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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CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE


"We made it," Daisy said.

From the outside there was little to see. Space was immense and even the best visual tracking systems had a hard time noting the brief flicker of starlight.

And just in case, the Des Moines had emerged in the visual shadow of a Jovian.

"Range to normal warp insertion for the Imeg ship is at nine light seconds," the navigational officer said. "Recommend seven grav acceleration at 218 mark neg 12. That will put us in a swing around the sub-polar region of the jovian and on line to intercept. If they're on time. If not, we can park in a Lagrange orbit and wait."

"Do it," Captain McNair said. He'd been studying his ass off on this space shit but it still didn't come naturally. And he didn't like that. He knew, as a captain, he had to understand every nuance of the environment. Unfortunately, he was still at heart a wet sailor. Three dimensions still sort of screwed with him. Fortunately, it didn't screw with Daisy. "I'm moving to the Battle Room. Inform me if there's any change."

"Coming with you," Daisy said.

"Absolutely," Jeff replied, grinning.

Technically, the compartment two decks below the bridge was called CIC, Combat Information Center. But Jeff had grown up in the days when it was simply called 'The Battle Room.' It was where the guns were controlled from and the radar and lookout information was received. He supposed 'Combat Information Center' made sense but just as he damned well had called the crew to 'Battle Stations', not 'Condition One', he called it 'The Battle Room.' His new crew was just going to have to adjust.

"Any indications of cloaked ships?" he asked as he entered the compartment.

The center of the compartment was a large holographic display of the immediate area. It could be zoomed in and out but generally was held as a bubble ranging out from the ship's location to ten light seconds in every direction.

"Negative, sir," the Tactical Officer replied.

"And our friend?" Jeff asked, taking his seat and strapping in. The flex helmet for his suit was compressed into a small ball at the back of his neck. In the event of loss of air it would automatically deploy.

"Right on time," the TACO replied, using a light-wand to indicate the approaching ship.

"You know, I had a buddy back in the War," Jeff said. "That would be World War Two for you youngsters. He somehow got shanghaied into the commandoes that went over to mess with the Jerries. He said that one reason the Jerry sentries were so easy to kill was that they were just so damned regular. You could time their sentry beat to the second. Take that as a lesson, Lieutenant. Being absolutely regular in your actions is not a good thing in war."

"Yes, sir," the TACO said, trying not to shake his head.

"Daisy, connect me to the mentats, please."

"Online," Daisy said.

"Mentat Kang," Jeff said. "Imeg ship is on course and we're about to enter detection range. One hour to intercept. Time for you to work your magic."

* * *

Can you sense the ship? Mentat Shaina asked.

There are several, Sissy replied. But that must be the one.

Powerful, Kang thought. Very powerful sohon.

Note the particles, Shaina thought. Note the build-up of energy associated with their acceleration, the flex of the universe at their increase in mass. Even with our cloak, we give off traces. We must eliminate every trace. And we must do it invisibly. We do not want the Imeg sensing us as we sense it.

I must go ready my team, Kang thought. Ensure no trace.

We will do our very best, Shaina replied.

* * *

"You up for this, Skank?" Redman asked as he strapped into his seat.

The three Banshee shuttles were lined up and prepared for launch. As the teams approached they spread out, distributing themselves so that if one of the shuttles was destroyed on approach, at least some of the teams would make it to the ship. The mission was still a go if they lost one shuttle. Two was an abort.

The interior of the shuttles was tight. Four ranks of seats ran down its interior, two outboard and two inboard. The boarders faced each other, knees interlocked. What with body armor, suits, battle-rattle and weapons, there wasn't enough room to swing a mouse much less a cat.

"I'm beginning to wonder," Adept Pawle replied, calmly. "I can sense the power of the Imeg even here. It is powerful. Very powerful. And that is not the only problem . . ."

* * *

"There are two Imeg on the ship," Kang said, his eyes closed and apparently meditating. "One is a mentat in truth. Very powerful. The other . . . barely an adept. But he will still be a problem."

"We've got, what? Sixteen sohon adepts and mentats?" Jake replied, his eyes closed as well. "Surely you guys can keep two under control."

"Colonel Mosovich," Kang replied. "Were I using sohon, and I assuredly am not, I'm not sure that the Imeg would notice me from this distance. However, it is impossible to miss. I do not want to reduce your confidence, but the relative disparity of force is that of, say, a battlecruiser to a battleship. We have two battlecruisers, a couple of cruisers and a dozen destroyers."

