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1

"Welcome to Sage, Captain."


Captain Maneka Trevor tried to look cool and composed as the unsmiling rear admiral on the other side of the carrier-sized desk stood and reached out to grip her hand firmly. Despite his almost grim expression, Rear Admiral Sedgewood's greeting was less constrained than she had anticipated. Of course, her expectations weren't exactly reliable these days, she told herself. She'd felt so much like the character Ishmael from the ancient Old Earth novel for so long that she sometimes felt her guilt must be branded upon her forehead for all to see . . . and react to. But the rear admiral's expression wasn't condemnatory. Then again, it was unlikely someone of his lofty rank wasted much time and effort even thinking about mere captains—even captains of the Dinochrome Brigade—one way or the other.


And yet, there was something. She couldn't put her finger on what that "something" was, but she knew it was there. Perhaps no more than a trace expression, something about the eyes that looked at her as if her unpromising future were about to change in some fundamental fashion. . . .


"Thank you, sir," she said, managing not to wince as her slender, fine-boned hand disappeared into Sedgewood's massive paw. It was the hand the medics had regenerated after Chartres, and she still felt an irrational fear that the replacement would go the way of its predecessor.


"Sit down," he urged, releasing her and waving at one of the office's comfortable chairs. He sat back down behind the desk and folded his hands on its immaculate top, regarding her levelly for several seconds. Then he sighed and turned halfway away from her to look out the wide window of his office across the huge, busy plain of Gaynor Field, the Sage Cluster's primary Navy base.


Maneka looked out the window past him, waiting for him to get around to explaining why an officer of his rank had "requested" a mere captain's presence. She was pretty certain she wouldn't like the answer, but there were a lot of things she didn't like about the universe in which she happened to live.


She let her own eyes rest on the seething activity of the enormous base. The color balance still seemed . . . odd to her, but the medics assured her that was psychosomatic. The regenerated right eye, they swore, perceived light exactly the same way as the one it had replaced. And even if it hadn't, her brain had long since had time to learn to adjust. Only it hadn't. Yet.


But color balance or no, Gaynor's endless bustle should have been a reassuring sight. Even as she watched, a trio of cruiser-sized heavy-lift shuttles rose towards the heavens, drives thundering with a power she could feel even at this distance and even from inside the rear admiral's office. On the way into Sage, her transport had passed two full squadrons of superdreadnoughts, with appropriate screening elements, and she knew there were at least two carriers in orbit around Sage even as she sat here. The capital ships represented a terrifying concentration of firepower, but it wasn't reassuring. Not when she knew how badly the war was going for the Concordiat.


Well, she told herself, at least I can hope it's going equally poorly for the Puppies. 


The thought was less reassuring than it ought to have been. She didn't know what the Melconian Empire called its equivalent of Plan Ragnarok, but it was obvious it had one. And somehow the reports that Melconian planets were being killed even more quickly than human ones didn't make her feel any happier.


"I'm sorry we couldn't give you a longer convalescent leave, Captain," Rear Admiral Sedgewood said after a moment. His voice was quieter, and he continued to gaze out through the crystal panes of the window. "Unfortunately, we're more and more badly pressed for experienced officers. Ragnarok—" his mouth twisted as if the word tasted physically sour "—is sucking off over half our total combat capability for offensive operations. Most of the rest is committed to trying to stop—or slow down, at least—the Melconian advance in this sector and over in the Palmer and Long Stop Sectors. It . . . isn't going well."


Maneka said nothing. It was a statement, not a question, and she hadn't needed him to tell her, anyway. After all, she'd been at Chartres.


"No, Captain," Sedgewood said, turning back to face her fully. "Not well at all. What I'm about to tell you is classified Top-Secret: Violet-Alpha. It is not to be discussed outside this office with anyone not expressly cleared for the information. Is that clear?"


"Yes, sir," she said more crisply, sitting very straight in the comfortable chair while a vibrating butterfly hovered somewhere in her middle.


"Good," Sedgewood said, then inhaled deeply. "Captain," he said in an iron-ribbed voice, "we're losing."


Maneka sat very, very still. It wasn't a surprise. Not really. Military censorship was one thing, but there was no way to hide the magnitude of the tsunami sweeping across human-occupied space. Not when entire worlds, whole solar systems, blazed like funeral pyres against the endless depths of space. She'd realized long ago, even before the holocaust on Chartres, that the only hope either side still retained for victory was that it could complete the utter destruction of its enemies while some pathetic handful of its own planets still survived. But no one had ever told her just how large the Melconian Empire really was. She didn't know if anyone even truly knew. She'd suspected—feared—that it was larger than the most pessimistic estimates she'd ever heard, yet this was the first time any of her superiors, far less one as senior as Sedgewood, had ever officially suggested to her that the Concordiat was losing.


Losing. Even now, she realized, she'd never really faced the full implications of the possibility of defeat. Perhaps it was because she hadn't been prepared to confront that dark, primordial nightmare. Or perhaps it was because of the Concordiat's remorseless record of victory. The Concordiat had lost battles in previous conflicts, suffered disastrous defeat in more than one critical campaign, but it had never—ever—lost a war.


That's what the Brigade is for, she told herself. We're not supposed to let this happen. 


"We can't be positive," Sedgewood continued in that same harsh, overcontrolled voice. "It's been obvious for years now that we totally underestimated the size and strength of the Empire. We weren't prepared for how quickly they mobilized, or how soon they began attacking civilian planetary populations. Even now, we're not positive we've successfully extrapolated their actual size and strength from captured data and prisoner interrogation. But, even our most optimistic assessment gives us less than a forty percent chance of final victory. Our most pessimistic assessment—"


He paused with a shrug, and Maneka felt her nostrils flare as she gave a very tiny nod.


"We need every ship, every Bolo, and every Brigade officer at the front," Sedgewood said. "Even if the pessimists are right, it's our duty to go down fighting. And it's also our duty to assume—to make ourselves believe—the pessimists are wrong. To prove that they are . . . even if they aren't."


Maneka nodded again. She'd long since accepted that, whatever else happened, she would not survive the war. The Brigade's casualty rates were too high for her to deceive herself about something that fundamental, and there was something about that realization which was . . . fitting.


"However," the rear admiral said, "we also have a duty to prepare for the possibility that the pessimists are correct. That we will lose this war, and that the Concordiat and every one of its planets will be destroyed. That's where you come in."


He paused, his eyes fixed on her face, and she stared back at him in equal parts confusion and disbelief. Silence stretched out between them. She felt the vibrations of another heavy shuttle liftoff, and still the silence lingered until she could stand it no longer and cleared her throat.


"Where I come in, Admiral?" she said carefully.


"Yes." Sedgewood leaned back in his chair, bracing his elbows on the chair arms and interlacing his fingers across his flat belly. "The Concordiat is preparing a fallback position, Captain. We call it 'Operation Seed Corn,' and it's important enough for us to assign it every scrap of resources the main combat fronts can spare. And two of those scraps, Captain Trevor are you and your new Bolo."


* * *


"Come forth, Unit One-Seven-Niner!"


The command phrase penetrates my awareness. It is not the activation code my previous Commander chose, but it does have the advantage that it is a phrase unlikely to be utilized in casual conversation. And, in light of my own history, perhaps it—as my new cognomen—is appropriate after all. 


"Unit Two-Eight-Golf-One-Seven-Niner-LAZ, awaiting orders," I respond instantly. 


"Good."


An unusual degree of tension infuses my Commander's soprano voice. Analysis of extraneous sounds over the communications link confirm that her heartbeat and respiration are accelerated. Not that such confirmation was required. The command phrase she has just uttered has not simply awakened me but initiated full final-stage Battle Reflex release, and a check of my chronometer indicates that we remain 237.25 Standard Days short of our minimum disembarkation date. 


"Prepared to receipt situation report, Commander," I reply. 


"I believe the best way to describe the current situation is probably 'not good,'" Captain Trevor tells me in a dry tone. "Commodore Lakshmaniah's just passed the word. Foudroyant has picked up Melconian tactical chatter. Access Command-Alpha-Three for a complete update."


"Acknowledged."


I access the indicated command and control channel. The central AI of Valiant, Commodore Lakshmaniah's flagship, receipts my data request. Valiant is not a Bolo, but the heavy cruiser's artificial intelligence is powerful and incisive. It requires only 7.684 seconds to fully update my tactical files. 


"Update completed, Commander," I inform Captain Trevor. 


"Good, Lazarus. Summarize."


"Yes, Commander."


I activate the visual pickup in my Commander's small cabin. It is, by human standards, quite cramped. Indeed, its total volume is scarcely 94.321 percent that of my own command deck. It is, perhaps, fortunate that Captain Trevor stands only 1.627 meters in height. 


At the moment, she sits in the contoured chair before her small desk, frowning at her data display. I am unable to obtain a direct view of the display, but I am able to observe it indirectly from its reflection upon her corneas. Enhancement of that reflection confirms my suspicion that her display is set to relay the imagery generated by Valiant's Combat Information Center. Unfortunately, my Commander is not trained as a naval officer, and it is apparent to me that she is uncomfortable with her own ability to interpret the tactical iconography of the Navy. 


"At present," I inform her, "Valiant's analysis of Foudroyant's sensor data remains tentative. There is, however, an 85.96 percent probability that the convoy has been detected and is being shadowed by Enemy naval units. Analysis further suggests a lesser probability of 62.831 percent that the transmitting unit is an Ever Victorious-class light cruiser."


"Damn." My Commander utters the profanity mildly, but I am not deceived. 


"Commodore Lakshmaniah has issued preparatory orders for Mouse Hole," I continue. "Valiant, Foudroyant, Mikasa, and South Dakota are falling back to cover the projected threat axis. Halberd has been dispatched to investigate more fully."


"And us?" my Commander asks. 


"We are on the far side of the convoy from the Enemy's anticipated approach, Commander. Commodore Lakshmaniah desires us to remain covert as long as possible. Unit Four-Zero-Three and Lieutenant Chin are currently shifting position to join us in providing antimissile defense and close-range cover."


"Understood."


Captain Trevor rubs the tip of her nose, her blue eyes focused on the data display, and my audio analysis reports that her pulse and respiration rates have returned almost to normal. She considers the situation for 5.293 seconds—a relatively brief interval, for a Human—then nods. 


"I hope to hell that we're jumping at shadows, Lazarus," she says then. "If we're not, though, it's going to be up to you. Assume flight control now."


"Acknowledged."


I obey my instructions, and instruct Thermopylae's AI to surrender control to me. Lieutenant Hawthorne, Thermopylae's commanding officer, grimaces on his flight deck as the assault ship acknowledges my authority. Although he does not complain, it is obvious that he resents my "interference" with his own command responsibilities. This is unfortunate, but he is a regular naval officer, only recently assigned to his present duties, and not a member of the Dinochrome Brigade. As such, he is not fully familiar with the differences between the tactical capabilities of a Bolo—even one no longer acceptable for front-line service with the Brigade—and those of his own vessel. Admittedly, the Sleipner-class AIs are quite competent for transport vessels, but they were never intended to match the abilities of a Bolo. Like the Fafnirs which preceded them, however, they are built around hard points capable of mounting assault pods designed to land Bolos against hostile fire. And those pods are also designed to allow Bolos to be berthed semiexternally . . . freeing their weapons and sensors to defend the transport. 


As my onboard systems assume control of Thermopylae's flight computers, I begin a thorough diagnostic of my own weapons, sensors, and fire control systems. It is not strictly required by regulations and doctrine, since I have been neither exposed to Enemy action nor out of maintenance since boarding Thermopylae. Given the nature of the repairs and upgrades which I have received, however, I am aware that I am experiencing a sensation which, in a Human, would undoubtedly be called "anxiety." There is no rational reason that I should, but my upgraded psychotronics approach much more closely to Human-level intuitiveness than my initial programming was designed to accommodate. Central Depot's modifications allow me to compensate for that, but it would appear that there are additional emotional overlays and nuances which have been integrated only imperfectly into my preexisting gestalt. It is not a pleasant sensation. 


I set that thought aside as my diagnostics report. All systems are functional at 99.879 percent of base capability, and I activate my onboard passive sensors. They are significantly more capable than Thermopylae's, and I command the transport to begin a slow axial spin. The pod mounted on the hard point on the far side of the transport's hull is occupied solely by cargo intended for the colony, as Unit 31/B-403-MKY, the other Bolo assigned to this convoy, is aboard the transport Stalingrad, on the far side of the formation. Without a second Bolo on the second hard point, Thermopylae's hull creates a potentially dangerous blind spot in my sensor coverage. In addition to the hull rotation, I deploy half a dozen sensor remotes, but capable as they are, they do not match the capabilities of my onboard systems. The rotation I have imparted to Thermopylae will sweep those onboard sensor arrays across the full volume of space for which Captain Trevor and I have been assigned responsibility. 


It requires somewhat longer than it ought to have—almost 6.273 seconds—for Thermopylae's AI to fully relinquish control to me. The delay is mildly frustrating but has no significant tactical consequences. It does, however, give me sufficient time to once again regret the death of my previous Commander. Lieutenant Takahashi and I had served together for 22.31 Standard Months at the time of his death and my own incapacitation. In that time, he became more than my Commander; he became my friend. Captain Trevor—Lieutenant Trevor, then—on the other hand, had joined the Thirty-Ninth Battalion only 85.71 Standard Days before our deployment to Chartres. It is not that I doubt her courage or her capabilities, but that I simply do not yet know her as I should. Yet I do know that her original Bolo, 28/G-862-BNJ, thought most highly of her, for he confided his appreciation for her native ability to me before Chartres. And the most cursory examination of her own performance on Chartres is eloquent evidence that Benjy was correct. That she is, indeed, a worthy upholder of the Dinochrome Brigade's stern tradition. Yet I sense a certain hesitancy. It is as if she guards some inner secret. In time, I feel confident, her reserve, whatever its cause, will fade. But this is my own first call to action since Chartres, and we have not yet become the fully integrated team a Bolo and its commander are supposed to be. I am aware of a potential weakness, which might compromise our combat effectiveness, and I long for the complete mutual confidence Captain Takahashi and I had developed. Especially when I am . . . uncertain of my own capabilities. 


That realization sends a ripple of disquiet through my psychotronic network. A Bolo of the Line is not supposed to feel uncertainty. Yet I do. 


A quick scan of my emotional overlays and filters reveals the probable cause for my reaction even as I begin slowly and unobtrusively easing Thermopylae towards a more central position on our assigned flank of the convoy. 


I am a Mark XXVIII, Model G, Bolo, one of the Triumphant-type. I am also well over a Standard Century out of date, and have been in near-continuous commission for the last 171.76 Standard Years. Indeed, I began my service not as a Model G, but as a Model B, and was upgraded into my current hull 118.86 Standard Years ago following my first near-total destruction in the Battle of Chesterfield. Yet even a Model G had become so obsolescent by the time Lieutenant Takahashi was assigned as my Commander that the possibility that I would ever again be deployed for combat had become vanishingly remote. 


