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Chapter 1

The assembly room of the Deep Reconnaissance Team was as utilitarian and sere as the team itself. The walls, floor and ceiling were a matte-gray unmarked plasteel, blank of lockers, tables or any other appurtenances of human existence. There were two doors on opposite walls, both made of heavy plasteel like a bank vault. The materials were as much a matter of safety as security; power packs and ammunition bins did get damaged, and accidents happen. And when accidents happen with the power packs, catastrophic was the mildest word possible.

Nobody wanted the accidents to happen to the troops, either. But better to lose a DRT than a base. Or, at least, that was the opinion of the rest of the base.

Ferret was the first one in the room, carrying a snubby punch gun. Four others followed with grav-guns and assorted personal weapons that were officially unauthorized, but few people were inclined to dispute their right to carry them. Pulsers predominated. There was an extra grenade launcher and a couple of large-caliber pistols also. Dagger came in last, easily swinging his sniper-spec gauss rifle.

They were bantering as they entered, Ferret laughing at Thor for taking on Dagger in a shoot-out. "What, you thinking of trying out for the Olympics?" He laughed again as Thor winced.

Thor's account was lighter by five hundred credits. He'd been sure that with standard weapons he could outshoot Dagger. After all, the sniper's rifle was a hideously expensive and custom piece of equipment that took hours of tuning to set up properly. He would be chagrined at the outcome for days, and could expect to hear it bandied about forever.

Dagger had used a standard grav-rifle, as requested, to put ten rounds in the X ring at five hundred meters as fast as he could pull the trigger, then ten more at a thousand meters nearly as fast. He'd had one flyer at that range, just out of the five and into the four ring. He'd barely taken time to aim, it seemed, and had turned and left the firing line the moment his last round was fired, before any tally showed on the screen. His features hadn't moved until he heard about the flyer, and then had sneered in disgust at himself. The man was inhumanly accurate. It showed in his movements. They were fast but smooth and with never a clumsy bump. Sniping involved stalking as well as shooting, and he was as good at both skills as humans came.

Thor winced again as the rest chuckled. Finally, Gun Doll chimed, "Okay, this is getting boring," and they took the hint and changed subjects.

Dagger still didn't say anything about it as Ferret hit a switch and a set of tables and seats extruded out of the floor. They were sterile gray, just like everything else. Gun Doll eased her lanky frame up against the wall and hit a switch with her elbow—as her hands still cradled a bulky assault cannon—and throbbing music came from all sides. It was one of the abrasive dance tunes she liked, but the volume was quiet enough to prevent complaints. Holograms on the wall flared up, too, displaying unit murals. One of them showed a garish swath of destruction, smashed hovertanks, bent rocket howitzers, crushed combat bots. It started on the left at an insertion pod and terminated on the right at a huge, chiseled NCO wearing the black beret of a DRT commando. His caricature had a heavy grav-gun in his hands, an automatic grenade launcher over one shoulder, a light mortar over the other, knives and hatchets all over his combat harness and a teddy bear sticking out of one pocket. It was captioned, "Excuse me, just passing through." Another showed a drop gone horribly wrong with shattered combat armor scattered all over it, smashed shuttles, artillery still splashing rings of dirt and small killer bots swarming everywhere. At the center was a guy wearing major's tabs, tapping on a long-range communicator. Caption: "I love it when a plan comes together." At that, the artwork was tame compared to pieces that drifted around the nets and were posted on screens here and there, many of them making light of the acronym DRT . . . "Dead Right There." Or sometimes, DRTTT: Dead Right There, There and There. Or the DiRTies. Though few people would say that to one in a bar, unless they were very good friends. Masochism was the prime requirement for recon in nasty territory, so DRTs could take a lot of damage. They could also dish out their share and a bit more.

The chat dulled slightly as they start laying out their weapons and stripping them down for cleaning. The team was filthy with mud, sweat, grime and assorted shredded greenery; the weapons were merely dirty from use. Good troops took care of their weapons because their lives depended on them. Between pirates, feral Posleen still romping around from the war that had almost wiped out humanity and the new Blob menace, these troops expected to see action at any time. The weapons were cared for because they were the difference between life and a cold e-mail to their survivors.

The weapons' receivers were coated with a chameleon surface that assumed the colors and pattern of anything in the vicinity. As they were laid on the table, they shifted to match, becoming all but invisible. Ferret cursed and said, "The surface stays active damned near forever, even when there isn't enough juice left to shoot with." He pressed the surface switch to drop the weapon to neutral gray.

