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Immediately following the moreau Declaration of Independence, human-owned Jericho moves to respond and crush the nascent state. Stakes are high on both sides as the first day of the Kashkin unfolds…

Thus begins the second half of the two-part Kashkin Independence series. The first section, Hatikvah, ended with the Chartered Colony declaring its independence. This section, Aux Armes, deals with the ensuing consequences. Sorry this has taken so long to post; it's mostly been editing. At least it's done now ;)

Released under the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Share, modify, and redistribute -- as long as it's attributed and noncommercial, anything goes.

Aux Armes, by Rob Baird — Ch. 1, "Dangers Dark and Endless Toil"

***

O Muse, the causes tell! What sacrilege,
Or vengeful sorrow, moved the heavenly Queen
To thrust on dangers dark and endless toil
A man whose largest honor in men's eyes
Was serving Heaven? Can gods such anger feel?

— Virgil, the Aeneid

***

Supreme Command, Alliance Forces Jericho
Ford City, Yucatec Jericho
1/11/2537: 0600

“Are you ready?"

Max Kastner had never felt less ready for anything. Elodie Mott, his liaison to the business council, had been pushing him for the last six hours—since the official expiration of the deadline, and the declaration of independence by the dogs occupying human land to the west.

The dogs didn't see it that way, of course. He'd listened to the declaration of independence a few times and what struck him was how sincere they seemed to be. Almost as though they believed what they were saying, strange as it was. Perhaps that made things even more dangerous. Perhaps that was why—

“Mr. Kastner. Are you ready?"

“Yes," he said.

“We'll be watching. The Council has asked to be kept directly informed of military affairs."

“My adjutant will pass along any relevant information," he reassured Elodie—but that, it turned out, wasn't good enough. They wanted him in the boardroom. And Elodie would not be argued from this point.

Kastner, who still believed that the operation would be successful, nonetheless also felt that he would eventually consider that moment—0600, the first of November on a remote Alliance world nobody but the dogs really cared about—as the nadir of his career. It was then that it truly struck him just how little Elodie and the others really understood what was going on.

They'd approved the battle plan in a closed-door session in which he was not invited to participate. Perhaps all they really knew was that it looked simple and promised results. His armored spearhead would force the border checkpoint at Encha, while a light diversionary attack in the Dun Gap, to the south, would serve to spread the rebellious moreau forces thin.

None of the complexities, apparently, had sunk in. Intelligence suggested the moreaus were fielding older-model Soviet tanks, and even his most obsolete Rooijakkals walkers were a match for those. But while he had two battalions of Jackals, the Encha valley was too narrow to get more than a company through—and that would be a tight squeeze. Past Encha, on the Corsican Plain, they'd have more room to maneuver… but they had to get there, first.

And he wasn't there to supervise. Not his own mechs, nor the battalion-sized auxiliary force providing infantry cover for the Jackals. While Elodie waited outside, Max got Colonel Singer, whom he'd appointed operational commander, on the line. “They've told me to stay in Ford City for the moment. I want you to know that I trust you."

Bob Singer and Max had been friends for years; the other man simply smiled. He had reason to be cocky: everything was in play, a hundred and thirty-odd Jackals not counting the forty or so he held in reserve. “Just do me a favor and save some of the champagne. Encha by noon; we'll be at the coast by nightfall and you can move Avery forward. It'll be fine."

“I'll keep a bottle on ice, then," Kastner agreed. Colonel Avery's mechanized infantry would turn out to be a key asset, he thought, but only once the back of the moreau army had been properly broken. At that point, they'd have free rein. At that point.

He'd been joking about the champagne, but the air in the JBC boardroom was light. One of the council representatives even clapped Max on the back, laughing. They'd been waiting, for years. He was the instrument of their… salvation? Is it salvation? It's not, is it? Something darker.

Max Kastner and the Jericho Military Authority were the means by which they intended to right the insult of having to endure an autonomous moreau colony on their borders. The cost of correcting that moral slight was irrelevant to them. They were looking forward to the events of the day.

“We're ready to send the signal whenever," Elodie Mott said. The room fell silent.

A man in a neat suit—shimmering azure, the latest Terran fashion—stood, nodding deferentially to the general. Max recognized him as the head of the Office of Business Operations, a planning group that viewed what they called 'western Jericho' as crucial territory and demanded its conquest. “This has been a very long time in the making, and I hope that we won't have to wait much longer. I know this isn't the kind of environment you're normally used to. But we talked to your chief of staff, General Kastner—look."

And the man tapped a button, converting the boardroom's table to a strategic map of the area. The map itself was quite detailed: it showed every single unit under his command, exactly as it would've in a proper command post. “This information was supposed to be classified," Max felt the need to point out.

The suited figure only smiled. “I know! We overrode that. Now, shall we begin?"

We in the Jericho Business Council—the legitimate owners of Alliance territory on this planet—have been more than accommodating for five decades of trespass and illegal occupation on our lands. Unfortunately, by their actions, those occupiers have shown that they're unwilling to see reason or to compromise. We have been left with no choice but to firmly, and lawfully, evict them from our property.

The JBC expects the eviction to take no more than a few days. At its conclusion, any remaining squatters will be considered criminals and dealt with a humane fashion according to Alliance law. We do not expect any disruption to normal business operations.

His mechs were in place, ready to begin the attack. Elodie Mott told him that CODA had agreed to stand back and let the Jericho military run wild—nothing would stop them from leveling every last building in Davis. They just had to get there first.

“Colonel Singer. Proceed."

jericho_1.pngTo achieve its goals of subduing rebellious “West Jericho," SCAFJ has committed the equivalent of six battalions, two of “Jackal" walking tanks and four of mechanized infantry. The Jackals are to quickly overwhelm defenders at Encha, bisecting the colony and allowing for a large force of mechanized infantry to exploit the open terrain of the colony's plains. To provide cover in close-quarters fighting during the opening battle, SCAFJ will also rely on the civilian militia as auxiliaries. A smaller auxiliary group will conduct a simultaneous diversionary attack in the southeast. In total, SCAFJ has committed around 5500 soldiers (including 1000 auxiliaries), 170 Jackals, and 300 IFV and APCs to the operation.

***

Kashkin Self-Defense Forces headquarters complex
Corsini, Kashkin
1/11/2537: 0730

Khalizai listened to the short radio broadcast with one ear swiveled to the speaker. “It was too much to hope for," the husky said, when the transmission finished. Alta agreed—the seven hours following Kashkin's independence had been full of her own certainty of what was coming.

Really, the Ibizan hound's only surprise was how long it took. She'd expected the attack to begin almost immediately—and if not that, then certainly by dawn, when the JMA would be attacking from out of the sunrise. The sun had now been up for a full two hours. And maybe that's even worse. Maybe they're so confident that they don't care about things like that… I guess they have reason to be.

But the OVKK could still count some of its blessings. The first arms freighter had already landed; crews were hard at work unloading it and clearing the spaceport for the next one, due to arrive in a little under an hour. The first few shipments were mostly delivering ammunition and spare parts for the Type 450s, along with new frames to replace the ones the OVKK was almost certain to lose.

Alta double-checked the latest updates. Colonel Ishiri, in charge of the Eastern Front, said that everything remained quiet—not even civilian traffic came into range of the listening devices scattered through the gap between the Little Falls and the Dun River. Colonel Genakhot, operational commander of the Northern Front, was somewhat less calm.

The Border Collie reported indications of movement on the human side of the border: radio traffic and electromagnetic signatures that could only have come from massed heavy equipment. The human army: exactly as they'd predicted it, ready for a decisive strike across the border and into the Corsini plain.

“New picture," someone said—with deceptive calm, considering the only possible thing they could've been seeing. “Reports of incoming fire at the border checkpoint at Encha. There's been minimal damage so far."

Major Kalasos clipped a headset to her ear and dropped into the chair at her desk; the mixed-breed was immediately surrounded by a glowing cloud of data being processed by their sensor network. “Rocket artillery, ma'am. Track extrapolation looks like… about eighty point-sources, on the move."

“The rocket pods on their walkers?" Alta conjectured. Denel walkers, when they needed to operate independently, were often fitted with a missile battery for indirect fire support.

“Yes. I think so. We're not detecting anything that looks like guidance radar."

Alta rubbed at her neck and decided to gamble. “Order Colonel Genakhot to hold fire. We'd just be wasting our ammunition." The human walkers would be moving, after all, and the Advanced Point-Engagement Cannons on the mechs were more than enough to deal with the number of mortars they could reasonably bring to bear. They'd just have to endure it. Particularly if the bombardment wasn't causing significant damage…

A second salvo followed, two minutes later. Forward scouts reported a direct hit on the guard outpost, leveling it—that was deserted, at least—and several more on outlying buildings at the checkpoint. The Ibizan found her head canting, curious. Do they think we're still occupying the checkpoint? What are they doing?

They were acting as though they had all the time in the world. Or maybe they didn't want to take chances, and were hoping to disable any explosives or other traps the OVKK might've left behind at the checkpoint. Either way, the first half-hour of the battle unfolded as she'd expected. The main human thrust came at the only logical point for such an attack, and their mechs had to be concentrated there to account for the large volume of rockets.

Genakhot confirmed that none of his men had actually been engaged, though the signals of human Rooijakkals were getting ever-closer. The collie asked for her permission to evacuate the town of Encha itself—not many civilians remained—and she agreed.

The storm would begin soon enough, Alta knew. No point in wanting to hurry it along. If the humans had committed all of their armor to the attack, she anticipated eighty or ninety walkers, plus thirty or forty in reserve. Rooijakkals were fast, well-armed, and a better-than-even match for her own tanks. 

Genakhot had a hundred Type 450s across the whole of the Northern Front. The bulk of them were either in place to meet the human attack, or could be brought to bear in a matter of minutes, but that didn't change the calculus: they were outnumbered as well as outgunned.

That couldn't be helped. All they could do was wear the humans down. Alta put her headquarters at Corsini—not much more than ten kilometers from Encha—deliberately, and even with the Northern Front's reserve there the Ibizan figured it was a strong possibility they'd be abandoning the complex before nightfall.

Khalizai clearly no longer thought of himself as a civilian. Or, if he did, the husky no longer thought of himself as a disinterested observer. He studied the map keenly, and when the last rocket salvo stopped he anticipated before Kalasos did that the offensive was beginning in earnest. A minute later Colonel Genakhot confirmed that they'd sighted enemy walkers and were engaging them east of the town.

“You should probably go," Alta said. “You'll be able to hear it outside already. Better to get back to Kodajuk before they can see us, too."

The old husky cleared his throat. “General, with all due respect… either they don't get this far, or the farm doesn't really matter much, anyway. I'll stay, if it's all the same. I shouldn't have left to begin with. I won't leave again."

She had neither the time nor the inclination to argue with the stubborn dog. Six Jackal 55s turned into twelve, then twenty. The humans were putting at least a full battalion against them, and now information was coming in almost too fast for the intelligence section to process it. Major Kalasos's eyes were narrowed, her ears were back, and her paw was in constant motion between her computer and a flask of coffee.

“Threat picture," Alta demanded.

“The rear guard between the crossing and Encha town has pulled back with minimal losses. There's a running battle between First Battalion and the JMA—two walkers disabled for one tank lost, but we're giving ground."

Khalizai leaned over the display to get a better look. “They'll be able to bring at least another platoon into that valley as soon as they've cleared the southern slope. It's not good terrain for us."

“No," the Ibizan agreed. “What about Terr Chanat? Has the garrison engaged?"

“Not yet."

“We might be within the minimum range of their guns? That seems odd, but…" Alta shook her head. Whatever her human opponents planned to do with the base at Terr Chanat, they still had plenty of time to execute it. Walkers alone would be able to overwhelm Genakhot's defenses.

“Small miracles," Major Kalasos suggested. “If they're using the rocket pods, they don't have enough long-range fire support to make up the difference. So we'll—wait one. Yassuja."

“Major?"

Kalasos spun in her chair and sprinted to one of the other stations. “Mr. Jadron, the sensors in Kurghen Kidanja. Can you confirm that?"

Master Sergeant Jadron pulled up the data and 'confirmed' it—to Alta's eyes—by the sudden stiffness in his body, and the way his hackles immediately bristled. “There's no anomalies in the telemetry, no…"

Kalasos tapped her headpiece. “Galin actual to Galin 3-3, come in. We need full Sachek coverage on the eastern sector, from gin kan 4-1-1-3 west to Shadesh. Over. Say again? Negative, 3-3, we have disambiguated telemetry twenty klicks east of Na'shun but need—"

As Kalasos kept talking, Alta circled the table to put herself closer to the eastern front, and the valleys south of the Arkadiensee. “We're being attacked in the east? What does Colonel Ishiri say?"

