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Chapter 10

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And, guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!


Rudyard Kipling, 1897

Ft. Indiantown Gap, PA, United States of America, Sol III
2237 EDT July 28
th, 2004 ad

Stewart's second squad sprinted forward and dropped to the prone, their grav-guns tracking and firing on the advancing virtual Posleen the whole time. Wherever the silver beams of relativistic-velocity teardrops intersected the Posleen wall, racking explosions tore deep gaps in the oncoming line. In response, hypervelocity flechettes and missiles tore at the defenders' armor, most of the hipshot rounds missing high. But with millions of penetrator rounds coming at the relatively few suits, losses were a statistical certainty.

"Ten–twenty-two, ten–twenty-two, execute!" Stewart said in a steady voice as Private Simmons's data lead went blank. Half the team checked fire just long enough to reach into a side compartment and pull out a small ball. Flicking off the cover and thumbing the switch they set it offset to their right and went back to firing.

"Clear Ten–Alpha," said the Alpha team leader as Bravo team duplicated the maneuver.

As Bravo resumed firing, the cratering charges emplaced by the Alpha team went off. They again checked fire only long enough to slither into the impromptu foxholes, then took the Posleen back under fire. "Clear Twenty-Two–Alpha," called the team leader.

Moments later the entire platoon was under cover.

* * *

"So that's your playbook," said Colonel Hanson.

"Yes, sir," said O'Neal, watching Second platoon perform an advance under fire. The hasty defense presented by second squad was temporarily impregnable to the Posleen who were advancing on a narrow strip between a ridge and the Manada River, a much larger body of water than reality for the purposes of the exercise. "We've got about two hundred plays, so far, with the various levels of the company trained in their own actions under each play. It's more or less analogous to the bugle calls the cavalry used. In this case, the squads are performing a Ten–Twenty-Two, 'form hasty fighting positions and take cover.' Not that it will help them for long on this exercise." He worked a bit of dip and spat it into a pocket in the biotic underlayer of the all-enveloping helmet. The saliva and tobacco products were rapidly ingested by the system like all wastes. To the underlayer it was all grist for the mill.

"Is this a fair test?" asked Colonel Hanson, noting how Second platoon was dissolving as inexorably as rock candy in hot water. He wished he could have a cigarette, but they were a bitch to smoke in the suits.

"I think so. By the time Nightingale noticed the flanking maneuver, it was nearly too late for Second to establish the optimum conditions, which was for the Posleen to be a hundred meters farther up river. There the chokepoint is only thirty meters wide, and Lieutenant Fallon could have held them indefinitely. As it is, I don't think they'll make it."

"What would you do?"

"I'd probably try a charge, maybe with some psychological refinements, and try to push them back to the chokepoint," said O'Neal. He swiveled his viewpoint down into the river for a moment then back to the fighting. "It's really not a time thing; the length of time they hold is moot. If the Posleen break through now or three hours from now they'll crack the company defense down the river."

"Would it work?" asked Colonel Hanson, now paying much more attention to the briefer than the essentially finished engagement.

"According to the scenario, it will work on an irregular basis, dependent on a number of factors not available to adjustment by the tested," O'Neal answered precisely. Whether any of it would work in the real world was the question in his mind. Every time he looked back at Diess he got cold chills. The chances he had taken were insane. Every single action had been long-ball odds and only incredible good luck had carried the platoon through. His own survival was still placed, by everyone, in the "miraculous" category. And he was afraid he'd used up not only his own quota of luck, but his company's. If these plans were wrong, it was going to be a massacre. And the fault would rest squarely on his shoulders.

He worked the dip around in thought and spat again. "The Posleen might have a wimpy God King, they might not have enough muscle to the front, minute factors of surface structure on the squad's armor affects penetration, and so forth. But if you're this far back you have to hammer them like the hinges of hell, and Lieutenant Fallon's not a hinges-of-hell kind of guy."

"So the mistake on Lieutenant Nightingale's part was farther back?"

"Yes, sir," Mike answered, in a distracted tone. Something about the scenario was playing false to his experienced senses.

"I almost always leave First platoon in reserve, which pisses the other two platoons off," he continued automatically. "But Rogers always goes around with such a head full of steam, when I use him to reinforce or blitz it gets hammered home with a vengeance."

The First platoon leader was a tall, broad, good-looking first lieutenant. As a first lieutenant he would normally have either a heavy weapons platoon or a staff position. Filling a slot for a second lieutenant was beginning to eat him alive; Mike had forwarded four requests for transfer in the last six months.

"Nightingale believes in distributing the load. I am trying to disabuse her of that. The only thing that matters is the mission. You have to pick your units on that basis, not on the basis of 'fair.' I finally decided that what she needed was more of a helping hand. But I'd backed myself into a corner being overcorrective." He grimaced at admitting the mistake.

"Finally I took over most of the stuff the first sergeant had been handling for both of us and sicced him on her. They've been spending a hell of a lot of time together and she's starting to get the hang of it; Gunny Pappas is a top-notch trainer. But I'm still not totally comfortable with her tactical sense."

