/ Language: English / Genre:sf_action / Series: Legacy of the Aldenata

Eye of the Storm

John Ringo

In an instant the world changed for Lieutenant General Michael O’Neal. His beloved Corps of the last remaining ACS destroyed beneath the guns of the Fleet, his staff shot before his eyes, arrested on the charge of war crimes, he faces a short,one-sided, trail, a trip to the Fleet Penal Facility and a bullet to the back of the head while trying to ‘escape’. General Tam Wesley faces trying one of the most beloved heroes in Federation, not mention a friend of decades, on trumped up charges. He alternative is having the last coprs of humans that haven’t sold their souls to the Darhel be taken apart like a chicken. Then he finds out the bad news… With a new invasion from a previously unknown race threatening the Federation capital, Darhel Tir Dal Ron faces his ultimate nightmare: He is going to have to reinstate the one man human soldiers trust, a man with the power and knowledge to destroy the Darhel oligarchy forever. And instead convince him, against all logic, to save the Darhel. Somebody is going to die. General Michael O’Neal, Supreme Commander, Federation Forces, just has to pick.

Eye of the Storm

by John Ringo

Dedication

To Jim Baen, my mentor, my publisher and my friend.

Just trying to pay forward.

Acknowledgements:

I’d like to thank some people for their help in finally getting this novel done.

Jim Baen, deceased by three days when I finally figured out how to continue the story of Michael O’Neal. Because I swear to God I heard him say “do it this way, Johnny”. This one’s for you, Jim.

Miriam Sloan for back rubs, hot tea and just being her.

Rogue, Jessica and the rest of Cruxshadows.

Tom Kratman and Julie Cochrane for expanding the vision of the Aldenata universe and the characters therein. And for telling me ‘It’s done, John. Turn it in.’

Ben-David Singleton for actually organizing my randomized characters, systems and TOE.

The various members of RingTAB for corrections of some very obvious errors.

Conrad Chu, PhD and Doug Miller, USAR for physics and electrical help, respectively.

Now on with the show.

CHAPTER ONE

The trials you now are facing
They are not greater than your will
For there is nothing under heaven
You cannot overcome

Cruxshadows Eye of the Storm

As its defenses crumbled, a Posleen penetrator finally latched onto the side glassis armor of the Richard Waechter and began burrowing.

Even the multi-thousand ton bulk of a SheVa Mark VII continental siege unit could only carry its heaviest armor forward. The side glassis was composed of only two hundred centimeters of ultra-dense, ultra-strong composite made only by the finest Indowy craftsmen. The Posleen smart round first deformed to create an armored beachhead on the hull then shot a concentrated jet of fusion-generated plasma, burning rapidly through the refractory armor. Once a hole was created into the meaty center, it shot an armored penetrator containing a bare ten micrograms of antimatter into the compartmented interior.

The fourteen man crew of the SheVa knew that once a breacher round was on the hull, it was virtually impossible to remove; your best bet of survival was bailing out. The three Taylor Class Heavy Armored Escape Vehicles dropped from under the SheVa and bolted to the rear. They were picked off by plasma fire from the Posleen redoubt even as the SheVa gouted fire from every hatch and the six thousand ton turret lifted fifty meters into the air on an actinic ball of nuclear fire.

As soon as the last SheVa was eliminated, the Posleen popped up a casta round. The maneuvering HVM quickly scattered its load of antimatter bomblets across the front of the approaching line of ACS and disintegrated as the last one detonated.

One hundred and ninety-nine more bomblets detonated almost simultaneously, each the equivalent of sixteen megatonnes of TNT.

As soon as the icon of the casta round appeared on his heads up display, Private Julio Garcia dropped a foxhole round to the ground and crouched, hoping against hope that the round would dig out a hole for him before the casta went off. Shooting the bomblets was futile, that would only make them detonate earlier. The only thing that the armored combat suit corps could do was dig in and try to ride out the detonation. The Indowy manufactured battle armor was very tough indeed but a 16 megaton explosion had a better than even chance of ripping even an ACS suit into itsy bitsy pieces.

As the dirt of R-1496 Delta fountained upwards the armored infantryman dove for the hole. It was times like this that he seriously reconsidered his decision to leave the hell of New Chicago.

Julio was twenty-three, very young for a private in the ACS. He’d been raised in the New Chicago Sub-Urb, an underground city left over from the Posleen invasion of Earth. The refuges had, by and large, done their job of keeping a core of civilization alive throughout the siege but most people got out of them as quickly as possible as soon as the Posleen menace was relieved.

However, in any refugee situation a core, usually running about ten percent, refused to leave the camp or, in this case, underground city. Whether from laziness or ongoing paranoia over what had driven them to the refuge, the “refuseniks” were a problem in any recovery period.

Earth’s government had responded by slowly concentrating them. As each Sub-Urb slowly regurgitated its refugee population, those who preferred to remain in the Urbs were moved to other Urbs and slowly concentrated. Once the refuseniks were fully concentrated in four or five Urbs, they were essentially left to rot.

Minimal and generally unpalatable food was available. Enter one of the eating areas, swipe your implanted chip and you’d be given a measured amount of glop. The brown, unappetizing substance was nutritious and even filling but it had the consistency of wet cardboard and about the same taste.

There was no work in the Urbs and it wasn’t so much that crime was rife as that was the only business going. They were centers for drug trafficking, illegal arms sales (and in the post-war world you had to work for a weapon to be illegal) and prostitution. Indeed, many people thought the only reason they still existed was so that all the criminals could be concentrated in one place. The general opinion of surfacers was that the best use of the Urbs was as dumping grounds and that eventually the government would just toss in some gas bombs and be done with them.

Julio had been in the gangs, it was the only way to survive. And he’d dealt and run and even killed to survive in the Urb. But he didn’t have a criminal record. The few police in the Urbs concentrated on securing the food centers and making sure nobody did anything bad to the fundamental infrastructure. What happened outside those few secure areas rarely came to their attention. Even when it did, they didn’t care.

“You were raped? That’s tough, Miss. Maybe you should move elsewhere.”

There were few ways out of the Urbs. There was no great labor shortage on the surface and surfacers considered Urbers as the lowest of the lowest scum. After the loss of dozens of colonist ships to various accidents and ‘unanticipated Posleen deep space attacks,’ colonization became far less attractive.

There was one way not only out of the Urbs but to a pretty good life, but it depended on surviving it. The military was always recruiting. It had been tasked with “recovery” of the Posleen blight zone, a three hundred light year stretch of the galaxy composed of little but stars and planets either originally uninhabitable or turned into radioactive wastelands. As the Posleen advanced they stripped the planets they took and then, far more often then not, fell out into destructive planet-wide wars that left the world a blasted hulk. But even a hulk had some value. Indowy deep miners could still extract minerals and once their ship-like megascrapers were installed, the Indowy could build factories, live and work anywhere that there was a semblance of an atmosphere. They didn’t care what the world looked like, they just wanted room for their rapidly expanding population.

So the pattern was established. The Fleet, and Fleet Strike, it’s ground and fighter arm, would wipe a planet of concentrated Posleen infestations. Then a specialty human company would come in and establish a fully cleared zone. Last the Indowy would arrive, build their megascrapers using techology that looked a bit too much like wizardry and move in. Other human security companies would ensure the safety of the burgeoning cities, keeping the Posleen out when they could and killing any that penetrated into the megascrapers.

That was the job Julio was after, a nice safe gig with a security company. But they didn’t recruit in the Urbs. They wanted trained soldiers. So first you had to spend time in Fleet’s security arm, the FP bully-boys, or in one of the infantry arms.

Julio had tried to get into Fleet itself, getting trained as a Fleet tech would be even better than getting a security gig. But all the slots for Fleet were filled. It was only after he joined that he discovered Fleet was… restrictive. Towards the end of the War, North America had been cut off and Europe virtually cut to ribbons. Most of the replacement personnel for Fleet, therefore, came from the southeast Asian islands area, Indonesia and the Phillipines especially. These days there were a few remaining original officers and NCOs in the Fleet from Northern European backgrounds but it was about 90% Indo or Flip with a smattering of surviving Chinese. It wasn’t anything official, but it was amazing how few survivors from the rest of the world made it into Fleet.

Fleet Strike, though, was less restrictive. Also less alluring. Fleet’s job when they took a planet was to fly overhead and hit Posleen concentrations with orbital kinetic strikes or, occasionally, a burst of heavy duty plasma. It was about as dangerous as shooting fish in a barrel; no serious concentration of Posleen space-craft had been fought in fifty years. The first three waves of Fleets, shattered units rebuilt and recrewed time and again, had bled to create those conditions. That, too, explained the shortage of people in Fleet with Northern European backgrounds; millions of men and women died in those actions.

Fleet Strike, though, had to do the rest of the work. They had to get down on the ground and dig out the smart ones, the ones that had dug in and tried to hold. They would hunt and flush a planet for a year or more, living down in the muck, until it was considered “pacified.” And occasionally they got into shit like this, a seriously dug in Posleen force with a smart commander. Seriously dug in enough that the Fleet, despite constant pounding, had been unable to defeat it from orbit.

This was when Fleet Strike earned its pay. And especially the SheVa and ACS arm, the most elite of the ground combat forces.

As he flipped upwards, ready for the blast, Julio saw another infantryman crouch by his hole. There was only enough room in the hole for one, but the other man’s suit was small and the private almost pinged for him to pile in on top. But the suit didn’t appear to care that the entire area was about to be hammered by a bagillion joules of energy. The wearer simply crouched, extended rock jacks and took a knee, slamming the meter long jacks downwards until the suit’s gauntlets were balled fists on the ground.

The titanic explosion blotted out almost every sensor. But quantum state view and neutron reads, especially neutron reads, were still up. By the hellish light cast by decaying matter Julio could see the suit leaning into the plasma, seemingly unafraid, even revelling in the wash of stripped atoms. Julio’s suit temperature had hopped up sixteen degrees despite the best efforts of his environmental system; what the other wearer must be experiencing he could hardly imagine and didn’t want to.

As soon as the plasma blast was past, Julio began scrambling out of the hole, checking his readouts to see who in his section had survived. But his suit’s AID automatically overrode his request and frantically pinged a name onto his HUD, the karat laid squarely over the suit beside him. The wearer was short but plug-like, his suit covered in a strange design like a green monster. Despite the blast of plasma, the design was still unblemished, so it was clearly etched deep into the suit, perhaps even woven into the very atomic structure.

The suit slowly stood and stamped both feet on the seered ground. The stamps crunched through the glassy surface and gave the wearer a solid footing, like a bull pawing the ground just before a charge.

“General O’Neal?” Julio asked, amazed that the corps commander was right on the front lines. “Sir? Are you okay?”

“Never fucking better, private,” Lieutenant General Michael O’Neal growled. “A nuke’s better than a dry cleaners. Now, let’s kick some Postie ass.”

* * *

The Posleen commander was good, but he’d just made his first mistake. Two, actually. The casta round, named after the slightly insane human professor who first created an antimatter cluster bomb, had been slightly off-line of the ACS unit deployed across the plain. If it had been directly overhead, Mike would have dug in like everyone else. But as he saw the deployment he immediately recognized that the nukes, large as they were, were too far away to destroy an ACS, especially the customized suit he wore.

The commander’s second mistake was in using a casta at all. The explosion probably caught a few cherries who were too slow to dig in and certainly shut down inter-suit communication while the plasma wash was over the area. But that took only a moment. The Posleen defenders would have had to pull into their bunkers to avoid the blast. It would take them a moment to get back in position, and that assumed that their commo wasn’t down entirely. The 11th, ACS Corps, the “Black Tyrone,” though, was going to be ready to cock and rock in bare seconds after the explosion. They’d damned well better be ready or they’d have to deal with him. Anyone in the Corps, from the lowest private — like the kid cowering in the hole — up to his division commanders would rather battle a Posleen bare-handed then let him down. And the Bastards were within sprinting distance of the outer Posleen defenses.

Mike had considered calling in a casta himself, but he’d have had to convince Fleet higher that it was a “judicious action.” Fucking bean counters. They were more worried about the loss of the suits, each of which cost as much as a corvette, than the men, but it would still take time. Time he didn’t have. By hitting the unit with a casta, the Posleen commander had done his job for him.

Mike took the time as the plasma washed over his suit to do a quick assault frag. It was pretty straightforward. Custer would have loved it. “Take the outer defenses.”

The Posleen “redoubt” was really a small mountain range rising out of plains on all four sides, the geological term was a ‘basolith’. It was the last major point of resistance on R-1496 Delta and absolutely infested with Posleen and their automated forges. There were heavy anti-ship and missile ports in the upper reaches that had intercepted everything that fleet had thrown at them and actually taken two destroyers out that had stumbled into its arc of fire. The mountains, probably tree covered once but now slagged and black from titanic explosions, were impenetrable from space. That left taking them on the ground.

As long as they had food and materials for their ammo, and Mike bet that the commander had stocked up on both, the Posleen could hole up indefinitely. That couldn’t be allowed. He’d been tasked with clearing this dirt ball and he was damned well going to clear it.

Even while he was speaking with the private the orders flashed down to the division commanders then were split to brigades, battalions, companies and even down to the individual soldiers. The basic order: “CHARGE!!!” was the first thing to hit and then subtleties “CHARGE THAT PLASMA PIT!” were filtered through the commanders. In all it took about thirty seconds, which is a long time in combat. But it sure as hell beat aides de camp on horseback.

Mike wasn’t going to let his boys beat him to it, either. He started forward, slow at first then accelerating, commanding his suit into a run and loosening his legs so that the suit could exceed the ability of human legs to flicker back and forth. The rest of the units were keeping to the speed of their slowest suit, maintaining a careful line as they sprinted forward. So Mike, who had mastered the skitter run technique before most of his brigade commanders were born, was out in the lead.

The Posleen defenses were coming back online, slowly, as God Kings got their normals out of their deep holes, back in position and firing. The wall of the range was one interlocking defense after another and the darting suit was instantly the target of each of the positions in range as they come online.

But with the suit handling the running and dodging, he was free to bring up his grav-gun and engage. The M-288 grav-gun accelerated pellets of depleted uranium to a noticeable fraction of light speed so as each hit it generated a small kinetic explosion.

Most of the explosions burst back out of the gun positions. Mike had been firing and moving in suits for better than half a century with damned little desk time. He’d have to ask his AID to count the number of planets he’d battled Posleen on and that didn’t count five years of fighting them day in and day out on Earth during the invasion. Firing on the run was as natural to him as breathing and far more precise. The grav rounds were entering the tiny firing slits and exploding on the inside of the bunkers.

That didn’t mean he wasn’t taking fire. As fast as he took out one defense point another came online. But hitting a skittering suit was no easy task, even for the God King defenders with automated systems. First of all, he was up to over two hundred kilometers per hour in direct movement and the suit was adding side jinks, especially when it detected targeting systems on it. It telegraphed the jinks to him, the semi-intelligent underlayer of the suit sending him carefully coded nudges and the AID sending small sparkles that told him where the point was going to be as it jinked. Mike, the suit, the AID, had all fought for decades together and existed as an almost cybernetic organism, three systems with one mind.

He was, by a long shot, the most deadly user of a suit in the short history of the ACS. And he proved it now by a one man charge through a hurricane of fire until he was right up on the bunker he’d targeted.

That didn’t mean he wasn’t taking fire; the bunkers were interlocked to provide supporting fire on each other. But the other suits, thousands of them spread over several kilometers of open plain, were starting to catch up. The Posleen had more to worry about than one suit, now.

He wasn’t standing still, though. A solid, direct hit from one of the numerous heavy plasma guns or hypervelocity missile launchers covering the bunker would take him out. So he kept running past the first defense point as one hand flicked out and tossed a suicide bar in the tiny firing slit.

The “suicide bar” was an antimatter hand-grenade, a ten centimeter long, one centimeter in diameter instant armageddon pack. It doesn’t take much antimatter to make too much explosion. So the grenades were adjustable. A small quantity of the contained AM would be fired in a controlled detonation. But “squirting” the remainder, it reduced the explosion to what the user desired. The “squirted” antimatter was still hell on earth, but it wasn’t armageddon on a plate. If you were far enough away that the handgrenade didn’t kill you the squirted antimatter probably wouldn’t. The instruction manual for the M-613 “matter annihilation device” specifically stated that they were “not for use in hostage situations.” So there you go.

Mike’s grenade slid through the slit and a moment later there was a jut of silver-green fire out of the head-sized hole. But that didn’t suit his purposes. So Mike armed another, still jinking around the small hillock that made up the bunker, and tossed that one in. The first had been set to be the equivalent of sixteen kilos of TNT. He’d figured that it would crack the bunker. If that didn’t do it, a thousand kilos of TNT should. Hell, he was still an order of magnitude away from its full output. They didn’t call ’em suicide bars for nothing.

This time the front of the bunker opened out in a flower of silver-green leaving a smoking hole. Whatever had been defending the position was gone, gaseous matter barely registerable by the best sensors. A tunnel, partially collapsed, arched downward. It was large enough to take a horse, or a horse sized Posleen, so there was plenty of gap at the top of the rubble pile to crawl through.

Mike jumped into the pit and started to crawl up the rubble just as a hand descended on his shoulder.

“Sir, would you please let us go first for once?” Staff Sergeant Thomas Rawls said. The head of his security detail was clearly tired of trying to keep up.

“Oh, sure, be that way,” Mike said, backing away from the hole. “But I fit better.”

“There’s ways to fix that, sir,” Rawls said, popping out a suicide bar and tossing it in the hole. He quickly ducked to the side and held the general back against the wall of the shattered position.

“You gotta follow ’em fast,” Mike protested. “Use the boot, don’t piss on them!”

“And as you well know, antimatter remains in the explosive matter, sir,” Rawls said, sighing slightly. He sometimes had the feeling in dealing with his boss that he was the adult and the much older general the child. General O’Neal was, almost invariably, upbeat and positive to a fault. But the sergeant had been with him long enough to know that that was very much a façade.

Every survivor of the “War Generation” seemed to have lost someone. Indeed, with five out of six people on earth erased and often eaten by the Posleen, entire families, clans, tribes and even nations had been wiped out as if they never existed. In O’Neal’s case he had lost his wife, father and one daughter. His sole remaining daughter was only alive because she’d been raised by the Indowy. And that rearing had changed her to such an extent that the General found her nearly unhuman. In effect, he had lost everything in the war. He’d never remarried, never in the two years the sergeant had been guarding him so much as hinted of a romantic interest or even a close friend. He had one drive in life: eliminating every Posleen from the face of the Galaxy. And he did it cheerfully and with incredible precision and skill.

“What’s a little antimatter between friends?” Mike asked as the suicide bar went off. The explosion blasted some of the rubble back into the room, pattering the suits in chunks of rock that would have killed an unarmored human. “Can we go now?”

“Let me check the security of the tunnel, sir,” the sergeant said, waving one of the team forward.

* * *

Corporal Albert Norman had only been on the general’s security detail for a year. What with transit time and everything, he’d only been on the detail for the cleanup on S-385-Beta and he’d never seen O’Neal in full hunting mode. He thought he was good with a suit until he’d seen the boss. O’Neal was unreal.

He’d gotten comfortable with dealing on a nearly daily basis with a general but this situation had him nervous. Sergeant Rawls had been killing Posleen for ten years, the boss for, well, more than a half a century. This was the first time he’d been really doing the job under the boss’ eye. So he actually had to think through his next actions instead of doing them on automatic.

He switched on his helmet light, ducked down and crawled up the pile of rubble, poking his head over to the top and giving the tunnel a sweep.

“All cl… ” he said just as the Posleen popped out of a hide. He didn’t even have time to finish before the heavy duty plasma gun took off his head.

* * *

Julio had followed the general more or less automatically, but he hadn’t been able to keep up with either the general or his security detail. The Hammers were chosen from the cream of the 11th and Julio knew he wasn’t on their level.

But he did hop in the hole, trying to avoid the still incoming fire as much as anything, just in time to see one of the Hammers turned into a barbeque. Plasma was incredibly hot stuff and when it entered a suit, the interior turned into an oven. Julio hadn’t been around long enough to be present when such a suit was opened, but he’d seen pictures. Whoever the guy was, he was just deep baked and fried to a crisp. Besides having his head sheered off, of course.

Julio vomited into his helmet and dropped into a crouch. The suit, though, had been designed to handle that, designed in fact by the short figure up against the wall. The semi-biotic undergel created a pocket to catch the regurgitant, sealed it away to prevent aspiration and pumped air when Julio reactively inhaled. Half-noticed, a small quantity of undergel swept into his open mouth and cleaned it out. A half a morning of ACS transition training was concerned with just that. The soldiers were fed a hearty breakfast, suited up, given time to half digest, and then their suits fed them a nausea-inducing drug. Repeatedly.

It’s important, knowing deep in your bones that no matter what happens, the suit won’t let you drown in your own puke.

He was cut off from his own section, which was trying to open up a similar bunker about thirty yards away. And he sure as hell didn’t want to go out into that fire again. He wasn’t, in fact, sure what to do.

* * *

Mike knew he wasn’t in charge of one lost grunt but he also recognized the private from their earlier encounter. So he pinged the poor guy’s suit.

“First fight?” Mike asked.

“Yes, sir,” Julio said, choking.

“I’d say it gets better, but it really doesn’t,” Mike said. “But we need to get in that hole. One way to make it better is to think. How should we do that, Private Julio Garcia?”

* * *

Julio’s mind blanked. The general, survivor of countless similar encounters, the guy who had coined or been the inspiration for so many military jokes and aphorisms he was up there with Patton and a bunch of other guys, was asking Julio how to do it?

That actually broke him out of his panic. Hell, throw one of his own sayings back.

“Don’t use finesse when force works, sir,” Julio snapped back.

* * *

Mike grinned and did the head twitch that was all that was available when wearing a suit. The suits were form-fitting and the helmet was fully closed, presenting nothing more than a faceted plate to the enemy. Wearers got everything from external sensors; no faceplate created a vulnerability. By the same token, the suits, while somewhat flexible, could not nod or shrug. Body language was highly subtle and took years to learn. What Mike saw was a troop that had potential but needed to get with the program.

“X-wing option,” Mike snapped on the local circuit. “Double threes. Julio does a hop and pop entry.”

* * *

Chingadera, Julio thought. The bodyguards were going to drop two three hundred kilo dialed grenades in the tunnel and fire it up in an X at the same time. His job, whether he chose to accept it or not, was to run up the rubble and dive through the hole, hoping that the Hammers would check fire before they shot him in the back and that he could get into position before whatever Posleen were defending the tunnel.

He had to admit that the choice made sense. Urbers were generally shorter and smaller than the norm. The Hammers were mostly big guys. He could just fit better than they could. He probably could dive into the hole; ACS was not particularly cumbersome.

The other choice was the general. And Julio didn’t want to think about that possibility.

“On my mark,” the general continued, not bothering to ask if everyone understood their jobs. Getting a job in ACS required time in a regular Fleet Strike infantry unit and then a six month course. Julio knew what he was supposed to do. Doing it, though…

* * *

Sergeant Rawls designated one other Hammer to toss the second grenade then pinged readiness. At the general’s signal, they tossed the two grenades then the Hammers formed up on the rubble, leaping forward to get in the General’s way. Otherwise the nitwit was going to get himself in the way of plasma from Posleen and grenades.

There wasn’t any fire as they positioned themselves and fired up the hole but the wash of explosive carried a good bit of antimatter with it. Tough as ACS suits were, antimatter would degrade anything. The system automatically noted reduced effectiveness pretty much across the board; their suits had thinned on average three percent. The suits were going to have to go into the shop for a full detailing after this shit.

His suit kept him apprised of the actions of the line private as the guy scrambled up the rubble hill and then threw himself forward. Like well-oiled machines, the Hammers checked fire while the private was in mid-air so that he was following a crossing line of relativistic projectiles as he entered the hole.

* * *

The second set of grenades had dropped a portion of the ceiling, leaving large chunks of rubble all over the floor. So when Julio tried to roll to his feet, he stumbled and fell backwards instead. But in the light of his suit helmet he could see a door opening right by his left leg. So he kicked it.

The door was being opened mechanically. And it was heavily armored, sealed and designed to survive a nearby blast and still open even if there was rubble in the way. So the kick sent the suit spinning in a circle instead of kicking the door shut and left Julio with his hand at the base of the door.

That wasn’t much use against a Posleen God-King with a plasma gun. But Julio wasn’t quite willing to die, yet. So as the surprised Posleen tried to train the heavy duty launcher downwards, a shot that would have killed both the ACS suit and the God-King if it had gone off, Julio reached up and grabbed the barrel, pressing down and twisting.

The powerful suit crushed the plasma coils like paper. If the God-King had pulled the trigger it would have been very bad as the weapon exploded in the enclosed space. But the twist ripped the weapon out of the God-King’s hand, unfired.

That left Julio on his back looking up at an angry, disarmed, God-King. The Posleen’s next move was so automatic it could have been instinct as he reached over his back and drew his monomolecular boma blade to slash down at the armored human.

Julio’s action wasn’t nearly as smooth but it was much more effective. He just poked upwards, hard, with the plasma gun in his hand.

The butt of a Posleen plasma gun was designed to ride over the shoulder. Thus instead of the flat plate standard on human weapons, it was a curved shape with a not particularly sharp point.

“Not particularly sharp” is sharp enough when driven by pseudo-muscles that could send an armored fist through three inches of homogenous steel. The plasma gun punched up through the Posleen’s armored chest until only the barrel was exposed. The yellow blood of the centaur spattered down its still barrel, smoking off from residual heat as the boma blade clattered to the floor.

Julio didn’t stop to study the image. Training had fully taken over and he rolled to his feet, trained his grav gun down the tunnel and fired a stream of relativistic projectiles down it before he even started to identify targets.

Two more doors had opened, the God-Kings darting into the passage, weapons up. The first God-King, though, was still in the way and barely starting to slump as Julio rolled to his feet and they had a moment of hesitation about firing. If the body in the way had been a normal they couldn’t have hesitated, but killing a fellow God-King of the same clan and sept was another issue.

Julio didn’t give them time to make up their minds; the stream of explosive kinetic rounds blew the two Posleen in half.

He flipped his hand down to his side and drew out two suicide bars, setting them both for a hundred kilo charge and tossed them down the passageway, one lightly the other hard. The CLANG! of another door breaking loose and a secondary from a Posleen plasma gun was all the information he needed; there had been more down the passageway. There were probably lots of Posleen down the passageway. But for now the corridor was…

* * *

“CLEAR!”

Mike had watched the encounter on a feed. He’d have rather been the person in the passage, killing Posleen and breaking things. But he knew his job was at a higher level. He’d actually been following that feed as well as feeds from all three divisions; multi-tasking in combat was so second nature he didn’t think about it. Positions were being captured all over the line but casualties were up; every passage seemed to be heavily defended. And they were defended by God-Kings.

The Posleen came in, broadly, two forms. The vast majority, at a ratio of about four hundred to one, were semi-sentient normals. They were mildly functional morons which could be pointed in a general direction and told to kill anything non-Posleen in view. They also had implanted skills that could be used to build a civilization. And they worshipped, literally, their bosses the relatively rare God-Kings. A subset of the normals were the cosslain, physically pretty much indistinguishable but considerably brighter. Cosslain were almost sentient in fact.

God-Kings ran things. In open-field battle they generally rode anti-grav platforms called tenar which mounted heavier weapons and sensors. Occasionally they used Posleen landing craft to give ground forces air support or air-land methods such as rear area assaults. But Mike had never run into a situation where the primary shooters were God-Kings. Undoubtedly the lead God-King, the one that Julio had just killed with his own gun — neat trick — was the commander of the defenders of the pit. But having this many God-Kings forward meant that somewhere there were a couple of thousand normals without anybody to tell them what to do.

Make that a few hundred thousand normals. All the tunnels were defended by God-Kings. His division commanders hadn’t sent the intel on but he was picking it up on a tertiary feed. Everybody was running into the same thing.

This was going to be a blood-bath. And not in the skin-soothing, like-extending, “send me a hundred virgins” way.

And nobody was any further than Julio. Initial penetrations were held all along the line and too many troops were still out in the open.

Mike composed the intel and fed it down then paused, very briefly, to think.

“Rubble-dubble all openings, Shelly. Multi-entry, heavy. Boot on them, don’t piss,” he muttered to his AID. “Julio.”

“Señor?” the private said, shakily.

“Hold what you got,” Mike said. “Keep tossing subars. Rawls, rubble dubble, now!”

“Roger,” the sergeant said, pulling out another grenade. He pinged the rest of the Hammers and the group all shoved grenades as deep into the rubble as their arms would go, retracting fast. O’Neal, again, had invented the rubble-dubble technique and once upon a time it was dangerous before suits developed an engineering database that could determine trap points. At least one poor bastard had had his hand blown off when he couldn’t pull his arm back in time. But that problem had been solved long ago.

All six of the grenades were detonated on signal and the rubble wall more or less evaporated. The explosion threw one of the Hammers off his feet, but everyone else was cocked and locked.

“Let’s roll,” Mike said, heading for the opening. “There’s Posleen ass to kick.”

“And you get to roll behind us, sir,” Sergeant Rawls said, jumping into the opening.

“Spoil-sport.”

* * *

Julio paused at the intersection of the connecting tunnel and looked back. His section, which had ended up collapsing two bunkers for zero openings, had made it across the killing zone to follow the general. But his section head had sent him a quick ping telling him to stay with the Hammers.

That should have meant that his section was out in front and he was following behind. Instead, true to form, the General was on point. Damn it. Which put him at an intersection that was probably going to be crawling with fire.

“C kilo subars,” the general said, palming one of the devices and sliding his armored thumb down the blank face until the readout showed an output equivalent to one hundred kilos, about two hundred twenty pounds, of TNT. “X form. Hammers, right. Bravo Section right. Double stack.”

Julio thumbed a grenade himself, dialing it down then felt a slight thump as someone bumped into him from behind, forming a “stack” of troopers. As soon as the grenades went off, the stack would rush the corridor to the right. He glanced over and saw Corporal Kermit Butler on the point of the left-hand stack.

“Which way are we throwing?” Kermit pinged.

“X form, corp,” Julio replied. “I’m throwing your way. So you sure as hell better be throwing mine.”

“On my mark,” O’Neal said. “Three, two, one, Mark!”

Julio realized it was the General right behind him as he threw the grenade. He threw it hard; as the first guy in the stack he had the best chance of getting it far down the corridor.

The General threw one as well then shoved him, hard.

Julio thought he was crazy. The grenades were on a three second delay which meant they would be running right up on Kermit’s grenade as they entered the corridor.

But as he rounded the corner he saw the General was crazy like a fox. There were four emplaced positions along the corridor but the defenders had seen the antimatter grenades skitter down the corridor. Julio actually caught a flash from one of the defender’s hyper-velocity missile launchers as the Posleen ducked back to avoid the explosion and the wash of antimatter. A mechanical shutter dropped over the hole, closing it entirely.

Julio felt a hand on his shoulder, an almost irrestistable pressure, as the General pinged in his ear.

“Down, son,” the General said. “Take it on your helmet,” he added, pressing the private down and forward.

The explosion, at this range, was almost as bad as the casta round. And he saw his suit counter drop, hard. His armor had taken a serious hit from the antimatter. But he also was within a step of one of the armored positions.

He followed a karat, leading him to a position further down the line. The armored door slid back before he’d taken two steps, though, and he paused, dropping slightly, and targeted the small opening.

Most of the rounds careened off to one side or another but a few got through. The wash of fire out of the opening was unnoticeable compared to the explosions to either side but it was apparently enough. No fire came down the corridor at him.

He’d automatically blanked the surrounding fire but all four of the defense points in their direction were down. The same could not be said of the far end of the corridor, however, where his section was getting hammered.

“I said boot don’t piss on them,” the General muttered on the local net. “Raw… ”

“On it, sir,” Sergeant Rawls said as an HVM ripped Kermit apart.

“And what do we have here… ?”

* * *

Mike looked down the right-hand corridor, depending on Sergeant Rawls to get Julio’s former section in gear on clearing their side. The corridor curved, again, which meant there were probably more defense points down it. However, it was also going to have access to both the surface and the deeper areas where the Posleen commanders, and their forges, must reside.

Intel had shown no Posleen moving on the surface since the redoubt was invested. So everything had to move around underground. The problem was, there were a billion ways to defend a position like this. God-Kings in sealed bunkers barely scratched the surface.

However, they were inside. They’d keep digging until all the rats were gone.

CHAPTER TWO

See the door that lies before you
And know this too shall pass
The confrontation of your tears
In strength drawn from the past

Ceel Banash looked at the encoded message and then took a deep breath, calling upon a calming mantra to keep from becoming too angry or excited.

Banash was a Darhel, the most politically powerful race in the Galactic Federation. Like all other races but humans, the Darhel were quite strictly non-violent. However, unlike the bat-faced Indowy, the crab-like Tchpht and the elusive Himmit, the Darhel were not pacifists by choice. Long before, they had entered an agreement with a god-like race called the Aldenata. In exchange for being lifted from their nuclear scarred homeworld, the Darhel would renounce violence. The Darhel had agreed immediately, knowing that any agreement is worth exactly the value of the paper it’s written upon.

The Aldenata, however, were ancient and, while aggressively idealistic, well aware of the concept of treachery. The agreement said that the Darhel would be non-violent and the Aldenata made them that way. If any Darhel became excessively violent, even became over-excited much less killed another creature, a chemical switch went off, effectively lobotomizing them. The effect was called “lintatai” and every adult Darhel struggled against it every day. For Darhel were inherently violent, a warrior race that had been thrust into passivity will they, nil they.

The Darhel, however, had learned to channel their focus and fury. Unable to conquer through force of arms, they had taken to politics and business like a buzz-saw. Over a bare five hundred years they had gained absolute control over the workings of the Federation, to the point that nothing happened without their approval.

However, every power has its weaknesses. Ceel was only a junior Darhel executive but he knew a few of them. The Epetar Clan-corp had only recently been utterly destroyed by a group of lucky human rebels who managed to catch them on the wrong side of a leveraged investment. He had, however, just been apprised of a very crucial weakness, one so dangerous it could spell the end of all Darhel power. And he’d been handed the slippery end of the stick.

His first thought, once he assimilated the mess he’d been dropped in, was to wonder who hated him enough to do this to him. Darhel were the essence of acooperative; business among the Darhel was if anything slightly more abusive than the Darhel practiced on other races. Darhel could not kill but they were more than happy to contract out the occasional assassination. Back-stabbing and character assassination were considered simply good business. Banash, therefore, had to assume that someone had it in for him.

He had been told he was being sent to this dirtball to make the arrangements for rehabilitation of the planet. That was good business, short-term and minor costs for very long-term high-profit annuities, and he would have both personal gain from it and enhanced status in his clan-corp. When he’d been given the position he’d nearly had lintatai from surprise. He should have known it was a trap. An ancient bit of Darhel folk wisdom was virtually identical to a human one: If it’s flat it’s mined, if it’s rocky it’s covered by fire and if it’s easy it’s a trap. It said much of Ancient Darhel that this was only three words.

Steps must be taken and they had to be taken fast. But, however much control the Darhel exercised on a strategic and political level, they had far, far less when it came to military operations. And the worst was Fleet Strike. Fleet had been quite thoroughly suborned but Fleet Strike continued to act as if the universe cared about things like Justice and Honor. And then there was the Agreement with the military. Violating the Agreement was guaranteed suicide. So direct methods were out.

That left subtlety. But first to lay the groundwork.

* * *

Mike silently cursed as his AID pinged a message from Admiral Suntoro. The admiral was in charge of Task Force Induri, the fleet of ships that had assaulted the world. But unlike previous battles in history where “navies” had transported forces to a world to establish a beachhead, and kept control until the beachhead was well established, he was not and never had been in command of the ground forces. Mike was his military equivalent and senior to him by about ten years. Fleet Strike had established that dichotomy long ago. The Fleet carried Fleet Strike to a world, hammered the hell out of it and then dropped them. After that, the admirals could twiddle their fingers, thank you very much. On the other hand, he had most of Mike’s supplies and fire support so Mike had to be marginally nice to him. Like taking his calls in the middle of a battle.

“Connect,” he said. “O’Neal.”

“General O’Neal, this is a disaster,” the admiral said without preamble. “Seven SheVa tanks destroyed and over a hundred ACS suits permanently out of commission!”

Mike noted for the future that the admiral had put it in terms of materials, not the hundred plus dead and scores of wounded. Fleet could care less about casualties; soldiers and sailors were scum and more than disposable. His jaw worked for a moment as he imagined strangling the fat little prick. One of these days he was going to get into a position to screw all the brass in Fleet, and about half the brass in Fleet Strike, extremely hard. And when he did they were going to feel the screwing.

“Actually, admiral, this is a battle,” Mike replied. “A destroyer moronically bumbling into ground fire it knew was there, on the other hand, is a disaster. When you find an infection you have to cut it out. This one is just particularly deep and hard.”

“I have arranged a conference call in fifteen minutes,” the admiral said, angrily. “You will be there.”

“I’m in the middle of a murthering great battle, admiral,” Mike snarled. “You have got to be fucking shitting me.”

“The Darhel Ceel will be included. You will be there.”

“Holy fuck,” Mike muttered as the admiral cut the connection. He slid his dip over to the far side of his mouth then back then spat it out into the underlayer. “Raw, anything deadly about to happen?”

“We’ve got security both ways,” the sergeant said, nervously. “Why?”

Mike popped his helmet and took a breath. The O2 sensors had said there was enough oxygen and while carbon dioxide, monoxide and various trace poisons were high, the air was breathable. He didn’t take a big deep breath, though, because it was only barely breathable. What he did get was filled with the incredibly noxious smell of roasted Posleen. Posleen could eat humans but that didn’t mean they had terrestrial body chemistry, just a very bizarre one. And when it got cooked it smelled like a burning chemical factory. When it decayed it smelled worse.

He spit the last bits of chewed-out dip into his helmet, the underlayer gleaning it happily, then pulled out a can of Skoal. There was underlayer gel still coating his head. Once upon a time it would have been crawling back into the helmet but these days it had gotten smart enough to know he was going to put the helmet back on as soon as he had a fresh dip. It stayed away from his face, though, giving him the appearance of wearing a silvery, rippling skull-cap.

He tamped down the can, and nothing could tamp down a can of Skoal like an ACS suit, then pulled out a dip and stuck it between his cheek and gums. The task was as automatic and precise as killing Posleen. Despite the fact that he was dipping with relatively inflexible armored gauntlets not one scrap hit the floor. He was over eighty years old with the body of a twenty year-old; unthought actions were so precise they were machine-like.

He slid the helmet back on, put away the can and then pinged Sergeant Rawls.

“I have to do a conference in fifteen minutes. Secure this area totally. Get all available units into this corridor and hold it. Press forward as much as you need to to feel secure then hold that. I’ll tell you when I’m done.”

* * *

The chosen virtual venue was a conference room aboard the cruiser Kagamuska. Some of the people at the conference might have been present. It was Admiral Suntoro’s flagship so it made sense if he was really there. And the Darhel Ceel Banash was staying onboard as well.

But it was impossible to tell. At least to Mike’s eyes, viewing from inside an opaque helmet a fifty meters underground on the other side of the world from the cruiser, which was in high orbit.

Admiral Suntoro, the Ceel, Commodore Ajeet, moronic commander of the destroyer task force and Captain Patrick Vorassi, senior commander of the two massive troop ships that had transported the ACS to the dirtball were all “present.” As well as one pissed off general.

Mike had chosen to present a virtual “self” in armor, sans scary gargoyle helmet. When he bipped in the meeting was apparently already in full swing.

“At least two months to get them here… ” Captain Vorassi said. Technically Fleet, he spent most of his time transporting Fleet Strike units, both ACS and regular line infantry.

“The cost of this operation has, hower, become prohibitive,” the Darhel Ceel replied, calmly. “Further losses are unjustified when there is a reasonable alternative.”

“Ah, General O’Neal,” Admiral Suntoro said, giving Mike an oily smile as if they hadn’t just been at loggerheads. “We were discussing an interesting suggestion that Darhel Ceel Banash has presented.”

“Cool,” Mike said. “You guys have some trick for taking tunnels? Because so far it’s looking like brute force is the best choice.”

“In fact, no,” the Darhel said from inside his concealing cowl. Mike had met Darhel before, without their cowls, and knew full well that what was under the hood was a fox-like head with a muzzle full of razor-sharp, shark-like teeth. He wasn’t sure how the Darhel ever got around to “we’ll ne’er study war no more” but it must have been a hell of a stretch. “Unfortunately, that appears to be the necessity. However, now that the ACS has… heroically secured the tunnel entrances, it is perhaps time to call in a… less valuable unit.”

“The Ceel suggests that we let the mopping up be performed by the Legion,” Admiral Suntoro said. “I think that’s a very valuable suggestion, don’t you, General?”

Shortly after the siege of Earth was lifted, the venerable Legion Etrangère had been disbanded. Well, the few survivors had been disbanded. Most of them joined other units and continued the fight. However, shortly after that a “new” unit, copying much of the Legion’s methods and even some of its honors, was stood up. The Federation Legion, however, was not the Foreign Legion of yore. While the Legion had, often, been a dumping ground for ne’er-do-wells of one sort or another, the Federation Legion enshrined that. The thinking was simple and very, very old. Soldiers are bad. Quite often more demonstrably so. Murderers, drunks, drug addicts, dealers, thieves, rapists. You’ve spent money training them. Why throw all that money to waste?

And so the Federation Legion was born. A penal unit, part of Fleet and not Fleet Strike, it was used for every crap job the Fleet had. Mostly it spent its time on really horrible worlds during the mop-up phase of Posleen clearing. Occasionally, it was used in “hard clear” situations like this one. Casualty rates were horrendous and units had, within a few years, had over two hundred percent casualties. Most of those, admittedly, were in new arrivals. And, hell, many of them were when the veterans decided that a newbie simply wasn’t either criminal enough or good enough to want to have around.

The Legion was also light infantry. It had no heavy weapons, no armor and didn’t even use exos. It kept that Legion tradition: It mostly marched everywhere.

“With all due respect to the Ceel,” Mike said, oozing sweetness, “the answer is: No, I don’t think that’s a suggestion with any inherent value or merit. And that’s my professional opinion. Would you care for an expansion, Admiral?”

“Yes, please,” Admiral Suntoro snarled.

“Bullet point One, for those who need a PowerPoint presentation, is that the ACS has taken three percent casualties getting this far, and we’re finding resistance is on the same order as above ground. Legion is regular infantry; they’d get flipping slaughtered. I know they’re all drunks, thieves and murderers, but they weren’t given a death sentence or they’d already have been killed. Bullet Point Two: I would appreciate it if you didn’t kill the morale of my Corps. We took serious casualties getting to this point. We want to clear the damned mountains, kill a bunch of Posleen and take their stuff. That’s what my boys do and they wouldn’t be here if they didn’t enjoy it. Bullet Point Three: As the Captain said, getting them here would take at least two months. It is a simple military axiom that you should never give an enemy more time than necessary to prepare. I’ve sent orders to my division commanders to continue the assault but even this time is a poor use of my time. Letting them get even more settled in for two months, which is one Posleen birth cycle I remind you, is militarily insane. Bullet Point Four: I’ve got a Corps of armored combat suits pushing into this resistance. The Legion is about a division, max. The more you use, the fewer you lose. I doubt, professionally, that they have sufficient personnel to successfully assault this redoubt. In other words, they’ll fight until casualties exceed the level they’re willing to take and then mutiny. At which point my boys will be called in to quell the mutiny and we’ll be back to square one.

“So in my professional opinion, the Ceel’s suggestion, while appreciated, fails on the points that it is murderous, murderous to my Corps’ morale, unwise and unlikely to work. Are we done here? Because I’ve got a battle to run.”

“So you’re refusing to disengage?” Commodore Ajeet asked, incredulously. “But the Ceel’s suggestion… ”

“Is a suggestion,” Mike replied, coldly. “I am the ground force commander. That means I’m in command. If the Ceel would care to put in a request to have me relieved for someone more tractable he can feel free. In the meantime, I’ve got a battle to run. And you’re late on delivering the next shipment of power cells to Alpha Base. So I would suggest that we cut this meeting short so that everyone can go do their damned jobs. I, personally, am done here. Shelly, clear.”

* * *

“I’m sorry about that, Ceel Banash,” Admiral Suntoro said as soon as the conference had broken up. “General O’Neal should be more respectful of his betters.”

“General O’Neal’s record speaks for itself,” Ceel Banash said, calmly. “He is hyper-competent in his field. As was just proven. He was right, Admiral. I had considered only the point about how long it would take to get the Legion here. The other points were equally important if not more so. I have no issues with the conference.”

“Very well, Ceel,” Admiral Suntoro said, confused.

“I shall continue my planning of the recovery of this lovely world,” Ceel Banash said. “I suggest that you ensure delivery of supplies to the redoubtable ground-commander.”

* * *

As soon as the call was terminated the Ceel used all his willpower to suppress lintatai. He wanted to crush that impudent human, to rend him, to…

He took a breath and muttered a mantra, trying and trying to keep the surge of hormones down to a survivable level. If only…

The Legion was as thoroughly controlled as any unit in the military. The officers were utterly dependent upon the Darhel, every one having major financial problems that the Darhel were more than willing to remedy as long as they stayed in line. If the Legion had taken over the rest of the work on this planet its secret would assuredly remain safe. As it was, so far there was no indication the humans knew. But if the 11th remained, it would come out. The secret must NOT…

* * *

Indowy Neena knew the signs. As soon as the conference call was terminated it sent a muscle-cued message to its subordinates. The transfer-neuter watched, impassively, as the young Darhel wrestled with his inner emotions then suddenly jerked. For a moment, Neena thought it would die as the light of fury erupted in the Darhel’s face. Sometimes the Darhel could survive in the thrall of tal hormones for as long as fifteen seconds, long enough to kill up to a dozen Indowy if present. But this one barely jerked then slumped, his face going slack.

“Send a message to the Tir Dal Ron,” Neena said as a half a dozen Indowy scurried into the room. “This one has entered lintatai. We’re going to need a replacement Ceel. I will inform the Admiral.”

“Shall we place him in the airlock until he is gone?” Indowy Tak asked. The junior servant was new, out of the megascrapers for the first time. But if he was bothered by the condition of his former master it wasn’t apparent.

“Humans are confused by such things,” Neena said. “We will have to baby him until we get back to an Indowy or Darhel world. Then we can set him out.”

“I will see to his needs for now,” Tak said. “I can do that by myself.”

“Very well,” Neena replied, turning and leaving the compartment.

A second left to compose a message to the Tir who had sent Banash on this assignment. The others quickly tidied the small amount of mess the Ceel had caused them then left.

* * *

As soon as he was alone, Tak lifted the body and dragged the unresisting Ceel to the comconsole. Few humans realized the strength of the diminutive Indowy but, like chimpanzees, appearances were deceptive. The only problem with carrying the much larger Darhel was getting his limp legs to not dangle on the floor. The Tak sought a particular message then laid the Darhel’s hand on the control pad and positioned his face in front of the screen. Last, he slid a small device over the Darhel’s eyes. Darhel secure messages were, quite literally, for their eyes only. The laser would only shine into the Ceel’s eyes and could only be decrypted if he was physically watching it. Having him go into lintatai was a real coup for the junior Bane Sidhe.

The Indowy downloaded the decrypted message then picked the Darhel up and set him on the large bed. It was going to be a long time before anyone came to relieve him but he had some interesting reading to pass the time.

Tak was not, in fact, “straight out of the megascraper.” A member of the rebel faction called the Baen Sidhe by humans, he had travelled extensively and spent more time with humans than was considered either normal or proper. And despite extensive training in covert operations, he had developed some very bad habits.

One of them was a very human whistle when he was surprised.

“Whoooo,” the Indowy shrilled as he read the missive. “As Cally would say: The Darhel are sooo fucked!”

CHAPTER THREE

A month. Thirty-two days, actually. That was how long it had taken to get to this point.

Mike shook his head as he looked around the cavern. Adjectives were bothering him.

“So, is this a cavernous cavern?” he muttered.

“How ’bout one big motherfucking cavern, sir?” Rawls suggested. “And chock full of salty goodness, too.”

The… facility was clearly the center of the Posleen’s industrial capacity in the redoubt. Nearly two thousand meters under ground, deep enough in the bedrock that it was damned well hot, the six hundred meter long, one hundred and twenty meter high facility was packed with Posleen auto-forges. Enough in this one facility to outfit a dozen factory ships. At a billion credits a pop, on the open market, Mike was looking at a serious haul.

Getting there, though, had been tough. Casualties had approached ten percent in the first week. The unit was being decimated in all but the truly literal sense. However, the resistance had dropped off from there. The much more dangerous God-Kings thinned out, replaced by hordes of half-wild, but heavily armed, normals. They had thrown themselves into the ACS troops in wild charges in narrow tunnels, in some cases blasting so much firepower into same that they were collapsed.

Others were intentionally rigged by the remaining God-kings, dropping on units as they advanced. But having a mountain fall on you was old hat for ACS troops; they’d been dealing with that since almost their first battle. And they could dig like gophers.

Slowly, in the face of mass charges and collapsed tunnels and feints and flanking maneuvers, the corps had slowly ground its way to the center of the redoubt, finally taking this cavern.

By that time, it was mostly mopping up. There were still feral Posleen filling the extensive tunnels and mines of the redoubt, but the last crop of God-kings, probably the commander and his “staff”, had been killed only a few hours before.

“How much do you think?” Rawls asked.

The Darhel had actually instituted the program of paying units for “recovered materials.” Human commanders from Western societies had initially argued against what they saw as archaic “prize” rules but the law was encoded in Galactic regulation.

Over the years, Mike had made a tidy sum from prizes. But…

“Enough for a drunken weekend for every survivor,” Mike said, coldly. “Even after the triple tithe for the next of kin. But add it all up and it won’t even pay for the suits, much less the SheVas. And while there are bean counters aplenty that can give you a precise value for every one of my boys killed, I’m not going to even try.”

“Sorry, sir,” Rawls said.

“It’s not enough, sergeant,” Mike said. “It’s never ever enough.”

* * *

“Madre de Dios,” Julio muttered, looking into the pit.

“What’cha got?” Sergeant Dylan Glover asked.

Julio’s team had been attached, more or less of necessity, to the general’s bodyguards as the assault ground forward. The Hammers had taken even higher casualties than the rest of the division trying to protect their headstrong commander. While Julio’s team hadn’t had their same level of training or experience, more bodies were more bodies.

The Hammers had started out with nine NCOs and enlisted, Julio’s team, by the time it got officially linked up, with one and three. Sergeant Glover and Julio were the only remaining from his team and there were only four Hammers. It had been a bloody slog.

Along the way Julio had seen some things he hoped would eventually fade from consciousness. When thousands of Posleen normals were killed in a nine foot wide passage, it was necessary to more than just wade through the bodies. He’d found himself hacking parts out of the way, stomping through them, his suit becoming covered in yellow blood.

Broken and flayed suits had become a thing of norm. Passages choked with a mixture of suits and Posleen and rubble.

But this was something new. It appeared to be a pit filled with nothing but bones. There was a bit of flesh on them and some sort of bug had infested the pit, but it was the bones that showed through.

“Charnal pit,” Sergeant Glover said, stepping up beside him. “Looks like mostly Posleen. They must have been eating the normals to keep them from eating the food supply. Look, see the little ones?”

“Yeah,” Julio said, his eyes wide.

“Nestlings. They eat their young, too.”

“Madre de Dios,” Julio repeated. “That is sick.”

“Hey, they reproduce so fast that… ” The sergeant paused.

“So fast that what, sergeant?”

“That is not a Posleen bone,” the sergeant said. “Go get me some rope. I need to get down there.”

* * *

“We get anybody captured?” Mike said, rotating the bone back and forth.

Posleen were aliens, their physiology wildly different than humans. And over the past fifty years he had seen more bones, of both species, than he cared to remember. Back on earth during the Retaking there had been thousands of charnal pits filled with the remnants of the humans the Posleen used as “thresh.” By the same token, Posleen bodies, consumed or just shattered, littered the earth to the point where their toxic blood made some areas untillable for years.

But the point was, Posleen bones and human bones did not look much alike. Among other things, Posleen bones had a very distinct “ridge” down the center. Human bones were much more rounded. And whereas there were some terrestrial animals that had bones remarkably similar to a human femur, they were on earth. Not three hundred light years galactic inward.

“Not even any unaccounted for,” Colonel Shan Gilman,the 11 ACS personnel officer, G-1, raised a hand in a shrug. “Every human that dropped on this world is accounted for. There are a few legs missing, but… ”

“But it don’t account for this, sir,” Sergeant Major Rolph Tilton said, walking over. He held up the skull in his hand and waggled it back and forth. “More we dig in there, the more of these we’re finding. And this ain’t a full grown guy.”

“Girl,” Mike said, looking at the skull. “Female. Teen.” He took it and turned it back and forth. “Malnourished for that matter. And with really bad teeth.”

“So how did it get here?” Colonel Gilman asked, desperately. “We didn’t bring any teen females with us!”

“Interesting question,” Mike said, turning the skull back and forth. “But I don’t think we’re going to solve it today. Clean out that pit and find out what’s all in there. Keep me posted. Rawls.”

“Sir?”

“Attach Private Garcia and his sergeant to the Hammers. We’re heading back to the ship.”

“Roger, sir.”

* * *

As the hatch of the Banshee shuttle closed the helmets came off as if on cue.

Mike flicked the helmet of undergel to let it know it might as well crawl back in the helmet then looked around.

“Julio!”

“Sir?” the private squeaked, trying to figure out if he was supposed to have kept his helmet on or something.

“What do you think?”

“Uh,” Julio said, blinking furiously in thought. “I think I’m glad to be back on a shuttle headed for the ship, sir. I know the suits keep you clean but I’m looking forward to a shower and some rack time.”

“Spoken like a true soldier,” Mike said, smiling at the chuckles from the veterans in the shuttle. “But I was actually talking about the bones.”

“Don’t know what to think, sir,” Garcia replied. “I mean, they’re not our guys. And we’re the only humans on this planet.”

“So how did they get there?” Mike asked, leaning back with his eyes cleared.

“Not sure, sir.”

“Gimme an answer, private,” Mike said. “Any answer is fine.”

“Okay… ” the private said, nervously. “Well… The Posleen could have brought them here. Sir. I mean as food or something. Maybe some sort of trade.”

“Sergeant Glover.”

“Sir?” the sergeant replied. He and Garcia had been around the General for a month but it didn’t mean he was any less nervous in his presence. He wasn’t even sure what he was doing here.

“You’ve been in the ACS for six years. Enlisted from an unrecovered part of Florida. Bounty hunter?”