“Nothing from East yet," one of the communications officers reported.

“Tell him to be on alert. Major Kalla, what are you seeing?"

The mutt took two deep breaths, stammering. “Operational Plan Noon anticipated a diversionary attack in the east, ma'am. We're looking at… this has to be at least a reinforced battalion, maybe more. Lots of vehicles—a hundred contacts, we can't quite separate them—we'll have a drone on-station in five minutes."

Fuck.

Alta's stomach tightened into a pit. Had she overlooked that? She had, clearly. A major human offensive crossing the Little Falls River sapped her ability to commit to the northern front, but worse than that… worse than that, if the east was the human objective…

She stepped away into a private room, directing Kalasos to inform her when they had better intelligence, and called Colonel Ishiri up. The leopard's eyes kept flicking away from her, reviewing the map he must have been examining at the same time. “I don't know how to explain it, ma'am," he said.

“I don't either. Can you take out the bridge at Shadesh?"

Ishiri shook his head. “The closest engineering team is an hour away, working on defenses in the south."

South of Shadesh—fifth largest town in the Kashkin—the terrain was too difficult for substantial vehicle traffic, and most of it had been heavily mined. That wasn't likely to matter; Ishiri had only two companies readily available to hold the town with, and human artillery would make short work of them.

Major Kalasos came with more information, little of it coherent and less of it optimistic. The mixed-breed estimated they were up against a good twelve hundred humans, but they were mostly traveling in light vehicles. No walkers—nothing heavier than a scout car—and no sign of heavy weapons or air support. They would be at the bridge in half an hour, which gave them no time to mount a meaningful defense.

Losing Shadesh left Aless Ha'kin vulnerable, and the spaceport there was their only means of bringing in new supplies. It occurred to her that this was likely to be their enemy's goal. But that left things confusing in their own way: why, if it was so important, were they not detecting any signs of fire support? Could her human counterpart be so dismissive of the OVKK that they didn't think it was necessary?

That can't be, either. Maybe this is a diversion? Maybe they're hoping to get lucky… or to confuse me…

Ten kilometers to the west, between Shadesh and Kir Kodaw, she'd established the Na'shun Line as a fallback defensive position, but it had never been designed to hold out against more than a few hundred invaders and her operational planning anticipated having the time to bring reinforcements down from the north. As long as Genakhot was still fighting for his life, though, that was a rank impossibility.

The Ibizan growled and did what she could: order Ishiri to dig in at Shadesh and reinforce the defensive line while she considered her options. Of the three battalions notionally assigned to the Eastern Front, only one was really under the leopard's command. First Battalion held position at Davis, and Fourth Battalion formed the sector's operational reserve.

The Fifth Battalion, al-Tanja—'the slings'—was commanded by a relatively fresh lieutenant colonel, Sanuk Kara; Alta picked her because the samoyed had lived in the east for ten years and knew the terrain. How much would that help? Facing trained soldiers, outnumbered ten to one... Altalanuk could only hope they'd buy enough time for something decisive to happen at Encha.

'Something': that was a nebulous word. If Encha collapsed, she'd recommend surrender before the other larger towns could be brought under fire. If they held, she felt safer about freeing up the Fourth Battalion to repel the new fighters. The Ibizan kept her dispatch to Kodja and the civilian government simple.

Heavy fighting ongoing near Encha. Second front now open at Shadesh. Larger than expected. Have ordered noncombatants back.

jericho_1.pngDefensive contingency plan “Noon” is designed to counter the expected human offensive. It calls for the attackers to be halted at the Na’hosh line of static defenses long enough to stall the momentum of the invasion. At that point, the majority of the OVKK’s tanks will be used to capture Terr Chanat, seen as a valuable strategic objective. Of six operational battalions, three are assigned to the north, one to the southeast, and two are held back in reserve. The OVKK has around 2000 soldiers, 100 tanks (most of them converted tractors), and 160 lighter vehicles available for the operation.

*** 

Northern Front HQ
West of Encha, Kashkin
1/11/2537 0900

Genakhot's executive officer passed the Border Collie a copy of the last message from the OVKK to Davis, and he snorted. Heavy fighting. If he averaged it out, they were losing ground at the rate of a meter every second or so.

That would slow down. The enemy mechs didn't appear to be operating with much dismounted support, and though trying to get close to them with his own infantry was suicidal in the open that would change when they hit the town of Encha itself. Maybe it might even buy an extra hour or two before sheer firepower forced him to withdraw.

He counted a total of fourteen walkers destroyed or disabled, against six of his tanks. The trade was more than even—but then, everything was ideally suited for the slow, fighting retreat. They were on familiar ground, and all the places where the short hull of a Type 450 could take cover had long since been identified and drilled into the crews.

That, too, would change. The tanks—“Clubs," the men called them, khalitsaja—would be useless in town, vulnerable to ambush from human infantry and long-range sniping from the railguns on the walkers. As soon as the fighting reached the built-up areas he ordered the armored companies to take up new positions on the heights to the town's west, where they could at least harass the incoming humans.

They were buying time. He needed to force the humans to commit, drawing them into a pitched battle south of Encha so the rest of his armor could attack Terr Chanat. That would leave the Jericho Military with the choice of pivoting to counter the threat and being attacked on their flanks, or losing the outpost and the hill it commanded.

But they'd yet to take the bait.

***

“Ulak 2-9, contact." Sergeant Kellek didn't know who was even still listening. The blunt, ugly wedge of a Denel Rooijakkals rose above the hill in front of him. Behind the mutt, there were only buildings. A gift shop, where moreau travelers could find such trinkets as might remind them of the colony before they headed east to the human-controlled spaceport.

“Ulak 2-9, Kossik 8, standing by." So the fire coordinator for that tank company was still alive, at least. Kellek held in the targeting button on his sight, and waited for the confirmation that the coordinator had received it.

A second later he caught sight of sparks—a glancing blow, but enough to sent the Jackal back a few meters and out of sight. “Kossik 8, this is Ulak 2-9. Hit, zero-point one." His computer told him there was no probability the mech was destroyed, and only a 10% chance it had even been rendered inoperative. Not a great start to things, really.

But, for at least another minute, the enemy didn't reappear. When it came back, it was with company—another mech, and the audio signature of a third immediately following them. Kellek called the report in, and a fourth Jackal was in sight by the time anyone was in position to fire back.

One of Kossik's tanks got a lucky shot—knocking the missile pod on the leading mech clean off. And the mutt dutifully announced that, though the Jackals hadn't been firing any missiles for a good half-hour. They didn't have to. They—

Next thing he knew the sergeant was on his stomach, his muzzle pushed into the dirt and his ears ringing. He glanced back; half the gift-shop was gone. Decorative ceramics and boxes of Kashkin jerky had been scattered across the road. But he was in one piece. Someone tapped him on the shoulder—Lieutenant Shanakarja, the platoon commander. Threat picture?

Kellek put the ceramic out of his mind and focused on the fuzzy display in his helmet. “Six mechs on this approach, plus another probable four mechs, five hundred meters back. I thought I saw some armored cars, but they're not here anymore…"

The lieutenant nodded. “They're trying the service road. Third platoon says they—" another impact, shattering the rest of the gift shop and the police kiosk next to it, cut him off. “They're facing a dozen cars and can't bring any tanks to bear. Captain wants to know if we can hold this on our own. Ten mechs?"

“Yes, sir."

***

Colonel Genakhot knew Altalanuk wasn't the type to ask for good news, but the collie needed a shot of optimism badly. The attacking walkers had clearly expended their rockets. They were down to their railguns, and from what he could intuit not all of them carried high-explosive rounds. Kinetic penetrators did wonders against tanks—a dozen of his were disabled already—but they were next to useless against infantry.

That had forced the humans to slow down while they brought the HE-equipped walkers up, and the fast-moving scout cars with their roof-mounted grenade launchers. And that meant Genakhot now lost ground at a meter every five or six seconds.

“But you're still losing ground," Altalanuk asked.

He nodded, zooming in on the tactical map. “Arkan-Ulak company is taking cover in Encha. But that's a quarter rubble already. Either I bring Kit's infantry company to support them or we give up the town."

“Ninety minutes?"

“Two hours. We'll fall back in an orderly manner to the Na'hosh Line."

He watched the Ibizan consider that, and pause for a sip from her vacuum flask. The smell of tea filled the inside of the command vehicle with a sudden, jarring floral warmth. “Better than our projections."

“Yes, ma'am." It was hard to tell if she was happy or not. The defense plan never called for holding Encha, which was too vulnerable, from too many angles. In the plan, they were already supposed to be giving the town up. “As the humans say, we were tossed a bone."

She took another drink and recapped the flask. “Maybe."

“Shadesh?" Not that he had much time to pay attention to fighting in the east, but the radio kept carrying reports of the attack on Shadesh. Lots of hostiles, and not much to hold them off.

“The al-Tanja Battalion is already heavily engaged," she said. “But Tagar's battalion is the only reserve in that sector. If I move them to assist, and if Davis or Ikashta comes under fire from here…" The Ibizan sighed. “Colonel. Can you do it?"

The question caught him off guard. Altalanuk didn't ask things like that often—she ordered, and he'd long ago learned to trust her judgment. The plan directed Genakhot to intercept and stabilize the expected human advance at Encha so that a counteroffensive could be launched against Terr Chanat and its commanding highlands.

Two-thirds of his Type 450s were either waiting to begin that counterattack or acting as its reserve. They were up against more walkers than he'd expected. He saw the temptation to shift some of the tanks south to shore up their defensive line. He also saw that it would jeopardize the second phase of the operation.

And his ears flattened. “I don't know. Ma'am. I'm sorry."

Altalanuk took the answer in stride. “Know by noon, colonel. I'm headed south."

***

Kellek had been waiting for the order to withdraw, and when it finally came the mutt nearly missed it. His radio set was damaged; the backup didn't play nice with human ECM. “—to Na'hosh. Over."

“Ulak 2," he answered. “Say again—everyone?"

“Affirmative. Withdraw with all remaining units to the Na'hosh line. We're pulling out of Encha."

Not that there was an Encha to pull out of. Nor much of a second platoon. The lieutenant was gone, and the platoon sergeant. And at least one of the fire-team leaders; he'd put the other on a hoverdyne they were using to evacuate the casualties the company medic triaged as anything other than hopeless.

Arkan-Ulak Company—the mechanized infantry company of the Third Battalion, al-Arkanja—counted on paper sixty-five soldiers, twelve armored trucks, and four scout cars. By Kellek's count they were down to twenty-five in fighting condition and only five trucks and one car. Somehow they'd also wound up with the mortar section, and somehow the mortar section was still intact.

A voice shouted from the other side of one of the disabled hoverdynes. “You said we're pulling out?"

“Back to the prepared defenses," he called back. “How many are you?"

“Ten? Nine or ten."

The husky's name was Hadaran or Hakharan: when she'd introduced herself, Kellek hadn't been able to understand. An hour and a half before— could it really have been only an hour?—she'd shown up with a dozen others, members of the Hashida.

She said they'd been scouting when caught up in the crossfire, and Kellek couldn't ask questions. All of them were armed, and while their marksmanship wasn't anything to write home about they were brave enough to make up the difference. Something of a miracle. Not enough to hold the town, but enough that, with the tanks, they'd kept the invaders at bay.

Now the tanks were retreating. It was time to go. “Grab space in one of the 'dynes. We can take you as far as the—"

The next explosion was loud, far too loud. “Ulak, Ger. That was ours."

Kellek growled and slunk from his position, past the husky and the smoldering remains of her truck, then ran at an open sprint to the mortar emplacement. 'Ger'—that was the section's callsign—was hidden by his armor. The same armor saved the rest of the men in the section from injury.

Not their transport, though, and not one of their three precious mortars. “We don't have a way to move these, otherwise," the man said. “If we give 'em up…"

“We don't have a lot of choice," Kellek pointed out. Two more close impacts reminded them of that—to say nothing of the steady, coughing thump of incoming fire just beyond. He keyed his radio. “Ulak 3, this is Ulak 2. Are you ready to move?" Nothing. “Ulak 3, come in."

