Lois McMaster Bujold, "Mirror Dance"

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CHAPTER FIVE

He began donning the half-armor. First, next to his skin, a piece of the hottest new technology on the market: a nerve-disrupter shield-net. The field-generating net was worked into the fabric of a close-fitting grey body-suit and a hood that protected skull, neck, and forehead, leaving only his eyes, nose, and mouth peeping from the hole. And so the threat of one of the most fearsome anti-personnel weapons, the brain-killing nerve disrupter, was rendered null. As an added bonus, the suit stopped stunner-fire, too. Trust Naismith to have the best and newest, and custom-made to fit ... was the elastic fabric supposed to be this bloody tight?

Over the net-suit went a flexible torso-armor that would stop any projectile up to small hand-missiles and down to deadly needier spines. Fortunately for his ability to breathe, its catches were adjustable. He let them out to their fullest extension, rendering the valuable protection merely comfortably and correctly snug. Over it went blessedly loose camouflage-grey fatigues, made of a combat-rated fabric that would neither melt nor burn. Then came belts and bandoliers with stunner, nerve disrupter, plasma arc, grenades, power cells, a rappel-harness and spool, emergency oxygen. On his back he shrugged the harness holding a neat, flat power pack that generated, at the first touch of enemy fire, a one-man-sized plasma arc mirror field, with so miniscule a time lag one barely had time to cook, much. It was good for absorbing thirty or forty direct hits before the power cell, and its porter, died. It seemed almost a misnomer to call it all half-armor: triple armor was more like it.

Over the nerve-disruptor net covering his feet he pulled thick socks, then Naismith's combat boots. At least the boots fit without any embarrassing adjustments. A mere week of inactivity, and his body fought him, thickening . . . Naismith was a damned anorectic, that was it. A hyperactive anorectic. He straightened. Properly distributed, the formidible array of equipment was surprisingly light.

On the countertop next to his cabin comconsole, the command helmet sat waiting. The empty shadow beneath its forehead flange made him think, for whatever morbid reason, of an empty skull. He raised the helmet in his hands, and turned it in the light, and stared hungrily at its elegant curves. His hands could control one weapon, two at most. This, through the people it commanded, controlled dozens; potentially, hundreds or even thousands. This was Naismith's real power.

The cabin buzzer blatted; he jumped, nearly dropping the helmet. He could have pitched it against the wall and not harmed it, but still he set it down carefully.

"Miles?" came Captain Thorne's voice on the intercom. "You about ready?"

"Yes, come in." He touched the keypad to release the door lock.

Thorne entered, attired identically to himself, but with hood temporarily pushed back. The formless fatigues rendered Thorne not bi-sexed, but neuter, a genderless thing, a soldier. Thorne too bore a command helmet under its arm, of a slightly older and different make.

Thorne walked around him, eyes flicking over every weapon and belt-hook, and checking the readouts of his plasma-shield pack. "Good." Did Captain Thorne normally inspect its Admiral before combat? Was Naismith in the habit of wandering into battle with his boots unfastened, or something? Thorne nodded to the command helmet sitting on the countertop. "That's quite a machine. Sure you can handle it?"

The helmet appeared new, but not that new. He doubted Naismith supplied himself with used military surplus for his personal use, regardless of what economies he practiced in the fleet at large. "Why not?" he shrugged. "I have before."

"These things," Thorne lifted his own, "can be pretty overwhelming at first. It's not a data flow, it's a damn data flood. You have to learn to ignore everything you don't need, otherwise it can be almost better to switch the thing off. You, now . . ." Thorne hesitated, "have that same uncanny ability as old Tung did, of appearing to ignore everything as it goes by, and yet being able to remember and yank it out instantly if it's needed. Of somehow always being on the right channel at the right time. It's like your mind works on two levels. Your command-response time is incredibly fast, when your adrenalin is up. It's kind of addictive. People who work with you a lot come to expect—and rely—on it." Thorne stopped, waited.

What was it expecting him to say? He shrugged again. "I do my best."

"If you're still feeling ill, you know, you can delegate this whole raid to me."

"Do I look ill?"

"You're not yourself. You don't want to make the whole squad sick." Thorne seemed tense, almost urgent.

"I'm fine, now, Bel. Back off!"

"Yes, sir," Thorne sighed.

