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STRONGPOINT

"Amber section! Heavy weapon at three o'clock! Three o'clock low! Thr-!"

Stanislaus killed his armor's jump gear instantly. He plummeted downward, slamming to the ground amid the rubble of what had once been a small specialty shop of some sort. The wreckage was too blasted and burned for him to estimate what wares it might have sold, but he had other things to worry about at the moment, anyway.

He stared at the moving icons on his heads-up display. The green and red fireflies of friendly and hostile units crawled across the HUD, but it was cluttered with the shadowy outlines and wire drawings (where available) of the surrounding residential and commercial towers. Details were almost impossible to make out, and the fact that so many of the extremely solidly built buildings contained their own power sources and masses of still-functioning machinery-air-conditioning, lift shafts, lighting, powered doors, computer nets-made it far worse. All of those background emissions provided enough electronic "noise" to hide even powered armor from enemy sensors if its wearer shut down his own active sensors and nonessential systems.

Stanislaus' mouth twisted in a bitter grimace as he located Corporal Tso Chiang's icon. The corporal's shouted warning had been in time for the rest of this section to hit dirt and find cover in the steadily spreading wreckage of the city of Selkirk's Landing. But there hadn't been time for Tso to follow suit. The quartet of heavy auto cannon on the third floor of the two hundred-floor tower one block to the east must have spotted him at the same instant he'd spotted them. A burst of superdense forty-millimeter penetrators took him almost center of mass, and not even a combat zoot could stand up to that. The icon strobed amber while Stanislaus' armor's knees were still flexing to absorb the shock of landing. By the time they'd straightened again, the icon had flashed the black-crosshatched scarlet of a dead man.

He shouldn't have sky-lined himself.

The thought flashed through Stanislaus' mind, but even as it did, he knew it was unfair. This nightmare of urban terrain was the worst imaginable arena for combat . . . especially when both sides knew there were still thousands of civilians huddling out in the middle of the insane carnage. All too often the only options were to go over an obstacle-which always threatened the consequences which had just claimed Tso's life-or try to bull right through the intervening structures when any hallway or stair could hide a Rump marine with a flechette gun or a plasma lance.

Or some terrified huddle of civilians trying frantically to stay out of both sides' way.

"Amber Three, Gold One," he said harshly over the platoon's tactical net. His zoot's CPU recognized the call sign and automatically routed the signal to Private O'Grady. "Amber Two is down. You're it. Acknowledge."

"Gold One, Amber Three," O'Grady's soprano came back almost instantly. "Confirmed, I've got Amber Section."

Stanislaus grunted in bleak satisfaction. Despite her unlikely name and painfully fair coloring, Estelle O'Grady was a third-generation citizen of Hangchow. Unlike Stanislaus, she spoke perfect Chinese as well as Standard English, and she'd been with the Longbow detachment for over two standard years. He hated to lose Tso for a lot of reasons-including the two sons back on Hangchow who would never see their father again-but O'Grady was solid. The section would be in good hands.

As long as it lasted, at least.

He punched up the most detailed schematic he could get of the tower which had killed Tso and tried not to think about how many people he'd already lost while he worked on deciding what to do next.

It was all so goddamned stupid. Admiral Pritzcowitski, the Rump system commander, had tried to do the smart thing. As soon as he'd realized Sky Watch had lost control of the space around the planet, he'd ordered the system's ground forces to lay down their weapons and surrender. Like the vast majority of humanity's planets, Cimmaron possessed no heavy planetary ground-to-space weapons or planetary defense centers. Defending inhabited worlds was the job of orbital weapons platforms. Without such weaponry or fortifications, there was no way the planet's defenders could hope to stand off the Republican Navy more than briefly, and if they refused to surrender, under the Federation's own rules of warfare, the Republic would be fully justified in employing orbit-launched kinetic weaponry or even old-fashioned tactical nukes against them.

But the garrison the Rump had dispatched to Cimmaron to keep a lid on its "rebellious" citizens had been carefully selected. It was overwhelmingly Corporate Worlder, and better than half of its officers had rejected the surrender order. Stanislaus had no idea what they thought they could accomplish. Probably, they figured-correctly-that no Republican admiral would resort to weapons of mass destruction on a heavily inhabited planet if they deliberately chose their positions in the midst of its civilian population. And maybe they were so stupid they actually thought they could hold out long enough for a Rump fleet to fight its way through and relieve them. Or maybe they just hoped to kill as many "rebels" as they could before they were killed themselves.

