Pawn to King Four

by Timothy Zahn

The night patrol had been pretty uneventful, Badger Werle thought as he and Dillon de Portola drove along one of the dirt tracks that passed for roads out here in the upper reaches of DeVegas Province. He and de Portola had cleared out two spine leopard nests, killing five males and scattering the females and young, and had taken out one of the predator way stations that were in many ways more troublesome than the nests themselves.

Still, relatively calm though the night had been, Werle was looking forward to getting back to his small apartment and eight uninterrupted hours of blissful sleep. Turning the car onto the main southern road, rolling up his window and opaquing the top to block the sliver of brilliant sunlight peeking over the eastern horizon, he headed toward the province’s capital city of Archway.

“So where did Lorne disappear to, anyway?” de Portola asked suddenly from the passenger seat.

Werle looked over in mild surprise. The other Cobra had been quiet so long that Werle had assumed he’d fallen asleep. “You mean Lorne Broom?” he asked.

“You know a lot of other Lornes?” de Portola asked dryly.

“Well, there’s Lorne Blankenship over in Homer,” Werle said, shifting to a one-handed grip on the steering wheel as he counted off fingers. “There’s also a Lorne Davison in Coby, a Lorne Pomerantz up in Redcliff, a Lorne Chee in East Archway, a Lorent Avery in Brookside—”

“That’s a Lorent, not a Lorne.”

“Yeah, but people goof up his name all the time,” Werle said. “Assuming you’re asking about Lorne Broom, all I know is that Ishikuma said Chintawa called yesterday morning, told him an aircar was on its way, and that Cobra Broom had better be on it when it hit Capitalia again.” He cocked an eyebrow. “Unless your network of spies in Capitalia has a different story?”

De Portola snorted. “If you think two sisters, three cousins, and six nieces and nephews under the age of eight constitute a spy network, you’re sadly mistaken,” he said. “You’re the native son with all the deep dark information sources.”

Werle shook his head. “Sorry. All my gossip webs end at the province’s borders.”

“Yeah, but Chintawa’s call came into the middle of your gossip web,” de Portola countered. “What the hell is that?”

“What the hell is what?” Werle asked, activating his optical enhancers’ light-amplification capabilities and giving the landscape around them a quick scan. Dushan Matavuli’s herds were grazing placidly in the fields to both side of the chain-link barrier fence that ran alongside the road, and he could see no sign of spine leopards or other predators.

“Stop the car,” de Portola said tersely.

“Stopping,” Werle said, glancing at the other as he steered the car off the rounded edge of the pavement. De Portola was staring out his window, his shoulders hunched down as if he was looking at something high in the sky. “What is it?”

“Something coming in from the west,” de Portola said. “Coming in fast.”

Werle leaned over, but couldn’t see anything but more grazing animals. “Like aircar fast?” he asked. Opening his door, he climbed out and frowned up at the western sky.

There were lights up there, all right: two sets, high-altitude and heading their way at a very respectable rate of speed. Resting his forearms on the car’s roof, he shifted his opticals from light-amp to telescopic.

For a couple of seconds the landscape spun dizzily as he centered his gaze on the incoming lights, every small movement of his head multiplied a hundredfold. Then he had the lights, and the view settled down.

They were spaceships. Bigger than even the largest freighters the Troft merchants brought into these regions; much bigger than anything in the Cobra Worlds’ modest four-ship fleet. They weren’t shaped like freighters, either: tall and long, but strangely narrow, like some of the flatfish in the eddy pools at the bottom of Braided Falls.

And unless he was misjudging their vector, they were heading straight toward Archway.

“Behind them,” de Portola said, pointing out his window. “Looks like three small freighters.”

“Make that four,” Werle corrected as he spotted a fourth transport half hidden by one of the others. They were respectably large medium-range freighters, small only in comparison to the three leading ships of the convoy. “Any thoughts about the big ones?”

“Take a look at those short wings they have fore and aft,” de Portola said. “Extra power or fuel nacelles, you think?”

Werle raised his magnification level a notch and tried to center on the forward wing. But the ships’ course was starting to cross their line of sight, and he was unable to make out any detail through the rippling of the slipstream. The convoy shot past a few kilometers ahead of them, still heading east toward the rising sun.

Abruptly, the car’s radio toned the emergency signal. Werle ducked back inside, still watching the convoy through the windshield, as de Portola punched the control. “Patrol Two.”

“Ishikuma,” the Cobra commandant’s taut voice came from the speaker. “What’s your twenty?”

“Half a kilometer south of Coline Trail,” de Portola said. “Listen, we’ve got some incoming ships—”

“Stay there,” Ishikuma cut him off. “No, better—go to ground somewhere. Aventine’s been invaded.”

Werle felt his jaw drop. “Invaded? By who?”

“Trofts,” Ishikuma said tersely. “Don’t yet know who. Until we do, you two stay clear of Archway. Having all our eggs in one—”

Abruptly, the voice cut off.

Werle looked out across the landscape again. In the past minute the Troft ships had dropped sharply in altitude, to the point where he could only get glimpses of them now between the trees. Definitely headed for Archway.

And as he strained his eyes, he thought he saw the faint flicker of reflected laser light.

De Portola saw it, too. “What the hell?” he murmured, sounding stunned. “Did they just—?”

“I don’t know,” Werle said, punching the car’s diagnostic key and scrolling though the screens until he reached the radio section. “The carrier’s still coming in, so they didn’t take out the comm tower. The question is—”

“Right,” de Portola cut him off grimly. “Get ready—here it comes.”

Werle froze, holding his breath and keying in his audio enhancers. Over the roar of the breezes rolling past their car, he heard a faint rumble in the distance through de Portola’s open window.

De Portola gestured, and Werle lowered his audios back to normal level. “Fifty seconds,” de Portola said grimly. “Sixteen and a half kilometers.”

“About that,” Werle confirmed, visualizing the layout of the fields and forests in front of them and the city beyond. Sixteen and a half kilometers put the blast… “They hit the Renking Center,” he breathed, a growing rage and horror twisting into his gut. The Renking Center, Ishikuma, and every other Cobra who would have been inside preparing for their shifts…

“Probably,” de Portola agreed. “But I don’t think they took down the whole building—the place may be falling apart, but it wouldn’t have collapsed that quietly. I’m guessing they just took down the link to the main tower.”

Werle ran the sound of the explosion back through his memory. “Maybe,” he said, feeling a little better. “But why the hell are the Trofts—any Trofts—attacking us?”

