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In the mirror-finished door to the admiral's office, Sergeant Dresser saw the expression on his own face: worn, angry, and—if you looked deep in the eyes—as dangerous as a grenade with the pin pulled.

"You may go in, sir," repeated Admiral Horwarth's human receptionist in a tart voice.

Dresser was angry:

Because he'd gone through normal mission debriefing and he should have been off-duty. Instead he'd been summoned to meet the head of Bureau 8, Special Projects.

Because it had been a tough mission, and he'd failed.

And because he'd just watched a planet pay the price all life would pay for the mission's failure. Even the Ichtons would die, when they'd engulfed everything in the universe beyond themselves.

"The admiral is waiting, Sergeant," said the receptionist, a blond hunk who could have broken Dresser in half with his bare hands; but that wouldn't matter, because bare hands were for when you were out of ammo, your cutting bar had fried, and somebody'd nailed your boots to the ground . . .

Dresser tried to stiff-arm the feral gray face before him. The doorpanel slid open before he touched it. He strode into the office of Admiral Horwarth, a stocky, middle-aged woman facing him from behind a desk.

On the wall behind Horwarth was an Ichton.

If Dresser had had a weapon, he'd have shot the creature by reflex, even though his conscious mind knew he was seeing a holographic window into the Ichton's cell somewhere else on the Stephen Hawking. The prisoner must be fairly close by, because formic acid from its exoskeletal body tinged the air throughout Special Projects' discrete section of the vessel.

People like Dresser weren't allowed weapons aboard the Hawking. Especially not when they'd just returned from a mission and the Psych read-out said they were ten-tenths stressed—besides having to be crazy to pilot a scout boat to begin with.

"Sit down, Sergeant," Admiral Horwarth said. She didn't sound concerned about what she must have seen on Dresser's face. "I'm sorry to delay your down-time like this, but—"

She smiled humorlessly.

"—this is important enough that I want to hear it directly from you."

Dresser grimaced as he took the offered chair. "Yeah, I understand," he said. "Sir."

And the hell of it was, he did. Even tired and angry—and as scared as he was—Dresser was too disciplined not to do his duty. Scouts without rigid self discipline didn't last long enough for anybody else to notice their passing.

"I suppose it was a considerable strain," Horwarth prodded gently, "having to nursemaid two scientists and not having a normal crew who could stand watches?"

Dresser had been staring at the Ichton. He jerked his gaze downward at the sound of the admiral's voice. "Sorry, sir," he muttered. "No, that wasn't much of a problem. For me. The trip, that's the AI's job. There's nothing for human crews to do. I—"

Dresser looked at his hands. He waggled them close in front of his chest. He'd been told you could identify scouts because they almost never met the eyes of other human beings when talking to them. "Scouts, you know, anybody who's willing to do it more than once. Scouts keep to themselves. The boat isn't big enough to, to interact."

He raised his eyes to the Ichton again. It was walking slowly about its cell on its two lower pairs of limbs. The top pair and their gripping appendages were drawn in tight against the creature's gray carapace.

"The scientists," Dresser continued flatly, "Bailey and Kaehler . . . they weren't used to it. I think they were pretty glad when we got to the landing point, even though it didn't look like the right place . . ."

* * *

"You've done something wrong, Dresser!" snarled Captain Bailey as Scout Boat 781's braking orbit brought the vessel closer to the surface of the ruined planet. "This place hasn't beaten off an Ichton attack. It's been stripped!"

"At this point, sir," Dresser said, "I haven't done anything at all except initiate landing sequence. The artificial intelligence took us through sponge spare to the star that the—source—provided. There's only one life-capable planet circling that star, and we're landing on it."

He couldn't argue with Bailey's assessment, though. mantra—properly, the name of the project file rather than the nameless planet itself—was utterly barren. Only the human-breathable atmosphere indicated that the planet's lifelessness resulted from an outside agency rather than incapacity to support life.

The agency had almost certainly been a swarm of Ichtons. The chitinous monsters had devoured the surface of the planet, to feed themselves and to build a fleet of colony ships with which to infect additional worlds. The Ichtons were a cancer attacking all life . . .

mantra was gray rubble, waterless and sterile. Before they left, the invaders had reduced the planet to fist-sized pellets of slag, waste from their gigantic processing mills. The landscape over which the scout boat sizzled contained no hills, valleys, or hope.

"Chance wouldn't have brought us to a solar system, Captain," Kaehler said. She was small for a woman, even as Bailey was large for a man; and unlike her companion, she was a civilian without military rank. "It must be the correct location."

When Dresser thought about Kaehler, it appeared to him that she'd been stamped through a mold of a particular shape rather than grown to adulthood in the normal fashion. Events streamed through the slight woman without being colored by a personality.

Dresser thought about other people only when they impinged on his mission.

Dresser remembered that he wasn't dealing with scout crewmen. "Hang tight," he said. Even so, he spoke in a soft voice.

