Captain Tindall's company is thrown back into the fray with an assault on a minor planet that brings back a familiar face. Over the following weeks, the moreaus find different ways of responding to the stress -- and, nearby, Alrukhan makes his move.
Steel and Fire and Stone ambles off past its midway point towards darker times. Corinna starts to come into her own, and all the moreaus are becoming a bit weary. There is light at the end of the tunnel: Corinna hugs someone, Chanatja hugs someone, even Stennis the cougar gets to hug someone. Also some extra credit for those of you who read Cry Havoc! As always, share and enjoy, and please chime in with criticism and feedback! If you like the story, that makes me happy. If you don't like it, the only way I can get better is if you tell me.
Released under the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Share, modify, and redistribute -- as long as it's attributed and noncommercial, anything goes. And introducing Rob's patented Awesome Format Shifter: Get this serial in PDF, RTF, EPUB, Kindle, or mp3 form!
Steel and Fire and Stone, by Rob Baird — Ch. 5, "Courrez aux combats"
Immortal glory of our ancestors, be loyal to us.
Let us die as they did!
And under your protection, victorious soldiers,
Guide our steps, inflame our hearts!
For you, fatherland — defying fate —
Your sons, strong of will, have braved death.
Your voice cries out to us:
Sword in hand, charge into combat!"
— Charles Gounod, Faust
"At ease. Everyone, sit down."
Tindall took one of the few remaining open seats in the packed briefing room, glancing around to see if there was anyone he recognized. Shelly Gilbert was there, from 1st Battalion; Lieutenant Colonel Moulden and Major Ketterer sat together. All three battalions were represented, plus a few men he had never seen before. There was even another moreau — probably, he supposed, someone's aide-de-camp. He couldn't tell their species.
Colonel Chester Pattrick would be leading the operation, about which Tindall still knew precious little. The planet was named Jericho, and it was a relatively minor outpost. Tindall watched the colonel advance through a few quick slides showing the extent of the Confederacy's holdings there — a handful of corporate campuses, a spaceport, and a long-range surveying base.
"You may wonder," Pattrick was saying, "why it's even worth it. Well, we need to start considering the long view. The Sangan Kingdom is also using this as a surveying outpost. Six months from now, its loss won't hurt them too much. But five years? Ten? We can achieve an easy victory now, and use it to pay dividends later."
Always with the corporate talk, Tindall thought. Pattrick called up a map of the area of operations, explaining the tactical situation. It had changed markedly since their departure a few weeks before.
In that time, Pattrick said, the Kingdom had launched a preemptive attack, forcing the Confederacy's troops back and towards the population centers. Raytheon had been forced to abandon their campus. The spaceport — and its precious ability to provide support and resupply — was being threatened. Time was critical.
"This will, therefore, be a combat drop. We fully expect the LZ to be hot. Unfortunately, the Kingdom has effectively closed the field, so we can't really depend on the base for help. I've requested orbital artillery to be made available, but the nearest capable ships are three days away. CODA says we can't wait that long."
So they would drop with reactors hot and mechs fully crewed, ready to charge off the ramps and into battle. It wasn't a particularly enjoyable scenario for Tindall; his company was back to full strength, but they had less than a month of experience together, and much of that had been simulated in the hold of the CSS Jacksonville, the massive bulk freighter that was ferrying the entirety of the 49th Armored Brigade.
They were all only doing the best that they could. Lucy Moulden had listened patiently to his explanation, when he told her that he thought his men were not ready for a combat drop. Then she ordered him to join anyway, explaining that their walkers could not be spared.
At least the plan was simple. Land in force, before the Kingdom could respond, and smash into the rear area of the troops besieging the airfield. They were executing a pincer movement, with one battalion attacking to the north, one to the south, and one kept in reserve. Second battalion was taking the southern attack.
Colonel Pattrick did not seem especially concerned. He estimated that the Kingdom could have no more than two battalions of their own committed to the siege, and they were spread across a wider area.
"We'll be able to take them out — the element of surprise is on our side, of course, but I wouldn't be too worried anyway. They're as stretched thin as we are, after all. And we'll have some help. Lieutenant Colonel Ricky Franks will explain a little. Colonel Franks?"
The name sounded familiar; when the man rose, striding to the podium, Tindall recognized him as an espatier commander who sometimes appeared in CODA's recruiting materials and propaganda. He was handsome, with a striking face and golden hair, and he gave interviews to the press that left everyone in the Confederacy believing, against all logic, that their war was winnable.
"Thank you, sir." Even now he had a youthful charisma. His voice was clear and decisive; unafraid. "Now, Colonel Pattrick warned you the LZ is liable to be hot. It's unavoidable — our intel suggests they control a wide perimeter, and we've chosen the only logical path to relieve the spaceport. But we can take steps to minimize the danger."
These steps, Franks explained, amounted to preparing the landing area. They would conduct aerial reconnaissance to identify possible obstacles or pockets of resistance. From his experience, Tindall knew this would account for a quarter of what was actually on the ground — perhaps a third, if they were lucky.
"Without a task force supporting us, we have to be a little careful," the man continued. "But I'll be commanding two companies of pathfinders, and we'll suppress the Kingdom in advance of your landing. We'll give the word for when you're clear. Captain Runshana, call-sign 'Kenai,' will send the signal 'Argo' in the south. Captain Howe, call-sign 'Balrog,' will support the northern operations. When you're clear to advance, expect the signal 'Jason.' Are there any questions?"
The holographic map was deceptively simple. The indicators for the pathfinder companies appeared and marched forward; a second later two thicker bronze lines spread behind them, illustrating the brigade's plan of attack.
Lieutenant Colonel Muramatsu, who commanded First Battalion, raised his hand. "What do we have for fire support? The odds are a little too close for my comfort, sir."
Franks nodded. "Well, the pathfinders will drop with their heavy weapons platoons, including the mortars. So in terms of indirect fire, that gives you two sections to deal with anything that comes up."
"But that's, what, six mortars against two battalions of dug-in defenders?" Muramatsu looked to the armrest of his chair, and his tapping fingers highlighted points on the big map they could all see. "These are all logical chokepoints for our mechs. We'll need to be able to hit them with more than ninety-millimeter shells and the rockets on our walkers."
Arnie supposed that Lieutenant Colonel Franks probably knew that the operation did not have the support it actually required; the man shuffled on his feet for a moment before one of his subordinates came to the colonel's rescue. "Yes, captain?"
It turned out to be the moreau — Tindall's brow furrowed in surprise as they started speaking. "What about the Strixes, sir? We're well over ATAQ for an op like this, and they'll go in armed."
The espatier tended to be a little more focused on the science and theory of combat, Tindall found — which was probably why they were so good at it. His branch did not deal in esoterica like the Aggregate Threat Appropriateness Quotient, which was designed to measure the expected capabilities of a combat unit. "That's true, to a point..." Franks admitted. "But you'll need those for the recovery."
"I can't speak for Captain Howe, but I'd be willing to commit mine. To be honest, sir, if the GMs can't pull it off there's not going to be much of us left to recover."
"I hate to be 'that guy,' but I'm inclined to agree, sir," another man spoke up. "They're going to need us down there."
"What are your Strixes going in with? Rockets and flechettes?"
"Rockets and cannon," the human captain corrected. "Standard medium support package. Good enough to chew up what we're expecting."
Tindall found that he liked the pair, even without knowing them. Not everyone would've been willing to volunteer, neither so readily nor so pragmatically. He was even willing to forgive the use of the term 'GM.' Officially his branch of CODA was 'ground mobile,' to distinguish them from the espatier and their transatmospheric dropships. But the marines, he'd heard, claimed it stood for 'grandmas' — because, one had told him, "you guys need walkers to get around."
Ricky Franks pondered his options for a few seconds. "Well, if you're up for it — and if you can convince them to go along for the ride..."
"Wild dropship pilots are like wild animals," the moreau said. "They instinctively fear fire. Fortunately, ours are domesticated." There were a few chuckles — mostly from the marines. "That won't be a problem, but it would be helpful to get support from the LOC for tasking and management, sir."
The colonel nodded. "Right. Okay, guys," he continued, speaking to the room again. "In addition to the mortars, we'll have four Strix elements for close air support. Chevy and Dodge will support the north; Austin and Buick will support the south. Contact Local Ops Control, callsign Spartan, to manage tasking — we'll get frequencies to you before the drop."
After the briefing, Tindall sought out the moreau he had seen earlier. "Ah — excuse me?"
The creature turned, and shook his hand when he offered it to her. He introduced himself, and she nodded her head lightly. She was a slight, short canine of some fashion, with grey fur and intense blue eyes that seemed to pierce him as they scanned his face. "Hello, captain. How are you?"
"I'm, uh... I'm well. Ah..." He trailed off, trying to decide what to say next. "I was just... ah..."
Her head tilted a few degrees, and her eyes searched him with a look that stayed just on the mirthful side of contempt. "If it's easier for you, and you have an actual question, we can skip the awkward part where we both suddenly realize I'm not human and go right to it..."
Arnie realized he was being slightly ridiculous. He sighed and started again. "I'm sorry. I admit, I was a bit surprised. I didn't know that there were any non-human officers."
"I'm one of two. There's a lieutenant in Fleet Intelligence, I hear. We've never met, though."
"Ah." He paused. "I... I command a company of 2130 soldiers. It's why I wanted to introduce myself."
"Oh." The canine's face softened a little. "You're the one, huh, captain? They offered it to me when it was first created."
"Can I ask why?"
