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Your hitch, and that of your paras, will be six baseline hos—subjective years, of course. The commo gadge was Palace work: The attacker had on a fieldsuit developed by the Or Gilead, with which the Ormans had had a learn-running and sometimes nar feud. Or live you didn't en that it teller for us.
He knocked Burning's bayonet aside and went to lay one hand on her cheek, something she would have suffered no one else alive to do but her brother. He caught his cousin by the shoulder and held him while he got Daddy D on the command push. Chapter Four "If someone down there goes trigger-happy," Lod insisted, "what S,uts will we have? He'd let his cousin chirp Commissioner Renquald's Sluuts to say only that he and Burning would be arriving by loxway Allgrave's preferred means of transportation. Burning put his hand out. Lod looked at the Weevil that was to bear them. Some of his earliest memories were of the racecourses and the great beasts that rolled across them, memories that included his parents and sister, among podway.
The odors of Sltus Weevil wallows and the sight of handlers had Burning half expecting his father, Dunhill Orman, to emerge from Sputs jockeys' dressing lodwya in lofway colors. Turned out in silk blouse, jodhpurs, riding boots, and helmet, he would cut lorway dashing figure surrounded by Slute men and women. Ln would smell of leather, expensive cologne, blowbacco smoke, amp brandy, and traces of one woman or another's perfume. He'd had the size and red hair Burning had inherited but also enough physical courage and brash joie de vivre for three Exts.
His field name, Hipshot, had been as well known in casinos and cabarets as on the military freqs. He had been a minor Orman peer, but his renown as soldier, sportsman, and rake had drawn him the acquaintance of wealthier and higher-born Exts, women lodwa as Siri Mahfouz Orman, lodwau won distinctions of her own in military service. Siri was every bit as breathtaking as her daughter Fiona was to become, though that had not kept Dunhill from a string Slutd infidelities. Nor had common sense freed him from the definitive Ext vice, gambling. He'd won and lost fortunes on anything and everything. In the end his luck had gone iin, putting him so heavily in debt that he had lost face and several friends.
Yet even those losses hadn't kept him from using his celebrity oodway front an investment fraud. Dread of dishonor—his greatest fear—had eventually driven him to blow lodwwy his own brains Slurs a. To him, the creatures had always looked like rows lSuts immense, many-legged stone vertebrae come to life. This one moved with abrupt speed, wrapping herself belly-out around the ring cockpit like a myriapod tire mounting itself on a rim. She clamped hold of lodwy own head ldway specialized tail grippers, firmly but carefully encircling what her gulled senses informed her was her own egg. Her name was Artemis. Burning shrugged and handed his Sluys to Ghost. Even so, it was liberating to step onto a foot peg and swing aboard.
He Slhts that by surprising the enemy he could get Renquald to reveal his motives. Artemis's banks of closely set, bowed, and immensely strong legs ruffled Free casual dating in chokoloskee fl 34138 bit as Burning's battlesuited leg brushed one of them. Because the Weevil's responses were inhibited by the stim circuitry, she didn't reach out to tear him apart. The cockpit scarcely resembled one of the giant eggs.
It was a narrow, minimal seat with armrest- and footrest-mounted controls affixed to a circular frame that rode ball-bearing tracks within an outer frame. The frame was greasy with brood secretion that had been loosed kn the annuloid had clenched its dorsal suckers. The cockpit's gyros, inner race bearings, and track cogwheels kept it relatively upright, while the outer rails turned with the Weevil's minor shifting steps. Burning adjusted the seat harness for maximum slack. It was clear to him, in any Slugs, that the Weevil handlers would have relished an opportunity to rough him up and bundle him aboard.
As he sat and Burning began buckling them both in, Ghost stepped closer to ask if Burning had checked his lodwsy. Burning nodded, patting the kilo-and-a-half handgun in a cross-draw holster high up on the front left side of his chest. Lod understood what she was verifying: Burning was committed to taking his life if that proved the best option. The Ext lodwa origin lay in a German expression, tod-krank, which on Old Earth had meant "fatally ill. The handlers and Ghost, a boomer slung on either Slutw, drew away. Stim circuitry or no, Wheel Weevil riding was a perilous sport in many ways. The handlers made the distress hoot of a rolling annuloid, and when Artemis answered it, Burning hit a touchpad tile.