It didn't really matter what they thought they were doing. The consequences were that only two of the three assault shuttles Longbow had managed to launch before her destruction had survived the man-portable antiaircraft missiles which weren't supposed to be fired as they approached the landing zone after Pritzcowitski's formal surrender of the system. Major Wang had been on the shuttle that exploded in midair, and Captain Ju had been severely wounded barely fifteen minutes later when the LZ came under heavy fire. Which was how Stanislaus Skjorning had found himself in command of everything that was left of Longbow's Marine detachment.

Brigadier Lyman, the Republican ground commander, was only marginally less happy about that than Stanislaus himself, but there wasn't much either of them could do about it. Lyman had done what he could, attaching Longbow's orphans to Major Urowski's company from TRNS Snaphaunce to form an improvised, truncated battalion. The brigadier had hoped Stanislaus' people could be pulled back as Urowski's reserve, but the situation was too chaotic, the fighting too vicious. Urowski had had no choice but to throw Longbow's survivors into the cauldron.

"Snaphaunce One, Longbow One," he said. It felt ridiculous-and presumptuous-to identify a mere lieutenant as the commander of a battle cruiser's entire Marine detachment, but he didn't have much time to reflect on that at the moment, either.

"Longbow One, Snaphaunce One," Urowski's voice came back almost instantly. "Go."

"Snaphaunce One, Longbow is taking heavy fire from-" he doublechecked the terrain tags on his HUD "-Building Oscar-William-Three-Eight. Western wall. Can we bypass?"

"Longbow One, negative," Urowski said flatly. "I repeat, negative. Snaphaunce's left flank is also taking fire from the same building. We've tried two assaults, but they've got even more weapons dug in on the south wall, and we've got to cross plazas on both sides of the street before we can even get to the tower. We're taking heavy losses, Lieutenant, and they're using the tower as a roadblock on Central Avenue. We've got to punch them out, and bad as it may be from your side, it looks like the west wall has the least defensive firepower."

Stanislaus closed his eyes. He'd been afraid Urowski was going to say something like that.

"Snaphaunce One, Longbow One. I understand, sir. Do I have any support assets?"

"Negative, Longbow One. Everything we have is already committed. We'll have some shuttles rearmed for support strikes and on call, but not for at least another twenty minutes. We don't have that long to wait; they've got enough heavy weapons on the east wall to massacre anyone moving down Central, and Colonel Trevallion needs to get down Central to the hoverport fast, before they get dug in still deeper there. Besides, I don't think airstrikes are going to help much in this situation."

"Snaphaunce One, Longbow One copies negative support. We'll just have to do the best we can with what we have. It's going to take me a few minutes to get organized, though."

"Longbow One, you can have all the time you want . . . as long as it's not more than ten minutes," Urowski replied.

"Snaphaunce One, Longbow One copies. Ten minutes." He managed not to swear only because he knew Urowski couldn't have liked giving that order much more than Stanislaus had liked hearing it. "Longbow One, out."

He glared at the HUD for another thirty seconds, then grunted as he made up his mind.

"Gold Two, Gold One."

"Gold One, Gold Two," Huang Tse-lao responded instantly.

"Gold Two, you heard?"

"Aye, Skipper," Huang said. At Stanislaus' direct instruction, the noncom had been monitoring all transmissions between Stanislaus and Urowski.

"Then you know it's going to be a stone bitch," Stanislaus said grimly.

"What we've got is what we've got, Skipper." Stanislaus could almost hear Huang's shrug. "How are we going to handle it?"

"There's not much room for finesse." It was Stanislaus' turn to shrug. "We can use this little shopping plaza for cover-" he dropped a command into his CPU, and his zoot's tactical display obediently used a flashing cursor to indicate the three-quarters-demolished row of shops on Huang's display "-until we get within forty meters or so. We do that, then go in with a rush. But we've got to do something about those damned cannon first."

"That's a big affirmative, Skipper," Huang said harshly. He and Tso had been friends for many years.

"I think the best way to handle it," Stanislaus went on, "is for you to take Third around to the left, here." He dropped another cursor into Huang's display. "While you do that, I'll take First Platoon down the center. Amber of the Third can provide covering fire-O'Grady's already in position for that. Then-"

"On the tick," Estelle O'Grady said softly over the section's free-flow tactical net. Anything from higher authority would instantly suppress the local net, but aside from that it gave her all the advantages of face-to-face conversation with the seven Marines she'd just inherited command authority over. "Not until the lieutenant gives the word."

