A plague of Demons And Other Storiesby Keith Laumer

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Chapter FifteenThe huge fighting machine parked forty feet away across the rocky ledge backed suddenly, lowered its guns, traversed them across the empty landscape, brought them to bear on me."Watch him, Jones!" Joel said sharply. "He's scared; he's liable to get violent!"In the instant that the strange voice had burst from the slave unit, my probing contact had been thrust back by an expanding mind-field as powerful as Joel's."We're friends!" I called quickly in the Command code. "Fellow prisoners!" I thrust against the pressure of the newly awakened mind, found the automated combat-reflex circuitry, clamped down an inhibiting field—enough to impede a fire-order, at least for a moment."VA' EORT THE, FEOND?" the strange voice shouted, a deafening bellow in my mind. "STEO FRAM AR MOET EACTA STOEL AV KRISTLIG HOEDERSMANN!"I plucked the conditioned identity-concept from the mind before me, called to it in the Command code:"Unit twenty-nine of the Anyx Brigade! Listen—""AHH! EO MINNE BONDEDOM MID WYRD! AETHELBERT AV NION DOEDA, COERLA GEOCAD TI' YFELE ENA—"It roared out its barbaric jargon, overtones of fright and horror rising like blood-stained tides in the confused mind. I tried again:"I'm a friend—an enemy of the Command-voice. You've been a slave—and I'm another slave—in revolt against the masters!"There was a moment of silence, then: "A fellow slave? What trickery is this?" This time it spoke in the familiar Command code."It's no trick," I transmitted. "You were captured, but now you're free—""Free? All's not well with me, invisible one! I wear the likeness of a monstrous troll-shape! Enchantments hold me yet in bondage. Where is my blade, Hrothgar? Where are my peers and bondsmen? What fire-blasted heath is this before me?""I'll explain all that later. There are only a few of us. We're under siege; we need you to fight with us against the aliens." I talked to the frightened mind, soothing it, explaining as much as I could. At last it seemed to understand—at least enough that I could withdraw my grip on its fire-control circuitry."Ah, I feel a part of the spell released!" the freed mind exclaimed. "Now soon perhaps I'll feel Hrothgar's pommel against my palm, and waken from this dream of hell!""I was holding you," I said. "I was afraid you'd fire on me before I could explain.""You laid hands on an earl of the realm!" He was roaring again."Not hands; just a suggestion—to keep you from doing anything hasty.""Hello, Aethelbert," Joel put in. "Sure glad to have you with us.""What's this, a second imp? By holy Rood and the sacred birds of Odin, I ill-like these voices that seem to echo inside my very helm!""You'll get used to it," Joel said matter-of-factly. "Now listen, Aethelbert; Jones has got to fill you in on the situation, 'cause I guess they'll be starting their attack any minute now, and you've got to—""Are you freeman or earl who speaks to Aethelbert of the Nine Deeds of what 'must be'?""Joel," I interrupted. "Try another one; wake as many as you can—but hold onto their battle-reflexes until you get them calmed down." Then, to our new comrade: "We're surrounded; there are thousands of them down there—see for yourself. And simple or gentle, we're all in this together.""Yes—never have I seen such a gathering of forces; what battle is this we fight—" He broke off suddenly. "A strange thing it is, unseen one, but now I sense in my memory a vast lore of great troll-wars, fought with fire and magic under a black sky with a swollen moon, and I seem to see myself among them—an ogre of the ogres."A call came from Joel: "I got another one, Jones! I don't know what he's saying, but it's not in Command code; sure sounds excited!""Keep it up, Joel." While he worked, I talked to Aethelbert. He was quick to grasp the situation, once he understood that I was only another combat unit like himself. Then he was ready to launch a one-man attack."Well I remember the shape of the sorcerer: like a slinking dog it came, when I beached my boat on the rocky shore of Oronsay under Sgarbh Brene. My earls fell like swooning maidens without the striking of a blow—and then the werewolf was on me, and Hrothgar's honed edge glanced from its hide as a willow wand from the back of a sullen housewench. And now they have given me shape of a war-troll! Now will I take such revenge as will make Loki roar over his mead-horn!""You'll get your fill of revenge, Aethelbert," I assured him. "But wait until I give the order. This will be a planned operation, not a berserk charge.""No man orders me, save the king, my cousin . . . yet well I know the need for discipline. Aye, Jones! I'll fight under your standard until the necromancers are dead, root and branch!""Jones!" Joel cut in. "Here's another one! He's talking American; all bout Very lights and Huns."I tuned to the new man, broke into his excited shouts."Take it easy, soldier! You're back inside the Allied lines now. I know everything feels strange, but you'll be all