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Old Soldiers: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Tuesday, July 19, 2005 22:29 EDT



    Lieutenant Guthrie Chin sat back, arms crossed, and frowned at the chessboard. Staff Sergeant Yolanda Willis grinned cheerfully at him as he contemplated the unappetizing situation into which she had backed him.

    "Your position does not look promising, Guthrie," a pleasant baritone remarked over the compartment's bulkhead speaker.

    "And don't you dare give him any hints, Mickey!" Willis said sternly.

    "How can you believe I would think of such a thing?" the speaker inquired in innocent tones.

    "Possibly because I know you?" Willis shot back. The speaker chuckled, and she grinned. "If, on the other hand, you should happen to succumb to that ignoble temptation, just remember who's in charge of making sure your wiring keeps on doing what it's supposed to do."

    "Such crude threats are unbecoming to a noncommissioned officer of the Brigade," Chin said severely. "Besides, I -- as an officer and a gentleman, by act of the Concordiat Assembly -- am fully capable of resolving your petty threat to my queen entirely on my own."

    Willis made a most disrespectful sound, and he gave her a dignified look.

    "I'm sure," he continued, "that the aforesaid resolution will come to me . . presently."



    Lauren Hanover checked her boards with a feeling of profound satisfaction as she took over the duty watch. With Kuan Yin's loss, she'd been out of a job as a second engineer, but Henri Berthier, never one to waste talent, had assigned her to Sherwood Forest, instead. It wasn't exactly what she'd been trained for, but she'd had plenty of time on the extended voyage to get herself brought up to speed, and she'd been more than ready when they assigned her to command Industrial Module Three.

    At the moment, India Mike Three was still in what she thought of as the setting up stage. The automated fabrication node's admittedly simple-minded AIs were working from stored plans to build the bare-bones platform into a complete deep-space industrial facility. Progress was slower than originally projected because of the loss of the orbital smelter -- multi-capability resource extraction facilities, really, but "smelter" was a much handier term -- yet they were beginning to make up the lost time. It would be at least another three or four months, by her most optimistic estimate, before they could actually catch back up with the official schedule, but that was all right. When India Mike Three really hit its stride, it would be able to build anything the inhabitants of Indra needed, from screwdrivers to complete superdreadnoughts, and it would be only one of six such centers. Given the circumstances and the whole reason Seed Corn had been mounted, plans called for Indrani to eventually have an industrial base which not only matched that of the average Concordiat core-world, but actually exceeded it (on a population basis, at least) by a factor of more than ten. And for that ratio to be maintained indefinitely.

    All it was going to take was time. And now that they'd actually survived the voyage, time was something they had in plentiful supply.



    Lieutenant Huran Sa-Chelak checked the readouts on the HUD projected across the visor of his stealth suit. The numbers didn't look good, but they were still -- barely -- within acceptable parameters.

    It was always impossible to predict exactly how rapidly any specific, individual trooper would consume the endurance of his suit. Averages could be predicted with a high degree of reliability, and the suits' designers had allowed a margin of redundancy. But individuals always varied at least a little, and that margin had been calculated sitting in comfortable offices in rear area research and development establishments. Special ops units in the field routinely ran right up to the limits of the projected safety margins, and this operation had stressed them even harder than most.

    He'd already lost one trooper. Sergeant Na-Rathan hadn't exhausted his life support. Sa-Chelak wasn't positive exactly what had gone wrong with his suit, and the sergeant hadn't told him. He'd simply reported across the short-range whisker laser com net in a completely calm voice, less than fifteen hours into the mission, that he had a problem. Then he'd gone off the net and the green light indicating a live trooper on Sa-Chelak's HUD had blinked suddenly red.

    The sergeant's body had accompanied them for the remainder of their ballistic insertion. Corporal Na-Sath had removed the backup fusion warhead from Na-Rathan's body, and when they'd finally activated their suit-mounted thruster packs to begin decelerating, the sergeant had continued silently onward towards the system's primary.

    At least he'll find a proper pyre, Sa-Chelak thought. And he's earned it.

    The lieutenant hoped he would earn the same, but it was beginning to look as if his own life support was going to run out before the rest of the platoon reached its secondary objective among the orbiting Human transports. At least six more of his twenty-four remaining troopers were in the same or little better situation, but that wouldn't keep them from executing their primary mission, he thought grimly.

    He looked at Sergeant Major Na-Hanak. Since they'd begun decelerating, even the whisker lasers had been shut down. Sa-Chelak had enormous confidence in the capabilities of his troopers' stealth systems, on the basis of hard-won experience, but getting this close to one of the accursed Bolos was enough to chill any veteran's blood. He had no intention of running any avoidable risks when he and his men had paid -- and were about to pay -- such a high price to get here.

    The sergeant major was watching him alertly. Sa-Chelak made a hand gesture, and Na-Hanak replied with a gesture of his own, acknowledging receipt of the unspoken order.

    Sa-Chelak wished he'd been carrying the weapon himself, but this was a job for a demolitions expert, and that described Na-Hanak perfectly. The lieutenant watched as the sergeant major's gloved fingers quickly but carefully armed the warhead -- a stealthed demolition charge, actually. Na-Hanak completed his task, then paused for several seconds, clearly doublechecking every single step of the process. When he was satisfied, he looked back up at Sa-Chelak and made the "prepared to proceed" hand sign.

    Sa-Chelak nodded inside his helmet, then chopped his arm in a gesture towards the distant dot his suit's computer assured him was the Bolo transport. It was little more than a speck, gleaming faintly in the reflected light of the system primary, but they were more than close enough for their delivery vehicle.

    Na-Hanak entered a final sequence on the weapon's control pad, then punched the commit button. A mist of instantly dispersed vapor spurted from the weapon's small thruster, and it accelerated away from the platoon.

    Sa-Chelak watched it go. It was fitting in many ways, he thought, that the very primitiveness of their weapon helped explain how it would penetrate the Humans' vaunted superior technology. Its warhead actually relied upon old-fashioned chemical explosives to achieve criticality, and the total power supply aboard warhead and delivery vehicle combined was less than would have been required to supply a pre-space hand lamp. Its guidance systems were purely passive, relying upon an optical lock on its designated target, and the control systems for its primitive, low-powered, but effective thrusters used old-fashioned mechanical linkages. Not that more modern technology was completely absent from its construction. In fact, it was built of radiation-absorbent materials so effective that at a range of barely two meters (with the access ports closed to hide the glowing giveaway of its displays), it was impossible for the Melconian eye to pick out against the backdrop of space. It was, in fact, as close to completely invisible and totally undetectable as the Empire's highly experienced design teams could produce.

    It only remained to be seen if it was invisible enough.



    "So are you going to save that castle as effectively as you saved your queen?" Willis inquired interestedly.

    "You're not doing your next efficiency report any favors, Sergeant," Chin told her ominously, regarding the rapidly spreading disaster in the middle of the chessboard.

    "Hah! Captain Trevor knows what a sore loser you are, Sir. She'll recognize petty vengefulness when she sees it."

    "Unfortunately, you're probably right about that." Chin reached for his surviving knight, then drew his hand back as Willis smiled with predatory confidence.

    "Anytime you're ready, Sir," she told him with deadly, affable patience.

    "Which will be --"

    "Alert!" The bulkhead speaker rattled as the baritone voice barked a flat-toned warning. "Alert! Sensors detect incoming --"

    Guthrie Chin was still turning his head towards the speaker, eyebrows rising in surprise, when the multi-megaton demolition charge exploded less than fifty meters from Stalingrad's hull.



    Maneka bounced twice on the end of the diving board, then arced cleanly through the air. The grav-lift dive platform floated a meter and a half above the gentle swell, and the ocean surface was a translucent, deliciously cool sheet of jade. She sliced through it cleanly, driving deep into the even cooler depths, before she swept back up towards the sun-mirror of the surface.

