Jim Baen's Universe 1 Vol 1 Num 1: June 2006



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The Darkness


Written by David Drake
Illustrated by Rob Dumuhosky


 

"Hi, Lieutenant," someone said as he walked into Ruthven's room. "Good to see you up and around. I gotta do a few tests with you back in the bed, though."



On the electronic window, a brisk wind was scudding snow over drifts and damaged armored vehicles. Ruthven turned from it; a jab of pain blasted the world into white, buzzing fragments. It centered on his left hip, but for a few heartbeats it involved every nerve in his body.

"Your leg's still catching you?" said Drayer. He was the senior medic on this ward. "Well, it'll do that for a while, sir. But they did a great job putting you back together. It's just pain, you know? There's nothing wrong really."



Pain like this isn't nothing, thought Ruthven. If he hadn't been nauseous he might've tried to put Drayer's head through the wall; but he had no strength and anyway, there was no room for anger just now in the blurred gray confines of his mind.

He eased his weight back onto his left leg; it reacted normally, though the muscles trembled slightly. The agony of a few moments past was gone as thoroughly as if it'd happened when he was an infant, twenty-odd years earlier.

"Anyway, come lie down," Drayer said. "This won't take but a—"

Drayer noticed the window image for the first time. "Blood and Martyrs, sir!" he said. What d'ye want to look at that for? You can set these panels to show you anyplace, you know? I got the beaches on Sooner's World up on all my walls. Let me tell you, walking to my quarters across that muck is plenty view of it for me!"

Ruthven glanced back at the window, catching himself in mid-motion; his hip ignored him, the way a hip ought to do. The snow was dirty, and what appeared to be patches of mud were probably lubricating oil. The Slammers' hospital here on Pontefract shared a compound with the repair yard, a choice that probably reflected somebody's sense of humor.

"That's all right," Ruthven said, walking to the bed; monitoring devices were embedded in the frame. "I chose it deliberately."

He grinned faintly as he settled onto the mattress. The juxtaposition of wrecked personnel and wrecked equipment reflected his sense of humor too, it seemed.

Drayer knelt to fit his recorder into the footboard. "Well, if that's what you want," he said. "Me, I was hoping we'd be leaving as soon as the Colonel got transport lined up. The government found the money for another three months, though."

Drayer looked up; a sharp-featured little man, efficient and willing to grab a bedpan when the ward was short-handed. But by the Lord and Martyrs, his talent for saying exactly the wrong thing amounted to sheer genius.

"Had you heard that, sir?" Drayer said, obviously hopeful that he'd given an officer the inside dope on something. "Though I swear, I don't see where they found it. You wouldn't think this pit could raise the money to hire the Regiment for nine months."

"They're probably mortgaging the amber concession for the next twenty years," Ruthven said. He braced himself to move again.

The fat of beasts in Pontefract's ancient seas had fossilized into translucent masses which fluoresced in a thousand beautiful pastels. Ruthven didn't know why it was called amber.

"Twenty years?" Drayer sneered. "The Royalists won't last twenty days after we ship out!"

"It'll still be worth some banker's gamble at enough of a discount," Ruthven said. "And the Five Worlds may run out of money to supply the Lord's Army, after all."

He lifted his legs onto the mattress, waiting for the pain; it didn't come. It wouldn't come, he supposed, until he stopped thinking about it every time he moved . . . and then it'd grin at him as it sank its fangs in.

"Well, I don't know squat about bankers, that's the truth," Drayer said with a chuckle. "I just know I won't be sorry to leave this pit. Though—"

He bent to remove the recorder.

"—I guess they're all pits, right sir? If they was paradise, they wouldn't need the Slammers, would they?"

"I suppose some contract worlds are better than others," Ruthven said, looking at the repair yard. Base Hammer here in the lowlands seemed to get more snow than Platoon E/1 had in the hills. He'd been in for hospital three weeks, though; the weather might've changed in that length of time. "I've only been with the Regiment two years, so I'm not the one to say."

Drayer's brow furrowed as he concentrated on the bed's holographic readout. He looked up beaming and said, "Say, Lieutenant, you're so close to a hundred percent it don't signify. You oughta be up and dancing, not just looking out the window!"

"I'll put learning to dance on my list," Ruthven said, managing a smile with effort. "Right now I think I'll get some more sleep, though."

"Sure, you do that, sir," said Drayer, never quick at taking a hint. "Doc Parvati'll be in this afternoon to certify you, I'll bet. Tonight or tomorrow, just as sure as Pontefract's a pit."

He slid his recorder into its belt sheath and looked around the room once more. "Well, I got three more to check, Lieutenant, so I'll be pushing on. None of them doing as well as you, I'll tell you. Anything more I can—"

The medic's eyes lighted on the gold-bordered file folder leaning against the water pitcher on Ruthven's side table. The recruiter'd been by this morning, before Drayer came on duty.

"Blood and Martyrs, sir!" he said. "I saw Mahone in the lobby but I didn't know she'd come to see you. So you're transferring back to the Frisian Defense Forces, is that it?"

"Not exactly 'back,'" Ruthven said. He gave up the pretense of closing his eyes. "I joined the Slammers straight out of the Academy."

Sometimes he thought about ordering Drayer to get his butt out of the room, but Ruthven'd had enough conflict when he was in the field. Right now he just wanted to sleep, and he wouldn't do that if he let himself get worked up.

"Well, I be curst!" the medic said. "You're one lucky dog, sir. Here I'm going on about wanting to leave this place and you're on your way back to good booze and women you don't got to pay! Congratulations!"

"Thank you, Technician," Ruthven said. "But now I need sleep more than liquor or women or anything else. All right?"

"You bet, sir!" said Drayer said as he hustled out the door at last. "Say, wait till I tell Nichols in Supply about this!"

Ruthven closed his eyes again. Instead of going to sleep, though, his mind drifted back to the hills last month when E/1 arrived at Fire Support Base Courage.

* * *


"El-Tee?" said Sergeant Hassel, E/1's platoon sergeant but doubling as leader of First Squad from lack of noncoms. "We got something up here you maybe want to take a look at before we go belting on int' the firebase, over. "

"Platoon, hold in place," Ruthven ordered from the command car, shrinking the map layout on his display to expand the visual feed from Hassel some 500 meters ahead. The platoon went to ground, troopers rolling off their skimmers and scanning the windblown scrub through their weapons' sights.

Melisant, driving the high-sided command car today, nosed them against the bank to the right of the road and unlocked the tribarrel on the roof of the rear compartment. She used the gunnery screen at her station instead of climbing out of her hatch and taking the gun's spade grips in her hands. The screen provided better all-round visibility as well as being safer for the gunner, but many of the ex-farmers in the Regiment felt acutely uncomfortable if they had to hunch down in a box when somebody might start shooting at them.

Ruthven expanded the image by four, then thirty-two times, letting the computer boost brightness and contrast. The command car's electronics gave him clearer vision than Hassel's own, though the sergeant can't have been in any doubt about what he was seeing. It was a pretty standard offering by the Lord's Army, after all.

"Right," Ruthven said aloud. "Unit, there's three Royalists crucified upside down by the road. We'll go uphill of them. Nobody comes within a hundred meters of the bodies in case they're booby-trapped, got it? Six out."

As he spoke, his finger traced a virtual course on the display; the electronics transmitted the image to the visors of his troopers. They were veterans and didn't need their hands held—but it was the platoon leader's job, and Ruthven took his job seriously.

The Lord knew there were enough ways to get handed your head even if you stayed as careful as a diamond cutter. The Lord knew.

Instead of answering verbally, the squad leaders' icons on Ruthven's display flashed green. Seven troopers of Sergeant Rennie's Third Squad—the other two escorted the gun jeep covering the rear—were already on the high ground, guiding their skimmers through trees which'd wrapped their limbs about their boles at the onset of winter. The thin soil kept the trees apart, and the undergrowth was already gray and brittle; Heavy Weapons' jeeps, two with tribarrels and the third with a mortar, wouldn't have a problem either. The command car, though—

Well, it didn't matter that a command car's high center of gravity and poor power-to-weight ratio made it a bad choice for breaking trail in wooded hills. This wasn't a choice, it was a military necessity unless Ruthven wanted to take the chance that the bodies weren't bait. His two years' experience in the field wasn't much for the Slammers, but it'd been plenty to teach him to avoid unnecessary risks.

The victims had been tied to the crosses with their own intestines, but that was just the usual fun and games for the Lord's Army. Ruthven grinned. If he'd had a better opinion of the Royalists, he might've been able to convince himself the Regiment was Doing Good on Pontefract. Fortunately, Colonel Hammer didn't require his platoon leaders to maintain feelings of moral superiority over their enemies.

