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Warrior: 2406

The apartment living room was small and cluttered, with the kind of sad dinginess that comes more from lack of time and materials rather than from lack of interest in housekeeping. Seated at the scarred table in the room's center, Jonny let his eyes drift across the far wall, finding an echo of his own weariness in the faded blue paint there. A map of his own soul, he'd frequently thought of it, with its small cracks and chips echoing the effects of nearly three years of warfare on Jonny's psyche. But it's still standing, he told himself firmly, as he always did at this point in his contemplation. The explosions and sonic booms can strain the surface, but beneath it the wall remains solid. And if a stupid wall can do it, so can I. 

"Like this?" a tentative voice asked from beside him.

Jonny looked down at the rumpled piece of paper and the lines and numbers the child had written there. "Well, the first three are right," he nodded. "But the last one should be—"

"I'll get it," Danice interrupted, attacking the geometry problem with renewed vigor. "Don't tell me."

Jonny smiled, gazing fondly at the girl's tangled red hair and determined frown as she redid her work. Danice was ten years old, the same age that Jonny's sister was now, and though Jonny hadn't heard from his family since arriving on Adirondack, he sometimes imagined that Gwen had grown to be a dark-haired version of the girl now sitting beside him. Certainly Gwen's spunk and common-sense stubbornness were here in abundance. Certainly too Danice's ability to treat Jonny as a good friend—despite her parents' quiet reservations over the Cobra's temporary presence in their household—showed the independent streak Jonny had often seen in his sister.

But Danice was growing up in a war zone, and no strength of character could get her through that entirely unscathed. So far she'd been lucky: though crowded into a small apartment with too many people, the simmering guerrilla war outside had otherwise touched her life only indirectly.

Given sufficient time, though, that was bound to change, especially if the Cobras overstayed their welcome in this part of Cranach and brought the Trofts down on the neighborhood. On the negative side, it gave Jonny one more thing to worry about; on the positive side, it was an extra incentive to do his job right and end the war as quickly as possible.

Through the open window came the dull thump of a distant thunderclap. "What was that?" Danice asked, her pencil pausing on the paper.

"Sonic boom," Jonny said promptly. He'd cut in his auditory enhancers halfway through the sound and caught the distinctive whine of Troft thrusters beneath the shock wave. "Probably a couple of kilometers away."

"Oh." The pencil resumed its movement.

Standing up, Jonny stepped to the window and looked out. The apartment was six stories up, but even so there wasn't much of a view. Cranach was a tall city, forced by the soft ground around it to go up instead of out as most of Adirondack's cities had done. Directly across the street was a solid wall of six-story buildings; beyond them only the tops of Cranach's central-city skyrisers were visible. Clicking for image magnification, he scanned what was visible of the sky for the trails of falling space-chutes. The pulse-code message last night from off-planet had sparked a desperate flurry of activity as the underground tried to prepare for their new Cobras—Cobras who, with lousy planning, would be landing virtually in the lap of the Troft buildup going on in and around Cranach. Jonny's jaw tightened at the thought, but there'd been nothing anyone had been able to do about it. Receiving a coded signal that in essence blanketed half a continent was one thing; signaling back again, even if the courier ship could afford to stick around that long, was a whole lot dicier. Jonny knew a round dozen ways of outsmarting radio, laser, and pulse-code direction finders—and each one had worked a maximum of four times before the Trofts came up with a way to locate the transmitter anyway. The underground had one method in reserve for emergencies; the Cobra landing had been deemed not to qualify as such.

"See anything?" Danice asked from the table.

Jonny shook his head. "Blue sky, skyrisers—and a little girl who's not doing her homework," he added, turning back to give her a mock glare.

Danice grinned, the very childlike expression not touching the more adult seriousness in her eyes. Jonny had often wondered how much she knew of her parents' activities out in Adirondack's shifting and impromptu battlefields. Did she know, for example, that they were at this moment on a hastily thrown together diversionary raid?

He didn't know. But if she didn't need a distraction from what was happening out there, he certainly did. Seating himself beside her again, he gave his mind over as fully as he could to the arcane mysteries of fifth-grade mathematics.

It was nearly three hours later before the click of a key in a lock came from the outer door. Jonny, his hands automatically curled into fingertip laser firing position, watched with muted anxiety as the six people filed silently into the apartment, his eyes flicking from faces to bodies as he searched for signs of injuries. The survey, as usual, yielded results both better than his fears and worse than his hopes. On the plus side, all those who'd left the apartment at dawn—two Cobras, four civilians—had returned under their own power. On the minus side—

He was across the room before Danice's mother was two steps inside the door, taking her unbandaged left arm from her husband's tired-looking grip. "What got you?" he asked quietly, steering her over to the couch.

"Hornet," Marja Tolan said, her voice heavy with pain-killers. Two of the civilians brushed Jonny aside and got to work with the apartment's bulky medical kit.

"Locked in on the click of her popcorn gun's firing mechanism, we think," Marja's husband Kem added tiredly from the table and Jonny's former chair. Fatigued or not, Jonny noted, he'd made it a point immediately to go over and reassure his daughter.

Jonny nodded grimly. Popcorn guns had hitherto been remarkably safe weapons to use, as such things went. Their tiny inertially guided missiles emitted no radar, sonar, or infrared-reflection that could be picked up by any of the Trofts' myriad detectors and response weapons. The missiles were furthermore blasted inert out of the gun barrels by a solid kick of compressed air, their inboard rockets not firing until they were ten to fifteen meters from the gunner. A lot of the missiles themselves had been destroyed in flight by Troft hornets and laser-locks, but until now the aliens hadn't had a way to backtrack to the gunner himself. Unless Marja had simply suffered a lucky hit . . . ?

Jonny looked at Cally Halloran, raised his eyebrows in a question so common now that he didn't even need to vocalize it. And Halloran understood. "We won't know for sure until popcorn gunners start dropping en masse," the Cobra said wearily. "But it was really too clear a shot to be pure chance. I think we can safely assume popcorn guns are out for the duration."

"For all the good the damn things have done so far," Imel Deutsch growled. Stalking to a window, he stood there facing out, his hands clasped in a rigid parade rest behind his back.

The room was suddenly quiet. Stomach churning, Jonny looked back at Halloran. "What happened?"

"Cobra casualty," Halloran sighed. "One of MacDonald's team, we think, though visibility was pretty poor. The people who were supposed to be guarding one of the approaches to their position apparently lost it and about a dozen Trofts got inside. We got a warning off but were too far away to help."

Jonny nodded, feeling an echo of the bitterness Deutsch was almost visibly radiating . . . of the bitterness he himself had nearly choked on twice since their arrival on Adirondack. Parr Noffke and Druma Singh—both of their team's own casualties had come about through the same kind of civilian incompetence. It had taken Jonny a long time to get over each of the deaths; Halloran, with marginally less tolerance for frontier people, had taken somewhat longer.

Deutsch, born and raised on Adirondack, hadn't gotten over it at all.

"Any idea of casualties generally?" Jonny asked Halloran.

"Low, I think, except for the Cobra," the other said. Jonny winced at the unspoken implication—more common lately than he liked—that Cobra lives were intrinsically more valuable than those of their underground allies. "Of course, we weren't really trying to take that stockpile, so no one had to take any unusual chances. Did the fresh troops make it down okay?"

"No idea," Jonny shook his head. "Nothing's come in on the pulse receiver from off-world confirming it."

"It'd be just like those phrijpushers to put a last-minute hold in the drop without telling us."

Jonny shrugged, turned back to the people working on Marja's arm. "How's it look?"

"Typical hornet injury," one of them said. "Lots of superficial damage, but it'll all heal okay. She's out of action for a while, though."

And for that time, at least, Danice would have one parent out of the immediate fray.

If that mattered. Jonny had already seen far too many uninvolved civilians lying dead in the middle of cross fires.

The next few minutes were quiet ones. The two civilians finished with Marja's arm and left, taking the group's small supply of combat equipment with them for concealment. Kem and Danice accompanied Marja to one of the apartment's three bedrooms, ostensibly to put her to bed but mainly—Jonny suspected—to give the three Cobras some privacy to discuss the operation and plan future strategy before the rest of the apartment's occupants returned home from work.

In the first few months, Jonny reflected, they might have done just that. But after three years most of the words had already been said, most of the plans already discussed, and gestures of hand and eyebrow now sufficed where conversations had once been necessary.

For now, the gestures merely indicated fatigue. "Tomorrow," Jonny reminded them of the next high-level tactical meeting as they headed for the door and their own crowded apartments.

Halloran nodded. Deutsch merely twitched a corner of his lip.

And another wonderful day on Adirondack was drawing to a close. If the wall can stand it, Jonny repeated to himself, so can I. 

* * *

The three people seated at the table looked very much like everyone else in Cranach these days: tired, vaguely dirty, and more than a little scared. It was hard sometimes to remember that they were among the best underground leaders Adirondack had to offer.

It was even harder, in the face of Cobra and civilian casualties, to admit that they really were reasonably good at their jobs.

"The first news is that, despite some crossed signals, the latest Cobra drop was successful," Borg Weissmann told the silent Central Sector underground team leaders seated around the room. Short and stocky, with lingering traces of concrete dust in hair and fingernails, Weissmann looked indeed like the civilian building contractor he actually was. But he'd retired from the Army twenty years previously as a Chief Tactics Programmer, and he'd been proving for nearly a year now that he'd learned more than computers in that post.

"How many did we get?" someone sitting against the side wall asked.

"Cranach's share is thirty: six new teams," Weissmann said. "Most of those will go to North Sector to replace those that got lost in the airstrip attack a month ago."

Jonny glanced at Deutsch, saw the other grimace at the memory. Their team hadn't been involved in that one at all, but details like that didn't appear to affect Deutsch's reaction. If anyone from Adirondack was involved, he seemed to react as if he personally had let his fellow Cobras down. Jonny wondered if he himself would feel similarly if the war was being fought on Horizon; decided he probably would.

"We'll also be getting one of the teams here," Weissmann continued. "Ama's already made arrangements for their living quarters, identity backgrounds, and all. But given the heightened Troft activity these past few weeks, I think it might be a good idea to create a little breathing space while they're settling in."

"In other words, a raid." The tone of Halloran's voice made it clear it wasn't a question.

Weissmann hesitated, then nodded. "I know you don't like to run operations so closely together, but I think it's something we ought to do."

" 'We'?" Deutsch spoke up from his usual corner seat. "You mean 'you,' don't you?"

Weissmann licked his lips, a brief flicker of tongue that advertised his discomfort. Deutsch had once been a sort of social buffer zone between the Cobras and Adirondack forces, his dual citizenship—as it were—enabling him to short-circuit misunderstandings and cultural differences. Now, in his current state of disillusionment, he was hell for anyone to deal with. "I—uh—assumed you'd want a squad or two along to assist you," Weissmann suggested. "We're certainly willing to carry our part of—"

"Not carrying your part is what got another Cobra killed yesterday," Deutsch said quietly. "Maybe we'd better do this one ourselves."

Ama Nunki shifted in her seat. "You, of all people, should know better than to expect too much from us, Imel. This is Adirondack, not Earth or Centauri—we haven't got any history of warfare here to draw on."

"What do you call the past three years—?" Deutsch began hotly.

"On the other hand," Jonny interjected, "Imel may be right on this one. We want a short, tight punch that'll make the Trofts drop door-to-door searches lower on the priority list, not a big operation that may have them calling up support from the Dannimor garrison. A quick Cobra strike would fit the bill perfectly."

Weissmann visibly let out a breath, and Jonny felt an easing of tension throughout the room. More and more lately he seemed to be taking Deutsch's old peacekeeper role in these meetings, a position he neither especially wanted nor felt he was all that good at. But someone had to do it, and Halloran had far less empathy for frontier-world people than Jonny did. He could only continue as best he could and hope that Deutsch would hurry up and snap out of his low simmer.

"I guess I have to agree with Jonny," Halloran said. "I presume you have some suggestions as to what might be ripe for picking?"

