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Old Soldiers: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Thursday, August 18, 2005 10:03 EDT



    "Both my armored battalions have cleared the ship, Sir," Colonel Na-Lythan reported, and General Ka-Frahkan flicked his ears sharply in approval.

    "Good, Uran! Good!"

    He watched the heavy armored units' icons spreading out around the grounded transport on his tactical plot. The medium mechs formed the outer perimeter, backed up by the heavies the Humans had codenamed "Surtur." Ka-Frahkan was no student of xeno-mythology, but his intelligence briefing on the Humans had told him the origin of the name, and he found it grimly appropriate as he watched the massive, heavily armored giants grinding into position.

    "The artillery battalion has also cleared ship," Colonel Na-Salth announced. Ka-Frahkan glanced at him, and his executive officer looked up from his own display to meet his eyes. "Major Ha-Kahm has already designated his deployment positions, and his units are moving into them now. He reports that his air-defense batteries will be prepared to provide defensive fire within another six minutes."

    "Tell him I'm pleased, very pleased," Ka-Frahkan said, then turned his head as Captain Na-Tharla stepped into the landing force command center.

    "You put us on the ground in one piece, Gizhan," the general said quietly. "Thank you -- from all my people. We'll take it from here."

    "I'm afraid you'll have to, Sir," Na-Tharla replied with a sigh. Ka-Frahkan cocked one ear interrogatively, and the captain shrugged. "Assault transports are designed for this sort of operation, but this is a big ship for atmospheric maneuvers at the best of times, Sir, and we put her down unusually hard and fast this time. High-speed insertions are always hard on the hardware. And Death Descending wasn't exactly in perfect shape when we started the landing. We've stripped off enough array elements to cost us forty percent of our sensor capability; our main and secondary subspace arrays are both off-line and look like they'll stay that way; and our main drive popped three of the alpha circuit breakers on the primary converter just as we hit dirt. We can fix it -- probably -- but not quickly. Not when we've overstrained the ship's systems for so long without proper maintenance or spares. I've got my people working on it, of course, but I estimate that we'll need at least twelve hours just to patch up the drive, if we're lucky. More probably, two or three times that long."

    "I see." Ka-Frahkan looked at Na-Tharla gravely. The news wasn't exactly unexpected, but that made it no less unwelcome. Ka-Frahkan's ops plan had emphasized the need to get Death Descending back into space and well away from the Bolo's weapons as quickly as possible. Obviously, that wasn't going to happen now.

    "I'm sorry, General," Na-Tharla said quietly.

    "Not your fault, Gizhan," Ka-Frahkan replied, equally quietly, and reached out to squeeze the naval officer's shoulder. "We'd never have gotten here in the first place without all the miracles you worked along the way," he continued. "And, frankly, I doubt your ship is going to be the Humans' primary target. Jesmahr and I intend to push their ground forces hard. That should keep them concentrated facing us, well away from you. They may toss some missiles your way, but Major Ha-Kahm is already setting up his air-defense batteries. I'll have him tie his sensor capability directly into your tactical net, as well. That will at least give your point defense systems sharper eyes to deal with anything that comes at you and gets through his batteries."

    "Thank you, Sir."

    "Pure selfishness on my part, Gizhan," Ka-Frahkan said, flicking his ears in amusement. "Without your ship, it would be a long walk home!"

    Na-Tharla's ears twitched in answering amusement, despite the worry lingering in his eyes, and Ka-Frahkan squeezed his shoulder again, then turned to his bank of communications displays.

    "Major Na-Pahrthal," he said.

    "Yes, Sir!" the air cavalry commander replied from his quadrant screen.

    "I want one company of your cavalry mounts deployed in a standard landing zone perimeter pattern. Instruct them to tie into Death Descending's communications net, as well as ours. I want any report from them to reach Captain Na-Tharla and his people the same instant it reaches us."

    "Yes, Sir!" Na-Pahrthal said, saluting crisply, and Ka-Frahkan returned his attention to Colonel Na-Lythan.

    "Uran, start pushing your reconnaissance units out. Don't get too carried away until we've got everyone off the ship and ready to deploy, but I don't want anyone sneaking up on us without being spotted."

    "Yes, Sir."


    "Yes, Sir?"

    "Let's get the reconnaissance drones launched. They must have tracked us well enough to know approximately where we planeted, and given the thoroughness their commander's shown all along the line, they must have surveyed the possible approach routes to their colony long ago. So concentrate on sweeping not just our planned axis of advance, but all the other's we've identified, as well. Sweep everything between us and their colony."

    "Yes, Sir."



    "Open hatch!" a sergeant announced. "Okay, People! Move it! Move it!"

    Maneka/Lazarus watched through the assault pod's internal visual pickups as Fourth Battalion's militia troopers streamed out of its gaping hatches. Major Atwater had drilled them well, she/they thought approvingly. The militiamen and women showed plenty of anxiety and more than a little fear, but no confusion as they deployed at a dead run towards the positions marked on their individual HUDs. Atwater -- and Maneka -- had selected individual troop positions for this particular blocking position weeks ago, and the militia and their heavy support weapons were settling into them with gratifying speed.

