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Incursion

Mark Thies

It started as just a flicker of X-rays, high above the orbital plane of the bright orange star Epsilon Sindri. The region of space was devoid of matter, or any potential for producing such a phenomenon, but nonetheless it was there. As the flicker grew to erratic bursts, these X-rays were quickly logged by several detectors within the system of five planets below.

The first detector to take note of these bursts was a security array high above the second planet of the star system. Few disturbances ever escaped the notice of this awkward mass of antennae, reflectors, and arrays that tumbled lazily in its wide orbit. The bright X-ray flashes were trapped and focused by a myriad of mirrors and lenses, and then sorted by a series of gold refraction gratings. The spectrometers compiled and analyzed the flood of data, recognizing the bursts for what they were. Unconcerned, the security array's attention drifted elsewhere.

The second detector to take note of the bursts was a navigation beacon also in orbit around the second planet. Unlike its much larger brother in high orbit above him, this oblong satellite sheathed in bright gold foil carefully recorded the exact position and energy signatures of the bursts. The starports on the planet surface were notified of the phenomena, but no concern was immediately made evident. This was a weekly occurrence above the planet Delas, in precisely the location that it was expected. Only high above the ecliptic in the solar system full of debris could a 500,000 ton merchantman exit trans-light speeds without risking a fatal collision.

Only one other detector in the star system noticed the turbulent arrival of the interstellar freighter Aragonne Isabelle. Shrouded in the cold shadow of the icy moon of Epsilon Sindri Three, another satellite realigned itself, focusing its three large collectors upon the source of the X-ray bursts. A fission reactor at its core came to brilliant life just as the gigantic transport finally exited the rift in a final explosion of radiant energies. Then the X-rays ceased.

The shrouded satellite, however, was still building up the power that it needed. It had been ordered to track these ships and monitor their arrivals and departures. But transmitting its reports back home needed far more energy than its uranium pile could provide. As the fusion core finally ignited, another rift formed for just a moment, sending out a pulse through subspace. The pulse was fast enough to travel light-years in a matter of weeks, and strong enough even to reach the fringes of the bright nebula that painted the Delassian night sky with its blue and orange hues. The acknowledgement to the pulse usually took more than a month to return.

It was also strong enough to catch the attention of Delas' security array. Once again, a report was logged and submitted. And on the planet, a corporal was startled by a beep, but then dismissed this second burst as a subspace echo that seemed to bounce around whenever any transport arrived or departed. His commander had been intending to ask some local astrophysicist about this phenomenon, but had yet to find the time.

Back in orbit around Epsilon Sindri Three, an acknowledgement was logged by the satellite only two hours later.

* * *

The passenger door to the cargo shuttle sprang open with an audible hiss of a pressurized seal. A sunrise of dull red shined into the small passenger compartment as the occupants stood up and gathered their belongings. Delassian air slowly rolled down the aisle as it exchanged with the cool processed air of the shuttle. First time arrivals were easily identified by their stunned gasps as the planet smothered them with its hot and stifling jungle atmosphere.

As the wave advanced down the aisle, it soon overcame a rather large woman in a white dress with bright orange flowers embroidered into its light fabric. An especially frightful string of expletives was loudly uttered as a result, causing many heads to turn towards her. Standing behind the woman, a man dressed in a uniform of Concordiat Army Desert Gray noticed a young girl staring at the woman in awed silence from across the aisle. The girl's mother remained unaware of the situation as she seemed to be frantically searching her luggage for something, so he decided to speak up.

"Madame, please, Starveil is on the edge of a rain forest. Certainly you were aware of where you were arriving."

Suitcase now in hand, the large woman turned on the man in surprising fury. After taking a moment to brush a swirl of black hair out of her eyes, she leaned forward as if to intimidate the older gentleman who spoke out, perhaps threatening to fall over onto him.

"That doesn't mean that I have to like it, does it?" she shouted.

The woman's imposing frame and fiery gaze contrasted sharply with the small size and cold dispassion of the Concordiat officer whom she faced. What she couldn't discern with her cursory assessment, however, was just how well muscled the man's small frame was. Underneath his prematurely gray hair, his Asian brown eyes stared back at her without flinching.

"No," said the man calmly, "but perhaps you could refrain from teaching our children to curse it so vividly."

A nod to the left drew the woman's attention to the girl, who smiled and huddled close to her mother. In a fraction of a second, the woman's fury turned to charming amusement.

"That was very bad of me," she told the little girl. Then she turned back to the man, and her smile was instantly gone. "But I am completely justified. I had little choice in coming here."

A glance down the passenger compartment showed the officer that it wouldn't be clearing any time soon. More than half of the sixty-four passengers were cargo handlers from the Aragonne Isabelle, and few were gracious enough to take the seats in the rear. Travelers such as he would have to wait as they disembarked first.

"That is unfair, then," the man commented, being courteous.

"My name is Dahlia." The woman introduced herself, extending her free hand. "Dahlia Burke."

"Toman Ishida," the man returned, clasping her hand for just a moment.

"Colonel?" Dahlia asked with a questioning glance at his collar.

"Yes."

Dahlia smiled proudly, then she turned to grab a small shoulder bag that had been resting on the seat next to her.

"My son is a lieutenant in the Concordiat Army," Dahlia explained. "He's with the 351st Planetary Siege Division, or something like that. Ever hear of it?"

"Sorry, no. It's been a while since I've been on the Melconian front."

"Oh, I always hope that he's not there," she said despondently, "but I guess it would be unlikely that he'd be anywhere else."

Ishida didn't answer. She might have been hoping for some reassurance from him about her son, but without doubt she was correct. All siege divisions were now assigned to the Melconian front. Only scattered second and third echelon armored and mechanized formations were assigned to other duties.

The uncomfortable silence was finally broken when the compartment finally began clearing, and the line of passengers started moving.

"At least I'll only have to be here for a year. I work for Vetrex Electronics, and they need me to do some sales work here."

"Let me carry that for you," Toman offered as Dahlia's large suitcase banged against the seats as she walked.

"Oh, thank you. I can't believe that they make us carry our own luggage."

Toman took the case, slinging his own duffel bag over his shoulder.

"The Aragonne Isabelle is not a passenger liner. It is a supply transport. Merchant captains always feel that they are doing us a favor by allowing us to come with them on their rounds, no matter how much we pay them. Making our trip comfortable is well beyond their reason."

"You are a father, aren't you?" Dahlia asked over her shoulder.

Colonel Ishida felt troubled that the woman had discerned this about him. Had he been condescending or patronizing, he wondered? He had thought that he was just explaining things well. Perhaps, though, she had just read it in his face.

At sixty-eight years, Colonel Toman Ishida looked much older than he was. His hair, although mostly undiminished and somewhat long, had turned prematurely white and gray many years before. His facial skin was rough and unnaturally wrinkled from the aftermath of two Melconian plasma shell burns, the second happening only a week he got out of the hospital from the first. He had hoped that his dominant Asian heritage would protect him from the ravages of age, but it couldn't help him against a massed artillery barrage.

Toman had always tried to convince his compatriots that these effects made him look wise and respected. They always responded that he just looked haggard.

"I have two children, Kaethan and Serina," Toman admitted. "Is it that obvious?"

"In some things. Your concern for that little girl was certainly an indication, but it was more your manners that was the giveaway."

"My manners," Toman repeated, wanting to understand. "My aversion to foul language, you mean?"

"No. No. It was the manner in which you scolded me in front of the little girl. Your tone of voice and method. I do, however, believe that the use of foul language, as you call it, is healthy and can make your rhetoric much more effective." Dahlia punctuated her sentence by poking the air with her finger.

"My old commander would certainly agree with you."

"Meaning that you don't?"

Colonel Ishida hesitated before continuing this conversation. The last thing that he wanted to do right now was to enter into a debate about the usefulness of swear words.

"It's been a long time . . . since I thought a problem could be improved by cursing at it. I now wonder if ever there was."

Ishida was pleasantly surprised as Dahlia didn't bother replying to his disagreement, seeming more intent on navigating her wide girth down the aisle. Toman followed, carrying her heavy suitcase as carefully as possible. Even at his age, Ishida was still almost as strong as he ever was. Toman maintained a strict workout schedule to maintain his physique. Fifty push-ups and stomach crunches every night before he went to bed, along with a variety of other simple exercises. His only failing had been giving up his long distance running, for which he had many excuses in the injuries that his body had endured over the years.

As the colonel exited the door and walked onto the downward ramp, he took a moment to step aside and appreciate the tangerine sunrise that was climbing above the line of massive hangars to the east. The starport's huge expanse of steel and polymer reinforced concrete was wet with a recent rain shower, reflecting the sky in many puddles. Dark clouds to the south and west looked threatening.

"Just my luck it would be raining today," Dahlia lamented as she pondered down the steps.

"This time of year it rains everyday down here," Ishida told her.

Whatever weather that was threatening from the north could not be seen, however, since the awesome mass of the shuttle towered over them like an old-time zeppelin, squat and flat on its bottom and rear. It stretched almost three hundred meters from fore to aft, and rose over fifty meters above the pavement. The four fusion jets positioned at its corners wouldn't be able to budge the giant transport if it weren't for the powerful counter-grav reactors that reduced their load. Their passenger compartment was only a small attachment on its underside, near its front. It looked as if it was only added as an afterthought, conveniently placed next to one of the shuttle's huge landing shocks, whose side their ramp was built into.

A brightly colored bus was waiting at the base of the ramp. Painted on its side, in large letters, were the words WELCOME TO STARVEIL. Large men were taking people's luggage and helping the arrivals onboard.

"You've been to Delas before?" Dahlia guessed.

"My son and daughter live here."

"Your wife?"

"Widow."

"Oh, I'm sorry. How very sad. It doesn't seem right that a soldier would lose his wife and not the other way around."

Toman didn't quite know how to respond to that statement, so instead he remained quiet. He had the strange impression that he should apologize for some reason, but he couldn't figure out why.

As they reached the pavement, he looked down towards the rear end of the cargo shuttle where its massive cargo ramp was still descending slowly, preparing to offload. The 50,000 ton shuttle would be transferring cargo between Delas' three starports and her mothership well into the next day before the Argonne Isabelle departed back to Angelrath. Ten or eleven days later another freighter would be arriving. Delas was a quickly growing colony, and its needs were many.

"Are you visiting your children?" Dahlia asked him.

"That, and other things."

Dahlia's luggage was taken from him then and stashed into the bus's undercarriage.

"I'm sorry I have to leave you now, Dahlia." Toman bowed to her slightly. "It's been a pleasure."

"You're not coming on the bus?"

"No. I have traveling companions to attend to. A car will be coming for me later."

The cargo ramp finally hit the pavement with a resounding thunk, despite the slow speed it was descending.

"Traveling companions?"

"They were too big to fit in the passenger compartment."

The sudden thunderous clanging of metal on metal made all heads turn as a monstrous form emerged from the rear of the cargo shuttle. The dark shape rose thirty meters from the base of its enormous treads, to the top of its massive main turret, barely fitting inside the cargo hold. Plates of dull black armor gave it an ominous air that matched the thunderclouds that flashed lightning kilometers away behind it. Its main cannon extended out well past the forward glacis of the juggernaut, always remaining perfectly level with the ground as the machine descended the ramp. The landing shocks on the cargo shuttle groaned and shrieked, and the ground beneath them shook violently as the war machine finally rolled out onto the pavement. Even after it had cleared the shuttle and stopped, a noticeable vibration remained, as if the tarmac was straining with all its might to support the monster that had just set foot upon it.

Bristling with secondary turrets and weapon ports, the war machine looked to be a battleship on tracks, though no one could mistake it for being seaworthy. It was a dreadnought whose design had been condensed to its most lethal form. Losing its displacement and elegance, it gained terrible focus in all things that its enemies feared most: firepower, maneuverability, and speed. No christened name could be seen inscribed on its bow, but upon the rear portion of its side hull, the designation "DBC-0039DN" was emblazoned in tall, silver letters.

"A Bolo," Dahlia said in awe. "You are with the Dinochrome Brigade?"

"Very good. Your son would be proud of you."

Dahlia actually blushed at that.

"You have another one?" Dahlia then asked Toman, smiling.

"We require two trips."

"Ah," she said. Then she leaned forward as if to whisper something. Toman complied by leaning forward also. "Should I be worried about anything?"

"Not any more." Toman said with a smile, backing away again.

Dahlia laughed lightly, though she still looked concerned. A moment later she extended her hand.

"Thank you for your help, Toman. I'll try to watch my language while I'm here."

Toman took her hand and held it tightly for a moment, then released it.

"Maybe you'll find some other way of being effective."

"We'll see. Good-bye, Toman."

"Good-bye, Dahlia."

The colonel stood waiting for a couple minutes still, until he confirmed that Dahlia had found a seat and was settled in. With a short wave he then turned away and headed for the Bolo that waited patiently for him, next to the ramp. A pack of tractors that had been waiting for the Bolo to clear the ramp now were invading the cargo hold to ferry its remaining contents to several flatbed trucks nearby.

After he had escaped earshot from the passengers, Ishida removed his fieldcomm from his belt and activated it. It was already set at Brigade battle channels.

"How are you doing, Chains?" He called.

"Fully operational, Commander," replied a baritone voice from his earphone.

"How 'bout you, Quarter?"

"Waiting the return of the shuttle, Commander," replied a charming voice with a distinct British accent.

"That might be a couple hours, Quarter. Hold tight. Until then, though, I want both of you to probe every wavelength and log every emitter that you can around this planet. Find out what their defenses are like, and where they've broken down."

"This may cause alarms to be triggered," said Chains.

"Good," replied Toman cheerfully. "I hope that it does. As always, route all complaints to me."

"Yes, Commander. Shall we remain at Low Alert Status?"

"For now. No point in distracting you if their security array is operating correctly. Oh, by the way, keep tied into its frequency. I want you two watching things."

"We will, Commander," Chains replied. "The Starveil tower is requesting that I proceed to their military hangar area. Do you wish to enter first?"

"Yeah, open up. I need to log a report and make some calls."

"Opening hatch. Will Kaethan be visiting us, again? I would look forward to seeing how your son has grown."

Memories of Kaethan's visit to the 39th Lancers temporary headquarters on Point Hermes flooded him with conflicting emotions. It had been twelve years ago, when Kaethan was fourteen, just after his mother had died. His sister Serina had just become eighteen and she wasn't sure that she could take care of him. It was a difficult time, and Toman decided not to reflect on it at all.

"Maybe. I'll tell him that you'd like that."

"It's been a long time."

"Yes," Toman sighed. "It has."

* * *

At midday, it was dark and raining fiercely, and Captain Kaethan Ishida had his sunglasses firmly stashed in his belt pouch. On a sunny day, the chalk white dunes of the Fort Hilliard Firing Range almost glowed with heat and blinding light. The sands blew over the landscape from the forty kilometers of the Alabaster Coast that stretched along the ocean to the west. Soldiers of the Alabaster Guard wore dark sunglasses as unofficial trademarks of their unit, though the glasses were absolutely necessary equipment for when the skies were clear. This would hardly be a problem today, but at least on a clear day you could actually see the firing range.

"Almost ready, Kaethan."

Kaethan didn't respond to the warning, but instead kept looking out into the rain from their concrete reinforced bunker. Judging from past experience, Walter Rice would be "almost ready," typing madly on his computer, for another couple minutes. And their past experience stretched as far back as elementary school. There was no hurry.

A brief surge of rainfall caused a light spray to splatter through the slit window that stretched the entire forward length of their bunker. The captain turned his face away, shielding his green eyes. His short, jet-black hair had dried quickly after his sprint from his vehicle to the bunker, but would remain damp as long as he stayed where he was. The cool spray was refreshing to Kaethan, who had begun to grow weary of the heat wave that the Telville area had been experiencing lately.

The bunker that the two men were in was small and brightly lit. Kaethan was dressed in a dark metal-blue uniform of very light fabric, with black boots and belt. Platinum circlets, pinned to his shoulder flares, identified his rank. The lights overhead highlighted his sharp Mediterranean facial features and complexion, though his brooding Asian eyes always broke the categorization. Walter was dressed in gray slacks and a designer white shirt that he had just purchased that day. His long, wavy brown hair reached his shoulders, though it was neatly combed and kept. The short beard that he sported caused him to scratch his chin and neck constantly. Although of ordinary features, this no way detracted from his rugged good looks. Bare concrete walls enclosed them, gray and smooth except for numerous cracks and cement patches that marred the surface. A fine white dust covered everything, though it was more from the sand outside than from the deterioration of the concrete. A large but simple computer panel was embedded into the rear wall, black and not activated. Walter had all he needed in his briefcase of a computer that he had opened on the extremely large table that dominated the center of the small room.

"Have you ever tried your baby in a rain like this?" Kaethan asked, lazily.

"My laser will work fine," Walter returned, "just as long as the wind doesn't pick up."

"The wind?" Kaethan turned in curiosity.

A cool breeze from the west had picked up off the ocean just as the rain began to pour, slanting the raindrops with mild fifteen kilometer per hour gusts. Kaethan couldn't figure out, however, how the wind would be a problem.

"Don't tell anyone, but we tested out our tracking radar during the last hurricane." Walter had stopped typing momentarily as he confided in his friend. "If a strong gust created a localized swirl, our radar sometimes registered it as an incoming missile."

"You're kidding."

"Yes, but it was a concern."

As Walter happily returned to his typing, Kaethan sighed and turned back to the slit window. Just the two of them were in this bunker, orchestrating this demonstration. Fifty meters to their right, closer to the ocean, several faces peered back at him from another bunker. The local aldermen would probably have a poor show today through this rain. He suspected that they'd hear the artillery boom a few times, then afterwards they'd be shown the radar tracks. If they wanted, they'd be driven to ground zero to investigate the area for recent impacts.

Somewhere out there in the rain, however, was a modified mining utility Hauler with a multiphase array radar and an industrial strength battlelaser whose job was to make sure no shell survived long enough to impact the ground. Many cities on Delas had purchased the Haulers for use as APC's, but with an additional mini-fission core installed, it could power a very impressive laser system. There was a great deal of interest in these ongoing tests.

"Ready," Walter announced, then hit one more key and looked up.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes."

"It's still taking three minutes getting that crystal up to speed, isn't it?"

"I told you, I'm sure we can reduce that."

Kaethan glared at Walter with narrow eyes for a moment, then picked up his headset from a chair next to him. Captain Ishida had been given this assignment for the sole reason that its lead engineer, Walter Rice, was a personal friend of his from long ago. It was either that, or nobody else in the Alabaster Guard wanted to waste their weekends at the firing range. Either way, he was still unsure of the wisdom of that decision. As much as they were enjoying working together, Walter might not have been taking this task as seriously as he should. Of course, Kaethan told himself, Walter had never taken anything very seriously, and yet he always did get straight A's. That had earned him an off-planet university scholarship at Angelrath, which had separated them for the past eight years.

Little had changed in either of them since they had last seen each other, Kaethan believed. Although in a business suit now, Walter's curly, long, light brown hair still made Kaethan see him as the beach bum that he had always been. His eternal one-day growth of beard just added to the effect. If he truly did shave every morning, then Kaethan thought that he might want to do it again at midday. To be tall, handsome, and relaxed had been Walter's quest in life since before college, and he had largely succeeded if judged by the reaction of those he valued most, women. Walter's and Kaethan's basic physiques had changed little, but at six-foot one, Walter was now a good six inches taller than Kaethan was.

The rain outside was beginning to slacken now, but the captain wasn't going to wait any longer. After a quick wave of warning towards the other bunker, Kaethan activated his headgear and pulled the microphone down to his mouth.

"Hey, Rick."

"Ready, Captain?" Corporal Rick Shaller's sounded excited, as he always did before firing his howitzers.

"All set. Give me one round over the target."

"On-the-wayyy."

Kaethan's earphones squelched out as Rick's microphone was overloaded by the fire. Out of habit, he mentally counted the seconds before the sound wave passed over the bunker. The dull boom finally hit as he reached twelve, followed almost instantly by a flash of blue light that lit up the sky and a loud explosion from high above.

"One down!" Walter exclaimed.

"Ready for the next test?" Kaethan confirmed.

"All set."

"Okay, Rick. Bracket her with three rounds."

"Fire Plan Two, on the way."

This time, as the shells neared the target, Kaethan knelt on a chair so that he could see up into the sky. His view was hindered by the thick concrete overhang, but he was able to discern three separate beams tracking, and holding on their targets. After three rapid explosions from overhead, the beams stopped.

In fact, he knew that it was only one laser beam, being redirected by a rapidly spinning crystal onto multiple targets. In Walter's theory, this weapon could not be overwhelmed since it didn't track targets, rather it determined what arcs contained a threat and fired its laser as the crystal spun through that arc. In Kaethan's reality, they found in test fires that the laser lost coherence as the crystal heated up. Despite a myriad of cooling techniques, a sustained barrage would give the system problems. Also, a shell protected with modern composite alloy, or reflective armor, could get through. But unless Walter was given an expensive fusion chamber to power his toys, this was the best anyone could do.

Fire Plan Three utilized all six guns of the Alabaster Guard Artillery, Alpha Company. Six shells were engaged simultaneously by the laser and destroyed midflight, although one shell survived noticeably longer than the others did. Walter shrugged it off, not thinking it was worth the bother to investigate.

The last test scheduled for the day was a full test of all six guns firing three times at different azimuths, driven with different explosive charges. The effect was that all eighteen rounds would be impacting at the same time. Even Walter left his console to see this spectacle.

And it was very impressive. The last shells that were fired had the lowest trajectory with the most propellant. Their screaming through the air over the bunkers drowned out all other noise. The light show, though, was spectacular as the entire sky lit up with eighteen simultaneous beams firing. All of the shells survived noticeably longer than in the first tests as the laser light drifted from blue to green. But they all soon started popping, slowly at first, and then in a rush. Like popcorn, Kaethan thought.

One final explosion, though, occurred much later than the others did.

"That one could have impacted, Walter."
"Well, seventeen out of eighteen isn't bad, and I know I can improve on that by restricting the spin more. The ion bolts on your Templars wouldn't have gotten half of them."

Walter returned to his console and started reviewing some statistics. Kaethan looked over to the other bunker and found a corporal looking back, expectantly. He gave him a thumbs-up, and motioned that the testing was over for the day.

"I noticed the color shift this time." Kaethan turned back to Walter. "The beams turned green."

"As I told you, the wave-length will expand as the crystal heats up."

"What color starts being dangerous?"

Walter looked up from his console and stared straight ahead for a moment.

"I'm not sure," Walter admitted. "An alarm will trigger once the crystal hits two hundred fifty degrees Celsius. I'm not sure what color that would equate to."

"Try to find out, okay?"

"Will do." Walter turned back to his laptop. "Shouldn't be difficult."

A soft beep emanating from Kaethan's belt captured his attention. Pulling out his handphone, he noted that a personal message had just been logged. Once the phone was activated and a password was typed in, that message was downloaded and displayed on a small scrolling message line.

"What was that sour face for?" Walter asked after a glance.

"My father's on Delas. He's coming to visit."

"The colonel?" Walter laughed. "Is he on leave or something?"

"No. Some business that he won't talk about."

"When is he coming?"

"Tomorrow or the next day, he said. He doesn't know."

"Well, I'd love to meet him."

Kaethan shrugged.

"We'll see," he only said. "I assume that you'll be busy tonight."

