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Hero: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Thursday, April 15, 2004 00:03 EDT



    The wakeup chimes were drowned out by Shiva's strong voice singing, "OH! What a beautiful morning!" followed by even louder bitching from Dagger, Thor and Ferret.

    "It's time," Shiva reminded them. Grab your last, hot, home-cooked meal, kiss your screen of your mama goodbye and get ready to suck mud."

    The meal was abbreviated and interrupted by the sorting of gear. Rucks, harnesses, helmet displays and clothes were all checked, with Shiva and Bell Toll scanning a troubleshooting program to see if the troops missed any problems. Gorilla had calmed down and seemed almost cheerful. He most of all would be glad to get out of the ball and on land, even if it was hostile land. Conversely, Gun Doll and Ferret were tensing up a bit more than the others, but no more than they had on previous operations. Tirdal was still physiologically normal. His alpha history didn't seem to match up with him getting any sleep, but they were so thoroughly nonhuman in character that it was impossible to say.

    "Feet Dry," Bell Toll announced as they reached a depth that would allow no further submerged progress. "Vent and unplug." Everyone took one last opportunity to relieve themselves, then disconnected the equipment that made that possible. The Darhel's anatomy was strange, but it was the type of event that no one wanted to discuss, so no questions were asked. Wiped off with towels in lieu of showers and sealed in assault suits, everyone took a last bite or two and squatted with their gear. That made the center of the ball a packed, elbow to elbow mess.

    "Tirdal, do you sense anything?" Bell Toll asked. He felt stupid saying the words, they sounded overly melodramatic, but there wasn't any other way to put it.

    "Animals of some kind," Tirdal replied, not bothering to comment on the captain's evident discomfiture with the request. "Primitive thoughts regarding hunger and pain. Nothing else. Nothing sentient nearby with the exception of the team."

    "Thanks. Gorilla, go."

    At a signal from Gorilla, the first robot was released from a side hatch. It floated clear of the pod and swam quietly across the choppy surface trailing a hair-fine control wire, its progress slowed by the shore currents. Its paddle-like legs propelled it, and after an impatient time it reached the pebbly beach.

    This bot had been chosen for its unobtrusiveness. It looked like a giant pill bug. While it was convenient that it was low to the ground and matched many fauna, it was also a compact and efficient design. Once it touched land, its "antennae" made a sniff for chemicals, sounds and motion. Sensing nothing, it shifted its legs from paddles to tractioned feet and trundled up the rocky terrain into the nearby weeds.

    The camera feed came on at once, visible on everyone's visor in any part of the spectrum they chose to look at. Gorilla said, "Infrared Three appears to have the best image," and there were grunts of acknowledgement as people sought that view.

    "Temperate forest?" Gun Doll asked, examining the dark patches of growth.

    "Sort of," Bell Toll said. "I'm not sure if those trees are actually deciduous. Cycad or palmlike. The undergrowth is heavy." It was. The screens showed a thick, tangled variety of bushes, broad, spreading trees reminiscent of palmettos and rubber trees, with tall, spindly forest giants above them, the leaves spiny like cacti rather than like evergreens the vegetation packing in at the shoreline where access to sunlight was the greatest. The ground was thick loam with much rotten vegetation, riddled with holes from animals. A molten sun was dripping behind the trees, a pink and blue mural of sky as backdrop.

    "There's an animal," Dagger said, his eyes always sharp for movement.

    "I see it," Gorilla said, and adjusted one of the cameras for a closer view. The controller on the front of his harness was set up for fingers or voice, though voice control was rarely used. If he was too busy shooting to have a free hand, then he'd shout orders, but that was to be avoided. "That is the biggest freaking cockroach I have ever seen," he said, bringing it into sharp focus for everyone.

    "More like a trilobite or silverfish," Bell Toll said.

    "Whatever. It's an insect," Gorilla said. "If you're afraid of bugs, you're in trouble."

    "Aren't you afraid of bugs, Gorilla?" Thor asked, pushing awfully closely to Gorilla's real phobias.

    "Only from the inside," Gorilla said, eliciting chuckles. "Which might be possible here. There's another one, different species. It appears insectoids are the dominant animal form around here."

