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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too hard. You could juggle eggs in an ACS if you were careful enough. You could also bend steel bars. It was all a matter of training.

* * *

"Ow!" Garcia snapped as the club thunked into his head. He could, for a moment, see daylight through the hole. He snatched the club away and swung it into a tree to hold it. Too hard, as it turned out, the tree and the club disintegrated.

He grabbed the struggling figure as carefully as he could but it apparently wasn't carefully enough as the person let out a squeal of pain. He'd grabbed a forearm and apparently a bit too hard.

It was the squeal that triggered his recognition.

He was holding a girl. One with bright red hair and very pretty blue eyes.

The girl tried to kick him in the crotch. Okay, so romance probably wasn't right around the corner.

* * *

"Holy fuck!" Rawls shouted. He'd been hit three times by the club before he could even react and was cut in each spot. If he hadn't been guarding his neck, one of the hits might have gotten through to his carotid.

He didn't want to hurt the guy but with the clubs being this vicious, he wasn't sure what to do. He also wasn't sure he was dealing with a human. The guy looked more like a Darhel and was both blindingly fast and, from the power of the strikes, remarkably strong.

* * *

Mike tossed his catch to Corporal Murray and walked over to where Rawls was struggling with what certainly looked like a Darhel. But while Mike had heard rumors they could fight, seeing it was something else.

But the more he watched, as Rawls learned to block the club a bit better, he realized it couldn't be a Darhel. The body was way too stocky, the musculature was all wrong.

What he was looking at was a human somehow changed to look like a Darhel. Or sort of Darhel.

Mike watched for a moment longer then his fist flashed out . . .

* * *

Urnhat groaned as Swodrath fell to the ground. The short figure had only hit once but the Huntmaster had been knocked backwards several feet. He still lived, it would take more than that to damage a Gamra, but he was out of the fight and with his fall their fates were sealed.

She stopped struggling then struck the armored suit one more time in frustration. Her right arm was either broken or badly bruised and now her left hand felt the same.

"Streunten take your souls!"

* * *

"Shelly, you making anything of this gabble?" Mike asked. The prisoners were now examining them sullenly but they had been speaking. Mike wasn't sure how good AIDs were at translating alien languages. It had never come up. There were the Galactics and there were Posleen. Humans or pseudo-humans speaking alien babel had never come up.

"Yes," the AID replied.

"Can you translate it?" Mike asked.

"Yes."

When AIDs got monosyllabic it was bad. Mike was well aware that AIDs had lots of secrets they wouldn't or couldn't share with humans. When they got monosyllabic you were getting close to one of them.

He'd have to think on that. But given that there were humans on a planet a long way away from earth, one of them looked like a Darhel but wasn't, the local Darhel had gone into lintatai and his AID was getting less helpful . . . Things were starting to add up in a "oh, shit" way.

Mike was not stupid. There was more than one reason he'd stayed as far away from central command as he could possibly arrange. Once upon a time he'd had a very good friend and commander named Taylor. General Taylor had been commander of all US defenses on Earth. One day he turned up dead after asking too many questions about an incident where the AID net had been, apparently, hacked. Shortly after that a bunch of Darhel had either gone into lintatai or ended up quite spectacularly dead. And a previous special operations unit, the Cyberpunks, had gone rogue.

Mike had heard the rumors, including some that he put more credence on than others. The Darhel weren't entirely friendly to humans. They had, quite clearly, hamstrung human operations during the war. And they continued to manipulate governments and the military. Push too hard at Darhel secrets and you didn't last long.

Unfortunately, it looked as if Mike had ended up square in the middle of one or his middle name wasn't Leonidas.

"Well, Shelly, why don't you go ahead and translate for me."

* * *

"Cometh all friends," the smallest of the suits said. It had a monsterous form painted on its suit, a creature out of nightmare. All the other suits were bare of all but the most minor symbols. Urnhat wasn't sure if that meant a more senior one or not. The voice seemed male, though, and speaking in an archaic dialect that was hard to understand.

"Then let us go so we can tend to our leader," Whiet replied.

"Very well," the suit boomed. Almost instantly all three of the hunters were released.

Urnhat ran to Swodrath and knelt by his side, feeling at his chest for the beat of a heart. It was strong, thank Skelight.

"He is fine," the suit said. "I pulled my punch."

"Pulled it?" Urnhat said, standing up and rounding on the being. "He was thrown a yur!"

The suit, which had no visor and no way to see its eyes, appeared nonetheless to contemplate her for a moment then turned. One fist flashed out and all the way through the young bole of a tonser tree. The being then ripped the tree from its rather deep roots and tossed it down the slope.