    "Five more minutes to clear the pod, Captain Trevor," Atwater reported formally. The vehicles and other equipment which had been grappled to the pod hull and Lazarus' missile deck had already been un-grappled, and the Maneka component of her/their composite identity watched the heavy gear being unloaded from its pallets and rushed into position.

    "Thank you, Mary Lou," she said over the com. "Please remind everyone to stay well clear of the pod's safety perimeter."

    "Oh, I will -- I will!" Atwater replied with a crooked grin. "Not that I expect it's really necessary. Whatever I may tell 'em at drills, none of my people are really outright idiots!"

    "No, I imagine not," Maneka agreed.

    The militia completed their disembarkation in less than eighteen minutes, which -- as Maneka/Lazarus was fully aware -- was astonishingly good time, almost as good as a frontline Marine battalion could have hoped to accomplish. But the speed with which she/they thought and reacted when they meshed through the neural link made the delay seem eternal. At least, it did to the human portion of their fusion, an inner corner of Maneka's brain thought sardonically.

    "Last man clear!" Atwater's executive officer announced.

    "You're clear to lift, Maneka," Atwater said. "Everybody's outside the drive perimeter."

    "Thank you," Maneka replied, as courteously as if her/their sensors hadn't already informed her of that. "Lifting now."

    The pod's drive howled as Lazarus threw maximum emergency power to its drive and headed not west, toward the Melconian transport, but south, away from it.




    "Sir, Colonel Na-Lythan's advanced drones have located a force of Human infantry directly on our planned line of advance."

    Ka-Frahkan looked up from the map console of the command vehicle moving away from the LZ at a steady fifty kilometers per hour and bared his canines in irritation. Not that he was particularly surprised.

    "Show me, Jesmahr," he said, and Na-Salth quickly dumped the new data to a small-scale terrain display at the general's elbow.

    "Nameless Ones take them," Ka-Frahkan growled. "What demon is whispering in their ears?"

    Na-Salth made no reply to the obviously the rhetorical question. He and Ka-Frahkan sat side by side, studying the display, and the general snorted in exasperation.

    "I make it at least one of their battalions," he said, trained eyes evaluating the data sidebars with the ease of long experience.

    "I concur, Sir. But look here." Na-Salth indicated one of the sidebars. "They appear to be equipped with their Marines' powered armor, but their evident unit organization doesn't match."

    "No," Ka-Frahkan agreed. His ears shifted slowly and thoughtfully, and then he stabbed the display with one clawed finger. "This is one of their militia battalions," he said positively. "It's far better equipped than their militia ought to be, but that's what it is. Look here. Their Marines use five-man fire teams, but these appear to be organized into seven-man teams, and the total troop strength is almost forty percent higher than a Marine battalion's ought to be. And look here, as well." He indicated the attached heavy weapons, most of which were already well dug-in. "They have fewer anti-armor platoons than they ought to, and this plasma-rifle section has four rifles in it, not six. The numbers are right for their militia; it's just the quality of the equipment that's different."

    "So we're not up against first-line troops, Sir," Na-Salth mused.

    "Maybe not, but don't underestimate them," Ka-Frahkan said grimly. "Look how quickly they've already deployed and dug themselves in." His ears waved in a gesture of negation. "No. These are militia, perhaps, but they're well-trained militia. Maybe even as well as those Nameless-taken militia units we hit at Tricia's World."

    His ears flattened in grim memory of the twenty-seven percent casualties the brigade had taken in that attack.

    "Well, Sir," Na-Salth replied, "we won that one, too."

    "Well said," Ka-Frahkan acknowledged. "Still, it should remind us that Human militia can be just as tough as their frontline units. And this militia has the weapons to be a nasty handful for Ka-Somal's infantry."

    "But not for Uran's armor," Na-Salth pointed out.

    "No," Ka-Frahkan agreed. "Of course, that's what their never-to-be-sufficiently-damned Bolo is for, isn't it?"

    "Yes, Sir," Na-Salth acknowledged, wrinkling his muzzle in an expression of sour agreement. Neither of them chose to bring up the fact that the defenders of Tricia's World had not had Bolo support when the brigade went in.

    "But, speaking of the Bolo," Na-Salth continued, "where is it?"

    "A well-taken question."

    Ka-Frahkan folded his hands behind him, rocking up and down on the balls of his feet while he continued to gaze at the images relayed from Na-Lythan's drones.

    "I suspect the Bolo is playing transport," he said finally.


    "This is one of the spots you and I identified as a potential bottleneck before we ever even landed," Ka-Frahkan reminded him. "It's on the shortest route from our LZ to their colony, and this --" he took one hand from behind him and waved at the terrain display "-- is the one place where all of the possible lines of approach for all of the routes we've identified come together. This pass they're deployed in is the only way for our armored mechs to get through that particular stretch of mountains. And the terrain allows the side with the shorter-ranged weapons to overcome much of its disadvantages, which makes it an ideal spot for infantry to confront armored units, if it has no choice but to confront them anyway."