"Is everything ready out there?"

"The shuttle is fueled and armed. Green Squad is kitted up, and is doing the final loading right now. We have it timed so we come into parking orbit just at midnight, downside at Bharaputra's main medical facility. We drop instantly, no waiting around for people to start asking questions. Hit and go. The whole operation should be over in an hour, if things run to plan."

"Good." His heart was beating faster. He disguised a deep breath in a strung-out sigh. "Let's go."

"Let's ... do our helmet communication checks first, huh?" said Thorne.

That was a good idea, here in the quiet cabin, rather than in the noise and excitement and tension of the drop shuttle. "All right," he said, and added slyly, "Take your time."

There were over a hundred channels in use in the command headset, even for this limited raid. In addition to direct voice contact with the Ariel, Thorne, and every trooper, there were battle computers on the ship, in the shuttle, and in the helmet itself. There were telemetry readouts of every sort, weapon power checks, logistics updates. All the troopers' helmets had vid pick-ups so he could see what they were seeing in infra-red, visual, and UV bands; full sound; their medical readouts; holovid map displays. The holomap of the clone-creche had been specially programmed in, and the plan of attack and several contingencies pre-loaded. There were channels to be dedicated, on the fly, to eavesdropping upon enemy telemetry. Thorne already had Bharaputra's security guards' comm links locked in. They could even pick up commercial entertainment broadcasts from the planet they were approaching. Tinny music filled the air momentarily as he switched past those channels.

They finished, and he found himself and Thorne staring at each other in an awkward silence. Thorne was hollow-faced, apprehensive, as if struggling with some suppressed emotion. Guilt? Strange perception, surely not. Thorne couldn't be on to him, or it would have called a halt to this whole operation.

"Pre-combat nerves, Bel?" he said lightly. "I thought you loved your work."

Thorne came out of its lip-sucking abstraction with a start. "Oh, I do." It took a breath. "Let's do it."

"Go!" he agreed, and led the way at last out of his isolated cabin-cave into the light of the corridor and the peopled reality his actions—his actions—had created.

The shuttle-hatch corridor resembled his first view of it, reversed; the hulking Dendarii commandos were filing out, not spilling in. They seemed quieter this time, not as much clowning and joking. More businesslike. They had names, now, too, all filed in his command headset, which would keep them straight for him. All wore some variety of half-armor and helmet, with an array of heavier equipment in addition to such hand-weapons as he bore.

He found himself looking at the monster sergeant with new eyes, now that he knew her history. The log had said she was only nineteen years old, though she looked older; she'd been only sixteen, four years ago when Naismith had stolen her away from House Ryoval. He squinted, trying to see her as a girl. He had been taken away at age fourteen, eight years ago. Their mutual time as genetic products and prisoners of House Bharaputra must have overlapped, though he had never met her. The genetic engineering research labs were in a different town from the main surgical facility. House Bharaputra was a vast organization, in its strange Jacksonian way almost a little government. Except Jackson's Whole didn't have governments.

Eight years ... No one you knew then is still alive. You know that, don't you?

If I can't do what I want, I'll at least do what I can.

He stepped up to her. "Sergeant Taura—" she turned, and his brows climbed in startlement. "What is that around your neck?" Actually, he could see what it was, a large fluffy pink bow. He supposed his real question was, why was it around her neck?

She—smiled, he guessed that repellent grimace was, at him, and fluffed it out a bit more with a huge clawed hand. Her claw-polish was bright pink, tonight. "D'you think it'll work? I wanted something to not scare the kids."

He looked up at eight feet of half-armor, camouflage cloth, boots, bandoliers, muscle and fang. Somehow, I don't think it'll be enough, Sergeant. "It's . . . certainly worth a try," he choked. So, she was conscious of her extraordinary appearance. . . . Fool! How could she not be? Are you not conscious of yours? He was almost sorry now he had not ventured out of his cabin earlier in the voyage, and made her acquaintance. My home-town girl.

"What does it feel like, to be going back?" he asked suddenly; a nod in no particular direction indicated the House Bharaputra drop-zone, coming up.

"Strange," she admitted, her thick brows drawing down.

"Do you know this landing-site? Ever been there before?"

