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Old Soldiers: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Wednesday, August 31, 2005 19:28 EDT



    So it's still following us.

    Theslask Ka-Frahkan watched the Bolo's icon reach the point where Axis Two and Axis Three diverged. Instead of continuing further west along Axis Two to reach Axis One, it had turned south to come speeding after Na-Lythan's surviving mechs, and a strange, singing calmness seemed to flow through him.

    The Bolo's decision wasn't really a surprise. He'd never truly expected the Human machine to give his own armor what amounted to a free run into missile range of the militia blocking position. The tactician in him rather regretted that it hadn't, but truth to tell, deep inside, he was almost glad. Whatever he might have chosen to tell Na-Salth, he'd known all along that this was the most probable outcome of his decision to divide his forces. Which, of course, was the reason his command vehicle was accompanying First Armored instead of Colonel Ka-Somal's column.

    His mind ran back over the balance of combat power yet again, bitterly regretting the loss of his other armored battalion. If only he hadn't allowed his own tactical opportunism lure him into doing exactly what the Bolo and its commander had wanted! He should have realized no Bolo would have offered such an opening unless it wanted its opponents to take it and so rejected it, continuing to close for the head-on armored slugfest his superior numbers would surely have permitted him to win. Yet even now, he knew he would have done exactly the same thing given the same opportunity and knowledge. The chance to avoid the Bolo until after he had achieved his objective -- or even to catch it between his two armored regiments -- had simply been too good to pass up. Especially when the nature of the devilish trap had been completely impossible to deduce ahead of time.

    But whether he had been right or wrong, he still had to deal with the consequences of his decision. And the consequences were that his original clear advantage in combat power had been wiped away.

    The missile armament of his six Fenrises would probably allow him to land the first blows, inflict the first damage. But after they had emptied their single-shot missile pods, the Fenrises would be hopelessly outclassed by the Bolo, unless they could somehow get around on to its more lightly armored flanks. That was scarcely likely in such constricted terrain, and even if it proved possible, a Bolo's side armor, though much thinner than it frontal armor, was still heavy enough foto make it far from certain that r a Fenris' main weapon could penetrate it. Which meant the main engagement would fall heavily upon his three Surturs.

    The outcome would hang from a thread, whatever happened, and Na-Salth had been right. Holding the infantry to support the armor might well have tipped the balance in his favor. So why hadn't he done that? He'd already made one suspect decision this day; had he made a second? Had he allowed emotions, his own perhaps foolish hope that the People might still survive upon this planet, to dictate his decisions? Would Ka-Somal's infantry have made the difference between victory and defeat if he'd hung on to it, deployed Ka-Somal's two remaining battalions as a sacrificial screen?

    There was no way to know, and, anyway, the decision had already been made. The pieces were in motion for the final confrontation, and the outcome would be whatever the Nameless Lord willed it to be.



    Colonel Verank Ka-Somal swore venomously as his command vehicle lurched and bounced over the nightmare landscape the accursed Humans' landslide had left to mark the massacre of the brigade's Second Armored and his own Third Infantry Battalion. More death, more slaughter, he thought, and hatred for the species which had murdered his own world, and with it his wife, children, and family, swirled at his core like slow, thick lava.

    The repeater plot tied into the far more capable tactical computers aboard General Ka-Frahkan's brigade command vehicle showed him the Bolo, moving rapidly away from his own position. He knew, in the intellectual, professional part of him which had graduated from the Emperor Yarthaaisun Army Academy so many years before, that his infantry and the supporting reconnaissance mechs would have stood no chance at all against the Bolo, had it chosen to pursue his column, instead. But the part of him which remembered the devastated landscape of Rasantha -- of the planet upon which he had been born and upon which his children, his wife, his parents and siblings, had died under the devastating onslaught of other Bolos -- clung to that receding icon with the hungry fingers of hate.

    Others might still clutch at the hope Ka-Frahkan had offered -- the hope that they might yet somehow, miraculously, capture sufficient of the Humans' industrial infrastructure, enough of their starships, to someday make their way home again. Or to the other hope, that they might survive here, instead. Build a new colony, keep the Empire alive, even if all of the rest of the People went down to death elsewhere.

    Ka-Somal did not. There was no future. Not for him, not for Ka-Frahkan, not for the Empire, not even for the People. There was only vengeance. Only death returned for death. And so, even while his eyes clung to the Bolo's icon and he longed to blot that icon away with his own weapons -- with his own naked, bloody fists and fangs -- another part of him was glad to see it go. Perhaps Na-Lythan could destroy it, after all. Perhaps enough of his mechs to make a difference would actually survive. But whether that happened or not, the Bolo's decision to pursue Na-Lythan meant Ka-Somal would reach the militia position.

    And so, whatever else happened, he would have the chance to kill at least a few more Humans before the Bolo returned to kill him.



    Private Na-Varsk lay under his concealing camouflage, watching the Human infantry so far below him, and wondered what was happening to the rest of the Brigade.



    Major Na-Pahrthal's pilot banked around another bend in the river valley, and the major wondered if the pilot was as astonished as he himself was that they'd managed to escape the Bolo's onslaught alive. The fact that they had was largely due to Flight Sergeant Sa-Horuk's skill, and Na-Pahrthal made a mental note to be sure Sa-Horuk knew he recognized that when this was all over.

    The major's ears twitched in bitter amusement at the thought. Was he making that note to be sure Sa-Horuk got the credit he deserved? Or because making it implied that there was at least a slim chance that Na-Pahrthal would be alive to extend it?

    He shook the thought aside. There was no time for it, and he returned his full attention to the valley's terrain.

    The landslide-choked gorge, and the new lake rapidly forming behind it, lay far to the west as he and his surviving air cavalry scouted ahead of Colonel Ka-Somal's column. The Heimdalls Colonel Na-Lythan had detached to accompany the infantry were coming up quickly astern of Na-Pahrthal's aerial units, but the infantry, in its less capable APCs, lagged behind, still making up the distance it had lost after being delayed by the landslide.

