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Dog Soldier

by Garth Nix

The seven rings of Syrene shine
Like glowing disks in a nazdra mine
Burning brighter than fusion fire . . .


"How long is this bullshit going to last?" Assault Sergeant Gillies whispered to his neighbor, Base Sergeant Major Traut.

"Long as it wants to," Traut muttered back. "It's the CG's poem. Lukas is just reading it."

"The golden whorl of Syrene's seas

"Swirl in torrents as they please . . ."

"Didn't Syrene take a Xene transformer bomb in '06?" whispered Gillies.

"Yeah," replied Traut. "But it was partially damped. Navy showed up just in time. Mind you, Syrene was a real dump before the trannie bomb. The xeneform went about halfway. Gave the planet dust rings and turned the oceans sort of murky yellow with sparkly bits. Killed everyone at the time, of course. But the general's from one of the later settlements. Tourist operators."

"So come to Syrene, make a start

"But be prepared to lose your heart."

"More like your wallet," Traut added in an aside to Gillies, as thunderous applause filled the amphitheatre. It wasn't actually the end of the poem, but the troops couldn't cope with any more, so they'd taken advantage of a meaningful pause to clap. Since it was officially rec-time, the clapping was swiftly followed by an exodus to the low port accessway, and the fallway to the Other Ranks Club.

Gillies and Traut waited for the initial rush to subside, let the few unfortunate officers who been trapped into attending go, then made a stately exit to the topside ascensor, heading for the sergeant's mess.

As the ascensor lift gripped him, Gillies looked back at Lukas, to see whether he was still going with the poem. But the unfortunate Lieutenant Lukas, head of the Cultural Events committee, was obviously receiving some fairly harsh words over his implant com. Probably a critique from the commanding general for his stupidity in pausing long enough for the troops to applaud, Gillies thought. Just as he was wondering what it would be like to get a personal tongue-lashing from Major General Orosonne, his own tongue tingled, alerting him to a communication.

"Sergeant Gillies, this is ComOp. You back on?"

"Uh, not exactly. What have you got?" Gillies subvocalized.

"Got a Navy 'at your convenience.' Report to Dock Three, navy cargo master. Logged at 2130. ComOp Out."

"Got it," Gillies affirmed. Traut, seeing the characteristic twitch of the muscles in his neck, raised her single surviving eyebrow in query—a characteristic gesture that could make junior officers and other ranks whimper, but Gillies and Traut were old comrades.

"A navy 'when you can but right now would be best if you don't want me to complain to the captain,'" Gillies explained. "Dock Three."

"Time for a drink first, then," said Traut genially, touching her ID bracelet against the sergeant's mess door. It slid back, revealing a glimpse of walnut paneling (ersatz), thick rugs (tylarn), leather lounges (havax cloth), alcoholic beverages (synthesized), and senior NCOs (not strictly human).

"No, I'd better get over there. The navy's probably caught one of my people trying to steal a cargo vessel or something. Who's cargo master on Three?"

"Berzis. Chief P.O. Rule merchant. Bit of a shithead."

"Can't be theft, then. Berzis would just call the MPs for inter-service borrowing. If it doesn't take too long, I'll take you up on that drink."

"Okay," said Traut. "But you might want an early night. The whisper is a full-sim boarding ex tomorrow for your lot. 0320 or thereabouts. A surprise."

She smiled, made an unorthodox salute in the direction of the Second Battalion HQ, topside and starboard, and disappeared into the mess. Gillies turned back to the ascensor, cursing the battalion CO. They'd only just got back from an on-planet assault exercise. Hostile environment, pulling 3Gs, in an atmosphere pretty much the same as the shit they cleaned the drains with back on the garrison station. Full-sim meant occasional live fire too, which was why Gillies was temporarily in charge of the assault engineer platoon. The lieutenant had been shuttled out yesterday, back to civilization and a hospital where they could regrow his left hand and eye, instead of the combat replacement prosthetics the garrison hospital practically bolted on before sending you back out.

Not that there was an "out" just at the moment. The Fourth Xene War had ended three years before, in a series of inconclusive engagements in the Hogawan system, resulting in an armed truce. Which was why the 203rd Marine Brigade was in garrison, on a navy-run converted battlewagon, brought out of mothballs and put in orbit around the distasteful Hogawan VI. The Xenes had a similar operation in orbit around the Earth-like Hogawan III. Needless to say, the Xenes wanted H-VI and the Terrans wanted H-III. But they weren't prepared to swap. Not for the first time, Gillies considered what might happen if the troops on both sides simply shot the politicians and did a deal on the real estate. The only problem was it took about five years to learn Xene trade talk, mostly spent in learning to operate six prosthetic feelers, simulating the ones that grew out of the lump that could loosely be described as a Xene's head. Gillies had heard that the process wasn't totally reversible, either.

