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A Story of The Fleet

Nick Kowacs laughed to imagine it, him sitting at a booth in the Red Shift Lounge and saying to Toby English, "That last mission, the one that was supposed to be a milk run? Let me tell you what really went down!" 

* * *

"Come on, come on, come on," begged the Logistics Officer, a naval lieutenant. "Your lot was supposed to be in the air thirty minutes ago, and I got three more convoys behind it!"

"Keep your shirt on, sailor," said Sergeant Bradley. "We'll be ready to move out as soon as Major Kowacs gets this last set of voice orders--"

Bradley nodded toward the blacked-out limousine which looked like a pearl in a muckheap as it idled in a yard of giant excavating machinery. The limousine was waiting for the Headhunters when they pulled into the depot. Bradley didn't know what the major was hearing inside the vehicle, but he doubted it was anything as straightforward as verbal orders.

"That's faster than you'll have your equipment airborne even if you get on with your job," he concluded.

Bradley acted as first sergeant for the field element of the 121st Marine Reaction Company, Headhunters, while the real first sergeant was back with the base unit on Port Tau Ceti. Bradley knew that before the lieutenant could punish him for insubordination, the complaint would have to go up the naval chain of command and come back down the marine side of the Fleet bureaucracy . . . which it might manage to do, a couple of lifetimes later.

As if in answer to Bradley's gibe, drivers started the engines of the paired air-cushion transporters which cradled a self-contained excavator on the lowboy between them. The yard had been scoured by earlier movements by heavy equipment, but the soil of Khalia was stony. As the transporters' drive fans wound up, they shot pebbles beneath the skirts to whang against the sides of other vehicles.

One stone hit a Khalian wearing maroon coveralls. He was one of thousands of Weasels hired to do scut work in the wake of the Fleet's huge logistics build-up on what had been the enemy home planet—when the Khalians were the enemy. The victim yelped and dropped to the ground.

Sergeant Bradley spit into the dust. If the Weasel was dead, then the universe was a better place by that much.

Drivers fired up the engines of the remainder of the vehicles the 121st was to escort. Four lowboys carried 3-meter outside-diameter casing sections. The final piece of digging equipment was a heavy-lift crane to position the excavator initially, then feed casing down the shaft behind the excavator as it burned and burrowed toward the heart of the planet.

All of the transporters were ground effect. The noise of their intakes and the pressurized air wailing out beneath their skirts was deafening. The lieutenant shouted, but Bradley could barely hear his, "You won't be laughing if the planetwrecker you're sitting on top of goes off because you were late to the site!"

Corporal Sienkiewicz, Kowacs' clerk/bodyguard, was female and almost two meters tall. This yard full of outsized equipment was the first place Bradley remembered Sie looking as though she were in scale with her surroundings. Now she bent close to the Logistics Officer and said, "We won't be doing anything, el-tee. It's you guys a hundred klicks away who'll have time to watch the crust crack open and the core spill out."

The Syndicate had mined Khalia. If the planet exploded at the crucial moment when Syndicate warships swept in to attack, the defenders would lose the communications and logistics base they needed to win.

But most of the Weasels in the universe would be gone as well. . . .

The door of the limousine opened. Bradley keyed the general-frequency override in his commo helmet and ordered, "Five-six to all Headhunter elements. Mount up, troops, it's time to go play marine." His voice was hoarse.

As Bradley spoke, his fingers checked combat gear with feather-light touches. His shotgun was slung muzzle-up for boarding the vehicle. The weapon's chamber was empty, but he would charge it from the box magazine as soon as the trucks were airborne.

Bandoliers of shotgun ammo crossed his back-and-breast armor. From each bandolier hung a container of ring-airfoil grenades which Bradley could launch from around the shotgun's barrel for long range and a high-explosive wallop.

Hand-flung grenade clusters were stuffed into the cargo pockets of either pant's-leg. Some gas grenades; some explosive, some incendiary, some to generate fluorescent smoke for marking. You never knew what you were going to need. You only knew that you were going to need more of something than you carried. . . .

