Lois McMaster Bujold, "Mirror Dance"

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CHAPTER SEVEN

Mark was standing so close, the report of the exploding projectile was like a silence, pressing in his ears, obliterating all other sounds. It happened too fast for understanding, too fast to close the eyes and defend the mind against the sight. The little man who had been yelling and gesturing them onward fluttered backward like a gray rag, arms outflung, face contorted. A spray of blood spattered across Mark with stinging force, part of a wide half-circle of blood and tissue-bits. Quinn's whole left side was scarlet.

So. You are not perfect, was his first absurd thought. This sudden absolute vulnerability shocked him unbearably. I didn't think you could be hurt. Damn you, I didn't think you could be—

Quinn was screaming, everyone was recoiling, only he stood still, paralyzed in his private, ear-stunned silence. Miles lay on the concrete with his chest blown out, open-mouthed, unmoving. That's a dead man. He'd seen a dead man before, there was no mistaking it.

Quinn, her face wild, fired her plasma arc at the Bharaputrans, shot after shot, till hot ceiling fragments started to fall lethally back down around them, and a Dendarii knocked her weapon aside. "Taura, get them!" Quinn pointed upward with her free hand.

The monster sergeant fired a rappel-hook upward, which wrapped around a girder. She rose upon it at full acceleration, like a mad spider. Between the lights and the shadows, Mark could scarcely follow her progress, leaping at inhuman speed along the catwalks, until broken-necked Bharaputran security personnel began raining down. All their high-tech half-armor was no protection at all against those huge, enraged clawed hands. Three men fell in a welter of their own blood, their throats torn out, an insane bombardment; one Dendarii trooper, running across the chamber, was almost smashed beneath an enemy body. Modern warfare wasn't supposed to have this much blood in it. The weapons were supposed to cook everyone neatly, like eggs in their shells.

Quinn paid no attention, scarcely seeming to care about the results of her order. She knelt by Miles's side, her shaking hands outspread, hesitating. Then they dove and pulled off Miles's command helmet. She flung her own squad leader's helmet to the floor and replaced it on her smooth gray hood with Miles's. Her lips moved, establishing contact, checking channels. The helmet was undamaged, apparently. She yelled orders to perimeter-people, queries to the drop shuttle, and one other. "Norwood, get back here, get back here. Yes, bring it, bring it now. On the double, Norwood!" Her head swivelled away from Miles only long enough to shout, "Taura, get this building secured!" From above, the sergeant in turn bellowed orders to her scurrying troopers.

Quinn pulled a vibra-knife from her belt sheath and began cutting away Miles's fatigues, ripping through belts and the nerve-disruptor shield-suit, tossing the bloody fragments aside. Mark looked up, following her glance, to see the medic with the float-pallet returning, hauling his burden across the concrete. The float-pallet counteracted gravity, but not mass; the inertia of the heavy cryo-chamber fought his attempts to run, and fought him again as he braked and lowered the pallet to the floor near his dead commander. Half a dozen confused clones followed the medic like baby ducks, clustering together and staring around in horror at the ghastly aftermath of the brief sharp firefight.

The medic looked back and forth from Miles's body to the loaded cryo-chamber. "Captain Quinn, it's no good. It won't hold two."

"The hell it's not." Quinn staggered to her feet, her voice grating like gravel. She seemed unaware of the tears running down her face, tracking pinkly through the spatter. "The hell it's not." She stared bleakly at the gleaming cryo-chamber. "Dump her."

"Quinn, I can't!"

"On my order. On my hands."

"Quinn . . ." The medic's voice was anguished. "Would he have ordered this?"

"He just lost his damn vote. All right." She took a deep breath. "I'll do it. You start prepping him."

Teeth clenched, the medic moved to obey. He flipped open a door at the end of the chamber and removed a tray of equipment. It was all in disarray, having been used once already and hastily re-packed. He rolled out some big insulated bottles, keyed open the chamber. Its lid popped, breaking the seal, I rose. She reached within, unfastening things that Mark could not :. Did not wish to see. She hissed, as instantly-frozen skin tore from r hands, but reached again. With a grunt, she heaved a woman's greenish, empurpled nude body from the chamber and laid it on the floor. It was the smashed-up bike-trooper, Phillipi. Thorne's patrol, ring Bharaputran fire, had finally found her near her downed floater some two buildings away from her lost helmet. Broken back, broken limbs; she'd taken hours to die, against all the Green Squad medic's heroic efforts to save her. Quinn looked up and saw Mark ring at her. Her face was ravaged.