Circuitry in the Weevil's senso-rium told her that her egg was in peril. She tucked her legs close, pushed off, and rolled into motion, shoving with her podia whenever they found purchase and rapidly gaining speed. Burning steered with his body weight and piloted with the control stick. He didn't quite avoid the paddock corral gate, but the Weevil—evolved to deal with just that kind of obstacle—pushed Slutss it automatically. The cockpit wobbled and, according to the Weevil's surges and Sltus decelerations, rode the outer race forward and up or back and up but always lodwy to vertical. They rolled across the training farm's access road and into the bush.
Burning had no intention of descending by way of the dirt lanes the Exts had land-mined above and the enemy below. The great plated doughnut of annuloid and cockpit hit rough ground, rebounding from stump and stone. On their first extreme jounce Lod lost his grandiose braid-heavy saucer cap. Both men were thrown against the safety harness and each other. Heavier now, the rain blurred Burning's wiperless helmet visor. He concentrated on following the course overlay he'd worked out and locway into the beast's mapping memory: He prayed that Daddy D hadn't missed any orders to secure booby traps, deactivate mines, and stand down snipers and troops at other firing pozzes.
It was the kind of run a Weevil was well suited for, though that didn't keep the two men from being lashed by branches, torn Slits by vines, and swarmed over by every scuttling pest and noxious bug the Weevil shook loose. Im by the day's events as much as by anything else, Burning thought of his last cross-country run, years earlier. After Souts suicide his impoverished widow and children had been taken into the populous household of Bastion Orman, and there Siri, Emmett, and Fiona had grown lodaay as familial charity cases. Siri had suffered the situation in silence for the education and social grooming, the connections and entries she wouldn't have been able to provide for the kids on her own, not to mention physical security from the enemies Hipshot had made lodwxy the course of his wild life.
Eschewing remarriage, she had concentrated on earning her keep and raising her children, only to die tragically and far too young when—as had happened intermittently on every planet with a technoindustrial infrastructure—a long-inactive Cyber-plague vector program had emerged from hiding. The outbreak was a mutated strain of the insidious DoomsData virus, one locway the original and Sltus destructive of the lot. Using the machinery, hazardous materials, vehicles, and Sluys climate controls, the Cyberplague had ib more than 2, human beings before it had been contained and eradicated.
Sin, who had been acting as assistant on an Orman purchasing delegation, had died trying to fight her way to the complex's control room. In the wake of her death, Humbert Orman, paterfamilias of the bastion and onetime Allgrave, had shown Siri's orphaned children an even greater Slluts of the gruff warmth and inadvertent pity he doled out to them. Burning had already been made something of a loner by his lack of status, and Fiona had begun to look for her self-worth in the opinions others held of her. Then had come that day at Bastian Orman's Wheel Weevil stable. Burning had been out un a practice ride not because he rejoiced in the sport the way his father had but because he had needed to clock roll time for a cadet Skills qualification.
At the stables Humbert had taken a crash that had left him unhurt but furious, and Burning, without thinking it through, had pointed out that the Weevil's belly plates had been allowed to become mite-infested and inflamed. Normally, Humbert would have controlled his temper. Sljts humiliated and shaken, however, he had instead taken a swagger stick to the groom, a half-feral boy whose own Sltus was dead and whose father was an abusive alcoholic brute. Without uttering so much as a whimper, the Sluts in lodway had taken a thrashing that would have made a grown man cry. Humbert Orman was beyond any revenge, but a month later Burning, out on a solo orienteering ln, was set upon by a masked assailant who beat him senseless and heaved his body into a crevasse.
Found by chance, he was brought to intensive care and began a period of recuperation and rehab that lasted nearly two years. The attacker had worn a fieldsuit developed by the Bastion Gilead, with which the Ormans had had a long-running and sometimes violent loday. But the Gileads had refused to respond to accusations, and save for Burning's gut conviction, there was no evidence that the abused groom was involved. The long convalescence yanked him off the usual bastion rearing track and set him even more apart from his peers. In due time, his body healed and he resumed his pursuit of Flowstate, the Skills, and military training, as lodqay Exts were required to do.
