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Deck Load Strike


Roland J. Green

If maps could sneer, Major Shuna Ryder would have expected the one facing her to do so. Or maybe something even less polite, such as spitting in her eye.

It certainly displayed as fine a collection of discouraging data as she had ever seen, at least since the efficiency report filed on her when she got crosswise with the detachment commander aboard Warspite. Her career had survived that report, however. So her mission on Silvestria ought to survive the map.

The map was a flat-board digital display, several generations behind even the most primitive holo, but the best that the Canmore Republic could make available to its Manticoran "advisers." But then, the Republic was only a few generations removed from paper maps, and she'd even seen one in the Guard Museum that was supposed to be inked on a fish bladder.

All five million people of Silvestria's two nations were perversely proud of the length and depth of their neo-barbarian period. However, Ryder doubted that on a planet with so many trees, they had ever lost the art of papermaking. Although since fish were as thick in the sea as trees were on land, maybe somebody actually had used fish organs.

Certainly both fish and trees were well on their way to restoring a technological civilization on Silvestria. In another generation, the Canmore Republic and the Kingdom of Chuiban would have been able to decide on their own whether to roll out the red carpet for off-world allies, or toss them unceremoniously into the nearest body of water (which was seldom far away, in either nation).

Unfortunately, Silvestria was close enough to the Erewhon Wormhole Junction to be of interest to anyone concerned about the status of Erewhon. This naturally included the Erewhonese, the more so in that they imported vast quantities of aquacultural and forestry products from Silvestria in a fleet of massive bulk carriers that made a highly visible component of the Erewhon Merchant Marine.

(Not so highly visible, but not escaping the Manticorans, was that some of the bulk carriers were rather over-built for their work, with features that smelled ever so slightly of Solarian League naval dockyards. A bribe to the Erewhonese, a reserve in case the Sollies ever needed troop lift in this area, or something else entirely?)

Still more unfortunately, Silvestria wasn't going to get that generation. A T-year and a half ago, the long expansion of the People's Republic of Haven had run so hard into the obstinate independence of the Star Kingdom of Manticore that long-simmering tension had flared into open war.

Erewhon's allies and patrons, the Solarian League, had also coveted the Manticore Junction. Although the Sollies were a little less crude about it than the Peeps, there was little love lost between the Assembly on Old Earth and the Star Kingdom, and they were definitely neutral in a way that let them transfer technology to the Peeps. Perhaps even worse, from Manticore's viewpoint, the League's security concerns made it extremely nervous about anyone intervening anywhere close to any of the Junctions that it already claimed or—as in the case of Erewhon—controlled indirectly through military and economic treaties.

So even when it became obvious that the Peeps were putting down a mission in the Kingdom of Chuiban, the Star Kingdom could not intervene as openly. Fortunately, it didn't have to. One of the Admiralty's secret assets, carefully saved up for just such a situation as this, was covert advisers like Major Ryder and her team.

"Break ranks and gather round," the major said. It took a moment for the other Royal Marines and the Royal Navy contingent to stop looking around for the vast multitude that Ryder seemed to be addressing. Thirty men and women sitting in chairs could hardly form ranks in the first place!

"We were all there for Exercise Juno," she said, when the team had formed a semi-circle around the map. "Those of us who weren't with the shore party made the inland run. What do the Republic's prospects look like to you? Anyone?"

Master Chief Sick Berth Attendant Loren Bexo replied first, which did not surprise Major Ryder. He knew more about healing casualties than any other two SBA's she'd ever known. He also knew more than he would usually admit about inflicting the casualties in the first place. Why he was no longer an Assault Marine was his personal business, but that background made him even more invaluable to the Silvestria mission than he would have been otherwise.

"If the next mobile force to get ashore anywhere within two hundred klicks north or south of Port Malcolm is real, instead of simulated, the Republic is hip deep in hexapuma shit," Bexo said. "Anything brigade-sized stands a good chance of encircling the city and cutting off all three passes to the Highlands."

"What about the guns at the passes?" a Navy lieutenant (j.g.) said. "Couldn't they keep the passes open?"

"Not against targets in the forest, unless they had very good aerial observation," Ryder said. Probably not even then, she added mentally. Silvestria was short of heavier metals like iron; steel was expensive. The Guard's best artillery was assigned to the coastal defenses of Port Malcolm; what was left to hold the passes would not have raised eyebrows on an Old Earth battlefield centuries before the Diaspora.

"The Guard can block the roads to the Highlands by cutting down trees across them," a Marine sergeant pointed out. "As a matter of fact, I understand that's part of the plan anyway."

Ryder had a visceral reaction to both wagging tongues and dressing down subordinates in public. The two reactions fought to a standstill, giving an ache to her stomach and an edge to her voice.

"A thoroughly secret part, unless I've forgotten our briefing from the Director of the Guard. Which he was courteous enough to give us personally."

"Ah, well—I got a personal—briefing—from somebody who's on the tree-chopping crew. And she pointed out the problem, too. There's not enough air lift to get the Malcomers upland, let alone the rest of the Lowlands. They'd have to go by road, and fallen trees would block any ground vehicles, not just a mobile enemy."

And the one railroad could be broken by blowing any one of five bridges from the air or even from orbit. Ryder sighed. It looked as if the sergeant had fraternized but given no more than he gained—which was not a bad way for such an affair to go, and besides, she was not really in a position to throw stones.

"I have to agree," Ryder said. "No harm done this time, Sergeant, but everybody remember about mistimed curiosity. If we didn't have the goodwill of the Guard, we wouldn't be even close to having six hundred combat-ready Sea Fencibles. The Republic is giving us everything they can afford and maybe a little more. We all have some sort of body armor, but half their artillery crews are still wearing fatigues and helmets!

"So don't let's us embarrass them unnecessarily, all right?"

Everyone agreed enthusiastically, maybe even sincerely, but she saw the reservations on every face. It would take more than cooperation, it would take miracles, to give the Canmore Republic some sort of offensive capability before Carl Euvinophan's private army was ready to cross the Central Sea and become that non-simulated mobile brigade.

Then the red on the map would be a trail of equally non-simulated bodies. It almost helped that the oldest tradition of the Marine advisers (nearly ten years old) was to be among the corpses when the smoke cleared. That meant fewer hard decisions to make during the fighting, and none at all afterward.


The Kingdom of Chuiban's main western port was not blacked out. That would have made no sense, even if the Canmore Republic had possessed a halfway-decent satellite network or even a reliably friendly eye aboard the orbital freight station. A satellite net or the station would have been over Buwayjon several times before the tanks was were safely under cover, and tanks gave off impressive heat signatures even from orbit.

Fortunately, the freight station was under the control of the foolish, decadent, elitist, and obstinately neutral Erewhonese. They kept it as neutral as they were. Also, they had not sold either contender on Silvestria more than a few basic weather satellites.

When somebody on Silvestria suddenly flourished a satellite network, it would be the Kingdom of Chuiban. And the satellites would work—Citizen People's Commissioner Jean Testaniere had handpicked the models himself, then personally run the diagnostic and maintenance tests on them. It might be considered dangerously elitist for a People's Commissioner to exhibit so much technical competence, but it was simply dangerous to trust one's life to electronics left in the hands of people who did not know one piece of diagnostic nanoware from another.

The first tanks were now turning off the pier and rolling up Mongkut Avenue, from which all civilian traffic had been barred by white-gloved Field Police. There were too many of them to all be from the city's modest Royal Army garrison; some of warlord Euvinophan's own Field Police company had to have arrived with the vehicle convoy.

A challenge floated through the thin mist, and a response came back. The challenger was the Commissioner's bodyguard, Citizen Sergeant Pescu of the State Security; the response came from Citizen Captain Paul Weldon, of the People's Navy.

Testaniere wondered how long Weldon had been in town. The commissioner hadn't heard the pinnace land, and both Weldon and his two pilots were fond of making a noisy entrance.

"Greetings, Citizen Captain," Testaniere said. They shook hands, the greeting of equals, although privately Testaniere wondered if the Citizen Captain would ever have risen above Lieutenant Commander under the Legislaturalist regime.

Testaniere was sure that he himself would have risen at least to foreman if he had stayed at the shop long enough. He had always had the self-confidence which comes with mastering a particular body of knowledge—which he was elitist enough to know was hardly universal among the ranks of the People's Commissioners, State Security, or even the armed forces of the People's Republic!

"Fraternal greetings to you, Citizen Commissioner," Weldon replied. He sniffed the air. "A fine night for our work, eh?"

"I could wish it were not quite so fine," Testaniere said. "A good thick fog would hide us from eyes closer than the Republic's."

"You doubt the loyalty and discretion of the people looking forward to the day of liberation from a monarchy?" Weldon's incredulity was not entirely an act.

Testaniere sighed. They had been over this ground often enough that he had lost his sense of humor about it. He would have to be careful, however, or he might become one of the first People's Commissioners to be informed on by his military counterpart! Ninety-nine times out of a hundred it went the other way, but they were many light-years from Nouveau Paris and Silvestria was an even bigger political joke than Testaniere's briefings had led him to expect.

In careful detail, he reminded Weldon that the monarchy was highly revered, and that much of Carl Euvinophan's support came from his blood connection with the royal house. Furthermore, it was possible to have legitimate doubts about how much liberating of anything Euvinophan was likely to do without a decisive victory over the Canmores to wave in the face of his enemies.

"Remember that on his mother's side he's descended from a king and on his father's from an Andermani soldier of fortune. That's not what I would have picked as a heritage for the perfect revolutionary."

That was stronger than Testaniere would have put it without the rumble and squeal of the tanks to cover his voice. He only hoped that Citizen Captain Weldon would not quote him anywhere it might be overheard. A vital part of using somebody like Carl Euvinophan as a puppet was to make sure that he never saw the strings until you had replaced them with unbreakable monofilament and preferably shoved a pulse rifle into his belly to make sure he didn't try to untie the monofilament.

The citizen commissioner wondered what his superiors had been thinking of when they decided that the People's Republic should work with Euvinophan. Among other things, he had a good many Andermani comrades, some his own and some left over from his father, and the Andermani were no friends to the People's Republic unless they could see a profitable war in it. In Testaniere's opinion, Gustav Anderman had used hyper to fly back to the Dark Ages, and most of his people were still living there!

The last tank of the first company had passed, and Testaniere saw the tail lights of the earlier ones, turning off to the assembly area and dumps in the industrial park at the south end of the city. Each of the six tank companies had eighteen tanks, old San Martin models marginally survivable on a really modern battlefield, but still generations ahead of anything Silvestria could have produced locally. The full force of these track-borne antiques mounted a hundred and eight 10-cm plasma guns, two hundred and sixteen flex-mounted pulsers, and several hundred launchers for grenades, flares, smoke bombs, and chaff.