"You, you useless . . . wrap her." She pointed to Phillipi, then hurried around the cryo-chamber to where the Blue Squad medic now sit beside Miles.

Mark broke his paralysis at last, to scuttle around and find a thin foil heat wrap among the medical supplies. Frightened of the body, but too terrified by Quinn to disobey, he laid out the silver wrap and led the cold dead woman up in it. She was stiff and heavy, under his cringing touch.

He rose to hear the medic muttering, with his ungloved hands plunged deep into the gory mess that had been Miles Vorkosigan's chest, "I can't find an end. Where the hell's an end? At least the damned aorta, something ..."

'It's been over four minutes," snarled Quinn, pulled out her vibra-blade again, and cut Miles's corpse's throat, two neat slashes bracketing but not touching the windpipe. Her fingers scrabbled in the cut. The medic glanced up only to say, "Be sure you get the carotid and not the jugular."

I'm trying. They're not color-coded." She found something pale and rubbery. She pulled tubing from the top of one of the insulated lines, and jammed its plastic end-nozzle into the presumed artery. She switched the power on; the tiny pump hummed, pushing translucent green-cryo-fluid through the transparent tubing. She pulled out a second piece of tubing from the jug and inserted it on the other side of Miles's neck. Blood began to flow from the slashed exit veins, over her hands, over everything; not spurting as from a heartbeat, but in steady, inhuman, mechanical fashion. It spread on the floor in a shimmering pool, then began to flow away across some subtle drain-slope, a little carmine creek. An impossible quantity of blood. The clustered clones were weeping. Mark's own head throbbed, pain so great it darkened his vision.

Quinn kept the pumps going till what came out ran greenish-clear.

The medic meanwhile had apparently found the ends he was looking and attached two more tubes. More blood, mixed with cryo-fluid, welled up and spilled from the wound. The creek became a river.

The medic pulled Miles's boots and socks off, and ran sensors over his paling feet. "Almost there . . . damn, we're nearly dry." He hastened to his jug, which had switched itself off and was blinking a red indicator light.

"I used all I had," said Quinn.

"It's probably enough. They were both small people. Clamp those ends—" He tossed her something glittering, which she snatched out of the air. They bent over the little body. "Into the chamber, then," said the medic. Quinn cradled the head, the medic took the torso and hips. The arms and legs dangled down. "He's light . . ." They swung their stripped burden hastily into the cryo-chamber, leaving the blood-soaked uniform on the floor in a sodden heap. Quinn left the medic to make the last connections and turned away blind-eyed, talking to her helmet. She did not look down at the long silver package at her feet.

Thorne appeared, crossing the chamber at a jog. Where had it been? Thorne caught Quinn's eye, and with a jerk of its head at the dead Bharaputrans reported, "They came up through the tunnels, all right. I have the exits secured, for now." Thorne glowered bleakly at the cryo-chamber. The hermaphrodite looked suddenly . . . middle-aged. Old.

Quinn acknowledge this with a nod. "Key to Channel 9-C. We got trouble outside."

A kind of dreary curiosity winkled through Mark's numb shock. He turned his own headset back on. He'd had it helplessly and hopelessly turned off for hours, ever since Thorne had snatched back its command. He followed the captains' transmissions.

The Blue and Orange Squad perimeter teams were under heavy pressure from beefed-up Bharaputran security forces. Quinn's delay in this building was drawing Bharaputrans like flies to carrion, with a buzzing excitement. With over two-thirds of the clones now packed aboard the shuttle, the enemy had stopped directing heavy fire toward it, but airborne reinforcements were gathering fast, hovering like vultures. Quinn and company were in imminent danger of being surrounded and cut off.

"Got to be another way," muttered Quinn. She switched channels. "Lieutenant Kimura, how's it going with you? Resistance still soft?"

"It's hardened up beautifully. I kinda got my hands full right now, Quinnie." Kimura's thin, weirdly cheerful voice came back cut by a wash of static indicating plasma fire and the activation of his plasma mirror field. "We've achieved our objective and are pulling out now. Trying to. Chat later, huh?" More static.