“Three. We—" The transmission broke up. “—down by those mechs."

“Three, say again your last?"

“We're pinned down. Shek is no longer covering us." Lieutenant Colonel Adarka, Kellek felt, wouldn't have blamed Shek Company. Remaining, after all, was suicidal. In the moment, however, Kellek gave voice to his anger at being abandoned in a snarl.

Ger had heard the whole conversation. “We will, then. We've got… what, about ten rounds left that didn't go up? Two mortars."

“Against walkers, though."

Ger nodded. His men, at least, understood. They grabbed one of the 82mm mortars and dragged it out of cover, closer to the rock-strewn street. “Can you get us a solution, Ulak?"

Kellek blinked, hidden behind his visor. But then, he nodded, too, switching to his backup sights. It didn't take long—there was a Rooijakkals crossing into view, barely two kilometers away. The mech's head swiveled, searching for prey. “One mech, forty-one degrees, twenty-one hundred meters."

A new voice—the mortar gunner, it must've been—answered. “TDEF-90? Can you do that?"

It took Kellek fifteen seconds of searching to convert his rangefinder and pair it to the mortar. “How's that?" The walker had caught the signal from Kellek's sights. The Targeting Data Exchange Format standard was meant for guiding missiles. The whole idea was foolish. The Jackal turned towards them—

He heard the rush of the mortar, and the magnification of his sights gave him a perfect view of the impact—just below the walker's main hull, against the left leg. It buckled, and before the smoke cleared he could already tell the machine was pitching downwards.

“Good hit, zero-one," he said—aware of the surprise in his voice. “Ulak 3, this is Ulak 2. We'll cover you. Get back."

***

Kashkin Self-Defense Forces headquarters complex
Corsini, Kashkin
1/11/2537: 1200

Colonel Genakhot's dispatch was simple: Withdrawal from Encha complete. Others in the headquarters complex were monitoring the Northern Front's losses. Thirteen Type 450s, which was painful but bearable. The loss of a mortar section was more troubling; they had few of those to go around.

But that front was stable. The Na'hosh Line, a network of automated defenses and surveillance equipment, was sturdy and she didn't think it could be quickly overcome. Not enough of the human mechs were properly engaged, yet; Altalanuk didn't feel secure in ordering the start of the next phase of their operations. But the day was young.

The freighter Sakhalin was, even as they spoke, being offloaded. With it, eight Type 450Ms: the export variant of the Orion Soviet's main battle tank, not converted farm equipment. Proper vehicles. The computer she held in her left paw said they could be operational by 1600 and crewed half an hour after that from the reservists marshaling at Aless Ha'kin.

The computer in her right paw was new—a communications sergeant had handed it to her and sprinted back to the radio room. It was from Lieutenant Colonel Sanuk Kara, holding position at Shadesh. The last of the civilians had evacuated; Sanuk expected the town's imminent encirclement.

Alta needed to wait. Another freighter was supposed to land at 2100, carrying sixteen more Type 450s. With the others waiting at the rallying point at Aless Ha'kin, it was enough to assemble a full battalion. Enough men and equipment for a proper counterattack—not just sending the tanks one at a time to Encha or to relieve Lieutenant Colonel Sanuk.

Not that it made the waiting game easier.

***

Supreme Command, Alliance Forces Jericho
Ford City, Yucatec Jericho
1/11/2537: 1430

Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. Calm down. Calm down. Don't hit her. Don't draw your pistol and paint the wall with the insides of her skull. Calm. “What the fuck were you thinking?"

Even getting Colonel Moody up from the southern front took most of the morning. Shaeffer Moody didn't appear to know why he was upset. “You gave me an objective. You said I was supposed to attack across the river and take the bridge."

“Your orders were to conduct a diversionary attack. Shall I read them to you? There were fucking pictures."

Colonel Moody crossed her arms. “Sir, you ordered an attack. It's gone extremely well, might I remind you, sir? Due respect. The bridge over the Little Falls is ours and we're about to take the biggest dog town in the area."

“About to take? Or are you just about to start attacking?"

“We haven't met any resistance," Moody insisted. “Just a minefield. They won't fight hard."

“You know where they are fighting hard?"

Half an hour into the attack on Encha, Bobby Singer reported in to ask where the infantry tasked to protect his walkers was and why they hadn't advanced on schedule. This was where Max learned that the militia was no longer in position and, indeed, that nobody knew what had become of them.

And half an hour after that, intelligence confirmed that his diversionary assault in the Dun Gap was finally underway, with eight companies instead of three. Colonel Moody was out of radio contact, and the information came in second-hand.

Even now, face-to-face, she was defiant. “You mean in the north? Where you wanted us as cannon fodder? You offworlders never understood how important the Dun River was. None of the Rangers or the NPL were about to let you throw 'em away while you treated the real goal like—"

You don't get to decide that," he hissed. “Colonel, you're relieved."

“No? No I'm not. I'm George Moody's granddaughter, Max. You don't relieve me."

“I just fucking did. Get the fuck out of here."

God damn it. He knew the militia were unreliable. They understood the larger context of the operation—eliminating the moreau colony—but not that it couldn't simply be the responsibility of whoever wanted something the most. The militias were obsessed with the lowlands between the Dun River and the Little Falls, which they considered to belong to them.

It belonged to nobody—it wasn't within the Chartered Colony's borders and neither CODA nor the Jericho Military patrolled that far south. Obviously Moody decided to take the opportunity to firmly establish ownership before the politicians could. Must've made sense to her.

But it had fucked him over something good. He was waiting for a tactical briefing; Colonel Allen Winn arrived a few minutes after Moody left, while Max was still steaming. He was carrying a metal tray in one hand and a computer with his report on it in the other.

“Well?"

Allen pushed the aluminum tray across the table. Max opened it to find a sandwich, a brownie, and a self-heating bottle of coffee. “You need to eat, sir."

That's your tactical update?"

“It might help if your mouth was full," Winn said. Max rolled his eyes but took a section of the egg-salad sandwich, laser-cut into four neat triangles. “In the north, we've taken the crossing and the town. There are imposing static defenses just beyond it, and we've taken heavy artillery fire on the approach. Colonel Singer wishes to try flanking it from the east, but the terrain is too rough for walkers or transports."

Max swallowed. “Their mortars will annihilate any unprotected infantry, though."

“A platoon-strength probe was halted by indirect fire and, we believe, a PPC minefield. Take another sandwich, sir." Allen Winn waited until he was chewing. “We're trying to track down our engineering vehicles but they might've been loaned out. Chasing that down, now."

Engineering wasn't in the battle plan because it implied a slowdown the Jericho Business Council refused to countenance. They'd presented their own report, which pointed out that after Encha his equipment would be traveling on prepared roads. Stay mobile, they said. Stay fast.

Now they were behind schedule, without the help they needed, and Max knew all too well that if he raised his concerns to Elodie and the JBC they'd simply remind him of that maxim. Stay fast. Hopefully Winn would be able to find the engineers; it was something to consider later.

“What are our losses?"

“Sixteen Jackal 55s, nine Jackal 33s. Forty-one M6 scouts. The flanking attack on that town was… costly. Two hundred and thirty casualties… sixty-seven KIA, the rest are mostly back at the field hospital at the ETaN complex by now."

Kastner managed to confine his reaction to a gentle nod. “Anything else?"

“Half the mechs and a dozen of the armored cars are salvageable… if we had the engineers."

“What about the bad guys?" Allen pointed to the half-eaten sandwich. “Don't fuck with me, Allen."

“I'm still analyzing our data. We think about twenty Type 450 tanks, plus the same number of trucks and cars. First guess… they took about even losses, and maybe a little less. We seem to be having problems hitting their tread jobs, based on the accuracy percentages. I don't know if it's a gun calibration problem or just stress—the crews haven't been in active combat for a while."

“Colonel," he groaned. “You're telling me I've lost a fifth of my mechs before we've even started and the crews are stressed?"

“It was bad terrain, sir," he offered in defense. “Once we got in the open, we took out eight tanks in about twenty minutes. The ammunition burn rate is the only real concern. We shouldn't be taking ten shots just to land one on those glorified tractors."

Bad terrain, with narrow chokepoints that kept the odds more even than they had any right to be. Max decided that the other man had come up with a decent rationalization. Besides, twenty-five Jackals down still left seventy in play. And the reserve.

And one hell of a defensive line to confront. Coastline by nightfall might be optimistic; it was already one in the afternoon. Kastner ordered Singer to halt so the missile pods on the mechs could be rearmed. Then they could advance, bait the hostile mortars into opening fire, and nail them with a counterbarrage from the rockets on the Jackals.

Once the mortars had been suppressed, it was a simple matter of driving forward, picking off the tanks one by one until enough of a hole had opened up to punch through and encircle the defensive line. His mechanized infantry would make short work of rolling it up, and Colonel Avery was itching for action.

It just cost the timetable a bit, that was all. He dismissed Winn, drank the provided coffee, and made his way back into the conference room. Elodie Mott sprang to her feet. “Mr. Kastner, are we winning?"

“Yes," he allowed. “A little delayed. We'll aim to take their defensive line by six, and the coastline by midnight. That part of the advance is a formality. With your permission, I need to be at the front, though."

“Mm." Elodie frowned, and shook her head. “Not yet. We've—well, why don't you tell him, Steve?"

'Steve' cleared his throat. “We just got a formal complaint from Shaeffer Moody, accusing you of incompetence and… grave insult."

“The part where I removed her from command? Or the part before that, where she disobeyed my orders and took her entire militia to the south?"

“Where they're making quite good time, I hear," Steve answered. “Anyway, obviously we can't remove her—she's George's granddaughter. Look, I'm not questioning your judgment, Matt, but when you have a town named after you, you get to call your share of the shots."

Max, and—I—sir, she is the reason our assault is off-schedule. If I can't rely on them, I need to reevaluate our plans."

Elodie quickly stepped forward, holding up her hands. “No, no need for that. You can rely on them. You just can't fire her. Okay?"

“Jesus Christ," he muttered.

Elodie Mott shrugged. “You should eat something, Max. You look hungry."

***

Shadesh, eastern Kashkin
1/11/2537: 1600

From Shadesh to Aless Ha'kin, even along the mountain roads, it was only a few dozen kilometers. Sanuk Kara knew the roads well, like she knew Shadesh well. Like, although she had yet to admit it openly, she knew she would never see them again.

General Altalanuk's orders were clear. The Ibizan had given them in person, and she'd held Sanuk's eye. The two companies of her battalion stationed in Shadesh were to remain there. Not until the civilians were gone, not until their position was untenable. Until there was nothing left of the battalion.

“You defend this town like it was the end of everything," Alta said. “We need to buy time."

“Yes, ma'am," Sanuk answered. They couldn't hear anything, not at that point—not from the east, and certainly not from the battle raging around Encha. That made it easier. “Until we're out of ammunition. And then we'll use our claws. We'll hold. Råk nan ratag."

A hundred and fifty soldiers—thirty reservists joined her existing two companies—against more than a thousand humans. Humans with armored cars, and long-range weapons, and no qualms about the cost to the town. Sixty citizens stayed behind—more had volunteered, but they couldn't arm them and Sanuk was able to persuade them to escape while they could.

In the two hours since, escape had ceased to be a viable option. The invaders had the town under siege. But, like Alta predicted, they'd stopped. They intended to reduce it, building by building if necessary. And the longer it took…

An explosion, and the roar of shattered glass, disrupted the samoyed's thoughts. The longer it takes, she told herself. By noon the following day, Altalanuk would have the reserve battalion together at Aless Ha'kin. Sanuk wouldn't be around to see them hit the town, or what remained of it, but the imagery consoled her. Payback, which her mother had always told her was a very human desire.

“Ma'am, update. We've lost the water station at Ha'gorat Park. Captain Tarrun requests permission to pull back from Ha'gorat across Ninth Avenue." Three blocks away—another few hours and they wouldn't have to use the radio to commiserate.

There's a flower shop on Ninth, she recalled. She'd stopped on a whim once, one late spring evening. Just to pick up something fragrant for her apartment. Seven or eight years ago, now. “Granted. And their status?"

“They're fine on ammunition. Eleven wounded."

Who could not be saved, nor rescued. Sheltered, temporarily, and perhaps if captured the humans would be inclined to show mercy. Probably not. There was good reason—painful history—behind the moreau aversion to euthanasia. Sanuk put it from her mind, and thought of flowers.

