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Old Soldiers: Chapter Seven

       Last updated: Friday, August 12, 2005 20:28 EDT



    "I am getting just a bit tired of this Bolo's… unconventionality," Theslask Ka-Frahkhan said with massive restraint as he and Colonel Na-Salth watched the icons of Major Na-Pahrthal's air cavalry regiment falling rapidly back upon the main force.

    "I understand, Sir," Na-Salth replied. "Still, these are only the opening steps of the dance. We already knew the Humans' military commander plans carefully and rationally. Surely it's hardly surprising that with the advantage of careful reconnaissance over a period of months he was able to predict our most probable axis of approach. And he obviously spent that same time considering his own opening moves in the event of an attack."

    "Of course," Ka-Frahkan said just a bit impatiently. "But I don't like this fellow's operational . . . flexibility. He appears to be unfortunately gifted at what the Humans call 'thinking outside the box.' He should never have been prepared to risk bringing the Bolo into range of Ha-Kahm's air-defense systems and anti-tank batteries while it was still mated to its pod." The general's ears flattened. "One hit, Jesmahr -- just one hit by one of Ha-Kahm's Hellbores -- on that pod, and he could have lost pod and Bolo alike. But he chose to take the chance, and then he used the pod's mobility to effectively ambush Na-Pahrthal."

    "I agree that he appears to be more innovative than I might wish, Sir," Na-Salth agreed. "But even though the loss of Death Descending and our artillery support can't be considered anything other than a major blow, the losses Major Na-Pahrthal has suffered, while painful, scarcely constitute a significant reduction of our overall combat power. And, if I might be so bold as to point this out, Sir, whatever he may have done to us so far pales to insignificance compared to what you managed to do to him by destroying his second Bolo before it was ever able to fire a single shot."

    "Umph," Ka-Frahkan grunted, but he had to admit Na-Salth had a point. In every way that mattered as far as the accomplishment of his primary mission was concerned, the destruction of the second Bolo transport trumped the destruction of Na-Tharla's ship. There was the minor consideration that without Death Descending, the chance of any of his people ever getting home -- or even surviving on this alien world -- were slim, to say the very best. But even with the inferior individual capabilities of the Empire's heavy mechs, the 3172nd had an effective two-to-one advantage in combat power, thanks to the destruction of the second Bolo.

    "You're probably right about the actual loss of combat strength, Jesmahr," he said after a moment. "In terms of hardware and firepower, at least. But don't forget the psychological aspect of it. Our people started out with the momentum on their side, knowing we'd taken out the other Bolo and gotten down without being intercepted. Now, though . . . . Now the Humans have scored twice in a row, and gotten in and out cleanly both times, without taking so much as a scratch as far as we know. Do you think that isn't going to have an impact?"

    Na-Salth looked at him, then flipped his ears in acknowledgment of Ka-Frahkan's point.

    "I'm not saying I expect their morale to crumble like sand, Jesmahr," Ka-Frahkan continued. "But what's happened is going to have an effect, at least until we land a few punches of our own. Our people are going to feel as if the momentum may be shifting to the Humans, and I wish I didn't suspect that whoever is directing their tactics had planned on creating exactly that effect from the beginning."



    The assault pod landed over ninety kilometers west-northwest of Fourth Battalion. Maneka/Lazarus unlocked her/their tracks and rumbled clear of the pod, then activated its autopilot and sent it scudding back towards Landing.

    Her/their Maneka component watched through her/their sensors as the pod disappeared and felt an undeniable surge of relief. She/they hated giving up the mobility advantage the pod had conferred, but she/they were simply too vulnerable in the air. And the pod was far too valuable -- especially after the destruction of the full-capability Bolo depot aboard Stalingrad. It was inconceivable that she/they weren't going to take damage in the rapidly approaching battle. Indeed, the odds were no more than even that she/they would survive at all, despite all of her/their pre-battle planning. If she/they did survive, however, the services of the automated depot in that pod, however limited, were going to be sorely needed.

