CHAPTER ONE

Copper Mountain, Fleet Weapons Research Facility

A cold wind swept the barren top of Stack Two; Ensign Margiu Pardalt's eyes ached from squinting into it. Broad daylight now; the wind had long since swept away the bitter stench of the seaplane fires. Where were the mutineers? Surely they would land, to snatch the weapons they knew had been designed here. Had the message she'd tried to send using the old technology actually reached anyone, or would the mutineers get away with their whole plan? And when would they come . . . when would they come to kill her?

"This is stupid," Professor Gustaf Aidersson said. Bundled in his yellow leather jacket over his Personal Protective Unit, with a peculiar gray furry hat on his head, he looked more like a tubby vagrant than a brilliant scientist. "When I was a boy, I used to imagine things like this, being marooned on an island and having to figure out a way to get home. I had thousands of plans, each one crazier than the one before. Make a boat out of my grandmother's porch swing, make an airplane out of the solar collector, take the juicer and a skein of yarn, two cups, and a knitting needle and make a communications device."

Margiu wondered whether to say anything; she couldn't feel her ears anymore.

"So here we are, on the perfect island, full of challenges. I should be improvising rappelling gear to go down the cliffs, and something to construct a sailboat . . . I actually have built a boat, you know, but it was with wood from a lumberyard. And I sailed it, and it didn't sink. Of course, it wouldn't hold all of us."

"Sir," Margiu said, "don't you think we should go back inside?"

"Probably." He didn't move. "And there is not one thing on this blasted island to make a boat or an airplane out of." He gave a last look at the blackened stain that had been their transport. Then he looked at Margiu and his mouth quirked in a mischievous grin. "There's only one thing to do, when the bad guys have all the transport . . ."

"Sir?"

"Make them give it to us," he said, and headed inside so abruptly that Margiu was left behind. She caught up with him as he went in the door.

"Make them—?"

"It's a desperate chance . . . but by God it'll be fun if it works," he said. He looked around the room at the scientists and military personnel who were also stranded. "Listen—I have an idea!"

"You always have an idea, Gussie," one of the scientists said. Margiu still hadn't sorted them all out by name. They all looked tired and grumpy. "You probably want us to make an airplane out of bedsprings or something . . ."

"No. I thought of that, but we don't have enough bedsprings. I want the mutineers to bring us an airplane and give it to us."

"What?"

The professor launched into an enthusiastic explanation. In the few seconds from outside to inside, his idea had already developed elaborate additions. The others looked blank.

Major Garson was the first to nod. "Yeah—the only way to get transport is to get them to give it to us. But it's not going to be easy. They've got a lot more troops topside than we have . . . they can scorch us with the shuttle weaponry, for that matter."

"So our first job is to convince them we're not that dangerous," the professor said. He had taken off his hat and shoved it into a pocket; his thinning gray fringe stuck up in untidy peaks.

"Do they even know how many of us there were?" asked Margiu. "They don't know the planes were full, do they? Vinet didn't get any messages up to them—"

"No . . . that's right. And except during the firefight last night, we've been mostly undercover. But they'd be stupid to come in carelessly," Major Garson said. "Never count on the enemy to be careless."

"But—" The professor held up his hand a moment, then nodded. "But suppose, using Margiu's radio apparatus, we give them what looks like accidental clues. We try to contact them, pretending to be mutineers fighting with scientists—"

"No, wait!" That was the skinny man with wild black hair. Ty, Margiu remembered. "Look, they know the loyalists have the radio now. Suppose we send a message, like we hope it'll bounce around to mainland, begging for help. And then break off. And then an hour or so later, there's a message to them from some of the military pretending to be mutineers, and then—"

"How would the mutineers know how to use that equipment?" Garson said. "It's nothing Fleet-trained people would know unless they happened on it somewhere else, like Ensign Pardalt. And besides, it's too fragile. It could get shot up in a firefight."

"Suppose we say the radio's the loyalists'," Margiu said. The others looked at her. "And we're begging for help from the mainland, like he said." She nodded at Ty. "But of course it doesn't come. We sound more and more desperate—we talk about being hunted by the mutineers, about the people killed in the explosions of the planes, and then the food shortages—the mutineers have all the supplies . . ."

"Yes! That's good," the professor said. "And we'll move the thing around, so when they trace the signal they'll know someone's trying to stay in hiding—and then we'll take it underground . . ."

