"How long?" Amos ben Sierra Nueva said desperately

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"How long?" Amos ben Sierra Nueva said


"Another forty-five minutes, esteemed sir," the tech-

nician answered in a voice flat with focused

Amos touched the pickup in his ear and turned back to

the low hills ahead. They were covered in pine forest, or

had been, until about an hour ago. Now they were burn-

ing, a furnace of resin-fueled candles fifty meters high.

The invaders had barred their own way with the blast of

beam-fire from the aircraft, but they seemed lazily indif-

ferent about inflicting casualties on their own forces. Hie

Bethelite nobleman ground his teeth in fury at that lord-

ly disdain; unfortunately, it seemed justified.
For now. Most of the resistance to the Kolnari

invasion had come from Bethel's planetary con-

stabulary, and the Guardians of the Temple. Those few

who didn't see the invasion as punishment for the sins

of godless young Amos ben Sierra Nueva and his fol-

lowers had, of course, resisted. The faithful had

effectively offered their throats to the pirate knife.

Sheer luck that Amos and those followers had been

preparing even if their efforts had been made against

the day when the Guardians came for them.

"Everything is in place, my brother," said the man

beside Amos in the rear seat of the pickup. Joseph ben

Said was a commoner N worse than that, a bastard

from the slums of KerissNbut he had been the first of

Amos' followers, and had proved to be the most loyal.
. Stating
Not to mention certain skills, Amos reminded himself.
"Take me forward to the bunker," he said, and cut off

Joseph's protest with a brusque chop of his hand.

The gunner behind the pintle-mounted launcher

swayed as the driver gunned the fans and slid the

vehicle down the dirt track. He was inexperienced;

they all were. The Second Revelation had trained in

secret with their hoarded weapons, preparing for the

Second Exodus to Al Mina. Official Temple policy held

there was no need to venture beyond Bethel when

three centuries of valiant breeding left the Chosen still

thin on the ground in the initial area of settlement.

There had been no time to acquire much real skill with

the tools of destruction. The measures had been

insurance, really, in case the Elders actually were will-

ing to use force to prevent the settlement of the Saffron

system's other habitable planet

Ahead, the fire throbbed and roared. The pines

were a native variety; candlestick trees, they were

called. They were explosively flammable this time of

year, and the air was thick with the heavy resinous

smoke. Dust spurted from under the car as they swung

behind the bunker, just now thrown up with farming

machines and covered with raw dirt The driver backed

and then let the vehicle settle on its flexible skirt, keep-

ing the fens running and the gunner's line of sight just

over the top of the mound.

"Good man," Amos said, thumping him on the

shoulder before he hopped down and ducked to enter

the bunker.
A display film had been tacked to one wall. It showed

footage from a pickup located a kilometer down the

road. Haifa dozen men and women in coveralls and

caps were talking into communicators or hovering

over a schematic display on a rickety camp table. In the

bunker, the air was full of a crackling tension, louder to

the nerves than the burning forest was to the ears.
Amos nodded \o...the officer, he reminded himself. No

longer friends and retainers, but warriors.

"They are coming," Rachel bint Damscus said.
Her plain bony face was tightly impassive. She was

an info-systems specialist, rare for a woman on Bethel,

where most females held to traditional feminine

careers like medicine or literature, Joseph made her a

formal bow.
"You are well, lady?" he said.
She gave a curt nod, then turned back to Amos.

"They hit the forest with some sort of indirect-fire

incendiary weapon, and now they are advancing

through it Powered vehicles. Fusion-bubble neutrino

signatures, fairly heavy ones."
"They probably do not know how common bad fires

are here," Amos said. He worked a tongue in a mouth

gone dry. Bethel vehicles used stressed-storage


Rachel was holding up well, better than he had

expected. She had a violent temper, and he suspected a

buried streak of hysteria. She was also a daustrophobe:

the bunker would add that distress to her burdens. The

more credit to her, for conquering her phobia.
"They thought to mask their approach in the

flames," he said aloud.

Their first ambush had killed several of the invader

infantry. Even a few hours had shown how the

strangers reacted to a challenge: strike back immedi-

ately with overwhelming power. He cleared his throat

and asked calmly:
"How far are they from the mine?"
"Two kilometers and closing. Closing at twenty kph.


The view through the screen tacked to the wall

trembled. That meant something was shaking the

ground under the pickup, even though it was spiked to

solid rock. Hills rose on either side ahead, everything

4 ArmeMcCaffrvy fcf SM Stirling
on fire except for the narrow stream and the road

beside it, down at the base of the massive granite slopes.

Shapes were moving through the burning trees on the

lower slopes. Dull-gleaming shapes, hard to make out

against the background, as if the surfaces were adapt-

ing themselves, chameleon-fashion, as they moved.