"Very," Walter said. "Once I write up a report, my boss is treating these politicians to dinner and wants me to be there. I guess a funding vote is approaching again."

"Good luck."

"Oh, I think it's a lock. None of them believed that a battlelaser would be useful on a modern battlefield, but they've been shown."

"I think the price tag influenced them, also."

"It needed that just to bring them to the table," he said somewhat bitterly. "You heading out?"

"Yeah," Kaethan said, retrieving his raincoat from a chair. "I'll give you a call tomorrow. Turn off the lights when you're done."

"Will do. See ya."

"See ya."

Outside of the bunker, Kaethan had to dash through the rain a few steps before arriving under a concrete and steel overhang that protected their cars. Driving your own vehicle to the forward bunkers at the Fort Hilliard range required several release forms to be filled out. The overhang protected the vehicles against overhead shrapnel, but would not protect against near miss shrapnel, or direct hits. The only other choice was to walk, or be driven by someone else.

And Kaethan hated to be driven by someone else.

In fact, he hated having anything be done for him that he could do himself. He was told that this was the reason why he had become battalion commander so quickly, being only twenty-six years old, Earth standard. It was the nature of the military to promote their hardest workers into a position of delegating all their work to others. Of course, few soldiers in the Delassian Defense Force made the militia their full-time occupation, thus giving Kaethan an advantage. Most men on Delas were forced to devote four years of their lives in the DDF, but almost always quit thereafter. Many became weekend warriors, rejoining their battalions once a season for various training and wargames. Kaethan, however, joined full time. The pay sucked, he always told people, but the benefits were nice.

The work, though, especially lately, was tiring. For the last couple years, it had been Kaethan's responsibility to incorporate recently purchased equipment into the battalion's capabilities. And unfortunately, with local politicians organizing the acquisitions, the mix of technologies was poorly considered. Delas was so far away from their Sector Concordiat Base at Angelrath that they had planned on constructing a new base here. But with the Melconian war draining away resources, this never materialized. And now, with the fleet away to who-knows-where, Delas had been told to fend for itself. Except for the constantly rotating Army regiments that were based at Angelrath, the entire sector was basically left on its own. And at this time, only his father's two Bolo Mark XXXs were keeping watch.

Perhaps it would have been better to allow the planetary government to maintain its own army, Kaethan had often considered. Their recently elected governor, Leonard Traine, was a very respected man, honorable and honest. But that would never be enough for the fiercely independent miners and frontier farmers that made up the population of this world. The planetary government could never be given the opportunity to force its will on others, so instead, the planetary defense forces consisted entirely of local militias. The weapons and equipment were purchased by the cities, sometimes in cooperation with each other, but not always. Except for one mass purchase of the Metallicast Industries Templar Mark XI, and another of several hundred SE-12244 mining company Sealed Environment Haulers, the individual cities went their own ways.

Walter's battlelaser project, for the first time, was an entirely Delassian machine, with all parts and labor drawn from the planet's rapidly expanding industry. Several cities were interested in it, and its success could be the start of a very lucrative business in this sector. Quite a bit of pressure was riding on Walter's shoulders, though you'd never see it by talking to him. Personally, Kaethan thought the system would be of limited use if a Melconian dreadnought suddenly appeared in orbit and began carving up the planet into bite-sized morsels. He did, however, like that most of the electronics were standardized, easily acquired components, making his job dramatically easier. If for only that, Kaethan considered this a project worth continuing.

He'd never mention this opinion to his father, though. Of course, he had never known exactly what to talk to his father about. Kaethan hadn't met his father until he was six, though he had no memory of the event. The colonel's brief visit home when Kaethan was ten was made ever more awkward by numerous injuries that the Melconian front had inflicted upon him. At fourteen, after his mother had died from a sudden local illness, he had visited his father at a Concordiat base called Point Hermes. Kaethan could never find this on any star charts, but that is what everyone called it while he was there. Why he was told to go there, he had never found out. After several awkward weeks he was told to go home to Delas, where his sister would take care of him. The stay was excruciatingly boring, with little time spent with his father. The only enjoyment he had was talking for long hours with Chains, one of his father's Bolos.

His father transferred to Angelrath only three years ago after most of his regiment was lost in a Melconian attack. Even so much closer, he only had visited twice since then. Most of the colonel's time had been spent with Kaethan's sister, Serina. This wasn't his father's fault, however. Kaethan had gone to extraordinary lengths to be sure that he was very busy during these visits. It wasn't that he harbored any resentment towards his father for anything, it was just that they both were terribly uncomfortable around each other. Kaethan's guilt for keeping his father at arm's length was tempered by his firm belief that his father felt exactly the same way.

And so, as Kaethan navigated his way over the sand-swept ocean road, he began to mentally reorganize his next few days as inefficiently as he could. Rather than making more work for himself, it was always better to make do with what one had.

Of course, it would be best if something unexpected would happen that would keep him very busy for the next few days. This was unlikely, however, on a planet as remote as Delas.

* * *

Unit DBQ-0039DN has now safely made planetfall, and once again the last of the 39th Terran Lancers are reunited. Although we remain at low alert status, we are eager to begin our latest assignment, and have begun a complete strategic analysis of the Delassian defense network. This, perhaps, exceeds our Commander's direction, but the latest events are certain signs of imminent danger to this planet. That Unit DBQ and myself are the only Bolos assigned to the protection of this entire sector is testament to the respect and trust that the 39th has so painfully earned in its nearly six-hundred-year history. 

Our first task has been completed and Commander Ishida is now reviewing our report on our probing of this planet's defenses. All active and passive arrays listed in their Planetary Defense Summary submitted to the Concordiat last year have been detected and seem to be operating satisfactorily. The maintenance logs on their orbital arrays report timely repairs completed without incident, and no system failures within the last five standard years. My subtronic probe of the arrays and planetary sensor grid triggered the appropriate alarms, and an appropriate challenge from Delas' planetary defense complex at Blackstone Ridge. I thus concluded that the present planetary defenses are well maintained and operated. 

But they are woefully inadequate. 

A secure defense network is an admittedly difficult task on a planetary surface that is nearly ninety-percent ocean and widely unpopulated. Delas has only two large landmasses, Oradin and Deladin, with only the latter being significantly colonized. Nearly all five million of Delas' population is concentrated in about twenty city-states on this continent, stretching from 62 degrees north, to 55 degrees south of the equator. Delas' only operating Hellbore defense battery is located in northern Deladin, protecting the majority of the cities that are there. Work on the Cape Storm ground battery in southern Deladin seems to be stalled for unknown reasons. This leaves vast tracts of open skies available for orbital insertions of ground troops. Most of the planetary defense budget has instead been spent on local militias, equipping their soldiers with weapons of varied quality. It would have been far wiser to spend this money applying firepower on the approaches to this planet, rather than equipping their soldiers for combat after an invader has landed. 

Unit DBQ and myself have detailed these concerns with our Commander in the report he is now reading, though we are certain that he has been as troubled by these inadequacies as we have been. Our arrival at the much smaller equatorial starport of Starveil, instead of the northern planetary capital of Argus, gives the 39th the best range of fire over all of Deladin's skies, north and south. The Beischal Savannah to the south of Starveil provides a wide expanse of open field, rare on Delas, where we can maneuver freely to evade orbital bombardment. Colonel Ishida deploys us well, and we will do our best to make do with the advantages he has given us. 

* * *

The dark shape cruised slowly under the rain-swept wavetops, its meter high black dorsal fin barely making a wake. Distant lights on the rocky shoreline illuminated a small complex of buildings surrounded by an electrified security fence. Lightning flashed occasionally in the stormy sky, making visible a concrete viaduct that led from the sea into one of these buildings.

It was there that the seven-meter long shape was heading.

The entrance to the viaduct was barricaded by thick titanium bars, but these slid back into the concrete walls as the shape approached. Then, as the massive form passed by, the bars emerged once again to secure the channel. No one noticed the immense fin as it sailed up to the building and into the large pool underneath it, not even a dark haired woman who was busily cataloging a pile of seashells by the poolside. She was lying back in a full-length reclining chair, the wet shells held in her lap, drying on her long skirt of white cotton almost as sheer as a spiderweb. The blue shirt and shorts that she wore displayed the wave logo of the Telville Oceanographic Institute where she worked. Her smooth, rounded Asian face was contorted in fierce concentration as she sketched an image of a brightly colored shell into her notepad, capturing all its contours and creases, oblivious to all other things around her. The woman's dark brown eyes studied the shell's smallest details and relayed them to her sketch with precision that their simple photographic equipment had trouble capturing.

Only when the beast exhaled a blast of air did the woman jump out of her seat, sending her notebook crashing to the floor, and shells scattering across the tiles.

"Hello, Serina," said an amused female voice from the pool speakers.

Serina Ishida's heart was beating at an astounding pace, and her eyes were wide with fright, but after a couple of shallow breaths she began to laugh. It struggled at first, but her laugh grew quickly as her lungs relaxed once again. Only then could it be seen how strikingly beautiful the woman was as she smiled broadly.

On the table next to her was a small black transmitter the size of her palm. After taking a big breath, she reached for it and spoke into it.

"Kuro, please . . ." Serina struggled for another breath, "please do not ever do that again. I thought you were a daeger."

The orca rose up from the water and nodded its head in delight, sending small waves to lap up against the smooth tiled walls of the pool.

"Daeger would never come here," said the voice from the speakers. "You are foolish."

Serina's laugh quieted to deep breaths as she retrieved her notebook, and sat back down again. Tears had formed in her eyes and she wiped them away. As much as she disliked being called foolish, Kuro was right. Daeger were territorial creatures and wouldn't be wandering the shoreline like this. And as large as daeger were, they couldn't break through the titanium bars protecting the viaduct.

"You only left last night," Serina spoke into her transmitter, "what are you doing back?"

"I found a reef full of those colorful eels that you wanted."

"Really! That's wonderful! Can you locate it on the computer map?"

"I already have. Will you want to go there tomorrow?"

Serina sighed heavily and shook her head. The creatures were called "painted eels," and the local fishermen had often complained that they would sometimes congregate in a pack and shred their nets to get at their haul. This kind of behavior had never been documented before from these normally solitary creatures. She imagined that the sight of these bright red, yellow, and lavender eels swarming would be incredible.

"No, sorry. I'll be very busy. You and Peter will have to go alone."

Her colleague Peter Sallison never especially liked photo assignments, but he'd use any excuse to take the institute's thirty-meter jetboat out for a cruise.

"Sad," said the voice from the speakers, though Serina didn't believe it for a minute. She suspected that Kuro had a crush on Peter. "Why will you be busy?"

"My father is visiting. I have to prepare a few things."

"The colonel is on Delas?"

Serina was surprised that Kuro had remembered her mentioning him, but then scolded herself for being so anthropomorphic. The psychotronic enhancements that Kuro had surgically implanted in her not only gave her a near-human intelligence, but also a super-human memory.

"Yes, my father Colonel Ishida is on Delas. He'll be visiting me, and I need to make sure that Kaethan comes also so we're all together for a while."

"Is this a female duty?" Kuro asked. It was a common question of hers as she tried to make sense of human society.

"It is in my family," Serina responded despondently. "Kaethan and my father don't get along very well, but I think I can fix things."

"Families should remain together," Kuro said simply.

"Yes, they should," Serina responded just as simply, not wanting to explain any further. "I'd like you stay in the area for the next couple days so I can introduce you to my father when he visits with Kaethan. I've told him so much about you in my messages."

"Will they swim?"

"Kaethan might this time, but you'd have to be gentle with him if he wants to play. He's not as good as Peter is."

Kuro loved playing in the water with Serina and Peter. The orca was gentle with her, but with Peter their play had lately gotten quite acrobatic.

"I'll be careful, Serina. Did you want to play now?"

"Oh . . ." Serina moaned. "I have to finish cataloging these seashells from Oradin for Professor Kilby. Then I have to call Kaethan's commander and tell him to give my brother the next couple days off."

"He'll do what you say?" Kuro didn't hide her confusion.

"Well, he said that he would when I danced with him at Kaethan's promotion celebration last year."

Kaethan hadn't even told his father that he was given command of his heavy armor battalion. His commander, Colonel Neils, was surprised that Colonel Ishida wasn't there. Serina was just plain angry.

"Then you'll play?"

Serina had been planning to leave early today to go shopping. She also wanted to make dinner reservations for the next couple nights, though she knew it would be difficult on such short notice. As much as she'd like a nice swim about now, she really didn't have the time. It was so difficult to say "no" to Kuro, though.

"The shells might take a couple hours," Serina warned her.

"I'll wait."

Serina looked mournfully at the giant black and white head that bobbed in the water. It would be impossible to work while being watched like this. Distant thunder reminded her of how miserable it was outside, and the rain showers wouldn't be passing by until nightfall. Shopping would be difficult in weather like this, and she could do the calls tonight when she got home.

"I have to get my swimsuit," she suddenly announced.

* * *

The monstrous Bolos were parked on the edge of the starport tarmac, their cannons overlooking the kilometers of green scrubgrass of the Beischal Savannah that stretched out to the south of the starport. The white serrated edges of the scrubgrass flashed in the sporadic sunlight as the wind passed in waves over the flat landscape. On a clear day one could see the very tops of the mountains of southern Deladin from here, but today the mists grew dark to the south, shrouding the horizon.

Captain Reginald Brooks had never seen a Bolo firsthand before, and the sight was intimidating. Concordiat Army recruiters often visited Delas, bringing their deadliest and most impressive gravtanks to sway students away from joining the local Guard units. But even their mightiest siege cruisers would seem insignificant next to a Bolo Mark XXX. Its 110cm Hellbore was capable of delivering 2.75 megatons of precision firepower per second, capable of shattering any known armor. But even without that, the Bolos looked as if they could just crush anything that they rolled over. That something so big, and wielding so much firepower, was alive and thinking was unnerving. It didn't help matters when he saw a couple ion bolt turrets swivel in his direction as he approached in his vehicle. Out of instinct, his foot hit the brake hard, skidding his tires briefly.

The remaining distance to the Bolos was traveled more slowly. This seemed to appease the turrets, which stopped tracking his vehicle's motion.

Reginald had not been told about the arrival of these war machines until midafternoon, when General Rokoyan had called personally to give him his orders. The Concordiat colonel's arrival had been expected at Argus, not Starveil, it seemed. Donning his DDC issue light gray uniform, Captain Brooks raced off to the starport to offer Colonel Ishida transportation, and whatever else the man might need.

The vehicle that he drove was a land-car, powered by a simple power cell and therefore was somewhat small and light. The few grav-cars that sailed through the sky were all transit authority shuttles and city emergency vehicles. Few grav-cars were owned by individual citizens, as the city feared such unrestricted and uncontrolled air travel. A DDC insignia marked his car to be owned by the Delassian Defense Command, and Reginald was very careful driving it. He was a clean-shaven model officer, as he was often described in his performance reviews, and he was genuinely proud of it. The valuable solid platinum captain circlets on his high collar, standard issue on the metal rich planet of Delas, reflected brightly next to his black skin and short, cropped black hair.

Except for a few brief squalls, today's storms had passed Starveil to the south. It was now late afternoon, and massive thunderheads still flashed and rumbled in the distance. The orange Delassian sun shined through the dark clouds at times, creating a rainbow to the east of them where light rains still fell over the ocean there. Captain Brooks was thankful for the weather, since the starport's tarmac was unbearably hot on sunny days. On Delas, people appreciated the rain and didn't mind getting wet.

Still, the puddle that Reginald stepped into when leaving his vehicle soaked his sock, and he hated that.

"Good afternoon, Captain."

Brooks was surprised at the sudden appearance of the Concordiat colonel, rounding the backside of the Bolo. There must be some hatch back there, he assumed.

"Good day, Colonel. Welcome to Delas."

"Thank you. It's been a couple years since I've been here."

At the appropriate distance, Colonel Ishida stopped and exchange salutes with Brooks; then they shook hands. Brooks' dark black skin and large hand contrasted with Toman's small, white hand.

"Then I won't bore you with the planetary briefing that I was told to give you," Captain Brooks told him. "General Rokoyan was surprised that you landed at Starveil instead of Argus. He was looking forward to showing you around our Blackstone Defense Complex."

"I'm not here to make inspections, Captain," Ishida said with a pleasant smile. "Starveil is more centrally located on your world. It was better to station my Bolos here."

Reginald once again looked over the massive hull that towered over him.

"Of course, we appreciate your help, though I'm not sure I understand the necessity."

"Perhaps we should get out of the heat to talk."

"Of course. But one thing . . ." The captain pointed up high onto the black turret of the Bolo, where there was a silver and blood-red shield emblazoned with a shadowy figure in black robes, wielding a fiery hammer. "Your insignia has the English shield design of a regimental strength unit, yet there are only two Bolos on your roster. Or do I have my Concordiat heraldry all wrong?"

"You don't," Toman said, shaking his head. "Chains and Quarter are the only Bolos left from the regiment. Angelrath is temporary assignment until they decide whether to reconstitute the 39th."

"Only two left? Do you think they'll do it?"

"The 39th was formed almost six hundred years ago from three brigades of Mark Nineteens. They've fought on the battlefields of sixteen interstellar wars, and settled countless conflicts. We'd be losing a great deal of history if we broke them up now."

"Aren't Mark Thirties out-of-date?"

"Chains and Quarter each have over two hundred sixty years fighting experience, upgraded to Mark Thirties over a century ago from Twenty-Eights. It would be smartest to upgrade them again and re-form the 39th around them."

"Rather than wasting them garrisoning a far-off outpost?" Reginald completed the colonel's point.

"Exactly." The colonel agreed without expression.

Reginald chuckled and looked up at the insignia again.

"What does . . . what does that Latin say on the insignia."

"It means `Stand and be Judged,' " said the colonel, again without expression.

Reginald's right eyebrow rose, then he nodded and turned back to his vehicle.

"Hop in," the captain offered. "I'll take you back to the DDC base where you can requisition a vehicle for your stay on Delas."

As Toman walked around the vehicle and got in, he mentally reviewed this planet's military structure again. The "DDC" stood for the Delassian Defense Command, which meant that the captain was employed with the planetary government. The "DDF" were the Delassian Defense Forces, which were the local militias. The DDC had no standing troops, though the cities always agreed to lend them their formations for special assignments, if absolutely necessary.

He remembered from previous discussions with his son that the DDF and DDC didn't always get along.

Captain Brooks' vehicle was soundless as its power cell sped them over the tarmac, back towards the starport's terminal. A passenger aircraft was landing at the far side of the airport, with another waiting to take off on a crossing runway. The cargo shuttle to the Aragonne Isabelle would not be coming back to Starveil on this trip. Most of Delassian's merchant trade passed through Argus, or Reims on Deladin's southeastern shore.

"So why does Angelrath suddenly think we need a couple Bolos to protect us?"

Colonel Ishida was surprised that the captain hadn't heard. Had the DDC buried the event, he wondered? The thought occurred to him that certain people might not wish him to talk freely about this, but Toman always hated secrets.

"Almost two standard weeks ago, an alien probe was caught tailing the Ulysses Eridanis as it approached Angelrath, coming from Delas."

"Yes, I heard about that." The captain remained unenlightened. "Didn't it self-destruct when you closed in on it?"

Colonel Ishida hesitated a moment as the significance of both events seemed to be lost on the captain.

"Yes," Toman said pointedly, "which identified it as a military probe sent to gather intelligence. We've caught other probes from these aliens, but all were barely trans-light and relatively low-tech. This one was different."

"You believe that the probe was sent as a prelude to an invasion?"

"Unfortunately, yes," the colonel said. "Their initial probes found us. From that point they could have either pulled back from contact, sent a diplomatic envoy, or prepared to attack. That last probe was assuredly meant for the latter."

"Are all planets in this sector being mobilized?"

"No. If their hammer falls, it will likely be here. Your Firecracker Nebula plays havoc with our deep space detectors, but sporadic communications traffic, and projected courses of these probes, seem to point directly to the nebula. And Delas is, by far, the closest colony we have to the nebula."

"Does General Rokoyan know all of this?"

"Rear Admiral Santi at Angelrath is communicating to him daily over the SWIFT channels, from what I've heard."

This shut Brooks up. The captain obviously felt slighted at not being fully informed about the danger that Delas was in.

The pair remained quiet as Captain Brooks dodged traffic around the terminal, and then drove through security at the starport's main gate. Many factories and industrial complexes had sprung up around the starport since the last time Ishida had been at Starveil. It was impressive to see so much construction underway. Huge cranes were lifting gigantic support beams while small swarms of construction robots welded the frames together within fountains of sparks. Great plots of scrubgrass were being cleared away, laying bare the savannah soil that had been long ago judged useless to the plantation owners. Given another century, Toman considered, Delas could very well be the industrial powerhouse running this entire sector. It certainly had the raw materials for it, and now it was building the manufacturing foundations.

The four-lane highway coming from the south had little traffic on it as they increased speed on the on ramp. This changed, though, as they approached the tall buildings of central Starveil. Such concentration of population only confirmed how the planet's work force was rapidly converting from mining and agriculture to manufacturing and service.

"I was told to ask you," the captain spoke up once they were on the highway, "whether your Bolos were going to be poking around our defense network anymore."

"No." The colonel smiled. "We've done all the poking around that we needed. Your network is well maintained and operated, I was told."

"Thank you." The captain was gracious. "General Rokoyan will be pleased to hear that, though he was very upset at the time."

"Do you talk with him often?"

"Me? No, not anymore. I used to work for him at Blackstone, so he knows me personally. But he rarely ever leaves the place, or has any reason talk to anyone outside of it."

"What do you do here?"

"I'm the liaison between the DDC and the Starveil DDF. All cities have at least one. We try to organize cooperation between the cities in their wargames and acquisition of equipment. It's more work than you'd think."

Colonel Ishida nodded, understanding.

Ishida was distracted by an impressive site as Brooks turned off the highway. Although the colonel had landed at Starveil several times, he had never had the opportunity to cross the old-style suspension bridge that spanned the Delas River. He had seen it from a distance several times, but never had reason to visit the northeast section of the city. It certainly was not the largest suspension bridge ever created, but it was a rare opportunity to see one outside of Earth.

As the bridge rose higher and higher, the distant treeline north of the city became visible. The jungle beyond was an unbroken mass of dark green vegetation stretching to the horizon. Turning east, the colonel could just make out the ocean coast beyond the river delta. As the colonel looked down at the barges and ocean transports that were travelling Delas' largest river, Brooks continued to discuss the difficulties of his job.

"It's gotten better lately, but the cities insist on viewing each other as competitors," the captain was saying. "All of the large mining corporations that first colonized this world staked out their claims, populated their cities, and have been in each other's face ever since. Getting them to work together under any circumstance is frustrating, even for planetary defense."

"Still no nukes?"

"Not yet." Brooks shook his head. "For now the cities are just concentrating on the Hellbore turrets. They're still uneasy about letting the DDC control any thermonuclear warheads."

"But they don't mind the ground batteries?"

"Nope. The Hellbore turrets are fine since they can't be used against ground targets. We're even trying to get various local high-tech industries involved in the Cape Storm battery, but that has made the progress slow. We're hoping that the next battery will have completely Delassian components."

A noble goal, Toman thought, but not worth the delay in getting those turrets operational.

"When will Cape Storm become operational?" Toman asked.

"Next year, sometime, was the last date that I saw."

Toman grunted acknowledgement, and grew reflective. Captain Brooks continued discussing his problems with local corporations, but Toman paid little attention to it.