"Not that medical complex. I hardly ever left the genetics facility, except for a couple of years that I lived with hired fosterers, which was in the same town." Her head turned, her voice dropped an octave, and she barked an order about loading equipment at one of her men, who gave a half-wave and hustled to obey. She turned back to him and her voice re-softened to conscious, careful lightness. In no other way did she display any inappropriate intimacy while on duty; it seemed she and Naismith were discreet lovers, if lovers they were. The discreetness relieved him. She added, "I didn't get out much."

His own voice lowered. "Do you hate them?" As 1 do? A different kind of intimate question.

Her outslung lips twisted in thought. "I suppose ... I was terribly manipulated by them when I was growing up, but it didn't seem like abuse to me at the time. There were a lot of uncomfortable tests, but, it was all science . . . there wasn't any intent to hurt in it. It didn't really hurt till they sold me to Ryoval's, after the super-soldier project was cancelled. What Ryoval's wanted to do to me was grotesque, but that was just the nature of Ryoval's. It was Bharaputra . . . Bharaputra that didn't care. That threw me away. That hurt. But then you came . . ." She brightened. "A knight in shining armor and all that."

A familiar, surly wave of resentment washed over him. Bugger the knight in shining armor, and the horse he rode in on. And, I can rescue people too, dammit! She was looking away, fortunately, and didn't catch the spasm of anger in his face. Or perhaps she took it for anger at their former tormentors.

"But for all that," she murmured, "I would not have even existed, without House Bharaputra. They made me. I am alive, for however long . . . shall I return death for life?" Her strange distorted face grew deeply introspective.

This was not the ideal gung-ho frame of mind to inculcate in a commando on a drop mission, he realized belatedly. "Not . . . necessarily. We're here to rescue clones, not kill Bharaputran employees. We kill only if forced to, eh?"

This was good Naismithery; her head came up, and she grinned at him. "I'm so relieved you're feeling better. I was terribly worried. I wanted to see you, but Captain Thorne wouldn't allow it." Her eyes warmed like bright yellow flames.

"Yes, I was . . . very ill. Thorne did right. But . . . maybe we can talk more on the way home." When this was over. When he'd earned the right . . . earned the right to what?

"You got a date, Admiral." She winked at him, and straightened, ferociously joyous. What have I promised? She bounded forward, happily sergeantly again, to oversee her squad.

He followed her into the combat-drop shuttle. The light level was much lower in here, the air colder, and, of course, there was no gravity. He floated forward from hand-grip to hand-grip after Captain Thorne, mentally dividing up the floor space for his intended cargo. Twelve or fifteen rows of kids seated four across . . . there was plenty of room. This shuttle was equipped to carry two squads, plus armored hovercars or a whole field hospital. It had a first-aid station at the back, including four fold-down bunks and a portable emergency cryo-chamber. The Dendarii commando-medic was rapidly organizing his area and battening down his supplies. Everything was being fastened down, by quietly-moving fatigue-clad soldiers, with very little fuss or conversation. A place for everything and everything in its place.

The shuttle pilot was at his post. Thorne took the co-pilot's seat. He took a communication station chair just behind them. Out the front window he could see distant hard-edged stars, nearby the winking colored lights of some human activity, and, at the very edge of the field of view, the bright slice of the planet's curvature. Almost home. His belly fluttered, and not just from zero-gee. Bands of tightness throbbed around his head beneath his helmet-straps.

The pilot hit his intercom. "Gimme a body-check back there, Taura. We've got a five-minute thrust to match orbit, then we blow bolts and drop."

After a moment Sergeant Taura's voice returned, "Check. All troops tied down, hatch sealed. We are ready. Go-repeat-go."

Thorne glanced over its shoulder, and pointed. Hastily, he fastened his seat straps, and just in time. The straps bit deeply, and he lurched from side to side as the Ariel shuddered into its parking orbit, accelerative effects that would have been compensated for and nullified by the artificial gravity generated between the decks of the larger ship.

The pilot poised his hands, and abruptly dropped them, as if he were a musician playing some crescendo. Loud, startling clanks reverberated through the fuselage. Ululating whoops keened in response from the compartment behind the flight deck.

When they say drop, he thought wildly, they mean it. Stars and the planet turned, nauseatingly, in the forward window. He closed his eyes; his stomach tried to climb his esophagus. He suddenly realized a hidden advantage to full space armor. If you shit yourself with terror, going down, the suit's plumbing would take care of it, and no one would ever know.