right in a minute—""Who's that? Boy, I knew I shouldn't of drunk that stuff—apple brandy, she said—"I gave him a capsule briefing, then went on to another—a calm, cool mind speaking strangely accented Arabic. He blamed all his troubles on an evil djinn of the sorcerer Salomon, in league with the Infidels. I let him talk, getting it all straight in his mind—then cued him to bring his conditioned battle-experience into his conscious awareness. He switched to Command code without a break in the stream of his thoughts."By the virtue of the One God, such a gathering of units was never seen! Praise Allah, that I should be granted such a wealth of enemies to kill before I die!"I managed to hold him from a headlong charge, then picked up a new voice, this one crying out in antique Spanish to his Compeador, Saint Diego, God, and the Bishop of Seville. I assured him that all was well, and went on to the next man—a former artilleryman whose last recollection was of a charge by French cavalry, the flash of a saber—then night, and lying alone among the dead, until the dogs came . . . "Jones, we're doing real good; that's six now. But down on the plain they're starting to move around. The Over-mind is reorganizing, and they'll be attacking right soon now. We're gonna run out of time.""Suppose our new men each start in to release others? Can you brief them—show them how? They can work in pairs, with one freeing a man and the other holding him down until he understands what's happening.""Hey, that's a good idea! It's easy, once you know how. Let's start with Aethelbert."I watched as Joel transmitted the technique to the rough-and-ready warrior, saw him grasp the gestalt with the marvelous quickness of a conditioned mind. He was paired with Stan Lakowski, the American doughboy. Moments later I caught the familiar astonished outburst of another newly-freed mind. I worked with Joel, stirring long-dormant personalities into life, calling on their earthly memories and their demon-trained battle-skills, mobilizing them to meet the coming enemy attack.* * *Time was a term without meaning. To speak a sentence in the measured phrases of a human language required as long, subjectively, as to deliver a lengthy harangue in the compact Command code—and yet the latter seemed, while I spoke, to consume as much time as ordinary speech. My circuitry, designed for instantaneous response, accommodated to the mode of communication—just as, on low alert, a waiting period that might measure weeks by terrestrial standards could pass in a brief hour.While Joel and I worked, calming, reassuring, instructing, the besieging legions formed up into squadrons on the dusty plain of white light and black shadow below, arraying themselves for the assault. In the sky, the planet hung, apparently unmoving. It might have been minutes, or hours, before the last of our two hundred and ten Combat units had been freed.Three had raved, lapsed into incoherence—minds broken by the shock; two more had opened fire in the initial panic—and had been instantly blasted by the return fire of a dozen units. Five more had resisted all efforts at contact—catatonics, permanently withdrawn from reality. And seven had gibbered in the alien symbolism of the demons—condemned criminals, sentenced to the Brigades for the crimes of inferiority, nonconformity, or illogic. These we snuffed out, left their mighty carapaces as mindless slaves to be used as we had been used. It was ruthless—but this was a war of no quarter, species against species.There was a sudden call from the sentries posted at the top of the pass."Activity among the enemy!" It was the Spaniard, Pero Bermuez. "I see a stirring of dust on the horizon to the east. Heavy war engines, I have no doubt—""If the blighters have their wits about them, they'll be bringing up a heavy siege unit," drawled a voice. That was Major Doubtsby, late of Her Majesty's Indian army, fallen at Inkerman after taking part in the charge of the heavy cavalry brigade at Balaclava.As I moved up to the pass, the dust cloud parted long enough to reveal the distant, towering silhouette of a lumbering monster. The dreadnaughts of the line beside it resembled mice flocking around a rhinoceros."Looks like they don't want to hit us head-on again," Joel said. "They'll set back and blast us. Maybe if we take cover in the depot, we can ride it out.""We'd be trapped for sure. We have to get away.""How are we going to do that, Jones? They got us outnumbered a hundred to one—maybe more.""Easy," I said. "When in doubt, attack!"