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Death came to the planet Ishark in the two hundred and eighth year of the Final War and the one hundred and sixty-seventh year of Operation Ragnarok. It came aboard the surviving ships of the XLIII Corps of the Republic, which had once been the XLIII Corps of the Star Union, and before that the XLIII Corps of the Confederacy, which had once been the Concordiat of Man. But whatever the government's name, the ships were the same, for there was no one left to build new ones. There was no one left to build anything, for the Melconian Empire and its allies and the Concordiat and its allies had murdered one another.

Admiral Evelyn Trevor commanded the XLIII's escort from her heavy cruiser flagship. Trevor had been a lieutenant commander when the XLIII set out, and the escort had been headed by no less than ten Terra-class superdreadnoughts and eight Victory-class carriers, but those days were gone. Now RNS Mikuma led her consorts in a blazing run against Ishark's spaceborne defenders—the ragged remnants of three Melconian task forces which had rallied here because Ishark was the only planet left to defend. They outnumbered Trevor's ships by four-to-one, but they were a hodgepodge force, and what Trevor's command had lost in tonnage it had gained in experience . . . and savagery. Ishark was the last world on its list, and it came in behind a cloud of decoys better than anything the defenders had.

There was no tomorrow for either commander . . . and even if they could have had one, they might have turned their backs upon it. The Human and Melconian races had hurt one another too savagely, the blood hunger possessed them both, and neither side's com officers could raise a single friendly planet. The Humans had nowhere to return to even if they lived; the Melconians were defending their last inhabited world; and even the warships' AIs were caught up in the blood lust. The fleets lunged at one another, neither worried about preserving itself, each seeking only to destroy the other, and both succeeded. The last Human Fleet units died, but only three Melconian destroyers survived to attack the XLIII, and they perished without scoring a single hit when the Bolo transports intercepted them. Those transports were slow and ungainly by Fleet standards, but they carried Mark XXXIII Bolos on their docking racks. Each of those Bolos mounted the equivalent of a Repulse-class battlecruiser's main battery weapons, and they used them to clear the way for the rest of the ships which had once lifted four divisions of mechanized infantry and two of manned armor, eight hundred assault shuttles, fifteen hundred trans-atmospheric fighters, sixteen thousand air-cav mounts, and the Eighty-Second Bolo Brigade from a world which was now so much rubble. Now the remaining transports carried less than twelve thousand Humans, a single composite brigade each of infantry and manned armor, two hundred aircraft of all types, and seven Bolos. That was all . . . but it was sufficient.

There were few fixed planetary defenses, because no sane prewar strategist would ever have considered Ishark a vital target. It was a world of farmers in a position of absolutely no strategic importance, the sort of planet which routinely surrendered, trusting the diplomats to determine its fate when the shooting ended. But no one in the XLIII requested a surrender, and no one on Ishark's surface considered offering one. This wasn't that sort of war.

One or two batteries got lucky, but despite the XLIII's previous losses, it retained more than enough transports to disperse its remaining personnel widely. Only six hundred more Humans died as the ships swept down on their LZs to disgorge their cargos, and then Ishark's continents burned. There was no finesse, for the combatants had lost the capacity for finesse. The days of kinetic bombardment platforms and surgical strikes on military targets were long gone. There were no platforms, and no one was interested in "surgery" any longer. There was only brute force and the merciless imperatives of Operation Ragnarok and its Melconian equivalent, and Humans and Melconians screamed their rage and agony and hate as they fought and killed and died. On Ishark, it was Melconian troopers who fought with desperate gallantry to preserve their civilians, as it had been Humans who fought to save their civilians on Trevor's World and Indra and Matterhorn. And as the Humans had failed there, the Melconians failed here.


Team Shiva had the point for Alpha Force.

Team Shiva always had the point, because it was the best there was. Bolo XXXIII/D-1097-SHV was the last Bolo built by Bolo Prime on the moon known as Luna before the Melconian world burner blotted Terra—and Luna—away forever, and no one else in XLIII Corps could match his experience . . . except, perhaps, his Human Commander. Newly enlisted Private Diego Harigata had been sixteen years old when Terra died; now Major Harigata was forty-nine, with thirty-two years of combat experience. All of them had been aboard the Bolo whose call sign was "Shiva," and man and machine had fought their way together across half a hundred planets.

It was one of the ironies of the Final War that the deployment concept which matched each Bolo with a Human commander had reached a final state of perfection just in time for the Concordiat's extermination. Mark XXXIII Bolos were fully capable of independent deployment—indeed, even more capable of it than any previous mark of Bolo—yet they were never actually deployed that way. The direct neural interfacing first introduced aboard the Mark XXXII and then perfected for the last and most powerful of the Concordiat's Bolos, made them even more deadly than any of their cybernetic ancestors. They were no longer simply artificial intelligences built by Humans. Rather, a Mark XXXIII was an AI fused with a Human in a partnership which produced something the designers had neither predicted nor expected.

