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All through the long morning, the enemy gathered in a swarm just inside the ruined outer wall of the city. The mass of natives blew their horrible trophy horns and pounded drums, taunting the humans hunkered down in the citadel. Finally, when their numbers were fully gathered, they started in good order for the citadel.

Pahner, watching the approach from the gate bastion on the HUD fed by the remotes, nodded as he surveyed their formation. The lead group carried scaling ladders, and about a third of the way back from the front of the formation a mass of warriors with ropes carried a large ram. They'd prepared well, he decided, but then, they'd taken this city before.

Of course, they've never tried to take a city away from The Empress' Own, he thought grimly.

"Third Platoon, when that ram gets to a hundred and fifty meters from the gate, take it out with plasma fire."

Roger watched from a position on the wall. The heavily reinforced firing point had been prepared for one of the plasma cannons, so it was a "safe" spot from which to watch the approach of the enemy. It seemed folly to wait for the Kranolta to overrun the company before using heavy weapons, but he was taking Pahner's lead. He keyed his microphone and passed on the order.

Corporal Cathcart was almost over the failure of his armor, but he was still pissed about being taken off the wall and told to hold his fire. So when the word came down to engage the ram, he was happy to oblige.

The designers of Voitan's original defenses had faced only muscle-powered weapon threats, and that had dictated the clear areas they had allowed as fire zones. The citadel's approaches had been paved and flat for approximately a hundred and fifty meters from the curtain wall gatehouse, and just a bit over a hundred meters from the rest of the wall. The city's buildings had begun beyond those ranges, and the wrecked, decaying, luxuriantly overgrown ruins of those buildings were what cut up the company's fire lanes and would have deprived it of the full use of its range advantage even if Captain Pahner hadn't opted to let the barbarians close. But those ruins were also liberally seeded with remote sensors, and Cathcart had been using them to watch the big log approach.

Now he rolled his plasma cannon over to a handy spear slot and mentally licked his chops as he positioned it carefully. The cannon was designed for use as either a crew-served weapon or from a powered armor mount. In its crew-served configuration, its mount included retractable wheels, which were really quite useful in situations like this. He got the gun lined up, and hit the switch to take it off the wheels and drop its firing platform firmly into place.

"Everybody stand back. There's liable to be some backblast."

The barrel of the weapon was aligned with the exterior of the mini-fort as he hunted until he spotted the ram again. It had advanced another fifty meters as the lead elements approached the wall. In fact, it was in direct line of sight from his position now, and he punched a button and grunted as the entire ram was outlined in red on his sighting screen. The computer recognized it as a target and began to track automatically.

There were quicker ways to do things like this, but he had plenty of time, and it never hurt to do the job right. He designated the entire ram as a target, then designated three specific target points along its length before he took his eyes from the display to look carefully around his position one last time. He was behind the blast shield, but anyone else nearby might be caught by backscatter as the plasma charge exited the spear slit. Fortunately, everyone was well under cover . . . helped, no doubt, he reflected, by memories of exploding plasma rifles.

"Fire in the hole!"

The three plasma charges hit like the micro-nuclear explosions they were. They didn't splinter the ram; they vaporized it, along with every one of its carriers and every Kranolta warrior within forty meters. Beyond that immediate kill zone, there were actually some survivors, although the mucus-covered Mardukans suffered horribly from the flash burns of thermal bloom. The entire horde bellowed in shock, but they hadn't been totally surprised, for the story of Julian's "demonstration" had spread among them.

Worse, from the humans' perspective, the narrow, twisting streets, choked with rubble, and encroaching jungle wreckage, split the Kranolta advance into channelized tentacles, exactly as the Marines had feared. Had the horde been a more organized force, that might have wreaked havoc with its attack, but the barbarians' lack of organization actually worked in their favor in this instance. They were scarcely discommoded by the confusion of their approach to the citadel, even as the Marines were denied the full advantage of their weapons' range.

That was one main reason Pahner had selected his chosen deployment plan. If the scummies were prepared to accept sufficient casualties, they could close with the citadel whatever his people did, so he'd decided to make a virtue out of his weakness.

The trickiest element of his battle plan was the need to inflict sufficient casualties to enrage the barbarians into pressing the attack without hurting them badly enough to convince them to do the intelligent thing and back off until simple starvation forced the Marines to abandon their defensive position and run a gauntlet of endless ambushes in the jungle. Not that this particular bunch of barbarians seemed to require much in the way of enraging, he reflected as they surged forward around the huge, half-fused hole the plasma cannon had torn in their ranks.

