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Chapter Two

“How much longer do you expect this crap to go on?” Captain Francine Venelli’s tone was harsh. “I’ve got better things to do with my time than sit here in orbit killing a bunch of backwoods ground-grubbers, and my people don’t like it.” She glowered at the neatly dressed civilian on the other side of the briefing room table. “They don’t like it at all. For that matter, neither do I. And it’s not like there aren’t enough wheels coming off at the moment that I can’t find plenty of other more worthwhile things to worry about!”

“I don’t know how much longer, Captain,” Frinkelo Osborne replied as calmly and reasonably as he could. “I wish I did. And, while we’re being so frank with each other, I wish you weren’t here doing this, either.” He shook his head, his expression even more disgusted than Venelli’s. “It’s like using a hammer to crack an egg. Or maybe more like spanking a baby with an ax!”

Venelli’s blue eyes narrowed and she sat back in her chair. She’d dealt with more Office of Frontier Security personnel in her career than she could have counted—certainly a lot more of them than she could have wished! Too many of them, in her experience, were entirely in favor of using hammers on eggs, if only to discourage the next chicken from getting out of line. Of course, as a mere advisor to President Ailsa MacMinn’s Loomis Prosperity Party administration, not a full-fledged system or sector commissioner, Osborne might still be far enough down the food chain to believe there were more important things in the universe than his own bank balance.

Or maybe he’s just smart enough to realize what KEWs are likely to do to the source of his bank balance, she reminded herself. I wonder how many hectares of silver oak we’ve turned into cinders so far?

She kept her mental grimace from reaching her expression and glanced at the spectacular live feed from the exterior view projected on the briefing room’s smart wall while she considered that depressing question.

Her “squadron”—the battlecruiser Hoplite, the light cruiser Yenta MacIlvenna, and the destroyers Abatis and Lunette—had been improvised on very little notice when Loomis’ request for assistance came in. Now her ships orbited the planet Halkirk, the Loomis System’s primary inhabited planet, and the direct visual of the smart wall was magnificent. Indeed, under other circumstances, the captain, who was something of a connoisseur of planetary oddities, would probably have enjoyed her visit to the star system. Unlike the majority of systems, Loomis had two planets smack in the middle of the G7 primary’s liquid water zone. In fact, Halkirk and its sister planet, Thurso, were not only in the liquid water zone but orbited a common center of mass seven light-minutes from the star as they made their way around it. Yet while they might be sisters, they were far from twins.

Halkirk was all greens and browns—especially browns—with far less blue than Venelli was accustomed to seeing, since sixty percent of its surface was dry land. Some of it, like the continental interiors, was very dry land, as a matter of fact, although the smaller, mountainous continents of Stroma and Stronsay were quite pleasant. In fact, they were actually on the damp side, thanks to ocean currents and prevailing wind patterns, and even “small” continents were very large pieces of real estate. Hoy and Westray, which between them accounted for better than seventy percent of Halkirk’s total land area, or another story entirely, of course. Venelli understood exactly why the LPP had established its reeducation camps on Westray.

Thurso was a very different proposition—a gleaming, gorgeous sapphire of a world. Over ninety percent of its surface was water, and the widely scattered archipelagoes which were nominally dry land had to cope with tidal surges that reminded the captain more of tsunamis than anything most planets would have called tides. Not too surprising, she supposed, when Thurso’s “moon” was three percent more massive than Old Earth herself. Weather was…interesting on Thurso, as well, and it wasn’t too surprising that the planet’s population was tiny compared to Halkirk’s. On the other hand, Thurso’s gargantuan fisheries produced a startling tonnage of gourmet seafood which commanded extraordinary prices from Core World epicures. Probably not extraordinary enough to have attracted Star Enterprise Initiatives Unlimited’s attention to Loomis by itself, but enough to have made the star system a worthwhile trading stop even without Halkirk. The asteroid resource extraction industries and the gas mining operations centered on the star system’s trio of gas giants undoubtedly helped cover SEIU’s operating expenses, too, but the real treasure of the Loomis System lay in Halkirk’s groves of silver oak.

Francine Venelli was a professional spacer, accustomed to compact living quarters aboard ship or orbital habitats. She didn’t think in terms of planetary housing, or the kinds of huge, sprawling domiciles wealthy dirtsiders seemed to think were necessary. For that matter, she didn’t really understand the fascination “natural” materials exercised on some people’s minds. Durability, practicality, and appearance were far more important to her than where the materials in question came from, and wood was a pretty piss-poor construction material where starships were concerned.

