivors.

The problem was that most of the Committee, as far as she could see, were pig-ignorant about naval affairs, which was bad enough, and absolutely unwilling to admit that they were ignorant, even to themselves. That was potentially deadly. Not to mention their habit of shooting anyone who lost, anyone related to anyone who lost, anyone who was a friend of anyone who lost, and all their relatives as well. That sort of thing could get alarming, and it certainly didn't encourage a bold, daring command style. The Committee evidently thought you could win victories without taking any risks.

She looked across the waiting room at her Citizen Commissioner—translated, political watchbeast—Erasmus Fontein. He was waiting patiently himself, looking out the hundred-and-fifth floor window over the towerscape of the People's Republic of Haven's capital city. Nouveau Paris had a certain tattered beauty still, even after generations of decay under the Legislaturalists' grotesque economic policies and the strain of the long war with Manticore. From this height all you could see was the grandeur of her towers. Not the empty windows and broken lights, not the curdled rage and suspicion, the terror of the mass arrests and the cold fear of midnight disappearances. Or the worse nightmare of the People's Courts and mob vengeance that outdid even the old gangs. Worst of all were the ones who came back from "Re-Socialization Centers." Very quiet people who talked seldom and worked like machines. Usually they had no teeth.

Well, I'm fairly sure they aren't going to shoot me, at least. They'd gotten her out of that debacle at the front ahead of time, at least. Although you never knew . . . and that left the question of why they'd parked her here in this out-of-the-way tower full of bureaucrats. It made her invisible; if there was one thing that Haven was well-equipped with, it was towers full of data-shufflers. Our sensor equipment isn't all that great, the Manties have better inertial compensators, but when it comes to producing bureaucrats, we're cutting edge. Bah, humbug, bullshit. 

Fontein had been dropping cryptic hints and half-statements about an "important interview," possibly with the Chairman himself. It was about time to cut to the chase. She opened her mouth to speak. A quiver in the fabric of the huge building beneath her halted the words.

Fontein looked around; he was a mild-faced man, and most of the time he looked like a complete fool, albeit one whose position made him dangerous. Right now his face was liquid with shock, and the intelligence in his eyes startled her.

"What is it?" she said. "Earthquake?"

Another quiver shook the tower, stronger this time. McQueen pushed past the Commissioner and looked out herself. The bright actinic flash made her whip her head aside in reflex and throw up a hand, then blink back tears of pain as afterimages chased themselves across her retinas. Nobody needed to tell a veteran of space combat what that blink of light in the night sky had been. Nuke, she thought. Fairly big one. A warhead burst, not the type that pumped X-ray lasers for ship-to-ship combat.

The thought came from some insanely logical, dispassionate part of her mind. The rest of it was gibbering. Haven itself couldn't be under attack—

"The Manties," she said. "They could have decided to go for broke . . . throw everything through at us . . ."

Their eyes met in mutual appalled horror. The staff studies of the People's Navy said the risk was far too high for any sane commander to take. But White Haven, the Royal Manticoran Navy commander, had been taking a lot of chances lately.

Their shoulders bumped against each other as they dove for the waiting room's communications terminal. McQueen ruthlessly shouldered the older Havenite aside as her fingers danced on the keys. She ignored the public news channels; they wouldn't know anything, and they wouldn't be allowed to say it if they did know. There was a surreal quality to watching bits and pieces of news about aquaculture, the glories of the New Republic, and happy Dolists taking accelerated learning courses—at least that was more or less true, they were finally getting substantial numbers of the idle Prole bastards to volunteer to do something useful, namely enlist for the war effort. More light blinked in through the window, and static cut through the reports. EMP is getting to the relays. Quite a lot of it, if it was getting past the digital noise filters. She cut through to the Naval emergency channels.

"Uh-oh," she said quietly.

"Uh-oh?" the Commissioner repeated.

"Logic bomb," McQueen said. "Look." She extended the screen and pivoted it. "Hash. Rerouting, cross-connections, garbled text, crossed order-response loops, spontaneous memory core dumps . . . Nothing working the way it should."

"Impossi—" Fontein began.

They looked at each other again. Every military service in the human-settled galaxy depended on information systems; every service had unbreakable protection against logic bombs from the outside. Every ship had an emergency response, too; cut all connections to the net to guard against infiltration if the system was compromised.

Which meant someone had done it from the inside, and that they'd effectively cut the Home Fleet into so many isolated units for as long as it took to bring the system back up. Hours, at least, and a good deal could happen in a couple of hours. Any commander would hesitate to act without orders or hard data. Particularly in the People's Navy, where exercising independent initiative without orders tended to get you stood up against the nearest convenient wall.

"Citizen Commissioner," McQueen said slowly. "I think you'd better try the Security Service net. And find out what the hell is happening."


"This is the best I can do, Citizen Admiral," Erasmus Fontein said, fifteen minutes later.

He was acutely conscious of the sweat running down under the collar of his uniform. In a man so precisely controlled, one who'd spent decades perfecting the art of emitting no signal of voice or body except those intended, it was humiliating.

"My clearance is being recognized," he said at last. "But that's triggering some subroutine that shunts my calls—some sort of viral AI parasite living in whatever open memory it can find. Whoever did this is damned clever, it's like having hostile ghosts loose in the machine."

"Can you get anything?"

"I've got a one-way bleed on the Security net. The contacts last about six to twelve seconds, and then the AI kicks me out. Take a look."

McQueen did. The first was a helmet pickup, showing ground level. The Admiral blinked; she'd never seen that many people all at once. Dolists, from their shabby-colorful clothes. They carried signs—Purge the Traitors and Victory to the People, liberally sprinkled with Equality Forever, Equality Now—but what bothered her was the sound they were making. It was nothing like a chant; more like a storm she'd seen once, on another planet. One where long slow waves crashed into a cliff in endless gray ranks, and made the solid rock vibrate beneath her feet. The sound of the crowd was like that, but it was alive. And it hated. The Committee had set out to prod the Dolists out of their apathy into revolutionary fervor, and it had succeeded. Succeeded all too well.

