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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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!"

* * *
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