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Rescue Mission

"Is it true," demanded one of the First Platoon corporals in a voice that filled the echoing bay of the landing craft, "that this whole operation is so we can rescue Admiral Mayne's nephew from the Khalia?"

Captain Kowacs looked at the man. The corporal stared back at the company commander with a jaunty arrogance that said, Whatcha gonna do? Put me on point?

Which of course was the corporal's normal patrol position.

Kowacs took a deep breath, but you learned real fast in a Marine Reaction Company that you couldn't scare your troops with rear-echelon discipline. Trying to do that would guarantee you were the first casualty of the next firefight.

"No, Corporal Dodd," said Kowacs. "Admiral Mayne is planning coordinator for this mission, but neither he nor any nephews of his have anything behind-the-scenes to do with it."

He glared at his assembled company.

The behind-the-scenes order had come from Star Admiral Forberry; and it was Forberry's son, not a nephew, who'd been snatched—no body recovered, at any rate—when the Khalia raided the Pleasure Dome on Iknaton five years before.

Nobody else spoke up; even Dodd looked abashed.

Kowacs gazed at the hundred and three pairs of waiting eyes—wondered how many of them would have any life behind them in twenty-four hours . . . .

Sighed and thumbed the handset controlling the holo projector.

The image that formed above Kowacs' head was fuzzy. The unit was intended for use in a shielded environment, while the bay of the landing ship Bonnie Parker was alive with circuits and charged metal.

No matter: this was the 121st Marine Reaction Company, the Headhunters, not an architectural congress. The projector would do for the job.

"Fleet Intelligence believes this site to be the Khalia's major holding facility for human prisoners on Target," Kowacs said, referencing the hologram with a nod. "Their slave pen. Reconnaissance indicates that slave ships land at a pad three kilometers distant—"

A second hologram bloomed briefly, the scale of distance merging it with one wall of the big room.

"—and their cargoes are carried to the holding facility by air trucks which touch down on the roof of the Administration Building," Kowacs continued as the image of the outlying spaceport disappeared. The building in the center of the main hologram brightened and began to rotate in three dimensions while the Marines squinted.

"Based on analysis of captured Khalian structures," Kowacs said, "Intelligence believes the building is an integral polyborate casting, probably of two above-ground levels—"

"That high and the Weasels only got two floors?" demanded a sergeant from the Heavy Weapons platoon. She was concerned, not gibing like Dodd earlier. "Them little bastards, they like low ceilings."

"Good point, Sergeant Rozelle," Kowacs said, as if he liked to be interrupted . . . but soldiers who were too dumb to think for themselves were too dumb to trust with your life in a reaction company. "Intelligence believes the building is scaled to the needs of human—slave—intake. But there aren't any windows, and there may well be a third level inside."

Kowacs cleared his throat. Before any of the half dozen Marines poised with further questions could interrupt again, he continued, "The walls and roof are rigid enough to withstand considerable stress, but they're apt to shatter once their integrity is breached. Intelligence believes that strip charges will hole them and that plasma bolts should crumble sections large enough for easy entry."

Almost the entire complement of the 121st was veteran. Even the scattering of newbies was aware that Fleet Intelligence believed a lot of things—but all Fleet Intelligence knew for sure was that no analyst's butt was going to be on the line if his beliefs were false.

"The admin building is separated from the camp proper by double fences with fifteen meters between them," Kowacs continued as the hologram of the building froze and that of the fenced area brightened in turn. "The intermediate separation is believed to be mined and is swept by automatic weapons sited on the building's roof coping. The fence may be electrified."

Marines nodded, easy in the knowledge that barriers impassable to a bunch of unarmed civilians were going to be a piece of cake to them.

The forty-eight buildings splayed like a double row of spokes around the hub of the admin building, twelve and thirty-six, brightened as the hologram fence dimmed.

"Beyond that are the slave pens and workshops themselves," Kowacs said.

Just for a moment he paused, his mouth half open—prepared speech interrupted by memories of Khalia and slaves . . . . Memories of his father and mother, dead on Gravely, and his sister's body left behind two weeks later on LaFarge when the same raider landed to replenish its stock.

Its larder.

"Intelligence doesn't even guess at the structure within the compound." Kowacs forced his tongue to continue, though it was several moments more before his eyes were focusing again on the Marines. They were draped over folded bunks and the equipment crated to deploy with them. Some of them looked back at their captain with vacant expressions that Kowacs knew must mirror his of a moment before.

"There may be guards in the barracks, there may not," he continued thickly, damning the emotion that clogged his throat and made him less able to do his job—

Of erasing every living Weasel from the universe.