They could carry all of this on a battlefield at up to seventy klicks an hour, with turbines burning anything from diluted tar or wood alcohol up to the hydrogen-enriched synthetics already in the dump. They even had silent low-speed electric drives for stealth operations, running off power packs rechargeable from any commercial electric grid.

They and the similarly-powered armored personnel carriers were two legs of the tripod on which the fall of the Canmore Republic would be mounted. The third was an air arm, consisting of six converted refrigerated-cargo freighters and Captain Weldon's pinnace. They were intended more for scouting and airlift than for close support, but the freighters all had racks for ten tons of homemade iron bombs or an equivalent load of troops and supplies. The pinnace mounted two heavy bow-mounted tribarrel pulsers, a single three-centimeter laser (primarily for space use), and ventral hard points for up to forty assorted short-range missiles.

The People's Republic had given Carl Euvinophan the firepower to break up any concentrated resistance the Canmore Republic could offer, and as much freedom from fuel shortages, that ancient curse of armored troops, as the People's forces could spare for a backwater like Silvestria.

Another tank company was rolling up Mongkut Avenue. Testaniere wondered if when the three infantry battalions came in they would make a show riding on the tanks (as long as they didn't fall off), staying snugly out of the night mist in the carriers, or marching on foot. As might have been expected from anyone with even a trace of Andermani blood, Carl Euvinophan had polished the close-order drill and parade marching of his private army.

One could only hope that this had not been at too much cost to their tactical proficiency.

Citizen Captain Weldon watched another tank company roll past, then signaled to his Navy escort. "We'd better get back and relieve the guard on the pinnace," he said.

"Euvinophan hasn't detailed any of his Field Police to help you?" People's Commissioners weren't supposed to sound confused, but Testaniere couldn't help it. The security arrangements had been made more than one of Silvestria's thirty-five-day months ago.

"The ground troops aren't coming in until just a few days before the strike force moves out," Weldon said. "Tank crews and maintenance techs are coming in by rail in a few days, to have the vehicles on line, but the ground pounders are still back in the Royal City."

Now Testaniere knew that he was not merely confused but hallucinating. "I assume there is some logic behind this," he said quietly. This should really not be discussed in the open, although if the three infantry battalions weren't leaving Royal City until who knew when, it would not be a secret long.

"I don't know if Euvinophan has any plans he isn't telling us about," Weldon said. "But his message to me said that he wanted to avoid conflicts or leaks connected with the local population. A lot of the fishermen have been friendly to their opposites across the Central for centuries."

This was sufficiently true that if there'd been another port besides Buwayjon on the west coast of the Kingdom suitable for loading the strike force Testaniere would have proposed using it. Also, the main training camp for Euvinophan's troops was near Royal City.

Still, having all the heavy weapons out on a limb like this . . .

"I'll see what I can do about helping with security for the pinnace. Maybe I can spare a few State Security people to keep your people's noses out of the dirt."

"I'd be grateful," Weldon said. He almost saluted before he turned away.

Weldon was not likely to have much of a chance to be grateful. Testaniere had a "protective mission" of thirty State Security people nominally under his orders, although several of them were probably the local links in a chain of spies that ran all the way back to gloomy little offices in Nouveau Paris. Still, most of them knew enough about soldiering to give friendly advice to the Field Police—not the royal ones, who were fairly reliable, but Euvinophan's, who were one step up from street brawlers.

He'd been spared any SS people of that low caliber, which made him wonder if perhaps somebody higher up really hoped the mission to Silvestria would succeed. SS people who knew the basics of field soldiering were not unknown, but neither did they grow on bushes.

First step, a talk with Citizen Sergeant Pescu. Everybody listened to him (he could break bones if they didn't) and he knew most of his counterparts in Euvinophan's local Field Police. Advice would go over better, coming from him.

Then get an up to date map of what was parked where. The Canmores had no offensive capability that could handle even the Field Police, but sabotage by fishermen or royalist sympathizers was another matter.

Concentrate, concentrate, concentrate our heavy weapons. The fewer places we have to guard, the better.


The tourist guide hadn't listed the Hadrian's Wall as having private baths, but Shuna Ryder heard a shower running when she let herself into the room.

She was tempted to join Fernando under the spray, but half the fun of that vanished if it wasn't a surprise, and her lover had ears like a cat. He'd probably heard her come in even over the running water.

Ryder put down her overnight bag, sat down on the bed, and pulled off her boots. They were civilian, like the rest of her clothing, and a good deal more comfortable than anything the Admiralty had issued in her time in the Royal Marines. The Republic got a surprising amount of leather off its scruffy little cattle and big fluffy sheep, not to mention some domesticated local ungulates, and they had either remembered or rediscovered the art of making really sybaritic boots.

The bed was so comfortable that Ryder lay back and closed her eyes. What saved her from falling asleep was a few drops of water hitting her in the face. She opened her eyes and contemplated the well-muscled form of Fernando Chung.

Chung was also in civilian clothes—if a towel around his waist could be called clothing—but if he'd been in uniform he would have been recognized as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Erewhon Army. A sophisticated observer would have recognized Assault, Intelligence, and Ordnance qualification badges as well.

It would have taken someone with inside information to realize that he was Ryder's Erewhonese counterpart, the head of a somewhat smaller group of "advisers" sent to the same place on the same mission as Ryder's Manticorans. The exact genesis of Chung's assignment remained a bit hazy, given his government's official support for the Solarian League's "neutral" position, but his presence was a clear indication that the Erewhonese were rather more concerned over Peep ambitions in their direction than their Solarian allies. Or, as Ryder had quipped when they discovered one another's missions, "Great minds wobble and weave down the same gutter."

Fernando Chung had thrown that quip back at her on another occasion, the evening that they realized they were attracted to each other and were neither far apart in rank nor in the same chain of command. This didn't entirely kill the thrill of thumbing noses (and other parts) at distant superiors, but with proper security precautions they thought the companionship and the cooperation going literally hand in hand would harm no one.

An observer able to bug the room would have seen Shuna Ryder's normally sober look change to a broad grin at Chung's appearance. She put her right hand up to grip one of Chung's while her left hand reached for the towel.

He took the first hand, but backed hastily out of reach of the left.

"What's this, Sir? Do you need me to rinse your back?"

Chung did not smile. Ryder 's own grin faded. Her first thought was that someone at the Hadrian's Wall had recognized one or both of them. Port Malcolm had a good many small hotels and inns whose owners had civilized attitudes toward unmarried lovers, unlike too many of the Republicans, and so far she and Fernando had been lucky, but had their luck finally run out?

"I hate to break the rule about no business," Chung said. "But we have a situation." The tone made it clear that "we" meant the two advisory missions to the Canmore Republic, not Fernando and Shuna, the unlikely but ardent lovers.

"The Peeps?" Ryder looked around the room, batting her eyes in what she hoped would be taken as a seductive manner if anybody had a video bug hooked up.

"In a way," Chung said. He poked a foot under the bed and moved something back and forth. It sounded plastic-covered and heavy, and Ryder realized that Chung had probably brought a scrambler to counter any bugs. It would be a good one, too; the Erewhon mission had access to state-of-the-art Solarian League technology.

Unfortunately, so did the Peeps.

Ryder groaned. Nobody would mistake the sound for ecstasy. Indigestion or arthritis, possibly, but not any kind of serious pleasure.

"It's an opportunity as well as a problem," Chung said, knotting the towel in place and sitting down on the bed. He had not quite dried himself, and Ryder had visions of a soggy bed even if they finished the business quickly.

"I've heard that ancestral quotation at least fifty times," Ryder said.

"Not from me."

"No, it was a favorite of my senior tactical officer at the Staff College."

"Ah, he recognizes the wisdom of the ancient Chinese, then."

"If you don't either explain yourself or take off that towel, nobody will recognize a certain young Chinese-Latino Erewhonese. Not even your own mother."

"You would lose face with her by violence," Chung said. "Otherwise, I am sure she would approve of you, if only because I am finally not living like a eunuch—"

"That can be arranged," Ryder said. She sat up, with a look on her face that made Chung jump up and back hastily away from the bed.

"Your pardon, honored lady," Chung said. "I will be brief. The private army of the Peep's pet warlord is on the move. The heavy equipment is coming into Buwayjon, a shipload at least every night. It is being secured by Euvinophan's Field Police."

"Not his infantry?"

Chung looked like a treecat contemplating a new litter of healthy kittens. "No. The ground troops are still in the Capitol."

Ryder took a moment to assimilate this fact. "Guarding the White Elephant?"

"I don't think His Majesty would let Euvinophan's brawlers within ten klicks of the Elephant Temple," Chung said. "I have an alternative theory."

"He wants to pull a quick shuffle, keeping the components of his assault force separated so we won't recognize what they are until it's too late."

"Bravo!" He bent down and kissed her. She was tempted to grab for the towel, but refrained. She smelled more coming.

"That tactical officer could teach more than ancient Chinese sayings," Ryder said tartly. Then, slowly, she added, "I see what you mean by an opportunity. Without their ground component—"

"The heavy equipment is vulnerable to the kind of offensive your Sea Fencibles could launch."

"They're not my Sea Fencibles. If they're anybody's other than the Republic's they're as much yours as mine. Or was it another man of the same name who developed those conversion kits to make their assault rifles up to date, at least for cartridge weapons?"

"Guilty," Chung said. "Now, if you don't mind tactical planning as pillow talk . . . ?"

Usually, Ryder did. But somewhere in the last minute, it had struck her that this might be the last time together for her and Chung. Neither of them was the kind to stay in the rear when the people they had trained went into battle, for all the secrecy surrounding both their missions. Besides, if the Crown's forces helped Erewhon pull this particular basket of nuts out of the Peep fire, the Erewhonese would probably do their best to repair any minor leaks.

So she and Fernando need not hold back, either now or when the raid set out.

She stood up, flexing her knees so that she could kiss his lips instead of his nose.






Silvestria was a long way from Old Earth in the days of cryogenic colony ships and not a short haul even when would-be emigrants could hyper out and hope to reach their destination—or some destination—alive. This did not keep it from suffering the not-uncommon fate of a good many planets—two colonies, the one that started out first arriving second, and the one that started out second being down on the ground before the first hit planetary orbit.