    Ocean swimming wasn't something which had been very practical back on Everest, she admitted to herself. And she supposed that, under the circumstances, she would have to concede that its practicality here was, indeed, a point in favor of Indrani over New Hope. Not that she was prepared to admit that to anyone else.

    Her head broke surface, and she used both hands to slick back her short, wet, dark hair. Half a dozen other heads bobbed near her, and the two air cars designated for lifeguard duty floated watchfully overhead. Sonar transducers adjusted to a frequency which had been demonstrated to repel the local sea life protected the swimmers from the possibility of being munched upon, and Maneka rolled in the water and began backstroking back towards the platform.

    Another three or four dives, she thought, then back to work and --

    "Alert!" Lazarus' voice blared so loudly in her mastoid-mounted speaker that it felt for an instant as if someone had slapped her. "Alert! Mickey reports --"

    The nuclear detonation overhead was bright enough to bleach the sapphire sky pale amethyst.



    "Mother of God!" someone gasped. It took Lieutenant Hanover over two seconds to realize that the words had come out in her voice.

    She stared in horror at the visual display, which had just polarized as the sun-bright flash licked away Stalingrad as if the transport had never existed. But it had, and she swallowed hard as the instant of paralyzing shock faded into something resembling coherent thought.

    Fusion plant? she wondered automatically, only to reject it instantly. She was at standby, just like the Forest. And Bolos don't have that sort of accident -- ever. But then what -- ?

    She never knew exactly what caused it to click so quickly. Maybe it was the memory of what had happened to Kuan Yin, causing her to jump instantly to a conclusion which was preposterous on the face of things. Maybe it was some sort of subconscious logic flow which would have made impeccable sense if she'd been able to analyze it. But how it came to her was supremely unimportant beside her total confidence that she was right.

    She punched the key on her console while the other four members of her duty watch were still gawking at the beautifully hideous blossom of brilliance on their visual displays. A musical tone sounded in her earbug almost instantly as the communications computers routed her priority message to its destination.

    "Captain Berthier," she heard her own voice say calmly, "this is Hanover, on India Mike Three. Sir, the Dog Boys have just blown Stalingrad -- and Mickey -- to hell."

    She was still talking when the same finger which had hit the com key punched another button and alert sirens began to wail all across Industrial Module Three.



    Maneka was still dripping when the lifeguard air car came screaming in to deposit her atop Lazarus' war hull. She didn't waste time thinking about uniforms or towels. She just dashed towards the heavily armored topside personnel hatch, bare feet threading their way between the slab-like missile hatch covers on pure autopilot while she barked into her hand com.

    "-- to the Armory now!" she snapped. "Full equipment and ammunition for First, Second, and Fourth Battalions. Deploy First and Second to the Alpha One positions, and alert Major Atwater for probable immediate embarkation."

    "Understood," Brigadier Jeffords said sharply. She could hear the reverberations of shocked disbelief echoing in his voice, but he was alert and tracking well, and that was about all she could have asked of him under the circumstances.

    "Good, Peter," she said a bit more gently, then ducked and twisted in a familiar contortion that deposited her onto the upper access ladder to Lazarus' command deck. She braced her bare insoles against the outside of the ladder uprights and slid down it, com dangling from her wrist by its lanyard, and the vibrations of ponderous, delicate movement shivered in her hands and feet as Lazarus maneuvered himself back up the loading ramp of the assault pod.

    She left that up to him and the pod's onboard computers while she concentrated on getting down the ladder in one piece as quickly as possible. Adrian Agnelli's face already showed on one of the multi-quadrant communications screens, and other members of the colony's command structure were blinking onto other quadrants even as her bare feet hit Command One's decksole with a stinging impact.

    Agnelli's expression was a combination of horror, shock, disbelief, and confusion, but if there was any panic in it, Maneka couldn't see it. Fear, yes -- but not, she was certain, for himself. And despite all the myriad questions which must be hammering at his brain, he didn't waste time battering her by demanding answers to them.

    She took an instant to give him a sincerely and deeply grateful smile, then slithered into her command couch in her dripping wet, skimpy swimsuit.

    "Governor, Ladies and Gentlemen," she said, conscious of how bizarre the courteous formula sounded in her own ears but using it deliberately to emphasize her own self-control. There was no need for them to know just how hard that was for her to do, and every reason to convince them that she, at least, was not about to succumb to panic.

    "As you're all aware, the colony is under attack," she continued in a crisp, clipped tone. "I deeply regret that I have to confirm that Stalingrad and Mickey have been destroyed."

    Someone -- she didn't know who, and she didn't worry about finding out -- cursed in falsetto shock. Maneka ignored the outburst and continued flatly.

    "Lazarus' analysis agrees in all its essentials with Lieutenant Hanover's conclusion. The emission signature of the explosion is, in fact, a perfect match for a Puppy Bravo-Eighteen demolition charge. How they got it into position without Mickey's spotting them is impossible to say, but Lazarus has gone back over Mickey's last transmissions over the TSDS. The most likely possibility is that they managed to insert a covert special ops team into the inner system to launch it at short range. The next most likely is that they used some sort of long-range, stealthed launch vehicle to attack directly from the outer-system. In either case, it's obvious that they did, somehow, manage to follow us all the way here. And they wouldn't have announced their presence by taking out Stalingrad and Mickey this way if they didn't have some sort of plan to hit the rest of the colony.

    "At the moment, we don't know what that plan might be. But it's virtually certain that whatever they've got, it isn't a regular warship. A cruiser wouldn't have needed that much stealth to get through to Stalingrad, given her alert status, and it wouldn't have had the endurance to follow us this far in the first place. So we're looking at some sort of logistics ship or transport. Under the circumstances, I see no option but to assume that we're up against an Atilla-class heavy transport."

    Jeffords inhaled sharply, and she smiled thinly at the other faces on her display.



    "For those of you unfamiliar with the reporting names assigned to Puppy warships, that's an atmosphere-configured assault transport, the second biggest one they have. And," her grim smile vanished, "it's capable of landing an entire heavy assault birgade."

    "Dear God," Agnelli said quietly, and Maneka nodded.

    "I may be wrong, and I pray I am, but I may not be, too," she said. "And whatever they've got, they're obviously very, very good to have followed us this far without being detected in the first place, and then to get through our defenses so neatly with their first strike. On the basis of my analysis of the threat, I'm officially notifying all of you that I am assuming full authority as this system's military commander, and that I've already activated Defense Plan Alpha. Brigadier Jeffords' First, Second, and Fourth Battalions are drawing weapons and ammunition now. Lieutenant Governor Berthier."

    "Yes, Captain?"

    "I've already informed Brigadier Jeffords that we'll be diverting all construction equipment to military uses. Most of the construction personnel have already been activated in their militia role, and the Brigadier's issued preliminary orders to them. He knows what I want dug in and where, but since he's going to be busy overseeing the deployment of all of his personnel, I'd like you to take over on the construction side. You'll find the details in the construction plans queue under Delta Papa Alpha One."

    "Of course, Captain!"

    "In that case," she continued, turning to Agnelli's daughter, "I need you to take over organization for probable wounded, Dr. Agnelli-Watson," she said formally. "I hope there won't be many of them, but --"

    She broke off suddenly, and her face tightened.

    "Governor Agnelli," she said harshly.

    "Yes, Captain?"

    "We may have lost Stalingrad and Mickey's sensors, but the backup recon satellites we deployed are still on-line and feeding information to Lazarus' BattleComp. I have confirmation of a Melconian vessel headed for Indrani. And it is an Atilla."

    This time, the silence was total.

    "That's the bad news," she continued with a tight, teeth-baring smile. "The good news is that so far we haven't picked up anything else. She must have been accompanying the raiding squadron Commodore Lakshmaniah destroyed, and she must have used her emergency cryo facilities to stretch her endurance. It's the only way they could have followed us this long without starving to death -- or eating each other. But according to Lieutenant Hawthorne, those cryo facilities aren't very good, so they've probably taken some significant personnel losses.