His eyes on the dots of his troopers slanting across the terrain display, Ruthven keyed his microphone and said, "Courage Command, this is Echo One-six. Come in Courage Command, over."

The combat car's display showed that the transmitter in Colonel Carrera's headquarters was one of half a dozen in Firebase Courage which were live, but nobody replied. Ruthven grimaced. He wasn't comfortable communicating with the Royalists to begin with, since any message which the Royalists could hear, the Lord's Army could overhear. It added insult to injury that the fools weren't responding.

The car bucked as the forward skirts dug into an outcrop with a skreel! of steel on stone. Ruthven expected they'd have to back and fill, but Melisant kicked her nacelles out and lifted them over the obstacle. She was driving primarily because her skimmer—now strapped to the side of the car in hopes of being able to repair it at the Royalist base—was wonky, but she was probably as good at the job as anybody in the platoon.

"Courage Command, this is Echo One-six," Ruthven repeated, keeping his voice calm but wondering if showing his irritation would help get the Royalists' attention. "Respond ASAP to arrange linkup, if you please. Over."

The car shifted back to level from its strongly nose-up attitude, though it continued to rock side to side. Ruthven had a real-time panorama at the top of his display, but he didn't bother checking it. His responsibility was the whole platoon, not the problems of weaving the car through woodland.

"Echo One-six, my colonel say, 'Who are you?'" replied a voice from the firebase. "We must know who you are, over!"

Ruthven sighed. It could've been worse. Of course, it might still get worse.

"Unit, hold in place till I sort this," he said aloud. Rennie's squad, now in the lead, must be nearly in sight of the firebase by now. "Break. Courage Command, this is Echo One-six. We're the unit sent to reinforce you. Please confirm that your troops are expecting us and won't open fire."

He hesitated three long heartbeats while deciding whether to say what was going through his mind, then said it: "Courage, we're the Slammers. If we're shot at, we'll shoot back. With everything we've got. Over."

Third Squad was in sight of the Royalists: the feed from Rennie's skimmer showed the firebase as a scar of felled trees on the hill 700 meters from him. Ruthven frowned; he was looking down into the firebase. The ridge by which E/1 had approached was a good fifty meters higher than the knoll where the Royalists had sited their guns.

"You must not shoot!" squealed a new voice from the Royalist firebase; a senior officer had apparently taken over from the radioman. "We will not shoot! You must come in and help us at once!"

Ruthven grinned faintly. "Courage, I'll give you three minutes to make sure all your bunkers get the word," he said. "We don't want any mistakes. Echo One-six out."

"Hey El-Tee?" said Sergeant Wegelin on the command push; he was crewing the tribarrel at the end of the column. "What d'ye mean, come in shooting with everything we got? We're not exactly a tank company, you know, over."

"They don't know that, Wegs," Ruthven said, smiling more broadly as he examined the real-time visuals. "And anyway, I don't think we'd need panzers to put paid to this lot, over."

Fire Support Base Courage housed four 120-mm howitzers with an infantry battalion for protection. Treetrunks had been bulldozed into a wall around the camp, but they wouldn't stop light cannon shells as effectively as an earthen berm. The Slammers' powerguns would turn the wood into a huge bonfire.

"Why in hell did they set up with this ridge above them, d'ye suppose?" asked Hassel. Though the platoon sergeant had his own line of sight to the firebase, the display indicated he was using Wegelin's higher vantage point. "We could put the guns out of action with four shots, over."

"Because I never met nobody wearing a uniform here who knows how to pour piss outa a boot, Top," said Wegelin. "Over."

"The ridge's too narrow for a battalion and the guns," said Ruthven. He was using text crawls to monitor the panicked orders flying across the firebase, but he didn't see any reason to wait in respectful silence for the Royalists to get their act in order. "They should've left a detachment—"

"Echo One-six, you must come in now," Lieutenant-Colonel Carrera said sharply. "Quickly, before the Dogs take advantage! Quick! Quick!"

"Break," said Ruthven, closing his conversation with his squad leaders. "Rennie, take your squad in. Wegelin, stay on overwatch. I'll follow Rennie, then Sellars, Wegelin, and you bring up the rear, Hassel. Six Out."

Again green blips signaled Received and Understood. Sergeant Rennie knelt on his skimmer to lead the way down and up the wooded saddle to the firebase. His troopers were lying flat with their control sticks folded down. That wasn't a good way to drive, but it made them very difficult targets in case somebody in the garrison hadn't gotten the word after all.

Rennie wasn't the brightest squad leader in the Regiment, but he was reflexively brave and never hesitated to take a personal risk to spare his troopers. They'd have followed him to Hell.

Melisant was sending power to the fans before Ruthven'd finished giving his orders, but the command car lifted awkwardly and only slowly started to wallow forward. The grace with which the troopers flitted around him made Ruthven feel like a hog surrounded by flies, but the skimmers'd run out of juice in a matter of hours without the car's fusion bottle to recharge them. He knew he was doing his proper job here inside the vehicle, though he didn't feel like he was.

The gun jeep that'd been reinforcing the lead squad didn't follow Rennie's troopers. The driver/assistant gunner waved as the combat car swept past; the jeep was hunkered down in a notch on the reverse slope that gave it a line of fire to the four howitzers and most of the interior of the firebase.

Sergeant Wegelin'd probably ordered the crew to keep under cover till he came up with the other gun and mortar. That wasn't precisely disobeying Ruthven's instructions, but it came bloody close; and Wegelin was probably right in his caution, so the El-Tee would keep his mouth shut. That was a lot of what a junior lieutenant did when he had good noncoms. . . .

The infantry moved toward the firebase through the stumps and brush in a skirmish line, but Melisant swung the car onto the road as soon as she reached the swale connecting the knolls. The track'd been cut with a bulldozer rather than properly graded, but the car's air cushion smoothed the ride nicely. The deep ruts from wheeled vehicles were frozen now and had snow on their southern edges.

Royalists cheered from the top of the wall. The soldiers were male but there were scores of women and children in the compound as well, some of them waving garments.

Ruthven grimaced, thinking of what'd happen if the Lord's Army overran the place. His job was to prevent that, but if the rebels were in the strength Intelligence thought they were—well, one platoon, even a bloody good platoon like E/1, wasn't going to be able to do the job without help that the Royalists might not be able to provide.

The firebase entrance was a simple gap in the wall, but bulldozers had scraped a pile of trunks and dirt as a screen ten meters in front of it. Semi-trailers bringing in supplies would have a hard time with the angle, but Melisant should be able to guide the combat car through without trouble.

There were three strands of barbed wire in front of the wall. That gave negligible protection against assault, but maybe it'd hearten the defenders: placebo effects were real in more areas than medicine.

Ruthven grinned. It wasn't much of a joke, but in a situation like this you took any chance for a laugh that you got.

Rennie parked his skimmer beside the entrance and hopped up the front of the wall like a baboon with a 2-cm gun; he stood facing inward. His troopers split to either side, four of them joining him on the main wall while the other two mounted the screen and looked back to cover the rest of the column.

"Melisant, ease off a bit," Ruthven said over the intercom as he opened the roof hatch. "We don't want to spook our allies, over."

"You mean they'll mess their pants, El-Tee?" Melisant said. "Yeah, we don't want that. Out."

The fan note didn't change, but the driver let gravity slow the heavy vehicle as they started up the slope toward the entrance. Ruthven thumbed the lift button and a hydraulic jack raised his seat until his head and shoulders were above the hatch coaming. This way the Royalists could see him instead of watching forty tonnes of steel and iridium growl toward them impassively.

Ruthven tried to keep his face impassive as he eyed the barrier. It was a tangle of protruding roots and branches, no harder to climb than a ladder. Defenders firing over the top from the other side would have very little advantage over an attacking force. The common soldiers carried locally made automatic rifles, but the three blockhouses spaced around the wall mounted pulsed lasers; each weapon had its own fusion bottle.

The Lord's Army wasn't any better equipped, but the Prophet Isaiah certainly did a better job of building enthusiasm in his followers than King Jorge II did. Rumor had it that Jorge and his three mistresses had left Pontefract for a safer planet several months ago . . . and this time rumor was dead right. Ruthven'd heard that from a buddy on Colonel Hammer's staff.

The command car eased through the S-bend at the base entrance. Melisant was squaring the corners, apparently to impress the locals. Ruthven looked down at them, trying to keep a friendly smile. They were impressed, all right, waving and cheering so loudly that sometimes he could hear them over the car's howling fans.