Weissmann turned to Jakob Dane, the third person at the table. "We've come up with four reasonable targets," Dane said. "Of course, we were thinking there'd be a full assault team going with you—"

"Just tell us what they are," Deutsch interrupted.

"Yes, sir." Dane picked up a piece of paper, the flimsy sheet amplifying the slight trembling of his hands, and began to read. All four, it turned out, were essentially minor objectives; Dane, apparently, had as low an opinion of the underground's troops as Deutsch did.

"Not one of those is worth the fuel it'll take to get there," Halloran snorted when he'd finished.

"Perhaps you'd prefer to take out the Ghost Focus?" Ama suggested acidly.

"Not funny," Jonny murmured as Halloran's expression darkened. It'd been certain for months that the Trofts had a major tactical headquarters somewhere in Cranach, but so far the aptly christened Ghost Focus had proved impossible to locate. It was a particular sore spot for Halloran, who'd led at least half a dozen hunting expeditions in search of the place and come up dry each time.

All of which, belatedly, Ama seemed to remember. "You're right, Jonny," she said, ducking her head in a local gesture of apology that even Jonny found provincial. "I'm sorry; it's not really something to make light of."

Halloran grunted a not-quite-mollified acceptance. "Anyone have any genuine suggestions?" he asked.

"What about that shipment of electronics spares that was supposed to come in yesterday?" Deutsch spoke up.

"It's here," Dane nodded. "Locked up in the old Wolker Plant. But that won't be easy to get to."

Deutsch caught Halloran's and Jonny's eyes, cocked a questioning eyebrow. "Sure, why not?" Halloran shrugged. "A commandeered plastics factory's bound to have security loopholes the Trofts haven't plugged yet."

"You'd think they'd have learned that by now," Deutsch said, getting to his feet and glancing around the room at the team leaders. "Looks like we won't be needing the rest of you any more today. Thanks for coming."

Technically, none of the Cobras had the authority to close the meeting, but no one seemed eager to mention that fact. With little conversation and even less loitering, the room emptied, leaving only the Cobras and the three civilian leaders.

"Now," Deutsch said, addressing the latter, "let's see what you've got in the way of blueprints for this plant."

Ama's expression was thunderous, but as it was clear the other two weren't going to make an issue of Deutsch's action, she apparently decided not to do so either. Instead, she stalked to the plate in the corner, bringing both it and a collection of innocuously titled tapes back to the table. Interspersed among the video images were blueprints to major city buildings, sewer and powerline data, and dozens of other handy bits of information the underground had squirrelled away. It turned out that the entry for the Wolker Plastics Plant was remarkably detailed.

The planning session lasted until late afternoon, but Jonny was still able to make it back to the Tolans' apartment before the sundown curfew. Two of the usual occupants—Marja's brother and nephew, refugees from the slagged town of Paris—were away for the night, giving Jonny the unusual luxury of a private sleeping room when the clan went to bed later in the evening. No one had asked about the meeting, but Jonny could sense that they were aware he'd be going on another mission soon. There was a subtle drawing back from him, as if they were building a last-minute emotional shell in case this was the mission from which he didn't return.

Later that night, lying on his thin mattress, Jonny contemplated that possibility himself. Some day, he suspected, he would reach the point where walking into near-certain death wouldn't even bother him. But that day hadn't yet arrived, and he hoped to keep it at bay for a long time. Those who went into battle not caring if they died usually did.

So in the last minutes before drifting off to sleep he mentally listed all the reasons he had to come through this mission alive. Starting, as always, with his family, and ending with the effect it would have on Danice.

* * *

The clock circuit built into their nanocomputers was at the same time the simplest and yet one of the most useful bits of equipment in the entire Cobra arsenal. Like the traditional soldier's chronometer it enabled widespread forces to synchronize their movements; going that instrument one better, though, it could be tied directly into the rest of the servo network to permit joint action on a microsecond scale. It opened up possibilities that had hitherto been the sole province of automatics, remotes, and the most elite mechanized line troops.

And in exactly twelve minutes and eighteen seconds the gadget would once again pay for itself. Wriggling down the long vent pipe he'd entered from the Wolker Plant's unguarded south filter station, Jonny periodically checked the remaining time against his progress. He hadn't been wild about using this back door—enclosed spaces were the single most dangerous environment a Cobra could be trapped in—but so far it looked like the gamble was going to pay off. The alarms the Trofts had installed at the far end had been easy enough to circumvent, and according to the blueprints he should very soon be exiting into a vat almost directly beneath the building's main entrance. He would then have until the timer ran down to find a position from which the inside door guards were visible.

At one point the Trofts had relied heavily on portable black box sensors to defend converted civilian buildings like this, a practice the underground had gone to great lengths to discourage. The aliens quickly learned that, no matter what thresholds the triggers were set at, their opponents soon figured out how to set off false alarms through them. After sufficient effort had been wasted chasing canine "intruders" and hunting for slingshot-and-firecracker-equipped harassers, they'd pulled out the automatics in favor of live guards equipped with warning sensors and dead-man switches. The system was harder to fool and almost as safe.


Ahead of him Jonny could see a spot of dark gray amid the black. The grille leading into the main building, probably, the faintness of the background light indicating that particular room was probably unoccupied. He hoped so; he didn't want to have to cut down any aliens this early in the mission.

The crucial question, of course, was whether or not all the dead-man switches could be deactivated in the microsecond before their owners were wiped out in the synchronized Cobra attack. That task would probably rest on Jonny's shoulders, since any relays for the alarms would be inside. The Trofts had both closed- and open-circuit types of switches, and he would have to determine which kind was being used here before taking action.

He'd reached the grille now. Boosting his optical enhancers, he studied it for alarms and booby-traps. A current detector from his equipment pack located four suspicious wires; jumping them with adjustable-impedance cables, he cut through the mesh with his fingertip lasers and slid through the last two-meter stretch of pipe into an empty vat. There was no provision for releasing its service openings from the inside, but Jonny's lasers took care of that oversight without any trouble. Poking his head out of the opening, he took a careful look around.

He was suspended some five meters above the floor, his vat the largest in a row of similar structures. Four meters away, at eye level, was what looked like the exit from the room, reached from the floor by a set of stairs built into the wall.

Given Troft security thus far, Jonny expected nothing in the way of booby traps to be set up on the floor below. Still, he had just seven minutes to get into position upstairs . . . and to a Cobra a four-meter leap was as easy as a stroll down the walkway. Drawing up his feet, he balanced for a moment on the lip of the vat service opening and pushed off.

The night before he had warned himself of the dangers of apathy. Now, for one awful instant—all the time he had—he recognized that overconfidence extracted an equally bitter price. The sharp twang of released springs filled his enhanced hearing, and the servos within his arms snapped his fingertip lasers into position faster than his brain could register the black wall hurtling itself toward him. But it was an essentially meaningless gesture, and even as the pencils of light flashed out he realized the Trofts had suckered him masterfully. A major military target, an enticing backdoor entrance with inadequate alarms, and finally a mid-air trap that used his helpless ballistic trajectory to neutralize the speed and strength advantage of his servos.

The flying wall reached him, and he had just enough time to notice it was actually a net before it hit, wrapping itself around him like a giant cocoon. A split second later he was jerked sharply off his original path as unnoticed suspension lines reached their limit, snapping him back to hang more or less upside down in the middle of the room.

And Jonny was captured . . . which, since he was a Cobra, meant that he was dead.

His body didn't accept that fact so quickly, of course, and continued to strain cautiously against the sticky mesh digging into his clothing. But the limiting factor wasn't his servos' power, and it was all too clear that before the net would break, its threads would slice through both cloth and flesh, stopping only when it reached bone. Above his left foot his antiarmor laser flashed, vaporizing a small piece of the material and blowing concrete chips from the ceiling, but neither his leg or arms could move far enough to cause any serious damage to the net. If he could hit one or more of the lines holding him off the floor . . . but in the gloom, with his eyes covered by two or three layers of mesh, he couldn't even see them.

Somewhere in the recesses of his mind, a direct neural stimulation alarm went off from the sensor monitoring his heartbeat.

He was falling asleep.

It was the enemy's final stroke, as inevitable as it was fatal. Pressed against the skin of his face, the contact drug mixed with the adhesive on the net was soaking into his bloodstream faster than the emergency stimulant system beneath his heart could compensate. He had bare seconds before the universe was forever closed off . . . and he had one vital task yet to perform.

His tongue was a lump of unresponsive clay pressed against the roof of his mouth. With all the will power remaining to him he forced it to the corner of his mouth . . . forced it through wooden lips . . . touched the tip of the emergency radio trigger curving along his cheek. "Abort," he mumbled. The room was growing darker, but it was far too much effort to click up his optical enhancers. "Abort. Walked . . . trap. . . ."

Somewhere far off he thought he heard a crisp acknowledgment, but it was too much effort to try and understand the words. It was too much effort, in fact, to do anything at all.

The darkness rose and swept gently over him.

* * *

The nearest building to the Wolker Plant was an abandoned warehouse a hundred meters due north of the plant's main entrance. Crouched on the roof there, Cally Halloran ground his teeth viciously together as he tried to watch all directions at once. A trap, Jonny had said, with sleep or death already near to claiming him . . . but was it a simple booby trap or something more elaborate? If the latter, then Deutsch too would probably never make it off the plant's grounds alive. If the operation was wide enough, even this backstop position could become a deathtrap.

For the moment the fact of Jonny's death hardly touched his thoughts. Later, perhaps, there would be time to mourn, but for now Halloran's duty lay solely with the living. Easing his leg forward, he made sure the antiarmor laser within it could sweep the area freely and waited.

With his light amplification on at full power the night around him seemed no darker than a heavily overcast afternoon, but even so he didn't spot Deutsch until the other was well on his way back from the patch of deep shadow where he'd been waiting for his part of the gate attack. The guards, it seemed, saw him at about the same time, and for an instant that part of the landscape dimmed as laser flashes cut in his enhancers' overload protection. Answering fire came immediately: Deutsch's antiarmor laser firing backwards as he ran. With the unconscious ease of long experience, Halloran raised his own aim to the plant's roof and windows, areas Deutsch's self-covering fire would have trouble hitting.

The precaution proved unnecessary. Even with ankle-breaking zigzags tangling his path, Deutsch took the intervening distance like a ground-hug missile, and in bare seconds he was around the corner of Halloran's warehouse and out of enemy view.

But it was clear the Trofts weren't going to be content with simply driving the Cobras away. Even as Halloran slipped across the roof and down the far side the Wolker Plant was starting to come alive.

Deutsch was waiting for him on the ground, his face tense in the faint light. "You okay?" Halloran whispered.

"Yeah. You'd better get going—they'll be swarming around like ants in a minute."

"Change that 'you' to 'we' and you've got a deal. Come on." He gripped Deutsch's arm and turned to go.

The other shook off his hand. "No, I'm staying here to—to make sure."

Halloran turned back, studying his partner with new and wary eyes. If Deutsch was unraveling . . . "He's dead, Imel," he explained, as if to a small child. "You heard him going under—"

"His self-destruct hasn't gone off," Deutsch interrupted him harshly. "Even out here we should have heard it or felt the vibrations. And if he's alive . . ."

He left the sentence unfinished, but Halloran understood. The Trofts were already known to have live-dissected at least one captured Cobra. Jonny deserved better than that, if it was within their power to grant. "All right," he sighed, suppressing a shiver. "But don't take chances. Giving Jonny a clean death isn't worth losing your own life over."

"I know. Don't worry; I'm not going to do anything stupid." Deutsch paused for an instant, listening. "You'd better get moving."

"Right. I'll do what I can to draw them away."

"Now don't you take chances." Deutsch slapped Halloran's arm and jumped, catching the edge of the warehouse roof and disappearing over the top.

Clicking all audio and visual enhancers to full power, Halloran turned and began to run, keeping to the shadows as much as possible. The time to mourn was still in the distant future.

