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The fleetlord Atvar had convened a great many meetings of his shiplords since the Race's conquest fleet came to Tosev 3. Quite a few of those meetings had been imperfectly happy; the Tosevites were far more numerous and far more technically advanced than the Race had imagined when the conquest fleet set out from Home. But Atvar had never imagined calling a meeting like this.
He used one eye turret to watch his leading officers as they gathered in the great hall of his bannership, the 127th Emperor Hetto  . The other eye turret swiveled down to review the images and documents he would be presenting to those officers.
Kirel, shiplord of the 127th Emperor Hetto  and a staunch ally, stood beside him on the podium. To him, Atvar murmured, "Giving a good odor to what happened in the SSSR won't be easy."
One of Kirel's eye turrets swung toward a hologram of the tall cloud rising from the nuclear explosion that had halted--worse, had vaporized--the Race's drive on Moskva. "Exalted Fleetlord, the odor is anything but good," he said. "We knew the Big Uglies were engaged in nuclear research, yes, but we did not expect any of their little empires and not-empires--especially the SSSR--to develop and deploy a bomb so soon."
"Especially the SSSR," Atvar agreed heavily. The Soyuz Sovietskikh Sotsialesticheskikh Respublik  sent a frisson of horror through any right-thinking male of the Race. A short span of years before, its people had not only overthrown their emperor but killed him and all his family. Such a crime was literally unimaginable back on Home, where emperors had ruled the Race for a hundred thousand years. Among the Big Uglies, though, impericide seemed stunningly common.
The gas-tight doors to the great hall hissed closed. That meant all the shiplords were here. Atvar knew it, but was still less than eager to begin the meeting. At last, Kirel had to prompt him: "Exalted Fleetlord--"
"Yes, yes," Atvar said with a hissing sigh. He turned on the podium microphones, spoke to the males waiting impatiently in their seats: "Assembled shiplords, you are already aware, I am certain, of the reason for which I have summoned you here today."
He touched a button. Two images sprang into being behind him, the first of a brilliant point of light northeast of the Soviet city of Kaluga captured by an observation satellite, then that ground-level shot of the cloud created by the SSSR's atomic bomb.
The shiplords, no doubt, had already seen the images tens of times. All the same, hisses of dismay and fury rose from every throat. The tailstumps of several males quivered so hard with rage that they could not stay in their seats, but had to stand until their tempers eased.
"Assembled shiplords, we have taken a heavy blow," Atvar said. "Not only did this explosion take with it many brave males and a large quantity of irreplaceable landcruisers and other combat equipment, it also moved our war against the Big Uglies into a new phase, one whose outcomes are not easily foreseen."
To the Race, few words could have been more ominous. Careful planning, leaving nothing to chance, was not only inherent in the temperament of most males but inculcated in all from hatchlinghood. The Race had sent a probe to Tosev 3 sixteen hundred years before (only half so many of this planet's slow revolution around its star), decided it was worth having, and methodically begun to prepare. But for those preparations, little in the Race's three-world empire had changed in that time.
The Big Uglies, meanwhile, had gone from riding animals and swinging swords to riding jet aircraft, launching short-range missiles, using radio ... and now to atomic weapons. The Race's savants would be millennia investigating and explaining how a species could move forward so fast. Neither the Race itself nor its subjects, the Hallessi and the Rabotevs, had ever shown such a pattern. To them, change came in slow, tiny, meticulously considered steps.
Atvar, unfortunately, did not have millennia to investigate the way the Big Uglies worked. Circumstances forced him to act on their time scale, and with too large a measure of their do-it-now, worry-later philosophy. He said, "In this entire sorry episode, I take comfort in but one thing."
"Permission to speak, Exalted Fleetlord?" a male called from near the front of the hall: Straha, shiplord of the 206th Emperor Yower  , next senior in the fleet after Kirel--and no ally of Atvar's. To Atvar's way of thinking, he was so rash and impetuous, he might as well have been a Big Ugly himself.
But at a meeting of this sort, all views needed hearing. "Speak," Atvar said resignedly.
"Exalted Fleetlord--" Straha used the proper deferential title, but sounded anything but properly deferential. "Exalted Fleetlord, how can any part of this fiasco cause you comfort?"
Some of the shiplords muttered in alarm at the harsh language Straha used; males of the Race, even those of highest rank, were expected to show--and to feelfor their superiors at all times. But a disquieting number of officers--and not just those of his factionto agree with Straha.
Atvar said, "Here is the comfort, Shiplord." He used Straha's title, high but not supreme in the conquest fleet, to remind him of his place, then went on, "Analysis shows the plutonium the SSSR used in its weapon to have come from stocks stolen from us in a raid during Tosev 3's past autumn. The Big Uglies may be able to make a bomb if they get nuclear material, but we have no evidence they can manufacture it on their own."
"Cold comfort to the thousands of males dead because you didn't think the Tosevites could do even so much," Straha jeered.
"Shiplord, you forget yourself," Kirel said from beside Atvar; sometimes a near-equal could call attention to a breach of decorum a superior might feel he had to ignore.
"By the Emperor, Shiplord, I do not," Straha shouted back. At the mention of his sovereign, he cast down both eye turrets so he looked at the floor for a moment. So did every other male in the chamber, Atvar included. The murmurs among the shiplords grew; as Kirel had said, Straha's conduct was most out of place in a staid officers' meeting.
But Straha himself was anything but staid. "Who, Exalted Fleetlord, led the raid in which we lost this nuclear material?" he demanded.
Atvar's gut knotted. Now he knew the direction from which Straha would attack, but knowing brought no comfort. He tried to head off the shiplord: "That is not relevant to the matter before us now."
Many males, probably even most, would have yielded to his authority. Straha, though, refused to be headed off. "It most certainly is  relevant, Exalted Fleetlord," he howled. "Wasn't the chief Big Ugly male the one named Skorzeny?"
With its hisses, the name might almost have belonged to a male of the Race. That, however, was not why it drew a sharp reaction from the assembled shiplords. The male called Skorzeny had given the Race grief ever since the conquest fleet landed on Tosev 3. And--
Straha continued as Atvar had known he would: "Exalted Fleetlord, along with promising us the capture of Moskva at our previous meeting, did you not also promise us the imminent destruction of Skorzeny? Have we achieved either of these goals?"
His sarcasm made the murmurs in the great hall rise to a din. Males shouted angrily at one another. Through the uproar, Atvar answered steadily, "Shiplord, you know we have not. I assure you, I find that at least as unfortunate as you do."
The sardonic reply did nothing to calm the shiplords. It certainly did not calm Straha, who said, "Instead of Moskva captured, we have a major force ruined. Instead of Skorzeny dead, we have the city of Split lost, Croatia more firmly in the Deutsch camp than ever, and Skorzeny boasting of what he did over every frequency on which the Deutsche broadcast. Assembled shiplords, I submit to you that these plans were not adequately developed."