Gorilla, being one of the technical specialists, said, "No, it won't last forever. It will last a while, though. The surface is small and the environment in here doesn't take much shifting. But I wouldn't try to get that long out of an intruder suit. Otoh, it's easier to detect."

Ferret replied, "Teach your granma to suck Posleen; 'The expert scout uses guile and deception rather than relying on technical devices.' " Shrugging his shoulders he turned back to his weapon.

The troops' sure fingers handled the parts without effort, as they would even in the dark. The dull coated barrels with their internal grav drivers and small bores were shoved to the middle of the table and the receivers to the edge, in a standard layout. In the frame of these, smaller parts, trigger assemblies and sights were set in positions personalized by years of practice. The punch guns were rather simple: an energy unit that slid out and wasn't to be messed with and the frame. Each soldier had his or her own favorite layout, but all were clearly the product of the same basic training. Dagger sat off at a table by himself, his sniper rifle being cared for by hands that almost caressed it. Dagger was like that. Always part of the team, always alone.

Thor pulled the breech of his grav-gun and stared into it while waving his glowing light ball across the table and down to illuminate it from the bore. As he inhaled the astringent tang of burned metal wafting from the tube, he cursed at what he saw. The main problem with the weapons was that the ammunition they had used was substandard. The factory-recommended ammunition was depleted uranium coated with a carbon-based witches' brew and charged with a tiny droplet of antimatter. The antimatter droplet was released by a shot of power and then the charge was scavenged from the AM disintegration. However, the Islendian Republic did not have the facilities to produce such sophisticated ammo, so the grav-guns were driven off external packs and most of the rounds used were simple depleted uranium with a graphite coat.

The problem was that at the incredibly high speeds of the rounds, the carbon and then the uranium sublimed and coated the breech and bore of the rifle with a substance that was damned near uranium-carbon alloy. And nearly as hard to get off . . . 

Thor reached into his ruck for a bulb of soda from his "emergency" rations, and paused. "What the hell?" he muttered, finding something hard and not bulb-shaped. He grasped it and pulled it out. It was a rock, about five kilograms' worth. Just a rock.

"You rat bastards," he said disgustedly. It was a running gag. Every time they came back from a mission or a field exercise, some jackass was able to slip a local boulder into his gear. He must have a pile of forty of the damned things in the corner of his barracks room now. No one knew why he kept them. Neither did he, except that they were mementos, sort of. He even had one from Earth.

Everyone laughed aloud, except Dagger, and even he snickered. Gorilla said, "Another rock for your collection, Thor."

"Yeah, yeah. Rocks, concrete core samples from the engineers, always something. Sooner or later someone's going to get me busted for smuggling a Rumakian Sacred Piece of Granite or some shit. And I'll make you guys cough up the duty."

"You'd have to," Ferret said. "Dagger would have all your cash." Everyone laughed at that, even Dagger.

The hazing about the shootout picked up again.

" 'Hi, my name is Thor, and I can't hit the broad side of a warehouse.' "

" 'Dagger, shoot me now before I try to beat you again.' "

" 'Duh, me Thor, me think me shoot straight.' 'Dat's okay, said the young maiden,' not wanting to embarrass him, 'I'm thore too!' "

Dagger said nothing. He didn't need to. Thor said nothing, trying to make them pick something else by being boring.

Ferret made a single comment and shut up. "You better be able to shoot better against the Blobs than against Dagger," which let the conversation segue into a discussion of what the next mission might be. There was no question that the next mission would be against the Blobs. There were few other threats currently, and none that required the special skills of DRTs. The question was whether it would be a raid, a recon, another casualty-racking attempt at a snatch or some new vac-brained plan from the whiz kids on the Strategic Staff.

The so-called Blobs, the Tslek, were a recent enemy to the loose federation of planets that made up the Islendian Confederation. They were dark, soft creatures with no fixed form, that extended pseudopods for manipulation. So far, not many humans had seen a Tslek up close. At least not to report back afterwards. Several remote colonies had been lost, their administrative centers smashed into incandescent vapor by what were reported as kinetic weapons but seemed to pack more energy than simple rock falls. As with nukes and antimatter weapons, such devices were forbidden among the civilized races, especially among humans. The shock of the attacks had rippled through space with the first reports. Reconnaissance and special operations craft had been sent out to determine the nature of the threat. Some had come back.

The Tslek occupied an undetermined number of planetary systems near the fringe of human exploration. So far the humans had only found one planet that had a Blob "civilian" presence. Or at least a moderately large presence, because it was difficult to tell the difference between Blobs that were military and civilian. The human task force commander had dropped a series of kinetic strikes in retaliation and retreated. At the moment the situation was something like a "phony war" with both sides probing forward. One could get just as dead in a phony war as a real one, though. The front was insubstantial and shifting, but very real.

