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With Your Shield



Lieutenant Maneka Trevor had seldom felt quite so young.

She climbed out of the hover cab which had delivered her to Fort Merrit and made herself stop and stretch thoroughly. She was a slender, fine-boned young woman, but the cramped passenger compartment of the small cab she'd been able to afford hadn't been designed to transport baggage as well as people. She'd made the entire flight from Nike Field to Fort Merrit with her duffel bag and footlocker piled in on top of her legs. Besides, stretching the kinks out gave her an obvious reason to stand in place, gazing out over what she could see of the Merrit reservation.

The sprawling military base, named for one of the Dinochrome Brigade's fallen heroes, stretched as far as the unaided human eye could see. Most of its visible structures were low-lying, mere swells of ceramacrete rising like enormous, half-buried golf balls from the surrounding tropical vegetation. There were a few exceptions. One of them, judging by the signs in front of it, was the fort's primary administration block. That particular structure was close to thirty stories tall, and crowned with a bewilderingly complex clutter of communications arrays. Maneka wondered if it had been built so much taller than the base's other buildings specifically to make very youthful officers reporting for their first field assignments feel even more nervous, or if that had simply been an unanticipated bit of serendipity.

Her mouth twitched in a wry little smile at the trend of her own thoughts, and she stopped stretching, tugged the hem of her uniform tunic back down, and activated her baggage hand unit.

The footlocker and duffel bag floated out of the cramped cab and arranged themselves in neat formation behind her on their individual counter-grav units. She'd already paid the fare, and the cab's AI called a cheerful "Have a nice day!" after her before it zipped its door shut, pivoted, and went whining back towards Nike Field.

Maneka squared her shoulders and advanced along the seemingly endless ceramacrete walkway towards Admin's imposing front entrance with her baggage tagging obediently along behind.

Mirrored armorplast towered above her, reflecting the deep-toned blue sky and brilliant white clouds of Santa Cruz. The day was only moderately warm for early summer on Santa Cruz, but Maneka had been born and raised among craggy peaks of the planet of Everest. She much preferred a cooler, drier climate, not to mention a considerably lower atmospheric pressure, and although her Brigade uniform's smart fabric maintained her body temperature in the range she'd selected, she felt sweat beading her forehead and gathering under her short, dark hair. At least Everest wasn't so far out of the human-occupied norm that its citizens couldn't adjust even to sweltering, humid sweat boxes like Santa Cruz if they had to . . . eventually. And at least her genetic heritage meant she tanned quickly and deeply.

Of course, she admitted to herself, the climate isn't the only reason you're sweating today, now is it, Maneka? 

She chuckled quietly at the thought, then donned her "official" face as she approached the sidearm-equipped sentry. The impeccably uniformed Brigade corporal stood at a comfortable parade rest, impassively watching her approach. His presence, Maneka knew, was a complete anachronism. Far more effective security systems guarded the perimeter and buildings of Fort Merrit, and a standard computer interface would have been more efficient at greeting visitors and directing them to their appropriate destinations.

Yet the corporal's assignment here carried a message which was not lost on the shiny new lieutenant. However good the technology, however lethal and dedicated the units of the Dinochrome Brigade might be, human command authority was engineered into it at every level. Ultimately, the Brigade's Bolos were humanity's servants. Protectors as well, yes, and trusted battle companions. But in the end, human authority must be preserved at all levels.

The corporal came to attention and saluted as Maneka stopped in front of him. She returned the salute smartly and read his nameplate as she did so.

"Good afternoon, ma'am," the noncom said briskly. "How may I assist the lieutenant?"

"Good afternoon, Corporal Morales," she replied. "I'm reporting for assignment to the Thirty-Ninth Battalion. My orders are to report in to the Battalion CO's office in the Admin Building."

"I see. May I see the Lieutenant's orders?"

"Of course." Maneka handed across the chip folio containing not only her duty assignment orders but also all of the movement orders and transportation vouchers it had taken to get her here from the Sandhurst System. Corporal Morales flipped quickly to her assignment orders and slipped the relevant chip into his wristband minicomp, then twiddled his fingers briefly on the virtual keyboard.

From her perspective, Maneka couldn't make out the details of the holo display the minicomp projected in front of Morales' eyes, but the corporal obviously found what he was looking for quickly.

"Thank you, ma'am," he said, snapping the chip back out of the minicomp and restoring it to its proper storage slot before he handed the entire folio back to Maneka. "The Lieutenant will find Colonel Tchaikovsky's office on the fifteenth floor. Number 1532. Take the center grav lift, turn right at the fifteenth floor landing, and continue to the end of the corridor."

"Thank you, Corporal Morales. Could you tell me if there's some place I could check my baggage while I report in?"

"Yes, ma'am. Press the 'Housekeeping' button on the building console. It's located to your right, just inside the entrance."

"Thank you," Maneka repeated, and the corporal nodded, came back to attention, and saluted her once more. She returned the courtesy and stepped past him into the Admin Building.

The building console was where Morales had indicated, and Maneka punched up Housekeeping.

"How may I assist you, Lieutenant Trevor?" a pleasant voice asked, speaking through the Brigade transceiver surgically implanted in Maneka's left mastoid.

"I need to put my baggage in temporary storage while I report in," she replied to the empty air.

"Of course. One moment, please."

Maneka watched as her floating baggage twitched slightly. The building's artificial intelligence had automatically and instantly identified her from the IFF code programmed into her implanted Brigade communications system. It took the computer a few more seconds to derive the proper command channel frequencies and codes from her baggage hand unit, which had been a civilian purchase. But it was more than equal to the challenge, and Maneka stood back as the foot locker and duffel went gliding smoothly away down a side passage.

"Your baggage will be stored pending your return, Lieutenant Trevor," the AI assured her. "Just press the recall button on your hand unit when you wish to reclaim it."

"Do I have to return here for that?"

"No, Lieutenant Trevor. It may take somewhat longer to route it to you, but you may recall it from any point inside the Admin Building."

"Thank you," she said.

"You are most welcome," the AI replied, and Maneka walked across the lobby towards the grav lifts.

She rather doubted that the building computer had a fully developed personality. One thing any Brigade officer, even one as shiny and new-minted as she was, understood was the combined expense and complexity of the advanced psychotronics which gave Bolos complete, autonomous, functional personalities as complex as any human being's. But even AIs which lacked full personalities carried programming which recognized and responded to courtesy . . . and automatic consideration for the emotions of electronic individuals was an excellent habit for a Brigade officer to develop.

The grav lift delivered her to the fifteenth floor with its customary disorienting speed and efficiency. Mindful of Morales' instructions, she turned to the right and quickly picked up the wall signage directing her towards "Office of the Commanding Officer, 39th Batt, Dinochrome Bgde."

The sight of those words sent a sudden bright shiver through her. It was close now, so close!

She drew a deep breath, ordered herself to project an aura of calm, and walked briskly down the corridor.


Colonel Everard Tchaikovsky had discovered years ago that if he kept his computer's holo display adjusted to exactly the right height and angle, it not only eased the strain long hours spent in front of it imposed on his neck, but also permitted him to look directly through it at the door of his office while obviously keeping his attention focused on his routine paperwork.

Now he let his eyes appear to linger on an absolutely fascinating breakdown of the most recent squabble between Central Depot Maintenance and the Battalion's chief armorer while he actually studied the young woman Staff Sergeant Schumer had ushered into his office.

The young woman in question stood at parade rest, waiting with every outward sign of patience for him to notice her arrival. She was small, he thought. No more than a hundred and fifty-five or a hundred sixty centimeters tall, and so slender he was tempted to think of her as delicate. Her cobalt blue eyes, set in an oval face with high cheekbones, a determined-looking, high-arched nose, and slightly pouty lips made an intriguing contrast with her very dark black hair and sandalwood complexion. They had a pronounced epicanthic fold, as well, those eyes, he noticed, and wondered exactly which strains of humankind's zestfully bubbling genetic stew had produced her.

He quirked an index finger, touching a function key on his virtual keyboard, and the logistical report disappeared, replaced by the concisely encapsulated abstract from Lieutenant Trevor's records Sergeant Schumer had prepared and uploaded for him.

Graduated thirty-second out of an Academy class of eleven hundred and fifteen, he noticed. Top of her class in tactics, bottom third in psychotronic theory. Substantially and regularly above average in all of her other courses, and ranked fourteenth in military history.

Forty-plus Standard Years in the Brigade had taught Everard Tchaikovsky's face to wear whatever expression he told it to, and so he managed to avoid any dramatic widening of his eyes or pursing of his lips, nor did he stand to applaud her arrival. She was certainly impressive on paper, although he had his reservations about her apparent weaknesses in psychotronics. But he'd seen quite a few passed-cadets who looked impressive on paper and never lived up to that apparent promise in the field.

He finished his perusal, cleared the display, and cocked his eyebrows interrogatively as he looked directly at the lieutenant for the first time.

"Lieutenant Maneka Trevor, reporting for duty, sir!" she said, snapping to full attention and saluting sharply.

Her Standard English had an interesting accent which gave a throaty, almost smoky edge even to crisp, formal military phraseology, he noticed. He felt certain that hint of soprano sensuality was both unconscious and unintentional, and he hid a mental grin as he contemplated how testosterone-challenged young bucks were likely to respond to it.

"Stand easy, Lieutenant," he said, returning her Academy-sharp salute rather more casually. She dropped back into parade rest, rather than a full stand-easy position, her eyes gazing a regulation fifteen centimeters above his head.

"So, you're our new Bolo commander," he said.

Maneka's eyes popped wide and, against her will, they dropped to Colonel Tchaikovsky's face. Bolo commander? Surely she must have misheard him!

He simply sat there, gazing back at her with a mildly speculative expression, and she fought an urge to lick her lips nervously as she realized he was prepared to go right on doing it until she said something.

"Sir," she began, surprised her voice didn't quiver uncertainly, "my orders were to report to Fort Merrit for duty with the Thirty-Ninth Battalion. Exactly what those duties were to be wasn't specified. However, I certainly never anticipated that someone as junior and inexperienced as I am might be considered for assignment as a commander."

"Think you're not up to the job?" Tchaikovsky let a deliberate edge of challenging coolness into his voice, but the young woman's composure remained unruffled.

"Yes, sir, I believe I'm up to the job. I believe my Academy record demonstrates that I have the training and the native ability to command a Bolo in combat. I am also, however, as I said, very junior and aware of my inexperience. I'd anticipated an assignment to additional training with hands-on experience under the tutelage of a fully qualified and experienced Unit commander. That was what I was led to expect by my instructors at the Academy."

"I see."

Tchaikovsky cocked back in his chair, propped his elbows on the chair arms, and steepled his fingers in front of his chest. He considered her coolly for several seconds, then allowed the first millimetric hint of a smile to show.

"Not a bad answer, Lieutenant," he told her. "And I'm sure that's exactly what the Academy types told you to expect. But the truth is, the Brigade is experiencing some changes just now."

Maneka's eyes darkened. She knew exactly what he was referring to.

"The Melconian Empire isn't as technologically advanced as the Concordiat," Tchaikovsky continued in a flat, dry, lecturer's tone. "Or not, at least, in most areas. They do remarkably well in electronic warfare and stealth capabilities, but they're far, far behind us in cybernetics, and they've demonstrated no equivalent of our own psychotronic technology. Unfortunately, the Empire is also much larger than the Concordiat. We knew that. What I strongly suspect none of the analysts considered was that we might be underestimating just how much larger it might be. And now that we're busy killing one another in planet-sized lots, that particular question takes on a certain burning relevance."

He looked at her levelly, and neither of them needed for him to be more specific. The current war against the Melconian Empire had begun in 3343, the same year Maneka was born. Everyone had seen it coming; no one had even begun to imagine how terrible it would be once it began. The sheer, stupendous size of the Empire had taken the Concordiat's so-called "intelligence experts" completely by surprise. On the other hand, the Concordiat's technological superiority must have come as just as great a surprise to the Melconians. The initial naval engagements had gone overwhelmingly in humanity's favor . . . until, at least, the Puppies had mobilized their real battle fleet. After that, things had gotten progressively uglier.

Six years ago, after fifteen years of increasingly bloody warfare, the Melconians had carried out what the Emperor had been pleased to call a "demonstration strike" on the planet of New Vermont. None of the planet's billion inhabitants had survived.

The Concordiat's inevitable retaliatory strike on the Melconian planet of Tharnas had been equally . . . effective. But instead of inspiring the Melconians to renounce its genocidal attacks, the Tharnas Strike had simply become the first human contribution to an ever upward spiraling cycle of murderous violence. By now, under the grimly appropriate "Plan Ragnarok," the extermination of the Melconian ability ever to wage war again—which everyone knew, whether they would admit it or not, meant the effective extermination of the Melconian species—had become the official policy of the Concordiat.

As, self-evidently, the extermination of Humanity had become the reciprocal policy of the Melconian Empire.

For Maneka, at this point, that was still an intellectual awareness; for Tchaikovsky, it wasn't. Maneka was aware (though she really wasn't supposed to be) that Tchaikovsky's last post before being given the Thirty-Ninth had been as the executive officer of the 721st . . . which had taken sixty-six percent casualties at the Battle of Maybach.

"It's obvious that we have a significant advantage in combat power on a ton-for-ton basis," Tchaikovsky continued. "Their warships need a three-to-one advantage to meet us on an even footing, and the differential is even worse for their planetary heavy combat units going up against modern Bolos. The problem is that they appear to have that numerical advantage, and quite probably a good bit to spare. I take it that you are already aware of most of this?"

"Yes, sir," she said quietly.