He couldn't have been much more provocative if he'd suggested that Atvar was in the Big Uglies' pay. Accusing a male of the Race of bad planning was as harsh a condemnation as you could make. Atvar had trouble replying, too, for the plan on which he'd relied in Split had come from the mind of an operative named Drefsab, who, despite being perhaps the best intelligence officer the Race possessed, was--or rather, had beento the Tosevite herb ginger, which could easily have clouded his judgment.
The fleetlord did say, "Experience on Tosev 3 has been that plans cannot always be as immutable as we conceived them to be back on Home. Any male who does not see this is a fool."
"Your pardon, Exalted Fleetlord, but you are the one who has failed to adapt to the conditions pertaining to this world," Straha said. "I have come to this conclusion reluctantly, I assure you; subordination to properly constituted authority has served the Race well for tens of thousands of years. But the SSSR's atomic explosion and our ignominious failure at Split, each in its own way, have shown beyond any possible doubt that our conduct of the campaign to conquer Tosev 3 has been dreadfully mishandled."
"What would you have us do?" Atvar said angrily. "Throw our own atomic weapons about with reckless abandon? For one thing, we do not have that many to throw. For another, we do not know how many bombs the SSSR constructed from the nuclear material it got from us. For a third, we also do not know how close the SSSR--and several other Tosevite empires--are to producing nuclear materials and weapons on their own. And for a fourth, we cannot devastate large areas of this planet, not with the colonization fleet already on its way here from Home."
That should have made Straha shut up. Similar arguments had, many times before. Now, though, the shiplord's eye turrets twisted to let him glance toward males throughout the great hall. Gauging his strength,  Atvar thought. For the first time, alarm prickled through him. Could Straha ...?
Straha could. "Assembled shiplords," he declared. "I hereby submit to you that because our present exalted fleetlord, by his repeated misjudgments of the Big Uglies and their capabilities, put the success of our conquest of Tosev 3 not only at risk but in desperate peril, he no longer deserves to hold the supreme rank with which the Emperor entrusted him and should be replaced by another, more able, male." He did not say who that male should be, but the way he preened suggested he had at least one candidate in mind.
"Mutiny!" Atvar exclaimed.
"Mutiny," Kirel echoed, but not quite so promptly as Atvar would have liked. The fleetlord gave him a quick, suspicious glance. After himself, Kirel was the highest-ranking male in the fleet. If he was to be deposed, the shiplords might well decide they still could not stomach Straha as his replacement--in which case Kirel might get the job.
"It is not mutiny," Straha insisted--and now he did not give Atvar his title of respect. "We would be insane if we did not provide for removing a superior who has shown himself to be incompetent. I have the right to request that we consider such a removal at this time."
He was technically correct; he did have that right. But to use it--Prominent males who were removed from their posts got into the Race's history, not only as object lessons for later generations but also because they were so rare. Atvar wanted fame from this mission, not notoriety.
He said, "Assembled shiplords, the right of which Straha speaks pertains to males who have gone mad under the stress of their work or suffered some other mental debilitation. If we contemplated removing every male who ever met a reverse, we would soon have few males left to do anything."
"That is the ordinary standard, I admit," Straha shot back, "but the ordinary assignment does not carry such a burden of responsibility. If a transport planner back on Home fails, goods may be delivered late, to the annoyance of those who receive them. If the fleetlord fails here, however, our conquest of this planet fails with him. Less ineptitude is tolerable from him than from a male of lower rank."
Shiplords commanded their inferior and obeyed the fleetlord. They seldom found themselves in a gathering of equals, and even more seldom in a gathering of equals where they were called upon to decide something both vital and highly irregular. The Race shied away from irregularity wherever it could, one more thing that left it ill-prepared for a world as regularly irregular as Tosev 3.
Because the males had little practice at debate, they weren't very good at it. Straha's supporters shouted and hissed at those who backed Atvar, and the fleetlord's followers returned the compliment. They displayed their rows of pointed teeth, shoved one another, and generally behaved more like new hatchlings than staid males of respectable years.
Quietly, Kirel said, "Exalted Fleetlord, the rule in such cases is that three-fourths of the males in the rank immediately inferior to that in question must concur that its present holder is incompetent to remain at his post."
"By the Emperor, I am not incompetent!" Atvar raged.
"I did not for a moment assert that you were, Exalted Fleetlord," Kirel said, "but the question has been put in proper form and now must be decided."
Atvar's suspicions doubled, then doubled again. But formality trapped him. He knew the rules for deciding the matter, though he'd never really expected to have to use them. "Very well, Shiplord," he said, hating every word. "Since you are next senior to me but were not personally involved in raising the question, I yield control of the meeting to you until it is settled. Be assured I shall appeal to the Emperor any action taken against me."
"Of course, Exalted Fleetlord," Kirel said politely, although he, Atvar, and all the assembled shiplords knew the warning was meaningless. Back on Home, an appeal to the Emperor would be heard promptly. On Rabotev 2 and Halless 1, the Emperor's viceroys performed that duty. But from here, a radio signal would take more than ten even of Tosev 3's long years to reach Home, while another ten of them would pass awaiting a reply. Effectively, Atvar was the Emperor's viceroy on Tosev 3, or would be if he retained his post.
Making no effort to hide his anger, he stepped away from the podium. Rather nervously, Kirel said, "Assembled shiplords, we are gathered now in the most solemn proceeding known to the Race. We may answer the question of the exalted fleetlord's fitness to continue in office in one of two ways: either each male may enter an anonymous yes or no at his seat, the result to be displayed electronically here, or we may publicly record each shiplord's name and choice. How say you?"
He knows the rule very well, to bring it out so pat,  Atvar thought. Had Kirel been loyal to him, or simply more cautious than Straha? Atvar would have to contemplate that ... if he remained in any position to act on the results of his contemplation.
Straha said, "Let it be done anonymously, Superior Shiplord. That way, should the question fail"--he did not sound as if he expected it to--"the exalted fleetlord will not be in a position to take vengeance on those who questioned his competence."
You'll get more support that way, too, from males who would be ashamed to condemn me openly,  Atvar thought. In a way, though, that reassured him: had Straha been certain of his backing, he would have asked for a public record of names. And no matter that    the choice is anonymous, Straha: I'll remember what  you've done  .
Kirel waited for any males who so desired to insist on a public record. When none did, he said, "Very well, assembled shiplords, register your choices. When the tally is complete, I shall announce the result."
Atvar did his best to look impassive, no matter how he writhed inside. Being subjected to this tribunal of his inferiors was humiliating. It was worse than humiliating, in fact: it reminded him of the way some of the Big Ugly not-empires tried to run their affairs. The Race had expected, had intended, to bring civilization to Tosev 3. Instead, the Tosevites seemed to be barbarizing not only the shiplords but all the males of the conquest fleet.
Time stretched. After what seemed like forever, Kirel said, "Assembled shiplords, I shall now announce your decision." Atvar stayed outwardly unconcerned, or tried to. Straha leaned forward in eager anticipation. The great hall grew as still as Atvar had ever known it; not a male wished to miss the result.