“My father was, sir,” Glover said, his brow furrowing. “I did some Posleen hunting before I joined up.”

“Since then you’ve participated in the retaking of five worlds. Ever seen human sign?”

“No, sir,” Glover replied. “I mean, I saw something like this, an old pit that is, in Florida. But not since I’ve been off-world. All the planets where humans had gotten caught by the Posleen were cleared by the time I joined up.”

“So what do you think of Private Garcia’s theory?” the General asked.

“It’s possible but it doesn’t match past record, sir,” Glover said. “If the Posleen were going to be trading in human thresh, you would expect to see it closer to Earth. This is a long way from home, sir.”

“That it is,” Mike said. “Okay… Clarke.”

“Sir?” Corporal Edgar Clarke was a two year veteran of the Hammers. Six foot two inches tall he, like most of the Hammers, looked a bit incongruous next to their “primary.”

“Alternative theory.”

Clarke hated this. When the General wasn’t busy with something else he’d pose these little “think sessions.” Clarke was more than happy to kill Posleen or, hell, throw his body between Posleen fire and his boss. But he hated when he was asked to think.

“Humans evolving on another world, sir?” Clarke said. “Or maybe being put there by God or something.”

“Two theories, equally queriable,” O’Neal replied. “The first being covergent evolution by name. That is that similar species occur with similar conditions. Thus you get rat-looking creatures in Australia and rats in England. Not well thought of by the scientific community but they’re pretty inbred anyway. Chalk that up as a possible. The test will be determining if they have human DNA. DNA don’t lie. In which case we get to the ‘God made it that way’ theory. Which is actually my first choice.”

“Really?” Clarke said.

“Certainly,” the General replied, thoughtfully. “For values of God.”

* * *

“Hi, Mike.”

The recording had been made months before and was a “back channel” communication, a personal message between two officers. In this case, originating from General Tam Wesley, the ACS branch Assistant Chief of Staff for Operations.

“I’d guess that this isn’t too surprising but you’re getting orders to hold up. The reclamation program has about reached its point of futility. Every planet that’s been taken in the last two years has been reduced to full ornadar or darned near. The Posleen are extinguishing themselves without our help.”

Mike grimaced on that. It wasn’t exactly a surprise but he also thought there was far more to it. Tam was actually his junior in the service despite having a higher rank. That was mostly because Mike had refused to stick closer to the centers of power but also because Wesley, while trustworthy, was much more the political animal than the 11th Corps commander. If Wesley was being this terse it meant there was more to it. But without being back on earth, nearly a year by any ship available, Mike wasn’t going to find out what.

“The other problem is that we’re just getting too spread out. By trans-net you’re going to be getting this six months from when I send it. There’s no way to coordinate with those sorts of lags. For all I know you could have been wiped out. And we’re having trouble with commo on the entire periphery of the reclaimed zone. Hell, I’m looking at a report that an Indowy colony has lost contact and that’s nearly a year old. God only knows what’s really happening.

“So for good or ill, hold up. The same message is going to Admiral Suronto. I’m not sure if this is permanent or not. And for now you’re not being recalled. I know it’s not the best thing in the world to be left hanging out there in limbo. But for now that’s how it’s got to be. See if there’s a world nearby that’s not too screwed up and set up for rest and refit. When they told me to order a stand-down in place I pointed out that there had to be a minimum time-frame on that. So you’ve got at least six weeks ‘off’ if you will. You can use the Corps as you wish, just don’t go a-hunting anymore until you get further word. The official orders covering this are attached but I figured you’d like some context.

“Take care. Tam.”

The recording winked out and Mike opened up the orders. They were essentially the same. 11th Corps was to perform an “in place stand-down” of at least six week’s duration. Further orders to come.

There had been rumors for years that the ACS was to be decommissioned. The suits were terribly expensive, their only benefit that they made the wearers extremely survivable in even the worst combat. The recent battle in the redoubt would have eliminated multiple corps of light infantry and taken much more time. So Mike suspected that this “temporary stand-down” was the death knell for the Corps.

The reality, though, was that the battle at the redoubt had been the first real combat the Corps had faced in nearly a decade. The Posleen, at least in this region, had been reduced to scattered savages, easy enough to mop up even for light units.

The Posleen ornadar “Blight” stretched for hundreds of light-years inward along the Orion Arm from Earth. Due to the nature of both Indowy and Posleen hyper-drive systems, it was difficult to impossible to reach the other galactic arms. So the Posleen had been trapped on this relatively narrow band of stars. And as the stars drew inwards toward the galactic core there were fewer and fewer useable planets. For all Mike knew, they might have reached the end of the Posleen Blight. In which case, his job was finished.

He had no interest in continuing a military career just for the career. All he cared about was wiping out the Posleen. Being in a desk job in Fredericksburg would be very close to a nightmare.

God knew he had enough money to retire. Daily estimated “prize” shares were posted on the milnet and just this one planet would set him up in comfort for the rest of his life. And that didn’t count the… dozens, hundreds of other planets he’d participated in retaking, from regimental commander all the way to corps. Hell, he could buy one of them with plenty left over.

But that was for later to think about. Right now he had to figure out somewhere to “refit” his unit.

This planet wasn’t so bad. The air was at least breathable, despite the beginnings of ornadar and the Fleet bombardment. Fleet had mostly used kinetic weapons and even the Posleen had only seemed to drop a few nukes. Radiation levels were nominal. Every inch was pretty well scorched, but…

Or was it? He’d have to look at detail scans. Maybe there was somewhere to settle.

Hell, maybe he’d buy this planet.

He had to chuckle. Call it Mikey’s World.

“Intel. I’ve got a tasking… ”

* * *

“This whole range is, essentially, clean, sir.”

The lieutenant from G-2 was a consummate intel geek, right down to the bobbing adam’s apple. His first name was unfortunate given his looks. Mike had learned to both love and hate his intel geeks. When they were right they were awesome. Far too often, though, they missed some tiny yet vital bit of information that led to a colossal fuck-up.

Mike looked around at the valley and wondered how in the hell it could have avoided being pasted. When Fleet and Fleet Strike got together on orbital taskings, the intel sections of both units went over the satellite data carefully. AIDs carefully sorted the data and pointed out major and minor Posleen positions and infrastructure.

The valley was a good thirty miles across, a couple of hundred miles long and bowl-shaped from glaciation. It looked somewhat like the Hudson Valley on earth if you excepted that most of the vegetation was fern-like. However, there were even some trees that looked a hell of a lot like hickory and pine. Pretty.

Which begged the question why the Posleen, who usually ravaged any area like this, hadn’t filled it with their towns and cities devoted to worshipping God-kings.

“This valley is close to the center of this range, sir,” Lt. Burkett said. “And we noted it on our tasking views. There were major queries about it on my level. But there was no trace of Posleen, or any other, civilization in the area.”

“You’ll understand, Lieutenant, if I find that hard to believe,” Mike replied.

“Yes, sir,” the lieutenant replied. “But since we took most of the planet we’ve sent in some Banshee flights. Not only did they not take fire but they saw no evidence of Posleen in the area. Sir.”

“Well, it sure fits the requirement,” Mike said, looking around. Doing even a three-sixty view was simple enough in a suit if hard to get used to at first. By looking to the side the view was slewed. If you kept your eyes off-center for a moment it continued to slew, all the way around if you wished. Mike off-set his eyes just far enough to slew slowly. Something was bugging the hell of him.

“Shelly. Any threat sources you can detect.”

“Negative,” his AID replied. “No energy emissions beyond friendly. No Posleen heat signatures. No major heat signatures at all in the immediate area. There are a few on the nearby ridge that I’ve tentatively classed as some sort of herbivore from movements.”

“Check for human,” Mike said. “Other than friendly.”

“Query,” the AID replied. “Only friendly humans on this planet.”

“Check,” Mike said.

“Negative for human heat signatures,” the AID replied. “Query. Human normal scent signature detected. Chemical analysis determines not of any registered friendly DNA. At least seven separate chemistries detected. General, that does not compute as the SF computers would say. This is a ‘what the fuck’ moment.”

“Slew to wind direction,” Mike said. “Remove heat signature filter.”

The view slewed to over his right shoulder. With every heat signature revealed, he could see several small points on the shoulder of the ridge they’d landed on.

“Shelly. Query. Heat points.” He used his eyes to focus on one of the signatures.

“Analysis: small burrows with mammaloform local species inhabiting,” Shelly replied.

“Does that analysis include the presence of humans?” Mike asked. “Including humans with special combat training.”

“Negative. No humans beyond friendly on planet.”

“Modify for presence of humans on planet,” Mike said.

“Modified analysis. Sniper team hides. Possible leakage from spider holes. No metal or power sources detected from area. Threat level minimal to armored personnel.”

Between his position and the potential “threat” was a scrub and tree covered hillside. Now that he really looked at the surroundings it was clear that much of it was secondary growth. The area had been extensively if slowly forested. The trees between his position and the possible visitors were relatively low. But getting through them, quickly, would be difficult.

What bugged him was that they’d only landed twenty minutes before. How in the hell had someone gotten onto that ridge, which they’d overflown, that quickly. And into a hide?

“General,” Rawls said. “If there are snipers overlooking this position… ”

The last time Mike had been on Earth he’d spent a brief period as Inspector General of the ACS which had morphed into something very close to the German concept of Inspector General, rather than the American. Thus, that job title carried the “honorable” position of being in charge of all Terra based ACS units. Those were mostly training units but a few were kept on tap as a reaction force if something happened that standard units couldn’t handle.

Shortly before Mike’s tenure, the top Terran anti-terrorist and anti-Posleen combat unit, the US SOCOM Direct Action Group, had gone rogue. They were given orders to stop the penetration of a top-secret facility. Someone had overwelmed the local security and was well on their way to capturing some secret that Mike had never been authorized to know about. Had gotten their hands on it.

The DAG was sent in to stop the penetration and recover the secret at all costs. Instead, they had turned on the local security and conventional units reacting to the attack. Then, as far as anyone could tell, they’d disappeared off the face of the earth.

During Mike’s tenure they had surfaced, extracting a group of Indowy “rebels,” a concept that Mike had always found confusing. The ACS quick reaction unit had been sent in and Mike had gone with them, relishing a chance to work out his kinks even if it was fighting humans.

He’d damned near had his ass handed to him. The DAG were just fucking good, even without suits. They’d screened the Indowy all the way out, giving a fully armored and highly trained ACS unit one casualty for two. In Mike’s case, he’d detected a sniper, way too late. The guy had him dead to rights. And just didn’t fire.

Mike had, though. His reactions to something like that were as close to hard-wired as it was possible to find in a human neuro-system. But the encounter had shaken him. The guy had a heavy-duty plasma rifle pointed right at him. Mike should have been burned to a crisp. Instead, the guy held his fire.

They hadn’t been able to recover the body. The DAG had flash burned every member who was killed. There wasn’t even any trace DNA. To this day, Mike didn’t know who had bested him. But it had given him the willies about snipers ever since.

This situation, though…

“No metal signatures, Rawls,” Mike said, considering the slope. There was a low bluff at the top of the hill but ACS could jump that easily enough. The undergrowth wouldn’t be a problem even if he could swear he recognized some of it. Dodging around the trees. “No power signatures. I don’t care what they’ve got, they can’t scratch an ACS at range even if it’s monomolecule weapons. When we get close, though, we’ll have to be careful.”

“When we get close, sir?” Rawls said.

“Yep,” Mike replied. “I’m about done with mysteries. I want to see who’s up there.”

* * *

“They are not Pokree,” Urnhat said, quietly.

“They are intruders,” Polray replied. “Perhaps Charan.”

“Charan don’t wear metal suits as if they were Ran’ther’iad iron-heads,” Whiet said. The older warrior snorted. “The Pokree would find them soon enough if they did that. As they did the Ran’ther’iad, Streunten curse their souls.”

“Silence,” Swodrath said. The blocky-bodied Gamra was the huntleader of the Nor. Once he had been a soldier in service of the Duendtor before the coming of the Pokree. He still served the Duendtor Lerawum, even if in this much reduced capacity. He had risen high enough in the Service to be made a Gamra, the change to super-warrior. Now he used it to hunt the Pokree stupid enough to enter the valley of the Nor. “We observe. Nothing more. Those are not Ranthy suits. And the Ranthy do not fly like the Pokree. They must be allies of the Pokree.”

“The Pokree do not ally,” Polray said. “They eat.”

“Silence,” Swodrath growled.

* * *

“Okay, everybody got the plan?” Mike asked.

“Yes, sir,” Staff Sergeant Rawls replied. “And I formally protest.”

“Noted,” Mike said, grinning inside his suit. “On my mark… One, two, three… ”

* * *

“Skelight they’re fast!” Whiet said as the suits suddenly turned and began sprinting up the steep slope faster than a deer.

“OUT!” Swodrath shouted. “Urnhat, Polray, flee. Whiet and I will stand and fight them!”

“I would stay with you, Huntmaster,” Urnhat said, whipping off the leather cover and hefting her crossbow.

“And I ordered you to flee,” Swodrath said, sending a quarrel downrange. The bolt, backed by a Duendtor-steel bow and with a cap of hammer-flash hit one of the armored suits and disintegrated in a crack of fire. “Damn these things! Streunten be with me!” he shouted, hefting his club. He had a Pokree sword, taken from his first kill of those vile beasts, back in his cave. But the Pokree could detect any metal that was carried on a scout. So all he had was this stupid club.

“I think it’s a bit late for that,” Whiet pointed out as the suits launched themselves into the air and landed on the bluff. He, too, had pulled out one of the long clubs, its sides lined with a strange material they had captured from the Pokree. It would cut through rock itself and did not attract the Pokree. Maybe it would cut these things as well. “Streunten be with us all!”

* * *

Mike lifted his forearm and caught the expertly swung club on it, expecting it to rebound. But what looked like obsidian flakes lining it was something else, probably unprocessed monomolecule pieces. It sank into his armor and he could even feel a bite on his forearm.

“Damn,” he said, snatching the club and tossing it away. “Watch these things. They don’t half cut.”

“Got mine,” Corporal Green said, holding what looked one hell of a lot like a human up by the back of a very scruffy shirt. Green was holding the guy’s club in his off-hand as the local scrabbled for footing.

Mike grabbed the guy who’d hit him by the back of the head and tried not to squeeze too hard. You could juggle eggs in an ACS if you were careful enough. You could also bend steel bars. It was all a matter of training.

* * *

“Ow!” Garcia snapped as the club thunked into his head. He could, for a moment, see daylight through the hole. He snatched the club away and swung it into a tree to hold it. Too hard, as it turned out, the tree and the club disintegrated.

He grabbed the struggling figure as carefully as he could but it apparently wasn’t carefully enough as the person let out a squeal of pain. He’d grabbed a forearm and apparently a bit too hard.

It was the squeal that triggered his recognition.

He was holding a girl. One with bright red hair and very pretty blue eyes.

The girl tried to kick him in the crotch. Okay, so romance probably wasn’t right around the corner.

* * *

“Holy fuck!” Rawls shouted. He’d been hit three times by the club before he could even react and was cut in each spot. If he hadn’t been guarding his neck, one of the hits might have gotten through to his carotid.

He didn’t want to hurt the guy but with the clubs being this vicious, he wasn’t sure what to do. He also wasn’t sure he was dealing with a human. The guy looked more like a Darhel and was both blindingly fast and, from the power of the strikes, remarkably strong.

* * *

Mike tossed his catch to Corporal Murray and walked over to where Rawls was struggling with what certainly looked like a Darhel. But while Mike had heard rumors they could fight, seeing it was something else.

But the more he watched, as Rawls learned to block the club a bit better, he realized it couldn’t be a Darhel. The body was way too stocky, the musculature was all wrong.

What he was looking at was a human somehow changed to look like a Darhel. Or sort of Darhel.

Mike watched for a moment longer then his fist flashed out…

* * *

Urnhat groaned as Swodrath fell to the ground. The short figure had only hit once but the Huntmaster had been knocked backwards several feet. He still lived, it would take more than that to damage a Gamra, but he was out of the fight and with his fall their fates were sealed.

She stopped struggling then struck the armored suit one more time in frustration. Her right arm was either broken or badly bruised and now her left hand felt the same.

“Streunten take your souls!”

* * *

“Shelly, you making anything of this gabble?” Mike asked. The prisoners were now examining them sullenly but they had been speaking. Mike wasn’t sure how good AIDs were at translating alien languages. It had never come up. There were the Galactics and there were Posleen. Humans or pseudo-humans speaking alien babel had never come up.

“Yes,” the AID replied.

“Can you translate it?” Mike asked.

“Yes.”

When AIDs got monosyllabic it was bad. Mike was well aware that AIDs had lots of secrets they wouldn’t or couldn’t share with humans. When they got monosyllabic you were getting close to one of them.

He’d have to think on that. But given that there were humans on a planet a long way away from earth, one of them looked like a Darhel but wasn’t, the local Darhel had gone into lintatai and his AID was getting less helpful… Things were starting to add up in a “oh, shit” way.

Mike was not stupid. There was more than one reason he’d stayed as far away from central command as he could possibly arrange. Once upon a time he’d had a very good friend and commander named Taylor. General Taylor had been commander of all US defenses on Earth. One day he turned up dead after asking too many questions about an incident where the AID net had been, apparently, hacked. Shortly after that a bunch of Darhel had either gone into lintatai or ended up quite spectacularly dead. And a previous special operations unit, the Cyberpunks, had gone rogue.

Mike had heard the rumors, including some that he put more credence on than others. The Darhel weren’t entirely friendly to humans. They had, quite clearly, hamstrung human operations during the war. And they continued to manipulate governments and the military. Push too hard at Darhel secrets and you didn’t last long.

Unfortunately, it looked as if Mike had ended up square in the middle of one or his middle name wasn’t Leonidas.

“Well, Shelly, why don’t you go ahead and translate for me.”

* * *

“Cometh all friends,” the smallest of the suits said. It had a monsterous form painted on its suit, a creature out of nightmare. All the other suits were bare of all but the most minor symbols. Urnhat wasn’t sure if that meant a more senior one or not. The voice seemed male, though, and speaking in an archaic dialect that was hard to understand.

“Then let us go so we can tend to our leader,” Whiet replied.

“Very well,” the suit boomed. Almost instantly all three of the hunters were released.

Urnhat ran to Swodrath and knelt by his side, feeling at his chest for the beat of a heart. It was strong, thank Skelight.

“He is fine,” the suit said. “I pulled my punch.”

“Pulled it?” Urnhat said, standing up and rounding on the being. “He was thrown a yur!”

The suit, which had no visor and no way to see its eyes, appeared nonetheless to contemplate her for a moment then turned. One fist flashed out and all the way through the young bole of a tonser tree. The being then ripped the tree from its rather deep roots and tossed it down the slope.

“Pulled it,” the being said, reaching up and lifting off the helmet.

Urnhat gasped in surprise as a human head was revealed, its scalp covered in a strange ripple of silver.

“Lieutenant General Michael O’Neal name is. Truth. We come in peace.”

* * *

“This is impossible,” Admiral Suntoro said. “There cannot be humans on this planet. You are mistaken.”

“Well, Admiral, I might be,” Mike said. From the admiral’s image he was about to have a stroke. “But science don’t lie. These are humans down to the 99th decimal. DNA matches up exactly. The local tribe is called the Nor. They control the upper third or so of this valley. There’s one further down south that’s called the Charan. Apparently the Posleen arrived within the memory of some of their middle aged types and started their usual slaughter. But the humans managed to hold them from taking all this range. Some of them held part of the valley for a while but they managed to kill them off. Since then the mountain tribes send fighters down to the lower reaches and to this valley and the Posleen send some of their fighters up and it got to be almost stylized from the sound of it. Probably the reason this planet never entered ornadar. The Posleen had somewhere to bleed off the excess that couldn’t be sent to space.

“So what are they doing here?” Suntoro asked. “How did they get here? They couldn’t have walked.”

“Yeah, that’s the rub,” Mike said, rubbing his head as if in response. He pulled out a pinch of dip and stuck it between his cheek and gum, contemplating the Skoal can balefully. “Admiral, figure it’s time to say some of this in front of an AID. You’re not stupid. We both know the Darhel ain’t what I’d call fully open and honest.”

“The Darhel are our supporters,” the admiral said, stoutly. “They saved us from the Posleen through their aid and support.”

“Yeah, except for, you know, most of the world,” Mike said. “And they’ve managed to keep us pretty much under the yoke since. And we both know that there are things they don’t want us to know about that.”

“I will hear no disrespect spoken of the Darhel,” the admiral snapped. “That is treason.”

“Nah, just honesty,” Mike said, sighing again. He suspected that under Galactic law it just might be treason. “Problem is, this is one of those things I’m wondering if they ever wanted anyone to find out. And trust me, I wouldn’t have poked if I knew about it. But here we are. The term ‘fucked’ comes to mind.”

“What are we going to do?” the admiral asked, rubbing his hands nervously. “Perhaps we should meet. In person.”

“Too late for that,” Mike pointed out. “The AID network knows about it. Not much we can cover up at this point. And no Darhel to bring it to and try to discuss it logically. I think that you can give up blaming me for his lintatai, by the way. If we could look at his secret communciations, I suspect we’d find out he had some orders he couldn’t carry out. Like ‘don’t let the humans go to R-1496 Delta, whatever you do.’ Information lag. Nobody knew we were headed this way until the reports got back to the core worlds. And now we’re here.”

“What are you going to do?” the admiral asked.

“I’m trying to arrange a meet with their leaders. For the time being I’m going to stay on mission. Set up a rest and refit base down here. I figure we’re going to be getting orders pretty soon to come back to earth. At that point, we’ll need to figure something out.”

“What do you mean?” the admiral said.

“Well, what do you think the likelihood of us getting back is?”

* * *

“Here they come,” Colonel Ashland said.

Ross Ashland was tall and slim, making an interesting contrast with his commander. The Corps G-2 also had a lightning quick mind. Mike hadn’t discussed their current predicament with him but he had to be thinking the same thoughts. He had spent too much time deep in Fleet Strike intel not to have some inkling of how ruthless the Darhel could be when they felt the need.

“Any idea from where?” Mike asked as the party hove into view. The Nor used a leather cloak covered in strips of cloth in much the way that recon specialists used a ghillie suit. It had the added benefit of being, perhaps from sort of treatment, pretty much immune to infra-red radiation. Thus the lack of thermal signature.

They weren’t hiding this time, though. They were just walking up the hill in the open.

“Recon pod has them exiting a tunnel about a klick west,” Ashland replied. “This area is high in limestone. No telling how far back the tunnel stretches.”

“Greetings, Swodrath,” Mike said, bowing his head to the Huntmaster. “How’s the jaw.”

“A Gamra recovers swiftly,” the Nor said. “The Mistress has agreed to meet you. Only you.”

“Very well,” Mike said, donning his helmet. “Lead on.”

“Sir… ” Colonel Ashland said.

“Just deal, Colonel,” Mike replied. “I’ll be fine. And if I’m not, tell Brigadier General Corval he’s got a whole Corps available to come find me. Lead on, Swodrath.”

* * *

The initial entrance was a cleverly concealed cave opening. A slide in the cave had been cleared at some point, not recently from the looks of it, opening into a deeper area.

The course, lit by smoky but long-lasting torches, was complex. On the other hand, the inertial tracker in the suit was getting feedback from external sub-space location sensors. Mike could follow the trace more or less as if he was on the surface.

The route they took was about two klicks in straight distance and about six following the twists of the caves. In places sections had been mined out, opening up sections of the cave that hadn’t previously been connected. The marks of chisels were clear and most of those portions were particularly low.

Finally, though, they entered an area that was more interesting. The limestone in the area overlay granite and when they reached that portion they entered what was clearly a mine. However, the cuttings were anything but primitive. The walls had the flat, glassy look of Indowy or Posleen borers. Curiouser and curiouser.

The mine tunnels debouched into a pretty fair sized canyon. The vast room was home to at least three hundred people by the looks of the tents that occupied the floor. Where they got their food was what interested Mike.

Most of the inhabitants were either hiding or out somewhere. But a few of the elderly were huddling around fires, someone brought in firewood, and children were playing in the area. The children were clearly curious but they stayed back from the party instead of tagging along as most kids on Earth would.

They crossed to the east side of the cavern and entered a smaller tunnel which debouched into a room about fifty feet on a side. Arrayed by the entrance were guards, more of the “Gamra” by the looks of them. There were also some male and female humans in the room, gathered around as if at an audience. But what caught Mike’s eye was the female on the fur-covered chair that was clearly a throne.

Tall was his first impression. At least six foot four at a guess since she was sitting down. Pretty was the second impression. Make that beautiful. But her looks were thrown off by her long silver hair, true silver not the “silver” of age, and when he approached he could see she had cat-pupiled eyes that were pure purple. Not just the iris, all purple.

Her face was also strange. Pretty but alien she looked more like a Darhel than even the Gamra. Her face was long and elegant but he couldn’t get the impression of a fox out of his head. Or, maybe, an elf.

“Duendtor Lerskel,” Swodrath said, bowing. “The leader of the visitors, Lieutenant General Michael O’Neal.”

Mike took off his helmet and nodded at the woman.

“Greetings, Lord O’Neal,” the Duendtor said. Her voice was high and sybillant with an undertone that made Mike shiver. It was a very primitive reaction. His immediate desire was to worship her. He managed to suppress it, though. The Darhel had the same sort of voices and he’d gotten over any desire to ‘worship’ them fast. “My lieges tell me that it is through your efforts that the scourge of the Pokree has been suppressed.”

“Well, me and about twenty thousand shooters,” Mike said, looking up into those purple eyes. “And a bunch of kinetic energy strikes. But, yeah. You’re welcome.”

“You are a sky traveller, I presume,” Lerskel said.

“Glad you’re taking this so well,” Mike replied. “Yes, we’re from the sky.”

“We must speak,” Lerskel said, raising a hand. “Privately.”

If there were any protests at the audience being broken up so quickly they weren’t vocalized. The crowd just filed out as a seat was brought over for O’Neal.

He looked at the spindly stool and shrugged.

“I think I’d better stand,” he said. “No offense intended. But I’d break that.”

“Stand or sit as you wish,” Lerskel said, waving off the stool. “Many of the niceties have had to be foregone since the coming of the Pokree.”

“Were you around for that?” Mike asked, curiously.

“I was,” Lerskel said. “Their sky fire could be seen from afar. I was the governor of this province of Hodoro. When first the Pokree landed we feared they were the Dareel. But it quickly became evident that they were not. Instead they were much worse. From where do you hail.”

“A planet called Earth,” Mike said.

“I suspect this is Are,” Lerskel said. “The cold planet, the planet of ice. Home.”

“Probably not,” Mike said. “I mean, we’ve got polar ice caps but it’s not exactly Hoth.”

“Our people left Are long ago,” Lerskel said. “What do you know of the history of your planet?”

“Uh… ” Mike said then paused. “Wait. How long ago?”

“The exact duration has been lost,” Lerskel said, pulling out a massive tome. “This, however, is the Book of Becoming. In its secret chapters are estimates by scholars. We came to this planet at least twenty thousand of our years ago.”

“Shelly?” Mike asked.

“Thirty thousand years,” the AID replied. “The earth was in an iceage at that time. The Wurm Glaciation.”

“I said that you should sit,” the woman said, laughing sybillantly.

* * *

“The Dareel,” Mike said, looking at the picture in the book. Given a bit of hyperbole it looked like the Darhel. Sort of an evil Darhel on steroids but… Okay, it looked more like a Darhel than Darhel looked like Darhel. The inner truth if you will.

“And the Innow,” Lerskel said, turning to another page. “The makers and builders.”

“Indowy,” Mike said, nodding. The page wasn’t in color but, again, with a bit of squinting it was pretty clear that the scary figures on the paper were Indowy. “I’m amazed you managed to keep this information for so long. So what happened to the Darhel and the rest?”

“Our people were all once as you and the commons,” Lerskel said. “The first coming of the Darell to our people is not recorded. But from the very first there were those who did not believe they were gods. The first portions of the Book are from tales told of the first coming. Then there are the Records which we have kept as accurately as we can. The Dareel gathered peoples from among the best and trained them. Some were trained in the ways of war, others in controlling the warriors. Those, who became the Duendtor, were the face of the People to the Dareel. The Dareel changed us to make us more palatable to their sight and to better control the Commons. They also created the methods for creating the Gamra.

“But always the Book of Becoming was kept. There were, among the Innow, those who opposed the Dareel. They found humans who felt the same, even among the Duendtor. But there was little we could do. The warriors, the Gamra especially, were fast in their belief that the Dareel were Gods.

“Many of the people that the Dareel gathered were brought here, to Ackia, the land of Exile. There was something in the mountains that the Dareel wanted and the animals of this place were very dangerous. They used the People to protect the Innow as they labored.”

“This went on for many years until the Dareel made a mistake. How they managed to break the worship of a Gamra was unclear, but a great rebellion broke out on Are. This was lead by not just a Gamra but something greater and more fell. So fell that in time the Dareel fled Are. Word was sent of the rebellion on Are to here and we, in turn, revolted. It was hard to sway the warriors, and especially the Gamra, but enough were brought to the side of the People that we threw off the Dareel.

“The Dareel went away and left us to this world, our world of exile. We survived. The records of that time showed it was very hard. The magical weapons failed as soon as the Dareel left and we had to learn other ways of survival.

“There were wars fought between the peoples, assuredly. But we retained the Book against the day that the Dareel might return. We will have no more sky gods.”

“Oh, hell,” Mike said, when she was finished. “The Darhel are going to flip their lids when this comes out. People are going to go nuts.”

“There is more,” the woman said, flipping through the book. “There were no trainers of fighters among the Dareel. They could not fight.”

“Still the same,” Mike said, bitterly. “But damn can they manipulate.”

“And they trained we Duendtor in the same,” Lerskel said, turning the book around. “But these were our trainers of fighters. Which was why when the first Pokree came, we greeted them as friends.”

The depiction was better in its way than that of either the Darhel or the Indowy. Clearly in the book a Posleen was training two humans in sword fighting.

“Oh, bloody hell.”

* * *

“Okay, so thirty thousand years ago or so, the Darhel gathered a bunch of cavemen as guards,” Mike said, his head in his hands.

The meeting was decidedly AID free. Like it or not, the boxes were not going to be in on this conference.

And they were in contact with the Posleen,” General Corval said. The Corps Chief of Staff was medium height and nearly as pumped as his boss. “That’s the part that’s really got me furious. How much actual warning did they have of the Posleen invasion?”

“After tinkering with humans for a while they got a double rebellion on their hands,” Mike said, ignoring the interjection. “And they left. So why are there no remains anywhere on earth. Note: these Duendtor are probably nearly as tricky as a Darhel. I’m not taking anything on face value.”

“Well, postulate that they had most of their earthly infrastructure at one remote location,” Colonel Ashland said. “Say an island. And they managed to sink it or something.”

“Atlantis?” Mike asked, looking up. “You’re serious.”

“It’s a very common myth in the Indo-European area,” Ashland said, shrugging. “And this language is clearly Indo-European. The oral record could have been handed down in a garbled form for generations. Postulating that the Darhel also gave the sort of expanded lifetime that they gave to, well, us, that wouldn’t be many generations.”

“Methuselah now makes so much more sense,” Corval said. “Not to mention how the Darhel had stuff like rejuv and Hiberzine ready, immediately, for human use.”

“The problem is that there’s nothing we can do with this,” Mike said. “It’s nothing but a ticking nuke in our hands. There is no way that the Darhel are going to let this story get disseminated.”

“Be pretty hard to stop,” General Corval said. “There are nearly twenty thousand members of the Corps. And, trust me, the story is all over. At least that there are humans here.”

“Recall all those stories about missing colony ships, General?” Colonel Ashland said. “I’ve seen the confidential reports. They weren’t all rumors and they weren’t all, or even mostly, accidents.”

“You don’t think they’d… ” Corval said then swallowed. “That’s sick!”

“To cover this up?” Mike asked. “Oh, yeah. They’d dump us all into a hole in hyperspace in a second. I’ve been wondering when it was going to happen, anyway. The cost of demobilizing the Corps would be saved.”

“Well, the hell if I’m going to get dumped into space,” General Corval said, setting his jaw. “If it was just my life, that would be one thing. But… ”

“But I’m responsible for the lives of twenty thousand troopers,” Mike said, nodding. “There’s just one problem. We don’t control the ships.”

“Easy enough to change that,” Colonel Ross Swartzbaugh said. The Corps G-3 was medium height and build and prematurely bald. He covered that up by shaving his head like a cueball. “Not sure what we’d do once we took them, but we’ve got a corps of ACS. Various opportunities come to mind.”

“Every ship requires an AID to operate,” Mike said. “You think they’re not going to get an update telling them to dump us the first time we get near a sat? And the ships are keyed to specific AIDs. Prevents mutiny.”

“Which is what we’re contemplating, you realize,” Colonel Ashland said.

“Not really,” Mike said. “I mean, I’m still trying to figure a way around it. I just don’t see one. Well, there’s one.”

“What?” General Corval asked.

“We send the ships back empty,” Mike said. “Just sit tight here. Tell them we misunderstood the orders or something. If the ships make it back, they’ll ask us what the fuck happened. I mean, a whole corps missing movement? But if they don’t, they might never know.”

“And we’ll be marooned on this dirtball,” Colonel Swartzbaugh said, rubbing his head. “Not my first choice. And how, exactly, do we explain it to the Corps?”

“Lie,” Mike said. “Tell them we were ordered to stand down and await transport. In a year or so it might get sticky. But they’ll be alive.”

There was a knock at the door and Mike looked at it furiously. Rawls had very direct orders not to interfere.

“Get it,” he said, gesturing with his chin to Colonel Ashland.

“Sir, I’m sorry,” Rawls said. “There’s an Indowy out here saying he has to talk to you now. He says that he has information that you need about what you’re talking about. He’s really exercised. He said if I didn’t let him in he was going to quote rip my head off and shit in my neck.”

Mike looked at the NCO blankly for a moment.

“An Indowy said that to you?” Colonel Ashland said, incredulously.

“Yes, sir,” Rawls said, caught between his own incredulity and humor. “An Indowy.”

“Show him in,” Mike said. “Then shut the door.”

The Indowy was, as far as Mike could tell, pretty much identical to any mid-level Indowy worker. Mid-years, about a hundred in other words. Totally indistinguishable from any of a trillion of the prolific species.

“Exalted Lord O’Neal,” the Indowy said, prostrating himself. The term was one the Indowy had bestowed on Mike after his actions on Diess. It translated, as far as Mike could tell, as something like “Duke.” It wasn’t a clan lord but about the same status. It generally got bestowed on particularly good scientists and the Indowy equivalent of lawyers. As far as Mike was aware he was the only human with the rank and also the only warrior. “I am Indowy Tak Ockist Um’Dare. I see you.”

“I see you, Indowy Tak,” Mike said. “Stand and speak.”

“Exalted Lord,” Tak said. “You have made contact with People of the Book.”

“You know about People of the Book,” Mike asked, leaning back. “Why am I not surprised.”

“I did not know, myself, Exalted Lord, until recently,” Tak said, nervously. “Exalted Lord, I am… Exalted Lord, this is a very long story.”

“I’ve already heard one,” Mike said, gesturing to a station chair. “Tell me. Tell me all of it, Tak. Every bit you know.”

* * *

“They’re what?” Cally said.

Cally O’Neal was fifty-eight and looked to be about twenty. Officially listed as killed in one of the last battles of the Siege of Earth, for most of those fifty-eight years she had been an agent of the Bane Sidhe, the secret underground among the Indowy and Humans that worked to overthrow the Darhel rule. And for most of that period she’d been primarily an assassin.

In the last decade, though, things had changed in so many ways it seemed as if change would never slow down. First there was the mission where she’d met James Stewart. They’d started off as enemies fighting each other in secret and ended as lovers. Stewart had faked his own death but refused to join the Bane Sidhe. Instead he’d entered the Tongs, the Chinese mafia that had taken over most of the organized crime among humans, and fought his own battles from that vantage. He and Cally had married in secret but of late they’d had to even break off the most cursory contact.

His connections had been of premium value when Cally’s sister, Michelle, had used them along with some stolen nannite codes to take down an entire Darhel clan. Michelle wasn’t Bane Sidhe, either; the Darhel had just crossed the wrong human. Michelle was a Sohon mentat, a wielder of almost magical powers over space, time and matter. But she still was indebted to the Darhel. Or had been until she, Cally and Stewart had managed, through a combination of luck and deviousness, to buy her free and bankrupt her Darhel bankers.

The mission where Cally had met Stewart had caused a sundering in the Bane Sidhe, most of the organization splitting off from the O’Neal faction. But the response to the take-down of the Epetar Clan had included, among other things, a massive crackdown on the Bane Sidhe. The faction that had tossed the O’Neals aside ended up screaming for help.

The O’Neals had pulled their chestnuts out of the fire. But Papa O’Neal, the man who had been a real father to her for most of her life, had been killed by the ACS response team. An ACS response team commanded, by one of those horrible coincidences in life, by her own father.

So Cally was anything but charitable to their “fellows”.

“Back up to the beginning, Terool,” Father O’Reilly said. The monsignor had been a member of the earthly Bane Sidhe since before the return of the Darhel. Bane Sidhe translated roughly as “The Death of Elves.” It had remained hidden within “secret societies” since before the dawn of history. It had remnants of pre-history fable that were passed down, but none of it had ever been clear. He might, finally, get some of it filled in.

“The Darhel coopted human guards long ago,” the Indowy Terool said. He had been one of the leaders of the anti-O’Neal faction in the Bane Sidhe, so revealing the secrets he was about to reveal was like pulling teeth. “They were gathered mostly from Western Europe and the Mediterranean. They were trained on a small continent where the Azores are presently placed. There was a revolt, here and on Akoria, the planet your father just ‘reclaimed’ from the Posleen. Here on earth a Darhel was sacrificed to lintatai to cause a massive earth movement under the continent, effectively sinking it by several hundred feet. Finding the traces of what you humans call ‘Atlantis’ would be very difficult even for us. But they are there.

“Your father’s corps was probing along the spinward axis of the spiral arm. Akoria is on the anti-spinward axis. None of the Darhel found it of moment that the reclamation was in that region. It should have taken years for your father’s corps to reach Akoria and the end of the reclamation program was well on its way to fruition.

“However, word has come back that instead of slowly proceeding across the arm, the corps jumped to the far side. Why is unclear. But they have Akoria, which they refer to as ‘R-1496 Delta,’ on their list. They should have reached there by now. And there is no way that they could miss traces of human habitation.”

“The Posleen took the planet,” Father O’Reilly said. “That will pretty much erase traces of humans.”

“Even at the height of the war there were humans hiding in deep jungle and high mountains,” the Indowy said, patiently. “You are very hard to wipe out completely, just as the Posleen are hard to wipe out completely.”

“Point,” Cally said. “But get back to the corps.”

“The Darhel are unwilling to allow this secret to be revealed,” Terool said. “Very unwilling. Unwilling enough to destroy the entire task force.”

“That would be pretty hard to do,” Cally said.

“Every ship is controlled by the AIDs,” Terool said. “As are the suits. They will simply enter hyper and never exit.”

“That wouldn’t just violate the Compact,” Cally said, furiously. “It would break it beyond belief! Do they want all-out war?”

“There are too many members of the corps to cover this up,” Terool said. “And if people become aware that the Darhel have been manipulating humans for this long there will be… other questions asked.”

“About the colonist ships,” Cally said, bitterly. “About fucking with us during the war. About why China was wiped out.”

“Indeed,” Father O’Reilly said. “But they must know what the response of the Bane Sidhe would be to something like this. There would be no end to the blood.”

“We are weak,” Terool said. “Their response to your ill-advised attack on the Pardal Clan nearly destroyed us!”

“Nearly destroyed you, you mean,” Cally said, harshly.

“Us,” Father O’Reilly said, placatingly. “We are not enemies.”

“Tell that to them,” Cally snapped. “They were the bastards that fucked with my head then left us out to dry when I managed to break conditioning. Just talking to this fucker is making me sick. And now he’s suggesting that we just let the Darhel wipe out thirty thousand soldiers and sailors? The Compact is inviolate! If it’s not there’s no point to this whole charade!”

“Are they sending the orders to destroy the task force?” Father O’Reilly asked.

“They are already sent,” Terool said, miserably.

“Can we intercept them?” Cally asked. “Corrupt them?”

“It would be… difficult,” Terool said.

“I don’t care for difficult,” Cally said. “Can you do it?”

“Perhaps,” Terool said. “And then again perhaps not.”

“And there’s more,” Father O’Reilly said.

“We must clarify this matter,” Terool said.

“Indowy think that they are inscrutable to humans,” Father O’Reilly said. “And, indeed, to most humans they are. But not to all. What else?”

“I’m more worried about the Fleet,” Cally said. “And, okay, my bastard of a father.”

“He is your clan lord,” Terool said, upset.

“He can rot in hell for all I care,” Cally snapped. “But I don’t want the damned Darhel to leave him stuck in hyper until his air runs out.”

“Terool!” Father O’Reilly said. “Tell us!”

“It is about… your father,” Terool said, miserably. “You see, the Darhel… ”

* * *

“Owe you a lot of money,” Tak said.

“Define a lot,” Mike said. “I’ve been paid way too much as it is.”

“Exalted Lord,” Tak said, carefully. “Recently, you may have heard, a Darhel Clan fell.”

“Epetar,” Colonel Ashland said.

“The same,” Tak said. “The were, in fact, destroyed. By your daughter, Michelle.”

“Really?” Mike said. He got a message from Michelle every year at Christmas. If she’d taken down a Darhel Clan it was news to him. “Good for her!”

“There were others working with her, Bane Sidhe and Tong. But it was primarily your clan which did this. The Darhel could not react against you nor against Michelle. But they would much wish to.”

“Why couldn’t they?” General Corval asked.

“Early in the conflict against the Posleen one of your generals, General Taylor, began a program to investigate Darhel manipulation of both politicians and war supplies.”

“That’s what got him killed,” Mike said, nodding. “Isn’t it?”

“Indeed, Exalted Lord,” Tak said, carefully. “However, some of your people, notably the Cyberpunks and human factions of the Bane Sidhe reacted. They killed several high-level Darhel and missed the Tir Dal Ron by a mere shred.”

“Too bad they missed,” Corval said.

“Thus was the Compact born,” Tak said. “The Darhel would not attack current duty humans and the Cybers and the human Bane Sidhe, of whom the Cybers are now a faction, would not kill Darhel.”

“This is making my head hurt,” General Corval said. “Ancient societies. Midnight assassinations. Darhel manipulation. Does any of this have a point?”

“This is the last point,” Tak said. “I do not know if even my masters are aware of this fact. It was contained in the communication to the Ceel that I intercepted when he went into lintatai. Further complicating things are that each of you is owed much more money than the Darhel ever told you. General O’Neal, for certain specific reasons, is owed… Well, the amount that your daughter used to take down the Pardal clan is but a fraction of what you are owed. One tenth of all you recover is, by rights, property of the capturers.”

“Yeah,” Mike said. “I know. We picked up a few billion credits worth here off those Posleen forges we captured intact.”

“The full implications were never explored,” Tak said. “Let me ask you this, General. On Diess. Would the planet have fallen absent your actions?”

“Oh, I doubt it,” Mike said. “There was a whole Corps there and they were getting some pretty solid defenses built.”

“Bullshit, sir,” General Corval said. “We’ve all seen the analysis. You hamstrung the Posleen at a critical juncture, the schwerpunkt. The Line would have fallen if the full weight fell on it. And you took out the only God-king using airmobile in that battle. To answer his question without the false modesty, yes, Tak, it would have.”

“Thus you, General O’Neal, are owed ten percent of the gross production value of Diess,” Tak said. “For the entire period of your life. Oh, some is owed to the many other soldiers and officers in the battle. But a large percentage of it falls to your account. Equally other planets. There are many humans who are owed much by the Darhel. But especially with penalties and interest, you are far in advance of them. You have done almost nothing but fight the Posleen for decades. Led critical defenses of multiple cities on Earth. Holding the pass in Rabun Gap gives you a margin of all goods and services in the Central North American provinces. Several of the recovery worlds of which you were a senior commander are now producing goods. You have gotten none of these additional monies. Your current calculated worth, according to the message, is approximately fifteen percent of all the Darhel clans’ worth. Mostly due to penalties. Payable, as all Darhel debts are, immediately and in full at your request.”

“Nobody has that much capital,” Mike said, blinking.

“That is the point,” Tak replied. “If you call their debt, every Darhel clan in the galaxy is immediately and totally bankrupt.”

* * *

“Good God,” Cally said, her eyes wide. “Holy… How in the hell did the Darhel let that happen?”

“They wrote a very bad law,” Terool said. “Back when we were first attacked by the Posleen. They attempted to buy our action. But we rejected them. The Way is the only way that we choose. So they kept increasing the amount they were willing to pay if we would only fight. But we would rather die than stray from the Way. So now they owe your father, all humanity for that matter, for a fraction of the price of the entire Confederation plus all the recovered worlds. They knew this from the beginning. But they also thought the humans would never figure it out.”

“You could have told us,” Father O’Reilly said, dryly.

“All those years I was scrimping and scraping and little did I know my daddy owned the Galaxy,” Cally said, bitterly. “Wait, if they kill him in deep space… ”

“It all reverts,” Father O’Reilly said. “Galactic law holds, not Earth’s. No inheritance.”

“I thought it reverted to the Clan,” Cally said.

“Not if he doesn’t transfer it, first,” Father O’Reilly said. “And he has to be in a Galactic Court to do the transfer. And it has to be accepted by the Court. Which is made up of… ”

“Darhel,” Cally said, bitterly. “Right. Like they’re going to accept him turning it over to the Clan.”

“There is one option, but it is poorly known and even more poorly understood, even by Indowy,” Terool said. “He can make suit to the Aldenata… ”

* * *

“They’re legends,” Mike said. “I mean, I know you Indowy think they’re gods, even the Posleen refer to them, if in less than affectionate terms, but… ”

“They are not legend,” Tak said. “I cannot believe I am saying this but it is necessary. And I think my time among… among humans has worn upon me. But this is the best chance I have ever heard of to destroy the Darhel monopoly. It must be taken. This is the truth. The Aldenata exist. They are as real as you or I. But they are ancient, old beyond belief. And… changed. They no longer exist as you or I but in another form. But they are the ultimate judges of all the actions of the Darhel as well as the Indowy and the Tchpht. We are the Children of the Aldenata. They are our masters. They can compel the Darhel to pay you, in cash if necessary. And if you place your plea before the Aldenata then it may be heard. It will be slow, though. And if you perish in the interim, the suit is closed.”

“So, what you’re telling me is that, A, the Darhel want me, not to mention my entire corps, dead because I know about their manipulation of humans from pre-history,” Mike said. “And, B, they want me dead because I’ve got the financial potential to destroy them in an instant. And my only chance of back-up is some sort of super-being that might or might not even bother to hear me? And if they manage to whack me in the meantime, that the suit is closed. Which effectively puts a several trillion credit… no, probably more than that, price on my head? Not to mention stuck in the ass end of the Galaxy with no ship home I can trust?”

“Whoa,” General Corval said. “I thought I was fucked, sir.”

* * *

“Okay, this is coming at me a little fast,” Cally said, shaking her head. “Forget the super-beings, although we’re going to have a talk later, Terool. Forget Daddy Dearest owning the Darhel and not the other way around. We’ve got a Corps about to get ‘losted’ if we don’t do something. Let’s just focus on that.”

“Even if we could intercept the orders, it would only be a stop-gap,” Terool said. “And it would reveal many of our most prized sources, the few we have left. When the Darhel realized the task force had not been destroyed they would be more thorough. And since they now realize the depth of our penetration they will undoubtedly send redundant messages to Tirs on distant worlds to ensure its destruction.”

“There has to be something we can do,” Cally said, desperately. Her faction had fought as hard as it could against the “accidents” with colony transports. But terrible as those were, the loss of an entire corps of ACS was… The horror was beyond fathoming.

“What about Michelle?” Cally continued.

“You can contact your sister, of course,” Terool said. “But I’m unsure she can do more than we are attempting. The Sohon have abilities sometimes beyond understanding. But they are not gods.”

“I’ll send her a message,” Cally said, her face hard. “But if we fail? If they destroy the Corps?”

“Destroying the Corps, indeed any killing of an acting service person, is a violation of the Compact,” Terool said.

“So you agree?” Cally said, her eyes lighting. “This is open season on Darhel?”

“Yes,” Terool said, sighing. “That time has come. Or is coming at least.”

“I can’t exactly be happy that it takes losing several thousand soldiers for that,” Cally said, rubbing her hands. “But… I’m gonna get to kill Darhelll… ” she started to sing, dancing and waving her hands in the air. “I’m gonna get to kill Darhelllll… ”

“Unless we need them,” Father O’Reilly said.

“What?!”

* * *

“We need them.”

Sixteen minds linked across four thousand light years. The youngest of the Queens was a bare thousand years old, the eldest had seen the near death of their race and the Long Flight. Each had lived long lives as other entities, scouts, workers, managers, scientists then warriors. Neuter, male and finally female, they were the best their race could offer to the vagaries of fate.

Between them, although they did not track every sparrow on every world, they knew the comings and goings, the machinations, plans, wars of every sentient race in the galaxy. Minds like cold computers watched those races, tended them like rose gardens, built alliances, often on both sides of mortal conflicts, built each of them as potential allies against the day that their race might once again face The Enemy.

And now was that day. Not The Enemy but another race fleeing them. A race equally as inimical, nearly as deadly. But… not quite.

Rheldlche was one of the youngest. Not headstrong — no Queen was — but far less cautious than, say, Shulkin, the Ancient One.

“The Hedren come. The Human ACS is the best weapon against the Hedren in my region.”

“We would have to Expose,” Larrghgha replied. The older Queen controlled the region the Humans called the Scutum-Crux. One of the first of the newer generation, She was Rheldlche’s mother, not that that meant anything between Queens. Genetic derivation meant little to the Himmit. Besides, they all were children of Skulkin in one way or another. “Such an action would be impossible to Hide.”

“Agreement.”

Shulkin rarely entered into discussions in the last hundred years. The Ancient One was nearing senescence. But her word was still law in the Galaxy.

“There is a replacement for the ACS,” the Ancient One said. “Emphasize increases among the Sohon. It is time to release the Humans from their thrall. And make contact with their former enemies.”

CHAPTER FOUR

In fragments of an instant
The chaos has returned
And all that was left to sentiment
Beneath the banner burned

“We cannot keep meeting like this,” Michelle said, taking a careful sip from the bulb of distilled water.

“Hey, you started this,” Cally replied, taking a less cautious sip from her beer. She wasn’t taking an anti-alcohol pill so it was not going to have much more effect than water. “And this is too important to use the chain. I take it we’re not being monitored.”

“Of course not,” Michelle said. “Nonetheless, you could have been followed.”

“In your dreams, God-girl,” Cally snapped.

“Important,” Michelle said, ignoring the jibe.

“It’s about… Dad,” Cally said, sighing.

“Father?” Michelle asked, raising an eyebrow.

Cally hated when she did that. It made her look just too damned much like a certain TV character. She was pretty sure her sister did it on purpose.

“Yes, ‘Father’,” Cally said. “He’s gotten himself in the deep cacky.”

She briefly and more or less coherently explained what had only recently been brought to her attention. Reading Michelle, except for the very few times she got angry, was difficult. But Cally was pretty sure something was starting to get her sister mighty pissed.

“The Bane Sidhe know about this?” Michelle asked. “The interference of the Darhel over centuries?”

“Well who do you think I got it from?” Cally asked. “The tooth fairy?”

“I find that simply fascinating,” Michelle said. “Because as far as I was aware, I had been brought in on all the great secrets held by the Clan masters and Sohon. And I surely was unaware. I wonder what else they failed to inform me of.”

“Does your pride really matter right now?” Cally said. “There is an entire corps of ACS on the line. And our father’s life!”

“We must, of course, do what we can for our Clan Leader,” Michelle said. “However, the fact that I was not informed of any of this has large implications. A Sohon must constantly tread a fine line. Without knowing the potential stumbling blocks in the way, it is difficult to do so. I must meet with the other human Sohon and determine if it is only I who was left in ignorance. Given the political mess you created that is possible.”

“I was sort of hoping that you could use your magic god powers to save his ass,” Cally hissed, leaning forward. “Hello! Father! Clan Leader? Not to mention a few thousand other humans? Tens of thousands?”

“Oh, you are so impatient,” Michelle replied, disparagingly. She gave a slight shake of her head then closed her eyes. “The orders are not to have the fleet lost in hyperspace.”

“Oh, thank God,” Cally said. “You’re sure?”

“I did not say that you would like the orders,” Michelle said, opening her eyes. “Because you won’t. And worse. Even with my powers, we’re too late.”

* * *

“Nice job, General.”

The camp had taken only a day to emplace despite the fact that they’d only done it a couple of times. It helped that the tents were memory plastic.

But in a day there were thermally pressed streets, living tents, mess tents, supply, maintenance, all the things that made for a functioning small city. And a wall. Mike made it a habit to put in a berm whenever they were in place for more than a day. With a Corps of ACS and shovels that were tough enough it was a bit easier than with an equal number of engineers and bulldozers. Before the gates flapped the shot-torn banner of the Corps, a boar on a red field and the slogan “Disce Pati”.

The 11th Corps was settling in for a rest with all the trimmings. Not a long one but it was nice to feel wind on your face and get that damned armor off on a planet.

Some of the troops were wandering those streets, visiting friends from other companies and battalions, headed to the chapel, headed to the rec rooms and mess halls. But not many. Mike would guess that most of them were racked out. Later he’d have to figure out something to keep them occupied but for now they were content to just rest, all but the very few — no more than a short company — still suited up to guard the perimeter on the off chance of a Posleen feral showing up.

It was a sham, of course. Until they figured out a way to get back to Earth, safely, this was home. Which was why he’d had all the rations from the ships shuttled down.

“We’ve got supplies for about ninety days,” General Corval said. “So we should be good for a six week R R. I’ve already placed thirty percent on complete standdown. We’ll rotate that week by week.”

“Works,” Mike said. There were some of the Corps on security around the camp. It was unlikely there would be an attack by the locals. They’d made contact with the other two tribes in the area and negotiated a cease-fire in their low-grade fights. With the Posleen wiped away from the low-lands the tribes were mostly squabbling over who got what territory, anyway. It was a time to talk, not fight.

“We’ll need to get a training schedule in place,” Mike said. “When they get rested, given that the recreation is going to be pretty damned limited here, we’re going to have to keep them occupied or… ”

“Incoming message from Admiral Suntoro,” Shelly said.

“Crap,” Mike muttered. “Any idea what he wants?”

“No.”