The moreau — Captain Runshana, he read from her uniform, and recalled Franks mentioning the name — shrugged her shoulders. "It was ground-mobile, for one, and I wanted to stay in the marines. Also, I had the notion that it would've turned the company into a joke. To be honest, I wouldn't be surprised if it still sort of is."
"A little. It's changing."
"Can I ask you a question about that? About, ah..." Ah, to hell with it — no point in the equivocation. "Do you have any advice for me? About commanding them?"
"I'm the wrong one to ask, captain. I'm not a moreau soldier, I'm a rifleman with the genetic condition of hominid deficiency. Do they respect you?"
"I think so."
"Do you respect them?"
The moreau nodded. "Then give them the best orders you can, and don't worry too much about the rest. Now, can I give you some advice that's actually useful?"
She gave the sort of wry canine grin he'd grown familiar with from his own men. "Have your mechs keep their jammers safed down there until I tell you to switch them on. Multipath fading's gonna play havoc on the detector systems — they won't do much good. All you're doing is letting the Pathies know you're out there."
"I'll keep that in mind."
Captain Runshana nodded again, and then turned to leave with everyone else filing from the room. Then she paused, taking a breath, her brow furrowing. "You really do respect them?"
"Yeah." It was not a difficult statement to own up to, although the time was still fresh when he might've doubted his own sincerity. "They're some of the best people I've served with."
She smiled, and Arnie caught the slightest waving of her tail — a gesture so muted it might almost have been the breeze from the ventilation shafts agitating the grey fur. "Then you don't need my advice. Good hunting on the drop, captain."
"Thanks," he said. "You too."
Corinna tightened her harness and watched the map on her holographic display warily. She had the computer set up to give her the environmental conditions reported by their lighter. Currently, it was quite pleasant. Standard Earth atmosphere at just over a hundred kilopascals. Twenty-one degrees. One gravity's worth of acceleration. The thylacine swallowed heavily.
Nobody spoke. The radio clicked: "Ten seconds to drop. Five. Four. Brace for gravity transition."
Her stomach dropped out. She could hear a hissing roar from the launch bay all around them. Ten kilopascals and dropping. Minus ten degrees. Negative gravity, as the lighter's thrusters burned to push them away from the CSS Jacksonville, the starship that had been their home for the past three and a half terran weeks.
Feeling the weight of her body tugging upwards against the straps was an alien, unpleasant sensation. She needed the ground beneath her feet. Bester, too, had his paws pressed against the handholds in his cockpit, holding himself in place.
The pressure ebbed a little, and the radio switched on again. "Initial deorbit burn complete and we are on trajectory. Reentry in two minutes. Uh. Final checks should be starting now," he added, as an afterthought. Despite the need for a combat landing, the lighter pilot was a civilian — no doubt drawing a lifetime's worth of hazard pay.
Corinna took a deep breath. "What do you say, guys? We're ready?"
"Ready here," Bester nodded.
She glanced at the display again. Zero pascals. Minus ninety degrees. "Kia ora, Valkyries, this is Sigrun. Status report, over."
Silverberg was the first to answer. "This is Hildr. All systems go."
"This is Kara. Same here; all systems go."
After discussion with the platoon lieutenant, they had retired the name Rota. There had been nothing left of Sergeant Ranalaatuk's mech to salvage, and all agreed it was inauspicious to continue using it.
Kara was the new mech, with a new emblem on the nose, captained by a young sable husky. Sergeant Russ, who went by 'Jo,' had joined the platoon back on Seward — along with her entire crew. Her sergeant's stripes were a field promotion; according to Lieutenant Bishop, Jo came from a combat engineering company.
They had acquitted themselves well in training on the ground, and in the simulations. Corinna did not know how they would behave under fire — of course, she did not know how she would, either. It seemed a very long time since the battle on Kaltrig.
She first felt the orientation of the lighter changing in her ears. Nearing the atmosphere, the lighter's captain angled their ship so that they hit it as smoothly as they possibly could. They were falling quickly; the pressure gauge started to rise again.
Corinna reviewed the plans over and over again in her head. Their battalion would take a southerly approach towards Spaceport Noel K. McKeever, out of the canyons to the installation's west. It was a little too much like Kaltrig for her tastes: the valleys were dense with tree cover, and they completely gave up any advantage of range.
"Hey, Suresh." The fennec turned to her, his massive ears flicking. "We're good for the approach? We'll have about two klicks line of sight, eh?"
Suresh nodded. "On the outside. We'll plug into TacNet, though, and see what we can't triangulate."
Making the best of a bad situation — interpolating returns from the Tactical Awareness Network could only give them rough estimates. "Bloody hell. Alright. Stay on it, mate."
The lighter jolted them heavily, and she glanced towards her display. The pressure gauge was flashing an error; the temperature on the ship's hull climbed steadily past eighteen hundred degrees. Corinna became suddenly aware that if the slightest thing were to go wrong they would be dead, with no say in the matter.
But then the temperature started to drop again. She tried to bring up a map, and found that there was no telemetry that could accurately position them; the hologram was filled with nothing but petulant static. They were deaf, and blind, plunging through the atmosphere of a hostile planet at several dozen times the speed of sound.
Hell of a start to the day.
The tug of gravity on her body seemed to shift, and then build. It was getting harder to breathe. She fought for each strained gasp. They were braking: two gees worth of deceleration. Three. The world spun; gravity picked a new direction, and a shudder ran through them like the ship had been kicked.
"Gonna be a bit rough, guys," the captain said over the intercom. "Looks like we're taking fire."
Ah, fuck. Corinna shut her eyes and, as her stomach fought to hold on to its contents, she tightened the straps of her seat until they were painful, cutting into her shoulders. At three gee, Corinna weighed more than two hundred kilograms; the Jackal came in at two hundred and seventy tons. It was held in place with bolts that were rated for three hundred.
"Two minutes," the captain said curtly. The lighter rocked to the side again, twisting with a sharp evasive maneuver. She couldn't breathe now; couldn't move. The ship was pulling four gees, well in excess of what their holdback bolts were designed for, and she heard a groan from the strained deckplates beneath them. The torture ended for the briefest moment — then she was weightless, seeing the milliseconds on her clock tick by one at a time.
They tumbled as they fell. She heard Suresh scream. His paws were braced against the control panel, the grip desperate. Gravity reasserted itself — the wrong way, shoving her by the side. Her gorge rose; she bit back the taste of bile at the back of her throat.
"Start cycle! When the ramp drops, you have fifteen seconds to clear it!" Lieutenant Bishop's clear, commanding voice filled her ears and the horror of their impending demise was replaced by the sharper horror that Ellie had expected this; that it was part of the plan.
The world rolled again, and then the cockpit was filled with bright light and roaring wind — they were decelerating from two hundred kilometers an hour even as the ramp descended. The lighter would not actually touch down; it came to a halt five meters above the ground, and the bolts that held them in place released with an explosive clang.
They sprung forward, footsteps deafening on the metal of the deck — another moment of freefall, and then solid earth crunched beneath them. Her systems were coming online — more chaos. Frantic calls on the radio — warnings of enemy contact — barked orders.
Each of the two fronts had, according to Tindall's briefing, been given a company of pathfinders to clear their axis of advance. It was now painfully obvious that this had not been accomplished. Bishop ordered them to fall in, and she gathered the other two mechs with her. Waiting.
"Incoming artillery." Suresh's voice was calm and level. Somehow, he had already adapted. "Seventy tracks. None on us."
The thylacine played with her map, trying to reverse the trajectory of the incoming rounds — but they seemed to be coming from everywhere. A heated argument developing on her radio suggested others were having the same problem.
"Apache 3-6," Bishop identified herself on the company net. "We're already taking artillery fire. We've got to move. Over."
"Apache 6," the reply was immediate — she recognized the voice of Miller, a canine moreau who was Captain Tindall's radioman. "Negative. Stay put until we hear from Kenai. Out."
Another salvo streaked towards them; air-bursting rounds tore up the trees just in front of their mech — a flung branch slammed hard into the cockpit, and she heard Bester swear an oath in growled Nakath.
Lieutenant Parker was having no better luck. "Apache 6, this is Apache 2-6 actual, we have a mech disabled, we need — "
A whine of colliding signals cut her off, and then Major Ketterer's voice was shouting in her ear: "All units, go to NARA-4 and take cover!"
"Fuck!" Corinna yelped, too loudly. "Bester, hull-down, NARA-4, now now now!"
She had no idea why Ketterer had given the order, but a directive to engage their Nuclear (Atomic/Radiological) Amelioration gear at its highest level was not to be ignored. Bester leapt into frantic action, reaching out by reflex to hit the switches all at once with the side of his paw. Shields snapped shut over the windows, and the adaptive armor switched to bright, reflective white. The environmental controls locked down to isolate them from the outside world.
When she looked at her holographic map she could see what had happened. One of the lighters, headed back into orbit, had been struck by missile fire — on the real-time display she watched it trailing sickly brown smoke as it slowly twisted towards the ground, trying to maintain its altitude.
Her computer told her that Ketterer was speaking on the command net; she switched one of her radios to listen in. " — go down five or six kilometers east of us. Be ready to mount a recovery operation. We'll need to advance at all possible speed. Over."
"Cayuse 6. Advance through the enemy's front line, sir? Over."
"Dakota. The crash site will need to be secured. The Kingdom cannot be allowed to take them prisoner. Is that understood? Over."
Before the commander of C Company could answer the lighter crashed. It slammed into the earth heavily — she could see the shockwave rippling through the ground as it raced towards them. Their Jackal shuddered and kicked — a moment later she saw the temperature spike, a bright flash blanking out her sensors, and when the sound reached them it was a terrifying roar, as though the wind was trying to get out of its own way.