"Then you realize the Brigade is going to take heavy casualties in this war," he told her flatly. "In addition, we're expanding our strength at the highest rate in the Brigade's history. That, of course, is why your Academy curriculum was shortened by a full semester and why your graduating class was twenty percent larger than the one before it . . . and twenty percent smaller than the one behind it, despite how difficult it is to find officer candidates capable of passing the Brigade's screening process. It's also why the Thirty-Ninth has been systematically raided for experienced commanders. We're running at full stretch—and beyond, frankly—to keep up with combat losses and simultaneously crew the new-build Bolos. So while I would prefer to assign you to an experienced commander in the traditional mentor relationship, it simply isn't practical. In fact, of the Thirty-Ninth's twelve Bolo commanders, only three, including myself, have seen actual combat.

"You'll be our youngest and most junior commander, and I'm giving you Eight-Six-Two-BNJ—'Benjy'—as your Bolo. He's been around the block more than a few times, Lieutenant. You can learn a lot from him, just as you'd better be learning from everyone else around you. I'm sure you and your classmates at the Academy worked the math on your odds of surviving to retire. Assuming that anyone is allowed to retire in the foreseeable future, of course."

He smiled briefly.

"If you did the math, then you know your odds aren't especially encouraging. Recognizing that will probably contribute to a realistic perspective, but don't fixate on it. That sort of thing can create a self-fulfilling prophecy situation. Instead, remember this, Lieutenant. Every single thing you can learn here, every trick you can pick up, every tactical insight and every speck of deviousness you can acquire, will shift the probabilities in your favor. It will also make you a more effective commander, more dangerous to the enemy in action. For right now, that's your entire responsibility—to learn. To learn how to survive, how to meet the enemy, and how to defeat him. A Mark XXVIII Bolo like Benjy is too long in the tooth for front-line deployment in a war like this, but he's been around for one and a quarter Standard Centuries. Over a hundred and twenty-five years, Lieutenant Trevor. He's picked up quite a few tricks in that time. Learn them from him."

"Yes, sir. I'll try," she said quietly, when he paused.

"Don't 'try,' Lieutenant," he said sternly. "Do."

He held her eyes for another few moments, then nodded briskly.

"Very well, Lieutenant Trevor. Welcome to the Thirty-Ninth." He stood and shook her hand briefly but firmly, then nodded his head at the door. "Sergeant Schumer will have your formal order chip assigning you to Benjy. Major Fredericks is out on maneuvers at the moment, so the sergeant will probably turn you over to Sergeant Tobias. He's your company's senior Bolo tech, and that makes him the best man to introduce you to Benjy, anyway. Good luck, Lieutenant."

He straightened up, and she came back to attention and saluted. He returned it.

"Dismissed, Lieutenant."


"Ever met a Mark XXVIII, ma'am?" Sergeant Alf Tobias asked respectfully as he and Maneka walked across the Company parade ground towards the looming mountain of weapons and alloy which awaited them.

"On active duty?" Maneka asked, glancing at him, and he nodded.

"Only once," she admitted. "I did work with a couple of retired Mark XXVIII AIs at the Academy, though."

"You did?" Tobias cocked his head at her. "That's good, ma'am," he told her. "I know the XXVIII's not exactly first-line equipment anymore, but I always thought they had . . . I dunno, more personality, maybe, than the newer marks. 'Course that may just be because they've been around so much longer, I suppose. Lots of time to develop personality quirks in a century or two."

"I imagine so," Maneka agreed, remembering the "staff" Bolo AIs retired from their war hulls and assigned to the Academy to interact with its students. One, in particular—28/B-163-HRP—had had a delightfully acerbic personality which made her cognomen of "Harpy" a perfect fit. Maneka doubted she would ever forget the afternoon Harpy had spent critiquing one Cadet Trevor's less-than-brilliant solution to a tactical problem, and she smiled as she looked back at the sergeant.

"Personally," she said, "I'm glad the Brigade started retiring and upgrading software instead of just burning personality centers, Sergeant."

"You and me both, Ma'am," Tobias agreed in turn, giving her a look which held a hint of approval. "Never did seem fair to just throw 'em away when they got too old," he continued. "Of course, the older models—before the XXIVs and XXVs—probably had too many inhibitory features to make upgrading their AIs into new marks practical. They weren't really designed to be upgraded in the first place."

"I know." Maneka started to say something more, then changed her mind as the two of them stepped into the shadow of the looming Bolo. She half-expected Tobias to immediately introduce her to the huge combat machine, but the sergeant waited patiently for her to absorb its full impact, first.

Unit 28/G-862-BNJ was a 15,000-ton Mark XXVIII, Model G, Bolo, one of the old Triumphants. His hull measured eighty-seven meters from his much-decorated prow to his aftermost antipersonnel clusters and point defense cannon. His bogey wheels were almost six meters in diameter, his tracks were eight meters wide, and the top of his center-mounted main battery turret rose twenty-seven meters above the ground, yet he was so broad and long that he still seemed low-slung, almost sleek. His indirect fire system was divided, with his four 30-centimeter rapid-fire breech-loading mortars mounted forward of his turret, and the twenty-four cells of his vertical-launch missile system mounted behind it. The secondary weapons of his infinite repeaters bristled in a lozenge pattern around the central turret, eight 10-centimeter ion-bolt rifles in four twin turrets on either flank, with a pair of single turrets mounted on the centerline fore and aft of the main turret. The broadside turrets were echeloned to allow at least five infinite repeaters to engage on any target bearing, and while the ion-bolt armament was far less powerful than the small-bore Hellbores mounted as secondary weapons aboard current model Bolos, Maneka knew the 10-centimeter version mounted in the Mark XXVIII would penetrate better than a quarter-meter of duralloy at close ranges. And if the 110-centimeter Hellbore of BNJ's main armament was much lighter than the current-generation 200-centimeter weapons, it could still pump out 2.75 megatons/second.

BNJ's glacis glittered with the welded-on battle honors of well over a century of active service. Maneka recognized perhaps half of the campaign ribbons, including awards for several of the Xalontese and Deng War campaigns. She felt embarrassed at not recognizing the others and made a mental note to look them up as soon as possible. But if she failed to recognize some of those, the awards for valor were another matter. She ran her eyes down the long, glittering row of platinum and rhodium stars and tried not to show her reaction to the discovery that BNJ had received no less than three Galactic Clusters. There were probably at least some equally or even more highly decorated Bolos still in service, but there could not have been many.

And yet, for all the Mark XXVIII's undoubted firepower and all BNJ's proven lethality and courage, Colonel Tchaikovsky and Sergeant Tobias were right. BNJ and his brothers and sisters were no longer fit for combat against first-line enemy opposition.

At the Academy, Maneka had studied everything she could get her hands on about the Melconian Empire's ground combat systems, and she knew the human advantage in psychotronics and artificial intelligence generally gave even older Bolos like BNJ an enormous edge in any one-on-one confrontation with the Puppies' manned armored units. The Melconian heavy combat mechs—the Surturs, as the Concordiat had code-named them—had heavy AI support, but the AIs in question were far less capable and required command inputs at almost every stage. They were roughly equivalent to an old Mark XX, or possibly only to a Mark XIX, albeit with far more powerful weapons than those ancient Bolos had mounted: fast, lethal, and capable as long as they operated within preplanned "canned" battle plans, but much slower than any current-inventory Bolo when faced with tactical situations outside their preprogrammed plans.

But if their cybernetics were vastly inferior to the Concordiat's psychotronic-based systems, they were also less massive, and the Melconians had accepted the use of antimatter-reactors rather than the bulkier cold-fusion plants humanity employed. The result was an 18,000-ton fighting machine with two echeloned main turrets, each mounting the Melconian equivalent of three 81-centimeter Hellbores. The turret arrangement meant that each turret masked the other's fire over an arc of about twenty-five degrees, but that still meant all six Hellbores could be brought to bear on a single target over a three hundred and ten-degree field of fire. That much main battery armament meant that the Surtur's secondary armament was inevitably much lighter than current-generation Bolos mounted, although it was heavier than that of an older model, like BNJ, and the Surtur came in two distinct variants. One "standard" model, and a "support" model which suppressed the secondary armament almost entirely in favor of an indirect fire capability at least twenty-five percent heavier than BNJ's.

The Surtur's stablemate, the medium mech the Concordiat had code-named Garm, weighed in at barely nine thousand tons and was hopelessly outclassed against any Bolo. But the Melconians operated their armored forces in tactical units, called "fists," each of which combined one Surtur with two of the Garms. With the lighter Garms to probe ahead and provide flanking units under the command Surtur's tight tactical control, a Melconian "fist" was probably the most dangerous foe a unit of the Dinochrome Brigade had faced in centuries.

And there were a lot of fists out there. Which was one reason the Academy was now graduating two classes a year, instead of one.

As those thoughts flashed through her, BNJ's forward main optical head unhoused itself and swivelled around to face her. She felt particularly buglike as the mammoth Bolo regarded her with every appearance of watching thoughtfulness, and her mouth wanted to twitch into a smile at the thought of how ridiculous she must look standing in front of him, with the top of her head reaching barely a quarter of the way up one of his bogey wheels.

"Benjy," Sergeant Schumer said after a moment, "this is Lieutenant Trevor."

The introduction, Maneka knew, was purely a formality. BNJ—it was considered the height of bad manners to refer to any Bolo by its cognomen until after one had been formally introduced to it—had undoubtedly scanned her implant IFF the instant she crossed his defensive zone perimeter. But over the centuries the Brigade had evolved an ironbound tradition of proper protocol and courtesy.

"I am pleased to meet you, Lieutenant," a resonant baritone said pleasantly over the Bolo's external speakers.

"Thank you," she replied.

"The Lieutenant's being assigned as your new Commander, Benjy," Schumer said. "Command authentication: 'When the bluebirds sing in the spring.'"

"Authentication accepted." A red light blinked on the optical head, and then the baritone voice spoke again, this time directly to Maneka. "Unit Two-Eight-Golf-Eight-Six-Two-Baker-November-Juliette of the Line awaiting orders, Commander," it said.

"Thank you, Benjy." Maneka fought, almost successfully, to keep the tremors out of her voice as for the first time one of the stupendous, awe-inspiring war machines she had trained for almost eight Standard Years to command acknowledged her authority. She had never expected this moment to come so early in her career, even with the war's intensity growing steadily to fresh heights of violence, and she inhaled deeply as she savored it.


"You'll have to give Benjy his head a bit more, Lieutenant," Major Angela Fredericks said over Maneka's mastoid transceiver from her command couch aboard Unit 28/D-302-PGY. Her voice wasn't precisely unpleasant, but it most definitely was pointed. "Don't second-guess him. You don't have the experience for that yet."

"Yes, ma'am."

Maneka kept her tone steady, but her cheeks burned with embarrassment. Damn it, she knew Benjy's BattleComp had a better grasp of any tactical situation than her own merely mortal perceptions and brain could match. And God knew that everyone knew no human being could possibly match the speed with which a Bolo "thought" and responded. Yet even knowing all that, she'd found herself issuing orders when her own situational awareness was obviously at least several seconds behind the decision-making curve, and Fredericks and Peggy had handed them—her—their heads.

"It's a common beginner's mistake, Lieutenant," Fredericks said in a slightly gentler tone. "Once our own adrenaline gets engaged, we all forget how much faster the Bolos think. Trust me, even commanders with years of experience do it sometimes, but it's something the newbies have to watch even more closely."

"Yes, ma'am. I understand, and I'll try not to let it happen again."

"Do that," Fredericks responded, and this time there was an actual suspicion of a chuckle in her voice. "Of course, if you manage to never let it happen again, you'll have accomplished something absolutely unique in the Brigade's history. Fredericks, clear."

Maneka's face felt hotter than ever, and she was devoutly grateful to the major for having officially terminated the conversation before she had to figure out how to respond to that last remark.

She lay back in the incredibly comfortable command couch in the center of Benjy's command deck while Fredericks' comments sank in. She was perched directly atop the Bolo's personality center, her fragile flesh and his psychotronic brain both protected at the core of his warhull along with his powerplant. It would require a direct hit with a very heavy-caliber Hellbore to penetrate this deep, and protected by Benjy's battle screen, antiradiation fields, and duralloy armor—over two meters thick across his glacis—Maneka could ride safely through the fringes of a nuclear blast.

None of which had offered her the least protection against her Company CO's critique.

Actually, she thought, I almost wish the Major had ripped a strip off my hide. That "I have to be patient with the squeaky-new kid on the block" tone is even more devastating. 

She watched Benjy's tactical plot as he and the other three Bolos of Third Company rumbled majestically back from the training ground. Bolos left big footprints, and the several thousand square kilometers of the Fort Merrit reservation which had been set aside for training maneuvers had been hammered into a fairly close approximation of hell. Not that Bolos particularly minded grinding through mud a couple of meters thick or over the stubble of what had once been jungle trees forty or fifty meters in height. And Maneka had already discovered that her Academy instructors had been completely correct when they assured her that even the best straight simulation wasn't quite the same thing as a live-fire exercise.

She closed her eyes, savoring the memory despite her embarrassment at the way she'd flubbed the final part of the maneuver exercise. Moving Benjy to the firing range, and feeling that fifteen-thousand-ton hull buck as she watched the incredible, flashing speed and precision with which his thundering weapons had ripped apart the ground targets and wildly evading aerial target drones had been . . . incredible. It irritated her to realize she was reusing the same adverb, but she literally couldn't think of a better one than just that—"incredible."

In that moment, she had truly realized for the very first time on an emotional level, not just an intellectual one, that she was literally in command of more firepower than any pre-space army of Old Earth had ever deployed in a single battle. Probably more than any pre-space nation had ever deployed in an entire war. And Benjy was only one of twelve Mark XXVIIIs in the Thirty-Ninth Battalion.

"Sorry I screwed up, Benjy," she said after a moment.

"As Major Fredericks said, it is difficult even for experienced Bolo commanders to avoid occasional such errors, Maneka," Benjy replied through the bulkhead speaker. "It is unfortunately true that human perceptions and chemical-based thought processes find it impossible to process information as rapidly as a Bolo is capable of processing it."

"I know," she sighed. "And I also know we can't multitask the way you can. But it's so hard to just sit here while you do all the work."

