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The Infinity Gambit
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Fallon folded the map and tucked it back into the pouch between the forward seats of the Hound. He didn't need it anymore. The plume of black smoke rising above the city marked the location of SSHQ clearly enough. He returned his grip to the M16 propped between his knees and looked back from a little more than rooftop level at the fleeting montage of Kinnube rushing by below.

Two children out in a yard at the back of a house ran back inside, terrified. . . . Armed figures on some roofs looked up as the helicopter passed over; several aimed at it, but if they fired, scored no hits. . . . An overturned car was burning, and soldiers were running along the street. . . . Bodies were scattered like rag dolls across an open square. . . . Figures that looked like guerrillas were taking shelter among some walls.

"That's it. Right?" Tam yelled above the roar of the 1700 horsepower engine.

"It's got to be."

They had been veering south from a westerly course and were now to the northwest of the compound. "Okay. Hang on to your ass. We're going in!"

The chopper banked to port and dropped even lower as Tam hugged the ground to gain maximum cover and minimum exposure until the last moment. Fallon winced as they flew between two buildings, through a gap that he wouldn't have thought wide enough for the rotor. He saw a woman's frightened face staring out of one of the windows, seeming almost close enough to touch. . . . Now they were skimming along a street, with figures scattering below, some throwing themselves to the ground. And then an office building was rushing at them, its face scarred by broken windows . . . and then came a sudden, lurching lift to snatch height for the final run in. Fallon braced a leg along the side of the open doorway and raised the M16.

Over the first smoke; troops below, looking up and staring from positions among the rubble and vehicles parked haphazardly among the buildings. . . . Tanks, fires, demolished buildings. They were crossing the Army's positions encircling Embatto's HQ. As the machine climbed and broke cover, Tam threw it into a series of gut-wrenching twists. Fallon felt bullets hitting the structure now, but he could identify no worthwhile target to fire back at.

The headquarters and barracks compound, together with the surrounding streets, looked like part of a bombed city from a World War II news clip. The perimeter walls and buildings of the complex had been reduced to rubble, and fires were burning in a dozen places. Flames poured out of the windows along half the length of the five-story main building, one end of which had collapsed. Tam headed up into the smoke, holding maximum climb rate until they were clearing the parapet, then shed speed abruptly to drop the machine into a hovering attitude in the dead zone immediately past the edge.

One end of the roof had caved in and was gushing flames and smoke. As the downdraft from the rotor cleared the immediate surroundings, Fallon made out a ramped enclosure housing a roof door, from which figures were already emerging. Some ran to the helicopter, while others seemed to be struggling among themselves. One went down, another was flailing his arms wildly.

"Seems they got a call," Tam decided.

The first two, wearing combat smocks and carrying weapons, reached the door and scrambled in. Behind them was Embatto, tense-faced and moving jerkily, with three others in a protective cluster around him, carrying bags and satchels bulging with documents. In the middle was Sullivan, easily recognizable from his size. They hauled themselves in, piling the bags behind the pilot's and copilot's seats. Then came Makon Ngoyba with two more. That made nine already, and another was squeezing into the door behind Fallon while more milled about. And others were still coming out onto the roof.

Somebody tried to pull Ngoyba back as he stepped up. "Why's he goin'? He ain't no pilot," a voice shouted.

"Get them back!" Embatto ordered from inside.

"Lemme in! Lemme in!" Scuffling broke out around the door. A face crazed with fear appeared, hands clawing inside, trying to tear at anyone to make room. Sullivan shot the head point-blank with a pistol. On the other side, Ngoyba threw himself through, into the crush behind the cockpit.

"That's it! That's enough!" Tam yelled above the motor's roar. If the ones outside started shooting in, everyone would be lost.

"Go!" Embatto cried out.

The machine started to rise. Fallon saw one of the figures still on the roof taking aim through the smoke. He fired reflexively, and the figure buckled. A bullet shattered the Plexiglass by Tam's head. That seemed to trigger the others behind, who began shooting indiscriminately as the helicopter lifted away. Some of the figures below fell while others retreated, and then the smoke closed in, blotting out the scene.

Fallon looked back to find Embatto peering forward between his and Tam's shoulders. "Bad?" he asked needlessly.

"Terrible. The Army attacked without warning at dawn, with tanks."