"Can't be soon enough," someone muttered. O'Grady's HUD IDed the speaker as Jo Binyan, the section's second grenadier.

"It'll be when it'll be," she told him.

"I know. I just want payback for Chiang," Jo said, and even though she knew he couldn't see her, O'Grady nodded in agreement. They all wanted payback, she thought coldly. And not just for Chiang.

She glanced around the Selkirk's Landing skyline and grimaced. It had been a fairly nice little city, once, she thought. Not much compared to an Innerworld city, maybe. Or even Hangchow, for that matter. Probably not more than a couple of hundred thousand residents. But now the drifting smoke made it difficult to tell how attractively it had once been laid out and landscaped. Most of the fires were fairly well contained, but one or two of them had clearly gotten out of hand, especially down along the riverfront, and she tried not to think about the civilians who'd lived in the green belt along the river.

"All sections," Lieutenant Skjorning's deep voice rumbled across her com. It was amazing how calm he sounded. "We'll do this on my mark, people. Stand by. . . . Now!"

O'Grady triggered her weapon. Amber Section was Second Squad's heavy weapons team, and O'Grady's "rifle" was actually a belt-fed twenty-five-millimeter cannon. Its caliber was smaller than the ones which had killed Tso, but its muzzle velocity was higher . . . and so was its rate of fire. Her armor vibrated as the belt hissed out of the ammunition tank mounted behind her shoulders, and the ceramacrete facade of the tower across the street from her firing position exploded in dust.

But O'Grady's weapon was actually the lightest one Amber Section was firing at the weapons emplacement which had killed its leader. Jo's grenade launcher coughed rhythmically, and incandescent spikes of brimstone flared savagely as the plasma grenades detonated. Combat zoots could do a lot to protect the person wearing them, but there were limits in all things. And powered armor couldn't protect the basic structure of the building. Amber Section's merciless fire blew a crater into the face of the tower-one that belched smoke, dust, flames, and debris.

Stanislaus hit his jump gear as O'Grady's fire hammered the face of the tower. The Rump Marines had separated their cannon's firing positions, and no doubt they'd dug them in as deeply as they could. But they hadn't gotten enough dispersion, and they couldn't dig in deeply enough and still have useful fields of fire. He didn't have time to stand around and gawk, but he got a good enough look to know that anyone who'd been manning one of those cannon was either dead or cowering in any hidey-hole they could find.

Even that brief glance upward was almost more than he should have spared. Like all of his surviving Marines, he was covering the distance between his start position and the tower in prodigious, low-trajectory jumps. The problem was that low-trajectory jumps didn't give much margin for clearing obstacles like ornamental walls and fountains, and it was actually harder to land, recover, and jump again on a low trajectory than on a high one. Stanislaus experienced one of the pitfalls of low-trajectory urban power jumps when he cleared a marble-faced planter box and landed squarely in the middle of a big, multi-jet fountain.

Water flew everywhere, but that didn't bother him at all. What did bother him was that the floor of the fountain's basin was a good meter lower than he'd anticipated. It wasn't that much of an unexpected drop, but the basin was also honeycombed with plumbing to feed the fountain jets, and Stanislaus' zoot gyros whined in protest as they fought to keep him upright when his right foot abruptly stopped moving.

They almost pulled it off, but he slammed down on his right knee, better than hip-deep in the water. He recovered quickly, but somebody with an assault rifle or a flechette gun opened up on him as he scrambled back to his feet. Hypervelocity projectiles turned the fountain's water into a dense fog. They also whined, screamed, and howled as they skipped off of Stanislaus' zoot.

He swore viciously and hit his jump gear again-hard. It blasted him out of the fountain on a sharper trajectory than he'd really wanted, but being a moving target was more important than keeping as close to the ground as possible. He needed out of that bull's-eye before someone turned up with something heavier.

More fire chewed up the tower's side plaza-spewing dust, this time, not mist-and something big, heavy, and high-velocity slammed into Stanislaus' left shoulder. It drove him forward and down, and he barely managed to tuck an armored shoulder under before he hit. The impact sent him skittering across the plaza pavement like a berserk bowling pin, and he grunted at the impact, even through the zoot's inertial damping systems, as he crashed into the tower's outer wall and came to an abrupt stop.