The AI pulsed red light across the cabin an instant after Dresser's warning. A heartbeat later, the landing motors fired with a harsh certainty that flung the three humans against their restraints.

Approach thresholds for scout boats were much higher than the norm for naval vessels, and enormously higher than those of commercial ships. The little boats might have to drop into a box canyon at a significant fraction of orbital velocity in order to survive. The hardware was stressed to take the punishment, and the crews got used to the experience—or transferred out of the service.

SB 781 crunched down at the point Dresser had chosen almost at random. They were in the mid-latitudes of mantra's northern hemisphere. That was as good as any other place on the featureless globe.

"Well, sirs . . ." Dresser said. The restraints didn't release automatically. Scout boats were liable to come to rest at any angle, including inverted. The pilot touched the manual switch, freeing himself and the two scientists. "Welcome to mantra."

* * *

"Was there a problem with the equipment?" Admiral Horwarth asked. "The Mantra Project was the first field trial, as I suppose you know."

She gave the scout a perfunctory smile. "I don't imagine that information stays compartmented within a three-man unit."

The Ichton turned to face the pick-ups. It seemed to be staring into the admiral's office, but that was an illusion. The link with the prisoner's cell was certainly not two-way; and in any case, the Ichtons' multiple eyes provided a virtually spherical field of view, though at low definition by human standards.

"The equipment?" Dresser said. "No, there wasn't any difficulty with the equipment."

He laughed. He sounded on the verge of hysteria.

* * *

"There," Kaehler called as the pole set a precise hundred meters from the imaging heads locked into focus on her display. "We have it."

"I'll decide that!" Captain Bailey replied from the support module twenty meters away. He shouted instead of using the hard-wired intercom linking the two units.

The breeze blew softly, tickling Dresser's nose with the smell of death more ancient than memory. He watched over Kaehler's shoulder as the image of the pole quivered and the operator's color-graduated console displays bounded up and down the spectrum—

Before settling again into the center of the green, where they had been before Bailey made his last set of adjustments.

"There!" Captain Bailey announced with satisfaction.

They'd placed the imaging module twenty meters from SB 781's side hatch. The support module containing the fusion power supply and the recording equipment was a similar distance beyond. A red light on top of the fusion bottle warned that it was pressurized to operating levels.

Though there was a monitor in the support module, Bailey had decreed that in the present climate they needn't deploy the shelters which would have blocked his direct view of the imaging module's three-meter display. If Kaehler had an opinion, the captain didn't bother to consult it.

Kaehler folded her hands neatly on her lap. "What has this proved?" Dresser asked, softly enough that he wouldn't intrude if the scientist was really concentrating instead of being at rest as she appeared to be.

Kaehler turned. "We've calibrated the equipment," she said. "We've achieved a lock on the target post, one second in the past. We'll be able to range as far back as we need to go when the artificial intelligence harmonizes the setting with the actual output of the power supply."

"That's what the captain's doing?" Dresser asked with a nod.

"The artificial intelligence is making the calculation," Kaehler said. "Captain Bailey is watching the AI while it works. I presume."

Dresser looked from Kaehler to the pole, then to the horizon beyond. "I don't see how it could work," he said to emptiness. "A second ago—the planet rotates on its axis, it circles the sun, the sun moves with its galaxy. Time is distance. Time isn't—"

He gestured toward the distant target.

"—the same place on a gravel plain."

Kaehler shrugged. "In this universe, perhaps not," she said. "We're accessing the past through the Dirac Sea. The normal universe is only a film on the—"

She shrugged again. It was the closest to a display of emotion Dresser had seen from her.

"—surface. Time isn't a dimension outside the normal universe."

"Kaehler!" Captain Bailey shouted. "Stop talking to that taxi driver and begin the search sequence. We've got a job to do, woman!"

The target pole hazed slightly in Dresser's vision, though the holographic image remained as sharp as the diamond-edged cutting bar on the scout's harness.

* * *

"I wanted to learn what it did," Dresser said in the direction of the image on the admiral's wall display. "I don't like to be around hardware and not know what it does. That's dangerous."

Admiral Horwarth glanced over her shoulder to see if anything in particular was holding the scout's attention. The Ichton rubbed its upper limbs across its wedge-shaped head as though cleaning its eyes. It raised one of its middle pair of legs and scrubbed with it also.

Horwarth looked around again. "Captain Bailey was able to find the correct time horizon, then?" she prompted.

"Not at first," Dresser said in his husky, emotionless voice. "You said five thousand years."

"The source believed the event occurred five thousand standard years ago," the admiral corrected. "But there were many variables."

"Kaehler went back more than ten thousand," Dresser said, "before she found anything but a gravel wasteland . . ."

* * *

"There," Kaehler said. Bailey, watching the monitor in the support module, bellowed, "Stop! I've got it!"

Dresser was watching the display when it happened. He might not have been. The search had gone on for three watches without a break, and mantra's own long twilight was beginning to fall.