Humans had always possessed an instinctive ability to prioritize data which not even a Bolo in hyper-heuristic mode had been able to match. The designers had expected for that capability to be enhanced and shared. What they had not anticipated was the fashion in which Human ferocity had melded with the Bolos' own inherent ferocity.

The Human-Bolo fusion thought with Bolo precision and total recall, intuited with Human acuity, communicated with its fellows in the Total Systems Data Sharing net with Bolo clarity, and analyzed data and devised tactics with Bolo speed and Human cunning, exactly as expected. But it also fought with a ferocity not even the Dinochrome Brigade had ever seen before.

The Brigade's earlier psychotronic designers had hedged their work about with safeguards, for they had never allowed themselves to forget how horrendously destructive a "rogue Bolo" might become. And so, although Bolos had always had "bloodthirsty" personalities, as was only appropriate for machines whose function was to fight and die, the safeguards built into them had inhibited their ferocity. No one had suspected that, given the Brigade's long history and endless battle honors and the ferocity its Bolos had displayed. Not until they saw the first Mark XXXII go into battle with its Human commander fused with its psychotronic Battle Comp . . . and realized that there were no inhibitory safeguards in the Human psyche.

The savagery which lurked just behind the Human forebrain's veneer of civilization, that elemental drive—the ferocity which had turned a hairless, clawless, fangless biped into the most deadly predator of a planet—was available to the Mark XXXIIs and Mark XXXIIIs, for it was part of each team's Human component, and Team Shiva called upon it now.

There were nineteen Bolos in the Eighty-Second Brigade when the XLIII was assigned to Operation Ragnarok. There should have been twenty-four, but the days of full strength units had been long past even then. Forty-one slaughtered worlds later, there were seven, split between the XLIII's three LZs, and Team Shiva led the attack out of LZ One against Alpha Continent, the largest and most heavily populated—and defended—of Ishark's three land masses.

The Melconians were waiting, and General Sharth Na-Yarma had hoarded men and munitions for years to meet this day. He'd "lost" units administratively and lied on readiness reports as the fighting ground towards Ishark, understating his strength when other planetary COs sent out frantic calls for reinforcements, for General Sharth had guessed the Imperial Navy would fail to stop the Humans short of Ishark. That was why he'd stockpiled every weapon he could lay hands on, praying that operations before Ishark would weaken the XLIII enough for him to stop it. He never expected to defeat it; he only hoped to take it with him in a mutual suicide pact while there was still someone alive on his world to rebuild when the wreckage cooled.

It was the only realistic strategy open to him, but it wasn't enough. Not against Team Shiva and the horribly experienced world-killers of the XLIII.


We move down the valley with wary caution. The duality of our awareness sweeps the terrain before us through our sensors, and we seldom think of ourself as our component parts any longer. We are not a Bolo named Shiva and a Human named Harigata; we are simply Team Shiva, destroyer of worlds, and we embrace the ferocity of our function as we explode out of the LZ, thirty-two thousand tons of alloy and armor and weapons riding our counter-grav at five hundred KPH to hook around the Enemy flank through the mountains. Team Harpy and Team John lead the other prong of our advance, but their attack is secondary. It is our job to lead the true breakout, and we land on our tracks, killing our counter-grav and bringing up our battle screen, as the first Enemy Garm-class heavies appear on our sensors. 

The Enemy's war machines have improved greatly since the war began. His old Surtur-class heavies and Fenris-class mediums have been replaced by newer, more capable—and lethal—successors. Although his cybernetics remain significantly inferior to our own psychotronics, and although even now the Enemy possesses no equivalent of our own direct Bolo-Human neural interfacing capability, the new Garm-class heavies and Skoll-class mediums "think" as well as the old Mark XXV Bolos. Unlike earlier generations of Enemy combat mechs, they are fully capable of independent deployment, and they are also much more powerful. The Enemy's final generation of war machines—the last he will ever build—use a cold-fusion power plant quite similar to our own. Indeed, one which was copied from our own. It is far more efficient than the ground-based hot-fusion reactors once available to him, and with that power available to him, he has moved away from his use of large numbers of lighter Hellbores to adopt the Concordiat's own design philosophy, concentrating on the heaviest possible Hellbores he can mount. 

Of course, Human designers did not simply sit idly by while the Enemy improved his capabilities, and the Mark XXXIII is the most deadly mobile fighting structure ever deployed for planetary combat.