There is a Human cliche: "Old soldiers do not die, they simply fade away," and that was the fate I had anticipated for myself . . . until the outbreak of the current hostilities with the Melconian Empire. The Thirty-Ninth Battalion, for all our proud traditions, was a reserve unit, essentially a training formation, composed of newly commissioned Human officers and units of the line no longer adequate for the demands of front-line combat. What happened to the Battalion on Chartres is ample evidence that Brigade HQ was correct to so regard us, for despite our success in defending the planet from the Enemy, I am the only Bolo of the Battalion to survive, as Captain Trevor is the only surviving unit commander of the Battalion. 


I remain surprised that the Brigade opted to return me to service in light of the extensive damage I suffered. Analysis of the decision suggests a probability on the order of 85.721 percent that the decision rested upon the fact that it was 27.91 percent faster and 41.625 percent cheaper to repair my damages, and replace my crippled psychotronics than it would have been to construct a new Mark XXXII, far less one of the Mark XXXIIIs. As one of my repair technicians said, "Some Bolo is better than no Bolo." 


I begin scanning for additional scraps of Melconian ship-to-ship chatter. It is unlikely I will detect any. The Melconian Navy's equipment is considerably inferior to that of the Concordiat, but its personnel are well-trained veterans who practice effective communications discipline. If, indeed, Foudroyant did detect a ship-to-ship transmission, it represents a statistically unlikely stroke of good fortune. Without better data on the geometry of the hypothetical Melconian naval force opposed to us, I am unable to generate a meaningful probability for precisely how unlikely it truly was, but the odds cannot have been high. 


"Status, Lazarus?" my commander requests. 


"Commodore Lakshmaniah will complete the redeployment of her units in approximately 12.375 Standard Minutes, Commander," I respond. "I am in secure communication with Unit MKY via whisker laser. At this time, neither of us has detected any further evidence of the Enemy's presence."


"I see."


I return a portion of my awareness to the visual pickup in Captain Trevor's cabin and watch her right hand lightly touch the headset lying on her desk. I have already noted my new Commander's disinclination to employ the direct neural interface which has been incorporated into my upgraded psychotronics. I do not fully comprehend the reasons for it, however. While the decision to return an obsolescent unit like myself to active duty may be questionable, there is no doubt that the upgrades in my psychotronics, secondary survival center, neural command net, internal disruptor fields, and battle screen have greatly enhanced my combat capabilities. Analysis suggests that they have been improved on the order of 37.51 percent, yet the full realization of that improvement in action requires my Commander to interface directly with me, and she has steadfastly refused to do so. It is not required for the normal day-to-day relationship of a Bolo and its Commander, especially not for a Bolo which was not initially designed for neural interfacing. Yet that capability exists, and as yet, Captain Trevor has never initiated full contact, even in our few, brief training exercises and tests. We have exchanged surface thoughts, but no more, and she has zealously guarded the privacy of her own mind. That is certainly her privilege, yet her clear lingering distaste for allowing the deeper fusion of which the system is capable represents a potentially significant impediment to the achievement of our full combat potential. 


"May I suggest, Commander," I say, "that it would be prudent for us to activate the neural interface in order to be fully prepared in the eventuality that we do indeed encounter the Enemy?"


"We'll have time if the Puppies do turn up, Lazarus," Captain Trevor says, and removes her hand from the headset. 


"Acknowledged," I reply. 


* * *


The flag bridge of CNS Valiant was deadly silent, with a stillness which would have astonished any naval officer of humanity's past. Even the Concordiat's officers would not have believed it as little as twenty-five Standard Years earlier. But the same neural interface technology which had been applied to the current generation of Bolo had also been applied to the Navy's major warships. It was one of the primary reasons for that Navy's qualitative superiority over the Melconian Empire's ships of war.


And it was also the reason Commodore Indrani Lakshmaniah and her entire staff lay in their command couches, eyes closed, without speaking while they concentrated on the pseudotelepathy the flagship's AI made possible through their headsets.


<What analysis?> the Lakshmaniah portion of the intricately interwoven mental tapestry demanded.


<Up to 98.653 percent probability Foudroyant's intercept was genuine,> her tactical officer's thought reported instantly. <Probability this is an entire Puppy raiding squadron is up to 75.54 percent.>


"God damn it!" Lakshmaniah uttered the curse aloud, her eyes squeezing even more tightly shut as her reasoning brain considered the grim information the tac officer had just delivered. She didn't doubt its accuracy—not when it came directly from Valiant's AI. But a corner of her soul cursed God Himself for letting this happen.


If this was indeed a Melconian raiding squadron, then its units would outnumber her own escort force by at least two-to-one, and very probably more. Under normal circumstances, a human commander could expect to defeat up to four times her own weight of metal, but the new deep-raiding squadrons the Puppies had begun using to strike at smaller colony worlds well behind the front almost invariably boasted a Star Slayer-class battlecruiser as their flagship. If this one did, then its flagship alone would out-mass all four of her own heavy cruisers. And that didn't even count the dozen-plus heavy and light cruisers of the rest of a typical raiding squadron.


And I've got all these civilian ships to worry about, as well. The thought ran through a corner of her brain she kept carefully private, locked away from the flagship's neural net. If I let them into missile range, they'll massacre the colony ships. But if I go out to meet them where I think they are, and I'm wrong, they can make their run inside energy range and then . . .


She couldn't quite suppress the shudder which ran through her stocky, compact frame. A single energy-weapon pass by the battlecruiser alone would blow every ship in the convoy into expanding gas. She had to keep that ship as far away from the convoy as she could, but she couldn't ignore the possibility that the enemy commander might use the battlecruiser as bait, to draw her out of position when she moved to intercept it and let one of its lighter consorts into position to do the same thing.


Of course, she thought grimly, whoever that is back there, she doesn't know about the Bolos. God knows I don't want any Puppy warship to get into range for them to engage, but if they have to. . . . 


She considered her options for another hundred and seventy seconds, then stiffened as a brilliant red icon flashed in the perfect clarity of the tactical display Valiant's AI projected into the depths of her mind.


<Positive identification,> her Tac officer announced (as if she needed confirmation). <One Star Slayer-class battlecruiser, four Star Stalker-class heavy cruisers, five Ever Victorious-class light cruisers, and five Battle Dawn-class destroyers. CIC reports a 13.62 percent probability of at least one additional stealthed unit in distant company.>


Lakshmaniah frowned ferociously, eyes still closed. That was a far heavier force than her own quartet of heavy cruisers and their seven attached Weapon-class destroyers, but the proportion was wrong. One thing about the Puppies: they were methodical to a fault, and they believed in maintaining the standard formations their tactical manuals laid down. Their lighter squadron and task group organizations were all organized on a "triangular" basis. They organized their light and medium combatants into tactical divisions called "war fists," each composed of one heavy cruiser, one light cruiser, and one destroyer, and they assigned squadrons even numbers of "fists." Once combat was joined, they normally broke down into pairs of mutually supporting divisions, operating in a one-two combination, like the fists they were named for. So there ought to have been either four or six divisions in this formation, not five. And even if there were only five, there still ought to be at least one more heavy cruiser.


Could be they've already tangled with someone else and lost units, she thought. But CIC hasn't picked up any indications of battle damage. Which doesn't mean those indications aren't there and we just haven't spotted them yet, of course. Or, for that matter, it's possible even the Puppies have lost enough ships now that they can't make every single squadron up to its "Book" strength. 


She frowned again, fretfully, eyes still closed. She supposed it was possible that the extra Ever Victorious-class and destroyer might be teamed with the Star Slayer, but Melconian battlecruisers were true capital ships, however much smaller than a lordly superdreadnought they might be. And unlike their lighter combatants, the Puppies' ships of the line normally teamed up only with units of the same class. In a standard Melconian raiding squadron, the flagship's normal role was to lie back and provide long-range support fire while its lighter consorts closed with the enemy, so assigning it to a mere heavy cruiser's slot flew in the face of all Puppy combat doctrine. But if they hadn't done that, then where was the other cruiser?


<Could that stealthed unit CIC is reporting be another Star Stalker?> her thought asked the tactical officer.


<Could. Not likely, though. If there actually is another ship where CIC thinks, it's on the far side of the Puppy formation. CIC estimates a 75.77 percent probability that it's a logistics vessel.>


Lakshmaniah replied with a wordless acknowledgment. The Combat Information Center portion of Valiant's computer net was probably correct, assuming that the faint sensor ghost Halberd might have picked up was actually there in the first place. Which didn't do her a damned bit of good.


She gnawed the inside of her lip fretfully while she suppressed the icy fear rippling through her as she contemplated the odds her eleven ships faced. The fear wasn't for her own survival—against such a weight of metal, living through this engagement would have been a low-probability event under any circumstances. No, it was the probability that she would not only die but fail to stop the Puppies short of the convoy that terrified her. Without the battlecruiser she would have accepted battle confident that she would emerge with enough of her ships to continue to screen the convoy; with the battlecruiser, she didn't need Valiant's AI to tell her that the chance of any of her ships surviving close combat was less than thirty percent.


And even that supposed that she took all of them out to meet the enemy as a concentrated, mutually supporting force.


There ought to be at least one more heavy cruiser, she fretted. At least one more; the battlecruisers usually operate solo in a squadron like this. And if I let myself be pulled out, then I open the door for it if it is out there. But if I don't go out to meet them, then the entire force gets into missile range, and if that happens . . .


She drew a deep breath and made her decision.


<Communications,> the Lakshmaniah portion of the neural net said, <connect me to Captain Trevor.>


* * *


"So that's the size of it, Captain Trevor," Commodore Lakshmaniah said. "I don't like it, but we have to keep those big bastards as far away from the transports and industrial ships as we can. So I'm going to take the entire escort out to engage them. Which means it will be up to you and Lieutenant Chin to cover the transports in our absence."


The face on Maneka Trevor's communications screen looked inhumanly calm, far calmer than Lakshmaniah could possibly be feeling in the face of such odds. Of course, the commodore was undoubtedly tied into the flagship's neural net, which meant the face Maneka was looking at—like the equally calm voice she was hearing—was actually a construct, created by Valiant's AI.


"Understood, ma'am," she replied, forcing herself by sheer willpower not to so much as glance at the interface headset lying on her own desk. "May I assume Governor Agnelli has been informed?"


"You may."


Despite the gravity of the situation and the intermediary of Valiant's computers, Lakshmaniah's lips twitched with wry amusement. Adrian Agnelli had not made himself extraordinarily popular with any of the colony's military personnel. It wasn't that the Governor didn't understand the necessity of the military's presence. No sane human being could question that after so many years of savage warfare! No, the problem was Agnelli's resentment of the instructions which subordinated him to the ranking military officer until such time as the colony was securely established and Commodore Lakshmaniah, confident that there was no immediate military threat, relinquished command to him. The Concordiat's tradition was one of civilian control of the military, not the reverse. And if he had to admit that the situation was . . . unusual, he didn't like admitting that his authority was secondary to anyone's, and it showed in his rather abrasive relationship with Lakshmaniah and her subordinate officers.


"I've made it quite clear to the Governor that you will be in command of the convoy's military component until I return and relieve you, Captain," the Commodore continued after a moment. "He . . . understands the necessity of a clear military chain of command."


"As you say, ma'am," Maneka agreed in a perfectly respectful voice which nonetheless managed to express her doubt as to the clarity of Agnelli's understanding.


"At any rate," Lakshmaniah said, "stay alert! The one area where their tech's been consistently equal to or ahead of ours is in their stealth systems. We've been picking up traces of some sort of sensor ghost, so there's at least a fair chance that there's another heavy cruiser—maybe even two of them and a couple of lighter escorts—running around out there. If there is, and if the Puppies manage to suck us far enough away, you may find yourself with a very nasty situation on your hands, Captain."


"Understood, ma'am," Maneka replied as levelly as she could. "We'll watch the transports' backs for you, Commodore," she said with the confidence the rules of the game required from her.


"Never doubted it, Captain Trevor," Lakshmaniah said. "Good luck."


"And to you, Commodore. And good hunting," Maneka responded, and watched as her display dropped back into tactical mode and she saw the escort force peeling away from the convoy to race directly towards the oncoming Melconian ships.


* * *


"They have seen us, sir," Tactical First Thara Na-Kahlan announced.


"As if that were a surprise," Sensor First Yarth Ka-Sharan muttered.


Admiral Lahuk Na-Izhaaran targeted him with a warning glance. There was bad blood between Ka-Sharan and Na-Kahlan. Both were of high birth, and their clans had been opposed to one another for generations. Sometimes, they seemed unable to set that traditional enmity aside even as the People fought for their very existence. It was a friction he was not prepared to tolerate at any time, and especially not at a moment like this.


Ka-Sharan's ears twitched, then drooped in submission as he lowered his eyes. Na-Izhaaran held him with his gaze for another several breaths, then snorted and gave Na-Kahlan a brief, equally intense glare, lest the tactical officer think the admiral was siding with him.


"Continue, Tactical," Na-Izhaaran said after a moment.


"As you predicted, they have altered course to intersect us well short of their convoy, sir," Commander Na-Kahlan said in a chastened tone. "They will enter our engagement range in approximately another twenty-six minutes."


"And they are approaching with all of their warships?" Na-Izhaaran pressed.


"All of them we have so far detected, sir," Na-Kahlan replied, unable to fully resist the temptation to flip a quick glance at Ka-Sharan.


"I can't say with absolute certainty that there are no more warships out there, Admiral," Ka-Sharan admitted. "Human stealth systems are almost as good as our own." And their sensors are much better . . . like all the rest of their technology, he carefully did not say aloud. "However, most of these vessels appear to be standard Human civilian-type transports. That's why Emperor Ascendant was able to detect them at such extreme range. And why we were able to insert our reconnaissance drones into their formation without being detected. We think."


Na-Izhaaran flicked his ears in acknowledgment of the qualification. And perhaps also of the flicker of fear even he could not fully suppress as he watched the accursed Human warships sweep towards him. His fifteen vessels out-massed their eleven opponents by what ought to have been a crushing margin, but the Empire had learned to its cost how dreadfully its prewar analysts had underestimated the capabilities of Human technology. Especially Human war-fighting technology.


But that was the entire reason behind his chosen tactics, he reminded himself. The Humans were accustomed to the tactical advantages their technology bestowed upon them. It would be difficult for whoever was in command of those ships to believe the technologically inferior Melconians might actually not only have detected them first but managed to get remote sensor platforms close enough for detailed observation without being detected in return. Intellectually, the Human might realize just how much more readily the units of his convoy might have been detected, but it was unlikely his emotions shared that awareness. Certainly he had given no indication that he was aware of the Squadron's presence until Na-Izhaaran had effectively banged on his hull with a wrench. The scraps of communications transmissions he had deliberately sent out for the Humans to detect had been expressly intended to draw the entire escort out to engage him, and it appeared to have done just that. Now it only remained to see whether or not the rest of his plan would work . . . and how many of his ships might manage to survive.


"Sir, with all due respect, I must once again urge you to detach a messenger," Captain Sarka Na-Mahlahk said.