    "Likely, but let's not assume too much," Bell Toll put in. "There could be monstrous birds who eat those things."

    "Good point, Captain."




    "Holy crap, look at the jaws on that bastard!" Ferret said. He lit the creature in question with a cursor.

    "Those are some serious mandibles," Shiva agreed. The bug in question was shearing through plant stalks about 10 centimeters thick. The stalks didn't look like spongy weed, but appeared to be rather woody, like bamboo. As the plants fell, it handled them with lobster-like pincers, feeding them into its mouth as a kid would French fries. They disappeared about as fast.

    "Question is, does anything prey on that?" Ferret asked.

    "Will it reassure you if I say that the bot found fecal matter and determined it to contain meat residue?" Gorilla said.

    "No," Ferret admitted with a shiver.

    "I sense no carnivores at present," Tirdal said. "If there's any nearby, they are not conscious or self-aware."

    "Mammaloid!" Bell Toll said. "There!" A circle glowed around that part of the image, and Gorilla zoomed in.

    "Looks a bit like a capybara," he said.

    "Capybara?" Tirdal asked.

    "A large rodent creature from Earth."

    "Thank you."

    "There's a small flyer," Shiva said, spotting flitting movement.

    "Woah, too fast! Hold on," Gorilla protested, sequencing the images and numbering them for review. He brought a close up image of the flyer up for everyone.

    The flyer was also mammalian, a bit like a bat but with a longer snout. It and the capibara analog were both shaded from yellow to brown. Their claws were long but typical.

    "Herd," Gorilla said, shifting the image in a blur to the south. The browsers were bugs, and huge, at least a meter tall at the "shoulder." Their carapaces were striped for camouflage, and they flickered through the darkening shadows, seeming to phase in and out.

    "No signs of Blobs or other intelligent life? No technology visible?" Bell Toll asked.

    "Nothing, Sir. Rats, bats and bugs," was the reply.

    "Go ahead, then," Bell Toll said, ordering the next step.

    "Yes, sir," Gorilla replied, thumbing another control. The wire to the first bot was severed, giving it easier range of movement. Four more bots kicked loose, swam ashore and trundled into the weeds. Behind them, the pod extended two tubes just below the choppy waves, their mouths sealed by forcefields.

    As the bots moved ashore and spread their electronic senses for threats, the team shifted and prepared to debark.

    Ferret was the first up, shoving his gear into one tube before sliding himself into the other. He often wondered if this was what a baby felt like at birth. The passage was long, dark, confined and made it hard to breathe. The traction field grabbed him and drew him up until his hands reached the lip. Drawing a deep breath, he slipped up into the chill water. Reaching into the other hatch, he grabbed his punch gun first, then his ruck, which was surrounded by a flotation jacket. The near 100 kilograms was too much to swim with. Gingerly, he let his helmet break the surface with a soft ripple, then rose with gentle frog kicks until his nostrils just cleared the troughs of the choppy waves.

    What the sensors had filtered out and not bothered to mention was that it was raining. Rain interfered with vid image, and it wasn't heavy enough to be considered a terrain threat. It would give cover to both them and any threats. It was one of those cold, constant rains that fit the term "a great day for DRTs and ducks."

    "Pouring cold rain, but no immediate threats," he reported back in a whisper, the sensors of his helmet deducing the voice as a transmission.

    "Understood, break," Shiva said from below. "Tirdal, you're up. Stand to and stand by."

    "Yes, Sir," he agreed, repeating the procedure with the tubes.

    "Go," Shiva said a few moments later. Tirdal felt the field grab him, and he was drawn up the tube. He took a breath as he passed through the forcefield, then he was in water. He grabbed his punch gun and ruck and surfaced near Ferret.

    Ferret wondered how Tirdal was doing. His breath sounded strained and he was paddling hard to stay afloat. Moments later, he seemed fine, and his motion slowed to near nothing. Some mod of his suit was handling flotation. Was swimming that tough for Darhel? Ferret wondered. Perhaps he was denser than humans. Or maybe he lacked the proper angle to his limbs. No matter. He seemed fine now. But damn, did he glow on infrared. Either he was strained, or that was some metabolism he had.