"If there are guards, they probably don't have weapons; but most of you know an unarmed Khalian can still be a dangerous opponent. "

"It's still a fucking pelt, too," growled someone from a corner of the bay.

"Yeah, it's that too," Kowacs said in a voice with an edge. "And any Marine taking trophies while there's still a job to do, I'll take his ears myself. Do you understand?"

The newbies thought that was a threat. The veterans knew it was a promise.

Kowacs took a deep breath and, fully in control of himself and the situation again, continued as the hologram changed. "The outer perimeter is a double fence again, but with guard towers on the exterior."

The tower images glowed like strung jewels.

"Most of them are automatic weapons," Kowacs said without expression, "but there are rapid-firing plasma guns—"

Six of the jewels stood out from the rest.

"—for anti-vehicle defense; and there are a pair of missile batteries. Ship-killers."

"Fuckin' A," said Dodd. He wasn't interrupting, just vocalizing what all the Marines in the bay were thinking right now.

Kowacs included.

"Sir?" asked Sergeant Atwater of third Platoon, a black Terran who was in line for a slot in the Officer Training Unit. "What forces are being committed to this assault?"

"Right," said Kowacs. "The Carol Ann Fugate and the Ladybird Johnson will land as close to the perimeter as they can. The One-Twenty-second is responsible for the west half—"

That portion of the hologram brightened.

"—and the One-Twenty-third handles the rest. Kamens and Eckland think their companies are nearly as good as mine—"

The back of Kowacs' mind wore a smile at the scene in Admiral Mayne's office, when he and his fellow company commanders had been told their assignments.

"—so I guess they'll be able to take care of the job."

"Ah, sir?" said Atwater, his eyes narrowed on the completely highlighted perimeter of the slave compound. "Ah—where will we be?"

"The Bonnie Parker sets down on the roof of the admin building," Kowacs said quietly.

He didn't bother to change the hologram; everyone else in the bay was staring at the face of their commander, including the platoon leaders who'd already been briefed on the plan. "You're the best there is in the Fleet, Headhunters. Anybody doubts you, tell him suck on that."

Nobody said anything at all.

"Yeah, well," Kowacs continued after a moment. "Your platoon leaders will give you your individual assignments in a moment. Ah—"

He looked out over his company. "Ah, I have been ordered to, ah, emphasize to you that the high command considers Khalian prisoners to be a first priority of all the Target landings, this one included."

He cleared his throat. "Any questions before I turn you over to your platoon leaders?"

"You mean you want us to bring in Weasels alive, Cap'n?" Dodd blurted in amazement.

Beside Dodd sat Sergeant Bradley, who acted as Kowacs' field first—company headquarters, headed by the Table of Organization "First Sergeant," was back on Port Tau Ceti, forwarding supplies, mail, and replacements to the company. Bradley was a man of middle height; his flesh was drawn so tightly over his bones that the pink keloid, replacing his hair since a too-near plasma burst, did not appear unusual.

Now he turned to Dodd, lifted the junior non-com's chin between his thumb and forefinger, and said very distinctly, "Did he say that, dickhead?"

"No, Sergeant," Dodd whispered.

Bradley faced front with the disdain of a fisherman releasing an undersized catch.

"Any other—"

"Sir?" said Atwater crisply. His arm was lifted but only the index finger was raised, a compromise between courtesy and honor. "Will there be some feints to draw off Khalian forces in the area before we go in?"

Kowacs nodded, but that was a comment on the cogency of the question, not a response to it.

"There's concern," he said carefully, "that when the Khalia realize that we've landed on their home world, their first reaction will be to execute their slaves. Therefore—"

He paused, too clearly aware of the Marines he was leading. This would be a suicide mission if the general invasion timing were off by an hour, maybe even by a few minutes.

"Therefore," Kowacs continued, "a ground-attack ship will go in ahead of us to prep the defenses. We—the assault component—will follow at a three-second interval. No other Alliance forces will be committed to Target until we're on the ground."

"Fuckin' A," somebody repeated in a whisper that echoed throughout the bay.

Commodore Herennis stood as stiff as if a Weasel were buggering him in Kowacs' tiny office—a cubicle separated from the landing bay by walls of film which blurred light and sound into a semblance of privacy. Anger wasn't the only emotion holding Grand Admiral Forberry's military secretary rigid—but it was one of the emotions.

"I told you," said Kowacs from the room's only chair—Herennis had refused it, and there wasn't floor space for both men to stand—"that while I didn't care to leave my men just now, I would of course obey a direct order to report to you on the flagship."