* * *

The first sensation that emerged as the black fog faded was a strange burning in his cheeks. Gradually, the feeling strengthened and was joined by the awareness of something solid against his back and legs. Thirst showed up next, followed immediately by pressure on his forearms and shins. The sound of whispering air . . . the awareness that there was soft light beyond his closed eyelids . . . the knowledge that he was lying horizontally . . .

Only then did Jonny's mind come awake enough to notice that he was still alive.

Cautiously, he opened his eyes. A meter above him was a featureless white-steel ceiling; tracing along it, he found it ended in four white-steel walls no more than five meters apart. Hidden lights gave a hospital glow to the room; by it he saw that the only visible exit was a steel door in a heavily reinforced frame. In one corner a spigot—water?—protruded from the wall over a ten-centimeter drainage grille that could probably serve as a toilet if absolutely necessary. His equipment pack and armament belt were gone, but his captors had left him his clothes.

As a death cell, it seemed fairly cheerful. As a surgery prep room, it was woefully deficient.

Raising his head, he studied the plates pinning his arms and legs to the table. Not shackles, he decided; more likely a complex set of biomedical sensors with drug-injection capabilities. Which meant the Trofts ought to know by now that he was awake. From which it followed immediately that they'd allowed him to wake up.

He was aware, down deep, that not all the fog had yet cleared away; but even so it seemed an incredibly stupid move on their part.

His first impulse was to free himself from the table in a single servo-powered lunge, turn his antiarmor laser on the door hinges, and get the hell out of there. But the sheer irrationality of the whole situation made him pause.

What did the Trofts think they were doing, anyway?

Whatever it was, it was most likely in violation of orders. The underground had intercepted a set of general orders some months ago, one of which was that any captured Cobras were to be immediately killed or kept sedated for live-dissection. Jonny's stomach crawled at the latter thought, but he again resisted the urge to get out before the Troft on monitor duty belatedly noticed his readings. The enemy simply didn't make mistakes that blatantly careless. Whatever was happening, contrary to orders or not, it was being done on purpose.

So what could anyone want with a living, fully conscious Cobra?

Interrogation was out. Physical torture above a certain level would trigger a power supply self-destruct; so would the use of certain drugs. Hold him for ransom or trade? Ridiculous. Trofts didn't seem to think along those lines, and even if they'd learned humans did, it wouldn't work. They would need Jonny's cooperation to prove to his friends he was still alive, and he'd blow his self-destruct himself rather than give them that lever. Let him escape and follow him back to his underground contacts? Equally ridiculous. There were dozens of secure, monofilament line phones set up around the city from which he could check in with Borg Weissmann without ever going near an underground member. The Trofts had tried that unsuccessfully with other captured rebels; trying to follow an evasion-trained Cobra would be an exercise in futility. No, giving him even half a chance to escape would gain them nothing but a path of destruction through their building.

A path of destruction. A path of Cobra destruction. . . .

Heart beating faster, Jonny turned his attention back to the walls and ceiling. This time, because he was looking for them, he spotted the places where cameras and other sensors could be located. There appeared to be a lot of them.

Carefully, he laid his head back on the table, feeling cold all over. So that's what this was all about—an attempt to get lab-quality information on Cobra equipment and weaponry in actual use. Which meant that, whatever lay outside that steel door, odds were he'd have an even chance of getting through it alive.

For a long moment temptation tugged at him. If he could escape, surely it would be worth letting the Trofts have their data. Most of what they would get must already be known, and even watching his battle reflexes in action would be of only limited use to them. Only a handful of the most intricate patterns were rigidly programmed; the rest had been kept general enough to cover highly varying situations. The Trofts might afterwards be able to predict another Cobra's escape path from this same cell, but that was about it.

But the whole debate was ultimately nothing more than a mental exercise . . . because Jonny knew full well the proposed trade-off was illusory. Somewhere along the Trofts' gauntlet—somewhere near the end—there would be an attack that would kill him.

There's no such thing as a foolproof deathtrap. Cee-three Bai had emphasized that point back on Asgard, hammered at it until Jonny had come to believe it. But it was always assumed that the victim had at least some idea of what he was up against. Jonny had no idea how the killing attack would come; had no feeling for the layout of this building; had no idea even where on Adirondack he was.

His duty was therefore unfortunately clear. Closing his eyes, he focused his attention on the neural alarm that would signal an attempt to put him back to sleep. If and when that happened he would be forced to break his bonds, trading minimal information for consciousness. Until then . . . he would simply have to wait.

And hope. Irrational though that might be.

* * *

They sat and listened, and when Deutsch finished he could tell they were unconvinced.

Ama Nunki put it into words first. "Too big a risk," she said with a slow shake of her head, "for so small a chance of success."

There was a general shifting in chairs by the other underground and Cobra leaders, but no immediate votes of agreement. That meant there was still a chance. . . . "Look," Deutsch said, striving to keep his voice reasonable. "I know it sounds crazy,but I tell you it was Jonny I saw being taken aboard that aircraft, and it did head south. You know as well as I do that there's no reason for them to have taken him anywhere but their hospital if they just wanted to dissect him. They must have something else in mind, something that requires he be kept alive—and if he's alive he can be rescued."

"But he's got to be found first," Jakob Dane explained patiently. "Your estimate of where the aircraft landed notwithstanding, the assumption that figuratively beating the bushes will turn up some sign of him is at best a hopeful fiction."

"Why?" Deutsch countered. "Any place the Trofts would be likely to stash him would have to be reasonably big, reasonably attack-resistant, and reasonably unoccupied. All right, all right—I know that part of the city has a lot of buildings like that. But we've got it narrowed down."

"And what if we do find the place?" Kennet MacDonald, a Cobra from Cranach's East Sector, spoke up. "Throw all our forces against it in a raid that could easily end in disaster? All they have to do if they lose is kill Moreau and let his self-destruct take out the whole building, rescuers and all."

"In fact, that could very well be what they want us to do," Ama said.

"If they wanted to set up a giant deathtrap, they would've left him right there in the Wolker Plant, where we wouldn't have had to work to track him down," Deutsch argued, fighting hard against the feeling that the battle was slipping through his fingers. He glanced fiercely at Halloran, but the other remained silent. Didn't he care that Jonny could be saved if they'd just make the effort?

"I have to agree with Kennet," Pazar Oberton, an underground leader from MacDonald's sector, said. "We've never asked you to rescue one of our people, and I don't think we should all go rushing south trying to rescue one of yours."

"This isn't a corporation ledger we're running here—it's a war," Deutsch snapped. "And in case you've forgotten, we Cobras are the best chance you've got of winning that war and getting these damned invaders off your planet."

"Off our planet?" Dane murmured. "Have you officially emigrated, then?"

Dane would never know how close he came to dying in that instant. Deutsch's teeth clamped tightly together as endless months of heartbreak and frustration threatened to burst out in one massive explosion of laser fire that would have cut the insensitive fool in half. None of them understood—none of them even tried to understand—how it felt to watch his own countrymen's failures and stupidities cause the deaths of men he'd come to consider his brothers . . . how it felt to be defending people who often didn't seem willing to put forth the same effort to free their world . . . how it felt to share their blame, because ultimately he too was one of them. . . .

Slowly, the haze cleared, and he saw the fists clenched before him on the table. "Borg?" he said, looking at Weissmann. "You lead this rabble. What do you say?"

An uncomfortable rustle went around the table, but Weissmann's gaze held Deutsch's steadily. "I know you feel especially responsible since you were the one who suggested the Wolker Plant in the first place," he said quietly, "but you are talking very poor odds."

"Warfare is a history of poor odds," Deutsch countered. He sent his gaze around the room. "I don't have to ask your permission, you know. I could order you to help me rescue Jonny."

Halloran stirred. "Imel, we technically have no authority to—"

"I'm not talking technicalities," Deutsch interrupted, his voice quiet but with an edge to it. "I'm talking the realities of power."

For a long moment the room was deathly still. "Are you threatening us?" Weissmann asked at last.

Deutsch opened his mouth, the words damn right I am on his lips . . . but before he could speak, a long-forgotten scene floated up from his memory. Rolon Viljo's face as Commander Mendro ordered him removed from the team and the Cobras . . . and Deutsch's own verdict on Viljo's crime. Misuse of our equipment would pit us against the civilian population of Adirondack. "No," he told Weissmann, the word taking incredible strength of will to say. "No, of course not. I just—never mind." He sent one last glance around the room and then stood up. "You can all do as you damn well please. I'm going to go and find Jonny."

The room was still silent as he crossed to the door and left. Briefly, as he started down the stairs, he wondered what they would make of his outburst. But it didn't matter very much. And in a short time, most likely, it wouldn't matter at all.

Stepping outside into the night, senses alert for Troft patrols, he headed south.

* * *

"I do believe," Jakob Dane said as the sound of Deutsch's footsteps faded away, "that Adirondack's Self-Appointed Conscience is overdue for some leave time."

"Shut up, Jakob," Halloran advised, making sure to put some steel in his voice. He'd long ago recognized that each of the underground members had to deal with the presence of the Cobras in his own way, but Dane's approach—treating them with a faintly supercilious air—was a dangerous bit of overcompensation. He doubted the other had noticed it, but as Deutsch's hands had curled into fists a few minutes ago there had been the briefest pause with thumb resting against ring finger nail . . . the position for firing fingertip lasers at full power. "In case you didn't bother to notice," he added, "just about everything Imel said was right."

"Including the efficacy of a rescue mission?" Dane snorted.

Halloran turned to Weissmann. "I notice, Borg, that you haven't given your decision on assigning underground personnel to help locate Jonny. Before you do, let me just point out that there's exactly one Troft installation we know exists that we haven't got even a rough locale for."

"You mean the Ghost Focus?" Ama frowned. "That's crazy. Jonny's a ticking bomb—they'd be stupid to put him anywhere that sensitive."

"Depends on what they're planning for him," MacDonald rumbled thoughtfully. "As long as he's alive they're safe enough. Besides, our self-destructs aren't all that powerful. Any place hardened against, say, tacnuke grenades wouldn't have any trouble with us."

"On top of that," Halloran added, "it's clear from their slow response to Imel and me that they weren't particularly expecting a raid on Wolker tonight. Jonny's booby trap may have been sitting there for months, and it's as reasonable as anything else to assume they weren't really prepared with another place to put him that we didn't already know about. If the Ghost Focus is like their other tactical bases, they'll have it carved into parallel, independently-hardened warrens. They wouldn't be risking more than the one Jonny was actually in."

"I've never heard that about tactical bases," Ama said, her eyes hard on Halloran.

He shrugged. "There are a lot of things you've never heard," he told her bluntly. "You ever volunteer to penetrate a Troft installation with us and maybe we'll tell you what we know about those hellholes. Until then, you'll have to take our word for it." He had the satisfaction of seeing her mouth tighten; to people like Ama the only real power was knowledge. Turning to Weissmann, he cocked an eyebrow. "Well, Borg?"

Weissmann pressed his fingertips tightly against his lips, staring at and through Halloran. "All right," he said with a sigh. "I'll authorize some of our people for search duty and see if I can borrow a few from other sectors. But it'll be passive work only, and won't begin until after sunup. I don't want anyone getting caught violating curfew—and no one's going into combat."

"Fair enough." It was about as much as Halloran could have expected. "Kennet?"

MacDonald steepled his fingers. "I won't risk my team randomly tearing up the south side of Cranach," he said quietly. "But if you can show me a probable location, we'll help you hit it. Whatever the Trofts want with Jonny, I suspect it's behavior we ought to discourage."

"Agreed. And thank you." Halloran gestured to Ama. "Well, don't just sit there. Pull out the high-resolution maps and let's get to work."

* * *

Jonny waited until his thirst was unbearable before finally breaking free of his restraints and going to the spigot in the cell's corner. Without a full analysis kit it was impossible to make sure the water provided was uncontaminated and undrugged, but it didn't especially worry him. The Trofts had had ample opportunity already to pump chemicals into his system, and exotic bacteria were the least of his worries.

He drank his fill, and then—as long as he was up anyway—gave himself a walking tour of his cell. On the whole it was a dull trip, but it did give him the chance to examine the walls more closely for remote monitors. The room was, as he'd earlier surmised, loaded with them.

