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SANGER was the commando’s point man this morning. Twenty meters beyond the abandoned farmhouse, he walked into a Gerin killzone.

“Freeze!” ordered Rudisill, the artillery specialist, second in the six-man column and shocked out of the lethargy of a long march by the pulsing alert on his helmet display. “Sanger, your helmet’s fucked. You’re already in a killzone.”

Coils in each helmet cooled the trooper’s head and approximately half his blood supply, the next -best thing to total environmental control. The refrigerant didn’t prevent DuQuesne’s atmosphere from being a steam bath, though; nor did it do anything to lighten the commando’s load of gear.

For concealment purposes, they’d been inserted by sea with ten kilometers to hike before they reached their objective. Sweat had been rolling off Rudisill’s body with the effort of humping his helmet, weapons, rations—and the heavy spotting table—up and down forested ridges.

Now the sweat was cold.

“Everybody halt in place,” said Captain Lermontov over the unit net. “I’m coming forward.”

Lermontov’s voice was more than calm; it was calming. “Sanger, you know the drill. You’re safe unless you try to back up, so just stay where you are. Might be a good time to take a leak.”

“I done that, sir,” whispered the point man. Then, “Sir, you gonna be able to get me out?”

Commando 441 had carried out twenty-seven missions on this Christ-bitten hellhole without a fatality. The troopers of other units carried lucky charms. Four-four-one had Ivan Lermontov.

But it was going to take more than luck to pull Sanger from the trap into which his faulty equipment had dropped him.

“I don’t see why not,” said Captain Lermontov.

Rudisill heard the soft rustle of vegetation. The commando’s leader was approaching with easy caution from his number-three slot in the column, a hundred meters behind the artillery specialist.

The heads-up display on Rudisill’s visor showed pulsing blips as the computer-directed elements of the Gerin killzone maneuvered for optimal position. Pretty soon, they’d encircle the whole commando, not just the point man.

This killzone consisted of twenty separate elements, strung in a two-kilometer line almost parallel to the commando’s axis of advance. If the commando had crossed to the left rather than the right side of the knob on the last ridge, they’d have been out of the zone’s sensor range.

The troopers wouldn’t have known—or cared—that the killzone was in place. Now—

Each element of the killzone was a twenty-centimeter sphere with sensors, magnetic lift engines, and a rudimentary control/communications computer. When a target entered the sensor range of any element, that computer alerted the other elements and the whole chain drifted closer to do maximum damage to possible following targets. Nothing would happen until the target started to move out of the zone’s lethal area.

The magnetic motors had an electronic signature even in standby mode. Commando helmets could detect a killzone at twice the killzone’s own fifty-meter sensor range.

Except that Sanger’s helmet had malfunctioned.

The shell of each sphere was pre-fragmented ceramic, backed with high explosive. Sanger was within ten meters of one. At that range, the blast would shatter the trunk of thirty-centimeter hardwoods; it would atomize a man.

“Good work, Guns,” Lermontov murmured, using straight voice instead of frequency-hopping radio as he came up behind Rudisill. “If you hadn’t been looking sharp, we’d be in problems now.”

That was oil, not reality. The helmet, not the artillery spotter personally, had done the work; but the words made Rudisill feel better nonetheless. “They’re coming down on us, sir,” he said tightly.

“Sure, that’s what they do,” agreed Lermontov as he paused beside Rudisill.

The captain was a man of middle height, with a gymnast’s shoulders and slim hips. He’d slung his assault rifle and was punching keys on the miniature handset flexed to his helmet.

The face beneath Lermontov’s raised visor looked unconcerned; a boyish lock of dark blond hair peeked out from beneath his helmet.

Lermontov smiled. “Got another job for you, Guns,” he said. “Need you to tell me when I look like I’m a zone element myself.”

Rudisill’s rifle was aimed at the stretch of forest which concealed another of the mines drifting toward the target area. He brushed sweat from his chin with the back of his left hand and said, “Sir, you can’t. These helmets won’t…”

Lermontov flashed a smile that brooked no more argument than a shark’s did. “Don’t you worry, troop,” he said flatly. “These helmets’ll sit up and beg for cookies if you know how to massage ‘em. Your job’s just to tell me—” Lermontov concentrated on the keyboard in his left palm—’’when I’ve got it right. “

Rudisill swallowed and nodded. His visor displayed the slow-moving elements of the killzone as blue dots on the ghostly relief map overlaying the reality of the forest. As Captain Lermontov touched his keyboard, another dot sprang to life beside the artillery spotter. The new arrival was fuzzy at first, but its outline quickly sharpened until it was nearly identical to the other twenty.