Air began to scream over the outer hull as they hit the ionosphere. His seat straps tried to slice him like an egg. "Fun, huh?" yelled Thorne, grinning like a loon, its face distorted and lips flapping with deceleration. They were pointed straight down, or so the shuttle's nose was aimed, although his seat was attempting to eject him into the cabin ceiling with neck-breaking and skull-smashing force.

"I sure hope there's nothing in our way," the pilot yelled cheerfully. "This hasn't been cleared with anybody's flight control, y'know!"

He pictured a mid-air collision with a large commercial passenger shuttle . . . five hundred women and children aboard . . . vast yellow and black explosions and arcing bodies. . . .

They crossed the terminator into twilight. Then darkness, whipping clouds . . . bigger clouds . . . shuttle vibrating and bellowing like an insane tuba . . . still pointed straight down, he swore, though how the pilot could tell in this screaming fog he did not know.

Then, suddenly, they were level as an airshuttle, clouds above, lights of a town like jewels spilled on a carpet below. An airshuttle that was dropping like a rock. His spine began to compress, harder, harder. More hideous clanks, as the shuttle's feet extended. An array of half-lit building bulked below. A darkened playing-court—Shit, that's it, that's it! The buildings loomed up beside them, above them. Thud-crunch-crunch. A solid, six-legged landing. The silence stunned him.

"All right, let's go!" Thorne swung up out of its seat, face flushed, eyes lit, with blood-lust or fear or both he could not tell.

He tramped down the ramp in the wake of a dozen Dendarii. His eyes were about half dark-adapted, and there were enough lights around the complex, diffused by the cool and misty midnight air, that he had no trouble seeing, though the view was drained of color. The shadows were black and sinister. Sergeant Taura, with silent hand signals, divided her squad. No one was making noise. Silent faces were gilded by brief staccato flashes of light as their helmet vids supplied some data bit or another, projected to the side of their vision. One Dendarii, with extra 'scopes on her helmet, rolled out a personal float-bike, mounted it, and rose quietly into the darkness. Air cover.

The pilot stayed aboard, and Taura counted off four other Dendarii. Two vanished into the shadows of the perimeter, two stayed with the shuttle as rear-guard. He and Thorne had argued about that. Thorne had wanted more perimeter. His own gut-feel was that they would need as many troopers as possible at the clone-creche. The civilian hospital guards were little threat, and it would take time for their better-armed back-up to arrive. By then, the Dendarii would be gone, if they could move the clones along fast enough. He cursed himself, in retrospect, for not ordering two commando squads instead of one, back at Escobar. He could have done so, just as easily, but he'd been caught up in calculations about the Ariel's passenger capacity, and fancied himself conserving life support for the final escape. So many factors to balance.

His own helmet framed his vision with a colored clutter of codes, numbers, and graphs. He'd studied them all, but they flicked by too fast; by the time he'd taken one in, and interpreted it to himself, it was gone, replaced by another. He took Thorne's advice, and with a whispered word reduced the light intensity to a bare hallucinatory murmur. The helmet's audio pick-up was not so bad. No one was doing any unnecessary chatter.

He, Thorne, and the other seven Dendarii followed Taura at a trot—her stride—between two adjacent buildings. There was activity on the Bharaputran security guards' comm links, he found by keying his helmet to their audio bands. The first What the hell. Did you hear that? Joe, check sector four, stirrings of response. More to follow, he was sure, though he had no intention of waiting around for it.

Around a corner. There. A three-story, pleasant white building with lots of plants and landscaping, big windows, balconies. Not quite a hospital, not quite a dormitory, vague, ambiguous, discreet. the life house it was labelled in Jacksonian double-speak. The death house. My dear old home. It was terribly familiar and terribly strange. Once, it had seemed quite splendid to him. Now it seemed . . . smaller than he remembered.

Taura raised her plasma arc, adjusted its beam to wide, and removed the locked glass front doors in an orange, white, and blue spray of flying, spattering melt. Dendarii bounded through, splitting right and left, before the glow of the spattered globs of glass died. One took up station patrolling the ground floor. Alarms and fire alarms went off: Dendarii killed the noisy speakers they passed with more plasma fire, on the fly, but units in more distant parts of the building kept up a muted clamor. Automatic sprinklers made steam and a mess in their trail.