"Assembled shiplords," Kirel said, "those favoring the removal of the fleetlord Atvar from his post constitute sixty-nine percent of your number; those favoring his retention constitute thirty-one percent. This fails to be a three-fourths majority." He turned to Atvar. "Command us, Exalted Fleetlord."
Atvar walked back to the podium. He looked out at the assembled shiplords, and they back at him. Command    us,  Kirel had said. Even with the Race's traditions of obedience, could he command these males when two out of three of them had declared he was not fit to do so? He would have to find out.
And how was he supposed to treat the Big Uglies, now that they could do serious damage not only to the Race but also to their precious planet? Before, negotiations had either been about small-scale procedural matters like treatment and exchange of prisoners or over terms of surrender to the Race. Now ... he'd have to find that out, too.
Vyacheslav Molotov hated flying. He reckoned going in a drafty biplane to Germany and then on a later air trip to England among the worst experiences of his life. But flying in a human-made airplane, however appalling that was, paled to insignificance beside taking off in a Lizard rocket ship to zoom up into outer space to talk with the commander of the imperialist aggressors from the stars.
He'd done that once before, so this time he'd known what to expect: the acceleration that pushed him back against the too-small padded seat and squeezed the air from his lungs; the sudden moment of transition, after which he seemed to weigh nothing at all and had to control his stomach as rigidly as he always controlled his face; the Saharalike temperatures the Lizards found comfortable. He'd prepared for that, at least, wearing a light cotton suit instead of his usual thick wool.
Even so, he was still sweating as he faced the fleetlord Atvar. A couple of small drops had escaped from his forehead and floated around the chamber in which he, the leader of the Lizards, and a Lizard interpreter hung at various improbable angles. The Lizards took their weightlessness utterly for granted, so he tried his best to do the same.
Atvar spoke several sentences in the Lizards' language of hisses, pops, and clicks. The interpreter turned them into Russian: "The exalted fleetlord says you were most rash to use an atomic bomb against the Race, when we could turn so many of these weapons against you."
Molotov had told Stalin the same thing--had, in fact, argued harder against using the atomic bomb than he'd dared argue with Stalin about anything else for years. But Stalin had overruled him, and no rain of destruction had fallen on the Soviet Union--yet. Instead, the Lizards had summoned him here to confer. Maybe that meant Stalin was right all along.
Such thoughts ran through the foreign commissar's mind as he asked the interpreter to repeat a couple of things he hadn't quite understood. His face remained expressionless. He nodded to the interpreter to show he'd caught the gist this time. The Lizard was much more fluent than he had been on Molotov's previous trip to this immense spacecraft not quite a year before.
"Tell the exalted fleetlord the Race was rash to attack the peace-loving peasants and workers of the Soviet Union," Molotov answered. "Perhaps the means we used to repel you will show you how true this is."
"Perhaps," Atvar said through the interpreter. "And then again, Vyacheslav Mikhailovich, perhaps not. We know you made this bomb with the quantity of element 94 you stole from us. Do not try to deny it; our analysis leaves no room for doubt. When will you be able to produce bombs altogether on your own?"
"If you renew your treacherous attacks on us, I assure you that you will find out, and that the answer will not please you," Molotov said without hesitation. Again, his features showed nothing of the fear he felt. The true answer to that question was on the order of three years  . If the Lizards learned the true answer, the Soviet Union was hideously vulnerable to them.
His prompt reply seemed to give Atvar pause. He was relieved to see that, and even more relieved when the fleetlord partially changed the subject: "Do you not realize you destroy your own planet when you use atomic weapons?"
"That did not stop you when you bombed Berlin and Washington," Molotov retorted. "Why did you think it would concern us? And if you win this imperialist war against mankind, Earth will no longer be our  planet in any case. Of course we shall use all our weapons to resist you."
"This course can lead only to your own destruction," Atvar said.
I think you may be right  . But Molotov's demeanor would not have shown his wife what he was thinking, let alone a Lizard. He said, "We know you have enslaved two races already, and want us to become the third. We know you have kept those other races under subjection for thousands of years, and that you plot the same fate for us. Since all this is true, and since you have not even tried to deny it is true, how can destroying ourselves be worse?"
"You would keep your lives, some of your private property--" Atvar began.
Even stone-faced as he normally was, even in the Lizards' power, even floating in hideously unfamiliar weightlessness, Molotov burst out laughing. It took him by surprise; it also seemed to take the Lizard fleetlord and his interpreter by surprise. Molotov said, "There is no private property in the Soviet Union; private property is the result of theft. The state owns the means of production."
Atvar and the interpreter went back and forth in their own language for a little while. When they were done, the interpreter swiveled his eyes back toward Molotov and said, "The full meaning of the concept you describe escapes us."
"I understand that," Molotov answered. "It is because the class struggle in your society has not progressed to the point where the dialectic of the transition from capitalism to socialism is above your mental horizon."
As best he could, the translator rendered that into the Lizards' language. The fleetlord Atvar made a noise that might well have come from the safety valve of a powerful steam engine. Through the interpreter, he said, "You dare, you presume, Tosevite, to call the Race  primitive?" His mouth fell open in a Lizard laugh.
"In your system of social organization? Certainly," Molotov said.
Despite the confidence with which he imbued his voice, he felt the paradox, for the Lizards' technical achievements were anything but primitive. The Soviets called them imperialists, but he did not think they were out to conquer the Earth for the sake of developing new markets, as highly advanced capitalist states had done in the past few generations to delay the inevitable proletarian revolution. The Lizards' society seemed more like that of the ancient empires, with masters ruling slaves and exploiting their labor. But the economic system of the ancient empires had been assumed to be incompatible with developing advanced technology. Marxist-Leninist theoreticians were still hammering out where the Lizards fit into the historical dialectic.
Atvar was laughing at him again, perhaps for his presumption. The fleetlord said, "Well, we care nothing for what you Tosevites think of our arrangements, and I did not summon you here to discuss them. You have made this war more dangerous for us; I do not deny that. But you have also made it more dangerous for yourselves. If you think we will hold back from responding in kind, you are badly mistaken."
"That was not our concern," Molotov answered. That was not Stalin's concern, anyhow  . "We shall do what we think best, depending on the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Withdraw your forces from the Soviet Union and you will be in no more danger from us."
Atvar laughed again, not, Molotov thought, pleasantly. "This cannot be. I show my mercy by not treating you as a criminal, since your rulers came to power through murdering your emperor."
The fleetlord and the translator both showed what looked like genuine revulsion. The version Atvar gave of what had happened in the Soviet Union wasn't strictly accurate, but Molotov didn't argue the niceties with him. The Bolsheviks had done what they had to do to stay in power; to do anything less would have been to betray the workers and common soldiers and sailors who had helped them overthrow their class enemies in the Kerensky regime.
Aloud, Molotov said, "One day, when you have advanced sufficiently, you will do the same."
