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Old Soldiers: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Tuesday, June 21, 2005 07:53 EDT



    "It's beautiful, isn't it?" Hawthorne said quietly.

    "I'd say that was a masterful bit of understatement," Maneka replied in judicious tones.

    They stood side-by-side on Thermopylae's command deck, gazing into the visual display along with every other member of Hawthorne's bridge crew as the big transport ship settled into orbit around the planet they had come so far to find.

    The G0 star they had named Lakshmaniah blazed with fierce, life-giving light and heat, bathing not one, but two habitable worlds in its brilliant glare. At the moment, Thermopylae was approaching the innermost of the two, the one they had named Indrani, which orbited the primary at just over nine light-minutes. The average planetary temperature was a bit higher than Maneka would have preferred, but, then, she was a native of Everest. The other habitable planet, the one they had named New Hope, with an orbital radius of just under fifteen and a half light-minutes, was much more to her taste.

    Which, she thought wryly, puts me in a minority of one.

    She couldn't really blame the rest of the expedition, from Adrian Agnelli down to the youngest child, for preferring Indrani. After over a full Standard Year and a half packed into the overcrowded confines of their transports, that planet looked like Heaven made real. With a climate most resort worlds would have envied, a gravity of 1.05 Earth Standard, and a surface that was eighty-two percent water, it floated against the blackness of space like a huge, incredibly gorgeous, white-swirled blue and green marble.

    Even without the endless, wearying journey which had brought them here, that planet would have been one of the most beautiful things she'd ever seen in her life.

    "In position, Sir," the helmsman announced from Astrogation, and Hawthorne nodded.

    "Ms. Stopford, please signal done with engines," he said.

    "Aye, aye, Sir," Thermopylae's Engineer said, and Hawthorne looked at his Communications officer.

    "Inform the Governor and Brigadier Jeffords that we're preparing to deploy the pod," he said.

    "Aye, aye, Sir."

    Maneka listened to be crisp rhythm of orders, the instant snap with which his people responded to his commands, with what she realized had become rather proprietary pleasure. As her senior Navy deputy, Hawthorne had taken over almost all of the unending details of managing the convoy's ships. Like her, he'd had no choice but to grow into the responsibilities which had landed on his shoulders, and she was devoutly glad she'd had him. He was actually much better when it came to dealing with people than she was, and she'd come to rely upon him as a quasi-ambassador, as much as her senior naval officer. The way she'd come to rely upon him in a much more personal sense, as well, was simply icing on her cake.

    And a rather nice cake it is, too, she thought wryly. Because he really does have an awfully nice butt. Among other things.

    She'd decided that their relationship wasn't quite against Regs. Lazarus had helped her research the Articles of War and relevant regulations, and she'd found at least three loopholes which might plausibly be stretched to cover the situation. But all of them had to be stretched rather industriously to pull it off, and even so she knew they hovered on the brink of an outright violation, so the two of them had very carefully not moved their things into the same set of quarters. Everyone knew, of course, but this way everyone could pretend they didn't, and that made them all much happier. It was wonderful that humans were such . . . adaptable creatures.

    She smiled at the thought, then shook herself out of her revery as he turned back towards her.

    "Well," she said, quietly enough that his bridge crew could treat it as a private conversation between the two of them, "I guess I'd better get saddled up for my perilous mission."

    "Yeah, right!" he snorted, equally quietly. "If I thought you might really end up in some sort of trouble down there, I'd probably be nervous. As it is --"

    He shook his head, grinning, and she smiled back.

    "Don't tell the Governor it's all really just a trick to let me be the first human to ever set foot on Indrani," she told him, half seriously, and he gave her a sharp look.

    "I thought you and Guthrie cut cards to see whose Bolo pulled the survey duty?"

    "We did." She smirked at him. "But we used my deck. Rank hath its privileges, after all. And," she added in a more steely tone as his eyes narrowed, "if you ever tell him I admitted that to you, I'll have Lazarus run over your toes!"

    "My God, the perfidy of the woman!" He shook his head. "You realize, of course, that I'll never be able to trust you again."