He ran to catch up. A uniformed Bharaputran security guard in brown trimmed with pink lurched into the corridor ahead. Three Dendarii stunners simultaneously downed him as his own stunner beam was absorbed harmlessly by the ceiling.

Taura and two female Dendarii took the lift tube toward the third floor; another trooper passed them in hope of gaining the roof. He led Thorne and the remaining troopers out into the second floor foyer and to the left. Two unarmed adults, one a night-gowned woman pulling on a robe, were felled the instant they appeared. There. Through those double doors. They were locked, and someone was beating on them from the inside.

"We're going to break the door open," Thorne bellowed through it. "Back away, or you'll get hurt!" The pounding stopped. Thorne nodded. A trooper adjusted his plasma arc to narrow beam, and sliced through a metal bolt. Thorne kicked the doors wide.

A blond young man fell back a pace, and stared at Thorne with bewilderment. "You're not the firemen."

A crowd of other men, tall boys, filled the corridor behind the blond. He did not have to remind himself that these were a bunch of ten-year-olds, but he wasn't sure about the perceptions of the troopers. Every variation of height and racial mix and build was represented, much more motley than the Greek-god look one might have anticipated from their garden-and-fountain setting. Personal wealth, not personal beauty, had been the ticket for their creation. Still, each was as glowingly healthy as the particularities of his genetics permitted. They all wore uniform sleepwear, bronze-brown tunics and shorts. "Front," Thorne hissed, and shoved him forward. "Start talking." "Get me a head-count," he ripped out of the corner of his mouth as Thorne pulled him past. "Right."

He'd practiced the speech for this supreme moment in his mind ten thousand times, every possible variation. The only thing he knew for certain that he was not going to start with was, I'm Miles Naismith. His heart was racing. He inhaled a huge gulp of air. "We're the Dendarii Mercenaries, and we're here to save you."

The boy's expression was repelled, scared, and scornful all mixed. "You look like a mushroom," he said blankly.

It was so ... so off-script. Of his thousand rehearsed second lines, not one followed this. Actually, with the command helmet and all, he probably did look a bit like a big gray—not the heroic image he'd hoped to—

He tore off his helmet, ripped back his hood, and bared his teeth. The boy recoiled.

"Listen up, you clones!" he yelled. "The secret you may have heard whispered is true! Every single one of you is waiting in line to be murdered by House Bharaputra surgeons. They're gonna stick somebody else's brain in your head, and throw your brain away. That's where your friends have been going, one by one, to their deaths. We're here to take you to Escobar, where you'll be given sanctuary—" Not all the boys had assembled in the corridor in the first place, and now ones at the rear of the mob began to break away and retreat into individual rooms. A babble started to rise from them, and yells and cries. One dark-haired boy tried to dart past them to the corridor beyond the big double doors, and a trooper grabbed him in a standard arm-lock. He screamed in pain and surprise, and the sound and shock seemed to blow the others back in a wave. The boy struggled without effect in the trooper's iron grip. The trooper looked exasperated and uncertain, and stared at him as if expecting some direction or order. "Get your friends and follow me!" he yelled desperately to the retreating boys. The blond turned on his heel and sprinted.

"I don't think they bought us," said Thorne. The hermaphrodite's face was pale and tense. "It might actually be easier to stun them all and carry them. We can't afford to lose time in here, not with that iamned thin perimeter."

"No—"

His helmet was calling him. He jammed it back on. Comm-link babble burst in his ears, but Sergeant Taura's deep voice penetrated, selectively enhanced by her channel. "Sir, we need your help up here."

"What is it?"

Her answer was lost in an override from the woman riding the float-bike. "Sir, there's three or four people climbing down the outside balconies of the building you're in. And there's a group of four Bharaputran security people approaching you from the north."

He sorted frantically through channels till he found the one outgoing to the air-guard. "Don't let any get away!"

"How should I stop 'em, sir?" Her voice was edged.

"Stunner," he decided helplessly. "Wait! Don't stun any that are hanging off the balcony, wait'll they reach the ground."

"I may not have a clear shot."

"Do your best." He cut her off and found Taura again. "What do you want, Sergeant?"

"I want you to come talk to this crazy girl. You can convince her if anyone can."