There are, however, many more Enemy mechs than had been projected, and they roar up out of the very ground to vomit missiles and plasma at us. An entire battalion attacks from the ridge line at zero-two-five degrees while the remainder of its regiment rumbles out of deep, subterranean hides across an arc from two-two-seven to three-five-one degrees, and passive sensors detect the emissions of additional units approaching from directly ahead. A precise count is impossible, but our minimum estimate is that we face a reinforced heavy brigade, and Skoll-class mediums and Eagle-class scout cars sweep simultaneously out of the dead ground to our right rear and attack across a broad front, seeking to engage our supporting infantry. The force balance is unfavorable and retreat is impossible, but we are confident in the quality of our supports. We can trust them to cover our rear, and we hammer straight into the Enemy's teeth as they deploy. 

Hell comes to Ishark as we forge ahead, and we exult at its coming. We bring it with us, feel it in the orgiastic release as our missile hatches open and our fire blasts away. We turn one-zero degrees to port, opening our field of fire, and our main battery turrets traverse smoothly. Three two-hundred-centimeter Hellbores, each cycling in four-point-five-one seconds, sweep the Garm battalion which has skylined itself on the northeasterly ridge, and hunger and a terrible joy fill us as the explosions race down the Enemy's line. We taste the blood lust in the rapid-fire hammering of our mortars and howitzers as we pound the Skolls and Eagles on our flanks, and we send our hate screaming from our Hellbores. Our battle screen flames under answering missiles and shells, and particle beams rip and gouge at us, heating our armor to white-hot incandescence, but Bolos are designed to survive such fire. Our conversion fields trap their energy, channeling it to feed our own systems, and we rejoice as that stolen power vomits back from our own weapons. 

The Garm is less than half our size, and two-two-point-five seconds of main battery fire reduce the fifteen units of the first Enemy battalion to smoking rubble, yet two of its vehicles score upon us before they die. Pain sensors scream as their lighter plasma bolts burn through our battle screen, but they strike on an oblique, and our side armor suffices to turn them. Molten tears of duralloy weep down our flank as we turn upon our dead foes' consorts, but we feel only the joy, the hunger to smash and destroy. In the crucible of combat, we forget the despair, the knowledge of ultimate disaster, which oppresses us between battles. There is no memory now of the silence over the com nets, the awareness that the worlds which were once the Concordiat lie dead or dying behind us. Now there is purpose, vengeance, ferocity. The destruction of our foes cries out to us, giving us once again a reason to be, a function to fulfill . . . an Enemy to hate. 

More of the Enemy's heavies last long enough to drive their plasma bolts through our battle screen, and suicide teams pound away with plasma lances from point-blank range, yet he cannot stop us. A Garm fires from four-point-six-one kilometers and disables Number Three and Four Hellbores from our port lateral battery before it dies. A dug-in plasma team which has concealed itself so well that we approach within one-point-four-four kilometers before we detect it gets off a single shot that blows through our track shield to destroy two bogies from our outboard forward track system, and five Skoll-class medium mechs lunge out of a narrow defile at a range of only three-point-zero-two kilometers. The ravine walls hide them from our sensors until they actually engage, and their fifty-centimeter plasma cannon tear and crater forty-point-six meters of our starboard flank armor before we blow them all to ruin, and even as the last Skoll dies, Enemy missiles and shells deluge everything that moves. 

The inferno grinds implacably forward, and we are not man and machine. We are the Man-Machine, smashing the Enemy's defenses and turning mountain valleys into smoking wasteland. Our supporting elements crumple or fall back crippled, and a part of us knows still more of our Human comrades have died, will die, are dying in shrieking agony or the immolation of plasma. Yet it means no more to us than the deep, glowing wounds in our own flanks, and we refuse to halt or turn aside, for that which we cannot have we will extend to no others. All that remains to Human and Melconian alike is the Long Dark, and all that remains to us is to fight and kill and maim until our own dark comes down upon us. 

We feel the death of Team Harpy—of Bolo XXXIII/D-2075-HRP and Captain Jessica Adams—but even in the anguish of their loss, we know the Enemy's very success spells his own destruction. He has been deceived, decoyed into concentrating a full two-thirds of his firepower against our diversion, and so we rejoice at the Enemy's error and redouble our own efforts. 

We shatter the final line of his main position in an orgy of pointblank fire and the steady coughing of our anti-personnel clusters. Railguns rake the light Enemy AFVs trying to withdraw support personnel, and the remnants of our own manned armor and infantry follow our breakthrough. We pivot, coming to heading three-five-eight true, and rumble through the smoke and dust and the stench of burning Enemy flesh, and Team John appears to port, advancing once more in line with us as we heave up over the final ridge. 

Sporadic artillery and missile fire greets us, but it is all the Enemy has left. Recon drones and satellites pick up additional heavy units rushing towards us from the east, but they are seven-eight-point-five-niner minutes away. For now, there is only the wreckage of the defenses we have already crushed, boiling in confusion in the river valley below us as the light combat vehicles and infantry and shattered air-cav squadrons seek to rally and stand. 