    Na-Pahrthal checked his own displays again. The repeater relaying the imagery from General Ka-Frahkan's vehicle showed him the Bolo, closing rapidly now with the rear of Na-Lythan's remaining battalion. After what that demonic machine had already done to the Brigade, Na-Pahrthal found it impossible, however hard he tried, to feel confident about what would happen when it caught up with First Armored. And in the end, if Colonel Na-Lythan couldn't stop it after all, anything the rest of them might accomplish wouldn't matter very much, he supposed.

    He wondered if Ka-Somal would delay his own attack until he knew the outcome of the armored battle about to begin. If Na-Lythan won, then delaying until his surviving armored units could arrive to support Ka-Somal's attack would save hundreds of casualties, and possibly make the difference between being able to continue the attack against the Humans' other forces or simply bleeding themselves white in an ultimately meaningless battle of attrition against the blocking position. But if Na-Lythan lost, then delaying the attack would only give the Bolo time to come charging up to support the Human militia with its remaining weapons. In which case, they would be able to kill far fewer of the Humans before they died themselves.

    In another war, against another enemy, there might have been other options to ponder. The possibility of honorable surrender might even have existed. But this was the war they had, and however desperately some inner part of him might have longed for it to be otherwise, Major Beryak Na-Pahrthal could no longer truly imagine any other sort.

    "Uniform-Three-Seven, this is Alpha-Zero-One." he said into his microphone. "Watch those turns. You're sliding too high, skylining yourself. Do that closer to the enemy, and he'll blow you right out of the air!"

    "Alpha-Zero-One, Uniform-Three-Seven copies. Sorry about that, Sir. I'll try not to let it happen again."

    "You do that, Tharsal," Na-Pahrthal said. "I'd hate to have to break in a new horrible example to show the others how not to fly a mission."

    "Yes, Sir. Uniform-Three-Seven, out."

    "Alpha-Zero-One, out,"Na-Pahrthal acknowledged, and his ears twitched in another flicker wryly bitter amusement. So they were all still playing the game, still pretending.

    Odd how precious that threadbare pretense could be, even now.



    "The Bolo is already inside our mediums' effective engagement range , Sir," Colonel Na-Lythan said levelly. "It will overtake us completely in no more than another twenty minutes at our relative rates of advance, and this looks like as likely a place as we're going to find, especially if we can keep that ridge line between us and it until we launch. With your permission, I'd like to begin deploying my units."

    "Uran, they're your units," Ka-Frahkan replied over the com. "If this is the spot you want, then go ahead and deploy. For what it's worth, I'm formally handing tactical control over to you. May the Nameless Ones send you victory."

    "Thank you, Sir," Na-Lythan acknowledged. And then, without a pause, he began issuing his orders.



    Maneka/Lazarus weren't surprised when the Enemy slowed in his headlong rush. The terrain ahead was as favorable to him as any he might have hoped to find, and she/they slowed her/their own approach, watching to see how the Enemy commander deployed his assets.

    <He's not exactly trying for finesse, is he?> her/their human half observed wryly as her individual viewpoint rose briefly above the fusion of their personalities and perceptions.

    <It is not a situation which calls for finesse,> her/their Bolo half replied. <Their commander is wise enough to recognize that.>

    Maneka agreed wordlessly, and then her merely human viewpoint vanished once more as she/they bent their attention once more upon the developing patterns of the Enemy's deployment.

    Actually, she/they thought, he was trying for at least a little finesse. The tactical situation was brutally simple for both sides, but he was deliberately placing two of his three "fists" well forward of the third. In essence, he was writing off two thirds of his total strength, positioning those units to take the brunt of her/their assault and accepting that they would be destroyed, rather than bringing his full firepower to bear from the beginning. Clearly, he hoped that before they were destroyed, they would inflict serious damage upon her/them -- enough for his own fresh, undamaged fist to finish her/them off without suffering heavy losses of its own. In which case, he would almost certainly come out of the engagement with sufficient remaining combat power to carry through and destroy the colony, after all.

    <Probability of our destruction by forward-deployed fists, 36.012 percent; probability of their destruction, 93.562 percent,> her/their Lazarus component remarked. <Probability of our destruction by remaining fist after destroying lead fists, 56.912 percent. Probability of colony's survival following our own destruction or incapacitation becomes 73.64 percent, assuming destruction of all remaining Surturs and expenditure of all Fenrises' missile armament against us. Probability of colony's survival, assuming survival of one Surtur becomes 32.035 percent. Probability of colony's survival, assuming survival of two Surturs, becomes 01.056 percent. Survival of each Fenris with no remaining missile armament decreases probability of colony's survival by approximately 06.753 percent. Survival of one Fenris with unexpended missile load-out decreases probability of colony's survival by approximately 32.116 percent. Survival of two Fenrises with unexpended missile load-out decreases probability of colony's survival to under one percent, exclusive of any consideration of surviving Surturs.>

    <Then we'll just have to see to it that none of them survive, won't we?> her/their Maneka half replied coldly.



    "All units, stand by. Prepare for Fire Plan Alpha on my command."

    Uran Na-Lythan's voice was terse, shadowed with tension and yet curiously relaxed, almost calming. Ka-Frahkan listened to it, hearing an echo of the strange serenity which seemed to hover at his own center, and wondered what the colonel was actually thinking as the Bolo ground steadily towards his units.

    How did it all begin? The thought eddied through the back of Ka-Frahkan's brain with peculiar clarity. He knew the official version, knew Imperial Intelligence genuinely believed, after the most thorough analysis possible, that the Humans had fired first in the Trellis System. But what if they did? Or what if we did? Can any of it truly justify our long, bloody journey to this moment? We're not killing just one another's soldiers -- we're killing everything. Killing ourselves, because in our own pain, both sides give the other countless reasons to kill us, just as we kill them. Cities, star systems . . . families. Lord of the Nameless, how did we come to this? And what does it say of me that I have brought the killing here, to this star, this planet? Given my own people to the furnace in an effort to destroy a colony the Humans may never know ever even existed? What does that make me? Hero and champion of the People? Or red-clawed butcher, too stupid and crazed with blood to recognize his own insanity?

