Dedication To Jim Baen, my mentor, my publisher and my friend. Just trying to pay forward. Acknowledgements

НазваниеDedication To Jim Baen, my mentor, my publisher and my friend. Just trying to pay forward. Acknowledgements
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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
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