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"One hundred and twenty-seven. YES, SERGEANT MAJOR!"

There were several axioms, handed down from generation to generation by the noncommissioned officers who were the true keepers of the tribal wisdom, in which Sergeant Major Eva Kosutic firmly believed. "No plan survives contact with reality." "In battle, His Wickedness always has a hole card." "If the enemy is in range, so are you." All of them were rules the military forgot at its own peril, but the one that was currently paramount in her own mind was "The more you sweat, the less you bleed."

And at the moment, some people obviously needed to do a little more sweating than others, she thought bitingly.

Roger MacClintock had several things going for him when it came to close combat. He had been gifted, both naturally and through long ago manipulation of the MacClintock genotype, with the reactions of a pit viper. He was a natural-born shot, with the hand-eye coordination of a master marksman, and he had spent many a lonely hour building on that platform to perfect his aim. And he had a good natural combat awareness; in a fight, he always knew "where" he was and had a good feel for where the enemies and friendlies were around him. That was an often underrated ability, but it was crucial in the sort of high-violence and sudden-death environment for which they were training.

But although he'd learned to be a "team player" in soccer, he'd never really had to perfect that in combat. Worse, perhaps, he tended to go his own way, as had been proven repeatedly on the long march from the shuttles' dry lakebed landing to K'Vaern's Cove. Roger was never one to integrate himself into a fire plan. Which made it a good thing that he always led from the front, since he also tended to kill anything that got in front of him.

"Your job, when we do an entry, is to watch my back! Not to watch where I am going! If I run into resistance, I will deal with it. But if I have to watch your sector at the same time, you are OFF THIS TEAM! Do I make myself perfectly clear?"

"CLEAR, SERGEANT MAJOR!" Roger hammered out his final push-up. "One fifty, Sergeant Major!"

"You just stay there in the front leaning rest position, Recruit MacClintock! I'll get to you when I'm ready."

"Yes, Sergeant Major!" the prince gasped.

The schooner Snarleyow's forward hold was hotter than the hinges of hell and reeked of decaying filth in the bilges. But it was also the largest concealed open space aboard any vessel of the flotilla, which, from Eva Kosutic's perspective, made it the best possible place for training. It still didn't offer as much unobstructed area as she would have liked—not by a long chalk—but the cavalry's civan had already consumed the fodder which had originally been piled into it. And unlike the upper cargo deck, there were no civan in the hold itself.

Which was a very good thing. Civan, and especially the trained war-civan Prince Rastar and his men favored, were much more intelligent than most humans might have thought upon meeting them for the first time. But what they most definitely were not was cute or cuddly. In fact, any civan tended to have the temper of an Old Earth grizzly bear with a bad tooth. The temperament—and training—of those selected as cavalry mounts only exacerbated that natural tendency. Which was why the civan stalled along the sides of Snarleyow's upper cargo deck were "tethered" (if that was the proper verb for it) not with halters or ropes, but with five-point chain tie-downs.

Even so, the Mardukans charged with their care and feeding were extremely careful about how close they got to the beasts' axlike jaws and razor-sharp, metal-shod fighting claws. For herself, Kosutic was delighted to have a training space, be it ever so hot, dank, and smelly, in which she didn't have to worry about losing a limb because she strayed too close to a civan in a worse mood than usual.

Of course, at the moment, she was in a worse mood than usual, and she shook her head, then gestured for the other two NCOs to follow her. She led them to the forwardmost end of the hold, then turned to face them.

"Options," she said quietly, and Julian wiped away a drop of sweat and shook his head.

"He's good, Smaj. Very good. But he won't stay focused on defense."

"He's too used to having us do that for him," Despreaux pointed out. "He's used to barreling through the opposition while we cover his back. Now you're barreling through the course, and he's supposed to cover your back." She shrugged ever so slightly. "He can't get used to it."

"Yeah, but a big part of it is that he's one aggressive son-of-a-bitch," Julian said with a quiet chuckle. "No offense intended to Her Majesty."

"There's that," Kosutic agreed, tugging at an earlobe. "I don't really want to switch him out for somebody else, either. He's got the moves to be better than just about anybody else in the company, if we can ever get them harnessed and coordinated, and only Macek might be able to equal him as it is. But I'm not going to get whacked because he's not covering his sector."

