Back | Next


The small, nondescript man in Robert Pierre's office didn't look like an ogre. Oscar Saint-Just was a mild-mannered man who neither raised his voice, drank, nor swore. He had a wife and two lovely children, and he dressed like some low-level bureaucrat.

He was also First Undersecretary for Internal Security, Constance Palmer-Levy's second in command, and his mild voice had sent more people than even he could count into oblivion.

"I take it no one knows you're here?" Pierre leaned back behind his desk, raising his eyebrows in question as he waved at an empty chair.

"You should have more faith in me, Rob," Saint-Just said reprovingly.

"At this particular moment, my faith in people runs a poor second to my growing paranoia." Pierre's tone was dry, but an edge of humor flickered deep within it, and Saint-Just smiled.

"Understandable, understandable," he murmured. He settled back and crossed his legs. "May I assume you invited me over to tell me things are more or less on schedule?"

"Considerably more than less. Commodore Danton's come through with the weapons and the shuttles right on schedule."

"Excellent!" Saint-Just allowed himself to smile, then cocked his head to one side. "And the manpower to use them?"

"Cordelia Ransom's picked the CRU cells we need and cut them out of the normal CRU loop. She's got them running sims now, but I don't intend to release any actual hardware until we're closer to moving."

"And does Ransom understand the need for the, ah, cleanup details? Her InSec dossier suggests she's genuinely committed, Rob. Are we going to have to clean her up, too?"

"No." Pierre shook his head, and his mouth tightened in distaste for the essentials of his own plan. "She understands how it has to work, and, as you say, she's committed. She's willing to make sacrifices to bring this off, but I suspect we're going to have to give her the Treasury afterward."

"I can live with that," Saint-Just observed.

"So can I—at least as long as she really does understand the need for gradualism, and I think she does."

"If you're satisfied, I'm satisfied." Saint-Just rubbed his upper lip thoughtfully. "And Constance?"

"That part of the plan is ready to go right now—thanks, again, to Cordelia." Pierre smiled. "She didn't have to work around anyone to bring it off, either. The CRU's Central Action Committee jumped at the thought of it, crisis or no crisis. I'm afraid Constance hasn't made herself as popular with them as she could have since Frankel's assassination."

"Neither have I," Saint-just said quietly. "I do trust they won't try for a double-header in an excess of enthusiasm?"

"If I thought there was any chance of that, I would've intervened personally." Pierre shook his head. "No, Cordelia's stressing the need to give 'InSec's storm-troopers'—that's you, Oscar—'time to reflect on the People's object lesson'. She's really quite good at agit-prop, you know. Perhaps we can convince her to take Public Information instead of the Treasury."

"I'll leave the political maneuvers up to you. Security and tactics I understand, politics—" Saint-Just shrugged and raised his hands, palms up, and Pierre bared his teeth.

"Politics, as practiced in the People's Republic, are about to change quite drastically, Oscar. For the foreseeable future, I think you may understand the new rules much better than President Harris ever would have."

* * *

Kevin Usher slithered quietly across the roof of Rochelle Tower, trying not to wince as the rest of his team followed him. The imagery of his low-light goggles gave the tower's top a shimmery surrealism, but he'd trained with them long enough to be comfortable with that. It was the ungodly—and unavoidable—racket of the rest of his team that worried him.

He circled the last ventilator head and peered out at the open stretch between him and the edge of the tower. Wind flapped his clothing, and that was another cause for worry. Their primary escape plan called for a counter-grav free-fall leap off the tower roof, and with this much wind to blow them back into the tower as they fell—

He pushed the thought aside and eased his sidearm out of its holster. The People's Marines had trained him well during his conscripted term of service, and the pulser felt comforting and familiar in his hand as he looked for the InSec man watching this particular roof. He didn't particularly like this part, but the CRU couldn't afford any witnesses to this operation.

There. Usher's enhanced vision found his target, and he went down on one knee, leveling the long-barreled military weapon across his forearm in textbook style. He acquired the sight picture exactly as his instructors had trained him ten years before, and his finger tightened on the stud.

A five-shot burst of nonexplosive darts tore through the InSec man in a spray of blood. He didn't even have time to scream, and Usher grunted in satisfaction as he glided further out onto the roof, head swiveling from side to side and pulser poised in a two-handed combat grip. Their briefing had insisted there was only the one guard, but Usher had seen too many operations blow up from faulty intelligence to take that for granted.

Only this time it seemed the briefing was correct, and he waved the others forward while he stepped to the edge of the roof to check the sight line. Perfect, he thought, and turned to watch the rest of the team set up.