Despite that, even she had been struck by the sheer beauty of Halkirk silver oak. The dense-grained, beautifully colored, beautifully patterned wood was like a somatic holo sculpture, deliberately designed to soothe and stroke the edges of a frayed temperament. Something about its texture—about the half-seen, half-imagined highlights that gleamed against its dark cherry wood color, like true silver deep inside the grain—was almost like the visual equivalent of barely heard woodwinds playing softly at the back of one’s mind or a gentle, relaxing massage. Just sitting in a room paneled with it was almost enough to make a woman forget why she was so pissed off with people like the Loomis System government. She supposed she shouldn’t be surprised that the price it commanded in Core World markets, as a medium for sculptors and furniture designers as well as a building material, was truly astronomical.

Between them, Loomis’ resources would have been more than enough to provide the system’s population a comfortable standard of living…except, of course, for the tiny problem that the system population didn’t control them. Not anymore, anyway. For the last forty-five T-years, that control had belonged to Star Enterprise Initiatives Unlimited, headquartered in the Lucastra System, only seventy light years from Sol. SEIU had secured the typical transstellar hundred-year leases from the LPP, and that, by one of the tortuous and circuitous paths with which Venelli and Frontier Fleet had become only too familiar, explained why she and her ships were in orbit around Halkirk at this particular moment.

Her gaze swiveled back from the visual display to Osborne, and she pursed her lips.

“How the hell did it get this bad?”

Her own question surprised her, because it wasn’t the one she’d meant to ask. It wasn’t exactly the most tactful way she could have phrased it, either but the disgust in Osborne’s answering grimace wasn’t really directed at her.

“It wasn’t hard at all,” he said. “Not with an idiot like Zagorski calling the shots.”

“I thought we’d been called in by President MacMinn and Secretary MacQuarie,” Venelli said sardonically.

“President MacMinn is so far past it by now that I doubt she seals her own shoes in the morning.” Osborne reply was caustic enough to dissolve asbestos. “MacCrimmon’s the one who really calls the shots inside the LPP these days. He’d probably retire MacMinn to a nice, quiet geriatric home—or an even quieter cemetery—if he could, but she’s still the Party’s Beloved Leader. One of those little problems that arise when politicians encourage personality cults.”

Venelli nodded. Ailsa MacMinn and her husband had been the leaders of the Prosperity Party when it seized power in a brief, bloody coup, but Keith MacMinn had been dead for over twenty T-years, and by now Ailsa was well past seventy—without the benefit of prolong. Vice President Tyler MacCrimmon was less than half her age, but although he was widely acknowledged as her inevitable successor, she was still the Party’s public face. He might be the power behind the throne, yet he needed her to give him legitimacy.

And he also needed Senga MacQuarie and her Unified Public Safety Force to prop up the entire Prosperity Party edifice. Fortunately for MacCrimmon, MacQuarie was still a relative newcomer to the cabinet (her predecessor and mentor, Lachlan MacHendrie, had been one of MacMinn’s “old comrades” until his recent death due to unspecified “medical problems”). She needed him as much as he needed her, at least for now.

“Part of the problem,” Osborne continued, “is that the LPP didn’t make a clean sweep of the MacRorys after the Revolution. A miscalculation on the MacMinns’ part, but it’s a little hard to blame them for that one, really.” He grimaced. “Tavis III probably meant well, but he’d never been a strong king, and most people didn’t really seem to mind when he ‘voluntarily’ abdicated in the Party’s favor. I expect Keith and Ailsa didn’t want to risk generating sympathy for the dynasty after the fact by having him assassinated, since as near as I can tell he died of genuinely natural causes shortly after the Revolution. But they didn’t prune back his family, either, probably because Clan MacRory had so many relatives scattered around the system. Oh, they banned them from politics—such as they were and what there was of them—and kept a close eye on them, but they didn’t really go after them or ‘encourage’ them to emigrate. And as long as things went reasonably well, that didn’t matter all that much, but after SEIU moved in and started turning the screws on the locals, a lot of people started remembering the good old days and ‘Good King Tavis.’ Of course, by that time he was safely dead, but his son was still around.”

“And he started conniving to regain power, did he?”