    Na-Salth flicked his ears in agreement. The longest line of sight through the rugged, tumbling mountainsides on the approach to the Humans' position was no more than five or six kilometers long. That was the equivalent of knife-range, close enough, as Ka-Frahkan had just pointed out, to make even infantry weapons -- especially, he admitted sourly, Human infantry weapons -- deadly against anything but the most heavily armored vehicles.

    "It's not the best position for a Bolo, though," Ka-Frahkan continued. "Its Hellbore has a considerably greater effective range than our own do, and however much we may hate to admit it, its fire control is much better. Coupled with its superior battle screen and armor, it should want to engage us at the longest possible range, not somewhere where the terrain will let us get close enough for Uran's mechs to even the odds through volume of fire."

    "So why --?" Na-Salth left the question hovering, and Ka-Frahkan snorted.

    "They're building a blocking position, putting a cork into the bottle, Jesmahr," he said harshly. "These militia are there to backstop the Bolo. Look at it. It will take hours for our own mechs to reach that position. Na-Pahrthal's air cavalry could get there much sooner, but the Humans already have their anti-air defenses well established, and their infantry weapons are capable of dealing with most of his air cav mounts. So they've been positioned at a point where they can block anything advancing towards their colony in order to watch the back door while the Bolo maneuvers against us further west. It can use its damned assault pod to position itself anywhere it wants for the initial contact, and it will know the blocking position behind it will stop anything that gets past it except our mechs."

    "I agree, Sir," Na-Salth said after a moment. "But in that case, where is the Bolo?"

    "Well, we know it isn't anywhere between us and the militia," Ka-Frahkan said. "While I'm prepared to admit that the stealth capabilities built into the Bolos are almost as good as our own, no one could hide a fighting vehicle of that size from Uran's drones -- not when he's flown the sort of saturation pattern he has here. So the most logical thing for it to be doing is returning to the colony to pick up yet another battalion of this accursedly well-equipped militia to further reinforce the position they've already established. It's got the time, after all. Even allowing for loading and unloading times at each end, its pod can make the round-trip between the Human settlement and this point --" he indicated the display again "-- in less than a quarter of the time it will take even our most advanced ground units to reach it. And the stronger the cork in the bottle becomes, the more tactical flexibility the Bolo gains when it comes time for it to engage us."

    "You may well be right, Sir. But does that really change our options?"

    "No." Ka-Frahkan flattened his ears. "No, it doesn't. The only way to their colony is through that blocking position, and as long as we continue to advance towards it, the Bolo will have to engage us eventually. When it does, it will hurt us -- badly," he admitted bleakly. "But that means we'll be able to hurt it, too."

    "How do you want to proceed in the meantime, Sir?"

    "Do we have this militia localized well enough for Major Ha-Kahm's missile batteries to strike it?"

    "Yes," Na-Salth replied in a slightly dubious tone. Ka-Frahkan looked a question at him, and the colonel grimaced. "We have the coordinates, but they've already got the equivalent of three of our Mark Twenty air-defense batteries in place. Our chances of actually getting one of Ha-Kahm's missiles through their defenses wouldn't be very high. And we only have forty-five tubes between the three batteries."

    "Point taken," Ka-Frahkan grunted. "We don't have the ammunition to waste. And if the Bolo has sensor platforms in a position to track the missiles back to their launchers, it would pinpoint their locations for its own counter-battery fire."

    He shook himself. He had to be getting old; otherwise he wouldn't have needed Na-Salth's tactful reminder of something he knew so well. He set that thought aside while he considered other alternatives.

    "Have Major Na-Pahrthal close with their position," he decided finally. "Tell him I don't want him to get too closely engaged with them, but I want them harassed. Have Ka-Somal send his recon company forward, as well. I want those infantry scooters out in front of even Na-Lythan's reconnaissance mechs. That Bolo is going to turn up somewhere eventually -- somewhere between us and that blocking position. When it does, I want to know exactly where it is."




    her/their Lazarus half observed dispassionately as the assault pod went screaming down another narrow valley at high mach numbers and an altitude of barely fifty meters, and her/their Maneka half agreed wordlessly.

    her part of the fusion wondered.

    her/their Lazarus' part replied, and Maneka nodded as she lay in her crash couch, eyes closed. Despite her agreement that she/they had too little information to draw solid conclusions, however, she suspected that the Dog Boys didn't have a clue they were being watched. None of their recon parties had made any move to knock out the carefully concealed sensor remotes with which she and Lazarus had seeded each of the identified possible attack routes. She hadn't mentioned the fact that they were doing so to anyone at the time. Although everyone had been too polite to actually say so, she'd known some of the colony's leaders had thought she was sufficiently paranoid to insist on such detailed surveys in the first place. Explaining that she was planting hidden observation posts all along them at the same time would only have confirmed their suspicions.

    But paranoid or not, it was paying major dividends now. She/they had no need to penetrate the defended airspace above the advancing Melconian columns to keep them under observation, and she/they considered her/their analysis of the threat.