Good Lord they're young! he thought. It really was a war of children. Most of the Royalist soldiers were teenagers and so undernourished they looked barely pubescent, while the Lord's Army recruited ten year olds at gunpoint from outlying villages.

It'd go on for as long as King Jorge managed to pay the Slammers and the Five Worlds Consortium shipped arms to the Prophet. A whole generation was dying in childhood.

History was a required subject at the Academy; Ruthven had done well in it. The realities of field service had provided color for those textual accounts of revolts, rebellions, and popular movements, however. That color was blood red.

He'd expected a vehicular circuit inside the wall, but the interior of the compound was sprinkled randomly with shanties and lean-tos except for the road from the gate to a clearing in the center. The four howitzers were emplaced evenly around the open area, each in a low sandbagged ring, which again must've been built for its morale value.

"You want us up between the guns, El-Tee?" Melisant asked. "Looks like they dump the resupply there and the troops hoof it back to their billets, right? Over."

"Roger that," Ruthven said. "Break, Unit, we'll form in the central clearing while I figure out what to do next. Six out."



Blood and Martyrs! This's looking more and more like a ratfuck. Ruthven hadn't been thrilled by the assignment from the start, but until E/1 got to Firebase Courage he hadn't have guessed how bad things really were.

He'd expected the Royalist troops to be ill trained and poorly equipped—because all Royalist field units were: the defense budget never percolated far from the gaudily dressed officers in the capital, Zaragoza. He hadn't expected Fire Support Base Courage to be so ineptly constructed, though. It was a wonder that the Lord's Army hadn't rolled over the position long before.

The Headquarters complex was four aluminum trailers which'd been buried in the ground to the right of the gate. A tower in the middle of them carried satellite and short-wave antennas, making the identification obvious and coincidentally providing an aiming point to the Prophet's gunners. The Lord's Army had only small arms, but painting a big bull's-eye on your Tactical Operations Center still isn't a good plan.

An officer in a green dress uniform with gold crossbelts was coming up the steps from one of the trailers, steadying his bicorn hat. The three aides accompanying him were less gorgeously dressed; that, rather than the rank tabs on his epaulets, identified Lieutenant Colonel Carrera.

Ruthven dropped into the compartment again. As soon as Melisant brought the car to a halt, he swung the rear hatch down into a ramp and stepped out to meet the Royalist officers.

Carrera stopped where he was and braced to attention. A rabbity aide with frayed cuffs scurried to Ruthven and said, "Sir, you are the commander? My colonel asks, what is your rank?"

Ruthven frowned. Instead of answering, he walked over to Carrera and said, "Colonel? I'm Lieutenant Henry Ruthven, in command of Platoon E/1 of Hammer's Regiment. We've been sent to you as reinforcements."

"A lieutenant?" the Royalist officer said in amazement. "One platoon only? And where are the rest of your tanks? This one thing—"

He flicked his swagger stick toward the command car.

"—this is not enough, surely! We must have more tanks!"

What Major Pritchard, the Slammers Operations Officer, had actually said when he assigned Ruthven was, "to put some backbone into the garrison." It wouldn't have been polite or politic either one to have repeated the phrasing, but now Ruthven half-wished he had.

"We're infantry, Colonel," Ruthven said calmly, because it was his job—his duty—to be calm and polite. "We don't have any tanks at all, but I think you'll find we can handle things here. We've got sensors to give plenty of warning of enemy intentions. We've got our own powerguns, and we have direct communications to a battery of the Regiment's hogs."

"Oh, this is not right," Carrera said, turning and walking back toward his trailer. "My cousin promised me, promised me, tanks and there is only this tank."

"Sir?" said Ruthven. Sellars was bringing her squad in; the jeeps of Heavy Weapons followed closely. "Colonel! We need to make arrangements for the siting of my troops."

"Take care of him, Mendes," Carrera called over his shoulder. "I have been betrayed. It is out of my hands, now."

Carrera's aides had started to leave with him. A pudgy man in his forties, a captain if Ruthven had the collar insignia right, stopped and turned with a stricken look. The Royalists didn't wear name tags, but he was presumably Mendes.

"Right, Captain," Ruthven said with a breezy assertiveness that he figured was the best option. "I think under the circumstances we'll be best served by retaining my troops as a concentrated reserve here in the center of the firebase. We're highly mobile, you see. We'll place sensors around the perimeter to give us warning of attack as early as troops there could do."

That was true, but the real reason Ruthven'd decided to keep E/1 concentrated was so that his troopers could support one another. Self-preservation was starting to look like the primary goal for this operation. The Slammers'd been hired to fight and they would fight, but Hank Ruthven knew the Colonel hadn't given him troopers in order to get them killed for nothing.

All elements of E/1 were now within the compound. Hassel'd put the troopers with 2-cm shoulder weapons on the wall aiming northeast, toward the ridge they'd just come from. Both the tribarrels covered the high ground also.

The ten troopers with sub-machine guns faced in, keeping an eye on Ruthven and the babbling crowd of Royalists. They weren't threatening; just watchful. With their mirrored face-shields down they looked like Death's Little Helpers, though, and they could become that in an eye-blink if anybody gave them reason.

"We'll need the use of your digging equipment," Ruthven continued. "The bulldozer and whatever else you have; a backhoe, perhaps?"

"We have nothing," Mendes said.

Ruthven's face hardened; he gestured with his left hand toward the dug-in trailers. His right, resting on the receiver of his slung sub-machine gun, slipped down to the grip.

"They went back!" Mendes said. "They came, yes, but they went back! We have nothing here, only the guns; and no tractors to move them!"

Bloody hell, that was true! Ruthven'd assumed he wasn't getting signatures from heavy equipment during E/1's approach simply because nothing was running at the moment, but the shanties scattered within the compound would make it impossible for even a jeep to move through them.

"Right," said Ruthven. "Then I'll need a labor party from your men, Captain. We have a few power augers, but there's a great deal of work to do before nightfall. For all our sakes. However the first requirement is to garrison that knob."

He gestured toward the high ground. When Mendes didn't turn his head, Ruthven put his hand on the Royalist's shoulder and rotated him gently, then pointed again.

"It's not safe to give the enemy that vantage point," Ruthven said. To any real soldier, that'd be as obvious as saying, "Water is wet," but real soldiers were bloody thin on the ground on Pontefract.

And it seemed they all wore Slammers uniforms.

"Oh, we can't do that!" Mendes said. "That is too far away!"

"Together we can," Ruthven said. "I'll put a squad there, and you'll supply a platoon. We'll rotate the troops every day. Dug in and with fire support from here, they'll be an anvil that we can smash the rebels on if they try anything."

"Oh," said Mendes. "Oh. Oh."

He wasn't agreeing—or disagreeing, so far as Ruthven could tell. He sounded like a man gasping for breath.

"Right!" Ruthven said cheerfully, clapping the Royalist on the shoulder. "Now, let's get to your ops room and set up the assignments, shall we?"

He'd put Rennie's squad on the ridge the first night, though he might also take Sellars' up for the afternoon also to get the position cleared. He could only hope that the Royalists would work well under Slammers' direction; that happened often enough on this sort of planet.

"Top?" Ruthven said to Hassel over the command push as he walked Mendes toward the trailers. He'd cut the whole platoon in on the discussion through the intercom, though he was blocking incoming messages unless they were red-tagged. "Take charge here while I get things sorted with our allies."

He paused. Because Mendes could theoretically hear him—in fact the Royalist officer appeared to be in shock—Ruthven chose the next words carefully: "And Top? I know what you're thinking because I'm thinking the same thing. But this is going to work if there's any way in hell I can make it work. Six out."

* * *


"Good morning, Hank," a professionally cheerful voice said. "Oh! Were you napping? I didn't mean to wake you up."

"Just thinking, Lisa," Ruthven said, opening his eyes and smiling at Lisa Mahone, the Frisian recruiting officer. Apologetically he added, "I, ah . . . I haven't gotten around to the papers, yet."

He thought he saw Mahone's eyes harden, but she sat down on the side of his bed and patted his right leg in a display of apparent affection. She said, "Well, I've used the time to your advantage, Hank. I told you I hoped I'd be able to get Personnel to grant you a two-step promotion? They've agreed to it! I'm authorized to change the recruitment agreement right now."

She leaned forward to take the folder from the side table, her hip brushing Ruthven's thigh. "How does that sound, Captain Ruthven?"