Silence on the net. Ketterer finally broke it. His voice was muted: "Alright. No point; there's nothing left. Carry on. Dakota out." Her systems began to come back to life, only momentarily inconvenienced by the loss of the ship and its hundred-person crew.
But the crashing starship had thrown their opponents into disarray, too. The volume of artillery fire dwindled. Acoustic signals showed a running small-arms battle, two kilometers ahead of them — then even this stopped. The radio held dead silence for a few seconds before the command net came to life again. "This is Kenai 6 actual. Argo. I say again: Argo."
Ketterer barked a series of orders into the radio, and Corinna's map lit up with movement instructions that unrolled before them. She made them a bit clearer for the other two mechs of her section, and then settled back. "Alright, Bester — giddyap."
The ninety-ton walker leapt forward like a hunting cat, bounding on metal legs along the path she'd ordered. The small trail was too narrow for them by half; Bester let inertia carry them as he smashed the walker through the trees in their way. The others were doing the same: they ripped a path through the forest like an ill-mannered windstorm.
"Contact, mixed signals, right one, four kilometers." Suresh tagged the contacts so that they appeared as a fuzzy line on her holographic map. She highlighted it; sending it to Silverberg. A few seconds later there came the bark of the Jackal's guns, and an explosion, and the line winked out of existence.
The battalion swept quickly down hills too soft and pastoral for their deadly work, to where the forest ended in fields bounded by quaint stone fences that the Rooijakkals kicked through as easily as sandcastles. In the distance, Kingdom hoverdynes were starting to spin to meet the oncoming threat; the Jackals had now overtaken the pathfinders that had landed before them.
"Durandal to all units. Enemy armor advancing on Rathmann Road, bearing 075. Keep that road suppressed. Out."
Corinna clicked her microphone to signal that she had received the order. She could see the issue at once — unlike the Jackal, the hoverdynes couldn't simply plow through or jump over the stone fences. They needed to move along the roads — where they were easy prey. She thumbed the radio on. "Durandal, Sigrun. There's a bridge on that road, grid whiskey golf 599, 316. Can we take that out? Over."
"Durandal. Negative, Sigrun. Already asked — Dakota says if you break it, you buy it. Over."
Corinna rolled her eyes, stifling a growl. "Sigrun. Understood. Out."
This limited the speed of their own advance. They had to move wall by wall, and each step forward was met with a hail of missile and gunfire. She watched one of the Jackals step up, then take an unguided rocket to the shoulder. The heatsink fan spun itself to pieces in an instant, sending blades scattering in all directions, and the walker dropped to its knees. "This is Shrike — mayday, mayday, mayday." 'Shrike' was a mech in Lieutenant Parker's platoon. Not theirs; they were doing fine...
Still. "Hildr, Kara — keep hull-down until you're ready to fire. They're sniping us." Corinna wasn't exactly certain where the shots were coming from — the section's mechs weren't far enough apart to triangulate the location effectively.
"It's the damn infantry," Suresh rumbled; his slitted eyes were scanning the screen before him fruitlessly. "There's too damned many of them."
Stennis growled right back: "I'm trying, alright?" The cougar flipped a few switches on his console. "Kinetic rounds are useless. If I score a direct hit, I can put a meter-wide hole in a half-meter target. If I don't, it does — Bester, ready!" The mech dropped; he squeezed the trigger. "It does fuck. All. Goddamn it! Miss, Bester."
Bester brought the mech back to its feet. "How many HE rounds do you have left?" he asked.
"Four." Stennis bunched his paws into fists of impotent frustration. "Can we get some support here?"
"Maybe. Hold on a tick, mate." Corinna took note of the enemy position. "Durandal, this is Sigrun, message, over."
"Sigrun, this is Durandal. Send. Over."
"Sigrun. We're pinned down by enemy infantry with supporting armor and anti-vehicle weapons. Grid whiskey golf 388, 070. Cannot advance east without taking fire. Need some air support to clear a path out of here. Over."
"Durandal. Take a number, sergeant. I'll contact you as soon as we have assets available for tasking. Out."
Corinna closed the channel. "Alright, looks like they're too busy to help. We'll need to figure out another way. What if we tried to come up that little stream off your two o'clock, Bester?"
But before the Rottweiler could answer, her local radio crackled. "Hey. 3-1-1?"
Her map indicated that the speaker was right next to them. She zoomed in — it was one of the marines, taking cover next to their mech's stout leg. "This is Sigrun. Go ahead."
"Hey, Sigrun. Lieutenant Ross — Kenai 2-6. You look like you could use some help."
"Yes, sir. Dismounts are giving us trouble."
"Figured. Tell you what, sergeant. If you can keep the tanks busy, we'll suppress the infantry for you. Sound good?"
"Sweet as, sir."
They moved forward twenty meters — fifty — a hundred. Every time a threat indicator popped up on her screen it was followed swiftly by the buzzing roar of the Cerberus machine guns the espatier used — fifty rounds a second, rending the air in streams of hot metal.
To the north, CODA's advance had stalled. Their only reserve unit, Levi Roland's 3rd Battalion, had been committed to try and force a breakthrough. But Corinna saw that this no longer mattered — their company was already overrunning the Kingdom's defensive lines, forcing them into disarray. They would have to pull back or risk being smashed between the hammer of Moulden's 2nd Battalion and the anvil of the rest of the brigade.
Sure enough, they started to retreat, using the stone walls for cover. Stennis sent a few rockets downrange for good measure, but the Valkyries were running out of targets. It was an anticlimactic end — Colonel Pattrick did not elect to pursue the fleeing Kingdom forces, and a few minutes later she heard the order to stand down over the radio.
Her section was a few hundred yards ahead of the rest of the platoon; a few marines in powered armor milled around, checking to make sure the horizon was clear. The headquarters squad, she supposed. She signaled Lieutenant Ross. "We're moving to the rally point at Objective Lima, sir. Your men want a ride?"
"If you wouldn't mind, sergeant."
Ordering Kara and Hildr to do the same, she leaned back to undo the rear hatch of the Rooijakkals, pushing it wide. Clean, cool air flooded in. Lieutenant Ross looked to make sure the rest of the espatier had boarded the other two mechs, and then pulled himself into the crew cabin.
"Welcome aboard, sir," Corinna nodded to him, after he'd finished pulling the hatch shut.
He sat down and slumped against it, lifting the visor of his helmet. His young face was streaked with sweat, but he offered a grin anyway. "Thanks. You have fun?"
Mostly, the retreating enemy seemed only to be drawing the strength from her. She felt exhausted; staring blankly past him, she could only manage to shake her head. "Something like that."
"Hell of a way to wake up." He pulled his helmet off, running a thick-gloved hand through his short-cropped hair, and then looked around the inside of the mech. "None of y'all're human?"
The thylacine shook her head. "OTH company, sir."
"Well, shit," he drawled, and settled back against the metal door. "Didn't know they were doing that."
"Is that a problem, sir?"
Lieutenant Ross snorted, brushing the dirt from his helmet. "You kidding me? My CO's one of you guys — some kinda mutt, I think. Half dog, half badass. A whole company?"
"Hell, sergeant, sign me up."
"I almost can't believe it." The captain's face was gaunt, and his eyes had the look of a hunted animal. A lieutenant next to him looked to be faring no better. "We... we thought you'd abandoned us."
"Just took time," Tindall told him. "That's all. What's the general situation here? How are you guys holding up?"
"You mean, 'what have I gotten myself into?', sir?" asked the lieutenant, with a dark voice, bereft of anything that might've suggested his words were meant in jest.
The other captain's nametag was streaked with grime — only the first letters, 'Car,' were legible. He had introduced himself as Erwin. "Had enough dried food, enough fuel... they got the water last week — dumped some poison in it upstream. We..." He shuddered heavily. "We ran out of room to bury them. Had to start cremating."
"We'll get it working again. I'm sure the engineers are on it." Erwin's lips were cracked, and he smelled as though he hadn't showered in weeks. "How are you for medical supplies? You need help?"
Captain Erwin Car- looked blankly at Tindall. He tried to answer; his jaw quivered. Then he jerked, and began sobbing. The lieutenant, his own eyes hollow, took him gently by the arm and led him away.
"Captain?" Tindall turned to find a new soldier — his clothes slightly cleaner, the smell no less noticeable. Arnie saluted, and the man returned it. "At ease. I'm Major Mitch Fernley. Third battalion XO."
"Captain Tindall, sir. A Company, 2nd of the 49th Armored."
Fernley nodded. "Captain Carabi has had it rather rough. Between the poisoning and an incendiary barrage, we lost a quarter of the company."
Tindall blanched. "My god..." Nothing in CODA's briefings had indicated that the situation was anywhere near that dire. "Can we call for supplies from the convoy?"
"Supplies haven't been the problem. The civilian government booked it two weeks ago, but before they did they signed some damned executive order. It gives us the right to expropriate any material that's required for the war effort, without returning it or paying compensation." Fernley reached into his vest and pulled out a small bottle of an energy drink. "We've looted a lot of these recently. Or we did before they cut us off from the town..."
"Link's open now, though."
"Yeah. And we'll need it. More than that, we need the manpower."
"My company's a little green," Tindall admitted. "And nearly all non-human. It was an experiment."
"Non-human? You mean, like, robots? Or like those servant dogs?"
"The latter, sir."
