As the novel's arc swings towards its conclusion, a simple operation becomes more complex. Humans and animals alike find themselves making hard choices, but there's a light at the end of the tunnel as relationships start to solidify.
Here is the final major turn of the story; after this point, everything is angling towards the end. Another bit of combat, and the cast of characters gets some "rightsizing." Major character development is chiefly on Alrukhan's front, as he becomes a little more... uh. Self-actualized. Either the three-quarter or the two-thirds mark! As always, share and enjoy, and please chime in with criticism and feedback! If you like the story, that makes me happy. If you don't like it, the only way I can get better is if you tell me.
Released under the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Share, modify, and redistribute -- as long as it's attributed and noncommercial, anything goes.
Steel and Fire and Stone, by Rob Baird — Ch. 6, "And there fell a great star from heaven"
The first angel sounded, and there followed hail and fire mingled with blood,and they were cast upon the earth: and the third part of trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up. And the second angel sounded, and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea: and the third part of the sea became blood; And the third part of the creatures which were in the sea, and had life, died; and the third part of the ships were destroyed. And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.
— Book of Revelation 8:7-11
They had found other humans, but not many — a half-dozen in all. They claimed to be groundskeepers and technicians; it seemed the humans did not even treat all of their own as equals, and had not bothered to provide a means for their escape. On Alrukhan's orders these unfortunate souls were now safely ensconced in one of the campus's basement shelters.
He intended to release them, at some point, but they needed to have a clear narrative for the outside world and this was proving to be difficult. The other nakathja had divided themselves rather logically on boundaries of house and friendship, in groups of twenty or thirty apiece. He asked each to select a representative, and they talked in one of the old DEC boardrooms.
The declaration of independence was very nearly finished, but every time they neared a final draft something else emerged. In this case it was one of the less pleasant aspects of his leadership: the dispensing of such justice as was occasionally required to maintain order in their nascent pack.
For the most part, they got along well. Their human handlers had never bred any aggression into them — for obvious reasons — and their fighting tended to be minor squabbles, resolved and forgotten quickly. They all followed Alrukhan closely, and did not object to his decrees. Indeed, the Ibizan could well have written the declaration himself — but then, that would've defeated the purpose.
Still, they had their human traits that were not easily overcome. He ordered the food to be stored communally, so that they could all keep an eye on the stocks. It was dispensed in equal, appropriate measure — but still some of the dogs smuggled a little extra, as they had been accustomed to in the corporate days.
At the time it had been a matter of practical necessity, for no one knew when a capricious human might choose to withhold dinner. Now, it undermined his authority and the cohesion of their group. The dog before him, Yareta Rastlan, was a young red and white Border collie. Her ears were flattened, and her tail was tucked between her legs.
"This is your third time," he pointed out. "And you were supposed to be on guard duty, anyway, not stealing food from the stores."
"I... I forget," she said, her voice just above a whisper. "I don't mean to, but I get to remembering how hungry we used to be..."
The hell of it was, Alrukhan sighed to himself, that he believed her. She wasn't deliberately trying to disobey him, or to cause problems. He ordered her confined to a single room while he tried to figure out what to do for punishment.
It needed to send a message to the others, without being cruel. Imprisonment was cruel; the humans had imprisoned them, after all, and he was not about to follow their example. It was true that there were a half-dozen former DEC employees under armed guard — but this, he told himself, was only a formality until they could be handed over to someone willing to take custody of them.
Yareta Rastlan was different, because she was part of the pack — the Commonwealth of the Enlightened, as Iskoshunja had taken to calling it. She was part of the pack, and she would have to be reintegrated to it at some point.
"You look tired, Rukkich."
"It's all just more than I was expecting. You know, it's always something, apparently..." The Ibizan sighed, closing his eyes. The idea of a strike had seemed quite simple, even when they were trying to figure out all the minutiae of the logistics. None of these complicated moral affairs. "And we haven't even gotten to the important stuff — getting a message off-world, or figuring out what our long-term prospects are here? I thought the hard part was supposed to be over..."
"But it is, isn't it?" the corgi asked; her eyes had never lost their combative fire. "We're no longer slaves, are we?"
"No," he agreed. "And I understand why it was worth it, but... Yassuja, Iskich, I just... sometimes, I can almost see why so many nakath are willing to accept the dominion of mankind rather than take up their own. It's so easy for them. I don't have that luxury, as their leader."
"Canst tho, o partial sleep, give thy repose to the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude — and in the calmest, and most stillest night, with all appliances and means to boot, deny it to a king?" She grinned; the expression was thin, and knowing. "Then happy low, lie down. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown."
"I guess," the Ibizan muttered unhappily. He didn't know what she was quoting — perhaps some old nakath rebellious tome, perhaps a human poet. "I suppose you have more unease for me?"
"We've detected some radio transmissions coming from inside the campus. They're scrambled, so, god only knows what they're about. Could be an old sensor system, but I'd guess it's an escapee."
"Ours or theirs?"
"Ours are accounted for."
He nodded. "Well, try to triangulate it..."
"And when we catch them?"
"Bring 'em in?"
The corgi tilted her head. "And then what? They're past their amnesty period. We were clear about that." That was how they had rounded up the groundskeepers — loudspeakers announcing that any human turning themselves in would be kept safe and fed until they could eventually be released.
"You can kill them if you want," he said — although, really, he was not comfortable with her bloodthirstiness. "But we still need to interrogate them first, don't we? Take them alive, if you can. Question them, and dispatch them as you see fit. Just... try to find a soundproofed room, this time."
Colonel Zhen Yao began the briefing by listing everything that they knew about their enemy, which amounted to distressingly little. In the weeks that they had occupied Jericho, they had fought only the one battle. Everything since had been minor — a few dozen men at a time, perhaps; nothing more.
Orbital reconnaissance before their first encounter told them the Kingdom had laid siege to the spaceport with two battalions, but they had suffered heavy casualties in the retreat — between men and materiel losses, perhaps half of their fighting strength had been depleted.
Was that all? This was a more challenging question, and it seemed that nobody knew the answer. There was, after all, no more orbital reconnaissance: the combat elements of their task force had left long ago, save for one superannuated dreadnought, and the remaining cargo ships could tell them very little from four hundred kilometers up.
It seemed unlikely that they had much more than a battalion or two: otherwise they might've been more aggressive in their raiding parties. Since they were not, Yao said, she was comfortable in taking the fight to them. The Kingdom, they all presumed, was fortified around a deep-space surveying installation of the same kind that McKeever Spaceport surrounded.
Her plan was to mobilize the entire brigade for one massive assault along half the installation's perimeter. It did not matter, she pointed out, whether or not they held the base: if they could inflict damage to its support infrastructure, and the supply depots, then the Kingdom could no longer operate even if they managed to reclaim the real estate.
This would leave their own spaceport undefended, although Yao said that they could still rely on the base garrison troops. So far as Tindall was concerned, this was a profoundly optimistic assessment. They had no real artillery, and no heavy weapons to speak of. Their morale seemed to have improved — it could scarcely have worsened — but when Yao had sent a few platoons out on patrol those results had been so dismal the garrison had not been asked again. The colonel seemed to understand this. Their battle plan called for the assault to take no more than four hours, and every aircraft they could muster would be made available for support.
In truth, Tindall was not especially worried: in a stand-up fight they could only emerge victorious. The Kingdom's vehicles held speed as their only advantage — they were next to useless in defensive operations, unlike his company's own sturdy Rooijakkals. And their enemy did not seem capable of fielding much of a fighting force anyway.
Lucy Moulden was not convinced. The plan she presented was conservative and methodical. It also did not involve him: Captain Tindall discovered that his company was to be kept in reserve. In their briefing, his questions were answered brusquely; afterward, Major Ketterer pulled him aside. "It's not that she doesn't trust you."
"I didn't think it was," Tindall answered — though now he was a little curious as to why this was even worth suggesting. "I just thought... from Colonel Yao's briefing, sir, it seemed we were committing everything."
"That's the plan, yes. But there are some... unanswered questions. The Kingdom must be expecting our attack, captain — the stalemate couldn't go on indefinitely, after all, and we have the upper hand."
"You think this'll get complicated?"
"When has our job ever been simple?" Kala grinned. "I think that we'll need to be careful. Colonel Moulden and I believe that a counterattack is likely in our sector. It's the most open front, which is good for their tanks. And they'll know that without infantry we don't have much staying power. The Strixes and the Griffons will keep them at bay, but only until the ammo runs out. If they hit us then, they'd be able to bite off about a third of our attacking force, and that could get... ugly."
"So you want somebody in reserve?"
The big major nodded. "Someone we can trust. If this hits the fan, captain, Moulden and I agree we'll need someone who can pull it out of the fire for us. Your company may still be, ah... unconventional, but they're damned dependable."
He tried to convey this to his staff, though at his explanation Wayne Eisenberg only raised a darkly amused eyebrow. "We're too special to fight?"
"You think they know something we don't?" Emily Lachance asked.
"Perhaps," he was forced to admit. "Although I'm not sure what it is."
Wayne's thin-lipped smile was mirthless. "Well, I can think of a couple options. For example, perhaps they're telling the truth — or a half-truth, at least. They believe that the enemy is stronger than they've let on, and they want their best men available to hold them off."
"Are we their best men?" Tindall asked.
"Aren't we? We're certainly the best expendable men. Either way, if it's not that, then maybe it's the complete opposite. They think this is going to be such a walk in the park that we can just waltz right in, and they don't want any non-humans in the victory parade. But do you think that's it?"
For all that he was not always happy with the command hierarchy, he had never been given reason to believe that this would be the case. "No."
Then they had to suspect the worst. Tindall drummed his fingers on the table of their briefing room, and then tapped the communicator on his wrist. "Mr. Curtis? Please come to the briefing room. We need to discuss signals." He paused. "You've been working with Specialist Miller, right? Bring him with you."