"Well, you guys better think about what it takes to become battleships, then," Jake replied. "It'll work out. And if it don't, we'll hardly know it."

* * *

Mentat Shaina and two of the lower level Indowy had taken up positions in the Battle Room.

Jeff was keeping one eye on the battle holo and one on the Indowy. But there wasn't much to see in the latter case. The Indowy didn't do a lotus when they were meditating; they knelt with their hands crossed, palms upwards and eyes closed. They'd been that way for the last forty-five minutes with no real change.

"We are detected," Shaina said. "Mentat Harris is closing down their communications. I shall be busy. Thuthiri will communicate."

"Close the target," Jeff snapped. "Prepare to launch shuttles. Open fire all secondary weapons."

* * *

"What class of ship is that?" Cruiser Master Goglugot said. "And where did it come from?"

Goglugot was a Kotha, as were most ship masters, the commander of the Gorongur. He had made this same run a dozen times so far and was less than pleased. He knew well the axiom of war that one should never develop a pattern. But the Imeg were less than interested in input from a lowly Cruiser Master. The Imeg loved order. Order was the way of the Hedren. So over and over again he had left on the identical schedule and entered warp at the identical point and now he was about to be fucked for it.

And would the Imeg take the blame? Unlikely. Not that he was probably going to face an Inquisition. Given the power of the ship he was up against, he was unlikely to face anything but death.

"A similar vessel was reported by scouts," the Marro Combat Officer replied. "It appears to be a new class. Capabilities are unknown. It was under cloak and apparently was enhancing with kratki. Thus we only detected it at less than a li. Neither the cloak capability nor the kratki enhancements were known to our intelligence. But the prominences forward are believed to be aesthetic."

"The prominences forward bother me less than the heavy weapons on its side!"

* * *

"Colonel," the shuttle pilot said. "We've been made. Launching in three . . .two . . .one."

There was a slight sideways acceleration and then gravity dropped away. The shuttles had anti-grav systems but most of their power was being devoted to maneuvering and inertial dampening.

Trained human pilots, given the right sort of seats and G suits, could sustain upwards of sixteen gravities of acceleration for brief periods. Maneuvers in Banshees in space could generate up to a hundred gravities. A hundred gravs would turn any human body into red mush.

To avoid being turned into red mush, all space combat vessels as well as ACS used inertial dampeners. The dampeners could reduce the acceleration gradient to nearly earth normal. But they used a lot of power doing it. Using more power to create a notional 'down' meant less maneuverability. And the pilots of the shuttles wanted all the maneuverablity they could get.

The space between the two ships was a cauldron of fire. Mass-drivers, grasers and plasma cannons filled the intervening space to the point the pilot wasn't sure that any of the shuttles would survive.

The Hedren ship used primarily grasers, gamma ray frequency lasers, while the human ship mounted mass-drivers and plasma cannons. The latter two were visible while the grasers were, unfortunately, invisible. They did, however, show up on sensors. And her sensors were showing no way through the fire.

"I thought the mentats were going to shut down the enemy fire!" her co-pilot snapped.

"Guess that plan is out the window," she replied as the shields shuddered from a direct graser hit.

* * *

"The ship has launched small-craft," the Combat Officer said as the Gorongur shuddered under the power of the Des Moines' secondaries. "Shuttles or space fighters."

"Then engage and destroy them," Goglugot snapped then grabbed his head.

The enemy is attempting to board.

The Imeg's thoughts lashed the Cruiser Master's brain with fire. And it wasn't like he needed the distraction.

"Only one thing on this ship worth boarding for, My Lord," Goglugot replied, tightly. "I suggest you prepare to defend yourself. The Glandri are yours to command."

I will order them to deploy. If I or my apprentice are lost, it will go hard upon you, Cruiser Master.

"I doubt any of us will survive to face the Inquisition, My Lord," Goglugot said. "For that reason, if no other, we will fight hard."

As the Imeg released him, Goglugot rubbed his cranium with a hand-tentacle.

"You know," he said, looking that the Combat Officer. "There are times I wish I was a lowly Marro."

"Too many arms, Cruiser Master," the Marro replied. "We're attempting to engage the shuttles but much of our fire is being diverted. I assume by kratki. Grasers are bending in space and splashing off their shields."

"I think I'll leave that for our Lord Imeg to deal with."