"We'll need a visible force of baddies," the major said. "A squad'll do for that. Local uniforms . . . and PPUs can look like anything, with the right setting. We've got the suitcoms for local—have to have our people stay in character."

"So . . . what are we going to do if we get the shuttle? They can always shoot us down before we get anywhere."

"Not that easy if they come down with one of the combat troop shuttles, sir," said one of the neuro-enhanced Marines. "They're hardened and highly maneuverable."

"Which brings up—who's going to fly it?"

"I'm shuttle-qualified," said one of the pilots. "Ken's not, but Bernie is."

"If you're qualified to fly troop shuttles, why are you on seaplanes down here?"

"Fleet has a lot more shuttle pilots than seaplane pilots," the pilot said, spreading his hands. "Only a few of us mess around with the old-fashioned stuff."

"Bob . . . what about Zed?"

"On a shuttle, LAC size? No problem, Gussie. It'll fit, and we can use it. Like I said, it'd hide something the size of this island, let alone a shuttle."

The professor glanced again at Garson. "Then, Major, if you'll divide us into loyalists and mutineers—giving me the tech-trained people—and set up a scenario for us to act—"

"We'll have to do something about those bodies. . . ." Garson said, and gestured to some of the men.

* * *

Margiu had never had close contact with scientists before this, and if she'd thought about them at all, she'd had a storycube image of vast intelligence applied step-by-step to some arcane problem. They would be solitary, so they could concentrate; they would be serious, sober, abstracted.

They would not, for instance, waste any moment of their precious preparation time playing some incomprehensible game that involved a singsong chant, puns, and childish insults, dissolving into laughter every few seconds.

"Your starfish eats dirt," the professor finished.

"Oh, that's old, Gussie." But the others were grinning, relaxed.

"So now—we're going to get them to bring us a ship, and then let us fly away?"

"We'll have Zed on—they won't see us."

"They'll see the moving hole where we were," Swearingen said. "It's a lot harder to hide things in planetary atmospheres.

"Not with Zed," Helmut Swearingen said. "We've solved that problem, or most of it. The thing is, all they have to do is hit a line across our course—and since we have to fly to the mainland—"

"Why?" the professor asked; he had found a cache of candy and spoke around a lump of chocolate. "It's the obvious thing, of course, but being obvious won't help us now. At the very least we can zig and zag . . ."

"Not forever . . . we have to come down somewhere."

"Maybe," the professor said. "And maybe not. Suppose they think we've blown up or something. We could toss fireworks out the back—"

"Oh come on, Gussie! The fake explosion while the real vessel gets away is the oldest trick in the book." Swearingen looked disgusted.

"Because it works," the professor said. "All it has to do is distract them long enough for us to make a course change. Two points define a straight line: they have takeoff and the explosion. If we aren't at an extension of that line, they'll have no idea where we are."

"It's ridiculous! It's all straight out of storytime. I have to agree with Helmut—"

"There's a reason for stories being the way they are," the professor said.

"Yes, they're for the stupid or the ignorant, to keep them out of our way while we do the work . . ." Swearingen said.

"Can you even name one time in real life—not your pseudo-history—when someone faked an explosion and escaped in a vessel the enemy thought was blown up?"

The professor blinked rapidly, as if at a long sequence of pages. "There are plenty of ruses in military history—"

"Not just ruses, Gussie, but that hoary old cliche of faking the explosion of an engine, or a ship, or something . . ."

"Commander Heris Serrano," Margiu said, surprising herself. "When she was just a lieutenant. She trailed a weapons pod past a fixed defense point, and when it blew it blinded the sensors long enough for her to get her ship past. Or Brun Thornbuckle, during her rescue, sent the shuttle as a decoy after landing on the orbital station."

"You see?" the professor said, throwing out his hands. "A hoary old cliche still works."

"It works better if you keep them busy thinking about other things," Margiu said.

"Like what?" one of the others asked her.

"Anything. Because you're also right, if they see the shuttle taking off and then it disappears, and then something blows up, they're going to be suspicious."

"So we don't have it disappear until just at the explosion."

"We have Zed, but the controls aren't that good. Not yet."

Silence for a long moment. Then one of the pilots said, "Look—the shuttle will have a working com, right? The bad guys will want to be in touch with the shuttle crew."

"Yes . . ."

"So we continue our little charade on the shuttle. Suppose . . . suppose we talk about the weapons we've recovered. We're trying to see how they work—"

"They're not going to believe their people would do something that stupid."

