Michael Z. Williamson was born in Birkenhead, England and raised in Liverpool, and Toronto, Canada, before moving to Columbus, Ohio. An 18-year veteran of the US Army and US Air Force, he is a state-ranked competitive shooter in combat rifle and combat pistol. His other books include Freehold (Baen), the Target Terror series for Harper-Collins, so far including Targets of Opportunity and The Scope of Justice, and Hero, a collaboration with New York Times best-selling author John Ringo for Baen. He currently lives in Indianapolis with his wife Gail, their two children, and various cats that are not to be trusted.

Better to Beg Forgiveness by Michael Z. Williamson

Celadon, a poor nation on a poor planet, engaged in civil war and a haven for every type of villainy in space, is ripe for cleanup. The military could pacify it handily, but it would take a statesman to fix it. But some statesmen have ethics, which politicians and megacorps find inconvenient. President Bishwanath compounded the sin by being astute, ambitious and capable. Something had to be done, because a working nation isn't much use for pork and graft.

When the word comes down that he is dead, the politicians move on with a new plan, re-allocating resources, and finding a new, more pliable president to put in place.

There are three problems with this solution. Bishwanath is not dead. His mercenary bodyguards are more loyal than the politicians. And if they're not on contract, there are no rules.


Mike likes knives and other pointy objects. He's also a really good writer, with his successful books for Baen. I have worked with him at several conventions, and he's even taken me to an impromptu hot rod show in Indiana. He was one of the gung-ho promoters Baen Books suggested for this bundle. – Kevin J. Anderson




Chapter One

Basically, I'm in it for the money," Aramis Anderson said. "Who can turn down entire weeks' worth of pay per day?" He sat back in his couch and sipped his drink. He'd already finished his lunch, and the sandwich must have screamed in terror, seeing and then disappearing down that voracious maw.

"Yeah, but I figure they pay that for a reason. This won't be easy." Former Captain Alex Marlow, USMC, remembered being young and stupid. That's why he was former captain. Granted, he'd gotten the job done, but Anderson's ego was larger than his had been and potentially a problem, despite all his training and experience.

"No, not easy," Anderson agreed. "But it's better pay than the infantry, better rules of engagement than the infantry, and better gear than the infantry."

Anderson kept bringing up the infantry, by which he meant the U.S. Army infantry. "All Marines Are Riflemen First," but the Army's riflemen were often condescending to the rest of their servicemates.

I'm probably being too harsh, Alex thought. I was much the same and grew out of it. He's well trained, and he follows orders. He didn't need to let immaturity and abrasiveness cause tension. You had to get along with your team even if you didn't care for them socially. The kid did well at the Academy, did have limited real world experience, and was quite bright. He'd keep an eye out, and say something if he needed to. After all, he'd agreed to bring the kid along as muscle with brains.

"I've never guarded a head of state before," said Eleonora Sykora, leaning back in her couch and clearly enjoying the smooth flight of the luxury aircraft. The plane was soundproofed, and even her soft tones were audible. She was a Czech from Earth, but spoke good spaceside English, if a little rough on pronunciation. She was female, slim, and elegant looking, not exactly the image of an executive security professional.

Of course, Alex reflected, that understatedness probably was to her advantage. She was not a small woman, but didn't come across as imposing, either. She had good credentials and Jason, his deputy and friend, spoke highly of her. They'd been on contract together.

"So we do what we always do. Bound to have some advantages and disadvantages," he said.

Ripple Creek Security sounded very sophisticated and classy. They charged accordingly, and paid their operators likewise. But if need be, that sophistication devolved to six or eight nasty operators with guns, who carried their principal to safety while shooting anything in their way. Their primary clients were governments and multinational and multisystem corporations. It was said they rarely lost a principal, but of principles, they had none.

"So what would be each?" Sykora asked.

"Oh," Alex replied, and engaged his brain from peripherally alert to responsive. "Likely to have decent quarters for us, and lots of indoor time. Likely facilities to check incoming individuals. Likely to have good control of vehicles and facilities . . ."

"Likely someone has a ChiNaTech Mark Fifteen missile with a microburst remote control aimed at the palace, a few planted informants in the existing indigenous security, bugs and a horde of savages outside?" Sykora asked.

"Elke, you've been doing this enough months that's a rhetorical question, right?" Alex asked back.