The pulsing, colored static of the huge hologram shrank suddenly into outlines as the equipment came into focus with another time. The score of previous attempts displayed a landscape which differed from that of the present only because the target pole was not yet a part of it. This time—this Time—the view was of smooth, synthetic walls in swirls of orange and yellow.

Kaehler rocked a vernier. The images blurred, then dollied back to provide a panorama instead of the initial extreme close-up. Slimly conical buildings stood kilometers high. They were decorated with all the hues of the rainbow as well as grays that might be shades beyond those of the human optical spectrum. Roadways linked the structures to one another and to the ground, like the rigging of sailing ships. Moving vehicles glinted in the sunlight.

"Not that!" Bailey shouted. "Bring it in close so that we can see what they look like."

Kaehler manipulated controls with either index finger simultaneously. She rolled them—balls inset into the surface of her console—off the tips and down the shafts of her fingers. The scale of the image shrank while the apparent point of view slid groundward again.

Dresser, proud of the way he could grease a scout boat in manually if he had to, marvelled at the scientist's smooth skill.

"Get me a close-up, dammit!" Bailey ordered.

The huge image quivered under Kaehler's control before it resumed its slant downward. "We're calibrating the equipment," she said in little more than a whisper. "We're not in a race . . ."

Pedestrians walked in long lines on the ground among the buildings. Vehicles zipped around them like balls caroming from billiard cushions instead of curving as they would have done if guided by humans.

The locals, the Mantrans, were low-slung and exoskeletal. They had at least a dozen body segments with two pairs of legs on each. They carried the upper several segments off the ground. A battery of simple eyes was set directly into the chitin of the head.

Kaehler manually panned her point of view, then touched a switch so that the AI would continue following the Mantran she had chosen. The alien was about two meters long. Its chitinous body was gray, except for a segment striped with blue and green paint.

"They have hard shells too," Kaehler commented. "You'd think the Ichtons might treat them better."

"The Ichtons don't spare anything," Dresser said softly. He had once landed on a planet while an Ichton attack was still going on. Then he added, "On our bad days, humans haven't been notably kind toward other mammaliforms."

"Kaehler, for god's sake, start bringing the image forward in time!" Captain Bailey shouted. "We aren't here as tourists. We won't see the locals' superweapon until after the Ichtons land. Get with the program, woman!"

Kaehler began resetting the controls on her console. Her face was expressionless, as usual.

"Humans," Dresser said, looking over the stark landscape, "haven't always done real well toward other humans."

* * *

Dresser glanced at Admiral Horwarth, then shifted his gaze to the captive again. He continued to watch the admiral out of the corners of his eyes.

"They had a high tech level, the Mantrans," Dresser said. "I made myself believe that they could have built something to defeat the Ichtons. But I knew they hadn't, because—"

Dresser swept both hands out in a fierce gesture, palms down.

"—I could see they hadn't," he snarled. "There was nothing. The Ichtons had processed the whole planet down to waste. There was nothing! Nothing for us to find, no reason for us to be there."

"Our source was very precise," Horwarth said gently. "The Ichtons have genetic memory, which our source is able to tap. mantra was a disaster for them which has remained imprinted for, you say ten, thousands of years."

The 'source' was an Ichton clone, controlled by a human psyche. Dresser knew that, because the psyche was Dresser's own.

The scout began to shiver. He clasped his hands together to control them. With his eyes closed, he continued, "It took Kaehler an hour to get dialed in on the moment of the Ichton assault. Bailey badgered her the whole time . . ."

* * *

"I think—" Kaehler said.

A bead of blue fire appeared at the top of the image area. The terrain beneath was broken. The Ichton mothership had appeared in the southern hemisphere. SB 781's navigational computer told Dresser that the vector was probably chance. The Ichtons didn't appear to care where they made their approach.

The display turned white.

"Kaehler!" Bailey shouted. "You've lost the—"

"No!" Dresser said. "They follow an anti-matter bomb in. That's how they clear their landing zones."

The white glare mottled into a firestorm, roaring to engulf a landscape pulverized by the initial shockwave. For an instant, rarefaction from an aftershock cleared the atmosphere enough to provide a glimpse of the crater, kilometers across and a mass of glowing rock at the bottom.

The Ichton mothership continued to descend in stately majesty. A magnetic shield wrapped the enormous hull. Its flux gradient was so sharp that it severed the bonds of air molecules and made the vessel gleam in the blue and ultraviolet range of the spectrum.

Kaehler's right hand moved to a set of controls discrete from those which determined the imaging viewpoint in the physical dimensions. As her finger touched a roller, Captain Bailey ordered, "Come on, come on, Kaehler. Advance it so that we can see the response! It's—"

The display began to blur forward, if Time had direction. Bailey continued to speak, though it must have been obvious that Kaehler had anticipated his command.

"—the response that's important, not some explosion."

The glowing mothership remained steady. The Mantran reaction to being invaded was violent and sustained. War swirled around the huge vessel like sparks showering from a bonfire.

Kaehler advanced the temporal vernier at an increasing rate, letting the ball roll off her finger and onto the palm of her hand. She reached across her body with the other hand and switched a dial that increased the log of the rate.

