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"No subordinates," said Miles firmly. "I want to talk to the head an, once and done. And then get out of here." "I'll keep trying," said Quinn. She turned back to her comconsole the Peregrine's tac room, which was presently transmitting the face of a high-ranking Bharaputran security officer, and began the argument again.
Miles sat back in his station chair, his boots flat to the deck, his hands held deliberately still along the control-studded armrests. Calm and control. That was the strategy. That was, at this point, the only strategy left to him. If only he'd been nine hours sooner . . . he'd methodically cursed every delay of the past five days, in four languages, till he'd run out of invective. They'd wasted fuel, profligately, pushing the Peregrine at max accelerations, and had nearly made up the Ariel's lead. Nearly. The delays had given Mark just enough time to take a bad idea, and turn it into a disaster. But not Mark alone. Miles was no longer a proponent of the hero-theory of disaster. A mess this complete required the full cooperation of a cast of dozens. He very much wanted to talk privately with Bel Thorne, and very, very soon. He had not counted on Bel proving as much of a loose cannon as Mark himself.
He glanced around the tac room, taking in the latest information from the vid displays. The Ariel was out of it, fled under fire to dock at Fell Station under Thorne's second-in-command, Lieutenant Hart, 'hey were now blockaded by half a dozen Bharaputran security vessels, lurking outside Fell's zone. Two more Bharaputran ships presently escorted the Peregrine in orbit. A token force, so far; the Peregrine outgunned them. That balance of power would shift when all their Bharaputran brethren arrived topside. Unless he could convince Baron Bharaputra it wasn't necessary.
He called up a view of the downside situation on his vid display, insofar as it was presently understood by the Peregrine's battle computers. The exterior layout of the Bharaputran medical complex was plain even from orbit, but he lacked the details of the interiors he'd have liked if he were planning a clever attack. No clever attack. Negotiation, and bribery ... he winced in anticipation of the upcoming costs. Bel Thorne, Mark, Green Squad, and fifty or so Bharaputran hostages were presently pinned down in a single building, separated from their damaged shuttle, and had been for the last eight hours. The shuttle pilot dead, three troopers injured. That would cost Bel its command, Miles swore to himself.
It would be dawn down there soon. The Bharaputrans had evacuated all the civilians from the rest of the complex, thank God, but had also brought in heavy security forces and equipment. Only the threat of harm to their valuable clones held back an overwhelming Bharaputran onslaught. He would not be negotiating from a position of strength, alas. Cool.
Quinn, without turning around, raised her hand and flashed him a high sign, Get ready. He glanced down, checking his own appearance. His officer's undress grays were borrowed from the next smallest person aboard the Peregrine, a five-foot-tall female from Engineering, and fit him sloppily. He only had half his proper insignia. Aggressively messy was a possible command style, but he really needed more props to bring it off. Adrenalin and suppressed rage would have to power his appearance. If not for the biochip on his vagus nerve, his old ulcers would be perforating his stomach about now. He opened his comconsole to Quinn's communications shunt, and waited.
With a sparkle, the image of a frowning man appeared over the vid plate. His dark hair was drawn back in a tight knot held by a gold ring, emphasizing the strong bones of his face. He wore a bronze-brown silk tunic, and no other jewelry. Olive-brown skin; he looked a healthy forty or so. Appearances were deceiving. It took more than one lifetime to scheme and fight one's way to the undisputed leadership of a Jacksonian House. Vasa Luigi, Baron Bharaputra, had been wearing the body of a clone for at least twenty years. He certainly took good care of it. The vulnerable period of another brain transplant would be doubly dangerous for a man whose power so many ruthless subordinates coveted. This man is not for playing games with, Miles decided.
"Bharaputra here," the man in brown stated, and waited. Indeed, the man and the House were one, for practical purposes.
Naismith here," said Miles. "Commanding, Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet."
"Apparently not completely," said Vasa Luigi blandly.
Miles peeled back his lips on set teeth, and managed not to flush. "Just so. You do understand, this raid was not authorized by me?"
"I understand you claim so. Personally, I should not be so anxious announce my failure of control over my subordinates."
He's baiting you. Cool. "We need to have our facts straight. I have not yet established if Captain Thorne was actually suborned, or merely taken in by my fellow-clone. In any case, it is your own product, for whatever sentimental reasons, who has returned to attempt to extract some personal revenge upon you. I'm just an innocent bystander, trying to straighten things out."