    "What matters right now, though, is that apparently she's the only opposition we face." One or two of the faces looking back at her showed their owners' incredulous response to her use of the word "only," but she went on in that same level voice. "Assuming that they really have somehow managed to follow us here with their personnel essentially intact, we're going to be facing heavy odds --" not as heavy as Chartres, a stray thought flickered, but heavy enough . . . and you don't have the rest of the Battalion for backup this time "-- but without any warships to side her, at least no one's going to be bombarding us from space in the middle of the fight.

    "With Brigadier Jeffords' people to watch the back door, Lazarus and I will be able to operate much more freely against any ground opposition. My biggest concern at this moment is that although we've picked up one transport, we have no positive assurance that it's the only ship out there. Personally, I think it probably is, for the reasons I've already given, but I can't be certain of that. If I had only a little more time, I'd take Lazarus' assault pod back up into orbit to engage them short of the planet. Unfortunately, it will take a minimum of thirty-five more minutes to re-mate him with the pod. I'm proceeding with that -- we can disengage a lot more quickly if we have to, and the pod will give us much more flexible deployment options -- but the Melconian ship is only twenty-eight minutes out. We can't get orbital in time to intercept it, and from its present profile, it looks as if it intends to land far enough around the curve of the planet to protect it from direct fire from Landing, as well.

    "All of which suggests that they have a very good notion of what we have. I've transmitted a warning to all our shipping and deep-space work parties, because if they did use some of their special operations troops to carry out the attack on Stalingrad, they may have tasked those troops with secondary missions, as well. Their special ops troopers have very, very good individual stealth capability, and that may well mean we have an unknown number of Melconian special operations troopers already in or about to penetrate the orbits of our infrastructure.

    "I'm afraid we're going to take some additional losses there." She made the admission unflinchingly. "Brigadier Jeffords has already scrambled his company of vacuum-trained militia and both of our armed cutters to repel attacks on our industrial platforms or the transports, but if the Puppies timed this properly, they may already be working on breaching the hulls of their targets. If all they want to do is destroy them, I'm afraid there may not be a lot we can do to stop them. We'll just have to hope they'd prefer to capture the capacity instead of destroying it. Or that they're shorthanded enough they didn't spare a lot of personnel to go after orbital installations that can't run away anyhow. After all," she gave them another tight smile, "they apparently know they have a Bolo to face down here."

    She paused to draw a deep breath.

    "Until they actually hit planet, I can't do much more than we're already doing. Lazarus and I need a better feel for the forces they actually have to deploy and what their axes of approach are likely to be. For now, I suggest we all do everything we can to reduce the possibility of panic and to get as many as possible of our noncombatants under cover. I want to leave Brigadier Jeffords' other two battalions of infantry available to assist in digging in for as long as possible, but I want both air cavalry platoons ready to lift immediately. And if any of us have a free moment here or there, spending it asking God to give us a hand probably wouldn't be a bad idea.




    Lieutenant Sa-Chelak's thoughts were becoming sluggish, but he bared his canines in a snarl of triumph as the Bolo transport disappeared in a visor-polarizing flash. The critical portion of his platoon's mission had been accomplished in that single fireball. The realization gave him a sense of comfort, although it was getting very hard to breathe. His lungs labored frantically, but there simply wasn't enough oxygen.

    Ran the margin too fine this time, his mind told him distantly. He blinked, trying to focus on the range-to-target reading on his HUD, but the numbers remained obstinately blurred. Of his thirty-seven troopers, at least a dozen green lights had turned crimson. He couldn't see them well enough to be certain which ones they were, but he thought Corporal Na-Sath's was still green.

    Good. That's good, he thought blearily. At least his people could be sure of taking out at least one more of the Humans' ships, whether they could capture their secondary objectives or not. He wished he could be with them when they did, but the insistent computer voice warning him of oxygen exhaustion was growing less and less distinct in his ear.

    His right hand groped for the suicide button. There was no point going by centimeters when his chance of survival had become nonexistent anyway. His fingers found it, and started to press. But a new, strident audio tone made him pause.

    His wavering vision sought out the HUD once more. It was impossible to read, but despite the anoxia, a remote corner of his superbly trained brain recognized the sound.

    Proximity alarm, he thought, and turned his head just in time to see one of the colony's two armed cutters in the instant before its two-centimeter Hellbores fired.



    "Go down there and help her get that locker open now, Jackson," Lieutenant Edmund Hawthorne said flatly.

    "Aye, aye, Sir!" his executive officer snapped, and left Thermopylae's command deck at a dead run. Hawthorne looked after him for a couple of heartbeats, then wheeled back to his own command station, his brain racing as he tried to cope with the stunning broadcast from Lazarus.

    Melconians here. It didn't seem possible, but he knew that was only his own deep-seated need to believe it wasn't. And that need sprang from at least one all too personal source. Fear for the entire colony -- and for his own life -- was a cold, hard iron lump in the pit of his belly, but it was another fear that made every muscle in his body quiver with flight-or-flight instincts.

    Maneka, he thought. Maneka and Lazarus . . . and an entire heavy assault brigade of Dog Boys.

    He closed his eyes with a brief, wordless appeal to whatever God there might be, then opened them resolutely as the exec hurried back onto the bridge with an armload of power rifles and sidearms. Another of Hawthorne's crewwomen followed, carrying more sidearms and with a satchel of boarding grenades slung over her shoulder.

    "All right, People," Hawthorne said over the all-hands channel, distantly surprised by how calm his own voice sounded, "we have a situation. We're going to Condition Zulu as of right now. Sensors haven't picked anything up yet, but if there's a Dog Boy special ops unit out there, that doesn't mean Jack."

    He glanced at the console where Chief Halberstadt was driving the external sensors for all they were worth . . . and monitoring Thermopylae's internal sensor net even more intently. The transport had already come about on a heading to return to Indrani. Hawthorne had deliberately turned away from the least-time course, taking a wide dog leg which he hoped would have been impossible for anyone to predict ahead of time. The odds were overwhelming that the combination of her sudden course change and speed would carry her clear of any ambush the Melconians might have arranged for her, but he wasn't prepared to stake the security of his ship and the lives of his crew on that, and his hands strapped a pistol belt around his hips even as he was speaking.

    "Captain Trevor has informed me that Brigadier Jeffords' troops will be at full readiness by the time the Dog Boys can put down on Indrani. The attack that took out Mickey was almost certainly carried out by their special ops company, though, and it's entirely possible that they're also going after our orbital units. Brigadier Jeffords has Sierra Company headed up as a precaution, but we all know Sierra Company isn't exactly the Concordiat Marines. Well, neither are we, and Thermopylae might not be able to say boo to a Dog Boy destroyer. But we do have half a dozen suits of powered armor on board, and I have Ms. Stopford bringing it on-line now. She estimates that will take another twenty-two minutes . . . which means it ought to be ready long before we reach Indrani orbit.

    "In the meantime --"

    A shrill, ear-piercing alarm wailed.

    "Hull breach," Thermopylae's AI's melodious contralto announced. "Multiple hull breaches between frames one-five-niner and two-zero-seven."

    Hawthorne wheeled towards the damage control schematic and swallowed a vicious curse as fifteen bright red icons glared along his ship's port flank. They'd come in through the Number Two vehicle hold, which suggested they knew exactly what they were doing. The vehicle holds were much less intricately compartmentalized than the personnel sections of the big ship. And they were far less lavishly equipped with automatic pressure-tight blast doors to contain atmosphere. Worse, Number Two was the central of Thermopylae's three vehicle holds. From there, they could move in almost any direction.

    "We have boarders, People!" he barked. "Vehicle Hold Two! You've got fifteen seconds to get to your Zulu Internal stations, then I'm locking her up!"