    "Hah! If you're only figuring that out now, you're a lot slower than I thought you were."

    She gave him another smile, then turned and made her way quickly down the interconnecting passages to the assault pod Lazarus rode. Her personal quarters were also located in the pod, which had the advantage of keeping her close to the Bolo, although it also explained why she didn't have very much space, given the way the pod had been modified. The standard pod ought to have given her plenty of room, since it was big enough to transport an entire battalion of heavy, manned tanks. But a single Bolo -- even mounted semi-externally -- used up close to half of its total available volume, and half of the rest had been given over to the automated Bolo depot the Brigade techs on Sage had somehow fitted in and the spares to support that depot.

    The "depot" had been specifically configured so that Lazarus could operate its remotes and service mechs, making him effectively his own Bolo tech. Maneka wasn't sure she approved of that. On the one hand, his onboard diagnostic programs, coupled with his ability to access the "depot" AI, allowed him to take care of all of his maintenance and service needs with a precision and dispatch even the best trained, most experienced human technician would have been hard-pressed to equal. On the other hand, if he suffered damage sufficient to incapacitate his own systems, he would need that same trained human technician to make the repairs he would no longer be able to direct for himself.

    The convoy did have one fully trained, veteran Bolo tech, but Sergeant Willis had been assigned to Stalingrad, along with Guthrie Chin and Mickey. The decision had been made at a much higher level than Maneka Trevor, but she understood the logic behind it. She might not like it, but it actually did make sense.



    The logistical planners for the colony had been extremely ingenious when it came to cramming the necessary people, supplies, and equipment into the available space. Thermopylae's capacious internal cargo holds -- designed to provide the lift capacity for up to three battalions of infantry or air cavalry in addition to supporting the external assault pods -- had figured prominently in their plans when they started cramming. That was true of all the convoy's ships, including Stalingrad, but in Thermopylae's case, they'd opted to utilize the space for heavy construction and earth-moving equipment, some of which filled the other half of Lazarus' pod not occupied by the Bolo himself. Stalingrad, on the other hand, had been fitted out with a considerably more capable and much more conventional version of a standard Bolo depot.

    In many respects, Lazarus' self-run depot was little more than a dispersed backup for the manned depot Sergeant Willis oversaw aboard Stalingrad. Maneka had wondered occasionally if that was because the mission planners had regarded Lazarus, despite his seniority, as the backup Bolo, as well, in light of his advanced age. She had expected that suspicion to irritate her, but somewhat to her surprise, it amused her, instead. And it amused Lazarus, as well. She'd mentioned her suspicions to him once, and he had replied with one of his soft electronic chuckles.

    "'Old soldiers never die, they just fade away,'" he'd said.

    "That sounds like one of your quotes," she'd replied suspiciously.

    "It is. From General Douglas MacArthur, an ancient pre-space officer. He would, I fear, have served as an excellent example of the sort of military ambition Governor Agnelli once feared you might exhibit. Nor was he ever particularly afflicted with the Human virtue of modesty. Yet he was an undeniably capable strategist and commander with what was, for his era, an extraordinarily long military career."

    "As long as yours for a Bolo?"

    "Perhaps not quite that long," Lazarus had conceded with another chuckle. Then his tone had grown more serious. "But my cognomen is well taken, is it not? I have 'died' twice now, Maneka, yet each time, I have returned to duty. Useful duty, I believe, yet under circumstances no one -- least of all myself -- might have predicted. As have you, in a sense. Perhaps it is only fitting that we should test the accuracy of MacArthur's hypothesis. And it is difficult for me to conceive of a more honorable duty than that we should 'fade away' offering our services to Operation Seed Corn."

    The memory of that conversation flickered through her mind once more, and she shook her head. The planet they had journeyed so unimaginably far to reach lay below them at this very moment, and only after they had entered orbit had she allowed herself to admit to herself that, whatever her head might have thought, her heart had never truly believed they would reach it. Now they had, and she discovered that she looked forward to fading quietly away here, performing good, solid, useful duty in company with Lazarus in the peaceful retirement his century and more of service to the Concordiat had so amply earned.