Cathcart's shot had also acted as an effective start for the rest of the company's fire. The citadel's elevated position helped some, but the furthest out aiming stake was barely a hundred and fifty meters from the curtain wall. That was short range for a bead rifle . . . and meant the scummies had only a soccer field and a half to cross.

"Fire!" Gunnery Sergeant Jin snapped over the platoon net, and set the example himself. The first wave of burst fire from the company tumbled a windrow of the ladder-carriers in piles, but the mass of natives simply kept coming as the following ranks picked up the ladders and charged the walls.

* * *

Pahner nodded. The enemy was coming on more or less as expected, although the ladders were a surprise. There were even more Kranolta than the taccomp had estimated, though, and that was causing a few jinks in the plan. They were also much heavier on the west flank; Roger's side. It might be a good idea to thin them out a bit.

"I want two grenade volleys," he called. "Aim into the middle of the mass, about seventy-five meters out. I want to create a break in the assault."

"Roger," Lieutenant Jasco acknowledged. He'd taken over command of the right wall while Lieutenant Gulyas was in the keep.

The grenadiers filed out of the bastions and got into position as the bead riflemen on the parapets continued to pour aimed fire into the attacking Mardukans. The grenadiers readied their weapons and awaited the word as Pahner followed the timing. Right . . . about . . .


The twelve remaining grenadiers fired upon his command. For most of them, it was their first clear look at the enemy, but the numbers coming at them didn't throw off their aim. The twenty-four grenades arced out into the mass of the Mardukans, dropping behind sheltering walls and heaps of rubble which had blocked the bead fire, and detonated. The double string of explosions ripped holes in the Kranolta army, and hundreds of the four-armed natives writhed in shrieking agony as shrapnel from the mini-artillery scythed through their packed ranks.

"Again," Pahner called. "Down fifty meters."

Again the belt-fed launchers spat out their packages of death, tearing the ranks of the enemy apart. But still the natives closed up over the mangled bodies of their comrades and came on, blowing their horns and bellowing war cries.

"Okay," Pahner said, satisfied. "Back under cover." He pursed his lips and whistled. " 'When you're wounded and left on Marduk's plains—' "

Most of the grenadiers filed back into the bastions, where the hastily constructed doors were wedged in place. The few who stayed on the wall picked up their bead rifles and opened fire again. The enemy was about to assault.

* * *

"Sir," Lieutenant Jasco said, with a grunt that carried clearly over the com, "I've got more ladders coming up than I've got hands to push down. I need some support here."

"Same here," Roger reported, and Pahner heard the distinctive sound of steel meeting flesh over the prince's radio. "We're about to lose the wall!"

"Too soon," Pahner whispered, peering through the slit that overlooked Roger's position. There were already Mardukans on the wall, in close combat with the Marines, and he saw Roger lop the head off one, while Cord speared another.

"Call out your grenadiers and plasma gunners! Push them off the walls!" he ordered. He'd held the grenadiers and plasma gunners under cover to protect them from the anticipated wave of javelins from the Mardukans, but very few javelins were flying. Instead, the Kranolta concentrated with fanatical determination on getting over the walls and coming to close grips with their smaller opponents. When are they going to follow the plan? he wondered with a grim mental chuckle. Guess they've learned a little about the disadvantages of matching javelins against bead rifles at range. Too bad it's really true that no plan survives contact with the enemy!

The fresh infusion of Marines and a barrage of grenades pushed the enemy off the walls, and Pahner was relieved to see no prone bodies and only a few Marines nursing wounds.

"Switch out weapons. Put the wounded in the bastions." He looked out the slit facing the enemy, who seemed to be getting back in shape rather quickly. "And get ready for another attack!"

* * *

"Inside, Despreaux." Roger thumbed towards the bastion.

"I'm not hurt that bad, Sir." She hefted her rifle with her left hand, and started to try to reload it one-handed.

"I said, get in the bastion!" Roger snatched the weapon out of her hand. "That's an order, Sergeant."

Her jaw clenched, but then she nodded.

"Yes, Sir!" She saluted with her left hand.

"And get Liszez to replace you."

"Aye," she answered, and he nodded and turned towards the gate.

