/ Language: English / Genre:sf / Series: Helfort_s War

The battle for Commitment planet

Graham Paul

The battle for Commitment planet

Graham Sharp Paul

3, 2401, Universal Date FWSS Redwood, West Kent Reef

Anna would be dead soon.

Lieutenant Michael Helfort tumbled a datacore between gloved fingers in an unconscious effort to blunt the fear that gnawed at him every waking moment, to stop the churning in his stomach.

But nothing blurred the horror that would be Anna's death. He had condemned her to die scoured of all dignity, agonizing, slowly, and inevitable, a dying no human should have to endure, a dying that condemned the only woman he had ever loved to perish abandoned and alone, raped, beaten, shot-a life consumed in an unthinking process of casual cruelty, a life stripped away layer by layer to leave only an empty shell, the broken and abused body dumped into a DocSec lime pit, its empty eyes turned skyward, eyes that once danced and sparkled and sang with love so strong it would tear him apart, eyes that stared sightless into the void, eyes that branded his psyche with the word betrayed.

And all because of him.

He moved to get comfortable, trying to make the pain radiating up into his body go away. Psychosomatic, the doctors had said finally; Michael reckoned they were right. No matter how many painkillers he pumped into his system, the pain never went away. Four months had passed since a Hammer bullet had ripped its way through his thigh during the frantic, scrambling escape from Serhati, and even though the leg had healed well, even though he walked with only the faintest hint of a limp most of the time, it never allowed him to forget the insult it had suffered.

He laughed softly, a short, bitter laugh. Truth was, he did not want the pain to leave him. At times, he almost welcomed it, its relentless stabbing the punishment he deserved for putting Anna's life at risk. Only a lingering, nagging sense of obligation, faint but impossible to ignore, persuaded him to go back to his duty. With an enormous effort, he dragged his mind away from the horror of Anna's death to scan the threat plot, the massive holovid screen dominated by a blood-red icon marking the position of the signals intelligence station Redwood and her sister dreadnoughts had crossed hundreds of light-years of space to attack.

He might be captain in command of the Federated Worlds Starship Redwood, but destroying a remote-and unimportant-SIGINT station the Hammers had buried beneath the crust of a wandering asteroid called Balawal-34 was the least of his concerns.

For the millionth time, he asked himself what Anna had done to des-

"Sir! Sir!" The voice of his executive officer, Junior Lieutenant Jayla Ferreira, battered its way through the fog of despair and fear that clouded his thinking. She stood waiting for him to respond, hands on hips, lips squeezed tight into a bloodless slash of disapproval. Michael struggled to recall what she had just said, but he could not. He had no idea; her words had bounced off him, shards of glass shattering on a marble floor, splintering, spinning, tumbling away into oblivion.

"Ah, yes," Michael said, suppressing a pang of guilt, ramming the datacore back into its port. Ferreira was a good officer, and she deserved a good captain, one she could trust to keep his mind on the job, not one whose every waking moment centered on… For chrissakes, he swore silently, his attention was wandering again. "Sorry, Jayla, I was somewhere else. You were saying?"

"I have made this point already, but I'll make it again… sir," Ferreira said, voice taut and face pinched. "I understand what Warfare is saying. Problem is I just cannot agree. It might be only a small temperature anomaly, but the fact is there is one, we don't know why, and we should."

"Fair point, and I agree," Michael said. He looked across at Warfare's space-suited figure. The hunched shape was so real, he had to remind himself it was nothing more than an avatar, a computer-generated figment of his neuronics-enhanced imagination. "Warfare?"

"Why is easy," the artificial intelligence responsible for battle management said. "There's an unexplained heat source in the rubble field. What that source is… well, that's another matter. Almost certainly it's a ship, maybe two, lying low, hoping people like us don't detect them. They mustn't have aligned one of their heat dumps properly."

"Exactly," Ferreira said. "Which means we may face serious opposition. Balawal-34 might not be the soft target the intelligence summaries say it is."

"That begs the question why," Michael said. "Why do the Hammers have ships waiting for an attack on a target our reconsats only found out about by accident?"

"Because they're expecting us, sir," Ferreira said. "That's why. How, who knows? It doesn't matter. Maybe a Hammer deepspace gravitronics sensor array had a good day. Maybe a passing reconsat spotted us when we jumped out of Nyleth nearspace. Wouldn't be too hard to work out what targets of interest lay along our pinchspace vector. But it doesn't matter. What does matter is what we do now. I recommend we hold off until we've done another reconsat pass. We need to see what's hidden away in that rubble field."

Michael studied the threat plot, stung by Ferreira's obvious frustration. He shared it; successful operations depended on accurate intelligence, and here they were, wondering what else the intel guys might have missed. Nothing in the premission briefing mentioned the possibility that the Hammers might have deployed reinforcements hidden in a slow-moving rubble field that covered the approaches to the rear of the Hammer deepspace signals intelligence station. It should have been a simple operation against a soft target. Balawal-34-a modular facility buried below the surface of a convenient asteroid and defended by missile platforms and surface batteries armed with containerized Eaglehawk antistarship missiles-was no match for the three dreadnoughts; they would trash the place in a matter of minutes. Hammer heavy cruisers were another matter.

So, he wondered, what to do? More reconnaissance like Ferreira wanted? Go in anyway? Then something deep inside him snapped, releasing a flood of reckless indifference.

Screw it, he thought. Screw the Hammers; screw everyone. He did not care if Hammer ships waited to ambush his ships. If forced to, the three dreadnoughts that formed the Nyleth squadron had the firepower to take on and defeat a task group of Hammer heavy cruisers, and he was confident no task group was waiting to spoil his day. If there were two Hammer ships waiting for them, his dreadnoughts would make short work of them. He was certain of that, too. Only one thing mattered to him right now: getting this operation over and done with so he could return to Nyleth. He had more important things to worry about, and he needed to be back in orbit around Nyleth to deal with them.

"No, Jayla," he said. "I don't want to waste time doing more reconsat runs. We'll assu-"

"Wait, sir," Ferreira protested, cheeks flushing red with anger. "That makes no sense. We don't need to assume anything. We have the time, we have the reconsats, we can check. We should check. Sir! We should check-"

"Enough!" Michael said. He glared at his executive officer. "I was about to say that we'll assume there are two Hammer ships there and adjust our plans accordingly. Understood?"

"Yes, sir," Ferreira said; a scowl, hastily suppressed, made it plain that things were far from okay.

Michael knew she was right and he was wrong, but he ignored her anyway; he brushed aside a second twinge of guilt. "Right," he said. "Warfare. We'll reconvene in fifteen to review the updated plan, but I want the jump in-system on schedule."


Michael sat back in his seat and picked up the datacore. Redwood's mission was forgotten as the horror returned.


"Captain, sir," Ferreira said. "I have all green suits, ship is at general quarters, ship state 1, airtight condition zulu, shutting down artificial gravity, depressurizing now."

"Roger," Michael replied. Ferreira left without another word, her trademark smile noticeably absent. Michael no longer cared. All he wanted was for this damn operation to be finished so he could get back home. "All stations, stand by to drop," he said. "Warfare. Confirm weapons free. You have command authority."

"Warfare, roger," the AI said. "Weapons free. I have command authority."

Michael sat back, happy to leave the battle in Warfare's hands. He glanced around the gutted shell of Redwood's combat information center, an eerie sight through the mist as the pumps depressurized the compartment, the last thin white skeins of moisture drawn, twisting and writhing, away into the air-conditioning ducts. Everything removable had been stripped out in a ruthless drive to reduce the once-great ship's mass; the conversion from heavy cruiser to dreadnought was a brutal and unforgiving process devoid of all finesse. Redwood was a different ship when the yard finished with her. She and her fellow dreadnoughts, Red River and Redress, were the toughest ships in the Federated Worlds' order of battle, heavily armored, their crews of hundreds replaced by a handful of spacers. Being the captain of a dreadnought was a lonely business. Redwood's CIC did not help, its crew of three spacers precious few to take three dreadnoughts into battle. It was an empty, lifeless place, even if he included the space-suited avatars of Warfare and the artificial intelligences responsible for operations and threat assessment. Karol and Kenny, Michael had called them after the obsolete K-Class heavy cruisers Karolev and Kendrick they had served in throughout the Second Hammer War before being retired to Fleet's StratSim facility. Their avatars might look like real people, but that did not help.

Redwood's combat information center was still a shell, its very emptiness a monument to a once dominant Federated Worlds, a dominance destroyed by the Hammer of Kraa in a few brutal seconds at the Battle of Comdur.

Michael dragged air deep into his lungs to sharpen his focus on the operation. He might not want to be here-and he sure as hell did not-but he had to think about Redwood and her crew. If getting them and the rest of the squadron home in one piece was too big a task, he should not be sitting in the command seat. Concentrate now, he urged himself. Concentrate!

"Command, Warfare, stand by… dropping now."

Michael's stomach turned over as Redwood dropped out of pinchspace, the ships erupting into normalspace a scant 10,000 kilometers from their targets, violent flares of ultraviolet marking their arrival. With practiced calm, Redwood's crew confirmed that the threat plot was how it should be. To Michael's relief, there was no sign of the Hammer ships Ferreira was so concerned about. Warfare, oblivious to Michael's petty concerns, was wasting no time; rail-gun salvos from the three dreadnoughts' forward batteries punched toward the hapless Hammer base in tight swarms of tiny slugs and decoys that raced to their targets at more than 3 million kilometers per hour.

Phase 1 of the operation lasted less than a second. With the Fed ships dropping so close, there was no time for Hammer defenses to think, let alone react. In that time, hundreds of thousands of rail-gun slugs blasted the surface of the asteroid into space, obliterating missile platforms and batteries along with the radar and laser stations that controlled them.

Michael grunted in satisfaction, adrenaline-fueled excitement flushing away all his earlier disinterest.

"Command, Warfare. Detaching Red River to investigate heat anomaly. Redwood and Redress closing on primary objective. Stand by deceleration burn."

"Command, roger. Ground assault?"

"Standing by. Landers are at Launch 1."

"Command, roger." Michael sat back, satisfied that the operation was running to plan. Provided that happy state of affairs continued, they should be on their way back to Nyleth inside-

Michael's moment of self-congratulation was destroyed by Jarrod Carmellini, the leading spacer in charge of the dreadnoughts' sensor arrays. "Command, Warfare, this is sensors," he said. "New track. Green 20 Up 0, range 50,000 kilometers. Designated hostile task group Hammer-1. Stand by… hostiles confirmed to be Hammer cruisers, stand by identification… Verity-Class heavy cruisers Vindicator, Vigilant, and Virtue."

"Command, Warfare. Threat concurs."

"Damn, damn, damn," Michael muttered, all too aware he had let Ferreira down, how right she had been, how wrong, how negligent his response.

The threat plot told the story. The three scarlet icons appeared as if from nowhere, their projected vectors running out from their hiding places in the rubble field right at the incoming Fed ships. "Fucking Hammers," Michael cursed under his breath. He did not need this, not now, not ever. Cursing was all he could do: The battle rested in Warfare's hands. Michael sat back and watched the AI divert Redress to support Red River's attempts to head off the Hammers. That left Redwood-now decelerating under emergency power to a stop over the shattered remnants of Balawal-34's surface installations-to finish the operation. Michael cursed some more; launching landers and their precious cargo of marines with Hammer heavy cruisers throwing missiles and rail-gun slugs around was never a good idea.

"Command, sensors," Carmellini said. "Initial missile launch from Hammer-1. Target unknown. Anticipate one more salvo followed by coordinated missile and rail-gun attack. Likely target Redwood and assault landers."

"Command, roger," Michael said. "Threat?"

"Threat concurs," the AI said.

He agreed. The Hammer ships would have been tasked to protect their signals intelligence station, and Redwood posed the most immediate threat to its survival. Red River and Redress should have no problem dealing with the attacking Hammers given their heavier armor and better maneuverability, but they had to be given the time to finish them off. Burying an urge to take control of the engagement back from Warfare, Michael commed it, closing his eyes when its avatar popped into his neuronics.

"Advice," he said. "Consider holding back the ground assault until the Hammer ships have been dealt with. Also consider adjusting vector so as to put Balawal-34 between us and the enemy. That'll at least keep their damn rail-gun slugs off our backs. Any problems with any of that?"

The AI considered that for a moment before responding. "None. I concur."

"Good. Make it so," Michael said, wondering why the AI had not preempted him, even though he knew why. AIs had their weaknesses, and thinking outside the box was one of them; that was why Fleet doctrine insisted, rightly, on keeping humans in the loop. He commed the ground assault commander, Lieutenant Janos Kallewi.

"You copy all that, Janos?" he asked.

"Did, sir," Kallewi said. "I hoped you'd hold us back. Assault landers are tough but not tough enough to keep out an Eaglehawk missile."

"Never mind rail-gun slugs."

"Them, too," Kallewi said with a grin.

"You'll be launching the moment we have dealt with the Hammer ships," Michael said before dropping the comm, steadied by Kallewi's calm confidence.

He turned his attention back to the command plot, now a mass of red and green icons that tracked the battle unfolding between the Hammers and his two dreadnoughts. He liked what he saw; no Hammer would. The enemy ships had been caught between the jaws of the Fed attack the moment they emerged from the rubble field, their vulnerable flanks exposed to Redress's rail guns as she closed in from the right while Red River, approaching head-on, flayed their bows with missiles, rail guns, and antistarship lasers. Things were not looking too good for the Hammers, not that they were sitting back to wait for the inevitable.

"Command, Warfare. Second missile launch from Hammer-1. Stand by salvo commit… missiles on the way. Target Redwood, time of flight 2 minutes 5."

"Command, roger. All stations, Command. Brace for missile attack."

Michael's pulse quickened, the familiar mix of adrenaline-fueled excitement and fear washing the indifference and guilt out of his system. Keeping one eye on the Hammer task group while it fell apart in the face of the attack from Red River and Redress, he watched the incoming missiles crawl their way across the command plot toward Redwood.

Michael knew that missiles alone posed little threat; they were protected by the massive bulk of the asteroid, and the Hammer's rail guns were useless: The attack would not trouble Redwood's defenses. Nonetheless, being on the receiving end of a missile attack was always a nerve-wracking business. They closed in, and the missile attack dissolved into anticlimax. Redwood's medium-range defensive missiles and lasers started the relentless, grinding process of hacking Hammer missiles out of the attack, the space between the ships filling with the violent flares of exploding missile warheads and fusion power plants. The gap between missiles and target narrowed, the salvo a confused and chaotic cloud seeded with decoys intended to ensure that enough missiles survived to destroy Redwood. The dreadnought's close-in defenses took over, a triple layer of lasers, short-range missiles, and chain guns working frantically to keep the Hammer missile attack out. It was chaos, the task of managing Redwood's defense beyond the ability of any human to understand, let alone control. Michael braced himself, without knowing it pulling himself back and down into the protection of his armored combat space suit while around him the ship racketed with the noise of weapon systems unloading ordnance as fast as hydraulics allowed.

A single missile slipped past Redwood's defenses. Its fusion warhead exploded off the port bow in a blue-white ball of radiation that flayed the armor off the dreadnought by the meter, the ship's artificial gravity struggling to absorb the transient shock wave from the blast.

Then it was over, an eerie calm settling over the combat information center, broken only by Ferreira's confirmation that Redwood had suffered no significant damage in the Hammer attack. As the ship's gravity field stabilized, Michael offered up a silent prayer of thanks that the dreadnoughts carried more than enough armor to shrug off a proximity-fired fusion warhead, then a second prayer for the fact that the Hammers had been too close to fire antimatter warheads at them. Dreadnoughts were tough, but the double-pulsed wall of gamma radiation released when matter annihilated an antimatter warhead's payload of antihydrogen was more than powerful enough to destroy one if it exploded close enough.

He turned his attention back to the Hammer task group. The three Hammer ships were in trouble, the two dreadnoughts pressing home their attack with remorseless force, their massive armor absorbing everything the Hammer ships threw at them. Already Vigilant had pulled out of the battle, reeling back from Red River's exquisitely coordinated missile and rail-gun attack; spewing reaction mass from maneuvering thrusters and with main engines at emergency power, the Hammer heavy cruiser tried to get clear before the next wave of Fed missiles and rail-gun slugs arrived to finish her off. Behind Vigilant, Vindicator and Virtue were also in trouble, their flank armor stripped away-in places right down to the titanium frames to expose their inner pressure hulls-by the fusion warheads fitted to the Fed's Merlin missiles, their bows smashed into a shambolic mess of craters by a well-crafted rail-gun attack. Even now, missiles with conventional chemical explosive warheads plunged into the Hammer ships, targeting the weak spots in the ships' armor that would allow lances of plasma deep into their guts, hunting the fusion plants powering the ships' main engines.

The Fed missiles found what they were looking for.

Explosive plasma jets cut through secondary armor, slicing through ceramsteel containment vessels and magnetic flux fields to expose the unimaginable temperatures and pressures at the heart of every fusion plant, unleashing balls of energy so intense that the Hammer ships disappeared, engulfed by spheres of blue-white gas, any lifepods launched by the ships swallowed by a hellish brew of heat and radiation that raced away into the darkness, leaving tumbling masses of heat-scoured armor and heavy equipment held in precarious embrace by shock-twisted titanium frames, with a few pods the only evidence that the ships had ever existed.

Michael watched the cruisers die with mixed feelings; even though these were Hammer ships and deserved everything his ships threw at them, the thought of all the spacers doomed to die that day unsettled him. His earlier elation had evaporated. Poor bastards, he thought. How many more had to die before this damn war was over? he asked himself for the thousandth time. The unemotional tones of Warfare dragged his attention back to the job at hand.

"Command, Warfare. Launching ground assault."

"Command, roger. Advice. Suggest Red River take station on Redwood and detach Redress to recover survivors." If there are any, he said to himself. The Hammers had waited a long time to abandon ship.

"Warfare, roger. Concur. Will advise time to complete."

Michael commed Kallewi. "Good luck, Janos."

"Thank you, sir. We'll be quick."

"Hope so. Command, out."

Michael sat back to watch, patching one of the combat information center's huge screens into the holovid feed coming from Kallewi's helmet-mounted high-definition holocam, the image so real that for an instant Michael might have been there with the marines. Redwood's heavy assault lander, captained by Lieutenant Kat Sedova and blessed with the name Alley Kat, was on final approach to the asteroid. Sedova was a natural pilot, one of the few able to hand fly a lander to its limits, handling the ugly mass with rare precision and grace; true to form, she dropped the lander dirtside without the flashy maneuvering so many lander pilots regarded as an essential part of the job.

Kallewi and his marines wasted no time. They spilled out of the lander the instant Alley Kat's ramp went down, a stream of black-armored shapes powering across the asteroid's surface toward the shattered remains of the station's main personnel access portal, a swarm of gas-powered tacbots leading the way, a small convoy of cargobot sleds bringing up the rear.

The marines made short work of the access air lock, its doors blown open to release a blizzard of ice-loaded air out into space. Balawal-34's small security team, a platoon-sized force of planetary ground defense troops, clumsy in combat space suits, proved no match for the marines. After a short, vicious firefight, the Hammers capitulated; soon a sorry procession wended its way back to Alley Kat, leaving the way clear for the marines to work their way down to the heart of the station: massive storage arrays holding terabytes of electronic intercepts.

The marines' quiet efficiency always impressed Michael. With the security team dealt with, Kallewi split his force into teams, calm, unhurried, and methodical. One started to tear out the storage arrays, piling them onto cargobots for the trip back to the lander. A second started to flush out the civilians who operated the station, a bewildered and shocked group of men conspicuous in their Day-Glo orange emergency space suits. The third team-Kallewi called them his scroungers-ransacked the station for anything of interest to the intelligence analysts, and the fourth laid demolition charges around the station's fusion plant.

Less than thirty minutes after the marines blasted their way into the station, Kallewi commed Michael.

"Command, assault."

"Go ahead."

"We're done here, sir. Pulling back now. Demolition charges set to fire in twenty minutes."

"Roger that. Nice job. Command out."

Satisfied that the ground assault was running to plan, Michael turned his attention back to the command plot. That looked as it should. Red River hung motionless a kilometer from Redwood, its gigantic shape cutting a black hole out of the star-curtained immensity of deepspace. Redress was on her way back to rejoin the rest of the squadron, the last of the Hammer lifepods recovered. Best of all, no Hammer ships appeared on the threat plot. The Nyleth squadron was alone.

Michael sat back. If all went well, they should be on vector back to Nyleth within the hour.

Michael climbed out of his combat space suit, his body stiff and uncooperative. Breath hissed through clenched teeth as he struggled to ease his left leg free of the suit's awkward bulk, the stabbing pain impossible to ignore. You would think, he said to himself, finally free, that the goddamned thing had had more than enough time to get over it. His shipsuit was a sweat-sodden wreck thanks to the stress of combat. Tossing it into the recycler, he prepped his combat space suit before allowing himself the luxury of a long hot shower and a fresh shipsuit. He ignored the demands of duty. He should walk through the ship to make sure that Redwood and her crew had come through okay, but the effort that demanded was beyond him. He slumped into an armchair, the last few dregs of the euphoric high of combat draining away the instant he turned his mind to the crisis that threatened to overwhelm him. He still did not have the faintest idea what to do about it.

A knock on his cabin door announced the arrival of his executive officer.

"Come in, Jayla," Michael said to the XO, waving her into a chair. "Drink?"

"Coffee, sir, thanks," she said.

Michael waited until the drinkbot served Ferreira her coffee. "So, Jayla," he said when the bot withdrew, "I've scheduled the hot wash-up for 18:00. Any initial thoughts?"

Ferreira looked at him for a long time before responding. "Sir," she said at last, "may I speak freely?"

Michael's eyebrows shot skyward. This was a first. "Yes, of course. What's on your mind?"

"You, sir," Ferreira said.

The determined set of her jaw unsettled Michael. "Me?" he said.

"Yes, you. Something's bothering you, sir. I've racked my brains, and I can't work out what it is, but I do know this. You're not the same person who took us into battle at Devastation Reef. Not the same person at all."

Michael's heart pounded; were his personal concerns that obvious? "How, Jayla? How am I different?" he said, with an effort keeping his voice casual.

"You're tired, you're easily distracted, you lose focus, and-with the greatest respect, sir-I don't think you're… I don't think you are handling the squadron the way you used to. Today was a good example. We were lucky, damn lucky, that only three Hammer heavy cruisers waited for us. We knew we had a problem, but we ignored it. We should have taken the time to make another reconsat run, but we didn't even though we had all the time in the world. That was wrong, sir, and it risked this ship and the lives of all onboard. It's not the first time, either. The Barcoola operation. Grendell and Tyrlathi before that. Too many chances taken, too many corners cut. I'm sorry, sir, but this cannot go on."

"Shit, Jayla," Michael muttered. "Now, that's what I call speaking freely."

"Well, sir, I'm your executive officer, and I did ask your permission," she said. "I have a duty to be straight with you, and I wouldn't be much of an exec if I wasn't."

"True," Michael said, wondering how to fix a situation fast spinning out of control. He understood Ferreira well enough to know she was worked up about something right now, and he was that something.

A long and uncomfortable silence followed before Ferreira spoke. "I've checked Fleet Regulations, sir"-her voice hardened into a flat monotone-"and specifically section 34, subsection 15, Duties and Responsibilities of the Executive Officer."

"Ah," Michael said. "I see."

And he did. He knew where this was heading. One part of him wanted to rip Ferreira's head off, another wanted to tell her to do whatever the hell she liked, and a third wanted to curl up in some dark corner until the demons went away. Truth was, he did not know himself how much longer he could go on. The unseen burden on his shoulders was killing him, and now that Ferreira knew something was wrong, the load was close to unbearable.

"May I continue, sir?"

"Yes, yes. Go on," Michael said.

"Well, sir. We both know what my responsibilities are. 3415 is clear. If I have reasonable doubts-"

Michael raised a hand to stop her. "I know, Jayla," he said. "I know what 3415 says. If you have reasonable doubts about my fitness for command, you are obliged to report that fact to the relevant authorities. It is your duty. I understand that."

A long silence followed before Ferreira spoke again.

"I will, sir," she said. "I'm sorry, but I will meet my obligations under 3415. This cannot go on because if it does, well… ah, let's say that I think there is a better way."

"Well, then," Michael said, rubbing eyes gritty with stress, "I suppose… I suppose I'd better tell you what the problem is."

Ferreira looked right at him, eyes narrowed, mouth set in a stubborn line that brooked no dissent. "Yes, sir," she said. "I think you should."

Michael sighed, a sigh of capitulation, a sigh of resignation, the sigh of a sinner brought to repentance. "Okay, okay, I will," he said. "Watch this. It's a personal vidmail I received from one of my Hammer friends. It's self-explanatory."

"Okay, sir," Ferreira said, face screwed up into a look of pure bewilderment.

"Here we go, then," he said comming the vidmail file to the bulkhead-mounted holovid screen.

A man appeared, dressed in the black high-necked uniform and woven silver badges of a senior DocSec officer, a thin smile doing nothing to soften a face dominated by eyes of pale, washed-out amber.

"What the hell?" Ferreira hissed softly.

Michael's heart pounded, kicked into frantic life by an ugly mix of fear and hatred. He could never forget the eyes of a man devoid of compassion, the eyes of a killer, the eyes of a man who had seen so much suffering that he had lost all capacity to care.

Ferreira sat transfixed, silent, unmoving, eyes locked on the holovid screen as the man started to speak.

"Hello, Lieutenant Helfort, or may I call you Michael?" the black-uniformed man said. "Do you remember me? Yes, I'm sure you do, but just in case you've forgotten, I'm Colonel Erwin Hartspring, Doctrinal Security, Section 22. You made me look like such a fool the last time we met, so I've certainly not forgotten you. I know you think we Hammers are a bunch of clods, but we're not. So when an opportunity as good as Lieutenant Anna Cheung falls into our laps, we know what to do with it. She made a big mistake, talking about you openly the way she does.

"So, Michael," Hartspring continued, "we know how you feel about Lieutenant Cheung, and since we've been having such trouble getting to you what with all those damned security drones, we decided it would be much easier if you came to us. Our chief councillor is so insistent. He wants to shake your hand before we… well, let's leave that bit to your imagination, shall we?

"So this is what I propose, Helfort," the man said, "and it's nonnegotiable, so don't waste time or energy trying to wriggle out of it. You've got three months to present yourself to our embassy on Scobie's World. Three months. If you're even a day late, just one, the first Lieutenant Cheung will know about this little plan of mine is when I collect her from her cozy little prisoner of war camp for handover to some of my more… now, let me see, how can I put it? Um… yes… for handover to some of my more high-spirited and energetic troopers for a week of fun and games. They've seen holovids of her, and let me tell you, they are very, very keen for the party to start. They love the way Fed women are so perfect, and I must say your Anna is one of the prettiest. They can hardly wait. Did I mention that there'll be ten of my boys at the party? No? Oh, well, now you know. Anyway, I don't think she'll look quite so attractive when the week's over, so I think I'll send her to one of my firing squads.

"Of course, by then she'll be begging to die, so having her shot is not much of a threat, but I mention it just so you have the full picture. I think I might even command the firing squad myself. It will be fun to watch the single most important person in your life die. Ah, revenge; it is such a sweet thing. And yes, talking of watching, I forgot. We'll have holocams film every minute of the last week of Lieutenant Cheung's life. I'll be sure to send you a copy. I think you'll enjoy it. I know I will. So there it is. Just so we're absolutely clear, our embassy on Scobie's World in three months or Anna dies a death you do not even want to think about. I'll be waiting for you, so be sure to ask for me.

"Oh, what the hell. As you know, I'm not an unreasonable man, Michael. I know it's going to be hard for you to get to Scobie's, so why don't we say October 1? I think that's only fair, don't you? But do not be late, d' you hear?

"Before I go, there is one last condition, so pay attention. Do not even think about telling anyone about this little arrangement of ours. Nobody. Because the minute we find out you've opened your big mouth-and we will-the deal's off and Lieutenant Cheung will be starting the party with my troopers early. You can trust me on that, Michael. Anyway, that's it from me. Looking forward to seeing you real soon. Bye, now."

Ferreira sat back in her chair, her face twisted into a mask of shock and anger. For a while she struggled to speak.

"Those Hammer bastards," she said at last. "You think they'd do that?"

"Hand the woman I love over to a bunch of psychopathic DocSec troopers for a gang-rape party followed by a firing squad?" Michael said, his face creased with pain. "Oh, yes, Jayla, oh, yes. I think they'd do that. I know the man in the holovid. Colonel Erwin Hartspring is exactly as you see him." Without knowing it, Michael ran his fingers across his cheek, where Hartspring's riding crop had slashed his face open all those months before. "I think he'd throw his own mother to those DocSec animals if it suited him."

"Sweetjeezus," Ferreira whispered. "So what… what happens next? What will you do?"

"What can I do?" Michael said. "Without the right orders, I can't even get off Nyleth, never mind get all the way to Scobie's. I'm screwed, Jayla, and because of me, Anna will die a death worse than your worst nightmares, a death so horrific you don't even want to think about it."

Ferreira nodded but said nothing. The silence dragged on for an age before she spoke again. "Tell you what, sir," she said when she climbed out of the armchair. "Leave the problem with me. I'll have a think about it. In the meantime, I'm exercising my authority as Redwood's medical officer to order you to take a day's bed rest. I'll have a medibot come and check you out, prescribe something that will at least allow you to get some sleep. I'll run the hot wash-up and have the report for you to look at when you're ready to deal with it. That okay?"

"Fine by me, Jayla," Michael said, his voice flattened into a monotone. "That's fine by me."

"Good. I'll see you tomorrow." Ferreira halted at the door and turned back to look at Michael. "Thanks for telling me, sir. I'm glad you did. Maybe we can find a way to sort this mess out."

"I hope so, Jayla," Michael said, his face a wooden mask. Unburdening himself to Ferreira had lifted his spirits, but not for long. The familiar feeling of sick dread had flooded back; he knew with a terrible certainty that Ferreira could do nothing to help him.

It was very simple. Either he found a way to hand himself over to Colonel Hartspring or Anna died.

And if Anna died, he might as well be dead, too. Friday, August 3, 2401, UD Offices of the Supreme Council for the Preservation of the Faith, City of McNair, Commitment Planet, Hammer of Kraa Worlds

Jeremiah Polk consigned the file to the trash and sat back. He allowed himself the luxury of a brief, wintry smile, buoyed by Colonel Hartspring's report.

"That's very good," he said to the man opposite. "It seems we are close to getting our hands on Michael Helfort." He paused to savor the prospect: Helfort, beaten, bruised, and bleeding, a man on his knees, cringing, hands outstretched, begging for forgiveness, pleading for his life… and then the moment of truth, a DocSec trooper's gun pressed hard into his temple, his eyes dulled as all hope vanished, the moment when Lieutenant Michael Wallace Helfort understood that he was about to die.

"Not long now," he added. "Not long now."

"No," Councillor de Mel said. "Not long now. The psychological profiling we have done on Helfort tells us that he will do anything to save Miss Cheung, though why anyone would throw his life away for a woman is beyond me."

"He's a Fed, that's why," Polk said with a sneer. "Bloody Feds! Cut away their arrogance and what do you find? Weakness, that's what. Which is why we are going to win this damn war, Councillor. The Feds are piss-weak, and we are not. I have to hand it to Colonel Hartspring, though. He's done well."

"I'll be sure to let him know, Chief Councillor."

"You do that. Doctrinal Security needs more officers like him. Smart, focused, creative, not afraid to get his hands dirty when he needs to. A man who listens to what his chief councillor wants… not like some." He stared at de Mel, forcing the man's eyes to turn away.

"Chief Councillor!" de Mel protested. "I never-"

"Spare me," Polk said. "I know what you think. I know what your staff thinks. I know you think it's absurd I even care about Helfort, but let me tell you this, Councillor. Helfort has his detractors, but to millions of Feds he's a hero. Can you imagine how they will feel when I bring the hero of Hell's Moons, the hero of Devastation Reef, back to face Hammer justice? And he will face justice; he will answer for the Hammers he killed after the breakout from I-2355"-anger had taken hold; Polk's voice had become a shout-"for the men he killed in the attack on Barkersville police station, for killing Kraa knows how many men while he destroyed Kraneveldt. We destroy the Feds when we destroy their gods, and Helfort is one of their gods."

Polk slumped back in his seat, the anger gone as fast as it had come. "But you know all that, Councillor."

"Yes, Chief Councillor," de Mel said feebly. "I do, and I agree with everything you say."

"Yes, I'm sure you do," Polk said. He did not much care whether de Mel agreed. Helfort was an itch he had the power to scratch, so scratch it he would. "Now, enough of that matter. What's next on the agenda?"

"The attack on Governor Bharat's compound."

"Kraa damn it," Polk muttered, the elation and excitement sparked by Helfort's imminent capture gone in an instant. Please, Kraa, he prayed, let me have one day without bad news, just one. He'd seen the holovids: A daring attack on the regional governor's elaborate private compound had left the governor and most of his staff dead and his prized compound a blazing pyre spewing a column of smoke into the sky, a triumphant beacon of defiance visible to millions of ordinary Hammers. "Let me guess. The NRA did it, they escaped, DocSec has nobody in custody, and the morons on the streets out there"-he jabbed a thumb at the window-"approve of what's happened. Am I right?"

"Yes, sir. I'm afraid you are. Support for the NRA and its political wing, the Nationalists, is up eight points. Governor Bharat was an unpopular man."

Polk snorted, openly derisive. "Bharat? Unpopular? Kraa, what a fucking understatement! The average Hammer hated the jerk. And are we surprised? No, we are not," Polk said. "Governor Bharat was brutal, greedy, and corrupt, and we both know it. He was also too stupid to know when to stop shoving his fat hands into the pockets of ordinary Hammers. Well, he's paid for it now. Saves me having the sleazebag shot."

De Mel said nothing.

Polk sighed. "Okay. Next."

"Yes, sir. You will have read my report on…"

Polk watched de Mel leave his office. Why was there never any good news? Kraa, it was depressing. Everywhere he looked, the Hammer Worlds were in the shit up to their ears, and there seemed to be very little that he or anyone else in the Hammer government could do about it.

The heretic New Revolutionary Army still refused to accept that fact that they were fighting a war they could never win.

Despite the billions and billions of k-dollars invested in them, the PGDF-Planetary Ground Defense Force-had failed to dislodge the NRA from its bases in the Branxton Ranges.

Instead of fighting the NRA, the PGDF preferred to bitch and moan about the marines. Things were so bad, Polk was convinced that the PGDF and the marines would rather kill each other than the NRA.

Then there was Doctrinal Security. The pressure was beginning to tell: Morale was poor and getting worse, desertions were at their highest in a decade, and DocSec was so riddled with NRA agents, it was a miracle they had any secrets left at all.

Add to all that the widespread social unrest, fueled by a sagging economy and endemic corruption, sparked into widespread street violence by every NRA success. How much worse could things get? Let me see, Polk thought, how about if the-

"Chief Councillor, sir."

The self-effacing tones of his personal assistant cut across Polk's litany of woes.

"Yes, Singh?" Polk replied.

"Councillor Solomatin's shuttle has landed, sir. He will be here in twenty minutes."

Polk's chest tightened, a mix of fear and anticipation; maybe the day would bring some good news. "Fine. I'll see him when he arrives."

"Yes, sir."

Taking a cup of coffee from the drinkbot, Polk walked to the window. Perhaps things weren't so bad. Helfort was all but in the bag, Solomatin had promised good news, and best of all, the war against the Federated Worlds was going well. The Feds had neither the ships nor the spacers to force the war to a conclusion, so the conflict was dragging on in an endless sequence of minor engagements that did nothing to tip the strategic balance away from the Hammers. Polk had no complaints; the Hammer fleet would keep the Feds on the defensive for another five years, and five years would see the Hammers' new antimatter plant operational. Then it would be game over. He grinned a hungry grin of anticipation as he contemplated the prospect of the once proud and arrogant Federated Worlds bludgeoned to their knees by Hammer antimatter warheads. And when that happy day arrived, the Feds and every other inhabited system would acknowledge the new power in humanspace: Jeremiah Polk, chief councillor of the Hammer of Kraa Worlds.

It was an intoxicating thought, and his head swam as he imagined how it would feel to stand a man alone, with all of humanspace at his feet.

Polk stared at Viktor Solomatin, councillor for foreign relations, while the man found his seat. Solomatin was one of the least attractive human beings Polk had ever had the misfortune to work with. Given the way the Hammer Worlds' political system favored amoral thugs, that was saying something.

Not that Solomatin was an unattractive man. Far from it: Men and woman alike loved his raffish good looks and effortless charm. No, the man's ugliness was all on the inside: His good looks concealed a vicious temper fueled by a dangerous combination of sadistic brutality and ruthless opportunism concealed under a veneer of urbane sophistication. A tiny shiver caressed Polk's spine with icy fingers; one had to know Solomatin to find him unattractive. If the man thought for one second it would be to his advantage, he would reach out across the desk and strangle the life out of Polk with his bare hands.

"So, Councillor," Polk said. "I've read your report. I must say I am surprised our Pascanician friends are being so accommodating."

"You shouldn't be, Chief Councillor," Solomatin grunted; he waved a dismissive hand. "They are venal, mercenary scum, which is why they refused to join the allied trade embargo after the last war: too much money to be made smuggling contraband. They'd sell their mothers for a buck. I think it's that simple. They see the upside, and we both know it's huge. With the Feds on the ropes, there's not much downside for them. We'll need to keep a lid on this, though. If the Feds find out before it's a done deal, they could still make things difficult."

"I agree. We'll hold off briefing the rest of the council for the time being. What's the next step?"

"Well, we have agreement on the main principles, so now it's down to the details."

"How long?"

"Hard to say, Chief Councillor. Agreeing on the time of day with the Pascanicians is like negotiating with a barrel of snakes, so it's not going to be easy, but I'd say year's end at the latest. I've agreed with Minister Felgate that we'll work toward a December meeting between you and the Pascanician president to tie up any loose ends. Provided we can, I think you'll be able to sign the treaty there and then."

"That's doable?" Polk said, doubt creasing his forehead and narrowing his eyes. Solomatin did not do the Pascanicians justice; they were worse than a hundred barrels of snakes.

"Yes, it is," Solomatin said, radiating an easy confidence. "Most certainly it is. Believe me, Chief Councillor, those greedy sonsofbitches want this every bit as much as we do. We stand to gain what we want and more, but so do they."

"Year's end," Polk said. "I think that would be most satisfactory. Of course the Feds will find out, but when they do, it will be far too late. Well done, Councillor, well done."

"Thank you, Chief Councillor," Solomatin said. Saturday, August 4, 2401, UD FWSS Redwood, in pinchspace en route to Nyleth-B

"How are you feeling, sir?" Ferreira said.

"Not so tired… you know…" Michael's voice trailed off into silence. He was lying, of course; he felt drained to the point of exhaustion.

Redwood's executive officer nodded. "I know," she said. "I've been thinking about what you told me. I have some questions for you."


"First, is Anna that important to you?"

Michael sat bolt upright, anger flooding his face. "What do you mean, is Anna important to me? Are you going to tell me I should just walk away, let Hartspring's goons-"

"Steady, sir," Ferreira said, her voice calm, reasonable. "I'm not the enemy here. I'm just trying to understand things, okay?"

"Ah, okay," Michael said, slumping back in his chair, the anger gone. "Sorry, Jayla."

"No problem. So is she? That important, I mean."

"Yes, she is. From the day I met her back at Space College, I've known that she's the one I want to spend my life with. In this whole screwed-up universe, she's the only one who means anything. So yes, she's important, more important than my life, my career, this ship, Fleet, everything."

"Even the lives of your crew?"

Michael's eyes narrowed; he looked at Ferreira for a long time. "No," he said eventually. "That is the one exception. No, Anna Cheung is not more important than the lives of my crew." His face twisted into a bitter smile. "I haven't lost the plot, Jayla."

Ferreira smiled back. "I never thought you had, sir."

"Let me put it this way, Jayla. If it takes my life to save hers, then that's the way it'll be. I won't allow Colonel Hartspring to destroy Anna because of me. I can't. For some reason, this whole fucked-up war has become personal, who the hell knows why. The Hammers hate me so bad, they'll do whatever it takes to get their hands on me. For chrissakes, I'm just a damn lieutenant doing his job, so why me? Don't they have better things to do with their time? Anyway, who cares why? The plain fact is that Anna's got nothing to do with any that, and I won't let her pay with her life for whatever it is I've done to piss off the Hammers. Simple as that."

"I guess that answers the question," Ferreira said quietly. "So why haven't you told the brass? If you came clean, maybe they'd let you turn yourself over… if that's what you want."

"Hell, yes. It's exactly what I want, but there's no point even asking. My security clearance is way too high. I know too much. I'd never get approval."

"Thought so," Ferreira said with a frown. "What about neurowiping?"

"Not an option. Apart from my neuronics, everything of value to the Hammers is in long-term memory, so I'd need a full neurowipe, which nobody in the Federated Worlds will give me. The law's clear: Without a court order following a conviction for a criminal offense, full neurowiping is illegal."

Michael paused to rub eyes gritty with accumulated stress. "Chicken and egg. I need to get off the Worlds to find someone to neurowipe me so I'm no longer a security risk, but I can't get off the Worlds because I'm a security risk." He laughed, a short, bitter sound devoid of any humor. "Anyway, turning yourself over to the enemy in time of war is desertion. I don't think the admirals will be too keen to agree with that. No, I'm screwed, Jayla, and because of me, Anna's dead. The only woman I've ever loved, and she's going to die because of me."

"Not sure that's true, sir," Ferreira said. "There may be another way."

"Another way?" Hope flared in Michael's eyes for an instant, and just as quickly it died. "No, Jayla, there's no other way. If I'm not at the Hammer embassy on Scobie's by October 1, Anna's dead. The problem is I cannot see how, and believe me when I say that not a minute goes by without me trying to find a way."


"Fleet will never go for it even though we know where the Hammers are keeping Anna."

"You know that?"

Michael nodded. "I do. Anna's one smart woman. She encoded the information in her monthly vidmail. The survivors from Damishqui are in Camp J-5209, southeast of the Hammer capital, McNair, along with the crews of the rest of the task group destroyed in the Salvation operation. What's left of them, that is. Know how many made it to the lifepods, Jayla?"

"No, sir."

"Bit over four hundred spacers and marines. That's all that's left from eleven front-line ships thrown away in a pointless operation."

"That was a bad business," Ferreira said. "My sister's husband lost a cousin. He was an engineer on Unukalhai. Poor bastards never had a chance."

"No, they didn't, Jayla, but that's the price we pay for not standing up to our politicians. Anyway, we digress. Knowing where Anna is doesn't help us much. Breaking her out of the camp is feasible, but getting her and the rescue force off-planet is not. It's impossible. Anyway, it's all academic. Fleet will never buy it, not with the pressure on them at the moment. They don't have the ships to spare. Even if they had, why would they? In the end, Anna's only another spacer. They wouldn't care what happened to her. To be fair, they can't."

"Umm," Ferreira said, eyes half-closed, finger to lips tapping out her concentration. "Umm… let me see… yes, based on what you've told me, the only option is a one-way rescue mission."

"One-way?" Michael demanded. "What do you mean, one-way?"

"The rescuers don't try to get off-planet. You are dead right. A rescue operation might be able to get past the Hammers' orbital defenses; it would never get back into space. Never. So they break Anna and everyone else out of J-5209 and head for the hills. The latest intelligence summaries say the Hammers' disloyal opposition-the New Revolutionary Army and their political wing, the Nationalist Party-is beginning to have some success. I'm sure they'd be happy to look after the rescue force."

"I'm sure they would, Jayla," Michael said. "They looked after me when I was on the run after Ishaq was destroyed. The NRA's not the problem. The problem is how long the rescue force has to stay dirtside. Who knows how long this damn war will drag on? We're stalemated, and that looks like how it's going to stay. Fleet's saying what, five more years? So who'd want to be trapped on Commitment with a bunch of raggedy-assed guerrillas for that long? Maybe even longer-who would know? I've been there once, and that was enough, I can tell you. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone."

"Tell you what, sir. Leave it to me. There are things I need to do. Can we pick this up later?"

"We can, Jayla, we can. Anything I need to do?" Michael asked, all too aware that he had in effect dumped command of Redwood and the rest of the Nyleth squadron onto Ferreira's shoulders for the moment.

"No, sir," she said with a broad grin. "All under control. Redwood's sweet, the troops aren't bitching any more than usual, the Hammer guests are quiet, and the marines are happy doing whatever the hell it is marines do when there's bugger all to do."

Michael laughed. Ferreira's smile was infectious; knowing he was able to rely on her lifted his spirits. Sharing the burden of Colonel Hartspring's horrific message lifted them even further even if, deep down inside, a tiny, stubborn kernel of despair reminded him that there was nothing Ferreira could do to help him out of the Hammers' trap.

"I'm pleased to hear it," Michael said. "Now, enough of this lying around stuff. I'm declaring myself fit-no, don't argue with me-so once I'm showered and changed, I'll walk through the ship and then I'll be in the CIC if you need me."


Watching her leave, Michael realized he had gotten something wrong. Even if there was something Ferreira could do to help him out of the Hammers' trap, he could not allow it. The problem was his and his alone, and that was the way it had to stay. He either found a way to turn himself into Colonel Hartspring or he didn't.

But even though deep down he knew it would make no difference in the end, it still felt good to know that there was at least one person who understood the pain he was going through; the relief he had felt unburdening himself had been powerful and immediate.

With the gnawing fear of what might happen to Anna buried for the moment, Michael felt better than he had for long time despite the fact that telling Ferreira about Anna had changed nothing. He set off to walk through Redwood even though his left leg had been painful all day. Walk! He smiled in spite of himself. The best he could manage was the awkward, stiff-legged limp he so hated, worried that people might think he was making more of the injury than it deserved.

He did not have to do the walk-around. Mother-the ship's primary AI, the AI that kept Redwood's legion of AIs in line-kept him abreast of everything, but if he had learned anything during his time in the fleet, it was that a briefing from an AI was no substitute for seeing at first hand what was going on. He needed to; he had let his crew down badly. He-and they-had been lucky the Balawal-34 operation had not gone wrong.

Stepping into a drop tube, Michael made his way down to Redwood's main hangar, a huge compartment once home to the cruiser's air group. The cavernous space held the ship's two landers: the massive bulk of Alley Kat and its much smaller cousin, a light ground-attack lander nicknamed Widowmaker. Michael approved of the name; he hoped that one day the lander would send its fair share of Hammers to meet their precious god, Kraa. Beyond them sat the temporary accommodation modules housing Redwood's marine detachment. Michael smiled when he saw what Kallewi and his marines were up to.

Crash mats had been spread across the hangar deck. On them Redwood's entire complement of marines, an overstrength platoon totaling fifty, was involved in what looked like a minor riot, bodies diving and tumbling every which way while Kallewi and his platoon NCO, Sergeant Tchiang, barked orders and insults in equal mea sure. Spotting Michael, Kallewi called a halt, marines collapsing exhausted to the deck. Michael made his way over.

"Abusing the troops again, Janos?"

"You know me, sir. Busy marines are happy marines, even if they are kicking the crap out of each other. Free play self-defense drills. Fighting in a crowd is an art." Kallewi paused to look at Michael. "You okay, sir?"

"Better, thanks. Your guys went well on Balawal-34. A good, tight operation. Well done."

Kallewi waved an arm as if to dismiss the compliment. "Routine stuff, sir. Thankfully, the Hammers didn't think to reinforce their internal security force even though they seemed to have warning of the attack. Things would have been a lot harder if they had."

Michael nodded, conscious how cavalier he had been with the lives of the men and women under his command. "They still haven't worked out dreadnoughts yet. Would have been a different story if we'd been conventional heavy cruisers. Anyway, how's Lance Corporal Baader?"

"Not a happy marine, sir, but he'll be fine. Flesh wound to the upper arm. Nothing serious. He should be a hundred percent inside a week."

"Good. Anything else I need to know?"

"No, sir."

"Okay. I'll be in the CIC when I've done my walk-around."


Michael set off aft, making his way through the massive armored doors cut through the secondary armor protecting Redwood's machinery spaces and into the ship's starboard main engine and primary power compartment. There, according to Mother, he would find Redwood's complement of engineers stripping out a shock-damaged pump, and find them he did, the four spacers struggling to move the mass, which was awkward and uncooperative even with the help of liftbots. Michael hung back; when they broke for a breather, he walked over.

"Winning?" he asked Chief Fodor, Redwood's senior engineer and the man responsible for the ship's fusion reactors.

"Think so, sir, though I'm too old for this shit," Fodor said, giving the recalcitrant pump a kick. "I love dreadnoughts, but there are times when I miss having hundreds of junior spacers around to do the hard stuff. Like moving"-he gave the pump another kick-"this pigging piece of crap."

"Amen to that," Chief Chua, Redwood's propulsion tech, said with some feeling, mopping his sweat-beaded brow. "I'll be glad to see the back of this sonofabitch. Tell you what, sir," he added, "maybe Lieutenant Kallewi can lend us a few marines. There are plenty of them."

"They're too busy on the mats killing each other at the moment, Chief, but if you're stuck, just ask."

"I will, sir, though it goes against the grain, asking marines for help."

Michael grinned. Generally, spacers and marines rubbed along okay, but the relationship could be prickly at times. "Ask anyway, Chief. Now, Petty Officers Lim and Morozov. All well with the power and habitat departments?"

"My part of ship's sweet as a nut, sir," Lim replied, brushing the hair out of her eyes. "Can't speak for habitat, though."

"It's fine, and well you know it, Petty Officer Lim," Morozov said with a grin. "Well, this week, anyway."

Michael returned the smile. Morozov had a point. Redwood's conversion from heavy cruiser to dreadnought had involved ripping out every piece of equipment not required for her new role, a task carried out in some cases with more enthusiasm than good sense. Morozov had been forced to spend hours keeping Redwood's recycling systems online thanks to the yard's carelessness.

"Thanks for the update, team," Michael said. "I will now exercise the privileges of rank and decline the opportunity to lend you guys a hand"-a muffled chorus of hrrmpphs greeted this statement-"and if anyone wants to moan about that, I'll be in the CIC, where I will be happy to hear what you have to say."

"Don't worry about it, sir," Fodor said. "We need the exercise."

"No comment, Chief. See you later."

Returning forward, Michael had one more stop to make. Sedova had reported a defect on one of Alley Kat's fusion plants, and although Mother had briefed him in detail on what the lander's problem was, he wanted to hear it for himself. Returning to the hangar deck, he ignored the marines, their mock riot now back in full swing, and made his way across to the looming bulk of the heavy assault lander, its brutal, functional shape a stark reminder of its enormous power. Once inside the lander's brilliantly lit cargo bay, he found Sedova talking to her loadmaster.

"Petty Officer Trivedi," he said. "Mind if I borrow your skipper for a moment?"

"No problems, sir," Trivedi said. "I'll be on the flight deck if you need me."

"Kat," he said when Petty Officer Trivedi had left. "How's things?"

"Good, sir," Sedova said. "Florian thinks she's found the problem with Alley Kat's starboard fusion plant."


"It is. One of the controllers is unstable. We have spares, so it's only a matter of swapping it out."

"Pleased to hear it. Don't like our backup ride home ending up defective on us."

Sedova grimaced. "Nor me, sir. I know Fleet's pushed for ships, but not sending a casualty recovery ship along to provide backup seems to me to be… well, not a good thing," she said.

Michael nodded his agreement even though Sedova's words contained more than a touch of implied criticism. "I agree, and my report on Balawal-34 will have a lot to say on that subject. I know we have to use Alley Kat for ground assaults, but I also know we shouldn't, not if she's our only one and only pinchspace-capable lander. I've spoken to Admiral Jaruzelska, and she agrees, so I'm hopeful we can get us another Block 6 lander. If Fleet won't task a casualty recovery ship in support of our operations and we lose Alley Kat, we must have another way home."

"Pleased to hear you say that, sir. The admiral… I know she's still Commander, Dreadnought Force, but does that mean anything? I mean, there are only three dreadnoughts left. Not much of a force."

"No, it's not. As for the admiral, she has clout, probably more than she's ever had, thanks to the Devastation Reef operation. Winning that one was a big feather in her cap. The politicians love her, so if she says she can swing it, yes, I think we'll get what we want."

"Hope so."

Michael knew what Sedova was thinking. Fleet's unwillingness to continue the dreadnought experiment despite the success the ships had achieved at Devastation Reef-against overwhelming odds, it had to be said-was inexplicable, not to mention a source of considerable frustration for all of Redwood's crew. He broke the moment of silence that followed. "The rest of your team. All okay?"

"Yes, all good."

"Fine. I'll check on our guests, then I'll be in the CIC."


Michael left the hangar and went forward to the drop tube. Stepping in, he dropped down to what had been the mine magazine when Redwood was a conventional heavy cruiser. Stripped back to bare metal, it housed over a hundred unhappy Hammer prisoners of war. Even with Kallewi's marines, there were too many of them to take chances, so they had been locked in for the duration of the transit back to Nyleth, living off emergency rations and dependent on chemical toilets to meet the demands of nature. Michael hated to think what the magazine smelled like.

The marines standing guard snapped to attention when Michael appeared.

"At ease, Lance Corporal Karoly. How are our guests?"

"Quiet, sir," Karoly said, "and bored shitless. Lying around. Couple of hours ago, they tried the old fight routine, hoping we'd be dumb enough to come crashing in. Morons! We left them to it, and they gave up eventually. Apart from that, nothing much to report."

"Way I like it, Corp. Holocams still working?"

Karoly smiled. "Didn't take them long to find them, but even the most determined Hammer can't get through armored plasglass. They spent ages trying, though. Slow learners, those Hammers. We've organized a temporary holovid if you'd like a look," she said, waving a hand at a screen sitting on a battered old desk.

Michael scanned the holovid with interest. Hammer prisoners littered the deck of the mine magazine, a scruffy bunch dressed in gray shipsuits and plasfiber boots churned out by Redwood's overworked clothesbot. What made them stand out was the way they looked. Thanks to the Hammer's blanket prohibition on cosmetic geneering, they were-Michael could not think of any other way to say it-an ugly bunch. By comparison, even the least attractive Fed had supermodel looks.

"Look quiet enough to me, Corp."

"Well, sir, I hate tempting fate and all that, but unless there's a thermic lance in there we don't know about, they're not going to cause us any problems."

"Let's hope so. The good news is we're on schedule, so we won't have to tolerate them much longer. Anyway, looks like the green machine has things in hand, so I'm off to the CIC."


Back in Redwood's combat information center, Michael settled himself into the command seat, his eyes instinctively scanning the holovids carrying the command and threat plots. Not that he needed to. There was nothing to see. Despite investing billions of FedMarks trying, nobody had been able to find a way to intercept starships in pinchspace, but the habit was deeply ingrained. Redwood's coxswain, Chief Petty Officer Matti Bienefelt, had the watch. Michael waited until she finished talking to the ship's navigation AI about a minor instability in the pinchspace generators.

Satisfied that Redwood was not about to make an unscheduled drop into normalspace, Bienefelt turned to Michael. "Welcome back, sir," she said, the concern on her face obvious. "You had me worried."

"I'll be fine, Matti," he said, ignoring yet another twinge of conscience. He and Bienefelt had been through a lot in a short space of time; Redwood was the sixth ship they had served on together: DLS-387, Eridani, Adamant, Tufayl, and Reckless were the others, and Redwood would not be the last. Bienefelt had volunteered to be his coxswain, and more than anyone else onboard, he owed it to the woman to keep her alive. It pained him to think how cavalier he had been about her welfare, so absorbed in problems that were his and his alone that he had forgotten that looking after the people entrusted to his care came second only to achieving the mission. One of the golden rules of command, his mother always said, and he had treated it with contempt.

Bienefelt's face made it clear she was not convinced.

"Really, I will," Michael protested. "I will."

"Mmm," Bienefelt said, forehead creased by a skeptical frown.

Michael sighed. Redwood's coxswain knew him well enough to work out that something was wrong; quite rightly, she would be asking herself why Michael did not trust her enough to ask for her help. So what was he to do? She might be one of the best spacers in the fleet, but she could do nothing to get him out of this mess. He wished she could.

So he did the only thing left to him: nothing. Settling back, he watched the distance to run counter spinning off the light-years as Redwood hurtled through pinchspace toward home, the massive bulk of an unhappy Bienefelt sitting in silence alongside him. Sunday, August 5, 2401, UD FWSS Redwood, in pinchspace en route to Nyleth-B

"Captain, sir."

"Yes, Jayla?"

"You free at the moment, sir? I'd like some of your time if I may."

Michael's heart kicked. Had she found a way to save Anna? "Of course. My cabin?" he said, trying to keep his voice steady.

"I'll see you there, sir."

Michael studied Ferreira's face as she walked into his cabin, disappointed to see that it conveyed what it always conveyed when she came to talk business: nothing. "Have a seat," he said. "What can I do for you?"

"This is not an official visit, sir. It's about Lieutenant Cheung."

"Oh?" Michael's mouth had gone dry. Ferreira's face might have been a wooden mask for all it told him. Had she found a way out for him, for Anna?

"Yes," Ferreira continued. "I've thought long and hard about what you told me yesterday."

"And?" Michael asked, moving forward in his chair until he was perched on its very edge, leaning forward, his eyes locked on Ferreira's face.

"And not much, sir, I'm sorry to say."

Michael slumped back in his seat, bitter disappointment flooding through him; for an instant he had allowed himself to hope that against all the odds, Ferreira had found a way through. "Okay," he said, his voice crushed by despair, "no surprises there. I haven't been able to find a way out, either, so I suppose it was silly of me to expect that anyone else would. If there's no way through, there's no way through."

"No way through that's legal, you mean, don't you?"

"What the hell does that mean, Lieutenant Ferreira?" Michael barked, all too aware that his executive officer was about to cross a line she should not even come close to, never mind cross.

"Steady, sir," Ferreira said, her voice even. "Just trying to keep an open mind."

"I think this meeting's over, don't you? I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Anna's my problem, not yours." He looked right at Ferreira. "I'm sorry, Jayla," he continued, speaking so softly that he was barely audible. "I'm sorry I ever mentioned it to you. I should not have done that. It was wrong to involve you."

"I'm not sure that's right, sir. Isn't that what execs are for? To share the burden of command?"

"Yes, they are. But Anna's a personal problem. She has nothing to do with my command of this ship."

"That's arguable, sir, with all due respect."