“No idea,” de Portola said. “But Ishikuma told us to stay clear of Archway, so that’s what we’re going to do. At least until we’ve figured out what’s going on.”

“Okay, but only until we figure it out,” Werle said, gazing toward the city and trying to think. At least there weren’t any more laser flashes coming from that direction.

Unless the ever-lightening sky was simply hiding the distant reflections. For all he knew, the invaders might be carrying out mass executions right now.

He took a deep breath. Every cell in his body was screaming at him to run the car back to power and go to the aid of his fellow Cobras and the rest of Archway’s citizens. But de Portola was right. Rushing blindly into the unknown wasn’t going to gain anyone anything.

“Don’t worry, I have no interest in sitting this one out, either,” de Portola assured him. “Any ideas?”

 “Well, obviously we can’t stay here,” Werle said, pulling out his comm. “Matavuli’s place is closest—let’s try there first. You said the tower’s still running a signal?”

“Yes,” de Portola said, his voice suddenly odd.

“Great,” Werle said, punching in a number and then tossing the comm into de Portola’s lap. “We’ll try the Ranchers’ Center first—they’re big enough to have their own relay to the tower. I’ll head toward Matavuli’s while you see if they can tell you what’s going on in town.”

“No—wait,” de Portola said, punching the comm’s disconnect button. “We need to think this through.”

“What’s to think through?” Werle demanded as he drove back onto the pavement and leaned on the accelerator. “We’ve got signal. Let’s use it while we can.”

“That’s exactly my point,” de Portola said. “Why didn’t they hit the tower? One good blast would have knocked out half the province’s communications. Do they really not care if we talk to each—? Oh, hell.”

“What?” Werle demanded. He glanced over at de Portola.

Just in time to see the other throw his comm out the window. “Hey!” he said indignantly.

 “Don’t worry, it’ll have company,” de Portola assured him, pulling out his own comm and tossing it out after Werle’s. “Don’t you see? They left the tower going so they can collect and backtrack signals from people outside the city. Ranchers, farmers—”

“And outriders like us,” Werle said, wincing. “Good idea, but a little late.” He pointed through the windshield at a dark sliver that had risen above the trees and was rapidly heading their direction. “I need to concentrate on these potholes. Tell me what that is.”

For a moment the only sound was the rumble of the car’s wheels against the ground. Werle kept his attention on the road, swerving around the potholes, wondering if there were more invading ships on the way. Archway was pretty small, with only ten thousand residents, but even so it really should take more than two warships’ worth of Trofts to beat them down. If there was a second wave, and if it followed the same incoming vector as the first, someone on the ground might be able to ambush them.

He felt his lip twist. An ambush. Right. The only weapons anyone out here had were handguns, rifles, shotguns, and a few lasers designed for hunting and defense against predators. Penetrating the outer hull on even a freighter would be well-nigh impossible, let alone the armor plating of something specifically designed to be shot at.

“It’s a drone,” de Portola reported tightly. “At least, I think it is—it’s too small to have someone inside.”

“Is it armed?” Werle asked.

“I don’t see anything obvious,” de Portola said. “But all the hardware could be recessed or behind doors.”

“Doesn’t matter whether it is or not,” Werle said, coming to a quick decision. “Even if it’s just an observer, we have to knock it out. Once it identifies us we might as well just walk into Archway and turn ourselves in.”

“Wait a second,” de Portola said cautiously. “Are you suggesting we don’t go back to Archway at all? That we stay out here and hide?”

Werle snorted. “No. That we stay out here and fight.”

“Just the two of us?”

“If necessary, yes,” Werle said firmly. “We’re Cobras. That’s what we’re supposed to do.” He squinted out at the rapidly-approaching drone. “Okay, here’s the plan. We lean back so that whatever cameras it has aboard can’t get a good look at our faces. When it gets close enough, I’ll spin the car around to the left, and you stick your leg out the window and lase the damn thing. How does that sound?”

De Portola hissed between his teeth. “Dangerously stupid, actually.”

“I agree,” Werle said. “Let me know if you come up with something better in the next thirty seconds.”

“Trust me,” de Portola said, unfastening his seat belt and swiveling partway around in his seat. “Give me a three-count.”

“Right,” Werle said, holding the car at an even speed and mentally counting down the seconds. Ten…five… “Three, two, one—”

He slammed on the brakes and spun the wheel. With a howl of protest from the tires and a cloud of flying dust the car swung ninety degrees around. It was still shuddering its way to a halt when de Portola swiveled the rest of the way around, propped his left leg up on the window frame, and fired his anti-armor laser.

The brilliant blue beam caught the drone just behind the nose. It held there for half a second, then slid back along the rounded side as de Portola searched for a vulnerable spot. Werle squeezed his eyes shut against the acrid light, switching to his opticals and trying to figure out what they were going to do if this didn’t work. The focal point of de Portola’s laser reached the drone’s midpoint—

And with a brilliant flash of yellow flame and a sputtering crackle like the sound of a falling tree, the drone exploded.

“Well, look at that,” de Portola commented, turning upright again and wrenching open his door. “Their grav lifts are just as vulnerable to expansion cracks as ours are. Come on.”

“Or else you got lucky,” Werle said as he opened his own door. “Where are we going?”

“I was thinking the woods,” de Portola said, pointing toward forested land to their left. “Whether they saw our faces or not, they definitely saw the car.”

“Not a lot of cover from infrared out there,” Werle warned.

“Sure there is,” de Portola called over his shoulder as he set off toward the trees at a full-out sprint. “Grav lifts mess up infrared fine-tuning something fierce. All we need to do is find a nest of something close to human-size to cozy up. The Troft drones will never know the difference.”

“Human-sized animals?” Werle asked as he sprinted off after his friend. “Like maybe spine leopards?”

“Yeah, that should work,” de Portola agreed.

Werle grimaced. “Terrific.”

It was about two kilometers to the edge of the woods, and their leg servos ate up the distance with the kind of speed and stamina that only Cobras could achieve. They were nearly to the edge of the forest when, as Werle had known it eventually would, their luck ran out.

De Portola spotted it first. “There,” he said, pointing toward the line of trees that lay between them and Archway. “Looks like another drone.”

Werle’s eyes flicked to the horizon where de Portola was pointing. The drone had disappeared behind the trees, but it would be clear again within seconds. They had to get under cover, and fast.

