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Oval membranes along the Ichton's lateral lines throbbed as the creature writhed against the table restraints. Two audio speakers flanked the observation screen which Sergeant Dresser watched in the room above. One speaker keened at the edge of ultrasound, while a roll of low static cracked through the other.

"What's the squeaking?" Dresser asked tensely.

"Just noise," said Tech 4 Rodriges, looking up from his monitor. "Moaning, I guess you'd say. Nothing for the translation program—" he nodded toward the hissing second speaker "—to translate."

He hoped Dresser wasn't going to nut, because the fella didn't have any business being here. That was how the brass would think, anyway. So long as the Ichton was alone, Rodriges' job was to flood it with knock-out gas if something went wrong. That didn't seem real likely; but if the creature damaged its so-valuable body, there'd be hell to pay.

Dresser's lips were dry, but he wiped his palms on the thighs of his fresh utilities. The uniform felt light compared to the one he'd worn during the most recent mission on SB 781. The scout boat's recycling system had cleaned away sweat and body oils after every watch, but there wasn't anything machines could do about the fear which the cloth absorbed just as surely. . . .

That was thinking crazy. Had to stop that now.

"Don't worry," he said aloud. "I'm fine."

"Sure an ugly bastard," Rodriges commented in a neutral voice.

Upright, the Ichton would be the better part of three meters tall. The creature's gray body was thin, with a waxy glow over the exoskeleton beneath. By contrast, the six limbs springing from the thorax had a fleshy, ropy, texture, though they were stiffened internally by tubes of chitin. Now they twitched against invisible restraints.

"First good look I really had of him," Dresser said softly. "Of it."

He wasn't sure how he felt. He wiped his hands again.

"Huh?" said Rodriges in amazement. "But—it was you caught him, right? I mean—you know, the real one. Wasn't . . . ?"

Light winked from the Ichton's faceted eyes as the creature turned its head mindlessly from one side to the other.

"Hey, no sweat," Dresser said. A grin quirked a corner of his mouth. The first thing that had struck him funny for—

From since they'd made landfall a month and a half ago. Rodriges thought the Ichton looked ugly, but he hadn't seen what the creatures did. . . .

The Ichton on the screen relaxed. One speaker squealed plaintively; the other asked in an emotionless voice, "Where . . . ? Where am I?"

"Sure, that was us," Dresser said. "SB 781, not just me; but my boat, my crew, you bet. Only you don't . . . I didn't really look at it, you know? Bundled it up and slung it into a stasis field before we bugged out. Scout boats don't have what you'd call great passenger accommodations."

A separate chirping punctuated the sounds the Ichton made. In a voice identical to that provided for the prisoner, the translator said, "Please relax. The restraints are simply to prevent you from injuring yourself upon waking. When you relax, we will loosen them."

"That's Admiral Horwarth, the project head," Rodriges said knowingly. "Don't know jack shit about medicine or biochem, but she sure can make a team of prima donna medicos get on with the program."

Dresser was lost in memory. He said, "When we landed, I was watching on my screen, and there was this city, a Gerson city it turned out. . . ."

* * *

Thomson was at the center console, watching the ground swing toward SB 781 with the leisured assurance of a thrown medicine ball. Occasionally her fingers scissored over the controls without touching them.

The approach was nerve-wrackingly slow, but that was the way it had to be. Staying out of Ichton warning sensors was the only way the scout boat was going to survive. The turbulence and friction heat of a fast approach would have pointed a glowing finger straight toward them.

"Lookit that sucker!" muttered Codrus.

Dresser and Codrus didn't bother to back up Thomson, but the chance that she would have to take over from the boat's artificial intelligence was a million to one—and the chance that a human could do any good if the AI failed was a lot worse than that.

Codrus was watching the nearest Ichton colony, a vast pimple of blue light projecting kilometers into the stratosphere. Ichton strongholds began as hemispheres of magnetic force. The flux was concentrated enough to sunder the molecular bonds of projectiles and absorb the full fury of energy weapons. As each colony grew, the height of its shield decreased in relation to the diameter.

This colony was already a hundred kilometers across. It would not stop growing until its magnetic walls bulged against those of other Ichton fortresses.

Lookit that sucker. 

The scout boat quivered and bobbed as the AI subtlely mimicked the patterns of clear air turbulence, but the computer-enhanced view on Dresser's screen remained rock solid. It had been city of moderate size—perhaps 15,000 inhabitants if human density patterns were applicable.

The buildings tended to rounded surfaces rather than planes. The palette was of earth tones, brightened by street paving of brilliant yellow. From a distance, the soft lines and engaging ambiance of the city as it originally stood would have suggested a field of edible mushrooms.