"Wouldn't they?"

"But—" Everyone turned to look at Margiu. She could feel the ideas bubbling up in her mind like turbulence in boiling water. "Suppose the bad guys—ours, I mean—said they also had the scientists—and they were questioning them—and they found out one of the things was a stealth device. And they wanted to try it, to see if it really worked—"

"That would explain the disappearance. Good, Margiu!"

"I still think they'd be suspicious."

"Spoilsport." The professor sighed, and rubbed his balding head. "But you're probably right. Let's see. Our pseudo-bad guys question the scientists . . ." He pitched his voice into falsetto. "Please don't hurt me—I vill tell you effryting."

"Good lord, Gussie, what archaic accent is that?"

"I don't know—I heard it on a soundtrack years ago. Don't interrupt . . . so the scientists act like terrified victims and maybe that can be overheard. And then they turn Zed on, and it works—"

"And it's still as transparent as glass," Bob said.

"So I'll scratch it up—YES!" The professor leaped up and danced in a circle. "Yes, yes, yes! Brilliant. Scratchy, like old recordings, old-time radio—break-up—"

"What?! Damn it, Gussie, this is serious—"

"I am serious. I am just momentarily transported by my own brilliance. And yours, and Margiu's here." He calmed down, took a breath, and went on. "Like this: the normal takeoff, the threats of the bad guys, the terror of the scientists. But then, when they—we—turn Zed on, it doesn't keep working. It sort of—" he waggled his hand. "Sort of flickers. They hear an argument—more threats, more piteous pleadings, curses at some fool who—I don't know, kicks the power cable or something. The shuttle is there, then it isn't, then it is—but always on the same course. A voice shouting in the background: be careful, be careful, don't overload it, it wasn't designed for—! And then the explosion, and then the course change."

A long silence this time, as they all digested what the professor had said. He mopped his face, his head, and pushed the crumpled, stained handkerchief into his pocket.

"It does explain everything," Swearingen said. "It gives them more to think about, more complications."

"It seems to give them more data," said Bob. "But all the data are false. It might work."

"So what we need is something to make a big bang, that will look like a shuttle blowing up on the bad guys' scan from upstairs . . . which we can get far enough away from before it blows that we don't also blow . . ."

"Something, yes."

The group dissolved as the scientists wandered off. Margiu, used to direct orders and a clear set of directions, felt let down as she followed the professor down one passage after another. Were they ever going to go to work? And what would Major Garson think, with her just wandering around idly watching someone who seemed to have very little idea what he was doing.

But that, she soon found out, was a mistake. After a rapid tour of the ground-floor levels of the site, the professor found Major Garson and began suggesting where to put what. Garson, meanwhile, was working on his own pretense. He had divided his troops and assigned the NEMs to play mutineer.

"If they think the NEMs are mutineers," he said, "they'll believe that the loyalists are in serious trouble. Also, the NEMs are so big and bulky that it's hard to get facial detail when they're in their p-suits with the head-jacks. That means I can move them around and have them play more parts."

Margiu glanced at the NEMs sitting around, half of them sticking odd-shaped patches to their p-suits. One of them grinned at her. "The bad guys are old Lepescu cronies," he said. "They take ears from their kills. So—we thought we'd use an ear shape openly, as a recognition patch. No one else would." He slid the tube of adhesive back in one of the pockets.

"Come along, Ensign," said the professor; Margiu followed him, glancing back at the NEMs who were clustered there. She hoped they were all loyalists.

Twelve hours later the whole situation felt even more unreal. Periodically, Margiu and the professor joined Garson and one of the troops and scuttled rapidly from one building to another, following a plan of Garson's that had the loyalists trying to evade the "mutineers." The NEMs pretending to be mutineers, meanwhile, shot entirely too close for Margiu's comfort, and shattered all the ground-floor windows. Far underground, with doors shut against the wicked drafts from above, the scientists and remaining troops had organized the collection of boxes, cylinders, cables, and things that looked like leftovers from a junk heap onto pallets.

On one of their tours through the working areas, the professor shook his head over the tarps used to cover the loads before lashing them down. "It's too bad they destroyed those seaplanes," he said. "Look—these would have made wonderful sails, and we could have built a ship with the frames of the planes."

"No, we could not," Swearingen said. "I can just see us now, Gussie, setting sail in something you whipped together with stickypatch and hairs pulled from your beard. Which aren't long enough to make ropes, in case you hadn't noticed."