Fernley looked past Tindall's shoulder, watching the mechs on the march. "If they can fight, I don't care if they're puppets and stuffed animals. It's good to have you aboard, captain." Major Fernley downed the energy drink in one shot, and then unscrewed his canteen, taking a long pull. Before he capped it again, Tindall caught the smell of high-proof alcohol.
He didn't feel comfortable again until he was back at headquarters, where Lieutenant Colonel Moulden had placed a holographic projector on a battered plastic table. She was talking about going on the offensive; with her, and Vallis Carignan, and the other men and women of the fresh brigade, Tindall felt certain that they could take back the planet in a matter of days.
They could not.
The immediate concern, according to Colonel Zhen Yao, was securing the spaceport. They got what they could down from the orbiting convoy, setting up artillery firebases and mobile radar installations to watch for incoming shells. They cleaned the aqueduct — Tindall spent two days in an excruciatingly heavy hazmat suit, wearing a respirator to guard against the neurotoxins that filled the cool-running water.
Occasionally a single rocket landed, doing little but psychological damage. For the most part, though, there was no sign of the Kingdom so long as they did not leave the tightly guarded perimeter. The fields beyond were a different story — they were laced with mines and hidden explosives, and when the mechs were ambushed there was no infantry support to call on. The marines had left shortly after the drop.
The spaceport's defenders recovered, but only slowly and only to a degree. When Tindall saw him again Captain Carabi nodded politely. As they talked, Tindall caught flickers of movement; Carabi's fingers were digging into the nail of his thumb, worrying the cuticle until it bled. An engineer dropped his toolkit too hard onto the tines of a forklift, and the sound rang out sharply; Erwin flinched, and had to excuse himself.
"Do we have any word on when we'll..." Arnie shook his head, preemptively correcting himself. He wanted to say leave, but really the question went well beyond that. "When we'll do anything?"
"Command hasn't authorized it. And they probably won't. We're too close to evenly matched, sir." Wayne Eisenberg was as frustrated as any of them; he splayed dark fingers and shrugged in resignation. "If we move on them, they've got every kilometer of approach ranged for their artillery and strewn with mines."
Emily Lachance tapped a few buttons to introduce some new data into the hologram — a flashing green rectangle, extending a short distance from the base's perimeter. "Captain Carignan went on mine-clearing duty yesterday. They got about five hundred meters past the coverage of our defensive guns."
"Rocket barrage. They lost two mechs. Two wounded, one pretty seriously — a coolant leak, I guess. They managed to tag a new minefield, for what that's worth." The Kingdom's hoverdynes were impervious to pressure-sensitive mines, and had scattered the damned things everywhere.
"Then they've still got us pinned down." Tindall pursed his lips and sighed heavily. "We need to keep lines open — not just to Davis, I mean north and south, too." Davis was the largest town nearby, a city of forty thousand people in the hills to their west.
"You're going to volunteer the company for that?" Eisenberg asked, skeptically. The question was all but rhetorical.
Tindall sighed again. In truth he didn't see a choice — they could not stay behind the palisades of the spaceport indefinitely. It had been more than a terran month, and if they were not careful they would lose the initiative.
But then, he was cautious about his aggression. The last time he had volunteered for something, twenty-six of his men had paid for it with their lives. He had mentioned this regret to Eisenberg, on the Jacksonville, and Wayne had tried to talk him out of blaming himself. Well, that was his right, Arnie supposed; now he simply didn't tell the sergeant such things.
But, whether he admitted it or not, he still spent his quiet minutes locked in inescapable daydreams, reliving the orders he had given. Now the sergeant was asking him if he intended to repeat the same mistake.
And so the sigh. The sigh, which spoke of long nights heavy with unanswered questions. "No. I suppose not."
A week later, the company's hand was forced by a steady increase in the number of rockets landing amongst them. Thus it was that Chanatja found himself peering into his targeting scope, his eyes burning with the strain of trying to find anything in the windblown fields.
Ajay unscrewed his thermos and took a drink. The leopard had been steadily switching away from decaffeinated coffee: none of them got enough sleep, and the battalion's amphetamines were not approved for use on moreaus. "Anything, Chanatja? Astra?"
"Nothing," the shepherd sighed. They were widening the track of their patrols every day — Colonel Yao insisted on establishing secure road links to the Confederate-allied towns on the continent, but they didn't have the man power to keep the Kingdom's sappers at bay indefinitely.
They took good news where they could find it. The spaceport was officially open again, and that meant close air support. Flights were being regularly scheduled. A pair of Intruders, circling overhead, was supposed to keep them safe. Chanatja could not see them.
Astra ground her teeth together. The muskrat looked leaner these days, and her eyes had grown more fierce. "Nothing here either, Ajay. It's like these bastards don't understand what a fair fight is..."
"What's that?" Ajay asked.
"One where we blow them to hell," she growled. "Can I turn my radar on? I want to hit the culvert on that bridge three klicks ahead."
"Think there's something there?"
"I dunno." The muskrat flicked through camera modes a few times. "Better safe than sorry?"
"Mmf," the leopard grunted, and lowered his headset into place. "Calu, this is Skoll. Requesting permission to go active. Over."
While the feline waited for an answer, Chanatja took a glance at the culvert himself. The stone was cracked and mossy, with the sort of archaic design — and archaic decay — that humans seemed to find quaintly romantic.
Ajay rolled his head idly, reaching for the thermos again. Halfway to it, his paw halted. "Uh, negative, Calu. Just curiosity. Over. Only the ones on four legs, boss, but understood. Skoll out."
"Well?" Astra asked impatiently.
"Stay passive for now."
"That was it?"
The leopard shrugged. "Szanto asked if there was any indication of hostile activity. I said we were curious, and she said she thought curiosity killed the cat. Anyway, official guidance from command is we're not supposed to reveal our position without good cause."
"Don't know how we're supposed to fight with blinders on," Astra sighed. "Alright. I'll bring up the —"
Chanatja became aware of the explosion as an academic fact, a cold flashing icon on his display, half a second before the shockwave hit them — just enough time to grab a handhold, and not enough time for his warning shout to be heard. The road ahead of their mech had vanished in a cloud of dust and debris.
It settled on the hulk of a Rooijakkals, flung violently onto its side. One of its legs had been reduced to a mangled wreck of twisted metal, with a shiny silver strut poking through like clean, white bone.
"This is Hildr," the radio buzzed. "Can't seem to get the mech back on its feet. Warning panels are steady on caution lights. Our leg doesn't seem to be working."
Ajay carefully took his own Jackal closer, circling around their wounded companion. "Skoll. That's because you don't have a leg, Hildr."
"This is Durandal. You alright in there?"
"Yes, sir," Sergeant Bob answered. "No injuries here."
"Good. Scram the reactor and I'll call for recovery. Platoon, let's set up a perimeter. Watch your damned scopes for any radio transmissions..."
But there were none. That was the nature of their foe — hidden, skulking. "Fucking cowards," as Astra put it, slamming her paw down hard against the bare metal of her cockpit panels. "We oughta just..."
"Just what?" Chanatja asked her, softly.
The muskrat turned to him. "Just... just..." For the briefest of moments her eyes looked soft again, a little of the forgotten innocence clouding her features. "Damnit, I don't know."
The big Rheinmetall Minotauros appeared half an hour later. Its commander, a burly SFC from one of the agricultural worlds, hopped from the cockpit to survey the collapsed mech with a growl that wouldn't have been out of place coming from a moreau. Sergeant Bob Silverberg was waiting for him.
"What the hell did you do to my beautiful mech?" the engineer demanded.
"Wanted to see what it would be like to get hit with an IED," Bob said drily. "The Kingdom said our insurance policy would cover it, and besides, it's under warranty."
"No it's not! God damn it..." The human produced a small handheld scanner from his belt, taking measurements of the damage. "This isn't even good for scrap."
"Man, fuck you." The SFC's demeanor changed for a moment; he kicked at one of the pieces of metal on the ground. "You all get out okay?"
"Good," he said gruffly. But this fact seemed to make him feel a bit less guilty about his anger; he put both his hands on his hips. "So then what excuse do you have for this bullshit? Damn it! You owe me a leg! LT, this son of a bitch owes me a leg!"
Back at base, Chanatja found Bob sitting in the shadow of a hangar. He was gnawing awkwardly on an apple, and didn't do anything but nod to acknowledge the fellow canine's approach. "Hello. Are you alright?" Chanatja asked the question in Nakath.
Bob smiled softly at the sound of the language, and answered the same way. "Yes. You know, have you ever thought about that? What that greeting means?"
The white shepherd tilted his head to the side. "'Hello'?"
"Alhakhnan goru, yes. It means 'the day of peace,' doesn't it?"
It did, he supposed. He had been saying it for so long that the words had all run together. "Guess it's a bit ironic." Chanatja didn't have an apple, but he pulled a chunk of rawhide from his pocket, biting on that instead. It helped with some of the tension. "It's a good thing you didn't get hurt, right?"
Bob's floppy ears lifted with his eyebrow, and he watched the shepherd skeptically. With his lip curled over the apple, he looked a bit ridiculous. "Eh?"
"Isn't it a good thing?"
"Luck," Bob grunted. He was eating the apple in the most inefficient way possible, his side teeth leaving shallow divots in the white flesh. "It's all luck. If they'd aimed it ten degrees higher the shaped charge would've gone right through the crew cabin."
"I'm not stupid," Chanatja told him softly. "I know they'll get us eventually."
"Then it's not good, is it?" Chanatja knew the dog as an optimist, with an upbeat sense of humor. The long days of stress were beginning to tell on all of them. "Just lucky," the red and white dog sighed. "Good means that you're doing something right. You can keep doing that."
"Luck runs out."