If the two Lizards had been revolted before, now they were furious. Again, they made noises that reminded Molotov of a samovar boiling with the fire too high. Atvar spat words. The interpreter proved his fluency had improved by turning them into precise, insulting Russian: "You Big Uglies are the most uncultured, odious creatures anyone could ever have imagined, and you Soviets the most uncultured and odious of the Big Uglies. To suggest such a thing--" Atvar started bubbling and sputtering again.
Molotov took no notice of the insults, but in weightlessness his glasses kept trying to escape from his nose. When he had secured them, he said, "We do not love one another. This much I already knew. Did you summon me here merely to remind me of it, or did you have serious diplomatic proposals to put to me?"
He granted Atvar a moment of professional respect when the fleetlord did return to business: "I summoned you here to warn you that under no circumstances will we tolerate any further use of nuclear weapons by any Tosevite empire, and that we reserve the right to retaliate as we see fit."
"I can speak only for the Soviet Union, whose peace-loving workers and peasants must of course reject demands made at gunpoint," Molotov answered. "We also reserve the right to retaliate as we see fit, especially since your forces invaded our land without reason or declaration of war. I can predict, though, that other nations will respond similarly."
"Other empires--" Atvar let that hang in the air for a few seconds before resuming: "Other Tosevite empires are also working on nuclear weapons; of this we are certain. How can you be assured that they will use these weapons against us rather than you? The Deutsche, for instance, are already developing rockets which could carry them."
Molotov almost betrayed himself by bursting into laughter again. The Lizard was trying to sow rivalry among his human enemies, which would have been far from the worst of ploys if he hadn't been so obvious--and so bad--at the game. Even Ribbentrop would have seen through it.
"Before you came, Germany and the Soviet Union were enemies, true," Molotov said. "Germany and the United States were enemies, Germany and Great Britain were enemies, Japan and Great Britain were enemies, Japan and the United States were enemies. We are enemies among ourselves no more--you are more dangerous to all of us than we were to one another."
For once, diplomacy and truth came together. Men fought each other on more or less even terms. The Lizards were far ahead of all human nations. Go under to them and you would never come up again. Even Hitler, wretched madman that he was, recognized the truth there.
Atvar said, "Surely you realize this struggle is futile for you."
"Class struggle is the engine of the historical dialectic," Molotov answered. "It is never futile."
"I understand these words one by one, Vyacheslav Mikhailovich, but not their full meaning together," the interpreter said. "How shall I render them for the exalted fleetlord?"
"Tell him we shall go on fighting, come what may, and that we shall use whatever weapons we have to destroy his forces within the Soviet Union," Molotov said. "No threats he can make will keep us from defending ourselves."
The translator hissed and popped and squeaked, and Atvar hissed and popped and squeaked back. The translator said, "You will regret this decision."
"I would regret any other decision more," Molotov replied. That was true in an immediate, personal sense: if he dared step so much as a centimeter outside the limits Stalin had set for him, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union would have him shot and worry afterwards no more than if he'd trimmed a fingernail. But it was also true in the wider way in which he'd intended it. Surrender to the Lizards meant long-term slavery not just for the Soviet Union but for the human race.
Like any true believer, Molotov was certain the historical dialectic would one day produce a proletarian revolution among the Lizards. Given what scraps he knew of their history, though, he was not prepared for mankind to wait the thousands of years the dialectic was liable to take.
Brigadier General Leslie Groves had a sign over his desk in the Science Hall at the University of Denver: do    it anyhow  . He scrawled his signature on a report and got up from the desk: a big, ginger-haired man with a big belly and enough driving energy for any three ordinary mortals. That energy, and a gift for organization that went with it, had made him a first-rate military engineer and led to his being put in charge of America's effort to build an atomic bomb.
As Groves put on his cap, he glanced back at the sign. He'd used all his impressive energy to make sure the United States built the first human-made atomic bomb, only to be beaten by the Russians, of all people.
That wounded his pride. Losing the race to the Germans would have been a catastrophe had the Lizards not come. Under the present circumstances, though, it wouldn't have surprised him--the Germans were the ones who'd discovered nuclear fission, after all. But the Russians--
"The Russians," he muttered to himself as he tramped down the hall. "Unfair advantages." The Russians and Germans had split a load of plutonium they'd captured from the Lizards not far from Kiev. Thanks to Polish Jews who'd intercepted their courier, the Germans had had to split their half again; the American Metallurgical Laboratory physicists had the half the Germans had been forced to disgorge. Neither that half nor what the Germans had left was enough by itself to make a bomb. If the Russians had kept as much as the Germans had started out with, though, they'd had plenty.
"All right, so they didn't do it all by themselves," Groves said. That they'd done it ahead of the United States in any way, shape, form, color, or size still rankled, no matter how much the bomb they'd used had helped the war effort against the Lizards.
It rankled more people than Groves, too. Ever since the Russian bomb went off, the Denver papers had been screaming that the U.S.A. should have been the first country to blow the Lizards to hell and gone. None of the reporters and editorial writers had shown that he knew his atoms from third base, and none of them (thank God!) seemed to have a clue that the Met Lab was operating out of the University of Denver these days.
On his way from Science Hall to the football stadium that housed the atomic pile the physicists had built, Groves passed a sergeant leading a couple of Lizard POWs. The man and the aliens were almost friends by now; they chatted in a mixture of English and the Lizards' language.
"Morning, General," the sergeant said, saluting.
"Superior sir," the two Lizards added in their hissing English.
"Morning, Yeager." Groves returned the salute. He even grudged the Lizards a nod. "Ullhass, Ristin." As individuals, they looked strange, but not particularly dangerous. They were about the size and build of skinny ten-year-olds, with scaly, green-brown skins. Their bodies leaned forward slightly at the hips, and had stubby little tails to balance that. Their fingers and toes bore claws rather than nails. They had forward-thrusting muzzles filled with lots of small, sharp teeth, and long tongues they'd stick out like snakes. Their eyes were like a chameleon's, on independently rotating turrets so they could look in two directions at the same time. No mere humans had ever put the United States in such deadly danger, though.
Groves tramped on. Science Hall was near the north end of the campus, a long way away from the stadium. The walk helped keep his weight down. So did the short rations everybody was on these days. He was a long way from skinny even so. Had things been a little different, he would have looked like one of the blimps the Navy flew (or, more likely, had flown) out of Lakehurst, New Jersey.
Outside the football stadium, a guard saluted Groves, who noted approvingly that the fellow was under cover so he couldn't be spotted from the air. One of the keys to the American atomic bomb project was not letting the Lizards know it existed.
It was shadowy under the stadium, but not cool. During the day, Denver was like a bake oven in summer, even though the mile-high air shed heat fast at night. The physicists and technicians in charge of the pile nodded as Groves approached. They didn't necessarily love him, but they took him seriously, which sufficed.
"How much closer are we?" he asked Enrico Fermi.
"We have gained another day," the physicist answered. "The output of plutonium from this pile does continue to increase."
