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By David Drake
Baen BooksCopyright © 1999 David Drake
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHansen saw the blast bubble like an orange puffball above the building roofs three kilometers away. He stuck his head out the side-window of his chauffeured aircar and heard the whump! over the rush of wind.
"Don't get us above-" Hansen started to say, but the car was already sideslipping to lose altitude and take them the rest of the distance to the crime site in the shelter of the buildings. The drivers who rotated through Commissioner Hansen's duty list were the best in Special Units. This one, a human named Krupchak, didn't want to enter the sight radius of the bandits' heavy weaponry any more than Hansen did.
Hansen's visor was split into three screens: the top showing the view from one of the units already at the crime site; the center clear for normal sight; and the bottom running a closed loop from the incident that set up the current situation. Hansen's own viewpoint showed nothing but faces from the ground traffic gaping upward at the aircar which howled above them with its emergency flashers fluttering at eye-dazzling speed.
The Civic Patrolmen on-site were busy blocking streets and trying to evacuate civilians already in what was clearly a combat zone. They weren't interested in the building at 212 Kokori Street where the bandits had holed up, except to keep from being blown away by the shots spitting-and sometimes slamming-from the top story of that structure.
Hansen set his remote to one of his own Special Units teams which had already arrived. Hansen's people (some of them female and not a few of them inhuman despite the complaints from bigots) were for the moment setting up fields of fire to block the bandits if they tried to escape. They were ready and willing to make a frontal assault if the Commissioner gave them that order.
The target was a fortress. Special Units would make a frontal assault on it over Commissioner Hansen's dead body.
The structure was part of a row of cheap two- and three-story apartment buildings built long before the twenty-nine-year old Hansen was born. The windows of the top floor now bulged with the soap-bubble iridescence of a forcefield. A white Civic Patrol hoverscoot stood abandoned outside the building's front entrance.
Kokori Street wasn't a slum. The Consensus of Planets didn't permit slums in or around the capitals of any of its 1200 worlds; and besides, there were few real slums anywhere on Annunciation. Still, though there wasn't any trash in the street, the buildings' cast facades were dingy and sculpted in curves which flowed according to tastes superseded decades before.
The district's residents generally staffed the lower tiers of the city's service industries-but they had jobs, because residence in a planetary capital for periods longer than three months required that a household member be gainfully employed. Here on Annunciation, the Consensus fiat was enforced by the Civic Patrol-backed up by Special Units if necessary.
Ousting unemployed squatters could be a nasty job, but the worst casualties were usually a broken nose or a wrenched knee. This job was uniquely dangerous, but there was nobody in Hansen's section (and few enough in the Civic Patrol) who wasn't glad to have it.
The Solbarth Gang. It had to be Solbarth, the criminal whose genius was equalled by his ruthlessness. Inhuman ruthlessness, the news reports said; and this time the news reports were precisely correct.
One of Hansen's people was trying to get an update on the situation within 212 Kokori. Behind a Civic Patrol forcefield barricade parked a nondescript van. A SpyFly the size, shape and color of a large cigar burred from within the vehicle.
The little reconnaissance drone was scarcely visible until it arced to within a meter of the building's sidewall. There it exploded as ropes of scintillance.
Whoever was inside had an electronic flyswatter; which figured, if it was Solbarth.
A man jumped from a second-floor window, stumbled, and ran three steps toward the portable forcefield one of Hansen's units had set up at the intersection kitty-corner from the target building. A black sphincter dilated in the villains' protective screen. A blue-white flash cut the runner's legs from under him, long before he reached safety.
The body thrashed.
Just a civilian caught in something that was none of his business. Would've been smarter to hide under the bed until it was all over. But then, if Special Units opened up with the kind of firepower necessary to overwhelm the gang's forcefield, the whole block would melt into a bubbling crater.
That wasn't going to happen.
"Support," Hansen said, cueing the artificial intelligence in his helmet. "Is the building's climate control in metal ducts?"
A green light winked even as the Commissioner's last syllable rose in an interrogative.