"Fire," she said. "Come on, whoever's in charge, give the order to—"

The helmet camera did a quick glance right and left. A long line of Public Order Police stood there, two deep, armed with riot shields and clubs; a slab-sided vehicle floated behind them, its dorsal turret loaded with soundbombs and stickgel.

"Citizen Admiral, the police can't use deadly force without political authorization. And right now, that detachment can't get authoriz—"

The crowd surged forward, throwing a surf-wave of bottles and rocks before it. McQueen had stood on her bridge without undue difficulty in engagements where tens of thousands died . . . and a flagship was not invulnerable to weapons that could turn it into a ball of expanding plasma. The thousands of snarling faces racing towards the pickup still made her draw back in the seat, the way the sudden appearance of a lion might. It spoke to instincts far older than spaceflight—older than fire or chipped flint.

Just before the screen blanked the pickup slammed forward to the ground. She could see boots going by, and the helmet juddered as the crowd stampeded across it. And across, she realized, the body wearing the equipment.

The screen blanked and then jumped. Another helmet pickup, but this time the scene was a little more familiar; a tac display table, but the groundside model. It carried a holo-schematic of the city, but the information markers were mostly amber blinking lights, signifying "no data."

"Citizen Lieutenant," a voice said testily—the voice of the person wearing the helmet.

"Citizen Captain!"

The lieutenant was wearing chameleon fatigues and the torso portion of a set of infantry armor. The branch-of-service flashes on her collar were red-on-black, and only State Security used that waffenfarbe.

Intervention Battalion, McQueen thought. State Security goon squads, but heavily armed.

"Citizen Lieutenant, something is going on, but we're getting no intelligence at all. Take a floater, get out there, and eyeball the situation. Then report directly to me. Understood?"

"Yes, Citizen Captain!"

The lieutenant put on her helmet, face vanishing behind the facemask, and trotted towards a vehicle park on the outer rim of the tower-top. Then a voice screamed: "Incoming! Incoming!" 

McQueen saw figures around the tac display table begin to dive for cover, and the pickup went black with a finality that was different from the system switch she'd seen before. A few seconds later, like an echo, a distant drawn-out booooommm came through the window.

"That's enough," she said crisply to the Commissioner. "We're not going to do anything useful here. There's obviously some sort of attack on the government."

The Committee's watchdog nodded. "Exactly. But we don't have any more information than—" he twitched his hand towards the screen, which showed a bored Security officer sitting sipping coffee before a bank of screens "— they do."

McQueen met Fontein's eyes. "In your professional estimation, Citizen Commissioner, what the hell is going on?"

Fontein was silent for a long moment. Then his face moved slightly, as if he was biting into a bitter fruit. Deciding he has to tell the truth, McQueen thought. That would be unpleasant.

"Citizen Admiral, I think it's an attempt to overthrow the government, through a coup disguised with a popular uprising. As to who . . ." he hesitated again. "I can't say. I'd guess it was LaBoeuf's Levelers. Total crazies, a breakaway faction of the CRP, but they have a small core of very smart people in their inner cadre."

"Pity the Committee hasn't shot them," McQueen answered.

"Perhaps, although they were useful against the Parnassians. In the meantime, we still have no information at all."

"No, Citizen Commissioner, we don't," McQueen answered. "But let's say I made previous arrangements for things that couldn't be handled through channels. Citizen Sergeant Launders! Execute Tango Three-Niner!"


Fontein's face went pale as the door burst open and a dozen Marines in full battle armor showed beyond it. Every one of them had a pulse rifle or energy weapon deployed . . . and every one of them was pointing it right at him.

Their eyes met again. Right, watchbeast. I wasn't going to go quietly if getting me dirt-side was a maneuver to arrest me. State Security had already learned that trying to arrest an admiral on the bridge of her flagship wasn't the most economical way to go about things.

"Citizen Admiral?" the noncom said politely.

"We're getting out of here, and now," she said. "Move it."

"Neufer," the sergeant said.

One of his squad raised a weapon. McQueen and Fontein both turned and shielded their eyes automatically. The light still shone through their hands, leaving the finger-bones in stark relief for an instant, just before the heat and pressure struck their backs like huge warm pillows.

They turned, blinking, and a pinnace was hovering outside the window. "Well, I knew you don't believe in half-measures," Fontein murmured.

"Let's go," she said. Two Marines gripped her by the arms, and another pair took Fontein; their powered armor and thrusters took them from shattered window to open hatch in a precise, mathematical curve.

"Citizen Ensign," McQueen was saying even before her feet touched the decking. "Take us out of here on a spiral over the city. Full scanners."

"Citizen Admiral, that's—"

"—highly illegal, do it nonetheless," McQueen said dryly.

The ensign's face was sweating as his hands moved over the control board. "Yes, Ma'am!" 

Better watch that. Sir and Ma'am are counter-revolutionary, she thought dryly. "Do you have a secure line to the Rousseau?" she said.

"Yes, Ma—Citizen Admiral."

"Good. Full data-dump, and I want the staff on hand in my ready room as soon as we dock. Move it, and don't be shy about breaking windows. Visual feed to this screen."

She was conscious of Fontein's silent presence at her elbow as the pinnace rose with a howl of cloven air. Only a slight vibration and the tug of acceleration told of the wild corkscrewing path the craft was following, or of the dozens of near-collisions it left in its wake. Of course, with a fleet to pick from, I was rather careful about who flew my own personal pinnace. 

"Sir," she said to Fontein—you were allowed to call a Commissioner by honorifics. "If we're going to pull through this, I'm going to need your full cooperation. Do I have it?"

"Citizen Admiral, you do," Fontein said quietly, looking at the screen.


"Here's the picture," McQueen told her staff.