* * *

"Adept Tuthiri?" Jeff said, calmly. "The shuttles are taking fire."

"The human team is attempting to shut down the enemy's guns," Tuthiri replied, calmly. His fur, though, was rippling in distress. "The Imeg is preventing that. Also attempting to shut down our systems as well as trying to get the fusion drives to explode. We are preventing that. It is the best we can do at the moment. The Imeg is . . .powerful."

"Do we abort?" Jeff asked.

There was no reply.

* * *

Shaina, Sissy thought. We could use some help here.

We are strengthening the shuttle's shields, Shaina replied. As well as protecting the ship. We cannot engage the Imeg nor its ship directly.

Well, I'm not sure there's enough of us to stop this bastard, Sissy thought. Kang, watch your ass.

* * *

"Kang?" Jake said. "Mentat Kang? Glasshoppah?"

"Not . . .now . . ." Kang replied, his jaw tight. "This bastard is . . ."

"Do we need to abort?"

"Can your forces fight through the defenders without help?" Kang asked.

"Yes."

"Then, no, we do not need to abort."

* * *

"Failure in mass driver controls," the gunnery officer snapped. "Mass drivers non-responsive."

"Track it down," Jeff replied.

"Back up," Guns said, looking puzzled. "Continuing engagment."

"The Imeg is breaking through," Tuthiri said. "The lower level Imeg is holding reality on his ship while the higher level is attacking the Des Moines and the shuttles."

"I felt that," Daisy said, working her shoulder. "He'd better watch it or he's going to piss me off. And he doesn't want to piss me off."

* * *

"Maneuvering to dock," the shuttle pilot said.

The Banshee went through one of those maneuvers that was only possible in space, spinning through three dimensions and slamming its rear into the hull of the Hedren ship. Tractor clamps locked it in place as flexible seals slapped onto the armor of the warship.

"On and locked," she snapped. "Go, Colonel!"

* * *

As the lock dilated outward Payback slapped a heavy-duty burn patch onto the hull.

"Clear!"

The patch began to flare with eye-searing brilliance then got even hotter and stronger than normal.

"What the . . .?"

"Kang's reinforcing," Mosovich said. "All teams, lock and load!"

The patch burned through the refractory hull in mere seconds then the cut section of hull slammed outwards, bouncing off of the interior bulkhead. The seals were not perfect and the gaseous metal from the cutting patch was sucked out to the side in a torrent of wind from the interior of the ship.

The DAG teams ignored the wind, hopping over the low and very hot coaming then spreading out on the interior of the Hedren ship.

* * *

"Clear," Mangler said as he took a knee in the corridor. The light on the ship was low and a weird violet. But his combat goggles quickly adjusted it to human normal. They could do less about the gravity which was a touch high.

A Marro whipped around the corner, a sealing kit in his hand, and hissed to a stop at the sight of the boarders. He barely had time to do more before being cut in half by a blast of razor sharp flechettes.

"Clear," Mangler repeated.

* * *

"Tell the shuttles to blow clear," Jeff said as the ship shuddered under the fire from the Hedren cruiser.

"Shuttles, blow clear and retreat," the boats officer said. "Follow assigned vector."

"Clearing vector of friendly fire," the gunnery officer said. "They should be able to run right down the side of the ship."

"Tuthiri, get word to Colonel Mosovich that we're clearing the shuttles. Don't bother holding that area. Bridge, maneuver nose forward to the Hedren ship. Guns, warm up the QT. I'm tired of taking fire from this bastard."

* * *

"The shuttles are leaving," Mueller said as Payback slapped another charge on a door. "Maybe we should open this up . . ."

The blast door slid to either side, revealing an empty corridor.

"Like that. Thanks, Kang."

"Actually, that was Skank," Kang said, his face sweating. "I'm trying to keep the Imeg from killing us."

As he said that the shuttles blasted clear and there was a moment of wind again, quickly cut off.

"I hate vacuum," Mueller said as he trotted forward. "It really sucks."

"Don't make me laugh," Skank said. "I'm having a hard enough time concentrating."

* * *

"Tuthiri, tell your people to make sure the QT guns are not interfered with," Jeff said as the ship maneuvered. It took a moment to pivot it to face the Imeg ship and it was taking fire the whole time.

"QT in target basket in five seconds," the Gunnery officer said. "We're getting pounded. Twenty percent drop in fire on the port side."

"That is about to change," Jeff said. "Honey, I think you're the gunner on this."