“No.” Osborne shook his head. “Or not as far as I’ve ever been able to discover, anyway. There were enough people who wanted him to by then, but it looks to me like he was smart enough to realize he wasn’t going to accomplish anything through any sort of open reform process and that he’d only get a lot of people killed if he tried something more…energetic. Unfortunately for him, that didn’t prevent MacQuarie’s predecessor from arranging a fatal ‘traffic accident’ for him fifteen years ago. Got his older son in the same ‘accident,’ too. The bad news from their perspective was that they missed his younger son, Mánas. The good news was that he’s no idiot. He understood exactly what had happened to his father and his brother, and he stayed as far away from politics as he could for as long as he could. Which was working out just fine…until SEIU promoted Zagorski to System Manager.”

He grimaced, and Venelli felt herself grimace back. As a general rule, her sympathy for Frontier Security’s minions was distinctly limited. In this case, however, she’d had the dubious pleasure of meeting Nyatui Zagorski shortly after her arrival in-system, and she hadn’t enjoyed the experience.

“What is his problem?” she asked.

“Disappointment,” Osborne replied. “He expected better than he got, and he wasn’t happy with the consolation prize.”

“Seems like a pretty sweet deal for him to me,” Venelli observed, waving one hand at the planets on the smart wall. “Of course, I’m only a naval officer. My perspective may be a bit more limited than his—him being such a mover and shaker of the universe, and all.”

Osborne’s lips quirked at her ironic tone, but he shook his head.

“That’s part of his problem, really. I think he seems himself as exactly that—a mover and a shaker—and he feels…deprived of a platform worthy of his profound talents. Unfortunately for him, SEIU’s not one of the major transstellars. It’s more of a middleweight, and Loomis is worthwhile, but it isn’t in the same category as one of the real pot-of-gold propositions, and Loomis isn’t the top rung of even its ladder. Worse, Zagorski was assistant system manager in Delvecchio, which is SEIU’s crown jewel, for ten years. I’m pretty sure he expected to move up to system manager there when his boss got recalled to the home office, which would finally have made him a really big fish in his own personal pond. Only somebody with better family connections got Delvecchio, and he got Loomis as a consolation prize. I think that really pissed him off, and he arrived in get-rich-quick mode. He wants to squeeze as much as he can out of Loomis as fast as he can, partly for what he can skim off the top, but also—I think—because he’s hoping that a spike in system revenues on his watch may still get him promoted to something even better.”

“Great.” Venelli snorted harshly. “If I had a credit for every time one of these assholes screwed the pooch out here trying to look good for the home office I could buy Hoplite as my private yacht and retire!”

“You probably could,” Osborne agreed. “In this case, he decided to raise the quota on silver oak. In fact, he doubled it. Then he raised it again. There’s a lot of timberland on Halkirk, but it’s not unlimited, and the Halkirkians know it. He’s basically clearcutting their most valuable planetary resource, and they don’t like it. He doesn’t care, of course. Even at the rate he’s going through them, there are enough stands of silver oak to keep him in business for another ten or twenty years, and he plans on being long gone by then.”

Venelli felt as disgusted as Osborne looked. Slash-and-burn tactics like Zagorski’s were entirely too common in the Verge, and they accounted for at least half of the Solarian League Navy’s headaches.

“When the new logging policies came in, a lot of people who’d been willing to keep their heads down rather than attract the UPS’ attention started remembering Good King Tavis a lot more affectionately,” Osborne continued. “Mánas MacRory may not have cherished any political ambitions, but his nephew Raghnall—his older brother’s son—knew MacCrimmon and MacQuarie weren’t likely to take his word for it. So, without mentioning it to anyone—including Mánas—he started organizing the ‘MacRory Militia.’ As far as I can tell, it was supposed to be a purely defensive move on his part. I think he just wanted to put together something tough enough to make MacQuarie think twice about assassinating his uncle the way MacHendrie assassinated his father and his grandfather. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.

