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Politics is always lousy in these things. Some guy with rank wants something done, and whether it makes any sense or not, some poor slob with no high-powered friends gets pushed out front to do it. Like Mac . . . he wants a fuzzball spit-polished, some guy like me will have to shave it bare naked and work it to a shine. Not that all his ideas are stupid, you understand, but there's this thing about admirals—and maybe especially that admiral—no one tells 'em when their ideas have gone off the screen. That landing on Caedmon was right out of somebody's old tape files, and whoever thought it up, Mac or somebody more local, should've had to be there. In person, in the shuttles, for instance.

You know why we didn't use tanks downside . . . right. No shields. Nothing short of a cruiser could generate 'em, and tanks are big enough to make good targets for anyone toting a tank-bashing missile. Some dumbass should have thought of shuttles and thought again, but the idea was the cruisers have to stay aloft. No risking their precious tails downside, stuck in a gravity well if something pops up. Tradition, you know? Marines have been landed in landing craft since somebody had to row the boat ashore. Marines have died that way just about as long.

Now on Caedmon, the Gerin knew we were coming. Had to know. The easy way would've been to blast their base from orbit, but that wouldn't do. Brass said we needed it, or something. I thought myself it was just because humans had had it first, and lost it; a propaganda move, something like that. There was some kind of garbage about how we had this new stealth technology that let the cruisers get in real close, and we'd drop and be groundside before they knew we were there, but we'd heard that before, and I don't suppose anyone but the last wetears in from training believed it. I didn't, and the captain for sure didn't.

He didn't say so, being the hardnosed old bastard he is, but we knew it anyway, from the expression in his eyes, and that fold of his lip. He read us what we had to know—not much—and then we got loaded into the shuttles like so many cubes of cargo. This fussy little squirt from the cruiser pushed and prodded and damn nearly got his head taken off at the shoulders, 'cept I knew we'd need all that rage later. Rolly even grinned at me, his crooked eyebrows disappearing into the scars he carries, and made a rude sign behind the sailor's back. We'd been in the same unit long enough to trust each other at everything but poker and women. Maybe even women. Jammed in like we were, packs scraping the bulkheads and helmets smack onto the overhead, we had to listen to another little speech—this one from the cruiser captain, who should ought to've known better, only them naval officers always think they got to give Marines a hard time. Rolly puckered his face up, then grinned again, and this time I made a couple of rude gestures that couldn't be confused with comsign, but we didn't say anything. The Navy puts audio pickups in the shuttles, and frowns on Marines saying what they think of a cruiser captain's speechifying.

So then they dropped us, and the shuttle pilot hit the retros, taking us in on the fast lane. 'Course he didn't care that he had us crammed flat against each other, hardly breath-room, and if it'd worked I'd have said fine, that's the way to go. Better a little squashing in the shuttle than taking fire. Only it didn't work.

Nobody thinks dumb Marines need to know anything, so of course the shuttles don't have viewports. Not even the computer-generated videos that commercial shuttles have, with a map-marker tracing the drop. All we knew was that the shuttle suddenly went ass over teakettle, not anything like normal re-entry vibration or kickup, and stuff started ringing on the hull, like somebody dropped a toolshed on us.

Pilot's voice came over the comm, then, just, "Hostile fire." Rolly said, "Shut up and fly, stupid; I could figure out that much." The pilot wouldn't hear, but that's how we all felt. We ended up in some kind of stable attitude, or at least we weren't being thrown every which way, and another minute or two passed in silence. If you call the massed breathing of a hundred-man drop team silence. I craned my neck until I could see the captain. He was staring at nothing in particular, absolutely still, listening to whatever came through his comunit. It gave me the shivers. Our lieutenant was a wetears, a butterbar from some planet I never heard of, and all I could see was the back of his head anyway.

Now we felt re-entry vibration, and the troop compartment squeaked and trembled like it was being tickled. We've all seen the pictures; we know the outer hull gets hot, and in some atmospheres bright hot, glowing. You can't feel it, really, but you always think you can. One of the wetears gulped, audible even over the noise, and I heard Cashin, his corporal, growl at him. We don't get motion sickness; that's cause for selection out. If you toss your lunch on a drop, it's fear and nothing else. And fear is only worthwhile when it does you some good—when it dredges up that last bit of strength or speed that we mostly can't touch without it. The rest of the time fear's useless, or harmful, and you have to learn to ignore it. That's what you can't teach the wetears. They have to learn for themselves. Those that don't learn mostly don't live to disagree with me.

We were well into the atmosphere, and dropping faster than my stomach liked, when the shuttle bucked again. Not a direct hit, but something transmitted by the atmosphere outside into a walloping thump that knocked us sideways and halfover. The pilot corrected—and I will say this about the Navy shuttle pilots, that while they're arrogant bastards and impossible to live with, they can pretty well fly these shuttles into hell and back. This time he didn't give us a progress report, and he didn't say anything after the next two, either.

What he did say, a minute or so later, was "Landing zone compromised."

Landing zone compromised can mean any of several things, but none of them good. If someone's nuked the site, say, or someone's got recognizable artillery sitting around pointing at the strip, or someone's captured it whole (not common, but it does happen) and hostile aircraft are using it. What landing zone compromised means to us is that we're going to lose a lot of Marines. We're going to be landing on an unimproved or improvised strip, or we're going to be jumping at low level and high speed. I looked for the captain again. This time he was linked to the shuttle comm system, probably talking to whatever idiot designed this mission. I hoped. We might abort—we'd aborted a landing once before—but even that didn't look good, not with whatever it was shooting at us all the way back up. The best we could hope for was an alternate designated landing zone—which meant someone had at least looked at it on the upside scanners. The worst—

"Listen up, Marines!" The captain sounded angry, but then he always did before a landing. "We're landing at alternate Alpha, that's Alpha, six minutes from now. Sergeants, pop your alt codes . . ." That meant me, and I thumbed the control that dropped a screen from my helmet and turned on the display. Alternate Alpha was, to put it plainly, a bitch of a site. A short strip, partly overgrown with whatever scraggly green stuff grew on this planet, down in a little valley between hills that looked like the perfect place for the Gerin to have artillery set up. Little colored lines scrawled across the display, pointing out where some jackass in the cruiser thought we ought to assemble, which hill we were supposed to take command of (that's what it said), and all the details that delight someone playing sandbox war instead of getting his guts shot out for real. I looked twice at the contour lines and values. Ten-meter contours, not five . . . those weren't just little bitty hills, those were going to give us trouble. Right there where the lines were packed together was just about an eighty-meter cliff, too much for a backpack booster to hop us over. Easy enough for someone on top to toss any old kind of explosive back down.