However, both expeditions managed to run into trouble. The Pechili Consortium whose people founded the Kingdom of Chuiban sent them out in a ship whose cryogenic suspension killed two-thirds of the voyagers. The Conforming Wee Free Kirk which sent out a hypership to found the Canmore Republic bought the latest in ships and skimped on the supplies, so that the engine trouble which prolonged the voyage left the ancestors of the Republicans a short step from cannibalism. Weakened by hunger and facing a Silvestria winter, two-thirds of them also died with depressing speed.

Whatever the survivors knew about (and this shortly included each other), what they could build at once was on the level of black-powder rifles and sailing ships, for some centuries. However, one can catch a lot of fish from a sailing lugger and cut down a lot of trees with a simple steel axe or saw.

The Silvestrians' widely differing cultural traditions kept them from uniting. So did a mostly amiable pride in having each survived the neo-barbarian period largely on their own. But slowly life on the planet passed from survival to comfort, and from there to the accumulation of a capital surplus for investment in modern technology.

The population increase was also slow at first; the harsh climate was deadly to more children and old folk than anyone in later years cared to remember in too much detail. Then out-system trade and better nutrition began to work their customary magic, and Silvestria was no more than a generation from introducing orbital industries and life prolong when the Manticore-Haven war reached the stage that made both sides interested in planets they might otherwise have ignored for another century.

None of which explained to Shuna Ryder why the Canmore Republic called its military chief by the unwarlike name of Director of the Guard but still cultivated that most martial of instruments, the Highland pipes. Or why the Kingdom of Chuiban had gone so far as to bring several live cow white elephants and a large cryo-frozen supply of fertilized ova all the way from Old Earth? (She had seen the estimated cost for the interstellar elephant migration, and the Royal Navy could have built, equipped, stored, and crewed a superdreadnought for somewhat less.)

The Director of the Guard was named Jonathan Stuart Simpson. He listened to Ryder and Chung present their Staff Appreciation of the best way to deal with Euvinophan's threat with great attention, in total silence, and showing not so much as a tic or a blink while they were speaking. If this was a technique intended to intimidate them into fluffing key lines, it failed—at least with Colonel Chung.

Chung managed to pick up the pace nearly every time Major Ryder even thought of stumbling. This wasn't the first time that he'd made her wonder if he was as empathic as a treecat; remembering some of the other occasions would have made her blush, if she hadn't been facing the stony visage of the Director.

"I observe that you do not include much tactical air support, if indeed you mentioned any at all," was the Director's first remark when the two advisers concluded their presentation.

"No," Ryder said. This was an area where she had both strong opinions and, technical competence. "In the first place, your handful of armed atmosphere fighters are needed for defending the coast and the passes, in case we don't bring this off.

"In the second place, no air strike has ever been as really surgical as we'll need to be, for this job. We have to take out an objective well inside a city of sixty-five thousand friendly or neutral people, without any collateral damage beyond broken windows, cracked chimneys, and frightened children.

"Your pilots are good. They are not—" She stopped before she said "God," which would definitely put her on the wrong foot with an Elder of the Kirk. "They are not trained for close-support work. They would get a bomb wrong somehow, and hand Carl Euvinophan and the Peeps a whole bundle of support, free of charge."

Simpson nodded, in a way that seemed to close the matter. "I find it more than slightly marvelous that the Peeps find it possible to work with both a monarchy and an aristocratic mercenary," he said.

There Chung was more at home. Erewhon had always been closer to Silvestria, so its intelligence on the planet had been more complete. Chung also seemed to have had more civilian contacts in both nations than Ryder. And I wonder if any of those contacts were female? she asked herself, as the ghost of her gawky youth returned to hiss jealousy in her ear.

"The Peeps have a rigid ideological standard," Chung said. "But the farther from Nouveau Paris, the better a shrewd adviser team's chances of adjusting the doctrine to the situation. The Kirk is sudden death on adultery, but can they watch every couple a thousand klicks beyond the Dunedin Pass?"

For a moment Ryder thought that Chung had really stepped in the toxics, as Simpson's face twitched. Then she realized the Director was trying not to laugh.

"Do you know this from personal experience, either of you?" he finally asked.

"No," Chung said, with great decision. "The only woman I have known since coming to Silvestria is standing here beside me."

That gun nut is an empath!

"Have you taken the old oath of the Sacred Band of Thebes?" Simpson asked. Now he was actually smiling.

"Not precisely," Ryder said. "For one thing, we're a man and a woman. Or we were, the last time it mattered.

"Also, we can't lock shields because we don't use them on most battlefields anymore. Although I'd like to learn your shield and claymore technique, if I have time."

"The best instructor in the Republic happens to be the Guard's Deputy Director for Physical Training," Simpson said. "He is one of the people I will be consulting on the general strategic concept you have presented. Are you in a position to present more details of the forces you will require, if asked?

"You see, we have not waged offensive warfare outside the Republic since the Landing. Even the Sea Fencibles the Manticorans have trained are for counterattacking seaborne raids. The political harmony we have enjoyed with the Kingdom depends very heavily on their not seeing us as a threat."

"It also depends on putting Carl Euvinophan out of business, even if he isn't a pistol in the Peeps' pocket," Ryder said. She nearly got tangled in the p's, and saw that the Director was again trying not to laugh.

"Even if he doesn't turn the Republic over to the Peeps, he could set up as an independent ruler, bribing Chuiban subjects or Andermani immigrants with pieces of your economy. Once he had a power base in the ex-Republic, he might even use his mother's rights to try for the throne."

"Exactly," Chung said. "Then you'd have neo-barbarism all over again, until somebody intervened. At worst it would be the Peeps, at best Erewhon, with the Solar League and the Star Kingdom somewhere in the middle."

"You, Sir, speak as one not without wisdom," Ryder said, also trying hard not to laugh.

"Neither of you lacks wisdom," Simpson replied, standing up and reaching out a hand. Ryder noticed that it shook slightly, and the knuckles were red and enlarged. Simpson had to be less than eighty T-years, but Ryder knew she wouldn't look as old as he did until she reached her third century—if she lived that long.

They shook hands and left, picking up their escorts on the way out. Both of them trusted the Republic and the Guard to take all the standard precautions, but the Canmore Republic had not had to deal with suicidal assassins in the lifetime of any of its citizens. Neither Erewhon nor Manticore had been so fortunate.


Citizen Commissioner Testaniere was at his desk when Sergeant Pescu knocked and entered, followed shortly by another knock signaling the arrival of Citizen Captain Weldon.

Testaniere decided to deal with both men at once. It would be a good test of Weldon's commitment to egalitarian values, being briefed along with a sergeant. Both of them were also discreet. Or if they weren't, then the mission was a lost cause and word to that effect was doubtless already on its way homeward from one of the SS types.

Besides, dealing with both men at once was politer than asking them both to wait until he got out of the bathroom. The diet in western Chuiban ran more heavily to fish than anyone except the wealthy had been able to afford on the older worlds of the People's Republic for centuries. It was doubtless ultimately healthy, and Testaniere could recognize a cook's skill even if he didn't like the results.

Meanwhile, however, one of those results was a mild case of diarrhea.

"The tank crews are arriving," Weldon said at once.

"How many?"

"Enough for ten tanks."

Testaniere's stomach churned from the news even more than from lunch. "I presume that many can at least keep the tanks running?"

Weldon nodded. He even smiled at the spectacle of a People's Commissioner recognizing a military concept. "Also, if the tanks are detected moving, ten will look like only enough for a raid. Not an invasion."

"If we want to make the threat of a raid credible, we have to keep that pinnace and the freighters in one piece," Testaniere reminded his counterpart. "No pinnace, no raid, and somebody with no more than a grenade launcher or a ring charge could do for the pinnace as nicely as you please. Have you thought about hangering and defueling it, until the infantry come in?"

Pescu's red face wore an almost pleading expression, for the citizen captain to agree, but Weldon ignored it. "We have to show the flag and raise the consciousness of the Chuibans concerning modern weaponry," he said. "Besides, the troop movements seem to be—a little behind schedule, let us say."

Testaniere did not groan. Neither did Citizen Sergeant Pescu. But they exchanged looks.

Pescu wore the expression of a man being asked to scrub the barracks with a toothbrush. He would do so well that the floor would be clean enough to eat from when he was finished, but he did not promise to enjoy the process.

Testaniere wondered what was showing on his face. Within, he knew how the financial bureaucrats had felt before Haven began its interstellar expansion, trying to provide more and more benefits to more and more Dolists from a shrinking budget.

He would have to ask Pescu privately how the retraining of the Field Police was coming. They might still be slow to come in out of the rain, but at least they were here and not somewhere else.


To Major Ryder, Director Simpson looked years older than he had three days ago, which was impossible. Or maybe not. She looked at the other three faces on the Director's side of the table, and decided that if she had spent three days in conference with any, let alone all, of them, she might have looked her chronological age!

The Deputy Directors for Physical Training, Tactical Training, and Supply were as grim and granite-faced a lot as Ryder had never wished to see this side of the Final Judgement. Did the Conforming Free Kirkers end up looking stern because they spent too much time thinking about that Judgement? Theology had never been one of Ryder's strong points; she hoped to conclude her mission on Silvestria before it became a survival skill.

Simpson nodded to the Supply Deputy. She brushed her graying auburn hair back from a forehead that must have once been seriously burned, and frowned.

"You are asking for an odd mix of resources. Not excessive, I think, but I would like you to explain the reason for each component."

Ryder looked at Chung. They exchanged smiles, for reasons that they could never tell these earnest Republicans. They had worked out the Table of Organization and Equipment, after consulting with their own people, on a portable computer. They'd propped the computer up at one end of the bed and themselves at the other. In between was a take-out fish and chips dinner. Their clothing lay on the floor, beside an insulated bucket with three liters of chilled ale.

It was quite the most comfortable planning session that Ryder had ever attended. A few more of them, and she might even be reconciled to combining briefings and pillow talk.

The four elements of the proposed force were two hundred fifty picked Sea Fencibles, a dozen fishing boats, two fish-factory ships, and enough air freighters, small enough to land on the decks of the factory ships, to carry the Sea Fencibles three hundred klicks to Buwayjon.

The air freighters would be borrowed from the fishing industry, which got priority in modern technology whenever possible. They were slow, clumsy, and low-ceilinged, with robust hulls of local aluminum alloy and fiberglass built around imported power plants and electronics. But like anything built to haul cargo bulky in proportion to its value, they also had payload capacity to spare.

"Unless somebody sees them all together, they won't connect them with the idea of a raiding force," Chung said. "So we are going to march—or in this case, sail—divided, and attack united."

"Won't a new fishing fleet look suspicious all by itself?" the PT Deputy asked. He was bullet-headed but not, as far as Ryder could tell, bull-headed—or at least no more so than his colleagues. And she'd seen a tape of him working out with claymore and sword; she anticipated bruises in her first few—or first few dozen—sessions with him.