    She snorted in amusement at her own emotional turn of thought as she entered the pod. Lazarus, she thought, would have been even more amused by the thought of "peaceful retirement" for a Bolo. Which changed neither the fact that he had earned it nor her happiness that he would finally enjoy it.

    She stepped through the automatically opening hatch, walked through her quarters -- snagging the neural headset off her desk as she passed -- and clambered into the access trunk which connected to Lazarus' belly hatch. Someone of Hawthorne's broad-shouldered size might have found the access trunk confining, but there was ample room for Maneka's slender frame, and she went up the ladder rungs quickly.

    "Welcome aboard, Commander," Lazarus' resonant tenor said through the speaker in her mastoid as she transitioned from the access trunk to the Bolo's internal ladders and the belly hatch slid silently shut behind her.

    "My, aren't we formal today?" she replied, and got an electronic chuckle in response.

    "It occurred to me that this would be an historic occasion. As such I thought perhaps 'company manners' might be in order," Lazarus informed her.

    "Well," she said as she reached the middle deck transfer point between ladders, "why don't we just agree to lie to the reporters and tell them we were formal as hell?"

    "Bolos do not lie," Lazarus said primly.

    "The hell they don't!" she shot back. "You Bolos are the galaxy's past masters at deception tactics."

    "True," the Bolo conceded. "However, those tactics are normally employed against the Enemy."

    "If you think any historian who wants to turn me into some sort of historical heroine isn't 'the Enemy,' then your IFF software needs a little attention!"

    "I had not considered it in that light. Very well. We shall lie."

    "Damned straight we will!"

    Maneka had continued climbing steadily throughout the conversation. Her route took her through the mammoth superconductor capacitors that fed Lazarus' starboard battery of ion-bolt infinite repeaters, and she absent-mindedly checked the power level readouts as she passed. One more deck worth of ladder took her up the outboard side of Lazarus' fusion plant, tucked away at his very center along with his primary personality center, and onto the command deck.

    "I see why there aren't any old Bolo commanders," she said, breathing slightly faster than normal after her long, rapid climb.

    "The entry route is less arduous aboard newer model Bolos," Lazarus remarked, this time from the bulkhead speakers. "According to the technical reports in the depot's memory, the new Mark XXXIII will actually provide a gravity shaft for its commander."

    "Yet another newfangled gadget to go wrong," she said loftily. "This effete, idle lay-about, new generation of Bolo commanders is soft, I tell you. Soft! Give me reliability over decadent convenience any day."

    "Bolos may not lie, but I see that sometimes Bolo commanders do," Lazarus observed. "Still, I appreciate the sentiment."

    Maneka chuckled as she flopped down in the almost sinfully comfortable command couch. It had always amused her that here, at the very heart of this grim, enormous machine of war, was a couch whose biofeedback-monitored comfort would have cost a good quarter-million credits on the civilian market. It seemed even more incongruous as she looked around the crowded, cramped confines of the command deck itself.

    Every surface was covered with displays, readouts, battle board lights that winked at standby or glowed with the steady illumination of full readiness. Aside from an old-fashioned joystick, there were no manual controls at all. No single human being could possibly have operated a Mark XXVIII Bolo without full computer support, so there was no point in using up precious internal volume with weapons control stations or EW consoles. Even the joystick was no more than a sop to convention. In theory, it was possible for a human commander to drive a Bolo home if its personality center was knocked out. Given the fact that the personality center in question was located directly under the command deck, however, the chance that any commander would survive its destruction in any shape to drive anything anywhere was remote, to say the least.

    A spasm of remembered grief and loss flickered through her at the thought. Once again, she remembered the blur of the closing armored shell around the equally comfortable couch which had once stood at the center of Benjy's command deck. That deck had been virtually identical to this one, and she sat for just a moment, reminding herself that Lazarus was not Benjy . . . and Indrani was not Chartres.

    She took long enough to be certain she had control of her emotions, then slipped into the headset and activated the neural net.




    Once again I experience the instant of fusion with my Commander.

