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CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE: "We're going home."

Most humans would probably have seen something funny about a room full of koala bears in military uniforms rising to attention.

Captain Mario Kincaid, TFMC, didn't. Like everyone else in Survey Flotilla 19, he'd come to know the Telikans.

Admittedly, they did look rather like gray-furred koalas, albeit large and long-armed ones. And while their clothing belonged to no human sartorial tradition, it was obviously a uniform. The multi-species Star Union allowed a variety of tailoring that accommodated its full bewildering range of bodily forms. But rank insignia and color schemes were universal, and the officers who stood respectfully as Pinionmaster Haradda Brokken entered wore the black with green trim of the Ground Wing.

And they were all Telikans. The race accounted for a disproportionate percentage of the Ground Wing-the Star Union's planetary-assault arm, for which the Crucians themselves were physically unsuited. But they made up all of the force that was to commence the liberation of Telik. Nobody in the entire Star Union had disputed the rightness of that.

As for Kincaid, he contented himself with a certain satisfaction that they were coming to attention for Brokken with a snap that would almost-not quite, of course-have won the approval of his OCS drill instructor. The Telikans derived no such tradition, nor any military fetishes of any sort, from their own planet-bound history of matriarchal herbivorousness. Encountering the Bugs had done wonders for their pacifism, however, and now that they had a role model in the Terran Federation Marine Corps, the only equivalent of the Union Ground Wing they'd ever known, they'd taken to its customs and usages with the enthusiasm of neophytes. Indeed, Marine officers as high-ranking as these wouldn't have been coming to attention like recruits, even for a lieutenant general, which was approximately what "pinionmaster" meant. (SF 19's linguists had had to reach a bit for Standard English equivalents of some of the Crucian rank titles.)

Brokken, though, was too old a dog to learn the new Terran tricks. She merely waved her officers back to their seats, without saying "as you were" or some such. Then she drew herself up to her full one hundred and seventy-five centimeters-tall for a Telikan, even a female-and gripped the sides of the lectern.

"This is our final conference. Wingmaster Harkka has declared the Telik System secured. Our Terran allies have taken over the responsibility for maintaining fighter cover and hunting down any surviving Demon craft that may still be lurking in the outer system. So, with uncontested control of orbital space now firmly established, we have the go-ahead to commence planetary assault operations."

There was no sound. An emotion for which "anticipation" was too drab a word communicated itself throughout the large chamber without the need for vocalization. Even Kincaid felt the tingle. He wondered what the Telikans felt.

They were aboard one of the transports which had joined Harkka's battered fleet in orbit after the Bug space station had finally died under long-range bombardment. An interorbital shuttle had brought Kincaid here from the flagship. He'd been en route, with the big blue marble of Telik below, before guiltily realizing that in his excitement he'd barely noticed Fujiko Murakuma's uncharacteristically gentle farewell.

I suppose I must've said something back, he told himself. But I can't for the life of me remember what.

Once he'd arrived aboard the transport, he hadn't been surprised to find Brokken already there. The transport had no command-and-control facilities, but none were needed. The pinionmaster wasn't going to direct this assault from orbit. As talnikah, or field CO, she was going down-age, rank, and all-with her troops. That was how the Union Ground Wing's combat mamas-it had been a long time since any Terran Marine had used the officially approved translation "battle mothers"-did things. And even if it hadn't been, Kincaid very much doubted that even a direct order could have kept Brokken in orbit, gazing down at the world of her ancestors while others fought for it.

Now she activated a holo display of that world, and they all studied the symbology that adorned it. Black crosses marked the sites of the Bugs' former planetary defense centers with grim finality. But the room's attention was focused on certain green circles scattered about the planet's fertile areas.

"As you all know," Brokken resumed, "the objective of our initial landing is to secure the Telikan population centers." Naturally, she didn't use any such term as ranches. "We believe our ten divisions, spearheaded by the Special Landing Force, will suffice for this purpose, given the Star Wing's success at mapping the locations of these . . . concentrations from orbit." She met Kincaid's eyes-the only non-Telikan eyes in the room. "And, of course, given the tools with which our Terran allies have supplied us."

Kincaid replied to her look with a smile and an inclination of his head which he hoped conveyed his appreciation. At the same time, he found himself wishing Fujiko were present. She would have produced something elegantly diplomatic like . . .

"BuResearch merely acted on the Union Ground Wing's creative suggestion, Pinionmaster," he said.