"Pulled it," the being said, reaching up and lifting off the helmet.

Urnhat gasped in surprise as a human head was revealed, its scalp covered in a strange ripple of silver.

"Lieutenant General Michael O'Neal name is. Truth. We come in peace."

* * *

"This is impossible," Admiral Suntoro said. "There cannot be humans on this planet. You are mistaken."

"Well, Admiral, I might be," Mike said. From the admiral's image he was about to have a stroke. "But science don't lie. These are humans down to the 99th decimal. DNA matches up exactly. The local tribe is called the Nor. They control the upper third or so of this valley. There's one further down south that's called the Charan. Apparently the Posleen arrived within the memory of some of their middle aged types and started their usual slaughter. But the humans managed to hold them from taking all this range. Some of them held part of the valley for a while but they managed to kill them off. Since then the mountain tribes send fighters down to the lower reaches and to this valley and the Posleen send some of their fighters up and it got to be almost stylized from the sound of it. Probably the reason this planet never entered ornadar. The Posleen had somewhere to bleed off the excess that couldn't be sent to space.

"So what are they doing here?" Suntoro asked. "How did they get here? They couldn't have walked."

"Yeah, that's the rub," Mike said, rubbing his head as if in response. He pulled out a pinch of dip and stuck it between his cheek and gum, contemplating the Skoal can balefully. "Admiral, figure it's time to say some of this in front of an AID. You're not stupid. We both know the Darhel ain't what I'd call fully open and honest."

"The Darhel are our supporters," the admiral said, stoutly. "They saved us from the Posleen through their aid and support."

"Yeah, except for, you know, most of the world," Mike said. "And they've managed to keep us pretty much under the yoke since. And we both know that there are things they don't want us to know about that."

"I will hear no disrespect spoken of the Darhel," the admiral snapped. "That is treason."

"Nah, just honesty," Mike said, sighing again. He suspected that under Galactic law it just might be treason. "Problem is, this is one of those things I'm wondering if they ever wanted anyone to find out. And trust me, I wouldn't have poked if I knew about it. But here we are. The term 'fucked' comes to mind."

"What are we going to do?" the admiral asked, rubbing his hands nervously. "Perhaps we should meet. In person."

"Too late for that," Mike pointed out. "The AID network knows about it. Not much we can cover up at this point. And no Darhel to bring it to and try to discuss it logically. I think that you can give up blaming me for his lintatai, by the way. If we could look at his secret communciations, I suspect we'd find out he had some orders he couldn't carry out. Like 'don't let the humans go to R-1496 Delta, whatever you do.' Information lag. Nobody knew we were headed this way until the reports got back to the core worlds. And now we're here."

"What are you going to do?" the admiral asked.

"I'm trying to arrange a meet with their leaders. For the time being I'm going to stay on mission. Set up a rest and refit base down here. I figure we're going to be getting orders pretty soon to come back to earth. At that point, we'll need to figure something out."

"What do you mean?" the admiral said.

"Well, what do you think the likelihood of us getting back is?"

* * *

"Here they come," Colonel Ashland said.

Ross Ashland was tall and slim, making an interesting contrast with his commander. The Corps G-2 also had a lightning quick mind. Mike hadn't discussed their current predicament with him but he had to be thinking the same thoughts. He had spent too much time deep in Fleet Strike intel not to have some inkling of how ruthless the Darhel could be when they felt the need.

"Any idea from where?" Mike asked as the party hove into view. The Nor used a leather cloak covered in strips of cloth in much the way that recon specialists used a ghillie suit. It had the added benefit of being, perhaps from sort of treatment, pretty much immune to infra-red radiation. Thus the lack of thermal signature.

They weren't hiding this time, though. They were just walking up the hill in the open.

"Recon pod has them exiting a tunnel about a klick west," Ashland replied. "This area is high in limestone. No telling how far back the tunnel stretches."

"Greetings, Swodrath," Mike said, bowing his head to the Huntmaster. "How's the jaw."

"A Gamra recovers swiftly," the Nor said. "The Mistress has agreed to meet you. Only you."

"Very well," Mike said, donning his helmet. "Lead on."

"Sir . . ." Colonel Ashland said.

"Just deal, Colonel," Mike replied. "I'll be fine. And if I'm not, tell Brigadier General Corval he's got a whole Corps available to come find me. Lead on, Swodrath."

* * *

The initial entrance was a cleverly concealed cave opening. A slide in the cave had been cleared at some point, not recently from the looks of it, opening into a deeper area.

The course, lit by smoky but long-lasting torches, was complex. On the other hand, the inertial tracker in the suit was getting feedback from external sub-space location sensors. Mike could follow the trace more or less as if he was on the surface.