"Kameswaran! I thought I told you to get your ass into the bastion!"

* * *

Jimmy Dalton stroked the butt of the bead rifle and shook his head. There sure were a shit-load of the damned scummies.

The plasma gunner had carried a bead rifle through about half his service, so he was familiar enough with the operation of the weapon. But he'd also inherited Corporal Kameswaran's ammo harness, and that was unfamiliar. Everyone had his own idiosyncrasies about what went where, and the corporal's were more idiosyncratic than most.

Dalton ran his hand across the positions of all the gear and shook his head. Just had to hope he didn't need any of the stuff in a hurry.

The prince came up and looked out of the mini-bunker the private occupied.

"Looks like they're getting ready to come back."

"Yes, Your Highness." The private wished he had his plasma rifle; that would slow them up. "When do we open fire?"

"When Gunny Jin gives the word." The prince grinned. "Even I don't fire until the gunny says it's okay!"

"Yes, Your Highness." The plasma gunner ran his hand across the ammo harness again and shook his head. They'd made it onto the walls the last time. Why not open fire further out?

The prince seemed to read his mind.

"This is hard, waiting for them to come to us. But it would be worse worrying about being ambushed from here to the sea. We need to suck them in and kill them all, Jimmy, not just drive them off."

Dalton hadn't thought the prince even knew his name.

"Yes, Your Highness."

"I'm not Prince Roger right now, Jimmy. I'm just your platoon leader. Call me Lieutenant MacClintock."

"Yes, Your—Lieutenant," the private said. As if he didn't have enough to worry about.

* * *

Most of the ladders were still at the base of the wall, so the Kranolta came on at an unburdened run in the second wave.

"Fire!" Jin barked as they passed the hundred-meter stake and picked out his own target—one covered with horn trophies. "Take that, you bastard," he whispered, as the chieftain and two followers fell away from the burst of fire.

Roger pulled out another magazine and inserted it even as he maintained fire. The double magazine system was made for situations like this. His accuracy was somewhat degraded during the switch, but as long as he fired into that incredible mass of targets he was bound to hit something.

The Kranolta packed the ground before the wall as they reached its base and the ladders started coming up again. They were more tangled than in the first assault, but a little thing like that was nothing in the chaos at the wall's foot. Thousands of them were packed dozens deep, each and every one of them determined to be the very first over the battlements.

"Grenades, Gunny?" Roger heard his own voice over the radio and was surprised by how calm he sounded. He triggered another burst into the back of the mass; leaning out over the wall to fire directly down at its base was hazardous to health.

"Yes, Sir," Jin approved and called the order. A dozen grenades sailed into the close-packed Kranolta, exploding with deadly effectiveness, but the close press of bodies actually lessened their effect by absorbing blast and fragments, and the holes they opened closed rapidly as the feet of fresh waves of tribesmen pounded their less fortunate fellows into paste.

Roger charged forward as the first ladder came up in his sector. He and PFC Stickles managed to heave it back over the side with a descending scream from the scummies on it, but three more came up in the time it took to push one off. The Kranolta were pushing forward again through sheer weight of numbers and there were nowhere near enough humans to cover the full length of the wall.

"Grenades!" Pahner barked. "All you've got!"

Roger ripped one of the hundred-gram cylinders off his belt with his left hand, thumbed the activator, and tossed it over the wall just as the first scummy appeared at the top of a ladder. The prince put two rifle beads into the attacker one-handed even as he threw two more grenades, but by then the Kranolta were over the wall.

His magazine clicked suddenly empty, and he tossed the rifle into "his" bunker and waded in with the katana as he had before. This battle was a complete madhouse, with dozens of screaming barbarians clambering over the parapets, their false-hands holding the ladders and both true-hands filled with weapons. Trading parries with a scummy who was better than usual, Roger found himself back-to-back with Cord and realized they were practically alone. Most of the Marines had retreated into the bastions, but there were a few human bodies scattered along the wall.

"Cord!" Roger ducked a swing and opened the attacking Kranolta from thigh to breastbone. "We have to get off the wall!"

"No doubt!" the shaman shouted back, and speared another attacker. The barbarian dropped, but Cord suddenly found himself facing three replacements, and they did not appear to be taking turns. "How?"

Roger was about to reply, when his eyes widened and he spun and lunged at Cord. He tackled the much larger shaman hard enough to drive both of them into his mini-bunker . . . just as the flight of grenades from Third Platoon's bastion landed.