“The level of unhappiness really started spiking about two years ago, and MacQuarie began seeing conspirators under every bed in Elgin. I’m pretty sure she was deliberately exaggerating in her cabinet reports as a way to suck in more resources for UPS, but that didn’t mean she was completely wrong, either. In fact,” he sounded like someone who disliked what he was admitting, “my own sources indicate that someone here on Halkirk had actually begun some serious organizing and established some out-system contacts for small arms and some heavy weapons. It’s a fairly recent development, and I still haven’t been able to nail down exactly whose idea it was. It wasn’t the MacRorys, though; I do know that much. By now, three or four different groups have come out of the woodwork under the umbrella of MacLean’s ‘Loomis Liberation League’s Provos,’ but that happened later, after MacQuarie realized there really was someone here in Loomis who was genuinely interested in shooting back and decided she’d better nip it in the bud. She leapt to the conclusion that it had to be the MacRorys, unfortunately, and she tried to take Mánas into ‘protective custody.’ And that, Captain Venelli, was when the shit hit the fan and I put in a call for someone like you.”

“You couldn’t find a smaller sledgehammer?” Venelli asked caustically, and the OFS officer shrugged.

“I didn’t want a sledgehammer at all. Unfortunately, Zagorski didn’t leave me much option. He wants results—fast results—and he’s got a big enough marker with somebody further up the chain than me to get them.”

“I guess what I object to the most is how frigging stupid this all is,” Venelli said. “On the other hand, I suppose I should be used to stupidity by now.”

“There’s enough of it lying around, anyway,” Osborne agreed. “I don’t recall seeing a more spectacular example of it lately, though.”

He shook his head, and Venelli realized there was more than just disgust in his eyes. There was anger…and even regret.

“I’ve assisted in—even officiated over—some pretty ugly things in my time, Captain,” the OFS officer told her. “It comes with the territory, and I’ve got to admit the pay is pretty good. But sometimes…sometimes it isn’t good enough, and this is one of those times.”

* * *

Innis MacLay lay on his belly, peering cautiously out of the sixtieth floor window. For Halkirk, that made his present perch a tall building, although the gleaming ceramacrete towers SEIU had constructed in the heart of the city dwarfed it. Two of those towers were far less pristine than they had been, marked by the dark scars of multiple missile strikes and streaked with smoke from the fires which had consumed whole floors of their interiors, and MacLay showed his teeth briefly as he remembered watching the explosions ripple up and down their flanks. That had been when he thought the Provos had a real chance.

Now he knew better. They’d had the damned Uppies on the run for the first couple of weeks, and maybe as many as a third of the smaller cities and towns had come in on the LLLP’s side, or at least declared their neutrality. But that had been before they found out the frigging OFS had called in the Solly navy.

His eyes went bleak and hard as he recalled the first kinetic strikes. MacCrimmon and MacQuarie hadn’t seemed interested in taking prisoners. Maybe they’d just wanted to avoid the expense of building bigger reeducation camps on Westray, or maybe they’d been scared enough they struck out in panic. Or maybe they were just such bloody-minded bastards they’d decided to eliminate as many of the opposition as they could while the eliminating was good. MacLay figured he’d never find out for sure which it had been, and it didn’t much matter, anyway. There’d been no warning, no call to surrender, no threats of orbital strikes at all. There’d been only the terrible white lines streaming down through the skies of Halkirk to pock the planetary surface with brimstone.

That was what had broken the Resistance’s back. The first wave of strikes had taken out a dozen towns and the regional city of Conerock, whose city council had been the first to go over to the Liberation League when the Provos seized the local UPS stations and the hub airport. No one knew how many had been killed, but Conerock’s population had been over eighty-five thousand all by itself, and there’d been precious few survivors.

So now they were left with this, he thought grimly. There was no surrender—not for the Provos, not for the hard-core, like Innis MacLay. They wouldn’t last long in the camps, anyway, even assuming they’d live long enough to get there, and he was damned if he’d give MacQuarie and General Boyle the satisfaction. Besides, his wife and kids had been in Conerock, so they could just drag him out of his last burrow when the time came, and his teeth and claws would savage them the whole way. When he got to Hell, he’d walk through the gates over the souls of all the Uppies he’d sent ahead to wait for him.

It wasn’t much for a man to look forward to, but he’d settle for what he could get, and—

He stiffened, eyes narrowing. Then his jaw clenched and he reached for the old-fashioned landline handset. The sound quality wasn’t good, but it was a lot more secure than any of the regular coms, and not even Solly sensors could localize and identify it against the background of the city’s power systems.

“Yes?” a voice at the other end answered.

“MacLay, on the roof,” he said tersely. “They’re coming. I’ve got eyes on at least a dozen tanks and twice that many APCs headed down Brownhill towards Castlegreen.” He paused for a moment. “I think they’ve figured out where we are.”