"Yes, sir." A minute or so later, both appeared. They made an odd pair. Jamal Curtis was tall and bony, with dark skin. Miller was a short, stocky dog with a face neatly bisected in black and white. "Sir, Warrant Officer Curtis, reporting as ordered." Miller did the same.
"At ease. Mr. Curtis, can you tell me the threat picture for the enemy's surveying outpost? How many men are we talking about here?"
"I'd say two thousand is a good estimate, sir. Maybe twenty-five hundred. Three thousand, on the outside."
Tindall exchanged glances with the impassive Wayne Eisenberg. "We're being told they have two battalions at most. You're saying twice that?"
"It's hard to judge exactly, sir," Curtis said. "The public reports from the outpost talk about commanders at the division level, but that's probably disinformation. Four to five battalions is more likely, from the signals we're seeing. We don't have a clear picture of their order of battle, but probably two infantry brigades?"
"You're certain about that?"
"Specialist Miller?" Curtis prodded.
The dog perked floppy ears, and looked between Curtis and Tindall. "Uh. Well, yes, sir. I've been monitoring radio signals for Mr. Curtis. Military communications are encrypted, of course, but civilian traffic control comms are in the clear. Based on the supply trucks they're moving, they have to be supporting at least a couple thousand people."
"Civilians too, though?"
Curtis shook his head. "No. The base has been shut down for a month. They moved their civvies out when the transport lanes were still open, just the same as we did."
The 49th Armored Brigade had just over sixteen hundred combat-ready troops, which was supposed to provide them with a comfortable margin. But if Curtis and Miller were right, they might be outnumbered by as much as two to one — fighting defenders who had had weeks to prepare.
He summoned up his resolve and went to Moulden and Ketterer. "What's your estimate of the enemy's fighting strength?"
Moulden gestured to her computer. "Eight hundred to a thousand — crippled by limited supplies and support assets. We went over this in the last briefing."
"My C&S officer is telling me to expect two to three times that, on the basis of comms intercepts and supply traffic. Is there the possibility that we're underestimating, ma'am?"
Lucy Moulden was silent. She glanced to Aapo Ketterer, and then inclined her head a fraction of a degree. Ketterer forced a grin. "Come on, captain, let's go for a walk."
Biting his tongue, Tindall followed Major Ketterer into the hall, and then into a small room with sound-dampening foam padding the walls. It seemed to suck the life from the chamber. "Sir, I have the feeling I'm not going to like this."
Ketterer chuckled, and his grin looked fatalistically ghoulish. "That's because you trust us, captain. You trust you didn't just tell us something new..."
"I don't expect I did."
Ketterer unclipped the communicator from his arm and set it on the table in the middle of the room. He tapped it, summoning a hologram to life — a three-dimensional map, with points of bright color dappling the surface. "This is our attempt to integrate our signals intelligence. It's a mess, and reconnaissance overflights haven't helped. They might have five hundred people, or five thousand."
"But you think it's more than a battalion."
"Probably," Ketterer admitted. "They are underequipped, and undermanned, but unless we were wrong from the start of this operation their casualty rates aren't high enough to have brought them down to one effective battalion."
"Why wasn't this in the briefing?"
Aapo Ketterer snorted, and bit his tongue. It took several seconds before he answered, and even then the bitterness was plain in his voice. "We weren't allowed to say it. If they really outnumber us, that ups the mission threat coefficient. If the TC's high and we run into trouble, the Jericho business manager's going to be in hot water. So officially, it's a low-TC op with a high support class and no probability of failure. Unofficially..."
"Ah. Fucking hell."
"Unofficially, fuckin' hell, yes," Ketterer agreed.
The open plain to which their battalion was assigned separated two more difficult approaches that comprised the main thrust of their planned attacks, with one of the other two battalions assigned to each. If the Kingdom managed to take the plain, they could attack either with impunity. "And you're worried about a counterattack because you think they have the men to force it. Drive a wedge with their tanks, hold it with their infantry, and blow Levi Roland to hell."
"That's right. It's actually a little more concerning." Ketterer stuck his fingers into the hologram, pinching them together to zoom the view out. "If they break through here, they can hit the spaceport — their hoverdynes'll cover that distance in, what, an hour? Two? We won't be able to stop them."
"I won't be able to either," Tindall pointed out. "Not with two dozen underarmed mechs."
Ketterer nodded. "I know. We'd love to put Vallis there too, but we can't — not without jeopardizing the actual attack. On the other hand, we both trust that you can..." He trailed off, and the big man seemed to be at a loss for words.
"Buy time before they wipe us out?" Tindall suggested. "If you really think they're going to hit us here, I need support, sir. Artillery, air support, PPC mines..."
Tindall heard in Ketterer's sigh the remnants of arguments the major had no doubt been fighting himself. "We can't get it. I've tried."
"What about the base artillery, sir? They've got the range, at least."
"We can't use them," Aapo shook his head when Tindall opened his mouth to reply. "I know. Trust me, I know. We've only been given the 49th. Colonel Yao asked for support from the base garrison, but, uh... Colonel Clarkson doesn't want to give up anything. And he's golf buddies with somebody in sector command, so..."
"Due respect, it's a hell of a job you've given me, sir..."
Ketterer smiled sympathetically. "Burden of command, captain. Wait 'til you get your own battalion to run..."
Tindall no longer really held this aspiration. The truth was that even the company was taxing. His decisions now carried the risk — occasionally the expectation — that men would die on nothing more than his orders. "I'm alright with Alpha Company for now, sir."
"For now," Ketterer grinned, as though Tindall had expressed modesty rather than fear. "And you're doing a pretty good job."
"If we come under serious attack, sir, I can buy you..." He tried to come up with a generous estimate. "Minutes, at most. That's optimistically speaking. I can't expect to stop them. I can't even expect to inflict serious losses. Just delay..."
"Just give us the time to regroup, and let the other battalions press the attack. You see the problem, don't you? We could wipe each other out, but a tactical draw here is a strategic win for the Kingdom. They have the men and materiel to throw at this if we give them the chance. We don't.
"I'll do what I can, sir," Tindall said. He was less reserved back in his own command room, with Wayne Eisenberg sitting on the other side of the desk: "It's a fucking mess, Wayne."
Arnie ran his fingers through his hair and sighed. He had been avoiding reflective surfaces, not wanting to see — but he could feel how much his hair had thinned. "We've done too well for ourselves, I think."
"Gone and made us dependable, sir?"
"You know it. I want you to pull the support section and put them in Jackals."
Wayne paused. "They don't have combat training, though."
"No. But if history is any indication, we'll go through mechs faster than we go through crew. If we can throw fresh vehicles into the fight, we might be able to keep going a little longer."
"So keep the supply trucks back at base... the recovery vehicle, too?"
Tindall nodded. "Yep. Put 'em in as many Jackals as we can manage."
"And the medics?"
Wayne's eyes searched him when Tindall met the sergeant's gaze. "No," Tindall finally said, quietly. "Not the medics. Just make sure they're close to the front."
"Got a bad feeling about this, too?" The Rottweiler was grinning, but the expression was dark and cynical. They had met accidentally; Corinna was examining their mech again, walking around it, scanning for any problems or flaws. Officially they were ready to depart: the engineers had cleared them the day before, and the chief who signed the paperwork had nodded understandingly when she asked him if he would mind her going over it a second time.
"Can't be too safe, right, mate?" One of the maintenance panels was ever so slightly ajar. She pressed it firmly into place, thumping it with her paw to make sure it stayed shut.
"You hear anything new about our orders?"
She shook her head. "No. Broad strokes, like I said in the section meeting earlier." A big, coordinated attack, with air cover and overwhelming superiority — just as she preferred it. They were finally taking the fight to the enemy, so that they could no longer hide behind ambushes and improvised explosives.
It was not only that intelligence said they outnumbered the Kingdom's troops by two to one. Their battalion was attacking a relatively easy path, and Tindall's company itself was being kept in reserve. It was possible, she had been told, that they would not see any combat at all.
That suited her fine, but the implied ease was troubling to her. Quiet had always augured danger, if not outright disaster. The night after the incident that had cost her first job was quiet. It was quiet, too, the next morning when her owner had tried to smile as he explained that he was going to have to send her away from the place she'd been bred for, and the only life she'd ever known.
And there were other things on her mind. She gave a final glance at the cold skin of the Rooijakkals, and made her way from the hangar, into the pleasant cool of the deepening night. Bester followed. She heard him rummaging for his pack of cigarettes, and after a moment's reflection she did the same.
It was a blessing, she thought, as much as she didn't like feeling reliant on them. The smoke in her lungs was a comforting warmth, and it seemed to draw some of the tension from her as it curled, waving like a cat's tail, from her parted lips. She tried to focus on the burning point of the cigarette, so that when she closed her eyes she still saw the lingering glow staining the darkness.
It didn't help. She could still see what she'd feared she might; the thylacine shuddered, and the cigarette quivered in her paw. The video packet had been innocuously marked, and handed to her by Emily Lachance, the company's XO. Emily said she hadn't watched it.
Since her official promotion to staff sergeant, which had taken place on the transport to Jericho, Corinna had been receiving supplemental briefing material which she was intended to share with the men of her section. Most of it was quite mundane: changes in tax withholding policies, or minor updates to the computer systems on their combat walkers.
This had been different. It was made in reference to their opponent: "A reminder," the grim narration intoned, "of why we are called to fight." The narrator never showed his face. The first image on the screen was of a uniformed Sanganese soldier, speaking politely and calmly. The subtitles said that he was providing an update to Raytheon about the seizure of their campus on Jericho.
"You heard any rumors about the Kingdom? How they treat reshaped animals like us?"
"A few. I'm sure you have, too. Bekatra..." There, the rumors had been that the Kingdom had executed the entire moreau contingent of a corporate campus, and returned only the pelts.
"You believe it?"
Bester shrugged; the cigarette wandered as his paw waved. "I don't know. Wouldn't put it past 'em, don't got a reason to think it didn't happen. Humans, stripes. What can you do?"
