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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In fragments of an instant
The chaos has returned
And all that was left to sentiment
Beneath the banner burned

"We cannot keep meeting like this," Michelle said, taking a careful sip from the bulb of distilled water.

"Hey, you started this," Cally replied, taking a less cautious sip from her beer. She wasn't taking an anti-alcohol pill so it was not going to have much more effect than water. "And this is too important to use the chain. I take it we're not being monitored."

"Of course not," Michelle said. "Nonetheless, you could have been followed."

"In your dreams, God-girl," Cally snapped.

"Important," Michelle said, ignoring the jibe.

"It's about . . .Dad," Cally said, sighing.

"Father?" Michelle asked, raising an eyebrow.

Cally hated when she did that. It made her look just too damned much like a certain TV character. She was pretty sure her sister did it on purpose.

"Yes, 'Father'," Cally said. "He's gotten himself in the deep cacky."

She briefly and more or less coherently explained what had only recently been brought to her attention. Reading Michelle, except for the very few times she got angry, was difficult. But Cally was pretty sure something was starting to get her sister mighty pissed.

"The Bane Sidhe know about this?" Michelle asked. "The interference of the Darhel over centuries?"

"Well who do you think I got it from?" Cally asked. "The tooth fairy?"

"I find that simply fascinating," Michelle said. "Because as far as I was aware, I had been brought in on all the great secrets held by the Clan masters and Sohon. And I surely was unaware. I wonder what else they failed to inform me of."

"Does your pride really matter right now?" Cally said. "There is an entire corps of ACS on the line. And our father's life!"

"We must, of course, do what we can for our Clan Leader," Michelle said. "However, the fact that I was not informed of any of this has large implications. A Sohon must constantly tread a fine line. Without knowing the potential stumbling blocks in the way, it is difficult to do so. I must meet with the other human Sohon and determine if it is only I who was left in ignorance. Given the political mess you created that is possible."

"I was sort of hoping that you could use your magic god powers to save his ass," Cally hissed, leaning forward. "Hello! Father! Clan Leader? Not to mention a few thousand other humans? Tens of thousands?"

"Oh, you are so impatient," Michelle replied, disparagingly. She gave a slight shake of her head then closed her eyes. "The orders are not to have the fleet lost in hyperspace."

"Oh, thank God," Cally said. "You're sure?"

"I did not say that you would like the orders," Michelle said, opening her eyes. "Because you won't. And worse. Even with my powers, we're too late."

* * *

"Nice job, General."

The camp had taken only a day to emplace despite the fact that they'd only done it a couple of times. It helped that the tents were memory plastic.

But in a day there were thermally pressed streets, living tents, mess tents, supply, maintenance, all the things that made for a functioning small city. And a wall. Mike made it a habit to put in a berm whenever they were in place for more than a day. With a Corps of ACS and shovels that were tough enough it was a bit easier than with an equal number of engineers and bulldozers. Before the gates flapped the shot-torn banner of the Corps, a boar on a red field and the slogan "Disce Pati".

The 11th Corps was settling in for a rest with all the trimmings. Not a long one but it was nice to feel wind on your face and get that damned armor off on a planet.

Some of the troops were wandering those streets, visiting friends from other companies and battalions, headed to the chapel, headed to the rec rooms and mess halls. But not many. Mike would guess that most of them were racked out. Later he'd have to figure out something to keep them occupied but for now they were content to just rest, all but the very few – no more than a short company - still suited up to guard the perimeter on the off chance of a Posleen feral showing up.

It was a sham, of course. Until they figured out a way to get back to Earth, safely, this was home. Which was why he'd had all the rations from the ships shuttled down.

"We've got supplies for about ninety days," General Corval said. "So we should be good for a six week R&R. I've already placed thirty percent on complete standdown. We'll rotate that week by week."

"Works," Mike said. There were some of the Corps on security around the camp. It was unlikely there would be an attack by the locals. They'd made contact with the other two tribes in the area and negotiated a cease-fire in their low-grade fights. With the Posleen wiped away from the low-lands the tribes were mostly squabbling over who got what territory, anyway. It was a time to talk, not fight.

