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Shadow Of Freedom – Snippet 01

Shadow of Freedom by David Weber

February 1922 Post Diaspora

“It’ll be easier the next time…and there will be a next time. There always is.”

— Frinkelo Osborne,

Office of Frontier Security, Loomis System.

Chapter One

The wingless, saucer-like drone drifted through the wet, misty night on silent counter gravity. The fine droplets of rain sifted down in filmy curtains that reeked of burned wood and hydrocarbons and left a greasy sensation on the skin. Despite the rainfall, fires crackled noisily here and there, consuming heaps of wreckage which had once been homes, adding their own smoke and soot to the atmosphere. A faint, distant mutter of thunder rolled through the overcast night, though whether it was natural or man-made was difficult to say.

The drone paused, motionless, blacker than the night about it, its rain-slick, light-absorbent coat sucking in the photons from the smudgy fires which might otherwise have reflected from it. The turret mounted on its bottom rotated smoothly, turning sensors and lenses towards whatever had attracted its attention. Wind sighed wearily in the branches of sugar pine, crab poplar, and imported Terran white pine and hickory, something shifted in one of the piles of rubble, throwing up sparks and cinders. A burning rafter burned through and collapsed and water dripped from rain-heavy limbs with the patient, uncaring persistence of nature, but otherwise all was still, silent.

The drone considered the sensor data coming to it, decided it was worth consideration by higher authority, and uploaded it to the communications satellite and its operator in far distant Elgin City. Then it waited.

The silence, the rain, and the wind continued. The fires hissed as heavier drops fell into their white and red hearts. And then —

The thunderbolt descended from the heavens like the wrath of Zeus. Born two hundred and sixty-five kilometers above the planet’s surface, it traced a white line from atmosphere’s edge to ground level, riding a froth of plasma. The two hundred-kilo dart arrived without even a whisper, far outracing the sonic boom of its passage, and struck its target coordinates at thirty times the speed of sound.

The quiet, rainy night tore apart under the equivalent of the next best thing to two and a half tons of old-fashioned TNT. The brilliant, blinding flash vaporized a bubble of rain. Concussion and overpressure rolled out from its heart, flattening the remaining walls of three of the village’s broken houses. The fury of the explosion painted the clouds, turned individual raindrops into shining diamonds and rubies that seemed momentarily frozen in air, and flaming bits and pieces of what once had been someone’s home arced upward like meteors yearning for the heavens.

* * *

“Think you used a big enough hammer, Callum?” the woman in the dark blue uniform of a lieutenant in the Loomis System Unified Public Safety Force asked dryly.

She stood behind the drone operator’s comfortable chair, looking over his shoulder at the display where the pinprick icon of the explosion flashed brightly. The operator — a sergeant, with the sleeve hashmarks of a twenty-T-year veteran — seemed to hesitate for just a moment, then turned his head to look at her.

“Unauthorized movement in an interdicted zone, Ma’am,” he replied.

“And you needed a KEW to deal with it?” The lieutenant arched one eyebrow. “A near-deer, do you think? Or possibly a bison elk?”

“IR signature was human, Ma’am. Must’ve been one of MacRory’s bastards, or he wouldn’t’ve been there.”

“I see.” The UPS officer folded her hands behind her. “As it happens, I was standing right over there at the command desk,” she observed, this time with a distinct bite. “If I recall correctly, SOP is to clear a KEW strike with command personnel unless it’s time-critical. Am I mistaken about that?”

“No, Ma’am,” the sergeant admitted, and the lieutenant shook her head.

“I realize you like big bangs, Callum. And I’ll admit you’ve got a better excuse than usual for playing with them. But there are Regs for a reason, and I’d take it as a personal favor — the kind of favor which will keep your fat, worthless, trigger-happy arse in that comfortable chair instead of carrying out sweeps in the bush — if you’d remember that next time. Do you think you can do that for me?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” the sergeant said much more crisply, and she gave him a nod that was several degrees short of friendly and headed back to her station.

The sergeant watched her go, then turned back to his display and smiled. He’d figured she’d have a little something to say to him, but he’d also figured it would be worth it. Three of his buddies had been killed in the first two days of the insurrection, and he was still in the market for payback. Besides, it gave him a sense of godlike power to be able to call down the wrath of heaven. He’d known Lieutenant MacRuer would never have authorized the expenditure of a KEW on a single, questionable IR signature, which was why he hadn’t asked for it. And if he was going to be honest about it, he wasn’t really certain his target hadn’t been a ghost, either. But that was perfectly all right with him, and his intense inner sense of satisfaction more than outweighed his superior’s obvious displeasure.

This time, at least, he amended silently. Catch her in a bad mood, and the by-the-Book bitch is just likely to make good on that reassignment. He shook his head mentally. Don’t think I’d like slogging around in the woods with those people very much.