"But we're fighting for humans."
"Good ones?" It wavered between being a statement and a question; she took it as the latter.
"You think? Lot of humans would sacrifice their life to save another human. Not sure many of 'em would give up their life to save one of us louts. Figure morries rank pretty low for them."
It didn't seem to surprise Bester, or to bother him; the Rottweiler shrugged again. "Probably. Always been that way. What's on your mind, stripes? Unhappy with the LT or something?"
She stubbed out her cigarette prematurely, and her long fingers fidgeted with the remains. "I got this video I was supposed to show at the sekka. They said it was from a corporate outpost the Kingdom took over."
"I can see where this is going."
"Probably." She fished for another cigarette, and took a deep drag to marshal her ability to continue. "Three dozen morries, lined up in front of a big hole. This well-dressed man, just... one by one, right down the line. With a knife. Butchered 'em like... like animals," she whispered; it was the only word that fit. "And when they stopped moving, somebody else just... come up and kick 'em into the pit like it wasn't anything but getting rid of garbage."
It was hard for her to get the scene out of her thoughts. She closed her eyes and could only see the sight of bright crimson blood splashing against the white marble of a stately building. The sounds were the worst. They had been muzzled, but the cameraman's microphone picked up clearly the sound of begging whimpers from the doomed moreaus before they met their fate. The whimpers, and the muffled yelp when the knife bit in, and the wet, strangled wheezing as the victims fought to breathe through their ruined throats.
"They wanted everyone to see it," she said. "I couldn't. I just couldn't. It's like... I don't know those poor bastards. But it coulda been us."
"That's what they wanted you to tell us," Bester muttered, his voice dark. "That was the point."
She knew. "That's the problem, see? Like, if that was humans, they'd have 'em up in the dock for war crimes. But 'cause it's us, it's just a damned propaganda video. They don't respect us. They're not going to find that pit and give anyone a proper burial, are they? Betcha anything this war'll end, and somebody'll pay some fuckin' reparations money, and they'll redraw a border, an' us morries are rottin' in a bloody great ditch like it was a fuckin' latrine."
When she was finished, Bester sat quietly several seconds longer. "That's why you don't fight for their propaganda," he finally.
"What do you fight for?"
"Nothin'," he said.
Corinna wanted to draw more from the laconic dog. "C'mon, Bester."
He looked at her, eyes dim in the twilight, and sighed. "To start with, it was my future. Yeah," he waved his paw again, to forestall objections that had not yet been raised. "I do think I have one. Wasn't gonna get anywhere workin' myself into the grave for my old company. Now, it's... mmf," he grunted. "I dunno. You know why I fight, stripes? It's always been the people around me. Even when it was just humans. On my squad, I think, I woulda given anything for any one of them, and I think they would've for me, too."
The thylacine nodded, slowly. She had originally enlisted to escape a dead-end job as a nurse to CODA's wounded. Then she had applied for Tindall's company because of the excitement and adventure it implied. Now, as their first major deployment looked to be winding down... she wasn't certain why she remained. The pay was decent, and the company was friendly.
She extinguished her cigarette once more, and they sat in silence for long, contemplative minutes. That, she had learned, was a trait of the dogs; they were content to be quiet, not to fill up those moments with halfhearted wisps of conversation.
Finally she smiled to herself. There were, anyway, worse things to be fighting for than one another. She slipped her long arm around the barrel-chested dog, and gave him a gentle hug. "Thanks, Bester."
The Rottweiler nodded, finishing his cigarette so that he could lean against her comfortably. "'Course, stripes. I'm gonna sit down," he told her, and she followed his lead. The grass next to the hangar was soft, and still warm from the sun of the long Jericho day.
She got herself comfortable again, and again she wrapped her arms around the dog. The bulk of his body formed a pleasant heat beneath her fingers, and the rise and fall of his chest soothed her. She laid her ears back, letting the sounds of machines elsewhere in the base fade into the background. "You want to stay out here tonight?" she asked, a little hopefully. Mostly, it was that she did not want to move — certainly not to the antiseptic smell and the cold, harsh lighting of the barracks they'd been crammed into.
The big dog stretched, and then leaned back, into the grass. She did as well, and then rolled onto her side so that she could snuggle against him. There was a scar, somewhere on his forearm, that he claimed to have gotten in an overly spirited game of lacrosse. Corinna slid down his arm slowly, until she found it, and stroked the short fur gently.
Exposed, lying in only her work clothes beneath a naked sky, she felt safer next to Bester than she did shielded behind the armored walls of her Rooijakkals. Corinna chuckled; when Bester made a quizzical sound she tried to explain, and he nodded. "Yeah," he said. "We'll be safe here. 'Sides, got yer teeth if anyone tries to start anything."
The thylacine grinned, baring them. Then, arms intertwined around the dog, she pulled herself into a kiss — blindly, nudging the side of his muzzle at first before their lips met. His growl sounded quizzical, but there was no hesitation in his movement as he pressed himself closer.
They fit, she thought distractedly, as a perfect match. She tilted her muzzle, so that they came closer. Her pulse quickened. Bester had big, broad paws that clasped her strongly, holding her striped body close. She sighed against his blunt muzzle, and when she did he slipped his tongue just barely between her lips. She parted them in wider invitation, gliding over the soft, warm velvet of his tongue with her own — feeling the big dog growl softly, and grip her tighter.
Her paws worked along his back; the tense muscles relaxed slowly as she kneaded into him. Bester's warmth was reassuring. She wanted to be closer to him. The thylacine hooked one long leg around his waist, leaning heavily into the dog. His growl became edgier; his back arched, and when he pressed back against her Corinna felt a telling firmness swell the front of his pants.
But she didn't hold back. She kissed him with renewed hunger, their lips locked snugly, and when he bucked again she gasped with the feeling of the power in the big dog's muscles. Her paws slipped slowly into his belt, unfastening it — then she felt him tense, and pull back from the kiss, his chest heaving in deep breaths. "Hey — Stripes."
"Mmf?" There was no word there, only a questioning mumble.
"Moving a bit fast?"
Her mind unclouded a little, though the desire she felt for him was ebbing into sudden dim panic. Did he not feel the same way? Had she misread something? There was still rigid heat pulsing beneath her paw. "But..."
He leaned forward to kiss her again. "'But' what?"
"Don't you... I mean..."
"Want to keep going?"
"Sure," Bester admitted. "But we're tired, an' stressed, an'... ain't the right time."
Mollified, slightly, she withdrew her paw. When she did, he hugged the thylacine again, cradling her against his chest. She could feel his heartbeat — strong, and quick, and regular like the workings of some great clock. "Might not get another chance."
Bester chuckled. "Awful pessimistic."
"You never know, mate. These troubled times..."
She felt the Rottweiler's grin as he bit down gently on her ear. "We'll be fine. No sense in wasting this, stripes."
Sighing once again, she settled down against him. Well. He was right, anyway, to a point. If nothing else she was tired — and, yes, stressed. Perhaps she had been hasty. "Just sleep, then?" His chest, despite the buttons of his uniform, made for a convenient, soft pillow.
"Sure. Busy day ahead of us."
Corinna closed her eyes. Tomorrow drew inexorably closer, but what did it matter? They would get everything taken care of, and then they could enjoy each other's company in less hurried circumstances. That was wise. He was a logical fellow. She took a deep breath, letting the dog's scent fill her nose.
Yes, yes, he was right. They would be fine.
Alrukhan was not asleep; he had not truly slept since their final declaration of independence had been issued two days before. A constant fear nagged at his thoughts — that the walls were about to come crashing down, that he had overlooked something, that they would be set upon like sheep besieged by wolves.
None of this had happened so far. Indeed, nothing had happened at all. Nobody answered the broadcast that they beamed into the void. He thought of all the bartering they had had to go through to get the transmitter, all the money it had cost, and he shook his head.
Iskoshunja slept better than he did, perhaps because her conscience and resolve were less easily troubled. She had curled up and against him, and he stroked her side with his paws idly, trying to soothe himself to sleep.
Instead, the Ibizan's ears caught the sound of a dull clanging. His eyes narrowed in the darkness, and he sat up slowly. Had he imagined it? No, there it was — steady, jarring, swelling in volume. The alarm, he realized with a start, and shook Iskoshunja firmly.
"Wha —" she started, but as soon as consciousness returned she heard it too. Then she was pulling on her clothes as swiftly as he was, following him out and into the yard.
A husky met them, and just as he started speaking they all heard the sound of gunshots. The dog's ears pinned: "the humans, sir. Police, I think."
"The eastern gate." More gunfire. Automatic weapons — Alrukhan had never heard the sound in real life. It sent a chill down his spine. "At least a dozen of them."
Other nakath were starting to approach him, including Shura Narrakja, the tall shepherd he trusted as head of their security. "Orders, Alrukhan? May we shoot back?"
"Of course, comrade," the Ibizan nodded. He waited until Shura had given the order into his radio. "How many do we have under arms?"
"Twenty. We'll hold them at the gate, don't worry." Now the crackling sound of shots was joined, as if in conversation — swift, barking, and ugly.
Alrukhan heard shouting, and turned to see a figure sprinting towards him — panting and out of breath. Sunara Tayus, an Ibizan like himself. She stumbled, and he had to pull her to her feet as she gasped. "Comrade — that way!" She pointed behind her, off towards the southern entrance to the old DEC compound.
"What about it?"
"More humans," she panted, using an epithet for the race. "They —" a bright flash of light blinded them — then a deafening boom knocked them to the ground, and they heard the din of shattering glass. A great pillar of fire was rising to their south.
Alrukhan's big ears flattened. "Yassuja..."
Sunara Tayus stared at the flames with wide, horrified eyes. It was one of two supply depots, which Alrukhan had considered well-hidden. Not, it seemed, well enough. Tayus was babbling, apologizing incoherently to anyone who would listen.