Silence hovered at the far end of the line for seconds that felt like hours. Then—

“Understood, Innis. I expect you’ll see a couple of missile teams up there in a minute or two.”

“I’ll be here,” MacLay replied, and put down the phone.

He moved from his observation post to the French doors that gave access to the apartment’s small balcony. The protective sandbags piled just inside them weren’t visible from ground level…and neither was the heavy, tripod-mounted tribarrel behind them. The field of fire wasn’t perfect, and MacLay was under no illusions about what the Uppies heavy weapons teams would do to his improvised perch once they located his position. But a man couldn’t have everything, and he expected he’d probably get to add at least a round dozen of them to his family’s vengeance first.

* * *

“It’s time for you to go Megan,” MacFadzean said flatly as she hung up the phone. “They’re headed straight for us, and we don’t have a prayer of stopping them.”

“And where do you expect me to go, Erin?” MacLean asked almost whimsically. “You want me to go hide in the logging camps? Put other people at risk for helping hide me?” She shook her head and reached for the pulse rifle leaning in the corner behind her. “I think not.”

“Don’t be stupid!” MacFadzean’s voice was sharper and she glared at the other woman. “You’re the League chairwoman—the one who can speak for us! Get the hell out of here, lie low, and then find a way to get off-world.”

“And do what?” MacLean demanded. “We’re done, Erin—we’ve lost, and nobody else in the entire galaxy gives one single solitary damn what happens here on Halkirk!”

“That’s not true,” MacFadzean said. MacLean stared at her in disbelief, and she shook her head. “I…didn’t tell you everything,” she said after a moment, looking away rather than meeting her friend’s eyes. “Our supplier for the weapons…he offered more than just guns, when the time came.”

“What are you talking about?” MacLean’s eyes had narrowed.

“He told me he could get us naval support.” MacFadzean turned back to face her fully. “When we were ready, if I got word to him, he was going to arrange things so we’d be the ones with starships in orbit.”

“That’s crazy! How was he supposed to do that? And why didn’t you tell me about it?!”

“I didn’t tell you about it because you already didn’t trust him,” MacFadzean’s voice was flatter than ever. “You may even have been right. Probably he and his friends were only helping us for their own ends, but he told me he wasn’t really a freelance arms dealer after all. That that was just his cover, a way to provide deniability if the wheels came off. He told me he was actually speaking for his own government, that his queen was ready to come into the open to support us if it looked like we might pull off our end of it, and I believed him. Hell, maybe I just needed to believe him! But if you can get off-world, find a way to contact him, maybe—”

She broke off, tears spangling her eyes, then shook herself savagely.

“Goddamn it, Megan! It’s all we’ve got left! You’re our chairwoman, if anyone can speak for us, you can! At least get out there and see to it that someone hears our side of what happened here. Don’t let the bastards just sweep us and Conerock and all the rest of this shit under the rug like it never even happened!”

MacLean stared at her for a moment, shaken to the marrow of her soul by the raw appeal in MacFadzean’s last sentence.

“I wouldn’t even know how to contact him,” she said finally. Something exploded in the near distance, the sound muffled but clear through the apartment building’s walls. “And that’s assuming I could get off-world in the first place.”

“Here.” MacFadzean tossed her a data chip. “The contact information’s on there.” She smiled crookedly. “It’s in my personal cipher, but you’ve got the key.”

MacLean caught the chip. She looked down at it for a moment, then clenched her fist around it.

“I’m not running out and leaving you and everyone else behind, Erin. I’m just not doing it.”

“Yes, you are,” MacFadzean told her as more explosions began to shake the command post. “You owe it to us.”

She locked eyes with the other woman, and it was MacLean’s gaze that fell.

“Jamie will get you out through one of the tunnels,” MacFadzean said then. “If the two of you can get out of Elgin, head for Haimer. I think our cell’s still secure there. Lie low for a few weeks, and Tobias MacGill—he’s the cell leader in Haimer—will fix you up with new papers. Then he and Jamie will get you onto one of the timber shuttles. From there…from there you’ll have to play it by ear, but you can do it, Megan. You have to.”


MacLean tried to find one last argument, but she couldn’t, and there wasn’t much time. She looked at her friend, the friend she knew was about to die with all those other friends, and she could hardly see through the blur of her tears.

“All right,” she whispered. “I’ll try.”

“Good.” MacFadzean stepped around the table and enveloped her in a brief, crushing hug. “Good. Now go!”