The tallest of the surviving structures rose about ten meters. The ragged edges in which the tower now ended were the result of Ichton weapons.

A column of Ichtons had passed through the community. The invaders' weapons, derivatives of their defensive shields, had blasted a track across the center of the inhabited area and gnawed apart most of the rest of the city as well.

"Hang on," warned Thomson.

"What gets me," said Dresser, "is they didn't attack the place. It was just there, and they went through it rather than going around."

"They took out major urban centers with anti-matter bombs," Codrus said. "Musta had a scale of what they blitzed and what they ignored unless it got in the way. Of course—"

"Touchdown!" Thomson said.

SB 781 fluffed her landing jets—hard twice, while there were still twenty meters of air beneath the boat's belly, then a softer, steady pulse that disturbed the soil as little as possible. No point in inserting stealthily through a hundred kilometers of atmosphere and then kick up a plume of dirt like a locating flag.

"—sooner or later, they cover the whole land surface, so I don't guess they worry about when they get around t' this piece or that."

The scout boat shuddered to a halt that flung Dresser against his gel restraints. His display continued to glow at him with images of the wrecked city, enhanced to crispness greater than what his eyes would have showed him at the site.

Ichton weapons fired beads the size of matchheads which generated expanding globes of force. Individual weapons had a range of only three hundred meters or so, but their effect was devastating—particularly near the muzzle, where the density of the magnetic flux was high. The force globes acted as atomic shears, wrenching apart the molecules of whatever they touched. Even at maximum range, when the flux formed an iridescent ball a meter in diameter, it could blast the fluff off the bodies of this planet's furry natives.

Dresser was sure of that, because some of the Ichtons' victims still lay in the ruins like scorched teddy bears.

"They're Gersons," Dresser said to his crew. "The natives here. One of the races that asked the Alliance for help."

"Too late for that," Codrus muttered. His slim, pale hands played over the controls, rotating the image of the Ichton fortress on his display. From any angle, the blue glare was as perfect and terrible as the heart of a supernova. "Best we get our asses back to the Hawking and report."

This was Dresser's first mission on SB 781; the previous team leader had wangled a commission and a job in Operations. Thomson and Codrus came with the boat . . . and they were an item, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn't.

It didn't work on SB 781. Both partners were too worried about what might happen to the other to get on with the mission.

"Not till we've done our jobs," Dresser said softly. He raised the probes, hair-thin optical guides which unreeled to the height of twenty meters above SB 781's camouflaged hull. His display immediately defaulted to real-time images of a wind-sculpted waste.

The immediate terrain hadn't been affected by the Ichton invasion—yet. Eventually it too would be roofed by flux generators so powerful that they bent light and excluded the blue and shorter wave lengths entirely. Within their impregnable armor, the Ichtons would extract ores—the rock had a high content of lead and zinc—and perhaps the silicon itself. The planet the invaders left would be reduced to slag and ash.

Thomson tried to stretch in the narrow confines of her seat. Her hands trembled, though that might have been reaction to the tension of waiting above the flight controls against the chance that she'd have to take over. "No job we can do here," she said. "This place is gone. Gone. It's not like we've got room t' take back refugees."

Dresser modified his display. The upper half remained a real-time panorama. The glow of an Ichton colony stained the eastern quadrant in a sickly blue counterfeit of the dawn that was still hours away. The lower portion of the display became a map created from data SB 781's sensors gathered during insertion.

"Command didn't send us for refugees," he said. He tried to keep his voice calm, so that his mind would become calm as well. "They said to bring back a live prisoner."

"We can't get a prisoner!" Codrus said, maybe louder than he'd meant. "Anything that'd bust open these screens—"

He gestured toward the Ichton fortress on his display. His knuckles vanished within the holographic ambiance, then reappeared like the head of a bobbing duck.

"—'d rip the whole planet down to the core and let that out. The place is fucked, and we need to get away!"

"They're still sending out colonies," Dresser said.

His fingers raised the probes ten meters higher and shrank the image area to 5° instead of a full panorama. The upper display shuddered. The blue glow filled most of its horizon.

Five Ichton vehicles crawled across terrain less barren than that in which the scout boat hid. Trees grew in serpentine lines along the boundaries of what must once have been cultivated fields. For the most part, the land was now overgrown with brush.

"About twenty klicks away," Dresser continued. He felt the eyes of his subordinates burning on him; but he was in charge, and SB 781 was going to carry out its mission. "We'll take the skimmers and set up an ambush."

"Take the boat," Thomson said through dry lips. "We'll want the firepower."

Dresser shook his head without taking his eyes off his display. "The boat'd get noticed," he said. "You guys'll be in hard suits with A-Pot weapons. That'll be as much firepower as we need."