A portable medicomp to diagnose, dispense drugs, and patch the screaming wounded. If you could reach them. If they weren't out there in the darkness being tortured by one Khalian while the rest of a Weasel platoon waited in ambush; and you still had to go, because she was your Marine and it didn't matter, you had to bring back whatever the Weasels had left of her.

Sergeant Bradley lifted the rim of his commo helmet with one hand and knuckled the pink scar tissue that covered his scalp. He didn't carry a fighting knife, but a powered metal-cutter dangled from his left hip where it balanced his canteen. He'd killed seven Weasels with the cutting bar one night.

Bradley was twenty-eight standard years old. His eyes were the age of the planet's molten core.

"Come on, Top," Sienkiewicz said, putting her big hand over the tension-mottled fingers with which the field first gripped his helmet. Major Kowacs sprinted toward them as the limousine accelerated out of the equipment yard. "We got a taxi to catch."

"Right," said Bradley in a husky voice. "Right, we gotta do that."

He prayed that the Headhunters would be redeployed fast to some planet where there weren't thousands of Weasels running around in Fleet uniforms. . . .

* * *

Sergeant Custis, a squad leader with three years service in the Headhunters, pulled Kowacs aboard the truck while Sie and Bradley hooked themselves onto seats on the opposite side of the vehicle's center spine.

"Cap'n?" said Custis as his head swung close to his commanding officer's helmet. "Is it true the Weasels are going to blow up their whole planet if we don't deactivate the mines first? Ah, I mean, Major?"

Kowacs grimaced. One of the problems with latrine rumors was that they were only half right.

He checked to see that the flat box was secured firmly to his equipment belt. He'd clipped it there as soon as he received the device in the limousine.

Another problem with latrine rumors was that they were half right.

"Don't sweat it, Buck," Corporal Sienkiewicz offered from the bench seat on which she sat with her back against Custis' back. "It's gonna be a milk run this time."

The lead truck was out of the gate with 1st Platoon aboard. A lowboy followed the Marines; the truck with Weapons Platoon and Kowacs' command team lifted into the number three slot.

There was enough cross-wind to make the vehicles skittish. At least that prevented the gritty yellow dust which the fans lifted from coating everybody behind the leaders.

The Marine transporters had enough direct lift capacity to fly rather than skimming over a cushion of air the way the mining equipment had to do, but for this mission Kowacs had told the drivers to stay on the deck. After all, the Headhunters were supposed to be escorting the excavating machinery . . . or something.

"Six to all Headhunter elements," Kowacs said, letting the artificial intelligence in his helmet cut through the conversations buzzing through the company. Everybody was nervous. "Here's all the poop I know."

But not quite everything he was afraid of. He instinctively touched the special communicator attached to his belt. . . .

"A presumably hostile fleet is approaching Khalia," Kowacs resumed aloud.

"Weasels!" a nearby Marine snarled. The AI blocked radio chatter, but it couldn't prevent people from interrupting with unaided voice.

"The enemy is human," Kowacs said firmly. "Any of you replacements doubt that, just talk to a veteran. This outfit has met them before."

That ought to shut up the troops who were convinced the Khalians had broken their surrender terms. Kowacs' words told the Headhunter veterans they knew better, so they'd hold to the CO's line as a matter of status. And no replacement, even a Marine with years of service, would dare doubt the word of a full-fledged Headhunter.

It was only Nick Kowacs who still had to fear that the incoming warships were crewed by Khalians like the hundreds of millions of other bloodthirsty Weasels all around him on this planet. He looked around him.

The fast-moving convoy was three klicks out of the Fleet Logistics Base Ladybird—one of hundreds of depots which had sprung up within hours of the successful invasion of Khalia. The countryside was a wasteland.

The local foliage was brown and dun and maroon, never green. Even granting the difference in color, the vegetation was sparse and signs of habitation were limited to an occasional hut shaped like an oversized beehive.