And that was exactly what had happened, three times so far.

When the helmet systems came on and their connection to the team's toots kicked in, the hold became a virtual shoot-house, and Kosutic had set the difficulty level very high. That meant that enemies weren't just in plain sight, on the route that the team took. Which, in turn, meant there had to be eyes turned in every direction . . . and Roger insisted on facing forward, along the line of assault. Not only did that permit the "enemies" he would otherwise have neutralized a clear shot at the team, but in one case he'd managed to "shoot" the sergeant major in the back.

Something had to be done, and Despreaux furrowed her brow as all three of them considered the problem.

"We could . . ." she said, then stopped.

"What?" the sergeant major asked.

"You won't like it," Despreaux replied.

"I've done a lot of stuff I don't like," Kosutic sighed. "What's one more thing, by His Evilness?"

"All right," Despreaux said with a shrug. "We could put Roger on point."

"Uh," Kosutic said.

"Hmmm." Julian rubbed his jaw. "She's got a point. I think he might do pretty well."

"But . . ." the sergeant major said. "But—"

" 'But that's my spot!' " Julian finished for her with a faint, humorous whine.

Kosutic looked daggers at him for a moment, then shook her head sharply.

"It's more than that, Adib. Do you really think the captain isn't going to use us? He put us together for more than just to show how it's done. My guess is that he's thinking of using us for something, as a team."

"What? His company's sergeant major, two of his squad leaders, and the prince?" Julian laughed. "You're joking, right?"

"No, I'm not," the sergeant major said seriously. "Just take it as a given that that might happen. Then think about putting Roger on point."

"Oh," Julian said.

"I can see your objection, Sergeant Major," Despreaux said carefully. "But I'm not sure it matters. Perhaps we should get Macek or Stickles instead of the prince. But if we are going to use him, I still think he should be on point. Frankly, I think, with all due respect, that he might be . . . a touch better even than you."

Despreaux gazed calmly at the sergeant major, waiting for the explosion, and Kosutic opened her mouth again. Then she closed it with a clop, fingered her earlobe for a moment, and shrugged.

"You might be right."

"I think she is, Smaj," Julian said with equal care. "The pocker is fast."

"Is that any way to talk about the Heir Tertiary to the Throne of Man?" Kosutic demanded with a grin. "But you're right. The pocker is fast. And he can shoot, too. But I hate to seem to . . . reward him for screwing up."

"You think point is a reward?" Julian shook his head.

* * *

Roger stood with his right elbow just touching the wood of the bulkhead, his head and body hunched and turned to his left. The wood was real, but just to his right was a large doorway that had been cut into it only recently. In his helmet systems, the doorway was visible only as an outline sketched on the wall with explosives. And the wall wasn't wood; it was plascrete. And in just a moment, the "explosives" were going to go off and blow a new door through it. And they would be going off less than a half-meter from his arm.

It was going to be an unpleasant experience. Roger rather doubted that even the sergeant major appreciated the full capabilities of his own toot. All the Marines were accustomed to using their implanted computers as both combat enhancers and training devices, and their toots' abilities in those regards far exceeded those of the hardware available to most citizens of the Empire. But Roger's toot was at least as much more capable than theirs as theirs were than the average civilian model. Which meant that the training simulation was even more "real" for him than for anyone else in the team. He'd considered kicking in the filters in an effort to spare himself some of the sergeant major's simulation's . . . energetic programming tricks, but he'd decided against it. He'd come to embrace the wisdom of another of Kosutic's beloved axioms: "Train like you're going to fight."

He pushed that thought away and concentrated on the moment at hand. Other than the initial walk-through of the simulated rooms, this was his first time on point, and he suspected that the sergeant major was going to be making a statement. In fact, it would be just her style to make the course unsurvivable. That would fit her passion for making training harder than real life could possibly be, and he'd already discovered from painful personal experience that she had an undeniable talent for doing her passion justice. On the other hand, this was supposed to be training for her, too, so whatever was waiting for him was waiting for her, as well. Of course, to get to her, it probably had to go through him first, and he couldn't help wondering what the simulator AI was going to throw at them. He hadn't bothered even to attempt to wheedle any more information out of the sergeant major. She wouldn't have told him, of course. But even if she might have, she probably couldn't. The way she'd set things up when she punched the basic scenario parameters into her computer to generate the simulation, not even she should know exactly what was on the other side of the wall.