    With a nod, Ferret swam forward, low in the water, towing his ruck. He couldn't fault Tirdal for being strained. This was one bitch of a swim, through chop, loaded with gear and, he found out as he neared shore, through muck and weed. Regardless of the local weather, that water was cold, too. He made adequate time: five minutes for 100 meters, riding up and down in the waves, dunking occasionally. Months of training had taught him to throttle his breathing at the first splash of water in his nose. It itched and dripped horribly, but he'd take care of that upon landing.

    As he neared the breaker line, he took to crawling through the shallows. The suit was tough enough to be a ballistic shield, but thin, and the pressure of sand and gravel through it chewed his knees to raw meat that stung in the salt water that was now draining out. In theory, the suit could be sealed as an impermeable membrane. For cold climate use that was fine; in this weather, they wanted ventilation and drainage.

    As the waves dropped below his torso, he drew his ruck up next to him. He deflated the cushion, which had four more gas cylinders to inflate it, should they need to cross more water. A few seconds of wriggling got the ruck onto his shoulders, with him sitting. Rolling to his side, then to his abused knees, he rose to a low crouch and shimmied up into the shore weeds, cleared his boot soles of gunk, then edged into the taller grass for cover. A quick glance in his rear view showed Tirdal halfway to shore, Gun Doll afloat and almost invisible behind him. That confirmed, he kept his eyes open in front for any possible threats. The hissing waves of rain damped sound, especially on the water.



    And Tirdal was good, much better than he had appeared in training. Were it not for the rear image, he wouldn't have known the Darhel was there. Tirdal slipped to his left about five meters and hunkered down himself, his punch gun trained outward but his expression seeming to be turning inward. Ferret took that chance to blow his nose, a finger over one nostril to concentrate airflow. Snot, salt water and sand spewed from one side, then the other. He kept it quiet and low to the ground, wiped off on his sleeve and rose back to a low crawl below the grasstops.

    Gun Doll was ashore on his right momentarily. While large for a woman, larger than Ferret or Dagger, she was much smaller than Gorilla, and her load was almost as huge. Besides her tribarreled support cannon, she had powerpacks, ammunition and some of the commo gear. The sheer energy put out by her fire predicated a more massive weapon with high-capacity heat sinks that added more to the mass. She moved slowly, though not from the mass, but rather from sinking into the muddy sand. It sucked at her feet as she humped up the beach.

    The three moved cautiously forward into the drooping forest edge, nerves reaching out for any threat, as Gorilla came in behind. He had an oversized ruck stuffed with technical gear. Added to his huge bulk, it forced him to lie down to minimize his profile. The captain was next, then Dagger. Again they shifted forward, then Shiva and Thor brought up the rear.

    Gorilla sent a signal that ordered his bots ahead. Slowly, they clambered through the growth. Their brains were sufficient for most terrain problems. Occasionally, one would pause when it could find no clear or quiet path, and await a nudge from Gorilla, who was watching miniature windows in his HUD. The team slithered along behind the rolling perimeter, alert for anything the broad senses and limited mentation of the bots might miss.

    A hundred meters in, one of the bots was attacked by an insect form as it extended the perimeter. The segmented, clawed carnivore grasped the bot in an embrace similar to that of a praying mantis' and tried to bite through its carapace just behind the head, mandibles skidding off the tough molecular surface of the bot. The bot reacted as programmed, extending monomolecular spikes that shredded the abdomen of the predator. Everything and everyone paused as the attacking insect twitched and wriggled in death. The bot then dragged the dead body off under a broad, feathery bush to conceal it before resuming its position for the march.

    "I'd hate to see an aquatic version of that," Ferret commented in a whisper. "The Loch Ness Lobster." There were snickers from Shiva and Bell Toll in response. The rest hadn't been to Earth and likely didn't get the reference. Tirdal almost certainly didn't, and who knew what he would laugh at? Dagger may have gotten it, but loved his icy façade. Still, two chuckles on an obscure reference wasn't bad.