"Not fast enough," Groves growled. The pile produced grams of plutonium per day. The United States needed several kilograms of the stuff to add to what they received from inside the Soviet Union by way of a reluctant German courier, the Jewish irregulars in Poland, and a British submarine. Groves had shepherded that plutonium all the way from Boston to Denver, only to be told when he got it here that he hadn't brought enough. The memory still rankled.
Fermi shrugged a large Latin shrug. "General, I cannot change the laws of nature. I can learn to apply them more efficiently, and this I try to do: this is how we gain time on the date I first predicted. But to increase production to any really great degree, we need to build more piles. That is all there is to it."
"That's not going fast enough, either," Groves said. Another pile was going up under the stands at the opposite end of the football field. They had plenty of uranium oxide for it. Getting the super-pure graphite they needed was another matter. Groves was an expediter supreme, but the transportation snarl into which the Lizards had thrown the United States was more than enough to drive even expediters mad.
"What we really need is to build piles of more efficient design," Fermi said. "The Hanford site on the Columbia would be ideal--far more water for cooling than we can take from the South Platte, an area far removed from the Lizards--"
"I'm not so sure of that," Groves broke in. "They're supposed to have a base in Idaho, only a couple of hundred miles off to the east."
"A small one." Fermi pinched his thumb and forefinger together to show how small. "As soon as Professor Larssen returns to confirm that the site is as good as it appears to be, we will begin centering more and more of our activities there."
"As soon as Larssen gets back, yeah," Groves said with a marked lack of enthusiasm. As far as he was concerned, Jens Larssen could stay away indefinitely. Yeah, sure, the guy had a beef: he'd been away from the Met Lab crew for a long time on a dangerous mission (any cross-country travel counted as a dangerous mission these days), and his wife, figuring he had to be dead, had fallen for Sergeant Sam Yeager--he'd been a corporal then--married him, and got pregnant. When Larssen turned out to be alive after all, she'd decided to stay with Yeager. None of that was calculated to improve a man's attitude.
But goddamn it, you couldn't let how you felt drag down your work the way Larssen had. It wasn't just his own work that had been hurting, either. He'd been taking his colleagues' minds off what they were supposed to be doing, too. Groves hadn't been sorry to see him volunteer to scout out Hanford, Washington, and would hold in his delight at seeing him come back.
"Professor Larssen has had a difficult time," Fermi said, reacting to the dislike in Groves' voice.
"Professor Fermi, the whole country--hell, the whole world--has had a difficult time," Groves retorted. "It's not like he's the only one. He'd better stop whimpering and pull himself together."
He leaned toward Fermi, using his physical presence to make his point for him. He wasn't that much taller than the Italian, but he was wider, and harder and tougher to boot. Fermi said, "If you will excuse me, General, I have some calculations I must attend to," and hurried away.
Groves grunted. Scoring a victory against a mild-mannered physics prof was like shooting fish in a barrel--yeah, you'd done it, but so what? When you'd cut your teeth on hard cases, you barely even noticed biting down on a Fermi.
And besides, you couldn't bite down too hard on Fermi. Without false modesty, Groves knew he was very good at what he did. There weren't a whole lot of people who were both the engineer and administrator he was. But if he dropped dead tomorrow, George Marshall would pick somebody just about as good to replace him. Who was just about as good as a Nobel Prize-winning physicist? In a word, nobody.
The bombs would be built. He had no doubt of that: first the one that incorporated the plutonium stolen from the Lizards, then others made entirely with human-produced nuclear material. The know-how and resources were in place; the United States merely had to await results.
Only trouble was, the United States couldn't wait. As things stood, that first bomb was a year away, maybe more. How much of the States would be left in American hands by the time it was ready to blow? Not enough  , Groves thought gloomily; the guys with the guns and the tanks and the airplanes were doing all they could, but all they could was liable not to be enough.
That meant every day he could shave off getting the first bomb ready was a day that might save the country. Nobody in the United States had faced that weight of responsibility since the Civil War. He shrugged his broad shoulders. He had to hope they were strong enough to bear the burden.
Ristin threw a baseball to Sam Yeager. The Lizard POW handled the ball as if it were a grenade, but he threw pretty straight. The ball slapped leather in Yeager's beat-up glove. "Good toss," he said, and threw the baseball on to Ullhass.
Ullhass' mitt was even more battered than Yeager's, but that wasn't his problem. He lunged at the ball with the glove, as if he were trying to push it away rather than catch it. Not surprisingly, he didn't catch it. "Stupid egg-addled thing," he said in his own language as he stooped to pick the ball up off the grass, and added the emphatic cough to show he really meant it.
Yeager felt a surge of pride at how automatically he understood what the Lizard was saying. He wasn't any big brain; he'd had his third stripe only a few days. He hadn't been a prof before the Lizards came, either. He'd been an outfielder for the Decatur Commodores of the Class B Three-I League; the only reason the draft hadn't grabbed him was that he wore full dentures, uppers and lowers, a souvenir of the 1918 influenza epidemic that had almost killed him, and had left him so weak and debilitated that his teeth rotted in his head.
But prof or no, he'd been an avid reader of Astounding  and the other science-fiction pulps. After the Lizards came, the Army didn't care any more whether you had teeth; all they worried about was a pulse--if you had one, you were in. So, when his unit captured some Lizards back in Illinois, he'd volunteered to try to communicate with the things ... and here he was in Denver, working hand in hand not only with the aliens but also with the high foreheads who were taking what Ullhass and Ristin knew and using it to help build an atomic bomb for the U.S.A. Not bad for an overage ballplayer,  he thought.
Ullhass threw the baseball to Ristin. Ristin was a better natural athlete than the other Lizard, or maybe just smarter. He'd figured out how to catch with a glove, anyhow: let the ball come to him, then close his meat hand over it to make sure it didn't get out.
He still threw funny, though; Sam had to jump high to catch his next fling. "Sorry, superior sir," Ristin said.
"Don't worry about it. Nobody's keeping score." Yeager brushed back into place a lock of dark blond hair that had escaped from under the fore-and-aft Army cap he wore. He threw Ullhass the ball. But for the nature of his friends, it was an all-American scene: three guys playing catch on a college campus on a bright summer's day. You didn't get any more Norman Rockwell than that--except Normal Rockwell had never painted a Lizard with a baseball glove.
Just to add to the Saturday Evening Post  quality of the scene, here came Barbara. Sam waved and grinned enormously, partly because he was always glad to see her and partly because she was wearing the calico blouse and blue jeans in which she'd married him up in the great metropolis of Chugwater, by God, Wyoming. Even for Yeager, who in seventeen years of pro ball thought he'd seen every small town in the U.S. of A, that had been a new one.
He wondered how long she'd be able to keep wearing those jeans. Not that they didn't look good on her--she was a little on the lean side, but she definitely had hips and a pert posterior--but her pregnancy was just beginning to show with her clothes off. As best as he could tell, they'd started Junior their wedding night.