But it is too late for them to stand, for beyond them we see the city. Intelligence estimates its population at just over two million, and we confer with Team John over the TSDS net. Fire plan generation consumes two-point-six-six-one seconds; then our main batteries go into rapid sustained fire mode, and seventy-eight megaton-range plasma bolts vomit from our white-hot tubes each minute. Despite our target's size, we require only seven-six-point-five-one seconds to reduce it to an overlapping pattern of fire storms, and then we advance down the ridge to clean up the Enemy's remnants. 

The Enemy vehicles stop retreating. There is no longer an objective in whose defense to rally, and they turn upon us. They are mosquitos assailing titans, yet they engage us with their every weapon as we grind through them with Team John on our flank, and we welcome their hate, for we know its cause. We know we have hurt them and savor their desperation and despair as we trample them under our tracks and shatter them with our fire. 

But one column of transports does not charge to the attack. It is running away, instead, hugging the low ground along the river which once flowed through the city we have destroyed, and its flight draws our attention. We strike it with a fuel-air bombardment which destroys half a dozen transports, and we understand as we see the Melconian females and pups fleeing from the shattered wreckage. They are not combatants, but Operation Ragnarok is not about combatants, and even as we continue to smash the attacking Enemy vehicles, we bring our railguns to bear upon the transports. Hyper-velocity flechettes scream through mothers and their young, impacts exploding in sprays of blood and tissue, and then our howitzers deluge the area in cluster munitions that lay a carpet of thunder and horror across them. 

We note the extermination of the designated hostiles, and then return our full attention to the final elimination of the military personnel who failed to save them. 


Alpha Force's initial attack and the destruction of the city of Halnakah were decisive, for Sharth Na-Yarma's HQ—and family—were in Halnakah, and he refused to abandon them. He died with the city, and Melconian coordination broke down with his death. The defenders' responses became more disjointed—no less determined, but without the organization which might have let them succeed. They could and did continue to kill their attackers and grind away their strength, but they could not prevent XLIII Corps from completing its mission.

It didn't happen quickly. Even with modern weapons, it took time to murder a planet, and the battles raged for weeks. Forests burned to ash, and Bolos and Garm-class armored units raged through the flame to hurl thunder at one another. Cities blazed, towns disappeared in the lightning flash of massed Hellbore bombardments, and farmland became smoking desert.


Frantic transmissions from the LZ hammer in our receivers as the Enemy's counterattack sweeps in upon it, and we turn in answer, rising recklessly on counter-grav. Power generation is insufficient to support free flight and maintain our battle screen, which strips away our primary defense against projectile and particle weapons, but that is a risk we must accept. The Enemy has massed his entire remaining strength for this attack, and we hear the screams of dying Humans over the com circuits as we run our desperate race to return to meet it. 

It is a race we lose. We land on our tracks once more ten-point-two-five kilometers from the LZ, bring up our battle screen, and charge over the intervening ridge, but there are no more screams on the com circuits. There is only silence, and the rising pall of smoke, and the riddled wreckage of transports . . . and the last three Garm-class heavies of Ishark, waiting in ambush. 

Madness. Madness upon us all in that moment, for all of us know we are the last. We have no supports, no reinforcements, no place to go. There are only four sentient machines and a single Human—the last Human on Ishark, perhaps the last Human in an entire galaxy—on our own and filled with the need to kill. We are the crowning achievements of twice a thousand years of history and technology, of sophisticated weapons and tactical doctrine, and none of us care. We are the final warriors of the Final War, smashing and tearing at one another in a frenzy of hatred and despair, seeking only to know that our enemies die before we do. 

And Team Shiva "wins." Two of them we blow into ruin, but even as we fire the shot which disembowels the third, his last plasma bolt impacts on our glacis, and agony crashes through our brutally overloaded pain receptors. Massive armor tears like tissue, and we feel the failure of internal disrupter shields, the bright, terrible burst of light as plasma breaches our Personality Center. 

In our last, fleeting instant of awareness, we know death has come for us at last, and there is no more sorrow, no more hate, no more desperation. There is only the darkness beyond the terrible light . . . and peace at last. 


Stillness came to Ishark. Not out of mercy, for there had been no mercy here, no chivalry, no respect between warriors. There was only madness and slaughter and mutual destruction, until, at last, there was no one left to fight. No defenders, no attackers, no civilians. XLIII Corps never left Ishark, for there was no one to leave, and no Melconian division ever added the Battle of Ishark to its battle honors, for there was no one to tell the ghosts of Melcon it had been fought. There was only silence and smoke and the charred hulls of combat machines which had once had the firepower of gods.

And no one ever reported to the Republic that the very last battle of Operation Ragnarok had been a total success.


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