"QT guns charged," Daisy said.

"Fire on bearing."

"I have lock," Guns said.

"Firing," Daisy replied.

* * *

"What the hell?" Mangler shouted as the corridor bucked and the air began to howl with depressurization again. Between the shuddering deck and the wind he slid into a sprawl which was a good thing since a beam of green fire flashed over his head. "Glandri!"

The porcupine-like beings were spilling into a cross-corridor, laying down a withering fire with their neural whips. Mangler grabbed a stanchion and slid backwards, angling his rail-gun around the corner and firing. He wasn't blind, though. The scope on the rifle fed to his goggles and he could lay down some pretty accurate fire that way.

Glandri blood was blue. That became apparent as it splashed all over the corridor.

Recto and Stalker stacked up on him, firing from a kneeling position and standing respectively. Stalker, though, leaned a little too far out getting his shots and Mangler suddenly had a thrashing body on top of him.

"Stalker's down!" Recto snapped.

"Got 'im," Fudge replied, grabbing the ankles of the clearing specialist and dragging him backwards. As he did Stalker quit convulsing, shuddered once and then was still. "Fuck."

"Fuck this," Mangler said, reaching behind his back and pulling out what looked like a flare gun with a thick grip. "Suicide-bars! Clear!"

The anti-matter grenade launcher did not have the same connection to his goggles but he didn't care. He just aligned it with the corridor, fired all five rounds in the magazine and ducked around the corner.

A moment later the cross-corridor flashed with fire. A Glandri, most of it anyway, hit the starboard bulkhead and flopped to the floor.

He slid his rifle back around the corner, got a good look then stood up.

"Clear. But I don't think we're going to be using this route."

* * *

"Enemy fire had dropped to minimal," the Tactical Officer said. "Only two grasers firing . . . Make that none," he finished as the ship shuddered from mass-driver fire.

The enemy cruiser's surface had been stripped. It was open in multiple places and all of its gun emplacments were toast.

"That's an ugly weapon," Jeff said. "I like it."

"Fire again, sir?" Guns asked.

"We want the ship to keep functioning until we get the teams back," McNair replied. "So, no. Maybe later."

* * *

"What just hit us?" Goglugot asked.

"Unknown weapon," the Combat Officer replied. "Apparently generated by the 'aesthetic' forward prominences. All starboard weapons inoperative. Four port-side weapons operative. Multiple hull breaches. Weapon caused a positive reading on the kratki detector. A large positive reading."

"Can we still warp?"

"Negative," the maneuvering officer replied. The Hotha raised four tentacles in the race's equivalent of a shrug. "Engines are functional but all external warp nacelles are down. We have normal space drive capability and that is all."

"Begin maneuvers to attempt to return to Caracool," Goglugot said. "Continue to try to call for support. Surely someone must have noticed that there is a space battle going on around here!"

* * *

"Fuck," Jake muttered.

Where the Himmit thought the Imeg might be hiding was a bulkhead. They could cut through it, but that would take time. Time they didn't have.

They'd lost seven guys so far to the Glandri defenders and the Marro were starting to weapon up. They had to find the Imeg, grab him and get the hell out.

Worst, their sohon supports were starting to look rocky.

"Kang, can you figure out how to get to the Imeg?"

"Right, I think," Kang said, his face sweating. "Right, left, down two crossings then left again."

Jake sketched that out on the plans they had and sent it out.

"Let's move people."

* * *

"The target is attempting to slingshot around the jovian," the Tactical Officer said. "Probably trying to run for home. Or maybe for support. Other ships in the system are attempting to close this position. Thirty minutes, minimum, before the first one comes into range. And that's a destroyer. Easy enough to take out."

"Cloaked ships?" Jeff asked.

"None apparent," the TACO replied. "But we can't detect them at more than five light seconds."

"Stay alert," Captain McNair said. "And get word to the colonel that he needs to either get the Imeg and get out or abort."

* * *

"Clear," Payback said as he fired the cutting charge. He opened his eyes and looked at the charge which was just sitting there. The initiator had gone off, but not the charge. "Dust Devil!"

"Trying," Adept Hoover said, his teeth gritted. The charge flared, died, flared, died.

"Ain't gonna do it," Payback replied.

* * *

Gerrard, Pawle thought, calling to one of the support adepts on the Des Moines. Take over for me.

It is . . .hard, Highlands replied. The Imeg is immensely powerful.