A quick glance at the readout in the corner of the big display tank told her that it was an incredible mere half-hour since she'd felt that telltale quiver in the soles of her feet. Time enough for the world to turn upside down again, certainly. The men and women around her inched forward instinctively. The superdreadnaught Rousseau had been intended as a fleet flagship, and there was plenty of room—far too much, with the skeletal cadre she'd brought back with her, and their losses at Trevor's Star. A faint smell of ozone still hung in the air, underlain with scorched synthetics and despite all the cleanup crews had done, a slight smell of rotting blood. Only the shipyard would get that out.

"The Home Fleet and Nouveau Paris military and Security com nets are down for the foreseeable future—hours, at least, and that's all that's needed."

She gestured towards the tank. It had been designed to show ship dispositions together with coded schematics. The projection of the city below them was almost eerie in its detail. The ship's scanners were picking up enough tactical information to show raw numbers and weapons-types with some accuracy. At least there hadn't been any more mininukes, not after the first salvo.

"As you can see, there's considerable fighting going on down there. Nothing in space yet, thank God, but at a guess I'd say that the compromised com system was used to disinform the various police and Security forces to the point where many of them are fighting each other, under the impression that the next man over is part of the insurrection. At the same time, very large numbers of—" she stopped herself just short of saying "Proles" "— popular elements are in the streets. Initially that was directed by partisans of the coup leaders, but it spread, and right now there may be a million rioters out there, killing and looting under the general impression they're defending the Revolution. Those Security forces that aren't distracted by false messages are spending most of their efforts trying to keep the mob out of the governmental towers."

"Oh, beautiful," her flag captain said. A relatively junior officer spoke: "Citizen Admiral . . . there's the entire Capital Fleet in orbit here, several Marine brigades in transit, hell, there's the equivalent of a division in the Marine parties on ships alone. What's stopping them putting this lunacy down?"

McQueen cleared her throat and looked at Commissioner Fontein. He nodded bleakly. We've shot everyone in the Navy who even looked like they might intervene in politics. The whole revolt against the Legislaturalists had started with an action that made the Navy appear to be launching a coup.

"Due to . . . various circumstances . . ." Fontein began. "It is unlikely that any of the Capital Fleet's captains or higher officers will undertake any immediate action." The Capital Fleet had been purged with more than usual severity; after all, they were closest to the Committee. "At least not for some time. The conspirators are undoubtedly counting on this. They must plan to complete their actions before any counterattack can be organized."

"As you're all aware, Citizens," McQueen said neutrally, "there are advantages and disadvantages to an extremely centralized decision-making structure."

And right now, one of the disadvantages has reared its ugly head and bitten the Committee of Public Safety on its sorry ass, she thought.

The same logic train was running through every face looking at her. The Rousseau might very well be the only remotely independent actor in a position to save the present Committee.

Which left only one question: should they? She could feel the let them swing pouring out from better than half the officers present, and that didn't count the ones skillful enough to keep their faces completely blank. McQueen looked up at Fontein's face, and watched it go pale as he realized that all she had to do was wait. McQueen was far too self-controlled to smile; she wouldn't have lived this long if she wasn't. It wasn't necessary, anyway.

"In fact, due to coincidence, I am probably the only ranking officer who has a real idea of what's happening. Now, I will say nothing critical of the Committee." Heads nodded unconsciously; only a complete idiot would do that. "Let me put it hypothetically, then; even someone who didn't approve of the Committee's heroic efforts to save the People's Republic would be wise to come to its aid at this juncture, on the basis of the old principle that one should always consider the alternative. Citizen Commissioner, perhaps you could fill us in on the background of LaBoeuf's Levelers."

Fontein did. The calm control of his voice and the dispassionate terms he used made the description all the more effective. The fall of the Legislaturalists had taken the cork out of the bottle, and some extremely odd ideological scum had floated to the surface. McQueen nodded thanks when he finished, noting the looks of horror on the faces of the officers around the plotting tank. What LaBoeuf had in mind for the People's Republic made Rob S. Pierre look like a humanitarian.

"It's certainly true that we have no orders," she began. "Just as an exercise, however, let's consider—"


Rob S. Pierre, Chairman of the Committee of Public Safety, looked down the table. In theory, and until about forty-five minutes ago in practice, the men and women sitting here had power of life and death over every single individual in the People's Republic. The Republic's power extended over hundreds of light-years and scores of planets, scores of billions of human beings.

"But right now, we hold this building and not much else," he said. "We don't even know who is attacking us. The only thing we know is that they're winning."

Some of the people sitting at the table jerked as if he'd pressed a button and sent a shock charge through their chairs. There are times . . . he thought bitterly. Even under the airscrubbers you could . . . not quite smell . . . sense the anger and the fear. Then: Back to present business. 

"I retract that statement. We also know that they've penetrated our ranks, because otherwise this wouldn't have occurred just when I'd called a plenary emergency meeting. You realize, Citizens, that our entire leadership cadre, and their staffs, are in this building right now? That that circumstance hasn't happened more than once in the last year and a half?"

Some of them evidently hadn't; the temperature in the long bare room seemed to drop another degree or two, and the glances they'd been sneaking at each other went from furtive speculation to glares. He turned to the nervous-looking technical officer Security had brought in to explain things. The man was standing at a stiff brace, looking as if he was willing his vital functions to stop.

I'm beginning to thing we've reached the limits of what can be accomplished with terror, he thought with a detached corner of his mind, the part that wasn't concerned with his own probable death in the next hour or two.

"Report, please, Citizen Major," he said.

"Citizen Chairman, we will have the net available again—the high-priority sections—in not more than two hours forty-five minutes. Possibly as little as two hours, but I couldn't guarantee that."

Somebody broke in: "Not good eno—"

"Silence!" Pierre shouted, and slapped his hand down on the table. The gunshot crack cut through the rising babble. "Panic will not help!" He turned to the officer. "Please do the best you can, Citizen Major. The Republic's future is in your hands."

And in the hands of the uncoordinated efforts of four separate and distinct guard forces, two of which are fighting each other, he thought.

They'd taken very careful precautions against all the armed forces close to the Committee. The problem seemed to be that the precautions had destroyed most of the ability of those forces to deal with anyone except each other.