The cell door, up close, proved an intriguing piece of machinery. There were signs at one edge that both an electronic and a tumbler-type combination lock were being used, complementary possibilities to the temptingly exposed hinges he'd already noticed. The Trofts, it appeared, were offering him subtle as well as brute-force escape options. Each of which would give them useful data on his equipment, unfortunately.

Returning to the table, he moved aside the remnants of the monitor/shackles and lay down again. His internal clock circuit, which he hadn't had time to shut off or reset during his capture, provided him with at least the knowledge of how time was passing in the outside world. He'd been unconscious for three hours; since his awakening another five had passed. That meant it was almost ten o'clock in the morning out there. The people of Cranach were out at work in their damaged city, the children—including Danice Tolan—were at school, and the underground . . .

The underground had already accepted and mourned his death and gone on with their business. His death, and possibly Cally's and Imel's as well.

For a long, painful minute Jonny wondered what had happened to his teammates. Had his warning been in time for them to escape? Or had the Trofts been waiting with a giant trap ready to grab all of them? Perhaps they were in similar rooms right now, wondering identical thoughts as they decided whether or not to make their own escapes. They might even be next door to his cell; in which case a burst of antiarmor fire would open a communication hole and let them plan joint action—

He shook his head to clear it of such unlikely thoughts. No help would be coming for him, and he might as well face that fact. If Imel and Cally were alive they would have more sense than to try something as stupid as a rescue, even if they knew where to find him. And if they were dead . . . odds were he'd be joining them soon, anyway.

Unbidden, Danice Tolan's face floated into view. It looked like, barring a miracle, she was finally going to lose a close friend to the war.

He hoped she'd be able to handle it.

* * *

The human had been in the cell now for nearly seven vfohra, and except for a casual breaking of its loose restraints two vfohra ago had made no attempt to use its implanted weaponry against its imprisonment. Resettling his wing-like radiator membranes against the backs of his arms, the City Commander gazed at the bank of vision screens and wondered what he should do.

His ET biologist approached from the left, puffing up his throat bladder in a gesture of subservience. "Speak," the CCom invited.

"The last readings have been thoroughly rechecked," the other said, his voice vaguely flutey in the local atmosphere's unusually high nitrogen content. "The human shows no biochemical evidence of trauma or any of their versions of dream-walking."

The CCom flapped his arm membranes once in acknowledgment. So it was as he'd already guessed: the prisoner had deliberately chosen not to attempt escape. A ridiculous decision, even for an alien . . . unless it had somehow discerned what it was they had planned for it.

From the CCom's point of view, the alien couldn't have picked a worse time to show its race's stubborn streak. The standing order that these koubrah-soldiers were to be killed instantly could be gotten around easily enough, but all the time and effort already invested would be lost unless the creature provided an active demonstration of its capabilities for the hidden sensors.

Which meant the CCom was once more going to have to perform that most distasteful of duties. Seating his arm membranes firmly, he reached deep into his paraconscious mind, touching the mass of hard-won psychological data that had been placed there aboard the demesne-lord's master ship . . . and with great effort he tried to think like a human.

The effort left a taste like copper oxide in his mouth, but by the time the CCom emerged sputtering from his dream-walk he had a plan. "SolLi!" he called to the Soldier Liaison seated at the security board. "One patrol, fully equipped, in Tunnel One immediately."

The SolLi puffed his throat bladder in acknowledgment and bent over his communicator. Spreading out his arm membrances—the dream-walk had left him uncomfortably warm—the CCom watched the dormant human and considered the best way to do this.

* * *

It was an hour past noon in the outside world, and Jonny was once more reviewing everything he'd ever been taught about prison escapes, when an abrupt creak of metal from the door sent him rolling off the table. Crouching at the edge of the slab, fingertip lasers aimed, he watched tensely as the door opened a meter and someone leaped into his cell.

He had a targeting lock established and lasers tracking before his conscious mind caught up with two important details: the figure was human, and it had not been traveling under its own power. Looking back at the door, he got just a glimpse of two body-armored Trofts as they slammed the heavy steel plate closed again. The thud reverberated like overhead thunder in the tiny room, and a possible shot at escaping his cell was gone. Slowly, Jonny got to his feet and stepped around the table to meet his new cellmate.

She was on her feet when he reached her, bent over slightly as she rubbed an obviously painful kneecap. "Damn chicken-faced strifpitchers," she grumbled. "They could've just let me walk in."

"You all right?" Jonny asked, giving her a quick once-over. A bit shorter than he was and as slender, maybe seven or eight years older, dressed in the mishmash of styles the war had made common. No obvious injuries or blood stains that he could see.

"Oh, sure." Straightening up, she sent a quick look around the cell. "Though I suppose that could change at any time. What's going on here, anyway?"

"Tell me what happened."

"I wish I knew. I was just walking down Strassheim Street, minding my own business, when this Troft patrol turned a corner. They asked me what I was doing there, I essentially told them to go back to hell, and for no particular reason they grabbed me and hauled me in here."

Jonny's lip twitched in a smile. In the early days of the occupation, he'd heard, it had been possible to fire off multiple obscenities at point-blank range, and as long as you kept your face and voice respectful the Trofts had no way of catching on. With the aliens' advances in Anglic translation, though, only the truly imaginative could come up with something they hadn't heard before.

Strassheim Street. There was a Strassheim in Cranach, he remembered, down in the south end of the city where a lot of the light industry had been. "So what were you doing there?" he asked the woman. "I thought that area was mostly deserted now."

She gave him a cool, measuring look. "Shall I repeat the answer I gave the Trofts?"

He shrugged. "Don't bother. I was just asking." Turning his back on her, he hopped back up on the table, seating himself cross-legged facing the door. It really wasn't any of his business.

Besides which, he was starting to get an uncomfortable feeling as to the reason for her presence here . . . and if he was right, the less contact he had with her, the better. There was no point in getting to know someone you would probably soon be dying with.

For a moment it seemed like she'd come to a similar conclusion. Then, with hesitant footsteps, she came around the edge of the table and into his peripheral vision. "Hey—I'm sorry," she said, the snap still audible in her voice but subdued to a more civil level. "I'm just—I'm starting to get a little scared, that's all, and I tend to bite heads off when I get scared. I was on Strassheim because I was hoping to get into one of the old factories and scrounge some circuit boards or other electronics parts. Okay?"

He pursed his lips and looked at her, feeling his freshly minted resolve tarnishing already. "Those buildings have been picked pretty clean in the past three years," he pointed out.

"Mostly by people who don't know what they're doing," she shrugged. "There's still some stuff left—if you know where and how to find it."

"Are you part of the underground?" Jonny asked—and instantly wished he could call back the thoughtless words. With monitors all around, her answer could lose her what little chance of freedom she had left.

But she merely snorted. "Are you nuts? I'm a struggling burglar, confrere, not a volunteer lunatic." Her eyes widened suddenly. "Say, you're not, uh—hey, wait a minute; they don't think that I—oh, great. Great. What'd you do, come calling for Old Tyler with a laser in one hand and a grenade in the other?"

"Old Tyler?" Jonny asked, latching onto the most coherent part of that oral skid. "Who or what is that?"

"We're in his mansion," she frowned. "At least I think so. Didn't you know?"

"I was unconscious when I was brought in. What do you mean, you think so?"

"Well, I was actually taken into an old apartment building a block away and then along an underground tunnel to get here. But I got a glimpse through an unblocked window as I was being brought through the main building, and I think I saw the Tyler Mansion's outer wall. Anyway, even without fancy furniture and all you can tell the rooms up there were designed for someone rich."

The Tyler Mansion. The name was familiar from Ama Nunki's local history/geography seminars: a large house with a sort of pseudo-Reginine-millionaire style, he recalled, built south of the city in the days before industry moved into that area. She'd been vague as to the semi-recluse owner's whereabouts since the Troft invasion, but it was generally believed he was holed up inside somewhere, counting on private stores and the mansion's defenses to keep out looters and aliens alike. Jonny remembered thinking at the time that the Trofts were being uncommonly generous to leave the place standing under those conditions, and wondering if perhaps a private deal had been struck. It was starting to look like he'd been right . . . though the deal was possibly more than a little one-sided.

But more interesting than the mansion's recent history were the possibilities inherent in being locked inside such a residence. Unlike a factory, a millionaire's home ought to have an emergency escape route. If he could find it, perhaps he could bypass whatever deathtrap the Trofts had planned for him. "You say you came in through a tunnel," he said to his cellmate. "Did it look new or hastily built? Say, as if the Trofts had dug it in the past three years?"

But she was frowning again, a hard look in her eyes. "Who the hell are you, anyway, that you never heard of Old Tyler? He's been written up more than every other celebrity on Adirondack—even volunteer lunatics can't be that ignorant. At least, not those who grew up in Cranach."

Jonny sighed; but she did have a right to know on whom her life was probably going to depend. And it certainly wouldn't be giving away any secrets to the Trofts eavesdropping on them. "You're right—I grew up quite a ways from here. I'm a Cobra."

Her eyes widened, then narrowed again as they swept his frame. "A Cobra, huh? You sure don't look like anything special."

"We're not supposed to," Jonny told her patiently. "Undercover guerrilla fighters—remember?"

"Oh, I know. But I've seen men masquerade as Cobras before to impress or threaten people."

"You want some proof?" He'd been looking for an excuse to do this, anyway. Hopping off the table, he stepped closer to the rear wall and extended his right arm. A group of suspected sensor positions faced him just below eye level. Targeting it, he turned his head to look at the woman. "Watch," he said, and triggered his arcthrower.

A discerning eye might have noticed that there were actually two components to the flash that lit up the room an instant later: the fingertip laser beam, which burned an ionized path through the air, and the high-amperage spark that traveled that path to the wall. But the accompanying thunderclap was the really impressive part, and in the metal-walled cell it was impressive as hell. The woman jumped a meter backwards from a standing start, mouthing something Jonny couldn't hear through the multiple reverberations. "Satisfied?" he asked her when the sound finally faded away.

Staring at him with wide eyes, she bobbed her head quickly. "Oh, yes. Yes indeed. What in heaven's name was that?"

"Arcthrower. Designed to fry electronic gear. Works pretty well, usually." In fact, it worked quite well, and Jonny didn't expect to have to worry about that particular sensor cluster again.

"I don't doubt it." She exhaled once, and with that action seemed to get her mind working as well. "A real Cobra. So how come you haven't broken out of here yet?"

For a long moment he stared at her, wondering what to say. If the Trofts knew he was on to their scheme . . . but surely her presence here proved they'd already figured that out. Tell her the truth, then?—that the aliens were forcing him to choose between betraying his fellow Cobras and saving her life?

He chose the easier, if temporary, solution of changing the subject. "You were going to tell me about the tunnel," he reminded her.

"Oh. Right. No, it looked like it'd been there a lot longer than three years. There also looked to be spots where gates and defensive equipment had been taken out."

In other words, it looked like Tyler's hoped-for escape hatch. And already in alien hands. "How well were the Trofts guarding it?"

"The place was full of them." She was giving him a wary look. "You're not planning to try and leave that way, are you?"

"What if I am?"

"It'd be suicide—and since I plan to be right behind you it'd leave me in a bad spot, too."

He frowned at her, only then realizing that she'd apparently figured out more about what was going on than he'd given her credit for. In her own less than subtle way she was saying he need not burden himself physically with her when he chose to escape. That he shouldn't feel responsible for her safety.

If only it were that simple, he thought bitterly. Would she understand as well if he stayed passively in the cell and thereby sentenced her automatically to death?

Or was that option even open to him anymore? Already, despite his earlier resolve, he realized he could no longer see her as simply a faceless statistic in this war. He'd talked to her, watched her eyes change expression, even gotten a little bit inside her mind. Whatever it cost him—life and data too—he knew now that he would eventually have to make the effort to get her out. The Trofts' gambit had worked.

You'll be proud of me, Jame, if you ever find out, he thought toward the distant stars. My Horizon ethics have survived exposure to even war with all their stupid nobility intact. 