How could the Alliance ever have believed a race as primitive as the Khalians was capable of sustaining an interstellar war—without someone else behind them, arming the Weasels and pointing them like a sword at the heart of the Alliance?

"FleetComSeventeen believes that the human enemy, the Syndicate . . . ," Kowacs said as his eyes searched terrain that was already being scanned to the millimeter from orbit, " . . . has used its past association with the Weasels to plant a chain of thermonuclear devices at the planet's crustal discontinuity. If the weapons go off together, they'll crack Khalia like an egg and destroy everything and everyone the Fleet has landed here."

Corporal Sienkiewicz chuckled and said to Bradley in a barely-audible rumble, "Including us."

The convoy was rolling at over 100 kph. The lowboys accelerated slowly, but they could maintain a higher speed than Kowacs had expected. The Marine trucks had their side armor lowered so that the outward-facing troops could shoot or deploy instantly, but the wind buffeting was getting severe.

"We're not aboard a ship because we'd be as useless as tits on a boar in a space battle," Kowacs continued. "Anyway, the naval boys don't have near the lift capacity to get even Fleet personnel clear in the time available. Our engineering personnel are going to destroy the Syndicate mines instead."

Destroy the mines—or detonate them out of sequence, making the result a number of explosions rather than a single, crust-splitting surge. Asequential detonation was a perfectly satisfactory solution—for everyone except those directly on top of the bang. 

"We're just along to protect the hardware," Kowacs concluded. "It's a milk run, but keep your eyes open."

A yellow light winked on Kowacs' raised visor, a glow at the frontier of his vision. One of his platoon leaders had a question, and the major's AI thought he ought to listen to it.

"Go ahead, Gamma Six," Kowacs said.

"Nick . . . ?" said Horstmann of 3rd Platoon, aboard the last vehicle in the convoy. "What are we s'posed to be protecting against?"

"Right, fair question," Kowacs agreed.

He'd asked the same thing when the orders came over the squawk box in the Headhunters' temporary barracks. The voice on the other end of the line said, "Any fucking thing! Get your asses moving!" and rang off.

Which was pretty standard for headquarters staff scrambling line marines; but not the way Nick Kowacs liked to run his own outfit.

"I presume—"

"I guess," spoken with an air of calm authority that implied the CO knew what was going on, there was no need to panic.

"—that headquarters is concerned about Weasels who haven't gotten the word that they've surrendered. And maybe there's some locals who think we're planting mines instead of deactivating them. You know how rumors start."

Bradley laughed. Kowacs laughed also.

Another light winked: Sergeant Bynum, who was running Weapons Platoon until another lieutenant transferred in to replace Woking. Woking had died of anaphylactic shock on a Syndicate base that Fleet HQ swore the Headhunters had never seen.

"Go ahead, Delta Six."

"Capt—Major?" The veterans had trouble remembering the CO's promotion. Kowacs had trouble with it himself. "How did they locate these planet-wreckers, anyhow?"

Well, somebody was bound to ask that. Would've been nice if they hadn't, though. . . . 

"They used A-Potential equipment," Kowacs answered flatly. The wind rush made his eyes water. "Toby English's Ninety-second is in orbit aboard the Haig. The destroyer's got the new hardware, and they've done subsurface mapping."

"A-Pot shit," said Bynum. "Like the stuff that left us swinging in the breeze on the last mission? The mission the brass said didn't happen—only we took fourteen casualties."

The only thing Nick Kowacs really understood about A-Potential equipment was that he never wanted to use it again. No grunt had any business tapping powers to which all points in time and space were equivalent. Maybe it wasn't such a bad idea if some other friendly used the technology, but. . . .

The artificial intelligence in Bradley's helmet should not have been able to emulate Kowacs' unit and enter this discussion without the CO's stated approval . . . but it could. The field first broke in to state with brutal simplicity, "If savin' your ass is the only thing you're worried about, Bynum, you sure shouldn't've volunteered for the Headhunters."