The ascensor bottomed out on Deck Minus, and Gillies transferred to the ring-about that would take him in a circle halfway around the ship's hull to Dock Three. The ring-about clanked every ten meters, but that was a comfortable reminder that the old TNS Sable Basilisk had extra armor bonded on in ten-meter-wide slabs, for its next but last incarnation as a planetary bombardment station. The ring-about had been converted from the missile feeder system that ran between the old and the new armor belt.

Clank-clank-clank-clank-ping-brrrr. The ping was the programmed stop for Dock Three, and the Brrr was a gravity alert. Gillies left the capsule, pushing off for a controlled somersault to the exterior rails of the cargo master's eyrie. The dock was in zero g, though there was no reason why it should be. Except that the navy pretended to like zero g.

Gillies climbed inside the eyrie, where two vac-suited figures hung relatively upside down, their visors open, fingers flying over checkcomps. Gillies spun himself, clipped on to the rail, and reoriented opposite the one with the swirling galaxies on his suit sleeves.

"Chief Berzis. Assault Sergeant Gillies."

"Oh yeah . . . Sergeant Gillies. We've got a bit of a problem."

"Okay. Who is it and what have they done?" Gillies asked resignedly. He tried to think if he'd accidentally asked the boys and girls to steal something. All it took was a slip of the tongue, like, "Okay, so those stargazing perverts might have a one-portable slipscan, but we don't. So let's see this one put together in under three minutes . . ."

"Don't worry, Sergeant. It's nothing like that. Fact is, we've got a shipment for you. Or part of one."

"A shipment?"

"Yeah. All the way from Sol. Pallas R&D, to be exact. Only there's supposed to be more of it."

"Pallas R&D? Addressed to me? I don't know anyone at Pallas."

"It's not personal, Sergeant. ComOp says you're acting OC of the assault engineer platoon of 2 Battalion, and that's who it's for. Some sort of new equipment you're supposed to trial, according to the transhipment explanation anyway. The only problem is that one cap is missing. Been missing since Syrene, four stops away."

"What's in the missing capsule?"

"If the manifest's right, you're missing all the frageware documentation. The instruction data, the specs, the familiarity program. The other cap, which we are about to present to you, lucky Sergeant Gillies, is the hardware. Only. Please tag the slate."

Gillies shook his head, but took the slate, read the details of the receipt, then pressed his ID bracelet against it. The slate didn't do anything until the cargo master tapped it briskly, then it flashed and gave a confirming beep, followed by a slow voice, "Log-ged at oh-seven-seven . . . ." The cargo master tapped it again, and the slate hiccupped, before continuing, "Correction . . . twenty-one fifty-two. Thank you."

"Piece of shit," muttered Berzis. "The cap's over there. Green decal, orafluoro stripes, number 0122. See it?"

"Got it," said Gillies. "Thanks, Chief. I think."

"Wait till he sees what's inside," Berzis muttered to his offsider, as Gillies adjusted the antigrav on the capsule and let it drag him over to the ring-about. "Pallas R&D! The R must be for retarded and the D for, uh, D for . . ."

"Deadheads?" suggested the offsider.

Gillies took the cap down to the assault engineers workroom, checked the hazard symbols, and opened it. Naturally, this revealed more packaging, and when he'd stripped that off, still more packaging—some sort of anodized foil with a quick release ring. Gillies pulled it, looked at what was inside, leapt back, and only just prevented himself from slapping the emergency alert panel, which would open the weapon lockers, jolt every trooper on the ship in the tongue, and alert the bridge.

There was a life-form in the capsule. A thing. It was about knee-high, had a sort of cylindrical body with a smaller cylindrical head, six legs, and a tail. It was shiny black all over, and it was alive. Its head moved. It had two eyes. They looked at Gillies, and it stretched, the six legs going from sort of rubbery multijointed stilts to stiff supports. Its mouth opened, revealing a hideously wet, yellow maw and enormous saw-edged blue teeth. It yawned, snorted, and let out a sharp, short noise.

Gillies tongued his implant and subvocalized.

"ComOp. This is Gillies in 77AE1. Get me two MPs on the double with stunzers and netweb."

"Done. Alert?"

"Local seal. Standby. Info duty officer, possible Life-form Haz."

