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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I have watched the path of angels
And I have heard the heavens roar
There is strife within the tempest
But there is calm in the eye of the storm

I have investigated my sister's claims, Michelle thought. Once I was aware of them.

The seven individuals were, unquestionably, the most powerful humans in the galaxy. There were presidents and prime ministers aplently. Commanders of powerful fleets. Chiefs of major corporations by the hundreds.

But there were, to date, only seven human Sohon mentats.

Very few people understood them. Taken from their parents at a young age, raised entirely by the Indowy, they stood apart from the normal ruck of humanity already. Add to that minds that could wield extraordinary power, yet had been inculcated from that same very early age with an abhorrence of violence and a strong sense of duty and responsibility. Add again that, due to the nature of their exile, every single one of them came from a military family. They may have been taken from their parents young, but from their mother's milk they still drew an essential sense of "Duty, Honor, Country."

Their "Country" had changed, enlarged to fill a reasonable quadrant of the galaxy. But the Duty and Honor remained. And it might have shaped the fact that every single one of them, independently, as soon as they learned how to truly manipulate matter at the very smallest level, tried to see if they could get it to blow up.

One of their number had proven, though, that being too inflexible in the whole "Duty" thing was not necessarily good. Perhaps the power had warped Eric or perhaps he had started off warped. But it was possible for a Sohon to go very, very bad through the best of intentions. Eric's fall remained a moral tale for them all. And since it turned out that they could get matter to blow up, and more, every decision of weight had, since then, been taken in council.

I see the data, Thomas replied. And more. This action on the part of the Darhel breaks their Compact.

They were not in the same room nor even in the same solar systems. But their method of telepathy was virtually instantaneous across any distance or dimension. The "virtually" being of interest only to particle physicists and mentats.

The Tir Dal Ron has already left Earth, Minnie noted. He is surely high on their list. And two Darhel have already died in what are being reported as "accidents."

I am unsure of our action in this regard, Michelle admitted. The Corps is gone by now. We cannot undo that even if we wished. If my father has been incarcerated, should we act?

Have you an emotional attachment to this? Thomas asked. He was the oldest of them by barely a pair of years. Also the weakest. But he had been a leader among the "Lost Boys" from the beginning and still retained a vestige of that position.

I find myself torn, yes, Michelle admitted. However, it is less that he is my father and Clan Leader than that the Darhel are in breach of numerous contracts and obligations. If they are willing to become this high-handed, how can any of us trust the Contract. Most of us still labor under contract. If the Darhel have thrown off the Rules, what is to keep them from acting with complete arbitrariness?

Can we convince a Clan Leader to submit his appeal? Chan asked. This would both teach the Darhel the danger of breaking contracts and, potentially, save your father's life. On a purely personal level, it would place the Darhel in a position of being unable to fulfill their part of our contracts, thus freeing us.

Unlikely, Koko replied. Any clan doing so would be Called in a moment. It would be suicide for the entire clan.

The vast majority of the first Fleet had been drawn from European and North American sources. Thus most of the children sent into exile had been from America, Britain and Germany. Koko Takawashi and Kang Chan were the only two mentats not from such countries. Indeed, all but two of the others were from the former United States. It had been debated, given the disparity, if Japanese and Chinese might make better Sohon adepts naturally. Thus far there was insufficient data. Given that the Race of Han had been severely reduced during the War, as had the Japanese, it might not ever be resolved.

I believe there may be one, Michelle thought, But the moment the Darhel heard of the appeal, they would terminate my father. I am unsure why they have not done so already.

I see the hand of Tir Dal Ron in that one, Thomas thought with just a note of emotion in his telepathic communication. He enjoys watching individuals suffer.

Being the mentat with the most experience of that particular Tir, he would know.

There is a concept, Ermintrude thought. The sole English mentat's mind was clearly racing. The Darhel cannot kill him if he is not available to them.

* * *

"So you want our help again?" Cally said.

"It would be obvious if the Sohon acted directly," Michelle replied. "And I, of course, must keep a very respectable distance. This is the last contact we shall have until resolution of this crisis. If you see Father and he asks of me tell him that I hold him as dead, as Galactic law decrees. I shall resolve this issue when I see him at last."

"So what's the plan?" Cally asked.

"The first part you will not care for," Michelle said. "You must be patient."

"I'm not good with patient," Cally said. "How patient?"

"It will be nearly a year before we can act."

"That's okay," Cally said. "I can spend the time killing Darhel."

"And you must not do that."

"Oh, we are so going to have to talk 'when this issue is resolved.'"

* * *

Mike opened his eyes and blinked, gummily. His mouth felt like someone had stuffed it with cotton. Damned Hiberzine.

Hiberzine was only one of a number of amazing drugs the Galactics had brought with them. One dose would put a person down for a half a year with no ill effects. They could even be in conditions of minimal oxygen for a few months. He'd once been damned near ripped in half and left under the sea for weeks. Between his suits undergel and Hiberzine he'd survived.