"I know, and you're right. Which is why I've made a decision. I am required by Fleet Regulations to raise any personal problems that might adversely affect my ability to command this ship with my superiors, so that's what I am going to do. A bit late, but there you go. As soo-"

"Sir!" Ferreira protested. "Sir, you can't-"

"Don't interrupt me, Lieutenant."

"No, sir. Sorry, sir."

"Apology accepted. Now, from here on out, this matter is no longer up for discussion. As soon as we get back to Nyleth, I'm going to see Commodore Anjula. If she asks, I will tell her that I told you of the problem and that you advised me to report the matter to her as soon as possible. And maybe she and the powers that be can come up with something to get me out of this mess."

"As you wish, sir," Ferreira said, her words taut with bitterness and anger.

"Come on, Jayla," Michael said with a half smile. "I'm pretty sure the first thing Anjula will do is relieve me of my command. I know I would if I was in her place, so it looks to me like you're going to get your first ship rather sooner than we expected. And what a ship; I'm going to miss Redwood."

"Sir!" Ferreira objected, her face coloring.

"Sorry, bad time to be kidding around. Anyway, there it is. My decision's made, and I want you to respect that. You are not to raise this matter with me again. Is that clear, or do I have to give you a formal, written order?"

"No, sir," Ferreira said, her face an expressionless mask. "No, that's clear and I understand the order."

"Good. Was there anything else you wanted to talk about?"

"No, sir."

"Very well. You may carry on."

"Sir," Ferreira said. Without another word, she climbed to her feet and walked out of Michael's day cabin.

"Shit," Michael said softly as Ferreira's exit hammered home the brutal fact that he would never see Anna alive again.

"Captain, sir."

"Yes, Jayla?"

"Can you meet me in Conference-2, sir? There's something I want to show you."

"Okay," Michael said with a puzzled frown. "Anything I should know about?"

"I'd rather show you, sir, if that's okay."

"Fine, fine. I'm on my way."

When Michael opened the door to the conference room, what he saw brought him to an abrupt halt. The fact that the people who made Redwood an effective fighting ship-her officers and senior spacers-sat at the table waiting shocked him, not least because he knew they were not there to talk about the weather back on Nyleth.

"Attention on deck," Ferreira barked, the order snapping everyone present to his or her feet.

"Carry on, please," Michael said as he sat down. "Jayla, I think you'd better tell me what this is all about."

"Yes, sir. I will." Ferreira paused to collect herself. "In a word, sir, it's about you," she said.

Michael struggled to maintain his composure, his body reluctant to breathe properly, his heart racing out of control. Had Ferreira decided to exercise her right to declare him unfit for command? She had every reason and every right to do exactly that, and this was the way to do it: in front of witnesses who would testify to the inevitable board of inquiry that she had followed due process. Was that why he was here?

"Okay," he said. "I'm listening."

"First, let me tell you what I've done since last we spoke about Lieutenant Cheung," Ferreira said.

In an instant, anger flared up white-hot; Michael fought to keep it in check. "What the hell are you doing raising that here, of all places?" he said, his voice a shout. "That's a private matter, and you know it." Eyes narrowed with rage, Michael glared at Ferreira. "Did I not give you a direct order that you were not to raise it ever again? I damn well did, didn't I?"

"Yes, sir. You did. You gave it to me, and I understood that order. No argument, sir."

"Then what the hell are you doing, Lieutenant? You realize I cannot ignore your willful refusal to obey that order?"

"Yes, sir." Ferreira nodded. "I do realize that."

Michael shook his head, baffled. "Then what the hell are you playing at? If we're here to talk about Anna Cheung, then forget it. She is my problem, not yours, and I regret even telling you about it. Do not make things worse, Jayla," he said, getting to his feet. "I'm going to forget I was ever here, and so are all of you. And that's an order," he added running his eyes across the faces of his senior crew.

Grim-faced, mouth set in a firm line, Ferreira refused to concede. She shook her head. "I'm sorry, sir," she said, "but whether you like it or not, that is what we are here to talk about, and I strongly recommend you hear us out. If by the end of this meeting you don't want our help, that is of course your decision, and we will respect it. However, I have to tell you"-there was no mistaking the steely determination in Ferreira's voice-"that you will hear what we have to say… please, sir. Sit down and listen. That's all I ask."

Michael could not speak; he stared at Ferreira, stunned by her open defiance and more than a little cowed by the fact that every one of the people that his command of Redwood relied on was sitting in front of him, their faces every bit as unrelenting as Ferreira's.

Chief Bienefelt broke the awful silence. "Sir!" she said, leaning her enormous bulk forward the better to look Michael right in the face. "You need to trust us. Hear what we have to say, then decide what to do next. Please."

Michael had no idea what to think anymore. Part of him wanted to accept defeat, to confess all to Commodore Anjula, to abandon Anna, to let her die. Another part of him wanted desperately to hear what the people he most trusted, the people who made Redwood the ship she was, said. They might see a way to save the woman he loved more than his own life, but how?

Unless… Hope flared. Maybe there was a way; maybe he was arrogant and stupid to think he was the only person able to solve the problem. These were smart people, so why not hear what they had to say?

"Okay," he said at last, brushing away the tendrils of doubt. "I'll listen, but if I say stop, we stop. Understood?"

"Yes, sir," Ferreira said. "Before we start, I'd like confirmation that your neuronics are not recording."

Michael did not even bother arguing. He had decided to trust Ferreira, so he would, even if people blocked recording only when they wanted to push the boundaries.

"Thank you, sir. Now," she continued, her voice brisk, "everyone here has seen the Hammer holovid with the threat to Lieutenant Cheung. Following our conversation yesterday, sir, I spoke to everybody one on one to see how we might go about dealing with that threat, and that's what we're here to talk about. I was a bit surprised to discover that everyone agrees there is only one way to solve this problem."

Ferreira checked herself; Michael's shock must have been obvious, the idea that his people had contrived a way to save Anna too much to bear. "Go on," he croaked.

"Well, sir, we see it like this. To start with, we…"

Michael struggled to come to terms with Ferreira's proposal late into the night. Restless, unable to settle, he paced the length of his cabin, stomach knotted into a tight ball by the appalling dilemma Colonel Hartspring and the Hammers had thrust into his life.

What Ferreira wanted to do was extraordinary… and outrageous. No, that did not even come close to describing what his executive officer was suggesting. If he went along with her, he would be party to the biggest single crime in the history of the Federated Worlds, an honor he did not relish.

The problem was that even though some of what she had said was good, too much of it was bad. The basic outline was fine… in principle. True, it needed a ton of detailed work to turn it into a workable plan, a plan that had a reasonable chance of getting the desired result without killing everyone in the process, but Michael was more than confident that was doable.

Sadly, feasibility was never the issue. Criminality, criminality of unprecedented magnitude and compass, was.

Ferreira's plan was simple: mutiny on a scale not seen in the Federated Worlds Fleet, a mutiny that would take three frontline dreadnoughts out of the order of battle. It was insane, it was risky, it was wrong. He cursed softly, regretting the moment of weakness that had prompted him to unburden himself to her. If he had kept his mouth shut, she would not be contemplating something no commissioned officer should ever contemplate, let alone talk about. Worse, she was bringing along every other commissioned and noncommissioned officer onboard with her; how she had managed to persuade nine hard-headed spacers and marines to agree with her was a complete mystery. Not that it mattered now; the proverbial cat was well and truly out of the bag, and there was nothing he could do to change the situation. What was done, was done.

Oh shit, he said to himself, what a bloody mess.

Strictly speaking, the mere fact that his people had discussed mutiny was enough to see them condemned; the Federated Worlds Code of Military Justice was unambiguous on that score. So far as the law was concerned, a mutiny took place the instant two or more spacers talked about doing something illegal together. Even if that was all they did, even if they only talked about what they might do, it made no difference.

They were guilty of mutiny.

That was just the start. If he ordered the base provost marshal onboard to arrest Ferreira, Sedova, Kallewi, and all the rest-six senior spacers and one marine NCO-when Redwood dropped into orbit around Nyleth, he would be arrested, too. By agreeing to talk with them, he was guilty along with Ferreira and all the rest of them.

He shook his head, appalled at the risks Ferreira and the rest of them were prepared to take to help him out and angry with himself at how neatly Ferreira had trapped him.

One thing was clear. If he agreed with Ferreira, he would be branded a renegade for all time. If he did not, he would be damned anyway, the captain whose crew mutinied. Either way, he was well and truly screwed. Of course, he had the option to ignore the whole business. That might save the sorry asses of his people, but the Hammers would still stand Anna up against a wall and blow her brains out.

One more thing was clear: Ferreira had snared him in a web from which there was no escape. She was smart, smarter than he had ever given her credit for. She would have worked out the options early in the piece, that was for sure.

Mind churning, he stood there, staring into the darkness at nothing. What the hell was he…

It was all too much; he could not handle it anymore. Comming drugbots into his bloodstream, he threw himself into his bunk and was asleep a few minutes later. Tuesday, August 7, 2401, UD FWSS Redwood, in pinchspace en route to Nyleth-B

"Okay, everyone," Michael said. "We drop into Nyleth nearspace in six hours. So we need to finish this business. It cannot drag on. Agreed?"

A chorus of "agreeds" followed.

"Good. Okay, first things first. What happened yesterday was conspiracy to mutiny. You know it, I know it. I cannot begin to describe how proud that makes me, that you are prepared to lay your careers on the line for me like that, but that's only me being emotional… and this is not the time for emotion. This is the time for cold, hard logic. This is the time to do the right thing for the right reasons. So let me be very, very clear… I will not allow any of you to do the right thing for the wrong reasons."

Michael paused. Shock flickered across the faces of all present. He knew his opening remarks were not what they expected. "Enough talk," he said. "We have a decision to make. I can ignore what happened yesterday, I can pretend it didn't happen, I can hope it all gets forgotten. I must say, that's a good option, the best option for you guys. Not so good for me," he said with a lopsided smile, "but without any doubt at all best for you.

"Second option: Go along with what the XO has proposed. Lot of work to do, lots of problems to sort out, but nothing this team can't resolve.

"Third, comm into the provost marshal the instant we drop into Nyleth nearspace and have you all arrested and charged with mutiny. That's my duty; it's what I should do. I think you all know that.

"So those are the options, but before I tell you what I want to do, I have one question. I know what you think, but why? Why have you decided to risk it all? I need to understand that before I make my decision."

Faces stared back at Michael, silent, unmoving. Chief Fodor cast a glance at Ferreira. "May I, sir?"

"Be my guest," she said.

Fodor dragged in a deep breath before speaking. "I see things this way, sir," he said, turning to Michael. "If this was just a hypothetical discussion, I would never have agreed with anything so crazy and screwed up. And if it was just about you and Lieutenant Cheung, I would not have agreed. Never. But reality has a way of making you see things as they are, not how you'd like them to be. For the first time, I've had to look long and hard at the war and where it's going, and let me tell you, I did not like what I saw. Not at all. All my life, I've been content to go wherever Fleet wanted me to go, to trust the brass and the politicians to lead us through, but not anymore.

"We talked about this a lot before we met with you yesterday, so I think I speak for us all"-again heads nodded in unison-"and it's quite simple. We all read the strategic assessments Fleet pushes out. I know I'm only an engineer, but I read them carefully, if only because I want to know that there's a good reason why I risk my life every time we go into action. Problem is, I don't see it now. I'd been kidding myself. We started fighting those Hammer bastards way more than a century ago. My grandfather wasn't even born, for chrissakes! And here we are, more than a century later, still at each other's throats, only this time the scumbags might actually win this damn war. Fleet says we're in for at least another four years, maybe five…"

Fodor's voice cracked, forcing him to stop; he paused for a moment to recover.

"We're in for years of stalemate," he continued. "Years and years! And even then we may not be able to destroy the Hammers. If they build a new antimatter production plant to replace the one we blew to hell at Devastation Reef, we're screwed 'cause one thing's for sure: It'll be that and more before we get our own antimatter missiles operational. So what's it all mean? Five more years, chipping away at the Hammers, not making a difference, more deaths of good ships, good spacers, good marines, that's what it means, and for what?

"I'll tell you what for, sir," Fodor said fiercely. "To postpone the inevitable. That's all." He took another deep breath to steady a voice trembling with emotion. "Let me go through the price my family has paid. I lost my father back in '80, killed at the Battle of Mendes Reef when Kercheval and Kronos were ambushed. I lost a nephew and a cousin at the Battle of Comdur. The Hammers have torn my family apart, and they'll go on doing it. That's what five more years means. And it's not only me. There's not a spacer or marine here who hasn't suffered at their hands."

Fodor stopped to look around the table.

"Aunt, cousin, cousin, sister, brother, uncle, sister, father, cousin," he said, finger stabbing in turn across the faces of everyone present, "and that does not begin to account for all the people we counted as good friends."

Fodor looked right at Michael. "Let's take you, sir," he said. "Mother and sister captured by the Hammers when they hijacked the Mumtaz; you're lucky they came home. Damn lucky. Most people taken by the Hammers never come home. You were lucky, too; 387 nearly didn't make it back. How many of her crew died? Then you had the Ishaq blown out from under you. You were fortunate-you escaped-but hundreds of Ishaqs didn't, including people I joined Fleet with, good friends of mine. How many friends did you lose, sir?"

"Too many, Chief, too many," Michael said.

"Aye, sir. That's right. Too many, and there'll be thousands more before this stops. Now we have that evil bastard, what was his name, Hart something?"

"Hartspring, Colonel Erwin Hartspring."

"Yes, him. He has the crap beaten out of you, and now he wants to have your woman shot because she's the one you love. It's total bullshit, sir, the sort of blackmail only the truly wicked could dream up. So here's the deal. I understand rescuing Lieutenant Cheung is a one-way mission. I know we won't be coming back any time soon. I realize we'll be stuck dirtside on Commitment until this damn war ends, and that means joining the Nationalists, doing what we can to help that raggedy-assed army of theirs, the NRA. I know we'll be putting our lives on the line. If we can make a difference by teaming up with them after we've rescued Lieutenant Cheung, I'll do that… and be happy to do it. Trust me, sir. I'll gladly spend the rest of this damn war killing Hammers," he said, his face twisted into a bitter scowl. "At least it'll be face to face. At least I'll be doing something that might make a difference. At least I won't be sitting back waiting for a Hammer antimatter warhead to blow me to hell. And let's not forget there's a bunch of Fed spacers in that camp with her who'll be more than pleased to see us. I'm sure they have a few scores to settle after what happened at Salvation."

Overwhelmed by the raw emotion that infused every word Fodor had said, Michael sat, stunned. He'd had no idea Fodor held such strong views. He always assumed he was the only one who carried a burning, corrosive hate of the scum who ran the Hammer Worlds. He struggled to control a growing feeling that things were spiraling out of his control, to push away the feeling that maybe, just maybe, he might be able to save Anna.

Recovering his composure with an effort, Michael looked at each person in turn. "You all agree? The way Chief Fodor puts it, you all see it the same way? I need to be sure, because if I agree with what the exec has proposed, there's no turning back."

"Chief Fodor is right, sir," Bienefelt said, "though it's not only about the deaths of friends and family, though that's a huge part of it." Her voice was soft, subdued. "I've lost family, too… nobody close but still family… and some good friends, but there's more to it, for me, anyway."

"More to it, Chief?"

Bienefelt nodded. "Yes, sir. For me there is," she said, looking right at him. "We've been through a lot, you and me, and you've never once let me down. If I'm sent into combat, I want you to be the spacer in charge, and you know why? Because I know you'll never throw my life away on a whim just to make yourself look good, because you can't be bothered to find another way. The spacers and marines you command matter. You and I both know that loyalty cuts both ways. You've been loyal to me. I figure it's time for me to be loyal to you. I know rescuing Lieutenant Cheung is a personal matter, but I don't care. I owe you. As for joining the New Revolutionary Army, it's a bonus. That's about fighting the scum-sucking parasites that keep the Hammer of Kraa Worlds going, something I'm always happy to do. I don't care," she said, shrugging her enormous shoulders. "Assault rifle or dreadnought, it doesn't matter to me what I kill Hammers with. I'm happy either way."

Embarrassed by the raw emotion in Chief Bienefelt's voice, Michael struggled to respond. "What can I say?" he asked finally. "Anyone else?"

"Yes, sir." It was Sedova.

"Yes, Kat."

"Like Chief Bienefelt, there's more to it for me. I want to do this because I think we can make a difference. Sounds arrogant, I know, and it is, but I've read the intelligence summaries. Those poor NRA bastards are doing the job all on their own, and their political wing is struggling to get traction. What they achieve, they achieve without any outside help. Our own government has done nothing to lend a hand, and all because of some misplaced desire not to interfere even though a blind man can see the Hammers will destroy us all. So if we play our cards right, I'm sure we can make a difference, but I need to hear you say it… that chucking it all in to join the NRA is the right thing, the best thing not only for you but for us, all of us… and the rest of the Federation, too. Because much as I respect you, sir, I'm not Chief Bienefelt. I won't do this simply to rescue Lieutenant Cheung. That's not reason enough. So tell me. Can we make a difference?"

Michael sat back in his seat. Sedova had taken the heart of the problem and skewered it to the bulkhead. He would not, could not ask these people to risk their lives and careers just to help him rescue Anna, no matter what Bienefelt said. They might like the idea of taking the fight back to the Hammers, but that was not reason enough. It needed to be the right thing to do. It needed to be something that helped end the war.

He shook his head in despair at the arrogance of it all. Only one word described it: hubris. Hubris on a breathtaking scale.

"That is the million-FedMark question," Michael said, measuring his every word. "So let's be clear. Nothing we do can end the war, and I know none of us are so stupid as to think that. So what we are talking about is helping shorten it, and none of you should have anything to do with this business unless it helps do that. If you don't believe what we do will shorten the war-and believe it body, brain, heart, and soul-you should, you must, walk away. Kat is right: Helping me is not reason enough. My problems are my problems; they are not your concern."

"Yes, sir. We know that," Kallewi said, a finger stabbing out to reinforce the point. "So what's the answer? Can we help shorten this war or not?"

Michael had to smile; the big marine was not known for his finesse.

"Okay, here's my view," he said, picking his words carefully. He knew this was not the time to oversell; if Ferreira's plan ever went ahead, that would come back to haunt him when the going got hard, and it would. "I believe we can help. I've met Mutti Vaas, the man in charge of the NRA. I've met their people. I've seen the NRA in action. I know what they're fighting for, and it's the same thing we're fighting for: an end to the Hammer of Kraa. I also know that the Hammer government is not the solid, monolithic structure it presents itself to be. Infighting, backstabbing, deceit, lies, treachery, betrayal, kidnapping, murder, torture… that's what makes the Hammer's wheels go around. Put another way, the whole edifice is rotten to the core, and the more people try to push it over…"

Michael needed a deep breath to steady himself before continuing. "I think we have it all wrong. We've tried to win this war the old-fashioned way. Our ships fighting their ships using missiles, rail guns, lasers, all the things we're good at, relying on technology and good people to get the result we want. Problem is, it isn't working… it won't work. It's the wrong strategy. This war can only be won from the inside, and that means backing the NRA and the Nationalists. I think history will show that our politicians screwed it up when they refused to provide direct assistance to the NRA back in '93, and even now they won't in case they are accused of being regime changers. Who knows why? But I can tell you something: This war only ends when the regime changes. So the war drags on, we kill their spacers and marines in the thousands while they kill ours, and all the time we don't even know if we can beat them. Truth is, if they get a second antimatter plant up and running, there's a damn good chance they might beat us. Of course I can't be sure, but I think there's a good chance we can make a difference. I think it's worth the terrible risks we will have to take. So, Kat, does that answer your question?"

"Yes, it does," Sedova said. "I understand there are no guarantees. I understand it's the riskiest thing I've ever done, but I think it's the right thing. More to the point, it's better than taking Redwood into combat while the Hammers grind the rest of the fleet into the dirt before blowing us and our home planets to dust with their damn antimatter missiles."

Heads nodded, the response unanimous, underscored by a soft chorus of agreement.

"No need to ask the rest of you, I know, but I want to be clear. Never mind the legalities. Are you all in because it is the right thing to do?"

The answers came one after another. When the last of the nine had spoken, Michael sat back and shook his head. "Okay, that's clear," he said. "I guess it's decision time for me. No surprises, team. I accept the offer. Let's do it."

The conference room erupted in a storm of cheers. Michael waited patiently until things quieted down.

"One question, though. The troops. How about them? It's fine for us to sit here in furious agreement with each other, but what about them? Janos, you have the largest number of junior people. They want any part of this?"

Kallewi grinned, a hungry, wolfish grin, a grin of feral anticipation. "Well, sir. We won't know until we ask, but Sergeant Tchiang and I think we'll have no shortage of takers. Marines are born to fight, after all. They don't like this stalemate any more than we do. There will be a few who say no, all married with young families. Gavaskar, Park, Mortenson, Nikola, Barret." Kallewi looked at Tchiang. "Have I missed anyone, Sergeant?"

Tchiang shook his head. "No, sir. They're the ones. I'd bet my pension that the rest will say yes. They hate deadlock, too."

"Thanks, Janos. Kat. What about your team?"

"Don't think any of mine will say no. Can't be sure until we put the hard word on them, of course. Jackson, maybe. He's a 'by the book' man. This might be too much for him."


"I think all the Redwoods will say yes apart from Lomidze and Faris, sir. Both married, young kids. Don't blame them. Renegade missions aren't what they signed on for."

"So having the people to do this won't be a problem," Michael said, "but I have to insist on one thing. Nothing is said to Mother, and nothing to anyone outside this room. That way, when it comes to decision time, our people can see what we want to do, how we'll do it, and what our chances of success are. That way, they can make what I think the lawyers call an informed decision. Agreed?"

Again heads nodded in assent.

"Fine," Michael said. "That leaves the detailed planning. We know what we want to achieve. Now we need to work out how to do it. We have a lot to think about and not that much time to do it in. So here's how we'll do it. Jayla, you take…"


Michael sat back while the meeting broke up and waved Bienefelt to stay behind. He was still struggling to come to terms with the enormity of the crime they hoped to execute. He had checked; no one in Fed history had planned and executed anything quite so extreme. He smiled. It would be a long time before the name Michael Helfort faded into history, that much was for sure.

Not that he was happy about what he was getting himself, not to mention the rest of the Redwoods, into. It would be dangerous, and success was far from assured. Even if they managed to rescue Anna, they needed to get away from the Hammers, then persuade the NRA and the Nationalists to take them in, not to mention survive long enough to see them topple the Hammer government. Only then would they all be able to go home.

Bienefelt coughed softly. Michael started. He had clean forgotten about her. "Shit, sorry, Matti."

"No problem, sir."

"Just wanted to… you know…"

"Check that what you're doing is the right thing?"

Michael smiled, a rueful half smile of uncertainty tinged with fear. "Am I that obvious?"

"Know you well enough by now, sir."

"You do. Well?"

"Legally, no, it's the wrong thing. Morally? It's arguable, but on balance I think we're on the side of the angels."

"That's where I get to, Matti. Like most things in life, I guess, if it all works out the way we hope it will, it will have been the right thing. If it doesn't…"

"Well, then, we'll just have to make sure it does work out, won't we?"

"We will. One other thing, though. You know now how I feel about the way this war is managed. How are the troops taking things?"

Bienefelt sat back in her chair. "You really want to know, sir?"

"Yes, Matti. I really want to know."

"Well, I shouldn't say this 'cause it's all scuttlebutt, but things are not good out there in the fleet. The kicking we received at Comdur started the rot. I know the Hammers pulled that one out of the hat, I know nobody had any idea they'd found a way to weaponize antimatter, I know there was nothing that anyone in Fleet could have done to avoid the disaster. Even so, being beaten so badly is hard for your average spacer to take, and it does nothing to inspire confidence in the brass. Whether that's right or wrong doesn't matter. It's a fact. Then the Salvation operation followed. I know we won that one, but at what cost? Eleven ships sacrificed by Fleet, including your Anna's Damishqui, because Fleet was too gutless to stand up to the politicians. Eleven ships! All those spacers, all those marines, and for what? For what?"

Bienefelt sighed and rubbed her face with hands the size of hams.

"For nothing," she continued, "all for nothing. We were always going to kick the Hammers' asses. So no wonder spacers began to worry where the hell this war was going to end up. After that came Devastation Reef. I know we won that one big time, but even the dumbest spacer was able to work out that was only because the dreadnoughts saved Fleet's backside… no, not the dreadnoughts, you, sir. You saved Fleet," Bienefelt said fiercely. "And the troops know it. The fact that most Fleet officers feel you did it the wrong way has pissed them off big time. Every spacer I speak to thinks the decision to stop the dreadnought project is madness, total madness. So what do they have to look forward to now? Five more years of war, at least. Jeez, that's if they're lucky. Plenty of spacers think this war will never end. Never! Even if it is only five more years, like Chief Fodor said, five years for what? We can't win this war until every ship carries antimatter weapons, which won't happen inside ten years no matter how much money we throw at it, and why are we surprised? Took the Hammers the best part of fifty years to work out how to make enough of the damn stuff to be useful. That means the Hammers can build a new antimatter plant to replace the one we destroyed at Devastation Reef, then do another Comdur on us." Bienefelt paused for a moment. "Though there's another possibility," she continued.

"Which is?"

"That the war will end sooner than we think."

"How?" Michael said with a puzzled frown.

"When the Hammers beat us. Fleet says five years. Who says that's right? The Hammers must know that the sooner they restore their antimatter capability, the sooner they can destroy our fleet. Then it's game over. I wouldn't bet my life on us having that long."

"Shit! There's a cheery thought," Michael muttered.

"There's worse."

"Jeezus!" Michael said. "What could be worse?"

"Fleet. Never mind the Hammers; they have their own problems," Bienefelt said. "You heard the latest rumor?"

Michael shook his head. "Rumor? What rumor?"

"More than a rumor. Palmyra's crew mutinied."

Michael's eyes opened wide with shock. "Shit! I didn't know that."

"That's because nobody's supposed to. Fleet's trying to keep it real tight." She sniffed, a sharp sound of utter disdain. "As if they could keep a lid on something that big. Anyway, it seems half the spacers refused to let the ship deploy on combat operations. Palmyra's marines managed to keep a lid on it until reinforcements arrived, but things turned ugly."


"Don't know for sure," Bienefelt said, shaking her head. "You know the rumor mill, but word is there were some."

Michael sat, stunned into silence. There had not been a fullblown mutiny on a Federated Worlds warship in living memory; the last one was on the old Fortress back in '32, and that was a very minor affair involving only a handful of spacers.

"There's more, sir."

Michael flinched. "More?" he said.

"Afraid so. There was a riot in the Comdur Fleet canteen, a bad one. Big bunch of spacers trashed the joint, barricaded themselves in. Needed the marines backed up by naval police to retake the joint. Lot of spacers hurt, some badly-"

"Holy shit!"

"And there's been an increase in unexplained defects according to a friend of mine in one of the heavy maintenance units. Fleet canceled an operation last week because so many ships went unserviceable at the last minute. Too much of a coincidence to be anything but sabotage."

"Bloody hell, why am I the last one to find out?" Michael said, voice taut with anger; Fleet's summary of operation had said only that Palmyra was being pulled out of the line because of main engine problems. "So what's it all mean, Matti?"

"What it means is this. Fleet spacers are pissed: pissed at the Hammers, pissed at the politicians, pissed at the admirals, pissed at the way Fleet's conducting this war, pissed because there's no way out of the mess we've landed ourselves in."

"And you can't fight a war if the troops are pissed," Michael said.

"No, you can't. And don't be surprised if there's more of the same. Palmyra might not be the last. I'd lay good money down that it's just the first."

Michael half smiled. "Given what we just talked about, I think we can be sure of that, Matti."

Bienefelt smiled back. "You know what I mean, sir. What we're planning is different. More to the point, it's what we should do. Sure as hell better than doing nothing, hoping things get better."

"Maybe. Doesn't matter. Decision's made. Anyway, thanks for your faith in me, Matti. Let's hope it's not misplaced."

"I don't think it is. Permission to carry on, sir?"


Michael watched with mixed feelings as Matti's hulking mass squeezed through the door. Even though she had told him a lot he had not known-the Palmyra mutiny was a huge shock-none of it changed what he already knew: Fleet was in trouble, and if Fleet was in trouble, then so were the Federated Worlds.

So what the hell are you doing, Michael Wallace Helfort? What are you doing making Fleet's job of holding back the Hammers harder by taking Redwood, and maybe Red River and Redress as well, out of the line of battle? It was crazy, diverting three operational dreadnoughts to solve the personal problems of one lovesick captain. No, it was beyond crazy; it was the stuff of the worst trashvids ever made. He shook his head, cringing as he imagined how the rest of humanspace would react when they were told that the Federated Worlds, fighting for its very existence against a rampaging Hammer of Kraa, had been deserted by one of its heroes to save one woman's life.

Except, except…

The brutal truth was that diverting the three dreadnoughts would make no difference to anything. For reasons that made no sense, in the face of everything the dreadnoughts had achieved against appalling odds, Fleet had decided they would play no significant part in the war. That was why they had been sent to Nyleth, their war reduced to pointless attacks on soft Hammer targets in an unimportant sector of space. Like children given a tool they did not understand and could not use, Fleet first mocked it as useless and then discarded it.

Michael gave a snort of disgust. Who were the fools? Not he and the crew of Redwood. Yes, nobody would think what he was about to do made any sense. He would be branded a traitor and a fool. He would be a pariah for as long as he lived. He would never be forgiven. But as long as there was a chance that helping Anna also would help the poor bastards fighting the Hammers on the ground-and they were the only ones capable of toppling the Hammers-then it was the right thing to do.

Because one thing was for sure. Nothing Fleet was doing right now was going to win this war. Thursday, August 9, 2401, UD West coast of central Maranzika, Commitment

The heavily wooded foothills of the Branxton Ranges sprawled away from the coast, shrouded in mist. Thin tendrils of moisture twisted their way through the predawn gloom, gray wraiths pushed by a gentle westerly breeze down the valleys toward the coastal highway linking Daleel to the north and Besud to the south. Ghostlike, chromaflaged shapes had come out of the mountains. Now they slipped through the trees, easing into position around the kill zone, a sweeping bend in the highway cut into the shallow hillside and flanked by sharp outcropping headlands that dropped sheer into the sea below.

Major Chiaou, the assault commander, pronounced himself satisfied, pleased that his troopers had followed the plan as briefed though still concerned at what his force was being asked to do. He settled down to wait.

A long hour dragged past, and Chiaou began to worry in earnest. He had much to worry about: that the convoy taking the best part of a marine battalion and its equipment to the Besud marine base might be a figment of some intel spook's overheated imagination, that the arrival of daylight might expose his painfully small force, that the endless succession of Hammer recon drones scanning the highway for anything unusual might detect a momentary lapse of chromaflage discipline by one of his troopers, and, worst of all, that marine landers might already be on their way to turn the hillside into a shock-ravaged and flame-blasted wasteland scoured clean of all life by the Hammers' favorite weapon, the simple but cruelly effective fuel-air bomb, engineered to give an explosive yield greater than battlefield tacnukes without the political cost that bedeviled all nuclear weapons.

Thirty minutes, Chiaou decided, another thirty minutes, and then he would order the withdrawal. He could not risk his troopers any longer than that.

With less than ten of those thirty minutes left, the waiting ended. Word arrived that the targets were on their way, and Chiaou passed the order to stand to. It seemed a lifetime before the convoy swung into view around the headland to the north, preceded by a pair of recon drones zigzagging through the air overhead, searching for anything unusual with mindless diligence. Chiaou breathed in sharply, air hissing in through clenched teeth to fill his lungs. This was no ordinary convoy. No, this was a Hammer marine convoy, a succession of soft-skinned cargobots protected by light tanks front and rear, with a command half-track and more tanks in the convoy's center.

Chiaou did not like what he saw. Marines made him nervous; marine armor, even light armor, terrified him. It had been long-standing NRA policy to leave the marines well alone, and for good reason. So why me? he asked himself. Why was his company the one selected for the dubious honor of being the first to take out a marine convoy?

The convoy was in no hurry. The long line of vehicles ground its way nose to tail around the headland and into view until they were arrayed in a long, shallow arc in front of Chiaou, and still the lead tank had not reached the southern headland.

"Now!" he hissed. "No-"

With a flat, slapping crack, claymores fired to initiate the ambush, and the leading cargobots disintegrated as walls of shrapnel scythed through their soft skins. The tanks slammed to a halt, turrets turning to face the attack, hypervelocity auto-cannon and lasers firing blindly at an unseen enemy. Too little, too late; the tanks died, overwhelmed by antiarmor missiles fired from positions well back from the road and upslope, the missiles climbing steeply before dropping in a plunging attack under full power directly into the tanks' vulnerable upper armor. Then it was the recon drones' turn, man-portable air-defense missiles streaking skyward on flame-topped needles of white smoke to hack them out of the air.

"Suck that, you Hammer bastards," Chiaou muttered as he watched the drones plummet to earth. "What did you think we'd do with all those missiles we stole last month, you dumb shitheads?"

He watched the armored vehicles spin out of control, death pyres of dirty black smoke shot through with scarlet tongues of flame climbing hungrily into the sky, pillars of death quickly overwhelmed as one after another, fusion power plants lost containment, blasting blinding white balls of pure energy across the convoy. The shock wave smashed into Chiaou's helmet with such force that he grayed out for second. There was silence, then the morning filled with an appalling racket as every weapon Bravo Company possessed opened up on the surviving cargobots and their hapless marines, the thin-skinned vehicles no match for the short-range missiles carried by every trooper in Chiaou's force. Trapped front and rear by burning armor, flanked by a wall of death on one side and a sheer drop into the sea on the other, the marines had nowhere to run. Those who survived the brutal assault long enough to reach what little cover there was were quickly overwhelmed. Soon the air was filled with the bone-crunching crack of cargobot fusion power plants losing containment, savage white flares of pure energy bleaching the muted greens and browns of the landscape to pale gray.

Chiaou gave the order to withdraw. Time was not on his side, and he knew from bitter experience that the ambush was the easiest part of the operation. What came next was what worried him: surviving the Hammer's response. Warned by the recon drones in the instant before they died, Hammer commanders would have heavy ground-attack landers loaded with fuel-air bombs on their way from the marine bases at Besud and Amokran; assuming the intel brief was right, B Company had enough time to reach the dubious safety of caves to the southwest of the ambush site before the Hammers turned up. If he and his troopers were not tucked away safely by the time the landers started to carpet bomb the area, they would not live to see another day.

Leaving behind a scene of utter carnage, the bones of the convoy and its missile-shattered escort strewn across the highway in an arc of smoldering, blast-ripped metal, Chiaou's company pulled back into the woods. Running hard now, they did not stop even when the distant grumble of heavy engines announced the landers' arrival. Legs burning and lungs afire, Chiaou pounded along, the withdrawal disintegrating into a loose melee as B Company fled for its life, the already headlong pace picking up when the whump whump of the first pattern of bombs shook the forest, shock waves showering the ground with leaves and twigs.

The lay-up point was a chaotic fall of rocks at the head of a thickly wooded dry valley, one of thousands incised into the foothills of the Branxton Ranges. Behind the boulder fall lay a small complex of caves, smaller than Chiaou would have wanted but the best for many kilometers around and proof against all but a direct hit, which was an unlikely event; for all their overwhelming numbers, not even the Hammers could carpet bomb every square centimeter of the Branxtons, though they seemed intent on trying.

It took a lifetime before the endless pounding of the Hammer air attack died away. B Company had survived, the nearest bombs falling too far away to cause any casualties. Shaking a head thick with the aftereffects of repeated shock, his mouth dry with limestone dust blasted off the cave walls, Chiaou ordered recon teams out to make sure the Hammers were not waiting for them. Impatiently, he waited for word back. When it came, it was bad news. The Hammers had dropped blocking forces to the west; the air was thick with recon drones, their black shapes wheeling endlessly overhead. The protective forest had been reduced to matchwood, more marines were sweeping toward them from the coast, and the first of the Hammers' attack drones had been spotted, their lasers and fuel-air bomblets already at work, pounding anything remotely resembling an NRA formation.

After a quick briefing, Chiaou ordered his troopers out of hiding. He swore under his breath when he emerged into the morning light; even though the Hammers seemed to have no idea where he and his troopers had holed up, the situation did not look good. B Company had one chance: Whatever the cost, it would have to break through the Hammer containment lines and run for the safety of the forest beyond. If they stayed and fought out in the open, the Hammers would grind them to dust.

So be it, Chiaou thought, resigned to whatever fate had in store for him and B Company.

With an efficiency born of quiet desperation, the troopers formed up and moved off. Chiaou's plan laid no claim to subtlety. Outgunned and outnumbered, all he had left was surprise, speed, and ferocity. "Faster, faster," he screamed over his shoulder, waving his troopers into a sprint that slammed B Company into the containment line blocking their retreat to the west. For all the battlefield intelligence pouring down from the recon drones overhead, the marines were slow to react to the onslaught, letting B Company get far too close. When they did react, their response was a terrible thing, a blizzard of rifle and machine gun fire pouring into the NRA's ranks. Heedless, the survivors closed on the marines, the terrible losses ignored as they clawed their way into the marines' hastily prepared positions.

Shock, sheer momentum, and a suicidal disregard for personal safety did what lack of numbers could not; in only minutes, B Company had punched a hole through the Hammers' lines. Chiaou's orders had been clear: Anyone who made it through was to keep going, and so they did, those who could.

Those too badly wounded to follow whispered their farewells and prepared to die the only way they knew how. Only minutes after B Company had smashed into the Hammers' containment line, a microgrenade finished off the last NRA trooper still fighting, but not before she took a good many Hammers with her. When the trooper died, less than thirty of B Company had survived. Chiaou had not; with manic bravery, he and a handful of troopers had fought their way into the marines' command post, and there they, too, had died, along with most of the battalion's senior staff.

As silence fell, the Hammer battalion's new commander walked the ground, shaken by the ferocity of the morning's events and embittered by the loss of so many of his men. He had refused to believe his intelligence officer when told the battalion had faced a single reinforced NRA company. He shook his head as he studied the latest casualty report. Only a reinforced company? How could that be? He had never seen anything like it, and this was not the NRA's only operation that day. It had launched attacks on targets all across Maranzika: a factory manufacturing inertial navigation units, another producing air-to-air guided missiles, a third assembling heavy lander fusion power plants. They had assaulted DocSec security posts and support facilities, planetary ground defense supply depots, and a marine recruit induction center. It was unbelievable, every operation stamped with what were fast becoming the NRA's trademarks: audacity, speed, ferocity, and a willful disregard for self.

The battalion commander kicked the ground with the toe of his boot. Today was his first in combat against the NRA, a day he had not enjoyed. Something told him it would not be his last.

"Sir," one of his sergeants said.


"Major Schmidt's compliments, sir. He has the prisoners ready for you."

"How many?"

"Five, sir."

"Five?" the battalion commander said, looking up sharply, his eyes narrowed in astonishment. "You sure? Five? That's all?"

"Yes, sir. I'm sure. Five."

"Kraa! So few. Okay, lead on."

The man followed his sergeant to a small rock-backed hollow in the valley wall. There lay the five NRA prisoners. They were a pitiful sight: every one badly wounded, combat overalls blood-drenched, wounds dressed with hastily applied field dressings. But it was their eyes that took his attention; wounded or not, hate blazed from all of them.

Schmidt came over to meet him. "Hard to believe, sir, but that's the lot. The rest are either dead or got away."

"They going to tell us anything useful?"

"Doubt it, sir. They won't say a word, any of them. Get too close, and all they do is spit at you."

"Kraa-damned sonsofbitches," the battalion commander said, voice harsh. "Screw them. We have better things to do. Shoot the bastards."

Schmidt's eyes flared wide in surprise. "Sir?"

"You heard me, Major. Shoot them. Then we pull out; planetary defense after-action teams are on their way to clean up."

"Sir!" Schmidt's voice rose in protest. "I don't believe that is a legal-"

"I'm not interested in what you believe, Major Schmidt. Either we shoot them or DocSec does. What difference does it make? So do it. That's an order."

"What DocSec does is their business and doesn't alter the fact that we are not permitted to shoot prisoners out of hand. I'm sorry, sir, but that's a fact."

The battalion commander stepped back a pace and unbuttoned the flap over the pistol at his waist. "You're sorry? You're sorry?" he said, voice rising as shock and stress let anger take control. "This is a battlefield, not a courtroom. It is for me, not you, to decide what is legal and what is not," he shouted, all self-control gone, spittle gathering white in the corners of his mouth. "Obey my order, Major. Obey it now, or I'll shoot you and then I'll shoot them myself. Make up your Kraa-damned mind, Major!"

The silence hung heavy, the major's mouth hanging half-open in stunned disbelief. "I'll make sure it's done, sir," he said at last, his head dropping in defeat.

The battalion commander holstered his pistol, turned, and walked away. He had gone only a few meters when the air behind him crackled with a short burst of rifle fire. The silence was broken by a single defiant shout of protest cut off in midsentence by one last shot. A soft moan of pain trailed off into silence.

The battalion commander walked on. Monday, August 20, 2401, UD FWSS Redwood, in orbit around Nyleth-B

"Okay, folks, let's get into it," Michael said. "Before I kick things off, any burning issues we need to talk about first… No? Good. Right, first the situation on Commitment, and in a word, it's good… good for us, that is. Not so good for Chief Councillor Polk and his government. Now, if you look at the holovid…"

Heads swiveled as a map of Maranzika, Commitment's largest continent, appeared on the holovid, a jagged-edged mass a good 17,000 kilometers long north to south, its center pinched in to a narrow neck less than 1,500 kilometers wide.

"The Nationalists' strategy is clear, even if achieving their military goals is proving difficult thanks to the fact that the Hammers have an air force and the NRA doesn't. In the west, they have attacked Bretonville, and our analysts are predicting that they will soon launch an attack on the towns of Perdan and Daleel to the east. The Hammers pushed the NRA out of Bretonville eventually, and the analysts think any attack on Perdan and Daleel will suffer the same fate, but I'm damn sure they'll be back to try again until they succeed. When they succeed, they will have cut Maranzika in half along a line"-Michael's pointer slashed across the holovid-"running east-west between the Branxton Ranges and the floodplains of the Oxus and Krommer rivers, about four hundred k's south of the capital, McNair. Not the end of the world for the Hammers, but a massive psychological win for the NRA. Janos?"

"Makes sense," Kallewi said. "This is not war as we marines think of it. It's about making the citizen in the street believe that there is a real alternative to the Hammer government. So every time the NRA has a win, the Hammers lose and the NRA gains credibility. Then Nationalist agitators call the mobs out onto the streets, and DocSec can't cope. That forces planetary defense onto the streets to try to maintain control of the cities, easing pressure on the NRA front line and eroding morale inside planetary defense. If planetary defense cannot contain the situation, the marines get called in, which they hate. We know from intelligence reports that not one marine, from the commanders down to the lowest grunt, signed on to fight unarmed civilians, and that erodes morale, which in turn allows the NRA to make more gains, and so on. From the Nationalist's point of view, it's a virtuous circle… but only so long as the NRA keeps delivering."

Kallewi paused. "Which brings us," he continued, "to the NRA's main problem: getting the weapons and supplies they need to support larger- and larger-scale operations. There's a limit to what the NRA and their Nationalist cadres can steal from the Hammers, and their lack of heavy ground-attack landers and air-superiority fliers is a major weakness. Once away from the Branxton Ranges, the NRA is vulnerable to Hammer air power. Bretonville showed that. They captured it but weren't able to hold on to it."

Michael nodded. Kallewi had put his finger on the NRA's weakness. "Mind you," he said, "the Hammers did a lot of damage in recapturing the city. I'm not sure the locals will be too happy about that, not happy at all."

"No, they wouldn't," Kallewi said. "History shows that the indiscriminate use of too much firepower alienates the locals, drives recruits into the arms of the NRA, enhances the moral authority of the Revival Party, and degrades intelligence assets. So Bretonville was a bit of a Pyrrhic victory for the Hammers. That's not the least of their problems. The Hammers outgun the NRA by a huge margin, but that only works for them if the NRA stands and fights the way it fought at Bretonville. The NRA has to avoid conventional battles and stick to what they do best: hit and run. That way, they embarrass the Hammers, making them look weak and in effective just when the Hammers most need to look strong and in control. Even so, the more hardware they can get, the better."

"Talking of hardware," Ferreira said, "I see from the latest intelligence summary that there are reports the NRA has established a manufacturing complex, a large one, so maybe they're not having to steal everything they need."

"Which brings me to my next point," Michael said. "If they have a secure manufacturing base, they'll have access to raw materials and power. If we supplied them with microfabs…"

Ferreira whistled softly. "Now you're talking, sir. What a difference that would make. The NRA will have proper gear, not that obsolete Hammer shit."

"And," Chief Fodor said, throwing an evil grin at Chief Chua, "it just so happens we know where to lay our hands on a few spare microfabs."

"Wouldn't happen to be down in the engineering workshops, would they, Chief?" Michael asked.

"They just might be, sir," Fodor said, "but getting them out won't be easy. Microfabs, my ass! Micro they might be, but small they are not."

"No, I know that, Chief, but we've talked long and hard about doing this because we can make a difference, and giving the NRA access to microfabs is the biggest difference we'll ever make. Those damn things can make anything, given enough time. So the question is, can we get them out?"

"Don't know how, but we will, sir," Fodor said. "I guarantee it."

"Glad to hear it. But what about the knowledge bases to drive them? A microfab is no good unless it knows what to produce."

"I might be able to help there," Chief Chua said. "One of my propulsion techs in the old Cordwainer married a woman from the Rogue Worlds. He set himself up as a knowledge broker. He'd know where to lay his hands on a library of microfab knowledge bases. Not as good as ours, but they'll be a damn sight better than anything the Hammers have."

Michael winced. "A Rogue Worlds knowledge broker? That won't be cheap, even if he is an old buddy of yours."

"He'll be fair, so let me see what he can do."

"Okay, good. The rest of the intelligence summary is unchanged, so I won't waste time repeating it all. Suffice it to say that things are not looking good for our man Polk. Next item. Jayla."

"Yes, sir?"

"The ops plan to achieve all this. Where are we up to?"

"We finished the latest draft of the plan last night. Operation Gladiator, I'm calling it, by the way. Now, the next step is to…"

"Right, folks. I think that just about does it. Anything else we need to talk about?"

"Yes, sir. One thing."

"Go ahead, Kat."

"As you know, Fleet's approved our request for a second Block 6 heavy lander," Sedova said. "Don't know how Admiral Jaruzelska swung it, but she's made it happen. The amended master equipment list came through this morning."

"Saw that," Michael said. "Even better, I received a personal comm from the admiral telling me we should have the lander within the week."

"Didn't think the string pulling would stop with the master equipment list, sir," Sedova said with a smile, "but that gives us a bit of a problem. The lander will have a command pilot, a recent graduate of combat flight school like me, plus a petty officer loadmaster and crew."

"Damn," Michael said. "The crew's no problem. We know how to handle them, when to bring them in on what we're doing, but the command pilot and loadmaster… um… they're a problem. Not sure what we do with them. Any thoughts?"

"Kat, may I?" Ferreira asked.

"Sure, go ahead."

"I know it'll be difficult," Ferreira said, "but we have to keep the command pilot and loadmaster in the dark until we brief the troops. It won't be easy, but I don't think we have any other option. We're all in this because we know you. More to the point, we know we can trust you. They won't, they can't; they're brand new. If we ask them the hard question, they'll say yes and two seconds later run off to the brass screaming 'mutiny, mutiny.' I know I would."

"I agree, sir," Sedova said. "The XO's right. It will be hard, but they have to stay ignorant until the last minute. Gives us time to work on them, though we have to be realistic. The chances of them committing to the craziest scheme in all of human history aren't good."

"I think that's right, Kat," Michael said. "So keep them in the dark, agreed?"-heads nodded in confirmation-"And plan for what happens if they do say no. Kat, what do you think?"

"I plan to spend a lot of time on the Nyleth assault lander training ranges with the new guys. That'll keep them off the ship. If they refuse to go along when the time comes, that might be an issue, but leave that to me. The command pilot will be the problem. Apart from me, you're the only one with a lander qualification."

"True," Michael said, "though mine is only a basic lander ticket. I never went through combat flight school, even if"-a bitter edge crept into Michael's voice; a combat flight qualification had been his one and only ambition once-"that's what I intended when I joined the Fleet. Still, I can fly, so that's a start."

"Like I say, sir. Leave it to me."

"Deal. Anything else… No? Okay, we're finished here. Let me see. What's next?"

"Running the latest version of the Gladiator ops plan through the simulator," Ferreira said, and the mood of the meeting changed, the cheerful optimism blown away in an instant.

"Good," Michael replied. "Let's hope we get a better result than last time."

"Couldn't be much worse." Ferreira's face betrayed her concern. "We have to find a way."

"If we can," Bienefelt said softly.

"We have to," Michael said. "Otherwise this whole business is a bust."

Heads nodded, but nobody said any more, and the meeting broke up. With a heavy heart Michael watched his officers leave. All the early enthusiasm had evaporated, boiled off by the brutal truth that dropping into a defended system-especially a well-protected one like the Hammer of Kraa's home planet, Commitment-and surviving long enough to get dirtside was at best close to impossible, at worst an exercise in suicide. Michael had no idea how much longer he could keep them on the rack. Their commitment to him, a commitment to join the most egregious crime in the history of the Federated Worlds, was not open-ended; he knew that. Either they found a way forward, preferably one that saved them from being incinerated by Hammer missiles while they fought their way dirtside, or he would have to call the whole business off. He hated to remind himself of the consequences of failure, but those consequences were his and his alone to deal with.

Struggling to shake off a growing certainty that the brutal realities of space warfare might in the end be too much to overcome, Michael followed his officers out of the meeting room. Screw it, he decided in a sudden burst of optimism, pushing all doubt aside. There had to be a way, and they would find it. It might not be easy, it might not be safe, it might not be guaranteed of success, but he was sure there would be a way. And when they found it, Anna would have a chance to escape Hartspring's vengeful brutality; for the first time since the colonel's awful message had ripped his life apart, he allowed himself to think that the nightmare would end, that he would see Anna again, that they might one day live their lives together. And if fate determined otherwise, at least he would die knowing that he had not simply thrown his hands up in despair, that he had done everything he could do to save Anna.

"End of simulation."

Nobody said a word, the awful hush dragging on for a long time. Sedova broke the silence. "I don't think it can be done, folks," she said.

"You might be right, Kat," Ferreira said. "If we follow Fleet standard operating procedures and drop spaceward of the Hammer's defenses to fight our way in, we're toast. There's no way in hell we can get across tens of thousands of kilometers of hostile space without having our asses kicked."

Another long silence followed.

"That means we have two choices," Michael said. "Accept we can't get in or drop closer."

"Hell, sir, what sort of choice is that?" Ferreira said. "Fleet standard operating procedures are clear on that score. Dropping any closer than 100,000 klicks is too damn risky. Let me just bring the probability array for Commitment online. Hold on… right, here we go."

The holovid screen blossomed into life to display a funnel standing vertically thin end down, its curved walls representing Commitment's gravity well, the funnel shading from an encouraging green through to an unpromising scarlet as the distance to the planet's surface decreased. "Umm," Ferreira said, "yes… there you have it." She put a cursor on the funnel where green started to shade into yellow. "Minimum safe drop distance is 105,000 klicks. Drop there and we're all dead. Every Hammer in orbit will have more than enough time to take us out. They'll be able to use antimatter missiles on us, and they will. Drop closer and we're equally dead. It just takes a bit longer and is probably a touch more painful."

Ferreira's gallows humor brought fleeting smiles to everyone's face. The smiles faded fast; the silence hung like a pall across the meeting.

With a bang, the solution came to Michael. Judging by the look on Ferreira's face, she had just come to the same conclusion. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking, Jayla?"

She grinned at him. "Yes, I think so. This damn graphic"-she waved a hand contemptuously at the holovid screen-"is based on one key assumption."

"Go on," Michael said impatiently.

"It is a cast-iron Fleet regulation," Ferreira continued, "that no starship drop out of pinchspace unless it can jump back again safely if everything goes to shit. So-"

"Yes, yes, yes!" Sedova could not contain herself. "So what we're looking at is the product of two unconnected probability arrays."

"Precisely," Ferreira said, a touch smugly, Michael thought. "Smashing into the planet when dropping out of pinchspace is one risk. Jumping back safely without getting lost in deepspace is the second. We are only interested in this probability"-the holovid graphic changed; this time the green extended most of the way down to the planet's surface-"and that's because we're not coming back. We don't give a shit about the risk of jumping back into pinchspace 'cause we won't be jumping back into pinchspace."

"No, we won't," Michael said, his heart beginning to race with a newfound hope that Gladiator might work. "And if we drop close-"

Again Sedova could not hold back. "We'll be well inside the Hammer's defenses, the Hammers will be looking the wrong way, and there's what, 10,000 k's to cross before reentry? That," she declared with a confident smile, "is a much better proposition than trying to cross 100,000 klicks."

"It sure is," Bienefelt said with feeling. "I have to say, I was worried there for a while."

"Hold your horses, 'Swain," Michael said, even though he knew that this was the answer they had been looking for. "We need to see if this will work, but it is looking good, I must say. Right. Jayla, Kat, can you take this and rework the plan? When you have something workable, we'll run it through the sims to see how it holds up. Okay?"

"Sir," the pair chorused. Tuesday, August 28, 2401, UD Nyleth system base

Face impassive even though his stomach was a mess, Michael waited for the down-shuttle to dock; he steeled himself for what came next: He had to resolve the last impediment to Operation Gladiator.

The planning had produced something that everyone agreed would work. Anna's last vidmail confirmed she was still tucked away inside Camp J-5209. The latest intelligence reports following the progress of the New Revolutionary Army seemed encouraging. Under the leadership of Mutti Vaas, the NRA had recovered from its defeat at Bretonville in late July. Now they were pushing north and east out of their stronghold in the Branxton Ranges to attack the towns of Perdan and Daleel, and thanks to microsat transmitters-he had no idea where Vaas's people found them; seemingly the NRA had enough of them to replace the ones the Hammers kept shooting down-the people of Commitment could see that there might be an alternative to the ruthless totalitarian regime that had held the people of the Hammer of Kraa Worlds subjugated for centuries.

All of which was good, but one last problem had thwarted all Michael's efforts to find a solution. With only a month to go, time was running out, and today's meeting to finalize the Nyleth squadron's operations for the upcoming month was his last chance to secure an operation that would allow Redwood and her sister dreadnoughts to get clear of Nyleth unimpeded. With a new operations officer, a woman focused on using the dreadnoughts to keep Nyleth safe, that task was harder than it should have been.

Still, Michael stayed optimistic. He had lobbied the system commander to allow the squadron to take out yet another Hammer signal intelligence station uncovered by reconsats in Szent-Gyogyi deepspace, the sort of operation at which his dreadnoughts had proved to be devastatingly effective. The last time he spoke to Commodore Anjula, she did not say no, so there was still hope.

Three long hours later, the meeting wrapped up. Michael commed Ferreira.

"Tell me it's good news, sir. Please," she said.

"Let me see now, Jayla," Michael said, deadpan. "That depends"-Ferreira's face fell-"but I can tell you that our new operations officer has tasked the squadron to system nearspace defense"-Ferreira's face fell even farther-"but only until September 5, when the squadron will be departing Nyleth to blow the crap out of the Hammer SIGINT station on Maaslicht-43."

"About time." Ferreira's relief was obvious. "I was beginning to think we might end up stuck here."

"Me, too. Get everyone together. Now that we have a date, we need a final planning meeting for Gladiator. We also need to get a plan for the Maaslicht operation together even if we have no intention of going anywhere near the place."

"I'm on it, sir."

"See you in twenty."

Michael started to make his way back to the shuttle portal, and his neuronics pinged to announce a priority comm. "Bugger," he said softly when he saw who was calling; he could not help himself. What was the system commander after?

"Yes, sir?" he said when Commodore Anjula's face appeared.

"Thought you should know that Vice Admiral Jaruzelska will be here end of next week."

Michael's heart skipped a beat. "Noted, sir, thank you. Anything specific?" he asked.

"Have a look at the dreadnoughts, of course. Apart from that, just a look around before she takes up her new post."

"New post, sir? I haven't heard."

"The announcement has just come through. She's the new director of Fleet planning, effective October 1."

"Oh, right," Michael said. "So who's taking over the dreadnought force?"


"Nobody, sir?"

"That's what I said," Anjula replied, a touch testily, "nobody. The job's been abolished. With only your three operational and no chance of any more entering service, Fleet's decided to manage dreadnoughts as part of the heavy cruiser force. Administrative efficiency, the announcement said. She'll be happy to debate the merits of that decision with you, I'm sure, so I won't. My staff will get a draft program out for her visit in the next day or so."

"Thank you, sir."

"Anjula, out."

Michael swore under his breath. While Jaruzelska still held the job, Michael had hoped she might persuade Fleet to see sense and restart the program. Now that hope had gone; without Jaruzelska, the dreadnoughts were finished. The ships had single-handedly destroyed the greatest threat ever faced by the Federated Worlds; now they would fade away into history, unmourned by the vast majority of Fleet's senior officers. Their demise would be a triumph of political expediency and narrow-minded self-interest over the needs of the Federated Worlds.

Michael swore some more and stepped into the drop tube for the ride back to Nyleth's surface. The loss of Jaruzelska's protection and support was bad enough. Looking her in the eye knowing that he was going to steal the last three ships of the dreadnought force would be a million times worse. Friday, August 31, 2401, UD FWSS Redwood, in orbit around Nyleth-B

"Attention on deck. Commander, Dreadnought Forces."

Flawless in dress blacks, the crew of Redwood snapped to attention while the age-old ritual of piping the side played out under Chief Bienefelt's watchful eye: Bosun's calls squealed, hands snapped to foreheads in salute, and Vice Admiral Jaruzelska saluted in turn as her tall, angular frame crossed the bow to board Redwood, her flag lieutenant close behind. Michael returned her salute; when the carry-on was piped, he stepped forward, hand extended.

"Admiral. Welcome to Redwood, sir."

"Thank you," Jaruzelska said, shaking Michael's hand before turning to Ferreira. "Lieutenant. Hope you're not finding Redwood and Nyleth too dull."

"A dreadnought spacer's life is never dull, sir," Ferreira said with a broad grin.

"Hmm," Jaruzelska said. "Why am I not surprised to hear you say that? Chief Bienefelt. How's that enormous boyfriend of yours? Nyleth's one hell of a long way from Anjaxx. What's his name?"

Michael struggled to suppress a laugh; Bienefelt's face had colored brick red. "Er," she muttered, "er, umm… Yuri, sir. He's fine, thank you, sir."