Gillies edged around the capsule, looking for the instruction reader that he'd seen in with the life form. The thing watched him, and licked its lips. Its tongue was also yellow.

The sergeant slowly reached for the reader, which had fallen on the floor a foot away from the creature. It stepped out of the capsule and also looked at the instructions. Gillies reached again, a bit closer. The thing edged closer too. Gillies lunged. So did the creature. Blue teeth snapped on the reader, and the thing jumped back in the capsule. The sergeant jumped back too, almost colliding with the two marine police who burst through the door, stunzer and netweb at the reader.

"Stun it!" shouted Gillies, but the MPs didn't need to be told. The one with the stunzer fired. Several times. All it did was make the creature jump out of the capsule and advance on them again. Then the other MP fired the netweb, and the creature fell over in a writhing mass of rapidly ballooning threads.

It had dropped the reader to snap at its bonds. Gillies snatched the unit up and flicked it on; as the MPs watched the thing begin to successfully chew its way through the supposedly super-toughened web. One MP looked anxiously at the emergency alert panel and twitched. The other, older one was obviously subvocalizing something, but Gillies wasn't on their net. Besides, he was reading. Quickly.

"Purple Perseans . . . patrol the . . . perimeter . . . of Pair-sepol-eyes," he shouted, as the thing bit through the last strands of netweb around its forelegs. Nothing happened. Gillies looked at the reader again, keyed for phonetic, and hastily reread the sentence.

"Purple Persians . . . patrol the . . . perimeter of . . . Per-sep-olis."

The thing suddenly froze in place, three of its six legs in the air.

"What happened?" asked the nervous MP. Gillies noticed he didn't take his hand too far away from the alert panel.

"Code phrase for deactivation," replied Gillies. "Apparently Xene mockers can't pronounce alliterative series starting with p. That's what it says here, anyway."

"What is that thing?" asked the other MP. He'd just subvocalized something that Gillies suspected was the cancellation of an armored squad with boarding weapons.

Gillies scrolled the reader back to the introduction, and keyed it for speech. Typically, it had an accented voice that made it difficult to follow, instead of using the military standard inflections.

"This unit is a Combat Candroid DOG 01A prototype. Designed for support use with assault engineer units, the DOG 01A is a sophisticated artificial lifeform. For reasons of durability, the body is mechanical, with a high survivability in all but Class 10X environments. Lightly armored, the DOG 01A is impervious to low-powered radiant, sonic, or projectile weapons and highly resistant to Xene solvents. Its Central Intelligence Unit is based on a Sysicram 310 multiproc, with a prototype biological intelligence and personality transfer from a Terran natural life-form, the dog variant known as a collie-shepherd cross. Prototype frageware interfaces this natural personality with the special requirements of different environments and the specialized tasks of an assault engineer unit.

"This reader has further categories: Packing Instructions, Unpacking Instructions, Basic PowerUp, and Emergency Shutdown. For full specifications, run-in procedure, and operational instructions, see separate reader CCAN-DOG-01A, classified Operational Secret. This reader is classified as Restricted. Have a nice day."

"Personality transfer?" asked the nervous MP.

"It means that this thing thinks it's a live animal," replied Gillies. "A Terran dog. Whatever that is. You guys aren't from Sol are you?"

"Nephreus Prime."

"Jaminor IV," replied the older one. "I doubt there's anyone on Garrison from Terra. We've got a corporal from Sol Belt, but she's on one of the picquet ships. I'll call ComOp and see who they can come up with."

"Don't bother," said Gillies. "Our battalion quartermaster is supposed to be Terran—I'll talk to him tomorrow."

"You just going to leave that thing here?" asked the young MP. He still seemed nervous.

"Yeah," said Gillies. "I'll secure this reader, so it won't be able to PowerUp. Who knows, the other capsule might show up too, with the full order set."

"It's your responsibility," shrugged the older MP. "Come on, Nerik. Zoo tour over. Good luck, Sergeant."

"Thanks," said Gillies, eyeing the DOG with a jaundiced look. It was already 2305, and if there was going to be an alert at 0320, he wanted to be up and ready at 0250. He just hoped that neither the CO nor the company commander were aware that he was supposed to be checking out this new equipment, or they'd want to take it on the exercise.

"So where is the DOG unit you're evaluating, Sergeant?" Colonel Kjaskle asked as she marched down the first rank of the assault engineer platoon, her martinet's eye running over the armored shapes standing stiffly at attention, looking for any deviation from the standard equipment or procedures. "And why is Private Loposhin's field cutter fixed on his right sleeve?"