"Lookit that!" Codrus cried, pointing across the cockpit to Dresser's display. "Lookit that!"

A family of Gersons bolted from the row of trees just ahead of the Ichton column. There were four adults, a pair of half-grown children, and a furry infant in the arms of the female struggling along behind the other adults.

The turret of the leading vehicle rotated to follow the refugees. . . .

* * *

"You okay, Sarge?" Rodriges asked worriedly.

Dresser crossed his arms and kneaded his biceps hard. "Yeah," he said. "Sure." His voice was husky. "Seein' the thing there—"

He nodded toward the screen. The Ichton was sitting upright. The voice from the speaker said, "Don't try to use your conscious mind to control your muscles. You wouldn't with your own body, after all."

"You can't imagine how cruel they are, the Ichtons," Dresser said.

"Naw, it's not cruel," the technician explained. "You're only cruel to something you think about. The bugs, they treat the whole universe like we'd treat, you know, an outcrop of nickel ore."

"So cruel . . . ," Dresser whispered.

The Ichton's tympanic membranes shrilled through the left speaker. The translation channel boomed, "Where the hell am I? Thomson? Codrus! What's happened to my boat!"

Sergeant Dresser closed his eyes.

"Where's 781, you bastards?" demanded the Ichton through the machine voice.






"The sub-brain of your clone body will control the muscles, Sergeant Dresser," said the voice from a speaker in the wall. "You can't override the hard-wired controls, so just relax and let them do their job."

The words were compressed and harshly mechanical; the room's lighting spiked chaotically on several wavelengths. Were they torturing him?

Who were they?

"Where's my crew?" Dresser shouted. He threw his feet over the edge of the couch on which had awakened. His legs splayed though he tried to keep them steady. He collapsed on his chest. The floor was resilient.

"Your men are all right, Sergeant," the voice said. The speaker tried to be soothing, but the delivery rasped like a saw on bone. "So is your human self. Your memory will return in a few minutes."

Memory was returning already. Memory came in disorienting sheets that didn't fit with the real world. Images that Dresser remembered were sharply defined but static. They lacked the texturing of incipient movement that wrapped everything Dresser saw through the faceted eyes of his present body.

But he remembered. . . .

* * *

The male Gerson—the tallest, though even he was less than a meter-fifty in height—turned and raised an anti-tank rocket launcher. The rest of the family blundered past him. The juveniles were hand in hand, and the female with the infant still brought up the rear.

"Where'd he get hardware like that?" Codrus muttered. "I'd've figured the teddy bears were down to sharp sticks, from the way things look."

The Ichton vehicles moved on air cushions; they didn't have the traction necessary to grind through obstacles the way tracked or even wheeled transport could. The leader's turret weapon spewed a stream of projectiles like a ripple of light. The hedge row disintegrated in bright flashes.

"They sent a starship to the Alliance, after all," Dresser muttered. "The ones left behind still have some weapons, is all."

Brush and splintered wood began to burn sluggishly. The leading Ichton vehicle nosed into the gap.

"Much good it'll do them," said Thomson.

The Gerson fired. The rocket launcher's flaring yellow backblast enveloped twenty meters of brush and pulsed the hedge on the other side of the field. The hypervelocity projectile slammed into the Ichton vehicle.

Slammed, rather, into the faint blue glow of the defensive shield surrounding the Ichton vehicle. The impact roared across the electro-optical spectrum like multicolored petals unfolding from a white core.

The vehicle rocked backward on its bubble of supporting air. The projectile, flattened and a white blaze from frictional heating, dropped to the ground without having touched the body of its target.

The turret traversed. The male Gerson knew what was coming. He ran to the side in a desperate attempt to deflect the stream of return fire from his family. His head and the empty rocket launcher vanished into their constituent atoms as the powerful turret weapon caught him at point blank range. The high-temperature residue of the sundered molecules recombined an instant later in flashes and flame.

The Ichton gunner continued to fire. Projectiles scythed across the field, ripping smoldering gaps in the vegetation.

The refugees threw themselves down when the shooting started. As the gun traversed past, a juvenile leaped upright and waved his remaining arm. Before the gunner could react, the screaming victim collapsed again.

The turret weapon ceased firing.

The entire column entered the field. The leading and trailing vehicles were obviously escorts, mounting powerful weapons in their turrets. The second and third vehicles in the convoy were hugely larger and must have weighed a hundred tonnes apiece. They didn't appear to be armed, but their defensive shielding was so dense that the vehicles' outlines wavered within globes of blue translucence. The remaining vehicle, number four in the column, was unarmed and of moderate size, though larger than the escorts.

Dresser's mind catalogued the vehicles against the template of his training and experience: a truck to supply the new colony en route . . . and a pair of transporters, armored like battleships, to carry the eggs and larvae which would populate that colony.