And no site preparation. On a stealth assault, there's minimal site preparation even on the main landing zones—just a fast first-wave flyover dropping screamers and gas canisters (supposed to make the Gerin itch all over, and not affect us). Alternate strips didn't get any prep at all. If the Gerin guessed where alternate Alpha was, they'd be meeting us without having to duck from any preparatory fire. That's what alternate landing sites were like: you take what you get and are grateful it doesn't mean trailing a chute out a shuttle hatch. That's the worst. We aren't really paratroops, and the shuttles sure as hell aren't paratroop carriers. Although maybe the worst is being blown up in the shuttle, and about then the shuttle lurched again, then bounced violently as something blew entirely too close.

Then we went down. I suppose it was a controlled landing, sort of, or none of us would have made it. But it felt, with all the pitching and yawing, like we were on our way to a crash. We could hear the tires blow on contact, and then the gear folded, and the shuttle pitched forward one last time to plow along the strip with its heatshield nose. We were all in one tangled pile against the forward bulkhead by then, making almost as much noise as the shuttle itself until the captain bellowed over it. With one final lurch, the craft was motionless, and for an instant silent.

"Pop that hatch, Gunny." The captain's voice held that tone that no one argues with—no one smart, anyway—and Rolly and I started undogging the main hatch. The men were untangling themselves now, with muttered curses. One of the wetears hadn't stayed up, and had a broken ankle; he bleated once and then fell silent when he realized no one cared. I yanked on the last locking lever, which had jammed in the crash, just as we heard the first explosions outside. I glanced at the captain. He shrugged. What else could we do? We sure didn't have a chance in this nicely marked coffin we were in. Rolly put his shoulders into it, and the hatch slid aside to let in a cool, damp breath of local air.

Later I decided that Caedmon didn't smell as bad as most planets, but right then all I noticed was the exhaust trails of a couple of Gerin fighters who had left their calling cards on the runway. A lucky wind blew the dust away from us, but the craters were impressive. I looked at the radiation counter on the display—nothing more than background, so it hadn't been nukes. Now all we had to do was get out before the fighters came back.

Normally we unload down ramps, four abreast—but with the shuttle sitting on its nose and the port wing, the starboard landing ramp was useless. The portside hatch wouldn't open at all. This, of course, is why we carry those old-fashioned cargo nets everyone teases us about. We had those deployed in seconds (we practice that, in the cruisers' docking bays, and that's why the sailorboys laugh at us). Unloading the shuttle—all men and materiel, including the pilot (who had a broken arm) and the wetear with the bad ankle—went faster than I'd have thought. Our lieutenant, Pascoe, had the forward team, and had already pushed into the scraggly stuff that passed for brush at the base of the nearest hill. At least he seemed to know how to do that. Then Courtney climbed back and placed the charges, wired them up, and came out. When he cleared the red zone, the captain pushed the button. The shuttle went up in a roiling storm of light, and we all blinked. That shuttle wasn't going anywhere, but even so I felt bad when we blew it . . . it was our ticket home. Not to mention the announcement the explosion made. We had to have had survivors to blow it that long after the crash.

What everyone sees, in the videos of Marine landings, is the frontline stuff—the helmeted troops with the best weapons, the bright bars of laser fire—or some asshole reporter's idea of a human interest shot (a Marine looking pensively at a dead dog, or something). But there's the practical stuff, which sergeants always have to deal with. Food, for instance. Medical supplies, not to mention the medics, who half the time don't have the sense to keep their fool heads out of someone's sights. Water, weapons, ammunition, spare parts, comunits, satellite comm bases, spare socks . . . whatever we use has to come with us. On a good op, we're resupplied inside twenty-four hours, but that's about as common as an honest dockside joint. So the shuttle had supplies for a standard week (Navy week: Old Terra standard—it doesn't matter what the local rotational day or year is), and every damn kilo had to be offloaded and hauled off. By hand. When the regular ground troops get here, they'll have floaters and trucks, and their enlisted mess will get fresh veggies and homemade pies . . . and that's another thing that's gone all the way back, near as I can tell. Marines slog through the mud, hump their stuff uphill and down, eat compressed bricks commonly called—well, you can imagine. And the next folks in, whoever they are, have the choppers and all-terrain vehicles and then make bad jokes about us. But not in the same joint, or not for long.

What bothered me, and I could see it bothered the captain, was that the fighters didn't come back and blow us all to shreds while all this unloading went on. We weren't slow about it; we were humping stuff into cover as fast as we could. But it wasn't natural for those fighters to make that one pass over the strip and then leave a downed shuttle alone. They had to know they'd missed—that the shuttle was intact and might have live Marines inside. All they'd done was blow a couple of holes in the strip, making it tough for anyone else to land there until it was fixed. They had to be either stupid or overconfident, and no one yet had accused the Gerin of being stupid. Or of going out of their way to save human lives. I had to wonder what else they had ready for us.

Whatever it was, they let us alone for the next couple of standard hours, and we got everything moved away from the strip, into a little sort of cleft between two of the hills. I wasn't there: I was working my way to the summit, as quietly as possible, with a five-man team.