The AI had accessed the data from Central Records; probably out of Building Inspection, but the exact provenance of the information didn't matter. Every scrap of data about this building, its residents-and the villains believed to be holed up here-had been sucked into a huge electronic suspense file within seconds of when the shooting started. Any extant knowledge that Hansen might need waited at the tip of his tongue.
The trouble was, quite of lot of what Hansen needed to know would be available only in the after-action report on the operation; and Commissioner Hansen might or might not be alive to examine the data then.
"Top to Orange Three," he ordered, letting the AI punch him through the chatter of the unit he'd just watched launch the SpyFly. "Put one into the building's ventilation system. Use a One-Star."
The 1 class drones were old and slow, but they had double-capacity powerpacks and were rugged enough to airdrop with their lift fans shut down.
"Sir, they've turned off the air system 'n the louvers 're down!" the Orange Three team leader replied in a voice half a tone higher than normal.
"Then it'll take the SpyFly a bloody while to burn through the louvers, won't it?" Hansen snarled. "So get on the bloody job!"
"Hang on, sir," his driver warned. The aircar bounced to a dynamic halt behind the forcefield barricade at the intersection.
A streak of flame washed from the villains' hideout. The portable forcefield pulsed like a rainbow, but it absorbed the burst without strain.
Regular police fired a sparkle of stun needles, but the temporary opening in the villains' forcefield had already closed. The Special Units teams held their fire the way they'd been ordered to do.
Polarized light cast a blue wash over everything on the other side of the barricade. The legless man halfway to the intersection had stopped twitching. Another plasma bolt licked from the far side of the building, silhouetting the roof moldings with its brief radiance.
Hansen glanced at the video loop running across the bottom of his visor. It displayed the sensor log of the patrolman who'd arrived to investigate a reported domestic disturbance.
The cop had been a little fellow and young, to judge from the image of him recorded in reflection from the building's front door as he entered. He was whistling something tuneless between his teeth. As he climbed the stairs, he checked the needle stunner in his holster.
He'd been a little nervous, but not nearly as nervous as he should've been.
It was all a mistake. The reported loud argument had been in District 9, not here in District 7. An administrative screw-up that normally would've meant, at worst, that a family argument blossomed into violence because the uniformed man who could've stopped it had been sent to the wrong place.
No sign of a domestic argument now. Knuckles rapping on a doorpanel; Who's there? muffled by the thick panel, and "Civic Patrol! Open up!" sharply from the cop whose equipment was recording events and transmitting the log back to his district sub-station; standard operating procedure.
Maybe if the patrolman had been a little less forceful in his request-
But that was second-guessing the man on the spot, and Hansen wasn't going to speak ill of the dead.
The video image of the door opened. Before the figure within was more than a blur, the universe dissolved in a plasma flare that the victim didn't have time to understand.
Hansen got out of his vehicle. The air smelled burned, from the forcefield and the weapons the villains were using; from the hellfire dancing in the Commissioner's mind.
His jaws hurt. He'd been clenching them as he watched the patrolman die. Hansen's muttered order cleared his visor of both the remote and the recorded images, but the fatal plasma burst continued to blaze a dirty white in memory.
Bad luck for the cop, knocking on the wrong door. And very bad luck indeed for Solbarth.
Four Special Units personnel squatted behind the forcefield they'd stretched between their vehicles. Two sighted over plasma weapons; one had a wide-muzzled projectile launcher; and the fourth, the team leader, carried the forcefield controls, a pistol, and long knives in both of her boots. They were all dressed in light-scattering camouflage uniforms which blurred their outlines and hid anything that an opponent could use for an aiming point.
The team members kept their faces rigidly to the front, pretending they didn't know the Commissioner was standing behind them. "Pink Two to Top," Hansen heard the leader say. "Are we clear to fire?"
The question didn't come to Hansen through the commo net, because the Commissioner's AI blocked out all the idle chatter that would otherwise have distracted him from the real business of solving the problem.
Hansen stepped over to the team leader, put a hand on her shoulder, and said, "We'll get where we're going, Pink Two. Don't worry."