She nodded with a wry smile. She ate steadily and neatly from the tray, not in the ravenous fashion Anderson had. She was always methodical and thoughtful. You had to be to work with explosives.

Bart Weil had sat next to her when Anderson hadn't. Weil was poring over maps of Celadon, their destination. Weil was a big, grizzled German, a wet-navy vet turned bodyguard. This was a different mission from guarding idiot musicians and their retinues, but Weil did both well. He could be as polite or intimidating as necessary. He had the most actual security experience, and Alex aimed to exploit that. The man was quiet but not slow. He recalled their duty together during the meteorite strike on Novaja Rossia, keeping a starving mob in a blasted wasteland from looting supplies that had to be issued in a proper program. It wasn't easy telling families with hungry children to wait, or threatening fathers who were trying to see that those children did get fed when they cut the fence. At least, it wasn't easy for Alex. Bart was coldly professional.

Across from Bart, occasionally pulling the screen flat to see better, Shaman read the same maps upside down. He was slim and looked the part of an executive. He was also a damned fine doctor with lots of combat experience during Liberia's Third Civil War (or Eighth, depending on who did the counting), more than once using rigger tape, rags, and a pocketknife to perform lifesaving surgery. Horace "Shaman" Mbuto might leave you a scarred mess when done, but you'd probably be a living scarred mess, and reconstructive biosculp was covered under Ripple Creek's generous benefit package. Alex wasn't sure if the native rituals Mbuto used alone and on patients were a religious matter for him or simply an act meant to disturb and creep out observers, and wasn't going to ask. The man was one hell of a cutter and one hell of a shooter with years of experience.

Last on the couch was Jason Vaughn, with his attention focused on his computer.

"What are you writing, Jason?" Alex asked.

"Letter home," Vaughn said tersely. Vaughn had a wife and kids on Grainne Colony. He'd probably memorized the maps already, and his eyes kept flicking up and forward toward the flight deck, in nervous habit. Vaughn was a pilot if need be, an armored vehicle driver if need be, a mechanical master, and very professionally paranoid. He swung from reticent to lecturing, and if he said something was so, it almost always was. Alex was glad to have him along. Great operator.

They were all great operators. That's why they got paid better than doctors, lawyers, and most corporate mid execs. If you wanted someone with that skill set and talent, who'd put themselves between their employer and an incoming bullet, you had to pay. Contractor had been the polite term for a long time now, but the proper term was mercenary.

They were on contract to guard Balaji Bishwanath, the incoming temporary president of Celadon on Salin. Celadon was a backwater haven for terrorists and pirates, and enough events had finally happened to draw notice to those facts. The UN Forces were pacifying it, at least on paper, and the Bureau of State moved in the interim president selected by the Colonial Alliance while a new, functioning government was created. Many of the gangs, syndicates, clans, and tribes didn't want the peace Bishwanath promised. Contingents from every faction on the planet wanted him dead.

That wouldn't really matter in the long run. More troops would come until the UN/Alliance's goal was accomplished. But as with common criminals, there was a mind-set with certain people that such fights were "winnable." It was only fair, and professional, to give Bishwanath proper security presence while things settled down. The fact that he was seen as such a figurehead was, in fact, a boost to his credibility.

"Do you think we can get other contracts here, boss?" Aramis asked. "We've got diplomats, Assemblypersons, CEOs, and executives. I figure this could last a decade."

Money was one of the big appeals, Alex admitted to himself.

He replied, "The execs want to invest in—by which they mean exploit—a developing economy, and need protection from the exploited. There's an occasional correspondent who can afford our rates for a few days who might sign on, too. That's Corporate's job. We're Operations. We beat on enraged peasants and dedicated assassins, and cash our checks. Do it well, I'll give you a good review, Corp will find you jobs."

"I'll do my best."

Bishwanath rated more than six guards. They were just his immediate circle of "civilian" guards. Around and outside were plans for eighty-four more, four platoons of what were called Long Range Reconnaissance troops. At one time, such were called "Special Operations," but the euphemisms were all designed to make the military sound not quite so violent to an increasingly sensitive culture. A decadent, wimpy one in Alex's opinion.