"Not with the cover story we're going to circulate," she put in now. "The Erewhon consul is circulating stories of a new agreement with Broadman Imports for exploiting the icefish grounds off the Strathspey Islands. That means recommissioning a whole bunch of the old turtlebacks, which can hide just about anything below decks."

"The correct noun of association for ships is squadron or fleet," the PT Deputy said firmly. "And as one who hauled nets from one of those turtlebacks as a boy, I can assure you that soldiers riding aboard them will be practicing mortification of the flesh."

"I don't believe this is being organized as a pleasure cruise," the Supply Deputy said. "But I really must ask. Will two hundred and fifty people be enough?"

"If we have surprise, half that many could do the job," Ryder said. "If we lose surprise, or Euvinophan's infantry are in place, twice that many won't be enough."

That reduced everyone to silence. Including me, Ryder realized. I hope they don't have any more questions, because I'm damned if I could answer them. 

Then three graying and one bald head nodded. "We will authorize in the name of the Republic all resources for this mission, as you have requested," Simpson said. "May the Lord Mighty in Battle watch over you, keep you in His hand, and give you the courage and skill you will need to bring victory in His cause."

Now, if I was just as sure as these people are, that we did have God on our side. . . . 






The big truck backed in under the camouflage net and squealed to a stop. Half a dozen Sea Fencibles ran up to lift off the crates of potatoes that hid the crates of ammunition. Then Director Simpson himself climbed out of the cab.

Shuna Ryder's first thought was to call SBA Bexo. Simpson didn't look fit to be out of bed, let alone this far north in the late summer, with so much water dripping off the trees that you couldn't tell if it was raining or not.

But he smiled as he came up and shook her hand. Most of the Sea Fencibles stopped, nodded, and went back to work. They were grasping the notion of when to salute and when not to, as well as a few other military skills. She only hoped the improvement in their marksmanship hadn't cost the Republic more of its ammunition reserve than it could afford.

Ryder pushed aside the blackout curtain and led Simpson to the observation platform, overlooking the covered hundred meters of creek that served as a workshop. Five of the wooden-hulled turtleback fishing boats were moored to the banks, with more Sea Fencibles and a few selected boatyard workers swarming over them. Saws, sanders, and paint sprayers buzzed, whined, and hissed, and through the hatch of one boat the glow of a welding torch suggested work on the engine or one of the steel tanks being converted for heads.

"I worked in a boatyard after I left school," Simpson said, his mouth nearly touching Ryder's ear so that she could hear him over the din. "I remember working on some of these boats, converting them from steam to diesel. It is good to see them doing more than rot in the rain, even if this were not God's work they will be about."

Ryder could have wished that God or somebody had made the boats larger or the Sea Fencibles smaller. Only two hundred twenty-seven people with their personal weapons and gear would be riding in the disguised boats. The other twenty-five would have to ride by air, along with most of the heavy weapons.

But the demolition charges were going in the turtlebacks. The Sea Fencibles were not going to be separated from their personal weapons or the explosives. Not if they had to swim in with them on their backs!

"I hope we bring back not only the people but the transport," Ryder said. "God will not feed families when the fishermen can't bring home their catch."

Apparently this was not heresy. Simpson nodded. "We can cut back on our catch for export, if necessary. Indeed, the war itself may make this necessary. If the godforsaken Havenites are really going to commission privateers, we may be living plain and short once again, until there is peace."

He took Ryder's hands in his, which somehow were not shaking and felt stronger than they had looked. "Even if nothing came back but yourselves, it would be worth the cost. Our people are hardy, but if Euvinophan held Port Malcolm and the passes, he would have four-fifths of our industry and two-thirds of our people hostage. Guerrilla warfare under those circumstances might cost us more than even Peep tyranny—if King Bira allowed the Peeps a free reign in the first place."

Ryder wanted to suggest that the Republicans consider ways of playing off a victorious Carl Euvinophan against the Peeps, so that King Bira would have to intervene all the sooner. But that would sound defeatist, and besides, the Republicans were surely canny enough to think of that for themselves.

"Now I had better take a cup of tea and be ready to ride the truck back," Simpson said. "I am supposed to be in a clinic for an examination. Better that I not turn the cover story into the truth."


A hovercraft armored personnel carrier nosed down into a shallow ditch, sprayed up water and weeds crossing the stream at the bottom, then lunged up the near slope. As the APC's nose appeared above the edge, two streaks of fire darted from a clump of bushes three hundred meters to Jean Testaniere's left. His first thought was Infiltrated saboteurs!

Then the two anti-tank rockets hit the hovercraft's bow plating. Smoke billowed and paint splattered from the dummy warheads. Citizen Sergeant Pescu rose from beside Testaniere and waved to the hovercraft, which stopped. He and the crews of the two rocket launchers walked over to the hovercraft. When Pescu returned, he was actually smiling.

"I estimate one penetrating hit and a probable mission kill on the second. Anybody riding that hover would be walking the rest of the way, if they weren't on a stretcher."

Testaniere tried to hide his surprise. "You've been working them hard, Citizen Sergeant. I didn't think they were up to hitting a hovercraft."

"Hitting anything's easy when there's no return fire. I hope to work out something with the tank people for simulating that in a few days. If not, I can at least run everybody through one firing with a live warhead on a stationary target."


Under Pescu's firm hand, the Field Police were giving the armored forces practice in facing missile-armed infantry, while learning to play that role themselves. Testaniere didn't expect many fighting vehicles on the other side of the water, but wrecked trucks made good road blocks, and anti-tank missiles had a long history as good "bunker-busters."

If one was going to fight a war with the technology of the past, one could at least take advantage of the lessons already taught by long-ago wars!


Fernando Chung looked at his watch. "Almost time," he whispered.

Shuna Ryder grabbed the wrist and lifted the hand to her lips, then moved the kiss up Chung's arm until she got a mouthful of wet battledress.


"I never said I was a man of excellent taste—"

He broke off to take her in his arms. Then they hugged hard, and Ryder knew so well that this was their last private moment, maybe forever, that heart and head fought a short battle.

What kept her from pulling Fernando behind the nearest bushes and then down on top of her was not discipline. It was the thought of the wet leaves and wetter ground, and the folly of leading a major operation with a howling cold. The mission's supply of antivirals was running low, and would have to be saved for something worse than the CO's sniffles!

They slowly stepped back to arm's length. Chung patted her cheek. "You are getting to be a habit with me, you know."

"Better a habit than a vice."

"Yes, but a habit is harder to give up."

"I will—I'll think about ways of not—of our not having to give up. Fair enough?"


They hadn't gone more than fifty meters down the slope toward the waiting boats, when several torches glowed, each held under a thermal umbrella to hide the heat signature. Then Sea Fencibles by the dozens and scores stepped out of the trees, applauding and cheering.

Ryder flushed. It was hard to see what Chung was doing, but he did glare, when Bexo joined the crowd. Ryder now saw among the audience some of the Sea Fencibles who'd come north to work on the boats in the hope of earning a slot in the raiding force, or even offered hefty bribes.

"Thank you," she said. "But let's not tempt fate. Hold the applause for when we come back. Then we can have a proper torchlight ceremony."

"By then it will be autumn," Bexo said, "then it rains even harder."






If autumn meant rain, then it had already come to this stretch of the Central Sea two hundred klicks south of the Strathspey Archipelago. Fortunately the half-gale that had blown the past two days had died as the rain came to take its place. Ryder would not have cared to transfer twenty-odd Sea Fencibles from a sinking turtleback with the waves sending green water over the cockpit forward.

She braced herself against the cockpit coaming and gripped the back of the helmsman's seat with one aching wrist, the windscreen with the other. She thought that the windscreen might as well be blown away, considering that it was opaque with caked salt.

A thud and a clatter rose from below as somebody opened the port hatch. A familiar sound followed, fortunately not accompanied by a familiar smell. The rain drowned it, and the seasick Fencible's stomach was quickly empty anyway.

Not as many people were seasick as she'd feared, but enough, and enough of those badly, that Bexo had issued the antinausea pills wholesale. It would not do for fifty Fencibles to reach their target so weak that they couldn't even carry their loads, let alone run, climb, or shoot.

The rain wrapped Ryder's command boat and the other three visible ones in a gray murk, relieved only by the dim riding lights. In this weather, nobody would see them from above; the problem would be finding their way to the rendezvous.

The hatch had stayed open, to let in fresh air. Over the hiss of the rain and the rumble of the diesel, Ryder heard someone reading aloud from Chung's manual on Peep weaponry. He'd digested his files into a printed manual of enemy weapons, one copy for each squad, even though he'd acquired some of the knowledge on an exchange tour with the Technical Section of Solarian League Intelligence.

Ryder wondered if he'd done that for personal reasons, as well as professional. Did he want to be tossed out of the Erewhonese forces on his ear, for revealing confidential material, so that he could then freely emigrate to the Star Kingdom?

It would be pure Hell all around, if Chung did on his own something Ryder would never have dared ask him to do, then couldn't emigrate because the Sollies or the Erewhonese would put pressure on the Star Kingdom not to accept him! Then, when both adviser groups got shipped out from a (hopefully) neutral Silvestria, where could she and Fernando be—other than many light-years apart?

There was much wisdom in the old saying about not playing where you worked. It was just as true that she and Fernando were no longer playing.


The last tank whined and rattled into the sprawling warehouse complex that was now the vehicle park and supply dump for the armored battalion and infantry carriers. Four of Euvinophan's Field Police presented arms to Jean Testaniere and Citizen Sergeant Pescu, and the door closed behind the tank.

Thanks to the last few days' work on the tanks and rain on the door, the door made more noise than the tank. It hadn't been that way before the Peep advisers took in hand all the Euvinophan troops that they could talk to.

"One regrets the absence of the live firing practice," Testaniere said. "But I will not criticize you for being unable to control the weather."

"No, and this gives us a few days to screen the rounds. Corporal—Citizen Corporal Randall used to work for a chemical company. He's built a testing set and some tools for stripping the charges out of dud rounds. He thinks we can get maybe fifty to eighty extra satchel charges for house-to-house work, allowing for the usual percentage of duds."

"Citizen Corporal Randall can look for a commendation. And so can you, and everyone else you think deserves one."

"Thank you, Citizen Commissioner. But I'd be even more grateful for an easing up in this soggy weather. As long as it lasts, Euvinophan's pets aren't going to move out of their cozy barracks and start soldiering."


