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And this Victor is fully capable of raking them in, a Bolo Mark XXXIII of the 4th Regiment, Second Brigade, First Confederation Mobile Army Corps, in the vanguard of an all-out Bolo strike against the planet Caern. The enemy is the Aetryx, shadowy, unknown beings who enslave other species with nothing less than the promise of immortality. As a savage interstellar war begins, Colonel Jon Streicher prepares to lead Victor and the rest of his reigment...
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And this Victor is fully capable of raking them in, a Bolo Mark XXXIII of the 4th Regiment, Second Brigade, First Confederation Mobile Army Corps, in the vanguard of an all-out Bolo strike against the planet Caern. The enemy is the Aetryx, shadowy, unknown beings who enslave other species with nothing less than the promise of immortality. As a savage interstellar war begins, Colonel Jon Streicher prepares to lead Victor and the rest of his reigment in that most difficult of tactical evolutions—a planetary invasion.
But D-Day turns into a disaster, and Caern is a deadly trap. Colonel Streicher and his command team find themselves stranded on the target planet, desperately attempting to survive the hellfire chaos of modern warfare as Bolo faces Bolo-human hybrid in a cataclysmic showdown that will uncover unexpected truths, reveal hidden secrets, and even call into question the loyalty of the Dinochrome Brigade itself.
For just what will happen if the Aetryx aren't slavers after all, but literal gods who can make good on their promise of eternal life?
The Dinochromes are about to find out.
Input . . .
Somewhere beyond the sphere of my awareness a switch is thrown, power flows through control umbilicals, and I return to full consciousness at Status Ready-Three. It is 2712.78 hours, Confederation Standard Time, on Day 410 of cy 381, some 515.92724 hours since I was powered down for loading aboard the transport.
I initiate a status check. All primary and secondary power plants are online at one hundred percent output, all offensive and defensive weapons systems read fully operational at standby mode, and communications are nominal, with clear channels and data feed lines both to the other members of my unit and to the human component of the Invasion Strike Force.
My visual feeds are off—I scarcely have need of sight while sealed inside a Type 7 Assault Landing Pod within a transport cargo bay—but I can sense the life of the ship around me, and of my comrades, as the Battalion is brought to full consciousness.
I exchange data with Bolo Mark XXXIII serial 837987, "Ferox," the other Bolo in my battalion, then with the other members of my unit, the 4th Regiment, Second Brigade, First Confederation Mobile Army Corps.
I sense deceleration and the steady ticking of the transport's drive and feel the shudders in the vessel's hull that indicate she is maneuvering toward a primary approach vector. I estimate that action is imminent and that deployment will begin within the next three hours. I require only my tacsit briefing and operational orders before launch.
* * *
Colonel Jon Jarred Streicher entered the enclosed walkway above the main cargo bay and paused, looking down through the slanted windows opening above the canyon vastness of the bay's seemingly bottomless depths. Major Carla Ramirez, his Executive Officer, paused with him.
"What do you think, Major?" he asked. "Are they ready?"
"As ready as they can be, Colonel," Ramirez replied. "I'd feel better if we had a clear intel report. I don't care what Moby Dickhead says, we're going in at a disadvantage."
"Watch that," he warned, glancing down the walkway at a group of technicians just beyond earshot. Euph sang in his blood. He'd just taken a tab minutes before and was well into the manic phase of the drug, powerful and completely focused.
She shrugged. "The man's an idiot."
"He's ConSAGCom, and Skymarshal in charge of this whole damned show. And he knows what he's doing. I won't have his authority undercut, Major."
"As you say, sir." She didn't sound convinced. "We're still at a disadvantage, even if we had the God of Battles running the show."
"We have the technological advantage," he reminded her. "We know the Trixies don't have anything like the Mark XXXIII."
"They have a planet, Jon," she reminded him in turn. "A planet is a big place, an enormous place, even for a full corps of planetary siege units. We're up against a planet's entire population, both the Aetryxha and the indigenous human population. And they have Bolo technology of their own, even if we don't have a good idea of how up to date it might be. And they have a culture shaped and molded by a long, long tradition of endless warfare. They could so easily surprise us."