One dose was fine. But after a half a year even with the best nannites working their little biomechanical asses off you got sort of dehydrated. Push it any further and you got really dehydrated. He'd been down longer than half a year.

"Fuckers could have given me a damned IV," he muttered.

He was manacled to the wall of a cell. Whoever had given him the antidote had apparently beat feet afterwards. All he had were four plasteel walls, a cot, a table and a sink/toilet combination. Oh, and a bottle of water. How thoughtful.

He drank the bottle of water in one go then dragged his chain to the sink and filled it again. Three drains and it was time to take a very long piss.

Grey walls, orange jump-suit. Not much to work with. He contemplated the steel chain and the plasteel wall. Plasteel was about ten times the strength of standard carbon steel. Oh, well, either the chain would get worn out or he'd cut his way into the next room. Which was probably another cell. He set to rubbing one link of the chain on the wall, over and over. Molecule by molecule the steel started to fleck away. At this rate he'd be into the next cell in about a century but nobody was quite sure how long a life rejuv gave you so what the hell.

He wasn't sure how long it was till the door opened. Food had appeared out of an unexpected slot in the far wall at one point. He'd taken a dump and a couple of pisses, filled and drained his water bottle several times, taken a nap, worn one face of the steel link shiny and made an almost unnoticeable groove in the wall. Say a day or two. Hell, he'd once laid in his suit in total EMCON and underground for longer than that. If you couldn't handle sensory deprivation and boredom, ACS was no place for you.

They'd sent six guards with stunners. For all he knew there were more in the corridor beyond. One of them was unarmed, he just held the shackles.

None of them were, individually, all that big. Fleet mostly drew from Indonesia and Southeast Asia; their personnel didn't run to tall.

Mike wasn't tall, either, but he was broad as a house. He'd been a work-out freak since before he'd ever heard of the Posleen and fifty years as an officer hadn't changed anything. He might not be the biggest runner in the world, but he could lift an ACS suit with one hand, which was right at the strain gauge of the human muscles and bones involved. He figured that even with the stunners he could probably take down four or so, if he hadn't been chained to the wall.

So he just held out his arms to be shackled.

* * *

He was lead down empty corridors to a room very much like the one he'd been sitting in. There were four differences. No toilet or sink, which wasn't going to be good if this went on too long. There was a video monitor on the wall. The table was bigger and had two seats. And there was a Fleet Commander sitting in one of the chairs.

Mike was frog-marched to the far chair, seated in it and shackled down, hard. He could barely move his arms or legs.

"Michael Leonidas O'Neal," the Commander said without preamble. "Lieutenant General, Fleet Strike. Serial Number 216-29-1145. Entered Fleet Strike from the state of Georgia in the nation of the United States, Earth. Is all of that correct?"

Mike just looked at him. The Commander had more of a Chinese look than Indonesian. But it was unlikely he was directly descended from the Mainland given what had happened there. His uniform had his rank tabs but no nametag.

"Mr. O'Neal I am your defense counsel in this matter," the Commander said. "I am to present your defense in this court martial. It would be helpful if you at least answered my questions."

"I can request other counsel," Mike said. "I officially do so."

"Unless the court is to meet in secret session," the Commander replied. "Which this one will, due to the security aspects of the investigation."

"Big surprise there," O'Neal said. "Given that part of my testimony would be that Fleet just destroyed an entire corps of ACS."

"If you're referring to the 11th Corps, you are mistaken," the Commander replied. "It was virtually wiped out in the battles on R-1496 Delta. Due to your negligence and rejection of the input from your Darhel superiors."

"Oh, so that's what I'm being tried with?" Mike asked, laughing. "Do you have any survivors to testify? Because as far as I could tell the orbital strikes were pretty thorough. I'd love to know that even one of my boys survived your fucking massacre."

"You are being tried on the charges of crimes against humanity," the Commander replied. "Relating to new information about your actions in the first battles on Diess."

"That was fifty fucking years ago," Mike said, blinking. "I won my first Medal of Honor on Diess!"

"There is no statute of limitations on crimes against humanity," the 'counsellor' said, pulling out his AID and setting it on the table. "Specifically, you are charged with the deaths of some three hundred thousand Indowy in the destruction of the Qualtren Megascraper. The destruction had been considered accidental, one of those unfortunate events that occur in war. But recently information has surfaced indicating that you ordered charges placed to destroy the building. I'm here to present your side of the action. So why don't you tell me about it from your perspective. Where were you on the evening of May 18th, 2002 AD?"

"You're asking if I can remember specific actions from over fifty years ago?" Mike asked.

"Yes," the Commander replied.

"As a matter of fact," Mike said, dropping into memory, "I can."