The route they took was about two klicks in straight distance and about six following the twists of the caves. In places sections had been mined out, opening up sections of the cave that hadn't previously been connected. The marks of chisels were clear and most of those portions were particularly low.

Finally, though, they entered an area that was more interesting. The limestone in the area overlay granite and when they reached that portion they entered what was clearly a mine. However, the cuttings were anything but primitive. The walls had the flat, glassy look of Indowy or Posleen borers. Curiouser and curiouser.

The mine tunnels debouched into a pretty fair sized canyon. The vast room was home to at least three hundred people by the looks of the tents that occupied the floor. Where they got their food was what interested Mike.

Most of the inhabitants were either hiding or out somewhere. But a few of the elderly were huddling around fires, someone brought in firewood, and children were playing in the area. The children were clearly curious but they stayed back from the party instead of tagging along as most kids on Earth would.

They crossed to the east side of the cavern and entered a smaller tunnel which debouched into a room about fifty feet on a side. Arrayed by the entrance were guards, more of the "Gamra" by the looks of them. There were also some male and female humans in the room, gathered around as if at an audience. But what caught Mike's eye was the female on the fur-covered chair that was clearly a throne.

Tall was his first impression. At least six foot four at a guess since she was sitting down. Pretty was the second impression. Make that beautiful. But her looks were thrown off by her long silver hair, true silver not the "silver" of age, and when he approached he could see she had cat-pupiled eyes that were pure purple. Not just the iris, all purple.

Her face was also strange. Pretty but alien she looked more like a Darhel than even the Gamra. Her face was long and elegant but he couldn't get the impression of a fox out of his head. Or, maybe, an elf.

"Duendtor Lerskel," Swodrath said, bowing. "The leader of the visitors, Lieutenant General Michael O'Neal."

Mike took off his helmet and nodded at the woman.

"Greetings, Lord O'Neal," the Duendtor said. Her voice was high and sybillant with an undertone that made Mike shiver. It was a very primitive reaction. His immediate desire was to worship her. He managed to suppress it, though. The Darhel had the same sort of voices and he'd gotten over any desire to 'worship' them fast. "My lieges tell me that it is through your efforts that the scourge of the Pokree has been suppressed."

"Well, me and about twenty thousand shooters," Mike said, looking up into those purple eyes. "And a bunch of kinetic energy strikes. But, yeah. You're welcome."

"You are a sky traveller, I presume," Lerskel said.

"Glad you're taking this so well," Mike replied. "Yes, we're from the sky."

"We must speak," Lerskel said, raising a hand. "Privately."

If there were any protests at the audience being broken up so quickly they weren't vocalized. The crowd just filed out as a seat was brought over for O'Neal.

He looked at the spindly stool and shrugged.

"I think I'd better stand," he said. "No offense intended. But I'd break that."

"Stand or sit as you wish," Lerskel said, waving off the stool. "Many of the niceties have had to be foregone since the coming of the Pokree."

"Were you around for that?" Mike asked, curiously.

"I was," Lerskel said. "Their sky fire could be seen from afar. I was the governor of this province of Hodoro. When first the Pokree landed we feared they were the Dareel. But it quickly became evident that they were not. Instead they were much worse. From where do you hail."

"A planet called Earth," Mike said.

"I suspect this is Are," Lerskel said. "The cold planet, the planet of ice. Home."

"Probably not," Mike said. "I mean, we've got polar ice caps but it's not exactly Hoth."

"Our people left Are long ago," Lerskel said. "What do you know of the history of your planet?"

"Uh . . ." Mike said then paused. "Wait. How long ago?"

"The exact duration has been lost," Lerskel said, pulling out a massive tome. "This, however, is the Book of Becoming. In its secret chapters are estimates by scholars. We came to this planet at least twenty thousand of our years ago."

"Shelly?" Mike asked.

"Thirty thousand years," the AID replied. "The earth was in an iceage at that time. The Wurm Glaciation."

"I said that you should sit," the woman said, laughing sybillantly.

* * *

"The Dareel," Mike said, looking at the picture in the book. Given a bit of hyperbole it looked like the Darhel. Sort of an evil Darhel on steroids but . . . Okay, it looked more like a Darhel than Darhel looked like Darhel. The inner truth if you will.

"And the Innow," Lerskel said, turning to another page. "The makers and builders."

"Indowy," Mike said, nodding. The page wasn't in color but, again, with a bit of squinting it was pretty clear that the scary figures on the paper were Indowy. "I'm amazed you managed to keep this information for so long. So what happened to the Darhel and the rest?"