    She/they would truly have preferred to move directly, without delay, to this position after engaging the Melconian air cavalry. But if Major Atwater's militia had suffered casualties, the pod would have been the only way to get them back to the medical facilities of Landing, and her/their plans had always envisioned medevacing any wounded. Of course, there hadn't been any "wounded" this time, her/their Maneka half thought grimly. She was hugely relieved that Fourth Battalion's losses had been so light this far, but that didn't make the fact that two of Atwater's people were already dead any less painful. And the two people Fourth had already lost were probably far from the only casualties the militia were going to take, however well the rest of her/their plans worked out.

    Maneka/Lazarus put that very human concern aside, pivoted on her/their tracks, and headed still further west. Three exquisitely stealthed Melconian recon drones hovered above her/them, watching carefully, and she/they pretended -- equally carefully -- not to know they were there.



    "Now what is the accursed thing doing?" Colonel Uran Na-Lythan snarled.

    "Advancing towards us along Axis Two at approximately forty-seven kilometers per hour, Sir," Major Sharal Sa-Thorn, the commander of Na-Lythan's First Battalion, replied helpfully from the com screen on Na-Lythan's console, and Na-Lythan managed -- somehow -- not to bite the unfortunate officer's head off."

    "I'm aware of that, Major," he said, instead, with massive restraint. "I'm simply wondering why it isn't doing anything about our recon platforms."

    "Perhaps," Sa-Thorl said, apparently unaware of the degree of self-control his superior was exercising, "it isn't aware that we have it under observation."

    "It's a Bolo," Na-Lythan said, and this time Sa-Thorl straightened his shoulders visibly in the com display as Na-Lythan's tone registered. "It knows the platforms are out there," the colonel continued in slightly less frigid tones. "It may not have detected them -- although I find that difficult to believe -- but even if it hasn't, it knows they must be out there. Yet it appears to be taking no measures to localize and destroy them. It isn't even looking for them. So either it's decided there's no point, that we'll simply replace them as quickly as it can destroy them, or else it wants us to know where it is and what it appears to be doing."

    "Sir, I would respectfully suggest," Sa-Thorl said very carefully, "that it's more probably the former possibility. Our supply of reconnaissance drones is scarcely unlimited, but we have more than enough to replace losses to its air-defense systems and keep it under observation over the span of a day or two."

    "You may be correct," Na-Lythan conceded. "Certainly I can't think of any advantage to it in letting us know precisely where it is. I simply wish I were certain that it couldn't think of one."

    He grimaced, ears flattened in thought for several heartbeats, then looked at his communications tech.

    "Get me a link to General Ka-Frahkan."



    "Do you think Uran has a point, Sir?" Na-Salth asked.

    "I'm certain he does," Ka-Frahkan said, trying not to sound testy as he bent over the terrain display, scrolling through maps. The original imagery from which those maps had been made had been lost along with Death Descending, but his command vehicle's computers had a copy of it. And, limited though they might be compared to the equivalent Human technology, they were quite capable of manipulating the radar map to generate the detailed three-dimensional terrain representation he required.

    "I'm just uncertain as to which of his points is valid," the general continued.

    He found the map he wanted, and the moving icon of the Bolo appeared upon it. The Human vehicle was headed directly towards his main body, just as Na-Lythan had reported. And as he scrolled ahead along the line of its probable advance, Ka-Frahkan realized it was making for a firing position from which it would be able to interdict at least two of his own possible approach axes with long range Hellbore fire.

    "This is where it's headed," he said, tapping the position with a claw.

    "That's going to make difficulties," Na-Salth observed. He brought fresh data up on his own displays and considered it briefly. "Na-Lythan's battalions are approaching along both of those routes," he informed Ka-Frahkan. The general already knew that, of course, but it was one of Na-Salth's jobs to make certain that he did. "At the moment, First Battalion is ahead of schedule, Sir. At present rate of advance, it will enter the Bolo's engagement range roughly twenty minutes after the Bolo's estimated time of arrival. Assuming that it stops there rather than continuing to advance to meet Major Sa-Thor, that is."

    "I know," Ka-Frahkan murmured, rubbing the tip of his claw back and forth across the hilltop firing position. "But why is it telegraphing its tactics this way?" he continued.

    "I beg your pardon, Sir?" Na-Salth looked puzzled, and Ka-Frahkan snorted.

