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26

"It's a strange feeling," Jason said. "I've never really seen the perimeter from this side before. Ugly is about the only word for it."

He lay on his stomach next to Plies, looking through a screen of leaves, downhill toward the perimeter. They were both wrapped in heavy furs, in spite of the midday heat, with thick leggings and leather gauntlets to protect their hands. The gravity and the heat were already making Jason dizzy, but he forced himself to ignore this.

Ahead, on the far side of a burnt corridor, stood the perimeter. A high wall, of varying height and texture, seemingly made of all the odds and ends in the world. It was impossible to tell what it had originally been constructed of. Generations of attackers had bruised, broken, and underniined it. Repairs had been quickly made, patches thrust roughly into place and fixed there. Crude masonry crumbled and gave way to a rat's nest of woven timbers. This overlapped a length of pitted metal, large plates riveted together. Even this metal had been eaten through and bursting sandbags spilled out of a jagged hole. Over the surface of the wall detector wires and charged cables looped and hung. At odd intervals automatic flamethrowers thrust their nozzles over the parapet above and swept the base of the wall clear of any life that might have come close.

"Those flame things can cause us trouble," Rhes said. "That one covers the area where you want to break in."

"It'll be no problem," Jason assured him. "It may look like it is firing a random pattern, but it's really not. It varies a simple sweep just enough to fool an animal, but was never meant to keep men out. Look for yourself. It fires at regularly repeated two, four, three and one minute intervals."

They crawled back to the hollow where Naxa and the others waited for them. There were only thirty men in the party. What they had to do could only be done with a fast, light force. Their strongest weapon was surprise. Once that was gone their other weapons wouldn't hold out for seconds against the city guns. Everyone looked uncomfortable in

the fur and leather wrappings, and some of the men had loosened them to cool off.

'Wrap up," Jason ordered. "None of you have been this close to the perimeter before and you don't understand how deadly it is here. Naxa is keeping the larger animals away and you all can handle the smaller ones. That isn't the danger. Every thorn is poisoned, and even the blades of grass carry a deadly sting. Watch out for insects of any kind and once we start moving breathe only through the wet cloths."

"He's right," Naxa snorted. "N'ver been closer 'n this m'self. Death, death up by that wall. Do like 'e says."

They could only wait then, honing down already needlesharp cross~ bow bolts, and glancing up at the slowly moving sun. Only Naxa didn'i share the unrest. He sat, eyes unfocused, feeling the movement ol animal life in the jungle around them.

"On the way," he said. "Biggest thing I 'ver heard. Not a beast 'tween here and the mountains, ain't howlin' 'is lungs out, rwmin' toward the city.,'

Jason was aware of part of it. A tension in the air and a wave a! intensified anger and hatred. It would work, he knew, if they couk only keep the attack confined to a small area. The talkers had seemec sure of it. They had stalked out quietly that morning, a thin line a! ragged men, moving in a mental sweep that would round up the Pyrrar life and send it charging against the city.

"They hit!" Naxa said suddenly.

The men were on their feet now, staring in the direction of the city Jason had felt the twist in his gut as the attack had been driven home and knew that this was it. There was the sound of shots and a heav3 booming far away. Thin streamers of smoke began to blow above thc treetops.

"Let's get into position," Plies said.

Around them the jungle howled with an echo of hatred. The half sentient plants writhed and the air was thick with small flying things Naxa sweated and mumbled as he turned back the animals that crashec toward them. By the time they reached the last screen of foliage befon the burned-out area, they had lost four men. One had been stung by ax insect; Jason got the medikit to him in time but he was so sick he ha to turn back The other three were bitten or scratched and treatmen came too late. Their swollen, twisted bodies were left behind on

trail.

"Dam' beasts hurt m' head," Naxa muttered. "When we go in?"

"Not yet," Plies said. 'We wait for the signal."

One of the men carried the radio. He set it down carefully, thei

threw the aerial over a branch. The set was shielded so no radiation leaked out to give them away. It was turned on, but only a hiss of atmospheric static came from the speaker.

"We could have timed it. . . ." Plies said.

"No, we [email protected]'t," Jason told him. "Not accurately. We want to hit that wall at the height of the attack, when our chances are best. Even if they hear the message it won't mean a thing to them inside. And a few minutes later it won't matter."

The sound from the speaker changed. A voice spoke a short sentence, then cut off.

"Bring me three barrels of flour."

"Let's go," Rhes urged as he started forward.

'Wait," Jason said, taking him by the arm. "I'm timing the flamethrower. It's due in. . . there!" A blast of fire sprayed the ground, then turned off. "We have four minutes to the next one-we hit the long period!"

They ran, stumbling in the soft ashes, tripping over charred bones and rusted metal. Two men grabbed Jason under the arm and half carried him across the ground. It hadn't been planned that way, but it saved precious seconds. They dropped him against the wall and he fumbled out the bombs he had made. The charges from Krannon's gun, taken when he was killed, had been hooked together with a firing circuit. All the moves had been rehearsed carefully and they went smoothly now.