"Of course, of course." He hesitated, trying to put into words what he was feeling. "But . . . I mean . . . just look at them!"
He gestured at the black, swollen shapes beyond the transplas barrier. Most of the cargo bay beneath the enclosed catwalk was in darkness, so vast was that immense maw, deeper and broader and more voluminous than most planetside buildings short of orbital towers or city arcologies. Floodlights nestled among shadowy webworks of struts and support beams cast pools of light across curved hulls and fairings; worker bees drifted among the leviathan pods, each bearing dazzling lights beneath outstretched mechanical arms and grippers and bringing life and motion to the mountainous tableau below. The bay was kept in vacuum; when the time came, it would take too long and be too wasteful to depressurize such a huge volume, and it wasn't as though the cargo needed atmosphere.
The Assault Landing Pods were stacked in staggered arrays, two racks of four files stacked three deep with space around each vessel to allow all-round access by work pods and the intricate, drifting spaghetti of power conduits and cable feeds.
A single Mark XXXIII Bolo massed 32,000 tons—as much as a fair-sized warship—120 meters long, 38 meters broad, and reaching 25 meters from ground to main deck, not counting the three squat and massive turret housings for the machine's incredible main armament. A Type 7 ALP was just large enough to house one such monster, 200 meters long overall, with a blunt, egg-shaped main pod and a trefoil drive and maneuver assembly aft. The whole was clad in night-black ceramplast, folded, studded, and embellished with sensor pods, drive sponsons, and field projector arrays.
The Mark XXXIII was, in fact, the first Bolo mark possessing enough internal contra-gravity generators to allow it to serve as its own landing boat for planetary assault. The Confederation Navy was conservative, however, heirs to the long-faded glories of the old Concordiat and of near-mythic Earth, who tended to rely on hand-me-downs from earlier ages rather than investing heavily in R&D. There were tried-and-true advantages to using ALP variable-geometry landers, and the Navy wasn't going to give them up.
Twenty-four ALPs filled the belly of the Confederation assault transport Heritas, an entire brigade of Bolo planetary siege units. Beyond the transport's outer hull, in the darkness of space about them, five more brigades of Mark XXXIII Bolos rode toward Destiny aboard other Shehuva-class star transports.
"They're impressive," Major Ramirez said after a moment. "And the plan is good. Just so long as we don't forget just what it is we're up against." She turned and peered closer at him. "Jon? Are you okay?"
He wiped his forehead, trying to steady the bounce he felt in his shoulders, his gut. Okay? He felt fracting great!
But Carla didn't know about the euph and wouldn't understand if she did.
"Fine," he said. "I'm fine." He checked the time on his implant. "Let's go, Major. It's time for the final briefing."
They turned and strode off down the catwalk side by side, leaving the enormous black pods and their shrouded charges in the floodlight-starred darkness.
* * *
Major General Weslen Ricard Moberly was not a foolish man. He knew exactly how complex was the task set before him, and he knew the power of delegation and military staff command. As Confederation Supreme Army Group Commander, he'd been given the special executive title of Skymarshal and assigned the monumental task of organizing, deploying, and directing a planetary invasion from space. To that end, he'd marshaled a small army of tacticians, military theoreticians, and technicians—the "T-cubes," as he referred to them in his frequent Fleet e-memos.
Only through such an army, coordinated and accessed through the flagship's VR net, could he hope to stay on top of the situation once it began unfolding . . . in just another few hours.