"Which objective? Take care of your damn shuttle, y'hear, boy? You may yet have to come for us. Report to me the second you're back in the air."

"Right." A slight pause. "Why isn't the Admiral on this channel, Quinnie?"

Quinn's eyes squeezed shut in pain. "He's . . . temporarily out of contact. Move it, Kimura!"

Kimura's reply, whatever it was, broke up in another wash of static. A program regarding Kimura and his objective was loaded in Mark's helmet, but the lieutenant seemed to be transmitting from somewhere other than the medical complex. A feint? If so, Kimura wasn't drawing nearly enough enemy troops away from them. Sergeant Framingham's sentinel, from the drop shuttle, broke in urging Quinn to hurry, almost simultaneously with an Orange Squad perimeter team reporting themselves forced off another vantage point.

"Could the shuttle land on top of this building and pick us up?" Quinn inquired, gazing at the girders overhead. Thorne frowned, following her eyes. "I think it would cave in the roof."

"Hell. Other ideas?"

"Down," said Mark suddenly. Both Dendarii jerked, catching themselves from flattening to the floor as they realized what he meant, through the tunnels. The Bharaputrans got in, we can get back out."

"It's a blind warren," objected Quinn.

"I have a map," said Mark. "All of Green Squad does, loaded programs. Green Squad can lead."

Why didn't you say so earlier?" snapped Quinn, illogically ignoring fact that there had hardly been an earlier.

Thorne nodded confirmation, and began hastily tracing through its net's holovid map. "Can do. There's a route—puts us up inside a building beyond your shuttle, Quinn. Bharaputran defenses are … there, and all facing the other way. And their superior numbers 't help them, down below."

Quinn stared down. "I hate dirt. I want vacuum, and elbow room, right, let's do it. Sergeant Taura!"

A flurry of organization, a few more doors blown away, and the party was on the march once more, down a lift tube and into utility tunnels. Troopers scouted ahead of the main group. Taura and half a dozen clones carry Phillipi's wrapped body, laid across the metal bars she'd torn from the catwalk railings. As if the bike-trooper still had some forlorn hope of preservation and revival. Mark found himself pacing beside the cryo-chamber on its float pallet, tugged along by the anxious medic. He glanced from the corner is eye through the transparent cover. His progenitor lay open-tried, pale and gray-lipped and still. Frost formed feathers along seals, and a blast of waste heat flowed from the refrigeration unit's motor. It would burn like a bonfire on an enemy's infra-red sensor. Mark shivered, and crouched in the heat. He was hungry, and terribly cold. Damn you, Miles Vorkosigan. There was so much I wanted to say to you, and now you're not listening.

The straight tunnel they were traversing passed under another building, giving way through double doors to a wide foyer full of multiple cross-connections; several lift tubes, emergency stairs, other tunnels, and utility closets. All the doors were opened or blown open by the point-men looking for Bharaputran resistance. The air was pungent with smoke and the harsh lingering tang from plasma arc fire. Unfortunately, at this juncture the point men found what they were looking for.

The lights went out. Dendarii helmet visors snapped shut all around Mark, as they switched to infra-red. He followed suit, and stared disoriented into a world drained of color. His helmet crackled with voice communications stepping on each other as two point-men came running backwards into the foyer from separate corridors, firing plasma arcs that blared blindingly on his heat-enhanced vision. Four half-armored Bharaputran security personnel swung out of a lift tube, cutting Quinn's column in half. So confined was the confusion, they found themselves fighting hand-to-hand. Mark was knocked down by accident by a swinging Dendarii, and crouched near the float-pallet.

"This isn't shielded," the medic groaned, slapping the cryo-chamber as arcs of fire whipped by close overhead. "One square hit, and . . ."

"Into the lift tube, then," yelled Mark at him. The medic nodded, and swung the pallet around into the nearest dark opening free of Bharaputrans. The lift-tube was switched off, or the conflicting grav fields might have blown circuits on both tube and pallet. The medic scrambled aboard the cryo-chamber as if it were a horse, and began to sink from sight. Another trooper followed, hand over hand down the emergency ladder on the tube's interior. Plasma arc fire struck Mark three times in rapid succession, as he scrambled to his feet, knocking him down again. His mirror-field shed a roar of blue crackles as he rolled toward the tube through waves of heat. He swung down the ladder after the trooper, out of the line of fire.