* * *"We'll operate independently," I said over a conference hookup to the hundred and ninety-three seasoned warriors stationed around the crater. "Our one advantage is initiative. We're outnumbered, but unit for unit and gun for gun, we can handle anything they throw at us. Our immediate objective is to cut our way through the aliens and gain mobility on open ground. We'll hit them hard, and scatter, then meet later at the big rock spire to the southwest. We'll work in pairs, attack individual units, knock them out, and keep going. Use your heads, fight and run, and make it to the rendezvous—with any prisoners you can pick up on the way.""Why not set right where we're at and recruit more boys?" a former Confederate soldier asked. "Give us time, and we can take over their whole durn army.""That continental siege unit will open up any minute now; we've got to get out from under.""Quite right, sir," Major Doubtsby said. "Give the beggars a taste of cold steel before they know what we're about!""Sorely I miss mighty Hrothgar," Aethelbert said. "But in truth, my new limbs of iron give promise of battle-joy! Never did Hero flex mightier sinews in war! Why tarry we here while the foe lies ready before us?""Don't worry—there'll be plenty of action, but we'll avoid contact whenever possible. Humanity has enough dead heroes. Our job is to get through and survive."We'll move out now—and good luck!"* * *The rock trembled under me as the immense machines roared up through the pass, two by two, then plunged down the steep slope toward the army waiting below. I watched six, eight, ten of my rebels careen out into the open, before the first alien gun blared white light.An instant later, each of the racing units became the focus of a converging network of fire that sparkled and glared against near-invulnerable defensive screens. Missiles flashed into view, winked out in blinding bursts as automatic detector-eliminator circuits acted.A hostile unit moved out on an interception course, deadly energy beams flickering from its disrupter grid. The fire of two speeding units converged on it, sent it charging blindly back toward its fellows. More loyal units were in motion now, as the aliens began to realize that our tiny force had taken the offensive. The last of our rebel Brigades were moving into the pass now; I wheeled into line beside a lone unit, touched his mind: "I see a weak spot to the left of the fault-line. Let's take it!""Saint George and Merry England!" came the reply.Then we were moving out through the defile, hurtling down toward the guns below. Scattered loyal units directly below the pass opened fire. We drove on at assault speed, smashing through multiton obstructions of fallen rock, then raced out on level ground. Ahead, the Brigades were scattered all across the plain, with ragged loyalist detachments in pursuit. I held my fire, tracking each incoming blast, but countering only those on collision course.Suddenly there was a target under my guns, veering in on a curving course from the right, his batteries a firefly twinkling through my radiation screens."Take him!" I called."Aye, we'll o'ertop and trash the mooncalf!"I aimed for the treads, slammed a fine-focused beam into the armored suspension, then locked my aim to the resultant point of red-heat. The oncoming battle-wagon slewed off to the left, ground to a halt; an instant later, it jumped ten yards backward, smoke billowing from every port, as my partner zeroed in on target."Thus to the foul urchins!" he shouted. "The red plague rid the hagsons!"We plunged on, through the besieging army, steering for a weakly defended path running beside a low cliff. We were firing steadily now, our screens glowing pale blue as they re-radiated the vast energies they were absorbing. We veered sharply left and right in a random evasive pattern to confuse the alien tracking circuitry. Rock glowed red along the trail of near-misses that followed us as we thundered into the black shadow of an upthrust fault-line, then on, hugging the bluff, under the guns of the aliens. Individual foes surged forward to give chase, but found their way blocked by others charging in on converging courses.Far ahead now, I saw indications of hasty organization, as frantic Centurions marshaled their moron machines to cut us off."Take over my fire-control circuits," I called to my partner. "I'm going to try to complicate the picture for them!""Work all exercise on 'em, my lord! Stab the hag-born whelps of Sycorax i' their sulphurous entrails! Plague 'em wi' cramps! Rot-spot 'em as e'er cat o' mountain!""I'll do my best!" I reached toward the massed battle-units a mile ahead, probed through the clutter of many minds, singled out the Centurion and locked his volitional center in a paralyzing grip."Where is the Place That Must Be Defended?" I demanded.My captive squirmed frantically, waves of shock and hatred radiating from the trapped mind like breakers pounding a stormy beach. I pressed harder."Where is it? What bearing? How far?" I slammed the questions relentlessly at the creature, caught fragmentary glimpses of a memory of dark caverns, towers, a high crater wall . . . "Quickly!" I buffeted the thing, and it raged in blind ferocity. "Where?" I shouted.Abruptly I felt the personality break, flee screaming into dark corridors of mindlessness. I dropped my control, scanned the fast-cooling memory cells—and as the last shapeless wisps of thought-stuff faded, caught an image of a broken horizon, the setting planet.I withdrew then, reached farther out, and touched the minds of the leaderless alien