The Ichton convoy proceeded on a track as straight as the line from a compass rose. For a moment, Dresser thought that the Gerson survivors—if there were any—had been overlooked. Then the supply truck and the rear escort swung out of the column and halted.

A Gerson jumped to her feet and ran. She took only three steps before her legs and the ground beneath her vanished in a red flash. Heat made the air above the turret gun's muzzle shimmer.

The supply truck's sidepanel slid open, and the defensive screen adjacent to the door paled. A pair of Ichtons stepped out of the vehicle. Heavy protective suits concealed the lines of their bodies.

"Big suckers," said Thomson. Her hands hovered over the console controls. Flight regime was up on the menu.

"Three of us 're gonna take on a whole army of them?" Codrus asked.

Dresser thought:

It's not an army. 

It doesn't matter how big they are—we're not going to arm wrestle. 

You guys aren't any more scared than I am. 

He said aloud, "You bet."

One of the Ichtons tossed the legless Gerson—the body had ceased to twitch—into the bag he, it, dragged along behind. The other Ichton spun abruptly and sprayed a 90° arc of brush with his handweapon.

Though less powerful than the turret gun, the projectiles slashed through the vegetation. Branches and taller stems settled in a wave like the surface of a collapsing air mattress.

The Ichton with the bag patrolled the swath stolidly. He gathered up the bodies or body parts of three more victims.

"Don't . . . ," Dresser whispered. Codrus and Thomson glanced sidelong, wondering what their commander meant.

The armed Ichton pointed his weapon. Before he could fire, the Gerson female with the infant in her arms stood up.

"Don't. . . ."

Instead of shooting, the Ichton stepped forward and reached out with its free hand. It seized the Gerson by the shoulder in a triaxial grip and led her back toward the vehicle. The remaining Ichton followed, slowed by the weight of the bag it was dragging.

Dresser let out the breath he had been holding longer than he realized.

* * *

"Now relax, Sergeant Dresser," said the mechanical voice. "Let the backbrain control your motions."

Dresser got to his feet, his four feet. His eyes stared at the ceiling. He wanted to close them, but they didn't close. A part of his mind was as amazed at the concept that eyes could close as it had been at the flat, adamantine images from Dresser's memory.

"You're doing very well, Sergeant," the voice cajoled. "Now, I'm going to open the door in the end of the compartment. Just follow the hallway out. Don't be in a hurry."

Dresser's right front leg bumped the table, but he didn't fall. He was terrified. His mind tried to focus on anything but what his legs were doing. The doorway lurched closer.

It was like being in freefall. But he knew there was no landing possible from this mental vacuum.






Rodriges manipulated his controls. The screen split. Its right half showed the back of the cloned Ichton shambling through the doorway, while a frontal shot of the creature approached down the hallway on the left.

"He's gonna get t' meet the brass," the technician muttered. "Horwarth and Doctor del Prato. Bet you never thought you'd be meeting an admiral and a top biochemist personal-like, did you, sarge?"

Dresser grunted.

Rodriges touched the controls again. The right image leapfrogged to the interior of a three-bed medical ward which included a well-appointed office. The admiral, seated behind a desk of what looked like real wood, was a stocky female. She wore a skull & crossbones ring in her left ear, and her right ear was missing. To her right sat a florid-faced civilian whose moustache flowed into his sideburns.

The door to the ward had been removed and a section of bulkhead cut from the top of the doorway. Even so, the Ichton lurching down the corridor would have to duck or bang its flat head.

"Why didn't they wake him up here?" Dresser asked. He made a tight, almost dismissive, gesture toward the medical ward.

Rodriges looked sidelong at the scout. "Umm . . . ," he said. "They didn't know quite how you'd—how he'd react when he woke up, y'know? They got me here for protection—"

The technician tapped carefully beside, not on, a separate keypad. It was a release for the weapons whose targeting was slaved to the screen controls.

"—but they don't want, you know, to lose the work. There's five more clones on ice, but still. . . ."

Dresser's face went hard. He didn't speak.

The Ichton paused in the doorway and tried to lower its head. Instead, the creature fell forward with its haunches high, like those of a horse which balked too close to the edge of a ditch.

"That's all right," said Admiral Horwarth brusquely. Her voice and the hypersonic translation of her voice echoed from the paired speakers of the observation room. "You'll soon have the hang of it."

"Part of the reason he's so clumsy," Rodriges said as he kept his invisible sight centered on the clone's chest, "is the body's straight out of the growth tank. It hasn't got any muscle tone."

His lips pursed as he and Dresser watched the ungainly creature struggle to rise again. "Of course," the technician added, "it could be the bugs're clumsy as hell anyhow."