The two fish-factory ships would have looked innocent to anyone who didn't know their purpose. Their decks were maybe a little clearer than usual, but they were within fifty klicks of known fishing grounds, and their crews had manned both the side cranes and the stern ramp as if ready to start unloading the fishing boats' catch. Finally, it would be hard to believe that anything smelling like the two ships could be an instrument of anything remotely warlike . . . unless it was bacteriological warfare.

Ryder stood in the cockpit and waved across a hundred meters of heaving, oily sea to Chung, whom she hadn't seen or spoken to in a week. Radio silence had been complete, which hadn't kept the fishing boat skippers from navigating the Sea Fencibles to the rendezvous.

The only problem was that it was two hours after the planned arrival of the air lift, and the sky was still empty (except for thick gray clouds that promised more rain) and silent (except for an occasional distant muttering gust of wind).

Ryder put a hand on the wheelman's shoulder. He twitched it irritably, as if to say I know my job without Manties pawing me.

The wind to the west seemed to gust harder as Ryder's boat and Chung's approached one another. Looking over the side, Ryder expected to see a fluff of whitecaps sprouting from the waves, but the swell was as modest, even monotonous, as ever.

Then it came into sight—six dark-painted air freighters, all flying just above the wave tops.

Six, when there should have been seven.

The first one overflew the more distant factory ship, circled the second, then went to vertical lift and descended on the handling deck amidships. The crew lowered the booms out of the way just in time. Three more made equally smooth landings in quick succession. The pilots had all done this scores or hundreds of times; getting fresh fish to the markets or frozen fish to the container ports depended on their skill. But the fifth one faced trouble that went beyond the pilot's skill.

As it shifted to vertical flight, the counter-gravity failed. The pilot had enough altitude that even with a full load, he didn't plummet straight on to the factory ship. He even managed to claw the nose up before the tail smashed into the water.

Explosive bolts flung hatches away from both sides of the cockpit area, and the people aboard the freighter erupted into the open. Ryder managed to draw about three deep breaths before the water around the up-thrust nose of the freighter was dotted with bobbing black heads.

Then with a rumble and a hiss, the freighter sank.

Two down, including God knew how much equipment and how many people.

Ryder was glad that she hadn't endorsed the notion of this being a mission from God. If it was, He was definitely having an off day.

By now, Chung was in hailing distance.

"And here I thought we weren't going to have to wait around to recalculate any more loads!" he said.

It was just as well that he was out of reach. If he was as blithe as he sounded, Ryder would cheerfully have thrown him overboard.






"This isn't an automatic abort," Chung said.

Ryder saw a few of the Republicans wince at the colonel's choice of words. The Conforming United Wee Free Kirk had its crotchets in the area of reproductive rights.

After that one slip, they looked relieved. Not that aborting the mission wouldn't have been simpler, but if simplicity had governed human affairs, a lot of institutions, including war and sex, would never have come into existence.

The air lift had come in two hours late because one freighter's navcomputer had gone out, then down. They'd had to find a handy piece of no more than damp ground to transfer ten Fencibles and several tons of weapons and stores. Then the cripple had flown off homeward, while the other six flew on.

Losing the second freighter reduced the lift capacity by a serious number of tons. It also took to the bottom of the Central Sea a portion of every item of supplies, from mortars to clean socks, but only two people.

They could now lift in the full assault team, or a partial team with the heavy weapons. Not both. Which, and how?

Meanwhile, the fish-factory crews had been pulling nets (camouflage and fishing varieties) over the deck load of freighters. They would still look peculiar, nearly filling the decks of both Nautilus and Sir Patrick Spens, but they would not signal "commando raid" to anyone not coming alongside.

The turtlebacks had transferred their Sea Fencibles to the two ships, and all the officers to Sir Patrick. Then flags, lights, and loud voices harried all of them into a loose formation that looked almost as if it belonged in these waters, around these two ships. Nobody who wasn't already paranoid would suspect the fleet of intending harm to anybody except fish.

Of course, if they're short of paranoia over to the east, I can always loan them some of mine. Ryder shook herself out of that mood, saw on the chart display that the fleet was on an innocuous course to the south, and got ready to listen or speak as necessary.

Captain Biddle of Nautilus, the older of the two factory ships, saved everybody a great deal of time—once they took him seriously.

"Now look, good people," he said. "I've an old ship not safe for more than another season at most. I can think of a better end for her than tied up to rot at a pier, smelling of fish guts until the beggars complain!

"Put your confounded mortars and rockets aboard Nautilus. We'll cover them with tarps, then run in at night. About the time you hit Buwayjon, we can be in range. If you can leave the gunners aboard too, we'll not stint—"

The leader of the heavy weapons platoon let out a howl of protest. Three glares—Chung, Biddle, and Ryder—reduced him to muttering things probably not approved of by the Kirk. He sounded no happier than before at the prospect of missing the fight ashore.

"As I said," Biddle went on, "we can steam through the night and be within range about the time you're keeping the fellows ashore too busy to notice us. Then tell your gunners where to shoot, and we'll put them where they can."

It wasn't wholly lunatic; just nearly so. The 120-mm mortars and the 150-cm rockets could reach out twenty thousand meters, although with reduced accuracy beyond twelve thousand. The supply of precision-guided rounds was less than half of what they'd hoped for, but the Sea Fencibles or at least their Marine advisers did have a reasonable quota of terminal-guidance lasers.

"We'd have to strike the vehicles below deck to dismount the heavy weapons, or else wait and dismount them after the ground assault flies off," Chung said. This time the weapons platoon leader said nothing, because he was obviously trying to think of an intelligent answer. It was Ryder's turn to want to glare or mutter curses.

Was agreeing so fast smart?

If we don't have time to spare and don't intend to abort, yes.

That had been a short mental debate, but long enough for the weapons platoon officer to answer. The vehicles would have to be struck below to avoid crowding the deck unacceptably, so once below, they might as well be worked on.

Further calculations showed that Nautilus was strong enough to stand the recoil. Built in an archaic style called "composite," with heavy wooden planks on a steel frame, she was nearly a century old and originally built for two steam reciprocating engines instead of her current diesels. If she had survived a century of storms, stresses, and heavy loads, and could still support the weight of loaded freighters on her handling deck, she could undoubtedly survive a few hundred rounds' worth of recoiling mortars and rocket tail-flares.

Still more calculations declared that reducing the airlift requirements by the weight of the heavy weapons and their ammunition would let the ground assault take all the ammunition they still had for their own weapons. Except that a couple of those were staying behind, too—a light machine gun and the one Erewhonese pulser the raiders had brought along.

"Otherwise," Ryder said, "the Peeps could fly out in a tourist air bus and drop grenades on your deck. If they hit the ammunition, it could ruin your taste for whiskey forever."

Everybody was carefully not mentioning the pinnace, although with Peep-quality piloting it might not be much good at low altitude. Ryder carefully did mention one non-trivial problem, which was the legal status of Nautilus and her crew.

"I don't think I can commission you in the Canmore Republic Navy," Ryder began. "But if you don't have some military status, the Peeps could shoot you, and King Bira might let them. Never risk being the victim of an atrocity you can't live to laugh over."

"Any positive suggestions?" Chung said. Captain Biddle looked as if he would rather say something stronger.

"Would and your crew—and Sir Patrick's people—like to volunteer for the Sea Fencibles? We do have our Personnel Officer with us, believe it or not. She leads the Boat Maintenance gang in her spare time. I think she can print up enough certificates to cover everybody."

"Like a tarpaulin," Chung said. This time he got Captain Biddle's dirty look.

* * *

Testaniere peered out into a night completely opaque with fog. If the port finally had been blacked out, it could hardly have been any darker. All that told Citizen Commissioner Testaniere that he wasn't looking into the depths of the Central Sea was a dim glow from the tank workshop.

Citizen Sergeant Pescu coughed behind the commissioner, then went on coughing. Testaniere reached for the teapot and poured two cups.

"Warm your throat, please. That's not an order. But you are the last person I want catching a cold from this soggy soup."

"Thank you." Pescu drank, then put the half-empty cup down. "A girl has disappeared."

"We are not an Office of Missing Persons," Testaniere said. "Is there anything particular about her?" He picked up his cup and drank.

"She was—ah, friendly—with several of the Navy ratings. Not any of our SS, to my knowledge, but they wouldn't be telling on themselves."

Since "lack of revolutionary virtue" could mean a labor camp or worse, Pescu was probably right. "Are you implying that one of them killed her?

"Maybe. Or maybe one of the local gangs didn't like her going with off-worlders. Or—"

"She could have been spying?" Testaniere filled in.

Pescu nodded.

"Not impossible. But impossible to tell for whom. We can't terminate agents from the Royal Army's Counter-Intelligence Office, let alone from Euvinophan's staff."

He did not like the timing, though, in spite of the fog. "I suggest that we propose a stand-to for dawn tomorrow. Tank crews, security, Field Police, and our Navy friends. I'll sweeten Weldon if you can work on everybody else."

"I can alert the dawn duty watch, and be there myself. Everybody else may be a bit busy then. The first of the infantry are coming in. Five hundred of them, by truck."

Testaniere nearly choked on his tea. "You might have told me this first."

"I'm sorry, Citizen Commissioner. But after so long, it's hard to believe that it's actually happening."

* * *

The raiders' reprieve from disaster lasted until Claymore Flight entered both darkness and fog. Maintaining electronic silence meant dubious navigation, worse station-keeping, and eventually total loss of contact with Claymore Three. At that point Ryder and Chung risked IR signals to bring the remaining four freighters down on the first convenient island that offered enough flat surface.

Fortunately, Claymore Three contained only forty people and a single light scout car. The raiders still had more than a hundred and fifty Sea Fencibles, thirty assorted advisers, three scout cars, and an adequate load of everything else needed for light infantry combat and heavy demolitions work.

"It's a good thing you handed out the material on Peep weapons," Ryder said, as she and Chung stood beside a freighter. A four-Fencible security patrol walked past, feeling their way cautiously forward on the fog-slick rock. "We may be using them!"

"That would solve the heavy weapons problem nicely," Chung said. "And if we can bag the pinnace and their air lift as well, only the Peeps will complain."

It would need more than captured heavy weapons to be sure of striking the local air base before anything could get off. It would need a force large enough to carry out the original plan of simultaneously striking both the ground-forces depot and the air base. They no longer had that.

But if Chung said that he would try it, he would—and do as well as anyone could. Ryder leaned back into her lover's arms.

"I am losing my enthusiasm for yachting," he said, into her ear. "When I knew I was going to try for Manticore, I thought of a vacation on a rented sailboat. You and me, a well-stocked galley, days of wearing nothing but sun screen—"

"You, Sir, assume a good deal."