Kowacs took his hand away from the special communicator. The plastic case felt cold.

Bynum muttered something apologetic.

"Alpha Six to Six," said the 1st Platoon leader laconically from the leading truck. "Hill One-Six-Fiver is in sight. Over."

"Right," said Kowacs. "Okay, Headhunters, we've arrived."

If anything, this landscape of pebble-strewn hills and wind-carved vegetation was more bleakly innocent than any of the countryside the convoy had passed through on its way here.

"Dig in, keep your eyes on your sensors, and be thankful we've got a cushy job for a change."

And while you're at it, pray that Fleet Vice-Admiral Hannah Teitelbaum, whom Kowacs suspected to be a traitor in the pay of the Syndicate, hadn't gotten the Headhunters sent here for reasons of her own. 

* * *

Corporal Sienkiewicz surveyed the landscape, flipping her helmet visor from straight visuals through infra-red to ultra-violet, then back. Nothing she saw repaid her care—or explained her nervousness.

In addition to her massive pack and slung assault rifle, Sie cradled a three-shot plasma weapon lightly in her arms. She had no target as yet for its bolts of ravening hell, but somewhere out there. . . .

"Gamma Six to Six," said the commo helmet. "We're dug in. Over."

The rock in 3rd Platoon's sector was a little more friable than that of the others, so they'd finished ahead of 1st and 2nd. Probably wasn't enough difference to make it worthwhile sending Horstmann's powered digging equipment over to help Lanier and Michie's men, though.

The excavation site, Hill 165, was one of a series of low pimples on a barren landscape. The crane was swinging the excavator into final position, nose down. Occasionally Sienkiewicz heard a bellowed curse as a variation in wind velocity rotated the machine out of alignment—again.

The Headhunters dug in by three-Marine fire teams, just below the hillcrest so that they wouldn't be silhouetted against the sky. Each platoon, stiffened by two of Weapons Platoon's belt-fed plasma weapons, was responsible for a 120-degree wedge—

Of wasteland. There was absolutely no chance in the world that this empty terrain could support more than the Weasel equivalent of a goatherd. Sie had imagined a Khalian city from which furry waves might surge toward the humans; but not here.

And not from a tunnel complex, either. If the Haig's A-Potential equipment had located planet-wreckers lying just above the asthenosphere, it would have spotted any large abnormality lying close enough to the surface to threaten the Headhunters.

So what the Hell was wrong?

The self-contained excavator touched the ground. Its crew switched on their cutters with a scream that became a howl, then dropped into bowel-loosening subsonics.

The huge device disappeared into rock with the jerky suddenness of a land vehicle sinking in a pond. Just before the stern vanished from sight, a thirty-centimeter gout of magma spurted from it and spun 90° in the magnetic deflector positioned above the pithead. The molten rock crossed a swale to splash and cool against a gravel slope three kilometers away.

Ten-second pulses of glowing waste continued to cross the 2nd Platoon sector every minute or so. Lanier's troops had left a corridor as the engineering officers directed, but they'd still be glad for their dugouts' overhead cover.

Nick and Top walked over from where they had been talking to the engineers. Bradley was carrying a communications screen of unfamiliar design in one hand. He looked okay again. Sienkiewicz had to watch the field first pretty careful nowadays, any time there might be Weasels around.

"Anything out there, Sie?" the major asked, casual but obviously ready to react if his big bodyguard could put a name to her forebodings.

Sienkiewicz shrugged. "Not that I can find, anyway," she admitted. Her palms sweated against the twin grips of the plasma weapon.

The crane lowered the first section of casing to follow the excavator. Rock didn't simply go away because you heated it gaseous and slung it out the back of your equipment at high velocity. Pulses rising along the casing's magnetic field focused the waste in the center of the bore until it could be deflected to a tailings pile on the surface.

