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By the Horns (Chapter Cover Art)

Chapter 73 - By the Horns[]

Ivan Patrice Computer Sciences Center, University of Taurus
Samantha City, Taurus
Taurian Concordat
November 27th, 3025

Julius Riese rechecked his weapons magazine as the elevator descended towards the underground research laboratory. And the six other Death Commandos with him were doing the same. He nodded; each with a veteran of many operations and knew well enough that sometimes an almost full magazine simply was not enough to get the job done. And then he frowned.

Seven commandos—including himself—here, another seven topside to keep the Taurian reinforcements from interrupting their play to destroy the Core. And two men—his most trusted men—sitting idle back at the safe house and waiting for their chance to try and destroy, or at the least, disable that damned Taurian WarShip!

Ideally, he would have conducted both operations simultaneously. After all, chaos often led to the other side making mistakes that would not otherwise have. But the WarShip had rather suddenly disengaged from the orbital station nine days ago and burned outsystem to Gateway . . . accelerating at a full 2.5-G's to get there quicker. That was no hangar queen, he though glumly to himself, but (or so it seemed to him, anyway) a rather pissed-off close-to-fully operational disaster that needed to get somewhere fast. And if the rumors flying around the planet were true, that Michael Hasek-Davion had invaded the Concordat, well . . . Riese's frown turned into a smile.

Hasek-Davion had proven useful to House Liao, but it just well might be better for all concerned if he (and his not-so-secret ambitions) died in the fury of bombardment from a battleship in orbit.

And the smile faded. Because that fool daughter of the Chancellor had pissed away a sizeable portion of the Confederation Armed Forces in her own misguided attempt at invading just weeks earlier. It must have been Romano; Candace was not a fool; McCarron would not have committed his troops on his own without orders, and no officer in the CCAF would dared to have ordered such an ambitious plan without the Chancellor's approval. Which Maximillian Liao would not have given. And with that open act of aggression, Riese feared that the Chancellor's plans for getting Taurus in the Capellan camp would be for naught.

He shook his head. Enough, he though to himself. "Game faces, people," he barked. "Intel says one researcher and perhaps two assistants are working on the Core. No guards, but these are Taurians and they might be armed. Kill them all and then we set the device and try to extricate. Got it?"

And six faces nodded their confirmation.

Good enough, Riese thought as the elevator slid to a halt and he chambered a round in his submachine gun as the doors began to open.

And Hell erupted around him.

Osami Koga and Victor Li slid down the elevator shaft trailing taut rope lines behind them. As they approached the upper surface of the elevator, each of the two gripped their descenders hard and their descent slowed until they came to a halt just above the surface of the now motionless elevator.

Unbuckling his harness, Victor dropped silently the last two inches to the roof of the elevator car, the Combine operative beside him just as silent. And both men pulled free their swords as Victor grabbed the handle of the elevator's escape hatch.

He looked at Koga and the older man nodded in reply as the sound of gunfire echoed within the dark shaft.

"On three," Victor whispered, and Koga nodded as he pulled a flash-bang grenade from his own tactical harness, sliding up the safety cover over the arming ring with one thumb and sliding one finger into the ring with the hand that held his sword.

"One," he continued and he drew a deep breath as Koga pulled the pin and armed the grenade, wincing as the arming spoon TINKED against the roof of the elevator, but the sound was lost among the cacophony of gunfire below, "two," and his muscles tensed and the samurai held the live grenade over the cover of the hatch. The gunfire below suddenly stopped; Phil and Max must be changing magazines; though it immediately resumed with a different tone; the Commandoes were returning fire. "Three!" and he yanked open the hatch, Osami dropping the grenade in the same instant as Victor dropped it closed once again.

Phil pulled back the trigger again and again as the elevator doors slid open, Maxwell Danforth beside him also serving targets suddenly exposed to their weapons. Damn it, the Davion agent thought to himself, I'm supposed to be an observer, not an operator! But he still felt satisfaction as two Death Commandoes exposed by the opening doors dropped to the floor, their chests shattered by the heavy bullets of the automatic short-barreled rifles the pair of spies had brought to bear.

And then he heard a CLICK as he pulled the trigger and nothing happened. He had run through the entire magazine, he realized as he hit the release catch with one finger and reached for another magazine with his left hand . . . just as four more Death Commandoes flopped down on the floor of the elevator and began spraying sub-machine gun fire into the research lab!

"Shit!" he yelled as he ducked down behind the metal filing cabinet that gave protection—more psychological than actual, but better than nothing against the hailstorm of bullets. And from the corner of his eye he could see Max crouching behind a desk, slamming home a full magazine of his own into the receiver well of his rifle. Max nodded at Phil, and the Davion agent cursed silently again.

And then the world exploded.

Riese had been standing to the side of the elevator as the doors began to open, leaving him out of the direct line of fire as the bullets began to slam into the first two of his men stepping forward. The five survivors leaned hard into the elevator walls trusting—hoping—that the concrete walls and steel elevator sides would stop any bullets that punched into the narrow, the oh-so-narrow cover it afforded.

Two guards, he thought. Automatic rifles . . . firing two round bursts. Ten—or fifteen at the most—bursts and then they would be empty. And sure enough, the gunfire died away.

"NOW!" he shouted, and four of his men moved into the breach, two dropping to the floor, the others hugging the sides of the elevator car as their SMGs barked flame and fury into the room.

He never saw the hatch above him open, nor the falling grenade . . . not until it detonated at chest height.

The hatch flew back open as the flash-bang erupted in the elevator car below and Koga jumped down inside, followed a scant instant later by Victor. The smoke—both from the grenade and the gunfire—obscured what little emergency lighting had survived the blast, but both the samurai and Victor were wearing light-intensification goggles.

Seven Commandoes lay sprawled across the car, either leaning against the walls or lying on the floor; all were bleeding, staggering, stunned, or dead. But that did not stop Koga or Victor as they plunged their sword blades into their opponents chests or used the razor-sharp edges to slice through exposed throats.

And then, with a suddenness that took even Victor by surprise, it was over.

All seven of the Commandoes lay dead at his feet; well, his feet and those of Osami Koga. Victor nodded at the old man, and Koga began to search the corpses for the bomb that they must have been carrying, while Victor stepped into the research lab.

"HOLD YOUR FIRE!" he shouted as he advanced, sheathing his sword and holding both hands up.

"Damn it!" shouted Phil at he stood from behind a filing cabinet riddled with bullet holes. "You just had to drop a flash-bang, didn't you, Victor? Fuck, that rang my bell!"

"Better having your bell rung than buying the farm, Phil," Victor answered with a smile.

"I swear, when I get back to New Avalon, Quintus is going to owe me," Phil continued, "I'm MI-4, for God's sake! I'm just supposed to watch and report, not this commando bullshit!"

"And yet, you did this commando bullshit rather well, Phil Sheridan," Max said as he too stood. "Maybe Allard will transfer you to the Rabid Foxes, eh?"

"Fuck that shit," Phil whispered. "I've had enough of this . . . can we just grab the Core and go before the Taurians zip-line down the shaft as well?"

"Sounds good to me," Max answered and Victor nodded his agreement as well.

"Unfortunately, we have a problem," Koga announced as he walked into the remnants of the lab cradling the Capellan bomb in his hands. "This thing is on a timer and there are only three minutes left."

"Oh, fuck me," whispered Phil.

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