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"Tell me, Gunnery Sergeant Bong, is it true what they say about Marines?"
"What's that, Madame Proconsul?"
"Call me !Tang'h, Gunnery Sergeant. Well, is it true?"
"That they're like their swords...?" She smiled seductively, then looked quickly at the ceremonial sword fastened by its peace knot to his sword belt.
"A good Marine is always ready to stand tall for action, ma'am."
"Gunny, I think you should take a look at this," a small voice said in his right ear.
"Not now, Winterthur," he whispered into the throat mike concealed in the high stork collar of his dress scarlets.
"Gunny, it's really important."
"Excuse me for a moment," Gunnery Sergeant Bong said with some frustration. The Honorable Mistress !Tang'h looked even more ravishing than usual, Bong thought as he turned away from the Second Assistant Proconsul from Kalari'h. She'd been flirting with him for several months, and he'd finally managed to convince himself that a personal liaison on an official liaison mission might help in the successful completion of that mission. He blocked out the sounds and sights of the diplomatic reception that swirled around him.
"Take a look at what? This better be good!" he said.
"Ah, Gunny." Lance Corporal Winterthur's voice sounded nervously bemused behind the buzz of the receiver in Gunny Bong's ear. "Somebody just drove up with a bunch of tanks."
"What kind of tanks?" Bong asked. "Chemical? Storage? Hydroponic?"
"Don't know their model, Gunny, but they've got turrets with what look like projectile cannons and plasma guns. Looks to be sixty of them."
Bong blinked. "Armored vehicles?"
"That's an affirmative, Gunny."
"You sure they aren't armored personnel carriers?" Bong was already walking briskly out of the reception hall, the Honorable Mistress !Tang'h forgotten. Major Katopscu, the Confederation military liaison, watched him leave.
"They're not APCs; they look like something out of a history vid," Winterthur replied over the receiver.
"I'm on my way." As soon as Bong reached the corridor, he broke into a sprint toward the main gate, two hundred meters away. His left hand undid the peace binding that secured the hilt of his ceremonial NCO sword to the sword belt so it couldn't be drawn and shoved the binding into his trouser pocket.
Tanks? Where could anybody come up with sixty tanks? Where could they be made? Then Bong stopped wondering about the wheres and started thinking about the whys of tanks at the gate.
Throughout history, whenever someone paraded cavalry, drove up in tanks, or surrounded an embassy with infantry or artillery, it usually meant war. Three planetwide wars had already been fought on Diamunde for control of its wealth--wars big enough that the Confederation Army had to be sent in to fight along with the Marines who'd originally been dispatched to deal with the situation. The gunny hadn't fought in any of those wars himself but he'd served with plenty of Marines who had. Wars on Diamunde were tough, and just then it seemed that he and his ten Marines might be all that stood between the Confederation of Worlds and another war. He whispered a prayer to the nine Buddhas of peace that Winterthur was mistaken.
"Allah's pointed teeth," he whispered as he rounded the final corner, the Buddhas of peace forgotten and the god of a warlike people invoked. A dozen armored behemoths were arrayed under the lights outside the compound, and a lone Marine, blaster held at port arms, stood at attention in dress scarlets in front of the closed vehicle gate. One tank, probably the battalion commander's, stood five meters in front of PFC Krait. The muzzle of its main cannon pointed directly over his head. In the turret hatch the tank commander casually stood looking down at the Marine.
Bong didn't think there was a chance that none of the tankers were using night-vision devices, but he took that chance anyway and kept to the deepest shadows he could find as he rushed the last thirty meters to the gate house. "Winterthur, I've got your situation in sight," he whispered. "Be with you in about ten seconds."
"Glad to have you aboard, Gunny."
"What did they have to say?" Bong asked as he entered the cinder-block gate house through its rear door and joined the corporal. Cinder block. A nice, cheap building material. The compound's outer walls were also built of cinder block, so neither the gate house nor the walls could stand against a tank's guns or even slow down a tank if its commander decided to drive over or through them. When the embassy was built, nobody had considered the possibility of an armored assault on the embassy compound.
Winterthur shook his head. "Nothing, Gunny. Just a polite request that we open the gate for them." His mouth twisted in a wry smile. "He said," he nodded toward the tank commander looking down at Krait, "they left their invitations in their other suits."
