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Getting from highway to the side of the headquarters building was no problem; the Marines' chameleon uniforms easily hid them from the crowds of HQ workers milling about outside during the lunch break. Those same crowds confused the motion detectors and other passive surveillance devices around the building's perimeter so the sensors didn't notice the intruders either. Just where the intelligence report had said it was, they found an open window to an untenanted office.
"Rock," Corporal Kerr said into his helmet radio. His infra screen showed Lance Corporal Rachman Claypoole slithering through the open window. Kerr followed immediately and had to move immediately to keep PFC MacIlargie from landing on him inside the office.
By the time Kerr got to his feet, Claypoole was next to the hallway door. Kerr checked his HUD and shook his head. He was amazed that it didn't show guards in the hallway. But nobody seemed to be there. He thought that was amazing for so large a building. Of course, most of the people who worked at the headquarters were civilians, and civilians didn't act like military personnel.
"Go," he said softly into his radio. Claypoole's next move was the first true test of the infiltration—intelligence didn't know if there were passive surveillance devices in the headquarters' corridors.
Claypoole pushed the door open and darted through. No alarms sounded, but that didn't mean none were blinking somewhere else, alerting guards to the intruders. Kerr tapped Claypoole's invisible shoulder and gave him a push. The three Marines sprinted to the nearest radial corridor and down it to a vending alcove. Kerr rechecked their route on the floor plan in his HUD, made sure his men knew where they were going next, and then they were off once more, soft-footing their way. Their objective was the command center deep in the center of the large building. So far there were no signs of pursuit.
They next stopped outside a door on an inner ring-corridor, and Kerr once more examined the building's floor plan on his HUD. Three green dots indicated the positions of he and his men; the door icon showed its lock was engaged. Five ill- defined red dots inside the room showed where its occupants were. Maybe. The dots were indistinct because his sensors weren't sure the hot spots were people; they could be overheated equipment. The floor plan showed another door lead- ing from the room deeper into the building. It didn't show another route to where they had to go—unless they blasted through a wall. Blasting through a wall was out of the question; for their mission to succeed, they had to infiltrate the interior of the building undetected. They weren't even carrying anything that could blast through a wall.
This was a good test, Kerr thought, of how three Marines could quietly subdue five people. It wasn't a good idea to rush in and try to physically overpower them. Even if the five were trained navy guards instead of ordinary sailors or civilians, the Marines had a distinct advantage since they were effectively invisible in their chameleon uniforms. Three highly trained, invisible Marines bursting in unexpectedly should have little problem subduing five people, even trained security men. But could they do it before one of the five managed to sound the alarm? In any event, they had to get through a locked door before they could deal with whoever was in the room. But breaking the lock would alert the people inside, and if the lock was tied into a security system . . .
The corporal quickly inventoried the equipment available to him. Like the stunguns that were their main weapons, all their grenades, were nonlethal. The flashbang wouldn't do, its bang was too loud, the gas in the coldcock grenade would take seconds to fill the room and knock out the occupants, and one of them might set off an alarm in the interval. The neurophaser grenade worked fast enough to take all five down before they knew what was happening, but it would also affect the three Marines if they didn't give it enough time to stop radiating before they entered—and they didn't have much time. The best items they had were the put-outs— gas-impregnated cloths capable of rendering a normal-size person unconscious in just a couple of seconds if held over the mouth and nose. But they'd work only if the Marines weren't outnumbered, as they were. Of course, they could simply rush in, stunguns blazing, and knock out everyone that way—but if the people were civilians, it wouldn't be right to treat them so roughly.
One of the red dots on the HUD moved toward the door. The door opened and a man in civilian clothes stepped into the corridor. Before he shut the door a female voice asked him to remember the extra sugar in her coffee. He laughed, said, "You're sweet enough without the extra." He let the door swing shut on its own as he turned down the corridor and almost stepped on Kerr's foot.