Iskoshunja, who was not in the mood to do so, rapped the bridge of her nose firmly. "Stop! There's no time for that. How many of them were there?"
"Just a few, but we — we didn't have anything t-to fight them with and —"
The corgi gripped her muzzle, holding it shut to quiet the dog. "Shura, get four guards and meet me at the C Barracks." Shura glanced to Alrukhan, and he nodded his assent. "I'll stop at the armory first, and grab weapons for us."
Shura and Iskoshunja left at a run, and the husky followed, leaving Alrukhan and Tayus. "It was my fault," she moaned; her long tail was tucked, curling awkwardly around one of her legs.
"What do you mean?"
"I... I saw them coming, but... it was just three of us and we didn't have any weapons... I... I told them to run for it. We should've... should've..."
Alrukhan shook his head, and gave the shivering dog a hug. "You did the right thing, comrade."
"Two thirds of our generator fuel... a quarter of our food and water... the spare parts," she sniffled against him. "All of it, just... gone..."
It was a great loss, he had to admit. But they had other things to deal with — even if the volume of fire seemed to already be dying down. He nuzzled Tayus between her splayed red ears. "We can replace spare parts," he reassured her, "but not our friends. Thank you for making the right call, Tayyich."
She swallowed. "You mean it?"
"Of course," he said. "Now come, we need to see what's going on at the gate."
It took them two minutes to get there, and the battle was already finished. He saw a few nakathja take potshots off into the distance, but it was without real order or purpose. "Willis!" he shouted.
"Present." The Rottweiler — Shura's second in command — jogged over to them. "Hello, comrade Alrukhan; comrade Tayus. Are you wounded?"
Willis reached out a paw; Alrukhan felt a bit of a twinge on the side of his head, and when Willis pulled back he was holding a sharp piece of glass. "You were caught in the explosion?"
"Close enough. I'll get over it," he said. Actually the cut didn't even hurt — yet — although he could feel wet blood snaking down his cheek. "What's going on over here?"
"They weren't serious about it, I don't think. We definitely tagged a couple of the bastards, though, before they ran off. One of them wasn't moving afterwards, either. Poor sod," he grinned. "What went up over that way?"
"Supply cache — most of our fuel." But they would have time to figure that out later. The cache had been stored underground, and there was nothing else to burn; already the fires had dwindled to a muted glow. "Did they get any of us?"
"No, comrade speaker," the Rottweiler grinned again. "We see better in the dark than they do, I think."
Nor had anyone been injured in the explosion, thanks to Sunara Tayus's hasty retreat. Iskoshunja brought even more news: they had captured a human attempting to escape from the compound. "The source of the radio signals we were tracking before," she explained.
"So it would seem, Rukkich," she nodded. "They had a fair amount of equipment on them, too. Slowed 'em down when they were trying to run. Anyway I think humans forget how easy it is to track the reek of their scent..."
The interrogation brought uncomfortable information to the fore. The human, Cassandra McGary, claimed that they had been sent from the local police authority to investigate what was going on at the compound. According to McGary, she had found an unlocked entrance, and discovered the supply cache.
Working back from the evidence, there was only one possible answer, which was that they had discovered the cache while Yareta Rastlan was supposed to have been guarding it.
"You make things difficult for me," Alrukhan told her. The collie flattened her ears. She had spent the attack in her cell, and the sounds of the battle had clearly left her uncomfortable. She jumped at all the little noises around them, and her tail was motionless.
"I didn't mean to, comrade," she said, softly. "I swear, I didn't mean to."
"I know. I never said that you meant to, Yarrich. But we have suffered on your account, and there must be some kind of reckoning. We're not lawless."
Her ears flattened further, and she couldn't seem to meet his gaze. "What's going to happen to me?" She stammered the question with a trembling voice.
The Ibizan sighed, and patted her shoulder. "The will of the people," he told her.
He had said this firmly, but Alrukhan didn't know entirely what it would mean. On his request, Iskoshunja gathered them all in one of the big auditoriums. Save for a few guards, the entire commonwealth was there.
"Comrades, let us be brief," he said. "Today should be a day of celebration for us. We have weathered bravely an assault by the humans — their attempt to visit reprisal on us for the mere fact of our liberty. They suffered in their attack — we have bloodied them, and in so doing reminded the humans that we are not to be taken lightly. Most importantly, none of us were gravely wounded — and this is truly worth celebrating, for in these troubled times we can only rely on each other."
He reminded them of their bravery, and a few of them cheered. He described how they had valiantly pushed the police back from the gate, and the shouting grew louder. They were the enlightened ones, he said: the bold, the free, the united. He felt the energy of the crowd build — then he cut them off.
"But it is not all joyousness, comrades. With a heavy heart, I must tell you of two transgressors in our midst. This one," he gestured to a figure shackled to the wall behind them. "Was a human spy. She told the attackers where our supplies were so that they could destroy them. This was a substantial blow: our fuel, our computers, and much of our clean water have been sacrificed to human aggression and hatred." He growled the words, and turned to glare at Cassandra. The human woman looked terrified. She spoke no Nakath, but she could hear the anger in his rising tone, and catch his accusing stare. "She has confessed already to her crimes."
His audience clamored behind him, and at the swelling roar of the crowd the human drew back further, pressing herself back and against the wall.
"But she is not the only one. Yareta Rastlan, step forward." Trembling, the collie stood from a seat behind him, and joined Alrukhan on the stage. "Yareta is a thief, and a recidivist. Two times before she has been caught stealing food. Stealing food, comrades, from us. From all of us — making our already-heavy burdens yet heavier. This final time, I regret to tell you, she abandoned her post as supply depot guard — permitting the human here to gain access and discover where we had stored our supplies. Do you deny the charge, Yareta Rastlan?"
The collie shook her head, and he heard more muted rumbling from the crowd; a few nakakthja leaned in to exchange whispers with each other. They had never been asked before to visit justice on one of their own; he did not relish the thought now. But such was the nature of hierarchy, and order.
"A serious loss has been visited on us, comrades. We cannot lightly take such things. We have to draw a line, or risk seeing all our accomplishments lost. Therefore we must send a message. It is the advice of the Commonwealth Council that both of these criminals should be put to death."
Yareta yelped, and her knees went unsteady; Iskoshunja had to grip her by the arm to keep her upright. The crowd's rumbling resumed. He knew that Cassandra McGary's fate had already been sealed; they were out for blood. But one of their own — that was different.
"We are not heartless. I'll offer the accused a chance to speak for themselves. Cassandra?" He barked the name, and even through his thick accent she caught it, looking at him curiously. "What do you have to say for yourself? What could you possibly offer in your defense?" The Nakath fell on uncomprehending ears; Cassandra shook her head in confusion. "Very well. Nothing. Yareta?"
She leaned on Iskoshunja for support as she made her way to Alrukhan. He had to lower the microphone to meet her muzzle. "I... I'm sorry for everything I've done," she whispered. "I know I've let you down — all of you, comrades. All of you! I... I..." She trailed off; from the corner of his eye Alrukhan saw Iskoshunja squeeze her paw gently. "I beg you... please... remember that I'm one of you. I didn't mean to hurt you, I — I promise I'll never do it again — I promise I'll do anything, just, please... please don't forget that I'm one of you."
"Were," Alrukhan said, coldly. "You were one of us."
Yareta's ears drooped, and she shook so badly her muzzle reverberated against the microphone. "I c-can be a-again. Our pack is everything to me..." She tried to continue, and was unable to find her voice. Alrukhan decided to spare her any further indignity.
Iskoshunja, who was always more quick to aggression than he, had suggested the next step. He took a deep breath. "Now, I — as your elected head of the Commonwealth Council — must temper our desires for vengeance. The Council has decreed that both of these criminals should face death. I say we have room for mercy. I will spare one of them, at your request. The human has visited great destruction on us — but it was only fighting for its own people. Who here speaks for them?"
"Yareta Rastlan has betrayed us through her own immaturity and selfishness. Because of her, we must endure additional privation — but she claims to desire her rehabilitation. Who here speaks for this one?" Now, as he had known they would, they raised their voices in wordless barks — she may have been a traitor, and a weakling, but their own blood still pulsed in her veins. "Yareta, for one final time I offer you clemency. The Commonwealth has spoken — it's your turn. We threw off our harnesses to the people betrayed us to. Now are you one of us, or one of them?"
"You," she gasped; she still looked to be in shock. "One of you — of course."
She nodded vigorously, repeating the exclamation. "Of course!"
"Then prove it."
"Iskoshunja," he commanded shortly. He felt the corgi press the heavy weight of a pistol into his paw, and he handed it to Yareta in turn, pointing her towards the human who still stood, staring at them with widening eyes. "Prove it," he said again.
"As one of the pack, will you not do the pack's bidding?"
She looked down at the pistol. "But..."
Cassandra was starting to speak — rapid-fire English, nothing in their own language; she was begging them to spare her. "This is your redemption, Yarrich," Alrukhan told her sternly. "Or you can join your friend there."
Yareta lifted the gun, aiming it towards the human. Her paws were unsteady, and Iskoshunja had to lean over to flip the safety off. As she caught the sight of the barrel's mouth Cassandra shook her head fiercely — pleading with the collie directly, offering her amnesty in the nearest human settlement, appealing to faith in gods no nakathja worshipped.
Alrukhan took the microphone again. "Comrade Yareta Rastlan, in a moment of weakness, exposed us to harm. But she did not plant the explosives. She did not set them off. She did not choose to attack us. That was the work of humans like this one. Thus far, we have shown them mercy — and we have seen what mercy has given us. I uphold the sentence of death. Comrade, carry it out."
Cassandra's voice had raised itself to a shout as she watched the collie's fingers tighten on the trigger. Now Alrukhan heard oaths: the degrading epithets he'd heard from so many humans before. In the final moments of her anger she swore desperately at the young collie — who looked away as she pulled the trigger.