We'd been told the air was breathable, which probably meant the green stuff was photosynthetic, although it was hard to tell stems from leaves on the scrub. I remember wondering why anything a soldier has to squirm through is full of thorns, or stings on contact, or has sharp edges . . . a biological rule no one yet has published a book on, I'll bet. Caedmon's scrub ran to man-high rounded mounds, densely covered with prickly stiff leaves that rustled loudly if we brushed against them. Bigger stuff sprouted from some of the mounds, treelike shapes with a crown of dense foliage and smooth blackish bark. Between the mounds a fine, gray-green fuzz covered the rocky soil, not quite as lush as grass but more linear than lichens. It made my nose itch, and my eyes run, and I'd had my shots. I popped a broad-spectrum anti-allergen pill and hoped I wouldn't sneeze.

Some people say hills are the same size all the time, but anyone who's ever gone up a hill with hostiles at the top of it knows better. It's twice as high going uphill into trouble. If I hadn't had the time readout, I'd have sworn we crawled through that miserable prickly stuff for hours. Actually it was less than half a standard when I heard something click, metal on stone, ahead of us. Above and ahead, invisible through the scrub, but definitely something metallic, and therefore—in this situation—hostile. Besides, after Duquesne, we knew the Gerin would've wiped out any humans from the colony. I tongued the comcontrol and clicked a warning signal to my squad. They say a click sounds less human—maybe. We relied on it, anyhow, in that sort of situation. I heard answering clicks in my earplug. Lonnie had heard the noise, too (double-click, then one, in his response), which figured. Lonnie had the longest ears in our company.

This is where your average civilian would either panic and go dashing downhill through the brush to tell the captain there were nasties up there, or get all video-hero and run screaming at the Gerin, right into a beam or a slug. What else is there to do? you ask. Well, for one thing you can lie there quietly and think for a moment. If they've seen you, they've shot you—the Gerin aren't given to patience—and if they haven't shot you they don't know you're there. Usually.

It was already strange, that the Gerin fighters hadn't come back. And if Gerin held the top of this hill—which seemed reasonable even before we went up it, and downright likely at the moment—they'd have to know we got out, and how many, and roughly where we were. And since Gerin aren't stupid, at least at war, they'd guess someone was coming up to check out the hilltop. So they'd have some way to detect us on the way up, and they'd have held off blowing us away because they didn't think we were a threat. Neither of those thoughts made me feel comfortable.

Detection systems, though . . . detection systems are a bitch. Some things work anywhere: motion detectors, for instance, or optical beams that you can interrupt and it sets off a signal somewhere. But that stuff's easy enough to counter. If you know what you're doing, if you've got any sort of counterhunt tech yourself, you'll spot it and disarm it. The really good detection systems are hard to spot, very specific, and also—being that good—very likely to misbehave in combat situations.

The first thing was to let the captain know we'd spotted something. I did that with another set of tongue-flicks and clicks, switching to his channel and clicking my message. He didn't reply; he didn't need to. Then I had us all switch on our own counterhunt units. I hate the things, once a fight actually starts: they weigh an extra kilo, and unless you need them it's a useless extra kilo. But watching the flicking needles on the dials, the blips of light on the readouts, I was glad enough then. Two meters uphill, for instance, a fine wire carried an electrical current. Could have been any of several kinds of detectors, but my unit located its controls and identified them. And countered them: we could crawl right over that wire, and its readout boxes wouldn't show a thing. That wasn't all, naturally: the Gerin aren't stupid. But none of it was new to our units, and all of it could fail—and would fail, with a little help from us.

Which left the Gerin. I lay there a moment longer wondering how many Gerin triads we were facing. Vain as they are, it might be just one warrior and his helpers, or whatever you want to call them. Gerin think they're the best fighters in the universe, and they can be snookered into a fight that way. Admiral Mac did it once, and probably will again. It would be just like their warrior pride to assign a single Gerin triad to each summit. Then again, the Gerin don't think like humans, and they could have a regiment up there. One triad we might take out; two would be iffy, and any more than that we wouldn't have a chance against.

Whatever it was, though, we needed high ground, and we needed it damn fast. I clicked again, leaned into the nearest bush, and saw Lonnie's hand beyond the next one. He flicked me a hand signal, caught mine, and inched forward.

We were, in one sense, lucky. It was a single triad, and all they had was the Gerin equivalent of our infantry weapons: single-beam lasers and something a lot like a rifle. We got the boss, the warrior, with several rounds of rifle fire. I don't care what they say, there's a place for slug-throwers, and downside combat is that place. You can hit what you can't see, which lasers can't, and the power's already in the ammo. No worry about a discharged power-pack, or those mirrored shields some of the Gerin have used. Some Navy types keep wanting to switch all Marine forces away from slug weapons, because they're afraid we'll go bonkers and put a hole in a cruiser hull, but the day they take my good old Belter special away from me, I'm gone. I've done my twenty already; there's no way they can hold me.

Davies took a burn from one of the warrior's helpers, but they weren't too aggressive with the big number one writhing on the ground, and we dropped them without any more trouble. Some noise, but no real trouble. Lonnie got a coldpak on Davies, which might limit the damage. It wasn't that bad a burn, anyway. If he died down here, it wouldn't be from that, though without some time in a good hospital, he might lose the use of those fingers. Davies being Davies, he'd probably skin-graft himself as soon as the painkiller cut in . . . he made a religion out of being tough. I called back to our command post to report, as I took a look around to see what we'd bought.

From up here, maybe seventy meters above the strip, the scattered remains of the shuttle glittered in the sun. I could see the two craters, one about halfway along, and another maybe a third of the way from the far end. Across the little valley, less than a klick, the hills rose slightly higher than the one we lay on. The cliffs on one were just as impressive as I'd thought. The others rose more gently from the valley floor. All were covered with the same green scrub, thick enough to hide an army. Either army.