At this moment, Rob S. Pierre wished very much that he believed in God. Because right now, there didn't appear to be anyone else he could get in touch with.


"Citizen Admiral," the Marine brigadier said. "There are four problems—four interlocking problems here."

Citizen Brigadier Gerrard Conflans was short but trim and broad in the shoulders, with long-fingered hands that gave an impression of strangler's strength. His face was set now, but you could see smile-marks at the corners of his eyes, and he had an unusual and flamboyant mustache.

His cursor moved over the streets of the city. "First, there are the mobs. Many of them are armed, and there are simply so many of them attacking so many targets that they make any movement impossible.

"Second, there are the Presidential, Capital, Committee and State Security forces. Many of them are actively engaged against each other, and all of them are out of effective communications with the Committee, unless someone's sending runners with hardcopy messages. They're unlikely to believe that a naval force appearing suddenly and without warning is anything but another threat.

"Third, there're the actual conspirators, and they've overrun the last Security Intervention units blocking them from attacking Committee HQ.

"Fourth and most serious, while the other units of the Capital Fleet don't know what the hell's going on and are apparently sitting this out, they'll certainly know we're doing something and may not believe us when we say that we're acting to protect the Committee. It'll certainly look like we're involved in whatever's going on down there. And they certainly have standing orders to prevent any People's Navy unit from undertaking offensive action against Nouveau Paris!"

McQueen nodded. The other officers and the Commissioner were utterly silent, their eyes fixed on her like so many laser links, scanning for information. The destiny of Haven balanced on a sword's edge.

"Thank you for that accurate summation, Citizen Brigadier," she said. "I will remark again that the insurrection seems to have been started by LaBoeuf's Levelers, and that they make Cordelia Ransom look like a benign moderate. As Citizen Brigadier Conflans has outlined, frustrating their attack presents us with multiple problems. I believe, however, that we can kill a number of birds with one stone here."

"Citizen Captain Norton," she said. The commander of Rousseau came to attention. "I want you to take this ship down. As far down as you safely can, in a stable circuit over the capital. That may—should—make anyone else hesitate about firing on us. Because anything that misses will go straight down into the built-up area."

There were a few winces. A fifty-megaton explosion in space was no great matter, unless it happened to be near the pinprick dot of a ship. A fifty-megatonner going off on a planetary surface didn't bear thinking about, and an X-ray warhead would be like driving the red-hot poker of God into the surface over and over again.

"You will also," she went on, "rig for planetary bombardment—kinetic energy strikes."

"Within the city limits, Citizen Admiral?"

"That's where the potential targets are. You will of course commence strikes only on my explicit order." Her voice had the mechanical precision of an industrial forging hammer as it went on: "Citizen Brigadier, you will prepare to embark the Rousseau's full complement of Marines in everything that will get to the surface. You are tasked with securing the perimeter of Committee HQ and holding it against all comers."

"Citizen Admiral," he said quietly. "As I said, there are over a million rioters attacking the Government district."

"That will also be taken care of," McQueen said, her face like something carved from crystal. She looked up at Fontein. "I assume that you will authorize all necessary measures, Sir?"

The silence stretched. "All necessary measures, Citizen Admiral," Fontein said. "Any and all measures necessary are hereby authorized in advance at your discretion. I will so record it."

"Excellent," McQueen said. "Most excellent, Sir." She turned to her staff. "This is now a purely military operation."

"Ah . . . Citizen Admiral," the Marine officer said. "With a million citizens in the streets, how can the situation be considered purely military?"

McQueen's face showed expression for the first time in the meeting. The gesture that drew her lips back over her teeth was not in the least like a smile.

"Don't think of it as millions of citizens, Citizen Brigadier Conflans," she said. "Think of it as having a very, very large target selection." She met his eyes. "This is essential to the future of the People's Republic. Am I understood?"

He nodded, and her eyes went back to the display. And when it's over, a good many of the imbeciles who've kept Haven from having a rational domestic policy will be . . . no longer a factor in the equation. 

"Citizen Captain Norton, in the event of any People's Navy unit firing on you, you will respond vigorously in such manner as to best defend this vessel. I will personally command this operation from a forward HQ on one of the pinnaces. Now let's get cracking on the planning side, because we have about ten minutes to do it."


The HQ building's internal net was still functioning. Rob S. Pierre watched the display monitor on the wall with a show of clinical detachment as a massive armored door blew a hundred and fifty stories below them. The muted roar over the sound membranes came a perceptible instant sooner than the feeling beneath his feet.

"Why don't they just blow the building?" Cordelia Ransom asked.

"Decapitation," the Chairman said absently. "If someone else is sitting here and giving orders when the system comes back up—particularly if they have a familiar face or two—"

Nobody looked much more guilty than anyone else. Pity. But then, everyone at this level had first-rate acting ability.

"— nearly everyone will go right on obeying orders on sheer reflex. If there's nothing but a large glowing hole in the ground, the admirals will fight it out with each other for who gets to pick the bones. You know, we've got to do something about all this, presuming we survive the next couple of hours."

The glow died down on the pickup. Plasma bolts were coming through the door, and figures in body armor. Pulser darts tore into them, turning the entrance into a mist of blood and body parts. Then something flashed through and there was a blaze of white light and the pickup went dead. When the screen came back on, it showed Chairman's Guards piling up office furniture in an undamaged corridor further up from the sub-basement. A harassed-looking officer turned for an instant as the pickup indicated somebody with a command override was taking the transmission.

"They're loaded for bear, Sir," she said. Must think it's her CO, Pierre realized. "And there's a lot of them. We can't get out to ground level to cut them off because of the crowds. But we'll make them pay for every foot they take as long as we've got anyone standing."

Pierre felt himself nodding, and an uncomfortable tightness in his chest. They were selling their lives to buy him time.

"You know," he said aloud—the unit wouldn't carry anything back— "I don't think we could have gotten this sort of performance from the Guard by holding their families hostage, even if they are an elitist remnant of the old regime. And equipped only with light personal weapons."