"Our people were all once as you and the commons," Lerskel said. "The first coming of the Darell to our people is not recorded. But from the very first there were those who did not believe they were gods. The first portions of the Book are from tales told of the first coming. Then there are the Records which we have kept as accurately as we can. The Dareel gathered peoples from among the best and trained them. Some were trained in the ways of war, others in controlling the warriors. Those, who became the Duendtor, were the face of the People to the Dareel. The Dareel changed us to make us more palatable to their sight and to better control the Commons. They also created the methods for creating the Gamra.

"But always the Book of Becoming was kept. There were, among the Innow, those who opposed the Dareel. They found humans who felt the same, even among the Duendtor. But there was little we could do. The warriors, the Gamra especially, were fast in their belief that the Dareel were Gods.

"Many of the people that the Dareel gathered were brought here, to Ackia, the land of Exile. There was something in the mountains that the Dareel wanted and the animals of this place were very dangerous. They used the People to protect the Innow as they labored."

"This went on for many years until the Dareel made a mistake. How they managed to break the worship of a Gamra was unclear, but a great rebellion broke out on Are. This was lead by not just a Gamra but something greater and more fell. So fell that in time the Dareel fled Are. Word was sent of the rebellion on Are to here and we, in turn, revolted. It was hard to sway the warriors, and especially the Gamra, but enough were brought to the side of the People that we threw off the Dareel.

"The Dareel went away and left us to this world, our world of exile. We survived. The records of that time showed it was very hard. The magical weapons failed as soon as the Dareel left and we had to learn other ways of survival.

"There were wars fought between the peoples, assuredly. But we retained the Book against the day that the Dareel might return. We will have no more sky gods."

"Oh, hell," Mike said, when she was finished. "The Darhel are going to flip their lids when this comes out. People are going to go nuts."

"There is more," the woman said, flipping through the book. "There were no trainers of fighters among the Dareel. They could not fight."

"Still the same," Mike said, bitterly. "But damn can they manipulate."

"And they trained we Duendtor in the same," Lerskel said, turning the book around. "But these were our trainers of fighters. Which was why when the first Pokree came, we greeted them as friends."

The depiction was better in its way than that of either the Darhel or the Indowy. Clearly in the book a Posleen was training two humans in sword fighting.

"Oh, bloody hell."

* * *

"Okay, so thirty thousand years ago or so, the Darhel gathered a bunch of cavemen as guards," Mike said, his head in his hands.

The meeting was decidedly AID free. Like it or not, the boxes were not going to be in on this conference.

"And they were in contact with the Posleen," General Corval said. The Corps Chief of Staff was medium height and nearly as pumped as his boss. "That's the part that's really got me furious. How much actual warning did they have of the Posleen invasion?"

"After tinkering with humans for a while they got a double rebellion on their hands," Mike said, ignoring the interjection. "And they left. So why are there no remains anywhere on earth. Note: these Duendtor are probably nearly as tricky as a Darhel. I'm not taking anything on face value."

"Well, postulate that they had most of their earthly infrastructure at one remote location," Colonel Ashland said. "Say an island. And they managed to sink it or something."

"Atlantis?" Mike asked, looking up. "You're serious."

"It's a very common myth in the Indo-European area," Ashland said, shrugging. "And this language is clearly Indo-European. The oral record could have been handed down in a garbled form for generations. Postulating that the Darhel also gave the sort of expanded lifetime that they gave to, well, us, that wouldn't be many generations."

"Methuselah now makes so much more sense," Corval said. "Not to mention how the Darhel had stuff like rejuv and Hiberzine ready, immediately, for human use."

"The problem is that there's nothing we can do with this," Mike said. "It's nothing but a ticking nuke in our hands. There is no way that the Darhel are going to let this story get disseminated."

"Be pretty hard to stop," General Corval said. "There are nearly twenty thousand members of the Corps. And, trust me, the story is all over. At least that there are humans here."

"Recall all those stories about missing colony ships, General?" Colonel Ashland said. "I've seen the confidential reports. They weren't all rumors and they weren't all, or even mostly, accidents."

"You don't think they'd . . ." Corval said then swallowed. "That's sick!"

"To cover this up?" Mike asked. "Oh, yeah. They'd dump us all into a hole in hyperspace in a second. I've been wondering when it was going to happen, anyway. The cost of demobilizing the Corps would be saved."

"Well, the hell if I'm going to get dumped into space," General Corval said, setting his jaw. "If it was just my life, that would be one thing. But . . ."

"But I'm responsible for the lives of twenty thousand troopers," Mike said, nodding. "There's just one problem. We don't control the ships."