"Sorry, sir," one of the plasma gunners said, though the reason he thought he needed to apologize was beyond Hansen's understanding.
Nobody needed to apologize. No matter how good your training was, no matter how much on-line experience you had, there were going to be tics and glitches in a real crisis. People said things, people forgot SOP... sometimes people shot when they shouldn't've, and even that was forgivable if you survived it.
Training went only so far. Situations like this went right down into the reptilian core of the brain.
With his fingers still resting on Pink Two's shoulder, Hansen said, "Support. Give me a fast three-sixty of the target site. Left side only."
Hansen's artificial intelligence began walking him visually around the apartment building. Remote images from other police personnel were remoted to the left half of the Commissioner's visor, changing every ten seconds to proceed around the site in a counterclockwise direction.
A patrolman in an apartment to Hansen's right poured a stream of stun needles toward the gang's hideout. There were brief sparkles on the forcefield and occasionally a puff of dust from the plastic facade. Raindrops would have been more effective than the one-gram needles were at this range.
On a roof halfway down the block, Special Units personnel stripped the tarpaulin from the 4-cm plasma weapon they'd just manhandled from an armored personnel carrier. Two other teams watched tensely from behind the forcefield they'd erected to shelter the gun installation. They knew the weapon could probably batter through the villains' protective screen; but they knew also that the sidescatter of powerful bolts hitting powerful armor was likely to incinerate every unshielded object within a kilometer of impact.
Ten seconds later a white aircar picked out with gold braid skidded to a halt behind a forcefield manned by Civic Patrol personnel. Holloway, Chief of the Capital Police, got out. He was still trying to seal his bemedaled uniform blouse over his fat belly.
An aide lifted a pair of slug-throwing hunting rifles out of the car and handed one to Holloway. Both men aimed as a police technician spun narrow loopholes in the protective forcefield so that his superiors could fire at the hideout.
No one but Special Units personnel was permitted to use deadly force. No one.
The AI cycled to the next image around the circle. Hansen's mouth was open to bark an order that Holloway, even Holloway, would obey-or else-when his right eye saw a whorl gape in the villains' forcefield. Solbarth must be using tuned elements so that merely presenting a weapon opened his shield wide enough to fire. That sort of hardware was too expensive even for Special Units.
And the weapon being aimed in Hansen's direction this time wasn't a plasma gun.
"Watch it!" he screamed, and, "Down!" to the personnel near him who thought their forcefield protected them from the villains' fire.
Hansen flattened, pushing the team leader out of her crouch and hoping the three men had sense enough to obey without asking questions. There was a flash from the momentary hole in Solbarth's protective bubble.
A ten-kilo war rocket arched down on a trail of thin smoke.
The missile skimmed the top of the police forcefield-which would have halted it harmlessly-and detonated in thunder on the pavement behind Hansen and his people.
The blast hurled the Commissioner's car-was the driver clear?-onto its side. The pavement shattered. Howling shards of missile casing pocked facades for twenty meters in every direction. Bits that struck the inner face of the forcefield hissed and melted as their kinetic energy was transformed into heat.
Hansen's ears rang. The men around him were all right, and his driver was getting out of the aircar with a dazed look on his face.
A rifle bullet whacked the hideout's facade and ricocheted over Hansen's head.
Hansen took a deep breath. "Top to all units," he said in a voice that rattled like tin in his own ears. "Cease firing. All units cease firing. I am Commissioner Hansen, and this site is under the jurisdiction of Special-"
Three bullets smacked the villains' forcefield where it bulged from one of the third-floor windows. The projectiles melted in showers of white sparks. The muzzle blasts of the rifles echoed down the corridor of building fronts like a burst of automatic fire.
"I say again, cease fire," Hansen ordered. "Special Units personnel, enforce my orders by whatever-"
The left half of Hansen's visor had cycled back to a view of Chief Holloway just as the fat man's body rocked back under the recoil of his powerful rifle. Hansen fully expected one of his people to stitch the Chief's ass with stun needles, but he hadn't said that.
Excerpted from Northworld by David Drake Copyright © 1999 by David Drake. Excerpted by permission.
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