    Behind them and forgotten for now, the ship slowly sank beneath the waves and retreated to depth for camouflage. Later, it would move to a ready point near the extraction zone on the coast and await their return. If no message reached after two weeks there, it would move to a different extraction point further south for 96 hours. There was a tertiary position to the north for emergencies which would be available for 96 more hours, and everyone hoped to avoid that, since it would mean mission failure and hiding near what would probably be a Blob military installation with their presence known. If none of those plans worked, the pod would assume the team dead and follow the planned escape route to try to get the information back to the Republic.

    Bell Toll referred to the maps on the helmet systems. They'd be traveling for about ten days, over a small range of hills or low mountains then to an overlook point. From there, whatever they found, they would take a different route back to the new pickup point.

    "Anything?" he asked Tirdal. Their helmets used a comm system originally developed by the semi-mythical Aldenata that was understood to be impenetrably secure. Still, it was dangerous to encourage excess talk and a habit one should not develop, as it would carry over to those times when one wasn't using commo. And since no one knew how the damned thing actually worked at the scientific level, most troops didn't really trust it.

    "I don't believe I sense any Tslek, but the background from the whole…lifeweb…makes it awkward to tell," the sensat admitted. "I can only sense for a certain distance."

    "How far?"

    "Not very. Several kilometers at most. This forest is teeming with animal life."

    "Good enough," he said. Transmitting to everyone, he ordered, "Forward. Nav points are highlighted on your maps."

    Ten days of infiltration is not like ten days of camping. All night, they moved through the drenching rain as it ran in rivulets down their necks and into their suits, dragging slivers of plant and muck with it. It stung at the scrapes from the swim and irritated every bruise and scratch taken en route. The bots moved ahead, the troops followed, those in front cautiously, those behind basically retreating, sensors and senses alert for any threat from the rear. Roots reached out to trip, rocks to mash, rough grass and leaves to saw and cut bare flesh. The gravity was slightly high, but they were strong. What was more tiring than the additional weight was the change in inertia and balance the unfamiliar field caused. Quite often, their route would force them to a crawl under choking vines or over boulders and it was then that the gravity pulled at them. The air was strange and humid, redolent with rot and growth, with a faint bite of salt from the ocean.

    Rations were cold, chewed as they marched, the trash carefully stuffed into gear to take along. Litter in camp attracts pests. Litter in the field attracts enemy stalkers. Here, it could do both. They paused every two hours and rested, shaking mud and sharp sticks from boots, thorns from clothing and wiping grime from necks and faces. A quick check all around and a few swallows of water, then the pace would resume. They urinated in a jug brought for the purpose, so as to reduce the chance of a chemical trace. It would be emptied when they camped and the contents properly buried. The only advantage Ferret had on point was that he didn't have to lug the jug. A disadvantage was that while crawling, he was likely to, and occasionally did, slide a hand forward into a cold, greasy pile of animal droppings. The insectoids left feces that resembled a cross between worm casts and lizard goo, only in piles as large as that from cows.

    Bell Toll was impressed by Tirdal. He'd understood Darhel were very urban, their planets mostly citified and commercial. If so, Tirdal had learned well, as he moved quietly and with economy. He certainly seemed as strong as was rumored, and traveled easily whether at an erect stride or bent low for concealment. It was obvious that he was following Ferret's lead, though and he didn't seem to be paying attention to what was going on around them. Was that due to his urban background? Or his reliance on his Sense? Or a combination of the two? Either way, he made a note not to put Tirdal on point. He'd leave an obvious wake and trip over something dangerous.

    Every planet, every biome had its own unique traits. The least obvious but most important here was the lack of animal noises. The insectoids apparently communicated by chemical or other signals, and the mammaloids didn't use sounds lest they be detected by predators. This quietness served a positive function, in that there were no sudden silences of wildlife to give away the team's presence. It also was a hindrance in that at any distance there was less background noise to mask their movement.

    It was also eerie as hell. The bushes swished and rattled, the fernlike leaves rustled softly. Light breezes swirled and phased the sound of the rain into something from a relaxation soundtrack. Mud splattered and squelched. There would be a scuttling of bugs, wrestling for mates, running away from predators, capturing prey, fighting, mating. Occasionally, branches would thump. And over that…nothing.

    Then, in the third hour, there was something.

    Out of nowhere it came, buzzing and flapping past Ferret's face, then Gun Doll's.

    "Shit!" he muttered. Gun Doll limited her response to a gasp.