Alex, Bart, Elke, and Jason all knew a cross section of those Recon soldiers. They'd served with them or across from them. Shaman Mbuto and Aramis Anderson hadn't moved in that circle, but Shaman had an existing history and was respected. Anderson was the new guy and took it personally. At the same time, youthful troops were valuable in part because of their need to prove themselves. They could be prevailed upon to perform suicidally dangerous tasks, and sometimes survive. Older, more cynical personnel were not so image driven. Not that Alex intended to waste the kid cavalierly, but if heroics were called for, it was Anderson he was going to call upon to jump on the grenade.

For now they were en route to Celadon and casually dressed. Much of this contract would be in suits, in limos and offices but it would also be outside at times, though, and Mahore, the capital of Celadon, was in a tropical latitude near sea level. It ran warm and muggy. Vaughn and Anderson fit suits right off the rack and looked great, wonderfully photogenic. Elke needed hers tailored, but with her short, fluffy hair and fine features she looked like an executive or a personal assistant, not a bloodthirsty bitch with kilos of high explosive. Weil needed suits specially made and bulged out of them, looking like some legbreaker with his broad features and chest. Mbuto just looked silly in them. He looked comfortable and respectable in shorts or casual clothes, and even in robes or ritual garb that would fit Carnivale, but a suit on him was out of place. Alex in a suit was just a guy in a suit.

That rogue's gallery effect was another useful feature of his team. Hide the discipline and weapons, look like showpieces, and be prepared to deal out wholesale death if there was a problem.

He turned his attention back to the shifting landscape below. The Broadwing aircraft had a stately, fuel-efficient speed and flew at a low enough altitude to allow a good view. That wasn't intentional, but Alex and Jason were both taking advantage of it now.

The landscape was patchy jungle of mixed Earth and native growth, with farms, ranches, and mines hacked out geometrically here and there.

"Fewer roads even than the Hinterlands on Grainne," Jason said without looking in.

"Mostly hardpan dirt, some fused. I don't see the highway."

"It is not visible from here," Bart said, indicating the map screen.

Things looked slightly odd in the orange-tinged light of Bonner Durchmusterung +56°2966, which was far too complex a name for a very unremarkable K3 star. Many settled people just called their local star "the sun." Some had shortened versions of the star's Earth name, like the Grainne Colony, which called Iota Persei "Io." But "Bon" or "Durch" wouldn't work well. That was a catalog name. The declination number or whatever it was wouldn't work. Here, for some reason, the star was locally known as "Bob." There was no figuring that, so Alex watched the terrain.

Scattered villages dotted the farm areas, or sprouted around crossroads. There were few towns. Little of the local life was compatible with Earth life. That was good and bad. Bad, because it meant nothing local was edible. It also meant, in this case, that the pheromone- and smell-driven local predators took no interest in Earth life. The only threats were those man brought along, mostly himself. Not that his team should ever be stopping in the remoter areas, but it never hurt to scout things out.

The buildings in the settlements were prefabs and huts of native materials. Prefabs marked the "official" buildings and those sponsored by investment. Peasants had huts. Sunlight, or Boblight, was polarized by and reflected from water bodies, but not from glass or metal structures, or polished plastic. There weren't any. This place had started drab and run-down and then slid.

Stretching, he took a sip of water. The seat was very comfortable, covered with a finer fabric than most commercial liners, and powered to support his neck and back automatically, shifting as he did. Military flights didn't rate such expensive but spine-saving hardware.

Alex wouldn't admit it was his first trip off planet. The star flight had been smooth enough, and there wasn't much to say, so he ignored it. Both Elke and Jason had been off Earth, and Jason now lived off Earth, retired to a wealthy colony. He'd retired from the military, not from working in the field.

Anyway, it made sense to soak up the view, get firsthand intel. There was nothing wrong with being a paid tourist, either.

Salin was just a planet. It had analogs to much of Earth plant life, and a few lower animals. Not much local was above very simple amphibians, though the seas were fairly active. There were a few reptiles including some flying types. That meant a lot to the scientists who studied such. To him, it meant few nonhuman threats, which was fine, as there were enough of those. Salin was smaller than Earth, but had similar gravity and lots of metals in its core. Bob was a flare star, with periodic outbursts that weren't dangerous to a human with good UV block or a hat, and barely noticeable for their small violence. As with everything else around here, it was unspectacular. There was also a certain amount of metal in the asteroids here. Those were potentially profitable, being easy to transport through jump points, but the two large and one small nations on Salin had never been able to come to an agreement about them, so they remained unexploited. Planetary exports tended to be technology, foodstuffs, tourism, or rare minerals or gems. On the planet itself there were few people with education to create new tech, there was nothing rare here, barely enough food for subsistence and certainly nothing exotic, and the ongoing tribal wars and desolate or uninteresting terrain prevented any kind of tourism.