On the other hand . . . he was now locked up with a professional burglar inside what had to be the most enticing potential target Cranach had to offer. In their eagerness to hang an emotional millstone around his neck, it was just barely possible the Trofts had outsmarted themselves. "My name's Jonny Moreau," he told the woman. "What's yours?"

"Ilona Linder."

He nodded, knowing full well that with an exchange of names he was now committed. "Well, Ilona, if you think the tunnel's a poor choice of exits, let's see what else we can come up with. Why don't you start by telling me everything you know about the Tyler Mansion?"

* * *

"This is hopeless," Cally Halloran sighed, gazing across the urban landscape from the vantage point of an eighth-floor window. "We could sneak in and out of deserted buildings for days without finding any leads."

"You can quit whenever you want to," was Deutsch's predictable answer. Sitting on the floor, the other Cobra was poring over a prewar aerial map of southern Cranach.

"Uh-huh. Well, as long as you're being so grateful for all that we're doing to help, I guess I'll stick around awhile longer."

It was Deutsch's turn to sigh. "All right, all right. If it'll ease your smoldering indignation any, I'll admit I went a little overwrought in selling this to Borg and company. Okay? Can you drop the little digs now?"

"I can drop them any time. But eventually you're going to have to face what you're doing to those people, not to mention what you're doing to yourself."

Deutsch snorted. "You mean undermining morale, while driving myself too hard with unrealistic goals and standards?"

"Well, now that you mention it—"

"I'm not pushing myself any harder than I can handle—you know that. As to the underground—" He shrugged, the movement rustling his map. "You just don't understand the position Adirondack's in, Cally. We're a frontier world, looked down on by everyone else in the Dominion—for all I know, by the Trofts as well. We've got to prove ourselves to all the rest of you, and the only way to do that is to throw the Trofts off our world."

"Yes, I know that's the theory you're working under," Halloran nodded. "My question is whether or not that's the achievement people will remember most."

Again Deutsch snorted. "What else is there in a war?"

"Spirit, for one thing. And Adirondack is showing one hell of a fine spirit." He held up a hand and began ticking off fingers. "One: you haven't got a single genuine collaborationist government anywhere on the planet. That forces the Trofts to tie up ridiculous numbers of troops with administrative and policing duties they'd much rather leave to you. Two: the local governments they have coerced into place are working very hard to be more trouble than they're worth. Remember when the Trofts tried conscription from Cranach and Dannimor to repair the Leeding Bridge?"

Almost unwillingly, Deutsch smiled. "Multiple conflicting orders, incompatible equipment, and well-hidden deficiencies in materials. Took them twice as long as the Trofts would have if they'd done it themselves."

"And every one of the people responsible for that fiasco risked their lives to pull it off," Halloran reminded him. "And those are just the things that plain, relatively uninvolved citizens are doing. I haven't even mentioned the sacrifices the underground's shown itself willing to make, the sheer persistence it's demonstrated the past three years. Maybe you're not impressed by your world, but I'll tell you right now that I'd be proud as hell if Aerie did half aswell under these conditions."

Deutsch pursed his lips, his eyes on the map now folded over his knees. "All right," he said at last. "I'll concede that maybe we're not doing too badly. But potentials and maybes don't matter in this game. If we lose no one's going to care whether we did the best we could or the worst we could, because no one's going to remember us, period. Only the winners make it into the history books."

"Perhaps," Halloran nodded. "But perhaps not. Have you ever heard of Masada?"

"I don't think so. Was it a battle?"

"A siege. Took place in the first century on Earth. The Roman Empire had invaded some country—Israel, I think it's called now. A group of the local defenders—I'm not sure whether they were even regular military or just guerrillas—they took refuge on top of a plateau called Masada. The Romans encircled the place and tried for over a year to take it."

Deutsch's dark eyes were steady on his. "And eventually did?"

"Yes. But the defenders had sworn not to be taken alive . . . and so when the Romans marched into the camp all they found were dead bodies. They'd chosen suicide rather than capture."

Deutsch licked his lips. "I would have tried to take a few more Romans with me."

Halloran shrugged. "So would I. But that's not the point. They lost, but they weren't conquered, if you see the difference; and even though the Romans wound up winning the war, Masada's never been forgotten."

"Um." Deutsch stared off into space for another moment, then abruptly picked up his map again. "Well, I'd still like to come up with a better ending than that for this game," he said briskly. "Anything out there look particularly promising for our next sortie?"

Halloran directed his attention back out the window, wondering if his pep talk had done any good. "Couple of very obviously gutted buildings to the southwest that might make good cover for a guard house or hidden tunnel entrance. And there's a genuine jungle behind a security wall a little further on."

"The Tyler Mansion," Deutsch nodded, marking locations on his map. "Used to be very nice gardens and orchards surrounding the main house before the war. I suppose all Tyler's gardeners ran off long ago."

"Looks like you could hide an armor division under all that shrubbery. Any chance the Trofts could have taken the place over?"

"Probably, but it's hard to imagine how they'd do that without an obvious battle. That wall's not just decorative, for starters, and Tyler's bound to have heavier stuff in reserve. Besides, no one's ever seen any Trofts going in or out of the grounds."

"That reminds me—we should find a secure phone and check in before we go anywhere else. See if the spotters have anything in the way of Troft movement correlations yet."

"If they haven't found anything in four months they're not likely to have anything now," Deutsch pointed out, folding his map. "All right, though; we'll be good team players and check in. Then we'll hit your gutted buildings."

"Right." At least, Halloran thought, he's got something besides simple win-loss criteria to mull over now. Maybe it'll be enough. 

Only as they were heading down the darkened stairway toward the street below did it occur to him that, in his current state, talking to Deutsch about self-sacrifices might not have been the world's smartest thing to do.

* * *

Ilona, it turned out, was a walking magcard of information on the Tyler Mansion.

She knew its outer appearance, the prewar layout of its major gardens, and the sizes and approximate locations of some of its rooms. She could sketch the stonework designs on the five-meter-high outer wall, as well as giving the wall's dimensions, and had at least a general idea as to the total area of both house and grounds. It impressed Jonny tremendously until it occurred to him that all her information would have fit quite comfortably in the sort of celebrity-snoop magazines that seemed to exist in one form or another all over the Dominion. The sort of thing both he and an enterprising gate-crasher would have found more useful—security systems, weapons emplacements, and the like—were conspicuous by their absence. Eventually, and regretfully, he decided she was simply one of those avid followers of the Tyler mystique whose existence she'd already hinted at.

Still, he'd been taught how to make inferences from the physical appearance of structures, and even given that his data was second-hand he was able to form a reasonable picture of what Tyler had set up to defend his home.

And the picture wasn't an especially encouraging one.

"The main gate is shaped like this," Ilona said, sketching barely visible lines with her finger on the tabletop. "It's supposed to be electronically locked and made with twenty-centimeter-thick kyrelium steel, same as the interior section of the wall."

Briefly, Jonny tried to calculate how long it would take to punch a hole through that much kyrelium with his antiarmor laser. The number came out on the order of several hours. "Any of the house's fancy stonework on the outer side?"

"Not on the gate itself, but there are two relief carvings flanking it on the wall. About here and here." She pointed.

Sensor clusters, most likely, and probably weapons as well. Facing inward as well as outward? No way of knowing, but it wasn't likely to matter with twenty centimeters of kyrelium blocking the way. "Well, that only leaves going over the wall," he sighed. "What's he got up there?"

"As far as I know, nothing."

Jonny frowned. "He's got to have some defenses up there, Ilona. Five-meter walls haven't been proof against attackers since ladders were invented. Um . . . what about the corners? Any raised stonework or anything there?"

"Nope." She was emphatic. "Nothing but flat wall all the way around the grounds."

Which meant no photoelectric/laser beam setup along the wall. Could Tyler really have left such an obvious loophole in his defenses? Of course, anything coming over the wall could be targeted by the house's lasers, but that approach depended on temperamental and potentially jammable highspeed electronics; and even if they worked properly, a fair amount of the shot was likely to expend its energy on other than the intended target. Sloppy and dangerous. No, Tyler must have had something else in mind. But what?

And then a pair of stray facts intersected in Jonny's mind. Tyler had built his mansion along Reginine lines; and Jonny's late teammate, Parr Noffke, had been from that same world. Had he ever said anything that might provide a clue . . . ?

He had. The day of the trainees' first modest test, the one Jonny had afterward nearly broken Viljo's face over. Our wall lasers, Noffke had commented, point up, not across. 

And then, of course, it was obvious. Obvious and sobering. Instead of four lasers arranged to fire horizontally along the walls, Tyler had literally hundreds of the things lined up together like logs in an old palisade, aiming straight up from inside the wall. A horribly expensive barrier, but one that could defend against low projectiles and ground-hug missiles as well as grappler-equipped intruders. Quick, operationally simple, and virtually foolproof.

And almost undoubtedly the Trofts' planned deathtrap.

Jonny swallowed, the irony of it bitter on his tongue. This was exactly what he'd wanted: some insight into how the aliens expected to stop him . . . and now that he knew, the whole thing looked more hopeless than ever. Unless he could somehow get to the control circuitry for those lasers, there was no way he and Ilona would get beyond the wall without being solidly slagged.

He became aware that Ilona was watching him, a look of strained patience on her face. "Well? Any chance of getting through the gate?"

"I doubt it," Jonny shook his head. "But we won't have to. Up and over is a far better bet."

"Up and over? You mean climb a five-meter wall?"

"I mean jump it. I think I can manage it without too much trouble." In actual fact the wall's height was the least of their troubles, but there was no point telling the hidden listeners that.

"What about the defenses you said might be there?"

"Shouldn't pose any real problem," Jonny lied, again for the Trofts' benefit. He didn't dare appear too naive; it might arouse their suspicions. "I suspect Tyler's got his wall lasers built into elevating turrets at the corners. With all that stonework available to hide sensors in, there'd be no problem getting them up in time if someone started to climb in. I haven't seen that sort of arrangement on Adirondack before, but it's a logical extension of your usual defense laser setup, especially for someone with the classical aesthetics Tyler seems to have. Actually, I'm a lot more worried about getting to the wall in the first place. I want you to tell me everything you can remember about the route the Trofts used to get you to this room."

She nodded, and as she launched into a listing of rooms, hallways, and staircases, he knew she was satisfied with his spun-sugar theory. Now if only he'd similarly convinced the Trofts to let them get all the way to the deathtrap.

And if he could figure out a way through it.

* * *

His internal clock said ten p.m., and it was time to go.

Jonny had been of two minds about choosing a nighttime rather than an afternoon breakout. In the afternoon there would have been people beyond the Tyler Mansion's walls; crowds for the two fugitives to disappear into if they got that far, witnesses perhaps to their deaths—and the mansion's significance—if they didn't. But hiding in crowds made little sense if the Trofts were willing to slaughter civilians in order to get the two of them. Besides, forcing the Trofts' outdoor weaponry to rely on radar, infrared, and light amplification for targeting might prove a minor advantage.

Those were the reasons he gave Ilona. One more—that the aliens might not risk letting them even get to the wall in broad daylight—he kept to himself.

He was lying on his back on the table, hands folded across his chest; Ilona sat beside him, her knees pulled close to her chest, apparently contemplating the door. Ilona's inactivity wasn't an act: he'd quoted a ten-thirty jump-off time to her. Whether or not the Trofts could be fooled by so simple a trick he would probably never know, but it had certainly been worth a try.

Taking a deep breath, Jonny activated his omnidirectional sonic weapon.

There was a tingle in his gut, a slight vibration as the buried speakers brushed harmonics of natural body resonances. Straining his ears, he could almost hear the ultrasonic pitch changing as the sound dug into the walls, seeking resonances with the tiny audio and visual sensors open to it. . . .

The full treatment was supposed to require a minute, but Jonny had no intention of giving the Trofts that much warning. He didn't need to knock out the sensors permanently, but just to fog as many of them as possible while he made his move. He gave it five seconds; and just as Ilona began looking around the room with a frown he lifted his left leg slightly and fired.

