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"How long?" Amos ben Sierra Nueva said desperately.
"Another forty-five minutes, esteemed sir," the technician answered in a voice flat with focused concentration.
Amos touched the pickup in his ear and turned back to the low hills ahead. They were covered in pine forest, or had been, until about an hour ago. Now they were burning, a furnace of resin-fueled candles fifty meters high. The invaders had barred their own way with the blast of beam-fire from the aircraft, but they seemed lazily indifferent about inflicting casualties on their own forces. The Bethelite nobleman ground his teeth in fury at that lordly disdain; unfortunately, it seemed justified.
For now. Most of the resistance to the Kolnari invasion had come from Bethel's planetary constabulary, and the Guardians of the Temple. Those few who didn't see the invasion as punishment for the sins of godless young Amos ben Sierra Nueva and his followers had, of course, resisted. The faithful had effectively offered their throats to the pirate knife. Sheer luck that Amos and those followers had been preparing even if their efforts had been made against the day when the Guardians came for them.
"Everything is in place, my brother," said the man beside Amos in the rear seat of the pickup. Joseph ben Said was a commonerworse than that, a bastard from the slums of Kerissbut he had been the first of Amos' followers, and had proved to be the most loyal.
Not to mention certain skills, Amos reminded himself.
"Take me forward to the bunker," he said, and cut off Joseph's protest with a brusque chop of his hand.
The gunner behind the pintle-mounted launcher swayed as the driver gunned the fans and slid the vehicle down the dirt track. He was inexperienced; they all were. The Second Revelation had trained in secret with their hoarded weapons, preparing for the Second Exodus to Al Mina. Official Temple policy held there was no need to venture beyond Bethel when three centuries of valiant breeding left the Chosen still thin on the ground in the initial area of settlement. There had been no time to acquire much real skill with the tools of destruction. The measures had been insurance, really, in case the Elders actually were willing to use force to prevent the settlement of the Saffron system's other habitable planet.
Ahead, the fire throbbed and roared. The pines were a native variety; candlestick trees, they were called. They were explosively flammable this time of year, and the air was thick with the heavy resinous smoke. Dust spurted from under the car as they swung behind the bunker, just now thrown up with farming machines and covered with raw dirt. The driver backed and then let the vehicle settle on its flexible skirt, keeping the fans running and the gunner's line of sight just over the top of the mound.
"Good man," Amos said, thumping him on the shoulder before he hopped down and ducked to enter the bunker.
A display film had been tacked to one wall. It showed footage from a pickup located a kilometer down the road. Half a dozen men and women in coveralls and caps were talking into communicators or hovering over a schematic display on a rickety camp table. In the bunker, the air was full of a crackling tension, louder to the nerves than the burning forest was to the ears. Amos nodded to . . . the officer, he reminded himself. No longer friends and retainers, but warriors.
"They are coming," Rachel bint Damscus said.
Her plain bony face was tightly impassive. She was an info-systems specialist, rare for a woman on Bethel, where most females held to traditional feminine careers like medicine or literature. Joseph made her a formal bow.
"You are well, lady?" he said.
She gave a curt nod, then turned back to Amos. "They hit the forest with some sort of indirect-fire incendiary weapon, and now they are advancing through it. Powered vehicles. Fusion-bubble neutrino signatures, fairly heavy ones."
"They probably do not know how common bad fires are here," Amos said. He worked a tongue in a mouth gone dry. Bethel vehicles used stressed-storage batteries.
Rachel was holding up well, better than he had expected. She had a violent temper, and he suspected a buried streak of hysteria. She was also a claustrophobe: the bunker would add that distress to her burdens. The more credit to her, for conquering her phobia.
"They thought to mask their approach in the flames," he said aloud.
Their first ambush had killed several of the invader infantry. Even a few hours had shown how the strangers reacted to a challenge: strike back immediately with overwhelming power. He cleared his throat and asked calmly:
"How far are they from the mine?"
"Two kilometers and closing. Closing at twenty kph. Onscreen."
The view through the screen tacked to the wall trembled. That meant something was shaking the ground under the pickup, even though it was spiked to solid rock. Hills rose on either side ahead, everything on fire except for the narrow stream and the road beside it, down at the base of the massive granite slopes. Shapes were moving through the burning trees on the lower slopes. Dull-gleaming shapes, hard to make out against the background, as if the surfaces were adapting themselves, chameleon-fashion, as they moved. Low turtle-backed outlines, with long weapons jutting from their sloped forward plates, the barrels built up from coils or rings, some sort of wave-guide or electromagnetic launcher.
One fighting vehicle pivoted. The muzzle flashed, bright even through the hot-iron glow of the fires. The viewscreen fogged slightly as a pickup was blasted into plasma, then cleared as the system compensated by spreading input from the others.
"Well, that gives us a clue to the sensitivity of their detectors," Joseph said. He leaned forward. "Everyone is out of there?"
"Falling back to the launching ground. There is nobody within fifteen kilometers," Rachel said. "We are closest."
"Do it, then," Amos said.
She touched a control surface. The screen flashed white and went blank. Half a second later an actinic glare flashed through the bunker, reflected in from the rear entrance but still bright enough to make their goggles darken protectively. Sound and shock followed in a few heartbeats: a roar like God returning in anger, an earthquake rumble through the soil, then a wave of heat and pressure making their ears pop.
"So Keriss died," Rachel said absently, to herself. "Tamik saw it. He said the flash was like the sword of God, and the waves a kilometer high when they broke over the Peninsula mountains."
"Everyone leave," Amos said quietly, glancing down at the watch woven into his sleeve. There was nothing else to say. Rachel's family had lived in Keriss, the capital city of Bethel. So had most of Amos' surviving kindred, and Joseph's, if he had any. "We will rendezvous in forty minutes at the shuttle." He paused. "And, Rachel?"
"Well done. Very well done."
When they left the bunker, the pillar of cloud was already flattening out high in the stratosphere.
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