Fuck hard, Pawle thought, savagely. Take over for me. I have more important things to do!

* * *

The charge suddenly flared white-hot and the door flew into the far corridor.

"Go!" Skank shouted.

* * *

"Easy for you to say," Mangler muttered as green fire filled the corridor. He was laying down railgun rounds like he had unlimited ammo and he didn't. He was down two thirds of his initial load.

He pulled his railgun back to reload and was just seating another mag, both hands occupied, when what looked like a green-glowing crystal ball bounced down the corridor.

"Uh-oh."

He dropped his rifle and magazine, reaching down to scoop the thing up when there was a white flash.

* * *

Pawle held his hand up, deflecting the plasma explosion away from himself and Redman. But that was all he could deflect.

* * *

Mosovich winced as most of Alpha team was wiped out in one blast. The Hedren grenades were as bad as suicide bars.

"Bravo, bound forward and clear the corridor," he said, looking around. Most of Charlie had been out of the area of effect. The only portion that wasn't was Pawle and his team. Pawle and Redman were still there, and apparently unharmed, but Gombo and Leaf were both burned to a crisp.

"On it," Ugly said as Bubbles trotted down the corridor. "What the hell was that, Snake?"

"Bad stuff," Mosovich replied.

* * *

Bubbles extended his hand around the turn and fired two suicide bars down the corridor.

"Go!" he shouted as the explosions rent the air.

Chicklet and GE rounded the corner and laid down fire into the smoke of the explosion. There probably wasn't anything there, but it never hurt to be sure.

They trotted to the holes left by the suicide bars and maneuvered past them then down to the third door.

"This the room?" GE asked.

"Supposed to be," Chicklet said then gasped, grabbing at his head.

GE turned his head to the side just to late to avoid having blood and brains splash all over him. He circled in place, looking for a threat. Then his head began to throb.

"What the fuck is happening?"

* * *

Concentrate on the Imeg, Kang thought. Place all your power on the Imeg.

We are, Sissy replied. It is all we can do to keep it from destroying your team.

Get the Indowy to protect us, Kang replied. Keep the ship from communicating and attack the Imeg. That is your sole job now.

* * *

"Dust Devil?" Hooter said, looking at the door. Two charges had gone out so far.

"Busy," the adept gasped, grabbing at his head. "Very busy."

"Got it," Pawle said. "Redman, get me up to the door."

Redman maneuvered the adept up to the blast door and set him in front of it. Like the other two, Pawle had his eyes closed. But he seemed to be seeing anyway.

The adept laid his hand on the door and leaned forward.

"The bonds of this material are a poor reality," Pawle muttered. "A bare semblance of reality . . ."

"Stack up and cover Skank," Jake said. "Entry team, get ready."

"You. Are. Not. Real," Pawle gasped as the door disintegrated into dust.

And Redman blew back in a welter of crimson.

"Oh, holy fuck," Dumbo muttered.

They'd found the Imeg.

* * *

"What the hell are those?" Hannibal screamed. He was pumping railgun rounds into the compartment and all he was getting was bouncers. The rounds wouldn't scratch the nightmares in the room.

"Imeg," Wind shouted then blasted backwards to thump into the far bulkhead.

The two creatures in the room were nightmare, a mass of rippling black tentacles and armored bodies. The tentacles were coated in blades but that was not what was killing the team. It was the half dozen weapons each of them wielded. Expertly.

Suicide bars wouldn't detonate. Railgun rounds bounced off a hard-held shield. And still they continued to fire and slice, destroying anything that came near them.

"Back up," Kang said. "Get out of the doorway. Skank, Devil, on me. Mule, behind us. Target the one on the left."

"On it," Mueller said, managing to get a firing angle over the smaller adepts.

The three adepts managed to establish a shield that stopped the fire from the Imeg. Then they pushed back.

Keep them from reinforcing each other, Kang thought.

Trying, Dust Devil replied.

Sissy, support here.

We . . .have them separated, Sissy replied.

Drive down the shield of the lesser, Kang thought. It is not reality.

* * *

Mueller could see the effect of the battle between the two groups. The air in the compartment was heating up as irresistable force met immovable object. He could even see the shields of the Imeg, now, glowing white-hot under the power of the dozen human adepts.

And he could see when the one on the left finally collapsed.

Railgun rounds, though, bounced off the armor of the body. He searched for weaknesses and finally found one at the juncture of the tentacles and the body. The nuckle there was tough, but it finally surrendered and the Imeg was blasted back in a green spray of ichor.