Na-Izhaaran flicked his eyes to him, and his chief of staff—a useful Human concept the Empire had borrowed from its hated foes—looked back at him levelly.


"We've had this discussion, Sarka," Na-Izhaaran said, and Na-Mahlahk's ears rose and then dropped in agreement.


"I know we have, sir," he said. "But this is the first time we've actually confirmed that the Humans are sending out hidden colonies. I believe we have an overriding responsibility to report that confirmation to Fleet Command."


"No doubt we do," Na-Izhaaran acknowledged. "And I intend to . . . as soon as I finish dealing with the target the Nameless Ones have seen fit to lay before us. Until I've done so, I require every ship I have not already detached. Except Death Descending, of course. Don't worry, Sarka! Even if the accursed Humans manage to kill every one of us, Captain Na-Tharla will still get word back to Command."


"Still, sir, I would feel much better if we detached one of the destroyers now, before the Humans reach battle ranges," Na-Mahlahk pressed respectfully. "This discovery is of critical importance. I believe we should make absolutely certain word of it gets home."


"We will." Na-Izhaaran allowed a trace of ice to edge into his voice. He respected Na-Mahlahk's moral courage, and under normal circumstances he vastly preferred for his staff to argue with him when they felt he might be making a mistake. But the Human ships were streaking ever closer, and this was not the time for protracted debates.


"Intelligence has suspected for years now that the Humans had embraced such a strategy," Na-Izhaaran continued crisply. "Of course we've never managed to confirm it. Gods, Sarka! Just think of the odds against our stumbling across something like this!"


He twitched both ears in an expression which combined bemusement and profound gratitude. Who would have guessed that his roundabout choice of route to outflank the Human patrols and approach the minor Human planet which was their objective would lead to such an encounter?


"And of course Command needs to know that we have. But even if not a single one of us ever gets home, Command will continue to operate, as it already does, on the assumption that the Humans are planting hidden colonies. In the immediate sense, it's more critical for us to destroy this colony fleet completely than it is to inform Command that we found it in the first place. Because if we don't destroy it now, it will slip away, and we'll never find it again. My decision is made, Sarka. I will not disperse my combat power by detaching a unit on the very brink of battle."


Na-Mahlahk gazed at him for a moment longer, but then his ears lowered and he turned back to his own console. That was another thing Na-Izhaaran liked about him. The chief of staff had the courage and stubbornness to argue in defense of his beliefs, but he also knew there could be but one commander of a force . . . and had the wisdom to recognize when his superior officer had decided the time for discussion had passed.


"Entering extreme missile range in twenty-one minutes, sir," Na-Kahlan announced.


* * *


Commodore Lakshmaniah's outnumbered squadron sped towards the enemy ships clustered around the huge Melconian flagship. The Star Slayer-class boasted massive energy batteries and three times as many missile tubes as her own flagship. Those missiles were longer-ranged, too, and they screamed into the teeth of her outnumbered force as her ships closed with the enemy. Countermissiles raced to meet them, shorter-ranged energy weapons tracked them, waiting until they were close enough to engage, jammers generated strobes of interference designed to blind and baffle their active tracking systems, and decoys raced outward from her ships, mimicking their motherships' emissions signatures.


The battlecruiser's larger missiles had more range, but the Concordiat's technology edge went far towards negating that reach advantage. Humanity's missiles had better seekers and more effective penetration aids, and they were far more agile. And Lakshmaniah's defenses were also better.


The silence on Valiant's flag bridge remained as profound as ever as the commodore and her staff fused their minds and personalities with the heavy cruiser's AI. That, too, was an advantage humanity held, and the Concordiat Navy had learned to use it well.


* * *


I observe the opening phase of the engagement. 


Commodore Lakshmaniah's units are substantially outnumbered and even more badly out-massed, but they are clearly the attackers. Before they can range upon the Enemy, however, they must survive to cross the Enemy battlecruiser's extended missile envelope. The telemetry stream from Valiant allows me to recognize the commodore's intentions, and I wonder if the Enemy commander has done so as well. 


I salute her courage, and I compute that she has a 68.72 percent chance of accomplishing her purpose. The chance of her survival, however, is only 13.461 percent. 


"Commander," I say, "I strongly urge you to activate the neural interface."


* * *


Maneka Trevor flinched physically at the sound of the melodious tenor voice. It wrenched her attention away from the imagery of her display, and her jaw clenched as a dull burn of shame went through her. Lazarus' voice was as calmly courteous as ever, despite the fact that both of them knew he should never have had to say that. It was her job as his commander to recognize when it was time to activate the neural net without repeated promptings.


Especially when he was right.


She closed her eyes, fighting the sick hollowness in her belly, and inhaled deeply. Then, somehow, she made herself reach out for the headset.


* * *


Captain Trevor's heartbeat and respiration both accelerate rapidly. Her distress is evident, although I do not understand the reason for it. It is clear, however, that it stems far more from her reluctance to utilize the neural interface than from the actual combat between Commodore Lakshmaniah's ships and the Enemy. Yet despite that reluctance, her hand is steady as she picks up the headset and adjusts the contact pads against her temples. 


An additional 3.615 seconds elapse, and then the interface activates. 


* * *


The door at the heart of Maneka Trevor's worst nightmares swung wide.


She felt it opening, and somewhere deep within her she heard a frightened child weeping, begging to be spared. To be allowed to continue hiding. The taste of remembered terror was so thick she could scarcely breathe, yet she made herself sit back in the comfortable chair, fists clenched in her lap, and endure.


The green, rolling woodland of the planet Chartres spread itself out before her once more as she rode the command couch of Unit 28/G-862-BNJ towards the Melconian LZ. The full might of the Thirty-Ninth Battalion thundered towards the enemy, and Lieutenant Trevor felt her hands sweating, the dryness in her mouth, as the first Melconian long-range fire screamed towards them.


Intelligence estimated that the Puppies had landed an entire corps of infantry, supported by a full brigade of combat mechs. That would have been heavy odds for a battalion of modern Bolos; for the Thirty-Ninth, they were impossible. Individually, nothing the Melconians had could stand up to even a Bolo as ancient as the Thirty-Ninth's Mark XXVIIIs and attached reconnaissance Mark XXVIIs. But the Puppies knew that as well as the Concordiat did, and they had no intention of losing this battle.


High-trajectory missiles rained down, fired from orbiting warships as well as ground-based systems. Their flight profiles gave the Battalion easy intercept solutions, but they'd never been intended to get through. Their function was solely to saturate the Bolos' defenses while the real killers broke through at lower altitudes.


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


"Understood," the younger Maneka rasped in the depths of her older self's memory.


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


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


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


"Yeah, sure it does."


She shook her head.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


"Release granted. Open fire!" she snapped.


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


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


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


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


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


And there was no time to mourn them, either.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


And then darkness, and her own voice out of it. A voice remembering the recon platforms' recorded imagery of Benjy's final, agonizing battle—the battle which had saved two billion human lives—while she lay unconscious on his command deck. While he fought and died without her . . . and condemned her to survive his death.


"Oh, Benjy," that thought mourned. "Oh, Benjy." 


* * *


The speed of Human thought takes me aback. The entire fleeting memory, as vivid as the playback of any battle report contained in my archives, flashes before both of us in scarcely 2.72 seconds. 


I did not anticipate it. My Commander's outward behavior has given no indication of how deeply and bitterly Chartres and the destruction of her Bolo wounded her. But now the black, bleak wave of her emotions wash over me. I am not Human. I am a being of molecular circuitry and energy flows. Yet the Humans who created me have given me awareness and emotions of my own. At this instant, as my Commander's remembered agony—her grief for 28/G-862-BNJ, her soul-tearing guilt for surviving his destruction—floods through me, I wish that my creators had also given me the ability to weep. 


So this is the reason she has avoided the neural interface. Not simply because she knew this moment would bring back that memory of horror and loss, but because she knew it would reveal the depth of her sorrow to me. And with it her crushing sense of guilt. 


She is damaged. She believes she is crippled. Unable to face the possibility of enduring such loss anew. The bleak assurance of her own incapacity, coupled with the burning sense of duty which has driven her to continue to assume the burdens she believes she can no longer bear, fills our link. And along with that darkness comes the fear that I must hate her for not being Lieutenant Takahashi just as she cannot stop herself from hating and resenting me because I am not Benjy. 


Survivor's guilt. A Human emotion with which the Dinochrome Brigade has a bitter institutional familiarity. And, I realize suddenly, one which I share. We two are the only survivors of the Thirty-Ninth Battalion . . . and neither of us can forgive ourselves for it. 


But we cannot succumb to our shared grief. Too much depends upon us, and beyond the black tide, I sense my Commander's matching awareness of our responsibility. 


* * *


<Welcome, Commander,> the Bolo portion of their fused personality said calmly.


Its veneer of calm couldn't fool Maneka. The fusion went too deep; she could taste too much of Lazarus' own emotions. Emotions far deeper and stronger than she had dreamed possible even after her experiences with Benjy. There was pain in those emotions; pain enough to match even her own. But Lazarus refused to yield to it.


For an instant, that realization filled her with fury, with a black and bitter rage for the fashion in which his electronic, artificial nature allowed him to deal so much more easily with that pain. But even as the anger surged within her, she realized something else. All of Lazarus' psychotronics, all of his cybernetics and computing power, gave him no more protection against his emotions than her fragile bone and protoplasm gave her against hers. It was not his circuitry that let him cope; it was his sense of duty and responsibility. And in the final analysis, she discovered, she could not allow herself to be less than him. She could not fail him as she had failed Benjy.


<And welcome to you, Lazarus,> she thought back with iron calm. <Now, I believe we have a job to do.>


* * *


A corner of Indrani Lakshmaniah's awareness noted that the two Sleipners had slipped into their assigned positions. They were carefully positioned, though hopefully no one would notice that, to cover both flanks of the convoy of personnel transports and support vessels. It wasn't much—certainly not as much security as she would have preferred—but it was the best she could do, and her full attention returned to the Melconian squadron.


Twelve of the Puppies' fifteen ships had broken down into the anticipated standard triangular combat divisions, while the odd light cruiser and destroyer did seem to be attached to the battlecruiser. The other four "fists" were maneuvering to meet her own attack, but not as aggressively as she might have anticipated. Indeed, they were actually falling back slowly, as if in a bid to hold the range open, and that puzzled her.


Usual Melconian tactics when action was joined emphasized closing as rapidly as possible with Concordiat ships. They would take losses from the humans' superior missiles as they closed the gap, but their own weapons would become progressively more effective as the range fell. It was a brutal equation both navies had seen in action all too often since this war began. The Melconian Navy paid in dead ships and slaughtered personnel just to get into its own effective range of its more capable opponents, but the Empire had the ships and personnel to pay with. And once they did get into range, their superior numbers swamped the Concordiat's technological advantages.


Under normal circumstances, Melconian ships avoided action unless they were committed to the defense of a crucial objective . . . or the Concordiat was. When a Concordiat task force was free to maneuver, it held the range open, decimating any Melconian attempt to close with it with its superior weaponry. But when the Concordiat Navy was on the offensive, attacking a Melconian-held star system or planet, its ships had to come to the defenders, entering their range if they intended to attack the objective the Puppies were defending. And by the same token, when the Concordiat was pinned by an objective it had to defend, it had no choice but to stand and fight as the Melconians closed in.


Like now, she thought grimly. The convoy was so slow, so unwieldy, that it might as well have been a planet. And so she was anchored, forced to accept action. So why weren't the Puppies charging forward?


It's probably the battlecruiser, she told herself. The sheer range of its missiles reverses the usual reach advantage, and the convoy sure as hell isn't going to be able to run away fast enough to hide, no matter what happens. So maybe the Dog Boys figure they've got the time to wear us down at extended ranges before they close in for the kill. 


She couldn't let that happen, and she turned her attention to that portion of the neural net which was her tactical officer.


<Concentrate on the cruisers. Let's tear some holes in their screen.>


* * *


"Their firing patterns are shifting, sir," Na-Kahlan reported tersely. "They are no longer engaging us. They are concentrating on the screen, instead."


"And continuing to close, yes?" Na-Izhaaran responded calmly.


"Yes, sir."


"As I anticipated," Na-Izhaaran said softly. "It is an ill choice, but the least ill one he possesses. He gives Emperor Larnahr III the opportunity to engage him unmolested, but he anticipates that his superior defenses will allow him to survive while his own fire strips away our screening platforms. In his position, I would do the same."


The admiral brooded down at the tactical plot, rubbing the bridge of his snout, then sighed.


"How much longer before Captain Ka-Sharan and Death Stalker are in position?" he asked.


"Approximately twenty-five minutes," Na-Mahlahk replied. "It could be slightly longer than that. At the moment, we cannot fix his fist's position accurately."


"I should hope not!" Na-Izhaaran snorted. "But I know Ka-Sharan. He will be at the assigned position at the assigned time. In the meantime, it is our responsibility to deal with these."


He gestured at the plot, then looked at Na-Kahlan.


"We cannot continue to retreat much longer without making this one suspicious," he said. "Besides, if we allow the gap between us and the convoy to open much further, it will be safely beyond even Emperor Larnahr III's effective range, and he will have no more motive to come after us. So in another . . . twelve minutes, I think, we will reverse course and see if he truly wishes to dance with us."


* * *


<Up to something.> Lakshmaniah spun the thought off into the corporate net of her staff as the destroyer Cutlass took a direct hit. Most of her attention was on the tactical relay, reading Cutlass' damages. It could have been worse. The destroyer's main weapons remained intact, and she was already altering course slightly and rolling ship to hold the damaged aspect of her battle screen away from the enemy. Yet the Puppies' uncharacteristic maneuvers fed her growing suspicion, and she felt its echoes rippling throughout the composite brain. Agreement came back to her from most of them; doubt from a few.


<Drawing us away from the convoy?> the suggestion came from her tactical officer.


<Possible.> Lakshmaniah frowned, then grimaced. <Doesn't matter. Committed. Up to Trevor and Chin.>


Agreement, though far from happy, came back to her, and she felt his attention turning with hers to study the enemy formation. The Puppies' rate of retreat was slowing. It looked as if they were preparing to stand, or possibly even to counterattack, and she considered her own damages. Cutlass, Dagger, and Halberd had all taken hits, though so far their damage remained far from critical. More seriously, Foudroyant had lost almost half her port energy battery and a third of her missile tubes. In return, one of the Melconian combat divisions had been driven to retreat behind the battlecruiser, with heavy damage to both its heavy and light cruisers. But the battlecruiser was beginning to get the range, and she felt Valiant shudder as a pair of missiles slipped through her active defenses and ripped savagely at her battle screen.


Two of the three remaining Puppy divisions had also taken damage, although it was impossible for CIC to give her hard estimates on how badly they were hurt. But the battlecruiser remained virtually untouched, and her heavy missile armament and deep magazine capacity were beginning to come into play. Lakshmaniah's ships had been forced to expend a much higher percentage of their ammunition than usual to achieve the damage they'd inflicted. She couldn't keep this up much longer.