The upper hinge of the door literally exploded, scattering solid and semisolid bits of itself in a shower to the floor. Beside him, Ilona yelped with surprise; in a single smooth motion, Jonny slid forward so that he could target the lower hinge and fired again. This shot didn't hit the inner sections quite as cleanly, and the explosive vaporization that had taken out the upper hinge didn't occur. Jonny fired three more times, adding his fingertip lasers to the assault, and within seconds the hinge was dangling loosely against the wall. Gripping the edge of the table, he hurled himself feet-first at the hinge side of the door like a self-guided battering ram. The door creaked under the impact, displaced by a centimeter or two. Regaining his balance, Jonny jumped across the room, turned and tried it again, his hands providing a last-second boost from the table as he passed it. The table survived; the door, fortunately, did not. With a shriek of scraping metal, it popped out of its frame and sagged at an odd angle, held off the floor only by its lock mechanism.

"You said ten-thirty," Ilona growled. She was already at the door by the time he got his balance, peering cautiously outside.

"I got impatient," Jonny returned, joining her. "Looks clear enough; come on."

Stepping past the ruined door, they headed out into a dimly lit hallway. Enhancers on full, Jonny scanned the walls and floor quickly as he led Ilona in a quick jog. Nothing seemed to be there—

They were nearly on top of it when Jonny spotted the slight discoloration in the wall that indicated a disguised photocell at knee height. "Detector!" he snapped, slowing to let Ilona catch up. Pointing it out would have taken unnecessary time; grabbing her upper arms, he swung her over the invisible beam and then jumped over himself. Too easy, he thought uncomfortably. Far too easy. He knew the Trofts wanted him to get through their gauntlet alive, but this was ridiculous.

It stopped being ridiculous at the end of the hall.

Jonny paused there, at the threshold of a large room; but neither a complete stop nor a full-speed sprint would have done him a scrap of good. Flanking the hallway exit were two quarter-circles of armored Trofts.

Stepping back into the hallway would have been no more than a temporary solution. Shoving Ilona back into that modest protection, he bent his knees and jumped.

The ceiling here wasn't as sturdy as the one back in Freyr Complex's Room C-662, the one Bai had first demonstrated on. But it was sturdy enough, and Jonny hit the floor with balance intact and only a minor snowstorm of shattered ceiling tiles accompanying him. Hit the floor, twisted . . . and as the Troft lasers began to track, he threw himself spinning onto his shoulderblades.

Bai had called the maneuver a break, for obscure historical reasons; the trainees had privately dubbed it the backspin. Curled up in a half-fetal position, knees tucked almost to his chest, Jonny's antiarmor laser swept the line of soldiers, flashing instant death. Only three of the dozen or so soldiers escaped that first salvo, and they died on Jonny's second spin.

The metallic clink of armor-clad bodies hitting floor had barely ceased before Jonny was back in a crouch, eyes darting around. "Ilona!" he stage-whispered. "Come on." Peering into the hall, he saw her leap to her feet and trot toward him.

"Good Lord!" she gasped. "Was all of that you?"

"All of it that counted." Which proved all by itself he'd been right about the Trofts' plan. He should at least have picked up some light burns from that exchange. "That door?"

"Right. Remember that it's a stairway."

"Got it."

Like the hallway, the stairs proved to be free of major threats. Probably, Jonny decided, whatever sensors it contained were designed to study his equipment immediately after use, perhaps looking for theoretical limits or emission signatures. Triggering his sonic again, he led Ilona around the two photocells the stairway contained and braced himself for whatever he would find above.

The Trofts' first try had been a straightforward attack. This one was only marginally more subtle. Stretched across the floor, between the fugitives and the room's only exit, was a three-meter-wide black band. Jonny sniffed, caught a whiff of the same smell he remembered from the net at the Wolker Plant. "Glue patch," he warned Ilona, searching the walls with his eyes. A vertical strip of photocells stretched from floor to ceiling at either end of the adhesive; six almost-flat boxes adorned the walls beyond. Unlike the more permanent-looking photocells back in the hall and stairway, this trap had the air of having been hastily set up for the occasion.

Ilona, for a change, was right with him on this one. "So we jump and get hit by something while we're in mid-air?" she murmured tensely.

"Looks like it." Jonny stepped to the side wall near the adhesive and extended his right arm. "I'll try some simple sabotage. Get back into the stairwell, just in case."

His arcthrower flashed even as she obeyed . . . and he discovered just how badly he'd underestimated the Troft ability to learn.

Across the room one of the flat boxes abruptly disintegrated before a spinning mass that shot out directly toward him. The mass flattened as it came, its spin unfolding it into a giant mesh net.

He had no time then to regret having demonstrated his arcthrower's range a few hours previously; no time to do anything but get out of the way fast.

And his programmed reflexes did their best. Dropping him toward the floor, his servos threw him in a flat dive at right angles to the net's line of motion. But the room was too small, the net too big; and even as he somersaulted into the wall near the stairway door, the edge of the mesh caught his left shoulder, pinning him to the floor.

Ilona was out of her shelter like a shot. "You all right?" she asked, hurrying toward him.

He waved her away and twisted up on one elbow. Cutting the mesh would perhaps be simplest, but if the glue contained a contact soporific again, he didn't want to risk carrying a patch of it along with them. Bracing himself, he jerked abruptly, tearing the trapped sleeve neatly off at the shoulder.

"Now what?" Ilona asked as he scrambled to his feet.

"We give up on the subtle approach. Get ready to move." Sequentially targeting the remaining five wall boxes, he raised his hands and fired.

He was half afraid the attack would trigger the firing mechanisms instead of destroying them. But as each box shattered and the briefly lingering laser beam swept the coiled net behind, it began to look like the Trofts had missed a bet. Until he noticed the pale brown smoke rising from the burning nets. . . .

"Hold your breath!" he snapped at Ilona. Stepping to her side, he grabbed her in a shoulder-and-thigh grip and jumped.

Not simply across the adhesive strip, but all the way to the door at the other end of the room. A potentially disastrous maneuver, but the Trofts fortunately had not hooked any more booby-traps to their photocell strip. The door was closed, but Jonny had no intention of pausing to see whether or not it was locked: he landed on his left foot, his right already snapping out in a servo-powered kick beside the doorknob. The panel shattered with gratifying ease, and—still carrying Ilona—he charged on through.

The room beyond was much smaller and, like the others he'd encountered so far, completely barren of furniture. It would have been nice to pause at the threshold and check for traps, but with expanding clouds of unknown gas in the room just behind, that was a luxury he couldn't afford. Instead, he took the whole five meters at a dead run, avoiding a straight-line path to the door opposite but otherwise relying solely on his combat reflexes to get them through safely.

And whatever the Trofts had set up, they apparently were taken by surprise by his maneuver. Reaching the door unscathed, he wrenched it open and slipped through, dropping Ilona back to the floor and slamming the door behind them. They were, as Jonny had expected, in the middle of a long hallway. Snapping his hands into firing position, he gave the place a quick survey, then focused again on Ilona. "You okay?"

"The bruises from this are going to be interesting," she said, reaching around to rub her rear where he'd been gripping her. "Otherwise okay. I came in that way—second door from the end, I think."

"I hope you're right." It wasn't a trivial point; Trofts routinely sealed off interior doors in buildings they took over, and a wrong turn could put them into a section of maze Ilona knew nothing at all about. At least it was a hallway, and therefore—if the Trofts kept to their pattern so far—presumably not booby-trapped. The breather would be nice to have. "Okay; let's go."

And with his attention on the walls, his assumptions firmly in mind, he nearly lost it all right there and then.

It started as a humming in his gut, similar to that caused by his own sonic weaponry, and it was pure luck that they were nearly to a node of the standing wave when he finally woke up to what was happening and skidded to an abrupt halt. "What?" Ilona gasped as she bumped into him.

"Infrasonic attack," he snapped. The humming had become a wave of nausea now, and his head was beginning to throb. "Hallway's a resonance cavity. We're standing at a node."

"Can't stay here," she managed, sagging against him and gripping her own stomach.

"I know. Hang on." There were only seconds, he estimated, before they were both too sick to move, and unfortunately the Trofts had left him only one option for a response. He'd hoped to keep at least one weapon out of their view on this trip, but with no indication where their infrasonic generator was located, his lasers were useless. Clutching the unsteady Ilona to his side, out of the direct line of fire, he activated his sonic disruptor and began sweeping the ends of the hallway.

Either he was very lucky or—more likely—the Trofts had again set him up with an easy victory, because in barely four seconds the sonic beam had hit on the resonance frequency for something in the Trofts' generator. Gritting his teeth—fully aware the sonic hadn't been designed for spaces this big—Jonny held the beam steady as his nanocomputer increased amplitude . . . and abruptly the nausea began fading. Within a dozen heartbeats all that remained of the attack were weak knees and residual aches throughout his body.

"Come on, we've got to keep going," he told Ilona thickly, stumbling toward the door she'd pointed out earlier.

"Yeah," she agreed, and did her best to comply. He wound up mostly carrying her anyway, a task that would have been impossible without his servos. Reaching the door, he pulled it open.

The Trofts had gone back to being unsubtle. This room, unlike all the previous ones, was almost literally loaded with furniture . . . and behind each piece seemed to be an enemy soldier.

It occurred to Jonny in that first frozen millisecond that deviating from Ilona's remembered path might well be disastrous, if for no other reason than panicking the Troft commander. But there was no way he was going to willingly face a roomful of enemies if another possibility existed . . . or could be made.

A single, untuned blast from his sonic was all he had time for before slamming the door to; with luck, it would jar them at least enough to slow any pursuit. Grabbing Ilona's arm, he sprinted to the next door, the last one at this end of the hall.

"This isn't the way I came!" she yelped as he let go and tried the door. It was locked, of course.

"No choice. Hit the ground and yell if you see anyone coming." His fingertip lasers were already spitting destruction at the door's edges, tracing a dashed-line pattern that would yield maximum weakening in minimum time. Halfway through he kicked hard at the door; finishing it, he kicked again. With the second kick he felt it give, and four kicks later the panel abruptly shattered. Ilona right behind him, he ducked through.

And it was instantly clear they were off the path so carefully set up for them. No human-style furniture or equipment here—from floor to ceiling the room was jarringly alien. Long, oddly shaped couches lay grouped around what looked like circular tables with hemispherical domes rising from their centers. On the walls were almost archaic-looking murals alternating with smaller bits of gleaming electronics. Across the room Jonny got just a glimpse of a Troft back-jointed leg as the alien beat a hasty retreat . . . and in the relative silence a sound heretofore conspicuous by its absence could be heard: the thin ululating wail of a Troft alarm.

"Dining room?" Ilona asked, glancing around.

"Lounge." A minor disappointment; he'd rather hoped they would wind up somewhere his arcthrower could be put to use. The control room for the wall defenses, for example.

On the other hand . . .

"Let's get going," Ilona urged, throwing apprehensive glances at the ruined door behind them. "That crowd will be on our backs any minute."

"Just a second," Jonny told her, scanning the walls. Trofts always put lounges and other noncritical facilities on the outer edges of their bases . . . and, half-hidden by the murals, he finally spotted what he was looking for: the outline of a window.

Well boarded up, of course. A dark sheet of kyrelium steel, three meters by one, fitted precisely into the opening, leaving only a hairline crack in the otherwise featureless slate-gray wall. Unbreakable with even Cobra weaponry; but if the designer had followed standard Troft building reinforcement procedures, there might be a chance of getting off this treadmill right here. "Get ready to follow," he called to Ilona over his shoulder. Leaning hard into the floor, he charged the window and jumped, turning feet first in midair and hitting the window shield dead center.

The panel popped neatly from its casing and clattered to the ground outside. Jonny, much of his momentum lost, landed considerably closer to the building. Dropping into a crouch, he activated his light amp equipment and looked quickly around him.