He was holding his combat knife toward the striplight in the ceiling; its wire edge was too fine for his eyes to focus on it, no matter how hard he squinted.

"You knew I couldn't formally give an order like that!" Herennis snapped.

Kowacs looked up at the smartly uniformed staff officer—his social, military, and (no doubt) intellectual superior.

"Yes, Commodore," said the Marine captain softly. "I suppose I did. Now, if you care to state your business, I'll take care of it the best way I can."

"Yes, I . . . ," Herennis said. His body quivered as embarrassment replaced anger as his ruling emotion. "Here is the, the chip that was discussed."

The hologram would take up only a corner of the data capacity in the Marines' helmets, nestled among the sensors and recorders that let the high command look over each man's shoulder after the action.

From a safe distance.

Kowacs set his knife on the fold-down desk that doubled as a keypad when he chose to power up his computer terminal. He took the holochip from the commodore and inserted it into the bulkhead projector. The unit was balky; he had to jiggle the handset several times before there was a hum and a face appeared in the air near the filmy opposite wall.

"That's the boy?" Kowacs said. "Well, I'll have it down-loaded into the men's helmets before we go in."

The Honorable Thomas Forberry wasn't a boy, not really. His image looked to be mid-forties, and that was at least five years back. Blue eyes, a ruddy complexion—dark blond hair with curls as perfect as an angel's tits.

For all its pampering, the face was hard and competent. Young Thomas hadn't followed his father into the Fleet, but he ran the family's business concerns, and the Forberrys would have been rich even without the opportunities a grand admiral has of profitably anticipating economic changes.

Used to run the family business.

"Ah, five years could . . . ," Kowacs began, letting his voice trail off because he didn't choose to emphasize the changes five years as a Weasel slave could make in a man—even if he survived.

"Yes, he's aware—" Herennis said, then caught himself. "Ah, I'm aware of that. I'm, ah, not expecting . . . . I know you must think—"

Kowacs waved his hand to cut off the staff officer's words, his embarrassment.

"Look, Commodore," he said gently. "Nobody in my outfit's got a problem about releasing Khalian prisoners. If it takes something, whatever, personal to give the high command the balls to cut the orders—okay, that's what it takes. Tell your friend not to worry about it."

"Thank you, Captain," Herennis said, sounding as if he meant it. He wasn't done speaking, but he met the Marine's eyes before he went on with, "The unofficial reward, ah, I've promised you is considerable in money terms. But I want you to realize that neither I nor—anyone else—believes that money can recompense the risk you and your men are running."

"Commodore . . . ," Kowacs said. His hand was reaching for the leather-wrapped hilt of his knife, but he restrained the motion because Herennis might have misunderstood. "I lost my family in the Gravely Incident."

"I'm sor—"

The Marine's hand moved very sharply to chop off the interruption.

"About half my team could tell you their own version of the same story."

Kowacs saw the doubt in his visitor's eyes and smiled. "Yeah, that high a percentage. Not in the Marines in general, and sure as hell not in the whole Fleet. But you check the stats on the reaction companies, not just mine, and see what you find."

Herennis nodded and touched his tongue to his lips.

"Besides that," Kowacs went on with the same tight, worn smile—a smile like the hilt of the knife his hand was, after all, caressing, "we're the ones that hit dirt first after the raids. We've seen everything the Weasels can do to human beings. Do you understand?"

Herennis nodded again. He was staring at Kowacs as if the Marine were a cobra on the other side of a pane of glass.

Kowacs shut off the holo projector. "You're right, Commodore," he said. "None of my team does this for the money, yours or the regular five percent danger allowance.

"But you couldn't pay us not to take this mission, either."


The Bonnie Parker's thunderous vibration was bad enough on any insertion, but this time they were going down in daylight. The bay was brightly illuminated, so you could look at the faces of the Marines beside you—blank with fear that was physical and instinctive.

Or you could watch the landing vessel's wiring and structural panels quiver centimeters under the stress—far beyond their designed limits—and wonder whether this time the old girl was going to come apart with no help from the Weasel defense batteries at all.

A shock lifted all the Marines squatting on the deck.

Kowacs, gripping a stanchion with one hand and his rifle with the other, swore; but the word caught in his throat and it wasn't a missile, just the shock wave of the the ground-attack ship that had plunged down ahead of them in a shallow dive that would carry it clear of the landing zone—

If its ordnance had taken out the missile batteries as planned.

Kowacs wanted to piss. He did what he had learned to do in the moments before hitting hot LZs in the past.

Pissed down his trouser leg.

Three plasma bolts hit the Bonnie Parker with the soggy impact of medicine balls against the hull. The ship rocked.