But not for long. A Bharaputran helmet flashed above them in the entrance, then plasma arc fire followed them downward with a glare like lightning in the tube. The trooper helped the medic yank and heave the float-pallet out of this sudden shooting gallery and through the lowest entrance, and ducked after. Mark scrambled in their wake, feeling like a human torch, netted and entwined with racketing blue incandescence. How many shots had that been? He'd lost count. How many more could his shielding take before it gave way and burned out?

The trooper took a firing stance aimed back into the lift tube, but no Bharaputran followed them. They stood in a pocket of dark and quiet, shouts and shots echoing faintly down the tube from the battle overhead. This was a much smaller foyer, with only two exits. Dim low emergency lighting along the floor gave a falsely cozy sense of warmth.

"Hell," said the medic, staring upward. "I think we've just cut ourselves off."

"Not necessarily," said Mark. Neither the medic nor the trooper were Green Squad, but Mark's helmet of course had Green Squad programming. He called up the holomap, found their current location, And let the helmet's computer sketch a route. "You can get there from this level, too. It's a bit more roundabout, but you're less likely encounter Bharaputrans for that very reason."

"Let me see," demanded the medic.

Half-reluctant, half-relieved, Mark gave his helmet up to him. The medic jammed it on his head, and studied the red line snaking through the 3-D schematic grid of the medical complex, projected before his eyes. Mark risked a darting glance up the lift tube. No Bararaputrans loomed overhead, and the sounds of combat were muffled, as if growing more distant. He ducked back to find the trooper looking at him, unsettling glints of his eyes gleaming through his visor. I'm not your damned Admiral. Mores the pity, eh? The trooper probably was of the opinion that the Bharaputrans had shot the wrong short man. Mark didn't even need words to get that message. He ached.

"Yeah," the medic decided. His jaw tightened, behind his visor. "If you hurry, you might even get there ahead of Captain Quinn," said Mark. He still held the medic's helmet. There were no more sounds from overhead. Should he run after Quinn's moving fire-fight, stay and try to help guide and guard the float-pallet? He was not sure if he was more afraid of Quinn, or of the Bharaputran fire her party drew. Either way he'd probably be safer with the cryo-chamber. He took a deep breath. "You . . . keep my helmet. I'll take yours." Th medic and the trooper were both glowering at him with disfavor, tellingly. "I'll go after Quinn and the clones." His clones. Would Quinn have any regard at all for their lives?

"Go, then," said the medic. He and the trooper aimed the float-pallet out the doors, and didn't look back. They obviously had him judged as more of a liability than an asset, and felt well-rid of him. Grimly, he climbed the ladder back up the lift tube. He peeked cautiously across the foyer floor, as it came to his eye level. A lot of property damage. A sprinkler system had added steam to the choking smoke. One brown-clad body lay prone, unmoving. The floor was wet and slippery. He swung out of the tube and darted skittishly out the corridor the Dendarii company must have taken, if they were sticking heir planned route. More plasma arc damage assured him he was the right track.

He rounded a corner, skidded to a halt, and flung himself backward, out of sight. The Bharaputrans hadn't seen him; they'd been facing the other way. He retreated back down the corridor while awkwardly keying through the channels of the unfamiliar helmet till he made contact with Quinn.

"Captain Quinn? Uh, Mark here."

"Where the hell are you, where's Norwood?"

"He's got my helmet. He's taking the cryo-chamber through by another route. I'm behind you, but I can't close up. There are at least four Bharaputrans in full space armor between us, coming up on your rear. Watch out."

"Hell, now we're outgunned. That tears it." Quinn paused. "No. I can take care of them. Mark, get the hell away, follow Norwood. Run!"

"What are you going to do?"

"Drop the roof on those bastards. Lotta good space armor'll do 'em then. Run!"

He ran, realizing what she was planning. At the first lift tube he came to, he took to the ladder, climbing wildly, regardless of where it led. He didn't want to be any further underground than he had to when—

It was like an earthquake. He clung as the tube cracked and buckled, and the felt sound beat through his body. It was over in a moment, but for an echoing rumble, and he resumed his climb. Daylight ahead, reflecting silver down a tube entrance.