Brigade. I ordered them to reverse their guns, fire on their own troops. Then I resumed control of my own circuitry. I saw the mass ahead dissolve into a raging fire-fight as the slave machines turned on the astonished loyalists, driving them back. A lane opened up, and we slammed through, passed the hulks of burning machines, churned through a dust cloud shot with fire. We emerged into open ground, raced out into the clear, then circled and drove for the point of rendezvous."They're slow," Joel said. "By the time the Centurions figure out what we're up to and get orders out to their Brigades, we're doing something different.""That's the price they pay for using brainwashed troops," a veteran of Korea said."Sooner or later they'll realize all they need do is stand off and pound us, and we've bought the farm," a former RAF pilot said."We'll take ten of the beggars with us for every man," Major Doubtsby commented. "Damned fine show, by God! Wouldn't have missed it for a knighthood, damme if I would!""We lost sixteen men breaking out of the crater," said a Wehrmacht feldwebel who had seen service under Rommel. "What have we gained?""The freedom of the plain," the Spaniard Bermuez answered."What do we do next, Jones?" Joel's voice came to me through the talk. "We got to move on."I scanned the plain, estimating the numbers of the loyalists. They had withdrawn to ten miles now, the bulk of their force out of sight over the close horizon. The full planet hung like a vast moon just above ragged peaks. It stirred a wisp of memory, a fleeting sense of having known such a scene before: the setting world, behind the high peak flanked by two lower ones . . . "Joel!" The memory snapped into clear focus—the momentary mental image I had seen in the mind of the Centurion. The Place That Must Be Defended!"No wonder they're cautious! We've been driving straight for their holy of holies, without knowing it! They're trying to herd us—letting us alone as long as we don't threaten the home office, and holding their forces massed in that direction to protect it!""Yeah? Maybe if we head the other way, they'll let us go, and give us a chance to locate a hideout someplace and work on picking up recruits.""We got to work closer than this if we want to bring over any new men. I tried to make contact just now; too much interference. I couldn't do it.""Looky there! What in tarnation's that?" an excited voice broke in. I switched focus to the rocky plain, saw a column of fountaining dust race toward our position from the northeast."It's a subcrustal torpedo!" a heavily Scots-accented voice yelled out. "Aye, and it's driving straight for us!""Good night, Jones! We got to roll out—fast!""We'll split four ways!" I snapped. "Joel, take the north column; Doubtsby, the south; Bermuez, the east. I'll head west. It can only track one of us!""Why not every man for himself?" someone yelled, even as the Brigade swung into action."And hit the enemy line single-handed? We'd melt like snowflakes on a hot plate!""Now we will strike as the lion charges," a Zulu warrior chanted. "Our spears of fire will eat them up! Bayete! Swift are we as the water-buck and mighty as the elephant!"Then I was hurtling toward the massed Brigades of the aliens, my forty-four armored fighters in an assault wedge behind me.* * *The planet had set, and I rested with the remnant of my detachment in a narrow ravine, watching the flash of distant fire against the glitter of the black sky."I spoke wi' Bermuez but now," my Elizabethan comrade said. "His bullies are hard-pressed. Can't we to their relief, an't please ye, milord?""Sorry, Thomas; our job is to survive, as long as we can, and go on fighting.""Where will't end? Stap me, 'tis as strange a maze as ever mortal man did tread!""I don't know; but as long as we're alive—and free—there's still a chance.""The rogues o'ernumber us a thousand to our one; we'll but drown in a sea of 'em.""Hold hard, there, mates," a Yankee seaman cut in. "Time to wear ship again, 'pears to me! Here comes Ben splittin' his skys'ls!"I felt the vibration transmitted through the rock by hammering treads as the returning scout descended from the heights. He careened into view in the narrow way, braked to a halt in a shower of rock-chips."It's like you thought, Cap'n: we're flanked left and right—surrounded again," the Confederate cavalaryman reported. "The other boys ain't much better off. Doubtsby's in a running fight to the southwest of us; he's lost fourteen men, and they're pushin' him hard. He's managed to pick up six recruits, but got no time to brief 'em. Joel's holed up in a small crater twenty mile north o' here; only twenty of his party got through, but he's picked up a bunch of new men, and he's freein' 'em as fast as he can. Bermuez is in trouble; he's surrounded, and takin' a poundin'; dunno how many he's lost.""What are our chances of picking off some new men from here?""Too fur, Cap'n. I tried from the highest spot I could get to, and couldn't poke through the noise. The enemy's clamped down some kind o' rule agin' talkin', too; I