    Weapons swung around and eyes sought targets, until Ferret said, "No threat. Just those damned bats."

    "All clear here," Gun Doll reported. "Though I swear one plastered itself across the visor and flashed me."

    "Was it good for you?" Thor muttered with mirth.

    "Best hung thing I've seen on this trip," she replied.

    "Quiet down!" Shiva ordered. Everyone was tense and needed the release, but that was enough and it was now time to go back to work. In his visor, everyone had warmed up slightly, Ferret and Gun Doll by several degrees. They faded back to "normal" as the adrenalin wore off. Though normal out here was high, metabolisms working furiously. This was the kind of infiltration they could market for weight loss. If civilians thought that new fad of pseudo-boot camps for "health" was exciting, they should try this.

    "Dawn soon, Shiva," Bell Toll said, shortly after the bat assault. "Set us up for camp, please."

    "Yes, sir," he acknowledged, and spoke to them all. "Camping time, people. Any ideas?"

    Thor replied, "There's a small clearing to our left. Slight elevation, thick growth."

    "That might work. Let me take a peek. Hold, troops." Shiva eased back behind Thor, took a glance at the site suggested, and decided it would serve.

    Normally, a depression would be preferable, being better concealed. In wet conditions, though, one wanted to avoid drowning. The risk of discovery being minimal at present, higher ground was preferred. Concealment was still wanted, though. This was a spongy hummock of ground surrounded by low areas, ringed by a thick tangle of reaching limbs entwined with vines and twigs. The entrance Thor had found was low to the ground, covered above.

    "Bivouac site, fall back by numbers," Shiva ordered, taking a position near the weedy passage and motioning Thor within. Bell Toll followed, then the others in order, Shiva and Ferret backing in last.

    Camp didn't take long to pitch. They each had a thin membrane to cover their suits, thickened on the underside to provide enough padding for insulation and to cushion the skin against sores. Trained troops made their own beds by scooping out a couple of handfuls of dirt to make depressions for hips and shoulders, then lying down. Overhead, they drew freshly plucked-not cut-weeds and stems. That growth would stay fresher longer, and there'd be no bare white, or here, bright green, cut wood to illuminate their presence to an enemy. Gorilla's bots stalked out to form a perimeter, their sensors, microphones and a laser web providing reasonable assurance that an approaching threat would not be a surprise. Dagger dug a shallow latrine slit to one side and poured in the enzymes that would quickly reduce the contents to raw molecules. He followed that with the contents of the jug.

    While they'd eaten on the march, dinner was a tradition that helped maintain the body's circadian rhythms. They each quietly munched, slurped and sucked a rat pack. The best that could be said was that they were nourishing, and each one lowered the mass one had to hump by half a kilogram. Shiva's voice came through the web again, "Watch in reverse rotation. Sorry, Thor."

    "No offense," Thor replied. "Next time I'll camp us in a bog." His tone made it obvious he wasn't very bothered. He took a crouch near the middle, rifle cradled in his arms, and prepared to sit patiently. The rest rolled over to face outward, weapons inside their bags with them, and blanked their helmet visors against impending light. There was no way to make the wet go away.

    Thor sat still in the rain, hunkered under his poncho. Periodically he'd turn to take in the perimeter, after which he'd take a slightly different position facing a different direction at random. He kept the images from the bots in his view, with his sensors set to alert him if anything large moved. He had one tense moment as a pair of fat beetles waddled by, but was undisturbed otherwise.

    Two hours later, Bell Toll awoke and crawled out to relieve him.

    "How was sunrise?" he asked in a whisper.

    "Couldn't see much, Sir," Thor replied. "Gray, then misty, then this," he said with a gesture that was almost a wave but only about a handsbreadth wide. "Rain stopped about an hour ago."

    "Good. I hope," Bell Toll said. "It's going to be hot and muggy." He looked around at the soft textures of lingering mist, trailing into wisps that split and wove wraithlike through the trees. "But we should dry as we get inland from these coastal swamps a bit. G'night, Thor. I relieve you."

    "G'night, Sir." Thor crawled over to the vacant spot he'd prepared earlier and rolled out to sleep.