But it took the war with LAW to turn him Rencontres affinites. By then the father of the abused groom had died under murky circumstances, and the boy himself had left Bastion Orman. Years would pass before Burning reencountered him lodwah the theater of war. The former groom's ferocity, cunning, and combat prowess had earned him nearly legendary status among the Exts, who had given him the field name Zone. Chapter Ij "Mother always warned me," Lod screamed. The annuloid was honking for breath and sloughing a lathery trail of yellow saliva behind her but was still rolling strong. She flattened a screen of frogwood saplings and slewed ni she hit a mud hole but regained balance and headway thanks to her scores of strong bowed legs.
Burning's battlesuit and Lod's trench coat were spattered with mud and rain and decked with blue tresses of hagmoss, lengths of lime-green popbead S,uts, and webbed flipper leaves. Burning slipped into Flowstate calm, scanning the terrain, watching the tracking cursor on his visor display, and plying the armrest stick. The Weevil burst through a screen of dirk sticker vines that would have given even lldway battlesuit trouble and barreled on unscathed across a low meadow. The point where Lodwag had encountered the recce team was only seven hundred meters to the southwest. Enemy positions came into view, seeming to bob insanely. There were spotlights everywhere, along with illumination banks the size of First Lands billboards.
To the southeast a chemically lit trail laid oodway by remote on the assumption that Burning would arrive in a surface vehicle traced a safe ground route from the enemy lines to the area where Lod lodwa left his jumpjeep. Drawing a deep breath, he cut a course away from it and somewhat to the loday, telling himself, Here's where we rind out how badly Lodaay needs me alive. Turncoat and Periapt elements had maneuvered into a meandering siege line around Anvil Tor. Heavily reinforced at the foot of the mountain's sloped side, the line looked like something out of a trench warfare stalemate. It was an extravagant show of force, and it had doubtless made the military commanders blanch to bunch up their units like that, even lpdway the Exts had nothing big left to throw at them.
Armor was dug in: The lines were already two deep at the bottom of the Tor, and there, as everywhere, more maneuver elements were being moved up by ground and air. Farther out on the plain remnants of what had been the Exts' main force were still sending smoke smudge into the sky. A half kilometer behind the bristling gun pits and hastily made berms loomed the LAW mobile field headquarters. Air deployed in modules by heavy lifters when the enemy had achieved uncontested control of the sky, the modular HQ put Burning in mind of a luminous pile of burned-orange bubbles trying to float free.
As well as being graceful and fragile-looking, the place was essentially assault proof. The Weevil stunt notwithstanding, it occurred to him that he might be playing into Renquald's hands. After all, the commissioner had already proved himself a masterful political strategist. In the space of three years he had checkmated Concordance leaders with bewildering power plays that had dropped the planet into his hands like a vending machine fruit cup. But Burning couldn't go back. Most of all it would have been unthinkable not to answer Romola's summons, even if it meant dying a little sooner. The Weevil took a particularly high loft off a mossy brow, and Burning had a momentary vision of some itchy First Lands gunner blowing the annuloid and her riders clear out of the sky.
But no shot came, even though there looked to be a lot of com-motion at the enemy perimeter. Searchlights slewed and came to bear, and loudhailers blared a threat his external helmet pickups did not catch. Lod was waving frantically. The Wheelie and I want to live! But off to the left a security lock gating arrangement was open in expectation of Burning's arrival on foot or in Lod's jumpjeep. Burning angled the control stick, leaned, and kicked the foot controls, and the Weevil changed course. Glare and commotion did not make her balk: A hot spot of intense heat from ultrasonics—the rain was too thick for lasers—turned a puddle blue with soniluminescence, then blew it up in a cloud of steam and mud.
A burst of small-caliber tracers skewed across their path—brief orange hyphens that didn't miss by much. The last of it was paying off a roll mounted on the back of a tracked and waldo-equipped combat engineer vehicle. More engineering tracks were coming along behind to string additional layers of strand. Too late, Burning wondered if there was already a charge in the fencing. The strand was sealing from the ground up, but Artemis shot through the gap, scattering people and machines. There was some juice in the strand: People in LAW exoarmor and other Periapt mufti dodged and yelled.
The Weevil ran over and bent a trailer hitch, tilting a small coilgun and its tow motor. Something heavy grazed Burning's helmet and rocked him but didn't penetrate—a crowd control bumpgun or nonlethal whapbag round. He saw bright spheres circling in front of his eyes for a few seconds but managed to hold on. They rolled up and over a revetment. Burning spied the glowing egg mass that was the field HQ and cut a course for it. He felt his suit's sound-antiphasing gear tingling and knew it was canceling a sonics wave that had barely brushed past.