* * *

Lt. O'Neal stripped the box magazine from his M-200 grav rifle and stared unseeing at the thousands of teardrop shaped pellets within. Then he reinserted the magazine and did the same with his grav pistol.

"Would you please quit doing that?" asked Lt. Eamons. Both of them waited by windows on the northwest corner of Qualtren. The angle was even greater than the FSO indicated and they had a clear view of the 1.145 miles to the next intersection. There the Naltrev megascraper cut back and blocked the view. Naltrev and its sister megascraper Naltren held the battalion scout platoon and the upper part of O'Neal's vision systems were slaved to the view from the scout platoon leader's.

"Where are your people, Tom?" Mike asked.


"Are they tasked?" O'Neal continued to watch the view from the scout leader. It was unsettling because of the flicker of a Personal Area Force-screen (PAF) set up in the anticipated direction of attack and because Lt. Smith had a nasty tendency to occasionally toss his head like a horse throwing a fly. The movement would swing the viewpoint right and up. I doubt he even notices that he's doing it, thought Mike, stripping out the magazine and reinserting it, but I wish he'd quit.

"Would you please quit doing that, Mike! And why do you want to know? No, they're sitting around with their thumbs up their butts."

"Quit what?" Mike asked, his attention focused like a medical laser on the view from his helmet. "Start having them emplace cratering charges across Anosimo and Sisalav at the Sal line and then start placing C-9 charges at the locations I'll slave to their AIDs."

"Whoa, Mike. You're a nice guy and outrank me by a whole grade, but the hell if I'll piss my career away for you. The colonel will have my bar if I do that." The lieutenant tried to shake his head and stopped when he had to force it against the biotic gel filling the helmet.

"Lt. Colonel Youngman is currently busy and he won't notice unless we detonate them. When we detonate them, you will be a hero for taking the initiative because it will be the only thing that saves the right flank of the Corp from being rolled up."

"Is it that bad?" asked the engineer, wondering how much his friend's moroseness was justified. Although he would have preferred to lay out a full reception for the Posleen, the firepower of the battalion was massive.

"Tom, we're about to be corncobbed and there ain't a fuckin' thing I can do about it. After this day the name Youngman will be right up there with Custer, except George Armstrong had a brilliant career before he pissed it away. Now get rigging the charges. Make the cratering charges big ones. I want them to tear the faces right off the megascrapers; they've got forty minutes max."

* * *

"So you did, in fact, order Lt. Eamons to emplace the charges that eventually destroyed the Qualtren Megascraper," the Commander said. "I think we'll try to argue situational stress disorder."

"The order was later authorized by Lt. Colonel Youngman," Mike said.

"Can you prove that?" the Commander asked.

"The AID net should have the entire conversation stored."

"AIDs cannot be interrogated in court martials," the Commander pointed out.

"Then I'd guess you've have to find a survivor," Mike replied. "Besides me." He paused and thought about the events of that night. "Good luck on that one."

* * *

They were in a sub basement headed he knew not where running down one wall of a mammoth warehouse. The shelves were filled with green drums, like rubber oil barrels. As the lieutenant passed one of the aisles, both their AIDs screamed a belated warning. The group of fifty or so Posleen, accompanied by a God King, opened fire on Lt. O'Neal with everything they had.

There were six high density inertial compensators along the spine of the suit. They had been placed there to prevent severe inertial damage to the most vital portions of the user. Lt. O'Neal launched himself into the air and away from the threat, an instinct of hundreds of hours of simulations, while his AID dialed the inertial compensators as low as they would go. This had several effects, good and bad but the net effect was to make it less likely that the flechettes would penetrate his armor as they had the private's; at this range their penetration ability was vastly improved.

The lack of inertia permitted the suit to move aside or be pushed away as if no more substantial than a hummingbird. Combined with the strength of the armor it successfully shed the first sleet of rounds, but it made him as unstable as a ping pong ball in a hurricane. He was picked up by the impacts, flipped repeatedly end for end, struck the warehouse wall and blown sideways.

Sgt. Reese screamed and fired on the target vector flashing in his display. The Posleen were masked by the barrels, but he figured with the power of the grav rifle he could saw through them quickly and take the Posleen under direct fire.

As it happened, actually hitting the Posleen became unnecessary. The barrels, indeed the entire warehouse, were filled with an oil processed from algae. It was used by the Indowy in cooking. Ubiquitous as corn oil, the 5 million Indowy of Qualtren used so much they needed a half kilometer square warehouse. Like corn oil, it had a fairly high flash point but, given certain conditions it could burn, even explode.