"Half the DOG shipment didn't come in, sir," Gillies snapped, all too aware of the gleaming capsule in the corner of the ready room. "No frageware instructions. And Loposhin's left arm rider has a malfunctioning connect, sir, temporarily US."

"Then get him out and down to Cyber," Kjaskle snapped. "Memo to adjutant: 'Check tech workshop wait times. Report by 1200.' The DOG unit works doesn't it?"

"Ah, yes, sir," Gillies replied unhappily. "But I don't know the command phrases or its capabilities."

"It has an artificial persona, I believe, Sergeant," the CO replied. "Treat it like a real dog. The exercise will be delayed till the DOG unit is ready to deploy. You have fifteen minutes, Sergeant Gillies. Copy to all OC, Bridge, BrigCom. Ex restart 0335. And we'll change it to a planetary search and destroy. All subunits deploy to drop stations. Orders Group in ten."

Gillies snapped a salute, ordered the platoon to reequip for planet action and drop, and watched the colonel's back as she marched on to the heavy weapons platoon ready room, the adjutant and RSM marching behind, catching a steady stream of orders.

"Treat it like a real dog," he muttered to himself. He'd forgotten the colonel's last assignment had been in Sol. Staff College on Mars. There were probably hundreds of dogs there. He tongued his impcom. "ComOp. Gillies. Get me BQMS Skuarren. Urgent."

Fortunately, "Sublight" Skuarren was on duty, and so it only took two or three minutes for the ComOp to convince him that he had to talk to Gillies. Sublight, being both a hundred and fifty-year veteran and a quartermaster, considered himself to be a sort of independent prince, and gave rare audiences. He probably should have been retired, but since he'd started his career back when starships were sublight and subject to temporal dilation, no one could figure out how old he actually was. It was also rumored that his retirement payout would be so huge that the Paymaster was hoping he'd die first.

"Gillies? Assault engineers, huh? I was an assault sergeant for a while, son. Back in the First War. Lost a hand when a mini-sun novaed prematurely when we were burning through the Xene flagship off Parast. Then the damned trauma seal malfunctioned and cut off my whole damn arm! Had a prosthetic one for about ten years before I could get a new one grown back. Hell of a thing, that prosthetic . . . what? Terran dogs? Yeah. A what? A collie? Nice dog, may be a bit gentle. Shepherd cross? German shepherd, that'd be. No, nothing to do with bacterial weapons. Germany is a subunit of Terra. Of course I know. I used to have a Labrador—that's another variant, son—when we were doing police work on Nightwing. Commands? The usual stuff. Sit, walk, find, retrieve, stay, attack, heel . . . no, it means follow close by your heels. On your boots. The part at the back. You call it what? Where are you from, son? Brink II! Shit, son, I was part of the relief force that recaptured Brink. More commands? Okay, I'll see what I can remember, and zap it down on the dataline. Enjoy your exercise, Sergeant. I hope it's a good dog."

Ten hours later, Sergeant Gillies was pretty sure that even if it was a good dog, he didn't like it. They'd hit the planet at 0400, deploying in squad-sized drop saucers, and the DOG had been out the hatch as soon as it opened, without waiting for a command. It had run backward and forward around him as he'd disembarked, and got in the way of the initial scans. Then, when the whole battalion had moved off toward the simulated enemy defense area, the DOG had raced out in front of the lead scouts, confusing them and everybody else. Luckily, Gillies had remembered "heel" and transmitted it at once, but to add insult to injury, the DOG communicated on one of the spare bands that Gillies had assigned as a private channel for him and the three squad leaders. Now, it was interrupted all the time by sharp, strident noises from the DOG. It seemed to make them every time it found something.

To be fair, it found things with considerable efficiency, turning up several booby traps or fixed auto weapons several minutes before Gillie's slipscan teams. But it was only a few minutes, and the sergeant didn't really think it was worth the aggravation.

The DOG had been useful in the assault too, demoralizing the defenders (from the brigade's HQ company) by digging through a frozen oxygen rampart and then springing out in a heavy weapons emplacement, blue teeth and six sets of claws scoring faceplates and shredding exterior aerials and the like. No one had been hurt by the DOG—which seemed to understand it was an exercise—but it certainly put them off long enough for a squad to gee-vault in and finish them off with low-en simulated plasma dotters.

Now, on the shuttle going back up to Garrison, Gillies noticed that the DOG must have purposefully rolled around on one of the crystalline "plant-mats" that grew on Hogawan VII, because long lines of furry crystals were now growing on its black body, giving it the appearance of long hair. The crystals were harmless, but Gillies eyed it with misgiving. Bald was good enough for marines, it ought to be good enough for an auxiliary animal. The DOG seemed to notice he was looking, because it put its head back and thrust its tongue out at him, while its tail rotated in eccentric circles. Probably an insult, Gillies thought.