"Please to hear it, Chief. When you get married, be sure to send me the holopix. I can't wait to see you doing the virginal bride thing all in white. That'll be one for my living room wall. Now, Captain," Jaruzelska said, turning back to Michael, leaving Bienefelt speechless and the rest of Redwood's gangway crew trying not to laugh. "Where to first?"

"Ship tour, sir," Michael said with great difficulty, forcing his face to behave. "If you'd follow me, please."

Jaruzelska's trademark whirlwind tour of Redwood over, she and Michael sat back in the comfortable armchairs that dominated his day cabin.

"Congratulations on your new appointment, Admiral," Michael said, raising his coffee mug in salute.

"Thank you, Michael. It's the right job for me, and I'm pleased to have it. I can hear the 'but,' though."

"No surprises there, sir. The loss of a dedicated commander for dreadnoughts will make life hard for us. Those cruiser types don't much like us."

"No, they don't, Michael. Not one bit. However, I've briefed Admiral Jensch and his staff on dreadnought idiosyncrasies. I think you'll get the support you need. Not every admiral in Fleet thinks dreadnoughts are the work of the devil."

"Pleased to hear it, sir. Any other developments?"

"One, not that it will affect you. The INTSUM will be out this week, so there's no harm in telling you that the reconsats have located the Hammer's new antimatter facility. Well, what will become their new plant in however many years' time. Bloody plant will be huge. Twice the size of the one you and your dreadnoughts destroyed."

"Oh, shit," Michael whispered. "But why won't that affect us?" he continued. "Surely dreadnoughts will be critical to any operation to destroy the plant. They were the last time."

"No, they won't, not this time. The Hammers have learned their lesson. Trying to hide the plant in deepspace like they did with their first plant is fine in theory. There's a lot of deepspace, after all, but we found the place and blew it to pieces, anyway. No, they've been much smarter this time around. It's located on Commitment itself, on a small island so far away from civilization that nobody will notice if it goes up in smoke."

Michael's face betrayed his shock. "They must be insane. Building an antimatter manufacturing plant on an inhabited planet? And not just any old planet, either. Commitment! That's the Hammer's home planet. What if it does go up?"

Jaruzelska shrugged her shoulders. "They're Hammers. They don't worry about things like that. Anyone who objects gets shot. You know how things work over there."

"I do, sir."

"Putting aside the risk to the rest of the planet for the moment, the decision makes good military sense. Our attack on the original plant at Devastation Reef will have showed them the folly of trying to protect such a high-value target so far from home. Better to have it tucked away dirtside underneath Commitment's planetary defense systems, where it'll be safe. It'll be a long time before Fleet's in any position to mount a planetary invasion," she added with a trace of bitterness, "because that's what it will take to destroy the place."

"So the race is on, sir?"

"Yes, it is. If we rebuild the fleet before they finish their damn antimatter plant, we can invade: We win, they lose. If they finish their plant first and get enough antimatter warheads onto those damn Eaglehawk missiles of theirs, they win and we lose. It's that simple."

Michael broke what had turned into a long and uncomfortable silence. "Our antimatter project," he said. "What about that? What progress are we making getting our own antimatter missiles into service?"

"Above your pay grade, Michael, so I won't answer. However, the Hammers needed decades to work out how to weaponize antimatter and even longer to work out how to manufacture enough of it to support high-intensity operations, so I leave you to draw your own conclusions."

"Oh, right," Michael said. "Changing the subject, sir."


"Morale, sir."

Jaruzelska looked at Michael quizzically. "Morale? What about it?"

"Well, sir. Nothing official's come through, but the lower deck is awash with rumors about a mutiny on Palmyra, and-"

Jaruzelska sat upright. "Mutiny on Palmyra? How the hell do you know that, Captain?" she snapped, chopping him off, her eyes blazing with anger. "That's classified information you should not have access to."

"I keep my ear to the ground, sir," Michael protested, raising his hands. "Some things Fleet can't keep secret, and a mutiny's one of them."

Jaruzelska stared at him, the anger draining away. "If word's leaked out, obviously that's true," she said. "Damn. The trash-press will have a field day when they find out."

"There's more, sir."


"Yes. Palmyra may be a symptom of a wider problem."

"Oh?" Jaruzelska said with a skeptical frown. "That's not the view inside Fleet. The briefing I received from Fleet personnel said Palmyra's captain triggered the mutiny. The man should never have been given command of anything bigger than a cargo drone. We don't always get our command postings right, especially now, when we are so short of good officers thanks to Comdur."

"I'm sure that's correct, sir, but I think there's more to it. Word is that the troops aren't too keen on the way Fleet's handling things. It seems there are more than a few unhappy spacers out there. They no longer think we can bring this war to a successful conclusion. Putting it bluntly, they're losing faith in management's ability, and that's a worry."

"Your troops, too, Michael?"

"Yes, sir. Not that it's affecting my ship's operational readiness, but they are all thinking people. They see what's happening, and they don't like it any more than…" Michael's voice trailed off into silence.

Jaruzelska finished the sentence for him. "Than you do," she said quietly.

"No, sir."

"How bad is the problem?"

"All I know is what my coxswain tells me, sir, so it's anecdotal, but I trust Chief Bienefelt with my life."

"You know what? I would, too," Jaruzelska said. "Sorry, you were saying?"

"Well, Bienefelt says it's bad. I guess Palmyra proves that."

"Damn it to hell," Jaruzelska said, grim-faced. "I was afraid of this."

"Bienefelt says the problem's widespread, so Fleet may have another Palmyra on its hands if it's not careful. Since Bienefelt is telling me this, I am inclined to take it seriously. She is well connected, that woman."

"She is," Jaruzelska said after a moment's reflection. "Look, it's no secret that things are not going well, and the decision to terminate the dreadnought experiment despite their success at Devastation Reef has made things worse. The latest projections show that we will not have enough spacers to man an invasion fleet capable of taking Commitment inside four years at best. Now, those projections depend on some optimistic assumptions about Fleet's ability to deal with Hammer missiles tipped with antimatter warheads, which they still have enough of in inventory to cause us problems. So I reckon it's going to be more like five years. The Hammers hurt us badly at Comdur. We have a long way to go."

"It's not good, is it?"

"No, Michael, it's not, and it'll be even worse if we can't rely on our spacers to do their duty. I'll talk to the commander in chief. She needs to get a handle on this. Talk to me in a year's time. Maybe Fleet can pull a rabbit or two out of the hat. I'll also talk to Admiral Chou at personnel. I think Fleet needs to establish just how bad things are out there."

"What about the politicians. Have they seen the projections? How do they feel about waiting five years?"

"That's also above your pay grade, Michael, so sorry, no comment."

"Understood, Admiral. Forgive my French, sir, but they'll shit themselves, though."

Jaruzelska shrugged. "Can't say. Anyway, enough of that. Let's talk about you."

Michael's heart sank. Jaruzelska's ability to get to the heart of things was legendary. "Okay, sir," he said, struggling to keep his voice matter-of-fact despite the fact that his heart had started to thump.

"I've been reviewing your recent operations: Balawal, Barcoola, Grendell, Tyrlathi. To be fair, you did what you were sent to do, but I can't say that you executed them with the flair I've come to expect from you. Too many unnecessary risks, too many shortcuts. It's as if you just wanted to get the job done quickly, like… oh, I don't know… like there was something better for you to do, somewhere else you'd rather be."

"Every one of those operations did what it was supposed to do, sir," Michael said. "And the Nyleth system commander hasn't raised any concerns."

Jaruzelska's eyes narrowed in a sudden flare of anger. "That's because he does not know you the way I do, Lieutenant," she said, her words clipped, "and I know you very well. So I strongly suggest that this is not the time to play games with me."

"No, Admiral," Michael said with an apologetic bob of his head; with a sudden stab of fear, he knew it would not take much for the admiral to tear the truth out of him. "Sorry, sir."

"Hmm." Jaruzelska paused. She looked Michael directly in the eye with a focused intensity that kicked his heartbeat up yet another gear. "So tell me… why would that be?" she said.

Fighting back an overwhelming urge to tell Jaruzelska about Anna, Michael forced himself to sound calm and in control. "Well, sir. The honest answer is, I don't know," he said. "But what you say is right. My executive officer shares your concerns, and she's already spoken to me."

Jaruzelska's eyebrows lifted in surprise. "She has? That takes guts. Not many executive officers would have done that."

"Jayla Ferreira's a great XO, sir. She's tough, she's smart, and she's focused. She also has a clear view of right and wrong. I'm lucky to have her."

"I think you are, but she's not the issue here. You are. So what're you doing to fix the problem?"

Michael offered a silent prayer of thanks that Jaruzelska had moved past the still unanswered question: Why was he performing below his best?

"Recognize the problem," he said, "accept it, make sure I deal with recommendations made by my CIC team, consider them, don't dismiss them out of hand. Less Michael Helfort, more Redwood command team."

Jaruzelska smiled. "In other words, act like the Michael Helfort I know so well, the Michael Helfort who blew the Hammer antimatter plant at Devastation Reef to hell."

"Yes, Admiral," Michael said, doing his best to look chastened rather than relieved. He doubted he could have withstood one of Jaruzelska's cross-examinations; he had seen her reduce tougher spacers than he to quivering blobs of jelly.

"I'm pleased to hear it," Jaruzelska said, "because if I'm right about Ferreira, she'll understand precisely what Fleet Regulations have to say on the subject of a captain's fitness to command."

"She does, sir. She told me she understands her obligations under Fleet Regulations, section 34, subsection 15."

"Fine," Jaruzelska said. "I don't think I need to say any more, do I?"

"No, sir. You don't."

"Turning to other matters. My shuttle's due in less than half an hour, and I have a few more things to talk to you about before I go. First…" Wednesday, September 5, 2401, UD FWSS Redwood, in orbit around Nyleth-B

"All set, Jayla?"

"All set, sir. Redwood, Red River, and Redress are ready in all respects to go."

"Right, let's do this."

"Yes, sir. All stations. Assume damage control state 2, airtight condition yankee. Propulsion, main engines to stand by."

Michael settled back to let Redwood and her sister ships make their final preparations to get under way and depart Nyleth orbit, the familiar routine ebbing and flowing around him. "Captain, sir."

"Yes, Jayla."

"Ship is at damage control state 2, airtight condition yankee. Redwood, Red River, and Redress are nominal. We have clearance from Nyleth nearspace control to depart. We're good to go, sir."

"Roger. All stations, stand by to leave orbit."

Five minutes later, Michael allowed himself to relax a fraction. Another few hours, he thought, and the mission would become a reality, the option to turn back gone. He looked across at Ferreira as she entered the combat information center; he waved her over.

"So, Jayla. Looks like we're committed."

"Yes, sir. We are."

"Not having second thoughts?"

"Hell, yes." Ferreira grinned. "Who wouldn't? Even though this feels like every other time we've broken orbit, that it's just another mission like all the rest, it sure isn't."

"No," Michael said softly, "that it's not. Can't have been too many missions in Fleet history where nobody was coming back."

"None that I can think of. But you know what I hate most, sir?"


"Knowing that we'll survive… most likely… but Redwood, Red River, and Redress won't. I hate that."

"Me, too." Michael paused to look around. "I've never thought of ships as just big lumps of ceramsteel and titanium. It's old-fashioned, I know, but I've always thought ships have souls. It makes me feel like we're killing them, even if it is in a good cause."

"Tell you one thing, sir. Nobody's going to forget these three ships, never. This operation is a doozy. It breaks every rule in the Fighting Instructions, it treats Fleet Regulations with contempt, and it's going to destroy the careers and reputations of all of us. I'm going to be branded a criminal for life, and so, sir, are you." Ferreira looked at Michael and grinned. "Talk about taking your place in history."

Michael had to laugh. "I can handle all that, Jayla. But you want to know what really bothers me?"

"That we fail? That we go through all this and Anna… you know."

"Actually, no. I think we've planned this well enough to know that our chances of success are as good as any mission I've been on. No, what really bothers me is the fact that once I'm dirtside on Commitment, I'm marooned there until this damn war ends."

"If we live that long. It's going to be tough, isn't it?"

"Yes, it is." Michael nodded, grim-faced. "Very tough. I know we've talked about this, but the thought that I might never get home again-now, that is hard."

"Hard to die so far away from home," Ferreira said, her voice catching for an instant, "maybe all alone. Not good."

Michael knew how she felt; a churning mix of doubt, fear, and apprehension had preyed on him more and more as the time approached for them to depart Nyleth. He also knew that he and Ferreira were not alone. The same feelings troubled everyone, the pressure building remorselessly as the day to leave approached. "I felt that way when I lost Corporal Yazdi on Commitment the last time."

"Corporal Yazdi? The marine who escaped from POW camp with you after Ishaq was ambushed?"

"Yes, her. Walking away from her grave, leaving her there on her own, maybe forever, that was the hardest thing I've ever done."

"There's one more thing that bothers me, sir. My parents. I hate to think what I'm doing to them."

"At least yours aren't ex-Fleet, Jayla. My mother's a retired commodore, my father a retired captain. I can't begin to understand how they're going to take it."

"In a word, sir, the same way mine will: badly."

"Yeah." He laughed softly. "I spent hours and hours trying to get my last vidmail right, trying to make sure they understood what I was trying to do and why." He paused to shake his head. "Pretty sure I did not succeed," he added, his face glum.

"Me neither," Ferreira said. "But it's too late to worry about them now. They're going to be pissed no matter what any of us say."

"Yes." Michael sighed. "So be it. I just hope they'll eventually understand why we've done what we've done."

Clear of Nyleth nearspace and in pinchspace on vector direct for Commitment, home planet of the Hammer of Kraa Worlds, Michael watched the first phase of Operation Gladiator kick off. Kallewi's marines, the largest and therefore potentially the most dangerous group onboard, would be the first to go through what some wiseass had called "the mutiny mill." Needless to say, Michael had not seen the joke. The process was long and drawn out, the marines summoned in batches by Kallewi, briefed in detail, and asked the hard question: Are you in or out?

For Michael, it seemed to take forever, so he was a much-relieved man when it was finished. As Kallewi predicted, some of the marines had declined the invitation to participate in the crime of the century. The only surprise had been two marines from Z Section, making a total of seven with the common sense to stay well away from the insanity that was Operation Gladiator. They had refused to say why they wanted no part of it, lapsing into sullen silence, refusing to talk. Kallewi had not wasted any time on them. Plasticuffed, they were escorted to the holding pen to join their fellow abstainers.

With the marines done, Michael dealt with the rest of Redwood's crew en bloc. Not that there were many of them; Redwood's complement included only six junior spacers, all waiting patiently, flanked-not that any of them knew it-by Michael's co-conspirators, stun guns close to hand if needed. Before he started to speak, Michael had looked at them, wondering if he had any right to ask them to be part of what was beyond doubt the most crazy scheme of all time.

"Right," he said. "I'll play you a holovid before I tell you what I'm going to do about it. Please, don't say or ask anything until it's finished."

By the time Colonel Hartspring's vidmail was finished, the silence was absolute, the shock on every face plain to see.

"Right," Michael said. "That's the problem. Here's what we plan to do about it and why."

As Michael laid out Operation Gladiator, suspicion replaced shock. One of Sedova's crew, her sensors man, Leading Spacer Jackson, made no secret of his disapproval. Head down, he refused to look Michael in the eye; the moment Michael finished, he climbed to his feet.

"I want no part of this, this, this… this madness," Jackson said, the words tumbling out in a rush. "It is mutiny, and I won't go along with it. I can't believe you'd do this, sir. After all we've been through. You've betrayed everything Fleet stands for. You're a disgrace. You're not fit-"

Bienefelt was on Jackson in a flash, one giant hand at his throat, the other grabbing his shipsuit and lifting him bodily into the air. "Watch your mouth, spacer; watch your damn mouth," she growled, her anger obvious.

"No, no, Chief. Let him be," Michael said. "Anyone else?" he said while Bienefelt pushed Jackson back down into his seat more firmly than was necessary.

To Michael's surprise, Faris stayed seated. After an uncomfortable pause, Lomidze stood up.

"I'm sorry, sir," he said, his voice breaking, wringing his hands in an agony of embarrassment. "I'd like to go along, but I can't. I have too much to lose. I'm sorry, I…" His voice faded into silence. Recovering his composure, he continued. "Jacko's wrong." Jackson shot a look of pure hatred at Lomidze. "Sorry, Jacko, but you are. It's not madness. Fact is, it's the sanest thing I've heard in a long time. No disrespect, sir, but I can't leave my family. It's too much to ask. Sorry."

"I understand," Michael said softly. "I'm sorry, too. I'll miss you all." He looked right into Jackson's face. "I know you think I'm wrong doing this, but I have my reasons. We all do. I hope you can at least understand that. I wish there'd been another way, but there isn't. Chief Bienefelt?"


"Take them away."


When the spacers were gone, Michael looked at those left. "Now, the rest of you," he said. "You need to be sure about this. This is a one-way ticket. There's no going back. It will be dangerous. It will be hard. I don't know if any of us will ever see home again."

"May I speak, sir?" Leading Spacer Paarl said, coming to his feet.

"Of course."

"I think I'm right in saying that your mother and sister were onboard the Mumtaz when the Hammers hijacked it."

"Yes, they were."

"The man in charge of the hijack operation, Andrew Comonec. He shot a woman in cold blood soon after his men took the ship. You remember that?"

"How can I forget? My sister still has nightmares."

"That woman, the woman he shot, she was my grandmother, sir," Paarl said, the pain of memory all too evident on his face. "Agnetha Jasmina Paarl was her name, and I loved her like she was my own mother. She was ninety-seven years old, going to see her sister for the first time in fifty years. She was a good woman. She never harmed a soul, and the Hammers shot her out of hand. For me," he continued, "this is a no-brainer. Just thought you should know where I'm coming from, sir," he finished, voice cracking, overwhelmed by emotion.

"You're not alone, spacer. Welcome aboard. Now, Leading Spacer Faris."

"Yes, sir?"

"We didn't think you'd want any part of this. You sure?"

"Yes, sir. I am," Faris said, his voice rock-steady. "Absolutely sure."

"What about the wife and kid? I can't think of a better reason to say no."

"Ah, yes. The family." Faris's eyes flicked from side to side. "Ah, yes, sir. Umm, well… I meant to tell the coxswain, sir, but hadn't gotten around to it. Received a vidmail from Lori a few days ago. Things haven't been too good between us for a while, and Lori wants a divorce. So I figured… well, I figured, what the hell. Anyway, turns out the kid's not even mine, so a few years' absence won't be that big a burden. I'm in, sir. No problems."

"Fine. If you're sure," Michael said, amazed yet again by the things he discovered about the spacers under his command. "Right. We've a lot to get through, so that will do. We'll be dropping into normal space in… let me see… yes, about three hours from now to drop off those who don't want any part of this, and then we'll be on our way. There'll be a more detailed briefing after we've jumped back in pinchspace. The XOs set up the AIs with a detailed sim of the operation. We'll do a first run-through when the briefing's over. Unless there are any questions… No? Good. I'll see you all later. Carry on, please." He turned to Ferreira and Sedova. "Let's do the last of them."

"Not looking forward to this, sir," Ferreira said.

"Nor me," Michael said, grim-faced. The command pilot and loadmaster of Redwood's new heavy lander, Hell Bent, were unknown quantities. He had no feel for how they might respond. One thing was for sure, though: They were in for the biggest surprise of their short careers.

Junior Lieutenant Acharya and Petty Officer Krilic waited in Conference-6, a small, bleak compartment boasting a table, chairs, and a single bulkhead-mounted holovid. They came to their feet and snapped to attention when Michael entered.

"Sit, please," Michael said, taking a seat opposite the pair. He waited until Ferreira and Sedova sat down on either side of him. "I have something to ask both of you, but first I want you to watch a holovid. Then the XO will tell you what comes next. So sit back and pay attention. Okay?"

"Sir," the pair replied, their faces turning to utter bafflement when the menacing figure of Colonel Erwin Hartspring appeared on the holovid and started to speak, the flattened vowels, chopped syllables, and staccato delivery stamping him indelibly as a Hammer.

"Hello, Lieutenant Helfort, or may I call you Michael?" the man said. "Do you remember me? Yes, I'm sure you do, but just in case…"

When Ferreira finished summarizing Operation Gladiator, Acharya and Krilic sat unmoving, their mouths hanging open, faces drawn tight in shocked disbelief.

Acharya spoke first. "Sir, you cannot be serious," Hell Bent's command pilot croaked. "I understand the problem, I sympathize, but… but this is mutiny, sir, not to mention about a hundred other crimes. Surely there must be a better way. A legal way. Surely?"

"I wish there was, Lieutenant, but trust me, there isn't," Michael said. "I would not be sitting here doing this if there was a better way. I hate doing this to you, putting you on the spot. I know it's not fair, but that's just the way it is. I know you don't know me well enough to trust me, but sometimes in life that's just the way things turn out. That's the real question here: Are you prepared to trust me or not? There's nothing more I can tell you. You know everything we know. Now it's for you to decide."

"Do I have to decide this instant?" Acharya said, anguished.

"I'm afraid so. Anyone who cannot go along with this will be off-loaded when we drop in a couple of hours. You have to decide now."

"Shit," Acharya muttered. "Sorry, sir, but that's one hell of an ask." His head went down and stayed there.

"I know," Michael said. "You think about it for a moment. Petty Officer Krilic?"


"You're a bit quiet."

Krilic sighed. "I am, sir, but only because I've decided."


"Yes, sir. Part of me… no, that's not right. Most of me wants to agree with you. Like most spacers, I'm not happy with the way Fleet's handling things, not happy at all, but I can't go along with you. I'm sorry. Do I need to say more than that?"

"No, no, you don't," Michael said. "It's your call. If you're sure"-Krilic nodded-"that's quite okay. Jayla?"

"Sir. Come with me, Petty Officer Krilic."

The silence continued long after the pair had left. Michael, conscious of all the things he needed to finish before Redwood dropped into normalspace, forced himself to wait. Operation Gladiator needed Acharya. At last, his head lifted. He looked Michael right in the eye.

"You have no right to ask me to be part of Gladiator, sir… none at all, and I will resent what you've done to me here for as long as I live. It's wrong, so wrong I even don't know where to start. So I won't waste your time trying. Suffice it to say"-Michael held his breath-"that you can count me in, sir."

Michael breathed out slowly. "Thank you, Lieutenant."

"Please, sir, don't thank me." Acharya's tone turned abrupt, sharp. "Let's be very clear. I'm not doing it for you."

Michael blinked. Acharya might have volunteered, but that did not mean he should be part of Gladiator. Was he agreeing to go along just to be the hero, the spacer who saved the Federation from the worst mutiny in Fleet history? Acharya was a smart man, but even smart people were stupid sometimes. Michael knew he had been.

"I understand that," Michael said. "So tell me why you are doing it. I need to know. If I'm to trust you," he added under his breath.

"Well, sir. Petty Officer Krilic's partly right, but there's more to it. Twenty months ago, I was part of MARFOR 3. We'd embarked in Tourville and were training flat out for the invasion of Commitment. Then the Hammers kicked our ass at Comdur. Since then, all I've done is training, training, and more training, and for what? I'll be dead before we ever invade the Hammers. I've not seen action once, which was why I was more than happy when posted to Redwood. With your reputation, sir, I was damn sure I wouldn't be sitting around scratching my ass waiting to do my next training sim, even though I didn't grind my way through combat flight school to go through this war picking off Hammer signal intelligence stations one by one. Sorry, sir, don't mean to… you know…"

"Don't worry about it."

"I know I'm only a no-account junior officer," Acharya continued, "but like Krilic, I'm not happy with the way things have been going, and I'm willing to try another way. I have nothing personal against the Hammers. They haven't killed anyone who matters to me and I haven't lost anyone I'd call a friend, but this war cannot go on. So if you'll have me, I'd like to be in. It might not be the smartest thing I've ever done, and my dad will kill me when he sees me again, but so be it."

Michael looked keenly at Acharya, acutely aware that for all the passion he showed, he was an unknown quantity. After a moment's consideration and encouraged by Acharya's directness, he made his decision.

"Good," he said. "Welcome to the team. When we're back in pinchspace, there'll be a detailed briefing, followed by our first sim. I'll comm you the full operations plan the moment we're done here. Any more questions?"

"No, sir," Acharya said, his voice betraying not a hint of uncertainty or doubt. "None."

"Good. You carry on."

"Yes, sir."

When Acharya had left, Michael turned to Sedova. "Have I made the right call?"

"Yes, sir, you have," Sedova said; she looked relieved. "He's an unknown quantity, I agree, but what I've seen of him so far is good, and we need another assault lander pilot. Lot of anger and frustration after sitting on the bench for so many months, too much maybe, but that's a good thing for us, I think."


"Captain, sir."

"Yes, Jayla?"

"We'll be dropping in thirty minutes, sir. If you've got any last vidmails to go, you need to get them finished."

"Just doing that, Jayla, thanks. Our abstainers ready to go?"

"They are, sir. The marines will be loading them into the lifepods any minute now."

"Okay. If you need me, I'll be in the CIC once I've been down to wish them luck."


Michael scanned the last of the personal vidmails he had spent so much time and effort finishing. The one to his parents had been easy: a copy of Hartspring's message, a short summary of what he planned to do and why, and a plea for patience and understanding.

The vidmails to Vice Admiral Jaruzelska and President Diouf had been far from easy. Second only to his parents and Anna, Jaruzelska and Diouf had faith in him when he most needed it; they would be deeply wounded by what to them would appear, quite justifiably, to be an act of unbelievable treachery. He had labored for hours trying to explain himself to them, but the words never came out right no matter how hard he tried. Resigned, he gave up trying and sent the messages on their way. Jaruzelska and Diouf would receive them when the lifepods holding the abstainers were rescued; he was glad he would not be around to see their reactions.

There was one last message to go, to Nyleth's operations officer. It was easy, and then it was on its way. One thing was certain: The woman was in for the shock of her life when she opened her mail in ten days' time. Michael hated leaving any of his people drifting in deepspace for that long before they were recovered, but there was no way he would rely on the Fed government to do the right thing. He would wager good money the first thing the morons would have done-apart from panicking-was to warn the Hammers that the dreadnoughts were on their way. So they could be allowed to find out only after it was all over.

Moving aft and up from his cabin, Michael made his way to the lobby accessing lifepods 7- and 9-Golf. There he found a disconsolate line of abstainers waiting to leave under the watchful gaze of Lieutenant Kallewi, Sergeant Tchiang, and four armed marines. Michael nodded his approval. He knew the abstainers would not make any trouble; they would be bored but safe, and they knew it. If there was one thing Fleet was good at, it was recovering wayward lifepods, and Michael had left their exact position and vector; still, it was good to see Kallewi taking nothing for granted.

When he approached, Leading Spacer Jackson spotted him. Turning, he started toward Michael, two marines moving to hold him back.

"Let me go!" Jackson said. "I just want to say goodbye."

"It's okay, guys," Michael said to the marines. He looked at Jackson for a moment before speaking. "I'm sorry to lose you, Jackson. I hoped you'd be coming along."

"I'm sorry, too, sir. I know Lieutenant Sedova thinks I'm too rule-bound, too rigid, and maybe I am, but whatever the reason, Gladiator's just not something I can be part of. Wish it was but"-Jackson shrugged his shoulders-"it's not. I'm sorry."

"Don't be," Michael said. "You're doing your duty the best way you know how. Nobody can criticize you for that, ever." Michael grasped Jackson's hand and shook it. "Good luck, and don't think too badly of us. Whether we like it or not, fate sometimes gives us hard choices, and this has been one of those times."

Jackson was overwhelmed by the moment, and his eyes filled with tears. "You take care, sir. I'll be thinking of you. Good luck. I hope things work out." With a final squeeze of the hand, he turned and ducked into the lifepod.

Michael shook hands with Lomidze and Krilic in turn. Neither spoke; they turned away and climbed into the lifepod.

"That's it, sir," Kallewi said when the lifepod hatches swung shut. "All loaded."

"Good. Close the access doors. I'll be in the CIC for the launch."


Michael sat back in his seat while the navigation AI recomputed Redwood's position. He was prepared to do many things; dropping the lifepods into the wrong patch of deepspace was not one of them.

"Lifepod drop position and vector confirmed nominal, sir," the AI said at last.

"Roger." Michael checked that the AI had gotten it right before he patched his neuronics through to the lifepod holding the spacers. "Command, 7-Golf."

"7-Golf." Petty Officer Krilic accepted the comm.

"We'll be launching you shortly. You guys all set?"

"Yes, we are, sir," Krilic replied. "Both lifepods are nominal, and we have everyone's mail. We're ready."

"Good. We've confirmed your position and vector; they are so close to what I've advised Nyleth that it makes no difference. It'll take them a while to get to you, but they will make it, so hang in there."

"Will do, sir. Thanks and good luck. 7-Golf, out."

Two minutes later, two faint thuds announced the launch of the lifepods. Phase 2 of Operation Gladiator was over. He commed Sedova.

"Alley Kat, this is command."

"Command, Alley Kat. Go ahead."

"You all set?"

"In two, sir. The marines and their repairbots are loaded. Acharya and his team are just securing the demolition charges."

"Roger that. You are approved to launch when ready. Advise when locked in to Red River."

"Command, Alley Kat, roger. Approved to launch, advise when locked in. Alley Kat, out."

Michael commed Ferreira. "How are things?" he asked.

"Bienefelt and her team have locked out and have started work. She estimates she'll have all excess antennas and equipment cut away and jettisoned inside three hours."


Michael sat back and commed Mother.

Her avatar popped into his neuronics. "Yes, Michael?" she said.

"The missile off-load. How's progress?"

"Just about to get the first batch outboard. I hope Fleet appreciates the effort we're making."

Michael chuckled; the chances of Fleet appreciating anything he did were zero. "How long?"

"At least twelve hours. We have, let me see… yes, we have 4,212 missiles to off-load, and it's a slow process."

"I know. Keep me posted."


Michael hated the idea of cutting his missile load down to only three salvos of Merlins fitted with reentry-hardened warheads, but there would be no time for the dreadnoughts to fire any more. The additional missiles had to go; they only added unnecessary mass. He started to think of what problems not having enough missiles might create when Sedova brought his review to a halt.

"Command, Alley Kat. Locked in to Red River. Off-loading pax and cargo. Will keep you posted on progress."

"Command, roger. Out."

Michael switched the holovid to Red River's hangar deck. Kallewi had wasted no time. Already the cavernous space was a hive of activity. Repairbots had started to cut redundant equipment away from the ship's hull; while their laser cutters worked away, Kallewi's marines dragged what was little more than expensive junk across the hangar deck before piling it into untidy heaps close to the main hangar air lock doors. The sight of what amounted to the wholesale trashing of a perfectly good dreadnought made Michael's heart sink, even if it was all in a good cause.

Michael turned his attention to the second of the teams rigging Red River for the assault on Commitment. He commed Acharya, who was at work deep inside one of the starboard driver mass bunkers.

"How's it going, Dev?"

"Getting there, sir," Acharya said, his helmet-mounted light splashing across the grimy figures of the rest of his team; their space suits were coated with dust from crushed driver pellets. "I never imagined I'd be using what they taught me on my basic demolition course to blow holes in the hull of one of Fleet's finest, but there you are. Needs must."

Michael laughed. "Quite so. Any problems?"

"Only this damn dust," Acharya said, "of which there is an endless supply. We have to make sure we keep it out of the cable connectors; otherwise the firing sequence is screwed."

"And can you?"

"We can, sir, thanks to these." Acharya raised a small cylinder. "Compressed air. Works a treat."

"Good," Michael said. "Let me know how you're doing, but take your time. I want those charges rigged right, not rigged quickly."

"Roger that, sir. They will be."

"Good. Command, out."

Michael allowed himself to relax a fraction. Preparing the three dreadnoughts for Operation Gladiator was scheduled to take the best part of two days, time well spent, Michael knew, because it kept everyone's mind off the coming battle. Happy that there was nothing more to be done, he commed his neuronics to bring up the time line for Gladiator. Not that he needed to-he knew the plan by heart-but given what was at stake, he would not take the chance that something, however small, might have been missed. Friday, September 7, 2401, UD FWSS Redwood, in deepspace

Michael was relieved when Redwood finally jumped into pinchspace. It had been a long, hard two days. Like everyone else onboard, he was exhausted thanks to the combined effects of no sleep and long hours of hard physical work, not to mention the stress of knowing that they would drop into Hammer farspace in little over a week's time. Not that the 411-light-year transit to Commitment offered any respite. Redwood's crew still had two more days of hard labor loading the landers with all the equipment and supplies to go dirtside; once that was done, Michael had scheduled an intensive program in the simulators. Gladiator was not the most complex operation of all time, but no operation in all the history of the Federation had been played for such huge stakes. Gladiator had to succeed, and if that meant spending hours and hours in the sims, so be it.

After a last check that all of Redwood's systems were nominal and that she was established on a stable pinchspace vector, Michael turned to Ferreira.

"Okay, Jayla. You have the ship. I'm off down to the hangar deck to see how the marines are getting on before I turn in. Who's your relief?"

"The coxswain, sir," Ferreira said, her face a gaunt, exhausted mask. "I stood her down to get some shut-eye before she takes over at midnight."

"Let me guess. It needed a direct order?"

Despite her obvious tiredness, Ferreira grinned. "Sure did. You know Chief Bienefelt."

Michael returned the grin. "I know Chief Bienefelt," he said. "I'll see you later."


Michael made his way down to the hangar deck. The process was a painful one; his overused muscles protested every step of the way, his leg, as always, protesting more than all the rest of his body put together. "Goddamn thing," he muttered as he negotiated a ladder steeper than his leg liked. When was it ever going to be right? With one more deck to go, he had to stop, the pain from his leg forcing him to wait. Leaning against the bulkhead, he eased the weight off his bad leg, the relief immediate, the pain abating to a dull, nagging ache, leaving his mind free to roam after the hours of relentless activity prepping Redwood and her sister ships for the jump to Commitment.

What a life, he thought, looking down the empty, echoing passageway, riding the best warship ever built on its last voyage, a one-way trip into flaming oblivion, from which he and the rest of the Redwoods would escape at the last minute to snatch Anna and the rest of the prisoners of war incarcerated in Camp J-5209, whether they liked it or not, before flying off into the arms of a grateful NRA, dodging missiles and vengeful Hammer fliers. He shook his head and smiled wryly. It was comicvid stuff, it really was.

He checked to see what time it was with Anna: just past midnight, according to his neuronics. He smiled again as he remembered what nights were like in a Hammer POW camp: a long shed filled with serried ranks of bunks, each filled with the huddled shapes of sleeping spacers, the air full of the small noises people made: coughs, moans, soft cries, the occasional half-heard word blurted out from the depths of a dream.

Michael thought of Anna. Was she sleeping like all the rest? If she was, what was she dreaming about? And if she was awake, maybe she was thinking of him, wondering how long it would be before they saw each other again. Michael shook his head. More likely, she was wondering what the hell she was going to do with another long, empty day behind Hammer razor wire, a day like every other day, one day closer to freedom for sure, but how much closer?

As long as things went to plan, sooner than you think, Anna, he thought, thankful she had no idea what the consequences of his failure might be. He found them hard enough to bear; imagining how Anna would react when-no, if-Hartspring's thugs came calling was almost too much; his stomach turned over as he pictured the terror on her face as the colonel spelled out what the last week of her life had in store for her in excruciating detail. And he would, Michael knew he would, rage washing through him in an incandescent wave. If Anna died, he would hunt Hartspring down to the very ends of humanspace if need be, and then the man would die a death even more terrible than Anna's.

"Jesus, Michael," he muttered out loud, "get a grip. Come on, you've got work to do." Forcing himself upright, he gingerly eased his weight back onto his bad leg, relieved to find that the bloody thing had decided to behave for once. Stepping onto the ladder, he started down again.

When he got to the hangar deck, Michael looked around. He spotted a handful of marines securing the last of the untidy piles of scrap cut out of the ship by the repairbots while Kallewi and Sergeant Tchiang busied themselves running cables to the small mounds of sandbagged explosive charges that would blast the scrap out into space as Redwood approached reentry. Michael hung back to let them finish.

Finally, Kallewi pronounced himself satisfied with the last of the charges. He stood up, stretching hard. "Hello, sir," he said when he spotted Michael. "Come to see what real work looks like?"

"I was about to commend you for your diligence and devotion to duty, Lieutenant Kallewi," Michael said, stern-faced. "But since you've just done that for yourself, I won't bother."

Kallewi laughed. "Ouch," he said. "Anyway, we're done here."

"Just hope it all works."

"Oh, it will," Kallewi said. "When these babies go off"-he kicked one of the sandbags-"all that scrap has only one way to go, and that's out the door. The Hammers won't know what the hell is happening."

"You're right. Everything we know about them tells us that they are anyone's equal as long as they face a problem they understand. Their Achilles' heel is that they are worse, much worse, than most when facing the unexpected. The Hammer military does not reward initiative."

"Well, tell you what, sir. This will be unexpected."

Michael laughed; Kallewi's confidence was infectious. "I think so. How are the troops?"

"Dog-tired and asleep. Busy day tomorrow, so I want them fresh."

"Anyone having second thoughts?"

"Yes, a couple. Tedeschi and Gavaskar."

"They a problem?"

"No," Kallewi said after a moment. "Sergeant Tchiang talked to them. Turned out it was just nerves, and I can't say I blame them. I can't remember so much tension before an operation."

"Ditto. I'm not concerned about the assault on the camp. We'll have momentum, and if we play our cards right, the Hammers will be so damn confused, they won't even know what we're doing until it's too late. It's what happens after that bothers me. We'll have hundreds of Fed spacers and marines on our hands. I wonder how they'll react when they find out they've been rescued by mutineers."

"Like we decided, sir, I think the later we leave telling them, the better. When we do, provided the senior Fed officer in charge of the camp accepts what's happened, we should be okay. I don't think it'll be a problem."

Michael nodded. "I think that's right." He paused for a moment. "That leaves us with the Nationalists. Who knows what they'll think. We assume they'll treat us like manna from heaven, but we need to remember they were born Hammers. They've been raised from birth to hate us and everything we stand for."

"They treated you well last time around?"

"Yeah, they did, but it was only me, and I was moved on quickly. If Vaas decides that we're a problem…"

"You know what, sir?"

"No, what?"

"You worry too much. If the Nationalists turn us down, they're fuckwits. Three landers with crews, microfabs, trained marines, weapons, and more. If that's not manna from heaven, I've misjudged the situation… badly. Everything we know about them tells us they are a smart, determined bunch of people, fighting to overthrow one of the ugliest regimes in human history. So I don't think they'll turn down our offer of help. Doesn't mean we can go barging in. We'll need to take care, but in the end they won't say no."

"I think you're right. Anyway, enough talk. Time to turn in. I'll see you tomorrow."

Kallewi rolled his eyes. "Moving more stuff! Can't wait."

"Night, Janos."

"Night, sir." Friday, September 14, 2401, UD FWSS Redwood, in deepspace

The compartment fell silent when Michael rapped a knife on his glass and stood up.

"Sorry, folks," he said, "but you know how it is. You can't have a formal dinner without the captain making a speech. Them's the rules, you all know it, and no amount of complaining will change things."

Michael lifted his hands while a chorus of cheerful cheers and boos along with shouts of "Sit down," "Does your mother know what you're up to, sonny?" "More beer," "That's enough talk," and other time-honored and insubordinate witticisms-all sanctioned by long-standing naval tradition to the point of being compulsory on occasions like this-broke out.

"Yes, yes, yes," he said over the row. "I'll keep it short, don't worry." He waited until order returned, his eyes scanning the faces around the single large table filling what had been the senior spacers' bar when Redwood was a cruiser.

"It's been a long day, so I'll keep it short"-more cheers sprinkled liberally with calls of "liar"-"but there are a few things that need to be said. First, I want to thank you all. To those of you who know and trust me, I cannot begin to express how I feel. I promise you that I will not betray that trust. To those of you who are here because it is our best chance to hit the Hammers and hit them hard-"

Michael was forced to wait as the room filled with roars overlaid with shouts raw with hate and anger.

"-that is the best reason for doing what we are doing. I promise you that by the time we are finished, the Hammers will hate us for the death and destruction we will bring down on their heads."

The compartment erupted in an explosion of energy. The spacers and marines of Redwood's crew leaped to their feet, fists pumping the air, mouths open, bellowing hate-fueled litanies of revenge. Finally order was restored.

"And finally, to those of you," he said, "who are just along because they've got nothing better to do, thanks anyway. We need you."

Again Michael waited patiently when laughter filled the room.

"Tomorrow," he continued, "we drop into Hammer farspace"-the mood in the room changed; in an instant, all the good humor had vanished-"the start of Operation Gladiator proper. You all know why Gladiator matters to me. But if freeing the spacers and marines held by the Hammers in J-5209 was all this was about, I would never have allowed it, no matter the consequences. Never. So we need to remember that Gladiator does not end when we clear the camp. We have been at war with the Hammers for more than a century"-a murmur washed through the room-"and Fleet tells us we face another five years of fighting. Then what? A better than even chance that we still won't be able to defeat the Hammers. Worse, there's a good chance they might beat us. I am not so arrogant to think that we alone can end this war, but I think that we can bring forward the day when war between the Federation and the Hammer of Kraa Worlds is history. And we'll do that by bringing what assistance we can to the Nationalist forces opposing the Hammer government. That is why we are doing what we are doing. That is why we risk career and reputation. That is why we have broken every rule in Fleet Regulations.

"There can be no more Comdurs. When we go into battle in the next few days, remember that. Thank you."

Michael sat down, the silence absolute. A moment passed, and then Bienefelt, Ferreira, Kallewi, and Sedova were back on their feet, joined an instant later by every spacer and marine present, the air ripped apart by the Federation battle cry: "Remember Comdur, remember Comdur, remember Comdur…"

Stepping out of the drop tube, Michael walked aft down the passageway toward Redwood's hangar, the soft slap of ship boots on the plasteel deck plates the only sound over the ever-present hiss of the ship's air-conditioning. The complete absence of Redwood's crew heightened his sense of isolation. Apart from Acharya, who was standing the middle watch in the combat information center, Michael was the only person onboard awake. It was not a good feeling, and the isolation added to the crushing weight of responsibility he carried for the spacers and marines he was leading into the most harebrained scheme ever devised by humans. Yes, they were all adults, rational, sensible people. Yes, they had been given the option to bail out with the rest of the abstainers. Yes, they had all decided to go along, but none of that altered the fact that the safety of every spacer and marine rested in his hands.

If it had not been for him and Anna, none of them would have been asked to risk everything-career, reputation, family, friends, citizenship, not to mention their lives-out of a misguided sense of loyalty, lust for adventure, frustration at the stalemate in the war against the Hammers, or whatever other crazy motivation might have urged them on.

He struggled to control his stomach, a churning mess of anxiety and dread. In an instant, he was overwhelmed. He made it to the heads, just. There, crouched over the sterile whiteness of the nearest toilet, he threw up his dinner, his body driven to its knees by the spasms that wracked it, the muscles of his stomach and chest screaming in protest.

An age later his body relented, and Michael struggled to his feet to wash his face. He stared into the mirror. The man who looked back was not he. Stress had stripped kilos off a once-solid frame, leaving his face gaunt, his skin stretched gray and tight across now-prominent cheekbones, his eyes the eyes of a man condemned to die.

"How did it ever come to this?" he whispered, weighed down by the weight of Operation Gladiator. How well he managed an attack on the most heavily defended planet in humanspace would rewrite the history of space warfare. If, he reminded himself, any of them lived long enough to tell the tale.

With a conscious effort, he forced himself out of the heads and down the passageway into the hangar. He paused, taking a moment to make sure that none of Kallewi's marines were around. Satisfied they had all turned in, he walked around the hangar, eyes scanning left and right to make sure that nothing was out of place. Happy that things were all right, he made his way over to the nearest landers. Alley Kat and Hell Bent were ranged hard up against the inner air lock door with Widowmaker tucked in close behind. The landers' ramps were down, their cargo bays loaded with anything that might come in handy once the attack on J-5209 was over.

Ferreira had gone over the loads with a fine-tooth comb. Gladiator would not be much of an operation if the landers ended up so overloaded that they were forced to leave behind some of the Fed prisoners they had come so far and risked so much to rescue. Even so, they looked crowded. If he had not checked for himself, he would not have believed the landers had enough payload left to lift hundreds of Feds out of J-5209. As it was, it was going to be standing room only, the prisoners packed into the spaces around the mounds of equipment and ordnance the landers were taking with them.

It was Widowmaker's cargo he was most interested in. Ranged across the threshold of the ramp rested the stealthed LALO-low altitude, low opening-drop pods; they would carry Bienefelt and her team down to secure the lay-up point. Once Gladiator was over, the Hammers, angry and humiliated, would come looking for them, and though Fed landers might be tough, they were not tough enough to hold off an entire planetary ground defense force thirsting for revenge. If they were not holed up where the Hammers would never find them, none of them would live to see another day. Michael shivered as he ran a hand across the skin of the nearest pod. A LALO drop pod exercise had been part of his cadet training. He had been terrified then, and thinking about it terrified him now; it still raised goose bumps. Squeezed two to a pod, ejected to plunge earthward for what seemed like an eternity even though the fall had been all of two seconds long before the chutes popped to bring the pods to a brutal stop meters above the ground, it had been a horrible experience, one he hoped he would never, ever have to repeat.

With a silent prayer that Bienefelt would come through okay, he patted the pod for luck and moved on.

The rest of his walk-around was a formality. Michael knew that there was nothing more to do. He also knew that sleep would be a scarce commodity once they were dirtside on Commitment. With exhaustion threatening to overwhelm him, he started to walk back to the drop tube. Maybe he would be lucky; maybe for once sleep would come quickly, before his brain resumed its never-ending review of all the things that might go wrong with Operation Gladiator. Saturday, September 15, 2401, UD FWSS Redwood, Commitment farspace

"Looks good, sir," Ferreira said. "Nothing's changed, and it looks to me like those damn battle stations are where they're supposed to be."

Michael nodded. He scanned the threat plot again, the holovid display splashed with ugly patches of red marking the positions and predicted vectors of Commitment's space defenses: battle stations, battlesats, and weapons platforms backed up by eight task groups of cruisers and their supporting escorts. The battle stations posed the biggest threat to Gladiator. Identifying when their orbits-a complex mixture of Clarke, high polar, and inclined orbits designed to minimize gaps over Commitment-opened the largest possible hole over Camp J-5209 was one of the critical tasks before the assault started. Michael was in no hurry. The other thing he needed was the right weather to keep the Hammer sensors and weapons off his back; heavy cloud, strong winds, and driving rain would do nicely. Judging by the weather systems, it would be a day or so before what he hoped would become a tropical depression made landfall. Not quite the category 5 hurricane he had hoped for, but it should be good enough to put a thick layer of water-sodden cloud over the target, eliminating the Hammers' optical targeting systems and space-based lasers from the threat equation.

Time to talk to the troops, he decided.

"All stations, this is command. Update. We've dropped into Commitment farspace and are building the threat plot. The good news is that Hammer force levels in Commitment nearspace are what we expected. The bad news is that we will have to wait a while before we go in. We need bad weather, the worst we can get, to mask what we are doing from the Hammer's orbital defenses. There is a promising system developing off the coast to the southwest of McNair, and if it develops and tracks in toward J-5209 like the weather models predict, I expect we will be launching phase 3 of Gladiator less than forty-eight hours from now. We should know when by this time tomorrow. Any questions, feel free to come and ask. Command out."

Michael sat back to watch the threat AI refine the plot, its enormous computing power crunching the data pouring in from sensors on the three dreadnoughts, the ships now strung out in a line tens of thousands of kilometers long. They had ended up a long way out from Commitment, farther than he wanted, but he did not have much choice. Any closer in and the Hammers could detect the unmistakable ultraviolet flashes generated when the dreadnoughts dropped out of pinchspace, but for once he had time on his side. He had more than two weeks until Hartspring's deadline ran out, and he intended to use every minute of it if he had to. Fate offered no second chances; Gladiator had to work the way it was supposed to.

"Command, sensors."

"Yes, Carmellini."

"You might be interested in this, sir. It's a holovid transmission from one of the Hammer's commercial stations. They're talking about the NRA."

"Put it up."


Michael watched the holovid image appear: a blond woman in a red two-piece suit standing in front of a map of the continent of Maranzika. The quality was not the best, but the sensor AI had done a good job of stabilizing the feed.

"… to Marius de Mel, councillor for internal security. Welcome to the program, Councillor."

"Thank you, Lara. Good to be here," the man said.

"So, Councillor. There are unconfirmed reports of heavy fighting in the area around Daleel. That's not far from McNair, so should we be concerned?"

"No, Lara, of course not. There is no need to be concerned. Yes, there have been some clashes around Daleel, but they are the result of our forces attacking small pockets of heretics, heretics who are intent on betraying the Faith of Kraa for their own blasphemous purposes. I talked to the area commander not an hour ago, and he assured me that the operation will be completed before nightfall."

"By heretics do you mean the Nationalists?"

De Mel's face darkened with a sudden anger, hastily suppressed. "Heretics!" he snapped. "Kraa-damned heretics! Call them what they are."

"Yes, of course, Councillor," the woman said smoothly. "Heretics it is. Are you able to tell us anything about the numbers of National-sorry, heretics involved?"

"Ah, well, Lara. You know I can't discuss the operational details on the air, but what I can tell is this: Their numbers are small, very small."

"Which means the comment by General Schenk that his troops faced, and I quote, 'thousands of the bastards' cannot be correct then, can it, Councillor? Help me here, because I am confused."

Electrified, Michael sat up. He had watched his share of Hammer newscasts; without exception, they had been exercises in mind-numbing boredom as newsreaders parroted whatever dross the propaganda merchants wanted the great unwashed to hear. This was different; this was something new. Lara the newscaster was frowning, her lips tightened in skeptical disapproval. De Mel knew it, too; his forehead shone, and sweat started to bead under his eyes. Well, well, well, Michael said to himself, the sonofabitch is frightened. Things were not running to plan for the Hammer government if a newscaster had the freedom to slip the knife into a councillor live on air. Twelve months ago, doing that would have seen Lara the newscaster locked away, maybe even shot, if she upset anyone important.

"Look, Lara," de Mel said. "General Schenk cannot have said that since it is just not true. Like I say, we are dealing with a handful of heretics, that's all."

"I see," the newscaster said. "So the holovid we have of him saying the exact opposite is a fake? I'm sorry, Councillor. I must apologize." She shook her head in mock despair. "It seems this network has been duped."

De Mel was angry and embarrassed, and his eyes bulged. Michael thought he looked like someone trying to swallow a pineapple, blunt end first. "Ah, yes," de Mel muttered. "I think that must be what's happened."

"Fine. I'm glad we've sorted that one out. Now, what about casualties, Councillor? The casualties inflicted on our brave troops by that… let me see, yes, by that handful of heretics?"

"Casualties?" de Mel croaked; he looked around for an escape route.

"Yes, Councillor. Casualties. How many casualties have there been in the Daleel operation so far?"

"Er, so far as I know, there have been none. Some minor cuts and bruises, perhaps, nothing more serious."

"Okay. Now, I understand the holovid we have been given showing General Schenk discussing the operation is most likely a fake, and thank you for pointing that out to us, Councillor-"

"Ah, well," de Mel mumbled.

"-but we have more recent holovid showing a Seventh Brigade casualty clearing station outside Daleel. I must say, Councillor, it looks a lot worse than a few cuts and bruises, a lot worse. Unless this vid is a fake, too, it shows heavy casualties, many in a bad way. Perhaps you could comment after I run the vid."

"I don't think that would be wise, Lara," de Mel said, recovering some of his composure. "Let's establish where the vid came from before we jump to any conclusions."

"That's good advice, Councillor, which we're happy to accept, thank you," the newscaster said, her gung-ho tone belied by eyes burning with contempt.

The interview degenerated into an exchange of banalities, so Michael tuned out, much encouraged by what he had just seen. If newscasters were prepared to take on powerful men like de Mel, things were changing in the Hammer Worlds, and not in the government's favor.

"How we doing, Jayla?"

"Good, sir. Threat plot's settling. We'll start to get a feel for the Hammer's operating patterns over the next twenty-four hours. If that weather system comes in like I expect, we should be ready to go. At this stage, it looks like we'll be on our way in day after tomorrow."

"Let's hope so." Sunday, September 16, 2401, UD Offices of the Supreme Council for the Preservation of the Faith, McNair, Commitment

"Councillor de Mel is here, sir."

"Send him in."

Wordlessly, Polk watched de Mel take his seat for what Polk liked to call their weekly chat. Clearly, de Mel would not have called it a chat. That much was obvious from the thin film of sweat across his forehead. De Mel's eyes were restless, looking anywhere but right at him. Polk let the man stew for a while before opening the proceedings.

"So, Councillor de Mel," he said. "Yesterday wasn't your finest media performance. In fact, I'd say it was your worst. It does not look good when Lara Chen is better informed than my councillor for internal security. She made you look a fool."

Polk's criticism galvanized de Mel. He sat bolt upright and leaned forward. "No, Chief Councillor, it wasn't my best performance. I accept that, but may I remind you that it is difficult to stay on message when those incompetent clowns in planetary ground defense cannot deal with a handful of heretics without losing hundreds of their men."

"Settle down, Councillor," Polk chided. "You're not on the holovids now. Whatever we're saying in public, we both know that the NRA threw thousands of troopers into the Daleel attack. The PGDF's commanding general has assured me that General Schenk and the Seventh Brigade had done well."

"The Seventh Brigade did well?" De Mel's face twisted into a skeptical frown. "Hard to see how that can be when the NRA is still holding what, the best part of half the town?"

"Fair point, which is why I have just instructed the commanding general to relieve General Schenk and hand him over to DocSec. Did I not tell you that?"

"No, sir. It must have slipped your mind," de Mel said with a touch of bitterness.

Polk had to smile. De Mel had a point; after all, the man was responsible for the elaborate apparatus of state terror that was Doctrinal Security. "My apologies, Councillor," Polk said smoothly.

"Accepted, sir," de Mel replied.

"Now, Councillor, to business. First thing I want an update on is the Helfort project."

"Yes, sir. As you know, the deadline runs out in under two weeks. Colonel Hartspring and a snatch squad are on their way to Scobie's World now in case he shows up early."

"Any sign of him?"

"No, not yet. The last report we had put him onboard the heavy cruiser Redwood in orbit around Nyleth. We've deployed additional squads on all the systems operating commercial passenger services to Scobie's. If he so much as shows his face on any of them, we'll have him. You can depend on it."

"Good. What about that woman of his?"

"Lieutenant Cheung? Still in J-5209, sir. She's been kept in the dark, obviously, so she has no idea of the world of pain she's about to enter."

"Pretty young thing," Polk said, eyes casting about with feigned indifference.

"She is, sir. Very."

"I don't see any need for us to honor our promise to Helfort, do you, Councillor?"

"To leave her alone, sir? I don't think we promised that, ever."

"So much the better. I'll be at Mount Clear next weekend. I want her removed from that camp of hers and taken there. I think a few days with the young lady will do me a power of good, don't you?"

"Yes, sir. I'll get onto it tomorrow."

"Good. You do that. By the way, Councillor, if I find even so much as a single bruise on her, I'll have every one of the escort party shot. Is that understood?"

"Yes, sir," de Mel replied, his face a mask.

"Right, next matter. The deplorable state of DocSec's operational security." Polk threw his hands up in a theatrical display of frustration. "Really, Councillor, enough is enough," he said. "It seems the people we were after in last week's sweeps knew about the operations before the DocSec troopers involved did. This cannot go on."

De Mel shifted in his seat. "Ah, yes, Chief Councillor. Operational security inside DocSec is a problem, I admit."

"A problem?" Polk barked, sudden anger flooding across his face in a red tide. "I think it's more than that. It's getting out of hand. So what are you going to do about it?"

"Are doing, sir-what we are doing."

"Don't play games with me, Councillor!" Polk snapped.

"I don't mean to, sir. What I'm saying is that we are already addressing the problem. Section 40, our existing counterintelligence unit, is not up to the job, so the director-general has established a new unit, Section 99. I think you'll find they will get the results Section 40 has failed to."

"I expect them to and very, very soon, and you can tell the director-general that from me. Now, desertion."

De Mel blinked, a puzzled look on his face. "Desertion?"

"Yes, Councillor, DocSec's desertion rate. It's on the agenda."

"Oh, ah, yes. DocSec… desertion," de Mel said, flustered by the change of topic. "Let me see… Yes, up marginally last month, though there was a significant increase in the proportion of experienced NCOs deserting. It seems the remedial steps we've been taking have yet to have any effect."

"Why not stop DocSec personnel from taking leave on Scobie's World altogether?" Polk said. "That would kill the problem stone dead."

"Yes, Chief Councillor, it would kill the problem stone dead, but that would do nothing to improve morale. DocSec troopers are like everyone else. They like to take their holidays on Scobie's, so-"

"Listen, Councillor. I want something done about this. We cannot afford to lose people at the rate we are."

"True, Chief Councillor, but there's a reason. We don't get our hands on many deserters, but those poor bast… um, those we do get our hands on all tell us the same story. DocSec troopers have… how can I put it? DocSec troopers have to use a certain amount of force in the line of duty"-that had to be the understatement of the century, Polk thought-"and that they can live with. When the intensity of operations gets too high, when the level of force they have to use to get the job done is too high, they start to burn out, and when they do, desertion becomes a very attractive way out."

"Oh, for Kraa's sake, Councillor," Polk snapped. "Force! Is that what you call it? Animal brutality is what I call it, and that's what DocSec is all about. Always has been. Why do you think so many psychopaths end up in DocSec? Anyway, it's never been a problem before, so why now?"

De Mel squirmed in his seat openly, shifting his weight from side to side and back again. "Why now?" he said.

"Yes, Councillor. Why is it a problem now?"

"I think that… um… well, you know what the situation-"

"Spit it out," Polk barked.

"Yes, sir." De Mel took a deep breath. "It seems the Nationalists' political warfare cadres have moved beyond simply suborning DocSec members into providing information. Now they're actively encouraging desertions, telling people how easy it is, giving them advice on how to do it, which systems will take them, no questions asked. They've even established cells on Scobie's to give the deserters off-world identities. Money as well, it seems."

"I did not know that, Councillor de Mel." Polk's eyes narrowed to an angry squint. "When was I to be briefed?"

"Soon, sir. I just wanted to be sure of the facts."

"I don't like surprises, Councillor. You should know that by now."

"I do, sir."