What a hole, he mused.

He tensed slightly as they landed. This mission was still being put together and the Ripple Creek oporder did not have much information on infrastructure. It lacked details such as whether the port was automated, or if pilots had to manually land and if there were even navaids. All these intelligence holes were information he needed to get the job done, but he'd have to make do. The landing was uneventful as it turned out, and they taxied up to a very basic, sheet-roofed building that served as the terminal. That summed up what this place was like.

As soon as they rolled to a stop, he said, "Okay, debark, Elke and Bart, grab our weapons, and let's meet our principal at his new home."

Their craft was a civilian Broadwing, but was on contract to the military. Again and again that was happening, and Bart Weil didn't like it. He remembered when everything had been done at great expense with armor and combat craft. This was allegedly cheaper, but it was not safer and contractors weren't always reliable. He hated using them. Then he caught himself and laughed inside. He was a contractor and wouldn't be here otherwise. He'd done executive protection for years, but only been on military-type contracts a few months, like most of the team, and was still adapting to the mind-set.

He walked aft, out through a wave of heat and down the ladder rolled against the fuselage. They were debarking on the apron, which said what was needed about this backwater. He started sweating, but it was only from the weather, not from any threat. Yet.

There was a crew already unloading the hold, but not in the briskest fashion. That might be partly diet and climate—they had starvation-and-manual-labor physiques, even in this lower-than-Earth gravity—but he suspected a good part of it was laziness. Why work harder if it would not pay off?

Their pallet came out on the forks, and he waved to the operator for attention. There was a moment's mixup as he used a hand signal he thought meant "down" that the operator understood as "tilt forward." Bart was almost responsible for the pallet dropping and shattering, because it was the ground guide's job to direct; the driver couldn't see anything at that angle. Bart hated being in charge, or having to rely on someone, so neither side of this was good for him. He also knew there'd be a lot of that this tour. He was already tense from it. The operator, at least, had been competent if not industrious.

But he managed to guide the load down, and he and Elke snapped the wheels out from where they served as dunnage, to proper road position. The pallet could be driven by attached or remote control for as long as its ampacitors lasted, towed as a trailer, or pushed if it had to be. By itself it was an expensive piece of equipment, and what it contained . . .

The others were around shortly, having brought all the personal gear, which was piled on the crates for easy transport. They took the spare time to examine the surroundings in person.

There were moister, cooler areas near the poles. These temperate and tropical zones were dusty and dry, largely, even close to the coasts. Rivers were few, small streams meandering into swamps being more common. Here was simply bright yellowish Boblight, flat terrain with local gingko analogs, and Earth palms with some coastal pines. The dust was dun.

No one commented. It was a place. That was all that could be said.

"So who's our escort? Paras?" Bart asked.

"Just an infantry convoy," Alex said.

"Great. A moving wall of raw meat to soak up fire. I hope they're large as well as stupid." He said it mostly to twit Anderson, and it worked. Bart could see his teeth grind. That made them even for the navy jokes the boy had been telling. "Sheep would be obvious" indeed. Humor was only funny when you intended it to be.

They sat on their crates. They had their personal gear and water, with a few rations in case of long delay. Ideally, they would have armed up at once. Unfortunately, a combination of factors prevented that.

First, the crates were heavily sealed and would require equipment to open. That was to prevent theft of their very high-value items by assorted elements. BuState was also worried about "weapons in civilian hands," which was very annoying. The team would not be the agents of that distribution. Still, until they were on-site, they were "civilians" and couldn't touch their own gear. Always politics, always in the way of getting the job done.

"It would be nice to fly in," Bart said. "In a vertol or even a helicopter."

"It would," Vaughn replied with a nod, "but there aren't proper facilities. They never had a pad at the palace, and the only aircraft here so far are the Army's. They're trying to avoid this whole 'BuState mess,' as they call it."

"Well, their priority is fighting the war," Anderson said. "You can't blame them for that." He was picking at loose pieces of plastic on the crates.

"I am not blaming them," Bart said. "I would do the same. But it would be nice."