"Things are—not quite under control down here."

Thorne rolled its eyes. The captured boy was drumming his bare heels against the Dendarii trooper's shins. Thorne set its stunner to the lightest setting, and touched it to the back of the squirming boy's neck. He convulsed and hung more limply. Still conscious, eyes blearing and wild, the boy began to cry.

In a burst of cowardice he said to Throne, "Get them rounded up. Any way you can. I'm going to help Sergeant Taura."

"You do that," growled Thorne in a distinctly insubordinate tone. It wheeled, gathering its men. "You and you, take that side—you, take the other. Get those doors down—"

He retreated ignominiously to the sound of shattering plastic.

Upstairs, things were quieter. There were fewer girls than boys altogether, a disproportion that had also prevailed in his time. He'd often wondered why. He stepped over the stunned body of a heavy-set female security guard, and followed his vid map, projected by his helmet, to Sergeant Taura.

A dozen or so girls were seated cross-legged on the floor, their hands clasped behind their necks, under the waving threat of one Dendarii's stunner. Their sleep-tunics and shorts were pink silk, otherwise identical to the boys'. They looked frightened, but at least they sat silent. He stepped into a side room to find Taura and the other trooper confronting a tall Eurasian girl-woman, who sat at a comconsole with her arms aggressively crossed. Where the vid plate should have been was a smoking hole, hot and recent, from plasma fire.

The Eurasian girl's head turned, her long black hair swinging, from Taura to himself and back. "My lady, what a circus!" Her voice was a whip of contempt.

"She refuses to budge," said Taura. Her tone was strangely worried.

"Girl," he nodded curtly. "You are dead meat if you stay here. You are a clone. Your body is destined to be stolen by your progenitor. Your brain will be removed and destroyed. Perhaps very soon."

"I know that," she said scornfully, as if he were a babbling idiot.

"What?" His jaw dropped.

"I know it. I am perfectly aligned with my destiny. My lady required it to be so. I serve my lady perfectly." Her chin rose, and her eyes rested in a moment of dreamy, distant worship, of what he could not guess.

"She got a call out to House Security," reported Taura tightly, with a nod at the smoking holovid. "Described us, our gear—even reported an estimate of our numbers."

"You will not keep me from my lady," the girl affirmed with a short, cool nod. "The guards will get you, and save me. I'm very important."

What the hell had the Bharaputrans done to turn this girl's head inside-out? And could he undo it in thirty seconds or less? He didn't think so. "Sergeant," he took a deep breath, and said in a high, light voice on the outgoing sigh, "Stun her."

The Eurasian girl started to duck, but the sergeant's reflexes worked at lightning speed. The stunner beam took her precisely between the eyes as she leapt. Taura vaulted the comconsole and caught the girl's head before it could strike the floor.

"Do we have them all?" he asked.

"At least two went down the back stairs before we blocked them," Taura reported with a frown.

"They'll be stunned if they try to escape the building," he reassured her.

"But what if they hide, downstairs? It'll take time to find 'em." Her tawny eyes flicked sideways to take in some chrono display from her helmet. "We should all be on our way back to the shuttle by now."

"Just a second." Laboriously, he keyed through his channels till he found Thorne again. Off in the distance, carried thinly by the audio, someone was yelling, " 'n-of-a-bitch! You little—"

"What?" Thorne snapped in a harried voice. "You got those girls rounded up yet?"

"Had to stun one. Taura can carry her. Look, did you get that head-count yet?"

"Yes, took it off a comconsole in a keeper's room—thirty-eight boys and sixteen girls. We're missing four boys who apparently went over the balcony. Trooper Philippi accounted for three of them but says she didn't spot a fourth. How about you?"

"Sergeant Taura says two girls went down the back stairs. Watch for them." He glanced up, peering out of his vid display, which was swirling like an aurora. "Captain Thorne says there should be sixteen bodies here."

Taura stuck her head out into the corridor, lips moving, then returned and eyed the stunned Eurasian girl. "We're still short one. Kesterton, make a pass around this floor, check cupboards and under the beds."

"Right, Sergeant." The Dendarii trooper ran to obey.

He followed her, Thorne's voice urging in his ears, "Move it up there! This is a smash-and-grab, remember? We don't have time to round up strays!"

"Wait, dammit."

