Chapter 11 (part 2 of 2)

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Suddenly on the highway ahead of Everynne, sirens began blaring as army hovertrucks approached. Veriasse pulled his own old bus off the highway to let them pass. Everynne disengaged the telepresence link and looked up. Three truckloads of vanquishers were heading south at full speed, perhaps sixty green-skinned giants. Ahead of her, Veriasse relaxed in his seat for a moment, breathed easier. The soldiers could only have come from the Cyannesse gate. Their ruse was working.

Veriasse let the soldiers pass, gunned the throttle. Everynne engaged her telepresence again, saw how the battle was progressing.

For four more minutes, the battle continued. Suddenly, far to the south, a spaceship lifted over the horizon, a distant white sphere that floated higher and higher into the morning sky. Lady Frebane began broadcasting urgent messages to Shunn and his troops. "My lord," she called, "the lady's ship is away! Repeat, the mission has succeeded. The lady's ship is away. Break off your attack!"

Lady Frebane continued broadcasting for two minutes. The dronon vanquishers sent low-altitude fliers to intercept the ship, but they did not make it in time. Lady Frebane jumped into hyperspace before the fliers got into range, and Everynne was filled with a deep sense of regret. If she'd been on that ship, she would have made her escape already. But Veriasse had insisted that the ship was too dangerous, too large a target. He had opted for the double feint. The real battle lay ahead.

"We're about sixty seconds from our gate," Veriasse warned. "Gallen—" he began to say, but the young man was already playing his part. He lowered the hood to the hovercraft and got out his incendiary rifle, flipped it on so that its indicator glowed red.

For a moment, as Gallen's black robes flapped, Everynne caught glimpses of the silver bangles of his personal intelligence, the lavender of his mask, and Gallen reminded her of Veriasse. But he turned and she caught the profile of his face, and the illusion dissipated. Everynne gazed across the desert. Three kilometers north of the gate was a line of low yellow hills. At any moment, three phalanxes of fliers would stream over the hills at four thousand kilometers per hour. The vanquishers would have less than three seconds to take cover.

Veriasse focused on the gate. The hoverbus hummed, boun-cing as it hit small thermals. In the distance, Everynne spotted a flash of sunlight reflecting from the flier's windshields, and she began counting: three, two ... one. The saucer-shaped fliers were in a tight V, fifteen of them; suddenly the formation split and the fliers veered east and west. Antiaircraft fire erupted from the vanquishers' outpost at the gate. Everynne watched gray pellets rain from the fliers, beacons designed to fool intelligent missiles.

Then the incendiary bombs landed. They were so small that Everynne did not see them drop. Instead, the ground around the gate erupted into a wall of flame that leapt thirty meters into the air. Everynne found it hard to believe that anyone or anything could survive that inferno, but Veriasse had insisted that the fliers make a second pass, and then a third.

By now, their hoverbus had reached the turn where the highway veered west, but Veriasse simply kept his northern course, slowing dramatically; the hover bus leapt from the shoulder of the highway.

The engines roared, straining as they raced down a small ravine, throwing up clouds of dust. The second wave of fliers was sweeping over the hills now, sooner than Everynne had anticipated, and they dropped a barrage of conventional explosives. Dust and burning bodies pitched into the air, twisting in a great whirlwind. Smoke and fire obscured the nearly indestructible gate, but Everynne pulled out her key and pressed the open sequence. The light under the arch shimmered.

Already the flames from the incendiary bombs were beginning to die. The third and final phalanx of fliers closed over the hills, spraying out their ordnance, an oily black substance that civilians referred to as "Black Fog." It had no toxic properties, but absorbed light so completely that in seconds the sky turned black.

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