Jason had picked the metal wall as being the best spot to break in. It offered the most resistance to the native life, so the chances were it wouldn't be reinforced with sandbags or fill, the way other parts of the wall were. If he was wrong, they were all dead.

The first men had slapped their wads of sticky congealed sap against the wall. Jason pressed the charges into them and they stuck, a roughly rectangular pattern as high as a man. 'While he did this, the detonating wire was run out to its length and the raiders pressed back against the base of the wall. Jason stumbled through the ashes to the detonator, fell on it and pressed the switch at the same time.

Behind him a thundering bang shook the wall and red flame burst out. Plies was the first one there, pulling at the twisted and smoking metal with his gloved hands. Others grabbed on and bent the jagged pieces aside. The hole was filled with smoke and nothing was visible through it. Jason dived into the opening, rolled on a heap of rubble and smacked into something solid. When he blinked the smoke from his eyes, he looked around him.

He was inside the city.

The others poured through now, picking him up as they charged in so he wouldn't be trampled underfoot. Someone spotted the spaceship and they ran that way.

A man ran around the corner of a building toward them. His Pyrran reflexes sent him springing into the safety of a doorway the same moment he saw the invaders. But they were Pyrrans too. The man slumped slowly back onto the street, three metal bolts sticking out of his body. They ran on without stopping, running between the low storehouses. The ship stood ahead.

Someone had reached it before them; they could see the outer hatch slowly grinding shut. A hail of bolts from the bows crashed into it with no effect.

"Keep going!" Jason shouted. "Get next to the hull before he reaches the guns."

This time three men didn't make it. The rest of them were under the belly of the ship when every gun let go at once. Most of them were aimed away from the ship, still the scream of shells and electric discharges was earshattering. The three men still in the open dissolved under the fire. W7hoever was inside the ship had hit all the gun trips at once, both to knock out the attackers and summon aid. He would be on the screen now, calling for help. Their time was running out.

Jason reached up and tried to open the hatch, while the others watched. It was locked from the inside. One of the men brushed him aside and pulled at the inset handle. It broke off in his hand but the hatch remained closed.

The big guns had stopped now and they could hear again.

"Did anyone get the gun from that dead man?" he asked. "It would blow this thing open."

"No," Plies said, "we didn't stop."

Before the words were out of his mouth, two men were running back toward the buildings, angling away from each other. The ship's

guns roared again, a string of explosions cut across one man. Before they could change directions and find the other man he had reached the buildings.

He returned quickly, darting into the open to throw the gun to them. Before he could dive back to safety, the shells caught him.

Jason grabbed up the gun as it skidded almost to his feet. They heard the sound of wide open truck turbines screaming toward them as he blasted the lock. The mechanism sighed and the hatch sagged open. They were all through the airlock before the first truck appeared. Naxa stayed behind with the gun, to hold the lock until they could take the control room.

Everyone climbed faster than Jason, once he had pointed them the way, so the battle was over when he got there. The single city Pyrran looked like a pincushion. One of the techs had foqnd the gun controls and was shooting wildly, the sheer quantity of his fire driving the trucks back.

"Someone get on the radio and tell the talkers to call the attack off," Jason said. He found the communications screen and snapped it on. Kerk's wide-eyed face stared at him from the screen.

"You!" Kerk said, breathing the word like a curse.

"Yes, it's me," Jason answered. He talked without looking up, while his hands were busy at the control board. "Listen to me, Kerk-and don't doubt anything I say. I may not know how to fly one of these ships, but I do know how to blow them up. Do you hear that sound?" He ffipped over a switch and the faraway whine of a pump droned faintly. "That's the main fuel pump. If I let it run-which I won't right now-it could quickly fill the drive chamber with raw fuel. Pour in so much that it would run out of the stern tubes. Then what do you think would happen to your one-and-only spacer if I pressed the firing button? I'm not asking you what would happen to me-since you don't care— but you need this ship the way you need life itself."

There was only silence in the cabin now. The men who had won the ship turned to face him. Kerk's voice grated loudly through the room.

'What do you want, Jason? What are you trying to do? Why did you lead those animals in here?" His voice cracked and broke as anger choked him and spilled over.

"Watch your tongue, Kerk," Jason said with soft menace. "These men you are talking about are the only ones on Pyrrus who have a spaceship. If you want them to share it with you, you had better learn to talk nicely. Now come over here at once-and bring Brucco and Meta." Jason looked at the older man's florid and swollen face and felt a measure of sympathy. "Don't look so unhappy, it's not the end of the world. In fact, it might be the beginning of one. And another thing, leave this channel open when you go. Have it hooked into every screen in the city so everyone can see what happens here. Make sure it's taped too, for replay."

Kerk started to say something, but changed his mind before he did. He left the screen, but the set stayed alive. Carrying the scene in the control room to the entire city.



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