leader Raif had the point position by the interior hatch of the boat dock. There was still ash floating around the airless
compartment from the thermal charge the sappers had used to gain entrance from outside. Three of the sappers were in the process
of rigging a new pressure seal while two others were at an open panel on the interior wall, fitting some gas cartridges. Inside
his helmet, passive sonar showed people passing in the corridor beyond the few inches of steel between him and them. If it
were not for the hatch, the duranni could reach out and touch them.
Raif had the distinction of being the first member of the first squad
detailed to transit the common areas of the Cousteau base complex and enter the PAX wing. Nagya, the platoon commander, also
served as squad leader for the Alpha Dogs. The Alpha Dogs were supposed to handle the administration section of the Everclear
facilities while his Bad Dogs entered and seized the marshalling yards. Crab Platoon from Endless Sky remained outside in concealed positions on
the moon's surface, waiting for the Dogs to breach the dock to the station interior. These marines would follow up and secure
key sections and accessways throughout the Cousteau complex.
The good news was that the activity in the corridor beyond the hatch indicated
that the landers had grounded undetected. The hours in the can after separation from Broadside Electric had been almost unendurable.
But now he was out and armed and he knew what he was about. The bad news was that many of the humans outside would be noncombatants,
and he wasn't a cold killer, at least by nature.
"Rover, get me Nagya," Raif said. The combat assistant routed the call. By a convention
established during their training, everybody referred to his combat assistant interface by the name ‘Rover.' Nobody
"What is it, Raif?"
"Nagya, the corridor outside is still crawling with softies."
"Take an anti-inhibitor."
"That won't be
"Then click-off. I'm busy."
Rover closed the circuit. Raif didn't like anti-inhibitors. He'd taken them often, of course, in
training exercises. But he'd taken them only once in action, when the platoon stormed a Missionary outpost above the Palisades
as sort of a final exam. Since it was Missionaries the orders said there were to be no complications, which meant no survivors.
Soon after the assault began the younger humans tried to surrender. Their acclimated Missionary handlers had been priority
targets in the first hail of flechettes. Raif shuddered at the memory of himself moving through the camp, like a third-person
dream. A crosshair would appear on a faceplate that protected a youth's tear-streaked face. He'd point the gun, his suit would
stiff-arm, and he'd think the thought. The faceplate would fragment and the face within disappeared in a cloud of blood. Then
he'd find the next faceplate to put crosshairs on. Raif decided experiences like that would be less horrible in the first
person. They wouldn't leave him feeling so helpless as he killed.
Raif's helmet speakers chimed, signaling a platoon-wide address. The direction
finder pointed to Nagya. Nineteen faceplates turned toward the platoon commander. Every polyform combat suit was tuned to
starburst orange with black-stencil ID numbers. Some had hacked personalized detailing to counter the uniformity.
"I guess you're
wondering why I've called you all together," Nagya said. It was a broadcast, so Raif could not hear the perfunctory chuckles
from the assembly. "I hope you've all had your shots because we're going to zap the complex with pseudo-flu. The biosensors
will pick this up immediately and sound the alarm. Nothing makes softies move like a biohazard siren."
Raif could see some
of the suits shiver with little bursts of laughter: Tension release. Others stood rock-steady: Anti-inhibitors.
Nagya continued without
comment: "Once the softies are in shelters that should give us freedom of action. UV will decon the air by the time we
hit Everclear. Just get in and go to work, Dogs. I want no complications. The Crabs will be on call and on our tails if we
do get into trouble. And if we really fuck things up beyond all recognition, the Bugs up on Radiant Mirage can come down and get all the credit, since
in that case we'll all probably be pink smears on walls. That is all."
Raif grimaced behind the anonymity of his faceplate.
What a job!
"Rover, tie in my squad." A brief pause. A knot of helmets turned toward Raif. He could read the detailing
of each marine's polyform like he was looking at a face. "Okay, Bad Dogs, you heard the Commander. Any questions?"
There were none. Raif
and the nine other duranni of his unit would be the point of the arrow, and they would do most of the killing. What else was
there to say?
The dimmed illumination plates brightened to white intensity, sinking crisp, sharp shadows into the folds of polyforms
and spilling multiple duranni shadows across the floor. The siren cried a moment after, and Raif's heart skipped, even though
he was ready for it. As the marines looked around, the PA system gently prodded Cousteau's occupants toward the nearest shelter,
using words like "contagion" and "breach" to underscore the danger. Raif's passive sonar system filtered
out extraneous noise, focusing on those frequencies indicative of panicked people running for their lives. The corridors beyond
the hatch were full of them. A tone told him the boat dock was pressurizing. Unbidden, a timer appeared on Raif's visor display
reading "30" and began counting down. His comm system chimed.
"Wait for the zeroes, Raif," Nagya said.
he replied. Point of the arrow. "Bad Dogs, we go on my mark, in twenty-five seconds."