Kowacs must have been feeling the same thing Sienkiewicz did—whatever that was—because he touched the unfamiliar black object clipped to his equipment belt.

Sienkiewicz noted the gesture. "You know," she said, "it sorta looked like the guy who called you over to the car in the yard there . . . like he was Grant."

"Fucking spook," Bradley muttered. His fingers began to check his weapons and ammunition, as though he were telling the beads of a rosary.

"Yeah, that was Grant," Kowacs agreed. He started to say more, then closed his mouth.

The three members of the command team spoke over a commo channel to which only they had access. The wind that scoured these hills also abraded words spoken by unaided voices.

Bradley touched the black monomer case of the object Kowacs had gotten in Grant's limousine. It was ten centimeters to a side and very thin. The outside was featureless except for a cross-hatched voiceplate and a small oval indentation just below it.

"I thought," the field first said, articulating the same assumption Sienkiewicz herself had made, "that all this A-Potential stuff was supposed to be turned in after the last mission?"

Kowacs' face worked. "It's a communicator," he said. "Grant says it is, anyhow. He thought . . . maybe we ought to have a way to get ahold of him if, if something happened out here."

He stared grimly at the stark hills around them. "Doesn't look like there's much to worry about, does there?"

Sie's right hand began to cramp. She spread it in the open air. The wind chilled and dried her calloused palm.

"What's Grant expecting, then?" Bradley said, as though he were asking for a weather report. Wispy clouds at high altitude offered no promise of moisture to the sparse vegetation.

Kowacs shrugged. "We didn't have time to talk," the stocky, powerful officer said. His eyes were on the horizon. "Except, the other twelve excavators got sent out with Shore Police detachments for security. This is the only one that's being guarded by a reaction company."

"Anybody know who gave the orders?" Sienkiewicz heard herself ask.

"With a flap like this on, who the hell could tell?" Kowacs muttered. "Grant said he'd check, but it'll take a couple days . . . if there's anything left after the Syndicate fleet hits."

Then, as his fingers delicately brushed the A-Pot communicator, Kowacs added, "There's no reason to suppose somebody's trying to get rid of the Headhunters because of what we saw on that last mission."

"No reason at all," Sienkiewicz said, repeating the lie as she continued to scan the bleak horizon.

* * *

Bradley stared at the pattern on the flat-plate screen. He adjusted the focus, but the image didn't go away.

"Major!" he said sharply. "We got company coming!"

Bradley had borrowed the screen from the engineers so the Headhunter command team could eavesdrop on the excavator. A peg into rock fed seismic vibrations to the screen's micro-processor control for sorting.

Though the unit was small, it could discriminate between words vibrating from the sending unit on the excavator's hull and the roar of the cutters and impellers. Thus far, the only words which had appeared on the screen in block letters were laconic reports:




When there were no words to decode from vibrations travelling at sound's swifter speed through rock, the screen mapped the surrounding hills. It had found a pattern there, also.

The command team's dugout was as tight and crude as those of the remaining fire teams: two meters on the long axis, a meter and a half in depth and front-to-back width. The walls were stabilized by a bonding agent, while a back-filled sheet of beryllium monocrystal on thirty-centimeter risers provided top cover.

Kowacs bumped shoulders with the field first as he leaned toward the screen. Sie scraped the roof when she tried to get a view from the opposite end of the dugout.

"What is it?" Kowacs said. Then, "That's just Hill Two-Two-Four in front of us, isn't it? Vibration from the excavater makes the rock mass stand out."

"No sir," Bradley said. "There was a pattern, and it's changed."

His lips were dry. He'd never used a screen like this before and he might be screwing up, the way a newbie shoots at every noise in the night. But . . . years of surviving had taught Bradley to trust his gut, to flatten now or to blast that patch of vegetation that was no different from the klicks of jungle all around it.

Something here was wrong.

PASSING TWELVE KILOMETERS, the screen said, blanking its map of the terrain. HEADS RUNNING EIGHTY PERCENT, STILL IN THE GREEN.