Worry hummed behind her eyes as she contemplated her increasingly unpalatable alternatives. This long-range sparring ought to have favored her command. As it was, her dwindling magazines were paring away her options.


It wasn't enough simply to drive off the Melconians. She had to be certain of their destruction, because they could trail the painfully unstealthy transports from a range at which not even the Concordiat Navy's sensors could penetrate their own stealth systems. She could not afford the possibility that a surviving Puppy warship might trail them to their new colony's site and return to the Empire to bring back a sufficiently heavy force to slaughter it to the last man, woman, and child. But if this long-range, attritional duel continued as it was, her squadron would be ground away while at least two or three Melconian ships survived.


Ultimately, the survival of her own warships was a purely secondary consideration. There was no point in husbanding them if the Melconians were able to follow them to the colony's new home, because she couldn't possibly stand off a force the size any spy would bring down upon them. Which, in a way, made her limited options brutally simple . . .


<Course change!>


The announcement from Tactical snatched her up out of her thoughts. The Dog Boys were indeed altering course. They were no longer backing away. She watched their entire force, including the battlecruiser, lunge straight towards her squadron, and her jaw tightened.


<Hold course,> she ordered. <This time we take them at energy range.>


* * *


"Sir, the enemy is maintaining course!" Ka-Sharan reported.


Na-Izhaaran looked at him, then pushed himself up out of his command chair and stalked over to the master plot.


It was true. The Human warships remained on their pursuit vector even though his command had turned to face them, and his eyes narrowed and his ears pressed tight to his skull. It was preposterous! Human ships never closed with those of the People until after their infernal missiles had decisively weakened their opponents. But this Human squadron was charging straight for him, as though its units were warships of the People themselves!


"Admiral, should we pull back once more?" Na-Mahlahk asked softly, and Na-Izhaaran shot him a sharp glance. The chief of staff returned his gaze steadily, and Na-Izhaaran showed just an edge of canine. Not at Na-Mahlahk for asking the question, but because the question was so valid. And one whose answer he would have to produce quickly.


He looked back at the plot. In the final analysis, it didn't matter what happened to these Human warships. The destruction of the convoy they were escorting was what truly mattered, and he had already lured them far enough away from the transports to make that destruction certain. So there was no need for him to continue this engagement at all, unless the enemy forced it upon him. His battle plan had accepted that from the beginning. But that plan had also anticipated that the Humans would perform as their standard tactical doctrine dictated and maneuver to hold the range open.


The Humans weren't. They were coming to him, into the very engagement range every Melconian commander strove to reach. If he let them close, he would lose ships, but every Melconian officer knew he must pay the price in broken starships and dead warriors for every Human ship he destroyed. And the opportunity was here. The opportunity to destroy these ships once and for all.


"No, Sarka," he said softly, before he even realized he'd reached his decision. "We will not pull back. Commander Na-Kahlan," he turned back to the tactical officer, "it's time we showed these Humans how the People make war!"


* * *


The jagged edges of my Commander's pain—and my own—continue to reverberate deep within the fusion which has engulfed us both. It is a distraction, and yet that shared sense of loss, grief, and guilt adds a subtle additional harmony. Captain Trevor stands deep within my gestalt, and I feel her wonder as my sensors become hers, the depth of my data storage opens before her, and her organic mind and nervous system merge seamlessly with the whispering electrons of my own psychotronics. 


Yet if she is smitten with wonder at what she now beholds, so also am I. This union of thought with thought, of protoplasmic brain with molecular circuitry, was never envisioned when my original programming was designed. The upgrades I received after Chartres have bestowed the capability, but none of the simulations and tests have prepared me for this reality. 


There is so much within my Commander's mind. Such richness, such depth and immediacy of experience for one so young. Such beauty, flowing like words of fiery poetry, so much courage and determination . . . and such jagged weapons with which to wound itself. 


I am aware that it has often been said that Bolos have "bloodthirsty" personalities, and it has always seemed to me that it was inevitable. We are warriors, designed and engineered at the most basic level as Humanity's champions. Now, seeing my own personality set side-by-side with Captain Trevor's—feeling her mind within mine, and mine within hers—I fully realize how accurate that description truly is. And yet there is much we have in common, my Commander and I. I recognize her compassion, her ability to feel grief and guilt even for the Enemies she and I have slain, and it is a quality I do not fully comprehend. But it is matched by an iron sense of responsibility and a fierce drive to victory which no Bolo could excel. 


This warrior may doubt herself; I no longer can. 


* * *


Maneka Trevor felt herself holding her breath in awe as the sparkling depths of Lazarus' psychotronic brain opened themselves to her. His sensors became her eyes and ears, his tracks her legs, his weapons her arms and hands, and the fierce power of his fusion plant her heart and lungs. The training simulations had prepared her for that, but this was the first time she had truly opened herself to the neural link, and there was so much more of Lazarus than she had believed possible.


She felt his calm rationality, the deep fundamental balance and detachment of his personality. And that personality was not what she had expected. It was similar to that of another human, and yet it was fundamentally and uniquely different, as well. There was a totally different overlay to emotions which she now knew, beyond question or doubt, could burn just as strong, just as fierce, as any human emotion. She couldn't describe it, but she knew it was there. A fierce directness, an unswerving refusal to delude itself, and a strangely distanced sense of selfness. Lazarus knew himself as a unique personality, an individual, and yet he accepted himself as part of a corporate whole far greater than he was.


It was the TSDS, she realized—the Total Systems Data-Sharing net which linked every Bolo to his Battalion and Brigade mates at every level. No wonder neural interfacing came so readily to them! They'd always had it; it simply hadn't extended to their human commanders.


And as she settled deeper and deeper into the meld, she felt her own personality, her own nerve endings and thoughts, her human instincts and intuitions—so different from the "hyper-heuristic" modeling capability which served Bolos in their stead—reaching out to Lazarus. Benjy had once told her that human intuition was, in many ways, actually superior to Bolo logic. She'd believed him, although she hadn't been able to fully accept the possibility on an emotional level. Now she knew Benjy had been absolutely correct. And that in this new fusion, the strengths of human and Bolo had truly met at last.


She and Lazarus touched at every level, tentatively at first, then settling seamlessly into place, and then, suddenly, they were no longer two individuals. They were Maneka/Lazarus. The deadly power and lightning-fast reflexes and computational ability of the Bolo, made one with human intuition and creativity, flowed through her, brushing her grief for Benjy, her guilt at having survived his death, gently aside. Part of that, to her own surprise, was the recognition of Lazarus' own grief at the loss of a Brigade mate he had known for well over a Standard Century. He shared her loss; he did not and never could resent her own survival. There could be no doubt, no question of that—not at this level of shared existence.


She knew that, and as she felt the composite power which infused her, she also knew she had never been so intensely alive as she was at this moment.


* * *


I feel—and share—my Commander's wonder and delight. More important, I feel her mind relinquishing the self-inflicted wounds which have oppressed her for so long. The easing of her pain eases my own, for we have become mirrors of one another, and yet there is more to it than that. I feel a new emotion, one I have never truly experienced: joy for another's healing. 


Yet even as we experience the nuances of our new union, we are monitoring Commodore Lakshmaniah's squadron, and I feel Captain Trevor's fresh and different pain as the first destroyer explodes in ruin. 


* * *


Indrani Lakshmaniah felt CNS Crossbow's death like a wound in her own flesh, yet even as the anguish for her dead ship stabbed deep in her soul, she felt herself baring her teeth in a fierce smile of triumph.


The Dog Boys had come too close. Whether they'd intended to or not, they were about to let her into energy range.


<Fire Plan Alamo,> she commanded, and the acknowledgment flowed back to her.


* * *


Maneka bit the inside of her lip as Lazarus' sensors laid the unfolding battle before her. She was no trained naval tactician, but Lazarus' immense storage banks were as fully at her disposal as they were at his. The institutional knowledge and the data she required to understand flowed to her instantly, effortlessly. She couldn't tell if it was her own mind reaching into his data storage, or if it was his mind, recognizing her need and providing the information she required even before she had fully realized her need for it herself. But at the moment what mattered was less the source of her knowledge, than the knowledge itself.


The knowledge that Commodore Lakshmaniah had deliberately entered her enemies' most effective weapons envelope, sacrificing all of humanity's traditional long-range, sparring advantages.


* * *


I feel Captain Trevor's recognition of Commodore Lakshmaniah's intentions. She realizes now, if she did not before, that the commodore has accepted that few or none of her ships will survive. But by accepting the virtual certainty of her own destruction, the commodore has brought her own vessels into decisive range of the Enemy. 


* * *


"Enemy opening energy f—"


Commander Na-Kahlan never finished his announcement.


Admiral Na-Izhaaran cringed as the energy bleeding back into Na-Kahlan's console exploded with a ferocity which killed the tactical officer instantly. Emperor Larnahr III's command deck heaved indescribably, and Na-Izhaaran's eyes flared wide. It was the first time he had ever personally faced Human warships at energy range, and the reports he had read and viewed fell lethally short of the reality.


It was impossible! Ships that size could not possibly possess such firepower! Emperor Larnahr III's Hellbores were heavier, more powerful, more numerous, than those of all four Human heavy cruisers combined, yet that brute power was offset and more than offset by the impossibly precise coordination of the Human squadron.


Emperor Larnahr III heaved again, then bucked and twisted, as all four enemy cruisers slammed perfectly synchronized broadsides into her. It didn't matter that her batteries were heavier and more numerous, that her battle screen was stronger. Not when every weapon the Humans possessed smashed into exactly the same tiny, precisely focused aspect of her screen.


The battle screen failed locally, and lances of plasma stabbed viciously through the gap. Emperor Larnahr III's plating shattered, atmosphere belched from the broken hull, and the enemy fired yet again.


* * *


"Yes!" 


Indrani Lakshmaniah's falcon shriek of triumph echoed in the silence of Valiant's flag bridge as her ships' fire ripped into the battlecruiser again and again. The overconfident bastards had let her get too close, because they'd known human warships always maneuvered to hold at missile ranges. Perhaps it was because they themselves were so imbued with the need to follow the dictates of their battle-tested doctrine to fully grasp the human ability to improvise and ignore The Book. Perhaps it was because of something else entirely. But what mattered was that this Melconian commander had obviously grossly underestimated what Lakshmaniah's admittedly lighter weapons could do at close range under the command of human/AI fusions.


The battlecruiser's consorts swarmed in on her ships, firing frantically, desperate to draw her fury from their flagship. CNS Mikasa blew up under their vicious pounding. CNS Dagger staggered aside, shedding hull fragments and life pods, broken and dying. Her sister ship Saber poured a deadly broadside into the heavy cruiser which had killed her, and the Melconian ship rolled on her side and vanished in fireball fury. One of the Ever Victorious-class ships turned on Saber, and the destroyer and the Melconian light cruiser embraced one another in a furious exchange which lasted bare seconds . . . and ended in shared death.


More fire poured into Foudroyant, South Dakota, and Valiant. The commodore felt her ships bleeding, her people dying. The sun-bright boil of dying Melconian starships flared on every side, but her command was trapped at the heart of the inferno. Escort Squadron 7013 was dying, but it was not dying alone. Nothing the Melconians could do could save Emperor Larnahr III from Indrani Lakshmaniah's fury. Not even Valiant's AI could tell her how many hits had gone home in that staggering, broken wreck, but finally there was one too many.


* * *


The enemy flagship explodes . . . followed 11.623 seconds later by CNS Valiant.


I feel my Commander's grief, and I share it. But under my grief is the respect due such warriors. Foudroyant staggers out of formation, drive crippled, and the two surviving Melconian destroyers alter course to pour fire into her. Their energy weapons smash deep into her hull, but her own Hellbores fire back, and all three ships disappear in a single explosion. 


Only South Dakota and three of the destroyers remain, but they do not even attempt to break off. They turn on the surviving Melconians, firing with every weapon. 


The entire engagement, from the moment Commodore Lakshmaniah enters Hellbore range of the enemy flagship to its end, lasts only 792.173 seconds. 


At its conclusion, there are no survivors from either side. 


* * *


"Gods of my ancestors," Captain Herath Ka-Sharan whispered, staring at the tactical display from which the icons of so many starships had disappeared so abruptly.


"Sir, I—" Commander Mazar Ha-Yanth, Tactical First of the heavy cruiser Death Stalker, broke off, then shook his head, ears flattened in shock. "I was just about to report that we are almost in the position you wanted, sir," he said, unable to take his own eyes from the horrifyingly blank plot.


"Then this," Ka-Sharan jabbed a sharp-clawed finger at the plot, "will not have been entirely in vain, Mazar." He glared at the empty display for another few moments, then wheeled to face the officer who was both his second-in-command and his tactical officer. "We will commence the attack run as soon as we are fully in position."


* * *


"No survivors at all?"


General Theslask Ka-Frahkan, CO of the 3172nd Heavy Assault Brigade, stared in disbelief at the commanding officer of the heavy transport Death Descending.


"None, General," Captain Gizhan Na-Tharla said flatly. "From either side."


Ka-Frahkan looked stunned. Not that Na-Tharla blamed him for that. The captain was equally stunned, if not perhaps for exactly the same reasons. Unlike Ka-Frahkan, he was a naval officer. He had seen—far too often—the hideous toll the Humans' lethal technological edge could exact from the People's defenders. It was the speed with which it had happened, and the tactics the Human commander had adopted, which left him feeling as if someone had just punched him in the belly.


Na-Tharla had served with Admiral Na-Izhaaran before. He knew precisely what Na-Izhaaran had been thinking, and he would probably have made much the same assessment himself in the admiral's place.


But we would both have been wrong, he thought. And we ought to have seen it. This was not a Human fleet attacking one of our worlds. This was an outnumbered Human squadron defending one of its own worlds. Or, rather, the crachtu nut from which another of their worlds will grow, unless we crush it between our fingers and devour its fruit. 


"This makes it impossible to continue with our original mission," Ka-Frahkan said, and Na-Tharla flicked his ears in curt agreement with that excruciatingly obvious conclusion. "Well, of course it does," the general said, grimacing almost apologetically as he recognized his own shock-induced statement of the painfully obvious. "What I meant to say was that there is no longer any point in proceeding with the Brigade to our original destination. I see no alternative but to abort the mission and return to base in hopes of obtaining a new Fleet escort. That being the case, should we not consider moving to assist Captain Ka-Sharan?"


"I must concur in your conclusion, General," Na-Tharla said after a moment. "And I must also confess that I would derive great pleasure from assisting Captain Ka-Sharan. However, Death Descending is a transport, not a warship. In fact, she isn't even an assault transport in the Human sense—just a big personnel ship, configured for high-speed atmospheric insertion and rough-field landings. Our stealth capability is as good as a Fleet cruiser's, but that's because hiding from enemy warships is our only real defense. We mount no offensive weapons at all, and only enough defensive systems to give us a fighting chance against long-range missile fire until our escorts can deal with any threat. I'm afraid there isn't very much we could do to be of help to Death Stalker's fist."