A convoy of Ichton ground vehicles left the mothership while the rock of the crater still shimmered from the anti-matter explosion. The twenty vehicles had not escaped the frame of the display when the Mantrans engaged them from air and ground.

Ichton weapons fired flux generators like those which served the creatures as armor. The shearing effect of their magnetic gradients—particularly those of the heavy weapons mounted on the mothership—wreaked havoc with the defenders, but the quickly-mounted Mantran counterattack nonetheless overwhelmed the convoy vehicle by vehicle. The last to disintegrate in a fluorescent fireball was a gigantic cylinder carrying the eggs that were to be the basis of a new colony.

The Ichtons didn't send out further convoys. Instead, they ripped at the defenders with their flux generators. At intervals, the mothership lofted missiles that exploded with the flash and actinics of anti-matter when the Mantrans blew them up. Very rarely, a missile disappeared from Kaehler's display without being destroyed.

Mantran earthworks grew around the mothership like mosaic virus expanding across a tobacco leaf. The defenders' weapons bombarded the vessel ceaselessly, but the Ichton armor absorbed even fusion bombs without damage.

"This isn't where they'll develop it," Bailey said abruptly. "We need to check their arsenals, their laboratories."

Kaehler didn't react. She continued to move the image in time without changing the spatial point of focus.

"This is where they'll deploy any weapon," Dresser snapped. "This is where we need to be for now."

Bailey was in command of the expedition and the scout's superior by six grades. Dresser didn't care. The command had been foolish. One of the reasons Dresser was a scout was his inability to suffer fools in silence, whatever the fools' rank.

On the display, seasons blurred between snow and baked, barren earth. All life but that armored within the mothership and the defenders' lines was blasted away by the mutual hellfire. The sky above SB 781 darkened, but the huge hologram lighted the boat and the watching humans.

"Stop playing with the scale, Kaehler," Captain Bailey ordered. "I'll tell you if I want a close-up."

Kaehler looked startled. Her hands were slowly working the temporal controls, but she hadn't touched the spatial unit since she initially focused on the mothership.

"It's not the scale that's changing," Dresser said. "It's the ship. It's expanding the volume covered by its shields, despite anything the Mantrans can do."

The innermost ring of Mantran defenses crumbled as the blue glare swelled, meter by meter. Seasons washed across the landscape like a dirty river . . .

* * *

Dresser unclenched his hands. He looked at Admiral Horwarth in embarrassment for being so close to the edge. "It was like gangrene, sir," he said. "Have you seen somebody with gangrene?"

She shook her head tautly. "No," she said. "I can imagine."

"You can't cure it," the scout said, speaking toward the Ichton again. The creature was huddled in a corner of its cell. "They just keep cutting pieces off and hope they got it all. Which they probably didn't."

"But the Mantrans were able to hold?" Horwarth prompted.

The scout shrugged. "For years," he said, "but it didn't matter. The fighting was poisoning the whole planet. The atmosphere, the seas . . . The land for hundreds of kilometers from the mothership was as dead as the floor of Hell. The Ichtons didn't care. The whole Mantran infrastructure was beginning to break down."

Dresser laced his fingers again. "Then the Ichtons sent out another convoy . . ."

* * *

Dresser looked from Kaehler to Bailey. Both scientists were glassy-eyed with fatigue.

"Ah, Captain Bailey?" Dresser said.

Bailey didn't reply. He may not even have heard.

The display was a fierce blue glare which sparkled but never significantly changed. It was like watching the play of light across the facets of a diamond, mesmerizing but empty.


Thousand-meter fireballs rippled suddenly at the north side of the mothership's shields. Through them, as inexorable as a spear cleaving a rib cage, rocked a column of Ichton vehicles.

The leading tank spewed a stream of flux projectiles that gnawed deep into the Mantran defenses until a white-hot concentration of power focused down on the vehicle. The tank ripped apart in an explosion greater than any of those which destroyed it, widening the gap in the Mantran defensive wall.

The convoy's second vehicle was also a tank. It continued the work of destruction as it shuddered onward. The defenders' fire quivered on the Ichton shield, but the Mantrans couldn't repeat the concentration that had overwhelmed the leader.

"They can't stop it." Dresser whispered. "It's over."

The image volume went red/orange/white. The dense jewel of the mothership blazed through a fog that warped and almost hid its outlines. The blur of seasons was lost in the greater distortion.

"Kaehler, what have you done, you idiot?" Bailey shouted. He stepped out of his module; hands clenched, face distorted in the light of the hologram. Except for the blue core, the image could almost be that of the display's stand-by mode—points of light in a random pattern, visual white noise.

Except for the Ichton mothership at the blue heart of it.

"It wasn't . . ." Kaehler said as her hands played across her controls with a brain surgeon's delicacy, freezing the image and then reversing it in minute increments.

" . . . me!" The last word was a shout, the first time Dresser had heard Kaehler raise her voice.