The depleted uranium pellets of the grav guns traveled at a noticeable fraction of the speed of light. The designers had carefully balanced maximum kinetic effect against the problem of relativistic ionization and its accompanying radiation. The result was a tiny teardrop that went so fast it defied description. It made any bullet ever made seem to stand still. Far faster than any meteor, rounds that did not impact left the planet's orbit to become a spatial navigation hazard. It punched a hole through the atmosphere so fierce that it stripped the electrons from the atoms of gas and turned them into ions. The energy bled in its travel was so high it created a shock front of electro-magnetic pulse. Then, after it passed, the atoms and electrons recombined in a spectacular display of chemistry and physics. Photons of light were discharged, heat was released and free radicals, ozone and Bucky balls were produced. The major by-product was the tunnel of energetic ions indistinguishable from lightning. Just as hot, and just as energetic. A natural spark plug.

In two seconds 1000 of these supremely destructive teardrops punched through 50 drums of fish oil. One pellet was enough to finely divide a drum of oil over two to three thousand cubic meters of air. The following rounds found only vapor and these excess pellets, following the immutable laws of physics, set out to find other drums to divide. The oil from thousands of drums suddenly flash blasted into gas then ignited from compression, rather like a diesel piston. The net effect was a fuel-air bomb, the next best thing to a nuclear weapon in Terran technology, and the basement warehouse became a gigantic diesel cylinder. For Sgt. Reese, in an instant the world flashed to fire.

The warehouse was two levels below ground. It had six levels below it and was 350 meters from Boulevard Sisalav, 150 meters from Avenue Qual. The fuel air explosion blasted a 200 meter diameter crater down to bedrock, gutted the building for a kilometer upward and set off all the charges planted for Plan Jericho. The shock-wave smashed structural members all the way to Sisalav and Qual and spit many of the remaining troopers on the ground floor out of the building like watermelon seeds. It killed every unarmored being in the mile cube structure: 326,000 Indowy and 8000 particularly quick and greedy Posleen. The Jericho charges worked as planned, shattering 120 critical mono-crystalline support members. With surprising grace, the mile high edifice leaned to the northwest and slowly, as if reverently kneeling, fell into Daltrev, blocking Sisalav and Qual and smashing the southeast quadrant of Daltrev. It crushed 4000+ more Posleen and completely blocked an enemy advance from the massif to Qualtrev.

* * *

"And subsequent to the explosion?" the Commander asked, emotionlessly.

"I tried to get in touch with the chain of command," Mike said. "Colonel Youngman was dead. Captain Vero was unconscious. Captain Wright was trapped in something too solid to get through and Hiberzined himself to await recovery. I consolidated local survivors and contacted Major Pauley."

* * *

The chirp of connection cued him. "Major Pauley, it's Lt. O'Neal."

"O'Neal? What the hell do you want?"

"Sir, I am currently in command of the survivors gathered under Qualtren. I was looking for orders, sir." Mike watched the NCO leading a group across the scattered rubble. The first suit to reach the far side grabbed a piece of rubble and pulled it out. There was a prompt slide into its place and a section of ceiling fell out, momentarily trapping one of the other troops. With some hand motions and swearing on a side channel Green got the group to move more circumspectly.

"Who the hell put you in command?" demanded the distant officer.

"Captain Wright, sir," answered O'Neal. He was expecting some resistance but the harshness of Pauley's voice made him instantly wary.

"And where the hell is Wright?"

"Can I deliver my report, sir?"

"No, dangit, I don't want your dang report. I asked you where Captain Wright was." The panting of the officer over the circuit was eerie, like an obscene phone call.

"Captain Wright is irretrievable with what we have available, Major. He put me in command of the mobile survivors and put himself into hibernation."

"Well, the hell if any trumped up Sergeant is going to lead MY troops," said the major, his voice cracking and ending on a high wavery note. "Where the hell are the rest of the officers."

"I am the only remaining officer, Major," O'Neal said reasonably. "There is one Sergeant First Class, three staff sergeants and five sergeants, sir. I am the only officer on sight."

"I do not have time for this," spit the commander, "put me through to another officer."

"Sir, I just said that there are no other officers."

"Dangit, Lieutenant, get me Captain Wright and get him NOW or I'll have you COURT-MARTIALLED!"

"Sir," Mike choked. He began to realize that Major Pauley was not tracking well. The position of the retreating ACS battalion should have prepared him somewhat, but nothing could have fully prepared him, "Sir, . . ." he started again.

"Dangit, Lieutenant, get those troops back here NOW! I need all the forces I can get! I don't have time to eff around with this. Get me through to Captain Wright!"

"Yes, sir," Mike did not know what to do, but ending this conversation would be a start. "I'll get the troops to your location as fast as I can and get Captain Wright to contact you as soon as possible."

"That's better. And put him back in command, dang you. How dare you usurp command you young puppy! I'll have you court-martialed for this! Put yourself on report!"

"Yes, sir, right away, sir. Out here."

* * *

"So you're saying that your direct chain of command was non-functional?" the Commander replied. "Are you an MD? A psychologist?"

"You're supposed to be my counsel, not my inquisitor," Mike said. "No, I'm not an MD or a shrink. But Pauley couldn't even understand that I was the only officer down there. And come to think of it Captain Brandon and Major Norton both heard Colonel Youngman authorize the Jericho charges."