"I hope so. How bad is the DocSec problem?"

"Bad, sir." De Mel's face had gone a nasty shade of gray. "We think the Nationalists may have penetrated the citizen identity knowledge base."

Polk sat bolt upright. "They what?" he shouted, voice a near scream, lips spittle-flecked, cheeks blood-red with anger. "How? When were you going to brief me on that little gem? DocSec cannot operate if people can wander around protected by false identities. You know that! By Kraa's holy blood, Councillor, I am beginning to wonder what else you're not telling me. What else, Councillor de Mel, what else?"

De Mel had cringed backward as Polk's rage poured over him, hands out and palms up, as if begging for mercy. "Nothing else, Chief Councillor, nothing. I swear it. We're just not sure yet. That's why I was holding back."

Polk forced himself back into his chair. He said nothing until the fury ran its course. "I want to know these things sooner rather than later, Councillor," he said, his voice still ragged. "Is that understood?"

"Yes, sir. I've already told the head of Section 99 that ensuring the citizen identity knowledge base's security is his highest priority."

"Kraa's blood!" Polk said with a shake of his head. "The Nationalists never give up, do they? Now listen. DocSec needs to be fixed. This government will only survive for so long as they are out there crushing all traces of heretic support. The moment they can't do that, the mob will be at our throats. That, Councillor, would not be good for either of us. Do I make myself clear?"

"You do, sir."

"Right, I want two things: Section 99's confirmation that the security of the citizen identity knowledge base has not been compromised and a plan to reduce DocSec's desertion problem to more manageable levels. A plan that will work, mind you, not one of your 'more in hope than expectation' snow jobs. And if that means sending the death squads to Scobie's to clean out a few Nationalists, then so be it."

"Yes, sir."

"Next, the riots in the Ronsonvale Island and Dechaineux gulags."

"Yes, Chief Councillor. As I said in my weekly report, we have identified the ringleaders, nine hundred seventy-eight in all. All were tried and shot yesterday. Emergency tribunals are now processing the rest."

"How many?"

"Close to nine thousand."

"Kraa!" Polk said. "That many? Go on."

"Yes, as I was saying, I expect…" Sunday, September 16, 2401, UD FWSS Redwood, Commitment farspace

Michael stared at the threat plot, a chaotic patchwork of red threat icons tracking the Hammer's space-based defensive assets and their projected vectors. Chaotic or not, he liked what he saw. The confusion was superficial; behind it all, the patterns followed by the Hammer's spaceborne defenses had become obvious to the point where Redwood's threat assessment AI had been able to predict when the space over Camp J-5209 would be clear. Based on those forecasts, Warfare had made its recommendations. Ferreira and the rest of Redwood's command team had concurred, and now it fell to Michael to make the final call.

Michael took his time, officers and avatars sitting in silence around him. He had to get this decision right. The stakes were too high to risk failure. His concentration absolute, he worked his way through Operation Gladiator from beginning to end, checking every assumption he and the planning teams had made in building the ops plan, questioning, probing, testing, the process interrupted now and again by a question to one of the team. Slowly, an ice-cold clarity suffused his thinking, and with it growing confidence that the plan was a good one, a plan that gave him and his people the best possible chance of pulling off a mission no rational spacer would even contemplate. With a deep breath, he made up his mind: Redwood and her sister dreadnoughts would hit the Hammers in the early hours of Monday morning. The timing was as good as they were going to get: darkness, a serious tropical storm bringing heavy clouds and torrential rain, most of the Hammers asleep, those on duty at their lowest ebb.

"Okay, guys," he said. "We're on. We'll hit them two hours before sunrise. I want final system status reports to me at 01:00. Final briefing will be here at 02:00, all hands to attend. If all's well, we'll jump in-system at 02:30, hopefully catching the Hammers tucked up in bed. Any questions? No? Okay, carry on, please."

Michael waved at Ferreira and Bienefelt to stay back until the rest of the Redwoods had left the combat information center.

"Last chance, Jayla, Matti. Tell me what I've missed."

Ferreira smiled. "I've seen my fair share of operations, but I've never seen one so well planned out. Yes, there'll still be surprises, but we'll cope."


"I agree with the XO, sir. This will work."

"I think so, too. How are the troops?"

"Matti?" Ferreira said.

"Like me, sir," Bienefelt said. "Nervous, but they'll be happy we're getting under way. It's the waiting that's the killer."

"Tell me," Michael said with feeling.

"Knew you were doing it a bit tough." Bienefelt's frown made her concern obvious. "We've been a bit worried about you, I have to say."

"I'll be fine, Matti, though I will be happy when we get started. It seems like a lifetime since I received that scumbag Hartspring's surprise package. Shit, that was only a few months ago. Can't believe how much has happened since then. Anyway, I'd better let you get on. I'll see you both at the final briefing."


Michael watched the pair leave the combat information center, Ferreira dwarfed by Bienefelt's enormous bulk, then returned his attention to the threat plot, one eye locked on the time-to-jump counter while the seconds ran off.


His walk-around finished, Michael stood back to look at Widowmaker, trying to ignore the excitement forcing its way up through the tension. "Goddamn it," he murmured. "We are really going to do this; we really are." All of a sudden, it felt good to be standing there on the brink of the most insane mission ever planned, a mission no reasonable spacer would ever have countenanced. It felt good to be taking the fight back to the Hammers. It felt good even to be going back to Commitment, a planet he had sworn never to revisit, because to go back meant Anna would be okay. Best of all, it felt good because the days of waiting, of wondering how to keep Anna out of Hartspring's hands, were over.

And you, he thought, are just the machine I want to ride into battle. A matte-black, blunt-nosed wedge, the light ground-attack lander was no work of art. Like its big sisters, it was a lethal machine, designed to do one thing and one thing only: dump death on the heads of Hammer ground troops. He patted an armored flank, not out of any affection-nobody could love something so brutal, so ugly-but out of respect. Widowmaker deserved nothing less. "Take care of us," he whispered as he slapped Widowmaker's flank again, "because today, my butt-ugly friend, we jam it right up those Hammers' asses."

Half closing his eyes, he patched his neuronics through to the lander's AI. As tradition demanded, its avatar was that of a middle-aged woman, her pale hazel eyes set in a face the color of mahogany gazing at Michael with a directness he found unsettling.

"Mother," he said, wishing he had taken the time to get to know the AI in whose hands his life now rested, "all set?"

"Yes, sir," the lander AI replied. "All systems nominal, fusion plants are at standby, main engines at one minute's notice, reaction controls at immediate notice, weapons tight, all pax loaded and in position, cargo secured, lander's mass nominal for atmospheric reentry."

"Roger that," Michael said. "Anything else I should know?"

"No, sir. I have reviewed the operations plan and have found no errors or omissions. Widowmaker is ready."

"Good. One thing, though, Mother. I have not commanded a lander in combat… ever. So do not hold back. If you think something is wrong, for chrissakes say so. I'm a long way from being a command-qualified pilot."

"Yes, sir," Mother said, the hint of a smile creasing the corners of her eyes, "but you'll be fine."

"We'll see," Michael said, doing his best to ignore a sudden cramping that banded his chest with iron, "we'll see."

Giving Widowmaker another pat, this time to reassure himself that things really would work out, he pulled his awkward space-suited mass up the crew access ladder to Widowmaker's flight deck one step at a time as he dragged his damaged leg behind him. Shutting the hatch behind him, he squeezed past the crew stations and dropped heavily into his seat, nerves jangling, his stomach turning over and over with the feeling of sick dread he always felt before combat.

Time to get started, he said to himself. "All stations, command. Depressurizing in two, so faceplates down, suit integrity checks to Mother. We'll be jumping on schedule. Command out."

Michael commed Petty Officer Morozov, Widowmaker's newly appointed loadmaster.

"Tammy, how's my LALO team?"

"Shitting themselves, I think, sir," Morozov said from a jury-rigged seat atop a stack of cases holding shells for Widowmaker's cannons, a ghostly figure through the skeins of mist chasing their way through the cargo bay as the lander depressurized. "I know I'd be if I was them; I hate LALO. But they're ready to go. I have six personnel pods and four stores pods closed up, all nominal for launch, deployment system nominal. The only problem is Chief Bienefelt. She's not happy, not happy at all, sir."

"Not happy," Michael said with a frown. "That's not like her. Why?"

"Get this, sir. She's pissed because we insisted she's too big to share a pod, so she has one pod all to herself. She says she's lonely."

"Oh! Is that all?" Michael laughed, struggling to envisage Bienefelt feeling lonely. "Tell her I'll buy her a beer when we get dirtside. Assuming there's somewhere to buy beer, that is."

"Don't worry about that, sir. I don't know of a single system in humanspace where you can't get a beer."

"You're right. Good luck."

"Thanks, sir."

Quick comms to Sedova and Acharya confirmed that everything was ready to go. Fidgety and pale, Hell Bent's command pilot looked nervous; Sedova the exact opposite. Smiling, chatty, and bright eyed, she clearly relished the prospect of going back into action. He hoped all that cheerful anticipation would not be misplaced. He turned to Ferreira. "All set?"

"Am, sir. Mother confirms Widowmaker is nominal; we have all green suits. Redwood, Red River, and Redress are nominal. Alley Kat and Hell Bent are nominal. We're ready to go."


"Concur. Ready."


The seconds dragged past in silence until, an age later, it was time. "All stations, this is command. Stand by to jump. Weapons free. Warfare has command authority."

"Roger, Warfare has command authority. Red River and Redress jumping now… Stand by to jump… jumping… now!"

Twelve seconds behind her sister dreadnoughts, Redwood microjumped into and out of pinchspace. Michael jerked back in his seat, his heart battering at the walls of his chest as the vid from the external holocams stabilized, the ugly black mass that was Commitment planet filling the screen. They were committed; they had to go on. This deep inside Commitment's gravity well, any attempt to jump back into pinchspace would be instant suicide.

Warfare acted. Redwood shuddered as her main engines went to emergency power, lances of white-hot energy stabbing down toward the Hammer planet. Ahead of Redwood, Red River and Redress were already decelerating hard, their Krachov generators spewing millions of tiny disks, chased into space by the first salvo of missiles and their protective shroud of decoys. Redwood followed suit; a crunching metallic thud announced the dreadnought's opening rail-gun salvo from her aft batteries, the huge swarm of tiny slugs racing toward Commitment. The dreadnoughts' forward rail-gun batteries joined the battle, their salvos of slugs dumped into space to form a cloud of confusion expanding away from the dreadnoughts.

Without knowing it, Michael's mouth tightened into a savage rictus of sheer animal ferocity. He watched as the rail-gun slugs smashed into Commitment's upper atmosphere, transforming it into an incandescent flaming mass of ionized air.

"Suck that, you bastards," he hissed, fierce joy engulfing his body in an exultant flood. After the stress of the last weeks, it felt so good to be striking back, even though he knew the slugs were too small to achieve much except a spectacular if shortlived fireworks show. But they would pressure the Hammer's inflexible and rule-bound commanders, commanders for whom the price of failure was always the same: a DocSec lime pit. Everything the dreadnoughts did was designed to make those commanders stop, wonder just what the hell was going on, worry that they had missed something important, keep the awful image of lime-filled graves in their mind's eye.

So he hoped. Michael needed all the confusion he could get; Gladiator's success depended on it.

"Command, Warfare, sensors," the AI responsible for integrating the dataflows from the three dreadnoughts' sensors arrays said calmly. "Multiple missile launches from McNair missile defense system. Estimate one thousand Goshawk ABM missiles plus decoys now inbound. Attack is designated Golf-1. Time of flight 3 minutes 40. Task groups Hammer-1 and Hammer-2 downgraded, assessed no threat."

"Command, roger," Michael said, thankful for small mercies.

That still left the missile defense shield protecting McNair, the capital of the Hammer Worlds and a scant 100 kilometers from Camp J-5209; it was the major threat. Funded by a Hammer leadership concerned to the point of paranoia that renegade officers inside missile defense command might launch an attack on the seat of all Hammer power, it was the most elaborate antiballistic missile defense system in humanspace. The damage they could inflict on his ships made Michael cringe; massive confusion was the dreadnoughts' only defense.

"Command, Warfare, sensors. Multiple missiles from Space Battle Station 138. Confirmed Eaglehawks. Salvo designated Echo-3. Times of flight 3 minutes 36. SBS-155 downgraded, assessed no threat."

"Command, roger. Bastards," he muttered. So much for confusing the Hammer's commanders; their counterattack was the best the battle's geometry allowed, and quick, worryingly so. The dreadnoughts would still be in space by the time the ABMs from McNair arrived on target; the Eaglehawk missiles fired from the closest battle station would arrive two seconds later. Somebody in Hammer nearspace control was paying attention. That meant they faced a thousand Goshawk ABM missiles and 350 Eaglehawks, a lot of missiles for three ships to fight off in the space of two seconds. Suddenly the chances of making a success of Gladiator did not look quite so good.

He forced himself to sit back, to do nothing. If one believed the trashvids, space warfare was all action. The sad truth? It was mostly inaction, waiting for incoming missiles to crawl their way across thousands of kilometers of space. When they hit home, it was all action, but that usually lasted less than a minute. Lifetimes of anticipation, seconds of terror, his mother always said.

Warfare was doing its best to make sure the Hammers' missiles would not have an easy run in. The dreadnoughts' massive antistarship lasers had begun the job of disrupting the attack, but there were too many missiles and decoys to deal with, a rare success marked by a sudden flare when a missile's fusion drive plant lost containment and blew, a racking sound announcing the launch of Redwood's second missile salvo, this one pushed out well clear of the incoming Hammer attack. Seconds later the characteristic metal-on-metal crunching announced the after batteries' second rail-gun salvo, the swarm pattern tightened to throw the largest possible number of slugs down the line of the incoming ABM missiles. Might as well throw pebbles at flies, Michael thought.

The slugs lived a short but incandescent life. A handful were lucky enough-and that was all it was, pure, blind luck-to rip a Hammer ABM missile apart, spawning a brief flash as mass converted mass to pure energy, before the rest ripped into Commitment's upper atmosphere, the slugs exploding in a dazzling fireworks display. Michael hoped they were not a metaphor for Gladiator: a short, brilliant, but ultimately pointless exercise.

"Command, Warfare, sensors. Multiple missile launches from McNair missile defense system. Estimate one thousand Goshawk ABM missiles plus decoys. Designated Golf-2. Time of flight 1 minute 58. Salvo Golf-1's time to target is 1 minute 30."

"Command, roger. Targets identified?"

"Stand by… affirmative. Initial vector analysis suggests that the Hammers are targeting Red River and Redress."


"No indication we have been targeted yet."

"Yes," Michael muttered under his breath, much relieved. Red River and Redress were the bait Michael had dangled in front of the Hammers. And the Hammers had taken the bait by targeting their initial missile salvo-certain to be carrying fusion warheads-on the two leading dreadnoughts. Unless the Hammer nearspace commander was insane, there would be no more fusion warheads coming their way. The Hammer regime might be utterly disinterested in the welfare of its people, but even it had limits it could not ignore: Cooking off hundreds of high-yield fusion warheads inside Commitment's atmosphere was an absolute no-no, which meant the odds of the three landers getting through to Commitment unscathed had improved dramatically.

He turned to Ferreira. "Jayla."

"Sir?" Behind the armor plasglass of her visor, her face was pale, sweat beading on her forehead to run down her cheeks.

"We ready with our homemade decoys?" he asked.

"Yes, sir. Let's hope they work as well as they're supposed to."

Michael nodded. So much of Gladiator was in the "great idea, sounds good, but will it work?" category that no rational military commander would have sanctioned the operation.

The Hammer missiles closed, and the dreadnoughts' medium-range area defense weapons got to work. With agonizing slowness, pulsed lasers and missiles ground down the Hammer attack, the space between ships and missiles filling with the flares of missiles as they died violent deaths. Inevitably, some made it through; now they had to run the gauntlet of the dreadnoughts' close-in defenses-lasers, short-range missiles, and chain guns-before the survivors closed in and proximity-fused warheads exploded.

Michael flinched when the holovid screens went blank, the holocams overwhelmed by a hellish wall of radiation that flayed the armor off Red River and Redress. Desperately, he waited for telemetry from the two ships to be restored; the two dreadnoughts had to survive for Gladiator to work. An age later, the links came back online. Fatally wounded by a lethal combination of radiation and shock, Red River and Redress were a heartbreaking sight. In less than a second, Hammer missiles had turned the two ships into incandescent wrecks spewing ionized gas into space from armor that was white-hot from the intense radiation flux. But they remained intact, and, protected by meters-thick secondary armor and massive shock mountings, their main engines still functioned, decelerating the ships atop pillars of fire; that was all that mattered.

Redwood celebrated their survival by sending a third rail-gun salvo on its way, followed by the last of her missiles shrouded in every decoy she could launch into space.

"Command, Warfare. Hammer ABM salvo has thirty seconds to run. Targets Red River, Redress. Executing emergency shutdown of Red River and Redress main engines."

"Command, roger."

Red River and Redress were the sacrificial lambs; Michael hated to think of them that way, but that was their job. Any weapon still working was tasked to keep Hammer missiles away from Redwood even if that meant their own death.

With their main engines shut down, the two dreadnoughts pulled away, Redwood dropping astern, still decelerating hard. Now Michael prayed in earnest. Gladiator involved more risks than he cared to think about; the biggest was that the Hammers might decide that Redwood was their most pressing problem and divert missiles from their second Goshawk ABM salvo to deal with her. He forced himself to stay calm: The die was cast. Nothing would change what was about to happen. Either the daunting sight of two dreadnoughts with a death wish plunging headlong toward their capital city had convinced the Hammers that Red River and Redress were the real threat or it had not.

Michael knew what he would be doing if he were the poor bastard unlucky enough to be in the Hammer commander's chair. He smiled. Right now, he would be trying to work out how the hell to avoid a DocSec firing squad.

Dreadnoughts and Hammer missiles closed on each other, and again the space between them filled with the flares of dying missiles hacked out of the attack by the dreadnoughts' medium-range defenses. The missiles that survived plunged into the hulls of the ships, warheads packed with chemical explosive lancing through what little armor remained to reach deep down into the guts of the ships, searching for the vulnerable fusion plants.

But the two dreadnoughts' fusion plants had been shut down, the vast residual energy in their containment vessels blown out into space in long jets of white-hot ionized gas. The missiles tore at the carcasses of the ships, blowing debris off their frames and out into space, a shambolic mass of scrap tumbling toward Commitment. Now it was Redress's turn to suffer, her hull shaking while her short-range defenses worked frantically to keep out the few Goshawk missiles that had made it past the combined defenses of the three dreadnoughts, space filling with the violent flares of missile fusion plants as they died.

A few penetrated the dreadnought's defenses; Redwood trembled when three Goshawks plunged into her hull, their warheads wasted on armor untouched by the first missile salvo.

When the attack petered out, Michael entertained a fleeting touch of sympathy for the Hammer commander. Gladiator had to be the stuff of his worst nightmares. This was an attack like nothing the man had ever faced. Ironically, the more successful his missiles were, the worse his problems became, with the dreadnoughts disintegrating into thousands and thousands of pieces, the larger fragments indistinguishable from missiles.

Not that the Hammer commander gave up trying.

"Command, Warfare, sensors. Multiple missile launches from McNair missile defense system. Estimate 940 Goshawk ABM missiles plus decoys. Salvo designated Golf-3. Time of flight 40 seconds."

"Command, roger." This was it; Michael's hands tightened their grip on the arms of his seat, sweat pooling ice-cold at the base of his spine. "Confirm own missile status."

"Missile losses 26 percent. Remainder will start terminal phase deceleration in 38 seconds. Dreadnoughts on vectors for Gwalia, Perkins, and Yallan Planetary Ground Defense Force bases."

"Roger," Michael said, pushing away a wonderful image of the dreadnoughts-not to mention hundreds of Merlin missiles-plowing into the three Hammer bases that protected the city of McNair, thousands of tons of unstoppable mass moving at terrible speed.

The Hammers' last Goshawk salvo smashed into Red River and Redress. The bleeding carcasses of the dreadnoughts reeled from the furious assault. Missile after missile slipped past shock-damaged defenses, blasting huge chunks of armored hull off titanium frames to tumble away into space. Again the few missiles to survive clawed their way across space to Redwood, and again they died, their warheads wasted.

Michael watched the number of uncommitted ABMs run down until it reached zero. The attack was over. The shattered remnants of his sacrificial ships were seconds away from reentry. He might hate the idea of leaving the safety and security of Redwood's bulk and armor, but he knew he had no choice. Soon, the doomed dreadnought would be a flaming mass, plunging earthward to its death. It was time to go to work. He commed Sedova and Acharya; their faces were painted with fear, stress, and anticipation. "All set?"

The heavy lander pilots nodded. "Yes, sir," Sedova said. "Can't say I've enjoyed the last few minutes, so it'll be good to get into it."

Michael had to agree. "We'll be executing phase Alfa-6 on schedule, so good luck. See you all on the other side. Command, out."

Michael commed Kallewi. "You copy that?"

"Yes, sir."

"Don't have to ask if the green machine is ready, do I?"

"No, sir. Foaming at the mouth, they are," Kallewi said. "The Hammers won't know what hit them."

Michael watched the seconds run off; he gave the order. "Alley Kat, Hell Bent, this is Widowmaker. Immediate execute Alfa-6. Stand by… execute!"

A great many things happened in a short space of time.

Cut loose by small explosive charges around their frames, Warfare jettisoned Redwood's huge armored hangar doors-"Why waste good mass?" Ferreira had said. "They'll make good decoys."-to tumble into space, pushed away by the force of Redwood's atmosphere. They were followed quickly by every lifepod, their distress beacons squawking useless cries for help. An instant later, Red River and Redress followed suit.

The instant the hangar doors cleared the ships, the landers fired their main engines in a short, sharp burst of pure energy that shot them out of the hangar. Turning hard, the landers went to emergency power, Widowmaker shuddering as its artificial gravity struggled to compensate for the sudden deceleration. The instant the landers were clear, Warfare fired the explosive charges laid out across the hangar deck, smashing the carefully assembled piles of scrap out into space around the dreadnoughts. All three dreadnoughts drove on hard, surrounded by a whirling maelstrom of broken metal and lifepods, thousands and thousands of pieces of radar-reflective scrap. Michael was glad he would not be there when all that mass arrived dirtside. One thing was for sure: If the Hammer commander had not been confused thus far, he would be now with all that metal-part of which was the battered but still intact Redwood-now plunging earthward.

"Command, tac." Ferreira's voice was laconic, matter-of-fact. "Stand by… lander speed nominal for reentry."

"Command, roger. Turning onto new vector." Mother shut down the main engines, spinning the lander up and around until its nose was aligned for reentry. Michael sighed; much as he wanted to hand-fly the mission, he had better things to do than piloting Widowmaker's headlong plunge back to Commitment's surface. "Command, Warfare. Initiating final missile engine burn."

"Command, roger." A quick check of the holovids confirmed Warfare's report. The enormous swarm of Merlin antistarship missiles-ASSMs-had kept station on the dreadnoughts while they decelerated in toward Commitment. Now they rode down tail first on thin needles of white fire, slowing to allow their warheads to survive reentry.

"Missiles at reentry speed. Stand by warhead deployment… warheads deployed… warheads confirmed nominal, vectors nominal for reentry."

"Command, roger," Michael said. The Hammers must be struggling to work out what amid all of that metal hurtling in their direction they should worry about. More than a thousand of the dreadnoughts' missiles had survived the three Hammer missile attacks; now the salvo had doubled in size.

"Command, Warfare. Red River and Redress reentry imminent."

"Roger." Michael put the feed from the lander's external holocams up on one of the holovids. Many kilometers ahead, the sky over the Hammer capital burst into an extravagant display of red, yellow, and gold flares, some gone no sooner than they had appeared, the larger fragments along with the battered remnants of Red River and Redress, now two huge balls of fire stabbing trails of flame down into Commitment's atmosphere before they disappeared into the storm raging across McNair.

"Oh, yes," Michael hissed softly, entranced by the sight. Seconds later, Redwood followed her sisters into oblivion. She, too, died a warrior's death, driving a blazing stake deep into the Hammer heart.

"Command, sensors. Missile telemetry is nominal, missiles locked on to target. Yalla, Gwalia, and Perkins air-defense radars are up. Debris clouds now being engaged by Hammer surface-to-air missiles."


"Command, Sensors. Lost telemetry from Redress."

"Roger," Michael said, burying a quick pang of regret at what he had done to three of the best ships in the Federated Worlds order of battle, the last of the dreadnoughts gone.

"Command, tac. Twenty seconds to reentry. Launching comsats."

"Command, roger." He watched dispensers spit the tiny black spheres into space, solid-fuel motors firing them an instant later to lift them into orbit. They would not last long, but long enough to contact the NRA.

"Command, sensors," Carmellini said. "Comsats are online. Go ahead, sir."

"Roger," Michael said, checking that the landers were on vector and that they faced no immediate threats. "Okay, Jayla. Take over. You have command."

"Roger, sir. I have command. Let's hope the NRA will talk to us."

"We'll see," Michael said. He patched his neuronics into the comsat network. "NRA, NRA, this is Helfort, Helfort. Urgent message for Mutti Vaas. Urgent message for Mutti Vaas. Please respond, over."

The silence that followed seemed to drag on forever, the only sound the soft rattling of Widowmaker's hull as it started to bite into Commitment's upper atmosphere. "NRA, NRA, this is Helfort, Helfort. Urgent message for Mutti Vaas. Urgent message for Mutti Vaas. Please respond, over."

"Screw it," he muttered under his breath. The comsats transmitted on all the frequencies Fed intelligence said the NRA used for tactical communications, but was anybody listening?

"NRA, NRA, this is Helfort, Helfort. Personal message for Mutti-"

A man replied. "Unknown station calling NRA. Identify yourself." The flattened vowels, chopped syllables, and staccato delivery were pure Hammer. Michael shivered at the flood of memories the words triggered.

"NRA, this is Michael Helfort," he replied. "Mutti Vaas knows me. Stand by burst transmission, but I need authentication. Send me the name of the man who took me to see Vaas and I'll transmit."

After a brief pause, the voice responded. "Understood. Stand by, out."

Michael sat back. Telling the NRA what he was doing was not mission-critical, but if he was ever to bring Vaas onside, he needed to be open and up front. "Update, Jayla," he said, scanning the threat plot, which was thick with the red icons of Hammer air-defense radars.

"All landers on reentry vector, all systems nominal. You can see"-she waved a space-suited hand at the plot-"that there's one hell of a lot of radar and missile activity, but that's what we planned for. What matters is that so far none of them are showing any interest in us. The Hammers are doing what we expected."

"Wasting missiles hacking big, useless lumps of metal out of the sky, you mean?" Michael said with a grin.

Ferreira grinned back. "Precisely, and by the thousand. It's worse than chaos. We've overloaded them. What's left of poor old Red River is getting some attention. The Hammers fired an entire salvo of Gomers into what was left of her."

"Better Red River than us," Michael said; at the mention of Gomers, something cold grabbed his heart and squeezed. Big, fast, and agile, the Hammer's Gomer hypersonic air-defense missiles were lethally dangerous. A lander's chances against one were not good; Michael prayed and prayed hard that the Hammers stayed distracted long enough for them to get close to the dirt.

Michael forced himself to relax. Either Widowmaker made it or a missile hacked her out of space, and no amount of worrying would change anything.

"Passing 90,000 meters," Mother said matter-of-factly. "Stand by pitch up."

Michael braced himself; the lander's nose lifted, the 40-degree angle of attack putting Widowmaker's hull belly-into the air ripping past the hull with such force that the lander's artificial gravity struggled to compensate for the g forces generated.

With terrible slowness, the lander's speed bled off and the altimeter unwound the meters.

"Tac, you ready?" Michael asked.

"Decoy on standby, sir."


Ignoring standard operating procedures, Mother tipped the nose of the lander over until the forward holocams filled with an endless rumpled mat of ugly cloud, the top of the tropical depression sitting across McNair painted a dirty gray-black by the low-light optronics processors. "Holy shit," he whispered, his gloved hands squeezing the arms of his seat with desperate force. Trailed by Alley Kat and Hell Bent, Widowmaker plummeted down in a desperate race to get clear of the Gomers' engagement envelope before the Hammers started to wonder why some of the crap falling out of the skies was not in free fall.

Michael watched the altimeter unwind with frightening speed; with one eye on the altimeter, he started to reach for the side stick controller-Widowmaker was frighteningly close to the sea-when Mother lifted the nose sharply and fired Widowmaker's fusion plants to emergency power. Every gram of thrust was diverted to the lander's belly thrusters in a desperate attempt to slow its reckless rush into the ocean, foamalloy wings rammed out into the rushing air to help brake the fall.

An instant later, the lander plunged out of the murk into the rain-lashed darkness of a Commitment night. "Too fast, too fast," Michael hissed; without knowing it, he steeled himself for the inevitable.

"Brace, brace, brace," Ferreira shouted, the altimeter still unwinding at a sickening rate: 600, 500, 400, 300, 200, 150, 100, 90, 85, 80… Michael allowed himself to breathe again only when the lander slowed to a halt. Mother had stopped Widowmaker only 75 meters above the sea, its mass sitting on top of twin plumes of flame that boiled seawater into huge, roiling clouds of steam ripped away by the gale into the night. "Nice one, Mother," he whispered. It had been a beautifully executed, if terrifying, piece of lander flying.

If Mother had been at all concerned, she refused to let it show. "Transitioning," she said calmly, warping the lander's variable-geometry wings for maximum lift. Dropping the nose, she progressively shifted power away from the thrusters and back to the main engines, accelerating Widowmaker hard out of the hover and into winged flight. "Closing to take station on Alley Kat," the AI said.

"Command, roger," Michael said, his voice shaking, the full realization of just how close to disaster the Widowmaker had come beginning to sink in. If they'd had Gomers to deal with as well, who knew how they would have survived. "Confirm when on track and let me know our estimated time of arrival at Point Lima."


He checked the command plot, happy to see Alley Kat and Hell Bent on track and heading for Camp J-5209. Then he scanned the threat plot; it was thick with the icons of radio frequency intercepts-it seemed that the Hammers had every radar they owned operating at full power-but for once, every intercept had been downgraded to a comforting orange. Widowmaker was now all but invisible thanks to the appalling weather and her active stealth systems, the enormous plumes of incandescent gas pouring from her main engines screened from view by the impenetrable cloud cover overhead. Michael suppressed the urge to laugh. Here they were, flying deep inside Hammer space-any deeper and they would be underwater-and the threat plot showed not one red icon. That had to be a first; for the moment at least, they were safe.

In close formation, Alley Kat and Hell Bent ran on ahead of Widowmaker, the landers invisible, the only sign of their passing twin trails of wave tops shredded white by the shock wave from the landers as their massive hulls bludgeoned their way through the rain-filled night. When Widowmaker's AI eased the lander over to pass Alley Kat, Michael commed Sedova.

"Had us worried there for a while," Sedova said. "We were sure you guys were going to take an unscheduled bath."

"Wasn't a good moment, Kat, I have to say."

"I bet. All systems are nominal, and we're on track. We'll hit 5209 on schedule."

"How are my marines?"

"The usual," Sedova said with a grin. "Complaining about the ride and busting for a fight. I don't envy the Hammers. Kallewi and his marines will tear them new ones."

Michael laughed. "You don't say? You've copied our systems status?"

"Have, sir. Pleased to see you'll be able to do your bit after all."

"Don't be cheeky, Lieutenant Sedova. Anyway, good luck. Widowmaker, out."

When he dropped the comm, Michael glanced at Ferreira. "You okay?"

"Apart from nearly shitting myself, yes, I think so."

"Know what you mean," Michael said. "Hold on while I update the troops. All stations, command. Well, folks, we're good to go, and there are no changes to the ops plan. At the moment we are about 60 kilometers to the southeast of McNair, heading east. In two minutes' time, we'll cross the coast. There we'll leave Alley Kat and Hell Bent to head for the lay-up point, Point Lima, to drop off Chief Bienefelt and her team before rejoining the rest of the team for the final assault on the camp. Command, out."

Michael settled back, happy to leave Widowmaker in the capable hands of Mother, the lander rattling and banging its way through the turbulence toward the coast.

Bienefelt commed him. "Command, LALO leader."

"Command. Why so formal, Matti?"

"Just wanted to say, sir, that if you ever put me through anything like this again, I'll… I'll, well, I'll just have to do something about it," she finished lamely.

"Sorry, Chief," Michael said, grinning, "but it can't be helped. Anyway, the lander's fine, I'm fine, and so, by the sounds of it, are you."

"Yeah, yeah," Bienefelt grumbled.

"Joking aside, you set?"

"Yes, sir. All drop pods are nominal, and the sooner you can get us all on the ground, the better."

"Let me see… yes, we'll be feet dry in 50 seconds, then it's 2 minutes 48 to Point Lima. I expect to have your size 500 feet on the ground in less than four minutes. Happy?"

"Yes, sir," Bienefelt said. "Can't wait. Good luck. Hope it all goes well."

"Thanks. Command, out."

"Sir," Ferreira said, "I think that's the NRA calling."

"Patch me in, Jayla. It's about time," Michael said. "NRA, Helfort. Authenticate."

"I authenticate Uzuma, repeat Uzuma."

Relief washed over Michael. "Roger. Stand by burst transmission… sending now."

"Roger… receipt confirmed."

"Message is encrypted; passkey is name of man who escorted me after the attack on DocSec convoy. Repeat, passkey is name of man who escorted me after the attack on DocSec convoy. Do you copy?"


"Good. Tell General Vaas I'll be in touch. We've got work to do. Helfort, out."

"Think they'll buy it?" Ferreira asked, her face set in an anxious frown.

"Yes," Michael said more firmly than he felt. "We've got too much to offer."

Ferreira nodded, and Widowmaker's flight deck fell silent while the lander rocketed toward the coastline. If anything, conditions outside were deteriorating. The tropical depression was more than living up to Michael's expectations, dumping rain in thick driving sheets that smashed into the lander's windscreen, winds gusting more than 60 kilometers per hour, the night sky punctuated by the spectral white flares of lightning. Michael was happy with that; the thick layer of cloud and the intense lightning overhead were making the Hammer's elaborate spaceborne defenses all but useless and their formidable armory of ship-killing lasers and kinetic weapons impotent.

"Command, tac. Stand by decoy… now!"

"Command, tac. Stand by… feet dry. Coming right to 120."

"Roger. Alley Kat, Widowmaker. Feet dry. Breaking away. Will confirm ETA at 5209 on completion of drop."

"Alley Kat, roger."

"Loadmaster, command. Two minutes to run. Stand by to launch pods."

"Loadmaster, roger, stand by… LALO pods ready to launch."


"Command, tac. Point Lima coming up abeam. Turning in for drop run. All pods nominal."

Michael had no time to reply before Mother slammed the lander over into a tight, banking turn, foamalloy wings biting hard into the air, artificial gravity rippling in its struggle to absorb the savage g forces. The maneuver was so brutal, so close to the limits, that afterward he would swear Widowmaker's overloaded wings and airframe screamed in protest.

"Command, tac. Ramp going down."

Michael did not need to be told; his hands were clamped to the seat as Widowmaker bucked and heaved under him. The lander's aerodynamics resembled those of a brick at the best of times; forcing the ramp down at speed made it close to unflyable.

"Stand by pod launch… launching now… Launch was good, pods are good. Cleaning up."

"Command, roger," Michael replied, eyes locked on the lander's aft-facing holocams while they tracked the pods, fleeting blurs against the night sky, gone almost before they were seen. Anxiously he watched the systems status board; drop pod technology was good, but like everything built by humans, pods failed sometimes. In quick succession, the pods' tightbeam datalinks reported their progress: clean launch… pods stable in ballistic free fall… transition to winged flight… decelerating… established on vector to landing zone… chutes deployed… landed. He took a deep breath of relief and turned back to the command plot, his heart beginning to pound with excitement now that he was so close to rescuing Anna.

"Command, tac. Two minutes to target, and we're on schedule."

"Roger. All stations, two minutes."

What followed remained burned into Michael's memory for the rest of his days, burned deep by a mix of fear and elation: fear that Anna might not be there after all, elation that she might. "Command, tac. We have tightbeam comms with Alley Kat and Hell Bent. They are 10 seconds from the IP."

Michael studied the command plot while it updated. The Gladiator operations plan called for Widowmaker to arrive over the target after the two heavy landers had made their second pass. Without any detailed intelligence on the camp's defenses, Alley Kat and Hell Bent would trash everything outside the camp's razor-wire fences: guard towers, barracks, admin buildings, workshops, stores, everything. Then the landers would take out a planetary ground defense force training base next door. All had to go in an orgy of destruction that Michael knew the crews of the two landers were going to enjoy.

"Command, tac. Alley Kat reports first pass completed. No opposition. They're lining up for the second pass, then will take out the PGDF base before landing while Hell Bent puts the blocking force in position."


"Command, tac. Second pass completed. We are cleared to land."

"Command, roger. Sensors, anything from the Hammers yet?"

Carmellini shook his head. "No, sir. I'm picking up commercial channels with amateur holovid of one of the Hammer bases. Perkins, I think it is, in which case Redwood gave it one hell of a pasting. Place looks like it's been nuked, so I reckon the Hammers are a bit distracted right now. So far, all I'm seeing is search radars, and we're still below the detection threshold and will stay that way until we turn ass-on to leave."

"Good," Michael said. "Jayla, any contact with our people inside the camp?"

"Not yet, sir. Alley Kat's been trying, but Sedova thinks the Hammers have been jamming all neuronics frequencies, and so far they've not managed to hit the transmitter."

"Roger," Michael said, his chest tightening. "Tell Sedova to find it soon. Otherwise we'll have one hell of a job rounding this lot up."


All of a sudden, the blazing remains of Camp J-5209's defenses reared up out of the darkness; beyond the carnage, the matte-black shapes of Alley Kat and Hell Bent flayed the PGDF base with streams of cannon fire before sliding away into the night.

"Widowmaker, Alley Kat. Don't think the locals will be bothering us. We'll land when you're down."

"Roger that. Landing."

Widowmaker's nose lifted, belly thrusters fired, and with a shuddering thud, the lander's AI dropped the lander onto the ground. Michael wasted no time; throwing off his straps, he jumped out of his seat and slid down the ladder into the cargo bay. Pausing only to shed his combat space suit and grab an assault rifle, he waved Petty Officer Morozov to follow him. He hurried down the ramp after Widowmaker's complement of marines and out into the night, heading for the camp perimeter, oblivious to the rain sheeting down. A thunderous, head-splitting roar announced Alley Kat's arrival, followed by Hell Bent; their ramps went down to disgorge yet more marines, their chromaflage capes fading them into the night when they spread out to secure the perimeter.

Michael ignored them, intent on staying as close as he could to the marines heading into the camp. He ran a scan, but where he should have picked up the neuronics of hundreds of POWs, there was nothing. Bloody Hammers. "Any luck with your neuronics?" he asked Morozov.

Morozov shook her head. "No, sir. We might have to get this done the hard way."

"Shit! I hope not. We can't hang around here."

The pair slogged over the sodden ground and crossed the broken remains of the camp's two fences. Ahead lay a large building, the only one inside the wire-the camp's kitchens and mess hall most likely-and beyond it, two rows of huts of prisoners' accommodation.

"Come on," he shouted, "the idle bastards are still asleep."

Running past the mess hall, Michael skidded to a halt outside the door of the first hut. Taking a deep breath, he hammered on the door. "The Fleet's here, boys and girls," he shouted. "Anyone want a lift out of here?" He stepped back; the last thing he wanted was to have his head beaten in by an anxious Fed spacer. Then all of a sudden his neuronics filled with the babble of hundreds of Feds all asking the same question: "What the hell is happening?"

Michael overrode the hubbub with a priority comm, a series of short, sharp orders telling the Feds to get out onto the muddy patch of ground between the huts-now! First one, then a flood of bewildered Feds streamed out of the huts, milling around until the marines started to herd them toward the waiting landers.

Satisfied that Kallewi had matters under control, Michael commed Anna, his eyes scanning the faces of the Feds as they poured past. No Anna. He tried his neuronics again. Still no response.

"Oh, no," Michael whispered. After all they had been through, Anna was not there. His heart lurched. Maybe that godless sonofabitch Hartspring had taken her out of the camp early. Mayb-

"Michael?" Her comm burst into his neuronics. "Michael, is that you?" she said, her face creased by shock.

"Yes," he replied, a rush of relief flushing the fear and doubt from his system, all but torn apart by the urge to find her, to crush her into his arms and never let her go, even as his brain screamed at him to pay attention, to remember that he was dirtside on Commitment, surrounded by millions of Hammers. "Where are you?" he said, his voiced half-choked by emotion.

"Leaving Hut 14," Anna said.

"Move it," Michael said, forcing himself to think straight, to ignore the overwhelming desire to grab Anna and flee into the night, to leave the rest of the universe to its own devices. "We don't have much time."

Struggling to accept that Anna was there, Michael stood and waited, the flood of Fed spacers streaming past him ignored, his eyes scanning the darkness. Then, standing in front of him, the rain pouring down her face, there stood Anna. "Oh, Anna," he said, tears of relief flooding his eyes as he folded her into his arms, "Anna, Anna, Anna."

"Michael," she whispered. "How, how…" She pushed him away. "What have you done, Michael?"

"Later," he said, taking her back in his arms. "Later."

They might have stayed that way forever, but Sergeant Tchiang had other ideas, huge arms sweeping the last of the prisoners ahead of him, a rolling tide of confusion and apprehension. "Time to go, sir."

"Yes, yes," Michael said, the awful reality of their situation crashing home. "Come on, Anna. We have to go."

"But what-"

"Later," Michael said, cutting her off. "We can't stay."

Taking her by the hand, Michael started to run, the pair joining the last of the Feds jogging back to the landers. Back at Widowmaker, Michael pushed Anna up the ramp. "Go strap in," he said. "I'll be back when everyone is loaded."

She looked at him, frowning, distrustful. "What-"

"Later, Anna, please."

"Okay." Anna nodded; turning, she disappeared into Widowmaker. Michael forced her out of his mind while he tracked down Kallewi.

"How are we doing?" he said when he found the big marine watching the last of the prisoners make their way into the landers, doing his best to put Anna out of his mind and concentrate on the job of getting out of what was about to become one giant hornet's nest infested with vengeful Hammers.

"We have… let me see, yes, 437 very confused Feds," Kallewi said. "We've allocated them to landers, and we're loading them now. We'll be ready to go in five minutes."

"Any problem with our payload limits?"

"No. It'll be close, but we'll be fine."

"Good. Who's the senior officer? He'd better come with me, though I can't say I'm looking forward to telling him how we ended up here."

Kallewi grinned. "Captain Adrissa, and he's a she. That's her over there," he said, pointing to a stocky woman standing clear of the Feds boarding the landers, her face wide-eyed with bewilderment.

"Oh, right. I'll grab her and get her onboard. Let me know when everyone's in and we can go. We've been luckier than we deserve so far, so the sooner we disappear, the better."

"My feelings exactly," Kallewi said.

Leaving him to harry the last of Feds along, Michael walked over to where Adrissa stood.

"Captain Adrissa, sir," Michael said. "Lieutenant Helfort. Pleased to meet you."

"Heard about you, Lieutenant," Adrissa said. "Must say, I never expected this," she added, waving her hand at the wreckage that once had been Camp J-5209. "You care to explain what the hell this is all about?"

"Yes, sir. I will, but we need to go, so follow me, please."

For a moment, Michael wondered if Adrissa was about to argue the point; instead, she shrugged her shoulders. "Okay," she said, her face set in a frown of confusion and doubt, overwhelmed by the sheer speed and ferocity of it all.

Followed by Adrissa and pausing only to make sure that Anna was strapped in-his heart sank as he looked at her sitting slumped in her seat, face slick with rain, fathomless green eyes narrowed, suspicious and disbelieving; please let her understand, he prayed, please-Michael made his way up to Widowmaker's flight deck, telling himself over and over again to stay focused or risk losing everything he and the rest of Redwood's crew had achieved against nearly impossible odds.

"Take a seat, sir," he said, waving Adrissa into the empty weapon systems operator's seat.

"What the hell is-"

"Sir, please. Let's get out of here, then I'll explain."

"Better be good, Lieutenant, because none of this makes any sense."

"It will, sir," Michael said. Even though I know full well it won't, he thought with a sense of foreboding at what lay ahead.

"I hope so."

Michael scanned the command and threat plots as he dropped into his seat. Nothing had changed: The marines blocking the only road into 5209 reported no enemy activity, and there was no air activity, which surprised Michael. The Gladiator operations plan assumed that the Hammers would launch their planetary defense force fliers even if the Fed landers managed to stay undetected, but for some reason they had not. Well, he decided, it did not matter why the Hammers were so passive. He hoped they stayed that way.

"Command, Kallewi. Everyone's loaded. We're good to go."

"Roger. Loadmaster, command. Close her up and get everyone strapped in. We'll be on our way shortly. Command out."

Ferreira arrived, throwing herself into the tactical officer's seat, spraying rainwater everywhere. "Bloody rain's getting worse," she grumbled. "What a fucking shithole this place is. Sorry, sir," she added, throwing an embarrassed glance at Adrissa.

"No problem," Adrissa said, her face a picture of utter confusion and uncertainty. Michael sympathized. An hour ago, the woman would have been asleep, dreaming away another long night with nothing but day after empty day to look forward to.

"Command, sensors. I have a radio intercept, bearing 290. Sensor AI says it is a Hammer ground force datalink."

"Roger. Janos, you copy that?"

"Did, sir."

"Your guys seeing anything?"

"Nothing yet. Road's clear."

"Roger. Suggest Widowmaker launches to deal with the Hammers. Get your guys to fall back. Once they've been recovered, we'll disengage and head for Point Lima."

"Concur. Kallewi, out."

"Alley Kat, Hell Bent, copy?"


Michael wasted no more time. "Launch," he said.

"Roger, launch." Mother brought the lander's fusion plants online. Raw energy smashed into the ground, and slowly, sluggishly, Widowmaker started to climb, driven skyward by twin pillars of fire shooting down out of its belly thrusters. "Transitioning," Mother said; she pushed the nose down and fed power to the main engines.

"Tac, you ready?" Michael asked.

Ferreira shot him a grin of hungry anticipation. "Ready, sir."

Accelerating fast, Mother steadied the lander to run 50 meters above J-5209's access road, its rain-slicked surface silvery gray in the low-light holovid, Kallewi's marines a cluster of blobs come and gone in a black blur. A quick glance confirmed that the radio intercept was right on the nose, its strength growing fast. "Stand by," he said to Ferreira, "any second… there!"

"Got it," Ferreira said; she let go with Widowmaker's 30mm cannons, streams of shells tearing into the road before smashing through the Hammer column making its way toward the camp, the mix of trucks and light armor no match for Widowmaker's hypervelocity salvo. They were past, and Mother reefed the lander around hard to port. "One more pass and we're out of here," Michael said. Mother slammed the lander back to starboard so hard that Adrissa grunted out loud. Feeding power into the main engines, the AI tightened the turn, ramming the lander back level the moment the road reappeared. The Hammer column was visible ahead. The rain still sheeting down was painted a lurid red-gold by the flaming wreckage, a searing flare whiting out the holocams when a microfusion plant lost containment.

A pair of white lines streaked out of the darkness toward Widowmaker. Michael had no time to work out what he was seeing before the lander's defensive lasers slashed the two Goombah short-range, man-portable surface-to-air missiles out of the air only meters before impact, fragments clattering into the armor like steel rain.

"Someone's got his shit together," he muttered, reminding himself never, ever to take the Hammers for granted, not even their second-tier planetary ground defense forces. Widowmaker's unexpected appearance, a massive shape erupting out of the darkness spewing death, would have unsettled even the best.

"Widowmaker, Alley Kat. Airborne. Coming onto track for Point Lima."

"Roger. Mother, disengage," Michael said. "Take station on Alley Kat."

"Command, sensors. We're getting too much attention from McNair air-defense radars. I think they know we're here."

"Damn," Michael muttered. Not that he was surprised after the havoc they had unleashed. "Any sign of flier activity?"

"None, sir, but it can't be long."

"Agreed. Tac. Decoys ready for the breakaway?"


"Command, sensors. I have multiple airborne search radars. Stand by… Kingfisher air-superiority fighters bearing Green 170 inbound from Ojan PGDF base. They're within Alaric launch range. Stand by, more emitters, bearing…"

Michael's gut twisted; the long-range air-to-air Alaric missiles carried by the Kingfishers were hard to shake off once they had locked on. Given enough of them, they would chop Widowmaker to pieces; even the much tougher and better-armed Alley Kat and Hell Bent might struggle to survive. He cut Carmellini off. "Update the threat plot. There are too many of them to report."

Michael sat back, his heart pounding and his mouth dry. This was it, the big gamble, the one they had to win for any of them to survive; more than any operation he had been involved in, Gladiator's success depended on the weapon of the weak: deception. The Hammers could be allowed to see only what he wanted them to see: three decoys configured to look like landers fleeing for their lives, their active stealth systems programmed to return enough of the radio frequency energy thrown at them by the Hammer radars to convince the air-defense commanders that they were the real thing.

"Command, tac. All landers ready for breakaway, decoys nominal."

"Roger. All stations, command. Stand by breakaway. Hold on; this will be a bit rough."

When the time came, it was. As one, the three landers turned and lifted their noses sharply. Throttling back the main engines, Mother shifted power to the belly thrusters. Michael held his breath as he watched what was an incredible balancing act. Kept airborne by the thrust from its main engines, slowed by its belly thrusters, air-braked by wings and flaps extended to their fullest, Widowmaker decelerated with savage force until it was moving at little more than walking speed.

For a moment, the three landers hung in the air, noses pointed skyward, but only for as long as it took to retract their wings. Then they pitched back level to drop vertically into a narrow ravine barely wide enough to take them. The thrusters cut off, and the landers thumped into the rocky ground with a sickening crash that racked Widowmaker's frame, her brooding black shape enveloped in boiling clouds of steam rising into the rain-sodden air around her before being ripped away into the night by the storm.

"Holy shit," Michael whispered when silence returned.

"Holy shit is right," Ferreira said, her voice crackling with tension and excitement. "That is what I call a white-knuckle ride."

Recovering his composure, Michael turned to Adrissa. "Captain, sir. There'll be a full briefing for the senior officers on the flight deck of Alley Kat. I'll see you there once I've confirmed the landing zone is secure."

"Ah, yes," Adrissa said faintly, wide-eyed and white-faced. "Fine."

Michael climbed out of his seat. "Right. Let's make sure Chief Bienefelt's doing what we pay her for. Jayla, for chrissakes, make sure everyone's neuronics are off. I want absolute radio silence. Laser tightbeams only."

"Already on it, sir."

Michael slid down the flight deck ladder, his boots thumping into the cargo bay deck. Making his way through Widowmaker's complement of rescued spacers-a more stunned and confused bunch of people he had never seen-he reached for Anna's hand.

"I've a bit to do. You coming?"

Anna nodded, and they walked out into the night.

The instant the landers broke away, the decoys turned hard to starboard and went to emergency power, transmitting a tantalizing cocktail of radio frequency energy intended to attract the Hammers' attention. Dropping to within meters of the ground, a formless black blur below them, they fled west through the rain-soaked night, the wind buffeting and bumping them as they headed for the coast and the waiting ocean.

Behind them, a large salvo of Alaric long-range hypersonic air-to-air missiles turned to follow. Closing fast now, the missiles ignored the decoys' increasingly frantic efforts to jam their sensors, though curiously, the jamming did manage to choke the Alarics' data uplinks, making sure that whatever their optical sensors saw in the final seconds before impact was lost in a torrent of noise.

Well offshore, the decoys' time ran out; the Alarics closed in, and one after another, the decoys died. Blown out of the air, they fell in tumbling arcs down to a storm-savaged sea, smashing into its leaden surface in spectacular eruptions of spray urged into the night sky by incandescent balls of plasma as their fusion microplants lost containment.

Soon a pair of Hammer search and rescue heavy lifters arrived. Spiraling out from the impact datum, they started the search, but there was nothing for them to see. The on-scene commander grunted his frustration; any debris there might have been was lost in a shambles of huge gray-black walls marching remorselessly out of the night, their crests collapsing, toppling forward in raging maelstroms of white water that smeared thick blankets of foam across the sea's surface. He made one last low-speed pass over the search area; if anything, conditions were getting worse, not better, with the lifter sagging and wallowing through the turbulent air and visibility at times close to nil in the driving rain and spray.

The man knew a lost cause when he saw one. "SAR-65, this is 22. Anything?"

"22, 65," the second lifter replied. "Nothing, and I don't think there will be."

"22, roger. I'll call it in. SAR control, this is SAR-22," he radioed. "Search complete. No trace of enemy landers, no emergency beacons, no survivors. They must have gone in hard. 22 and 65 returning to base. Over."

"SAR control, 22 and 65 returning to base. Understood. Out."

"65, 22. You copy?"

"65, copy," the command pilot of the second heavy lifter replied.

"22, roger. Let's go."

Michael and Anna sat with their backs against the rock wall, rushing water from the rain-swollen creek that cut across the floor of the ravine the only sound. The hours since landing had been busy, and Michael was exhausted, the extent of what he and the rest of the Redwoods had done, the appalling risks they had taken, weighing heavily on his mind. He hated to think how much three perfectly serviceable dreadnoughts were worth to an asset-strapped Fleet even if the dumb fucks had no idea how to use them effectively. Still, he consoled himself, here they were, safe. Apart from some air activity-all passing overhead and showing not the slightest interest in one unremarkable ravine out of the thousands incised into the Branxton Ranges-there had been no sign of the Hammers. The pickets Kallewi had thrown out in a protective ring around the lay-up point were troubled only by the driving rain.

In truth, Michael had only one problem that worried him: the woman sitting alongside him. Throughout his account of what he had done and why, Anna sat without saying a word until-unnerved-Michael ground to a halt. Still she said nothing, forcing him to sit and wait for her response.

"Well," Anna said, breaking the long silence at last, her face a gray blur in the predawn gloom, "what can I say? I still can't believe what's just happened any more than I can understand why. The whole business is nuts. I know why you did what you did. I just can't get my head around the fact that you managed to persuade so many sane people to go along with you."

"Anna!" Michael said, trying not to let his frustration show. "It wasn't like that. They all had their own reasons; they all made up their own minds. Yes, the message from Hartspring was the trigger, the catalyst, but after that… well, the whole business assumed a life of its own; it became something much bigger. It stopped being just about me trying to save you."

"You can say that again," Anna said with a shake of her head. "Honestly, Michael, never in my wildest dreams would I ever imagine something like this. Never! Shit… why is nothing ever straightforward with you? Here we are"-Anna waved a hand at the three landers tucked out of sight underneath gray micromesh chromaflage netting-"in the middle of nowhere, stuck on this dump of a Hammer planet with no way home, and what's the plan?" She shook her head again. "The plan," she said with a sharp, mocking laugh. "What plan? Oh, yes, that plan. The 'join the NRA and spend the rest of our lives fighting the Hammers until we all get killed' plan!" She shook her head despairingly. "What a prospect. At least we were warm and safe in 5209… well, apart from me, that is."

"Anna, look, it's not that ba-"

"Not that bad? Is that what you're telling me? It's not that bad? Well," Anna said fiercely, "it is that bad. The bloody NRA are what? Just second-rate guerrillas fighting a government that's a thousand times stronger than they are in a tiny, pointless war that'll never end. Doesn't matter what we do. Their war will never end, and we'll never get home… never. Even if there's ever a prisoner exchange, guess what? The Hammers would prefer to die than let us be part of that. I know how the fuckers think. They'll never stop hunting us, and when they get us, they'll kill us all. We're screwed," she said, scrambling to her feet, "thanks to you and your team of crazies. We're screwed. So bloody well don't expect gratitude from me… or anyone else you took out of 5209."

"Anna," Michael protested, "you've got it wrong."

"Have I?" she snapped. "Have I got it wrong? No, I don't think so. You're the one who's got it wrong. How could you do this? Where's your sense of duty? What happened to the oath you took when you were commissioned? Your sense of honor?"

"There're more important things," he muttered, all too aware of how lame he must sound.

Anna snorted, a snort dripping with contempt and derision. "Oh, really?"

"Yes, there are."

"Well, not for me there aren't. I don't believe it, Michael. I don't believe that you would do all this just to save me. And to drag the rest of your crew along with you? That's absolutely unforgivable."

"They had their reasons, Anna, and those had nothing to do with you."

"Maybe so, but you started this and they followed. You're responsible, and stop trying to pretend otherwise."

"Hey," Michael protested, "that's not fair."

"I don't care. No matter how much you love me, no matter what that psychopath Hartspring planned to do, it's just plain wrong to risk so many lives to save me. That's what's wrong, Michael. And Jesus! I almost forgot," she added, her voice dripping sarcasm. "You destroyed three fully operational dreadnoughts to do it. Unbelievable.

"Don't say another word. Just piss off. Whatever your reasons, whatever your screwed-up mind tells you, whatever you think makes all this right, I don't want to hear it." With that, Anna walked away.

Michael sat, crushed into immobility. Anna's reaction was a million light-years from the response he'd expected. Suddenly, doubt swamped him. What if Anna was right? What if the rest of the Feds saw things the same way? The last thing he needed was open conflict between the rescuers and the rescued.

Goddamn her, he thought as a rush of anger swept away all the doubt; goddamn her to hell. Why could she not see what he and the rest of the Redwoods had risked to get her and the rest of the POWs out of J-5209? That Hartspring's threat was only the catalyst for what happened? That the Redwoods had their own reasons? Why could she not see all of that? Damn, damn, damn, he said to himself. Damn Hartspring, damn the Hammers, damn Anna Cheung, damn everything. If they did not like what he had done, tough. It was done, and they could all go fuck themselves if it did not sit well with their precious views of what constituted duty, honor, and the rest of that Fleet bullshit. They all might be happy to sit while Rome burned, but he was not.

Still seething with anger, he spotted Chief Bienefelt making her way over to him.


"Lieutenant Cheung doesn't look too happy. And you don't, either."

"I'm bloody well not," he snapped.

"Hey! Don't take it out on me."

"Sorry, Matti. Anna thinks what I've done is so wrong she's never going to speak to me again." He took a deep breath and sighed. "Don't tell me the rest of them think we're a bunch of crazies."

"Well," Bienefelt said, "it's fair to say most do"-Michael's heart sank, the last of his anger fading away as he contemplated the prospect of having to face over four hundred angry Fed spacers hell-bent on hanging him from the nearest tree-"but that's not the whole story, not by a long shot."