“You got it, sir,” Rudisill said. “But I wish you wouldn’t . . .”

“Okay, Sanger,” Lermontov said over the unit push as he stepped forward. “We’re golden. Help’s on the way.”

* * *

The undergrowth folded behind the captain, hiding him from Rudisill after a few long, gliding strides. On Rudisill’s visor, the twenty-first dot moved smoothly toward the original one at a pace swifter than that of the other drifting deathtraps.

Lermontov’s helmet was matching its own output to the commo and motor signatures of a killzone element. If the emanations were close enough, the Gerin sensors would ignore Lermontov until he switched the killzone off.

If the match wasn’t close enough, the blast would be lethal within a fifty-meter circle.

Rudisill knelt carefully so that the ground took part of the weight of his pack. He pretended to ignore the drop of sweat that trembled on the end of his nose.

The dot that was Lermontov paused briefly as it reached the point man’s position. Nothing came over the commo net, but Rudisill could imagine the captain patting Sanger on the shoulder, saying a few cheerful words, and moving on toward the waiting explosive.

Rudisill could imagine it because that had been more or less what had happened to him when a laser toppled a tree across his thighs. The spotting table was smashed, so he couldn’t call in artillery fire. He didn’t have a prayer unless somebody crawled suicidally close to the Gerin bunker and dropped a grenade through its firing slit.

Which Captain Lermontov did.

The dot that was the commando’s leader merged with the almost identical killzone element.

“Okay,” said the captain’s voice. “Now, everybody hug the ground for just a . . .”

Rudisill knew he should flatten from his crouch. He couldn’t bring himself to move.

The line of oncoming beads faded to blurs or vanished as their motors cut back to standby power. The first element of a killzone to make contact became the master link, and Captain Lermontov had just shut it down.

“There, we’re golden,” Lermontov said. “Let’s get moving, shall we? Heatherton, come forward and take point. “

Rudisill finally let his breath out as he rose to his feet.

“Negative,” he said. “I’ll take it, sir.”

He moved forward, letting his eyes scan either side and the trees above him, as though he were already the column’s point man.

“Guns,” Lermontov replied cautiously, “we need you to spot when we reach the hostage pen.”

“We need everybody,” Rudisill said. “I’m here, and we know my hardware works.”

He’d reached the clearing around the farmhouse. The inhabitants hadn’t been gone for long. Chickens squabbled noisily beyond the palings of the kitchen garden, and the hog which snorted off among the trees was domestic rather than feral.

The pig’s masters were probably hidden nearby. Rudisill didn’t bother to try calling them out. The Dukes weren’t going to come forward, weren’t going to help even by dipping a gourdful of drinking water for the troops risking their lives to free DuQuesne from the Gerin.

The Dukes weren’t shit.

Sanger was washing down a tablet of electrolyte replacement with tasteless water from the condenser in his helmet. He was nineteen years standard and could pass for twice that age at the moment.

Sanger stood, shouldering his pack. He didn’t have the spotting table, but the MARS—multi-application rocket system— he and the other three troopers carried was equally heavy. “Thanks, buddy,” he muttered to Rudisill.

“Hell, I didn’t get you assigned to Lermontov’s commando,” Rudisill answered, speaking in a low voice because the captain was waiting only a few meters beyond.

Lermontov had clipped the keyboard back onto his helmet. His right hand gripped his rifle again. His left index finger was tracing designs on the mottled shell of the Gerin mine. The access plate in the top of the sphere was still open.

“Good job, Cap’n,” Rudisill murmured.

Lermontov shrugged. “You watch yourself on point, Guns,” he said.

Always, “Rudisill said without emotion. He stepped forward into the trees, following the azimuth projected onto his visor.

There were no more Gerin minefields, but the commando found repeated evidence of human occupation. Another farm, the prints of bare feet on trails the commando crossed but never followed, once the sound of a baby crying, tantalizingly near.

“I can feel ‘em watching,” said Minh, the last man in line.