    "Uran is absolutely correct," he said. "Even if the Bolo doesn't have positive locks on our drones, it has to know they're out there. Yet here it is, ambling towards its chosen position at barely half its top sustained speed, and I want to know why. It's faster than we are. If it had waited longer -- let us get closer, move further apart --it could have drawn us out of position, off-balance. It could have used its sprint capability to move as quickly as possible into position, caught us separated. It could have gotten in between our armored battalions before we could react and engaged one of them at a time. As it is, we have ample time to react."

    "Perhaps it doesn't realize that, Sir. We've seen no evidence of its recon platforms, either, so perhaps it doesn't know our units' current positions and doesn't recognize the opportunity it's missing."

    "We haven't seen any of its drones because it isn't using them," Ka-Frahkan replied. He looked back up at Na-Salth. "But this Human, whoever he is -- this commander who thinks 'outside the box' -- knows exactly where we are, Jesmahr. What he did to Death Descending would suggest that, but in my opinion, his present maneuvers prove it. If he felt the least uncertainty about our positions, he would be doing everything in his power to resolve it. And he would either not be moving at all while he used his own reconnaissance assets to find us, or else he would be moving at a higher rate of speed, in order to minimize his own window of vulnerability between chosen defensive positions."

    "But how can he know where we are, Sir? We destroyed all of their surveillance satellites on our way in."

    "We think we destroyed them all," Ka-Frahkan corrected. "It's possible we missed one. I don't think that's what's happening here, however. I think, Jesmahr, that this particular Human has thoroughly seeded these mountains with pre-emplaced, ground-based, carefully concealed sensors. He has every approach route wired, and he's using secure, directional communication channels -- or probably burst sub-space transmissions, since Bolos, unlike our mechs, mount their own sub-space coms -- to monitor them. That's why he isn't expending drones tracking us; he already knows where we are."

    "But in that case . . . " Na-Salth's voice trailed off, and Ka-Frahkan flicked his ears in emphatic agreement.

    "In that case," he said, "he wants us to know where he is, and he's deliberately letting us know where he's going. And the only reason I can think of for him to do that is to maneuver us into doing what he wants."

    "But what could he possibly want us to do, Sir?"

    "I don't know. That's what worries me," Ka-Frahkan admitted.



    Maneka/Lazarus watched through the reconnaissance net as the Melconian advance slowed, then came -- temporarily, at least -- to a complete halt. She/they waited, while several minutes passed. Then the Enemy began to move once more, and her/their human component frowned in her command couch without ever opening her eyes.

    The Enemy commander, she/they thought, was clearly more capable than she/they would have preferred. Which didn't exactly come as a surprise -- an incompetent would never have managed to follow the colony fleet this far so tracelessly and then execute such a devastating initial surprise attack. Still, he was doing a part of what she/they wanted.

    She/they continued to trundle leisurely along, but the Melconian formation was shifting. The Enemy's leading battalion of three Surtur Alphas and six Fenrises had begun falling back, accompanied by two of the infantry regiment's battalions and half of the armored regiment's twelve Heimdalls. The second armored battalion, with all six of the Surtur Betas, the other six Heimdalls, and the third infantry battalion, had changed course and begun to move rather more quickly. They were sliding to the south to advance along the one approach route which would bypass the blocking position towards which she/they were headed. That line of approach -- the one she/they had designated Route Charlie -- wasn't the shortest one, but unless she/they also changed course in the next few minutes, the Melconian units advancing along it would get clear around her/their flank without ever exposing themselves to her/their direct fire. She/they could still loft missiles onto their route, but with only a single Bolo's missile load-out and launchers, it would be virtually impossible to sufficiently saturate a Melconian armored battalion's missile defenses to get through them, and an entire mountainside would block Hellbore fire at their closest approach.

    She/they considered the timing. If she/they continued on her/their current heading at current speed, the flanking column would be past any point at which she/they could subsequently intercept it short of Fourth Battalion's position in another twelve minutes. And, if that column got past her/them, worst-case, Fourth Battalion would find itself ground into the mud under the tracks of a full battalion of heavy armored vehicles. Best case, she/they would find themselves trapped in a constricted, mountainous valley between both Dog Boy armored battalions while the Enemy ignored the Fourth to concentrate on killing her/them.

    Pity. She/they had rather hoped the Puppies' CO would decide to send all of his mechs around her/their flank. Unfortunately, he'd turned out to be too wary for that.