The grenades temporarily cleared the wall, turning the Kranolta who'd scaled it into hamburger. Most of the Marines' chameleon-suited wounded were unaffected by the air-burst grenades, but the unarmored barbarians were slaughtered.

Fragments also tore into Cord's legs. Roger had thrown himself across the shaman's torso, preventing instant death, but the native was horribly injured, and Roger himself was considerably the worse for wear.

He was stumbling to his feet, ears ringing, vision doubled, and more than half stunned, when he felt himself lifted and thrown across a shoulder.

"Okay," Despreaux snapped. She seemed, he noticed, to be upside-down. "Are you done playing hero, Hero?"

"Get Cord," he croaked. It had to be either St. John or Mutabi carrying him, he decided; nobody else was big enough.

"Already done," she said, taking one corner of the shaman's stretcher. Wounded Marines were being dragged off all along the wall while others recovered their weapons.

The last thing Roger remembered was an upside-down scummy coming over the parapet, with his ax raised over Despreaux's head.

* * *

Pahner listened to the reports and nodded.

"One more time on the walls. But make sure everyone makes it back to the bastions this time."

He looked out at the sea of scummies and shook his head. The jam-packed mob looked as if it hadn't been reduced at all, but that was an illusion. They'd already lost almost a fifth of their force to the wall assaults and the grenades. Now it was time to start the real killing.

"Blow the gate."

The timber barrier replacing the ruined gates had been carefully constructed. The original purpose of the emplaced demolition charges had been to permit a sally by the armored suits, but the explosives designed to let Marines out worked just as well to let Mardukans in.

The loss of their ram had reduced the Kranolta at the gate to clawing and hacking at the timbers. Their howls of frustration had been clearly audible even through the din of battle . . . and so were their shrieks of agony as the demo charges' explosions mangled them and blew them backwards. The warriors behind them paid them no heed, however, except to stream forward over their writhing bodies, screaming exultant war cries as they fanned out across the bailey. The gate was down; the fortress was theirs!

* * *

"Oh, Captain, that was mean," Julian whispered as he peered through the firing slit at the open gateway. He watched the tide of scummies split, some charging for the keep, and others for the inner stairs to the bastions, and then he poked his bead cannon through the slit.

There were a number of available munitions for the weapon. Besides the standard ten-millimeter ceramic-cored, steel-coated beads, there were both armor piercing and "special actions" munitions. The armor piercing beads were designed to be effective against any known suit armor, and against most armored vehicles, as well. The "special actions" munitions were mixed. Some were crowd-control devices: sticky balls to coat rioters in glue, knockout gas, or puke gas. And some of them were for close quarter conditions where the object was pure, unmitigated slaughter. The company didn't have many of those with them, but this was just about the perfect time to use the one magazine he had.

He stroked the stock of the bead cannon with a feral grin.

"Come to Poppa," he crooned.

* * *

Pahner gazed down into the courtyard from the gatehouse's upper story, calmly masticating his gum and waiting. He blew a bubble when First Platoon reported that spears were being thrust into the ground floor slits of its bastion. He nodded when the keep reported that the Mardukans were chopping at its door, and he steepled his fingers when the sound of ax blows started beneath his own feet. Then he nodded again.

"Fire," he said, and stepped back from the spear slit.

* * *

Julian had already programmed his visor HUD to show the round's footprint, and he aimed his first shot carefully. The ten-millimeter cylinder was fired at very low velocity, relatively speaking, but the instant it exited the barrel, it blossomed like some hideous flower to deploy its twenty-five depleted uranium beads in a beautiful geometric pattern like a high-tech spider's web.

Strung with monomolecular wire.

The advanced adaptation of the ancient concept of chainshot was lethal almost beyond belief, yet it never made it across the courtyard. Its designers wouldn't have believed that was possible, for the wire sliced through weapons, limbs, and bodies almost effortlessly. But only almost. If enough flesh and bone was crowded together in its path, eventually even wire a single molecule thick would find sufficient resistance to stop it.

This wire did, but not before it had torn over a third of the way across the bailey and sliced every native in its path into neatly severed gobbets of flesh. The destruction sprayed blood and bits of Mardukan in every direction, and so did the second shot in Julian's magazine. And the third. And the fourth.