The speaker rumbled with Benjy's electronic chuckle, and she cocked a questioning eyebrow at the visual pickup centered above the tactical plot—by long tradition, the equivalent of looking the Bolo in the "eye."

"Maneka," the huge Bolo said with a certain gentle amusement, "you are the twenty-seventh commander who has been assigned to me in my career. And every one of you has found it difficult 'to just sit here.' The Brigade does not choose its commanders casually, and it is the very command mentality for which it selects which makes it difficult for you to refrain from exercising command."

Maneka considered that for a moment. It made sense, she supposed, given the qualities the Brigade wanted in its commanders. And yet it reemphasized a question which had always bothered her.

"You know, Benjy," she said slowly, "I've wondered for a long time why we continue to assign commanders to each Bolo at all. I mean, the Major is right—and so are you. No human can possibly think and react as quickly as you can, so why put a human into the loop at this level at all?"

The Bolo did not reply for a second or two. That was an incredibly long time for any Bolo to ponder a question or problem, and Maneka wondered for a moment if he was going to respond at all.

"That question is properly one you ought to ask of the Battalion's human command personnel," Benjy said finally.

"I know. And I asked it several times at the Academy, but I was never really satisfied with the responses I got. That's why I'm asking you. I want . . . I guess what I want is a Bolo's perspective on it."

"When you asked at the Academy, what did your instructors tell you?" Benjy countered, and Maneka smiled.

She'd been officially in command of Benjy for barely a month, yet she'd already come to feel more comfortable with him than she ever had with anyone else in her entire life. Partly, she supposed, that was because she was aware of how old he was, how many years of experience lay behind him. In many ways, he was like a trusted elder, a grizzled old sergeant, or perhaps even a grandfatherly presence. She felt she could ask him anything, expose any uncertainty, in the knowledge that he would regard her youthful ignorance with compassionate tolerance rather than ridicule.

And she'd also already discovered his fondness for the Socratic method.

"They told me that there were three main reasons," she replied obediently. "First, the necessity of inserting a human presence into the command and control loop at the most basic level. Second, the necessity of providing a Bolo—and the Brigade—with a 'human face' to interact with the human communities Bolos are assigned to protect. And, third, to be sure that in the event of crippling damage to your psychotronics, there's someone with at least a chance of preventing rogue behavior."

"And you did not feel this was sufficient explanation for the policy?"

"I didn't think it was the complete explanation."

"Ah, a subtle but meaningful distinction," Benjy observed, and Maneka felt a flush of pleasure at the hint of approval in his tone.

They rumbled along for a few more seconds, and then Benjy made the electronic sound he used as the Bolo equivalent of a human's clearing his throat.

"I believe you are correct that there are additional reasons, Maneka," he said. "And I believe there are also reasons why your Academy instructors did not explain those other reasons to you. One reason for their failure to fully explicate, I suspect, is that I have observed that humans are sometimes uncomfortable exposing deep-seated emotions to one another."

Both of Maneka's eyebrows rose at the Bolo's last sentence, but she simply lay back in the couch, waiting.

"Despite Major Fredericks' comments to you," Benjy continued seriously, "there is a slight but significant statistical enhancement in the combat effectiveness of Bolos operating with human commanders on board as compared to Bolos operating purely autonomously in Battle Reflex Mode."

"Is there really?" Maneka couldn't keep the doubt out of her voice. "I mean, they told us that in third-year Tactics, but I never really believed it. Or that it was still true, at any rate. To be honest, I thought they were telling us that so we wouldn't feel as useless as a screen door on an airlock. You're telling me they really meant it?"

"Indeed. Reflect that the Major did not tell you to resign command to me. She told you not to 'second-guess' me. If you consider that carefully, I think you will recognize that it is no more than the advice she would have given you if you had been dealing with a human subordinate who was simply more experienced, knowledgeable, and informed at that moment than you were. In essence, she was advising you, as a new junior officer, not to 'joggle the elbow' of an experienced noncommissioned officer at a moment when decisions have become time-critical."

"Well, I suppose so," Maneka said slowly. "But that still doesn't change the fact that you both think and react faster than any human possibly could. So how can the presence of a human commander enhance your performance in combat? Surely it constitutes an additional layer of 'grit,' doesn't it?"

"In the heat of a complicated tactical situation, it undoubtedly does—or would, if the commander in question has not learned when to intervene and when to allow the Bolo full autonomy. But humans, whatever the limitation of their perceptions, retain even today a better intuitive information processing capability than Bolos have ever possessed. Bolos think linearly, Maneka—we simply think very, very quickly by human standards. We process information, calculate probabilities, and select actions and responses on the basis of those calculations. But humans, and especially those passed by the screening processes the Brigade utilizes, have a superior ability to discount portions of the probability matrix at a glance. Bolos, even in hyper-heuristic mode, cannot do that. We must consider all probabilities and examine all logic trees in order to determine which may be safely discounted or ignored. A human may be wrong when he 'instinctively' isolates the appropriate probabilities upon which to concentrate, but he often makes the decision—right or wrong—more rapidly than even a Bolo can do the same thing.

"What a Bolo is capable of doing that a human is not is evaluating that decision. An experienced commander and his Bolo are constantly engaged in a joint examination and evaluation of the tactical environment. The commander's function is to provide general direction, to isolate the objective and to adjust and prioritize that objective. It is the Bolo's function, within the framework of that general direction, to formulate and execute tactics to accomplish their purpose. And it is that partnership which accounts for the combat enhancement to which I referred a moment ago."

"I believe you're telling me the truth, Benjy, but that still seems difficult to believe."

"Perhaps because you, like many humans, are better able to recognize and comprehend the capabilities of a Bolo than you are to recognize and accept your own gifts," Benjy said almost gently. "Nonetheless, it is true, and the correlation between human command and enhanced combat performance can be clearly tracked over the history of the Brigade. Admittedly, the enhancement was most pronounced in the earlier days of the Brigade. Through the emergence of the Mark XXV, it was very noticeable, which is not surprising in light of the limitations and constraints imposed upon Bolo self-awareness and autonomy up to that time. From the date of the deletion of the inhibitory software of the Mark XXV two Standard Centuries ago, the degree of enhancement has declined, of course. That, in fact, was one reason the Brigade acceded to the pressure in favor of the independent deployment of unmanned Mark XXV Bolos for some years.

"That, however, was as much a civil government-inspired economy measure, adopted in light of the considerable expense of training Bolo commanders, as a tactical innovation, and it was never fully accepted within the Brigade, for several reasons. One of them, as subsequent analysis clearly confirmed, was that even a fully autonomous Bolo was less capable in combat when not paired with a human commander, which is why the practice was discontinued with the Mark XXVI. That same capability advantage remains statistically differentiable even today, although the capabilities of increasingly advanced psychotronic circuitry and software have improved to a point at which the speed with which Bolos process information, even linearly, has very largely overtaken the human ability to process it intuitively.

"However, with the introduction of direct Bolo-human neural interfacing in the Mark XXXII, the enhancement level has gone up once more, and very sharply. While I obviously have no personal experience of the capability, it would appear from my analysis of the battle reports which have been disseminated that the direct linkage between an organic human brain and a Bolo's psychotronics allows the human's intuitive processes to function at very nearly Bolo data-processing levels and speed. It is, in fact, that advantage over the capabilities of my own psychotronics which truly relegates Bolos of my generation to obsolescence."

Maneka felt a sudden irrational flush of irritation whose strength surprised her. She didn't care about what newer models of Bolo might be capable of! She was Benjy's commander, and hearing him calmly state that anything rendered him "obsolescent" infuriated her.

Obsolescence, she thought. What a filthy concept! 

She knew her reaction was irrational. That it partook of the Operator Identification Syndrome the Academy instructors had so earnestly warned their students against. Yet there'd always been a stubborn part of her which remained emotionally convinced that "obsolescent" was a label invented by humans to justify discarding intelligent machines—people—who deserved far better from the humanity they had served so well.

"In addition to its overt effect on combat effectiveness, however," Benjy continued, apparently oblivious to her sudden emotional spike, "I believe there is another, uniquely human reason for the practice of pairing human commanders and Bolos and committing them to combat together. Put most simply, it is a sense of obligation."


"Indeed. Maneka, do not make the mistake of assuming that your own emotional reaction, your own sense of bonding with the Bolos with whom you serve, is unique to you. It has, throughout the history of the Brigade, been a major concern, not least because of the fashion in which it has so often caused Bolo commanders to hesitate to commit their Bolos against overwhelming Enemy firepower. Ultimately, Bolos are expendable, yet it is often easier for a Bolo's commander to consider himself expendable than it is for him to consider his Bolo in the same fashion. This is the reason your Academy instructors warned you about the dangers of OIS.

"Yet even while they warned you, the entire Dinochrome Brigade suffers from an institutional form of OIS. The traditions of the Brigade, of mutual obligation and of duty, require its human personnel to risk injury and death beside the Bolos they commit to battle. It is a self-imposed, never fully stated, and yet utterly inflexible requirement which probably has seen no equal since the ancient Spartan mother's injunction to her son that he come home carrying his shield in victory . . . or carried dead upon it.

"It is, in fact, a very human attitude, and the fact that it is irrational makes it no less powerful. Nor, I must confess, is it one-sided. In the Bolo, humanity has created a fully self-aware battle companion, and I suspect humans do not truly realize even now how fully they have succeeded in doing so. Bolos, too, have emotions, Maneka. Some were deliberately introduced into our core programming. Duty, loyalty, courage if you will. The qualities and emotions required of a warrior. But there is also affection, and that, I think, was not deliberately engineered into us. We fully recognize that we were created to fight and, when necessary, die for our creators. It is the reason we exist. But we also recognize that if we are asked to fight, and when we are asked to die, our creators fight and die with us. It is a compact which I doubt most humans have ever intellectually examined, and perhaps that is your true strength as a species. It was not necessary for you to consciously grasp it in order to forge it in the first place, because it is so much a part of you, and yet you have given that strength to us, as well as to yourselves."

The baritone voice paused, and Maneka stared at the glassy eye of the main visual pickup. No one at the Academy had ever suggested the existence of such a "compact" to her. And yet, now that Benjy had bared it to her, she realized that it underlay almost everything she had been taught. It was the unstated subtext which completed the explanation of the fierce bonds of loyalty between the Brigade's legendary commanders and the Bolos with whom they had fought and died.

"I . . . never thought of it that way," she said slowly.

"Indeed not," Benjy said gently. "There was no need for you to do so. I wonder, sometimes, if you humans truly realize what a remarkable species you are."


"Tag, you're it!" Maneka called out in delight as Benjy's Hellbore's integral range-finding lidar simulated a direct hit on Lazy.

"Why, you sneaky little twit!" Captain Joseph Takahashi replied over the com with a laugh. "Lazy and I were sure that was you, over to the east."

"Nope," Maneka said smugly. "That, Captain sir, is a Mark 26 ECM drone."

"And just how the hell did you sneak a ground-based decoy into position without us spotting you?" Takahashi demanded.

"We cheated," Maneka confessed cheerfully. "You two didn't know that Major Fredericks told us about the simulation yesterday."

"She did what?"

"She told us yesterday," Maneka repeated, smiling at the surprise in Takahashi's tone. "She said Major Hendrixson said you and Lazy have been getting just a little bit too smug about your simulation scores. And, I'm pretty sure that if you go back and check your mission briefing, you'll discover that no one ever told you the opposition force hadn't had time to prepare."

"They did so—" Takahashi began, then broke off abruptly. Maneka reached up and clasped her hands behind her head as she reclined luxuriantly in Benjy's command couch and waited. It took several seconds, but then Takahashi's chagrined voice came back over the com.

"All right," he said resignedly. "Lazy's gone back and analyzed the briefing, and you're right. Although, in my own humble opinion, Major Hendrixson deliberately implied that it would be a meeting engagement, with both sides arriving simultaneously."

"That's because your part of the simulation included dealing with faulty intelligence," Maneka told him. She chuckled, then grew slightly more serious.

"Actually, sir," she said more formally, "I think she picked Benjy and me for this partly because I'm still so much of the new kid on the block that she figured we'd probably need the edge. Or that we could certainly use it, anyway."

"Don't sell yourself too short, Lieutenant," Takahashi replied. "You and Benjy are coming along a lot faster than Lazy managed to bring me up to speed. And the major didn't tell you how to set up your little trap, did she?"

"No," Maneka admitted, "Benjy and I came up with that on our own."

"And executed perfectly," Takahashi pointed out. "Don't forget that. It's not easy for even another Bolo to surprise a Bolo. Even when one of the Bolos in question comes in fat, dumb, and happy."

"Thank you, sir." Maneka raised her right hand to Benjy's visual pickup with the thumb extended in the ancient gesture of triumph, and the red light above the lens winked in reply.

Joseph Takahashi was only about three Standard Years older than she herself was, but he'd been assigned to the Thirty-Ninth for almost two of those three years. Unlike her, he'd reported for duty with the Battalion early enough in the war to get in after the war had entered its new, uglier phase but before Brigade HQ had begun raiding the second-line battalions so ruthlessly for experienced commanders. He'd served the traditional six-month apprenticeship being mentored by one of those same experienced commanders, and he was very, very good.

He and his Bolo—28/G-179-LAZ—were assigned to Major Carlos Hendrixson's First Company, where they had established an enviable reputation for consistently outscoring everyone else in the regular simulations and field exercises. Of course, Takahashi did have a certain advantage over his fellow commanders, over and above the fact that he was one of the sneakiest tacticians Maneka had yet encountered. Lazy, whose cognomen clearly had been selected because of how poorly it described him, was the Battalion's senior Bolo. Although his personality center was currently mounted in a Model G war hull like Benjy's, he had begun his existence as a Model B the better part of one hundred and seventy years ago. His current hull bore the battle honors he'd won in his original configuration, as well as those he'd received after his personality center was transferred to his present hull, and they were headed by one Maneka had never before seen outside the Brigade's standard reference works: the Platinum Galactic Cluster . . . with star.