"Rope . . ." the professor said, his eyes going hazy in what Margiu now knew meant a moment of thought. "We're going to need one really good cable to make this work . . ."

"There was cable in the planes," one of the pilots said. "But now—"

"Spares," said the other. "They had to stock spares somewhere around here—" He looked around the room they were in, bare to the walls except for the pallets.

"I know," offered one of the scientists. "What's the cable for, Gussie?"

"Towing the explosive," Gussie said. "We don't want to just drop it . . . then we'd have to delay its explosion, and it'd be below our last visible position. We want to tow it . . ."

"Out the back of a troop shuttle," said the first pilot, blinking. "I'm beginning to wish I weren't shuttle-qualified."

"It's doable," said the other. "I did a practice equipment drop once, and they shove the stuff out the back with a static line—there's a kind of yank, and then it's gone . . ."

"Fine; you can fly that part of it," said the first.

"What bothers me," said another scientist, "is the scan analysis of the explosion. If they've got somebody good up there—and we have to assume they do—then they're going to expect shuttle components in the explosion. You've proposed that we use some of the weaponry in development, and it certainly will make a big enough bang. But it won't have any shuttle-specific ID. Once they realize that, they'll know we're still around."

"What kind of stuff would it take?" Garson asked. "Can we just throw out the life rafts or something?"

"No, it's the explosion itself. They'll expect some differences, because they'll know the shuttle has exotic new stuff on it, but the shuttle itself, when it explodes, would contribute recognizable chemical signatures. The shuttle weaponry, for instance, would be assumed to go up with it."

"Why not just add the shuttle's weapons pods to the tow load?" asked Margiu. Everyone stopped and looked at her.

"Of course!" The professor, unsurprisingly, was the first to recover speech. He beamed at her. "Didn't I say redheads were naturally brilliant?"

"But that would leave us with no weapons . . ." Garson said.

"But we weren't going to fight our way out with the shuttle anyway," said the professor. "We're just using it as transport. We know we can't take on a deepspace ship."

Garson chewed this over a long moment. Finally he nodded. "All right. It makes sense, I just . . . don't like not having them. But as you said, they'll do us more good proving we're not there, when we are. I'll add that to our list of priorities once we get aboard. Be sure we have extra tiedowns and pallets, though."

* * *

The troop shuttle made a careful circle around the island; its onboard scans could pick out details from a distance that made light weapons ineffective. The NEMS clustered on the runway with the little huddle of scientists obviously under guard and the tarp-wrapped bundles of the cargo beside them. The shuttle made another approach, this time dropping out a communications-array bundle. The NEM commander grabbed it and flicked it on. Margiu could hear what he said, but not what the shuttle crew answered.

"No—we were mainland based—at Big Tree—waiting, but we got grabbed for this mission—yeah—no. No, he died in the first firefight. Got his body, if you want it. I've got his ears. . . ."

The shuttle swung back, slower yet, and settled onto the runway. Margiu had not realized how loud such shuttles were, if no one bothered to baffle the exhaust. She could hear nothing but its own whining roar. The great hatch in the rear swung down, forming a ramp. Five men came out, weapons ready. Surely there weren't just five . . . no, there came another five, setting up a perimeter.

The NEMs waved; the newcomers waved back as they came forward. Margiu could sense the moment in which they decided it was all right, when their attention shifted from the "mutineers" to the scientists and their equipment. Margiu flicked through the channels on her p-suit headset, and found the active one.

"Got 'em all, did you?"

"Except the dead ones," one of the NEMs said. "Listen, we've got to get all this aboard—and there's another load packed up inside. How many personnel d'you have?"

"Eighteen. They want us to hurry it up—"

"Come on, then." Half the NEMs turned, as if to head back inside; the others were still obviously guarding the scientist-prisoners.

"Barhide—come on down—" said one of the newcomers. Eight more armed men came down the shuttle's ramp.

These were much less wary, their weapons now slung on their backs.

"We're goin' in to pick up the rest of the cargo," she heard one of them say, and someone aboard the shuttle—a pilot, she hoped—told them to hurry it up.