"You're the expert, Captain," Ka-Frahkan said after a moment, then chuckled with a slight but genuine edge of amusement. "I don't envy you Navy types, you know! Give me a planet to stand on, one with air I can breathe, and I'm a hero out of the old sagas, but this—!" He waved his hand at the tactical plot. "Having to stand here and watch my battle companions fight while I can do nothing at all to help them?"


He shifted his ears back and forth in a gesture of resigned acceptance.


"It's not quite that bad, General," Na-Tharla said, forcing a lightness he was far from feeling into his voice as an antidote to the lingering shock of the destruction of Admiral Na-Izhaaran's squadron. "And at least we don't get our boots muddy. And we get to sleep in clean bunks every night, for that matter!"


"Something to be said for that, at that," Ka-Frahkan agreed, and the two of them turned back to the tactical plot as Death Descending's sensor section changed scales to show a detailed view of the doomed Human convoy.


* * *


<?> the wordless question came from the human half of Maneka/Lazarus. Even as the flesh and blood brain framed the question, however, the fusion of organics and mollycircs was already delving for its answer.


Massive computational capability was brought to bear on the elusive sensor ghost from Lazarus' Charlie-3 remote platform. The raw data was almost less than nothing, the merest whisper of what might have been a hint of a shadow of an imagined specter, but Lazarus' BattleComp was relentless. In microseconds, the platform had been queried for an update, the original signal had been scrubbed, enhanced, and reanalyzed, and a tenor voice whispered at the heart of her own thoughts, like an echo from her subconscious.


<Contact positively identified,> it said. <Evaluate as one Star Stalker-class heavy cruiser.>


She started to frame another question, but there was no need. Indeed, there'd been no real need to ask the first one . . . nor for Lazarus to respond so explicitly. The knowledge, the information, she required was already there, as much hers as the Bolo's. It was a sensation whose like she had never experienced, never dreamed of experiencing, and she knew she would never be able to truly describe it to anyone who had not experienced it herself. That sense of duality remained, yet the analysis of the signal and the evaluation of its implications came to her effortlessly, fully.


Maneka Trevor had absolutely no training as a naval officer, but with the data stored in Lazarus' memory, Maneka/Lazarus understood instantly what Admiral Na-Izhaaran had done, and why. Just as she/they understood that the cruiser she/they had detected was almost certainly not alone.


<Warn—> The human half of the composite mentality began to frame a command, but the Bolo half, knowing as soon as she did what that command would have been, had already sent the alert across the whisker-thin laser to Bolo 31/B-403-MKY.


* * *


"We are in position, Captain," Commander Ha-Yanth said quietly, and Ka-Sharan looked up at him.


"Can we tell if Commander Ra-Kolman is also in position?"


"No, sir," Ha-Yanth said, without even glancing at Lieutenant Jahnak Sa-Uthmar, Death Stalker's senior sensor officer. "End in Honor is continuing to operate under full stealth, just as we are," he said, and Ka-Sharan snorted.


They knew where End in Honor, the fist's light cruiser, was supposed to be, but they had no confirmation that the ship was actually there. Ka-Sharan had detached Commander Aldath Ra-Kolman to sweep around the convoy's other flank at the same time that Admiral Na-Izhaaran had detached his entire fist for the attack. With all three of his ships operating under conditions of maximum stealth, Sa-Uthmar was doing well to maintain a hard lock on Battle of Shilzar, the destroyer still operating in close company with the fist flagship. Not knowing exactly where End in Honor was wasn't going to make much difference in an attack on unarmed transports, but dropping stealth and establishing all of the fist's ships' exact positions would have made things neater and tidier.


"What creatures of habit we have become, Mazar!" Ka-Sharan said, and waved one hand in a derisive gesture. "As if this hodgepodge of clumsy merchant vessels could do anything but die even if we came in broadcasting the 'Emperor's March' over every channel!"


"No doubt, sir," Ha-Yanth agreed. "On the other hand, if they'd seen us coming and scattered, some of them might have managed to elude us, after all," he added, although both of them knew the real reason they hadn't dropped stealth. It simply hadn't occurred to them. They were still grappling with the shock of the rest of the squadron's destruction, and until they came to terms with it, they were not exactly likely to be at their mental best.


Under the circumstances, the executive officer reflected, perhaps it is just as well at this moment that our only "opposition" consists of unarmed transports! 


"Yes, I know," Ka-Sharan said, and his tone made it clear he knew as well as Ha-Yanth how unlikely it truly was that any of the Human ships could have escaped them.


"I wish Star Crown hadn't been forced to return to base," he continued.


He spoke softly, as if only to himself, and Ha-Yanth's ears twitched as he suppressed an expression of agreement with the statement he wasn't certain he was supposed to have heard. The heavy cruiser flagship of Admiral Na-Izhaaran's sixth fist had suffered partial failure of her hyperdrive just before the squadron began its high-speed run towards its originally designated target. Captain Jesar Na-Halthak, Star Crown's commanding officer had handed the ship over to his executive officer and transferred to the light cruiser Undaunted, remaining behind to command the other two ships of his fist . . . and died with the rest of the squadron.


"Do you think it would have made any difference if the admiral had kept the entire Squadron concentrated, sir?" Ha-Yanth asked after a moment. Ka-Sharan gave him a sharp glance, but Ha-Yanth looked back steadily. His expression made it obvious that the question was not a criticism of Na-Izhaaran, and after two or three breaths, Ka-Sharan flicked his ears in negation.


"No," he said heavily. "I doubt that it would have. Mind you, I wouldn't have said that if you'd asked the question before the Humans got into energy range. I was no more prepared for that than anyone else was, and I'll admit I was just wondering to myself if things might have worked out differently if we hadn't had to detach Star Crown. But to be honest, I don't believe it would have. If the admiral had kept us all together, the losses on both sides would probably have been almost exactly what they were anyway. The only difference would have been that we—or whoever might have survived in our place—might have suffered enough drive damage to prevent us from overhauling and destroying this convoy before it could scatter and drop off our sensors entirely."


Ha-Yanth's ears moved in a small gesture, signifying his agreement, and Ka-Sharan turned his attention back to the plot. Yet despite his answer to the executive officer, Ka-Sharan wasn't fully convinced himself that if Na-Izhaaran hadn't sent a sixth part of Emperor Larnahr III's consorts off on this wide flanking maneuver, the outcome might not indeed have been quite different.


But possible outcomes which might have occurred under other circumstances had no bearing on the immediate tactical situation, he reminded himself.


"Prepare to attack," he said flatly.


* * *


Courtesy of her recent promotion, Maneka was senior to Lieutenant Guthrie Chin. And suitably enough, despite his obsolescence, Lazarus had over a century's seniority over Chin's younger, more powerful Bolo. Moreover, Unit 31/B-403-MKY, although newer, was only a Mark XXXI. Mickey lacked the neural interfacing capability which had first been integrated into the Mark XXXII . . . and refitted into Lazarus.


Until the last fifteen minutes, Maneka's understanding of just how much that handicapped Lieutenant Chin had been purely intellectual and theoretical. Now she felt a deep pang of sympathy for the other human as, for the first time, she personally experienced the reality of the Dinochrome Brigade's Total Systems Data-Sharing net.


The two Bolos were as intimately fused as she and Lazarus, and as part of Maneka/Lazarus she came to know Mickey far better, in the space of a handful of seconds, than Chin would ever be able to know him. She was a part of him as they conferred, organizing a last-ditch defense of the convoy with smooth, unpanicked efficiency and speed.


Working from Maneka/Lazarus' initial detection of the single Melconian cruiser, they had reached out through both Bolos' remote passive sensors and confirmed that at least three enemy vessels were working their way into attack position. Clearly, the Melconian squadron commander had intended to use the bulk of his force as bait, to draw Commodore Lakshmaniah out of position while he slipped his assassin's dagger into the convoy's back.


Analysis of the forces Lakshmaniah had engaged, compared to a normal Melconian raiding squadron's order of battle, suggested that that dagger's maximum strength ought to be two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and one destroyer.


In a standup fight, either of the two Bolos was more than a match for both of the lighter units, and either of them could probably have defeated the heavy cruisers, as well. The part of Maneka/Lazarus who had ridden Benjy's command deck at Chartres had no doubt of that. Unfortunately, the Bolos were dependent upon the transports whose hard points they rode, and those transports most emphatically were not the equal of any warship in space. They were effectively unarmed, with only the most rudimentary passive defenses. Their assault pods, each designed to carry a single Bolo or a full battalion of infantry, plus vehicles, through planetary defenses for opposed landings, had powerful normal-space drives and battle screen heavier than most heavy cruisers, but were completely incapable of independent FTL flight. The pods were also totally unarmed; if an assault pod required offensive firepower and sophisticated EW, it was normally provided by the Bolo it was transporting.


If the transports were destroyed, the pods would drop instantly out of hyper, assuming they survived their motherships' destruction. And the chance of a Bolo's surviving the destruction of its assault pod in space was virtually nil. They could expand their own battle screen and the pods' screens to provide the transports some protection, but the instant they activated any battle screen at all, they would reveal their presence to the enemy. The Melconians might not immediately realize they faced Bolos, but they would certainly recognize that the Sleipners were not the unarmed freighters they had clearly assumed them to be. When they did, they would undoubtedly withdraw beyond effective energy range and use their missile tubes.


A Bolo might be able to protect the ship it actually rode from missile attack, but Bolos were designed for combat at planetary ranges, not in deep space. Their defenses had never been designed to protect a sphere as vast as the one the entire convoy occupied. And their offensive missile armament, although long-ranged by the standards of planetary combat, was not designed to fight battles in deep space. They could not prevent the Melconians from devastating the convoy if the enemy decided to stand off for a missile engagement.


But no naval commander would use missiles when there was no compelling need to do so. Missiles weren't simply expensive; they were available only in strictly limited numbers. Like an ancient submarine of pre-space Old Earth, a commerce destroyer preying upon unarmed transports and merchant shipping would come in close enough to use his energy weapons, the equivalent of the submarine's deck gun, rather than expend his precious "torpedoes." Especially when he was this far from any source of resupply and had no way of knowing if he would encounter additional hostile warships on his way home.


So the only workable option was to continue to pretend to be defenseless freighters and hope they could draw all the attackers into decisive energy range before the Puppies figured out what they were actually up against.


Even as the battle plan—such as it was, and what there was of it—came together, a separate part of Maneka's brain wondered whether she should inform Governor Agnelli of what was happening. Technically, Agnelli was her superior, but Commodore Lakshmaniah had left Maneka in command, not the Governor. She didn't need him joggling her elbow at a moment like this, and it wasn't as if there would be time for any detailed briefing before the enemy attacked. And as she and her Bolo self conferred with Mickey, she found another reason not to inform Agnelli just yet. She/they couldn't be certain where the Melconians would begin their attack. The enemy ships might come in on vectors which would make it impossible to immediately engage all of them simultaneously, and she/they dared not reveal the Bolos' existence until she/they could engage every Melconian ship in a single firing pass. So if it came down to it, she/they might have to allow the enemy to pick off some of the convoy's defenseless transports without firing a shot in reply.


Somehow, Maneka rather doubted Governor Agnelli would react well to that decision.


* * *


"Now!" Captain Ka-Sharan snapped, and his entire fist turned directly towards the convoy as its targeting systems went active.


Death Stalker and Battle of Shilzar came in abreast. Against armed opposition, the less powerful (and more expendable) destroyer would normally have taken the lead, probing ahead for enemy units. In this case, though, there was no need. The reconnaissance platforms Admiral Na-Izhaaran had sent out after Emperor Ascendant initially detected the glaringly obvious emissions signatures of the transport ships had gotten a detailed count of the convoy's escorts, and every one of them had been destroyed.


"Sir, we have confirmation on End in Honor's position!" Ha-Yanth announced, and Ka-Sharan showed the tips of his canines in a smile of grim satisfaction as he watched Tactical's fire control crosshairs settle into place across the icons of the first ships he intended to kill.


* * *


Maneka/Lazarus watched through the Bolo's sensors as the Melconian warships dropped out of stealth and lashed the unarmed transports with radar and lidar. The composite entity recognized the targeting systems, and the portion of it which was Maneka Trevor felt yet another stab of awe as Lazarus' flashing psychotronic brain analyzed the emissions patterns to predict the Puppies' targeting queue. She'd seen the Bolos' hyper-heuristic modeling capability in action before, but never from the inside. Never as a participant. Now she knew—knew, beyond any shadow of a doubt—exactly what targets the Melconians intended to engage, and in what order. There was no doubt in her mind at all, despite the fact that BattleComp insisted on qualifying with percentage probabilities, all of which were in the ninety-plus percent range. It was as if she had become clairvoyant. As if God Himself had tapped her on the shoulder and told her what was about to happen.


No wonder the Bolos always seem to know exactly what to do next, a small corner of her/their shared personality which remained entirely hers thought. But most of her attention was on the geometry of the engagement, and she swallowed a bitter mental curse.


The Puppies' tactical coordination was off. Their active sensors pinned down their positions for Maneka/Lazarus, and it was obvious they'd set up a scissors attack, with two of their ships attacking from one flank while the third attacked from the other. But the two closer ships—a heavy cruiser and a destroyer—had reached attack position before their stealthed consort. They were already sweeping into the attack on Maneka/Lazarus' side of the convoy's formation, but the light cruiser was just far enough outside its own attack range that Mickey was not yet able to engage it.


<Chance of additional—?> the Maneka component demanded.


<04.75 percent, plus or minus 1.91 percent,> the Lazarus component responded before the question was fully formulated. It would have taken priceless minutes for a human to explain the logic upon which that reply rested, but his entire analysis tree flashed through Maneka's merely human brain like lightning. And he was right. If the Melconian squadron commander had been willing to detach a second heavy cruiser for this attack, he would have detached its entire fist with it, instead of retaining its consorts with his flagship. Besides, the Puppies were too good at this sort of thing for a heavy cruiser to be so badly out of position that it wouldn't already at least be bringing up its own targeting systems.


<Chance—> Maneka began a second question.


<97.62 percent probability destruction Kuan Yin, 96.51 percent probability destruction Keillor's Ferry, 87.63 percent probability destruction Star Conveyor.>


The numbers flickered through her brain like icy thunderbolts, and her heart spasmed in anguish as the Lazarus component provided them. Star Conveyor was one of the colony's industry ships. Her loss would be severely damaging, although not fatal. But Keillor's Ferry was a personnel transport, with over seven thousand colonists on board. And Kuan Yin was possibly even more precious than Keillor's Ferry. She was the colony's main medical ship, carrying not just the equivalent of a complete Core World hospital complex, but also seventy-five percent of the expedition's total medical staff. Some of her equipment, and especially the artificial wombs and banks of sperm and ova, were backed up and dispersed among other ships of the convoy, but her loss would be devastating to the colony's chances of survival.


Maneka/Lazarus considered every possible alternative in the glassy eye of eternity which Lazarus' modeling capability made available, and the human half of the fusion felt the Bolo half's anguish matching her own as the cold, uncaring probabilities burned before them.