    "Now it begins to retreat!" Ka-Frahkan flapped his ears in frustration. "Nameless Ones! What sort of game is this damned machine playing?!"

    The Bolo icon on his display had, indeed, begun to retreat -- and at a far higher rate of speed, at that. But it was too late. Major Julhar Ha-Shan's Second Armored Battalion and Major Thuran Ha-Nashum's Third Infantry were already past it. The Bolo was faster than Ha-Shan's heavies, but it also had much further to go if it wanted to retreat to its militia blocking position before Ha-Shan and Ha-Nashum reached it, and there was no way even a Bolo could catch them now without using the pod in which it was no longer mounted.

    But why had it waited so long?

    Of course, Na-Lythan's First Armored Battalion and the rest of Colonel Ka-Somal's infantry were also advancing once more, along the route Ka-Frahkan had designated Axis Three, if much more slowly and cautiously than Ha-Shan's battalion. They would have entered the Bolo's engagement range, had it continued to advance on its original course, within another thirty minutes or so. The fight when they reached that point would have been ugly, and Ka-Frahkan was far from certain of what its final outcome would have been, given how the Human machine's individual power and superior technology would have offset his own forces' advantages in tonnage, numbers, and combined firepower. He'd been willing to court the engagement anyway, however, if it would have pinned the Bolo in place while Second Armored got on with the business of destroying the blocking position and advanced upon the colony itself. That was why he'd held First Armored back and sent Ha-Shan ahead. Sa-Thor's heavies were marginally better suited to a direct engagement against the Bolo, and Ha-Shan's additional missile power would make his battalion far more dangerous to the Human settlement once he got past the blocking militia.

    But now the accursed Bolo seemed unwilling to give him that engagement . . . even though it was self-evidently too late for it to reverse course and intercept Second Armored!

    Theslask Ka-Frahkhan glared at his tactical plot and tried not to grind his teeth together as he tried to deduce just what hellish surprise the Bolo and its Human commander were attempting to spring upon him.



    Maneka/Lazarus monitored the flanking column's position carefully. It was continuing to advance, and she/they were tempted to continue her/their advance and engage the remainder of the Melconian force head on. Unfortunately, if she/they did, the main Puppy column would engage her/them well before the flanking column reached the decisive point. It was as certain as anything could be that she/they would have taken damage in that engagement, and she/they could not afford to risk that. Not yet. The flanking column had to be dealt with before she/they could accept any reduction in her/their own capabilities.

    <Timing,> her/their human half thought. <It's all a matter of timing, now.>

    <It always is,> her/their Bolo half replied.



    Captain Farka Na-Rohrn felt his spirits rising as Second Armored Battalion thundered eastward behind his Heimdall. He could see the Human Bolo on his tactical display, although there were enough mountains between them to prevent it from seeing him, praise the Nameless Lord! And while Na-Rohrn had never claimed to be a tactical genius, it seemed obvious to him that the Bolo had made a fatal error. The positions and maximum possible rates of advance indicated on his display made it abundantly clear that there was, quite simply, no possible way for the Bolo to intercept Major Ha-Shan's armor and Major Ha-Nashum's infantry before they wiped out the Human militia positioned to stop them. And after that, there would be nothing between them and the Human colony.

    But first they had to get there, and even the best of approach routes, he thought, grimacing at his map display, had its inconvenient aspects.

    "Major Ha-Shan," Na-Rohrn said into his com, "we're coming up on a particularly narrow bit. My units are going to have to shift into single column."

    “Understood,”Ha-Shan replied crisply and instantly. "Major Ha-Nashum, do you copy?"

    "I do," the infantry battalion's CO responded. "My Alpha Company will take point, ahead of Captain Na-Rohrn. The rest of my people will fall in behind your battalion."

    "Excellent," Ha-Shan said, and began passing the necessary orders to his own units as the Third Infantry's Alpha Company's lighter, faster armored personnel carriers sped ahead to join the Heimdalls.



    Now, Maneka/Lazarus thought, and opened her/their missile hatches. There was no need to adjust the firing queue; she/they had set it up literally hours ago. Now she/they enabled the missiles and fired.