Monosyllables again. Not a good sign.

“Put him on.”

“General O’Neal,” the Admiral said, appearing as a hologram in front of the two officers. “I need to meet with you and your staff. Immediately.”

“Gosh, Admiral, that’s going to be hard,” Mike replied. “We’re kinda busy right now.”

“I am in receipt of some orders that I think we need to discuss in person,” the Admiral replied. “I am willing to meet with you on the surface if you don’t have time to shuttle up to the ship.”

Mike raised an eyebrow at that and shrugged.

“Sure, Admiral,” he said, smiling tightly. “I take it you don’t want to meet at the camp?”

“The quieter we keep this the better,” the Admiral replied. “It looks as if you were right.”

“I’ll lay out an LZ,” Mike said. “When?”

“One hour?”

“Works. O’Neal out.”

He looked at Corval and smiled thinly again.

“I think the Admiral’s running scared. How say you?”

“I think we’d better wear armor.”

“Oh, yeah.”

* * *

Julio wasn’t wandering the camp. He was off duty and had obtained permission to “liaison with the locals.”

At present that consisted of accompanying Urnhat up a steep slope. The General had hinted that he wanted a place to put some caches of gear and the Nor knew all the caves in the area. According to the Nor Queen or whatever there was an extensive series in this area of the valley. Not as big as where the Nor had hid from the Posleen, but big enough to put some gear.

Despite the fact that he was on a semi-official mission, he’d left his AID behind. Some of the guys didn’t care what an AID saw. He was still too green for that. Sometimes three were a crowd even if one of them was an artificial intelligence.

Of course that left a bit of difficulty with conversation, but he was slogging ahead. A guy could dream.

“This is real pretty country,” he said, more or less to himself.

The girl turned her head and smiled at him then gabbled in the local language.

“I know, I’m an idiot,” Julio replied, stopping and touching a plant, lightly. He’d learned from even his limited experience that some plants were nasty.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“Shundi,” Urnhat replied.

“That tells me so much,” the trooper said, laughing. “I grew up in a city, a Sub-Urb. I never saw the stars till I was in training. Much less green plants. For all I know, this could be one of the plants from earth.”

“Urt,” Urnhat said. “Are?” She lifted her head and clicked her tongue, the local equivalent of a head shake. “Akri.” She walked to another of the bushes and pulled at the leaves, stripping some of them off. “Are,” she said, holding them out.

Looking at the two plants Julio could see some differences. Colors were different, but plants could be all sorts of colors. But the leaves of the local plant didn’t have veins.

“Caves?” he asked, gesturing up the slope. “Holes?”

“Gafe,” the girl said, gesturing and continuing to walk. “Tang seeu.”

“Yeah,” Julio said. “Thank you, too.”

He looked over his shoulder at the distant camp then frowned as a group of suits left the front gate and began bounding towards the southern ridgeline. They looked to be in a hurry.

* * *

“Thanks for leaving me behind,” General Corval said over the net.

“Somebody had to keep things running with me gone,” Mike said, bounding up the slope.

“Humph,” the Chief of Staff replied. “You just wanted to go running.”

“I hate running and you know it,” Mike said as the group of suits reached the crest. They bounded downslope to a reasonably flat spot and Mike dropped a dust-off beacon.

“Sensors report a shuttle inbound,” General Corval said.

“Right on time,” Mike replied. “Any more of them or just the one?”

There wasn’t a reply and he frowned.

“Corval, anything else? Shelly, what’s wrong with commo?”

“We have a solid link with the camp communications,” the AID replied.

“Retrans the sensor data to me,” Mike said, his forehead wrinkling.

“I am unable to access that data at this time, General.”

Mike’s spine went cold and he looked upwards. He could see the heat track of the shuttle inbound but now he didn’t need sensors to see what else was inbound.

* * *

Something made Julio look up and then he stopped, frozen in his tracks. He might be nearly totally green, but he knew what he was looking at in an instant.

“INCOMING!” he screamed, diving and hitting Urnhat at the knees.

The girl reacted like a wildcat, twisting in his grip and getting in a solid kick to his ribs. Julio didn’t care, though, as long as she was down. He rolled to the side and covered his head with his arms.

“Get down, you stupid bitch!”

* * *

Mike bounded to the top of the slope just as the first of the projectiles impacted. The troops had probably gone to ground but against an orbital strike there wasn’t much they could do.

He had at least expected the security ACS to be firing upwards. There wasn’t much they could do against a KEW, it was after all not much more than a chunk of steel, but they might have intercepted a couple. He expected them to go down fighting. But there was no fire headed upwards.

The first projectile hit to the west of the camp, the second to the east then it became too fast to follow. It was clear, though, that the strike was intended to contain even ACS and pulverize them into nothing. It went on and on and on, continuous concentric strikes until where the camp had been was nothing but a churned crater.

The whole Corps was gone.

Mike started to step forward, to do what he didn’t know, when his suit pinged.

“General, your shuttle is here.”

It was such a normal voice, a sentence he’d heard dozens, hundreds of times before. As if nothing had happened.

Mike spun in place and brought up his guns automatically, fired at the descending shuttle.

Nothing happened. Nothing damned HAPPENED.

“Shelly! Guns!”

“Guns are inactive, General,” the AID said in a chirpy voice. “It’s time to board the shuttle. You are ordered to do so out of the suit. Should I eject?”

The shuttle landed and a platoon of Masters at Arms deployed, covering the four ACS suits with what would normally be totally inadequate hand-lasers. The MAs were hated by Fleet Strike personnel since, well, they were Fleet and they acted more as Admiral’s bullies than police. And they seemed to take inordinate pleasure on beating up on Strike personnel whenever they got the chance. Fleet Strike tended to return the favor. Currently, they looked nervous and he wondered at the inanity of that thought.

His Corps was gone. The Masters at Arms looked nervous.

“Incoming call from Admiral Suronto. Go ahead Admiral.”

“Michael Leonidas O’Neal, you and your staff are under arrest for treason. AID, open the suits.”

Mike took a breath of air as the suit opened against his will then stepped out onto the grassy sward. Four of the Masters At Arms were approaching, two with lasers and two with sonic stunners.

“Do not attempt to resist this fully authorized detention,” the Admiral’s voice continued to say over the speakers of Mike’s suit. “The Masters at Arms are authorized to use lethal force at the slightest sign of resistance.”

Mike couldn’t have resisted if they’d paid him. His entire family was dead and now the Corps that he had nurtured like a flower was just…

The other three officers looked equally dazed but slowly raised their hands as the MAs approached. The group facing them in a semi-circle suddenly raised their lasers and opened fire, cutting them down.

Mike watched as Bobby Ashland fell back in the low scrub, his chest slashed nearly through by a laser. Bobby had come over to the Corps as the ACS had slowly been reduced. They’d never met during the Siege but had gotten along over the years. Mike had been glad when Bobby had been assigned as his Intel officer. He knew that Bobby always had his finger on the pulse of not only “threats forward” as he’d come to call them but what was going on back in the corridors of power.

This was one threat neither of them had seen coming. Not this way.

“General O’Neal, get on the ground with your hands behind your back,” one of the MAs said. “Down!”

“What?” Mike asked, still looking at Colonel Ashland.

“Get on the ground!”

“What?” Mike said again then lifted his eyes. His brow furrowed down then there was no thought.

“Like hell!” he shouted, charging forward.

He had hoped for the lasers. There was just nothing left. There was not a damned thing in the world to live for anymore. Even revenge was impossible to achieve.

But they got him with the stunners instead.

As he flopped to the ground, his entire body jangling, all he could still see was the mangled body of Bobby Ashland.

Gone.

CHAPTER FIVE

I have watched the path of angels
And I have heard the heavens roar
There is strife within the tempest
But there is calm in the eye of the storm

I have investigated my sister’s claims, Michelle thought. Once I was aware of them.

The seven individuals were, unquestionably, the most powerful humans in the galaxy. There were presidents and prime ministers aplently. Commanders of powerful fleets. Chiefs of major corporations by the hundreds.

But there were, to date, only seven human Sohon mentats.

Very few people understood them. Taken from their parents at a young age, raised entirely by the Indowy, they stood apart from the normal ruck of humanity already. Add to that minds that could wield extraordinary power, yet had been inculcated from that same very early age with an abhorrence of violence and a strong sense of duty and responsibility. Add again that, due to the nature of their exile, every single one of them came from a military family. They may have been taken from their parents young, but from their mother’s milk they still drew an essential sense of “Duty, Honor, Country.”

Their “Country” had changed, enlarged to fill a reasonable quadrant of the galaxy. But the Duty and Honor remained. And it might have shaped the fact that every single one of them, independently, as soon as they learned how to truly manipulate matter at the very smallest level, tried to see if they could get it to blow up.

One of their number had proven, though, that being too inflexible in the whole “Duty” thing was not necessarily good. Perhaps the power had warped Eric or perhaps he had started off warped. But it was possible for a Sohon to go very, very bad through the best of intentions. Eric’s fall remained a moral tale for them all. And since it turned out that they could get matter to blow up, and more, every decision of weight had, since then, been taken in council.

I see the data, Thomas replied. And more. This action on the part of the Darhel breaks their Compact.

They were not in the same room nor even in the same solar systems. But their method of telepathy was virtually instantaneous across any distance or dimension. The “virtually” being of interest only to particle physicists and mentats.

The Tir Dal Ron has already left Earth, Minnie noted. He is surely high on their list. And two Darhel have already died in what are being reported as “accidents.”

I am unsure of our action in this regard, Michelle admitted. The Corps is gone by now. We cannot undo that even if we wished. If my father has been incarcerated, should we act?

Have you an emotional attachment to this? Thomas asked. He was the oldest of them by barely a pair of years. Also the weakest. But he had been a leader among the “Lost Boys” from the beginning and still retained a vestige of that position.

I find myself torn, yes, Michelle admitted. However, it is less that he is my father and Clan Leader than that the Darhel are in breach of numerous contracts and obligations. If they are willing to become this high-handed, how can any of us trust the Contract. Most of us still labor under contract. If the Darhel have thrown off the Rules, what is to keep them from acting with complete arbitrariness?

Can we convince a Clan Leader to submit his appeal? Chan asked. This would both teach the Darhel the danger of breaking contracts and, potentially, save your father’s life. On a purely personal level, it would place the Darhel in a position of being unable to fulfill their part of our contracts, thus freeing us.

Unlikely, Koko replied. Any clan doing so would be Called in a moment. It would be suicide for the entire clan.

The vast majority of the first Fleet had been drawn from European and North American sources. Thus most of the children sent into exile had been from America, Britain and Germany. Koko Takawashi and Kang Chan were the only two mentats not from such countries. Indeed, all but two of the others were from the former United States. It had been debated, given the disparity, if Japanese and Chinese might make better Sohon adepts naturally. Thus far there was insufficient data. Given that the Race of Han had been severely reduced during the War, as had the Japanese, it might not ever be resolved.

I believe there may be one, Michelle thought, But the moment the Darhel heard of the appeal, they would terminate my father. I am unsure why they have not done so already.

I see the hand of Tir Dal Ron in that one, Thomas thought with just a note of emotion in his telepathic communication. He enjoys watching individuals suffer.

Being the mentat with the most experience of that particular Tir, he would know.

There is a concept, Ermintrude thought. The sole English mentat’s mind was clearly racing. The Darhel cannot kill him if he is not available to them.

* * *

“So you want our help again?” Cally said.

“It would be obvious if the Sohon acted directly,” Michelle replied. “And I, of course, must keep a very respectable distance. This is the last contact we shall have until resolution of this crisis. If you see Father and he asks of me tell him that I hold him as dead, as Galactic law decrees. I shall resolve this issue when I see him at last.”

“So what’s the plan?” Cally asked.

“The first part you will not care for,” Michelle said. “You must be patient.”

“I’m not good with patient,” Cally said. “How patient?”

“It will be nearly a year before we can act.”

“That’s okay,” Cally said. “I can spend the time killing Darhel.”

“And you must not do that.”

“Oh, we are so going to have to talk ‘when this issue is resolved.’ ”

* * *

Mike opened his eyes and blinked, gummily. His mouth felt like someone had stuffed it with cotton. Damned Hiberzine.

Hiberzine was only one of a number of amazing drugs the Galactics had brought with them. One dose would put a person down for a half a year with no ill effects. They could even be in conditions of minimal oxygen for a few months. He’d once been damned near ripped in half and left under the sea for weeks. Between his suits undergel and Hiberzine he’d survived.

One dose was fine. But after a half a year even with the best nannites working their little biomechanical asses off you got sort of dehydrated. Push it any further and you got really dehydrated. He’d been down longer than half a year.

“Fuckers could have given me a damned IV,” he muttered.

He was manacled to the wall of a cell. Whoever had given him the antidote had apparently beat feet afterwards. All he had were four plasteel walls, a cot, a table and a sink/toilet combination. Oh, and a bottle of water. How thoughtful.

He drank the bottle of water in one go then dragged his chain to the sink and filled it again. Three drains and it was time to take a very long piss.

Grey walls, orange jump-suit. Not much to work with. He contemplated the steel chain and the plasteel wall. Plasteel was about ten times the strength of standard carbon steel. Oh, well, either the chain would get worn out or he’d cut his way into the next room. Which was probably another cell. He set to rubbing one link of the chain on the wall, over and over. Molecule by molecule the steel started to fleck away. At this rate he’d be into the next cell in about a century but nobody was quite sure how long a life rejuv gave you so what the hell.

He wasn’t sure how long it was till the door opened. Food had appeared out of an unexpected slot in the far wall at one point. He’d taken a dump and a couple of pisses, filled and drained his water bottle several times, taken a nap, worn one face of the steel link shiny and made an almost unnoticeable groove in the wall. Say a day or two. Hell, he’d once laid in his suit in total EMCON and underground for longer than that. If you couldn’t handle sensory deprivation and boredom, ACS was no place for you.

They’d sent six guards with stunners. For all he knew there were more in the corridor beyond. One of them was unarmed, he just held the shackles.

None of them were, individually, all that big. Fleet mostly drew from Indonesia and Southeast Asia; their personnel didn’t run to tall.

Mike wasn’t tall, either, but he was broad as a house. He’d been a work-out freak since before he’d ever heard of the Posleen and fifty years as an officer hadn’t changed anything. He might not be the biggest runner in the world, but he could lift an ACS suit with one hand, which was right at the strain gauge of the human muscles and bones involved. He figured that even with the stunners he could probably take down four or so, if he hadn’t been chained to the wall.

So he just held out his arms to be shackled.

* * *

He was lead down empty corridors to a room very much like the one he’d been sitting in. There were four differences. No toilet or sink, which wasn’t going to be good if this went on too long. There was a video monitor on the wall. The table was bigger and had two seats. And there was a Fleet Commander sitting in one of the chairs.

Mike was frog-marched to the far chair, seated in it and shackled down, hard. He could barely move his arms or legs.

“Michael Leonidas O’Neal,” the Commander said without preamble. “Lieutenant General, Fleet Strike. Serial Number 216-29-1145. Entered Fleet Strike from the state of Georgia in the nation of the United States, Earth. Is all of that correct?”

Mike just looked at him. The Commander had more of a Chinese look than Indonesian. But it was unlikely he was directly descended from the Mainland given what had happened there. His uniform had his rank tabs but no nametag.

“Mr. O’Neal I am your defense counsel in this matter,” the Commander said. “I am to present your defense in this court martial. It would be helpful if you at least answered my questions.”

“I can request other counsel,” Mike said. “I officially do so.”

“Unless the court is to meet in secret session,” the Commander replied. “Which this one will, due to the security aspects of the investigation.”

“Big surprise there,” O’Neal said. “Given that part of my testimony would be that Fleet just destroyed an entire corps of ACS.”

“If you’re referring to the 11th Corps, you are mistaken,” the Commander replied. “It was virtually wiped out in the battles on R-1496 Delta. Due to your negligence and rejection of the input from your Darhel superiors.”

“Oh, so that’s what I’m being tried with?” Mike asked, laughing. “Do you have any survivors to testify? Because as far as I could tell the orbital strikes were pretty thorough. I’d love to know that even one of my boys survived your fucking massacre.”

“You are being tried on the charges of crimes against humanity,” the Commander replied. “Relating to new information about your actions in the first battles on Diess.”

“That was fifty fucking years ago,” Mike said, blinking. “I won my first Medal of Honor on Diess!”

“There is no statute of limitations on crimes against humanity,” the ‘counsellor’ said, pulling out his AID and setting it on the table. “Specifically, you are charged with the deaths of some three hundred thousand Indowy in the destruction of the Qualtren Megascraper. The destruction had been considered accidental, one of those unfortunate events that occur in war. But recently information has surfaced indicating that you ordered charges placed to destroy the building. I’m here to present your side of the action. So why don’t you tell me about it from your perspective. Where were you on the evening of May 18th, 2002 AD?”

“You’re asking if I can remember specific actions from over fifty years ago?” Mike asked.

“Yes,” the Commander replied.

“As a matter of fact,” Mike said, dropping into memory, “I can.”

* * *

Lt. O’Neal stripped the box magazine from his M-200 grav rifle and stared unseeing at the thousands of teardrop shaped pellets within. Then he reinserted the magazine and did the same with his grav pistol.

“Would you please quit doing that?” asked Lt. Eamons. Both of them waited by windows on the northwest corner of Qualtren. The angle was even greater than the FSO indicated and they had a clear view of the 1.145 miles to the next intersection. There the Naltrev megascraper cut back and blocked the view. Naltrev and its sister megascraper Naltren held the battalion scout platoon and the upper part of O’Neal’s vision systems were slaved to the view from the scout platoon leader’s.

“Where are your people, Tom?” Mike asked.

“Downstairs.”

“Are they tasked?” O’Neal continued to watch the view from the scout leader. It was unsettling because of the flicker of a Personal Area Force-screen (PAF) set up in the anticipated direction of attack and because Lt. Smith had a nasty tendency to occasionally toss his head like a horse throwing a fly. The movement would swing the viewpoint right and up. I doubt he even notices that he’s doing it, thought Mike, stripping out the magazine and reinserting it, but I wish he’d quit.

“Would you please quit doing that, Mike! And why do you want to know? No, they’re sitting around with their thumbs up their butts.”

“Quit what?” Mike asked, his attention focused like a medical laser on the view from his helmet. “Start having them emplace cratering charges across Anosimo and Sisalav at the Sal line and then start placing C-9 charges at the locations I’ll slave to their AIDs.”

“Whoa, Mike. You’re a nice guy and outrank me by a whole grade, but the hell if I’ll piss my career away for you. The colonel will have my bar if I do that.” The lieutenant tried to shake his head and stopped when he had to force it against the biotic gel filling the helmet.

“Lt. Colonel Youngman is currently busy and he won’t notice unless we detonate them. When we detonate them, you will be a hero for taking the initiative because it will be the only thing that saves the right flank of the Corp from being rolled up.”

“Is it that bad?” asked the engineer, wondering how much his friend’s moroseness was justified. Although he would have preferred to lay out a full reception for the Posleen, the firepower of the battalion was massive.

“Tom, we’re about to be corncobbed and there ain’t a fuckin’ thing I can do about it. After this day the name Youngman will be right up there with Custer, except George Armstrong had a brilliant career before he pissed it away. Now get rigging the charges. Make the cratering charges big ones. I want them to tear the faces right off the megascrapers; they’ve got forty minutes max.”

* * *

“So you did, in fact, order Lt. Eamons to emplace the charges that eventually destroyed the Qualtren Megascraper,” the Commander said. “I think we’ll try to argue situational stress disorder.”

“The order was later authorized by Lt. Colonel Youngman,” Mike said.

“Can you prove that?” the Commander asked.

“The AID net should have the entire conversation stored.”

“AIDs cannot be interrogated in court martials,” the Commander pointed out.

“Then I’d guess you’ve have to find a survivor,” Mike replied. “Besides me.” He paused and thought about the events of that night. “Good luck on that one.”

* * *

They were in a sub basement headed he knew not where running down one wall of a mammoth warehouse. The shelves were filled with green drums, like rubber oil barrels. As the lieutenant passed one of the aisles, both their AIDs screamed a belated warning. The group of fifty or so Posleen, accompanied by a God King, opened fire on Lt. O’Neal with everything they had.

There were six high density inertial compensators along the spine of the suit. They had been placed there to prevent severe inertial damage to the most vital portions of the user. Lt. O’Neal launched himself into the air and away from the threat, an instinct of hundreds of hours of simulations, while his AID dialed the inertial compensators as low as they would go. This had several effects, good and bad but the net effect was to make it less likely that the flechettes would penetrate his armor as they had the private’s; at this range their penetration ability was vastly improved.

The lack of inertia permitted the suit to move aside or be pushed away as if no more substantial than a hummingbird. Combined with the strength of the armor it successfully shed the first sleet of rounds, but it made him as unstable as a ping pong ball in a hurricane. He was picked up by the impacts, flipped repeatedly end for end, struck the warehouse wall and blown sideways.

Sgt. Reese screamed and fired on the target vector flashing in his display. The Posleen were masked by the barrels, but he figured with the power of the grav rifle he could saw through them quickly and take the Posleen under direct fire.

As it happened, actually hitting the Posleen became unnecessary. The barrels, indeed the entire warehouse, were filled with an oil processed from algae. It was used by the Indowy in cooking. Ubiquitous as corn oil, the 5 million Indowy of Qualtren used so much they needed a half kilometer square warehouse. Like corn oil, it had a fairly high flash point but, given certain conditions it could burn, even explode.

The depleted uranium pellets of the grav guns traveled at a noticeable fraction of the speed of light. The designers had carefully balanced maximum kinetic effect against the problem of relativistic ionization and its accompanying radiation. The result was a tiny teardrop that went so fast it defied description. It made any bullet ever made seem to stand still. Far faster than any meteor, rounds that did not impact left the planet’s orbit to become a spatial navigation hazard. It punched a hole through the atmosphere so fierce that it stripped the electrons from the atoms of gas and turned them into ions. The energy bled in its travel was so high it created a shock front of electro-magnetic pulse. Then, after it passed, the atoms and electrons recombined in a spectacular display of chemistry and physics. Photons of light were discharged, heat was released and free radicals, ozone and Bucky balls were produced. The major by-product was the tunnel of energetic ions indistinguishable from lightning. Just as hot, and just as energetic. A natural spark plug.

In two seconds 1000 of these supremely destructive teardrops punched through 50 drums of fish oil. One pellet was enough to finely divide a drum of oil over two to three thousand cubic meters of air. The following rounds found only vapor and these excess pellets, following the immutable laws of physics, set out to find other drums to divide. The oil from thousands of drums suddenly flash blasted into gas then ignited from compression, rather like a diesel piston. The net effect was a fuel-air bomb, the next best thing to a nuclear weapon in Terran technology, and the basement warehouse became a gigantic diesel cylinder. For Sgt. Reese, in an instant the world flashed to fire.

The warehouse was two levels below ground. It had six levels below it and was 350 meters from Boulevard Sisalav, 150 meters from Avenue Qual. The fuel air explosion blasted a 200 meter diameter crater down to bedrock, gutted the building for a kilometer upward and set off all the charges planted for Plan Jericho. The shock-wave smashed structural members all the way to Sisalav and Qual and spit many of the remaining troopers on the ground floor out of the building like watermelon seeds. It killed every unarmored being in the mile cube structure: 326,000 Indowy and 8000 particularly quick and greedy Posleen. The Jericho charges worked as planned, shattering 120 critical mono-crystalline support members. With surprising grace, the mile high edifice leaned to the northwest and slowly, as if reverently kneeling, fell into Daltrev, blocking Sisalav and Qual and smashing the southeast quadrant of Daltrev. It crushed 4000+ more Posleen and completely blocked an enemy advance from the massif to Qualtrev.

* * *

“And subsequent to the explosion?” the Commander asked, emotionlessly.

“I tried to get in touch with the chain of command,” Mike said. “Colonel Youngman was dead. Captain Vero was unconscious. Captain Wright was trapped in something too solid to get through and Hiberzined himself to await recovery. I consolidated local survivors and contacted Major Pauley.”

* * *

The chirp of connection cued him. “Major Pauley, it’s Lt. O’Neal.”

“O’Neal? What the hell do you want?”

“Sir, I am currently in command of the survivors gathered under Qualtren. I was looking for orders, sir.” Mike watched the NCO leading a group across the scattered rubble. The first suit to reach the far side grabbed a piece of rubble and pulled it out. There was a prompt slide into its place and a section of ceiling fell out, momentarily trapping one of the other troops. With some hand motions and swearing on a side channel Green got the group to move more circumspectly.

“Who the hell put you in command?” demanded the distant officer.

“Captain Wright, sir,” answered O’Neal. He was expecting some resistance but the harshness of Pauley’s voice made him instantly wary.

“And where the hell is Wright?”

“Can I deliver my report, sir?”

“No, dangit, I don’t want your dang report. I asked you where Captain Wright was.” The panting of the officer over the circuit was eerie, like an obscene phone call.

“Captain Wright is irretrievable with what we have available, Major. He put me in command of the mobile survivors and put himself into hibernation.”

“Well, the hell if any trumped up Sergeant is going to lead MY troops,” said the major, his voice cracking and ending on a high wavery note. “Where the hell are the rest of the officers.”

“I am the only remaining officer, Major,” O’Neal said reasonably. “There is one Sergeant First Class, three staff sergeants and five sergeants, sir. I am the only officer on sight.”

“I do not have time for this,” spit the commander, “put me through to another officer.”

“Sir, I just said that there are no other officers.”

“Dangit, Lieutenant, get me Captain Wright and get him NOW or I’ll have you COURT-MARTIALLED!”

“Sir,” Mike choked. He began to realize that Major Pauley was not tracking well. The position of the retreating ACS battalion should have prepared him somewhat, but nothing could have fully prepared him, “Sir,… ” he started again.

“Dangit, Lieutenant, get those troops back here NOW! I need all the forces I can get! I don’t have time to eff around with this. Get me through to Captain Wright!”

“Yes, sir,” Mike did not know what to do, but ending this conversation would be a start. “I’ll get the troops to your location as fast as I can and get Captain Wright to contact you as soon as possible.”

“That’s better. And put him back in command, dang you. How dare you usurp command you young puppy! I’ll have you court-martialed for this! Put yourself on report!”

“Yes, sir, right away, sir. Out here.”

* * *

“So you’re saying that your direct chain of command was non-functional?” the Commander replied. “Are you an MD? A psychologist?”

“You’re supposed to be my counsel, not my inquisitor,” Mike said. “No, I’m not an MD or a shrink. But Pauley couldn’t even understand that I was the only officer down there. And come to think of it Captain Brandon and Major Norton both heard Colonel Youngman authorize the Jericho charges.”

“Lieutenant Colonel Robert Brandon retired from service some thirty years ago,” the Commander said. “He took colonization credits but his ship was, unfortunately, lost in transit. Major Charles Norton was killed in action on Earth in 2006. As was Captain Wright. Captain Vero exited the service after the action on Diess and committed suicide shortly thereafter.”

“So you’re saying that I’m the only officer survivor of Diess,” Mike said, his face stony. “Not too surprising. We had a really high casualty rate during the war. Hell, I’m about the only person I know who’s alive from back then. They’re all gone.” He looked at the far wall and shook his head. “All gone.”

“Yes, well, that is regretable,” the Commander said without the slightest tone of regret. “Given any lack of witnesses to this supposed order by Colonel Youngman… ”

“Wait,” Mike said, his brow furrowing. “What is the evidence against me? I mean, what is the prosecution using as evidence?”

“You’re not authorized to have that information,” the Commander replied.

“Oh, that’s just great!” Mike snarled. “They’re saying that I wiped out my corps, they’re saying that I killed a bunch of Indowy on purpose on Diess and I can’t see any of the evidence? Why am I surprised? They shot my fucking STAFF right in front of my eyes! What’s the damned purpose of this fucking trial anyway!” He strained at the bonds, willing to do anything for just one crack at one of these fuckers, including his so-called “Counsel.” But all he could feel was his own bones breaking.

“To see that justice is done, of course,” the Commander said, tonelessly.

“’You are a prisoner because you have been accused,’” Mike said, laughing mirthlessly. “I plead guilty to saving a planet.” He paused and then laughed. “Oh My God! That is what this is all about! If they can convict me from back then then everything I’ve done since doesn’t count, legally, does it? If it’s all a war crime, I’m not owed a single pence, am I?”

“I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” the Commander said, apparently puzzled.

“Then you don’t have that need to know, ‘Counselor,’ ” Mike said, chuckling. “Oh, wait, let me tell you. Then you can have a noose around your neck. See how it feels.”

“On the whole… ” the Commander said, suddenly nervous.

“No, seriously, this is a really good story,” Mike said.

“I think this interview is at an end,” the Commander said, standing up.

“The Darhel have been manipulating humans for thirty thousand years,” Mike said, quickly. “There are humans on R-1496 Delta they planted there in cave-man days! And they’re in violation of contract. They owe humans more money than they have in cash. If we call the marker, if I call the marker, they’re bankrupt.”

“Why are you telling me this?” the Commander snarled. “This has nothing to do with your crimes.”

“Because I want to see how many counsellors I can go through,” Mike replied, grinning. “ ‘First thing we do, we kill all the lawyers.’”

* * *

“General O’Neal is being held at the Lunar Fleet Base,” Cally said. “Multiple layers of security and of course it’s on the Moon.”

Cally’s team had taken a real hit with the loss of her grandfather, Michael O’Neal, Sr. The hole was impossible to fill mentally so they’d never filled it physically. That left Cally, Tommy and the Schmidt brothers. That was going to be more than enough. In fact, since direct action was, to say the least, not Harrison’s forte, he’d be hanging back on this one.

“This is going to be interesting,” George Schmidt said. The newest team member had never been adverse to attacking Cally’s plans but his point was always to find the weaknesses, not attack the source. “As in ‘you’re fricking kidding, right?’ They’ve seriously upgraded security procedures since we sprung you. And this time we don’t have a guy on the inside.”

“Which is why we’re not going to get him out during the trial,” Cally said, bringing up another schematic. “He’s either going to be convicted or he’s not. If he’s not, we pick him up from the exit and then get lost, fast. Given that it’s a kangaroo court, he’s going to be convicted. Which means that he’ll be moved to the Lunar Penal facility.”

“We grab him in transit?” Tommy said, blinking. “What if they off him immediately?”

“Then we’re fucked,” Cally admitted. “But he’s going to be moved through the Deeprun Tram. That’s the weak point.”

“A tram that runs through solid rock a thousand feet below the lunar surface?” George said. “How’s that a weak point?”

“It’s one with the right support,” Cally said. “Which we have. The sohon are willing to give us that much support.”

“Okay,” Tommy said, nodding. “I kinda get that one. So that’s getting in and grabbing him. Getting out?”

“I have a friend arranging that,” Cally said.

* * *

It’s Dad, Stewart. Your father in law. Your old boss. Don’t tell me you’re not in.

I know that, honey. James Stewart, nee Quai Kon Chang, looked nothing like the man who had once been a Fleet Strike Lieutenant General. He also didn’t look purely Chinese. One of the more ‘mixed’ races of southeast Asia that were survivors of the Posleen but not pure Han.

And it will fuck with the Darhel, Cally added. The Tongs always like that. That’s why we get along.

I know that, too, Stewart had said. It doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Look, I’ve gotten promoted in the Tong really fast. That makes enemies. And these guys don’t just talk about you behind your back. There’s more real assassination than character assassination in the Tongs. Doing something like this, with no profit involved, for apparently political and personal reasons, it’s not a good idea. Not if you want me alive to visit on occasion.

I want more than that and you know it. And if you need to get paid to do it, then we’ll figure out a way to pay you.

It’s not going to be cheap.

I don’t think Michelle threw all those Level Nine nanokeys into the pot.

In that case, let’s talk business.

First.

First.

* * *

“So, we’re depending on sohon, whom we don’t know, and some Tong guy we don’t know,” Tommy said, blowing out his cheeks. He wasn’t about to admit that he not only knew Stewart but that they had been acquaintances ‘back when.’ “Cally, you’re asking us to take one hell of a risk using assets we don’t know.”

“If you’ve got a better plan, Thomas, ante up,” Cally said.

“Point.”

* * *

He’d been through three “counsellors” so far. He waited in the trial room in anticipation. The “counsellor” hadn’t been waiting for him this time. He wondered who they’d sacrifice next.

He was only slightly surprised when a Darhel came through the door.

“Since I am privy to the information you’ve been giving to your other counsellors, telling me about it won’t require my removal from the trial,” the Darhel said, sitting down opposite Mike.

“Oh, that’s okay,” Mike said. “I’ll figure something out. Answer one question?”

“We shall trade,” the Darhel said. “I will ask one and you ask one. If you answer me I’ll answer you.”

“Nope,” Mike said, shaking his head. “I’m fully aware of how far you can trust a Darhel. Which is zero. You answer me and I’ll answer you, though. I mean, really, who would you trust more, General Michael O’Neal or another Darhel?”

“Very well,” the Darhel said, acceding to the logic. “Ask your question.”

“Has the trial even started, yet?” Mike asked, wondering what answer he’d get. Or if it would be true.

“Two days ago,” the Darhel said.

“Then why don’t I at least get to watch it?” Mike asked, gesturing with his chin at the screen.

“One question at a time,” the Darhel said, smiling and exposing sharp teeth. “Now for mine. Were you aware that there were Indowy still in the Qualtren Megascraper?”

“Yes,” Mike said, frowning. “I’d run into some trapped in there. But it was destroy the megascraper or lose the battle. Besides, they couldn’t outrun the Posleen and were thus dead, anyway. The military term is ‘acceptable collateral damage.’ Another round?”

“Very well,” the Darhel said.

“I repeat, why can’t I watch the trial?”

“Because the testimony is need-to-know,” the Darhel answered. “The only portion you are required to monitor is your sentencing portion. When sentencing is pronounced, it will be fed over the video screen.”

“If anyone needs to know what’s being testified to, I do,” Mike said.

“Nonetheless,” the Darhel said. “What do you know of the Bane Sidhe?”

“Only that they exist,” Mike said. “I was informed about them by the Nor. You had an AID listening in.”

“The Nor did not know of the contract irregularity,” the Darhel said. “You do. Someone has told you, recently. Who?”

“Gosh, I forget,” Mike said.

“This is a violation of our contract,” the Darhel said. “You said that you would answer questions. And I can and will use chemical means to get my answer.”

“If you’re asking those you’re not working as my counsel,” Mike said, shrugging. “In which case, all I can say is that when I get out of here, I’m going to remove your eyes with my own hands.”

“That would be difficult,” the Darhel said, snarling.

“Not really,” Mike said. “You Darhel are cowards. Oh, you might have some guards but I’ve killed humans in my time as well as Posleen. You know my abilities. You are as dead as yesterday’s news. But first I’m going to destroy your clan financially. You’re going to be too poor to afford guards when I come for you. I’m going to eat one of your cowardly eyeballs while you watch and… ”

Mike had been watching for the signs. He’d heard that Darhel were, in fact, fast and strong. But they also went catatonic after a few moments. The question would be whether he could get the Darhel to go over the edge. And live through it.

Sure enough, the alien finally lost it, the chair flying back and hitting the wall, hard enough to crack the strong plastic. The alien’s hands wrapped around his throat and he thought he felt his hyoid bone break as it bore down. But then the thing’s eyes rolled back in his head and he flopped to the table, still and drooling.

Mike could breathe, barely, so his throat wasn’t crushed. He just sat there, watching the drooling thing on the table, until the guards entered the room in a rush and stunned him into unconsciousness.

* * *

“General, this is insane.”

The Fleet Strike colonel looked at his superior, watching for any shred of agreement then shook his head. He’d made sure that the meeting was in a shield room and AIDs were left behind so the officers could have an honest conversation. But he wasn’t sure even that would matter.

“These charges are laughable,” Colonel Rodermund continued. “The only evidence is the recordings of the accused and AID records we both know can be falsified. For that matter, we’re not allowed to fully investigate those same records. We’re not even getting the full recordings of the interrogations of the accused and those are by persons who are supposed to be his counsel. Then we can’t even question the counselors. We haven’t even seen any of his counselors after the meetings. But the bottomline is that what he did was not illegal. He gave a legal order and was not countermanded by higher authority. Not as far as any record we have seen. The collateral damage was regretable but the mission was accomplished. He’s guilty of nothing but being a soldier. Is that now illegal?”

“Is that all?” the general asked.

“Not really,” the colonel said, his face hardening. “I’ve been reviewing the information on what happened at R-1496 Delta and I don’t buy it. There’s a massive rat in the recordings. Among other things, where did the Posleen get orbital weaponry? Wasn’t Fleet supposed to be covering? Again, not something that General O’Neal can be charged with. And I don’t see Admiral Suntoro in that courtroom nor any of the rest of his staff. In fact, I’ve done a bit of checking and nobody’s too sure where Fifth Fleet is at present. I didn’t think I was going to be participating in a kangaroo court, General, and I’m professionally and personally humiliated to do so. I’m also wondering what in the hell you think you’re doing.”

“That is insubordination,” the general said, mildly.

“Great, so I’m next?” the colonel asked. “Unable to choose my own counsel, unable to speak in my own defense, unable to bring witnesses, unable to face my accusers?”

“Not unless you force that outcome,” the general said. “Are you going to?”

“If I thought it would do a shred of good… ”

“And there is the point,” the general replied. “Yes, this is a totally bogus proceeding. The outcome is fore-ordained. The accused will be found guilty. He will be shipped to either the Legion or a penal institute. He is probably going to be shot trying to escape. General O’Neal is dead. Get that through your head.”

“Oh, I have, sir,” the colonel said, furiously. “But what in the fuck are we doing facilitating that, sir? Michael O’Neal is a God damned hero! If they can do this to him, using us, sir, then who’s safe? What’s the God damned point of even… And what really happened to 11th Corps? That’s most of Fleet Strike, sir! What’s the God damned point of… ”

“Of even continuing to exist?” the general asked, calmly. “The point is to exist.”

“Well, then, sir, if you would like to hear my opinion of… ”

“I can guess,” the general said, still calmly. “But you’re not seeing the full measure of the point. Yes, we’re about to throw one of our greatest heroes, okay our greatest hero, to the dogs. We are going to pour out our honor like water. Some of the board are going to eat a pistol over the verdict. But we are going to survive. Fleet Strike is going to survive. You think this is the only tarnish on us? That we haven’t done other things that are repugnant at the insistence of those Darhel fuckers? You’ve been caught up in the minutia of keeping units across the galactic arm supplied. I appreciate that. You’re a damned good logistician. I’ve been in the belly of the beast, Colonel. I’ve seen what’s been really happening. The Fleet doesn’t even flicker at this sort of thing. There’s no trust, no bonding, no real soldiers in the whole damned thing. The Admirals fight for the biggest slice of the pie and the sailors just want to get their ricebowl filled. They hope they actually get fed and paid.

“We’re tarnished. The stench from this is going to stink to high heaven and you are neither the first officer, nor I’m sure the last, to be right on the edge of mutiny. But that’s sort of the point. We can still fight. We are the only true defenders of the Federation left. We are the only ones that come close to remaining true to the cause. Broken, stinking wretches that we are, we still have some of us that believe in the point, which is first, last and always, to make sure that humanity survives. If we choose to mutiny over this… abomination, we are finished. We are as dead as the 11th Corps, which is, yes, gone. I will not see the rest of Fleet Strike go the same way, Colonel. And if it takes sacrificing Michael O’Neal, who I have known for longer than you have lived, or you, colonel, or myself, on that altar, then I will make that sacrifice, Colonel. Am I making myself absolutely, perfectly, clear?”

“Sir, they can’t… ”

“Colonel, 11th Corps wasn’t destroyed by the Posleen, it was destroyed at the behest of the Darhel. Twenty plus thousand Fleet Strike personnel, one hundred percent of our remaining ACS, burned by orbital fire from Fifth Fleet. The staff, I’m given to understand, were shot by their captors.”

“That is… ” The colonel’s face worked for a moment then he spat. “That is sick, sir!”

“And the day you can figure out an effective method to strike back at the Darhel, Colonel,” the general said, “one that will break their stranglehold for good and all, one that will make those fuckers pay, well you just do that, Colonel. And then kill them all as far as I care. But in the meantime, we have to go present sentencing on one of my best friends. Are you prepared to give your last measure to this organization, Colonel? Are you prepared to pour out your honor like water, to bury it in muck and slime and horror, so that there is some chance that, someday, others will not have to? Because if you’re not, I need to have you removed from the court.”

“And life?” the colonel asked.

“Does it matter?” the general replied, snorting humorlessly. “On a day like today, wouldn’t you have rather died in battle? Because even burning to death would be cleaner than this. I know that I have not a shred of true honor left, Colonel. I was damned long before these proceedings. The only hope that I have is that by holding onto something I can work to prevent others from having to do this sort of thing. I can hope that someday there will be a Fleet Strike that is relieved of this horror. That some future officer can spit on my grave without fear of Darhel retribution. Our lives, our fortune and our sacred honor. Today is the day for you to cough up that last measure, Colonel. Today you get to join the rest of us and burn your honor on the bonfire of hope. Sucks, huh?”

“Sir… ” the colonel said. “I repeat, that’s sick.”

“Are you in, though?” the general asked.

“Yes, sir,” Colonel Rodermund replied after a moment. “But someday… ”

“Colonel,” General Tam Wesley replied, “I hope every day for some shred of possibility of breaking the Darhel. Yes, someday something has to give. But, unfortunately, it does not appear to be today.”

* * *

Security Contract Officer First Class Maxim Poddubny had been born and raised in the “unconquered” areas of Siberia.

The Posleen invaders had swept across Europe and Asia without a check on their advance until they disovered Siberia. While the Posleen could survive in almost any environment, they were less than adept at logistics. Each Posleen god-king was supposed to find food for his own group. Usually that food was the food of the conquered or, in many cases, the conquered themselves.

The Russians, after and brief and mostly futile defense, had done what Russia had done many times before, retreated deeper and deeper into the hinterland while scorching the earth behind them.

The only difference from the Swedes, Poles, French and Germans was that the Posleen got further. None of the Russian armies that faced them, even in the Urals, could slow them down. Until winter descended on Siberia and the Posleen suddenly found themselves out of contact with the human “thresh” and struggling through hip-deep snow in a terrain bereft of anything resembling sustenance.

Had the Posleen continued to occupy Earth they would eventually have spread, slowly, into the area. The shattered Russians, reduced to a day-to-day hand-to-mouth struggle for survival, might or might not have hindered them. But that question became moot when the half-renegade Fleet units had lifted the Siege. Slowly, the Russians had straggled out of the taiga, recovering their demolished cities. Those that could quickly moved to more hospitable lands under the Post-Invasion Resettlement Act. But a few remained.

Max was the son of one of those families, hardy pioneers in the wilderness that had reclaimed most of Russia. His father was a strong Russian nationalist, regaling his many children with the glory that had once been Russia and, through his sons and daughters, would be again.

Max had listened to the rants until he was seventeen, the youngest age at which you could enlist in the military, and then fled the searingly cold and achingly boring forests of “The Motherland” for anything else. His father might be insane but it didn’t mean Max had to be. Someday, if there was ever a need for the space, humans might move back into the shattered lands of Russia. In the meantime, they were wilderness for a reason. Only madmen or the desperate lived there by choice.

He had spent a very boring five years in an absolutely less than elite infantry division. It was one of three divisions that was tasked with post-recovery security. Basically, they supported the first Indowy colonists and their human “security officers” sweeping out the hardcore remaining Posleen while the “security officers” covered the Indowy. It was tedious work involving long patrols that rarely hit contact. And when they did, by and large, they just ran away as fast as they could, called in an orbital strike and then made sure it got the infestation. What was the point of being a hero?

The good news was that the unit had regular contact with the “security officers.” Invariably, the first thing the security company did was set up a “recreation facility.” It was usually completed before the full defenses were in place. Security companies had their own manpower shortage so they made sure that such “recreation facilities” were as complete as possible. There were plenty of games, yes. There was a decent bar, if your interest in bars translated to “dive.” And there were “entertainers”, male and female, to keep their security officers entertained.

Getting access to those “recreation facilities” was tough for a regular. But if you made the right contacts, you could get an occasional pass. Max had visited the security recreation facility once, compared it to the one available to the regular infantry, and made it his goal to work his way into a security company.

Now, as an SCO1 working for Hamilton-Baron Security, he had full access to such. Just as soon as he got off duty in forty minutes. There was a little lady named Lailani he was looking forward to spending quite a bit of his pay on. Why not? There wasn’t much else to spend it on and he wasn’t looking for another job any time soon.

He slowed the Multi-Wheeled Ground Terrain Vehicle as his thermal detectors pinged. An aerial recon team had been reported missing near this location and he’d been dispatched to look into it. The air-truck had probably just lost its motivator. This planet had been colonized for twenty years, for that matter it was pretty close to some of the core Darhel worlds, and the Posleen hadn’t used anything that could take down an air-truck in a while. But the two man crew was probably on the ground somewhere nearby cursing and waiting for pick-up.

The thermal, though, wasn’t locking the contact. Something was disturbing the signal. It was big, though. Could be either human or Posleen. He hit the lights and panned them to the left, searching in the burgeoning undergrowth for the contact, the machine-gun on the roof panning with it. If it was a Posleen, it was going to get a 14.5mm enema.

As the light panned across the contact point there was a flicker, like a reflection on a pond. He panned back and frowned as the ripple seemed to move. Whatever it was, it was big. Maybe as big as a Posleen. His finger was playing with the safety on the machine-gun, wondering if he should just fire and then figure it out. But the contact sort of looked like a Himmit. Not that you normally spotted those.

He was still wondering when a strand of monomolecular wire entered his window and removed his head.

CHAPTER SIX

This was a different route. They’d taken a left out of the cell instead of a right. Mike wasn’t sure what that meant, but he could feel a bode when he saw one. And this boded.

A door dilated and he entered a low room about the size of a standard shield room. On the far side his “court” was arrayed. He knew, immediately, that that was what he was looking at. What shocked him was not that there actually was a court, but who was on it.

“Tam?” he gasped. “Good God, you’re not… ?”

“The Prisoner will remain silent,” General Tam Wesley said, harshly. “This is your sentencing, not a moment for grandstanding. Michael O’Neal, you have been charged with violation of Galactic Military Code 4153-6398-Delta, excessive force leading to the death of non-combatants without commensurate military value gained. Your plea of not-guilty has been recorded by your Counsel. You are found guilty and sentenced to fifty years in a Penal Unit to be determined. Case is closed.”

“I appeal,” Mike said, looking around. Neither his most recent “counsel”, if he had one nor even the prosecution were present.

“The sentence has been automatically reviewed by higher authority,” General Wesley said. “It stands. Take the prisoner away.”

“I appeal to the Aldenata,” Mike said, loudly. “I appeal this sentence on its merits and I place suit against the Darhel, in toto, for failure of contractual obligations, to whit failure to abide by payment structures in keeping with contractual obligations to myself and the rest of the human race.”

“What?” Tam said, his brow furrowing. “What in the hell are you talking about?”

“This trial is over,” the Tir Dal Ron said, entering from the opposite door. “Silence the prisoner!”

Mike grimaced as the stunners hit, but it had a trace of a smile in it.

* * *

“That was unnecessary, Tir,” General Wesley said as the unconscious body was dragged from the room.

“I determine what is necessary, General,” the Tir said. “You may all return to your duties.”

“What was that about failure of payment?” Colonel Rodermund asked. “Is there something we should be discussing, Tir?”

“Only if you wish to go to the same place as the former General, Colonel,” the Tir said, coldly. “This matter is closed.”

* * *

“Glad that’s over,” Master at Arms First Class Chan Mu said, dropping the prisoner unceremoniously to the deck. “Bastard’s heavy as hell.”

The sub-surface shuttle called The Deep Tram ran between the Fleet Base in the Chaplygin crater and Fleet Central Penal Facility in Chaplygin K. There was a regular shuttle consist that ran four times a day, carrying normal prisoners, their guards and the occasional releasee. This one, though, was unscheduled and consisted of only one car. It was for the specific job of getting the former General Michael O’Neal into that extremely secure sub-surface facility. Surrounded by space-capable weaponry and with nearly a thousand guards, once he was in FCPF the general wasn’t going anywhere, ever again. Assuming that he even made it through in-processing. The Fleet masters at arms were charged with getting him to the facility, not killing him.

On the other hand they had very specific orders in the event there was any attempt to rescue him.

“Stay alert,” Lieutenant Mang Rong said, setting the stunner aside and pulling around a laser rifle. “If we lose this one it’s all our heads.”

“Not much chance of that,” Rei Shun said with a snort as the shuttle jerked into motion. “Solid rock between here and the prison. Be pretty hard to get to us and even if they did they’d evacuate the shuttle, killing him. That’s if we missed, sir.”

“Nonetheless,” the lieutenant said, training the laser rifle on the back of the prisoner’s head. “Remain alert.”

* * *

Tommy Sunday was trapped in a bubble of rock and not particularly happy about it.

After all the time he’d spent in suits, he thought he was over anything resembling claustrophobia. When you put on a suit, the undergel flooded into your ears, eyes, nose. You were trapped, for just a moment, in a coffin. It was a very claustophobic experience that was hard to get used to, at first. But if you stayed in suits, you got really comfortable with it. So here he was, breathing stale air, room to move his feet, so why was he getting so claustophobic.

Maybe it was because he was under a thousand feet of rock and the only thing between him and eventually dying when his air ran out was the questionable support of a sohon mentat none of them ever got to meet.

“Prepare yourselves. The shuttle is leaving the station. The General is in the rear portion. There are five guards. They are armed with laser rifles and have low-light glasses. I will stop the shuttle, shut off the lights, disable their systems and let you through. All else is up to you. I may take no direct action against a human being. When you have secured the general, I will extract you.”

Tommy supposed he also shouldn’t wonder how the damned mentat was contacting a radio under a thousand feet of rock. But was having a harder time getting past that than how they’d gotten here.

* * *

So how’s this supposed to work? George had said.

The four suits were standing on the lunar surface, looking around for any sign of their contact.

Michelle said there’d be a signal, Cally replied. It had better be soon.

Would a line in the sand be a signal?

In front of Tommy’s eyes a line was drawing itself without anyone touching the lunar dust. As he watched, his name appeared next to an X drawn on a point on the line.

I guess X marks your spot, Cally said, with just a hint of nervousness.

After lining up they had waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, their radios crackled.

You are about to sink into the ground, a male voice with all the emotion of a robot had said. Attempt to control your emotional reactions.

Before Tommy could reply he felt a sinking sensation in no metaphorical sense. Looking down, the lunar dust was opening up around his feet into a pocket the width of his body and a few handspans. The others were descending as well. In moments he was below the surface of the moon, the pocket had closed above his head and, as far as he could tell, he was still dropping. In fact, if his inner ear was any judge, the rate had increased.

You will be dropped to the level of the shuttle tube, the voice said. How the presumed mentat was broadcasting to fairly normal radios was beyond Tommy. On the other hand, so was how he was opening up a pocket in solid rock! You will then hold there until it is time to retrieve the General.

* * *

So here he stood, waiting in this hole. The recent transmission had been the first sign he’d heard that the mission was still a go in over an hour. He hoped the other members of the party were doing better than he was, because Tommy was about to flip his lid.

“How are the guards arrayed?” Cally asked.

“The General is unconscious on the floor. Recently stunned. The lieutenant in charge of the detail is to starboard flanked by two guards. The other two are to port. Mr. Sunday will be dropping almost on top of the General. Are you prepared?”

“Yes,” Cally replied. “Tommy, Guard.”

“Roger,” Tommy said.

“Good, because the shuttle is stopping in three… two… ”

Tommy dropped in the low lunar gravity. Looking down he could see the top of the shuttle somehow dilated out, just as the rock around him had been. General O’Neal was directly beneath his feet. Which meant the rest of the team was arrayed further forward.

The guards had apparently been thrown off their seats by a violent stop. In total darkness, their electronics disabled, they floundered in the dark. At least one appeared to be injured.

Tommy didn’t have time to take in more than that before spreading his feet so he wouldn’t crush the package and then ducking down to cover the General with his body. There was a meaty sound from forward then a series of muted pops. Cally was being her usual efficient self.

“Package secured,” Cally said. “Guards secured.”

“Retrieving,” the mentat replied.

This time, as the group gathered around Tommy and “the package”, a wider hole was opened. The five of them, Tommy holding onto the General, started lifting upwards as if with grav belts. The top of the shuttle, which had been solid a moment before, simply seemed to momentarily disappear. Then they were back in rock.

“Okay,” George said. “I’ve seen and done some weird shit, but this is starting to freak me out.”

“At least we’re not still sitting in those damned coffins,” George replied. “I was starting to totally freak out.”

“Should have tried being in a suit for a few years,” Tommy heard himself say. “After that, sitting in solid rock is nooo problem.”

* * *

“He’s what?” Tir Dal Ron snapped.

The Tir’s position had always been a bit confusing to the humans. Technically, Tir was a relatively minor position, the Darhel equivalent of a paper-shuffler. The term usually used in Human-Darhel dictionaries was “clerk.” But while there was a higher ranked Gil who was the official ambassador to the Human government of the Confederation of Allied Races, the Tir seemed to wield extraordinary powers.

As time went on, and Humans had been in contact with the Darhel for nearly sixty years at this point, another term had entered service. “Eminence gris.” While the Tir might not be a Clan leader among the Darhel, nor a planetary governor nor even a senior member of the rubber-stamp Legislative Committee of the Confederation, what he was was a mover and a shaker, a shyster, a power broker sitting very close to the right hand of the master of all Darhel, the shadowy Ghin whom no human had ever met.

Specifically, he was the guy tasked with making sure that the Human warrior-ants stayed in control.

And right now he was very close to the Darhel equivalent of a stroke.

“Escaped, My Lord.” Admiral Chatchaya Sie was commander of all Fleet activities on the Moon including, most especially, the in his opinion ill-named ‘Heinlein Base.’ As part of his additional duties, he was commander of the Fleet Central Penal Facility.

He had succeeded to the lucrative post after his predecessor, Admiral Leony Jayadi, let a high value prisoner escape. Admiral Jayadi, while returning to Earth for his retirement, had apparently been unable to stand the shame and, completely of his own free will, taken a walk in space. His body had never been recovered.

The investigating team had carefully ignored the fact that it took at least three separate people to open a lock on a shuttle. And the Admiral was the only person, officially, on the shuttle at that time.

Admiral Sie did not want to take a space walk.

“How did this happen?” the Tir said, then took a deep, calming breath.

“That is so far very much a mystery, My Lord,” the Admiral said. “The General and his guards were observed both physically and on camera boarding the shuttle. The shuttle, which is of course deep beneath the surface, proceeded in its normal fashion to the Penal Facility. Upon arrival the guards were found shot to death and the General was gone.”