"The ones I saw," said Dresser tightly, "moved pretty good."

* * *

The leading Ichton vehicle started to climb out of the dry wash; the nose of the last vehicle dipped to enter the end farthest from Dresser.

The scout boat's artificial intelligence planned the ambush with superhuman skill. It balanced the target, the terrain, distance factors, and the available force—the lack of available force—into a 70% probability that some or all of the scout team would survive the contact.

The AI thought their chance of capturing a live Ichton was <.1; but that wasn't the first thing in any of the scouts' minds, not even Dresser's.

The convoy's inexorable progress led it to the badlands site within two minutes of the arrival time the AI had calculated. A wind-cut swale between two tilted sheets of hard sandstone had been gouged deeper by infrequent cloudbursts. The resulting gully was half a kilometer long. It was straight enough to give Dresser a clear shot along it from where he lay aboard his skimmer, on higher ground a hundred meters from the mouth.

The Ichtons could easily have gone around the gully, but there was no reason for them to do so. From what Dresser had seen already, the race had very little tendency to go around anything.

"Team," he said to his distant crewmen, "go!"

Codrus and Thomson fired from the sandstone ridges to either flank. Their weapons tapped energy from the Dirac Sea underlying the real-time universe, so the range—less than three hundreds meters in any case—was no hindrance.

Sightlines could have been a problem. Since Dresser had only two flankers, it didn't matter that they had clear shots at only the first and last vehicles of the convoy. The tops of the huge egg transporters were visible from the crewmen's positions, but the supply truck had vanished beneath the sharp lips of the gully.

The beams from the A-Potential weapons were invisible, but at their touch the magnetic shielding of the escort vehicles flared into sparkling cataclysm. Dresser's helmet visor blocked the actinics and filtered the visual uproar. He continued to have a sharp view of the vehicles themselves—undamaged at the heart of the storm.

The A-Pot weapons could focus practically limitless amounts of power on the magnetic shields, cancelling their effect—but the beams couldn't focus through the shields. The escort vehicles stopped dead. Their power supplies shunted energy to the shields—to be dumped harmlessly back into the Dirac Sea—but as soon as the A-Pot beams were redirected, the escorts would be back in the battle.

"Mines," Dresser said to the audio controller in his helmet, "go!"

The gossamer, high-explosive mesh the scouts had spread across the floor of the gully went off. There was a green flash, a quick shock through the bedrock which slapped Dresser ten centimeters in the air, and—a heartbeat later—the air-transmitted blast that would have deafened the sergeant without the protection of his helmet.

The explosive's propagation rate was a substantial fraction of light speed. The blast flattened the two escorts from the underside before it lifted them. Their wreckage spun into the air.

Though the supply truck's shields were unaffected, the shockwave bounced the lighter vehicle against the side of the gully. It caromed back and landed on one side. Its shields hissed furiously, trying to repel the washed stone. The generators didn't have enough power to levitate the truck, and the ground wasn't going to move.

Mass and magnetic shielding protected the egg transporters. The huge vehicles lurched, but neither showed signs of damage. The leading transporter plowed through the wreckage of the escort. The driver of second transporter cut his controls to the right. Bow weapons, their existence unguessed until this moment, blasted an alternate route into the sandstone wall.

The mine's unexpected groundshock lifted Dresser, then dropped him back on the hard-padded couch of his skimmer. He tried to aim his weapon.

The bow of the leading egg transporter pointed directly at him. A panel had recessed to clear the muzzle of an axial weapon like the one carving a ramp through kilotonnes of rock. Its bore looked big enough for a man to crawl down.

Codrus caught the Ichton vehicle with his A-Pot weapon. The beam held the huge transporter as rigid as a moth on a pin. The screens' watery glare vanished.

Dresser raked the undefended target lengthwise with his drum-fed rocket launcher.

The launcher cycled at the rate of two rounds per second. It was easy for an experienced gunner like Dresser to control the weapon during short bursts, despite the considerable recoil: though the barrel was open at both ends, highly-accelerated exhaust gas gave a sharp backward jolt to the sides of the tube.

Dresser's first rocket exploded on the muzzle of the Ichton gun. The next two green flashes shredded the bow of the transporter as recoil shoved Dresser and lifted his point of aim.

He lowered his sights and fired again, probing deeper into the Ichton vehicle through the damage caused by his initial burst. His helmet dulled the slapbang! of the shots and protected his retinas from the bright explosions. The rocket backblast prickled like sunburn on the backs of his bare hands.

A sulphurous fireball mushroomed from the rear of the transporter, far deeper than Dresser had been able to probe with his rockets. The shield generators failed. Codrus' weapon now cut spherical collops from the vehicle.