"It takes time to learn that," Hanson admitted.

"Yes, sir. And I hope we've got it." Mike kicked up a probability graph of the engagement if it continued on the current course and fed it to the battalion commander. The casualty graph looked like a mountainside.

For Hanson, who came to his military maturity in the cauldron of Southeast Asia and the Army of the '70s, the Virtual Reality gear the unit trained with was the next best thing to science fiction.

He had been nearly seventy when recalled and although he had continued in business after the Army, he was one of those executives for whom computers were Greek. These systems, however, were as far from modern computers as a Ferrari from a chariot.

Taking his lead from the resident expert, he started calling his artificial intelligence device, a Galactic-supplied supercomputer the size of a pack of cigarettes, "Little Nag." He now used her for all his official correspondence and, now that he had gotten her over the annoying literalness of a new AID, she was better than any secretary he'd ever had. In the regular exercises the battalion was conducting, Little Nag kept better track of friendly and enemy disposition, personnel and equipment levels, and all the other minutiae that made for a successful military operation, than any staff in history. The newly arrived S-3 and the other battalion staff officers were getting used to their own AIDs and the staff was approaching a level of perfection seldom to be dreamed.

There was a rapid shuffling below as second squad left their positions and the others moved to cover the extended front. The reduced fire pressure permitted the Posleen to begin moving slowly forward, piling up windrows of their dead but willing to take the sacrifice to overrun the position. However, what remained of second squad eeled past the other positions and, using a gully that kept them more or less out of Posleen sight, slipped one by one into the river and out of Virtual sight.

"Oh, God damn," whispered Mike, cutting in an overlay of positions to track second as they moved up current. He smiled and spit into the vacuole again.

"What?" asked Colonel Hanson. "It looks like a forlorn hope to me." He tapped a series of virtual controls to project the course of the unit. The leader, the Sergeant Stewart he had met his first day at the unit, had entered orders for his team and the group of eight survivors was headed for a point in the river opposite the narrow chokepoint the platoon had been unable to reach.

"Not necessarily, sir. Even with the few that remain, second squad could take and hold that chokepoint for a moment, given the right conditions. Maybe long enough for the rest of the platoon to charge forward and relieve them. Damn, I didn't think that by-the-book Long-Grey-Line son of a gun had it in him."

Mike watched as the squad formed under the cover of the green waters then erupted upward. As they moved, the water began to hump and wriggle as if infested by snakes. What surfaced was not a group of suits, but a swarming mass of worms, each gray body surmounted with a fang-filled maw. As lines of silver explosive lightning flicked God Kings out of existence, the worms snatched Posleen from the banks and dragged them screaming into the suddenly yellow-stained water. The air, at the same time, was filled with an evil caterwaul and the thunder of drums.

"Is that what I think it is?" asked Colonel Hanson. His own half-smile was unseen. The flair of their company commander was obviously rubbing off on some of the members of the company. O'Neal's own use of music in battle had become legendary almost overnight.

"If you think that's the Seventy-Eighth Fraser Highlanders' bagpipes slamming out 'Cumha na Cloinne' it is. Stewart's been listening to my CDs again."

"Your idea?"

"No, sir, but now I know what infested Lieutenant Fallon's mind. That would be Sergeant Stewart." The smile of the company commander was hidden by the faceless armor but the battalion commander could clearly hear it in his voice. "You remember him, sir."

"Mmm," was the only comment. The battalion commander had recently returned a request from the Ground Force Criminal Investigation Division for an investigation into various items of equipment that had gone missing around post. His basis was insufficient evidence of it being traced to Bravo Company. In fact, he was fairly certain that the diminutive second squad leader was responsible.

"You know," the battalion commander commented. "Bravo had a fairly shabby reputation before you took over. You might want to ensure that it doesn't get one again."

Mike's abbreviated nod was unseen. Prior to the nearly simultaneous arrival of First Sergeant Pappas and Lieutenant Arnold, the company had been a center for black marketeering at the post. The easy and unquestioned availability of technology that was centuries ahead of current had created a tremendous profit for the former first sergeant. Stewart and his squad of recent basic trainees, along with the first sergeant and Arnold, had been instrumental in cleaning up the situation. The former first sergeant was now serving time in the Fleet military prison on Titan Base. The prisoners were used for work out in the vacuum that was considered particularly hazardous.

"I'll point that out at the next leaders' meeting," was Mike's only comment. He let out another stream of tobacco juice and smiled at the course the battle was taking. Stewart was definitely a subordinate worth having around. Too bad he was only a squad leader.

Their God King lords dead, and under assault from a creature of an evil mythology, the Posleen advancing through the gap turned and tried to fight their way to the rear as the mass of worms humped itself up onto the ground and began attacking in both directions.

"How are they snatching the Posleen?" asked Colonel Hanson, watching one struggling centaur being dragged below the water.