Low turtle-backed outlines, with long weapons jutting

from their sloped forward plates, the barrels built up

from coils or rings, some sort of wave-guide or

electromagnetic launcher.

One fighting vehicle pivoted. The muzzle flashed,

bright even through the hot-iron glow of the fires. The

viewscreen fogged slightly as a pickup was blasted into

plasma, then cleared as the system compensated by

spreading input from the others.
"Well, that gives us a due to the sensitivity of their

detectors," Joseph said. He leaned forward. "Everyone

is out of there?"
"Falling back to the launching ground. There is

nobody within fifteen kilometers," Rachel said. "We are

"Do it, then," Amos said.
She touched a control surface. The screen flashed

white and went blank. Haifa second later an actinic

glare flashed through the bunker, reflected in from the

rear entrance but still bright enough to make their

goggles darken protectively. Sound and shock followed

in a few heartbeats: a roar like God returning in anger,

an earthquake rumble through the soil, then a wave of

heat and pressure making their ears pop.

"So Keriss died," Rachel said absently, to herself.

"Tamik saw it He said the flash was like the sword of

God, and the waves a kilometer high when they broke

over the Peninsula mountains."

"Everyone leave," Amos said quietly, glancing down

at the watch woven into his sleeve. There was nothing

else to say. Rachel's family had lived in Keriss, the
capital city of Bethel. So had most of Amos' surviving

kindred, and Joseph's, if he had any. "We will rendez-

vous in forty minutes at the shuttle." He paused. "And

"Yes, sir?"

"Well done. Very well done."
When they left the bunker, the pillar of cloud was

already flattening out high in the stratosphere.

"SSS." The sensor overwatch AI filtered a possible

message out of the interstellar background and passed

it through to the controller of Station SSS-900.
"Hissing again, are we?" Simeon muttered absendy

at the subprogram, and turned his attention back to

the simulacrum.
Napoleon had just pushed the British north of Not-

tingham. Wounded, exhausted soldiers sprawled

across the fields where the defeated army camped, as

the rain drained down, gray skies darkening over

trampled muddy fields. Away across the rolling

landscape fires still flickered, where dead men lay

gaping around smashed cannon. The women were out

with lanterns, looking for their husbands and sons.

A dispatch rider came clattering up to Wellesley's

tent with news of the Jacobin uprisings in Birmingham

and Manchester, and a landing of the Irish rebels. The

big beak-nosed man stood in the open flap of the tent

as the dripping militiaman saluted clumsily and

handed over the dispatches, blinking in the driving

"The devil with it," he muttered, turning to the map-

table within and unfolding the heavy wax-sealed

papers. "It's too bad. If we'd won that last battle ... if

wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Still, it was a

damned near-run thingNa very near thing."
He looked up. "You are to inform His Majesty that he

and the royal family must take ship for India

immediately. TheseN" he extended the reports from his

folding desk "N are for Viceroy Arnold in Calcutta."

I concede, the computer said.
"Of course," Simeon answered smugly.
He switched his primary visual focus from simula-

tion back to the lounge and looked down at the big

holotable. An excellent model for use in war-gaming,

the map of England was scattered with unit symbols.

Finer and finer detail could be obtained by magnifying

individual sectors N right down to die animate models

of soldiers and horses. Or tanks and artillery, for some

of the other games. He focused: on a horse tiredly nip-

ping at its neighbor on the picket line, on the stubbled

gap-toothed face of a sentry yawning.

"What is that?" Simeon asked.
The answer floated up into his awareness from the

peripherals; tightbeam signal, modulated subspace

waves, picked up by one of the passive buoys out on the

fringes of the system. A subroutine had flagged it as

possibly interesting,
Hmmm, he thought. Odd. It might just be the last

fading noise from a leaking mini-singularity about to

go pop. The things tended to cluster in this area, which

was full of third-generation stars and black holes,

though this one tasted like a signal. The problem with

that was that there was nothing much out that way;

nothing listed as inhabited for better than two hundred

lights. Certainly no traffic into the sphere of Space Sta-

tion Simeon-900-X's operations. He would have to see

if anything more came of it. Presumably if someone

was calling, they would try again.
Idly, he ran a checklist of station functions. Life-

support was nominal, of course; any variation of that

was red-flagged. One hundred seventy-two craft of

various sorts from the liner Altair to barge-tugs were

8 AimeMcCaffrey&SM. Stirling
currendy docked. Twenty-seven megatons of various

mineral powders were in transit, in storage, or under-

going processing in SSS-900-X's attendant

fabrication modules. Two new tugs were under con-

struction in the yard. A civic election was underway,

with Anita de Chong-Markowitz leading for council-

rep in station sector three, the entertainment decks.