“I’d better not see one,” Heatherton responded. “I know damn well those shit-scared bastards’re reporting to the Slime.”

“None of that,” Lermontov said sharply. “There’s no evidence that the locals cooperate with the Gerin. They’re just scared. Same as you’d be if your planet had been run by the Slime for three generations.”

“Cap’n,” said Sanger, “they don’t have the balls t’ live nor die neither. Any of my kin gets that scared, I’ll cut their throats and put ‘em outa their mis ‘ry.”

Rudisill panted in time with the rhythm of his boots. His pack cut him over the collarbone and the jut of his hips. He’d glued sponge from fuse containers over the points of wear, but it didn’t matter. In the long run, the weight and friction were the same, and the ulcers in his flesh reopened.

“I still say,” Heatherton muttered, “that if they ain’t interested in saving ‘emselfs from the Slime, then I’m not interested neither.”

“Look,” said the captain. “When we release the hostages the Gerin are holding, then maybe we’ll see some changes in the local attitude. That’s what headquarters figures, anyway.”

“Headquarters ain’t sweatin’ like pigs in the boonies,” Sanger retorted.

They were climbing what Rudisill’s projected map said was the last rise before they reached the target; but it was a kilometer of outcrops and heavy undergrowth, and the map was a best-estimate production anyway. Rudisill figured the Headquarters analysts must’ve been wrong, again, because if the commando were really that close to a Gerin base there’d be...

“Freeze, “ Rudisill ordered as his own body locked in place. But they were all right…

“Sir,” he whispered, “we’ve found it. I’m just about in the defensive ring, but they got half of it shut down so my sensors didn’t pick it up till now.”

“What’re we talking about now, Guns?” Lermontov whispered back. His voice was a phantom in the artillery spotter’s earphones.

Rudisill began unfolding his spotting table. “Sir,” he said, “there’s a plasma battery to right and left. I can’t see them, but they’re live. And…”

He swallowed. “And what I thought was a boulder right here in front of me, it’s concrete. It’s the cap of a missile site. They’re loaded for bear, but I don’t think they were expecting anybody to walk in the back way.”

As Rudisill spoke, he clipped the leads from his helmet onto the spotting table. He could mark targets with a lightpen, but direct input was more accurate by an order of magnitude.

The meter-square table couldn’t lie flat, but it had better be close enough.

“Okay,” said Lermontov. “I’m coming forward…”

“Wait, sir,” Rudisill said.

He focused on the “boulder,” which was literally close enough to spit on, and pressed the enter key on his helmet’s pad. Then he slid a meter to the side, focused on the same point, and clicked the key again. His helmet fed the triangulated data to the spotting table.

There was a muted zeep from the table. The relief map projected on Rudisill’s visor echoed the processed data: three red beads, the Gerin sites identified either by sight or electronic signatures, and nine yellow beads spaced equidistantly around the remainder of the calculated circle.

“All right. . .” Lermontov murmured as he watched the same beads on his own display. “And you’ve got them?”

“Yessir,” the artillery spotter said. “The data’s sent to Support as soon as it’s calculated. They’re waiting offshore to launch as soon as they get the order.”

Rudisill raised himself slightly to check the terrain of the estimated—and now confirmed—Gerin camp on the spotting table. The table’s data came from the same satellite radar picture as the map on Rudisill’s visor, but at least the display was better.

The ridge up which the commando was climbing fell away sharply at the crest. On the other side was a valley carved by the meanderings of a considerable watercourse. The plain’s vegetation was kept to a height of ten meters or less by flooding, but giant trees from the crest spread their branches over the scallop a spring had carved from the cliff face.

Water pooled beneath the cliff before gurgling on toward the river half a kilometer away. The pool was the exact center of the Gerin’s defensive ring.

“Bingo,” said Rudisill.

“All the sites are vertical defense, right?” Lermontov said.

“Well, the plasma guns would be dual purpose,” said the artillery spotter. “But yeah, there’s likely antipersonnel stuff closer in that’s shut down too.”

Rudisill kept his voice steady, but he knew what the words meant. The normal way to eliminate a concealed defensive array was to take cover, spoof the system into life, and then blast the unmasked batteries with precisely aimed artillery. The other way of discovering the system was…

“Okay,” said Captain Lermontov, “that means we gotta get real close. No point in our being here if we give the Slime enough warning they grease their hostages before we nail ‘em, right?”

