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Invincible

By Caro Roberts

 

Won't anybody help us?
What are we running for?
When there's no where, no where we can run to anymore
We can't afford to be innocent
Stand up and face the enemy
It's a do or die situation
We will be invincible
And with the power of conviction
There is no sacrifice
It's a do or die situation
We will be invincible
~~"Invincible"--Pat Benatar~~

Very few people even knew the building existed. It was five levels underground, and to even get to the elevator, one had to pass two sets of armed guards, a ten-foot high chain link fence with barbed wire at the top, and three different numeric passwords.

After going down the elevator, then there were the little matters of the palm, retina, and brain scans, the laser grids that could fry through two feet of lead and that had to be disarmed by typing in the exact numeric sequence in ten seconds or facing instant disintegration, and the gas chamber. Some argued that the protections were redundant, paranoid, and obsessive. President Canard hadn't had this much security around him, they pointed out.

"Yeah, and now he's dead," was the inevitable response. Very few carried on the point after that.

In this building, which was supposedly protected against bombs, radiation, any kind of detection, and another Saurian attack, what was left of Canard's scientists carried on research that would have made their founder proud. New weapons, new military sciences, new research, new ways to break spies or dissidents without leaving marks on the body that pointed to foul play--they were all perfected here.

Just then the halls were silent, without the constant ebb and flow of traffic that usually accompanied the work day. All the scientists, researchers, and assistants--whether they could be spared from their work or not--were gathered in a conference room, watching the speaker attentively. Even if the new developments he was expounding on hadn't been fascinating, no one would have dared look bored, anyway. Inattention was punished, and though that punishment was not quite as harsh as for, say, insubordination, it was still something to be avoided.

"...years of hard work have culminated into this moment. We have with us now the ability to firmly and finally get rid of all those who have been thorns in our side for years. We will realize Canard's dream!"

The audience broke into seemingly spontaneous but actually carefully-choreographed applause. They didn't know what the speaker was so excited about--this, was, after all, their hard work, so they were in effect applauding themselves. No one quite dared point that out.

"And now, I present you to you the tool that will clean up the streets once and for all!"

The crowd ooohed and aaaahed obediently as a fully-uniformed Enforcer walked out, a heavy device strapped to his back and an equally heavy gun in his hands. The Enforcer flipped a switch that had been built into his suit--praying all the while that he wouldn't be vaporized as one test user had been--and promptly disappeared from sight, gun and all. The audience held its collective breath, hoping that everything would work. Then, right over their heads, a ball of blue lightning shot out of apparently nowhere and scorched the opposite wall. They broke into truly spontaneous cheering then, congratulating each other and pounding their colleagues on the back. It had well and truly worked this time. The invisibility shields were working.

Once the clamor had begun dying down, the speaker resumed his place at the podium and tapped the mike for silence. The scientists instantly fell quiet. "Your jobs are simple," he continued, addressing the invisible soldiers. "Locate any known, suspected, or even possible Brotherhood members and track them to their hideout. They won't even know they're being followed. Once one of you gets inside, place a homing beacon, then signal for back up. We can only afford to have five, possibly ten go in at one time. Remember--you may be invisible, but you still have mass, and you can still make noise. If you trip over any garbage cans, well--then if you're not found out and skewered, you'll be shot for incompetence. Do I make myself clear?"

A chorus of "YES, SIR!"s came out of the empty air. At least five more soldiers must have slipped in, their devices already on.

"Then decloak so no one runs into you, and GET THE HELL TO YOUR POSTS!"

There was a brief flicker of blue light as the shields went down, and fifteen Enforcers stood in the middle of the room, saluting with their newly-perfected plasma guns.

*****

The first two weeks' searches were unfruitful. No positively-identified Brotherhood members were spotted, period. Those that were suspected were followed religiously, but to no avail. Either they heard a noise and disappeared, leaving the clumsier and more uncertain Enforcer lost and confused, or they lead their followers to hotel rooms, nightclubs, or various meeting spots. But never back to the Lair.

And then they hit pay dirt.

Kirk Dunfeather, a newly-promoted and over-zealous rookie who was about to burst from pride at being put on this mission, had been doing twice the work of any of the other Enforcers, following his targets with a fervor that alternately disgusted and amused his comrades. "Coffee break?!" he'd been heard to exclaim on more than one occasion. "Who needs a coffee break?! We're not getting PAID to take breaks, we're getting paid to find these...these crooks and murderers! Come on, guys, let's go let's go!!"

He was, of course, generally ignored. Now he was scouring the streets one more time before he quit for the day--never mind that he'd already worked an hour over his shift time. Just one last street, he promised himself. Just this one last street, and then I'll call it a day. The alley was empty, though, the street silent. Everyone seemed to be being remarkably law-abiding that night, a fact that alternately disgusted and pleased him. I'll have a chance to bust some baddies soon. Then I'll prove to them that I did deserve the promotion!

Kirk was exhausted, now, and reluctantly admitted to himself that he had to get some sleep, or else he'd be no use to anyone. He turned and started toward to base to report in, then remove his uniform and equipment and go home.

He was stopped dead in his tracks when he heard voices coming his way. He slunk into the shadows--he may have been invisible, but a streetlamp would still give him a shadow--and waited silently, holding his breath and trying not to squirm with anticipation.

The group was passing by him, but stopped nearly on top of him as another member came running up.

"Hey, Juneston!" someone in the group shouted to the new comer. "What kept ya? We were just gonna head back without ya!"

"Sorry I'm late, but you wouldn't believe what happened to me tonight. You'll laugh so hard you'll wet your pants when I tell ya."

"Well, come on! What happened?!"

The group was moving on, but Kirk followed, both because of curiosity and because he had a feeling that this group was up to no good.

"Okay, so, I was headin' back from the heist--"

Aha! Kirk knew that they'd been up to something!

"--And I'd taken a pretty good amount, so I was in a good mood, y'know? So suddenly, I figure out, 'hey, I'm hungry.' I spotted one of those all-night stores and ducked in to get a candy bar and a soda, right?"

"Yeah, so?" someone prompted, all impatience.

"I'm gettin' to it, hang on. So, I went in, an' I noticed that the clerk didn't look like he was the sharpest knife in the drawer, right? Now, I'm feelin' pretty good, so I figured I'd have a little fun with him. So I walked over to the country, put my hands flat on the counter where he could see 'em, and said, 'This is a robbery. Gimme all your money, or I'll shoot you right now.'"

"Oh, Trevi, you didn't." This voice was female.

"No, I really did! I figured that if he was smart, I'd just go an' leave him be, but if he was really stupid as he looked, I'd take him for everything he had."

"So, so, what'd he do?"

"He just stood there for a moment, then asked, real slow-like, 'What'll you do if I do?' " This brought muffled laughter from Trevi's audience. "So I looked him right in the eye and said, 'Then I'll wait for five minutes and shoot you anyway'!"

Everyone cracked up at that, and even Kirk had a hard time holding in a snicker.

"Annnnd?"

"Annnnd, his eyes got real big, and he shoved the whole cash register at me, then ducked under the counter, quiverin' like a baby!"

"He didn't, he didn't!" The group actually had to stop walking so that they could lean against walls before they fell down. "Trevi, you're making that up!"

"Are you kidding? I picked up the cash register and walked out, then dumped it behind the store and took the cash!"

More near-hysterical laughter, then, as everyone started to calm down, the same female who'd spoken earlier spoke again. "Trevi, shame on you," she chided, though there was laughter in her voice. "Taking advantage of the stupid like that."

"Hey, look at it this way, Kayne. If he learned from it, then he won't be as easy to fool next time--"

"And if he doesn't?"

"Then he had it coming!"

"Oh, Trevi..."

"What?"

"Nothing. Here, I found a bottle of wine for us tonight."

"Kayne, baby, I owe you. Drinks are on us tonight, guys!" Trevi shouted, waving the bottle in the air. "To the Brotherhood!"

Kirk froze, confused. The Brotherhood? But it...it couldn't be! These were kids, not much older than he was. According to his superiors, the Brotherhood consisted entirely of cruel, heartless barbarians that murdered, destroyed, raped, and took candy from babies. They were nothing but merciless killers who had to be destroyed to keep honest citizens safe. That was what his commanders had said, anyway, and they had to be telling the truth...didn't they?

Kirk watched as Trevi swept Kayne off her feet and gave her a whole-hearted kiss, ignoring her laughing protests. This can't be right, they can't be with the Brotherhood, they're just big talkers...These aren't killers! There's some mistake!

But orders were orders, and he followed the group back to the abandoned hockey rink on the other side of Keltor.

*****

Captain Nather Dukatny had been up almost all night, doing the paperwork that never seemed to end. It's almost enough to make me wish for another war, he thought grimly as he tumbled into bed a mere three hours before he'd have to be up again. Anything to get out of this damned administration job.

He hadn't even closed his eyes when someone knocked on his door. Letting out a string of expletives that would have made a space pirate blush, Dukatny staggered out of bed and jerked his door open. "WHAT?!"