    His ears folded tight to his skull as the questions rolled through his mind.

    But in the end, it doesn't really matter, does it? he told himself sadly. Butcher or champion, I have no choice now. None of us do -- Human or of the People. We have saddled the whirlwind; now we must ride it and pray that somehow the bridle holds. That we can stay in the saddle one battle longer, one living star system farther, than they can. And so I will drown this world in blood, because I must. Because I cannot take the chance, cannot risk holding my hand. And in the end, somewhere, some other general -- Melconian or Human -- will have to make one final decision when the last world of his own race's murderers lies helpless before him.

    And that general will not be me. Ka-Frahkan eyes narrowed as he recognized the source of his strange inner serenity at last. It was knowledge, acceptance. I will die here, on this world, he realized. If not in this minute, or this hour, still, I will die here. Ka-Paldyn is gone, or he would have reported in by standard radio by now. Our inner-system special ops teams are all dead, without securing a single one of the Humans' starships, and Death Descending and Gizhan are gone. We can still ensure that no Humans survive here either, that this is simply one more charnel house world, slaughtered in the cause of racial survival, but there will be no escape for me or for any of my people. And so, either way, this is the end of the killing for me. I will slay no more worlds, murder no more children, face no more nightmares, unless, indeed, the Nameless decree the eternal damnation we all have earned so amply.

    I will sleep, he thought, with a sense of infinite, bittersweet relief. I've done my duty, and if that earns damnation, then so be it, yet I long for that final sleep, that end, for I am so tired of the killing. And yet, these are still my troopers, my family. How do I tell them how much they mean to me , when I've brought them all here to die with me?

    "All units," he heard his own voice say over the central command channel, surprised to discover that he had depressed the transmit key, "this is General Ka-Frahkan. You are about engage the enemy. This is not the planet we were originally tasked to seize, yet these are still the enemies of the People we face, and what happens here may well be far more vital to the People than anything which might have happened at our original objective. I am prouder of you than any poet, any bard, could ever forge the words to say. I am honored to have commanded you, privileged to have fought beside you so many times before, and to fight with you here, today. The Empire may never know what we do here, yet that makes it no less important, no less our duty. Men and women of the 3172nd, you have never flinched, never failed in your duty to me, to yourselves, or to the People. I know you will not fail today."

    He released the transmit key and sat back in his comfortable chair, and the silence within his command vehicle echoed and roared about him. Even the readiness reports over the tac channels seemed momentarily hushed, stilled, and he realized suddenly that they understood.

    "Support units," Na-Lythan's voice was level, yet it sounded shockingly harsh as it cut across the stillness, "initiate Fire Plan Alpha."



    The Surtur Alphas Hellbores were far lighter than the Mark XXVIII's single 110-centimeter weapon, but their echeloned turrets allowed all six of them to bear over a firing arc of just over 310 degrees. Anywhere within that field of fire, a Surtur could lay down three times as much main battery fire as Maneka/Lazarus, and if the relative lightness of its weapons meant it could lay down only about twice the weight of fire, number of shots counted, too.

    The Fenrises, on the other hand, had no business coming anywhere near a Bolo if they could help it. Unlike a Surtur, a Fenris' battle screen was light enough, its armor thin enough, that even the Mark XXVIII's ion bolt infinite repeaters could kill it at medium or short range, and its single 38-centimeter Hellbore would require a minimum of three hits in exactly the same spot to penetrate her/their frontal armor. But engaging Bolos frontally wasn't what Fenrises were intended to do, and now the heavily armored hatches on these mechs' after decks opened and the missile pods rose out of their wells on hydraulic rams. Each Fenris mounted three pods; each pod mounted thirty-two missiles; and there were six Fenrises in Major Sa-Thor's First Armored Battalion.

    The pods rose to their full-extension positions and nodded on the long stalks of their rams as they elevated slightly.



    Maneka/Lazarus' camouflaged sensors detected the emission spikes as the Fenrises enabled their missiles. Point defense clusters trained forward and elevated, counter-missiles slid into their launchers, and she/they slowed still further, diverting power from her/their drivetrain to reinforce her/their battle screen.

    It was all she/they could do. The maximum effective powered range for the Fenris's tactical missiles was only eighty kilometers, because they used counter-gravity drives, like her/their own high-speed missiles did. But the Fenrises' missiles were much smaller than hers/theirs, which meant their drives could be neither as powerful nor as robust. They traded off range and sophisticated seeking systems and penetration aids for velocity and numbers, and they were intended to saturate an opponent's missile defenses, spreading them so thin that at least a few of the fusion-warhead missiles had to get through. Maneka/Lazarus' missiles were much longer ranged and more accurate, but she/they didn't even consider launching any of them. She/they simply didn't mount enough tubes to crack the Melconian battalion's defenses in return, and that was that. In flat, open terrain, the effective range of a Bolo's direct fire weapons went far towards offsetting the Fenrises' missile capability by forcing them to launch at greater range and expose their missiles to more extended defensive fire. But now the Enemy was less than twenty-four kilometers ahead, still hidden from them by the rough, corrugated terrain.

    And at that range, tracking and engagement time was going to be very short, indeed.



    "Fire!" Na-Lythan commanded.

    The Fenrises vanished into huge boils of light, smoke, and fury as the booster charges blasted their missiles clear of the pods. Five hundred and seventy-six flame-tailed thunderbolts lifted from their launchers, accelerating slowly. But only for an instant. As soon as they had cleared their launchers and reached an elevation of thirty-seven meters, just high enough above the Fenrises for the launching mechs to clear the drive zone, their counter-gravity drives kicked in.