Suddenly, his suit com squawked into life, and his tongue tingled with the sensation of a red alert. The troopers around him in the shuttle's shockwebs suddenly jerked upright, and the DOG sprang to its feet. Gillies felt every inch of his skin suddenly contract, like being dumped in freezing water, as the shuttle energized its protective shield. It was followed a moment later by the controlled but excited voice of the naval duty officer.

"Red! Nilsim! All hands, close up for action."

There was a pause, then Colonel Kjaskle came on the all troops channel.

"Listen up, marines! An unauthorized craft is approaching the interdicted zone. Fighters are vectoring to intercept. We're going in behind to board. The craft looks like a Xene battle barge, but it's all on its own. This is not a simulation. Nilsim. Company and platoon commanders stand by for orders."

The colonel clicked off and Gillies spoke quickly, before she came on the command channel directly.

"Pull safety tags and sim buttons and cross-check with your team."

Seconds later, the colonel spoke to Gillies directly. "Gillies. We've got an ID on the battle barge. A Xene renegade, probably a suicide run for the garrison. It's pointed straight at it on full acceleration, and the navy isn't positive they can totally vaporize it without some debris hitting the garrison and attendant craft. So we've got to clean up— and only your shuttle and 2nd Platoon, A Company are close enough for immediate intercept. That's the situation. Orders. Two-A platoon will take the bridge. Your assault engineer platoon will secure the engine room. Scan downloading now. From the schematics, it looks like a standard battle barge, but don't take it for granted, they're running a full screen. Do it by the book, exactly as you've done before. Any questions?"

"No, sir," replied Gillies, as he studied the schematics displayed just in front of his eyes on the upper part of the visor. "We'll cut in the trailing cargo hold and deploy from there."

"Sounds good to me, Sergeant," said the CO. "Take it away."

"Okay, children, listen in!" Gillies said. "We're going in to take the engine room of this battle barge. It looks like a Xene suicide ram, so we've got the important job. But I want it nice and careful, okay? Smazl, your squad will be on scan and support, Wattson, your guys'll do the drill-in and blow. I'll go with Nreda's squad, and we'll do the assault. The schematics look just like the sim we did last month, but don't take it for granted. Okay. The trailing cargo bay is the cut-in, core bulkhead the scan and blow, and then the aft hatch of that corridor behind I'll mini-sun for the assault party. Drop in four-thirty-two. Any questions?"

There were no questions. The DOG looked like it would ask questions if it could talk, and Gillies realized he hadn't thought about what it would do. Stay with him, he guessed, if it had an EVA capability.

"Okay. Three minutes. Seal and energize. Weapons—ready! Load and set! Take up boarding positions."

Gillies slapped his own faceplate down and checked the suit telltales, before arming his in-built and carried weapons and setting the safety switches. Finally, he stood up, locked his boots into position on the floor, and called the bridge, while his eyes ran over the men and women of the platoon, checking the readiness telltales, which didn't always sync up with his helmet display. The DOG, he noticed, had automatically assumed the drop position when everyone else did.

"Platoon ready for boarding. Open boarding hatch and stand by for drop."

"Confirmed. Okay, you marines! Boarding hatch opening, standby for gravity alert. Two point five gees matched with the target. Good luck!"

The floor in front of Gillies suddenly slid away, revealing open space. He couldn't see the Xene craft because of the shield interference, but his locator beam was already on it, locking in on his chosen drop point. It flashed a yellow warning in his helmet, and then red, as the ejection field picked up the entire platoon and hurled them into space.

Gravity hit like a sucker punch, more than the 2.5 g the shuttle pilot had indicated, and the heavens wheeled around the faceplate as Gillies spun toward the enemy vessel. The suit's autopilot was firing pulsion units to stop the spin, but Gillies assumed control and merely slowed it, so he could get his bearings. A few seconds later, he felt his skin crawl again, as he passed through the enemy energy field. That made him susceptible to fire, so he upped the acceleration and started jinking, while his suit fired chaff and tiny distorter missiles. Around him, everyone in the platoon was doing the same, as the squads sorted themselves into a rough formation for the landing.