Suddenly, the railgun was ripped from his hands, turned, and slammed forward, barrel-first, into his brain.

* * *

As the redoubtable NCO dropped, Pawle shuddered and mentally stepped back.

Skank, what are you doing? Kang thought.

Wait, Master.

You can't hold up a stress card, Dust Devil thought.

WAIT.

Pawle, in fact, did not know what he was doing. But what they had been doing so far wasn't working. So he reached.

He reached, in fact, into the nearby engine room. Found the fusion bottles of the ship. Found the plasma power runs. Felt for the connections, felt for the power. And he reached.

The Imeg's shield began to glow white-hot and then went down and down and down and down . . .

* * *

"Mother fucker!" Mosovich shouted, sliding past the adepts holding the door. "I'm going to motherfucking kill your ass!"

A tentacle lashed across the room, its bladed edge flashing towards his throat.

Mosovich merely whipped out the Posleen monomolecular boma blade he'd held for nigh on sixty years, a boma blade he'd picked up on Barwhon seemingly ages ago, and held it up.

The armored tentacle hit the monomolecule edge and separated in half, the severed end clanging against a bulkhead as the remaining tentacle began to spray green ichor across the compartment.

Nearly a hundred years of combat experience, and nine adepts worth of protection, took Mosovich across the compartment. He didn't need protection from the tentacles of the nightmare in the room, he had all he needed in the razor-edged blade of his former foes. That and lots of experience.

He waded straight into the Imeg, which quickly realized that going tentacle to blade was a losing proposition. Its shield reduced by the combined force of the adepts it retreated until it was backed into the bulkhead. It tried to open a hole in the bulkhead but the Indowy adepts prevented that change in reality.

Jake knew the objective was capturing the creature that had destroyed his friend. So he didn't, in fact, kill it. He just kept chopping and chopping, severing tentacle after tentacle, shortening them and shortening them, until the thing lay in a puddle of ichor, its tentacles mere pumping stumps.

He knew it was still deadly but he got down in that green blood on one knee and looked into one of its multifaceted black eyes.

"We're going to take you apart like a jig-saw puzzle," he whispered. "And we're not going to bother putting you back together. Kang, put this thing out."

* * *

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR


"Hey, Commodore," Mike said as he and Michelle apparated in the CIC of the Lex.

"General O'Neal?" Ronnie said, looking around. "Where . . .?"

"Long story," Mike replied. "Just be here a moment."

He looked over at Michelle who was looking very pale.

"You okay, Shelly?"

"You haven't called me that since I was a kid," Michelle answered. "And, no, the answer is, I'm not okay. We're not okay. Kang has the Imeg back on the Des Moines."

"Good news," Mike said.

"No, bad news," Michelle said, rubbing her forehead. "DAG was nearly wiped out doing it. Many of them by the Imeg. They're much stronger than we thought. Stronger than we could have believed. He's transferring the information across the mentats. But the force we have here . . . If we can keep them from destroying the ships, the SS, we'll be lucky."

"Commodore, discontinue support missions and get your ships out of the system," Mike said, instantly. "Contact Admiral Chun and add that order for his ships. Use remaining antimatter, all of it, to make max jumps towards the warp entry point then get the hell out."

"The Hedren are bound to send reinforcements . . ." Ronnie replied.

"Understood," Mike said. "You'll be back. But you need to come back fueled and with sohon supports. Michelle, get all available mentats to base Delta X-Ray. And we need to go join the SS."

"Yes, Father," Michelle said, nodding. Then she winced. "The Imeg are up. This is not going to be good."

"Honey, being on the wrong side of a Posleen tenaral charge ain't good," Mike said, placing his hand on her shoulder. "This here's a walk in the park. Let's roll."

* * *

Gamalsarad, Emperor (Elect) of the Tular Po'oslenar, considered the message. It had been sent across nearly a thousand light-years, through dead star systems and the ley-lines of black-holes, following the sinuous Hidden Path.

But it was a message the Tular had awaited for a very long time.

"Prepare the Fleet," he growled, his crest lifting as combat hormones flooded his body. "The time has come to Return."

"Destination, Emperor?" his aide asked.

"Earth."



Where the silent voices whisper
Find the course that is your own
And however great the obstacle
You will never be alone
For I have watched the path of angels
And I have heard the heavens roar
There is strife within the tempest
But calm in the eye of the storm . . .


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