The paved courtyard was an abattoir, filled with Kranolta who'd finally seen sufficient concentrated slaughter to stem even their frenzied advance for just a moment. The survivors were frozen in momentary shock and disbelief, like lifesize sculptures coated in the blood of their hideously dismembered fellows.

Sculptures which were cooked an instant later by plasma cannon.

There were four of the weapons at ground level: one in each bastion, and two mounted in armored suits in the keep. Some of the natives had begun poking spears into the firing slits before Pahner gave the word, but a few blasts from bead rifles had cleared the Kranolta away. Now all four plasma gunners thrust the muzzles of their weapons outward, a moment after the "special actions" cartridges had scythed across the bailey, and filled the courtyard with actinic silver fury.

The charges from the cannon were five times as powerful as those from mere plasma rifles, and the volcanic impact of four of them within the confined space of the bailey flashed all of the remaining vegetation into flame and cooked every Kranolta inside the gates.

The remaining plasma cannon on the wall level opened up simultaneously. Their blasts of silver fire were less intense and concentrated than in the confined space of the bailey, but that made them no less effective. They turned the Kranolta attacking the bastions into charred stumps and flaming torches. The hydrophilic Mardukans were particularly susceptible to burns, and the silver death of the plasma cannon was pure horror to them as it swept the top of the wall.

The handful who survived threw themselves shrieking from the wall's height, accepting broken bones or death itself—anything—to escape that ravening, hideous furnace.

* * *

Pahner stepped back up to the spear slit and looked out over the area in front of the citadel. The true horror within the bailey and atop the walls had been invisible to most of the enemy outside the fortress, and its impact had been lost on them, for all their attention was concentrated on gaining entry themselves. As he'd expected, the horde continued to push forward into the citadel, although with slightly less haste.

"Check fire," he said calmly, face and voice leached of all expression as he gazed down upon the unspeakable carnage.

No need to rout them. Not yet.

* * *

"Pull back, you old fool!" Puvin Eske shouted. "Now will you believe us? This is the death of the clan!"

"Great rewards require great sacrifice," the clan leader said. "Do you think we took this town before without loss?"

"No," the chieftain snapped. "We obviously lost everyone with any sense! I'm taking the rest of my people to the camp. We will prepare to try to hold off the humans when they come forth to take our horns. And may the forest demons eat your soul!"

"You shall be cast out of the clan," the elder said calmly. "Coward. We shall deal with you after the victory."

"Go into that hell yourself, coward," the younger Mardukan hissed. "Then come tell me of 'victories'!"

* * *

Eleanora O'Casey wore one of the "spare" helmets and the same uniform as the Marines, but unlike them, she'd never been trained to break down the net's clipped transmissions or the military technobabble which comprised them. For her, the majority of the bursts that came over her radio were cryptic "Tango at two-fifty" conversations which, unfortunately, her translator software was useless for deciphering, so she generally depended on some friendly Marine to interpret for her.

In this case, however, the only available translator was Poertena. Which created its own problems.

"What's happening?" she asked the armorer. She, Matsugae, and three of the pilots sat on a pile of ammunition boxes halfway back into the cave that made up the majority of the keep's interior. The noncombatants shared the space with the wounded, Doc Dobrescu, the mahouts, and nineteen nervous flar-ta. Flar-ta reacted in a predictable animal way to nervousness. It was a hot, smelly existence.

"Tee scummies, they off tee wall," the diminutive Pinopan said with a shrug, "but they getting ready to 'tack again. Tee Cap'n is gonna say somethin' soon."

"How is Roger?" Matsugae asked quietly. He had his own helmet and had heard the terse report of the prince's injury.

"He fine," Poertena said. "Jus' shock. He be fine."

"I'm pleased to hear that," Matsugae said. "Very pleased."

* * *

"Great," Pahner said, nodding as he listened to the transmission. "Great. Get him to Doc Dobrescu as soon as possible. I know you don't dare now, but as soon as we open that door, I want him in the keep."

He looked out the slit at the reforming enemy and shook his head. Bravo Company had really whittled them down that time, but the barbs were still coming back for more, and he sent his toot the command that opened the general frequency.

"Okay, people, they're coming back for another round. We took some wounded that time, so we're a little thin on the walls. I want platoon sergeants to select your best walking wounded for bead rifles and send out everyone else you can to stand by as grenadiers. They don't seem to be bothered by casualties, so I'll call for fire a little further out this time.