In the third room the trooper checked, she bent to look under a bed and said, "Ha! Got her, Sergeant!" She swooped, grabbed a couple of kicking ankles, and yanked. Her prize slid into the light, a short girl-woman in the pink crossover tunic and shorts. She emitted little helpless muted noises, distress with no hope of her cries bringing help. She had a cascade of platinum curls, but her most notable feature was a stunning bustline, huge fat globes that the strained pink silk of her tunic failed to contain. She rolled to her knees, buttocks on heels, her upraised hands vaguely pushing and cradling the heavy flesh as if it still shocked and unaccustomed to finding it there.

Ten years old. Shit. She looked twenty. And such monstrous hypertrophy couldn't be natural. The progenitor-customer must have ordered body-sculpture, prior to taking possession. That made sense, let the clone do the surgical and metabolic suffering. Tiny waist, flare of hip . . . from her exaggerated, physically mature femininity, he wondered if she might be one of the change-of-sex transfers. Almost certainly. She must have been slated for surgery very soon.

"No, go away," she was whimpering. "Go away, leave me alone . . . my mother is coming for me. My mother is coming for me tomorrow. Go away, leave me alone, I'm going to meet my mother. ..."

Her cries, and her heaving . . . chest, would shortly make him crazy, he thought. "Stun that one too," he croaked. They'd have to carry her, but at least they wouldn't have to listen to her.

The trooper's face was flushed, as transfixed and embarrassed as he by the girl's grotesque build. "Poor doll," she whispered, and put her out of her misery with a light touch of stunner to her neck. She slumped forward, splayed on the floor.

His helmet was calling him, he wasn't sure which trooper's voice. "Sir, we just drove back a crew of House Bharaputra fire-fighters with our stunners. They didn't have anti-stun suits. But the security people who are coming on now do. They're sending new teams, carrying heavier weapons. The stunner-tag game is about over."

He keyed through helmet displays, trying to place the trooper on the map-grid. Before he could, the air-guard's breathless voice cut in. "A Bharaputran heavy-weapons team is circling around your building to the south, sir. You've got to get the hell out of there. It's about to turn real nasty out here."

He waved the Dendarii trooper and her doll-woman burden out of the bedroom ahead of him. "Sergeant Taura," he called. "Did you pick up those outside reports?"

"Yes, sir. Let's move it."

Sergeant Taura slung the Eurasian girl over one broad shoulder and the blonde over the other, apparently without noticing their weight, and they herded the mob of frightened girls down the end stairs. Taura made them walk two-by-two, holding hands, keeping them rather better organized than he would have expected. The girls' hushed voices burbled in shock when they were directed into the boys' dormitory section. "We're not allowed down here," one tried to protest, in tears. "We'll get in trouble."

Thorne had six stunned boys laid out face-up on the corridor floor, and another twenty-odd lined up leaning against the wall, legs spread, arms extended, prisoner-control posture, with a couple of nervous troopers yelling at them and keeping them in their places. Some clones looked angry, some were crying, and all looked scared to death.

He looked with dismay at the pile of stunner victims. "How are we going to carry them all?"

"Have some carry the rest," Taura said. "It leaves your hands free and ties up theirs." She gently laid down her own burdens at the end of the row.

"Good," said Thorne, jerking its gaze, with difficulty, from fascinated fixation on the doll-woman. "Worley, Kesterton, let's—" its voice stopped, as the same static-laden emergency message over-rode channels in both their command helmets.

It was the bike-trooper, screaming, "Sonofabitch, the shuttle—watch out guys, on your left—" a hot wash of static, and "—oh holy fuckin' shit—" Then a silence, filled only with the hum of an empty channel.

He keyed frantically for a readout, any readout at all, from her helmet. The locator still functioned, plotting her on the ground between two buildings in back of the play-court where the shuttle was parked. Her medical readouts were flatline blanks. Dead? Surely not, there should at least still be blood chemistry . . . the static, empty view being transmitted, upward at an angle into the night fog, at last found him. Phillipi had lost her helmet. What else she'd lost, he couldn't tell.

Thorne called the shuttle pilot, over and over, alternated with the outer-guards; no replies. It swore. "You try."