    There were only six of them, and she/they had added the rather special warheads they mounted to her/their normal ammunition mix in place of the same number of more conventional warheads over three weeks ago. Now the missiles carrying those warheads erupted from the heavily armored wells of her/their vertical-launch missile system and rose on pillars of flame until they were high enough for their counter-gravity drives to take over. The thundering wakes of fire vanished, and the missiles screamed suddenly southeastward at seven times the speed of sound.



    "General Ka-Frahkan!" a sensor tech said sharply. "The Bolo has just launched missiles!"

    "At us?" Ka-Frahkan demanded, spinning around to face the master tactical plot.

    "No, Sir," the noncom replied in puzzled tones. "At Colonel Ha-Shan."



    "Incoming!" Ha-Shan's sensor operator announced a suddenly. "Multiple -- six incoming from the Bolo, Sir! Mach seven!"

    Ha-Shan's eyes instantly found the missile icons on his own display. Even at that velocity, there was plenty of time, he thought as the targeting systems of his armored units' anti-missile defenses turned onto the threat bearing. Besides, that was a ridiculously low number of missiles for a target like his. His command Surtur alone could have defeated all of them with ease, Human technology or no. So what was the damned Bolo up to now?

    "Impact projection," the sensor operator said, and Ha-Shan blinked.

    That couldn't be right! He looked at the visual display showing the terrain directly to his west. The river-cut valley through which his battalion was currently passing had, indeed, grown narrower, with precipice-like cliffs looming on both sides. The ones to the west were both higher and steeper than the ones to the east, and if the missiles' impact point was properly projected, all six of them were going to land harmlessly on the other side of the mountain which reared that protective rampart. Which was stupid. Yet one thing no Bolo had ever been accused of was stupidity, so what --?



    The same mountains which protected the Melconian column from Maneka/Lazarus' direct fire also protected her/their missiles from interception. They sped directly to their targets, separating, spreading out, adjusting their trajectories with finicky precision.

    At precisely the correct moment, all six of them killed their drives and continued onward at just over seven thousand kilometers per hour. They slammed into the mountainside, and the superdense, ballistically-shaped deep-penetrator warheads she/they had mounted upon them drilled through solid earth and stone like hyper-velocity bullets. They plunged deep into the heart of the mountain, driving directly into the fault pattern Maneka/Lazarus' deep scan radar mapping had revealed weeks before.

    And then six megaton-range warheads detonated as one.



    The stupendous shockwave was enough to shake even a Surtur like a toy. Ha-Shan had never experienced an earthquake before, and he was ill-prepared to feel his 18,000-ton mech shivering like a frightened child. But Surturs were designed and engineered to survive far worse than a little shaking, and he felt his speeding pulse began to slow once more.

    Until he looked into the visual display again.



    So that was what the Human was thinking, Theslask Ka-Frahkhan thought. He was too calm about it, a corner of his own brain told him. Shock, he supposed. I should have listened to my instincts. But even if I had, what else could I have done with what I knew?

    He had no answer for the question, and he knew he never would. But he'd been right about this particular Human's ability to "think outside the box," hadn't he?

    He watched the thick, curdled cloud of dust rising above what had once been a river valley. Perhaps it would be a river valley again, someday. But at this moment, it was the huge common grave which had just engulfed half of the 3172nd Heavy Assault Brigade's armor and a third of its infantry. The horrendous landslide the Bolo's missiles had triggered had sent two-thirds of a mountain sliding unstoppably across Second Armored and Third Infantry. There were, he already knew, no survivors from either, although the handful of Na-Pahrthal's air cav which had been assigned to Ha-Shan had probably been able to climb out of destruction's path in time.

    He turned his head slowly and looked at Na-Salth. The colonel was still staring slack-jawed at the unbelievable sight on his visual display.

    "Contact Colonel Na-Lythan and Colonel Ka-Somal," Ka-Frahkan heard his own voice saying with a flat, steady calm. Na-Salth turned stunned eyes towards him. "Tell them both that I want their recon elements to begin deploying seismic sensors immediately. They're to use the sensors and sounding charges, as well as the Heimdalls' sonar and deep-scan radar, to check for additional fault lines. I doubt very much that there are more of them out here, but I could be wrong, and this Human devil is not going to lead us into any more ambushes like that one."

    He stabbed the visual display with a vicious claw and the soft echo of a barely audible challenge snarl.