"It would be better than a good deal, good lady. Furthermore, I am only assuming that if the idea repelled you, you would have pushed me off a cliff into the sea or otherwise discouraged me some time ago."

Unfortunately, Ryder had no reply to that. Of course, that was because there was none.





The four surviving freighters ran in at such low altitude and high speed that the sea was a gray glaze rushing toward Ryder as she stood in the cockpit of Claymore One. The other freighters were leaving visible wakes, and an agile treecat could probably have jumped from sea level into an open hatch of any of the freighters—if they'd dared open a hatch at this speed.

They still hadn't heard from Claymore Three, which suggested either disaster or complete radio discipline. Ryder was betting on the second, and not only to keep up morale. They'd heard a good deal of radio traffic, much of it commercial, some of it in low-grade Peep codes easily broken on the freighter's computer. None of it suggested that anyone ashore knew about Claymore Three, Nautilus, or the four grim gray darts now flinging themselves across the sea toward Buwayjon.

Ryder turned away from the cockpit to start applying her camouflage cream. It was one of Chung's ideas; he'd pointed out that warpaint was as old as war, and did things for your morale and to the enemy's. Even in Old Earth's post-industrial wars, one warrior band had been known as "the devils with green faces."

Except that Ryder had never been able to put on makeup without at least three tries, and had always thanked God for regulations that strictly limited it for female officers on duty. She had succeeded in making her face into something that scared her when she glimpsed it in the mirror, and was trying to sort it out when she felt gentle fingers touching her cheeks from behind.

This was almost too public a touch even from Chung, but she was still not going to slam her elbow back into his stomach. Instead she sighed, not caring if he thought that meant pleasure, and a moment later she realized that it did. Chung was not only spreading the camouflage cream more evenly, his touch was taking a few of the knots out of her stomach.

"Just practicing for the sun lotion," he whispered, when he was finished.

Before she could turn to thank him, he was gone, and the pilot was waving for her attention.

"We've picked up a clear signal, with a Peep Navy call sign. Reports they're heading south to investigate a suspected raid south of Point Luchuin."

The map display was late Neolithic digital but it made at least the distance evident. "That could be Claymore Three," she said. "Keep a passive watch for the pinnace. "If it's airborne, we may have to take evasive action suddenly."

Peep piloting might still let them evade at low level, but the pinnace would be more likely to be carrying air-to-air than air-to-ground weapons, let alone anti-ship ones. This raid could still end in a futile disaster: the Canmore Republic striking the first blow without gaining anything by it.

Then the white cliffs north of Buwayjon thrust above the horizon. Fishing boats of all sizes and colors whipped past to either side. Ryder motioned the pilot to climb a little to avoid being impaled on a mast.

A black hull with a dirty yellow superstructure and a white funnel, off to the right—Nautilus! The pilot jumped as Ryder blasted the word triumphantly into his ear.

"Just keep cool, Ma'am, and we'll have you on the ground in a minute."

The minute seemed to last a millennium, and it didn't help that the pinnace switched to scrambled communications but kept talking, obviously on the track of something that had the people aboard excited. Ryder managed thirty seconds to check her gear and lock and load her assault rifle, then they were over the breakwater, below the top of the lighthouse, from which a woman in a nightgown stared as if she couldn't believe what her eyes showed her.

They raced over treetops, turned at the foot of the cliffs, saw the air base briefly as they banked—no pinnace in sight—and then slowed to come down on the Subinaro Esplanade next to the warehouse district.

As the noses came up and the counter-gravity on, the pilot swore. "I forgot to drop the damned leaflets!"

That was a planned propaganda move—dropping thousands of leaflets telling the port's citizens to stay under cover, for the Republic had a quarrel only with the traitorous Carl Euvinophan and the imperialistic Peeps.

"I don't imagine that will do any harm," came Chung's voice, "unless Buwayjon is short of toilet paper."

Then the landing gear groaned and squealed, hatches and ramps slammed open even before power died, and everybody was yelling "Go, go, go!" so loudly that Ryder knew she was shouting too only because she could feel her throat vibrating.


"He did what?" Jean Testaniere said. If it would have relieved his feelings, he would have shouted, even screamed. Since that would only have added to what already seemed a first-class panic, he replied in as normal a tone as he could manage, with the erupting din of battle in his ear.

"The pinnace has gone south, to investigate and if necessary attack a Republican raiding force south of Point Luchuin. Citizen Captain Weldon went with it, in personal command."

Citizen Sergeant Pescu looked as if he wouldn't mind being killed, as primitive tradition allowed with the bearers of bad news, if only to get him out of this embarrassing situation. However, it was so far only embarrassing. It was not yet fatal. Five minutes ago, the first three truckloads of Carl Euvinophan's troops had pulled into the Training Barracks Compound. In another five minutes, they could be out of their trucks and on the way to the tank depot and supply dump.

The whole five hundred would have been better, but convoy discipline, at night, on the kingdom's mountain roads, would have taxed anyone's ability. Fifty could fight at least a delaying action against any number of Manty puppets who could have ridden in four air freighters. And the Manties would be fighting in two directions at once, because forty Field Police and ten SS people were already on watch to defend their target.

"I'm going out to the air base," Testaniere said. "It has the best command facilities, and it's where Weldon will come if he has the sense to return in time. Deploy all StateSec personnel to guard the depot at all costs, and—"

"What about a message to Euvinophan's men?"

Testaniere slammed his fist down on the table. A calculator and an electronic notepad fell to the floor. The SS and Field Police knew Pescu; they would obey him if they obeyed anyone. But Euvinophan's infantry wouldn't recognize any local People's authority other than Testaniere himself, and if they wasted time arguing—

"I wasn't trying to run out," Testaniere said.

"No, and neither was Citizen Captain Weldon. Just be glad you didn't make as big a mistake."

Then they were both pounding down the stairs, with Pescu shouting back over his shoulder to start securing files. If even the clerks were going to be needed on the firing line, there was no reason to leave anything lying around for hostile or even curious eyes.


Ryder popped out an empty magazine and pushed a fresh one into her assault rifle. It was amazing how fast you went through ammunition, even if you had the sense and training to fire in three-round bursts. Some of the Sea Fencibles seemed to have forgotten even the abbreviated Royal Marine fire-discipline training they'd received. The use of those Peep weapons was looming closer every moment, as the raiders' ammunition supply shrank with gruesome speed.

At least it was gruesome for both sides, maybe a little more so for the enemy. Right now the raiders had the edge in numbers and firepower. The surviving SS and Euvinophan Field Police troops defending the tanks, armored personnel carriers, and supplies were getting very much the worst of the firefights.

They weren't giving up, however. Bullets whined and rattled on either side of Ryder, and a Sea Fencible doubled up, to fall screaming and writhing.

Welcome to the Fraternal Order of Those Who Know Bullets Hurt.

Ryder's radio squalled in her ear. "This is Claymore Red Leader. I'm in the middle of a firefight. What is it?"

Chung's reply was cool enough to calm without reproaching. "We have some of Euvinophan's infantry detrucking at the old Training Barracks. They seem to be armed, but not yet deploying. Also, Nautilus is within range and wants targeting data for the air base."

"Tell them we have no observation on the air base. Negative observation, negative firing. Can you call them in on Euvinophan's goons?"

"If I can't, a lot of taxpayers got cheated on Erewhon and Manticore!"

"Less joking and more shooting, if you please."

"Feeding data—now!"

That ought to do some good—the heavy weapons platoon leader was not only one of the more promising Sea Fencible officers, he had three of the best heavy-weapons Marine sergeants Ryder had ever known. They were the kind who, if you told them to hit a specific house, would ask, "Which room?"

Euvinophan's people were in trouble. If they broke and ran, even better—they wouldn't add to the body count and they would destroy their own reputation, also their leader's. Then it wouldn't matter what happened to the vehicle park, because nobody would follow Carl Euvinophan across the street for a beer, let alone across the ocean to fight the Canmore Republic.


It was the junior Marine of the advisory team, a buck sergeant with a demolitions specialty.

"We've secured the fuel dump and the Sea Fencibles have it rigged to blow. Four charges. But we can't do anything. There's a school full of kids on the other side of the wall. Right in range of the fireball."

Ryder thought rude things about the Kingdom of Chuiban's urban planners, then nodded.

"All right. You and the Fencibles watch the charges. Disarm them if you're in danger of being overrun. Wait for my signal—'Hallucination' will be the code word."

"Hallucination. Yes, Ma'am. I kind of wish it was one, too."

"You aren't the only one, Marine."






Ryder sprinted after the demolitions sergeant, found herself at the base of a low wall, and scrambled up on top of it before anybody or anything (including her own second thoughts) could stop her. Nobody shot at her, but about fifty pairs of large, mostly brown, eyes stared up at her out of as many faces.

"Evacuate the school!" Ryder shouted. She would have given ten years off her life for a loudspeaker, to be heard inside. The school had a tile roof, a timber frame, and dozens of glass windows. The blast wave would slaughter everyone inside when it hit, even without the fireball's help.

She wanted to scream, but realized that might cause a panic. Instead she pointed at the exit. "Run, now!" she called. "The fuel dump is on fire and might explode. Get out of the school now and keep on running."

The children turned slowly and walked off toward the exit still more slowly. Ryder wondered if they somehow thought that the Sea Fencibles were firefighters, who would provide a grand spectacle whether or not they put out the fire before the explosion.

Two bits of luck saved the children. One was the first incoming round from Nautilus. It was an air-bursting smoke round, timed to detonate three hundred meters up. It made a bang audible all over town, even over the firing, and left a cloud of white and purple smoke big enough for a low-yield nuke. Ryder hoped that it would, in the words of an old drill instructor, "warn everybody to keep their heads down and their mouths and—ah, sphincters—shut."

Seeing and hearing the explosion started the children on the playground hurrying. It brought more of them out of the school, followed by a teacher shouting at them to get back inside and sit down!

The teacher went on shouting until she caught sight of Major Ryder, standing on top of the wall, dripping with weapons, hands and face black as fresh tar, and altogether looking like something sprung from Hell. The teacher let out a shriek that must have sounded like the noon lunch whistle in factories halfway across town and darted for the exit with an alacrity that did credit to her condition if not her courage.

She not only swept most of the children out of the exit along with her, her scream brought other teachers out—and Ryder's warning finally got through to them. In five minutes the school was empty, and the street beyond its gates crowded with children and teachers, all of them still moving.