Before she died, Maria Ishida was a well-known name in Delassian political circles. She had often written long letters to him telling of the bureaucratic battles that she was in, just as he sent her news of the battles of the 39th. Maria would write her letters with the same language and terminology he used, though he never thought that she was mocking him. It was a game that she played with a soldier's determination and guile. Often she'd be working against the very corporation that she was employed by, Telsteel Industries, the core of Telville's commerce. On Delas, politics and business were often the same. To her, the fierce competition between the cities was what was driving Delas' rapid advancement. Although the powerful corporations might be a royal pain to the local governments, Delas would never have grown so powerful, so quickly, without them.

Somewhere there must be a balance, Toman thought. Maria, though, just believed that a civilization grew in stages. Brooks had admitted that things continued to get better. The power of the local corporations was waning. Now it was time for the city governments to take control of the politics. Maria had seen this beginning twelve years before, and perhaps she had planted many of the seeds.

Colonel Ishida worried, though, that their growing season was over, and this harvest would happen far too soon.

* * *

"This is a foolhardy plan, Is-kaldai Keertra."

The entry into the dark room by Ad-akradai Irriessa had not gone unnoticed by the crimson-robed figure sitting motionless at his wide command console. Keertra, however, didn't bother turning away from the crisp image of a white and blue planet that was projected onto a massive display on the rear wall. Irriessa strode quickly from the door to stand directly before the console, and his dark and leathery, lizardlike skin twitched uncontrollably in his frustration. Bulging muscles covered a humanoid frame that stood over seven feet tall. Still, Keertra did not face the enraged commander, even though Irriessa was the servant of his most hated rival, Is-kaldai Riffen. Their long and slender surias, most assuredly drawn on sight before the mission, remained strapped to their sides, blades unbloodied.

"I use only my own troops, Irriessa. Why do you complain?"

"Your soldiers, as vile as they are, may be needed later."

Keertra could not smile at the insult, for his face had limited contortions. The Kezdai's deep-set, bright green eyes and dark beak were almost eaglelike, frozen for a lifetime in nearly the same cold expression. His protruding eyebrows, however, narrowed a fraction. And his cobralike hood, which cooled his blood in his homeworld's desert heat, expanded noticeably as the blood vessels within protruded and pulsed.

"You still remain ignorant, Irriessa, of our mission. None of our soldiers are to return from this raid. So says the pact we have agreed to."

"Our mission is to learn, Is-kaldai, not to die needlessly. You are reckless."

"And you are insipid. Wars require planning, but victories need daring. It is because of those like you that we have remained idle for so long while these aliens fortify."

Ad-akradai Irriessa did not react to this slight. As commander of Is-kaldai Riffen's elite troops for thirty cycles, he was a Kezdai that was secure with his priorities and capabilities. His dark blue and white robe was adorned with the jewel incrusted medallions of countless battles, personal and on the field. This was, however, the flag bridge of Keertra's personal warship, the Mirreskol. If he were to let this trading of insults continue, he would have no support for his version of what happened next.

Still, many times he had been alone with Keertra within this room, and each time the thought of ripping the Is-kaldai's throat out hounded his every thought. The fiercely loyal guards that were stationed outside the doors could never react in time to save their leader. This small chamber was the most protected part of the ship, where Keertra could watch all things and command what he needed, without being bothered by the annoying details that the ship's captain was meant to deal with. To many of the Is-kaldai, however, the flag bridge was but a place to hide, away from the knives of their overly ambitious subordinates and determined enemies. It amazed Irriessa that Keertra continued to allow him in.

"Will you be accompanying this insertion?" Irriessa asked without emotion.

Keertra was silent for a long while before answering. Irriessa waited patiently, determined not to be aggravated. The Ad-akradai was sure that this silence was meant to irritate him, rather than Keertra reflecting on a decision yet to be made.

"I have not decided yet. Any more questions?"

An amused look passed over Irriessa's face for just a moment as he saw his nemesis cower, but not admit it.

"No, Is-kaldai. I will leave now."

Before he left, however, Irriessa looked up at the projected planet that had the Is-kaldai so enamored. He tried, but could not figure out what Keertra could possibly be so interested in with distant images taken by a probe two years before. But everything that this Kezdai did baffled him no end. As Is-kaldai of the Mirrek clan, Keertra was member of the Kezdai ruling Council, and everything he touched invariably became entwined with obscure ulterior motives and hidden agendas. This would not be so confusing except that Keertra so rarely seemed to benefit from them. Until Keertra volunteered for this mission, Irriessa truly believed that his only purpose was to sow discord throughout their ruling body. But now he was baffled again, for if this mission were successful, the Council and the Kezdai race in general would be as united as they never were before. Keertra's accomplishment would be honored initially, but would leave him with a crippled military, and he would be forgotten once the real war began. Irriessa's clan leader, Is-kaldai Riffen, gladly agreed to share the same fate just to see his age-old enemy so declawed.

This was all very confusing to Irriessa. It was he who spoke the loudest in favor of a mission such as this, and then he was shocked to his core at who suddenly answered his call. And then he was shocked again when Keertra, in memory of traditions long since abandoned, insisted that the aging Mor-verridai, their almost powerless relic of an emperor, cast his blessings upon their troops before departing. To the surprise of everyone, Keertra declared that their ignored figurehead of a leader should be given back great power at a time when unity was so needed. All of this pleased Irriessa and a great many other soldiers, though everyone knew that the Council would never comply. The Mor-verridai and his corrupt clan could never be allowed true power ever again. Keertra knew this, and yet he still spoke out, once again sowing discord in the name of harmony.

With a shake of his head, the Ad-akradai somberly left the dark room.

Keertra did not respond as he heard the footsteps turn and walk out the door. Neither did he turn when he heard the more familiar footsteps of his own commander approaching. This distracted aura of superiority was a carefully practiced art for Keertra, but for once it was not on purpose. The Is-kaldai had been sleepless for days, and his mind was now beginning to feel the strain. Concentrating on the image before him was relaxing. It truly was a beautiful planet, and the Kezdai had so few.

"What do you want, Khorris?" Keertra demanded.

"I overheard your discussion." Khorris paused a moment for any reaction. None came. "What do you plan to do with him, if I may ask?"

"Irriessa? He will be useful. He will be very useful, I believe."

"Irriessa is intelligent, and will be on guard against your plans."

"He is intelligent, Khorris. But you make the same mistake that he makes. Intelligence does not preclude gullibility. Have faith, Khorris."

Ad-akradai Khorris sighed and his cobra hood deflated.

"I will try, Is-kaldai."

* * *

Captain Kaethan Ishida arrived late the next morning at Fort Hilliard. The sky was overcast, but wasn't raining yet. Most of the storms would pass to the north, the forecasters told, hitting Starveil the hardest. Without the rain, however, the temperature was expected to rise to almost one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. It was a Monday, with Delas assuming the common week schedule that humans had worked by for centuries. On Delas, however, each day was almost thirty-one standard hours long, with two hundred sixty-four of these days in a local year.

The drive from his home to the fort followed an extraordinarily beautiful stretch of roadway, running along the white sand shoreline of the Alabaster Coast. The Telville suburb that grew so quickly along this stretch of road was named for the beach, and had done a superb job of keeping the beaches clean for the resort trade that they hoped to inspire. The vibrant green Delassian ferns that lined the roadway held back the sands from blowing over the pavement. Rose bushes, imported from earth, added further color to the dominant white and grays of this region.

His sister Serina, who lived north of Telville, had called him the night before and left a message. After debating with himself for a while on whether to listen to it or not, he finally decided to and found out the plans that Serina had for them all. Aside from the normal shared dinners with her and his father, she also had nebulous plans for some touring of south Deladin. It did not sound fun.

Kaethan left a quick message back with Serina saying that he'd do the best that he could, but that he was very busy at the fort and didn't know for how many of these excursions he'd be free. His untold plan, for the next few days, was to share a couple dinners with them, but little more.

As Kaethan approached the security gate in his vehicle, one of the guards on duty traded a few jokes with his buddy and then approached him. His gauss rifle was displayed prominently, though there was a smirk on his face.

"What's up, Jake?" Kaethan asked, knowing something strange was happening.

"Sorry, Kaethan. I can't let you through."

"And why not?" Kaethan played along.

"Direct orders from Colonel Neils. You are officially on leave for the next two days."

"Bullshit, Jake."

"No, sir. Orders from the top."

"Just open up the gate, Jake."

"Don't make me shoot you, Captain."

Kaethan knew that was coming. The phrase was Jake's trademark, possibly said in response to the fact that nobody could imagine Jake ever shooting anyone. Although the same age as Kaethan, the MP's blond hair and boyish face was as nonthreatening as one could get. Jake was friend with everyone, and constantly playing practical jokes on people.

This time, however, the amused grin that Jake was wearing told Kaethan that this was real. If this was a practical joke, then Jake would be dead serious.

"Okay, what's going on?" Kaethan demanded.

"All I was told was that if I messed up the colonel's dance with your sister at your next promotion, I'd be walking bunker duty for the rest of my life."

"That explains it." Kaethan nodded.

Jake just smiled.

A conspiracy was obviously at work.

After shaking his head mournfully, Captain Ishida backed away from the gate and turned around. Kaethan knew that his sister was pissed at him for not inviting his father to his promotion celebration last year, and he did feel guilty about that. This, however, was an entirely new, and unexpected, level of deviousness that Serina was showing. Kaethan reluctantly admitted defeat this round, and would play along with Serina's plans, no matter what disasters awaited. Perhaps some lessons would be learned, perhaps not. All he had to do was suffer a couple days of discomfort around his father, and then things would be back to normal.

* * *

Colonel Ishida arrived at the Telville Oceanographic Institute with help from an onboard computer in his vehicle. The institute was constructed along the rocky coastline northwest of Telville, with only a simple gravel and seashell road running ten miles through dense rainforest and difficult terrain up to its electrified gate. Although the highways connecting the major cities had been completed many years before, the secondary roads outside of the cities were still being worked on.

As Toman approached the gate, he wound down the window, letting the cool conditioned air out in a rush. It would be several days before he got used to the Delassian heat, but at least he was prepared for it with the lightest uniform material that was allowed. Over the next several weeks, there would be a noticeable drop in temperature as the planet entered its nightwinter season, but still the average temperature drop was only twenty degrees. A true winter season would then follow another "late" summer, as Delas' elliptical orbit would carry it even farther from the sun. Even then, the average temperature dropped only about forty degrees. There was so little tilt of the planet's axis that all seasons were felt equally planet wide.

"Colonel Ishida?" said a cute female voice.

The small black box rising next to him on a metal pole spoke to him before he had a chance to ring their buzzer. Out of instinct Toman searched for, and found, the camera mounted over the gate.

"That is correct," he replied to the box.

"We have been expecting you," said the voice.

With a loud clanking, the metal chain-linked gate began rolling out of his way. After waiting for it to clear the road, the colonel drove forward onto a paved road that led into a parking lot. The gate closed quickly behind him.

Colonel Ishida knew quite well the value of the electrified fence on Delas. All installations outside of the monitored borders of a city had to be protected from the seyzarrs that stalked the land. All parts of Deladin had them, though there were many subspecies. No other native wildlife had yet made as complete evolution from sea life to land dwellers that the seyzarr had. And unfortunately, they were carnivores. The largest weighed as much as a metric ton, though those were rare. Most were the size of a large Earth boar, with savage claws used for hunting and climbing trees, and a bone-hard outer skeleton. They had yet to be taught to fear humans, and probably never would.

The buildings of the institute were beautifully constructed, with shell-like curves and spirals in their design and decorations. Nearly a dozen young men and women were eating out on picnic tables on the lawn, most likely students by the computers that they all carried with them. Many butterflies of bright colors fluttered around the buildings here. Although there were several Earth creatures that were being introduced to this world, the butterflies were not one of them. They were completely native, with biology so similar to their Earth counterparts, that no scientific distinction was thought necessary. The first surveyors were stunned by their existence, and many of the colonists considered their presence as a sign that humans were meant to be here also.

Toman had been told to look for the "main entrance," and since there was no sign in sight, he just chose a large set of doors that had a stone sculpture of an ocean wave in front. As he approached, he was rewarded with the sight of his daughter's face appearing in the glass door.

Just as she opened the door to greet him, his fieldcomm buzzed. Toman groaned at the bad timing. Serina sighed with a knowing smile, and remained silent as Toman answered the call. He did, however, come inside the cool lobby before saying anything.

"What is it, Chains?"

"An event of interest," said Chains cryptically.

"Quickly."

"An unscheduled transport has jumped into the star system without any identification beacon, but is following the correct approach pattern."

"How big is it?"

"About two hundred thousand tons."

"Could be private. Is Delas attempting communications?"

"Not yet."

Toman chewed on his lip briefly as he thought about it.

"Well, call me back if they don't soon."

"Yes, Commander. Chains out."

The colonel folded his fieldcomm, and then gave his daughter a brief hug. Serina hugged him back fiercely, then let go and stepped back. Her mother had been of European descent, but even with all the Asian trademarks that he had given her, Serina still looked so much like Maria. Maybe it was the navy blue eyes. Or perhaps how her hair was so straight and long, exactly like her mother had worn hers.

It had been only two years since he had last seen Serina, but he didn't remember such a resemblance last time.

"You're looking good, Daddy."

"I was about to say the same about you, Serina. Is Kaethan around?"

"He should be here in about an hour. I got a reply from him just before I was told you were coming through the gate."

"Should we wait for him before going on the tour?"

"No. He's been here before and met Kuro."

"Ah yes, the killer whale that you wrote to me about . . ."

"Please say `orca' around Kuro, Daddy. We don't want to give her a complex."

"Of course." He was just playing with Serina, anyway. "Where do you want to start?"

"Not here. I want to save this building for last because Kuro's in the pool downstairs. We'll start with the labs."

"Sounds good."

Serina was thirty years old now, and he had never asked her whether she was ever getting married. She mentioned boyfriends, off and on, in her letters, but he never asked about them. In some ways he was very curious. In others, he really didn't want to know. He was happy that she was so selective about men, but hoped that she was still happy. Luckily the colonel never had to worry about what to talk about when he was with his daughter. Serina would decide for him.

It was time to relax and enjoy the ride.

* * ** * *

It has been 10.0449103 minutes since the unidentified transport arrived in the star system and only now is Blackstone Complex beginning to challenge the intruder. This is an entirely unacceptable reaction time to a potential danger. And our threat circuits continue to trip as no response has yet to be received from the transport. 

We continue to monitor data supplied about the intruder from the orbital security arrays, but without an alert being triggered, the arrays will not ignite their fusion reactors for a more powerful scan. Instead, the data that we are fed is limited to simple gravitic curvature and energy emissions. With this we are only able to discern that it is a large transport with a simple dynomagnetic fusion drive that is at least two centuries behind current technology. Many such transports continue to operate, however, for private ventures. This fact supports my Commander's speculation that this may be a poorly maintained merchantman with equipment failure. But this is no excuse for not scheduling their arrival over SWIFT channels beforehand. 

We will wait two more minutes for a response from this intruder before we contact our Commander once again. At present approach velocity, we predict entry into Delassian orbit in 39.20 minutes. It is impossible, as of yet, to tell whether the transport may attempt atmospheric insertion. 

* * *

The tour of the institute was somewhat whirlwind, as Serina seemed in a hurry to get him back to the main building. Their sea-life tanks were not designed for aesthetic viewing of the creatures therein, though Serina told him that a local zoo was being constructed with a large marine section planned. She'd be heavily involved in the design phase, she told him.

What she really wanted to do was introduce him to Kuro, whom she was telling him about now as they walked back to the building.

"So, anyway," Serina was saying, "my lawyer friend Barry said that we should take Nautilus Enterprises to court and see what happened. The planetary constitution never specified `Humans' under its labor laws, and he thought that the judges would rule in the orcas' favor."

"So Nautilus had to start paying them." Toman hurried the conversation along.

"Exactly, though Kuro decided to come here instead."

"Did they appeal?"

"No. It wasn't likely that they'd get anywhere. Not on this planet. Besides, the money that they're paying their two orcas isn't close to the money that they would have had to pay their lawyers."

A question occurred to him just then that he had to ask.

"What do they do with their money?"

"Everybody asks me that." Serina laughed. "They all have their own accounts that they can do with what they want. But I know that almost all their money goes directly into a fund we have for shipping more orcas from Earth. It's very expensive."

"Almost all?"

"Well, I do know of one political contribution that Kuro made last year."

Colonel Ishida didn't know if he liked that or not. The orcas shouldn't be allowed to manipulate the process from outside . . .

"Do they pay taxes?" He asked.

"Yep."

Oh, then it's okay, he decided.

The two arrived back at the front doors where they had met and went inside the main building of the institute. Although cool, it was noticeably more humid in this building than the others. There was also a stronger scent of salt water here.

They continued their discussion as Serina led her father to the elevator.

"So why did Nautilus wire up these whales?" The colonel asked.

"Well, first of all, Nautilus didn't do it. Secondly, they aren't whales, orcas are from the dolphin family. In any case, the reason that they chose orcas was obviously because of their high intelligence and size. The psychotronic core, circuitry, power plant, and various transmitters are all installed within their body with no external couplings. That just couldn't be done on any creature smaller than an orca."

"Who did it then?"

"That is the biggest reason why I want you to meet Kuro." Her inflection made it plain that she was waiting impatiently for him to ask. "Nautilus never said who they got the orcas from, but Kuro is sure that they were Concordiat Army engineers."

The colonel's left eyebrow shot up at that. He was shocked that the Concordiat would be experimenting with such seemingly innocuous cybernetics on orcas. But as soon as he thought about it a moment, he knew why.

The elevator took them down three levels before sliding to a halt. When the doors opened, a hot and humid blast of saltwater air hit them both. Ahead of them, down a short corridor, sunlight from outside could be seen reflected on a small corner of a large pool.

They walked out into the corridor.

"You want to know why, don't you?" Toman asked.

"You know?" she whispered harshly.

Serina stopped him in his tracks, forcing him to tell her here, before they got to the pool. He couldn't tell whether the look in her eyes was anger or concern. Either way, it looked quite threatening.

"Nothing evil, Serina," he assured her quietly. "The new Bolo Mark Thirty-threes have direct neuro-interfaces between the human commander and the Bolo's neurocore. I'm sure that they were just testing out new circuitry, or finding the effects of long term connections."

"Why do they do that?"

"The interface? Basically, during a fight you can combine the Bolo's reaction time with the commander's immediate decision making. So far, I hear that it's working out quite well."

Serina seemed to have to think about this for a moment, perhaps deciding some moral equation that she had formed. The colonel waited patiently, himself satisfied with the ethics of such experimentation, as long as the creature was not harmed significantly in the process.

When his fieldcomm suddenly buzzed again, it startled Serina.

The colonel shrugged apologetically, and reached for his belt while Serina motioned for him to follow her to the pool.

Toman spoke while he walked.

"Ishida here."

"Update for you on the unidentified transport." Chains' deep voice reverberated between the tiled walls.

"Go ahead."

"Blackstone has been attempting communications, but no response has been received."

"Are they on alert, yet?"

"Negative. Thirty-six minutes to orbit. Vessel maintains exact course and speed of Delas' optimal approach pattern as defined by the Concordiat Registry of Worlds."

"Has the Aragonne left orbit yet?

"Affirmative. It jumped out three hours ago."

Colonel Ishida stopped at the end of the corridor and turned around while Serina continued to the pool's edge and some lawn furniture that was set there.

If this really was a private merchantman, then nothing less than extensive battle or collision damage would save its captain from Ishida personally strangling him. Without a beacon, and without working communications, no transport ever should approach an outpost colony. By the book, Blackstone should burn this transport out of the sky once it got within range. But offhand, Toman couldn't remember ever hearing of any innocent vessels being fired on in such a manner. He had, though, heard of many vessels forced to make unannounced, emergency landings without clearance from the planet. The interstellar news always seemed to ignore how stupid it was for the planet to allow it.

"Chains," Ishida gritted his teeth. "If Blackstone doesn't go on full alert in twenty minutes, call me."

"Yes, Commander."

"Wait! Even if they do go on full alert, call me."

"Yes, Commander. Sir, should we upgrade to High Alert Status?"

"Definitely. Ishida out."

Colonel Ishida closed his fieldcomm with an aggravated snap. How dare this captain place this planet's security forces in such a horrible dilemma, he fumed. And to do this while the sector was on alert was inexcusable. If only for that, this transport should be flamed. He'd do it too, if given the chance.

But that decision would not be his. Once this transport was proven to be an enemy, then he would be free to act independently of the planetary government. But until that happened, until a proven threat materialized, it was Concordiat doctrine to confine its actions to the directives presented by the local government. The decision to fire would be with Blackstone Ridge, and probably General Rokoyan. Or even, perhaps, Governor Traine. Career politicians, he was sure. Incapable of the really hard decisions, no doubt. No one understood how easy it was to have their entire planet incinerated under their feet until they actually saw it happening. By that time, of course, it was too late. Toman had seen it happen twice as Melconian armadas made assaults on planets he was defending. The last time cost him almost all the 39th in a desperate exchange of fire between ground and orbit. Once an alien race decides that the planet being fought over was expendable, no commander could resist the unbelievable bang-for-buck value of a thermonuclear shower.

A feeling of despair swept over the colonel as he turned back to Serina, and the large black shape that was floating in the pool before her. He no longer grew angry at such situations as this, otherwise he could teach Miss Dahlia quite a few more phrases to add to her effective "rhetoric." Dealing with human strengths and weaknesses had been his job for nearly fifty years, and their failures were always just part of the equation.

With a sigh, Ishida advanced to the pool to join his daughter, who was talking joyously into a small transmitter that she was holding. She'd be safe, at least. Most likely this transport really was a private merchantman in trouble, Toman assured himself. But even if it was an alien fireship full of nukes, Chains and Quarter would make sure that the twenty-kilometer radius of land surrounding him would certainly be the safest on the planet.

* * *

At last, a torrent of energy floods through my circuitry as my reactor core now burns at full intensity! My sensors come alive and expand my presence to the world around me. Feedback from a thousand senses brings to me a vivid awareness of all that moves and glows. Finally the 39th is at High Alert Status. 

While Unit DBQ searches the planet for the unknown dangers, I focus my attention on the threat that is known. The intruder approaches, and I can sense the heat of its engines long before my touch finally reaches its hull. Although my sensor technology has been upgraded many times during the course of my duties, the 39th has never been furnished with the latest holistic capabilities. A far better image of this intruder could be formed by the advanced sensors onboard the orbital arrays, but Delas still has yet to activate them. These Class C-11A sensor arrays have very limited lifespans when utilized at full power for long periods of time, and Delas is obviously careful with them. 

My first surprise is that the hull that I am touching is NOT made of any kind of duralloy. The hull is thicker and lighter, perhaps of some crystalline build. I note this aberration, but no conclusion can be derived from it. Moving on, I quickly search my sensor data for signs of fissionable material, a sure indicator that this ship would be meant for destruction. I am alerted as my search returns several sources of radioactive emissions, scattered within the cargo hold of the vessel. The concentrations are weapons grade material, but their few numbers and scattered locations would make it impossible to launch them as an effective first strike. Many of my threat circuits deactivate as I determine this vessel incapable of a significant planetary bombardment. Also, I sense no protective fields or screens protecting any part of this ship, nor any hull formations indicative of offensive energy weapons. I thus must believe that this vessel was not meant for warfare. 

