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CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO Knight Takes Queen

Angus MacRory's stomach rumbled resentfully as he waded through the cold mist, cursing softly and monotonously. The fog offered concealment from Shellhead recon systems, but its dripping moisture made the mud-slick trail doubly treacherous, and his next meal was ten hours overdue.

Caitrin skidded ahead of him, and he bit his lip anxiously as she caught herself and slogged wearily on. That was another worry, and he scrubbed sweat and mist irritably from his face.

New Hebrides had slipped into winter, and the Fleet had not returned. Prisoner interrogations said the Shellhead navy was in a bad way, but unless the Federation got back to New Hebrides soon, there would be no Resistance to greet it.

Angus cursed again, telling himself that was his empty belly talking. Yet he knew better. Admiral Lantu was finally winning, and the weather was helping him do it.

New Hebrides' F7 sun was hot but almost eighteen light-minutes away, which gave the planet a year half again as long as Old Terra's neighbor Mars and cool average temperatures. Its slight axial tilt and vast oceans moderated its seasons considerably, but winter was a time of fogs and rainy gales. There was little snow or ice, yet the humid cold could be numbing, both physically and mentally. Worse, the titanic banner oaks were deciduous. Their foliage had all but vanished, and that, coupled with the colder temperatures, left the guerrillas far more vulnerable to thermal detection.

Yet Angus knew Lantu's success rested on more than the weather. The Shellhead admiral had already crushed the Resistance on Scotia, and now he was doing the same thing on Hibernia. He'd get to Aberdeen soon enough.

The first bad sign had been forced-labor logging parties assigned to clear fire zones around the Shellhead bases. Then they'd moved on, chopping away under their guards' weapons to cut wide lanes along the frontiers of the OZs. Angus hadn't worried at first; it was a tremendous task, and the Shellheads had little heavy equipment to spare for it. But then the shipments of defoliant arrived from Thebes, and the vertols swept back and forth along the frontiers, killing back the leaves.

The lanes could still be crossed, but at greater peril and a higher cost. About one in nine of his teams was being caught, and that was a casualty rate he could not long endure.

But that was only the first sign. The second was a redeployment of reaction forces to cover larger sectors-an arrangement the cleared lanes made workable. He'd wondered what Lantu meant to do with the troops he'd freed up, but only till the admiral transferred them all to Scotia, doubling his troop strength on that continent, and opened a general offensive. With the additional vertols and troops, extra scan sats, and defoliated kill zones, he'd pushed the Scotians hard, picking off their base camps one by one. Perhaps a quarter of them had escaped to Aberdeen; the rest were gone. Angus hoped some had managed to go to ground, but their casualties had been wicked.

And now, with the onset of winter, his own Base One had been spotted and destroyed. The SAM teams had cost the Shellheads some aircraft, and casualties had been mercifully light, but he'd lost a tremendous quantity of priceless equipment. Another strike had taken out Base Three, but his spotter network had spied that force on its way in. Most of his equipment and all his people had gotten away that time.

But he couldn't last forever. In the beginning, it had been the Shellheads who'd had to be lucky every time to stop him; now it was his turn. Lantu's relentless, precise attacks made the most of his material superiority, and Angus had learned the admiral was not inclined to do things by halves.



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