His aide swallowed nervously and took an involuntary step back as he saluted. Judging from the rather messy state of his hair, he'd been rolled out of bed, too. "It's--it's Dunfeather, sure."

"Oh, damn, what's the kid done now? He hasn't gotten himself killed, has he?" That was all he needed.

"No, sir, he's--he's located the Brotherhood."

"He's what?!"

"He says he's found the Brotherhood. He's transmitting his report now."

"What the bloody--" Dukatny almost broke something vaulting across his room, slamming a button next to his communicator. "On screen!" he snarled, mentally groaning. I'm not as young as I used to be, I really can't afford to go leaping about like that. Not even for the Brotherhood. Damn, I'm going to feel this tomorrow... He glanced at the clock and hid a wry smile. Or, I should say, later today.

The screen flickered on, showing a various nervous-looking Dunfeather. Dukatny raised an eyebrow and Dunfeather snapped to a salute just a second too late. "Sir!"

"At ease, soldier. Report."

"I was just in the middle of--"

"Report to me."

"Well, yes, sir. Should I start at the beginning or...?"

"Start at the beginning, and do it in half the time it would take for an official report. Cut out all formal garbage and give me the facts. Now."

"Yes, sir. I was doing one last scan after my shift was over--"

How like the kid, doing extra scans. I bet his squad just hates him. Well, can't complain this time.

"--when I caught a group that was evidently with the Brotherhood. I followed--"

"Wait just a minute, Dunfeather. How did you know they were with the Brotherhood."

"I--I heard them say so, sir. I knew I couldn't be sure, but I figured, better save than sorry."

"I see. And you failed to inform anyone else of this why?"

"I--Sir, I didn't know for sure. I didn't want to disturb everyone over a false alarm, it would have been pointless and terribly embarrassing. And a whole crowd would have alerted the group, and we would have lost them. And..." He hesitated. "If I can be honest, sir..."

"Go ahead."

"I wanted to find the Brotherhood for myself," Dunfeather admitted. "I know everyone thinks that my promotion was a mistake, and that I'm not ready, and I wanted to do something to prove that I am."

The kid was honest, Dukatny has to give him that. A few years in the service'll cure him of that. "All right," he said noncommittally. "And then?"

"I followed them back to their hideout, sir. It's under an old hockey rink on the southeastern side of town. My beacon should be transmitting my exact coordinates."

Dukatny glanced down at the transmission briefly. "That is it. Stay put, Dunfeather. A five-squad will be arriving shortly."

"Sir. Uh...." The kid hesitated, obviously wanting to say something but not quite sure that he dared. Dukatny sighed and rolled his eyes.

"Go ahead, soldier."

"Sir. It's...it's about the Brotherhood, sure, I think there's been some mistake."

"Oh really?" Dukatny raised his eyebrows and stole a glance down at his control board. The green light was on, indicating that the transmission was being recorded, and that was good. What Dunfeather was saying could be grounds for a court martial.

"Yes, sir. I thought...that is, I've been told....that the Brotherhood is a bunch of thugs and murderers who bring blood and rapine in the streets."

"That's right."

"Well...sir...That's wrong!" he blurted suddenly. "I've seen--I've seen women here, sir! Defenseless women who obviously aren't warriors! And there are--there are children here, sir, little babies! That can't be right, there are innocent families here--"

"Innocent?" Dunfeather stopped cold at the steel in his superior's voice. "Did you just say that they are innocent?"

"Uh--well--yes, sir, some of these kids can't be more than--"

"THEY ARE NOT INNOCENT!" Dukatny boomed, stunning the kid into silence. "NO ONE in the Brotherhood is innocent, down to the baby that was born yesterday! They're all a bunch of thugs and cold-blooded killers and THEY DO NOT DESERVE MERCY. DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR?"

"Uh--uh--sir yes sir!"

"Good." Dukatny had been standing all that time--and positively towering during his final barrage, but now he sat down, trying to appear calm and non-threatening. "So, Dunfeather," he continued, as if he had not just been yelling two seconds before. "Our youngest officer just made the find of the century. Looks like that promotion was justified, hmm?" He leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers. "When the squad arrives, you're going to be in charge."

Dunfeather jumped, and Dukatny didn't have to turn around to know that his aide was stunned, as well. "Sir! Uh...sir...some of those officers outrank me."

"Well. Not anymore. From now on, you report directly to me. You are in charge."

Dunfeather really didn't know what to do then, so he fell back on the old army standby. "Uh--uh--uh--sir yes sir!"

"Good. Get to work, soldier. Dismissed."

"SIR!" Dunfeather hastily saluted, then cut the link. Dukatny smiled and leaned back in his chair again, waiting for the inevitable protest. Sure enough, it came, after his aide had had a chance to gather his courage in both hands.

"Uh...sir?"

"Yes?"

"That...that was a rather drastic command leap, sir, are you sure he can handle the added responsibility?"

"Oh, I'm sure he can't."

"Sir?"

"Don't you see? Any way this good, it's to my advantage. If he fails, I can remove him, and he's out of the army's collective hair. If he succeeds--which I highly doubt is possible, but if he does, then he owes me, and I control him. And, of course, if things get out of hand...those plasma guns are still experimental. It would be such a senseless tragedy if one were to explode, wouldn't it?"

"Oh, yes, general. Senseless, and tragically unavoidable."

"Send out the squadron, soldier."

"Sir."

*****

The "squadron" consisted of five soldiers, all somewhere between ten and twenty years Kirk's seniors. Most of them had been in the military, or something similar, since they were legal--or before. All of them had legions more experience than he did, and he could see that.

They hated his guts, and he could see that too. His only hope was that they were enough afraid of Dukatny that they wouldn't 'accidentally' shoot him. Things like that had happened to young, ambitious officers before, and Kirk wasn't fool enough to think that he was immune just because of who he was. His only hope--beyond that he'd be incredibly lucky and make some good choices--was to at lest pretend to listen to them. Ask their advice. Gain their respect. Make them see that he did respect their experience, that he wasn't trying to nose them out of well-deserved promotion. He had no delusions about how his grand and unproven ideas matched up against their tried and true tactics, and he was anxious for them to know that.

Okay, okay, how do I do this...be familiar with them, but not common. Respect them, but don't let them awe you. Listen to them, but keep command. Oh, yeah, this is going to be easy. Umm...might as well start now. "Listen up, men," he began in what he hoped was an authoritative voice. They looked at him, all smirking, and he doubted that he tone had carried quite the command he'd hoped for. "I'm in command here for now. You report to me, and only me, and I report to Dukatny from there." They all looked at him as if to say, 'tell us something we don't know.' Kirk hesitated; he was losing them already, and they hadn't even been under his 'command' for five whole minutes. He'd have to make a lot of progress right then and there, or it'd be too late. "I know I'm young for this job," he continued, "and I realize that you all have vastly more experience than I do. You all deserve to be in command, but unfortunately, I'm the one who got stuck in charge, and we don't argue with the powers that be, right?" This earned him a small smile, and he thought that maybe he was getting somewhere. "Now..." He paused and took a deep breath. This would either make or break him. "We're not going to be shooting anybody for awhile. First, we're going to do some scouting, so we'll know what we're getting into." They looked a little suspicious, but they didn't outright object, so he pressed on.

"Furthermore..." Don't hesitate, they'll think you're weak. "Furthermore, no women will be shot during this...campaign." That's it, think of it was war, then you won't feel so bad about killing people who might possibly be innocent--no, no, they CAN'T be innocent, they're THIEVES. The troops stared.

"But sir--"

"You heard me. Noncombatants are going to be spared at all costs. No men who aren't fighting. No women, even if they ARE fighting, and for DRAKE'S sake NO CHILDREN! And no one, no matter WHO they are or whether or not they're fighting, is to be shot in the back. Private quarters are strictly off-limits, as is the bathroom. You are not going to take up stations anywhere that violates basic avian rights. If they're in the hallway and fighting, then you can take 'em down, but NO CIVILIANS."

"You're insane!" One of the Enforcers, a grizzled old veteran who'd been fighting when Kirk was born, looked ready to explode. "This is war, we've got to press our advantages and kill them all while we can!"

"Maybe this IS war--and I'm not saying it is!--but if this IS war, in war, do you go around killing innocent women and children?"

"There's no one INNOCENT in this thieves' guild!"

"We didn't even shoot SAURIANS in the back, and we're going to pay our fellow avians the same respect!"

"You're an idiot!"

"And YOU'RE in danger of being court martialed, if you keep talking to your commanding officer that way!"

The veteran shut his beak, but remained glaring at him. All the other Enforcers were too, and Kirk winced inwardly. All his progress had been swept away in an instant. He'd never win their respect now. That doesn't matter, he thought stubbornly. I've gotta do what's right...even if they are thieves. "There are four inhabited levels, and six of us. One of is to be on each level at all times, and one here, though you can cycle out as you see fit. Right now, wait here. I have some business to attend to."