The possibility still remains, however, that this vessel is a transport that contains an alien invasion force, but its small size and lack of nuclear reactors within would indicate that it could contain few combat units that could hope to match firepower with the 39th. My sensor data is degraded with the distance that I must reach, however, and any conclusions that I would form now would be foolhardy to trust. I will continue to scan the vessel as it approaches, perhaps learning more as my senses grow stronger. 

* * *

Colonel Ishida was enjoying himself.

As Serina was off changing into her bathing suit, Toman was having a long conversation with Kuro. With a cool drink beside him, he was relaxed in a comfortable chair asking the orca many questions, and answering several that Kuro had about the military and the Concordiat. He had been invited to go swimming along with them, and had indeed been tempted, but had declined. Perhaps tomorrow, he told them, though he had several fears that he would have to work out before then. For now he was satisfied to be able to say that he actually scratched an orca's belly.

Throughout his conversation, he had been constantly reevaluating the intelligence of Kuro. His initial impression had been to speak to her as one would a twelve-year-old. But although her choice of words and some grammar was in question, he soon realized that he was severely underestimating her. Kuro's brain had interfaced with the neurocore as it grew, integrating its capabilities with her own over thirty years. Not only did this allow her to store vast amounts of accurate imagery, it also gave her a computational capability equal to that of any modern processor.

"So why did you decide to come here instead of staying with Nautilus?" Colonel Ishida asked Kuro.

"Samson and Velvet are of a different species than I am. We did not get along."

"Different species? I didn't know there were different species of orcas."

" I am Orcinus orca. They are Orcinus nanus."

"Samson and . . ." Then a memory hit Toman from long ago. "Did Serina name you `Kuro'?"

"Yes. I didn't like my other name. We decided on Kuro, instead."

Serina used to have a black teddy bear named Kuro. Toman only remembered it vaguely from a visit long ago, but he was pleased with himself that he did. He'd have to tease Serina about naming Kuro after her teddy bear later.

"What do Samson and Velvet do for Nautilus?" Tomas asked.

"Many things, but mostly they warn their submarine Surveyor-One of daeger territories, and protect their swimmers from illcuda and other predators."

"Don't orcas have any problems with them?"

"Daeger are slow and noisy. Illcuda are cowards."

Toman laughed at Kuro's directness.

His daughter returned at that point, now wearing a black, one-piece bathing suit and tucking her long hair into a rubber cap that she had on. For the next ten minutes, Serina and Kuro played and showed him a few tricks. Serina told him of the research and odd jobs that the institute did for local companies, and about their university patronage with the Telville colleges. Several times they tried to get him to join them in the water, but he still refused. By this point he had concluded, however, that Kuro did not have some horrible grudge against the Concordiat for what they had done to her. She was enjoying her life, it seemed, and probably would not eat him if given the chance. Perhaps he would swim with them tomorrow.

During a lull in the talking, Kuro suddenly made a mournful sound from the water. She announced that Peter was waiting for her at their boat, and that she'd have to leave. Serina explained about the eels that they wanted to research, and then they said good-bye to Kuro.

"Kaethan should be arriving pretty soon," Serina said as she climbed out and began drying off. "Did you want to wait upstairs in the lobby while I shower?"

"No, I'll wait for you here."

Serina shrugged and smiled.

"Okay. It'll just be a few minutes."

As Serina left, Colonel Ishida thought that this would be a good time to talk to Chains again. It had been almost twenty minutes, anyway. After taking another drink he reached for his fieldcomm.

"Anything new, Chains?"

"Blackstone is on alert, Commander. The unidentified vessel has still not communicated and is entering orbit on an approach pattern to land at Reims."

Reims was the starport that served south Deladin, located across from Telville on the East Coast. Starveil was actually closer to Telville than Reims was, so the colonel always landed there instead when he visited.

"Have you scanned the ship?"

Ishida, of course, didn't have to ask this question. He knew that Chains and Quarter would be all over the intruder the moment they were given High Alert Status. What he wanted was a report, and Chains gave him all the data that he could while Toman listened without a word. The ship was a design that neither Chains nor Quarter had ever logged before, but that was not unexpected. The Concordiat ruled over hundreds of worlds, many with their own merchant fleets operating independently from the interstellar government. None of the data Chains had compiled could confirm without a doubt that this was an alien ship.

The colonel was happy to learn, however, that very few nukes were onboard. It was definitely not a nuclear fireship that was approaching.

"The orbital arrays have ignited their reactors." Chains suddenly announced.

"Can you tap into their scans?"

"Negative. Data from the holistic systems is encrypted."

"Damn."

"What did you say?" Serina said from behind him.

Toman jumped at her voice, and palmed his fieldcomm. Serina was back in her normal clothes and drying her hair with her towel. He tried to think of some excuse for his outburst, but Serina just smiled and spoke before he could form one.

"Security told me that Kaethan just came through the gate. We should go upstairs to meet him."

"You go ahead, I'll be right up."

"Is there something wrong?"

"Maybe."

Serina stared uneasily at him for a moment, but then turned away and headed for the elevator. Smart girl, he thought.

"Quarter?" He brought his fieldcomm up again.

"Yes, Commander," replied the light English accent of his second Bolo.

"Get me General Rokoyan, or whoever is in charge at Blackstone."

"Contacting . . ."

"Call me back when you have someone."

"Affirmative."

Colonel Ishida closed his fieldcomm and relaxed in his chair. He really shouldn't become involved in this situation, but he feared that no one else on the planet was going to confront these people with the cold reality of frontier security procedures. Toman sympathized with Rokoyan, however. The decision to fire would be hard for anyone except a battle-hardened veteran. Rokoyan probably never killed anyone in his life, and the first time was always the most difficult, especially when they weren't firing back.

* * *

Kaethan entered the lobby just as Serina was exiting the elevator. Her face lit up with a smile as she saw him, but something was obviously troubling her. Serina's hug was light and quick, with her wet hair only getting his pale green shirt damp on the shoulder.

"Hi, Kaethan." Serina's greeting lacked her usual spunk.

"What's wrong, Serina? Did father get called away again?"

It seemed like a good guess to Kaethan.

"No, he's downstairs," she glanced back at the elevator, "but something is wrong. He's been on the phone constantly talking to his Bolos. Do you know of anything going on?"

Kaethan shook his head. "No." He shrugged. "Angelrath has the sector on alert, but that's usual after another one of those probes is caught sneaking around."

The alerts never caused any concerns with the DDF formations. Only the planetary defenses at Blackstone Ridge ever cared much about them. At no time in Delassian history had the DDF ever "really" been on alert.

"Did father meet Kuro?" Kaethan changed the subject.

"Oh, sure. He didn't swim with her, though. Maybe you both can tomorrow."

"Well," Kaethan's voice took an edge to it, "I found out this morning that I certainly have the time for it."

Serina smiled, but before she could say anything the elevator doors slid open and their father walked out. The colonel did indeed look nervous, but Kaethan could see no difference to how he usually looked when the two were together. His smile, as always, seemed forced.

"Hi, Son," he said as he approached and extended his hand. "Captain," he then corrected.

"Hi, Father," Kaethan replied simply and they shook hands briefly. The thought of kidding his father about still being a colonel crossed his mind, but was instantly rejected for obvious reasons. He had been planning a witty remark about coming to the institute to recruit marine mammals, but suddenly it didn't seem as witty as it had in the car.

The result, of course, was a moment of uncomfortable silence.

But it was just a moment before Serina jumped in.

"Are you two hungry?"

"Yes," they both said at the same time.

Their father's fieldcomm beeped suddenly, causing his hand to shoot for his belt in response. The colonel was suddenly embarrassed by this, however, and his face turned apologetic.

"Sorry, but something serious might be happening."

Serina and Kaethan both nodded, understanding, and let their father retreat a few steps from them.

"Who have you got?" they heard him say into his phone. Then, "Blessed mother . . . uh . . . what's happening now?"

Kaethan's interest peaked at this. Not only did it sound like something militarily important was occurring somewhere around Delas, but his father may have almost showed an unprecedented display of emotion. Either would be a first.

"Any ideas?" Serina asked him quietly.

"None."

His father was pacing now, listening intently. Kaethan and Serina waited patiently. A couple students came through the front doors at this time, but paid them little attention. But as the doors were closing, a sharp crack of distant thunder echoed through them into the lobby.

"I hope that it doesn't rain," Serina complained.

"I don't think that was lightning." Kaethan now started growing nervous.

Their father stopped in his tracks and peered outside the glass doors, though nothing but the parking lot could be seen.

"A warning shot?" The colonel growled, obviously not happy with the half-measure. "Any reaction?"

"Blackstone just fired their Hellbore," Kaethan enlightened his sister. "And if we heard that all the way down here, then that means that their target is already in the atmosphere, and nearby."

Their father had not returned to his pacing, instead he just stood there staring blankly outside, tapping his foot.

"Damn!" Their father yelled suddenly. It was the kind of exclamation that someone might sound if an opposing team just scored a last second touchdown to win a game. "Lock on and ask Blackstone for permission to fire!"

The target must have dropped below Blackstone's horizon, Kaethan surmised.

"What do you mean `nearby'?" Serina asked.

"Overhead, probably." Kaethan shook his head in dismay.

"I'm going to look outside," Serina said in a rush and ran outside.

Kaethan, however, much preferred to hear this conversation occurring, even though he was getting only one side of it. A ship must be entering the atmosphere with unknown credentials. Most likely it was on approach pattern to Reims, which often passed right over them. Aliens, perhaps? Smugglers? Pirates? His mind ran wild with the possibilities.

His father was silent for a long time, though Kaethan couldn't tell whether he was listening to anything. At one point, however, his father's focus shifted over to him and their eyes met. It was a strange moment, where Toman shook his head and rolled his eyes in exasperation. Kaethan felt oddly close to his father at that moment for some reason.

Then his sister barged back in.

"I saw something big," she announced. "A transport, I think. Looked like it was heading for Reims. Too many clouds to see it for long."

His father paid attention to that, but then suddenly turned away as someone must have been saying something again on his fieldcomm.

"Clean up an Isis and ready it," the colonel then said coldly. "Ask Blackstone for clearance."

Kaethan knew what an "Isis" was, and his stomach dropped. His father's Bolos were just ordered to ready a nuke for launch. He and his mother had often read the colonel's letters together, and he learned much of the current equipment and lingo from them. To "clean" it, he knew, meant to reconfigure it for reduced fallout. Even with that, however, Kaethan doubted that Blackstone Ridge would clear it. Unless things got desperate, there was no way that Delas would use a nuke within the atmosphere.

Serina now decided that this was a good time to sit down, and dropped down on a big chair that was nearby. Kaethan remained standing.

"Where's it heading?" Was his father's next question.

The colonel then started looking frantically around the lobby, searching for something that he was obviously not finding.

"Didó" his father cut short, stopping his search, "Yeah, I was expecting that. Battle Reflex Mode. Track it as best you can and keep trying to get hold of Rokoyan."

His father closed his fieldcomm with a crack of metal against metal.

"Are we being invaded?" Serina was first to speak.

"Looks like it, Serina," Toman said sadly, looking at his children. "Son, their transport is setting down somewhere between here and Reims. They just took out your arrays and will probably bring down everything else along with it. Best you mobilize your battalion and hit them as hard and as fast as possible. You can't let them dig in."

"Just one transport?" Kaethan wondered.

"Just one for now, but I certainly expect more."

"What about Chains and Quarter?"

"I can't deploy them yet." The colonel shook his head. "With only one turret defending this planet, I don't want my Bolos caught flatfooted in rough terrain when a warship squadron enters orbit."

"What should I do?" Serina asked helplessly from her chair.

Kaethan could see his father mentally shift gears as his expression softened. He feared his father would just say something comforting and unhelpful that Serina would hate. Instead, he gave Serina something to do.

"You should probably call Peter to get back here, and warn people what's going on. Tell everyone to stay off the highways as much as possible and stay home."

"I should get going." Kaethan announced then. "Will you be heading back up to Starveil?"

His father shook his head.

"No. I'll be staying where the action is. I need to see what we're up against."

Kaethan's DDF issue handphone chose that moment start squealing horribly. The captain fumbled to turn it off as Serina winced against the noise.

"That's my call. Wish me luck."

Before Kaethan could go, though, Serina jumped up from chair and caught him in a big hug. The captain returned it as best he could, then pulled away.

"Don't get hurt," Serina ordered as she let go.

"Good luck," his father told him.

Kaethan motioned a cursory salute to his father as he pushed open the doors into the hot, moist outside air. He half walked, half jogged to his vehicle, passing blissfully unaware students along the way. The captain had never led troops into actual combat before, of course, and countless questions hounded him now. Had he treated their exercises too much like a game before, he wondered? How would his battalion react now that it was real? Strangely enough, though, it was excitement, not fear, that was filling him. That was likely to change, Kaethan knew, once the shells started flying. But until then, this was the emotion that the captain wanted his troops to tap from him.

That and confidence, of course.

But with his father on the planet, he suddenly worried about the latter.

* * *

Our Commander has finally spoken with General Rokoyan of the Delassian Defense Command. Much of the conversation was spoken with voices raised many decibels higher than what is normal for effective dialogue. There are many differences of opinion on what strategy to take in eliminating this incursion, aggravated by questions of authority between the DDC and the Concordiat. As the planetary ground forces mobilize, the 39th holds ground on the flat plains south of Starveil. Our Commander grows impatient for a strike to their beachhead, but his plan to dedicate Unit DBQ to this attack was withdrawn when we were finally allowed full access to the DDC sensor net. 

The planet Delas is surrounded. 

Although the orbital arrays have been eliminated, ground-based passive detectors scattered over the Delassian surface continue to monitor glimmers of fusion drives maneuvering into position around the planet. For now they wait outside the range of my active scans, but a rush is obviously being organized to test our defenses. Every quarter of Delas' Northern and Southern Hemispheres are being threatened, along with both poles. Against a well-defended planet, this would be a foolish and disastrous plan, allowing all defenses to be utilized against the assault. But our enemy obviously does not mind wasting lives and material against us while their previous insertion no doubt catalogs our every response. 

And unfortunately they will find our response to be limited. Unless our Commander's plan fools them, our enemy will know that the far side of the planet is completely undefended. Their strategies displayed so far indicate an 80.31 percent chance that a large invasion force awaits the result of this attack. Unit DBQ and myself must do our best to discourage our enemy from deploying it. 

* * *

"All is ready, Is-kaldai." The projected visage of Irriessa filled the rear wall of Keertra's command chambers. His hood was extended in exhilaration. "These aliens bestowed upon us a gift when they fired their energy cannon at your ship. Removing it now should be a simple matter."

As Keertra had hoped, the Ad-akradai's vehemence against him had dissipated now that combat had begun. Getting Riffen's most loyal commander to trust him, though, would still be a great challenge.

"Indeed, Ad-akradai," Keertra replied gloriously. "And it fired at such range that I dare believe that it may be the only protection that this outpost maintains! Would it not shock our timid Council if we were to take this planet ourselves!"

"Split between our factions equally, of course."

"Of course, Irriessa," he said with as amused an expression as he could present. "The Council would accept nothing less."

For a moment, Keertra could see his rival's commander lose himself in the promise of such glory. His ice-blue eyes became unfocused, and his hood expanded to its full size. The blood vessels that branched out within bulged prominently with a noticeable pulse.

But then the commander's military experience returned in a flash. He suddenly looked at Keertra in defiance.

"We should not talk about these things before the battle is won, and our enemy lie dead at our feet." Irriessa scolded Keertra, and perhaps himself.

"You are right, Irriessa. They may yet surprise us. Will your warship captains now follow my commands?

"They will, Is-kaldai. We should begin immediately."

"I will give the order."

"Is-kaldai . . ." Irriessa delayed, for what he was about to say was difficult. "I was wrong to doubt Khoriss' mission. I listen to your orders now with greater respect."

"Thank you, Irriessa. I'm sure we will learn much from each other before this is over."

"Perhaps."

The communication channel closed as Irriessa shut his eyes in respect. Keertra sat back in his chair, relishing the victories that he was winning, on the planet and here also. If indeed these aliens were as weak as they seemed, then he might just have to expand his plans. Becoming Mor-verridai could be meaningless if the remaining Is-kaldai were to claim vast new tracts of alien territory and resources, without suffering disabling casualties in the process. It would be better, he mused, if these aliens were a bit tougher. Just enough to keep the remaining Is-kaldai occupied while he eliminated the entire royal family, and its lineage, back home.

This goal had been his obsession ever since the Council began serious discussions on attacking this world. Keertra had realized from the beginning that a war of this scale could not have a committee directing it. There must be an overall commander, and historically this was the Mor-verridai. Yet, this was not a possibility considering the depths that their ruling clan had fallen to. They had squandered all their riches, uncaring for centuries, while the Council methodically stripped them of their powers. Now they had become corrupt in their misery, so much so that even the Avocrahn, the fanatic warrior clan sworn to protect the Mor-verridai, were openly rebellious. And they were the key that Keertra hoped to exploit. Although he would lose a great deal in this raid, he believed that if his many surias struck swiftly and cleanly against the Mor-verridai, the Avocrahn would gladly swear loyalty to him at a time when the Kezdai needed a strong leader so desperately.

It was a goal that every day seemed nearer to his grasp. Soon, now, many operatives had to be put in motion. But he couldn't waste time planning for them yet, not until this assault was completed. Irriessa was correct. These aliens might yet have some blades hidden beneath their cloaks.

* * *

As Captain Kaethan Ishida sped his vehicle up to the underground bunkers of the Alabaster Coast Heavy Armor, he was pleased to see that most of his personnel had already arrived. Many of the huge steel doors that led into the bunkers had been lowered, revealing the forward hulls of the Templar Mark XIs that were housed within. The roaring of their gigantic turbines was making the ground vibrate as he stepped out of his vehicle.

Ten nuclear-safe bunkers housed thirty Templars of the Alabaster Coast Heavy Armor, five bunkers on each side of what was called Armor Alley. Twenty-meter wide ramps led down to the three-inch thick steel doors that rose up out of the ground to seal the Templars inside. The doors could be lowered quickly when danger threatened, or just dropped if the base lost power. A large sign at the entrance of Armor Alley presented in large letters the full designation of this unit: Alabaster Coast Heavy Armor, Alabaster Guard, Telville Corps.

Fort Hilliard was home to the Alabaster Guard, which was comprised of several battalions and lesser formations, formed from the population south of Telville. To the east of Telville was Fort Riley and the Chandoine Guard. And to the north was Fort Owen and the Tigris Guard. Most city-states on Delas were organized this way, with all forts kept in competition with each other for honors, and therefore a bigger slice of the defense spending for the next year. It was just the kind of arrangement that you'd expect from a corporate run government, but in fact, Kaethan thought it was quite effective. Not only were the forts always striving for more honors, but a definite sense of regiment was inspired throughout the militias.

Of course, combined exercises were sometimes a problem.

The composition of the Alabaster Guard had not changed since Candlelith purchased the last of their antiquated 150-ton Saladin Medium Tanks four years ago. Their main strike arm now consisted of Kaethan's battalion of Templars, and three brigades of mechanized infantry in armed Haulers. Preceding them into combat were three recon companies driving armed Haulers and four weakly armored grav-cars. Twelve companies of various caliber artillery provided battalion and regimental level support to their formations. And protecting against air infiltration, and providing emergency anti-armor fire, were four TurboFalcon missile batteries and two ion-bolt defense towers that Telsteel Industries donated to the Telville Corps from their private stocks.

Templar One, Kaethan's tank, was in the first bunker, right side, of Armor Alley. The blast door was opened wide, so he didn't bother to enter through the small, security-conscious blockhouse on top. Instead, he just ran down the ramp and into the shelter. His driver, Sergeant Zen Pritchard, was climbing along the outside of the vehicle, checking the outer systems. And with the sudden flash of their spotlight, it was obvious that his gunner, Corporal Andrea Sellars, was on the inside doing her part.

The Metallicast Industries Templar Mark XI was not the latest, or greatest, in the Concordiat arsenal. It was cost effective, and low enough technology to be supportable by local industry. Its three hundred fifty tons of duralloy armor and weapons made it slow and unwieldy, and wasn't allowed on local roads because it would tear apart the pavement. The sixtyfoot long railgun, stretching almost as far behind the tank as in front, threatened to topple the tank over if fired to the side while on the move. Stabilizing legs had to be extended to give them a steady platform for firing the weapon. And its four Rapier missiles were dangerously indiscriminate when they lost their assigned target and began their search program for a replacement.

That said, Kaethan adored the Templar.

As awkward as the railgun was, it lived up to its promise of being able to take a chunk out of any known armor, including the latest endurochrome plate on his father's Bolos. The entire weapons assembly was mounted on hydraulic jacks that could lift the railgun fourteen inches to fire over a rise, and then drop it down again. Its two ion-bolt point defense turrets were excellent in protecting the tank against infantry and missiles. But most of all, feeling the entire hulk rock as the railgun was fired gave Kaethan such an adrenaline rush that he'd never be satisfied with anything less.

"Permission to come onboard, Sergeant!" Kaethan yelled.

Zen grabbed onto the barrel of the forward ion-bolt turret as he turned his head. Although in regulation jungle camouflage trousers, his battalion assigned top was replaced by a white tee shirt with an advertisement for a local pub. Zen was usually better at protocol than this. Whatever the reason was for it, Kaethan really didn't care.

"Almost set, Captain," Zen said. "Are we going to bother rolling out?"

"This isn't a drill, Sergeant!" Kaethan told him as he leapt up to the first footing. "We've just been invaded."

The captain ignored Zen's startled glare and made his way over to his command hatch. Sergeant Pritchard was a very competent soldier when he wasn't suffering from a hangover from the prior night. He was thirty-nine years old, with saltwater-damaged light brown hair. The Guard was a serious commitment to him as supplemental income for his small fiberglass boat business that he was sole proprietor of. He never missed a muster, and had been fully certified in Templar maintenance. But Kaethan was sure that Zen never expected that he'd ever have to fight.

Kaethan's command compartment was cramped and simple. Large, touch sensitive, configurable control panels were in front and on both sides. Small boxes at the bottom of the main display showed a camera image of an empty driver's compartment, and Andrea working hard in the gunner's compartment under the turret.

"Good day, Sir," Andrea said as she noticed his arrival on her own display.

"Bad day, Private," Kaethan corrected. "We've been invaded."

The captain didn't know much about Andrea except that she had a big boyfriend named Steve in the Alabaster 1st Mechanized. That stopped any extraneous socializing, at least any that he'd initiate. She was rather pretty, with short auburn hair and an excessive amount of freckles. At twenty-two, she was attending a local college and probably was in the Guard just for the money. She had been assigned to his battalion last season, starting out very jumpy in the gunner's chair, but by now had become quite proficient. Kaethan had no idea how she'd react with live rounds coming at her.

"What do you mean, `invaded'?" Andrea pestered him.

A command message was waiting for Kaethan as he poked in his password on the virtual keypad that popped up on his right-hand display. On any normal day, this message would say that this had all been a drill and everyone should go home. Today it would be different, no doubt.

But as the command message popped up, the captain was stunned to see just two words, "Stand By." Kaethan wasn't surprised that Colonel Neils was keeping the soldiers in the dark, but he was expecting something to be told the battalion commanders.