But it was bound to be bad.

Despreaux quietly laid in the last bit of the simulated breaching charge and stood back. The explosion should fill the room beyond with flying fragments, along with a world's worth of overpressure, smoke, and noise. The Marines' helmets and chameleon suits would serve to reduce that same concussion, so it should give them a moment of surprise and shock in which to overcome whoever might be defending the room. Assuming that the defenders weren't outfitted with equipment similar to that of the Marines.

Despreaux held up a thumb, indicating that she was ready to go, and watched the rest of the team. Julian held up a thumb as well and hunched away from the blast area, followed by Kosutic.

Roger held up his own thumb and gripped his bead rifle tightly. The weapon was the standard issue field rifle for the Marines, but its "bullpup" design made it equally handy at close quarters. He'd become familiar with the weapon in the course of the battle across the continent, and it was now as much an extension of his body as his pistol or his personal rifle. In addition, his toot's combat pack had come with a slot for bead rifle, and he'd used the training system assiduously, building up his ability and confidence day by day. He'd never had much call for automatic weapons' training before, but he instinctively tended to be light on the trigger, so his bursts were always short and clean. With most targets, he'd tended to put two or three rounds into the upper chest, neck, or head. But except for the few targets which had presented themselves to "ass end Charlie" in the run-throughs, that had been against stationary targets. Now it was time to see if he really had what it took.

Despreaux took one more look at the team, hunched away herself, and triggered the breaching charge.

The suit systems—and toots—did the best they could to simulate the conditions, and that "best" was very good indeed. The helmets simulated a vast overpressure on their ears as they clamped onto the team's heads, their toots gave their sense of balance a hard jolt, and their chameleon suits went momentarily rigid and squeezed hard in kinetic reaction to the "pressure wave." But even before the cloth had started to settle again, Roger was through the door.

The room beyond was fairly small, no more than four or five meters square. A table in the center occupied much of its volume, and there was another door in the far wall. The scenario had called for no reconnaissance on the room, so the numbers or locations of hostiles had been unknown. But, as it turned out, there was plenty for a young prince to work on.

As he plunged through the smoke, he identified a hostile on the far side of the room. But that hostile was only just drawing a bead pistol, and something made Roger look to his right.

There was a human in the corner with a bead rifle trained right on him. The person wore the shoulder patch of a Colonial Garrison Trooper, but otherwise his equipment and uniform were identical to the Marines'. And it was clear that he'd reacted immediately to the detonation and entry. But as fast as the sim was reacting, "he" had never dealt with Prince Roger MacClintock.

Roger flipped the bead rifle sideways and "double-tapped" the defender in the corner off-hand, then flipped back to the left to engage another defender in the other corner. Only then did he engage and neutralize the first threat . . . who was just starting to level her bead pistol. Beads caromed off the floor and past his legs as that threat flew back against the far wall in a splash of red.

But by then, Roger was already gone.

* * *

Kosutic followed the prince through the smoke and covered left. In this case, she did know the layout and position of defenders, and she was shocked to see all three of them already dead. The two "sneaks" in the corners were both headless corpses, and the primary threat against the far wall had one round through the forehead and two more in her chest. The sergeant major was even more shocked as Roger threw a flashbang through the far door and followed it before it could detonate.

"Roger! Satan damn it, SLOW DOWN!"

* * *

The prince vaguely heard the sergeant major, but his helmet visor's heads-up display showed that so far the team had taken no casualties. That was how he intended to keep it. He followed the disarmed flashbang through the door, and, as he'd expected, all the defenders on the far side had hunched away in anticipation of the flash that never came. This room was larger, with an open door along the right wall, and a closed-door in the left wall. There were also quite a few defenders—seven, to be precise. For some reason the words "target-rich environment" came to mind. And also "Eva Kosutic is a bitch."

He shot two that were arrayed beside the door to his right, then took cover behind a handy workbench. From under the bench, he began single-tapping knees and shins as the other five defenders dropped to the floor and thus into view.