So far the Blobs had gotten the best of it; the frontiers in that direction had been hammered with millions of dead colonists as a result. If, or more accurately, when a Blob raiding force got through to the more heavily populated worlds the civilian casualties would be enormous; on the order of billions.

There were indications from scouting ships that the Blobs were planning on attacking towards the Core worlds with a large fleet. The humans were grudgingly willing to accept the casualties that came with this; the normal technique was to let a group attack then slash in behind them with light forces and sever their supply lines. But the line of advance was the question. While Earth and the Core might not care, the Islendian Republic didn't wish to be the route used.

The Blobs apparently had the same needs as humans: hydrogen to refuel their ships, spare parts, oxygen and water and fresh food. They also used the same drive systems as humans, the low energy "valley drive" that would take ships from system to system along "valleys" between stars called transit lanes and the "tunnel drive," originally introduced to the humans and their allies by the enemy Posleen, which at enormous energy cost could "tunnel" at hyperluminal speed through any region of space. This meant that from time to time they had to resupply with hydrogen for their valley drives and antimatter for their tunnel drives, besides taking on other consummables. Some of that could be brought forward by resupply ships. But some of it, fuel especially, was more efficiently gathered along the way. It still made more sense to have ships resupply on food rather than "grow their own"; plants took up space that could be used for ammo and "legs" and weren't as efficient at cleaning the air as recycling systems.

For all these reasons the Blobs were going to need an advanced base on their line of march. It would have certain requirements: it would have to have more than one good transit lane, it would need a Jovian-type planet for fuel and it would probably possess a terrestrial planet with signs of Blob agriculture.

The Blobs didn't strictly need a system with an Earth-like class planet, but that was the way to bet. Not only did it permit areas to grow and process food without the expense of domes and other necessities on moons but it permitted crew rest in decent conditions. The biosphere also was a remarkably good cloaking material for all the normal methods of detection; it meant atmosphere to deflect particles and other life signs to disappear among.

The Blobs did not appear to be stupid and they seemed to use the same general logic system as humans. That meant that they were as aware of the needs as the humans. And they would guess that the humans would know this. So they were probably prepared for a reconnaissance of some sort.

The missions related to this might be very nasty, brutish and short. The team knew this, and tried to avoid admitting it by joking around the subject. Any mission could be their last, and current events were less than promising. A couple of teams had disappeared lately. Nobody knew where they went, or what had happened; they weren't on the need-to-know list about other team mission. They simply received the bald reports that team such-and-so was "missing; presumed lost."

While the team discussed missing comrades, the team commander showed up. He was a familiar enough sight, working with them daily as he did, and standing orders were not to waste time saluting unless a field grade officer was along. They were formal enough for discipline, relaxed enough for camaraderie. What made the team stiffen their postures and grow instantly quiet was the strange creature accompanying the captain. It was a sight almost never seen to human eyes: a Darhel. In uniform.

The group instinctively bristled. Even after almost a millennium of contact the Darhel were not popular. They had once been virtual slavemasters of the human race. They still had the reputation of being dishonorable, untrustworthy Shylocks. The few humans who dealt with them found them to be as shifty as sand and mean as rattlesnakes; they seemed to take great pleasure not just in making money but in screwing people while they did so. While none of the team had dealt directly with Darhel before, they all knew the stories.

Bringing warnings of the Posleen, voracious interstellar beings who stripped planets as locusts do fields, the Darhel had provided technology and weapons to humanity in exchange for human strategic expertise. That technology had been rationed out in such a fashion that, while the Posleen had been stopped, casualties among the inadequately equipped human forces had been horrific. The Darhel always insisted this had been unavoidable and due to logistical issues, but no one could miss that the end result was a loss of eighty percent of the human race and nearly a century of the remainder being used as mercenaries and pawns, while those "relocated for safety" during the war had wound up as scattered refugees assimilated into alien societies, with a near total loss of their human thought processes. The Darhel, of course, had graciously helped humanity rebuild and resettle Earth, at "reasonable cost," said cost being set by the Darhel. It was not a history to inspire trust. Nor had they actually shared technology—most of what humans had acquired had been reverse engineered from the little that had survived the war.

In the end, of course, it had turned out to be a grievous mistake on the part of the Darhel. They should have either left humanity to its own devices or dealt with it fairly. When it became clear that they had done neither humanity's response had been . . . human. Some of the Darhel had survived the sporadic programs of extermination practiced by the survivor states. Some.