Kirk walked out, barely acknowledging the salutes mockingly aimed in his direction. He'd never realized that gesture could appear so...so derogatory until then.

He sighed and wound his way up to the main level of the Brotherhood.

*****

It was lunch time, and the Mess Hall was packed. Everyone in the Brotherhood seemed to be there--and if they weren't yet, they would be in a few minutes. In the chatter of conversation, at first no one noticed one more voice shouting. Then, a pot was mysteriously levitated off the table and banged by a floating spoon. "ATTEN-TION!"

Everyone stopped and stared in the direction of the disembodied voice. "We are the Enforcers," it announced--it was male, youngish, and it wavered just slightly, as if not used to authority, "and we have invaded your Lair."

There were gasps all over the room as sabers flared and family huddled together, parents pushing their children under the tables before positioning themselves back to back and preparing to sell their lives as dearly as possible. The voice hurried on. "Calm down, please! This isn't going to be a slaughter, I want to give you fair warning!"

Those in the room exchanged suspicious glances. The Enforcers had invaded, and they weren't interested in a slaughter? They were giving a warning, for Drake's sake? This had to be a trick.

"I'm giving orders to the men under my command to leave the women and children alone. Your families are safe. I'd just ask for terms of surrender--but I know you'll never do that. This is going to be war, and we're going to fight it according to the rules of war. It starts tomorrow at dawn--wait, you can't see dawn down here, can you? Okay, it starts tomorrow at six in the morning. You have until then to get your noncombatants out of range. Your private quarters will be safe, as will the bathroom. Beyond that, anyone in the halls or any of the other rooms are fair game. Just in case you think I'm kidding..." A ball of blue fire suddenly exploded, streaking the air and leaving a smoking black mark on the opposite wall. "That was a warning shot--that black mark could have been any of you. This is your only warning. Get your kids out of here, before any accidents can happen to them. The entrances are guarded, and only civilians will be allowed safely out. Anyone else will be fried. And trust me, we've found your various secret exits, they're guarded too. Gentlemen, this is war." The pan and spoon lowered themselves to the ground slowly, and everyone strained their eyes, trying desperately to see the invisible. After a few moments, the door to the Mess Hall opened and shut on its own.

Pandemonium broke out.

*****

Five minutes later, Leila was sequestered in her quarters with those she's chosen for her 'Council of War': Iliana, Ender, Jedar, Cutter, Milantha, and herself. For the moment, they were all glued to the surveillance video that Cutter was playing over for them. They strained their eyes, even though they knew they weren't going to see the body the voice belonged to. After watching the video twice, they began analyzing what they could.

"He's young. Very, very young," was Jedar's observation.

"Too young to be in command," Ender added. "Especially on such an important assignment."

"I do not believe he's bluffing." Everyone turned to look at Iliana. "If he were, he would have found a more...believable way to get his point across. We can not afford to take the risk that he isn't lying. We have to assume that he has the capabilities to carry out his threat."

Leila sighed. "Ye're right, we're gonna have ta get everyone who can't fight outta here before tomorrow."

"That's assuming that he keeps his promises and waits until then," Ender pointed out rather darkly. Leila gave him a dry look.

"Thanks, kid, fer pointin' that out." He had the grace to look slightly sheepish and glance away.

"Speaking of kids..." Cutter had finished fiddling with his security tape, and was ready to join the conversation. "He's right about one thing, if nothing else. We have to get them out of here."

Leila nodded. "Way aheada ya, Andrews. I already talked ta the Leader of the base in Seique, an' he said that he'll let anyone we have ta evacuate stay there fer a few days."

Milantha forced herself not to squirm in her chair. It wasn't fair. She'd only been Loremaster a few months, and the first thing she had to deal with was war and possible genocide. She knew that they were waiting for her to say something, and she wracked her brain for something intelligent that hadn't already been mentioned. Finally, she thought she had something. "We have to send someone with the children." She received several 'duh' looks, so she hastened to add, "Someone who can fight. In case something happens...they need to be protected."

The others thought that over, then nodded. Iliana gave her an approving look, and Milantha tried not to beam. Then she switched to business like mode and started helping plan the evacuation.

*****

Everyone was gathered in the Mess Hall when Leila made the announcement. Yes, it was possible the Enforcers had invaded; yes, they were taking the threat seriously; yes, they realized it could all be a bluff; and yes, they were evacuating. All children were leaving, whether they wanted to or not. Non-fighters weren't being forced to leave, but it was "strongly suggested," not for only their safety, but the safety of everyone who'd otherwise have to protect them. Fighters were being assigned to the caravan as well, to protect the children, just in case. Anyone who wasn't strong enough to stick around was welcome to go and get out of their way.

Querida stood in the corner of the Mess Hall, watching the various reactions. Already she could see older children preparing to argue against their removal, and husbands and wives about to get into fights about who went and who stayed. The caravan would be leaving in three hours, just barely long enough for everyone to get organized, but it was the latest they could push it and still reach Seique by dark. Families were starting to drift out, discussing what to pack and who to pack off. Voices were being raised as arguments began about who was going and who staying. There are going to be a lot of fights over this, she decided, glad she wouldn't be involved in any herself.

*****

"You're going, Kerry, and that's final."

"No, I'm staying, and that's final."

The two doctors faced each other down in their quarters, Kerry with her hands planted stubbornly on her hips, Tarrin with his arms folded equally stubbornly across his chest.

"I'm not going to let you stay here."

"You can't make me go."

They both were usually so tractable and calm that even minor disagreements between them were rare. This, however, was a full-blown argument, and the worst they'd had in three years of marriage.

"The children will need you, Kerry."

"You need me here, Tarrin. Once the war starts, they're going to be filling up the infirmary faster than we can clear it, and that's with both of us working full shift! There are doctors enough at the other Lair. I'm needed right here."

"Kerry, you've not had the combat experience--"

Her eyes flamed, and Tarrin realized instantly that he'd said the wrong thing. "Combat experience? Combat experience? Do you want to talk to me about combat experience?" She closed the distance between them, poking him in the chest with one finger. "I was a field doctor with both Resistances, my parents were brought into me after a raid, almost dead, I was kneeling in bloody ditches in the middle of battles frantically trying to piece men's bodies back together, so DON'T YOU TALK TO ME ABOUT COMBAT EXPERIENCE!" Her eyes burned into his, holding more anger than he'd ever seen. Then she stepped away again, breathing heavily, trying to get back under control. She turned away from him abruptly, folding her arms tight to her chest and trying to force memories away.

He hesitated for a moment, then came up behind her and tentatively rested his hands on her shoulders. "Kerry," he murmured into her ear, "I'm sorry."

For a moment she remained stiff, and he afraid she wasn't going to forgive him so easily. Then, anger suddenly gone, she turned around and went into his arms, burying her face in chest. "No, I'm sorry for yelling at you that way... It's just... Tarrin, I know I'm not a thief, I know I don't have the skills of half the Juniors in the Lair, but I'm not a civilian, I'm a doctor, and I don't need to be shielded from the harsh realities of life!"

"I know, I know, I just..." Want to protect you, he started to say, but she interrupted before he got the chance.

"It's not just that, Tarrin, I..." Querida was clinging to him for all she was worth, as if it'd take a crowbar to get her to relinquish her hold the tiniest bit. "I need you," she murmured into his shirt. "I can't leave you, I don't want to leave you here, like this...I know I can't keep you safe, but I have to be here, just in case... If anything happens to you, I have to be here."

Tarrin sighed and gave up. Kerry was sweet and gentle, but she was also stubborn. Once she'd made up her mind, there would be no changing it. Not in this case. He made one more, fairly token, protest. "What about Elle?"

She hesitated for just a second, and he realized he'd hit the only weak spot in her defenses. She paused to get control of herself, then said slowly, "Tarrin, I love our baby more than anything, but I can't help her. She's--she's healthy, and Lessa's already volunteered to watch her. There will be doctors at the other Lair who can take care of her if...if she needs it. But if our home's wiped out, then it's not going to do her any good."

"It's not going to do her any good if she loses both parents instead of one."

Querida was wavering. "She...she's not going to lose either of us."

"But if she does--"

"Please, Tarrin!" She pulled away. "I don't want to let her go, don't make this any harder than it is! I don't want to let my baby out of my sight for two seconds, how do you think I feel just shipping her off and not knowing if I'll ever see her again? I want to go with her, I want to be there to take care of her and watch over her, but I'm needed here, and I can't abandon my duty!" She was near tears, angry and frustrated and frightened. He sighed and pulled her into his arms.

"I know, Kerry, I know, hush, it's all right..."

"No, it's not all right." She held him in silence for a moment, trying to gather her thoughts and strength. "Mirandy's evacuating. Mirandy is going with my baby, and I know she's going to have other things on her mind, but--but what if she decides this would be a good time to take revenge?"

Tarrin had no answer for that. Querida pulled away again, wiping discreetly at her eyes, then went into Elle's room to get her ready to go. Tarrin sighed, then went into the infirmary to start checking over their equipment. He had a feeling they'd be needing all of it in top condition, very soon.