    He watched the chronometer's digital display tick over exactly fifteen seconds, then nodded to the exec.

    "It's time, Jackson," he said grimly, and cleared his throat. "Iona," he said to Thermopylae's AI, "close all internal doors."

    "Closing internal doors," the AI announced.

    "Good," Hawthorne said. He paused a moment, then continued. "Iona, set Condition Zulu Delta."

    Jackson Lewis flinched, but none of his bridge crew said a word.

    "Order acknowledged," the AI said. "Self-destruct orders require command authorization, however."

    "Understood." Hawthorne inhaled deeply. "Authenticate my voice and ID."

    "Authenticated. You are Lieutenant Edmund Harrison Hawthorne, commanding officer CNS Thermopylae."

    "I now authorize you to set Condition Zulu Delta," he said flatly. "Authorization code Baker-Seven-Two-Alpha-Niner-Whiskey."

    "Authorization code receipted and recognized," Iona told him. "Condition Zulu Delta has been set."

    "Thank you," Hawthorne said, and looked down at his hands. In theory, the AI would destroy the ship the instant the Melconian boarders secured control of its critical systems. Unfortunately, Thermopylae was a transport, not a proper warship. Her web of control runs and communications circuits were tougher, more dispersed, and more redundant than they would have been aboard a civilian-design vessel her size, but they were scarcely armored or protected against people inside the ship itself. There were at least two ways he could think of offhand for the Puppies to take out her AI before they took control of the Bridge or Engineering, and if they did that . . .

    "Jessy," he said quietly over a private channel to Jessica Stopford, "I think it would be a very good idea to expedite that armor."



    She/they were once again joined, and she/they felt the locking clamps engage firmly as Lazarus' huge tracks settled into place in the assault pod. She/they reached out, bringing the pod's internal systems fully on-line, and the Maneka component of her/their personality allowed herself a moment of intent gratitude that she had kept the pod fully fueled and charged.

    "We're in position, Peter," Maneka's com image informed the militia commander. "Is Fourth Battalion ready to board?"

    "Affirmative," Jeffords replied tautly. "I still say you ought to take Jessup's company with you, too."

    "No," she said firmly. "They don't have the armor or the firepower to go toe-to-toe with a Puppy medium, much less a heavy. But they could be a nasty surprise for any air cav that get around us."

    Jeffords looked rebellious, but he didn't argue. Mostly because Maneka was his commanding officer, but also because he knew she was right. Captain Jessup's single company of light, manned tanks had never been intended to stand up to the sort of firepower which was probably headed Landing's way.

    She/they considered the numbers once again. A full strength Melconian heavy assault brigade had a roster strength of over three thousand. Sixteen hundred of that total were in the three battalions of its infantry regiment, but the real heart of its striking power was its armored regiment. The twelve Heimdalls of its recon company could probably be handled by Jessup's fifteen Whippet-class tanks, but the six Surturs and twelve Fenrises would smash anything short of Lazarus himself with contemptuous ease.

    It was a sobering comment on the sheer size of an Atilla-class transport that it could pack that much armor aboard, the Maneka component of her/their personality reflected. The Surtur was at least as big as most Bolos -- over twenty percent larger than Lazarus himself, in fact-- and even the Fenris came in at over nine thousand tons . Thermopylae could carry a maximum of two Bolos plus another hundred thousand tons of lighter vehicles or seventy-five thousand tons of vehicles and up to an five thousand infantry and their equipment. But the Sleipners carried their Bolos externally, whereas all of the Melconian transport's personnel and vehicles were carried internally. And unlike Thermopylae, she was atmosphere-capable and designed for rough-field landings. If the Melconians had been prepared to accept externally-mounted transport for their heavy armored vehicles, they could have packed even more punch aboard the big ship. But they would have had to sacrifice its ability to land its troops directly, and that was strictly against Melconian doctrine.

    the Maneka component thought at the Lazarus component.

    the Lazarus component observed in reply.

    Which was true, Maneka realized. The only question was whether or not their advantages would be enough.



    "We've got a hull breach!"

    Lauren's jaw clenched, and her eyes darted over the schematic in front of her.

    "Pressure loss in Sector Bravo-Seven-Charlie," a computer voice remarked calmly."Initiating containment."

    A strident audio alarm began to sound, but the voice continued in those same, calm tones.

    "Containment procedures terminated," it announced. "Atmosphere loss has ceased."

    "And you think that's good news, you stupid bitch?!" one of her watch-standers snarled. Lauren was too busy to endorse the remark, but she certainly understood it. India Mike Three's AI was an idiot, compared to a Bolo. All it cared about was that the hole in the module's skin was no longer leaking air. The face that whoever had made the hole must have sealed it behind them didn't mean a thing to the computers.

    "They're into Bravo-Seven," she said over the all-hands channel. "Alf," she looked at the tech who'd replied to the AI, "close the blast doors manually. Then start locking down every powered door you can. Hannah," she turned to another woman, "get on the horn to whoever's running the cutters. We need somebody in here with some damned guns -- fast!"



    Death Descending bulleted downward, shrieking through the ever thicker planetary atmosphere at a dangerously high velocity. Unlike Human military transports, Death Descending's huge hull was sleekly aerodynamic, designed for atmospheric insertions exactly like this one, but Captain Na-Tharla was painfully well aware of the fact that there was a Bolo waiting for him. Everything suggested that the Bolo in question would be unable to engage his ship as it descended, but the fact that everything suggested that would be very cold comfort if it turned out not to be accurate. At the moment, he missed the rest of Admiral Na-Izhaaran's squadron more acutely than he had in many months, because they were supposed to be there to offer supporting fire as he penetrated his objective's atmosphere.

    On the other hand, he reflected as he watched his ship's skin temperature climb, our original objective would have had orbital defenses worth worrying about, too. Which this target doesn't, thanks to Lieutenant Sa-Chelak's platoon.

    He spared a tiny corner of his brain to send a silent prayer winging to Sa-Chelak's family gods on the lieutenant's behalf. It was all he could afford to spare, and he returned his total attention to his radar-mapping display as Death Descending screamed towards its selected landing site at three times the speed of sound.



    More crimson lights glared on Edmund Hawthorne's damage control panel as the intruders burned their way through the blast doors. Those doors were intended to contain atmosphere, and to resist fairly severe explosive damage, but they weren't exactly slabs of duralloy armor. No one had ever intended them to serve as armored bulkheads capable of containing energy-weapon armed infantry for any length of time, after all.

    The pattern of damage control reports told him what objectives the Dog Boys had selected for themselves, for all the good it did him. They were headed for Engineering… and the Bridge.

    Exactly where I'd be headed myself, he conceded coldly. Which isn't a great deal of comfort just this moment.

    At least he'd managed to get all of his people armed, however barely, before their unwelcome visitors arrived. And he'd managed to figure out how those visitors had gotten aboard his ship in the first place onceMaster Chief Halberstadt had maneuvered one of Thermopylae's external hull maintenance mechs around to the area of the hull breaches.

    A single Melconian special ops insertion boat was mechanically grappled to Thermopylae's skin. Hawthorne had never encountered one of the insertion boats, nor had anyone else in his ship's company, but Iona's memory had obediently disgorged more information than he could possibly use about them. The two really relevant facts, as far as he was concerned, were , first, that the insertion boats were pure transport vehicles, with no onboard armament. And, second, that they had a maximum capacity of twenty, falling to only fifteen if the personnel aboard them were suited for vacuum ops. Which told him that his twenty-two-person crew had the invaders outnumbered.

    Except, of course, for the fact that we're scattered all over the ship. And that these are highly trained special operations troops and we're Navy pukes. Not a Marine among us.

    "Open Gamma-Seventeen, Jackson," he said to the Exec. "Let's get Mallory and his team up here to the command deck before the Doggies get here. There's no point leaving them where they are, and I want as much firepower as we can get on this side of the shin-breaker."