If she/they engaged the closer Melconians before the light cruiser entered Mickey's engagement envelope, she/they would have an eighty-five-plus percent chance of killing both of them before any of the colony ships were destroyed. But only at the cost of a ninety-six percent chance that the light cruiser would break off before Mickey could take it under fire. And in that case, the probability of the destruction of the entire convoy approached eighty-nine percent.


The loss of those three ships, and especially of Kuan Yin, would lower the colony's probability of long-term survival to just over eighty percent, yet that was enormously greater than the eleven percent chance that the convoy would survive to find somewhere to establish the colony in the first place if Maneka/Lazarus prevented those three ships' destruction.


Both halves of her/their soul cried out in protest, but the numbers—those heartless, brutally honest numbers—refused to relent. Mickey shared her/their anguish through the TSDS net, and in some ways, Maneka realized, it was even worse for him and Lazarus than for her. They were designed, engineered on the molecular level, to preserve human life at any cost to themselves. But this time the cost would be paid by someone else.


"Enemy ships!" The frantic cry ripped over the convoy's communications net as someone aboard Keillor's Ferry spotted the incoming Melconians. "My God, enemy ships! They're locking us up!"


Maneka/Lazarus heard the panic, the horror in the unknown man's voice. She/they recognized the fear of death in it, but also the darker terror, the realization that seven thousand other human beings were about to die with him, and Maneka closed her eyes in pain.


She could have fired. Could have taken the shot, destroyed two-thirds of their attackers before they ever opened fire. A part of her cringed away from that knowledge, already recognizing the endless burden of guilt which would be hers if she did not. But Maneka Trevor knew about guilt. She had tasted it to the dregs after Chartres, and if that was the price she must pay to perform her duty, then pay it she would.


Maneka/Lazarus' turret moved smoothly, the massive Hellbore tracking the destroyer, the nearer of her/their targets and the one targeting Kuan Yin, as both Melconian ships opened their gun ports and turned to present their broadsides to their helpless targets. She/they needed no sighting circles on Lazarus' tactical display; she/they knew they had a perfect targeting solution. That all she/they had to do was fire.


"They're going to fi—!" 


* * *


"Fire!" Ka-Sharan barked, and heard a deep, harsh bay of triumph from his tactical crew as Death Stalker's broadside blazed.


* * *


Lieutenant Lauren Hanover's face went white as she listened to the voice from Keillor's Ferry over the earbug she'd tuned to the all-ships communications net. Like every member of Kuan Yin's company, Hanover had been at "action stations" from the moment Commodore Lakshmaniah reported detection of the Melconian task force. Not that there was anything a medical ship could do in a fleet engagement except keep her head down and try to run. Now it was obvious Kuan Yin couldn't even do that.


"Here it comes!" Captain Sminard's voice came harsh and desperate over the intercom, and Hanover yanked her seat's straps tight. It seemed like an incredibly futile thing to do, and she looked around the backup control room that was her duty station as the ship's second engineer, wishing she at least had a proper shock frame. Medical ships weren't supposed to need that sort of equipment, an idiotically pedantic voice said in the back of her mind. The voice sounded exactly like hers, but it couldn't be. She wouldn't be wasting energy at a time like this lecturing herself about—


Lauren Hanover's universe turned suddenly into madness as the concussive shock front ripped her out of her chair and threw her at a bulkhead.


* * *


Ka-Sharan bared his canines as two of the hated human transports erupted into splinters and expanding gas. The forty-centimeter plasma bolts ripped through them as if they had been constructed of straw, and Battle of Shilzar was firing, too, although her lighter armament had allowed her to target only a single vessel. Two of the three twenty-centimeter Hellbores in the destroyer's starboard broadside scored direct hits; the third was a very near near-miss, and Ka-Sharan suppressed a growl of frustration. Lieutenant Commander Na-Shal's tactical section should have done better than that at this range! They'd certainly had long enough to plot the shot!


Still, it scarcely matters, he told himself, watching the crippled, two-thirds shattered hull stagger. The broken ship dropped instantly out of hyper, still barely alive—possibly—but vanished from his sensors. He glanced at Lieutenant Sa-Uthmar, and his frustration eased as Sa-Uthmar automatically tagged the exact coordinates at which the target had gone sub-light. Finding that wreck to guarantee its total destruction would be time-consuming but relatively straightforward, he thought, and turned back to the targeting displays as Death Stalker rolled slightly to bring her next pair of victims under her guns.


"End in Honor is beginning her firing run, sir!" Ha-Yanth announced.


* * *


The voice from Keillor's Ferry chopped off in mid-syllable as the huge transport exploded. Fragments of her hull—and her passengers—spewed outward, each piece of debris individually falling out of hyper and into normal-space. The shattered wreckage was strewn across a volume of space at least a light-week in diameter, and in that moment, Maneka Trevor wished she had been aboard the murdered ship.


There was, she discovered, a special and dreadful curse in her union with Lazarus. Her thoughts now moved at the speed of his, and a second was a yawning eternity for her/them. Ample time for her to choke down the bitter poison of knowing she might have stopped the Melconians from firing. Yet there was this mercy, at least, she discovered; she also shared the absolute certitude that her/their probability analysis had been accurate. That much, at least, she would never have to second-guess.


All three Melconian warships swept towards their second tier of targets, and a flare of bleak and bitter satisfaction burned through the three-part link of Maneka/Lazarus/Mickey.


* * *


"Coming on to firing bearing in two sec—"


Ha-Yanth's voice broke off abruptly, and Ka-Sharan lunged up out of his command chair as Battle of Shilzar disintegrated. She didn't blow up; she simply ceased to exist in a blinding flash of plasma.


Hellbore! his mind gibbered. That was a Hellbore! But where—?! 


Captain Ka-Sharan was a highly experienced naval officer. He was also a very quick thinker. So quick that he actually had time to find the icon on the tactical plot from which that terrifyingly powerful shot had come. But quick as he was, he had too little time to complete his thought.


Bolo transpor—! 


Four seconds after destroying Battle of Shilzar, Maneka/Lazarus put a 110-centimeter Hellbore bolt straight through Death Stalker's forward power room and scored a direct hit on Reactor Number One. Not that it actually mattered, in light of the catastrophic structural damage to the heavy cruiser's hull. All the reactor's failing antimatter containment field really did was to make Death Stalker's destruction even more spectacular.


* * *


"—terrible! Simply terrible!" Adrian Agnelli's face was ashen on Maneka Trevor's com screen as he spoke to her from Harriet Liang'shu, the convoy's civilian flagship. "My God! Commodore Lakshmaniah's entire squadron, and now this!"


"At least we're still alive, Governor," Maneka said. He glared at her, as if infuriated by the banality of her response.


To her own surprise, she returned his glare levelly. This was her very first one-on-one conversation with the Governor, and she had expected her anxiety level to be far higher. It wasn't. Instead, she felt as if some of Lazarus' calm, a trace of his psychotronic dispassion, had remained with her after she withdrew from the neural linkage.


Or maybe it's just that after watching the Puppies shoot three transports right out of a convoy that's my responsibility, a mere Governor is small beer, she thought with a sort of graveyard humor.


"Of course we're still alive, Captain," Agnelli said after a moment. "If we weren't, we wouldn't be having this conversation. And before we continue, allow me to say that I fully realize that the only reason we are alive is your and Lieutenant Chin's Bolos. But that doesn't make our situation any less parlous. The destruction of Keillor's Ferry is a tragedy any way you look at it. Seven thousand lives—plus Captain Haroldson and his entire crew—would be a horrible thing under any circumstances. But their deaths also represent almost thirty percent of our entire colonial population! Star Conveyor's loss is almost as serious a blow to our basic industrial capabilities. But the loss of Kuan Yin—!"


He shook his head, his face tight, and Maneka had to nod in agreement with his assessment.


"Governor Agnelli's daughter and son-in-law are physicians aboard Kuan Yin," Lazarus' tenor voice murmured suddenly in the Brigade implant in her left mastoid bone, and her belly twisted in an abrupt resurgence of guilt.


"Governor," she said, as soon as she was certain she had control of her voice, "it's possible," she stressed the qualifying adverb, "that Kuan Yin wasn't totally destroyed."


Agnelli's eyes leapt to her face, and his right hand, just visible on the corner of his desk, clenched into an ivory-knuckled fist.


"Explain," he rapped. "Please." The afterthought courtesy popped out of him as if extracted by a pair of pliers.


"Keillor's Ferry and Star Conveyor were completely destroyed by the Melconians' fire," Maneka said carefully. "Kuan Yin was seriously damaged, but at least a third of her hull was still intact when her hyper generator failed. It's impossible to estimate how much internal damage she may have suffered, but there's at least the possibility that some of her personnel, and some of the critical medical equipment aboard her, survived. We just have to go back and find her."


"I'm no military expert, Captain," Agnelli said, "but even I know how . . . difficult that would be." The word "difficult" came out as if it tasted physically sour. Or as if he blamed her for raising hopes which couldn't possibly be satisfied. "That sort of search and rescue is a job for fully equipped military ships, Captain Trevor. Not for a handful of hastily assembled merchant vessels!"


"Governor, I wouldn't have said anything about it if I weren't reasonably confident of our ability to locate her. We know precisely when and where she left hyper, and exactly what her emergence vector in normal-space would be."


Agnelli looked skeptical, and she reached out and touched the headset on the corner of her desk. The Governor's sharp eyes didn't miss the gesture, and she saw them widen slightly.


"Lazarus—I mean, Unit One-Seven-Niner—had a hard fix on her, sir. And with all due respect to the Navy, I doubt very much that any astrogator could do a better job of computing an intercept solution."


"Even so," Agnelli sounded now as if he were arguing with himself, not Maneka, "even the best solution is going to leave a very large volume to be searched, Captain. Even assuming that . . . that anyone is still alive aboard her," he cleared his throat, "it sounds highly unlikely to me, from the damage you've described, that her own sensors or communications systems would still be operable. Without an active com beacon for us to home in on, finding her is still a job for Navy sensors, not a bunch of merchant ships."


"Under normal circumstances, you'd certainly be correct, sir," Maneka agreed. "But we're not exactly your ordinary run-of-the-mill merchant ships. We happen to have a couple of Bolos along. They may not mount standard naval sensor fits, but I think you'll find they have the capability we need for this mission."


"You're serious," Agnelli said slowly. She nodded, and he drew a deep breath.


"I really shouldn't authorize it," he said.


"Excuse me, Governor, but it isn't your decision."


"I beg your pardon?" Agnelli's shoulders stiffened, and his eyebrows lowered.


"Commodore Lakshmaniah left me in military command, sir," Maneka said in her most respectful tone. "As the senior Dinochrome Brigade officer present, and as the commanding officer of Unit One-Seven-Niner, the senior Bolo present, I am now the ranking member of the Concordiat military present. As such, under our initial mission orders, I am now the military commander of this expedition."


"That's preposterous!" Agnelli exploded. "Ridiculous!"


"No, Governor," Maneka said unflinchingly, refusing to allow a single quaver into her voice which might have alerted him to how desperately she wished she might have avoided this responsibility. "It's neither preposterous nor ridiculous. I suggest you consult the relevant portions of our orders and of the controlling sections of the Articles of War and the Constitution." She paused for perhaps two heartbeats, then added, "If you wish, Unit One-Seven-Niner can provide you with the necessary text of all three documents."


Agnelli's jaw clamped like a vise, and she gazed back at him calmly, trying to look older than her twenty-seven Standard Years. He was aboard another ship, well over two thousand kilometers from Thermopylae, but she could almost physically feel his anger, frustration, resentment, and desperation.


Hard to blame him, really, she thought almost clinically. He's almost three times my age, and he's spent the last fifty years of his life building a career in government. He's a professional, and now some wet-behind-the-ears kid is trying to play rules lawyer and push him aside. No wonder he's pissed! 


But at the same time, he knows he needs me. Or, rather, he needs Lazarus and Mickey. What the Puppies just did to us makes that clear enough . . . and on a personal level, we're the only hope he has of ever finding Kuan Yin.


"Regardless of what our mission orders and the Articles of War may have to say, Captain," the Governor's voice was icy, "you and I both know that neither the Constitution nor those who conceived of and planned Operation Seed Corn intended for military rule to supplant civilian control of this colony's government."


"I didn't mean to imply that they did, sir."


This was a fight Maneka would have preferred to avoid entirely, and if that weren't possible, one she would have delayed as long as she could. Unfortunately, it was a point which had to be addressed—and settled—now.


"I'm aware, Governor," she continued, deliberately emphasizing his title, "that our mission planners always intended for you to serve as the senior administrator and initial chief executive of this colony. I'm also aware that a complete executive council is already in existence, to advise you and to serve as the basis for the elective, self-governing constitutional structure the colony will require. And, finally, sir, I assure you that I am fully aware of the Constitution's requirement that military authority be subordinated to civilian authority under the fundamental law of the Concordiat. I neither desire nor intend to circumvent that law in any way, or to attempt to use the Brigade units under my command to set up some sort of military state."


His face remained a fortress, but she thought that at least a little of his tension had leached out of him.


"As I interpret our mission orders," she told him, "the senior military officer of the expedition is in command of the military and logistical aspects of the operation until such time as the colony has been planted on a suitable planet and there is no military threat to its security. Obviously, the people who wrote those orders expected Commodore Lakshmaniah to fulfill the role of military commander, not someone as relatively junior as myself. Nonetheless, I think you'll agree with me that the imperatives of survival require that there not be any question of our relative spheres of authority. As the senior military officer, I may find myself forced to issue orders based on the military situation and my knowledge of it, which I may not have time to share with or explain to anyone else. If that happens, none of us can afford a situation in which someone hesitates, or second-guesses those orders, because there's some question as to whether or not I have the authority to give them."


Agnelli's jaw was still set, but she saw at least a flicker of acknowledgment in his flinty eyes.


"You have the ultimate responsibility for the future and survival of this colony, sir," she said earnestly. "That's a responsibility I'm not suited for, and an authority I certainly don't want. But the military security of the colony and its delivery to its new home are now my responsibility. Commodore Lakshmaniah specifically gave it to me, and my seniority, despite my youth, means I can't just pass it off to someone else, however much I might wish I could. It's my duty, Governor, and I intend to do it."


Silence hovered, and Maneka wondered how Agnelli would have reacted if he'd known that she'd deliberately held her fire until after the Melconians attacked Kuan Yin and the other two ships. She knew she'd had no choice, but not only was the Governor a civilian, he hadn't been part of that human-Bolo fusion. Which meant he would never share her absolute certainty that no other option had been open to her, and that doubt, added to her youth and junior rank and his resentment of both, would probably have forced the issue to a bitter and open confrontation, despite how badly he knew the colony needed the Bolos.


"Very well, Captain Trevor," he said after a long, cold hesitation. "I understand your position. I won't say I find myself in fundamental agreement with your interpretation of our relative 'spheres of authority,' but I'm forced to admit the force of at least a part of your argument. And, as I'm sure we're both well aware, how badly I need at least your cooperation. Before formally accepting your authority as the . . . military commander of this expedition, however, I have one requirement."


"What requirement, sir?" Maneka kept her voice neutral, refusing either to challenge him or to appear to meekly accept conditions.