The Battle of Chesterfield, in which Lazy had won that award, was the stuff of the Brigade's legends. It was also a classic tactical study at the Academy, where not a single student had ever managed to win the engagement in a simulation.

A single company of Mark XXVIIIs had gone up against an entire battalion of Kai-Sabres during the Fringe Rebellion which had followed the Xalontese War. The Kai-Sabres had been clones of the Mark XXVIII itself, built using stolen technology after decades of espionage, and they had been based upon the Model G, not the Model B. Although their weaponry fits had been very similar, the Kai-Sabres' armor, battle screen, disrupter shields, and targeting systems had all been superior to those of Lazy and his three consorts, but Chesterfield had been a planet whose critical strategic importance meant it could not be yielded without a fight.

So Second Company, Twelfth Battalion, Ninth Regiment, of the Dinochrome Brigade had fought at three-to-one odds. And when the relief force arrived, Lazy had been the only surviving Bolo—or Kai-Sabre—on the planet. They'd found his immobilized wreck where he'd made his final stand in a rugged mountain pass just short of Chesterfield's capital city, his commander dead on his breached command deck . . . and the last four Kai-Sabres stacked up dead in front of them.

His damage had been far too severe to merely "repair." Fixing it would have cost more and taken longer than building an entire, newer Bolo from scratch. But by that time, the Brigade had adopted the practice of upgrading Bolo AIs, and a reserve Model G hull had been activated to receive his undamaged personality center. After which, he'd soldiered on for another full Standard Century.

Although she wasn't about to admit it to anyone, Maneka was more than a little uncomfortable around Lazy. Benjy was almost six times as old as she was, with a distinguished record any Bolo might have envied, but Lazy was older still. And it was difficult, she'd discovered, to know precisely how to react when one found oneself in the presence of what was literally a living legend. Indeed, she often wondered how Takahashi had reacted when they told him who he was getting as his first Bolo command.

Probably tempted to cut his own throat, she thought with a grin, although she really didn't know the captain or Lazy very well.

On the other hand, she reflected as Benjy rolled back towards the Company depot area, I don't really know anyone outside the Third "very well" yet, now do I? 

The past two and half months had flown past at breakneck speed for Lieutenant Maneka Trevor. In that time, she'd become even closer to Benjy—close enough, indeed, that she was guiltily aware that, as everyone had warned her she would, she had completely succumbed to Operator Identification Syndrome. When she considered it, any other outcome had probably been impossible. Benjy was, quite simply, the most wonderful person—organic or psychotronic—she'd ever known. In less than ninety local days, he'd become her closest friend, her most trusted confidant, and the mentor the Battalion had been unable to provide her in human form. She'd learned more from him in that short period than she had in all eight previous years of her training, and she knew it.

That intense concentration on her Bolo had pretty much eliminated any possibility of a social life, and although Major Fredericks had seen to it that she'd been smoothly slotted into Third Company, she didn't even know some of the other companies' Bolo commanders by sight. That was something she was going to have to start doing something about, and she knew it. In fact, the major had begun dropping gentle hints that now that she'd settled in with her Bolo, it was probably time she began getting to know some of the Battalion's flesh-and-blood members, as well.

"Well," Takahashi said, as Lazy altered course, heading for First Company's depot area, "I guess this is where we part company, Lieutenant. Good work. Lazy and I will be glad to have you on our flank anytime."

"Thank you, sir." Maneka knew her face had turned pink with pleasure, but she managed to keep her voice conversational. "Benjy and I feel the same."

"See you around, Lieutenant," Takahashi said.

The two Bolos continued towards their separate destinations and Maneka Trevor allowed herself to bask—briefly—in the knowledge that she was earning the acceptance of her vastly more experienced peers.


"Listen up, people!"

Maneka shook her head groggily as Major Fredericks' sharp, hard voice echoed in her mastoid transceiver. Her entire skull still seemed to be ringing like a gigantic bell from the emergency signal which had just snatched her up out of the depths of sleep.

"We have an Alpha One Zulu alert," Fredericks' voice continued, and Maneka sat bolt upright in bed, such minor considerations as her vibrating cranium totally forgotten. Alpha One Zulu? 

"Get your butts up and awake," Fredericks went on grimly. "The Depot's already beginning final maintenance checks. Colonel Tchaikovsky and Major Dumfries will be briefing all personnel at zero-two-thirty. So let's move it!"

The voice in Maneka's mastoid went silent, but the youthful lieutenant sat frozen for several seconds. Alpha One Zulu. Impossible!

Alpha One Zulu meant a full-fledged invasion of a major planet, and in the sort of war this one had become, with the madness of Plan Ragnarok and its Melconian equivalent, "invasion" was another word for the murder of an entire planetary population. That sort of operation wasn't something the Puppies were going to undertake with secondary forces. No. It was the sort of operation where they committed entire armored divisions of the latest, most modern combat equipment they had, and the Thirty-Ninth Battalion was, for all intents and purposes, a training command. Its obsolescent Bolos had no business going up against front-line Melconian combat mechs with the sort of support which would be assigned to the invasion of a major Concordiat planet.

An icy wind seemed to blow through the marrow of her bones, and she was surprised when she looked down at her hands to realize they weren't actually trembling the way they felt they were.

"Benjy?" she said over her private link.

"Yes, Maneka," he replied instantly, with all his normal calm assurance.

"This is real? It's not some sort of drill?"

"No, Maneka, I am afraid it is not a drill," he told her gently.

"Where are they hitting us?"

"The target is Chartres."

Maneka's belly seemed to fold in on itself. Chartres was in the neighboring Esterhazy Sector, one sector further away from the frontier with the Melconian Empire, beyond Santa Cruz's Ursula Sector. Esterhazy was a wealthier sector than Ursula, with the sort of heavily industrialized star systems which obviously made it a priority target. But it was also the better part of a month's hyper-travel from the Line, even assuming the invasion fleet was able to use the intervening jump points without being engaged. Without that, the trip would take at least six weeks.


"Unknown," Benjy answered. "The Enemy has been pressing harder on the Line in the vicinity of the Camperdown Sector for several months now." The Camperdown Sector lay on the far side of the Ursula Sector from Esterhazy, directly in the path of the Melconians. "I would surmise that this was a deliberate stratagem intended to draw our naval forces and all available Brigade units towards that sector in order to uncover Esterhazy. If so, it has succeeded."

"We can't be all the Brigade has available!" Maneka protested.

"I fear we are all that can reach Chartres in time to respond," Benjy said. "The Santa Cruz jump point connects to Chartres via Haskell. We can be there within thirty-six Standard Hours of departure from Santa Cruz. That strategic position between Camperdown and Esterhazy," he pointed out gently, "is why Santa Cruz was developed as a major base in the first place, Maneka."

Maneka nodded numbly, although she knew he couldn't see her. But still . . .

"How soon can someone else get there to support us?" she asked quietly.

"Unknown. I do not have sufficient data on current deployments to answer that question."

Maneka swallowed hard, then shook herself violently. Sitting here dithering was doing absolutely no one any good, she told herself sternly, and climbed out of bed.

"All right, Benjy. I'm up. I'll see you after the briefing."


Colonel Tchaikovsky and Major Dumfries, the Battalion XO, looked grim as they walked into the briefing room where the Battalion's unit commanders had been assembled. They could just as easily have conducted this briefing electronically, Maneka knew. In fact, if they'd used the Bolos' tactical plots to display the information for the unit commanders, they probably could have imparted the information more efficiently. But there was something ritualistic about gathering them all together in the flesh, as it were. Some almost atavistic compulsion to meet and gather strength from one another one last time before some of the people in this room died.

The commanders came to their feet as Tchaikovsky and Dumfries strode briskly to the traditional briefing lectern.

"Be seated," Tchaikovsky said in a clipped tone, and boots rustled on the floor as they obeyed.

He let them settle back into their chairs for a moment, gazing out over their faces. Then he cleared his throat.

"I'm sure by this time all of you have checked with your Bolos," he began, "which means you're all aware that the Dog Boys' target is Chartres. For those of you who may not have the latest figures at your fingertips, that means a planetary population of two-point-four billion."

Maneka shivered as the colonel's simple sentence told them all they needed to know about the cost of failure.

"The good news for Chartres' population is that the Dog Boys apparently want permanent possession of the system, probably because of the way it flanks the Haskell jump point. If they keep it, they can pincer Ursula and Camperdown, which would require the Navy to at least double its strength in those two sectors, weakening it elsewhere along the Line. But it also means they aren't likely to use biologicals or radioactives against the planet. Since they'll want to use it themselves, they're going to put in a ground force and take it the old fashioned way, meter-by-meter. Which means it will take them a while—hopefully long enough for us to kick their ass up between their little puppy dog ears.

"Commodore Selkirk's received a subspace situation report from Camperdown Fleet HQ. It would appear the enemy has succeeded in drawing us badly out of position. According to the Commodore's sitrep, it will be at least two full Standard Weeks before any substantial forces can be diverted to Chartres. Commodore Selkirk has his own system-defense task force here in Santa Cruz, but it's going to be very heavily outnumbered by the Melconian fleet units escorting their attack force.

"Nonetheless, his is the closest naval force which can respond, and we are the closest ground force. We will be reinforced by the Three-Fifty-First Recon Company and the Ninth Marines, in addition to whatever Commodore Selkirk can spare from his Fleet units, but that's all we can count on. So it's going to be up to us to stop the Dog Boys before they kill every single human being on the planet."

He paused, letting his eyes travel across the grim faces looking back at him, then smiled with absolutely no humor at all.

"It's not what we expected, and I won't try to sugarcoat the situation for anyone. We're going to be substantially outgunned and outnumbered. And, although the hyper surveillance grid picked them up well short of the system perimeter, they're going to have been on the ground for at least eighteen hours by the time we can get there. Hopefully, the Chartres orbital defenses are going to have taken a chunk out of them, but we can't rely on that. And even if they have, those defenses aren't strong enough to fend off this big a force without the supporting Fleet units they don't have.

"Commodore Selkirk is confident he can get us within assault range of the planet, but it's unlikely he'll be able to cover us all the way in. It will have to be an assault landing, because the Dog Boys are almost certain to have control of near-orbit space by the time we get there. Which means at least some of the major cities are already going to be fireballs by the time we hit dirt.

"The Exec will give you the boarding schedule and what details we have about the situation in Chartres in just a moment, but first I have one more thing to say."

He paused for a moment, then went on quietly.

"We're going to take losses, people," he told them. "Probably heavy ones. But we're the only chance the people on Chartres have. And we're the Dinochrome Brigade. Remember that."

He held their eyes, then nodded and stepped back as the major took his place at the lectern and brought up the huge holo display behind him.

"As you can see, the situation in the Chartres System is . . ."


Maneka lay back once again in the command couch at Benjy's heart. She was aware that her pulse was hammering harder than it ought to have been, and although her mouth seemed unaccountably dry, she found herself swallowing again and again.

Jitters, she told herself. And no wonder! I guess I'd have to be a Bolo myself not to feel them. But, God, I'm scared! 


"Yes, Maneka?"

"Benjy, I'm terrified out of my wits," she confessed miserably.

"No, you are not," he told her calmly.

The visual display showed the blurry, featureless gray of hyper-space, all his optical heads could pick up as he rode the assault pod locked to the exterior of the Sleipner-class transport Tannenberg. Over half his entire hull protruded beyond the pod's skin, exposing his onboard sensors and his weapons, and Captain Anton Harris and Unit 28/D-431-ALN rode the pod hardpoint on the far side of Tannenberg's hull. Between them, Benjy and Allen provided the otherwise unarmed transport with the equivalent of a battlecruiser's energy-weapon firepower, and an antimissile capability at least as good as a light cruiser's. What they could not provide was the stand-off attack range of a standard ship-to-ship missile; their weapons simply weren't designed for that sort of environment.

Maneka and Benjy shared their pod with Company C, Third Battalion, Second Regiment, Ninth Marine Division. Captain Belostenec, Charlie Company's CO, had introduced herself to them when her company embarked, and she and Maneka had spent several hours discussing possible scenarios once they hit the surface of Chartres.

Assuming any of us get to the surface, she thought grimly, acutely conscious of the flutter of her pulse.

"Oh, yes, I am terrified," she told her Bolo.

"You are frightened," Benjy agreed. "This is a normal and, indeed, healthy reaction to the prospect of battle and possible death. But your fear is far from paralyzing you or preventing you from thinking clearly. Nor is fear a bad thing for you to experience.

"Bolos do not experience that particular emotion in the same fashion as humans, Maneka, or so I believe. It has been said with reason that our personalities are more 'bloodthirsty' than those of most humans. As a result, we feel as much anticipation as anxiety at a moment like this. It is, quite literally, what we were designed and built to do. Our highest function.

"But do not think we are strangers to fear. We fear that we will fail in our mission. We fear we will prove unequal to the challenge we face. And, just as our internal diagnostic systems have been programmed to feel the equivalent of pain when we take damage, our personalities include a fierce desire to survive. It has been some time since the Concordiat made the error of believing that a warrior who embraces death without fear is the ideal. Fear is as much a tool as courage, Maneka. As too much 'courage' becomes suicidal recklessness, too much 'fear' can become paralyzing panic. But to achieve his most effective level of combat, any warrior—human or Bolo—must properly balance the cautionary impact of fear and the aggressiveness engendered by courage. This, I believe, you have done."

"You have a better opinion of me than I do," Maneka said.

"Because you perceive all of your faults from within," Benjy said serenely. "I, however, am able to observe your responses and actions from without. You would not have been able to coordinate so well with Captain Belostenec had you been 'terrified out of your wits.'"

"Maybe," Maneka conceded dubiously.

Actually, she thought, for all of the time she and Belostenic had spent discussing possible tactical situations and responses to them, there hadn't really been a great deal of planning they could do. Either they got to the surface of the planet alive, or they didn't. If they did, Belostenec's Marines would disembark their own light armored vehicles and form up to follow her and Benjy as the Thirty-Ninth Battalion advanced against the enemy. And after that, everything would depend on what happened next.