"Easy enough to change that," Colonel Ross Swartzbaugh said. The Corps G-3 was medium height and build and prematurely bald. He covered that up by shaving his head like a cueball. "Not sure what we'd do once we took them, but we've got a corps of ACS. Various opportunities come to mind."

"Every ship requires an AID to operate," Mike said. "You think they're not going to get an update telling them to dump us the first time we get near a sat? And the ships are keyed to specific AIDs. Prevents mutiny."

"Which is what we're contemplating, you realize," Colonel Ashland said.

"Not really," Mike said. "I mean, I'm still trying to figure a way around it. I just don't see one. Well, there's one."

"What?" General Corval asked.

"We send the ships back empty," Mike said. "Just sit tight here. Tell them we misunderstood the orders or something. If the ships make it back, they'll ask us what the fuck happened. I mean, a whole corps missing movement? But if they don't, they might never know."

"And we'll be marooned on this dirtball," Colonel Swartzbaugh said, rubbing his head. "Not my first choice. And how, exactly, do we explain it to the Corps?"

"Lie," Mike said. "Tell them we were ordered to stand down and await transport. In a year or so it might get sticky. But they'll be alive."

There was a knock at the door and Mike looked at it furiously. Rawls had very direct orders not to interfere.

"Get it," he said, gesturing with his chin to Colonel Ashland.

"Sir, I'm sorry," Rawls said. "There's an Indowy out here saying he has to talk to you now. He says that he has information that you need about what you're talking about. He's really exercised. He said if I didn't let him in he was going to quote rip my head off and shit in my neck."

Mike looked at the NCO blankly for a moment.

"An Indowy said that to you?" Colonel Ashland said, incredulously.

"Yes, sir," Rawls said, caught between his own incredulity and humor. "An Indowy."

"Show him in," Mike said. "Then shut the door."

The Indowy was, as far as Mike could tell, pretty much identical to any mid-level Indowy worker. Mid-years, about a hundred in other words. Totally indistinguishable from any of a trillion of the prolific species.

"Exalted Lord O'Neal," the Indowy said, prostrating himself. The term was one the Indowy had bestowed on Mike after his actions on Diess. It translated, as far as Mike could tell, as something like "Duke." It wasn't a clan lord but about the same status. It generally got bestowed on particularly good scientists and the Indowy equivalent of lawyers. As far as Mike was aware he was the only human with the rank and also the only warrior. "I am Indowy Tak Ockist Um'Dare. I see you."

"I see you, Indowy Tak," Mike said. "Stand and speak."

"Exalted Lord," Tak said. "You have made contact with People of the Book."

"You know about People of the Book," Mike asked, leaning back. "Why am I not surprised."

"I did not know, myself, Exalted Lord, until recently," Tak said, nervously. "Exalted Lord, I am . . . Exalted Lord, this is a very long story."

"I've already heard one," Mike said, gesturing to a station chair. "Tell me. Tell me all of it, Tak. Every bit you know."

* * *

"They're what?" Cally said.

Cally O'Neal was fifty-eight and looked to be about twenty. Officially listed as killed in one of the last battles of the Siege of Earth, for most of those fifty-eight years she had been an agent of the Bane Sidhe, the secret underground among the Indowy and Humans that worked to overthrow the Darhel rule. And for most of that period she'd been primarily an assassin.

In the last decade, though, things had changed in so many ways it seemed as if change would never slow down. First there was the mission where she'd met James Stewart. They'd started off as enemies fighting each other in secret and ended as lovers. Stewart had faked his own death but refused to join the Bane Sidhe. Instead he'd entered the Tongs, the Chinese mafia that had taken over most of the organized crime among humans, and fought his own battles from that vantage. He and Cally had married in secret but of late they'd had to even break off the most cursory contact.

His connections had been of premium value when Cally's sister, Michelle, had used them along with some stolen nannite codes to take down an entire Darhel clan. Michelle wasn't Bane Sidhe, either; the Darhel had just crossed the wrong human. Michelle was a Sohon mentat, a wielder of almost magical powers over space, time and matter. But she still was indebted to the Darhel. Or had been until she, Cally and Stewart had managed, through a combination of luck and deviousness, to buy her free and bankrupt her Darhel bankers.

The mission where Cally had met Stewart had caused a sundering in the Bane Sidhe, most of the organization splitting off from the O'Neal faction. But the response to the take-down of the Epetar Clan had included, among other things, a massive crackdown on the Bane Sidhe. The faction that had tossed the O'Neals aside ended up screaming for help.