This Darhel was pale and translucent of skin with cat-pupiled eyes. Most had green or purple irises, this one's were purple with a bare turquoise tinge at the edges. His face was typical of Darhel, narrow and reminiscent of a fox's. His hair resembled that of humans and was the usual silvery black rather than the metallic gold tones seen more rarely. "Gold" and "silver" regarding Darhel hair meant exactly what the words said; the hair was not blond. Darhel had pointed ears that tended to twitch under stress, and sharklike teeth. They didn't smile much. They looked, in fact, like classical fantasy Elves. This one wasn't twitching in stress, and bore an practiced closed-lip smile of greeting. By its eyes, the smile could mean anything . . . or nothing.

To make matters worse, the Darhel wore gunny's stripes. The question was, had he earned them from politicking, as a reward to his Shylock skills, or the hard way, from operating in the field? Almost unnoticed amid the other shocks, he wore the badge of a sensat above his left pocket.

After thousands of years of striving, humans were finally starting to make actual strides in extrasensory perception. The military, especially, had started using them for a variety of purposes. Very few could "read minds" but many of them could sense emotions even at a distance. A few could get a vague sense of the future.

There were the expected prejudices against them. Despite the fact that few could sense, much less decipher, actual thoughts, everyone feared them for that potential ability to delve into the private recesses of the mind. Every sentient being that the humans had met had thoughts that they preferred not see the light of day. Thus, most found sensats uncomfortable companions. Most sensats, in fact, could just barely sense emotions and occasionally very strong and focused thoughts. They might get a vision of the last thing a dying person saw for instance. That didn't make people any happier.

A few were found on the Deep Recon teams. Generally they were empaths who could do things like spot an ambush by the "lying in wait" emotions of the attackers. The Blobs were detectable by the sensats. Indeed, because sensats could detect a Blob kilometers away, the Tslek apparently used extrasensory perception as a normal means of communication.

"Welcome back. I hope it was a good exercise?" the captain greeted them. There was an automatic but halfhearted flurry of mumbles and "sir"s as the team all but ignored him to stare at the Darhel.

The captain had been prepared for that response, and rather than waste time, said, "Let me introduce Tirdal San Rintai." The Darhel nodded at the introduction and waited patiently. "Tirdal is a limited empath, a Class Two, and has completed the qual course for DRT sensat with a secondary skill of medic. He will be accompanying you on the upcoming mission."

There were mutters and barely audible comments, which reached the surface when Dagger said, "No offense, sir, Tirdal"—with a faint nod at the Darhel—"but we've been a team for a long time and operate well together. We don't need unfamiliar personnel in our ranks at the start of a mission, with no prep or training time. It's more likely to screw things up than help."

The captain fixed Dagger with a stare. "You think so, do you? You know what the mission is, then?" Before Dagger could even shake his head, he continued, riding over any other arguments that lurked beneath the surface. "Well, here's the facts: We have a warning order for an insertion on a possible Blob planet, to recover intel and possibly artifacts and prisoners. The only team that ever made it back from one of those had a sensat along. So we are taking a sensat. Period. Tirdal is available, trained and has Level Four sensat scores. He's going with us. Is that all right with you, Sergeant?" His emphasis while staring at Dagger made it clear he was tiring of Dagger's questioning on every mission order. The man could shoot like nobody's business, and outstalk a cheetah, but his regard for authority left much to be desired.

Dagger stared back, firmly though not obviously defiantly, and said firmly, "Understood, sir. Tirdal, welcome to the team."

At that, Tirdal finally betrayed action, stepping forward to shake hands. "I greet you, Dagger. I'm sure we can work together." His voice was sonorous and deep and his grip solid as Dagger took it. Then it was more than solid, a strong, crushing grasp, accompanied by a violet and cyan stare that locked with his eyes and seemed to look through them into the brain behind.

Dagger pressed down on the hand, hard. Besides being a multiplanet classed shot he was one of the strongest men on a team of very strong men. But he couldn't budge the Darhel's grip. After a moment he felt the Darhel start to press down and it was like having his hand in the grip of a mechanical press. After a moment's struggle his face finally betrayed a flicker of pain and the Darhel, smiling again, faintly, released the pressure.

Dagger didn't betray any surprise outwardly, despite what he felt inside at Tirdal's disturbing presence and strength. "Yeah, no problem," he muttered, trying not to shake his hand in reaction to the pain.

"I look forward to working with you," Tirdal said with a nod, his vertical pupilled eyes never leaving the face of the sniper.

The others shook hands and introduced themselves. Tirdal nodded to each in turn, saying almost nothing else.

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