think they're catchin' on that we been hearin' everythin' they say.""What's the country like to the west of here, Ben?""Flat, mostly; a few bad draws. But they's heavy enemy concentration thataway."My shrunken force of thirty units listened silently to the scout's report."We're losin'," someone said."The dropsy drown the hagseed," Thomas growled. "The devil take 'em by inchmeal."I called for their attention. "So far we've had the advantage of surprise," I said. "We've hit and run, done the unexpected; they've milled around us like a herd of buffalo. We've managed to slice through them, pick off a few isolated units, capture a few more. But the honeymoon is about over. They're standing off out of take-over range, and they've imposed communications silence, so we don't know what they're planning. They've caught onto the idea of flexible retreat before an inferior force, and they've contained two of our four detachments; three, if you count us. And it looks as though Doubtsby's not much better off.""Like I said: we're losin'.""Will we huddle here to be burned in our hall like Eric's men?" Aethelbert boomed. "Is this the tenth deed I'll relate to Thor in his mead-hall in Asgard?""We got to bust out of here," a Sixth Armored man said. "And fast, what I mean.""We can keep hitting and running—and lose a few men each time," I went on. "In the end we'll be wiped out.""In the name of the One God, let us carry the fight to the legions of Shaitan!""For the honor of the gods, I say attack!""We'll attack, but it will be a feint. Thomas, you'll take twenty-seven units, and move out to the south. Don't close; cruise their line at extreme range, as though you were looking for a weak spot. Put two of your best probemen on scan for recruits; you may be able to pick off a unit here and there. Keep up defensive fire only; if you draw out a pursuit column, fall back on this position, and try to capture them.""Twenty-seven units say ye, sir? What of the others?""I'm taking two men. When you reach a point close to a two-seven-oh heading from here—turn and hit their line with everything you've got. That will be my signal to move out.""Wi' two men only? By'r lakin, they'll trounce ye like a stockfish!""We'll come out with screens down, ports closed, and mingle with the enemy. In the confusion, I'm counting on their assuming we're loyal slaves. As soon as you see we're in their lines, turn and run for it. Keep them busy. With luck, we'll get through.""And where would you be goin'?" an Irish voice demanded."Their headquarters is about twelve miles west of here. I'm going to try to reach it.""And what will you do when you get there? I see no—""Avaunt, ye pied ninny! Would ye doubt our captain's wit?""Not I! But—""Then let be! Aye, Captain! We'll bear up and board 'em. We'll do our appointed office for stale, and putter out at three for one ye'll treble us o'er.""To which of us falls the honor of your escort?" someone called.A vast machine rumbled forward. "Who would take Aethelbert's place will fight for it!""Ye wouldn't think of tryin' it without me, Cap'n?" the scout Ben called."Ben and Aethelbert it is," I said. "Thomas, are you ready?""We'll go upright wi' our carriage, fear not, Cap'n! Now we'll avoid i' the instant.""All right," I said. "Good luck to all of us; we'll need it."* * *With my two companions beside me, I waited at the south end of the ravine, watching the distant dust cloud that was Thomas' force as it raced across the starlit desert, the flickering of enemy guns lighting the scene with a winking radiance of blue and red and white."He'll be turning to hit them any minute," I said. "Remember the drill: communications silence, screens down, ports closed. If we're fired on, take evasive action, but don't return it.""Hard will it be, and never gleeman's joywood will sing the deed," Aethelbert muttered. "By Odin's tree, the way of the hero is no easy one.""Oh-oh," Ben said. "There they go!"I saw the dust trail turn, drive for the massed loyalist units; the glow of gunfire brightened, concentrating. There was a general movement along the alien line as the forward ranks thrust out in flanking arms to enclose the attackers."Let's go!" I said. We moved out, raced toward the distant horizon behind which lay the Place That Must Be Defended. All around us, the high, grim shapes of enemy battle units loomed from the enveloping dust cloud, their guns ready, the baroque shapes of strange brigade markings gleaming on their sides. We rumbled steadily on, ignored in the churning confusion, altering course little by little to angle closer to our objective.A unit with the garish markings of a Centurion turned across our path; its guns swung to track us. We trundled steadily on, steered past it. It moved off, and disappeared in the dust.The number of loyalist units around us was lessening now; I increased speed, probing the opacity ahead with a focused radar beam. Moments later, the dust thinned. Abruptly we were in the open. I slammed full power to my drive mechanism, surged forward at a speed that made the