    I sense her rueful amusement as her reflex effort to conceal the mental flashback to her time with Unit Eight-Six-Two fails. It cannot do otherwise when her thoughts and mine are so intimately melded, yet it is typical of her that she should attempt to "spare my feelings." Her amusement at her failure, however, is yet another sign of how far she has come in recovering from the mental wounds the Battle of Chartres inflicted upon her.

    Her mind settles fully into place, nestled at the core of our joined personality as her physical body is nestled at the core of my own ponderous combat chassis, and she/we open our sensors fully to the universe about us.



    Her/their passive and active sensors flooded her/their mind with data. It was no longer presented to the Maneka component of their joint personality via graphic display. The data simply was. She had discovered that there were no human words to express precisely what she perceived in these moments of union with Lazarus. It was as if she could literally see radar and lidar, as if she could taste cosmic radiation on her tongue. Ranges and firing bearings, signal intensities, frequencies, pulse repetition rates . . . . All of them were as fully, naturally, and instinctively part of her perceptions as the texture of her own palm seen with her merely human eyes.

    She/they allowed themselves a brief moment -- almost an eternity to one such as they had become -- to savor the sensuality of their merger. In many respects, Maneka often thought, with the total honesty and openness which the link with Lazarus enforced, it was more satisfying, in a very different way, than any physical act of love she had ever experienced.

    the Lazarus component of her/their personality told her with gentle amusement, and she sent a silent ripple of mental laughter back to him.

    But then it was time for work, and she/they sent the command to Thermopylae's AI to release the docking clamps. The pod's reaction thrusters flared briefly, wafting the massive parasite away from the transport's hull, then shut down. She/they waited patiently until the pod had cleared the safety perimeter for its normal-space drive, and then she/they went sliding gracefully towards the outermost atmosphere of Indrani.



    "I trust you've been enjoying yourself down there, Captain," Adrian Agnelli said dryly.

    "I always take a certain pleasure in the efficient performance of my duties, however arduous or onerous they may be," Maneka replied cheerfully, looking into the projected holographic display above the optical head Lazarus had extended and swivelled around to face her.

    At the moment, she sat in a folding chair atop Lazarus' after missile deck, parked beside a broad river estuary and shaded by towering trees very like some huge, Old Earth conifer. She was also deplorably out of uniform, in an eye-stunningly red T-shirt (whose nano-printed front depicted the fully animated singing face of one of the Concordiat's better known shatter-rock vocalists) and a pair of very short white shorts. A floppy sun hat completed her extremely non-regulation ensemble, and Agnelli chuckled as he absorbed the impact.

    "May I assume from your appearance that your survey activities have been successfully concluded?" he inquired.

    "You may, Sir," Maneka told him, and sipped iced tea from the tall, condensation bedewed glass in her other hand. She looked back at the display with a smile, then straightened in her chair and became somewhat more serious.

    "Officially, Governor," she told the man who had shifted from potential adversary to close friend over the past year and a half, "Lazarus and I have completed our survey of the proposed colony site. We're prepared to certify that the atmosphere is fully compatible with human environmental needs. We've been unable to detect any biohazards, and while there are several large local predators in the vicinity, none will pose a significant threat if routine out-world precautions are taken. Our samples of soil and local plant life have also confirmed the initial probe findings. Indrani's going to require more terraforming than some planets to support Terran food crops, but less than at least eighty percent of those we've successfully colonized elsewhere. All in all, Sir, this looks like it's going to be a very nice place to live."

    "Captain," Agnelli said with total sincerity, "I cannot begin to tell you how happy -- and relieved -- I am to hear that. May I conclude that, in your capacity as the colony's military commander, you're prepared to authorize the beginning of disembarkation?"

    "Yes, Governor. I am," she said.

    "Excellent!" Agnelli beamed hugely at her, then nodded to someone outside the visual range of his own communicator's visual pickup.

    "The first wave is on its way, Captain," he said, looking back at Maneka, and she leaned back in her chair, activating the headset under the sun hat, and watching through Lazarus' sensors as the first shuttles descended like minnows of sun-hammered silver through the majestic, cloud-piled caverns of Indrani's sapphire sky.