He showed himself up into a sitting position, breathing hard, and triggered a quick diagnostic. The zoot's pauldron had survived the impact, whatever it had been. It was badly dished, and the zoot computer dropped a flashing red caret into the corner of his HUD to remind him not to expose the weakened area to any more fire than he could help, but he was effectively intact. Which was more than he could say for his rifle.

He grimaced and drew his "sidearm." There'd been some raised eyebrows aboard Longbow at his nonstandard choice of backup weapons, but no one had chosen to object after they saw his range simulations scores with it. The sawed-off plasma carbine was a vast improvement over the old, original single-shot weapons, but only someone in a zoot could survive the back blast and thermal bloom of firing the thing. It was relatively short ranged, and had a maximum magazine capacity of only five rounds, but not even a zoot could survive a direct hit from it. Unfortunately, he'd never expected to use the thing indoors, and he made a fervent mental note to liberate something a bit less fractious from the first Rump Marine he encountered.

He took a quick look at his HUD, and his mouth tightened. Three more green fireflies had turned amber, and one had turned red, but it looked like all the survivors were across the fire zone, and a couple of Marines from First Platoon's third squad turned up beside him. At least he had someone to watch his back now, he thought. And now that he did, all they had to do with their two understrength platoons was clear a two hundred-story building, about whose interior architecture they knew nothing at all, of a completely unknown number of opponents with equally unknown weapons capabilities.

Nothing to it, he told himself, and slammed an armored, exoskeleton-powered foot through the glass doors in front of him.

None of them had ever experienced anything like it.

There weren't that many of the Rump holdouts in the tower, really. No more than two or three dozen of them, Stanislaus estimated. But every one of the bastards had a combat zoot, and they'd obviously raided the heavy weapons locker before they chose the position for their strongpoint, because the auto cannon on the west wall were the lightest of the weapons they'd dug into prepared firing positions around the tower's perimeter. But given their relatively low numbers, they didn't have enough people to keep all of them manned at once, and as they realized Stanislaus' people had broken into the tower, they were forced to pull off the perimeter weapons to deal with their attackers.

That was undoubtedly a godsend to Major Urowski's people outside the tower, Stanislaus thought bitterly, but it didn't help his people one bit. And unlike Stanislaus, the defenders obviously did have a fairly good idea of the building's layout. They were waiting on stair landings, around corners, covering lift shaft doors, and Stanislaus' people had already used almost all of their sensor remotes before they ever got this far. Without remotes to toss around blind corners or lob up a stairwell, the quarters were so tight and the sensor interference so severe that at least half the time the only way Longbow's Marines discovered one of those waiting ambushes was when the ambushers opened fire.

Stanislaus' hard-clenched jaw muscles ached as still more of his people went down. Most were "only" wounded, thanks to the protection of their zoots. But not even a zoot was much help when someone poked his helmet cautiously around a blind corner and someone else, in another zoot, blew that helmet off his shoulders with a plasma lance.

It was insane. The defenders couldn't win, not in the end, whatever they did. They had to know that. But they didn't seem to care, and they'd stockpiled plasma lances, grenade launchers, and even rocket launchers to use inside the tower. The destruction was unbelievable. Modern towers like this one were almost unbelievably tough for civilian construction, and he had no doubt the basic structure was going to survive whatever he and the defenders might do. But its interior walls had never been designed to resist that sort of fire even momentarily. Even major structural girders disintegrated like shattered glass when they took hits from shoulder-launched rockets designed to destroy heavy armored vehicles. Stanislaus supposed he should be grateful the lunatics had at least not opted to use HVMs. Apparently, even they had no desire to set off the equivalent of a low-yield tactical nuke inside the same corridor as themselves.

But that was about the only heavy weapon Stanislaus and his depleted fire teams failed to encounter as they fought their way savagely up, up, ever upward. Walls disappeared. Fire suppression systems tried-and failed-to extinguish the conflagration raging steadily upward with the combat. They were civilian systems, and their designers had never dreamed for an instant that they would be called upon to deal with bursts of plasma or the deliberate use of flamethrowers.