landscape flash past in a blur of gray. The tall peak loomed, a mile or two ahead, and I saw now that the pass lay to the left of it. I flicked on a detector screen, fanned it out to scan the ground behind me. I saw a heavy machine roar out of the curtain of dust, its disrupter grid glowing a baleful red."They've spotted us!" I called. "Open fire—only a mile to go now!"I heard Aethelbert and Ben's curt acknowledgments, felt the tremors in the rock that meant their heavy guns were firing. Another alien unit hurtled into view and opened fire.On my left, Ben whooped suddenly, "I slipped home to him, Cap'n. Old Aethelbert was keepin' him busy, and I took him low. Watch!"I saw the leading pursuer veer to the right, bound up a low slope, and smash headlong into a towering rock slab. There was a shock that lifted me clear of the ground, slammed me ahead; a fountain of molten chromalloy and rock leaped up, fell all around; then dust closed over the scene.The pass was ahead now; I swung to enter it, gunned up the long slope. Ben followed, trailing by a quarter-mile. Far back, Aethelbert was coming up fast, the fire of the remaining alien unit lighting his defensive screens.I reached the crest of the pass, came to a halt looking down on a vast complex of works—tunnel heads, squat sheds, low circular structures of unknown function—gray, rough-textured, stark and ugly against the bleakness of the lunar landscape. And beyond the warren of buildings, a tower reached up into the glittering black of the night sky, a ragged shape like a lone spire remaining from a fallen ringwall: the Place That Must Be Defended.I looked back down the trail. From my vantage point I could see the broad sweep of the plain: the distant jumble of rock where we had regrouped, the milling mass of the enemy, strung out in a long pincers that enveloped the tiny group of winking lights that was Thomas and his dwindling band; and nearer, the dust trail reaching almost to the foot of the pass, and the second trail, close behind.From halfway down the sloping trail, Ben called, "Aethelbert's in trouble; he's taken a hit, I think—and that fellow's closing on him. I better give him a leg up.""Aethelbert!" I called. "Are you all right?"There was no answer. I saw him slow as he entered the pass, then turn sideways, blocking the entry, his guns pointed toward the enemy. The oncoming unit poured fire into the now stationary target; it rocked to hit after hit. Ben, coming up beside me, swung his guns, opened fire on the alien unit as it came within range."Aethelbert, we'll cover you!" I called. "Come on up into the pass; you'll have shelter there!""I'll tarry here, Jones," came a faint reply. "There'll be no lack of foes to tempt my thunder.""Just a few yards farther!""Bare is the back without brother behind it," he sang out. "Now take the mead-hall of the goblins by storm, and may Odin guide your sword-arm!""I'm goin' back for him!" Ben yelled."As you were, Ben! The target's ahead! Let's go and get it!" I launched myself down the slope without waiting to see him comply. A moment later, he passed me, racing to run interference."Head for the tower," I called. The first buildings were close now—unlovely constructions of featureless stone, puny in scale. I saw a tiny dark shape appear in a tunnel mouth, saw it bound toward a cluster of huts—and recognized it as one of the dog-things, looking no larger to me than a leaping rat, its head grotesquely muffled in a breathing mask—apparently its only protection from the lunar vacuum. I veered, bore down on it, saw its skull-face twist toward me as my treads caught it, pulped it in an instant, flung the bristled rag that was its corpse far behind.Ben braked to a halt before a wide gate, swung his forward battery on it, blasted it to rubble, then roared ahead through the gap, with me close behind—A shock wave struck me like a solid wall of steel. I felt myself go up, leap back, crash to the rocky ground, slide to rest in a shower of debris. Half dazed, I stared through the settling dust, saw the blackened hulk that had been my Confederate scout, smoke boiling from every aperture, his treads gone, gun barrels melted. I shouted his name, caught a faint reply:"Cap'n . . . don't move . . . trap . . . all automatic stuff. I saw 'em . . . too late. Hellbores . . . set in the walls. You'll trigger 'em . . . when you move . . . don't . . . stir . . ." I felt his mind-field fade, wink out.I scanned the interior of the compound, saw the black mouths of the mighty guns, aimed full on me—waiting. I reached out, felt for the dim glow of cybernetic controls, but found nothing. They were mechanically operated, set to blast anything that moved in the target area. The detonation that had halted me in my tracks had saved my life.Ben was dead. Behind me, Aethelbert held the pass alone, and on the plain, my comrades fought on, in ever-dwindling numbers, covering my desperate bid for victory.And I was here, caught like a fly in a web—helpless, fifty yards from my objective. 

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