    "Aye, aye, Sir," Lieutenant Lewis acknowledged. He unlocked the indicated blast door long enough for the power tech petty officer to lead her three-person party through it, and Hawthorne tried to look confident.

    It wasn't easy. Given the speed at which the Dog Boys were moving, they'd get to Engineering at least ten minutes before Jessica Stopford could get the powered armor up and running. And they'd get to the Bridge deck a good minute before that. Mallory's people probably weren't going to make enough difference when they got here, either. On the other hand, there was the shin-breaker. And despite their rapid progress, it was unlikely, to say the least, that the Dog Boys knew about it.

    He considered -- again -- informing Maneka about what was happening. And -- again -- decided against it. Whatever else happened, the Puppies weren't getting his ship, even if they did manage to knock Iona out before she blew the scuttling charges. Stopford had had time to rig a backup demolition sequence of her own in Fusion One, and it was on a deadman's switch. If she took her hand off that button for any reason, her improvised arrangements would blow Thermopylae straight to Hell. So even if Hawthorne and his people lost the ship, the Melconians wouldn't get control of her, and since there wasn't a thing Maneka could do either way to affect the outcome aboard Thermopylae, there was no pressing need to tell her about it until it was over. Which, in a worst-case scenario, the detonation of the ship's main reactor would do quite effectively.

    And in the meantime, she didn't need anything else to worry about.



    Death Descending's landing pads hit the surface of the alien planet almost precisely on schedule.

    The transport's huge hatches gaped open, and the first air cavalry units were whining out of her upper cargo decks almost before the landing legs had stopped flexing and fully stabilized. Vehicle ramps slammed down, and lightly armed and unarmored infantry carriers went grinding down them and raced outward to the preliminary perimeter positions General Ka-Frahkan and Colonel Na-Salth had pre-selected.

    The first of the medium combat mechs followed on their heels, and the massive heavy mechs trembled as their four-man crews brought their drivetrains to full power.



    Sergeant Major Na-Hanak had witnessed Lieutenant Sa-Chelak's death.

    There hadn't been anything he could do about it. Their pre-operations briefing had considered the possibility that the Humans would have armed small craft available, but there'd been no way to know for certain whether or not they did. Nor had there been any way to neutralize them before the insertion.

    The good news was that the Humans appeared to have only a very few of them. Na-Hanak's sensors could detect only two, in fact, and the special ops troopers were extremely difficult to spot, even at such close ranges. Lieutenant Sa-Chelak had been unlucky enough to be in exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time, although just how unlucky that had actually been was debatable, the sergeant major reflected. He'd known as well as the Lieutenant that Sa-Chelak wasn't going to make it, and the officer's death appeared to have attracted both of the Human cutters to the volume of space where he had died.

    Which was what had given Na-Hanak and his three-man section the opportunity to reach the hull of their own objective unmolested.

    Of course, there had been supposed to the eight of them, not four, and even then they would probably have been grossly outnumbered by the Humans aboard this vessel. But unlike those Humans, his troopers were heavily armed and knew exactly what was happening.

    He patted Private Ha-Tharmak on the shoulder, and she fired the breaching charge.



    "They're down, Peter," Maneka's image said from the brigadier's com screen. "Almost exactly where Lazarus projected."

    A scarlet icon blinked on the electronic map at Jeffords' right elbow, and he frowned thoughtfully as he studied the display.

    Landing was located on a large, roughly triangular coastal plateau, bounded by the ocean to the east and by a tangled range of mountains to the west. The final decision had been made by Adrian Agnelli, but Jeffords knew Maneka had pushed strongly for this particular site. The only suitable landing zones from which the plateau could be threatened -- and which could be reached without exposing the landers to Lazarus' Hellbore fire from Landing -- all lay on the far side of the mountains, which created a formidable defensive obstacle for armored units and infantry. Air cavalry would be another matter, but Captain Jessup's Whippets, combined with the air-defense systems which had been positioned as a first priority even before construction on the city itself began, should have an excellent fighting chance against the couple of hundred air cav mounts of a Melconian heavy assault brigade, even without Lazarus' presence.

    What neither they nor Jeffords' so-called brigade had the chance of a snowflake in hell against was the rest of that assault brigade. Jeffords knew how hard his people had trained before the colony expedition departed, and their actual combat equipment was far better than a typical militia unit would boast, even on one of the core worlds. They'd done their best to keep that training current on the long voyage here, too, but their opportunities had been strictly limited, and since their arrival, they'd all been so swamped with the enormous task of creating a new home that there'd been no time to bring them back up to their original proficiency levels. And Jeffords was honest enough to admit that even at their best, they'd never been up to the standards of the regular armed forces. They certainly weren't the equal in training or experience to the undoubtedly battle-hardened Melconians who had come to kill them.

    From dug-in defensive positions they might be able to hold their own, at least against Dog Boy infantry. In any sort of battle of maneuver, though, they would be hopelessly outclassed and their advantage in numbers would be virtually meaningless.

    The sole possible exception to that was Major Mary Lou Atwater's Fourth Battalion. Atwater, one of the relatively few combat veterans in the colony militia, had been a Marine sergeant, who had retired from active service eight years before the current war began. She'd maintained her reserve status and tried to go back on active duty when the shooting started, but the Concordiat had declined her offer. She'd had the poor judgment -- as far as reupping was concerned -- to become an expert in the field of industrial robotics, and she'd been too valuable in that capacity to put back in uniform. But that dual capability of hers had made her ideal for Operation Seed Corn. She'd fought tooth and nail against accepting a commission, even in the militia, but she'd given in in the end. And she'd been fortunate enough to have almost the total personnel of her battalion assigned to the same transport… where she had made herself immensely unpopular by goading them through regular weapons drill and the best simulations she'd been able to cobble up on the transport's electronic entertainment systems.




    "What route to you think they'll take, Maneka?" Jeffords asked now.

    "That depends on a lot of factors," her image said calmly. He knew she was actually fused with the Bolo's psychotronics, and he found himself wondering suddenly it she'd bothered to change out of her swimsuit. It was an insane thing to be wasting mental effort on at a time like this, and he knew it, but the electronic image in front of him was neatly turned out in regulation uniform.

    "We don't know how much they actually know about our situation," she continued. "If they realize just how old Lazarus is, they may decide in favor of a brute force approach and opt to take him on frontally. In that case, they'd probably come down Route Alpha."

    A crimson line threaded its way through the mountains, following the line of the river which thundered over the bluffs into the sea to the south of Landing.

    "The going is easiest coming that way, although they're wide open to air attack, if we have the capability for it, and the terrain here and here --" stars blinked at two points along the length of the thread "-- would give both sides excellent fields of fire. We could begin picking them off with direct fire at over fifty kilometers at either of these points, but their Surturs could engage us in return. I doubt they're going to want to give a modern Bolo a shot at them at that sort of range, but they could be foolish enough to try it against an older model like Lazarus. I'd really like them to be, but I'm not going to plan on it.

    "If they follow either Route Bravo or Route Charlie," she went on, while two additional threads came alive, "the terrain is a lot closer, which would let them use infantry and their lighter mechs to try to work around our flanks without exposing their heavy armor to our fire at such extended ranges. Right now, Lazarus is projecting a probability of seventy-five percent for Route Charlie."

    The indicated route blinked on the display. Like the Alpha Route, it followed the line of a river valley which actually merged with Alpha about forty kilometers west of Landing. For the most part, the going was at least as good as for the Alpha Route, too, although there was one stretch that passed through a virtual gorge -- a narrow, cliff-walled, twisting gut of a passage where the larger Melconian mechs would have no choice but to advance in single file."I hope that's not wishful thinking," Jeffords said.