The image froze again in time. A disk of the planet's surface, hundreds of kilometers in diameter, slumped and went molten. Its center was the Ichton vessel. Vaporized rock, atmospheric gases fused into long chains, and plasma bursting upward from subterranean thermonuclear blasts turned the whole viewing area into a hellbroth in which the states of matter were inextricably blended.

The scout understood what had happened before either of the scientists did. "They blew it down to the mantle," Dresser said. "The Mantrans did. Their weapons couldn't destroy the Ichtons, so they used the planet to do it."

And failed, but he didn't say that aloud.

Kaehler let the image scroll forward again, though at a slower rate of advance than that at which she had proceeded before. The Ichton convoy vanished, sucked into liquescent rock surging from the planet's core. Plates of magma cooled, cracked, and upended to sink again into the bubbling inferno.

Sulphur compounds from the molten rock spewed into the stratosphere and formed a reflective haze. The sky darkened to night, not only at the target site but over the entire planet. Years and decades went by as the crater slowly cooled. Night continued to cloak the chaos.

"Bring it back to the point of the explosion, Kaehler," the captain said. Bailey spoke in what was a restrained tone, for him. For the first time during the operation he used the intercom instead of shouting his directions from the support module. "Freeze it at the instant the shockwave hit them. That must have been what destroyed the ship."

"It didn't destroy the ship," Kaehler said. Her voice had even less affect than usual. The image continued to advance.

The magnetic shields of the Ichton vessel provided the only certain light. The ship floated on a sea of magma, spherical and unchanged.

"They're dead inside it!" Bailey shouted. "Focus on the microsecond of the first shockwave!"

"You damned fool!" Kaehler shouted back. "I don't have that degree of control. We've got a hundred-millimeter aperture, or have you forgotten?"

Dresser watched Kaehler's profile as she spoke. She didn't look angry. Her face could have been a death mask.

The display continued to crawl forward. Lava crusted to stone. Cracks between solid blocks opened less frequently to cast their orange light across the wasteland. Century-long storms washed the atmosphere cleaner if not clean.

Bailey blinked and sat down in his module. Kaehler turned back to her controls.

"Their own people," she said in a voice that might not have been intended even for Dresser. "There were thousands of them in the defenses. They all died."

There had been millions of Mantrans in the defense lines. 

"They couldn't pull them out," the scout said softly. "The defenses had to hold until the last instant, so that the mantle rupture would get all the Ichtons."

"Did they know they were going to die?" Kaehler whispered.

"They knew they'd all die anyway," Dresser said.

Everything in the universe would die. 

The mothership released a sheaf of missiles, bright streaks across the roiling sky. Their anti-matter warheads exploded in the far distance, flickers of false dawn.

Three convoys set out from the mothership simultaneously. Mantran forces engaged one convoy while it was still within the display area, but the vain attempt lighted the hummocks of lava as briefly as a lightning flash . . .

* * *

"I knew it was over then," Dresser said to his hands in the admiral's office. "I'd known it before. They don't quit. The Ichtons don't quit."

He looked at the captive again. It now lay on its back. Its six limbs moved slowly, as though they were separate creatures drifting in the currents of the sea.

"It may have been the failure of conventional techniques that forced the Mantrans to develop their superweapon," Horwarth suggested. She wasn't so much arguing with the scout as soothing him.

Dresser shook his head. "There was never a superweapon on mantra, Admiral," he said. "Just death."

* * *

"Move us forward faster, Kaehler," Captain Bailey ordered over the intercom. "And—change the spatial viewpoint, I think. Follow a moving column."

For once, Dresser thought the captain had a point. There was nothing useful to be seen in the neighborhood of the mothership.

Three more convoys set out across the cooling lava. These met no resistance.

Kaehler remained fixed, as though she were a wax dummy at her console.

There was nothing useful to be seen anywhere on the planet. 


The female scientist began to change settings with the cool precision of a machine which had just been switched on again. She did not speak.

The images on the display flip-flopped through abrupt changes in time and place. An image of all mantra hung above the console. Half the planet was in sunlight. Yellow-lit cities of the indigenes and the blue speckles of Ichton colonies studded the remaining hemisphere.

For the moment, the colonies were small and there were only a few of them visible. For the moment.

Kaehler's fingers searched discrete blocks of time and space like an expert shuffling cards, throwing up images for a second or less before shifting to the next:

A barren landscape with neither Ichtons nor Mantrans present.

A distant nighttime battle, plasma weapons slamming out bolts of sulphurous yellow that made Ichton shields pulse at the edge of the ultra-violet. Just as Kaehler switched away, an anti-matter warhead obliterated the whole scene. Ichton machinery with maws a kilometer wide, harvesting not only a field of broad-leafed vegetation but the soil a meter down. Enclosed conveyors snaked out of the image area, carrying the organic material toward an Ichton colony. The invaders' tanks oversaw the process, but their waiting guns found no targets.

A Mantran city looming on the horizon—

"There!" Bailey called. "There, hold on that one!"