Various expressions rippled across the knots of Committee members scattered through the room. He saw with a faint nausea that they were still divided into the usual factional clusters. How relevant those would be when the attackers burst into the room and started shooting them down was moot. Of course, if they waited long enough to put on show trials, at least half the Committee would be clamoring to switch sides.

I wanted to help Haven, make it great again, he whispered in the back of his mind. I had to act, the Legislaturalists were riding us right down the river of entropy in a ship with engines dead. I had to do it. 

That was the problem. Every single step had seemed inevitable and inescapable all along the way. And it had brought them to this.

"Let 'em have it!" the officer on the other end of the pickup said. "Let 'em—"

Pulser rifles snarled. A plasma gun answered them, and droplets of burning metal and plastic scattered backward. A man rolled past the pickup's lens, beating at the molten stuff that coated his legs. Another rose to fire over the burning barricade and toppled backward with his helmet and brains splashing away from his headless trunk. Pierre forced back the hand that would have turned off the input. He deserved to have to watch this. They all did, but he suspected that most of his dear friends and associates would never know why.


"This is going to require careful coordination," McQueen said, in the pinnace's co-pilot seat.

The figures in the screens nodded at her. She smiled at them; it was rare, unexpected, and had just the effect she was looking for.

"Actually, it's going to require a fucking miracle, but we're going to do it anyway, people. Now let's go."

The pinnace rolled and dived. The huge white-and-blue shield of the planet grew before her, swelling with alarming speed. The pinnace had been made for high-speed atmosphere transits, and the scanners compensated for the growing ball of incandescent air around it. Her mouth quirked. One side-benefit of the confusion the Leveler coup attempt had created was that Traffic Control was completely screwed up, along with the ground-based point defense systems.

"Orbital Fortresses Liberty and Equality are signalling." That was a relayed voice from Rousseau. "Citizen Captain, they demand we vacate prohibited space immediately."

Norton's voice came through, harsh and authoritative. "Record. Rousseau is acting in aid to the civil power, under the direct instructions of the Committee. Any interference in her mission will be treated as treason to the People's Republic. End."

"Wait," McQueen said over the relay. Good man, she thought. Not imaginative, but extremely solid. "Sir, would you please sign off on that for the transmission as well, as Citizen Captain Norton's Commissioner?" Fontein nodded and added his voice.

He'd insisted on coming down with her. He hadn't asked aloud, but . . . she leaned towards him. "Because I'm going to be the one who handled this situation," she said softly. "Not commanded it from orbit, not ordered it done, but the one who did it."

Fontein nodded. That would also make her the one who'd saved the Committee . . . if, that was, she intended to save the Committee and not complete its execution, possibly as a "mistake" in the strike that took out the Levelers. He knew her people would follow her whatever decision she made.

"Speed down to Mach Seven and dropping," the pilot reported. "Nothing so—acquisition! We're being painted!"

McQueen nodded to herself as the shock cages clamped around them and the world outside spun with crazed, chaotic viciousness. Something whined past, dark and solid for a fleeting instant. Close enough to see it, by God, she thought. That meant really inspired piloting. The pinnace juddered in its path as a warhead blew up behind them, and static hashed an electromagnetic pickup.

"Maniacs," she said softly. They were using nuke warheads within the atmosphere. Not total fools, though. They hadn't put all their faith in the logic bomb to keep the Navy from intervening while their coup went on.


Rob S. Pierre kept his eyes on the wall display, hands kneading at the gray streaks over his temples. Everyone else was looking now too, and the fighting was close enough that the building shuddered continuously with the outrages being done to its structural members. Anguish shouted from the speakers: "Don't, George, don't!"

The pickup showed a wounded man slumped back against a ceramacrete-armored door. He looked up, his face knotted into a rictus, and worked doggedly at the hose connector that lay across his lap. A fumbling grip undid it at last, and the man's head slumped back in exhaustion against the metal. His tongue licked lips gone paper-dry with the thirst that blood-loss brings, but his eyes opened again as cautious steps sounded in the corridor outside. The battered, scorched furniture had been luxurious once, and the floor was covered in a pile of deep sea-green carpet. It sopped up the rather thick liquid that gouted out of the armored cable, leaving it an inconspicuous spreading stain rather than the slippery mass it would have been on bare pavement or metal.

Body-armored figures swarmed forward down the corridor, groups forming fire-parties and then leapfrogging forward. Pulser rifles whined as they "checked" the rooms to either side with fire, and an occasional grenade blasted fragments and dust out into the corridor itself. The view narrowed as the man leaning against the door let his head droop; all they could see then was the circle of sopping carpet, and the dead bodies scattered across it, insurrectionist and Chairman's Guard.

"We need the access code, traitor," a voice said, cold with hate.

The man looked up again, seeing his own bloody face reflected in the visor-shield of the enemy standing over him. Boots kicked away weapons.

"Don't, George! Don't do it!" Evidently the attackers could hear that clearly too, and they looked up and around. The one with the visored helmet laughed.

"Don't be brave, George—be smart." He ground his foot down on the prone man's shattered leg, bringing a convulsive moan of agony. "The access code! Give it to us, now!"

"I'll . . . give . . ." the man wheezed.

The visored face nodded, bent to hear. At that range Pierre could see through the visor, see the flicker of horror as the wounded man's fingers dropped the lighter to the carpet and he realized what was about to happen.

"Don't George, don't—it's useless, don't—"

An instant's searing flame showed through the pickup, and then the rippling bubble of melted plastic. A long hollow boooomm sounded through the fabric of the building, echoing up through ventilators and elevator shafts. Two dozen pairs of eyes swivelled to the exterior view, and halfway up the tower they saw windows punched out in an echoing bellow of flame.

Saint-Just was busy at his console. "That was part of the automated defenses," he said, in his colorless bureaucrat's voice. "Inoperable. George Henderson led a party back down through the shafts to enemy-held floors to try and activate it manually." The pale, passionless eyes rose for a second. "He succeeded."

"How long until we have the systems back?"