Only that option was rapidly evaporating. They could probably make it into the forest, but there was no way they could track down a group of large animals to hide themselves in. Not in the time they had left. Not this close to human civilization, where all such animals except spine leopards were increasingly rare.

De Portola was clearly thinking the same thing. “Okay—Plan B,” he said, veering suddenly to the right toward one of the fenced-in grazing fields. “What’s that thing over there, a livestock grain supply?”

Werle eyed the structure they were now heading for. It was small and low, encircled by shallow troughs, and about a dozen meters inside the perimeter fence. “A haylage feeder, actually,” he said.

“Close enough,” De Portola grunted. “It’s broken, and we’re fixing it. Last one there has to clean the manure spreader.”

He put on a burst of speed, bounded over the fence, and raced the rest of the way to the feeder. Werle was right behind him.

Just in time. Even as the two Cobras squeezed through the narrow gap between two of the troughs and opened the top of the feeder, the drone reappeared over the tops of the trees, heading in their direction at a high rate of speed. Werle held his breath, but the machine ignored them completely, ripping instead across the sky toward the spot where they’d destroyed the first drone and abandoned their car.

“I wonder how good its cameras are,” de Portola murmured as they leaned over the open feeder. “The first one may have gotten a clear view of my leg as I shot it down.”

“Take off your clothes and turn everything inside out,” Werle suggested, sidling around to the far side of the feeder and unfastening his shirt. The drone was dropping lower, and as he watched it disappeared behind another stand of trees. “And make it snappy.”

“Sounds pretty lame,” de Portola warned as he tore off his clothes.

“I know,” Werle conceded. “Let’s just hope they don’t know anything about human fashion. Smear on some of the haylage, too—that’ll help disguise everything.”

They’d finished with their makeshift disguises, and Werle was giving de Portola a quick lesson in the art of cleaning ranch machinery, when the other Cobra suddenly stiffened. “Uh-oh,” he muttered.

“What is it?” Werle asked, forcing himself to not look up.

“Don’t look now, but apparently the Trofts don’t like having their drones shot down,” de Portola said. “Looks like a small tank coming this direction.”

Werle felt his stomach tighten. “Maybe it’s just a patrol. Let’s try ignoring them and see if they’ll go away.”

“I don’t think so,” de Portola said, his voice darkening. “We’ve also got a rut-rider coming in from the southwest. I think that’s Matavuli himself at the wheel, isn’t it?”

Werle swiped at his forehead, using the gesture to turn his head far enough to put the rut-rider in view out of the corner of his eye. It was Matavuli, all right, riding on the spindly vehicle and looking angry enough to chew rocks.

And perched on top behind him were a pair of armed Trofts.

Not just armed, either. Notching up his telescopics, Werle saw that both aliens were wearing helmets and what appeared to be thick, probably armored versions of their usual leotards. Each was also carrying a large sidearm and wearing a long knife.

 “Yes, that’s Matavuli,” he agreed heavily. “And from the look on his face, he’s not very happy to see us on his property.”

“He’s happy enough when we clear out the spine leopards for him,” de Portola said with an edge of bitterness. “What do you want to do?”

Werle hunched his shoulders, looking around and jerking a little as he pretended to catch sight of the Troft tank. It was more like an armored truck than a full-blown tank, actually, though the roof-mounted swivel gun looked more than capable of blasting through anything Archway could put in its way.

And from the changing pitch of the engine, it sounded like the thing was aiming for a halt right alongside the haylage feeder’s section of fence. Clearly, the tank wasn’t simply on patrol, but was here to backstop the Trofts riding with Matavuli.

“I guess we wait and see what’s going on,” Werle said, straightening up and keeping his eyes on the tank. “They might have grabbed Matavuli as a hostage to our good behavior.”

“And if they grabbed him so he could finger us?”

Werle felt his lip twitch. “Like I said, we wait. Look surprised and scared, will you? We don’t see alien armored trucks in DeVegas Province every day.”

“Yeah,” Werle grunted. “Let’s hope it’s not a trend.”

The armored truck rolled to a halt, its engine revving down to a low rumble. Werle waited, still watching it with a mixture of awe and uneasiness on his face, until the rut-rider coming up from behind them was close enough for a normal person to hear as it swished its way through the grass. “I guess we’d better see what Matavuli wants,” he murmured to de Portola. “Here’s the story. We were on a pre-dawn energy hike, we saw a bird caught in the feeder—that happens sometimes—and we came in to free it. If Matavuli is willing to play along, we may get away with it.”

“Assuming they don’t think to ask where we came from or where our car is,” de Portola warned.

“We came from the Ortez ranch,” Werle said. “That’s the next one over, and I know Jak will back us up.”

“Only if we can clue him in before the questioning starts,” de Portola warned. “Matavuli really does look furious, doesn’t he?”

“He’s always hated trespassers,” Werle said, his heart sinking as he studied Matavuli’s face. The man looked about two blood-pressure points away from a stroke.

The rut-rider jerked to a halt. Matavuli hopped down without even bothering with the steps and stalked toward the feeder. The two armored Trofts were right behind him, their sidearms ready. Werle took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Mr. Matavuli—”

“Don’t give me sorry, Hickory,” Matavuli snarled. “What the hell are you and Zeke doing here?”

Werle blinked. Hickory? Zeke? “We were just—”

“You were told to clear out the stickler-weed patch in east-two,” Matavuli cut him off, jabbing a finger across the road. “Instead I find you here?”

“We’re sorry sir,” de Portola said, with just the right mixture of humility and stubbornness. “But like we told you yesterday, this feeder’s been jamming up. I thought Hickory and I could—”

“And like I told you, I’ve got other people to fix the damn machines,” Matavuli bit out. “People who actually know what they’re doing.” Abruptly, he strode forward, brushing past both Cobras and looking down into the feeder. “Show me what you did.”

Werle moved to his side. “There,” he said, pointing to a random part of the machinery. “There was a calcified husk stuck—”

“Yeah, yeah, I see,” Matavuli muttered, leaning over and reaching in.

And with his hand out of sight of the Trofts, his fingers curled into a quick thumb’s up.

“Fine—so you fixed the damn thing,” he said, straightening up again and giving Werle one final glare. “But the next time you blow off a work order your butts will be flying from the flag post.” He transferred the glare to de Portola. “You got that?”

“Yes, sir,” de Portola said meekly.

Matavuli turned to the two Trofts. “My apologies,” he said in a slightly more civil tone. “Turns out that the men you saw were mine.”