"You," Baron Bharaputra blinked, like a lizard, "are a curiosity. We not manufacture you. Where did you come from?"
"Does it matter?"
"Then it is information for sale or trade, not for free." That was old Jacksonian etiquette; the Baron nodded, unoffended. They were entering the realm of Deal, if not yet a deal between equals. Good.
The Baron did not immediately pursue Miles's family history, though. "So what is it you want from me, Admiral?"
"I wish to help you. I can, if given a free hand, extract my people from that unfortunate dilemma downside with a minimum of further damage to Bharaputran persons or property. Quiet and clean. I would even consider paying reasonable costs of physical damages thus far incurred."
"I do not require your help, Admiral."
"You do if you wish to keep your costs down."
Vasa Luigi's eyes narrowed, considering this. "Is that a threat?"
Miles shrugged. "Quite the reverse. Both our costs can be very low—or both our costs can be very high. I would prefer low."
The Baron's eyes flicked right, at some thing or person out of range he vid pick-up. "Excuse me a moment, Admiral." His face was laced with a holding-pattern.
Quinn drifted over. "Think we'll be able to save any of those poor clones?"
He ran his hands through his hair. "Hell, Elli, I'm still trying to Green Squad out! I doubt it."
"That's a shame. We've come all this way."
"Look, I have crusades a lot closer to home than Jackson's Whole, if you want 'em. A hell of a lot more than fifty kids are killed each year in the Barrayaran backcountry for suspected mutation, for starters. I can't afford to get . . . quixotic like Mark. I don't know where he picked up those ideas, it couldn't have been from the Bharaputrans. Or the Komarrans."
Quinn's brows rose; she opened her mouth, then shut it as if on some second thought, and smiled dryly. But then she said, "It's Mark I was thinking about. You keep saying you want to get him to trust you."
"Make him a gift of the clones? I wish I could. Right after I finish strangling him with my bare hands, which will be right after I finish hanging Bel Thorne. Mark is Mark, he owes me nothing, but Bel should have known better." His teeth clenched, aching. Her words shook him with galloping visions. Both ships, with every clone aboard, jumping triumphantly from Jacksonian local space . . . thumbing their noses at the bad Bharaputrans . . . Mark stammering gratitude, admiring . . . bring them all home to Mother . . . madness. Not possible. If he'd planned it all himself, from beginning to end, maybe. His plans certainly would not have included a midnight frontal assault with no back-up. The vid plate sparkled again, and he waved Quinn out of range. Vasa Luigi reappeared.
"Admiral Naismith," he nodded. "I have decided to allow you to order your mutinous crew to surrender to my security forces."
"I would not wish to put your security to any further trouble, Baron. They've been up all night, after all. Tired, and jumpy. I'll collect all my people myself."
"That will not be possible. But I will guarantee their lives. The individual fines for their criminal acts will be determined later."
Ransoms. He swallowed rage. "This ... is a possibility. But the fines must be determined in advance."
"You are hardly in a position to add conditions, Admiral."
"I only wish to avoid misunderstandings, Baron."
Vasa Luigi pursed his lips. "Very well. The troopers, ten thousand Betan dollars each. Officers, twenty-five thousand. Your hermaphrodite captain, fifty thousand, unless you wish us to dispose of it ourselves—no? I do not see that you have any use for your, ah, fellow clone, so we'll retain custody of him. In return, I shall waive property damage charges." The Baron nodded in satisfaction at his own generosity.
Upwards of a quarter of a million. Miles cringed inwardly. Well, it could be done. "But I am not without interest in the clone. What . . . price do you put on his head?"
"What possible interest?" Vasa Luigi inquired, surprised.
Miles shrugged. "I'd think it was obvious. My profession is full of hazards. I am the only survivor of my clone-clutch. The one I call Mark was as much a surprise to me as I was to him, I think; neither of us knew there was a second cloning project. Where else would I find such a perfect, ah, organ-donor, and on such short notice?"
Vasa Luigi opened his hands. "We might arrange to keep him safe )r you."
"If I needed him at all, I'd need him urgently. In the circumstances, I'd fear a sudden rise in the market price. Besides, accidents happen. Look at the accident that happened to poor Baron Fell's clone, in your keeping."
The temperature seemed to drop twenty degrees, and Miles cursed is tongue. That episode was apparently still classified information in these parts, or at least some kind of hot button. The Baron studied him, if not with more respect, then with increased suspicion. "If you wish another clone made for transplant purposes, Admiral, you've come to the right place. But this clone is not for sale."