"One hour forty-five minutes," the head of Security said. "Captain Henderson has bought us some time; besides their casualties, they'll have to wait for that level to cool, or bring in firefighting equipment. On the other hand, we've also suffered very severe losses. It's going to be a tossup."

Not for the first or last time that day, Rob S. Pierre wished that he could pray.


Liberty and Equality massed fourteen million tons each, more than twice the weight of a superdreadnaught like the Rousseau, and they were armored and armed to match. Ordinarily a close-range engagement would crush the ship like a food pack under a power-armor boot. Their problem was that they couldn't approach the planetary surface as closely as a mobile ship. Everything they could throw towards Rousseau would also be thrown towards the planetary surface where their families lived. Even fanatics would hesitate at that prospect.

"Hesitate, but not forever," Captain Robert Norton muttered to himself, leaning back in the command chair. Aloud: "Hold station."

"Citizen Captain." His Tac officer spoke, and Norton glanced at the appropriate repeater.

Goddammit, Citizen ThisandthatRank not only sounds ridiculous, it's cumbersome when you're in a hurry, some distant part of his mind fumed. Probably the irritation was comforting because it was so familiar. Few of the officers who'd served before the Revolution were comfortable with the new titles.

"They're launching their LACs," he said, watching the display's schematics indicate small vessels swarming out of the fortresses' holds. "Logical."

Light Attack Craft were designed for close-in point defense. They had no armor to speak of, no sidewalls, and only a single light energy gun and strap-on pods of single-shot missiles. Putting them up against a superdreadnaught was like sending ants against an elephant. But ants could sting, and enough of them . . . and he was a stationary target, too.

"Launch," he said. "Let's try and close up the net."

The huge ship shuddered as her broadside batteries went to salvo, and scores of heavy missiles streaked across the screens. Engagement ranges were insanely close; the forts would have cut him into drifting wreckage if they'd dared use their laser and graser batteries, but Rousseau was shooting up. They might still blast him, if they were desperate enough. He glanced around. Point defense was active, treating the LACs as if they were missiles themselves. Insane. Nobody was going to have time to react to anything.

"Closing," the Tac officer said. "Ten point two seconds to launch. Mark."

Spots of brilliant light began to flare silently against the blackness and unwinking stars of space; the tank listed them as nuke warheads, the stabbing flicker of bomb-pumped X-ray swords, the fuzzier explosions of fusion bottles rupturing under the massive fists of Rousseau's energy batteries. Machines were dueling with machines, and men and women died.

And here I am a sitting duck, he thought bitterly. Nothing for a captain to do; the ship couldn't maneuver.

He looked to another screen, this one showing his assigned targets for bombardment. That made him lick dry lips. Insane, he thought again. Kinetic energy bombardment, warheadless missiles fired straight down at—literally—astronomical velocities. When they met the surface, mass in motion would be converted into heat. They didn't need warheads. The thought of that type of strike on a populated area, on Nouveau Paris, for Christ's sake, made his testicles try to crawl up back inside his abdomen.

"We didn't start it," he reminded himself. The gang of madmen who did start it had used nukes in a populated zone, and that showed you the sort of thing they'd do and order him to do if they got their hands on the levers of power.

He still tasted vomit at the thought of what he had to do, and what the Admiral was going to order herself. McQueen, when I'm fighting the Manties, I'd trust you to the limit. She was a hard CO, but she got the job done and she didn't flinch herself. Can I trust you here? 

Rousseau's eight million tons leaped and shuddered as an energy lance went through her sidewalls and blasted into her armor.

"Damage control," he said in a metronome-steady voice.

"Compartments twenty-six through eight open to vacuum. Graser one down."



There was no need to look at the display screens anymore, though some still did. Rob S. Pierre sat with his hands on the table, looking ahead, ignoring the worried glances and whispers where Oscar Saint-Just and Cordelia Ransom had their heads together.

Everyone looked up as a couple of Security noncoms came through the door, their arms full of pulse rifles.

"Citizens," one of them said. "It's time."

They began handing the weapons out.


"Hit them," McQueen said.

They were coming in over the city of Nouveau Paris at twenty-five thousand meters, and even from here the pillars of smoke were obvious. One or two of the huge towers must have fallen to create the gaps she saw. There was an ominous-looking crater, and her skin crawled as she watched the readout. Oh, it wasn't really a very large weapon—subcrit squeeze job—and it was designed to be relatively clean, but "relatively" was the operative word there. She remembered an old, old grisly joke: A tactical nuclear weapon is one that explodes a thousand kilometers downwind of you.

"That used to be Regional Intervention Battalions HQ, didn't it?" she said.

"Yes." Fontein's voice was flat.

Fourteen thousand people, she thought. More than a good-sized fleet engagement usually killed. 

"Status on the crowds," she said.

"They've thinned out. Everyone must have gotten the idea that something serious is going on, and the fun-seekers have gone home," one of her staffers said. "We estimate that only two hundred thousand are still out."

Still a fairly substantial number, even in a city with a population of thirty-two million.

"These must be the real Leveler militants. They're all in or near Committee HQ and adjacent parts of the Government district. No particular organization, but plenty of arms."

"Citizen Brigadier Conflans."

"Citizen Admiral, I can't proceed until the . . . mob . . . is cleared out of my way. Dropping ground troops into that would be like throwing a handful of buckshot into a barrel of snot."

"And I can't do that until the airspace over the Avenue of the People is safe," she said thoughtfully. Then on another channel: "Citizen Captain Norton, execute."

"Ma'am—" there was an edge of desperation in his voice. "Ma'am, those are government units."

McQueen throttled an impulse to shout. She couldn't force Norton to obey her; all bets were off, and everyone was proceeding on personal convictions and loyalties. Norton had been with her all through the fighting around Trevor's Star; he'd stayed calm when the Rousseau's bridge was blown open to space and they were slugging it out with Manty superdreadnoughts at energy-weapon range and a main fusion bottle started to go critical. . . .

