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Earlier: Auerstadt

There was a party going on in the extensive quarters of General the Marquis Bradkopf, National Army commander of Fortress Auerstadt. Next door in the Tactical Operations Center, Major Matthew Coke of the Frisian Defense Forces was trying to do his job—and General Bradkopf's job—through a real-time link to the pair of combat cars in ambush position thirty kilometers away.

The combat cars were named Mother Love and The Facts of Life. They and their crews were Frisians; and the sergeants commanding them were, like Coke, former members of Hammer's Slammers, the mercenary regiment whose ruthless skill had transformed Colonel Hammer into Alois Hammer, President of Nieuw Friesland.

"We're getting major movement into Hamlet Three, sir," said 4-4—Sergeant-Commander Dubose in Mother Love, stationed for the moment on a dike south of the three hamlets called Parcotch for administrative purposes. "Nearly a hundred just from the direction of Auerstadt. Most of them are carrying weapons, too."

The three clerks in the TOC with Coke were National Army enlisted personnel, two women and a male who looked fifteen years old. They were chattering in a corner of the open bullpen. One of the women had brought in a series of holo-vision cubes of Deiting, the planetary capital, where she'd gone on leave with her boyfriend, a transport driver.

There was a National Army officer listed as Commander of the Watch, but whoever it was hadn't put in an appearance this evening. In all likelihood, the fellow was at General Bradkopf's party.

That was fine with Coke. The best a National officer could do was to keep out of the way of the advisor hired from the Frisian Defense Forces.

Though all the raw data was provided by the combat cars, processing by the base unit in the TOC added several layers of enhancement to what the troops on the ground could see. Coke checked the statistical analysis in a sidebar of his holographic display and said, "There's a hundred and seventeen up the Auerstadt Road. They're all armed, and ninety percent of them are in spatter-camouflage uniforms."

"Bloody hell," said Sergeant-Commander Lennox from The Facts of Life. "We've got regulars from the Association of Barons? Then it's really going to blow!"

"And Four-Two has spotted another eighty-four coming down from Hamlet One and points north," Coke continued, watching his split-screen display "The only thing I can imagine from an assembly this large is that they're planning to attack the fortress itself in a night or two."

Two companies, even of fully equipped regulars, weren't a threat to a base the size of Fortress Auerstadt; but Parcotch was only one village of the ninety or a hundred within comparable distance of the base.

The direct views from sensors in the combat cars filled the lower right and left quadrants of Coke's display. The top half of the screen looked down at an apparent 30° on a panorama extrapolated from the separate inputs and combined with map data.

Mother Love was a klick to the south and east of Hamlet 3. The Facts of Life was within 500 meters of the hamlet's west edge, and that was the problem. Lennox's vehicle was only 500 meters east of Hamlet 2 as well, where the incoming troops had parked a launching trailer full of short-range guided weapons.

The combat cars were in perfect position to do a number on the enemy concentration in Hamlet 3, but Coke wasn't willing to put Lennox between two fires.

"Any chance the Nationals might send us some support?" Sergeant Dubose said wistfully.

"Any chance the tooth fairy is making a run by your car tonight?" Sergeant Lennox retorted tartly. She was a lanky woman who shaved her head and was just as tough as she looked. "Sir," she continued, "let's do it. If we rip this one, the locals'll get their heads out of the sand."

"Not in your present location, Four-Two," Coke said. "If they salvo the full load of missiles, there's no way you're going to survive. Particularly with whatever's happening in Three."

"Sir, look," Lennox said. "The personnel are going to be in Three with the others, getting a pep talk or whatever the hell they're doing. The launcher's no threat!"

"We don't—" Coke started to say.

A mortar fired just outside the TOC.

"Hold one!" Coke shouted, spinning from the console and grabbing the sub-machine gun he'd slung over the back of his chair. The National Army clerks jumped up also. They'd been frightened by Coke's reaction rather than the mortars flash and hollow CHUG! through the TOC's doorway. The vacationer's glittering holo-views spilled onto the floor.

Cheers and laughter from outside the TOC told Coke there was no danger. The shell popped thousands of meters in the air, casting harsh magnesium light across Fortress Auerstadt. General the Marquis Bradkopf was using parachute flares to provide fireworks for his party.

Which suggested a way out of Coke's immediate problem.

In theory, Coke's console was linked to the National Army net. Rather than go through the complicated handshake procedures, however, Coke turned to the rack system at the adjacent bay.

He switched the unit from standby to operations and waited a moment for it to warm up. When the light went from amber to green, Coke keyed the address of the heavy battery of the artillery battalion attached to the fortress defenses. The clerk responsible for the communications bay watched Coke in concern from across the room, but she didn't attempt to interfere.