The quivering map display returned to the screen. It shifted, but the clouds changed overhead and the planet surely trembled to its own rhythms besides those imposed on it by human hardware. . . .

"The digger's getting deeper, so the vibrations don't look the same up here," Sienkiewicz muttered. She looked out the firing slit toward Hill 224 and manually adjusted her visor to high magnification.

"Headhunter Six to all elements," Kowacs ordered in a flat, decisive voice. "Full alert. Break. Alpha elements, watch Hill Two-Two-Four. Break. Delta Six, prepare to redeploy half your weapons to Alpha sector on command."

Metal glinted on the side of the hill a kilometer away. Bradley centered it in the sighting ring of his visor and shouted, "Support, target!" so that his AI would carat the object for every Headhunter within line of sight of it.

"Break," continued the major, his voice as bored but forceful as that of a roll-call sergeant. "Knifeswitch One-Three—" Regional Fire Control "—this is Headhunter S—"

The transmission dissolved into a momentary roar of jamming. Bradley's artificial intelligence cut the noise off to save his hearing and sanity.

The glint on Hill 224 vaporized in the sunbright streak of a plasma weapon. A ball of gaseous metal rose, then cooled into a miniature mushroom cloud.

"—arget for you," Kowacs continued beside Bradley.

So long as he was transmitting out, the major couldn't know that his message was being turned to garbage by a very sophisticated jammer. Instead of a brute-force attempt to cover all frequencies, the enemy used an algorithm which mimicked that of the Headhunters' own spread-frequency transmitters. The low-level white noise destroyed communication more effectively than a high-amplitude hum which would itself have called regional headquarters' attention to what was going on.

"You're being jammed!" the field first said, slipping a RAG grenade over the barrel of his shotgun.

Airflow through the center of the grenade kept the cylinder on a flat trajectory, even though it was launched at low velocity. The warhead was hollow, but its 12-cm diameter made it effective against considerable thicknesses of armor.

PASSING EIGHTEEN KILOMETERS, said the borrowed screen. Sound—through rock or in air—was unaffected by the jamming. Bradley heard the fire teams to either side shouting because their normal commo had been cut off.

The side of Hill 224 erupted in glittering hostility. Bradley adjusted his visor to top magnification as Kowacs' rifle and Sie's plasma weapon joined the crackling thunder from all the 1st Platoon positions.

The enemies were machines. Individually they were small, the size of a man's head—small enough to have been overlooked as crystalline anomalies in the rock when the Haig scanned for planet-wreckers.

There were thousands of them. They began to merge into larger constructs as they broke through the surface and crawled toward the Headhunters on Hill 165.

Bradley clapped Sie on the shoulder. Light shimmered across the track of ionized air from the muzzle of her weapon to the patch of molten rock across the swale. "Save your ammo!" Bradley shouted.

He pushed himself through the tight opening between the ground and the dugout's top cover, then reached back inside for his shotgun. RAG grenades had a maximum range of 500 meters, and the aerofoil charges in the shotgun itself were probably useless against this enemy even at point blank.

Bradley ran in a crouch toward the crew-served plasma weapon in the second dugout to the right. He expected bullets—bolts—something, but the enemy machines merely continued to roll down the slope like a metal-ceramic sludge.

Even at a thousand meters, bullets from Marine assault rifles seemed to have some effect on the individual machines. An object in a marksman's killing zone flashed for a moment within a curtain of rock dust cast up by deflected bullets. After the third or fourth sparkling hit, the machine slumped in on itself and stopped moving.

When two or more machines joined, the larger unit shrugged off bullets like a dog pacing stolidly through the rain. Only a direct hit from a plasma bolt could affect them—and Weapons Platoon had only a hundred rounds for each of its belt-fed plasma weapons.

Bradley knelt at the back of the gun pit. "Raush!" he ordered. "Blair!"