***

Kashkin Capitol Building
Davis, Kashkin
1/11/2537: 1700

“The situation, for now, is stable. It's unlikely to remain so."

“How stable?" Kodja asked.

Colonel Sol stood in for Altalanuk, who was understandably busy elsewhere. Kodja didn't know much about the tiger, save that his voice was dark and he didn't pull any punches. “The Na'hosh Line is still intact and not in imminent danger of collapse."

“But?"

“We expect the attack to resume within the hour. We're highly outnumbered."

The sound of gunfire had put some caution into Shenkiy, whose house was in the Kurghen Corsini and therefore under direct threat. “And the counterattack on Terr Chanat? How is that going?"

“It hasn't started yet. We're counting on keeping most of the human mechs engaged on the Na'hosh Line. The longer they wait, and the more uncertain we are of success on Na'hosh, the more uncertain we are of the counteroffensive."

Kodja still didn't know how to feel. Should he have been worried about the delayed counteroffensive? Relieved that Davis wasn't being shelled? “Is there good news? I'll ask about the bad news in a minute, sir. But is there good news?"

“They haven't shown much in the way of artillery or air support. They also haven't tried to cross the river at Ikashta."

“Which is, I note, being shot at. At least, that's what I'm hearing." Labor Ministry Stara Koshath—like nearly everyone in the cabinet—had nothing to do but scrutinize every rumor, scrying, desperate for clues about their eventual fate. “Is that true?"

“Yes. Direct fire from Stonewater, and from light weapons mounted on fishing boats. The damage has been limited, and they're not attacking the dam. It may not be officially sanctioned. We don't have manpower to respond, in any case."

“There's no need to evacuate the town yet?" Shenkiy asked.

Sol Solte shook his head. “They need to stay where they are. At the moment, we need all the roads clear for military traffic."

“What about the bad news, then." Kodja felt it was time; he'd heard the same disturbing reports as Stara Koshath and the others. “What about Shadesh?"

“They haven't moved beyond it. If they do, Alta is confident we can stop them. But our relief of the town is delayed until tomorrow. It will fall before then."

Korden, the transportation minister, tried to speak a few times before finding his voice. “We were able to get most of the noncombatants out before gunfire closed the road. Maybe… two hundred are left. Or three."

“Plus another hundred and fifty soldiers, including the battalion commander. I caution you now to prepare yourselves for the worst."

“We need to get them out." Shenkiy was less subdued than Korden, who Kodja felt better understood what Sol was saying. “There are two other battalions in the sector, aren't there?"

“Much of their materiel has been shifted under Colonel Genakhot's command in the north," the tiger explained. “It can't be spared. We need time to secure the northern front. It's an unfortunate sacrifice, but necessary."

“Four hundred citizens is a necessary loss?"

“What did you think would happen?" Sol Solte demanded. “Did you think we'd bare our teeth and the humans would just give up, sir? They mean to annihilate us. If we can prevent that, then yes: it's a necessary loss."

Kodja felt his ears flattening. He thought about every budgetary request that had ever come across his desk with Shadesh on it, every ordinance about rearranging the school districts or paving the roads or replacing the old water pipes.

He thought of eight thousand people, and their homes, and their businesses. The lives that they'd built in Shadesh, and in Encha, and in all the other necessary sacrifices to come. None of them expected that when they stepped from the immigration ships. He hadn't expected it when he welcomed them as onboarding director.

“Can we prevent it, Colonel Sol?"

“The Na'shun Line east of Kir Kodaw is being reinforced now. Even if the invasion moves at speed west form Shadesh, we can catch them there with enough time to assemble a proper counterattack. Colonel Ishiri, like Lieutenant Colonel Saruk Kara, will hold it at all costs. It won't be pretty, sir. But we'll do it."

Kodja closed his eyes, steadied his thoughts, and nodded. “I understand. Carry on."

***

West of Encha, Kashkin
1/11/2537: 1800

Captain Curnow shared her objective with the other two tank companies in Adarka's battalion: prevent the enemy mechs from getting close enough to directly engage the defenders on the Na'hosh Line. Lieutenant Colonel Adarka hadn't explained how, exactly, the badger expected this to be completed. Probably they were still trying to figure it out.

Her company's Collection and Synthesis officer concurred with battalion intelligence: sixty walkers were on the move, and they'd be within sight in a matter of minutes. Altogether, thirty tanks remained of the forty-five allocated to Adarka. Curnow herself had lost seven—one of them with all its crew. There'd be more of that, certainly, soon enough.

The Rottweiler worked a piece of rawhide between her teeth. An old habit, but it served her in good stead. Better than smoking, at least, and it helped to manage the stress. There'd be more of that, too.

“Ma'am," the comms specialist spoke up. “Message from Halash. New orders."

That was the callsign for battalion headquarters. Adarka's instructions came with a map. Curnow's tanks would stay where they were, in cover, and check any attempt by the humans to outflank the defenders at Na'hosh by taking the northern hills.

Curnow didn't know how to feel about that. She knew that the company was only at half-strength, but they still had abundant ammunition and the remaining 450s were all in good shape. The crews wanted to fight. Their position was too remote, in her opinion—too distant. They would be forced to watch.

But she didn't argue. Adarka knew what he was doing; if he didn't want her to attack, no simple desire for revenge was good enough to countermand those orders. She passed the orders down to the platoon leaders and the tanks settled in to wait, active camouflage and jamming systems active.

Rocket fire from the Jackals took its toll on the minefields and the sentry-guns off to the southeast, and the humans were aware of the vulnerability they'd created. From her vantage point she could see the weight of the battle shifting. Colonel Genakhot saw it, too; she caught the order for Kit Starras's battalion to halt the Jericho military's advance. Thirty walkers had been directly engaged, plus what had to be two or three companies' worth of mechanized infantry.

She fished out a new piece of rawhide. A third of the human invading force—all the remaining mechs—were still moving into position, strung out between what remained of Encha and the crest of the last hill that looked down on the Na'hosh Line. Once they came into play, surely they'd be able to force the southern gap, and then—

Curnow stopped chewing. With the minefield gone, human infantry was starting to infiltrate forward. The first line of mechs was immediately behind them. The remainder… “Get ready to move," she heard herself growl to the driver, and switched her radio to the company net. “All units, stand by for new orders. On my signal, we're moving north to… idlak kan, 4-9-7-6-0-1." The western side of a valley near Encha; they'd be able to stay hidden until then. “Halash, this is Shanik 6 actual, over."

“Shanik, this is Halash, go ahead."

“I'm requesting permission to take Shanik Company north and engage the enemy from cover at Encha."

A short period of silence followed, presumably while they examined her disposition. The next voice was Lieutenant Colonel Adarka's. “This is Halash actual. You have nine tanks, captain. What's the plan?"

Curnow realized her commander would've been south, on the front line at Na'hosh. He didn't have her perspective, or he'd missed it in the desperate fighting much closer to him. “The enemy dismounts are tied up, and most of their armor is between the infantry and us. They won't be able to support if we engage them."

“With nine tanks," Adarka repeated. “Shek… yass—" the radio cut out before the badger let himself swear on the net, although the link was direct, and private. It would take too long—another ten or fifteen minutes—to link up with what remained of Shek Company. “I'll see what we can get for support. Move, captain. Out."

Captain Curnow sent the signal to advance, and strained her eyes at the C&S data on the move north. The Rottweiler figured that of thirty-two Jackals in the second wave, only a dozen would be able to return fire immediately. It would take the rest a minute or two. They had to make the first salvo count.

As they drew close, battalion headquarters checked in again: their 'support' amounted to the mortar section; Shek Company was joining them, too, but for the the first twenty minutes until those scattered tanks could find an advantageous position they'd be on their own.

Curnow acknowledged the report. Nothing else could be done but that; there were fifteen mechs visible to her tanks, and more on the way. Twenty minutes was an eternity. A lot could happen in that space. The Rottweiler fully intended for a lot to happen. “Shanik Company, all units: weapons free."

All nine of the Type 450s in Shanik Company opened up within half a second of one another. Eight of them scored hits on the moving Jackals; six of the mechs went dark immediately. They had time for another barrage, and three more kills, before the alarms started going off. “ Move!" the tank commander yelped; the incoming round missed by less than five meters.

“Stay moving," Curnow added, and then went for the radio. “ Stay moving! And ripple the cannons. Fire, displace, fire again. Don't shoot both—" There was a blaze of sparks, and then the cabin went ominously dark.

“Glanced off. Power regulator," the commander spoke in short bursts. “Going to backups."

The tank lurched into movement, and Curnow heard the followup shot that had been meant to finish them off reverberate through the hull as the lights flickered back on. In the twenty seconds it had taken, the tank's target was gone. “Tough luck, eh? Find another."

“None with line of sight from here, sir."

“Then get to where we can shoot!"

***

Supreme Command, Alliance Forces Jericho
Ford City, Yucatec Jericho
1/11/2537: 1830

“How? How did we just lose fifteen walkers?" There were too many people in the room; even if they weren't talking, they were psychically in Max Kastner's way. “Get out. We need the room."

“Is something going wrong? Is there something we should—"

“Elodie, get these people gone. Now."

Elodie Mott was smart enough to recognize that something was going wrong. And, even if she was inclined to disabuse Kastner of any authority his tone seemed to imply, she was also smart enough—thankfully—to understand that he was the best chance of fixing it.

While she ushered the businessmen out, Max spared a curse for their insistence that he not go to the front and tried to make sense of the map, where a moreau counterattack was playing out. For him, this took the form of watching the red, flashing alarm icon when a mech stopped broadcasting.

“Major Kuhn says they've been engaged by three dozen tanks. It might be their reserve," someone said.

Max didn't want to know how a tank battalion—old, shitty Soviet tanks, at that—had gotten into position to hit his flank. Taking the major at his word, that gave the moreaus local numerical superiority and the low profile of the 450s made it too fucking easy for them to stay relatively hidden.

Another three Jackals dropped off the net. Colonel Singer was asking for orders—the commander of the engaged battalion said that the situation was critical and they could neither move forward to link up with the rest of Singer's mechs nor pull back towards the border crossing.

Kastner weighed his options. Most of the minefields and turrets in the eastern hills were now dealt with; he could renew the attack at his leisure when they'd had a chance to regroup. It cost a few more hours, and Elodie would be unhappy with that. Max wasn't thrilled, himself.

He was more unhappy with the prospect of explaining the casualties expended on account of Elodie's fucking timetable, though. No, he didn't really have a choice. Colonel Singer agreed: pull back to relieve the harried Jackals, reorganize, and then finish the job.

When you can have everything ready, he added to himself. No waiting for the infantry to show up, no waiting for resupply for the Jackals' rockets. The enemy reserve had already seen action, and would be completely depleted—no surprises. Also no observing remotely in a fucking conference room; he'd find a way to force Elodie to agree to that one.

***

Northern Front HQ
West of Encha, Kashkin
1/11/2537: 1900

Ever since he'd started serving the Kashkin—back when Alta and Khalizai first organized the Defense Committee—Colonel Genakhot had been preparing to fight humans. The Border Collie couldn't even guess at how many hours of training he'd been through, how many exercises, how many books he'd read and holographic after-action reports he'd scrutinized from every possible angle.

He didn't understand them, and he didn't understand what he was looking at. It seemed like the Jericho military was retreating. But not all of them—the Rooijakkals had turned to support the other mechs under fire from Lieutenant Colonel Adarka, yes, but the human infantry were still pushing their attack towards the Na'hosh Line.

That left a steadily widening gap between the infantry and the mechs they'd been supporting. General Altalanuk was traveling, and under radio silence for the next half-hour, otherwise he would've asked the Ibizan if she saw the same opportunity he did.

Or if it was exploitable. He decided there were two options. In the first, the infantry were holding position while the mechs dealt with the threat to their flank, after which they'd redouble their assault. In the second, the humans were withdrawing, and the infantry were merely covering it until the mechs were out of range of harassing fire from the Na'hosh Line.

As far as the Border Collie could see, most of the signs pointed to withdrawal—the second wave of mechs was picking their way back towards Jericho territory and nothing suggested any more reinforcements were coming. There was a small, enticing window.

Adarka's battalion was down to under twenty 450s—Shanik Company had four left, Shek five, and even the relatively unmauled Kossik Company had lost their XO and their C&S unit. Lieutenant Colonel Kit Starras fared a little better, but two of his three tank companies had been moved to support the nascent counteroffensive against Terr Chanat and the mechanized infantry under his command couldn't very well take on a Jackal.