From his command chair high up within the cavernous recesses of the Combat Command Center on board the task force flagship Denever, he could gaze down on the trivid tanks and plot boards of the invasion planning team; with a touch of the controls in the arms of his seat, he could be there, immersed in the lights and symbols of each simulation through the consciousness data relay links in his VR helmet. So far, only the fleet tacsit tanks were active, displaying the cone-shaped formation of the task force as it approached the objective, now less than five astronomical units ahead. Local resistance, he was pleased to note, was almost nil, far less than the best simulations had predicted. Perhaps they'd caught the damned Trixies and their human Janissaries with their shorts around their ankles after all. K-fighters and photon interceptors, most of them robots and teleops, snapped and flashed at the task force's flanks, but so far none had been able to penetrate the outer picket screen of destroyers and light escorts. The dreaded Aetryx carriers, so much on the planning staff's collective mind for the past months, were nowhere in evidence. The diversion at Draelano must have worked.
Yes! . . .
If General Moberly was not a foolish man, neither was he a patient one. Opening Channel 12 in his helmet CDR link, he summoned forth the image of Colonel Garrity, his Fleet Liaison Officer, her hard features projected by the helmet interface directly onto his retinas. "More speed," he told her. "Tell Admiral Hathaway that we need more speed. I want to brush past these pickets and enter approach orbit within three hours."
Her pale green eyes met his through the VR interface. A wisp of dark red hair fell across her eyes and she impatiently brushed it aside. "I'll tell him, General, but you may get an argument. We're pushing the e-mass-c barrier now, and he's bitching about how we should have started deceleration as soon as we dropped out of hyper."
"Remind the good Admiral who's in charge, Colonel. Or shall I talk to him personally?"
"I'll pass the word, General."
"Do it. I have to fire off the final briefing. Let me know if there's any problem."
Garrity's face faded from his view as he electronically dismissed her. He'd expected opposition from Hathaway, a conservative and somewhat stodgy old-Navy type with limited imagination and drive. The e-mass-c barrier was always trouble. The closer a ship in normal space crowded c, the speed of light, the more relativistic mass it possessed, and the more energy per kilogram of rest mass it took to accelerate it . . . or to slow it down. Hathaway was husbanding the task force's limited energy reserves in case they needed to do some hard maneuvering later on.
But if the Aetryx carriers and other fleet heavies were gone, combat maneuvers wouldn't be necessary, and the fleet could refuel from Dis, the system's inner gas giant, once absolute space superiority had been achieved.
Which wouldn't be long at all, now.
A tone chimed in his ear. "Final briefing," an AI voice said in dulcet tones.
"Okay," he told it. "Set me up. Let's get this parade on the march!"
* * *
LKN 8737938 was his primary designation, but he was Elken to his friends and the other members of his crèche social. He awoke, stretching . . . and then the fear hit him in deep, shuddering waves, like the icy surf at Gods' Beach. The last thing he remembered . . . no . . . what was the last thing he remembered? Memory eluded him, like fragments of a dream.
He opened his eyes, then wondered why he couldn't see. He reached out with a trembling, sweat-slicked hand, then realized he couldn't feel anything, that the tremors, the sweat, the cold were all imagined, anchors for the mind adrift within a vast and lightless void.
Concentrating, he summoned memories from deep, deep within. Surgery? He'd been going in for somatic surgery. Yes, he remembered that much. His god had promised him a new body, a new and unending life free of pain, of sickness, of fear. The god had promised him transcendence. Immortality, and eternal youth.
What had gone wrong? . ..
Nothing is wrong, a voice, deep and quiet, spoke within the terror-haunted depths of his thoughts. All is as it should be. <calm reassurance>
"I can't see," he said, shouting into darkness. "I'm blind!" You are not blind. Your optical processors are not yet online. <calm reassurance>
The voice of his god! He was not alone after all.
Do not thrash about in your mind so, the voice continued. <growing concern> We do not wish you to injure your new body.
New body! "Then . . . the operation worked? I'm immortal?"
The god did not reply immediately. Elken tried to conjure the being's image in his thoughts, clinging to memory as a defense against the fear. All he could manage was the memory of his god's eyes, deep and golden and piercingly beautiful, the last time he'd seen them. How long had it been?
What was wrong?
Nothing is wrong, the voice said, reassuring in tone and unhurried pacing. You have been . . . chosen, LKN 8737938, chosen for greatness in your service to Caern.