The silenced report was still jarring in the auditorium. Cassandra jerked, letting out a tortured groan as she tugged against the restraints that bound her to the wall. She gasped out another curse, and he saw Yareta's ears flatten. "Don't let it suffer, comrade," he said to her under his breath.
Still only glancing from the corner of her eye, the collie pulled the trigger again, and again. Cassandra's groan became a bubbly, moaning sob — then she shuddered with a choking cry, and a final breath spilled thickly from her lips as her lungs emptied and she slumped forward, motionless.
Yareta was still, too. He took the pistol back and helped her lower her arms once again. Then he hugged her lightly, letting her fall against his body. "The pack welcomes you again, Yarrich," he told her, soothing her with his paws.
And when he repeated it into the microphone, they cheered their agreement.
Every time their sensor suite completed a scan of the area he'd selected, the computer chirped softly in his ear. Chanatja turned it off; otherwise, he feared, he would go mad. There was nothing to be seen.
At any other time, the day would've been beautiful. There were only a few clouds; heavier overcast lurked to the west, threatening afternoon storms, but the day so far was warm and sunny. Chanatja had no patience for it.
High above them, more than a dozen warplanes orbited, spinning in lazy circles like buzzards. Occasionally, one broke from its perch to dive for the ground, and a few seconds later sound and light flared up on the shepherd's screen. Then there was nothing again — but still, they had to advance carefully.
"Astra?" he asked, hopefully.
The muskrat turned to him, and shook her head. "No idea. They should be taking fire from the perimeter defenses by now, but there's just... it's like a ghost town."
Some of them had escaped. The gunships spotted the convoy when it was already too late to intercept — but from what Chanatja had seen on his map, they couldn't have made off with more than six or seven hundred men and machines. That left a substantial contingent still in the base. So why weren't they fighting?
They heard the dull thud of a closer explosion, and Chanatja glanced over to Astra expectantly. Again, she shook her head. "IED, I think. Somebody in Vallis's company set it off. They're not reporting any damage."
"Ajay," he said. "We should come forward. We can't see anything here." Their platoon was parked in a wide valley, with verdant, sloping hills to either side. Their visibility up those hills was good, but ahead of them the rise of the dry riverbed cut off what they could see — and shoot at.
"They are keeping us here, I think," the leopard shrugged, but clicked his headset on. "Calu, this is Skoll. Still quiet here. Can we advance? Over."
Tamara Szanto's mech was a hundred meters off to their left side, hunkered down just as they were. "Calu. Negative, Skoll, you know the rules. We stay put until they tell us otherwise. Over."
"Skoll. You knowing where is the enemy at? Over."
Szanto opened the radio a second before replying, so they could hear her quiet chuckle. "Calu. I'm as clueless as you are, guys. Just stay alert. Calu out."
"C Company, 1st Battalion has crossed the perimeter of the enemy base," Astra reported. "Still not taking fire."
Chanatja could not imagine why they had been left unmolested — but there it was. All the same, they were vulnerable: perhaps the Kingdom really had withdrawn, but confirming this would take a building-by-building sweep, and Lieutenant Colonel Muramatsu had no infantry support. Scanning the base structures using only the sensors on a Rooijakkals was doable, but only with a great deal of effort — and precious time. "What in god's name is going on?"
Ajay unscrewed his thermos and, keeping his eyes fixed on his computer, took a long drink. "You want to know what I think? I think they are no longer being present. I think all that they had left they pulled back when they saw us coming."
"I thought our sensors saw a lot more of them?"
Astra nodded. "They did. Must've been a ruse."
Wayne Eisenberg shrugged. The hologram gave the gesture a halting air, as though the indecision was making the man shiver. "Keep us from attacking, maybe? Maybe they figured if we thought they had more men, we'd be willing to let the stalemate hold."
Arnie fidgeted with his controls. "I suppose. Just seems too easy." As if on cue, Jamal Curtis leaned over to catch his attention. "Wait out, sergeant."
"We've got a problem, sir," Curtis said.
"No such thing as problems, Mr. Curtis — only opportunities. What's up?"
"Then we've got an opportunity, from Tai's command mech shift right thirty for six thousand." Curtis tapped a button to transfer his situational map to Tindall's hologram. "Embanked position, either automated or still manned — getting signals from them, anyway. Judging by what we're seeing there I'd guess mixed anti-tank missiles and light infantry weapons."
"Not much of a threat, no?"
"They're in heavy cover, sir, but when Captain Carignan crosses this bridge, they'll be able to enfilade his whole axis of advance. Maybe they won't cause too much damage, but it does constrain our movement a bit."
At least it was something to distract him from the ominous silence of the Kingdom's outpost. "Sergeant Knight, what do you think about this?"
Aja Knight did not report to Tindall directly; she was a forward air controller the brigade had leant him for the operation. "Tricky bastards," she said. "You want me to take 'em out, sir?"
"If you can, sergeant." He took another look at the hologram. Steep, rocky walls protected much of the approach. "All that cover, though... god almighty..."
Knight grinned, and started working through calculations on her own computer. "You believe in god, captain?"
Tindall looked at her, and shrugged a little; he did not generally talk about his personal beliefs. "I do, I admit," he said.
"Good for you! So do I," Knight told him. "Almost as much as I believe in close air support. God's a pretty swell guy, captain, but he doesn't have precision guided weapons."
She grinned a predator's grin. "That's why He answers prayers, and I answer fire support requests. Between the two of us?" Aja gave him a wink. "I have the better track record." Without a beat, she snapped the boom of her headset into place. "Reno, this is Skipper 1-4, type three in effect, advise when ready for nine-line. Over."
When he looked at the high-altitude view, he discovered 'Reno' to be an element of assault gunships, the newer Griffon type that was supposed to be replacing the Strix dropships they sometimes used. Strixes were heavy and unmaneuverable, and the weight of the weapons packages made them yet more ungainly.
But they had not yet been replaced, because the money was never available. Plus, he recalled, the espatier were inexplicably fond of them, and since they needed transatmospheric assault vehicles the Strixes stayed on.
One of the Griffons banked, zooming down towards the ground. With clinical detachment, Tindall saw a flashing indicator separate from the gunship's own icon, streaking for the embanked position that Curtis had identified. The two icons met; both disappeared.
"No more signals," Curtis said.
"Reno, this is Skipper 1-4, good effect on target. Thanks, guys. Reno out." She turned to Tindall, giving him a thumbs-up. "What did I tell you?"
"Good job, sergeant."
There was still precious little clarity about what was going on, though. He saw from his display that Muramatsu's 1st Battalion was filtering slowly through the buildings in the western part of the base; the other two battalions were close behind, probing other parts of the perimeter. Was it too much to hope that they had been spared a dangerous confrontation?
Jamal Curtis froze, and Tindall saw his eyes go wide. "Sir, I'm getting strong EM signals. Way too big for conventional units."
"I'm not sure, I can't — they're — Jesus, it's off the scale, I can't get bearings to them." He was twisting dials on his console, tapping at buttons in a swift panic.
"Calm down," Tindall ordered. "Is it coming from the base?"
Curtis shook his head. "No... no, I don't think so. It's more like... ah, sir, it's orbital. The signals are coming from orbit."
"What the hell?"
His own radio buzzed. "All units, this is Dakota." Major Ketterer's voice had lost a little of its ordinary cool edge. "Satellites are tracking a Kingdom task force that has just jumped into orbit. We don't know what its composition or intentions are. I want all units to displace in an orderly fashion along prebriefed lines Tamworth and Mackay. I say again: displace in an orderly fashion along lines Tamworth and Mackay."
Tindall's platoon was already well behind the front line; for the moment, he ordered his men to stay put, and tried to make sense of the situation. The Kingdom battlegroup was dropping towards them from two hundred kilometers up. Their own convoy was in orbit, headed towards the newcomers — but, at three thousand kilometers distant, too far away to provide much information.
Wayne's face reappeared in his holographic display; he was being called. "Yes, sergeant?"
"Any idea what they're playing at?"
"Not a damned clue. They jumped into low orbit. That's supposed to be illegal."
"We'll probably have to take it up with the Interstellar Trade Commission, sir. How many of them are there?"
Tindall looked to Curtis and the man turned up his hands resignedly. "I don't know. I'm picking up sixteen to twenty-four distinct signals. Mixed size, no way to sort them from down here. Satellites are being jammed. Sorry, sir."
Arnie did some quick sums in his head. "Sixteen to twenty-four ships... if that was CODA ground-mobile, that's... an armor division."
"Plus some friends," Wayne agreed. "Arty, air support. Jesus, sir, this ain't good..."
You're telling me. "Maybe they come in peace."
"Sir!" Curtis was locked onto his console, his hand trembling over controls he couldn't seem to find the strength to work. "I've got inbound contacts. Multiple tracks, multiple vectors. It's the task force."
"No sir." He swallowed. "It's artillery, sir. They're bombarding us."
Tindall felt his blood turn to ice. "Targets?" he whispered.
"Our base, and the perimeter of theirs. We're caught between them for now, I don't think we have any... we don't seem to have any incoming..."
Someone on the radio was shouting frantic orders to retreat. Tindall could only stare in horror as a rain of brightly flashing icons sliced through his holographic map — so clean. Precise. "Specialist Miller." He knew his voice was shaking. "Order the company to NARA-4."
"Not going to matter much," Wayne was saying through the communications link. "But I guess it's better than nothing..."
"Impact in twenty... fifteen... ten..." He wanted to tell Curtis not to count down — but then... but then there was the waiting. Tindall glanced up by reflex, but the blast shields on the windows were closed. "Five. Four. Three. Two. Brace!"
A swelling thunder crashed over them; the Svartrenoster shuddered and bucked as though caught in an earthquake. Wayne Eisenberg's image flickered, fuzzed out, and disappeared. "What happened?"
"We've lost the main UDL repeater. I'm switching to secondaries," Miller said. "One second and we'll —"
"More incoming. Same targets as before. Our convoy's moving to intercept," Curtis reported. "Three minutes to contact."