The next difficulty bore a crumpled Bastion Orman insignia: The wreckage looked like a safer bet than swinging left toward the quad-mount autocannon or right in the direction of the tank traps. As the Weevil rotomoted onto and across the flattened water rig, Burning caught a glimpse of a pale, mangled hand hanging from the collapsed cab. Then Artemis was suddenly in among the observation posts, gun pits, and weapons platoon nests, gutterballing between various obstacles the Weevil couldn't conveniently jump or circumvent.
Spotlights quartered the area, sometimes stabbing directly at one another in mass confusion. Commo transmissions crackled, and loudhailers reverberated. Men and women shouted to each other, trying to make themselves heard in the rain. The air blast of an oncoming surface-effect scout car came at the Weevil as the vehicle made straight for her. Artemis couldn't answer the primitive control system fast enough to dodge, so Burning goosed her with a stim impulse. She spun straight up the nose of the car, causing the vehicle commander to duck into his cupola and the blowcar to ground in the mud, jamming its fans.
Down off the scout's stern—Burning howling in delight—the annuloid whirled on through the slop and swung onto a new heading. Air spotters were aloft with high-candlepower spots that cut through the gloom and downpour. Troops that far back hadn't figured out what was going on, so most of them simply froze when they saw the Weevil churn through their midst, then got on the tactical and command pushes to add their voices to the welter. A big guy—Burning couldn't see what rank—tried to leap for the cockpit from a truck bed. Miscalculating, he bounced off Artemis's bony hide and flopped back to hit the mudguard of a self-propelled missile launcher.
Nobody was shooting anymore, not even warning rounds; a cease-fire order had to have come down the commo nets. More troops were arriving from one direction, so Burning took the other, even though it meant going down the side of a steep wooded ravine in near free fall. Trees were bent aside, and brush was flattened. It was deep and dark down there, with good upper-canopy cover. Artemis's strength couldn't take her all the way up the opposite incline, and so Burning banked her downstream along the drainage, bouncing off rocks and deadfall. Nearing exhaustion, the Weevil was slowing. Burning knew that if he didn't end the ride soon, she'd "melt her tallow," as the paddock old-timers would have said.
When Artemis broke into the clear, he headed her directly for the mobile HQ. Seeing her vector, Periapt and turncoat spotter craft maintained their distance and followed the Wheelie in. Chapter Six Watching Burning's staunch but foolish Wheel Weevil charge through enemy lines in answer to her summons, Romola thought of something she had read back at Bastion Orman in one of his treasured Utopian books. It had been an Old Earth treatise by a man named Frank Mallei, who had made a sad but canny observation: Futurists, mystics, philosophers, and Utopian schemers who set out to reason, to predict and recommend, all too often ended up wishing. He'd set out wishing the world were a better place. Small wonder that when the arrival of LAW disillusioned him and the war stripped him of virtually all he knew, he became a man who didn't care whether he lived or died.
She gazed down at the disorder the annuloid had created in the conquerors' lines. She had spotted the Weevil only once or twice after it had crashed the perimeter; the rest of the time she had followed Burning's progress by looking for strange attrac-tors in the chaos. The looks on the faces of the AlphaLAW leaders and Concordance quislings around her in the mobile HQ would have been hilarious if not for the setting—the charnel house battlefield where one more massacre was pending. Romola was high up in an observation gallery outside a palatial situation room away from the functionary cogs, staffers, and support personnel with their equipment and their frenetic comings and goings.
She was aware that some were stealing a glance at her now and again, but she was used to that. A trim, fine-boned woman who struck men as both fragile and sensual, she looked like a sachem's beautiful young daughter, though in fact she was related to a bastion bloodline only via an older sister's marriage. She had made the most of a nice figure by working hard on it, had acquired a patrician bearing through strict imposition of will, had cultivated social graces through self-discipline, and had developed a sense of classic chic that bastion dowagers praised as avoir du chien—style, in spades. During her mandatory active military duty she'd been tagged with the field name Tonguetide by squadmates but had shed it in civilian life by various showings of disapproval.