Kerr moved fast. He threw an arm around the man's chest to lift him off the floor and clamped a hand over his mouth and nose. The man flailed his arms and kicked wildly, but his soft-shod feet only connected with Kerr's shins and made little noise and less damage.
Almost immediately, Claypoole was on the man, his fingers pinching his carotid artery to knock him out. Simultaneously, MacIlargie grabbed the door to keep it from shutting all the way and relocking. The door remained ajar by the width of his gloved fingers.
"Good thinking," Kerr said, "both of you." The comm unit in his helmet transmitted his words to his men and not beyond. They were committed now; the security system might set off an alarm if the door remained held open. They had to go in. He shifted the unconscious man so he held him up with one arm, leaving the other free to give instructions. He made quick marks on his HUD and transmitted them.
MacIlargie flung the door open then dashed through and to the left. Claypoole was right on his heels, darting to the right. Kerr came last and headed straight ahead, holding the unconscious civilian like a shield.
"Back so fast?" the female voice asked. The woman looked up and her eyes bugged when she saw her coworker's inert body advancing on her. It slammed into her and knocked her off her chair before she could scream. To her right, MacIlargie had already stunned one civilian and was shift- ing his stungun's muzzle to another. On the other side, Claypoole had disarmed a navy guard and was engaged in a silent struggle. Fortunately, the sailor, distracted by having to wrestle with an unexpected, invisible opponent, was too panicked to yell out a warning.
Kerr dropped the man and slapped a put-out on the woman's face. She tried to draw a deep breath as she kicked and flailed her arms. The breath was a mistake and she went totally limp.
"Sorry about that," Kerr murmured. He was afraid he might have injured her when he slammed her coworker's body into her.
A rapid-fire thump-thud to his right spun him in that direction. Claypoole's sailor dropped like a rock.
In his infra Kerr saw Claypoole look toward him. "I had to bounce his head off the wall," Claypoole said. "He might have a concussion."
Kerr grunted. Suffering serious injury or getting killed was a chance sailors, soldiers, and Marines took.
"Secure them," he ordered.
In a moment all five people had their wrists cuffed behind their backs and their ankles held together with the self- adhering security bands the Marines carried for that purpose. The Marines used wide tape to close the mouths of the five. Last, they used strong cords to link the people's ankles to their wrists.
One of them, the corridor man, regained consciousness before they were finished.
Kerr knelt next to him and flipped up his shields so the man could see him. "Just lay there and relax," he said. "You're not going anywhere without help, and nobody's seriously injured." He flipped his infra and chameleon shields back into place and stood. His HUD indicated that the next room was vacant. "Let's go. Mac, me, Rock."
MacIlargie opened the inner door and zipped through. Kerr and Claypoole followed just as fast—they wanted to get away from the door in a hurry in case their sensors were wrong about nobody being in the adjoining room.
The three Marines trotted along the narrow passage between a rank of desks and a bank of data stores to a doorway on the far side of the room. The HUD floor plan showed a broad corridor beyond the room. The sensors also showed a number of people, mostly singles but some in pairs or trios, walking in both directions along it.
Kerr checked the door. The locking mechanism was disengaged, that much was good. The rest of it wasn't.
Impatiently, he watched red dots moving along the corridor on his HUD. It quickly became obvious the Marines would have a long wait for the corridor to become vacant; there might not even be a moment when nobody was walking in the direction of this door. They had to take the chance that nobody would notice when the door opened and no one came out. Keeping an eye on the moving dots on the HUD, he gave instructions.
The door opened to the left. At a moment when nobody was coming toward it from the right, he opened it and MacIlargie rushed past him into the corridor.
"What's that?" Kerr asked in a voice that could be clearly heard by nearby people.
"You've got to finish this before you go," Claypoole replied just as loudly. He ducked past Kerr into the corridor.
"But—oh, all right," Kerr grumbled, then stepped away from the door and let it close. He glanced left along the corridor. Nobody seemed to notice anything. They headed deeper into the building, closer to their objective.