"It's hard to express, Lisa," Ruthven said, forcing a smile to make the words sound positive. He slitted his eyes so that they'd appear closed. In truth he didn't know what he thought about the business; it seemed to be happening to somebody else. Maybe it was drugs still in his system, though Drayer'd sworn that they'd tapered his dosage down to zero thirty-six hours ago.

Ruthven watched silently as Mahone amended the recruitment agreement in a firm, clear hand. She was an attractive woman with dark, shoulder-length hair and a perfect complexion. Her pants suit was severely tailored, but the shirt beneath her pale green jacket was frilled and had a deep neckline.

The gold-bordered folder not only acted as a hard backing for Mahone's stylus, it recorded the handwritten changes and transmitted them to the hospital's data bank. There they became part of the Regimental files, to be downloaded or transmitted by any authorized personnel.

Mahone wasn't as young as Ruthven'd thought when she approached him three days earlier, though. Perhaps the drugs really had worn off.

"I have to admit that I didn't have to do much convincing," she said in the same bright voice as she appeared to read the document in front of her. "My superiors were just as impressed by your record as I am. Very few graduates in the top ten percent of their class join mercenary units straight out of the Academy."

"I wanted to be a soldier," Ruthven said. This time his wry smile was real, but it was directed at his naive former self. "I thought I ought to learn what being a soldier was really about. I wanted to see the elephant, if you know the term."

"Seeing the elephant," had been used by soldiers as a euphemism for battle from a very long time back. It might even be as old as "buying the farm," as a euphemism for death.

"And you certainly did," Mahone said. "Your combat experience is a big plus."

She met his eyes with every appearance of candor and said, "The Frisian Defense Forces haven't fought a serious war since the Melpomene Emergency fifteen years ago. You knew that: that's why you enlisted in Hammer's Regiment when you wanted to see action. I know it too, and most importantly, the General Staff in Burcana knows it. The Defense Forces are willing to pay very well for the experience that our troops haven't gotten directly."

Mahone smiled like a porcelain doll, smooth and perfect, and held the folder out to Ruthven. "You bought that experience dearly, Captain," she said. "Now's the time to cash in on your investment."

Ruthven winced. It was a tiny movement, but Mahone caught it.

"Hank?" she said, lowering the folder while keeping it still within reach. She stroked Ruthven's thigh again and said, "Is it your leg?"

"Yeah," Ruthven lied. "Look, Lisa—can you come back later? I want to, ah, stand up and walk around a bit, if that's all right. By myself."

"Of course, Hank," Mahone said, smiling sympathetically. "I'll leave these here and come by this evening. If you like you can just sign them and I'll pick them up without bothering you if you're asleep."

Mahone set the folder upright on the table, between the pitcher and water glass. Straightening she glanced, apparently by coincidence, at the electronic window.

"Thank the Lord you don't have to go back to that, right?" she said. She smiled and swept gracefully out of the room.

Ruthven continued to lie on the bed for nearly a minute after the latch clicked. Then he got up slowly and walked to the window. He'd been thinking of Sergeant Rennie. That, not his leg, had made him wince.

They'd met on Atchafalaya. It'd been Ruthven's first day in the field, and it was Trooper Rennie then. . . .

* * *

"Here you go, chief," said the driver of the jeep that'd brought Ruthven from E Company headquarters. "Last stop this run."



It was raining and well after local midnight. This sector was under blackout conditions; water running down the inside of Ruthven's face-shield blurred his light-enhanced vision and dripped on the tip of his nose. It was cold, colder than he'd dreamed it got on Atchafalaya, and he was more alone than he'd ever before felt in his life.

"Sir, you gotta get out," the driver said more forcefully. "I need t' get back to Captain Dolgosh."

Besides the jeep's idling fans, the only sound in the forest was rain dripping into the puddles beneath the trees. Air-plants hung in sheets from high branches, twisting and shimmering in the downpour. Ruthven couldn't see anything human in the landscape.

"Where do I . . . ?" he said.

Two figures came out of the blurred darkness. "Hold here, Adkins," one of them said. "I'll be going back with you. It won't be long."

"If you say so, El-Tee," the driver said. In bright contrast to his resigned agreement he added, "Hey, it's captain now, right? That was sure good news, sir. Nobody deserved it more!"

"Lieutenant Ruthven?" the newcomer continued brusquely, ignoring the congratulations. He was built like a fireplug and his voice rasped. "I'm Lyauty; you're taking E/1 over from me. I thought I'd stick around long enough to introduce you to your squad leaders."

"Ah, thank you very much, Captain," Ruthven said. He'd heard the man he was replacing'd been promoted to the command of Company K. That'd worried him because it meant Lyauty must be a good officer. How am I going to measure up?

The trooper who'd accompanied Lyauty was looking in the direction they'd come from, watching their backtrail. He had his right hand on the grip of his 2-cm weapon; the stubby iridium barrel was cradled in the crook of his left elbow. He hadn't spoken.

"This your gear?" Lyauty said, reaching into the back of the jeep before Ruthven could forestall him. I thought the trooper would carry the duffle bag. "Via, Lieutenant! Is this all yours? We're in forward positions here!"

"I, ah," Ruthven said. "Well, clean uniforms, mostly. And, ah, some food items. And the assigned equipment, of course."

The driver snickered. "He's got his own auger, sir," he said.

"Right," said Lyauty in sudden harshness. "And you let him bring it. Well, Adkins, for that you can haul his bag over to the car. I've got Sellars on commo watch. The two of you sort it out. Leave him a proper field kit and I'll take the rest back to Regiment with me to store."

"Sorry, sir," the driver muttered. "I shoulda said something."

"Come along, Ruthven," Lyauty said. "Sorry about the trail, but you'll get used to it. Say, this is Trooper Rennie. I've got him assigned as my runner. You can make your own choice, of course, but I'd recommend you spend a few days getting the feel of the platoon before you start making changes."

The trooper leading them into the forest turned his head; in greeting, Ruthven supposed, but the fellow didn't raise his face-shield. He was as featureless as a billiard ball.

Ruthven turned his head toward Lyauty behind him. "A power auger is assigned equipment, sir," he said in an undertone.

"Right," said the captain. "We've got three of them in the platoon. A bloody useful piece of kit, but not as useful as extra rations and ammo if things go wrong. The brass at Regiment can afford to count on resupply because it's not their ass swinging in the breeze if the truck doesn't make it forward. Here in the field we pretty much go by our own priorities."

The trail zigzagged steeply upward; Rennie in the lead was using his left hand to pull himself over the worst spots, holding his 2-cm weapon like a huge pistol. Ruthven's sub-machine gun was strapped firmly across his chest, leaving both hands free. Even so he stumbled repeatedly and once clanged flat on the wet rock.

"It's not much farther, Lieutenant," Lyauty said. "Another hundred meters up is all."

"I thought—" Ruthven said. He slipped and caught himself on all fours. As he started to get up, the toe of his left boot skidded back and slammed him down again. The sub-machine gun pounded against his body armor.

"I thought your headquarters would be the command vehicle," he said in a rush, trying to ignore the pain of his bruised ribs.

"We couldn't get the car to the top of this cone," Lyauty said. "I've been leaving it below with three troopers, rotating them every night when the rations come up."

"The jeeps couldn't climb above that last switchback," said Trooper Rennie. "We had to hump the tribarrels from there, and that's hell's own job."

There was a tearing hiss above. Ruthven jerked his head up. The foliage was sparse on this steep slope, so he was able to catch a glimpse of a green ball streaking across the sky from the west.

"Is that a rocket?" said Ruthven. Then, "That was a rocket!"

"It wasn't aimed at us, Lieutenant," Lyauty said wearily. "Anyway, our bunkers're on the reverse slope, though we've got fighting positions forward too if we need them."

"I just thought . . ." Ruthven said. "I thought we, ah . . . I thought that incoming artillery was destroyed in the air."

"They can't hit anything with bombardment rockets," Lyauty said. "Anyway, they can't hit us. To use the tribarrel in the command car for air defense, we'd have to shift it into a clearing. That'd make it a target."

"We're infantry, Lieutenant," Rennie said over his shoulder. "If you want to call attention to yourself, you ought to've put in for tanks."

Ruthven opened his mouth to dress the trooper down for insolence. He closed it again, having decided it was Lyauty's job properly since he hadn't formally handed over command of the platoon.

"We can hit hard when we need to, Lieutenant," Lyauty said. "But until then, yeah—keeping a low profile is a good plan."

"Who you got with you, Rennie?" a voice called from the darkness above them.