The magnetic screens spread the bursts of charged particles, but the bay lights went off momentarily and the center bank stayed dark even after the rest had flickered into life again.

"About now—," said Corporal Sienkiewicz, two meters tall and beside Kowacs in the bay because so far as the Table of Organization was concerned, she was his clerk.

Kowacs and Bradley could file their own data. There was no one in the company they thought could do a better job of covering their asses in a firefight.

Sienkiewicz's timing was flawless, as usual. The Bonnie Parker's five-g braking drove the squatting Marines hard against the deck plates.

Automatic weapons, unaffected by the screens, played against the hull like sleet. The landing vessel's own suppression clusters deployed with a whoompwhoompwhoompwhoomp noticeable over the general stress and racket only by those who knew it was coming.

The Bonnie Parker was small for a starship but impressive by comparison with most other engines of human transportation. She slowed to a halt, then lurched upward minusculely before her artificial intelligence pilot caught her and brought her to hover. The landing bay doors began to lift on both sides of the hull while the last bomblets of the suppression clusters were still exploding with the snarl and glare of a titanic arclight.

"Get 'em!" Kowacs roared needlessly over his helmet's clear channel as he and the rest of the company leaped under the rising doors in two lines, one to either side of the landing vessel.

Thrust vectored from the Bonnie Parker's lift engines punched their legs, spilling some of the Marines on the roof's smooth surface. Normally the vessel would have grounded, but the weight of a starship was almost certain to collapse a pad intended for surface-effect trucks. The old girl's power supply would allow her to hover all day.

Unless the Weasels managed to shoot her down, in which case she'd crumple the building on top of the Marines she'd just delivered.

Well, nobody in the 121st was likely to die of ulcers from worry.

There were half a dozen dead Khalia sprawled on the part of the roof Kowacs could see. Their teeth were bared, and all of them clutched the weapons they'd been firing at the landing vessel when the suppression clusters had flayed everything living into bloody ruin.

There was a sharp bang and a scream. Halfway down the line on Kowacs' side of the vessel, Corporal Dodd up-ended. One of his feet was high and the other was missing, blown off by the bomblet unexploded until he'd managed to step on it.

"Watch the—," called one of the platoon leaders on the command channel.

At least one plasma gun on the perimeter had survived the ground attack ship. The Weasel crew turned their weapon inward and ripped a three-round burst into the Bonnie Parker and the deploying Marines.

One bolt hit the waist-high roof coping—Intelligence was right; the polyborate shattered like a bomb, gouging a two-meter scallop from the building. Kowacs was pushed backward by the blast, and half a dozen of the Marines near him went down.

The other bolts skimmed the coping and diffused against the landing vessel's screen with whiplash cracks and a coruscance that threw hard shadows across the roof. Kowacs' faceshield saved his eyes, but ozone burned the back of his throat and he wasn't sure that anyone could hear him order, "Delta Six, get that f—"

Before anyone in Heavy Weapons, Delta Platoon, could respond to the order with their tripod-mounted guns, Corporal Sienkiewicz leaned over the coping and triggered her own shoulder-carried plasma weapon.

The weapon was a meter-long tube holding a three-round magazine of miniature thermonuclear devices. The deuterium pellets were set off and directed by a laser array, part of the ammunition, and consumed by the blast it contained.

The crack of the out-going plasma jet was sharp and loud even to ears stunned by the bolts that had struck nearby. Downrange, all the ready munitions in the guard tower blew up simultaneously. The blast across the dull beige roofs of the slave barracks was earth-shaking.

"Assigned positions," Kowacs ordered, looking around desperately to make sure that his troops weren't bunching, huddling. Because of the Bonnie Parker, he had only half a field of view. Maybe all the Marines who'd jumped from the port side were dead and—

"Move it, Marines! Move it!" he shouted, finding the stairhead that was the only normal entrance on the building's roof.

"Fire in the hole!" warned the First Platoon demo team that had laid a rectangle of strip charges near one end of the flat expanse. The nearest Marines—except the assault squad in full battle suits—hunched away. Everyone else at least turned their faces.

"Fire in the hole!" echoed Third Platoon at the opposite side of the roof—so much for everybody being dead, not that—

The entry charges detonated with snaps that were more jarring to the optic nerves than to the ears. Each was a strip of adhesive containing a filament of PDM explosive—which propagated at a measurable fraction of light speed. The filament charges were too minute to have significant effect even a meter or two from the strip, but the shattering force they imparted on contact was immense.