Tagar, though. Tagar's Fourth Battalion hadn't seen action. Fourth Battalion, Khinushat, had been depleted by the need to keep the front-line units at full strength, but Lieutenant Colonel Tagar still had twelve tanks and two fresh mechanized companies.

Altalanuk would've told him to gamble. Genakhot brought the map up and assembled the orders quickly. Kit Starras would attack in force against the new gap in the human deployment. Kit's tanks would join whatever Adarka had left in hitting the retreating Jackals with everything they had. Tagar would swing into position to bring the hammer down on the trapped Jericho infantry.

***

Kashkin Self-Defense Forces headquarters complex
Corsini, Kashkin
1/11/2537: 2030

It did not feel to Altalanuk that she hadn't slept in forty hours. That it had been only twenty-seven hours before that she was in the cabinet chambers, voting for the resolution on independence. The Ibizan wasn't tired. Overwhelmed, perhaps, but not tired. Even Major Kalasos had run out of her boundless energy; she was slumped over at her desk, muzzle awkwardly pressed into the metal.

That was new. Alta tapped her on the shoulder, and the mixed-breed startled awake. “I—uh. Sorry, ma'am. I… I was…"

“Get some sleep. An hour or two; nothing will happen before then."

Kalasos shook her head unevenly. “Waiting on the reports from the Northern Front. I… I'll compile them and then… then, maybe."

“Your relief can compile the reports. Sleep, Kalla. That's an order."

Alta sank into the chair that Kalasos had vacated and scanned the incoming information. She didn't quite have the mutt's aptitude for such things, but certain numbers were clear enough without needing detailed analytical models.

Genakhot had abandoned his pursuit of the Jericho military just beyond Encha; they lacked the manpower to do much more than that. In any case he'd done his job. Sixty-eight Rooijakkals in various states of disrepair littered the path from the border checkpoint to the Na'hosh Line, and just under a hundred armored cars.

She debated what to tell Sol Solte, back in Davis acting as her liaison to Kodja and the rest of the cabinet. Kodja deserved to know that they'd beaten the worst the humans had to offer, and that the war had not been lost on the first day.

But he also deserved to know that the OVKK could ill-afford many more victories like that. The defense, and Genakhot's counterattack, cost them forty-three Type 450s and seventy percent of the ammunition allocated to the Na'hosh. And twenty-five scout cars. And three dozen trucks. And.

And the best reading of the casualty numbers pointed to seventy dead, four times that number wounded. If they won, Alta knew that Major Kalasos would have the intelligence section's tech analysts laud the decision to use the Type 450s. Many of the forty-three could be repaired, and most of the crew had survived whatever took out the tank. Most, but not all.

It would have to come later. There were platoons—whole companies, even—where every single citizen had been injured, or worse. Khalizai entered her vision, holding out a cup of tea. He had read her expression. “You'll tell President Kodja?"

She took the tea and, though he'd brought it to her just cool enough to drink, sipped slowly anyway. “He'll understand. That's not the problem. It's just a lot of names, Kha'zai. We haven't even been independent for a full day."

“I talked to the trauma coordinator, and to the auxiliaries. They'll be okay, for now. They have enough supplies, enough volunteers—except drivers, they said they need drivers. If you'll agree, I can ask my contacts in Irjakh and Aless Ha'kin to fill in?"

“Of course." Khalizai's recruitment was the only reason they had a functioning infrastructure for dealing with combat trauma in the first place. And even after she'd enlisted the husky's help in finding doctors, Alta had indulged some faint, foolish hope that they might never be called upon. Not like this.

The reports from Shadesh were growing desperate. A private citizen from Chadagh volunteered his cargo drones to send aid; both of them had been shot down and Alta didn't know if any of the supplies had been recovered. There wasn't much point in trying again.

If they held out until the dawn, Colonel Ishiri's work in shoring up the Na'shun Line would be as finished as it could be. The line paled next to its northern counterpart—nobody had expected a major attack at Shadesh—but against light armor and infantry they'd be able to keep the Jericho military occupied until noon.

By noon there'd be a full-strength battalion at Aless Ha'kin—twenty-seven tanks and perhaps some armored personnel carriers. The report from their Soviet liaison wasn't clear on that part; they'd offered the APCs but dissembled when Alta asked how easy it would be for her soldiers to learn how to operate them.

Even if they had to use their hastily up-armored Tarvos hoverdynes, she felt confident. The Ibizan had agreed with Ishiri on the rough outline of their plan: infiltrating through the disused mountain roads north of Kir Kodaw to flank an advance on the Na'shun, then letting the tanks unleash havoc.

Colonel Ishiri said they could push the invaders back across the Little Falls easily—by nightfall, perhaps. More names, Alta thought. The cost would be many more names. But with the river—and the bridge—under their control, that would end the threat to the south.

That had to be worth what she'd asked of the defenders at Shadesh.

It was, wasn't it?

***

Na'hosh Line
West of Encha, Kashkin
1/11/2537: 2200

Captain Curnow could put her head into the hole in the front armor of her Type 450. Twenty centimeters to the left and it would've hit the crew cabin, and that would be the end of that. Instead the kinetic penetrator punched into the armor, the electronics for the reactor, and the cooling loop, whose contents had turned into steam more or less immediately.

The sight of the steam explosion, Curnow figured, was why nobody had fired again to make sure she was dead. As it was they'd made it home on the backup cooling. The turret was jammed, almost none of the electronics worked, the engine made a truly horrible sound when called upon—and there was of course the brutal, charred wound through her tank's hide.

“Eleven hours," she heard—coming from a gruff Ibizan, rather scarred himself, and with an electromechanical arm that made her think he might also have been surplus military equipment instead of a civilian contractor. “Give it to Sodashi."

“Eleven hours?" Curnow asked.

He turned and nodded. “Need to pull the reactor, but we can hot-swap the parts in Chadagh. It's an eight-hour job. I think we can do it in six, plus time for transport. The coolant exchanger is the only thing that we don't have many spares for—we'll just patch it. Might have to run throttled back until we have a better solution."

“Eleven hours, though. Yassuja, that's impressive."

“Thank your Khalitsa." The Ibizan patted the 450 on the armored belt over its treads. “He's good—always said it. Strong."

And the civilian wandered off to examine the next Type 450. He'd brought a team of them, forty or fifty from the machine shops that had been working on the tanks ever since the colony acquired them. Probably, Curnow reflected, they knew the machines better than anyone—better than Yaprumash, the manufacturer. Probably.

Lieutenant Colonel Adarka caught her leaning against the 450's side, and she managed to straight herself up just as the badger approached. “Sir." She snapped into a crisp salute.

“At ease, captain. I wanted to see how you were doing. You're down to three tanks?"

“Yes, sir. Four complete hull losses. Seven dead, four wounded." Saying it aloud, the numbers finally hit her—then, a moment later, the names behind them. Her ears lowered, and she shook her head to refocus her thoughts. “Five of the tanks can be repaired by morning. The others will take longer… I don't know how long. I heard rumors that we're not getting new vehicles."

The badger nodded. “All the incoming 450s are being marshaled at Al-hass hakh-Kin for the relief of Shadesh. I don't know what's going to happen to us, yet. I expect we'll be told to hold the Na'hosh Line for their counterattack."

They'd advanced as far north as the border before stopping—Curnow wasn't a part of that; by that point in the battle her tank had already been disabled and there wasn't enough left of Shanik Company to fight in any meaningful way. By the time the shooting moved beyond them, Curnow commanded three tanks, with twelve cannon rounds between them.

Adarka seemed to be thinking about that; his eyes wandered to the hole in the tank's armor. “It was good thinking, captain. I'm glad you saw what needed to be done."

“We needed to keep fighting, sir. That's what needed to be done—that's all."

***

Supreme Command, Alliance Forces Jericho
Ford City, Yucatec Jericho
1/11/2537: 2200

Elodie Mott crossed her arms, staring him down. “You can't be serious. You said 'nightfall,' general. What happened to that?"

“What happened? What happened is we're down an entire goddamned Jackal battalion." And Max was too bitter to know how much of it was his fault. How much of it would be his burden to shoulder, when everything was said and done.

Elodie left in a huff, probably to go round up the rest of the Business Council to yell at him, and Max once again thought longingly of the bottle of whiskey in his desk. It would've been so much easier to put it from his thoughts had he been at the front...

But it wouldn't have made a difference; he knew that. There was a knock at the door—Colonel Singer and Colonel Winn. He'd asked for their presence, and he figured Elodie would at least respect the locked door for half an hour if she thought it was a military emergency.

“What happened, guys?" He dispensed with rank, with protocol; the men had known each other for years. He'd asked for both of them by name when the JBC handed him command of the Military Authority. “What the hell happened?"

“Is it time to start pointing fingers?" Singer wanted to know. He looked beaten, a far cry from the man who'd jokingly asked for champagne nineteen hours before.

“If if helps."

“I needed direct control of the infantry. Passing things back to you, then from you to Avery, then from him to the front line didn't work. Something got lost." He choked back obvious profanity and shook his head. “Obviously. Did Avery not understand that we were retreating?"

“Adjusting our operational target," Winn said, bitterly. He'd been in the room to hear Max's order, modified by the political requirements of the JBC. “We don't retreat, obviously. Until we do."

“But it's worse than that, Bobby. How the fuck did we end up with a 1:2 kill-loss ratio against fucking tread jobs? You know, on the cargo manifests, the animals brought them in as 'tractors'? Some of them were tractors."

“You don't want my answer to the question you're gonna ask me, Max. They're… better than we thought, or we're worse. I've seen them up close, now. They know those tanks. They've armored the hell out of them, and they know they're survivable—they'll keep closing even if it risks taking a hit from us. They fire on the move rather than stopping to stabilize the guns. They know the territory. We didn't expect them to perform the way they did."

“You're expecting it now, though."

Singer didn't reply, and the room went quiet.

Max stood, pacing around the table with the strategic map still projected on it. How could things have gone worse? The enemy tanks might've kept fighting across the border. Maybe all the way to the towns and outposts that supported the ETaN Consulting complex. That was one way. And the second group of mechs, which had taken the greatest number of losses, were mostly older Jackal 33s. His best walkers were still in decent shape.

And no individual unit had actually broken, though towards the end the infantry's retreat had certainly been slightly haphazard. That was something. He had held private fears about what would happen when the JMA saw actual combat instead of security patrols and parades for the Jericho Business Council's benefit. And—

He stopped pacing, clenching his hand into a fist. Because it was becoming clear that none of them had really taken matters seriously. They still fought like mercenaries—they avoided exposing themselves where possible and they took no unprofitable initiative. He didn't really have an army. He had a collection of battalions, at best, and those depended on the altruism of their commanding officers.

“Christ almighty," Max said. “Bobby, what the fuck do we do? Your reserve was two kilometers away and did nothing. They didn't even fire off a few damned rockets just to show they were still working. How the fuck did that happen?"

“They weren't ordered to," Singer said; his head lowered, and he at least dropped the passive voice. “I didn't order them to. The road's too narrow; if they'd advanced it would've jammed everything up."

“And you had a battalion commander sit and listen on the radio and do… nothing. They probably—" He cut himself off, double-checking the map. “From the hills on our side they would've had line of sight on at least some of the moreau tanks. They could've been in position in fifteen minutes."

“Yes. I didn't see it. I was distracted trying to save the rest of the Jackals, Max. I could've seen it—maybe—I don't know. But we didn't—how was I supposed to know we'd be retreating in that direction?"

“We need to be better." Even as Max said it, it sounded foolish; what would that even mean? “We could attack now. At night—the Jackals have all-weather targeting. Do our gunners know how to use it? Bob, if I asked you honestly… could we count on them for that? Otherwise we're waiting until tomorrow."

“Honestly?"

Max closed his eyes to the map, and then turned so that it was at his back. “Right. Pull them off alert for now—get them rested. Rearmed, refueled… we'll attack again at dawn. Be back at midnight to talk planning, Bob."

He held Colonel Winn back for another fifteen minutes to cover the logistical details. Their nose had been bloodied, that was certain. But Winn said the ammunition stocks were good—plenty of rockets—and they had enough spare vehicles to replace a good fraction of the materiel losses. Money can't buy everything, Winn was fond of saying. But it helps.

Alone in the room, finally, Kastner took a minute to gather his thoughts before deciding gathering them any further was patently unwise. He checked the time, crossed his fingers, and hailed the CODA task force. General Mazzanti was indisposed. The task force deputy commander was, too. Three functionaries later he at last found himself facing the hologram of one Major Kent, an executive officer in one of the marine battalions.