"Give it a month," Vaughn said confidently. "It'll change."

"Must be our convoy," Sykora said, pointing across the high, dusty apron to an approaching line of vehicles, most of them military.

"Probably," Jason agreed. He hadn't done this for long, but he had been in the military for years, and his assessment of the convoy wasn't a pleasant one. Mostly wheeled vehicles, almost no tracks, thin-skinned and fine against small arms but no good against any kind of support weapon. Inadequate crew-served weapons aboard. Likely great air support nearby, but that took seconds in which troops could die. The UN didn't want to appear like an occupying force, so they were using the minimum amount of armed and armored military gear. Yet another way to sacrifice troops for appearance. He was again thankful he'd accepted retirement.

He couldn't wait to get to somewhere where he'd have Ripple Creek's own drivers and support. What a sad statement that he trusted them better than the troops.

The irony was that the Army felt exactly the same way about contractors. How could you trust someone who fought for a paycheck? How could you be sure they wouldn't bug out? Why trust people who were outside the chain of command, and exempt from the Military Code of Justice?

The reality was, all those same rules applied on contract, and they'd forfeit their pay and face criminal charges if they bailed. They had some wiggle room, being an independent command, so they could dispense with a certain amount of stupidity and paperwork. After all was said and done, however, they were still soldiers.

The convoy was accompanied by a wave of dust. Everyone squinted as it rolled up. There were twelve vehicles; quite an entourage for six bodyguards. Jason surmised that the rationale was probably enough vehicles to dissuade attack—on the troops, not on their "civilian" passengers. Alternately, they'd had errands to run.

"Ripple Creek?" someone shouted from the second vehicle.

"Yes," Alex agreed, and showed ID. He was motioned up close and touched in a code on a proffered pad screen. After checking that and his picture, the officer nodded. Jason took in the exchange, and looked at the officer closely. He was perhaps twenty-five, though his face was lined from exhaustion and sun.

"Have your people climb in the grumbly," he said, indicating the next-to-last vehicle.

"Check," Alex said. He waved and pointed, and the team rose and moved. Bart had the controller for the pallet, and rolled it closer to the line of vehicles to make attaching it for tow easier. In only a few minutes they loaded up and were ready.

The grumbly, so nicknamed for the low exhaust note of its cycloidal engine, seated eight. This one was configured with an open top, and had two pintles epoxied to it for mounting guns. That meant plenty of visibility, and no armor.

Eight was the nominal capacity. There were six on the team, the driver and codriver, and then four more troops squeezed in to the seats and adjoining bed. They were armed, so no one complained, even though it meant being crunched against dusty, sweaty soldiers with bulky gear.

It was a military convoy. That meant the seats were coarse, not well-padded, badly worn and flattened, and only better than nothing for reducing bumps from spine-shattering to mere bruise-causing. The drivers were going balls-out, and the reason became obvious.

It was a local sport to take potshots at convoys. The access road was straight, flat, and had ample clear space around it. Behind rises and distant buildings, however, a number of locals were shooting.

"Which faction are they?" Jason asked the sergeant in charge of their detail.

"Does it matter?" the sergeant grinned. "They shoot at everybody. It's just what they do."

The distance was far too great for any incapacitating weapon. The gunner above and behind had a real machine gun, and rapped off a burst here and there. Responding to every instance would waste ammo, so he was judiciously choosing targets he had a chance of at least disturbing, and ignoring the rest.

"Kinda fun. Can't wait until we play," Aramis said.

"Yeah. Fun," one woman rasped. "I ain't paid enough to call this fun." She flicked her eyes at Aramis, blazing jealousy, then turned back to the panorama, watching for threats. At least she took it seriously.

Jason took in technical details. It was a talent, a skill. He might not notice the contents of an adscreen unless it changed, but he'd damned sure notice additional wires or a ladder. The grumbly was worn, one pintle had been replaced and there were two extra ammo cases jammed in storage against a seat back. He also noticed definite tampering with the safety cover on the machine gun. That was supposed to be personalized to the operator and no more than two backups because of civilian paranoia about "weapons getting into the wrong hands." Soldiers were far more paranoid of not being able to return fire, with good reason.

"The safeties are pulled," he said softly to Alex and Elke. "Which I'm glad to see."