"I will require a legally attested recording of a statement from you, Captain, which expressly acknowledges your understanding and acceptance of that portion of our mission orders which transfers authority over and control of the military to the civilian government at the earliest possible moment consistent with the military security of the colony."


He glowered at her, clearly anticipating a protest, or at least a flare of anger, but she only gazed back calmly.


"Governor, since what you're requesting is no more than exactly my own interpretation of our orders, I have no objection whatever to providing you with that recording."


He blinked, and she smiled ever so slightly.


"Sir, the truth is that there are aspects to assuming military command of the colony fleet which I recognize I'm scarcely qualified to handle. Commodore Lakshmaniah had decades of experience I don't have, and an entire staff and naval command structure, to help her discharge her duties. I have Lieutenant Chin, Lazarus—I mean, Unit One-Seven-Niner—and Mickey. People outside the Dinochrome Brigade often don't understand just how capable a 'staff' a Bolo really is, but even with both of them and Lieutenant Chin, I'm not trained as an administrator on the level the colony needs. And I certainly have neither the experience nor the training to handle all of the many details that cross a real governor's desk every day.


"Because I know all of that, I would be extremely grateful if you would continue to function as our senior administrator and chief civilian executive. I expect to be consulting with you on a daily basis, and I also anticipate absolutely no need or justification for me to meddle in your responsibilities. My sole concern is to make absolutely certain that in the event of a military emergency—or, perhaps, I should say another military emergency—the chain of command and final authority is clearly and unambiguously understood by everyone."


Agnelli tipped back in his comfortable chair aboard the expeditionary flagship. He pursed his lips and gazed at her for several seconds through narrowed eyes. Then he smiled ever so slightly.


"I'm going to accept, provisionally at least, that you mean exactly what you've just said, Captain," he told her. "I'll go further than that. I believe you do, and that you have the most praiseworthy of motives. I will still, however, require that recording. I speak with a certain level of personal experience when I say power can be habit forming."


She started to speak, but he raised one hand in a silencing gesture that was oddly courteous.


"I don't mean to suggest that you represent a Napoleon in the making, Captain," he told her. "Although, to be completely honest, I do have some fear that someone with an effective monopoly on control of the total military power available to us could succumb to Napoleonic temptation under certain circumstances. From what I've seen of you, and from your military record, I actually don't believe you have any natural inclination in that direction, however. What I am a little afraid of is that you'll acquire the habit of command.


"A good military officer, just as a good governor or head of state, requires that habit. He—or she—can't do his job properly without the inner assurance that when he gives an order, or issues a directive, it will be obeyed. The problem comes, Captain Trevor, when that assurance becomes so much a part of him, and such a comfortable fit, that his authority seems inevitable to him. It's not necessarily that he's evil, or that he suffers from power madness or megalomania. It's just that he sees so clearly what 'has to be done,' and since he's grown accustomed to being the primary problem solver, it's axiomatic that it's his job to see to it that it gets done. It simply stops occurring to him to consider that there might be another way to do it, or that perhaps the people around him don't even agree that it needs to be done in the first place. When that happens, the people who argue with him may become part of the problem, as far as he's concerned. They're keeping him from doing his job, so he . . . removes them. "


He paused again, one eyebrow quirked as if to invite a response, and Maneka raised her right hand, cupped palm uppermost.


"I understand your concerns, Governor Agnelli. I hope they're unjustified. And I think I should also point out that the Brigade screens its personnel pretty carefully looking for exactly that sort of personality trait. You don't want someone who's convinced her judgment is infallible running around in command of a Bolo, sir." She smiled with a genuine flicker of amusement. "And I should also point out that Bolos' memories contain both the full text of the Constitution and most of the Concordiat's legal code, not to mention the Articles of War."


"And your point is?" Agnelli asked when she paused.


"Bolos are programmed not to accept illegal orders, Governor, no matter who gives them. They have been ever since the Santa Cruz Atrocity. That includes orders which are in violation of the Constitution. Even if I wanted to be Napoleon, sir, Lazarus would refuse the role of the Old Guard."


"So I've always understood, Captain. And I believe you're being completely honest and sincere when you say it. Nonetheless, I'm a bit older than you are, and a lifetime spent in politics tends to make one a bit of a cynic. One of the oldest maxims is that people change, and another is that power corrupts. So I trust you won't take it personally if I insist on maintaining the best system of checks and balances I can?"


"Of course not, Governor," she said, with another and broader smile. "I'd recommend, however, that we wait to make your formal recording until after we've relocated Kuan Yin. In the meantime, may I suggest you and I place a read-only copy of this entire com discussion in Harriet Liang'shu's secure data storage? I feel sure it will serve your needs if I should at some future time succumb to the corruption of power."


"I imagine it will, Captain," Agnelli agreed with a smile of his own. But his smile was tauter, darker, as her comment recalled his fear that his daughter was dead from the anesthetic corner to which the debate over authority had temporarily banished it.


"In that case, Governor," she said, "my first order as the colony's military CO is to turn these ships around and go find her."


* * *


"What are they doing now?"


General Ka-Frahkan's voice was harsh, and Captain Na-Tharla twitched his ears in the Melconian equivalent of a shrug.


"That's impossible to say for certain, sir," he said. "My best guess is that at least one of their vessels dropped out of hyper partially intact and that they intend to search for the wreck in normal-space."


"With what chance of success?" Ka-Frahkan snorted skeptically.


"With normal civilian sensor capability, a very poor one. But they obviously have at least two of their accursed Bolos. You probably have more familiarity with their sensor capability and range than I do, sir."


Ka-Frahkan's ears flicked an acknowledgment, and the older Army officer rubbed the ridge of his muzzle while he considered. He knew very little about the parameters of such a search operation, but he knew a great deal indeed about the sensors of the Human-built Bolos.


"I don't know whether or not they could find a damaged ship with a Bolo's sensor suite," he said finally. "But the Bolos would certainly know, and the Humans would scarcely waste their time if they didn't believe they might succeed. So I think we have to assume that if any portion of a damaged ship survived, they can indeed find it."


"But even so, it will take time," Na-Tharla observed, as they watched the entire Human convoy begin the transition to normal-space. "May I suggest that we wait until they've completed the transition to n-space before we lay in our own course back to base? I would prefer to have any Bolo in the vicinity take its sensors far away from us before we make any course changes which might draw its attention."


"Return to base?" Ka-Frahkan wheeled away from the plot to stare at Na-Tharla. "That's out of the question, Captain!"


"I beg your pardon, sir?" Na-Tharla blinked, ears folding tight to his skull as the general glared at him.


"I said it's out of the question!" Ka-Frahkan snapped. "We're the only ones who know where this convoy is. That makes it our responsibility to see to it that it's destroyed!"


"Sir, with all due respect," Na-Tharla said nervously, "Admiral Na-Izhaaran was unable to accomplish that with an entire squadron. And you saw what those Bolos did to Captain Ka-Sharan's fist. Those were armed ships, General! We aren't. There's no way in this universe we could destroy those ships, even if the Bolos weren't even here!"


"No," Ka-Frahkan agreed grimly. "But the fact that we can't destroy the ships doesn't mean we can't destroy their gods-cursed colony. Don't forget, Captain. I have an entire heavy brigade under my command. One which has already demonstrated that it is more than sufficient to destroy far larger Human populations than this handful of ships could possibly have embarked!"


"You're suggesting we follow them to their colony site and attack them on the ground?"


"Precisely." Ka-Frahkan's voice sounded like grinding iron.


"General Ka-Frahkan, I don't think that's possible either," Na-Tharla said in his most respectful tones. The general glared at him again, and he went on quickly. "First, although our stealth systems are very good, I can't guarantee that something with sensors as capable as a Bolo's won't eventually pick us up anyway, if we attempt to shadow this convoy for any extended period. Second, we have no idea where they're headed or how long the voyage may be. Their evident objective is to establish colonies as a means of assuring the survival of their species when the war ultimately goes against them. I would assume that this means placing those colonies so far from anyone's explored territory that even their own government won't know where they are. Not only would that decrease the chance of any of our survey ships stumbling across them, but it would mean that there would be no record of their whereabouts in any data we might eventually capture."


He paused, glancing at the general's expression in an effort to gauge the other's reaction to what he'd said so far. Ka-Frahkan only looked at him impassively, and he continued.


"If I were responsible for planning this operation, sir, my orders would be for them to move as far away from any known star system as the maximum endurance of their vessels permits. I would include a safety margin to give them time to locate a suitable world and to sustain them until their colony is prepared to exist out of its own resources. But that could mean they might travel for another full year, or even two. Our endurance is barely a quarter of a year with your brigade embarked."


"You have emergency cryo facilities, Captain," Ka-Frahkan said coldly.


"Well, yes, sir," Na-Tharla said slowly. "But as you just said, those are emergency facilities. If we were to put your brigade into cryo, we might suffer a loss rate of as much as five or even ten percent. And it would only extend our endurance to approximately a year and a half. So even if it allowed us to follow them to wherever they're going, it's virtually certain we would be unable to return home again, afterward."


"This ship, and everyone aboard it, is expendable," Ka-Frahkan's voice was flat, "just as Admiral Na-Izhaaran's warships were. If this convoy is able to successfully establish a Human colony far enough from the Empire, it will, as you yourself have just pointed out, be virtually impossible for our survey forces ever to locate it. And if that colony survives, it will remember who murdered the rest of its species. If it builds its strength, reproduces itself, someday it will return, probably with the support of additional colonized planets, to . . . discuss the current unpleasantness with our descendants. And that could be far more dangerous than this ragged collection of ships might suggest to you."


Na-Tharla knew he looked puzzled, and Ka-Frahkan showed him the tips of his canines in a humorless challenge-grin.


"You may not realize just how serious our losses are going to be in this war. I don't have the exact figures myself, but so far—so far, Captain—we've already lost over twenty percent of our inhabited planets. By the time we complete the destruction of the Concordiat, the People may have only a handful of worlds left themselves, and many of the ones they still have may have been badly damaged. If there are very many of these secret Human colonies scattered about the galaxy, it's entirely possible that they could rebuild in only a few generations to a strength sufficient to pose a very serious threat to the People's continued survival."


"I—I . . . see, sir."


Na-Tharla sounded badly shaken, but Ka-Frahkan knew he had ample justification for any shock he might feel. He was only a Navy captain, and the general knew his own seniority had granted him access to intelligence reports far more detailed—and grimmer—than anything Na-Tharla had seen.


"I see," the captain repeated after a moment, his voice a bit firmer. "And I also recognize that you're obviously in a better position to evaluate the long-term threat a colony like this might pose, sir. However, did we have prior confirmation that the Humans are pursuing such a strategy?"


"Not confirmation, no. Our analysts and planners have suggested that such an option would make sense to the Humans, especially when they realized they were inevitably going to lose the war, despite their accursed tech advantages. But to the best of my knowledge, this is the first such colony fleet any of our ships has actually sighted."


"In that case, General," Na-Tharla said slowly, "is it more important that we follow this single convoy to its destination and destroy it, or that we return to base with the confirmation that the Humans are indeed doing this?"


"That," Ka-Frahkan conceded, "is a very valid question, and I don't know that I'm qualified to answer it. But whether I am or not, I'm the one who has to make a decision. And I do know this much. We know about this convoy, and we're currently in contact with it. We don't know how many of these colonies the Humans may decide to send out, or what percentage of them will survive. But we can assure the People that this one won't . . . and no one else is in a position to do that. We stumbled across this opportunity only as the result of a vanishingly unlikely coincidence, and the Nameless Ones know how unlikely it is that any of our other squadrons will be equally lucky and encounter another one like it. So, as I see it, it's clearly our responsibility to seize the opportunity we have and see to it that at least one Human colony does not survive to threaten the People's future."


* * *


"I can't believe you actually did it, Captain," Adrian Agnelli said frankly.


He stood on the Harriet Liang'shu's bridge, gazing into the main visual display. Maneka's com image occupied one small corner of that huge display, but she wasn't using any visual interface of her own. She was once again fused with Lazarus, watching through her/their sensors as the brutally battered hulk of the hospital ship drifted closer.


"Thank Lazarus, sir," her image in the display said with a smile, although her physical body's lips never moved. "I told you he could plot a tight intercept."


"That's certainly true, Governor," Harriet Liang'shu's captain said, with a respectful nod to Maneka's image. "This is as pretty a piece of multidimensional navigation as I've seen in fifty years in space."


"I know," Agnelli said, unable to tear his eyes away from the slowly growing image of the wreck which had been CNS Kuan Yin. As far as Harriet Liang'shu's captain could see, the Governor's tormenting struggle between impossible hope and darkest fear was evident only in his eyes. But Maneka/Lazarus could monitor his pulse and respiration over the com audio, and the frightening power of his emotions was only too evident to her/them.


"Governor," her image said quietly a moment later, "Kuan Yin's communications appear to have been completely crippled. However, Lazarus and Mickey are both detecting power sources aboard the ship. There's also evidence of continuing low-volume atmosphere loss, which suggests that at least some portions of the hull have retained internal pressure. I can't promise anything from here, but it looks as if there's a fairly good chance at least some of her crew have survived."


Adrian Agnelli stared into her electronic eyes, and the sudden spike of both his hope and fear was terrifying to see.


* * *


" . . . a reading from the after emergency lock yet?"


Henri Berthier's voice was calm over the com, but Maneka knew appearances could be deceiving. Berthier, the Sherwood Forest's commanding officer and Agnelli's designated lieutenant governor, was also the Governor's personal friend. He knew Dr. Allison Agnelli-Watson and her husband William well. Even if he hadn't, he was as painfully aware as any member of the colony expedition could ever hope to be of how vital the recovery of as much of Kuan Yin's cargo and personnel as possible was. And despite Lazarus' estimates—estimates in which she had shared fully at the moment they were generated—even Maneka found it hard to believe very many people could still be alive aboard that mangled hulk.


Especially since we still haven't been able to raise a whisper from them over the com, she thought grimly.


"Still nothing," Lieutenant Commander O'Reilly told Berthier.


O'Reilly was Sherwood Forest's second engineer, and he'd been assigned to the industrial ship in no small part because of his expertise in deep-space construction . . . and salvage. According to the personnel dossiers Lazarus had accessed from Harriet Liang'shu's files, O'Reilly had also been selected for his job in no small part on Berthier's personal recommendation, so there'd never been much question who Berthier would select for this particular mission.


"But that doesn't mean a lot, Henri," O'Reilly continued. "Not yet. We know they've got heavy damage in the area, and that Hellbore hit forward took out both the main and secondary com centers. There's no place for them to stand a regular com watch, and I'd say it's likely that the control station for the lock took some pretty severe damage of its own. I doubt they have any sensor capability left to speak of, either, and they're probably just a little busy inside there right now, so even if the control station's intact, it's probably not manned."


"I know, I know," Berthier said, and Maneka pictured him watching his visual display while O'Reilly's heavy industrial shuttle closed with the wreck. "And there's no way they could possibly be expecting us to find them, even if they'd had the sensors to look for us. I know that, too. Still . . ."