He came out on the ground floor of a building furnished like a fancy office. Its windows were cracked and starred. He knocked a hole in one and climbed through, and flipped up his infra-red visor. To his right, half of another building had fallen away into an enormous crater. Dust still rose in choking clouds. The Bharaputrans in their sturdy, deadly space armor were possibly still alive, under all that, but it would take an excavation crew hours to dig them out. He grinned despite his terror, panting in the daylight.

The medic's helmet did not have nearly the eavesdropping capacity of the command headset, but he found Quinn again. "All right, Norwood, keep on going," she was saying. "Go like hell! Framingham! Got that? Lock on Norwood. Start pulling in your perimeter people. Lift as soon as Norwood and Tonkin are aboard. Kimura! You in the air?" A pause; Mark could not get Kimura's reply, whoever and wherever he was. But he could fill in the sense of it from Quinn's continuation. "Well, we've just made you a new drop zone. It's a bit lumpy, but it'll do. Follow my signal, come straight down into the crater. You'll just fit. Yes, you will too, I've laser-'scoped it, you do too have clearance. You can risk the shuttle now, Kimura. Come on!"

He made for the crater too, scuttling along close to the side of the building, taking advantage of overhangs till the patter of falling concrete chips made him realize that the blast-damaged balcony above his head was losing its structural integrity. Stay under and get mashed, or step out in the open and get shot? Whichever he did would prove the wrong choice, he was certain. What was that line Vorkosigan's military textbooks were so fond of quoting? No battle in survives first contact with the enemy. Quinn's tactics and dispositions shifted with bewildering speed. She was exploiting a quite literal new opening—the roar of a drop shuttle grew in his ears, and he sprinted out from under the balcony as the vibrations weakened it. The end gave way and fell with a crash. He kept on sprinting. Let the Bharaputran snipers try to hit a moving target. . . . Quinn and her group ventured into the open just as the drop shuttle, feet extended like an enormous insect, felt its way carefully into the crater. A few last Bharaputrans were in position on a roof opposite to offer harrying fire. But they had only plasma arcs, and were still being careful of the clones, though one pink-clad girl screamed, caught in the backwash of a Dendarii plasma mirror field. Light burns, painful but not fatal. She was crying and panicked, but a Dendarii trooper nevertheless caught her and aimed her at the shuttle hatch, now opening and extruding a ramp.

The few Bharaputrans, hopeless of bringing the shuttle down with there sniper's weapons, changed their tactics. They began concentrating their fire on Quinn, shot after shot pumping into her overloading mirror field. She shimmered in a haze of blue fire, staggering under the impact. Clones and Dendarii pelted up the ramp. Command helmets draw fire. He could see no other way but to run in front of her. The air around him lit as his mirror field spilled energy, but in the brief respite Quinn regained her balance. She grabbed him by the hand and together they sprinted up the ramp, the last to board. The shuttle was lurching back into the air and the ramp withdrawing even as they fell through the hatch. The hatch sealed behind them. The silence felt like a song. Mark rolled over on his back and lay gasping for air, lungs on fire, Quinn sat up, her face red in its circle of gray. Just a sunburn. She cried hysterically for three breaths, then clamped her mouth shut. Tearfully, her fingers touched her hot cheeks, and Mark remembered at this was the woman who had had her face burned entirely away by plasma fire, once. But not twice. Not twice.

She scrambled to her knees, and began keying through command channels on her almost-fatal headset again. She then yanked herself to her feet and ricocheted forward in the jinking accelerations of the shuttle. Mark sat up and stared around, disoriented. Sergeant Taura, Thorne, the clones, he recognized. The rest were strange Dendarii, Lieutenant Kimura's Yellow Squad presumably, some in the usual gray fatigues, some in full space armor. They looked rather the worse for wear. All four bunks for wounded in the hack were folded down and filled, and a fifth man was laid out on the floor. But the attending medic moved smoothly, not frantically. Her patients were clearly stabilized, able to wait for further treatment under more favorable conditions. Yellow Squad's cryo-chamber was recently occupied, though. The prognosis was now so bad for the foil-wrapped Phillipi, Mark wondered if they would even attempt to continue freezing her, once they were back aboard the Peregrine. But except for the bike-trooper and the cryo-chamber, there were no more covered forms, no body bags—Kimura's squad seemed to have made it through their mission, whatever it had been, fairly lightly.

The shuttle banked; they were circling, not boosting to orbit yet. Mark moaned under his breath, and rose to follow Quinn and find out what was going on.