The first squad hit and established a scan perimeter, taking out two enemy autoguns as they did so; Wattson's squad pancaked in and drillers flared white, sparking fountains of light. Gillies kept the other squad matched to the ship's vector, in a rough circle about twenty meters above the hull. Experience had shown that a band about four meters deep existed here, where the enemy's ship-mounted AP weapons couldn't bear. A frageware glitch probably, but one common to this type of vessel. Gillies hoped it was still current.

Down on the hull, Wattson's troops finished drilling and starting placing charges in the boreholes to finish the breach. Wattson came over the com.

"Two minutes, from my mark. Mark!"

The circle on the deck suddenly expanded, as both squads opened up the perimeter to allow room for the blast. The cutting charges were supposed to be unidirectional—inward—but it never seemed to totally work that way. Gillies, up above, opened up his perimeter too, and as Wattson said, "Three seconds!" they all flipped to take the flash and blast debris on their back armor.

Wattson's "one" was lost in the com interference from the micronukes, but the flash was clear enough. Gillies counted, "One, two," then somersaulted and jetted for what he hoped was a gaping hole through the outer hull into a cargo bay. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the DOG was close behind him, its crystalline hair wavering as pulsors from its legs delivered sudden changes of direction.

The breach was there, twenty meters in diameter, with molten metal still bleeding off in all directions, and the Xene's chlorine atmosphere boiling out like green steam.

"Go to wavescan," Gillies instructed the assaulting squad, and his visor suddenly cleared to show a simulated real-time view of what everything looked like without the gases. The hull was cleanly breached, revealing a large, empty cargo hold. The assault squad raced in through the breach, leapfrogging in alternate pairs along the notional floor and walls of the hold. The enemy ship was maintaining an artificial gravity of about 0.2 g, but this was wasn't enough for full gravity tactics. Two marines bounced off the walls to the coreward bulkhead, the first running a deepscan across the bulkhead, the second slapping a long ribbon-shaped cutting charge on the point indicated by the scan. The bomber then went left as the scanner went right, and five seconds later there was an explosion and a door-sized hole in the bulkhead. Another marine moved up and flipped flechette grenades through, to cover each end of the corridor on the other side of the bulkhead. Immediately they exploded, two marines dived through, and plasma dotters fired, almost simultaneously with a Xene greyband. There was a muffled exclamation on com.

"One Xene down in the corridor, none in range," said Corporal Nreda. "I've taken a greyband hit on the leg, lost ablat, knee joint's immobilized."

"Okay," snapped Gillies as he bounded forward. "Stay there and cover the topside approach. I'm coming through. Smazl, stay hullside and secure. Wattson, come through when we're into the engine room."

He dived through the bulkhead hole, and cursed as the DOG dived too, almost colliding with him as he flipped to take the impact on his legs. Nreda was firing again, to the left, and the flare from the stream of microscopic plasma dots was causing part of his faceplate to polarize and the wavescan view was chopping up. The marine to his right indicated the aft hatch, then flew hullward and sticktered herself against the corridor "roof," to get a good firing position when Gillies sunned the door.

The sergeant locked himself feet first on the "wall," at right angles to the other two marines, and unclipped the black globe of the mini-sun from his belt. He aimed it at the hatch, thumb securely pressing the safety interlock switch, while his suitcomp downloaded the instructions that would define both the protective field and the arc of destruction. As Gillies raised his thumb, he thought of Sublight's story about losing an arm—but that had been an earlier model. Below him, the DOG unit seemed to see the weapon for the first time, and it pressed itself totally flat on the floor and tucked its head in between its front legs. Then Gillies let the mini-sun go.

It worked perfectly. The globe flew forward, and the instant before it hit the hatch, raised a protective field in a hemisphere behind it, while vaporizing everything in a hemisphere in front of it. The hatch, part of the aft bulkhead, and two Xene warriors several meters behind the hatch just disappeared. The half of the globe that had generated the field continued in its trajectory, rebounding from the far bulkhead of the room.

The marine on the roof fired as Gillies went in below her, the DOG at his reboos, or heels as Sublight called them. She missed whatever she was aiming at, and a millisecond later, she was hit by a rocket-propelled greyband capsule, the Xene organic solvent eating into her armor as she frantically activated the shedding process that would slough off her outer ablative layer.

Gillies's comp tracked the launch, and he instinctively fired back with his in-built arm dotter, taking a Xene as it dived to new cover. At that same second, Gillies realized that this room wasn't the engine control room. The schematics were wrong. He anchored himself behind a panel and called his squad leaders.

"Smazl! Get a scan team down here to me! Wattson! Report! Nreda, where's the rest of the fucking squad?"