The O'Neals had pulled their chestnuts out of the fire. But Papa O'Neal, the man who had been a real father to her for most of her life, had been killed by the ACS response team. An ACS response team commanded, by one of those horrible coincidences in life, by her own father.

So Cally was anything but charitable to their "fellows".

"Back up to the beginning, Terool," Father O'Reilly said. The monsignor had been a member of the earthly Bane Sidhe since before the return of the Darhel. Bane Sidhe translated roughly as "The Death of Elves." It had remained hidden within "secret societies" since before the dawn of history. It had remnants of pre-history fable that were passed down, but none of it had ever been clear. He might, finally, get some of it filled in.

"The Darhel coopted human guards long ago," the Indowy Terool said. He had been one of the leaders of the anti-O'Neal faction in the Bane Sidhe, so revealing the secrets he was about to reveal was like pulling teeth. "They were gathered mostly from Western Europe and the Mediterranean. They were trained on a small continent where the Azores are presently placed. There was a revolt, here and on Akoria, the planet your father just 'reclaimed' from the Posleen. Here on earth a Darhel was sacrificed to lintatai to cause a massive earth movement under the continent, effectively sinking it by several hundred feet. Finding the traces of what you humans call 'Atlantis' would be very difficult even for us. But they are there.

"Your father's corps was probing along the spinward axis of the spiral arm. Akoria is on the anti-spinward axis. None of the Darhel found it of moment that the reclamation was in that region. It should have taken years for your father's corps to reach Akoria and the end of the reclamation program was well on its way to fruition.

"However, word has come back that instead of slowly proceeding across the arm, the corps jumped to the far side. Why is unclear. But they have Akoria, which they refer to as 'R-1496 Delta,' on their list. They should have reached there by now. And there is no way that they could miss traces of human habitation."

"The Posleen took the planet," Father O'Reilly said. "That will pretty much erase traces of humans."

"Even at the height of the war there were humans hiding in deep jungle and high mountains," the Indowy said, patiently. "You are very hard to wipe out completely, just as the Posleen are hard to wipe out completely."

"Point," Cally said. "But get back to the corps."

"The Darhel are unwilling to allow this secret to be revealed," Terool said. "Very unwilling. Unwilling enough to destroy the entire task force."

"That would be pretty hard to do," Cally said.

"Every ship is controlled by the AIDs," Terool said. "As are the suits. They will simply enter hyper and never exit."

"That wouldn't just violate the Compact," Cally said, furiously. "It would break it beyond belief! Do they want all-out war?"

"There are too many members of the corps to cover this up," Terool said. "And if people become aware that the Darhel have been manipulating humans for this long there will be . . . other questions asked."

"About the colonist ships," Cally said, bitterly. "About fucking with us during the war. About why China was wiped out."

"Indeed," Father O'Reilly said. "But they must know what the response of the Bane Sidhe would be to something like this. There would be no end to the blood."

"We are weak," Terool said. "Their response to your ill-advised attack on the Pardal Clan nearly destroyed us!"

"Nearly destroyed you, you mean," Cally said, harshly.

"Us," Father O'Reilly said, placatingly. "We are not enemies."

"Tell that to them," Cally snapped. "They were the bastards that fucked with my head then left us out to dry when I managed to break conditioning. Just talking to this fucker is making me sick. And now he's suggesting that we just let the Darhel wipe out thirty thousand soldiers and sailors? The Compact is inviolate! If it's not there's no point to this whole charade!"

"Are they sending the orders to destroy the task force?" Father O'Reilly asked.

"They are already sent," Terool said, miserably.

"Can we intercept them?" Cally asked. "Corrupt them?"

"It would be . . .difficult," Terool said.

"I don't care for difficult," Cally said. "Can you do it?"

"Perhaps," Terool said. "And then again perhaps not."

"And there's more," Father O'Reilly said.

"We must clarify this matter," Terool said.

"Indowy think that they are inscrutable to humans," Father O'Reilly said. "And, indeed, to most humans they are. But not to all. What else?"

"I'm more worried about the Fleet," Cally said. "And, okay, my bastard of a father."

"He is your clan lord," Terool said, upset.

"He can rot in hell for all I care," Cally snapped. "But I don't want the damned Darhel to leave him stuck in hyper until his air runs out."

"Terool!" Father O'Reilly said. "Tell us!"

"It is about . . .your father," Terool said, miserably. "You see, the Darhel . . ."

* * *

"Owe you a lot of money," Tak said.

"Define a lot," Mike said. "I've been paid way too much as it is."

"Exalted Lord," Tak said, carefully. "Recently, you may have heard, a Darhel Clan fell."

"Epetar," Colonel Ashland said.