"Right." Bong kept an eye on the lead tanker while he rummaged through the small storage areas of the gate house. "Where is it?" he asked. Winterthur pointed at a drawer. Bong pulled the drawer open, withdrew a holstered hand blaster and hastily strapped it on. A side arm wouldn't be any use against a tank, but having it would make him look more serious than the silly ceremonial sword would.
"What's he doing out there?" Bong asked, nodding toward Krait. If one of the two Marines on the gate was facing down the tanks, he thought, it should be Winterthur, the senior man.
Winterthur shook his head. "As soon as they arrived, Krait said, 'I always wanted to be Horatio at the bridge,' and ran out before I could stop him."
Bong shook his head. Typical of many young Marines, Krait had more courage than common sense. And, compared to the tanks, he wasn't any better armed than Horatio had been. He dismissed the thought. "Is the guard mounted yet?" he asked as he gave his uniform and equipment a final straightening.
"I called Corporal Kovaks right after I called you," Winterthur said. He looked down the street, deeper into the compound. "I hear them coming now."
Bong touched the mike at his throat to change the transmission frequency. "Kovaks, Bong. Hold back. Get everybody out of sight." The rest of the detachment was probably in chameleons and effectively invisible to the eye. But those tanks most likely had infravision devices and could see the Marines' heat signatures. He shook his head sharply and wondered if there was any point in being out of sight. The embassy Marines could take on an infantry battalion and win, maybe even a light armor battalion, but they didn't have any weapons that would be effective against heavy armor.
Satisfied that he was as ready as he could ever be, Bong stood at attention and faced the gate-side door of the gate house. "Wish me luck," he said softly.
"Good luck, Gunny," Winterthur replied as he opened the door for him.
Bong marched outside to a position in front of PFC Krait and pivoted to face him.
Krait sharply twisted his blaster from the diagonal of port arms to the vertical of a blaster salute. "Gunnery Sergeant, Post One reports all secure," he said in a loud, firm voice.
Bong had to admire Krait; he wasn't sure he'd be that calm himself if their positions were reversed. "Post One all secure, aye," Bong responded, and returned the salute. Krait returned his weapon to port arms as sharply as he'd brought it to salute. "Who are these people behind me and why haven't they been dispersed?"
"Gunnery Sergeant, they say they are invited guests and forgot to bring their invitations." A smile flickered across Krait's lips. "I couldn't find their names on the guest list."
"Is your weapon armed?" Bong asked in a lower voice.
"You know it is," Krait answered just as softly.
Bong nodded. "I'll deal with the situation," he said loudly enough for the tank commander to hear him, then dropped his voice again. "If anything happens, take out the man in the turret first. Understand?"
PFC Krait grinned. "Got it, Gunny. He's mine."
Bong turned around, clasped his hands behind his back, and casually looked up at the commander of the lead tank.
"I am Gunnery Sergeant Bong, commander of the Marine Security Detachment. Can I help you, sir?"
The tanker leaned a little farther forward over his folded arms so he could look directly at Bong and smiled wolfishly. "We want to go to the party," he said in a voice that crackled with suppressed laughter.
"Certainly, sir. I'll be happy to admit you to the reception. May I see your invitation, please."
The tank commander barked out a laugh. "I don't have an invitation," he said, still grinning. "I want to crash the party."
"I'm sorry, sir, but the reception is by invitation only."
"I'm quite sure the omission of my name from the guest list was inadvertent," the tank commander said. He wasn't grinning anymore. "Do you know who I am, Gunnery Sergeant?"
"Nossir, I haven't had the pleasure."
"I am Major General Marston St. Cyr, commander of the Diamundian Armed Forces."
"Sir." Bong brought his right hand up in a crisp salute, but didn't hold the salute for St. Cyr to return--a very polite insult. "I'm acquainted with your name." St. Cyr's name figured prominently in dispatches about the deteriorating situation on Diamunde, but Bong had never seen an image of him. He was the head of Marketing and of Research and Development, and member of the board of directors of Tubalcain Enterprises, the largest of the corporate powers on Diamunde. "Sir, if the distinguished head of R and D will bear with me for a moment, I will place a call and attempt to secure permission to admit you."
St. Cyr gave Bong a sardonic smile and nodded. "By all means, Sergeant."
Bong snapped to attention, snapped another salute, and executed an about-face. "Give a yell if he does anything," he said to Krait in a low voice.