“Can I help you, sir?" Kent asked.

“Perhaps. I'm General Kastner, commander of the Jericho military—our own self-defense forces, independent of yours."

“Yes," Kent said. “I know who you are, sir."

“And you know that we're conducting a substantial police operation against some illegal settlements in western Jericho."

“Yes, sir. We've been monitoring the situation." 

“I'd like to discuss the possibility of CODA providing support for our operations here. If you've been observing, major, you know that our initial assault ran into unexpected complications. More resistance than we expected from… illegal settlers," he finished indecisively. Who else lived in illegal settlements?

“Yes." 

Major Kent looked friendly enough, but the man's tone made it sound uncomfortably like he was reading from a prepared script. Max wondered how much more explicit he would need to be. “We had borrowed some artillery from a CODA depot, at cost, but it was returned before the northern fighting earlier in the year. Do you know if that is still embarked in your task force."

“I believe it is, yes."

“Would it be available? At the moment, we don't have much in the way of fire support."

“I do not believe so, no, sir."

“Are you at liberty to disclose why that might be the case?"

Major Kent requested—politely—permission to raise his commander. Max waited out the delay impatiently. Kent had to know the answer, just like he had to know how reliant Jericho's planning had been on getting help from their human allies.

Kent was gone for five minutes, and didn't apologize for the delay when he came off hold. “Were you able to speak to your commander?" Max asked.

“Yes, sir. And to General Mazzanti. It's requested that I convey to you the information presented to us from your government."

“Which was?"

“That the official policy of the Alliance continues to be that Jericho is a single colony with an autonomous region that—"

“That just declared independence. They're not answering to the Alliance anymore."

“General Mazzanti has briefed us that the sector ecclesia is still discussing next steps. We were also briefed that the autonomous Chartered Colony pays dues to the Colonial Defense Authority, just like the Jericho Business Council. That's probably why you negotiated a week of noninterference from us. We can't break that agreement."

“Not even to lend us equipment?"

“You didn't want us to interfere, sir. General Mazzanti feels this isn't the appropriate time to change that agreement. He suggested that you would understand."

“Quite well." He didn't even wait for Kent's perfunctory nod before hanging up.

***

Shadesh, eastern Kashkin
1/11/2537: 2230

Sanuk Kara was no longer receiving any messages from OVKK headquarters—their long-range radio had been destroyed, along with the radioman—but perhaps it didn't matter. The world, or all that mattered of it, was only two hundred meters wide.

They weren't taking much fire, though the samoyed didn't know why. Perhaps, like her trapped 'battalion,' they were running out of ammunition. Perhaps they didn't want to fight at night. 'At night,' though, not 'in the dark'—her shrinking perimeter was plenty well lit. Small, angry explosions intermittently crackled in the nearest bit of wreckage, which had once been an armored car.

Or from the personal weapons of its crew, which had once been humans.

Captain Tarrun's position was as stable as might be hoped, heavily garrisoned in a building with good fields of fire over the town park. The trees were gone, reduced to splinters by rocket fire and grenades, and the grass had been replaced by shrapnel. But Tarrun had managed to hold out.

The other company was led by a young feline, Jessa; she'd grown up in the town and took charge of the fighting withdrawal, half a building at a time, from the bazaar east to the civic center where Sanuk Kara made her headquarters. Two hours earlier, Captain Jessa's company was six blocks away. Now…

“Contact. Two armored cars. Six or seven—" A burst of automatic gunfire cut the speaker off. “Half a dozen infantry." Sanuk Kara heard the report in echo—simultaneously on her short-range radio and, softer, in the samoyed's ear.

Next she heard the sharp crack! of a recoilless rifle, and the scream of mortally injured machinery in the engine of the lead armored car. Sanuk unclipped a reconnaissance drone from her vest and tossed it up: the armored car had stopped, smoke pouring from its engine.

Its mate, though, kept advancing. There was a weapon mount on its roof—a grenade launcher. She saw it spin, tracking the source of the recoilless rifle. Even as her radio carried a desperate order to fall back the armored car opened up, and the second story of a former real estate office disappeared in smoke and fire.

With it, the recoilless rifle and whatever crew remained. Sanuk went for her radio. “Shanik, this is Hakån. Captain Jessa, you need to pull back."

“Understood, ma'am, but we're pinned down. They're moving more men up from Anshik Kodaw Street. There's no good way back."

The armored car, and Anshik Kodaw Street itself, would be within sight of the window if Sanuk Kara were to open it. The samoyed double-checked her map of the town—now, considering the destruction, largely obsolete. But it would have to serve. “We'll cover you from across C Street. Let me know when you're ready to move."

She needed to relocate her headquarters anyway, closer to more defendable buildings. The men with her understood that. It was cold, clinical logic—being doomed didn't give them an excuse to throw their lives away. They could hold out for a few hours longer, as they'd been ordered.

By that point, Sanuk reasoned, the Na'shun Line would've been in good shape. But every minute they bought at Shadesh gave Ishiri and the OVKK another minute to put the final pieces together. Fine, really. In the thirty seconds before Captain Jessa radioed in to say she was ready to attempt her breakout, Sanuk swiped her finger across her tactical computer, from the street map to her previous orders to an outgoing message.

—But I hope that you wouldn't expect anything else. You raised Kovas and I to believe that our home wasn't just an address. Don't let Kovas give up his business. Rebuild it. Make sure he knows his sister would've—

“Hakån, Shanik 6 actual. We're ready."

Sanuk slipped the computer back into her vest and took up her rifle. The samoyed slunk carefully towards the shattered window. Her drone told her the armored car and twenty human soldiers were only two dozen meters away. “Go," she said.

Movement. The car's turret swiveled to track the shapes of Jessa's company. Sanuk thumbed her fire selector over to the rifle's integrated grenade launcher. There was only one left, but the angles were perfect—the guidance system flickered green and she squeezed the trigger.

The armored car only managed one shot before the grenade went off and it bucked like a startled horse, then dropped back to earth with a heavy list, its drive gear ruined. The turret swung down lifelessly, pointing towards the ground.

Shouting. She heard shouting, and ricochets—at once deafeningly loud and eerily, perfectly crisp. The humans knew where she was. Sanuk leaned from the window, getting off a burst from her rifle that startled a group of them before they could toss a grenade of their own into the room.

Someone was telling her they needed to abandon the position, that they were being surrounded… that Jessa had already pulled back. That was her cue. That was the important thing. She turned from the window; took a step.

It put her on the floor. Somehow. The world had gone very bright. Is it daytime? How did it become daytime? How did I miss the dawn why can't I see anything was it Kovas did he leave the lights on is that him screaming, yassuja make him shut up make it stop—

Then it did, along with everything else.

***

Kashkin Spaceport
Aless Ha'kin, central Kashkin
1/11/2537: 2300

They'd heard that the human attack had been repulsed at Encha. They'd heard the defensive lines were stable, that the wreckage of the invaders covered the road that ran to the border. They'd heard a counterattack was in the making. Of course, Håsen Chakeshja knew none of it firsthand, because he was stuck in Aless Ha'kin. 

All of them were. Waiting.

Just west of the spaceport's apron lay the rallying point where OVKK headquarters was assembling a fresh battalion; the milling reservists felt the same way Håsen did: useless. At the Na'hosh Line, the battle for the colony's heartland was being decided, and the only link they had was the radio.

It was over the radio, too, that they caught wind of the unfolding catastrophe east of them at Shadesh. Håsen's boss had forced the shepherd to turn the radio off. “Bad for morale," he said.

Bad for morale was the helplessness of waiting. The Sakhalin, a neutral-flagged double-sawbuck freighter, had been gone for an hour. The tanks were unloaded, waiting in protected shelters to be used. The crates of ammunition and spare parts had been unloaded, too. Håsen wasn't a soldier, but the teamsters and stevedores of Aless Ha'kin Spaceport had been drilling just as hard as any of the OVKK.

It had taken all of seventy-six minutes to unload the Sakhalin; two of their cargo hoverdynes had left carrying mortar shells and recoilless rounds to Encha, on request from the sector command. Håsen wasn't up in rotation; he'd stayed back at the spaceport.

Should've volunteered, he thought, not for the first time. He and his boyfriend had talked about it at length. And then they'd talked about joining the Hashida. And then it was too late: his mate was in the auxiliaries, serving as a nurse, and when Håsen went to enlist the month before the OVKK recruitment officer told him that the odds were good his skills would be needed at the spaceport. What did that mean? What did it mean for someone to—

“Brother." His regular assistant got his attention. A mountain lion who went by Joe for reasons that escaped even her—lost to the memory of her human upbringing—she handed him a stick of jerky and a cup of juice. They'd been too busy unloading the Sakhalin to serve dinner. “It's what they had left."

Better than nothing. “Did you hear anything from ops when you were scavenging?"

“Twenty minutes. Red Team is on standby."

“Another bulk ship?"

“I think," Joe said.

“Did you hear anything else?"

Joe gave him a severe look before glancing around to see if their supervisor might also be listening. “They're not letting up on Shadesh… somebody with a military radio said the defenders were down to a hundred rounds apiece."

“They won't last the night," Håsen muttered. Even the jerky felt like an insult—thick, greasy in his mouth. An unspeakable luxury. “And the counterattack?"

“Nobody knows. I… you really can't tell supervisor Orel, brother, understand? When Herrich and his assistant got off shift, they left. I mean, they're not supposed to be back on duty until ten tomorrow anyway, but you know they're… well…"

“Is Hashida calling up their operatives?"

“I think so."

The spaceport floodlights came up to full power, turning Aless Ha'kin into midday. “Approaching freighter. Red Team, report to stations. Landing Ops, confirm FOD check clear and ready ground power at Alva-One. Port crew, go to condition two."

Håsen finished his jerky—he knew he needed the calories, in any event—and went with Joe to their hoverdyne, working through the startup checklists in case they were called upon to move anything. By the time that was done, the docking coordinator had them on full alert and the landing beacons were active and pulsing.

“Not a double-sawbuck," Joe said, pointing.

Or it didn't look like the standard bulk freighters—the angles were sharper and the paint job was too well-kept. “Not a bantam, either. Look at the lateral thruster-pods. She clears atmo. Probably got a jumpdrive."

“Fuck me," the mountain lion switched to English when her surprise got the better of her. “Are those turrets?" They certainly looked like it. Håsen didn't argue with Joe when she suggested getting a bit closer.

A stevedore told them it was the Den Pobedy—a military cargo ship with a military crew, which explained the armament and the aggressive look of her lines. She was also twice the size of the Sakhalin, forty-six thousand tons of uncompensated mass. Over the limit for that pad, the stevedore said; he sounded more impressed than anything else.

Two huge doors in the freighter's nose swung wide, and the unloading crew went to work as soon as the ramp lowered. Håsen caught in snippets the manifest: trucks, medical supplies; a million rounds of ammunition. Through the bustle of activity, he also saw a figure striding towards them. A uniformed moreau—a wolf, or close enough that nobody would argue the difference.

“Who's in charge?" the wolf's English was thickly accented, and Håsen's command of the language wasn't good enough for him to feel comfortable replying. He looked over to Joe.

“Docking Coordinator Anija. He's in the—we can show you, if you want?"

“Please."

They started walking over to the Ops building. “My name is Joe, his name is Håsen."

“Valerie."

“You're not from here, right, Valerie? You're from the Grand Soviet."

“Yes—from Svedagoro. Why I have the fur, you see."

“Yeah? Are they all moreaus?"

“Many. It's cold there. Colder than this," he added, brushing the russet fur of his cheeks for emphasis. “Our family is quite old there." They'd reached the Operations building; Anija greeted them at the door. “You're in charge?"

Anija nodded. “Of docking ops, yes."

“Major Valerie Aliyev," he held out his paw, in human fashion, and Anija shook it carefully. “And your military commander? I have, aboard the ship, eighteen BMK-94s for transfer to your control."

“Nobody's military here," Anija explained. They weren't even in the auxiliaries. The dockworking union, though a government function, reported to the transportation ministry instead of the defense one. “They borrow our trucks, sometimes, but we don't have any permanent military presence."

Major Aliyev insisted that he needed to speak to someone from the OVKK, and so Anija called their headquarters at Corsini. Five minutes later, Håsen heard General Altalanuk herself on the line, exactly as composed and commanding as he'd expected from the Ibizan.