MacLean hugged her back for an instant longer, then nodded, grabbed her pulse rifle, and headed for the door. MacFadzean watched her go, then picked up the handset again and pressed the button that connected her to every other handset simultaneously.

“Blàr Chùil Lodair,” she said simply. “Let’s by some time for the tunnel rats.”

* * *

“No fucking around this time!” Colonel Nathan Mundy snarled over the battalion communications net. “And no excuses, either! Get in there, kick their asses, and bring me their fucking heads!”

Acknowledgments came back, and he smiled savagely as he settled deeper into his seat while his ground effect command vehicle slid around the final corner and his direct vision screens showed him the apartment building the rebels had taken over. It didn’t look any different from half a dozen other buildings they’d occupied across the capital, but this one was special. This was the one that was going to break the rebels once and for all, because this was their central command post. He’d thought for a while that MacPhee wasn’t going to break, but the UPS had a way of convincing even the most recalcitrant. Maybe MacPhee wouldn’t have broken if they’d had only him to work on, but when they brought in his daughter…

I suppose he still might’ve lied, the colonel thought harshly. Of course, if he did, he’ll think what we already did to the bitch was nothing.

“Get closer!” he barked at his driver.

“Sir, I—”

“Get me closer, goddamn it!”

“Yes, Sir.”

* * *

The tanks were Solarian surplus, at least two generations out of date, but some tank was always better than no tank, and their armor shed pulser fire with contemptuous ease. They moved forward steadily, pounding the apartment building and the two structures to either side with fire from their main guns—fifty-millimeter hyper-velocity weapons with the firepower of a pre-space hundred and fifty millimeter cannon. Gouts of dust and smoke erupted, spewing showers of splintered ceramacrete, and coaxially mounted tribarrels spat thousands of explosive darts at their targets. It was impossible for anything to survive under that pounding, and the tank crews knew it.

But the tank crews were wrong.

The first antitank missile struck like hell’s own viper. The superdense penetrator impacted on its target’s frontal armor at just over ten thousand meters per second, and that armor might as well have been made of paper. The tank erupted in a thunderous fireball, and an instant later there was a second fireball. And a third.

“Christ!” someone yelped over the command net. “Where the fuck did they get that?! Break right! Alfie, break ri—!

The voice cut off abruptly.

* * *

Innis MacLay bellowed in wordless triumph as the first UPS tanks exploded. Then a pair of APCs encountered one of the improvised explosive devices the Provos had buried in the sewers under Brownhill Road. It wasn’t powerful enough to destroy them outright, but the blast was more than enough to cripple them, and he watched their vehicle crews bail out, the Uppies scattering like blue-uniformed maggots.

The grips of the tribarrel were comfortable in his hands as he peered through the holographic sight, and he squeezed the trigger stud.

* * *

Nathalan Mundy stared at his readouts in disbelief. That bastard MacPhee! He hadn’t said a single word about weapons that heavy! And the rebels hadn’t shown anything like that kind of firepower here in Elgin! How was he supposed to have realized—?

* * *

Another tank exploded, but this time one of its companions got a firm lock on the third-floor window from which it had come. A turret swiveled, a tank gun flashed, and half the floor behind that window disintegrated in a deafening explosion.

* * *

MacLay couldn’t feel the shock of the explosion from his lofty perch. Or, at least, he couldn’t feel it clearly enough to separate it from all the other shocks and vibrations whiplashing through the building. He saw the tank fire, though, and it wouldn’t have if it hadn’t had a target.

He wondered who’d just died, but it didn’t matter. They could hurt the bastards, but they couldn’t win, and he’d already heard the reports from the other side of the building. The Uppies had to know exactly where they were; they were closing in from every direction, and MacFadzean was right. Only those closest to one of the escape tunnels had any chance at all of getting out alive.

Assuming someone else kept the Uppies occupied, that was.

He selected another target, slamming his heavy caliber darts through the thinner top armor of one of the APCs. The twenty-five-man personnel carrier staggered to a stop, then exploded, and his bloodshot eyes glittered with satisfaction. It was only a matter of time before someone spotted his firing position, but at the moment they were more preoccupied with the missile teams than mere tribarrels, and he swung his weapon’s muzzle towards fresh prey.

* * *

“Fall back!” Colonel Mundy snapped at his driver. “Get us further back—now, damn it!”

