Shadow Of Freedom – Snippet 09

* * *

Nathalan Mundy stared at his readouts in disbelief. That bastard MacPhee! He hadn’t said a single word about weapons that heavy! And the rebels hadn’t shown anything like that kind of firepower here in Elgin! How was he supposed to have realized –?

* * *

Another tank exploded, but this time one of its companions got a firm lock on the third-floor window from which it had come. A turret swiveled, a tank gun flashed, and half the floor behind that window disintegrated in a deafening explosion.

* * *

MacLay couldn’t feel the shock of the explosion from his lofty perch. Or, at least, he couldn’t feel it clearly enough to separate it from all the other shocks and vibrations whiplashing through the building. He saw the tank fire, though, and it wouldn’t have if it hadn’t had a target.

He wondered who’d just died, but it didn’t matter. They could hurt the bastards, but they couldn’t win, and he’d already heard the reports from the other side of the building. The Uppies had to know exactly where they were; they were closing in from every direction, and MacFadzean was right. Only those closest to one of the escape tunnels had any chance at all of getting out alive.

Assuming someone else kept the Uppies occupied, that was.

He selected another target, slamming his heavy caliber darts through the thinner top armor of one of the APCs. The twenty-five-man personnel carrier staggered to a stop, then exploded, and his bloodshot eyes glittered with satisfaction. It was only a matter of time before someone spotted his firing position, but at the moment they were more preoccupied with the missile teams than mere tribarrels, and he swung his weapon’s muzzle towards fresh prey.

* * *

“Fall back!” Colonel Mundy snapped at his driver. “Get us further back — now, damn it!”

The driver snarled something that could have been an acknowledgment, and the command vehicle curtsied on its ground effect cushion as he spun it around. The sensor cluster kept the apartment building centered in Mundy’s display even as the vehicle turned away, and a cursor flashed on the screen, highlighting a balcony on the sixtieth floor. An icon appeared beside it as the command vehicle’s computers identified the energy signature, Mundy’s eyes widened as he recognized the data code.

Tribarrel! a corner of his brain gobbled. That’s a tri —

* * *

The GEV erupted in a boiling cloud of red and black. It tore apart, incinerating its crew, and Innis MacLay howled in triumph. It was brief, that triumph, no more than seconds before one of the surviving UPS tanks put a round from its main armament right through the balcony’s French doors, but it was enough.

* * *

“This way, Megan!” Jamie Kirbishly said hoarsely. “We’re almost there.”

Megan MacLean nodded, wading through the ankle-deep water at her guide’s heels, trying not to think about what was happening behind her. There were perhaps twenty more people in the tunnel with her, stretched out in a long, grim-faced queue, most of them people who still had — or might still have — family somewhere on the other side of holocaust. People who knew their friends — friends who no longer had anyone waiting for them — had chosen to stay behind and cover their escape.

She put her hand into her pocket, feeling the hard edges of the chip folio, wondering who the man who had called himself “Partisan” really was. If he’d told MacFadzean the truth about his official status or if it had all been a lie. And if it hadn’t, what had he and the star nation who’d sent him really intended? Why had they offered to help the Liberation League? Whatever MacFadzean might have thought, it hadn’t been out of the bigness of their hearts. MacLean was certain of that, and God knew they had enough problems of their own at the moment. Had they simply been looking for a way to distract their enemies? That might well make sense, she supposed. But it was also possible it hadn’t all been cynical, pragmatic calculation on their part. They had a reputation for standing up for lost causes; maybe they even deserved it. And if they did, and if she really could get off-world and reach them somehow, maybe this nightmare slaughter wouldn’t have been entirely in vain after all. Maybe —

“Down!” Kirbishly screamed.

MacLean responded instantly, throwing herself down on her belly in the icy water even before she realized she’d moved. She landed with a splash, hearing shouts behind her, and raised her head just in time to see the heavily armored UPS troops plummeting down the ladder from the manhole above with their pulse rifles flaming in full automatic.

It was the last thing she ever saw.

* * *

Frinkelo Osborne stood on the landing platform of SEIU Tower, his face hard and set as he watched fresh smoke billow up to join the dense, choking cloud hovering above the Loomis System’s capital. Over twenty percent of Elgin’s buildings had taken at least some damage, he thought disgustedly. MacQuarie insisted it wasn’t that bad, and it was possible his own estimate was high because of the revulsion and fury boiling through his brain, but he didn’t think so. She was a liar trying to cover her own arse, and she was going to have plenty of covering to do now that the shooting was over. Just what he could see from his present vantage point was going to cost billions to repair, and the damage her in Elgin was nothing compared to what Captain Venelli’s KEWs — not to mention the UPS’ kill teams — had done to the rest of the planet. He remembered his conversation with Venelli in Hoplite’s briefing room and his right hand rose, touching the hard angularity of the holstered pulser under his left armpit.

Tempting, so tempting. He could walk into Zagorski’s penthouse office and no one would think twice about admitting him. And once he got there…

He took his hand away from the pistol again and grimaced bleakly. The thought might be tempting, but he wasn’t about to act on it, and he knew it. Just as he knew the real reason he wanted to paint Nyatui Zagorski’s office walls with his brains.

Osborne had served OFS well, for longer than he liked to remember, but this was the worst. Somehow he’d always managed to avoid the details like this one, but now he’d climbed down into the sewer with the worst of them, and he’d never be clean again.

And the worst of it, he thought in the cold, cruel light of honesty, is that now that I’ve done it once, it’ll be easier the next time. And if I stay with it long enough, there will be a next time. There always is.

He stood for another few minutes, gazing at the blazing apartment building, wondering how much longer it would stand before its skeleton collapsed into the inferno, wondering if there was anyone still alive inside that furnace, praying for death.

Then he turned and walked silently away.

* * *

It was still and dark in the smoke-choked sewer under the city of Elgin. There was no light, no movement…no life. Not any longer, and a data chip folio settled slowly, slowly through the bloody water into the sludge below.