He found empty channels too. The other two perimeter Dendarii re tied up in an exchange of fire with the Bharaputran heavy-weapons squad to the south that the bike-trooper had reported earlier. "We gotta reconnoiter," snarled Thorne under its breath. "Sergeant Taura, take over here, get these kids ready to march. You—" This is to his address, apparently; why did Thorne no longer call him Admiral, or Miles? "Come with me. Trooper Sumner, cover us." Thorne departed at a flat-out run; he cursed his short legs as he fell steadily farther behind. Down the lift-tube, out the still-hot front doors, around one dark building, between two others. He caught up with the hermaphrodite, who was flattened against a corner of the building at the edge of the playing-court.

The shuttle was still there, apparently undamaged—surely no hand-weapon could penetrate its combat-hardened shell. The ramp was drawn up, the door closed. A dark shape—downed Dendarii, or enemy?—slumped in the shadow beneath its wing-flanges. Thorne, whispering curses, jabbed codes into a computer control plate bound to its left forearm. The hatch slid aside, and the ramp tongued outward with a whine of servos. Still no human response. "I'm going in," said Thorne.

"Captain, standard procedure says that's my job," said the trooper Thorne had detailed to cover them, from his vantage behind a large concrete tree-tub.

"Not this time," said Thorne grimly. Not continuing the argument, dashed forward in a zigzag, then straight up the ramp, hurtling aside, plasma arc drawn. After a moment its voice came over the mm. "Now, Sumner."

Uninvited, he followed Trooper Sumner. The shuttle's interior was pitch-dark. They all turned on their helmet lights, white fingers darting and touching. Nothing inside appeared disturbed, but the door to the pilot's compartment was sealed.

Silently, Thorne motioned the trooper to take up a firing stance opposite him, bracketing the door in the bulkhead between fuselage and flight-deck. He stood behind Thorne. Thorne punched another code into its arm control-pad. The door slid open with a tortured groan, then shuddered and jammed.

A wave of heat boiled out like the breath of a blast furnace. A soft orange explosion followed, as enough oxygen rushed into the steering compartment to re-ignite any flammables that were left. The trooper fastened his emergency oxygen mask, grabbed a chemical fire-extinguisher from a clamp on the wall, and aimed it into the flight deck. After a moment they followed in his wake.

Everything was slagged and burned. The controls were melted, communications equipment charred. The compartment stank, chokingly, of toxic oxidation products from all the synthetic materials. And one organic odor. Carbonized meat. What was left of the pilot—he turned his head, and swallowed. "Bharaputra doesn't have—isn't supposed to have heavy weapons on-site!"

Thorne hissed, beyond swearing. It pointed. "They threw a couple of our own thermal mines in here, closed the door, and ran. Pilot had to have been stunned first. One smart goddamn Bharaputran son-of-a-bitch . . . didn't have heavy weapons, so they just used ours. Drew off or ganged up on my guards, got in, and grounded us. Didn't even stick around to ambush us ... they can do that at their leisure, now. This beast won't fly again." Thorne's face looked like a chiseled skull-mask in the white light from their helmets.

Panic clogged his throat. "What do we do now, Bel?"

"Fall back to the building. Set a perimeter. Use our hostages to negotiate some kind of surrender."

"No!"

"You got a better idea—Miles?" Thorne's teeth gritted. "I thought not."

The shocked trooper stared at Thorne. "Captain—" he glanced back and forth between them, "the Admiral will pull us through. We've been in tighter spots than this."

"Not this time." Thorne straightened, voice drawn with agony. "My fault—take full responsibility. . . . That's not the Admiral. That's his clone-brother, Mark. He set us up, but I've known for days. Tumbled to him before we dropped, before we ever made Jacksonian locals pace. I thought I could bring this off, and not get caught."

"Eh?" The trooper's brows wavered, disbelieving. A clone, going under anesthetic, might have that same stunned look on his face.

"We can't—we can't betray those children back into Bharaputra's hands," Mark grated. Begged.

Thorne dug its bare hand into the carbonized blob glued to what used to be the pilot's station chair. "Who is betrayed?" It lifted its hand, rubbed a black crumbling smear across his face from cheek to chin. "Who is betrayed?" Thorne whispered. "Do you have. A better. Idea."

He was shaking, his mind a white-out blank. The hot carbon on his face felt like a scar.

"Fall back to the building," said Thorne. "On my command."

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