His voice trailed off, and O'Reilly chuckled harshly over the com.


"I understand, Henri," he told his captain, with the merchant service informality which still sounded . . . odd to Maneka's ear. "And don't think for a minute that I'm not just as impatient as you are. But we've matched motions now, and we're initiating docking. We should know something soon."


* * *


" . . . so at least we've got power for the foreseeable future, ma'am," Chief Branscomb reported wearily over the emergency communications system. "Fusion Two checks out, and at this load, we've got reactor mass for at least another sixty years. Not like we're going to be using the drive or the hyper generator, after all."


"And Environmental Three?" Lauren Hanover asked.


"Harder to say, ma'am," Branscomb said. "I've got Tannenbaum and Liang working on the plant now, but, frankly, it doesn't look real good. We've got hull integrity—barely—in this section, but the shock damage is really severe. We've got fittings and power runs whipped apart all over that part of the hull. Power spikes through the Number Four power ring didn't help any, either. You want my honest best-guess, ma'am?"


"It's more than I have now, Chief," she told him mordantly.


"Well, then, ma'am," the petty officer said, "I'd say you'd better not count on Three. We've still got Four and Five, but if I were a betting man, I'd bet that Number Three's only going to be good for spares."


"Understood, Chief."


Hanover leaned back in the acutely uncomfortable chair and scrubbed her face with the palms of her hands. The helmet hung on her chest webbing made it a bit awkward, and she grimaced in exhausted irritation. She was tempted to just set the damned, cumbersome thing down, but that wasn't the sort of thing one did aboard a ship as badly damaged as Kuan Yin. Besides, as the medical ship's commanding officer, it was up to her to set the proper example.


Her mouth tightened at the thought, and she shifted in the chair. Her squirming didn't make it any more comfortable, but at least it was still intact . . . unlike her last chair. And unlike two-thirds of "her" command.


Forty-seven hours ago, she'd been Kuan Yin's fifth officer. Now she was "mistress after God" of a drifting wreck with absolutely no hope of long-term survival. She didn't know whether she was more grateful for the way her newfound responsibilities' requirement to radiate confidence deprived her of the time to give in to her own gibbering panic, or terrified by the crushing responsibilities which had landed on her shoulders.


"Excuse me, Lieutenant."


Hanover lowered her hands, remembering at the last moment not to snatch them guiltily away like some admission of her own weakness. Dr. Chamdar, Kuan Yin's senior physician—and he really was the ship's senior physician, she thought mordantly, not just her senior surviving physician—had entered the compartment while her eyes were closed. She wanted to snap at him for sneaking up on her, catching her in an unguarded moment, but she suppressed the temptation sternly. Chamdar was a civilian. No one had ever explained to him that he was supposed to ask permission before entering the bridge. And, she admitted to herself, this bare-bones secondary control room hardly qualified as a proper "bridge" anyway.


"Yes, Doctor?" she said instead. Her voice, like that of everyone else aboard, was flat with exhaustion, but to her own surprise, she managed to inject at least a little courtesy into it.


"I have that personnel list you asked for," Chamdar said, and Hanover felt her shoulders and her stomach muscles tighten. This was something she needed to know, but she wasn't looking forward to his report.


"Go ahead," she said.


"I have the actual names and the status of the injured here," he said, handing her a record chip. "In general terms, though, as closely as I can crunch the numbers, we've taken over sixty percent casualties. Fatal casualties, I should say. About a quarter of the people we have left are injured. Half a dozen of them are in critical condition, but I think we've got all of them stabilized, at least. Some of the others—like you—" he glanced pointedly at Hanover's heavily splinted right leg "are technically ambulatory, but would normally be in sickbay."


God, it's even worse than I thought, Hanover thought bleakly. But at least it makes what happened to Environmental Three less important, doesn't it? We can keep that few people going on Four and Five alone until we finally run out of power. And isn't that a piss-poor excuse for a silver lining? 


She'd known Captain Sminard and most of Kuan Yin's crew were gone. Crew quarters had been forward of the bridge, and only those crew people who'd been on duty aft of midships had survived. But she'd hoped more of the passengers might have made it . . . this far, at least. Passenger quarters had been mostly in the after half of the ship, after all.


"Thank you, Doctor," she heard herself say. "I'll review this—" she twitched the chip in her right hand "—as soon as I have the opportunity."


"I'm afraid there isn't that much rush," Chamdar said sadly. "Still, it looks like quite a bit of the med equipment itself survived, and we've got three completely intact wards. We should be able to take care of our wounded, now that you and your people have managed to get the ship stabilized."


"What's left of it, Doctor." Hanover smiled grimly at him. "And just between you and me, I think 'stabilized' might be putting it just a bit strongly."


"'Stabilized' has quite a specific meaning to physicians, Lieutenant—I mean, Captain," Chamdar said. "And as far as I can see, it applies to where you and your people have gotten us. Which brings me to another point. That leg of yours isn't just 'broken.' The bone damage is extraordinarily severe. We really need to get you into treatment, get the fuser working on that femur, as quickly as possible."


"Doctor, I—"


"I understand about your responsibilities," he interrupted in a firm tone. "But be honest with yourself, Captain. You aren't really ambulatory right now. You're simply sitting there, in that extremely uncomfortable chair, being stubborn. Well, you can sit in a hospital bed in considerably greater comfort and be equally stubborn while we try to salvage your leg, you know. Under the circumstances, the medical staff won't even object if people like Chief Branscomb come clumping into the ward to report to you."


"I—"


"Ma'am! I mean, Captain!"


The sudden, sharp voice over Hanover's earbug interrupted her stubborn, illogically obstinate resistance to Chamdar's suggestion. She tensed automatically, but even as she did, she realized that whatever had put that sharp edge in the voice wasn't yet another in the chain of disasters which had been reported to her over the past two days. This time the voice was excited, almost breathless.


"What, Foster?" she replied. At least with so few of her people left, recognizing voices was easy enough.


"Ma'am, somebody's just docked with the after lock!"


* * *


I am proud of my Commander. 


She has refused to allow her fears and her doubt of her own capacity to prevent her from discharging her duties. In the fusion of our neural linkage, her awareness of how easy it would have been to allow Governor Agnelli to assume full control—and responsibility—was obvious to me. The strength of her temptation to do just that was equally obvious, yet however great the relief might have been, she never once seriously considered doing so. 


It is fortunate that her reluctance to interface with me has disappeared. In the absence of a human support staff, she requires my capabilities as a substitute. Moreover, it is apparent to both of us—since it is impossible for either of us to conceal the realization from the other—that such intimate contact with my own personality has had a healing effect upon hers. 


As hers has had upon mine, as well. I had not recognized the depth of my own "survivor's guilt" until I saw its mirror in her. And neither of us would truly have been able to recognize how irrational our own guilt was if we had not recognized how irrational it was for the other one to harbor such a self-destructive emotion. 


Which is not to say my Commander is fully healed. She is, after all, Human, and Humans—as I have now discovered through direct personal experience—are both incredibly tough and equally incredibly fragile. Unlike Bolos, they are entirely capable of simultaneously entertaining mutually contradictory beliefs, and their capacity to question and doubt their past actions and decisions is . . . extreme. My Commander has not and, I now realize, never will fully forgive herself for not preempting the Enemy's attack on Kuan Yin and the other two transports which were destroyed. At the same time, she accepts as completely as I myself do that, painful as it was, it was the only viable tactic available to us. 


Bolos are not engineered to embrace contradictory convictions. Nor is it truly possible for a Bolo to continue to question a tactical decision when the evidence is overwhelming that the decision actually taken was the correct one. This is a Human characteristic, and one I do not envy. 


Yet it occurs to me that within that characteristic lie the seeds which impelled a weak, nearly hairless biped, equipped with only the most rudimentary of natural weapons, to raise itself from a user of primitive stone tools to the conquest of half the explored galaxy. There is a strength, a dauntless willingness and courage to confront impossible odds and shoulder unbearable burdens, within Humanity. And without that strength and that ability, my kind would never have come into existence at all. 


It is fitting, I believe, that my Commander should so thoroughly represent the refusal to surrender which has taken her people—and mine—to the stars. 


* * *


Maneka Trevor leaned back in the command chair on Thermopylae's bridge and watched the navigational display as the convoy prepared to once again enter hyper-space and resume its interrupted journey.


She would have preferred to be back in her quarters, linked with Lazarus, watching the maneuver through his sensors. When the Brigade had decided to upgrade Lazarus with the neural interface capability and assigned her, as the sole surviving human member of the Thirty-Ninth Battalion, as his commander, the bright, enthusiastic Bolo tech had told her how wonderful it would be. At that moment, the last thing in the universe Maneka had wanted was to get that close to the single Bolo which had dared to survive when Benjy had not. Looking back, she was guiltily aware that she'd paid far less attention to the briefings and the training than she ought to have. But now, unlike then, she understood why that same enthusiastic tech had also warned her that one of the perils of the interface was the possibility of becoming dependent upon—addicted to, really—the sensors and computational speed and ability of the Bolo half of the fused personality.


That was an addiction to which, it seemed, it would have been only too easy for her to succumb. She knew Lazarus understood her concern, and that he certainly didn't "blame" her for putting a certain distance between them. Although, to be fair, that wasn't precisely what she'd done, either. It was more a case of rationing herself to those moments of semi-godhood when the two of them became one. She'd adopted a rigorously limited schedule, and established her own hierarchy of priorities to determine when circumstances truly justified linking fully with Lazarus outside of that schedule.


And there was another, intensely practical reason for her to be here on Thermopylae's bridge at this particular moment. She was discovering that her role as military commander of the expedition had a much greater political component than she'd anticipated. All of the adult members of the colony's personnel had received basic military training before they were selected for this mission. No one would ever confuse them with front-line Marines, or members of the Dinochrome Brigade, but they were at least as well trained as any planetary militia. Indeed, their legal status was that of a planetary militia. Which meant that although they had their own internal command structure, headed by Peter Jeffords, one of Agnelli's councilors, who also carried the rank of a full brigadier, he was a militia brigadier, and therefore subordinate to her orders as a captain of the Brigade.


On the face of it, that was as ridiculous as her informing Governor Agnelli that her authority superseded his. Unfortunately, it would have been even more ridiculous for what amounted to an infantry brigadier who commanded a total of barely nine thousand militia men and women, to assert command over thirty-four thousand tons worth of Bolos and the woman who commanded them. Besides, the chain of command was legally clear and unambiguous.


But if she was going to command all those trained militia people in the event of an emergency, then she had to come to know them, and they had to come to know her. Just as it was imperative for Lieutenant Hawthorne and the crew of Thermopylae to know her and to trust her judgment. Which wasn't going to happen if she retired into a hermitlike symbiotic dependence upon her link to Lazarus.


However tempting that might be.


"Liang'shu reports that the convoy will be prepared to enter h-space in another seven minutes, Captain Trevor," Hawthorne reported, as if to punctuate her own thoughts.


"Thank you, Captain," she said gravely, suppressing a temptation to smile as two people whose combined age was under sixty Standard Years, addressed one another with such formality. Although Edmund Hawthorne was clearly entitled to be addressed as "Captain" aboard the vessel he commanded, his formal rank was only that of a senior-grade Navy lieutenant. That was more than sufficient to command a vessel whose total human complement, exclusive of Maneka herself, numbered only thirty-six, but it was sobering to reflect that at twenty-six Standard Years, he was now the senior surviving regular Navy officer within several hundred light-years.


"I have to admit," Hawthorne continued, "that I still have to pinch myself sometimes to be sure I'm not dreaming that we actually managed to pull this off."


"Locating Kuan Yin, you mean?"


"Well, that, too, of course," Hawthorne said with a shrug. "But I was thinking about finding anyone alive aboard her. Or, for that matter, being alive ourselves. Which we wouldn't be, ma'am, without you and the Bolos."


His tone, Maneka was relieved to note, was simply factual, almost conversational, without the near-veneration she got from some of the other colonists. That would have been even more difficult for her to cope with coming from one of the tiny handful of other surviving regular officers. Especially since he was no more aware than any other human member of the expedition that she'd held her fire until after the initial Melconian attack on the transports.


"We're not out of the woods yet," she pointed out. "We've got a long way to go."


"Understood, ma'am." Hawthorne nodded and began to say something else, then stopped and turned away with a brief smile to acknowledge his astrogator's formal report of readiness to proceed.


Maneka smiled back, but her mind was busy replaying her conversation with Agnelli when the two of them had decided—and she was relieved that it truly had been a joint decision—to execute a radical course change and continue their voyage for at least another full Standard Year before settling upon a new homeworld. It would extend their journey for three Standard Months beyond the duration originally contemplated in their mission orders, but those orders had always granted Agnelli and his military commander the authority to extend their flight time. And the fact that they didn't know how long the Melconians had trailed them before attacking or whether or not they had dispatched a courier ship home with news of what they'd discovered made both of them very nervous. If the Melconians were able to accurately project even a rough base course for the convoy, it would increase the Imperial Navy's chance of finding them exponentially. So even though it would reduce the safety margin provided by the transports' supplies, no one in the colony fleet wanted to stop any closer to explored space than they had to.


"Actually, ma'am," Hawthorne said, returning his attention to her, "I'm still astonished that we found anyone alive aboard Kuan Yin." He shook his head. "Hanover did damned well with what she had left, but the Dog Boys really ripped the hell out of her. The Compton Yard really builds them, doesn't it?"


"That they do, Ed," she agreed. "That they do. And thank God for it!"


Hawthorne nodded solemnly and rapped his knuckles gently on the small square of natural wood he'd had mounted in the center of his command chair's right arm rest. Maneka smiled at the superstitious gesture, but she shared his astonishment at the survival of any of Kuan Yin's complement. Despite the horrendous damage the hospital ship had absorbed, almost thirty-five percent of her total complement had lived through the attack. More than three-quarters of the survivors were trained medical personnel and specialists their new colony would desperately require, and one of them was Dr. Allison Agnelli-Watson.


Her husband, on the other hand, was not among them.


The Governor had obviously been very close to his son-in-law, and William Watson-Agnelli's death had hit him almost as hard as it had hit his daughter. Yet having Allison restored to him literally from beyond the grave had done wonders for him, and by Lazarus' estimates, the literally priceless medical equipment and supplies the convoy had spent three weeks salvaging from the broken wreck—not to mention the even more desperately needed physicians themselves—had increased the colony's ultimate probability of survival from eighty percent to eighty-seven percent. It would still take at least two years from the time they reached their destination to put all that equipment back on-line, and longer than that to replace the equipment which had been impossible to salvage, but at least they had a far better starting point than they would have had otherwise.


"We're ready to proceed, Captain Trevor," Hawthorne said formally, reporting to the military commander empowered to authorize the movement.


"Very well, Captain Hawthorne. Please signal the fleet to do so."


"Yes, ma'am."


The surviving vessels vanished like soap bubbles, disappearing once again into hyper, and the abandoned, lightless hulk which had once been named Kuan Yin was left to drift, lost and lonely, in the endless interstellar dark.


 


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