I told the captain all this, and nodded when Skip held up the control box the Gerin had used with their detectors. We could use the stuff once we figured out the controls, and if they were dumb enough to give us an hour, we'd have no problems. No problems other than being a single drop team sitting beside a useless strip, with the Gerin perfectly aware of our location and identity.

Brightness bloomed in the zenith, and I glanced up. Something big had taken a hit—another shuttle? We were supposed to have 200 shuttle flights on this mission, coming out of five cruisers—a fullscale assault landing, straight onto a defended planet. If that sounds impossibly stupid, you haven't read much military history—there are some commanders that have this thing about butting heads with an enemy strength, and all too many of them have political connections. Thunder fell out of the sky, and I added up the seconds I'd been counting. Ten thousand meters when they'd been blown—no one was going to float down from that one. "

"What kind of an idiot . . . ?" Lonnie began; I waved him to silence. Things were bad enough without starting that—we could place the blame later. With a knifeblade, if necessary.

"Vargas . . ." The captain's voice in my earplug drowned out the whisper of the breeze through stiff leaves. I pushed the subvoc microphone against my throat and barely murmured an answer. "Drop command says we lost thirty cents on the dollar. Beta Site took in four shuttles before it was shut out." Double normal losses on a hostile landing, then, and it sounded like we didn't have a secure strip. I tried to remember exactly where Beta Site was. "We're supposed to clear this strip, get it ready for the next wave—"

I must have made some sound, without meaning to, because there was a long pause before he went on. If the original idea had been stupid, this one was stupid plus. Even a lowly enlisted man knows it's stupid to reinforce failure, why can't the brass learn it? We weren't engineers; we didn't have the machinery to fill those craters, or the manpower to clear the surrounding hills of Gerin and keep the fighters off.

"They're gonna do a flyby drop of machinery," he went on. I knew better than to say what I thought. No way I could stop them, if they wanted to mash their machinery on these hills. "We're going to put up the flyspy—you got a good view from there?"

"Yessir." I looked across the valley, around at all the green-clad slopes. The flyspy was another one of those things that you hated having to take care of until it saved your life. "By wire, or by remote?"

"Wire first." That was smart; that way they wouldn't have a radio source to lock onto. "I'm sending up the flyspy team, and some rockers. Send Davies back down." Rockers: rocket men, who could take out those Gerin fighters, always assuming they saw them in time, which they would if we got our detection set up.

Soon I could hear them crashing through the scrub, enough noise to alert anyone within half a klick. The rockers made it up first, four of them. I had two of them drag the Gerin corpses over to the edge and bounce 'em over, then they took up positions around the summit. Now we could knock off the Gerin fighters, if they came back: whatever's wrong with the rest of Supply, those little ground-air missiles we've got can do the job. Then the flyspy crew arrived, with the critter's wing folded back along its body. When they got to the clearing, they snapped the wings back into place, checked that the control wire was coiled ready to release without snagging, and turned on the scanners.

The flyspy is really nothing but a toy airplane, wings spanning about a meter, powered by a very quiet little motor. It can hold an amazing amount of spygear, and when it's designed for stealth use it's almost impossible to see in the air. On wire control, it'll go up maybe 100 meters, circle around, and send us video and IR scans of anything it can see; on remote, we can fly it anywhere within line-of-sight, limited only by its fuel capacity.

Soon it was circling above us, its soft drone hardly audible even on our hilltop, certainly too quiet to be heard even down on the strip. We didn't know whether the Gerin did hear, the way we hear, but we had to think about that. (We know they hear big noises, explosions, but I've heard a theory that they can't hear high-pitched noises in atmosphere.) The videos we were getting back looked surprisingly peaceful. Nothing seemed to be moving, and there was only one overgrown road leading away from the strip. Garrond punched a channel selector, and the normal-color view turned into a mosaic of brilliant false colors: sulfur yellow, turquoise, magenta, orange. He pointed to the orange. "That's vegetation, like this scrub. Yellow is rock outcrops—" The cliff across from us was a broad splash of yellow that even I could pick out. "Turquoise is disturbed soil: compacted or torn up, either one." The strip was turquoise, speckled with orange where plants had encroached on it. So was the nearly invisible road winding away from the strip between the hills. So also the summit of the hill which ended in cliffs above the strip . . . and the summit of our own hill. Another outpost, certainly.

But nothing moved, in the broad daylight of Caedmon's sun. According to briefing, we'd have another nine standard hours of light. None of our scanners showed motion, heat, anything that could be a Gerin force coming to take us out. And why not?

It bothered the captain, I could see, when he came up to look for himself. Our butterbar was clearly relieved, far too trusting an attitude if you want to survive very long. Things aren't supposed to go smoothly; any time an enemy isn't shooting at you, he's up to something even worse.

"An hour to the equipment drop," said the captain. "They're sending a squad of engineers, too." Great. Somebody else to look after, a bunch of dirtpushers. I didn't say it aloud; I didn't have to. Back before he saved Admiral Mac's life and got that chance at OCS, the captain and me were close, real buddies. Fact is, it was my fault he joined up—back then they didn't have the draft. Wasn't till he started running with me, Tinker Vargas, what everyone called gypsy boy—gambler and horsethief and general hothead—that Carl Dietz the farmer's son got into any trouble bigger than spilled milk. He was innocent as cornsilk back then, didn't even know when I was setting him up—and then we both got caught, and had the choice between joining the offworld Marines or going to prison. Yet he's never said a word of blame, and he's still the straightest man I know, after all these years. He's one I would trust at poker, unlike Rolly who can't seem to remember friendship when the cards come out.