Wayne's face had returned. "Damage report?" Tindall asked him.
"Nothing big. The convoy's engaging? It's unarmed, for god's sake!"
"There's the Shenandoah," Tindall said, darkly, trying not to hope too much.
"Thirty year old dreadnought we use for orbital bombardment? Good god."
"Twenty seconds to impact," Warrant Officer Curtis called out. "It's going to be closer this time."
To hell with it. Tindall clamped his hands over his ears. It muffled the sound a bit more, as the deafening roar swept over them — but he couldn't brace himself; their mech was tossed and beaten, and he found himself slammed painfully into his command console. He could see Wayne doing the same thing, his mouth wide in a shout of anger and pain.
There was nothing they could do. Nowhere they could run. Nowhere they could take cover. His map couldn't even keep pace with the destruction — trying to make sense of ridges and canyons that simply no longer existed. Wayne was still shouting, but he couldn't hear anything — his mouth was moving too slowly for words...
The Svartrenoster jerked again, rolling with another shockwave. This, Tindall realized with sudden clarity, is how I'm going to die. In that moment he felt no particular fear — only a vague sense of regret. It had all meant so little... here he was, and not a damn thing he could change. Been an honor, Sergeant Eisenberg; bloody shame we couldn't do more — he thought he said this aloud, but not even a full second had passed, according to his clock.
The rumble ebbed — time jerked, then slowly came back to normal. He was alive — somehow. Wayne was snarling muted orders at someone else in his mech. Curtis was shouting, too, calling for him. Information. Words.
"What is it?"
"Incoming, sir — this time it's on us. We've got — ah!" All the screens went a bright, glaring white, and even from a meter away Tindall could hear the screeching of interference in the sensor operator's overloaded circuits.
Then there was darkness. Pitch black; no lights at all in the cockpit. No sound from the engine. He waited. It was impossible to judge the passage of time, but surely... surely the bombardment would've hit by now. Surely — the mech kicked as another shockwave rocked them, and he heard Miller's terrified yelp echo in the blackness.
"Hello?" Tindall's voice sounded thin in the silent mech. He caught a dull glow from further ahead; the driver was using his wrist communicator's screen as an ersatz flashlight. "Sergeant Ellison?"
Screen by screen, the cockpit came back to life. "Trying to restart her, sir," the driver said. "Reactor's still stable, for what that's worth..."
"I'm cycling the sensors, sir," Jamal Curtis added. "See if we can figure out what happened..."
"You pick up anything before we went dead?"
"— but the dorsal array doesn't seem to be responding yet."
"Mr. Curtis?" The man didn't answer. Tindall leaned over and tapped him on the shoulder; he turned. "Anything before we lost the link, Mr. Curtis?"
Jamal blinked, and shook his head. "I can't hear you." Looking slightly confused, he pulled off his headset. With the cups removed, blood spilled in a thick line down the side of his head. He gingerly reached back to touch his ear, and then looked to his fingers — glistening wetly in the harsh lights of the computer monitors. "Ah — oh, shit, sir..."
Tindall swallowed heavily. "Sergeant Ellison, get the first aid kit." He unclipped his kneeboard computer, scrawling on it quickly: its ok well get u a medic. Jamal nodded weakly when Tindall held the computer up for his inspection. "Specialist Miller, call for a medic and get me Sergeant Eisenberg on the line."
The collie dipped his head sharply and got to work, as if grateful to have an order to work with. "Altai 3, this is Apache 6. Come in, Altai 3." Miller frowned at his microphone. "Apache 7, this is Apache 6. Apache 7, this is..." he trailed off, and turned around to shake his head at Tindall. "I can't get anything on global or local net, sir."
"We have line of sight on Eisenberg's mech, right? Switch to the laser signal lamp."
"Uh... yes, sir."
Ellison had passed back the first aid kit, and Curtis had both his hands to his ears, pressing thick wads of gauze to them. Tindall felt the mech shift beneath him, as it rose to its feet. can u hear anything? he wrote.
"No, sir," Curtis told him. "Ringing."
seen this b4 u will be ok.
"Yes, sir." He didn't sound convinced.
"I've got Eisenberg's mech online," Miller said. He was carefully working the controls of their signal lamp, watching for the answer. "They're okay. No injuries."
"Bring us closer, sergeant," he told Ellison, and scribbled on his kneeboard again. whats it like outside
Curtis let the hand fall from his right ear; the gauze fell away, leaving a red stain. "Alright, sir. Thirty degrees and rising. No radiation."
"Specialist Miller, tell Eisenberg I'm coming to meet him in person. And keep trying to raise the medics."
When he first opened the hatch, Tindall recoiled at the heat; he slipped through quickly, pulling it shut again to spare the men inside. He landed with a light crunch beneath his boots — grass, or what had formerly been grass, crumbling to ash beneath his stride.
There were no clouds left above them. The sun speared downwards through a painful blue sky. But all around smoke rose in thick, winding trails: the earth was burning. The trees were all aflame.
As he approached the other mech, the hatchway opened, and Wayne Eisenberg swung his feet out before dropping to the ground. Tindall had never been so glad to see the sergeant — perhaps to see anyone. He'd planned to give orders, to ask for status reports, to maintain some semblance of normalcy. But Eisenberg beat him to his own punch — pulling him into a bear hug. "Jesus Christ, sir, it's good to see you!"
"So. How bad is... everything?"
"I cannot tell how many errors we have," Astra told the leopard, "because the error display is broken."
"Same here," Chanatja added. "Do we have reactor power? I didn't feel any radiation..." He was trying to remember the symptoms from their training. Nausea, they said. Chanatja's stomach was unsettled — but then, he could chalk that up to stress, couldn't he?
"I cycled it," Ajay said. "It is coming online again soon... I hope."
Chanatja waited until they could hear the hum of the environmental systems restarting, and then tried to turn on his multifunction displays again. Some of them — the diagnostic ones — seemed to be alright. On the other hand, the cameras that were supposed to display the outside world to them showed nothing but the electronic snow of hissing static.
First things first. He turned the power to the rocket battery off, and then turned it back on again. The multifunction display flashed an error code that he had to look up in his manual. M28 MSML is not installed, the manual translated, and recommended a solution: Check to make sure the M28 is installed in the 55i before attempting to start the system.
It was not a wholly auspicious beginning.
But the cannons seemed to have power, and the stabilizers came online suitably quickly. It was only the targeting suite that seemed broken beyond repair. The most ominous error came when he switched the Multispectral Visual Augmentation System into 'electromagnetic abstraction' mode. EMABS fail: no signals exist in this spectrum (3µ - 330 nm). Select another Y/N?
"Well, according to our sensors, there's nothing in ultraviolet, infrared, or visible," the shepherd muttered. "Either it's the end of the world, or the MVAS is down."
"Probably not the end of the world," Ajay said. He slowly slid the protective shutters over one of the panes of cockpit glass back, and light poured in. When Chanatja's eyes adjusted, he could see the same thing as the leopard: a sea of flame, crackling with golden heat. "Ah... on the other hand..."
"Those were trees," Chanatja dimly recalled, aloud. "They're...."
"Burning?" Astra asked. She was on the wrong side of the mech to be able to look out the window. "Because I've got ambient at thirty-five degrees, if I can trust the thermocouples."
"What happened? Was it the bombardment?" Ajay stared out at the flames as though he could not tear his gaze away. "Did they hit us with incendiary weapons?"
"I'm trying to reconstruct the last bits of data before we lost TacNet," Astra said. "We saw what looked like a Kingdom battle fleet at about two hundred kilometers altitude. Our convoy moved to intercept, the signals merged... then the last thing the satellites saw was an energy burst in the six exajoule range."
"No," Chanatja answered before Astra could. "Somebody's reactor went up. We rammed them."
"I think so, given the neutrino count," Astra confirmed. "We don't have much of a blastwave, but there was a lot of radiation. At NARA-4, we're reflective. Trees... not so much. I'd guess most of our sensors are burnt out, though."
"I've got MVAS," Ajay told her. "I think my camera was hidden by the shadow of a tree. You have anything, Chanatja?"
"No." He tried again; none of his cameras worked. "Snow. It's all snow."
"If your ADC is working, you'll be able to move without the augments," Astra pointed out to the leopard. "Chanla can't take potshots with the cannons."
"But his systems aren't working. Doesn't do us much good."
"Mm. Reroute your camera to his console."
Ajay snorted. "Yeah, I'll get right on that. You want me to divert power from the warp drive, too?"
"I'm serious," Astra protested. "You can give him your MVAS. It's a trick they taught us in school. Put one of your MFDs in command mode, and then go to, uh... /etc/comsmp.conf." She spelled the letters out, and waited for Ajay to follow along. "Yeah? Find the line, uh... just do a search for /dev/video something and comment that line out."
"Power cycle your system, or run through the startup configuration anyway. Chanla, you too. The way they do it is, ah, the gunner's console will take whatever sensors it can find, but I think normally 'cause the pilot starts first his computer locks the primary MVAS unit for use and the gunner can't see it. But if you don't do that, he should be able to..."
"Yassuja," Chanatja muttered. "Not bad, Strayyich. I've got sensors back. For what it's worth..." It was only when he could see again that he realized how helpless he had felt in his blindness — but the thermal vision was nearly useless, and even most of the integrated systems were confused by the destruction around them.
The time needed to restart their computers had, at least, given Astra time to finish bringing the rest of her own to full operation. The muskrat tilted her head at a flashing light on her console. "Huh."
"Huh?" Ajay echoed.
"I've got a weird signal." She flipped a few switches, and pursed her lips. "It's modulated..."
She shook her head. "Maybe? I can't get an uplink to the satellites, so it's not over the global net. Oh... No, I've got it. It's the old emergency radio..."
"Put it on the intercom." At Ajay's order, Astra dutifully pushed a button, and then turned the volume up.
"— come in. I say again, this is Calu. Anybody out there?" The voice was tinny and robotic in the low-bandwidth transmission.