"This clone does not belong to you," Miles snapped out, too quickly. No—steady on. Keep it cool, keep his real thoughts buried deep, maintain that smarmy surface persona that could actually cut a deal with Baron Bharaputra without vomiting. Cool. "Besides, there's that ten-year lead time. It's not some long-anticipated death from old age that concerns me. It's the abrupt surprise sort." After a pause, and with a heroic effort, he choked out, "You need not waive the property damage charges, of course."
"I need not do anything at all, Admiral," the Baron pointed out. Coolly.
Don't bet on it, you Jacksonian bastard. "Why do you want this particular clone, Baron? Considering how readily you could make yourself another."
"Not that readily. His medical records reveal he was quite a challenge." Vasa Luigi tapped the side of his aquiline nose with one forefinger, and smiled without much humor.
"Do you plan punishment? A warning to other malefactors?"
"He will doubtless regard it so."
So, there was a plan for Mark, or at least an idea that smelled of some profit. "Nothing in the direction of our Barrayaran progenitor, I trust. That plot is long dead. They know about us both."
"I admit, his Barrayaran connections interest me. Your Barrayaran connections interest me too. It is obvious from the name that you took for yourself that you've long known where you came from. Just what is your relationship with Barrayar, Admiral?"
"Queasy," he admitted. "They tolerate me, I do them a favor now and then. For a price. Beyond that, mutual avoidance. Barrayaran Imperial Security has a longer arm even than House Bharaputra. You don't want to attract their negative attention, I assure you."
Vasa Luigi's brows rose, politely skeptical. "A progenitor and two clones . . . three identical brothers. And all so short. Among you, I suppose you make a whole man."
Not to the point; the Baron was casting for something, information, presumably. "Three, but hardly identical," said Miles. "The original Lord Vorkosigan is a dull stick, I am assured. The limitations of Mark's capacities, he has just demonstrated, I fear. I was the improved model. My creators planned higher things for me, but they did their job too well, and I began planning for myself. A trick neither of my poor siblings seems to have mastered."
"I wish I could talk with your creators."
"I wish you could too. They are deceased."
The Baron favored him with a chill smile. "You're a cocky little fellow, aren't you?"
Miles stretched his lips in return, and said nothing.
The Baron sat back, tenting his fingers. "My offer stands. The clone is not for sale. But every thirty minutes, the fines will double. I advise you to close your deal quickly, Admiral. You will not get a better."
"I must have a brief consultation with my Fleet accountant," Miles temporized. "I will return your call shortly."
"How else?" Vasa Luigi murmured, with a small smile at his own wit.
Miles cut the comm abruptly, and sat. His stomach was shaking, hot red waves of shame and anger radiating outward through his whole body from the pit of his belly.
"But the Fleet accountant isn't here," Quinn pointed out, sounding slightly confused. Lieutenant Bone had indeed departed with Baz and the rest of the Dendarii from Escobar.
"I ... don't like Baron Bharaputra's deal."
"Can't ImpSec rescue Mark later?"
"I am ImpSec."
Quinn could hardly disagree; she fell silent.
"I want my space armor," he growled petulantly, hunching in his station chair.
"Mark has it," said Quinn.
"I know. My half-armor. My command headset."
"Mark has those too."
"I know." His hand slapped down hard on the arm of the chair, the harsh crack in the quiet chamber making Quinn flinch. "A squad leader's helmet, then!"
"What for?" said Quinn in a flat, unencouraging tone. "No crusades here, you said."
"I'm cutting myself a better deal." He swung to his feet. His blood beat in his ears, hotter and hotter. "Come on."
The seat straps bit into his body as the drop shuttle blew its clamps and accelerated away from the side of the Peregrine. Miles glanced up over the pilot's shoulder for a quick check of the planet's curvature sliding across the window, and a glimpse of his two fighter-shuttles falling away from the mothership to cover them. They were followed the Peregrine's second combat drop shuttle, the other half of his two-pronged attack. His faint feint. Would the Bharaputrans take it seriously? You hope. He turned his attention back to the glittering digital data-world supplied by his command headset, glad he was not stuck with a squad leader's helmet after all. He'd commandeered Elena Bothari-Jesek's downside-team captain's gear, while she rode the tactics room back aboard the Peregrine. Bring it back without any unsightly holes through it, damn you, she'd told him, her face pale with unexpressed anxiety. Practically everything he wore was liberated. An oversized nerve-disruptor shield-net suit had its cuffs turned up and held with elastic bands at wrists and ankles. Quinn had insisted on it, and as nerve-disruptor damage was his particular nightmare, he hadn't argued. Sloppy fatigues, held ditto. The plasma-mirror field pack straps cinched the extra fabric around his body reasonably well. Two pairs of thick socks kept his borrowed boots from sliding around. It was all very annoying, but hardly his greatest concern while trying to pull together a downside raid on thirty minutes' notice.