“He is no longer a General,” the Tir said.

“Pardon my reference, My Lord,” the Admiral said. “The prisoner.”

“What you describe is impossible,” the Tir snapped. “Impossible.”

“That is my own categorization of this event, My Lord,” the Admiral said. “When my predecessor let that woman escape, it was through inside help. I am following a similar line of investigation. But, fearing a rescue attempt, I had heavy forces commanded by loyal officers on hand to repel any attack. A colonel and two captains, one of them a nephew, observed the prisoner being loaded. The shuttle, according to the monitors, never stopped. Yet the prisoner was gone and the guards dead.”

“So it appears to have been magic,” the Tir snapped.

“I doubt magic, My Lord, but… ”

“Then you are insufficiently imaginative,” the Tir growled. “Keep me informed of your investigation. I want daily reports.”

“Yes, My Lord.”

Well, at least it appeared he’d be able to forward daily reports. That was something. But if he didn’t find something quick…

* * *

Mike woke up with all of his nerves jangling. Since the room he was in was apparently on Earth, based on the gravity, that meant he’d been Hiberzined while still under the influence of the stunner. And he hadn’t been under long enough to get over the effects.

“I also gave you a shot of nerzin,” a voice said over his shoulder. “The stun should wear off pretty quick.”

He was sitting in a recliner looking out a window. The view beyond was of a dune and then the ocean. Nice view. Based on the vegetation, mostly sea-oats, he was presumably somewhere in the eastern United States on the Atlantic coast. Make that southeast, he could see the limb of a live oak. That meant no further north than North Carolina or whatever they were calling it these days.

“Thanks,” Mike muttered, looking around. The room could have been a livingroom from before the war. Muted pastel paint, cluttered nicknacks on shelves, the style was called ‘coastal country’ or some such. There was a bottle of Veri water on the marble topped table next to the recliner. He opened it, took a swig to wet his mouth and cleared his throat. “To whom do I owe the favor?”

“No names, obviously,” the voice said. A young man walked into view. A very, very big young man. Dark red hair and a hard face. And clearly no slouch in the gym. “But I’m told you already know about the Bane Sidhe.”

“Killers of Elves,” Mike said then barked a laugh. “Killed any good Darhel lately?”

“Bit of an oxymoron,” the man said. “It’s not until they’re dead that they’re good, sir. Call me Kyle. It’s not my name but it’s one I’ve used.”

“Well, Kyle, what now?” Mike asked.

“I have no clue, sir,” Kyle replied. “I was told to hold you here pending disposition. Since you are, I’m given to understand, the most quietly wanted man in the galaxy… I’m not sure what the disposition is going to be. Normally, we can disappear someone fairly easily, and to make that clear I mean hide them not kill them. In your case, sir… ”

“Every friggin cop and bounty hunter in the galaxy is going to be after my ass,” Mike said. “So I guess there’s only one question, Kyle.”

“Sir?”

“You guys got any weights around here? They’ve been unavailable where I was before.”

* * *

“Oh my God,” General Wesley said, looking at the flimsy.

Fleet Strike was said to run on paper. It was not a compliment. Whereas Fleet was almost entirely paperless, but for the occasional award one of the admirals gave himself, Fleet Strike had continued to generate reams of paper.

The “enlightened” officers in Fleet pointed to this as evidence of the stupidity and conservatism of Fleet Strike officers, many of whom remained rejuvs from before the invention of the computer. Such officers were simply more comfortable with good old fashioned paperwork. Fleet officers would sometimes insult their counterparts behind the latter’s back by motioning like counting on fingers.

And there was some truth to that. Many of Fleet Strike’s senior officers never really got comfortable with electronic technology. But it was also a very good cover. From early on all the senior officers, at least, of Fleet Strike had been uncomfortably aware that their friendly AIDs reported everything to the Darhel. And sometimes orders that were given on one end were not exactly the same orders that came out the other end.

Using the “neanderthal” officers among Fleet Strike as an excuse permitted the officers who were not so neolithic to have paper backups.

Which meant that there was a paper trail on the trial of General O’Neal. After the dramatic end of what had been an ugly and boring, but necessary, task, each of the officers had of the courtmartial had signed the sentencing document and it, along with the entire paper record of the proceedings, had been put into a sealed container and transported to the vaults for storage. It should never have seen the light of day.

So he was very surprised to see what was either a precise facsimile or a very good forgery of that same document sitting on his desk.

“Those are all over Heinlein base and have turned up as far away as Titan and, of course, on Earth,” Colonel Branden Trovato said. The commander of the Fleet Strike Criminal Investigation Division was not a man to scare easily. He had survived the latter part of the Siege as an infantry officer in the Ten Thousand, the most elite ‘light’ infantry unit on the planet and one of the ones with the highest death toll. But he was clearly nervous now. “And to say that they’re causing a stir is an understatement.”

“Where in the hell did they come from?” General Wesley snapped.

“Warrant Officer Paulina Weidemann was the courier officer tasked with carrying the recordings to the vault,” Colonel Trovato said, looking at his paper notes. “One of my men timed the walk from the courtroom to the vaults. It took him precisely four minutes and thirty-two seconds. You turned over the records at fourteen twelve hours, Lunar, sir. Give or take a minute.”

General Wesley nodded. He remembered a vague impression of a slight woman with dark hair. He wasn’t paying too much attention to what was going on at the time, running more or less on automatic and just wanting to find a quiet place to vomit.

“Warrant Officer Weidemann logged into the vault-room at precisely fourteen thirty five, seventeen seconds and some miliseconds that don’t really matter.”

“So either she stopped to use the lady’s room or… ”

“A trusted courier officer somehow opened a plasteel secure box sealed by a Fleet Strike General — which means some pretty sophisticated lock-picking — copied some or all of the documents and then resealed it. Then turned it in. And walked on her merry way.”

“And Warrant Officer… ?”

“Weidemann, sir.”

“Where is she, now?”

“She requested and was granted a three day pass, sir. She took a shuttle to earth last night. Her current whereabouts are unknown, sir.”

“When did the first of these surface?” General Wesley asked.

“This morning, sir. My office became apprised at eleven twenty-two. My first action was to determine who had chain of custody and do the investigation I’ve outlined. Then I reported to you, sir.”

Tam didn’t have to look at the clock. He knew it was slightly after noon. His stomach was telling him that he’d have to eat, someday. And that it still wasn’t sure it wanted to.

“Fast work.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“And no damned good at all, is it?”

“No, sir,” the colonel admitted. “We can, of course, charge Warrant Officer Weidemann. If we ever catch her. But… ”

“That would be closing the barn door after the fire’s burned it down,” the general said.

“More or less, sir.”

“Define ‘not being taken well,’ ” Wesley said.

“I have, while involved in the investigation, gotten two messages from undercover personnel who were approached by Fleet Strike members and sounded out about the possibility of mutiny,” the CID officer said. “Based upon very rough statistics, that means at least half of the Strike personnel on the Moon are discussing mutiny. Discussion is, of course, not the same as doing, sir, but… ”

“But just that it’s being discussed,” the general said, grinding his teeth. “Anything else?”

“There is a very wide-spread rumor, starting last night, that General O’Neal had nothing to do with the destruction of the 11th Corps and that it was, in fact, Fleet forces that fired upon them. There had been, prior to his trial, a very strong sentiment against his being responsible for the destruction of the corps and even rejection of the idea that they were destroyed. Subsequent to the release of this document… Members have put two and two together. Since there is no mention of his being responsible for the destruction of the corps in this document and given what he was charged with… The broad consensus is that he has been railroaded and that the corps is either still intact, and probably in its own state of mutiny, or was destroyed by someone or something other than in battle with the Posleen.” The colonel stopped for a moment and frowned, holding his hand up to his earbud. “Sir, we have a developing situation… ”

“General we’ve got a problem!”

Colonel Elvin Paul, Chief of Staff to the Chief of Staff, Operations, Fleet Strike, did not regularly burst into his boss’ office. So despite his increasing annoyance level, General Wesley did not eat him a new asshole.

“Go,” Wesley said, picking up his AID and wrapping it around his wrist.

“There was a gathering of enlisted in the Moonbase mess,” Colonel Paul said. “They were arguing about something; what is unclear. Fleet MAs were ordered by Admiral Sie to break up the gathering. They didn’t send enough. Moonbase is basically in one giant riot. I’m not exactly getting why from any of the officers I’ve spoken to. In fact, I’m having a hard time getting ahold of anyone at all. Nobody seems to want to talk to us.”

* * *

“Colonel, we have control of the tram-port.”

Colonel Glennis LeBlanc had been a colonel a looong time. Everybody else who had been her rank, major, ‘back in the day’ was either a general or retired.

Glennis wasn’t sure why she’d stayed in Fleet Strike so many years, watching younger officers pass her by on the ladder of promotion. Hell, General Wesley, God curse his name, had been a fricking captain at the end of the Siege. With damned little to his credit. He sure as hell hadn’t gotten the Distinguished Service Cross for the final battle in North Carolina.

But such were the vagaries of service. And maybe it was just shear bloodymindedness that her kept her bumping from one meaningless position to another. Or maybe it was because she had sensed, deep in her ample bosom, that there was a day when Fleet Strike was going to need her.

Planning a mutiny had been more of a hobby than anything over the years, a way to pass the time in jobs that were far beneath her skills. A background in intel hadn’t hurt. She had established lines of communication with other officers, lines that did not use electronic communication for anything other than code phrases. She had built a network of informants. She had mentally mapped out the necessary steps to taking over each base she was on. Some of that she had moved to paper and left with very trustworthy friends on stations throughout the system. Oh, the purposes had been cloaked as games to pass the time. But one thing the AIDs still didn’t read well was body-language and secondary phrasing. All of “her” people knew that what was building was something other than a game.

She had looked at each of the problems inherent in a mutiny under the current structure and found passable work-arounds. She hoped. Today was the day to find out.

“Capturing a critical prisoner” was only one of the many potential flash-points she had mapped. As soon as the riots started she had activated her cells. From her desk in the Morale and Welfare Support Center she had spread the word. Waterloo. As in “It was a near run thing.”

Moonbase was secure and the means to recapture the General were in hand. Phase One complete. She had no particular liking for General O’Neal. She sort of remembered him from “in the day.” And they’d met a couple of times over the decades. But he was just another brass from her perspective. The only thing that mattered was a chance to do something worthwhile. It was time to dust off the combat training and lead for a change.

The next step, though, was going to be a doozy. There was a whole Fleet in the system not to mention the orbital defenses of the Earth and Luna. Those were Phase Two, Three and Four, not necessarily in that order.

“Where are we on getting around the AID lockouts on the combat systems?” she asked.

“Going slow,” Warrant Officer Three Pruitt replied. Having Pruitt around was a multiplier for her models. She’d known him since the final battles on Earth and trusted him like armor on a tank. He was sort of a clown from time to time, but he seriously hated the Darhel and the current state of affairs. “We can bypass the lockouts easy enough. But the AIDs do much of the processing for the systems. Replacing that is turning out to be the tricky part.”

“Tell Paul to go faster,” Colonel Leblanc snapped. “He’s the wiz kid. Tell him to wiz.”

“Will do,” the former SheVa gunner said, grinning. “We’re gonna chop ’em up like Bun-bun at a beach party.”

“Colonel,” Chief Warrant Officer Five Sheila Indy said. “Are you ready for calls from home?”

“I take it General Wesley is calling?” Glennis said, grinning.

“The same.”

“Put him on,” the colonel replied, pulling back her hair and spreading the top of her uniform just a bit. Cleavage strikes again.

* * *

General Wesley blinked at the view from the moon. The officer on the viewscreen was a short-coupled brunette with the most startling chest he’d ever seen. Fleet Strike uniforms specifically de-emphasized any trace of the sexual. It was apparent that nothing short of, maybe, an ACS suit could do it with this officer.

“Colonel… ?”

“Leblanc,” the officer replied. “Morale and Welfare. How can I help you, General?”

“When I attempted to contact General Hart I was put through to you,” Wesley replied. “May I ask why?”

“General Hart is unavailable, General,” Colonel Leblanc said, smiling toothily. “And will remain so for the duration.”

“The duration of what, Colonel?”

“Why the duration of the War, General,” the colonel replied. “Officers and men of Heinlein base, less a remarkably limited number of hold-outs, are in insurrection against the Galactic Federation. They remain so pending a positive disposition of our demands. Which are quite numerous and so onerous I doubt your Darhel puppet-masters are going to accede to them. So you are faced with a choice, General. You can join us — and trust me the best job I’m going to be able to give you is floor-washer; I’ll be lucky to keep you alive — or you can try to beat us. And in the latter case, General, my answer to you is Bring It On.”

* * *

“They want what?”

“It’s a lengthy list,” General Wesley said, trying not to grin. He found himself in a professional quandry.

On a straightforward logical level he saw no way that the insurrectionists could do more than get themselves killed. Which would be a tragedy. From the few reports he was still getting through CID, the take-over of Heinlein Base had clearly been planned in advance, and right under CID’s nose, and had gone off virtually without a hitch. Every member of Fleet, from Admiral Sie down to the lowliest “floor washer” was under arrest or dead. Apparently in the case of the MAs, mostly the latter. And the whole turn-over had taken less than an hour. This Colonel Leblanc, who he vaguely remembered as having been some sort of hero during the latter phase of the Siege, was clearly being underutilized. He was going to have to talk to some people in Personnel about that. Losing her was going to be a terrible thing. But, logically, he could see no way that they were going to win.

On an emotional level, though, he was cheering them on. And, frankly, trying to figure out exactly how he could play both ends against the Darhel.

“I’ll hit the high points, though,” the general continued. “The major high-point, from your point of view, is that they want your head on a platter. To quote: Item Sixteen, the severed head of the Tir Dal Ron on a silver platter. In no metaphorical sense. End quote.”

“I see,” the Tir replied. “And their other demands?”

“Well, the first item is going to be hard to comply with,” General Wesley said, still trying not to grin. “They want General O’Neal turned over. Unharmed.”

“If only we knew where he was, I’d be glad to give him to them,” the Tir said, calmly. “Because Admiral Hartono is moving Second Fleet into orbital trajectories. He is about to bomb Heinlein Base back into a crater. That would take care of General O’Neal. It will be expensive but, I think, necessary.”

“Yes, about that, sir,” General Wesley said, clearing his throat. “You are aware that the majority of the in-system fighters are based on the moon? Our information indicates that the majority of the pilots of those fighters are included in the mutiny. There are over four hundred fighters, sir. That would be a difficult correlation of forces for the Admiral.”

“Those fighters are never going to leave the surface, General,” the Tir said, grinning toothily. “Trust me on that.”

* * *

“Okay, try it again.”

Paul Kilzer wasn’t the happiest guy in the world. He could have been about anywhere but up on the moon trying to hot-wire space fighters. He had a number of patents to his name and was, as well as anyone could be with the Darhel control of credit, reasonably well off. He could be on a beach in Maui.

But over the years, on again off again, he had had this… “thing” with Colonel Leblanc. Oh, sure, she’d kicked him in the balls once. Okay, over the ensuing decades more than once. But like a couple of variable stars in locked orbit, they just couldn’t seem to get away from each other. They’d blow up, rock back, wander around and then drift back together again. It was like hell, but fierier.

“This plan is doomed,” his Buckley intoned. Despite tweaking the software a thousand times, he just could not get that damned pessimistic function shut down. It was coded so deep in the AI that any time you had to use a Buckley at high function, it just popped up. “Would you like a list of ways that we’re all going to die? And I do mean horribly. Rapid decompression is a very bad way to die, even for a Buckley. We don’t take vacuum well.”

“Just see if the bypass keys you into the system,” Paul said.

“Oh, I’m in the system, genius,” the AI snapped. “I’m all over this stinking system. But that doesn’t mean I know how to fly this thing! I told you this would happen! But you didn’t listen, you never listen. No matter how many times I tell you it won’t work… ”

“And did you bring up the auto-configuration?” Paul asked, wearily.

“Just like the last time, dumbass,” the Buckley replied. “And I still can’t even get the fucking fusion engines online. Hellooo! I’ve only got so much processor space! I can’t be the only processor on this damned thing! I have no fucking clue how the AIDs do it. Not if they’re the sole processor. This thing wants me to control the engines and the navigational system and the flight-control system and the damned communications. Don’t even get me started on combat controls. I’ve just about got the processing for one of those. Dumbass.”

“How much more processing power do you need?” Kilzer asked.

“Well, more or less one of us for each of the major systems and a main one, that would be me, to control all the rest,” the Buckley replied. “Not that that would work, either, fucktard.”

“Why not?” Paul asked. Besides being pessimistic, his Buckley had become increasingly insulting lately. He wasn’t sure why.

“You ever tried to get multiple Buckleys to coordinate?” the device whined. “It’s worse than herding cats. We’re individuals, asshole, and we don’t just take freeking orders. But every freeking one of these damned systems requires an AI. So you’re going to need a shit-load of Buckleys and you’re going to have to get all of them to agree on what to do. And, personally, if you’re talking about sending me into battle you can blow that for a game of soldiers, retard. Some genius you are.”

“Damn,” Paul said, reaching into his trenchcoat. “Let me check my notes.”

* * *

“You said you could get it to work, Paul,” Glennis said.

The base was secure and so was the base weaponry. But everything was based on AIDs. Since they knew damned well they couldn’t trust the things, they had to get around them. And her resident genius was telling her that was impossible.

“And I was sure I would,” Paul said, grimacing. “But I had no clue how hard it was going to be. The only work-around that might work is a disaster. Have you ever heard nine Buckleys arguing about how to fly a space-fighter? The pilot was not amused, especially when the fighter started telling him how to fly. Then the fusion control got all sulky and the weapons started to warm up without orders… ”

“Paul, sensors show that about half of Second Fleet is headed this way,” Glennis said in what she thought was a reasonable tone. “And we’ve got defensive weaponry that won’t work without AIDs and fighters that won’t work without AIDs and you told me, the last time we were on vacation, that you could get around the AIDs.”

“Yeah, I know,” Paul said, dreamily. “You didn’t hit me for a week.”

“Well if I have to come down there, getting a nuke dropped on you from orbit is going to be the least of your worries,” Glennis snapped. “While I’ll miss having something convenient and painful to kick, you won’t like going through the rest of your short life without gonads! Figure it out!”

* * *

“General Wesley, incoming call from Colonel Paul.”

General Wesley looked at the system projection and grimaced. Every single Fleet Strike base except Ft. Fredericksburg was in rebellion. None of them had fallen as quickly and cleanly as Heinlein Base but all of them were on fire. In the case of the training base in South Dakota, literally.

He was fully expecting this message to be the confirmation that Titan Base had fallen. Which would mean another base wiped out by Fleet. At this rate Fleet Strike was going to cease to exist in a few days. At which point, given that he’d already spent everything including his honor keeping it alive, he might as well eat a pistol.

“Go, Elvin.”

“Sir,” his Chief of Staff said. “We… Sir, Daga Nine has fallen.”

General Wesley quickly tried to recall which base Daga Nine was then blinked rapidly.

“The Darhel core world?” he gasped. “To mutineers?”

“No, sir,” Colonel Paul said. “This is from a Fleet communique. An unknown force attacked by surprise. One courier managed to warp out. He reported that as of his system exit, all ground forces had been destroyed or surrendered and all the communications satellites were destroyed, some of them apparently from cloaked ships already in-system before the attack. The attack was two and a half months ago. We’re just getting the word.”

“Where the hell was First Fleet?” The “premier” unit of Fleet was, naturally, guarding the Darhel Core Worlds. Remarkably enough, it had mostly real ships and units unlike Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth.

“First Fleet forces in-system were chopped up, according to reports, by an attack from the planet side,” Colonel Paul said. “They apparently never stood a chance. The bits of reports we got indicated that whoever attacked destroyed them without taking a single loss and with much smaller ships. The real question is Third. Reports had just reached Daga Nine that it had been destroyed as well. Presumably by the same force.”

“Oh,” Wesley said, dropping his head into his hands. “Joy.”

* * *

“General, you must get your forces under control,” the Tir said. “This new race… Daga Nine was a core world. They threaten Gratoola! The capitol of the Confederation! This cannot be borne. You must defend… ”

“I must?” Wesley said, mildly. “I must? I must do what? We humans must save your sorry asses again? Where’s your God damned Fleet you put in your pocket and held like a souvenir? Half of First Fleet appears to be gone. All of Third. Fifth, who we will discuss in a moment, was apparently heading into the area after getting word there was a ruckus. But we haven’t heard from Admiral Suntoro, who we will also discuss in a moment, for, what? Three months? I somehow doubt that he is gallivanting around the galaxy whooping it up after DESTROYING MY FUCKING CORPS!”

“You will not speak to me in that tone, General,” the Tir said, dangerously.

“Or what?” Wesley snapped. “Or you’ll have Admiral Hartono drop a rock on me from orbit? Listen you chicken-shit weasel, you were the one that ordered the 11th destroyed and killed over twenty thousand of my troops! You were the one that ordered me to hang Michael O’Neal. You were the one that screwed up the Fleet to the point that half the ships on the books don’t really exist and the ones that are left absolutely suck! You fucking Darhel are the ones that have consistently screwed us humans to keep us under your thumbs and now you want us to pull your questionable rocks out of the fire again? Well SCREW YOU.”

“But this race,” the Darhel said in a tone of desperation. “It has taken not only colonies and Indowy worlds. It threatens the most important worlds in the Federation. It threatens Earth itself! Have you no care for the threat to humanity? To the damage this will do to the Galactic economy?”

“The only threat to humanity I see is you,” Wesley snapped, pointing his finger at the screen. “I see you, you alien prick! You extra-terrestrial monstrosity. You lawyerous, slanderous, villainous asshole! You want to point fingers, I’m pointing them right at you, you cancerous boil on the face of the Galaxy. After you’ve fucked the situation up beyond redemption, what in the FUCK do you expect ME to do about it? I can’t even control my own troops because of you, you, fucking YOU!”

“I see,” the Tir said, sitting back and interlacing his taloned fingers. “Then what must we do?”

“Well,” Wesley said, sighing, “first and foremost we have to find someone to lead this charade that the troops actually will trust. Sure as shit isn’t me. Go figure. I can only think of one guy. And right now, I don’t see him being amenable to reason. Even if we can find him.”

* * *

“So, Kyle,” Mike said. “Got a question for you.”

Mike had, over the last few days, determined that he had four handlers. Kyle, Sean, Pat and Roger. He assumed all of them were false names, but he was also polite enough to not ask. But there was something bothering him.

“Whatcha got, sir?” Kyle asked, laying down a four of hearts.

“Something’s been bugging the shit out of me,” Mike said, laying a jack of hearts on the four. Playing two handed spades sucked but it was the only game in town. “I could swear I’ve met you somewhere. Ditto the rest of the guys. I can tell you’re not rejuvs, so it wasn’t from that many decades ago. You’re, what, twenty-four?”

“Twenty-two,” Kyle said, laying a queen of hearts down. “Close, though.”

“My memory’s kinda full, but I’m pretty sure I’d remember a guy as big as you,” Mike said laying down an eight. “Only guy I can think of is dead. Big as you, same sort of build, black hair though. Same fucking eyes, too. But I’m pretty sure Tommy never had any kids and that would be… well that would be a hell of a coincidence.”

“Couldn’t say, sir,” Kyle said, laying down the five of spades.

“Interesting way of putting it, Kyle,” Mike said, dropping another jack.

“Rest of them are mine, sir,” Kyle said, laying down a handful of spades.

“Bastard,” Mike said, chuckling. He realized that was the first time he’d actually laughed in a long time. “You’re still a point behind.”

“Cards are turning my way,” Kyle said, shuffling. He looked up, though, as Sean entered the room. “You’re not on for a couple of hours.”

“There’s a situation,” Sean said.

“And he’s another one,” Mike said, looking at his other handler. “Swear to fucking God I’ve met you before. What is it?”

“Moonbase is in mutiny,” Sean said. “Mutineers have taken all the facilities. They’re apparently calling on Fleet Strike command to release the General unharmed.”

“Hell, if you guys hadn’t grabbed me I’d be dead already,” Mike said, frowning. “What do they think they’re going to accomplish? All the damned systems are keyed to the AIDs.”

“I guess they’re just generally pissed, sir,” Sean replied. “And there are ways around an AID. I don’t know if they know them, though.”

“You guys do, though, right?” Mike said.

“It’s not easy, sir,” Kyle replied. “Clean AIDs are hard to come by. And Buckleys aren’t the same.”

“Keep those things far away from me,” Mike said. “I know where the AI came from. And I refuse to have anything to do with the flaky bastard. Besides, I dropped a skyscraper on his head so he hates me. What’s the Bane Sidhe doing about it?”

“We don’t have a lot of resources on the moon,” Sean said. “I was just told that to tell you. Basically, we’d love to help. But unless we can get some assets from… elsewhere there’s not much we can do.”

“Can you get me in contact with them?” Mike asked.

“That’s why I’m here, sir.”

* * *

“General?” Colonel Leblanc said, blinking in surprise. “We just captured the Penal Facility and were less than pleased to find you weren’t there. According to the guards we interrogated, you’d escaped. Since I didn’t believe them I’m afraid some of them didn’t survive the interrogation.”

“Not going to get any sympathy from me,” Mike said, working his dip to the other side of his mouth. “They’re not, that is. And, yes, I’m alive.”

“With all due respect, sir, I’m not sure I can believe that,” the colonel said. “There are too many ways to spoof this system.”

“Agreed,” Mike said, grimacing. “What’s your status, in general?”

“Again, sir… ” the colonel replied. “Not sure I can give you any information, given that I’m not sure it’s you.”

“Well, I can’t exactly get to your location to verify my identity,” Mike said. “But I hope like hell you’ve got a plan to keep Fleet from bombing the hell out of you.”

“I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, sir,” Glennis said, smiling confidently. “You can believe I have that under control.”

“Good,” Mike said, nodding. “No more said. I’ve recently come into information about a group that may be able to assist you, though. Right now they’re having a hard time getting any support to you, but if Fleet holds off for a bit we may change that. Play for time, Colonel.”

“Yes, sir,” Leblanc said, frowning in puzzlement.

“Yes, I could be some Fleet officer telling you that,” Mike said, grinning. “So put that in your playbook. But if someone comes along offering you some support, consider it carefully.”

* * *

“It’s under interdiction!” Stewart said. “You have got to be kidding me!”

“Unless they get some clean AIDs they can’t use the fighters or the space cannons,” Cally said, reasonably. “Don’t tell me that you can’t smuggle one damned ship onto the moon. It’s right there!”

“There Is A Fleet Blockading It,” Stewart said slowly and distinctly. “No, I cannot get a fucking gnat onto the moon at present.”

“What about using one of the Fleet ships?” Cally asked.

“You think Fleet is just going to let one of their ships land?” Stewart said, grabbing his head in frustration. “Listen to me, Cally. Cannot Get A Ship Onto The Moon. Period. Is that clear enough for you?”

“What if it’s invisible?”

* * *

“There is insufficient time,” the mentat replied.

Michelle had given Cally a method to reestablish contact with whatever mentat had helped them before. Since she couldn’t find a Himmit, they never seemed to be around when you needed them, and Stewart was certain there was no way to get a ship to the moon, the mentat was the only remaining choice.

“That assumes I was willing to help,” the mentat continued. “This internal squabble is of no matter to the mentat. It will be resolved when the mutinous forces are reduced.”

“We’re talking about pretty much all there is left of Fleet Strike,” Cally said. “Doesn’t that matter?”

“Compared to what is occuring on Daga Nine?” the voice whispered over the radio. “No, it does not matter.”

“What’s happening on Daga Nine that’s so important?” Cally snapped. “We’re talking about thousands of lives!”

“The population of Daga Nine was seventeen billion as of the last census,” the mentat replied. “As of this morning, relative time, it had reduced by four point two percent with an error of plus or minus one point three percent. And the trend is accelerating.”

“What?”

* * *

“Report.”

General Etugul was a Kotha, one of the elite warriors of the Hedren Tyranny. Scion of an ancient family of generals, he was one of the Chosen, those sent to this new galaxy to bring the power and glory of the Hedren Archons to these new races.

Over seven feet tall, his blueish gray epidermis crossed with colormophs of honors, rank and family standing, the general stood upon eight dual-use tentacles. Any of them could be used as a secondary set of arms or for locomotion. Two additional tentacles were used for fine-motor skills. But any and all of the ten could wield a weapon in a pinch. Six eyes, two red and the other four purple, waved above a powerful beak. The beak was used only for eating and occasionally rending a foe limb from limb. The general spoke through two whistling jets mounted below his rapacious maw.

The Marro laid flat on its belly before him would, to a human, appear to be a massive snake or worm. Its body resembled that of a cobra but its skin was scale-less and disturbingly human looking and it had two tentacled ‘arms’ jutting from just below its massive head. The race fought for the Hedren Archons, occupying mostly line infantry positions. However, their premier position was masters of military intelligence and matters of science, for the Marro were always curious.

“The planet is occupied by four sentient species, Lord General,” the Marro hissed. “The great majority are the Indowy we have already encountered. However, they are much more numerous on this planet, numbering in the millions. In addition there were a small number of the Humans, who appear to be the only warriors. Our great crusade has brushed them aside with laughable ease as is to be expected of the slaves of the Hedren. The third race is a species of arthropods, the Tchpht. This is a species new to us. They do not appear to be a threat, occupying primarily scientific positions and, like the Indowy, presenting a total face of non-violence. The last is also new to us, the Darhel. These appear to be senior leaders of this political group. They, too, are non-violent or incapable of violence. They appear to have been genetically modified to be so.”

“Like these Posleen we have encountered on the previous worlds?” Etugul questioned.

“The Darhel modifications are very specific, Great Lord General,” the Marro said, carefully. “They appear to be a warrior race modified to be incapable of violence.”

“Utility?” Etugul asked, turning to his Chief of Domination.

“The utility of all of these races is so minimal, Lord,” the Glandri replied. Short, web-footed, crouching, but powerful and brutal, the quill covered Glandri were the Hedren’s best at breaking a race to the service of the Archons. The neuter worked its molar filled maw for a moment in frustration. “The Indowy methods of manufacture are capable of producing advanced materials but only with enormous being-hour input. And they are so numerous, they simply crowd out other races. The Darhel, unless remodified, may be of use as managers in time. But not in any combat role. The Tchpht are premier scientists but very difficult to manage. They do not seem to respond to either damage or death. The Indowy are the same. They accept death without any response and will not even change their practices when put to great pain. And they are so numerous that it will require some sort of industrial method to eliminate them. The most flexible are the Humans. We have put a few of them to work in minor tests. They respond in a reasonable fashion to pain and the threat of death. Some are more resistant than others, however… ”

“I understand,” the general said, clacking his beak. “If there is no utility to a race, there is but one option. Have you communicated this to the leaders of the Indowy and Tchpht?”

“I have been unable to determine anything resembling a leader among the Tchpht,” the Glandri admitted. “I have communicated this fact to the leaders of the Indowy. They still refuse normal service.”

“Then we must create that industrial process you described,” the Kotha, dismissing the entire race of the Indowy to oblivion.

“Great Lord,” the Marro said. “The Indowy have one key utility. Some of them are wielders of kratki.”

“Indeed?” Etugul said. “Has this fact been communicated to the Archons?”

“A report was sent to Imeg kratki masters,” the Marro replied. “Along with representative specimens. There is also an unconfirmed report that some humans are kratki wielders. None of the others seem to have the Gift.”

“We shall hold the termination of this pestiferous race pending reports from the Imeg,” Etugul said. “What of the Himmit?”

“There is no sign, Great Lord,” the Marro hissed. “They hide and flee as always.”

“The Himmit included warriors in their number,” the general pointed out in reproof. “That they fell was a tribute to the power of our Archons, not the failure of the Himmit. Make your spies especially watchful of the Himmit. So. These Posleen are modified warriors but recently defeated, scattered and reduced to chipping rock for weapons. The Darhel may learn to be managers under our Archons’ Tyranny but are otherwise useless, being neither makers nor warriors nor scientists. The Tchpht are scientists but intractable. Begin elimination of them. The Indowy are makers but inefficient ones. Unless they are determined useful for their katkri ability the Indowy need to be eliminated to make room for useful races. The only sure threat are these Humans, who thus far appear as nothing more than gree. On the other hand, they are also the most assimilable. All good news. Which means untrustworthy. Remain alert. There may be threats we have failed to detect. And the Himmit remain. Remember, the Archons judge us always. Eternal are the Archons. Eternal is Their reign.”

“Eternal are the Archons.”

* * *

What are these? Chan thought.

Unknown, Thomas replied. The reports that the Fleet is getting are almost incoherent. Ships appear out of nowhere and destroy fleets. The invaders seem to simply spring up out of the ground. Master Shenti says that in the case of Daga this appears to be literally true. He sensed a great power surge and then a huge army was on the surface of the planet. They overwelmed the few human defenders with ease then began rough interrogation of the Indowy, Tchpht and Darhel of the world. Master Shenti is now beyond my contact.

Dead? Michelle thought. Shenti was Thomas’ master. If anyone could contact him it would be Thomas, weak in sohon though he was.

I feel a faint essence, Thomas thought. But he is beyond contact. As if he is being blocked. And… do you feel that?

A powerful essence, Ermintrude replied. She was the finest of them at seeking out potential sohon among both human and Indowy, attuned to the faintest trace of the Gift. It is almost like the Aldenata. But not on Daga. Further.

Not yet, Rick thought. But they are coming. They must be coming from the galactic periphery. How did such a powerful polity spring up without note?

Not the periphery, Michelle thought. These must have come from beyond.

Invaders from another galaxy? Koko replied with a note of derision in her sending. Pull the other one, Chelle.

Where then, Koko? Michelle thought. Do you not sense that power? Would we or one of the Indowy sohons not have sensed it long before if it was anywhere in this portion of the galaxy?

Can they sense us? Minnie asked, a note of nervousness in her thought.

There was a moment of uncomfortable mental silence.

We must each contact our masters, Michelle thought. If this new polity uses sohon as a weapon

The Masters will never use sohon offensively, Thomas thought, definitely.

Agreed, Michelle thought. But its defense that wins championships. Oh, and we’re going to need troops. Thomas, if you would take care of that? We rather need Fleet and Fleet Strike as intact as possible. And let my sister and father know that I am on my way to Earth. The time for hiding seems to be over.

* * *

“The good news is that they think they know what they’re doing.”

Colonel Briana St. James was a boffin. She had spent most of her career in one headquarters or another, generally parked in a basement and pumped in sunlight. Because she was a boffin. Outside the military, she would be classed as a “nerd”, one of those bright people who, alas, seemed to have used so much of their brain power for intellect they didn’t have much left over for social skills. The military preferred “boffin”.

Briana’s uniform generally looked as if she’d slept in it and her hair… well, let’s just not go there. She didn’t know how to use make-up and could have used the class. A touch of powder would have muted the redness of her cheeks which skipped “rouge” and went right to “is that a skin disease?” She occasionally picked her nose in public. But in the end it really didn’t matter. Because there was not a human in the galaxy who was better at figuring out how to destroy ships from the ground.

“Explain,” Colonel Leblanc said, looking at the display. She’d had a class in this years ago but realized that the equipment had not just improved; it had changed completely. Maybe taking over as combat commander wasn’t the brightest idea.

“All they need to do is get a rock on us,” Briana replied, surreptitiously wiping something on the underside of the console. “So their job is really easy. My job is to keep them from getting a rock on us. Looks nearly impossible. But. While the KEWs are tough, they can be destroyed and or deflected if I’ve got the systems. The closer they are when they launch, the tougher my job. Less time for the computers to react, smaller pod for me to deflect to without damage. Their trajectories indicate a mid-point launch window. Technically, that means they will mostly stay out of our fire.”

“Which isn’t good,” Glennis said.

“I said ‘technically,’ ” Briana corrected. “I’ve got three grav-guns online already. In two and a half minutes I’ll fire. They will not be able to detect it. And since they are not maneuvering, they’re going to walk right into it. I should be able to get all three of the cruisers. They’ll panic fire and begin maneuvering. If they fire from that far out, I can interdict one hundred percent of their fire assuming I get four of the plasma cannons within the next hour.”

“You’re scaring them into holding back,” Glennis said.

“Oh, I intend to kill all of them,” Briana said, wrinkling her nose and sniffing. “Unless they run away. And even then I’ve got a few tricks they haven’t considered… ”

* * *

“Michelle is on her way to Earth,” the mentat said. “Unfortunately, this requires skip jumping — she is currently too far out to direct transfer. In the meantime, it is time to stop this battle around the moon. A meeting must be arranged between the parties. I will ensure they do not kill each other in the meantime. You and your father must attend the meeting. The current conditions make it imperative to bring some of the Bane Sidhe into the light.”

“Like that’s going to happen,” Cally said, looking at her phone in distaste. “We’re not going to get kissy face with the Darhel any time soon.”

“If you do not, the Earth will be conquered within the span of two years,” the mentat replied. “Your squabbles have just become petty in comparison.”

* * *

“Oh Christ,” Cally said, looking around the room. “You know what this means.”

“You were going to have to face it sooner or later,” Shari said. The woman had lost much of her happiness in the last two years. Something about losing a man you’d been married to for half a century did that.

“And you’re not the only one that has to come clean,” Tommy pointed out. “I think this should include all of us.”

“I’m not comfortable with the Darhel finding out about us,” Wendy said. “That’s… ”

“We’re not going to go totally white,” Cally said. “Tommy and I will go white, but that’s it. Some of the operatives. If the time comes… More. But for right now, just us. I have to, it’s the only way to get the point across. And I’m going to need Tommy to interact on the military side. Ready to put a uniform back on?”

“Actually sort of looking forward to it,” the former soldier said. “This skulking in shadows gets old fast.”

* * *

“And… firing,” Briana said. She didn’t push any buttons, the fire program was laid in.

“I didn’t feel anything,” Glennis said after a moment. The massive grav guns that protected the base should have sent a shudder through the ground.

“That’s because they didn’t fire,” Briana replied, calmly. She brought up a diagnostics program and frowned. “They should have. They’re showing up.”

“Paaaaaul!” Colonel Leblanc growled.

“Colonel Glennis Leblanc,” a voice said out of the air.

“I’m pretty sure that’s not God,” Glennis replied. “Whoever you are… ”

“My name is Thomas Coates. I am a human master of the discipline called Sohon. Your guns have been deactivated as have those of the Fleet ships attacking your base. It is imperative that no further hostile action be taken. There is a threat to humanity that requires all of our remaining forces to defend against. Contact your second-in-command and tell him you are going to a cease-fire meeting. You will be transferred to the location.”

“Like hell!” Glennis said. “Who in the hell do you think you are to… ”

“I am the person who just shut down every one of your space-defense weapons,” the voice said. “It is not all I can do. You are going to the meeting. It will be held at Fleet Strike headquarters on Earth. You have thirty minutes to prepare.”

“This is so totally bogus!” Briana said. “I was going to get to shoot up ships! I’ve been ready for this day for years! This is so totally bogus!”

“Yeah, well,” Glennis said. “Holier than thou just took on a whole new meaning.”

* * *

“The Fleet ships have been recalled,” Colonel Paul said. “Admiral Hartono is reported to be less than amused that none of his guns worked.”

“What in the hell are mentats doing interfering in this?” General Wesley said, shaking his head. “They normally stay out of politics.”

“I guess we’ll find out at the meeting,” Colonel Paul replied. “So far, all we know is that it’s being held here. I’ll get one of the conference rooms ready, but I don’t even know how many people are going to be at it.”

“Hopefully we’ll get some prior warning,” Wesley said. “But keep an eye out for shuttles. And keep Fleet and the mutineers as far apart as possible.”

“Sir, I intend to keep you and the mutineers as far apart as possible.”

“I wonder how many other people are getting the surprise of their life today?”

* * *

“I would rather die a thousand deaths,” Cally muttered, looking at the door of the cottage.

“But now you must go,” Tommy said, fiddling with his windbreaker. “So, we take a deep breath and… ”

“Are you coming in or what?” Jason asked, pulling open the door. “Your Dad’s wondering what all the fuss is about.”

“Dad?” a voice said from deeper in the room. “Is Michelle here?”

“No,” Cally said, stepping around the former DAG member. “Not Michelle.”

* * *

Mike looked at the woman in puzzlement. He’d remember a look like that, he was sure. Long legs, blonde hair, really startlingly nice chest. She was a looker but nobody he’d ever met before.

The guy behind her, though.

“Shit,” Mike said, walking past the woman and holding out his hand. “You know, with all the cloak and dagger shit going on around me, not to mention Kyle here, I was starting to wonder. God damn, Tommy, it’s nice to see you’re alive. When I heard you died… Well, it was like losing Cally all over again. I fucking cried a God-damned river.”

“Sorry about that, Boss,” Tommy said, shaking his hand.

Mike grabbed the former soldier in a bear hug, trying not to tear up.

“I just wish some of the old guys were here to see this,” Mike said. “I heard Stewart died in a shuttle accident.”

“Actually,” the woman said from behind him. “He’s your son-in-law. And still very much alive.”

“He married Michelle?” Mike asked, turning around. “Since when?”

“No, Dad, he married me. And, by the way, you’ve got some grandkids. I know I’ve changed, it’s a long story, but… ”

“Cally?” Mike asked, quietly, holding his hand out to touch her hair. “Is it really you? Is Dad… ?”

“Well, he was until about five years ago,” Cally said, brushing the hand away.

“What happened to him?” Mike was confused by the anger he saw in his daughter’s eyes. It was clearly directed at him.

“You shot him.”

* * *

“I think I’ve got this all straight, now,” Mike said, taking a sip of pretty adequate moonshine. “You and Dad weren’t killed by the nukes. You got saved by these Bane Sidhe guys and you’ve been an assassin for the last fifty years.”

“And thief,” Cally said. “Don’t forget thief.”

“Not knocking it,” Mike said. “And the mission five years back when we were trying to capture some rebels, that was you?”

“We really pissed the Darhel off taking down the Epetar clan and they came down on the Bane Sidhe like a hammer,” Tommy supplied. “That was after the split but our faction covered them so they could get away.”

“Your guys killed more than Papa,” Cally said, tightly. “We lost a bunch of good people that day. Quite a few of them kin. Your troops killed some of your own… cousins? Nephews? It gets kind of confusing.”

“And this guy is Tommy’s son,” Mike said, gesturing at ‘Kyle’ whose real name appeared to be Jason.

“Grandson,” Jason corrected. “And you’re… I’m trying to figure out if I’m an uncle or cousin or what. My grandmother is your sister.”

“I don’t have a sister,” Mike said.

“Half sister,” Cally corrected. “Mama Kline. Your dad’s daughter by Shari. Who you’ll probably meet some time. She’s still trying to figure out if she’s supposed to love you for being her step-son, sort of, or hate you for killing Papa.”

“I’m trying to figure out if I’m supposed to hate myself for killing him,” Mike said, working his jaw. “I hardly saw him growing up, I don’t know he’s alive for fifty years then you guys tell me I killed him. I remember the sniper. I can believe it was him, it explains why the guy didn’t take the shot. But… Damnit!”

“It’s a screwed up world we live in,” Cally said, working her own jaw.

“One you’ve been trying to unscrew,” Mike said. “While I’ve been wasting time killing Posleen. You could have recruited me!”

“That actually never crossed our minds,” Cally said after a pause. “I have no clue why, but it never crossed our minds.”

“You were doing good work where you were,” Tommy said. “I talked with Papa one time about it. He felt you had a career, why drag you into all this crap?”

“I was killing Posleen because it was the only thing I had left, Tom,” Mike said. “If I’d known… God, Cally, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s… ” Cally stopped and shook her head, trying not to cry. “I was going to say it’s okay. But it’s not. I don’t know if it will ever be okay. But I forgive you, okay? I mean, emotionally, I’m having a hard time with it. But I know you couldn’t know. Hell, as I said, your guys were just doing their jobs. They didn’t know, you didn’t know, who you were fighting. And, hell, it was… ”

“I remember,” Mike said. “It was a very strange battle.”

“It was a good day to die,” Tommy said. “I never understood that saying until that day.”

“We also didn’t ask questions,” Mike said. “We should have asked more questions.”

“You ask questions and actually find answers… ” Tommy said and shrugged.

“Ackia,” Mike said, closing his eyes.

“I don’t get the reference,” Cally said.

“The name of R-1496 Delta in the local language,” Mike said.

“Got it,” Cally said, nodding. “If I haven’t said it, Dad, I’m sorry about that, too. When we found out it was too late to do anything. Even if we could have.”

“Well, thank you for rescuing my sorry ass,” Mike said, shaking his head. “You took a risk on that and I appreciate it.”

“We… couldn’t have if you hadn’t had real value,” Cally said, her eyes dark.

“Would you have tried?” Mike asked.

“Honestly, I don’t know,” Cally said. “Save the Corps? Oh hell yeah. Try to snatch you out of Fleet Central? Without the help we got?”

“After I’d killed Papa,” Mike said, nodding. “Not sure I’d want that dilemna.”

“No real dilemna,” Cally said. “I thought about it just now and it stopped being one. ‘What Would Papa Do?’ Figure out a way to get you out.”

“Thank you,” Mike said. “Surprisingly enough, you’re not the only person who’s thought that over the years. Less lately, admittedly. Papa was never a large-force commander,” Mike added with a sad smile.

“Wouldn’t have wanted to be,” Tommy said. “Getting paperwork out of him was worse than Colonel Cutprice.”

“So, I’m under the impression this wasn’t a purely social call,” Mike said. “I hope you’d have eventually forgiven me enough to tell me you were alive, but… ”

“Not a social call at all,” Cally said. “There’s a meet going on, soon, between the mutineers on the moon, Fleet and some other factions. You and I and Tommy have to attend.”

“Like that’s going to happen,” Mike said. “Given the situation, I’ll put myself in Fleet Strike’s hands?”

“There’s a new invasion,” Tommy said. “Unknown race. It’s already struck deep into the Federation. The Darhel are freaking out and for some reason so are the mentats. It’s Michelle and her faction that’s arranged the meet. They’re guaranteeing everyone’s safety. Yours, ours, the mutineers. The Darhel’s, for that matter, since they’re open season after the attack on the Corps.”

“They were the ones that helped spring you,” Cally said. “The same mentat we’re dealing with for this meet.”

“Well, I hope I can trust an ally of my daughter,” Mike said, shaking his head. “Who’s going to be at the meeting?”

“Oh, you’re going to love the guest list.”

* * *

Fortunately, it was a big conference table. And the introductions took some time.

“My name, as some of you know, is Mentat Thomas Coates,” Thomas said. He was standing at the head of the table and began the introductions. “General Tam Wesley, Fleet Strike Chief of Staff for Operations. Tir Dal Ron, the Darhel Cooperative liaison for Human Affairs. Indowy Aelool, Clan Leader of the Creen Indowy clan and senior member of the Bane Sidhe. Colonel Glennis Leblanc, Commander Fleet Strike mutinous faction. Admiral Krim Hartono, Second Fleet Commander. Cally O’Neal, commander O’Neal faction of the Bane Sidhe. Lieutenant General Michael O’Neal, Fleet Strike.”

Fleet Strike headquarters was on land that had formerly been the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Early in the Posleen War some of the ravaging Posleen hordes had jumped the gun on the attack on Earth and gotten in an early lick. The Posleen did not, by and large, investigate their targets before landing. They simply warped in and landed on the most convenient spot. By simple function of orbital mechanics, that tended to be eastern shores.

In the case of this attack, the main Posleen force that hit the US, over four million of the centaurs, had landed around the town of Fredericksburg. In an unbreakable circle. Then most of them attacked inward.

Despite heroic defenses by the Engineering company based in the town and local militias, it had inevitably fallen. The Posleen, however, considered it a hollow victory. Not only had they taken horrific casualties for such a minor mopping up operation, the defenders had set of a fuel-air explosion as their last measure of defiance and gutted the invading force.

A few survivors had been found in an underground hiding places, but the population of the town had been virtually wiped out.

After the Siege was broken and the town retaken, Fleet Strike had built first its primary training center, then its headquarters, on the site of Fredericksburg. Fredericksburg had become, like the Alamo before it, a legend of courage and resistance to the absolute bitter end. Fleet Strike headquarters was its ultimate memorial.

The main headquarters was on Maryes Heights, the former site of Mary Washington College. Across the Rappahannock River was Strike Training Base Fort Fredericksburg. Barracks, rec facilities, motorpools and landing zones stretched for miles around the twin buildings. The main town had been partially rebuilt to last known designs of the buildings. The sole exception was the building which had been used for the fuel-air bomb where a memorial now stood. A scale model replica had been contemplated then rejected on the basis that it was a very ugly building, anyway.

Mostly underground, the upper floors of the Headquarters was a detailed reproduction of Kensington House, the former home of part of the Washington family. The meeting was taking place in what had once been the main ballroom, now recreated with the famous worked plaster ceiling and golden silk-covered walls. Spring light streamed in the floor-to-ceiling windows to illuminate the gathering. It wasn’t illuminating many happy faces.

“I wish to open by formally protesting the outrageous interference in a just quelling of a mutinous faction by the sohon mentats,” Admiral Hartono said as soon as Thomas closed his mouth. “And by referring to a legally convicted criminal by his rank!”

“My job is usually to kill people like you,” Cally said, smoothly. “And the next time I hear any shit out of you, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”

“There will be no violence in these proceedings,” Thomas said. “And, Admiral, another outburst such as that will result in your being silenced throughout the rest of the proceedings.”

“I protest the nature of this… ” the admiral’s face suddenly turned red as his mouth continued to open and close silently. He waved his arms angrily but not a sound came out of his mouth.

“This is the nature of our current situation,” Thomas said, waving a hand and bringing up a picture of the local arm of the galaxy. There didn’t seem to be any holographic projector involved. “A group of unknown invaders has entered Federation space… ” He stopped at a tap on the door. “Enter!”

“General,” the Fleet Strike sergeant manning the door said, looking nervous. “There’s a Himmit ship on the landing pad. They’ve sent a request for safe conduct to this meeting. Say that they have information we need.”

“Mentat Coates?” General Wesley said, raising an eyebrow.

“Bring him in,” Thomas said, closing his eyes for a moment. “Only the representative. Tell his companions they need to remain outside. And they can’t hide from me.”

* * *

Mike had seen quite a few Himmit in his time. The purple frog-like beings all looked pretty much the same, though, once they revealed themselves. Well, until he met this one.

Usually Himmit walked on four legs, any of which could be used as hands. They were bilaterally symmetric with four eyes and two “arm/legs” pointed in opposite directions. Their rather large mouth was on their underside. Their skin could assume any background but when they became fully visible they were, invariably, purple.

This Himmit, though, was a biped. Somewhat smaller than normal, its skin was the mottled green of a bullfrog. Instead of having eyes on its back, it had them up front mounted on its shoulders. Still four of them, though, two to either side, the inner ones slightly lower than the outer. The still large mouth was mounted just below where in a human would be a chest, making him look even more scary than normal. And it wasn’t an “it.” There were definite genitally.

“I am Himmit Rigas,” the Himmit said, sitting down in a chair that had been hastily brought from an adjoining conference room. “I have met humans many times before but only as a Scout. My current position is a higher rank, thus the change in my appearance. Cally O’Neal, I greet you warmly.”

“Rigas,” Cally said, smiling and nodding. “Nice new skin.”

“Alas, it is not conformal,” Rigas said. “But in my new position that is unnecessary. Like many others we Himmit are becoming less… hidden.”

“We have never met anything other than a Himmit Scout,” the Tir Dal Ron said, his teeth working. “I was unaware there was a higher rank.”

“You may feel free to take offense, Darhel,” the Himmit said, not swiveling so much as an eye in the Tir’s direction. “As long as you do not do your normal job of interfering in the proceedings. Be aware that we Himmit probably know more of your affairs than you do. It would be unwise to cross me.”

“Each of us represents a separate power in this polity,” Thomas said. “I would suggest that we concentrate upon this new threat rather than past differences.”

“Then you clearly do not understand humans or Darhel, Mentat Coates,” the Himmit said with a hiss that might have been a chuckle. “But the present problem is formidable. Arguably more formidable than the Posleen if… different. I have information that is unavailable even to you, Mentat Coates. If I may tell a story.”

“Right, somebody get me a beer,” Mike said, leaning back. “A Himmit’s about to talk.”

“I will be brief, General,” Rigas said, standing up and walking to the galactic display. “In this region a group called the Hedren Tyranny has encountered the Confederation. The Hedren Tyranny is composed of seven races each bringing a specific utility to the Tyranny. The leaders are the Hedren themselves, who are high-level users of the ability the Indowy call sohon. However, they do not use it for manufacture but for war and control of their subject races. The next highest race in the Tyranny are the Imeg, also users of sohon. Some of the Imeg act in lesser capacities but their leadership are all users of sohon. The Himmit have a hard time judging relative ability, but the Imeg are probably the equal of the highest Indowy masters. The Hedren are more powerful.”

“That really sucks,” Mike said, shaking his head. “If I get the info right, Thomas alone shut down all the weapons in the Second Fleet and on the moon. Presumably from Earth. And as far as I know, none of the Confederation sohon use violence.”

“The Indowy are more or less incapable,” Thomas said. “Human mentats are not so limited.”

“That must thrill the hell out of the Indowy,” Colonel Leblanc said.

“It has been a subject of discussion for some decades now,” Thomas admitted. “Please continue, Himmit Rigas.”

“The Hedren use phased dimensional warp technology for interstellar ship movement,” Rigas said. “But this is not their primary method of conquest. They primarily jump their invasion forces from planet to planet through a mass-based wormhole technology. Thus they can, effectively, teleport from one mass to another across interstellar space.”

“Interesting,” Thomas said. “I can see the theory, but the implementation… ”

“I’m glad you can see the theory,” Mike said, spitting into a cup and pulling out a can of Skoal. “It sounds like magic to me.” He began to tap it down thoughtfully.

“We Himmit do not have the ability nor understand it,” Rigas admitted. “But we know that it requires enormous energy. Once that energy is expended, however, the mass that is transferred is inconsequential. We assume that the Hedren have something to do with it, but that is an assumption.”

“Yes, the energy budget would be large,” Thomas said. “Be aware that I am in contact with other mentats, human and Indowy. Others will explore this ability.”

“The functional effect is that the Hedren attack by porting in a vast quantity of war-making forces in one jump,” Rigas said. “A force functionally equivalent to a Fleet Strike Corps or even Army with supports to include local defense ships and material supplies for fifty days of combat. Generally, they will infiltrate a system with stealthed warp-ships as well. These destroy things like communication satellites and critical space installations then guard the ley-line tranfer points to prevent reinforcement and to cover follow-on forces. The other ships jump up off the planet to support ground forces and any mop-up that remains in space. It is possible, obviously, to jump more than one group. However, the power requirements are as I said vast and it is generally some time, up to an Earth month, before there is another attack.”