And no, I'm not jealous. It hasn't been easy for him, a mustang brought up from the ranks, knowing he'll never make promotions like the fast-track boys that went to the Academy or some fancy-pants university. He's had enough trouble, some of it when I was around to carefully not hear what the other guy said. So never mind the pay, and the commission: I'm happy with my life, and I'm still his friend. We both know the rules, and we play a fair game with the hand dealt us—no politics, just friends.

In that hour, we had things laid out more like they should be. Thanks to the flyspy, we knew that no Gerin triads lurked on the nearest two hilltops, and we got dug in well on all three hills that faced the strip on the near side. There was still that patch of turquoise to worry about on the facing hill, above the cliffs, but the flyspy showed no movement there, just the clear trace of disturbed soil. Our lieutenant had learned something in OCS after all; he'd picked a very good spot in a sort of ravine between the hills, out of sight beneath taller growth, for the headquarters dugout, meds, and so on.

Then the equipment carrier lumbered into view. I know, it's a shuttle same as the troop shuttle, but that's a term for anything that goes from cruiser to ground. Equipment carriers are fatter, squatty, with huge cargo doors aft, and they have all the graceful ease of a grand piano dumped off a clifftop. This one had all engines howling loudly, and the flaps and stuff hanging down from the wings, trying to be slow and steady as it dropped its load. First ten little parachutes (little at that distance), then a dark blob—it had to be really big if I could see it from here—trailing two chutes, and then a couple more, and a final large lumpy mass with one parachute.

"I don't believe it!" said the captain, stung for once into commentary. But it was—a netful of spare tires for the vehicles, wrapped around a huge flexible fuel pod. Relieved of all this load, the shuttle retracted its flaps, and soared away, its engines returning to their normal roar.

Already the lieutenant had a squad moving, in cover, toward the landing parachutists. I watched the equipment itself come down, cushioned somewhat by airbags that inflated as it hit. Still nothing moved on the hilltop across from us. I felt the back of my neck prickle. It simply isn't natural for an enemy to chase you down, shooting all the while, then ignore you once you've landed. We know Gerin use air attack on ground forces: that's how they cleaned up those colonists on Duquesne.

Yet ignore us they did, all the rest of that day as the engineers got themselves down to the strip from where they'd landed, and their equipment unstowed from its drop configuration and ready for use. One grader, what we called back on my homeworld a maintainer, and two earth-movers. The whole time the engineers were out there getting them ready, I was sure some Gerin fighter was going to do a low pass and blow us all away . . . but it didn't happen. I'd thought it was crazy, dropping equipment that had to be prepped and then used in the open, but for once high command had guessed right.

By late afternoon, the engineers had their machines ready to work. They started pushing stuff around at the far end of the strip, gouging long scars in the dirt and making mounds of gravelly dirt. The captain sent Kittrick and one platoon over to take a hill on the far side; they got up it with no trouble, and I began to think there weren't any Gerin left there at all. Half that group climbed the hill with the cliff, and found evidence that someone had had an outpost there, but no recent occupation.

We were spread out pretty thin by this time, maybe thirty on the far side of the strip, the rest on the near side, but stretched out. We'd rigged our own detection systems, and had both flyspys up, high up, where they could see over the hills behind us. What they saw was more of the same, just like on the topo maps: lots of hills covered with thick green scrub, some creeks winding among the hills, traces of the road that began at the landing strip. Some klicks east of us (east is whatever direction the sun rises, on any world), the tumbled hills subsided into a broad river basin. The higher flyspy showed the edge of the hills, but no real detail on the plain.

Meanwhile the engineers went to work on that strip just as if they were being shot at. Dust went up in clouds, blown away from our side of the strip by a light breeze. Under that dust, the craters and humps and leftover chunks of our troop shuttle disappeared, and a smooth, level landing strip emerged. There's nothing engineers like better than pushing dirt around, and these guys pushed it fast.

By dark they had it roughed in pretty well, and showed us another surprise. Lights. Those tires we'd laughed at each held a couple of lamps and reflectors, and the coiled wiring that connected them all into a set of proper landing lights controlled by a masterboard and powered from the earthmover engine. By the time everyone had had chow, the first replacement shuttle was coming in, easing down to the lighted strip as if this were practice on a safe, peaceful planet far from the war.

None of us veterans could relax and enjoy it, though. The new arrivals had heard the same thing I had—thirty percent losses on the initial drop, sixty shuttles blown. No report from anyone on what we'd done to the Gerin, which meant that the Navy hadn't done a damn thing . . . they tripled their figures when they did, but triple zilch is still zilch. So how come we weren't being overrun by Gerin infantry? Or bombed by their fighters? What were the miserable slimes up to? They sure weren't beat, and they don't surrender.

During the night, five more shuttles landed, unloaded, and took off again. Besides the additional troops and supplies, we also had a new commanding officer, a mean-looking freckle-faced major named Sewell. I know it's not fair to judge someone by his looks, but he had one of those narrow faces set in a permanent scowl, with tight-bunched muscles along his jaw. He probably looked angry sound asleep, and I'd bet his wife (he had a wide gold ring on the correct finger) had learned to hop on cue. His voice fit the rest of him, edged and ready to bite deep at any resistance. The captain had a wary look; I'd never served with Sewell, or known anyone who had, but evidently the captain knew something.

Major Sewell seemed to know what he was doing, though, and his first orders made sense, in a textbook sense. If you wanted to try something as impossible as defending a shuttle strip without enough troops or supplies, his way was better than most. Soon we had established a perimeter that was secure enough, dug into each of the main hills around the strip, each with its own supply of ammo, food, and water. Besides the original headquarters and med dugout, he'd established another on the far side of the strip. All this looked pretty good, with no Gerin actually challenging it, but I wasn't convinced. It takes more than a few hundred Marines to secure an airstrip if the enemy has a lot of troops.