His greatest concern was their landing site. On top of Thorne's building would have been his first choice, but the shuttle pilot claimed that the whole building would collapse if they tried to set the shuttle down on it, and anyway the roof was peaked, not flat. The next closest possible site was occupied by the Ariel's dead and abandoned shuttle. The third-choice site looked like it was going to a long walk, especially on the return journey when Bharaputra's security would have had time to set up counter measures. Straight up the slot was not his preferred attack style. Well, maybe Sergeant Kimura and Yellow Squad in the second drop shuttle would give Baron Bharaputra something more urgent to think about. Take care your shuttle, Kimura. It's our only back-up, now. I should have brought the whole damned fleet.
He ignored his own shuttle's clanks and screams of deceleration as they hit the atmosphere—it was an excellent hell-drop, but it couldn't go fast enough to suit him—and watched the progress of his high cover in the colored codes and patterns of his helmet data display, the startled Bharaputran fighter-shuttles that had been guarding the Peregrine now found their attention suddenly divided. They wasted a few futile shots against the Peregrine itself, wavered after Kimura, then turned to pursue Miles's attack formation. One Bharaputran was blown to bits for its attempt almost immediately, and Miles whispered a pithy commendation for his Dendarii fighter pilot into his recorder on the spot. The other Bharaputran, unnerved, broke away to await reinforcements. Well, that had been easy. It was the trip back that was going to be maximum fun. He could feel the adrenalin high starting already, stranger and sweeter than a drug-rush through his body. It would last for hours, then depart abruptly, leaving him a burnt-out husk with hollow eyes and voice. Was it worth it? It will be if we win.
We will win.
As they rounded the planet to line-of-sight to their target, he tried contacting Thorne again. The Bharaputrans were jamming the main command channels. He tried dropping down and broadcasting a brief query on commercial bands, but got no response. Someone should have been assigned to monitor those. Well, he'd be able to punch through once they were on-site. He called up the holoview of the medical complex, ghost images dancing before his eyes. Speaking of straight up the slot, he was briefly tempted to order his fighter-shuttles to lay down a line of fire and blast a trench from his proposed landing site to Thorne's refuge, removing those inconvenient buildings from his path. But the trench would take too long to cool, and besides, the cover might benefit his own as much as Bharaputra's forces. Not quite as much, the Bharaputrans knew the layout better. He considered the probability of tunnels, utility tunnels, and ducts. He snorted at the thought of ducts, and frowned at the thought of Taura, led blindly into this meat grinder by Mark.
The wild, jerking decelerations ended at last as buildings rose around them—sniper vantage-points—and the shuttle thumped to the ground. Quinn, who'd been trying to raise communication channels from the station chair opposite his, behind the co-pilot, looked up and said simply, "I've got Thorne. Try setting 6-2-j. Audio only, no vids so far."
With a flick of his eyes and a controlled blink, he keyed in his erstwhile subordinate. "Bel? We're down, and coming for you. Get ready to break out. Is anyone left alive down here?"
He didn't have to see Bel's face to sense the wince. But at least Bel didn't waste time on excuses or apologies. "Two non-walking wounded. Trooper Phillipi died about fifteen minutes ago. We packed her head in ice. If you can bring the portable cryo-chamber, we might save something."
"Will do, but we don't have much time to fool with her. Start prepping her now. We'll be there as fast as we can." He nodded to Quinn, and they both rose and exited the flight-deck. He had the pilots seal the door behind them.
Quinn passed the word to the medic on what he was going to be dealing with, and the first half of Orange Squad swarmed from the shuttle to take up defensive positions. Two small armored hovercars went up immediately behind them, to clear any vantage points of Bharaputran snipers and replace them with Dendarii. When they reported a temporary Clear! Miles and Quinn followed Blue Squad down the ramp into the chill, damp dawn. He left the entire second half of Orange Squad to guard the shuttle, lest the Bharaputrans try to repeat their previous successful ploy.