A man effectively invisible can move without, in most places, being noticed, as long as he moves quietly. But in a corridor with even moderate traffic, being quiet isn't enough. People automatically avoid obstructions they see; they don't avoid obstructions they don't see. An invisible man is an unseen obstruction. The three Marines had to duck, weave, and occasionally backstep to avoid people who were about to bump into them. They weren't successful one hundred percent of the time.
"Excuse me," a man in a flight suit said absentmindedly when MacIlargie found himself stuck between two people moving in opposite directions. The young Marine was able to avoid one but not both. MacIlargie grunted something and spun away. The flight-suited man, with his hands swooping through the air, continued his conversation with his equally intent and swoop-handed companion. A few paces later the man in the flight suit realized he hadn't seen anybody where he'd bumped into someone and stopped to look back.
"What's the matter?" his companion asked.
"I bumped into somebody, but nobody's there."
"Sure there is." The companion pointed his chin at the person MacIlargie had managed to avoid when the flight suit bumped him.
"No, I saw her. It was a man's voice that said 'No problem.' "
The companion looked at the doors lining the corridor. "Whoever it was must have gone into one of those offices."
"You think so?" Flight Suit wasn't sure there had been enough time for the man he bumped to make it to one of the doorways and through it before he looked back.
"Of course I'm sure. What else could it be?"
Flight Suit shrugged. "I guess you're right. There's no such thing as an invisible man—and there aren't any Marines here." They resumed walking and returned to their conversation. Their hands began making flight patterns once more.
At last the Marines reached their next way point, a janitor's closet off a short side corridor, and ducked inside among the cleaning robots. Kerr shrunk the scale of his HUD floor plan, then rezoomed on the section that showed the route from there to the command center that was their objective.
"It should be tougher from here on," he said softly. "We're likely to start running into guards."
"The one in that first office was easy enough," Claypoole snorted, forgetting how much trouble he'd had subduing the sailor.
"From here in, they'll probably be more alert."
Claypoole stifled a remark about three Marines' swabbing up a headquarters full of squids, instead listening for his fire team leader's next orders.
Despite Kerr's concern, the only guards they encountered between the janitor's closet and their next way point were two petty officers flanking the ornate entrance of what was probably an admiral's office. The guards, standing at parade rest, appeared to be more ceremonial than functional.
The next way station was their last. Kerr's HUD sensors showed no red dots nearby so they appeared to have a clear passage along the next two, short, corridors. He knew there was a guard station right beyond the range of his sensors. According to the intelligence reports, nobody could pass the guard station without being identified and cleared.
Kerr touched helmets with his men and said, "Here's what we're going to do . . ."
A minute later, halfway down the second corridor, a warning tone in their earpieces froze the Marines in their tracks. A sensor had picked up the emanations of a motion detector.
Kerr checked his HUD. The warning device was on the opposite side of the mouth of the next corridor on the right, the last corridor they had to follow. The motion detector was probably tied into a control panel at the guard station. They withdrew a few steps while they considered what to do about the motion detector. By that time they were close enough to the guard station for the HUD to show two dots representing the guards. The two dots were motionless, so either the motion detector hadn't picked up the Marines or the Marines weren't acting suspicious enough to draw the guards' attention—yet.
The Marines weren't carrying anything that could unobtrusively disable a motion detector. There was only one thing they could do.
"Plasma shields up," Kerr ordered. He hefted his stungun. "We go fast and take the guards down." And hope they didn't have projectile weapons, he thought. The plasma shields would protect the Marines if the guards had blasters, but they weren't wearing body armor. "Our objective is right beyond them."
Claypoole and MacIlargie acknowledged him then turned on their plasma shields and readied their stunguns.
"On three. One. Two. Three."
The three Marines sprinted the ten meters to the adjoin- ing corridor and skidded around its corner. The guards had noted movement on their monitor and were drawing their hand-blasters.
"Where are they?" shrieked one when he looked up from the monitor that told him three targets had just run into their corridor.