He was in what had probably once been an extensive flower bed, extending most of the way out to where the stunted bushes and trees of an elaborate haiku garden began, the latter shifting in turn to a band of full-sized trees near the outer wall. No cover until the trees—Jonny's rangefinder set the distance at about fifty-two meters. The wall itself . . . thirty meters further.

Behind him came a noise. He twisted around, vaguely aware that the action hurt, to see Ilona jump lightly to the ground. "That was one beaut of a kick," she hissed as she joined him in his crouch.

"Not really. The edges are beveled against impacts from the outside only. Any idea where we are?"

"West side of the house. Gate's around to the north."

"Never mind the gate—we can go over the wall just as easily here." A corner of Jonny's mind considered the possibility that the Trofts had spy-mikes on them. "First, though," he added for their benefit, "I want to see if the house lasers are set to fire on outgoing targets."

Still no sign of enemy soldiers. Moving to the former window cover, he hefted the metal for a quick examination. Kyrelium steel, all right, about five centimeters thick. He had no idea whether it would do for what he had in mind, but there was no time left to find anything better. Bracing himself firmly, he gripped the panel on either side, raised it over his head like a makeshift umbrella . . . and with everything his servos could manage, he hurled it toward the distant wall.

He'd never gone to the limit in quite this way, and for a long, horrifying moment he was afraid he'd thrown the panel too hard. If it cleared the wall—and in the process ruined his pretense of ignorance as to the defensive lasers there—

But he actually had nothing to fear. The panel arced smoothly into the sky and dropped with a crash of breaking branches into the middle of the distant patch of forest, a good twenty meters in from the wall.

And it made the whole trip without drawing any fire.

Jonny licked his lips. So the automatics would most likely leave them alone. Would the live gunners who were undoubtedly up there abstain as well? There was nothing he could do about that but hope that they were still relying on the wall itself to ultimately stop him. If they were . . . and if his plan worked . . .

"Ready for a run?" he whispered to Ilona.

Her eyes were still on the spot where the kyrelium plate had ended its flight. "Phrij and a half," she muttered. "Uh—yeah, I'm ready. Toward the wall?"

"Right. As fast as you can. I'll be behind you where I can theoretically handle anyone who tries to stop us." One final look around—"Okay; go."

She took off like the entire Troft war machine was after her, running in a half-crouched posture that offered at best an illusion of relative safety. Jonny let her lead him by perhaps five meters, enhanced vision and hearing alert for any sound of pursuit. But the Tyler Mansion might have been deserted for all the response they drew from it. All lined up on the balcony to watch us slag ourselves, no doubt, he thought, recognizing as he did so that the strain was beginning to affect him. A few more seconds, he told himself over and over, the words settling into the quick rhythm of his footsteps. A few more seconds and it'll be over. 

At the edge of the forest he put on a burst of speed, catching up to Ilona a few steps later. "Wait a second—I have to find that kyrelium plate."

"What?" she gasped. "Why?"

"Don't ask questions. There it is."

Not surprisingly, the heavy metal was undamaged. Jonny picked it up and balanced it like an oversized door in front of him, searching for the best and safest handholds.

"What . . . you . . . doing?"

"Getting us out of here. Come here—stand in front of me. Come here."

She obeyed, stepping between him and the plate. "Arms around my neck—hold on tight . . . now wrap your legs around my waist . . . okay. Hold tight, whatever happens. Got it?"

"Yeah." Even muffled by his chest, her voice sounded scared. Perhaps she had a glimmering of what was about to happen.

Twenty meters to the wall. Jonny backed up another ten, getting the feel of the extra weight distribution as he gave himself room for a running start. "Here we go," he told Ilona. "Hang on—"

The whine of the servos was louder in his ears than even the thudding of his pulse as his feet dug deeper into the dirt with each step and his speed increased. Eight steps, nine steps—almost fast enough—ten steps—

And an instant later his knees straightened to send them soaring upward.

It was a move Jonny had practiced over and over again back on Asgard: a high-jumper's roll, designed to take him horizontally over whatever barrier stood in his way. Horizontal, face downward, he neared both the top of his arc and the deadly wall . . . and an instant before reaching them, he let go of the plate now directly beneath him and wrapped his arms tightly around Ilona.

The flash was incredibly bright, especially considering that all he was seeing was the fraction of laser light reflected from the underside of the kyrelium plate to the surrounding landscape. There was a rapid-fire cracking sound of heat-stressed metal against the brief hiss of explosive ablation—and then they were past the wall, and Jonny was twisting to bring them upright as they arced toward the ground.

He almost made it, hitting at an angle that probably would have ruined both ankles without his bone and ligament reinforcement. Recovering his balance, he tightened his hold on Ilona and started to run.

He got halfway to the nearest building before the Trofts recovered from their surprise and began firing. Laser blasts licked at his sides and heels as he zigzagged across the open ground. I guess you're going to get one more datapoint, he thought in their direction; and, again pushing his leg servos to the limit, he took the last twenty meters in an all-out sprint. One second later they were around the building's corner and out of range.

Jonny kept running, aiming for a second deserted factory a short block away. "Any suggestions as to a hiding place?" he called to Ilona over the wind.

She didn't even bother to raise her face from his shoulder. "Just keep going," she said, and even with the jolting of their run, he could feel her violent shiver.

He ran on, changing direction periodically, searching for a section of the city he could recognize. A kilometer or so later he found a familiar intersection and turned north, heading for one of the underground's secure phones. They were still a block away when the sound of approaching aircraft became audible. Jonny estimated distances and speeds, decided not to risk it, and stepped to the nearest doorway. It was locked, of course: but after what they'd just been through, a locked door was hardly worth noticing. Seconds later, they were inside.

"Are we safe here?" Ilona asked as Jonny set her down. Rubbing her ribs, she peered out the mesh-protected front window.

"Not really, but it'll have to do for the moment." Jonny found a chair and sat down, wincing as he did so. With the danger temporarily at arm's length he finally had time to notice the condition of his own body, and it was clear he wasn't as unscathed as he'd thought. At least five minor burns stung spots on arms and torso, evidence of Troft near-misses. His left ankle felt like it was on fire from the heat leakage buildup of his own antiarmor laser—one of the design flaws, he realized, that Bai had warned them to expect. Sore muscles and bruises seemed to be everywhere, and in several places he couldn't tell whether the clammy wetness of his clothing was due to sweat or oozing blood. "We'll have to wait until the aircraft overhead settle into a pattern I can thread, but then I should be able to get to a phone and alert the underground. They'll figure out where to stash you while I go back to the mansion."

"While you what?" She spun around to face him, her expression echoing the odd intensity in her voice.

"While I go back," he repeated. "You didn't know it, but the only reason they let us go was to collect data on my equipment in action. I have to try and get hold of those tapes."

"That's suicidal!" she snapped. "The whole phrijing nest of them will be running around by now."

"Running around out here, looking for us," he reminded her. "The mansion itself may not be well defended for a while, and if I'm fast enough I may be able to catch them off guard. Anyway, I've got to at least try."

She seemed about to say something, pursed her lips. "In that case . . . you probably can't take the time to go call the underground, either. If you're going back, you'd better do it right away."

Jonny stared at her. No argument, no real protest . . . and suddenly it occurred to him he really knew nothing at all about her. "Where did you say you lived?" he asked.

"I didn't say. What does that have to do with anything?"

"Nothing, really . . . except that I've just noticed I'm at a distinct disadvantage here. You know that I'm a Cobra, and therefore which side I'm on. But I don't know the same about you."

She stared at him for a long moment . . . and when she spoke again the usual sardonic undertone was gone from her voice. "Are you suggesting I'm a Troft hireling?" she asked quietly.

"You tell me. All I know about you is what you yourself said—including how exactly you came to be tossed in my cell. Sure, the Trofts could have plucked a random citizen off the streets, but they'd have done a lot better to use someone who could be trusted to pressure me if I still refused to perform for them."

"Did I pressure you?"

"No, but then that didn't prove necessary. And now you're encouraging me to go back alone, without even calling for underground backup forces."

"If I were a spy, wouldn't I want you to get me to the underground?" she countered. "I imagine the Trofts would like to get a solid line on the resistance. And as to encouraging you to go back alone—well, I admit I'm no expert on tactics, but doesn't it seem likely that before your backup forces got organized the Trofts would be back inside and braced for the attack?"

"You've got an answer for everything, don't you?" he growled. "All right. Let's hear your suggestion on what I should do with you."

Her eyes narrowed slightly. "Meaning . . . ?"

"If you're a spy I don't want you anywhere near the underground. Nor can I let you loose to tip off the Trofts that I'm coming."

"Well, I'm not going back to the mansion with you," she said emphatically.

"I'm not offering. What I guess I'll have to do is tie you up here until I get back."

A muscle twitched in her jaw. "And if you don't?"

"You'll be found by the shop's owner in the morning."

"Or by the Trofts sooner," she said softly. "The patrols looking for us, remember?"

And if she wasn't a spy . . . they'd kill her rather than let word of their mansion HQ get out. "Can you prove you're not a spy?" he asked, feeling new sweat break out on his forehead as he sensed the box closing tightly around his options.

"In the next thirty seconds? Don't be silly." She took a deep breath. "No, Jonny. If you want any chance at all of hitting the mansion tonight, you'll just have to accept my story or reject it on faith alone. If your suspicions are strong enough to justify my death . . . then there's nothing I can really do about it. I suppose it's a question of whether my life's worth risking yours over."

And when put that way, there really wasn't any decision to make. He'd risked his life for her once already . . . and enemy hireling or not, the Trofts had clearly been willing to let her die with him over the wall. "I suggest you find a hiding place before the patrols get here," he growled at her as he moved toward the door. "And watch out for aircraft."

Outside, the sound of thrusters was adequately distant. Without looking back, he slipped out into the night and headed back toward the Tyler Mansion, wondering if he'd just made the last stupid mistake of his life.

It was a much slower trip than before, with aircraft and vehicles forcing him to take cover with increasing frequency the closer he got to his target. Enough so that by the time he finally came within sight of the mansion's outer wall the basic tactical reasoning behind this solo effort was becoming shaky. Nearly three-quarters of an hour had passed since their escape—enough time for the Trofts to begin worrying about a raid and to have drawn their troops back to defensive positions. All around him Jonny's enhanced hearing was starting to pick up a faint background of moving bodies and equipment, all interspersed with the mandible clack of the Trofts' so-called catertalk, as the aliens began barricading the approaches to their base. Forced at last to abandon the ground, Jonny slipped into one of the neighborhood's abandoned buildings, working his way cautiously to an upper floor and a window facing the mansion. With light amps at full power, he studied the scene below.

And knew he'd lost.

The Trofts were everywhere: blocking streets, guarding rooftops and windows, setting up laser emplacements at the base of the wall itself. Beyond them, he could see aircraft drifting over the far wall to join others parked around the mansion. The cordon meant the Trofts were giving up any further hope of disguising their presence in the mansion; the aircraft implied they were preparing to abandon it. A few hours—a day or two at the most—and they would be gone, their tapes of his escape gone with them. Until then—

Until then, the wall's defense lasers would have to be periodically shut down to let the aircraft in and out.

With most of the armed troops outside the wall.

An intriguing thought . . . but offhand he couldn't see any way to take advantage of it. With the Troft cordon strengthening almost by the minute, getting to the wall was becoming well-nigh impossible. As a matter of fact, it wasn't even certain anymore that he'd be able to sneak out without being spotted and slagged. I shouldn't have come back, he thought morosely. Now I'm stuck here until the ground clutter clears out. 

He was just starting to turn away when a building off to the left emitted a cloud of fire from its base and began collapsing into itself. The thunderclap of the explosion had barely reached him when the streets below abruptly came alive with the stutter-flash of multiple laser weapons.

The unexpectedness of it froze him at the window . . . but for now the how of it would keep. He was really too exposed to risk drawing attention with his lasers, but there were other ways he could join the battle.

He watched a few seconds longer, fixing the layout and specific Troft positions in his mind. Then, moving back from the window, he set about collecting the odd chunks of masonry earlier battles in this region had shaken from the walls. Thrown with Cobra accuracy, they could be almost as deadly as grenades.

