Dedication To Jim Baen, my mentor, my publisher and my friend. Just trying to pay forward. Acknowledgements




НазваниеDedication To Jim Baen, my mentor, my publisher and my friend. Just trying to pay forward. Acknowledgements
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CHAPTER SIX


This was a different route. They'd taken a left out of the cell instead of a right. Mike wasn't sure what that meant, but he could feel a bode when he saw one. And this boded.

A door dilated and he entered a low room about the size of a standard shield room. On the far side his "court" was arrayed. He knew, immediately, that that was what he was looking at. What shocked him was not that there actually was a court, but who was on it.

"Tam?" he gasped. "Good God, you're not . . .?"

"The Prisoner will remain silent," General Tam Wesley said, harshly. "This is your sentencing, not a moment for grandstanding. Michael O'Neal, you have been charged with violation of Galactic Military Code 4153-6398-Delta, excessive force leading to the death of non-combatants without commensurate military value gained. Your plea of not-guilty has been recorded by your Counsel. You are found guilty and sentenced to fifty years in a Penal Unit to be determined. Case is closed."

"I appeal," Mike said, looking around. Neither his most recent "counsel", if he had one nor even the prosecution were present.

"The sentence has been automatically reviewed by higher authority," General Wesley said. "It stands. Take the prisoner away."

"I appeal to the Aldenata," Mike said, loudly. "I appeal this sentence on its merits and I place suit against the Darhel, in toto, for failure of contractual obligations, to whit failure to abide by payment structures in keeping with contractual obligations to myself and the rest of the human race."

"What?" Tam said, his brow furrowing. "What in the hell are you talking about?"

"This trial is over," the Tir Dal Ron said, entering from the opposite door. "Silence the prisoner!"

Mike grimaced as the stunners hit, but it had a trace of a smile in it.

* * *

"That was unnecessary, Tir," General Wesley said as the unconscious body was dragged from the room.

"I determine what is necessary, General," the Tir said. "You may all return to your duties."

"What was that about failure of payment?" Colonel Rodermund asked. "Is there something we should be discussing, Tir?"

"Only if you wish to go to the same place as the former General, Colonel," the Tir said, coldly. "This matter is closed."

* * *

"Glad that's over," Master at Arms First Class Chan Mu said, dropping the prisoner unceremoniously to the deck. "Bastard's heavy as hell."

The sub-surface shuttle called The Deep Tram ran between the Fleet Base in the Chaplygin crater and Fleet Central Penal Facility in Chaplygin K. There was a regular shuttle consist that ran four times a day, carrying normal prisoners, their guards and the occasional releasee. This one, though, was unscheduled and consisted of only one car. It was for the specific job of getting the former General Michael O'Neal into that extremely secure sub-surface facility. Surrounded by space-capable weaponry and with nearly a thousand guards, once he was in FCPF the general wasn't going anywhere, ever again. Assuming that he even made it through in-processing. The Fleet masters at arms were charged with getting him to the facility, not killing him.

On the other hand they had very specific orders in the event there was any attempt to rescue him.

"Stay alert," Lieutenant Mang Rong said, setting the stunner aside and pulling around a laser rifle. "If we lose this one it's all our heads."

"Not much chance of that," Rei Shun said with a snort as the shuttle jerked into motion. "Solid rock between here and the prison. Be pretty hard to get to us and even if they did they'd evacuate the shuttle, killing him. That's if we missed, sir."

"Nonetheless," the lieutenant said, training the laser rifle on the back of the prisoner's head. "Remain alert."

* * *

Tommy Sunday was trapped in a bubble of rock and not particularly happy about it.

After all the time he'd spent in suits, he thought he was over anything resembling claustrophobia. When you put on a suit, the undergel flooded into your ears, eyes, nose. You were trapped, for just a moment, in a coffin. It was a very claustophobic experience that was hard to get used to, at first. But if you stayed in suits, you got really comfortable with it. So here he was, breathing stale air, room to move his feet, so why was he getting so claustophobic.

Maybe it was because he was under a thousand feet of rock and the only thing between him and eventually dying when his air ran out was the questionable support of a sohon mentat none of them ever got to meet.

"Prepare yourselves. The shuttle is leaving the station. The General is in the rear portion. There are five guards. They are armed with laser rifles and have low-light glasses. I will stop the shuttle, shut off the lights, disable their systems and let you through. All else is up to you. I may take no direct action against a human being. When you have secured the general, I will extract you."

Tommy supposed he also shouldn't wonder how the damned mentat was contacting a radio under a thousand feet of rock. But was having a harder time getting past that than how they'd gotten here.

* * *

So how's this supposed to work? George had said.

The four suits were standing on the lunar surface, looking around for any sign of their contact.

Michelle said there'd be a signal, Cally replied. It had better be soon.

Would a line in the sand be a signal?

In front of Tommy's eyes a line was drawing itself without anyone touching the lunar dust. As he watched, his name appeared next to an X drawn on a point on the line.

I guess X marks your spot, Cally said, with just a hint of nervousness.

After lining up they had waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, their radios crackled.

You are about to sink into the ground, a male voice with all the emotion of a robot had said. Attempt to control your emotional reactions.

Before Tommy could reply he felt a sinking sensation in no metaphorical sense. Looking down, the lunar dust was opening up around his feet into a pocket the width of his body and a few handspans. The others were descending as well. In moments he was below the surface of the moon, the pocket had closed above his head and, as far as he could tell, he was still dropping. In fact, if his inner ear was any judge, the rate had increased.

You will be dropped to the level of the shuttle tube, the voice said. How the presumed mentat was broadcasting to fairly normal radios was beyond Tommy. On the other hand, so was how he was opening up a pocket in solid rock! You will then hold there until it is time to retrieve the General.