    "So they've found their accursed home at last, have they?" General Ka-Frahkan snarled to Na-Tharla.

    The two Melconians stood in Death Descending's combat information center watching the icons of the Human convoy they had followed so far, and Ka-Frahkan's eyes were hot and hating in a face which had become noticeably gaunt.

    "Yes, Sir," Na-Tharla responded, although he knew the question had been purely rhetorical. "And, I hope you'll forgive me for saying, that it's not a moment too soon."

    Ka-Frahkan looked up from the plot sharply. He opened his mouth, but Na-Tharla met his eyes levelly, and the general cut off what he'd started to say.

    The transport's captain was even more gaunt and worn looking than the Army officer, and well he should be. Even with all the personnel of Ka-Frahkan's brigade in cryo sleep, the wakeful portion of Death Descending's complement had been on sharply reduced rations for the last several months, and Na-Tharla had worked himself harder than any other member of his crew. Ka-Frahkan was an Army officer, not a naval officer, yet he was only too well aware of the miracles of improvisation Na-Tharla had performed to keep the ship's critical systems running this long. And the brilliant fashion in which Na-Tharla had managed to track the Human ships, despite all their efforts at evasive routing and the Bolo transports' infernal, never-to-be-sufficiently-accursed sensor sweeps had been masterful. Death Descending was only a transport, yet the general felt confident that none of the Emperor's cruiser or even battlecruiser commanders could have done a better job under such impossible conditions. Under the circumstances, the captain was entitled to express himself openly.

    "I not only forgive you for saying it, Captain," Ka-Frahkan said after a moment, "but I agree wholeheartedly. And I'd like to take this moment to say, because I don't think I have, really, how deeply I admire you and your crew for getting us here. You are truly heroes of the People."

    "Thank you, Sir -- on behalf of my people, as well as myself."

    Na-Tharla bent his head in a brief but obviously sincere acknowledgment of the compliment. Then he cleared his throat and looked back up at the general.

    "Now that we've arrived, General, may I ask how you intend to proceed?"

    "You certainly may," Ka-Frahkan agreed, but for several seconds, he said no more, only stood there, watching the icons. Then he drew a deep breath, wheeled away from the plot, and stepped out onto the main command deck where he could see the visual imagery of the far-distant planet the Human shuttles were landing upon even as he stood there.

    It was remarkable, really, he thought, that they were here and obviously still undetected and unsuspected, even given the superb job Na-Tharla had done of shadowing the Human convoy. A dozen times, at least, the Humans' sweeping Bolo transports must have come within a hair's breadth of detecting them, yet somehow Na-Tharla had always managed to elude their peering eyes.

    But there were limits to the miracles even someone as formidable as Na-Tharla could be expected to work. As the captain had predicted when Ka-Frahkan ordered him to pursue the Humans, Death Descending had traveled far beyond any point at which she could have returned to Melconian space. Even discounting the near total depletion of the transport's consumables, and ignoring the fact that her power plants were far overdue for shutdown and overhaul, her hyperdrive would have required a total overhaul of its own. None of which was likely to happen, given that they were literally hundreds upon hundreds of light-years away from the nearest Navy base.

    "You wonder how we'll proceed, Captain?" he said at length, never taking his eyes from the image of the planet being relayed by the tiny, heavily-stealthed reconnaissance platform Death Descending had deployed with such exquisite caution.

    "What we will not do is to act hastily," he continued. "We've all come much too far, at much too high a cost, to act until we're certain of success."



    He considered the visual display for another several seconds, then turned away from it at last, and faced Na-Tharla squarely.

    "I realize we've been on short rations for some time now, but that was largely because we had no idea how far we might have to stretch them. Now that we've reached our destination, how long can we continue to sustain ourselves before we must attack?"

    "At least another several Human months, Sir," Na-Tharla said slowly. "Until, of course, you awaken your personnel. An entire heavy brigade would devour all the supplies we still have within a very short period."