Shortly after sundown, one of the squads from the first replacement shuttle found ruins of a human settlement at the base of a hill near the end of the strip, and had to get their noses slapped on the comm for making so much noise about it. Not long after, the squad up on that clifftop put two and two together and made their own find. Having heard the first ruckus, they didn't go on the comm with it, but sent a runner down to Major Sewell.

There's a certain art to getting information, another version of politics you might call it. It so happened that someone I knew had a buddy who knew someone, and so on, and I knew the details before the runner got to Major Sewell.

We'd known the strip itself was human-made, from the beginning. What we hadn't known was that it had been privately owned, adjacent to the owner's private residence. It takes a fair bit of money to build a shuttle-strip, though not as much as it takes to have a shuttle and need a shuttle strip. The same class of money can take a chunk of rock looking out over a little valley, and carve into it a luxurious residence and personal fortress. It can afford to install the best quality automated strip electronics to make landing its fancy little shuttle easier, and disguise all the installations as chunks of native stone or trees or whatever. The Gerin had missed it, being unfamiliar with both the world and the way that humans think of disguise. But to a bored squad sitting up on a hilltop with no enemy in sight, and the knowledge that someone might have hidden something . . . to them it was easy. Easy to find, that is, not easy to get into, at least not without blasting a way in . . . which, of course, they were immediately and firmly told not to do.

Think for a little what it takes to do something like this. We're not talking here about ordinary dress-up-in-silk-everyday rich, you understand, not the kind of rich that satisfies your every whim for enough booze and fancy food. I can't even imagine the sort of sum that would own a whole world, hollow out a cliff for a home, operate a private shuttle, and still have enough clout left to bribe the Navy in the middle of a desperate war. This was the sort of wealth that people thought of the military-industrial complex having, the kind that the big commercial consortia do have (whether the military get any or not), the kind where one man's whim, barely expressed, sends ten thousand other men into a death-filled sky.

Or that's the way I read it. We were here to protect—to get back—some rich man's estate, his private playground, that the Gerin had taken away. Not because of colonists (Did I see any colonists? Did anyone see any evidence of colonists?) but because of a rich old fart who had kept this whole world to himself, and then couldn't protect it. That's why we couldn't do the safe, reasonable thing and bomb the Gerin into dust, why we hadn't had adequate site preparation, why we hadn't brought down the tactical nukes. Politics.

I did sort of wonder why the Gerin wanted it. Maybe they had their own politics? I also wondered if anyone was hiding out in there, safe behind the disguising rock, watching us fight . . . lounging at ease, maybe, with a drink in his hand, enjoying the show. We could take care of that later, too. If we were here.

Sometime before dawn—still dark, but over half the night gone—the higher flyby reported distant activity. Lights and nonvisible heat sources over at the edge of the hills, moving slowly but steadily towards us. They didn't follow the old road trace, but kept to the low ground. According to the best guess of the instruments, the wettest low ground. I guess that makes sense, if you're an amphib. It still didn't make sense that they moved so slow, and that they hadn't come to hit us while we were setting up.

The next bad news came from above. Whatever the Navy had thought they'd done, to get the Gerin ships out of the way, it hadn't held, and the next thing we knew our guys boosted out of orbit and told us to hold the fort while they fought off the Gerin. Sure. The way things were going, they weren't coming back, and we wouldn't be here if they did. Nobody said that, which made it all the clearer that we were all thinking it. During that long day we made radio contact with the survivors at Beta Site. They were about eighty klicks away to our north, trying to move our way through the broken hills and thick scrub. Nobody'd bothered them yet, and they hadn't found any sign of human habitation. Surprise. The major didn't tell them what we'd found, seeing as it wouldn't do them any good. Neither would linking up with us, probably.

The smart thing to do, if anyone had asked me, was for us to boogie on out of there and link with the Beta Site survivors, and see what we could do as a mobile strike force. Nobody asked me, at least nobody up top, where the orders came from. We were supposed to hold the strip, so there we stuck, berries on a branch ready for picking. I know a lot of the guys thought the same way I did, but hardly anyone mentioned it, seeing it would do no good and we'd have a lot more to bitch about later.

Slow as the Gerin were moving, we had time to set up several surprises, fill every available container with water, all that sort of thing. They ignored our flyspy, so we could tell where they were, what they had with them, estimate when they'd arrive. It was spooky . . . but then they didn't need to bother shooting down our toy; they only outnumbered us maybe a hundred to one. If every one of our ambushes worked, we might cut it down to ninety to one.

Gerin ground troops might be slow to arrive, but once they were there you had no doubt about it. Just out of range of our knuckleknockers, the column paused and set up some tubing that had to be artillery of some sort. Sure enough, we heard a sort of warbling whoosh, and then a vast whump as the first shells burst over our heads and spit shards of steel down on us. After a couple or three shots, fairly well separated, they sent up a whole tanker load, and the concussion shuddered the hills themselves.

We watched them advance through the smoke and haze of their initial barrage. They were in easy missile range, but we had to save the missiles for their air support. Everyone's seen the news clips—that strange, undulating way they move. They may be true amphibians, but they're clearly more at home in water or space than walking around on the ground. Not that it's walking, really. Their weapons fire slower on automatic than ours, but they can carry two of them—an advantage of having all those extra appendages. And in close, hand-to-hand combat, their two metal-tipped tentacles are lethal.

They came closer, advancing in little bobbing runs that were similar to our own tactics, but not the same. It's hard to explain, but watching them come I felt how alien they were—they could not have been humans in alien suits, for instance. The very fact that I had trouble picking out the logic of their movements—why they chose to go this way up a draw, and not that—emphasized the differences.

Now they were passing the first marker. Rolly tapped me on the shoulder, and I nodded. He hit the switch, and a stormcloud rolled under them, tumbling them in the explosion. Those in the first rank let off a burst, virtually unaimed; the smack of their slugs on the rocks was drowned in the roar and clatter of the explosion, and the dust of it rolled forward to hide them all. Chunks of rock splattered all around; a secondary roar had to mean that the blast had triggered a rockslide, just as we'd hoped. When the dust cleared a little, we couldn't see any of the live ones, only a few wet messes just beyond a mound of broken stone and uprooted brush.