"The same," Tak said. "The were, in fact, destroyed. By your daughter, Michelle."

"Really?" Mike said. He got a message from Michelle every year at Christmas. If she'd taken down a Darhel Clan it was news to him. "Good for her!"

"There were others working with her, Bane Sidhe and Tong. But it was primarily your clan which did this. The Darhel could not react against you nor against Michelle. But they would much wish to."

"Why couldn't they?" General Corval asked.

"Early in the conflict against the Posleen one of your generals, General Taylor, began a program to investigate Darhel manipulation of both politicians and war supplies."

"That's what got him killed," Mike said, nodding. "Isn't it?"

"Indeed, Exalted Lord," Tak said, carefully. "However, some of your people, notably the Cyberpunks and human factions of the Bane Sidhe reacted. They killed several high-level Darhel and missed the Tir Dal Ron by a mere shred."

"Too bad they missed," Corval said.

"Thus was the Compact born," Tak said. "The Darhel would not attack current duty humans and the Cybers and the human Bane Sidhe, of whom the Cybers are now a faction, would not kill Darhel."

"This is making my head hurt," General Corval said. "Ancient societies. Midnight assassinations. Darhel manipulation. Does any of this have a point?"

"This is the last point," Tak said. "I do not know if even my masters are aware of this fact. It was contained in the communication to the Ceel that I intercepted when he went into lintatai. Further complicating things are that each of you is owed much more money than the Darhel ever told you. General O'Neal, for certain specific reasons, is owed . . . Well, the amount that your daughter used to take down the Pardal clan is but a fraction of what you are owed. One tenth of all you recover is, by rights, property of the capturers."

"Yeah," Mike said. "I know. We picked up a few billion credits worth here off those Posleen forges we captured intact."

"The full implications were never explored," Tak said. "Let me ask you this, General. On Diess. Would the planet have fallen absent your actions?"

"Oh, I doubt it," Mike said. "There was a whole Corps there and they were getting some pretty solid defenses built."

"Bullshit, sir," General Corval said. "We've all seen the analysis. You hamstrung the Posleen at a critical juncture, the schwerpunkt. The Line would have fallen if the full weight fell on it. And you took out the only God-king using airmobile in that battle. To answer his question without the false modesty, yes, Tak, it would have."

"Thus you, General O'Neal, are owed ten percent of the gross production value of Diess," Tak said. "For the entire period of your life. Oh, some is owed to the many other soldiers and officers in the battle. But a large percentage of it falls to your account. Equally other planets. There are many humans who are owed much by the Darhel. But especially with penalties and interest, you are far in advance of them. You have done almost nothing but fight the Posleen for decades. Led critical defenses of multiple cities on Earth. Holding the pass in Rabun Gap gives you a margin of all goods and services in the Central North American provinces. Several of the recovery worlds of which you were a senior commander are now producing goods. You have gotten none of these additional monies. Your current calculated worth, according to the message, is approximately fifteen percent of all the Darhel clans' worth. Mostly due to penalties. Payable, as all Darhel debts are, immediately and in full at your request."

"Nobody has that much capital," Mike said, blinking.

"That is the point," Tak replied. "If you call their debt, every Darhel clan in the galaxy is immediately and totally bankrupt."

* * *

"Good God," Cally said, her eyes wide. "Holy . . . How in the hell did the Darhel let that happen?"

"They wrote a very bad law," Terool said. "Back when we were first attacked by the Posleen. They attempted to buy our action. But we rejected them. The Way is the only way that we choose. So they kept increasing the amount they were willing to pay if we would only fight. But we would rather die than stray from the Way. So now they owe your father, all humanity for that matter, for a fraction of the price of the entire Confederation plus all the recovered worlds. They knew this from the beginning. But they also thought the humans would never figure it out."

"You could have told us," Father O'Reilly said, dryly.

"All those years I was scrimping and scraping and little did I know my daddy owned the Galaxy," Cally said, bitterly. "Wait, if they kill him in deep space . . ."

"It all reverts," Father O'Reilly said. "Galactic law holds, not Earth's. No inheritance."

"I thought it reverted to the Clan," Cally said.

"Not if he doesn't transfer it, first," Father O'Reilly said. "And he has to be in a Galactic Court to do the transfer. And it has to be accepted by the Court. Which is made up of . . ."

"Darhel," Cally said, bitterly. "Right. Like they're going to accept him turning it over to the Clan."

"There is one option, but it is poorly known and even more poorly understood, even by Indowy," Terool said. "He can make suit to the Aldenata . . ."

* * *

"They're legends," Mike said. "I mean, I know you Indowy think they're gods, even the Posleen refer to them, if in less than affectionate terms, but . . ."