"Aye aye, Gunny." Krait maintained his position at attention, weapon at port arms, the beginning of a smile niggling at the corners of his mouth.
Bong resisted the impulse to shake his head. He's enjoying this, he thought. Krait really doesn't understand how wrong everything can go.
With a few parade-ground-sharp steps and turns, the commander of the Marine Security Detachment was back inside the gate house. He breathed a sigh of relief. So far, so good. He touched his throat mike to change frequencies again and said, "Top Cat, this is Bong. We have a situation at the main gate."
"How so?" Top Cat replied immediately. Major Katopscu, the military liaison, wasn't Bong's boss--the Marine commander reported directly to Minister Whithill, the ambassador's chief of staff--but "the situation" was in part a military matter, and Bong knew Top Cat had probably intercepted the original exchanges between him and Winterthur. Besides, Top Cat was wearing his communications set and, as a civilian, Whithill probably wasn't.
"Marston St. Cyr is here demanding admittance, sir. And he's got main battle tanks to back up his demand."
"Minister Whithill and I are on our way, we'll be with you inside two minutes."
Bong resisted the urge to fidget while he waited, because St. Cyr could see him through the gate house windows.
Top Cat was back on his comm unit almost immediately. "Whithill says to tell him he can come in. Unarmed. I don't imagine he's in dinner wear?"
"Nossir. He's wearing a jumpsuit. What if he doesn't want to come in alone?"
"He can bring his primary staff, that's it. We'll be there before that becomes an issue."
"Aye aye, sir." Bong drew himself to attention and marched back to St. Cyr and the tanks.
"Sir." Again he saluted, and again failed to hold the salute. "The ambassador regrets the oversight. You are most welcome to join the reception." His voice betrayed none of the nervousness he felt; where violence was imminent, any Marine noncommissioned officer worth his Eagle, Globe, and Starstream could outdo any diplomat.
St. Cyr straightened up from leaning on his folded arms and with one hand signaled to the tank, which immediately rumbled to life.
"Sir," Bong had to shout to be heard over the noise of the engine, "there isn't room inside for your vehicle. If you will kindly dismount. Chief-of-Staff Whithill is on his way to escort you."
St. Cyr gave Bong a surprised look, then said, "But you know how New Kimberly has gotten lately. If we leave our vehicles out here, someone will surely come along and vandalize them."
Bong made a production of looking to his right and his left, sweeping the armored vehicles with his gaze. "Sir, the invitation is for you and your primary staff. Surely you have enough men to secure your vehicles from theft or vandalism. And if your men are insufficient, my two Marines here on the gate can easily do the job." He paused to give St. Cyr a hard, pay-close-attention look. "When Marines are present, nobody in New Kimberly is foolish enough to do harm to persons or property associated with the Confederation Embassy." St. Cyr could take that last as a challenge, but it could also serve as a reminder that he was dealing with forces that were far stronger and ultimately more violent than he was.
St. Cyr glared briefly at the Marine, then threw his head back and guffawed loudly. "Gunnery Sergeant," he said when he recovered, "it appears that Confederation Marines are every bit as bold as I have heard. Perhaps more so." He looked to his sides, taking in the size and might of his tank battalion, then back at Bong and the lone PFC standing behind him. He picked up a headset and murmured into the mouthpiece, then put the headset back down. He bounded out of the tank cupola, to its side and down to the ground. Quickly, four other jumpsuited men joined him. All five men wore side arms.
"Sir, if you please." Bong made a gesture toward their pistol belts.
"But you are armed," St. Cyr said with some amusement.
"I will leave my side arm in the gate house, sir."
St. Cyr nodded. "That may be so, but you were wearing your sword inside."
"Yessir, secured with this." He pulled the peace binding from his pocket and held it up. "I will resecure my sword before I return to the reception."
"We can peace-bind our weapons as well."
"Well, well, St. Cyr," a new voice cut in. Chief-of-Staff Whithill stepped through the gate, followed closely by Major Katopscu. "I see you are as determined as ever to be a thorn in the side of civilized society." As chief of staff, he felt he wasn't always required to be as diplomatic as other members of the diplomatic mission. He didn't deign to look at the tanks.
"Whithill. So good of you to meet me." There was no humor or friendliness in St. Cyr's voice. "We are coming in. And then the Confederation will recognize Tubalcain Enterprises as the sole legitimate power on Diamunde and conduct all of its business with me."