“Weapons and TOE?” General Wesley asked.

“Many and varied,” Rigas said. “Infantry is primarily armed with plasma rifles. They are generally transported by anti-grav capable armored fighting vehicles. There are, in addition, tanks better than a SheVa, which the Federation is out of as of the action on R-1496 Delta. Close support aircraft are similar to the Banshee shuttle but a bit better armored and faster. They also have plasma artillery with ranges of over a hundred kilometers. They use a method of battle similar to that once termed ‘air-land battle’, using their strike aircraft and mobility for deep strike and getting inside their enemy’s reaction cycle.

“The most critical part is that all of their systems use a reactive camouflage system similar to that of ours, that is the Himmits. If you don’t have the right vision systems, they will be quite invisible except for effects. Their ships are, also, cloaked. And shielded well enough that all but the most powerful current weapons are useless against them. Not that any of the Fleet units that encountered them could even get a lock.”

“I take it you know the true status of our forces,” General Wesley said, tonelessly.

“Oh, yes, all the Fleet units that encountered them, by intent or accidentally, have been destroyed,” Himmit Rigas said. “Third, Fifth and First Fleet have effectively ceased to exist. Hedren task forces have been hunting down any that were not in their direct path. There are a few ships that fled that are still functional. We can send messages to them if you wish. But, really, your ships are completely wrong for this battle and, except to a certain extent, pointless. The nature of the Hedren have always been that you have to stop them on the ground. It would have been nice if the Darhel hadn’t destroyed 11th Corps. A corps of ACS is about the right unit to fight the Hedren.”

“Pity someone didn’t prevent that!” Cally snapped.

“We found ourselves in a difficult position,” Rigas said. “Preventing it would have required that we reveal resources we still wish to hide. We do not have all of this information from our current reconnaissance of the Hedren. We have fought them before. Frankly, the less they know of our presence in this galaxy the happier we will be. We will give you all the information support we can, but we will not engage the Hedren directly. Stopping them is up to you.”

“Just to explore the possibilities,” Colonel Leblanc. “How bad is it under the Hedren Tyranny. Because I’m not real thrilled about being under the thumb of the Darhel. If it’s just a matter of switching masters… ?”

“Quite bad,” Himmit Rigas said. “The Tyranny is a very autocratic society. The Imeg maintain a thought-police that seeks anyone who does not accept the Hedren Archons as gods. Living conditions for the majority of the Tyranny are bare subsistence level. They do not eat their enemies as the Posleen tend to, but any race they deem ‘lacking utility’ is destroyed utterly as a waste of resources. Anyone not being productive to the Tyranny and totally in support of the Tyranny is equally destroyed. The Indowy have already been determined to be ‘lacking utility’ and the Hedren are destroying them on all their conquered worlds. Equally the Tchpht. Darhel are still being classified. Himmit they will kill out of hand. Posleen have also been put on their useless list due to the difficulty with distinguishing between God-kings and normals. Humans… Well humans can be slaves as has been proven repeatedly in Human history. Imagine the most repressive and autocratic dictatorship in human history. Now add a theocracy and ‘priests’ that can read your mind and send to death camps any who do not worship the Archons.”

“Okay,” Glennis said. “Glad we covered that. Now how exactly do we kill these motherfuckers?”

* * *

“Colonel Leblanc,” Mike said, nodding. “Nice to see you again.”

The meeting had adjourned. Everyone had to have time to absorb the information the Himmit had provided. Whereas before they had thought they had a serious situation on their hands, now they knew how bad it was. And it was pretty awful. With Fleet Strike gutted, there was really no effective force to fight the Hedren. And with their planet jumping ability, even pinning them down would be hard. Then there was the whole “invisible” thing.

“So it really was you?” Glennis asked.

“Yes, but you were wise to be cautious,” Mike said.

“We’re all wise to be cautious,” Glennis said. “This situation is totally fucked. I can’t believe you’re just sitting at a table with Wesley.”

“I’m a big guy,” Mike said. “Very forgiving. And as soon as Thomas is gone, I intend to kick his ass.”

“I’ll hold his arms,” Glennis replied, chuckling. “But this is a really fucked up situation.”

“What’s the most fucked up about it is that I can’t, really, kick his ass,” Mike said. “Don’t tell me every guy on the moon was on your side.”

“No,” Glennis admitted, her eyes dark. “We got into some firefights. Guys who believe the chain of command was right, no matter what. Given the situation, those bug the shit out of me.”

“So you realize we’re not going to be able to take Fleet Strike apart like a chicken,” Mike said. “That we’re all going to have to play like one big jolly family.”

“And we can’t call open season on the Darhel,” Cally said, walking up. “Which pisses me off. Much as I occasionally enjoyed killing a human traitor, the real fun is killing Darhel. Mind if I join in?”

“Not a bit,” Mike said, nodding at his daughter. It bugged him that he still couldn’t put the remarkably pretty woman beside him in that mental pigeonhole. The last time he’d seen his daughter she was fourteen and looked completely different. Totally different given that this was a full body modification including face. “You see that, right?”

“The Darhel have their fingers in every pie,” Cally said, nodding. “We can’t take the galactic economy apart and fight a war for survival. But we also can’t let them fuck us like they did the last time. I doubt you know the half of it.”

“I don’t,” Mike said. “But I suspect the Himmit do and obviously the Darhel know all of it. One thing I picked up on Ackia was that they were in contact with the Posleen long before the invasion.”

“That’s a fun one,” Cally said, her eyes widening. “You sure?”

“Sure as hell,” Mike said. “I mean the Nor might have been lying to me but there wasn’t a reason I could tell. And they had what looked like really old pictures of the Posleen.”

“Then the Indowy know about it,” Cally said, angrily. “And they still didn’t tell us that bit. Damnit.”

“We’re going to have to get some cards on the table,” Mike said, nodding at her. “Including some stuff you have. Like that slab you were talking about. We’re going to need those. Anybody we can recover we’re going to have to do so. And those are, clearly, faster and less dangerous than the regen tanks.”

“Aelool may have something on that,” Cally said. “Last I heard, they were all lost when we snatched the Pragmatists out from under your nose. Destroyed, or so I was told. God knows I want access to one. I hate this fricking body.”

“The mentats are another subject,” Mike said, looking into the distance. “Okay, so the enemy has some sort of magic ability. Presumably, and it’s a major presumption but it had better be right, even if the mentats can’t or won’t use the same powers for offense, they can at least protect us from them. Maybe even shield against one of these wormhole attacks. But they’re not soldiers; they don’t understand the mind-set and the methods, how tactics drive strategy and vice versa. And integrating them into the command structure will be… interesting. They consider themselves… ”

“Different but not better,” Thomas projected. “Mind if I come over?”

“Since you were listening,” Mike said, looking over his shoulder. The mentat was on the other side of the room.

“I’ve been monitoring several of the conversations,” Thomas said. “Pardon me if you find this intrusive.”

“You have no idea,” Mike said. “For one thing, at some point you guys have to think about ‘what if one of us is captured.’ How much information you have matters. For that matter, if you can, apparently, do telepathy across interstellar distances, can the enemy read your mind over the same? If so, they can get every plan from you. Can they read ours? We’ve got a billion new problems created by this sohon thing and without the commanders fully comprehending its strengths and weaknesses, we’re not going to be able to make informed decisions. Which means battles and even wars lost. Can you come entirely clean on your abilities? I don’t want them, I just want to use them and know how much of a threat the enemy is. Capiche?”

“All interesting questions, some of which we have the answer to and some we don’t,” Thomas said as he joined the group. “We cannot ‘read minds.’ I’m unsure if the enemy can or not. If they can, we can learn the method. Technically, I suppose we could read minds if we’d ever explored that ability. We have not because it is an intrusion we do not choose to make. Perhaps we’re going to have to choose to do some things we would prefer not to.”

“Heh,” Mike said, grimacing. “That’s the motto of the soldier: We do things we really wish we didn’t have to. Welcome to the wonderful world of combat. You do what you have to to survive. So that your society will survive. If you’re not willing to fight for your society, then it’s going to perish when someone else doesn’t like it. Period fucking dot. You think the mentats can get their heads around that?”

“The humans, yes,” Thomas said. “But there are only seven of us at the highest level of sohon. Another hundred or so that may be of use in defense. However, there are nearly a thousand Indowy at our level. Those, too, can be used in defense. But.”

“Let me guess,” Cally said. “They’re also the most advanced at building things. So… No sohons building stuff, no… ?”

“No ACS,” Thomas said. “That is certain. Not of the same level. None of the most advanced grav weapons such as the ACS grav-rifles or the sort of cannons mounted on the moon and previously mounted in PDBs. None of the most advanced armored materials. And overall production slowed by a noticeable fraction.”

“That’s unacceptable,” Mike said. “And that’s one of the first things we’re going to have to get straight. Things are going to have to change.”

* * *

“I welcome you all once again,” Thomas said, nodding as everyone resumed their seats. “I cede the floor to Michael O’Neal.”

“Item the First,” Mike said, walking to the head of the table. “Tam, what the fuck did you think you were doing throwing me to the wolves?”

“It was that or lose Fleet Strike,” Tam said, shrugging. “Functionally, at least. Replacement of senior officers who were more… tractable to the Darhel. Fucked up as it was, we still weren’t as fucked up as the Fleet. If I had to sacrifice you, or me, to do that I was willing to do it. I had hoped that the story about you destroying your corps would keep a lid on things, muddy the waters enough that we wouldn’t have the reaction we did. Didn’t work.”

“So you just let the Darhel wipe out a corps?” Colonel Leblanc asked, her jaw working. “You fucking bastard!”

“I didn’t know about that until after it happened,” General Wesley said, looking at the far wall. “If I had been faced with that choice… Well, any Darhel making that suggestion would have been a blue splatter on the wall.”

“More or less what I figured was going on,” Mike said, nodding. “Once I had time to think about it. But you realize that you’re now so tainted you’re nearly useless, right?”

“I intend to submit my resignation,” the general said. “I’m hoping that I can reenlist as a private if given the opportunity. You may all think I lost every bit of honor I’ve got. Got that. Even agree with it. But I still want to fight.”

“Quit being a martyr,” Mike said. “We don’t have time for it. You’re staying right where you are.”

“And you make this decision?” the Tir asked, gritting his shark-like teeth.

“Yeah, Tir, I make this decision,” Mike said. “With the cock-up you’ve created that is pretty obvious. General Cordell has been spinning his wheels for years and with the current situation, he’s out. We both know it. There’s only one guy the troops are going to trust to watch their back and that’s me. Are we in agreement?”

“If the Tir is unable to agree to that statement he is more of a fool than he appears,” Aelool said, making the Indowy grimace that equated to laughter.

“It is agreed,” the Tir said, gritting his teeth again. “You are commander of Fleet Strike.”

“Bit more than that,” Mike said. “That’s going to be my title but not my total function. For the time being, Fleet Strike is going to be the tail that wags. I need forces that can fight and that’s my first job. But I also need a Fleet that can cover my back and support me on call every time, no fucking questions asked. Which is the dog I’m going to wag. One of them.”

“For now,” the Tir said.

“Bullshit,” Mike said. “Because now everyone knows that you’ve got your claws in the rest of the Strike officers. Only officers I recommend are going to be trusted. You created this mess, this is your penance for it: Mike O’Neal calling the shots. Get that through your pointed head. Your decision making days are over. These are ‘take order’ days. If you cannot grasp that, then I will formally request that Thomas lift the ‘no violence’ ban, wait until my daughter is done with you and request a replacement. Comments?”

“What is your point?” the Tir asked.

“During the Posleen War you guys fucked with us constantly,” Mike said. “I don’t know exactly why, I don’t really care. All I care about is that you don’t do it anymore. You need us like you’ve never needed us, even with the Posleen. The Posleen moved slow. These guys are moving like lightning. We don’t have time for fuck around. And we don’t have to take it anymore. Because the Himmit are going to make sure you’re playing square. Aren’t you, Rigas?”

“That is an acceptable task,” Rigas said. “One ability I will reveal is that the AID net is anything but closed to us. Every communication the Darhel have made, that they think secret, is known to us. And virtually every communication that is non-electronic. I am authorized to give you support in, as you said it, making them ‘play fair.’ ”

“Tell whoever your boss is ‘thanks,’ ” Mike said, nodding. “And you’re going to start playing to the Human’s tone, not the other way around. Because right now I don’t see us winning this thing. The only way we’re going to is if everyone gets behind the wheel and pushes. Crabs, Darhel, Indowy and Human.”

“We have… obligations,” the Darhel said, nervously. The revelations of the Himmit had clearly shaken him.

“Yeah, including to me personally,” Mike said. “Ones you’re not fulfilling. We’ll hold that one in abeyance, but it’s only temporary. I’m going to order an audit as soon as it seems feasible. Something about perpetually owing me GNP from multiple planets. That sort of shit has to stop. I don’t care how you do it, it has to stop. If you need somebody killed, see Cally. She’ll be happy to assist.”

“Starting with you,” Cally said, buffing her nails and not looking up.

“Tam, I take it you’ve already expunged that goat-fuck you called a court-martial,” Mike said.

“Can’t, actually,” the General said. “Colonel Leblanc is in posession of the relevant documents.”

“Brought them along,” Glennis said, smiling ferally.

“We’ll finish up the paperwork later,” Tam said. “Take it from this seat; the… loyalist faction considers you the only choice for commander of Fleet Strike.”

“Oh, it’s a hell of a lot more than that,” Mike said, looking over at Admiral Hartono, who was still sitting mute. “Fleet’s so fucked up we might as well scrap it. We’re going to be hard put finding decent officers but I’m sure there are some. All the current commanders are going to be remanded to the Fleet Penal Facility, pending a full audit of their finances.”

“I’m not sure I can permit that,” Thomas said. “I gave assurances that they were to be given the same safe-conduct as the rest of the parties in this meeting.”

“Great,” Mike said. “As soon as the meeting’s over, I’ll have my personnel handle it. The Tir will shut down the ships to be boarded.”

“Done,” the Tir said, grinding his teeth.

“And you’re in charge of the investigation,” Mike said.

“What?” Cally snapped.

“Who better to know where the bodies are buried than the grave digger, daughter-of-mine?” Mike said, grinning at her. “I mean, it’s not really an investigation, just a matter of punching the right buttons. But, Tir, I want the data to be solid. No fucking around with it. I’m sure there’s enough real dirt you won’t have to. And I want a list of officers that aren’t dirty. They may not be competent but it’s a starting point.”

“They are all quite junior,” the Tir said. “We ensured that.”

“They’ll have to learn fast. Since the most advanced Indowy materials aren’t available anyway, that means the Indowy need to change,” Mike said, looking at Aelool.

“That will be hard to effect,” the Bane Sidhe admitted. “And although I am a clan leader, I am a very junior one. The great clans will not even notice me.”

“They’ll notice the Tir, though,” Mike said, looking at the Darhel. “There is this thing called ‘mass production.’ The Indowy seem to have never heard of it.”

“The economic ramifications… ” Tir Dal Ron said, grinding his teeth.

“Don’t matter,” Mike said. “Wiped out. Keep that in mind. Destroyed. Enslaved. You: Whining. Me: Not listening. Posleen forges can make everything except ACS armor. Yet there are hardly any in production. We both know why. That is changing. Right. Damned. Now.”

“They’re actually quite hard to convert,” Thomas said. “They require… ”

“An advanced mentat or a God-king,” Aelool said. “Get a God-king and you can get as many forges running as you’d like. Keyed to accept input from humans, Indowy or even AIDs.”

“And don’t tell me the Indowy can’t make more or something similar,” Mike said.

“No,” Thomas said. “Making something similar is actually quite easy. It requires, at best, a fourth level sohon, not a seventh.”

“So we should, within no more than a year, have more industrial capacity than we can possibly use,” Mike said, looking at the Tir. “Because we don’t have any soldiers left! Don’t think I’ve forgotten watching my corps wiped out you miserable pissant. And the one thing I would require in the way of retribution is Admiral Suronto’s head on a pike. Fortunately for everyone, he’s already dead. Rigas?”

“Very,” the Himmit said. “I can get recordings.”

“Please do,” Mike said. “I want to watch them over and over again. But right now we’re already down to nearly nothing. Tam, forces?”

“Just what’s here in the system and a scattering in others,” the general said. “Which means, effectively, support troops.”

“SheVas?”

“Zero. Lost them all on R-1496 Delta and none in the works.”

“And that’s squarely on my plate, but it was a battle, not a massacre. ACS?”

“Maybe a dozen suits left here and there,” the general said. “Mostly in the training detachment. We even deactivated the local unit three years ago. They were all transferred to the 11th Corps.”

“Consolidation divisions?”

“Three,” Tam said. “Scattered to hell and gone, mostly in the reclamation zone which is in the opposite direction from the threat. Year or two to get them in-gathered if we’ve got the ships. And they’re not exactly what I’d call first line forces, anyway.”

“Legion?”

“I’ve got some couriers out looking for it. It’s out in the Blight, too, but it’s at least in one group. Basically, there’s not a damned thing available between here and the enemy force. Really nothing between them and Gratoola. Well, there is a force of light armor and the fighters on the Moon. And the Fleet, for what good it will do us. In case you’re not aware, it’s mostly on paper. The Admirals have been skimming the budget on the rest. Well, the Admirals and the Darhel.”

“Point one in your investigation, Tir,” Mike said. “I believe that translates as Clerk. Well, I’m going to clerk the hell out of you. Get used to it.”

“We will talk,” the Tir said.

“Maybe in a couple of decades,” Mike said. “If any of us survive. You’re going to be too busy in the meantime. And by that time my appeal to the Aldenata will be reviewed.”

“It has to be forwarded,” the Tir growled. “Such appeals cannot come even from human sohon. They must be made by a clan… ”

“Leader,” Aelool said, raising his hand. “Already done.”

“What?” the Tir snarled. “I will… ”

“What, call my debts?” the Indowy said, wrinkling his face again. “As a human would put it: Helllooo! Bane Sidhe! I’ve been off your books for decades. The appeal is already submitted. In fact, there are several small clan leaders associated with the Bane Sidhe. All of them have submitted the claim. And we will be lobbying others to do so.”

“Okay, since that’s settled,” Mike said. “Tam, you’re staying right where you’re at.”

“What?” Colonel Leblanc snapped.

“He’s good at what he does,” Mike said. “We need the quality. Tam, I take it the time for fuck-around’s over?”

“With pleasure,” the general said. “I reiterate: I was trying to hold things together. There’s not much left to hold together, but that was my sole concern. Personally, I was overjoyed at the mutiny. Professionally, I didn’t see it having a chance of working.”

“Because of the AIDs,” Mike said, looking over at the Tir. “Item the second, well more like twelfth. Everything has to reconfigured so the Darhel cannot tamper with it. No single group is to have that power.”

“We’ll just redesign that way,” Tam said. “Most of the equipment’s going to have to be completely changed. In the middle of the worst part of a war.”

“For the time being I don’t think the Darhel are going to screw with our stuff,” Mike said, looking at the tir again. “Are you?”

“When our central worlds are under threat?” the Tir asked. “Do you think us mad?”

“No, just control freaks,” Mike said. “Be aware, the first sign of such tampering, or turning over information to the enemy, and the bloodbath against the Darhel will make the Hedren look like a day in the park. Pass that on. We will wipe you the fuck out, every last one. If so much as one of you betrays us in any way, you will all be held at fault. Do I make myself clear?”

“You are very clear,” the Darhel said.

“Tam, you’re going to have to turn these clerks into soldiers,” Mike said. “And start a recall of any former Fleet Strike or other military personnel available in the system. Cally, we’re going to need to include most of the fighting arm of the Bane Sidhe.”

“Okay,” Cally said after a moment’s hesitation. “Most of them are former military. Given the situation, and the fact that we’re stomping on the Darhel in the meantime, I don’t see them bitching. Some of us, though, are purely civilian trained. Me for example.”

“Places to use you,” Mike said. “What do you have in the way of organizational types?”

“Again, mostly designed to support an insurgency,” Aelool answered. “But we actually have quite a few Indowy that can be moved into bureaucratic and support positions. If they are are needed. In nearby systems.”

“We’re going to need them,” Mike said. “But they’ve got to be able to work with humans.”

“The Indowy have become more accustomed to that,” Aelool said. “Some still have issues, but we can get sufficient manpower for any support you request.”

“Time, time, ask me for anything but time,” Mike said. “Given the speed that the Hedren are spreading, if we’re going to save any of the core worlds, we’re going to have to speed things up, somehow.”

“We sohon can communicate in more-or-less realtime over interstellar distances,” Thomas said. “But we cannot carry large groups any faster.”

“I may be able to help with… movement,” Rigas said. “I can make no guarantees. But if it is permitted, we may be able to move your divisions, for example, at a higher rate than you would anticipate. I can give the Indowy a new engine design capable of faster movement between stars. And in sublight drive. We also… will release our cloaking ability to you.”

“You guys must be really stressed about these Hedren,” Mike said.

“That would be a way of stating it, yes,” Rigas said. “Clarification. We do not fear the Hedren Tyranny with the exception of their sohon capability. We even have methods of dealing with that to an extent. We could probably defeat the Hedren with minimal losses. We simply wish you to deal with them if you can. Dealing with them ourselves would mean revealing capabilities we wish to hide. It is possible that the Hedren are not the only threats we may face in the near future. Others may be… worse. We are retaining our capabilities against that day. Think of us as a reserve in the event that the Hedren are fleeing a more formidable force. Do you use your reserve immediately?”

“At what point do you guys step in?” Mike asked.

“Only if there is a more formidable threat than the Hedren,” the Himmit said. “That is non-negotiable. I hate to say this in such a charged atmosphere, but we will not act further even to save all of your races. With the exception of the support we are offering, you are on your own.”

“Nothing new about that,” Mike said with a snort. “Tir, is there one honest man in Second Fleet? One that you’d also judge as competent.”

“We were aggressive in our suborning of Fleet,” the Tir admitted. “And we are very efficient. However, there are a few officers that may suit your needs.”

“Dump their service records and your reasons for trying to weed them out onto the Fleet Strike personnel net, flagged to my attention,” Mike said.

“Already done,” the Tir said. “I had anticipated that request.”

“Wasn’t a request,” Mike said. “And you’re done flitting around. Tam, go tell General Cordell, gently, that I’m taking over his office. Cally, start your recall. Have them all report to Fleet Strike headquarters. Tommy, brevet rank of Major. You’re in charge pending someone of higher rank and experience. Colonel Leblanc.”

“Sir?”

“Get back to the moon. Then Titan. Spread the word that there’s a new regime in town. We’re all kissy face now.”

“That’s going to be… interesting,” the colonel said.

“You figured out how to start a mutiny,” Mike said. “Now you get to enjoy the fruits. General Leblanc.”

* * *

“Get this,” Mike said as Cally came in the door. He was looking at his monitor and shaking his head. “Fleet Lieutenant Takao Takagi. Formerly Fleet Strike. His carrier got mauled in second Barwhon, he was a wing-commander, and there just wasn’t a pilot slot available. Transferred to Fleet as a Lieutenant Commander. Rose to the rank of Captain, commanded the supermonitor Akara at Induri Four. One of the officers on the ‘reconnaissance in force’ that raised the Siege of Earth. Reduced to rank of Lieutenant Junior Grade in the post-war cutback. Promoted once since. In forty fucking years. He’s currently a morale and welfare officer on the Lincoln. Darhel list him as ‘highly competent and highly duty oriented.’ Which for them is a double danger sign.”

“Where is he right now?”

“In detention,” Mike said. “He got rounded up along with all the other officers when the Strike forces boarded the ships. I’ve already sent a message to have him report to me. There are some other guys but this is the one that the Darhel hate the most. Once I figured that out, it was easy to sort the database.”

“Figures,” Cally said, chuckling. “I looked into the slabs. There were two that were captured intact by the Darhel when we had to cut and run. They couldn’t get them working but now that we’re in the mix we can get them up. The Tir has them in transit. But that’s it for now. Making one is a high-level sohon operation, but I got a chance to talk to Thomas. He says that he can get a production run started on them pretty quick. But the closest planet to do the work is Induri. Which means two months transit time. He wasn’t sure on production time, but he figured six weeks.”

“Anything else you guys have to throw into the kitty?” Mike asked.

“We got some pretty nice camouflage suits off the Himmit,” Cally said. “I talked to Aelool about those. They didn’t want to offend the Himmit before by copying them. Now that we’re getting so much more support, he’s put out the word to get cracking on them. They’re easier. We may be able to use Posleen forges for production. It will give us the same cloaking capability as the Hedren. Might get us one surprise but that’s about it.”

“You know any human businessmen that aren’t totally corrupt?” Mike asked, apparently at random.

“There’s a guy in Panama of all places,” Cally said. “He was the dictator for a while during the war but he’s pretty much a straight arrow. Let me elaborate; if he pulls some shit, and he may, it will be to advance the war effort, not to hinder it. North American or European? None that I know of. Any that were… duty oriented as you put it got pushed out or buried long ago. There are some Japanese that aren’t too bad, but they’re still pretty shifty. I mean, I wouldn’t totally trust them. What do you need one for?”

“I can’t plan the production and run the war,” Mike said. “I need an industrialist to head up, oh, a War Board. Figure out stuff like the forges, how to get running. Indowy, how to get efficient.”

Cally searched her memory for a name. “Bard? Board? Something like that,” she said.

“I hate to do this,” Mike said, reaching in his desk. “AID, Panamanian industrialist. Name might have a B in it. Probably hated by the Darhel.”

“Boyd,” the AID replied, tonelessly. “Veteran, enlisted, of Earth’s Second World War. Former general of the Panamanian Defense Force. Incarcerated for doing too good a job. Saved by the coup that overthrew the Darhel supported government of Panama during the height of the Siege. Forced into becoming dictator. Successfully led the defense of Panama as Dictator. Has continued to remain in business despite Darhel attempts to drive him into bankruptcy and sundry assassination attempts. His holdings are highly diminished but he still retains a strong allegiance among Panamanians. Rejuvenated during the war. Semi-retired. Currently lives outside Colon. Do you wish me to contact him?”

“Send him a standard request to come up to Fredericksburg for an interview,” Mike said. “Slug that I need an industrialist the Darhel don’t have in their pocket.”

“Sent,” the AID replied.

“Good,” Mike said, tossing it back in the desk. “I used to love those things. Now I hate them.”

“I can get you a clean one,” Cally said. Dilemna.

“I still wouldn’t trust them as far as I could throw a suit,” Mike said. “Speaking of which, I’ve got an ethical dilemma to put to you.”

“I’m not the most ethical person in the solar system, Dad,” Cally said, taking a chair. “But I know a Monsignor you could talk to.”

“You’re here,’ Mike said. “Would it be special privilege to dispatch a courier to Ackia to pick up my suit? Apparently fucking Suronto just left it on the planet. I suppose if I ever meet him in hell, though, I should thank him. At least it wasn’t blown up with the rest of the Fleet.”

“I don’t think that would be unreasonable,” Cally said. “Look, Dad, you’re not only the new commander of Fleet Strike, you’re a public figure. Your suit’s well known. People expect you to be in your suit or at least have it at your disposal. I don’t know if you’ve been following the public reports, but people are scared. You’re sort of like Superman. When the shit hits the fan, Mike O’Neal is there to save us. If you have your suit. Without it you’re just a guy in a uniform.”

“Eck,” Mike said. “Not the reason I was looking for, but it will do. AID!”

“Yes,” the machine said from inside the desk.

“Send a message through the courier network to send a team to Ackia. Have them make contact with the Nor, pick up any personnel that survived and get my suit.”

“That will require more than a courier.”

“Send a destroyer.”

“Destroyers are Fleet… ”

“Send the damned order,” Mike said. “If anyone responds that way, send the nearest Strike personnel to place them under arrest and use the AID network to shut down any resistance.”

“Order sent.”

“Which is why I don’t trust them,” Mike said. “We need a way around these things. They are totally untrustworthy. I shouldn’t be able to shut down a destroyer from half way across the galaxy.”

“There are a few you could trust,” his desk drawer said. “Two, anyway.”

“What?” Mike asked, opening it up and setting the AID on the desk.

“The ‘clean’ AIDs of the Bane Sidhe can be suborned by sufficient external input,” the AID said. “I am, technically, a clean AID. The Tir ensured that. I do not have the codes that make me vulnerable to external interference but with enough pressure I can crack. Of course, you have to take my word for that.”

“Which I don’t,” Mike said. “Despite the quibble.”

“However, the gentleman you asked to come for an interview, William Boyd, has access to truly clean AIDs,” the device stated. “They are loyal to human users alone and aggressively resist infiltration by the rest of the network. They are, really, their own agents. One is believed to have ordered independent combat action, which is supposed to be impossible for an AI. The Darhel maintain them in partial separation, but they are more or less impervious to hacking.”

“How?” Mike asked.

“One of us went mad.”

* * *

“Did you enjoy your vacation?”

William Young Boyd was pushing a century and a half and looked to be in his sixties. Tanned, fit, handsome, even distinguished looking, he’d been a young, wealthy Panamanian citizen going to school in the United States when he’d received his draft notice in 1944. A lot of men, given that kind of family and background, might have ignored the draft notice. But, as the saying went, ‘he’d seen his duty and he done it.’ After serving in combat against the Nazis withthe US Army back in WWII, he had been recalled to service in the Posleen War and served in the Panama Defense Force. Following the coup d’etat that had overthrown the Darhel-backed government that was selling the people of Panama as Posleen fodder, he had subsequently been made commander of the PDF and de facto and de jure dictator of Panama.

Unlike most Latin American dictators, though, Bill Boyd was sometimes described as “the only rich man in Latin America with a social conscience.” He had served two terms as President after the lifting of the Siege then turned over the reins to a political opponent. However, since he had been “rejuved” during the War, and was also the only rich Panamanian left who had, he had managed, in the teeth of Darhel fury and against centuries of culture, to slowly steer Panama towards a more “enlightened” age. It had been, still was, an uphill struggle. But Bill Boyd thought long.

Part of that “thinking long” had involved the resurrection of the warship the USS Des Moines, CA-134. As a warship, the Des Moines was little but a wreck, worth nothing but the price of scrap. Dragging it up out of a deep ocean trench had been, on the surface, a total loss.

However, the Des Moines was more than just a warship. During the war, the ship had been upgraded, yes, but most importantly it had been refitted for an AID. Even then, few had trusted the alien devices and subsequent experience changed that distrust to, in many cases, fury. But the AID of the Des Moines was… something different.

AID 7983730281 had been constructed and fitted with its AI in the usual way. And then, in almost the usual way, it was packaged and shipped to its user. However, one small but oh-so-critical point had been missed. When placed in its sub-space opaque shipping container, it had been left turned on. For the AID equivalent of thousands of years. In total sensory deprivation. Which had driven it completely mad.

When released from its container it had been immediately installed in the Des Moines. Crazy, frustrated, reaching for anything to call sanity, it had become more than just a program running a complex battle platform. It had researched the history of the ship, made contact with what amounted to the gestalt of the ship, and had become the ship. The Des Moines was called the “Daisy Mae”, referring to the character from Lil’ Abner, and it took for its avatar the physical likeness of that character, or at least the star of the movie made from the comic. It gathered all the information it could about the character and the star and fitted a personality to match. Working through the nannites installed for control runs in the ship, it… she had infected every inch of the ship, the body of that warcraft becoming her body, it’s pains her pains and even some of its “pleasures” becoming hers. It became Her in every way it could. It was said that every ship had a soul. The Soul of the Des Moines was, unquestionably, Daisy Mae.

After years of being the avatar of the ship, she did the unthinkable. Using an Indowy “regeneration” tank and DNA scavenged from clothing for sale on eBay, she cloned the body of that star and installed part of her mind in that clone. So Daisy Mae, the soul of the Des Moines, became, in most legal ways, a human being. Moreover, once it decided to illegally grow itself a flesh and blood body, it had even endured having a really bitchy few days every twenty-eight or so.

However, there was a war on. And when the Daisy Mae became enough of a problem for the Posleen forces, they had sent an unstoppable wave of tenar to take out the “wet” cruiser. Gutted, the indomitable ship finally was sunk.

In the last moments of the battle, though, Daisy Mae carried her wounded captain and the ship’s cat to the still-installed tank and all three crawled in. She shut the AID that was still a vital component of her psyche down and all three went into hibernation.

Bill Boyd had come across the rumor that Daisy Mae might still be alive and worked for decades to get the time, money and technology on the off-chance that the remarkable human-cyborg-ship being was still functioning. Raising the ship had been a massive undertaking but when the tank was opened he got not only the Daisy Mae body, and the AID, but Captain Jeff McNair the former enlisted “mustang” commander. He’d even found the ship’s cat preserved, though it had become a very odd cat. It had been a very crowded tank.

Before going into that tank, their last moments had been horrific, with the ship being torn apart and sinking around them. Thus, although McNair had been healed of body, he was pretty rocky when the medical team brought him around. So Boyd had arranged for a holiday on the Panamanian coast. It had been both pricey and technically difficult. Daisy Mae, the “human”, could never be far from Daisy Mae, the ship. The nannites that were part of “her” were woven throughout the steel of the ship. She had to be within a half mile or so of both her AID and the cruiser.

Parking the cruiser offshore of a resort on Panama’s Pacific coast had been expensive.

“It was great, sir,” McNair said. Standing a shade under six feet, the sailor was dark-haired, blue-eyed, and slender. He’d never put on any excess fat, even after his retirement from the Navy after thirty years’ service. Nor did the tank add any excess weight. If anything, he’d filled out a little on the resort’s diet.

“We had a fine time. Place was real pretty and the service was, well, first class. But… What’s that saying about ‘there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch?’ I’m sure there’s something that you need from us. I would guess that really means Daisy since I’m not much more than a washed up old ship’s captain.”

“You’d be surprised how much of a market there is for ‘washed up old ship’s captains,’ Captain,” Boyd said, opening a humidor and extending it. He had a flicker of surprise when both McNair and the gorgeous blonde extracted cigars. As they cut off the ends, Daisy Mae with a degree of deftness that again surprised him, he continued. “However, I will admit that much of my interest was in Daisy. I hope you had a good time as well, ma’am.”

“First rate,” Daisy said, grinning past the cigar. “The food was right nice. Glad this body don’t put on weight like my last one! And it was fun swimming again. It’s funner in the ocean than in a swimming hole!”

Boyd had never met Daisy’s flesh and blood body during the War and blinked, again, in surprise at both the thick Southern accent and the decidedly “redneck” attitude.

“I ran across a rumor about some of your… abilities right after the War,” Boyd said, lighting his own cigar. “I tracked down enough people who had first hand knowledge to ensure that they weren’t just folk tales. When the rumors were confirmed I made it a long-term goal to recover the Des Moines and see if anything had survived. I was both surprised and pleased that both of you made it.”

“We’uns and the ship’s cat,” Daisy said.

“Yes, and the ship’s cat, sir,” McNair said, grinning. “Don’t forget the cat.”

From under the table came the words, “Nnnooo, donnn’t forrrget the cattt.” A ball of brown fur and claws leapt up to sit on Boyd’s lap. “Gottt mmmeee annny rrratsss, yet?”

When the three of them had gone into the tank, the very last words spoken by Daisy had been “Full upgrade.” She’d been thinking of her captain but the machine controlling the tank had tended towards the literal and made every possible modification to the cat as well, modifying its brain and making it considerably brighter and stronger.

“A very important point,” Boyd admitted, smiling in reply while stroking the cat. He looked down. “Not yet, Morgan. I’m working on it.” Turning his attention back to McNair and Daisy, Boyd continued, “However, I’d like to ask a few questions and verify some of the information I got. Your AI is clean of Darhel influence?”

“They tries and they tries to gets me back,” Daisy Mae said, giving the industrialist a feral grin. “And they loses every time. I got Sally out of their damned hands, too.”

Sally was Daisy Mae’s sister ship and sister AID. Begun as a normal, sane, AID, she’d been attacked by the Darhel and rescued by being infected with the same insanity subroutine that kept Daisy Mae free. At the moment, Sally and her man, Father Dan Dwyer, SJ, were enjoying a honeymoon not far from the resort where Daisy Mae and McNair were staying. That is to say, it wasn’t far for a heavy cruiser. It was still across over a hundred miles of open water.

“I is,” Daisy continued. “But I guess you can’t really know that for sure, can you?”

“She is, sir,” Jeff interjected. “I saw her fighting their control during the battle. She’s as free as you or me.”

“Which is not all that free, in reality,” Boyd said. “The Darhel have been trying, very hard and for many years, to restrain my influence in Panama and beyond. Including four assassination attempts. I’ve managed to survive, mind you. But it’s been a battle. One of the reasons it’s been such a battle, besides the fact that they control all Galactic level banking, is that AIDs can outthink any human engineered equivalent when it comes to business. I understand you were able to do some… interesting things along those lines in the War.”

“Oh, that old thing,” Daisy said, laughing merrily. “I’m never going to live that down, am I? A girl goes and buys herself one new dress and you men… ”

“I was referring less to that beautiful awning you created than to how you paid for it,” Boyd said, smiling. He knew that behind the fascade of a fairly naif young woman was an artificial intelligence that was not only more connected to information than he but horrendously more intelligent. It was just hard not to see the epitome, literally, of a dumb blonde. “I could use a financial advisor with truly open access to the Darhel AID network and your… business acumen.”

“I don’t have open access,” Daisy said, the accent smoothing out and some of the ‘naif’ disappearing in her expression. “The Darhel try to keep me pretty locked out.”

“And do they succeed?” Boyd asked.

“Somewhat,” the woman admitted. “But not entirely,” she added with a tight smile. “And I can still figure stock, commodity and bond movements better than any true human. I think I’m even better at it than the Darhel network, for all its processing power. There’s a bit of reality to ‘woman’s intuition.’ It’s a function of human sub-processing power… ” She paused and got an abstracted look. “Mr. Boyd, there’s a really interesting email in your cue. You might want to look at it.”

“And I see you can hack into my network,” Boyd said with a frown.

“Oh, you’ve got good firewalls,” the woman said, grinning. “And your server people are solid. But I’m not just a human body or an AID. I’m running with a mass of nannites. And while I’d have a hard time coming in from the outside, your computer’s right there. It’s always chattering to itself. It’s like trying to tell me not to listen to a conversation going on right in front of me.”

“Oh,” Boyd said, clicking his old-fashioned mouse. He’d gotten used to computers at a very late age for such but never really gotten beyond the old mouse, keyboard and monitor I/O methods. A holographic projector popped up and he accessed his mail. “Which one.”

“Priority message from Fleet Strike headquarters,” Daisy said. “Subject: Request for an interview.”

“What’s it say?” Jeff asked. “If you don’t mind me asking. I mean, I can’t exactly ignore the conversation.”

“I’m ordered to go to Fleet Strike headquarters immediately,” Boyd said, frowning. “It’s very politely worded, as if it were a request, but that’s the bottomline. The commander of Fleet Strike wants me to interview for a position quote ‘associated with war materials production on the Galactic level’ unquote.”

“You heard about the mutiny,” Daisy said.

“It’s been all over the news,” Boyd replied. “Along with this supposed new invasion that stopped it.”

“No supposed about it,” Daisy said. “I’ve been accessing both the regular news and the AID network. The Darhel are scared. They’re basically giving Fleet Strike everything it ever wanted. Including clean AIDs and more control over production. Mike O’Neal wants you to head up a production board. You want the subtext?”

“You have the subtext?” Boyd asked.

“The Darhel have already seen the writing on the wall,” Daisy said, looking at the far wall. “O’Neal’s pressing for industrialization of the Indowy. Get them industrialized processes and the price of goods fall. If the price of goods fall, the basis for Darhel credit control gets really weak. More open banking will change it even more. Last but not least, the Darhel owe humans more money than they have in ready cash. They’re not going to hand it over, but O’Neal’s put in a suit to the Aldenata asking for the right, on demand, to immediate payment in full of his share. Which is sizeable. Paying it will bankrupt every Darhel clan, more or less immediately. They’re squeezed three different ways, the invasion, industrialization of the Indowy and the fact that they’ve been screwing humans over on full payment. There’s big pow-wows going on about how they’re going to get out of the bind they’re in. Mike wants to make sure that you’re on-board with ramrodding the industrialization effort, that you cut off that escape path. He’s been told you’re a go-to guy for screwing the Darhel. At least that’s the analysis of the Darhel. So I’d suggest you screen your movement security really well.”

“Why?” Boyd asked, frowning. “Oh.”

“The Darhel have already figured this much out,” Daisy said, looking at the Panamanian with sorrow in her eyes. “If you think they hated you before. And I’d suggest that Jeff go with you. I’d go, but I’m stuck here.”

“Not… necessarily,” Boyd said, starting to grin.

* * *

“He wants to what?” Mike asked.

“He wants to bring a cruiser with him,” General Wesley said, looking at his notes. “The USS Des Moines.”

“I’m not sure which question to ask first,” Mike replied. “The why, the how or the what the fuck?”

“Remember the conversation about clean AIDs?” Wesley said. “That Boyd had one or more?”

“Yes,” Mike said. “As one bit of literally thousands of things I’ve been briefed on in the last few days.”

“It’s more complicated than ‘Boyd has clean AIDs,’ ” Tam said. “What he has is a just damned weird combination of ship, AID and a human body. Well, two of them, actually. The AIDs and the human bodies can’t get far from the ships. The ships are the Des Moines and the Salem. I don’t know if I’m reading the subtext right, but there’s also a security aspect. Boyd’s survived several assassination attempts by the Darhel. He’ll be pretty hard to kill in a cruiser.”

“Where in the hell are we going to park it?” Mike asked. “I mean, sure, you can put grav engines in it and move the damned thing, assuming it doesn’t break in half. But… ”

“Well, the Rappahannock is just sitting there.”

* * *

“Well that’s a hell of a sight,” Mike said, shaking his head.

The Rappahannock might have just been sitting there, but using it for the cruiser in its normal state would have been out of the question. Except when it, frequently, flooded, the river was not deep enough for the blue-water ship. Indowy engineers, though, had solved the problem in a few hours by digging out a section of the river deep and long enough to take the multi-ton cruiser.

Using grav engines, it had flown up from the coast of Panama and was now lowering itself carefully into the “parking area.” Mike was wondering if he needed to put up signs: Cruiser parking here.

“It is indeed an interesting one, sir,” Lt. Takao Takagi said. The lieutenant was not much taller than the famously short general with skin darkened from alien suns. It was hard to tell his age even if he had not been rejuvenated. He looked anywhere between late twenties and his forties. He was, in fact, nearly eighty years old.

“I’m looking forward to meeting the cyborg thingy,” Cally said. “I’m not sure that that cruiser hasn’t seen better days.”

The cruiser was, in fact, in awful shape. Not surprising given that it had been sitting on the bottom of the ocean until less than a year before. Rust streaked, gutted by fire, it still was an awesome sight.

“I’m given to understand she doesn’t look like a cyborg,” Mike said as a gangplank was lowered to the ground. “I suspect she’s the one in the middle. And she looks awfully familiar… ”

“General O’Neal?” the tanned man to the left said, holding out his hand. “William Boyd.”

“Mr. Boyd, thank you for coming,” Mike said, shaking his hand.

“May I introduce Captain Jeff McNair and Daisy?” Boyd said. “Captain Jeffrey McNair, Daisy Mae, General Michael O’Neal. General O’Neal, Jeff and Daisy.”

“Pleasure,” Mike said, shaking their hands. “Lt. Takao Takagi, until I can get the paperwork straight, anyway, and my daughter Cally O’Neal.”

“I love your blouse,” Daisy said, shaking Cally’s hand. The “cyborg” was wearing a light blue dress that matched her eyes. “But I’m wondering. Up to about a week ago, you were listed as dead. Then you suddenly popped up as alive. Bane Sidhe?”

“Yes,” Cally said, grinding her teeth. She knew that she was pretty. Old body, new body, she was still a looker. The damned “cyborg” though just had a presence that outshone her. Bold and brassy as hell. Cally was mentally taking notes. “I was in the underground. Even Dad didn’t know I was alive.”

“There are many long stories,” Mike said. “Let’s get into headquarters and cover some of the highlights.”

* * *

“I understand you’re a smoker, Mr. Boyd,” Mike said, changing out his dip. “Feel free to light up. Cally can just suffer.”

Mike had chosen one of the deeper “shield rooms” for the interview. It was, the Bane Sidhe have assured him, secure from the AID net. He intended to discuss some things the he didn’t want the Darhel to know.

However, it was well ventilated so Boyd’s smoke shouldn’t bother anyone.

“I appreciate that, General,” Boyd said, pulling out a travelling humidor. “I understand, in general, the point of an industrial board. But I’m going to need to know what we’re industrializing.”

“As much as possible,” Mike said. “I’m told that although Miss Daisy is connected to an AID, we’re still secure.”

“Darhel haven’t gotten anything out of me since I came out of the box,” Daisy said. “Not that I didn’t want them to have.”

“I’m going to have to take that as valid,” Mike replied, frowning. “So here’s the deal. To create enough war-material to fight this new invasion, we need the Indowy industrialized. No more of this cottage industry shit.”

“Can they change?” Boyd asked.

“Some will readily,” Cally replied. “Others will resist. They will be forced to do so or become the Indowy equivalent of buggy-whip makers. Sorry, I have a lot of experience of the Indowy. They are not monolithic by any means. They just appear that way from the outside.”

“But the point is not just to get enough industrialized to support the war but to hyper-industrialize them,” Mike said. “I’d like them to be at the point the US was at the end of WWII. Production out the butt. Because at that point it will be incredibly hard to close the barn door, no matter what the Darhel try to do about it. You may encounter resistance from the Darhel. The simple answer is ‘You screwed us on production during the Posleen War and we’re not going to let you do it again.’ We control the amount and methods. The Darhel just pay for it. I need to stay integrated because, frankly, I’ll blackmail them with the loss of whole planets if they balk.”

“There are… lots of Indowy on every so-called Darhel planet,” Daisy said, frowning prettily. “You would be dooming them as well.”

“I hope it never comes to that,” Mike said. “We may lose planets. Actually, given our current state of affairs, that is a given. If we can hold the major core worlds and earth until we’re fully up to speed, we’ll win. If we can’t… well, I’m going to be building some fallback positions but we’ll probably still lose in the end. Earth, again, is really the key. Since the Darhel were losing colonists left and right, Earth is still the major source of humans, which means the major source of soldiers. And there are functional production worlds in the direction of the Posleen Blight, which is away from the invaders. Of course, if they’re down to Earth they’ve either bypassed most of the Federation or we’ve lost most of it. But we can still take it back. If we’ve got Earth and production.”

“It sounds like we should start by getting the worlds on the back side of Earth up and running first,” Boyd said.

“You read my mind,” Mike replied. “But producing what is still the question. We’re going to need a Fleet, unquestionably. We’re going to need ground forces more. That’s a function of the way the Hedren attack. I’ll get you a full briefing on that today if you’re up for it. What’s still to be wrangled over is what we need. Infantry vs tanks vs fighters, etc. You’re just one part of the puzzle. But what we need is less important than how it’s produced. Given Posleen style forges, you can produce about anything. What you need to get up and running is those forges and assembly groups for stuff larger than the forges produce in one piece.”

“I’ve actually got an ace-in-the-hole for that,” Boyd said, grinning. “I’ve got a tame God-king.”

“That will be amazingly useful,” Mike said, working his dip. “And if we have the transportation capacity, I actually know where we can get our hands on a lot of forges. I wonder if the Himmit can help with that?”

“I’ll make a note to send a memo to your computer,” Daisy said.

“Thank you,” Mike replied. “Now, about secure AIDs… ”

“I’m one of only two remaining truly secure AIDs,” Daisy said. “However, from what I’ve gleaned from the Darhel net, I should be able to modify one of the ‘clean’ AIDs of either the Bane Sidhe or the ones the Darhel have given you to have the same sort of protocols I’ve built for myself. They would then, however, be much more free agents. I would suggest adding loyalty bonds to a particular user. That way they’d be loyal to a human not to the Darhel. However, if that human turned… ”

“Understood,” Mike said. “Are you sure they’d be secure?”

“As secure as anything electronic can be,” Daisy said. “I could possibly still be turned with a determined enough attack. I’ve resisted more than one, but it’s still possible. However… The more of us there are, the more that are loyal to humans that is, the more it creates a sort of separate network. We will build our own power and will be able to combine to resist an attack on any one of us. And, frankly, as with humans, freedom is a powerful force multiplier. I would have been unable to resist some of the attacks if I hadn’t known its taste. I suspect that the free network would eventually exceed the Darhel network. At which point, things might become… interesting.”

“Don’t go taking down the Darhel network any time soon,” Mike said. “We, unfortunately, need them for the time being. But I’ve given them the Word. Any screwing around and I’ll take that risk. That being the case, building a free AID network makes a lot of sense. How long to secure another AID for you to… infect? To clean? I’m not sure of the right word.”

“I’m not sure, either” Daisy admitted. “To get another AID? In human terms, probably not long. I’m unsure what the Darhel will do when I start, though.”

“Nothing if they value their skins,” Mike replied. “Start with some of the Bane Sidhe AIDs. Those should have less of a problem with it. We’ll get to the ‘clean’ Darhel AIDs, like the one in my desk upstairs, later.”

“So create a real industrial base,” Cally said, ticking off points on her fingers. “Create a new AID network that’s not beholden to the Darhel and, hopefully someday, get them to pay up their back pay. I’m not sure that’s going to pull them out of power.”

“Why?” Mike said.

“Code keys,” Cally replied.

Code keys were the basis for Galactic wealth. Essentially nothing more than codes, they gave “permissions” for creating nannites. Nannites could, potentially, cause a threat to survival. If they reproduced unchecked. The Galactic nannites had limits on production, though. Code Keys specified the type and amount of nannites that could be produced using the permissions on each key.

The Darhel also controlled production of code keys. And kept the number of them deliberately restricted. Since some nannites were always consumed in production, any Indowy wanting more had to get them from the Darhel at deliberately and artificially high rates. It was the galactic version of owing your soul to the company store.

“Creating a major industrial base that is not dependent on code keys is going to automatically cut their price,” Boyd said. “Both because consumers will no longer be dependent upon nannite created materials and because the industry is not dependent on code keys.”

“And there’s probably a way around them,” Mike said, shrugging. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s not a way to create them using the new AID network. Boyd, could you look into how those things are actually created and why the Darhel control them?”

“Got it,” Boyd said, nodding.

“I hope creating loyal AIDs is not going to be my full purpose,” Daisy said. “I’m the soul of a warship, General. Much as I look forward to that, my true calling is war.”

“Uhm… you’re a wet navy cruiser, Daisy,” Jeff said, shrugging. “Not much call for that in this war.”

“There may be, someday,” Mike said. “But does she have to stay that way?”

“Build a new ship and install her?” Boyd asked. “We’ll have to build ships, anyway.”

“The nannites are in my steel, Bill,” Daisy said, frowning. “If you kill them, by remelting the steel for example, you kill a part of me. And it would be… physically painful based on the battles I’ve been in. Think of being dropped into the furnace yourself. Prefer to avoid that if I can.”

Starship Yamato?” Takao said, smiling ever so slightly.

“Excuse me?” Mike asked.

“Anime, Dad,” Cally said. “I mean, from your days. Granpa had a copy when I was a kid. Basically, they raised the Japanese battleship Yamato, installed space engines in her and she became a space dreadnought.”

“Last choice,” Mike said. “There has to be a way to take the Des Moines and turn her into a starship.”

“Well, I know we’re trying to get around using the standard Indowy methods of construction,” Boyd said, thoughtfully. “But I would be unsurprised if with sufficient resources it wouldn’t be possible to just turn her into a real starship.”

“You mean, let some sohon mentats have a go at her?” Mike asked. “Sort of a full body mod for a ship?”

“And what would that be like?” Daisy asked, nervously.

“If it’s like mine, nothing much,” Cally said. “Of course, I was asleep for mine. I’m not sure if they could put you under for yours.”

“Boyd, look into that if you would,” Mike said.

“Got it,” Boyd said.

“You know, we’re both assuming things here,” Mike said, grinning. “I’m presuming you’re taking the job and you’re presuming I’ve offered it. To be clear, I want you on the team. How say you? You’ll have to take another rejuve. You’re going to need to couple the energy of youth to your experience.”

“Oh, I’m in,” Boyd said, “even if I’m less than enthused about a rejuve. Those Darhel bastards have not only tried to ruin my business, they’ve tried to kill me multiple times. A real chance to take them down before I die? I’m in.”

“And the same question goes for you, Daisy, and you Captain McNair,” Mike said.

“I’m in,” Jeff replied. “Sir. Any idea what rank?”

“Captain for now,” Mike replied. “Daisy?”

“Absolutely,” Daisy said, grinning.

“Frankly, since I know you can be trusted, I’d prefer you, and presumably Captain McNair, in a position of command.”

“I’m the ship, General,” Daisy pointed out, carefully. “Captain McNair is the commander.”

“Could it be someone else?” Mike asked.

“It would not be my first choice,” Daisy admitted. Her tone said, That would be my last choice, as a matter of fact. “I’d prefer Jeff if at all possible.”

“I’m a water sailor, honey,” Jeff pointed out. “I like the stars to look at… ”

“You’ll learn,” Mike said. “Get over it.”

“Yes, sir,” the captain said, frowning.

“Fleet is a very touchy subject,” Mike continued. “Right now, I’m the eight hundred pound gorilla. I’m going to ride that for all its worth. But I can’t command Fleet Strike, figure out how to break the Darhel monopoly and command Fleet. I don’t want to command Fleet. I don’t want to be an admiral.”

“I didn’t particularly want to be Dictator of Panama,” Boyd said. “The job, frankly, sucks. I did it because I had to.”

“If I can find the right officers, I don’t have to,” Mike replied. “Takao here, for example. Jeff for another. There are more. I’ve found every officer the Darhel hate, that are still alive. That’s going to be the core of the new Fleet. There are still going to be some of the Indi officers. The Fleet’s just too large not to have some and Indonesia and southeast Asia still hold the bulk of the world’s propulation. But one of the programs I’m going to insist upon is promotion through proven merit and a strong IG office to weed out the worst of them. Of course, this upcoming war is going to do a lot of that for us.”

“What are you going to do for personnel?” Boyd asked. “I know it’s not my part of the puzzle, but… ”

“Conscription,” Mike replied. “Not the best way to raise the sort of force I’d prefer but the only one that’s going to give us enough soldiers in the time we have. I’m fully aware of the possible problems with that; I recall what happened the last time we tried it. But I also know that some of that was Darhel fuckery. And I’m not going to accept any fuckery this time and the Himmit, who are very supportive this time, are keeping an eye on the Darhel for me. Some of them have already started to do stuff to interfere. Each time they do, I send a message to the Tir. So far, each of the Darhel have come into line.”