One of the aliens stirred. “You said no one was in this field,” he said, the flat words coming from a round pin on his left shoulder.

“And if you’d been paying attention, you’d have heard just now that they weren’t supposed to be in this field,” Matavuli shot back, his patience cracking a bit. “You mind if we get back to work now? I’ve got a ranch to run.”

For a long moment the two aliens simply gazed back at him. Werle keyed his opticals to infrared, hoping to get a reading on the Trofts’ faces. But the helmets’ faceplates were blocking too much heat for him to get anything.

Their beaks were working, though. Clearly, they were having a private conversation.

On sudden impulse, Werle put target locks on the two faceplates. With an armored vehicle at their backs he very much hoped they could keep this nonviolent. But it never paid to have enemies behind you and in front of you.

“You may go,” the first alien said. “Do not leave your property. We will be observing all that is done in this area.”

“Yeah, I’ll just bet you will.” Matavuli jabbed a finger at Werle. “You two—get on the rider. You can clean up back at the op center. And you’d damn well better have that stickler-weed cleared out by dinner time.”


Rut-riders were designed to carry six people. When two of the passengers were armored aliens, Werle quickly discovered, the vehicle felt considerably more crowded than usual.

No one spoke during the ride back to the cluster of buildings at the center of Matavuli’s operation. Another Troft vehicle, smaller and less heavily armored than the one they’d seen on the road, was waiting at the main house. Still without saying a word, the two alien soldiers got inside and headed back down the long drive.

“Come on,” Matavuli said gruffly, and led the way across to the combination stock barn, feed storage, equipment shed, and vehicle garage that served as the ranch’s operations center.

Waiting silently inside the cleaning room were Matavuli’s wife Carol and two men Werle recognized as the ranch’s senior hands. He’d seen both seniors on various occasions, but couldn’t recall either of their names. “Okay, let’s have it,” Matavuli said, stalking over to his wife and planting himself beside her. “What the hell is going on?”

“All we know is that Aventine’s been invaded by Trofts,” de Portola said.

“Yeah, we got that part,” Matavuli said sourly. “Which Trofts? What demesne?”

“And why?” Carol added.

“We don’t know,” de Portola said. “That was all we got before Ishikuma was cut off.”

“Do you still have working communications?” Werle added. “We need to find out what’s going on in town.”

Carol shook her head. “The comms are still working—at least there’s a carrier signal—but we can’t get anyone in town to answer.”

“But it’s pretty obvious the invaders think there are still Cobras running loose,” Matavuli added. “So how are you going to get rid of them?”

Werle felt his eyebrows creep up his forehead. “Us?”

“You’re our soldiers, aren’t you?” Matavuli countered. “Or at least, the closest thing we’ve got. Aren’t you supposed to be trained for this stuff?”

“We are,” de Portola said calmly. “But before we can make any move we need more intel. How many Trofts are in Archway, what kind of weapons they have, how they’re positioned. That sort of thing.”

“And if we’re all supposed to stay on our own land—well, your land, anyway—I don’t know how we’re going to get to town without being grabbed,” Werle said.

“Well, we can probably help you with that.” Matavuli gestured to the two men. “Hayes and Grundy. They’ll get you whatever they can about the situation in Archway, hopefully by tonight.”

Werle looked at the two men, keying on his infrareds as he did so. “It could be dangerous,” he warned. “You two really willing to stick your necks out for us?”

“For you personally, no,” Hayes said bluntly. “But like you said, this is Mr. Matavuli’s land, which means it’s our land, too. Our land, our town, our province.”

“And our people,” Grundy added. “And if a bunch of chicken-beaked aliens think they can walk in and take it over, they’re badly mistaken.”

“Satisfied?” Matavuli asked.

The infrared signatures had shown no indication of duplicity. Hayes and Grundy were honestly willing to help.

Whether they actually could do anything useful, of course, was an entirely different question. “Satisfied,” he confirmed.

“Good.” Matavuli gestured at the ranch hands. “You two get going. And you two,” he added, pointing at the two Cobras, “are going to get into proper farm clothing and go clear out some stickler-weed.”

“Just in case the Trofts follow up on this?” de Portola asked.

“Of course,” Matavuli said. “Why else?”


Werle never did find out how Hayes and Grundy pulled off their communications magic trick. Apparently, there were still a few information conduits the Trofts hadn’t yet closed down.

However they worked it, by evening they had everything the two Cobras needed.

“They’ve fenced off six-block sections of Main and Chicalla Streets and Third Avenue,” Hayes reported as the six of them sat around the table in the Matavulis’ oversized dining room. “They’re using some kind of mesh, with a tighter weave than the chain-link jobs we use around our fields. They’re the same five meters tall as ours, though, so I guess they know something about spine leopards. The fences are anchored to the building fronts along the streets, so those buildings are kind of a part of that same zone. Outside of those areas—”

“Get this,” Grundy cut in. “Outside those three streets they’ve dumped four transports worth of spine leopards into the city.”

“You’re kidding,” Matavuli said, frowning. “The province is up to its chin in the things, and they’re importing them?”

“The province is, but Archway isn’t,” Werle said grimly as he caught on. “Is the city’s perimeter fence still in place?”

“Mostly,” Hayes said. “There were a few places where pieces got knocked down, mostly where some nupe-head in a car tried to outrun the invasion. The Trofts have patched the holes with more of their own mesh, though, so it’s all buttoned up again.”

“Which means everything outside those three streets is now a kill zone,” Matavuli growled. “Yeah, I see now. Damn them.”

“Let me guess,” de Portola said. “For a pledge of cooperation or undying loyalty they’ll let you come into the safe zone. Otherwise, you sit in your house until you run out of supplies and starve to death.”

“Or else come out and get eaten,” Hayes said. “Exactly.” His lip twisted. “Except that instead of a loyalty pledge, they want people to give up the Cobras.”

Werle stared at him, his blood suddenly running cold. “And?”

“Oh, they’re not doing it,” Grundy said hastily. “Least, that’s what our guy said. I mean, you’re our friends. Right?”

“At least until the food starts running out,” Matavuli said. “What are the Cobras doing in the middle of all this?”

Hayes and Grundy exchanged apprehensive looks. “They’re not really…” Grundy began, then stopped.

“They’re doing nothing,” Hayes said. “They can’t. According to our guy, word came in from Capitalia about an hour after the Trofts landed that everyone’s supposed to stay calm and not put up any resistance.”