    The Enemy's order of battle was the "Book" organization for a Melconian Heavy Assault Brigade: one armored regiment, one infantry regiment, and an air cavalry regiment. There ought to be an attached artillery support battalion, as well, although she/they had seen no sign of it yet. Analysis suggested a 99.870-plus percent chance that it was digging in on top of the Puppy landing zone, exactly as Melconian tactical doctrine decreed, which meant she/they would have to deal with it eventually. But for now, she/they could concentrate on the Enemy's mobile forces.

    The fastest and most maneuverable component of those forces was the air cavalry regiment: three battalions of heavy, two-man mounts equipped with external missile and rocket pod racks and fitted with a twin-gun "main battery" directly descended from old, pre-space rotary cannon. Those cannon had a maximum rate of fire of over seven thousand rounds per minute per gun, or fourteen thousand for the pair, but the mounts carried less than two minutes worth of ammunition at that rate of fire.

    The mounts were used primarily as scouts, using their look-down sensors -- which were quite competent, though not up to Concordiat standards -- to sweep the rest of the brigade's line of advance. Their normal weapons were useless against any armored vehicle heavier than an infantry transport, and, despite their speed and agility, they were easy prey for anti-missile and air defense systems if they exposed themselves. They could be equipped with fusion weapons, which meant it was remotely possible the Enemy might dispatch them on a strike against Landing, but the probability of their being able to penetrate Landing's fixed defenses was less than two percent.

    In addition to the heavy mounts, the regiment had its own attached recon company, made up of one hundred one-man mounts which were tiny, fragile, unarmed, capable of dash speeds at surprisingly high Mach numbers, and extremely hard to detect. They were, in fact, considerably stealthier than the Empire's unmanned recon platforms. That, coupled with the fact that the relatively limited capability of Melconian cybernetics made it extremely useful to have a trained organic intelligence assessing the situation first hand, explained why they were so highly valued by Puppy commanders.

    The infantry regiment was composed of three battalions, each about twice the size of a Concordiat militia battalion, mounted in ground-effect armored personnel carriers. The APCs were fast, but fragile compared to Concordiat equipment, and they were armed with relatively low-velocity, indirect fire weapons rather than the light, direct-fire Hellbore armament the Concordiat's more heavily armored APCs favored. Its organic support weapons were also very light compared to the Concordiat standard, but they were vehicle-mounted, intended to fire on the move, which made them elusive targets. In addition to its combat and support elements, the regiment included a reconnaissance company equipped with a hundred one-man grav scooters. The scooters were unarmed and unarmored, but they were very fast, very maneuverable, and equipped with excellent stealth capabilities.

    An Imperial Melconian infantry regiment was an opponent to respect, but it would have posed little threat to the colony's militia alone if not for the armored regiment. According to the intelligence reports stored in her/their memory, the Enemy had recently begun reorganizing some of his armored regiments, emphasizing the direct-fire role even more heavily, but this was one was organized on the older, original basis. It consisted of two armored battalions, each of three "fists" -- three Surturs, each with its assigned pair of supporting Fenrises -- for a total of six heavy and twelve medium mechs between both battalions, plus a recon company of twelve three-man Heimdalls.

    One battalion was equipped with Surtur Alphas, 18,000-ton vehicles which were actually twenty percent more massive than a Mark XXVIII Bolo, with a main battery of six 82-centimeter Hellbores (or, rather, the less efficient Melconian version of that weapon) in two triple, echeloned turrets. That was an extraordinarily heavy battery, even for a vehicle the size of a Surtur, and their designers had paid for it by mounting much less capable secondary armaments. The Surtur Alphas, for example, mounted a secondary battery of fourteen heavy rail guns, designed to fire both super-dense penetrators and a variety of special purpose rounds, rather than the energy-weapon secondary armaments which had been a feature of Bolo design ever since the Mark VIII. It gave the mech an awesome punch against infantry, APCs, and dug-in ground targets, but it was effectively useless against a Bolo's anti-kinetic battle screen.

    The armored regiment's second battalion, however, was equipped with Surtur Betas. Built on the same chassis and power plant, and mounting the same main battery, the Beta deleted the rail gun secondary armament entirely in favor of a missile armament twenty-five percent heavier than a Mark XXVIII's. Its missiles were shorter-ranged than those in her/their launch cells, but they were very fast and had excellent penetration aids. They would have difficulty penetrating Bolo anti-missile defenses with anything short of total saturation, but if they could get into range of Landing when she/they were unable to cover the colony, a single Surtur Beta could easily wipe out the entire settlement and everyone in it.

    Both Surtur types were lavishly equipped with anti-missile defenses of their own. Indeed, they had been upgraded significantly in the face of the Concordiat missile threat since the start of the war.

    The Fenrises assigned to each battalion were identical: nine thousand tons, with a single 38-centimeter Hellbore-equivalent main weapon, and eight scaled down rail guns for secondary armament. That was a light direct-fire armament, but they were proportionately as well equipped for anti-missile and air-defense, and they used much of their tonnage for a support armament of very short-ranged, extremely fast missiles. Tactically, the Fenris was intended both to probe, ahead as the fist advanced, and to fall back and lay down saturation fire in support of the Surturs as the heavies closed, once the enemy had been located, then follow up to cover the heavies' flanks and attempt to maneuver around their opponents' flanks and rear, as well.