Kaehler gave no sign that she heard her superior, but she locked the controls back to a slow crawl again. Perhaps she'd intended to do that in any case.

Mantran resistance had devolved to the local level. This city was ringed with fortifications similar to those which the planet as a whole had thrown up around the Ichton mothership. Though the defenses were kilometers deep, they were only a shadow of those which the invaders had breached around their landing zone.

The Ichton force approaching the city was a dedicated combat unit, not a colonizing endeavor. Turreted tanks guarded the flanks and rear of the invaders' column, but the leading vehicles were featureless tubes several hundred meters long. They looked like battering rams, and their purpose was similar.

The city's defenders met the column with plasma bolts and volleys of missiles. A tank, caught by several bolts and a thermonuclear warhead simultaneously, exploded. The failure of its magnetic shields was cataclysmic, rocking nearby vehicles as the Mantran bombardment had not been able to do.

For the most part, Ichton counterfire detonated the missiles before they struck. Plasma bolts could at best stall an Ichton target for a few moments while the vehicle directed the whole output of its power supply to the protective shields.

The tubular Ichton vehicles were built around flux generators as large as those of the mothership's main armament. Three of them fired together. A section of the Mantran defenses vanished in a sunbright dazzle. It shimmered with all the hues of a fire opal.

The gun vehicles crawled closer to the city. The height of the flux gradient of their projectiles was proportional to the cube of the distance from the launcher's muzzle. Even at a range of several hundred meters, the weapons sheared the intra-atomic bonds of the collapsed metal armoring the defenses.

All the available Mantran weaponry concentrated on the gun vehicles. The ground before their treads bubbled and seethed, and the nearest of the indigenes' fortifications began to slump from the fury of the defensive fire.

The Ichtons fired again; shifted their concentrated aim and fired again; shifted and fired. The gap before them was wide enough to pass the attacking column abreast. Counterfire ceased, save for a vain handful of missiles from launchers which hadn't quite emptied their magazines.

The column advanced. An inner line of plasma weapons opened up—uselessly.

In the ruins of the outer defenses, a few Mantrans thrashed. Muscles, broiled within their shells by heat released when nearby matter ionized, made the Mantrans' segemented bodies coil and knot.

Sergeant Dresser turned his head. He was a scout. He was trained to observe and report information.

There was nothing new to observe here.

"Kaehler!" Captain Bailey shouted from the edge of Dresser's conscious awareness. "Bring us forward by longer steps, woman! This isn't any good to us."

When Dresser faced away from the holographic display, he could see stars in the sky of mantra. He wondered if any of them had planets which had escaped being stripped by the Ichton ravagers . . .

* * *

"Bailey figured," Dresser said in a voice too flat to hold emotion, "that we'd be able to tell when the superweapon was developed by its effect on the Ichtons. When we saw signs of the Ichtons retreating, of their colonies vanishing, then we'd know something had happened and work back to learn what."

Admiral Horwarth nodded. "That sounds reasonable," she said.

"They should've taken a break, Bailey and Kaehler," the scout added in a nonsequitur. His mind, trapped in the past, bounced from one regret to another. "Going straight on, I knew it was a mistake, but I wasn't in charge."

Horwarth looked over her shoulder at the captive Ichton. The movement was a way of gaining time for her to decide how to respond. The Ichton still lay full length on the floor of its cell. Its limbs wrapped its torso tightly.

Horwarth turned again. "Should we have sent more than one team?" she asked. "Was that the problem?"

"No," Dresser said sharply. The harshness of his own voice surprised him.

"No sir," he said, meeting the admiral's eyes in apology. "I don't think so. Time wasn't that crucial. Bailey got focused on finding the superweapon. The more clear it was that no such weapon existed—"

Dresser's anger blazed out unexpectedly. "The planet was a wasteland!" he snarled. "We knew that from the pre-landing survey!"

"The Mantrans could have developed their weapon when it was too late to save their planet, you know," Horwarth suggested mildly. "What we have is evidence that the Ichtons were traumatized by the contact—not that the Mantrans survived it."

Dresser sighed. "Yeah," he said to his hands, "I told myself that. But Bailey—and I think maybe Kaehler too, though it didn't hit her the same way. They weren't focused on the long-term result any more."

He shook his head at the memory. "They were too tired, and it was getting close to dawn . . ."

* * *

Captain Bailey walked toward them from the support module. For a moment, Dresser saw his head silhouetted against the telltale on top of the fusion bottle. The red glow licked around the captain's features like hellfire.

Bailey didn't speak. Kaehler had ignored the last several of his commands anyway.

On the display, two Mantrans huddled together on a plateau as invaders approached from all sides. There were probably fewer than a thousand indigenes surviving at this time horizon.

Kaehler waited like a statue. Her fingers poised above the controls. The apparatus scrolled forward at one second/second.

"How long has it been since the Ichtons landed?" Dresser asked quietly. He wasn't sure she would answer him either.