Ajay started in surprise, and then laughed. "Ah! Report in and give our status."
"Calu, this is Skoll. We're mobile, but with limited weapons. Most of our sensors and communications are heavily degraded. Over."
"Hey, Skoll." Over the radio, Szanto paused. "Private Astra?"
"Everyone okay over there?"
"Yeah. We're okay. No injuries."
Another pause. "Good."
"Ask for orders," Ajay said.
"Sergeant, do we have orders? We do have some offensive capability left." Astra had added this last part, which was only loosely accurate.
"Not until I can raise command. Sit tight, guys. Watch for movement. Calu out."
Ajay gingerly prodded his controls, and the mech swayed lightly. "I'm going to move forward and to the left about fifty meters. I don't like being around all these flames. That alright, private?"
He flipped the other shields open, so that he could see out of the windows, and nudged the Rooijakkals into movement. It was halting; a little drunken — Chanatja realized he was trying to operate without the sensor input that normally fed the computers that controlled their movement. Bipeds like the Jackal were naturally unstable. It was only the leopard's skill that kept them on their feet.
They held their breath until the mech was settled down again. Even then they stayed quiet; it took Astra to break the silence. The muskrat's tone was soft. "I'm glad Sergeant Szanto is okay."
"Yeah. She's not bad, for..." Chanatja trailed off, because he did not want to finish the sentence that he had begun. "She's not bad. I'm glad she made it, too."
"You were going to say, 'she's not bad for a human,' weren't you?" Astra didn't sound particularly accusing, just faintly curious.
The muskrat nodded, and leaned back into her chair, fidgeting with a switch there. "Not just for a human, though. She's good, in general. She likes us, I think."
"Yeah." The adrenaline had left behind only aching dread at what was still to come. He didn't have the energy to spare in discussion.
Astra's long whiskers twitched. She took a deep breath, and then sighed. "I hope your girlfriend's okay, Chanla."
Responses tugged at him. What are you talking about? or I don't have one; some reflexive protest to save the face of his concern. Before he could, though, he found himself saying, only: "so do I."
Sergeant Eisenberg followed him through the hatch of the command mech, and Tindall pulled the door closed behind them both. "Any luck?"
"No, sir," Miller said. The dog looked frustrated; his ears were back, and his lip was slightly curled. "I've tried. I can't get a successful downlink from the satellites. Handshake isn't going through."
Tindall strapped himself back into his seat. "So it's like they're not authenticating you?"
"No, sir," he repeated. "It's like they're not there. Warrant Officer Curtis said they picked up a radiation surge before going offline. I think they might be out of commission."
"Line of sight only," Eisenberg grunted.
"I've tried that too." Miller reached out to begin fiddling with one of his dials, and then gave up. "Transmitting on the wideband fallback frequencies. No answer."
Arnie closed his eyes, thumping his head back against the wall of the mech. "Christ. Wait — what about the gunships? They ought to be above the horizon." If they're still flying at all. But they were combat vehicles, designed for tough operations — and, supposedly, hardened against radiation.
"I can try, sir..." The dog didn't sound particularly hopeful. "Sergeant Knight, who's the command unit for air operations?"
Sighing, Miller thumbed his microphone boom down. "Ragnar, this is Apache 6. Ragnar, this is Apache 6. Nothing, sir. Nobody's home. Although... wait. Authentication for the encryption has to go through a UDL supernode, doesn't it? If UDL is down..."
"Break encryption on my authority," Tindall said. "And try again."
"Ragnar, this is Apache 6. Come in, Ragnar. Ragnar, this —"
"This is Ragnar to Apache 6. Good to see signs of life down there. You guys alright?"
"Give me the set, specialist," Tindall ordered. "Ragnar, this is Apache 6 actual. Situation is a little unclear. We have wounded, and are out of contact with the remainder of friendly forces. You have a clearer sense of what's going on up there? Over."
"Ah, this is Ragnar. Can we go secure? Over."
"Specialist?" Tindall asked.
Miller splayed his ears thoughtfully. "Um. Without TacNet I don't know. We have the old spread-spectrum stuff, but I'm sure they can break that..."
"Better than nothing, right?"
"I guess, sir. Uh, Ragnar, this is Apache 6, switch to modulation pattern four. Transmitting authentication bravo echo on the subcarrier now. Over." He seemed a bit more animated — happy to be in control of things again. "You're good to go, sir," Miller told him.
The pilot, orbiting several kilometers overhead, spoke first. "Thanks, guys. Uh, we're okay from up here. It looks like it's a real mess down there, though. We can't raise anybody at command. Honestly, there's not much left of the spaceport. No intact structures. Most of it's on fire. The enemy base is intact — no movement or signals there, either. Over."
His heart sunk. The report confirmed the worst of Tindall's fears — that their commanders were either dead or incapacitated, and in either case unable to help. "Can you see anything from the rest of the brigade? Over."
"Scattered vehicles... they look intact, but there's not a lot of movement. Haven't been able to raise them, either. Satellite network's down — EMP took the whole thing out. Over."
Tindall shook his head wearily. "What about the Kingdom? Last we heard they were egressing to the east at high speed. They still on the move? Over."
"Uh, have to check on that. Wait out, Apache 6."
Arnie tapped at his kneeboard computer, looking over their maps. "Wayne, I need a sitrep for the entire company."
Eisenberg nodded curtly. "I'll go door to door if I have to."
"Good. Report back to me as soon as you have it, alright?"
The older man saluted, and then opened the hatch. The cabin filled with scalding air and ash before Arnie could secure it again. Jamal Curtis still had his hands at his ears, though the gauze was fixed in place by drying blood. "Any word on the medics, Specialist Miller?"
"No. Same problem as everything else, sir. Nobody's answering."
Ragnar came back five minutes later with the first bit of good news: the Kingdom was still on the move; the convoy was now forty kilometers distant. The gunship pilot couldn't say whether or not they had been damaged by the orbital blast. But, he said, the enemy base was deserted.
"No signs of life? Over."
"Not one, Apache 6. Looks like they bugged out."
By Tindall's reckoning, this at least bought them time. The Kingdom had been counting on dropping with overwhelming force. Now both sides were on their back feet. Arnold tried to talk himself out of the idea that was forming.
"Sir? Eisenberg for you."
Tindall put on his headset. "Apache 6 actual. Go ahead."
"Mostly positive, sir. We're not entirely combat effective, but the company's mostly alright. No word yet from supply and maintenance, but we found the medics four kilometers back; they've set up a temporary post in a... less burned area. All four platoons have checked in. Minor injuries, but we'll cope."
"Good. We're going to hit their base, Wayne."
"Sir? Due respect, we're not in any condition to fight."
"Neither are they," Tindall pointed out. "That base is undamaged and unoccupied. For now. It commands the high ground, and it'll have supplies. If we move fast, we can get set up before anybody knows we're home."
"What about traps? IEDs?"
"I don't think so. Not this time. We would've set them off at the perimeter if there were any to find. They left because they knew they had reinforcements coming. IEDs and booby traps are unpredictable — you only set them when you think you've lost that ground. Otherwise you have to find them, disarm them..."
"Doesn't do much good planting a trap if it takes out a dozen of your own guys when you come back home," Eisenberg agreed, thoughtfully. "Alright. We're not going to be much for shooting, though, sir. All these Jackals need work."
"Understood. But let's move it. Apache 6 out."
He didn't think they were in any danger of taking fire, and in any case he wasn't any better off than the rest of them; he ordered Ellison to take the lead as the mechs jogged up towards the Kingdom base. He knew it was a gamble — and held his breath a little when they crossed the smashed fences and into the base itself — but nothing shot at them, and finally he ordered Ellison to bring the Svartrenoster to a halt.
By the time Wayne joined him, ten minutes later, he had already commandeered an empty maintenance shack, and set up his computer on a disused filing cabinet he dragged into the middle of the room. The hologram was mostly blank — no input from the satellites, no signals from any other units. Only his company — a hundred and thirty-nine men in deeply hostile territory.
"First things first, we need to establish a defensive perimeter. I figure we have twelve hours until they decide to come back and investigate; maybe two days before they've done enough probing to figure us out and decide to mount an attack. I think we can hold them here." He had drawn a line in neon blue around half the base, abandoning what he took to be the old civilian barracks.
Eisenberg stared at the map. "I admire your dedication, sir, but... with what units do you want to accomplish this?"
"Whatever we have. Cannibalize mechs if you have to. Lieutenant Lachance, that reminds me: put a detail together and inventory the equipment here at the base. They can't have taken everything. Get on that now."
"Yes, sir." Emily Lachance saluted, and ducked from the room.
"We need to call for help," Eisenberg said quietly. "We can't hold this by ourselves for more than a few days."
"I know. But we don't have a good way to contact Earth if the satellites are down. We don't have anything powerful enough to reach the relay on its own — reckon they have a transmitter here, but..." Arnie shrugged. "I don't speak Chinese and we don't have the instructions. We'll figure out a way, but until then we'll have to scavenge."
Eisenberg ran dark fingers through his hair, and then sighed his reluctant concession. "Alright. Talk to the nearby towns, too. Cloud cover spared 'em more than us. We have that executive order on our side, and god knows we could use the help. Spare parts, fuel, food. These are nice digs you found us, but it isn't exactly Liberty Square Park, sir."
"Next thing we do is..." Tindall stepped back from the table, and pulled the door open. Smoke from the torched forests still spiraled lazily upwards: the air was thick, and grey, and the sun hung blood-red far above them. It looked every bit an apocalypse. "Next thing we do is we try to find survivors. We can't have been the only ones."
Miller improvised an antenna for their portable radio, and together Tindall and Eisenberg watched him fruitlessly cycle through the frequencies. The sense of great loss heightened their desolation; finally Eisenberg had to turn away.
"Try the guard channel," Tindall said, softly. Miller switched — and finally voices came through the static.