The Ninth Marines were a potent fighting force, at least the equal of any Melconian Army division, and arguably superior to two of them in actual combat power. But neither their personal armor nor their vehicles had the firepower and toughness to stand up to Melconian combat mechs. If the Thirty-Ninth could get it through the perimeter of the Melconian LZ, the Ninth would undoubtedly prove its worth, but getting it through that perimeter in the first place was going to be supremely difficult.

"Captain Jeschke informs me that we will be dropping out of hyper in approximately twelve minutes," Benjy informed her suddenly, and she twitched in her command couch. That "approximately twelve minutes" had to have come directly from Jeschke, Tannenberg's merely human commander. No Bolo would have been guilty of such imprecision.

The thought made her giggle unexpectedly, and she blinked as she realized her unanticipated amusement was entirely genuine.

Maybe I'm not quite such a hopeless basket case, after all, she thought.

"Understood," she said aloud. "Please make sure Captain Belostenec also has that information."

"I have."

"Then I guess all we can do is wait."


The relief force from Santa Cruz dropped out of hyper in a single, perfectly coordinated transition, and tactical displays aboard the Navy task force's warships began blinking alive with a rash of ominous red icons.

Commodore Selkirk's entire combat strength consisted of one four-ship battlecruiser division and one carrier, supported by eight heavy cruisers, nine light cruisers, and twelve destroyers. From the reports Chartres Near-Space Command had managed to get out before the subspace communications satellites were taken out, he already knew that even after the attackers' losses against Chartres' orbital defenses—which had not been insubstantial—he still faced six Melconian battleships, five battlecruisers, and twenty screening "fists." Like the Melconian ground unit of the same name, a naval "fist" consisted of three ships, in this case a heavy cruiser supported by a light cruiser and a destroyer. The comparative number of hulls—thirty-four human vessels opposed to sixty-nine Melconian ships—was bad enough. The tonnage differential was worse . . . much worse.

Despite that, Selkirk had certain offsetting advantages. One was that unlike the deep-space arrays which had given Chartres two full days of warning before the Melconians' arrival, even a battleship's detection range against a unit approaching through hyper was severely limited. The Melconian CO had been given less than four hours' warning before Selkirk's ships came piling out of hyper, and his combat strength was still out of position. Another advantage was that every one of Selkirk's ships possessed a fully self-aware AI . . . and that those ships' command crews were neurally linked with them. They literally thought and fought at the same hyper-heuristic speed as Bolos.

None of which changed the fact that the battleship component of the enemy force alone out-massed his entire task force by more than two-to-one.

Orders flashed outward from Selkirk's flagship. He had arranged his approach very carefully, and his task force and the accompanying transports deployed with smooth efficiency. The commodore had deliberately dropped most of his warships back into normal-space well inside the three-light-minute sphere of the Chartres jump point. That was precisely where the Melconians had been expecting him, although he still managed to emerge into n-space outside their immediate engagement range. But the transports, accompanied by the carrier Indomitable and two of his destroyers, had made the transition to normal-space out on the very rim of the jump point at its closest approach to the inner system.

It had been a calculated risk, since it was always possible the Melconian CO might have anticipated the maneuver and deployed to smash the transports first, but it had paid off. The main body of the Melconian fleet was exactly where Selkirk had hoped it would be—well out-system from the transports' emergence point, with the commodore and his main combatants between it and the transports.

The eight transports, trailing their three escorts, arrowed straight towards the planet while Selkirk and his brutally outnumbered force squared off to keep the Melconians off their backs. Maneka felt physically sick to her stomach as her tactical plot showed the sea of hostile icons sweeping towards the commodore and his handful of ships. She wasn't trained in Navy tactical iconography, but she didn't need to be to recognize the dreadful imbalance between the two forces.

She didn't have a great deal of time to think about that, however. Four Melconian "fists" had apparently been providing orbital fire support for their ground forces, now that the deep-space defenses had been suppressed, and now they came peeling out of Chartres planetary orbit as the transports steadied down on their approach.

"Incoming missiles," Benjy announced. "The Enemy is targeting the transports."

"Stand by for antimissile defense," Maneka replied—more, she was aware, for something to say than because Benjy needed any instructions from her.

"Standing by."

On each of the Sleipners, pairs of Bolos brought up their battle screen, activated tracking systems, and waited with psychotronic calm as the Melconian missiles shrieked towards them. And, to her own immense surprise, Maneka Trevor felt her own pulse steady as she watched the arrowhead-shaped missile icons race to meet Tannenberg.

More icons blossomed on Benjy's tactical plot, and Maneka recognized them as Indomitable's outgoing fighters. There were eighty of them, and they headed straight for the enormously larger Melconian warships under maximum power. The missiles targeted on the transports ignored them, and Maneka bared her teeth as she recognized the Melconians' error.

They should have tried to nail Indomitable before she launched, she thought. And they're about to find out that they just wasted their entire initial salvo. 

Hypervelocity countermissiles were already spitting outward from the Bolos. Designed for planetary combat, they moved slowly compared to the deep-space weapons charging to destroy the transports, but "slowly" was a purely relative term. They moved quickly enough when they were directed by a Bolo's targeting and computational systems, and groups of them relentlessly bracketed each incoming missile, boring in through defensive electronic countermeasures.

One-by-one, the Melconian missiles were picked off far short of attack range. Only fourteen got through the countermissile interception envelope, and thirteen of those were picked off by infinite repeater fire far short of their targets. Only one got close enough to actually detonate against the battle screen protecting its intended victim, and that battle screen—reinforced by the full power of the Bolo on the opposite side of the transport's hull—held.

And while those missiles were attacking, the fighters from Indomitable flung themselves upon their leviathan foes.

Twenty of them died before they got into engagement range. It would have been even worse, Maneka thought, sickened by the carnage, if the Melconians had held back that initial missile launch, targeted it on the fighters they ought to have known had to be coming. But twenty-five percent losses before the surviving fighter pilots even crossed the missile envelope was quite bad enough.

The sixty survivors ignored the destroyers shooting at them. Instead, they charged straight towards the cruisers. Close-in weapons opened up on them, but the fighters bored in grimly, holding their fire. The fleet little vessels carried plasma torpedoes—triple-barreled, short-ranged weapons with an even heavier punch than Benjy's Hellbore, but slow-firing. The launchers took long enough to recharge that each fighter would be able to fire only a single salvo per firing pass. But their other energy weapons were intended for dogfighting against other fighters, too light to significantly damage something as heavily armored as a warship, and the pilots were determined to make their single launch each count.

Half of them died before they reached the range they sought and salvoed their torpedoes, but unlike missiles, plasma torpedoes were light-speed weapons. They ripped in, impossible to intercept, and all four of the heavy cruisers and one of the light cruisers disappeared in the hellish glare of impacting plasma. Each torpedo was the equivalent of a shaped-charge fusion warhead, slamming its target with a megaton awl of brimstone, and battle screen failed and armor and hull plating vaporized as those man-made thunderbolts disemboweled their targets.

One of the three surviving light cruisers was severely damaged, staggering sideways in a shower of shattered debris and the telltale shroud of venting atmosphere. Her emissions signature flickered uncertainly, and her drive field went down completely, but her consorts had been luckier. The fighter group targeted on one of them had taken murderous casualties on its way in. Only two of its pilots had survived to fire, and their launch sequence had been badly desynchronized. The plasma torpedoes came in as separate, individual attacks, without the focus and precise timing which had killed the cruiser's fellows, and the ship's battle screen managed to deflect most of their effectiveness. She was hurt, but not badly, and she continued to belch missiles at the transports.

But the fourth light cruiser had clearly taken heavy damage. Her weapons fire ceased almost entirely, and her battle screen fluctuated wildly for a fraction of the second before it came back up to full strength and steadied. But there was nothing wrong with her drive, and she changed course abruptly.

"Collision vector," Benjy announced, and Maneka bit her lip as the cruiser's projected path intersected with Indomitable's.

The carrier's AI altered course, dodging hard, but her evasion options were too limited. The geometry was against her, and although her light shipboard weapons fired desperately, carriers weren't supposed to get this close to enemy main combatants. They were supposed to operate under the cover and protection of an entire task force, providing a fighter umbrella to operate at ranges of up to several light-hours from their flight decks, or on independent operations at extreme range from anything but the enemy's fighters. And so they were equipped primarily with antifighter weapons, designed to provide volume of fire against swarms of attacking fighters, not to batter their way through a cruiser's battle screen. But Indomitable had had no choice but to go to meet the enemy this time, as she and her escorting destroyers fought to clear the way and keep the Melconians away from the transports which had to reach the surface of Chartres.

She was too far ahead of Tannenberg and the other transports for any of the Bolos to engage the cruiser before impact, and yet it was so agonizingly close. She was barely a hundred kilometers outside Benjy's engagement range when the damaged cruiser slammed through her battle screens like a quarter-million-ton hammer and both ships vanished in a kinetic fireball brighter than the system's sun.

Maneka swore bitterly as both icons disappeared from her plot, but even as she cursed, and even as she felt the horror of the deaths of almost three thousand fellow human beings, she knew that at this moment, right here and now, Indomitable had been expendable. And she and her massacred fighter group, of which only eleven survived, had done their job. Only one of the intercepting Melconian cruisers remained, and a merciless corner of Maneka's mind wondered if the crew of that ship truly realized what was about to happen to it.

The cruiser and all four enemy destroyers bored in, and the Concordiat destroyers went to meet them. They were faster than the Melconians, more maneuverable, and fought with a deadly efficiency, but there were only two of them, and if their AI-human fusions used their weapons far more effectively, they were outgunned by over five-to-one. It was a short, vicious engagement—a knife-range battle which stripped away much of the combat advantage human ships' superior coordination and defensive systems normally conferred—because it had to be. The destroyer crews knew they had to clear the transports' path before any additional Melconian units managed to break past Commodore Selkirk or suddenly appeared unexpectedly from the far side of the planet. And so they took the Melconians on at the enemy's most effective range.

They died. But they took three of the four intercepting destroyers with them, and the fourth was so badly damaged that it reeled out of the engagement with its battle screen entirely down.

The light cruiser burst through the engagement, streaming atmosphere but with its energy weapons intact, and all her surviving batteries opened fire on CNS Tannenberg, which happened to be the lead transport.

Maneka felt her face locking in a snarl of triumph as the cruiser spat death at her. The battle screen which now protected the transports was Bolo battle screen, designed to deflect the fire of Benjy's own main armament at anything beyond point-blank range, and it sneered at the lesser energy weapons mounted by a mere light cruiser. Benjy's screen brushed the long-range fire aside almost contemptuously. Then his main turret traversed slightly and fired once.

When the Mark XXVIII had first been introduced, its main armament had been equivalent to that mounted in the Concordiat Navy's current-generation ships-of-the-line. Technology had moved on since then, into newer, deadlier, more powerful weaponry, but even today, nothing lighter than a battlecruiser—and precious few of them—mounted anything approaching the lethality of his 110-centimeter Hellbore. Certainly no light cruiser did . . . and none of them had been designed to survive its fury.

Benjy's target shattered, blowing apart and then, abruptly, vaporizing as the ship's antimatter powerplant's containment fields went down. The fierce, blinding flash of the fireball polarized Benjy's direct visual display, and Maneka heard her own soprano shriek of triumph as the cruiser disappeared.

The remaining crippled cruiser and destroyer died almost as spectacularly seconds later under the vengeful fire of other Bolos, and then the transports were clear, racing towards the planet they had come to save or die trying.


Despite its population, which was certainly of respectable size for any world outside the Core Sectors, the planet of Chartres had been touched relatively lightly by the imprint of mankind. All of its developed, terraformed cropland was concentrated on only one of its three major land masses, along with virtually all of its citizens, two-thirds of whom had lived in a relatively small number of large urban centers surrounded by rolling farmland or virgin forest.

But Chartres was lightly touched no longer.

Benjy's assault pod separated from Tannenberg and dived roaringly into the planetary atmosphere, and his infinite repeaters fired steadily as he and the rest of the Battalion systematically eliminated every piece of orbital debris that didn't carry a Concordiat IFF code. Melconian stealth systems were good, but they weren't perfect, and the Battalion's relentless assault burned away the reconnaissance platforms the invaders had deployed.

Maneka studied the visual images from Benjy's optical heads as the assault wave howled downward.

Laroche City, the planetary capital, with its population of over thirty million, was a smoking, blazing sea of ruins. Provence and Nouveau Dijon were little better, although at least a rim of Nouveau Dijon's suburbs appeared to have survived partially intact, and the same was true for at least two dozen of the planet's other cities and larger towns. The green and brown patchwork of farms and the dark-green woodlands surrounding what had once been the habitations of man were dotted with the wreckage of missiles and air-breathing attack craft which had been destroyed by the ruined cities' perimeter defenses, and towering pillars of smoke and dust seemed to be everywhere.

Although Chartres' population had been tiny compared to one of the Core Worlds like Old Earth, it had been large enough, and the star system's industrial base had been extensive enough, to provide quite heavy ground-based defensive systems. The local planetary and system authorities, with the assistance of the Concordiat's central government, had taken advantage of that and spent most of the past six Standard Years fortifying and preparing against the probability of an eventual Melconian attack. But with the Line grinding back only slowly across the Camperdown Sector, the planning authorities had given higher priority to systems and planets under more immediate threat. No one had anticipated that the Empire would show the daring to strike this deeply into the major star systems inside the Concordiat's frontier, and the local defenses, however formidable, had not been formidable enough.

Someone should have seen it coming, she thought grimly. Sure, they had to send in the equivalent of an entire fleet to pull it off, but the tempo of this war's done nothing but accelerate from the very beginning. And both sides are getting more desperate as the casualty totals go up. We should have realized that, sooner or later, the Puppies would roll the dice like this. If they can pull it off—establish a sizable Fleet presence this far into our rear—at the very least, it would force us into major redeployments until we could deal with it. That was probably worth risking the loss of their entire force all by itself, and that doesn't even count taking out Chartres' population and industrial base. 