The tower's central, loadbearing core survived more or less intact, but as more and more of the less essential interior partitions were shattered, the tower itself became a chimney. A blast furnace. Air roared in through the shattered facade, sucked into the maw of the fires raging like some huge, unchecked beast, and the combatants hunted one another through the vestibule of Hell. Even combat zoots found the temperature levels hard to handle, and as the furnace blazed hotter and hotter, the chance of anyone surviving even a tiny breach in his armor essentially disappeared.

But ultimately, despite any advantages of position and their own undeniable, if totally misplaced, ferocity and determination, there simply weren't enough defenders for a building the tower's size, and as they took losses, their ability to cover multiple axes of approach crumbled. It didn't come easy, and it didn't come cheap, but Longbow's survivors found themselves flanking defensive strongpoints more and more rapidly as the defenders' numbers dwindled.

In the end, the final handful of Rump holdouts were pinned down on the tower's hundred-and-eighty-first floor.

"Good to see you, Skipper," Sergeant Huang said as he and Stanislaus finally met face-to-face on the hundred-and-eightieth floor.

"The same to you," Stanislaus replied, and then his eyes widened in surprise as he checked the time. Surely they'd been fighting their way up this tower for days now, but according to his chrono, less than two hours had passed since Corporal Tso was killed. Two hours, in which a full twenty percent of his remaining Marines had been killed or wounded. At this rate, he'd be back down to the single platoon he was supposed to be commanding in another hour and a half.

"What now, Skip?" Huang asked, gazing up the broad, triple stairwell to the next floor. The air was so thick with smoke that even their thermal imaging systems were half-blinded, but Huang could make out the bodies of three Marines-one Republican and two Rump-tangled together on the smoldering treads of the central stair.

"We go up after them," Stanislaus said grimly. "And we don't take any fucking chances."

Huang looked at him, and Stanislaus gestured at the body-laden stairs with the grenade launcher he'd found to replace his rifle.

"I gave them the option of surrendering," he said harshly. "Those two said they wanted to accept. And when Hwang went up to collect their weapons, one of them shoved an armor-piercing grenade up against her chest and detonated it." His expression was grim, even harsher than his voice. "They don't get another chance to do that, Tse-lao."

Huang looked at him for another moment, then nodded.

"I can live with that," he said almost conversationally.

"Good." Stanislaus showed his teeth in a smile that belonged on something out of the Beaufort depths, then waved a hand at the lift shafts beside the stairwell.

"I don't see an easy way to do this, Tse-lao," he said. "I can't get a good read through the floor and all the other interference, but I'm pretty sure there can't be more than four or five of them left, at most. Unfortunately, that's still enough for at least one of them to be covering the stairs and each of the lift shaft banks we've found. And I'm pretty sure we've found them all, because if we hadn't, they'd be beating feet out of here by now."

Huang nodded again. The remaining handful of defenders had to know what was going to happen to them. Fanatic or no, if they had a way out, they would already have taken it-if only in hopes of linking up with others of their kind to continue their resistance.

"Since that's the way it is," Stanislaus continued grimly, "and since they obviously aren't interested in surrendering, the way I see it our only real option is to launch an attack straight up the stairs. They can't cover all three flights without spreading out, and the stair wells are wide enough that we can at least come at them more than one at a time each way. But I'm not real interested in paying the price an assault up the stairs is going to cost if we press it all the way. So what I'm figuring is that we push them hard enough to make them honor the threat. If they don't pull people off the lift shafts to hold us here, we'll bull through and take them out frontally. If they do pull people off the lift shafts-which I think they will-that's when you take what's left of Third Platoon up the shafts and hit them from behind."

"Skipper, I think that I should-"

"Then you think wrong," Stanislaus said flatly. "You're going up the shafts; I'm going up the stairs."

Huang looked like a man who clearly wanted to argue harder, but he clamped his mouth shut and nodded curtly, instead.

"Good," Stanislaus said again, softly, and smacked him on one armored shoulder. "Get your people in position. Let me know when you're ready."

"Gold One, Gold Two. We're ready when you are, Skipper."

"Gold Two, Gold One. All right, Tse-lao. On our way." Stanislaus looked around once more, then nodded to himself. "All right, people," he said. "Let's do it. Now."

His Marines opened fire instantly. They'd expended a lot of ammunition on their way to this point, but they also had been liberating replacement rounds from dead Rump holdouts and their own wounded and dead, and a firestorm of destruction roared up the stairwell. Grenades sailed up through the storm front of flechettes and penetrators, and the grenadiers bounced them skillfully off the walls, sending them ricocheting around the bends in the stairwells.