The driver snarled something that could have been an acknowledgment, and the command vehicle curtsied on its ground effect cushion as he spun it around. The sensor cluster kept the apartment building centered in Mundy’s display even as the vehicle turned away, and a cursor flashed on the screen, highlighting a balcony on the sixtieth floor. An icon appeared beside it as the command vehicle’s computers identified the energy signature, Mundy’s eyes widened as he recognized the data code.

Tribarrel! a corner of his brain gobbled. That’s a tri

* * *

The GEV erupted in a boiling cloud of red and black. It tore apart, incinerating its crew, and Innis MacLay howled in triumph. It was brief, that triumph, no more than seconds before one of the surviving UPS tanks put a round from its main armament right through the balcony’s French doors, but it was enough.

* * *

“This way, Megan!” Jamie Kirbishly said hoarsely. “We’re almost there.”

Megan MacLean nodded, wading through the ankle-deep water at her guide’s heels, trying not to think about what was happening behind her. There were perhaps twenty more people in the tunnel with her, stretched out in a long, grim-faced queue, most of them people who still had—or might still have—family somewhere on the other side of holocaust. People who knew their friends—friends who no longer had anyone waiting for them—had chosen to stay behind and cover their escape.

She put her hand into her pocket, feeling the hard edges of the chip folio, wondering who the man who had called himself “Partisan” really was. If he’d told MacFadzean the truth about his official status or if it had all been a lie. And if it hadn’t, what had he and the star nation who’d sent him really intended? Why had they offered to help the Liberation League? Whatever MacFadzean might have thought, it hadn’t been out of the bigness of their hearts. MacLean was certain of that, and God knew they had enough problems of their own at the moment. Had they simply been looking for a way to distract their enemies? That might well make sense, she supposed. But it was also possible it hadn’t all been cynical, pragmatic calculation on their part. They had a reputation for standing up for lost causes; maybe they even deserved it. And if they did, and if she really could get off-world and reach them somehow, maybe this nightmare slaughter wouldn’t have been entirely in vain after all. Maybe—

Down!” Kirbishly screamed.

MacLean responded instantly, throwing herself down on her belly in the icy water even before she realized she’d moved. She landed with a splash, hearing shouts behind her, and raised her head just in time to see the heavily armored UPS troops plummeting down the ladder from the manhole above with their pulse rifles flaming in full automatic.

It was the last thing she ever saw.

* * *

Frinkelo Osborne stood on the landing platform of SEIU Tower, his face hard and set as he watched fresh smoke billow up to join the dense, choking cloud hovering above the Loomis System’s capital. Over twenty percent of Elgin’s buildings had taken at least some damage, he thought disgustedly. MacQuarie insisted it wasn’t that bad, and it was possible his own estimate was high because of the revulsion and fury boiling through his brain, but he didn’t think so. She was a liar trying to cover her own arse, and she was going to have plenty of covering to do now that the shooting was over. Just what he could see from his present vantage point was going to cost billions to repair, and the damage her in Elgin was nothing compared to what Captain Venelli’s KEWs—not to mention the UPS’ kill teams—had done to the rest of the planet. He remembered his conversation with Venelli in Hoplite’s briefing room and his right hand rose, touching the hard angularity of the holstered pulser under his left armpit.

Tempting, so tempting. He could walk into Zagorski’s penthouse office and no one would think twice about admitting him. And once he got there…

He took his hand away from the pistol again and grimaced bleakly. The thought might be tempting, but he wasn’t about to act on it, and he knew it. Just as he knew the real reason he wanted to paint Nyatui Zagorski’s office walls with his brains.

Osborne had served OFS well, for longer than he liked to remember, but this was the worst. Somehow he’d always managed to avoid the details like this one, but now he’d climbed down into the sewer with the worst of them, and he’d never be clean again.

And the worst of it, he thought in the cold, cruel light of honesty, is that now that I’ve done it once, it’ll be easier the next time. And if I stay with it long enough, there will be a next time. There always is.

He stood for another few minutes, gazing at the blazing apartment building, wondering how much longer it would stand before its skeleton collapsed into the inferno, wondering if there was anyone still alive inside that furnace, praying for death.

Then he turned and walked silently away.

* * *

It was still and dark in the smoke-choked sewer under the city of Elgin. There was no light, no movement…no life. Not any longer, and a data chip folio settled slowly, slowly through the bloody water into the sludge below.

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