"Yeah, some regs are meant to be disobeyed," Alex replied. Elke just nodded and glanced over to confirm the fact.

Alex had been briefed on friction between contingents. Most of the military were not happy with the Executive Protection Details. EPDs could use nonstandard weapons, lethal force, and were almost immune from prosecution for all but deliberate murder. If the local government didn't complain, BuState wouldn't follow up. Then there was the EPD pay, which started at that of a field grade officer and went up.

Of course, in exchange for that money, the EPs were expected to throw themselves on grenades or take bullets for people they might rather see dead. The job wasn't about supporting their buddies or getting the benefits, it was about killing or dying for a buck. Aramis wasn't the only one who saw it as a way to make money and nothing else. Though most who'd done it for a while also had professional pride and the love of the challenge. They were still soldiers, just hired for specific operations.

He'd seen similar friction between active and reserve units, combat and support and various branches and nations. That was settling down a bit now that all militaries belonged to the UN's central alliance. Standards were leveling out and your backup could be almost anyone, which led to greater trust after a few missions. Contractors were always on the outside, though. That distrust worked both ways, but these soldiers appeared to be decent so far.

Shortly they were in town. That was a lesson itself.

Rough shacks lined the streets, interspersed with small stores. Some had electricity, generally wired straight down from a pole and looking improvised and unsafe. Several blackened rubble heaps might have sworn testimony to that, though they might also have been from arson, fighting, or other domestic causes.

Some of the buildings had windows of unbroken glass. The broken ones showed it to in fact be glass, not a modern poly. The construction was anything from native cut stone to hewn lumber to scavenged lumber and fiberglass or fiber panels. The roads were in poor repair, some fused, some paved with asphalt or concrete, and all broken and crumbling from age, wear, and the occasional explosion.

Then there were the people. They sat on porches or in yards staring aimlessly or wasting time with simple games. Many had the glazed expressions of alcohol or drug consumption.

"Nice place," Aramis murmured. He alone of the six had not actually seen combat or fire, though he'd deployed in some pretty nasty places.

"How . . . familiar," Shaman said.

They were all alert. They'd had photo briefs and text, but actually seeing it with the Mark 1 Eyeball made a difference. The streets were largely straight but with some shifts that made clear fire awkward and offered defensive positions. They were also fairly narrow—two or three lanes generally.

"This is a bad place to convoy," Bart said. "Too many ways to get blocked in."

"I think some of the central streets are wider," Jason said. "Though the layout sucks."

"Odd to have broad streets further in but not out," Bart said. "I wonder why that is?"

"Not a lot of traffic. Nothing resembling suburbs. Most people on foot," Elke said.

"Ah, yes," Bart nodded. "That would make sense. Streets are only needed in town."

The troops ignored them, apart from an occasional glance. There was a glacier of ice there to be broken before any real cooperation took place. Alex frowned. They'd have to get on good terms with their backup.

Elke was antsy. She had no weapons, none of her explosives, and was dependent upon people with far less training to protect her. She was gritting her teeth and would deal with it, but that didn't make it fun.

It wasn't just the training. She was thirty and experienced. She had the maturity and psychology to work with large amounts of explosive. These blbé kids imagined a firefight or two made them professionals and veterans. Some of them talked like it on boards and fora, and when at parties.

Getting shot at made you experienced in one thing and one thing only: getting shot at. It didn't mean you were trained well with your weapons, or that your opinion on anything was any more relevant. It just meant you knew what it felt like to have your life in the sling.

There were construction people who knew that, not to mention explorers and mountain climbers. Demolition experts knew it, too. Every time she set a charge, she held her life in the balance.

While she mused she watched. The locals had been shooting singly, but were starting to bunch into small groups and offer greater volumes of fire. Most were inaccurate, but sufficient volume increased the odds of a hit from astronomical to . . . what would it be called in English? Atmospheric?

She leaned out to get a better view as the vehicle bounced over the rough road, the trash, occasional sticks and roofing materials. The breeze cooled her slightly, but it was still humid and smelly. There were clumps of natives behind barricades of cars or rubble, but they didn't seem to care how good or bad the cover was, or whether or not they were seen. She squinted and considered.

The fire picked up. Closer.