    Cramming those drives into such tiny missiles had required all manner of shortcuts and engineering compromises, and there was simply no way to build them tough enough on such small dimensions to survive the enormous power slamming through them. At the best of times, the missiles' drives consumed themselves in just under ten seconds, and they had no atmospheric control surfaces. They could not correct their courses or evade once their drives burned out, which left them dreadfully vulnerable to interception after that point. But for the seconds in which their drives survived, they accelerated the missiles in which they were mounted at a hundred and seventy gravities.

    At that rate of acceleration, it would take them 5.38 seconds to reach their destination, and their velocity when they did would be well over thirty thousand kilometers per hour.



    Maneka/Lazarus had known exactly what was coming.

    Even before the missile storm howled towards her/them, Battle Comp had dropped into hyper-heuristic mode, and time seemed to alter abruptly. It slowed, solidifying around her/them, the Enemy, the incoming missiles, like thick, clear syrup. A Bolo's hyper-heuristic modeling capabilities could not speed the slew rate or elevation speed or rate of fire of its own weapons, nor could it decrease the velocity of the missiles streaking into kill her/them. But it stretched the time available for her/them to think, to predict and evaluate.

    Data streamed through her/them like a river of lightning, flickering and flashing so rapidly that even with her direct link to Lazarus, Maneka Trevor could not truly perceive it. It was simply and literally impossible for her merely organic brain to organize data into a comprehensible format at such an incredible rate of speed. But if she couldn't organize it, she could grasp it. She shared Lazarus' gestalt, shared the end result of his computations and analysis.

    Stealth features and electronic warfare systems were useless against this attack. The Fenrises' missiles were specifically designed to be stupid and blind. They would fly whatever profile had been programmed into them before launch, and they would make up for the lack of sophisticated seekers and tracking systems, the absence of advanced penetration EW, with the sheer volume of their fire and the power of their warheads. They were an old-fashioned, saturation attack system, capable of in-flight maneuvers only as long as their drives lasted, which defined their outer range. And the rate at which they accelerated, the velocities they attained, were hard on an airframe. It wasn't that bad in vacuum, but, on average, anywhere from six to seven percent of them would suffer catastrophic structural failure in an air-breathing launch. Which was cold comfort to their targets, given the numbers in which they were launched.

    The remote sensors watching the Melconians at the moment of launch had measured the missile pods' angles of train and elevation with minute, absolute precision. Data stored in Lazarus' tactical files knew the exact launch sequence, cycle time, and acceleration capability of the Fenrises' missiles. Analysis of the emission spikes as the missiles were enabled, and the power levels as the launch command itself was given and the pods cycled through the launch sequence, gave him precious fractions of a second of warning before the missiles actually fired. And armed with all of that information, Battle Comp predicted the flight paths of those missiles with the accuracy and certainty of an Old Testament prophet declaring the will of God.

    Point defense clusters, anti-personnel clusters, rotary cannon, even infinite repeaters were already moving, swiveling towards the points in space at which she/they knew the missiles must appear. The towering, knife-sharp ridge line almost exactly midway between her/them and the Enemy -- the same ridge which had protected the Fenrises from her/their Hellbore and infinite repeaters and would protect them from the blast of their own detonating warheads, we well -- forced the missiles to climb, and at their velocity, they could not fly a tight nap-of-the-earth profile. They had to climb well clear of the ridge, expose themselves to her/their fire, and that fire was waiting for them when they did.

    The cloud of missiles pitched up over the ridge, then dropped their noses as sharply as only counter-grav missiles could, and streaked directly towards Maneka/Lazarus. Small they might be, compared to the missiles of a Bolo, but they still massed just under 2.4 metric tons. At their velocity, a simple kinetic impact would have yielded the equivalent of over twenty-two metric tons of old-fashioned TNT, but they weren't kinetic weapons.

    A tornado of defensive fire ripped into the missile storm as her/their defenses engaged the threat. Lasers, flechettes, cannon shells, proximity-fused counter-missiles which had actually launched fractions of a second before the Fenrises had. It was as if a solid, incandescent battering ram lunged downward, hurling itself across the ridge at them, and its mushrooming head of flame was the missiles being splintered and torn asunder by her/their fire.

    It was incredible. The backwash of blinding brightness from that cauldron of destruction flickered from her/their mighty prow like lightning in the maw of a hurricane. Yet for all the precision, power, and volume of her/their defensive fire, they simply could not stop that many missiles. Not in the time she/they had between the moment the missiles cleared the ridge and the moment they reached their target.

    She/they killed many of them. Almost six hundred had been fired at her/them, and four hundred and seventy-three were destroyed by her/their defensive fire. Thirty-seven more suffered structural failure and simply disintegrated, and the debris from their disintegration destroyed six more birds which ran into the wreckage in flight. Nine more dipped too close to the ridge line and slammed into the far side of its crest like artificial meteors. But that left fifty-one.

    Fusion warheads detonated in the split instant before they struck her/their battle screen. That screen would have absorbed the purely kinetic energy of those weapons without even a flicker, but the Melconian weaponeers who had built them were well aware of that. And so they had designed their warheads to detonate in the last sliver of a second before the battle screen could tear them apart. Not even the Concordiat could have guaranteed truly simultaneous detonation of that many warheads -- not at that velocity. Six of them failed to detonate in time , rammed into Maneka/Lazarus' battle screen, and vanished. Another nineteen failed to detonate quickly enough and were killed by fratricide before their fuses activated. Which meant that "only" twenty-six actually detonated as planned.

    Those warheads were designed for variable yield, adjustable to suit the tactical circumstances, and Colonel Uran Na-Lythan had ordered them set for maximum yield. Low-megaton-range fireballs slammed into her/their battle screen like brimstone sledgehammers. Her/their fifteen thousand-ton bulk heaved like a storm-sick galleon as that inconceivable fury bled into her/their battle screen. The ridge between her/them and the Melconians was high enough, thick enough, to protect them from the direct blast of their own weapons. That was the only thing which had made it possible for Na-Lythan to wait so long and employ them at such short range. Yet even though the blast shadow of the ridge protected them from outright destruction, it was a very near thing for First Armored Battalion as Hell itself erupted on its far side.