* * *

So here he stood, waiting in this hole. The recent transmission had been the first sign he'd heard that the mission was still a go in over an hour. He hoped the other members of the party were doing better than he was, because Tommy was about to flip his lid.

"How are the guards arrayed?" Cally asked.

"The General is unconscious on the floor. Recently stunned. The lieutenant in charge of the detail is to starboard flanked by two guards. The other two are to port. Mr. Sunday will be dropping almost on top of the General. Are you prepared?"

"Yes," Cally replied. "Tommy, Guard."

"Roger," Tommy said.

"Good, because the shuttle is stopping in three . . .two . . ."

Tommy dropped in the low lunar gravity. Looking down he could see the top of the shuttle somehow dilated out, just as the rock around him had been. General O'Neal was directly beneath his feet. Which meant the rest of the team was arrayed further forward.

The guards had apparently been thrown off their seats by a violent stop. In total darkness, their electronics disabled, they floundered in the dark. At least one appeared to be injured.

Tommy didn't have time to take in more than that before spreading his feet so he wouldn't crush the package and then ducking down to cover the General with his body. There was a meaty sound from forward then a series of muted pops. Cally was being her usual efficient self.

"Package secured," Cally said. "Guards secured."

"Retrieving," the mentat replied.

This time, as the group gathered around Tommy and "the package", a wider hole was opened. The five of them, Tommy holding onto the General, started lifting upwards as if with grav belts. The top of the shuttle, which had been solid a moment before, simply seemed to momentarily disappear. Then they were back in rock.

"Okay," George said. "I've seen and done some weird shit, but this is starting to freak me out."

"At least we're not still sitting in those damned coffins," George replied. "I was starting to totally freak out."

"Should have tried being in a suit for a few years," Tommy heard himself say. "After that, sitting in solid rock is nooo problem."

* * *

"He's what?" Tir Dal Ron snapped.

The Tir's position had always been a bit confusing to the humans. Technically, Tir was a relatively minor position, the Darhel equivalent of a paper-shuffler. The term usually used in Human-Darhel dictionaries was "clerk." But while there was a higher ranked Gil who was the official ambassador to the Human government of the Confederation of Allied Races, the Tir seemed to wield extraordinary powers.

As time went on, and Humans had been in contact with the Darhel for nearly sixty years at this point, another term had entered service. "Eminence gris." While the Tir might not be a Clan leader among the Darhel, nor a planetary governor nor even a senior member of the rubber-stamp Legislative Committee of the Confederation, what he was was a mover and a shaker, a shyster, a power broker sitting very close to the right hand of the master of all Darhel, the shadowy Ghin whom no human had ever met.

Specifically, he was the guy tasked with making sure that the Human warrior-ants stayed in control.

And right now he was very close to the Darhel equivalent of a stroke.

"Escaped, My Lord." Admiral Chatchaya Sie was commander of all Fleet activities on the Moon including, most especially, the in his opinion ill-named 'Heinlein Base.' As part of his additional duties, he was commander of the Fleet Central Penal Facility.

He had succeeded to the lucrative post after his predecessor, Admiral Leony Jayadi, let a high value prisoner escape. Admiral Jayadi, while returning to Earth for his retirement, had apparently been unable to stand the shame and, completely of his own free will, taken a walk in space. His body had never been recovered.

The investigating team had carefully ignored the fact that it took at least three separate people to open a lock on a shuttle. And the Admiral was the only person, officially, on the shuttle at that time.

Admiral Sie did not want to take a space walk.

"How did this happen?" the Tir said, then took a deep, calming breath.

"That is so far very much a mystery, My Lord," the Admiral said. "The General and his guards were observed both physically and on camera boarding the shuttle. The shuttle, which is of course deep beneath the surface, proceeded in its normal fashion to the Penal Facility. Upon arrival the guards were found shot to death and the General was gone."

"He is no longer a General," the Tir said.

"Pardon my reference, My Lord," the Admiral said. "The prisoner."

"What you describe is impossible," the Tir snapped. "Impossible."

"That is my own categorization of this event, My Lord," the Admiral said. "When my predecessor let that woman escape, it was through inside help. I am following a similar line of investigation. But, fearing a rescue attempt, I had heavy forces commanded by loyal officers on hand to repel any attack. A colonel and two captains, one of them a nephew, observed the prisoner being loaded. The shuttle, according to the monitors, never stopped. Yet the prisoner was gone and the guards dead."

"So it appears to have been magic," the Tir snapped.

"I doubt magic, My Lord, but . . ."

"Then you are insufficiently imaginative," the Tir growled. "Keep me informed of your investigation. I want daily reports."

"Yes, My Lord."

Well, at least it appeared he'd be able to forward daily reports. That was something. But if he didn't find something quick . . .

* * *

Mike woke up with all of his nerves jangling. Since the room he was in was apparently on Earth, based on the gravity, that meant he'd been Hiberzined while still under the influence of the stunner. And he hadn't been under long enough to get over the effects.

"I also gave you a shot of nerzin," a voice said over his shoulder. "The stun should wear off pretty quick."

He was sitting in a recliner looking out a window. The view beyond was of a dune and then the ocean. Nice view. Based on the vegetation, mostly sea-oats, he was presumably somewhere in the eastern United States on the Atlantic coast. Make that southeast, he could see the limb of a live oak. That meant no further north than North Carolina or whatever they were calling it these days.

"Thanks," Mike muttered, looking around. The room could have been a livingroom from before the war. Muted pastel paint, cluttered nicknacks on shelves, the style was called 'coastal country' or some such. There was a bottle of Veri water on the marble topped table next to the recliner. He opened it, took a swig to wet his mouth and cleared his throat. "To whom do I owe the favor?"

"No names, obviously," the voice said. A young man walked into view. A very, very
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