“Even the Cobras?” de Portola asked.

Hayes made a face. “Especially the Cobras.”

Werle looked across the table at de Portola. “I didn’t get any orders like that,” he said.

“Neither did I,” de Portola agreed. “Too bad I tossed both our comms out the window.”

“Wait a second,” Hayes said cautiously. “You’re not thinking…?”

“Of course we’re thinking,” de Portola said. “This is what our weapons and nanocomputer programming were designed for, remember?”

“But you’re just two men,” Grundy objected. “I mean, really—it’s just two of you. Our guy didn’t think any other Cobras got out before the Trofts landed.”

“Fine, so there’s just two of us,” Werle said. “How many are we supposed to have before we get off our butts and do something?”

Matavuli stirred. “You’re wrong anyway, Grundy” he said. “It’s not just two of them.” He looked over at his wife. “Like Hayes said this morning, this land belongs to all of us.”

Werle focused on Carol, wondering if she was going to object. But she simply nodded. “Agreed,” she said, her voice as deadly calm as her husband’s. “What’s our first move?”

“First thing is to come up with a plan,” Werle said, trying to think.

De Portola stirred. “I may have something,” he said slowly. “But we’ll need to get closer to Archway. Do you think the other farmers and ranchers will be willing to risk helping us get across their land?”

“I don’t have to think,” Matavuli said. “While you two were pulling weeds I was talking to the other ranchers. I can get you to Archway or anywhere else you need to go. So what’s this plan?”

De Portola visibly braced himself. “Okay,” he said. “Here it is…”


They set out the next morning before dawn in one of the ranch’s rut-riders: Werle, de Portola, and Matavuli, who had insisted on personally taking them on the first leg of their trip.

 That first leg ended sooner than Werle had expected. And in a very different place.

“You’re joking,” de Portola said, eyeing the narrow culvert stretching out past the border fence and disappearing beneath a low hill.

“Hey, be thankful we’re not using it for irrigation right now,” Matavuli growled. “If we were, you’d be swimming upstream against water that would probably still have chunks of mountain ice floating in it. You sure you’ve got the route?”

“Culvert to the Ortez ranch; overland to the south border, then over the fences to the Busenitz spread,” de Portola said. “Two more after that, and we’ll be at the northern drainage field—”

“Which should be pretty dry right now,” Werle added.

“—and within spitting distance of the city,” de Portola concluded.

“And remember to change clothes whenever necessary,” Matavuli said. “And make sure you check for drones before you jump the fences. You blow another one out of the sky like you did yesterday, and they won’t just send a couple of cars around to take a look.”

“We’ll be careful,” de Portola promised.

“Starting right now,” Werle said, keying on his telescopics and giving the sky a quick but thorough look. Drones might be a handy tool for an occupation force, but between their infrared signatures and the glow of their grav lifts they were pretty easy to spot. “Looks clear.”

“Agreed,” de Portola confirmed.

“Right,” Werle said. “Thanks, Matavuli. You should hear from us by late tonight.”

“Let’s hope so,” Matavuli said gruffly. “Good luck.”

“Thanks.” Werle looked at de Portola and gestured toward the culvert. “Your plan. You get to go first.”

The culvert wasn’t nearly as narrow or claustrophobic as it had looked, even for men wearing four layers of heavy clothing. They emerged beside a small dam blocking the edge of Minuet Creek as it flowed down from the mountains another twenty kilometers to the north. A brisk half-kilometer walk took them to a cluster of oaklings and the rut-rider Ortez had left for them. They rode the vehicle the rest of the way to the eastern edge of the ranch, then turned south as if they were out on an ordinary perimeter fence inspection.

Once, de Portola spotted a drone drifting past high overhead, and they stopped and made a big show of pulling some weeds that were crowding against a section of fence. Then, resuming their ride, they continued on their inspection tour. When the drone was again out of sight they turned away from the fence and headed to an equipment shed near the ranch’s southern border. Parking the vehicle inside, they again checked for drones, then leaped over the fence, crossed the road, and leaped over the next fence onto Busenitz land.

Jeri, Kalen Busenitz’s granddaughter, was waiting in another rut-rider, and as soon as Werle and de Portola had stripped off another layer of clothing the three of them set off. The next ranch in line was the Eisenhart’s, with Hank pulling up to them on a vehicle that looked nearly as old and beat-up as he did. As was the case with Hank himself, the rut-rider’s looks were deceiving, and they were deposited quickly and efficiently at the edge of the Starks’ land, where yet another vehicle had been left for them. Once again, they ended up pausing for some weeding and fence repair under the gaze of a high-flying drone, continuing only after it and a follow-up drone were once again out of view.

By the time the sun was fully above the horizon, they were down to their final layer of clothing and had made it to the edge of the Swenson property, only two hundred meters of drainage field away from the northern edge of Archway.

 “There,” de Portola murmured, nodding toward the five-meter-tall protective fence encircling the city as he handed a section of crossbar down to Werle. “That off-color piece just this side of the river inlet grating. That must be one of the replacement patches Hayes told us about.”

“I see it,” Werle confirmed as he set the crossbar down beside the others. He notched up his telescopics, wondering briefly how much of this part of the plan Matavuli had passed on to Thom Swenson. Still, Swenson had left the fencing material on the rut-rider as the Cobras had asked. Even if Matavuli hadn’t given him all the details, Swenson was smart enough to have figured most of it out on his own. “Any sign of patrols? Never mind,” he interrupted himself, spotting another of the armored trucks they’d seen the previous day as it lumbered into view around a bend in the city fence. “Here’s one now.”

“I wonder if he’s going to stick to the roads,” de Portola said as the truck continued in their general direction.

“Certainly has to stay there long enough to cross the bridge,” Werle pointed out. “Makes for a nice pinch point.”

If we can trust them to always come from that direction,” de Portola warned. “If they’re also doing clockwise circles we could have a problem.”

“True,” Werle conceded. “Still, we have all day to watch how they do things.”

“Right.” De Portola straightened up, arching his back as if stretching tired muscles. “Don’t see any drones up there.”

“Which makes sense,” Werle pointed out. “Why waste drones on a city where you already have two warships and lots of soldiers on the ground? Especially when there are another hundred thousand square kilometers to keep an eye on.”

“Even more if they’re in charge of all of Willaway, too,” de Portola agreed. “Somehow, I can’t see an invasion force tasking even one of those ships to sit on a town as small as Mayring. I wish we knew how many drones total they have.”