Not bad, if I do say so myself, he thought as Brokken inclined her own head in acknowledgment. I even remembered to use her rank title. I haven't earned the right-yet-to address her as talnikah.

Still, a stubborn honesty made him admit that he'd merely said what he knew Fujiko would have said. And besides, it was no more than the truth.

The Ground Wing had been deeply impressed by the TFMC's hypervelocity missiles-as Kincaid knew, having been one of those who'd introduced them to the concept. Essentially, the HVM was simply a tiny, man-portable drive coil that could accelerate to a perceptible fraction of light-speed in effectively zero time. In pre-drive-field days, when six or seven thousand meters per second had been recognized as the maximum velocity any material projectile could attain in Old Terra's atmosphere before burning up from fiction, the notion would been self-evidently preposterous. But the HVM could sustain a drive field for the infinitesimal fraction of a second in which its flight time was measured. On impact, with its inconceivable kinetic energy concentrated by the field even as it yielded it up, it needed no warhead.

It wasn't new technology. In fact, it had been around for the better part of a century and a half. But, the Union Ground Wing had innocuously asked, was there any reason why a larger, more powerful version of the same system couldn't be built . . . and used from orbit?

A lot of people in the Federation were still kicking themselves as they wondered why nobody had ever thought of that before.

Maybe Fujiko's right, Kincaid reflected. She'd spoken, in one of their rare unguarded moments, of the way a society suddenly introduced to a more advanced technology could sometimes produce fresh insights on that technology's potential applications. She'd cited her father's ancestral nation on Old Terra, but Kincaid could never remember its name.

Be that as it might, BuResearch had responded with a will, developing the prototype of the kinetic interdiction strike system, or KISS, and putting it into production in time for this offensive by adapting existing small-craft drive coils. True to the "if it works, it's obsolete" philosophy Terran engineers had espoused for the last four centuries, they were already promising a more capable and flexible version. But the Star Union hadn't been disposed to wait.

Brokken punched in a new command, and large-scale maps of the target areas appeared on the room's flat screen.

"You already have the coordinates of your assigned landing zones." Another command, and cross-hatchings marked the LZs. "Talonmaster Voroddon, I assume that your Special Landing Force is ready."

Nanzhwahl Voroddon came to attention, which only brought his head up to a hundred and twenty centimeters. Gender equality was one of the social changes that had overtaken the Telikan diaspora, for the race's once submissive males had demanded-and gotten-the right to join in what Captain Hafezi had once called the jihad against the Demons. It was still unheard of, however, to find one holding a rank equivalent to major general and commanding what amounted to a special forces division-Fujiko had once said something about a "glass ceiling," which Kincaid hadn't understood, history not being exactly his subject. He decided it was safe to assume that Voroddon was one very tough and capable Telikan male.

The Union Ground Wing's divisional organization was much like the TFMC's, and had been even before they'd encountered SF 19. In Terran terminology, each division had three regiments, each consisting of three battalions: one powered combat armor, one light infantry, and one a mix of special weapons and vehicles, most notably armored skimmers. By detaching one powered armor battalion from each of her ten divisions, Brokken had created the equivalent of an overstrength division that was all powered armor, and put Voroddon in charge of forging it into the Special Landing Force that would hit the ground first.

"Yes, Talnikah," the talonmaster replied to her question.

"Excellent." Brokken was a female of the old school, and there was something in her voice and body language that was . . . not "patronizing" or "protective," exactly. Just not quite what it would have been if Voroddon had been female. "After you've secured the landing zones, the subsequent waves will commence their descent, under heavy fighter cover. I will accompany them-as will our liaison officer."

Kincaid ordered himself not to pout. They'd been over this before, and he couldn't really dispute the decision's logic. Still . . .

"I would welcome the opportunity to participate in the initial descent on the surface, Wingmaster."

"I have no doubt of that, Captain Kincaid, and I mean no reflection on your courage. Rather, I speak of political reality. It's out of the question to risk the Terran Federation's observer in the first wave."

"Of course, Wingmaster." Besides, Kincaid admitted to himself, reluctantly and just a little bitterly, I'm not really a Raider. Voroddon doesn't need somebody to nursemaid.

"Very well, then. You all have the detailed operational timetable in your own data files."

Brokken paused. She'd never been given to drama. But, just for a moment, she stepped out of character long enough to lean forward, hold all the other large dark Telikan eyes with her own, and speak the simple sentence they and their exiled ancestors had been waiting a Terran century to hear:

"We're going home."

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