Dresser shifted his aim to the remaining transporter. He thought he had half the twenty-round drum remaining, but he knew he was too pumped to be certain.

A pair of Ichtons jumped from a hatch in the side of the transporter stalled in the beam of Thomson's weapon. Codrus, bulky and rounded in the hard suit which was an integral part of the A-Pot system, stood up on his ridge to rip the vehicle while Thomson's beam grounded its shield.

Dresser punched three rockets into the transporter's broadside. Green flashes ate meter-diameter chunks from the plating. The individual Ichtons turned together and fired their handweapons at Codrus.

The rock beneath the crewman blurred into high-temperature gas. The Ichton projectiles were near the range at which the flux expanded beyond coherence and the miniature generators failed. If Codrus hadn't been shooting, his A-Pot suit might have protected him against the attenuated forces—

But an aperture to fire through meant a gap in the opposite direction also. Circuits in the A-Pot suit crossed, then blew in a gout of sandstone so hot it fluoresced.

"Ship!" Dresser shouted into the audio controller. He slammed a pair of contact-fuzed rockets through a hole blown by the previous burst. "Go!"

Ten klicks away, SB 781 was lifting from her camouflaged hide. The AI would execute the flight plan the AI had developed. Dresser could override the machine mind, but he wouldn't have time—

And anyway, he might not be alive in five minutes when the boat appeared to make the extraction.

Bright gray smoke rolled in sheets out of the two lower holes in the transporter's plating. Flame licked from the highest wound, sullenly red, and the smoke it trailed was sooty black.

The transporter began to slip back down the ramp its gun had carved. The forward half of the vehicle was shielded, but smoke and flame continued to billow beneath the blue glow.

Thomson shrieked uncontrollably on the team frequency as she lashed the two Ichtons with her weapon. The creatures' personal shields deflected the beam—to Dresser's surprise, but if you couldn't touch the target, it didn't matter how much energy you poured into the wrong place.

Dresser kicked the bar behind his left boot to power up his skimmer. It induced a magnetic field in the rock with the same polarity as that in the little vehicle's own undersurface.

The skimmer lurched a centimeter upward, throwing off Dresser's aim. The last rocket in his magazine missed high. The transporter was beginning to sag in the center.

"Thomson!" Dresser shouted. "We want a prisoner!"

The rock beneath the Ichtons first went molten; then froze and shattered into dust finer than the sand that had once been compacted to make stone; and finally expanded into a white fireball that drank the Ichtons like thistledown in a gas flame. When transformed into a real-time analog, Thomson's A-Potential energy easily overwhelmed the Ichton defenses.

The skimmer wobbled downhill. Dresser steered with his feet on the tiller bar while he lay on his left side and fumbled a fresh magazine onto his rocket launcher. The Ichtons fired at movement. . . .

"Kill the fucking bastards!" Thomson screamed.

The front half of the damaged transporter began to crumple like overheated foil beneath its magnetic shielding. High-voltage arcs danced across the plates, scarring the metal like fungus on the skin of a poorly-embalmed corpse.

"K—" said Thomson as her A-Pot beam drew a streak of cloudy red sky from another universe into the heart of the transporter. The back half of the vehicle blew up with a stunning crash even louder than that of the minefield that initiated the contact.

Because Dresser's skimmer was in motion, he was spared the groundshock. The airborne wave was a hot fist that punched fire into his lungs and threatened to spin his little vehicle like a flipped coin. The skimmer's automatic controls stabilized it as no human driver could have done, then shut down. Dresser kicked the starter again.

"Bastards!" shouted Thomson as she rode her own skimmer forward in search of fresh targets.

The explosion slammed the overturned supply truck into the gully wall again. The magnetic shielding failed; one side of the vehicle scraped off on the rock. A living Ichton, suited and armed, spilled out along with other of the truck's contents. Another of the creatures was within the gutted vehicle, transfixed despite its armor by a length of tubing from the perimeter frame.

Protein rations, bundled into transparent packets weighing a kilogram or so, littered the gully floor. The mother Gerson was only partway through processing. Her legs and the lower half of her furry torso stuck out the intake funnel in the truck body. The apparatus had stalled from battle damage.

The baby Gerson lay among the ration packets, feebly waving its chubby arms.

Thomson fired from her skimmer. She didn't have a direct sightline to the supply truck, but her suit sensors told her where the target was. The A-Pot beam ripped through the lip of stone like lightning in a wheat field.

Rock shattered, spewing chunks skyward. At the end of the ragged path, visible to Dresser though not Thomson, the damaged truck sucked inward and vanished like a smoke sculpture.