With a poke of a virtual button, Kaethan hailed his commander, requesting direct communications. He was surprised when it was almost immediately accepted by the colonel himself. After muting his cabin speakers, he activated the channel.

"Just stand by, Captain." Colonel Neils was ready with his orders. "Remain at full alert until further notice."

"Colonel!" Kaethan stopped him before he had the chance to close the channel. "We should move out as quickly as possible! We have to hit them before they dig in!"

Kaethan hadn't given much thought to his father's advice, but it sounded reasonable enough. Getting a Guard unit to aggressively initiate contact with an enemy outside of their territory, though, would be difficult.

The colonel's expression of determination was replaced by one of interest.

"You've obviously been better briefed than I was, Captain. General Calders is currently in conference and hasn't had time to tell us much, other than a hostile warship just set down somewhere on the planet."

General Calders was commander of Telville Corps, assigned by the mayor of Telville five years ago from the Chandoine Guard. Kaethan didn't know much about him.

"An alien transport has landed between here and Reims. We should roll out and hit them as quickly as possible before they can get organized."

Kaethan could see Neils process this information and consider it. Satisfied that he had gotten his point across, the captain just waited.

But then the colonel shook his head.

"Just stand by, Captain," he said. "Stay in your bunkers."

Neils closed the channel without waiting for a reply. With a growl, Kaethan did what he was told. The DDF colonel was a good man, with smart strategic sense. Kaethan was sure that he'd push for an immediate attack with General Calders, but obviously didn't want to commit the entire Alabaster Guard into going in alone.

It would have been far better if this transport had come down directly into Reims, or Telville for that matter. No one, then, would have hesitated in sending their formations to their rescue. Instead, by landing between several cities, it would now be up to a committee to decide who would go in, and in what force. General Rokoyan was nominally in charge, for now, but it would still take a committee vote to make it official. It took a while for confederacies to get organized, Kaethan grumbled. Until then they'd follow the same motto the military had followed for centuries, "Hurry up and wait."

* * *

Target deviating . . . correcting for parabolic course adjustment . . . 

Far to the north, Blackstone is firing its Hellbore, but it is far too busy defending itself to help Unit DBQ and myself with the spearhead of four alien frigates that are making their high-speed run over the planet. A swarm of missiles is cascading down on the turret's position, and their defenses will be sorely tried. The crackle of high frequency radio static that I am recording is sure indication that the ion-bolt defense towers surrounding the turret are in frantic operation. 

Beginning initialization of all active arrays . . . increasing speed to one hundred fifty kilometers per hour . . . 

The wide expanse of flat savannah is allowing us to attain great speed while still maintaining a stable weapons platform. There is no indication as of yet that the frigates have detected us. The thunderheads that rage above us will cover us until we go active. 

The transports that are closing in on the planet are no longer a concern. Those that are above us will be dealt with simply enough when the frigates have been eliminated. As for the ships entering the atmosphere on the blind side of the planet, the largest ten transports have all now been acquired by the Isis missiles that we fired several minutes ago. As of yet, no point defense fire is being recorded. 

Frigates have now entered range! The 39th lights up the skies in a blinding shower of high-energy radiation! The lead warship is spotlighted in brilliant acquisition, and my Hellbore aligns to perfect azimuth within 2.10498 seconds! 

Target locked . . . chambers critical . . . FIRE! 

The entire thunderhead above us ionizes as my Hellbore rips through its center. An explosion of lightning erupts between it and the storm clouds around it, as if some terrible god had awakened inside in a rage. Up into orbit, I see my lance rake a deep, burning wound down the belly of my target. Just a fraction of a second later, another stream of fire slashes savagely through its drive section as Quarter finishes off their lead ship in a blinding explosion of its fusion core. 

I turn hard to port and briefly take to the air as the savannah surface rises below me. Radioactive fires incinerate an acre of grassland behind me as the remaining warship's automated defenses attempt to strike back. Kilometers to the northwest, Quarter is also briefly lighted by the bright red beams of our opponent's nuclear cannons driving into the earth like a flaming spear. 

But they are striking where we have been, not where we are. 

My speed now approaches two hundred kilometers per hour as the 39th acquires our next targets. A distant pain begins to grow in my self-awareness network as my drive-train slowly overheats. Soon I will have to reduce speed. An onslaught of echoes suddenly assaults our active arrays, but this is a feeble attempt to jam our advanced electronics. The echoes are easily filtered, and once again their frigates glow brilliantly in our sights! 

We fire again! This time we have acquired separate targets, hoping we can finish them off before they redirect their weapons to the Blackstone turret. All are within its range, and we fear that the turret's battlescreens will not stand up to the surprising power of the alien's cannons. 

My Hellbore strikes true, blasting clean through the center of my target. This frigate was not as well armored as the last, and I expect it is dead, though I will finish it off shortly. Quarter's fire, however, once again strikes through the drive chamber of his target, and the frigate explodes in a flash of particles and debris. I am impressed at my compatriot's effective fire, and I send him a message of respect through brigade channels. 

The final remaining frigate returns fire, with two nuclear cannons blasting large craters in the Delassian soil far to my rear. His silhouette changes as I detect his change in course. He seeks to escape. I acquire him in my sights, but I am suddenly distracted. What I have now noticed is the high-speed passage of intense gravitic signatures into the atmosphere above Blackstone. They are objects so dense that their effects on the continuum are still noticeable even though they are far within the planet's gravity well. 

Even as I fire at the last remaining frigate, I am refocusing my arrays upon the targets descending on Blackstone. The objects are thin and long, about thirty meters from nose to tail, but I am having great difficulty locking them into my fire control. They have no energy or emissions to focus my sensors onto. My arrays detect them only as a whisper, leading me to believe that they are encased in an energy absorbent jacket of ceramics. And if I was having such difficulty locking onto them from their side, it was likely that Blackstone couldn't see them at all from head-on! 

Not waiting for kill confirmation on the frigate, I slew my turret to the north and fire my Hellbore into the midst of the signatures, just before they fall below the horizon. Without a lock, I am doubtful that I actually hit any of these objects, but that wasn't my purpose. I fired as a warning to Blackstone of their presence, and I am comforted at a sudden flurry of fire that I detect lancing up into the sky. 

Unit DBQ fires again, and then one more time, to finish off the armored hulks that were floating lifeless in orbit. This while I remain vigilant, watching the skies. I could detect no more such signatures descending, but I fear that there is no reason for more. 

Blackstone turret is silent. 

The command center is still communicating, but a massive magnetic pulse, centered at Blackstone, is near sure sign of a Hellbore misfire. 

The oncoming transports surprisingly continue their track, honorably executing their orders without hope of survival. Unit DBQ and myself will make short work of each as they come within range. We can expect no help from Blackstone, though. They had effectively fended off all the high-tech missiles and the shaped atomic warheads that were sent at them, but in the end failed against a simple flight of spears. 

Our Isis missiles have successfully intercepted ten transports attempting insertion on the far side of the planet, though four others will make it through. Our Commander hopes our opponents will now believe that missile batteries are scattered over the entire surface of Delas, defending it from all approach. 

In fact, only the Hellbores of the 39th remain. 

* * *

The briefing from his advisors had been a dismal affair, Keertra pondered. It had been a disaster, they had moaned. The loss of life had been . . . well . . . significant. The loss of the frigates Taitta and Kiosia, in addition to Riffen's ships, was heartbreaking.

Perhaps his advisors were serious, but Keertra hoped that they had been putting on as convincing a performance before Irriessa as he had been. Most of the troops lost in the debacle were Ad-akradai Riffen's. The transports were expendable. And their two frigates were ancient and had already been stripped of almost all of their valuable systems and most of their shielding. Riffen had lost far more in his two frigates, which seemed to hold up to the alien's firepower little better than his own vessel.

The amount of information that was gained, however, was enormous.

The point defense capabilities of these aliens was very impressive. None of the missiles fired against the northern orbital defense battery penetrated their screen of energy weapons. Only Keertra's depleted uranium spears, launched by his command ship, survived the fusillade of fire rising to protect their turret. These simple weapons that Keertra often employed were launched against the suspected underground complex beneath the turret, but were actually what finally silenced the turret itself. Keertra, by accident, had found an effective weapon against these aliens. Unfortunately, missiles were the barrage weapons of choice among the Kezdai, and it seemed likely that the invasion forces would have to retool before they set off. This would delay them, perhaps even several years, but a warrior must attack their enemies' weakness, not their strength. And point defense was obviously one of their strengths. At least, Keertra mused, the Kezdai had finally found a use for their long-spent and useless uranium caches.

The power of the alien's energy weapons was indeed terrifying. Still, fixed emplacements would not be a problem. As protected as a ground battery might be, overwhelming it was just a matter of scale and manner. Against fixed fortifications, the attacker will always have the advantage, for it was he who chose how the battle would be fought.

Two of the alien's three ground batteries, however, were mobile. The very concept stunned Keertra when the combat logs of the Taitta and Kiosia were analyzed. Without doubt, the counterbattery computers onboard the frigates detected a considerable transverse motion of the ground batteries, even as they were firing upon them. Unfortunately, the frigates' computers had little capability to account for this motion, and their return fire was wide of their mark. Adaptations would be made to their fire control, he was promised, but Keertra was dubious. No one in his Council could imagine what kind of machine could accurately wield so much firepower, and still travel so quickly over the ground. Neither did he have any remaining expendable warships to find out more about them. These mobile batteries were an unknown, and Keertra feared that they would remain so.

But they could be avoided, the Is-kaldai was sure. Only missiles rose up to fend off his transports over the oceans of this world. And there were only a few. Several transports had made planetfall unscathed, and even now were seeking land to deploy their troops. Unless these troublesome mobile batteries could fly, the majority of this planet was protected from orbit only by missiles. And missiles could be intercepted.

This phase of their operation was over. It was now time for the final phase to begin.

Keertra entered his command chambers in a rush, his crimson robe flowing behind him. A narrow beam transmission to the planet had been prepared, and Ad-akradai Khorris was told to stand by for orders. It was time for the ground war to commence.

Khorris was his most able commander, just as Irriessa was that for Riffen. He was also Keertra's younger brother, forcing Riffen to risk only his greatest Ad-akradai for the cause. In truth, however, Khorris was expendable. Although his brother was indeed a master tactician, that wasn't what Keertra needed in the fight to come. What he needed were ruthless commanders, willing to follow Keertra's every command without question or consideration. Khorris would never betray him or his plans, but Keertra could not trust him to wield his blade against many whom he had foolishly befriended.

If Khorris survived his mission, Keertra would be pleased. But if he did not, it would be no great loss. The public mourning for his sacrifice Keertra would demand would last for years. But Keertra would be little inconvenienced, himself.

"Khorris, my brother, how goes things?"

His brother looked uneasy as his projected image stood before Keertra on the wall. Behind him, the nearly emptied cargo hold of his transport was still swarming with troops and workers, offloading supplies. From the view outside the ship, it could be seen that it was night there.

"Our forces are deployed, Is-kaldai, without finding much resistance. A few farming settlements are scattered through the terrain, with few armaments to protect them. We retrieved several of these aliens for later study, provided we escape the planet. We are preparing a preliminary biologic analysis, now."

"Excellent, Khorris. Do ground forces advance against you, yet?"

"We launch surveillance drones at sporadic intervals, but they are destroyed as quickly as they approach the cities, just as our perimeter destroys theirs. A brief image taken by our last drone shows forces massing along the roadway to the west. To the east, forces around their starport appear to be just digging in. No other city is a threat to us yet on the roadway that we have set down near."

"Good! Then you are free to throw your entire strength against the forces to the west."

"That is what I plan, Is-kaldai. Once they are destroyed, I can then test the fortifications to the east."

"Learn all you can, Khorris, even if it means losing your battles. We must learn how they fight in the field, and how they defend their positions."

"I understand." Khorris bowed his head slightly.

"How are Riffen's troops cooperating?"

"All is well, Is-kaldai. They follow my orders."

"The transports that survived insertion are attempting to reinforce you, but that will be all you can expect. Our mission now relies entirely on you."

"It is enough, Is-kaldai."

Suddenly the cargo hold lights dimmed behind Khorris, and a warning klaxon sounded. Bright flashes of light lit up the thick foliage outside the wide-open doors of the transport as point defense dischargers opened fire into the sky.

"We are under attack," Khorris announced. "We have to break contact!"

His brother didn't wait for an answer before closing the channel. This was a punishable offense, but Keertra was willing to overlook it, considering the circumstances.

A narrow beam transmission was supposedly undetectable by any known technology. The Is-kaldai preferred not to believe that the aliens had triangulated Khorris' position from that. He hoped, instead, that their position was determined by other surveillance, and the timing of the attack had been coincidental.

Perhaps, though, that should be tested, Keertra considered.

* * *

The Alabaster Guard had moved out.

But it had not gone far. It had taken them hours to fight through the civilian traffic to get to the east-west highway to Reims, and once they were there, they were told to wait again. A light rain fell from the night sky as Kaethan was escorted to a local inn. Rather set up camp, Colonel Neils just decided to move into its lobby. The inn had provided several makeshift tables, and it was strange to see everyone sitting in bright red, plush chairs around them. A large, flat screen display was standing on its tall tripod behind the colonel, blank for now.

Kaethan was stunned to see that one of the many uniforms in the lobby was Concordiat desert gray. His father was here.

Also a surprise was the familiar face of Walter Rice approaching him with a big smile plastered upon it. In his left hand Walter held a glass of local wine, while in the other he held a packet of important looking papers. Why he was here was quite beyond Kaethan.

"Hey," Walter called cheerfully, "looks like I've been attached to you."

It took a few moments for Kaethan to understand what this meant. The realization compounded his confusion.

"You're taking your toy into the field with us?"

"Corporal Bicks will be driving, of course. It's the next logical step." Walter confirmed. Then in a hushed tone, "And it's officially called a Sentinel, now. Prototype, of course. I'd appreciate it if you don't call it a toy."

"Aren't they risking a lot by throwing you out into the field?"

"Me? Personally? No. The system works now, I just have to fine-tune it. No better place than real combat, eh?"

Kaethan couldn't tell if Walter really was this cheerful about it, or whether it was just an act. He suspected, though, that it was real, and it annoyed the hell out of him.

"I saw that your father was here," Walter said, nodding to him. "You didn't tell me before that he brought two Bolo Mark Thirties to the planet."

"Units DBC and DBQ," Kaethan informed him. "Chains and Quarter."

"I'd love to take a look at one."

"I might visit after all this. I'll try to bring you along."

" `C' is for Chains, and `Q' is for Quarter . . . what does `DB' stand for?"

"You don't want to know."

Outside, another command vehicle skidded to a stop and a group of officers jumped out and headed for the door.

"Why `Quarter'? As in, he gives none?"

"Something like that."

No more could be said about it however, because the last collection of majors and captains just entered the room, dripping wet. With their arrival, everyone started taking places. His father had been talking directly with Colonel Neils, but now searched for and found Kaethan as Neils attended to his presentation display. Toman gave up his red plush seat to stand with his son and Walter around the perimeter of chairs.

"How are things going?" Toman asked as everyone was quieting.

"No problems so far," Kaethan only said.

The flicker of the colonel's display was the signal for everyone to quiet down, and no more words were said. This was promised to be a short briefing, only detailing the operation that was being planned, nothing more. The notice that was sent to the battalion commanders mentioned the temporary loss of the Blackstone turret, and the downing of most of the attacking fleet, but offered few details. Kaethan hoped he would have time to talk to his father after the briefing to find out more.

"Good evening, gentlemen," Colonel Neils began. "This meeting will be brief, after which we will be moving out. The Chandoine Guard headed out an hour ago, and we have to get on their tails. Their lead elements have already passed the Tigris River Bridge and are deploying there. We will then be leap-frogging ahead of them."

The flat-screen display was now shining with a full color map of south Deladin being presented to everyone. The east-west highway was highlighted prominently.

"The enemy transport that slipped through our guard this morning set down somewhere in the area highlighted in blue."

A light blue oval appeared then, highlighting a large area of rocky terrain about midway between Telville and Reims in the center of southern Deladin.

"Travelers on the highway reported seeing the transport set down south of the road, but we have conflicting accounts of exactly where. About thirty minutes ago, a narrow beam, subspace transmission was detected by the starports at Reims and Starveil. Their triangulation information was forwarded to the Chandoine Guard who then bombarded the position with their heavy rocket batteries. There is no way to tell whether this was the transport, or what the effect of our attack was, but this position has now become the primary objective of Telville Corps."

A bright white triangle appeared on the screen, near center of the blue oval.

"Alien infantry have been reported attacking several plantations along the Witch River. One plantation owner who escaped in his grav-car reported alien infantry in full suits of body armor that were impervious to the shotguns that they use to fend off seyzarrs. Their infantry are using needle rifles and are being transported by wheeled armored vehicles, with larger needle rifles mounted on turrets. Also, escorting these vehicles are other wheeled vehicles that we were told discharge lightning bolts at their targets. These could be electron guns or perhaps ion cannons. So far, this man's emergency call is the only information that we have received concerning the makeup of the ground forces that we will be facing."

As Colonel Neils was talking, the map highlighted the Witch River, and then the plantations that were hit. Also highlighted now was a system of back roads the led up into the mountains of southern Deladin and several small mining communities there. It would be difficult to use them for flanking operations, however, since they went so deeply into the mountains before connecting.

But then the colonel turned the display off. Neils always finished his briefings by turning off the display and giving a motivational speech while he had everyone's attention.

"This transport was sent in before all others, trusted to hold a beachhead for their invasion to set down within. We believe that these are elite troops with their best weaponry. They are also on the defensive in rough terrain, fully deployed and raiding the surrounding territory at will."

So far, Kaethan thought, this wasn't very motivational. Neils usually had a good finish, however.

"On the other hand, our enemy is heavily outnumbered, and in a territory that they are not accustomed to. We must use these advantages as best we can. This beachhead must be eliminated as quickly as possible, for our command believes that their last attack was only a test of our defenses. Their next attack will be in force. This pocket must be cleared by then so that we can be free to react to their invasion."

Kaethan suddenly had the idea that the Telville Corps was being asked to charge their positions in a direct assault. Certainly their leaders realized that this was exactly what the aliens would be expecting, and would be best prepared for . . .

"Any questions?" Colonel Neils opened the floor.

"What will Tigris Guard be doing?" asked Major Thurman of 1st Mechanized.

"They will be supporting us, of course, though farther back. Depending on how we manage, they will either reinforce us, or be held back in protection of Telville along with the Chandoine Guard. Any other questions?"

Colonel Neils was making it plain that he was not encouraging questions, only suffering them. If anyone had any, they'd better be good.

"Will Reims be sending any forces from the other side?" asked Captain Held of 3rd Recon.

"Negative. We can't lose the starport, gentlemen. Any other questions?"

No one said anything, though everyone may have just felt so blindsided by that last news that they couldn't speak. Colonel Neils wrapped things up quickly.

"Then head back to your units gentlemen. Detailed marching orders are waiting for you there. Dismissed! Captain Ishida?"

Kaethan was just about to start questioning his father when Colonel Neils called him over. He felt rather embarrassed as both his father and Walter tagged along behind him as he worked his way over to Neils. Everyone else was clearing out of the lobby quickly, and Kaethan had to thread his way through the rapidly exiting bodies.

"Yes, Colonel?" Kaethan asked when he got to him.

"You'll have all three recon companies ahead of you Captain, but I want my heaviest strikers as lead battalion. That means you, Captain."

"Yes, Colonel. Any specific orders?"

"Just get us there quick, Captain, and don't wait for anyone to tell you where to go or what to do."

"Yes, sir."

The two exchanged brief salutes and Neils left in a rush. As Kaethan turned around, he found that Walter and his father had already exchanged introductions, and were talking about Chains and Quarter.

"No," his father was saying, "without his turret, Rokoyan wants my Bolos held back for planetary defense."

"I thought that local governments couldn't order Concordiat units around once shots were fired," Walter replied.

"They can't, but this is a judgment call. Rokoyan has reason to be worried. A second wave could hit us any moment, and he believes that your forces can handle the beachhead alone."

"Father," Kaethan interrupted, recalling his mother's long diatribes on Delassian politics, "what Rokoyan wants is to prove that we can handle the defense of our planet ourselves, and therefore there is no reason to put a Concordiat military base here."

The conversation ended then, as they both considered what he said. Walter then nodded, reluctantly agreeing. Delas hated government interference, and with a Concordiat base on the planet, there would be plenty to go around.

His father grimaced and shook his head.

"That fits," Colonel Ishida agreed. "Well, if you guys start having trouble, I'll be able to see it and call one of them in."

"You're coming to the front?" Kaethan asked defensively.

"Yes, Neils gave me permission to tag along with your unit. Do you mind?"

A wave of nausea swept through Kaethan's entire body. The thought of his father watching over him during a fight was horrifying! The man had more combat experience than the combined population of Delas! Every maneuver that Kaethan executed, every order he gave, would be graded and judged according to impossible standards! All his mistakes would be instantly noticed and thrown back into his face as his father corrected him. God forbid anyone would die under his command, for he'd only have to look to his father to find out who was to blame. And, without doubt, his father would see every mistake that Kaethan made as a reflection upon himself.

"Of course not, Colonel," he said.

* * *

Our missile supplies are nearly exhausted. Only two missiles remain in my vertical launch tubes, from my original storehouse of twenty. Unit DBQ has none left. All have been expended against the transports that successfully made planetfall and now approach the east and west coasts of Deladin. My remaining conventional warheads were not designed for use against such large targets, and we fear that our attacks may have been insufficient to stop them. The 39th's MFOR-XXX-II (Melconian Front Optimization Refit for Bolo Mark XXXs, Version Two) gave each of us five Isis orbital denial thermonuclear missiles, but only fifteen Icehawk anti-armor missiles, designed more for penetration than for expansive damage. 

The Delassian defense net has limited capability to track targets below the horizon, and these aliens approach slowly at wave-top level. They are communications silent and emit no active sensor sweeps. Our most effective method of acquiring these targets has been detecting the radiation that they are emitting from their fusion thrusters. This, unfortunately, is inexact, and our missiles must search for their thermal signature once they arrive in the area. 

My last two missiles, however, have been saved for one last contact whose passage through the ocean net has been like a ghost. It approaches much slower than the others, and likely has radiation shielding protecting its exhaust. It threads its way between the Delassian detectors as if it were provided a map, though I calculate that likelihood as being infinitesimal. Instead, I must attribute its opportune zigzag approach to nothing more than luck. Even now, as it finally approaches the southern Delassian coast, far off detectors can only approximate its position as north of Telville and south of Candelith. 

Once this transport reaches land, we risk it deploying its forces. But firing my missiles at such an elusive target may waste the last of our extreme range ordnance. My stage-one heuristic dilemma switches have tripped, but it is unnecessary that I invoke my stage two circuitry. 

I call my Commander . . . 

* * *

The Kezdai assault dropship never detected the approaching missile. Its particle beam defenses remained utterly still, useless without direction from the ship's impressive sensor arrays, which were off. Its crew saw only the blackness of the south Deladin shoreline, looming larger and larger on their forward view screen. The light from their fusion drive, up until now reflecting off nothing but the waves only meters below, now was beginning to cast a bluish glow over the white sand beach that they were approaching. Is-kaldai Riffen's elite forces had been flying manually over the ocean, and planned on remaining on manual navigation for their flight over land. There were just too many active sensors sweeping the skies between them and Adakradai Khoriss' landing area to risk plotting anything beforehand.