"Well, sir, you've got me there, unless they've retrofitted the suits somehow." Mike keyed into a higher level of oversight, on channels poorly understood by most of the AIDs, much less humans.

O'Neal had been in on the design of the suits from the very beginning and had been fighting in them from the first contact on Diess. He knew more about the real abilities of the weapon than any other human in the Federation. His last suit had more hours on it when it was lost than any two others in the armed forces, and his new suit was climbing in hours fast. Single-mindedly devoted to the mission, he spent virtually every waking hour, and a significant amount of sleep time, in armor. He had, as far as Hanson could tell, no social life and interacted with the other battalion officers only on business matters or at required social functions.

Not that there were many of those. Indiantown Gap did not present many amenities to the units forming there. The clubs, officer, NCO and enlisted, were overrun with activating units, and the town of Annville, which was the only civilian area reachable without a personal vehicle, was equally overrun with servicemen. In addition, with the limited training costs of the suits the unit could train 24/7 if so desired. The colonel was taking full advantage of these facts, and the battalion had been in the field nearly every day since they completed fitting.

"Okay," Mike said in a distant voice, consciousness deep in an electronic world. "I see what they're doing. They're grabbing them with space grapples. Could work."

"The AIDs are going with it," said the colonel, overlooking the lack of a "sir" in the sentence. "They're not disallowing it anyway."

"I don't know if it would work or not, I've never tried it," Captain O'Neal continued in a distant tone. "That's odd." He had finally found what was bothering him.


"The Posleen are being run at only eighty percent efficiency."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, you can adjust these scenarios to the user. It's kind of like levels in a computer game. You don't want to kick the ass of a basic trainee; it takes their edge off to get beat all the time. So, you set the level of difficulty."

"What level was this set to?" asked the battalion commander. Sometimes the things he did not know about his job frightened him and most things like that were not in any manual. With the exception of a few people like this captain, there were no "old hands" with suits. He wondered how the battalions without an O'Neal were able to prepare at all.

"I set it at a hundred percent," answered the captain. "These are trained troops and we could expect real-world landings at any time. The problem with fighting at a lower level is that it doesn't simulate reality well. You want to train harder than real combat, not easier."

The months since he had taken over the battalion had flown by; Hanson could hardly believe how fast. The first wave of Posleen was only six months away, but they were expecting a few scouting Battle Dodecahedrons any day. And before that there would be a few tests.

Captain O'Neal did not know it yet, but Colonel Hanson had arranged for an FSTEP, the Fleet Strike Testing and Evaluation Program final exam. He was going to inform the company commanders right after this exercise. One week after the FSTEP would be an Organizational Readiness Survey and an inspection by the Fleet Strike Inspector General's office.

Thanks to his increasingly able staff and the little troll standing next to him he expected to pass all three tests with flying colors. If they got a first-time pass, which had rarely happened with the other units that were already operational, he had been approved for unit leave of one week. O'Neal would take the time off, out of a suit, or the colonel would have him escorted off the post. And the colonel had arranged a little surprise for the unassuming former NCO. One that he would never have asked for, deserving or not.

"There it is," continued the company commander. "Hmm."

"What?" asked the battalion commander, drawn back from pleasant reverie. The surprise had required an unforeseen number of participants. Mike should be astounded.

"There is a command line in the general training software to reduce difficulty levels at some unspecified intervals. The intervals are tied to about a million lines of spaghetti logic."

"What's that mean?" asked the colonel, wondering what pasta had to do with combat suit programs.

"It means someone's been screwing with the code: I didn't call for this. It could only be the Darhel, they wrote the software. There's a communications protocol in it as well. I wonder if it's a bug or a deliberate function. If it's a deliberate function, I can't see the sense. All it could do is lower the readiness of the training units."

"What do you do about it?" asked the colonel with an unseen half-nod. He was still getting used to the lack of head movement caused by the gelatinous underlayer of the suits.

"I'll report it to GalTech; maybe one of the new members called for it," commented O'Neal, coming out of his programming trance. "But we won't be using the training software much longer, will we, sir?" he asked grimly.

"No," agreed the battalion commander. "No, I think the time for training is about over."

The training for the Second platoon was, indeed, about over. Second squad was entirely expended in the attack, but by the time the last trooper fell the rest of the platoon had fought its way into the gap and was in prepared positions. With a limited front to fight through, it would simply be a matter of how long humans could hold on, not how long they could hold out. It was a subtle differentiation that was often a deciding factor in war. This action was a win; the company's role was to drive forward and hold on until "conventional" forces could reinforce. Whether the company would ever be used that way was the question.

"Have they finalized what our role is going to be, sir?" asked O'Neal, hoping against hope that the battalion commander had heard something that he had not.

"Not yet, and, yes, that bothers me."

"I wish to hell Jack would get his shit together," Mike concluded with an unseen grimace. He moved the dip to the other side of his lip and spit. It wasn't like his old boss to jerk around this way.

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