SB 781 drifted across Thomson, as silent as a cloud. The vessel was programmed to land at the center of the gully, since the team didn't have the transport to move an Ichton prisoner any distance from the capture site.

"Ship!" Dresser cried, overriding the plan. "Down! Now!"

The living Ichton got to its feet. Dresser, twenty meters away, grounded his skimmer in a shower of sparks and squeezed his trigger.

The rocket launcher didn't fire. He'd short-stroked the charging lever when the transporter blew up. There wasn't a round in the chamber.

The baby Gerson wailed. The Ichton spun like a dancer and vaporized the infant in a glowing dazzle.

SB 781 settled at the lip of the gully, between Thomson and the Ichton. She wouldn't shoot at their own ride home—and anyway, the vessel's A-Potential shielding should protect it if she did.

The team's job was to bring back a prisoner.

Dresser charged his launcher and fired. The warhead detonated on the Ichton's magnetic shield. The green flash hurled the creature against the rock wall.

It bounced back. Dresser fired again, slapping the Ichton into the stone a second time. The creature's weapon flew out of its three-fingered hands.

At Dresser's third shot, a triangular bulge on the Ichton's chest melted and the shield's blue glow vanished.

The Ichton sprawled in an ungainly tangle of limbs. Dresser got off his skimmer and ran to the creature. He dropped his rocket launcher and drew the powered cutting bar from the boot sheath where it rode.

Dresser's vision pulsed with colors as though someone were flicking pastel filters over his eyes. He didn't have time to worry whether something was wrong with his helmet optics. Thomson's shouted curses faded in and out also, so the damage was probably within Dresser's skull. Fleet hardware could survive one hell of a hammering, but personnel were still constructed to an older standard. . . .

The Ichton twitched. Dresser ran the tip of his 20-cm cutter along the back of the creature's suit. The armor was non-metallic but tough enough to draw a shriek from the contra-rotating diamond saws in the bar's edge.

Dresser wasn't going to chance carrying the prisoner with in-built devices still functioning in its suit, not even in the stasis bay of SB 781. The tech mavens on the Hawking could deal with the network of shallow cuts the cutter was going to trace across the chitin and flesh. There wasn't time to be delicate, even if Dresser had wanted to be.

The air in the gully stank, but that wasn't why Dresser took breaths so shallow that his oxygen-starved lungs throbbed.

He couldn't help thinking about the baby Gerson vaporized a few meters away.






There were two humans in the room with Dresser in his new body. The one behind the desk wore blue; the other wore white.

He wasn't sure what the sex of either of them was.

"As your mind reintegrates with the cloned body, Sergeant," said the mechanical voice, "you'll achieve normal mobility. Ah, normal for the new body, that is."

White's mouth parts were moving. Dresser knew—remembered—that meant the human was probably speaking; but the words came from the desk's front corner moldings. Ears alternated with the speech membranes along Dresser's lateral lines. He shifted position instinctively to triangulate on the speakers' precise location.

"I want to tell you right now, Sergeant, that the Alliance—that all intelligent life in the galaxy is in your debt. You're a very brave man."

The voice and the location were the same—the desk speakers—but it was the other mouth that was moving. A translation system in the desk piped the actual speech out in a form Dresser could understand.

Now that he concentrated, he could hear the words themselves: a faint rumble, like that of distant artillery. It was meaningless and scarcely audible. He would have to watch to determine which of the pair was speaking—

But watching anything was easy. Dresser could see the entire room without turning his head. He noticed every movement, no matter how slight—nostrils flaring for a breath, the quiver of eyelashes at the start of a blink. His new brain combined the images of over a hundred facet eyes and sorted for the differences in the views they presented.

"It was obvious before we started that the enemy's numbers are enormous," Blue continued. "We now realize that Ichton weapons are formidable as well. In some ways—"

The desk translated Blue's throat clearing as a burst of static.

"Well, anyway, they're quite formidable."

The difficulty was that almost all Dresser now saw was movement. The background vanished beyond ten meters or so. Even closer objects were undifferentiated blurs until they shifted position. Though Dresser knew—remembered—the physical differences between human males and females, he couldn't see details so fine, and he lacked the hormonal cues that would have sexed individuals of his own kind.

Ye Gods, his own kind!

"You'll be landed back near the site where your original was captured, Sergeant Dresser," Blue went on.

The machine translator rasped Dresser's nerve endings with its compression. Its words lacked the harmonics that made true speech a thrill to hear no matter what its content.

"You shouldn't have any difficulty infiltrating the Ichton forces," interjected White. "The natural recognition patterns of your body will appear—are real, are totally real."

Dresser suddenly remembered the last stage of the firefight in the gully. He perceived it now through the senses of his present body. The Ichton flung from the vehicle, under attack but uncertain from where—

Sound and movement close by, a threat. 