A door-sized rectangle of the roof dropped into the building interior. Marines in battle suits, their armor protecting them against the glassy needles of polyborate, shrieking and spinning from the blast, crisscrossed the opened room with fire from their automatic rifles. Their helmet sensors gave them targets—or their nervousness squeezed the triggers without targets, and either way it gave the Weasels more to think about.

Similar bursts crackled from the other end of the roof, hidden by the Bonnie Parker and attenuated by the howl of her lift engines.

"Alpha ready!" on the command channel, First Platoon reporting. Kowacs could see the Marines poised to enter the hole they'd just blown in the roof.

"Beta ready!" The two squads of Second Platoon under their lieutenant, detailed to rappel down the sides of the windowless building and secure the exits so that the Weasels couldn't get out among the helpless slaves in a last orgy of destruction.

"Kappa ready!" Third Platoon, whose strip charges had blown them an entrance like the one Kowacs could see First clustered around.

"Delta ready!" Heavy Weapons, now with a tripod-mounted plasma gun on each side of the roof. One of the weapons was crashing out bolts to support the units securing the perimeter.

"Gamma ready!" said Sergeant Bradley with a skull-faced grin at Kowacs from the stairhead where he waited with Sienkiewicz and the two remaining squads of Second Platoon.

"All units, go!" Kowacs ordered as he jogged toward the stairhead and Bradley blew its door with the strip charges placed but not detonated until this moment.

Three of Second's assault squad hosed the opening. Return fire or a ricochet blasted sparks from the center Marine's ceramic armor. He staggered but didn't go down, and his two fellows lurched in sequence down the stairs their bulky gear filled.

"Ditch that!" Kowacs snarled to Sienkiewicz as she slung the plasma gun and cocked her automatic rifle.

"It's my back," she said with a nonchalance that was no way to refuse a direct order—

But which would do for now, because Kowacs was already hunching through the doorway, and she was right behind him. The air was bitter with residues of the explosive, but that was only spice for the stench of musk and human filth within.

You could make a case for the company commander staying on the roof instead of ducking into a building where he'd lose contact with supporting units and the high command in orbit.

Rank hath its privileges. For twelve years, the only privilege Kowacs had asked for was the chance to be where he had the most opportunity to kill Weasels.

The stairs were almost ladder-steep and the treads were set for the Khalia's short legs. One of the clumsily armored Marines ahead of Kowacs sprawled onto all fours in the corridor, but there were no living Weasels in sight to take advantage of the situation.

Half a dozen of them were dead, ripped by the rifle fire that caught them with no cover and no hope. One furry body still squirmed. Reflex or intent caused the creature to clash its teeth vainly against the boot of the leading Marine as he crushed its skull in passing.

The area at the bottom of the short staircase was broken into a corridor with a wire-mesh cage to either side. The cage material was nothing fancier than hog-fencing—these were very short-term facilities. The one on the left was empty.

The cage on the right had room for forty humans and held maybe half a dozen, all of them squeezed into a puling mass in one corner from fear of gunfire and the immediate future.

The prisoners were naked except for a coating of filth so thick that their sexes were uncertain even after they crawled apart to greet the Marines. There was a drain in one corner of the cage, but many of the human slaves received here in past years had been too terrified to use it. The Weasels didn't care.

Neither did Kowacs just now.

"Find the stairs down—," he was shouting when something plucked his arm and he spun, his rifle-stock lifting to smash the Weasel away before worrying about how he'd kill it, they were death if you let 'em touch you—

And it wasn't a Khalian but a woman with auburn hair. She'd reached through the fencing that saved her life when it absorbed the reflexive buttstroke that would have crushed her sternum.

"Bitch!" Kowacs snarled, more jarred by his mistake than by the shock through his weapon that made his hands tingle.

"Please," the woman insisted with a throaty determination that overrode all the levels of fear that she must be feeling. "My brother, Alton Dinneen—don't trust him. On your lives, don't trust him!"

"Weasel bunkroom!" called one of the armored Marines who'd clumped down the corridor to the doorways beyond the cages. "Empty, though."

"Watch for—" Kowacs said as he jogged toward them. Bradley and Sienkiewicz were to either side and a half step behind him.

The Khalian that leaped from the 'empty' room was exactly what he'd meant to watch for.

A Marine screamed instinctively. There were four of them, all members of the assault squad burdened by their armor. The Weasel had no gun, just a pair of knives in his forepaws. Their edges sparkled against the ceramic armor—and bit through the joints.

Two of the Marines were down in seconds that blurred into eternity before Sergeant Bradley settled matters with a blast from his shotgun. The Marines' armor glittered like starlit snow under the impact of Bradley's airfoil charge. The Khalian, his knives lifted to scissor through a third victim, collapsed instead as a rug of blood-matted fur.