"Hi, honey," he said as she drew near. "What's up?" The question came out more seriously than he'd expected; she wasn't smiling as she usually did.
"General Groves sent me out to find you himself," she answered. "You've got new orders, he said."
"New orders?" Sam pulled a face. "I was just thinking how much I liked what I was doing here. Did he say what they were?"
Barbara shook her head. Her hair, a couple of shades darker than his, flew around her head. "I asked him, but he wouldn't tell me. He said he wanted to give them to you in person."
"I don't like the sound of that," Yeager said. Any time a general gave a sergeant orders in person, something out of the ordinary was going on, maybe something liable to get the sergeant killed. But if General Groves wanted to see him, he couldn't very well say no. He turned to Ullhass and Ristin, speaking in the mix of English and Lizard he usually used with them: "Come on, boys, let's go see what the exalted projectlord wants with me."
Ristin's mouth fell open in a Lizardy chuckle. "You're a funny Big Ugly, superior sir." He used the Lizard's slang name for people as unselfconsciously as Sam said Lizard  instead of male of the Race  around him.
The two humans and two Lizards strolled across the University of Denver campus toward Science Hall. A couple of times, people they knew waved to them. Ullhass and Ristin waved back as casually as Barbara and Sam did; they were an accepted part of the Met Lab staff by now. Technically, they remained prisoners, but nobody worried much about their trying to escape.
Groves was a big enough wheel to rate a guard outside his office: the same guard who'd been assigned to Jens Larssen for a while. Yeager didn't hold that against him. "Morning, Oscar," he said. "You want to keep an eye on these two tough guys while the general tells me whatever he tells me? Try to keep 'em from stealing all our secrets here."
"Sure, Sam," Oscar answered. Even without his rifle, Yeager would have bet on him against Ristin and Ullhass both; dark and quiet he might be, but he'd seen nasty action somewhere--he had the look. Now he nodded to Barbara. "Morning, ma'am."
"Good morning, Oscar," she answered. She spoke more precisely than Sam did. Hell, she spoke more precisely than most people did. She'd been a graduate student in medieval English out at Berkeley before the war; that was where she'd met Jens.
Oscar turned back to Sam. "Go on in. General Groves, he's expecting you."
"Okay, thanks." Yeager turned the doorknob, feeling the same willies he'd had whenever a manager called to him in a certain tone of voice after a game. Oh, God,  he thought. Where have they gone and traded me to now?
He went through the door, closed it after him. General Groves looked up from the notes he was scribbling on a typed report. Sam came to attention and saluted. "Sergeant Samuel Yeager reporting as ordered, sir," he said formally.
"At ease, Yeager. You're not in trouble," Groves said, returning the salute. He waved to the chair in front of his desk. "Sit down if you care to." When Sam had, Groves went on, "Is it your opinion that we've wrung just about everything your two scaly accomplices know about nuclear physics out of them?"
"Yes, sir, I'd say that's probably true," Yeager answered after a moment's thought.
"Good. I'd have thrown you out of here on your ear if you'd tried to tell me anything else," Groves said. By the way the muscles shifted in his big shoulders, he'd meant it literally. "The United States can still learn a lot about the Lizards from Ullhass and Ristin, though, even if what we learn has nothing directly to do with the Metallurgical Laboratory. Wouldn't you agree with that?"
"No doubt about it, sir," Yeager said. "The more we know about the Lizards, the better. They'll still be around from now on even if we manage to beat them, and that's not counting this colonization fleet of theirs. It's due in?--twenty years?"
"That's about right, yes." General Groves looked intently across the desk at Sam. "The way you answered that last question convinced me these are absolutely the right orders for you: you casually came to the same conclusion a staff of government experts has needed months to reach."
Probably comes from reading science fiction,  Yeager thought. He didn't say that out loud; he had no idea how Groves felt about that Buck Rogers stuff. He did say, "You haven't told me what the orders are, sir."
"So I haven't." Groves glanced down at some papers behind his in basket that Yeager couldn't see. "We've established a center for interrogation and research on Lizard POWs down in Arkansas. I'm going to send Ristin and Ullhass there, and I'm ordering you to accompany them. I think you can best serve your country by using your rapport with the Lizards, and that's the place for you to do it."
"Yes, sir," Sam said. He'd been traded, all right, but to a place he didn't mind going ... assuming he could get there. "Uh, sir, what sort of transportation will we have? There's a lot of Lizards between here and Arkansas that aren't prisoners, if you know what I mean."
"I know exactly what you mean. Nevertheless, you'll fly," Groves answered.
"Sir?" Yeager did his best to keep the surprise--to say nothing of the dismay--he felt from showing. His best, he feared, was none too good. He figured he'd better explain: "They shoot down an awful lot of our planes, sir." That would do for an understatement until a better one came along. The Lizards' aircraft had the same sort of advantage against the planes the Americans flew as a Lightning or a Warhawk would have against a World War I-vintage Sopwith Camel.
But Groves nodded his big head and said, "You'll fly anyhow--and what's more, the Lizards will know you're coming." Yeager must have looked as if he'd just been smacked in the kisser with a large carp, for the general chuckled a little before continuing, "We always inform them before we move prisoners by air, and we paint the planes we fly them in bright yellow. It's worked pretty well; they don't like shooting at their own people any more than we would."
"Oh," Yeager said. "I guess that's okay, then." And if there were no such arrangement between Lizards and men and Groves had told him to fly anyway, he'd have damn well flown: that's what the Army was about. As it was, though, he asked, "Do you think it's safe enough for my wife to come along, sir? Really, I'm not just asking for the sake of having her with me; she knows just about as much about the Lizards as I do. She'd be useful at this Arkansas place, at least until she has her baby."
"Under normal circumstances, Sergeant, I'd say no," Groves answered. He grimaced. "I don't think there's any such thing as normal circumstances any more. As you say, your Barbara may be useful in Arkansas, but that's not why I'm going to tell you yes. Frankly, Sergeant, getting you and her out of here will simplify matters when Professor Larssen gets back from Washington State."
"Yes, sir," Sam said woodenly. Groves had to think like that, though; Jens Larssen was a talented nuclear physicist, and the general was running a project to build an atomic bomb. If he could help the Lizard prisoner research project at the same time ... two birds with one    stone  ran through Yeager's mind. "When do we leave, sir?" he asked.
"Not for a few days," Groves answered. "We need to make the arrangements and be sure they're understood. Written orders will go out to you as soon as one of the secretaries gets around to typing them. Dismissed."
Yeager stood, saluted, and left. He wasn't sure Groves even saw the salute; he'd already gotten back to work on the report he'd been scribbling on when Sam came in.
Barbara, Ullhass, and Ristin all took a couple of steps toward him when he came out into the hallway. "You look green, Sam," she said. "What happened in there?"
"Pack your bags, hon," he answered. "We're moving to Arkansas." She stared and stared. He had to remind himself that she'd never been traded before.