    "How short?" Ka-Frahkan pressed. Na-Tharla looked at him, and the general's ears flipped a shrug. "My people will need some time -- three days, minimum, although five or six would be far better -- to recover from the effects of cryo before they'll be fit for combat," he explained.

    "I see." Na-Tharla consulted his mental files on the state of their logistics, then shrugged himself.

    "If we're to retain a reserve of eight days, let's say, for your personnel, in order to give them long enough to recover and for us to mount the operation, then we have sufficient supplies to carry the remainder of our personnel for approximately seventy days at current calory levels, Sir," he said.

    "Seventy days," Ka-Frahkan murmured, kneading the ridge of his muzzle thoughtfully. Then he snorted. "Well, it will just have to be long enough, won't it?"

    Na-Tharla said nothing, simply waiting with polite attentiveness, and Ka-Frahkan gave him a harsh chuckle.

    "Our primary difficulty, of course, lies in the two Bolos," he said. "If this Human commander proceeds with the same intelligence and forethought he's displayed thus far, he'll leave at least one of the Bolos aboard its transport, orbiting the planet. He has none of the heavy weapons-equipped orbital platforms the Concordiat uses to defend its inhabited worlds, but he does have a pair of Bolos he can use as a substitute. And I'm afraid that if he chooses to leave both of them in orbit, the probability of our succeeding in our mission will be severely curtailed."

    He made the admission calmly, much though he disliked doing so. Na-Tharla had more than earned both honesty and openness from him.

    "I doubt he'll do that, however," Ka-Frahkan went on after a moment. "He has two general zones which require protection. One is the surface of the planet, where his people intend to settle and make their homes. The second, is the space around that planet, where the Humans will undoubtedly establish their primary industrial nodes. And from which, although I feel confident at this point that it isn't truly foremost in his mind, any outside military threat must come.

    "So the most reasonable way for him to proceed is to leave one Bolo in space, probably still mounted on its transport in order to give it full mobility, while he takes the other planet-side, to provide immediate security for the new settlement. In fact, he'll probably leave the Bolo they've already landed to conduct a survey of their future colony site on the planet."

    He paused, and Na-Tharla rubbed the side of his own muzzle with a thoughtful frown.

    "It would seem to me, Sir," he said slowly, "that positioning his Bolos in the way you've described ought to make our task considerably more difficult. Surely the Bolo in space will pose a severe threat to any operation we might attempt to mount?"

    "It certainly will," Ka-Frahkan agreed. "Not only will it serve as a most formidable orbital fortress, but its sensors will also be best positioned to give the colony early warning of the approach of any threat. In addition, it will be mobile. Should we manage to somehow elude its sensors and land an assault force, it will be in a position to maneuver itself and its weapons into position to bombard us from space. With the planet-side Bolo available to mount counterattacks, and with such heavy fire coming down on us from overhead, the Brigade would undoubtedly be wiped out long before it could reach attack range of the colony.

    "But," the general raised one clawed finger and jabbed it at the visual display, "that deployment of the Bolos is also what will give us our opening."

    "How, Sir?" Na-Tharla asked with simple and genuine curiosity.

    "The Brigade includes three special reconnaissance platoons, Captain Na-Tharla. They are equipped with the best EW stealth suits the Empire can provide, and they're trained to operate in all environments . . . including deep space.

    "It's unlikely that the Humans believe for an instant that they're under threat of attack. From what I've observed of their operations, I expect them to act as if they do believe that, taking all prudent precautions against even the most unlikely of eventualities. Any thought they may have of external threats, however, will almost certainly focus upon possible Fleet attacks. A . . . brute force threat, one might say. They won't be expecting a stealth attack, and I think the odds are exceedingly good that we'll be able to get at least one recon platoon into range to attack the transport with fusion warheads.

    "Destruction of the transport and the Bolo's assault pod will, at the very least, severely damage the Bolo. It's more likely, however, that the attack will catch the Bolo with its battle screen down, in which case a sufficiently powerful warhead -- of which we have several in stores -- will breach its unprotected war hull. In short, I believe the odds are that we will be able to kill it as the opening gambit in our attack."