Cursing because it was his fault, he shouldn't have let Marines manacled by twenty kilos of armor lead after the initial entry, Kowacs ran to the room in which the Weasel had hidden.

It was a typical Khalian nest. There was a false ceiling to lower the dimensions to Weasel comfort and a heap of bedding which his sensors, like those of the first Marine, indicated were still warm with the body heat of the Khalia who'd rushed into the corridor to be cut down in the first exchange of fire.

Except that one of the cunning little bastards had hidden under the bedding and waited . . . .

You couldn't trust your sensors, and you couldn't trust your eyes—but you could usually trust a long burst of fire like the one with which Sienkiewicz now hosed the bedding. Fluff and wood chips fountained away from the bullets.

"Hey!" cried one of the assault squad who was still standing. Kowacs spun.

An elevator door was opening across the hall.

The startled figure in the elevator car was bare-chested but wore a red sleeve that covered his right arm wrist to shoulder. The Khalian machine-pistol he pointed might not penetrate assault-squad armor, but it would have stitched through Kowacs' chest with lethal certainty if the captain hadn't fired first. Kowacs' bullets flung his target backward into the bloody elevator.

"Sir!" cried the Marine who hadn't fired. "That was a friendly! A man!"

"Nobody's friendly when they point a gun at you!" Kowacs said. "Demo team! Blow me a hole in this fucking floor!"

Two Marines sprinted over, holding out the partial spools of strip-charge that remained after they blew down the door.

"How big—" one started to ask, but Kowacs was already anticipating the question with, "One by two—no, two by two!"

Kowacs needed a hole that wasn't a suicidally small choke point when he and his troops jumped through it—but the floor here had been cast in the same operation as the roof and exterior walls. He was uneasily aware that the battering which gunfire and explosives were giving the structure would eventually disturb its integrity to the point that the whole thing collapsed.

Still, he needed a hole in the floor, because the only way down from here seemed to be the elevator which—

"Should I take the elevator, sir?" asked an armored Marine, anonymous behind his airfoil-scarred face shield.

"No, dammit!" Kowacs said, half inclined to let the damn fool get killed making a diversion for the rest of them. But the kid was his damn fool, and—

"Only young once," muttered Sergeant Bradley in a mixture of wonder and disdain.

"Fire in the hole!" cried one of the Demolition Team.

Kowacs squeezed back from the doorway to give the demo team room to jump clear, but the pair were too blase[aa about their duties to bother. They twisted around and knelt with their hands over their ears before the strips blew and four square meters of flooring shuddered, tilted down—

And stuck. The area below was divided into rooms off-set from those of the upper floor. The thick slab of polyborate caught at a skewed angle, half in place and half in the room beneath.

An automatic weapon in that room fired two short bursts. A bullet ricocheted harmlessly up between the slab and the floor from which it had been blasted.

"Watch it!" said Sienkiewicz, unlimbering the plasma gun again. She aimed toward the narrow wedge that was all the opening there was into the lower room.

It was damned dangerous. If she missed, the bolt would liberate all its energy in the nest room, and the interior walls might not be refractory enough to protect Gamma.

But Sienkiewicz was good; and among other things, this would be a real fast way to silence the guns beneath before the Marines followed the plasma bolt.

The demo team sprinted into the corridor; Kowacs flattened himself against the wall he hoped would hold for the next microsecond; and the big weapon crashed a dazzling line through the hole and into the building's lower story.

Air fluoresced at the point of impact and lifted the slab before dropping it as a load of rubble. Kowacs and Bradley shouldered one another in their mutual haste to be first through the opening. Sienkiewicz used their collision to lead them both by a half step, the plasma gun for the moment cradled in her capable arms.

It wasn't the weapon for a point-blank firefight; but nothing close to where the bolt struck was going to be alive, much less dangerous.

Kowacs dropped through the haze and hit in a crouch on something that squashed under his boots. The atmosphere was so foul in the bolt's aftermath that the helmet filters slapped across his mouth and nose in a hard wedge.

The Marines were in a good-sized—human-scale—room with a cavity in the floor. There was nothing beneath the cavity except earth glazed by the plasma bolt that had excavated it.

This was a briefing room or something of the sort; but it was a recreation room as well, for the chairs had been stacked along the walls before the blast disarrayed them, and two humans were being tortured on a vertical grid. The victims had been naked before the gush of sun-hot ions scoured the room, flensing to heat-cracked bones the side of their bodies turned toward the blast.