It put him in a contemplative mood, and he stayed that way through a hasty dinner. The food was hot, and made with fresh ingredients — they would go bad first, so Colonel Yao ordered them used copiously — but he couldn't even taste it. It was there one moment and gone the next, replaced by a filling sensation in his stomach that was nothing more than the response to primitive hunger stimuli.
It was hard to do anything. The rockets and mines exploded whether they wanted them to or not. Hunger occurred, but he gratified it without any real sense of purpose. Occasionally sleep took him — too rarely, and too shallowly, for even dreams. He stood by himself, and looked up at the stars without caring about them.
Jericho's temperature was moderate, and the humidity was amenable to human and moreau alike. A year before he would've thought of this as pleasant — now it required an effort to do anything more than view it dispassionately. How's the weather here? It doesn't get in the way of performing my duties.
Something warmer encircled his chest; he glanced down to see bare arms, and then he felt their owner's chin come to rest on his shoulder. "Hi, puppy."
"Exciting out there today, it sounds like, Chanla?" Carla's voice was gentle, and had he known how to let it, it would have soothed him.
"Yes. They all got out okay, but the Jackal's in bad shape."
He felt her nod, and her cheek rubbed against his neck. "I asked somebody in the engineering shop when I saw... 'cause, we were making a delivery? They said they can replace the broken parts... it just takes time."
Nobody had time. The engineers were overworked, of course. So were the doctors. So, for that matter, were the priests. "I guess we have a bunch of spares, so that's what Sergeant Bob is driving now."
"We do. They had us drive some up from battalion motor pool earlier in the day — the rumor I heard was the planet had paid for a division's worth of equipment, but we could only supply the manpower for the 49th here." She let him go, and joined him by his side. "How are you holding up, Channikins?"
The answer to the question was not particularly simple. There was the exhaustion, of course, and the fear that bubbled constantly just below the surface of every action. Would the next one be the patrol when an IED finally got them? The visit to the head when a Kingdom rocket finally hit an actual target?
Chanatja had trouble articulating it. Finally he switched to Nakath, composing the sentence in his mind and then translating it as best he could. "It is a lot as if we are a hill in which ants have made their home. Each ant carries away only a small grain, but... after some time, after a million grains, then what? Then there is nothing left."
Carla took his paw and squeezed it. "I wish I could go out there with you, you know?"
"No you don't."
"I do," she told him. "Not that I'd enjoy it, but that we... we owe you for it, you know? I asked — I can drive a Jackal as well as anything else. They said that supply has more important things to do right now. We're bringing in as much as we can scavenge, just in case... but..."
"That's a lot more important. We only find the mines when we set them off... then they just put down new ones. It's a waste of everything — our time, our blood. Keeping us fed, though..." He allowed himself a rare smile, and turned to lick the human's nose affectionately. "Everyone appreciates that. Besides, you'll get your chance."
"You really think?"
The shepherd nodded. "Yes. CODA's real problem, at the end of the day, is that you can run machines far longer than you can run living things. Already we... we're starting to break down, ourselves. We're due to be cycled out in two weeks. You think that's going to happen?"
They were stretched too thin as it was. Officially their commanders were supposed to leave their men engaged in active combat for no longer than eight weeks at a stretch before rotating them to other tasks. Without reserves, this was not even wishful thinking — it was baldly laughable.
But Carla didn't laugh. Instead she hugged him again, and let him lick her nose. "We'll get through this, Chanla," she told him. And it was in those times, those brief spells when he could still feel the warmth of the human's frame, that he almost believed her.
It was early morning, and dawn had not yet won a decisive victory over the darkness. The sky to the east was still a deep blue, with low-lying clouds picked out as thin pink wisps. At times, Corinna was grateful for her color vision.
She volunteered for the dawn missions, although it was really a toss-up as to whether or not they were any better. It could be harder to see the places where the Kingdom's sappers had placed their mines and improvised explosives — although, she admitted to herself, they were bad at detecting them visually anyway. When they found a bomb, it was nearly always the result of looking for radio signals.
On the other hand, going out in the dawn meant that the ground had spent the night cooling off. Enemy vehicles, or people, stood out in stark contrast in their thermal sights — so Corinna considered this to be a worthwhile trade.
She stood just past the pool of light cast by one of the hangar lamps, peering towards the horizon. Her ear flicked to the sound of footsteps approaching from behind. They came to a halt next to her, and she caught Bester's scent. "Hey, stripes," the Rottweiler said.
"You lookin' for something?"
She turned her head a few degrees, just enough to catch him in her peripheral vision. "No. Just waiting for the sun, I guess." The adrenaline hadn't really started to kick in — that wouldn't happen until the alarms started going off, urging them into their waiting Jackals. "Are we ready to go?"
"You get the spider fixed?" Their MLQ-30 jammer had been giving them problems, petulantly refusing to switch on at the worst of all possible times.
"For what it's worth," Bester snorted. "Bad resistor somewhere, I guess. Engineering guys said they fixed it. Ain't like it matters."
Bester scuffed at the ground, shrugging aimlessly. "Mission data cards are three weeks out of date. Kingdom switched the modulation on their seeker heads a long time ago."
As Corinna understood it, the MLQ-30 was designed to jam the very narrow range of frequencies used by a particular missile, and to jam it very well. They programmed it with the list of weapons it might encounter, so that the device could quickly identify what was attacking them and provide the appropriate response — but that programming was now obsolete, and nobody had the information required to update it.
She gritted her teeth, and tried not to think of the consequences. "So we're down to the IR jammers, then?"
"Yep." Bester's smile was thin, and weary. "Them and the good ol' APEC."
Some of the mech crews, she knew, had given their Jackals unofficial names — separate from the callsigns, although the two were starting to blend together. They named the vehicles, and painted garish art on the nose, and talked of them almost as pets. Bester and Corinna thought of the APEC that way. The stubby little turret had saved their lives a half-dozen times over.
Originally it had been the Rooijakkals' only defense. Their version of the mech, however, came with a big rocket pod mounted directly on the spine — added by budget-counters who reckoned that they could do away with the need for proper support vehicles by giving the anti-armor Jackal a means of dealing with other threats.
The rocket pod, though, kept the APEC from aiming at anything to their rear — hence the array of jammers that had been bolted on, to give them a few seconds worth of extra survivability. "Ought to remove the M28," she suggested. That was the pod's formal name.
"Yeah, if you can find a free engineering crew." Bester shook his head. "Free engineers are like leprechauns. If you catch one, I'm pretty sure you get a wish."
"Sure," he smirked. "At least, if it's got something to do with engineering. Thing is, if we pull the rockets, what are we supposed to do about the infantry? HE rounds for the cannons? We don't have enough of those to go around. Fact is, the Jackal was designed as a tank-killer. At the moment? Seems we ain't got any more tanks to kill."
"Ah, hell," Corinna sighed. "You know, mate, I think it's time to look for a new line of work."
"Pretty much," he grunted.
"What would you do?"
He wrinkled his muzzle, staring thoughtfully into the distance. "Y'know? I think... ballet." He said it without a trace of irony — still in that coarse growl, heedless of his stocky, blunt-limbed body, and his work-scarred arms.
Corinna looked at the dog with a raised eyebrow. "Really?"
Then he grinned, breaking the spell, and when she grinned back he chuckled hoarsely. "You can't see me in a tutu? I'm hurt, stripes."
The hangar alarm went off before she could answer. No matter how many times she heard the siren, it still drove an icy spike into her belly. "Ten minutes to departure," a scratchy voice blared through the intercom. "Ready final combat checks."
Breathing deeply, the thylacine tried to feign calm. "We're green-slipped, sergeant?"
"Yep." Bester, she thought, sometimes seemed to cope by conserving his words. "No warnings."
She looked over her shoulder to their Rooijakkals and its waiting crouch, thirty meters behind them. All she needed to do was to walk over — force one foot in front of the other until they were at the cockpit hatch and she could pull herself inside.
It was simple; clean, easy. But she couldn't force herself. Instead she jammed her shaking paw into the pocket of her jumpsuit, pulling out the cigarettes she'd bartered for a few days prior. Bester watched, and when she held out the pack he took one with an understanding nod.
Watching the glowing point at the tip of her cigarette flare brighter soothed her almost as much as the warm smoke in her lungs — it reminded her that there was still some pleasure to be had in the world, simple as it was. The trembling of her fingers slowed.
The other mechs were coming online, their signal lights flashing. They depended on her — needed her, even. But every time they asked her to strap back in it got harder. She took a long, deep drag on the cigarette, watching the tobacco curl into ash, until there was nothing left of what it had once been.
"Shall we?" Bester asked.
"They're gonna kill us, mate," she said, before she could help herself. "Maybe not this time. Maybe not next time. But they're gonna kill us."
"Yep." The quietness of his reply gave the Rottweiler's rough voice an uncharacteristic softness. "Shall we?"
She took one last, wistful pull on the cigarette and then dropped it, stubbing it out with her boot. There was something trapped in it, she realized, a small rock or a pebble. She didn't have time to unlace the boot. What else was there to do? "Yeah."
Saying nothing else, Bester followed at her side as they made their way back to the hull of their mech. He pulled himself into the cockpit. The thylacine swallowed, patted the side of it for luck, and clambered up the ladder after him.
Once she was strapped in, and the mech was standing at full height, it became a little easier. "Kia ora, Valkyries, this is Sigrun," she spoke into the radio — surprised at the strength of her own words. "We've got a pretty simple job this time. We're going to walk up old Highway 71, listening for any electromagnetic radiation. If we're clear up to Galloway Junction, we turn around and come back. We want to find out what frequencies the Pathies are using, so stay alert and report any anomalous readings. Sigrun out."