*****

Kirk was watching as the convoy prepared to leave. It was...slightly disturbing...to watch the families saying goodbye. Husbands, wives, and parents were valiantly trying to keep up the pretense that everything was fine, but they all knew that the chances were good that they'd never see each other again. Kirk frowned slightly as he noticed some of those who were slipping out--even with kids hanging about them, they certainly didn't look like noncombatants. For instance, there was a red-haired young man that looked vaguely familiar, somehow...who also looked like a one-man army. And that woman over there--Lianan, by her looks, or something similar--she was small and slight, but still moved like she knew what she was doing.

Oh, of course, he realized, and felt like an idiot for not realizing sooner. They're sending a few fighters along to protect the children. Well, can't fault them there. He knew his soldiers didn't like the idea of letting anyone escape, much less anyone who could fight, so he decided to just not mention it to them. What they didn't know couldn't cause innocent deaths.

Finally, the group moved off, and an almost palatable air of gloom and worry settled over those who remained. With no reason to keep up a cheerful facade, they quickly dropped it, and the ones Kirk had marked as those probably in power immediately huddled together, then adjourned to make war plans. Well, that was fine with him. He had a report to make, as well.

He reinstated guards on the entrances, then made his way back to the lower, uninhabited levels to make his first report. And even better, the first report I give him has good news, not bad! Kirk was immensely pleased with himself. Dukatny would see that his promotion had been a good idea, after all.

Dukatny didn't look particularly surprised when Kirk reported in. In fact, he looked just a little bit impatient, but made no comment beyond, "Report, soldier."

"Sir! I'm pleased to report that the evacuation is over, and the attack is going to start as scheduled, tomorrow morning!"

Dukatny didn't look exactly pleased. "Evacuation? Tomorrow morning? What are you babbling about, soldier?"

"I...I told them they were free to remove the children and noncombatants."

"You did WHAT?!"

"This is a war, sir, and in war, we don't attack women and children. We didn't even shoot Saurians in the back, sir, don't we owe fellow Avians the same courtesy?"

"You're too soft!" Dukatny roared. "This isn't supposed to be WAR, this is supposed to be EXTERMINATION!"

For a moment, Kirk felt like he was talking to a Saurian overlord. "Sir, I saw at least two newborn ducklings with the refugees. I'm sorry, sir, but I can't in good conscience fire on babies."

"You're fishing for a court martial, soldier."

Kirk had a smart reply all ready, but he held her tongue. His opinion of his superior couldn't get much lower, but Dukatny was still his commanding officer, and as such was due at least some modicum of respect. Kirk would give him the respect due his rank--and nothing more. "Sir."

Dukatny glared. "I want to hear a death toll by tomorrow evening, and it had better have at least two digits."

"Sir." Not an agreement, by any means, but not a direct refusal, either.

"You're dismissed." Kirk saluted, then cut the link.

Dukatny leaned back in his chair, then said without turning around to look at his aide, "He's showing too much initiative. Far too much. I hadn't planned on him developing a sense of honor--that usually lessens with rank, not increases." He steepled his fingers together thoughtfully, then swung around to look at his aide. "Arrange for an 'accident' to happen to Dunfeather. But don't activate it yet--we'll give him one more chance. If I don't have a high enough body count by tomorrow evening, Mr. Dunfeather will have one more name to add to the casualty list--his own."

"Sir."

*****

The strategy meetings were probably going to go on far into the night--in fact, the main leaders of the resistance were unlikely to get any sleep at all.

Not the best way to start a war, in Gina's opinion. Going into anything without full control of oneself was just asking for trouble.

But no one had asked her advice. Which they should've, she thought unhappily as she paced the corridors. I know what I'm doing, and I'm good with covert ops. But...I have only been here four years. I'll just have to find another way to help. I can do what I have to--Dalin evacuated, I don't have to worry about keeping him safe. I can do my job and not worry about what he'd think of me, because if I don't do my job, we're never going to see each other again anyway.

A chilling thought. She'd started aching for him already, and he hadn't even been gone more than an hour.

Enough of this. Dwelling on him won't help me now. I've got to think. I can't just...just stand here and do nothing. I've been trained to find information, and I WILL find it. There's got to be something I can find out about these...these... whatever they are.

She went back to her old quarters, where she kept the bulk of her material. There were some contacts there she could use, she was sure of it--ah, here they were. Three different generals she had decent blackmail material on, though she really only wanted to use two of those. One of them had had a drinking problem for awhile, but he'd cleaned up his act and now seemed genuine in his desire to stay clean for his wife and kids. Him she'd spare if she had any choice. But these two--both were sleazy dirtbags who'd cheated on their lovely wives for no apparent reason, and hadn't repented at all. In fact, they were repeat offenders. Slime. After I get what I need out of them, I'm going to tell their wives anyway. Hell, I may tell the press, too.

Two hours later, she'd used nearly every military resource available to her, but it was worth it. She'd gotten the information she needed.

And it had scared the hell out of her.

Not wasting any time once she'd gotten the information and a minimal confirmation, Gina charged out of her quarters and headed straight for Leila's office.

She heard them still discussing strategy as she approached the door, and paused to listen.

"Ya think ya could cut the lights wit'out blowin' everything else?"

"Yes. It'll be tight, but it can be done with a minimum of damage."

"Good. We'll need every advantage we can get, an' wit'out the lights, at least we can even the odds a little bit, insteada bein' picked off one by one."

"I think I can come up with some kind of nightvision goggles, so maybe we'll be able to see them."

Gina walked in without knocking, startling what was left of the war council. "You can't see what isn't there."

"What?"

She didn't notice who'd spoken it; she didn't really care. She went on without a pause. "The Enforcers have invaded, and they've got some new technology that makes them totally invisible to us. They have energy units attached to their backs that generate a forcefield that makes them totally invisible. Even scanners won't pick them up. And they're carrying some prototype plasma guns--one hit and there's nothing left but a charred puddle of goop on the floor."

Some of the others winced at the mental image her too-descriptive term had brought. Gina barely noticed.

"No lights would be good, at least they won't be able to pick us off like they're at a shooting gallery."

"They'll be able to do that anyway," Milantha said miserably, "if they can see us but we can't see them! All they'll have to do is wait, and eventually..." For a moment, she wasn't the new Loremaster, she was a very young, very scared wife and mother of two. Then she got herself back under control, reminding herself that her children were safe, for the moment at least. Sparky had refuse to leave, but maybe he wouldn't have to see combat... "There's got to be something we can do to, I don't know, neutralize the packs or something!"

They all turned to Cutter, who looked thoughtfully. "Well--I might be able to come up with some sort of infrared ray devices that could sense their body heat--"

"How long?" Leila snapped. He didn't exactly grimace, at least not outwardly, though his tone implied that he was wincing on the inside.

"Not less than a week."

"We don't have that much time!"

"We don't need that much." Now all eyes turned to Gina. "I managed to--ah--extract the plans for some guns that will be able to highlight the Enforcers, then destroy them. Here." She spread the blueprints out on the table, positioning them in front of Cutter, as the only one of the four in front of her would could understand them. "See, the ray emits a constant stream of radiation--here. It's low-level and perfectly harmless, and it'll only react with the type of weak radiation emitted by the pack generators. The Enforcers won't realize a thing, but they'll be lit up a like a beacon. The radiation stream originates from this device, attached to the top of the gun--here. The rest of the gun is similar to the plasma guns the Enforcers themselves are carrying. They're attached, so once an Enforcer is sighted, you can fire without having to draw a weapon or attract attention to yourself. Wham, bam, and the Enforcers' atoms are decorating several yards of floor space."

Everyone else looked vaguely ill. Gina just shrugged, unperturbed. "It's a quick, painless death. They won't even know what hit them." They still looked ill at ease. She rolled her eyes. "Look. They are going to kill us if we don't kill them first. This is no time to be merciful. We hit first. We hit hard. We stay alive."

There was a moment of silence as everyone digested that. "How long?" Leila asked again after awhile. There didn't seem to be anything else to say. Gina thought for a second.

"I think, if we have the right materials, we can each manufacture one an hour, maybe more. Two an hour...and it's..." She checked her watch. "Just after eight. Now. The assault's supposed to start at...six, right? So we have ten hours. If we work all night, we can have around twenty guns ready to go by morning."

Leila nodded thoughtfully. "Sounds good, but--ya gotta get some sleep, or neither of ya'll be any good fer us. What's the least amount a' sleep ya can get by on?"

"I don't need to sleep," Gina said promptly. "I can handle it."

Not to be outdone, especially not by a woman eleven years his junior, Cutter added promptly, but with a casual drawl to his voice that made it sound as if he planned war strategies every night, "I can assure you, fearless leader, I've worked all night and then worked all the next day, too, many times. This'll be child's play."

