Authors: Chris Bunch
Njangu checked his watch finger. It was just about time. All they had to do was keep on creepy-crawling, grab somebody, and pull out their toenails until he or she told them where Redruth’s quarters were, once Garvin’s attack started and gave them some cover noise. Then they could go on to finish their mission with Redruth either kidnapped or, most likely, dead.
But it didn’t quite happen that way.
The artillery preceded Garvin’s attack with a barrage that walked from the lines back to the palace, then came forward again.
, Zhukovs dived, firing missiles at any target that presented itself on any screen.
The palace grounds were worked over as thoroughly as any farmer’s plowed field, not for the first nor the tenth time.
The Larissans held in their positions, knowing that fleeing, or even coming into the open until the artillery and aerial hells stopped would be utter suicide. They waited instead for the enemy infantry to attack, dark figures walking slowly toward them through the boiling haze.
Garvin’s assault companies came out of their positions, went forward as the artillery gave the palace a final pounding, and a wave of aircraft dived in for a final strafing.
No one ever knew who fired the rocket. But it hit something delicate. A massive explosion shook the ground, and smoke boiled high, over the palace’s tallest tower. For an instant, Garvin thought someone had set off a tactical nuke. But it wasn’t that, something more conventional, perhaps a fairly small ammunition dump that’d been hit.
The ground was ripped open, revealing torn concrete that’d been laid, then concealed with meters of dirt.
The first Cumbrian to reach the smoking crater looked down, saw the shatter of a room, and an open door.
“We got a way in!” he shouted. His platoon sergeant echoed the command, and infantrymen streamed toward the hole, dropped down, and the Force was inside Protector Redruth’s command center.
• • •
Njangu and the other three heard the battle begin, opened the doors to the passage, and started down it. The sound of the artillery and bombing got louder as they got closer.
A huge explosion rocked the tunnel, sending them sprawling. Dust cascaded, and Njangu thought for a moment the passage had collapsed. They slowly picked themselves up, half-deafened, drew their blast pistols, since noise was clearly no longer a factor, and hurried on.
They heard shouts, saw two men, rather fat, technicians most likely, running toward them. The men didn’t see the infiltrators, but were looking behind them, as they were being pursued. Then they spotted the four ahead. One shrieked in panic, the other tried to draw a tiny pistol, and both were shot down.
Someone invisible in the haze beyond shot at them, and Njangu and the others ducked into an alcove, and shot back.
• • •
Protector Redruth listened to the shouting, the slam of blaster bolts exploding, grenades blasting.
“You,” he told his senior aide. “Take the rest of my Protectors and drive the Cumbrians out! Take any member of my staff you see with you.”
Calling for his men, the officer ran up stairs, boots clanging on the steel steps.
Redruth thought. Perhaps his soldiers would show their true mettle and destroy the invaders. Or perhaps not. He certainly had no intention of being taken prisoner, to be exhibited like a circus beast.
Nor did he intend to die stupidly in this hole like a rat. His destiny, and that of Larix and Kura, were inextricably entwined, and when he died, so would his empire.
He must escape, fight on.
Redruth went to a wall, pressed a hidden switch. The panel slid away, revealing a small elevator. He stepped inside, touched the top sensor.
The door closed, and the elevator hissed upward, past the Protector’s Own barracks, mess halls, past the conference rooms, past the various computer-analysis spaces, the necessary chambers of a modern army.
It stopped, and the door opened into a bare concrete passage.
From here, he was minutes from the center of the palace. His staff thought it ruined, almost abandoned, but there were other tunnels he knew of, tunnels that led to the edges of the city, to hidden hangars with lifters, a way to escape and start again.
This is only the beginning
, Redruth thought.
He heard the slam of blasters
of him, between him and the palace, between him and escape.
He was trapped.
Redruth always prided himself on being a pragmatist. If there was no other way out …
He saw a deep alcove, went into it. He took out his pistol, charged the chamber. He examined the weapon curiously, noting for the first time the fine engraving and the scrolled grips.
The weapon had only been fired once, at a range, when he’d been given it by … oh yes. By Celidon, damn his dark soul. No, twice. Yesterday, when that other fool had refused his orders.
Redruth snapped the safety off and lifted the pistol.
• • •
Njangu heard the single shot, crouched, waited for more.
Far down the passage ahead, the battle roar grew.
“Let’s see if we can’t get in on the action,” he said, and the team went forward.
Fleam saw the hand sticking out of the alcove, pointed, and they went down once more.
The hand didn’t move.
Maev got up, and went around the corner of the alcove.
Protector Alena Redruth was sprawled in a pool of blood. Either his hand had slipped, or he’d had second thoughts at the last instant, for he was still alive, moving feebly, his jaw messily blown away.