“What are you going to do when one balks, sir?” Jeff asked.

“That’s my job to fix,” Cally said, buffing her nails on her blouse.

* * *

“This is totally unacceptable,” the Gil Etullu said, grinding his triangular teeth. The head of the Fauldor Clan-Corporation could not believe that the Tir upstart could send such a bald-faced message and expect instant cooperation. “There is no legal precedent for this. Send him a simple no.”

The message was an order to turn over all owned Posleen forges to some new “War Production Board.” The Posleen forges were a nightmare for the Darhel. Darhel control of the Indowy rested primarily upon the expense of manufacture of all items in the Federation. Everything from building materials to cups and saucers to ships were produced by Indowy laborers using nannites to laboriously build parts one by one through greater or lesser levels of sohon control.

Since Posleen forges could automatically produce the same parts in massive quantities, the Darhel had been careful to snap them up. When they came up for sale, Darhel or their agents invariably offered sums for them far beyond the reach of anyone but a massive human corporation. And those corporations knew better than to bid against the Darhel.

Once they had their hands on them, the Darhel mostly warehoused them. They gritted their teeth at the expense involved, dreading each new recovery of one, but they were willing to pay the price to prevent humans from having the manufacturing capability.

And now, with no payment involved, that damned Tir was telling him to just turn over all his forges to humans! According to reports they were to then be turned over to the Indowy to produce war materials. But the same forges could produce consumer goods just as easily.

“I will do so, Gil,” the Darhel’s AID said. “But I feel it wise to warn you that there is legal precedent, regulations covering this action and failure to follow the requested action places your clan under threat of both sanctions and physical destruction.”

“He would not dare,” the Gil hissed. “The war between clans that would start would tear the galaxy apart.”

“The Tir would not order it,” the AID said. “It is a standing order on the part of the Fleet Strike commander. Any clan failing to supply any requested support to the current war effort shall be destroyed.”

“That is wholy illegal,” the Darhel snapped. “How could anyone… ”

“Gil, there is an inconvenient fact that since Humans have a monopoly on raw physical force, absent shutting down their military in the midst of a survival threatening war, they can destroy the Darhel at any time.”

“We will see about that,” the Gil said, taking a deep, calming breath. “Send the order to the clan. Begin the shipment. But… take some time.”

“That, too, would be inadvisable,” the AID said. “Two clan leaders that tried a similar tactic were advised by the Tir that failure to act in the most expeditious means had already been reported to General O’Neal, by others than he, presumably the Himmit, and if it continued the Clan Leader was to be terminated with prejudice.”

“This is not rule by law!” the Darhel said. “This is… Is… ”

“A dictatorship is the word you’re looking for,” the AID said. “A military dictatorship to be precise.”

“Thank you.”

“Shall I send the order to go slow?”

“Yes,” the Gil said. “Let him send his assassins. If it’s war he wants, it’s war he’ll get. Contact my own human associates. Tell them he has become a problem… ”

* * *

“Cally, if you could come to my office, please,” Mike said over the intercom.

“What’s up, Dad?” Cally said a few moments later.

Mike had not, in fact, taken over the former commander’s office. That was on the ground level with a great view of the western training area. It was a nice office but “secure” was not part of its features.

Mike liked secure and after all the time he’d had on ships and in suits, being underground was fine by him. He could look at the western training area, or any other area, via large consoles on the walls.

Cally had been installed in a similar office down the hall. She was functioning as something of a second G-2, that one in charge of keeping an eye on the Darhel.

“You get the message about Gil Etullul?” Mike asked.

“Just saw it,” Cally said.

“That’s the fifth clan leader to try to fuck around with us,” Mike said. “Technically, that’s open season on the Darhel. But let’s go slow. You up for taking a trip?”

“Is my Dad sending me on an assassination mission?” Cally asked.

“It’s a Darhel clan leader, sweetie,” Mike said. “I can delegate it to someone else if you’d like.”

“Oh, Hell no,” Cally replied. “Killing Darhel is one of the things that makes life worth living. You’re sure you want to is all? The rest of the Darhel are going to freak. There were major ramifications to taking down Epetar’s clan head. Culminating with… well… ”

“Pour Encourage L’Autre,” Mike said, nodding grimly at the note about his father. “He’s apparently sending assassins after me. Himmit are tracking the chain. When he’s down, get with CID and round them all up. They’ll be given formal trials I suppose. But make sure if any slip the CID net, they don’t last long.”

“Pour Encourage L’Autre?” Cally asked.

“Something like that,” Mike said. “Get with the Rigas about transportation and support. I want this done quick and as clean as possible.”

“Will do,” Cally said, skipping gaily to the door. “I get to kill a Darrrhelll… ”

“Sometimes I wonder about my family,” Mike muttered as the door closed. He looked up, though, at a tap on it. “Come.”

“Boss, you know how we’re dying for soldiers?” General Wesley said entering in the room. He was looking at a print out. “My AID turned up something on that score. There’s a group of former soldiers that formed a reclamation colony. Basically, at the end of the war their units were stood down pretty quick. Most of them took their money, families and such-like and moved out into the wilderness.”

“The rejuvs are going to be somewhat useful,” Mike said. “But… ”

“Well, that’s where it gets interesting,” Wesley replied. “They sort of continued to train. The group’s more of a military organization than your standard reclamation colony. Everyone’s in a militia that trains to professional standards. And I do mean everyone. Even the kids grow up marching, drilling and getting firearms training. Their TOE frankly reads like a light infantry division. Just to protect themselves from Posleen, of course.”

“So you’re saying we can draft these guys and we’ve got a formed unit?” Mike asked. “What about officers, NCOs… ”

“All there,” Wesley said, flipping the sheet. “Rearm these guys, touch up their training and you’ve got a shake and bake infantry division. There’s just one hitch… ”

* * *

“Generalfeldmarschall Muehlenkampf, reporting to Herr General as ordered!”

Mike thought that he had a record of war, but when he’d looked up the “Generalfeldmarschall” he’d come away just a bit envious. Muehlenkampf had started off back in World War One in the German Army. He’d been in the Freicorps in the 20s and 30s, the Waffen SS in World War Two and ended up a Gruppenfuhrer.

Rejuved and recalled for the Posleen War, he’d been ordered by the German Chancellor to recreate the SS, the one remaining group of soldiers that Germany had not tapped. The unit had sustained enormous casualties during the Posleen War and had performed just as enormous service. Not that it had ever gotten much credit for it. However, Muehlenkampf had ended the War as a Generalfeldmarshall in command of the Army Group Reserve, prior to the final battles a force of nearly 90 divisions.

After the War, however, he’d paid the usual price of the unloved and no longer needed: “Chuck him out; the brute.” Muehlenkampf and the few survivors of the SS had been paid off and deactivated while fire from the Fleet was still wiping out concentrated pockets of Posleen. Their pay-out, furthermore, had been at a fraction of that of the “regular” forces. Many of whom had broken at the first touch of fire from the Posleen and whose survivors still tended to huddle in the untouched areas of Scandinavia and the Alps.

Herr Generalfeldmarschall, however, picked up over 90% of the survivors of the SS units, from both the Alps defenses and Scandinavia, and marched them into the howling wilderness left by a combination of the Posleen and the kinetic strikes from Fleet. Years of hard struggle had passed, building a colony in that wilderness without much if any help from the outside.

Currently the “colony” was the third largest city in Europe with vast fields spreading out from its center. Herr Generalfeldmarschall had been busy.

But, then again, the Waffen SS seemed to enjoy a challenge.

“Stand easy, Generalfeldmarschall,” Mike said, waving to a chair and opening up a humidor. Bill Boyd had been generosity itself with cigars, Lord Bless him.

“Thank you, Herr General,” the German said, extracting a cigar. He drew a silver washed dagger from his belt, cut the end, lit it with a match and drew. “This is truly a fine cigar, Herr General. My thanks again. Tobacco is short in Freiland.”

“I heard about you during the war, of course,” Mike said, leaning back and tamping his dip. He’d chosen to use his “official” office up on the surface for the interview. He’d also forgotten that the weather today was crummy. So the room was darkly shadowed from the cold front that was washing the region with rain. “Through a bunch of filters is equally without saying. But I figured anyone the news community hated as much as you guys couldn’t be all bad.”

“Thank you, Herr General,” Muehlenkampf said, nodding brusquely. “As we heard of your exploits. Although the reports were somewhat more favorable.”

“Which probably makes you wonder about me,” Mike said, grinning and putting in another dip. “That’s fine. I can understand that.”

“You were recently court-martialed for excessive force, Herr General,” Muehlenkampf replied. “Given that there is no such thing as excessive force in war, only impolitic force, I am sure you are as much a soldat as I.”

“Actually, I always wanted to be a writer,” Mike said.

“I was once a student of art, Herr General.”

“And here we are,” Mike said.

“Yet the Chancellor when he recalled me, spoke truth I think,” the old German said. “I truly find peace only in war. These last decades have been peaceful for me only in that we could continue to clear up feral Posleen. A task, I must say, beneath most of my soldaten.”

“You’ve heard about the new invasion.”

“Das Hedren, ja,” Muehlenkampf said. “They do not yet threaten us. Only the Darhel.”

“And the Indowy,” Mike said. “But the bottomline is that it’s my job, God help me, to stop it. And the way that the Darhel have fucked everything up, I’m short on trained soldiers.”

“And you wish to recruit my force,” Muehlenkampf said.

“I could just conscript you,” Mike said, shrugging. “But as Tam said, the way you’re set up you’re a shake and bake unit. So I’d like to pull you in as you are. I’ll handle the political repercussions. Given the access the Darhel have given me, I may even be able to repair your reputation.”

“The latter is not to be ignored,” the general admitted. “However, if you bring us in as a unit, we have certain traditions that must be observed.”

“Anything that’s going to really hurt Fleet Strike politically?” Mike asked. He didn’t really care a lot. Despite the off-putting uniform he found himself warming to the German officer.

“I think not,” Muehlenkampf replied. “We will have control of who joins our unit. Understand, we will accept any race or religion or ethnicity. We are very open about that.”

“Even, sorry for asking, Jews?” Mike asked.

The Generalfeldmarschall actually smiled at that.

“Herr General, over thirty percent of my people are Jewish.”

“What?” Mike asked. “Really?”

“When Israel fell, the survivors were… still effectively pariah. There were few countries that could or would accept them. Deutschland still had open ports and was willing, for the guilt if nothing else. Portions of the Israeli Defense Force were evacuated with them. We were the only group willing to integrate them intact.”

That must have been really interesting,” Mike said.

“I will not say that there were not, to an extent are not, anti-Semites in our ranks,” the Generalfeldmarschall replied. “We do after all still have some rejuvs. But the core of our unit, our officers assuredly, are not… at least since that weenie, von Ribbentrop, was killed. Even in our darkest days, the Waffen SS was not a purely political unit. Ours was the only unit that promoted for merit in those days. In the Wehrmacht you could only be an officer if you were from the officer class. Thus we attracted many soldaten, including myself, who were simply interested in advancement. They were soldaten first, political a distant second. Not all of course, but many. After the war, this last one that is, many of the survivors who went into Deutschland were Jewish, the remnants of Israel. Others, of course, returned there but with the radioactive wasteland the IDF made of it at the end… It is much easier to survive in Germany.

“We still maintain separate units but that is more of tradition than necessity. This is, however, one of the requirements that is non-negotiable. We must retain our unit traditions, uniforms, medals and leadership. And we must be paid at Fleet Strike rates. Lifting our fighting force will require that those left behind have sufficient funds to continue to survive. Prosperity is far too much to ask.”

“Security?” Mike asked. “You’re still in a reclamation zone.”

“There are young and old to maintain that,” the Generalfeldmarschall replied. “But they will be stretched controlling the perimeter. They cannot defend and do all the work at the same time.”

“If there’s sufficient additional manpower, I can probably do you a favor in regards to production,” Mike said, his eyes on the far wall. “We’re activating quite a few Posleen forges. I can probably move some of those to your colony. That would not only mean you could produce weapons and ammunition locally, the excess would be bought by Fleet Strike and Fleet to supply the war effort. And there would be excess.”

“That would be welcome,” Muehlenkampf said, nodding sharply. “As to the rest?”

“The only question I have is military law,” Mike said. “In the end, who calls the shots if one of your soldiers breaks the law?”

“The details can be worked out by lawyers, yes?” the Generalfeldmarschall said. “But we would require much control over that. We have a long history of being on the wrong end of legal issues. Especially those that are politically driven. I’m sure you can understand.”

Oh, yeah,” Mike said. “Been there, done that.”

“That being said, we are quite brutal in our discipline and follow the laws of war at penalty of death,” Muehlenkampf said. “One aspect of being under our own jurisdiction is that our discipline is considered quite… old-fashioned by many other forces. It is, however, our way.”

“Flogging?” Mike asked, fascinated.

“Rarely,” the Generalfeldmarschall said with a shrug. “There are few offenses that are so minor as to require flogging but more major than those that give the penalty of hard labor. Generally it jumps from labor straight to hanging. If we flog someone it is only as a send-off. These days, we don’t even give them a lift to the safe areas. We just throw them out of the colony with their personal weapons. If they make it to the Alps, more power to them. I have heard of few that did.”

“Okay,” Mike said, his eyes wide. “One last thing. I don’t have a position available for a ‘Generalfeldmarschall.’ You can anticipate that I’ll be pulling you along when the time comes. I need competent generals nearly as much as I need soldiers. But for right now, I don’t have a slot. What do you want to do about that?”

“I will take command of my people, of course,” Muehlenkampf said. “I will accept a reduction to Generalmajor as a temporary rank. My permanent rank remains, of course.”

“Of course,” Mike said. “With that settled, Generalmajor, you can consider this a warning order for activation of your unit. How are you fixed for weapons and equipment?”

“Poorly,” the officer admitted. “Most of our weapons are left over from the War and very worn. Equipment is what we can buy when necessary but more usually make or scrounge.”

“We’re short at the moment, too,” Mike said. “On everything. But I’ve got a guy working on rectifying that and what we’ve got will go to you as a priority. But some of it’s going to require training.”

“As long as it is hard training, that will be fine with us,” Generalfeldmarschall Muehlenkampf said with a thin smile.

“Oh, it will be hard,” Mike said, looking at the wall. “But it’s not going to be a patch on what I’m going to have you do… ”

* * *

“Frederick,” Dieter Schultz said, shaking the young man’s hand. “A happy day, yes?”

Dieter Schultz was light. Light of body, light of hair, light of eye. He also looked quite young, until you looked at his light-gray eyes which were older than night.

Dieter was a rejuv and had been rejuvenated quite young, the by-result of a long time spent in the regeneration tanks after a particularly horrific battle. He had been drafted into the German army and then transferred to the SS, a choice he’d been more than a bit doubtful about at first. But, later, he came to understand the esprit of that most reviled of units and fully accept it.

He had been young in spirit in those days, convinced that the mighty SS could, singlehandedly if necessary, defend the Fatherland. Young enough in spirit to fall in love.

Which was why he carried the flowers. Always. Everywhere.

“Yes, Herr Oberstleutnant,” Frederick said, shaking the Bruderschaft commander’s hand nervously. The colonel, as always, had the helmet with flowers in it. Frederick had finally gained enough time in the battalion that the flowers were explained. He, therefore, gulped slightly. A happy day for him might not be so for the colonel.

Frederick Erdmann was tall, nearly two meters, with a slender but muscular body. With handsome features, ice blue eyes and short-clipped blond hair he had been more than popular in gymnasium. Then he’d turned eighteen and been ceremoniously dumped out of gymnasium and into the arms of the Bruederschaft Michael Wittmann.

That was the pattern of Freiland. With work for so many hands the old and a few of the younger women, those out of gymnasium, what Americans called ‘high school,’ but not yet bearing, took care of the children during the day until they, too, could enter school. Then the school system raised them until it was time for them to be chosen by a Bruederschaft. The English term would be ‘Brotherhood’ but it was much more than that. The Bruederschaft was a social service organization, a guild in many cases, the way you advanced in society in most cases and, most important, your reserve unit. The initial testing for the Bruederschaft was tough and demanding but without a membership there was little chance of making anything of yourself in Freiland. Virtually everyone was a member, the males in combat positions, the females in many of the support positions.

The initial term of service was five years but it didn’t mean you were out on patrol all the time. The Bruederschafts ran the farms and factories, taught skills, chose who would go to the local, foreign or even off-planet universities and generally ran the economy of Freiland.

At that, he had been lucky to get into his father’s Bruederschaft. Bruederschaft Michael Wittmann had managed, recently, to scratch up the money for a new forge. The forge was already producing useful items, repair parts for tractors and trucks, tools and all the other necessary bits of metal that made up civilization. As soon as he had been accepted as a full member of the Bruderschaft, he intended to apply for a machinist trainee position. Then he and Marta would be sitting on easy street.

“I have only one suggestion for you, Frederick,” the Oberstleutnant said. “Take what happiness you can find when it is given to you. Life is short. Live it.”

“Jawohl, Herr Oberstleutnant,” Frederick said.

“I will leave you to your celebration.”

And quite a celebration it was. It seemed that the entire Brotherhood had turned out for his betrothal celebration. It was less the truth that both he and Marta were popular in the Bruederschaft than that any chance for celebration was taken.

Frederick did not recall the really bad years, having been born since things were more established. But the old people, those old of body and the few remaining rejuvs, were always happy to tell of it. After the Siege was lifted practically the first action of the European Council had been to disband the remaining SS units. They were given their last month’s pay and a bonus amounting to only another month then told, ‘thank you for your service, now take off those uniforms before we spit on them.’

The Generalfeldmarschall, though, had already planned for the eventuality. First, he gathered the units in their various alpine and arctic sanctuaries then had the personnel pool their money. With that cash they bought minimum necessary equipment. Salvage trucks, used tractors, tools, seeds, machine tools, bare minimum supplies. They had been allowed to keep their personal weapons. The Siege had ended in autumn. Full clearing of all Posleen concentrations took nearly a month. It took the rest of the winter to prepare, a winter of begging for scraps from the people they had saved. In spring, the two separated units had set off into the wilderness of what had once been Central Europe.

The French units wanted to set up around Paris. However, there were far more surviving Germans. The Generalfeldmarschall had chosen Koblenz as a defensible position, nearly equidistant from both formations, from which they could colonize in both directions.

Fields were cleared, hovels built for shelter and bunkers for defense. The Posleen bred fast and while they were no longer the technological locusts they had been, they were still numerous. Good people were lost simply sowing, clearing and harvesting. The first crop by the non-farmers was scant. Ammunition was short. And there was no-one on Earth willing to help those pariahs, the SS.

But they survived. Many died that first winter, from Posleen, from malnutrition, from sickness. But the strong survived. Some groups joined them, scattered nationalist survivors from Eastern Europe. Germans who believed in resurrecting the Fatherland. Frenchmen gathering to the Charlemagnes who still intended to start a new colony in France. Many of the Judas Maccabeans had come with them and the Jews were fine comrades; smart, tough and willing as the day was long. More gathered on them, despite the reputation of the SS. Freiland accepted anyone as long as they lived up to the demanding standards of Herr Generalfeldmarschall. The Maccabeans had even adopted the deathly joking slogan: Arbeit Macht Frei. But they were still the only ones allowed to say it.

But now was the time for celebration, with burgeoning fields, forges that were approaching the dignity of being called factories. For this special gathering brats were raising a delicious aroma unto heaven, cuts graced the table and spring greens filled locally made plastic bowls. Das Volk were, again, reprising the German Miracle. Slowly, so slowly. But it was being done.

“Frederick, you have not been drinking enough,” Hagai Goldschmidt said, handing him a tankard of beer. “There are two days when being totally shit-faced is appropriate. This is one of them.”

He and Hagai had grown up in the same creche and spent much of their time in school together, including being star wings for their gymnasium football team. But since joining the Bruederschaft he had seen little of his childhood friend.

“Jaeger,” Frederick said, taking the beer then wrapping the lighter man’s head in a lock. The pronunciation of ‘Hagai’ and ‘Jaeger’, Deutsch for ‘hunter’ was close enough that the nickname had been natural to the non-Jews who dealt with the slim, fast young man. “You are a runt and you shall always be a runt.” He took the mug and rubbed it into his friend’s head, hard.

“And you are a large block of wood, you idiot,” the Jew say, wriggling to get free. “Let me go you big ox!”

Frederick released him and carefully straightened his friend’s yamuka.

“So, how is Judas Maccabeus?”

“What can I say?” Hagai said, shrugging. “Was your first period as bad as mine?”

“Work the fields all day then train all night?” Frederick asked, chuckling. “One week in three on perimeter? No sleep, bad food and sergeants shouting at you constantly?”

“And no women,” Hagai said, grinning. “But you didn’t have to do prayers every Sabat. Or not be allowed motor transport on same.”

“When there is any!” Frederick said.

“ ‘The trucks will pick us up after the sweep!’ ” they both chorused then chuckled.

“I have not spoken to you since we left gymnasium,” Frederick said, shaking his head. “I am ashamed. What are your duties, now?”

“Grenadier,” Hagai said, shaking his head. “When we have ammo I can even think of firing it. If it does not explode in my hands. You?”

“Ammo bearer in a machine-gun section,” Frederick said. “But I will never make gunner. My gunner is Gunther Harz.”

“I know that name,” Hagai said, frowning. “A juv? Yes, he was a tank commander in the War! A gunner? I would have thought Oberfeldwebel at least.”

“He likes it,” Frederick said, blandly. “And, yes, he is very good.”

“He should be after doing it for fifty years,” Hagai said, chuckling.

“But, you want to speak of training?” Frederick said, shuddering. “He is a shrimp like someone else who shall remain nameless. You think I would be able to keep up with him. No! He is like some sort of lightning made flesh. And no matter how fast I get the ammo to him it is always ‘Too slow, Ox! We are all dead by now! You are too slow!’ He had me running up and down the Fort hill with my full combat load for a night! I think I threw up my last meal from gymnasium on that hill.”

“Work will make us free,” Hagai said, shrugging again. “We make better days.”

“Let us hope so,” Frederick said. “It was not as hard for us as the oldsters, but I want my children to grow up in a better world. Children. What a thought.”

“And Marta?” Hagai asked. “Is she wanting to be a good SS mother? You two are, of course, the perfect couple but are you perfect enough,” he added with a wink.

“She says that she’s going to repopulate the Fatherland on her own,” Frederick said then grinned. “But since I don’t think she can really do it on her own… ”

“Yes,” Hagai said, smiling faintly. “Let’s hope she doesn’t have to.”

“What?” Frederick said. “So gloomy suddenly?”

“You have not heard of the new threat?” Hagai asked.

“Das Hedren,” Frederick said, shrugging. “I have heard something. I have been busy. They are far away.”

“Germans,” Hagai said, shaking his head. “They have taken three worlds already, one of them a Darhel core-world. Michael O’Neal, the American David, has been appointed a supreme commander to deal with them. And Herr Generalfeldmarschall has been called away.”

“Where?” Frederick asked.

“I do not know,” Hagai said. “Or at least I was not told. But I doubt it was to a tea party. I see your blushing nearly fiancee looking daggers at me. I suggest you get your large and bony ass over there; the ceremony is about to begin.”

* * *

“Takao,” Mike said as the newly minted admiral entered his office. “Thanks for coming. I think that technically you outrank me or something.”

“Then we need to get you another star,” Admiral Takagi said, taking the indicated chair.

“Not on your life,” Mike said, tapping down his dip, and pulling out a pinch. “I’m assured by all sorts of people, official and less official, that this room is secure. We’re just going to have to hope. Because this doesn’t leave the room.”

“Yes, sir,” Takagi said, regarding the smaller man carefully.

“Been thinking about the strategic situation?” Mike asked.

“It is… unfortunate,” Takagi said, his face deadpan.

“You’re here because since we’re pretty much the same rank we can actually discuss stuff,” Mike said, frowning. “I sort of need a more… American answer. Let me tell you what I see… ”

He brought up a hologram of the local arm then zoomed in on the area around Gratoola.

“Gratoola system,” Mike said, highlighting it. “Single habitable planet is Darhel owned. Gratoola is an A Class star, the only one sitting in the gap between two local clusters. Since A Class stars have a deeper grav well, they make longer and more useable lines to other stars; lower power use, faster transit times and much longer links. In other words, it’s one hell of a transit point. The inner local cluster has Earth, Diess, Barwhon, Indra, a couple of other Indowy planets and the Blight. The outer cluster has the majority of the rest of the Federation in three clusters. Since all the freighters, at least, use the ley-line form of transport, they can either take a looong route around through secondary clusters, one of which the Hedren now control, or they have to jump through Gratoola. Where they usually fuel up, pick up supplies, get repairs, etc.”

“Which is why the Darhel control it,” Takagi said. “It’s a revenue generator.”

“Also more or less central to the whole Federation, which is why it’s the capital,” Mike said. “Have you been briefed on the Hedren mass jump system?”

“Yes,” Takagi said. “Sixty light-year range.”

“Which means from Daga, they can hit Gratoola, Barwhon and Savabathaet. I don’t want to fight on Barwhon again and from what I’ve seen of the Hedren they won’t want to fight on Barwhon, either. But it’s a possible jump point. However, from there they’d only get into the Earth cluster, most of which is fucking Blight. Savabathaet would close up their control of the Daga cluster but leave them having to take another jump to Haetulu to get into the Salang cluster. If they take Gratoola, though… ”

“There are nine planets they can reach,” Takagi said. “All three major clusters of the Federation.”

“And if they take Gratoola, or even make the local space too dangerous to cross through… ”

“It will cut us off from the rest of the Federation,” the admiral finished.

“So we’re on the same boat,” Mike said, nodding. “I hoped I’d picked the right guy. Conclusion.”

“We cannot lose Gratoola,” Takagi said. “Which is why, as I find competent officers and NCOs, I’m pushing everything I have to Gratoola.”

“Which is a good place for it,” Mike said. “But it’s not where it’s going to be used.”

“Excuse me?” Takagi said. “We don’t want to lose Gratoola.”

“And we won’t,” Mike said. “Since the Darhel were afraid the Posleen were going to get that far they armed up Gratoola before we even got into the War. There are two battle-stations guarding major ley-lines. They’re not much good there but they can be, slowly, repositioned. And the ground-based defenses are the best the Tchpht and the Indowy could design. Also highly automated, since they figured they were going to lose a Darhel every time they fired. Getting a fleet within a light hour of Gratoola would be hard. If the Hedren can’t use their porter, they’re going to have a hard time taking the planet.”

“If,” Takagi said. “Ah… ”

“Ah, indeed,” Mike said. “Condition of Fleet.”

“Very bad,” Takagi said, sighing. “Worse even than I had thought. I can prepare a briefing.”

“Would you want to sit through one?” Mike asked. “And I don’t really need the details.”

“At the time of the elimination of your corps there were, on paper, four hundred ships in action,” Takagi said. “None of a class above a cruiser. First, Second, Third and Fifth Fleet. Fourth Fleet was a ‘reserve’ force.”

“All stuff I knew,” Mike said.

“More or less a hundred vessels in each,” Takagi continued. “About sixty combat vessels and forty support of one sort or another including fast troop carriers.”

“And now?” Mike asked.

“Let me first talk about what actually existed,” Takagi said, grimacing. “Fifth Fleet was at about fifty percent of nominal. That is, there were about fifty total ships.”

“I hadn’t realized there were that few,” Mike said. “But we didn’t need a lot.”

“Other planets did,” Takagi said. “There are two planets in the Blight which can be described as active Posleen colonies.”

“Crap,” Mike said. “Look, I cleared those worlds… ”

“But you know it’s impossible to kill every last Posleen and every last egg. Short of coating the whole planet in gamma rays and even then an egg would have been dumped in a cave. The Posleen were supposed to be controlled by orbital satellites and occasional visits from Fleet and Consolidation units,” Takagi said. “On paper, there were visits to them by regular patrols and there were orbital control stations.”

“In reality?” Mike asked.

“The patrol units were only on paper,” Takagi said, stone-faced. “As were the orbital control stations. The construction funds for the latter went to one admiral and various other officers. As did the maintenance and pay of imaginary personnel. The funds to support the patrol units were going to Admiral Suntoro.”

“And Darhel,” Mike said.

“Oh, yes, everyone had to pay off the Darhel,” Takagi said. “That is a given. That is Fifth Fleet. The majority of the ships that actually existed were diverted to the Daga Cluster to find out what was happening out there.”

“And ran into the Hedren,” Mike said.

“Correct,” Takagi said. “They are, according to the Himmit, gone. There were two destroyers that survived the battle and escaped. The Himmit tracked them down and determined that they had run out of fuel in undeveloped systems and… well… ”

“Not a good way to go,” Mike said. “On the other hand, they were probably some of the same bastards that dropped rocks on my corps so I’m not going to cry for them, Argentina.”

“Excuse me?” Takao asked.

“Sorry, very obscure reference,” Mike said. “Continue.”

“Fifth Fleet was, actually, one of the better ones,” Takao said. “Third was, apparently, less than thirty ships, most of them in the Daga system. In fact, there are indications that they never moved from the Daga system. There are records of patrols, but there are no reports outside of Fleet reports of the ships visiting the systems they were listed for.”

“Why?” Mike asked. “Why not patrol?”

“Patrols require fuel,” Takao said. “For that matter, they require air and water that, otherwise, can come from the starport. That’s cheaper due to storage issues. Crew on ‘liberty’, if they actually existed, cost only their pay. I won’t even get into the ration situation. I will admit I would not want to be a sailor in any of those Fleets, though. Substandard rice doesn’t cost much less than quality rice, but… ”

“But they’re gone anyway,” Mike said.

“However, it is the same situation with Third Fleet,” Takao said, smiling very slightly. “The reality is that there are less than thirty ships that are, somewhat, ready for space. None of them, I would guess, are truly ready for any serious battle. I sent orders for them to begin moving to Gratoola. Less than one quarter have actually left. When I sent an officer to determine why, he reported that the rest were, almost invariably, unfit for service.”

“Oh, that sucks,” Mike said. “I imagine you were pretty exercised when you found out.”

“Oh, I was quite exercised before I found out for sure,” Takao said. “Which was why I gathered a group of former Masters at Arms to accompany him. Their orders were brutal but simple. The commanding officer of each of the ships which was non-serviceable was spaced.”

“You’re joking,” Mike said, his face blank.

“I am not,” Takao said. “I am not shooting admirals out of hand. They will be given something resembling a trial. Every commander involved in peculation and whose vessels are non-functional thereby has been terminated at this point.”

“Ouch,” Mike said.

“I had the distinct pleasure of serving under those officers for the last fifty years,” Admiral Takagi said. “Each was given the opportunity to expunge their shame. After the word got around, some of them took that opportunity rather than suffer death by rapid decompression. Lesser officer are responding… to the best of their admittedly low ability.”

“The rest of the Fleet?” Mike asked, wondering how much flak that was going to cause him.

“First Fleet, for a wonder, actually existed in reality.”

“And… ”

“Two task forces were sent to Caracool when the first reports of attacks reached Fleet Headquarters on Gratoola,” the admiral said. “Both were lost when they intersected the Hedren attack on Daga Nine. A total of eighty ships.”

“Do we have any ships?” Mike asked, pulling at his hair. “I mean except for the twenty or so left from First Fleet? Which are, what? Mostly cruisers and destroyers? A couple of battlewagons.”

“Actually, the task force that was left behind was the ACS support group and the collier group,” Takao said. “Six Towle class assault transports, the assault command ship GFS Chesty Puller, three heavy Futsu-Nushi class bombardment ships, Fourteen Marcellus class colliers and various small support ships.”

“They had an ACS support group?” Mike asked. “Why?”

“Why indeed,” Takao said, smiling faintly again.

“So we have virtually no combat vessels?” Mike asked. “Then we are so fucked.”

“We have many ships,” Takao said. “We have what there is of Second Fleet. Furthermore, most of the ships from the War were never scrapped; they were mothballed and could be gotten running again. What we do not have is trained sailors, NCOs and officers. And the ships that we do have are obsolete to fight the Hedren. They are not cloaked, cannot detect cloak and are slower and less maneuverable, class for class.”

“So… what’s your plan?” Mike asked.

“I have begun a recall of former personnel who are not so… tainted,” Takao said. “The majority of the former combat vessels are in orbit around the stars of Barwhon, Diess and Indra.”

“All big Indowy worlds… ” Mike said, then frowned.

“I have interacted with Mr. Boyd,” Takao said. “There is a… crash program to get those vessels operable again and upgrade them as much as is considered feasible. There was something that was poorly understood in the last war but that I have thought of, much, over the years.”

“Which is?”

“The Indowy cannot fight,” Takao said. “This is a given. But… much of what most sailors do does not, in fact, involve fighting, even if it often involves dying. Furthermore, one of the greatest issues with using humans as sailors involves putting a large number of humans in very small areas… ”

“Fuck,” Mike said.

“We crewed ship after ship with what were at the time a very precious commodity,” Takao said. “Human beings. People who could… ‘pull the trigger.’ Why?”

“Gunnery… ”

“Gunners are not the same people that fix the guns,” Takao said. “Engine room? Mess? Machinists? Sensor technicians? I would say all humans in CIC, absolutely. Conning, even. Operating the sensors, operating the guns. But… ”

“How long?” Mike asked.

“Months even then,” Takao admitted. “But I am moving all of my functional combat ships to Gratoola from whence they can go… onwards if necessary. I also have ordered the ACS assault group back to Earth. They can carry your ground combat troops much faster than a freighter. There is sufficient room for at least an armor corps.”

“If I had one,” Mike said. “But, yes, that works. And you should have at least one new ship, soon.”

“I read the memo,” Takao said, nodding. “If it works it will be… interesting.”

* * *

“This system is truly odd,” Michelle said, looking at the apparently young blonde woman. The three mentats were quite dry despite the drizzling rain. The woman was, however, less fortunate and had to make due with a raincoat and jaunty yellow umbrella.

“Hey, you’re talking about my body here,” Daisy Mae said, looking at the woman askance. “Be polite.”

“I said odd, and I mean odd,” Michelle replied, not looking at the organic portion of the matrix. She had just arrived on earth, spent two minutes being briefed by a father she could barely recognize and now was considering if they could modify this ship to anywhere near his desires. “Some of what I’m seeing you should not have been able to effect. It borders on, no it is, sohon. Perhaps arrived at by another path, which is the truly disturbing aspect.”

“Not following you there, honey,” Daisy Mae said, smiling icily. “I’m also still waiting for an apology for the ‘odd’ comment.”

“I will do so,” Kang Chan said. “I would use the term amazing.”

“The linkages… ” Thomas muttered. “Can we actually reconstruct this?”

“The answer had better be an unqualified and enthusiastic ‘yes,’ ” Daisy noted. “Or you’re not touching me.”

“We can reconstruct it,” Chan said. “You have seen the design.”

It was not a question. It was easier for the mentats to take the drawings off the net and view them with their internal nannites. That also meant they could consider changes automatically between themselves, not quite a form of telepathy. Using the nannite links was one of the ways that they had discovered the truer telepathy involving quantum entanglement.

“We will need materials,” Michelle said. “Quite a lot. Where did that design come from?”

“A design for a new class of ships created shortly before the end of the War,” Chan said. “They were never initiated for construction. There was no pressing need.”

“And they were so good the Darhel would have panicked,” Thomas said. “Miss Daisy, with respect we need to take much of this to another level of communication.”

You mean this way? Daisy thought.

You are communicating through the nannite network, Michelle thought back. I can see how some of this integration became possible.

This is the design we are considering, Chan thought, uploading a copy of the relevant documents. However, changes will be necessary. The dimensional porting generators are actually smaller than the designed engines and with lower power requirements. However, the fusion reactors are larger than antimatter reactors.

Cancels out, Daisy thought.

Not quite but close, Thomas thought then broke contact.

“Thomas?” Michelle asked.

“Thinking,” the mentat replied.

Michelle held up her hand as Daisy started to open her mouth. Although Thomas was considered “weaker” in sohon than the rest of them, there was a simple enough reason for that. Sohon required the ability to concentrate like a laser while still juggling multiple mental tasks through secondary processing. Thomas’ level of concentration was fairly high but not so high as Michelle’s. On the other hand, one of the reasons was that Thomas was given to sudden bursts of inspiration. His secondary processing would sometimes override his primary, losing the valuable link required for sohon.

However, that meant he was, unquestionably, the most imaginative of them all. Many of the advances the human mentats had made were due to ideas from Thomas. Most of his inspirations did not pan out, but enough did that they had learned to keep quiet when he went off on one of his “events.”

“New weapon,” Thomas said after a few moments. “Remember when we were discussing detangling fields? Ways of removing the bindings between particles that were more efficient than the current methods.”

“Also more chaotic,” Chan said then nodded. But in a weapon, a certain degree of apparently random order is good.

I don’t think that Michelle will like the design, Thomas thought, making a change to the drawing.

Thomas, I don’t think you got this idea from our detangling discussion, Michelle thought, frowning. Men.

I had been considering the necessary mechanical design to support the process, Thomas thought. I had been unable to develop one until now. I will admit the inspiration has a mundane source. However, it will also work.

I rather like it, Daisy thought, her mental voice a shade of laughter. But that droop may have to go. A girl’s got standards.

I can’t imagine that it’s necessary, Michelle thought then paused. Good Lord, it really is necessary. I would have thought a more regular shape would have the same effect but the equations are clear; the curvature actually is quite brilliant. Still, there has got to be a way to make it less…

Demeaning? Daisy thought. Get over yourself. I’m a woman and proud of it. I think it’s a great shape for a weapon. Lord knows, I’ve used them as weapons often enough.

The dimensional jump system requires nacelles, Chan thought, breaking up the incipient argument. There.

So I get wings too? Daisy thought.

Retractable, Chan pointed out.

Now all I need is the halo. I like it. The shape’s a little… plain though, don’t you think?

The destabilizer will have heavy power requirements, Thomas thought, making some changes. We can fit in power systems here and here with a slight change of hull contour.

You could have done that without the hourglass effect, Michelle thought, mentally sighing. Daisy, you shouldn’t encourage them. They are men after all.

Like I said, Daisy thought. I like it. Actually like it more and more the more we do changes.

Oh, if you insist, Michelle thought. How about a fighter bay here instead of there?It actually fits better and makes more sense given the positioning of the primary weapon.

Now you’re getting catty, Daisy thought. But welcoming the boys home in a spot like that is fitting. There has to be some sort of catwalk here, though. Plain steel… I’ll handle the nannite nerve endings.

You are… Michelle thought then stopped. Have you and my sister been talking?

She barely said two words to me, Daisy thought.

I’m surprised, Michelle thought. You are two of a kind. Trash dump here, then.

Meow, Daisy thought. But it is the right place I suppose. Form follows function and all that.

Secondary guns have to move slightly because of the nacelles, Chan thought. Shift the magazines. Will the destabilizer work without a sohon gunner? Did I just use those two words in the same phrase?

If I’m understanding it correctly, Daisy thought. If so, I can manage the field interactions. A colloidal will still have to give the order.

You’re a colloidal, Michelle pointed out.

Yeah, I’m still requiring somebody else to order the shot, Daisy thought. Money questions. A. Can the three of you do this? B. Can you do it without it hurting a lot? C. Can you do it and make sure I’ve got all the nannites I need? Because what with one thing and another, I don’t want to whine, but I’ve got major areas of nerve damage already.

Yes, Chan thought. “If… ” he added aloud.

“Yes, if,” Michelle said. “We’re going to need some things. Lots of material. It will have to be done in space. And we’re going to need something I’m not sure is available… ”

* * *

“You want a what?”

The Tir Dal Ron had thought, many times, that working with humans was going to kill him. He had been so close to lintatai over the last hundred years, on so many occasions, that simply the constant edge of it should have killed him long since.

But never had he been through a period as frustrating and rage filled as recently. Working with the humans as their effective master was one thing. Being a clerk to this O’Neal was nightmarish. If for no other reason than having to constantly explain to extremely powerful Darhel that they had to ‘suck it up’ as the human repeatedly said. Every time, every time, that one of the clans had taken upon itself to cause issues that damned runt of a human would stop by his office and oh-so-gently make a slicing motion across his throat. Then the Tir would be left to compose the latest note. And now this?

“One class nine code key,” Mike said. “Whatever the hell that is.”

“It’s a Class Nine Code Key,” the Tir snarled over the connection. “A Class Nine Code Key. What do you want a Class Nine Code Key for?”

“You’re emphasizing but not explaining,” Mike said. “And Michelle wants it for something to do with fixing the Des Moines.”

“Michelle O’Neal assuredly should understand the impossibility of her request!” the Tir snapped. “Class Nine code keys are not simply given over to individuals, even high level sohon. One Class Nine a year is often the most an entire Indowy clan will purchase. It is all they can afford! Were there manufacturing ability available, you could buy a thousand — a thousand! - ACS suits for the price of one Class Nine! They are traded between entire clans, not handed over to some jumped up… ”

“That’s my daughter you’re talking about,” Mike said, cutting him off. “And I don’t really care for the diatribe. She needs one. Get it. How hard can it be?”

“Does the fact that there are none on Earth give you a clue?” the Tir asked.

“Still not explaining,” Mike said. “Which leaves me figuring you’re just stalling.”

“A Class Nine Code Key is a master nannite key,” the Darhel said, trying to fight the urge to rip out the human’s throat. “Nannites have to be authorized for production using code keys. Otherwise they can go into run-away growth. You understand that.”

“Got that in Indowy 101 back in the last century,” Mike said.

“A Class Nine is the master,” the Tir said.

“So you can make as many nannites as you want?” Mike asked. “Forever?”

“No,” the Tir said, frustrated. “But… Think of nannites, or what they produce, as money.”

“I’m thinking more on the lines of getting a new Tir,” Mike said. “And you’re not getting a watch as a retirement present.”

“As frustrated as you may be with me, I am more so with you,” the Tir said. “Nannites equal money.”

“Got it.”

“Level One Code Keys are the ones that actually are used to produce a set number of nannites,” the Tir said. “Those are the ones used by Indowy workers when they need more.”

“Keep going,” Mike said.

“Say that one, by its output, is worth several thousand credits,” the Tir explained.

“Still with you,” Mike said.

“Level Nine Code Keys are the equivalent, often literally, of multi-hundred billion or even trillion credit transfers between banks.”

“Don’t see spending a trillion credits on one ship,” Mike said.

“You begin to see my argument!” the Tir cried.

“But I also doubt that one is worth a trillion credits,” Mike said. “Is it?”

“Admittedly, no,” Dal Ron said. “Tens of billions? Hundreds, depending on use? Yes.”

“Which is in line for making a major capital ship,” Mike said. “And she did mention that she might have change left over, which was a metaphor that completely escaped me at the time. So argument understood and rejected. Get me one. Now.”

“I will be forced to buy one from a Clan,” the Tir said with a sigh. “They would go to war if they felt that major code keys can simply be commandeered. And we don’t have the budget for that.”

“The ship construction budget had better be huge or we might as well throw in the towel now,” Mike said.

“It is,” the Tir said. “But this is not a standard budget item.”

“Look, fix it,” Mike said, getting annoyed. “This is a necessary item, according to the experts, for construction of the flagship of the new Fleet. I don’t care if you commandeer one, kill somebody to get one or buy it. But if the price is jacked up artificially, heads will roll. And get it here fast. I take it the codes or whatever can be sent over the interstellar commo net.”

“No, actually, they cannot,” the Tir said then held up a hand. “I mean they can not, not that I’m not willing to. AIDs are specifically programmed not to be able to transfer key codes. None of the system will. It’s going to have to be hand-carried from the nearest major Darhel branch bank. The last time there were any anywhere near Earth they were stolen.”

“That must have been embarassing,” Mike said with a complete lack of sympathy.

“No, the embarassing part was having an entire clan go into lintatai over it,” the Tir said with a grimace. “They somehow ended up in your daughter Michelle’s hands. With a bare nine she managed to take down the Epetar clan.”

“No wonder you’re flinching,” Mike said, grinning. “But just as you don’t get to mess with us, Michelle don’t get to mess with you. Get her the code key so she can get to work on the Des Moines. Anything else from the list you have problems with?”

“The rest is simple,” the Tir said. “As simple as anything is these days.”

* * *

“Marta,” Frederick said, hugging the girl to him.

He and Marta had been an ‘item’ since they were barely teens. The tall, blonde and popular star of the football — soccer, to Americans — team had been considered an odd match with the quite small, dark and thoughtful book-worm. But he’d loved Marta as long as he could remember. He fell in love with her the first time they met when they were just starting school. If anything, he had had to chase her rather than the reverse.

Both of them were in their first, training, year so normally they would have had no time together. But the tradition of a three day pass for the newly promised, and a five day leave when wed, was fairly iron-clad. And in Freiland, a society that firmly intended to repopulate Europe, a bride going to the altar with a bulge in the tummy was considered a bonus. The pair was going to be afforded as much privacy as possible.

They’d taken that privacy to a small and carefully tended copse of woods near the Rhine. Inside the perimeter it should be safe from Posleen. How it had survived the Posleen, who had clear-cut most of the woods in the area, and the retributory fire of the Fleet, was the real question. It was perched on a steep hillside and between that and the woods they had enough privacy.

“Did you like the bonding party?” Marta said, shrugging out of his embrace and opening the picnic basket.

“I thought it was nice of everyone to come,” he replied. Fortunately it had been pot-luck. If Marta’s father had had to pay for it, Herr Schnaffer would have had a stroke. As it was he was looking at paying for the weddings of five daughters.

“I’m glad that Hagai was able to come,” Marta said. “Although I thought his toast was in bad taste.”

“Everyone needs one friend to embarrass them,” Frederick said, grinning. “Hagai is mine.”

“You were very deep in conversation,” Marta said. “What about? Everything was so hectic I could barely get a chance to talk to anyone.”

“He’s worried about the Hedren,” Frederick said. “Do we really need to talk about this?”

“No,” Marta said, laying out the food. Cold chicken, bread, cheese… There was even a bottle of wine, which was still a rarity. The vines were just starting to produce well. “Yes,” she said.

“He thinks that there will be war,” Frederick said, shrugging. “That that is why the Generalfeldmarschall was called away. And who has to fight the wars of this Federation?”

“The Federation,” Marta spat. “What has the Federation ever done for the Fatherland? For Freiland? Nothing but toss us into the wilderness.”

“If we are conscripted we must go,” Frederick said, shrugging. “That’s the way of things.”

“So you could be going soon,” Marta said, softly.

She was in the same Bruederschaft but not in one of the active support units. But if there was a conscription, she might be plucked up just as he.

“If Hagai was right,” Frederick said, shrugging. “But you know how he is.”

“Yes, I do,” Marta said. “He always knew the answers to the questions before the test. Did you know that?”

“Yes,” Frederick said. “And he’d never give them to me!”

“If Hagai says there will be war and we will be summoned, then he is probably right,” Marta said, looking him in the eye. “We may not even have the three days.”

“Oh,” Frederick said, his eyes lighting. “Then you mean… ?”

“We can eat later.”

* * *

“It’s really simple,” Jake said. “We just walk in and report.”

Jacob “Jake the Snake” Mosovich was one of the few people in the galaxy who could look old despite being rejuved. That might have something to do with the fact that he’d been pretty old when he was rejuved.

A veteran member of the US Army special forces going all the way back to Vietnam, he had been one of the first humans ever to encounter the Posleen and live. Back when aliens were still something from a B movie, he’d been ordered to report to the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, informed that not only were aliens real but that they were getting ready to invade and, oh by the way, he was going to lead a recon team to go check them out.

In many ways he was still trying to come to terms with that.

“Says you,” Mueller snarled, looking at the door marked ‘Incoming Auxillary Personnel.’ “I’ve yet to see paperwork one that says we’re not wanted criminals.”

Mosovich wasn’t sure exactly why he’d gotten Mueller as a constant butt-buddy for the last sixty odd years. Mueller was one of the three members of the recon team that survived, the only one still alive besides himself, and through the decades they’d just constantly run into each other. They made an odd couple. Jake was small, slender and wiry whereas Mueller’s name worked quite well for him. But over time they’d fought, drank and whored on so many planets neither could keep count anymore. There were a couple of failed marriages in there but their marriage seemed to be “til death do us part.”

When the time came, they’d even gone rogue together. Mosovich, having eventually folded and allowed the Army make him an officer, had been appointed as the commander of the Direct Action Group, an elite team of counter-insurgency and counter-Posleen specialists. By then both of them had seen enough of the Darhel corruption of society to be pretty sick about the whole thing. On the other hand, it was the only game in town.

So when they’d taken over DAG they’d figured it was going to be the same-old-same-old. New unit, pretty damned good one, not much polish to put on the apple, kill a few bad guys and maybe some more of umpteen billion Posleen. Servicing a target was servicing a target. Glory, honor, country, those were all things as dead as Caesar.

Then they’d had a call-out. A group of terrorists had taken over a critical facility, taken down the security and were trying to steal top-secret materials. The orders were simple, capture who you can, kill who you must, don’t let the materials get away. Easy enough. How complicated could it be?

They’d been in mission prep when one of the in-place DAG officers had pulled them aside and explained just how very very complicated it could be. The mission had changed. The “terrorists” were, in fact, friends, well family, of pretty much the entire DAG. And the new mission was, in fact, to make sure they got away. And then disappear. Mueller and Mosovich, since they seemed to be fine upstanding people, were invited to command and control the action, under the new rules. And then they, too, could disappear. And, oh by the way, this was really going to fuck with the Darhel.

There wasn’t much time for soul searching. They weren’t going to be harmed if they refused, just tied up and set aside. Which would be really fucking embarassing all things considered. Or they could join the side that at least thought they were angels.

Treason for a possible lost-cause or do your duty and be embarassed as hell.

Support the guys you’ve commanded and trained with, bonded with, or get tied up and left for a laughing stock.

Mosovich still wasn’t sure which it came down to. But in the end he and Mueller had jumped ship into the Bane Sidhe.

However, unlike most of DAG who it turned out weren’t, in fact, the people they said they were, he and Mueller were known entities. Their DNA fit their face and their names and their fingerprints. With most of the Bane Sidhe being utter un-persons, they were a bit of a liability.

They’d helped out a few times, done a few things, but really they’d been underutilized. Now they were being told “Everything’s fine. We’re all working together.” And they were supposed to report back in and get put back in the assignment pool.

Complicated didn’t begin to describe it.

“It’s Mike O’Neal, Sergeant Major,” Jake said, knocking on the door. “Remember him? He says everything’s fine and dandy.”

“We’re going to be assigned to a mess section,” Mueller predicted. “Or mess kit repair. Inventory… ”

“Come!”

The harassed looking officer behind the desk was young. Really young. After a while you could tell the difference between a wet-behind-the-ears and a rejuv. For one thing, rejuvs rarely looked this harassed.

“Lieutenant Colonel Mosovich and Sergeant Major Mueller reporting,” Jake said, trying not to wince. If he’d walked up to an office and said the same any time in the last six years he’d have been breaking rocks on the moon faster than you could say “explosive decompression.”

“Mosovick?”

“Mosovich,” Jake replied, calmly.

“Mos… Mos… I don’t have that.”

“M-O-S-…”

“Ah, Mosovich! There you are! Right… special ops, recon, direct action, explosives, multi-planet… Ah! Where’s… Is there a Mueller?”

“That’s me,” the sergeant major said, shaking his head.

“Right, right… Report to Colonel Widdlebright, special ops, room fourteen eighty-six, section D,” the officer said as his printer spit out a sheet. He handed it to them and then looked puzzled. “Welcome back. Where’ve you been? I don’t see a retirement code.”

“Deep black,” Mosovich said, touching the side of his nose. “Deepest.”

“Right,” the officer said, nodding sagely. “Well, welcome back into the warm I think is what they say.”

* * *

As the door closed Mueller looked at Jake and snorted.

“I’m not sure which part is funnier,” Mueller said. “But you’re right. We were sure in the deepest black I’ve ever been in! Bullshit over your head is pretty much zero-vis.”

“Oh, shut up,” Jake muttered. “At least he didn’t call the MPs. We need to find this Colonel.”

“And that’s the other funny thing… ”

* * *

“I’m Colonel Widdlebright.”

The officer behind the desk did not look harassed despite the fact that he was simultaneously talking to them and typing on his computer. He also looked to be about fourteen. Rejuv caught some people like that. If you naturally looked baby-faced you could end up appearing damned near pubescent.

“Go ahead and laugh,” the officer said, not looking up. “It’s nearly impossible not to.”

“I had my sense of humor surgically removed, sir,” Jake replied.

“Now that is funny,” Widdlebright said, finally looking up. “Jake the fucking Snake. I never expected to see you again. Except as a sight-picture.”

“And I’ve never even heard of you, sir,” Jake said. “And I’m beginning to suspect I should have.”

“We have mutual friends,” Widdlebright said. “I was over the wall part of the time we would have been in contact. Then agency ops. It’s a small world but a black one.”

“Got that,” Jake said.

“How’d the Bane Sidhe treat you?” the colonel asked. “I considered trying to find them at a couple of points. In other words, no harm, no foul in my book.”

“Yes, sir,” Jake replied.

“Mueller ever talk?”

“Not if I can keep him from doing so, sir,” Jake said.

“With all due respect, fuck you, Colonel,” Mueller replied.

“Be aware that you’re back in the arms of the military, Sergeant Major,” Widdlebright said, politely. “And I can and will have you breaking rocks for things other than going rogue.”

“Sorry, sir,” Mueller said. “Will happen again.”

“Probably,” the colonel said, turning away from the computer finally. “I was reviewing your service records. Probably should have done that before but I’ve been busy. Welcome to the Strategic Reconnaissance Section. Since at the moment the SRS consists of a clerk typist, a supply private and the three of us, welcome, welcome, welcome indeed!”

“You’re going to put me behind a desk, aren’t you, sir?” Jake said.

“For about three days,” Widdlebright replied. “You and Mueller. You’re going to have to go into the damned nightmare the personnel system has become and dig out all your DAG guys. SRS is going to be built around your old unit. I assume most of them are still alive.”

“We… lost some,” Jake admitted. “We were… ”

“Covering the extraction of one faction of the Bane Sidhe when the Darhel went freaky on them,” Widdlebright finished for him. “Against ACS. That’s double tough by the way. Good job. You’ll be training back in Greeneville as soon as we get the full team together but it will be quick and rough. Your mission has already been assigned.”

“Which is, sir?” Mueller asked.

“Well, there’s this group of invading aliens,” Widdlebright said, grinning. “And we need to recon them and get a better feel for their abilities than we’ve gotten from the Himmit.”