One of the wetears down at the far end of the trench stood up to peer out. Before anyone could yank him back, Gerin slugs took his face and the back of his head, and he toppled over. Then a storm of fire rang along the rocks nearby while we all ducked. Stupid kid should have known they wouldn't all be dead: we'd told them and told them. Our flyspy crew concentrated on their screens; at the moment the critter was reading infrared, and the enemy fire showed clearly. Garrond gave us the coordinates; our return fire got a few more (or so the flyspy showed—we didn't stand up to see).

But that was only the first wave. All too soon we could see the next Gerin working their way past the rockslide toward our positions. And although I'd been listening for it, I hadn't heard an explosion from the other side of the strip. Had they been overrun, or had the Gerin failed to attempt an envelopment?

Suddenly the sky was full of light and noise: the Gerin had launched another barrage. Oddly, the weapons seemed to be intended to cause noise as much as actual damage. And they were noisy: my ears rang painfully and I saw others shaking their heads. Under cover of that noise, Gerin leapt out, hardly ten meters away. Someone to my left screamed; their slugs slammed all around us. We fired back, and saw their protective suits ripple and split, their innards gushing out to stain the ground. But there were too many, and some of them made it to us, stabbing wildly with those metal-tipped tentacles. One of them smashed into Rolly's chest; his eyes bulged, and pink froth erupted from his mouth. I fired point-blank at that one. It collapsed with a gasping wheeze, but it was too late for Rolly.

Even in all the noise, I was aware that the Gerin themselves fought almost silently. I'd heard they had speech, of a sort—audible sounds, that is—but they didn't yell at each other, or cry out when injured. It was almost like fighting machines. And like machines, they kept coming. Even in the dark.

It was sometime in that first night when I heard the row between the captain and the major. I don't know when it started, maybe in private before the Gerin even got to us, but in the noise of combat, they'd both raised their voices. I was going along, checking ammo levels, making sure everyone had water, and passed them just close enough to hear.

"—You can't do that," Major Sewell was saying. "They said, hold the strip."

"Because it's that bastard Ifleta's," said the captain. He'd figured it out too, of course; he didn't turn stupid when he got his promotion. I should have gone on, but instead I hunkered down a little and listened. If he talked the major around, I'd need to know. "So no heavy artillery, no tactical nukes, no damage to his art collection or whatever he thinks it is. And it's crazy . . . listen, the Gerin are amphibs, they even have swim tanks in their ships—"

"So? Dammit, Carl, it's the middle of a battle, not a lecture room—"

"So they're territorial." I could hear the expletive he didn't say at the end of that . . . Sewell was a senior officer, however dense. "It's part of that honor stuff: where you are determines your role in the dominance hierarchy. If we move, we're no threat; if we stay in one place they'll attack—"

"They are attacking, in case you hadn't noticed, Captain. We're dug in here; if we move they can take us easily. Or were you suggesting that we just run for it?" The contempt in Sewell's voice was audible, even through the gunfire.

The captain made one more try. I knew, from our years together, what it took for him to hold his temper at the major's tone; the effort came through in his voice. "Sir, with all due respect, after the massacre on Duquesne, there was a study of Gerin psychology in the Military Topics Review—and that study indicated that the Gerin would choose to assault stationary, defended positions over a force in movement. Something about defending certain rock formations in the tidal zone, important for amphibians . . ."

"Yeah, well, what some egghead scientist thinks the slimes do and what the slimes out here in combat do is two different things. And our orders, Captain, say stand and defend this shuttle strip. It doesn't matter a truckful of chickenshit whether the strip is Ifleta's personal private hideaway or was built by the Gerin: I was told to defend it, and I'm going to defend it. Is that clear?"

"Sir." I heard boots scrape on the broken rock and got myself out of there in a hurry. Another time that I'd heard more than I should have, at least more than it would be comfortable to admit. Not long after, the captain met me as I worked my way back down the line. He leaned over and said in my ear, "I know you heard that, Gunny. Keep it to yourself."

"You got eyes in the dark?" I asked. It meant more than that; we'd used it as a code a long time ago. I didn't think he'd choose that way, but I'd let him decide.

"No," he said. A shell burst nearby, deafening us both for a moment; I could see, in the brief glare, his unshaken determination. "No," he said again after we could hear. "It's too late anyway."

"Ifleta's the owner?" I asked.

"Yeah. Senior counselor—like a president—in Hamny's Consortium, and boss of Sigma Combine. This is his little hideaway—should have been a colony but he got here first. What I figure is this is his price for bringing Hamny's in free: three human-settled worlds, two of 'em industrial. Worth it, that's one way of looking at it. Trade a couple thousand Marines for three allied planets, populations to draft, industrial plants in place, and probably a good chunk of money as well."

I grunted, because there's nothing to say to that kind of argument. Not in words, anyway. Then I asked, "Does the major know?"

The captain shrugged. "You heard me—I told him. I told him yesterday, when they found the house. He doesn't care. Rich man wants the aliens out of his property, that's just fine—treat Marines like mercs, he doesn't give a damn, and that, Tinker, is what they call an officer and a gentleman. His father's a retired admiral; he's looking for stars of his own." It was a measure of his resentment that he called me by that old nickname . . . the others that had used it were all dead. I wondered if he resented his own lost patrimony . . . the rich bottomland farm that would have been his, the wife and many children. He had been a farmer's son, in a long line of farmers, as proud of their heritage as any admiral.

"Best watch him, Captain," I said, certain that I would. "He's likely to use your advice all wrong."

"I know. He backstabbed Tio, got him shipped over to the Second with a bad rep—" He stopped suddenly, and his voice changed. "Well, Gunny, let me know how that number three post is loaded." I took that hint, and went on; we'd talked too long as it was.