    And what First Armored endured was only the back flash, only an echo, of what hammered down upon Maneka/Lazarus.

    Pain circuits screamed as damage rode the dragon-blast of fusion through her/their defenses. Exposed sensor arrays were stripped away. Light weapons were disabled, broken and half-molten as blast and heat and radiation rolled over them in hobnailed boots. Yet Bolos were designed to face exactly that dreadful ordeal. Even as concussion jarred and shuddered and heaved about her, Maneka Trevor's body lay safe, protected at Lazarus' very core behind battle screen, internal disrupter fields, solid meters of duralloy, and every defensive barrier the Concordiat's engineers had devised in eleven hundred years of building Bolos. But despite the protective shell wrapped about her, Maneka screamed as the holocaust raged outside her/their hull.

    Not in fear. Not even in protest. She screamed because Lazarus could not.

    Maneka had always known about the "pain circuits" built into Bolos. She understood the theory behind them, the danger-avoidance mechanism borrowed from organic evolution. And she'd always wondered how they actually worked. If a Bolo -- a machine, however marvelously designed, however magnificently capable -- could truly feel pain.

    Now she knew, and her body convulsed in the crash couch on Lazarus' control deck as the echo of his agony poured through her across the bridge of their link. She sensed him trying to shut that portion of the link down, trying to shunt the torment aside and protect her from it even as damage control systems raced to limit the tide of physical destruction crashing over his hull, but he couldn't. The link was too deep, too complete, and the only mercy was that the attack was over in so brief a moment.

    Yet she/they were in hyper-heuristic mode. What had slowed time to give them the opportunity to analyze, plan, and respond, stretched that moment of agony into a mini-eternity in Hell itself with equal efficiency.



    For long seconds, General Ka-Frahkan was afraid Na-Lythan had miscalculated. That the devastation of their own warheads would destroy them, as well as the Bolo. His command vehicle, much farther back than any of the armored mechs and parked in the lee of yet another hillside, was also designed for battle control and speed, not brute power. It was the brigade's tactical brain, the most capable package of computers and communications equipment the Empire could build, protected in a lightly armored hull faster -- and far lighter -- than even a Fenris. The ground-transmitted shock waves tossed his vehicle half a meter into the air, and for an instant, he thought the shock wave was going to roll it across the ground like a youth kicking a ball. But it slammed back down onto its tracks with bone-jarring force, instead. Its occupants were hurled against their restraints, battered and bruised, but its suspension and electronics had been engineered to survive that sort of abuse, and the tactical displays scarcely even flickered.

    Not that it mattered much for the moment. All of the Empire's combat systems were fully hardened against EMP, but nothing could have "seen" through the inconceivable, fusion-powered blast furnace which had once been a narrow, scenic, pleasantly wooded mountain valley. Every drone which had had the Bolo under direct observation had been wiped away by the fury of Na-Lythan's attack, but that, too, had been foreseen, and fresh drones were already launching.

    Ka-Frahkan dragged himself back upright in his command chair, staring into the main display at the solid wall of curdled dust, flame, and heat rolling outward from the epicenter of the target zone.

    Surely, he thought shakenly, the corner of his eye noting the red-flashing sidebars which indicated minor damage to his own mechs despite their shielded positions, surely, not even a Bolo could survive that! I know how tough they are, but --

    And then, scorched and seared, patches of its frontal armor glowing with white heat where the anti-plasma appliques had been stripped away, a long, wide mountain of iodine-dark duralloy topped the ridgeline and came out of that vortex of destruction like a curse.

    Eighty-seven meters long, from prow to aftermost anti-missile battery. Bogey wheels six meters in diameter and eight grinding tracks, each eight meters wide with track plates a quarter of a meter thick. A slab-faced turret, towering twenty-seven meters above the ground, mounted on a hull so broad it still managed to seem low-slung, almost sleek. Ion bolt infinite repeaters in secondary turrets, already swiveling towards their targets, and armored slabs rising as a quartet of hatches on its foredeck opened and thirty-centimeter mortars went to rapid fire. And even as he watched, the main turret's massive Hellbore locked on Colonel Na-Lythan's command Surtur.

    Impossible. The thought went through him with the atavistic terror of some primitive cave-dwelling ancestor face-to-face with the most terrifying predator of his world. It can't be here. It can't!



    Maneka/Lazarus topped the ridge.

    Echoes of agony still reverberated through her/them, but they were secondary, unimportant. Something to be brushed aside in her/their concentration.

    Damage reports cascaded through her/them. One infinite repeater destroyed outright; the second weapon in the same turret disabled until damage control could repair the jammed training gear. Forward sensors reduced to 71.06 percent of base capability. Number Three track severely damaged. Starboard forward track shield buckled, locked in the lowered position, plowing through soil and stone as she/they rumbled forward. Forward anti-personnel clusters, reduced to 11.19 percent base capability. Forward point defense, 23.71 percent base capability. Battle screen, 74.32 percent base capability. Minor hull breaches in sectors Alpha-Three, Alpha-Five, and Alpha-Seven. Battle Comp at only 89.93 percent of base capability, mostly from shock damage already being repaired.

    She/they were hurt -- badly -- but she/they brushed that knowledge aside like the anguish of the pain circuits. She/they charged ahead under emergency military power at her/their maximum sprint speed of a hundred and thirty-five kilometers per hour, despite her/their track damage, and even before she/they topped the ridge, her/their main turret had been laid on the coordinates of the Surtur which signals analysis had identified as the armored battalion's command vehicle.



    The Bolo fired.