    "No more finesse, Jesmahr," he said grimly, harshly. "I don't care what the Bolo does. We will advance at our own chosen rate. We will check every valley, every cliff, for booby-traps and dangerous terrain features. Eventually that Nameless-cursed Bolo will have to stop and fight us on our terms. And when it does, we will destroy it."



    Maneka/Lazarus launched a single recon drone. She/they had no choice; the landslide which had enveloped the Enemy column had also wiped out the sensors with which that stretch of river valley had been seeded.

    The drone swept over what had once been the valley, and her/their human half felt a chill as she/they surveyed the desolation. Her/their missiles had shattered an entire mountain, disemboweled it and spewed its fragments across the Melconians in an unstoppable tidal wave of broken rock, shattered trees, and dirt. The river was already beginning to back up behind the solid plug of debris, and she/they saw the rising water lapping at a single Melconian corpse. From its equipment, it had been an infantryman, probably one of the advanced scouts probing ahead of the Enemy column on their one-man grav-scooters. But he hadn't been far enough ahead. Two-thirds of his body was buried under the huge boulder which had come bounding down to crush the life out of him. He lay face-down, one arm and shoulder protruding from the rubble and earth, and the clawed fingers of his raised hand seemed to be reaching for the heavens, as if to hang onto his life for just a moment longer.

    There was something inexpressibly poignant about that sight. Her/their Maneka half felt it, yet the poignancy deflected neither her/their satisfaction, nor her/their grim determination to inflict the same destruction upon the rest of the Enemy.

    She/they made one more sweep of the site with the reconnaissance drone. It was remotely possible that there might be one or two Enemy survivors, she/they decided, but there could not be more, and all of the Enemy armored battalion's mechs had been positively accounted for.

    <Which means the odds are even now,> her/their Maneka half thought grimly.

    <Which means the odds would be even against a fully modern Bolo,> her/their Lazarus half replied.


    In the corner of their fusion which was hers alone, Maneka felt Lazarus' amusement at her qualification, and she understood it. The equation which set one Bolo as equivalent to three times its own number of Melconian heavy combat mechs was, after all, as Lazarus had just pointed out, based upon the combat capabilities of the Mark XXXIs and Mark XXXIIs, not a Bolo whose basic weapons were well over a century out of date. But Maneka had been at Chartres. She knew what those "obsolete" Bolos were capable of.

    She felt Lazarus standing just outside that small, private section of her mind, waiting for her calmly, and the lips of her sleeping body twitched in a slight smile.

    <Okay,> she told him. <We can go now.>

    Her/their mighty hull pivoted on its broad tracks and began to move once more.




    "It's moving again, Sir."

    Ka-Frahkan flicked his ears in silent acknowledgment. He sat back in his command chair, watching the tactical display, and just the tips of his canines showed as his upper lip curled back from them.

    The Bolo was moving directly back towards his remaining armored battalion once more, reversing the course away from it which had so puzzled him before. It puzzled him no longer, for he understood now why it had not initially completed its advance to the firing position he'd thought it was headed for.

    The position I obligingly allowed it to convince me it was headed for, he corrected bitterly. Then he gave himself a mental shake. There would be time enough for grief and self-recrimination after the battle, and even now he knew -- intellectually, at least -- that without any foreknowledge of the fault line the Bolo had exploited, he'd done exactly the right thing. Or, at least, that a dispassionate staff study, far away from the buried, mangled bodies of a quarter of his brigade's troopers, would conclude that he had, at any rate.

    No time for that, he reminded himself sternly. Not when I still have to figure out what to do about the accursed thing.

    At least the Bolo still faced a few problems of its own.

    It hadn't had any choice but to avoid combat with Na-Lythan's First Armored Battalion until after it had destroyed Second Armored. But when it retreated rather than continuing its advance, it had allowed Na-Lythan and the rest of Ka-Somal's infantry vehicles to move ahead at their top combined speed. Slower than a Bolo they undoubtedly were, but they were fast enough to have reached the point at which the other two possible routes of advance converged and then diverged once again while the Bolo was elsewhere.

    "We'll split our forces, Jesmahr," he announced. His executive officer looked at him, and the general bared his fangs mirthlessly.