"Molokutu found out about you and moved first," Fallon said bluntly.

Embatto's head jerked around in surprise. "You knew about that?"

Fallon waved a hand to indicate Tam. Their roles were planned and rehearsed. "That's what he tells me. You weren't on the level. There was a lot more going on than I was told about."

"One must take precautions, Mr. Fugleman," Embatto said. He seemed for the moment to be mystified. "You are the one who initiated the message?" he said to Tam. "Who are you?"

"Let's just say that Lichuru and I talk to the same people," Tam replied.

"You are with them?"

"People who put up that kind of money like to have some insurance in situations like this."

"Lichuru never mentioned it to me," Embatto said after a few seconds of silence.

"Lichuru wasn't told," Tam replied.

The Hound climbed sluggishly with its load, and then the house fell away at last. "Green fields ahead," Tam shouted across the cockpit. "We're clearing the city. Just a few minutes more now."

Back at what was left of state security headquarters, the Army force had pulled its forward troops back behind the bomb lines. As the sound of the departing helicopter faded to the west, the whine of approaching jets came from the opposite direction. Moments later, the first formation of General Waroon's MiG-19s came in on a shallow dive across the city and completed the demolition of the main building with salvos of high-explosive rockets. The next wave blasted the compound from end to end with general-purpose bombs, after which the last wave unloaded napalm.

Soon thereafter, all further resistance by the defenders ceased.

. . .

"What's the matter with you?" Thombert demanded angrily at the aide outside the doors of the suite. "Didn't you hear me give orders not to be disturbed?"

"My apologies, Excellency, but there is something on the radio that you should hear for yourself. If it weren't of the utmost seriousness, naturally I would never have --"

"All right, all right." Thombert came out and walked toward the study. The aide accompanied him.

"What is it?" Dora inquired, appearing at the doors from the presidential suite behind, her glass still in her hand.

"Some kind of emergency. I don't know. . . ." Thombert marched into the study and found an officer standing by the radio, which was on a side table. "Well?" Then Thombert stopped in his tracks as he recognized the voice coming from the speaker. It sounded frail, shaky, but at the same time more determined than he had ever heard it. His eyes widened disbelievingly. "This isn't possible. . . ."

"Yolatta is there too," the officer told him somberly. "So is Letumbai."

The voice of Jovay Barindas was saying, ". . . that you were told I had run away like a rabbit. Well, my friends, as you can judge for yourselves, that report has been somewhat exaggerated. . . ." The voice caught, and Barindas swallowed audibly. The emotion he felt seemed to issue tangibly into the room. "I want to tell you about some of the things I have seen with my own eyes here in Kinnube today. . . ."

"Where did he come from?" Thombert growled. He he began losing his calm. "I was told that we were in control of the city. Get me Colonel Sahle immediately."

At that instant another officer came running up the stairs and burst in without preliminaries. "Excellency, Mordun has been bombed!"

Thombert stood still, stunned.

"How bad is the damage?" the aide snapped.

"I don't know. Sahle is on the line."

"Put him through up here," Thombert instructed numbly. Then, when the call was transferred, "What's happened? How bad is it?"

Sahle sounded bewildered. "The first report is garbled. But it sounds as if the whole base is in flames. At least -"

"Hello? . . . Hello? . . . What in hell?" Thombert jiggled the cradle impatiently. Dora, who had stopped at the doorway, came into the room, looking worried.

"Palace main office," a different voice said in Thombert's ear.

"I was talking to Colonel Sahle at Army HQ. I've been cut off. What's going on?"

"One second. I'll check."

"Bombed?" Thombert muttered as he waited. "Who by? What with?"

"Excellency?" The voice from the palace office came back on the line.

"Well?"

"I don't understand it. All our lines to army headquarters appear to have gone dead."

"What? Every one? How could . . .?"

Thombert's words trailed away as the sound of engines, growing louder, came from beyond the windows, accompanied by the crump-crump of the palace defenses opening up. The officer rushed across to the study's picture window overlooking the front drive. Thombert, grim-faced, strode over behind him. Dora and the aide followed.

They found themselves staring out at the chilling silhouettes of three attack helicopters, bristling with weapons pods, rocket pylons, and gun racks, coming straight at them in line abreast. . . .

And the office of the Zugendan presidency became vacant once more, less than five seconds later.

 
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