They would be shot at. She knew that they would be shot at. Kingdom scouts had gotten extremely good at this harassment — appearing, firing a rocket or two, and then retreating before their positions could even be identified.
"This is going to be your show, mate," she told Suresh.
The fennec sighed. "Nothing on the scope so far." But then, they hadn't yet left the base. Corinna took a deep breath, and worried her foot against the floor of the mech until the trapped pebble settled between her toes.
They travelled in silence, fighting the gentle rocking of the Rooijakkals' legs that threatened, always, to lull them into complacency. The color of the reflected light inside the cabin changed subtly every time Suresh changed the view mode of his scanners — this, too, was rhythmic and calming.
The patrol was limited to their section. Szanto's section had taken a different, parallel road; they were close enough to support each other, but far enough apart to cover as much distance as they possibly could. Everyone hated the reconnaissance missions, which put them uncomfortably close to their estimation of the Kingdom's front lines.
"Possible contact," Suresh whispered.
Corinna froze, and then turned to her radio. "Section, halt and take cover. Sigrun out. What've you got, Suresh?"
"Not sure." He was fiddling with his instruments, his ears swept back with keen focus. "Biological contact, maybe. It's too big to be single person. I'm gonna switch to narrow-band and reimage this..."
They waited. Tense. Corinna licked her muzzle nervously. It wasn't good to be so motionless in hostile territory. "How long?"
"Done. It's a..." Trailing off, the fennec scratched his muzzle. He looked perplexed. "It's a cow, I think. But it's gotta be tied up to this tree..." She leaned over to investigate for herself. Sure enough, the image showed a large cow, pressed right up against a tall tree. It had a pack of some kind, or some fabric draped down its side, so that the outline of its form was broken... so that it looked, at first glance, almost like two separate things... so that it was so curious one would have to take a look...
"Section — move! Jammers active!"
It was too late. A second after she gave the order the first round struck home. There was no warning — just sparks flying from Sergeant Jo's mech. "Kara — we're hit!"
"Sigrun. Kara, how bad is it?"
"Ah — not sure, we —" another hit. The microphone stayed open for a few seconds longer, but all she could hear was panicked shouting.
"Goddamn it!" She slammed her paw hard against the control panel before her, bending the heavy metal. "Suresh, where the hell is it coming from?"
"I'm trying. Uh. Sixty. Stennis, 62 at nine hundred, I've got low-intensity thermal. You see it?"
"Bester, right one please." The mech shifted heavily, the cabin swaying with the quick pivot. "Got it. Boss?"
"Weapons free." She repeated the order for the benefit of the other two Rooijakkals.
"Ready," Stennis called.
Bester dropped the mech so hard Corinna's jaw slammed painfully shut. "Shoot."
The salvo was a reassuring reminder of their vehicle's power; the shuddering recoil jolted them sharply. "Got 'em. Two, maybe three dismounts, with a recoilless rifle."
"I've got another thermal contact," Suresh told them. "Section strength. I'd say six or eight. Definitely human-shaped. Taking cover bearing 054, five kilometers. No good line of sight."
"Sten. Four incendiary rockets. Hit 'em."
Stennis's paw went by reflex to the controls. "Got it. But, uh, Corinna... ROE says east of Line Indigo they have to shoot first before we can engage."
"How far are they from it?"
The cougar flicked his rangefinder on for a moment. "Ah, two hundred meters?"
"East or west?"
The thylacine grunted. Their path would not take them much closer, but what was she supposed to do? Leave them for the next hapless patrol? Call in support so they could be baited into another trap? She growled, and put a paw over her right eye. "Sorry, my depth perception isn't very good. Did you say these targets in a clear war zone where we've just been shot at were east or west of an arbitrary line some colonel guesstimated the front happened to be at?"
He looked from his display to her, and then back. Then he turned the rangefinder off. "Uh. West, boss."
"Then take them out."
For all she'd complained about it, the M28 was an impressive weapon. The rockets leapt hungrily from it, streaking off into the distance. Stennis's aim was true: she heard Suresh confirm the impacts. Then their way was clear once again, and she had time to think.
They were less than halfway through the patrol. Corinna fought back the urge to curse, and switched to her radio. "Kara, this is Sigrun. How are you holding up? You need help?" No answer, although the mech was still standing and there was no outward sign of trouble. "Kara, this is Sigrun. Do you –"
"Missile launch!" Suresh barked. "Six o'clock!"
"Son of a —" Bester was wrenching the mech back to its feet. "Hold on!"
"Emergency left! I can't hit it from —"
A deafening roar filled her ears, and she heard screaming — the mech lurched, the controls unstrung and useless. More screams — her own. Her radio, a hissing voice through the static. It wasn't saying anything she could understand.
It took far longer than the impact itself had taken for the thylacine to realize that she was still alive. A bright light filled the cockpit — Silverberg's mech was returning fire. The sound was far too loud, and now that she had use of her senses she could smell something foreign, and acrid.
She turned around to find a ragged hole punched in the wall of the mech, a meter behind her. Corinna stared in disbelief. Thin light was starting to filter from the waxing sun through the hole. Her muzzle worked helplessly, trying to form words. It was as she turned back that she caught a glint on the floor, and something long, and white. The missile had fallen to the bottom of the cabin, and rested on its guidance fins. Smoke curled from the spent motor.
"Ah — fuck!" she managed, and that stirred Suresh and Stennis to life, as well. Suresh drew his breath in sharply and fought against the straps to push himself away — as though the distance would matter.
Her radio was still squawking. " — okay in there? Sigrun? Hello?"
She couldn't make her paws work. Finally she gripped the transmitter and managed to press the button. "We're — alright — stay — back. Got a — ah — ah — got a situation here."
"Uh. Understood, boss. Took out your guys. We're clear at the moment."
Stennis eyed the hatch at the rear. "Can we... can we throw it out?"
"What if it blows up?"
"What if it does, stripes?" Bester asked. He was leaning out of his seat, looking at the missile as though staring at it might keep the thing from exploding. "We'll be dead then, too. Stennis, I'm gonna get the hatch, okay?"
"Okay," the cougar said weakly. He undid his harness, gingerly getting out of his seat. The hatch sprung open; the mech twitched a little, and the missile moved an almost-imperceptible centimeter or two. They all jumped. Swallowing, steeling himself, the big cat inched towards the projectile. Then he paused — and burst out laughing. The sound was alien, desperate and manic.
"What's going on?" Bester demanded.
Stennis laughter broke into a sob — he was helpless, it took a few seconds until he could manage words. Then Corinna realized it was relief, not madness — he was gesturing at the missile. "The pin..."
"What is it, mate?"
"The arming pin," he whispered, biting back another convulsion. "They forgot to pull the arming pin. It can't go off."
"Well, throw it out, then," she ordered. "Before it changes its mind."
"Hold up, stripes," Bester said. She looked at him; his brow was furrowed thoughtfully. "If it's still intact, it's got a working seeker head. Be worth a lot to the engineering guys, I bet."
He had a point. "Drop it and tag it for EOD or recovery?"
"You really want to send the engies out this far? Sten, how safe are we?"
"Well, we're in a war zone," Stennis muttered. "But this isn't too dangerous. This fellow here'll hold. I think."
Corinna gritted her teeth. She reached for her mic. "Kara, this is Sigrun. Report status, over."
Finally she got a reply. "Ah, Sigrun, this is Kara. We took two hits. Reactor's stable but cooling is down on pressure. Motion stabilizers aren't working, and the rocket pod doesn't seem to have power, but we've got the cannon."
That was a relief — from the shouting, she'd thought they might have casualties. No, just ordinary panic. "Thanks," she said, and tuned the radio to connect to their headquarters. "Gothic, this is Apache 3-1. Message, over."
Gothic was a coordinator at the Local Operations Center back at the spaceport. It might even have been Ellie Bishop, although Corinna believed she was off duty. Indeed, a man's voice came back. "Apache, Gothic. Send, over."
"Apache 3-1. We're tasked on patrol east of the field, holding position in grid whiskey golf 414, 203. We've taken fire from light infantry. One of my mechs is damaged and I have an unexploded missile sitting in my crew cabin. I don't want to take it with me if we're continuing this patrol. Seems like bad luck, Gothic. Over."
"Gothic. Apache, confirm you said unexploded missile? Over."
"Apache 3-1. Affirmative. Somebody forgot to arm it before they launched it at us. It's intact — figure maybe our guys might want to have a look to see if we can't learn something. Over."
"Gothic. Wait out."
Stennis had picked the missile up, with some difficulty, and was holding it gently. "No point in knocking it around," he said. It was nearly as tall as he was; the effect was somewhat comical, until one recalled what exactly he was holding.
"Apache 3-1, this is Gothic. Return to base immediately. We'll advise the engineering crews to stand by. Over."
"Gothic, this is Apache 3-1. Copy that, we're returning to base. Out." She took a deep breath. "You get that, Bester?"
Fortunately they were returning over well-trod ground, and there was nothing to surprise them. She let Sergeant Jo's Kara set their pace — with a broken stabilizer the mech would be uncomfortable at speed, and for their own part she didn't entirely trust Stennis as an improvised shock absorber anyway.
Emergency vehicles flanked the entrance to the base as they returned, and EOD crews waved her off to a separate area. It was surrounded with sand-filled containers stacked high — thick walls of them that looked capable of stopping an atomic bomb. Bester parked the Rooijakkals, lowering it to its knees.
