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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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
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