Elken forced himself to relax. If a god said that all was well, then well it was, without question, without the possibility of doubt or question.
And yet it was so dark here.
And . . . just where in the Twelve Black Hells of Shrivash was here? . . .
"What do you mean . . . 'chosen'?" Elken asked after a moment's uncommunicative silence.
Caern is in great danger, the voice of his god replied. <concern masked by self-assurance> Invaders, fallen demons of the Evil Beyond, threaten now our world and all within it. You have been chosen to help repel the demon-horde invasion.
"You . . . you promised me a new body, one that worked. . . ."
This you now have. It will take a few moments for the neural pathways to be attuned and their signal strength balanced.
"You said I would be immortal. No more sickness. No death."
This you will have soon. <calm reassurance> You have but to join Caern's defenders in repulsing the demons, and we know you are eager to reach for immortality this way. If you vanquish the Enemy, your new and immortal body awaits you.
"And . . . if we don't win?"
Then Caern and the Assembly of the Gods will be no more. <sadness, mourning for what might have been> Immortality must fail, for the gods will be dead and forever Worldpromise shall be broken. And you, LKN 8737938, will cease to exist.
Fresh horror stirred within the churning recesses of Elken's thoughts. "The gods cannot die! That's impossible!"
The gods will not die, for our servants, you among them, shall defend us. <confidence> Behold your new form, LKN 8737938.
Light shimmered into Elken's awareness, and the light took form. He was in an armored cavern, duralloy-walled and crisscrossed with walkways and work cranes. To either side, Elken was aware of vast, squat forms, slab-sided, multi-tracked, blister-turreted, massive military vehicles of some sort painted in rippling patterns of black and gray that shifted at the touch of light.
He'd seen such machines before, though without particular interest. A storehouse of the things had been buried on Caern, relics of the long-vanished Concordiat. The gods had taken charge of them ages ago, or so he'd heard through a history feed documentary once.
But he was looking for himself. There were humans before him, but they seemed impossibly small, tiny and scurrying. There were even a few gods in the chamber. Where? . . .
Turning his head, he was startled by the shrill whine of a high-energy mass-converter engine. His sense of perspective shifted, and he became aware . . .
By the living gods of Caern . . .
"What has happened to me? . . ."
He was trapped within a cliffside, no, a mountain of metal, a consciousness pinned immobile in the heart of a machine too vast to be easily comprehensible. In another horror-cold moment, he realized the truth. He was a tracked vehicle of some sort, exactly like the other metal monsters now in his field of vision. When he'd tried to move his head, a turret on his upper deck had slued sharply to the right.
The vehicle in which you now find yourself was called by its creators a Bolo, Mark XXXII, his god explained. <patience> We have taken your brain and certain parts of your central nervous system and wired them directly into the Bolo's Combat Command Center. In effect, you are the brain, the Bolo is your body.
"I'm . . . a . . . monster. . . ."
You are an extremely powerful, adaptable, and efficient combat unit, and a vital asset in the defense of our world. You show considerable leadership potential. You will adjust. You will adjust. Your strength as a human is your adaptability.
"I'm not human anymore! . . ."
<bafflement> Of course you are human. What does exterior form have to do with your true nature? <patience and reassurance> Do not despair. This transformation was necessary to preserve our world and vrefylsh'ye . . . what you would call worldview or, perhaps, your way of life.
Elken's horror was receding somewhat, as the initial shock wore away. The gods themselves took many forms. They were brilliant in their ability to generate new bodies as cradles for their r'ye, their essential life force and being. The godforms that took as their responsibility individual humans like Elken were quite different in outward appearance from the godforms that ran the cities or grew the sea crops or flew between the stars.
The god was following his thoughts. Yes. <approval> You see the way of it, LKN 8737938. This transformation is but a first step toward the total freedom of form that you shall inherit as one of the immortal gods.
"I . . . I'm not worthy of this honor, Lord."