Their plans, however, had to be rewritten.

Coming down on the dropship from above, the Icehawk missile locked in on their forward left thruster and ignited its powerful magnetic dynamo. At the split moment of impact, the warhead was fed a stream of antimatter particles that annihilated instantly. Molten shards of crystalline carbon exploded high into the air in a sparkling cloud as an impossibly narrow beam of focused plasma drilled deep into the Triamond lattice hull. Drive shielding was sliced clean through, causing an explosion that blasted the thruster clean off its housing.

The sudden explosion could be seen thirty kilometers up and down the coast, but even that wasn't enough for anyone to notice it. The peninsula that the dropship had to crash upon was over twenty kilometers from the nearest human dwellings, with no roads leading to it. No one was around to see that the dropship remained intact after smashing a two-hundred-meter long swathe through the dense rainforest, or that soldiers and equipment descended unhurt from the burning hulk.

No one, including the Kezdai, noticed the large black fin that cut through the waves just offshore.

* * *

As the first light of dawn glowed deep blue in the eastern sky, Captain Kaethan Ishida and the Alabaster Coast Heavy Armor was still point battalion in Telville Corps' drive inland. While his ten Templars of Alpha team were running up the eastern lane of the highway, his Bravo team was paralleling him on the western lane. Charlie team followed behind. Somewhere around the fifth hour, it had become obvious to the captain that their "leap" ahead of the Chandoine Guard had become a permanent condition. There would be no deployment to allow the Tigris Guard to jump ahead of them. Someone upstairs wanted contact to be made as soon as possible, and his unit was just lucky enough to be out front when that decision was made.

Kaethan was driving Templar One as Sergeant Pritchard slept. Andrea kept watch from her turret position. When Zen awoke in an hour, they all would have had four hours sleep during the night as they traded duties. The nights on Delas were fifteen hours and about thirty minutes, with little variation from the planet's almost perfectly vertical axis. At nearly fifty kilometers per hour, Kaethan's column had traveled six hundred kilometers inland in the last twelve hours. The tall mountains of south Deladin were looming high into the clouds far to the south. The rain forest that they drove through was giving way to the limestone foothills that dominated the approaches to the granite peaks.

Contact was expected soon, but the three recon companies ahead of them had still not reported anything. Everyone was on radio silence except for them, and they were to break it only in an emergency. Even the running lights on the Templars were off, forcing Kaethan to use his thermal and low-light scopes to keep in line.

So when their radio did crackle with traffic, Kaethan was all ears.

"This is Recon Bravo Two. Contact at my position."

A red circle popped up on Kaethan's navigation map that was scrolling on the display before him as he drove. It was about eight kilometers ahead of him, directly on the highway. He did not recognize the voice, but whoever it was, he was exceedingly calm. Obviously Bravo Two had driven into an ambush site, but the aliens were hoping for something tastier to feed on than just a recon unit.

Kaethan didn't wait for confirmation, however. By hitting a virtual button on his left panel, he put his entire battalion on alert. And with a yell, he woke up Zen. As acknowledgements were sent back to him from his Templar commanders, lighting up his left-hand display with bright icons for each tank, he continued to listen to command channels.

"Are you sure, Bravo?" said a quiet female voice over the radio. "You're two kilometers behind us."

The female voice was that of Recon Alpha commander, Captain Beth Nichols.

"Forget your thermals. Use your low-light." Bravo Two replied. "They must have cooled armor . . ."

Standard procedure in this situation was for the Recon unit to keep advancing, but much slower. It was now the column's job to catch up quickly and extract it. A glance at his left-hand display showed the alert acknowledgements coming back quickly.

As a flurry of artillery plots lit up along the treeline ahead of him on his navigation map, Kaethan turned his transmitter to his battalion channel.

"Wake up boys and girls!" he called. "Our recon companies have just walked into a passive ambush seven klicks ahead. It's our job to go in and hold the jaws open while recon gets the hell out. Teams acknowledge!"

"Aye," called Lieutenant Peter Birch of his Bravo team.

"Aye," called Lieutenant Ellen Holowitz of his Charlie team.

"Nobody is to fire until the action starts! Once it begins, Alpha and Bravo are to stop and plant where they are! Charlie will come up and deploy across our front. Got that?"

"Aye." They replied.

Kaethan suddenly closed his eyes and groaned as he remembered the Walter and his father tagging along in the prototype Sentinel.

"Bicks, are you there?"

"Yes, Captain!"

"You take Walter's toy into the depression in the middle of our box and stay there!"

"Yes, sir!"

The highway was taking a gradual turn as he talked, and a long, flat straightaway was ahead of them. Dense groves of trees lined both sides, with a sharp rise at the far end, and many rocky knolls and outcroppings to hide any enemy armor. It was the perfect place for an ambush, with nowhere for them to hide once the firing started.

Of course, the Templar Mark XI was never meant to hide.

* * *

Ad-akradai Khorris watched as the rising light of the alien sun turned the eastern sky lavender and pink. It had been raining, off and on, since he had landed upon this world, and this was the first time the skies were mostly clear. In his exhilaration, he had succumbed to his terrible urge to remove his helmet and breathe in the unfiltered air of this world. It was dangerous, yes, but there was danger everywhere here. Such a swamp-ridden world as this was the breeding ground of countless bacteria and germs, and the Kezdai immune system was weak from evolving on a desert world that was so devoid of them.

The hot, moist air, though, was less than refreshing.

The aliens on this world traveled without protection, he had noticed. They called themselves "Humans." A wounded male farm worker had been captured and interrogated as best they could before he died. Very little else was learned from him, but then little was expected. He was only a farmer, what must be their lowest caste, as it was with the Kezdai.

To the west, explosions and antiartillery discharges could be heard as his forces engaged the Humans along the narrow stretch of highway that cut through the rainforest and impassable rocky terrain of the area. All of his armor remained dug in along the highway perimeter, unable to travel over ground because their tires would sink to their floor into the muddy ground. Maneuver was impossible in this country, and if he were on the offensive, he'd be going mad in frustration right now. But he wasn't. His forces were on the defense, and the Humans could reach him with only a fraction of their forces at a time.

From his vantage point on top of a rocky outcropping, he could see a portion of the highway to the northwest. Many vehicles were scattered over the ground in various stages of destruction. Some were burning, sending faint columns of smoke into the air. Most were not, however, having little inside that caught fire. Most of the vehicles were Human, but several were Kezdai.

His carefully laid ambush turned into a disappointing standoff as the Humans detected their positions before the trap was sprung. Seeing the enemy recon units falling back, many of his commanders attacked anyway, leading to an open field firefight. The armor plating protecting the Humans' troop carriers was so laughably thin that even the Kezdai's infantry needle rifles could riddle the vehicle with holes. But their large, tracked vehicles with the huge railguns were a different story.

While the Human troop carriers attempted to flee or were abandoned, their heavy armor held ground, blasting their missiles with twin turrets firing crackling bolts of energy, and protecting their skies overhead with a laser battery kept safe in their center. Their massive railguns traversed the battlefield at an astounding speed for their size, punching huge holes in any Kezdai armor that attempted to rush them. With concentrated, direct missile fire from his infantry, several of these tanks on their flanks had finally been knocked out. The remaining pocket, however, used the dead hulks as cover, becoming even harder to break.

And there the Humans stood ground while their infantry deployed in the forests on their flanks. The infantry firefights within the trees were quick and bloody, with neither side's bodyarmor effective against the Kezdai needle rifles or the Humans' bulky and powerful gauss rifles. The Kezdai soldiers, however, were sorely outnumbered.

Below his precipice, a command vehicle approached up the gravel road that wound through the trees. It stopped behind Khorris' own vehicle and Akradai Zaekiss stepped out. Having seen all that he could see from this outcropping, Khorris decided to climb down to meet his infantry commander instead of forcing him to climb up. Ever since the first bombardment that targeted their transport, he had ordered that all reports were to be given to him in person. Their communications equipment was only used in emergencies.

"So what have you learned, Zaekiss?" Khorris' sarcasm was as thick as the mud that covered this planet.

Zaekiss appreciated the sarcasm, but didn't show it. He removed his helmet as Khorris leapt the last twenty feet to the ground before reporting to him in his vibrant, somber voice, unusual for a Kezdai. A huge scar across his throat marked the old surias wound that had so altered his voice.

"Our soldiers are being forced to retreat, Ad-akradai. These Humans are patient, always waiting for their artillery to wreak their havoc before advancing a minimal distance. It is slow progress, but our dischargers are constantly being overwhelmed by the shells."

Khorris' hood drooped noticeably. His plan to decimate their lead elements, and overrun their rear, was in tatters. He had lost his element of surprise, but had been still hoping that the Humans would again attempt to rush his lines. This latest news, however, crushed that hope. Personally, Khorris disliked artillery, and had decided not to waste room on his transport carrying them. These Humans, though, continued to use it well ever since their first bombardment hit just when his infantry were about to open fire on their lead heavy armor.

"How do they fight, Zaekiss? What do your soldiers tell you?"

The Akradai hesitated as he tried to understand exactly what his leader was asking. Khoriss saw the confusion.

"The Humans, Zaekiss," Khoriss tried to explain, "what kind of soldiers are they?"

Zaekiss' hood expanded as he understood the question, though he still had to reprocess all that his troops had reported and commented upon.

"They are well trained and armed, Ad-akradai," Zaekiss finally concluded, "but they are inexperienced and soft. The Humans are much more fragile than Kezdai. Many cry out and are incapacitated with just one needle wound, calling to their comrades and healers who then foolishly expose themselves to fire. Some panic easily, while others show great courage. When we first fired on them, they all showed great confusion, but given a chance to regroup, they now advance with great precision and planning."

Zaekiss stopped as he tried to think of more to say, but Khoriss was pleased with what he was told and held up his hand. He did not need more.

"We must force them to rush us, then," Khoriss announced. "Once they have taken substantial casualties, they will fall into chaos and we can break them."

"Likely, Ad-akradai. But there is no reason for them to rush us. Time is on their side, not ours."

"You are right, but there are other ways of forcing their hand. We must retreat past the large river and force them to cross under fire."

"But Ad-akradai, we would then surrender our transport to them!"

"It is useless to us, anyway. We will wait long enough for the remaining supplies to be off-loaded, and then our nuclear cannons can be repositioned and converted for ground combat."

"Against their railgun carriers? It seems a waste . . ."

"Have you seen a better target?"

"No, Khoriss, but if a Human warship were to suddenly appear . . ."

"Then we will die a couple days sooner, that is all, Zaekiss."

"Yes, Ad-akradai." Zaekiss sounded less than enthusiastic.

"Fight as well as you can for now, Zaekiss. Grind them down. Have them trade many lives for the ground you give them."

"I will."

"You will be signaled when you should retreat your forces past the bridge. Now return to your soldiers."

"Immediately, Ad-akradai Khorris."

It had been so very long since the Kezdai had fought worldwide campaigns, Khorris reflected as he watched Zaekiss depart. As war-prone as the Kezdai were, rarely would their battles involve more than just two or three factions. Little strategy or planning was needed, just tactics. With all their technological advances, with all their missiles and long range artillery, it seemed so strange that they would still care so much about river boundaries and defilade slopes. But until all armor, friend and foe alike, could fly above the trees and terrain in anti-gravity bubbles, these obstacles would continue to dominate tactical planning.

His brother would be pleased, though. Khorris was learning much about these Humans, and he would be reporting back to Keertra soon. He worried now, however, that the Humans were learning something also. They were learning how to fight. If the remaining Is-kaldai truly decided to gather all their forces in a mass assault, they would still find well trained and armed soldiers on this world. But once Khorris was done with them, they'd certainly no longer be inexperienced and soft.

* * *

Kuro's emergency message had startled Serina awake out of a troubled sleep. The loud beeping had sounded just before sunrise, and at first she couldn't figure out what it meant. Rarely had Kuro ever used her ability to send phone messages before, and never in a real emergency. Adding to her confusion, she read the note before noticing who sent it. "Large spaceship landed at Peter's beach," it read.

At first she thought the message had come from her father or brother, considering its content. But once she noticed that Kuro had sent it, she immediately understood her to be referring to the sand beach that her coworker Peter often camped out on.

Realizing the importance of Kuro's message, Serina set forth to call someone in the military. Fearing that she might be asked for specifics on just how she found out about the landing, she decided to just call the main desk at Fort Hilliard, where they knew her. Unfortunately she didn't know the woman who answered, and when asked who actually saw the ship, Serina just answered that it was an employee of hers working at the research center. Luckily that was enough, and Serina was promised that action would be taken.

Once the call was complete, Serina decided to drive out to the research center herself. She knew that she wouldn't be able to get to sleep again that night, and she was worried about Kuro. There was no way for Serina to send back messages to Kuro from home, and Kuro had to be worried that her message would get through. Also, Kuro might have some details that could be useful to someone.

She wouldn't stay long, however. The research center was too close to Peter's beach for her comfort, though twenty kilometers of impassable rain forest was between them. She'd just drop in for a few minutes, she told herself, before heading home again.

* * *

The alien lay dead at the edge of the battered forest, amongst shattered trees and charred branches. The battle armor that the creature was wearing was blasted open by the ion-bolt turrets from the giant Templars that lined the road above. Darkened blood stained the soldier's breastplate and soaked the soldier's crimson sash tied to his waist. Colonel Ishida looked over the corpse for several minutes before attempting to remove the helmet and get a good look at the face and head.

Colonel Ishida had been in many battles before, but never had he felt as exposed as he did this morning. He had always thought that being at ground zero of a massed Melconian offensive was the worst situation that a commander could possibly face, but he'd always faced it with a regiment of Bolo Mark XXXs at his back. He wasn't used to friendly artillery arriving late or off target. He wasn't used to being surrounded by the enemy with no ability to maneuver out. He wasn't used to commanders screaming over the Corps channels, arguing over who was going to support who, where, and when. And he definitely wasn't used to having hypersonic needles punching through one side of his vehicle and out the other, barely missing him.

And Walter Rice's endless commentary on the performance of his laser didn't help. Throughout the entire fight, Rice was recalibrating his crystal, altering its spin to cover different arcs at different speeds. Walter was also prone to sudden outbursts, constantly making the colonel believe that they were about to be hit.

His son's thirty Templars were in the thick of the fight for six hours before Tigris Guard was finally ordered to take over the offensive. All along the front, Alabaster Guard units held ground while Tigris Guard units jumped past them. This occurred while the aliens changed tactics, now using hit-and-run assaults with concentrations of their infantry, and plasma pistols instead of their needle rifles to blast the soldiers out of their positions. In some places, the human lines were thrown back with great losses, but in others they advanced unimpeded. Sensors showed that the aliens were withdrawing all of their armor to the rear, but the Templars of the Tigris guard refused to give chase without infantry effectively covering their flanks.

Progress would be slow in this battle.

It was late morning now, and the sky was surprisingly clear for this time of year. Distant explosions created a rumbling sound in the area that never let up. The Delassian forces had large supplies of shells, and Colonel Ishida was suspecting that they'd be using all of them.

"Hold on a minute." Walter Rice said from close behind him.

Kaethan had approached along with Walter, who was now wearing his official Alabaster Coast sunglasses, given to him by Sergeant Pritchard just a few minutes earlier. He was an honorary member of the unit, Zen told him, now that he had fought along side them.

The alien's helmet was caught on something, and Toman was having trouble taking it off. Walter, though, removed a long dagger from the alien's belt, and pried off a metal clamp at the neck. The helmet then slid off cleanly.

"Looks like some ancient Egyptian god," Kaethan commented.

The alien's neck and left jaw were blackened by a nasty burn, but otherwise the head was undamaged. Its green eyes were open, unseeing.

"All aliens look like someone's idea of a god," Toman said harshly. "Or demon."

"He's big enough," Walter said.

"Three fingers, two opposable thumbs." The colonel sounded like he was making mental notes. "I don't feel up to taking off his boots."

Kaethan noticed Walter, who had cleaned the alien dagger with a strip of cloth from the alien's sash. He now was looking intently at the blade.

"Collect knives, Walter?" Kaethan asked.

"No," he said vacantly. "I minored in metallurgy. I make them."

"You make it sound like all metallurgists make knives."

"Most guys do. What else would you choose as a semester project? A kitchen faucet that survives a re-entry burn?"

"So instead you make daggers that survive re-entry burns?" Kaethan chided him.

"Is it usable?" The colonel asked with a serious edge. "Or is it just decorative?"

Walter surprised them both as he seemed to balance the weapon in his hand, and then he gripped it by the blade as if for throwing. Then once more he studied the blade itself that reflected the light in rippling silver and white.

"Both, actually," Walter finally said. "It has several alloys in it just for decoration, but it certainly looks like it's been heavily used in its lifetime. This blade definitely has a purpose. I wonder if they all have them."

"They do. There are two more bodies . . . scattered . . . down that way. They both had daggers on their belts."

"Colonel," Walter asked sheepishly, "will I be shot for looting if I take a couple?"

Toman shook his head.

"That only happens when we fight each other," he assured him. "But be ready to give them up if asked."

"Will do."

Walter stood up and went off looting, then. Some nearby explosions sounded from down the road, on the far side of the rise. Kaethan stood up and looked expectantly toward the sound, but no further rounds were hitting.

"How are your men doing?" Toman asked as he studied the inside of the helmet and the electronics that were there.

"Lost five," Kaethan said solemnly as he looked back at the alien body. "Two others are seriously injured."

Only two of his Templars were totaled, but ten were heavily damaged. A small army of engineers was swarming over them now trying to get them back into fighting shape. Their railguns themselves were starting to be targeted near the end, after the aliens found out how hard it was to punch through their armor. But the alien missiles, when they got through the Templars' defenses, burned through their protection with a variety of warheads. The heavy walls between compartments helped keep many of the casualties down.

"You did very well this morning, son."

As surprised as Kaethan was at the compliment, he couldn't accept it.

"Not one of the recon units made it out." Kaethan shook his head. "I'd call that a failure."

"They had no chance," his father rebuffed. "The aliens' needle rifles sliced right through those Haulers. I can't believe you're trying to use them."

With Kaethan's silence, Toman suddenly realized that his son took that personally. He, of course, was blaming the government for using such an inferior personnel carrier, not his son . . .

"But your Templars stood up wonderfully." Toman tried to recover from his mistake, by changing the subject. "Are those Mark Twelves, Thirteens?"

"No," Kaethan replied shortly. "Just Elevens."

Toman cursed to himself silently. Another mistake. His son took offense again. This always happened whenever he tried to talk to Kaethan. It seemed destiny. At this rate Kaethan would disown him by the end of the day.

The Elevens, he formed a recovery, were actually better in some ways . . .

"Father," Kaethan said then.

"Yes?"

"Do you know why I didn't go to the Concordiat Academy?"

Toman set down the alien helmet to his side.

"I always assumed that you were threatened with the same tortures that your mother threatened me with if I ever encouraged you to."

His son smiled and chuckled. Toman felt that this was a change for the better. Rarely had he inspired that reaction in his son.

"Just checking," Kaethan said.

"Did you actually think that I was disappointed in you for not joining? What would ever give you such an outrageous idea?"

"Nothing, Father." Kaethan stopped him. "Just checking."

"I would hope so," Toman said, and picked up the helmet again to study it.

A column of Haulers passed them, then, driving towards the rise to the east. They wouldn't cross over, of course. They'd just drop off their infantry, and join the ever-growing numbers of other Haulers abandoned by the side of the road. Some things, humans learned quickly. For other things, it took longer.

* * *

The sight was spectacular.

As the last of the Kezdai infantry streamed across the bridge, a hail of artillery shells was raining down from above. This was the only safe crossing of the Witch River for fifty kilometers in either direction, and both sides knew it. Every howitzer and rocket howitzer in the Telville arsenal was nearly melting its barrel trying to get at the forces that were concentrated there. But not a single shell made it to the ground as a massive lightning storm crackled and thundered over the valley, forking up into the sky to intercept dozens of shells at a time.

Sergeant Emmet Lear of Alpha Company, First Mechanized Brigade, watched the lightning show from behind a large rock outcropping overlooking the valley, heavily shrouded by trees and underbrush. The highway was a kilometer to the north, snaking away from him, viewable through many branches and leaves. Electricity filled the air around him, causing him to suffer static shocks whenever he touched the ceramic-metal barrel of his gauss rifle. The smell and taste of ozone in the air was almost choking. His short beard itched constantly as the hairs seemed to want to stand on end. Added to that, a sharp rock goaded his ribcage as he lay prone, peering through the underbrush.

The highway into the valley veered left over the crest, with two kilometers of moderate slope before turning hard right to cross the four-lane bridge. On the opposite bank, the roadway ran up a much steeper slope before turning back to its left to disappear behind the forest of trees and large rock outcroppings. Any vehicle travelling on the roadway had little cover.

The valley itself was rocky, with huge boulders and rock faces peeking out from underneath the many trees that clung desperately to what soil kept them rooted. Rain-forest ferns that covered most of Deladin now gave way to an undergrowth of thorny bushes and tall grasses. Rushing down the valley was a thunderous whitewater rapids, fed by the snow-capped mountains to the south. The Witch River had been labeled as suicidal to any adventure seeker who wished to raft it.

"Anything getting through yet, Sergeant?" asked the tired voice of Major Peter Mikolayev over his command channels.

Emmet's prone position gave him a good view of the far side of the bridge three kilometers away, where the last of the alien infantry was still crossing unimpeded. The rock outcropping shielded him from the rest of the valley, though the tall periscope viewer at his side allowed him to see over part of it.

"Negative," Emmet replied simply.

There was a moment's pause as a sigh could be heard.

"We're shutting down, then. All units hold position and await further orders."

The command would have little effect on the front line, the sergeant knew, since the Tigris Guard had already deployed in defensive positions behind the valley crest. Captain Riggins' thirty Templars were already scattered along the stretch of roadway leading up to the valley. Emmet's Mechanized Brigade was digging in around the tanks in the forests, and bringing their Haulers forward to support them. Everyone was already expecting this standoff to last a while and was preparing for a siege.

The bombardment continued for only a minute more after the announcement, slacking off quickly, though a few rocket howitzer rounds continued to streak overhead from their bases far to the rear. Raising his one-meter tall periscope, the sergeant sneaked a peak over the outcropping. A large part of the valley was still blocked by the rock, but Corporal Pierce of Bravo Company, hidden one kilometer north of the road, could see the remainder.

Movement immediately caught his attention, and with a twist of the ungainly periscope, he zoomed in on a line of vehicles.

"An armored column is entering the valley," he said into his headset. "I see ten vehicles, moving slowly. More are following . . ."

Emmet's first thought was that the aliens had now tested their defenses and considered it safe to invest some armor into the valley. He wasn't overly concerned that they'd sortie since all of their infantry were now safely evacuated.

"Pierce just got sniped," reported Captain Larson of Bravo Company. "Assigning another observer . . ."

Sergeant Lear swore under his breath as he continued to watch the arriving column.

"Twenty vehicles," he updated the count. "One-fifty tons . . . ten wheelers . . . energy cannons . . . twelve-wheeled mass drivers . . ."

Sergeant Pierce was a personal friend of Emmet's, and his stomach tightened at the thought of him just taking a needle. There shouldn't have been any reason why Pierce exposed himself. They had their periscopes and good positions. Something must have drawn Pierce out, or else their lines had been infiltrated.