Leila rolled her eyes and muttered something about "damn bravado." Jedar didn't bother to mutter. "Work until you've got--fifteen guns, then, whatever time that is, sack out fer a few hours. If yer tired, ya ain't gonna be at yer peak, and we're gonna need ya both at yer peak. Not ta mention I ain't gonna be too happy if I pull the trigger on one a' yer damn machines an' get charred black 'cause one a' ya made a stupid mistake."

Everyone made a rather unsuccessful attempt to keep from smiling at the mental picture they got.

"Get ta work."

Joking aside, they scrambled for the door with all prudent haste.

*****

Five o'clock in the morning came far too easily. Two guards, each armed with a gun they barely knew how to hold, much less use, watched the hallway as everyone else puttered around the messhall, drinking coffee by the gallon. No one was willing to be at anything less than full alertness when they stepped out that door and into the line of fire. Even though the room had been checked and rechecked, everyone huddled together in little clusters, moving cautiously, as if they expected Enforcers to jump out and attack them from their cereal bowls. They kept their voices low as they examined their guns and tried out the coms Cutter had whipped up on short notice. So far, nothing had blown up that shouldn't have--but it still paid to be cautious.

"Ten minute warning," Cutter's voice came over their com systems. Everyone abruptly scrambled to life as they ran around for their last free minutes--one more cup of coffee, a quick run to the bathroom, a hurried kiss snatched from a lover who was working on a different team. Then, after precisely ten minutes, and with no warning other than that--the lights all went out, plunging the entire base into absolute and complete darkness.

Everyone had been well briefed ahead of time and didn't cry out at the sudden gloom. The total silence, combined with the total darkness, was actually unnerving for a few moments. Then Leila's voice broke the darkness. "Form up an' move out," she announced briskly. "You've all get yer assignments."

Then the ominous feeling that had been hanging over the room was instantly dispelled and a low murmur of conversation rose up as teams paired up, reminded each other of their assignments, and slipped out.

*****

"I'm not asking you to warn them before you shoot." Kirk was painfully aware that he sounded like he was explaining himself to his troops--a fatal error. But he couldn't help it. He had to explain his reasoning, try to get past the various incredulous, humoring or--even worse--disgusted looks he saw in those under his command. "This is a war. We will take what advantages we can get, and if that means them not being able to fight back then--then--so be it." He'd stammered. Damn. He was betraying how nervous he was. He'd never get their respect now. "But there are rules, even in war. Don't shoot the women. Don't shoot anybody in the back."

"Should we set the guns to 'stun', sir?" one of the veterans sneered. Kirk struggled to control his temper.

"Shoot...to...ki--" His faltering order was turned into a startled curse as all the lights went out, plunging them into total darkness. They were too well-trained to bungle uselessly about, but they still all let out startled curses and raised their weapons. "Hold your fire!" Kirk barked uselessly. "Be calm! This is just a little set back. We're trained for emergencies like this. We can still do our jobs." But in this light--or lack thereof--they might not be able to see who's a woman and who isn't until after they've shot... He swallowed hard. "You all have your assignments. Let's move out."

*****

"Ya still wit' me, Andrews?" Leila whispered into the darkness, keeping her uncertainty out of her voice. It would be so easy to end up taking different paths and wind up totally separated from one's partner, and Leila was in no hurry to face the halls alone.

Even if females were supposedly 'safe.'

"Right here." His voice cut through the darkness, dispelling her touch of nervousness. "Lead on, Fearless Leader."

"Don' call me that," she replied out of habit. She couldn't see him in the pitch black, but she knew he was grinning her. She rolled her eyes, even knowing that he couldn't see her, either. "C'me on."

They moved down the hall cautiously, sweeping the corridor with the beams and waiting, tensed, for an Enforcer to show up in their sights. It was totally silent, aside from their breathing and the scuffle of their shoes on the stone floor. Leila fought to keep her imagination from running wild--there were enough real demons lurking around without her dreaming up imagined ones, too! Cutter touched her shoulder and she jumped, then scolded herself for doing so. "What?" she hissed.

"Did you hear that?"

"Hear what?"

"I thought I heard--"

A terrified shriek from around the corner signaled that someone else had been found by the Enforcers. Not knowing whether or not the victim was one of their own, they broke into a dead run, fingers already on the triggers. They skidded around a corner, Cutter in the lead, and his beam lit an Enforcer standing in the middle of the hall. An Enforcer who was blowing the smoke off the tip of his gun, dispassionately observing the charred remains of what had once been a Blader.

A strangled cry--Cutter could never determine afterwards whether it had been his or Leila's, though he always swore that it wasn't his--alerted the Enforcer, who fired in their direction on instinct, without stopping to properly aim. That was all that saved Cutter's life. He saw the Enforcer swinging the gun in his direction and threw himself to the ground, but a searing pain in his shoulder told him that he hadn't totally avoided the beam. The answering beam that shot over his head told him that Leila had fired, and then the Enforcer was just a stain on the floor.

None of this really mattered to Cutter, as he'd slipped into a haze of pain that seemed to be eating away at his arm. He wondered vaguely if it was still even attached to his body. Leila helped up him, supporting him on his good side, and cursing blisteringly. He tried to grin and crack a joke, but the feeling of being doused in burning oil seemed to have short-circuited his ability to crack jokes. If there is a Hell, some vague, detached corner of his mind commented, this must be what it feels like.

He was dimly aware that they'd reached the infirmary, but then nothing seemed worth the fight to stay conscious and so he willingly released his hold on awareness.

*****

"He's going to be laid up for awhile," Tarrin announced as he finished bandaging what was left of Cutter's arm, "but he will live. The gun must have just touched him."

Querida winced. "If that's 'just touched', I'd hate to see what would have happened if it had been any more dea--er--full-on."

"Yeah, you would hate ta," Leila agreed dryly, trying to quell her rumbling stomach as she remembered that puddle that had once been an avian, "'cause I have, an' it ain't pretty."

"We're already down two," Kerry worried, "that we know about. Who knows how many others--" She stopped and shivered. "We're down two," she repeated, "and they're down at least one. The question is, how many did they have to begin with?"

"I'd rather not think about it." Leila shook her head. "I gotta get back out there. Any other partners available?"

"Not right now. You can wait around, if you want--"

"I'm goin' back out," she said, hefting her gun.

"Leila, are you sure--"

"Yes," she cut off Tarrin's protest with a raised hand. "We don't got a choice. We need everyone out there."

"But if you're killed--"

"Then Kel can take over as Leader," she replied coolly. "Why'd ya think I sent him wit' the others?"

"I don't like it."

"Neither do I."

She walked out, and the doctors were suddenly occupied with the next newest patient.

*****

Estelle checked around a corner, then nodded, satisfied. "All clear, Lantha."

"We think." Milantha grimaced, but followed her around into the other hall. Estelle glanced in the direction of her voice, reading the unspoken concern there.

"Spark's all right, Lantha."

"I hope."

"He is, you know that."

"But what's to keep them from finding the control room and--"

"Milantha, you're not going to be able to concentrate on what you're doing if you keep dwelling on him." She paused, then added, "If you want to take a purely pragmatic approach, they'd been unlikely to fire on him even if they did find the control room, for fear of damaging the computers. We've scanned the room, and Spark would know if they got in because they'd have to open the doors. He's got a gun, Lantha. He'll be all right."

Milantha was only marginally comforted, but did her best to focus. "I know, Stelle." Her instincts suddenly screamed that there was someone behind them and she whirled, her beam catching an Enforcer aiming at them. "Get down, Stelle!" She fired, but her shot went wild.

The Enforcer dodged, yanking his gun away even though he could have gotten at least one of them. The shot went right over their heads, hitting the ceiling with an impact that sprayed them with bits of stone. Estelle recovered first, swinging her gun around, but the hallway was empty. "He ran away?" she asked incredulously, carefully picking herself up. "Why would he do that?"

"I don't know. He could have killed us both, but he--didn't. Why?"

"I doubt it was mercy. Let's go." They brushed themselves off and went back to examining B Level.

*****

Gina was used to work in circumstances that even the most accomplished thieves would have been nervous in, so not being able to see even an inch past her beak didn't bother her. Much. She inched her way along the corridor, back glued firmly to the wall, and carefully sweeping every inch of the hall with her radiation beam. There was no one yet, but some six-sense was telling her that she was about to find someone.

There. Whispering voices, just around the corner. She all but crawled the remaining yards of the hall, then peeked carefully around the bend, then nodded in satisfaction at what her beam lit up. Not one, but two Enforcers, so deep in conversation that they undoubtably wouldn't see her even if she walked right between them. Perfect. Gina smiled to herself and raised her gun...aimed...and fired.

Two down, and how many more to go? Instead of allowing herself to feel satisfied at a job well done, she simply hugged the wall again, and kept going.

*****

"I'll go first."

"I should--"

"I can handle it, okay?"

"Well...all right, but be careful."

Rio paused just long enough to give her partner a grin. "Jed, how many years we been partners?"

"Oh...about ten, I suppose."

"That's right. Fer ten years you've been tellin' me ta be careful, an' have I ever listened?"

"Well, no."