"Six hundred standard years," Kaehler replied without moving more than her lips. "At the time we're observing, the Mantran year was at two-eighty-one standard. The Ichtons took so much mass with them that the planet shifted to an orbit longer by forty days."

The atmosphere on the holographic display was so foul that the sun shone wanly even at noon. Nevertheless the image area was lighted vividly by the six Ichton colonies visible from this point. Each colony had grown as large as the mothership was when it landed.

When the time was right—when everything useful on mantra had been processed into Ichton equipment or Ichton flesh—the myriad colonies would blast off from the stripped planet. Each would be the mothership of a fresh brood, capable of destroying a further world in logarithmic progression.

"What sort of equipment do the defenders have?" Captain Bailey asked. He was looking at Kaehler.

"They don't have anything, sir," Dresser replied. He knew—all three of them knew—that Kaehler wasn't going to speak. "I thought they were dead, but a few minutes again, they moved a little."

Military operations on mantra had ceased generations before. The Ichton columns grinding away the rock on which the pair of indigenes sheltered were miners, not troops.

"Pan back a little ways, Kaehler," Bailey said. "I want to get a view of the enemy."

Kaehler didn't respond.

The Mantrans were life-sized images above the purring console. One of them coiled more tightly. Bright yellow blotches of fungus were the only color on either body. Illumination from the Ichton colonies turned the hue to sickly green.

Bailey cursed under his breath. He stamped back toward the support module.

When her superior was halfway to his proper position, Kaehler adjusted her controls. The apparent viewpoint lifted, giving Dresser a view of the approaching Ichtons.

The plateau on which the pair of Mantrans lay was artificial. Mining equipment ground away the rock from six directions, lowering the surface of the plain—of the planet—by twenty meters. A snake of tubing connected each of the grinding machines to one of the Ichton colonies which squatted on the horizon. There the material would be sorted, processed, and built into the mothership growing at the heart of each colony.

The closed conveyors gleamed with magnetic shields. Such protection was now unnecessary. Not even rain fell. Separate conveyor lines carried tailings, the waste that not even Ichton efficiency could use, into the ocean basins already drained by the invaders' requirements.

Cutting heads snuffled up and down the face rock, then moved in a shallow arc to either side with the close of each stroke. An Ichton in shimmering body armor rode each machine, but there was no obvious need for such oversight. The cutters moved like hounds casting, missing nothing in a slow inexorability that was far more chilling than a cat's lithe pounce.

Bits of the upper edge of the plateau dribbled into the maw of a cutter rising to the top of its stroke. One of the Mantrans coiled because the ground was shifting beneath its segmented body. Dresser wasn't sure that the movement was conscious. Certainly the indigene made no concerted effort to escape.

Not that escape was possible.

Kaehler touched her controls, focusing down on the two Mantrans. The images swelled to larger than life size. Edges lost definition.

One of the creatures was chewing on a piece of cloth. Its chitinous jaws opened and closed with a sideways motion. The fabric, a tough synthetic, remained unaffected by the attempt to devour it.

"The left one has a weapon!" Captain Bailey suddenly cried. "Increase the resolution, Kaehler! This must be it!"

Dresser could see that the Mantran, writhing as the plateau disintegrated beneath it, didn't have a weapon. The yellow fungus had eaten away much of the creature's underside. Most of its walking legs were withered, and one had fallen off at the root. That, hard-shelled and kinked at an angle, was what Bailey's desperation had mistaken for a weapon.

Kaehler turned toward her superior. "I can't increase the resolution with a hundred-millimeter aperture," she said in a voice as empty as the breeze.

Bailey stood at the edge of his module. His head was silhouetted by the telltale behind him. "You could if you were any good at your job!" he shouted. "I'm tired of your excuses!"

The cutting head rose into sight on the display. The Ichton riding it pointed his weapon, a miniature version of the flux generators which had devoured armor denser than the heart of a star.

Kaehler stared at Bailey. Her left hand raised a panel on the front of her console. She didn't look down at it.

Dresser touched the woman's shoulder with his left hand. He was icy cold. "Ah, ma'am?" he said.

"All right, Captain," Kaehler said in a voice like hoarfrost. "I'll enlarge—"

"Wait!" Bailey shouted.

Dresser didn't know what was about to happen, but he wouldn't have lived as long as he had without being willing to act decisively on insufficient data. He gripped Kaehler and tried to lift her out of her seat.

Kaehler's hand yanked at the control which had been caged within the console. Dresser saw Captain Bailey's face lighted brilliantly in the instant before another reality enveloped the imaging module and the two humans within it.

The Ichton fired, knocking the head off the nearer indigene with the easy nonchalance of a diner opening a soft-boiled egg. Rock beyond the Mantran disintegrated also, spraying grit into Dresser's face as his right hand snatched his cutting bar.

The air was foul with poisons not yet reabsorbed by ten thousand years of wind blowing through a filter of porous waste. The sky was black, and the horizon gleamed with Ichton colonies gravid with all-destroying life.