A grenade from one of the "wounded" defenders flew over the workbench, and it appeared to be the just and proper time to abandon his position. However, that wasn't all to the bad. The grenade was a standard issue frag, and the explosion, while unpleasant, would only manage to lift him over the bench a little faster. The chameleon suit was proof against all but high-velocity beads, and the shrapnel from the grenade wouldn't penetrate it. He wasn't sure if the combat simulator was designed to simulate shocked amazement on the part of the "enemy," but real ones would have stopped in dazed wonder at the front-flip that he managed over the workbench, riding the wavefront of the explosion.

* * *

Kosutic caught a flicker out of the corner of her eye as she came through the door, but realized it was the prince. Just then, a notional "grenade" went off to her right and slapped her against the wall. That was okay, but it threw off her first shot, and by the time she'd reacquired the two remaining defenders, they were both down with head and throat shots.


* * *

Apparently there had been a purpose for all those saddle exercises they'd put him through in boarding school. Either his maneuver had temporarily locked up the simulation processor, or else it was designed to allow for amazed shock, because both of the remaining targets just sat there, frozen, clutching their wounds while he terminated them. The sergeant major was yelling about something, but he hadn't set up this nightmare, and he damned sure wasn't stopping or even slowing down until all the targets were cleared. He thumbed a frag grenade, set it for two-second detonation, and pitched it through the open door. Then he followed.

* * *

"Roger!" Kosutic shouted in exasperation. She'd seen the grenade go through the door, and he was following it far too closely, antiballistic chameleon suit or no. Putting him on point might make some sense; she could barely keep up with him, so Satan only knew what it would be like for the opposition! But it was just as clear that with him in the lead, His Wickedness was running wild.

* * *

The system finally threw Roger a curve and graded his bead rifle as damaged by the grenade explosion. It also graded his right hand as damaged, and his toot obliged the AI by sending a stab of all-too-genuine pain through the hand. That reduced his options considerably, so as the three targets in the room tried to recover from the slap of the fragmentation grenade, he reached across and drew his pistol with his left.

He also made a mental note to figure out a better way to enter rooms. Maybe it would be better not to follow his grenade "door knocker" quite as closely next time.

* * *

Despreaux shook her head over the carnage in the room. It was pretty clear that the sergeant major had intended to stack the deck. But apparently she hadn't stacked it well enough.

Nimashet had nothing to do as "ass-end Charlie," so she backed along, covering Julian now, and keeping the single closed door in the edge of her vision. If they were counterattacked, it would probably come from there. But it didn't pay to concentrate on only one threat axis. It was better to be open and ready to engage in any of "her" directions, she reminded herself.

Which reminder was of no damned use at all when the ceiling fell in.

* * *

Roger's new room had only the three defenders, and they were all down with double-taps before they recovered from the grenade. Unfortunately, the left end of the room was a plasteel wall with an armored gun-port. The cannon in it had been unable to engage as long as there were live defenders in its way, but as the last hostile fell, it opened up.

Roger managed to duck under the stream of bead-cannon rounds and crouched along the wall, sheltered from its fire. Unfortunately, there was a certain amount of ricochet, and Kosutic wasn't able to follow him through the door. He could hear a firefight going on in the other room, so he knew he couldn't stay where he was for long. And it looked as if there was just enough room to get a hand through the firing slot past the bead cannon.

He slipped a grenade from his pouch, and as he did, the indicators for Despreaux and Julian went to yellow, then orange. Both were wounded and would die without support.

* * *

Eva crouched behind the workbench Roger had abandoned and cursed. Despreaux and Julian were both down, and she herself was pinned by fire from the ceiling and the three heavily armored commandos who'd dropped through the hole. The targets were advancing cautiously, but their heavier armor was shrugging off most of her shots, even after she'd switched to armor piercing. It wasn't powered armor, just very heavy reactive plate, but if something didn't come through soon, they were going to lose this one.

* * *

Roger set the grenade to one second, flipped it into the bead cannon bunker, and dove for the door. If the damned simulator's AI didn't have the people in the bunker at least trying to get the grenade back out of their position, it wasn't very well written.

He wasn't punctured by the heavy weapon, so it appeared to have worked. But the situation in the far room sounded bad, and he was tired of going blind. He thought about it for just a moment, then flipped on his helmet's vision systems.