It wasn't well aimed. Some of the locals, "skinnies" in military slang, were holding their weapons sideways to spray. Some were holding them overhead. Others were firing single shots for better effect, but ruining that effect by snapping the weapons down, as if using them to throw bullets. None of them were in cover now. They'd swarmed out of squat, blocky apartments built of extruded concrete, now chipped and broken. They darted around in the streets shooting at each other mostly, with an occasional burst toward the convoy.

Still, there was a lot of metal flying.

The vehicles accelerated, and Elke wondered why there weren't more closed and armored vehicles. Oh, yes. The goal was to appear "nonthreatening" because they were peacekeepers, not combat troops. Apparently no one had told the locals about that.

Then she heard screeching fiber tires on road and crashing brush guards and bumpers, and the convoy bound up in a cluster. They were among two- to three-story buildings with empty windows, interspersed with sprawling town houses from the early years of colonization.

Okay, that was bad.

Whoever was in charge, that lieutenant, was a zkurvený idiot. You never let this happen. You sent out point vehicles, outriders, had satellite or air images real time, and had enough power up front to drive over or blow through obstacles. Whatever it took to prevent being boxed in.

Elke took in the surroundings as dust blew by, stirred by the tires scraping the surface. Her hair felt as if it was standing on end, despite the dust and sweat starting to cake it. She'd kept an alert eye for critical issues. Now she looked in depth. The skinnies were pouring out of somewhere, and had decided the convoy was a target. She doubted it had been planned, because the initial attack had been incompetent and undergunned, and the arrivals were not in any order, just groups.

She felt a jerk as they started moving again, but slowly. The convoy was still bunched up.

Large population, low employment or usage, lots of weapons. That was a bad scene for trouble, because it became entertainment. And yes, there were people cheering on factions in matching colors, waving banners. One group was behind a cluster of armed men and boys, who were shirtless and wearing sandals with their rifles. Another was on a rooftop some distance away. They seemed to abide by the formality of separating combatants and noncombatants at least.

The fire was increasing. Most of it wasn't aimed, but it was certainly concentrating more toward the convoy, and the law of averages said a hit would occur sooner or later.

Elke swapped glances with Jason next to her and Alex a seat forward. Their movements were imperceptible, but their expressions were clear. She knew Jason from a previous contract and trusted his input. His look agreed with hers, and that wasn't good for her confidence.

They were all wishing for armor, weapons, and contact with their people. While the soldiers had more familiarity with the area, they didn't seem to take it seriously. Familiarity was leading to contempt, but casualties were inevitable even from idiots if one didn't take precautions.

She leaned out again to assess threats. Two things happened.

A round snapped by, cracking the air and making people duck. Then, the soldier nearest her reached out an arm and said, "Miss, I think you better sit down. It's getting a little hot—"

"Just get out of my way!" Elke snapped. She got very tired being the object of protection. Especially by some twenty-year-old infantry kid she could best use as a sandbag to tamp a shaped charge with. He did move, though, even if he seemed offended. He was marshalling his thoughts for a retort but she turned away and ignored it.

Her brain caught movement, she identified a threat, and pointed, "Grenade, there, now! The rocket!"

"Huh? What?" the kid replied, looking vaguely in that direction. He clearly didn't see it.

Which was fine. Forearm between body armor and face shield, right under the chin, a twist to the grip of his weapon and a pull, and Elke raised it left-handed to her eye, clicked the safety, and squeezed. She felt it thump her shoulder as it banged.

Oh, good. His safety was cut, too. Otherwise, she would have looked very silly, right up until they all looked very dead.

"God damn you, bitch!" the kid shouted, and tried to wrestle it back. She could have kept it, but she'd accomplished what she needed to and let him take it.

"Thanks," Alex leaned back and acknowledged. He'd seen the same threat.

"No problem," she nodded.

"What the fuck do you think you're doing?" the kid asked, snarling. The patronizing politeness was gone now.

"Your job," she replied as she turned back. They were just roaring past the building corner she'd pointed to. Her grenade had blown the motor compartment off a ground car, and shredded some indigene with an antitank launcher. She pointed again for emphasis. She controlled the shaking she felt.

The grunt looked offended. Likely that wasn't due to her gender, just due to his attitude. Somebody needed to remind him that all Ripple Creek Executive Protection Division contractors were military veterans, and either special operations vets or civilian security vets as well.

Hopefully, they'd quickly be at their destination, where her better, high-quality weapons were waiting, along with her crate of toys.

She grinned and felt a tinge of lust.