But at least the system's defenders had been given enough warning to execute their evacuation plans. Maneka had no way of knowing—and didn't want to know—how many citizens of those butchered cities had failed to get out in time, but the glowing green icons of scores of huge refugee centers, all of them with at least rudimentary previously prepared defenses, burned in Benjy's strategic plot. In addition to the fixed defenses, most of them were ringed by the additional icons of planetary militia and the remnants of the detachments of Regulars deployed to the planet. And those defenses appeared to be holding against the aerial bombardment raining down upon them, now that the fleet units which had been providing the Melconian attackers with fire support from orbit had been dispersed. But there was no way any of them could have hoped to hold more than briefly against the terrifying concentration of ground-based firepower the Melconians had managed to land on the planetary surface before the Concordiat relief force arrived.

It was silent on Benjy's command deck, despite the hypervelocity hurricane howling about the assault pod's hull as it blazed deeper and deeper into the atmospheric envelope, and Maneka felt her heart sink as she studied the available data.

The planetary reconnaissance system had been largely destroyed, but a few of its satellites still survived, and now that the Thirty-Ninth Battalion had arrived, they had someone to report to once more. It was an advantage of which she knew Colonel Tchaikovsky meant to take full advantage, but very little of what they had reported so far was good.

The Melconian planetary assault had been led by five of their heavy assault brigades, each composed of two armored regiments of thirty mechs each—twelve Heimdall-class light reconnaissance mechs and six of their "fists," with a total of six Surturs and twelve Fenrises—plus one infantry regiment and an air cavalry regiment, supported by an artillery battalion. That was bad enough, but the initial assault wave had been followed up by two full infantry divisions and at least twelve strategic bombardment regiments, with their long-range missile batteries, and a matching number of space-defense missile sites. They had also deployed at least four additional antiarmor regiments of Loki tank destroyers—each of them basically little more than a single 60-centimeter Hellbore mounted on an unarmored ground-effect or counter-grav lift platform. They were fast and packed a punch which could be dangerous, especially if they could get into a flanking position, but they were relatively easy to kill once they revealed their positions.

That, unfortunately, wasn't something the Battalion could count on them doing. The Melconian advantage in stealth technology applied to their ground systems, as well as their space-going platforms. Human sensors were better than their Melconian equivalent, which tended to level the playing field somewhat, but Melconian platforms like the Lokis could be extremely difficult for even a Bolo to spot, especially if they'd had a few hours in which to perfect their camouflage.

Still, it appeared from the reconnaissance satellites that the Puppies had opted for more of a brute force approach than sneakiness. Either that, or their campaign plan had accepted from the beginning that a Concordiat relief force was likely to arrive before they could set about the business of properly exterminating the planetary population.

Whatever their reasoning, they had avoided dispersing their forces in smaller concentrations the Thirty-Ninth could have chopped up in detail. Instead, the vast majority of their ground units were concentrated in a single, roughly semicircular defensive perimeter near the southern end of Lorraine, the planet's single heavily populated continent. The ends of their perimeter's arc of fortified positions were firmly anchored on the ocean, which provided at least some protection to their backs, and while concentrating their forces that tightly might make them a tempting target, it also allowed them to concentrate all of their defensive firepower. What they had assembled there would have been sufficient to make a battlecruiser squadron think twice about closing in to engage them from space, and it was obvious that despite the relatively short time they'd been in possession of the planet, they'd dug their ground combat elements in deeply.

Maneka's command couch jolted her suddenly, as the assault pod hit the surface of Chartres.

At least we got down unopposed, she told herself, and felt more quivers as Benjy released the docking latches, threw power to his drivetrain, and ground free of the pod. The Bolo was monitoring Captain Belostenec's communications channels, and she heard the Marines' clipped, tersely professional combat chatter as their own vehicles whined out of the pod's vehicle bays.

Benjy's starboard infinite repeaters fired suddenly, knocking down an air-breathing Melconian recon drone as it popped up over a nearby line of hills. The drone disintegrated into a flaming, fragment-raining ball before it could possibly have gotten off a contact report, and Benjy's secondary turrets swung smoothly, rotating back and forth as he waited for additional targets.

Captain Harris and Allen had brought their pod in less than two kilometers to the west of Benjy's current position, and the remainder of Tannenberg's assault load was rapidly assembling around them. Tannenberg herself, and all seven of the other transports, had never even approached atmosphere, and they were already streaking directly away from the planet and the ferocious battle raging between Commodore Selkirk's outnumbered task force and the remaining Melconian warships in the system.

Maneka knew the unarmed, agile transport vessels had no business anywhere near anyone who could shoot at them once their Bolos had been landed. "Drop and scoot" had been standard doctrine for the Brigade's supporting Transport Command for centuries, after all. But that didn't prevent a chill sense of abandonment as she watched their transportation racing to get far enough away from the planet to drop into hyper.

Talk about burning your bridges behind you, she thought wryly, as Allen knocked down a second recon drone, and surprised herself with a desert-dry chuckle of amusement.

"All right, people," Colonel Tchaikovsky's voice came over the Battalion command net from Unit 28/G-740-GRG. "We're down, we're in one piece, and we know where the Dog Boys are. And, unfortunately, we don't have a lot of time. Commodore Selkirk is still wading into them, but it doesn't look good for his task force. So we have to break into the Dog Boy position before any of their starships get loose and turn up to start dropping missiles on our heads as we advance. That's going to limit our tactical options, and we have to assume the Dog Boys will manage to localize us and bring us under fire before we get into attack range. Gregg is loading movement orders to your Bolos now, and General Hardesty's Marines will conform to our movements."

Maneka watched the intricate pattern of lines and arrows representing the movement of the Battalion and the four Mark XXVII reconnaissance Bolos of the attached 351st Reconnaissance Company appeared on her secondary plot. The Battalion had dropped well within the Melconians' theoretical engagement envelope, but the combined destruction of the warships which had been giving them firepower support and the loss of their orbital reconnaissance platforms had at least temporarily blinded the Puppies. No one could hit what they couldn't see, so until the Melconians could positively locate the Battalion, all their firepower was useless. Which, of course, explained the drones Benjy and Allen had knocked down.

Colonel Tchaikovsky's Bolo, Gregg, was feeding the Battalion's movement plan simultaneously to the Marines, Maneka knew, and watched the blue icons of the Ninth Division flowing into formation behind the Battalion. Well behind the Battalion. Their infantry carriers and light supporting Whippet tanks, unlike those used by the Melconians, were all counter-grav supported, with a sprint speed of well over five hundred kilometers per hour. They would lie back, far enough to stay clear of the tornado of fire the Battalion could expect to draw as it advanced against the Melconian position.

If the Battalion succeeded in breaking that perimeter, the Ninth would come screaming in behind them, and Maneka had a very clear mental image of what the heavily armed Marine troopers in their individual powered combat armor would do to the Puppies if they could ever get to grips with their more lightly armored infantry adversaries. But unless the Battalion could open a breach for them, any attempt by the Marines to close with the enemy would be suicidal. So if the Battalion failed, instead of racing to exploit success, the Ninth's troopers would use that same speed to fall back to the Chartres refugee centers where they might at least hope to kill a few more Melconians before the Puppies' combat mechs ground them into the mud.

"All right, people," Colonel Everard Tchaikovsky said as the final movement orders were acknowledged by all units. "Gregg estimates ninety-seven minutes to contact with the enemy. Let's go."


Green, rolling woodland spread out before Maneka in the panoramic view from Benjy's forward optical head as the Battalion thundered towards the enemy. At least some of the Puppies' recon drones had lasted long enough to spot them now, and she felt her hands sweating, the dryness in her mouth, as the first Melconian long-range fire screamed towards them.

She tried not to think about the odds. Sixty Surturs and twice that many Fenrises would have been heavy odds for a battalion of modern Bolos; for the Thirty-Ninth, they were impossible, and every human and Bolo in the Battalion, from the Colonel down, knew it.

"Melconian warships are entering range of the planet," Benjy announced, and Maneka responded with a jerky nod.

Commodore Selkirk's task force had paid the price of its gallantry. Not a single one of his ships had survived, but they'd ripped the guts out of the Melconian fleet before they died. None of the Puppy battleships or battlecruisers remained. Neither did any of their heavy cruisers, but nine light cruisers and eleven destroyers had been screaming towards Chartres at maximum for over twelve minutes now. She'd hoped the Battalion would win the race, get to grips with the Puppies' ground forces before their surviving fleet units could intervene, but the numbers blinked on Benjy's plot in grim confirmation that they would not.

The missile batteries the Melconians had dug in at the heart of their ground enclave vomited fire, and high-trajectory missiles rained down on the Battalion. More fell like cosmic flails, fired from the approaching warships to support the ground-based systems. Their flight profiles gave the Battalion easy intercept solutions, but they'd never actually been intended to get through in the first place. Their function was solely to saturate the Bolos' defenses while the real killers broke through at lower altitudes.

"Remote platforms report cruise missiles launching all along the Enemy front," Benjy's resonant baritone told her. "Current estimate: approximately four thousand, plus or minus fifteen percent."

"Understood," Maneka rasped tautly.

"Colonel Tchaikovsky advises us that Enemy cruisers and destroyers are altering course. On the basis of their new heading and speed, I estimate a probability of 96.72 percent that they will endeavor to enter energy range of the Battalion simultaneous with the arrival of the low-altitude missile attack."

"You're just full of good news this afternoon, aren't you?" she responded, baring her teeth in what might charitably have been called a smile.

"I would not call it 'good,'" Benjy replied, with one of his electronic chuckles. "On the other hand, the Enemy's obvious desire to mass all available firepower at the earliest possible moment does offer us some tactical advantages, Maneka."

"Yeah, sure it does."

She shook her head.

"I am serious," the Bolo told her, and she stopped shaking her head and looked up at the internal visual pickup in disbelief.

"Just how does their piling even more firepower on top of us improve our chances of survival?" she demanded.

"I did not say it would enhance our survival probability. I merely observed that it offers us certain tactical advantages—or openings, at least—which we could not generate ourselves," the Bolo replied, and there was more than simple electronic certitude in its voice. There was experience. The personal experience of his hundred and twenty-six years' service against the enemies of mankind. "If their warships had opted to remain at extended missile ranges, rather than bringing their energy batteries into play, they would have remained beyond the range of our energy weapons. As it is, however, analysis of their new flight paths indicates they will enter their own energy weapon range of the Battalion 16.53 seconds before the arrival of their ground forces' cruise missiles."

Maneka Trevor's blue eyes widened in understanding, and the Bolo produced another chuckle. This one was cold, without a trace of humor.

"They're giving us a shot at them before the missiles reach us?" she asked.

"Indeed. They have clearly attempted to coordinate the maneuver carefully, but their timing appears inadequate to their needs. Unless they correct their flight profiles within the next thirty-eight seconds, the Battalion will be able to engage each warship at least once before their cruise missiles execute their terminal maneuvers. If they had been willing to wait until after the initial missile attack before closing, or even to remain permanently beyond Hellbore range, they would eventually have been able to destroy the entire Battalion with missiles alone."

"Instead of giving us the opportunity to take out their orbital fire support completely!" she finished for him.

"Indeed," Benjy repeated, and she heard the approval—and pride—in his deep voice. Pride in her she realized. In the student she had become when the Colonel gave her her first Bolo command . . . and, in so doing, committed her into that Bolo's care for her true training. That was what put the pride into his voice: the fact that his student had grasped the enormity of the Melconians' error so quickly.

The plunging thunder of the incoming high-trajectory missiles howled down out of the heavens like the lightning bolts of crazed deities, but the charging behemoths of the Thirty-Ninth Battalion didn't even slow. Ancient they might be, but they were Bolos. Batteries of ion-bolt infinite repeaters and laser clusters raised their muzzles towards the skies and raved defiance, countermissile cells spat fire, and heaven blazed.

The Battalion raced forward at over eighty kilometers per hour through the thick, virgin forest. Not even their stupendous bulks could remain steady over such terrain at so high a speed, and the shock frame of Maneka's command couch hammered at her as Benjy shuddered and rolled like some ancient windjammer of Old Earth rounding Cape Horn. But even as his mighty tracks ground sixty-meter tree trunks into crushed chlorophyll, his weapons tracked the incoming missiles with deadly precision. Missile after missile, dozens—scores—of them simultaneously, disappeared in eye-tearing fireballs that dimmed the light of Chartres' primary into insignificance.

Despite her terror, despite the certainty that the Battalion could not win, Maneka Trevor stared at the imagery on her visual display with a sense of awe. The Melconian missile attack was a hemisphere of flame, a moving bowl above her where nothing existed but fire and destruction and the glaring corona of the wrath of an entire battalion of Bolos.

"Enemy cruise missiles entering our defensive envelope in 21.4 seconds," Benjy announced calmly even as the display filled with blinding light. "Enemy warships entering engagement range in 4.61 seconds," he added, and there was as much hunger as satisfaction in his tone.

"Stand by to engage," Maneka said, although both of them knew it was purely a formality.

"Standing by," Benjy acknowledged, and his main turret trained around in a smooth whine of power, Hellbore elevating.

Maneka's eyes strayed from the visual display to the tactical plot, and her blood ran cold as she saw the incredibly dense rash of missile icons streaking towards her. The Battalion's reconnaissance drones were high enough to look down at the terrain-following missiles as they shrieked through the atmosphere, barely fifty meters above the highest terrain obstacles, at five times the speed of sound. The atmospheric shock waves thousands of missiles generated at that velocity were like a giant hammer, smashing everything in their path into splinters, and when they reached the Battalion, it would be even worse. At their speed, even Bolos would have only tiny fractions of a second to engage them, and their defenses were already effectively saturated by the ongoing high-trajectory bombardment.