Spinning and blasting before the enemy can strike home.

Reacting before the higher brain can determine that the target was merely a part of the food supply which hadn't been processed before the attack occurred. 

Dresser screamed. Both humans flinched away from the high-frequency warble.

"I'm not a bug!" he cried. "I won't! I won't kill babies!"

"Sergeant," said White, "we realize the strain you're under—"

"Though of course, you volunteered," Blue said.

"—but when your personality has fully integrated with the body into which it's been copied," White continued, "the—dichotomies—will not be quite so, ah, serious. I know—that is, I can imagine the strain you're experiencing. It will get better, I promise you."

"Sergeant . . ," said Blue, "I'll be blunt. We're hoping you can find a chink in the Ichtons' armor. If you can't, the mission of the Stephen Hawking is doomed to fail. And all lifeforms in at least this galaxy are, quite simply, doomed."

"Except for the Ichtons themselves," White added.

The machine couldn't capture intonation; memory told Dresser that the bluster of a moment before had vanished.

Dresser's memory tumbled out a kaleidoscope of flat-focus images: a wrecked village; cancerous domes scores of kilometers in diameter, growing inexorably; an Ichton—Dresser's body in every respect—blasting a wailing infant by mistake, a waste of food. . . .

"I can't l-l-live like this!" Dresser cried.

"It's only temporary," Blue said. "Isn't that right, Doctor? I'm not denying the risk, Sergeant Dresser, but as soon as the mission's been completed, you'll be returned to your own form."

"Ah," said White. "Yes, of course, Sergeant. But the main thing is just to let your mind and body integrate. You'll feel better shortly."

"I think the best thing now is for you to start right in on the program," said Blue. "I'll bring in your briefing officers immediately. You'll see that we've taken steps to minimize the risk to you."

Blue continued to speak. All Dresser could think of was that tiny Gerson, like a living teddy bear.






The screen showed six personnel entering the ward where the Ichton clone hunched. One of the newcomers was a Gerson.

In the observation room, Dresser turned his back on the screen. "How much does he remember?" he asked Rodriges harshly.

The technician shrugged. "Up to maybe thirty-six hours before the transfer," he said. "There's some loss, but not a lot. You okay yourself?"

"Fine," said Dresser. "I'm great."

On the screen, a uniformed man without rank tabs outlined the physical-training program. The clone's new muscles had to be brought up to standard before the creature was reinserted.

Dresser shuddered. Rodriges thumbed down the audio level, though the translation channel remained a distant piping.

"When I volunteered . . . ," Dresser said carefully. "I didn't know how much it'd bug—bother me. To see myself as an Ichton."

"Naw, that's not you, Sarge," Rodriges said. "Personalities start to diverge at the moment the mind scan gets dumped in the new cortex—and in that cortex, the divergence is going to be real damn fast. None of the sensory stimuli are the same, you see."

Dresser grunted and looked back over his shoulder. "Yeah," he said. "Well. Bet he thinks he's me, though."

"Sarge, you did the right thing, volunteering," Rodriges soothed. "You heard the admiral. Using somebody who's seen the bugs in action, that improves the chances. And anyway—it's done, right?"

The clone was moving its forelimbs—arms—in response to the trainer's direction. The offside supporting legs twitched unexpectedly; the tall creature fell over. A civilian expert jumped reflexively behind a female colleague in Marine Reaction Unit fatigues.

"It's going to be just as hard for him when they switch him back, won't it?" Dresser said. He turned to the technician. "Getting used to a human body again, I mean."

"Huh?" Rodriges blurted. "Oh, you mean like the admiral said. Ah, Sarge. . . . A fast-growth clone—"

He gestured toward the screen. Dresser didn't look around.

"Look, it's a total-loss project. I mean, in the tank we got five more bodies like this one—but the original, what's left of that's just hamburger."

Dresser stared but said nothing.

Rodriges blinked in embarrassment. He plowed onward, saying, "Cost aside—and I'm not saying it's a cost decision, but it'd be cheaper to build six destroyers than a batch of fast-growth clones. Anyway, cost aside, there's no way that thing's gonna be back in a body like yours unless yours . . . You know?"

The technician shrugged.

"I guess I was pretty naive," Dresser said slowly.

Rodriges reached over and gripped the scout's hand. "Hey," the technician said. "It's not you, you know? It's a thing. Just a thing."

Dresser disengaged his hand absently. He looked toward the screen again, but he didn't see the figures, human and alien, on it. Instead, his mind filled with the image of the baby Gerson, stretching out its chubby hands toward him—

Until it vanished in tears that diffracted light into a dazzle like that of the weapon in Dresser's three-fingered hands.


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