    "Ka-Somal will take Axis One," he said. "He'll have to move back to the west a bit to cut across to One, but he's faster than our heavy mechs. He's got the time, and we'll give him the rest of the reconnaissance mechs -- they're fast enough to keep up with his APCs and agile enough to get through that --" he jerked his head at the ugly spill of the landslide "-- as well. And we'll give him all of Na-Pahrthal's remaining air cavalry, as well."

    "Yes, Sir. And First Armored?" Na-Salth said as Ka-Frahkan paused.

    "Uran will take First Armored down Axis Three."

    "If we remain concentrated, we'll have more firepower to deal with the Bolo," Na-Salth pointed out respectfully.

    "Ka-Somal's infantry won't be much use against a Bolo in a frontal engagement," Ka-Frahkan replied, "and in this terrain, it's going to be a head-on meeting for Uran's mechs, whenever it comes. But between both of his remaining battalions, the recon mechs, and Na-Pahrthal's air cav, Ka-Somal ought to have an effective superiority against the militia in that dammed blocking position."

    "But even if he does, Sir," Na-Salth said, even more respectfully, "our long-range drones have confirmed that the Humans have at least two additional militia battalions digging in closer to their settlement. Ka-Somal doesn't begin to have the firepower to break through that sort of opposition without Uran's support. And he'll take losses against the blocking position, probably serious ones, even if he manages to take it in the end."

    "I'm aware of that," Ka-Frahkan said grimly. He turned to face Na-Salth fully. "Ka-Somal is a diversion -- a bluff."

    "A diversion, Sir?" Na-Salth repeated.

    "By splitting up now, we force the Bolo to choose which of our two columns to pursue. It can catch either one of them short of the militia's position; it can't possibly catch both of them. Our armored units obviously pose the greater threat, and that makes them the logical column for the Bolo to pursue. But Axis Three is the longer approach route by a considerable margin, and Uran's mechs will be slower than Ka-Somal's column. It's possible the Bolo will choose to pursue Ka-Somal instead of following Uran because it would probably be able to overtake and destroy him and still have time -- barely -- to return down Axis Three and catch First Armored from behind before Uran can get his Fenrises' missile batteries into range of the blocking position."

    "What if it opts to retreat back down Axis Two, Sir? In that case, it could reach the blocking position ahead of either of us."

    "True, but it won't," Ka-Frahkan said with bleak confidence. "It could beat us back, but if it did, our mechs would be able to bring their missile batteries into range of the militia position before it could engage us. The intervening terrain would cover our approach too well for it to prevent us from firing, and none of its infantry supports would survive that sort of fire." He flattened his ears in negation. "No. It will come after at least one of our columns, Jesmahr."

    Na-Salth considered for a moment, then flipped his ears in agreement, and the general continued.

    "If it decides to go after Uran first, it won't be able to turn around afterward and catch Ka-Somal the same way, though. Even if it took no mobility damage at all against First Armored -- and it most certainly would -- the delay would make it impossible for it to move back and intercept Ka-Somal before his units get past the landslide it induced, and it couldn't possibly get through that obstruction itself to follow him down Axis One. So if it doesn't go after Ka-Somal now, it won't be able to prevent him from getting to grips with the infantry in its blocking position whatever it does to First Armored.

    "If it does decide to pursue and overtake Ka-Somal, it will undoubtedly destroy his infantry," Ka-Frahkan went on unflinchingly. "In the process, however, it may take damage of its own. It will certainly expend ammunition, and if Ka-Somal makes skillful use of his nuclear demolition charges, he may well succeed in inflicting significant damage, which might give Uran a decisive advantage when he finally engages it. Given the limited utility of our infantry in an armored engagement, we won't lose that much effective capability whatever happens to Ka-Somal. If he can wear it down a little, give Uran the edge he needs, the sacrifice will be well worth it. In either case, whether Ka-Somal can damage it or not, simply pursuing his infantry will delay it, possibly long enough -- depending on how long it takes it to destroy Ka-Somal -- for Uran to reach the blocking position and destroy its infantry before it can intervene. And if Uran can punch out the militia quickly, his Fenrises, at least, would probably have the speed to reach the colony before the Bolo could prevent them from doing so.