"Twenty-six vehicles total in two columns," Lear updated again, trying not to think about it, "still approaching the bridge."

Yesterday, Emmet Lear had been a dealer in heavy-construction vehicles. That life was forgotten at the moment, but his civilian occupation gave him an advantage at judging the size of the war machines that were rolling down the opposite slope. The sight of such large armored vehicles on wheels disturbed Lear, however, who was used to tracks being on any ground vehicle over fifty tons. Although this would give them a much better speed on pavement, he considered, they'd be very limited once the battle turned off-road. A few of the vehicles were also of a tractor-trailer design, which he knew were extremely unstable on broken terrain at higher speeds.

"EW is picking up gravitic disturbances at the river," said Major Mikoleyev over his headset. "Anyone see anything?"

Emmet quickly zoomed out his periscope and looked around. The valley was clear of any other movement. Even the infantry had now disappeared into the woods and rocky terrain across the river. Of course, with Pierce gone, Lear now had to worry about what was behind the huge outcropping that sheltered him. He'd have to climb on top, or crawl out in the open to get a look on the other side, however, exposing himself to fire. There was no chance he'd do that.

Then his spine tingled as Lear heard a low whine quickly growing in volume around him, freezing his bones. Dropping the periscope, Lear lay flat on his stomach with his hands over his helmet.

The voice that suddenly exploded over command channels was not recognized, but it was obviously young.

"Four gravtanks climbing our slope south of the highway!"

Oh crap, Lear thought, and lay perfectly still as a massive shadow rose over the outcropping and slowly passed over him. His entire body seemed to vibrate in resonance with the overwhelming hum that enveloped him, paralyzing him in fear.

"All units engage!" Mikolayev called out. "All units engage! But do not enter the valley! They could be trying to draw us in."

"Five hundred . . . six hundred tons!" the unknown observer called out. "Plasma cannon of some sort. The column is crossing the bridge!"

The hum was dying off now, but Emmet didn't move until the screams of Raven missiles, launched by his comrades, filled the air. Rising quickly to his knees, he looked both at the rear of the massive gravtanks disappearing over the trees, and then at the rapidly advancing armored vehicles driving up the highway.

"Captain Riggins!" Lear called out over the command channel. "You will be hit simultaneously from your front and right flank . . ."

"Incoming!"

Emmet didn't know who called that out, or why, but that never mattered to a soldier in combat. He just dropped everything and tried to become one with the dirt.

THUTHUMP!

A shockwave and blast of heat passed over him with a thunderous roar, followed by a rain of smoldering branches falling onto his back. A moment later, entire trees were crashing down the slopes around him, causing landslides. When he looked up, the trees at the top of the valley had been blasted away. Dense smoke filled the air, but he had an unobstructed view of the four alien gravtanks just as they acquired their targets. Incredibly bright plasma lasers flared from their cannons. Lear couldn't see what damage they might have wreaked among the Templars, but a mass of return fire began to literally blast the gravtanks apart. Huge chunks of armor flew high into the sky as armor piercing rods slammed into them. Turning his attention back to the highway, Emmet saw five of the alien armored vehicles explode the moment that they topped the crest, but the remainder lashed out with bright blue particle beams and then disappeared from view as they tangled with the Templars.

From Lear's vantage point, all he could watch were the gravtanks as they disintegrated, chunk by chunk. Raven missiles suddenly began streaking up to blast them from all sides as their point defense beams fell silent. One by one, as the gravtank's powerplants were hit, the mammoths dropped from the sky as if their supporting strings were cut. Only a few moments after the last gravtank fell, the alien armored vehicles reappeared, this time in open retreat at high speeds. Only a dozen or so were left.

As the sergeant watched the surviving column recross the bridge, he suddenly remembered his duties. After finding his periscope in all the debris, he scanned what he could of the valley.

"All vehicles in retreat," the sergeant announced. "No other activity."

All during the fight, the command channels were completely silent as Major Mikolayev let the commanders fight their battles. The extended span of silence after Emmet gave his report, however, made him think that his headset was damaged.

But then Mikolayev came back online.

"All units prepare to be relieved in order. Alabaster will be taking point again. All infantry units check your bracelets and report to Decon' as needed."

With a sudden fear gripping him, Lear ripped open his sleeve and took a look at the radiation band that was wrapped around his wrist. Its friendly green had now turned ominously yellow.

Crap, Emmet thought.

* * *

The Kezdai scout was disappointed.

The electrical fence had fooled him into believing that the complex he had infiltrated was an important target. What he was finding was that it was some sort of biological research center. The room that he was hiding in contained shelves and shelves of glass and plastic tanks containing marine animals of various types. Perhaps they were experimenting with biologic weapons of some types, but he doubted it. There were no hermetically sealed environments anywhere to be seen.

He had been hiding for several minutes now, ever since three Human armored vehicles rolled through the gate. Soldiers dismounted out of the rear of the vehicles, but they did not deploy. If they had, then that would have been a sure sign that this complex was valuable, and that he should direct an artillery barrage down upon it. Although the vile Keertran troops did not appreciate the value of artillery, his Is-kaldai Riffen certainly did. His crashed dropship had a complete battery of guns that were already targeting the Human infantry that were attempting to approach through the rain forest. It had been difficult to pass through their ranks without being detected, but he had an important mission. His commander wanted to know if the cities had their own point defense systems, or whether only the military units were protected. To find that out, he and several of his comrades were to find an observation point overlooking the nearby city.

Then artillery would be called in.

A Human female with long black hair had appeared out of the large building to his right, obviously a researcher of some sort. Up until that moment, he had thought that the complex was abandoned. The female had been talking to the infantry commander for quite a long time while the scout waited impatiently, sneaking peaks out a window at periodic intervals. Just when his patience was finally running out, he heard the engines start up, and two of the three vehicles moved out. The last troop carrier, however, remained. Its twelve soldiers deployed around the perimeter fence, and he hoped that they'd miss the cut that he had made in it.

The Human female was nowhere to be seen when he looked.

Escape, without being seen, would be difficult now, but he had to try. The building that he was in had few windows, but he was able to locate nine of the twelve soldiers, and had a good idea where the remaining three were. The sea fence was not being protected. The ocean, he decided, would be his best way out.

Getting to it from the building that he was in would be impossible. The seaside doorway could be seen by several of the Human soldiers. The building to his right, however, he noticed had a concrete canal that ran out into the sea from its lowest level. It wasn't being guarded.

Sneaking into the building's front door, although daring, was not difficult. Decorative shrubbery was planted all around the outer wall, concealing his movement. Only the last dash into the doors was risky, and after looking around frantically, he believed that he had gotten away with it. The soldiers were looking outwards through the fence, not inwards.

His scrambling through the other building had given him the basic concepts of Human architecture, and the stairway and elevator were quickly spotted. Because he had no wish to experiment with the elevator, he opened the door to the stairwell.

It was just then that the black haired female made her appearance again, as the elevator doors suddenly opened. A shrill scream echoed inside the scout's helmet as he tried to push back out the door and bring his rifle to bear. The elevator doors were already closing, but he did have a shot at the form that had retreated against the far wall.

He didn't take it.

The scout's aversion to making a loud noise was part of the reason that he didn't fire his rifle, but another was an aversion to killing a noncombatant. Kezdai blood feuds often ended in the complete annihilation of one clan or another, males and females alike, but noncombatants were always spared. Of course, all members of the warring clans themselves were considered combatants.

This scout had made a mistake, however, and he realized it. Allowing this female to live would risk his own life and mission. As a red arrow above the elevator pointed downwards, so did he run. The stairway had small steps, and he stumbled a few times, but he managed to reach the ground floor in decent time.

As he pushed through the stairway door, he saw that the elevator doors to his right were already closing. To his left was a large, tiled room with a pool, open to the outside at the far end. The woman could have been tricky and gone back upstairs, but he had to be sure.

Before running back upstairs, he ran into the poolroom to look for her. The visuals inside his helmet gave him a three-hundred-degree distorted view around him, but even with that he only caught a glimpse of the female as she came up behind him and gave him a shove into the water. He fired his needle rifle wildly as he plunged into the deep, saltwater pool.

What happened next he never had time to organize into a coherent understanding.

One moment he was sinking rapidly into the water, and the next a massive black and white form was underneath him and pushing him back to the surface. Then, just as he broke the surface of the water, he was hurled, as if from a catapult, directly into the tiled wall of room.

He fell to the floor in a daze.

But Kezdai were immensely hardy creatures whose bones had evolved to absorb great impacts from falling from the high cliffs of their ancient homeworld. Great pains wracked his body, but the scout still managed to sit up, lift his rifle, and unleash a withering fire across the room. His own blood covered his helmet's visuals, making him uncertain of what shapes were around him. All he saw were shadows until the massive black and white form seemed to explode out of the pool before him, and crash into him.

His last conscious vision was of nothing but teeth . . .

* * *

The bridge was more than two kilometers away, but still no one dared peek over the crest to look into the valley. Even at this range, the alien needle rifles were incredibly accurate. Instead, the periscope on top of Kaethan's Templar was raised, and Kaethan, his father, and Walter all were gathered around a video screen that was mounted at the rear of the three-hundred-ton tank. With the last light of the day glowing orange in the sky to the west, they surveyed the heavily shadowed terrain.

Bright crimson and blue-white streamers were flapping in the wind over their enemy's fortified positions. The temptation to burn them down with their ion bolts had been on everyone's mind, but was decided to be an ignoble act. They'd make fine trophies, Kaethan had told his men, to bring back to Fort Hilliard after all this was over.

The smell of ozone continued to permeate the air around them, proving the continued readiness of their opponent's point defense dischargers. It even overwhelmed the smoke that rose from the still smoldering devastation of forest that surrounded them. Several battered, alien armored vehicles also continued to pump out a plume of white smoke into the air, and probably would for several days. Three of Tigris' Templars had been burning when Kaethan arrived, but these fires had been put out quickly, and engineers were now working on the Templars. All the other Templars of the Tigris Guard were either driven, or towed, to a depot constructed four kilometers to the rear.

"I don't think they have a single direct-fire weapon targeting this ridgeline," Kaethan commented while their periscope panned over the valley.

"I can't see any sign of one either," his father agreed. "You could probably take the slope and hold it, but they aren't giving you anything to shoot at. You'd just be setting yourself up for more of those missiles that plastered Tigris."

"Didn't hurt the Templars," Kaethan pointed out.

"True, but don't expect me to ride in Walter's Sentinel."

Walter didn't like to admit it, but the presence of his defense laser would not have helped the Tigris Guard against the barrage that hit them. There were only a few missiles of modest size, but they approached at tree-top level from the sides. What they needed was a point-defense tower like the ones that protected their artillery. Of course, towers were easy targets when they were this close to the enemy.

"Too bad you can't fire any high-explosives out of those railguns," Walter said. "We could blast them out of those positions."

The sound of a command vehicle rolling up distracted the crew from their viewing. When it stopped, Colonel Neils jumped out of the passenger seat. He returned everyone's salute briskly, as he obviously had something important to say.

"At ease, Captain," Neils said, specifically singling out Kaethan to talk to. "I've got bad news. That small pocket of hostiles north of Telville decided to go out with a bang. As Chandoine was moving in on them, they unleashed a long-range bombardment onto the city itself, forty kilometers away."

"Oh, God," Walter uttered.

"They threw in every ordnance they had, short of nukes. The entire northern suburbs and part of downtown were devastated. We're estimating casualties in excess of thirty-five thousand."

"Sir, my sister . . ."

"I know, Captain. Once I hear something, I'll let you know. But General Calders is furious. He wants this pocket cleared up so we can pull back and solidify the border around Telville. He's ordered us to assault the bridge at the first light of day."

"Yes, Colonel," Kaethan replied.

"Our strategy session will be at 2600 hours back at our HQ. We may be able to cross the river with some infantry onto their flanks, but our armor has to run up the middle. There are no other roads."

"We'll be ready."

"I have to head over to Tigris HQ now. Riggins' armor was chewed up pretty bad by that column that suddenly made an appearance. I'll try to get their survivors attached directly to you. That will be all, Captain."

"Yes, sir."

They saluted again, and Colonel Neils hopped into this vehicle.

As he sped off, Kaethan and his father exchanged worried glances, but then turned back to their surveillance. For a long time they didn't say anything as they panned their view over the opposing slopes. But soon their concentration returned to what was at hand.

"Look how they've torn up the highway over there," Walter said as they looked over the bridge. "They're not even trying to hide that they've mined it."

"They don't have to," Toman replied. "They've concentrated all of their air defenses around it. Your artillery will never punch through to knock any of it out."

"Have you spotted any of their armor?" Kaethan asked.

"Not a one," Toman answered. "You can be sure, though, that every last one of them will pop up at the worst possible time. I don't think we've seen even a fraction of their total forces, yet. And they've now learned that your railguns are vulnerable."

The brief sortie that hit the Tigris Heavy Armor didn't have the firepower to punch through the Templars' substantial armor. But it did, however, manage to disable many of their railguns by point-blank fire. Some of the alien vehicles just sideswiped the massive railguns as they drove by. Only the plasma lasers on the large gravtanks were powerful enough to slice the Templars open, accounting for their only three kills."And your railguns don't have the elevation to cover the slope from down there,"

Toman continued his observations. "Any Templars sent into the valley will be just targets."

"Have you found anything encouraging at all?" Kaethan asked sardonically.

His father grimaced and thought hard for a few moments. Kaethan let out a nervous chuckle at his father's reaction, but a deep pain was forming in the pit of his stomach.

"This is a death trap, son," the Concordiat colonel finally said. "These aliens have stripped and scuttled their transport, their only way off this planet, for a better defensive position. They will fight to their death while throwing everything they have at you."

The three of them were quiet for a while. Walter panned their periscope along the opposite slopes, finding faint heat sources everywhere as he switched to thermal sights, but with the sun setting, this was a bad time to look. Better images could be formed once the ground had released the solar heat that it had absorbed during the day.

"They also have the high energy plasma weapons that they used to knock down your satellites," Toman reminded them. "There was no sign of them at their transport, from what I was told. Who knows what else they might have stripped off that ship before they retreated. If you try to cross this bridge, you'll be massacred."

Walter had stopped pretending to care about what was being shown on the monitor. His nervous gaze was dancing back and forth between Kaethan and his father, waiting for one of them to figure out a solution to prevent the certain death awaiting him. Of course, there was a solution, Kaethan knew. And Kaethan knew that his father was debating it with himself even now.

"If you are waiting for me to ask, Father," Kaethan said calmly, "then you will remain waiting."

His father looked up from the screen and looked closely at his son. He grimaced as he took out his fieldcomm, but then he stopped.

"I wasn't waiting for that, son." Toman said before he activated it.

What, exactly, his father was waiting for, Kaethan couldn't fathom. But he wasn't going to ask that, either. He was just thankful.

"Death By Chains," Colonel Ishida said into his fieldcomm.

"So judged," replied Unit DBC from twelve hundred kilometers to the north.

* * *

Ad-akradai Khorris was pleased with his position. Many defilade positions were found on his side of the valley, overlooking the bridge. His concentrated dischargers, combined with the point defense emplacements from their transport, had shrugged off the Humans' heaviest bombardment. His nuclear cannons were in position, to be moved up for firing at just the right time. And his ambush of the Human armored units had proven that Kezdai weapons could indeed be utilized effectively against the large tanks with the railguns, even though he had to waste almost all of his gravtanks to prove it.

Added to that, two smaller transports had arrived during the night from the southeast, both limping in with substantial damage. Their additional armor would greatly reinforce his counterattack, though he ordered Riffen's artillery converted to direct fire and deployed in positions overlooking the bridge.

But he would wait before deploying his armored vehicles. His infantry and nuclear cannons would be enough to finish off the Human armor that advanced on him. Only then would his armored vehicles sweep back over the bridge to drive into their rear and eliminate their precious artillery.

He was worried, however, that more reinforcements were arriving for the Humans. One of his few remaining surveillance probes had been launched at the first hint of daylight in the east. An image taken just before it died showed that the Human forces had moved all of their equipment off the eastbound roadway, as if making room for another unit to pass through. He continued to weigh the possibility of launching his last probe to hopefully catch a glimpse of what was arriving.

Khoriss now sat in his command vehicle, paging through the images that his forward camera positions were sending back to him. There was still no evidence of Human infiltration along the river, but he carefully studied where they might hide when the time came.

His quiet observations were rudely interrupted by his hatch opening with a loud clank. The panicked face of Inkezdai Kepliss looked in.

"Ad-akradai, massed artillery rises from the westó"

"Good! It begins!"

"But Ad-akradai," Kepliss pleaded, "the artillery rises from far behind the Human lines, and the launcher approaches swiftly as it fires! It travels along the roadway at a high rate of speed, sending its shells high into the stratosphere!"

Something new, Khoriss thought. The approaching weapons platform had to be exceedingly large to be capable of a sustained barrage as this, and still have the stability to wield it accurately while moving rapidly. The Humans had not previously shown any such weapon.

Or perhaps they had, Khorris remembered. The ground batteries that destroyed their frigates had wielded enormous firepower while showing tremendous speed. Perhaps those same batteries had artillery clusters in addition to their energy weapons. Not only could such a weapon fend off an orbital insertion, but it could support a local ground war at the same time. Such a weapons platform must be massive, he thought. Once he had disposed of the Human armored forces, he'd have to give top priority to his own armor to capture this vehicle when they made their drive.

"Ad-akradai, should we launch our last probe to view its approach?"

"No, Inkezdai. It matters not what it looks like. We will deal with it in time. Our first priority is the Human armored forces which should be attacking soon."

"Yes, Ad-akradai. The alarm has already been given."

"Good. Then we must then be patient as we let these Humans enter our trap."

"Yes, Ad-akradai. I must tend my dischargers."

His only concern, Khoriss considered, was why the eastbound lane of the highway was left open the entire distance to the front. Certainly the Humans would not lead their attack with something so valuable as these mobile ground batteries. Could this weapon be heavily armored, he wondered? An idle thought, he immediately determined. Nothing could stand up against his nuclear cannons. . . .

* * *

I am ten kilometers from the bridge and my tracks slip across the highway pavement as I follow a curve at one hundred fifty kilometers per hour. Soon I must slow my approach or else my inertia entering the valley depression will cause me to take flight, carrying me past my optimal fording location at the lead edge of the bridge. I cannot utilize the bridge itself since my large frame would not fit through its steel girder superstructure. 

On the sides of the road I begin to pass by the valiant militia that protects this world. They cheer me forward, weapons raised high, and I take great strength from their encouragement. My four 30cm mortars continue to fire their stream of munitions into the sky, even as the many shells that I have been firing for the last 9.6638 minutes now are entering terminal guidance. All rounds are timed to hit, or deploy their munitions, at the same moment on top of our Enemy's positions. The Guard artillery has also offered their support, and I have plotted many positions for them to hit to the rear of our Enemy to harass their retreat from my onslaught. These are strong and honorable colonists, and I am proud to fight by their side. 

At four kilometers from the bridge, I have reduced speed to one hundred kilometers per hour and my mortars are silent. Electrical discharges fire high into the sky ahead of me to intercept my bombardment, but they are much less effective against my Concordiat mortars than against the Delassian howitzers. My shells are hardened against such defenses, and the Enemy will be disappointed. As they release their lightning, I am recording their positions and comparing them to what the Delassian forward observers noted earlier. I am distracted for a moment as weapons grade radioactives are detected in the valley ahead, but I have been expecting their presence. My charge remains unchecked. 

I top the crest of the valley just as the torrents of shells that I have launched begin their rain of destruction! The entire opposite slope explodes with dazzling light, fire and electricity. Behind the ridgeline, powerful shock waves throw debris high into the air as my anti-armor penetrators find their targets. I immediately begin sweeping the valley floor below me with all my firepower. The hundreds of trees that line the road explode into a hail of fiery wooden shards as my 110cm Hellbore slices through their great trunks. My ion-bolt infinite repeaters pour endless fire into every shadow and recess that could likely hide my adversaries. By the time that I have reached the river, the valley is ablaze, and only then comes my opponent's retaliation. 

A growing swarm of missiles arises from the conflagration. The missiles lock onto my form, only to be consumed by my infinite repeaters as they come close. For each new launch, I respond with a round from my mortars, though I now am running low on ammunition for them. As I plunge through the river and climb the riverbank back up to the roadway, I fire my Hellbore into a high cliff facing, sending a rockslide crashing down upon a launcher that I detected there. 

With my last rounds from my mortar, I devastate the roadway on the east side of the bridge, wiping out the mines that had been laid there. The missile barrage has slackened considerably as I climb back onto the shattered pavement. Fearing my presence near the bridge may endanger it, I charge up the slope, pouring destruction in every direction. 

It is then that the enemy unleashes his greatest firepower as a shaped nuclear blast smashes through my forward battlescreens, washing radioactive plasma over my hull. The impact of the blast lifts me up and throws me sliding back down the pavement towards the bridge. Another nuclear blast hits me in the side, though it is an ineffective glancing blow that my battlescreens deflect with 93.082 percent efficiency. 

The weapons that launched this attack have no reactors. In fact, their energy signatures are almost undetectable. I must conclude that these weapons are detonating shaped nuclear devices, and are reloading even as I align my Hellbore onto their locations. These rounds must be the radioactives that I detected in the valley and on their ship. 

Digging my tracks deeply into the broken highway, I unleash all my firepower in a sweeping barrage. The hidden fortifications are blasted open and their rocky shelters are reduced to molten lava within seconds. Fearing my enemy be given a chance to recover, I immediately renew my charge up the slope as I verify that my damage has been slight. Although powerful, these nuclear cannons were unfocused and poorly directed. My endurachrome plating is intact, though nine plates have broken. My FP-A2 ion-bolt turret was hit while firing, however, and has been destroyed. I must reevaluate the threat that these aliens pose, and in response I turn sharply off the roadway and crash through the trees in hopes of avoiding any further such ambushes. 

Brief glimpses of scattering alien infantry are all I see of the Enemy as I bulldoze my way through the forest. Beyond the valley, however, my detectors frantically begin plotting a large force powering up a variety of reactors in preparation for my unwelcome appearance. Magnetic disturbances betray the positions of large mass drivers and particle accelerators. The size and number of these weapons make me shudder to think what would have happened if the Telville Corps had crossed this river themselves. Even my own Commander dangerously underestimated their strength. I divert 0.03 seconds of processor time to consider the cause of this discrepancy, concluding the likelihood that two transports survived our missile defenses to reinforce their beachhead. 

The force arrayed against me is threatening, but now is the time to act! Many of their particle beam accelerators are still building power and are not yet operable. They have been caught partially unprepared and I must press my advantage! The drone that I launch disappears in a crackling blast of lightning before it clears 100 meters, but the few images it relays to me reveals my enemy's positions. 

I turn to attack! 

Full-grown trees, set afire by my infinite repeaters, fly through the air as I crash my way into a huge, recently made clearing at the top of the valley. I have entered a four-kilometer wide killzone! But at an expected point! In the fraction of a second of surprise that I have, I unleash all my firepower at the targets around me, sweeping my Hellbore across the opposing treeline. Four massive nuclear cannons are caught turning their guns onto my position, but my ion-bolt turrets blast the unprotected towed fieldpieces apart before their hammers fall. Another flight of missiles rises up into the air just as a hail of penetrators begins ripping into my damaged forward armor. My battlescreens begin to shimmer as weaker particle beams are absorbed and stronger ones dispersed. 