"It's not?"

"No," Bienefelt said, shaking her head. "There are some exceptions, of course, there always are, but most of the spacers… no, no, make that almost all the spacers I've spoken to are happy to be out of 5209. Their guards didn't treat them that badly, but not well enough to make them want to stay. The way this damn war's been going, they thought they'd be there for years. They're not fools, but-"

"There always has to be a 'but,' " Michael said, dejected.

"Yes, there does, and it's this. Everything depends on how the NRA reacts. If it's positive, if the NRA can convince our people that its war is worth fighting, they'll be there."

Bienefelt paused for a moment before continuing. "You need to remember one thing, sir. Most of the people we rescued come from Commodore Kumoro's task force. Do I need to remind you what the Hammers put them through at Salvation, how many of their shipmates died?"

Michael shook his head; she did not. No matter how long he lived, he would never forget the Hammers' ruthless destruction of Kumoro's task group: eleven ships along with most of their crews blown to hell and beyond in the space of a few bloody minutes. Michael had never witnessed an operation so ill advised, an operation none of the ships involved was ever going to survive, the tragedy made unbearable for him by the knowledge that Anna might not have survived, either.

"Didn't think so," Bienefelt said. "Suffice it to say that Kumoro's people owe the Hammers big time, and I think they'd enjoy making a payment."

"Umm… well, let's hope Anna comes around."

"I'm sure she will," Bienefelt said. "Anyway, sir, can't stay here yakking. Duty calls. Captain Adrissa requires your presence."

"Oh, shit. Any idea how she sees things?"

"No, sir, sorry. She's been closeted with her two senior officers since you finished the briefing."

Michael dragged air deep into his lungs to steel himself. "Where can I find the good captain?"

"Alley Kat's crew mess."

"Okay. Wish me luck."

"No need, sir. You'll be fine."

I wish, Michael thought, absolutely certain that he was not going to be anything of the sort.

He made his way past Widowmaker and Hell Bent to where Alley Kat sat, her massive bulk tucked close to the rock wall at the head of the ravine. Walking up the ramp, he crossed Alley Kat's cargo bay and its mounds of stores before climbing the ladder to the crew mess. Knocking on the door, he went into the cramped compartment. The three officers were seated behind the pull-down table.

"You wanted to see me, Captain?"

"Yes, I did. Take a seat, Lieutenant."

Michael sat; he studied the faces of the officers for any clues to what would come next. There were none; their faces were impassive. Michael knew Adrissa only by reputation: a straightforward, no-nonsense officer, unpopular with the brass for a tendency to speak her mind, competent, more respected than liked. The other two, Commander Georg Rasmussen, captain of the now-destroyed Yataghan, and Lieutenant Commander Pravar Solanki, captain of Dunxi, he knew only by name.

Adrissa looked him straight in the face for what seemed like a lifetime before speaking. "So, Lieutenant," she said at last, "this is one hell of a situation you've dropped us into."

Michael bobbed his head in apology. "Yes, sir. It is."

"We've read the brief you supplied us, and it's all very clear. The question is what we"-Adrissa waved a hand at Rasmussen and Solanki-"do next. The problem is that none of us have ever been in a situation like this. More to the point, we don't know anyone else in Fleet history who has, either."

"No, sir."

"So," Adrissa said, "we have no precedents to help us decide what we do next. Setting aside naked self-interest, that leaves us with two guides: Fleet Regulations and pragmatism. If we follow Fleet Regulations, it's clear what we should do: It is our duty as Fleet officers to have you"-her voice hardened noticeably-"arrested and court-martialed. At which point there is no doubt you'd be found guilty and sentenced to death. And since we're in the presence of the enemy, I'd be within the regulations to approve that sentence, and believe me, Lieutenant Helfort, I would have no compunction about having you shot, none at all, not after what you've done."

"Yes, sir," Michael said, wondering just how much worse his day could get.

"The problem with that strategy is that while there are what… let me see, yes, let's say sixty of you and over four hundred of us, you're the ones with the guns, and it hasn't escaped our notice that your marine friends have been slow to meet our requests for weapons."

"I know that, sir," Michael said, "and I'm sorry, but we needed to see how things panned out."

"Hmmm," Adrissa said, "we thought so. If we cannot enforce Fleet Regulations, that leaves us with pragmatism, and it's clear what it tells us to do. Ignore the mutiny, endorse your plan to join the NRA, fight alongside them, pray like hell the day isn't too far off when they push the whole rotten Hammer government into the sea, and then we get to go home. That about sum up your grand plan, Lieutenant?"

"Yes, sir," Michael said, acutely aware how half-assed Adrissa made it all sound. Half-assed? Piss-weak more like it. "That pretty much sums it up." And that's because there's nothing more to add, he wanted to say but did not.

"Yes, it does. Not much of a plan, I have to say, though I admire, we all admire, what you've achieved so far. However misplaced your loyalties, Lieutenant, your Operation Gladiator will go down in the annals of warfare. If you ignore the costs, it is one of the most outstanding military operations of all time."

"Thank you, sir."

"Don't thank me," Adrissa snapped. "You made a bad decision-nothing will ever change that-and whatever your motives, they cannot vindicate what you have done. Never!"

Michael bit his tongue, choking back his response. He needed Adrissa on his side, and if that was too big an ask, neutral would do fine. "No, sir," he said.

"So here's the deal," Adrissa went on, "and it's the only deal I'm prepared to offer. Should any one of us ever find ourselves in a position where we can return you and your accomplices to the Federated Worlds for trial, we will arrest you. That's our duty and is nonnegotiable. However, until that time, we need to accept the realities of the situation we find ourselves in. So we will be telling our people that they are free to decide what to do next. The one thing they can't do is turn themselves back over to the Hammers. They can stay under my command doing whatever we'll be doing. Or they can join the NRA and Nationalists. It'll be their choice, and I won't seek to influence any of them one way or the other, nor, Lieutenant, will you. Is that understood?"

"Yes, sir," Michael said, his spirits rising fast. He would take the threat of arrest-Adrissa's chances of making good on the threat were minimal, to say the least-over outright opposition any day. "That's understood."

"Good. Now that the formalities are out of the way, there are a couple of things I'd like to say."

"Yes, sir?"

"Yes. First, I meant what I said about Gladiator. I don't think I've ever seen anything like it."

"It was a team effort, sir. They're good people: smart, sharp, motivated."

"Indeed," Adrissa said with a faint smile, "though you left out 'misguided.' But I digress. Second, we've watched the vidmail sent to you by… what was his name?"

"Hartspring, sir. Colonel Erwin Hartspring. Doctrinal Security. Nasty piece of work."

"Yes, him. A lowlife piece of shit if ever I saw one. I can't begin to understand how you kept going with that hanging over you, and while I can never condone your actions, I can at least say that I sympathize. It is not a predicament I ever want to find myself in. Finally, your people. I can understand their feelings, and though it would be most unwise of me to say so publicly, I must say that I share many of their concerns about the conduct of this war."

"So do I," Rasmussen cut in, the bitterness obvious. "Yataghan was a good ship. She died for no good reason, and so did far too many of my crew."

"And me," Solanki added. "Dunxi carried a crew of one hundred ninety-eight. Only thirty-six made it to the lifepods, and two of them died during interrogation. Bastard Hammers, bastard Fleet, bastard politi-"

"Enough," Adrissa snapped. "Enough, Commander," she continued, her voice softening. "Don't say things you may regret. You'll get your chance, I promise you."

Solanki nodded, though Michael saw the anger burning ice-cold in his eyes.

"One last thing," Adrissa said. "You may be mutineers, but the rest of us are not. So, effective immediately, I'm ordering the establishment of Fleet Detachment, Commitment Planet. Um, let's see… yes, let's call it FLTDETCOMM for short, shall we? I think it will be a good thing if you and your people agreed to be part of the detachment under my command. What the detachment's mission will be is something I'll leave for another day. You happy about that?"

Michael needed only a moment to think the proposition through. "Yes, sir, very," he said, feeling like a massive load had been taken off his shoulders.

"Good. The fact that you and your people agreed to come back into the chain of command will help in mitigation if we ever get to that point. Well, I think we're done here. No, wait, one more thing."


"Do you trust me, Helfort?"

"Yes, sir. Of course."

"Good, because the first order I'm going to give is that you issue all of my people with weapons. I'll be damned if I let them sit, surrounded by Hammers, armed only with sticks."

Michael's heart skipped a beat; if Adrissa was not the woman he thought she was, he would be dead before the week was out. "Er, yes, sir," he said, swallowing hard. "I'll get onto it right away."

"Good. Now, since this is your setup, I'm happy to take your advice. What's next?"

"Well, sir. I've sent a message to the NRA's head man-his name is Mutti Vaas-outlining what we were doing and why. I've asked him to send us someone to take us to his headquarters. Once we're there, we'll make our case. Beyond that, who knows, but we think he'll be receptive to our offer of assistance."

"We do, too, Lieutenant. He'd be mad to turn you down. Any idea when they might-"

A tap on the door interrupted Adrissa. "Yes, come in."

It was Ferreira. Licking her lips nervously at the sight of the assembled brass, she turned to Michael. "Sir, we've had-"

Michael lifted his hand to cut her off. "Jayla. Captain Adrissa is the senior officer present. Make your report to her, please."

"Oh, right," Ferreira said, her confusion obvious. She turned to Adrissa. "Sorry, sir," she mumbled.

"Don't worry about it. You were saying?"

"Umm, yes. Lieutenant Kallewi says there is an NRA patrol on its way in and can you… er, can Lieutenant Helfort please come to meet them. Kallewi's taking them to Hell Bent."

"Okay. Michael… may I call you Michael?

"Yes, sir, please," Michael said, reddening, embarrassed by Adrissa's sudden thaw.

"The NRA, eh? Well, that was prompt."

"Yes, sir. It was. Their communications must be good, and obviously they had a patrol nearby."

"Well, I'm happy to see them. I hope they're happy to see us. Why don't we go and find out what the NRA has to say for itself? When we know what they propose, I'll clear lower deck so I can talk to everyone. The troops need to know how we intend to play things."


Michael and Adrissa made their way to Hell Bent. Kallewi stood waiting for them; Michael was relieved when Kallewi snapped to attention as the captain approached. "Lieutenant Kallewi, sir," he said formally.

"Pleased to meet you, Lieutenant," Adrissa said. "I hear the NRA has arrived."

"They have, sir. They're asking for Lieutenant Helfort."

"I understand that, Lieutenant Kallewi," Adrissa said, "but just so's you know, from here on out we will do things by the book, follow the chain of command, all that boring Fleet Regulations stuff. Okay?" There was no mistaking the steel in Adrissa's voice.

Kallewi hesitated, but only until Michael caught his eye and nodded his approval. "Yes, sir," the marine said. "Understood. Follow me, please."

The group made its way up Hell Bent's ramp to where the NRA patrol waited. The troopers were a woeful sight: four men and two women dressed in combat overalls that had seen better days, hard faces tight with hunger and fatigue. But it was the eyes that caught Michael's attention-a blend of fear, suspicion, and hate-and their weapons: assault rifles shiny from months, maybe even years of hard use but clean and well cared for.

"Which one of you is Helfort?" one of the men said abruptly.

Okay, let's not waste time on the niceties, Michael thought. "I am," he said, stepping forward, "and this is my boss, Captain Adrissa. You are?"

"Sergeant Farsi. General Vaas wants to see you."

"Fine. Just me?"

"Bring who you like. Provided they can keep up, it doesn't matter. You have chromaflage capes?"

"We have."

"Bring them, plus your personal weapons and food for a week. We leave in two hours."

"Okay. We've got a few things to get done, but we'll be ready."

"We'll wait for you down the ravine."

"Hold on," Michael said. "Want some hot food? We've got enough to go around."

Farsi paused to think about that for a moment. "That would be good," he said. His face softened; the tip of his tongue flicked out and across his lips. "Really good."

Michael grinned. "Thought it might be. Follow me and I'll get you sorted." He turned to Adrissa. "Anything you need to ask, sir?"

"No. Get the sergeant and his team fed. I'll talk to everyone. Once that's done, we can go."


"… so, to sum up, you have two choices: stay part of FLTDETCOMM under my command or join the NRA and the Nationalists in whatever capacity best suits your talents. It's your choice, and you are free to decide what is in your own best interests. All I ask is that you make your minds up before I leave to talk to General Vaas if you can; it will help me tell him how many of you they can expect. When you've decided, let Lieutenant Commander Solanki know. That is all. Carry on, please."

The assembled spacers and marines broke up into a milling mass. Trying not to think about Anna-she had made a point of avoiding him-Michael set off to get his gear together, his mind worrying away at the problem of just how the hell he might handle Vaas. One thing was for sure: Vaas was no-


He turned. It was Anna. She gave nothing away, her face expressionless. "Yes?"

"Can you talk?" she asked.

"Sure," he said, eyes wary. "Over here. What's up?"

"What's up?" she hissed, her face flushed and her eyes blazing with anger. "What's up? Screw you, Michael Helfort, you sonofabitch. You know what's up!"

Michael shoved his hands palms out as if to keep Anna at bay. "Anna, please," he said. "I know things aren't the best, but I just… I just hoped this was going to work out. What was I supposed to do? If I'd left you to Colonel Hartspring, you'd be dead inside a month, and it was never going to be an easy death."

Anna's head slumped forward; face in her hands, her shoulders shook. She sobbed softly, so Michael did the sensible thing. Folding her in his arms, he held her tightly for a long time. Eventually, she pushed him back to look him right in the face, red-rimmed green eyes brimming with tears. "Oh, shit," she said, her voice breaking, wiping the tears away, "it wasn't supposed to end up like this. This fucking war was supposed to be over when we destroyed the Hammer's antimatter plant, but it's not, and the way things are going, it never will be."

"But Anna, you're safe," Michael protested. "I'm safe; we're together. What does anything else matter? It doesn't, Anna; nothing else matters. It's just us. Me and you, and the rest of humanspace can go fuck itself."

Anna stared at him for an age. A smile flickered across her face, gone no sooner than it appeared. "Michael Helfort, you are thick. Thick as pig shit, you know that?"

"What? Thick? Me?" Michael spluttered, utterly confused.

"Yes, thick… dumb, stupid, dopey, half-witted. I know it's just you and me. Why do you think I'm so upset?"

"I have no idea, Anna. Honestly."

"Like you just said, dumbo. It's you and me, and the rest of humanspace can go fuck itself."

"You mean that?" Michael said, trying not to let a rush of euphoria overwhelm him.

"Sure do, spacer," she said. "Now, even though the rest of humanspace should go screw itself, you have work to do."

Michael's euphoria vanished. "Ah, damn. Duty, duty, always duty. Yes, Captain Adrissa and I are off to see the Nationalists. Don't how long we'll be gone."

"I'll be here when you get back, Michael," Anna said softly. "I'll be here."

"Okay," Farsi said, "here are the rules, and they are not open for debate."

Off to a promising start, Michael said to himself while the NRA sergeant looked at everyone in turn.

"Rule one," Farsi continued. "I'm in charge. Any time I'm not around, Corporal T'chavliki"-he pointed to a scrappy, underweight woman standing off to one side-"is the boss. What either one of us says goes. If one of you steps out of line, I'll blow your Kraa-damned head off. I don't have the time to argue.

"Rule two. For Kraa's sake, maintain chromaflage discipline, so capes on all the time. Since we laid our hands on Goombah shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, those Hammer fuckpigs don't send drones across our patch like they used to, but they're around. So are the battlesats; if the cloud cover clears, their damn lasers will fry you in a heartbeat. They might even drop kinetics on us, so don't give them a target.

"Rule three. Keep up. If you can't keep up, tough. Make your way back here as best you can.

"Rule four. If you look like you're getting captured, kill as many of the Hammers as you can before you kill yourself. Trust me; you should never, ever allow yourself to be taken alive."

Michael shivered, an image of Erwin Hartspring popping unbidden into his mind's eye, the black uniform and pale, washed-out eyes every bit as vivid as the last time he had seen the DocSec colonel.

"Rule five. There is no rule five, so that's it. Any questions?" Farsi looked around again. He nodded. "Good. Let's go."

Without another word, Farsi waved them to move out, a trooper and Farsi up front, Adrissa, Kallewi, and Michael behind them, with T'chavliki and the rest of the patrol bringing up the rear. Tuesday, September 18, 2401, UD Gwalia Planetary Ground Defense Force base, Commitment

Mouth open, Chief Councillor Polk gaped at the appalling sight sprawled out in front of him. Two weeks earlier, he had presided over a medals ceremony at this very base. It had been flawless. Air-superiority fighters and ground-attack fliers had been arrayed in precise lines, their crews and the base's support personnel drawn up immaculate in their dress blacks, hundreds upon hundreds of them, all proof positive that not every part of the Hammer Worlds was a corrupt, decaying farce.

Now the place was a wasteland, a blast-smashed expanse of ceramcrete littered with the shattered wrecks of fighters, the base's elaborate infrastructure reduced to blackened piles of rubble through which casualty recovery teams picked their way with painstaking care, a red flag appearing every time a new body was located. There were hundreds of red flags already, Polk noted, and the teams had covered only a fraction of the base.

With a start, Polk realized how dumb he must look. He turned to the latest in a long line of commanders in chief standing alongside him, his face drawn tight with shock.

"How, Admiral Belasz? How could this have happened?"

Belasz licked his lips; Polk could see a small tic working under the man's left eye. Given that his predecessor had been consigned to a DocSec lime pit for the last disaster, he had every right to be nervous.

"Well, sir," Belasz said, choosing his words with great care, "overwhelming force directed with great precision is how. If the Feds choose to drop hundreds of thousands of tons of armored heavy cruiser onto us, I'm afraid there's very little we can do to stop them. That much mass moving that fast…" Balasz shrugged his shoulders. "It's unstoppable."

Polk resisted the urge to have the man arrested on the spot. "They'd waste ships doing that?" he demanded. "Why? It makes no sense, especially given they are so short of frontline units."

"We don't know the answer to that, sir," Belasz said, "and I agree it doesn't make sense. Yes, they've caused us great damage, but it's all to the PGDF. They haven't reduced Fleet's capacity to wage war on them in any way. I'm sorry, sir. I wish we knew, but it's a mystery, and without the crews of the three ships to tell us, we may never work it out."

"Do we know the names of the ships?"

"Yes, sir. We do. They were three R-Class heavy cruisers: Redwood, Red River, and Redress."

Polk swung around. "Redwood!" he barked. "Did you say Redwood?"

The raw ferocity in Polk's voice made Belasz flinch. "Yes, sir," he stammered. "Redwood was one the ships destroyed in the attack. It hit Perkins."

Redwood, Kraa damn it! With a terrible, cold certainly it all made sense to Polk. "Admiral, get your people to confirm the status of J-5209."

"J-5209?" Belasz said with a frown. "The prisoner of war camp? I don't under-"

"Yes, you imbecile. J-5209, the Fed prisoner-of-war camp. Now!"

"Yes, sir."

Belasz returned a minute later. "J-5209 was attacked shortly after the three PGDF bases were hit. Fed landers took out the defenses before leaving with all the Fed prisoners. Kingfisher fighters from Ojan took them out off the coast southwest of McNair. We found no survivors."

Polk was silent. Redwood meant Helfort; it had to be him. Who else would have staged such an elaborate diversionary attack? Who else had enough of a motive? So why would he go to all that trouble only to die in the storm-wracked seas, victim of the Kingfishers' Alaric missiles and of a complete lack of fallback planning? It was not like Helfort at all; that meant…


"Yes, sir?"

"Humor me," Polk said. "I'm not convinced. When the weather allows, I want the crash site checked again, including a seabed survey this time. I want concrete proof those landers were shot down, and I want it soon."

Belasz's eyes opened wide in surprise. "Yes, sir. Will be done."

"Good. Keep me informed." Polk waved his chief of staff over. "I've seen enough."

"Yes, sir."

As his flier climbed away, leaving behind a scene of utter desolation, Polk patched through a call to Viktor Solomatin.

"Anything from the Feds?" he asked when the unlovely face of his councillor for foreign relations appeared in his personal holovid.

"Yes, sir. In short, they are claiming that rogue elements acting outside the Federated Worlds' chain of command were responsible for the attack. Details to follow."

"I take it, Councillor, that you are not convinced?"

"Me?" Solomatin said with a scowl. "No, I'm not. I think it's the usual Fed bullshit. They planned it, they executed it, and in some way they intend to profit from it. How, we have no idea, but rogue elements? The Feds? Never!"

"Okay, Councillor. Let's wait for their full response before we do anything. That's all."

Polk cut the call, Solomatin's openmouthed surprise at Polk's evenhanded reaction fading away into nothingness. He stared out of the window as the flier approached McNair, the city's ugly sprawl reaching out to meet them.

"Chief Councillor?" his chief of staff said.


"Councillor de Mel for you, sir."

"Okay. Yes, Councillor, what can I do for you?"

"Word of the attack on the PGDF bases is out, sir. The NRA is claiming responsibility, of course, so the mobs have hit the streets. Faith's particularly bad. DocSec's gone to red alert for all cities and towns across all three systems. I think it's going to be a bad forty-eight hours, Chief Councillor."

"Fine," Polk said with a dismissive wave of the hand. "Keep me informed."

"One more thing, sir," de Mel said with a small shake of his head, openly puzzled by Polk's lack of interest.


"Like I said, sir, DocSec thinks we're in for a bad forty-eight hours, and I agree. They've asked for marine backup, but General Baxter is refusing to move even a single marine without an operational directive from the Defense Council."

Polk almost shrugged his shoulders-right now, he could not care less what Baxter might or might not be doing-but thought better of it. He had to act his part in the elaborate charade that was Hammer politics even if all that mattered to him right now was the undeniable fact that Helfort had rubbed his face in dog shit again. "I'll convene an emergency meeting of the Council," he said. "You'll get your marines."

"Thank you, sir," de Mel said, the relief obvious.

"Anything else?"

"No, sir. I'll keep you posted."

"You do that, Councillor. You do that."

Why do I bother? Polk asked himself. Not even twenty-four hours earlier, he had the Hammer Worlds and its tangled affairs as much under control as any one human being could. Now one man, one small, insignificant man, had thrown a huge monkey wrench into the works, leaving him thrashing around in a vain attempt to stay on top of things.

Was this his fate, he asked, doomed to reach out for the things that mattered to him, to the Worlds, only to have lowlife scum like Helfort rip them from his grasp? If it was, he said to himself, what in Kraa's name was the point of being chief councillor? Friday, September 21, 2401, UD Branxton Ranges, Commitment

It had been an hour since they broke camp, and Michael's left leg was letting him know it resented the punishing pace. Uphill or down, nothing seemed to bother Farsi and his patrol; the pace was the same: fast, relentless, a five-minute break every hour the only respite. Still Farsi refused to say how much farther they had to go: "You'll know when we get there" was all he ever said, every other question treated the same way, with a silent shrug of the shoulders. Michael had tried to get Farsi's second in command, T'chavliki, to talk, but she was just as uncommunicative. The rest of the patrol was no better; all day they marched in complete silence.

"So be it," Michael muttered while he followed Adrissa through trees filling the bottom of a narrow gully that climbed to a small crest before, presumably, it dropped away into yet another valley. Of the Hammers there had been no sign; judging by Farsi's relaxed attitude to patrol discipline-all he seemed to care about was maintaining the pace-there would not be. Kallewi had asked Farsi about the Hammers; true to form, Farsi's reply had been yet another shrug of the shoulders.

So the day wore on, the routine unfaltering, the pace unyielding, until only the fast-fading dregs of willpower kept Michael moving, hoping against hope that the day might finish and soon. His left leg had long since dissolved into a molten mass of white-hot pain, and it demanded every gram of willpower he possessed to keep up, his eyes locked on Adrissa's back. She marched ahead of him, troubled by neither the pace nor the hours. How did she do it? he wondered. The bloody woman had been locked up in a prison camp for months, for chrissakes.

Farsi's fist lifted ten long, hard hours after they had set off but only minutes before Michael knew he would have to fall out. Without a word, the man turned and waved everyone off the path they had been following through scrubby, stunted trees. What now? Michael wondered. He followed T'chavliki down a gentle slope through trees thickening overhead until they came to a cluster of boulders tumbled together to form overhangs.

"We'll leave you here," Farsi said. "There's a stream thirty meters farther on, so water won't be a problem. You'll be safe if you keep those Kraa-damned neuronics of yours shut down, don't wander off, and don't light any fires."

"Yes," Adrissa said, "but when can we meet-"

"Kraa! You Feds are an impatient lot," Farsi said. "All in good time. Be ready to move out at first light tomorrow. Let me see… yes that'll be two days' time at 07:15 Universal. Understood?"

Adrissa nodded. "Understood. We'll be ready."

For a moment, Michael was confused before he remembered Commitment's forty-nine-hour days. He had not been dirtside a week, and already he hated them. The twenty-four-hour nights were bad enough, but what was worse was the locals' insistence on using Universal Time so that the arrival of daylight and the start of the working day coincided only once every forty-one days. It was a nightmare and confused the hell out of him.

"Right," said Kallewi as the NRA patrol disappeared into the scrub; like wraiths, they were there one minute, and then they weren't. The marine dumped his pack under an overhang. "I know we have to trust the NRA," he said, "but even so, we'll post a sentry. Four hours on, eight off. Happy with that, sir?"

"One person enough?" Adrissa said.

"Yes, sir, it is. Brought some remote movement sensors. They'll give us plenty of warning."

Adrissa nodded. "Okay."

"Just a few things to watch out for. Stay inside the movement sensors, keep your gun to hand all the time, keep quiet, and for chrissakes, do not take your chromaflage capes off unless you are under the trees. Hammer recon drones can pick up a human 10 klicks away, so be warned. Oh, yes, let the sentry know where you're headed and when you'll be back. I'll take the first watch. Michael and then you, sir. That okay with everyone?"

More nods. "Need a hand with the sensors, Janos?" Michael asked.

"That'd be good. Running fiber-optics is a pain. Come on, let's go."

Sighing with relief, Michael lowered his body into a small waterfall-splashed pool, the water tumbling down across granite rocks cool but not cold. The heat from his overworked legs leached away, and for the first time in hours, the pain in his bad leg started to fade to more manageable levels. He lay back and stared at the canopy of branches overhead. The last of the cloud from the tropical depression that had covered their attack on J-5209 was beginning to break, the sun now and again sneaking through to drive slivers of yellow-gold light down through tiny gaps in the canopy.

For a magical minute, tranquillity overwhelmed him, dragging him out of time and place to somewhere new, somewhere there were no Hammers, no Hartsprings, no death, no hurt, a place far from Commitment, a place where he and Anna might live out their days untroubled by all the stupidities that infected the rest of humankind.

The magic faded when a wandering recon drone passing to the south snapped him back to the present. "Urggh," he grunted, sitting up. Ignoring the protests from abused muscles, he started work on the muck accumulated over the days of hard marching. Job done, he lay back. Even though he missed Anna, he was surprised to find himself utterly content; for the moment at least, just knowing that she was safe was more than enough. Sunday, September 23, 2401, UD Branxton Ranges, Commitment

Michael had the watch, the minutes until Farsi's return dragging on and on. When one of the sensors reported movement, the shock jolted him upright.

"Stand to, folks. Company," he hissed, bringing his assault rifle to his shoulder, holding the sighting ring steady on the new arrival's head as he walked into view. "Stand down," he said. "It's Farsi. Welcome back, Sergeant Farsi."

"Thanks, but just so as you know, Lieutenant," Farsi said with a half smile, "we blew your head off long before your sensors picked us up."


Farsi lifted his left hand; to Michael's horror, what looked for all the world like a bush slid out from behind a tree and stood up. It was T'chavliki, quite unable to conceal a huge grin as she stabbed her rifle in Michael's direction.

"I'll be damned," he said, chastened. "That is impressive."

"We need to be. Those Hammer bastards have all the technology. Problem is, they rely too much on it. Those movement sensors of yours are good, but we expected them. Took T'chavliki hours to infiltrate your position."

"Lesson learned, Sergeant Farsi, lesson learned."

"I hope so."

Kallewi appeared with Adrissa close behind. "What's happening?" he asked.

"Corporal T'chavliki made it past our sensors without being detected," Michael replied.

"No shit!" Kallewi exclaimed, the surprise obvious.

"Yes shit," Farsi said, deadpan.

Kallewi laughed. "Getting past those things takes some doing, Sergeant. I think I might have underestimated you guys."

"Maybe," Farsi said; a small smile appeared for the first time. "If you're ready to go, I have a general waiting."

"Let us grab our sensors, and we're right."

"Do it."

With everything recovered, the group set off. As before, Farsi and a trooper led the way, and the pace was no less cruel. Regaining the path, Michael resigned himself to a long day's pain. To his surprise, they walked for thirty minutes before Farsi called a halt.

"One klick ahead of us is a line of Hammer sensors," he whispered. "They're not up to Fed standards, but they work well enough. Microphones, holocams, and signal processors uplinked to PGDF headquarters by satellite. The stupid bastards think we don't know about them, and we'd like to keep things that way. So here's what we're going to do…"

An agonizing age later, they had wriggled their way through the line of Hammer sensors; Farsi assured Michael that they had gone undetected. If the Hammers turned up, he had said, they'd know he was wrong. Michael did not have the energy to worry about it. He rolled over onto his back, his knees and elbows protesting after crawling, in places centimeter by centimeter, the best part of a kilometer across broken ground, a twisting circuitous route out of sight of the holocams.

"That was hard," he muttered to Adrissa when she crawled up and rolled onto her back beside him.

"Tell me," she said, breathing hard.

"On your feet, folks," Farsi said, untroubled by the effort. "Now the good news. Only fifteen klicks to go."

"Another fifteen klicks?" Adrissa grunted. She climbed to her feet. "Terrific. I have had it with this hiking business."

Michael had, too. His left leg was threatening to refuse the weight he put on it. "I think this leg has, too," he muttered as he tried to massage it back to life.

"Problem?" Farsi asked.

"Yeah. Rail-gun splinter at Hell's Moons, then a gunshot wound on Serhati. Bloody Hammers. Oh, sorry," he said, lifting his head to look up at Farsi. "I didn't mean it that way."

"Don't be sorry," Farsi said with a shake of the head. "Nobody in the NRA thinks of themselves as a Hammer. So don't give me any of that Hammer of Kraa religious shit"-he spit on the ground-"I gave up believing a word of it the day I started to think for myself. When we've kicked the murderous, corrupt bastards out of McNair-and we will-the Resistance Council's first law will be to change the name of the Hammer of Kraa Worlds. Revival Worlds is the current favorite. Anyway, we're wasting time. We need to go. Let me know if you need any help."

"Thanks, Sergeant."

"Come on, Michael, lean on me," Adrissa said, and together they set off after Farsi.

Many hours into the march, Michael was still keeping up, but only with Adrissa's help.

His neuronics' knowledge base told him they were now in limestone karst country. There was plenty of it: half a million square kilometers running southeast away from the floodplain of the Oxus River and the city of McNair, a plateau riddled with thousands upon thousands of sinkholes, many leading down to labyrinthine networks of uncharted caves.

For the Hammers, the karst was military horror writ large, a three-dimensional puzzle they could never solve: too big to isolate, too expansive to carpet bomb, too broken to cross on foot, too fractured to reconnoiter, every boulder an ambush site, every sinkhole an escape route.

But for the NRA, the karst was a sanctuary: big enough, tough enough, intricate enough to shelter tens of thousands of people far underground, secure enough to nurture an independent society safe from the Hammer's tacnukes, orbital kinetics, and fuel-air bombs, well watered and blessed with tunnels and thickly forested valley highways out of sight of drones and satellites.

For the first time, Michael began to understand why the Hammers had such trouble rooting out the NRA, how the tiny flame of resistance had managed to survive and flourish for more than fifty years, the full might and power of the Hammer state unable to snuff it out.

The topography had changed dramatically in the space of a few kilometers. Granite gave way to limestone, rounded hills surrendered to a flat-topped plain, water-worn valleys yielded to sheer-sided canyons, subtropical forest degenerated into a miserable tangle of scrubby bushes and trees fighting for survival in the thin soil. Michael's interest did not last long. He was overwhelmed by the need to keep going, to keep up with the rest of the group; the going was hard in the still, humid air.

Hour after hour, they plowed on. Farsi's people had an uncanny ability to find a way through the scrubby undergrowth; without them, their speed would have been measured in meters, not kilometers, per hour. "About time," Michael muttered when Farsi called a halt. Even with Adrissa's help, Michael knew he had only a few kilometers left in him.

"Okay. We're here. Welcome to Branxton Base. Follow me and stay close," Farsi said, and plunged into a small opening in the cliff.

Michael's heartbeat picked up at the prospect of meeting Vaas. He had last met the man in charge of the NRA in December '99 and wondered how much he had changed. Taking a deep breath, he followed Farsi.

"Michael. Welcome. Sure as Kraa didn't expect to see you again."

"I never planned to be back, sir," Michael said. "Shit! I never wanted to be back, much as I enjoyed your hospitality the first time around."

Mutti Vaas had aged since Michael had last seen him, skin washed gray by the cold lamps set around the wall of the cave and stretched over hunger-sharpened cheekbones, stress lines cut deep. His eyes had not changed: Dark brown, almost black, they looked right into him, unwavering, unblinking, unforgiving. Interrogator's eyes, hard, penetrating, cruel even, the eyes of a man used to untangling truth from lies. The eyes of a man not to be crossed.

"Can't say I blame you," Vaas said with a broad grin. He leaned forward as if to reassure himself that he really was looking at Michael Helfort, the fingers of his left hand fiddling restlessly with a small charm hanging from a thin gold chain around his neck. A tiny shiver caressed Michael's spine when his neuronics identified the charm. It was no charm; it was a gold sunburst, the insignia found on the lapels of every DocSec officer's dress uniform. Pity the poor bastard from whose uniform the sunburst had come, Michael thought; he would have died a bad death.

"After the Bakersfield business, after what you did to the Hammers at Kraneveldt," Vaas continued, "why would you? The Hammers still have warrants out for your arrest. Anyway, enough history. Michael, you'd better introduce me."

"Yes, of course. This is Captain Adrissa, our senior officer, and Lieutenant Kallewi."

"Captain Adrissa, welcome," Vaas said with a smile. "All a bit unexpected, I gather."

"Thank you, sir," Adrissa said, "and yes, it has all been a bit unexpected. This is not quite how I imagined spending the rest of the year, I must say."

Michael sympathized. "Unexpected" did not come even close to describing what Adrissa and her people had been through. Less than a week ago, she had been the senior officer of a Hammer prisoner of war camp, an unhappy but predictable existence. She might be forgiven for wondering what she had done to deserve this.

"Lieutenant Kallewi," Vaas said. "I don't suppose you ever imagined you'd get dirtside on Commitment after Comdur?"

"No, sir," Kallewi said, grimacing. "I wanted to but was beginning to think I never would."

"This," Vaas continued, "is my chief of staff, Brigadier General Cortez, and my intelligence chief, Colonel Pedersen."

Cortez, a heavily framed man, stocky, powerfully built, and Pedersen, a tall, slight woman with hair stubble cut down to her skull and piercing blue eyes, both nodded. Neither smiled; neither spoke.

"This might not look much"-Vaas waved a hand around the cave-"but it's secure. The Hammers don't know it even exists, and even if they find out, it's too deep for their ordnance to reach. Right," Vaas said. "We've studied the message you sent during your attack, and I must say it raises more questions than answers. I imagine your Lieutenant Cheung is someone very special, Michael."

"Yes, sir, I think she is," Michael said, his face reddening with embarrassment.

"I'd hope so, after what you've done." Vaas paused. He nodded, his lips ghosting into a brief smile, fingers still playing with the sunburst on the chain hung around his neck. "But I think I understand now," he said. "We didn't enjoy Colonel Hartspring's performance, not that we were surprised. He's a bad one, a view I know Colonel Pedersen will agree with. Her parents were rounded up in one of the Hammer's purges. Hartspring killed them both during interrogation. He likes to do that, so you were lucky, very lucky. He's not a man used to failure."

Michael had glanced at Pedersen while Vaas talked. The woman's face was impassive; not a muscle moved.

"I digress," Vaas said. "The question we want answered is this: Why in Kraa's name should we have anything to do with you? Why shouldn't we just cut you loose? We have enough to worry about what with the Hammers calling us Fed-loving traitors, something they like to do all the time. How is having you here going to help us? We've studied every guerrilla war in recorded history, and history shows that we risk our legitimacy by working with you. This is our war; this is a people's war. It has nothing to do with the Federated Worlds. It's not your business."

Michael shot a glance at Adrissa; she nodded.

"Look, General," Michael said. "I study history, too, and I-we-understand the point you make, but you said something last time we met, something I've never forgotten."


"Yes. You said, 'All we want from people like the Feds is help. Give us the tools, and we'll finish those Hammer scum off.' "

"I said that?" Vaas said, eyes narrowing into a skeptical frown.

"Yes, General, you said that," Michael said firmly. "So that's what we're here to do: help. If you and your people want to pretend we don't exist, that's fine by us. We'll still help, but if you didn't mean what you said"-Vaas's eyebrows lifted-"if you're not interested in three assault landers, you're not interested in our microfabs, you're not interested in hundreds of well-trained military personnel, that's fine. We'll go and start our own guerrilla war somewhere else. It's your call, sir."

Michael sat back, his eyes locked on Vaas's. Vaas stared back, and there followed a long and uncomfortable silence. Michael sat unmoving, praying that he had not overplayed his hand.

The corners of Vaas's mouth turned up a fraction before his mouth opened wide into a broad smile. "Oh, you Feds," he said, shaking his head. "Some things never change. Self-doubt never was a problem with you people."

"Nor with yours," Michael said.

Vaas laughed. He turned to Adrissa. "You know what, Captain?"

"No, General. What?"

"We were all raised to regard all Feds-and everyone else in humanspace, come to that-as Kraa-less heretics, evil and corrupt. The Kraa-less bit is no problem; there's not one NRA trooper who doesn't think it's all fundamentalist bullshit, but we have to be careful. There can be no 'you' and 'us.' Your people must be part of the NRA, must commit to the Nationalist movement. You must share everything: what we stand to win, what we stand to lose. They must live with us… and die with us. Your people cannot be different. It won't work otherwise."

Adrissa considered that for a moment before she nodded. "I agree, but I'll not allow the NRA to coerce my people into anything, and I'll still be responsible for their overall welfare. How that works in practice is something we can sort out later."

Vaas glanced at his chief of staff. Cortez nodded. "Good," said Vaas. "I think we are agreed. However"-he raised a finger-"I report to the Resistance Council. I can, I will recommend acceptance of your offer, but only they can accept it. That said, I don't think there'll be any objections. We have a war to win, and we need all the help we can get. Now, we have some holovids you might like to see."

Adrissa nodded. "Sure," she said.

Two troopers wheeled in a holovid projector, and the room darkened. "I think you'll enjoy this," Vaas said. "I know we all did."

For a moment, Michael struggled to work out what he was looking at; then it clicked. The unmistakable layout of a Hammer base appeared through driving rain. Perhaps 5 kilometers away, the sprawling base was outlined by hundreds of floodlights that bounced a ghostly orange glare off hectares of ceramcrete up into the thick clouds scudding overhead. Quickly, he searched through his neuronics knowledge base. "Perkins," he said softly. "It's Perkins."

"Quite right, Michael," Vaas said. "That is-that was the Perkins planetary ground defense force base. We have a network of holocams monitoring the base, so we know when they're sending fliers to bother us."

Save for the rain picked up by the holocam's microphone, the silence was absolute while the holovid played. For a while, there was little to see, the only movement the flashing amber lights of trucks and service vehicles as they crawled around the base. Then the sky flared into life, a momentary white light that flickered across the clouds before vanishing.

"That's the debris field hitting the upper atmosphere," Michael said, entranced by the sight.

An instant later, all hell broke loose. As fliers started to move out of their open-sided hangars, air-defense sites protecting the base exploded into life, missile after missile after missile streaking skyward, lines of searingly bright light disappearing up into the night. Intense flashes turned the clouds milk white; the dull thumps of warheads exploding unseen overhead filled the air. A second later, the clouds turned red, gold, then white, and an instant after that-so fast that it was over before the image even registered-a pillar of fire reached down out of the storm clouds and smashed into the Hammer base with all the force of a tactical nuclear weapon, the holovid whiting out when the blast wave incinerated everything in its path.

"Jeez," Adrissa hissed. "What the hell was that?"

"That, sir, was Redwood on its final mission," Michael said. "I loved that ship, so I'm glad. She did well; she died bravely."

The show was not over. The holovid came back online to reveal a scene of utter devastation. Redwood had blasted an enormous crater into the ground close to the base's main taxiway, leaving its sprawling collection of hangars, workshops, armories, and administrative buildings blast-shattered shells that were burning fiercely, the clouds overhead painted a lurid red-gold, bleached white repeatedly when fusion plants lost containment and blew. Then, starting off to the left, a single explosion smeared white light across the clouds, followed by another and another until the entire area was carpeted. Bursting too fast to count, they left the base a raging inferno, columns of dirty black smoke twisted through with veins of red and yellow fire climbing away into the clouds.

"I think," Michael said, "those were our Merlin missiles. It's hard to know, but it looked to me like at least half slipped through."

The holovid ended, and the lights came back on.

"Unbelievable," Vaas said, shaking his head. He looked at Michael. "What you did to Perkins is the reason," he continued, "why we'd need our heads examined not to accept your offer of help. That place has been a thorn in our side for far too long. Somehow, I don't think it will be again, not for a while, anyway. Still, enough of that. We have a lot to get through. The Resistance Council wants to talk to me. While I do that, Colonel Pedersen will bring you up to date with what's happening politically, then General Cortez will outline the military situation. Once that's done, we need to work out how to get all of you back to Branxton Base. You're okay where you are for the moment, but we shouldn't expose your people or those landers of yours any longer than we have to. Andrika?"

"Thank you, General," Pedersen said. "The first thing to say is that the government of Chief Councillor Polk is not doing so well. If we look at the holovid, we can see…"

Exhausted though he was, sleep was the last thing Michael wanted. He was happy to lie in the darkness as his mind ran through the briefings Pedersen and Cortez had provided.

Polk and his crew of incompetent, murderous thugs were in trouble, that much was obvious. Fueled by the NRA's military successes and urged on by an increasingly effective Nationalist movement, civil unrest was at levels not seen in decades. A hard-pressed DocSec was running out of places to jail everyone they arrested-they had taken to shooting people out of hand instead-the economy was falling apart, and desertion from the military, especially from planetary ground defense and DocSec, was at an all-time high, a reflection of poor morale compounded by bad leadership from corrupt officers.

It was a bad situation for any authoritarian government, but Michael did not share Pedersen's view that the Hammer government was at a tipping point. Yes, things were bad, but the resources Polk and crew commanded were still enormous. Worse, not once since the establishment of the Hammer of Kraa Worlds had the government come close to collapse, not even during the darkest days of the Great Schism. Backed by the enormous spiritual authority of the Teacher of Worlds and his legions of priests, together with the elaborate apparatus of state-sponsored religion, the Hammers were formidable opponents still.

Pedersen's briefing had been optimistic. It needed to be. The hope that there was some point to the terrible sacrifices the NRA was making day in, day out was probably the one thing that sustained her and everyone else in the NRA.

Michael was not so sure her optimism was justified. For sheer animal brutality, the Hammers had no equal. For centuries now that brutality had kept a lid on things; maybe it might slam the lid down on the NRA this time around. He sighed; with all his heart he wanted Pedersen's optimism to be justified. If it was not, the NRA's war would end up the way all previous insurrections had: in a chaotic welter of betrayal, blood, and death as the Hammers took back control.

It did not bear thinking about. If the Hammers regained the upper hand, he and Anna were trapped. They would never get off Commitment, never see home, never see family and friends again, condemned to live their lives hunted by vengeful Hammers.

As for the military situation, it was no worse than he expected. Given their lack of hardware, Vaas and the NRA were doing well. They had pushed the Hammers out of the Branxton Ranges, where, protected by the appalling terrain, the NRA had been able to build a secure base of operations. Cortez had said that the Hammers had abandoned their air assaults on NRA bases in the ranges-too difficult, too costly, the payoff never enough to warrant the lives wasted-and now the NRA had started to move out onto the low ground that led to the city of McNair and the end of the war.

That was where it all began to fall apart. The NRA's nascent air force totaled two heavy landers, four ground-attack Klaxons, and a single air-superiority Kingfisher fighter, all suffering from an acute shortage of spares and ordnance. With limited air support and protected only by Goombah light surface-to-air missiles, NRA forces that tried to stand and fight were easy meat for planetary defense fliers and Hammer marine ground-attack landers. That, of course, was where his three landers came into the picture; it was no wonder Vaas was keen to work with the Feds.

Three fully operational landers were not much, but they were a start. If the NRA was able to lay its hands on some more, maybe they had a chance.

Buoyed by that prospect, Michael allowed himself to slip away into sleep. Friday, September 28, 2401, UD Offices of the Supreme Council for the Preservation of the Faith, McNair, Commitment

Fleet Admiral Belasz cleared his throat before continuing. For once, Polk sympathized with the man. It had been a long Defense Council meeting. For most of it, Belasz had been on his feet talking, and no doubt he wanted it to be over. By Kraa, Polk did. He had had enough for one day; convincing the council to do what had to be done was never easy, with every issue ending up trapped in one of the many fault lines that scarred the political landscape, lines that marked the endless struggle between power, duty, privilege, corruption, obligation, clan, not to mention-this was the Hammer Worlds, after all-blackmail and threats of violence. It was a nightmarish business, and he hated it because it reminded all present of the limits to the chief councillor's powers.

"Let me now sum up," Belasz went on. "The attacks on the three PGDF bases were the action of a small group of rogue personnel led by Lieutenant Michael Helfort, captain in command of the heavy cruiser Redwood. I will not comment on the man's motivations; that is for others to do. Thus far, we have no evidence that any of the Fed landers involved in the subsequent attack on J-5209 have survived, but the search of the crash datum continues, and I will report any results. Suffice it to say, the attack has reduced our ability to support operations against the NRA, thanks to the loss of three entire air wings along with all of their supporting infrastructure and personnel. The latest estimates I have suggest that it will be two years before Gwalia, Yallan, and Perkins PGDF bases are operational again, which will of course limit our ability to contain the NRA. That concludes my report. Are there any questions?"

Councillor de Mel was the first to speak. "Yes, Admiral. The marine bases at Besud, Serkovitch, and Beslan were untouched. Why can't they make up for the loss of PGDF capability?"

Belasz tried to suppress a frown; he failed. "That is a good question, Councillor," he said warily, aware that at least half the councillors at the table enjoyed the support of the Hammer Corps of Marines and its legions of allies. "The problem is the Constitution. The marines are to be used for internal security purposes only and, I quote, in 'the exceptional and rare event of Planetary Ground Defense's inability to contain a serious internal threat to the integrity of the Hammer of Kraa Worlds,' a form of words which successive commanding generals of marines had always interpreted literally… as General Baxter is doing now."

"For Kraa's sake!" de Mel protested. "Like we don't have a serious threat to the integrity of the Hammer of Kraa Worlds? What is the NRA if not a serious threat? Schoolkids just messing around? I think not." He turned to Polk. "Chief Councillor," he said. "You know how often I have to come to this council to ask for marine backup for DocSec operations. PGDF has to do the same any time they need heavy armored support. Far, far too often. I think it is time to bring the marines face to face with the cold, hard realities of life."

Hand grenade thrown, Polk watched de Mel sit back as the meeting dissolved, as it always did, into a heated debate between supporters of the marines' hard-line position and their opponents. Polk had no illusions that anything would change; it never had before and never would, forcing DocSec and PGDF to come cap in hand to the Defense Council each and every time they needed support from the marines, an ever more frequent occurrence as the NRA became increasingly aggressive.

What a way to run a war, Polk thought despairingly. What a way to run a war. Tuesday, October 2, 2401, UD West Branxton Ranges, Commitment

Adrissa's voice cut through the usual premission chatter that filled Widowmaker's flight deck. "All landers, this is command. We are good to go. When the NRA confirms the Hammers are responding to the attack on the ordnance depot at Chalidze, we'll launch. Good luck. Command, out."

Michael turned to look over his shoulder at Anna. "Set?"

"Yes, skipper," she said with a smile from the comms station. "We're online with the NRA."

"Good." He turned back to look at Ferreira. "Okay?'

"Yes, sir. I swore that I'd never set foot on the flight deck of this thing after the last time, but here I am. Slow learner, me. How come there's not one lander tactical officer out of all those prisoners of war?" She shook her head in disbelief.

Michael grinned. "Bad break, though let me tell you, walking out of here is no fun, so let's hope the NRA keeps the Hammers occupied. Chief Bienefelt?"

"Ready, sir," Widowmaker's latest crew member replied from the weapons systems station. "Let's hope we meet a few Hammers. I'm in the mood to dispatch a few to meet that damn Kraa of theirs."

"Amen," Chief Fodor muttered, his body, awkward in the bulky combat space suit, hunched forward over his holovid screen, eyes locked on the screen, watching to make sure Widowmaker behaved itself.

"Ferrite Four, this is Fractal Six," Adrissa said. "Stand by."

"Here we go, folks," Michael said.

"Ferrite Four, this is Fractal Six. Immediate execute Bravo-1, stand by… execute!"

Michael fed power to Widowmaker's belly thrusters; slowly, reluctantly the lander lifted off and he started to ease it out of the ravine, its holocams tracking Alley Kat and Hell Bent as they followed suit, their huge bulk emerging like alien machines from enormous clouds of steam boiled off the ravine floor by the white-hot plasma from landers' engines.

"That'll get someone's attention," Ferreira muttered when Widowmaker cleared the ravine and started to accelerate hard away to the east.

Michael nodded. "Sure will," he said. The weather was far from perfect. Unlike the week before, there was no convenient layer of cloud to protect the landers from wandering battlesats, only a thin layer of high altocumulus, enough to take the edge off the Hammers' lasers but not enough to shut them out.

Proof of which arrived seconds later. "We've been locked up," Carmellini shouted over the screeching of alarms, the threat plot erupting as space-based radars illuminated the lander.

Michael did not need to think; he reacted. He rammed the engines to full power and slammed the lander hard over to one side and an instant later back again just before the air outside was torn apart by a burst from the battlesat's pulsed ultraviolet laser. "Close," someone said.

"Have faith, folks," Michael said. "The armor on these-"

A sharp crack ran through the lander. "For chrissakes, shut those damn alarms off," he shouted, and threw the lander left and right, zigzagging in a frantic race for safety, running hard for the protection of a thicker patch of clouds a few kilometers ahead. "Damage?" he snapped, handing the lander over to Mother; he was a good pilot, but the AI would do a better job of keeping the lander under what little cloud there was.

"Minor. Atmospheric attenuation's doing a good job for us," Chief Fodor said. He flinched when another flat chattering crack resonated through the lander, a long one this time, while the battlesat kept the laser on target.

"Roger," Michael said. "Sensors. Any air activity?"

"Yes, but not directed at us. I have multiple ground-attack landers from"-Carmellini stopped when yet another stream of laser pulses hit Widowmaker-"from Amokran marine base inbound on track for Chalidze."

"Roger," Michael said, allowing himself to relax a touch; the NRA's diversionary attack was having the desired effect. "Nothing from Besud or O'Connor?"

"Nothing yet, sir."

"Anna. Sitrep."

"NRA confirms the assault on Chalidze is under way. Initial reports confirm little organized resistance. Hammer air from Amokran will be on task over Chalidze in thirty minutes. NRA confirms multiple Locusts."

"Roger." He hoped the NRA withdrew before the Hammers arrived. The Locust ground-attack lander was big, fast, and tough. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the NRA's shoulder-launched Goombah missiles would bounce off the Hammer landers-they might as well throw pebbles at them-and the one Klaxon ground-attack lander they'd managed to get airborne would not be much help, either. Their best chance was to get the hell away. He scanned the plots and eased back on the throttles; screaming along at full power was all very well, but they would soon have to start decelerating. Thus far, their frantic run to safety was going to plan. Behind Widowmaker, Alley Kat and Hell Bent ducked and weaved to avoid the incoming battlesat lasers but with less success, their greater mass making them easier targets. Not that the lasers bothered the heavy landers. Their armor made Widowmaker's look like tissue paper.

"Command, tac. Four minutes to run. The NRA has confirmed we are cleared in."

"Roger, tac. What-"

Alarms screamed. "Oh, shit," Michael hissed as the AI slammed Widowmaker over onto its back in a desperate dive to earth. Missiles! Where the fu-

Widowmaker's flight deck filled with the racket of cannons and lasers, her automated defenses letting go with everything in a frantic effort to destroy the pair of missiles streaking toward them. Michael had enough time to register that fact before, with a sickening, shuddering crunch, the lander was thrown bodily upward.

No sooner had it started than it was over. Feverishly Michael checked Widowmaker's status boards. To his shock, the lander was untouched, its systems nominal, the good news confirmed by a thumbs-up from Chief Fodor.

"What the hell happened there?" he asked, unable to keep the shock out of his voice.

"Hold on, sir," Ferreira said, a tremor in her voice. "Yes. Looks like we ran into a trap. Bastard Hammers knew we were coming. Ground-launched missiles; sensor AI says Gordians. I have absolutely no idea how we kept them out."

"Luck," Michael said, grim-faced. "Pure, blind luck… and a weapons AI paying attention. Alley Kat and Hell Bent?"

"Stand by," Ferreira hissed in shock. "Alley Kat's damaged. Airburst off its stern damaged the port main engine. Hold on… yes, power's down, but it'll make it. Hell Bent's undamaged. Looks like the Hammers didn't have much time to set up, and they were too far off our track to get a good shot at us. Those Gordians are hopeless at high crossing rates, and we were moving very low and fast. Otherwise…"

Anna shook her head. "Doesn't make sense," she said. "Why wait? Why didn't they take us on the ground?"

"Don't know," Michael said, shaking his head. "Okay, folks, we'll worry about that later. Let's get dirtside. Tac, we good to land?"

"Affirmative. NRA approach control has cleared Alley Kat in first, followed by Hell Bent, then us."

"Roger that. All stations, get your neuronics back online. The Hammers know where we are."

Shaken by the Hammer ambush, Michael had the common sense to let Mother bring the lander in; AI or not, she was ten times the pilot he was. He watched the forward holocams track Alley Kat and Hell Bent while they reduced speed, their noses rising for landing. Ahead, the gaping mouth of a cave loomed; Michael knew it was big enough to take the landers, but it would be a squeeze. More unsettling was the ground around the cave entrance. It looked like it had been worked over by a giant earth-bot, the ground scarred by countless craters and littered with the shattered remnants of trees, soil, and small debris scoured away by lander blasts. The cliff into which the cave entrance was cut was just as battered, whole slabs of limestone blasted off to leave pale scars hundreds of square meters in size.

"Command, sensors. NRA reports kinetic weapons inbound, time of flight forty-five seconds. They suggest we expedite."

Michael swore. The Hammer's command of space exposed every square centimeter of the planet to the threat of having tungsten-carbide slugs the mass of a small crowbar dropped on one's head. The best defense was to move fast, to be somewhere else when the slug arrived. Silently he urged Alley Kat and Hell Bent on. They were now hovering, the ground underneath the landers erupting into a thick, roiling cloud of ionized driver mass, dust, and dirt that swallowed them altogether before they entered the cave mouth. Widowmaker wasted no time; it moved through the cloud and into the cave, sudden darkness the only indication that they were inside.

The landers taxied on into the darkness, twisting and turning to follow the laser-smoothed floor of an ancient cave. Michael tried not to flinch when the tunnel walls shook from the kinetic slug strike; large lumps of limestone broken free by the impact shock wave crashed onto the lander's armor, a stark reminder of just how vulnerable the tunnels were to kinetic weapons and tacnuke bunker busters.

On and on they went until they were deep underground. Michael allowed himself to relax only when Mother brought the lander to a halt and started to shut down its systems, the hundreds of meters of limestone overhead more than enough to keep out the most determined Hammer attack.

"Not before time," he said with considerable feeling, throwing off his safety straps and removing his helmet. "Anna, can you liaise with the NRA. Check that their local security detail has the tunnel secured behind us and see what they want to do about off-loading the cargo." Anna nodded; she still looked shocked. "And Jayla, can you finish the shutdown? I want to see how the hell the Hammers knew we were coming."


The air outside the lander was thick with dust laced heavily with the unmistakable smell of ionized driver mass from the landers' engines. Michael jumped down and made his way past Hell Bent to Alley Kat; her enormous bulk loomed black and menacing over him. As he approached, red lights started to flash and the cargo ramp hissed down, thumping into the ground with a dull thud. Captain Adrissa walked down, followed by Rasmussen and Solanki. Anger blazed in their eyes.

"You thinking what I'm thinking, sir?" Michael said.

"We are. Some traitorous sonofabitch tipped the Hammers off, and we think we might know who it was. Follow me."

"Oh," was all Michael said. Adrissa pushed past him and made her way back to Hell Bent. Scrambling to catch up, Michael followed. When they made it there, it was obvious that something bad was happening. Two of Kallewi's marines had a man-Leading Spacer Sasaki, Michael's neuronics told him-grasped firmly, a small crowd of curious spacers standing in a loose circle around them.

"Lieutenant Acharya!" Adrissa barked.

"Yes, sir?" Hell Bent's command pilot replied, his face a tangled confusion of surprise and shock.

"Last time I looked, you were Hell Bent's ranking officer," Adrissa snarled. "So take charge of this rabble. You understand me, spacer?"

"Yes, sir," Acharya stammered, clearly startled by the ferocity of Adrissa's verbal attack. "Yes, sir. Understood."

"I hope so. You two," Adrissa said to the two marines. "Come with me and bring that man with you."

Without another word, Adrissa turned and started to walk back to Alley Kat. She managed only a few meters before Vaas and his chief of staff appeared out of the gloom.

"You and your ships okay, Captain?" Vaas said.

"We are, thank you, General," Adrissa replied, grim-faced, "but I think we have a problem. Is there somewhere we can interrogate one of our people?"

"There's a small cave 50 meters past your first lander," Cortez said. "It has lighting and a table and chairs."

"That'll do. Take Leading Spacer Sasaki there," Adrissa said to the two marines. "I'll be along presently."

She turned back to Vaas and Cortez. "I'm sorry, sirs, but it seems we may have a traitor among us."

Vaas nodded. "We suspected that much. The Hammers were tipped off. They never operate in that area. There's no point, 'cause we don't, either. Seems you were lucky, though, very lucky. I think they received word too late to lay a proper trap. Otherwise…"

"Quite so," Adrissa said. "Anyway, we'll get to the bottom of this."