"We're under fire, boss! Big counterattack—ambush—they're coming out of the fucking forr'd hold . . . the boat deck . . . they're everywhere!"

Gillies had to check his comp to see who was talking, the voice was almost hysterical, totally unlike Smazl. Before he could answer, Wattson came over the com, speaking fast.

"Smazl just went down, Sarge! His troopies are in hand-to-hand, I'll counter-attack up the hold rim before they're overrun. At least fifty warriors . . ."

"Okay!" Gillies snapped. "Wattson, hold your attack, there's too many of them. Get Smazl's squad to fall back if they can. Nreda, join your squad with Wattson's and establish a defensive position around the hold for a hot insertion by reinforcements. Wattson, you're in command, contact the CO and ask for some goddamn help. I'm going on for the engine room."

Gillies hardly heard the affirmatives of Nreda and Wattson. They knew as well as he did that there might not be any reinforcements if he couldn't stop or at least slow the battle barge long enough for the rest of the battalion to catch up. And in the worst-case scenario, the navy might have to try and take the barge out even with the marines still fighting onboard. Gillies would have to try and find the engine room without a scan team.

Boosting his suit scans to maximum, the sergeant moved his head from side to side, hoping that some aberrant energy emission would show up. One did, but visual observation showed it to be the DOG unit. Gillies looked at it, and suddenly wondered if the Pallas R&D people really were as stupid as everyone thought.

"Okay, DOG," he transmitted to it. "Where's the engine room?"

The DOG's ears pricked up and it moved its head sideways, as if listening, but it didn't do anything.

"DOG-01, locate engine room!" Gillies snapped. Again, the DOG looked like it was intently listening, but it still didn't do anything.

"DOG-01, search for the engine room . . ." Gillies tried, a little halfheartedly. He knew the DOG could locate things—it just needed the right command.


Gillies suddenly remembered the old codger was going to download a list of commands on the dataline. Quickly, he accessed his comp. Sure enough, there was a stored low priority send from BQMS Skuarren. He activated it, and Sublight's familiar voice filled his ears.

"I got that full list of commands, son. Would you believe it? That second capsule came to me with a batch of left-handed spinsticks. I've been scrolling it all morning, and those guys on Pallas sure have a sense of humor. Must be some old-timers there like me . . ."

Gillies hit fast-forward, as his helmet telltales showed two new casualties among Smazl's squad. Six of Smazl's ten marines were either dead or their suits were, and there five casualties among the other two squads. He had to find the engine room!

"Okay, Sergeant, the basic command menu follows. There's some real funny stuff, but it sure is a good DOG."

Gillies listened intently to the stream of one-word commands and two- or three-word groups, till he heard the one he wanted. It was incredibly obvious, but he didn't waste time worrying about that.

"DOG . . . FIND . . . ENGINE . . . ROOM."

The pauses were important apparently. Something else Xene mockers couldn't handle properly. They had no sense of rhythm.

The DOG shot up from the deck, its head went down, and it rotated through a complex sphere. Apparently finding some scantrail or trace, it then used its pulsors to head off toward the coreward hatch. Gillies followed along the wall, using his stickters, plasma dotter tracking just above the DOG's head. According to the schematics, this hatch led to a drop shaft to a drive inspection chamber, but the schematics were clearly wrong.

The DOG pawed at the hatch, and then looked back at Gillies. He nodded, and said, "Heel!" as he readied his last mini-sun. The DOG obeyed with alacrity. Gillies trained the mini-sun on the hatch, let it compute, then raised his thumb.

Something did go wrong with this one, but Gillies wasn't sure what it was, as he was knocked back across the room and momentarily stunned by the blast. Coming to, he instinctively bounced behind cover, twisting himself so he could cover the hatch. Even as he rolled, a greyband capsule struck near his feet, and the solvent spewed out, seeking marine armor. Gillies activated the mechanism that would shuck the first ablative layer, and returned fire. His dotter struck a Xene warrior who was charging through a gaping hole where the coreward hatch used to be. The alien, despite being hit through the midsection, kept on coming.

Behind him, Gillies saw the DOG unit rolling around on the ground with another Xene, and behind them, he saw the characteristic tall panels of a Xene ship's engine control room. But before he could use the com, the gut-shot Xene was on top of him, thrusting with a small trident in each of its three combat arms. Gillies jumped backward, and activated the forceblades in his gauntlets. Two bright-blue beams, each sixty centimeters long, shot out just in time for him to parry the Xene's trident attacks.