Ruthven looked up. He couldn't see anybody, just an outcrop over which a gnarled tree managed to grow. His torso beneath the clamshell body armor was sweating profusely, but his hands were numb from gripping wet rocks and branches.

"Six's come up, Hassel," Rennie said. "And we got the new El-Tee along."

"Sir?" said a man kneeling beside the outcrop. "Come on up but keep low. If you stand here, the Wops get your head in silhouette. I'm Hassel, First Squad."

"It's Hassel's bunker, properly," Lyauty said. "I asked the other squad leaders to come here tonight so I can introduce you."

Another man stepped into the night; this time Ruthven saw his arm sweep back the curtain of light-diffusing fabric hanging over a hole in the side of the hillside. "This the new El-Tee?" he said.

"Right, Wegs," said Lyauty. "His name's Ruthven. Lieutenant, Sergeant Wegelin's your heavy weapons squad leader. Come on, let's get under cover."

"Yessir, two tribarrels and two mortars instead of three of each," said Wegelin as he held the curtain for Hassel, then Ruthven after a directive jab from Lyauty's knuckles. "And if you think that's bad, then we only got three working jeeps. It don't matter here since we offloaded the guns, but we'll be screwed good if they expect us to displace on our own."

Ruthven hit his head—his helmet, but it still staggered him—on the transom, then missed the two steps down. He'd have fallen on his face if the tall man waiting—he had to hunch to clear the ceiling—hadn't caught him.

"Have you heard something about us displacing, Wegs?" the man said, stepping back when he was sure Ruthven had his feet. "Because I haven't. Talk about getting the shaft! E/1 sure has this time."

"Troops, this is Lieutenant Ruthven who's taking over from me," Lyauty said. "Lieutenant, that's van Ronk, your platoon sergeant, Axbird who's got Second Squad—"

"How-do, Lieutenant," said a short woman who at first seemed plump. When she lifted her rain cape to pour a cup of cacao from the pot bubbling on a ledge cut into the side of the bunker, Ruthven realized she was wearing at least three bandoliers laden with equipment and ammunition.

"And that's Purchas there on watch," Lyauty said, nodding to the man in the southeast corner. "He's Third Squad."

Purchas was on an ammo box, using a holographic display which rested on a similar box against the bunker wall. He didn't turn around.

"We pipe the sensors through optical fibers," Lyauty explained, gesturing to the skein of filaments entering the bunker by a hole in the roof. Rain dripped through also, pooling on the floor of gritty mud. "Below the ridgeline there's a microwave cone aimed back at the command car. We need the car for the link to Central, but other than that we're on our own here."

Everybody'd raised their face-shields; Ruthven raised his too, though the bunker's only illumination was that scatter from the sensor display. My eyes'll adapt. Won't they?

"If you're wondering, there isn't a separate command bunker," Lyauty said. "You can change that if you want, but I feel like moving to a different squad each night keeps me in the loop better."

Everybody was looking at Ruthven. Well, everybody but Purchas. They expected him to say something.

Ruthven's lips were sticking together. "I . . . " he said. "Ah, I see."

"Well, I'll leave you to it, then," Lyauty said. "This is as good a platoon as there is in the Slammers, Ruthven. You're a lucky man."

He turned toward the curtained entrance. "Ah, excuse me, sir," Ruthven said. How do I address the man? Oh Lord, oh Lord! "Ah, my sleeping bag is with my other gear. Ah, in the jeep."

"No sweat, Lieutenant," said Trooper Rennie, pointing to the bag roughly folded on a wall niche. The outside was of resistant fabric; beneath were layers of microinsulation and a soft lining. This cover was torn, and from what Ruthven could see, the lining was as muddy as the floor. "There's an extra in each of the squad bunkers. You and me won't both be sleeping at the same time."

Lyauty cleared his throat. "Well," he said, "keep your heads down, troopers. I'll be thinking about you, believe me."

He muttered something else as he stepped back into the rain. Ruthven thought he heard, "I've got half a mind—" but it might not have been that.

The bunker was cold and it stank. Sweat and rain water were cooling between Ruthven's skin and his body armor, and he was sure he'd chafed blisters over his hipbones. Another rocket screamed through the sky; this time it hit close enough to shake dirt from the bunker ceiling.

Ruthven looked at his new subordinates. Their expressions were watchful, hostile, and in the case of Purchas completely dismissive.

He wished he were back on Nieuw Friesland. He wished he were anyplace else but here.

Lieutenant Henry Ruthven wished he were dead.

* * *

There was a knock on a door down the corridor. "El-Tee, is that you?" somebody called. Ruthven, his face blanking, stepped quickly around the bed to get to the door.



Muffled words answered unintelligibly. "Sorry," said the familiar voice. "I'm looking for Lieutenant Ruthven and—"

"Axbird, is that you?" Ruthven said, stepping into the corridor. "Via, Sergeant, I thought you'd already shipped out! Come on in—I've got a bottle of something you'll like."

"Don't mind if I do, El-Tee," Axbird said. "Tell the truth, there isn't a hell of a lot I don't like, so long as it comes out of a bottle. Or a can—I'm democratic that way."

E/1's former platoon sergeant had gained weight—a lot of weight—since her injury, though that hadn't been but—well, it'd been four months. Longer than Ruthven would've guessed without thinking about it. But still, a lot of weight.

The skin of her face was as smooth as burnished metal. Her eyes had the milky look of a molting snake's, and she had an egg-shaped device clipped above each ear.

Ruthven backed into his room and rotated the chair for Axbird, primarily to call it to her attention. A buzzbomb had hit the side of the command car while she was inside with her face-shield raised. The jet from the warhead's shaped charge had missed her—had missed everything, in fact; patched, the car was still in service with E/1—but it'd vaporized iridium from the opposite bulkhead. That glowing cloud had bathed her face.

Axbird entered with the careful deliberation of a robot. She wasn't using a cane, but she held her hands out at waist height as though preparing to catch herself. When she reached the chair, she put one hand on the back and tapped the device above her right ear. "How do you like them, El-Tee?" she said with a plastic smile. "I always wanted to have black eyes. Didn't say they shouldn't be lidar transceivers, though. That's what you get for not specifying, hey?"

"You're getting around very well, Axbird," Ruthven lied. He squatted to rummage in the cabinet under his side table. There was only one glass, and the brandy was too good to pour into the plastic tumbler by the water pitcher.

"I'm still getting used to them," Axbird said. "Dialing 'em in, you know? They say I'll get so I can tell the numbers, but right now I'm counting doorways."

"There's a linen closet in the middle of the corridor," Ruthven said apologetically. He offered her the glass, wondering if she could see his expression. Probably not; probably never again.

Axbird drank the brandy without lowering the glass from her lips. "Via, I needed that," she muttered, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. She forced another grin and said, "How are you doing, sir? I heard you guys really got it in the neck."

"It was bad enough," Ruthven agreed carefully. He'd hesitated a moment, but he took the glass and refilled it for her. "Thank the Lord for Fire Central."

"You can't trust wogs," Axbird said. Her voice rose. "We might as well kill 'em all. Every fucking one of 'em!"

"There's better local forces and worse ones, Sergeant," Ruthven said with deliberate formality. "I'd say the Royalists here were pretty middling. They'd do well enough if they got any support from their own government."

"Yeah, I suppose," Axbird said. She was trembling; she held the glass in both hands to keep from spilling. "You trust your buddies and screw the rest, every one of 'em."

A rebel sapper had gotten close enough to nail the command car with a buzzbomb because the Royalists holding that section of the perimeter had all been asleep. The car's Automatic Defense System hadn't been live within the compound; it wouldn't have been safe with so many friendlies running around.

"Sorry, El-Tee," Axbird said. She seemed to have gotten control of herself again. "Yeah, remember on Diderot where our so-called allies were trying to earn the bounties the Chartists were offering on a Slammer's head?"

"Umm, that was before my time, Axbird," Ruthven said, sitting on his bed. He held the brandy bottle but he didn't think a drink would help him right now. "I joined on Atchafalaya, remember."

"Oh, right," said Axbird. She drank, guiding the glass to her lips with both hands. "Right, Diderot was back when I was a trooper."

For a moment she was silent, her cloudy eyes staring into space. Ruthven wondered if he should say something—and wondered what he could say—but Axbird resumed, "They got a great spot lined up for me, El-Tee. The Colonel did, I mean: a condo right on the beach on San Carlos. It's on Mainland because, well—until I get these dialed in better, you know."

Her right hand gestured toward the lidar earpiece, then quickly closed again on her empty glass.