Morning mist roiled faintly around the shuttle's hot skin. The sky was pearly with the slow-growing light, but the medical complex's structures still loomed in blotted shadow. A float-bike soared aloft, two troopers took the point at a dead run, and Blue Squad followed. Miles concentrated, forcing his short legs to pump fast enough to keep up. He wanted no long-legged trooper to temper his stride for his sake, ever. This time at least, none did, and he grunted satisfaction under his remaining breath. A scattered roar of small-arms fire echoing all around told him his Orange Squad perimeter-people were already hard at work.
They streamed around one building, under the cover of a second's portico, then past a third, the half-squads leap-frogging and covering each other. It was all too easy. The complex reminded Miles of those carnivorous flowers with the nectar-coated spines that all faced inwards. Slipping in was simple, for little bugs like him. It was the attempt to get out that would exhaust and kill. . . .
It was therefore almost a relief when the first sonic grenade went off. The Bharaputrans weren't saving it all for dessert. The explosion was a couple of buildings away, and rocked and reverberated strangely around the walkways. Not Dendarii issue, its deafening timbre was a tad off. He keyed his command helmet to follow the fire fight, half-subliminally, as Orange Squad rooted out a nest of Bharaputran security. It wasn't the Bharaputrans his people could smoke out that worried him. It was the ones they overlooked. . . . He wondered if the enemy had brought in more mass-projectile weapons in addition to sonic grenades, and was coldly conscious of the missing element in his borrowed half-armor. Quinn had tried to make him take her torso-armor, but he'd convinced her its oversized loose sliding around as he moved would just make him crazy. Crazier, he'd thought he'd heard her mutter, but he hadn't asked for an amplification. He wasn't planning on leading any cavalry charges this trip, that was certain.
He blinked away the distracting ghostly data flow as they rounded a final corner, scared off three or four lurking Bharaputrans, and approached the clone-creche. Big blocky building, it looked like a hotel. Shattered glass doors led into a foyer where shadowy gray-camouflaged defenders moved among hastily-raised shielding, metal doors torn from hinges and propped up. A quick exchange of countersigns, and they were in. Half of Blue Squad scattered instantly to reinforce the building's weary Green Squad defenders; the other half guarded him.
The medic warped the float pallet containing the portable cryo-chamber through the doors, and was hurriedly directed down a hallway by his comrades. Intelligently, they were prepping Phillipi in a side room, out of sight of their clone hostages. Step One was to remove as much as possible of the patient's own blood; under these hasty combat conditions, without any attempt to recover and store it. Rough, ready, and extremely messy; it was not a sight for the faint-hearted, nor the unprepared mind.
"Admiral," said a quiet alto voice.
He wheeled to find himself face to face with Bel Thorne. The hermaphrodite's features were almost as gray as the shield-net hood that framed them, an oval of lined and puffy fatigue. Plus another look, one he hated seeing there despite his anger. Defeat. Bel looked beaten, looked like it had lost it all. And so it has. They did not exchange a single word of blame or defense. They didn't need to; it was all plain in Bel's face and, he suspected, his own. He nodded in acknowledgment, of Bel, of it all.
Beside Bel stood another soldier, the top of his helmet—my helmet—not quite level with the top of Bel's shoulder. He had half-forgotten how startling Mark was. Do I really look like that?
"You—" Miles's voice cracked, and he found he had to stop and swallow. "Later, you and I are going to have a long talk. There's a lot you don't seem to understand."
Mark's chin came up, defiantly. Surely my face is not that round. It must be an illusion, from the hood. "What about these kids?" said Mark. "These clones."
"What about them?" A couple of young men in brown silk tunics and shorts appeared to be actually helping the Dendarii defenders, scared and excited rather than surly. Another group, boys and girls mixed, sat in a plain-scared bunch on the floor under the watchful eye of a stunner-armed trooper. Crap, they really are just kids.
"We've—you've got to take them along. Or I'm not going." Mark's teeth were set, but Miles saw him swallow.
"Don't tempt me," snarled Miles. "Of course we're taking them along, how the hell else would we get out of here alive?"
Mark's face lit, torn between hope and hatred. "And then what?" he demanded suspiciously.
"Oh," Miles carolled sarcastically, "we're just going to waltz right over to Bharaputra Station and drop them off, and thank Vasa Luigi kindly for the loan. Idiot! What d'you think? We load up and run like hell. The only place to put them would be out the airlock, and I guarantee you'd go first!"