“No bloody point our bein’ here,” Heatherton muttered, a complaint but not an argument.

“Heatherton, Minh, Moschelitz,” the captain continued. “You take positions on the clifftop. Guns, Sanger, and me’ll circle to the low side and penetrate as close as we need to spot the Slime inner ring.

“Remember,” Lermontov added, “take it easy.”

His voice honed itself to just a hint of an edge, reminding them all that he knew they were hard men, but Ivan Lermontov was the hardest of them all, and he would be obeyed. “The first the Slime knows we’re here is when Guns’s salvo takes out all their defenses. If anybody shoots before then, he’s responsible for the failure of the mission and the death of a hundred fifty civilian hostages.”

Softly again: “Understood?”

“Roger, “ whispered five voices simultaneously across the com net.

“Then let’s move.”

The other method of discovering a shut-down defensive array was damned dangerous. Maybe a little safer than jumping on a live grenade, but real bloody similar.

Not that Rudisill was going to argue with the captain.

Even shut down, the elements of an antipersonnel defense system could be detected if you got within a couple of meters. The danger was that if the Gerin had the inner defenses under observation, they could bring their weapons live while the human troops were right in front of them.

But then, if you figured to die in bed, you didn’t volunteer for a commando.

It took Lermontov’s three-man section over an hour to slink around to the opposite side of the Gerin base.

Their circuit confirmed the locations of four more batteries, but the outer ring defenses weren’t really a threat. Even though the heavy plasma weapons could be put under manual control to fire on ground targets, there’d be a lock-out to prevent them from shooting toward the base itself. The whole commando was by now within the outer defended area.

The trees on the valley floor had soft, pulpy boles. They grew close together. Rudisill knew that every time he brushed one, the fan of leaves ten meters above him waved like a flag toward any of the Slime who happened to be watching.

Air didn’t move among the dense trunks. Rudisill prayed there was enough breeze above the low canopy to conceal the foliage he moved in the broader patterns of nature.

His right hand was cramping. He deliberately took it off the grip of his rifle and flexed it, working fatigue poisons out of the muscles.

“Sir?” said Heatherton. “We’re in position. I want to scope a look.”

“Okay,” said Lermontov. “Optics only.”

Nonemissive viewing through the long fiber-optics lens each trooper carried was safe enough. Laser-ranging or using long-wave radar to pierce a curtain of vegetation might give useful information, but would be almost certain to arouse the Slime defenses.

Rudisill settled in place and spread his spotting table again. He switched his visor to play the take from Heatherton’s periscope at full intensity. He could’ve crawled through the vegetation with Heatherton’s data displayed as ghost images, the way the relief map had been, but the commando wasn’t in a real hurry, and Rudisill wanted a good look at the lion before he stuck his head in its mouth.

The picture wasn’t razor-sharp, but it was damned good for an image picked up by a one-millimeter lens, piped down several meters of glass cable, digitized, and finally transmitted to Rudisill’s helmet over a spread of frequencies.

It was good enough to kill by.

There were two Gerin in the spring-fed pool below the cliff. From Heatherton’s near-vertical angle, they looked like short-limbed octopuses—or blots of slime that somebody’d stepped on.

That would happen real soon.

There was an armored transporter under camouflage netting, forty meters down the stream which gurgled over the lip of the pool. It was only a six-place vehicle, but its forward cupola held a plasma cannon.

A third Slime sat on the transporter’s entrance ramp. Its tentacles waved idly in the water flowing to either side of the vehicle’s plenum-chamber skirts.

Rudisill keyed in the vehicle as an artillery target. The spotting table whined happily.

“All right, “ whispered Sanger.

The analysts had been right for a change.

There was a cave in the cliff directly beneath Heatherton.

The gate at its mouth was invisible from this angle until another Gerin opened it. Shadows displayed the pattern of bars.

The guard was letting a pair of naked humans out of the cave. Commando 441 had the first sight of the hostages it was supposed to rescue.

Rudisill couldn’t figure the byplay at the gate. The Slime had seemed to fondle the prisoners’ necks before letting them run clumsily toward the plain, carrying tools and baskets.

Then Captain Lermontov said, “Okay, they’re wearing collars. Explosives with radio detonators and antitamper locks, sure as hell. The Slime let ‘em supplement their rations, but they make sure they come back.”