"We will do no such thing. You may come in, but it will be on sufferance. By appearing this way, you will convince the few remaining undecideds how unfit you are as someone to deal with. Drop your weapons and follow me." He spun on his heel and began to stride back into the embassy compound.
St. Cyr glared after Whithill for a second, then raised his right arm and sharply bro
Almost as one, the sixty tanks fired their main guns, then fired their engines to life and rumbled forward, crashing through the cinder-block walls. St. Cyr jumped onto his tank as it began moving forward and was climbing back into its cupola as it ran over the vehicle gate.
Almost as quickly as the tanks fired, Krait fired back, killing one of St. Cyr's staff before the plasma gun on the lead tank flamed him, Gunny Bong, Major Katopscu, and Minister Whithill. Lance Corporal Winterthur wasn't able to get out of the gate house before a tank ground it to rubble. Farther back in the compound, Corporal Kovaks realized immediately that he and his seven Marines didn't have a chance against the heavy armor so he hurried them to the ballroom to attempt to evacuate the reception attendees. But there were too few exits from the ballroom and from the compound. Very few of the four hundred people inside the compound were able to flee before the tanks broke through. None of the Marines was among those few. Nor was the ravishing Honorable Mistress !Tang'h.
Marston St. Cyr was a man of direct methods.
He had been sitting patiently in the boardroom of Tubalcain Enterprises for the last hour as his fellow executives discussed his most recent request for additional research and development funds. As vice president for both Marketing and Research and Development, St. Cyr held the fate of the company in his hands. As VP for Marketing, he had cultivated an impressive array of clients for Tubalcain's gems, ores, and by-products on dozens of worlds. Moreover, he had successfully tied major shares of those worlds' economies to Tubalcain's solvency.
But more important, as VP for R&D he was solely responsible for maintaining the corporation's technological edge over its only competitor, the Hefestus Conglomerate: The supply of natural gems and valuable ores in the crust of Diamunde and its moons would last an estimated decade longer, at the most. Tubalcain's spies at Hefestus had reported its scientists were on the verge of a breakthrough in the manufacture of synthetic gems and minerals. In the normal progress of business, whichever company was first to develop artificial substitutes for the planet's mineral wealth would survive the depletion of its reserves. The board was dubious about giving St. Cyr any more money for research that thus far had shown no results, despite his spectacular success in other areas. But very soon it would, he continued assuring them. The promised "results," however, would not be what they expected, and in just a few moments they would find that out.
Now Tubalcain's CEO, Mona Schroder, was arguing that the money St. Cyr wanted would be better spent diversifying the company's interests. If they started immediately, while they still had enormous cash reserves and a top credit rating, she was saying, glancing nervously at St. Cyr as she spoke, within five years the company would not have to depend on its mining ventures but could continue to show a comfortable profit margin from a variety of other enterprises, as well as from the low-risk loans they had been making to various entities throughout the Confederation. At that point she nodded at St. Cyr, a sterile and reluctant acknowledgment of his marketing genius; he had engineered most of the loans. He smiled back coldly. It was Schroder's plan to convert Tubalcain from a mining and industrial giant into an interplanetary banking system, and in that she was supported by most of the other members of the board. She was opposed only by St. Cyr. She thought that at long last she was in a position now to force hi m out of power, and her heart raced at the thought that in a few moments she would make the announcement. A small rivulet of nervous perspiration trickled down her left side as she anticipated her triumph.
St. Cyr was calm and confident. Actually, he had spent none of the money in his considerable budget developing synthetic substitutes. The board members did not know that. Schroder suspected St. Cyr had diverted the money to his own business interests but she had no positive proof. In a few moments it would make no difference, because St. Cyr was about to be dismissed. He knew it was coming. He let her rattle on for a few more moments, and then:
"Ladies and gentlemen," St. Cyr announced suddenly, cutting the CEO off in mid-sentence, "you have sat long enough." He kicked the Woo crouching at his side beneath the table. "Briefcase," he said in a low voice, and the Woo obediently held up to him the briefcase he always carried along to these meetings. St. Cyr snatched the case and slammed it on the table, kicking the Woo again, harder this time, to discourage it from looking for a reward. Smiling wryly, he drew a pistol out of his briefcase and shot the CEO where she stood.