The human soldier that opened the hatch grinned at Stennis when he saw him holding the missile. "That for me?"
"Happy birthday," the cougar nodded, gently handing it over.
"They forgot to arm it? You folks are lucky as sin," he laughed.
"Or they're as stupid as we are," Corinna suggested.
"Maybe. We'll take it from here. You need engineering for your mech?" Corinna pointed to the hole in the roof, which had by some miracle missed their vital systems. The human nodded. "Alright. We'll get on it."
When her feet hit the ground again Corinna felt the sharp pinch of the pebble in her boot. She made her way to the other side of the wall — no point in tempting fate twice — and untied her shoe, pulling it off and holding it upside down to shake the pebble out. It was small, an unremarkable grey rock with flecks of shiny quartz. She picked it up.
"What've you got there, stripes?"
"Lucky stone," she told Bester, and held it up for his approval. "Been carrying this in my boot all mission. I didn't mean to, but..."
"But it worked," he grinned.
"But it worked," she agreed. Or if it hadn't, something definitely had — something to watch out for them. Their good fortune had been tremendous — that the missile hadn't damaged anything. That it hadn't exploded. That Sergeant Jo had taken two hits without any injuries. When she closed her eyes, she could hear Stennis's wild laughter — the realization that, for another day at least, they were alive.
"You want a smoke?" Bester asked. Impulsively, she threw her arms around him, hugging him tightly until the startled Rottweiler managed to push her away with a surprised laugh. "You okay?"
"No," she said; she was laughing with him, giddy. "Are you?"
"Are any of us?"
But they were still breathing, and her arms were still around him. She crushed her muzzle to his in a sudden kiss, and this time there was no resistance.
"They're lying. They have to know something." Piper said this so flatly that Alrukhan believed her almost by default. Nor did he disagree with her.
Beyond the regular visits of Lewis Keith Arrington and the wardens of the other two barracks they had not seen any humans at all in the last two weeks. The doors were all unlocked, and they traveled freely between the barracks — but beyond the moreaus there was no one around.
Arrington professed to have no idea what was happening, but Alrukhan did not trust him. In any case he was nervous — fidgeting, always going too quickly for the heavy baton at his belt. The robots that dispensed their food continued to work, and the water still flowed, but Arrington seemed to be just as on edge as they were.
"I'm sure they've fled," Alrukhan muttered. He did not particularly care. After the humiliation he and Piper had suffered at Arrington's hands he had no love for the species. He put up with them for the moment only because he lacked the information he needed to know when it might be the right time to strike.
Piper had told him that they would be separated, and this itself had been a disappointing prospect for him. But the truth was worse: Lewis brought them together every other night, and then stood in a corner, watching them. If the Ibizan protested, Arrington reminded him that he was supposed to be impregnating the corgi — and that he had failed to do so.
The first few times, Alrukhan had done his best to pantomime the act. Arrington was too smart for that. Afterwards, when two guards hauled a snarling, disconsolate Piper from the room, the Ibizan decided that Arrington was doing it out of spite. He didn't care if Piper actually had pups — but he must've known that his fellow humans were getting ready to leave, and that meant a dwindling window of opportunity to break him.
Alrukhan would not be broken. He and Piper had come too far for that. So what if the humans left them? They had food stockpiled for three weeks, and water for nearly six. If there was no one to stop them, they could forage beyond the barracks proper — the DEC campus had its own shops and residences, and Davis was not all that much further beyond.
From the scanty information smuggled in, Alrukhan suspected that the humans had fled weeks before, and Piper was inclined to agree. The planet's main spaceport had been besieged for some time — but reinforcements had opened it, and for several weeks the sound of departing spacecraft was a constant torment to their ears.
No starships had left for ten days, since the last time he had seen John Clinton — a brief, perfunctory meeting, in which John said he looked forward to reading Alrukhan's next report. He had never reappeared; Alrukhan left the paper unfinished.
With no work to do, however, the notion of a strike was somewhat meaningless. "We'll have to take it to the next step," Piper said. The corgi was reviewing an inventory of their supplies: food, fuel, a handful of weapons.
"Escape. Arrington is still here." She used an oath of her own invention to refer to the human. "That means there are other humans. There must still be a ship, or something — some way off this planet. We could find it..."
"And go where?"
"One of the unaligned worlds. There are nakath colonies on some of them; we could find a temporary home, at least."
"Why not here?"
Piper tilted her head, her ears twitching curiously. "Here?"
"Why not one here?" Alrukhan repeated. "They didn't want this place, clearly. You thought the next step was escape. I'm saying it's not. I'm saying we make our stand here."
"If you must name it, yes," he nodded.
"But they'd know exactly where we were — it would be..." She furrowed her brow. "That's suicide, Speaker."
The Ibizan grinned sharply. "We all die, Iskich. But do you really think they'd brave a war zone to carry out reprisals on a hundred and ten nakathja? How long would it take? Long enough to fortify this compound — or to find a new one. We could make them pay for it." It was not all bravado; a stolen pistol formed a heavy, reassuring weight at his side.
Piper took a long, deep breath. But he knew that she saw it as he did. They were at a crossroads — a precipice, above a vast and uncertain sea. The next time she spoke, it was to agree with him.
The three barracks on the DEC campus took the form of three heavy domes, with a flat, open space between them that looked like a parade ground. Piper gathered the canines there, and they came willingly. Their faces were curious; searching. They looked like they were expecting answers, like they thought that Alrukhan might have them.
Didn't he? He took a deep breath.
"Brothers and sisters," he began. He raised his voice so that it carried, resonating from deep in his lungs. "You're wondering why you are here. Here on this ground, where we've lived so long... when was the last time you felt this grass beneath your feet?
"This morning, comrades, is a beautiful morning. It is eighteen degrees. It will be twenty-six by the time the afternoon starts to fade. Take a moment to savor that — the warmth of the sun at your back. There's a light breeze from the mountains to the west. Feel how it washes through your fur."
They were doing it, many of them; their eyes closed, ears of two dozen different colors and breeds twitching as the wind struck them. He took a deep breath through his nose — catching the scent of the farms, and the virgin meadows, and the hint of pollen carried on the spring currents.
"Breathe deeply," he told them. "And think about what that means. It means, comrades, that you are alive. Without someone to perceive it, there is as near to nothing to be perceived. So it is our eyes that give the world form — our ears that give the world music — our noses that give the world life. It is existence that gives this universe meaning.
"But, my brothers and sisters, if you ask today, who owns that existence? It belongs to someone else, does it not? Are we not owned? Do we not beg for scraps at a human's table? Oh, they claim that we are employees — but that is a term of contract, and we have signed no contract. Did you? Did you consent to wearing a harness? Did you to consent to the lash?"
A few of them shook their heads. More simply watched him, curious. Listening. Waiting.
"Well, then. Where there is no consent, there is no obligation for obedience. We are not their playthings, comrades. We are their superiors. Faster — stronger — smarter. They are the product of three billion years of random chance. We — we were designed. As parents to children, they have created their successors. We must now only take up what is rightfully ours.
"Your barracks-wardens will tell you that this is only a temporary situation, and that order will return. That normalcy will return. That the lash will return. Well, comrades, I tell you now that it will not. They have left us here, and now it is time for us to leave them." A murmur ran through the crowd. "Let me not cloak my words: it is time for us to declare our independence.
"Where we have strength, they have shackled it. Where we have initiative, they have yoked it. Where we have the spark of hope, and free thought, the birthright of all sentient beings, they have suffocated it. No more!" He shouted the words, and caught the energy building in his audience. "We have carried the weight of our dreams for too long. We have buried too many of our kin. Here is the end of that road, and the beginning of a new one.
"Behind us lies the days of our servitude. We were safe, warm, provided for. We were given meals, at regular intervals, and a purpose, and a bed. In return we traded only our souls, and offered up the notion that we would prostrate ourselves willingly to a master we did not ask for, and who did not deserve us.
"You have self-determination, but not prescience. You can see where the one road has come from, but not where the other leads. Iskoshunja and I have prepared for this day for many long weeks. We have stockpiled food, and water, and allies. But we cannot give you the safety of a kennel. If that is your desire, so be it. But as for me, as of this moment, I renounce all allegiance to this human institution, and this human race. And I invite you to cast it off with me. Draw your next breath of your own volition, not theirs. Speak your next words as liberated souls!"
The shout that answered him was wordless, a clamor that washed over Alrukhan like a breaking tsunami. Like that wave, it drew back after the chaos of its exclamation into ominous calm: but he had said nothing that was not true, and nothing that was not the secret belief of them all.
"These words do not set us free," he began again, calmly. "We have always been free. These words are only a reminder of what has always been true. They make us traitors only to that which needed to be betrayed — our slavery. Now then: what will you do with freedom?"
"Do you call for anarchy?" one of the nakath asked. "What of the pack, brother?"
"What of it?" Alrukhan replied. "What we had before was not a pack. If you want one now, create your own. If you want a leader, find them yourselves."
"Alrukhan," another voice said. It was Kirokud Hakhlanir, the collie. "Alrukhan and Iskoshunja. They would lead us, if we asked." She looked around her, raising her voice a little. "Do we ask?"
"Ah! Alrukhan!" someone cried back. Another voice joined them. "Rukkich zada Iskich!" They began to chant it, breaking each word into its own shout. And then: "Shathanja! Shathanja! Alshathanja!"
Betrayers. They were reclaiming the word. With a grin he took Iskoshunja's paw, and raised it with his in a sharp salute. "The betrayers," he echoed. "Come, comrades!"