Heinrich Jäger stuck his head and torso up through the open cupola of his Panzer V for a look around, then ducked back down into the turret of the panzer. "Lord, it feels good to have some centimeters of steel all the way around me again," he said.
His gunner, a veteran sergeant named Klaus Meinecke, grunted at that. "Colonel, you don't seem to have done too bad while you were out on your own, either." He pointed to the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross that Jäger wore at his collar.
Jäger's hand went to the medal. He'd earned it for helping Otto Skorzeny take the town of Split on the Adriatic back from the Lizards. He said, "Sergeant, I was in the infantry during the last war. I thought one round of that had cured me forever. Just goes to show, you may get older, but you don't get smarter."
Meinecke laughed as if he'd told a joke. But Jäger meant every word of it. Fighting from building to building inside the great stone walls of Diocletian's palace had been every bit as appalling as trench warfare in France a quarter of a century before.
The Alsatian town of Rouffach, through which the Panther had rumbled a few minutes before, had been part of the German Reich  during World War I, taken from France after the Franco-Prussian War. France had taken it back after the First World War; now it was German again ... for as long as the Reich  could maintain itself against the Lizards.
Jäger stood up in the cupola again, looked back over his shoulder. The spires of Rouffach's church of Notre Dame still loomed against the sky; so did what the locals called the Witches' Tower, crowned by a huge, disorderly storks' nest. "Pretty country," he said, lowering himself once more.
Klaus Meinecke grunted. "I wouldn't know. All I get to see of it is a gunsight's worth, except when we stop for the night." He smacked his lips. "They make good wine around here, though; I'll give them that much."
"That they do," Jäger said. "They didn't do badly farther south, either."
He wouldn't let himself venture any more in the way of reproach than that. When he'd left the panzer forces in the west to head for Croatia, they'd had the Lizards stopped in their tracks between Besançon and Belfort. Since then, Belfort had fallen, and Mulhouse, too; the Lizards had pushed all the way up to the Rhine. If I'd been here ...  Jäger thought, and then shook his head. Almost certainly, the same thing would have happened. He knew he was a damn fine panzer officer. He also knew he wasn't a panzer genius--and even a panzer genius might not have held the Lizards once they got rolling.
"Maybe we can push them out of Mulhouse again," he said hopefully.
"That's what they said we'd do back in Colmar, anyhow," Meinecke answered. He was a veteran, all right; he understood that what they said and what actually happened could be two very different animals. He pursed his lips, then added quietly, as if afraid of being overheard by malignant fate, "Engine's been behaving pretty well, knock wood." He made a fist and tapped it against the side of his own head.
"Let's hope it keeps up," Jäger agreed. Rushed into production, the Panther could be balky; among other things, fuel pump problems plagued it. But it was a great step forward from earlier German panzers, boasting a high-velocity 75mm gun and thick, well-sloped armor borrowed in concept from that of the Soviet T-34.
All of which meant you only had to be foolhardy to go up against the Lizards in a Panther, as opposed to clinically insane, which was about what opposing them in a Panzer III had required.
"Wish we had one of those bombs the Russians used to blow the Lizards to hell and gone," Meinecke said. "When do you suppose we'll get one of our own?"
"Damned if I know," Jäger said. "I wish to God I did."
"If you don't, who does?" the gunner asked.
Now Jäger just grunted by way of reply. He wasn't supposed to say anything about that to anybody. He'd been part of the band of raiders that had stolen explosive metal from the Lizards in Russia--like Prometheus, stealing fire from the gods,  said the part of him that, back before World War I, had planned on becoming a classical archaeologist. He'd taken Germany's share of the material across Poland on horseback, only to have half of it hijacked by Jewish fighters there.
Only luck they didn't kill me and take it all,  he thought. In Russia and then in Poland, he'd learned what the Reich  had done to the Jews who'd fallen into their hands; it made him sick, so he understood why the Polish Jews had risen in favor of the Lizards and against their German overlords.
He'd also been involved in the German physicists' efforts to build an atomic pile at Hechingen, although, again luckily, he'd been in combat in eastern France when the pile went out of control somehow and killed off a good many physicists, including Werner Heisenberg. How long the program would take to recover was anyone's guess.
Meanwhile, the unglamorous infantry and panzer troops would have to keep the Lizards from overrunning the Vaterland  . If they didn't, the high foreheads would never get the chance to finish their research and make something that would go boom!  In Hechingen, Jäger had felt useless; he'd been too ignorant to contribute properly. Now he was back to doing what he did best.
Off to one side of the road, an artillery piece barked, then another and another. "Eighty-eights," Jäger said, identifying them by the report. "That's good."
Meinecke understood him without any more discussion than that: "So they can fire their salvo and then get the hell out of there, you mean?"
"Right the first time, Sergeant. They're easy to shift to a new firing position--a lot easier than the bigger guns." Jäger paused meditatively. "And Lizard counterbattery fire is better than anything we ever dreamt of."
"Isn't that the sad and sorry truth, sir?" Meinecke agreed with a mournful sigh. "They can drive nails into your coffin from halfway round the world, seems like sometimes. If there were more of them, and if they had the doctrine to go with all their fancy equipment--"
"--The likes of us would have been dead for quite a while now," Jäger finished for him. Meinecke laughed, though again the colonel had spoken nothing but the truth. Down lower in the turret, Wolfgang Eschenbach, the loader, laughed too. He was a big blond farm boy; getting more than half a dozen words out of him in the course of a day was just this side of miraculous.
For all their good points, 88s had drawbacks, too. They couldn't fire shells as heavy as the larger guns, and they couldn't throw the shells they did fire as far. That meant--
"We'll probably see action in the next few kilometers," Jäger said.
"Bumping up against whatever the artillery boys are shooting at, you mean, sir?" Meinecke said. At Jäger's nod, he went on, "Makes sense to me. Besides, south of Rouffach is where they told us we'd start running into the enemy, isn't it? They have to be right once in a while."
"Your confidence in the High Command does you credit, Sergeant," Jäger said dryly, which set the gunner and the loader to laughing again. "I just hope the Lizards use the same kind of flank guards we did when we got stretched thin fighting the Russians."
"How's that, Herr Oberst  ?" Meinecke asked. "Me, I was playing games with the Tommies in the desert before they stuck me in the Flying Circus here." When Panther and Tiger panzers started rolling off the assembly lines, the Wehrmacht  put only the best crewmen into them.
"You, you didn't miss a thing," Jäger said, mimicking his gunner's diction. "But sometimes we'd have to concentrate our German troops at the Schwerpunkt  , the decisive place, and cover our flanks with Romanians or Hungarians or Italians."
"God save us." Wolfgang Eschenbach used up half his daily quota of speech.
"They weren't the worst soldiers I've ever seen," Jäger said. "They might not have been bad at all if they were decently equipped. But sometimes the Russians managed to hit them instead of us, and it got pretty ugly. I'm hoping the Lizards are concentrating all their best troops up where they're trying to advance. I'd just as soon not have to fight the first team all the time."