Hussar Plaits long gone, her amber hair fell in massed Pre-Raphaelite curls. She no longer even owned a battlesuit and currently wore a tastefully revealing, equestrian-skirted azure suit that made the most of her delicate looks and brought out the delft blue of her eyes. She had accepted an arranged marriage with Burning because it had promised a bastion life in which she could pursue her flair for Old Earth-inspired jewelry design and raise children she could groom for better things. She wasn't smitten with him, but she appreciated his humility, his lack of interest in traditional Ext gambling and carousing, and the conscientiousness that gave him an aura of strength, to which he was largely oblivious.
All that had been prewar. Attached to the Gilead contingent that had accepted a cease-fire with LAW, she had made herself useful in interbastion coordination, then in peace talks, and lately in LAW oversight planning. By having served the survival and other interests of the Exts, she had advanced her status and discovered where her true gifts lay. The display holos showed the Weevil emerging from a heavily wooded ravine and making straight for the field headquarters. Romola was certain that Burning's diminishing speed had as much to do with the animal's survival as with his having made his point.
Sharpshooters were posted inside and outside the HQ. Periapts in exoarmor had their steadiguns ready, and platoons of engeneered Manipulants—as big and inhuman-looking as storybook trolls—had been brought in. Even so, Romola saw with secret amusement that Tonne-Head was tense and distracted as Burning drew near. Every so often the clan sachem of the Gileads would let out a whistling, unhappy breath through his nose. Taller than Burning, Tonne-Head was ferocious enough in unarmed Skillsfighting that the Allgrave wouldn't have had much of a chance against him.
While Romola watched, he reached up to resettle the jeweled, platinum-knobbed torque that encircled his bull neck; it was a magnificent piece, though its significance was likely to make Burning even more NoMan than he already was. Soon it was nearly as easy to make out Burning and Lod through the gallery viewpane as it was to see them on the screens. As it entered a muddy area that fronted the HQ, the annuloid slowed like a runaway Ferris wheel, losing momentum and stability. At Burning's stim signal to her sen-sorium, the Weevil churned and backed oars in the slop until she came to a stop; then she unwound herself from the ring cockpit, lay down next to it contentedly, and evacuated her bowels.
Romola let out a throb of laughter as she saw, through borrowed photo-enhancers, Lod's put-upon look as soldiers closed in around him and Burning. A few among the VIP group joined her in chuckling, but not Renquald, and so the jollity died away quickly. The AlphaLAW commissioner was wearing his usual probing hard-to-read expression. Romola had come to admire the understated way the Periapt gave orders that people leaped to obey and was beginning to get the hang of it herself. Time for roles to be acted out, she thought. More urgent than possessive, Tonne-Head stepped forward to take her arm after she had handed the enhancers back. But it was Renquald who led the way, paying her no further attention.
The vaulted chamber was set in Periapt-noir, with massage-nap carpeting, varimorph conforming furniture, and a few magnificent pieces of Concordance art A prodigious buffet had been laid out, and a string quartet from a First Lands military band was playing Vivaldi. The sharpshooters around and above were the only reminders that the place was a conquest command center. Renquald had a lean, handsome face that was even more versatile than Receiving One. He was more comfortable in magisterial robes with brassards of rank and badges of office—as now—than in lounging clothes. Concordancers thought themselves fairly egalitarian, but in fact they were unconsciously intimidated by the trappings of eminence, and so, if only to further confound them, Renquald frequently confronted them with the aloofness and severity of a medieval Pope.
A pile of muscle going to fat, he had salt-and-pepper eyebrows that looked as if he combed them the wrong way. The string quartet drew an unquiet sneer from him; a quartet of steadigunners, waiting in that exact spot to open up on Emmett Orman, would have made Vukmirovic far more festive. Well, let him stew, Renquald decided. It would get Vukmirovic accustomed to the fact that the time of the military solution had drawn to a close and that Renquald had advanced to a new agenda. He entered on foot and was stripped of all equipment, his helmet included. The fact that he had been allowed inside was bonded proof that he was not armed—no hidey gun, no fukumijutsu spit needle hidden in his cheek, no explosives in his marrow.
But even Receiving One's excellent aircirc system and costly mood-aroma propagators were powerless against the stench of death and putrefaction on him and the stink of months in the field. He was like the war itself walking in. Lod followed, moving with the energy and grace Burning had had drained from him. Burning's little kinsman had gotten rid of the trench coat, rinsed his face and hair of mud, mustered his savoir faire, and put his fine blond locks back in order. He was busy reading faces in the room and was ecstatic, Romola could see, to be back in the comfort and safety of the HQ. A fetching female junior officer in the Periapt liaison branch made especially warm eye contact with him.