And if they’ve kept any spares,” Werle said. “Maybe we’ll find out tonight.”

“Maybe.” De Portola gave one final stretch and then lifted another roll of fencing, pretending to struggle with the weight as if he was a normal man who didn’t have the added strength of Cobra servos. “One more?”

“One more,” Werle agreed, taking the roll and doing a little staggering of his own. “Let me put it down, and then we’ll set up the postholer.”

They worked straight on until midday, when Swenson came by to bring them lunch and look over their progress.

“Nice,” he said, as he examined the six meters of extra fencing they’d put together in a flexible framework and left propped up against the main fence. “If this warfare thing doesn’t work out, I can probably find you a job. That’s not going to be too heavy, is it?”

“It shouldn’t be,” Werle assured him. “The fencing is reasonably light, and using crossbeams instead of fenceposts for the uprights let us cut down even more on the weight.”

“The big question was whether the Troft patrols would wonder what we were doing and come over for a closer look,” de Portola said as he lifted up the corner of his sandwich and peered at the contents. “But I don’t think they even noticed.”

“They’re probably more interested in people trying to break out of Archway than people trying to break in,” Swenson said, stepping over to the two-meter-wide section of the main fence the two Cobras had also modified. “So these extra uprights are supposed to hold this section together so that you can take it out without unraveling the rest of the fence?”

“Exactly,” Werle said. “And these post holes here—”

“Yes, I see how that’ll work,” Swenson said. “Looks good. The bigger question is whether the spine leopards will play ball.”

“The theory’s perfectly sound,” Werle said, biting into his sandwich without bothering to inspect it first. It turned out to be roast lamb, a Swenson specialty. “We know that spine leopards can sense when there’s open territory nearby, and that governs their movement and breeding patterns. The only reason they aren’t standing three deep against your fences is that they’ve also learned that doing that won’t get them into the territory and will also probably get them shot.”

“But this particular collection aren’t locals,” de Portola pointed out. “More importantly, the Trofts have landed at least three more transports today, and if they were all full it’ll be getting pretty crowded in there. If and when they spot unoccupied territory and are able to get to it, we should get a full-bore gold rush.”

“Which unfortunately could be a serious problem for you,” Werle warned. “It may be awhile before we can get back in there and clean them out again.”

Swenson grunted. “Don’t worry about us. We built the house to stand up against the worst of the winter storms. A few spine leopards aren’t going to bother it any. We also spent most of the morning stringing chain-link along the walkway between the house and the op center, so that’s covered, too.”

“What about food?” Werle asked.

“We’ve got six weeks’ worth of supplies,” Swenson said. “After that, I guess we’ll find out how roast spine leopard tastes.” He twitched a smile. “At the very least this should clear out the rabbit and mole problems we’ve been having in the vegetable fields. When are you planning to make your move? Midnight?”

“Sundown, actually,” de Portola said. “Or rather, right afterward. We don’t want to throw big shadows everywhere we go.”

“Darkness really doesn’t help that much in modern warfare,” Werle added. “It gives the illusion of concealment without actually providing any.”

“If you say so.” Swenson gestured north. “By the way, one of my men spotted what he thought might be a way station by the river bend just south of Baxter’s Crossing. Is that going to be a problem?”

“No, actually that’ll help,” de Portola said. “If there are spine leopards there it should keep the Archway contingent from heading that direction. You brought the rabbits we asked for, right?”

“In the cooler,” Swenson said, nodding toward the plastic chest he’d set beside the rut-rider. “We were only able to get about a dozen—I hope that’ll be enough.” He gestured toward the squat equipment shed a hundred fifty meters back from the fence, its corrugated metal walls glistening in the noonday sun. “Oh, and I should warn you that the shed gets pretty hot on a sunny day like today. You’ll want to stay close to the floor where there’s at least a little ventilation.”

“Already planned on doing that,” Werle said. “Don’t worry—a little heat exhaustion’s good for the soul. I read that somewhere.”

“Right,” Swenson said dryly. “Well, I’m off. Good luck, and if you need anything else, let me know.”

He climbed back onto his rut-rider and headed back across the field. “Good man,” de Portola murmured around his sandwich. “If we had enough like him, the Trofts wouldn’t stand a chance.”

“We have enough,” Werle assured him, feeling an unexpected stirring of pride. De Portola had grown up in Capitalia, and though he’d never said anything to lord it over the others Werle had nevertheless always felt a bit rustic and unsophisticated in his presence. Maybe de Portola saw things clearer than Werle had realized. “It’s just a matter of giving them the right spark.”

“Then let’s do it.” De Portola took another bite of his sandwich. “Right after lunch.”


The sun dipped below the western stands of trees, and as it vanished so did the telltale shadows the Cobras had hoped to avoid.

And it was time.

Werle ran a hand over the fence section he and de Portola had spent the day building, checking the sturdiness of the quarter-meter lengths of cross beam jutting out from each of the uprights. It wasn’t going to be too heavy, he promised himself firmly.

“There he goes,” de Portola murmured.

Werle looked up. The armored truck running the clockwise circuit around Archway—there were indeed both clockwise and counterclockwise patrols, they’d discovered during the day—had made its way across the Caluma River bridge, across the northern edge of the city, and was nearly out of sight. As the two Cobras watched, it made a final turn and disappeared from view behind the fence’s curve.

“And with the other patrol truck still a good fifteen minutes away, that’s the one they’ll send when the balloon goes up,” de Portola continued.

Werle nodded, raising his eyes from the fence to the sky. That was their assumption, anyway. He just hoped that the Trofts didn’t find a way to rewrite the theory when he and de Portola weren’t looking. “Sky seems clear,” he reported. “You ready?”

“I was born ready,” de Portola declared firmly, pulling on the thick work gloves he’d worn most of the day. “You ready to toss some rabbits?”

“I was born ready,” Werle said, crouching down and opening the cooler.

“Okay.” De Portola took a deep breath, let it out in a huff. “All of our gear was also born ready, right?”

“So they tell me,” Werle said. “Don’t worry, you’ll do great.”

“I know,” de Portola said. “Just make sure they spell my name right on the statue. See you.”

Hooking his fingers into the fence’s links, he headed up.

Werle picked up two of the rabbits as he watched the other’s progress. There was no need to climb, of course—with Cobra servos de Portola could easily have simply jumped over the fence. But there might be Trofts watching from the city, and they needed to conceal their true identities as long as possible.