"I think you will, but I want one of my security people to sit in. Maria Dalaki. She'll be able to verify any Hammer-related information you uncover. She'll be with you in ten minutes."

"That's fine, General. Let me get things started here."

"When you're ready, just follow the signs to the NRA's command center," Vaas said. "We call it ENCOMM for short; easier to say than NRA Command. I'll be there. Nine hundred meters up the tunnel, you'll find a sled station off to your left. It's marked. Take a sled heading west and get off at the end of the line. It's obvious; you can't get lost, and for Kraa's sake, if you open a blast door, make sure to close it."

"Blast door?" Adrissa said with a puzzled frown.

"The Hammers like to push missiles carrying thermobaric warheads into our tunnels," Vaas said. "We get most of them, but some slip through, hence the blast doors. We've learned the hard way that fuel-air explosions and tunnels are a bad combination."

"Ah, right. I'll make sure everyone knows that. If it's okay, I'll send Helfort on ahead."

"Fine. I'll have someone meet him," Vaas said. "Okay, unless there's anything else, I'll see you back at ENCOMM."

Adrissa watched Vaas and Cortez walk away before turning to Rasmussen. "I need two officers with interrogation training to get the truth out of Sasaki and a third to witness the proceedings. If there's enough evidence that Sasaki betrayed us, I'm court-martialing the bast-I'm court-martialing him."

"Yes, sir. I'll get onto it."

Adrissa waved Michael over. "You get to the command center, ENCOMM or whatever it is they call it," she said. "We need someone they trust to stay close; at the moment that's probably only you. Your neuronics online?"

"They are, sir."

"Okay, if you need me, just comm me. I'm going to try to get a neuronics network set up."


Michael set off. He had not gone far when Anna commed him.

"Hi, Anna. What's happening?"

"I've been pinged to be part of the interrogation team." Her avatar grimaced; clearly, she had no stomach for the task.

"Didn't I tell you never, ever to volunteer for anything, Anna?" Michael shook his head. "Never!"

"Volunteer? Me? Hell, no, but Adrissa's nothing if not efficient. We downloaded our service records when we arrived in 5209. Knew I should never have agreed to go on that damn interrogation course. Anyway, that's where I'll be."

"When you're done, I'll be in the NRA command center-sorry, ENCOMM-or back onboard Widowmaker."


After wrestling with two heavy and uncooperative blast doors, Michael found the station down a narrow tunnel. A westbound sled waited. He tried not to let the state of the machine-a double car capable of carrying ten people-concern him as he climbed in and pushed the button. With a screech, the battered antique started off, accelerating at an impressive rate, racketing down the laser-cut tunnel. According to Michael's neuronics, the sled traveled 25 kilometers before it slowed, emerging into a small lobby before decelerating to a halt in front of an NRA trooper who, like all of them, was dressed in faded combat overalls and carried a well-worn assault rifle in immaculate condition.

"Lieutenant Helfort?" the man said.

"That's me." Michael replied, climbing out of the sled.

"This way."

Michael followed the man out into a concourse so large that the cave roof was lost in the darkness; it was busy with NRA troopers in well-worn combat overalls. The command center was right ahead of him, guarded by four heavily armed troopers behind a crude security desk.

Even though they must have been briefed to expect him, the mouths of all four troopers were half-open in amazement as he approached. He was probably the first real, live spawn-of-the-devil Fed they had ever seen, Michael realized.

"Lieutenant Helfort, here to see General Vaas," his escort said.

"Ah, yes," one of the troopers said, recovering himself with an effort. "If you'd please carry this with you at all times"-the trooper handed Michael a small card on a neck lanyard-"that'll identify you. Please go in. Ask for Major Hok."

"Thank you…?"

"Corporal Vasili Banic, sir. 556th Regiment, NRA."

"Thank you, Corporal Banic."


ENCOMM took Michael by surprise. He expected the operations room from which all NRA operations were planned and controlled to be something out of ancient history: state boards covered in handwritten information, maps, telephones, paper, all the things he remembered from his one and only visit to the Museum of Twentieth-Century Warfare. How wrong could he be? He stared at the tidy arrays of holovids, wall-mounted in front of neat ranks of workstations, the room filled with the susurrus of quiet conversation underscored by the hiss of air-conditioning. Apart from the telephone handsets scattered everywhere-neuronics were proscribed by Hammer of Kraa doctrine, and head-mounted microvid comm sets were obviously scarce-it might have been an old, battered, and well-worn Fed command post.

A woman spotted him and waved him over. Save for a pair of embroidered rank badges, she was indistinguishable from all the other NRA troopers he had seen: the same buzz cut, the same worn combat overalls, the same lean and hungry look on a face stretched tight by privation and hard work.

"Major Hok, sir?" he said.

"That's me," she said, shaking Michael's outstretched hand. "I'm on General Vaas's personal staff. Welcome."

"This is impressive, sir."

Hok's eyes narrowed; Michael cursed under his breath when he realized how patronizing he must have sounded. "Sorry," he said. "I didn't mean, you know…"

Hok's face cracked into a broad smile before she surprised him by laughing out loud. "Relax," she said. "We're not that precious, you know." She led him by the arm to a group of empty workstations set into a large recess complete with its own suite of wall-mounted holovids.

"This'll be your space. Take a seat, we'll get your authorizations organized, and then I'll show you how the system works."

"Okay, but one question."


"The Chalidze operation. How'd it go?"

"Okay, let's do that first. Hold on… right, here we are."

Michael watched while Hok brought one of the holovids online and a three-dimensional representation of the Chalidze ordnance depot popped into view.

"Things went to plan," Hok said. "Supported up by an air-defense company and combat engineers, we infiltrated the 22nd's Fourth Battalion into position over a forty-eight-hour period before the attack. They hid up here"-she stabbed a marker at a cluster of heavily wooded ravines a kilometer south of the depot-"and moved up to the start line two hours before the operation kicked off. One klick to the east, and close to the main access road into the depot, were the transport elements… that's code for NRA troopers, by the way." She threw a grin at Michael. "We may not have many trucks," she continued, "but by Kraa, we've got plenty of troopers, and it's amazing how much they can carry."

Hok jumped the holovid forward. "The operation was simple. The Hammers' security was piss-poor, and they don't like patrolling in the dark. So when our guys hit them, they were tucked up in bed here"-another stab at a long building close to the southern perimeter of the factory-"and in the security strongpoints around the perimeter. One razor-wire fence, no mines, no remotely operated lasers, no chain guns. Their perimeter sensors are the usual mix of acoustic sensors and holocams. Give our engineers enough time and they don't trouble us much," she added, flicking a dismissive hand.

"When the engineers blew the wire here and here, our guys went in. One company took down the security force-not that that was hard-while the rest moved into the depot, some to take out the strongpoints, some to blow the ware houses open. By the time the transport arrived"-another grin-"all three hundred of them, the whole joint was wide open. We grabbed what we could and pulled out. By the time planetary defense turned up, we were gone. They put two heavy landers down on the depot's main landing site. That was a big mistake. Arrogant pigs! They still take us for granted. Our combat engineers had rigged claymores down one side, and we reckon that we wasted most of them when they debarked. After that, it was the usual: us running like hell while Hammer landers beat the crap out of anything they could see. Cost us about forty dead and maybe the same too badly wounded to move. They will have sold themselves dearly."

Michael must have looked surprised as Hok stopped. "That shock you, Lieutenant?"

"Yes. Yes, it does."

"Get used to it. All that Geneva Convention stuff doesn't apply, not to this war. Being captured by PGDF is a bad way to die. If you're lucky, they question you for a few minutes, then shoot you. If you're not lucky or if you're taken by DocSec…" Hok's voice trailed away. "The marines aren't so bad," she continued. "They don't make a habit of shooting prisoners, but since they always hand them over to DocSec, it's all the same in the end. So you kill as many of them as you can before turning the gun on yourself."

Michael nodded. If Hok was right, this was not war the way the Federated Worlds understood it. "I've been in DocSec's hands, Major," he said softly. "I have some idea what you mean."

"I've heard," Hok said. "You're one of the lucky ones. No NRA trooper has ever survived capture by DocSec. Not one, and DocSec made sure every last one was a long time dying. They like to send us holovids so we know exactly how long. I hope your people know that."

"Not yet, but they will. Sorry, go on."

"That's about it. We pulled back into the forests to the south of the depot. The Hammers dropped blocking forces along the obvious escape routes back to the Branxton Ranges, and all but one company managed to get around them. We think they killed their share of Hammers before they were overrun. We expect survivors back within the next week, hopefully bringing lots of goodies with them. So that's about it. Any questions?"

"Just one."


"Our landers were bushwhacked by the Hammers on our way in."

"We know. Seems we're not the only ones harboring Hammer spies."

"No," Michael said with a scowl. "Anyway, why just a single missile battery? Why didn't the Hammers mount a bigger operation? After all, three Fed landers are high-value targets. Why didn't they divert the marine landers from the Chalidze operation?"

"Good question. We wondered the same. We think there were a couple of reasons. First, the guards at 5209 were planetary defense troops, right?"

"PGDF? Yes, they were."

"That means anything your man… what was his name?"


"Yes, him. That means that whatever Sasaki told the Hammers ended up with PGDF intelligence. Given that PGDF hates the marines-and by Kraa they do, more than they hate you guys-there is no way they'd have told them even though the marines were much better placed to react quickly. Knowledge is power and all that. So that's one reason. The other is command paralysis. We have intelligence reports from inside the PGDF that tell us your attacks on their bases have triggered the usual response. PGDF headquarters has been purged of anyone even remotely to blame. At last count, more than two hundred officers have been arrested by DocSec, and we all know none of them will be around to collect their pensions. Everyone left is scared shitless, and the place is paralyzed."

"Don't mess around, do they?"

"No, they don't. It's the Hammer way, and it's one reason why the average Hammer's only loyalty is to himself. Anyway, whatever the reasons, the best PGDF could manage was one air-portable Gordian battery to intercept you, and thank Kraa for it. Most likely, the poor bastard who ordered the operation's been shot for his troubles."

"Doesn't say why Sasaki left it so late, though," Michael said.

"Maybe he only got his chance in all the confusion of breaking camp."

"Don't know. There were a lot of people running around, I must say. Anyway, I'm sure the interrogators will get the answer to that one. Now, changing the subject, and don't take this the wrong way. The Chalidze operation? Impressive."

"Yes and no," Hok said. "Good that it went to plan. Bad that it cost us the people we lost. The worst thing?"


"The fact that operations like Chalidze will never finish this war." She sighed heavily. "What the hell. Beats being a Hammer marine, which is what I was in a previous life. Come on, let me introduce you to a few people. After the death and destruction you dumped on Perkins, Yallan, and Gwalia, people are keen to say thanks. Those bases have been a massive pain in the ass."


"That's where the air support for their ground operations against us came from. That's why we were able to take out Chalidze; we couldn't have done it a week ago. Planetary ground defense fliers from Yallan would have been all over us five minutes after we blew the wire, and as usual the marines weren't interested in lending a hand. Baxter, the commanding general of the Hammer marines, hates the PGDF with a passion. Last we heard, Baxter is still refusing to allow his landers to relocate closer to McNair. He says it's PGDF's fault their bases were trashed, so they have to fix them."

Michael whistled softly. "Shit! How screwed up can you get?"

"That's the Hammers for you. We know the marines and planetary ground defense hate each other more than they hate us, and long may that state of affairs continue. Anyway, come on. People to see."

"Quick question, something that's been bugging me?"

"Go on," Hok said.

"General Vaas has a gold sunburst on a chain around his neck, the same sunburst worn by DocSec officers. What's the story?"

"Ah, well spotted. Happy with the short version?"

"That'll do."

"The general ripped it off the uniform of the first piece of DocSec shit he killed. A lieutenant called Morales, Lieutenant Eric Morales. He arrested one of Vaas's friends, then beat him to death during interrogation. Vaas caught up with him and blew his brains out. It's become a tradition with NRA troopers ever since. That answer the question?"

"Ah, yes," Michael said, surprised but not shocked. "It does. Not a man to cross, then?"

"No, definitely not. Oh, by the way, I almost forgot. Have a read of this." Hok pushed a tattered piece of paper across the desk to him.

"Oh, shit," Michael muttered as he read it. He pushed it back. "Seems I'm now worth ten million dollars."

"Hey, be happy. You're only worth that much alive," Hok said. "Ten mil's not bad, though, considering you've only been here a few days. The bounty on General Vaas's head is half that. Somebody out there must hate you big time. Come on, let's go."

Michael woke with a start for a moment, confused, wondering what the hell was happening. Belatedly, he worked out that it was Anna wriggling her way into the narrow bunk alongside him.

"Anna," he whispered. "What time is it?"

"Too late is what time it is. I'm butchered. Talk to me in the morning."

"Get a result?"

"Yes. Sasaki tipped off the Hammers. Adrissa's people had their doubts about him. They were supposed to be keeping an eye on him, but somehow he managed to slip away and fire off a comm without being detected. Sonofabitch."

"Shit. That's not good."

"Adrissa's totally pissed. Anyway, she's told Damishqui's provost marshal to prepare the brief of evidence and pronto. Poor bastard won't be getting much sleep."

"That's quick."

"Adrissa's worried about the NRA. The whole business is a huge embarrassment. My guess is she doesn't want to appear weak. Look, Michael. I'm tired, it's late. Leave me be. I'll fill in the gaps tomorrow."

"Okay." Tuesday, October 2, 2401, UD Offices of the Supreme Council for the Preservation of the Faith, McNair, Commitment

The Defense Council chamber was silent as Polk's outburst of incandescent rage soaked into the tired acoustic paneling that lined the walls. Taking a ragged breath, Polk struggled to recover his equilibrium. Kraa help me, he swore silently. This bullshit has to stop.

"So," he hissed, his voice all silken menace, "once again we see what happens when planetary defense refuses to trust the marines. Now the NRA has the services of not one, not two, but three Fed assault landers, landers we should have destroyed the instant they broke cover. No, no," he said putting his hand out to forestall the inevitable objections from the PGDF's supporters. "It's not all planetary defense's fault, though it has good reason not to trust the marines: Sit down and shut up, Councillor. I don't give a flying fuck that your father was once commanding general of the PGDF, nor do I think that gives you the obligation to defend them come what may."

Polk paused, breathing heavily, face red with rage. "Where was I? Oh, yes. There is fault on both sides, both sides." He paused to glare in turn at the men around the table. "And now," he continued, "the time has come to fix this problem."

"What are you proposing, Chief Councillor?" Under-Councillor Kaapsen said. "There is no mention of this item in the briefing papers for this meeting of the council."

"No," Polk said. "There isn't. You have a problem with that?" he added, face hardening into a belligerent scowl. He had no time for Kaapsen, the man responsible for the PGDF. He had the job only because he was what his political allies liked to call "a safe pair of hands" when it came to looking after planetary defense's interests.

"No, no, no, Chief Councillor, of course not, no," Kaapsen said, the words tripping over themselves in his hurry to get them out.

Polk snorted. Kaapsen might be a safe pair of hands, but he was gutless. "As I was saying," he continued, "we must find a way to ensure that the marines and PGDF work together. Only a blind fool can fail to see the threat the NRA poses to all of us, and only an even bigger fool would argue that forcing this Council to meet every time the PGDF needs the assistance of the Hammer of Kraa marines is not utter stupidity."

"It may be," Councillor Jones said. "And I agree that it is," he added hastily when he saw the anger flooding across Polk's face, "but it is the Constitution."

"That's true," Polk conceded, "but what good will the Constitution be if the NRA wins this war and puts the Nationalists into power? The first thing they will do is to tear the Constitution up. So what is it to be, Councillors? Slavish adherence to a piece of paper or pragmatic good sense in the face of an unprecedented challenge to our authority, a challenge that will see us all dead if we fail to meet it?"

"What is it you propose, Chief Councillor?" Jones asked.

"A new unitary command authority, responsible for all military operations against the NRA, to which would be tasked all PGDF forces in the McNair theater of operations along with Marine Forces 3, 6, 8, and 11. I believe-"

Whatever else Polk had wanted to say went unheard as the room erupted in violent protest that engulfed all present, voices rising as everyone struggled to make his point. It took repeated hammering of his fist on the table before Polk could restore order.

"Gentlemen," he said. "This is no way to conduct Defense Council business. I do not know how often I have to say the obvious: The NRA poses a serious threat, the most serious in the Worlds' history, a threat that will see us all hanging from lampposts if we do not crush it."

Polk paused for a second. "You do all understand that, don't you?" he demanded. "That this may be the end for us? Kraa knows, the unwashed scum that infest our cities would kill us all without a moment's hesitation." His finger stabbed out at the nearest councillor, making the man flinch back. "You! Councillor Kando! Do you understand how close we are to losing this?"

"Yes, Chief Councillor," the man admitted. "I do."

"Good? Anyone here think we're on top of things? No… well, I hope not, because one thing's for sure. The heretic filth that run the NRA and Nationalists know how much trouble we're in every bit as well as we do. You'd just better pray that the rabble out there"-he hooked a thumb at the wall behind him-"doesn't work it out any time soon. We're dead if they do.

"Right. Let's move on," Polk said, his voice easing to a conciliatory softness. "Now, I understand many of you want to make sure the marines stay focused on external defense, but the current crisis demands changes. So changes there will be… and why not now?" He paused, wondering if he had the numbers to force the matter to an in-principle vote and win; he stifled a curse as he counted heads. When too many councillors refused to look him in the eye, he knew he did not. "Under-Councillor Kaapsen," he continued, resigned to a long fight. "You are the councillor responsible for the PGDF. Your views?"

"Well, Chief Councillor," Kaapsen said. "It is clear to all that…"

A long hour later and with heated argument still raging, Polk gave up the fight. So far as he was able to determine, all the debate had achieved was to solidify the PGDF's position, and he knew the matter was lost. He cursed his own stupidity; deciding to take the matter head-on had been a spontaneous decision, one made to deny the PGDF's supporters the chance to lobby the rest of the Council. It had been a mistake. All they had done was argue more loudly and passionately than everyone else until they had ground the resistance to dust.

So they were back to square one. The PGDF would always need the marines' support. Thanks to the paranoia of the people who wrote the Constitution, only the marines were permitted to operate heavy armor and ground-assault landers. That meant the PGDF had to ask the Defense Council to approve their requests for help each and every time. It was no wonder the NRA was doing so well.

"Enough," Polk said wearily, worn out by the endless squabbling. "I will defer this matter for further discussion. Councillor Jones."

"Yes, Chief Councillor?"

"I want a draft report looking at the feasibility of a unified command structure before next week's meeting. Now, moving on. Admiral Belasz. Your report on the week's operations against the Feds."

"Thank you, sir. If you would look this way, you will see that Fleet has had a busy week, and as usual the Feds have struggled to respond. Here, here, and here we mounted…" Tuesday, October 9, 2401, UD Sector Golf, Branxton Base, Commitment

It had been a long, grinding week, and Michael was exhausted. Like all the Feds except those involved in Leading Spacer Sasaki's court-martial, he had been working long hours getting the microfabs purloined from the three dreadnoughts operational. If the Feds were to make a difference, the damn things needed to work. All things considered, the NRA was doing well, but Vaas and his commanders had admitted that it had to do better, and to do better, the NRA needed more of everything: ordnance, secure comms gear, real-time decrypters, portable electronic intercept systems, battlefield trauma equipment…

Michael abandoned his attempt to itemize all the things the NRA needed. He would be itemizing all night; the list was endless, and everything important was scarce. Thanks to a library of microfab production templates, the machines had the smarts to turn out much of what the NRA needed using only basic raw materials, geneered bacterial feedstock, and lots of power. Nothing they produced would be state of the art-after all, the templates had been bought from an information broker based on one of the Rogue Planets-but what they did turn out would be a hell of a lot better than nothing.

Best of all was something that Chief Chua had discovered during the setting-up work: Microfab machines carried microfab templates. In theory, given the right raw materials, they were able to turn out copies of themselves.

Which meant-

Michael's dreams of hectares and hectares of microfab plants busy churning out everything the NRA needed were rudely interrupted by a call from Anna.

She wasted no time on niceties. "Court-martial's wrapping up. Sasaki's been found guilty, and they're about to sentence him. Patch your neuronics into channel 36. It's the live vid."


Michael's neuronics filled with an image he never forgot: the face of Leading Spacer Sasaki, pale, sweating, his fear betrayed by a trembling lower lip.

The president of the court-martial panel looked just as unhappy. He peered at the piece of paper in his hands; he was clearly having trouble believing what was written there. "Leading Spacer Jon James Sasaki," he said finally, voice wavering. "It is my duty as president of this court-martial to announce that the court-martial, all members concurring, sentences you to death by firing squad."

The tiny court-martial room was silent. "Oh, shit," Michael murmured as he dropped the holovid feed.

Michael's hopes of a full night's sleep were shattered by a priority call from Adrissa. "Yes, sir," he mumbled, trying to shake off the bone-numbing fatigue of a long, hard day.

"My office, now!" she snapped, dropping the comm before Michael responded.

"Yes, sir," he said to the empty nothingness of a dead comms link. What the hell, he wondered as he slipped out of his bunk, fumbling around to find his shipsuit and boots, careful not to wake Anna.

Michael hurried through the silent corridors connecting the Feds' quarters. The sparse lighting did nothing to help him shake off a dreadful certainty that something bad was about to happen. Knocking on the flimsy door to Adrissa's office, he went straight in.

"Yes, sir?"

"Sit, Michael," Adrissa said. She looked tired, her face gray with fatigue. "I need you to do something for me."

"Of course, sir. Anything."

"I'll remember you said that," she said with a fleeting half smile. "You know the result of Sasaki's court-martial?"

"Yes, sir. Seemed right to me."

"Yes. Yes, it was right. There's no doubt Sasaki tipped off the Hammers just before we left Point Lima, none at all, so the sentence is right. This is war we're in, not a bloody back-alley brawl. He betrayed us-for money and a safe-conduct pass off-planet, for chrissakes-and it came close to costing us. Backstabbing scumbag! We had our suspicions back in 5209 but not the evidence to do anything about him. Shit! We were lucky he only managed to contact the Hammers at the last minute. Otherwise…"

Michael nodded. If Sasaki had been able to contact the Hammers an hour earlier, even the demoralized officers in charge of the Hammer's PGDF could have organized something more useful than a single missile battery.

"Anyway," Adrissa continued, "I'm not here to debate the rights and wrongs of the court-martial. I'm confident the posttrial review will dismiss his appeal. No, it's the sentence that's my problem."


"Mmmm," Adrissa said, forefinger tapping her lips, eyes defocused for a moment. "Yes, the sentence. I've made sure we've followed the Court-Martial Manual every step of the way. The extraordinary-circumstances provisions allow for everything that has happened. Nobody can ever say that the man was denied due process. Nobody can complain if the sentence is enforced, but… I could never have the man shot. Never. He might be a traitor, but he's our traitor, and we do not shoot our traitors. Maybe we should, but we don't."

"No, sir," Michael said. "Must say, everyone's assumed you'd suspend the death sentence. Everyone."

Adrissa shook her head. "No, Michael. That's not right. Not everyone. Not General Vaas, for starters."

"General Vaas?" Michael said, puzzled. "How is this any of his business? This is a Fed matter, surely."

"I think so, but he does not see it that way. You see, Michael, when he said, 'Your people must be part of the NRA,' I agreed with him."

"Oh," Michael said with a frown as he worked out what Adrissa was trying to say. "So that means treating Sasaki the way the NRA treats any of its people caught dealing with the Hammers?"

Adrissa nodded. "Yup."

"And… you'd like me to go and talk to Vaas, try to talk him around?"

"Knew you were a smart boy, Michael. Yes, that's exactly what I want. We've done it informally. We've done it formally. I've tried, Commander Rasmussen's tried, Lieutenant Commander Solanki's tried, but we can't shift Vaas."

"Oh, shit," Michael whispered. "I'm sorry, sir. Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

"I am. I want you to see if you can change his mind."

Michael grimaced. "That's a big ask, sir."

"I know that," Adrissa snapped. "For chrissakes, Lieutenant, just do your best."

"Sorry, sir. I didn't mean to question the order. It's just… it's just, well. I-"

Adrissa's hand went to chop him off. "I know that," she said softly. "Do your best. It's all I want."


"General Vaas will see you now."

"Thank you, Major Hok," Michael said.

Hok waved him in without another word. Talk about mission impossible, Michael said to himself.

Vaas looked up with a smile when Michael entered his private office, a cramped space furnished with a battered desk, three chairs, and a simple bunk. Vaas looked surprisingly alert considering it was two hours past midnight, the fingers of his left hand playing with the sunburst at his neck in a restless, fretting display of the energy that drove the man. Michael knew why Vaas looked so cheerful. The previous twenty-four hours had been good ones for the NRA. Operation Fender had unleashed a carefully coordinated torrent of death and destruction on the Hammers: four DocSec convoys ambushed with every one of the black-uniformed scum they carried dispatched to meet their precious Kraa, a convoy carrying supplies to the marine base at Besud ambushed and its contents looted, a new Hammer firebase close to the beleaguered town of Daleel overrun and destroyed in one of the NRA's trademark human-wave attacks, four senior DocSec officers careless enough to travel in a thin-skinned mobibot killed by a culvert bomb outside McNair, a pair of fliers carrying PGDF brass back to McNair hacked out of the sky by Goombah missiles, and countless minor attacks against DocSec and PGDF all across the McNair basin, with yet more attacks on soft targets across Commitment. Operation Fender had not stopped there: NRA units on Faith and Fortitude, the second and third planets of the Hammer Worlds, had not been idle, launching attacks on hundreds of soft targets.

Altogether, not a bad tally, Michael decided. Vaas had every right to look pleased; the Hammers' propaganda machine had no chance of keeping that much bad news under wraps.

"Take a seat, Lieutenant," Vaas said, waving an arm. "Let me guess. You are here to talk about that mercenary piece of Hammer-loving shit Sasaki"-Michael's heart sank-"am I right?"

"Yes, sir." Michael nodded. "Captain Adrissa asked me to talk to you."

Vaas's head went back, mouth open as he roared with laughter. "Oh, Kraa help me," he said at last, wiping tears from his eyes. "You Feds"-he shook his head-"I'll never begin to understand all that sanctity of life bullshit you seem so keen on. Come on, Michael! There's a Kraa-damned war on. Sasaki deserves to die."

"Yes, sir. He does. That Hammer air-defense battery nearly nailed us."

"Well?" Vaas said. "Sasaki deserves to die; you just said so. What's the problem?"

"The problem, sir, is that the Fed Fleet hasn't executed a spacer or marine since the day it was founded. We neurowipe the really bad ones, lock away the rest for reeducation. That's our way of doing things."

"I know that," Vaas said patiently, "and it's one of the things I like about you Feds. Whereas us Hammers? Death, death, and more death." Vaas's face darkened. "Kraa! Sometimes I think killing's the only thing we Hammers do well."

"So," Michael said, a tiny glimmer of hope springing into life, "maybe it's time to change that."

With a shake of the head, Vaas crushed the flicker into the dust. "No, it's not," he said with a sigh. "Maybe when this war is over, but not now. We can't allow a Fed traitor to be dealt with any differently from anyone who betrays the Nationalist cause. We cannot afford to. Your Captain Adrissa doesn't seem to understand that. If I let Sasaki off the hook, if I allow a Fed to escape the firing squad, it'll drive a wedge between us, a wedge that'll be Kraa's own job to pull out. It will be hard enough for your guys to fit in as it is. So the answer's no. That's not because I'm an asshole but because I cannot have two rule books: one for Feds and one for the rest of us. I'm sorry. The sentence must be carried out."

"But sir-"

"No, Michael," Vaas said firmly. "That's it. You've done your best, and I respect you for it, but that's my decision. If it makes Captain Adrissa feel any better, tell her I asked the Resistance Council to rule on the matter and their answer's the same. This is not the time for experiments in social engineering. You, your people, your technology are only assets if the average NRA trooper accepts and can work with them. If there's suspicion or mistrust, it all becomes one huge liability, and I can't afford to let that happen. This war's tough enough without spending hours every day trying to persuade everyone to get along. You understand?"

"Yes, sir. I understand. I'll tell Captain Adrissa," Michael said. A wave of revulsion swept over him. Sasaki deserved to die, but Michael knew he must accept some responsibility for the man's death. How many more before this damn war was over and they all went home?

"Good," Vaas said. "Ask her to talk to Major Hok when the appeals process is finished. We'll help with the arrangements. You don't have to scratch too deep to uncover the Hammer in us," he said with a crooked half smile, "and death is what we Hammers are really, really good at."


"Fine," Vaas said with a broad smile. "Now that's out of the way, I want to talk to you about an operation we have in mind. Operation Pendulum we're calling it. We've held your lot back, but I think the time has come to see how well you can fight."

Michael's heart sank. Vaas was notorious for not needing much sleep, a trait Michael did not share. He liked his eight hours. "Yes, sir," he said. Comming his neuronics to drop one of his precious drugbots into his bloodstream, he resigned himself to a long night. Thursday, October 11, 2401, UD NRA Disciplinary Facility 13, Branxton Base, Commitment

Fed spacers and marines were arrayed down one side of the cave, a large, harshly lit space dominated by a single splintered post sunk into the ground in front of a bullet-pocked wall of limestone, the air acrid with the smell of pulverized rock. Beyond them, a small group of NRA officers waited; Vaas was nowhere to be seen.

Michael swore under his breath, sickened and angry at the same time. He felt sickened by what was about to happen and angry that Adrissa had detailed him to be the officer in charge of the firing squad. "We're here because of you, Lieutenant," she had said in tones that brooked no argument, "and this is one of the consequences of the decisions you have made."

Choking off a protest at the blatant unfairness of Adrissa's words-Sasaki had been a Hammer spy long before he ever turned up-Michael had confined himself to a simple "Yes, sir."

So here he was. He glanced down the line of spacers and marines that formed the firing squad. Michael had not been surprised to find plenty of volunteers; Sasaki commanded neither respect nor mercy from any of the Feds.

The provost marshal commed him. "We're on our way."


Taking a deep breath, Michael snapped to attention, the disciplined routines of military drill his only comfort.

"Firing squad… squad, atten… shun!"

In unison the squad came to attention.

"Shoulder arms!"

The seconds dragged past, and then Sasaki and his marine escort appeared, two with their hands under Sasaki's armpits while he walked unsteadily toward the waiting post. A brief flurry of activity, and Sasaki was ready, bound in place, blindfold and small white marker positioned over his heart. Michael, sickened by the ritual, tuned out while the provost marshal read the orders convening the execution before turning and marching over to where Michael waited.

"Carry on, Lieutenant," the provost marshal said.

"Sir!" Michael barked, his heart now battering at his ribs. "Firing squad… port arms… present… aim… fire!"

The flat crack of assault rifles shattered the silence. "Shoulder arms!" Michael barked. Turning, his eyes locked on a point three meters up the cave wall, Michael marched over to where the body of what had once been Leading Spacer Sasaki hung, an awkward shape slumped to the right against the ropes binding him to the post. Please be dead, Michael prayed when he reached Sasaki and the NRA doctor joined him. The prospect of having to unholster his pistol to finish the job was too much to bear. Sickened by the clinical brutality of the process, he waited while the man checked Sasaki.

"Dead," the doctor said.

Michael nodded. Turning, he marched back to the firing squad.

"Squad! Shoulder arms, fall out!"

It was over, the cave filling with the muted hum of soft conversation. Anna broke away from the throng to make her way across to him. "You okay, spacer?"

"Yeah. I know it needed to be done, and I know why… but still."

"You listen to me, Michael Helfort," Anna said. "Yes, it was horrible, but that's just the way it is. We're fighting a war, and that treacherous dirtbag"-she flicked a thumb over her shoulder at the NRA recycling party bundling Sasaki into a body bag-"wouldn't have broken a sweat if the Hammers had killed every last one of us. So come on."

"I know, I know," Michael said, "but-"

"But nothing," Anna snapped. "Enough! So," she said, her voice softening, "what time are you due back on duty?"

"Umm, let me see… yes, 12:00 for the Operation Pendulum planning meeting. I'm free till then."

"I'm not due back on watch until 18:00, so follow me."

"Okay," Michael said. He followed Anna out of the cave. He had no idea where she was off to, and Anna was not going to tell him, so he fell in behind her.

Without neuronics to keep track, Michael would have been lost, a tortuous succession of twists and turns taking them away from the always-busy caves that made up this sector. He hoped Anna knew what she was doing. They had not seen anyone for a good ten minutes, and he needed no reminding that they were a long way from help if something went wrong. More than a few NRA troopers had died in these caves, lost in the labyrinthine nightmare that infested the Branxtons' karst.

To his relief, the absolute blackness of the tunnel ahead started to shade into gray and then white, the change almost imperceptible. "Where the hell are we, Anna?"

"Hold your horses, spacer," she said as she scrambled over a pile of broken rock. Resigned, Michael followed her to find himself on a narrow terrace of rock, protected overhead by a massive jutting slab of limestone, the cliff wall dropping sheer into the forested valley below.

"Wah!" Michael whispered when he looked out across the forest canopy, a turbulent, chaotic ocean of green stretching more than a kilometer to the other side of the valley, where a wall of rock rose sheer for hundreds of meters. "What a view. Are we safe here?"

"Relax, Michael. Yes, we are. It's a designated R amp;R location. Didn't you see the marker on the way in?"

"Marker? What marker?"

"The 'do not disturb' marker, you idiot."

"Oh," Michael said feebly. He slid to the ground alongside Anna, slipping his hand into hers and squeezing hard. The silence that followed was a long one, and Michael was happy enough to sit and stare out into the void at trees splashed golden by the early-morning sun. If there was any way to get off this planet, he decided, he would take it. It was time to put him and Anna first. He did not care where in humanspace they ended up provided that it was nowhere near the damned Hammers, or the Feds, come to that. He struggled to work out who was the more pissed at him, then gave up, unable to choose.

"Better?" Anna murmured.

"Yeah. I'll be glad when this is all over. I feel like our lives are being lived for us, like we're not in control. I want to live my life my way."

"I feel a bit the same. Sort of trapped."

"So are we here," Michael said, shooting Anna his most winning smile, "for you know?"

"Bugger off, Michael" Anna said with an indignant frown. "No, we are not. We're here because I've get something to tell you. Well, two things."

"You're not ditching me again, are you?"

"Stupid boy! No."

"So what?"

Michael heart sank when he saw Anna take in a deep breath, her hands clenching into tight fists. He knew the signs.

"I'm joining the NRA's 120th Regiment," she said. "Lieutenant Kallewi and his marines are doing the same thing, so rather than sit around wasting my time doing shitty little jobs for FLTDETCOMM, I've joined the NRA."

Michael stared at her. "You what?" he spluttered. "Joined up? Are you mad? Anna, please!"

"Don't you Anna me, you bastard," she hissed. "We can't sit around while the NRA does all the fighting. You want this war over? Well, that means we all have to fight, so that's what I'm doing. You'll be flying Widowmaker; I'll be shooting Hammers. No"-her hand went up, and Michael's protest died stillborn-"I've made my decision, Adrissa's okayed the transfer, so that's that."

"Don't you think you should have talked to me first?" Michael asked a touch plaintively. If he had learned anything about Anna, it was the utter futility of trying to change her mind when she decided to do what she believed was right.

"Talk to you first? Why?" she said, shaking her head, baffled. "For chrissakes, Michael, why would I do that? All you'd have done is try to talk me out of it, I'd have insisted, we'd have had a massive fight, back and forth until you gave up and saw things my way. Trust me, this is much easier."

Michael grunted, disappointed and scared at the same time.

"Michael," Anna said softly, "I have to do what's right. If I've learned anything from you, it's that. So get over it. I'm joining the 120th, okay?"

"Okay," Michael said woodenly, a mass of despair.

"Good," Anna said, mouth opening wide into a cheerful grin, "but there's one more thing."

Michael rolled his eyes in despair. "I can't take much more of this, Anna. What? A one-woman suicide mission to assassinate Chief Councillor Polk? What?"

"Now you're being stupid," Anna said. "No, remember when we snatched some leave and went to Neu Kelheim? Just before we were deployed to Salvation?"

Michael nodded. He would never forget; it was the last time he and Anna had been truly happy together. "Yup," he said.

"You asked me to marry you."

"Yes," Michael said glumly. "I remember. You said wait until the war's over, as you do every time."

"Well, I've changed my mind. I want-"

"Whoa!" Michael said, sitting bolt upright. "Hold on one second. What are you saying?"

"Yes, you dimwit. I am saying yes. A bit late, but yes. Yes!"

Michael shook his head in confusion; Anna's effortless ability to change the subject was breathtaking. "Yes?" he said. "You mean, yes, let's get married?"

"Yes, Michael. Yes, let's get married. Screw this damn war; the way things are going, it could go on forever. If we wait, we'll be too damn old."


"That's it? That's all you can say? Oh?" Anna punched his arm hard.

"Ow! Sorry. Yes, yes, okay," Michael said; he crushed his face into her neck. "Let's get married, but when?" he mumbled.


Michael pushed her away. "Tomorrow? Shit, Anna! When you change your mind, you change your mind."

"Time's not on our side, Michael," she said, all of a sudden grim-faced, "so let's not waste the time we have."

"Deal," Michael said, and folded her into his arms.

Anna and Michael stayed that way for a long time, a tiny island of sanity and hope set in an ocean of barbaric madness. Sunday, October 14, 2401, UD Sector Juliet, Branxton Base, Commitment

"Well, Mr. Michael Helfort."

"Yes, Mrs. Anna Cheung Helfort?"

"I think I have to go. Lieutenant Kallewi's looking grumpy."

Michael's stomach had solidified into a sullen ball of lead. "Go, and for chrissakes, be careful," he said. "I want you back in one piece."

"Screw you, Michael Helfort," Anna said. She settled her helmet on her head with a firm tap and picked up her pack and rifle. "Who the hell are you to talk?"


"I'll be careful, promise. Love you."

With a fleeting peck on the cheek, Anna turned and fell in, her slight figure incongruous amid the bulky shapes of Kallewi's marines. Michael commed Kallewi. "Look after her, Janos."

"I'll do my best."

Sergeant Tchiang's voice cut through the desultory chatter, and the marines were off, their ranks swollen with Fed spacers. In seconds, they were gone, swallowed by the darkness, and soon the soft tramp of booted feet faded away. Michael stood and stared down the tunnel for a long time. At last, with a heartfelt sigh, he turned and started to make his way back to ENCOMM. He could worry all he liked, and it made no difference. All he could do was hope that Anna was smart enough not to take too many stupid chances, that she would keep her head down, that she never volunteered for anything.

"Fat chance," he said under his breath, and climbed into the sled. Bloody woman was born to volunteer.

ENCOMM was quiet when he walked in; he scanned the boards to see what was happening in the real world. Nothing important, he decided after a moment's study. Right across the countryside around McNair, DocSec sweeps were in progress. Michael shook his head. Sweeps were the most counterproductive operations the Hammers undertook, and not a day passed without dozens combing their way through towns and villages all across Commitment. As far as Michael could work out, the sweeps created an illusion of effective counterinsurgency activity. In truth, they achieved little and pissed the locals off a lot. Thanks to DocSec's appalling operational security, anyone DocSec wanted to lay their hands on was usually long gone.

Not that the NRA was sitting back. Six operations were under way: four supply convoy ambushes, the assassination of a DocSec officer stupid enough to think he would be safe visiting his mother in a remote village, and a human-wave attack-Michael, like all the Feds, hated them, but they worked-on a planetary defense force support base close to the town of Perdan. He wished the faceless NRA troopers luck and made his way through the clutter of workstations to where Major Hok was sitting.

"Major Hok."

"Ah," Hok said, pushing her seat back to look at Michael, a sly grin on her face. "The romantic one returns. How's the lovely Mrs. Helfort?"

Michael grimaced. "On her way with the rest of our marines to join the 120th."

"So soon?" Hok shook her head. "Kraa! I must pay attention. Anyway, don't worry. The 120th is in good hands. Colonel Haadith is a good man."

"I hope so, Major."

"Trust me, he is. Now, Operation Pendulum."

"The simulation's all set. We'll be ready."

It was Hok's turn to grimace. "Have to tell you that I still have trouble with those Kraa-damned AIs you Feds seem to like so much. It's been what? Over a century since they were proscribed? That's one hell of a lot of brainwashing."

"It is," Michael said, "but they're just fancy computers. Anyway, wait until they start to save the lives of your troopers."

"That's why the Resistance Council okayed them, so they'd better do just that. Now, there are a couple of things we need to finalize before we run the sim. First…"

General Vaas walked to the front of the makeshift conference room. He turned and scanned the faces of the commanders responsible for the success-or failure-of Operation Pendulum. Michael sucked his breath in. He did not have to be Einstein to work out that Vaas was both angry and embarrassed.

"Thanks to our Fed friends," Vaas said, "we know that the NRA is not capable of running anything as complicated as a brigade-strength operation against a fixed objective defended by our old pals in planetary defense. And that"-he paused for effect-"is exactly what Pendulum is. Problem is, folks, if we can't make an operation like Pendulum work, we should just pack up and hand ourselves over to DocSec… which"-his voice hardened to a razor-edged snarl-"I will not allow. So, we will run this damn sim until we learn how to run complex operations. If we are ever to bring the Hammer government down, everything we do has to count, every trooper's life has to count. We have to make this work. Is that understood?"

A rumble of agreement filled the room, the undercurrents of controlled ferocity, a fierce determination to make a difference, a burning desire to put a stop to centuries of xenophobia-fueled repression, all so strong that Michael could feel them ebb and flow until Vaas's hand went up to restore quiet.

"Good," he said. "Let's do it. I want commanders' after-action reports in time for a detailed wash-up at 18:00. We'll change the ops plan if we have to, but I want the next sim ready to go by midnight. That's it."

Resigned to another night's work, Michael stifled a groan and climbed to his feet. Did Vaas ever sleep?

"End of exercise," the AI's disembodied voice said.

Thank goodness for that, Michael said to himself. Two high-intensity, adrenaline-fueled sims in less than twenty-four hours, never mind the intellectual demands of the planning process, and even a man like Vaas must feel tired. The second sim had been a big improvement over the first; surely the man would call it a day.

Vaas bounded to the front of the room, shifting from foot to foot as he waited for the room to fill. "Oh, no," Michael whispered when he sensed the energy and confidence radiating from the man. Something told him it would be hours before anyone managed any sleep.

"The good news is that was better," Vaas said. "The bad news is that it wasn't good enough. So I want commanders' after-action reports…"

Vaas had run his people into the ground; Michael-and everyone else-was beyond exhausted, his craving for sleep close to irresistible. Vaas had been relentless, but Michael had to concede the man had a point. Time was not on Vaas's side; the NRA must defeat the Hammers before the people of the Hammer Worlds lost faith in the Nationalists. The good news was that each iteration of the sim had been better than the one before it. NRA commanders used to small, single-unit operations were coming to grips with the need to coordinate what they were doing with the other units involved.

Maybe Pendulum would not be the disaster he had feared. With a quick prayer that Anna was safe-by now she and Kallewi's marines should be well on the way to the 120th Regiment's base in the northwestern Branxtons-he slid into an exhausted sleep, and the darkness overwhelmed him. Monday, October 15, 2401, UD Branxton Ranges, Commitment

With billions of synapses telling him he was about to die, Michael could not help himself, flinching back into his seat in an autonomic reaction to the wall of rock bearing down on them at frightening speed.

"Breaking left." Mother's voice was admirably calm as she threw Widowmaker bodily onto its port side. Michael's heart shot into his mouth as the ground rushed up to meet them. Only seconds from disaster, the AI smashed the lander back level. Running fast meters above the forest canopy, twin plumes of raw energy blasting the valley behind them, Widowmaker streaked out of the canyon into clear air; an instant later, the threat plot burst into an ugly mess of red radar intercepts from the air-defense stations around McNair. Putting the nose down and engines at full power, Mother drove the lander down hard toward the floor of the floodplain, its bulk tearing apart the early-morning fog of a calm Commitment morning before it leveled out meters above the dirt.

"Command, tac." Michael was impressed; Ferreira's voice was no less calm than Mother's. Considering her often repeated dislike of landers, that was something.


"Alley Kat and Hell Bent are airborne and nominal. We have tactical update and target confirmation from ENCOMM."

"Command, roger. Weaps?"

"Target set," Chief Bienefelt said.

"Command, Sensors. Lock up, battlesat fire-control radar. No threat; spaceborne lasers in effective."

"Command, roger. This overcast will hold?"

"Yes, sir. Forecast says it won't burn off until midmorning."

By which time we'll either be a smoking wreck or home safe, Michael said to himself. He made himself settle down, suppressing the inevitable urge to take manual control. Despite its human crew, Widowmaker was largely in Mother's hands, and she was in the hands of a cluster of AIs that controlled every system from flight control down to air-conditioning. Given how fast Widowmaker was moving, that was for the best. The ground under the lander was a green and brown blur, objects disappearing before the brain had even begun to register their existence, the occasional settlement vanishing below them in a gray streak.

"Stand by IP… now!"

Widowmaker slammed over onto its side and into a hard turn to starboard, foamalloy wings flexing upward as g forces built, the starboard wingtip centimeters from the ground before Mother flipped the lander back level to run right at the target: DocSec's Millfield base, a large cluster of ceramcrete buildings arranged around a parade ground crowded with a mass of black jumpsuited troopers, neat lines of trucks, armored personnel carriers, and lightly armored urban warfare vehicles. Michael's heart tried to beat its way out of his chest as the range closed, the certain fact that Widowmaker was about to rain death down on one of the bigger DocSec bases in the Oxus valley flooding his system with adrenaline.

"Stand by… bays open… clusterbots gone… cleaning up, coming right to new track. Target 2 in one minute."

Through the rear holocams, Michael watched Widowmaker's lethal load of fin-retarded clusterbots-supplied by the NRA and, like most NRA's ordnance, stolen by Nationalist agents or captured from the Hammer convoys; Michael wondered if they would even work-open out. Sprouting fins, they aerobraked savagely before spewing hordes of tiny black shapes onto the hapless DocSec base, an unstoppable swarm of smart bomblets programmed to sterilize the entire base, to scour it clean of men, trucks, and armor. An instant later, the base disappeared behind a mat of dirty gray-black smoke shot through with yellow and red flame, exploding fusion plants ramming misty white shock waves away through the damp morning air. That's the way to do it, Michael thought.

"Command, sensors. New intercept. Multiple air search radars at Red 20… stand by… confirmed Locusts inbound from Amokran."

"Command, roger." No surprises there, Michael decided. He watched the threat plot update. If things-

"Command, sensors"-Carmellini's voice was thick with stress-"new intercept. Multiple airborne search radars at Red 40. Confirmed Kingfishers. Stand by range."

Already alerted by the threat plot, Michael was on it. "Abort, abort," he barked, gritting his teeth when Mother threw Widowmaker into one of its trademark screaming turns that had the foamalloy wings screeching in protest, mashing the main engines to emergency power to send the lander fleeing for safety: Kingfishers and their long-range hypersonic Alaric air-to-air missiles were a lethal threat to a light lander. Their only hope was to get away; engines capable of driving a fully loaded lander into orbit now accelerated the lander through Mach 5 and beyond, air superheated by compression overwhelming the heat sinks, the lander's leading edges turning cherry-red.

Where had the Kingfishers come from? ENCOMM's intelligence people had said nothing about them. There was only one place, Michael decided; they had to have come from McNair spaceport north of the city, the only facility within a thousand kilometers that has runways long enough to launch fully loaded Kingfishers.

"Command, tac. ENCOMM has cleared us inbound direct to Bravo-26."

"Roger." Michael ran through the math in his head to make sure the command plot had it right. It had: just. It would be close, very close. The lander would be tucked away below Bravo-26's limestone slab by the time the Alarics had reached them. With a quick prayer that Alley Kat and Hell Bent were okay-he resisted the temptation to check; Widowmaker came first-he watched intently as Mother cut the power, one eye on the command plot to make sure the Alarics were where they were supposed to be. Flaring the lander and extending the wings, Mother allowed the lander's speed to wash off before she restored power to drive it through the slab-sided canyon leading to Bravo-26.

"Command, tac. ENCOMM reports kinetics inbound."

Michael stiffened; this might be bad. "They have vectors yet?"

"Working on it… yes, shit… sorry, sir. Time of flight 42 seconds. Impact datum is 3 klicks north of Bravo-26, where the canyon splits."

Michael stifled a curse. The karst that covered so much of the Branxtons was riddled with caves, arching holes in the limestone valley walls, thousands of which were big enough to accommodate a light lander. Even so, the Hammers had managed to narrow the target area down to a point just short of Bravo-26, almost certainly attracted by a large cave that could well have been a lander refuge were it not a dead end. Too great a risk of entrapment, the ENCOMM planners had said, so strictly for emergency use only. Michael had no intention of straying anywhere near it.

The instant Widowmaker reached the junction, Mother turned hard left to make the final run into Bravo-26; it was a closely run thing. Ten seconds later the Hammer's kinetics smashed to ground, the impact shock visible as a rippling wave racing across the ground, the impact zone disappearing behind a boiling wall of vaporized rock. "Holy shit," Michael muttered. Decelerating savagely now, the lander flared nose up and then leveled out before easing into the safety of the cave. "Thankchrist for that," Michael muttered as Mother dropped the lander to the ground, its speed down to a sedate walking pace that took Widowmaker deep underground.

Five thousand meters in, Mother braked Widowmaker to a stop and shut down. Releasing his straps, Michael climbed stiffly out of his seat, his combat space suit stiff and awkward. He hated the damn thing, but procedures were procedures, though the chances of a combat space suit keeping him alive if Widowmaker bought it were slim. "Okay, folks," he said to the rest of the lander's flight deck crew, "I'll go and plug into the network. We need to see how the rest of the op went. Jayla, can you check on the tug? I think we're moving to Bravo-16."

"Yes, sir. We are. It's a long way, so I'll let you know when the tug's hooked up. Be a long walk otherwise."

"Thanks," Michael said, struggling out of his space suit before dropping down the ladder to the cargo bay to exit the lander, the familiar smell of burned rock greeting him, the heat radiating off Widowmaker's armored skin forcing him to duck his head on the way past. He found the commander of the local security detachment waiting for him.

"Sir," the man said with the casual wave of his right hand that passed for a salute in the NRA, "Sergeant Burelli, Bravo-26 security detachment."

Returning the salute, Michael did what he did with every new NRA trooper he met: He shook hands. Given that every last one of them had been taught from birth to think that the Feds were something unspeakably evil, it was the only way Michael knew to show them that Feds were ordinary human beings, too.

"Sergeant. Glad to be here. They tried to nail us with kinetics on the way in."

"We know," Burelli said. "We felt them."

"Any sign of follow-up?"

Burelli shook his head, the look on his sun-weathered face-by Fed standards, he looked like an old man even though Michael had seen enough Hammers to know that he was probably not even fifty-making it quite clear he wanted the Hammers to try. "No, sir," he said. "ENCOMM reports no air activity in this sector and no kinetics inbound. Portal defenses are online, so we're not expecting any problems."

"Any ground activity?"

"Nothing. The Hammers know better; they don't try much anymore, ever since we trapped two entire battalions of those scum-sucking PGDF bastards inside Delta-35," he said, a grin splitting his face from side to side. "They were so damn sure they had us on the run, they couldn't help themselves. They kept on coming, on and on… until we blew the roof down on their Kraa-kissing heads. For some reason, the Hammer's appetite for cave-clearance operations has never been the same since. Can't think why."

Michael laughed. "Good to hear it," he said. "We'll be hooking up any minute for the tow to Bravo-16. Good to meet you, Sergeant. Best of luck."

"Thanks, same to you," Burelli said before walking up the tunnel back toward the cave mouth. Michael watched him for a moment. The sergeant's lanky beanpole frame radiated confidence and quiet aggression, a powerful reminder of just how committed the average NRA trooper was to the cause. If commitment were all it took to win a war, this one would have long been over.

Checking with the map stored in his neuronics, he set off to find the local dataport to connect him through to ENCOMM, looking forward to the day when the NRA adopted Fed neuronics. He would probably die waiting; neuronics were yet another technology explicitly proscribed by Hammer of Kraa doctrine. He had to work at it, but he found the port eventually. Connecting the interface unit and logging on were the work of only moments-the NRA's fiber-optic networks might be archaic, but they were fast and reliable-and Michael was in. He pulled up Operation Pendulum's command plot and had a few anxious moments while he scanned it, hoping to confirm that Alley Kat and Hell Bent had made it back.

To his relief, they had, though not without drama. Like Widowmaker, they had been targeted by Hammer Kingfishers operating from McNair spaceport and then by kinetics when they returned home, but return home they had, and thanks to Widowmaker's diversionary efforts to the west, they had been able to take out their secondary targets before fleeing, leaving behind them the smoking, shattered ruins of four planetary defense camps supporting operations along the main highway running from McNair through Perdan and on to Daleel. Classic hit-and-run attacks, straight out of the irregular warfare manual, attacks that came and went before the defenders ever worked out what was happening.

Problem was, irregular warfare never won wars, even if supported by the most advanced ground-attack landers in humanspace. Until NRA ground forces captured and held the fount of all Hammer power, the city of McNair, until its troopers controlled the streets, until Chief Councillor Polk and the rest of the Supreme Council had been hung in time-honored Hammer fashion by one leg from lampposts, until Doctrinal Security and its legions of black-jumpsuited psychopaths had been destroyed, this war was a long way from over.

Michael was about to disconnect when Major Hok's face appeared in his neuronics.

"Major Hok, sir," he said, "how's Pendulum tracking?"

"Too early to say," Hok said noncommittally. "Your tug arrived yet?"

"On its way."

"Good. General Vaas wants to talk to you. Hand over to your XO and report to ENCOMM soonest. Hok, out."

"Yes, sir," Michael said, heart sinking. He had been looking forward to doing not much while Widowmaker was towed to her new location. He consulted the maps stored in his neuronics; his heart sank even more. The journey from Bravo-26 back to ENCOMM to meet up with Vaas would be a bastard: a long and uncomfortable trek through the sprawling complex of caves and tunnels that housed the NRA, by way of an intricate network of maglevs, heavy and light sleds, carbots, truckbots, and of course caves too convoluted for anything other than foot traffic.

That he did not need.

Back at Widowmaker, Michael climbed the ladder to the flight deck with an effort; Ferreira was waiting for him.

"Cheer up, sir," she said with a smile. "The tug will be here in a minute, and then it's a ten-hour tow. I feel a shitload of rack time coming on."

"Enjoy it," Michael said, sour-faced. "ENCOMM wants me yesterday, so I'll catch up with you later."

"I heard they relocated."

Michael nodded. "Tell me about it. ENCOMM's now halfway to bloody Daleel."

"Shit. Rather you than me," Ferreira said with a grimace. "That'll take you hours."

"Yup, it sure will. See you all later. I'll comm you an update when I know what ENCOMM wants me to do."


Michael was exhausted by the time he made it to ENCOMM, a journey of long hours and hundreds of kilometers. The NRA's transport network might be a triumph of determination, ingenuity, and improvisation-all of which it was-but comfortable, fast, and convenient it was not. Climbing out of the sled that had taken him the final few kilometers, he paused in a vain attempt to stretch the kinks out of his left leg, phantom pain from old wounds stubbornly resistant to the best painkillers the Hammer pharmaceutical industry could supply.

Limping, he made his way across the lobby, past security, and into the operations room.

Major Hok spotted him and waved him over. "About time you made it," she grunted, turning back to the holovid screen in front of her.

"Major!" Michael protested. "Give me a break. I-"

Hok's hand went up to stop him. "Yeah, yeah, I know. Sorry. Things around here are a bit tense."

"Tense? Why? Last I heard the ground operation was going well."

"It was," Hok said, "and I'm sorry to drag you all this way for nothing. General Vaas insisted, but he's been called away."

"When will he be back?"

"No idea."

Michael groaned; Vaas was one of the most unpredictable people he had ever met. He could be waiting hours, maybe even days. "What does he want me for?"

"You know the general. Brainstorming session to see if there's something we can do about our lack of landers. He seems to think you're one of the more creative people around. Fuck knows why."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence, Major," Michael snorted. "Besides, solving that one will take more than a bit of brain-storming. Anyway," he said, resigning himself to a long wait, "if that's what the general wants."

"I'm sorry," Hok said with a contrite smile. "Not been the best of days. You eaten?"

"No," Michael replied, Hok's question provoking protests from an unhappy stomach.

"Nor me. Come on, let's grab a bite to eat, and I'll tell you all about it. I'm starving."

Michael followed Hok out of ENCOMM to the canteen without enthusiasm. He might be hungry, but the NRA's food was both awful and monotonous. But food was food, and he was hungry. Silence reigned as the pair shoveled food into empty stomachs.

Pushing her tray away with a soft belch of satisfaction, Hok sat back, mug of coffee in hand. "Kraa, that was good," she said. "I do love that garlic chicken."

"You're kidding me, right?" Michael said, looking up in disbelief.

"Yes, I am. I hate the shit. We have the worst foodbots in humanspace. Now, where was I?"

"Pendulum. Ground ops. Not so good."

"Ah, yeah. The good news is the diversions worked as planned. General Vaas asked me to say well done, by the way. Not too many of those DocSec scum will get home for the weekend. Millfield is a wreck."

"Tell you what, Major. When it comes to killing DocSec troopers, I'm happy to oblige."

Hok's eyebrows lifted at the quiet intensity in Michael's voice. "Don't like them too much, do you?"

"Why would I? The way they treated me the first time around, not to mention that little stunt Colonel Hartspring tried to pull. Bastards, all of them."

Hok grimaced. "No argument. Interesting, though," she added. "They're beginning to worry we might win."

Michael's eyebrows shot up in surprise. This was news. "DocSec is?"

"Seems so. Nothing definite, of course, but DocSec is so badly compromised that we know what their brass is planning before their troopers do. Apparently, more than a few of them are finding reasons to visit Scobie's World, and surprise, surprise, they never come back. Changing the subject, I finally got to see the holovid, by the way."

"The Hartspring vid?"

"Yeah," Hok said. "Nasty piece of work that one."

Unaware he was even doing it, Michael ran a finger lightly down the side of his face where Hartspring's riding crop had sliced him open all those months before. "Tell me. He and I have unfinished business." Michael breathed out slowly to help control the sudden rage. "Can we stick to Pendulum, Major?" he said.