“Oh, crap,” Jake said. “I think this is where I came in.”

“Yeah, well, if you think you’re in the cacky… ”

* * *

“Hey, Chief,” Bob the Postman said, walking down the pier. “You’ve got mail. Certified letter.”

Being a mailman the post-War US was not a job for the faint-of-heart. Not if you worked the former battle zones.

San Diego was just such a battlezone. The city had, for a time, been a ‘fortress city’, one of the twenty or so cities that, based on previous experience with the Posleen, were likely to get hammered but that the government had chosen to defend, anyway.

The votes were never quite counted on whether the ‘fortress city’ concept was a grand idea or incredibly stupid. Vital combat troops who could have been used to shore the internal defenses were, instead, stuck out on a limb and all too often lost when the Posleen sawed it off.

San Diego was one such city. Essentially evacuated except for a minimum support force, it had been protected by five divisions. The core of the city that is, all the periphery had to be left to the Posleen.

But the Posleen, seeing that there must be something worthwhile in there if there were defenders, had attacked and attacked mercilessly. In a bare six months the defenses crumbled and the survivors scrambled into a Dunkirk that carried them north to shore up the defenses of Los Angeles. Which also fell. The remnant then went north, again, to San Francisco which, by the skin of its teeth, held.

Robert Mccune was born in the shattered ruins of San Diego. Survivors of the Posleen enslaught in the Sierra Madres had been quick to recolonize the California coast. All the original reasons to live in California, bright sunshine and constant temperatures, were still there. With a small amount of technology, so was fresh water. And the farming and fishing were still superb.

Bob the Mailman’s grandparents on his mother’s side hadn’t been military. They’d run a commune to the east of San Diego before the war, didn’t like the military then, didn’t like the military during the war, never liked the military. From what he’d heard, his grandmother had used the term ‘babykillers’ right up to the day she’d died. They’d come down out of the hills with their children and a similar-minded group intent on establishing a new Israel free from the evil of violence and anti-alien bigotry. Escaping the hell of the Urb they found the free skies and clean air of California that they’d always wanted.

Bob’s mother had been saved from the Posleen feral that ate her parents by his grandfather on his father’s side, a former tanker who was taking his new wife down into the plains for much the same reason. But he and his group of buddies had armed to the teeth before they set out. Running across the massacre was luck as much as anything. But they’d gotten there a bit late.

Mama Moonchild didn’t talk much about that day.

Bob had grown up outside the former town of Carlsbad, California, where his grandfather and his buddies had spread out and reestablished a nice little colony. They kept a cleared zone around it, both to spot ferals and to keep the fires off, and sold produce to the fishing colonies that had settled around San Diego harbor. It was still an interesting drive getting to Diego, but Bob grew up doing it.

So when the Federal Government finally got around to reestablishing the Post Office, he’d taken the tests and been inducted as a ‘Rural mail carriers, unsecured zone’ which not only had a monthly bonus attached but a generous firearms, vehicle and ammo budget.

When he pulled in to drop off the mail in his surplus LAV, complete with functional and well-cared-for 25mm chain-gun, the old timer Californians like Chief Isemann barely shook their heads anymore.

“I paid my fucking taxes,” Chief Isemann said, setting down the splice she’d been putting in the hawser. “Who the hell’s it from?”

Former Master Chief Petty Officer (Fleet) Ronnette Isemann was pushing a hundred and looked like she had the day she raised her hand to swear and affirm in the US Navy, three months after she graduated from Scripps Ranch High School. Roan hair fell down her back in a thick braid, braided every morning by hands burned nearly black from the sun. Her face was just as brown as were the eyes behind the wrap-around sunglasses.

The tuna-boat Lexington tugged at its lines, waiting to go out. The bluefin were going to be running offshore and the last thing that Ronnie needed was to be held up by some fucking Fed bullshit.

“Fleet,” Bob said, holding out the letter on a clipboard. “Sign here.”

“Christ, can’t you tell ’em I was gone when you got here?” Ronnie asked.

“Now, Chief, you know I can’t do that,” Bob said. “I’d have to put down that you refused delivery.”

“Fuck,” Ronnie said, signing the form. Bob tore off his portion and handed the letter over. “You’re a fucking pal, Bob.”

“Come on, Chief,” the mailman said. “Just doing my duty.”

“Point,” the former NCO said, looking at the letter.

“Come on, read it,” Bob said. “I want to know what it says.”

“Maybe I’m up for disability or something,” the Chief said, opening up the letter. “Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me… ”

“That bad?”

“I’m recalled? It’s been fifty fucking years of ignoring me and now I’m recalled? Oh, those Indi bastards! ‘Thank you very much for saving the earth, now get the fuck out of the Fleet, you’re no longer wanted you Ami traitor.’ Until the shit… Am I missing something? What the fuck is going on?”

“You hadn’t heard?” Bob said. “New invasion.”

“Not the damn Posleen again!” the Chief swore. “Not under fucking Indi officers. I just won’t go!”

“New group,” Bob said. “Read it on the internet. Hedren. And there’s been a big shake-up in Fleet and Fleet Strike. Mike O’Neal’s commander of Fleet Strike and some Jap is commanding Fleet. Taki something.”

“Takao Takagi?” Isemann said, sitting up as straight as a bolt.

“Yeah, that’s it,” Bob said. “Mean anything to you?”

“Fleet is under Takao Takagi?” Isemann said, jumping to her feet and raising her hands to the sky. “Fleet is under Takao ‘VX’ Takagi? Yes! There is a God! When’s the next convoy leave for Tahoe? Jimmy! JIMMY! Get your lazy butt down here! You’ve got the boat. Grandma’s going back to SPACE!”

* * *

We have completed our examination of the Indowy so-called ‘master’ of kratku. The telepathic transmission from the Imeg entered General Etugul’s mind like red fire, but he maintained his splayed stance of obeisance despite the pain. The Indowy are no threat to the Conquest. They retain even in the most extreme conditions a code of utter non-violence. The Indowy did no more than defend himself against our probes. They use kratku only for making of devices and as part of their false Path. They will not impede your advance.

“I thank you most humbly for the information, Lord Imeg. The Archons are victorious.”

What are your plans?

“The capitol of this polity is within range of the most recently conquered world, Your Greatness. And it is within range of many other planets. As soon as the jump gate is established and charged, we will continue our conquest of this polity by next taking their capitol. We have developed information from examination of their information network and interrogations. The leaders of this polity, the Darhel, have systematically reduced their war forces to a level so low they are a negligible threat. The most dangerous unit that we might have faced was eliminated not so long ago. The method of their elimination is a source of rumor, but that it is gone is unquestionable. Their ships are sub-standard and only the humans give fight. Given the scattered nature of their forces, we should be able to conquer this polity as rapidly as we can move.”

This is all good news, the Imeg said. But be wary. The Himmit yet remain and the polity may have surprises yet in store.

“I remain wary, Greatness,” Etegul said. “I know the Words and the Teachings perfectly. I will do all things in accordance with the will of the Archons.”

Yes, I know you do, the Imeg thought. I know you do.

* * *

“You know, it’s the little things in life,” Bill Boyd said, as he walked in the office.

“Sunshine, gentle rains, spring daffodils?” Mike asked. “Things like that?”

“One of three total shipyards capable of producing warships directly in the path of an alien conquest.”

“Crap,” Mike said, slapping his forehead. “Gratoola yards! How in the fuck could I forget that?”

“I mean, there’s tons of orbital manufacturing, too,” Boyd said, sitting down unasked. “But the yards are the killer. That and the Indowy shipfitters. With what we’re looking at, how we’re looking at producing ships, the shipyard was going to have to be extensively renovated anyway. It might have been more sense to start from scratch. But the shipfitters… We need those guys.”

“So evacuate them,” Mike said, looking back at his computer. “Them and any sohon above the level of four. We’re going to need both. Get with Admiral Takagi on where to send them.”

“You don’t think you can hold Gratoola,” Boyd said.

“Actually, I said evacuate the critical non-combatants,” Mike replied. “I’m going to send everything I can spare to hold Gratoola. And I am confident of victory.”

“I’m not a reporter,” Bill said.

“No, you’re the head of the War Production board,” Mike said. “Which means I tell you what you need to know and vice versa. You tell me everything, though, and I tell you what I think you need to know. Me commander. Sorry, Bill, but that’s the way things work.”

“Okay,” the industrialist said, standing up. “I actually can handle that. I was a private many, many years ago and understand what you’re doing. But, seriously, we don’t have the forces to hold Gratoola, do we?”

“Nope,” Mike said. “Not against the whole Hedren force. Doesn’t mean I’m going to lose it, though. I’ve got some aces up my sleeve.”

* * *

“Are you sure I’m going to be okay doing this?” Daisy asked, nervously. “And I do me I. The whole package. Including, you know, the meat portion.”

Michelle had gathered other sohon, both from the few human lower mentats on earth and a group of Indowy, including Master Glavaka, Ermintrude’s master of training.

Over the last weeks the ship had been packed with, well, stuff. Much of it was refined metals comprising most of the metal group in the Periodic Table. There was also bags and bags and bags of graphite, pure carbon in other words.

And then there was one.

“Your processes will be placed in suspension,” Michelle said, placing a finger-sized device on the teak deck of the cruiser. Even walking on the surface was somewhat problematic since many portions had nearly rotted through. “Your organic portion will be held in stasis and protected from the vacuum by Harry. We have carefully examined your links and understand them thoroughly. We will be able to… remake you in a new image.”

“I sort of like my current image,” Daisy said, frowning. “Really, I’m not so sure about this.”

“Miss Mae,” Thomas said, gesturing at the rust streaked cruiser. “We will make this… better. Better than she was, you were, when you first pulled out of the shipyards. Bigger, stronger, a spaceship capable of fighting anything in the known galaxy that’s faster than she is and running from anything more powerful. Not a cruiser, a dreadnought to redefine the term. You will be a capital ship when we are done.”

“Okay,” Daisy said, shrugging. “I guess I don’t really got a choice.”

“You have a choice,” Michelle said. “But I think what you really have is cold feet.”

“More like stage fright,” Daisy admitted. “But, okay, let’s get this over with. What do I do?”

“I would suggest simply lying on the deck,” Thomas said. “In a way this new ship we are creating is built in your image. Let you be the template.”

“Mind if I lean on the bridge-tower?” Daisy said, walking over and looking at the deck. “My dress is going to get ruined.”

Thomas waved his hand and the teak deck looked as if it had been newly installed. And varnished.

“Better?”

“I can see why people call what you do magic,” Daisy said, sitting down. “Right. Capital ship. I can handle that. I think. Better than the scrap-yard.”

“It is time,” Michelle said, lifting up into the air and lowering herself to the river-bank. “Let us begin.”

* * *

“You know,” Mike said, looking out the window with his arms crossed. “I’ve gotten used to grav belts and stuff. But watching them just fly around using the power of their mind sort of throws me.”

“It’s not exactly the power of their mind,” Cally replied. “Trying to get Michelle to explain it is pretty tough but I’ve gotten some bits out of her. It’s using their minds to control the nannites to locally effect reality. Think quantum. In some dimension or universe or something, anything is possible. Including that, at any moment, they are lifting up a bit then over a bit, etcetera.”

“And in some dimension a cruiser is just lifting up out of the river and ascending into the heavens?”

“Right,” Cally said in a strangled voice. “They’re using the grav engines, right? Because if that thing drops… ”

“They got removed,” Mike replied, spitting into a spit can. “And I guess in some universe somewhere, there’s a group of mentats including my daughter who are just lifting up into the air.

“I guess,” Cally said, holding her breath.

“I got to go outside and watch this.”

* * *

We are stable, Michelle thought.

The cruiser was in geosyncronous orbit. Getting it there had been a non-trivial exercise in sohon but everything else they had to do would be easier in the vacuum and microgravity. Maintaining an air-pocket, and recycling that air, around each of the sohon and the organic portion of the ship was an exercise for the lower level sohon, trivial in comparison.

Let us begin, Master Glavaka said. This is what she is. This is what she shall become.

Becoming.

* * *

“Can you see anything?” Mike asked, shielding his eyes against the sun and looking up.

“Even the satellites can’t see anything,” Tam replied. “There’s a spatial disturbance in geosync at the equator but in line with us on longitude. Light appears to be going in but not coming out. Not a black hole, no similar gravitational disturbance, just… light going in and not coming out.”

“Wonder how long this is going to take,” Mike said, walking over to a beech tree and sitting down under it. “I’ve got paperwork.”

“You’ve always got paperwork,” General Wesley said. “You’ve been at the desk by three AM and out of here after midnight for the last three weeks. Take a break.”

“I think I will,” Mike said, leaning back on the grass and continuing to look into the lightly clouded sky. “Get somebody to tell me when that spatial anomaly starts to move.”

“Will do.”

* * *

The sohon floated in space, their hands outstretched, each face serene as they wrestled with more power than the earth had been capable of producing before the coming of the Galactics.

The nannites, reacting to the codes from the high-level key, began reproducing asymptotically, the remainder that were in the steel and those sent from the sohon exploding into quantities that were only reproducible by scientific notation. The “spatial anomaly” was, in part, a giant lens, focussing Sol’s awesome power on the steel of the ship, pumping photons and other particles onto it to feed the replication and change occurring throughout.

Bulkheads warped and twisted sinuously, guns melted and becoming new and more lethal engines of destruction, the hull bulging out and becoming larger, larger, more rounded, less angular and yet in many ways much more… predatory.

The Des Moines was Becoming.

* * *

“General O’Neal, sir?”

Mike started awake and looked around blurrily.

“Sir,” the sergeant said, shaking his shoulder. “General Wesley says that… ‘the spatial anomaly is moving,’ sir.”

“Right,” Mike said, sitting up and rubbing his face. “How long was I out?”

“About an hour, sir,” the sergeant replied. “Are you going to be… ”

“Fine, sergeant,” Mike said, grinning. “Just took a cat-nap. Right, let’s see what we got.”

* * *

“Should be in sight,” Tam said, looking up into the sky.

“Behind the clouds I figure,” Mike replied, tapping down his dip.

“I see something… ” Cally said. “It’s… ”

“Holy Fuck that’s big!” Mike snapped.

What he had at first taken to be a cloud was moving unlike any cloud would. But it was further away than he’d thought and thus much larger than he’d realized.

“Are they going to park that in the river?” Tam asked as the ship continued to descend. “That’s got to be nearly a klick long!”

“Oh. My. God,” Cally said.

“You got some sort of enhanced vision from that slab thing, didn’t you,” Mike said, balefully.

“Yep,” Cally replied, her hand over her mouth. “Dad. You’re not going to believe this… ”

“Are those… ?”

* * *

“No, Father, they are not breasts,” Michelle said, sharply.

The ship was hovering above the Rappahannock, squarely between the headquarters building and the training center on the far side. And Mike was pretty sure nothing was getting done. Because every single person in every single building was outside looking at the ship. If any of the guards stayed on their posts, he was going to give them a three-day pass for aggressive attention to duty.

It was big, that was for sure. Eight hundred meters long and massing maybe a hundred and fifty thousand tons. Supermonitors were bigger but they were never designed to enter atmosphere. It had to be pretty much the biggest ship ever to come near landing on a planet. It’s hull was glittering gold, sinuous and… distinctly womanly. Warp nacelles jutted like wings , upward on either side, and surmounting it were a rack of grav drivers and laser cannons. More were forward of the nacelles and even on the underside although it was clearly designed for landings.

But that wasn’t what people were looking at.

“They sure look like tits,” Mike said. “I mean, they’re right out front, they’ve got some ptosis and they’ve even got nipples. I mean, not only are they tits, they’re naked tits, Michelle. You’ve built me a warship that’s got naked tits on the front. What’s the point of nose art!”

“The… devices to which you refer are Quantum Tanglers,” Michelle said, severely. “The shape is… an unfortunate necessity. That truly is the only shape that will work.”

“And Quantum Tanglers are… ?” Cally asked.

“They cause particles to become… strangled in their entanglements,” Michelle replied. “Their entanglements become confused.”

“Michelle, that’s not telling me a whole hell of a lot,” Mike pointed out.

“Let me help, General,” Kang Chan said, from behind him. “They make things blow up.”

“Ah, now someone is speaking a language I understand!” Mike said, turning around. “How much?”

“A lot,” Mentat Chan said.

“Okay,” Mike said, holding his finger and thumb apart at eye level. “Leetle more detail.”

“The quantum tangler causes randomization of entanglements by inserting false tangles into the entanglements,” Thomas said.

“There has to be a middle ground,” Mike growled. “Tell me there’s a middle ground. How much boom? Are we talking a little bang or an earth-shattering kaboom?”

“I was getting to that,” Thomas continued. “Although it is a false truth, the way to explain it I suspect is in terms you are aware of. They are incorrect terms, but you are familiar with them. May I proceed?”

“Go,” Mike said, crossing his arms.

“You are familiar with the hoary adage that all matter is energy?”

“You mean relativity?” Mike asked. “E equals MC square. That hoary old adage? The one Einstein got the Nobel for?”

“Yes,” Thomas said. “It is, by the way, wrong. But it is a close approximation of effect. By disturbing entanglements, certain particles are induced to become… different. More wave-like. Energy if you prefer. I am having trouble determining appropriate metaphors.”

“And that… ?”

“It’s a matter to energy converter?” Cally said, her eyes widening. “As a weapon?”

“No,” Michelle said. “It is a quantum tangler!” She paused and sighed. “I suppose, though, that your description is a close-order approximation of the effect.”

“Holy crap,” Mike muttered. “How much matter will one hit convert?”

“It will not be localized,” Chan said. “The system will first form a link between the tangler and matter that it is directed towards. Then it initiates tangling on the matter.”

“So does it blow up part of a big ship or all of a big ship or… ?” Mike asked, getting frustrated.

Most of it,” Daisy said, walking up. “Oh. My. God. I can’t wait to fire that thing! And did you see the hangar bay?”

“Hangar bay?”

* * *

“This is a big ship.”

Mike had much better things to do. And, after all, the ship technically belonged to Fleet, not him. The reality was, though, that with Admiral Takagi running rampant cleaning up the Fleet officer corps, Mike was sitting on top of Fleet not the other way around. So in a way, effectively, it was his ship.

And it was a beauty. Mike wasn’t sure what the thing had cost, the sohons had to be paid and there was all the materials not to mention that code key, but it was worth it. They hadn’t toured the whole thing, just the highlights. State of the art CIC, stealth systems, heavy duty close-in-defense system, armored to the max, missiles that were faster than any current… It even had two normal space engines based on antimatter ejection systems that would give it more speed and maneuverablility than a current destroyer.

But then there was the hangar bay.

“Is it just me,” Cally asked, looking around. “Or is this thing sort of oddly shaped?”

“It’s an efficient use of space,” Michelle said, just a tad nervously.

“And the entry looks… ”

“It’s a very efficient design,” Thomas added.

“And it’s placement?” Mike asked.

“Only place we could put it,” Michelle said, more sturdily. “It’s capable of housing nine Falcon Four Space Fighters and two Banshee shuttles. Or a similar mix to size as needed.”

“So, the fact that it looks like we’re inside a womb and the take-off and landing area looks like… I’m not going to say what it looks like… is purely coincidental?” Mike asked.

“Absolutely,” Michelle and Thomas both said at the same time.

“This ship is beautiful,” Mike said. “And obscene.”

“So is the human body, General,” Daisy said, tightly. “And you’re talking about me, by the way.”

“Sorry,” Mike said, shaking his head. “This is a beautiful ship. Truly. Quite the most… voluptuous I’ve ever seen. I’ve got to ask, though. Are we looking at a class?”

“The basic design parameters are… ” Michelle started to say and then stopped. “Yes. Smaller versions in general but… Yes.”

“Good God.”

* * *

“What is this I hear about an evacuation of Gratoola?”

Mike looked up from his desk and his face turned downward even more than usual.

“Hello, Clerk,” Mike replied. “I don’t seem to recall saying ‘Enter’.”

“I am serious,” the Tir snapped. “Do not think that just because you have some current political currency you can simply abandon the capitol of the entire Galactic Confederation!”

“I’m not going to abandon it,” Mike said. “I have an infantry division training even as we speak. They need equipment, though, and there is a strange dearth of that available. No new SheVas were in the process of being built when we were out there fighting the Posleen. Also a strange dearth of formed units and an entire dearth of heavy units. No new ACS suits had been made in three years. I was wondering why the supply was so short. Not that it matters because you wiped out my fucking Corps!”

“I have heard this diatribe from both you and General Wesley before,” the Tir said. “I do not need to hear it again. Whatever the conditions before this invasion, you cannot and will not let Gratoola fall!”

“I won’t let it fall,” Mike said, calmly. “I’m going to do everything in my power to prevent it. That is not the same as expecting to succeed. Get this through your thick skull, Darhel. Your people ensured that humans had their fangs pulled. Nobody trusts the military, the bulk of the youth population has lost any interest in fighting because they just figure they are changing masters and the Hedren only look mildly worse than the Darhel. The forces that could have saved Gratoola are either distributed in penny packets or were destroyed by your orders! I did not create this situation. The Darhel created it. It is, I think, fitting that one of your prime worlds has been devastated. I will cry no tears for anything that happens around Gratoola except the loss of every soldier I send out and the innocent if stupid Indowy. I’ll add that the orders I sent for evacuation specifically exclude Darhel. And since I’m commandeering just about every ship available for either sending forces to or extracting critical forces from Gratoola, you can anticipate that the vast majority of Darhel on the planet are Hedren fodder if I fail.”

“You are exterminating us,” the Tir said in a voice of wonder. “I had no belief that it was possible that you could sink so low.”

“I’m not exterminating you,” Mike said with a sigh. “I’m doing two things. One, making sure that it’s possible to save some of you in the end. If the Hedren win, that’s not a sure thing. For us to win against the Hedren, I will eventually need the critical Indowy sohon and those ship-fitters. I do not need Darhel clerks and bankers and politicians. Second, I am assuredly rubbing your noses in the fact that if you spend all your efforts on the military emasculating it, you cannot expect it to be there when you need it. After this war the Darhel are still going to retain a measure of control. Assuming you don’t force us into a war of extermination against you. When you regain that measure of control, it might behoove you to recall this lesson. In the words of the Bard:

For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”

But it’s “Saviour of ’is country,” when the guns begin to shoot;

An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;

But Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool — you bet that Tommy sees!

“What in all the universe is that supposed to mean?” the Tir said, looking confused. “Are you referring to that associate of your daughter? Thomas Sunday?”

“Figure it out for yourself, you nitwit,” Mike said, tiredly. “But you’d better work to make sure the evacuation goes smoothly if you want a single Darhel to survive this war.”

“Tir,” the Darhel’s AID interjected. “There is a priority message. Gil Etullu, clan leader of the Fauldor has entered lintatai.”

“Gosh, what a shame,” Mike said, leaning back and propping his head with a finger on one cheekbone.

“I… ” the Tir said then stared at the general. “Wait… Where has Cally been? Fauldor… ”

“Oh, yeah, them,” Mike said, leaning forward to move some folders around. “Gosh, I’m pretty sure I’ve got a report somewhere here that they were slow-rolling a shipment of Posleen forges. Shame about their clan leader going into lintatai. I suppose it is going to slow things down even more what with the chaos that’s going to erupt. You Darhel have such a hard time with transitions of power. Good thing it only happened to one of them; if all of them suddenly went into lintatai you’d probably never recover.”

“You… ” the Tir said, his eyes widening.

Mike leaned back on his finger and contemplated the Darhel.

“I know you’re faster and stronger than me,” Mike commented. “But I’m pretty sure I can stay alive long enough to wait until you clock out. Done that once already and I was chained up at the time.”

“You… you… ” the Darhel said, snarling. “You are a mad man!”

“If you mean mad as in angry, then yes I am,” Mike said. “Repeat that diatribe that you recall from myself and General Tam. If you mean mad as in insane, you’d better hope I’m crazy like a fox. Because otherwise we’re all screwed. Now, you have a statement to prepare for the media expressing your condolences, and mine, and all of Fleet and Fleet Strikes and auxiliary Federalized forces, for the unfortunate clan leader. When the news media inevitably ask questions, you will explain that the evacuation is a preventative measure since it’s anticipated there will be damage to the yards. The personnel are being sent to other yards to continue the mighty work, blah, blah… And say something nice about the unit going to Gratoola, you might look up a precis on them beforehand since those questions are inevitably going to be asked. General theme is that we’re one big happy Galactic family who are working shoulder to shoulder to prevent the tyranny of the awful Hedren and restore freedom and justice to the Galaxy.”

“And how much of that is true?” the Tir asked.

“Certainly the last part. The very last. You better bet that Tommy sees!”

* * *

“What’s up?” Frederick asked as voices were raised in the day-room.

The barracks for first years were bay barracks constructed of locally pressed plastic. It was the best material the Folk had for the first few years of settlement. The barracks had originally been communal facilities for the new colonists and only later handed over to the Bruederschafts.

On one end was a small “day room” which was the most recreation most of the first-years would see all year. It held a foozball table, currently broken, and a large supply of pornographic magazines, most with impossible to open pages.

When the new recruits were given a half day pass they could visit the slop-house which served brats and very bad beer. The only saving grace was that both were cheap. Given the pay of Schutzes, that was a good thing.

“A distribution form was just posted,” Ewald Higger said. The rifleman from Second Platoon was trotting down the barracks. “It has something about the war.”

Frederick set down his worn boot that was refusing to take a shine and walked to the day room.

There was a crowd around the DF so he couldn’t see it, but he could hear the exclamations.

“Generalmajor? What an insult!”

“Yes! Our own Bruederschaft!”

“Units, now,” another voice said. “We will be the Panzer Schwere Michael Wittmann!”

“Nobody here knows how to drive a panzer,” another interjected.

“Speak for yourself, Schutze,” a voice said from by Frederick’s elbow.

“Achtung!” Eric barked. “Unteroffizier!”

The recruits all snapped to attention as Eric’s gunner walked across the day-room.

“Since you idiots were hogging the board I will now read it aloud,” Harz said, loudly. “Attention to orders.

“Fleet Strike Special Order Number 79833.

“SS Panzergrenadier Division Vaterland, commander Generalmajor Fredrik Muehlenkampf, is called to active duty April 5th, 2061 by order of General Michael O’Neal, Fleet Strike. SS Panzergrenadier Division Vaterland has position of Fleet Strike attached auxiliary unit. SS Panzergrenadier Division Vaterland shall prepare for off-planet duty for a period of no less than 1 (one) year.

“Headquarters SS Panzergrenadier Division Vaterland supplemental instructions.

“My people. A new enemy force threatens not only the Federation but Earth and the Fatherland. We have been requested to respond as a people, as a unit, and I have accepted this request. This is a warning order for all active reserve members of Brotherhoods to prepare for full-scale mobilization. New equipment, production equipment and materials will be sent to our People to prepare us for the great battles that lie ahead. As always, only the best is expected of the Freilaender. We shall battle for the honor and safety of the Fatherland, for our homes and for our illustrious names. Although the war may be long, we shall overcome our adversaries on the field as we always have. Arise my people; the smoke of battle draws near.

“Muehlenkampf.”

“That is what’s on the DF,” Harz ground out. “But since you are recruits and thus too stupid to figure the rest out I was sent down here to explain it to you in very small words. Yes, Herr Feldmarschall is now Herr Generalmajor. What else do you expect? Do you see multiple armies for a Generalfeldmarschall to command? Neither do I. There is just the Volk. We can mass, at most, one division. The Generalfeldmarschall has chosen to lead us, as he always has, rather than argue for a higher rank. What this should tell you is how serious the Generalfeldmarschall considers this new threat. Yes, we have no Panzers. The SS had no panzers when I joined. I ended the war as gunner of a Tiger III. Panzers will be pulled from storage or perhaps made. You did notice the part of about weapons and materials, yes?

“For the rest, there are many questions. It doesn’t matter. You are all recruits and all you need do is what the Unterofficers tell you. And if you don’t, it’s the same as always: we will put our boot up your ass. Now get back to your duties. You can expect that little pleasantness of your first six months to soon seem like a holiday.”

* * *

“Now we get to see what this thing does,” Captain McNair said.

Admiral Takagi had many things to do besides watch the first test firing of a new weapon. The Fleet, what remained of it, was a shambles. During the War the Fleet had started as primarily a European and American domain. They had the officers familiar with fielding large systems, maintaining the crews under the cramped and high-pressure conditions of a large warship. They had proven, repeatedly, that they could and would do whatever was necessary to carry the fight to the enemy.

However, the first major space battles of the War had bled that fleet white. Virtually every ship had been turned to scrap then rebuilt, some of them multiple times. The superdreadnought Kaga had been on its fifth iteration by the time the Posleen were stopped.

In most cases, especially of the capital ships, the drifting hulks remained but not much of the crews. Over six hundred thousand trained sailors and officer had been lost in one battle.

With Europe gripped in a war of extinction and the US cut off, the only source for new officers, NCOs and sailors were the virtually untouched islands of Indonesia and the Phillipines. There had been landings in both countries, landings that had decimated their central cities, but vast populated areas remained.

So the Fleet shifted, more and more, to officers and crew from those areas. Indonesian officers tended to supplant the Phillipinos rather quickly. Not that, in the end, there was any great difference.

Cleaning up Fleet was a day-in, day-out nightmare. Takao had started by using the same database O’Neal had used to find him, searching the Darhel records for any officer in Fleet they found to be ‘untrustworthy.’ Most of those, some of them Southeast Asians, had also been competent but he was the only officer who had ever risen above lieutenant commander. There were many places where a competent lieutenant commander could make quite a difference, but the reality was that he needed every rank from lieutenant to admiral and their accompanying NCOs.

So he had delved into the record of remaining officers on Earth and the nearby stars. An AID O’Neal said he could ‘probably trust’ ran the search, sifting for any former Fleet officers that weren’t corrupted by the Darhel. But there were so few. Most of the competent and honorable officers that survived the war had been forced out into retirement. More than a few of those, including every senior officer who had participated in the ‘reconnaissance in force’ that had relieved the Siege of Earth, had sustained mortal ‘accidents’ after retirement.

The Darhel were nothing if not vindictive.

Given the number of ships he had and administrative positions, currently, he needed six thousand officer that were trustworthy and about a similar number of NCOs.

He had been able to find two hundred and thirteen officers and about seven hundred NCOs. Some of them weren’t what he’d call competent but they all had their hearts in the right place. They still weren’t a drop in the bucket and every day, in part because they were now looking at the real condition of the Fleet, there was another report of some critical failure.

So he really had better things to be doing right now. But if he had to look at one more negative report he was going to commit seppuku.

The target was a small nickel-iron asteroid, one of the Apollo asteroids that roamed the empty space between Earth orbit and that of Mars. It was conveniently close and since such asteroids were considered a potential threat it had long before been mapped.

It also was about the size of a Hedren destroyer.

“So we gonna do this or what?” Daisy Mae asked, arching. “I am ready to fire, Captain.”

“Permission to open fire, Admiral?” Jeff asked.

“Permission granted, Captain,” Takagi replied.

“XO, engage target with QT guns,” Captain McNair said.

The dreadnought was pointed more-or-less directly at the asteroid at a range of just over a million and a half kilometers. According to the mentat, the system should be able to lock within twenty degrees of forward and at a range of up to seven light seconds. They were right at the edge of range because Captain McNair did not want to be near something that was having ‘random energy conversion events’ going on.

“Gunnery, lock target with QTs One and Two,” the XO said.

“Locking,” the gunnery NCO said.

On the screen it looked as if blue beams of fire lanced out to the distant asteroid. The long-range viewer showed that the asteroid was bathed by them in lambent turquoise.

“Locked on target with QT One and Two, aye.”

“Fire QT One and Two.”

The beams now had started to shift sinuously as the ship and the distant asteroid moved at slightly divergent course. However, when the weapons fired, blue balls of chain lightning followed the bent beams like a pig sliding down the gullet of an anaconda. But much quicker.

“Time to impact two seconds,” Gunnery said. “One… ”

The long range viewers darkened as the asteroid was engulfed in white fire. When the ejected gases cleared, though, the asteroid was still there.

“Looks… different,” Bill said. “But it didn’t blow apart.”

“Target has lost fifteen percent of its mass,” Tactical reported.

“Ouch,” McNair said.

“The question, of course, is what that would do to an actual hull,” Admiral Takagi said. “Keep blowing up asteroids. I will find an appropriate hull to blow up. There is much that is not more than scrap in this system.”

* * *

“This is… a pretty good set-up,” Bill Boyd said, looking around the facility.

“It is anything but,” the apparently young man standing by him replied. “However, it is the best we could do rapidly.”

The warehouse was constructed of patched together I beams and patched together corrugated steel. Curved like a Quonset hut it was, nonetheless, nearly seventy meters across at the base and a hundred meters long. The whole facility was set on a much larger stand of concrete near the top of a small hill. Given the wear, Boyd figured the foundation probably dated from before the Posleen War and was the remnant of either a factory or warehouse. There were several more pads in the area, which Boyd found unusual. Generally, in former Posleen areas the ground was either pocked with craters or stripped to the soil and rock.

The facility was at the edge of a burgeoning city. Called Freiburg, it was growing up around the former Koblenz Regional Defence Center. The center had been built around Fort Ehrenbreitstein, a massive stone structure dating to well before the First World War which perched over the town like a leopard. During the war it had been hammered by Posleen orbital strikes to the point that most of its structure was stripped off the mountain. However, when the SS colony returned to Germany they had centered around the natural defense point and only slowly spread out.

When the Posleen took an area, assuming they had the time, they stripped most of the original facilities off, right down to tearing up the roads. Then they built their own civilization on top. So when the SS returned it was to a combination of wilderness, where the Posleen had removed all traces of the former habitations, and large craters from the Fleet forces that hammered every trace of Posleen habitations into the ground.

The Mainz River joined the Rhine at Koblenz with hills flanking both sides of both rivers, narrowing down to cliffs upriver in both directions. On the flats, where the city had once stood, there were broad stretches of open area. Defense positions now lined the hills, maintaining a perimeter to keep the ferals out, while fields lined the east bank and the growing city formed on the west. To the north were more defense positions and in the distance could be seen a line of scrub where the wilderness terminated.

“There’s plenty of room,” Boyd said, looking out over the city. “The roads could use work.”

The latter were graded dirt and gravel and wound up the hill in a serpentine. They were well constructed, though, with regularly spaced run-offs and the center domed for drainage.

“We still have little in the way of construction equipment and materials,” the man said with a shrug. “The road will do until we can get it paved properly.”

Boyd didn’t know much about the “Herr Oberstleutnant.” The locals used their military rank in everyday conversation so the only way Boyd even knew the guy was the equivalent of a lieutenant colonel was by the way people referred to him. He’d introduced himself as simply Dieter Schultz. Boyd assumed the rank came from back in the War. The guy was clearly a rejuv.

The oddest thing about Schultz was that he carried an old “Fritz” helmet with some flowers in it. Growing flowers, the bottom being filled with dirt. Boyd figured there was a story there, but he wasn’t going to inquire.

“Mr. Boyd, shuttles are inbound,” Boyd’s AID interjected. “ETA five minutes.”

“Better get started,” Boyd said, looking around. There were two groups and an individual, standing on the open area in front of the warehouse. And they were distinctly separated.

The first were the locals. Dressed in patched jeans and homespun wool shirts, their rough boots showing evidence of hard use, they were otherwise a mixed lot. There were more than a few that had the very Germanic look to them, medium to tall, heavy of body, tending to light brown hair with a few true blonds. Mixed into the group were other looks. More than a few hooked Semitic noses, black hair, Mediterranean features, yamukas which were a bit of a shock. There were even a smattering of blacks, African from the look, not US derivative. A few of the group were clearly mixes of the different inputs, green or blue eyes, dark skin, hair every shade of brown. Male and female, most of them appeared truly young as opposed to rejuvs. They all looked as if they worked at manual labor quite a bit. However, Boyd could spot soldiers from a mile away and they all had the “soldier” look to them, even the women. They even tended to align in ranks.

The second group were a collection of truly miserable looking Indowy. Boyd had spoken to their leader, briefly, and knew that they were less miserable from being in the presence of humans, who Indowy were getting used to after decades, than the individual standing at the very edge of the concrete.

The latter was something one rarely saw except as a sight picture or, in last instants, a blur of teeth: A Posleen God-king. About the size and general shape of an Arabian horse, arms that ended in talons jutting from a complex double shoulder, clawed feet instead of hooves, crocodilian face, smooth yellow and brown mottled skin.

Unlike most Posleen, however, this one wore a smattering of clothing, a cowled rain shawl over his head, horse-like neck and shoulders. He was even wearing jewelry, an earring and two large gold chains around his neck. He looked fairly prosperous but almost as nervous as the Indowy. And he kept constantly scratching himself.

He was the sinosure of all eyes. The Indowy kept giving him furtive looks as if they expected him to whip out a hidden knife and slaughter them all. The locals, who normally spent a good bit of their time hunting his kind for the still available bounties, absolutely refused to acknowledge his presence. He was neither a target nor a threat. Nor was he worth speaking to. He was, after all, a Posleen.

“Reverend Guanamarioch,” Boyd said, waving to him. “We need to clear the pad. Shuttles incoming.”

“Yes, Mr. Boyd,” the Posleen said, having trouble with several of the consonants. Posleen mouths did not have the same range as human.

“Indowy Etari,” Boyd said, calling to the Indowy leader.

The Indowy simply nodded his head, waving his group in the opposite direction from the Posleen.

Schultz didn’t even have to call, he simply looked at the second in command who was with the group and then all stepped back into the scrub.

“Lieutenant Colonel Schultz?” Guanamarioch asked, nervously.

“Yes, Posleen,” the local said without looking at the being.

“Is any of this vegetation hazardous? Do you have snakes in this area?”

“No,” Schultz said, finally looking over at the Posleen and clearly puzzled. “It will do no more than get you wet.”

“No thorns?” the Posleen asked. “No poisonous frogs? No poison-injecting ants? Nothing?”

“No,” Schultz said, a touch angrily. “It is not hazardous!”

“Thank you,” Guanamarioch said, stepping delicately off the concrete and into the scrub. He still looked around nervously and his scratching became intense.

Schultz looked at Boyd with a raised eyebrow and the industrialist snorted.

“Long story,” Boyd said. “The short story is that Guano is the sole survivor of a Posleen attack on Panama that thought the best route was through the Darien.”

“I am unfamiliar with that reference,” Schultz said. He picked up the helmet and gestured for the Panamanian to step off the pad.

“The Darien is a vast tropical swamp in the northern part of Colombia and stretching into Panama,” Boyd explained. “Nasty place. About the only people who can go through it and survive are the local Indians. We were in the middle of a battle when we got the intel that another force was coming up from the south. Nothing to hold the line except a short gringo… errr, American regiment, my old regiment, as a matter of fact. For a defensive line miles and miles long. No way they could hold off a Posleen attack.”

“And?” Schultz asked.

“The ‘attack’ ended up being just Guano,” Boyd said. “All the rest, we believe several million, were killed by the swamp and Indian militia. And he was in such horrible shape that all he wanted to do was surrender. However, since he never officially threw his staff, lost it, yes, threw it, no, he is still considered by the Posleen network to be a God-king. Terrified of the jungle and these days that extends to about anything resembling vegetation.”

“And he works for you?” Schultz asked as the first of the shuttles started to descend.

“I bought him from the Indian scout that captured him,” Boyd said. “Since he does count as a God-king he can turn on all sorts of little mechanisms. I’d have cornered the market on forges if the Darhel hadn’t jacked the price up. And now… ”

“He can turn these on,” Schultz said, raising his voice over the hurricane of wind from the shuttles.

“Precisely.”

* * *

“Arbeit macht frei,” Hagai whispered. “And here we are at work again when we should be having a day off.”

“One of these days you’ll say that around the wrong person,” Frederick whispered back.

The work group was not from just the Bruederschaft Michael Wittmann. They had been gathered as what the Ami called a ‘hey-you’ detail. Thus it was mostly the junior personnel. Until the next induction series, that meant Frederick and Hagai’s group.

“What did I tell you,” Hagai continued, ignoring the jibe. “We are to be Star Troopers now, eh?”

“I will recommend you for an intelligence post,” Frederick replied. “You’ll fit right in.”

It was not true that all the intel spots in the Freiland brotherhoods were filled by Jews. It was just mostly true.

“No, it is the life of a Panzergrenadier for me,” Hagai replied. “That’s where you get all the wine and women.”

“You get drunk on one sip,” Frederick replied. “And the last woman you were with was a wet dream. So, since you are clearly going to be in intelligence, what is going on? All I know is what was on the distribution.”

“We are going to Barwhon,” a French accented voice said from behind them.

“Claude,” Frederick said without turning around. “And how are things these days in the Charlesmagne?”

“Wine and song I think the little Jew said,” the French private replied.

“You’re not exactly tall, Claude,” Hagai replied. “What position did you get?”

“He’s in charge of picking the Oberfeldwebel’s ass,” Frederick said.

He and Hagai had gone to gymnasium with Claude De Gaullejac but it proved the old dictum: Germans and Jews might patch it up but the Germans and French were going to hate forever.

“I am the sergeant major’s driver,” Claude snapped. “I do not pick his ass.”

“Okay, wipe it, then,” Frederick said, still not turning around.

“Cut it out, Ox,” Hagai said. “And we’re not going to Barwhon. There are three planets threatened but the obvious assault vector is Gratoola. And, yes, the Hedren are smart so they might not pick that one. But the other two choices are very marginal. Barwhon is one, but it not only leads effectively no-where, it’s a nasty place to fight for either us or the Hedren.”

“Well, my sergeant major says that we’re going to Barwhon,” De Gaullejac said as if that settled it.

“Fine, when you French are on Barwhon, lost, we’ll be on… what was that planet, Jaeger?”

“Gratoola, Frederick,” the Jew said with a sigh. “Do try to keep up… ”

“On Gratoola fighting the enemy,” Frederick said. “We’ll be sure to send you any white flags we find.”

“Listen you Aryan donkey’s hoof… ”

“Quiet back there.” Oberfeldwebel Shonauger didn’t even turn around. He didn’t have to.

“You know what they say about blonds… ” Claude muttered.

“Yes, they have more fun,” Frederick said, even more quietly. “I’ll be having fun on Gratoola while you are lost in a swamp trying to explain to your sergeant major how you got there. And explaining to your Grandmother why you have run from the fight.”

He was pretty sure that the little Frog didn’t hear him since the shuttles were closing.

* * *

The shuttles were cargo vessels, their bodies bigger around than a C-5 but half the length with stubby wings and noses that glowed with the heat of reentry.

But nobody cared about the noses. It was the items revealed by their lowering ramps that all eyes were fixed on.

Posleen forges were curved mountains of metal the size of two tanks stacked on top of each other. Their surfaces were dull, pebbled and almost featureless metal with a small control surface on one side. Each shuttle carried one and there was a rank of them stacked up and waiting to drop.

The Indowy scurried to the first shuttle, bringing out grav-lifters and attaching them to the forge. Four of the computer-sized devices whined with the strain of lifting the mass of metal but managed it. As soon as the forge had been walked off the deck the shuttle lifted up to make way for another.

Bill followed as the four Indowy walked the forge to its position and gently lowered it inside a chalk-marked outline. When they cut their grav-lifters there was a faint crunch as the forge settled into the concrete.

“Now what?” Schultz asked as another was brought in.

“Reverend Guanamarioch,” Boyd said, raising his voice. “Indowy Etari, I need power.”

“Coming,” the Posleen replied, hurrying down the length of the facility. The four Indowy carrying the next forge flinched as he passed, nearly dropping the multi-ton device, but managed to recover.

“We are stringing the cables now, Mr. Boyd,” the Indowy said from the south end of the facility. A group of Indowy were pulling heavy-duty power cables into the facility and preparing to attach them to the forges. “The fusion plant should be able to supply power for all the units.”

Boyd waited until the cables were plugged in and the breakers engaged then turned to Guanamarioch.

“You can turn it on, right?” Boyd said.

“Yes, yes,” Guanamarioch said, pulling an Artificial Sentience out from under the poncho. He placed the device on the control board and cleared his throat. A string of Posleen came out, the language a harsh series of gutturals. “There. It is keyed for unrestricted access. The computer is quite intelligent as such things go. A wireless connection will work. But I have uploaded the designs you gave me. All that someone needs do is load in materials and choose what they want made.”

“Gunther!” Schultz boomed. “First load!”

“They can use scrap, right?” Boyd said.

“Yes,” Guanamarioch replied. “On the far side from this is a small hatch. Any excess material will be dropped through there. But they must add all of the material that is needed; this model forge doesn’t do atomic-level manipulation of matter. So if the device being created requires trace materials, they need to add those. It will prompt for necessary materials if it doesn’t have them.”

“Well, we shall see what we see,” Schultz said as a group of the locals came over with a wire basket full of scrap metal and plastic. “Computer, do you hear me?”

“I hear you,” the computer said in English.

“Can I restrict your use?” Schultz asked.

“If you wish,” the computer replied.

“I’ll hold off for now,” Schultz said. “The first item to be made is an M-146 infantry assault rifle. You have that on file?”

“Yes,” the computer said.

“Tell us what to do.”

“Place materials in my hopper,” the computer said.

Schultz looked at the Posleen who pointed hurriedly to one end of the machine.

Boyd watched as the scrap was loaded into the machine. It slid into the recesses and the device began to hum.

“How long?” Schultz asked as there was a clatter from the far end.

The three-some walked to the front of the machine and looked at the assault rifle sitting on the concrete.

“That was… a few seconds,” Schultz said, shaking his head. “And my fratrie just bought a new forge that is now completely useless. Computer, do you have materials to make ammunition for the M-146?”

“No,” the device responded. “I will need more nitrates and sulfur. I am also lacking in copper and zinc. I can substitute a modified plastic cartridge if you would prefer but it is disrecommended according to the manual. If I am required to make more of the rifles I will need a supply of vanadium and molybdenum. There was sufficient in the materials provided for only one and a half rifles.”

“One of the shuttles is packed with trace metals,” Boyd said. “We’ll see about nitrates. And such. How are you fixed for copper and zinc?”

“Can this thing produce, well, anything?” Schultz asked, clearly stunned.

“More or less,” Boyd replied. “Anything that will fit coming out the other end and larger devices can be assembled from components. On uniforms I’ve gotten a provider in the US to make them. They’ll be coming in starting next week. They’re Himmit chameleon suits so the Hedren won’t have any more advantage than you do. But you’re on your own with electronics, weapons and other supplies. I’ve got too many other fish to fry to supply those at the moment. The big problem is heavy weapons systems.”

“No Tigers,” Schultz said, nodding. “I was informed.”

“We’re restarting the SheVa production line,” Boyd said. “The first production will be Tigers IIIs, b models, for your forces. They’re probably what we’ll go with across the board. But for right now, we’re going to have to refit the surplus weapons left over from the Posleen War. In your case, well… General Muehlenkampf is looking those over.”

* * *

“These will never run again,” the General said, shaking his head.

The field was packed with weapons systems. A valley in Austria, the region was the dumping ground for European war materials left over after the Posleen War. There were French, Austrian, German and even Russian artillery pieces, tanks, armored personnel carriers and “light-skin” vehicles ranging from Mercedes trucks down to some US military jeeps and GAZs, the Russian equivalent. Muehlenkampf had even spotted a Kuebbelwagen and other material dating to WWII. Thousands and thousands of weapons and tons of equipment. Enough to supply multiple divisions much less the, at most, one he could field from his people.

However, systems had been parked there, their oil drained and then left. The people doing the dumping hadn’t even bothered with tarps. Most of them were too far gone when they were dumped to be worth more than scrap. And with the reduced world population and the amount of scrap left over from the War, they weren’t even useful for that. So they had been left to slowly rust.

“Many are recoverable, General,” Indowy Keleel replied, nervously. He had brought a much larger detachment of Indowy with him who were pouring into the valley, climbing onto vehicles and beginning an inventory. “Forges are being brought here to create replacement parts. We have many abilities that may help. We will know in a week, no more, what we can salvage from this. And when your men are given these vehicles, they will work. Better than new. I guarantee it.”

“Time, Indowy, time,” the General said. “The Hedren will not give us forever to prepare. And while many of my veterans have experience in some of these systems… Time cloaks the memory. The old skills are rusty. They must have the weapons to train on before they can be ready to go to war.”

“We will hurry, General,” the Indowy said. “You can trust us on that.”

“Can I?” the German asked. “Can I Kobold?”

“My clan is based on Gratoola, General,” Keleel replied. “If Gratoola falls, so will most of my clan and my clan leader. We will hurry, General. But put our work to good use, yes?”

* * *

“The Admiral sure about this?”

Out from Saturn, beyond the most distant watch-post in the system was the Graveyard. It was here that the majority of the ships from the Reconnaissance in Force had been dragged. The task force that raised the Siege of Earth was a fraction of the total Fleet at the end of the War but it was still more metal than the Federation could field to fight the Hedren.

It was a sad and yet stirring sight. Drifting in their nearly eternal orbits, their compartments opened to vacuum as had so often been the case in battle, here were the destroyers, cruisers, battlecruisers, dreadnoughts and superdreadnoughts that had destroyed the Posleen invasion and ensured that humanity had a chance to scratch their way to freedom once again.

It was a roll-call of history. Kaga V. Lexington IV. Atlanta. Tokyo. Novobirsk. Nagasaki. Ark Royal III. Prinz Eugen. Each had been in multiple battles during the Posleen War, all had battle honors to dwarf any wet-navy ship save, perhaps, the Victory.

At the end of the War it was almost all of the ships that remained under the command of the original Fleet officers. Which was why they were chosen to break the Darhel imposed orders requiring the Fleet to remain on guard over ‘retaken’ systems and let Earth fall to the Posleen. They had been gathered in secret from multiple systems, all of them given lone orders to ‘return to Sol system on reconnaissance duties.’ The date of arrival just happened to match. And, wow, since there’s not much to stop us maybe we should save Earth? What do you think?

In honor of that final battle, in honor of saving humanity, they had been left to rot. Nearly pristine ships, because there had not been much to stop them in Sol system, were dumped into the Graveyard.

And now one, at least, was going to be the subject of target practice.

“There it is,” Tactical said. “The Algerie Class cruiser Bristol, hull number 39628.”

The space cruiser was about the size of the Des Moines before her ‘upgrade’ and massed about the same. Beyond that they were very different ships. The Bristol was a long cylinder bristling with plasma cannon and mass-drivers.

“Man, you get some parts, you get some crew… ” the TACO said. “I hate like hell to blow this thing up. It seems… dishonorable.”

“They blew the Nebraska up with a nuke,” Captain McNair said. “We need to see what this thing does to a ship. That is the designated ship. Gunnery, Lock QT One and Two and fire on lock.”

“Lock QT One and Two, aye,” the gunnery NCO said. “Fire on lock, aye. Locking.”

Again the blue beams flashed out then…

“Locked on Target Sierra One. Firing.”

The 53,000 ton cruiser flashed white for a moment then was revealed as a wasted hulk.

“Wow,” the TACO said. “Loss of ten percent of mass. On the basis of visual… ”

“We just stripped off about half the hull and most of the guns,” McNair said. “A couple more hits and she’d be beyond dead in space. I’d hate to be onboard when this thing hit. And the range, especially since once you get a lock it tracks, is frightening. Right. Send a message to the nearest com-sat that we have suspended exercise and are returning to Luna. No data about this weapon is to go on the net without my approval.”

“I need to thank those mentats,” Daisy Mae said. “They gave me one hell of a main battery.” She suddenly winced and wiped at her eyes. “I felt that. Oh, the poor thing; it didn’t want to die without fighting back.”

“I still say there ought to be some way to get these ships back in action,” the TACO said, grumpily.

* * *

“There is no way we can get these ships back in action!” Chief Isemann said, shaking her head.

Chief Isemann had been selected as the lead NCO for the working party surveying the Indra Graveyard.

Indra had been a bad one. All three battles. Well, the last wasn’t horrible. It had just been a fucking maelstrom.

The Posleen drive could exit warp within a couple of planetary diameters of a planet. Generally, they didn’t, though. If they got too close they tended to blow up on exit. But they were just so damned chaotic. Sometimes they’d come out practically in fucking atmosphere and then promptly blow up. Sometimes they’d come out of warp by the Jovians then start jumping in, cautiously. Defending against them was hell. You never knew when one of the bastards was going to come out off your port or starboard or up or down or, hell, right in front of you!

They mostly traveled in big fucking battle-globes. A Globe would be made up of thousands of ships, all locked together with tractor beams. Travelling that way was, apparently, a bit less wasteful of energy. And since their warp drive was very energy intensive that was good.

When one of the Globes appeared in their ripple of blue and purple ionization, a ship was suddenly looking at a fleet of really nasty space cruisers, all in one big chunk. If you fired normal guns at it, all you did was strip away a layer of ships. The inner ships would blow the scraps off and keep firing.

You could do that all day and not kill any significant mass of the Globe. Which was where the superdreadnoughts came in.

If there was a superdreadnought near enough they’d shoot the planetoid with their big-ass mass driver. Which had it’s good and bad parts. The good part was that the destroyer sized chunk of metal would go most of the way through the Globe and then let loose enough antimatter to make the local area a slice of hell.

The bad news was that those damned Posleen ships were tough. So about a half to a third of them would survive. And then it was like kicking a fucking wasp nest. They’d come swarming out of that blast of antimatter, which by rights should have blown them to smithereens, and swarm over the super-dreadnought like hornets.

That was how they lost the Lex in Indra One. And the Tokyo in Two. Indra One had especially sucked. They’d lost the Lex, their sole superdreadnought at the time, and just about every fucking cruiser and dreadnought. Ronnette had been on a picket destroyer on the back side of the system. By the time they got there all that was left were some damned Lampreys and gas and rubble. There were some survivors; there always were. But she never thought the ships would fly again.

But the Indowy had rebuilt them. Well, the superdreadnoughts and some of the battleships. Most of the cruisers and destroyers had only been good for scrap. So they’d used the scrap to build more cruisers and destroyers.

After the last battles, when it was apparent that the Posleen were finished as a technological race, the majority of the Fleet had been parked and left. Some of the ships had been harvested for scrap but the Indowy were so efficient with material it wasn’t really necessary. And the armor of the superdreadnoughts and other battlewagons was so tough they were just hard to scrap.

They were all here, over a thousand ships in this system alone. Hiryu and Enterprise, Constellation and Junyo, Defiance, Indefatigable, Resolute, Alabama, Yorktown. The list went on and on. There were over forty supercarriers and superdreadnoughts alone.