Aliyev reiterated that he'd brought new equipment, and advisors to operate them. “The last freighter captain said you were assembling your equipment at the spaceport. Is that not true?"

“It is. But the reserve battalion is chaotic enough without adding new vehicles and a liaison to your military. Can you bring them forward to Corsini?"

“Perhaps, but I don't know the way."

Håsen raised his paw, and Anija spoke up. “Ma'am, we have a crew of teamsters here. Do you want us to assemble a convoy?"

She did, and he didn't even have to ask Joe to know the mountain lion was volunteering for the operation, too. Northern Front Command hadn't requested any additional supplies, so their hoverdyne would run empty, but Altalanuk approved the fuel expenditure and Håsen and Joe went outside to get ready while Major Aliyev rounded up his command.

“Wow," Joe breathed. The BMK-94 was only two-thirds the size of a Tarvos and looked to weigh easily twice as much. Armor plate shielded its treads; more armor covered its long, sloping nose. A remote-controlled turret towards the rear, with a double-barreled cannon topped by a cluster of rocket tubes, added teeth to go with its aggressive snout. “Serious business."

“Envious? C'mon, Joe."

Joe followed him into the cockpit of the Tarvos, taking the copilot's station. Aliyev joined them a few seconds later, wedging himself into the disused engineering position. “Systems look good. Ready final startup?"

“Yeah. Secure the APU."

“Coming down. Five seconds to lock. APU looks… yeah. Secure. Starboard and port bus are clean, aux is clean—all voltages nominal. NAVCAS powered and aligned, zero-zero."

“Good. Energizing the main drive now." He pulled one of the big control levers, and the Tarvos hummed and pushed itself airborne. “Tactical check. Standby command sync."

“Self-test complete. Code A3," Joe dutifully reported. “You see the defensive gear on those new guys? We don't have that."

“We don't have to," Håsen pointed out, though he'd also noticed the trio of ball turrets protecting the BMK-94. His Tarvos only had a single laser, designed for clearing debris from the vehicle's path. “A3 confirmed. Let's go."

Joe slid her window down and leaned out, looking behind them to confirm that the BMK-94s were following along as Håsen took them west from the spaceport. By orders they weren't allowed to use the main road that ran through Davis, lest the capital city present itself as a military target.

“How many?" Major Aliyev asked. “How many citizens you are here, comrade?"

“Seventy thousand, give or take," Joe answered.

“Born here?"

“Last I heard, about a third of us were native-born. I'm from a black arco—I did number-crunching for ETaN Consulting, then I drove a hoverlift on the arco when ETaN shut down their ops. I moved here six years ago."

Håsen turned in his seat, keeping one eye on the road while he looked at Major Aliyev. “I'm one of the third. I live in Irjakh with my parents. They were station moreaus, too. I heard that… do you mind if I ask something, sir?"

“No."

“I heard that some of you used to be human?"

“Yes. The early colonies. Volunteers, who agreed for the motherland to be transformed into more amenable forms for the conditions. Svedagoro, it's ten degrees in the summer and very dark. So, from there, we have thicker coats… our vision, it is not so good. But that was nine generations ago."

“Does anyone go back?"

“You can't. The process is destructive, as I understand it."

Håsen turned the idea over in his head. “Can't say that I'd want to."

“I'm sure they think the same thing."

***

Supreme Command, Alliance Forces Jericho
Ford City, Yucatec Jericho
1/11/2537: 2430

Summary 1/11/2537

Group SALADIN directed to take “Encha" border crossing, breach NHA defensive line and establish control over the east-west axis from the border crossing to the coast. In contact with NHA armor from 0745. “Encha" destroyed by 1200. NHA counterattack with substantial armor at 1630 forced withdrawal back to FOB CORNWALL.

Friendly KIA: 164 / WIA: 215
Enemy KIA: 200 (est) / WIA: 400 (est)

Despite inflicting heavy casualties SALADIN has failed to achieve its primary objective. Additional artillery and infantry support will be required before resuming operations. Of 136 mechs assigned to SALADIN, 68 destroyed and 21 out of action for repairs. Spares from motor pool can only replace 36 of these.

Group LEE directed to take road bridge over the Little Falls River and contain NHA threat to southern area of operations. At last report has taken NHA village “Shad-Hash" under siege.

Here Max stopped, because he didn't know how many casualties Shaeffer Moody had taken, nor how many the NHA's defenders might have lost. Moody had patently ignored his attempt to relieve her of command, and her dispatches were both irregular and incomplete.

He sent the summary over to Elodie anyway, hoping that she might already be asleep. He wasn't in the mood for answering questions about why their opponents hadn't already surrendered or been swept off the map.

For once his prayers were answered, and he could focus on getting his work done. Bob Singer and Max agreed on the broad outline of what was needed. As ersatz artillery, the Jackals with their rocket batteries had done the trick of suppressing the defenders in Encha, and along the NHA defensive line.

That line was now crippled. A push to its southern flank, led by a small Jackal vanguard with heavy infantry support, could overwhelm the defenders while the rest of his walkers kept up the suppressive fire and stayed close enough to snipe any tanks wary enough to emerge from cover.

The slow, methodical advance wouldn't make the Jericho Business Council happy, but Max was done caring about that. If they wanted speed, they could give him the tools he needed to get the job done. That wasn't likely; they still wanted to fight on the cheap. So: slow and methodical it would be.

Colonel Singer promised that he could assemble eighty mechs for the next morning's operations. Kastner borrowed one of Avery's mechanized infantry battalions and put them under Singer's direct control—the shorter the communications chain was, the more quickly they'd be able to react.

“Avery won't be happy that you're cutting him out," Singer said.

“He doesn't have to be happy, he just has to listen. He'll get paid when we break through and he can exploit the open territory." Though, that said, Max knew Avery wasn't stupid—he could see that his infantry had been held back, so as not to choke the armor's lines of advance. Max didn't even pretend he expected a major breakthrough on the first day.

He spared another glance to the southern front. Intercepts and the recon drone he'd been able to spare hinted at a few hundred NHA defenders against four or five times that number in militia infantry. They looked to be laying the town of Shad-Hash to waste.

As long as it kept the militia and their animal opponents busy, Max could put up with that. Maybe it's even for the best. Maybe if they use up their equipment they won't feel cocky enough to strike out on their own in the future. He didn't have the men or resources to support a second major front; they wouldn't get any support from him.

That wasn't likely to please the militia. Then again, Max didn't need Shaeffer Moody to be happy, either, did he?

***

West of Shadesh, eastern Kashkin
1/11/2537: 2500 

Darwin waited a full minute after the hoverdynes came to a halt before he dared to switch the active sensors on. The convoy, six cargo trucks, had taken back roads from Aless Ha'kin—old logging or mining tracks, most of them disused. He didn't think they'd be spotted, but they couldn't afford to risk it.

Sixty of the Hashida wouldn't be able to make a difference in Shadesh—besieged by a thousand humans—but they couldn't very well abandon the town, either. His men had been agitating to do something ever since they first heard of the assault. General Altalanuk was busy; the OVKK pinned its hopes on a counterattack that would only come after the town had fallen.

He was in contact with the garrison's commander, Captain Tarrun, who said that he had ninety soldiers left and almost no ammunition. They weren't taking much incoming fire; the humans had stopped for the night. Tarrun expected them to begin again at dawn. And he declined the offer of extraction. “Orders," he reminded Darwin. “Our orders are to stay. We stay."

Darwin's most recent intelligence came from the OVKK, who'd sent him the results of a drone overflight an hour earlier. Shadesh, eight thousand citizens in peacetime, looked like it had imploded. The outer edges were more or less untouched. The closer he got to the center, the more he saw only rubble: half-collapsed buildings and the burning wreckage of armored cars.

Tarrun's garrison held a triangle three blocks on a side; its base was the town's central park and the other two sides looked out on Shadesh's main thoroughfares. Darwin's convoy was on a mining road that would bring them to the outskirts nearly straight from the forests.

They inched closer, and Darwin waited for signs of human sentries or surveillance gear. Nothing appeared; the closest unambiguous signals were from a kilometer away, on a hill that looked over Shadesh and the Little Falls River. A couple hundred infrared signatures, perhaps—substantial numbers, though as camps went he still didn't see much in the way of pickets.

Perhaps they simply weren't expecting it. Darwin ordered the hoverdynes parked, with their countermeasures active—as soon as he was gone their active camouflage melted them into the dark shadows of an orchard on the western edge of Shadesh.

Darwin's familiarity with human myth was a little mixed, but he understood the concept hellish and it was the best way the Border Collie could've described their approach into the town. The intense desolation—utter silence in some blocks, then only the faint crackle of flames from a damaged building or a burning car. Those flames, and the starlight, were the only source of illumination if he turned his night vision off.

So he kept it on, and he kept his breathing shallow—doing his best not to catch the smell of melted electronics, and the ash of ruined houses, and of burnt fur and flesh. As far as he could tell, the attackers had given up for the night. Nothing and no one challenged them as the Hashida made their way to the last moreau-held buildings in Shadesh.

“Sixty-two men in decent condition," Captain Tarrun confirmed. “Plus another forty too injured to fight. We're not much better, I guess." The mutt didn't look wounded, merely exhausted, but the pile of used bandages, soaked black in the dim light, was ominous and telling.

“No word on support?"

“You're it." Tarrun shrugged. “We got a supply drop from a drone two hours ago. They shot one down; we got the other. Medkits and power for the optics and our radio."

Darwin gave the word for the supply crates to be offloaded from the hoverdynes and brought forward—more ammunition and two automated sentry guns they'd captured from a human convoy half a year earlier. It wasn't much, the Border Collie admitted; it was what they had close enough to be available when it was needed.

The OVKK captain didn't show any signs of disappointment. They needed ammunition, he said; the buildings were fairly defensible, but only as long as they could keep shooting. “Maybe we'll even be able to hold out until noon. We don't have any food, or I'd say 'lunch.'" He chuckled softly.

“We weren't watched coming in," the Border Collie pointed out. “We could get you out."

“No. You don't… you don't happen to have a cigarette on you, do you?" Darwin didn't; one of the other Hashida did, and Tarrun took the offer gratefully, holding it in tense fingers for a moment before lighting it and taking a heavy drag. His voice strengthened. “How's it in the west? Do we hold Terr Chanat yet?"

“No. I haven't heard anything about a counteroffensive. They were driven back from Encha, across the border, but the OVKK is holding at their static defenses northeast of Corsini."

Tarrun nodded. The point of his cigarette flared; there was silence, and then the dog sighed heavily. “Makes sense. Our CO didn't brief us much on the plan, but I know the General wasn't expecting us to be hit so hard here. This was a quiet sector."

“No reinforcements."

“No. Wouldn't make sense."

Whether Darwin agreed or not—he at least accepted that Alta might've had a clearer strategic picture than the Border Collie—Tarrun's mind was made up. They were staying. He agreed that they could extricate the wounded, if possible.

On the radio from Aless Ha'kin, Colonel Ishiri gave his approval for the operation, though he cautioned that the OVKK had only a limited ability to help—that, if the Hashida came under fire, they would be on their own. Darwin's second-in-command shook her head, but the Border Collie understood. It was pragmatism, not cowardice, and the OVKK faced the need for pragmatism more strongly than the Hashida.

Of the forty critical cases, twenty were too badly hurt to move on their own and the company's medic said that eleven of those were beyond help. Working quickly, they got the remainder back and loaded on the hoverdynes—most of them half-conscious, dazed or drugged.

Yassuja," the Tarvos's driver muttered. “What's left?"

“About a company's worth, a third of them already injured. Yassuja, indeed." Darwin shook his head. “We need to get out of here while we can."

“Comrade." He turned; it was the operation's second-in-command, a Kashkin-born retriever named Ellit. “With your permission, I'd like to stay. I know I'm not from Shadesh—I'm from the coast, I don't even like the river, but… they need to know we're with them. And maybe it'll make a difference."

“It's unlikely to," he pointed out.

“I know," Ellit said. “But maybe. A few of the others… they feel the same way. That we should stand and fight."

Darwin didn't know much about Ellit, one of the newer recruits to the Hashida; she was helping him with the convoy because she worked as a truck driver for the spaceport and knew her way around heavy machinery. “We don't have the manpower to rescue you if something goes wrong."

“I know," she repeated. “We're here for as long as it takes. Or until the end."