"I have to go to the bathroom,"
said Burr, the heavy-weapon gunner and the only other male in the squad. He was something of a wit and liked to boast that
when the Missionaries prayed it was that they didn't run into him.
"What, did you pull your catheter out again?" Raif said with
mock annoyance. They had a few seconds to kill. Sonar still showed people running in the corridor.
"Uh huh," Burr said
pathetically. "Gee, Raif, could you put the tube back in for me? I've got this big ass gun in my hands."
"Let me get my
Run, you softies, Raif willed. Run if you know what's good for you. Zero-zero. All clear, thank God!
On squad-wide: "Let's
Raif operated the door controls and the hatch slid open. The corridor outside was bathed in the same, harsh white
light as the dock bay. Obligingly, Rover produced a Cousteau complex floor plan overlay for his visor. He stepped out, turned
right, and started off at a trot. Boots clomping at his back swamped his sonar display, so Rover turned it off, opting for
thermal. The bio-counter hissed at the quantity of virus in the air, but the UV sensor told him the decontamination process
had already begun. Raif passed several other large hatchways on his right. The map said these were other boat dock bays.
There was a wide gallery
coming up that ran perpendicular to the corridor. It was listed as shopping mall. Raif slowed up a little.
"Keep your weapon
on that gallery coming up on the left until the Alpha Dogs can cover it."
Raif decided to keep his squad
moving through the T-junction without pause. Burr moved a few strides into the gallery and crouched behind his autocannon.
Raif sent a "keep moving" tone to the rest of his squad. He scanned the gallery as he jogged through the intersection.
Rich-looking storefronts lined both sides of the mall with kiosks and plants up the middle. The thermal imager indicated the
plants were plastic. No signs of any people, though. Then there was a flash from the doorway of a pub and Burr's head exploded.
Then there were many flashes from many doorways.
"Keep moving!" Raif ordered over squad-wide as rounds impacted the wall next to him.
"Fast and low!"
The duranni's instinct had said drop and return fire but training said this would have been suicide. When Raif took
cover on the far side his heart was pounding and there was soot and metallic spatter on his polyform from low-penetration
incendiary rounds that struck near him. With hand signals he detailed two members of his squad to proceed another thirty meters
up the corridor and take up overwatch positions. Looking back he saw that besides Burr two other members of his squad had
been hit on the dash across the intersection. The indicators said they were dead.
Nagya drew up her squad under cover on the
far side of the intersection. Raif's private circuit chirped.
"What do you say, Raif?"
"There are at least five shooters, Nagya,"
he said. Rover sent the platoon commander a recording of the dash. "They're using storefronts for cover."
Raif said. "Internal security issue."
"They missed a lot," Nagya said. "They're not wearing suits."
said. "What of it? I doubt Cousteau security goes around routinely suited up."
"They're not afraid of the biohazard
alert," Nagya said.
"Oh," Raif said. Then he considered the pub. "Maybe they're drunk?"
"That," Nagya said.
"Or they know what's going on." She paused for a moment. "Look, Raif, I want you to press on to Everclear.
We'll deal with this lot and come up when we can. Stick to your objectives."
Raif knew better than to argue.
"Good work, Raif," she said. "I'll see you soon."
Raif switched over to squad-wide.
"Bad Dogs, the
Commander's got this situation," he said. "We're going on to hit the Missionaries. Blood for blood! Let's go!"
A half-minute's exertions
brought Raif's squad to the PAX's Everclear service section. The bulkhead door was open, as expected. Raif entered, swept
the vault-like common room, finding it happily empty of persons. The Alpha Dogs were responsible for securing the administrative
sections and they were likely still hung up at the gallery. He checked his platoon tracker and saw that this was the case.
Damn! There were two other corridors leaving the common room diverging diagonally from the way he came in. Raif identified
the passages as leading to Everclear's hangers and administrative sections. The hangers were down the left-hand corridor,
so he led his squad that way. If there were any enemy gunmen in the administration center his squad might be cut off, but
Raif had decided not to worry about that.
The corridor emptied into another common room serving as the marshalling yards' point of access.
Raif waited there a moment, allowing the Bad Dogs to assemble.
"What do you say, Raif?" prompted his second, Rakasha, who was
also the tech, which was unusual for a female. Rakasha was quiet most of the time but she was fearless and lucky. "Are
"Hellbound," Raif agreed.
"Are you juiced, yet?" she asked, more subdued.
"I'm going in dry."
The duranni female's
faceplate tilted. "Hardcore."
Raif moved toward the airlock. The quarantine procedures had been disabled, as expected. Whoever
had reconnoitered the complex's computers had certainly earned his pay. Raif sent a green light to the Bad Dogs. Then he cracked
The hatch opened into a gangway. Raif traversed this quickly and reached the target access hatch. Rover switched
to a plan of hanger facilities, machine shops, and depots. Beyond the hatch was a pressure lock leading into a helium scrubber
service compartment. It was sealed. Raif gave a hand signal and stepped aside for Rakasha. She produced an adapter and plugged
her system into the Sol-make interface.