Sparks flew as forceblade met trident field. Gillies caught the two main attacks, but was too slow on the third, and a trident skewed off his blade to sink into the left side of his armor. It didn't penetrate to skin, but it didn't have to. The Xene twisted the handle, and the remaining field charge earthed itself, shorting out most of Gillies' systems. His whole left side locked up, and his sinister beam faded to nothing. Desperately, Gillies fired his back pulsors, throwing himself forward in a mad lunge with the functioning forceblade, expecting to feel the other tridents in his chest.

But the Xene toppled over, smashed into the floor, and rebounded with Gillies on top of him. Before the alien could recover, Gillies thrust his forceblade through its chest exhaust, the savage blow sending him into a spin that he couldn't control. Out of the corner of his helmet, he saw the DOG propel itself out from under the Xene's anterior limbs, where it had struck as he'd shoved.

"Well done," Gillies sent, remembering the order codes Sublight had sent down. But there was no answer: only an ominous vibration deep in his cheekbones. Quickly, Gillies flipped through the other channels, without success. He couldn't get a full damage control readout, but the emergency telltales inside his helmet told him his motor controls were shot, there was significant loss of suit environment, and the trident charge was still ravaging his suit systems. He'd probably be dead inside twenty minutes—with everyone else from his own platoon and Two Platoon as well, if he couldn't get to the drive controls and shut it down.

The controls were little more than five meters away, and there were no Xene defenders in the way. But Gillies was unable to move, his arms and legs twitching uselessly, bound in armor that had effectively lost its nervous system. He was writhing uselessly on the notional floor under 0.2 g, but even the low gravity couldn't help him.

Quickly, Gillies assessed his options. The DOG unit looked to be fully functional, but it couldn't receive his commands. He looked down at it, and it looked up at him.

"Come here!" Gillies tried, but there was no response. Desperately, he tried again. Still, the DOG just stared up at him. He tried gesturing to it to come closer, but only a few of his fingers moved. He tried again, with his other hand. No fingers, but the wrist flopped backward and forward, like a clockwork obscene gesture.

The DOG seemed to understand that, because it unwrapped its tail, and jetted up to Gillies, doing an elegant flip-over halfway that put its tail next to Gillies's helmet. He wondered what the hell it was doing, till his damage control telltales showed one restored com circuit. The DOG's tail was its antenna and input fiber, and it had just plugged into his suit phone.

"Well done!" Gillies exclaimed again. The tail wagged a little, but not too much. Praying that his message log wasn't destroyed, Gillies summoned up Sublight's message again. It worked, and this time he ran through all the codes, using up a precious five minutes of his remaining life support. But it was worth it. The DOG's command language was surprisingly sophisticated when groups of words were used, and it hinted at equally sophisticated capabilities.

"DOG! DESTROY . . . ENEMY . . . ENGINE . . . CONTROL . . . PANELS . . . IN . . . VISUAL . . . RANGE . . . AND . . . RETURN!"

The DOG detached itself, and sped over to the engine room. Gillies watched in fascination as it moved to each panel, and a cutting lance shot out of its nose, melting through the armored covers of key fiber junctions. Then, a blue claw went in, and came out festooned with broken fibers and the Xene's curious half-sentient chips, their metallic blood boiling out into vacuum. Luminescent trails on the panels died. When the second-last panel dimmed, Gillies skin crawled as the ship's screen pulsed and died. When the last panel faded into darkness, his stomach told him he was in zero g. The artificial gravity was off and the ship was no longer accelerating.

The DOG jetted back, and reconnected. Gillies smiled and nodded at it.

"GOOD . . . DOG! Very good!"

The rest of the battalion shuttles would intercept all the sooner now, maybe even soon enough to save Gillies's platoon. They could even be landing now, for all he knew. But it was too late for him. The suit said he had less than five minutes of atmosphere left, and they'd never get to him in time. Wearily, he tried to think of something he could do, something to add to the simple equation of not enough air and a broken suit. Salvage atmos tanks from one of his dead marines back in the hold? He couldn't get to them. He was too tired, and he couldn't move anyway. He might as well just go to sleep . . .

With a jerk, he twitched himself awake, and checked the telltales again. The suit had cut him to half pressure—he wasn't getting enough oxygen. He couldn't think. There was the DOG, maybe it could get him the atmos tanks, but once again, he couldn't think of the commands. His head felt like he'd just gone through a gravity flux. He couldn't remember the commands, the commands. Only the one Sublight thought was funny, though Gillies didn't know why. Maybe it was Sublight's joke, and it wasn't a real command, but it sounded like just the right thing for the situation.

Half unconscious, Gillies muttered the command that would save his life.

"Lassie. Get help."

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