Between the missile storm and the main body of the Battalion was the 351st Recon's four Mark XXVIIs. Twenty percent lighter and more agile than the Mark XXVIII, the Invictus Bolos were much more heavily equipped with stealth and ECM, and they had sacrificed the Mark XXVIII's extensive VLS missile cells in favor of even more active antimissile defenses. It was their job to fight for information, if necessary, and—with their higher speed—to probe ahead of the Battalion for traps and ambushes the enemy might have managed to conceal from the reconnaissance drones. But now their position meant they would take the first brunt of the cruise missiles, unless their sophisticated electronic warfare systems could convince the Puppy missiles' seekers they were somewhere else.

She jerked her eyes away from those horribly exposed icons, and her teeth flashed in an ivory snarl as a score of other icons in another quarter of the display, the ones representing the Melconian destroyers and light cruisers, were snared in sudden crimson sighting circles.

"Enemy warships acquired," Benjy announced. And then, instantly, "Engaging."

A dozen 110-centimeter Hellbores fired as one, and atmosphere already tortured by the explosions of dying missiles, shrieked in protest as massive thunderbolts of plasma howled upward.

All nine Melconian light cruisers and three of the destroyers died instantly, vomiting flame as those incredible bolts of energy ripped contemptuously through their battle screens and splintered their hulls. Superconductor capacitors ruptured and antimatter containment fields failed, adding their own massive energy to the destruction, and the vacuum above Chartres rippled and burned. The horrified crews of the remaining Melconian destroyers had four fleeting seconds to realize what had happened. That was the cycle time of the Mark XXVIII's Hellbore . . . and precisely four seconds later a fresh, equally violent blast of light and fury marked the deaths of the remaining enemy warships.

Maneka Trevor heard her own soprano banshee-howl of triumph, but even as the Battalion's turrets swivelled back around, the tidal bore of cruise missiles burst upon it.

Countermissiles, infinite repeaters, laser clusters, auto cannon—even antipersonnel clusters—belched defiance as the hypervelocity projectiles came streaking in. They died by the dozen, by the score. By the hundred. But they came in thousands, and not even Bolos' active defenses could intercept them all.

Battle screen stopped some of them. Some of them missed. Some of them killed one another, consuming each other in their fireball deaths. But far too many got through.

The exposed Mark XXVIIs suffered first. Maneka's shock frame hammered her savagely as Benjy's massive hull twisted through an intricate evasion pattern, his defensive weapons streaming fire. But even though scores of missiles bored in on him, far more—probably as many as half or even two-thirds of the total Melconian launch—locked onto the quartet of Mark XXVIIs. The Invictus might mount more antimissile defenses than the Triumphant, but not enough to weather this storm. For an instant, she wondered what had gone wrong with their EW systems, why so many missiles had been able to lock onto them. And then she realized. They weren't trying to prevent the missiles from locking them up; they were deliberately enhancing their targeting signatures, turning themselves into decoys and drawing the missiles in, away from the Battalion.

Her heart froze as she recognized what they were doing, and then the holocaust washed over them. The towering explosions crashed down on the reconnaissance company like the boot of some angry titan, hobnailed in nuclear flame. They were forty kilometers ahead of the Battalion's main body, and the warheads were standard Puppy issue, incongruously "clean" in what had become a genocidal war of mutual extermination. Yet there were hundreds of them, and lethal tides of radiation sleeted outward with the thermal flash, followed moments later by the blast front itself.

Maneka clung to her sanity with bleeding fingernails as Thor's hammer slammed into Benjy. The huge Bolo lurched like a storm-tossed galleon as the green, living forest about them, already torn and outraged by the Battalion's passage and the handful of high-trajectory missiles which had gotten through, flashed into instant flame. The Battalion charged onward, straight through that incandescent inferno, duralloy armor shrugging aside the radiation and blast and heat which would have smashed the life instantly from the fragile protoplasmic beings riding their command decks. The visual display showed only a writhing ocean of fire and dust, of explosion and howling wind, like some obscene preview of Hell, but it was a Hell Bolos were engineered to survive . . . and defeat.

None of the reconnaissance Bolos in the direct path of the missile strike survived, but the chaos and massive spikes of EMP generated by the missiles which killed them had a disastrous effect on the missiles which had acquired the rest of the Battalion. Those same conditions hampered the Bolos' antimissile defenses, but the degradation it imposed on the missiles' kill probabilities was decisive.

Not that there weren't still plenty of them to go around. Over seventy targeted Benjy, even as he charged through the raging fires and devastation of the primary strike zone. The gargantuan Bolo's point defense stopped most of them short of his battle screen, but twenty-three reached attack range, and his fifteen-thousand-ton hull bucked and heaved as the fusion warheads gouged at his battle screen and drove searing spikes of hellfire directly into his armor. Thor's hammer smashed down again. Then again, and again and again. Even through the concussions and the terrifying vibration, Maneka could see entire swathes of his battle board blazing bloody scarlet as damage ripped away weapons and sensors.

But then, too suddenly to be real, the hammer blows stopped. Ten of the sixteen Bolos who had been targeted charged out the far side of the holocaust, leaving behind all four of the 351st's Mark XXVIIs. Two of the Battalion's Mark XXVIIIs had also been destroyed, and all of the survivors were damaged to greater or lesser extent, but they had destroyed the entire remaining Melconian support squadron, and the enemy LZ was just ahead.

"I have sustained moderate damage to my secondary batteries and forward sensors," Benjy announced. "Main battery and indirect fire systems operational at 87.65 percent of base capability. Track Three has been immobilized, but I am still capable of 92.56 percent normal road speed. Estimate 9.33 minutes to contact with Enemy direct fire perimeter weapons at current rate of advance. Request missile release."

Missile release ought to have been authorized by Colonel Tchaikovsky, Maneka thought. But Tchaikovsky's Gregg was one of the Bolos they'd lost, and Major Fredericks' Peggy had suffered major damage to her communications arrays. There was no time to consult anyone else, and independent decisions were one of the things Bolo commanders were trained to make.

"Release granted. Open fire!" she snapped.

"Acknowledged," Benjy replied, and the heavily armored hatches of his VLS tubes sprang open. His own missiles blasted outward, then streaked away in ground-hugging supersonic flight. They were shorter ranged and marginally slower than the ones the Melconians had hurled at the Battalion, but they were also far more agile, and the relatively short launch range and low cruising altitudes gave the defenders' less capable reconnaissance drones even less tracking time than the Battalion had been given against the Melconian missiles.

Fireballs raged along the Melconian perimeter, blasting away outer emplacements and dug-in armored units. Weapons and sensor posts, Loki-class tank destroyers and air-defense batteries, vanished into the maw of the Thirty-Ninth Battalion's fury. Benjy's thirty-centimeter rapid-fire mortars joined the attack, vomiting terminally guided projectiles into the vortex of destruction. Follow-on flights of Melconian missiles shrieked to meet them from the missile batteries to the rear, but the indirect fire weapons had lost virtually all of their observation capability. Their targeting solutions were much more tentative, the chaos and explosions hampered the missiles' onboard seeker systems, and the gaping hole ripping deeper and deeper into their perimeter was costing them both launchers and the sensor capability which might have been able to sort out the maelstrom of devastation well enough to improve their accuracy.

But hidden among the merely mortal Melconian emplacements were their own war machines. The Heimdalls were too light to threaten a Bolo—even the Ninth's manned vehicles were more than a match for them—but the fists of Surturs and Fenrises were something else entirely. Heavier, tougher, and more dangerous, they outnumbered the Battalion's survivors by eighteen-to-one, and they had the advantage of prepared positions.

Another of the Battalion's Bolos lurched to a halt, vomiting intolerable heat and light as a plasma bolt punched through its thinner side armor. Benjy fired on the move, main turret tracking smoothly, and his entire hull heaved as a main battery shot belched from his Hellbore and disemboweled the Surtur which had just killed his brigade brother. Another Surtur died, and Benjy's far less powerful infinite repeaters sent ion bolt after lethal ion bolt shrieking across the vanishing gap between the Battalion and the Melconian perimeter to rend and destroy the Surturs' lighter, weaker companions.

"Take point, Benjy!" Maneka barked as yet another Bolo slewed to a halt, streaming smoke and flame. Her eyes dropped to the sidebar, and she felt a stab of grief as the unblinking letter codes identified the victim as Lazy. It looked like a mission kill, not complete destruction, she thought, but the damage had to have punched deeply into Lazy's personality center . . . and there was no way Lieutenant Takahashi could have survived.

And there was no time to mourn them, either.

Benjy surged forward, the apex of a wedge of eight bleeding titans. Surturs reared up out of deeply dug-in hides, lurching around to counterattack from the flanks and rear as the Battalion smashed through their outer perimeter, Hellbores howling in point-blank, continuous fire.

In! We're into their rear! a corner of Maneka's brain realized, with a sense of triumph that stabbed even through the horror and the terror.

A brilliant purple icon blazed abruptly on Benjy's tactical plot as his analysis of Melconian com signals suddenly revealed what had to be a major communication node.

"The CP, Benjy! Take the CP!" Maneka snapped.

"Acknowledged," Benjy replied without hesitation, and he altered course once more, smashing his way towards the command post. It loomed before him, and as Maneka watched the tac analysis spilling up the plot sidebars, she realized what it truly was. Not a command post, but the command post—the central nerve plexus of the entire Puppy position!

They'd found the organizing brain of the Melconian enclave, and she felt a sudden flare of hope. If they could reach that command post, take it out, cripple the enemy's command and control function long enough for the Ninth to break in through the hole they'd torn, then maybe—

A pair of Surturs, flanked by their attendant mediums, loomed suddenly out of the chaos, Hellbores throwing sheets of plasma at the Bolos rampaging through their line. Benjy blew the left-flank Surtur into incandescent ruin while Peggy shouldered up on his right and killed the other. Their infinite repeaters raved as the Fenrises split, trying to circle wide and get at their weaker flank defenses, and the medium Melconian mechs slithered to a halt, spewing fury and hard radiation as their antimatter plants blew.

Then a trio of Fenris-class mediums, all of them orphans which had lost their Surturs, appeared out of nowhere. Their lighter weapons bellowed, and they were on the left flank of Captain Harris and Allen. They fired once, twice . . . and then there were only seven Bolos left.

Benjy's port infinite repeater battery shredded Allen's killers, even as two more Surturs reared up suddenly before him. One of them fired past him, slamming three Hellbore bolts simultaneously into Peggy. The Bolo's battle screen attenuated the bolts, and the antiplasma armor appliqué absorbed and deflected much of their power. But the range was too short and the weapons too powerful. One of the newer Bolos, with the improved armor alloys and better internal disruptor shielding, might have survived; Peggy—and Major Angela Fredericks—did not.

Benjy's turret spun with snakelike speed, and his Hellbore sent a far more powerful bolt straight through the frontal glacis plate of the second Surtur before it could fire. Then it swivelled desperately back towards the first Melconian mech.

Six, Maneka had an instant to think. There are only six of us now! 

And then, in the same fragmented second, both war machines fired.

"Hull breach!" Benjy's voice barked. "Hull breach in—"

There was an instant, a fleeting stutter in the pulse of eternity that would live forever in Maneka Trevor's nightmares, when her senses recorded everything with intolerable clarity. The terrible, searing flash of light, the simultaneous blast of agony, the flashing blur of movement as Unit 28/G-862-BNJ slammed the inner duralloy carapace across his commander's couch.

And then darkness.


"Hello, Lieutenant."

The quiet voice boomed through Maneka's mind like thunder, and she flinched away from its power. She felt herself swinging through a huge, empty void, like some ghostly pendulum, while vertigo surged and receded within her.

"It's time to wake up," the soft voice boomed, and she closed her eyes tighter. No. Not time to wake up. If she did that, something would be waiting. Something she could not—would not—face.

But the voice would not be denied. She clung to her safe, dark cocoon, yet she felt herself being drawn relentlessly, mercilessly, up out of its depths. And then her eyes slid open and slitted under the brilliant tide of light.

No, not her eyes—her eye. She was blind on the right side, she realized, with a sort of dreamy detachment, and raised her right hand to touch the dressing covering that eye. Only her hand refused to move, and when she rolled her head slowly—so slowly—far enough to the right to see, she found that her right arm ended just below the shoulder.

She blinked her remaining eye in syrupy slow motion, her sluggish brain trying to grapple with her wounds, and then a hand touched her left shoulder. She turned back in that direction, eye squinting, trying to make out details, and saw a man in the battle dress uniform of the Concordiat Marine Corps. A colonel, she thought, then blinked. No, she was wrong again. He wore a colonel's uniform, but the insignia pinned to his collar was that of a brigadier.

"Are you sure she's going to be all right?" she heard the colonel-turned-brigadier say. He was looking at someone else. A man in white.

"We got to her in time," the man in white said reassuringly. "Actually, your people got to her in time and pulled her out while we still had something to work with. It's going to take time and a lot of regen to put her back on her feet, but the actual repairs will be fairly routine. Extensive, but routine."

"You have a different definition of 'routine' from me, Doctor," the Marine officer said dryly, then looked back down at Maneka.

"Are you with us now, Lieutenant?" he asked, and she recognized the booming thunder which had disturbed her darkness in the quiet question.

She looked up at him, then tried to speak. Only a croak came out, and she licked dry, cracked lips with a tongue made of leftover leather. A hand reached down, holding a glass with a straw, and Maneka shuddered in raw, sensual pleasure as the unbelievable relief of ice water flowed down her throat.

"Better?" the Marine asked, and she nodded.

"Yes, sir," she got out in a rusty croak. She stopped and cleared her throat hard enough to make her floating head reel, then tried again. "Thank you."

At least this time it sounded a little like her, she thought.

Her brain was beginning to function once more, although her thoughts remained far from clear. She found herself wondering how she could possibly not feel the pain of her wounds, then gave a distant sort of mental snort. No doubt they had an entire battalion of pain suppressors focused on her. Which probably helped explain the haziness of her mental processes, now that she thought about it.