    He paused once more, watching Na-Tharla's expression closely. The captain was silent for several seconds, obviously thinking hard. Then his ears rose in a gesture which mingled assent with qualified confidence.

    "Once we've disabled or destroyed the orbiting Bolo, the mobility advantage shifts to us," Death Descending's commander said slowly, thinking aloud. "The Bolo on the planet will have no choice but to remain close to the colony site, lest we manage to decoy it out of position and make our troop landing behind it or launch a bombardment of our own from space. Of course, we have no bombardment capability, but it won't know that. So it will have to react as if we do, which will allow us to land your Brigade around the curve of the planet from the colony, where it will be unable to engage us on our approach."

    "Precisely," the general said, flicking his ears in emphatic agreement. "Any Bolo is always a formidable opponent, but I rather suspect that any Bolos assigned to these colony efforts will be older, less capable models. The demands of the main fronts have been pressing both sides too hard for me to believe the Concordiat is willing to divert first-line Bolos to something like this. After all," he showed his canines in a mirthless grin, "even an 'obsolete' Bolo should be equal to almost any threat -- short of, say, an Imperial Heavy Assault Brigade -- which might be encountered out here in the depths of unexplored space.

    "My combat mechs, on the other hand, while not Bolos, are first-line units. I anticipate heavy losses, but I confidently expect to succeed in destroying the Bolo or at least crippling it sufficiently to prevent it from interfering with our destruction of the Human colony."

    "I'm glad, General," Na-Tharla said after a moment. "I would hate to believe we've come so far without a significant chance of victory." He snorted softly. "I take no more pleasure in contemplating the probability of my own death than anyone, but I find I can accept the fact that even if we win, we can never get home, as long as we accomplish what we came for."

    "Agreed," Ka-Frahkan said. "On the other hand, Captain, I have no intention of destroying the Humans and then simply sitting down and waiting to die ourselves!"

    "Indeed?" Both of Na-Tharla's ears cocked interrogatively.

    "Captain, we wouldn't be at war with the Humans in the first place if we didn't both find the same planetary environments congenial. This is an excellent world the Humans have picked to settle, and at least twenty percent of both my Brigade personnel and your ship's company are female. We have sufficient genetic diversity to support a viable, self-replicating planetary population at need. So, even in a worst-case scenario, the People will continue here, on this planet.

    "But that, as I say, is a worst-case outcome. I believe we stand an excellent chance of capturing the Humans' industrial infrastructure intact, as well. That's one of the reasons I wanted to know how long we can wait before we launch our attack. The longer the Humans have to settle into a sense of security, the lower their guard is likely to become. And our drones have already indicated that their industrial ships are designed on a modular basis."

    Na-Tharla's ears flicked agreement. The heavily stealthed platform had shown them that at least three of the Human ships were already being dismantled into three large, independent modules each. From the data they'd been able to gather so far -- limited, admittedly; even with the People's stealth technology, getting a platform close enough for detailed looks was out of the question -- it appeared that each of those nine modules was intended to serve as the core of its own, separate industrial platform. Given the impressive automation of Human manufacturing capacity, he doubted it would take long for those industrial nodes to come on-line and begin expanding exponentially.

    "I want them to have sufficient time to get as much as possible of their base infrastructure in place," General Ka-Frahkan said with bleak satisfaction. "By dispersing it, they deprive it of strategic mobility. It won't be able to drop into hyper and run away from us, and I would prefer to see that true of as many of their ships as possible. I want all of those ships taken or destroyed, Captain, but I especially want to gain possession of their manufacturing capacity.

    "I realize it will be designed to produce additional Human technology, not immediately suited to our needs, but their mission planners will have provided sufficient capability to sustain and nurture the population they intended to place on this planet. It would be surprising indeed if we couldn't sufficiently adapt that capacity to provide the repairs and overhauls your vessel requires. So once we destroy the enemy, we will have many possible futures open to us.

    "Which," his voice was suddenly hard and cold, like iron grating across the stone floor of a dungeon, "is more than they will."

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