Twin rooster tails of earth and wood fly high into the air as my tracks hurl me forward into the fray. I wield my Hellbore as a whirling dervish would his scimitar, slashing through my opponent's armor with a blade of brilliant fire. The swarm of missiles descends upon me from above as their supersonic final stage kicks in and sends them streaking through my battlescreens. My infinite repeaters are overwhelmed by the onslaught and my warhull is cracked and blasted by a wide variety of deadly warheads. Most missiles arise from the forest at the far side of the clearing, and it is there that I sprint for, just as a second swarm rises into the air to seek me out. 

I lunge down the very throat of my adversary, racing through their midst. Their deluge of direct fire that had been pulverizing my warhull slackens and loses target as my speed increases. Ten armored vehicles sporting particle beams, dug in to my starboard, have their turrets blasted clean off as my Hellbore sweeps across their line, requiring only 0.41 seconds on target for each kill. Searing pain floods my presence circuits as a powerful plasma laser burns down my port side hull and causes my battlescreens to flare in blinding white light. A wide spectrum of energies pours onto my collectors and a surge of power courses into my energy cells. Through my intense pain I take brief delight in returning the energy in an enhanced salvo from my main gun, vanquishing the dug-in gravtank that fired it. 

Missiles again wreak havoc upon my outer hull, shattering my endurachrome plates. A meter wide gouge in my forward armor is alarmingly deep, and I reorient the patch away from a line of mass-drivers ahead of me. At the same time my Hellbore tears into the line of trees where the missiles have been rising from. The forest explodes in red fire and wooden shrapnel just before I expect the next salvo to be launched. As my main weapon recycles, I watch as the missile swarm arises, and am gratified at its now ineffectual numbers. My point defense clears the skies with ease as I now can concentrate all my attention on the rapidly dwindling armored vehicles and fieldpieces that continue to hold their ground. I expect only 31 more seconds of significant resistance. . . . 

* * *

"We're moving into the valley now, General Rokoyan." Colonel Neils said into his handphone, not noticing Toman Ishida approaching his command trailer.

At first Colonel Ishida thought that the Delassian commander was talking to General Calders. It surprised him that Rokoyan would meddle in the affairs of junior officers, bypassing the line of command.

"Yes, General. The Bolo is clearing a couple more pockets, then he will be free to return to his station at Starveil."

That explains that, Ishida realized. Rokoyan was specifically calling about Chains. During the previous night's strategy session, he had been reluctant to allow Chains to come off station, even though the Bolo had already been speeding southwards for the past four hours. General Calders, though, held firm and Rokoyan backed down as long as the operation was concluded as quickly as possible.

As he waited, Ishida looked over the Neils' command trailer with amusement. It obviously was a converted commercial tractor-trailer, with duralloy armor plating riveted in place and a forest of antennae on top. The inside was impressive, however, with everything a colonel might want for command and control of his division. Five other officers were busy talking into headsets while manipulating images on maps.

Neils now noticed the Concordiat colonel waiting for him, and suddenly looked distracted.

"I'm hardly in the position, General, but I'll try. I have to go. Neils out."

Neils switched off his handphone and set it down on the desk next to him. He then stood up and headed outside before Ishida could climb in.

"You didn't have to cut it short on my account," Ishida assured him.

The militia commander was silent and stone-faced. Neils took Ishida just around the corner of the trailer, out of sight and sound of the other workers. The strange treatment immediately told Ishida what was coming next. He had done it to others several times, as soldiers had to be told of the fate of their friends and fellow soldiers. Kaethan's progress, however, had been uneventful. So that left . . .

"Colonel, a casualty list was sent to us just a while ago from Telville. Your daughter Serina was listed as killed. I have no details."

Neils waited then, as he allowed Toman to process what he had said to him. He didn't know quite what to expect from the war-hardened veteran. Anything from an explosion of rage, to a quiet disregard, would not have surprised him. What he saw looked like much of what he himself had felt when he saw Serina's name, pained reflection on a beautiful woman who had died far too early.

"I haven't radioed Kaethan, yet." Neils told him after a suitably quiet interval.

"I'll tell him," Colonel Ishida responded. "Tonight. It's still dangerous out there. I don't want him distracted."

"I understand," Neils replied.

"Chains is finished . . . with the armored vehicles," Ishida stumbled through. "All that should be left is infantry. He's pulling out."

Neils watched as the veteran turned and walked out of sight without another word. A quiet roll of thunder echoed from the west as the overcast skies continued to darken. A chill was in the air, the Delassian colonel felt, and he tightened his jacket as he climbed back into trailer. He couldn't help reflecting on the image that Kaethan had given him of his father, of the cold-hearted colonel whose life and mind never left the battlefield. Neils wondered if the cool breeze that passed through him had been the departure of what warmth the man had left.

That, he thought, would be far sadder.

* * *

Khoriss' mind was in turmoil. Drugs had been given to the Ad-akradai to ease the pain of his injuries, but were now turning his thoughts into a terrifying nightmare. The huge machine that had devastated his command was like nothing he had imagined since the horror stories of his youth. It was as if a terrible monster had been awakened from an eternal sleep to be sent forth to destroy him. Images of the machine's charge through the fiery inferno of the valley were overwhelming him. Never before had he felt such stunned despair as when his powerful cannons not only failed to stop the monster, but only seemed to enrage it. His last sight before he was carried away was that of all of his armored vehicles exploding as the monster's fire tore through them as simply as a blade through flesh.

He would soon be safe, his bodyguards continued to tell him, but their voices were lost in the screams that filled Khorris' mind.

* * *

It was raining again as Kaethan's column slowly traveled down the gravel roads that connected the plantations in this area. The rain was light, with only occasional lightning strikes that always seemed to hit far away from them. Enough light was shining through the cloud cover to navigate by, though the thick forest that surrounded them was often very dark.

By midday, the aliens were sent on the run. While the Tigris Guard prepared to head home, the Alabaster Guard was ordered to fan out to all the plantations, verifying that none were being used as strongholds, and that no humans were being held captive. Kaethan's Templars were all split up to guard the Haulers as they deployed into the flood plains that the Witch River fed and fertilized. Their column had started with eight Templars and thirty Haulers. Now they were down to two Templars, guarding the front and rear of five of their flimsily armored carriers.

Kaethan was out front, with Bicks driving Walter's prototype Sentinel right behind him. Although Walter had been told that their testing was complete, he had said that he wanted to stick it through to the end. The captain was pretty sure that Walter was doing it to stress test his system, hoping that he wasn't doing it out of friendship to him.

Although many aliens were recorded fleeing into the rain forest, few had been encountered yet by any of the patrols. All had been quiet.

"We're coming up on the last plantation." Kaethan announced to his column as he noticed the gleaming metal of an electrified fence far ahead.

The captain felt pretty safe in the lead, despite the likely presence of aliens in the area. His visual sensors could detect motion, and could recognize the aliens now by watching for several of their body armor features. His defense's ion-bolt fire control would instantly fire upon any such sightings. Other sensors scanned the road ahead for magnetic or radioactive signatures, or electronic emissions, indicating mines or detectors.

"Captain," Andrea called from her turret, "there seems to be a large heat source in a clearing up ahead to the right. Going to visual . . ."

Kaethan switched to thermal sight and turned his view to the right. There was definitely a heat source, but it could have been a house by its size. It was difficult telling form through so many trees.

"I see it," Kaethan acknowledged. "Can't tell what it is . . ."

The trees thinned for a moment, but all the captain could make out was a green glob.

"Sir, I think it's a ship!"

Kaethan didn't have a chance to respond, for their sensors couldn't detect the magnetically neutral, carbon fiber cannon with the non-energized chemical explosive that was buried under the gravel before them. Neither did they detect the aliens behind the trees who now knew not to show themselves until large tanks with the crackling energy bolts were first eliminated.

Unfortunately, these aliens wanted to learn just a few more things before they left.

* * ** * *

The 39th is in mourning. 

Even as I had cut down the last of our enemy high on the slope, I monitored the arrival of Telville's casualty list, transmitted to their forward headquarters. Reading my Commander's daughter's name upon that list left a deep wound that can never heal upon this glorious day. Harder still was reporting to my Commander without telling him of his loss, knowing it best that he be told by his fellow officers, rather than by me. 

And with the attack upon his son's column later this day, we feared the worst. Many are reported dead, including Kaethan's gunner and driver, and several are mysteriously missing. We rejoice that his son still lives, but we fear what permanent effects his grievous wounds may bring. This is a harsh day for our Commander, and the 39th suffers its cruelty along with him. We only wish we knew the words to comfort him. 

Little is left of the aliens that caused such pain to this planet. No transport escaped, though detectors monitored the passage of two smaller shuttles making their escape from the far side of the planet. No invasion fleet has made an appearance, and it is becoming obvious that our opponents have either reconsidered their plans, or never intended any immediate exploitation of this incursion. 

Much of the planet revels in victory, but we fear that their celebration is premature. Unit DBQ and myself have analyzed our opponent's strategies with many algorithms, and we are convinced that this attack was a raid meant only to test our defenses and learn our methods. The invasion will come only after the Enemy prepares their army for what they have faced. Our Commander agrees, and we now must convince the Concordiat that the danger from these aliens has only grown with our successful campaign, not lessened. This may be difficult, however, as time passes, and memories dim. 

* * ** * *

Walter Rice was in a panic.

As calm and collected as he was when hypersonic needles began ripping through his vehicle, he was now trembling in fear. If only the missile impact had killed him of just knocking him out, he lamented. Or the needles he took to his leg instead had gone instead into his heart.

But he didn't fear so much what these aliens would do to him, as what they could torture out of him.

In the entire Angelrath sector, there were perhaps three engineers who knew the inner workings of the Hellbore, and these aliens just got hold of one of them. By luck, his college tuition was mostly paid by his off-campus work with an Angelrath weapons technician. The bane of countless xenophobic races had remained a purely human conception for centuries, with aliens able to make only ineffective copies even when they captured working models. The very principles of the Hellbore's operation seemed beyond their capabilities. All that they had to realize was . . .

But then, Walter thought, what if these aliens were telepathic . . .

Dum de dum de dum . . .

Pain throbbed in his bandaged leg, and the dull ache in his head made him dizzy, but Walter was still better off than any of the other five soldiers who had been taken along with him. Perhaps that is why the aliens chose him first to be questioned, he ventured. Kaethan was not with them, and Walter assumed that he was dead. He never saw what hit his friend's Templar first, but the shower of hypersonic needles slicing through his equipment stopped the battlelaser from intercepting the missiles that hit it next.

Two towering Kezdai guards entered their cell and grabbed Walter soon after the prisoners' second meal. From the holding area, he was taken to a small, bare cargo room and sat down in a chair that was far too large for him. Surprisingly, although the guards were ferocious looking, they actually treated him kindly, even helping him walk down the narrow corridors. The guards were obviously not pleased to do it, but they did. No restraint bound him as he sat, though he had no fantasies of overpowering one of these muscle-bound creatures. Then the guards left him.

He waited there for a long time, growing ever more paranoid that he was being observed. Endless nursery rhymes and children's tunes ran through his head as he concentrated on the inane and unimportant.

The two aliens that finally entered the room were dressed in dazzling robes and jewels. One wore bright, embroidered crimson, while the other wore dark blue and white. The daggers that were strapped to their belts were far more elaborate than any that he had seen before. The aliens were so well dressed that he couldn't believe that they'd risk letting his blood soil their noble appearance. They carried many papers and a bag of unknown items. The one in blue and white conducted the interrogation while the other watched intently.

Again it was strange to be treated so kindly, until he realized what was happening. They were treating him like a pet, a stray dog that they wanted to entice into the cage that they had prepared. With no common language, it was impossible to torture any information out of him right away. The questions first had to be understood. Later, once they were sure that the questions were firmly in his mind, then the beatings would commence.

Acting dumb seemed the best defense for now, Walter decided.

But Walter had to play along with the simple stuff. The alien's language was one of high trills and deep, rolling growls, but at least a couple words were recognizable. Pointing at Walter, the interrogator said "Human," pointing at himself he said "Kezdai." It would have been hard to not understand this, and pretending stupidity would have made his later displays of ignorance less convincing. They then introduced themselves as "Keertra" in the crimson robe and "Irriessa" in the blue, and Walter told them his name, though they had difficulty pronouncing the "W."

Then they began the real questioning, unraveling before him a large star chart of this part of the galaxy. Walter quickly aligned himself, finding Delas immediately. That was a big mistake, however, and Walter cursed himself for doing it. The Kezdai named Keertra had seen his gaze, and immediately knew that he understood what he was looking at.

Irriessa then took a marker and circled Delas, and said "Human." Then a circle was drawn around another star on the border of the Firecracker Nebula, and he said "Kezdai." Angelrath was circled next for a human colony, and then another star near the nebula for a Kezdai colony. The marker was then presented to him.

Two things immediately became apparent to Walter. The first was that he'd likely never be released alive with the information just given to him of the Kezdai homeworlds. Secondly, these Kezdai had no idea what they were getting into challenging the Concordiat!

He had to laugh, and he did, though his headache pounded while he did.

Both Kezdai were taken aback by his outburst, Walter saw. But now he had to consider what to do about it. They were asking him to circle another human colony, which he obviously didn't want to do. But Walter really wanted to make it plain to these aliens the foolishness of their ways.

Taking the marker, Walter started drawing a wide arc across the chart, signifying the immense forward edge of Concordiat space in this sector.

The slap across his face came unexpectedly as Irriessa suddenly released his rage at such impudence. To Walter, it felt like he had been hit in the cheek by a steel girder, and he would have been sent tumbling back over his chair if the chair hadn't been so large. Kezdai hands were bony, powerful, and huge, and the slap left him testing his jaw to make sure that it was still there, and that it worked. Although painful, it still operated.

When Walter looked back up, dripping blood from his nose, he was startled by the incredible contrast between the expressions of his two interrogators. While the Kezdai in blue could hardly contain his fury, the one in crimson stared at the chart in astonishment. Keertra seemed willing to believe him, Walter thought.

His own astonishment would rival Keertra's at what happened next.

* * *

Is-kaldai Keertra was stunned by what the Human had done to his star chart. Could Human space truly be so large, he wondered?

Obviously, Irriessa assumed the Human was attempting to bluff them, but Keertra believed otherwise. He had spent his lifetime gauging the emotions of others, attempting to read the subtlest expressions on the lean Kezdai visage. It was a difficult art, but Keertra had grown incredibly adept at it, he thought.

The Human face, though, was so incredibly animated that Keertra couldn't believe that they could hide any emotion, ever. Walter's outburst was of true surprise and amusement at what Irriessa was asking of him. The Human eyes bore no trace of hidden intentions, though he had shown careful consideration as he drew the border.

Keertra believed the Human.

And the understanding left no option for the Is-kaldai.

As Irriessa loudly berated the Human, Keertra approached from behind. In one amazingly swift motion, he tore Irriessa's surias from its straps and sliced it clean through the commander's widely expanded hood. Blood from countless vessels spewed into the air as Keertra then shoved the Kezdai back into the wall.

Whatever surprise and pain Irriessa could have felt at this attack was overwhelmed by his lifetime of training and experience. Despite his mortal wound, Riffen's greatest commander would never just give up. Forcing himself back to his feet, Irriessa charged his attacker, willing to take a blade to his chest if he could get his claws to the Is-kaldai's throat.

But Keertra also had been well trained, and was fully expecting this ill-considered charge. Lost in a flurry of crimson fabric, Irriessa's grip came up empty. He did, however, find Keertra's surias buried in his chest as he stumbled.

Riffen's commander was dead before he hit the floor.

This was a necessary act, Keertra consoled himself, though killing the commander personally had been quite exciting. If the Is-kaldai Council learned that the Humans had so immense an empire, they certainly would not dare attack it. And if that were to not come to pass, then Keertra would not only lose his chance to rule them, but he also would have lost a substantial number of troops needlessly. Something had to be done.

A brief glance at their prisoner showed that the Human had not moved from his seat. Whether frozen with fear, or thrilled by the spectacle, he hadn't attempted escape or involvement.

Calmly, Keertra advanced to the table and removed the star chart from it. After folding it up, he then walked to a panel on the wall, opened it, and dropped the chart down a chute where air could be heard rushing past.

The Is-kaldai then approached Irriessa's unmoving form and drew out the long blade. Blatant fear passed across the Human's face as he approached, but then was replaced by shock as Keertra skidded the surias across the table towards him. Out of sheer self-protection, the Human had to grab the blade, which, of course, was exactly what Keertra wanted him to do.

As Keertra then drew his own surias, however, he was surprised by the Human's next reaction. After a brief moment of shock and bewilderment, the Human actually seemed to balance Irriessa's blade in his small hand, weighing it as if he knew how to use it.

How outrageous, Keertra thought, and charged.

The sudden throw came unexpectedly.

* * *

There was no crater in the middle of the complex, but whatever devastated all of the buildings certainly detonated there. A large circle of black carbon and glass marked where the intense blast had erupted. The Telville Oceanographic Institute would be out of commission for several seasons while they rebuilt. It was one of the last parting shots the aliens . . . the Kezdai, Toman corrected . . . had made before they were finally crushed.

Several of the alien soldiers were captured in the last battle. Many killed themselves before the medics realized that they could consciously cut off the blood flow through their hoods by flexing the muscles within. A quick dose of muscle relaxant managed to keep a few of them alive, and provided the Delassians with some information, such as what the aliens called themselves.

While the top floor of the institute's main building was virtually blown off, the remaining structure was basically intact. It was here that personal belongings were being gathered from the wreckage and surrounding countryside. Serina owned many reference books that she kept here, but these Colonel Ishida donated back to the institute. All that Toman took with him was a box containing the personal items that she had kept at work. A picture of him and her mother, along with a couple pictures of Kaethan and several stuffed animals filled most of the box, though scorch marks blackened a few of the animals.

It was an unyielding drive that pulled him downstairs, to where his daughter had died, though the colonel found the urge inexplicable. With the elevator down to the pool not working, the colonel instead used the stairway. Toman mentally shielded himself by taking on the attitude of an investigator analyzing a crime scene, though when he arrived at the tiled pool, all had been long cleaned and scrubbed. The only evidence of the fight that remained were the shattered tiles that lined the floor and walls that the hypersonic needles had blasted. Also there was a tiled section of wall near the pool that seemed to have suffered an impact of something large.

A soft exhale of air marked the entry into the pool of Kuro, coming in from the sea. Although the complex generator had been destroyed in the attack, portable generators were scattered throughout the buildings, including one that now powered the speakers that Kuro spoke out of.

"Hello, Colonel." Kuro said as she spotted him at the pool edge.

Unsure whether the overhead pool microphones were working, Toman wandered to the poolside table and picked up the transmitter there.

"Hello, Kuro. How are you?"

Toman sat down, wishing that he had a cool drink like he had the time he visited before. He knew few details of the fight that took place down here. All that he was told was that a Kezdai scout had infiltrated the complex and killed his daughter before Kuro killed him.

"Very sad," Kuro mourned. "I miss Serina."

"I do too, Kuro." The orca's sentiment choked him up slightly.

"Is Kaethan here?"

"No, he was hurt very badly in the fighting. He's still in a hospital, now."

"Will he live?"

"Yes. I'll be taking him back to Angelrath soon, though. They can care for him better there."

"Tell him to see me when he gets back."

"I will."

The colonel smiled for the first time since he had heard that Serina had been killed. Kuro's concern touched him deeply.

"Is Peter okay?" Toman remembered Serina's co-worker, the one that Kuro would play rough with.

"Peter is okay, but he will be very busy for a long time. No time to play with me."

"What will you do while they reconstruct the institute?"

"I'm not sure. Perhaps I will join the Coast Guard. Perhaps Delas would like me guarding their coasts."

Colonel Ishida laughed, not so much at the idea as at her phrasing.

"You would help us fight if the Kezdai came back?" the colonel asked.

"Of course," Kuro answered flatly. "Earthlings must stick together."

Colonel Ishida remained smiling as he reconstructed some paradigms that he had formed regarding orcas. The thought of his species finally finding an ally was pleasing to Toman. But perhaps they always had one, but never bothered to ask.

"You are right, Kuro," he said. "We should stick together."

 

NEWS EXCERPT. 33 Early Summer, 104:3381. Brigadier General Toman Ishida of the Line, commander of the Bolos that defended Delas against the Kezdai invasion, today announced his retirement from the Dinochrome Brigade. After fifty-five years of service, twenty-seven of which in command of the 39th Terran Lancers, the recently promoted general declared that he planned to remain on Angelrath to spend more time with his son, who is recovering from serious injuries suffered in the fighting on Delas. The two Bolos of the 39th will remain on Delas until they are rotated out of the sector early next year. They are scheduled for an unspecified refit . . .

In other news, Rear Admiral Josef Santi, Naval Sector Commander at Angelrath, announced today that the Concordiat has denied his request for an offensive to be mounted against the Kezdai, stating lack of resources. In response, Admiral Santi has requested strong reinforcements be sent to the sector when the 39th is rotated out. Asked whether he expected further incursions, Santi only mentioned the obvious dangers in allowing an attacker to escape without punishment.

* * *

The Kezdai council chamber was a bright and spacious auditorium, built with large blocks of blue-veined white stone over five centuries before. Redesigns and armed rebellions had altered its appearance over the years. Only the foundation remained of the original stone blocks that once rose up in flying buttresses fifty meters high. The building design was far simpler now, but still impressive. Open gas-lit flames burned eternally from cauldrons mounted in the stone uprights, placed more for effect than for their lighting. Large wooden beams, highly prized on a desert world such as this, supported the tall ceiling and braced the uprights, giving the room an anachronistic aura.

Pendants and flags hung from poles and rafters, declaring which of the forty-seven ruling clans claimed what section of seats.

And all the seats were filled this night with warriors thirsty for blood, and thousands more crowded the view screens outside. Great plans were being laid while age-old enemies were forgotten. The Mor-verridai himself spoke before the gathered Is-kaldai, rising from his dwindling existence with a passion never before seen. He delivered to them a stirring proclamation of war as one would throw raw meat to a pack of ravenous Ethretsau.

Brooding alone in his place of prominence was Is-kaldai Khoriss, seated in his crimson robe, its left sleeve falling empty of the arm that should have been there. As one eye stared, unblinking, at the spectacle before him, only an iron plate was strapped over the place where his left eye should have been. His look was menacing, and the Mor-verridai avoided his eye even when declaring his brother Keertra hero and martyr.

To which Khorris almost laughed.

Even now the new Is-kaldai was reconsidering his choice not to follow through with his brother's plans. A deep bitterness had lodged in his soul, born from his wounds, and the deaths of so many, so needlessly wrought. A craving for vengeance, too, was there, burning as brightly for the Humans as for all those around him who sent him down to that planet unsupported. If Keertra could see him now, Khoriss mused, he'd be pleased.

But Keertra was gone, his body burned this morning and his ashes thrown to the wind. Khoriss had no final words to say, remaining as quiet as he was when the guards woke him onboard their flagship to tell him of his brother's fate. The sight of Keertra, lying on the bloody deck with Irriessa's surias through his left eye had been stunning enough without the addition of Irriessa's lifeless corpse nearby, and the pistol-blasted body of the small human outside that supposedly killed them both and then tried to escape. Such was the official story that few could believe, but its alternatives were too divisive to portray to the Council. Tonight great plans would be laid, and nothing could be allowed to divert them from their path.

\

 

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