Marquis Bradkopf began hectoring a subordinate outside the door of the TOC. Drink and anger slurred his words so that Coke couldn't make them out. A woman's voice wove a descant around Bradkopf's.

"Battery Seven," a man said. "Yeah?"

"This is Fortress Command," Coke said crisply. "I have an immediate fire mission for you." As he spoke, his left hand addressed a target information packet on the Frisian console. "This will require seeker shells, so I'm authorizing you to release them from locked storage."

"What!" said the soldier on the other end of the line.

"What? Look, I'll get Chief Edson."

Theoretically, the Frisians were in advisory capacity without direct control of National Army forces. As with other large organizations, somebody who was willing to claim authority was more than likely to be granted it.

The mortar fired again, lofting a second flare into the night sky. There was static on the land line, masking a half-audible conversation at the battery end.

National Army heavy equipment was generally of off-planet manufacture, ranging from good to very good in design. The local personnel were of low quality, however, and virtually untrained. Coke didn't dare call an ordinary fire mission to support units within half a klick of the intended impact area. Battery 7's 200-mm guns were capable of nail-driving accuracy at thirty kilometers, but the crews were as apt as not to drop their heavy shells directly on The Facts of Life.

Technology could eliminate the problem. The battery was issued four Frisian-manufactured seeker rounds, one per tube. These self-steering warheads were designed for use against ill-defined or moving targets, and combined with satellite photos of Parcotch Hamlet 2 they would obviate the friendly-fire risk.

"Chief Edson," a businesslike voice said. "Who is this?"

"Major Matthew Coke," Coke said, "acting Fortress Command. Where's your battery commander?"

"Who the fuck knows?" said the chief, the battery's ranking enlisted man. "Look, Major, I don't care about your authorization—I flat don't have the codes to open the special locker. Maybe Captain Wilcken does, maybe the Marquis does—maybe nobody. Forget the seeker warheads, they're just for show."

"Prepare the battery," Coke snapped. "I'm on my way."

He dropped the handset onto its cradle and rose. More figures drifted through the shadows of the split screen. Lennox and Dubose held their silence, as Coke had directed them at last transmission.

Coke settled his commo helmet, slung the sub-machine gun over his shoulder, and started for the door. General Bradkopf and his entourage burst through from outside.

"Coke!" the Marquis roared. "Where's—there you are!" He pointed an index finger at Coke's face. "What's happened to my tanks?"

Bradkopf was in his mid-fifties. His body was fleshy but powerful, since swimming and exercise machines controlled the grosser results of the dissipation nonetheless evident on his face.

"Sir, you and I discussed using the combat cars for an ambush patrol," Coke half-lied. His mouth was dry, and his palm was sweating on the grip of his sub-machine gun.

This could get him reprimanded. If Bradkopf was angry enough, he could even have Coke recalled to Friesland.

The group oozing into the TOC behind the Marquis included most of the higher male officers of Fortress Auerstadt's complement. Among them was Captain Wilcken, a 20-year-old of excellent family and the titular commander of Battery 7.

Each of the men had a woman in train. The redhead on the Marquis' arm was approximately a third of his age.

"You said you wanted to send out one of the tanks with a patrol," Bradkopf said, his memory unfortunately quite accurate. "For communications."

For stiffening, actually, but the lie was a harmless one. When he'd gotten down to serious planning, he realized that he didn't dare saddle Frisians—his troops—with any of the National Army units in the fortress. The locals lacked noise discipline, fire discipline, and target identification skills. A Frisian combat car was the largest thing around and therefore the most likely target for the National troops who did manage to shoot.

Furthermore, the locals lacked guts.

"I said I'd think about it," Bradkopf said, "and now I find you've stripped me of all my protection! Are you a traitor?"

"No sir," Coke said, "I'm not a traitor. I—"

I screwed up badly, but Bradkopf wasn't the man to admit that to. Coke had taken the chance that the Marquis wouldn't notice the two combat cars—not tanks—normally parked near his quarters were missing. If Bradkopf hadn't decided to shoot off flares for his party, Coke would have gotten away with it.


Coke couldn't quarrel with Bradkopf's assumption that the commander of an 8,000-troop base was unprotected if two foreign combat vehicles left his presence. It was just that protecting this commander was in no sense a military priority for Coke.

"Six, this is Four-Four," Sergeant Dubose reported tensely through Coke's commo helmet. "The troops are moving out of Three in civilian tracks and wagons. Over."

"General Bradkopf!" Coke said. "Association forces are maneuvering to attack this base tonight."

Not in a few days: in a few hours.

Fear of a bad rating in his personnel file had turned Coke's skin hot and prickly. The prospect of imminent combat washed him cool again. Major Matthew Coke was a professional and an employee; but first of all he was a soldier.