The crew triggered another short burst. Air hammered to fill the tracks burned through it, and ozone stripped the protecting mucus from Bradley's throat.

He reached through the opening and prodded the gunner between the shoulder blades with the shotgun's muzzle. "Raush, damn you!" he croaked.

The gunner and assistant gunner turned in surprise. Their eyes widened to see the gun and Bradley's face transfigured into a death's head by fear.

"Single shots!" the field first ordered. "And wait for three of the bloody things to join before you shoot! Don't waste ammo!"

Bradley rose to run to the other 1st Platoon gun pit, but Kowacs was already there, bellowing orders.

Nick understood. You could always count on the captain. 

Raush resumed fire, splashing one and then a second of the aggregated creatures into fireballs with individual bolts.

Not every aimed shot hit. The machines moved faster than they seemed to. The survivors had covered half the distance to the Headhunter positions.

Bradley loped across the hilltop. His load of weapons and ammunition weighed him down as if he were trying to swim wrapped in log chain. Without radio, face-to-face contact was the only way to get plasma weapons from distant gun pits up to where they could support 1st Platoon.

Bradley thought of dropping the bandoliers of shotgun ammo he was sure were useless, but his hand stopped halfway to the quick-release catch.

This didn't seem like a good time to throw away any hope, however slim.

* * *

"Grant!" Kowacs shouted into the A-Pot communicator as a shining, five-tonne creature lumbered up the slope toward the dugout. It was the last of the attacking machines, but it was already too close for either of the crew-served plasma weapons to bear on it. "We need support fast! Bring the Haig down! We need heavy weapons!"

Sienkiewicz fired three-shot bursts from her assault rifle. The bullets disintegrated as orange-white sparkles on the creature's magnetic shielding, a finger's breadth out from the metal surface.

Sie's plasma weapon lay on the floor of the dugout behind her. The muzzle still glowed a dull red. She'd fired her last two plasma rounds an instant apart when a pair of low-slung creatures lunged suddenly from dead ground to either side.

Those targets now popped and bubbled, melting across the face of the rock from their internal energies; but there was one more, and Sienkiewicz was out of plasma charges.

Kowacs dropped the communicator and aimed his rifle. The creature was fifty meters away. It was shaped roughly like an earthworm, but it seemed to slide forward without quite touching the rock.

The dark patch just above the rounded nose might be a sensor window. Anyway, it was Sie's aiming point, and maybe two rifles firing simultaneously—

Kowacs squeezed the trigger, leaning into the recoil. He watched through the faint haze of powder gas as his bullets spattered vainly.

The fat black cylinder of a RAG grenade sailed toward the target in a flat arc. Kowacs and Sienkiewicz ducked beneath the dugout's rim. The hollow whoomp! of the armor-piercing charge rippled the ground and lifted the Marines a few millimeters.

Kowacs looked out. Wind had already torn to rags the black smoke of the explosion. There was a thumb-sized hole through the machine's skin. The cavity widened as the creature's snout collapsed inward like a time-lapse image of a rotting vegetable.

Bradley knelt beside the dugout, sliding another RAG grenade over his shotgun's barrel to the launching plate. It was the last of his four rounds: the ammo cans dangled empty from his bandoliers.

"Have you raised Grant?" the field first demanded. "Do we got some help coming?"

"I'll settle for an extraction," Sienkiewicz muttered. She looked down at the grenade stick she'd plucked from her equipment belt to throw if necessary. The grenade was a bunker buster, devastating in enclosed spaces but probably useless against an armored opponent in the open air.

"The trucks won't crank," Bradley said flatly. "The power packs are still at seventy percent, but current won't flow through the control switches to the fans."

There was a moment of silence relieved only by the vibration of rock which spewed out of the pithead and hurtled across the sky. The stream cooled only to yellow-orange by the time it splashed on the tailing pile.

A plasma weapon began to thump single shots at a fresh target.