"— can't either. Over." "Does anybody know what's going on? Who's in command? Over?" "Uh, this is Attila 2-6 actual, we don't know. No response on command channels. We —" "— We've got wounded here, I need to know what to —" "— Think they all got glassed, 2-6." There were a dozen voices, perhaps more.
"We need to do something, sir."
Tindall agreed with Eisenberg, but this was easier said than done. "Such as?"
"Let them know what's going on. Let them know we're still here."
Arnie took the microphone, staring at it, turning it in his fingers. "Son of a bitch." Finally he thumbed the talk switch. "Net call, net call, net call. All stations, stand by for orders."
"This is Attila 2-6, who the hell is this? Over."
Tindall raised an eyebrow to Eisenberg, who merely shrugged. Arnold pressed the transmitter again. "This is Apache 6 actual. I..." He swallowed; the words seemed difficult. "I am taking command of Confederate military operations. I have established a rallying point at grid whisky golf 547, 393. We've taken the enemy base and will hold here for relief. All stations identify yourselves and move to my position with all available speed. Advise friendly units of this new order. Out."
Something in his voice — some inexplicably commanding tone, or the promise of a safe haven — shut up any further criticism. They checked in dutifully, and he added them one by one to the holographic display. Leaving Miller to man the radio, he stepped outside with Wayne to survey the base.
It was not indefensible, he decided. Geography had dictated its location — the big surveying telescope was designed to be installed on the highest point possible, and so the base commanded a sloping hill. The buildings were made of hardened cement; the perimeter was well-defined and offered favorable firing positions. Had they decided to fight, the Kingdom could've made the 49th Armored's assault a very bloody one, indeed.
But that was all water under the bridge. Now they were in charge and, for the moment, safe. Most of them... "Are the medics still at that temporary post they set up, Wayne?"
"Yes, sir. Think so."
"Get 'em back here as soon as we can. We'll need to set ourselves up to receive casualties." He lowered his voice, although Wayne was the only one around to hear. "Make sure they know to triage aggressively. We've got a company medical section to deal with a brigade's worth of wounded."
Eisenberg nodded. "I'll bring them in now. I guess they already know they have to be... efficient. But... honestly, I don't expect that'll matter much, sir."
Tindall turned. "You don't think so?"
"From that bombardment? Massive third-degree burns? Radiation poisoning, if the reactors didn't lock down properly?" Wayne shook his head. He, too, looked older these days; wearier. "We're not going to be able to do anything for those cases. We need a proper surgery for anything more than cuts and scrapes..."
The sergeant was right, no matter how much Tindall wanted to deny it. They were in over their heads — limited supplies, limited support. But so far, it was sufficient to be alive. From the control tower of the installation's tiny airfield, he watched mechs come limping in one or two at a time — or worse, men on foot, picking their way over the melted asphalt road.
Fifteen gunships had been airborne at the time of the bombardment, and had therefore escaped the destruction of the rest of the force on the ground. There was no point in keeping them aloft, wasting fuel; he had ordered them to land, and they stood parked in remarkably neat rows. Nine of them were the sharp, angular Griffon attack ships; the remainder were the older, squatter Strix transports, pressed into emergency service as assault vehicles.
These he thought of as their ace in the hole. 'Ragnar' — Chief Warrant Officer Jeremy Stocker — said they had not taken fire from the ground, and had no reason to believe their enemies had antiaircraft weaponry. There was only the slight matter of fuel and maintenance.
"You get two hours per plane," Stocker had cautioned — they had no spare parts, no weapons, and Lachance had not yet turned up any compatible fuel. The ships were maintenance-intensive; they would have enough problems just keeping the Jackals running until they could be relieved.
He thought of this as a "when," but then that was unclear as well. The satellite network that the planet relied on was now disabled, and with it went any link to the rest of the universe. They were, for the moment, profoundly alone. The only reassuring thought he could divine was that this meant the Kingdom remnants were isolated as well.
The base had a transmitter powerful enough to reach the subspace relay four light-minutes away, but none of them had any expertise in such systems. Specialist Miller, Tindall's radioman, had shaken his head forlornly at the circuitry.
For the moment, perhaps, it was enough simply to survive. A splash of paint on one of the approaching vehicles caught his eye. It was at the head of a column of five Jackals, and he recognized the color and number of the stripes on its nose as his own.
It was, he realized with a jolt, the rest of the support section he had ordered into Rooijakkals before the attack. They had survived — and were bringing more vehicles. No doubt these had been damaged as well — but they could use the spare parts.
They came to a slow halt. He watched the hatches open; the crews disembark. One of the drivers hit the ground, then took off at a run — he watched curiously as they fairly leapt on one of the other men who was busy organizing their supplies, a white canine he dimly remembered as a Jackal gunner. He could see the strength of the crushing hug, and the way the dog's tail wagged.
But he knew how they felt. More than the materiel, than the spare parts, than the extra bodies he was happy to know that his men had made it. The prospect of their loss had been gnawing at him.
"Captain Tindall?" A voice called from further down in the tower, and he tore his eyes away from the reunion.
"Someone to see you, sir." He took the ladder carefully, and turned at its base to find Miller waiting for him. "Outside, sir."
Arnie nodded, and made his way with the dog through the tower's metal door. "Ah — Vallis!"
"Captain Tindall," Carignan said; he managed a smile, but the man looked as though the life had been drawn from him. "It seems you are Commander, Alliance Forces Jericho now?"
"It seems. I haven't been able to get hold of anyone from Dakota on up. I asked one of the dropships to land back at base, and the pilot said she wasn't able to — too much heat, still." He started walking back towards the shack he had commandeered, and Carignan fell in next to him. "Any luck on your end?"
"No. My support section was still back at the rear, and no word from them, either. I am not hopeful," he said, with Gallic brevity.
"And your company?"
"We took no losses in the first part of the attack. In the second, two thirds. I have eight Rooijakkals left. Only two are completely operational."
Tindall held the door open for him. The command post was deserted; the hologram flickered and spun lazily. "And no support section."
"No. I watched my headquarters platoon burn, as well. Only my XO and I survived." He gave the report flatly; dispassionately — but his eyes glanced away.
"You're the highest ranking officer to have made it back so far. A few platoon leaders, and that's it. They seem to have... decapitated us."
"What's your total strength?"
Arnie called up the list on the hologram. "Right now, two hundred and thirty men. About fifty of them are injured in some way — most not too severely."
"Ah, the Kingdom's style of attack leaves few wounded," Carginan muttered.
"I know. I expect it to go up, but not by all that much. In terms of vehicles, we're at forty-one Rooijakkals, plus yours... so, forty-nine or so. A dozen Svartrenosters and Amurs. Eight or nine Tarvos, and my mobile hospital. Nine Griffons and six Strixes."
Vallis looked over the numbers. "Operational readiness must be quite low," he said. "Lots of bent equipment."
"Yes. I'm ordering our mechanics to do what we can in cannibalizing them. Unfortunately, we don't have our Minotauros anymore. I ordered my section to mount up in spare 55is, just in case we ran out. So we have extra Jackals, and no support vehicles."
"Good idea," Vallis Carignan sighed. "They must have a machine shop here. For a tow vehicle..." He let the thought hang, staring at the map. "What about motor pool?"
Tindall shook his head; he was starting to get distracted by all the problems hitting him at once. "Multiple what?"
"Motor pool," he repeated, emphasizing the words. "The division motor pool was outside the firing range of the artillery, and hardened against radiation. Maybe... maybe there's something there. I know there's a spare parts cache." This time around, the grin he gave was more genuine. "I was raiding it for my laser designators."
"I'll have somebody follow up, then." Tindall scribbled a brief note in the air above the map, and checked to make sure the computer had recorded his handwriting properly. "We're going to need everything we can get."
"A defensible perimeter, for one. The apartment blocks to the east, you can't hold those. Not with Jackals."
"I know. I figured a line through... here." He called up his previous notes, and half the base faded out to denote its irrelevance. "If we had time, we'd demolish those buildings to free up the firing arcs a bit, but... well. We don't. Does this look alright to you, though?"
"Yes. But... we have to be outnumbered three to one. Four, maybe. The line you have marked in orange, we'll lose that early. It's a weak point. They'll find it." The line looked out on a dry creekbed, mostly below the minimum angle of their vehicles' guns. If the Kingdom infantry was allowed to close in, they would be invulnerable in the arroyo. "Mon dieu, what I wouldn't give for some PPC mines."
Pressure/proximity command-triggered mines were the only legal kind — but Tindall had heard rumors that the colonial government had restricted their use, just in case any were left scattered behind. "We could put high explosives there, I guess."
"I don't speak French," he admitted, a little regretfully. It was, with Spanish, still an official language of the Confederacy, after all.
Carignan rolled his eyes. "You don't read your field manual either. Improvised explosives. Maybe we pull the fuel from the M28 rockets. Create a flame fougasse — set it off if they're going to take the riverbed."
"Sounds like a plan." Arnie looked at the hologram for a few seconds longer. A small clock buried deep in the map told him it was mid afternoon. It had been only six hours since the start of the attack — three since the bombardment. "I'm going to need help, Vallis," he said abruptly. "I can't do this on my own."
"You're doing better than you think. It could've been chaos, without you stepping in." Tindall had to smile at that; he had been grateful to see Vallis Carignan, but a part of him had feared that the warrior would try to exert his own control. "I'll do whatever you want."
"We'll need to hit back, probably — if we wait until they come to us, it's just asking for trouble. I'll want your help planning that. For now, though, coordinate our defensive operations. Get some Jackals up as embanked guns, dig 'em in, whatever it takes. I want to figure out our logistics for the long haul. Food, medicine, fuel."
"Ammunition," Tindall agreed. "I'll give you everything I can find."
"I'll keep you informed," Carignan said, with a curt nod. "In the short term, we can hold out. In the long term... well." The Frenchman halted — then shook his head, as though some objection had arisen, and been summarily dismissed. "Trust your instincts, Arnold."
But then, they were alone. What else could he trust?