When he came in sight of the prisoner he stopped short. The man sat with his hands bound behind him, securely strapped into a seat and guarded by two Yellow Squad troopers, a big fellow and a thin woman who made Mark think of a snake, all sinuous muscle and unblinking beady eyes. The prisoner looked a striking forty or so years of age, and wore a torn brown silk tunic and trousers. Loose strands of dark hair escaped from a gold ring on the back of his head and fell about his face. He did not struggle, but sat calmly, waiting, with a cold patience that quite matched the snake-woman's.

Bharaputra. The Bharaputra, Baron Bharaputra, Vasa Luigi himself. The man hadn't changed a hair in the eight years since Mark had last glimpsed him.

Vasa Luigi's face rose, and his eyes widened slightly, seeing Mark. "So, Admiral," he murmured.

"Just so," Mark responded automatically with a Naismith-phrase. He swayed as the shuttle banked more sharply, concealing weak-kneed terror, concealing exhaustion. He hadn't slept the night before this mission, either. Bharaputra, here?

The Baron cocked an eyebrow. "Who is that on your shirt?"

Mark glanced down at himself. The bandolier of blood had not yet turned brown, and was still damp, sticky and cold. He found himself actually wanting to answer, My brother, for the shock value. But he wasn't sure the Baron was shockable. He fled forward, avoiding more intimate conversation. Baron Bharaputra. Did Quinn and company plan to ride this tiger, and how? But at least he now understood why the shuttle could circle the combat zone without apparent fear of enemy fire.

He found Quinn and Thorne both in the pilot's compartment, along with Kimura the Yellow Squad commander. Quinn had taken over the shuttle's communication station, her gray hood pushed back, sweat-soaked dark curls in disarray.

"Framingham! Report!" she was crying into the comm. "You've got to get into the air. Bharaputran airborne reinforcements are almost on top of you."

Across the flight deck at the station opposite Quinn's, Thorne monitored a tactical holovid. Two Dendarii colored dots, fighter shuttles, set upon but failed to break up an array of enemy shuttles passing a ghost city, astral projection of the live city turning below them. Mark glanced out the window past the pilots' shoulders, but could not spot the originals in the sunlit morning smog. We have a downed-man recovery in progress, ma'am," Framing-s voice returned. "One minute, till the squad gets back."

"Do you have everyone else? Do you have Norwood? I can't raise his helmet!"

There was a short delay. Quinn's fists clenched, opened. Her finger-were bitten to red stumps.

Framingham's voice at last. "We've got him now, ma'am. Got everyone--the quick and the dead alike, except for Phillipi. I don't want to leave anyone for those bloody bastards if I can help it—" We have Phillipi."

"Thank God! Then everyone's accounted for. We have lift-off now, Captain Quinn."

"That's precious cargo, Framingham," said Quinn. "We rendezvous in the Perigrine's umbrella of fire. The fighter shuttles will guard your ass." In the tac display, the Dendarii dots peeled away from the faltering enemy and left them behind. "What about your wings?"

"We'll be right behind you. Yellow Squad bought us a first-class ticket home free. Home free is Fell Station."

"And then we head out?"

"No. The Ariel took some damage, earlier. We're docking."

"Understood. See you there."

The Dendarii formation came together at last, and began to boost hard. Mark fell into a station chair, and hung on. The fighter shuttles were more at risk from enemy fire than the drop shuttles, he feared, watching the tac display. One fighter shuttle was distinctly lagging. It clung close to the Yellow Squad's craft. The formation slowed itself to its wounded member. But for once, things ran to plan. Bharaputran harriers dropped reluctantly behind as they broke 'f the atmosphere and into orbit.

Quinn rested her elbows for a weary moment on her console, and hid her red-and-white face in her hands, rubbing tender eyelids. Thorne sat silent. Quinn, Thorne, himself, all bore broken segments of that ribbon of blood. Like a red ribbon, binding them one to another.

Fell Station was coming up at last. It was a huge structure, the largest of the orbital transfer stations circling Jackson's Whole, and House Fell's headquarters and homei city. Baron Fell liked holding the high ground. In the delicate interlocking network of the Great Houses, House Fell probably held the most raw power, in terms of capacity for destruction. But raw destruction was seldom profitable, and coup was counted in coins, here. What coin were the Dendarii using to buy Fell Station's help, or at least neutrality? The person of Baron Bharaputra, now secured in the cargo bay? What kind of bargaining chips were the clones, then, small change? And to think he'd despised the Jacksonians for being dealers in flesh.