    "Bolos aren't subject to wishful thinking in enemy intention analyses," she replied. "If it were me, the maneuver opportunities would make it very tempting, too. On the other hand, I have to admit that I may not be quite as immune to wishful thinking as Lazarus is, and I'd certainly prefer for them to come that way. "

    Jeffords nodded, once again reflecting on how fortunate they were to have had Maneka Trevor in military command. Her insistence on mapping every possible approach route looked as if it was about to pay off in a huge way.

    Purely on the basis of the surface topography, Route Charlie would have to be attractive to the Melconians. It threaded its way through a series of passes broad enough to give scope for tactical maneuvers and rough enough a single Bolo would find it extremely difficult to prevent light units and infantry from worming their way forward around its flanks. And while there were several places along it where a defensive force could make an effective stand, in every case except the gorge Jeffords had already noted, there were alternate approaches through flanking valleys. If Maneka had still commanded a pair of Bolos and had both of them on the ground, they could easily have blocked Route Charlie by operating in support of one another. As it was, Lazarus could engage an attacking column and bottle it up temporarily at any one of those natural defensive positions, but except for the gorge section, there was nowhere he could hold the entire force. And if he let them pin him in position, they would simply flow around him through one of the alternate approaches.

    But unless they had access to the deep-scan radar mapping Maneka and Lazarus had carried out, there were aspects of Route Charlie which might just come as a nasty surprise to them.

    "I have to admit," he said frankly, "that I was one of the people who thought you'd gone beyond thorough to paranoid, Maneka. But now I'm beginning to wonder if you weren't clairvoyant, instead."

    "Hardly." Her mouth tightened and bitterness edged her voice. "If I'd been clairvoyant, Guthrie Chin and Mickey would both be alive and this assault transport would have been blown out of space on its way in. And even if they come down Charlie, we're still facing one hell of a force disadvantage."

    "Agreed. But at least we can hurt them."

    "That's probably true enough," Maneka conceded. "In the meantime, I've decided it's time to saddle up for Sidekick."

    "Agreed," Jeffords said again, steadily, although a part of him wanted to protest angrily. Fourth Battalion was his most effective unit. If the Melconians got past Lazarus, he was going to need Atwater's men and women badly. But he didn't even consider voicing that concern because, bottom line, if the Melconians got past Lazarus with their forces anything like intact, Landing -- and the entire colony -- was doomed. So if sending Fourth Battalion out to support Lazarus improved the Bolo's chance of stopping the enemy short of Landing, there was no question of where Brigadier Peter Jeffords wanted those troops employed.

    "I'll have them moving aboard Lazarus' pod within ten minutes," he assured his youthful commander's image.



    "That way."

    Corporal Ka-Sharan pointed out across the huge compartment. The blast doors had slammed into place, as he'd anticipated, but the compartment was so vast, and so crowded with industrial machinery, that the chunks between the doors were big enough for an entire company to maneuver through, far less his own four-man team. And before the doors closed, he'd had time for his suit's computers to read the schematic the Humans had so kindly posted on the bulkheads. He knew exactly which way to go to get to the command center, and on a platform this large and this heavily automated, any possible opposition would have to be located there.

    "Yes, Corporal," Private Ta-Holar acknowledged, and readied his energy lance as he moved rapidly but warily in the indicated direction. Ka-Sharan and the other two special ops troopers stayed close behind their point man, watching the flanks and rear. It looked as if they'd gotten in clean, Ka-Sharan thought. That was good. And they had their demolition charge in case they needed it, too.



    "They're out of Bravo-Seven," someone said tersely, and Lauren nodded. The Dog Boys were moving faster than she'd hoped they could, and they'd burned their way through the first set of blast doors with what seemed absurd ease. A platoon from Captain Glenn Smyth-Mariano's company of vacuum-trained militia was on the way, but they were going to get here too late. At least Lauren had gotten most of her people off in the lifeboats, so if the Puppies did have a demolition charge and popped it off, they would kill only her and her command crew.

    And, of course, fifteen percent of the colony's total industrial capacity.

    "There are only four of the bastards," she heard herself say as she stared at the visual imagery from India Mike Three's internal sensors. "Only four!"

    "Sure," Alfred Tschu agreed. "But that's four of them with armor and heavy weapons. And we've got zip as weapons." He stared at his displays for several moments, then shook his head. "Lauren, I think it's time to go, too," he said quietly.

    "No! They've still got to cross all of Bravo-Six and Bravo-Four before they can get here!" she snapped, glaring at the images of the Melconian intruders.

    "Which isn't going to take them very long," Tschu pointed out. "You know that as well as I do."

    Lauren grunted, biting her lip hard. Unfortunately, Tschu was right. The sectors of the industrial module were mostly big open spaces, without a lot in the way of internal bulkheads. They had to be because of the nature of the process which went on inside them. They were wrapped around the control room like the rings of an onion, but none of them was going to offer many barriers to the oncoming boarders. And whether the Puppies knew it or not, they'd picked the worst possible line of approach, from the humans' perspective. The evacuation route from the control center to the lifeboats ran right along the back side of Bravo-Four. If they just kept coming, they would cut the watch-crew off from escape before they ever reached the control center itself.

    "Any more word from Smyth-Mariano, Hannah?" she demanded.

    "No." The communications tech sounded decidedly shaky, and Lauren didn't blame her a bit.

    "Well, contact him. Tell him what's happening. And tell him we've got maybe fifteen minutes before they cut us off from the lifeboats."



    The last blast door before Thermopylae's command deck glowed briefly and almost instantaneously yellow-white, then yielded with an explosive concussion as the Melconian energy lance burned through it. At least the ship's automated repair systems had managed to close up the hull breaches behind the invaders. The atmospheric pressure dropped noticeably, but it remained breathable, which was good, since none of Hawthorne's bridge personnel had been given time to get to their suit lockers before the entire ship went into lock down.

    Something arced through the opening and hit a bulkhead with a metallic rattle.

    Hawthorne recognized the grenade instantly.

    "Down!" he barked, and flung himself flat behind the pedestal of his command couch an instant before a pair of sledgehammers seemed to impact simultaneously on either side of his head.

    The concussion was deafening, and the flash which accompanied it blinded Lieutenant Lewis and Petty Officer Mallory. But as Hawthorne had hoped -- prayed -- the Dog Boys were trying to take the ship in operable condition, so they were relying on stun grenades. The cumulative effect of the Melconian flash-bangs was devastating, but God had decided to grant them at least a couple of small favors, and one of them was the "shin-breaker."

    Like most of the rest of his personnel, Hawthorne had spent more than a few minutes cursing the yard workers who had overseen the extension of Number Three Vehicle Hold when Thermopylae was refitted to increase her combat-loaded vehicle capacity. Thanks to their efforts, the access passage to the command bridge took a sharp, right-angled dogleg, then climbed a four-step access ladder to clear the upper edge of what had become the vehicle hold's aftermost bulkhead just short of the bridge hatch itself.

    That ladder, and the raised, shin-high lip of the access hatch (which, unlike the ladder, could have been designed out), had tripped up every single member of the bridge crew at least once since coming aboard. But it also provided a shallow, built-in grenade sump, and much of the effect of the flash-bang was deflected from the bridge proper. What ought to have completely, if temporarily, incapacitated any unprotected person exposed to the blast had "only" disoriented most of the defenders, instead.

    Hawthorne fought doggedly against the grenade's effect. He'd known it was coming, done his best to prepare himself for it ahead of time, and the additional blast shadow of his command chair had helped, but he still seemed to be moving in slow motion through atmosphere which had become a clinging syrup. He saw his own hands, as if they belonged to someone else, twisting the safety lock on the boarding grenade, pressing the arming button, and then lobbing it back out through the smoke-streaming hatch.