“They give ‘em knives, too,” Sanger noted.

“Those may be trowels,” the captain said.

“I’d open up a Slime with a trowel,” Sanger retorted. “So ‘d they, if they had balls.”

The hostages trotted into the forest. Heatherton’s periscope gave only brief further flashes of them. They were operating at some distance from one another. They seemed to be digging and putting the results into their baskets.

The gate shut. The Slime guarding it remained in the alcove, barely visible in the strip of shade beneath the cliff face.

“Okay,” said Lermontov. “We’ve got the right place. Let’s move up and find the inner defenses.”

“Sir, I don’t think we’d better do that,” Rudisill said. “We’re already inside three hundred meters. The paradigms on my spotting table, they don’t include one for antipersonnel arrays on less than a three-hundred-meter radius. “

Nobody said anything for a moment. On Rudisill’s visor, a Gerin rose from the pool with a splash. For a moment, there were three of the ugly beasts within spitting distance of one another. Then one of the initial pair slipped deeper into the water and disappeared.

“Look, maybe they don’t have an inner ring here,” Sanger suggested.

“Unlikely,” Lermontov said flatly, though he’d have liked to believe that as much as the others would. “The heavy weapons are too extensive for them not to have light stuff as well. They’ve just hidden it too well for us.”

“Sir,” said Rudisill, “we don’t have a choice. Let’s move back and I’ll send in a drone. If we try anything without nailing the antipersonnel shit, we cut our throats and the hostages’ too.”

“Okay …” Lermontov said, but the word was a placeholder while he thought, not agreement. “This is what we’ll do. The hostages themselves will have a notion where the defensive ring is hidden. We…”

“Maybe not,” the artillery spotter interjected. “They maybe were brought here after the…”

“Chances are,” Lermontov went on, “they’ll know.”

He didn’t raise his voice, but his tone shut Rudisill up instantly. “All we need is one element to figure the whole array, right?”

“Ah,” said Rudisill. “Two’d be better. But yeah, one’ll give us a point and the radius. Chances are there’ll be only one paradigm to match. If it’s regular.”

The Slime at the back of the transporter squirmed inside. A moment later, he or another Gerin reappeared with a food bar wrapped in one tentacle.

Slime worked in groups of three. That meant the vehicle’s turret was probably manned.

“The outer defenses were regular?”

“Yessir,” Rudisill admitted. “Like they’d asked a computer to lay it out.”

Which they probably had. The Gerin had an accountant’s taste for precision.

“Okay,” Lermontov repeated. “We’ll ask a hostage where the inner defenses are—or how they’re camouflaged. Whatever it takes for us to locate an element. Then we’re golden.”

“Aw, shit, Cap’n,” Sanger whispered. “Aw, shit. I don’t like this shit.”

“It’s the only way we’re going to get the hostages out alive,” said Captain Lermontov. “So that’s the way we’ll do it. All right?”

“Yessir,” said Sanger. Rudisill’s mouth was too dry for him to comment, even if he’d wanted to do so.

“Guns,” the captain continued, “one of the Dukes seems to be coming your way. Stay where you are while Sanger and me move in from behind her. Let me do the talking if possible. “

“Roger,” Sanger said. Rudisill either spoke the word or thought it while his mouth poised to scream.

He had too much imagination. It was all right when shit started to happen and there was nothing to do but react to the terror that stalked in with blast and fury. But for times when he had to wait and know how much could go wrong with a plan ... for times like this, Rudisill had too much imagination.

The soft dirt wasn’t perfectly regular. He edged sideways into a low patch and flattened, wishing he were back in the base camp, or up on top of the cliff, or any damn place else in the world.

The hostage’s tool echoed against a root with a hollow chock! chock! chock! Bare feet shuffled closer to Rudisill’s hiding place.

He caught a glimpse of leg among the narrow trunks. The skin was the pasty white of a cave creature.

The hostage stepped into plain sight, five meters away. She didn’t see Rudisill. His helmet and uniform took on the mottling of his surroundings with the perfection of a chameleon’s hide; and anyway, the hostage was looking for fruiting bodies like the dozen or so she already carried in her basket.

She was about fifteen years old and stark naked except for the metal collar. He body was as filthy and scrawny as that of an alley cat.