Chung came on the radio, to say that the first round had got some of the Euvinophan people moving, and "in a retrograde direction," but not all of them, and three more truckloads had just pulled up. Nautilus was going to drop a couple more rounds on the hillside behind the Esplanade, but if that didn't discourage loitering, she was going to have to fire for effect.

"If we clear the Euvinophan people out of their assembly area, we'll have a clear shot at Blue Temple Avenue, which takes us straight out to the air base," he concluded.

Personally, Ryder thought they would do better to hold Market Square, which would block any counterattacks by either the Euvinophan people at the training barracks or the Peep Navy types at the air base. But Chung was definitely offensive-minded, and if he could capture any local vehicles, he might just bring it off.

"All right. Just be careful going through Market Square," Ryder said. "Street merchants are bad people to have mad at you. They'll slick up the pavement with spoiled fruit if they can't do anything else!


Jean Testaniere could only hope that the second convoy of Euvinophan's infantry wouldn't follow the example of the first. It would probably help them to take a few casualties, so that they would have somebody to be angry at. They could not possibly be as angry at anyone as he himself was at Paul Weldon, but it would be a start.

The second salvo from the sea was only another demonstration of firepower. The sixty-odd infantry looked in all directions, and most of them turned as pale as their complexions allowed. They neither charged nor fled. Some of them actually unslung their rifles and started loading, while a couple of adequately loud NCO's started forming squads.

That was all Testaniere saw before Citizen Captain Weldon finally replied.

"People's Will Flight One to People's Will Ground One. We have sighted, bombed, and destroyed a Republican air freighter. One major secondary explosion, and minor ones continuing. Any hostile personnel in the area have taken evasive action and are under cover. I intend to search and strafe."

"I do not advise that," Testaniere said. The words came out like an order, rather than advice, but he could not have used any other tone to save his life. He wanted to scream, "Get that piece of tin and your useless behind back here half an hour ago!" but managed to avoid that extreme as well.

"Major hostile attack on Buwayjon," he said instead. "Air-lifted Manticoran puppet forces in company strength or above, with offshore fire support. Repeat, I recommend an immediate return to the city and that you make your first priority target the bombardment vessel. Black hull, yellow superstructure, white funnel, older vessel."

"A surface ship, in broad daylight? Can't you engage it with the tanks?" Weldon sounded genuinely bewildered.

Testaniere hated to admit the truth. "The vehicles and dump were the first hostile target. The puppet troops have made the area inaccessible, until the Euvinophan reinforcements now arriving permit us to counterattack."

A long silence with only the background noise of the pinnace's engines, then, in eloquently perfect diction:

"You, Citizen People's Commissioner Testaniere, are an ass."

Testaniere wanted to laugh. He doubted he would stop if he began, so he only said, "Like calls to like, Citizen Captain Weldon. We can divide up the blame for this mess once we've cleaned it up. That still needs you and your pinnace here, now!"

"On the way."


Several Sea Fencibles and the Marine demolitions sergeant joined Ryder on the wall before the last of the children was out of range of the explosion (or so she hoped).

"Are they ready to blow?" she asked.

"Not quite," the sergeant replied. "They're salvaging a whole bunch of Peep ammo that we can use—satchel charges, rocket launchers for anti-tank rounds, a couple of vehicle-mounted tribarrels with power packs—all sorts of stuff."

"Tell them to hustle," Ryder said. "If we don't blow the main dump, we'll have to blow the tanks individually. We may not have that much time."

"Oh, they're already putting demo or satchel charges under each tank," the sergeant said. "Double fuses and everything else. I don't think those youngsters have ever had so much fun in public."

Then the sergeant's eyes widened and he shouted, "Get down!"

Ryder was already moving; she'd seen the green fatigues of Euvinophan troops at the playground exit. Neither she nor the sergeant was down before one of the enemy let fly. The burst only hit the sergeant with three rounds, but one of them knocked off his helmet and another hit him in the throat, so that he was mortally wounded twice over when he hit the bricks head first.

Ryder and the Sea Fencibles returned fire, shooting low to keep overs from hitting the children. The children immediately started running again, and the soldiers seemed to have enough nerve to attack—at least for about ten seconds.

After that, more than a dozen of them were down, one of them propped up against a swing set, choking on his own blood. Ryder suspected that she would see that man in her nightmares for a while.

Then some of the school windows blew out, and more hostile fire smashed a Sea Fencible off the wall. A moment later an explosion tore a hole in the playground wall to the left. As bricks crashed down and the dust blew away, one of Euvinophan's Peep-surplus tanks came grinding improbably across the rubble.

Still more improbably, it swung its turret and let fly with both its plasma cannon and the ball-mounted bow tribarrel at the school's upper floor. Both were firing at maximum elevation, but that was enough. Suddenly the school had much less of an upper floor than before, and bricks, tiles, timber, furniture, and bodies (all adult-sized and in uniform, mercifully) rained down on to the playground.

A scout car with a ring-mounted Peep tribarrel followed the tank over the rubble. It cleared its field of fire just as several Euvinophan troops hurried in the gate, brave enough to try rescuing their fallen comrades. Their courage did not keep them alive against tribarrel fire, but some of them got off shots, and one of them actually hit Shuna Ryder.

It didn't penetrate the armor, and anyway she had been described as well-padded in the relevant area. She did pick up a selection of bruises and scrapes when she hit the ground, not to mention what felt like a couple of cracked ribs. She also knew that she would be standing up when awake and lying on her stomach when asleep, until the bruise healed.

Somehow an SBA was beside her even before she tried moving. Before the SBA finished, Fernando Chung was standing over her, looking unprofessionally concerned.

"Would you believe where I was shot?" Ryder muttered.

"I see where the painkiller is going in," Chung said. "I will modify my massage techniques."

Ryder felt more like blushing from that remark than she did from having her pants around her knees.

When the painkiller had taken hold and the scan showed no fractures or internal injuries, the SBA let her stand. "I really think a medevac is—"

"Going to have to wait," Chung interrupted. "I want to get a few more tanks out, if we have time. The power packs for the plasma guns only hold about ten full shots apiece, but that's enough direct fire that we won't need Nautilus risking a miss. I wish we could block the access road, but that would mean pushing tanks out too far—"

A sonic boom sent glass cascading out of windows. Ryder wiped a suddenly stinging cheek, and her hand came away smeared with a grisly mixture of blood, sweat, and camouflage paint.

The SBA laid a field dressing over the demolitions sergeant's face, and watched the silver shape of the pinnace race overhead.

Her eloquent curse spoke for everyone.


Testaniere saw the Navy people from the airbase drive up just as he saw Citizen Sergeant Pescu leading a handful of ragged SS survivors from the direction of the vehicle park. Then everybody stopped to stare or cheer as the pinnace blasted the city with its sonic boom.

Testaniere doubted that the People's Republic would appreciate the bill for the chimneys, roofs, and windows broken by the supersonic approach, but he would take his share of the responsibility for it. After all, he had ordered the pinnace to hurry.

The pinnace was now slowing and banking, to let its on-board fire control systems pick out the enemy bombardment ship and paint an accurate picture of it for the missiles. The commissioner hoped that Weldon had not shot off too much of his ammunition, and that he would not go in close, to grab glory and also come within range of any air-defense weapons the ship might have. Those, he suspected, would be Manticore-supplied; the precision of the incoming fire and the modern ammunition would have been beyond the primitive technology that their Kirk imposed on the Canmore Republic.

Meanwhile, the SS personnel had their personal weapons and some ammunition, and Pescu was no longer the only one who looked like a warrior. The Navy people looked scared half out of whatever wits their training had left them, but all were armed and they had brought several crated anti-tank missiles as well. Two of them were even driving a hover truck with a light plasma gun in a fixed bow mount.

Testaniere wondered how Weldon had managed to acquire the extra weaponry. But that was a question that would not need answering until after they had saved the People's mission to liberate Silvestria.

Or at least kept it from being driven from the field in its first battle.

Testaniere knew that was defeatism, but in the privacy of his own mind he could refuse to observe political propriety when it didn't match the facts. The leaders of the People were not only going to have to learn that all over again, they were going to have to teach it to a great many of their fighters and workers.

"We have the resources for a quick counterattack. If somebody can have Euvinophan's people reform on the left flank, and the next trucks bring their people around to reinforce us, and somebody gets at least one freighter airborne with a bombload—"

"The Royal Army has put a no-fly order into effect until further notice, and they have a tracked missile-launcher bearing on the air base," a citizen petty officer said. She looked and sounded as if she would rather have confessed to child molesting.

Testaniere understood how she felt. He swallowed. "We can still make a useful ground counterattack with what we have here or can rally."

"Won't that make us a big target?" the citizen petty officer asked. She had a rocket crate slung across her back, a helmet on her cropped head, and an assault rifle in her hands, so he knew this was not a coward asking.

"If we form out here, the enemy won't dare strike us for fear of hitting the city. Once we've closed in, they'll be afraid of hitting their own people. No reactionaries or elitists can be superhuman."

He thought he heard someone mutter, "Neither can the People's fighters," but all his attention was suddenly elsewhere. As the pinnace raced overhead, white smoke and some kind of silver vapor suddenly filled the sky ahead of it. The pinnace banked, increased speed, shredded the smoke and vapor clouds with its slipstream, then vanished to the south.

For once Testaniere did not suspect Weldon of cowardice. He didn't know what the raiders had suddenly sprung, either. He hoped that in the pinnace, Weldon would have a better view and the weaponry to handle it.

* * *

Ryder had seen the tank suddenly hurl smoke grenades and chaff into the sky, and the pinnace's reaction. She'd hoped to see the pinnace's turbines simply ingest debris and fall out of the sky that way, but either there wasn't any solid debris or the pilot was both smart and lucky.

Then the tank's turret hatch opened, and Fernando Chung stuck his head out.

"I told you we were going to need some Peep hardware. What's more, we've been lucky. The San Martinos built all the weapons on these things with anti-air capabilities, and high-elevation mounts, and either the Peeps left well enough alone or one of their ordnance software people has the brains God gave cave slugs."

"Is everybody out of the buildings?" Ryder shouted. She wanted to say something to Fernando, but knew that her voice might not be quite steady for anything but orders. A tank-vs.-pinnace duel was both unavoidable and mortally dangerous.

Besides, it was time to haul her aching posterior and everybody else's out of the range of any fuel dump explosion, since it might no longer wait for the demolition charges. Peep air-to-ground equipment was usually marginal and their training worse; they could barely hit a building if they hovered over the skylight.

"Move, move, move!" Ryder yelled. So did all the NCO's, then everybody in hearing took up the cry. She called to her radio operator to take over relaying data to Nautilus, because if the pinnace had to fight the tank it couldn't attack the ship, and the mortars and rockets might be able to hit the depot once the raiders were clear of it.