    Captain Ka-Paldyn slapped Seargeant Na-Rahmar on the shoulder, and the sergeant flung himself forward through the breach that ought to lead directly to the transport's bridge. So far, the rough schematic in Ka-Paldyn's suit computer had been gratifyingly accurate. As always, there were slight discrepancies -- even among the People, "sisterships" often varied considerably, especially in their interior arrangements -- but nothing significant.

    Until now.

    Private Ka-Morghas followed Na-Rahmar through the breach, power carbine ready to pick off the stunned, helpless Human bridge crew, and Private Na-Laarhan was right on Ka-Morghas' heels when the grenade went off directly under their feet.

    It wasn't a stunning weapon. It wasn't even a conventional explosive. Instead, a small, intensely powerful, superconductor capacitor-fed gravitic field propelled several hundred flechettes outward in a circular pattern at six thousand meters per second. They were small, those flechettes, but needle-tipped and razor-edged. They punched through the Melconians' lightly-armored EW suits with contemptuous ease, and all three of Ka-Paldyn's lead troopers were turned instantly into so much mangled meat.



    A handful of the lethal flechettes howled back through the hatch into the bridge itself. Fortunately, the super-dense little missiles were so sharp and carried so much kinetic energy with them that they half-buried themselves in the battle steel bulkheads instead of ricocheting. One of them didn't hit a bulkhead, however. Instead, it struck Jackson Lewis as he still stood, dazed and pawing at his blinded eyes, and his chest exploded under the impact. His body flew back, slamming into the main visual display, then slid down, painting a broad bloody streak down the display.

    Hawthorne swore viciously as the exec went down, and again as two more of the errant flechettes exploded through the communications console in a spectacular eruption of arcing circuitry, but there was no time to think about that just now. His sidearm was in his left hand, covering the hatch. He was a poor enough shot under any circumstances, and he figured his chances of actually hitting anything left-handed were about the same as his chance of becoming Emperor of the Known Universe, but his right hand was occupied with a second grenade, and his right thumb was on the arming button.



    Ka-Paldyn guessed instantly what had happened. Unfortunately, there wasn't much he could do about it.

    He tossed a remote sensor through the breached blast door, but it only confirmed what he had already surmised, and he cursed under his breath. If the accursed ship's architecture had to depart from the schematic, why had it had to be here, of all places? The mere fact that anyone on the other side of that blast door had been capable of offensive action at all had already told him that whoever it was must had been behind some very substantial cover which shouldn't have been there. Now, as he studied the palm-sized display's imagery relayed from the remote, he recognized that there was no way for him or his team to fire effectively around that sharp bend in the passage. The ruined blast door was just too far from the turn in the corridor for anyone on Ka-Paldyn's side of the door to get a firing angle up and through the actual bridge hatch. But it was painfully obvious that there was nothing at all to prevent the bridge's defenders from firing effectively on anyone attempting to force his way through the hatch, around the bend, and up that short ladder.

    Ka-Paldyn's mind worked furiously, trying to find a way around the problem. Ultimately, he knew, he could bypass the hatch entirely by cutting his way directly through the intervening bulkheads. But the bulkheads were almost as tough as the blast doors themselves, and there were more of them. They would take longer to burn through, and his own assault group had exhausted most of its energy lances getting to this point. Which didn't even consider the fact that he had absolutely no way of knowing what critical control runs he might cut trying to pry open the bulkheads. That was a minor concern, tactically speaking, but his special ops force didn't include anyone trained in Human engineering practices. Their suits' computers theoretically contained the information they would need to at least shut down the ship's drives until someone from Death Descending could get here to take over. But if they cut or disabled something critical to the management of the ship, none of them would havethe least idea how to fix it.

    "Jarth," he said over his suit communicator.

    "Here," Lieutenant Jarth Ka-Holmar, First Platoon's commander, replied instantly.

    "Problems at the bridge hatch," Ka-Paldyn said. "The passage bends sharply. There's no direct approach, and the Human command crew obviously got to their weapons lockers before we boarded. I've lost three people."

    "I copy," Ka-Holmar said. "We haven't encountered any armed resistance yet, but I've got two wounded, anyway."

    "What? How?"

    "The Humans are using the ship's repair mechs against us." Ka-Holmar couldn't quite keep the frustrated anger out of his voice. "They took us by surprise the first time, and Sergeant Ka-Yaru and Private Na-Erask got hit by some sort of heavy-lift mech. Ka-Yaru's right arm and both of Na-Erask's legs are broken. It was stupid, Sir. I should have seen it coming."

    "No plan survives the test of combat unchanged, Jarth," Ka-Paldyn quoted, more philosophically then he felt. "Those are your only casualties?"

    "Yes, Sir. Now that we know what the Humans are up to, we're taking out the mechs before they can reach us. Good thing, too. The last one they threw at us almost got Sa-Ithar with a laser cutting torch. They aren't going to stop us with this sort of silliness, Sir, but they are slowing us down."

    "Understood. On the other hand, if that's the best they have to put up against you, maybe their Engineering crew didn't have time to draw regular weapons, after all."

    Ka-Paldyn thought again, considering his options. He wished fervently that he hadn't sent Na-Rahmar through the blast door first. He'd gotten overconfident, he told himself bitterly. The total lack of opposition to that point had convinced him the Humans were cowering helplessly behind the ultimately futile barrier of their blast doors, like unarmed meschu in a hunter's trap. And that conviction had led to the sort of mistake overconfidence always led to. Which was why he'd sent the person carrying his own assault team's demolition charge through the blast door to be killed.

    Ka-Holmar still had his fusion charge, so Na-Rahmar's death wasn't catastrophic. Even if they failed to take the ship, they could still ensure its destruction. But it was undeniably frustrating and humiliating to have stumbled like this after First Platoon's brilliant success in accurately projecting the Humans' evasive course maneuver and getting one of its insertion boats aboard in the first place.

    "We can't move forward here without cutting through bulkheads, Jarth, and we've almost exhausted our lances," he said. "How soon do expect to have Engineering?"

    "I can't say for certain, Sir," Ka-Holmar replied honestly. "I expected to be there already, but having to shoot the ship's damned hardware has put us well behind schedule. I'd estimate another fifteen minutes at our present rate of progress, but I can't guarantee that."

    "Well," Ka-Paldyn said with a grim chuckle, "it's not like they're going anywhere before you get there to kill them, now is it? Go ahead. I'll hold here with the rest of my team until you secure Engineering. We can at least shut down the drive from there, if we have to. And if we can tie our suit computers into the ship's main net, we can probably figure out how to shut down the environmental services, as well. If they don't want to let us come in, we'll just shut off their air and see how they like that."

    "Understood, Sir."




    "Lauren, our guys aren't going to get here before the Dogs do," Alfred Tschu said harshly. "We've got to go -- now!"

    "I know. I know!" Lauren felt her lips draw back in a snarl of frustrated hatred. Those bastards out there were the same ones who'd killed Kuan Yin and eighty percent of her crew, and now they were going to take India Mike Three away from her, too. And there was nothing she could do about --


    The word popped out of her as abruptly as a punch in the face, and Tschu paused, half-way out of hs station chair. He and Hannah Segovia darted a look at each other, then turned back to Lauren with wary expressions.

    "What is it?" Alf asked cautiously.

    "Look at them!" Lauren jabbed a finger at the visual display which showed the oncoming Melconians. "There are only four of the bastards, and they're moving straight along the passages towards Control."

    "Yeah, there are only four of them," he agreed. "But they've got guns, and we don't. And like you say, they're headed straight this way."

    "Sure they are," she agreed, and her lips drew back in a wolfish snarl. "But they're staying bunched up and following the bulkhead markers. Don't you see? Either they can read Standard English, or else their suit computers are translating for them, but they're coming straight down the pike. Which means we know where they're going to be when they cross Bravo-Four and head for the hatch, don't we."

    "Well, yeah . . . ." he said slowly, but Lauren was no longer paying him any attention. She was busy giving very careful very explicit orders to the industrial module's simple-minded AI.