As it turned out, the "dead"—or at least "seriously wounded"—Julian had his head turned to the side. Roger looked in the same direction through the camera on his helmet and saw three heavily armored targets closing on the workbench he had flipped across on his own way through. He slipped a fresh magazine into the pistol and contemplated his right hand. It was still graded as "yellow" (and that damnably efficient toot of his was still giving him direct neural stimulation that hurt like hell to back up its "damage"), and he wasn't sure how much use he could make of it. But there was only one way to find out, so he drew a throwing knife and approached the door in a crouch.

This was going to take timing. Lots of timing.

* * *

Timing is everything, and in this case it was on the side of the righteous. Kosutic's HUD showed her the icon of the prince approaching the door, and she smiled. As the prince's actual figure appeared in the opening, she concentrated on the shooter in the ceiling.

Time to get some of their own back.

* * *

Roger stepped through the door as Kosutic started tearing into the ceiling with long, concentrated bursts of blind fire. His own firepower was more limited, but unlike her, he could actually see the shooter. He flipped up the knife and threw it towards the hole in the ceiling even as he fired at the three crouched targets in the room.

He saw the backs of each of their necks go red, then grunted in anguish as his chameleon suit hardened and the toot threw some more neural stimulation at him. Pain echoed through his chest, and his helmet's HUD flashed a brief schematic of his body with his torso outlined in yellow. But by then he had directed the pistol towards the ceiling, and before the shooter could get off another round, he was credited as a kill. The hostile fell through the hole to the deck, and Roger noted the knife blade buried in the bad guy's left arm.

Roger rotated to the right along the wall, trying to disregard the flashes of pain his toot obediently sent along his nerves each time he moved. At least one rib broken, he estimated. It hurt like hell, but his nanny pack was already deadening the pain—or, at least, his toot was grudgingly acting as if the nanites were doing their job—so he made himself ignore it as he reloaded his pistol.

Then he picked up Julian's bead rifle in place of his own, attached it to his harness' friction strap, and reloaded it, as well. Then he sidled towards the remaining closed door, cradling the rifle in his undamaged left hand.

He looked across at the sergeant major and gestured to the door and the hole in the ceiling, then shrugged. She grimaced back at him and gestured at the ceiling. He nodded, thumbed himself, then jabbed the same thumb upward. She grimaced again, but she also nodded and crouched down, setting her rifle on the floor and interlacing her fingers.

Roger let the friction strap pull Julian's rifle up, drew his pistol again, and stepped over to the sergeant major. He put one boot into her hands, leapt upward into the hole—

—and slammed into the intact deck overhead.

* * *

The next thing he knew, he was on the floor, clutching his head and neck in pain (which was not at all simulated) as Kosutic, Julian, and Despreaux tried not to laugh.

"Clear VR," the sergeant major said, and the simulator's AI obeyed, although Roger was half-surprised it could understand the command through her laughter. She leaned over him, and shook her head in an odd mixture of amusement and contrition.

"Satan and Lucifer," she got out. "I'm sorry about that, Your Highness. Are you okay?"

Roger lay on the floor of the poorly lit hold, clutching his neck and stared up at her—and the completely solid deckhead above her.

"Good Christ," he groaned. "What in hell happened?"

"I got so into the scenario, I forgot it wasn't real," Kosutic admitted. "Snarleyow's big enough that I could build two or three rooms into the hold, but there wasn't anything I could do about the vertical limits, and I got so involved I forgot that there couldn't really be a hole in the 'ceiling.' That's the upper cargo deck planking. There's not even a hatch."

"Where's the targets?" Roger moaned pitifully. "Where's the bead-cannon? Where's the door? We were doing so welll!"

Julian rolled over on his side, still laughing, while Despreaux climbed to her feet.

"Fortunately," she observed with a disdainful glance at the giggling armorer, "I'm not dead."

"Oh, my head," Roger said, ignoring her. "I hate VR! Sergeant Major, did you just piledriver me into the ceiling?"

"That's more or less what I just said, Your Highness," Kosutic said, still chuckling.

"Oooo," Roger groaned. "Can I just lie here for a while?"


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