"Amen to that," Eschenbach said; Jäger confidently expected him to fall silent till the morning.
The colonel stood up in the cupola again. That was a good way to get shot, but it was also far and away the best way to see what was going on, and if you didn't know what was going on, you had no business commanding a panzer, let alone a (rather battered) regiment of them. Slamming the lid down and peering through the periscopes made you feel safer, but it also made you miss things that were liable to get you killed.
Northbound shells whistled overhead, undoubtedly the Lizards' response to the Germans' 88s. Jäger hoped the artillerymen had moved their pieces elsewhere before the shells came down on them.
The countryside began to have the look of a land at war: wrecked and burned farm buildings, smashed trees, bloated dead animals, shell craters pocking fields. Jäger clucked sadly at the charred wreck of a German half-track. The Panther rolled past trenches and foxholes that showed the earlier limits of the German push to the south.
Stooping to get down into the turret for a moment, Jäger said, "We're moving forward, anyhow." Against the Lizards, that was no small novelty, and boosted his hopes that they had only second-line troops on their flanks. Like a jack-in-the-box, he popped up out of the cupola again.
Through the rasping roar of the Panther's big Maybach engine came the rattle of small-arms fire ahead. A couple of German MG-42s were in action, their rapid rate of fire unmistakable--they sounded as if a giant were ripping enormous bolts of thick, tough cloth between his hands. Jäger was glad the German infantry had the machine guns; since all Lizard foot soldiers carried automatic weapons, the poor Landsers  needed all the help they could get.
The German panzers deployed for action, moving into their blunt wedge formation: two companies forward, Jäger's command panzer and another company in the middle to support them, and a fourth company in the rear as a reserve. They chewed brown, muddy lines through the green of growing crops.
Without warning, a streak of fire lanced through the air toward a Panzer IV in one of the lead companies. New Panzer IVs had long-barreled 75mm guns almost as good as the ones Panthers carried, but their armor, though thicker than in the earlier models, wasn't excellent protection even against terrestrial foes. Against a Lizard antipanzer rocket, the armor might as well not have been there at all. The Panzer IV brewed up, orange flame billowing and a column of thick black smoke mounting swiftly into the air.
Confused, angry shouts filled the radio. Jäger grabbed the headset, shoved the earphones into place, and shouted orders into the microphone. The nearest surviving panzer poured machine-gun fire into the thick clump of bushes from which the antipanzer rocket had come, hoping to flush out or knock down the Lizards who had fired it.
Nothing without armor could have survived that hail of bullets. From more than four hundred meters farther to the rear, Jäger watched the bushes writhe under it, as if under torture. But a moment later, another rocket incinerated a German panzer.
"They've got one of their troop carriers in there!" Jäger shouted into the microphone. "Give 'em your main armament." Unlike German half-tracks, the Lizards' armored troop carriers bore light cannon that could chew up anything this side of a panzer, and carried those rockets on turret rails to either side of the cannon. With them, the troop carriers became deadly dangerous panzer killers.
But, while they were formidably armed, they were only lightly armored. They could withstand small-arms fire, but when a panzer shell came knocking, they opened up. The German panzer hit the brakes to fire into that stand of bushes. Moments later, the bushes went up in flames as part of the troop carrier's funeral pyre.
Jäger whooped like a Red Indian. He remembered all too well the bad days of the summer before, when killing any Lizard armored vehicle seemed to require divine intervention. He'd done it himself once, with the 50mm cannon of a Panzer III, but he didn't pretend he'd been anything but lucky.
Yet another rocket streaked out from cover and smote a Panzer IV. The rocket exploded in a ball of flame, but the panzer did not brew up. Jäger whooped again. "The Schürzen  work!" he shouted to the world at large. The hollow-charge warheads of the Lizards' antipanzer rockets sent a jet of white-hot flame through armor and into a panzer. Some bright engineer had figured out that 5mm plates--"skirts," he called them--welded onto a panzer's turret and sides would make the rocket warhead go off prematurely and dissipate that jet. Now Jäger saw that the bright idea actually worked in combat.
The advancing German panzers kept on spraying the Lizard infantry positions with machine-gun bullets. Covered by that, German infantrymen ran forward, too. The only opposing fire came from small arms. Jäger's hopes rose. If the Lizards didn't have any panzers in this sector, the Wehrmacht  really could make some gains. He hadn't taken the brass seriously when they talked about getting Mulhouse back and cutting the Lizards off from the Rhine, but he was starting to think that just might happen.
Then three Lizard helicopters popped up from behind cover, two from out of clearings in the woods and the third from behind a barn. Jäger's mouth went dry; helicopters were deadlier foes than panzers. They launched two rockets each. One blew a hole in the ground. The other five hit German panzers. Two of the machines survived, but the other three went up in flames. A couple of crewmen managed to bail out of escape hatches; most perished.
Then 20mm rapid-fire antiaircraft guns started hammering at the helicopters. On the raid that captured the plutonium from the Lizards, the Germans who'd joined with the Russian partisans had carried a mountain version of one of those guns, which broke down into man-portable loads. Now the Wehrmacht  made a habit of posting the light guns as far forward as possible, to hold helicopters at bay.
The tactic worked. The helicopters sheered away from the antiaircraft guns. One of them was trailing smoke, though it kept flying. Jäger prayed for it to fall from the sky, but it refused.
The two lead panzer companies were already through what had been the Lizards' front line. They hadn't cleared up all the holdouts; a bullet cracked past Jäger's head and several more ricocheted off the Panther. Like any sensible soldiers, the Lizards were trying to pick off the panzer commanders. For the time being, Jäger ducked down into the Panther turret.
"We're driving them," he said, fixing his eyes to the periscopes that gave him vision even when buttoned up. "With luck, maybe we can push far enough to get in among their artillery and do them some real harm."
Just then a Lizard troop carrier that had lain low opened up with a rocket and took out a panzer less than a hundred meters from Jäger's. By luck, he was looking through the periscope that showed where the rocket had come from. "Panzer halt!" he shouted, and then, "Armor-piercing!"
"Armor-piercing." Wolfgang Eschenbach had a dispensation to exceed his daily word quota if in the line of duty. Grunting a little, he lifted a black-tipped shell and set it in the breech of the Panther's cannon.
"Bearing 300 degrees, range 700 meters, maybe a little less," Jäger said.
The turret slewed anticlockwise. "I see him, sir," Klaus Meinecke said. "Behind those bushes, ja  ?"
"That's the one," Jäger said. "Fire at--"
Before he could say "will," Meinecke fired. With the turret closed, the noise was bearable, but recoil rocked the Panther. The shell casing leaped out of the breech; Eschenbach had to move smartly to keep it from mashing his toes. The acrid reek of burnt cordite filled the air.
"Hit!" Jäger yelled. "Hit! Got him in one, Klaus. Forward!" That to the driver; stopped, the Panther was hideously vulnerable to enemy fire. The Maybach bellowed. The panzer leaped ahead. The advance went on.
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