"Grenadiers, when they start coming through the gate, I want you to fill the bailey with their dead. I think they'll still come on in, so when they start coming up the stairs or over the walls, retreat to the bastions."

He thought of trying to say something stirring, but the only thing that came to mind was "once more into the breach, my friends," which was both technically inaccurate and too theatrical for him. Finally he just keyed the mike.

"Pahner, out."

* * *

There was silence over the com for several seconds, except for the occasional laconic transmission of firing points and targets. But then Julian's distinctive voice came over the Third Platoon net.

"Okay, Second Squad. I know I can't be up there with you, but I want you to remember that . . . that . . . you're members of The Empress' Own, damn it." There was a cracked sob, and he choked out the next words. "I want you to do me proud. Remember: long, wildly uncontrolled bursts!"

A tide of laughter welled up over the net. Gunnery Sergeant Jin was faintly audible, protesting the bad radio discipline, but it was almost impossible to understand him through his own barking belly laughs.

"Remember," the squad leader continued with another sob. "You're Marines, and The Empress' Own! We're the best, of the best, of the best. Well, maybe not the last best. That would be Gold Battalion, actually, but—"

"Juliannn," Jin wailed, "stoppp!"

"And, I just want to say . . . if these are our last moments together . . ." the NCO continued.

"Company, stand by to open fire!" Captain Pahner's voice crackled over the general frequency, oblivious of the transmissions on the platoon net.

"Gronningen," Julian said, with another choking sob, to the biggest, ugliest, most straightlaced private in the entire company, "I just want you to know: I love you, man!"

* * *

Eleanora looked up in surprise and fear as one of the armored plasma gunners fell over on her side, bent nearly double. The academic started to get up to try to render assistance, but Poertena held up his hand to stop her as he switched frequencies on his helmet radio. She watched in fear as his expression slid from worry through annoyance while the plasma gunner first tried to get to her knees, and then fell over again, twitching. O'Casey couldn't imagine what could have happened to the woman, but then the armorer began to laugh. He slid down from his perch on the ammunition boxes, holding his sides, and the civilian's eyes went wide as Doc Dobrescu opened his mouth and began to howl with laughter of his own.

* * *

"Third Platoon!" Pahner barked as a burst of bead fire went flying off into the distance and a grenade volley rolled through the enemy's ranks like a surf line of fire and death. "Sergeant Jin! What the hell is happening down there?"

"Ah . . ." Jin replied, then burst into laughter. "Sorry," he choked out. "Sorry, Sir, ah . . ."

A wild rip of bead fire lashed out from Third Platoon's position and sliced into the Kranolta like a hypervelocity bandsaw. Then another. The Mardukans went down like wheat before a reaper, and Pahner heard the distant sound of almost maniacal laughter from the parapet.

"Sergeant Jin! What the hell is happening down there?" He couldn't fault the effectiveness of the platoon's fire, but it wasn't like they had ammo to spare.

"Ah—" It was all the gunnery sergeant could say as he tore off his own wildly uncontrolled rip of automatic fire . . . and dissolved into helpless laughter of his own.

Pahner started to bellow furiously at Jin, but the firing quickly got itself back under control, and he clamped his jaw tightly. Then he tilted his head to the side and flipped to the platoon frequency just in time to hear " . . . no, man, really. I love you!" followed by hysterical laughter as Gronningen explained exactly what was going to happen to the NCO when he got his extremely heterosexual fingers around Julian's throat.

"Juliannn!" Pahner began, then paused as he realized that not only was the firing steadier, but he could actually see smiles on the faces of the troopers on the parapet. Some of those smiles might be a little crazed, but it was obvious that at least one platoon had stopped contemplating the likelihood of death in the near future.

"Buuut, Caaaptain!" the NCO whined.

"And," sobbed Jin, who was well known for his own interests, "I've gotta tell the Sergeant Major I love her, tooo!"

"Okay, people," Pahner said, shaking his head but unable not to do a little laughing of his own. "Let's settle down and kill us some scummies, okay?"

"Okay, okay," Julian said. "Sorry, boss."

"I'm still gonna kill your ass, Julian," Gronningen growled. A burst of fire echoed over the open link. "But I've got other things to do in the meantime."

And so Bravo Company, Bronze Battalion of The Empress' Own, went into battle against overwhelming odds . . . with an uncontrollable chuckle on its lips.

Morale is to the physical as ten is to one.


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