As if he'd read her thoughts, the man in white reached out, twiddling his fingers on a virtual keyboard, and the wooly blanket slipped back from the front of her brain. A faint wash of pain—an echo of something she sensed was vast and terrible, but which was not allowed to touch her—came with the clarity, and she swallowed again, then gave him a tiny nod of thanks.

"No more than that, Lieutenant," the doctor said gruffly. "You looked like someone who wanted her mind working, but you'll have to settle for where you are for the moment."

"Yes, sir." Her voice was still rusty and broken-sounding in her own ears, but her speech was less slurred and she felt more of her brain cells rousing to action.

"I'm Colonel—well, Brigadier—Shallek, Lieutenant Trevor," the Marine said, and she returned her working eye to him. "I apologize for disturbing you, but they're going to be shipping you off-world this afternoon, and I wanted to speak to you personally before they do."

"Off-world?" Maneka repeated. "Sir?" she added hastily, and he gave her a smile. It was a very small smile, shadowed with things that were far from humorous, but it was real.

"For just this minute, Lieutenant, don't worry about military courtesy," he suggested gently.

She nodded on her pillow, but her clearer brain was beginning to function properly, and she realized that, impossible though it seemed, they must have won. It was the only way anyone could be talking about sending anyone off-world. And the only way she could still be alive.

"The reason I wanted to talk to you, Lieutenant, was to thank you," the Marine officer continued after a moment. She looked at him, and he twitched one hand, palm uppermost, between them. "That thanks comes from me personally, from the Ninth Marines—what's left of us—and from every living human on Chartres. Because without you and your Battalion, none of us would be alive today."

"The Battalion—?" Maneka began, and Shallek squeezed her good shoulder again.

"You broke them, Lieutenant," he said simply. "I doubt anyone would have believed it if they hadn't seen it, but you broke them. You tore a hole ten kilometers wide right through the middle of their line, you took out every Surtur they had, and then you smashed their central command post. Apparently, they hadn't had time yet to put in a backup CP, and when you took it out, their command and control went straight to hell. As did they, over the space of the next few hours."

He smiled again, and this time his smile was harsh and ugly.

"It didn't come cheap," he went on after a moment. "Not for any of us. I'm the senior ranking officer the Ninth has left, and the entire 'Division' isn't really more than one understrength brigade, but there isn't a breathing Dog Boy on Chartres. On your way in, the Thirty-Ninth also took out what appears to have been their entire surviving fleet strength in the system after Commodore Selkirk got done with them, and Admiral Kwang's relief task force got through to us two days ago. We lost almost seven hundred million people on Chartres, Lieutenant, but almost two billion others are alive because of you. Because of all of us, I suppose, but we couldn't have done any of it without the Thirty-Ninth."

Maneka looked at him, and a cold, icy fist squeezed her heart. He hadn't said a word about the Battalion's casualties, and he would have . . . unless he knew how much it was going to hurt when he did.

She closed her eye for just a moment, wishing with all her heart that she was still unconscious, but she wasn't. And because she wasn't, she had no choice.

"And the Battalion, sir?" she heard her voice ask levelly, almost as if it belonged to someone else entirely.

"And the Battalion . . . paid the price, Lieutenant," Shallek said, meeting her single cobalt-blue eye unflinchingly. It wasn't easy for him, she could see that, but he owed her honesty, and he paid in the coin of candor. Then he drew a deep breath.

"You're the only surviving Bolo commander," he said with terrible gentleness, and she stared at him in disbelief.

No, a small, stern voice deep within her said with ruthless clarity. Not disbelief. Denial. 

But even as she thought that, she felt a wild, sudden surge of hope. Shallek had called her the only surviving Bolo commander, and that meant—

"Benjy?" she said. "Sir, Benjy—my Bolo. How badly is he damaged?"

Shallek looked at her, still meeting her gaze, and then, after a moment, shook his head.

"He didn't make it, Lieutenant," he said softly, and his gentle compassion was a dagger of fiery ice buried in her still-beating heart.

He was wrong. He had to be wrong. She was alive. That meant Benjy had to have survived, too, or she would have died in his destruction. She should have died in his destruction.

"The Bolo techs tell me one of your Bolos may survive," Shallek went on and that same gentle voice. "Unit One-Seven-Niner-Lima-Alpha-Zebra. I understand his survival center is still intact, and the hit that took out his command deck and main personality center did surprisingly little additional damage. But every other unit of the Thirty-Ninth Battalion was destroyed in action."

"But . . . but how—?" Her left hand moved weakly, gesturing around her at the hospital room and the medical equipment surrounding her bed, and Shallek shook his head.

"He got your survival capsule closed and pumped his entire command deck full of fire suppressant," Shallek said. "The capsule's emergency auto-medic kept you alive, and the suppressant had time to set its matrix before—"

He broke off, and Maneka's eye squeezed shut in understanding. The fire suppressing foam used in the Bolos' damage control systems was less effective at actually suppressing fires than other technologies might have been, but it was retained because within twenty seconds of deployment it set up into an artificial "alloy" almost as tough as the flintsteel Bolo warhulls had once been made of. Yet for all its toughness, it dissolved almost instantly under the touch of the proper nanotech "solvent."

Benjy had used it to save her life. As he waded into that horrendous sea of fire, he had encased her duralloy capsule inside what was effectively a block of solid armor over three meters across.

Oh, Benjy, she thought miserably, her broken heart twisting within her. Oh, Benjy. How could you have done this to me? 

"How did—" She broke off and clenched the fingers of her remaining hand into an ivory-knuckled fist.

"How did it happen?" she got out on the second attempt.

"I—" the Marine started, then paused and looked at the doctor.

"I advise against it," the doctor said. "She's in bad enough shape as it is. But—"

It was his turn to break off and look down at Maneka, and his mouth tightened.

"But I've seen this before," he went on, his voice harsh, almost angry. Not at her, Maneka realized even through the crushing iron fist of her grief, but at something else.

"They pick them so young," the white-clad man went on. "They train them. They give them war gods for friends. And when those gods die, something—"

He closed his mouth, jaw muscles clenching, then shook himself.

"Go ahead, Brigadier," he said curtly. "Not knowing will only make her tear herself up inside even worse."

Shallek gazed at the doctor for several seconds, then nodded and looked back down at Maneka.

"We got some of our own recon drones—the Ninth's, I mean—in with you when your Battalion broke the line, Lieutenant," he said. He reached into the left cargo pocket of his uniform and withdrew a small portable holo unit and laid it on a bedside table. "This is a recording of the imagery from one of those drones, Lieutenant Trevor. Are you certain you want to see it?"

Maneka stared up, wanting to scream at him for the stupidity of his compassionate question. There was nothing in the universe she wanted less than to view that imagery . . . and nothing that could possibly have stopped her. She tried to find some way to express that, but words were a clumsy, meaningless interface, and so she simply nodded.

Shallek's nostrils flared. Then he pressed the play button.

The holo came up instantly, crystal clear, its shapes a light sculpture solid enough to touch, and Maneka felt herself falling into its depths. She saw six brutally damaged Bolos hammering forward, led by one whose hull bore the remnants of the unit code "862-BNJ" in half-obliterated letters down one scorched and seared flank.

From the drone's perspective, she could see the glowing wound the Surtur Hellbore had blasted through Benjy's armor. The one which had come so close to killing both of them. She could actually see a gray-white scab spilling out of the hole and some fragment of her brain recognized it as overflow from the fire suppressant with which he must have packed the entire web of his internal access spaces.

Explosions and energy weapons ripped and tore at them. Missiles screamed in and disintegrated under the pounding of point defense clusters and auto cannon or exploded in savage fury against battle screens that glowed incandescent with the fury of the energies they fought to somehow turn aside. Light and medium Melconian combat mechs charged to meet them, like packs of jackals charging wounded grizzlies. Infinite repeaters tore the jackals apart, grinding tracks smashed over their blazing corpses, grinding them into the mud, but still they came, and there were scores of them.

A handful of Surturs reared among them, towering over them like titans, and thunderbolts slammed back and forth as main battery fire added itself to the seething holocaust. Two of the Bolos lurched to a halt, belching smoke and incandescent fury as multiple Hellbores blasted through their armor. Surturs exploded as the four survivors smashed back, but two more of the Melconian war machines loomed suddenly on the Bolos' flank. The exchange of fire lasted less than ten seconds; when it was done, every Surtur was dead . . . and only Benjy remained, still charging forward—all alone now—into the teeth of the desperate Melconian fire.

Maneka blinked her remaining eye hard. The film of tears defied her efforts, and she scrubbed at them furiously with her left hand. Uselessly. Her vision still blurred and ran, and yet she saw every hideous detail as Benjy advanced single-handedly into the very maw of Hell.

I should have been with him, she thought, and knew it was insane even as the thought hammered in her brain. She had been with him. Her own body was inside that staggering, smoking wreck of a Bolo as it clawed its way onward. But it wasn't the same thing. She hadn't been with him—hadn't been there for him in his march to Golgatha. He'd been alone, abandoned, left without the presence of even a single friend, and yet he never flinched. Never hesitated.

His entire starboard suspension system had been destroyed, but he blew the tracks and advanced on the bare bogeys. A Loki-class tank destroyer popped out of its hide behind him and lasted long enough to fire before a trio of ion bolts tore it apart. Its screaming plasma bolt smashed through the thinner armor at the rear of Benjy's main turret, and the turret shattered, vomiting heat and shattered duralloy as it was consumed from within.

Maneka's hand no longer scrubbed at her eye. It was pressed to her mouth, covering her trembling lips as she watched Benjy still advancing. She knew about Bolos' psychotronic pain sensors, knew about the agony which had to be shrieking through him, but his surviving weapons remained in action. His infinite repeaters went to continuous maximum-rate fire, a ruinous rate which must burn them out within a handful of minutes, unless they exploded first, and the lash of their ion bolts blasted a molten path through the enemies still swarming down upon him.

They were like locusts, sensing the weakening of his defenses, flinging themselves against him, frantic to stop him before he reached the critical command node which was the heart and brain of their own defense. The massively defended command post she had ordered him to attack. Air cavalry mounts raced in, firing rockets and cannon that ripped through his wavering battle screen. Light, manned Hellbores lacerated his flanks, gouged half-molten chasms through his armor. Missiles and artillery fire exploded around him, and still he advanced.

And then, somehow—impossibly—the staggering wreck which had been her friend reached his final objective. His Hellbore was gone and his infinite repeaters were too light to penetrate the ceramacrete facing the hastily constructed command post. But he still had one weapon, and he ground slowly, agonizingly forward, until his 15,000-ton hull crunched over the bunker, smashing and crushing.

He lurched to a halt then, unable—or unwilling—to move further, and his surviving infinite repeaters continued to blaze as the Melconians closed in on him from all sides with a fury that would not be denied. He had accomplished his mission. Sanity should have told the Melconians there was no point in continuing to waste combat power against him when they might soon need it desperately against other foes.

But he'd cost them too much, hurt them too badly, for them to realize that. And so they swarmed towards him, wasting their strength, and Maneka realized—knew, as if she heard his baritone voice once again—that that was the reason he'd stopped where he was. Why he wasn't even attempting to maneuver. Like the Invictuses of the 351st, he was deliberately drawing their remaining combat strength down upon himself . . . and away from the Marines advancing in the Battalion's wake.

It could not last long. That was the only mercy Maneka could think of, yet even as she did, she knew how eternal those brief screaming minutes of agony and destruction must have been to a person who thought at psychotronic speed.

They came from all directions. Lokis, a handful of Fenrises, Heimdall reconnaissance mechs, air cavalry mounts, even Melconian infantrymen, and every one of them poured fire into Benjy's dying hull. One by one his remaining weapons were silenced, blown into ruin, while breaches hammered deeper and deeper into him. Maneka knew she was sobbing aloud, and she couldn't stop—didn't want to stop—as his hull glowed brighter and brighter, hotter and hotter, with the transfer energy bleeding into it.

And still he fought, with all the incredible toughness of Bolo-kind and all the courage of his century-old psychotronic heart.

Yet any toughness, any courage, must eventually fail under that onslaught, and the Melconian pack swept over him at last. A Loki—one of the last half-dozen or less the Melconians still had—maneuvered into the kill position.

Benjy's last surviving secondary turret was still firing, still killing targets with flashing precision, when the plasma lance ripped into his survival center at last.


Maneka could never remember the exact words Shallek said after that. They were only sounds, only noise. She knew he was telling her the Ninth Marines had only been able to break through because of Benjy. That his final stand had drawn in the Melconian reserves, concentrated the majority of the Melconian mobile strength in one spot, where the Marines' light armored units had taken it from behind. That Benjy's death had saved almost two billion human lives.

She knew all of that. Understood all of it. And yet, the words remained only sounds, only echoes of something which had no significance against the loss and anguish twisting deep in her soul.

They left her then, after a time, and Shallek took the holo player with him. Perhaps, she thought, he wanted to prevent her from replaying the record, witnessing Benjy's death again and again. But if he did, it was wasted effort. She needed no holo player. Would never need one. The images were part of her now, burned into her, and she closed her eye as they washed over her once more.

"With your shield, or on it," carrying it in triumph or carried upon it in death. That was the ancient admonition Benjy had once quoted to her on the day he explained the unspoken and unwritten compact between Bolos and their human commanders. To face death together. To share it when it came for them both.

But Maneka had come back neither with her shield nor on it. She hadn't met her part of the compact. She knew it was irrational, insane, to blame herself for that. And she knew, as if Benjy were parked beside her bed telling her, that just as she would have given anything for his survival, he had wanted her to survive. And because he had, she would. However much it hurt, she would.

She rolled her head on the pillow, blotting her tears, and touched the grief she knew would never leave her again.

Oh, Benjy, she whispered in the silence of her mind.

Oh, Benjy. 




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