"Full cycle?" Rakasha asked.
"Spin them both," Raif said.
Overpressure in the
service compartment farted hot air into the gangway. Raif's biosensors went ballistic. The air read as Earth-standard, swirling
with microbes. There was nothing immediately fatal but nevertheless the protocol labeled it as semi-toxic.
"Don't worry, it's good," Raif said. The fact that the compartment was under Earth-standard atmosphere was a blessing
because it meant that any Missionaries they encountered would be volunteers and likely unarmored. "Pass the word to Nagya
that the yards are Code Yellow."
"Will do," Rakasha said.
"And seal off the rest of Everclear."
Raif bolted through
the airlock and entered the service compartment. He encountered an open-mouthed man in a mechanical technician's coveralls.
His fleshy face was a constellation of freckles. Huge ears. That bulbous nose. His eyes were really blue.
"What the hell
are you doing?" the man protested in Universal. "We're not suited up in here!"
Then the technician recognized
Raif's dart thrower. The man turned to run. Raif put three flechettes into his back in a nice, tight grouping. Raif could
tell the man was dead before he hit the floor because he didn't shield his face when he fell. That wasn't so hard.
Raif advanced through
the compartment. A bright spot on the thermal betrayed the presence of somebody approaching from around a corner. Raif tensed.
"What's going on in here?" demanded a high voice with some authority. Then a sob, all authority drained.
The young human female
was petite with straight, onyx hair and oval eyes now wide with fear. She put her hands in the air, exposing a slim figure
under her coveralls.
No complications. Raif clenched his teeth. His firing arm stiffened as Rover locked on target. Raif released the
killing thought. The dart thrower spat three flechettes in rapid succession. Chest, throat, and left eye penetration left
the girl sagging and gurgling, throwing a rich red spray on the wall.
A gloved hand was on Raif's shoulder. Nagya. She gave
him a brief squeeze.
"The Alpha Dogs are clearing the admin center," Nagya said. "I'll help you with the yards."
Then the Commander
moved on, into the facility.
The little murder went otherwise unremarked. Duranni marines were also pushing past him to commit
their own little murders.
"Fuck this," Raif whispered. "Juice me, Rover."
The combat assistant injected the dose. A veil lifted,
and all was crystal clear. Raif felt himself move through the passageways of the PAX facility, like a third-person dream.
The first reentry vehicle
emerged from the bay and immediately began to grow hot colliding with the spare molecules of the ionosphere. Ambient temperature
hid the conical object for the first minutes of its descent. But friction increased as the atmosphere became denser and the
object threatened to light up infrared sensors casually sweeping that portion of the sky. As its IR mask began sopping up
excess heat, providing a bubble of cool, a second re-entry vehicle emerged ten kilometers above and fifteen north along the
imaginary great circle cut by the skip-bomber. The new vehicle was superficially similar to the first, but subtly different
to reflect atmospheric conditions along its planned trajectory. In all, the bomber disgorged six objects before altering course
to begin a gentle descent toward a landing field in the Archipelago. Each of the reentry vehicles was on a rendezvous with
a different point thirty meters above the ground.
Beneath the destination of the third vehicle, Corona lingered at the bedside of Jaymond Pond. He
was unconscious in the oxygen tent, but his prognosis was good. More or less. The medics had stemmed the advance of microorganisms
in time to save his life, although the price was his left arm and several pounds of flesh in his chest plus a portion of his
left lung. Much of that could be rebuilt, Corona told herself, and prosthetics were amazingly lifelike.
Jay was to be promoted
as well, and Corona wanted him to have her old First Class patch and collar pips. She placed them on the table by his bedside,
wiped her eyes and squeezed his toe through the plastic. At that instant, ninety-five kilometers away, the high-yield fusion
weapon inside the first reentry vehicle detonated over the firebase at Bard's Hill. Ignorant of this event, Corona grabbed
her duffel and walked the corridors to the flight-line airlock. Fortunately, the only footsteps she heard were her own. She
was careful to put on her helmet before cycling through.
Dawn was a rumor. Corona's flight sat on a tarmac aglow in lamps. This
prevented her from noticing the flash on the southern horizon signifying the detonation of the second warhead over the firebase
at the now even more aptly named Crater Lake. She mounted the aft cargo ramp to get inside. The pilot of the Grackle utility
g-plane checked his watch and shook his head as he lifted off. Corona secured her duffel and removed her helmet, crinkling
her nose at that damn smell. She found a place among the bags and lockers of personal effects the scouts of Roark's Drift
were sending to the rear for safekeeping. Just in case.
The Grackle was barely four kilometers out when a radiant globe consumed
its point of origin, turning the failing night into a nightmare semblance of day.