De Portola made it to the top, got his legs over, and headed down the other side. As he reached the ground Werle lobbed the two rabbits over the top. De Portola caught them and headed for the Archway fence at a fast jog, aiming for the replacement patch the Trofts had added used to cover the hole.

Werle studied the patch for a moment, wondering briefly which of Archway’s citizens had tried to ram his way out. But the how of the gap didn’t really matter. What mattered was that the hole was there, and that it had been patched with something that should be relatively easy for de Portola to cut through.

Speaking of which, Werle had some cutting of his own to do. Stepping up to the two-meter-wide section of fencing he and de Portola had prepared, he set the tip of his gloved little finger against the mesh and triggered his metalwork laser.

Normally, the laser flashed with a bright blue beam, distinctive enough to alert any Troft who spotted it. But with his fingertip pressed against the metal, there was no such telltale blaze to alert anyone that there was a Cobra at work.

Unfortunately, while there was no telltale light, there was a small but nasty mist of molten metal droplets. The work gloves absorbed most of it, but there were bits of exposed skin where his laser had cut its way through the glove. The droplets that landed there hurt like hell.

But there was nothing to do but get through it. Clenching his teeth, wincing every time a droplet found its way through the glove, Werle kept going, slicing the section free from the rest of the fence.

He had the first side finished in under a minute. Grabbing the cooler, he headed to the other side of the section, peering through the links to see if de Portola was on schedule.

He was. Even as Werle reached the other end of the section he saw the other Cobra cross the road that encircled the city and come to a halt in front of the Trofts’ patch. As Werle watched, de Portola tossed one of his two dead rabbits over the top, then set to work burning through the edge of the patch with his own metalwork laser.

He’d been at it for barely fifteen seconds when a spine leopard appeared from nowhere and pounced on the rabbit. Even as he tore hungrily at it, two more of the predators emerged from around buildings, clearly intent on scoring free meals of their own. De Portola paused long enough to throw his other rabbit over the fence, then got back to work. The two waiting spine leopards dived for it, one of them won, and suddenly there were half a dozen of the creatures milling watchfully around the patch.

Werle smiled tightly. This part of the plan, at least, was definitely going to work. Pulling more of the rabbits out of the cooler, he began throwing them over his fence, increasing the distance with each toss and creating a line of free spine leopard meals leading from near de Portola’s fence all the way back to his own. When the cooler was empty, he kicked it aside and got back to work freeing the other end of his fence section.

He was working on the last link when, from across the open space came a stuttering crash as the Troft patch came down.

He looked up. De Portola was on the ground, the section of mesh he’d cut away completely covering him as at least twenty spine leopards charged through the opening, leaping on, over, or around him. With their foreleg quills extended to ward off their fellows, they raced madly for the line of dead rabbits.

Werle keyed in his telescopics, his breath freezing in his throat as he focused on de Portola. If he’d been knocked over by the predators before he was ready…

But to his relief de Portola was in exactly the pose he and Werle had worked out earlier that day: lying flat on his back, his arms and knees rigidly extended against the mesh to keep the predator’s claws and spines away from his head and torso.

And with all those claws and spines rushing furiously across the drainage field, it was high time Werle got into position himself. Cutting the last connector, he took a long step to the middle of the freed section, braced his hands against the links, and rolled onto his back. The spine leopards were nearly to him; extending his arms, he locked the joints in place and braced himself.

A second later they hit, thudding across the links as they ran up the angled section of fence and then bounded off into the wide expanse of Swenson’s property. Werle craned his neck to watch, ready to bring one of his fingertip lasers to bear if one of the predators noticed him lying here and decided a meal of human meat would be even better than dead rabbit.

But none of them so much as glanced back. Everything else was forgotten as the predators sensed the presence of rich and unclaimed hunting ground. They dashed off in all directions, each intent on staking claim to his own piece of that territory.

And as the last of them took off through the twilight, Werle heard a new and distant rumble. Raising his head, he peered down along his body.

The armored truck that he and de Portola had seen sedately rounding the curve of the city on its patrol was back.

Only it was no longer being sedate. With its engine revving at a level Werle hadn’t yet heard from one of the things, it was bearing down on the bridge at almost reckless speed.

Werle took a deep breath. And now, with the truck’s return, came the moment of truth. The question of whether the plan would succeed as he and de Portola had hoped.

Or whether it would cost one of the Cobras his life.

Because if the Trofts inside the truck saw only the gaping hole in the city’s fence and the escaping spine leopards, de Portola should have a chance to roll beneath the truck as it passed across the bridge and—if he was very lucky—find a way to disable it. The rest of the endgame would still be a little touch-and-go, but an immobilized vehicle would at least be unable to chase anyone down.

But if the aliens spotted de Portola lying motionless beneath the mesh and decided he was worth shooting where he lay, the whole plan would instantly fall apart. De Portola would be dead, Werle would have no chance of getting to cover before they shot him too, and anyone inside Archway who tried to get out would also be chased down and killed.

De Portola hadn’t seen it ending in quite so dramatic a disaster, of course. Or at least he’d pretended not to. Even as he insisted on taking that part of the scheme, he’d also insisted that Werle would have a good chance of slipping away if the whole thing went sideways. While the Trofts dealt with him, he’d argued, Werle would be able to get to the distant shed, where he could hide until the aliens gave up the search, safe to fight another day.

And Werle had pretended to believe him…because what de Portola didn’t know was that at the first hint that the truck’s swivel gun was moving to target the Cobra lying in ambush, Werle would be on his feet, charging the truck and trying to draw the Trofts’ attention and weapons away from his friend.

Which probably meant he would die tonight. But at least de Portola would have a chance.

The truck was nearly across the bridge. Bracing his heels and shoulders against the ground, Werle focused his attention on the swivel gun. If it moved—if it even started to move—

And with his full attention on the weapon, he was taken completely by surprise when a man dropped out of nowhere and landed squarely on the top of the truck.

Werle jerked violently, the chain-link section rattling with the movement. He wrenched his eyes away from the swivel gun just in time to see a second man arc smoothly over the city fence and land with laser-cut accuracy on the truck beside the other man.

And as he watched even more amazement, the two men produced soft-looking fist-sized globes and smashed them against the truck’s front and side windows. The globes burst into splashes of a thick-looking black liquid that spread out to completely cover the windows.

He was belatedly keying in his telescopics and zooming in on their faces when both men’s left legs blazed with laser fire focused at the base of the swivel gun.