Twenty of them joined her—one of them, meeting Darwin's eye, held up a pack of cigarettes and simply said he'd forgotten some supplies the defenders might still need. The nature of the Hashida was such that Darwin couldn't really argue: they were volunteers, and they claimed to know the risks. All he could do was to wish them good luck, in the full knowledge that luck alone wasn't going to cut it.

And they were wasting time. It was already past midnight—the Kashkin had, Darwin realized, survived a full day—and they'd be discovered eventually. The rest of the trucks were loaded; he shook the paws of his comrades staying behind, and they set back off.

***

Northern Front HQ
West of Encha, Kashkin
2/11/2537: 0200

Had the humans chosen to attack at that moment, Colonel Genakhot knew the war would've been over. He also felt increasingly confident that they would not attack, and probably did not know the opportunity that existed.

His brigade was stood down, save for a company's worth of sentries and pickets stretching from Ikashta up past Terr Chanat on the Kashkin side. The remainder were asleep—at least he'd ordered them to get some rest. Probably they wouldn't be able to; Genakhot felt exhaustion tugging at the edges of his consciousness but not the ability to give in to it.

General Altalanuk had passed out, according to her aide; her alarm was set for three hours in the future. By then Genakhot would have his next report ready. Combat readiness was not the reason for the Border Collie's vulnerability.

He had every engineer in the sector at work—the battalion under his direct command, and nearly four hundred volunteers from the industrial towns. By dawn, you need to have the Na'hosh Line back at full strength, he'd ordered. Nobody protested.

Within two hours, the minefield had been replanted. Sentry guns were in short supply; instead a machinist recommended recovering any Jackal wreck that looked halfway serviceable. The mechs themselves were useless—beyond the ability of the Kashkin to operate or maintain—but not their weapons.

Not, in particular, the Advanced Point Engagement Cannon—with a hacked control interface, suitable for taking out incoming missiles and laying waste to unwary infantry. Nine such cannons proved to be salvageable, and from the other wrecks they'd scavenged plenty of ammunition.

Headlights on the horizon caught his attention: a convoy was making its way on one of secondary tracks to the gentle rise where he'd made camp. Genakhot pulled out his rangefinder and turned the magnification up. He made the lead vehicle out to be one of the civilian Tarvos hoverdynes; the rest of them looked completely unfamiliar.

Curiosity piqued, he set the latest engineering update aside and walked over to the staging area where the truck had pulled to a halt. Two moreaus in civilian clothing alighted from the Tarvos, along with a wolf wearing the uniform of the Orion Soviet's armed forces.

“Sir," the wolf said, when Genakhot stepped forward. “Major Valerie Aliyev, of the 520th Expeditionary. General Altalanuk sent me here with these vehicles. Are you in charge, sir?"

“Yes. Genakhot, I'm the Northern Front commander. Rus ghankagit, janhata?"

“English is better," the wolf replied. “Or Russian. I have equipment for you, I believe. These." He pointed to the tread-equipped vehicles behind him. Genakhot didn't recognize the make—infantry-fighting vehicles of some sort, with nicked and patched armor that spoke to extensive use. “Formerly of the 520th."

“What are they?"

“BMK-94, second generation. The 520th upgraded to the sixth generation and we have been requested to dispose of these in appropriate fashion. Obviously, that was not the scrapyard."

“IFVs?"

The wolf nodded. “Yes, sir. The spaceborne units designed them to deploy from orbit. They're relatively fast and lightweight. The armor is not as strong as a T-450, but it's better than nothing. My tactical debrief indicated your APCs are up-armored hoverdynes, are they not?"

Even a 'second generation' BMK-94 was better in every way; Genakhot understood that from the very beginning, even before learning about the 30-millimeter autocannon and the all-purpose missile-pods.

And Major Aliyev, for his part, understood Genakhot's hesitation. “Division headquarters directed me to assemble a group of advisors. We can train your soldiers on the BMK-94 and its systems."

“That would take time. I suppose that's why General Altalanuk didn't have you join the reserve battalion at Al-hass Hakh-Kin?"

“Correct, sir."

“We'll try to integrate you into the Sixth Battalion, then," Genakhot mused. If Kit Starras consented, that made the most sense to the Border Collie—the battalion would wind up being all-infantry anyway, since he needed their tanks elsewhere.

“Sir?" Genakhot looked over his shoulder to see a sergeant—his shoulder patch marked him as from the logistics group—holding up a computer for his signature. “Supply request. Mostly light arms and fuel cells."

He signed the request. Major Aliyev watched the exchange silently, and until the sergeant was out of earshot. “May I ask a question, Colonel Genakhot? I heard this at the spaceport, as well—you request arms directly from the depot?"

“Yes. The Northern Front has its own logistics section, but the materiel is owned by central command."

“They don't send supplies forward to you?"

“We don't have the materiel for that. Even with the supplies we've been purchasing, and your help."

Major Aliyev considered what Genakhot said, and finally nodded. “You should be able to predict your consumption—of fuel and spare parts, at least. Limited resources or not, if you run out of ammunition…"

“I see your point. But we're chronically short on almost everything, major. Besides which, we don't have the trucks or the drivers to keep up a regular schedule."

“You could." The speaker wasn't Aliyev but one of the two civilians, a shepherd with 'HÅSEN' written on his jumpsuit. “The union has enough, if you talked to docking ops. We're sitting idle most of the time, inana Genakhot, and—pardon me for interrupting, but… most of us, we'd like to be doing more."

And the more Colonel Genakhot thought about it, that didn't surprise him. Most of the engineers working to repair the Na'hosh Line and get their Type 450s working again were volunteers, too. He sent the Tarvos crew back to Aless Ha'kin with orders to at least see what they could do.

***

Ford City, Yucatec Jericho
2/11/2537: 0245

Max Kastner's apartment was on the same block as the JMA headquarters building, something he had once considered convenient but now recognized as another one of Elodie's gambits. For all he knew, they were having him monitored, as well.

He kept the lights off and made his way by feel to his bedroom. Three hours. In three hours he would need to be back in the boardroom, checking in with Colonel Singer to see how his old friend was faring. Preparing for the renewed attack.

And of course he would be in the boardroom, because Elodie Mott denied in no uncertain terms his request to take direct command from the front lines. She said they wanted him to be safe. She'd even managed to keep a straight face.

Just.

They wanted him close, that was the truth. They didn't want him making any rash decisions, any decisions that might hint at going rogue—as Shaeffer Moody had done. They wanted his leash tight enough that when the JBC ordered him to do something questionable, like keeping Moody around, he couldn't find a way of circumventing them in private.

And if things started to come apart, they wanted him around as a scapegoat.

“I wonder," Max said aloud. “God, I wonder how many accountants were involved?"

There was no answer. Why would there be? He was alone in the apartment with his thoughts and his demons.

And the moreau. “Luna. Are you up?"

The apartment stayed quiet for a few seconds; then he heard the dog clear her throat. “I am now, sir."

“Come here. My bedroom."

There was just enough light coming through the window that he saw her slinking silhouette, and the faint glow of her eyes in the darkness. “Sir? How may I be of assistance?"

“Did you know?"

“Sir?"

Max sat up, facing her shadow. “Did you know what they were going to do? Did you know your friends were going to fight back so hard?"

“I am isolated from this topic, sir. I do not have an opinion."

“Really. You haven't thought about it at all?"

“No, sir."

He snorted. “Fine. You're a data dog, right? Mine—my dog."

“Yes, sir. That's correct."

Max got out the computer with his most recent summary of the fighting. “Catch. Look at this. This, plus the news—whatever's being reported, by their media or ours. All the rumors. Tell me something."

“What do you want to know, sir?" Other than catching the computer, Luna still hadn't moved.

“Why they fight. How long they'll keep fighting."

She bowed and withdrew from the room. Max dozed—fitfully, no more than fifteen or twenty minutes at a time. Six of these cycles had gone by when Luna returned, her head bobbing gently as she peered at him and tried to decide if he was still awake.

“You have answers?"

“Perhaps, sir, yes. Depending on your questions."

“We were supposed to be at the coast tonight. I don't think we'll be there tomorrow. Do you?"

“No," Luna answered.

“The day after?"

“You're going to lose, sir."

Max chuckled and sat back up. He admired the defiance it took to give an answer like that. “Are we, then? I'm glad to have two strategists in the room."

“You requested my opinion, sir."

The way her voice stayed so flat and calm unsettled him a little. “I did. Alright, what makes you so certain?"

“The separatists have a single cause and, for all intents and purposes, a single means of achieving it. Based on their statements and the history of their propaganda, it seems likely that many or all of them believe that there is no compromise: if they are not victorious, they will be annihilated."

“But that's not true for us. We could give up at any time."

“Yes, sir. Furthermore, your forces are fractured. Your corporate military is well-equipped and trained, but they're fighting for money, not survival. Your militia is neither well-equipped nor well-trained, but they believe in what they're fighting for. You don't understand that."

“I understand they want the Dun Valley. They want the mining roads protected and the farmland there. I also understand they can't just do whatever they fucking want."

“It is not about land, sir. Not about this hill or that valley. They believe the separatists are a threat to their existence. They want that threat gone, forever, so they don't have to worry about losing what they have. They've been told this for decades while the Jericho Business Council avoided addressing their concerns."

He couldn't tell if the dog was expressing sympathy for the militiamen or simply stating facts. In practice he didn't care what they'd been told or what anger the JBC had stoked in them—he needed them under control. “So what?"

“So they'll attack when it's not profitable. When you would have them wait, to conserve their strength for a more opportune time, they'll strike anyway. Because, sir, they don't fight for the same reasons as you. Politics will not be their concern."

“I can't count on them? That's not a surprise, Luna."

“Many of them are unfamiliar with the terrain: they come from the west, in the mountains, or the valleys to the south of Silver City. Your data indicate heavy destruction to the town of Shadesh. Radio broadcasts from the Kashkin show they are aware of it—and angry. When their army retakes the town, they will show no quarter to the militias. They're fighting on their home territory, as they'll be fighting all the way to the Alph River."

“Computer, lights. Two thousand degrees, twenty percent." The bedroom lights came on, softly; the orange of the panel glinted in Luna's eyes like sunset. “You're a fast study."

“I interpolated from your contingency plans and the exercises contained in the supplemental material on your computer, sir. I trust that your own intuition is far superior to mine: consider it a lay perspective. My understanding of the moreau language is also not native, and I supplemented it with machine translation."

“What did they say?"

“In moreau?"

“Sure." He didn't like the sound of the language—guttural and growling—but he hoped it would put him in the proper state of mind.

Luna held up her computer. “ Al-høts Shadesh jado honoja zarasta. Såljalagha. Al-jalaghitan nalgena huz nasha nalkatula. It means, I believe: 'the town of Shadesh is being burned and destroyed, by many humans. The destruction, we acknowledge, but we do not accept.'"

“'Accept,' in this case, meaning they won't stand for it?"

“Yes, sir. Sel-kutil kad al-honoja tol jaghan ulahad nalzavitillag za' nalkugusilllag. Så sonan jaghan ulahad, nikka ulahadja. Tikh kisho høsno shenja al-ulahad, zada nalchanatilla. 'This act of murder, by the humans who are our enemies, we will not forget or forgive.' If I understand the grammar correctly, sir, the infix is emphatic: 'we will never forget or forgive. As they are our today our enemies, they will always be our enemies. They are the enemy against which all free people must fight, and we will always remember that.' Based on my recollections, sir, moreau language is never so direct or aggressive. But this came from the state radio."

“Of course, I would be upset as well… I don't blame them."

“Based on all previous interactions between the militia and the Kashkin, sir, any moreau reprisal will create a demand for immediate response. Your planning does not consider this theater of primary importance."

Max knew, though, that it didn't exactly take strategic genius to predict that much. The same way he knew that the Moody's militia might not pull back even if directly ordered. It was something worth considering. “So how do I win?"

“In that regard, sir, the militia is right. You must destroy the Kashkin, town by town, street by street, until there's nothing left. Leave no survivors organized enough to fight back. Which means, for all intents and purposes, leave no survivors. That is my recommendation, sir."

“Speaking as a moreau."

Luna tilted her head. “Your request for analysis did not call for empathy to be considered, sir."

“Then consider it… for one more question, at least. You look at how things are and you tell me that to win, I need to leave nothing left alive. Your counterparts, the NHAs on the other side of the border… empathize with them. Do they think the same thing?"

“Of course."

She hadn't even paused.