"An' I'm still alive. So don' worry." She patted him on the shoulder--which she was able to do only because he was crouching and she was standing--and slipped across the hallway.

Jedar sighed resignedly, waited ten seconds, then moved around the corner, into the next hall. There was a brief flash as Rio moved from her side of the hall to his, about three yards in front of him. Then he crossed to the opposite side of the hall, and they continued zig-zagging their way down the corridor, waiting for the first strike. The only time they were vulnerable was when they were moving across the middle of the hall, but they did that as quickly as possible, crouching low so that they were only a target for a split second, and not much of one even then.

Half-way down their third corridor, Rio was scurrying across the middle of the hall when she thought she heard the click of a weapon being charged. She automatically went into a defensive crouch, bringing her own gun to her shoulder and scanning the hallway in front of her.

Unfortunately, the attack came from behind.

"RIO GET DOWN!"

Jedar's hand grabbed her arm and jerked her down, but she was hit before she could hit the ground. It wasn't a direct hit--the darkness and her movement prevented that--but in the agony the damage still produced she almost would have preferred instantaneous death. Blackness that had nothing to do with the darkness of the hall tried to claim her, and she didn't care about fighting it.

Jedar fired on instinct, and a scream from further down the hall told him that he'd hit his target. He didn't much care. He knelt beside Rio, his hands were frantic as they searched for a pulse. He did find one, finally, but it was weak. He was yelling into his com to anyone who could hear that they had an emergency, and he needed help. She'd been shot in the back, though how badly he couldn't tell, and he couldn't possibly carry her without causing even more damage, but he had to get her to the infirmary before she bled herself to death. "You shot a woman in the back!" he yelled down the hall, not caring who could hear him. "In the BACK!"

*****

Kirk had had enough of sitting in his pitch-dark office, waiting for increasingly rare and sketchy reports from his officers. The occasional screams the filtered down through the walls set his teeth on edge, even more so because he couldn't tell which were 'his' Enforcers, which were Bladers. Finally he couldn't stand it any more. Snatching his own gun, Kirk turned on his shield and started feeling his way cautiously up the stairwell. More than one of his officers had missed the top step and gone plummeting down the stairs already, and he didn't intend to be one of them.

Step...step...step...There we go. He reached out and traced a nearby doorplate, making sure he'd come up on the right level. D60, his fingers told him. Good.

Yelling from further down one of the halls caught his attention. "--IN THE BACK!" echoed down to him. Kirk frowned and followed the sound. There was someone down there--someone who wasn't one of the Enforcers. It was a Blader, and a furious one at that. Kirk's frowned deepened as what the Blader was yelling sank in. A woman...in the back...? That's not possible! His steps quickened as he reached them.

"What happened?"

He heard scuffling sounds and knew that the Brotherhood member was on his feet, probably aiming a gun at him. "You said women would be safe." The voice was hoarse, tight, as if its owner was just holding in his anger.

"They were supposed to be. My name is Kirk Dunfeather, I'm supposed to be in charge of this mission. What happened?!"

"One of your boys shot my partner in back! She's still alive, but--I can't get her up to the infirmary."

There was emotion in the voice under the anger, and Kirk realized that the other man genuinely cared about his partner. For a moment he struggled with himself, then shoved everything he'd ever learned at the academy into some corner of his mind and locked the door on it. "You take one side, I'll take the other. Come on." He put his gun down on the floor and turned off his shield, then moved to the women's side, feeling around the floor until he touched her arm. "We'll have to roll her other on her back, but only for a second."

There was disbelief in the thief's voice. "Who are you trying to fool?"

"No one." Kirk stood again, looking in the direction of the voice and allowing his own anger and bewilderment to leak into his voice, as well. "I'm too young for the command," he said honestly, meanwhile wondering why he was revealing himself like this to a total stranger--worse, an enemy. "I don't know why I was promoted, except for the fact that my father is--was--very high up the ladder. He was killed trying to stop a gang war a few years ago, right before I entered the Academy, but because of my name I've always gotten preferential treatment. I hate it. When I was commissioned to take command of this mission, I was determined to show them that I could do it. But--but I was always told that the Brotherhood was just full of barbarians and cutthroats. No one ever mentioned wives and children and happy families. I ordered my soldiers not to harm the women and children, and no one was supposed to be shot in the back, but..." He shook himself out of it. "Listen, your partner is going to bleed to death if we don't move her, so even if you decide to shoot me later, for right now let's go."

Silence for a moment, and he sensed his opponent weighing his confession, trying to decide whether or not to believe it. "All right. Here, careful..."

*****

Querida would have been shocked to see a fully-uniformed and unarmed Enforcer come into the infirmary at any time. She would have been astounded to see him come in with Jedar.

But just then, she wouldn't have cared if Dragaunus himself had come in the door, because all her attention was on what they were carried. "Rio!" She dropped the instrument she'd been holding with a clatter, reaching the other side of the infirmary in two strides. "Oh, Rio...what happened?"

"Got nicked in the back."

"Lay her down." Querida helped him position Rio on one of the beds, face down, then gasped as she saw what had happened. "You call that nicked?!"

"If she'd been hit, she'd be dead."

"Point. Oh, Rio..." Querida forced herself to snap into doctor mode, wiping her hands on her already blood-stained lab coat. She peeled what was left of Rio's shirt away from her back, holding her breath as she saw the extent of the damage. Everything from Rio's shoulders all the way to the top of her belt was blackened and burned. Querida's hands were shaking and she was blinking back tears by the time she'd finished bandaging the wounds and could shakily announce, "She'll live. Should be a minimum of scarring, too--I hope." And then all her self-control evaporated and she slumped into Tarrin's arms helplessly. "We could have lost her, we came so close..."

Jedar, shaken himself, only now thought to question their unlikely savior. He turned to Kirk abruptly, rather surprised to see that he was still there. "And just what the hell are you playing at?"

"I never wanted this to be a war, Jedar," Kirk said softly. "And yes, I know who you are--who doesn't? But when it turned out that it had to be--I just thought of it that way. It made it easier. For me, at least. But--I--" He glanced around the infirmary, at the bandaged or, worse, sheet-covered forms, and suddenly he looked more like a child than an officer. "I'm sorry. But that won't heal your partner or bring your friends back." He paused, thinking. "I'm going to call off the mission. I still have command over--however many soldiers I have left, I'm sure you've taken out your fair share."

"You'll get court martialed," Tarrin pointed out, stroking Querida's hair.

"Only if I'm lucky. I'm not as naive as I look, I know about the corruption that goes on in the army. For blowing this, I'll probably be taken out behind a shed somewhere and 'accidentally' shot. At least I'll deserve it." He looked around the infirmary again. "They didn't."

They absorbed that for a moment, then Jedar broke the quiet by reaching for his com. "I'll call Leila in."

"Good. While you're doing that, I'll go call in the troops and tell my commanding officer where he can stick the commission."

This brought weak smiles from the others until Querida turned to him. "He'll just send someone else," she pointed out softly. "They have our location now."

Kirk swallowed hard. "I'll take care of that."

Then he slid out of the infirmary, closing the door behind him.

*****

Kirk stood in front of his command consul for a moment, gathering his courage up. This was the bravest, stupidest, most defiant thing he'd ever done in his short career. Well, that's just too bad. He opened a channel to what was left of his squad first. The trackers were only showing one dot moving about, and Kirk felt a knot settle in the pit of him stomach. Come in with five, go out with one? Ouch... It was a shame. They'd been good men, only doing their jobs. It wasn't their fault they'd gotten stuck with a young, overly idealistic commanding officer. "Come on back to base," he told whatever was left of his command. "We've got a new assignment." He was thankful the coms only went one way, he didn't even like to think what the soldier probably said in response to that.

Then he opened a priority channel to General Dukatny. Dukatny's face appeared on the screen immediately. "Good to hear from you, soldier, I was just about to contact you myself."

"Sir, I--"

Dukatny cut him off. "Do you know a death toll so far?"

Kirk allowed a sardonic smile to cross his face briefly. "Ours or theirs, sir?"

"Both."

"We've lost four, at least. They've probably lost about ten or more, I think--dead or injured, I don't know." He deliberately exaggerated the number; he honestly didn't know.

"Not enough."

"Well, sir, I--"

"I have something more important for you to worry about right now."

"Sir?" Something about the tone of Dukatny's voice piqued his interest, and he stopped trying to interrupt.

"I've decided that a direct assault on the Brotherhood won't get us anywhere. They'll only fight back harder, and they undoubtably have secret passages and such we don't know about. The only way we could win would be to send in an entire division, and we can't spare that."

"No, sir."

"So, I've come up with another, more direct route."

"Sir?"

The General leaned across his desk, his eyes boring into Kirk's. "I've been thinking about what you told about--about the women and children. They're the key."

The knot in Kirk's stomach suddenly tightened. "S-sir?" Please, please tell me that doesn't mean what I think it means....