    "We'll finish boarding the Battalion in another twenty minutes, Ma'am," Major Atwater told Maneka. "Sorry we can't move any faster than that."

    "Major, the fact that you can squeeze your people into the available space at all is remarkable," Maneka replied, taking pains to keep even the hint of frustration out of her tone. Atwater was indeed doing remarkably well to be getting her people and their equipment aboard as quickly as she was, and Maneka knew her own observation about the available space was well taken. The automated depot, coupled with Lazarus' own bulk, had reduced the space which ought to have easily accommodated Atwater's five hundred militia men and women to claustrophobic dimensions. At least Maneka had offloaded the depot's spare parts and as much of the rest of the pod's cargo as possible, but the space reduction was still severe. They were fortunate that the battalion's heavy weapons could fit aboard standard heavy-lift cargo platforms. Five of them were tractor-locked to Lazarus' missile deck and the pod's flanks, which was strictly against The Book but let Maneka squeeze them aboard anyway.

    What she wasn't going to be able to do was to deploy them in a proper combat drop. So she was going to have to get the pod onto the ground far enough out of range of the Melconians to give Atwater the time she would need to get her personnel deployed and her heavy weapons crews mated with their equipment.

    "Let me know as soon as we can seal hatches, Major," she said.

    "Affirmative, Ma'am."



    "Green board, Ma'am!" Chief Harriman announced sharply.

    "Thank God!" Lieutenant Jessica Stopford acknowledged, looking up from her own console, and carefully entered the necessary code before removing her thumb from the self-destruct button.

    The Melconians had reached the final blast door before Engineering itself, and she had just committed her final distraction -- a pair of cleaning machines -- to slowing them down. By now, the Dog Boys had adjusted to her tricks, and they blew the automated mops to bits almost casually, but the delay had lasted just long enough.

    "Up!" Ensign Younts announced, and Stopford looked over her shoulder at the ensign.

    At the Skipper's insistence (which Stopford had thought was just a little paranoid of him at the time), everyone aboard Thermopylae had at least read the manuals on the powered armor. But Younts and Chief Harriman, both of whom had served in direct support of the Marines before their current assignment, were the only two members of the crew with anything approaching hands-on familiarity with the equipment.

    Now they walked their powered armor massively across the forward power room's decking. The standard Marine-issue armor gleamed like black ice under the overhead lighting, bulging and massive with energy weapons and projectile guns.

    "You're sure you're ready?" Stopford asked. What she really wanted to ask was Are you sure you know what the hell you're doing? but that was out of the question, of course.

    "Oh, yeah, Ma'am." Younts' response scarcely represented proper military phraseology, but there was no mistaking the anticipation in the young woman's voice.

    "Time to kick some Puppy ass!" she added, and, despite herself, Stopford chuckled. Then she sobered.

    "Then go to it, Ensign," she said, and punched the button.



    "Cleaning machines!" Lieutenant Ka-Holmar said, shaking his head in exasperation.

    "Yes, Sir," his lead trooper said, obviously more than a little embarrassed at having expended ammunition on such an unworthy target.

    "Well, don't worry about it," Ka-Holmar reassured him after a moment. "Better safe than sorry. And according to the schematic, we're finally here."

    He clambered through the hole burned through the final blast door. The standard-weight hatch to the ship's forward power room loomed before him -- still closed, of course -- and he exhaled in undeniable relief. Like any Imperial soldier, Ka-Holmar was perfectly prepared to die for the People if that was what the mission required, but he couldn't deny that he preferred the notion of surviving. Which made him grateful that the demolition charge strapped to his back wasn't going to be required after all.

    He turned his head to address Sergeant Sa-Ithar.




    Power One's hatch flicked open, and Younts and Harriman thundered through it in a deck-pounding run.

    Stopford watched the video feed relayed from Younts' helmet sensors as the pair of humans suddenly erupted into the midst of the Melconian special ops troopers.

    It was not an equitable matchup.

    The Melconian EW suits were designed for stealthiness. They carried some armor, but Ka-Holmar's troopers were essentially armed and equipped as light infantry. Marine powered armor, on the other hand, wasn't particularly stealthy. What it was was engineered for close, brutal, heavy combat.

    Ka-Holmar never had time to realize what had happened. One instant he was turning to address his sergeant; the next a two-centimeter, armor-mounted power rifle blew a fist-sized hole right through the fusion charge on his back and out through the front of his chest in an explosion of body fluids and splintered bone.

    Sergeant Sa-Ithar screamed a warning to the rest of Ka-Holmar's assault team. That was all he had time for before a stream of hyper-velocity flechettes from Chief Harriman's armor sliced him in half with all of the neatness and finesse of a chainsaw.

    Fire streamed back at the two humans from the Melconians on the other side of the ruptured blast door, but their heavy armor shrugged it effortlessly aside, and they advanced through the hurricane of projectiles and power gun fire like people wading upstream against a stiff current. They reached the blast door, and Younts fired a burst of contact-fused grenades through the opening, then covered Harriman as the chief petty officer gripped the broken duralloy panel in his armor's powered gauntlets and heaved like a fusion-powered Hercules.

    The entire blast door panel wrenched out of its guides, and he tossed it aside as Younts went storming through the opening, killing anything that moved.



    "Ready to lift, Ma'am!"

    "Thank you, Major," the human portion of the Maneka/Lazarus fusion acknowledged, and the pod's drive whined as it rose smoothly into the air. It was heavily laden enough to be ponderous, but it accelerated quickly and went streaking off towards the oncoming Melconians.



    "Here they come," Tschu said harshly. His face was white and strained, and Lauren could almost physically feel his desire to be somewhere -- anywhere -- else. But he and Hannah had both stuck with her, and she smiled at them as reassuringly as she could as the Melconian boarders approached the final hatch out of Bravo-Four.

    They were alert, she saw. While their point moved right up to the door with his energy lance, the others formed a hollow semi-circle around him, watching their back trail and scanning the silently looming banks of machinery to either side. But what none of them was doing, she noted with grim satisfaction, was looking directly upward.

    "Come on," she murmured to them softly, willing them to obey her. "Come on. Just a little closer together . . . ."

    Perhaps the force of her will worked. Or maybe she was just lucky. Even as she watched, the perimeter drew in a little closer to the point, as if his fellows wanted to watch over his shoulder as he burned away the bulkhead around the hatch.

    "Now!" Lauren barked to the AI, and the seventy-eight-ton tractor grab suspended from the overhead carrier twenty-two meters directly above the approach to the hatch, in direct contravention of every safety reg ever written, came smashing down like the Hammer of Thor.



    "Nameless Ones take them all!" Sergeant-Major Na-Hanak swore viciously as power rifle fire ripped suddenly into Private Cha-Thark.

    The private flipped back without even a scream, sliding across the deck with the total inertness of death, and Na-Hanak's HUD blazed with abrupt scarlet icons as his sensors picked up the emission signatures of the Human infantry spreading out ahead of him. There were at least twelve of the Humans, and from their signatures, they were equipped with weapons at least as good as his own. There was no way he and his single surviving trooper could hope to defeat all of them. And even if they could have, what would be the point? If this many of the enemy were already deployed to meet them this far from the ship's control center, there must be others -- many others -- behind them.

    Na-Hanak had lost the race to beat them to his target. As, he admitted to himself at last, he'd always anticipated that he would. Still, they'd almost made it . . . and they had destroyed their primary target.

    Nor was that all they would accomplish, he told himself grimly, and looked at Private Ha-Tharmak.

    "It's time," he told her quietly. She looked back at him for perhaps two heartbeats, then flipped her ears in agreement. There was fear in her eyes, he saw, but not a trace of hesitation, and he hoped she saw his pride in her when she looked into his own face.

    "Good bye, Sergeant-Major," she said simply, and pressed the button.

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