"Sure. Like I was saying, the diversions worked well. Your other landers made quick work of the bases around Perdan. Have to tell you, the general was happy to see them get back safely. They make a difference."

"How did the Daleel diversion go?"

Hok sighed deeply. "I never knew two NRA companies could make so much ruckus. Act like a half brigade, the general said, and that's what they did. We know the Hammers have long been worried about an attack on Daleel, and our guys were so convincing, they forced the Hammers to commit the PGDF quick reaction force from Ojan. Our guys didn't stand much of a chance, but they did the job. Those poor, brave bastards kept the Hammers busy."

Hok was silent for a long time, her head turned away, but not before Michael saw the tears running down her face. His heart went out to her. The troopers tasked with the diversionary attack on Daleel had known their chances of getting out alive were not good. "How many made it back?" he asked finally.

"One," Hok said bitterly.

"One?" Michael said, voice rising in shock.

"One. Only one trooper made it back. A and B Companies, third Battalion, 45th Regiment, no longer exist. Give or take a few, that's two hundred troopers lost."

"Shit," Michael whispered.

"Shit is right. Those Kraa-damned Hammers captured forty-six troopers alive, all wounded… They shot them. Lined them up and shot them," Hok said flatly. "Forty-six troopers. We won't forget them. I sometimes wonder why the Hammers think they can beat us."

Hok was silent for a minute. "Anyway," she continued, "the attack on Perdan's firebases kicked off on schedule. At first…"

Michael lay on his bunk, his mind churning through the events of the day. With the Hammers distracted by the Daleel diversion and the threat of an immediate PGDF counterattack gone, the NRA had overrun the firebases that ringed Perdan without difficulty, their PGDF defenders falling back in the face of an attack relentless in its ferocity, the NRA attackers' bravery almost suicidal. In less than thirty minutes of desperate fighting, five of the firebases had fallen. Ground-attack flyers diverted from the Daleel operation were left circling, unable to assist, the tactical situation on the ground so chaotic that they were unable to separate friend from foe. Destroying what they were not able to steal, the NRA had slipped away south into the protective cover of the forests that surrounded Perdan, hounded and harassed all the way but too spread out to suffer heavy casualties.

That was the good news.

Firebase Merino, occupied by an artillery battalion, was a different matter. In a major intelligence failure, the NRA had failed to spot the arrival of two companies of Hammer marines airlifted in from Beslan to stiffen its PGDF defenders, who were on the brink of falling apart thanks to the battalion's cadre of corrupt and in effective officers. In three hours of bloody hand-to-hand fighting, the marines, aided by their reluctant planetary defense comrades, had fought the NRA's 111th Regiment to a standstill before pushing them back.

The NRA commander in charge of Pendulum's ground forces had made a bad problem worse: slow to understand what was happening to the 111th, she had thrown her reserves to support the attack instead of disengaging. It was too little, too late; any chance the NRA had of withdrawing was blown away by the belated arrival of more marines from Amokran.

Hounded out of Firebase Merino by marine counterattacks, their retreat cut off by air-dropped blocking forces, the NRA troopers had been sliced to pieces, troopers dying as they made desperate attempts to get clear. In the end, only a handful survived the Hammer marines' savage response.

Michael despaired. The Perdan operation was a crucial part of the NRA's strategy. The Branxton Ranges dropped sharply down to meet the floodplains of the Oxus River in the west and the Krommer River in the east. Three sizable towns anchored the Hammer's line of defense protecting the approaches to McNair-Bretonville in the west, Daleel in the east, and Perdan in the center, a small town sprawled across a low saddle-and the NRA was compelled to take them all if it was ever to break out of the Branxtons and drive north to threaten McNair. Judging by the outcome of that day's bloody fighting, its chances of doing that were not good.

That meant-Michael's heart fluttered as the implications hit home-that this damn war was doomed to drag on and on. It meant that all his romantic ideas of helping the NRA liberate their worlds from Hammer oppression were pure fantasy. It meant that he had condemned the spacers and marines who had helped him hijack Redwood, Red River, and Redress to an uncertain future trapped on Commitment. It meant he had destroyed any chance the Fed prisoners might have had of getting home.

And now Anna, the only reason he had come to Commitment, was in the front line fighting alongside the rest of the NRA's 120th. Shit, he swore despairingly, if her regiment was thrown into another Perdan fiasco, if they suffered the way the 111th had, he might never see her again. Nothing could help her-and him-if the Hammers captured her. One thing was for certain.

If that happened, Colonel Hartspring would make sure they both died slow and painful deaths. Sunday, November 11, 2401, UD Chief councillor's residence, McNair City, Commitment

"The idea has great merit, General Baxter, great merit."

"Thank you, sir."

"But," Chief Councillor Polk said, raising a cautionary finger, "will it work? That is the question."

"My staff believes it will, sir, and so do I. We have a solid plan: realistic, conservative, a plan that learns from the mistakes of the past."

"Fine. Get the things moving. I'd like to see a formal submission to the Defense Council before the end of this month. Can you do that?"

"We can, sir. We've been working on this since early March."

"Good. When you brief Admiral Belasz, don't let him know we've had this little chat. I don't want to compromise the chain of command."

"Of course not, sir. I'll brief the admiral next week. We are very well prepared for this, so I'm confident he will approve."

"I am, too. Keep me posted. Anything else?"

"No, sir."

"In that case, I'll wish you a good evening."


Polk watched General Baxter walk away. He had always known the commanding general of marines to be a rank opportunist, but the man had outdone himself this time. Polk was no fool. Without a word being said, he understood fully the deal Baxter offered: The marines would destroy the NRA; in exchange, the corps would swallow the PGDF. Not that it would be easy giving Baxter the payoff he sought. Polk's last attempt to create a common command structure to control operations against the NRA had been an ignominious failure, torpedoed by the PGDF's political supporters, wrecked on the rocks of the Constitution, a ship lost with all hands. It still rankled.

But if the marines were able to do what the PGDF had so signally failed to do, if they were able to crush the NRA, Polk was confident he could marshal enough support to bury the PGDF. Then the Hammer Worlds could turn its attention to those Kraa-damned Feds. Not that they would be much of a problem; the Pascanicians would help make sure of that.

With the Feds out of the way, all of humanspace would be at the feet of the Hammer of Kraa. What a glorious prospect, Polk thought. With a grateful General Baxter and the Hammer of Kraa Corps of Marines backing him every step of the way, he would become humanspace's first-

"Chief Councillor, sir?"

The diffident words of his personal assistant splintered Polk's dreams of imperial greatness into a thousand shards. "What?" he demanded.

"Mister van Luderen is here, sir."

"Oh, right. Send him out."

Sweating heavily, van Luderen slouched across the sun-beaten patio, a shambling giant of a man: florid of face, flabby of body, heavy of jaw.

"Hello, Jeremiah," van Luderen said.

"Have a seat, Marten," Chief Councillor Polk said. He ignored van Luderen's outstretched hand, instead waving at one of the well-cushioned cane chairs arranged in the shade of a huge, spreading fig tree. "Drink?"

"Beer, make it two, and make it quick," the man said, easing himself into a chair with a grunt of relief, fleshy fingers wiping away the sweat beaded under black-bagged eyes. "Jeez, Jeremiah, this town of yours is hot. Can't understand why anybody would want to live here."

Polk's eyes narrowed. He did not like the Kallian one bit. The man was rude, intemperate, interested only in money, and happy to tell anyone who cared to listen that the Hammer of Kraa was a crock of shit. Worst of all, he was not frightened by Polk and they both knew it.

If van Luderen had not been one of only two men he trusted to keep the far-flung pieces of what he called his retirement fund connected, Polk would have had him shot, off-worlder or not. He waited in silence until the drinkbot delivered the man's beers.

The first beer was gone in seconds; picking up the second, van Luderen belched softly as he smacked the empty bottle down onto the table. "That's better. You wanted to see me?"

"I did," Polk said. "I have a consignment for you."

"Oh? Wondered why you'd dragged me all this way. Still, it's your money."

"Yes, Marten," Polk said through gritted teeth. "It is my money." He pushed a battered briefcase over to van Luderen. "Here's 250 million dollars in stored-value cards."

"Ah," van Luderen said, eyes lighting up, "now I see why you wanted me to come to this asshole of a planet."

"Watch it, Marten," Polk growled.

"Yeah, yeah, whatever," van Luderen said. "Why so much?"


"Insurance?" van Luderen said with a skeptical frown. "Things not going so well, eh?"

"No, the exact opposite. Things are going extremely well."

"That's not what I hear, Jeremiah. Those Feds have been giving your people a lot of grief, the NRA's doing well, and most of those poor suckers you call your loyal citizens want the Nationalists to take over. Doesn't sound to me like things are going well at all."

"You are misinformed, Marten," Polk said. "A few minor setbacks, that's all. Trust me. Things are going well."

"You think so?" van Luderen said. "I have very good sources. They don't think things are so good. The way I see it, there's something you're not telling me."

"Maybe, maybe not," Polk said. "If you need to know something, I'll tell you."

"Okay," van Luderen said with a shrug. "I think you've just given me millions of reasons for thinking things are not going well, but maybe I'm wrong."

"You are, Marten, you are. Like I said, it's just insurance. Now, I want that money working for me, not sitting in some trust account. Any ideas?"

"Oh, yes," van Luderen said, throwing off the mantle of indifference and disinterest, his eyes sparkling into sudden life. "Oh, yes."

"So tell me."

"Get me another beer and I'll tell you about the Buranan Federation and a cozy little cartel that's making so much money, it's indecent. I think with 250 million to play with, we can make them an offer they won't refuse even if they are not going to like it very much."

"One beer coming up."

"Make it two, Jeremiah, make it two. Fuck, this poxy place is hot!" Wednesday, November 14, 2401, UD Sector Oscar, Branxton Base, Commitment

The final briefing for the crews of the three Fed landers broke up in the usual welter of conversation. Sedova leaned over. "Hope this one gets a better result than the last time the NRA visited Perdan."

Michael nodded. "Let's hope so."

He wanted desperately for Operation Tappet to be a success, if only to douse the smoldering embers of doubt that so troubled him. Had the whole Commitment business been the biggest mistake of his life? He hoped not. Not that Sedova and Acharya seemed to share his doubts; few of the Feds did. If the two command pilots were any guide, most had seized the chance to inflict some serious damage on the Hammers with both hands, any doubts they might have had had been swamped by the relentless pace of operations. True, the Fed landers had had a golden run. They had completed almost fifty operations, destroying targets right across the hinterland around McNair in slashing hit-and-run operations that minimized the risks they faced from the Hammer's air-defense Kingfishers and their Alaric missiles.

There was a problem, though, a problem that the Feds, absorbed in the business of killing Hammers, were happy to ignore. Hit-and-run operations were fine, but only up to a point; they had their limitations, too.

They made the Hammer's lives miserable. They encouraged the never-ending plague of civil disobedience all across the Hammer Worlds. They eroded morale in the Hammer military. They sapped DocSec's confidence.

But hit-and-run operations could never end this war. That happy day would come only when the NRA broke out of the Branxtons and took McNair. In theory at least, today's operation was the next step in that long and bloody process. This time, for the first time, the Fed landers were not running diversionary attacks; ENCOMM intended them to be an integral part of the operation to take Perdan from the Hammers and keep hold of it in the face of a furious and sustained Hammer counterattack.

Privately, Michael was increasingly persuaded that the NRA had little chance of succeeding. Yes, they would take Perdan. It was garrisoned by planetary defense troops, and they had no stomach for the NRA's shock tactics. So Perdan would fall to the NRA; Michael was sure of it. Great propaganda for the NRA and the Nationalists but a military dead end. To cap it all, Anna and the 120th would be in the thick of it, which was fine, but this operation, like all the others, would end the same way: The Hammers would send in reinforcements, backed up by ground-attack fliers, and take it back.

With a quiet prayer that he would be proved wrong, that Operation Tappet-the most complex, far-ranging, and ambitious operation ENCOMM had ever planned-would deliver and that Anna would come back alive, Michael followed the rest of the Fed lander crews out of the briefing room.

Widowmaker sat waiting for him, its massive brooding shape filling the tunnel. Michael patted it affectionately before he started his preflight walk-around. Strictly speaking, the whole business was unnecessary-Widowmaker's AIs had already told him everything worth knowing about the lander's flight status-but he was old-fashioned. He liked to see things for himself, so he walked around, checking everything he could see and touch.

The lander-brand new when delivered to Redwood-was fast losing its pristine good looks, the ceramsteel armor scarred by shrapnel from Hammer missiles that had come too close. They had been lucky; none had made it past the lander's defenses, thankfully, but for how much longer? The Hammers must be getting very pissed by now, and in Michael's experience, pissed people could be very creative. Somebody out there would be spending a great deal of time and effort trying to work out a way to hack the Fed landers out of the sky.

Michael worked his way methodically around and underneath the lander before climbing the ladder to check the upper hull. It was a tight squeeze, the armored blisters housing Widowmaker's electronic warfare equipment and defensive lasers close to scraping the roof of the limestone tunnel. A quick scan confirmed that nothing was untoward. Widowmaker was in good shape: not the 100 percent he wanted, more like 95 percent, but with the nearest Fed heavy maintenance team hundreds of light-years away, that had to suffice. A final check confirmed that the tug assigned to drag the lander to its new launch position was hooked up and ready to go. Michael commed Ferreira.

"Sir?" she replied.

"My walk-around's done," he said. "No surprises. Okay to confirm we're ready to go?"

"Affirmative. All systems are nominal except the port cooling pump. It's holding up, but Chief Fodor says don't be surprised if it blows."

"Roger, that. I think we'll have to strip it out after this mission. I don't fancy flying ops on one engine. Call us in when ready to launch," he said. "And while you're at it, download any crew mail."

"Uh, ENCOMM won't like that, sir," Ferreira said. "We're only authorized to access operations bandwidth."

"Screw it," Michael said; the NRA's rules were too petty for him to worry about. "Just do it. Who knows," he added, "you might have something from that ugly NRA captain who's been stalking you."

Ferreira face creased into an indignant scowl. "Sir!" she spluttered. "Captain N'duma isn't ugly. Well, yes he is… but only by Fed standards. Anyway, I like him, and he isn't stalking me… sir!"

"Yeah, yeah," Michael said with a grin. Ferreira's blossoming love affair with one of ENCOMM's operations staff was a soft target he and the rest of Widowmaker's crew enjoyed taking potshots at. "Just call us in and get the mail."


Michael climbed Widowmaker's ramp to where Petty Officer Morozov was waiting. "All set?"

"Yes, sir. It's one hell of a tight squeeze."

Michael looked around Widowmaker's cargo bay; the brilliantly lit space had been stripped back to bare metal to accommodate its load: a containerized Hammer mobile air-defense battery. Michael shook his head in wonderment at the sight. Reportedly, the whole lot had been handed over to the NRA by a PGDF air-defense battalion when it deserted en masse to the NRA: radar, fire control and missile guidance computers, launchers, Gordian missiles, everything. He shook his head again, marveling at the NRA's ingenuity… and luck.

"It sure is," he said, "though I'll be glad to see the last of all this mass"-he patted one of the battery's scarred matte-green containers-"not to mention all those war-shot missiles. Makes me nervous, having all that Hammer ordnance onboard."

"Shit, me, too, sir. Hope the buggers work the way they're supposed to."

"They should. If there's one thing the Hammers are good at, it's building missiles. Close her up, Chief. We'll be moving in five minutes. Don't want to keep ENCOMM waiting."


Michael walked through the cargo bay and climbed the ladder to the flight deck. That was as far as he got, any further progress blocked by the enormous bulk of Chief Bienefelt engaged in what looked like a life-and-death struggle with a combat space suit, a struggle made harder by the cramped space. Assault lander flight decks were never designed with spacers as large as Bienefelt in mind.

"Jeez, Matti," Michael said, hands up in a theatrical display of despair. "What the hell are you doing?"

"I won't… bother to… get on, you sonofabitch, not you, sir, the suit… bother to answer that question, sir," she muttered. "Bloody thing… ah, that's it," she said as her suit gave up the fight and flowed into place. "Why the hell didn't it do that the first time?"

"I know the answer to that one, Chief, but-"

"A burning desire to live long enough to see retirement persuades you to silence?" Bienefelt said, grabbing her helmet from an overhead rack.

"About sums it up, yeah. Now, to be serious. The new cannon shells. I've seen the results from the test firings. What do you think?"

"Well, sir. In the end, one 30-mm cannon shell is much like any other."

"That's true, but only because the Hammers stole the design from the same place we did, Matti."

Bienefelt laughed. "Please!" she said. "We licensed it. The Hammers stole it, and why wouldn't they? When it comes to cannon, the Henschel HKS-30 is one of the all-time classics. The big problem's the propellant; the one the Hammers use is not as good as ours-it burns too slow-but it'll do. We've adjusted the fire-control system to compensate, so we'll be fine."

"I agree. The Hammers are good at dumb ordnance. Right, time to go, I think."

Suiting up, Michael squeezed his way past the seats of his crew and climbed into his seat. He crammed his helmet over his head and dropped it onto its neck ring, where it sealed with a soft ffffttt, and strapped in. Wriggling around in a futile attempt to get comfortable, he allowed the seat AI to flow crash-resistant foam around his combat space suit. He was ready; a quick scan of the system status boards confirmed that Widowmaker was, too.

"All stations, command. Suit integrity checks. Okay, let's go. Mother, clear to start the tow when ready."


With a series of shuddering lurches, Widowmaker started on its way down the tunnel. Michael turned to Ferreira. "So, Lieutenant, your man get in touch?"

"Yes, sir," Ferreira said, a touch tartly. "He has. He's well, thanks for asking. So did one Trooper Anna Cheung Helfort, 120th NRA."

"Well?" Michael demanded.

"Well what?" Ferreira asked, eyes wide open in innocent inquiry.

"You know what. Will you comm me her message or do I have to throw you off this lander?"

"And miss all the fun? Hell, no! Comming it to you."

Michael scanned the vidmail, uncomfortably aware that this was not the time to think about Anna. He was relieved to discover nothing new, struck again by the look of grim determination on her face. That was a worry. With the 120th Regiment an integral part of Operation Tappet, it was clear that she had no intention of sitting back while others worked their butts off; Michael had spent a great deal of time and energy trying not to think what that might mean. He cursed under his breath and closed the message. Why, he wondered, was life so damn complicated? More to the point, why was Anna so damn stubborn?

Putting Anna out of his mind, he turned his focus back to the command plot. Tappet might have been the most complex operation ever put together by ENCOMM, but Widowmaker's part in it was straightforward: deliver the Gordian battery to the landing zone, take off, and provide air support for the NRA assault before making a fast run for home before the Kingfishers and their Alaric missiles arrived. Simple, straightforward, and he hated it because the Fed landers were leaving the field before the battle was over, leaving Anna and the rest of the NRA to hold Perdan against the inevitable-and always ferocious-Hammer counterattack.

"At launch position," Mother said after what seemed like a lifetime trundling through a succession of limestone caves and laser-cut tunnels.

"Command, roger." Michael said, scanning the cave mouth and the ground beyond for obstructions. "Okay, we are clear to launch. Tac, do we have the feed from ENCOMM?"

"No sir, not yet." Michael swore under his breath; the NRA's communications were a million light-years from what he was used to. "Working on it," Ferreira said, head down over her workstation. "Hold on. Okay, we're in. Update's on the operations plot."

Michael studied the plot before nodding his approval. Things were running well. Problem was, most NRA operations started off that way. The average PGDF trooper hated the NRA's trademark mix of suicidal bravery and animal ferocity; invariably it was enough to persuade them that discretion, not valor, was the order of the day. Already, the two diversionary attacks were well under way, leading elements of the NRA's ground assault already deep into the towns of Bretonville and Daleel, their PGDF defenders reeling back in confusion. That was the good news; the bad news was that the usual Hammer response was on its way: heavy ground-attack landers from Amokran carrying marines-tougher and better disciplined than even the best PGDF battalions-supported by Kingfishers from McNair spaceport.

Michael said a quiet prayer of thanks for the persistent refusal of the commanding general of marines to station his precious landers any closer to the Branxton front. General Baxter's bloody-mindedness was a priceless contribution to the NRA's war effort; the man should get a medal for it. Even so, things around Perdan were going to be difficult; the assault there was just getting under way, and he had to hope the Hammers were slow to work out that Perdan was the primary objective.

"Command, tac. Stand by launch. Ground crew is clear and safe. We're good to go."

"Command, roger. Mother, you have control, weapons free. Faceplates down, everyone."

With a subdued roar, Mother brought Widowmaker's main engines up to power, the air behind the lander dissolving into a maelstrom of flame-shot dust. She held the lander with the brakes for an instant before easing Widowmaker on its way.

The heavily loaded lander started to move, sluggishly at first, then gathering speed fast. Widowmaker moved out of the cave and into the gloom of a rain-soaked Commitment night. Shifting power to belly thrusters and deploying the wings, Mother drove the lander into the sky; the instant the lander was clear of the canyon, Mother transitioned it to winged flight, twin pillars of flame shredding the air behind Widowmaker while it accelerated hard into the night. Michael breathed easier as the speed built, the lander steadying in the race to get to Perdan before the Hammers sent Kingfishers to deal with it.

"Hatchet Two Four, Bushmaster Six," Ferreira said. "Airborne and nominal."

"Bushmaster Six, Hatchet Two Four. Roger. Chopping TACON to Grapple Three Three. Over."

"Hatchet Two Four, roger. Chopping now. Two Four out."

"Command, tac," Ferreira said. "Perdan command, call sign Grapple Three Three, has tactical control."

It was a short ride. Swinging to starboard in a max-g turn that had the status board lighting up in protest, Mother chopped the power, easing the lander's nose skyward to let the speed bleed off, the foamalloy wings biting deep into the rushing air.

"One minute," Michael said. "Tac, confirm clear to land."

"Grapple Three Three confirms landing zone is clear," Ferreira said.

"Command approved to land," Michael said.

He peered at the holovid feed from the forward-facing holocams, eyes flicking to and from the threat plot while he waited for any response from the Hammers. There was nothing to see: the thick cloud over Perdan, the gray-black murk turning to white when Mother fired the belly thrusters, the lander easing down, breaking through the cloud seconds before it thumped down onto Perdan's municipal airport, the brakes screaming in protest while Mother brought the lander to walking speed before turning to follow Alley Kat and Hell Bent, shapeless black masses in the darkness.

"Where the fu-" Michael flinched when a stream of yellow-gold tracer fire wound its way lazily out of the darkness before whipping past Widowmaker's nose, the insult silenced with brutal ferocity by the lander's lasers. "Like I was saying," Michael continued, "where the hell is the NRA? Petty Officer Morozov."


"Go take a look and make sure we keep the ramp up until I'm happy the area is secure."

Michael was beginning to worry. Widowmaker was not the lander it once had been: an elusive, fleeting shadow cloaked by its chromaflage skin and active stealth systems, flanked by decoys to confuse and mislead, orchestrating swarms of attack drones in an orgy of death and destruction across tens of square kilometers. The relentless pace of operations, a desperate shortage of spares to repair battle damage from too many near misses, and an increasing reliance on whatever ordnance the NRA could steal from the Hammers had seen to that. Now Widowmaker fought its battles the way ground-attack landers used to fight: up close and in person.

Michael's concern was well founded; the Kingfishers' targeting information came from the battlesat radars overhead, radars the AI controlling Widowmaker's stealth system was struggling to defeat. By now the Hammer commanders would know that there were three Fed landers squatting on Perdan airport's apron like big, fat sitting ducks. He shivered; Kingfishers were the least of his problems. The Hammers might be tempted to ignore the prohibition on using orbital kinetics to attack targets in towns and cities. Three Fed landers might be a target too tempting to resist even if it meant destroying much of Perdan, the enormous political cost a price worth paying. The thought that Hammer kinetics were being retasked to take the landers out chased yet more shivers across his skin. Come on, come on, he urged the absent NRAs.

He commed Sedova in Alley Kat. "Any luck?"

"No, sir," Sedova said. "How long do we wait?"

Michael blew out hard in frustration. "One more minute… no, wait." Nothing ventured, nothing gained, he decided. "We have to assume they're on their way," he said, "so ramps down. Start off-loading."

"You sure, sir?"

"No, but do it anyway. Widowmaker, out. Loadmaster, ramp down, start off-loading. Jayla?"


"You, Bienefelt, Fodor, and Carmellini. Get out on the apron. I don't want us getting surprised."


A moment later, Widowmaker's flight deck was deserted. His anxiety growing by the second, Michael kept his eyes on the threat plot; still nothing new and no sign of any Hammer Kingfishers. Their time on the ground was-

"Command, tac. Our friends are here."

"Authenticated okay?"

"They have. A Colonel Nussli, like we were briefed. I'm glad we started off-loading early."

"Me, too," Michael said, relief flooding through him. "Matti, get your team back onboard."

Off-loading was a quick business. Widowmaker's AI-controlled cargo handlers rammed the containers out onto the apron, and each was hustled away into the rain-drenched darkness by a small army of NRA troopers.

"Command, loadmaster. We're done. Closing up. We can go."

"Roger, sir. Flight deck crew's on their way back."

Michael wasted no time waiting for them to take their seats. With a quick check to make sure Widowmaker's main engines would not incinerate anyone, he commed Mother to take control; seconds later they were rolling back onto the runway and into the air, followed by Alley Kat and Hell Bent.

"Welcome back," he said to Ferreira when she dropped into her seat alongside him, spraying raindrops in all directions. "The forward controller's given us our first target, so let's do it. Weaps?"

"Ready," Bienefelt said. "Grapple Three Three has downloaded targeting."

"Roger. Sensors, where the hell are those Kingfishers?"

"Don't know, sir," Carmellini said. "Every other time they've been on us like a rash."

"Keep looking. Bastards are out there somewhere."

With one eye on the threat plot, Michael watched while Mother rolled the lander into the attack, the target obvious when Widowmaker burst into clear air: a cluster of plascrete government buildings in the center of Perdan that were home to those Hammer defenders too dumb to stop fighting. In quick succession, the three landers unloaded their ordnance across the area, fin-retarded iron bombs, old-fashioned but nonetheless ideal for the job and fused to explode after penetration. Clusterbots followed bombs, a lethal swarm of black shapes guided by sensors to take out any soft targets: people, vehicles, light armor, missile launchers.

Not that the Fed landers had things all their own way. The instant they appeared, the sky erupted into a maelstrom of defensive fire, cannon shells stitching wavering lines through the air before locking on to Widowmaker, its hull racketing with the pock pock pock of hits before defensive lasers were able to respond. Then came the missiles, a mix of shoulder-launched Goombahs and the heavier, vehicle-mounted Gondors, silver-white streaks appearing out of the darkness, lethal fingers of light reaching for the lander. Faster than Michael could think, Widowmaker's lasers hacked the missiles out of the attack… all but one. A single Gondor survived, smashing into Widowmaker, hitting on the port side well aft, the lander sagging and wallowing as systems alarms told Michael the bad news.

"Command, systems," Chief Fodor said. "Port cooling pump offline; not recoverable. Executing emergency shutdown of Fusion A."

"Command, roger," Michael said, ignoring a sudden stab of fear. Without Fusion A, the lander was down to one power plant, slow and vulnerable; he had to hope the missing Kingfishers stayed away.

Ferreira asked the obvious question. "Abort?"

For a moment, Michael hesitated. Aborting meant leaving the NRA attack unsupported. Staying risked the precious lander. Screw it, he decided; they were there to fight. "Negative, tac. Stay with it."

"Tac, roger."

Michael took a quick look at the holovid feed from Widowmaker's aft holocams as she climbed away, sluggish and unresponsive. Not a building was intact; some still had walls, but most were smoking ruins. Good one, he said to himself before looking at Widowmaker's next target: a cluster of armored vehicles trying to break through an NRA blocking force straddling the northern approaches to the town. Antiarmor clusterbots made short work of them, the Hammer armor vanishing underneath a rolling cloud of smoke and flame.

"Tac, tell our controller we have ordnance for one more run, so make it a good one."

"Stand by… on the plot… target confirmed and accepted."

Michael grunted when Mother reefed the lander around hard. Then the last target for the day was past and gone, a Hammer defensive position constructed around a cluster of wrecked storage silos disappearing behind boiling clouds of plascrete, torn apart by Widowmaker's cannons and lasers before iron bombs finished the job.

"Command, tac. Grapple Three Three says thanks. We can go home. Alley Kat and Hell Bent remaining on task."

"Command, roger," Michael said. "Go!" he snapped, and Mother pushed the lander's remaining fusion plant to emergency power, pulling the lander around until Widowmaker ran south toward safety, the icons littering the threat plot turning a comforting orange as Mother eased the lander down, the ground below a chaotic mat of gray-black streaks.

Michael was sure the threat plot was wrong. The Hammers had more than enough time to launch Kingfishers from Ojan and McNair, but ENCOMM was saying that both bases were quiet, with the marines from Amokran still committed to the diversionary attacks on Bretonville and Daleel. It made no sense. Why were the Hammers not responding to the attack on Perdan?

"Tac, where the hell are those Kingfishers?" he asked, even though he knew the question was pointless. If Ferreira knew, so would the threat plot, and it did not.

"Not seeing them," Ferreira replied, "and we have nothing from ENCOMM, either."

"I don't like this, not one bit," Michael muttered, forcing himself to sit back and let Mother get them home. "Maybe there's some-"

In an instant, the flight deck was filled with the cacophonous racket of threat alarms. "Alaric missiles inbound," Carmellini said, slapping the alarms off. "Missiles have gone active," he added. "They're in terminal guidance mode." The threat plot confirmed Michael's worst fears: too many missiles moving too fast from too many directions for Widowmaker's defenses to defeat. A pair of heavy landers like Alley Kat and Hell Bent might have a chance of surviving; a lone light lander like Widowmaker did not.

Now Michael and the rest of Widowmaker's crew could do nothing but watch. Dumping the last of her precious decoys into Widowmaker's wake, Mother rolled the lander over in a desperate bid to get even closer to the ground, ramming the fusion plant to full power in a futile attempt to outrun the incoming missiles, their terminal guidance system a lethal hybrid of optical, radar, and laser sensors even the best electronic countermeasures in humanspace would struggle to deceive.

Michael swore; maybe he should have held Widowmaker back until Alley Kat and Hell Bent came off task. Not that it mattered; it was too late. The Hammers had learned from their mistakes that making their presence known too early gave the landers the time they needed to accelerate away from the Alarics. Guided by track data from the battlesat radars overhead, they must have come in low, slow, and stealthy, probably from the sea, where there were no inquisitive NRA eyes to report their passing, before unloading their missiles. Heart hammering, Michael watched Mother do her best, the lander twisting and jinking in a final attempt to distract the missiles. But there were too many of them, and even though some were seduced by Widowmaker's decoys, even though some were distracted by jammers, the rest were not, enough getting past the defensive lasers to doom the lander.

Mother stopped trying to save Widowmaker, shifting her focus onto surviving the attack long enough to save the crew, wrenching the lander nose-up to force the missiles to impact the most heavily armored part of the hull, Widowmaker's belly, screams of pain from the lander's neural system ignored as the foamalloy wings, stressed well beyond the point of failure, disintegrated under the impossible pressure of onrushing air.

Michael swore the lander stopped when the Alarics smashed home, three of them hitting a microsecond apart, their enormous kinetic energy and explosive warheads hurling Widowmaker back, up, and over into a death roll to the ground. He lost consciousness for an instant before the automated ejection system hurled him and the rest of the crew out into the night. In front of them, Widowmaker tumbled to a fiery death on the rocks below, missile after missile smashing into her carcass, her passing marked by a spectacular white fireball when fusion plants lost containment. Barely aware of what was happening, Michael was knocked out again by the shattering crash of his escape capsule plowing into the ground.

How long he lay there, he had no idea. When he awoke, it was strangely peaceful, the only sound the rain drumming an insistent tattoo on the protective plasfiber cover of the capsule. Almost too tired to move, he commed the capsule to release him, which it did, dumping him unceremoniously down the slope.

"Oh shit," he whispered. He commed painkiller drugbots into his system to combat a growing chorus of protest from a badly abused body; as ever, his left leg was the most vocal of all. Forcing himself to his feet, he climbed out of his combat space suit, throwing it to the ground, where it lay, looking disconcertingly like a dead body. "Won't be needing that bastard thing again," he said to the night air.

Reenergized by the drugbots, he had his neuronics scan for the rest of Widowmaker's crew. To his intense relief, first one, then another and another beacon came online until the whole crew had been accounted for. Comming the rendezvous point to them, he set off.

By the time everyone turned up, Michael did not know whether to laugh or cry. A sorrier bunch he had never seen, his crew sporting an impressive collection of cuts and fast-blossoming bruises. With a silent "thank you" to the unknown engineers who had designed and built Widowmaker's crew escape system, Michael asked the question on his and everyone else's mind.

"Where to from here?"

Wincing as she lifted her arm, Ferreira pointed in the general direction of Perdan. "That way. Closest friendlies. Our bases in the Branxtons are too far away."

"Anyone disagree?" he asked. "No? Okay, Perdan it is. Anyone having trouble walking, for chrissakes let me know. Matti, take point. Single file and make sure your chromaflage capes are working and neuronics are off. I don't think the Hammers will come looking for us, but you never know. Let's go."

In silence, Widowmaker's crew set off after Chief Bienefelt. Limping along behind them, Michael knew how lucky they had been. They had been ambushed with the lander Widowmaker running slowly; if both fusion plants had been online, it would have been moving at full speed. Then no crew escape system could have saved them, ejection into the fast-moving airstream more than enough to tear capsule and occupants apart.

Bienefelt's hand went up. The small column stopped while she scanned the ground ahead. Perdan was visible beyond under a thick pall of smoke. "I think we're there. Hard to tell, but I think I saw NRA pickets up ahead, which means their outer sensor line can't be far away. According to the ops plan, the 48th has this sector. I'll go and make sure they don't start shooting at us."

"Watch out for the slugs, Matti," Michael said. Fitted with optical sensors feeding a simple fire-control system linked to a pulsed laser, the ground-attack drones the NRA called slugs were deployed to secure the outer approaches to a fixed position. The size and shape of a large tortoise, slugs were cheap and nasty. The average grunt hated them. Occasionally, slugs would ignore the IFF-identification friend or foe-patches worn by every trooper in combat; they might be cheap and nasty, but they were still lethally dangerous.

"I will," Bienefelt said, dropping to her stomach and crawling forward. "I don't trust the bloody things, either. I'll be back, so don't go anywhere."

"We won't." Too tired to care much anymore, his body racked by pain, Michael slumped to the ground.

"You okay, skipper?" Ferreira asked, frowning with concern.

"Yeah, Jayla. Everything hurts like fury, but unless my neuronics are lying, it's nothing serious. Just aches, strains, and sprains, How about you?"

"Same. That was one hell of a ride."

"Those Hammers were waiting for us," Michael said with a grimace. "That was planned."

"That idea had occurred to me. Wondered why we hadn't seen them."

"Interesting, though," Michael said. "They didn't give a shit how much damage we inflicted on Perdan's defenders. All they cared about was getting us. Cold-blooded but smart, damn smart… bastards," he added with feeling.

It hit him. "Shit," he said. "What about Alley Kat and Hell Bent? You heard anything?"

Ferreira shook her head. "Nothing. I'm hoping they're okay. We'd have heard their beacons if they ejected, but there's nothing. I think we triggered the ambush too early."

"I hope so. Losing Widowmaker's bad enough, but one of our heavies? What a disaster. Losing two doesn't even bear thinking about."

The uncomfortable silence was broken by Bienefelt's return. "Come on, you lot," she said with a beaming smile. "It is the 48th NRA, and they've put the coffee on for us."

Much cheered by the prospect of one of the NRA's trademark brews, hot and aromatic, Michael climbed to his feet and trudged off after Bienefelt.

"I've spoken to brigade," the colonel commanding the 48th said. "They want you to make your way to the 120th to link up with the rest of the Feds."

Michael's heart soared, buoyed by the prospect of seeing Anna again after so many weeks apart. "Any idea what happens after that, Colonel?" he asked.

"No, sorry. Just that I'm to provide you with an escort and guide to make sure you get there okay. There are still a few Hammers we haven't accounted for. I can't spare any recon drones to watch your flanks, so keep your eyes open."

"Fine, sir. When do we go?"

"Now… Fenech!"

"Sir," a corporal standing off to one side said, stepping forward smartly.

"Off you go. Don't lose any."


The colonel turned to Michael. "Good luck," he said, shaking his hand.

"Thanks. You, too."

Michael started to salute, catching himself just in time. Not a good idea on the battlefield, he reminded himself. Pausing to draw assault rifles, power packs, and ammunition, they set off, Corporal Fenech's section in a loose screen around them as they moved past the blackened shells of the firebases and defensive positions the Hammers had thrown up in a ring to secure Perdan's perimeter and entered the outer suburbs proper.

To Michael's surprise, the first few kilometers showed few signs that a major battle had been fought for Perdan that day. The roads were clear of debris, and there were no barricades or any other sign of organized resistance, the only evidence of combat the odd broken window and occasionally a mobibot damaged by rifle fire. The city was eerily empty, not a single Perdan local in sight, the neat houses that flanked the road silent and dark, not a light visible in the gloom. Where the hell is everybody? Michael wondered.

Fenech pushed on fast-Michael was relieved to see that his patrol was alert, heads swiveling all the time like they were on sticks-and soon proof of the day's fighting became all too obvious. Must have been when the defenders worked out that they could no longer escape Perdan to the west, toward McNair and safety, Michael realized. The streets were filled with the remains of makeshift barricades, the bodies of dead PGDF troopers and smoke-blackened wrecks of their light armor speaking volumes about the ferocious fighting that must have taken place. Michael's heart sank when he saw the problem the NRA faced firsthand. Perdan's suburbs were indefensible: gently rolling terrain, untroubled by creeks or rivers, with broad streets flanked by low buildings set well back. Once Hammer kinetics had reduced Perdan's outer ring of defenses to smoking ruins, marine heavy armor would roll into town along the highway from Bretonville in the west and Daleel in the east, unstoppable, any serious NRA resistance blown out of the way by marine ground-attack landers. With marine support, even the PGDF would have little trouble retaking the town, its NRA defenders pushed back and back until they could retreat no more; they would die where they fought.

What the hell were ENCOMM and Vaas thinking?

By the time Fenech led them to the 120th's positions around Perdan's southeastern flanks, Michael had seen enough. Without close air support and heavy artillery, Perdan was a lost cause, an objective no guerrilla army could ever hope to hold in the face of conventional forces. Worse, even though the center of Perdan, with its narrower streets and substantial buildings, was a much harder proposition for any attacker, it was far from a natural fortress. Defended by well-motivated troops, it was a tough proposition-all urban warfare was-but not impossible. All it needed was time and an endless, relentless application of Hammer airpower supported by the marines' heavy armor, and it was all over. To add to the NRA commander's problems, there was only one way out: back into the Branxtons as they climbed steeply toward the karst plateau to the south. The problem was that when the Hammers launched their final assault on Perdan, even the dumbest Hammer commander would know he had to drop blocking forces to keep the NRA bottled up inside Perdan and where: astride the network of small rivers that cut paths through the densely wooded foothills.

Unless General Vaas had something magical hidden up his sleeve, the NRA would be fighting its way out of Perdan when the end came.

If the tactical nightmare that was Perdan was worrying Corporal Fenech, he did not let it show. "That's it for me, sir," he said cheerfully when they reached the shattered remains of a small, low-rise ware house complex beyond which Perdan's outer suburbs reached out to the forest. "This is 120th's sector. If you'd wait here, one of the regimental staff will be with you shortly."

"Thanks, Corporal. Good luck and keep your head down," Michael said, resisting the urge to comm Anna.

"Trust me, I will," Fenech said with a broad smile.

Michael and the rest sat down to wait, the minutes dragging by until broken by a familiar voice.

"Well, well, well," Kallewi said. "Look what the cat's dragged in. Didn't expect to see you guys. You all okay?"

"We are. Widowmaker's not, I'm sorry to say. How are you lot?"

"We came through okay. The PGDF put up bit of a fight, but it was halfhearted. We've had casualties. Anna's one of them, I'm afraid." Michael's heart came up into his mouth. "No, nothing serious," Kallewi added hastily when he saw the look on Michael's face. "She caught a bullet in her upper arm. She'll be fine."

"Where is she?"

"Battalion aid station. Follow me. Rest of you, coffee's that way. Go grab some. I'll meet you there."

Michael followed Kallewi through the darkness, picking his way through the chaotic mess of discarded equipment littering the ground around the 120th's rear positions. Kallewi might think it had not been much of a fight, but it did not look that way. The aid station was tucked away under a chromaflaged canopy pinned to the wall of a badly damaged building. They found Anna sitting propped against a handy block of fallen plasfiber, eyes closed, her face deathly pale in the station's cool white lights, her bandaged left arm resting on an ammunition box. Michael dropped to his knees alongside her.

"Hello, trooper," he said softly.

Anna started, her eyes flicking open. For a moment, confusion reigned before she worked out what she was looking at. "Oh, hi, Michael," she said, her voice slurred.

"What have you been doing?"

"Hammer sonofabitch was a bit too fast for me. I was the better shot, though," she said, closing her eyes, her mouth twisting into a small crooked smile. "Getting to be a habit, this."


"Hanging around you getting shot. This is the second time, you bastard."

"Yeah, yeah. Let me see how you are." Heart pounding, Michael interrogated Anna's neuronics, relieved to see that she was okay. The wound to her arm-he winced when Anna commed him images of an ugly, raking gash across her upper arm-looked worse than it was, all her vitals were 100 percent, and when the drugs and shock wore off, she would be sore but fine. Knowing Anna, she would be grumpy, too, but he refused to worry about that now.

"How do you feel?"

"Bit dazed thanks to the medication; Hammer drugs don't screw around. I'll be fine. The medics stitched me up and told me to take an hour off, so if you don't mind."

Michael did not have time to reply before Anna's head rolled back and she was asleep.

"So what's next?"

Anna, still pale but looking better than when Michael had first set eyes on her, looked at him, puzzled. "You don't know?" she asked, taking a long pull at her coffee.

It was Michael's turn to look puzzled. "Know? Know what?"

"Ah, of course, I see the problem," Anna said. "You lander types didn't need to know. Operational security and all that."

"Operational security? About what?"

"I'm not sure you've got clearance."

"Anna!" Michael snapped. "Stop talking in riddles and tell me what the fuck you're on about. Oh, shit, sorry," he added. "It's just… just that I can't…"

"Look who's talking in riddles," Anna said. "Let me guess. You're not stupid; well, most of the time you're not, that is."

"Gee, thanks."

"Don't mention it, spacer. Anyway, I take it you've worked out that a hut in the middle of the desert would be easier to defend than Perdan. Am I right?"

Michael nodded. "I had, and it's been bothering me. The thought of you trapped here…" His voice trailed off.

"You are such an idiot, Michael Helfort."

"Me? Why?"

"Well, for not having faith in ENCOMM, that's why. I know they'll throw troopers at the Hammers, but the sacrifice has to be justified by the payoff, so trying to hold on to a town like this… well, Vaas and his staff aren't that dumb."

"They're not? What happened to all that 'hold at all costs' stuff they included in our briefing?"

Anna snorted. "Window dressing."

"Had us fooled," Michael muttered.

"Can't be helped; it was meant to, and if it convinces the Hammers, fooling a dim-witted Fed flyboy will have been well worth it."

Michael did not know whether to laugh or scream, so he contented himself with a stern look. "Anna! Tell me what the plan is or I'll… I'll…"

"What, flyboy? What will you do?" Anna said, her face lit by a mischievous grin. "Do tell."

"Anna, please," Michael said, trying with no success to keep the pleading out of his voice. "I hate it when you do this to me. Come on! I've been worried sick about you."

"Okay, okay. Simple fact is we're not staying here. We're not going to try to hold Perdan."

"What? You're not?"

"No, we're not. See them over there?" she said, pointing at a small collection of plasfiber crates.

"Yeah. Mortar rounds, judging from their markings. So?"

"They're not what they seem. Each one of those holds a nasty little NRA invention. They call it the area denial weapon, ADW for short."

"Never heard of it."

"Nor had we until last week. Here, let me send you some vid. It shows one in action."

Half closing his eyes, Michael ran the vid Anna commed him. The clip started with a close-up shot of what looked like a large beach ball, its silver skin marred by mounting brackets and junction boxes sprouting a mix of power and data cables. It looked familiar, but try as he might, Michael could not work out what it was. Four pairs of hands reached into frame and, with an obvious effort, lifted the ball bodily and dropped it onto a foamalloy insert inside a case. A pair of hands connected a cluster of wires coming from a small gray box mounted inside the case to wires from the beach ball, then put a foam-padded lid in place. The image pulled back to a long shot as the handlers withdrew; Michael now saw that the box was sitting alone in a small clearing surrounded by trees. A voice started a countdown. At zero, the holocam shook violently, overwhelmed by a savage flash of white. When vision returned, Michael was shocked to see the results: For hundreds of meters all around, trees had been stripped of their leaves, trunks flayed back to bare wood, smaller branches torn off and hurled outward.

"Holy shit," Michael said, stunned. "What is that?"

"Neat, eh? That, my flyboy friend, was a microfusion plant stripped out of a truckbot. Impressive, eh?"

"You're kidding me!"

"No, I'm not. Hammers must have been confused, wondering why so many truckbots have been stolen in the last few months."

"How the hell were they shipped in? You can't backpack them in. They weigh a ton." Something clicked. "Oh, shit," he said. "Don't tell me. Those containers we brought in this morning. They weren't… Tell me Widowmaker hasn't airlifted in tons of stolen mobibot microfusion plants. Please tell me."

"Yeah, you did." Anna grinned and nodded her head. "You're not so dumb, after all."

Michael's head went down. "Oh," was all he could say.

There was a long silence while Michael struggled to decide whether to be angry at the NRA's deceit or impressed by its ingenuity. Since he and the rest of Widowmaker's crew had survived-how he had no idea; the Hammers had a relaxed attitude to safety, and their truckbot engineering was a good fifty years behind the Fed's-he picked the latter.

"I think I get it now," he said at last. "Perdan is seeded with the nasty little fuckers, especially around the airport. Meanwhile, convinced that the NRA will fight to the death, the Hammers scrape together all the troops and armor they can lay their hands on. Just before they attack, the NRA sneaks away, leaving behind some brave sucker to fire the ADWs. The Hammers discover Perdan is theirs, walk in, put landers down after their combat engineers have made sure the city isn't littered with claymores-nobody would think to worry about old mortar boxes-and then, while they are all standing around scratching their nuts, wondering what the hell the NRA was playing at… bingo. Up go the ADWs, taking with them the best part of the Perdan relief force."

"There you are," Anna said. "I keep telling everyone you're not as dumb as you look!"

"You are a heartless bitch, Lieutenant Anna Helfort."

"Respect, flyboy, respect. Trooper Anna Cheung Helfort, please."

"Sorry," Michael said.

"Come on, help me up here. Once I've checked in with the medics, I need to get back. Don't want my section leader thinking I'm loafing."

Late that night, Michael lay alongside Anna, the pair of them curled under her chromaflage cape, incessant rain driving cold out of an overcast sky, fingers of water worming their way past his defenses to soak into his clothes. It was miserable, and Michael would not have swapped it for anything.

For the umpteenth time, he wondered about ENCOMM's plan for Perdan. If the deception held, the NRA was going to hand the Hammers their bloodiest defeat ever. It was a breath-takingly ambitious plan, and Michael prayed with every fiber of his body that it worked.


For all its ingenuity, for all the damage it would do, for all the lives it would snuff out, the victory ENCOMM hoped to achieve at Perdan spoke volumes for the fundamental weaknesses of the NRA, weaknesses that condemned them never to be able to hold their battlefield gains outside the Branxtons. That was what troubled Michael to the point where a corrosive mix of self-doubt and guilt was beginning to eat away at him.

Even if the Hammers recaptured Perdan, even if its recapture cost the Hammers thousands of PGDF and marine lives, ENCOMM's victory would be a hollow one; it would contribute nothing to ending the war. Tuesday, November 20, 2401, UD Perdan, Commitment

A shape slithered out of the darkness. "Helfort," it whispered.

Michael started to reply before realizing belatedly that he was not the only Helfort around.

"Yes, Corp?" Anna said.

"Pull back to Papa Golf in five minutes," the shape said softly. "You're the last to leave in this sector, so for Kraa's sake, keep quiet. The Hammers have settled down for the night, and we want it to stay that way. Trip wires and claymores set?"

"Yes, Corp. All armed."

"Good. Five minutes."

"Roger that." The figure slithered away. "Michael," Anna said. "You ready?"

"Yes," Michael said, trying not to think about the fact that less than 500 meters separated where he and Anna were holed up and the Hammer's forward defenses-a shifting chain of slugs backed up by sensors linked to fixed defenses: mines, claymores, autofiring cannon, and microgrenade launchers all programmed to scour the ground clean of anything that moved. Behind them, dug in along the banks of a small stream, was a battalion of PGDF soldiers, and farther back was what ENCOMM intelligence reports said was a company of heavy artillery. It was a terrifying proposition to be so close to such overwhelming force, to be so alone, with only a handful of slugs for support if the Hammers tried anything.

The seconds ticked away, one eternity at a time. "Time," Anna hissed at last. "You go first."

Michael started to protest, then decided not to. Anna was ten times the foot soldier he would ever be. Taking firm hold of his rifle, he adjusted his chromaflage cape and backed out of the foxhole on his belly, eyes scanning the ground toward the Hammer front line for the slightest movement. There was none, and Anna followed, a shapeless blur of black oozing its way backward.

It was a long, painful crawl; finally, Anna signaled Michael to stop. "That's enough. We can walk out from here but stay low. Come on."

With that, she was off, leaving Michael to wonder how she kept going. Jeez! She had been wounded only days before, and here she was, acting like nothing had happened. Anna might look like a china doll, but underneath she was pure unalloyed steel, and he should never forget it.

Papa Golf was the section rally point, a small rock outcrop thrusting up out of the forest 100 meters from the Manivi River, an exit route cut through the encircling Hammers and kept open only after a series of bloody engagements had persuaded the Hammers they had better things to do than worry about a few NRA troopers getting away from certain defeat. Anna and Michael were the last to arrive, her section corporal waving her on.

"Where the hell have you been, Helfort? Come on, for Kraa's sake!"

"Yes, Corp."

With that, the last of the NRA slipped south and away into the night. Behind them, Perdan was empty save for a few brave souls waiting for the Hammers to arrive.

"What the hell do you want?" the Hammer general charged with retaking Perdan growled, glaring from sleep-gummed eyes at the man standing over his cot. "Kraa's blood! What time is it?"

"It's 00:15, sir," the young officer said, nervously. Major General Horovitz, Hammer Planetary Ground Defense Force, was a man who held the unshakable view that military operations should not get in the way of a good night's sleep.

"This better be good."

"Chief of staff's compliments, sir, and would you please come to the operations center?"

"If I must."


"This seems too good to be true, General. I think we need to be careful."

General Horovitz snorted in derision. Kraa! Why was his chief of staff so damn cautious? "It's obvious, man. Those NRA scum know they can't hold on to to Perdan, so they've done what they do every time. Run away like the gutless cowards they are. Get things moving. I want to tell the chief councillor that Perdan is back in our hands before daybreak."

"Sir," Horovitz's chief of staff said.

An hour later, Hammer kinetics fell on Perdan's outer defenses, a storm of high-velocity tungsten-carbide slugs that reduced earth and equipment to a rolling cloud of ionized gas and dust. Before it had even cleared, Hammer forward elements moved into the outer suburbs, the air ripped apart by ground-attack landers orbiting overhead. Screened by marine heavy armor, they moved along the main highway heading for the center of town. The city was deserted. Not a soul moved amid the debris of war, the only sounds the periodic flat crack as a main battle tank's hypervelocity gun replied to some imagined threat and the occasional crackle of rifle fire from nervous patrols flanking the main advance, both underscored by the never-ending howl of patrolling marine landers.

It was hours before General Horovitz allowed himself to be convinced that Perdan was his. Now he was. The NRA had gone, every last one of them. Satisfied, he called Chief Councillor Polk to give him the good news.

Call over and basking in Polk's approval, Horovitz waved his chief of staff over. "Colonel Madani. You said General Baxter wanted to speak to me?"

"Yes, sir. He does," Madani said.

"Fucking marines," Horovitz said, his good humor evaporating fast. "What in Kraa's name does he want?"

"I don't know for sure, sir," Madani said. "He refuses to talk to me. I suspect he wants his marines back."

"Oh, he does, does he? Didn't think he wanted to congratulate me. Well, he can have them back. Get onto it. I want orders cut withdrawing them back to the airport. They can damn well wait there until their landers arrive to take them home."

"Is that wise, sir?"

"Wise?" Horovitz barked, rage reddening his face. "Why would it not be?"

"We've not swept the airport, sir. Kraa knows what the NRA has left lying around."

Horovitz waved a dismissive hand. "The marines can look after themselves. They have combat engineers, don't they?"

"Ah, no they don't, General. Combat engineering support is our responsibility, planetary defense's responsibility."

Horovitz waved his hand again. "Well, that's not my problem. Ours have better things to do than sanitizing an airport. Anyway, the NRA aren't miracle workers. Even they can't mine Kraa knows how many hectares of ceramcrete, and if they did, even the dumbest marine could see what they'd been up to. Provided the marines stay well clear of the buildings and don't touch anything, I can't see a problem. Kraa, what am I saying? They should know that."

"Yes, sir."

Horovitz waited patiently while his chief of staff went off to issue the orders to the marines. "Done?" he said when the man returned.

"Yes, sir. They'll start pulling back inside the hour. They're not happy about the lack of combat engineering support, but Brigadier Agnelli says he can cope."

"Pleased to hear it," Horovitz said venomously. "I'd be happy if we never worked with those arrogant pricks ever again. How are we doing interdicting the NRA withdrawal?"

"Well, sir. We are dropping blocking forces right across their egress routes back to the Branxtons as we speak, backed up by ground-attack fliers-"

"Do I detect a note of disapproval?" Horovitz said. "Yes, Colonel… yes, I think I do."

"No, sir," Madani protested. "I made my point at the time, sir. You made your decision, I accepted it then, I accept it now. There's nothing more to say."

Horovitz glared at his chief of staff. He refused to trust the man any farther than he could spit. The fact that Colonel Madani belonged to a clan with higher-placed connections than his was a constant irritation. He would have gotten rid of him months ago otherwise. Horovitz's nephew, a young and ambitious man, was ideal for the position, and it galled him that he had not been able to persuade the PGDF's commanding general to sack Madani.

"Don't think I don't know what you're thinking, Colonel," Horovitz said finally. "I know you wanted the blocking forces dropped into position early. In my opinion, that was too risky. We needed to secure Perdan first. I thought I had made myself clear."

"Yes, sir, you did."

"Good. If I hear my decision being criticized, I'll know whom to blame. So, you were saying?"

Loneliness threatened to overwhelm Trooper Chou; he had never felt so cut off, so isolated, so exposed, his only connection to the small handful of NRA troopers left behind in Perdan a hastily buried fiber-optic cable. Tucked away under his chromaflage cape, he was hidden in rubble around a fire-damaged ware house positioned on a small ridge overlooking Perdan's airport, a tangle of ceramsteel beams balanced overhead to form a precarious roof. The airport's sprawling ceramcrete aprons were a shambolic mess of abandoned equipment scattered between the blast-blackened wrecks of planetary defense trucks and light armor. Long after the last of the NRA had pulled out, nothing had moved except for the rain dropped by a passing monsoonal rainstorm. Soon afterward, a gray light announced the arrival of a new day. Recon drones arrived overhead, then attack drones, and then the first chromaflaged shapes drifted into view, indistinct blurs that Chou struggled to identify. Backed up by armor, some moved past the shattered ruins of the airport's terminal buildings before spreading out to secure a perimeter while the rest made their way out onto the aprons and taxiways. Hammer marines, Chou decided, judging by their obvious discipline and efficiency.

Some time later, things began to pick up. First, a second convoy of marine armor arrived, followed by a steady stream of marine units on foot until the airport apron was crowded. Heart in mouth, Chou watched one marine start to rearrange a pile of mortar-shell boxes into the makings of a crude shelter. He did not get far before a passing corporal yelled at him, abuse pouring down much like the rain. Chou smiled. The corporal was dead right. Fiddling with battlefield debris that had not been declared safe by the combat engineers was bad for one's health. Relieved, he watched the corporal harangue the miscreant to rejoin the rest of his unit.

Chou waited. Hour after hour, unit after unit, the marines kept coming until the ceramcrete aprons were thick with marines sprawled out in untidy lines as they waited for their rides home, a sea of combat-armored bodies interrupted by laagers of every vehicle in the marines' air-mobile inventory. Chou licked his lips, his throat parched ash-dry. He had never seen this many Hammer marines in one place before; it was a frightening sight. "Kraa help us," he whispered as an awful truth hit him. What he was staring at was a small part, a tiny fraction, of the Hammer war machine the NRA faced. The NRA could kill every last marine sitting on the airport aprons, and what difference would it make? There were thousands more, tens, hundreds of thousands more marines where these had come from. All of a sudden, victory seemed a long way away.

The distant rumble of incoming landers broke the silence, distant dots appearing, quickly taking the unmistakable shape of Hammer heavy transport landers. This was as good as it was going to get, he decided. Chou activated his whisper mike.

"Jackass, this is Joker Three Four," he said.

"Joker Three Four, Jackass."

"I have multiple heavy landers inbound. Estimate fifteen hundred marines plus support vehicles on the apron. Recommend we go when the landers touch down."

"Jackass, roger that. Stand by."

Chou said a quiet word of thanks to the Feds; they had provided the fiber-optic network connecting the observers to each other and to their improvised charges. He still was not sure about them, but the communications gear coming out of their microfabs was a hundred times better than anything the NRA had been able to steal from the Kraa-damned Hammers.

The faceless NRA trooper controlling the operation was gone only a minute. "Joker Three Four, Jackass."

"Joker Three Four."

"Joker Three Four, Jackass. Concur. Go when the first lander hits the ground. Stand by… Joker Niner One, Jackass. Activate. I say again, activate all charges. Report when ready to fire."

Chou set to work, and one by one the truckbot fusion microplants came to life. The die was cast. Once fusion started, there was no stopping it. The safety interlocks had been just so much dead weight; they had been ripped off and discarded. All Chou needed to do was wait until they came to full power; then he either fired them or five minutes later they would lose containment anyway. It was a while, but finally he had all green lights.

"Jackass, Joker Three Four."

"Joker Three Four, Jackass."