    The day passed fitfully, sleep aided by training and exhaustion, hindered by the itching damp, the bugs, the still, humid air, the bright light softened only slightly by foliage and atmosphere and gravity different from those the bodies had grown used to. Still, it was rest, and if today was unsatisfying, perhaps the next would be better, with acclimatization and more arduous labor to drain them. Or perhaps they'd be dead. The philosophy of the soldier is one based on adaptation to the unpleasant.

    Tirdal's shift was as boring as the others, but Dagger watched him surreptitiously. Dagger still didn't trust the Elf, even if the others had accepted him. He held still and Tirdal gave no sign of knowing he was awake, though if he could sense as they said, he probably did.

    They all woke at dusk, Ferret already up and ready.

    "You know the drill, folks," Shiva said. "Strike camp. Hygiene and prepare to march." Everyone used the slit, filling it in as they went, and Thor, last, tossed the saved sod back atop it, flattening it out with his heel. Bathing being out of the question, a quick wipe with spongy pads laden with activated nanos served to kill bacteria and wipe grit from eyes. Tirdal scurried around, scuffing and brushing at grass and bushes, until the very people who'd slept on an area couldn't see a worn spot. He also found three tiny slivers of plastic left from rat packs. There was grudging admiration for his work. "How'd you do that?" Thor asked.

    "It's a Sense," Tirdal replied. "The plants don't have emotion, but they have a…'normalness.' I move them around until they seem most normal. That's the best I can describe it in English. It only works when very close."

    "However it's described, it works," Shiva commented. Even Dagger nodded appreciatively. The clearing looked untouched.

    The trash stowed and a final check made they moved out, Gorilla's bots leading the way. Their powerpacks would be good for at least a couple of weeks, and they could recharge somewhat in daylight, using nano-sized thermocouples under their outer shells.

    This night was much like the last, except that it was not raining and gradually dried out. The suits clung to their bodies, causing itching until the moisture capillaried out and evaporated. The permeability could be adjusted, but it would still take time for moisture to vent. Heads itched under the web harnesses of helmets. The ground was drying as they rose from the coastal wetlands. The squelching had become sticky mud, now hard-packed earth.

    They'd only been hiking about an hour when Tirdal spoke urgently through his microphone, "Ferret, drop now!"

    Ferret's reflexes were good. He threw himself flat among stalky weeds as a large animal leapt through the space he'd occupied. He rolled and fired, missing, the weeds crackling and breaking as he tumbled. The creature dug in as it landed, spun and charged. Tirdal's shot was wide, the hollow poounk! of the punch gun resonating as the beam shattered plant stems. Then Gun Doll's autocannon spoke with a BRAAAAAAPPP! that shook the ears even with its muffling. The heavy, hypervelocity needles tore at the insect, then their antimatter cores, just a spare few micrograms, blew it to slimy chunks.

    The troops were professionals. The rest were already in a perimeter, covering each other and prepared to fire.

    "Report!" Bell Toll snapped.

    "I sensed a sole predator form," Tirdal said. "I warned Ferret, who evaded it and appears unhurt. Gun Doll's fire killed it. No other senses, no immediate threats that I can tell."

    "Understood. Stand to until we make sure we're still secure," the commander ordered. The weapons weren't as loud as chemically driven weapons or explosives, but were loud and alien enough in this environment. Hopefully, either nothing had been around to hear, or the growth had muffled it down to distant thunder or other natural noises.

    For long minutes they were all but motionless, eyes and sensors alert for any hint of a threat.

    "I call secure," Bell Toll finally said. "Bring in the perimeter. The shot appeared strange, let's review the video."

    He scrolled through frames of the fight as seen on Tirdal's and Gun Doll's helmets until he found those he sought.

    "There," he said. "The darts didn't penetrate the carapace. The antimatter did all the damage." The frames showed gouges left by the projectiles, their velocity too high for them to be captured on this equipment. It wasn't until one of the explosive rounds caught the shell that the creature had really been damaged.



    "That's impossible," Dagger said. "I want a shot at a piece of that."

    "Actually, Dagger," Shiva put in, "that's a good idea. We better see how the weapons handle it. Keep a perimeter, folks."

    A plate-sized section of the carapace, still dripping with yellow insect goo, was placed against the base of a tree.