So now I knew the whole story—for one thing about Captain Carl Dietz, he never in his life made accusations without the information to back them up. He hadn't accused me when it might have got him a lighter sentence, all those years ago. If he said it was Ifleta's place, if he was sure that our losses bought Ifleta's support, and three planets, then I was sure. I didn't like it, but I believed it.

The pressure was constant. We had no time to think, no time to rest, taking only the briefest catnaps one by one, with the others alert. We knew we were inflicting heavy losses, but the Gerin kept coming. Again and again, singly and in triads and larger groups, they appeared, struggling up the hills, firing steadily until they were cut down to ooze aqua fluid on the scarred slopes. Our losses were less, but irreparable.

It was dawn again—which dawn, how many days since landing, I wasn't at all sure. I glanced at the rising sun, irrationally angry because it hurt my eyes. What I could see of the others looked as bad as I felt: filthy, stinking, their eyes sunken in drawn faces, dirty bandages on too many wounds. The line of motionless mounds behind our position was longer, again. No time for burial, no time to drag the dead farther away: they were here, with us, and they stank in their own way. We had covered their faces; that was all we could do.

Major Sewell crawled along our line, doing his best to be encouraging, but everyone was too tired and too depressed to be cheered. When he got to me, I could tell that he didn't feel much better. One thing about him, he hadn't been taking it easy or hiding out.

"We've got a problem," he said. I just nodded. Speech took too much energy, and besides it was obvious. "There's only one thing to do, and that's hit 'em with a mobile unit. I've been in contact with the Beta Site survivors, but they don't have a flyspy or good linkage to ours—and besides their only officer is a kid just out of OCS. The others died at the drop. They're about four hours away, now. I'm gonna take a squad, find 'em, and go after the Gerin commander."

I still didn't say anything. That might have made sense, before the Gerin arrived. Now it looked to me like more politics—Sewell figured to leave the captain holding an indefensible position, while he took his chance at the Gerin commander. He might get killed, but if he didn't he'd get his medals . . . and staying here was going to get us all killed. Some of that must have shown in my face, because his darkened.

"Dammit, Gunny—I know what Captain Dietz said made sense, but our orders said defend this strip. The last flyspy image gave me a lock on what may be the Gerin commander's module, and that unit from Beta Site may give me the firepower I need. Now you find me—" My mind filled in "a few good men" but he actually asked for a squad of unwounded. We had that many, barely, and I got them back to the cleft between the first and second hills just in time to see that last confrontation with the captain.

If I hadn't known him that long, I'd have thought he didn't care. Sewell had a good excuse, as if he needed one, for leaving the captain behind: Dietz had been hit, though that wound wouldn't kill him. He couldn't have moved fast for long, not without a trip through Med or some stim-tabs. But they both knew that had nothing to do with it. The captain got his orders from Sewell in terse phrases; he merely nodded in reply. Then his eyes met mine.

I'd planned to duck away once we were beyond the Gerin lines—assuming we made it that far, and since the other side of the strip hadn't been so heavily attacked, we probably would. I had better things to do than babysit a major playing politics with the captain's life. But the captain's gaze had the same wide-blue-sky openness it had always had, barring a few times he was whacked out on bootleg whiskey.

"I'm glad you've got Gunny Vargas with you," the captain said. "He's got eyes in the dark."

"If it takes us that long, we're in trouble again," said the major gruffly. I smiled at the captain, and followed Sewell away down the trail, thinking of the years since I'd been in that stuffy little courtroom back on that miserable backwater colony planet. The captain played fair, on the whole; he never asked for more than his due, and usually got less. If he wanted me to babysit the major, I would. It was the least I could do for him.

We lost only three on the way to meet the Beta Site survivors, and I saved the major's life twice. The second time, the Gerin tentacle I stopped shattered my arm just as thoroughly as a bullet. The major thanked me, in the way that officers are taught to do, but the thought behind his narrow forehead was that my heroism didn't do him a bit of good unless he could win something. The medic we had along slapped a field splint on the arm, and shot me up with something that took all the sharp edges off. That worried me, but I knew it would wear off in a few hours. I'd have time enough.

Then we walked on, and on, and damn near ran headlong into our own people. They looked a lot better than we did, not having been shot up by Gerin for several days; in fact, they looked downright smart. The butterbar had an expression somewhere between serious and smug—he figured he'd done a better than decent job with his people, and the glance I got from his senior sergeant said the kid was okay. Sewell took over without explaining much, except that we'd been attacked and were now going to counterattack; I was glad he didn't go further. It could have created a problem for me.

Caedmon's an official record, now. You've seen the tapes, maybe, or the famous shot of the final Gerin assault up the hills above the shuttle strip, the one that survived in someone's personal vicam to be stripped later by Naval Intelligence after we took the hills back, and had time to retrieve personal effects. You know that our cruisers came back, launched fighters that tore the Gerin fighters out of the sky, and then more shuttles, with more troops, enough to finish the job on the surface. You know that the "gallant forces" of the first landing (yeah, I heard that speech too) are credited with almost winning against fearful odds, even wiping out the Gerin commander and its staff, thanks to the brilliant tactic of one Marine captain, unfortunately himself a casualty of that last day of battle. You've seen his picture, with those summer-sky-blue eyes and that steadfast expression, a stranger to envy and fear alike.

But I know what happened to Major Sewell, who is listed simply as "killed in action." I know how come the captain got his posthumous medals and promotion, something for his family back home to put up on their wall. I know exactly how the Gerin commander died, and who died of Gerin weapons and who of human steel. And I don't think I have to tell you every little detail, do I? It all comes down to politics, after all. An honest politician, as the saying goes, is the one who stays bought. I was bought a long time ago, with the only coin that buys any gypsy's soul, and with that death (you know which death) I was freed.

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