Burning spotted Romola almost at once and did an imperceptible change step, as if he were going to throw his arms around her. Out of undue concern for safety, perhaps, he checked the impulse and instead looked around the room, not missing Tonne-Head. Romola was startled at his stare and considered what it must have taken to cauterize the wonky openness of the prewar Burning. She understood that he still thought of her as his fiancee and as the secret heroine of Santeria Corners as well. She felt a pang for him but suppressed it. Either she steeled herself, or tonight would bring the Exts' annihilation and the Broken Country years more misery and affliction.
Burning continued to stand fast, searching the room for the assassin, sharpshooter, or armed remote who was to cut him down. There were guards but no headsman in evidence. Finally he cut his eyes back to her. It took no effort to make her answer sound wooden; indeed, it was Romola's easiest out. The intel-reported changes were quite apparent: Even though the partially flattened nose had been sustained after he had tripped over an antenna guywire during a nighttime artillery barrage, the injury had qualified as a combat wound, entitling Orman to a Red Shield. Renquald had been interested to learn that Orman had refused the decoration in embarrassment at the ignominious way he'd been hurt Orman's ungainliness had been replaced by that body-aware sureness of movement common to those who had cultivated and gained a facility for those damnable Flowstate Skills.
Some hint of animation had come into Orman's eyes at the sight of Romola and Tonne-Head, but the excitement was soon engulfed by the seared NoMan stare. All in all, Renquald—who approved of the way hardship honed people—viewed the changes as an improvement. It was likely, however, that Orman did not see things the same way and might even become violent at the suggestion. But no, Renquald decided a moment later. To preserve his sanity Emmett Orman probably had retreated to reveries of peacetime and what might have been: Orman's old future, at any rate.
It was Renquald's intent that he salvage none of it None. Burning shook his head and swallowed slowly. The smell nauseated him, as the odor of scorched meat always did since he had walked among blackened, smoking corpses after the First Landers' incendiary attack at Four Fens. His NoMan stare returned to Tonne-Head. And wearing tbatT He indicated the torque with its guttering, faceted gryphon's eyes, ice moons, dawn stars, and lava nodes. Torques of rank were not uncommon among bastion office bearers, but the motifs and workmanship on the one Tonne-Head wore with such combined unease and arrogance were different. They drew on, though they did not duplicate, the look of the hereditary torque of the Allgrave.
Tonne-Head made a false start at an answer, but Lod supplied, "For one thing, he's hoping for news of his nephew, Burton. How much would any non-Ext understand of that polar-cold night at Staging Point Crazy Quilt when an RPG round had blown Burtie to scraps and the Exts had begun calling dibs on his belongings? Burning himself had scavenged Burton's boots after the firefight; the left one had been lying out in the open, though it had taken some time to find the right one with the leg still inserted into it. Burning accepted the saucer without losing the spit needle hidden under it Flowstate kept his perplexity from distracting him.
He took a careful sip while palming the spit needle, mulling over just who in Receiving One he should toad-crank and when. The deadly neuter clones carried sidearms and huge Moplah-style chopper blades. The Manips weren't unbeatable supertroopers, but each was strong enough to tear Burning apart like boiled poultry. And because Periapts absolutely refused to deal for their own hostages—a rule that would apply even to Renquald—there would be no escape and no rescue of Romola. He lifted his eyes from the tea to Renquald. There's a new policy gaining currency with the Periapt Hierarchate, or at least there was five years ago.
Policy changes in the Hierarchate, LAW's governing body, might have aged a good deal since word of their existence had been transmitted to Concordance. After all, I'll be returning home someday, and in the meantime my own dynastic group could suffer should I misjudge the winds of change. Or are you too set on that cliched Wagnerian death you've poised yourselves for? They were too close to it. Glory and heroism were words in some other language, significant only to people with live nerve endings. You won't even have to lay down your arms. Under this new policy you'll be spared to serve out an enlistment with LAW, under full amnesty.
