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The Hostile Stars

XV. Mantrap

Anton Darrell inched forward among crisscrossing struts and beams. Ahead, he could dimly see the outline of the maintenance access panel that would at last let him back out into the corridor. His back ached, and his fingers felt like claws. Even with the assistance of the enhanced strength and endurance his battle dress gave him, it was hard going.

He craned his neck around to look for Arkadian. The intelligence officer was several meters behind him, not moving. Anton grunted, then spoke over his radio to the lagging psionic: "This would go a lot faster if you wouldn't stop ever five minutes."

"Patience, General. It's all for the cause."

Anton shook his head and began moving forward again. It was arduous work. They had come into a section of the ship where the artificial gravity was working again - just when they had to climb up a steep incline, of course.

He was almost to the hatch when something made him stop moving and try to become as flat as possible. He hadn't seen anything, but there seemed to be movement in the dark. Carefully, he scanned the area. Off to his right was a large shaftway lined with conduits and pipes. Beyond that was more superstructure like the kind he and Arkadian were climbing through. Sensors in his helmet resolved the whole area into a false color image of surprising depth and brilliance. Of course, there were ways to fool those sensors. His own suit was taking those measures now.

He was almost too late. A flicker of motion caught his eye and he let go of the beam he was holding onto and slid down a meter and a half or so. Bullets rattled off the wall where he had been. Bracing himself as best he could against the wall, Darrell unslung his laser rifle with one hand and swept the invisible beam of X-rays out into the blackness. He saw a gun barrel rise up several meters away from across the shaft and fired at it without thinking, his rifle's gyroscopes holding it steady in his hand while his display calculated the best firing angles for him. Something dropped a gun with a clatter, and moments later there was a thump as a body collapsed against a strut.

Arkadian's voice hissed in his ears. "Is it over?"

"Yeah. Close, too." Darrell hoisted himself back up to the maintenance panel. Rather than trying to unlatch it, he pulled a metal-and-plastic gauntleted fist back and smashed into the panel with all his might. It buckled, and he hit it again. This time the hatch broke off its mountings and flew open with a crash. Light flooded the shaftway. Darrell raised himself out of the crawlspace and through the hatch.

He was in a corridor near Engineering. Readings on his visor display indicated that life support had been restored to the region. Scars of battle were visible on the corridor walls, burn marks and blasts from small grenades. A room a little way down the corridor had been broken into with a plasma gun. Half the corridor wall there had been melted away, and rivulets of molten material had flowed across the floor. This had been a while ago; the metal was hard, although it still showed as hot on his display's infrared scans.

Darrell reached down and hoisted Arkadian up with one arm. "Here we are," he said. "Home sweet home. Hope you enjoyed the trip."

"Remind me not to use you as my regular carrier," Arkadian said in mock displeasure. "Can't say I care much for the hospitality."

"On the contrary, I find it quite comforting."

"Why do you say that?"

"You have to have been on a lot of battlefields to understand."

Arkadian waited a moment. "Well, are you going to enlighten me?"

"Blast patterns. See how many of them are high up? Some are even on the ceiling."


"That's panic fire. You tend to aim too high. First rule of marksmanship is to aim low, for the center of gravity. It's not as important for laser weapons, because they don't kick. But there's still a tendency to pull up."

"I'll take your word for it."

"Now see how the blasts are at staggered intervals. Whoever was firing was running, and probably firing behind them as they ran."

"All right, a battle and then a bugout. Whose side did the running?"

"A lot of shots must have been fired, but the pursuers seem to have hit far more often. I'd say that we did the shooting, and the Zhos did the running."

"How can you be sure? Zhodani Guards troops are elite too."

"No," said Darrell, "only Imperial Marines are that accurate." He pointed down the corridor. "I'd say that the attack came from that direction. I believe we had a command post there that the Zhos captured when they first boarded. Later we hit them, and stampeded them down here, in the general direction of the main Engineering corridor junction. It was some time ago, long enough to have collected the bodies."

"I'd say you're right, General," Arkadian said. There was a mocking tone in his voice.

"You've known all along, haven't you?"

"I monitored the battle, Anton. From both sides."

Anton stiffened. Damnit, the very mention of psionic ability still made him nervous.

"Come on," he said. "We should try to link up with our men in front of Engineering."

"I'd still like to capture an officer."

"We really don't have the time for that kind of thing. I'm sure we must have a prisoner somewhere for you to interrogate."

"Not the way I want to. I want to get one right away, before he's had time to prepare his defenses."

"Arkadian, whatever eldritch powers you have, we are still just two people in disputed territory. It's not safe to be taking on a full-fledged Zhodani noble."

"I have some tools that can help us there."

"And what would those be?"

Arkadian grinned to himself and set his satchel down on the corridor floor. He knelt beside it and took out several items. "These," he said, pointing to several boxy pieces of electronic equipment, "are pretty standard in my line of work. They monitor psionic activity, give me an idea of where the most resistance is coming from, help to break it down. Crude stuff by Zhodani standards, but pretty effective, if you know how to use the equipment."

"I suppose you've had plenty of practice?"

Arkadian held up something like a heavy power drill. He pressed a stud on the side and a parabolic reflector unfolded around the narrow "barrel" of the tool. "Now this," he said softly, "this is something else entirely."

"What does it do? It looks like a gun."

"It's a weapon, all right. An outgrowth of psionic shield technology, but it has the opposite effect. Instead of protecting a mind, it will knock down the protections of a shielded mind."

"That's - that's pretty amazing," Darrell said, shaken. "It sounds like the perfect weapon against the Zhodani. Why aren't we using it more?"

"These are still in the prototype stage. They're pretty finicky. And the range is extremely limited. But if I get close enough, I can knock down even a noble's shield."

Darrell thought for a long moment. "Very well," he said finally, dragging out each word slowly. "We'll go on your snark hunt."

"Thank you, General. Oh, one more thing."


"Be careful of getting in the way when I'm using the psionic suppressor. It wouldn't normally affect you, but with your psionic shield on - well, there might be some feedback."

"Thanks." Darrell studied the other man for a moment, his lithe, dark form hidden under the anonymous casing of his combat armor. "So, where do we find your prisoner?"

"I have a pretty good idea of where to look," said Arkadian. He began to trot down the corridor.

"I thought you might," muttered Darrell. He hurried down the hallway, following the smaller man.

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