Mark flinched, but took a deep breath and nodded. "All right, then."
"It is not. All. Right," Miles bit out. "It is merely . . . merely ..." he could not come up with a word to describe what it merely was, aside from the most screwed-up mess he'd ever encountered. "If you were going to try and pull a stupid stunt like this, you might at least have consulted the expert in the family!"
"You? Come to you for help? D'you think I'm crazy?" demanded Mark furiously.
"Yes—" They were interrupted by a staring blond clone boy, who'd walked up to them open-mouthed.
"You really are clones," he said in wonderment.
"No, we're twins born six years apart," snapped Miles. "Yes, we're just as much clones as you are, that's right, go back and sit down and obey orders, dammit."
The boy retreated hastily, whispering, "It's true!"
"Dammit," Mark howled under his breath, if that squeezed sotto vioce could be so described, "how come they believe you and not me? It's not fair!"
Quinn's voice, through his helmet, derailed the family reunion. "If you and Don Quixote Junior are done greeting each other, Medic Norwood has Phillipi prepped and loaded, and the wounded ready to transport."
"Form up, let's get the first batch out the door, then," he responded. He called up Blue Squad's sergeant. "Framingham, take the first convoy. You ready to roll?"
"Ready. Sergeant Taura has marshalled them for me."
"Go. And don't look back."
Half a dozen Dendarii, about three times that many bewildered and exhausted clones, and the two wounded troopers on float pallets assembled in the foyer and filed out the ruined doors. Framingham did not look too happy to be using a couple of young girls as a projectile-weapon shield; his chocolate-dark face was grim. But any Bharaputran snipers were going to have to take aim very, very carefully. The Dendarii forced the kids forward, if not at a run, then at least at a steady jog. A second group followed the first within a minute. Miles ran both non-coms' helmet transmissions down either side of his peripheral vision, while his ears strained for the deadly whine of small-arms fire.
Were they going to bring this off? Sergeant Taura shepherded the final gaggle of clones into the foyer. She greeted him with a demi-salute, without even pausing to puzzle between himself and Mark. "Glad to see you, sir," she rumbled.
"You too, Sergeant," he replied, heart-felt. If Mark had managed to get Taura killed, he didn't know how it could ever have been made right between them. At some more convenient moment he urgently wanted to find out how Mark had managed to fool her, and how intimately. Later.
Taura moved closer, and lowered her voice. "We lost four kids, escaped back to the Bharaputrans. Makes me kinda sick. Any chance . . . ?
Regretfully, he shook his head. "No way. No miracles this time. We've got to take what we can get and go, or we'll lose it all."
She nodded, understanding the tactical situation perfectly well. Understanding didn't cure the gut-churning nausea of regret, unfortunately. He offered her a brief I'm sorry smile, and her long lips twisted up on one side in wry response.
The Blue Squad medic brought in the big float pallet containing the cryo-chamber, a blanket tossed over the transparent part of the gleaming cylinder to shield his comrade-and-patient's naked and cooling body from uncomprehending or horrified outsiders' eyes. Taura urged the clones to their feet.
Bel Thorne glanced around. "I hate this place," it said levelly.
"Maybe we can bomb it this time, on the way out," Miles returned, equally levelly. "Finally."
The mob of them, the fifteen or so last clones, the float pallet, the Dendarii rear-guard, Taura and Quinn, Mark and Bel, oozed out the front door. Miles glanced up, feeling like he had a bull's-eye painted on the top of his helmet, but the moving shape crossing the roof of the building opposite wore Dendarii grays. Good. The holovid on the right side of his field of view informed him Framingham and his group had made it to the shuttle without incident. Even better. He cut Framingham's helmet transmissions, squelched the second squad leader's to a bare murmur, and concentrated on the present moment.
His concentration was broken by Kimura's voice, the first he'd heard from Yellow Squad across town in their own drop zone. "Sir, resistance is soft. They're not buying us. How far should I go to make them take us seriously?"
"All the way, Kimura. You've got to draw Bharaputran attention off us. Draw them away, but don't risk yourselves, and especially don't risk your shuttle." Miles hoped Lieutenant Kimura was too busy to reflect upon the slightly schizoid logic of that order. If—
The first sign of Bharaputran sharpshooters arrived with a bang, literally; a sonic grenade put down about fifteen meters ahead of them. It blew a hole in the walkway, which returned a few moments later in obedience to gravity as a sharp hot patter of raining fragments, startling but not very dangerous. The clone-childrens' screams were muffled, in his stunned ears.