"We've managed to locate the convoy of noncombatants. Due to some technical problems, they haven't reached their destination yet, and are basically helpless. They're at..." Dukatny rattled off some coordinates that Kirk didn't recognize, but he memorized them anyway. "We'll go after them, capture them, use them to make the rest surrender. All the men will be killed right there, in front of their children, as well as any ducklings under five. Any younger, and they just won't remember it. And we want them to remember, so when we show them, scared and bleeding, to their parents, they'll be able to blurt out their terrifying story. There'll be a mass surrender. The most important or rebellious ones will be executed, the others thrown in the darkest jail I can find, and the kids put in reconditioning centers. And the Brotherhood will be cleanly removed."

Kirk's knuckles were turning white as he gripped his desk, trying not to vomit. "S-sir."

"Don't look so green, soldier."

"No, s-sir."

"Get back to work."

"Y-yes, sir."

"Was there something else?"

His hand reached out all by itself and cut the link. He could blame it on communication problems later. He sat back numbly in his chair, trying to force his mind to work. Babies--wives--families--helpless--killed--He swallowed hard, tasting bile. "I gotta stop him," he murmured, lurching to his feet. "I gotta tell them--we have to find them, stop him, before he--"

The door opened, and Kirk pivoted on his heel to face his remaining soldier. "Report," he ordered with more cool than he realized he had.

"McChick went down on A level, Conos and Nesfeather on D, Freewing--I don't know what happened to him, but I can't raise him." Then he raised his gun and aimed it straight at his commanding officer. "And Dunfeather was shot for treachery."

"What?!"

"I saw you with them! You're fraternizing with the enemy!"

"Santtas, you don't know what you're doing--"

"Damn straight I do. Traitor." Santtas's figure touched the trigger and Kirk threw up an arm automatically, even knowing that it wouldn't save him. Then there was an explosion as the gun was fired--

Kirk realized with a shock that he was still in one piece. He opened his eyes and observed the puddle that had been Santtas. "What the...?"

"I followed you. Figured you might need the backup." A woman was standing in the door, holstering her own weapon. "Gina Mandrake. Pleased to meet you. Come on, we've got to get the hell upstairs and tell Leila before that general of yours can carry out his plan." She turned and bolted up the stairs, Kirk at her heels. "I heard the whole thing," she told him as they ran. "I can't believe--turn here, and then stairs."

Kirk was lagging a bit, unsure of the steps and hall turns. He stumbled a few times, but pushed himself up and ran on. They made it up to B level, then the lights flickered back on. "Sparky must've gotten the systems back up," Gina noted. "Much easier. Leila'll probably be in her office--here." She burst through the door without knocking. Kirk brushed past her, knowing instinctively who the leader was.

"Dukatny's going after the children," he told her bluntly, then outlined the plan briefly. "He's going to intercept them at..." He rattled off the coordinates, then paused. "But I'm not sure where that is."

"I am." Jedar pointed to a map that was spread out on Leila's desk, the route of the convoy marked in red. "Right here. About halfway between here and Seique--middle of nowhere. They must have had some motor problems. Did he say what had stopped them?"

"No. Just 'technical difficulties'."

"That just don't make sense." Leila sat back and frowned. "Even if their engines blew, why didn't they radio for help?

"It's possible their coms are being jammed," Gina pointed out. "Or maybe just malfunctioning. Cutter and Sparky are here, and I'm not sure anyone who went would have the technical expertise to put broken communication systems or engine back together. But right now, we've got to go."

"Good point." Leila pushed herself up hurriedly. "Jedar, go get Tarrin, we might need him. Gina, Dunfeather, come on."

"We can take my car," Gina volunteered as they started toward the garage. "It's fast."

"Good."

"Wait." They turned to look at Kirk. "There's a top-secret military base that came up with all of this. That's where Dukatny's based, and that's where the coordinates for the Brotherhood will be. We have to take it out, too."

"Right. We'll take a detour." Leila changed course slightly, heading down toward Cutter's workroom, which had just been dubbed 'the control room' since the invasion had started. They'd been trying to avoid using room numbers to keep the Enforcers from finding important rooms for as long as possible. She swung the door open without knocking. "Kid, we've got a base that needs taking out. Get together a team of whoever will help and blow it up." Kirk rattled off the coordinates and they left before the startled young man could find words to reply.

"You sure he knows what he's doing?" Kirk tried to keep the incredulousness out of his voice; the young man in there had looked way too young and scared to be the kind of hacker that would be needed to get though the security at the base.

"I'm sure. Trust me, Dunfeather, he's got experience at blowing up bases." There was a trace of amusement in Leila's voice that he didn't understand, but he didn't bother to ask.

Jedar and--Tarrin, she'd called the doctor--were waiting at the car when they arrived. They jumped into the car and Gina put the gas pedal to the floor almost before the doors were all the way shut.

"Can we make it?" Jedar yelled over the roar of the engine, trying not to think about his wife and four children who were out there, about to be at the nonexistent mercy of a madman with a gun.

"We have to!" Gina yelled back. "We don't have a choice."

*****

Nather Dukatny was not a crazy man. He was also not particularly power-hungry. He was just very, very ruthless. A brilliant tactician, he could see the bright, clear line from A to B without worrying about moral repercussions, innocent bystanders, or loss of life. Because he could turn almost any situation, no matter how hopeless, into a victory, his instructors had always ignored his lack of morals and encouraged his plans, figuring he'd learn compassion later. Unfortunately, he didn't, and they were stuck with a vicious monster who could nonetheless win every battle he entered.

Now he was standing smugly in front of the Brotherhood refugees, taking a feral pleasure in having them at his mercy. Such as it was.

He paced back and forth of the mustered thieves in front of him, enjoying their nervousness. They couldn't do a damn thing; he'd brought along his own squadron who had their guns trained not on the adults, but on the helpless children. Their parents were too paralyzed with fear to even think of charging him, not while their babies were at stake. Even if they had tried anything, they only had swords, and his men had guns. Swords only worked when they were within arm's length, guns could work at any distance I knew this was a good plan, he thought with a mental smirk, then decided to stop playing with his victims and get on with it. "Graybeak."

His aide popped up next to him. "Sir?"

"Go down the line and separate the children that are under five."

"Sir."

There was the expected caterwauling from the mothers as they tried desperately to hang onto their babies, and Dukatny turned away in disgust, shutting his ears to it with practice. "Oh, and Grayfeather?" he called, shouting over the noise.

"Sir?"

"Take out the men, while you're at it. We'll kill them first."

"Sir."

*****

"We've only going to have the element of surprise for a second," Gina yelled over the roar of the engine, trying to urge just a little bit more speed out of her already over-heated engine. "We'll each have about one free and clear shot--we'll have to make it count."

"We're almost there," Jedar called from the backseat. She nodded and pressed the gas pedal down a little harder. "Uh, Gina? Shouldn't you be slowing down?"

"And let them know we're coming? Not a chance."

"But when we get there--" Tarrin began, but she cut him off.

"I had a friend who was a racer. Used to drive the Altair 500. We're gonna try a little trick I learned from him."

Leila raised an eyebrow at that, prompting, "Which is...?"

"When we get to the right place, I'll slam the brake all the way down while symultaneously cranking the wheel 360 degrees."

"And...what'll that do?"

"Well, either it'll keep us from crashing, or it'll make us explode."

"Oh."

"Well, you asked."

The tires squealed as they took a corner on two wheels, then hit a speed bump going so fast that for nearly twenty seconds, no part of the car was touching the road. It's like driving like Rio, only more so. The thought only depressed Jedar more and he double-checked his gun. If he hadn't seen firsthand the power of these plasma guns, he would have dismissed them out of hand. Just goes to show, I suppose.

"We're almost there! Count of three! One...two...three." The brakes screamed protests, and the wheel locked up momentarily, sending the car spinning crazily out of control. It stopped by hitting side-on into a wall, leaving them all dazed. Not as dazed as Dukatny and his men, though, and they used their split-second advantage to whip off a few shots.

Poorly aimed as they were, it was by pure luck that one of the shots took out an Enforcer. The others just sent the soldiers scattering as the thieves grabbed their children back and dove for cover. Those without children to fend for lit their sabers and fought back.

"Dukatny's mine!" Kirk yelled, vaulting himself out of the car. No one cared to contest that, more interested in getting the Enforcers and then rejoining their families.

There was a battle going on around him, Kirk was fairly certain of it. But it had faded away into background noise. He focused in on Dukatny and advanced him, step by step. "Hello, general."

"Hello, Dunfeather."

They stood, less than a yard apart, and eyed each other.

"You're a traitor, I see."

"You're a murderer, I see."

"I'm a soldier."

"You were going to shoot babies."

"This is war."

"When was the last time you fought five-year-olds on the battle field?" Kirk's arm went up all by itself and aimed his gun at his former commanding officer.

Dukatny folded his arms. "So. You think I'm a murderer. Go ahead and shoot me. Then you can be a murderer too." Kirk's hand was shaking. Dukatny smirked, then shook his head. "You could have been the best, but you had to let honor and morality get in the way. That has no place in the military."

"Obviously."