It seemed impossible for anything to survive in the face of that much firepower, but return grenades came rattling and bouncing down the stairs in reply. They exploded mostly harmlessly, although they ignited fresh fires all around Stanislaus' Marines, but they constituted a grim warning that there were still live defenders waiting up there.

"First Team, move!" Stanislaus snapped, and a trio of armored Marines leapt for the center of the three stairs, moving as quickly as their jump gear allowed. They got as far as the first landing and wheeled to their left, firing up the narrow gut of the stairwell. More fire shrieked back down at them, and one of them went down, yet another firefly blinking from green to red on Stanislaus' HUD.

"Second and Third Teams!" Stanislaus barked, and six more Marines charged the other two stairs.

As Stanislaus had hoped, First Team had drawn the attention of at least some of the holdouts. The defensive fire down the flanking stairwells was much lighter, especially on the left-hand stair. In fact, Second Team got all the way to the second landing before there was any defensive fire on that side.

"Fourth Team!" Stanislaus said harshly, and went forward himself, leading his fourth assault group up the center stair in First Team's wake.

A grenade plunging from above bounced off his helmet and exploded behind him, sending yet another of his people down. Then he was on his belly beside First Team's two survivors, firing his own launcher steadily up the stairs. His people were taking a murderous weight of fire, but it was unaimed. They were throwing too much of their own fire up the stairs for the defenders to expose themselves to fire back accurately. They were still taking some losses, and they couldn't keep it up forever without shooting themselves dry, but it wasn't the massacre Stanislaus had been afraid he might be sending his people into.

He started working his way up the next flight of stairs on his belly. Even as he did, he knew it was the wrong move. He was the Marines' commanding officer. It was his job to coordinate, to manage the battle and impose control on it, not to get his idiot self shot playing "Follow me!" But this was-had to be-the final strongpoint in this entire damnable tower. That made this the last of the endless assaults they'd made to reach this point, so there was no point worrying about what happened next. And Stanislaus Skjorning couldn't-not wouldn't; literally could not-send his people up that stair before him.

Somebody at the head of the stairs decided to expose himself, and Stanislaus cringed as a burst of aimed fire slammed into the back of his armor. The armor held, but a shrill audio alarm sounded as the already weakened section behind his left shoulder took more damage. He could feel the heat of the furnace roaring about him seeping through the damaged section. It wasn't anything the zoot couldn't handle-yet-but if he took another hit there . . .

And then, suddenly, the fire roaring down the stairwells abruptly ceased. There was still shooting going on-a lot of it-but it was no longer aimed at Stanislaus and his assault teams. His HUD was suddenly speckled with a dozen green fireflies on the floor above him, and he bounded to his feet.

"Come on!" he bellowed, and hit his jump gear one last time.

The prodigious bound send him up the final flight of stairs like an old-fashioned rocket. It was, he realized, an incredibly stupid stunt which should have made him a sitting duck for any defender. But Huang's sudden thrust up the lift shafts had worked. The Rump fanatics had more immediate things to worry about as deadly accurate fire ripped into them from the rear, and they wheeled to face the shocking, unanticipated attack from behind them . . . just as Stanislaus erupted from the stairwell, already firing.

It was a gymnasium, a corner of his mind noted. A big, open space, almost as badly on fire as the floor below, with the charred carcasses of exercise equipment looming up amid the bodies and the cases of ammunition the holdouts had stockpiled here. But only a fragment of his attention applied itself to the architecture. All the rest of it was focused on killing his enemies before they killed any more of his Marines, and he got off three grenades while he was still in midair, then touched down, still firing.

After two hours of murderous combat which had reduced the entire tower to a seething volcano of internal fires, it was all over in less than seven seconds from the time he hit his jump gear.

There were no Rump survivors.

"All right, people." Stanislaus managed to keep most of his own exhaustion out of his voice as he looked around the survivors of Longbow's company. It had entered Cimmaron with two hundred and six officers and enlisted personnel; the fifty-seven survivors, less Amber Section, fitted into the fire-gutted gymnasium around him easily.

"We've got the tower," he went on, "such as it is and what's left of it. But there's still the rest of the city out there. Let's get this area policed up. Tse-lao, make sure we've found all the wounded-theirs, if any, as well as ours. Fuchien, you're in charge of sorting through all this ordnance. We burned a hell of a lot of ammo on the way in, so let's reammo from what we've got here, as much as we can. Shu, your squad has perimeter security. Let's move, people."