    Na-Lythan's Surtur exploded like a volcano as a 110-centimeter Hellbore punched a 2.75 megaton/second battering ram through it. The Surtur's armor and battle screen might have slowed that focused blast of plasma down, but they never had a prayer of stopping it. It slammed straight through the vehicle's heart, blasting out the far side with sufficient residual energy to blow a twenty-five-meter crater in the cliff beyond.



    She/they noted the destruction of the first Enemy heavy, and her/their surviving starboard infinite repeaters locked onto the nearest Fenris, spewing bolts at maximum rate fire. The Fenris' lighter battle screen glared, flickering with white-hot fury as the ion bolts chewed into it. The medium mech threw emergency power to its screens, but even as it sought to bolster them, black patches of local failure began to appear, and she/they held it locked in her/their sights while she/they poured fire into it.

    But the Fenris was only a secondary threat, and her/their main turret swivelled, traversing at maximum speed, searching for the second Surtur on her/their port side.

    The Surtur fired first.



    The forward turret of Major Sa-Thor's heavy belched white fury while the after turret was still training frantically around to brings its weapons to bear.

    Ka-Frahkan saw the trio of Hellbores lash out at the Bolo. The Human mech's battle screen was better than anything Ka-Frahkan's units had, but it wasn't enough to absorb those ravening bolts at such a short range. It slowed them -- and, he knew, siphoned off much of their power for its own use, although the People's battle screen couldn't do that -- but it couldn't stop them. They slammed into the plasma-shedding ceramic appliqués on its port side, and one of its infinite repeater turrets exploded as one of the bolts blasted through its frontal armor. Another of Sa-Thor's bolts slammed into the heavy armored plate of its forward starboard track shield, and the Bolo staggered as the plasma punched straight through the shield and sheared away two of its road wheels. The massive track itself shattered, and the Bolo ran forward off of it, its speed dropping as it left the tangled ruin behind like the cast-off skin of some huge serpent. The third and last of Sa-Thor's shots impacted directly on the frontal armor of the massive turret. Anti-plasma ceramic shattered, a meter wide-patch of duralloy vaporized, and a glowing crater deep enough to envelop Ka-Frahkan to the waist if he'd stood inside it blasted into the turret armor.

    But the armor held. That shot would have destroyed any Surtur ever built, but the Bolo's rapidly traversing turret didn't even slow.



    Maneka Trevor's teeth clenched as a fresh lightning bolt of agony ripped through her. She felt the wounds torn into her/their armored body, and her/their entire hull rocked with the massive transfer energy blasting into her/them.

    Number Two Secondary turret was destroyed, taking two more of her/their infinite repeaters with it. She/they were down to only six, and the hit which had destroyed Number Two blasted down the turret's access trunk. A capacitor ring blew, adding its own stored energy to the blast front, and a disrupter shield failed. Side blast damaged the traversing motors for Number Three Secondary -- not fatally, but enough to impose serious fire control limitations. The tide of destruction cascaded on inward, but the secondary disrupter shield held, stopping it short of her/their core hull.

    She/they staggered again as the outer forward track disintegrated. The drivetrain to the independently powered road wheels exploded as the savage power surge of the hit bled into it, but she/they managed to disengage the transmissions, and at least the bare wheels rotated freely as she/they continued to drive ahead on her/their remaining seven track systems.

    The hit on her/their turret was actually the least serious of the three. Bolo turret faces, like the frontal armor of their glacis plates, was almost inconceivably thick and tough. Her/their turret had been designed to survive at least one direct hit from her/their own main battery weapon; the lighter Melconian plasma bolts could tear away the outer layer of anti-plasma ceramic and blast deeply into the duralloy beneath, but they could not penetrate without multiple hits in the same spot, and her/their Hellbore fired in the instant the still-traversing turret swept it across the second Surtur.




    Major Sa-Thor's vehicle simply vanished as its powerplant lost containment in a stupendous eruption of light and heat. It was as if yet another warhead had detonated in the center of the First Armored's own position. One of the two Fenrises attached to the Surtur was too close. The blast front caught it, stripped away its battle screen, and hurled it bodily sideways. It rolled almost all the way up onto its side before it crashed back down on its tracks again, and even as it came back upright, four of the Bolo's infinite repeaters ripped into its relatively thin side armor. With no battle screen to interdict, they opened the helpless vehicle like a used ration pack, and it exploded bare seconds after its Surtur.

    Ka-Frahkan clung to the arms of his command chair, staring into his display as the bellowing Bolo rampaged through the perimeter of his last armored battalion's defensive position. Its starboard secondary weapons had continued to hammer at the closer of Na-Lythan's Fenrises, and Ka-Frahkan bared his fangs in furious grief as that mech, too, blew apart with the fury of a failing powerplant.

    The surviving two Fenrises of Na-Lythan's forward fists stood their ground even as they Bolo's forward-mounted mortars hammered their battle screen with hundreds of 30-centimeter rounds. The mortar shells' hyper-velocity, self-forging penetrators were indivudally too light to punch through the screen, but stopping scores of them forced the mechs to divert power from their own offensive weapons, and their crews knew full well that it was no more than a matter of seconds before the infinite repeaters which had already disemboweled two of their battalion mates. Yet they held their positions, blasting away at minimum range with their far lighter Hellbores, and lightning flashed and danced across the Bolo's prow. But the Fenrises' weapons had too little penetration. Blinding light erupted in hellish strobes across its battle screen, gyred and danced across its glacis like enraged demons, but they couldn't get through the combination of the Human mech's better screen and far heavier frontal armor. Their own tracks spun, throwing out rooster tails of pulverized soil, as they tried to maneuver around the Bolo's flanks, tried to get it its thinner side armor. But they were too far away, in its forward firing arc, and its turret continued to traverse. Its Hellbore lined up on the closer Fenris, and a heartbeat later it had blotted away yet another of Na-Lythan's units in a fountain of incandescent fire.



    She/they noted the destruction of the third Fenris.