The other guard, eyes wide and mouth open in surprise, raised his hand-blaster to fire blindly, but he convulsed as shots from two stunguns hit him before he could press the firing stud. His weapon fell from limp fingers and he collapsed over the railing of the guard station. The other guard was twitching and falling before the first dropped his weapon.
"Go!" Kerr shouted in the clear.
The three Marines bounded through the guard station, burst through the double doors beyond them, and scattered into the command center.
"Everybody, you're dead!" Kerr shouted as he raised his helmet shields.
Most of the two dozen people in the room looked toward him with disgust.
Three other grinning, chameleoned Marines were already there, helmets off. They shouted friendly greetings. A cluster of high-ranking officers, including three Confederation Marines in dress reds, stood at the far end of the command center.
Rear Admiral Blankenvoort, commander of the Confederation Navy supply depot on Thorsfinni's World, and the highest ranking member of the Confederation military in the sector, looked glumly at the second trio of Marines to burst into his command center, then hung his head and shook it ruefully. "I really need to tune up my security chief. Probably replace him. This is downright embarrassing."
The lieutenant commander who, as provost marshal, was responsible for security, blanched.
Blankenvoort looked sideways at the Marine lounging next to him. "I hope your Marines didn't injure any of my personnel."
Brigadier Theodosius Sturgeon, commander of the Confederation Marine Corps' 34th FIST, and Thorsfinni's World's second highest ranking military officer, replied, "I don't think they did, Admiral. I impressed on them that civilians and sailors, even navy security personnel, are fragile creatures compared to Marines and that they needed to be gentle with anyone they couldn't avoid." He couldn't keep a touch of smugness out of his voice. "And, Admiral? Don't be too severe with your provost marshal."
"A couple of reasons. First, no matter who the nominal security chief is, you're ultimately responsible."
When Sturgeon didn't immediately give the second reason, Blankenvoort asked through a clenched jaw.
"Commander Van Winkle's infantrymen are very, very good." Sturgeon and one of the other Marines exchanged grins.
"How many other fire teams do you have in the building?" the admiral asked. Anger and despair fought for control of his voice.
The top navy people in the room groaned.
The three Marine officers courteously refrained from grinning.
Ten minutes later the sixth and final Marine fire team burst into the command center and announced that everybody was dead. The command center had six entrances; each fire team had entered through a different one. Brigadier Sturgeon and Colonel Ramadan, his chief of staff, went with Admiral Blankenvoort and his staff to debrief the results of the security exercise, while Commander Van Winkle took the infiltrating Marines, two fire teams from each of the three blaster companies in his battalion, into a room where his S-2, intelligence officer, waited to debrief them.
"Did you kill anybody?" Van Winkle asked as soon as the door was closed.
"Nossir," the fire team leaders barked.
"Any serious injuries? Other than the guards you had to overcome at the entrances to the command center?"
"Sir, we might have given a guard a concussion," Corporal Kerr said. He gave the number of the room where they'd subdued the five people.
"Sir, a guard put up a pretty good fight," said a fire team leader from Kilo Company. "I think we broke his nose and an arm." He gave the number of the room where they had stashed the man.
Nobody else had anything more severe than bruised egos to report. They were all pretty smug.
"Don't feel too good about yourselves," Van Winkle told them. "Imagine if it had been actual hostiles who burst in here? There'd be quite a few dead people here, and we'd be getting ready to move out on a live operation. With the navy command center in hostile hands, we'd have no way of knowing what we were up against or how much intelligence they had about our strength and intentions." He looked at his Marines sternly. He was pretty sure, though, that no one else could have made it all the way to the command center without being discovered the way his six fire teams had. If for no other reasons than nobody else was likely to have the floor plans.
"Well done, Marines," he finally said. "Now Lieutenant Troud will debrief you. Lieutenant."
"Sir!" Troud came to attention.
Van Winkle left the room and the debriefing got under way. The navy was going to want to know every detail of how six Marine fire teams got from outside the building all the way into the command center in its heart without anybody sounding an alarm.
From the Paperback edition.