But the plasma gun hadn't killed them. The victims' skulls had been shattered by bullets, the bursts the Marines had heard the moment before Sienkiewicz blew them entry.

Several of the chairs were burning. They were wooden, handmade, and intended for humans. On the wall behind the grid was a name list on polished wood, protected from the plasma flux by the torture victims and a cover sheet of now bubbled glassine. The list was headed


In English, not the tooth-mark wedges of Khalian script.

Each of the six other bodies the blast had caught wore a red right sleeve—or traces of red fabric where it had been shielded from the plasma. They had all been humans, including the female Kowacs was standing on. She still held the Khalian machine-pistol she had used to silence the torture victims.

"Renegades," Sergeant Bradley snarled. He would have spat on a body, but his filters were in place.

"Trustees," Kowacs said in something approaching calm. "The Weasels don't run the interior of the compound. They pick slaves of the right sort to do it. Let's—"

He was looking at the door and about to point to it. More Marines were tumbling through the hole in the ceiling, searching for targets. The air had cleared enough now that Kowacs noticed details of the body flung into the doorway by the blast. Its arms and legs had been charred to stumps, and its neck was seared through to the point that its head flopped loose.

But the face was unmarked, and the features were recognizable in their family relationship to those of the woman caged upstairs.

Nobody had to worry about treachery by Alton Dinneen anymore.

"—go, Marines!" Kowacs completed. Because he'd hesitated momentarily, Bradley and Sienkiewicz were already ahead of him.

They were in a long hallway whose opposite wall was broken with doorways at short intervals. Somebody ducked out of one, saw the Marines, and ducked back in.

Bradley and Sienkiewicz flanked the panel in a practiced maneuver while Kowacs aimed down the corridor in case another target appeared. He hoped their backs were being covered by the Second Platoon Marines who'd been able to follow him. The survivors of the assault squad couldn't jump through the ceiling unless they stripped off their battle suits first.


Sienkiewicz fired her rifle through the door panel and kicked the latch plate. As the door bounced open, Bradley tossed in a grenade with his left hand.

The man inside jumped out screaming an instant before the grenade exploded; Bradley's shotgun disembowelled him.

They'd all seen the flash of a red sleeve when the target first appeared.

The trustee's room had space for a chair, a desk, and a bed whose mattress had ignited into smoldering fire when the explosion lifted it.

He'd also had a collection of sorts hanging from cords above the bed. Human skin is hard to flay neatly, especially when it's already been stretched by the weight of mammary glands, so the grenade fragments had only finished what ineptitude had begun.

Short bursts of rifle fire and the thump of grenades echoed up the corridor from where it kinked toward Third Platoon's end of the building. Nobody'd had to draw those Marines a picture either.

First and Third would work in from the ends, but Kowacs didn't have enough men under his direct command to clear many of the small individual rooms. He'd expected Weasel nests . . . .

But there were only two more doors, spaced wide apart, beside the briefing room in the visible portion of the hall.

"Cover us!" Kowacs ordered the squad leader from Second Platoon. "Both ways, and don't shoot any Marines."

In another setting, he'd have said "friendlies." Here it might have been misconstrued.

His non-coms had already figured this one, flattening themselves to either side of the next door down from the briefing room. Kowacs' fire and Sienkiewicz' crisscrossed, stitching bright yellow splinters from the soft wood of the panel. Bradley kicked, and all three of them tossed grenades as the door swung.

There was no latch. The panel's sprung hinges let the explosions bounce it open into the corridor with its inner face scarred by the shrapnel.

Kowacs and his team fanned through the door, looking for targets. Nothing was moving except smoke and platters jouncing to the floor from the pegs on which they'd been hanging. In the center of the floor was a range. There were ovens and cold-lockers along three of the walls.

Well, there'd had to be a kitchen, now that Kowacs thought about it.

The man hidden there picked the right time to wave his hand from behind the range that sheltered him—a moment after the Marines swung in, ready to blast anything that moved, but before a quick search found him and made him a certain enemy.

"Up!" Kowacs ordered. "Now!"

He was plump and terrified and hairless except for a wispy white brush of a moustache that he stroked with both hands despite obvious attempts to control the gesture.

"The rest of 'em, damn you!" roared Bradley, aiming his shotgun at the corner of the range from which he expected fresh targets to creep.

"It's only me!" the bald man blubbered through his hands. "I swear to God, only me, only me, only Charlie the Cook."

Sienkiewicz stepped—she didn't have to jump—to the range top. Her rifle was pointed down and the plasma gun, its barrel still quivering with heat, jounced against her belt gear.

