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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."
"Attach Private Garcia and his sergeant to the Hammers. We're heading back to the ship."
* * *
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.
"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."
"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."
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."
* * *
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
|Edited by David Drake Eric Flint Jim Baen||Dedication For Feòrag, with love Acknowledgements|
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