    The Heimdalls were even lighter than the Fenrises, barely three thousand tons, and equipped only with light anti-missiles defenses and a single main battery turret mounting a pair of the lighter rail guns. They were, however, ground-effect vehicles, not tracked like their heavier consorts. That made them extremely fast -- faster even than a Bolo -- and allowed them to negotiate terrain very few other armored units could cross. They were equipped with the best sensor systems the Melconian Empire had, and they were relatively stealthy, as well, though not nearly so hard to spot as the infantry's recon scooters.

    Leaving the Heimdalls out of the equation, since their combat value against a Bolo was negligible, she/they were outnumbered by 18-to-1, although the tonnage differential wasn't quite that bad -- only 14.4-to-1 -- thanks to the Fenrises' smaller size. Those were daunting odds, and she/they were going to have to fight smart even by Bolo standards. In a stand-up slugging match against the Surturs combined thirty-six Hellbores, she/they would be quickly destroyed, despite her/their far superior battle screen and thicker and tougher armor. But for all their massive firepower, the Enemy mechs suffered from one huge disadvantage; they were manned units whose AI support was extremely limited. They were slow compared to any Bolo . . . and old as Lazarus was, his psychotronics had been heavily refitted when he was reactivated. He was more lightly armed than later-mark Bolos, but he thought -- and reacted -- just as quickly as his younger brothers and sisters.

    That was going to have to be enough, her/their Maneka half thought in the small corner of her mind which remained outside the link. That, and the surveys she/they had carried out and the carefully planted sensor net which was letting her/them observe the Enemy directly without expending recon drones just looking for him. And, she/they devoutly hoped, lulling the Puppies into a sense of false security when none of those airborne sensor platforms "found" them. She/they weren't about to rely on that, but it would be nice if the Puppies hadn't twigged to the sensor net's presence.

    Thoughts of what the Melconians might or might not know turned her/their attention to the grounded transport. That transport had to be neutralized. At the moment, Thermopylae's assault pod gave her/them the mobility advantage. But sooner or later, she/they were going to have to engage the Enemy. Once they undocked from the pod, redocking would be out of the question. It would take too long, and she/they would be unable to maneuver, too vulnerable to enemy fire, to spend the time to board it once more. For that matter, without her/them mounted on the pod, it would have neither the active defenses nor the electronic warfare capability to penetrate the enemy's combat envelope to reach her/them, in the first place. No. Once she/they detached from the pod, she/they would be unable to use it further until the battle was decided, one way or the other. And if the Melconian combat mechs managed to pin her/them down while a half-dozen Fenrises fell back to the transport and used its mobility to launch a frontal assault on Landing while she/they were too far away to intervene, it would be disastrous. And, unfortunately, the transport had not been obliging enough to park itself in one of the areas covered by her/their previously planted remotes. She/they knew approximately where it had to be, but "approximately" wasn't good enough for the precision she/they required.

    her/their Lazarus component reported.

    her/their Maneka component replied.

    The pod slowed abruptly in its frenzied terrain-following flight. Missile hatches opened, and a dozen air-breathing cruise missiles launched. They configured their variable geometry wings well forward for subsonic flight and arced away from the Bolo. They circled well to the east of her/their current position, dropped to a nap-of-the-earth altitude of barely twenty meters, and skimmed off on their attack mission, accompanied by no less than three extraordinarily stealthy reconnaissance platforms, while she/they angled still farther to the west before swinging back onto a more northerly heading.




    Captain Na-Tharla tried not to fret too visibly as he prowled restlessly around Death Descending's bridge. The repairs were going as quickly as he could have hoped, under the circumstances, but that made him feel no less vulnerable. There was a Bolo out there, somewhere, and so far, General Ka-Frahkan's brigade had failed to pick up even a hint of its position. That wasn't calculated to reassure the commander of an immobilized transport.

    His lips wrinkled back from his canines in a bitterly amused challenge grin. Reassure! There hadn't been a moment since Admiral Na-Izhaaran chose to attack this accursed Human convoy in the first place that Na-Tharla had felt remotely like anything which could have been called "reassurance." And at this particular moment --

    "Missile trace!" His head snapped around as the voice spoke abruptly from the communications section. "Air cav look-down radar reports missiles inbound, bearing zero-niner-three, altitude three-zero-zero, course two-seven-three true at three-zero-one-zero!"

    The red, glaring icons of incoming missiles blazed suddenly in his tactical plot, and he snarled viciously as he watched them suddenly accelerate to a far higher velocity.



    She/they watched through the accompanying drones as the missiles' attack programs reacted to the lash of the Enemy's radar. Their stubby wings configured smoothly back and their turbines howled as they accelerated abruptly to better than Mach 5. The drones could have kept pace easily enough, but only if they'd dropped out of stealth, and she/they had no intention of allowing those platforms to be detected and destroyed. So instead, the drones dropped behind, spreading out like encircling arms, passive sensors listening intently to the Melconians' emissions, while the missiles ran away from them and scorched straight in on the Melconian landing zone.