"And for maintenance at first, I don't want to be out on my own island," she continued in a tone of birdlike perkiness. "But I can be. I can buy my own bloody island, El-Tee, I'm on full pay for the rest of my life! That'll run to a lotta brandy, don't you know?"

"Here, I'll fill that," Ruthven said, leaning forward with the bottle. He took the glass in his own hand before he started to pour. "Are you from San Carlos originally, then?"

"Naw," Axbird said. "I'm from Camside, sir. Haven't been back since I enlisted, though, twelve years."

She stared off into space. Her eyes moved normally; Ruthven wondered how much sight remained to them. Probably no more than being able to tell light from dark, though that'd be some help when she was on her own.

"I thought of going back, you know?" she said. "My pension'd make me a big deal on Camside, leastways unless things've changed a bloody great lot since I shipped out. But I thought, who do I know there? There's nobody, nobody ever who'd understand what it means to be a Slammer. What do I care about them?"

Axbird drank convulsively, dribbling brandy from the corners of her mouth. She started to lower the glass and instead dropped it. It bounced once, then shattered.

"Oh Lord, sir!" she said, her voice rising into a wail. She lurched to her feet. Tears were streaming from beneath the lids of her ruined eyes. "What do I care about wogs, on Camside or any bloody place?"

She was wearing hospital slippers. Ruthven got up quickly and gripped her shoulder to keep her from stepping in the glass she probably couldn't see. Axbird threw her arms around him.

"Oh, Lord, El-Tee!" she said. "There's nobody who'll understand! There'll never be anybody!"

Ruthven held the sobbing woman. His eyes were closed. He was remembering E/1's second and last night in Fire Support Base Courage. Nobody'll ever understand.

* * *


"El-Tee!" said Rennie in a hoarse whisper. "Sir, wake up. The bastards're bugging out!"

Ruthven jerked upright. He'd been sleeping in the rear compartment of the command car while Rennie sat at the console with the sensor readouts and commo gear. The squad leaders each took a two-hour watch, debriefing Ruthven when they were relieved or if anything significant appeared.

As it'd done, apparently.

Melisant'd been sleeping on top of the cab; her boots clunked against armor as she slid down behind the controls. The tone of Rennie's voice through the open hatch had snapped her awake, so she was heading for her action station like the good trooper she was.

Rennie had the sensor display filling most of the holographic screen; commo was a narrow sidebar, unimportant for the time being. People—hundreds of people—were clustered at the firebase entrance. They were leaving on foot, heading eastward along the road. From the south, west, and north other groups of people were approaching.

Those coming toward the base were rebels of the Lord's Army, armed to the teeth. Judging from the lack of metal for the magnetic sensors to pick up, the Royalists had left their weapons behind.

"Them wogs're just walking outa the base!" Rennie said. "They musta been talking to the rebs, don't you guess?"

"More to the point, they're walking out on us," Ruthven muttered. "Rouse the platoon—but quiet, don't let the locals know we've tumbled to what's going on."

He uncaged and pressed the panic button that automatically copied all platoon communications to Base Hammer, through the satellite net if it was up or by bouncing off cosmic ray tracks if it wasn't. It was faster than making a separate transmission to Regiment, and there was bloody little time. The rebels'd be climbing over the wall in a few minutes, and when that happened it'd all be over for E/1.

Ruthven raised the platform to put his head and shoulders through the roof hatch. Using his helmet's thermal imaging, he could see that the howitzer crews were gone too. The guns hadn't been disabled: explosions or the roar of thermite grenades would've warned the Slammers. In all likelihood, the Lord's Army had offered the Royalists their lives, in exchange for all their arms and for the Slammers who'd been sent as reinforcements.

It was at best an open question as to whether the rebels intended to honor their bargain. They'd left the road clear for half a klick from the firebase entrance, but the figures concealed in the brush there to either side looked to Ruthven like a kill zone placed far enough out that the victims couldn't run back to safety.

On the other hand, the Royalists hadn't exactly delivered Platoon E/1 into the Prophet's hands either.

"Unit, listen up," Ruthven said. The troopers in the firebase were gathered close enough that his helmet intercom reached them unaided, but the command car's powerful transceivers were relaying the signal to Sergeant Sellars' squad on the knoll to the northeast. "We can't hold this place, it's too big, but we can break out and join Second Squad. All together in a tight perimeter we can hold till help comes."

Via, what was the closest friendly unit? Maybe G Troop's combat cars, based with a Regimental howitzer battery at Firebase Groening? But that was forty klicks away, and it wouldn't be safe for them to come direct by the road.

"I'm taking the car out by the entrance," he continued aloud. "We can't get over the wall or through it. Wegelin, your jeeps follow me."

Maybe a tank could push a hole in the tangle of treetrunks, but a command car couldn't and overloaded jeeps certainly couldn't. Nor did they have enough excess power to climb the irregular surface.

"The rest of you lift over the wall in the zero to forty-five degree quadrant," Ruthven said. That'd spread the troopers enough that they wouldn't get in each other's way while awkwardly jumping the trees. "The skimmers can do it if you're careful. I'll call a fire mission on the rebs coming from the north. When it lands, that's our signal to roll. Any questions?"

"El-Tee, I was a redleg on Andersholz before I joined the Regiment," said Wegelin. "I can fire them one-twenties. The wogs keep 'em loaded but powered down, you see."

Ruthven tried to make sense of what Wegelin had just said. He hadn't known the Heavy Weapons sergeant had been an artilleryman, but he didn't see what difference it made now. They could startle the rebs and cause casualties by firing the Royalist guns in their faces as they climbed the wall, but it sure wouldn't drive them away.

"What I mean, sir," Wegelin continued, "is a charger of five HE rounds'll give us a hole any bloody place you want to go through the wall. Not at the gate where they'll be expecting us, I mean, over."

"Can you manage that in two minutes, over?" Ruthven said as he dropped into the van's interior. Rennie'd vacated the console and was on his way out of the compartment, returning to his squad.

Ruthven checked the display. Rennie'd prepped fire missions on each of the four rebel concentrations; three moved as the company-sized groups advanced on the firebase.

"We're on our way, out," the sergeant responded. As he spoke, icons on Ruthven's display showed the jeeps sprinting to the northernmost howitzer; the sound of their fans burred faintly through the open hatches. The big gun wasn't far from where Wegelin's squad was to begin with, but he obviously wanted them all to be able to jump into the jeeps as soon as they'd set up the burst.

"Unit," Ruthven said. He placed his right index finger on the terrain map image of the firebase wall, exporting the image to all his troopers. "Adjust the previous order. The car and jeeps will be leaving the firebase here. I don't know what the shells are going to do—"

One possibility was that they'd blast the existing tangle into something worse, so that the skimmers couldn't get over or through either one. It was still the best choice on offer.

"—and if you want to follow me through what I hope'll be a gap, that's fine. But don't get in the way, troopers, this car's a pig. We're going to be a full honk, and we won't be able to dodge. Questions, over?"

Nobody spoke, but three green icons blipped onto the top of the display. Via, they're pros, they're the best platoon in the bloody regiment, they really are. . . .

"Six, we got the tube ready!" Sergeant Wegelin said as his icon lit also. "Five rounds, HE, and I've programmed her to traverse right fifteen mils at each round. We're ready, over!"

The Royalist howitzers had their own power supplies to adjust elevation and traverse; they could even crawl across terrain by themselves, though very slowly. The northern weapon was now live, a bright image on Ruthven's display and a whine through the hatch as its pumps pressurized the hydraulic system.

"Fire Central, this is Echo One-Six," Ruthven said, calling the Regiment's artillery controller but distributing the exchange to his troopers on an output-only channel. "Request Fire Order One—"

Targeting the rebels approaching from the northeast. They were coming uphill by now. That plus the stumps and broken rocks of the roughly cleared terrain had slowed them.

"—HE, repeat HE only, we're too close for firecracker rounds, time of impact fifty-five, repeat five-five seconds from—"

His index finger tapped a marker into the transmission.

"—now, over."

"Roger, Echo One-Six," replied a voice barely identifiable as female through the tight compression. She was so calm she sounded bored. Then, "On the way, out."

"Echo One-Four-Six," Ruthven said. I probably sound bored, too. "This is Six. Take the wall down in three-five, I repeat three-five, seconds. Break. Unit, wait for our Hogs, don't get hasty. Then its time to kick ass, troopers, out!"

 

The command car's fans were howling. The vehicle slid forward; forty tonnes accelerates slowly, so Melisant was getting an early start. They'll hear us, but screw 'em. They'll hear more than our fans real soon.