"Lieutenant Colonel Robert Brandon retired from service some thirty years ago," the Commander said. "He took colonization credits but his ship was, unfortunately, lost in transit. Major Charles Norton was killed in action on Earth in 2006. As was Captain Wright. Captain Vero exited the service after the action on Diess and committed suicide shortly thereafter."

"So you're saying that I'm the only officer survivor of Diess," Mike said, his face stony. "Not too surprising. We had a really high casualty rate during the war. Hell, I'm about the only person I know who's alive from back then. They're all gone." He looked at the far wall and shook his head. "All gone."

"Yes, well, that is regretable," the Commander said without the slightest tone of regret. "Given any lack of witnesses to this supposed order by Colonel Youngman . . ."

"Wait," Mike said, his brow furrowing. "What is the evidence against me? I mean, what is the prosecution using as evidence?"

"You're not authorized to have that information," the Commander replied.

"Oh, that's just great!" Mike snarled. "They're saying that I wiped out my corps, they're saying that I killed a bunch of Indowy on purpose on Diess and I can't see any of the evidence? Why am I surprised? They shot my fucking STAFF right in front of my eyes! What's the damned purpose of this fucking trial anyway!" He strained at the bonds, willing to do anything for just one crack at one of these fuckers, including his so-called "Counsel." But all he could feel was his own bones breaking.

"To see that justice is done, of course," the Commander said, tonelessly.

"'You are a prisoner because you have been accused,'" Mike said, laughing mirthlessly. "I plead guilty to saving a planet." He paused and then laughed. "Oh My God! That is what this is all about! If they can convict me from back then then everything I've done since doesn't count, legally, does it? If it's all a war crime, I'm not owed a single pence, am I?"

"I'm not sure what you're talking about," the Commander said, apparently puzzled.

"Then you don't have that need to know, 'Counselor,'" Mike said, chuckling. "Oh, wait, let me tell you. Then you can have a noose around your neck. See how it feels."

"On the whole . . ." the Commander said, suddenly nervous.

"No, seriously, this is a really good story," Mike said.

"I think this interview is at an end," the Commander said, standing up.

"The Darhel have been manipulating humans for thirty thousand years," Mike said, quickly. "There are humans on R-1496 Delta they planted there in cave-man days! And they're in violation of contract. They owe humans more money than they have in cash. If we call the marker, if I call the marker, they're bankrupt."

"Why are you telling me this?" the Commander snarled. "This has nothing to do with your crimes."

"Because I want to see how many counsellors I can go through," Mike replied, grinning. " 'First thing we do, we kill all the lawyers.'"

* * *

"General O'Neal is being held at the Lunar Fleet Base," Cally said. "Multiple layers of security and of course it's on the Moon."

Cally's team had taken a real hit with the loss of her grandfather, Michael O'Neal, Sr. The hole was impossible to fill mentally so they'd never filled it physically. That left Cally, Tommy and the Schmidt brothers. That was going to be more than enough. In fact, since direct action was, to say the least, not Harrison's forte, he'd be hanging back on this one.

"This is going to be interesting," George Schmidt said. The newest team member had never been adverse to attacking Cally's plans but his point was always to find the weaknesses, not attack the source. "As in 'you're fricking kidding, right?' They've seriously upgraded security procedures since we sprung you. And this time we don't have a guy on the inside."

"Which is why we're not going to get him out during the trial," Cally said, bringing up another schematic. "He's either going to be convicted or he's not. If he's not, we pick him up from the exit and then get lost, fast. Given that it's a kangaroo court, he's going to be convicted. Which means that he'll be moved to the Lunar Penal facility."

"We grab him in transit?" Tommy said, blinking. "What if they off him immediately?"

"Then we're fucked," Cally admitted. "But he's going to be moved through the Deeprun Tram. That's the weak point."

"A tram that runs through solid rock a thousand feet below the lunar surface?" George said. "How's that a weak point?"

"It's one with the right support," Cally said. "Which we have. The sohon are willing to give us that much support."

"Okay," Tommy said, nodding. "I kinda get that one. So that's getting in and grabbing him. Getting out?"

"I have a friend arranging that," Cally said.

* * *

It's Dad, Stewart. Your father in law. Your old boss. Don't tell me you're not in.

I know that, honey. James Stewart, nee Quai Kon Chang, looked nothing like the man who had once been a Fleet Strike Lieutenant General. He also didn't look purely Chinese. One of the more 'mixed' races of southeast Asia that were survivors of the Posleen but not pure Han.

And it will fuck with the Darhel, Cally added. The Tongs always like that. That's why we get along.

I know that, too, Stewart had said. It doesn't mean it's a good idea. Look, I've gotten promoted in the Tong really fast. That makes enemies. And these guys don't just talk about you behind your back. There's more real assassination than character assassination in the Tongs. Doing something like this, with no profit involved, for apparently political and personal reasons, it's not a good idea. Not if you want me alive to visit on occasion.