Death in the Twenty-First was still billing as most

popular holo of the month. Simeon sneered mentally,

with a wistful overtone. Historical dramas were

impossible for a serious scholar to watch because the

manufacturers would not do their research.

It was not necessary to investigate much more in detail.

With the connectors, shellperson Simeontyos SSS-900-X.

Little awareness remained of the stunted body inside its

titanium shell in the central column of the lounge. He

was the station, and any weakness or failure was, like

pain, intense and personal. As far as his kinesthetic sense

was concerned, he was a metal tube a kilometer long, with

two huge globes attached on either end.

The Abair was in. Simeon had docked die incoming

ship with his usual efficiency but without his usual

close scrutiny. He deliberately turned his attention

away from disembarking passengers, refusing to study

their faces, especially the faces of the women.
Radon's replacement as Simeon's brawn was on this

ship, and all he knew was her work record and her name.

Channa Hap. Probably from Hawking Alpha Proxima

Station, Hap being a common surname for those born in

that ancient and wealdiy community. He wasn't entirely

sure. He'd fought Radon's retirement too hard to have

much personal interest in his replacement All right, I was

sulking, he told himself. Time to get with the program. He'd

established a subroutine to trash the applications of

replacements. That hadn't been personal, merely a ploy.

He hadn't wanted her, but they were stuck widi each

other now.

Liners docked at the north polar aspect of the tw<

linked globes diat made up the station. The tube was;

kilometer long and half diat wide, more than enougl

for the replenishment feeds and a debarkation loungi

fancy enough to satisfy die station's collective vanity

twenty meters on a side and fifteen high, lined witi

murals, walled and floored with exotic space-minec

stone, with information kiosks and everything else <

visitor needed to feel at home.
"I'm Channa Hap," a woman said to one of th<

kiosks. "I need directions to Control Central."

So that's her. Long high-cheekboned face, medium-

length curling dark hair.

"You are expected, Ms. Hap," the terminal said. Ii

had a mellow, commanding voice syndied from several

of Simeon's favorite actors, some of whom dated back

to the twenty-fourth century. "Do you wish trans-

"If diere's no hurry, I'll walk. Might as well get used

to the new home."

"This way, please."
She nodded. Simeon froze the visual and studied

her; tall, athletic. Dressed plainly in a coverall, but she

had presence. Nice figure, too, if you liked subde curves

and rolling muscle. A fox.

In an amazingly short time the door-chime signaled

a request for admittance. Feeling as nervous as he had

when meeting his first brawn, Simeon said, "Come,"

and die door swished open.

Channa entered. He dosed in on the viewer to what

he thought of as normal conversational distance. That

was an advantage sometimes, since softshells couldn't

get to their psychologically comfortable distance widi

you. She had delicate, clear-cut features and earnest

dark eyes, and the curly black hair was swept back from

her face in a disciplined no-nonsense fashion. A
ArmeMcCaffrey 6f SJVf, Stirling
vid-show heroine. Perfect! he thought FUget things off on

the right foot. He switched on a screen with his own

"face" N the way he'd imagined it, ruggedly handsome

with a tan, a Heidelberg dueling scar, level gray eyes,

dose-cropped blond hair and a Centaurijets fen cap N

and spoke aloud:

The dark eyes widened slighdy, "Excuse me?"
He laughed, "That's ancient Earth slang for 'sexy

"I see."

The words were so dipped Simeon could almost

hear them ping on the deck as they fell through a short

Ah, geesh, he thought, this is going realty well. "Urn, I

meant it as a compliment." Why didn't they send me a male

brawn? he asked himself, conveniendy forgetting his

request form. Male bonding he knew about

"Yes, of course," she said coolly. "It's just not a type of

compliment that I'm particularly fond of receiving."

She's got a nice voice, Simeon thought uneasily. Pity she

seems to be a bitch. "What sort of compliments do you

accept?" he asked in a tone of forced jocularity which

wasn't easy to manage through a digital speaker.

"I accept those that deal with my quick learning

ability, and my efficiency, or that acknowledge I'm

doing a good job," she said, moving further into the

room and taking a seat before his column. Until she

had finished speaking, she did not look directly at

"The sort of compliment you'd give a servo-

mechanism, if you gave servo-mechanisnis compliments,''

he said.
"Exactly." She smiled sweedy and folded her hands.

"You've an interesting attitude, Ms. Hap," he said,

laying a little stress on the ancient honorific. If she wants

to get formal, Ftt show her formal. "Most of the women
I've worked with didn't object to an occasional compli-

ment on their appearance."