"What?" blurted the Marquis, sounding amazingly like the gunner on phone watch at Battery 7. "An attack where? Have you gone mad?"

"Six, this is Four-Two," Sergeant Lennox reported. There was a lilt, almost a caress in her voice despite the flattening of spread-band radio communication. "The rocket pod's moved out of Two. It's being putted by a tractor, now. I'd say it was time, boss. Over."

The partygoers gaped without understanding at the multidirectional byplay. Most of them were drunk or nearly drunk. Captain Wilcken was white-faced but sober. The glance he exchanged with Colonel Jaffe, equally well-born and head of the garrison's supply department, held more terror than confusion.

Coke keyed his helmet. "Six to Four elements," he said. "Take th—"

He didn't get the last word, 'them,' out of his mouth before the split display behind him ignited with gunfire and explosions.

"I'm sounding the general alarm," Coke said calmly as he turned his back on the Marquis. He uncaged and pressed one of the special-use switches at the side of his console's keyboard. The artificial intelligence sent an alert signal to every node on Fortress Auerstadt's communications network. The siren on the roof of the TOC began to wind.

The holographic display shimmered with the cyan hell engulfing Parcotch.

A Frisian combat car mounted three tribarrels in its open fighting compartment. Each weapon fired 2-cm powergun ammunition at a cyclic rate of about 500 rounds per minute. Because the barrels rotated through the firing position and had time to cool between shots, a tribarrel could fire sustainedly for several minutes before burning out. In that time, the powerful bolts of ionized copper atoms could peck halfway through the side of a mountain.

Nothing Mother Love and The Facts of Life faced at Parcotch had armor protection. The targets, unprepared Association soldiers and the civilian helpers driving the vehicles, wilted like wax in a blowtorch.

The Facts of Life's two wing guns hit the trailer of anti-tank rockets and the tractor towing it. That was overkill—a single tribarrel should have been sufficient—but the rocket pod was the only real danger to the Frisian vehicles, and Lennox hadn't survived to become a veteran by taking needless risks.

Cyan bolts licked the pod. The solid rocket fuel burned in a huge yellow ball, technically not an explosion but wholly destructive of everything within its 10-meter diameter.

At least one of the missile warheads did detonate. The white flash of 40 kilos of HE punctuated the saffron fireball. The tractor-trailer combination blew apart. Blazing debris rained across the landscape, igniting the houses of Hamlet 2 and the heads of the ripe grain in the paddies.

On the other side of the display, Mother Love's three tribarrels clawed the infantry packed into the civilian vehicles. Ammunition and grenades went off in secondary explosions, but the stabbing cyan plasma itself did most of the damage. The Association troops were too crowded to fight or flee in the first instants of the ambush, and those instants were all that remained to scores of them.

A stray bolt ruptured the fuel tank under a truck cab. Kerosine, superheated and atomized by the plasma, expanded into an explosive mixture with the surrounding atmosphere—

And flash ignited, just as it would normally have done when injected into the cylinders of the truck's diesel engine. Bodies and body parts flew up in the mushrooming flame, but most of the Association troops had already been killed by gunfire.

"You wanted to know what?" Coke shouted over the wail of the siren. He gestured to the screen which glowed with the light of the scenes it displayed. "That's what, General, and there's a lot more Association units out there tonight than those."

An automatic cannon opened fire from a bunker on the perimeter of Fortress Auerstadt. The gunners probably didn't have a real target. They were shooting at shadows or livestock.

That was the right response to the present circumstances. With the base fully alerted, any attack Association troops made would be fragmentary instead of coordinated and overwhelming. In all likelihood there would be no attack. At daybreak the National Army would be able to concentrate on scattered companies of their opponents.

"Why that's . . ." the Marquis said, staring at the console display. "That's a massacre!"

Coke was surprised that his nominal superior had enough military knowledge to make that perfectly accurate assessment of what was happening in Parcotch.

As soon as the shooting started, the combat cars' drivers fed full power to the lift fans. Howling like banshees as the fans sucked in vast quantities of air to pressurize the plenum chambers, spraying water and soupy mud in all directions from beneath their skirts, the 50-tonne behemoths accelerated toward Parcotch Hamlet 3 from two directions.

While her wing gunners destroyed the rocket launcher, Sergeant Lennox had opened fire on the community itself. Lennox didn't have a line of sight to the vehicles leaving the hamlet eastward from The Facts of Life's starting position half a klick distant. Instead she shot up the buildings.

The structures had thatch walls and roofs of corrugated plastic sheeting, supported by wood or plastic frames. All the construction materials were flammable at the temperature of copper plasma. Houses, the school building, and the community center all burst into flame, spreading panic and confusing the enemy.