I want more than that and you know it. And if you need to get paid to do it, then we'll figure out a way to pay you.

It's not going to be cheap.

I don't think Michelle threw all those Level Nine nanokeys into the pot.

In that case, let's talk business.



* * *

"So, we're depending on sohon, whom we don't know, and some Tong guy we don't know," Tommy said, blowing out his cheeks. He wasn't about to admit that he not only knew Stewart but that they had been acquaintances 'back when.' "Cally, you're asking us to take one hell of a risk using assets we don't know."

"If you've got a better plan, Thomas, ante up," Cally said.


* * *

He'd been through three "counsellors" so far. He waited in the trial room in anticipation. The "counsellor" hadn't been waiting for him this time. He wondered who they'd sacrifice next.

He was only slightly surprised when a Darhel came through the door.

"Since I am privy to the information you've been giving to your other counsellors, telling me about it won't require my removal from the trial," the Darhel said, sitting down opposite Mike.

"Oh, that's okay," Mike said. "I'll figure something out. Answer one question?"

"We shall trade," the Darhel said. "I will ask one and you ask one. If you answer me I'll answer you."

"Nope," Mike said, shaking his head. "I'm fully aware of how far you can trust a Darhel. Which is zero. You answer me and I'll answer you, though. I mean, really, who would you trust more, General Michael O'Neal or another Darhel?"

"Very well," the Darhel said, acceding to the logic. "Ask your question."

"Has the trial even started, yet?" Mike asked, wondering what answer he'd get. Or if it would be true.

"Two days ago," the Darhel said.

"Then why don't I at least get to watch it?" Mike asked, gesturing with his chin at the screen.

"One question at a time," the Darhel said, smiling and exposing sharp teeth. "Now for mine. Were you aware that there were Indowy still in the Qualtren Megascraper?"

"Yes," Mike said, frowning. "I'd run into some trapped in there. But it was destroy the megascraper or lose the battle. Besides, they couldn't outrun the Posleen and were thus dead, anyway. The military term is 'acceptable collateral damage.' Another round?"

"Very well," the Darhel said.

"I repeat, why can't I watch the trial?"

"Because the testimony is need-to-know," the Darhel answered. "The only portion you are required to monitor is your sentencing portion. When sentencing is pronounced, it will be fed over the video screen."

"If anyone needs to know what's being testified to, I do," Mike said.

"Nonetheless," the Darhel said. "What do you know of the Bane Sidhe?"

"Only that they exist," Mike said. "I was informed about them by the Nor. You had an AID listening in."

"The Nor did not know of the contract irregularity," the Darhel said. "You do. Someone has told you, recently. Who?"

"Gosh, I forget," Mike said.

"This is a violation of our contract," the Darhel said. "You said that you would answer questions. And I can and will use chemical means to get my answer."

"If you're asking those you're not working as my counsel," Mike said, shrugging. "In which case, all I can say is that when I get out of here, I'm going to remove your eyes with my own hands."

"That would be difficult," the Darhel said, snarling.

"Not really," Mike said. "You Darhel are cowards. Oh, you might have some guards but I've killed humans in my time as well as Posleen. You know my abilities. You are as dead as yesterday's news. But first I'm going to destroy your clan financially. You're going to be too poor to afford guards when I come for you. I'm going to eat one of your cowardly eyeballs while you watch and . . ."

Mike had been watching for the signs. He'd heard that Darhel were, in fact, fast and strong. But they also went catatonic after a few moments. The question would be whether he could get the Darhel to go over the edge. And live through it.

Sure enough, the alien finally lost it, the chair flying back and hitting the wall, hard enough to crack the strong plastic. The alien's hands wrapped around his throat and he thought he felt his hyoid bone break as it bore down. But then the thing's eyes rolled back in his head and he flopped to the table, still and drooling.

Mike could breathe, barely, so his throat wasn't crushed. He just sat there, watching the drooling thing on the table, until the guards entered the room in a rush and stunned him into unconsciousness.

* * *

"General, this is insane."

The Fleet Strike colonel looked at his superior, watching for any shred of agreement then shook his head. He'd made sure that the meeting was in a shield room and AIDs were left behind so the officers could have an honest conversation. But he wasn't sure even that would matter.

"These charges are laughable," Colonel Rodermund continued. "The only evidence is the recordings of the accused and AID records we both know can be falsified. For that matter, we're not allowed to fully investigate those same records. We're not even getting the full recordings of the interrogations of the accused and those are by persons who are supposed to be his counsel. Then we can't even question the counselors. We haven't even seen any of his counselors after the meetings. But the bottomline is that what he did was not illegal. He gave a legal order and was not countermanded by higher authority. Not as far as any record we have seen. The collateral damage was regretable but the mission was accomplished. He's guilty of nothing but being a soldier. Is that now illegal?"