Fell Station was just now passing out of the planet's eclipse, the advancing line of sunlight dramatically unveiling its vast extent. They decelerated toward one arm, giving up direction to Fell's traffic controllers and some heavily armed tugs which appeared out of nowhere to escort them. And there was the Peregrine, coasting in. The drop shuttles and the fighter shuttles all gavotted around their mother ship, coming meekly to their docking clamps. The Peregrine itself eased delicately toward its assigned mooring.

With a clank of the portside clamps and the hiss of flex-tube seals, they were home. In the cargo bay, the Dendarii expedited removal of the wounded to the Peregrine's infirmary, then turned much more slowly and wearily to tie-down and clean-up chores. Quinn shot past them, Thorne close on her heels. As if pulled by that mortal red ribbon, Mark followed.

The goal of Quinn's mad dash was the starboard side shuttle hatch, where Framingham's shuttle was coming to dock. They arrived there just as the flex-tube seals were secured, then had to stand out of the way as the wounded were rushed out first. Mark was disturbed to recognize Trooper Tonkin, who had accompanied Norwood the medic, among them. Tonkin had reversed roles, from guard to patient. His face was dark and still, unconscious, as eager hands hustled him past and shifted him onto a float pallet. Something's very wrong, here.

Quinn shifted impatiently from foot to foot. Other Dendarii troopers started to exit, herding clones. Quinn frowned, and shouldered upstream past them through the flex tube and into the shuttle.

Thorne and Mark went after her into free fall chaos. There were clone-youths everywhere, some crying, some violently sick—Dendarii were attempting to catch them, and get them towed to the exit. One harried trooper with a hand-vac was chasing floating globs of some child's last meal before everyone had to breathe it. The shouts and screams and babble were like a blow to the mind. Framingham's bellows were failing to speed a return to military order any faster than the terrorized clones could be removed from the cargo bay.

"Framingham!" Quinn floated over and grabbed him by the ankle. "Framingham! Where the hell's the cryo-chamber Norwood was escorting?"

He glanced down, frowning. "But you said you had it, Captain." What?"

"You said you had Phillipi." His lips stretched in a fierce grimace, "Goddammit, if we've left her behind I'll—"

We have Phillipi, yes, but she's—she was no longer in the cryo-chamber. Norwood was supposed to be getting it to you, Norwood and Tonkin."

"They didn't have it when my rescue patrol pulled them out. We them both, what was left of 'em. Norwood was killed. Hit through eye with one of those frigging projectile spine-grenades. Blew his head apart. But I didn't leave his body, it's in the bag over there." Command helmets draw fire, oh yes, I knew that. . . . No wonder Quinn hadn't been able to raise Norwood's comm channels.

"The cryo-chamber, Framingham!" Quinn's voice held a high pitch anguish Mark had never heard before.

"We didn't see any goddamn cryo-chamber, Quinn! Norwood and Tonkin didn't have it when we got to them! What's so frigging important about the cryo-chamber if Phillipi wasn't even in it?" Quinn released his ankle, and floated in a tightening ball, arms and legs drawing in. Her eyes were dark and huge. She bit off a string of inadequate foul words, grinding her teeth so hard her gums went white. Thorne looked like a chalk doll.

"Thorne," Quinn said, when she could speak again. "Get on the comm to Elena. I want both ships on a total security blackout, as of now. No leaves, no passes, no communications with Fell Station or anybody else that isn't cleared by me. Tell her to get Lieutenant Hart over here from the Ariel. I want to meet with them both at once, do not over comm channels. Go."

Thorne nodded, rotated in air, and launched itself forward toward the flight deck.

"What is this?" demanded Sergeant Framingham. Quinn took a deep, slow breath. "Framingham, we left the Admiral downside."

"Have you lost your mind, he's right there—" Framingham's finger sagged in mid-point at Mark. His hand closed into a fist. "Oh." He realized. "That's the clone."

Quinn's eyes burned; Mark could feel them boring through to the back of his skull like laser-drills. "Maybe not," Quinn said heavily. "Not as far as House Bharaputra needs to know."

"Ah?" Framingham's eyes narrowed in speculation. No! Mark screamed inside. Silently. Very silently.

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