    Active sensors and targeting systems from the transport and the ground-based air-defense systems joined the air cav radar lashing at the missiles, battling their onboard EW systems, fighting to lock them up for defensive fire. Those missiles carried high-kiloton-range fusion warheads; if even one of them got through, the transport would be permanently crippled, even if it was by some miracle not destroyed outright. But the odds of any of them penetrating the Melconian defenses were slight. Which was perfectly all right with her/them.

    Counter-missiles launched, shrieking out to seek and destroy the attacking birds. Half of her/their missiles were intercepted and destroyed, but the other half only accelerated to Mach 7 as the observations of the accompanying drones refined their targeting data and they came onto their final attack profiles.

    The cruise missiles reached the final ridge line between them and their targets. They pitched upward, popping up over the ridge as they must to reach their destination, and the ground-defense lasers and anti-armor Hellbores were waiting. Beamed energy struck at the speed of light, viciously accurate despite the missiles' electronic warfare capabilities and penetration aids, and she/they watched as every single one of her/their attack missiles was destroyed harmlessly, far short of their targets.



    Na-Tharla felt the jolting shock of relief like a punch in the belly as the incoming missiles vanished from his plot as if they had been no more than a bad dream.

    Lord of the Nameless, he thought shakily. I can't believe it. We stopped them -- we stopped them! How --?

    He shook himself, then castigated his own sense of shocked, joyous astonishment. Ka-Frahkan had been right all along. However good the Humans' technology might be, they weren't gods. They could be stopped, defeated, and he felt almost ashamed at the realization that the hadn't really believed that, not deep down inside. But they had been, and if their missiles could be stopped that easily here --



    She/they completed her/their analysis.

    It was a simple enough exercise, given the wealth of data her/their unnoticed reconnaissance platforms had amassed. The locations of the active sensors and weapon emplacements which had tracked and engaged her/their missiles had been plotted to within the nearest six centimeters. The perimeter air cav mounts had been detected, counted, and localized. Emissions signatures had been recorded, identified, and analyzed. Standard Melconian defensive dispositions had been extracted from memory, overlaid across the positive data points she/they had plotted, compared and evaluated, extrapolated in hyper-heuristic mode. She/they knew, beyond any shadow of a doubt, precisely where every sensor station, every weapon emplacement, was located, and what those weapons and sensors' capabilities were.

    And she/they also knew that in this instant, every Melconian within that perimeter was still looking to the east, the direction from which the missile attack had come.

    Which was why her/their pod abruptly popped up over a mountaintop ninety-seven kilometers west of the Melconian landing zone.



    "New target!" a voice shouted. "New target at two-two-one, alti --"

    The voice never completed its warning. There wasn't time. The range was under a hundred kilometers, which might as well have been a hundred centimeters for the targeting systems of a Mark XXVIII Bolo.



    "Contact!" someone screamed over the company net, and Captain Ithkar Na-Torsah's blood ran suddenly cold as the icon simply appeared on his display.

    His company of air cavaly was deployed in a circle a hundred and three kilometers across, centered on the LZ and Death Descending. That was the standard deployment for this sort of situation, as laid down by Regs, and it made sense in terrain this rough. There were too many folds and narrow valleys, too many slots through which an enemy could creep into attack range undetected if the pickets were spread too thinly to keep them all under observation.

    But this time the perimeter had been too narrow, he realized in the moments he had left. The blood-red icon strobing viciously on his three-man command mount's display was over forty-five kilometers outside his perimeter. It was screaming towards him at almost Mach 4, and it had used that same tumbled terrain with deadly skill to evade detection until it was too late.

    He keyed his com to bark orders he knew would be useless, but he never got the chance before the Bolo's infinite repeaters began to fire. The ten-centimeter ion bolts shrieked across the vanishing gap between it and Na-Torsah's fragile mounts, and fireballs bloomed like hideous roses with hearts of flame.

    He watched the flowers blossoming, reaching for his own mount with dreadful, methodical speed.



    The last Enemy air cav mount on her/their side of the perimeter vanished in a spit of flame, and her/their Hellbore fired once.

    A battering ram of incandescent fury slammed into the Melconian transport. It was like striking an egg with a battle-ax. The blast of directed fusion ripped straight into the big ship's heart . . . and its antimatter reactor.

    There was no need to fire at anything else within the LZ's perimeter, and she/they dove the pod into a narrow valley at a dangerously high velocity, driving hard to get a solid mountainside between her/them and the atmosphere-transmitted blast front ripping out toward from the sun-bright boil which had once been an interstellar ship.



    Theslask Ka-Frahkan stared in disbelieving shock at the communicator display which had abruptly gone blank.

    I told him I'd keep the Humans too busy to come after him. I told him that . . and I was wrong.