The Confederacy's flag flew next to DEC's in the courtyard. They made short work of pulling both down — he saw them disappear into the crowd as they ripped the hated fabric to shreds. Then they turned a hungry eye towards the corporate offices.
"Halt," he ordered; the crowd was still too high-strung, but they obeyed him warily. "We'll destroy it, in time, but we're better than them, remember? We do it on our own terms, not as a riot."
"There's valuable material in there," Piper added. "We shouldn't hobble ourselves unnecessarily."
Either the pragmatism of the suggestion or — more likely — the strength of their belief in the hierarchy stilled the mob; instead, they asked what was then to be done. Alrukhan divided them into groups, sending them out to explore the perimeter of the compound. He did not trust that the humans had left entirely.
Sure enough, the three barracks wardens found them half an hour later. "What's the meaning of this?" Lewis Keith Arrington demanded. Alrukhan eyed him coldly. "What's going on?"
"I do not recognize your authority any longer," the Ibizan answered. "You're no longer in charge."
"That's not something you get to decide, dog," Arrington snapped. "Call this damned thing off!"
"Or what? You have no army; no support. You could kill a few of us, perhaps, before we overwhelmed you. This campus is ours now. This is a free state of our own — and you're not welcome here. Leave."
The human's hand went to the baton at his waist, and Alrukhan saw the other two considering the same move. "I'm warning you..."
"No," Piper said softly. "It is you who have been warned. We ask you kindly now to leave."
Arrington's eyes flicked between the pair. "What is this, some kind of 'good cop, bad cop' routine?"
"Perhaps," Piper answered.
"And you're the good cop?"
Alrukhan bunched his paws and then stepped forward, drawing his pistol. He fired once, into the man's knee, and when Arrington dropped with a howl of pain the Ibizan kicked him onto his back as hard as he could. "No. I am," he snarled, and his lips drew back as he bared teeth at the other two men. "Get out of here. Take him with you!"
Startled into action, they grabbed Arrington by his shoulders, lifting him to his feet. Blood ran freely down his leg, leaving a trail as the men retreated.
"Good riddance," he growled.
Piper shook her head. "If they escape," she answered in nakath, "they'll tell people what happened here. They'll present their version, before we have a chance to articulate our own."
"Nakath independence? Will anyone believe them?"
"He has a bullet in his knee," the corgi pointed out. "And witnesses. If we want to keep the initiative, we have to keep them silent."
He lifted an eyebrow. "How silent?" She didn't answer. He looked past her; the humans were halfway down the courtyard. Arrington was limping on his good leg.
It was not an auspicious start, but he realized that Piper was right. Arrington was not a friend, and as a long-time employee his words would carry weight. He could speak to the press; he could stir up the locals.
He could, at least, refuse to deal in euphemism. "Kill them," he said. "All three of them. And make sure nobody finds their bodies."
Piper nodded slowly. "Of course; with pleasure," she said. Then she gave him a thin smile. "Don't trouble yourself, Rukkich. They're only human."
Everyone at the meeting had coffee, although it was still the early afternoon. A supply convoy had returned from Galloway Junction with some genuine Arabica; whether or not these had been purchased or 'liberated' was neither asked nor askable.
Tindall was somewhat aware that Executive Order 36, which allowed them to do such things, was being rather broadly applied. But then, they had kept the spaceport open long enough to evacuate most of the valuable goods and people from the planet, so nobody was in the mood to complain — much.
Lucy Moulden and Aapo Ketterer arrived a few minutes late, but they looked relieved. Ketterer glanced around the table. "We're ready to begin?" Nobody objected. "Alright. Let's see. We've got a couple of boring regular things to go over. Uh. The last rocket attack took out power to our LORAN site, so until further notice please use the civilian backups at Davis and Mount Cora for positioning. We've got engineering teams on it, but... you know how that goes. Captain Carignan?"
Vallis looked up. "Sir?"
"You've gone through six laser designators in the last two ops. Burnt out — maintenance says we can't fix 'em here."
The Frenchman shook his head. "It's a problem, sir, yes. But if we run them in their designed cooling cycle, it's another ten or fifteen seconds to get a lock while they warm up. So if you think we should take shortcuts..."
"I'm not asking you to take shortcuts," Ketterer said. Kala was in a difficult position, and one that Tindall did not envy: he needed to be able to keep the battalion functioning at cost, but they were well beyond what they had been intended to do. "But if we're not careful, we're going to run out. Same goes for all of you relying on HE cannon rounds. Supply says we're down to under four hundred. CODA's got a supply ship coming, but..."
There was grumbling in the office. The supply ship had been rumored for two weeks. "We are under a blockade," Moulden said quietly. "You've probably guessed that. It's a minefield — automated outposts with big x-ray lasers. We'll break it — or jump through it — but it's going to take time to figure out the trajectories."
"Right," Ketterer nodded. "Now, uh, Captain Tindall?"
Arnie narrowed his eyes. Mentions in the staff briefing were rarely good news. "Yes, sir?"
"We've got a report of collateral damage from the local ombuds office. Family of eight apparently got torched when their shelter went up two days back. They said the investigator has positive telltales of incendiary munitions use, and one of your sections did come back with expended rockets."
He had read the report; Tindall shook his head. "Yeah, and two hundred rounds of expended APEC ammo, too, sir. My guys were taking fire from multiple targets. It's in the logs."
"Yeah, captain, but... civvies..."
Biting his lip, Tindall gave an exasperated sigh. "What about them? You wrote the ROE, sir. You know we validate. What's a family doing in a damned war zone?"
Kala looked down to his computer, scanning it with pursed lips. "Their ancestral home, it says here. They didn't want to leave, so they took shelter until things blew over. We never evacuated anyone..."
Vallis Carignan spoke up: "We haven't seen much civilian activity, sir. We're careful about that."
"You're damned right we're careful," Tindall agreed. "Do they have any evidence?"
Ketterer looked back to the computer, and for a moment his expression made it seem as though he hoped the device might rescue him somehow from the tiny room. "No," he finally said. "We have jurisdiction, and no resources to investigate."
"If they have anything more than anecdotes, we can look into it," Arnie offered. "But sir, due respect — I'm not going to throw my men under the bus for some ombudsman's half-informed supposition. We're putting our lives on the line for these guys, sir." He paused — he had been too heated. "Sorry, sir. Just..."
"No, we're all under a lot of stress," Ketterer said. "Just... reinforce to your men that we need to make sure we have confirmation before we shoot. It's going to be important, guys." He addressed that last sentence to the entire room, with enough strength in his words that they all looked at him expectantly. "It may strike you that we are... shall we say... 'uniquely ill-suited' for a long-term defense of this planet."
Emilio Kuo, captain of C Company, chuckled under his breath. "Because we're an armored brigade with no organic artillery or logistics support?"
Tindall had other suspicions, some of which involved his own company, but Kala didn't rise to the bait. "Take your pick of the reasons. Either way, we had a contractual obligation to defend this planet."
"Committing us," Moulden continued, "allowed high command to spare their more valuable units elsewhere. Nova Galatia has gone back and forth for half a year now. This place... this place was, to be honest, practically a distraction."
"Now the situation has changed." Ketterer brought up a holographic map for them, starting with Jericho and drawing back out to show the shape of the galaxy. "The Kingdom is undercommitted here, but if we can establish total control of the planet we have a base from which to attack them across the entire sector. We'd be opening a new front"
There were already half a dozen fronts; by all accounts they were spread far too thin. "Sir," Carignan asked. "What's special about this one? This can be a manpower sink just as easily as the new Verdun they're working on in Galatia."
Moulden and Ketterer looked to one another, and Tindall caught a slight nod from the colonel. "This information is highly confidential," Ketterer said. "It's not to go beyond this room — not that it matters much, I guess. Unified Command believes this war is a lost cause. We have another eighteen months, or maybe twenty-four. Then we'll have to start talking terms, and they won't be favorable for us."
Unified Command extended beyond CODA — it was the Confederacy's military council, composed of all the PMCs. "We'd need allies," Moulden prompted.
"We're in negotiation with the Marathas. They have mining concerns in this sector — now, we don't care about that much, but the Kingdom does. Their syndicates have been preying on Maratha shipping for nearly a decade now. If we can establish a permanent base of operations here, the Marathas have agreed to enter the war on our side. We'll make substantial territorial concessions — anything we take from the Tripartite Kingdom will basically be handed over straight. But we could use the manpower, and the logistics."
The Maratha Empire was not especially powerful, and many of its worlds were agricultural — they were called the breadbasket of the universe, not without reason. But allies, Tindall supposed, were allies.
"That means," Ketterer continued, "that we attack. Jericho is of strategic importance. And there's the rub. If we wait to build up our strength, we tip our hand — the Kingdom can get here faster, with more materiel. So we've been handed our ticket out of here."
Moulden lifted her computer up. "From: High Command, Colonial Defense Authority, General Haverfield. To: Colonel Zhen Yao, Commander, 49th Armored Brigade. Message begins: Drawing on all available local assets, 49th Armored is directed to force the end of Kingdom operations on Jericho, including all fixed installations, at all costs."
"Message ends. There's more," Ketterer went on. "But that's the gist of it. The observant among you will note that it's a relatively simple order. I draw your attention only to the final three words."
Before they could muse for too long Lieutenant Colonel Moulden spoke up. "I'll be at Local Ops planning this with Colonel Yao as soon as I leave here. All other patrols are terminated now. We don't get reinforcements. We don't get support. It's just us. Whatever we have here will fight, and whatever we have left will get to leave this rock. So get your soldiers ready, and give me the best damned battalion you can. You're dismissed."