He was still busily clearing the street of Trofts when a second explosion lit up the sky. Looking up, he was just in time to see the red afterglow fading from an upper window of the Tyler Mansion.

An hour later, the battle was over.

* * *

Swathed in bandages and IV tubes, Halloran looked more like something out of an archeological dig than a living person. But what was visible of his face looked happier than Jonny had seen it in months. As well it might, considering the lousy odds all three Cobras had somehow managed to survive. "When we get off this rock," Jonny told the other, "remind me to have you and Imel sent up for a complete psych exam. You're both genuinely crazy."

"What—because we pulled the same stupid trick you were going to try?" Halloran asked innocently.

"Stupid trick, nothing," Deutsch retorted from the bed next to Halloran's. Only a few bandages graced his form, mute testimony to superior luck or skill. "We were practically on top of the place when you and Ilona made your break, close enough that we were actually inside their temporary picket ring when they all charged out after you. It was perfectly straightforward, tactically—it was just the implementation that got a bit sticky."

"Sticky, my eyeteeth. Some of us lost a lot of skin in there." Halloran jerked his head in Deutsch's direction. "Now him you're welcome to have sent up. You should've seen the chances he took in there. Not to mention the way he stared down Borg and got everyone on the streets looking for you."

Which, with a little unconscious help from the Trofts, was what had ultimately saved Jonny's life. He wondered if the aliens had had any idea what Ilona was really doing out there when they'd grabbed her. "I owe you both a lot," he said, knowing how inadequate the words were. "Thank you."

Deutsch waved a hand in dismissal. "Forget it—you'd have done the same for us. Besides, it was pretty much of a group effort, what with half of the Cranach underground taking their share of the risks."

"Including broadcasting the location of that hidden tunnel entrance to us as soon as Ilona phoned in the details," Halloran added. "I don't suppose they mentioned that one to you?—no, I didn't think so. Now that was a stupid trick. They're damn lucky the Trofts were too busy to trace the transmission—they certainly had the equipment to do so. I think the whole planet's going to need psychiatric help by the time this is over."

Jonny smiled along with them, hiding the twinge of embarrassment that still accompanied references to Ilona's part in the South Sector underground's counterattack on the Tyler Mansion. "Speaking of Ilona, she's supposed to give me a ride to the new home Ama's moved me to," he told them. "You guys take it easy, and I'll be back to give you a hand when you're ready to move."

"No rush," Halloran told him airily. "These people treat me with a lot more respect than you two clowns, anyway."

"He's definitely on the mend," Deutsch snorted. "Get going, Jonny; no point in keeping Ilona waiting for this."

Ilona was waiting inside the building foyer. "All set?" she asked briskly. "Let's go, then—they're expecting you in a few minutes, and you know how nervous we get when schedules aren't met."

She led the way outside to a car parked by the curb. They got in and she headed north . . . and for the first time since their escape two days earlier they were alone together.

Jonny cleared his throat. "So . . . how's the sifting at the mansion going?"

She glanced at him. "Not too bad. Cally and Imel and that East Sector team left a shambles, but we've found a lot of interesting items the Trofts didn't have time to destroy. I'd say that we've gotten far better than an even trade for those records of Jonny Moreau in action."

"No sign of them, huh?"

"No, but it hardly matters. They'd almost certainly have transmitted the data elsewhere as soon as we escaped."

"Oh, I know. But I'd hoped that if we had the original tapes we could figure out exactly how much they'd learned about our gear and be able to estimate the added danger we'll be working under."

"Ah. Yes, I guess that makes sense. I don't think you're going to have anything to worry about, though."

Johnny snorted. "You underestimate the Trofts' ingenuity. Like you very nearly underestimated my kind heart. You could've told me you were with the underground, you know."

He was expecting her to come out with some stiff and wholly inappropriate local security regulation; and so her reply, when it finally came, was something of a surprise. "I could have," she acknowledged. "And if you'd looked like you were making the wrong decision I sure would have. But . . . you'd jumped to a rather paranoid conclusion without any real evidence, and I . . . well, I wanted to find out how far you'd go in acting on that conclusion." She took a deep breath. "You see, Jonny, whether you know it or not, all of us who work and fight with you Cobras are more than a little afraid of you. There've been persistent rumors since you first landed that you'd been given carte blanche by Asgard to do anything you considered necessary to drive the Trofts off—including summary execution for any offense you decided you didn't like."

Jonny stared at her. "That's absurd."

"Is it? The Dominion can't exercise control over you from umpteen light-years away, and we sure can't do it. If you've got the power anyway why not make it official?"

"Because—" Jonny floundered. "Because that's not the way to liberate Adirondack."

"Depends on whether that's really Asgard's major objective, doesn't it? If they're more interested in breaking the Trofts' war capabilities, our little world is probably pretty expendable."

Jonny shook his head. "No. I realize it's hard to tell from here, but I know for a fact that the Cobras aren't on Adirondack to win anything at the expense of the people. If you knew the screening they put us through—and how many good men were bounced even after the training—"

"Sure, I understand all that. But military goals do change." She shrugged. "But with any luck the whole question will soon be academic."

"What do you mean?"

She favored him with a tight smile. "We got an off-world signal this morning. All underground and Cobra units are to immediately begin a pre-invasion sabotage campaign."

Jonny felt his mouth drop open. "Pre-invasion?"

"That's what they said. And if it succeeds . . . we owe the Cobras a lot, Jonny, and we won't forget you. But I don't think we'll be sorry to see you go, either."

To that Jonny had no reply, and the rest of the trip was made in silence. Ilona drove several blocks past Jonny's old apartment building, stopping finally before another, even more nondescript place. A tired-eyed woman greeted him at the door and took him to a top-floor apartment, where his meager belongings had already been delivered. On top of the bags was a small envelope.

Frowning, Jonny opened it. Inside was a plain piece of paper with a short, painstakingly written note:


Dear Jonny,

Mom says you're going somewhere else now and aren't going to be staying with us anymore. Please be careful and don't get caught anymore and come back to see me. I love you.


Jonny smiled as he slipped the note back into its envelope. You be careful, too, Danice, he thought. Maybe you, at least, will remember us kindly. 



The negotiations were over, the treaty was signed, ratified, and being implemented, and the euphoric haze that had pervaded the Central Committee's meetings for the past two months was finally starting to fade. Vanis D'arl had expected Committé H'orme to pick this point to bring up the Cobras again; and he was right.

"It's not a question of ingratitude or injustice—it's a question of pure necessity," the Committé told the assembly, his voice quavering only slightly. Seated behind him, D'arl eyed H'orme's back uneasily, seeing in his stance the older man's fatigue. He wondered if the others knew how much the war had taken out of H'orme . . . wondered whether they would consequently recognize the urgency implied by his being here to deliver this message personally.

From their faces, though, it was obvious most of them didn't, an attitude clearly shown by the first person to rise when H'orme had finished. "If you'll forgive the tone, H'orme," the other said with a perfunctory gesture of respect, "I think the Committee has heard quite enough of your preoccupation with the Cobras. If you'll recall, it was at your insistence that we directed the Army to offer them exceptionally liberal reenlistment terms, and in your place I would consider it a victory that over seventy percent chose to accept. We've all heard from Commander Mendro and his associates just how much of their equipment the other twenty-odd percent will take back to civilian life with them, and we've concluded the Army's plans are acceptable. To again suggest now that we force those men to remain in the Army strikes me as a bit . . . overconcerned."

Or paranoid, as the word will be interpreted, D'arl thought. But H'orme had one tacnuke yet in reserve, and as the Committé picked up a magcard from his stack, D'arl knew he was about to set it off. "I remember Commander Mendro's visits quite well, thank you," he addressed the other Committé with a nod, "and I've done some checking on the facts and figures he presented." Dropping the magcard into his reader, he keyed to the first of his chosen sections and sent the picture to the other viewers around the table. "You will note here the percentage of Cobra trainees that were actually commissioned and sent into the war, displayed as a function of time. The different colors refer to the continually updated initial screening tests the Army used."

A few frowns began to appear. "You're saying they never got more than eighty-five percent into the field?" a Committé halfway around the table spoke up. "The number I remember is ninety-seven percent."

"That's the number that were physically able to go after training," H'orme told her. "The rest of them were dropped for psychosociological reasons."

"So?" someone else shrugged. "No testing method's ever perfect. As long as they caught all of the unacceptable ones—"

"I expect H'orme's point is whether or not they did catch all of them," another Committé suggested dryly.

"A simple check of eyewitness accounts from Silvern and Adirondack—"

"Will take months to complete," H'orme interrupted. "But there's more. Dismiss, if you'd like, the possibility of antisocial leanings in any of the Cobras. Are you aware they'll be taking their combat nanocomputers back with them?—with no reprogramming?"

All eyes turned to him. "What are you talking about? Mendro said . . ." The speaker paused.

"Mendro deflected the question exceptionally well," H'orme said grimly. "The fact of the matter is that the nanocomputers are read-only and can't be reprogrammed, and after being in place even a short time they can't be removed without excessive trauma to the brain tissue that's subsequently settled in around them."

"Why weren't we told?"

"Initially, I presume, because the Army wanted the Cobras and was afraid we'd veto or modify their chosen design. More recently, the point was probably not brought up because there wasn't anything anyone could do about it."

All of which, D'arl knew, was only partly correct. All the data on the nanocomputers had been in the original Cobra proposals, had anyone besides H'orme deemed it worth digging out. Perhaps H'orme was saving that fact for future leverage.

The discussion raged back and forth for a while, and long before it was over the remaining air of euphoria had vanished from the chamber. But if the new sense of realism raised D'arl's hopes, the end result dashed them again. By a nineteen to eleven vote, the Committee chose not to interfere with the Cobra demobilization.

"You should know by now that clear-cut victories are as rare as oxygen worlds," H'orme chided D'arl later in his office. "We got them thinking—really thinking—and at this stage that's as much as we could have hoped for. The Committee will be watching the Cobras carefully now, and if action turns out to be necessary, it'll take a minimum amount of prodding to get it."

"All of which could've been avoided if they'd just paid attention to the Cobra project in the first place," D'arl muttered.

"No one can pay attention to everything," H'orme shrugged. "Besides, there's an important psychological effect operating here. Most of the Dominion sees the military and the government as essentially two parts of a single monolithic structure, and whether they admit it or not the Committee carries a remnant of that assumption in its collective subconscious. You and I, who grew up on Asgard, have what I think is a more realistic perspective on exactly where and to what extent the military's goals differ from ours. They conceived the Cobras with the sole purpose of winning a war in mind, and every bit of their training and equipment—including the nanocomputer design—made sense within those limited parameters. What the Committee should have done, but didn't, was to remember that all wars eventually end. Instead, we assumed the Army had already done that thinking for us."

D'arl tapped two fingers on the arm of his chair. "Maybe next time they'll know better."

"Possibly. But I doubt it." H'orme leaned back in his chair with a tired sigh. "Anyway, this is the situation we have to live with. What do you suggest as our next move?"

D'arl pursed his lips. H'orme had been doing this a lot lately, and whether it was due to simple mental fatigue or a conscious effort to sharpen the younger man's executive capabilities, it was a bad sign. Very soon now, D'arl knew, H'orme's hot seat was going to pass to him. "We should obtain a listing of all returning Cobras and their destinations," he told H'orme. "Then we should set up local and regional data triggers to funnel all government-accessible news concerning them directly to you, with special flags for criminal or other abnormal behavior."

H'orme nodded. "Agreed. Have someone—Joromo, maybe—get started on it."

"Yes, sir." D'arl stood up. "I think, though, that I'll do this one personally. I want to make sure it's done right."

A ghost of a smile flicked across H'orme's lips. "You humor an old man's obsession, D'arl, and I appreciate it. But I think you'll find—you and the rest of the Committee—that the Cobras are going to have far more impact on the Dominion than even I'm afraid of." He turned his chair to gaze out the window at the city below. "I just wish," he added softly, "I knew what form that impact was going to take."


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