You are worthy if a god says you are worthy. And you will prove that worthiness soon, by defending the World of the Gods from the invading demons.
It was payment, of a sort. He helped defend the world, he received godhood as his pay. He just wished someone had seen fit to warn him about this ahead of time. He'd found out he could tap into camera feeds from various locations and actually see his own huge, gray-black form, a hulking, brooding mass of duralloy and lethal-looking weaponry, squatting on the ferrocrete pavement of the cavern. There were scars along his flank, like plow furrows, and there were incrustations of rust and dried vent discharge at odd angles and corners of his suspension housing. The machine that was now his body was old, and it had seen combat in the distant past.
"Just one thing," he said. "I'm a monk. A student monk, in the Dyi'jikr, the Way of the Gods. I don't know about war. I've never fought anyone, or anything. I've never fought a demon. I . . . I . . . wasn't even sure the sky demons were real!"
<amused surprise> Did you believe, then, that the Histories were mere fantasy? Mythology without form or substance?
"The idea had crossed my mind. I mean, we of the Brotherhood serve the living gods . . . but stories of vast empires spanning the night sky, of other worlds circling the lights in the sky we call stars . . . it's all a bit fantastic. Many of us believe the Histories to be . . . allegory. Metaphor."
The histories are accurate, or as accurate as such records can be, given the passage of millennia and the erosion of social order by time.
"I've never even seen a weapon." Mentally, he indicated the hulking presence of his own body. "I certainly don't know how to operate this . . . thing."
We will be feeding you a great deal of information within the next few periods, his god said.This information will help you learn how to operate your new body efficiently and what to do when the time comes to fight. All you need do is perform the tasks I or others of the gods set before you.
"I . . . I'll try my best."
And you shall succeed. <complete confidence> It is foreordained, and the gods have declared it to be so.
Elken wished he could savor some of the confidence he felt radiating from the god's presence and mental bearing.
He had the feeling that earning immortality was not going to be easy.
* * *
Tami Morrigen stood on the rocky beach, feeling the cold wind from Starside ruffling her hair a final time. Gods, she was going to miss this.
It would be full-light in another six hours; already the sun was staining the eastern sky in golds and silver-blues with the slow-paced advance of dawn. Northward, auroras flamed, billowing, silent curtains of red and green and ultramarine shivering and flaring in the sky.
In the east, of course, Dis hung in golden-ringed glory, spectacular as always. The banded giant, spanning close to twelve degrees of the sky, was nearly full, the shadow of her arcing rings sharp and curved across her pale green and pink cloud bands. By Dislight, the city dome of Ghendai rose above its own reflection in the still waters of the bay. Clouds gathered in the south, illuminated by Dislight, piling high to blot out the few stars bright enough to shine through the bright Caernan night.
Storm coming, she thought, then chucked at the irony.
"Mother! It's time to go!"
She turned at her daughter's call. Marta, willowy slender, her long brown hair in pleasant disarray from the sea wind, waved from the dunes behind the beach.
"Coming!" she called back. She didn't want to go.
Morrigen had been among the first free humans to arrive on Caern, five years ago. Pityr, her husband, had been an assistant manager to the principal factor for Daimon Interstellar then, bright, eager, and looking for the fast ladder up. Since then, he'd become a factor in his own right, still ambitious, but less . . . frantic. That was the word. Less frantic about commissions and percentages. There were more important things in life. Caern was a beautiful world, a good place to live.
She hated what was about to happen, even though she'd helped set the onrushing events in motion.
With a final lingering gaze at the low, deep-emerald swell of the Storm Sea, she turned and scrambled up the rocks to the hard-beaten path she'd descended from the dunes. On the plain beyond, at the edge of a gold and scarlet forest of bloodtrees and leaf fungus, the tiny corporate interstellar runabout was waiting, silver in the Dislight, coolant spilling from its pressure vents in billowing white clouds of steam. Flat, sleek, and hulled over with a mirrored surface that caught the light from the sky like a faceted jewel, the runabout was their ticket to safety from the approaching storm.