Everything moving this night was a foe and a target. The Frisians' only chance was to hit hard and keep on hitting before the enemy forces could organize their superior numbers. In the morning, every corpse in Hamlet 3 would be tagged as an Association soldier or an Association supporter. Like other forms of history, after-action reports are written by the survivors.

Mother Love bounced onto the Auerstadt Road from the dike which had concealed the vehicle in the darkness. The gunners depressed their tribarrels, raking the troops who'd jumped into the fields to either side of the causeway. A gout of steam flew up at each bolt, whether it hit a flooded paddy or superheated the fluids within a soldier's body.

The flames enveloping the hamlet rolled in redoubled fury, whipped by The Facts of Life's powerful drive fans. The combat car bellied through the blaze at a walking pace, firing continuously from all three weapons. Cyan bolts cut down the soldiers who had jumped from wagons and truck beds to run toward the fancied safety of the buildings.

Lennox made a point of destroying each of the stalled vehicles. Blazing fuel geysered over the paddies, igniting rice and troops alike.

"Good Lord!" the Marquis said. He turned from the display to Coke and continued, "Get those tanks back here now, you fool! How dared you leave me at risk at a time of such danger?"

"Yes sir," Coke said. "They're on their way back now."

The Facts of Life bulldozed burning wreckage off the causeway, clearing the route by which to return to Fortress Auerstadt. The driver was buttoned up within his compartment, using the curved bow slope to butt aside a truck festooned with corpses.

The tribarrels continued to fire. The visors of Frisian commo helmets could be switched to either light enhancement or thermal imaging modes. The latter could pick up bodies even through the shallow water of the paddies.

Captain Wilcken blurted something, clawed his personal sidearm out of a white patent leather holster, and pointed the small-bore projectile pistol at General the Marquis Bradkopf. Colonel Jaffe was drawing his pistol also.

Part of Coke's mind reasoned:

Wilcken and Jaffe were supporters of the Association of Barons. They intended to assassinate Bradkopf in conjunction with the attack, leaving Fortress Auerstadt leaderless at the moment of crisis. In panic, Wilcken has gone ahead with the plan even though circumstances have obviously changed . . . .

That was with the conscious part of his mind. Reflex thumbed off the safety of Coke's sub-machine gun as his left hand slapped the fore-grip and his finger took up the slack in the trigger.

The first bolt blew plaster from the wall above the TOC's doorway. The next four hit Wilcken in the chest and neck at point-blank range, virtually decapitating him.

Officers and their gorgeously clad mistresses screamed and threw themselves down. Coke body-checked the Marquis, knocking him to the side and clearing Coke for a shot at Colonel Jaffe. Jaffe's pistol was only half out of its holster. To Coke's adrenaline-speeded reactions, the colonel didn't seem to be moving at all.

The air stank of burned flesh and vaporized blood. Wilcken toppled backward, his head dangling onto his chest by a tag of skin. The pupils of the dead man's eyes had tilted up into the skull.

Coke's second burst winked cyan on Jaffe's corneas. The colonel's chest burst like a blood-filled sponge. The pistol in his hand fired a single shot into the floor. The bullet moaned away in sparks and a spurt of powdered concrete.

"Traitors!" gasped the Marquis, half-sprawled where Coke had knocked him, supporting his torso on the spread fingers of his right hand. "They were—uh!"

Coke was poised for a further threat, sweeping the bullpen over his sub-machine gun's holographic sights. The indium barrel glowed white from the nearly instantaneous bursts. Heat waves trembled through the haze of powergun matrix and smoldering fabric.

Officers and their women hugged the littered floor, some of them with their hands crossed over their heads. The trio of enlisted personnel huddled behind the overturned table at which they had been sitting.

No one else was touching a gun. Jaffe's disemboweled body thrashed, but he was as dead as the headless Captain Wilcken. Everything was safe—

Except that General the Marquis Bradkopf vomited blood onto the concrete floor, then pitched facedown into the bright pool.

The hilt of a narrow-bladed dagger projected from his back. Bradkopf's youthful mistress stared fixedly at the weapon. There was blood on her little finger and the heel of her right hand. Her tongue dabbed at it.

"Bloody hell," Coke whispered. He didn't shoot the girl, the third of the assassins. At this point, it wouldn't do any good.

"Four-Two to Six," Sergeant Lennox reported gleefully. "We've done all there is to do here, boss, so we're heading back to the barn. Out!"

Bradkopf's sightless eyes stared toward the split display of the carnage achieved by the troops who, by his orders, should have been guarding his own person. In that professionally significant aspect, Coke's gamble hadn't paid off after all.

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