Then it would be house-to-house fighting until they reached the open country or met the Royal Army, which had to be alerted and sending somebody besides Field Police to see what was going on. As long as the Royal Army wouldn't turn them over to Euvinophan's people, that would be coming out on top. Even if Euvinophan did catch up with them, his people might be slow to push home an attack, and the Royal Army might break up the fight before the raiders exhausted their ammunition.

But damn it, we are taking everybody who can walk or be carried when we go!

That was the Royal Marine tradition, but there was no harm in spreading the gospel to other peoples' forces.

Then too much happened too fast. The pinnace came back, and Chung's turret-mounted launchers went to rapid, automatic fire, throwing out a stream of anti-laser grenades on the bearing to its airborne enemy. The cloud of aerosol hung between it and the Peeps, depriving the pinnace of the laser which was its sole light-speed weapon. The pinnace still had its pulsers, but the probability of a kill on a vehicle as heavily armored as the tank were poor, whereas the tanks' plasma cannon would blow right through the aerosol . . . and kill any pinnace ever built with a single clean hit.

But whoever was piloting that pinnace knew what he was about. He came in fast and low, using the city's buildings to block Chung's line of fire on the approach. The Sea Fencibles' net of ground sensors told the Erewhonese colonel where the pinnace was, while the pinnace knew only the tank's approximate location. That meant the pilot would have to pop up and stay high long enough to acquire the tank. But the pinnace was vastly more maneuverable than the tank. It could dodge and weave on its approach, which meant Chung could bring his main armament to bear only on the general threat axis. He had to wait for direct observation before he could actually target his foe, while the pinnace carried missiles which could be launched even off-bore in fire-and-forget mode. If the pilot had long enough to lock Chung up at all, the missiles would do the rest whatever happened to the pinnace . . . unless the San Martin vehicle's point defense could stop modern, short range, hyper-velocity missile fire, and that simply wasn't going to happen.

Which meant it all came down to a crap shoot. Both combatants knew what they had to do, and what their enemy had to do, and roughly where to look for one another. The question of who would survive came down to how quickly each of them could generate a firing solution and get his shot off.

All of that flashed through Shuna Ryder's mind in a flicker of an instant, and then the pinnace popped up and came screaming in on them, and Chung had laid his main armament almost perfectly. But the tank held its fire. It simply sat there, tracking the enemy without firing while eternities flashed by in the unbearable dragging of fractions of seconds until Ryder was screaming at her lover to shoot.

Something in her mind screamed back that he was trying not to shoot down the pinnace in the city, where its crash would slaughter civilians.

But then the pinnace spewed missiles—eight at least—from its ordnance racks. They plummeted at their target with accelerations that made their flight an eye-blink affair, and Chung no longer had the option of waiting.

The missiles began hitting at the same moment the tank's turret gun slashed a melon-sized plasma charge into the root of the pinnace's right wing. The pinnace staggered once from the hit and a second time from the blast as the fuel dump erupted in a fireball a hundred meters high, then fell off on the shredded wing, fighting to stay in the air with all air-foil lift destroyed.

It was still airborne when it passed the edge of town; then its counter-grav failed as well, and it crashed into the hillside, not far from where the second warning salvo had hit. The fuel and ammunition still aboard made another respectable fireball, but one harmless to anything except the landscape.

Ryder forced herself up off her face, coughed to clear smoke and heat from her lungs, and looked at the nearer wreckage. Euvinophan's vehicle park and dump were completely enveloped in smoke where they weren't spewing flame. Bits of smoking debris made an ugly fringe around the area, and over the roar of the flames she could hear the satchel charges and ammunition cooking off.

Hydrogen-enriched fuels are useful both for propelling armored fighting vehicles and for demolishing them. She reminded herself to include that in any book of tactical tips she ever had published by the Admiralty House Press.

She saw no point in looking for Chung's tank. The playground had been well inside the fireball area. Even the ruins of the school were half-invisible, and the other half was thoroughly on fire.

Please, God. Let the blast wave have killed him before he had time to burn alive. 

She was going to cry if she went on with thoughts like that, and she had more than a hundred of her people close enough to see her do it, which was bunching up too much if the bad guys had anything left—

"Spread out, you damned sheep!" she yelled. "Tactical formations, now. This isn't over and it won't be a carnival even when it is!"

The shriek of an incoming rocket made her whirl, with one ghastly moment of thinking second pinnace before she saw the Peep counterattack. It was StateSec and Navy people, with a handful of Euvinophan's greenies looking as if they were tagging along because they were too afraid to do anything else.

The first rocket hit one of the scout cars, flinging it over on its side. The raiders' tribarrel had already been dismounted, though, and the its crew was setting up. Now they dodged behind a half-ruined wall and returned fire.

The com tech was dragging Ryder toward something she couldn't recognize but which looked solid. They ducked behind it just as a second rocket hit five meters to the major's right.

Her rifle flew out of her hand. A rock smashed into her right cheek, and she sprawled out from behind cover. She was rolling back toward the com tech, who was huddled over his equipment, when a storm of solid rounds punched her all over, and a plasma pulse charge ripped at her legs.

Suddenly the painkillers weren't working. Neither, it seemed, was shock. She hurt terribly in several places, tried to roll toward where her rifle had been without knowing what she was going to do when she reached it, but passed out from the pain before she rolled over more than twice.

The last thing she thought she heard was mortar rounds, crashing down on top of the Peep counterattack.






Shuna Ryder decided that she was hurting too much to be dead, so she wasn't. When she tried to move, she hurt even more. She didn't quite keep silent, so all at once Chief Bexo was standing over her stretcher.

"Good . . ." she said.

"You ought to feel pretty awful," Bexo said in a flat voice.

"I mean . . ." She had meant that it was good to see him alive and on duty, not that she felt at all good. She felt considerably worse than awful.

Then she felt worse still, because Bexo and another SBA—a Sea Fencible—had to move her to treat her, and the pain won another victory over the drugs. This time she screamed.

"We're all out," Bexo said, almost whispering, as if a loud voice would add to Ryder's pain. "Everybody we could find, even the dead. You're aboard Nautilus. We're going home."

Nautilus? Wasn't there a famous submarine by that name? A long time ago, and back on Old Earth, maybe. This wasn't it. The deck was wood and smelled of fish. She smelled other things too. She vaguely remembered that they were sick bay smells.

Well, if she hurt this much, it only made sense for her to be in sick bay.

She also remembered that it was a good place for catching up on your sleep.

* * *

Citizen Commissioner Testaniere's counterattack lasted through the second salvo from the puppet bombardment ship. At the first salvo, the Euvinophan soldiers fled. Some of them didn't abandon their weapons, though they all "abandoned the field," in the old phrase from elitist history books.

"The ones who hung on to their rifles probably thought their chief was going to take it out of their pay," Citizen Sergeant Pescu muttered. He had half a dozen minor wounds and burns but looked ready to go on fighting all day.

The Navy people held until a shell from the second salvo blew their CPO—whose name Testaniere wished he had learned—into bits. The same shell also wounded Citizen Sergeant Pescu in the stomach and both legs. His fight was over, and the last Field Police followed the Navy.

At that point, Testaniere ordered a withdrawal out of range, leaving the bodies but bringing the wounded. The handful of surviving People's fighters had three vehicles. Perhaps they could reach open country, make contact with the incoming Euvinophan troops, and at least find a temporary sanctuary in the warlord's camp on the other side of the mountains.

But the Royal Army was at last out in force, and the fugitives met the first roadblock before they'd gone two klicks. Testaniere signaled everyone else to stay in the vehicles, dismounted, and walked toward the roadblock with his hands open and empty. He would have waved the traditional white handkerchief, if everything he was wearing or carrying hadn't been black with soot and dirt.

"I surrender, on condition of medical care for our wounded," he said.

For a moment he thought the sergeant in command either didn't speak Standard English or was refusing the request.

"We are combat soldiers of the People's Republic of Haven," he said. "We are entitled to honorable treatment. The Royal Army has suffered few losses today, but this might change if you do not accept our surrender."

Several gun muzzles rose, but a first lieutenant stepped out of one of the vehicles and approached Testaniere. "Of course, we accept your surrender under those conditions." He pulled a radio from his belt and spoke rapidly in the Chuiban dialect Testaniere knew well enough to recognize as a call for medics.

Then he stepped up to Testaniere, so that only the People's Commissioner could hear him. "Our treatment will be honorable even for you, but recall that when you return to your homeland, it may be otherwise."

That was a large understatement, Testaniere thought. He was a dead man, and his family and friends might die with him, or at best see the inside of a prison or labor camp for more years than they could survive.

Now the lieutenant was holding out his own sidearm, a solid-shot caseless-cartridge pistol, butt-first. "The honor you have shown to all here, and that we wish to show to you, allows a solution. I hope you are not too filled with 'revolutionary consciousness' or any other such nonsense to have forgotten what it is."

Testaniere decided not to force the lieutenant to do the shooting himself, which might make for bad relations between the Royal Army and the People's survivors. Instead he turned, saluted his fighters and the lieutenant, then walked fifty meters down the nearest alley before he put the pistol in his mouth.


They'd pulled Fernando's body out of the burning tank. He looked dreadful, but he was alive and smiling. He even had the strength to reach into his breast pocket and pull out a small insulated packet.

"Close to my heart, as I said it always would be when you weren't," he said. "But for now, you'd better take it. I don't want the medics staring at it."

She understood then. It was his quite flattering tri-D shot of her, wearing what he'd called "recreational undress uniform." He was quite right about not letting it become public knowledge.

She reached for the packet, but his hand fell back and the packet disappeared. Suddenly he was completely still, apparently unwounded but terribly pale. Too pale— she could see the grass (and why grass, in an industrial area?) through him.

He was gone. She lifted a hand to wipe her eyes—nobody here to see her cry—and saw the grass through her own hand. She stood up, and could see it through her feet and legs, too.

But she could still move them. Instead of wiping her eyes, she brought her hand up to the salute.

A Marine officer always saluted the quarterdeck, coming aboard.


All of Shuna Ryder's vital signs had flat-lined when Chief Bexo came back. He had suspected that she wouldn't be able to hear the news that the Royal Army was releasing Claymore Three, after fining them for trespass and malicious damage (three dead pigs). He hoped she'd heard the cheering when the news came in.

Then he looked down at the visible portion of Ryder's face. It didn't exactly show a smile—too much pain, then too many drugs, for that. But it looked as though the last thing she'd heard had been something that took her attention off her mortal wounds for a little while.



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