"We'll need to get a training schedule in place," Mike said. "When they get rested, given that the recreation is going to be pretty damned limited here, we're going to have to keep them occupied or . . ."

"Incoming message from Admiral Suntoro," Shelly said.

"Crap," Mike muttered. "Any idea what he wants?"


Monosyllables again. Not a good sign.

"Put him on."

"General O'Neal," the Admiral said, appearing as a hologram in front of the two officers. "I need to meet with you and your staff. Immediately."

"Gosh, Admiral, that's going to be hard," Mike replied. "We're kinda busy right now."

"I am in receipt of some orders that I think we need to discuss in person," the Admiral replied. "I am willing to meet with you on the surface if you don't have time to shuttle up to the ship."

Mike raised an eyebrow at that and shrugged.

"Sure, Admiral," he said, smiling tightly. "I take it you don't want to meet at the camp?"

"The quieter we keep this the better," the Admiral replied. "It looks as if you were right."

"I'll lay out an LZ," Mike said. "When?"

"One hour?"

"Works. O'Neal out."

He looked at Corval and smiled thinly again.

"I think the Admiral's running scared. How say you?"

"I think we'd better wear armor."

"Oh, yeah."

* * *

Julio wasn't wandering the camp. He was off duty and had obtained permission to "liaison with the locals."

At present that consisted of accompanying Urnhat up a steep slope. The General had hinted that he wanted a place to put some caches of gear and the Nor knew all the caves in the area. According to the Nor Queen or whatever there was an extensive series in this area of the valley. Not as big as where the Nor had hid from the Posleen, but big enough to put some gear.

Despite the fact that he was on a semi-official mission, he'd left his AID behind. Some of the guys didn't care what an AID saw. He was still too green for that. Sometimes three were a crowd even if one of them was an artificial intelligence.

Of course that left a bit of difficulty with conversation, but he was slogging ahead. A guy could dream.

"This is real pretty country," he said, more or less to himself.

The girl turned her head and smiled at him then gabbled in the local language.

"I know, I'm an idiot," Julio replied, stopping and touching a plant, lightly. He'd learned from even his limited experience that some plants were nasty.

"What's this?" he asked.

"Shundi," Urnhat replied.

"That tells me so much," the trooper said, laughing. "I grew up in a city, a Sub-Urb. I never saw the stars till I was in training. Much less green plants. For all I know, this could be one of the plants from earth."

"Urt," Urnhat said. "Are?" She lifted her head and clicked her tongue, the local equivalent of a head shake. "Akri." She walked to another of the bushes and pulled at the leaves, stripping some of them off. "Are," she said, holding them out.

Looking at the two plants Julio could see some differences. Colors were different, but plants could be all sorts of colors. But the leaves of the local plant didn't have veins.

"Caves?" he asked, gesturing up the slope. "Holes?"

"Gafe," the girl said, gesturing and continuing to walk. "Tang seeu."

"Yeah," Julio said. "Thank you, too."

He looked over his shoulder at the distant camp then frowned as a group of suits left the front gate and began bounding towards the southern ridgeline. They looked to be in a hurry.

* * *

"Thanks for leaving me behind," General Corval said over the net.

"Somebody had to keep things running with me gone," Mike said, bounding up the slope.

"Humph," the Chief of Staff replied. "You just wanted to go running."

"I hate running and you know it," Mike said as the group of suits reached the crest. They bounded downslope to a reasonably flat spot and Mike dropped a dust-off beacon.

"Sensors report a shuttle inbound," General Corval said.

"Right on time," Mike replied. "Any more of them or just the one?"

There wasn't a reply and he frowned.

"Corval, anything else? Shelly, what's wrong with commo?"

"We have a solid link with the camp communications," the AID replied.

"Retrans the sensor data to me," Mike said, his forehead wrinkling.

"I am unable to access that data at this time, General."