Ruthven started to close the back ramp but Melisant had already taken care of that. He went up through the roof hatch and took the tribarrel's grips in his hands.

There were a lot of reasons to stay down in the body. Communications with E/1 and Central were better inside; he could operate the gun just as well from the console and had a better display than his visor gave him; and the vehicle's armor, though light, might save him from shrapnel or a bullet that'd otherwise rob the platoon of its commander. There wasn't a trooper in E/1 who'd think their El-Tee was a coward if he stayed in the compartment.

But Ruthven himself'd worry that he was a coward in the dark silences before dawn, especially if he survived and some of his troopers didn't. And somebody was going to die. That was as sure as sunrise, even if E/1 got luckier than any veteran expected.

The long-barreled 120-mm howitzer belched a bottle-shaped yellow flash toward the perimeter wall; companion flares spewed out and back from both sides through the muzzle brake's baffles. The tube recoiled and the blast slapped Ruthven. The commo helmet's active sound cancellation saved his hearing, but the shockwave pushed him against the hatch ring. Even at this distance, unburned powder grains speckled his throat and bare hands.

The wall erupted, leaking the shell-burst's red flash through the treetrunks it blew apart. Royalist shanties flattened, flung outward in a cone spreading from the howitzer. A huge dust cloud rose from the shock-pummeled compound.

The command car hit the ground, plowing a track through the hard soil. The steel skirt rang, scattering sparks when it hit embedded stones as the vehicle bucked and pitched.

Either the shockwave had startled Melisant into chopping her throttles, or she'd realized it'd be a disaster to get in front of the howitzer while it was still firing. The Regiment used rocket howitzers rather than tube artillery. She probably hadn't expected the muzzle blast of a long-range gun to be so punishing.

Ruthven hadn't expected it either. Being told something by an Academy lecturer wasn't the same as being hit by what felt like a hundred-kilo sandbag in the field.

The howitzer returned to battery and slammed again, then again, again, and again. The interval between shots was less than two seconds. The last shell screamed toward the northwest horizon as the gun fell over on its side. Rapid fire at zero elevation had lifted the recoil spades at the end of the gun's trail.

Between the third round and the fourth, the salvo from the Hogs at Firebase Groening burst outside the encampment as a white glare which silhouetted the flying treetrunks. Central'd fused the shells to go off just above the surface instead of burying themselves before exploding.

Fragments of casing screeched across the hillside in an interlocking web more deadly than any spider's. A large chunk—maybe the baseplate of a Royalist shell—howled through Firebase Courage in a flat red streak. It didn't miss the command car by much, but it missed. . . .

"Go!" Ruthven shouted. "Go! Go! Go!"

The car was accelerating again. After Melisant'd gotten them stopped the first time, she'd gimbaled the nacelles vertical and kept the fans at maximum output. They'd been hovering at ten centimeters on a pillow of air, not exactly flying—the vehicle remained in ground effect—but shuddering to every shockwave.

The elevation, though slight, gave the car a gravity boost when Melisant shoved the steering yoke forward. They gathered speed quickly despite ticks and bounces from debris scattered across the interior of the firebase. Flames spurted beneath the plenum chamber when they crossed the former perimeter; the 120-mm shells had started small fires in the wood, and the drive fans whipped them into hungry enthusiasm.

There were some larger chunks for them to kick aside, but the trees no longer formed an interlocked mass that could resist a forty-tonne battering ram. Showers of sparks and blazing torches flew ahead of the skirts. Then the car was through and heading down the slope into what remained of a company of the Lord's Army.

Ruthven snapped a short burst at what looked in his visor's thermal image like a rebel kneeling only twenty meters away. The car skidded enough to throw his bolts wide, but before he could correct he realized that he was shooting at a legless, headless torso impaled on a sapling.

Cyan bolts snapped through the night, igniting the brush. Nobody could aim accurately from a skimmer at speed, but in the corner of his eye Ruthven saw a secondary explosion. A trooper'd gotten lucky, hitting a rebel's buzzbomb and detonating the warhead.

Red tracers and muzzle flashes danced in the darkness also, but most of the rebels firing were in the companies to the south and east. The party on which the Hogs had unloaded were largely silent, dead or stunned by the 20-cm shells. One rebel opened up from a gully to E/1's left front, but at least a dozen powerguns replied to the chattering rifle. Either somebody hit the reb, or he decided that huddling out of sight was a better idea than martyrdom for the Prophet after all; at any rate, the shooting stopped.

The command car reached the ground slope rising toward Second Squad. The brush and canes hadn't been cleared here; they averaged maybe two meters high, and there were occasional much taller trees.

Melisant kept moving, but she had to slow to 20 kph. They'd drawn well ahead of the jeeps and skimmers on the downhill run, but now the smaller vehicles were able to slip between clumps which the car had to fight through.

For a wonder, Sergeant Sellars was keeping her Royalists from shooting down at Ruthven's force. Maybe Second Squad was holding the locals at gunpoint to enforce fire discipline . . . and then again, maybe that detached platoon'd bugged out when the shooting started. Either way, Ruthven was going to put Sellars in for both a medal and a promotion when this was over.

If I'm around to make the recommendation. If she's around to get it.

Badly aimed rifle fire had been zipping overhead since the beginning of the breakout, but now a machine gun on a fixed mount cut branches nearby. Ruthven rotated his tribarrel to the right. Bullets whanged off the car's high side. The machine gunner was part of the unit that'd been waiting down the road for the Royalist garrison. He was bloody good to hit a moving target at 600 meters, even with the advantage of a tripod.

Ruthven fired a short burst. His tribarrel was stabilized, but the lurching car threw him around violently even though the weapon held its point of aim. His bolts vanished into the night, leaving only faintly glowing tracks on their way toward interplanetary vacuum.

Ruthven took a deep breath, letting the car bump into a small depression. When they started up the other side, into a belt of canes trailing hair-fine filaments, he fired. This time his shots merged with the muzzle flashes of the rebel machine gun. Plasma licked a white flare of burning steel.



Got you, you bastard! Ruthven thought. Three rebels with buzzbombs rose out of the swale ten meters ahead of the car.

Ruthven swung the tribarrel back toward the new targets. The rebels to left and right fired: glowing gas spurted from the back of the launching tubes, and the bulbous missiles streaked toward the vehicle behind quick red sparks.

The car's automatic defense system banged twice, blasting tungsten pellets from the strips just above the skirts. They shredded the buzzbombs in the air, killing one of the rebels who happened to be in the way of the remainder of the charge.

Ruthven shot before his gun was on target, hoping his blue-green bolts chewing the landscape would startle the rebels. The remaining rebel fired. Because the car's bow was canted upward, the third buzzbomb approached from too low to trip the ADS. The warhead burst against the skirts, punching a white-hot spear through the plenum chamber and up into the driver's compartment.

Several lift fans shut off; pressurized air from the remaining nacelles roared through the hole blown in the steel. The car grounded, rocked forward in a near somersault, and slammed to rest on its skirts.

The first impact smashed Ruthven's thighs against the hatch coaming; pain was a sun-white blur filling his mind. When the car's bow lifted, it tossed him onto the bales of rations and personal gear in the roof rack. Ruthven was only vaguely aware of the final shock hurling him off the crippled vehicle.

He opened his eyes. He was on his back with the landscape shimmering in and out of focus. He must've been unconscious, but he didn't know how long. The car was downslope from him. One of its fans continued to scream, but the others were silent. Black smoke boiled out of the driver's compartment.

He tried to stand up but his legs didn't move. Have they been blown off? They couldn't be, I'd have bled out. He'd lost his helmet, so the visor no longer protected his eyes from the sky-searing bolts of plasma being fired from the knoll above him. The afterimages of each track wobbled from orange to purple and back across his retinas.

Ruthven rolled over, still dazed. Pain yawned in a gaping cavern centered on his right leg. He must've screamed but he couldn't hear the sound. When the jolt from the injured leg sucked inward and vanished, his throat felt raw.

"It's the El-Tee!" somebody cried. "Cover me, I'm going to get him."

Another buzzbomb detonated with a hollow Whoomp! on the right side of the command car. Momentarily, a pearly bubble swelled bigger than the vehicle itself. The jet penetrated the thin armor, crossed the compartment, and sprayed out the left side.

Ruthven started crawling, pushing himself with his left foot and dragging his right as though the leg were tied to his hip with a rope. He couldn't feel it now except as a dull throbbing somewhere.

He wasn't trying to get to safety: he knew his safest course would be to lie silently in a dip, hoping to go unobserved or pass for dead. He wasn't thinking clearly, but his troopers were on the knoll so that's where he was going.