As Huang and the other two noncoms set about executing his orders, Stanislaus walked across the burning gymnasium to the tower's outer wall, looking for a clear transmission path for his com. He found a three and a half-meter breach in the wall and stepped into it.

"Snaphaunce One, Longbow One," he said wearily.

"Longbow One, Snaphaunce One. What's your situation?"

"We have the objective. I'm down to roughly sixty effectives, and low on ammo, but we've captured a good bit of ordnance. I'll need a little time to reorganize before I c-"

"Skipper."

Stanislaus' sentence chopped off in mid-syllable at the single word from behind him. It came over his priority dedicated link to Huang Tse-lao, but that wasn't what jerked him back around from the hole in the wall. No. What jerked him back like a garrotte about his throat was the raw, bleeding anguish in the sergeant's tone.

"What?" he asked quickly. Huang was bent forward, as if his zoot's "muscles" had somehow failed, and he carried something in his arms. Stanislaus couldn't see see the small bundle clearly, but the sergeant was hunched over it.

"Longbow One, Snaphaunce One," Major Urowski's voice said over his com. "Longbow One, your transmission was interrupted. Say again all after 'reorganize.' "

Stanislaus heard him, but it was only noise, without meaning as he tried to understand what had happened to his sergeant.

"Skipper," Huang half-sobbed. "Skipper . . . it was-Oh, sweet Jesus! This was a school, Skipper."

Stanislaus Skjorning's heart seemed to stop. He looked around the gymnasium almost automatically, and for the first time noticed how small most of the equipment was. Realized the stature of the people it was sized to fit.

He stepped forward, and Huang raised his helmeted head, staring at him through his battle-scarred visor while tears ran down his face. The sergeant held out his arms, and a saw-edged blade of agony went through Stanislaus as he recognized Huang's "bundle" at last as the small, horribly burned body of a little girl.

"Dozens of them, Skip," the sergeant said hoarsely. "My God, my God-there are dozens of them, all huddled together in a classroom back there, all dead!"

Stanislaus' soul cringed at the thought. They must have been up here, on the top floor, when those fucking lunatics decided to turn their building into a fort, he thought. Did the bastards even know they were here? Did they care? And what does it matter? My God, what they must have gone through before we killed them all in the end.

"Tse-lao," he said. Then stopped and cleared his throat. He reached out and put both armored hands on the sergeant's shoulders.

"Tse-lao, we didn't-you didn't-do this. We didn't choose where those Rump bastards decided to fight from. They did, and in defiance of their own system commander's orders not to fight."

"But, Skipper-" Huang began, his voice harrowed with the agony of grief, horror, and guilt.

"We didn't know, Tse-lao. We couldn't know. And-" Stanislaus drew a deep breath and gently, very gently, took the tiny, pitiful body in his own armored arms "-there's nothing we can do for them now."

Huang stared at him, mouth quivering, and Stanislaus laid the dead girl carefully on an exercise bench.

"I know, Tse-lao," he said quietly. "I know exactly what you're feeling. But there's still hundreds of bastards just like the ones in this tower out there." He jerked a hand in the direction of the breached wall. "They need us-and I need you."

"I-" Huang paused, then straightened. He drew a deep, shuddering breath, and nodded inside his helmet. "I understand, Skipper. I'll . . . be all right."

"No, you won't, Tse-lao," Stanislaus said. "And neither will I. But we'll deal with it together, later. All right?"

"Aye, aye, Skipper," Huang said in a stronger voice.

"Good." Stanislaus gripped his armored shoulder again for a moment. "But one thing we can do. Every one of them goes downstairs out of this fire with us. I promise you. That much at least we can do for them and their families."

"Yes, sir. I'll take care of it."

"Good," Stanislaus said again, and turned back to the hole in the tower wall.

"Snaphaunce One," he said, and a part of him was horrified by how calm, how . . . intact, his voice sounded in his own ears, "Longbow One. Sorry about the interruption, Major. My people just found some . . . civilian casualties up here. We'll be bringing them out with us. Now, what I was saying, is that I'm going to need a little time to reorganize around my casualties. I estimate-"

Lieutenant Stanislaus Skjorning, Terran Republic Marines, went on speaking crisply, clearly, doing his job, while deep inside he wept.


* * * | Insurrection | CASUALTY



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