    "Punch gun first," Shiva decided. "Tirdal, give it a try."

    Tirdal nodded, aimed and fired. The poounk! of his weapon was followed by a clatter, and the section of exoskeleton jumped. It spun, landed flat and kicked up earth. Gun Doll walked over, held it up.

    "Nothing," she said. She replaced it against the roots. That was impressive. The energy toroid from a punch gun would drive a hole through most material, to a depth of several meters. It was a great area-effect and anti-personnel weapon. Apparently, its blast was too diffuse for this.

    Thor's rifle round, a standard one with no antimatter, ricocheted. So did Dagger's more potent round. His anti-armor round punched through. Gun Doll fired another short burst of just AP. Then another. After twenty rounds, she succeeded in smashing through. Shiva fired an antimatter round set to zero penetration, and the explosion tore the piece to shreds as it if were cooked crabshell.

    "Interesting," he mused, examining a scorched, steaming fragment. "It looks like we need to set for surface detonation."

    "What about the punch guns?" Bell Toll asked. "Any ideas?"

    "I guess we hope for a trauma effect or a stun," Ferret said.

    "Just keep in mind that a surface shot on a larger animal might not damage any vital organs," Shiva said. "Hell, we don't even know where their organs are, assuming they have any in the first place. So be very cautious."

    There were nods and grunts as weapons were adjusted, then the slogging continued.

    Another couple of hours passed uninterrupted before Gorilla said, "Hold."

    Ferret stopped, halfway forward in a crawl. It was a trained reflex, and he didn't flatten from that position until Gorilla said, "Secure," indicating they could get comfortable but not move from their positions.

    He fed a video to them, which he was getting from two of the bots.

    "Captain, check this out," he said on the open channel, so everyone could follow it.

    The scene was something from a horror show. A pack of small predators were attacking a larger herbivore, like carnivorous roaches atop a giant ladybug. The roan-colored domed plant eater was big enough to fill a small bedroom. The gray roachlike predators swarming it with angry, twitching antennae were the size of German Shepherds. Whatever their mandibles were made of was tough enough to shear chunks from the bulletproof shell of their victim.

    The team watched, still as dormant reptiles with fingers ready on triggers in case they were attacked next. The large creature galloped in a circle, knocking down saplings up to 15 centimeters thick and shaking the ground. One of the attackers tumbled underneath and was stepped on, convulsing into a ball around its middle. The ground shook and fronds were torn loose from the trees as the weeds and ground cover were plowed into confused furrows by kicking feet. The animal had insectoid legs that ended in what were effectively hooves of the same insane super-chitin, sharp as boar's tusks and with a sheen under the mud coating them.

    Even from more than a hundred meters away, the trees could be seen to whip back and forth from the melee, as the now wounded megabeetle bucked and kicked. Those hooves were vicious, but not really placed to help much.

    It was hobbling now, as one of the attackers had sheared off a leg. Then another leg on the same side was crippled and started to give. As its motions slowed, the slender killers concentrated on that side, snipping off an antenna, then another leg, a protruding piece of flank and the last leg on that side.

    "Gorilla, let's see that," Bell Toll ordered. The attackers were on the far side from them.

    "On it," Gorilla agreed, and the view shifted as the ambulating intelbots crept in a circle, scanners focused on the grisly scene.

    As the view shifted past the still alive and twitching bulk, Ferret said, "Oh, yuk."

    "Yeah," agreed Gun Doll. The rest were silent but agreed with the sentiment.

    The six surviving carnivores had sliced holes between the top and bottom shells, and were rapidly eating their way inside. As the team watched, one of them disappeared with a kick of legs, like a rat down a burrow. Only this burrow was into the tender flesh of the dappled, pretty and still squirming body of the beetle. The others followed suit.

    "I take back what I said about not being scared of bugs," Gorilla said. "If one of those gets me, shoot me decently."

    "Or just frag me quick," Dagger said. Even Dagger.

    "Right," Bell Toll said. "Gorilla, Ferret, let's detour way around there. And if those… things… come close, shoot first and tell me afterwards. Don't wait to ask permission."

    "Yes, Sir," echoed gladly through the earpieces.

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