"Is that all?" the general asked.

"Not really," the colonel said, his face hardening. "I've been reviewing the information on what happened at R-1496 Delta and I don't buy it. There's a massive rat in the recordings. Among other things, where did the Posleen get orbital weaponry? Wasn't Fleet supposed to be covering? Again, not something that General O'Neal can be charged with. And I don't see Admiral Suntoro in that courtroom nor any of the rest of his staff. In fact, I've done a bit of checking and nobody's too sure where Fifth Fleet is at present. I didn't think I was going to be participating in a kangaroo court, General, and I'm professionally and personally humiliated to do so. I'm also wondering what in the hell you think you're doing."

"That is insubordination," the general said, mildly.

"Great, so I'm next?" the colonel asked. "Unable to choose my own counsel, unable to speak in my own defense, unable to bring witnesses, unable to face my accusers?"

"Not unless you force that outcome," the general said. "Are you going to?"

"If I thought it would do a shred of good . . ."

"And there is the point," the general replied. "Yes, this is a totally bogus proceeding. The outcome is fore-ordained. The accused will be found guilty. He will be shipped to either the Legion or a penal institute. He is probably going to be shot trying to escape. General O'Neal is dead. Get that through your head."

"Oh, I have, sir," the colonel said, furiously. "But what in the fuck are we doing facilitating that, sir? Michael O'Neal is a God damned hero! If they can do this to him, using us, sir, then who's safe? What's the God damned point of even . . . And what really happened to 11th Corps? That's most of Fleet Strike, sir! What's the God damned point of . . ."

"Of even continuing to exist?" the general asked, calmly. "The point is to exist."

"Well, then, sir, if you would like to hear my opinion of . . ."

"I can guess," the general said, still calmly. "But you're not seeing the full measure of the point. Yes, we're about to throw one of our greatest heroes, okay our greatest hero, to the dogs. We are going to pour out our honor like water. Some of the board are going to eat a pistol over the verdict. But we are going to survive. Fleet Strike is going to survive. You think this is the only tarnish on us? That we haven't done other things that are repugnant at the insistence of those Darhel fuckers? You've been caught up in the minutia of keeping units across the galactic arm supplied. I appreciate that. You're a damned good logistician. I've been in the belly of the beast, Colonel. I've seen what's been really happening. The Fleet doesn't even flicker at this sort of thing. There's no trust, no bonding, no real soldiers in the whole damned thing. The Admirals fight for the biggest slice of the pie and the sailors just want to get their ricebowl filled. They hope they actually get fed and paid.

"We're tarnished. The stench from this is going to stink to high heaven and you are neither the first officer, nor I'm sure the last, to be right on the edge of mutiny. But that's sort of the point. We can still fight. We are the only true defenders of the Federation left. We are the only ones that come close to remaining true to the cause. Broken, stinking wretches that we are, we still have some of us that believe in the point, which is first, last and always, to make sure that humanity survives. If we choose to mutiny over this . . . abomination, we are finished. We are as dead as the 11th Corps, which is, yes, gone. I will not see the rest of Fleet Strike go the same way, Colonel. And if it takes sacrificing Michael O'Neal, who I have known for longer than you have lived, or you, colonel, or myself, on that altar, then I will make that sacrifice, Colonel. Am I making myself absolutely, perfectly, clear?"

"Sir, they can't . . ."

"Colonel, 11th Corps wasn't destroyed by the Posleen, it was destroyed at the behest of the Darhel. Twenty plus thousand Fleet Strike personnel, one hundred percent of our remaining ACS, burned by orbital fire from Fifth Fleet. The staff, I'm given to understand, were shot by their captors."

"That is . . ." The colonel's face worked for a moment then he spat. "That is sick, sir!"

"And the day you can figure out an effective method to strike back at the Darhel, Colonel," the general said, "one that will break their stranglehold for good and all, one that will make those fuckers pay, well you just do that, Colonel. And then kill them all as far as I care. But in the meantime, we have to go present sentencing on one of my best friends. Are you prepared to give your last measure to this organization, Colonel? Are you prepared to pour out your honor like water, to bury it in muck and slime and horror, so that there is some chance that, someday, others will not have to? Because if you're not, I need to have you removed from the court."

"And life?" the colonel asked.

"Does it matter?" the general replied, snorting humorlessly. "On a day like today, wouldn't you have rather died in battle? Because even burning to death would be cleaner than this. I know that I have not a shred of true honor left, Colonel. I was damned long before these proceedings. The only hope that I have is that by holding onto something I can work to prevent others from having to do this sort of thing. I can hope that someday there will be a Fleet Strike that is relieved of this horror. That some future officer can spit on my grave without fear of Darhel retribution. Our lives, our fortune and our sacred honor. Today is the day for you to cough up that last measure, Colonel. Today you get to join the rest of us and burn your honor on the bonfire of hope. Sucks, huh?"