“Werle!” a hoarse voice called.

Werle looked toward the breech in the city fence, his mouth dropping open. He and de Portola had hoped that two or three of the Cobras in this part of Archway would spot the work they were doing and realize that there was a plan for getting them past the spine leopards without having to reveal their identities to the invaders. Maybe a civilian or two would see the exodus and impulsively join in.

But it wasn’t just a handful of Cobras and a couple of civilians racing toward him across the open field. There were at least twenty men, plus a few women, and only about half of them were Cobras. And there was nothing impulsive about it—most of the civilians were carrying rifles or shotguns, and several had bulging backpacks riding their shoulders.

“Where to?” the voice called again.

And this time Werle was able to recognize it. “In here!” he called back to Commandant Ishikuma as he shoved the section of chain-link away and scrambled to his feet. “Bring them all.”

He had picked up the extra six-meter section of fencing he and de Portola had constructed when the mass of Cobras and civilians arrived. “Here—grab this and wrap it around you,” he ordered the group, shoving the fencing into the hands of those in the lead. “Use those pieces of crossbeam as handholds. Keep it closed, and the spine leopards shouldn’t be able to get to you. Your target is that shed over there.” He pointed to the distant metal structure. “Get inside and lie flat on the floor. Someone will be by later to take you to the ranch op center.”

“And take the fencing inside with you,” Ishikuma added as the group gathered into a tight group and pulled the fencing into an upright cylinder around them.

“Right,” Werle said. There a crack from the direction of the bridge, and he turned to see the muted flash of an arcthrower from beneath the Troft armored truck, the light almost invisible against the glare from the two Cobras still lasing the swivel gun. There was another flash and boom, and another, and another.

And abruptly, the truck went quiet.

“So an arcthrower under the engine compartment will kill it,” Ishikuma said, his tone grimly satisfied. “That’s good to know.”

“Where’d all these people come from?” Werle asked, frowning at the group hurrying across the field inside their makeshift spine leopard shield. As he watched, one of the predators veered toward them, raked its paw once across the fence, then veered off elsewhere into the night in search of an easier meal.

“What, you didn’t think we’d notice a couple of Cobras working on a fence?” Ishikuma scoffed, scanning the sky. “Help me keep an eye out for drones, will you?”

“Yes, we figured you’d spot us,” Werle said, raising his eyes to the darkening sky. “That was the whole point, to try to get a few more Cobras out. My question was how all the civilians knew to make a break for it when the fence came down. I thought all the comms were dead.”

“Not dead, but probably being monitored,” Ishikuma said. “Whoa—watch it.” He swiveled up on his right leg and sent an antiarmor blast back toward the shed.

Werle spun around, just in time to see a spine leopard falter in its charge toward the fence-wrapped group. Ishikuma fired a second time, and the predator collapsed and lay motionless. “That one looked a little more determined,” the commandant said with a grunt. “Anyway, we didn’t want to use the comms, so we used the putty-ball system instead.”

Werle blinked. Putty-ball? “Never heard of it.”

“Not surprising, given we just made it up today,” Ishikuma said with a malicious grin. “It’s a really simple game: you write out a message, wrap it in a ball of putty, and lob it over the roving spine leopards to someone else’s house. He reads the note, writes out his own or rewraps the original, and throws it to the next house over. The putty’s sticky enough to hang onto windows long enough to be retrieved, but soft enough not to break them.”

“And with Cobra servos behind the throws, you can probably send one of them a block away,” Werle said, nodding.

“Actually, the current record’s a block and a half,” Ishikuma said. “Sumara to Rafe.”

“Impressive.” Werle gestured to the fence segment he’s been hiding under earlier. “Help me get this back in place, will you?”

“Sure. What do you need?”

“Just hold it up against the opening,” Werle told him, going over and picking up the two extra fenceposts. As Ishikuma held the section in place, he slid the two posts into the holes he and de Portola had dug just inside the original line of fenceposts, wedging the section between them and the original posts. “That should keep out any new spine leopards until we can get it properly welded in place,” he said, checking the fit.

“And it isn’t so obvious that it’ll lead the Trofts straight here,” Ishikuma agreed, giving the section a quick stability check. “Nice. Now, you’ll be on your own, so the decisions are ultimately yours. But I recommend—”

“What do you mean, on our own?” Werle asked, frowning. “Aren’t you—?”

“Shut up and listen,” Ishikuma cut him off. “Travel will be risky, but if you stay in one place too long the Trofts will eventually run you down. You’ll need to either keep moving between ranches or else set up a base somewhere in neutral territory. You might try the cave system behind Braided Falls—it’s shallow and not very roomy, but all that cold water ought to nicely hide your IR signatures. Plan your attacks carefully—hit quick, hit hard, and get out. And remember that the civilians are willing and eager, but they haven’t had the training we have. Good luck.”

Bending his knees, he leaped up and over the fence. “Wait a second,” Werle said. “Aren’t you coming with us?”

“I’m the commandant here, Cobra Werle,” Ishikuma said somberly. “I’m responsible for all the people of the province, starting with Archway. I’ll be fighting, but I have to fight from the inside where I can keep an eye on all the rest of the civilians. Watch yourselves, and be as big a pain in the butt to the Trofts as you can.” His lip twitched in a brief smile. “And don’t die.”

Turning, he sprinted back toward the city. A second later, with a thump and a swishing of grass, de Portola landed at Werle’s side. “Where’s he going?” he asked.

“The coward’s decided to fight the invaders from right inside their stronghold,” Werle said.

“From right under their noses?” De Portola shook his head. “Simply craven. So what’s our job?”

Werle gave the sky a final quick sweep. Still no drones, but that wouldn’t last. And even if the Trofts in the disabled truck were too cautious to peek outside there were undoubtedly more trucks and troops on the way. “To stay out here, make as much trouble as we can, and give him a chance to do his part from in there,” he said. “And we’re supposed to not die. Almost forgot that part.”

“I think we can handle that,” de Portola said. “Should be interesting.”

Werle nodded, gazing across the field at the city. The occupied, quiet, but simmering city. “Pawn to king four,” he murmured.


“The classic opening move of a chess game,” Werle told him. “But at least we’re not the only two pieces on this part of the board anymore.”

“So let’s go meet the other pieces,” de Portola said, turning toward the men and women now filing into the equipment shed. “Last one there scrapes the manure spreader.”

The End

Copyright © 2011 by Timothy Zahn