She raised her brows slighdy and cocked her head,

"Perhaps if they objected you simply dismissed it as

being part of an 'attitude."
tcoiddcry, iffcouldcry, Simeon thought He'd gotten

lonely these last weeks without Tell Radon. He'd

begun to anticipate the^/un he'd been going to have

with a new brawn. Someone to talk to.... How could

they have matched him with this... ice princess? They

knew he was easy going, sure, but he'd given them a

very good idea of what he was looking for in a brawn.

Exact specifications, which Channa Hap hadn't met,

fully. Was someone in Central taking advantage of his

good nature, somehow hoping he could straighten her

out, or maybe loosen her up?
"I find your attitude rather interesting," she mur-

mured, narrowing her eyes. "Have you checked your

hormone levels recendy?"
"That's a rather personal remark...." Maybe they just

want me to blast her out an airlock when nobody's looking.

" 'Sexy lady' isn't?" She smiled and raised a sardonic

"That was a compliment, intended to put you at ease.

Have you checked your own hormone levels lately?"
There was silence.
After a moment she sat forward and looked at him

levelly. "Look, even though it hardly seems worth the

trouble of officially submitting my orders to you, on a

practical level we may as well just admit that, for the

time being, we're stuck with each other. You need a

brawn and I'm here. I'm well trained, experienced and

hard working. We don't have to love each other to work


"True, but it gets a little cold trying to maintain your

distance with someone you see every day. It would be a lot

easier if we could be friends. Look, why don't we just
Awu McCaffrey fcf SM. Stirling
erase what just happened and start over? Whaddaya
She pursed her lips, then smiled. "I'm game. But let's

start slow, and we'll avoid the personal remarks for the

time being, okay?" She cocked her head at him and

raised an eyebrow. "You start."

"Hello, you must be Channa Hap. Welcome to the


"Thank you. I hope I'm not interrupting."

"Nah, I always have time for a pret... colleague."

He detected a slight narrowing of her eyes. "My, you

sure are efficient looking."

"Well, and so are you, you're so steely and all."

"Funny, I was just about to say the same thing about

She stood up. "This isn't going to work."

"My fault. I shouldn't have said that. Look, you must

be tired from all the travel you've been doing. Why

don't you settle in, look around, relax a little N things

might look different"
"This has nothing to do with my being tired or your


"What is this fixation you have with my hormones?"

"Shut-up-and-listen-to-me." Channa was giving him

a look that he could almost feel. She paused and held

up her hands, sitting down again. 'Just listen," she said

earnesdy. "1 think that it would be best if we put our

cards on the table. I haven't studied your files in full

yet," she admitted with a tired smile. "I just couldn't

make myself do it But I do know quite a bit about you."

She leaned back and crossed her long legs. "I know

that you have a fair amount of influence and a lot of

contacts at Central Admin. And I know that you called

on just about all of them in the matter of your brawn

replacement" She gave him a severe look. "You made

yourself famous on just about every level."

He was a little lost here. He had kicked up quite a fuss
when they forcibly retired Tell Radon, but what did it

have to do with her?

"In case you're wondering why I'm bringing this

up," she continued.

Geeeze, Simeon thought, that's eerie! She can't possibly

readmymmd. Canshe?

"It may interest you to know that I have my own con-

tacts at Admin. And they've told me that you came up

with a list of qualifications that were extremely hard to

fill. In fact, I was the only candidate who did fit them,

with the glaring exception of the age qualification. I

hear that I'm four years too young for this post."

"Well, you see..."
"Excuse me, I'm not finished. I was also told that you

went over my service records looking for black marks, and

that when you couldn't find them, you went looking for

shadows that you could pretend were blackmarks...."

"Hey! I don't know who you were talking to."
"Bear with me a few moments longer," Channa said,

holding up one finger. "Then you can have your say. I'm

not going anywhere." She looked at his image on the

screen for a moment with narrowed eyes, and when he

remained silent she nodded. "I've been told that all you

need do to ruin the day of almost any Admin executive is

to mention my name. The feeling you appear to have left

behind you as the smoke cleared on this was that where

there's smoke, there's fire. And that if you, well-known

and respected brain that you are, would object so

strenuously to my assignment to the SSS-900, despite the

feet that I fit all but one of your many qualifications, then

there must indeed be something seriously wrong with

"Oh." He honestly hadn't thought about that He'd

been so intent on saving Tell from forced retirement

that no other considerations had seemed important.

Channa Hap as a person had never entered into his


Annf McCaffrey & SM. Stirling
Channa continued speaking, "I told myself that it

probably wasn't personal."

God, it's weird the way she can pick uponmy thoughts tike

"I told myself to keep an open mind. If you had only

greeted me as a fellow professional, then I think I could

have let the whole mess be forgotten. But the first

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