Sanger and Captain Lermontov slipped out of the trees just behind her and moved in from either side.

The girl was humming something beneath her breath.

She knelt by a tree two meters from Rudisill. Her eyes caught the regular outline of the spotting table.

Before the artillery spotter had time to react, the girl spun erect, kicking gritty loam back toward him.

“It’s all right,” said Captain Lermontov with his arms spread. “We’re here to free…”

The hostage screamed. She flung her blunt-bladed machete into Lermontov’s visored face, then sprinted between him and Sanger.

For a moment, Rudisill had a flash of what the girl was seeing: a trio of grim figures like monsters sprung from rotting vegetation. Camouflage made the men faceless blurs; only the arsenal of weapons they wore had firm outlines.

“Geddown! Geddown!” Rudisill shouted as he uncaged the red firing key on his table. The girl would warn…

“I got ‘er!” Sanger cried as his hand rose. Not with a gun, because the shot would be worse than the screams....

Sanger’s hand was vertical. A long-bladed knife rose from it like a torch, hilt-down for a short throw. At this range, Sanger’s arm would send the point pricking out above the girl’s breastbone while the crossguard rapped her shoulder.

“No!” said Captain Lermontov, but words didn’t matter now, not even his words, so he tackled the trooper.

Rudisill pressed the red key. He forced himself into the dirt, exhaling so that he’d be that much flatter when…

The first sound was the snarling roar of a backpack rocket, fired from the clifftop on Rudisill’s warning. The next sound was a whine, through the damp soil and then above it, as the Gerin antipersonnel array deployed.

Gerin lasers were firing even before the MARS warhead’s blast and the rippling secondary explosions of fuel and ammunition aboard the Slime transporter.

The commando hadn’t been able to locate the inner ring defenses because the elements had been buried deep in the ground. Three meters behind where Rudisill cowered, a thick post thrust from the soil like a cylindrical toadstool. Its high-energy laser scythed through tree trunks in bursts of fire and live steam.

Rudisill’s helmet went black, saving his vision from the blue-white dazzle a centimeter above his head. He poked his rifle backward like a huge pistol and fired blindly while hell roared and ravened above him. The bare skin of his hands and throat crinkled.

Far around the circuit, a plasma weapon started to pulse skyward. Then the artillery support Rudisill had summoned burst overhead.

Rudisill’s rifle had antipersonnel ammunition up, but a lucky round snapped through the laser aperture. His visor cleared when the glare paused, and he had a chance to throw the switch on his magazine to armor-piercing.

Rudisill’s aimed shots punched the laser unit into a colander before it could rotate a replacement lens into place.

The air bursts spewed a rain of self-forging fragments. Each one struck within satellite-computed centimeters of the targets the spotting table had sent them. The circle of Gerin plasma and missile batteries, gutted by molten penetrators, blew skyward in alternate bubbles of ionized light and flattened mushrooms of flame-streaked smoke.

The spotting table was zeeping again as it transmitted the coordinates of the inner defensive ring.

Rudisill twisted, loading another magazine to replace the one he’d emptied on the automatic defense unit. He had a good view of the Slime positions now, because the laser had sawed the trees in a jumble of steam and thrashing feathery branches.

Sanger was okay. He’d been saved—like Rudisill—by irregularities in the ground they’d scarcely have noticed while marching. Sanger was shooting toward the guard at the cave mouth. Purple blood spurted from the back of the Slime as it tried to unlock the gate and squirm for shelter.

The laser’s beam of coherent light had sliced off the feet of the running hostage, then cycled back as she fell and touched her again. Her hair smoldered, and the top of her skull lay a little distance from the rest of her body.

Captain Lermontov had been on top of Sanger when the laser began to cut. Now he lay very still.

His torso was separated from his hips.

The remains of the Gerin transporter were still burning fiercely. Rudisill had targeted it for the artillery, but the fragment’s impact only fanned flames which the commando’s own rocket had ignited.

The men of Heatherton’s section must have destroyed the automatic defenses nearest to them, because they were able to shoot instead of cowering beneath the ravening lasers. Bullets blew forth from the pool and combed Sanger’s shots in a sparkling crossfire.

Rudisill heard a familiar howl in the sky. “Watch yourselves!” he warned over the unit net. “Incoming!”