With her primary task still the professor's life, she had no part in the brief, violent struggle that followed, when the NEMs and the other loyalist troops jumped the mutineers and killed them, while the putative rebel NEMS chivvied the scientists toward the shuttle, talking loudly on open mikes. It took less than two minutes, and most of it had happened out of sight of scan from overhead. Margiu scrambled out of her p-suit into the gray shipsuit of the dead enemy, rolled him into her p-suit, and let one of the NEMs haul him out by the legs. She crammed the com helmet on her head, tucking the telltale red hair out of sight, and stalked out onto the runway as if she belonged there.

The cargo was moving slowly up the ramp, with the laboring scientists complaining vociferously that it was dangerous, that it could blow them all up, that they should be careful. The NEMs swung their weapons, threateningly; scientists cringed; Margiu found it hard to believe it wasn't real. From the unreality of those hours of waiting, when it was real, to this—the reversal confused her, but she found herself playing her part anyway.

They made it onto the shuttle, Margiu and the others working under the scientists' directions to get the cargo lashed down. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw one of the mutineer flight crew peering through from the flight deck.

"How much longer?" he called.

"They say it could blow us all to hell if it wiggles in flight," the NEM sergeant said. "And it's heavy—you don't want it to shift."

The other man grinned. "All right, all right. Just try to hurry it up. Admiral wants to boost out of this system now we've been spotted . . ."

Margiu turned her head away, afraid her expression would be too obvious. So her half-remembered design had worked, had it? And somewhere, sometime soon if not already, Fleet would find out what was going on at Copper Mountain. At least that had worked, and if she died today, she would have done something worthwhile.

When they had the last of the equipment in the shuttle, one of the NEMs signalled the shuttle pilots—Margiu couldn't hear what was said, but the sudden lurch of the shuttle made it clear they were moving. Their own pilots, wearing dead mutineers' uniforms, stood near the front, ready to take over from the mutineers when they had enough altitude and the stealth equipment was ready to use.

* * *

They had been airborne perhaps ten minutes—the wrinkled blue sea had become a hazy blue carpet far below—when Major Garson worked his way forward past the pallets and tiedowns to the front. He spoke to the NEM sergeant, and then the waiting pilots. Margiu's stomach clenched. She glanced at the professor, who was grinning. She wondered if he was ever scared, or if having a constant ferment of crazy ideas protected him from fear.

Only one NEM could fit on the flight deck, but armored as he was, the sergeant should be safe from most weapons the pilots might carry. And they'd shown no concern about their passengers.

The NEM went through onto the flight deck; the first pilot followed closely. Margiu took a good grip of the stanchion; they'd all been warned to get a good handhold, just in case. In case of what, she'd wondered.

The shuttle nosed over sickeningly, and Margiu's stomach rose to the back of her throat. What was happening up front? Weight slammed back onto her, as the shuttle pitched up, then lifted as the nose dropped once more. She gulped, swallowed, gulped, and just managed not to spew. Someone else wasn't so lucky. Her imagination raced through scenarios—the mutineer pilots trying to crash the shuttle; the loyalist pilots trying not to let them, the scan crews up on the station reacting to the shuttle's erratic movements with demands for information. The downward pitch levelled slowly, and weight returned, stabilized.

The flight deck door opened, and one of their own looked out. "He was willing to suicide—" he said shakily. "But we've got it now."

"To your places," the professor said. Margiu made her way to the rear of the shuttle, and had, from that vantage, a clear view of the actors as they went about their pretense.

Margiu found the experience very unlike watching a storycube, even though she understood the plot: knowing, as she did, that the conversation was faked on one end, she couldn't help worrying that it was faked on the other end as well.

Surely the mutineers weren't taken in by the pretense? Surely they would realize soon enough that the cross talk between the supposedly mutinous NEM and the cringing scientist was too contrived to be real? That the irregular alternation of disappearance and reappearance from scan had to be a setup? Surely they would catch on when the ship disappeared that final time, and then there was an explosion . . . She glanced at the professor, who was nodding and grimacing at the "actors."

What if the mutineers had a vid scan in here? He was enjoying himself far too much to be a real scientist captured by mutineers and forced to betray his side. They could be laughing their heads off up in the station, just waiting the best moment to blow them all away.

But the playlet went on without interruption, and the comments from above indicated that the audience had suspended any initial disbelief. Two of the scientists had uncovered the device and plugged in a control panel of some sort. At the professor's nod, they did whatever it was that turned the device on and off. Supposedly the shuttle disappeared, partially returned, disappeared, returned, repeatedly. Margiu tried to relax, as the climax neared. She had her assignment, to signal when to drop the trailer with its weapons pods and assorted junk.