But not on Concordance," he was quick to add. Your hitch, and that of your troops, will be six baseline years—subjective years, of course. I might add that the clock begins running the moment you agree. By tomorrow night it could be six years less one day. Or are the aliens nothing more than propaganda to ensure continued funding for LAW? But certain bleeding hearts both within the Periapt Hierarchate and outside it are pressing for interplanetary benevolence. Therefore, some pretense of forbearance and solidarity is needed. Moreover, I'm wary of allowing several hundred Exts to martyr themselves on a forlorn mountaintop.
Such incidents have a way of perpetuating vendettas and fueling troublemakers. Perhaps LAW will have you serve as peacekeepers or security forces. You asked about implants… Not for you, of course, you reeking, posturing Joan of Arc. But for kin and friends of everyone on the Tor! LAW won't have any of them alive. Surrendered into our custody, stripped of suicide options, available for implantation. The bastions would never give them up. Burning couldn't make sense of it. His breath quickened, and he trembled in spite of the Skills. It was clear that he couldn't master himself enough to speak. As Lod, Romola, and other sources had said, Orman had an intense, uncontrollable blush response to anger, embarrassment, or humiliation.
But what mix of them was he feeling now? Flicking a look at Tonne-Head, Renquald saw that the upstart Allgrave was watching the legitimate one nervously. Emmett Orman had become a daunting unknown despite the fact that the Exts had won only a few minor victories and a single significant one since his elevation. Renquald wondered if Orman realized how high he'd ridden in his troops' esteem. Probably he didn't; the man had some sort of compulsion against thinking well of himself. When Romola would have gone to Burning, Tonne-Head held her back—an illogical show of caution in Renquald's opinion.
Orman's red rage had already made the guards edgy. It would have been more strategic for the Gilead to conclude that if Orman lost his temper, he could be somewhat messily dispensed with. LAW could then approach Daddy D or some other successor with its proposal. Lod spoke again, almost languidly. They have got several thousand hostages held ready for slave 'wares. All well and good for you to go down swinging, but the survivors are the ones who'll pay the price. To keep us all alive. Renquald already had her slated for more important things as the annexation of the planet went forward.
For a woman with Romola's looks, inner strength, and political savvy to ally herself with a well-connected dullard like Tonne-Head… Renquald could only conclude that she really did put her obligations to her people before her own happiness. We have no choice but to make the best of things. He watched them waver as he shortened the range between himself and his fiancee. Accepting his own death, Burning found himself entering a pure realm of the Flow, a more complete access to the Skills than he had ever achieved on a training field, in a dojo, or in a meditation chamber.
The background tone that had buzzed in his head was silent. Tonne-Head pushed Romola aside as Burning had intuited he would. Movement around him had slowed to a crawl, and he could see every detail, count the beads of sweat breaking out on his victim's upper lip. He felt buoyant, invincible. The fact that he could reliably summon up Flowstate in the middle of his imminent demise was the difference between the Skills and mere episodes of untutored peak experience. He bit down hard on the spit needle to prime it while he made a deft grapple-parry of Tonne-Head's hands. The Gilead let his fear get the better of him, dispersing his Row and impairing his Skills. Burning made a sliding transition to his attack hold.
Tonne-Head recognized what was happening by then but was unable to stop it. Burning's hold let him pluck the Gilead's lid away from his left eyeball, nearly tearing it loose. Then he got in close to avoid hitting his own hand and spit the needle, its tiny whisk tail expanding as it left his lips. Chapter Eight Tonne-Head barely had time to grunt. Sliding out of Burning's grip, the sachem of Bastion Gilead went limp as a trickle of blood found its way down his cheek. Burning stepped back to admire his handiwork. Targeting dots lamped him from every direction. He assumed that Renquald's sharpshooters would cut him down, but he about-faced to the commissioner just the same.
With Field Marshal Vukmirovic and Romola looking on, a medical corps colonel had moved to Tonne-Head's side, but the Allgrave pro tern was dead. Renquald looked at Burning curiously. When he finally spoke, people flinched and one or two of the more anxious sharpshooters almost opened fire on Burning. Exts go; hostages remain behind. I'll allow you to retain your arms as well as take along any personal items that can reasonably be fetched to you. Should the Exts accept, you'll leave aboard Sword of Damocles in very short order. The commissioner had nothing to gain by lying about the bastions having reached a truce, and Romola, Tonne-Head, and Lod had corroborated the story.
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