Kaehler had opened the viewing aperture to the point that it enveloped herself, her equipment—

And Sergeant Dresser, who hadn't carried a gun on a lifeless desert, for god's sake, only a cutting bar that wouldn't be enough to overload Ichton body armor. Dresser lunged for the monster anyway as it turned in surprise.

A stream of flux projectiles blew divots out of stone as the Ichton brought its weapon around. Kaehler didn't move.

Dresser's powered, diamond-toothed blade screamed and stalled in the magnetic shielding. He tried to grab the Ichton weapon but caught the limb holding it instead. The scout's fingers couldn't reach a material surface. Though he knew his arm was stronger than the exoskeletal monster's, his hand slipped as though he was trying to hold hot butter.

Dresser looked down the muzzle of the Ichton weapon.

He thought, when he hit the ground an instant later, that he was dead. Instead, he was sprawled beside SB 781. Plasma spewing from the fusion bottle formed a plume that melted the upper surfaces of the support module. It was brighter than the rising sun . . .

* * *

Dresser met Admiral Horwarth's eyes. "He'd vented the containment vessel," the scout said. "Bailey had. He knew it'd kill him, but it was the only way to shut the apparatus off fast enough from where he was."

"I've recommended Captain Bailey for a Fleet Cross on the basis of your report, Sergeant," Horwarth said quietly. "The—cause of your transition through the aperture will be given as equipment failure, though."

Dresser shrugged. His eyes were wide and empty, with a thousand-meter stare that took in neither the admiral nor the image of the motionless Ichton on the wall behind her.

"It wasn't Kaehler's fault," the scout said. His voice sank to a hoarse whisper. "She cracked, people do that. It wasn't a fault."

He blinked and focused on Horwarth again. "Is she going to be all right?" he asked. "She wouldn't talk, wouldn't even move on the trip back."

"I'll have a report soon," Horwarth said, a bland placeholder instead of an answer.

Dresser wrapped his arms tightly around his torso. "Maybe it wasn't Bailey's fault either," he said. "I figure he cracked too. Even me, I'm used to the Ichtons, but it bothered me a bit. He wasn't ready to see the things he saw on mantra."

"A bit" was a lie obvious to anyone but the man who said it.

Dresser's smile was as slight and humorless as the point of a dagger. "I brought his feet back in cold storage. Everything above the ankles, that the plasma got when he dumped the bottle."

"There doesn't appear to have been any flaw in the equipment itself, though," Horwarth said. "Until the damage incurred in the final accident."

"I was the one who screwed up," Dresser said to his past. "I should've grabbed her quicker. I was supposed to be the scout, the professional."

"When the equipment can be rebuilt," Admiral Horwarth said, clamping the scout with the intensity of her gaze, "there'll have be a follow-up mission to complete the reconnaissance."

"No," said Dresser.

Horwarth ignored the word. "I'd appreciate it if you would consent to pilot the mission, Sergeant," she said. "You know better than almost anyone else how impor—"

"No!" Dresser shouted as he lurched to his feet. "No, you don't need a follow-up mission! We'd completed the mission, and we'd failed. That's why it happened, don't you see?"

"What I see is that the incident aborted Captain Bailey's mission, before it reached closure," the admiral said.

She rose also and leaned forward on her desk, resting on her knuckles. Her voice rose as either her facade cracked or she let some of her real anger and frustration out as a means of controlling the scout. "What I see is that we have to find the weapon the Ichtons fear, because you've proved that no conventional weapon can defeat them in the long term."

"Admiral," Dresser begged.

He turned to the closed door behind him, then turned again. He didn't realize that he was crying until a falling tear splashed the back of his hand. "Sir. The coordinates were wrong, something was wrong. The only thing left to learn on mantra was whether the last of the indigenes died of disease or starvation before the Ichtons got them."

Horwarth softened. She'd skimmed the recordings the expedition brought back. She didn't need Psych's evaluation of the two survivors to understand how the images would affect those who'd actually gathered them.

"Sergeant," she said, "something happened to the Ichtons before they spread from mantra. It made memory of the place a hell for them ten thousand years later. We have to learn what."

"Sir . . ." Dresser whispered. He rubbed his eyes angrily, but he was still blind with memory. "Sir, I'll go back, I'll do whatever you want. But we failed, sir, because there was nothing there to succeed with. And since I watched mantra eaten, I know just how bad we failed."

"We've got to try, Ser—" Admiral Horwarth began.

The electronic chime of an alarm interrupted her. Horwarth reached for a control on her desk.

Dresser's gaze focused on the holographic scene behind the admiral. Three humans wearing protective garments had entered the Ichton's cell. They stumbled into one another in their haste.

"Duty officer!" Admiral Horwarth snarled into her intercom. "What the hell is going on?"

Two of the attendants managed to raise the Ichton from the floor of the cell. The creature was leaking fluid from every joint. It was obviously dead.

The chitinous exoskeleton of the Ichton's torso was blotched yellow by patches of the fungus whose spores had travelled with Sergeant Dresser from the surface of a dying planet.


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