"Zed's on—drop it!" Margiu tapped the crew chief at the tail and clung to the stanchion as he opened the cone and pushed the lever. The shuttle's nose bobbed up again, as the load slid out, and the marked cable unrolled in a streak.

"And Zed's on?" Garson asked.

"Zed's on," confirmed Swearingen. "We are—we should be—completely invisible, with a computer-generated scan filling the hole as we go."

Light flared behind them—the first explosion. Then, about the time the debris should hit the ocean, the second. The shock wave from that rocked the shuttle.

"That'll blur his screens for at least another thirty seconds," said one of the other scientists.

* * *

The shuttle flew on, out across the open ocean where the generated fill pattern should, the scientists thought, have its best chance to work. It had the fuel load to circle the planet, but—as Garson had pointed out—all the airfields would have crew, and might still have intact communications gear. Either loyalist or mutineer, someone would be sure to comment on the arrival of a troop shuttle, and if they tried to communicate themselves, that could be detected from topside.

"We have to assume they're using the surveillance satellites—if we drop Zed, or open a com hole in it, we're immediately visible. And vulnerable. We can land this thing anywhere, just about—that's what a combat shuttle is for, after all."

Half a world away from the main base at Copper Mountain, a loose gaggle of rocky islands rose from the blue sea. Large and small, rough and rougher, cloaked in grass and trees, they had never been used for anything but occasional shuttle landing exercises. The pilots flew low over several of them, until they spotted the bright reflection of what might be a freshwater stream. That one was much larger than any of the Stack Islands, with a shallow grassy bowl set above low cliffs. The pilots eased the shuttle in vertically, and at last it came to rest.

The broad meadow was striped with shadows from the rocky outcrops. Overhead, a wavering cloud streamed, smooth on the windward side, and ragged on the lee. Beyond it, far across the ocean they could not see from this bowl, rows of cumulus drifted slowly before the wind.

"It's a large island, but it's still an island," said the professor. "At least we're safe up here from any reasonable storm."

Now that they weren't having to fly the unfamiliar shuttle, the pilots had time to work with the instruments and see what, if anything, could penetrate Zed's stealth blanket in an outward direction.

After an hour or so, one of the pilots came out of the shuttle and shouted to the others.

"Outbound. They're outbound, the whole lot of them." The others crowded closer.

"You're sure?" Garson asked.

"Well, unless this stealth thing is creating a very weird false image that looks just like a lot of ships moving into formation toward the jump point."

"Time to jump?"

"They're hours from a safe radius for microjumping—then it'll depend on whether they choose to microjump out to the jump point or not." The pilot grinned. "But they'll be out of nearscan range in a few minutes—behind the planet."

"It occurs to me to wonder why they didn't just incinerate this planet as they left," the professor said.

"You have such cheerful ideas," Garson said. "They know they have other allies down here?"

"Perhaps," the professor said. "Though I don't know how much they care about their allies. Are there resources here they still want, even though they think the weapons research stuff is all gone? Do they want this as a base later?"

"Once they're gone, we can just fly back to the main base, can't we?" asked Swearingen.

"If we built a wooden ship," the professor said, "it'd be less detectable by conventional means, and we could sail it back—"

"Gussie, I am not going to indulge your taste for historical re-creation and try to build a sailing ship from these trees," Swearingen said. "They aren't even straight."

"That's exactly why we could do it. Look at them—they're already shaped like keels and ribs and things. I'm sure Margiu thinks it's a good idea . . ." The professor gave Margiu a wide grin; she found it hard to resist, but the thought of going out on the water in a homemade boat terrified her.

"Look at her," someone said. "You've scared her, Gussie."

"We have a perfectly good troop carrier," Garson said. "We'd be crazy not to use it."

"All right," the professor said, with a deliberate pout, "but you're taking all the fun out of this."

"We'll leave when they're out of nearscan range and then go back to the main base," Garson said. "We've done what we came for, and they may need us back there."

"I don't suppose you'd agree to stop by some tropical island for a little recreation . . . ?"

"This is as tropical as you get, professor. Enjoy it while you can," Major Garson said.

"You're no fun." But he didn't seem really annoyed. He wandered off to look at the grove of twisted trees.

"We'd better leave soon," Garson said, "or he'll decide to have us make spears and crossbows from those trees."

"Nothing that simple," said Swearingen. "He'll go for trebuchets and ballistas and a couple of hang gliders."