A rebel ran out from behind the command car shouting, "Protect me, Lord!"



 

Ruthven glanced back. His sub-machine gun was in the vehicle, but he wore a pistol. He scrabbled for it but his equipment belt was twisted; he couldn't find the holster.



The rebel thrust his automatic rifle out in both hands; the butt wasn't anywhere near his shoulder. "Die, unbeliever!" he screamed. A 2-cm powergun bolt decapitated him. The rifle fired as he spasmed backwards.

One bullet struck Ruthven in the small of the back. It didn't penetrate his ceramic body armor, but the impact was like a sledgehammer. Bits of bullet jacket sprayed Ruthven's right arm and cheek.

He pushed himself upward again, moaning deep in his throat. He thought he might be talking to himself. A skimmer snarled through the high grass and circled to a halt alongside, the bow facing uphill. Nozzles pressurized by the single fan sprayed grit across Ruthven's bare face.

"El-Tee, grab on!" Rennie shouted, leaning from the flat platform to seize Ruthven's belt. "Grab!"

Ruthven turned on his side and reached out. He got a tie-down in his left hand and the shoulder clamp of the sergeant's armor in his right. Rennie was already slamming power to the lift fan, trying to throw his weight out to the right to balance the drag of Ruthven's body.

The skimmer wasn't meant to carry two, but it slowly accelerated despite the excess burden. Ruthven bounced through brush, sometimes hitting a rock. His left boot acted as a skid, but often enough his hip or the length of his leg scraped as the skimmer ambled uphill. A burst of sub-machine gun fire, a nervous flickering against the brighter, saturated flashes of 2-cm weapons, crackled close overhead, but Ruthven couldn't see what the shooter was aiming at.

The skimmer jolted over a shrub whose roots had held the windswept soil in a lump higher than the ground to either side. Ruthven flew free and rolled. Every time his right leg hit the ground, a flash of pain cut out that fraction of the night.

A tribarrel chugged from behind, raking the slope up which they'd come. Ruthven was within the new perimeter. Half a dozen Royalists huddled nearby with terrified expressions, but E/1 itself had enough firepower to halt the rebels. They'd already been hammered, and now more shells screamed down like a regiment of flaming banshees.

Firebase Groening was northeast of Firebase Courage, so the Hogs were overfiring E/1's present perimeter to reach the rebels. Somebody—Sergeant Hassel?—must be calling in concentrations, relaying the messages through the command car. The vehicle was out of action, but its radios were still working.

Rennie spun the skimmer to a halt. "Made it!" he shouted. "We bloody well made it!"

Ruthven found his holster and managed to lift the flap. Beside him, Rennie hunched to remove his 2-cm weapon from the rail where he'd clamped it to free both hands for the rescue.

A buzzbomb skimmed the top of the knoll, missing the tribarrel at which it'd been aimed and striking Sergeant Rennie in the middle of the back. There was a white flash.

The shells from Firebase Groening landed like an earthquake on the rebels who'd overrun the Royalist camp and were now starting uphill toward E/1. In the light of the huge explosions, Ruthven saw Rennie's head fly high in the air. The sergeant had lost his helmet, and his expression was as innocent as a child's.

* * *


"Good afternoon, Lieutenant Ruthven," Doctor Parvati said as he stepped into the room without knocking. "You are up? And packing already, I see. It is good that you should be optimistic, but let us take things one step at a time, shall we? Lie down on your bed, please, so that I can check you."

Ruthven wondered if Parvati'd put a slight emphasis on the phrase "one step." Probably not, and even if he had it'd been meant as a harmless joke. I have to watch myself. I'm pretty near the edge, and if I start overreacting, well . . .

"Look, Doc," he said, straightening but not moving away from the barracks bag he was filling from the locker he'd kept under the bed. "You saw the reading that Drayer took this noon, right? I'm kinda in a hurry."

"I have gone over the noon readings, yes," Parvati said calmly. He was a small, slight man with only a chaplet of hair remaining, though by his face he was in his early youth. "Now I would like to take more readings."

When Ruthven still hesitated, Parvati added, "I do not tell you how to do your job, Lieutenant. Please grant me the same courtesy."

"Right," said Ruthven after a further moment. He pushed the locker to the side and paused. The garments were new, sent over from Quartermaster's Stores. The gear on the command car's rack had burned when they shot at rebs trying to get to the tribarrel. The utilities Ruthven had worn during the firefight had been cut off him as soon as he arrived here.

He sat on the bed and carefully swung his legs up. He'd been afraid of another blinding jolt, but he felt nothing worse than a twinge in his back. Funny how it was his left hip rather than the smashed right femur where the pain hit him now. He'd scraped some on the left side, but he'd have said that was nothing to mention.

"So," said Parvati, reading the diagnostic results with his hands crossed behind his back. The holographic display was merely a distortion in the air from where Ruthven lay looking at the doctor. "So."

"I was talking to Sergeant Axbird this afternoon," Ruthven said to keep from fidgeting. "She was my platoon sergeant, you know. I was wondering how she was coming along?"

Parvati looked at Ruthven through the display. After a moment he said, "Mistress Axbird's physical recovery has gone as far as it can. How she does now depends on her own abilities and the degree to which she learns to use her new prosthetics. If you are her friend, you will encourage her to show more initiative in that regard."

"Ah," Ruthven said. "I see. I'm cleared for duty, though, Doctor. Right?"

He wondered if he ought to stand up again. Parvati always used the bed's own display instead of downloading the information into a clipboard.

"Are you still feeling pain in your hip, Lieutenant?" the doctor asked, apparently oblivious of Ruthven's question.

"No," Ruthven lied. "Well, not really. You know, I get a little, you know, tickle from time to time. I guess that'll go away pretty quick, right?"

It struck Ruthven that the diagnostic display would include blood pressure, heart rate, and all the other physical indicators of stress. He jumped up quickly. Pain exploded from his hip; he staggered forward. His mouth was open to gasp, but his paralyzed diaphragm couldn't force the air out of his lungs.

"Lieutenant?" Parvati said, stepping forward.

"I'm all right!" said Ruthven. Sweat beaded his forehead. "I just tripped on the locker! Bloody thing!"

"I see," said Parvati in a neutral tone. "Well, Lieutenant, your recovery seems to be proceeding most satisfactorily. I'd like you to remain here for a few days, however, so that some of my colleagues can check you over."

"You mean Psych, don't you?" Ruthven said. His hands clenched and unclenched. "Look, Doc, I don't need that and I sure don't want it. Just sign me out, got it?"

"Lieutenant Ruthven, you were seriously injured," the doctor said calmly. "I would be derelict in my duties if I didn't consider the possibility that the damage I was able to see had not caused additional damage beyond my purview. I wish to refer you to specialists in psychological trauma, yes."

"Do you?" Ruthven said. His voice was rising, but he couldn't help it. "Well, you let me worry about that, all right? You're a nice guy, Doc, but you said it: my psychology is none of your business! Now, you clear me back to my unit, or I'll take it over your head. You can explain to Colonel Hammer why you're dicking around a platoon leader whose troops need him in the field!"

"I see," said the doctor without any inflection. "I do not have the authority to hold you against your will, Lieutenant, but for your own sake I wish you would reconsider."

"You said that," Ruthven said. He bent and picked up his barracks bag. "Now, you do your job and let me get back to mine."

Parvati made a slight bow. "As you wish," he said. He touched the controller in his hand; the hologram vanished like cobwebs in a storm. "I will have an orderly come to take your bag."

"Don't worry about that," Ruthven said harshly. "I can get it over to the transient barracks myself. They'll find me a bunk there if there isn't a way to get to E/1 still tonight. I just want to be out of this place ASAP."

He didn't know where the platoon was or who was commanding in his absence. Hassel, he hoped; it'd be awkward if Central 'd brought in another officer already. He wondered how many replacements they'd gotten after the ratfuck at Firebase Courage.

"As you wish," Parvati repeated, opening the door and stepping back for Ruthven to lead. "Ah? By the water pitcher, Lieutenant? The file is yours, I believe?"

Ruthven didn't look over his shoulder. "No, not mine," he said. "I was thinking about, you know, transferring out, but I couldn't leave my platoon. E/1 really needs me, you know."

He walked into the corridor, as tight as a compressed spring. Even before Axbird had come to see him, he'd been thinking of night and darkness and the faceless horror of living among people who didn't know what it was like. Who'd never know what it was like.

The troopers of Platoon E/1 did need Henry Ruthven, he was sure.



But not as much as I need them, in the night and the unending darkness.

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