"Gotta go, Kimura. Use your initiative, huh?"
The miss hadn't been accidental, Miles realized as plasma fire struck a potted tree to the right and a wall to the left of them, exploding both. They were being deliberately bracketed to panic the clones. It was working quite nicely, too—they were ducking, dropping, clutching each other and screaming, and showing every sign of getting ready to bolt off in all directions. There would be no rounding them up after that. A plasma arc beam hit a Dendarii square on, just to prove the Bharaputrans could do it, Miles supposed; the beam was absorbed by his mirror-field and re-emitted with the usual hellish blue snap, further terrifying the nearby kids. The more experienced troopers fired back coolly, while Miles yelled into his headset for his air cover. The Bharaputrans were above them, mostly, judging by the angle of fire.
Taura studied the hysterical clones, glanced around, raised her plasma arc, and blew apart the doors of the nearest building, a big windowless warehouse or garage-looking structure. "Inside!" she bellowed.
It was good, in that if they were going to bolt, at least it had them all bolting in the same direction. As long as they didn't stop inside. If they got pinned down and penned up again, there'd be no big brother to rescue him.
"Move!" Miles seconded the idea, "but keep moving. Out the other side!"
She waved an acknowledgement as the kids stampeded out of the fire-zone into what no doubt looked like safety to them. To him, it looked like a trap. But they needed to stay together. If there was anything worse than being pinned down, it was being scattered and pinned down. He waved the squad through and followed. A couple of Blue Squad troopers took rear guard, firing plasma arcs upward at their . . . herders, Miles feared. He figured it for keep-your-heads-down warning shots, but one trooper got lucky. His plasma arc beam hit a Bharaputran who unwisely attempted to dart along the roof-edge on the building opposite. The Bharaputran's shielding absorbed the shot, but then he unbalanced and fell, screaming. Miles tried not to hear the sound when he hit the concrete, but did not quite succeed, even with grenade-stunned ears. The screaming stopped.
Miles turned and dashed down the corridor and through some big double doors, beckoned anxiously onward by Thorne, who waited to help cover him.
"I'll take rear guard," Thorne volunteered.
Was Thorne entertaining thoughts of dying heroically, thus avoiding the inevitable court-martial? For a moment, Miles entertained thoughts of letting it do so. It would be the Vorish thing to do. The Old Vor could be a bunch of assholes, at times. "You get those clones to the shuttle," Miles snapped in turn. "Finish the job you took on. If I'm paying this much, I want to get what I'm paying for."
Thorne's teeth bared, but it nodded. They both galloped after the squad.
The double doors opened onto an enormous concrete-floored room, which obviously nearly filled the big building. Red- and green-painted catwalks ran around a girdered ceiling high above, festooned with looping cables of mysterious function. A few harsh pale lights shone down, casting multiple shadows. He blinked in the gloom and almost lowered his infra-red visor. It appeared to be an assembly area for large projects of some kind, though at the moment there seemed to be nothing in progress. Quinn and Mark hesitated, waiting for them to catch up despite Miles's urgent gesture for them to hurry on. "What are you stopping for?" he barked in furious fear. He skidded to a halt beside them.
"Look out!" someone yelled. Quinn spun, raising her plasma arc, seeking aim. Mark's mouth opened, the "o" foolishly echoing the circle of his gray hood around his face.
Miles saw the Bharaputran because they were looking square at each other, in that frozen moment. A team of brown-clad Bharaputran snipers, probably come up through the tunnels. They were scrambling along the girders, barely more prepared than the Dendarii they pursued. The Bharaputran had a hand-sized projectile weapon launcher of some kind pointed straight at him, its muzzle bright with flare.
Miles could not, of course, see the projectile, not even as it entered his chest. Only his chest, bursting outward like a flower, and a sound not heard but only felt, a hammer-blow launching him backward. Dark flowers bloomed too in his eyes, covering everyone.
He was astonished, not by how much he thought, for there was no time for thought, but by how much he felt, in the time it took for his last heartburst of blood to finish flowing through his brain. The chamber careening around him . . . pain beyond measure . . . rage, and outrage . . . and a vast regret, infinitesimal in duration, infinite in depth. Wait, I haven't—
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