Two of the Viper crew knelt on the roof, and spike-guns thudded with brief, pneumatic violence as they secured the launcher's feet. Two others lifted the tube and guidance unit onto the tripod, and the crew chief's hands were busy with her data pad as she ran the self-test sequence on the first bird. She cocked her head as a minor malfunction light flickered, then put the missile aside and nodded in satisfaction as the backup bird passed its tests.

Usher turned back to his own responsibilities, waving his three-man security team into its perimeter positions. He beckoned the spotter over beside him and pointed at the tower on the far side of the green belt.

"Make sure you've got the right bay," he said quietly, and the woman nodded. She keyed up the schematic on her own goggles and moved her head carefully, aligning its outlines with the outline of the tower until the position pipper blinked directly atop an air traffic access point.

"Got it," she murmured. "Checked and confirmed."

"Then get comfortable. She's supposed to be along in the next ten minutes, but she may be delayed."

The woman nodded again and settled down, laying the riflelike laser designator across the roof parapet and making herself comfortable.

Usher gave the Viper crew another look. They were ready, and far enough back from the roof edge to be invisible from any cursory examination. The only real worry now was an overflight, and that shouldn't happen if their data on the air sweeps was as accurate as the rest of their brief.


He made a quiet circuit of his perimeter, then found a nook out of the direct force of the wind that still gave him a complete field of view and settled down to wait.

* * *

"I suppose that's about everything, then—unless you can think of something else we need to look at, Oscar?"

Saint-Just shook his head, and Constance Palmer-Levy stood. Her staff followed suit with obvious relief. Few of them shared her taste for late-night strategy sessions, but people didn't argue when the head of InSec asked them to stay late.

"I'll drop by Statistics and light a fire under them about that correlation of CRU activities before I leave," Saint-Just told her. "I think you may be onto something there. Won't hurt to be sure, anyway."

"Good." Palmer-Levy stretched and yawned, then grinned wryly. "I think I may have stayed up a bit late even for me," she confessed.

"Then go home and get some sleep," Saint-Just advised.

"I will." Palmer-Levy turned away and waved her personal aide after her. The two of them stepped out of the conference room, gathering up her security detail as they went, and headed for the elevators.

* * *

The elevator deposited the Security chief and her bodyguards in the air car garage on the tower's four-hundredth floor. A tech team swarmed over her limo, completing the routine check for unpleasant surprises, and Palmer-Levy waited patiently for them to complete their task. Memories of Walter Frankel were far too vivid for her to begrudge the time it took.

"All clear, Ma'am," the senior tech said finally, scrawling his name on the signature pad of a memo board. "You're ready to fly."

"Thank you," she said, and led the way aboard.

The air car looked like a luxury civilian limo and boasted the internal fittings to match, but it was fast, heavily armored, and equipped with a sophisticated sensor suite based on the Marines' forward reconnaissance vehicles, and its pilot was a decorated combat veteran. Palmer-Levy smiled at him as she settled into her seat, and he nodded back respectfully, waiting until the hatch closed before bringing up his turbines and counter-grav. The limousine lifted without even a curtsy, and he sent it gliding along the ramp toward the outer access point.

* * *

"Mark!" the spotter's whisper crackled over her com, and Usher and his team tensed in readiness. The spotter shifted position, aligning the passive sights of her designator on the nose of the limousine sliding out of the access point, and tension crackled silently across the roof.

"Painting—now!" she snapped, and squeezed the stud.

* * *

An alarm shrieked, and Palmer-Levy's pilot twitched in his seat. One eye dropped to the lurid light on his EW panel, and his face paled.

"We're being lased!" he barked.

* * *

The launching charge lit the tower roof like lightning as it spat the Viper missile from the tube. Its tiny impeller drive kicked in almost instantly, accelerating it at over two thousand gravities even as its sensors picked up the glare of reflected laser light from the air car below and in front of it, and its nose dipped.

* * *

The pilot twisted the controls in a frantic evasion maneuver, but the Viper had an optical lock now, and his speed was too low to generate a miss. He did his best, but it was too late for his best to be enough.

Constance Palmer-Levy had one fleeting instant to realize what was happening, and then the edge of the Viper's impeller wedge struck.

The air car tore apart in a hurricane of splintered composites. Its hydrogen reservoirs exploded in balls of brilliant blue flame, and the commander of Internal Security and her bodyguards cascaded down across Nouveau Paris in a grisly rain.


Back | Next