He spread himself flat again. These were shells he’d summoned, but no fire was friendly if you happened to be at the point of impact.

Instead of ducking, one of Heatherton’s men fired his MARS down into the pool. A geyser of water lifted, carrying with it the bodies of two Gerin. Steam puffed out around the bars of the cave and the Slime corpse which lay there shivering as bullets continued to rake it.

The world paused for the triple low-altitude blasts of incoming shells and the hypervelocity shock waves of the glowing spearpoints they spewed. The ground rippled like a trampoline, flinging Rudisill into the air as mud gouted thirty meters high at the point where the laser unit had been.

The inner ring of the defensive array vanished. Bits of metal and plastic dribbled down with the columns of gritty mud the penetrators had lifted.

“Have we got ‘em?” Rudisill called. “Have we got ‘em all?”

Sanger was reloading his rifle. He paused in midmotion as he noticed Lermontov for the first time. Sanger was a veteran. When the shooting started, he must have rolled into position and fired by reflex, ignoring every part of the equation except what was in his sight picture....

The head of a Gerin wearing an armored battle suit rose just above the surface of the pool. It fired up at the cliff. The Slime was using what by human standards was a light cannon. Rock crumbled around the bright orange shellbursts.

Minh yelped over the radio and a rifle went flying, but there was no body in the mini-avalanche which bounced down the cliff in response to the blasts.

“They killed the captain! They killed the captain!”

Rudisill fired at the Gerin. The angle was hopelessly bad, but his bullets sparked and splattered on the rocks across the pool. The Slime ducked back beneath the surface and Heatherton, on the cliffs above, churned the water again with a vertical burst.

Minh still had his MARS. He launched the heavy rocket into the pool while Heatherton and Moschelitz kept the Slime down with rifle fire.

Rocks and steam spewed even higher than before, because the water level had been dropped by the first warhead. The cliff was black where water darkened the dun stone.

More steam belched from the cave. Shadowed figures moved beyond the bars. Rudisill thought he heard shouts and crying.

“They killed the captain!”

Even in an armored suit, the Gerin couldn’t survive a direct MARS hit. Rudisill’s left hand stung. He looked down and noticed for the first time that his left little finger was missing. The automatic laser had …

“That must’ve got the…” Heatherton started to say. The Slime rose from the bubbling water of the pool and raked the clifftop again with explosive shells.

Heatherton screamed with frustration. He triggered a wild burst as he lurched back from the spray of grit and shell fragments. Rudisill fired also, nowhere near the target that ducked away, back under the water.

“I know where it’s going!” Rudisill cried. “The pool connects with the cave, so the Slime gets out of the water and clear of the shock wave!”

Moschelitz fired his rifle into the pool.

There was a thump! as Sanger launched his MARS, the only rocket left in the commando. Its backblast slapped Rudisill like a hot, soft pillow.

The warhead detonated with a yellow glare that filled the interior of the cave. The half-open gates blew out in a tumbling arc. They thudded to the ground between Sanger and the sectioned hostage who’d tried to escape him.

The pool burped a gout of steam. No question now about it and the cave connecting. . . .

The Gerin staggered from the mouth of the cave. It was amazing that the Slime survived even wearing armor, but it had lost its weapon in the blast.

Rudisill, Heatherton, and Moschelitz emptied their rifles into the creature. A few of the bullets spanged and ricocheted from its battlesuit, but only a few. The corpse wasn’t even twitching by the time Sanger snatched up his rifle again and reloaded.

Sanger fired off his whole magazine anyway.

The silence that followed was broken only by the ringing in Rudisill’s ears.

Rudisill stood up, loading a fresh magazine by reflex.

The spotting table was still attached to his helmet. He jerked the leads out, careless of whether he damaged them. He walked over to Sanger and Lermontov, a few steps and a lifetime away.

Nothing moved within the cave except whorls of smoke.

Sanger cradled the captain’s head in his lap. Lermontov’s helmet had fallen off. His pale blue eyes were open and sightless.

Rudisill knelt and put his arm around the shoulders of the living trooper.

“The bastards,” Sanger whispered. He was weeping.

“The bastards. I swear I’ll kill ‘em all!”

Rudisill figured he meant the Slime, but when he looked toward the smoldering cave he wasn’t sure.

Rudisill wasn’t sure that he cared which Sanger meant, either.

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