His eyes were open, filled with agony. He stared up at Maev, seemed to recognize her.
She leveled the pistol.
“You can’t do
right can you, you sorry bastard?”
She pulled the trigger once, blowing a fist-sized hole in Redruth’s chest.
Maev turned to the others.
“You sure know how to simplify life, don’t you,” was all Njangu Yoshitaro said with a shrug, not a trace of reproach in his voice.
“To tell you the truth,” Garvin said, “I didn’t think we were going to live through this one.”
Njangu thought of a wisecrack, changed his mind. “It got pretty grim out,” he agreed.
He looked at the assembled Second Regiment, waiting for the transports to land. “The Force took a pretty big hit.”
Garvin nodded. He’d heard, of the fifteen-thousand-plus in the two Brigades, about seven thousand were casualties, killed or wounded. I&R, for a known example, had fewer than sixty effectives.
“It’ll be a while, rebuilding,” he said.
“Are you sure ‘we’ want to? I mean, like you and me, not the editorial or collective-type ‘we.’ ”
“What’s the options?” Garvin asked.
“Well, I think we’ve got enough credits to buy our way out, if we want,” Njangu said. “Unless you
being the youngest
in whatever history you’re reading.”
“It’s not too bad,” Garvin said carefully.
Fitzgerald, with Angara’s approval, had confirmed Jaansma as Commanding Officer of Second Regiment. She and
Angara had, grudgingly, let Njangu leave the Brigade staff to become Garvin’s Executive Officer.
All other Regimental Commanders had been promoted
as well, the rank Angara had always considered proper for the responsibilities.
“Consider your options,” Njangu said. “Hell, you could be a rich lounger, considering Jasith’s shall we say material assets. Or you could even go to work.
probably can get hired on to be figureheads at companies, can’t they?”
Garvin thought about that, about being Garvin Mellusin. Then he thought about Darod Montagna, wondered what the hell was going to happen there, if anything, if he even wanted something to happen.
“That doesn’t sound like fun,” he said.
“I’m starting to wonder if you still know what fun is,” Njangu grumbled. “ ’Kay. Try another option. We take discharges, come back here as part of the Civil Government, trying to teach these robots how to be human beings. There ought to be a
of things worth looting. Celidon said something about having some serious goodies stashed on Kura. We could go looking for those.
“Froude’s already said he’s mounting an expedition to Kura Four, to try to find out what those goddamned Womblies really are.”
“Poor bastard,” Garvin said. “Pity he and Ho Kang …” Jaansma let his voice trail off.
“Yeh,” Njangu said. “Pity a whole bunch of things … and let’s go back to where I was, talking about illicitly enriching ourselves on the backs of these downtrodden scumbuckets. That doesn’t sound too bad. Governor-General Jaansma. Real Governor-General Behind the Arras Yoshitaro.”
Then Njangu thought of Brythe, Pyder, Enida, Karig, somewhere out there, and then of Maev. Before Garvin could say anything, Njangu said:
“Naah. That doesn’t sound like fun, either.”
Garvin nodded. He looked around the spaceport.
“If I never see frigging Larix
Kura again, that’s twice too soon,” he said firmly. “I wonder why we didn’t just nuke them and avoid all this hassle.”
“Now, now,” Njangu said. “Let’s not be the bloodthirsty uniformed barbarian we all know you to be. ‘Kay. You realize the options are getting a tad slender?”
“Njangu,” Garvin said, “aren’t you getting really curious to find out what happened to the goddamned Confederation?”
Before Yoshitaro could answer, a wave of transports came through the crowd cover, lowered toward the field.
The regiment’s senior noncom doubled toward him, snapped to attention.
“Bring the regiment to attention and turn it over to its commanders. Order them to board ship.”
Similar orders were being given to the other regiments at fields scattered around Agur.
Shouts echoed around the field, and the ground trembled as the troopships grounded.
“Well?” Garvin asked. “So what about the goddamned Confederation?”
“Come to think about it,” Njangu said, “that is a poser, isn’t it?”
He clapped his friend on the shoulder.
“Come on. Let’s get off this armpit, go home and see if some fool doesn’t want to buy us a drink.
we’ll go sort out the frigging Confederation.”
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Text Copyright © 2000 by Chris Bunch
All rights reserved.
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Names, characters, corporations, institutions, organizations, events, or locales in this novel are either the product of the author’s imagination or, if real, used fictitiously. The resemblance of any character to actual persons (living or dead) is entirely coincidental.
eISBN 10: 1-4405-5368-8
eISBN 13: 978-1-4405-5368-4