"They are not legend," Tak said. "I cannot believe I am saying this but it is necessary. And I think my time among . . . among humans has worn upon me. But this is the best chance I have ever heard of to destroy the Darhel monopoly. It must be taken. This is the truth. The Aldenata exist. They are as real as you or I. But they are ancient, old beyond belief. And . . . changed. They no longer exist as you or I but in another form. But they are the ultimate judges of all the actions of the Darhel as well as the Indowy and the Tchpht. We are the Children of the Aldenata. They are our masters. They can compel the Darhel to pay you, in cash if necessary. And if you place your plea before the Aldenata then it may be heard. It will be slow, though. And if you perish in the interim, the suit is closed."

"So, what you're telling me is that, A, the Darhel want me, not to mention my entire corps, dead because I know about their manipulation of humans from pre-history," Mike said. "And, B, they want me dead because I've got the financial potential to destroy them in an instant. And my only chance of back-up is some sort of super-being that might or might not even bother to hear me? And if they manage to whack me in the meantime, that the suit is closed. Which effectively puts a several trillion credit . . .no, probably more than that, price on my head? Not to mention stuck in the ass end of the Galaxy with no ship home I can trust?"

"Whoa," General Corval said. "I thought I was fucked, sir."

* * *

"Okay, this is coming at me a little fast," Cally said, shaking her head. "Forget the super-beings, although we're going to have a talk later, Terool. Forget Daddy Dearest owning the Darhel and not the other way around. We've got a Corps about to get 'losted' if we don't do something. Let's just focus on that."

"Even if we could intercept the orders, it would only be a stop-gap," Terool said. "And it would reveal many of our most prized sources, the few we have left. When the Darhel realized the task force had not been destroyed they would be more thorough. And since they now realize the depth of our penetration they will undoubtedly send redundant messages to Tirs on distant worlds to ensure its destruction."

"There has to be something we can do," Cally said, desperately. Her faction had fought as hard as it could against the "accidents" with colony transports. But terrible as those were, the loss of an entire corps of ACS was . . . The horror was beyond fathoming.

"What about Michelle?" Cally continued.

"You can contact your sister, of course," Terool said. "But I'm unsure she can do more than we are attempting. The Sohon have abilities sometimes beyond understanding. But they are not gods."

"I'll send her a message," Cally said, her face hard. "But if we fail? If they destroy the Corps?"

"Destroying the Corps, indeed any killing of an acting service person, is a violation of the Compact," Terool said.

"So you agree?" Cally said, her eyes lighting. "This is open season on Darhel?"

"Yes," Terool said, sighing. "That time has come. Or is coming at least."

"I can't exactly be happy that it takes losing several thousand soldiers for that," Cally said, rubbing her hands. "But . . . I'm gonna get to kill Darhelll . . ." she started to sing, dancing and waving her hands in the air. "I'm gonna get to kill Darhelllll . . ."

"Unless we need them," Father O'Reilly said.

"What?!"

* * *

"We need them."

Sixteen minds linked across four thousand light years. The youngest of the Queens was a bare thousand years old, the eldest had seen the near death of their race and the Long Flight. Each had lived long lives as other entities, scouts, workers, managers, scientists then warriors. Neuter, male and finally female, they were the best their race could offer to the vagaries of fate.

Between them, although they did not track every sparrow on every world, they knew the comings and goings, the machinations, plans, wars of every sentient race in the galaxy. Minds like cold computers watched those races, tended them like rose gardens, built alliances, often on both sides of mortal conflicts, built each of them as potential allies against the day that their race might once again face The Enemy.

And now was that day. Not The Enemy but another race fleeing them. A race equally as inimical, nearly as deadly. But . . .not quite.

Rheldlche was one of the youngest. Not headstrong – no Queen was – but far less cautious than, say, Shulkin, the Ancient One.

"The Hedren come. The Human ACS is the best weapon against the Hedren in my region."

"We would have to Expose," Larrghgha replied. The older Queen controlled the region the Humans called the Scutum-Crux. One of the first of the newer generation, She was Rheldlche's mother, not that that meant anything between Queens. Genetic derivation meant little to the Himmit. Besides, they all were children of Skulkin in one way or another. "Such an action would be impossible to Hide."

"Agreement."

Shulkin rarely entered into discussions in the last hundred years. The Ancient One was nearing senescence. But her word was still law in the Galaxy.

"There is a replacement for the ACS," the Ancient One said. "Emphasize increases among the Sohon. It is time to release the Humans from their thrall. And make contact with their former enemies."

* * *
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