    Bleak guilt hammered through him as the reality of Na-Tharla's death slammed home. Almost two hundred of his own artillerists had died with Death Descending and her crew, but it was Na-Tharla's face Ka-Frahkan saw before him. The face of the naval officer who had never questioned, who'd performed his daily miracles for so many endless months just to get them here.

    Who had become Theslask Ka-Frahkhan's friend.

    "Sir," Colonel Na-Salth said shakenly, "what --"

    "It changes nothing," Ka-Frahkan said harshly. Na-Salth looked at him, and the general showed his canines. "We've lost our reserve ammunition, our spare parts, and our maintenance facilities," he continued, "and we no longer have a starship of our own. But the Humans are still here, still waiting for us to kill them. And their industrial facilities are still here to support us after we do."

    "Yes, Sir. Of course," Na-Salth said after a moment, with just a bit less assurance than Ka-Frahkan would have preferred.

    "It's my fault," Ka-Frahkan admitted unflinchingly to his second-in-command. Na-Salth's ears moved in an expression of polite disagreement, and Ka-Frahkan snorted bitterly. "We outnumber this Bolo by six-to-one in heavy mechs, alone. I ought to have left at least one fist behind to provide additional security."

    "Sir, I completely agreed with the logic of your deployments."

    "Then we were both wrong, weren't we?" Ka-Frahkan said with mordant humor. Na-Salth started to say something more, but the general cut him off with the wave of a hand. "Protecting your line of retreat is fundamental to sound tactics, Jesmahr. Admittedly, this is a special circumstance -- literally, a do-or-die, all-costs operation -- but I still should have taken more precautions than I did. I think part of it may have been how well aware I was of all of Death Descending's serviceability problems. I didn't think about the fact that the Humans wouldn't have that information. They had to assume the ship was still fully operational. And if I'd considered that, I might have been able to at least use her as bait in a trap. In that case, her loss might actually have accomplished something. As it is --"

    He shrugged, his expression bitter, and Na-Salth's ears flicked in an expression of agreement. Or acknowledgment, at least, Ka-Frahkan thought. Na-Salth was being kinder to him than he deserved, continuing to extend him the benefit of the doubt.

    The general turned to his senior communications tech.

    "Still no word from Captain Ka-Paldyn?" he asked quietly.

    "None, Sir. Not since his initial subspace flash that he'd succeeded in boarding the target." The noncommissioned officer looked up at his CO. "Still, Sir, Death Descending did lose both her primary and secondary subspace arrays during the insertion maneuvers," he reminded Ka-Frahkan respectfully. "Captain Ka-Paldyn couldn't know that, so he may still be sending reports via subspace. In which case, we couldn't receive them anyway."

    "Thank you, Sergeant," Ka-Frahkan said, and turned back to his tactical displays.

    The sergeant was correct, of course . . . even if he was one more well-meaning subordinate doing his level best to keep the Old Man from worrying. But the cold ache in Ka-Frahkan's belly wouldn't go away. The continued silence from Ka-Paldyn weighed upon his soul almost as heavily as the destruction of Death Descending. He'd never had much hope that the inner-system special ops teams would manage to seize very many of the Human starships. But with both Death Descending and the surviving Human Bolo transport in his possession, he would have been well-placed to run down and capture those same starships after defeating the Bolo. Now it was beginning to look as if he would have neither of them, and without them, he felt his chances of gaining long-term control the star system and placing a colony of the People here slipping through his claws like grains of sand.

    None of which means the Humans will retain it, he thought grimly. We can still insure that much, at least, and that was the primary mission all along.

    "Sir," Na-Salth said quietly. "We've located the Bolo."



    Major Beryak Na-Pahrthal's three-man command mount swerved wildly, side-slipping to place a solid flank of mountainous rock between it and the nightmare demon which had suddenly come screaming down from above him to sweep through his lead battalion, thundering death as it came.

    Na-Pahrthal had never personally encountered a Bolo transport pod. Although he'd been with the Brigade at Tricia's World, they'd faced no Bolos there. And none of the combat reports he'd reviewed, none of the simulations he'd worked through in training, had ever pitted air cavalry mounts against a Bolo docked with its pod. Even if it had not been self-evident suicide for air cav to engage a Bolo under any circumstances, Bolos never fought from their pods. By the time they joined combat against the People, they were on the ground, where they belonged . . . and where a single lucky shot that brought down a transport pod could not also destroy an entire Bolo.

    But this Bolo didn't seem aware of that, and the sheer speed of its pod -- the preposterously agile maneuvers something that size could perform this close to the ground -- far exceeded anything Na-Pahrthal would have believed possible. It screamed straight through Second Company, infinite repeaters flaming, and Captain Ya-Fahln's mounts vanished like grain before the reaper under that deadly thunder of ion bolts.

    "Fall back!" Na-Pahrthal barked over the regimental command net as his own pilot went side-slipping and swerving back to the west, using every evasive maneuver he could think of. "Get clear -- fall back on the armored regiment!"

    A handful of frantic acknowledgments came back from First Company and Third Company. There was only silence on the Second Company net.