The blaster was set on low power, and the bolt, instead of hitting Schroder square in the chest, merely vaporized her right breast and shoulder. She shrieked and stumbled away from the conference table, flailing her one good arm helplessly as the horrified board members leaped to get out of her way. She staggered back into the table, leaving gobs of singed flesh on its highly polished surface, then fell to the floor where she writhed helplessly. The room filled with the stench of vaporized flesh. Board members gagged or vomited or screamed in terror while Marston St. Cyr sat quietly in his comfortable chair, casually toying with the blaster.
The Woo at St. Cyr's feet cringed even closer to the floor, moaning "Wooooo, wooooo." It began to glow brightly, as Woos did when experiencing distress or other strong emotion. "Stop it!" St. Cyr kicked the Woo. Its glow faded immediately.
"Security! Security!" Tubalcain's VP for Human Resources shouted into his wrist communicator. The man should have been a Woo, St. Cyr had often said, always worrying about the health and welfare of the company employees. He had vigorously, if unsuccessfully, opposed St. Cyr's enormous budget, arguing that the money would better be spent on what he called "social services."
Marston smiled. "Paul, security is in my hands now." He depressed the firing lever on his weapon and the social services programs at Tubalcain vaporized along with the VP's head. His body stood upright for a few seconds before collapsing to join the CEO on the floor. St. Cyr regarded his pistol admiringly, as if congratulating himself on the shot. Meanwhile, the board broke into pandemonium. "Gentlemen, I'd hate to flame the rest of you," Marston shouted over the screaming. "It's getting a little close in here right now." Marston coughed politely. The surviving board members huddled in terror at the far end of the conference room.
A door opened and several men in black uniforms armed with blasters trooped into the room. "Major Stauffer, remove those," Marston ordered, gesturing at the smoldering corpses.
"Yes, General," Major Stauffer replied. He signed to two of his men, who grabbed the corpses by the feet and dragged them outside. "Will there be anything else, General?" the major asked, looking at the remaining executives, the beginning of a smile on his lips.
"No, Clouse," St. Cyr said, and then added, "Oh, yes, one thing: have building maintenance scrub the air supply in here, will you?" He turned his attention to the surviving executives. "Sit!" he commanded, and they began to sit, staring apprehensively at St. Cyr's blaster as they returned to their places.
"Gentlemen," he began, "briefly, I am in charge of this company now. I am going to destroy Hefestus's management team and take it over as well. Those of you who wish to join me are welcome. Those who do not may leave." He paused. Nobody said anything or even moved a finger. "Good! You have decided to go your own separate ways then. You are dismissed. Major Stauffer will see you out immediately."
A long moment of silence passed before the first shaken executive arose and stumbled out of the conference room. Then, more quickly, as if they couldn't wait to be gone, the others followed him. In the hallway outside they were met by St. Cyr's security guards, escorted to the parking garage and summarily shot. The bodies were incinerated. Teams were dispatched to the executed men's homes, and their families and servants were murdered. Using lists compiled long before, the teams then spread out to find the friends and business associates of the newly dead, and they, as well as their families and friends, were shot. Before the day was out, the entire management elite of Tubalcain, along with a substantial number of the corporation's lower-ranking management, were dead. A student of ancient Roman politics, Marston St. Cyr knew he could leave no one alive who might oppose him.
"Clouse," St. Cyr said to Major Stauffer after the doomed executives had departed, "I must change now for the embassy reception." They both laughed. "Is everything ready?"
"All is ready, General. Your commanders are waiting."
St. Cyr absently swatted the Woo crouching at his feet, his briefcase dangling from an appendage. The creature cringed and uttered a mournful sigh. Stauffer had worked for St. Cyr for forty years and was prepared to do whatever his boss demanded, but the way he treated the Woos disturbed him. Once, many years before, when Stauffer had been recovering from injuries sustained during a mining accident, St. Cyr had come to visit him in the hospital. It was the only time his boss had ever done anything so remotely human, and Stauffer had been impressed. Still woozy from painkillers, Stauffer had been bold enough to ask him why he treated the Woos so inhumanely. "Because, my dear Clouse," St. Cyr had answered, "I can't treat people that way. Yet."
Now, St. Cyr said, "Since all is ready, my dear major, let us proceed. The hors d'oeuvres will be getting cold. Oh, you are now Colonel Stauffer."
Marston St. Cyr had not spent Tubalcain's money on the synthetic gems project or even mining R&D. He had not spent it on himself. He had spent it building armored fighting vehicles.