"Bob," she said quietly, "we can't spare the time to convince them of our bona fides, and they'll fire on us. There's no time. Clear our way, but whatever you do, we're going in."

The voice that answered might as well have been a robot's. "Affirmative, Citizen Admiral. Initiating."

Someone gasped as a solid bar of white light stretched down from heaven; air riven to ionized gas, and fragments of ablative shielding. The bar touched earth, and a pattern of shocked-white fury reached out from that point. The shock wave moved after it, and buildings rippled and blew away like straw around it.

"God have mercy on anyone within half a klick of any of those."

"Civilians," she said to nobody in particular, "call this sort of thing a surgical strike. Sort of like surgery with a chain-saw."

"Two," someone murmured. Another bar of light; she looked away, blinking at the after-images behind her eyelids. "Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven." A pause. "Eight."

"Citizen Admiral," Norton's voice said. "Liberty and Equality have opened fire with their energy armaments." Another pause, and surprise in his tone: "Fraternity is opening fire on them."

"Get out of there, Bob. You've done all you can." She switched channels. "Prepare to execute, Citizen Brigadier Conflans." To her own tiny flotilla of pinnaces: "Let's convince the Leveler militants they're in the wrong line of work. Execute Grapeshot."


Many of the crowd that filled the Avenue of the People for two kilometers were in a holiday mood; the police officers hanging from the street-lamps on either side, or twitching on the points of the decorative wrought-iron fences around gardens added to the festive air. There was still fighting going on towards the three-hundredth floor of the Committee's tower, but they didn't have to do anything in particular. A few of the more energetic were amusing themselves by dragging out civil servants from the lower floors of the towers on either side, and giving them impromptu People's Justice. Others passed bottles around, sang the war-chants of the Conspiracy of Equals, or simply stood or sat and waited. It wouldn't be long now.

Many of them looked up at the turbine wail. Police vehicles had tried overflights an hour ago, and a few of them had even gotten away, but the falling debris from the others had been dangerous. Leveler cell-leaders at the fringes of the street barked into their communicators.

Some of the mob might have had time to realize the nature of the pepper-flake tiny loads the pinnaces were dropping. None of them had time to run before the tens of thousands of fragmentation loads from the cluster munitions reached their preprogrammed height and exploded in a long surf-wall of white fire. Each of them threw thousands of pieces of jagged ceramic shrapnel into the air, cutting across the crowd at chest-height at thousands of meters per second. Where they struck blood and flesh and bone splashed, divided into a spray of damp matter as liquid as the blood alone.

The crowd was huge, more than eighty thousand on this avenue alone. The laws of probability and various obstacles assured there were more than enough left alive to scream as the pinnaces began their second run.

One man managed to stagger back to his feet and fumble at the load across his back. Blood was running down into his eyes, and there was a wetness when he tried to breathe, but his hands still functioned.


"They're running, Ma'am," the pilot begged, forgetting himself and the presence of Citizen Commissioner Fontein. "They're running."

"And I want them to keep on running for a long, long time," McQueen said softly. "All their lives, in their heads. How do you think those bodies got to hanging from those lamp-posts, son? We'll make another pass, with the pulsers, slow and level. All pinnaces, one more pass. Citizen Brigadier Conflans, we've cleared your way for you. Now go in there and make it worth something."

The pinnace screamed up in a near-vertical turn, passing near the scarred, smoking side of the Committee tower, then looped over again and began another run down the Avenue of the People. This time she was working from the rear of the crowd forward, towards the building the mob had hoped to overrun. To either side of her nose heavy tri-barrel pulsers raved in long spears of white light, sending thousands of heavy explosive projectiles down into the street below. Bodies living and dead blew apart, and the ground-cars and pavement below them offered little more resistance as they erupted into volcanoes of shredded metal and stone. Lime in the concrete burned white under the howling lash of projectiles driven to thousands of meters a second by the impeller coils. Wrecks trailed the clean blue flame of burning hydrogen in the pinnace's wake.

"Target acquisition!" the pilot shouted as an alarm shrieked and blinked red from his control panel. He rammed his throttles home.

The pinnace leapt forward. Something slammed into its side, and one of the massive air-breathing turbines lurched free and pinwheeled away. Admiral Esther McQueen watched it slam into the side of a tower. Her last thought was an angry impatience. She wouldn't even get to see if her gamble had succeeded or failed.


"Citizen Chairman," the Marine said, saluting. "I am pleased to report that this building is under control. I must ask you all to remain here until we've—"

"Got it!" someone shouted. "Sir, the net's back up! We killed the fucking ghost!"

"Excuse me," Rob S. Pierre said to the Marine brigadier. He turned and took two steps to the terminal, sat, and began giving orders. It was twenty minutes before he sat back.

"Citizen Committeeman Saint-Just," he said. "Perhaps you could tell me exactly what happened, at this point?"

Saint-Just swallowed; he'd just allowed the most massive Security breach in the new regime's history. Of course, Pierre thought behind the mask of his face. He knows I know everyone makes mistakes. But he can't really be certain of that. A wry smile tugged at one corner of his mouth; it would be an odd start to his New Look policy to have his second-in-command shot, anyway.

The head of State Security had the Marine officer in tow; the man was looking guarded, which any sensible officer would at being in this close contact with the Committee.

"Now, Citizen Brigadier . . . Conflans?" The officer nodded. There were scorchmarks and rusty-looking dried fluids across the arm and chest of his combat armor. "Perhaps you could explain exactly how your most timely assistance came about?"

The Chairman's brows rose until he felt his forehead ache. "Timely indeed," he murmured when the man was finished. "Esther McQueen, eh?" He looked at Saint-Just; the Security chief nodded. And I was supposed to interview her this afternoon. He looked at a screen; three hours almost to the minute since this began. He felt as if it had been that many decades . . . and where had he managed to get that bruise, or tear his jacket?

"Well, where is the lady?" he said. "I gather from you and Citizen Captain Norton that she isn't on Rousseau?"