Mike's spine went cold and he looked upwards. He could see the heat track of the shuttle inbound but now he didn't need sensors to see what else was inbound.

* * *

Something made Julio look up and then he stopped, frozen in his tracks. He might be nearly totally green, but he knew what he was looking at in an instant.

"INCOMING!" he screamed, diving and hitting Urnhat at the knees.

The girl reacted like a wildcat, twisting in his grip and getting in a solid kick to his ribs. Julio didn't care, though, as long as she was down. He rolled to the side and covered his head with his arms.

"Get down, you stupid bitch!"

* * *

Mike bounded to the top of the slope just as the first of the projectiles impacted. The troops had probably gone to ground but against an orbital strike there wasn't much they could do.

He had at least expected the security ACS to be firing upwards. There wasn't much they could do against a KEW, it was after all not much more than a chunk of steel, but they might have intercepted a couple. He expected them to go down fighting. But there was no fire headed upwards.

The first projectile hit to the west of the camp, the second to the east then it became too fast to follow. It was clear, though, that the strike was intended to contain even ACS and pulverize them into nothing. It went on and on and on, continuous concentric strikes until where the camp had been was nothing but a churned crater.

The whole Corps was gone.

Mike started to step forward, to do what he didn't know, when his suit pinged.

"General, your shuttle is here."

It was such a normal voice, a sentence he'd heard dozens, hundreds of times before. As if nothing had happened.

Mike spun in place and brought up his guns automatically, fired at the descending shuttle.

Nothing happened. Nothing damned HAPPENED.

"Shelly! Guns!"

"Guns are inactive, General," the AID said in a chirpy voice. "It's time to board the shuttle. You are ordered to do so out of the suit. Should I eject?"

The shuttle landed and a platoon of Masters at Arms deployed, covering the four ACS suits with what would normally be totally inadequate hand-lasers. The MAs were hated by Fleet Strike personnel since, well, they were Fleet and they acted more as Admiral's bullies than police. And they seemed to take inordinate pleasure on beating up on Strike personnel whenever they got the chance. Fleet Strike tended to return the favor. Currently, they looked nervous and he wondered at the inanity of that thought.

His Corps was gone. The Masters at Arms looked nervous.

"Incoming call from Admiral Suronto. Go ahead Admiral."

"Michael Leonidas O'Neal, you and your staff are under arrest for treason. AID, open the suits."

Mike took a breath of air as the suit opened against his will then stepped out onto the grassy sward. Four of the Masters At Arms were approaching, two with lasers and two with sonic stunners.

"Do not attempt to resist this fully authorized detention," the Admiral's voice continued to say over the speakers of Mike's suit. "The Masters at Arms are authorized to use lethal force at the slightest sign of resistance."

Mike couldn't have resisted if they'd paid him. His entire family was dead and now the Corps that he had nurtured like a flower was just . . .

The other three officers looked equally dazed but slowly raised their hands as the MAs approached. The group facing them in a semi-circle suddenly raised their lasers and opened fire, cutting them down.

Mike watched as Bobby Ashland fell back in the low scrub, his chest slashed nearly through by a laser. Bobby had come over to the Corps as the ACS had slowly been reduced. They'd never met during the Siege but had gotten along over the years. Mike had been glad when Bobby had been assigned as his Intel officer. He knew that Bobby always had his finger on the pulse of not only "threats forward" as he'd come to call them but what was going on back in the corridors of power.

This was one threat neither of them had seen coming. Not this way.

"General O'Neal, get on the ground with your hands behind your back," one of the MAs said. "Down!"

"What?" Mike asked, still looking at Colonel Ashland.

"Get on the ground!"

"What?" Mike said again then lifted his eyes. His brow furrowed down then there was no thought.

"Like hell!" he shouted, charging forward.

He had hoped for the lasers. There was just nothing left. There was not a damned thing in the world to live for anymore. Even revenge was impossible to achieve.

But they got him with the stunners instead.

As he flopped to the ground, his entire body jangling, all he could still see was the mangled body of Bobby Ashland.


* * *
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