"Sir . . ." the colonel said. "I repeat, that's sick."

"Are you in, though?" the general asked.

"Yes, sir," Colonel Rodermund replied after a moment. "But someday . . ."

"Colonel," General Tam Wesley replied, "I hope every day for some shred of possibility of breaking the Darhel. Yes, someday something has to give. But, unfortunately, it does not appear to be today."

* * *

Security Contract Officer First Class Maxim Poddubny had been born and raised in the "unconquered" areas of Siberia.

The Posleen invaders had swept across Europe and Asia without a check on their advance until they disovered Siberia. While the Posleen could survive in almost any environment, they were less than adept at logistics. Each Posleen god-king was supposed to find food for his own group. Usually that food was the food of the conquered or, in many cases, the conquered themselves.

The Russians, after and brief and mostly futile defense, had done what Russia had done many times before, retreated deeper and deeper into the hinterland while scorching the earth behind them.

The only difference from the Swedes, Poles, French and Germans was that the Posleen got further. None of the Russian armies that faced them, even in the Urals, could slow them down. Until winter descended on Siberia and the Posleen suddenly found themselves out of contact with the human "thresh" and struggling through hip-deep snow in a terrain bereft of anything resembling sustenance.

Had the Posleen continued to occupy Earth they would eventually have spread, slowly, into the area. The shattered Russians, reduced to a day-to-day hand-to-mouth struggle for survival, might or might not have hindered them. But that question became moot when the half-renegade Fleet units had lifted the Siege. Slowly, the Russians had straggled out of the taiga, recovering their demolished cities. Those that could quickly moved to more hospitable lands under the Post-Invasion Resettlement Act. But a few remained.

Max was the son of one of those families, hardy pioneers in the wilderness that had reclaimed most of Russia. His father was a strong Russian nationalist, regaling his many children with the glory that had once been Russia and, through his sons and daughters, would be again.

Max had listened to the rants until he was seventeen, the youngest age at which you could enlist in the military, and then fled the searingly cold and achingly boring forests of "The Motherland" for anything else. His father might be insane but it didn't mean Max had to be. Someday, if there was ever a need for the space, humans might move back into the shattered lands of Russia. In the meantime, they were wilderness for a reason. Only madmen or the desperate lived there by choice.

He had spent a very boring five years in an absolutely less than elite infantry division. It was one of three divisions that was tasked with post-recovery security. Basically, they supported the first Indowy colonists and their human "security officers" sweeping out the hardcore remaining Posleen while the "security officers" covered the Indowy. It was tedious work involving long patrols that rarely hit contact. And when they did, by and large, they just ran away as fast as they could, called in an orbital strike and then made sure it got the infestation. What was the point of being a hero?

The good news was that the unit had regular contact with the "security officers." Invariably, the first thing the security company did was set up a "recreation facility." It was usually completed before the full defenses were in place. Security companies had their own manpower shortage so they made sure that such "recreation facilities" were as complete as possible. There were plenty of games, yes. There was a decent bar, if your interest in bars translated to "dive." And there were "entertainers", male and female, to keep their security officers entertained.

Getting access to those "recreation facilities" was tough for a regular. But if you made the right contacts, you could get an occasional pass. Max had visited the security recreation facility once, compared it to the one available to the regular infantry, and made it his goal to work his way into a security company.

Now, as an SCO1 working for Hamilton-Baron Security, he had full access to such. Just as soon as he got off duty in forty minutes. There was a little lady named Lailani he was looking forward to spending quite a bit of his pay on. Why not? There wasn't much else to spend it on and he wasn't looking for another job any time soon.

He slowed the Multi-Wheeled Ground Terrain Vehicle as his thermal detectors pinged. An aerial recon team had been reported missing near this location and he'd been dispatched to look into it. The air-truck had probably just lost its motivator. This planet had been colonized for twenty years, for that matter it was pretty close to some of the core Darhel worlds, and the Posleen hadn't used anything that could take down an air-truck in a while. But the two man crew was probably on the ground somewhere nearby cursing and waiting for pick-up.

The thermal, though, wasn't locking the contact. Something was disturbing the signal. It was big, though. Could be either human or Posleen. He hit the lights and panned them to the left, searching in the burgeoning undergrowth for the contact, the machine-gun on the roof panning with it. If it was a Posleen, it was going to get a 14.5mm enema.

As the light panned across the contact point there was a flicker, like a reflection on a pond. He panned back and frowned as the ripple seemed to move. Whatever it was, it was big. Maybe as big as a Posleen. His finger was playing with the safety on the machine-gun, wondering if he should just fire and then figure it out. But the contact sort of looked like a Himmit. Not that you normally spotted those.

He was still wondering when a strand of monomolecular wire entered his window and removed his head.
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