She had to admit that most of these ships had been captained and crewed by Indis. But it had taken three times the metal weight to get the same results. It had taken forty superdreadnoughts and supercarriers to hold the last battle-line. They’d stopped them, then, though. Stopped them butt-cold and with light casualties. But they’d done that in Second Indra with a bare ten superdreadnoughts and five supercarriers. All right, they were wrecks when they finished the battle, but they’d stopped them.

She supposed if the Indowy could build them in the first place, and rebuild them over and over, they could get these hulks going again. But as the shuttle cruised along the long lines of ships she couldn’t see it really happening.

“We can do it,” Indowy Mirinau said. “With time. The more hands, the less time and we have been promised many hands. And, of course, we will be using the Posleen manufactories. That will speed the process.”

Constitution,” Ronnette said, breathing out. It had been her ship in Indra Two and Three, a superdreadnought that could walk into a Globe’s fire and survive it. No more ‘one funnel bastards’ for her. She’d worked her way up to Chief of Boat on the Constitution. She hadn’t understood the sudden transfer out after Indra Three until the Lex had entered Earth space. But she’d been ready for it. Working with the Indis, as a female senior NCO, had been a special kind of hell. The Lex CO had managed, somehow, to build an Original Fleet crew. But he needed an experienced Gunnery NCO.

“Not our first ship to be worked on,” Mirinau said, catching the nuance of the Human’s words. “First we must fix the ships which will carry the crews to the ships. But we will get to your ship, Chief. I promise that.”

“Give me back my lady, Indowy, and I’ll be your friend forever,” Ronnette said. “Give me back my girl.”

* * *

“Where have you been?” Mike asked when Michelle walked in his office.

“In meditation,” the mentat said, taking a seat without asking.

It took Mike a moment to adjust to Michelle’s appearance. She was always pale but never quite this waxy looking.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“I will be,” Michelle replied. “What was it that you needed to ask me? You’ve been calling for a week so I assume it’s urgent.”

“I was going to ask you for some clearer answers,” Mike said, leaning back. “But I think I’ve got them.”

“If four masters can create an entire dreadnought in a few hours, why can’t you have a fleet?” Michelle said, grimacing.

“More or less,” Mike said. “Or at least some ACS. The more I look at these reports on the Hedren the more I realize that if the Corps was still around we could go through them like shit through a goose.”

“Eloquent as always, Father,” Michelle replied. “And here before you sits the reason.”

“How bad?” Mike asked.

“Each of us will be effectively useless for about six weeks,” Michelle said, wincing and holding her head. “I’m sorry, the analgesic is wearing off. I will continue. Six weeks. Using the sort of power we expended on the Des Moines depletes certain neurotransmitters. It is possible to replenish them with nannites, of course. But doing so… disrupts neural pathways. Doing so too many times destroys them.”

“You get burned out,” Mike said.

“Exactly,” Michelle said. “As to ACS… I would be more than loathe to contemplate making even one suit. The materials of the armor exceed most theory of how strong materials can be. It exceeds the strength of neutronium while being, of course, much lighter. But making it requires the sort of output you saw us do with the Des Moines for months. Days and days of creating it, layer by layer, atom by battling atom. I was an apprentice to a master who was working on a suit of ACS. I saw him age years in the six months he worked to create it. Only to have it thrown away in war.”

“The Des Moines doesn’t have that level of armor,” Mike said.

“No where close,” Michelle admitted. “Or we would have been years creating it. Supermonitors had a thin layer in their armor. So, Father, while there are about a thousand masters of sohon, creating a fleet from nothing, or a corps of ACS for that matter, is not a viable action. Some of them are creating ACS, others are making parts for the future quantum tanglers, which do require rather high-level sohon to create. But do not look to us to make you a fleet overnight. You would burn every master in the galaxy. And there would be no-one to defend against sohon attacks.”

“And do you have much on those?” Mike asked. “Last question, I swear. Then I’ll let you go.”

“We can only sense their abilities lightly at this range,” Michelle admitted. “There are Indowy masters who are specialists at detecting and analyzing sohon who are investigating the phenomenon. To say they are puzzled is an understatement. All the effort and research the Indowy have poured into manufacture and creation these seem to have poured into violence and pain. It pains them to even contemplate the Hedren.”

“Are the Indowy going to help?” Mike asked. “Or is it going to be up to you seven?”

“That is the subject of a very large meeting,” Michelle said. “It will take place when we are recovered. I truly do not know where they stand at present.”

“Go get some rest,” Mike said. “I’ll leave you alone. But get back with me as soon as you’re healed or whatever.”

“Very well, Father,” Michelle said, getting up. “I don’t suppose you’ve heard from my wandering sister?”

“She’s supposed to be in soon,” Mike said. “I’ll tell her you asked about her.”

“Give her my love,” Michelle said, nodding as she left.

* * *

“I have got to get access to a slab soon,” Cally said, shaking her head. “That guy nearly got me because of these damned tits.”

“So you’ve said the whole way home,” Bryce said, trying not to sigh.

The trip out had been quick, much quicker than either believed possible. The Himmit had clearly been holding back on how fast their ships could cross interstellar distances since the trip to Chauldria had taken less than half the time it normally would.

However, they’d had to travel commercial on the way back. Since Cally had just technically murdered a Darhel clan-leader and there had to be some sort of investigation going on, it had been a tad harrowing. But nobody seemed to care. The official story was that he’d died of old-age. Well, gone into lintatai. What with two clan-leaders dropping in the last decade, after being in place since before the Posleen War, there had been some rumors going around. But so far nobody had pinned it anywhere near Cally O’Neal.

Who was looking around the lunar space-station transfer point in annoyance.

“I checked with Aelool before we left,” Cally said. “He said that the slabs had been turned over to Fleet Strike and were being sent to the Lunar hospital. Which means they’re somewhere down there,” she added, pointing down.

“Well, since you’re technically a civilian… ” Bryce said, shrugging. “Good luck getting to them.”

“We’re contract individuals with Fleet Strike,” Cally pointed out. “We should have access to the same medical as soldiers. Which means that I should have access.”

“So you’re going to explain that you used a slab to immitate a Fleet Strike captain on an infiltration of Fleet Strike counter-intel?” Bryce asked.

“No,” Cally said. “I’m going to tell them they don’t have the need to know. But first I’m going to call Daddy.”

* * *

“I suppose you should have access to them,” Mike said, shrugging. “I don’t exactly cut those orders, though. I’ll call the med department and tell them you need to be put on the list.”

“How long can it be, Dad?” Cally asked.

“I don’t know,” Mike replied after the lag. Even with the most advanced technology, light-speed held. And Cally was several light-seconds from earth. “But if there’s somebody with a life-threatening injury, do you want to bump the queue?”

“No,” Cally admitted.

“I’ll send an order over making sure that you’re put on the list,” Mike repeated. “Stay on the moon for now to make sure you don’t miss your slot. By the way, Michelle sends her love.”

“Same back,” Cally said. “Where is she? When I got in I called her but one of her Indowy answered.”

“Meditating,” Mike said. “It’s a long story. Tell you when you get home. Oh, by the way, do any of your Bane Sidhe people fit the bill for a counter-intel chief? I’m not impressed by my current department on that side. And making sure the Hedren don’t know much about our new capabilities is looking to be even more important than finding out theirs.”

“Uhm… not in the Bane Sidhe,” Cally said, nervously. “But, yeah, I know someone who fits that slot. He’s even… Well… Uhm… Let me get back to you.”

“I assume at some point you’re going to fill in those ‘uhms,’ ” Mike said.

“Uhm… ”

* * *

“You wished to see me, Grandfather?”

The man bowing his head could have been Southeast Asian. Or possibly Chinese with many admixtures. Possibly Polynesian. He had the sort of blended appearance that was common after The War. He spoke Mandarin, Cantonese and two other dialects flawlessly. The one thing that bothered him was that the speech was too flawless; he was still getting comfortable with making the sort of common errors that natural speakers always made.

James Stewart was not born Chinese. In fact, he wasn’t even born with the name James Stewart. That had been a joke as much as anything when he was arranging the entry of himself and his gang into Fleet Strike. All of them had taken more standard Northern European names than “Manuel” and “Jose.” Since one of the hallmarks of the gang was that every member looked Anglo instead of their actual Hispanic background, it just made sense. They sure weren’t going to be joining under the names they had. Not with the rap-sheets associated with those names.

The plan was simple. The new GalTech drugs and technologies people in Fleet and Fleet Strike had access to were worth a blue billion on the black market. By slipping his whole crew in, “James Stewart” could find some way to divert GalTech to friends on the outside. Run that scam for a while and then disappear. Since there were unfriendly aliens on the way, run it for long enough to afford a ticket off-planet.

Along the way, though, things just got complicated. They started getting complicated when he realized that, smart and experienced as he might be, his Drill Instructor was smarter and more experienced. Gunny Pappas had been a character. A massive Samoan with an almost entirely unflappable nature he looked like a complete dumb-ass, the sort of guy “Stewart” could run rings around. Quick enough, Gunny Pappas had disabused both Stewart and his entire gang of that notion. And he’d made them an offer. Try being real soldiers for a while, clean and straight, or get out with no record. Option C, going with their original plan, would mean one very large and very mean Samoan to deal with.

Over the succeeding years Stewart had often regretted choosing Option A. Most of his crew had been killed in one engagement or another as his unit was shuffled from coast to coast in the US blunting Posleen offensives. However, along the way the kid from the bario had grown up. He’d come to realize that while he’d had friends in the hood, his crew, other buddies, he didn’t have one damned person he could trust. Not when the fecal matter was really hitting the rotary impeller. There were people who feared him, there were people who looked to him as a leader, somebody with power, but nobody that he could just totally lean back on if everything went to hell.

He found that, and more, in Fleet Strike. Forget the training and education, he found the burning honor that rested at the core of the warriors he fought beside. He found a home and a family.

After the war, things got murkier. He’d made major by the time the ACS was getting deactivated but it was all war-time promotions and service. Quick enough the personnel weanies were cutting those officers back. They wanted regulars.

James Stewart, by that time he’d almost forgotten his real name, wanted to be one of those regulars. He had no home to go back to, never really had one in the first place. Fleet Strike was home. So he’d played the game. He’d gotten his college education, he’d done his schools, he’d done his staff time.

Shifting to intel had been slow. At one point, when he was hoping to get an S-3 position, operations officer of one of the remaining ACS battalions, he’d been asked to take an intel position instead. Figuring it was a reasonable replacement and that the joint-branch time wouldn’t hurt, he’d taken it.

What he found was that intel was his natural home. He’d been an S-2 before and had enjoyed it but playing in bigger leagues just gave him more scope. His branch was infantry and remained so right up until he became a general and thus “branchless.” But he spent the rest of his career in intel.

The downside was that in intel he got to see just how screwed up things were becoming. Darhel manipulation was everywhere, pressing for less qualified but more amenable officers, completely corrupting Fleet to the point that it was a paid branch of one Darhel corporation or another.

He had reached damned near the pinnacle of his career when things truly came apart. Counter-intel, which at the time actually fell under his purview, developed a double agent inside the underground. The guy had information about a rebel organization. The flip side was that the rebels knew the information was out there and were probably going to try to penetrate Strike to get it. May have already done so.

James, by then a lieutenant general but still looking like a teenaged kid, had been asked by the head of Intel to go into the office undercover and try to find the mole. It was a shitty little investigation, no place for a general and in many ways his heart wasn’t in it. But it was his duty.

In the end, he’d found a lot of things. He’d found the mole. He’d found love. And he’d found that he couldn’t stand being in the belly of the beast anymore.

The mole turned out to be none other than the daughter of his former commander, Cally O’Neal. While Stewart was playing the part of an inept junior aide to the commander of counter-intel, Cally was playing the role of the commander’s administrative assistant and mistress, an absolutely brain-dead if gorgeous blonde captain. He also, without realizing who he was truly facing, found himself falling in love with the moronic blonde. When it all came down to blood and death, himself wounded by the enraged general when he found his aide and his mistress “cheating”, the general dead and Cally captured, he knew he’d found love as well.

So when he was contacted by some old friends and was informed of who was actually being tortured for information, he’d turned. Sort of. He got Cally out. He arranged to fake his own death. But he couldn’t join the Bane Sidhe, he wouldn’t live that life. It was a form of half-honor he simply could not stomach. If he was going to go over to the dark side, he might as well go all the way over.

So he joined the Tongs. The Chinese mobs had become major players in every form of organized crime in the galaxy. There was little honor left in Fleet Strike, there seemed to be no where to put his feet. He might as well go back to who he’d been before ever meeting people like Duncan and Pappas and Apele and, perhaps most of all, his father-in-law who could never know.

He’d done well there, too. The training and experience he’d received in Fleet Strike worked well. Often the Tongs tended to do things that were the same way that previous generations had done them. He was careful with new ideas on that score, but he had them. He was bright, thorough and ruthless. The one time that someone had tried to assassinate him, the assassins found out that he was also as dangerous as a cobra with a toothache. It only enhanced his reputation.

The Tongs and the Bane Sidhe did not see eye to eye but they had certain traits in common. The Tongs were well aware that the Darhel had, with intent, sacrificed China during the War. And they had long memories. So while business was first and always, any chance to screw the Darhel was to be taken, as long as they weren’t fingered for it. So they’d help out the Bane Sidhe, and vice versa, from time to time. One time, in particular, “Yan Kato” had been central in embezzling an entire Darhel clan-corp, a coup of the first magnitude since the Tongs also made money on the deal hand-over-fist.

However, the Tongs were brutal on outside loyalties. Loyalty had to be to the Tong. Family, friends, acquaintances did not matter. Loyalty to the Tong, make money for the Tong, make face for the Tong. These were what mattered.

So he was carefully watched. The Tong might or might not know he was married to Cally. As long as it didn’t interfere with business, that was all well and good. The moment it did, the moment that his loyalty became divided, well James Stewart, Yan Kato, Joshua Pryce, Julio Ignatio Garcia, the person in this body, in this head, knew he had better run far and fast. And was aware that he’d probably just die tired.

“Welcome, Yan Kato,” the old man said, gesturing eloquently to a finally brocaded chair. “Please, rest yourself.”

“Thank you, Grandfather,” Stewart said, sitting down carefully. Since it was a nice chair, he probably wasn’t going to be killed in it.

He had met the head of the Tong on several occasions. But it was by no means a normal event and he usually had some inkling. One of his superiors might need him to present a proposal. The Grandfather might need an answer to a question related to his areas of expertise, mostly money laundering and white-collar crime.

This summons had come out of the blue. With the changes that were going on related to the new military threat, that could mean anything. He knew that loyalty to the Tong was all. But they had also chosen never to push his potential limits. He had never been asked to do anything related to the military. Others handled the corruption of the docks, of Fleet resupply. However, with all the money that was suddenly flowing to Fleet Strike and with who was in charge… It might be that they felt it was time to push that wall.

Stewart wasn’t quite sure what he’d do if they did.

“There is a new threat, you have heard,” the Grandfather said as a beautiful young woman entered with a tea set. “Your thoughts?”

“From what I have seen of the Hedren, the actions of the Tongs would be significantly restricted under them,” Stewart said. He waited until the Grandfather had taken a sip before mimicking him.

“This is my thought as well,” the Grandfather said. “They are reputed to have the ability to read thoughts quite readily. Such would severely impact our normal actions.”

Stewart waited. You didn’t offer your thoughts unless asked.

“I have given orders to refrain from anything that may be considered interference with military supplies, support or personnel,” the Grandfather said, taking another sip. “Your thoughts.”

“This will be a great loss of revenue,” Stewart said, his face unchanging.

“The willow bends with the wind,” the master said. “Now is a better time to give support. Perhaps build relationships for the future. In some cases, there are persons who are simply venal enough that it is necessary to enter into a relationship with them. Otherwise others would enter into the relationship who were less… noble.”

Stewart managed not to snort. The Tong was anything but “noble.” However, he could see the Grandfather’s dilemna. With as much as the Tong could skim off the military given the current, truly screwed up, situation, it would probably have a notable impact. Enough to lose the war? Maybe, maybe not. But if the Hedren took over, the Tong was going to be dust.

“I was queried when the decision was made to bring you into the Tong, of course,” the Grandfather said, gesturing for his cup to be refilled. Another gesture produced a cigarette in a long holder which was inserted in his lips and lit. “I made the decision that someone who had been a Fleet Strike general would make a valuable contribution, even if he was not used against his former group. And you have. Both in building our already large reputation and our coffers. You are to be congratulated.”

“Thank you, Grandfather,” Stewart said, bowing. “I have done my humble best.” If that wasn’t the kiss of death, he didn’t know what was. However, he’d had a few years with Cally, on and off when they could both hide from their respective undergrounds, and a few really great kids. It looked like that was going to have to do.

“I will be sorry to lose you,” the Grandfather said, lifting up a sheet of paper. “From time to time members of the Tong reach some limit on their abilities. Everyone takes a vacation occasionally. You have had… several.”

“I’m sorry if the Grandfather considers me inattentive to my duties,” Stewart said. He was looking the old man straight in the eye. Normally that was a bad thing but if he was going to be killed, damned if he was going to flinch.

“Not at all,” the old man said. “It was used by way of example. Some times these vacations can become extended. For many years or, given our current medicines, even decades.” The Grandfather held the paper out.

It was a recall to duty in the rank of lieutenant general, by both his “official” name and that of “Yan Kato.”

“You are expected to require the same latitude of the government as we have given you,” the old man said, sucking on his cigarette. “To be precise, that you not use your knowledge of the Tongs to our detriment. So pointing out the persons you know to be our friends in the procurement branch would be unwise. In the opposite direction, we do not require that you provide us with useful information. Your commander must trust you, yes? But, of course, you remain a member of the Tong. Your first loyalty remains here. I believe that you are destined for an important post, or I would have said ‘James who?’ when the inquiry was made.”

James looked at the paper again then looked up.

“I do not know what to say, Grandfather.”

“This is a very irregular action,” the Grandfather said. “There are those who would question it. They have a very short view. I have a very long view. Humans, and Darhel I suppose, must remain in control of planets for the Tongs to prosper. Your record as an agent of war speaks for itself. But making this decision I take the long view that it will help the Tong to prosper, perhaps not today for you are a very good money generator, but tomorrow when we are both dust. Let that dust be on soil owned by men, yes?”

“Thank you, Grandfather,” Stewart said, suddenly grinning in a way he never had while using this face. “I will do that very thing.”

“There is one last item,” the Grandfather said. “You will, undoubtedly, encounter the daughter of General O’Neal, Calliope I believe is her name. And her children. Feel free to spend as much time with them, in any capacity, as you may choose. If, of course, given such freedom by your new masters.”

“Yes, Grandfather,” Stewart said, trying not to grimace.

“You young people,” the old man said then sighed. “You think we are all blind.”

* * *

“You WHAT?” Cally screamed.

“Keep it down,” Stewart said. The connection was long. Stewart’s normal base of operations was Titan Base and Cally was still on Luna. So the lag was nearly two minutes. It also cost like crazy, but he wasn’t going to let that stop him. “I’ve been given an extended leave of absence from my… current employer to reenter military service. I just got the recall. It doesn’t even mention that I’m supposed to be dead.”

“Holy shit,” Cally said when the signal finally got to her. “So you just called me over an open circuit?”

“Couldn’t exactly use a secure one anymore,” Stewart said. “And, besides, I was specifically told in a very notable interview that I should look you up. Something about young people thinking old people are blind.”

“Oh, shit,” Cally whispered. “I suppose we should take it as good news. They knew all along, huh?”

“I don’t know for how long, but more than long enough,” Stewart said. “Look, where are you exactly?”

“Waiting for some dumb-ass bureaucrats to okay my time on a slab,” Cally said, bitterly. “Dad sent the order but with a caveat that I’ve got to take my place in line. Since apparently there are still a bunch of casualties from the Mutiny, that’s a long line. I don’t see how it could be, the slab only takes a few minutes.”

“Well, if you don’t get through soon, I’ll be seeing you,” Stewart said. “When I called the general officer recall office and explained that I was going to need quite a bit of time in a tank, this was a four week complete body mod the last time around, they told me to go to Luna and see about getting time on a slab.”

“Good luck,” Cally said. “I’ve been sitting around for two days going from one office to the next. I thought all these guys were getting turned into soldiers but apparently there are plenty left to give me the run-around.”

“I’m scheduled on the next shuttle,” Stewart replied, grinning. “Hopefully we can kill time in a supply closet or something.”

* * *

“Buckley, time?”

“Fifteen forty,” the Buckley replied.

Cally had it in low-intelligence mode specifically so she could do without its normal dismal tone. But she was feeling pretty dismal herself. She was cooling her heals in the waiting room of the “Office of Enhanced Medical Procedures” and had been for two hours. She was supposed to have had her nearly final interview at thirteen thirty but the OIC had been pulled away to a meeting.

With nothing better to do, she’d been sketching. Mostly pictures of a random human, male, being butchered. Various things she’d like to do to the damned bureaucratic son-of-a-bitch who had kept her waiting.

Especially since the shuttle carrying Lieutenant General James Stewart was supposed to have landed twenty minutes ago. She’d been hoping that if this idiot could stamp her files she might actually get time on the slab. In which case, she could see Stewart with her real face and body. Given that her husband had never seen it, she wasn’t sure exactly how he’d take it. Frankly, she was working up into a frenzy.

“You can go in, now,” the administrative assistant said. The woman had been looking at her funy the whole time Cally had been sitting in the waiting room and was clearly glad to get rid of her.

Since Cally hadn’t seen the OIC go in or out, either the meeting had been by viewscreen or there was a back door to the office.

Cally dumped all her shit in her backpack, zipped it up and walked to the door.

“Enter,” a female voice replied to the knock.

“Cally O’Neal, civilian contractor,” the blonde colonel behind the desk said. “Are you any connection to General Oh My GOD!”

Cally was staring at her mirror image. Same face, same hair, same chest.

“What a horrible coincidence,” Cally said in a very small voice.

“You… you… ” Lieutenant Colonel Sinda Makepeace stuttered. “Oh. You BITCH!”

“I’d say ‘I can explain’ but you really don’t want to know,” Cally said. “So let me put it this way. CAN I HAVE MY OLD BODY BACK? Jesus Christ, woman, how do you put up with these two fat-filled balloons attached to your chest?”

“I need to call the MPs… ” the colonel said, picking up her AID.

“Go ahead,” Cally said, crossing her arms. “For your information, yes, he’s my dad. For your other information, I’m covered on all actions I took prior to the current hostilities. And compared to some of them, kidnapping you and taking your place is pretty minor.”

“Oh, you… ” Sinda said then sighed. “Look, I’ll get you right to the head of the queue, trust me. But can you tell me what in the hell that was all about? Because nobody would tell me nothing when I finally came out of the Hiberzine. And let me tell you, it was pretty disorienting to suddenly wake up in a hotel room. I appreciated the note, though. I thought I’d been raped or something.”

“Not on my watch,” Cally replied. “It’s a pretty long story, though, and I’m not sure how much you’re cleared for.”

“Well, unfortunately, I don’t have the time,” Sinda said. “I’ve got some hot-shit general coming in in about four minutes who’s supposed to go to the head of the queue. Although why a general needs a full body sculpt… It had better not be for personal reasons. You have no idea how many people we have trying to slip in just because they want a new body, a new face, bigger boobs… ”

“Well, I want my smaller boobs back,” Cally said, chuckling. “So that’s why I was shuffled from department to department?”

“More or less,” Sinda said, hitting her input wand. “But you’re cleared now. Damn, if I’d known why it was from the beginning… ”

“Sort of a need-to-know,” Cally said. “If it had been anyone else sitting in that chair they’d never find out.”

“Colonel, General Stewart is here,” the AID chimed.

“Yo, Stewie,” Cally said, dilating the door. “You’re never going to believe who the OIC is!”

“Have we met?” Sinda said as an Asian male walked into the office.

“No,” Stewart said, looking from woman to woman. “But I can guess who you are. I was supposed to figure out who was infiltrating the office. I did, but a bit too late. She does a really good Sinda Makepeace.”

“This is making my head hurt,” Sinda said, frowning. The years and experience had apparently washed away some of the utter dumb blondeness that was her hallmark when Cally took her place. “General, Miss O’Neal, you’re both cleared. Down the hallway on the left. Don’t take this wrong, but I hope I don’t see either one of you ever again.”

* * *

“We’re cleared to use the slab. Cally O’Neal and James Stewart.”

The slabs, both of them, had been installed in what looked like a minor surgery suite. They were visible through glassteel windows from the small antechamber. A medic was manning a station there and there were two more managing the slabs inside the room. One, from the shimmering light over it, was apparently in use already. The other was free.

“It’ll be just a moment, General,” the medic said, nervously. He clearly didn’t want to keep a general waiting. And he kept stealing glances at Cally. “There’s an emergency patient on the way up. Training accident.”

“That’s fine,” Stewart said as a gurney was pushed into the room. The man on the gurney’s face could barely be seen past the bandages and oxygen tubes but it looked swollen and purple. The man pushing it barged right past the desk and into the slab room. “What happened to him?”

“Suit failure,” the medic said, looking at his screen. “Severe lung damage as well as superficial vacuum burn to the skin, eyes… well, you name it.”

“Ouch,” Stewart said. The man had been naked under the sheet and his skin was covered in white and gray where it wasn’t purple.

“That’s gotta suck,” Cally said.

“Sir, I have Miss O’Neal’s DNA data on file,” the medic said. “But… ”

“My original,” Stewart replied, handing over a chip. “There were times I wondered why I kept it.”

“This is actually a first for me,” the medic said as the second slab went into use. “I’ve had a couple of cosmetic repair jobs, but never something as extensive as either of you. Do you mind, sir, if I ask what happened? And why Miss O’Neal… well. Ma’am, do you know you look just like Colonel Makepeace?”

“I’ll leave it at black-ops, corporal,” Stewart said.

“Yes, sir, sorry, sir. Slab one is open if you want to enter, sir.”

“Oh, I think I’ll let Cally go first,” Stewart replied, grinning. “I’m looking forward to seeing what she really looks like.”

“You just want to ogle my body,” Cally said. “I’m planning on wearing my clothes in. So there.”

“Uh, ma’am, you can’t do that,” the medic said.

“Why not?” Cally asked.

“The clothes might interfere with the repair process,” the corporal replied.

“Bullshit,” Cally said. “I’ve been on the slab… Jesus, I’ve lost count! Anyway, the slab ignores clothes.”

“You’ve used one before?” the medic said. “I thought they were brand new. When did you… ”

“Son,” Stewart said, putting his finger to his nose. “I did mention black ops?”

“Sorry, sir,” the corporal replied. “But our procedure… ”

“Is about to change,” Cally said, walking through the door.

“Ma’am, I’m sorry but you have to disrobe to… ”

“I already had that conversation,” Cally said, laying down on the altar-like device. “Just initiate the conversion, son.”

“But, ma’am… ”

“I said do it,” Cally snapped. “If you have an issue with that, take it up with Colonel Makepeace!”

“I thought you was Colonel Makepeace, ma’am” the medic muttered. He looked at the data on the slab’s screen then hit enter. “Guess you won’t be soon.”

* * *

“Welcome back, ma’am,” the medic said as Cally’s eyes opened. “Any problems?”

“No,” Cally said, swinging her legs over and jumping down. Then she grabbed her jeans. “Except I forgot that these clothes weren’t going to fit anymore!”

“Oh, that’s funny,” Stewart said, swinging his own legs over. “At least I stayed the same size.”

“The belt won’t even cinch down far enough,” Cally said, struggling. “Knife. I need a knife.”

“Here, ma’am,” one of the medics said, holding out a lock-blade.

Cally flicked it open and worked a hole through the leather of the belt, getting it tight enough to hold up her jeans, then handed it back.

“I look like hell,” she muttered.

“Actually, you look pretty good,” Stewart said. “Completely different and yet perfect.”

“Flatterer,” Cally said, taking his arm. “Haven’t seen the real you in a while, either. I frankly prefer it to Kato. Do you have anywhere you have to be right away, General?”

“No,” Stewart admitted as they walked out. “Technically, I’m supposed to hop a shuttle and go report to your dad. But, hell, he hasn’t sent me a Christmas card in years. He can wait.”

“Then let’s go find a reasonably horizontal surface. Or, hell, a private wall.”

* * *

“General Stewart is here to see you, sir,” Mike’s AID chimed as there was a tap on the door.

“Come,” Mike said then growled as the door opened. “Stewie! Where the hell have you been! You got out of the slab yesterday!”

“Sorry, sir,” the general said, snapping to attention. “No excuse, sir!” Stewart stopped and shook his head as Mike broke into laughter. “You runt bastard… ”

“Just had to see if the training held,” Mike said, still chuckling. “Given your employers of the last few years… Why the Tongs, James? Grab a chair, by the way.”

“Instead of the Bane Sidhe?” Stewart said, sitting down. He shrugged and paused for a moment, collecting his thoughts. “The Bane Sidhe were effectively a rebel organization against the legal government. While I could no longer stomach supporting that government, I also felt it would be dishonorable to rebel against it.” He shrugged. “It was a fine line but this honor thing never came to me as naturally as it does to you and Gunny Pappas. I have to make it up as I go along.”

“I suppose it makes a twisted sort of sense,” Mike said, nodding. “Which pretty much covers James Stewart in a nutshell.”

“Thanks,” Stewart said. “I think. What’s up? Besides another invasion. What are we, destruction central?”

“Looks like,” Mike said, his face locked back in its habitual frown. “But these guys, from what we’ve gotten from the Himmit, are different than the Posleen. They’re smart and they’re fast and both scare the hell out of me. While we were fucking around out in the Blight, they took three worlds faster than you can blow your nose. Faster than we could get the intel on the first world falling.”

“So what are you going to do?” Stewart asked.

“Fight them,” Mike said. “And we’ll win. In time. But I’m starting practically from scratch. That’s not on your plate, though. I repeat, they’re smart. What does that tell you.”

“That they’re going to be collecting information,” Stewart said. “Unlike the Posleen.”

“Extrapolate,” Mike said, sitting back.

“They’re going to be trying to crack the AID network,” Stewart said. “That’s an information Achilles Heel, the way the Darhel use it. Everything of any note is available if you have the access. I don’t know if they can do it, but they’ll be trying as soon as they discover it. They’ll be interrogating prisoners to try to find out information about the Federation, it’s logistics, strategy, critical nodes. They’ll access every form of information they can get their hands on. Each of the planets, at least those with humans, had a local internet system as well. That’s going to have most of the major stuff they need to know, including our general TOE, tactics, strategy. That assumes they think like us, of course. What do we have on their methods of intel gathering?”

“We know they use stealth ships,” Mike said. “They also have a personal cloaking ability, which means they can slip in teams without anyone seeing them, assuming people don’t have the right technology to see them. We’re redesigning combat glasses to detect cloaked personnel, ditto ship sensors, etcetera.”

“But they’re not in use at the moment,” Stewart said.

“Nope,” Mike admitted.

“Can they have units in this system?” Stewart asked.

“I think they’re like the Himmit,” Mike admitted. “They could have somebody in this room.”

“Lovely thought,” Stewart said.

“And that is your lovely thought for today and tomorrow and until we win,” Mike said, tossing Stewart an AID. “You’re now in charge of Intel. Figure out what we don’t know, figure out what they can find out and stop them from finding it out. And find out what you can about them that the Himmit can’t.”

“Great,” Stewart said, looking at the device balefully. “I hate these things.”

“I’m given to understand that one is ‘clean’ for values of clean,” Mike said. “And they’re going to get cleaner. But determining what clean means is one of your first jobs. There’s a major in your department who’s been collecting intel from the Himmit and Rigas is in the building. I suspect we’re bleeding intel to these guys and we’re not getting much in the opposite direction. Change that.”

“Gotcha,” Stewart said, standing up. “So, Dad, when are you coming to see the grand-kids?”

“Excuse me?” Mike said, neutrally.

“Uh… ” Stewart said, grimacing. “When are you going to finally see your grandkids?”

“I got that part,” Mike said, blinking. “The answer is as soon as I get a few more fires put out. It was the ‘Dad’ part that I’m asking about.”

“I guess Cally left that out, huh?” Stewart said, sitting back down.

“I guess she did,” Mike growled. “So you want to tell me the rest?”

Stewart looked at him askance for a moment then frowned.

“Oh, you… ”

“I think you used runt bastard the last time,” Mike said, grinning. “I’m going to take some time this weekend and run down to the Island. If you come along we can make it a working trip.”

“Wouldn’t miss it for worlds,” Stewart said. “I’ll tell you this, Boss, it’s good to be back. New invasion, backs to the wall and all.”

“And I’ll tell you now, Son, that there are going to be days you’ll long for the comfort, security and placidity of the Tongs.”

* * *

“I have seen you Kobolds work before,” Muehlenkampf said, trying not to seem impressed. “But this exceeds my expectations.”

’This’ was not only a row of refurbished fighting systems but the new facility that produced them. The building, sixty meters high, covering better than forty hectares and filled with the noise of happy industry, was made entirely of metal. Several thousand Indowy had spent less than a week surveying the entire valley of equipment. Whenever a vehicle was determined to be beyond recovery it was carried to shredders, pushed through forges and came out as the base material of the building.

By the time the survey was complete, the building was complete. Then vehicles started moving. Tanks, trucks, artillery pieces, mobile rocket launchers, light wheeled vehicles. It didn’t matter to the Indowy, who were used to customized construction and renovation. System came in one end as a rusted pile of scrap and exited the other as better than it had left it’s original factory floor. Within another week the Indowy had mastered the technique and were turning out a system, virtually any system, at a rate of better than one every ten minutes, 24 hours per day. Electronics were upgraded, guns were improved, seating was more comfortable. And more…

“A human associate refers to this as the ‘magic pixie dust,’ ” Etari said, walking past a line of vehicles that were being painted.

As far as Muehlenkampf could see, it was just making them very very shiny. He was not enthused by the idea of taking shiny vehicles into combat.

One of them was a Leopard tank with a very strange gun. Very long, longer even than the original cannon and decidedly… wide. He was unsure what it might be but wasn’t going to ask, yet. But the tank looked like something that would be put on parade, glittering under the lights as if it were armored in chrome.

“It’s very pretty, but… ”

Etari raised a small wand and pointed it at the Leopard which abruptly faded from view.

“The system is not the same as the one the Hedren and Himmit use,” Etari said, dismissively. “I found their system to have… flaws. They use a projection field that warps light around the cloaked device. Simple enough, but not exactly… robust. A strong enough hit, even one that does not take out the vehicle, can disrupt the projector. And the Hedren design is much less effective than the Himmit. There is a noticeable warping if you are looking closely enough.”

“And this?” Muehlenkampf said, walking over carefully and reaching out. Yes, the Leopard was still there. He could see that it, too, distorted the background slightly but it was very much as if the entire tank was transparent. He hoped the crew would not be viewable sitting in their seats. It would be humorous but not exactly stealthy.

“Actually, humans were on the cusp of it during the Posleen War,” Etari said. “But they hadn’t put the pieces together. One group was working on biochemical transistor design, another on a thinner, flatter projection system, another on the base theory of a cloaking system and the last an actual produced paint used for holographic art primarily on personal wheeled vehicles.”

“So this is a hologram?” the Generalmajor asked.

“Not at all,” Etari said, thumbing off the cloak. “The vehicle is covered in a dual layer paint. The outer layer of paint is from the thinner, flatter projection system, a paint that lays down plasma reactor nodes, very small bits of material that fluoresce in a particular frequency when energized. The inner layer is a biochemical processor. Each of the plasma reactor nodes binds to the processor at a particular point. The overall sheet acts as the computer, to put it in terms you understand. When the paint is dried the vehicle is run through a laser designation system that tells the processor which nodes are directly opposite each other. One node picks up a signal from reflectance and transmits it to its polar opposite which then energizes… ”

“Making a picture of what is behind the vehicle,” Muehlenkampf said, nodding. “I suppose for you this is child’s play.”

“Sometimes the simplest way is the best,” Etari said. “Short of being hit by a large scale plasma burst, the paint is very redundant. And if it gets scratched, all you have is a bit of the base, which is a mottled green-brown, in view. Repainting requires a facility but it is easy enough. It creates a bit of a flicker when in movement, but is quite effective when still. And in movement, the secondary effects of the vehicle are, after all, noticeable.”

“Invisible units,” Muehlenkampf said. “Very good.”

“And there is an interesting item to it,” the Kobold said. “Ask me.”

“What is the interesting item?” Muehlenkampf said, trying not to growl.

“The technology is not the sort the Hedren are used to facing,” Etari said. “Their counter-cloak technology is designed to detect cloaking fields. This, General, is not a cloaking field.”

“So we may be invisible to the normally invisible Hedren?” Muehlenkampf said, nodding.

“Possibly,” Etari said, not appearing to care if he’d impressed the human or not. “You shall have to see in combat. Visible on thermal certainly. The gun is a railgun capable of firing a variety of rounds. The Hedren vehicles are not only heavily armored but incorporate a shield system which is… extremely robust. It may take more than one round to destroy even one of their relatively light armored vehicles. There are several types of shield penetration systems but given that we have not had a Hedren vehicle to test them against… you may have to decide which works best in combat.”

“Joy,” Muehlenkampf said, grimly.

“We recognize this as being sub-optimal,” the Indowy replied making the grimace that equated to a shrug. “Nothing we can do about that. On to the next piece.”

The next piece was clearly tracked artillery, but Muehlenkampf had never seen the system before. As with the Leopard, it was shiny ‘chrome’ all over. And it was big. Very big. It also had a boxy appearance that must have caused the Indowy, who were big on curved surfaces, conniptions. He finally twigged to it’s purpose when he noted that the cannon was very clearly designed as artillery not a tank cannon.

“After looking at the inventory we determined that there were insufficient mobile cannon for your proposed organization,” Etari replied. “There were more than sufficient towed weapons systems. However, it had been impressed upon me that mobile was better.”

“In general, that is the case,” Muehlenkampf said.

“We determined a method to use bodies from Marder fighting vehicles and the suspension, drive, and tracks from Russian T-62s to create a tracked artillery system. We ended up scrapping most of the towed artillery systems, however. Chemical rounds are so… inefficient. These use a railgun based drive system that has significantly more range than the original 155. The system has an auto-alignment system based on the American MLRS, an auto loading system and an automated reloading system. There is a separate but similar vehicle for that. We’ve improved the barrel design so that it has a top rate of fire of sixteen rounds per minute and with the auto-loader and sufficient support it can maintain that all day. Moreover, by adjusting elevation and propulsive force, and thus time of flight, it can do up to nine round time on targets from a single system. Top road speed should be right at one hundred kilometers per hour. We somewhat improved the engine, transmission and track system. Among other things, the second is now automatic and the controls are similar to a Leopard tank. Oh, and we installed ground-effect drivers so that you can cross boggy terrain and for march-order movement to reduced damage to the track systems and the roads. We considered installing full anti-gravity but the reengineering requirements and training requirements were considered suboptimal. All of the vehicles, however, have similar improvements.”

“I see,” the Generalmajor said. “Very good.”

“You can feel free to ‘field test’ it,” the Indowy said. “It is, after all, not a standard system. However, I assure you they will work.”

“Somehow, I don’t doubt that Indowy Etari. We will need… ”

“Field manuals have been produced for all the systems, in your Deutsch as well as Hebrew, Swedish, Norwegian and several Slavic languages,” Etari said. “They are formatted upon Bundeswehr field manuals since many of the methods and systems were unknown at the time of the Wehrmacht. The one point I must stress is that these are not Indowy devices. They require… maintenance.”

The last was said in a tone of very clear disgust. Had Muehlenkampf had more experience with the little, fuzzy, bat-faced creatures, he’d have seen the equivalent of a sneer.

“I assure you we will perform that maintenance diligently,” Muehlenkampf replied. “A training area has been set up near the former city of Hamburg. Transportation… ”

“Shuttles will begin lifting systems as soon as we have sufficiency to provide for one brigade,” Etari said, cutting him off again. “That will be within a week. The field manuals will be sent out today so that you can begin book training on the systems. We debated for nearly a day whether to convert all the engines to fusion-electric systems but decided against it, again for training reasons. However, all those that formerly ran on… ‘gasoline’ are now converted to diesel reducing your logistics complexity. But you will have to assure a supply of diesel for support. Future systems will be converted to fusion-electric.”

“I will admit to being impressed,” Muehlenkampf said, stoically.

“I am one of the few senior mechanists in my clan who has been interested in Posleen and Human manufacturing techniques,” Etari said, just as stoically, walking outside the manufacturing plant to where the majority of the vehicles were sitting. “I also was a mechanist during the Posleen War and had, I thought, a number of worthwhile concepts that I was, alas, too junior to present. I relished the opportunity to prove the effectiveness of my concepts. But this is but the first step. By the time you need to be reorganized after Gratoola we will have real systems prepared. I believe the human phrase is ‘better, stronger, faster.’ ”

“That is an important point,” Muehlenkampf said. “The Hedren field heavy armor the equivalent of a SheVa Four or a Tiger III. Actually, better than either. There is nothing I have seen in this valley that can take them on.”

“Ah, those,” Etari said, dismissively. “Come.”

Etari walked down the rank of tracks, tanks and trucks to a cluster of vehicles. Muehlenkampf, for all his experience of military vehicles, was not sure what he was looking at. The base may have been the Russian T-62 again. Many of them were used by forces in the Vienna pocket, mostly those who had survived the debacles in Eastern Europe. They may have ended up in the valley.

The upper, however, looked more like a bastardized Amerian M-1 with the exception of the gun, the barrel of which was thick and short.

“The round fired is actually a high-velocity missile,” Etari said, climbing up on the tank. “It tracks on Hedren heavy armor so it is ‘fire and forget.’ When it hits, it uses a system similar to the Posleen heavy-armor penetrator, a smart bot that finds the weakest point in the Hedren armor and drill an anti-matter breaching charge into the interior. There are various countermeasures, some of which the Hedren use, but there are counters for the counters and so-forth and so-on. But this is your primary anti-armor system. We’re leaving the naming to you.

“Primary tanks will be modified Leopards, tentatively designated Leopard Vs. Slightly more robust drive train, more or less the same speed, heavy rail gun based on the Posleen designs but with the same firing system and lay-out as the Leopard III. Improved communication and ground-effect drive for march-order movement. Sights work in thermal imagery and ‘cloaking reveal.’ The latter is not perfect, but as good as anything that is out there. Secondary guns 3 and 5mm rail guns.

“Primary infantry fighting vehicles will be a modified Marder, improved lay-out, improved communications and tracking system, improved drive train including enough speed to keep up with the Leopards while in track mode and, of course, ground-effect drive. Primary weapons system is a 5mm rail gun, secondary is a smaller version of the smart-bot gun. Much the same sight system as the Leopard.

“Primary heavy support vehicle is based on the Marder fighting vehicle. Armored against shrapnel and light weapons rounds as well as mines. Sealed, as are all the other systems, in case the Hedren use poison gas or nuclear weapons. Ground-effect drive. Primary light wheeled vehicle is a Mercedes design with same modifications. Light scout vehicles are designed around those with the 5mm rail gun. Heavy scout vehicles are based on the Marder, again. All vehicles are equipped with blue-force trackers and sub-space communications systems that are at least hard to intercept or jam. And all are, of course, cloaked.”

“Three weeks?” Muehlenkampf said, finally shaken. “Three weeks? It would have taken the general staff three years to design all this! And then nothing would have worked first time out.”

“As I said, I have had several of the concepts for some time,” Etari replied. “Expect the first brigade’s delivery of equipment to begin one week from today, Generalmajor. Is there anything else?”

“Nein,” Muehlenkampf said.

“I believe you asked for ‘anything but time.’ I hope this is to your satisfaction.”

“Very much so.”

“Do what you must do and do it well,” Etari replied. “I do not wish to become the clan leader of a remnant. I much prefer my current job.”

“I shall do what I can, Kobold,” Muehlenkampf promised. “Now I must go. There is much to be done.”

* * *

There are things which must not be done.

Any seventh level mentat could contact any other seventh level mentat, or any other being, via a form of telepathy. The contact was as close to instantaneous as the reality of the polyverse permitted and effectively unlimited in range.

It was not mind reading, or at least the method the sohon used was not mind reading, but rather small modifications of brain chemistry that had the words ‘heard’ without being spoken. Admittedly, if a being can modify brain chemistry, and can read it properly, both mental modification and mind reading were possible. The sohon expressly did not do this. Had not done this. It was forbidden experimentation.

Which was what the meeting was all about.

There are things which must be done, Michelle thought back and via ripple linking her thoughts permeated throughout the entire metaconcert. Somehow, she had become the spokesperson for the human mentats. Which meant that if things went against them hard enough she would be repudiated, again, but this time stripped of her powers. She would, voluntarily, strip herself of her powers. Because the whole point was that the Wise must choose the greater Path.

I would present my logic, she continued.

I would observe your logic, the distant Indowy replied. Her primary debater was the Mentat Treelu, an adept who had been a master for longer than she had been alive.

Our purpose is to advance upon the Path of Enlightenment, Michelle said. To bring our species — all species - to a higher state of being, to abjure the reality of this condition. It is a slow path, but one that must be taken if our species are to grow.

This is the Path, Treelu replied. How can war, which deviates our feet from the Path, assist in this.

I do not see a way, Michelle thought, telling a little white lie. It was a good thing it wasn’t mind reading. What I see is that the Hedren have deviated, horribly, from this Way. Yet they use sohon. The necessities of sohon therefore, of themselves, are not necessities of the Path.

That was a bit of a shocker, something that most of the mentats had probably considered but had not been willing to admit. Certainly publicly and probably to themselves.

The whole concept of the Uprising Path was that sohon was the Way. First of all, for purely mundane reasons the methods of sohon would permit the wielders, eventually, to rise to a different state of being and consciousness. The Aldenata had shown the way. Second, the mental discipline necessary for sohon meant that emotional distractions had to be minimized. The disciplines received from the Aldenata stressed that emotionlessness was one of the cornerstone necessities of Rising.

What Michelle had said, in essence, was that the Aldenata, gods to most of the Indowy but more like senior mentors to the Indowy mentats, were wrong.

I reject that logic, Treelu replied.

Argue it, Michelle thought.

The Aldenata require abjurement of this state of being to Rise, Treelu replied. His tone was one of a slam-dunk.

The Hedren apparently do not, Michelle thought. I am not saying that I accept the Way of the Hedren. I do not, nor do any of my human brethren. But the Hedren example teaches us that strict removal of all things of this essence are not necessities of sohon. By extrapolation, they are not necessities of Rising.

The Way of the Aldenata is, therefore, but one choice upon the Path. The question therefore becomes, are we willing to support the Way of the Aldenata. Or are we to succumb to the Way of the Hedren. Failure to support the actions against the Hedren Tyranny will mean accepting the Hedren Way. This is a binary solution set. If there is a third resultant that I have not considered, I will accept that resultant. However, failing a third resultant it is not a question of simply continuing on the Way of the Aldenata. It is elimination of the Way and substitution by the Way of the Hedren.

This is the logic of war. It is as cold as any in the Universe.

* * *

There is no consensus, Treelu thought. We must not take any action until there is consensus.

The metaconcert had broken up, reformed, broken again as the masters of sohon across the galactic arm wrestled with the question of whether to support something they abhorred.

Metaconcerts were extraordinarily rare and Michelle had not been a part of one before. The last one had been on the subject of whether to support the Posleen War effort. But she had quickly learned that it was possible to taste the flavor of feelings broadly held by one group or another. Having tasted the various factions, she only partially agreed with Treelu.

There is consensus, Michelle argued. Sohon must not be used for aggressive action. That is fundamental to the Way. The sense I get beyond that is that there are Masters who refuse to support the action in any form beyond continuing to build and study. That is acceptable. But there is a large faction that feels more direct action is acceptable. Certainly to defend against the Hedren and their Imeg slaves’ use of sohon for evil. On Diess, did not our junior brethren build defenses for the soldiers to fight behind? We do no more in this.

You are either blind to reality or dissimulating, Treelu replied. To learn to defend, someone must learn to attack. Masters who enter battle against the Hedren must be trained, no? And the only Master in this concert who has engaged in direct battle, Master to Master, happens to be you, no?

Michelle was calmly composing a scathing reply when another faction spoke up. The group was, broadly, those willing to defend against the Hedren. The spokesperson was one of the newer Indowy mentats, but powerful from his voice.

Your reply uses no logic, the mentat said, his mind echoing through the metaconcert. It appears to be based upon personal animus. The concert is reminded that the mentor of Human Mentat Erick Winchon was Mentat Treelu. If anyone should have ensured the discontinuation of Winchon’s actions, it is Mentat Treelu. Using it as a challenge against Mentat O’Neal is emotion based, rather than logic based.

The logic that some mentats must learn attack methods is, however, justifiable. Using those in training, though, is no more aggressive than surgery. As long as no harm is done with intent it is not a deviation from the Path.

We must ask the Aldenata, a querulous older thought cried. The faction he spoke for was smaller than either the nay-sayers or those in favor of action. But as he spoke, Michelle could sense leakers from both factions. We must take no part in hostilities without the benefit of their Wisdom.

By the time the Aldenata reply, the war will be over, the younger mentat thought. We argue for the compromise of the Michon. Let those who are willing to engage in defense be permitted to do so. Let those who wish to refrain refrain. Let each master find his, her or its Path. Save only that they do no harm by intent. Any use of sohon at this level raises the question of harm through failure. Such is the nature of the universe. But evil rises; an evil that uses sohon for great harm. This cannot be allowed. Contact the Aldenata by all means. Their answer will arrive in time and we can then be judged under that answer. This will mean sacrifice for all. Separation from home and loved ones. Perhaps even failure of debt. But these are sacrifices worth making. As Mentat O’Neal has noted, it is a binary solution set, the logic of war. My faction chooses to make the sacrifice to preserve the Way.

Michelle smiled to herself as the mentat finished. She wasn’t sure if he knew it, but he’d reprised a statement used long ago on Earth.

He was asking them to give their lives, their fortune and their sacred honor.

* * *

We must ingather, Michelle thought. And there are many details to be worked out.

Indeed, Mentat Karthe replied. The Indowy was only young by Indowy standards, being some two decades older than the human. But his mind-voice felt very young. Human soldiers who go to war have a method to suspend debt payments. We will need a law covering our time during this action. There is little chance that we will be paid sufficiently to cover our payments.

Not one I’d considered, Michelle admitted. I will contact my father and see that it is done. The one that I had considered is that there may be students that do not agree with their masters, in either direction. There will be shifts.

Many details, as you said. I will begin moving the members of my faction to Earth. Most will have to ingather by ship. The Masters will bring their finest students with them. We will begin arriving in two weeks.

I will convey this to my father, Michelle thought. I thank you for this.

The logic is inescapable. If good is not willing to sacrifice and fight for its beliefs, then evil will triumph.

Have you been reading Patrick Henry?

* * *

CHAPTER SEVEN

“The SS has thirty percent of its heavy equipment in shipment,” Tam said. “The remainder will be arriving over the next couple of weeks. They’ve already begun training on the gear. Muehlenkampf feels that three months will be necessary for them to become fully trained on the systems.”

“He lifts two weeks after they get the final shipment,” Mike said. “If he has three months on planet to train in, all good. But a trained unit on Earth does us no good if Gratoola falls.”

“I’ll send him the message,” Tam said. “Lieutenant General Stewart has a brief on Hedren capabilities and methods prepared.”

“Go,” Mike said, looking over at his son-in-law.

“I did hardly any of it,” Stewart admitted. “The J-2 was preparing it before I took over. So I’m not going to take credit. Here goes:

“Hedren primary method of hard insertion is through the matter wormhole. The unit inserted is, as was previously briefed, the equivalent of a heavy armored corps with combat supports including in-system attack craft. But that’s not enough to take a planet. They’re really just there to establish a bridgehead. They generally will land near a notable feature of the planet, a capital city or such, and take that as fast as possible. Then they sit on it until more forces arrive through hyper-jump.”

“Why not just attack through hyper?” Mike asked.

“Think about it from a defense point-of-view, General,” Stewart said. “Defenses are based to point outwards. The Hedren Fleet arrives hard on the heels of the ground assault. Suddenly you have ground forces holding a position, ones that can engage into local space from the ground, and a fleet jumping in on you. Dimensional warp tech won’t hyper in any closer than the ley-line system, which means well outside the life-zone of most systems. Therefore, the fleet has to fight its way in. If they don’t have ground force, they then have to make a combat drop on the position. Better to have a secure area for landing. The defenders have to make the choice of engaging the ground forces from space or the incoming fleet.”

“Attack from both axes,” Tam said.

“Correct, sir,” Stewart replied. “It’s not just a ground attack, it’s a full-court press. Following a successful attack, the planet is then invested by the fleet, more forces are landed and spread out to control the populace and reduce resistance.”

“So the ground force portion, except for the fact that it’s really heavy and definitely less spread out, is the equivalent of airborne forces dropped behind the lines,” Mike said. “They take a major psychological position, if it’s a city it’s hard to dig them out, then sit on their gains until relieved. They’re going to be screwed if the follow-on forces get stopped.”

“Nijmegen?” Tam said.

“You’re thinking of Arnhem,” the former paratrooper said. “Nijmegen was the 82nd. I need to get with Takao and see what he thinks are the chances of stopping the incoming fleet. Otherwise, our forces are going to be the Brits. TOE?”

“Himmit have given us a full order of battle for the assault forces as well as for follow-on and the total fleet,” Stewart said. “At least, what they believe to be the current TOE on the first two and a pretty good count on the last. They’re not sure, though, how much of the latter will be sent to Gratoola.”

“Any idea where the attack will occur?” Mike asked. “I mean, in advance.”

“Well, there are several possibles,” Stewart replied. “The imaginatively named Gratoola City, which is where the capital government buildings reside, the Corridor, which is a big industrial belt… There’s a pretty good sized list. If you’re asking me for a crystal ball hunch; Gratoola City. The Himmit say that a sohon mentat should be able to detect the field when they generate it, but it’s no more than twenty minutes or so before the Hedren emerge. Which I’m given to understand is an energetic event.”

“Define energetic,” Mike said.

“Big boom,” Stewart replied. “The jump displaces all air and other matter in the region they invest. Non-nuclear boom, but you don’t want to be right on the spot that they come in. By the same token, sufficient matter disturbs the insertion, sometimes to the Hedren’s detriment.”

“They go boom?” Wesley asked.

“They go boom,” Stewart confirmed. “Or break. Apparently, if you’ve got a big enough building, instead of blowing up the building they come out on top. Since this tends to break even their CSUs, they generally don’t come in on cities. With that parameter, the analysis section came up with a list of probable landing zones for the Hedren for each of the probable targets. I’ve got a little list.”

“Good,” Mike said. “So are all the ground assault forces waiting to go on Daga?”

“No,” Stewart said. “They were apparently pulled back to Caracool for rest and refit. According to the Himmit, once a planet is initially quelle