"All charges online. Ready to fire."

"Roger, Three Four. Joker Niner One, this is Jackass. All stations stand by to fire on Joker Three Four's command. Joker Three Four, you copy? Try to get the landers."

Chou gulped; this was not in the plan. He took a deep breath to steady himself. "Affirmative, Jackass, firing on my command. Joker Niner One, this is Three Four, stand by to fire."

With agonizing slowness, the first of the marine landers banked hard, wings flexing under the load, before it settled down to make its final approach. Behind it, the second lander followed suit, the two landers running toward the threshold, rock-steady, as if on rails.

"Joker Niner One, this is Joker Three Four… firing in five, four, three, two, one, now!"

Truckbot microfusion plants scattered beside the runway and across the airport apron exploded in a single searing flash of pure energy, the blast scouring the ceramcrete clean, every living thing destroyed in an instant. The two marine landers never had a chance; picked up bodily, they were thrown over onto their sides. Before their pilots had time to react, first their wings and then their hulls plowed into the close-cropped grass flanking the main runway, the shock of impact blowing huge clouds of rain-sodden dirt high into the air before they tumbled end over end, gouging massive scars into the ground before coming to a stop.

Chou did not live long enough to see what he had achieved. Before the first lander even drove into the ground, what was left of the ware house, weakened by fire, gave way in the face of the blast, its collapse toppling tons of ceramcrete onto his position.

As he died, towering columns of ionized gas climbed away into the sky all across Perdan before they were driven away by the latest rainstorm, shredded skeins of fast-cooling gas blown twisting away into the distance. Friday, November 23, 2401, UD Branxton Ranges, south of Perdan, Commitment

Separated from the rest of the 120th during a vicious firefight with the Hammers, Anna and Michael walked on alone. Even the Hammer recon drones that had forced them to slow down to a crawl had disappeared, and the battlesats had been blinded by thick gray cloud scudding overhead. Michael was happy to see the cloud; the intermittent rain it brought with it was a small price to pay.

Where the rest of the regiment had gotten to, they had no idea. All Michael knew was that they were not where they were supposed to be, rally point after rally point populated only by trees. Soon they abandoned any idea of finding them. Before he, too, vanished into the darkness, a straggler from the 48th had told them the rest of his regiment was somewhere ahead of them, and Michael still hoped they would catch up with them. It was not a good feeling, just the two of them alone in a vast forest infested with vengeful Hammers.

Fifty meters short of the next ridge, the characteristic buzz of a recon drone caught his attention. As he paused to see where the damn thing was, some deep-seated atavistic instinct shocked him out of the endless one-foot-after-another trudge away from Perdan, and in an instant he knew with absolute, unshakable certainty that he and Anna had to get off the track.

"Move!" he screamed as he leaped for Anna, provoked by instinct alone. Grabbing her backpack, he crash-tackled her off the path and into a twisting, rolling, crashing slide down through the undergrowth and into a narrow ravine. There Michael came to a crunching stop, the dead weight of Anna's body dropping on top of him, driving the air out of his lungs with a whooof.

"Michael!" Anna snapped. "What the fu-"

A fast-moving flight of four marine landers roared overhead, black shapes smeared across a predawn sky torn to shreds by the appalling noise of their engines as they accelerated away, a noise that was nothing compared to the blast from the pattern of fuel-air bombs that exploded an instant later. The shock wave was a malignant living force, the overpressure unstoppable, ripping and tearing at the ground, driving debris outward in a lethal storm of razor-sharp shards of wood. Michael was shaken to his core, unable to refill his lungs, every fiber of his body screaming in protest, his body pounded into the dirt, slammed up and then back when the shock wave ripped through the ground, rocks, dirt, and debris cascading down across them.

Ears ringing, confused and disoriented, Michael lay there for a long time, tortured lungs fighting for air. He could not hear much over the ringing in his ears; he could only feel the slow skittering of debris dropping onto his helmet. When his brain rebooted, he rolled Anna off his back and struggled to sit upright.

"Anna, you okay?" he mumbled past a tongue thick with dirt and dust; he tried to shake a sick fuzziness out of his head without success. He felt sick.

"Piss off," she mumbled. "Leave me alone. Don't want to move."

"Come on, Anna," Michael said, standing up. "We can't stay here. They must have spotted some of us, so they may be back. Come on"-urgently now, he shook her shoulder-"we need to keep moving."

"Bastard." She sat up, brushing dirt off her chromaflage cape. With an effort, she climbed to her feet, swaying unsteadily while she organized herself.

"You okay?"

Anna nodded. "Yeah. Bit woozy is all. FABs are no fun at all."

Michael had to agree. Like every Fed spacer, he had watched a live fuel-air bomb drop during his training-from a safe distance-and he had experienced the damn things firsthand when the Hammers were hunting him on Serhati. He hated them then, and he hated them now.

Settling his gear and grabbing his rifle, Michael scrambled out of the shallow ravine. The sight that greeted him shocked him to his core. He and Anna had been lucky; the Hammer landers had dropped their bombs just over the heavily wooded ridge they had been climbing on their way south to safety, leaving the ground leading to the ridge a shattered mess. The blast had sheared the tops of trees off, scattering branches and tree trunks across the ground in careless profusion.

"Not good," he said.

"No," Anna said. "I wonder how things look on the other side."

They soon found out, Michael offering a silent prayer of thanks that he and Anna had been protected from the worst of the blast by the ridge. The ground ran down to a small stream, then climbed to the next ridge. Before the Hammers had arrived, the valley would have been close to idyllic: well wooded, cool under trees undisturbed since the planetary engineers had seeded them into the ground, a stream running cold and clear across water-worn granite, rich with plants, birds, and wild animals.

The valley had been a small piece of paradise on a screwed-up world. Now it was hell.

For hundreds of meters upstream and downstream from where Michael and Anna stood, the valley was a nightmare of shattered trees, the ground a shambles of blast-tossed trunks blown into untidy heaps interlaced with branches stripped bare of leaves, the air thick with the acrid smell of charred wood and burned fuel, thin skeins of blue smoke drifting, twisting away into the sky.

Nothing moved, the silence oppressive. Michael scanned the valley for any sign of life. "Nothing," he said after a while. "You see anything?"

"No. Any poor bastard caught down there would have had no chance. You think they were after the 48th?" Anna asked.

"I hope not," Michael said with a heavy heart, "though the Hammers must have seen something to justify a four-lander strike. Come on, they'll have sent recon drones on their way back to count bodies… if they can find any left to count, that is," he added bitterly.

With a heavy heart Michael followed Anna. The Hammers' ability to rain death and destruction down on the NRA wherever and whenever they chose reinforced his growing fear that this war might be unwinnable. The prospect sickened him; for all its faults, humanspace deserved better than a victorious Hammer of Kraa: a vengeful, bloody-handed, and ruthless instrument of death.

Anna led the way back into the cool of the forest, forcing the pace now that the forest canopy minimized any chance they might be detected by battlesats or recon drones. Two more days should see them out of the granite country and back into the karst; another day after that and they would be home.

So Michael hoped. Saturday, November 24, 2401, UD Branxton Ranges, south of Perdan, Commitment

"I'm sure I saw something," Anna whispered. "Here, check it out."

She spit on the inside of her wrist and pressed her forearm to his. Michael's neuronics went online with Anna's; a second later he was looking through her optronics-enhanced eyes at a tumbled cluster of boulders overgrown with thick strands of creeper, a tangled green nightmare.

"Okay," he said, staring at the scarlet target icon Anna had laid over the image, "but what am I supposed to be seeing?"

"Keep looking."

Hard as he tried, all he saw was greenery. He shifted his optronics filters up and down the wavelengths, stopping in the infrared. Then he saw it, a patch of exposed rock toward the top of the outcrop that showed up a few degrees warmer than the rest. After a while he worked out what he was looking at: the infrared signature of a man's buttocks, a figure eight lying on its side.

"Nice work, Anna," he said. "Someone was sitting in that damn rock not long ago."

"He was. We don't know if they are expecting us or not. We may have triggered a sensor," she said, head swiveling around slowly to check their surroundings. "Though I don't think so as I'm not picking up any radio transmissions from any sensor lines. We were very careful coming in."

"I'm glad we knew about it. We owe those sensor recon teams a beer."

"We do," Anna said. "Anyway, we need to get the hell out of here. Back the way we came before heading west… fast. If the NRA intel is correct, five klicks will take us around the end of this sensor line. If they did detect us coming south, we should be clear by the time they work out that we're not going to walk into their ambush. Let's go."

Nerves jangling, Michael slid backward with infinite care, his every movement slow and deliberate, paced to ensure that he never overtaxed his chromaflage, that nothing except the sounds and sights of the forest reached the line of holocams and acoustic sensors the Hammers had strung across their path.

Once out of sight of the boulders and well clear of the sensor line, he and Anna turned. Moving fast now, they made their way to the end of the line of Hammer sensors before turning south again.

Finally clear, Anna stopped and waved Michael forward. "Okay?" she whispered.


"I think we're clear. Your neuronics picking up any radio transmissions?"

"No, still nothing."

"Good. That means the Hammers haven't air-dropped any remote sensors. Let's go."

With that, she was on her feet, moving quietly through the trees, the need for speed tempered by the need to stay quiet. The NRA knew the locations of the Hammers' fixed sensor lines; where they might have dropped thousands of short-lived microsensors to try to pick up the retreating NRA was another matter. Scattered at random in the thousands in the aftermath of any big NRA operation, the microsensors were card-sized boxes packed with a wide-angle holocam and microphone, an optical and acoustic signal processor, a power supply good for a week's operation, and a simple radio transmitter, all attached to a cable and cross-frame aerial designed to snag in the trees. Simple, cheap, and crude-just like the Hammers, Michael always thought-the microsensors would hang in the trees waiting to shout for help if something out of the ordinary walked past.

All Michael could hope was that they never ran into one; the Branxton Ranges was a big place, and even the Hammers could not cover every square meter of it with microsensors.

For hour after hour they did not stop, crossing a series of valleys and ridges until Anna declared herself satisfied they were clear and called a halt. Michael was beginning not to care much; his left leg was mounting its usual protest. Dropping to the ground, he fumbled around in a pocket until he found his supply of painkillers-his drugbots had run out long since-swallowing a couple with a welcome drink from his canteen.

"What a life," he muttered. "Wha-"

Michael's neuronics screamed a sudden warning, and without thinking, he was on his feet, dragging Anna with him. "You get that?" he said as they started to run.

"Yup. Bastards have pinged us," Anna said while they plunged through the undergrowth away from the radio transmissions detected by their neuronics. "Those sensors were real close. All we can do is go like hell and hope they're slow to turn up. They'll be getting a lot of these intercepts."

"Optimist," Michael said, beginning to breathe hard.

"Come on, faster," was Anna's response.

Michael ran as he had never run before, launching himself into a pounding, driving relentless plunge through the tangled undergrowth and down into the valley bottom, slipping and sliding across water-slicked rocks, forcing a path back up to the ridge, cursing when roots snagged boots, when branches slashed savage welts into exposed skin, when tanglevine snagged rifle or helmet or backpack, heart hammering, chest heaving, legs dissolving into molten rivers of white-hot agony. All pain was ignored in a desperate race to get over the ridge and into the valley beyond, then the next, and the next, pushed on by willpower alone, on, on, on, until his willpower ran out and his body crashed to the ground in a sobbing heap, lungs fighting to drag air in to feed muscles screaming for oxygen, legs locked, unable to take him another meter.

"Stop," he whispered, straining to make himself heard. "Stop." It was all his tortured lungs would allow.

Anna did stop; she turned back and slid to the ground alongside him, breathing hard. "Take five," she said. "Then we need to get into clear ground. We'll go one more klick that way, but low and slow this time. Okay?"

Michael nodded; he could not speak. Facedown in the dirt of the forest floor, he waited. Slowly the pain from legs and lungs abated. "I'm ready," he said at last. "Let's go."

"Okay," Anna said.

Staying on her stomach, she was off, easing her way smoothly over the ground. With an effort, Michael made himself follow, even though all he wanted was to find a cool, dark, safe place to rest up. But giving up was not an option. He hated the thought that he might be the one who called it quits first. He would stop when Anna said stop, so he kept going, though for how long, he did not know.

An age later, Michael was close to collapse, exhausted, in pain, hungry, thirsty. Toward the end, the only thing that sustained him was Anna's relentless ability to keep moving, her body sliding ahead of him in complete silence over rock, through water and undergrowth, the pace set to allow her chromaflage to blend her shape into the background, invisible to any Hammer holocam. No matter how bad he felt, he always had just enough left to follow her, his eyes locked with manic determination on the tiny ID patch on the back of her helmet.

Crossing a small ridge, they slithered down to a thin trickle of a stream where a sizable clearing opened up by a fallen tree long covered by a sprawling mass of vine dominated the gully. Michael followed Anna under the tangled mess, overwhelmed with relief when she signaled a stop. Please let that be it for today, he prayed.

"I'm not picking up any radio transmissions," Anna whispered, "but I want a thorough check. If there are sensors around us, we need to know. If the area's clear, we'll lie up here while we work out what to do next. You take west through south to east. I'll do north. Okay?"

"Yes, sir," Michael muttered; at times Anna was more marine than the marines were.

He moved until he had an uninterrupted view of his half of the clearing. Then, with excruciating care, he scanned the area, his optronics hunting for the telltale shape and faint infrared signature of a microsensor. There was nothing, so he repeated the process a second and third time until he was certain the area was clear. Edging back under the vine, he waited until Anna had finished.

"I've seen nothing," he said. "You?"

"Not a damn thing," Anna replied. "No sensors here."

"Problem is, the Hammers know we're around."

"Yes, they do," Anna said, "but they will also know that there are only a few of us, a section at most."

"So, the question is this," Michael said. "Are a few NRA troopers worth bothering about?"

"Knowing the Hammers, yes, they are," Anna said. "They are going to bomb the crap out of every last square centimeter of the Branxtons if they have to. Not that it matters. We can't go on like this. If they're seeding this area with sensors, we can run all we like; they'll get us in the end, most likely with one of those fuel-air bombs they love so much. We're safe here, so we can just drop out of sight to hide out until the Hammers lose interest. If they find us…" Anna's voice trailed off into silence.

Michael nodded. He knew what Anna was trying to say. "I checked on the way in. If we're flushed out, there's a small bluff upstream. If the Hammers look like finding us, we'll fall back to that. They'll have trouble getting at us, and with a bit of luck we'll take…"

It was Michael's turn to choke. Wordlessly, he reached over to take Anna in his arms. He held her tight for a long time. "Not quite what I planned, Anna," he said, pushing her back to look her right in the face.

"What do you mean?"

"This." Michael waved a hand around their hideout. "Hiding from the Hammers. Knowing that we're dead if they catch us. I'm sorry, Anna," he said, his voice cracking under the guilt. "I'm so sorry I dragged you into this. I-"

"Shut up! Shut up!" Anna hissed, her eyes filling with tears. "At least we're together. Better one day with you than a lifetime without."

"You mean that?" Michael said, stunned by the raw emotion in her voice.

"Yes, Michael Helfort, I do." Tuesday, November 27, 2401, UD Branxton Ranges, south of Perdan, Commitment

Michael awoke with a start, utterly lost. "What the mmmp-phhh!" he spluttered when Anna clamped her hand over his mouth.

"Stand to," she whispered. "Company."

Michael stifled a curse. Save for a single Hammer foot patrol that had crossed the stream a good 300 meters above their lay-up position without stopping, they had not seen a soul. Before he turned in, Michael had allowed himself to hope that they would soon be able to resume their march back to the Branxtons and safety. Moving carefully, he eased into position alongside Anna.

"What's up?"

"Hammer recon drones. I'd say they're screening a ground unit doing a sweep upstream."

"Why? Why now?" he muttered, squinting hard into the gloom. Michael heard the drones passing overhead and then the Hammer grunts before he saw them. His heart sank when he spotted their blurred, chromaflaged shapes working their way slowly through the trees toward them in a loose arrowhead formation, the line pausing as possible hiding places were searched.

"Platoon strength," he said. He did not fancy his and Anna's chances; the vine-covered tree was too obvious a hideout. The Hammers were sure to search it, and if they did, they would have to be blind to miss them; Hammer optronics were not that bad. All of a sudden, their original plan-to head for the bluff and die fighting-did not seem so attractive. "Anna," he hissed. "We need to go before they get too close."

"Agreed. Go!"

Michael and Anna slithered out of the scrape, working their way through the brush in an awkward, scrambling crawl in a frantic race to get clear and still stay undetected. Throwing a glance over his shoulder, Michael saw the Hammers had closed the gap; even taking his time, a man on foot was faster than one on his belly. This was one race they were not going to win. If they kept crawling, he and Anna had maybe ten minutes before the Hammers overran them. If they made a run for it, the firepower of a platoon of Hammers would make short work of them. They would not get 20 meters before the drones picked them up.

"Anna," Michael said. "We have to think of something. This won't work."

"Working on it. Keep going."

Michael was out of ideas, so he did the only thing he could: He had to trust Anna and keep moving. She had been angling uphill; they had gone perhaps 50 meters when she pointed at a thin cleft between two rocks among a large outcrop of boulders.

"You're kidding, Anna," he muttered. Her choice was a good one, though. The Hammer search line would split to flow around the outcrop; provided that they did not look back, they might get away with it.

"We're not going to do any better than this, so you first, then me on top. If we're lucky, the chromaflage should do the job. They won't think of looking in there."

"We hope," Michael said as he backed himself in between the boulders. Adjusting his chromaflage and settling his helmet down to leave only the tiniest gap to keep an eye on things, he tried not to wince while Anna, getting herself into position fast clearly uppermost in her mind, not his well-being, squirmed over him. Anna's hand found his; she squeezed hard. Squeezing back before putting their wrists together, he made sure his rifle was to hand and resigned himself to his fate. He commed Anna. "I love you," he said.

"Love you, too," she replied, "but it's time to concentrate."

Chastened, Michael shut up. Soon it became obvious that the Hammers were less than enamored with their mission. The company NCOs maintained a steady stream of sotto voce orders: speed up, slow down, keep spacing, check this, check that, and so on. No way to run a sweep, Michael reckoned. A couple of well-positioned platoons could inflict terrible damage on the Hammers before they could react. They must be confident that there were no NRA units around to be so careless. Much encouraged, Michael allowed himself to hope.

Then the first Hammers were on them. They walked past, heads swinging from side to side as they scanned the ground, the nearest so close that Michael imagined he could smell the man's sweat. He held his breath, willing them on, his heart pounding so hard that he had trouble believing the nearest rifleman could not hear it. Slowly, ever so slowly, they moved past.

An eon later, the last of the Hammers had vanished, and Michael allowed himself to believe that they had gotten away with it. "Let's go," he said.

Anna scrambled out, and Michael followed, stretching hard to get the blood flowing into cramped limbs. "Now what?" he said.

"We follow them." Anna pointed upstream.


"Sounds crazy, but-"

"Sounds crazy? For chrissakes, Anna! It is crazy."

Anna shook her head. "No, it's not. The Hammers have been dropping sensors by the landerload. If we trigger any and as long as they can't see us, they'll think what they are hearing is part of that patrol. They're noisy enough. More to the point, they are heading the way we want to go."

"Okay," Michael said, face creased with concern. "If you're sure."

Anna's mouth tightened into a thin line, what Michael liked to call her "why are you arguing with me" look. "I'm sure," she said. "Provided we stay close but not too close, this'll work." Without another word she settled her pack, adjusted her chromaflage cape, and set off.

With a sigh, Michael followed.

Long hours later, Michael had to concede that Anna had been right. His neuronics had repeatedly picked up the characteristic warbling of microsensor radios reporting activity back to whoever was controlling the Hammer ground operation. They would have been dead meat blundering around the forest had they not been following what had to be the noisiest soldiers ever. Patrol discipline was non ex is tent; Michael and Anna had been able to tuck themselves in close behind. There they stayed while the patrol worked its way south, every kilometer taking them a kilometer closer to safety, climbing steadily out of the foothills and into the Branxtons proper, the forest broken open by a mixture of grassy glades interspersed with clumps of scrubby trees and granite outcrops.

"What do you think?" Anna whispered.

"Something's happening. I think they've been retasked."

"Looks like it. Another intercept, I'd say. Must have been a big one to get that lot off their fat useless asses."

In front of them, the Hammers were breaking camp in a flurry of activity leavened with liberal doses of invective from unhappy corporals, the platoon's recon drones bursting into noisy life before climbing away into the sky. Michael smiled to himself while he watched. The platoon commander, a tall man with an accent that marked him as a native of Faith planet, sat with his NCOs around him, clearly planning whatever came next. Michael ached to blow his head off, the man's shock of red hair a target even he could not miss.

Ten minutes later and the patrol was on the move, this time in a column and moving fast, their screen of recon drones pushed out ahead of them in a loose line abreast. No need to worry about losing contact, Michael realized as they fell in behind. A herd of blind buffalo made less noise than these Hammers. Their casual indifference to their surroundings spoke volumes for their confidence; these men had no doubt they were in safe territory. To some extent, Michael had discounted the NRA assessments of the Hammer's planetary defense force-poorly led and badly trained and with rock-bottom morale was the NRA's view-but now that he had seen it for himself, he knew they were on the money. Even so, he reminded himself, the PGDF outnumbered the NRA, and they had more artillery, better communications, and an air force, not to mention marine armor and ground-attack landers to back them up when things turned bad. So, substandard or not, the PGDF was still a serious threat.

Two hours later, the patrol disappeared over the crest of a ridge, a broken line of rock 10 or so meters high. Crawling forward, Anna and Michael peered down into the valley beyond, which was lightly wooded and thickly studded with boulders tossed down from the ridgelines. The cause of the patrol's abrupt redeployment was obvious. A kilometer or so upstream from their position, the Hammers were setting up for a major operation; the valley floor was a hive of activity, swarming with soldiers, the air overhead full of recon and attack drones.

"That's their rally point," Anna said. "They're pulling in all the patrols they've had looking for people like us."

"Oh, for an attack lander or two," Michael breathed.

"Amen to that," Anna whispered back. "Shit, they're slack. Unbelievable. No air defense, pickets in way too close, no remote sensor chain that I can detect. Seems they are happy to rely on the feeds from their recon drones."

"So what do we do?"

"Wait and watch. All this effort means there must be a target somewhere close, one they don't want to spook; otherwise we'd be seeing landers landing and taking off. So, what? Five klicks away? Something like that. When they start to move, we'll get an idea of the direction. We need to try to get ahead of them and warn the good guys."

"Sounds like a plan." Thursday, November 29, 2401, UD Branxton Ranges, south of Perdan, Commitment

Chest heaving and lungs burning, Michael ran hard after Anna, her chromaflaged form all but invisible in the darkness while it ducked and weaved through the thin, woody scrub, his optronics-boosted eyes scanning for any sign of life. Be damn stupid, he said to himself, to come all this way and get shot by an NRA trooper.

That was the flaw in the plan. They knew where the Hammers were. They knew roughly in what direction they were heading, but they had no idea where the NRA was, their only clue a wild-assed guess how far less-than-motivated planetary defense soldiers could be persuaded to walk to their start line. So now, rather than tailing the Hammers, they were trying to stay ahead of them but not so far ahead that they blundered into the waiting NRA, a process a hundred times more difficult.

Confident that they were clear, Anna stopped. "Over here," she whispered, pointing to a clump of bushes.

They waited until the unmistakable sound of Hammer recon drones on the move broke the silence. "Moving more south, I think."

"They are. Let's go."

They were off again, the stop-and-go process repeated until the group Michael and Anna had been tracking-an entire battalion, he reckoned-dropped down to take up positions in a line across what was, according to Michael's map, the valley of the River Kendozo, here little more than a stream.

Michael watched the Hammers start to organize themselves, a large number of crew-served weapons-mortars, missile launchers, heavy machine guns-setting up under chromaflage netting, all pointing upstream. "They're a blocking force," he said.

"Yup, which means the good guys are that way," Anna said, pointing up the valley. "Looks to me like the Hammers are going to try to drive our guys downstream onto this lot's guns; anyone who tries to break out of the valley will get picked off by attack drones and landers. Simple."

"So what do we do?" Michael said.

"We can keep heading south, or we can try to screw the Hammers' operation. Which?"

Everything told Michael, "Go south, go south." How were two people to change the outcome of this battle? The NRA had been harassed and hounded every step of the way back from Perdan by landers. Its troopers must be exhausted, many wounded; they had few, if any, heavy weapons; and the Hammers outnumbered them by a huge margin. This was one battle the NRA could never win.

"Easy," Michael said, all of a sudden sick of the endless running. "We screw the Hammers."

"Knew that's what you'd say, you sonofabitch," Anna said with a grin. "So how do we do that and live long enough to tell people what heroes we are?"

"Hell, I don't know. You're the closest thing to a marine around here. You tell me."

"Hmmm… there's only one thing we can do: force the Hammers to go early, before they are ready. That should buy the good guys enough time to disperse before those goddamned landers turn up. You have any microgrenades?"

Michael checked his pouches. "Two magazines of ten."

"Same. That should be enough. Let me see… yes. Okay, here's the plan…"


With a flat crack, the microgrenade arced away into space, a blurred black dot plummeting into the valley, with four more following in quick succession. Michael did not wait to see what happened next; clawing his way across the scree, he threw himself under cover as a storm of mortar fire dropped onto the outcrop he had been hiding behind, rock splinters plucking at his body armor as he dived for cover. "You sonsofbitches," he shouted, flinching when another salvo smashed home. The Hammers might be second-rate, but there was nothing wrong with their counterbattery systems.

The instant Anna opened fire, Michael was on the move again to a new firing position on the ridge, the air torn apart by the sound of more counterbattery fire. Trying not to think what a single mortar shell could do to Anna's body, he settled himself and aimed carefully. This time he could not help himself. He watched the second salvo of microgrenades climb into the sky before dropping among the Hammers, the valley walls echoing with the flat, slapping crack of grenades exploding, screams of pain rewarding the wait.

"Suck that, you fuckers," he whispered, hurling himself downslope out of his firing position in a mad tumbling slide to the safety of a large outcrop of rock an instant before the ridgeline erupted, his hands clawing at the ground when a second salvo arrived. At least their mortars were accurate, he muttered under his breath, climbing to his feet when Anna fired her last salvo. He would not have been around if they had not been. Cursing his own stupidity-though it felt good to see Hammers die-he raced on to the rendezvous point, the hillside behind him erupting when more mortar shells ravaged the mountainside. Morons, Michael thought, stunned by the incompetence of Hammer commanders. They must have assumed there were no NRA elements behind them; why else would they have the northern flank screened only by recon drones, and precious few of them?

Breathing hard, his adrenaline-charged body made short work of the 500 meters to a gully that cut down to the valley floor downstream of the Hammers. Anna was already there, holed up under cover of the stream bank, safely out of sight of the drones overhead, the flat crack of laser fire splitting the air as they fired on anything their optronics thought might be a worthwhile target.

"What kept you?" Anna snapped.

Michael knew better than to answer; wordlessly he slapped his last microgrenade magazine into his rifle.

"Let's go," Anna said, and they were off again, easing their way down the gully to the valley floor, stopping only when a drone passed overhead. Pausing for a second to make sure the Hammers had not woken up and sent foot patrols out to deal with them, they started back upstream. Still breathing hard-Michael knew why he had joined Space Fleet; you were carried into battle in climate-controlled comfort, no marching for days on end-he slid into position beside Anna.

"Hear that?" she said.

Belatedly, Michael noticed the unmistakable sound of small-arms fire mixed with the crack of mortars and the thumping bang of artillery coming from upstream. "Looks like we've attracted the attention of our people," he said.

Anna nodded. "I hope they have the sense to break out of the valley before the Hammer landers appear. It's their only chance. Right," she said, her voice steady. "Ready for phase 2?"

Michael grinned at the fierce determination in her voice. "Yes, sir!"

"Don't be a smart-ass," Anna said, face crinkling with disapproval. "It doesn't suit you. Come on."

Fifteen minutes later, they had crossed to the stream's southern bank, two blurs moving with extreme care into position a few meters below the opposite ridgeline. Below them and to their right, screened by scattered stands of thin trees, lay the Hammer line, an ants nest of activity where casualties were moved out of the line and back to the battalion aid station.

"Nobody's coming this way," Anna said at last. "Whoever's running that circus needs to be reprogrammed."

"I think they've decided we're not important enough to worry about."

"Sadly, they may be right. Right, targets."

Michael dialed in the range and drop. Squinting down his rifle's old-fashioned optical sights, he selected a Hammer. Judging by the way he was laying down the law, the man was an officer. A stupid one: He was making no effort to stay under cover. "On," Michael said, steadying his sights on the narrow gap between helmet and body armor.

"Ready," Anna said. "Now!"

They fired in unison, Michael's target jerking backward before dropping out of sight. The sights on his rifle might be old-fashioned, he thought as he worked his way methodically through those Hammers dumb enough to stay exposed, but they were accurate. Hitting a man at any distance was hard; making a dropping shot count was even harder, and Michael was no great marksman. The Hammers, slow to respond, started to return fire in earnest, a blizzard of small-arms fire guided by hostile fire indicators flaying the ground around their position.

"Time to go," Michael said after one round came close, the hypersonic round fizzing past with a whip crack.

"Not yet. Grenades."

With a flick of the switch, Michael selected the microgrenade launcher; without waiting for Anna, he unloaded the entire magazine as fast as he could.

"Go!" he shouted as the valley echoed to the flat cracks of microgrenades. The screams of the injured were followed an instant later by the crump of mortar shells hunting vainly for the attackers.

They ran from the valley of the River Kendozo, Michael praying hard every step of the way that they had given the NRA enough time to break out of the trap set for them by the Hammers.

Then Michael heard the unmistakable sound of marine ground-attack landers inbound; too quick, far too quick he thought, sickened by the knowledge of what came next, of being witness to what the Hammer military did best: the ruthless application of massive firepower. It was not long before the ground started to shake, the air filling with the sickening double thud of fuel-air bombs followed by the explosive crack of kinetics hitting the ground, then more bombs, more kinetics, in a relentless rolling storm of noise until the earth heaved under his feet, the sound of exploding ordnance blending into a continuous roar, the song of the Hammers, an anthem of death.

Michael paused for a second to look back. The northern sky was the stuff of nightmares. Clouds of flame-shot smoke and dust were beginning their climb into the sky, towering monuments to the enormous power of the Hammer military machine. Poor bastards, he said to himself. With a heavy heart, he turned and followed Anna south.

There was nothing more they could do now. Friday, November 30, 2401, UD Offices of the Supreme Council for the Preservation of the Faith

The Defense Council was deathly quiet as the commanding general, Hammer of Kraa Marines, wrapped up his presentation.

"… so it is with considerable confidence that I can assure the council that we have learned the lessons of past failures. There will be no more Perdans," Baxter said, looking pointedly at the PGDF supporters around the table. "This time we will not fail. Operation Medusa will succeed. Are there any questions?"

"Thank you, General Baxter," Polk said. Despite an innate distrust of the military, despite not trusting Baxter as far as he could spit, the man's unshakable faith in the ability of his marines to get the job done had impressed him deeply. "Questions, anyone?"

Unsurprisingly, there were none. Baxter's presentation had been pitched perfectly, every conceivable objection stopped dead in its tracks, the PGDF's supporters around the table cowed into silence by a string of defeats at the hands of the NRA that had culminated in their abject failure at Perdan.

"No? Okay, thank you, General Baxter. If you would care to withdraw, the council will review your proposal and if appropriate vote to approve it or not."

"Thank you, sir," Baxter said.

Once the marine had left, Polk scanned the faces of the Defense Council to see if anyone present harbored any obvious doubts. He could see none. Time for the vote, he decided.

"Right, Councillors. If there are no questions, then it is time. All those in favor of Operation Medusa, please show… thank you. Approved unanimously. Admiral Belasz, given the importance of this operation, I require the war room to be operational forty-eight hours before commencement. All council meetings until the operation is concluded will be held there. Now, unless there is any other business… No? Fine. I declare this meeting closed."

As the Defense Council broke up, Polk waved Belasz over. "Walk with me, Admiral," he said.

"Yes, sir."

In silence, the pair made their way to Polk's office. Waving Belasz into one of the armchairs, Polk ordered coffee before taking his seat.

"So, Admiral. An impressive performance by the general, don't you think?"

"Yes, sir. It was. Though… may I be frank, sir?"

"Of course," Polk said, waving a hand. "Of course."

"I think it will be a lot harder than General Baxter allows."

Polk frowned. He had been buoyed by General Baxter's confidence, and this was not what he wanted to hear. "How so?" he said.

"I think General Baxter's staff has the basics right. The marines will attack with overwhelming force, heavily armed. The entry strategy is close to genius, and once the marines are in, they can push the heretics back. I concede all that, but the Branxtons are unique. Hundreds of kilometers of caves and tunnels, thousands of hectares of limestone karst, millions of sinkholes leading Kraa only knows where. Where do we attack? Who knows?"

"We know, Admiral," Polk said. "Our agents have supplied us with the most detailed maps of the NRA's network of tunnels we have ever had."

"That's part of my concern, sir. The Branxtons are much too big for a small handful of agents to map. There are endless tunnels down there. We only know a small part of it. The Branxton karst is vast. There'll be tunnels down there the NRA doesn't even know about."

"Admiral, you worry too much."

"No, sir, I don't think I do. Let me give you an example. You know the new manufacturing facility those Kraa-damned Feds helped the NRA set up?"

"Yes," Polk conceded, his face tight with anger. The fact that Helfort was still at liberty despite the enormous reward posted for his capture gnawed at him. "So?"

"Well, sir. Where is it? None of the maps we have been given give us any clue despite the fact the place must be huge. If we can't find it, what else can't we find?"

"Enough, Admiral, enough!" Polk snapped. "Yes, there are things we do not know, but that's life. Baxter's marines know enough to get the job done, and that's all that matters. The NRA cannot run, they cannot hide. This time they have to fight, and General Baxter's marines will make sure they do. I'm confident they will succeed."

"Yes, sir," Belasz said. "I'm sure you're right."

Polk glared at Belasz, searching for the smallest sign of dissent, but there was none. "I am, I am," he continued. "Now, enough of that. I wanted to talk to you about your recommendation for the next fleet commander. I'm not sure Admiral O'Shaughnessy is the right man. I am concerned that…" Saturday, December 1, 2401, UD Portal Yankee-34, Branxton Base, Commitment

The northern approaches to the NRA's heartland-thickly wooded valleys cut sheer into the limestone karst plateau-were kilometers long and protected by intricate networks of antipersonnel lasers and antiarmor missile launchers, backed up by quick-reaction units, all shielded from the threat of Hammer fuel-air bombs and kinetics by meters of impenetrable limestone. The Hammers hated them so much that they had given up using them to attack the NRA's front door; their last attempt had left dead planetary defense soldiers scattered across the valley floors, bodies piled in heaps amid the smoking carcasses of light armor, their attack condemned to failure, trapped in slab-walled valleys, unable to escape.

Not that the NRA units securing the area were willing to take any chances that the Hammers had given up for good. When remote movement sensors flashed warning of incoming foot traffic, they stood to, troopers fanning out to take up their positions in the maze of tunnels that opened out onto the valley. Slowly, the sensors tracked the new arrivals until finally two figures emerged out of the gloom, their every step testament to utter fatigue, their rifles held in both hands over their heads. The young lieutenant in command of Yankee-34 allowed himself to relax; they were displaying the correct pass code of the day.

"Advance!" a voice called, and the two figures made their way into the cave mouth. The lieutenant watched while his troopers confirmed their identities before shaking them down for contraband.

"Two Feds, sir," his sergeant said, waving the pair through. "Trooper Helfort, 120th NRA, and Lieutenant Helfort. Both clear."

"Bring them in."


"Welcome back," the lieutenant said, trying not to let his shock show. He had seen his fair share of battlefield survivors, but these were in terrible shape: faces wide-eyed and hollow-cheeked with fatigue, postcombat stress, and hunger, chromaflage capes and combat overalls ripped, every square centimeter of exposed skin filthy with layers of ground-in dirt, hair lank with sweat. "Stand everyone down, Sergeant. I think we need to get you to the company aid station."

"Thanks," the man said, his voice hoarse, "but what I want is a wash. The wife"-he hooked a thumb at the woman-"says I smell."

The lieutenant had to laugh after hearing someone in that shape cracking jokes. "I have news for both of you," he said.

"You both stink something terrible, but we'll just have to put up with that. First we'll get you the ten-dollar medical, followed by something to eat before we send you to talk to the debriefers. You can grab a shower and new kit once they've finished. Okay?"

"That'd be good. Food ran out days ago; I never want to see another qolqass root as long as I live. There was plenty of it, but you'd think the geneers could have made the bloody stuff taste better. I'm Michael Helfort, by the way, and this sad-assed specimen is Mrs. Helfort, though since she became a grunt, I think she prefers Trooper Helfort."

"Dickwad!" the woman said softly.

The lieutenant grinned. "Karl Karlovic," he said, shaking hands with Anna and Michael. "Glad you made it back. Come on, follow me. The aid station's this way."

"Sounds good to me," Anna said. "My arm's badly in need of a new dressing."

Overwhelmed by grinding tiredness, Michael struggled to stay awake while Karlovic grabbed bowls of green gruel and steaming mugs of coffee.

"Get into it, guys," he said, slapping the food down.

Michael and Anna piled in. With every mouthful of what Karlovic assured him was beef chili, Michael's energy returned and his spirits rose. Five minutes later, he had been transformed into a new man. "Shit," he said, pushing his tray away. "That is one hell of a lot better than the field rations we haven't been eating."

"Never imagined I'd say this," Anna mumbled past a mouthful of gruel, "but this stuff, whatever it is, is the best damn food I've ever tasted, and the coffee's good, too."

"Pleased you like it," Karlovic said with a wry smile. "Personally, I hate the bloody stuff."

A companionable silence followed while they finished their coffee and Michael went for refills. "What's the story?" he said, sitting down and then straightening out a painfully stiff left leg. "How was the pullback from Perdan?"

Karlovic grimaced. "Not too bad, not too good. We had more casualties during the withdrawal than we suffered capturing Perdan. Those fucking landers and their fuel-air bombs. Kraa! Those bastards don't mind trashing their own planet." He shook his head despairingly. "They used bunker busters on the 98th and the 34th. Nukes, for Kraa's sake; they used nukes," he said with another shake of the head. "Unbelievable. Anyway, casualties weren't as bad as the planners had expected, so I guess that's the good news."

Michael flicked a glance at Anna. "The Fed marines, how did they go?"

"Your guys? The marines with the 120th?"


"Well, all things considered, they were damn lucky. They were holed up north of here along the Kendozo River together with the 88th, the 142nd, and stragglers from Kraa knows how many other regiments. ENCOMM sent word to them. Plan was for them to sit tight and wait for a diversionary attack on Daleel before moving. The idea was to keep the marine landers busy while they made a run for it. Don't know how, but the Hammers located them. Their plan was simple. Establish a perimeter to contain our guys, surprise them with the landers, carpet bomb the valley with fuel-air bombs, wipe everyone out. Anyone who tried to make a run for it wouldn't get past the containment line."

"Bastards," Michael whispered. "What then?"

"One of the Hammer units went off half-cocked, before the units responsible for the containment lines were established. The 120th's colonel worked out what was about to happen, and they managed to break out and get clear of the valley before the landers turned up. The other bit of good luck was that the Hammer's forward air controllers were not on the ball, so the Hammers wasted a great deal of ordnance blowing the crap out of an empty valley, trashing Kraa knows how many hectares of rock and scrub."

Anna's mouth hung open in disbelief for a moment. "They didn't pick the breakout?" she said. "How? Since when have the Hammers been blind? How could they not see three whole regiments on the move? That's a lot of people."

"I'm sure they did, but don't forget this. After what's happened over the past few months, the average PGDF officer is scared shitless. He knows what happens if he gets things wrong: up against a wall and bang! Initiative is no longer a military virtue; hell, no. Initiative is a life-threatening liability. So who can blame the PGDF's officers for sticking to the plan? Who can blame them for doing what they've been ordered to do until someone senior orders otherwise? And that's what happened. By the time fresh orders came, it was too late."

"Damn good thing, too."

"Yeah, it was. Anyway, then the Daleel operation kicked off, the landers were pulled off task, and most of our lot made it back. Bloody lucky, though."

Michael looked at Anna, a look of pure elation. "It worked, Anna," he said. "It damn well worked."

"So it seems," she said with a huge grin.

"What worked?" Karlovic said, obviously baffled.

"Sorry, Karl, private joke," Michael said.

"Oh, I see," Karlovic replied. Clearly, he did not, and much as Michael wanted to tell him, common sense told him to keep his mouth shut. If ENCOMM wanted to tell the world what happened at the Kendozo River, fine. If they did not, that was fine also.

"What about our heavy landers?" Anna said.

"Made it back okay so far as I know," Karlovic said.

"That's good. Any idea what happened to the rest of my crew?"

"No, sorry," Karlovic said with a shake of the head. "You'll need to check with ENCOMM."

"We'll do that."

One of Karlovic's troopers entered the canteen. "Lieutenant, the transport's here," she said.

"Thanks, Enjada," Karlovic said. "You guys ready?"

Anna and Michael nodded, and five minutes later they were on their way to the sector debriefing center. Two minutes after that, both were asleep, a rough tunnel floor and the cargobot's inadequate suspension no match for overwhelming exhaustion.

Every muscle in his body protesting, Michael climbed down out of the cargobot. Anna followed, wincing as her wounded arm caught for a moment.

"Still sore?" Michael asked.


Michael bit his lip while they walked down the narrow access tunnel leading to the small complex of caves that housed the Fed's administrative center. The NRA medics had said Anna's arm was well on the way to recovery notwithstanding the abuse it had suffered during their flight from Perdan. Anna refused to take the painkillers they prescribed, of course. "It'll be a long time before I trust Hammer medicines" had been her first and last words on the subject. Taking careful note of the set of her mouth, Michael had changed the subject, even though he knew Hammer painkillers were both effective and safe.

The tunnel opened out into a small lobby where Captain Adrissa waited for them. "Welcome back," she said. "I was beginning to wonder if we'd ever see you again."

"So was I, sir," Michael said.

"Me, too," Anna added.

"Quick question, sir."


"The rest of my crew: Ferreira, Bienefelt, Carmellini, Fodor, Morozov. Did they make it back?"

"Yes, they did. Chief Bienefelt's arm is badly chewed up, but the rest of the crew is fine. Bruised and battered but okay."

"I'm glad to hear it," Michael said, relief flooding through him in a cool, sweet wave. "Bienefelt's arm. Any details?"

"Sorry, not yet. The NRA's medics are under a bit of pressure."

"I'll follow it up. Any chance of a coffee, sir?"

"Of course."

They followed Adrissa into a cave. Michael caught his breath when they went in. "Well, well," he said. "Looks to me like the scroungers have been hard at work." He was right. The place was filled with an impressive array of furniture: tables, benches, a cluster of battered armchairs, a wall-mounted holovid, and, most important of all, what looked for all the world like-

"Yes!" Anna said when she spotted it. "Tell me I'm not dreaming. Tell me that's a Fed foodbot, please."

"It sure is," Adrissa said, her face split by a huge grin. "Didn't see any reason why Hell Bent and Alley Kat needed all their foodbots. Took a bit of arm-twisting, but I won in the end. Can't think why. So help yourselves."

After weeks of NRA gruel interspersed with field rations, Anna needed no encouragement. Soon she and Michael were plowing their way through food as good as any in humanspace. Adrissa nursed a large mug of coffee and watched them in silence.

"Waaah! That was good," Anna said at last, getting up to drop plates and cutlery into the foodbot's recycler.

"Well, now that the important stuff's out of the way," Adrissa said, "is there any chance of getting down to business?"

"Oh, sorry sir," Michael said, not feeling even slightly contrite as he scraped the last morsels of food off his plate. "Shoot."

"Thank you. Right. First, the Perdan operation. You have the datalogs for Widowmaker's last mission?"

"I have, sir," Michael said. "Autodownloaded when we ejected."

"Good. Comm them to my chief of staff. Don't know that we'll learn much, but we should have a look."

"Will be done, sir."

"Second, General Vaas talked to me this morning. His people have been over your debriefing report. He tells me that the two of you attacked… let me get this right… yes, you attacked an entire planetary defense battalion. The 1125th PGDF's Second Battalion, to be precise. Is that right?" Adrissa looked at them both in turn.

Michael's stomach executed a lazy somersault. Had something happened that Lieutenant Karlovic did not know about? "Er, yes," he said, his voice faltering. "We didn't know who they were at the time." He turned to Anna for help.

"Yes, sir," she said, the color rising in her face. "That was us. Wouldn't say attacked exactly. Lobbed a few microgrenades at them, shot a few officers, then legged it."

"That's what I've been told"-Adrissa's face dissolved into a broad smile-"and a damn good thing you did, General Vaas says. He asked me to say thank you. Because of your attack, the Hammer operation fell apart before it even started, and most of the NRA troopers in that valley escaped. Which means our marines escaped, too."


"Yes, though he was quite badly wounded. He was one of the last to get out before the Hammers started dropping those fuel-air bombs they like so much, but his grunts refused to leave him. They carried him back. He's in one of the base hospitals in… yes, in sector Echo."

"Can we see him?" Michael asked.

"Last I heard, yes, you can tomorrow. So if you're passing that way, sure. I'll comm you the first cut of ENCOMM's after-action report. It covers the Perdan operation as well as the withdrawal. You'll find it interesting. Now, orders. Anna."


"You'll find the battalion at Zulu-56. Colonel Haadith wants you back"-Anna's face fell-"in three days' time."

"Oh," Anna said, her surprise all too obvious. Leave was not something the NRA held in high regard. "Thanks."

"Don't thank me. Thank General Vaas."

"What about me, sir?" Michael asked. "Since I don't have a lander to carry me into battle, I think I ought to join the 120th."

Adrissa shook her head. "Maybe, but not yet. I'm giving you three days' leave as well, though I've no idea where the pair of you can go."

"We'll find somewhere, sir, don't you worry about that," Anna said with what looked to Michael horribly like a leer.

Adrissa shook her head. "When you get to my age, children, there's something rather… rather disturbing about young love. Anyway, Michael. When you've taken your three days' leave, report back here. You'll be attached to my staff for a week or two. I've got a project for you. We'll see where best to use your undoubted talents once it's finished. Okay?"

"Yes, sir," Michael said, troubled by an unexpected surge of relief that he would not have to face the Hammers any time soon, guilt-stricken that Anna would. Monday, December 3, 2401, UD Sector Echo Base Hospital, Branxton Base, Commitment

"Lieutenant Kallewi's awake," the nurse said. "We moved him out of the trauma tank this morning, but he's still very weak."

"Can he talk?" Michael said.

"Oh, yes, but we don't want him overdoing things, so you can have five minutes and no more. This way."

"Thanks," Michael said. Taking Anna's hand, he followed the man down the narrow tunnel, its walls punctuated every few meters by openings that led into brightly lit wards. Michael's heart sank; these were intensive care wards, and every trauma unit he could see was occupied, banks of subdued indicator lights blinking out the fate of the occupant. Michael shivered; the Perdan operation had been a success for the NRA, but the cost in dead and wounded had been huge. Only the fact that the NRA had managed to destroy the best part of two regiments of marines along with thousands of PGDF soldiers had made the operation worthwhile.

"Here we are," the nurse said. "Fifth bed on the left against the wall. I'll be back in five."


Anna and Michael walked down a short access tunnel before emerging into a large cave. In front of him ran four lines of beds, the space between them cluttered with equipment and monitors, and everywhere nurses in battle fatigues were moving from bed to bed, never stopping for long before moving to the next casualty. It was a terrible sight, the faces of the few alert enough to notice his arrival taut with shock and pain. Anna spotted Kallewi, and they threaded their way through the beds to where the marine lay, propped up on a pillow, face and forearms scarlet with flash burns under the slick shine of a yellow salve, eyes half-closed under bruised, puffy eyelids.

"Janos," Michael said softly.

"Yo," Kallewi said, his voice a strangled croak.

"You look good, Janos," Michael said.

"You are a liar, Michael, a bad one. The doctor told me this morning that I have the worst case of sunburn she's ever seen."

"Have to say I agree."

"Those fuel-air bombs are bastards. First one blew my helmet off; second one fried my face."

"So how're you feeling?"

"Okay, I guess. Hammer painkillers do the job; that's all I care about. Everything's fuzzy. Brain's been shaken up."

"What are the medics saying?"

"That'll I'll be fine. It's just a matter of time now until the blast damage heals. Their medibots are nowhere as good as ours, but they work." Kallewi's eyes closed. "Sorry, guys. I'm a bit tired. Maybe late-"

Kallewi was asleep. Michael stood and stared at the man until Anna led him away. Monday, December 3, 2401, UD Lakash Valley Lodge, Scobie's World

"No," Chief Councillor Polk said softly.

The Pascanician president frowned, the geneered perfection of his face creased with frustration and disappointment. Polk's eyes bored into Jack Mikoyan's, basilisklike, forcing the man to sit back in his chair, his head turning to break eye contact.

"I see," Mikoyan said, the fingers of both hands tapping the tabletop. "That seems clear. Not the most reasonable response, I have to say." He looked across the table directly at Polk. "Will you walk with me, Jeremiah?" he said. "I've had enough of those people for the moment." He waved a dismissive hand at the advisers who flanked both men.

He wants to concede, Polk thought exultantly, forcing his face to remain the impassive mask it had been throughout the day's negotiations, he wants to concede. "Of course, Jack," he said.

The pair walked to the far end of the deck. Out of earshot of their advisers, Jack Mikoyan turned and waved Polk into an armchair. "So," he said when both were settled, "we seem to be stuck for the moment."

"We do," Polk said. "Much as I want to agree with what your people want in the interests of getting the deal done, I cannot. I'm sorry. After all, we're the ones taking all the risks here. Let's not forget that."

Mikoyan shook his head. "I don't think that's right, Jeremiah. You're asking the Pascanici League to make the single biggest off-world investment it has ever made, an investment that aligns the league with the Hammer Worlds against the rest of humanspace. As you well know, Jeremiah, you cannot guarantee success. So please, don't tell me we're not taking a risk. We are. Together with you, we are."

"Okay, Jack," Polk said, hands up to concede the point. "Okay. Let me think about this. Let's say I agree to allow your ships exclusive shipping rights between all non-Hammer worlds…"

Polk paused, eyes narrowed and fingers to lips in a parody of thoughtful consideration. Mikoyan's body stiffened, a movement so small that it was barely perceptible; you would make a lousy poker player, President Mikoyan, Polk said to himself, dragging the wait out.

"Yes, I think we should offer that, Jack, but-"

Mikoyan leaned forward. "Let's finish this, Jeremiah. It's a good deal for you, and it's a good deal for us."

"I agree, but I'll need something back from you. We both know those rights are worth billions, no, make that trillions."

"Only if the Hammer Worlds defeat the Feds, Jeremiah."

"Which we will, Jack. That's why we should stop the haggling. The only way the Feds can win is if we don't do the deal."

"Fine," Mikoyan said. "We'll increase our capital contribution by 100 billion over and above what we've already agreed in exchange for the shipping rights."

"One hundred fifty and we have a deal."

Mikoyan frowned; then he put his hand out. "You are a hard man, Chief Councillor Polk, but I think we can live with that."

Polk took Mikoyan's hand and shook it hard. "Good. While those parasites over there write it up, I have a bottle of real French vintage champagne I'd like to share with you and a few friends. We can drink to the day when the Feds no longer dominate humanspace."

"A glass of champagne? I think I'd like that, Jeremiah."

"Not as much as you'll enjoy my friends, Jack." Wednesday, December 5, 2401, UD FLTDETCOMM, Branxton Base, Commitment

Leaving Anna to pack up her gear and say her goodbyes, Michael had made his way to the Fleet detachment's offices, his place of duty until Captain Adrissa relented and let him join the 120th. Not that he wanted to join the 120th; the thought terrified him. After all he had been through, he had struggled to work out why he was so frightened at the prospect. Lander operations did not trouble him; ground operations did. Being a grunt down in the muck and blood of ground combat, slogging it out meters from the Hammers, turned his bowels to water. He remembered an old marine, a veteran of years of combat, saying that each human only had so much bravery in him; bit by bit, stress and fear ate away at it until there was none left, until only sheer willpower kept you going… if you could, and some could not.

He prayed he never reached that point. The thought of being branded a coward in front of Anna was more terrifying than anything the Hammers might do to him.

It was early, and the office was empty. Michael found his workstation-an ancient holovid atop a battered packing case hacked into a crude desk-and logged into the NRA's operations network. He had been out of the loop for three days and badly wanted to know what had been happening. He was engrossed in the daily summary of operations pushed out each morning by ENCOMM when a soft voice broke his concentration.


Michael's heart sank. So soon, too soon. Anna always intended to rejoin the 120th, but that made her leaving no easier. "Hi, Anna. One second… okay, that's done," he said, logging off. "Come on."

Together they left the cramped offices that housed Captain Adrissa and her team: the Firefighters they called themselves in deference to the endless small crises they were called on to deal with. They walked in silence through a maze of narrow caves until they came to the sector transport terminus, a fancy name for the last stop on the sled line that connected to the Branxton's main maglev network. Anna dumped her pack, helmet, and rifle into the waiting sled. Turning, she slid her arms around his waist.

"That's what I call a leave."

"Mmm," Michael murmured, returning the embrace. Anna was right. A friendly trooper from the local portal security unit had told them about a small cave that opened into a thickly wooded glade complete with a spring-fed pool of crystal water screened from wandering Hammer battlesats and drones by an exuberant canopy of interlaced leaves and branches. The three days they had spent there had been idyllic; leaving had been all the more difficult for it.

Anna pushed away to look Michael full in the face. "You be careful, you hear?" she said softly.

"Shouldn't be a problem," Michael said with a touch of bitterness. "From what she's told me so far, Captain Adrissa seems determined to turn me in to some sort of glorified aide-de-camp running around following up her latest bright idea."

"It won't be so bad. At least you won't be having your ass shot off."

"Jeez, Anna!" he protested. "That helps."

An uncomfortable silence followed. "Sorry," Anna said eventually. "That was stupid. Sorry."

"It's not that, Anna. I just wish I knew this would all work out."

"It will."

Michael shook his head. "You don't know that, Anna. Nobody does. I'm beginning to think that we'll still be here in ten years wondering if we'll ever get home, if any of the Feds here because of me ever will get home."

"Is that so bad? You and me. We'll be together."

Michael snorted. "You know the life expectancy of an NRA trooper?"

"No, Michael," Anna said, "and I bloody well don't want to. What's done is done. Stop beating yourself to death. Hey"-her voice softened-"I'll be careful, I promise. No stupid risks. I'll see you in two weeks' time when the battalion's pulled back for training, okay?"


Anna lifted her face to his and kissed him long and hard, and Michael's world folded into the moment, an instant of intense intimacy, an instant in which the two of them became the entire universe.

Anna pulled away. "Love you," she whispered. She turned and without a backward look climbed into the sled.

"Love you, too," Michael replied.

He watched the sled accelerate; banking to one side, it disappeared into the tunnel, the soft squealing of its wheels fading as it raced away, swallowed by the darkness.

Back at his desk, Michael killed time until Adrissa's daily brief-called, in time-honored tradition, morning prayers-kicked off, the cramped conference room dominated by a single holovid screen filling with her staff and any Feds who might happen to be passing through. As he sat down, tucked away at the back, Sedova and Acharya walked in. Michael waved them over.

"Was wondering when I'd see you guys again."

Sedova grimaced. "You're one to talk. I've been through ENCOMM's after-action report on Tappet. You were lucky. Landers and Alaric air-to-air missiles are a bad combination."

"Don't we know it," Acharya added. "Bastard Hammers nearly nailed us last week. As it was, we only just outran their attack. Still, pity about poor old Widowmaker."

"Yeah," Michael said. "We were in the wrong place at the wrong time. It happens. I was sorry to lose Widowmaker. She was a good ship. And it's a… oh, hold on. Looks like we're starting. You guys staying around?"

"Yep," Sedova said. "Coffee later?"


Michael settled down while Adrissa started the proceedings before handing over to her intelligence officer, a young lieutenant Michael did not know. Mitchell Davies was his name, one of the few spacers to make it off the dying al-Badisi, a stringy beanpole of a man with a shock of thick black hair and intense eyes.

"Good morning everyone," Davies said. "ENCOMM's full intelligence summary as of 06:00 is available for download, so I won't waste time repeating it. There is, however, one thing that needs highlighting. You all know that there has been a significant reduction in the tempo of Hammer operations all across the northern front, and NRA sources inside DocSec confirm that their operations have been cut back also. I think we were all looking forward to a period of quiet.

"Well, ENCOMM thinks it now knows why the Hammers have cut back on operations. If you look at the holovid, you will see a summary of Hammer activity over the last week. Here is Amokran marine base to the northeast of us. It's home to the Hammer's MARFOR 6 plus a raft of logistics, maintenance, and support units. Amokran is crowded at the best of times, and as you can see, it's getting more so. NRA sources have reported the arrival of MARFOR 8's forward elements from Yamaichi. Sources there say the rest will follow over the next two weeks. That means there will be three full-size marine forces-MARFORs 6, 8, and 11-less than a thousand klicks from where we sit by year's end."

A buzz of concern rippled through the room.

"ENCOMM believes," the intelligence officer continued, "the reason for all this activity is that we will be facing a marine operation against the Branxtons some time early next year, a large one. The NRA's highest intelligence priority is finding out what those Hammers' plans are. More details as and when they come to hand. ENCOMM's hoping DocSec's security will be its usual leak-prone self, enough to give us plenty of warning. Captain?"

While Adrissa made her way to the lectern, Michael checked the math; his heart sank. If the Hammers deployed three marine forces, that meant an attacking force at least one hundred thousand strong, maybe more if the marines forgave the PGDF for the Perdan disaster and allowed them to join the party. Either way, with or without planetary defense forces participating, it was an ugly prospect.

Adrissa looked around the room before speaking. "I'm sure," she said, "I don't have to tell you that a marine group attack on the Branxtons will be a major problem. ENCOMM has established an operational planning group to draw up the NRA's response; they're calling it Operation Counterweight. Its first session will be later today. Some of you will be tasked to take part, and I'll let you know who you are once this briefing's over. Turning to other matters. Manufacturing. I see that there has been a problem with…"

Mugs of scalding hot coffee in hand, Michael sat with Sedova and Acharya in an alcove well clear of any senior officers roaming around looking for underemployed spacers to dump crappy little jobs onto.