"You're just like your father."

That clicked, somehow, and Kirk's hand stop shaking. His finger moved to the trigger. "Thank you, sir."

"Do you think this makes you better than me, Dunfeather? Do you think this makes you a warrior for truth and light? Do you really think it's justice, shooting me like this? I'm unarmed." His hand's were clasped behind his back, frantically wriggling to get a concealed pistol out of his belt.

"I don't believe that."

"You're right, Dunfeather. This doesn't make you better than I am. It just makes you dead." He brought the pistol around and fired, and Kirk's body jerked backwards as the slug buried itself in his chest. His finger twitched on instinct, and the last thing he saw was Dukatny's surprised expression, right before he turned into a pile of ash on the ground, quickly trampled and scattered by roaming feet.

*****

Everything was a blur. Someone was talking to him, then talking over him, as his shirt was removed. He was in a pain-induced daze, and could only hear snatches over the conversation going on around him.

"--still alive--have to get the bullet out before it causes any permanent damage--"

"Help me get his shirt off."

"--have to operate right here?"

"--no choice--others?"

"All dead--we won--everyone okay--"

Then he felt a needle slide into his arm and faded away, waking up only once on the way home.

"You're going to be all right," someone told him as he stirred and tried to open his eyes, which felt like they were glued shut. "We got the bullet out, and it did no permanent damage."

That's nice.... And then he went back to sleep.

*****

Kirk stood to the side, one hand wrapped around his aching ribs, and watched quietly as the Brotherhood was reunited. The team had returned from blowing up the base just before they had, and if he'd been able to look in the right direction, he would still have been able to see the smoke rising. Everyone had congratulated--Sparky, he'd been called--numerous times, usually asking if there were any bugs involved. Kirk put it down as tech talk.

Everywhere he looked, families were gathered together, celebrating. Husbands and wives clung to each other like they'd never let go, then turned the next second to scoop up their children. One or two couples had literally been knocked to the ground by the arrival of their large and exuberant clans. Kirk smiled bitterly and shook his head; these thieves had happier families than his decent, law-abiding parents had had. His mother had never really cared for him, and after years of explosive fights had finally divorced his father. Kirk had been only twelve at the time, but was still old enough to be grateful when his loving-if-gruff father won the custody battle. His mother, disgusted with them both, had moved away and only wrote him for the obligatory Snow Festival and birthday cards. He heard she'd remarried, but he hadn't actually had contact with her in years--he didn't even know where she was now. She hadn't even had the decency to come to his father's funeral.

And look at them. Happy together, stable, raising their families and loving each other--but at least half the kids I knew growing up in the military came from broken homes. Why? What's wrong with this picture?

He sighed again. Right now they could celebrate, but it wouldn't last very long. Soon, they would have to face the death toll, the bodies, the clean-up. They couldn't even give those killed a proper funeral; the guns had done a thorough job of cremating them. Right now was the laughter. Later would come the tears for those killed. And what would he do with himself? He couldn't go back to the military, but he couldn't stay in the Blade.

He ran a worried hand through his hair, then shoved everything firmly out of his mind and went to join the festivities while he could.

*****

"Death toll?"

Querida looked at the clipboard in front of her and sighed, shaking her head. "Six. Trevi Juneston and Kayne...Kayne...does anyone know how to pronounce Kayne's last name?"

"Quakqemoston," Tarrin told her. "It's foreign."

"Obviously. They went down together. Also Voran VanBeake, Telstar san Daya, Deipuc Ohlooloo, and Rill Webston."

"An' the Enforcers?"

"All dead. We don't know their names."

"No ID?"

"Probably fried, but even so...would you really want to frisk a charred and decomposing body?"

"Not really."

"McChick, Conos, Nesfeather, Freewing and Santtas," Kirk supplied from his position in the corner of the infirmary, looking at all the dead or wounded bodies. Most of them hadn't even made it that far, and were just little black lumps in a hall somewhere, waiting to be vacuumed up. "I--I was never even told their first names."

Leila sighed and rubbed her forehead. "We're gonna have ta pay Alistair triple an' beg ta get him to clean that up. We should just hose down the halls. What about Cutter?"

Querida blinked, suddenly distracted by her baby crying in the next room. "Cutter? He's alive."

Leila forced herself to be patient. "I know he's alive, how's his arm?"

"Oh. It was badly burned, but we were able to save it. It'll take a few months, but he will regain full use of it. Everyone who was only injured is stable and will survive..." Her eyes stole to Rio's bed of their own accord. "Some will be scarred on the outside, some not. But all...all on the inside." Now her gaze turned to the young ex-Enforcer standing in the corner of the room, just before he slipped out.

*****

Kirk sat on a bar stool in the lounge, staring into his mug of beer. He'd only taken a few sips so far. Right now, he was contemplating downing everything even remotely alcoholic in the entire room.

The stool beside him spun as a familiar flash of blonde and gray landed on it. "Mind if I sit?"

"You already are."

"I know."

"What do you want, Gina?"

"Call me Firefeather."

"Okay, I'll bite. Why?" There wasn't much curiosity in his tone; there wasn't much of anything, just a heaviness, a deadness.

"Think of it this way. I'm two different people." She leaned onto the counter and steepled her fingers. "Gina Mandrake is a loving wife who dusts under the bed and sands all the sharp corners in the room down to rounded edges. Gina Firefeather blackmails, steals, and kills people for a living."

"Talk about schizophrenia."

"No kidding, junior." He glanced at her in what would have been annoyance--if he'd the energy left to be annoyed--at being called 'junior.' Gina was only four years older than he was. "I was thrilled when Dalin left with the others. For one thing, I knew he was safe--well, I thought I knew. For another, when I'm around him, I can't do my job. In this case, my job was killing people. Met my husband?"

"Briefly."

"Doesn't seem the type to love an assassin, does he?"

"Not really."

"He knows what I am, and he accepts that and loves me anyway--Drake knows why. But I can't kill when he's with me. I can't even fight. He had to leave, so I could stop being Gina Mandrake and go back to being Gina Firefeather for a few days."

"Isn't that hard? Changing your personality like that?"

"Not really. I'm still the same person."

"But...but after you kill someone...I mean..."

"Ever killed before, Dunfeather?"

"Not before...Dukatny..." It was hard to even say the name.

"Well then drink up junior, you're gonna need it."

He glanced sideways at her. "When you kill someone, I mean...Don't you care?"

"Not really. You want someone who cares, talk to Jedar. In fact, do that anyway. You want someone who just does her job, talk to me."

"Isn't there a happy medium?"

"Yeah. Don't kill."

"Too late."

"Then get drunk."

"I don't think so. Not now." He shoved his drink away and stood. "I'm gonna go...go..."

"What?"

"Talk to Jedar, I think."

"Good thinking, junior."

"Don't call me that."

"Whatever, kid."

He made a face at her and walked out the door. Once he was gone, Gina spun on her bar stool and leaned back against the counter, smirking in a rather smug and self-satisfied fashion. "Biggest sucker for reverse psychology I ever saw."

*****

"You're sure you're ready for this, junior?"

"I wish you'd stop calling me that."

"I wish I were six inches taller, too, doesn't mean it's gonna happen."

"You wouldn't like that." Kirk Dunfeather--now Mark Firewing--grinned and hefted his single suitcase in one hand. Gina raised an eyebrow.

"Oh?"

"Yeah. Your husband couldn't reach."

"He can climb."

"I'll just bet."

She stood back and surveyed him. Fresh dye had changed his once sandy-brown hair to almost black. He'd been instructed to keep it that way for six months to a year, then let it grown out if he felt like it. He'd said that he liked it black--made him feel more mysterious. "You've got enough mystery as is," Gina had told him. He'd just grinned at her again.

"One suitcase and a bunch of phony identification. Not much to start life out on, Ki--Mark."

"I've started with less."

"Cold, wet, hungry and naked--"

"Then things got worse, yeah, I've heard it before." He looked around at the otherwise empty street, then back at the car they'd 'appropriated' for him when they'd given him his new identity. "I'm a little surprised."

"About what?"

"Well...I thought that...more people would come..."

"To say goodbye?"

"Yeah. I mean, I already said my goodbyes, but I thought maybe to see me off..."

"Don't fell neglected. I asked them not to."

"I didn't know you cared."

"I don't, junior."

"Sure you don't." He sighed, looking down at the plane ticket in his hand.

"Scared?"

"A little," he admitted. "I don't know anyone. I can't even stay in Remaica, and it's always been my home."

"You'll adjust. You're young."

"I wish you'd stop saying that. You're only, what, four years older than I am?"

"It's all in the mindset. I'll miss you, junior."

"I'll write."

"You'd better do a helluva lot more than write unless you want me to get very upset."

"Drake forbid, blondie. I'll visit."

"You'd better."

"Hey, about that night--I really needed some sense knocked into me, have I ever thanked you for--"

"Yeah, and I've told you I didn't want to hear it. So get out of here, you'll miss your plane."

"See you, blondie."

"See you, junior."

 

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