    The rapidfire hits of the Enemy vehicles' lighter weapons had rocked her/them and tracked glowing craters thirty centimeters deep across her/their glacis in two ragged lines. Where they crossed, two hits in almost exactly the same place had blasted the better part of half a meter into her/their frontal armor, but even that amounted to no more than superficial damage.

    She/they ignored it, and her/their port secondary battery caught the fourth Fenris in an interweaving tracery of ion bolts. The shrieking energy weapons flayed the Fenris with a fan of glittering, lethally beautiful fire, and it staggered to a halt, then exploded as the bolts punched through its flimsy armor.



    Two entire fists gone -- simply gone. Wiped away.

    Theslask Ka-Frahkan shook his head in stunned disbelief. No, not disbelief -- the desire to disbelieve. To reject what he was seeing.

    But the demonic Bolo paid no attention to his desire. It slid to a stop, crouching amid the shattered, flaming carcasses of its slaughtered victims, and turned ever so slightly, presenting only its bow to his single remaining fist. The long, deadly tube of its Hellbore traversed once more, and then six Hellbore bolts came shrieking to meet it.



    The remaining Surtur did exactly what Colonel Na-Lythan had hoped it might. Its distance to the rear, the fleeting seconds she/they had taken to kill the forward fists, had given its organic crew precious time. Time to traverse their turrets. To pick their aiming point.

    To fire before she/they could acquire their own vehicle . . . and this time, all six of its Hellbores would bear.

    She/they heaved indescribably as 6.1 megatons/second of energy smashed into her/their frontal battle screen. Damage warnings screamed through her/their systems as her/their battle screen did its best. It managed to absorb almost thirty percent of the destructive energy, and it diverted that stolen power to its own use and the reinforcement of her/their forward internal disrupter shields. It deflected another thirty-five percent of the damage before it failed completely, but over a third of the total energy carved into her/their glacis plate, and two of the Hellbore bolts impacted less than two meters apart.

    Not even a Bolo could shrug off that sort of damage.

    Duralloy shattered and vaporized, and her/their Maneka half remembered another battle, another Bolo -- another hit that had ripped through armor and blasted deep into a command deck.

    The damage carved glowing wounds fifteen meters deep that drove her/their entire gargantuan hull backward on her/their suspension. The magazine for her/their mortars exploded, but those weapons had been placed where they were in no small part to absorb damage which got through the outer armored shell, and they did just that. Specially designed blast panels blew outward, venting internal pressure and heat. The outermost shell of disrupter shields failed, but they lasted long enough to channel and deflect still more of the damage, and the secondary shell -- overhauled and upgraded when Lazarus was rebuilt and reinforced by the energy stolen from the very weapons trying to tear her/them apart -- held.

    The agony blazing in her/their pain circuits was indescribable, but she/they rocked back forward, settling back onto her/their tracks, and her/their turret had never stopped traversing even as the forward sixteen percent of her/their hull was torn open.



    For one fleeting instant, Ka-Frahkan allowed himself to hope once more. Na-Lythan's last Surtur had succeeded in the mission the colonel had assigned to it. As the Bolo staggered bodily backward, belching heat and incandescence in a cloud of vaporized alloy, he felt certain that his people had managed to kill it at last.

    And then it fired.



    The final Surtur vanished in a sun-bright burst of fury, and she/they turned on its supporting Fenrises.



    Theslask Ka-Frahkan sat motionless. There was nothing else he could do. He felt Na-Salth at his elbow, felt the other members of his command vehicle's crew sitting equally motionless, silently, joined with him in a moment of helpless awareness of how close to victory they had come.

    The Bolo was brutally damaged. One more hit on its shattered forward hull -- even from a Fenris' light Hellbore -- must surely have killed it. But that hit was never scored.

    One Fenris exploded almost in the same instant as the Surtur, ripped apart by a deadly hail of fire from the Bolo's infinite repeaters. And that deadly, deadly main turret -- the turret which had never paused, never hesitated for an instant as its tracked from one target straight onto the next -- turned to face the last Melconian armored mech on the entire planet. Then its Hellbore fired for the fourth -- and final -- time.

    Eighteen seconds, a small, impossibly calm corner of Ka-Frahkan's brain whispered as the information flashed on his dispassionate, uncaring tactical display. Eighteen seconds from its first main battery shot to its last. That was how long it took.

    That same calm voice was still speaking in his mind when the Bolo's remaining starboard infinite repeaters tracked around onto his command vehicle.




    "Push them! They're breaking -- so push them!" Colonel Verank Ka-Somal bellowed into his microphone, pounding one clawed fist on his console. "Get in there and kill these vermin!"

    His command vehicle's crew hunched their shoulders, concentrating on their own displays, their own tactical plots. The fanaticism -- the madness -- in Ka-Somal's voice lashed at them, but no one protested. No one wanted to protest. Mad Ka-Somal might be, but he was far from alone in that. And even if he had been, every person in that vehicle knew they were all doomed. So why not kill as many of their killers as they could before they died?

    "There!" Ka-Somal barked. "Look there! Na-Rohrm did it -- he broke their perimeter! We've got them now, so --"


    Ka-Somal had time to turn towards the voice. Time to see the fresh icons suddenly blossoming on the displays. Time to realize his vengeance quest had just ended.



    Mary Lou Atwater slid to a halt as the flight of missiles shrieked over what was left of Fourth Battalion, banked sharply around an outthrust flank of mountain, and vanished as they streaked up the valley to the northwest across the Melconians' positions.

    She tracked them visually and then bared her teeth in a ferocious smile of triumph as only two of them were picked off by the Melconian defenses.

    So we got enough of you bastards after all, she thought fiercely. Blew a big enough hole in your umbrella for Trevor to get through to you at last!