    "If, on the other hand, the Bolo opts to pursue First Armored, Ka-Somal's infantry will at least be out of the line of fire when Uran's mechs meet it. He has at least an even chance of destroying the Bolo, whether Ka-Somal has weakened at first or not, but he'll take serious losses doing so. If Ka-Somal's infantry is still intact, it will be able to support Uran's own survivors effectively when he moves against the remainder of the Humans' forces. So, either the Bolo follows Ka-Somal and destroys him, possibly taking damage itself in the process, or else sending Ka-Somal down Axis One is a way to preserve his forces for later use."

    Na-Salth said nothing for a moment. Ka-Frahkan hadn't asked his approval for the plan, after all. But that wasn't what kept him silent. What the general had said about the survivability of infantry in a battle between heavy armored units was self-evidently true, yet expending Ka-Somal's infantry in an engagement which offered at least the possibility of decreasing the Bolo's combat capability before the decisive engagement against Na-Lythan made sense in the cold-blooded calculus of war. And the one way to insure that the infantry had the opportunity to damage the Bolo was to keep the entire force together, compel the Bolo to confront the infantry before it could reach the armored units.

    But Ka-Somal's two intact battalions represented over eighty-five percent of their total surviving personnel. If they died, there would be far too few of the People left in the star system for the general's cherished plan to establish an imperial colony here.

    Na-Salth looked into his commander's eyes for another moment, then raised his ears in acceptance.

    "Yes, Sir," he said, and began issuing orders.



    Maneka/Lazarus watched the Enemy force split up.

    <I didn't expect that,> her/their Maneka half said as she/they continued to advance rapidly towards the point at which the Enemy had fallen into two columns.

    <Nor did I. Analysis of standard Enemy tactics and the decisions to date of this Enemy commander suggested a probability of 87.031 percent that he would maintain concentration of his forces,> her/their Lazarus half replied.

    <Makes sense, though, I suppose,> Maneka said. <Their infantry won't be much help in a standup fight with their armor.>

    <Probability of Enemy infantry inflicting significant damage upon this unit under those circumstances does not exceed 15.02 percent,> Lazarus agreed. <However, probability of an Enemy infantry screen in hasty defensive positions in this terrain inflicting significant, though not incapacitating, damage before its destruction prior to the armored engagement approaches 62.47 percent.>

    <Then why didn't he stay concentrated? He could easily have deployed an infantry screen at any number of points along the route of advance he's following. At the least, that would have forced us to fight our way through it just to get to his mechs. At the best, it might have delayed us long enough for the mechs to overrun the Fourth before we could intervene..>

    <Indeed. Which was the reason I assigned a probability of only 14.969 percent that he would fail to do so. I have no explanation for his actual decision, aside from the obvious fact that it compels us to decide which force to pursue.>

    Times and distances, movement rates, and weapons capabilities flickered through her/their shared awareness at psychotronic speed. The decision was self-evident. The Enemy's remaining armored battalion represented the only true threat to the colony, regardless of what happened to Mary Lou Atwater's command. The destruction of the Surturs and their supporting Fenrises took absolute priority, and if she/they went after the infantry first, there was a chance, however minor, that it might degrade her/their combat capability before the decisive engagement.



    "So we're going after the armor," Maneka Trevor's image said from the small com display window opened in the corner of Major Atwater's visor HUD. "We may've taken out their Betas' missiles, but we''ve got to keep the missile batteries on their remaining Fenrises at least eighty kilometers from your position, and that means killing them well short of that point. Which, I'm afraid, also means their infantry is going to reach your perimeter before we can get back to you. But with a little luck, at least you won't have their armored units shooting at you at the same time."

    "Understood," Atwater said, hoping she sounded more cheerful than she felt. Two battalions of Dog Boy infantry, especially with a half-dozen Heimdalls and a hundred or so air cav mounts along to help them out, was going to be pretty stiff odds for her single battalion, despite the superiority of its individual weapons and the advantage of its prepared positions. The numerical odds would be almost four-to-one, and Melconian infantry carried a lot of man-portable anti-armor weapons in partial compensation for its lack of powered combat armor.

    On the other hand, she thought grimly, our chances against their infantry are going to be one hell of a lot better than our chances against their armor would be. Or than her chances against their armor will be.

    "Good luck, Mary Lou," Maneka said.

    "And to you," Atwater replied. She managed a taut smile. "Drop by when you get a chance. We'll still be here."

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