"Clear!" she reported crisply. Charlie relaxed visibly, until he saw that Kowacs was reaching for the handle of the nearest cold-locker.

"Not me!" the civilian cried. "Charlie only does what he's told, I swear to God, no—"

Sienkiewicz saw what was in the locker and saved Charlie's life by kicking him in the teeth an instant before Bradley's shotgun would have dealt with the matter in a more permanent way.

Heads, arms, and lower legs had been removed in the course of butchering, but there was no doubt that the hanging carcasses were human.

Kowacs stepped over to the sprawling prisoner and cradled his rifle muzzle at the base of the man's throat. "Tell me you cooked for the Weasels," he said quietly. "Just say the fucking words."

"No-no-no," Charlie said, crying and trying to spit up fragments of his broken mouth before he choked on them. "Not the Masters, never the Masters—they don't need cooks. And never for me, never for Charlie, Charlie just—"

"Cap'n?" Bradley said with the hint of a frown now that he'd had time to think through his impulse of a moment before. Shooting a clearly unarmed captive . . . . "The, ah—"

He tapped the side of his helmet, where the recorder was taking down everything he said or did for after-action review by the brass.

Kowacs grabbed the prisoner by the throat and lifted him to his feet. Charlie was gagging, but the Marine's blunt fingers weren't stranglingly tight. Kowacs shoved the man hard, back into the open locker.

"We'll be back for you!" he said as he slammed the door.

Someday, maybe.

Kowacs was shuddering as he ejected the partially fired magazine from his rifle and slammed in a fresh one. "Told a guy yesterday I'd seen everything the Weasels could do to human beings," he muttered to his companions. "Guess I was wrong."

Though he didn't suppose he ought to blame this on the Khalia. They just happened to have been around as role models.

"One more!" Sienkiewicz said with false brightness as her boots crashed to the floor and she followed Bradley into the hallway again.

The squad from Second Platoon had been busy enough to leave a sharp fog of propellant and explosive residues as they shot their way into the sleeping rooms on the opposite side of the corridor. They hadn't turned up any additional kills, but they were covering Kowacs' back as he'd ordered, so he didn't have any complaints.

He and his non-coms poised at the third door in this section. It jerked open from the inside while he and Sienkiewicz took up the slack on their triggers.

Neither of the rifles fired. Bradley, startled, blasted a round from his shotgun into the opening and the edge of the door.

The airfoil load chewed a scallop from the thick wood panel and tore swirls in the smoky air of the room beyond.

"Don't shoot!" screamed a voice from behind the doorframe, safe from the accidental shot. "I'm unarmed! I'm a prisoner!"

Kowacs kicked the door hard as he went in, slamming it back against the man speaking and throwing off his aim if he were lying about being unarmed. The room was an office, almost as large as the kitchen, with wooden filing cabinets and a desk—

Which Sienkiewicz sprayed with a half magazine, because nobody'd spoken from there, and anybody in concealment was fair game. Splinters flew away from the shots like startled birds, but there was no cry of pain.

Starships or no, the Khalia weren't high tech by human standards. In a human installation, even back in the sticks, there'd have been a computer data bank.

Here, data meant marks on paper; and the paper was burning in several of the open file drawers. The air was chokingly hot and smoky, but it takes a long time to destroy files when they're in hard copy.

The man half-hidden by the door stepped aside, his hands covering his face where Kowacs had smashed him with the panel.

He didn't wear a red sleeve, but there was a tag of fabric smoldering on one of the burning drawers.

What had the bastard thought he was going to gain by destroying the records?

Kowacs was reaching toward the prisoner when the man said, "You idiots! Do you know who I am?"

He lowered his hands and they did know, all three of them, without replaying the hologram loaded into their helmet memories. Except for the freshly cut lip and bloody nose, the Honorable Thomas Forberry hadn't changed much after all.

"Out," Kowacs said.

Forberry thought the Marine meant him as well as the non-coms. Kowacs jabbed the civilian in the chest with his rifle when he started to follow them.

"Sir?" said the sergeant doubtfully.

Kowacs slammed the door behind him. The latch was firm, though smoke drifted out of the gouge next to the jamb.

"They'll wipe the chips," Kowacs said.

"Sir, we can't wipe the recorders," Bradley begged. "Sir, it's been tried!"

"We won't have to," Kowacs said. He nodded to Sienkiewicz, lifting the plasma weapon with its one remaining charge. "We'll leave it for the brass to cover this one up."

And they all flattened against the wall as Sienkiewicz set the muzzle of the big weapon against the hole in the door of the camp administrator's office.

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