Men and their toys, she thought, bitter . . . then reproved herself. There were as many women as men working within DI Corporation. And the sleek little starship was their only way off this world, their only escape from horror.
Damn, but she wished that escape wasn't necessary.
Most of the others were already on board. Her husband and daughter waited by the open hatch, along with Senior Factor Redmond, and Redmond's servant. A last few stragglers from the home office were arriving as well, clambering off grounded flitters and making their way to the starship, children and baggage in tow.
"Step lively, Ms. Morrigen," Redmond called to her with that oily, patronizing laugh she despised. "We don't want to be caught at ground zero now, do we?"
Morrigen wondered about Redmond. Did the man really want to free the locals as passionately as his speeches over the last few months implied? Or was he thinking about the profits, once the indigenes were freed from the Trixies and turned into dutiful and grateful consumer-customers of DI? With Sym Redmond it was always hard to tell. She glanced at Veejay, Redmond's stolid servant. He was a local, his freedom purchased from one of the minor gods in Ghendai two years ago. What did he think about all of this?
There was no reading the man's placidly emotionless features.
Another flitter arrived from the city, touching down in the field a hundred meters away. The exodus had been going on for hours, now. The corporate starship had been flown out here during the night; it was unlikely that the Trixies would give permission for her to boost off-world, and Redmond had decided not to chance their probable refusal.
But there were Bolos on the way, a lot of them. It would be healthier for DI's Caernan branch office if the senior trading partners and their families were safely off-planet when the hammer fell.
Movement caught her eye, a flash of Dislight on metal or glass.
"Pityr?" she asked, pointing toward the distant city. "What's that?"
"Uh-oh," Pityr Morrigen said. "Trouble, is what."
It was a godflier, huge, stoop-winged, insectine, its oddly faired and blistered hull garish in black and yellow. It raced low across the plain toward them, overtaking the families still hurrying toward the ship and coming to a dead-stop hover overhead.
"You will please step out of the ship," an amplified voice called from the metallic threat hanging overhead.
"Let me handle this," Redmond said, reaching inside his jacket. "The rest of you get on board."
"No, sir." Veejay's voice was as calm, as implacably unhurried as ever.
"Pityr!" Tami cried. "That man has a gun!"
Redmond's servant had stepped back, and he held a wicked-looking needler in his hand. "The gods do not want you to leave," he said. "Please step away from the hatch."
"Veejay!" Redmond snapped. "What kind of nonsense is this? Put that thing away!"
"No, sir. Please take your hand away from your jacket slowly. That's good. Now keep your hands where I can see them, all of you. Ms. Morrigen?" He gestured at Tami's daughter and she felt a stab of ice-sharp fear. "Would you tell those on board to begin coming outside?"
"Do what he says, honey," Pityr Morrigen told his daughter.
"Damn it, Veejay!" Redmond snapped. "You can't do this! We're trying to help you, you and all your people!"
"We were not aware that we needed help, Mr. Redmond. The gods, after all, are on our side. All of them!"
A second godflier had arrived from the direction of the city . . . and a third. As two mounted guard overhead, one touched down a short distance away. The somas on board were enforcer types, lean, heavily scaled, and menacing with their leather garments and stunsticks. Their eerily human faces, weaving atop slender, snake-supple necks, made Tami queasy. There were human warrior somas as well, hulking, brutish-looking men with leathery skin, upsweeping, curved horns growing from their foreheads, and oversized, night-seeing eyes.
You can't do this!" Redmond screamed. "You need us! You need our help if you're ever to be free of these monsters!"
"On the contrary," Veejay replied, "it is you who need our help now, just to stay alive. Please do exactly what the gods tell you, or you may be injured."
"I'll see you all in hell first!" Redmond screamed, groping for the weapon holstered beneath his jacket.
The enforcers started toward them, stunsticks upraised. . . .
Excerpted from Bolo Strike by William H. Keith, Jr.. Copyright © 2001 by Bill Fawcett and Associates. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted December 24, 2009
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