    She/they watched with the matching yet very different ferocities of her/their organic and psychotronic halves as she/they sliced through the advanced screen of the air cavalry which had been harassing Fourth Battalion.

    Maneka remembered the day, back on the planet of Santa Cruz, when she and Benjy had goneto the firing range for the first time and she'd truly recognized the staggering firepower she controlled as Benjy's commander. She'd thought then that nothing could ever make her more aware of the deadly power of a Bolo, but she'd been wrong. Today, she didn't simply "command" Lazarus. She was Lazarus. The lethally accurate ion bolts ripping from her/their infinite repeaters were hers, just as much as his. It was as if she simply had to "look" at one of the Dog Boy air cav mounts and imagine that sleek, speedy vehicle's destruction to see it vanish in a teardrop of plunging flame. It was that quick, that accurate . . . that deadly.

    Only eleven of the sixty mounts in the Puppies' lead battalion survived long enough to fire back, and her/their battle screen handled their pathetic attacks with contemptuous ease. Another seven mounts were picked off by return fire, but four managed to break and run quickly enough to evade her/their fire and escape. She/they spent almost .0007 seconds considering whether or not to pursue them, but that was never truly an option. She/they needed to get onto the ground and get the pod out of the combat zone before any of the heavier Melconian units got a shot at it.

    <Beside Mary Lou's CP,> her/their Maneka half directed. <Let's not squash her toes.>

    <I shall endeavor to park the car with a modicum of competence,> her/their Lazarus half responded dryly.



    Major Mary Lou Atwater watched the assault pod come whining quietly in. The plumes of funeral pyre smoke from an entire battalion of Puppy air cavalry billowed skyward behind it, and the major watched them rising with fierce satisfaction. Those air cavalrymen hadn't posed that serious a threat to her position, and her people had been well dug-in by the time they arrived. But they'd still managed to kill two of her perimeter pickets with their light weapons. If they'd continued to close, her air-defense teams would have taught them the error of their ways, but the Bolo's murderously efficient arrival had been a thing of beauty for any ground-pounder.

    The massive assault pod touched down with the delicacy of a soap bubble. The clear space she'd left beside her CP was at least twice as big as it had needed to be, she observed. Well, better safe than sorry.

    "Glad to see you back," she said over her battle armor's com.

    "I'm afraid we can't stay," Maneka Trevor's voice replied. Atwater still wasn't fully accustomed to the eerie note of almost detached calm she seemed to hear in it. Maybe it was just her imagination, she told herself again. And maybe it wasn't. After all, Maneka was linked with the Bolo's AI in a complete mental fusion.

    "I know," the militia officer replied.

    "Any wounded to send back?"

    "No." Atwater grimaced. "I've got two KIA, but no wounded yet."

    "I see." The human voice of the human/Bolo looming over her like a duralloy cliff paused for a moment. Then it continued. "In that case, we'll be moving out to deploy as planned. Keep your heads down."

    "We'll try," Atwater assured her . . . or them, or whatever.

    She stood back, and the pod wafted lightly back into the air once more.



    Private Karsha Na-Varsk began to breathe once again as the Bolo and its pod disappeared to the west. He could hardly believe that it had failed to detect him, despite all of the stealth features designed into his one-man reconnaissance mount.

    The small vehicle, less than an insect compared to the firepower of the gargantuan Bolo, lay as well-concealed as he had been able to contrive between a massive boulder and an overhanging, erosion-slashed cliff face. Na-Varsk himself was over two hundred meters from his mount, hidden under the thermal blanket's radar-absorbent, reactive camouflage material. That blanket was also supposed to conceal low and medium-powered electronics emissions, but Na-Varsk had always cherished a few personal reservations about its efficacy in that regard. Which was why, except for his communicator and power rifle, every item of electronic equipment had been switched off, and his com was set to receive-only. He was as close to invisible as it was possible for someone to become, and he raised his old-fashioned, pure-optic binoculars to study the Human infantry position below him once again.

    It really was a perfect observation position, he thought with grim humor. He could see every detail of the Humans' deployment, count individual Human troopers and weapons positions. And, unlike the remote reconnaissance drones, he radiated no betraying flight signatures to give away his location. He'd thought Major Na-Pahrthal was being over-cautious to deploy him for this grounded reconnaissance assignment, but it appeared the Major had known what he was doing, after all. Perhaps that was why he was a major, while Na-Varsk . . . wasn't.

    Unfortunately, there wasn't a great deal that Na-Varsk could do with his perfect position at the moment. Oh, he might have picked off two or three of the Humans before they spotted him, although given the quality of Human powered armor, getting through it with a mere power rifle at this range would have been problematical. But killing a such a small handful of the enemy would have accomplished nothing. Besides, Na-Varsk was a trained scout, firmly imbued with the understanding that a pair of eyes and a com constituted a far more deadly weapon than any rifle.

    Of course, he couldn't use that com without risking giving away his position, but Major Na-Pahrthal knew he was here. When the time came to attack the Human position in earnest, the Major would be back in touch.

    In the meantime, Na-Varsk occupied himself making sure his count of the enemy was complete.

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