    There were no evil, anvil-headed mushroom clouds, heaving themselves upright across the heavens. Those missiles carried not fusion warheads, but cluster submunitions, and a rolling surf of explosions -- chemical, but vastly more powerful than anything pre-space humanity had ever dreamed of -- marched up the valley in boots of flame. A second flight of missiles followed hard on the heels of the first, than a third. A fourth.

    The hurricane of indirect fire which had been pounding on Fourth Battalion for what seemed an eternity stopped. It didn't gradually wind down, didn't taper off. It simply stopped, like the turning of a switch, as Maneka Trevor and Lazarus, still well over fifty kilometers away and reduced to a maximum speed of barely sixty kilometers per hour, swept the Melconian positions with a broom of fire.

    Small arms fire continued to spatter across the militia's positions, but it was nothing compared to the weight of fire which had been beating across the battalion. Most of it was simple power rifle fire, without a hope in the world of penetrating the human defenders' armor, and Mary Lou Atwater's expression was a frightening thing to see.

    "All right, People," her voice said harshly over the com. "The Old Lady just broke these goddamned bastards' backs. Now let's get in there and finished the job for her!"



    Maneka Trevor finished sealing her battle dress uniform. She didn't have a mirror, but she didn't really need one. She still wore the neural interface headset, and although she and Lazarus were no longer welded into a single entity, she was sufficiently linked to him to use his command tac's optical pickups to examine her appearance.

    "I suppose I should have put this thing on sooner," she remarked, and shook her head. "How's it going to look in the history books when they find out I spent the entire battle in a swimsuit?"

    "I propose that we simply never tell them you did," Lazarus' voice replied. "It did not, after all, have any negative impact on your performance during that battle."

    "No, I suppose not," she said. "On the other hand, if either of us had remembered I had a spare on board, I would have changed into it."

    "Unlike humans, I am incapable of forgetting," Lazarus pointed out. "Or, at least, of forgetting by accident. I did not forget in this instance, either. It simply did not occur to me to mention it to you."

    "We've been spending too much time together," she told him, smiling crookedly at the visual pickup. "We're starting to think -- and not think -- too much alike."

    "Perhaps," Lazarus said serenely. "I believe, however, that in this instance we have earned the right to some minor idiosyncrasies on your part."

    "Maybe so," she said bleakly, her smile disappearing, "but other people paid even more than you did for this one, Lazarus." She inhaled deeply. "So now that I'm dressed, I suppose it's time to go."

    Lazarus said nothing, but she felt him in the back of her brain, still joined through the headset, and the access hatch slid silently open in wordless invitation.

    She stepped through it, turned to the internal ladder, and started climbing downwards. It was hard, in some ways, to fully accept, on a visceral level, how badly Lazarus had been damaged. The spaces through which she passed on her way down the ladders were as immaculate, as brightly lit, as ever, and the enviro plant was undamaged. The air was cool, clean, with just a hint of ozone. It was, she reflected, a stark reminder of just how huge a fifteen thousand-ton vehicle actually was.

    But then she reached the bottom of the final ladder, climbed through the belly hatch, and stepped out under Lazarus' huge bulk, and the harsh reality slammed down on her like a hammer.

    She was glad she'd finally remembered she had the uniform on board. Dinochrome Brigade battle dress was designed with moments like this in mind, and she could almost feel its sophisticated fabric adjusting itself about her. It wasn't bulletproof, though it did have some anti-ballistic qualities, but it was an extremely efficient hostile environment suit. The clear hood deployed upward, snugging itself about her head and face, at the same time the sleeve cuffs extruded the protective gloves. She wasn't quite as well shielded as Major Atwater's armored personnel, but her battle dress was thoroughly up to the task of handling the contamination which even the relatively "clean" weapons used here had left behind.

    She stood for a moment, looking at the yawning gap where Lazarus' outboard forward starboard track had been. She could have driven a small air car through the hole the Surtur's Hellbore had blown through the track shield and road wheels. As she gazed at the jagged-edged wound, she wondered how that hit had failed to carry through to the next track system in. Until, that was, she looked at the vicious scarring on the inner boundary shield which was normally lowered between track systems when a Bolo cleared for action.

    "Thank God they build Bolos tough," she said fervently.

    "A sentiment which I have shared on several occasions now," Lazarus agreed. She heard his voice over her mastoid com implant, and something like a subliminal echo of it through the headset. It was just a bit disorienting, even now, but it was also a sensation she had become accustomed to over the past couple of years. And given how severely Lazarus' forward hull had been damaged, she wasn't about to disconnect until both of them knew his damage control systems truly did have the situation well in hand.

    She walked forward, but not as far as she normally would have. The tangled wreckage hanging down over the crippled track shield gave off an unpleasantly high radiation signature even for someone in Brigade uniform. She stepped out from under the Bolo, into its immense shadow, and saw an armored figure with the flashes of a major standing to wait for her.

    "Mary Lou," she said quietly over her com.

    "Maneka," Atwater replied.

    "I'm sorry," Maneka said. "We got back here as quickly as we could, but --"

    "Don't say it," Atwater cut her off. "Yeah, we got reamed. I figure fifty-seven percent casualties, three quarters of them fatal. That's the price we paid, and Jesus, it hurt. But you didn't have one damned thing to do with what happened here. You did your job; we did ours, and thanks to the fact that your missiles saved our asses, some of us are still around afterward. And maybe, just maybe, the people who are going to live on this planet a thousand years from now because you did your job, will remember our names and figure we did all right, too. And if they don't," Maneka realized there was an edge of genuine amusement in Atwater's voice, "then screw 'em! 'Cause you, me, my people, and Lazarus -- we're damned sure going to remember we did, right?"

    "For my part, certainly, Major," Lazarus said over his external speakers, and Atwater snorted a harsh laugh.

    "Well, there you are, Maneka! I think we can trust Lazarus to see to it the history books get it straight. I mean, who's going to argue with him?"

    "Point taken," Maneka agreed.

    "Good! And now, Captain Trevor, if you'd come with me, there are some people who'd like to shake your hand, I believe."

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