"No, Citizen Chairman," the Marine said. The fierce, handsome face behind the sweeping mustaches suddenly looked pinched. "Her pinnace went down while it was directing the final operations. We haven't . . ."

Rob S. Pierre looked at his Security chief. "Find her for me, Oscar. I think the lady has gone from a possibility to a certainty, and it would be excessive irony if she were dead."

The calm, pale bureaucrat's face nodded. "Of course, Citizen Chairman. At once."


Esther McQueen realized that death was much like space; very dark, with flashes of light in infinite depth.

After a second she realized she was dangling upside-down and watching electronic equipment self-destruct. The battle steel hull of the Naval pinnace had withstood a collision that would have left a civilian vehicle travelling at its velocity smeared across the side of the tower. The remains of the pinnace were sticking into the side of it now, like a knife thrust halfway into a giant cheese. A gaping rent directly below her showed the three hundred and fifty story drop to the pavement of the People's Avenue . . . and if the buckled shock harness gave way, she'd drop straight down to make her smeared remains one with the multi-thousand victims of her strafing run.

That made her laugh. The tearing pain of that brought her fully back to consciousness with an involuntary whimper, enough to feel the pinnace shifting in its stony cradle. More lights danced behind her eyes as she froze; intellectually she knew that a seven-hundred-ton pinnace wasn't likely to shift and fall because a short, slight woman moved, but her gut was harder to convince. Carefully, slowly, she raised one hand to her face and wiped her eye, then pushed back the flap of scalp that was hanging loose. Coagulating blood held it in place.

Ribs, she thought. She wasn't actually coughing blood, so the splintered ends weren't likely to kill her in the immediate future . . . unless she moved vigorously. Which, since I'm hanging upside-down over a long, long drop, I probably will have to do. All the other figures she could see were immobile, either unconscious or dead.

All except People's Commissioner Fontein. His shock harness had broken even more thoroughly than hers, but it had broken away as a unit. The last fastening point had held, so far, and it swung him out over the gap in the pinnace's hull. As she watched he tried to reach for a dangling piece of wreckage, and the fastener gave a small, tooth-gritting wail.

"Fontein," she said—whispered, rather.

"You're alive?" he blurted.

"Temporarily." She grinned. The expression was ghastly in the bloody mask of her face. "Let's see how temporarily . . . how badly are you hurt?"

He looked terrible, his face and what she could see of his body a mass of bruises and dried blood; tear-tracks cut half-clean runnels through the matter on his face, except where the skin had been abraded away and oozed raw. She was almost glad that her nose was broken and swollen shut; she had no wish to smell this charnel-house of her own making.

"I'm . . . no broken bones except for this." He twitched his left hand, and she saw that the little finger was at right angles to the others and swollen to sausage-size.

"Good . . . for . . . you," she wheezed painfully. Christ, but this hurts. No matter. Get going, bitch. "Is the release catch on your shock harness working?"

"I think so. I'd really rather not find out, though, Citizen Admiral."

Fontein looked down. An acrobat in high training might be able to catch something in the half-second before he fell clear and down a long, long way. A middle-aged man of sedentary habits with serious injuries might as well flap his arms hard on the way down, for all the good it would do him.

"Here's my plan," McQueen said, and laughed again, stopping herself with a shudder of agony as things moved and grated in her torso. "Sorry, classical reference. Getting a little light-headed. You swing across and grab my hand with your right. Then, as soon as I've got you, you hit the release—do it fast, so you don't lose momentum. I'll swing you on across to there," she said, indicating a section of wall plating with dangling cables festooned across it. "Then you can go and get help for the rest of us."

Fontein looked at her blank-eyed for a moment. Then he spoke: "You don't give up very easily, do you, Citizen Admiral McQueen?"

"White Haven didn't think so."

He nodded. "On the count of three."

"One." The Commissioner heaved his weight backward, like a child on a swing.


She closed out everything except the hand she would have to grasp.


It jarred into hers, and she heard a click-snap and falling clatter as her fingers clenched. Then she was screaming, screaming and tasting iron at the back of her throat as Fontein's weight came onto her outstretched arm and wrenched her savaged body against the unyielding frame of the shock harness. Blackness surged over her, welcome as the memory of her mother's arms, then receded into a red-shot alertness. She spat to clear her mouth; that was blood this time. A steady trickle of it, if not an arterial gusher. The bone spears had hit something.

"See," she said to Fontein's shock-white face where he clung to the wreck's wall not more than an arm's length away. "We really do accomplish things when we cooperate, Citizen Commissioner."

Then the blackness returned.


Rob S. Pierre looked down at the stretcher. "Will it endanger her life?" he said.

"No, Sir," the medtech said unwillingly.

"Then I insist." He stepped back.

Esther McQueen's eyes opened, and she sighed once in blissful relief; the stretcher's lights blinked as it swept away her pain. Her eyes moved.

"Gerrard?" she said, her voice faint but steady. The Marine went to one knee and looked at her, his face warring between relief and revulsion. "The butcher's bill?"

"Light, Skipper," he said. "By the time we hit them they were running on empty; the Chairman's Guard bled them bad."


"Some damage, but Citizen Pierre called them off in time."

She nodded again, and the Chairman of the Committee of Public Safety stepped forward. "Citizen Admiral McQueen," he said. "The People's Republic, the Committee, and I myself are in your debt. Your prompt action . . . we'll talk more about this later. I already intended to have an interview with you today, but tomorrow will do just as well."

"Thank you . . . Sir," she said. The eyes began to wander again, and he stepped back and motioned the techs to take her away.

He looked around the wreckage of the Committee's tower. The other members were dispersing about their various tasks; it would be some time before they got this mess cleaned up and returned to the agenda he'd intended to spend the day on.

"But we will get back to it, by God," he whispered, and looked out the gaping windows over his city.

They were his people out there; weak and foolish and stupid and short-sighted, but they were as others made them. He would remake them, and give them back their pride. If he had the right tools.

He looked after McQueen's stretcher. Any good tool kit needed a knife, a sharp one. If you cut yourself using it, that was your fault, not the tool's.


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