Fireballs flashed and lifted from Hill 224. Every time the residue of the bolt's impact drifted away, something fresh and metallic lifted from the same glassy crater. After the sixth bolt, the gun ceased fire.

"I don't know if I'm getting through," Kowacs said. He picked up the communicator and stared at it for a moment. Then he turned and shouted over to the next dugout on the right, "All plasma weapons to the First Platoon sector! Pass it on."

"All plasma weapons to First Platoon sector!" Sienkiewicz echoed toward their left-hand neighbors. "Pass it on!"

The dugouts were within voice range of one another. It was risky to strip the other sectors, but movement on Hill 224 proved there would be another attack here. The two plasma weapons which had not been engaged against the first attack were the only ones in the unit that still had sufficient ammo to blunt a second thrust.

Kowacs' throat was swollen. He couldn't smell the foul smoke drifting from the creatures smashed just in front of the dugout, but he felt the tissues of his nose and mouth cringe at further punishment.

He put his thumb on the shallow depression beneath the communicator's voiceplate and said hoarsely, "Grant, this is Kowacs. Please respond. We need destroyer-class support soonest. We're being attacked by machines."

Part of Kowacs' mind wondered whether the creatures had their own internal AI programs or if some Syndicate operator controlled them through telerobotics. What did the operation look like from that bastard's point of view?

"We could use ammo resupply and a little extra firepower."

His voice broke. He cleared it and continued, "For God's sake, Grant, get Toby English and the Haig down here now!"

Kowacs lifted his thumb from the depression. Nothing moved when he squeezed down. No sound—from Grant, of static, nothing—came from the voiceplate when he released the 'key'.

Maybe there wasn't a key. Maybe there wasn't even a communicator, just a plastic placebo that Grant had given Kowacs so the spook could be sure Headhunter Six would accept the mission that would mean the end of his whole company. . . .

"Bloody hell," Top muttered as he stared toward what was taking shape on the furrowed side of Hill 224.

A gun crew staggered over from 2nd Platoon with their plasma weapon on its tripod, ready to fire. They grounded beside the command dugout. The gunner slid behind his sights, while the assistant gunner helped the team's Number Three adjust the hundred-round belt of ammunition she carried while her fellows handled the gun.

Masses of shimmering metal oozed through the soil across the swale as if the hillside was sweating mercury. The blobs were larger than those which had appeared at the start of the first attack, and they merged again as soon as they reached the surface.

Clattering rifle fire had no affect on the creatures. None of the command team bothered to shoot.

Three plasma weapons, then a fourth, sent their dazzling radiance into the new threat. Blazing metal splashed a hundred meters skyward. The whole hillside glowed with an auroral lambency.

The ball of metal continued to grow. It was already the size of a cathedral's dome. Plasma bolts no longer touched the creature's shimmering skin.

It slid forward. The crater it left in the side of Hill 224 was the size a nuclear weapon would make.

Only two plasma weapons were still firing. The one nearest the command team had run almost through its belt of ammunition. The weapon's barrel glowed, and the rock a meter in front of its muzzle had been fused to glass.

Sergeant Bradley aimed his RAG grenade and waited. Sie arranged all her grenade clusters on the forward lip of the dugout so that she could throw them in quick succession as soon as the target rolled into range.

Kowacs emptied his assault rifle into the shining mass. It was halfway across the swale. Because of its size, the creature moved with deceptive speed.

As Kowacs slid a fresh magazine into his weapon, his eye caught the message on the excavator screen:




Top fired his RAG grenade. The shaped-charge explosion was a momentary smear against the monster's shielding, nothing more.

Heatwaves shimmered from Kowacs' gunbarrel. He fired the entire magazine in a single hammering burst and reloaded again. When the creature got within forty meters, he'd start throwing grenades.

And I'll say to Toby English, "Boy you bastards cut it close! Ten seconds later and there wouldn't have been anything left of us but grease spots!" 

Nick Kowacs laughed and aimed his rifle again at a towering monster framed by a sky that was empty of hope.


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