Table of Contents
The Confederation Novels:
A CONFEDERATION OF VALOR omnibus:
VALOR'S CHOICE | THE BETTER PART OF VALOR
THE HEART OF VALOR
SMOKE AND SHADOWS
SMOKE AND MIRRORS
SMOKE AND ASHES
THE QUARTER NOVELS, VOL 1 omnibus:
SING THE FOUR QUARTERS | FIFTH QUARTER
THE QUARTERED SEA
The Keeper's Chronicles:
SUMMON THE KEEPER
THE SECOND SUMMONING
LONG HOT SUMMONING
OF DARKNESS, LIGHT, AND FIRE
WIZARD OF THE GROVE omnibus
CHILD OF THE GROVE | THE LAST WIZARD
Copyright Â© 2008 by Tanya Huff.
All Rights Reserved.
DAW Book Collectors No. 1442.
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eISBN : 978-1-4406-3918-0
For Mike Glicksohn.
Who has the very first book I ever signed. (I spelled my own name wrong.) Whose friendship has been a constant touchstone for the last thirty years. (Possibly twenty-nine, but who's counting.) Who was pretty much entirely responsible for the Mictok when he requested “death by giant spider.”' (Okay, so technically they were only obliquely at fault for Sergeant Glicksohn's death but still . . . )
It's about time he got one just for him.
“GUNNERY SERGEANT KERR!
Good to have you back!” “Good to be back, Sergeant Hollice.” Torin thumbprinted the release that would send her gear straight to her quarters and fell into step beside the sergeant as they crossed the shuttle bay. “And congratulations on the promotion.” Adrian Hollice had been in her squad when she was a sergeant and then, when she made staff sergeant, her platoon. She'd fast-tracked him onto his SLC and had been pleased to see her decision justified when Command had given him his third hook. Not that she needed reassurance that she'd been rightâthese days, she needed reassurance that Command didn't have its head so far up its collective ass it was cutting off all oxygen to its collective brain. “The squad have any trouble getting used to it?”
“Not after Ressk and Mashona knocked a couple of heads together. They said I'd been leading them around by the
for months anyway, I might as well get paid for it.”
Torin grinned. The Corps tried to keep combat units together when it could. Familiar faces strengthened both stability and loyalty under adverse conditions, and Marines had their own ways of working through the disruptions promotions brought.
“The captain was a little afraid they were going to send you to Recar'ta HQ,” Hollice told her as they stepped onto the lower beltway.
“So was I.” After Crucible, after she'd been detanked with her jaw rebuilt, after she'd passed the physical and psych evaluations that followedany major reconstruction, Torin had asked to be returned to Sh'quo Company. They were short NCOs and, as she'd pointed out, she'd be wasted in a staff position. Although the Corps reserved the right to send her wherever the hell it pleased, both points were inarguable and she'd been sent home. It hadn't hurt that the Commandant of the Corps had agreed with herâalthough
wasted in a staff position
had not been the phrase used.
“The last thing we need around here is someone else who thinks she's always right,”
had been the gist of the Commandant's observations.
Given the hour, the lower beltway was nearly deserted.
“They've started sweeping our Division.” Hollice stood self-consciously erect as they rode toward the heart of the station. “Started at First Recar'ta, of course, so the war could bloody well be over before they get to us at Fourth. Scuttlebutt says they haven't found anything yet.”
He tugged at his collar tabs, and Torin hid a smile at the telltale sign. In a poker game, he'd have been bluffing. In a conversation, he was trying to draw her out. This was why he'd come to meet her; she'd been with the recon team on Big Yellowâthe alien spaceship that had turned out to be the actual alien, or aliens, the terminology remained uncertainâlater, she'd initiated the investigation into why nobody remembered Big Yellow's missing escape pod and had most recently spoken to a collective of the alien on Crucible. Granted, melting her jaw during a last-ditch attempt to override a reprogrammed OpSat had meant she'd been tanked during the initial
There are aliens among us!
hysteria, and she'd missed the development of the search protocols, but she was the closest thing to an authority in the Sector.
“You think they will, Gunny?” Hollice prodded. “Find anything, I mean?”
“Find bits of a polynumerous shape-shifting, organic plastic alien that boots through our security protocols like cheddar through a H'san?” Torin asked him blandly. “One that can separate into submicroscopic pieces to avoid detection and then recombine itself back to sentience when the danger has passed? I very much doubt it.” Search protocols and calming announcements from the Elder Races be damned. “Not unless it wants to be found.”
She had to admire the dryness of his delivery. He'd deserved that promotion. “Not really.”
“What does it want?”
“It told me it was collecting data.”
“So it seems.”
“No idea. We may never know.” Little pieces of plastic were ubiquitous thoughout Confederation space. The alien could be a part of any of them. It could
any of them. It could mimic other materials, and while the parts they'd most recently been in contact with had been gray, Big Yellow proved rather conclusively that didn't have to be the case. The handrail on the beltway could be recording data for the alienâas the alienâwhile she passed. Torin, by career choice and disposition more paranoid than most, had made a conscious decision not to think about that.
“It could make us all forget it was ever here,” Hollice pointed out, his voice fraying a bit around the edges.
“Not all of us, Hollice.”
He turned, stared at her for a moment, and smiled. “That's right. It can't mess with your head.”
“Took a look inside and was scared off. It wants to get to Sh'quo Company, it'll have to get through me.” Which was both the truth and complete bullshit since she had no more way of stopping the alien, singly or collectively, than she had of convincing the Navy that a straight line was the shortest distance between two points. But it was bullshit Hollice needed to hear and bullshit he needed to repeat to his squad. Or maybe it was the part of the statement that was the truth he needed to repeat. Whatever worked.
messed with her head. Hadn't adjusted her memories of the escape pod the way it had adjusted the memories of nearly everyone else who'd been involved in the exploration of Big Yellow.
were two totally different things.
The shortage of NCOs meant that Torin had only to put in a request to the station sysop to have her old quarters reassigned. The recon mission to Big Yellow had been a temporary posting, but the promotion before traveling to Ventris to brief Command on the Silsviss had destroyed the certainty of a round-trip ticketâintegrating an aggressive reptilian species into the Corps would take decades, and she'd essentially been responsible for their willingness to join. That made her, if not an expert on the species, someone whose opinion Command intended to exploit. Fortunately, new information from the Marines stationed at the embassy on Silsviss had pushed her experience out toward the edge of the target. Some of those Marines were trained xenopsychologists rather than a noncom with good instincts and a willingness to kick ass when required, and, more importantly, none of them had been expected to kill a senior officer.
Torin suspected a few people were concerned because they still weren't sure if she'd have gone through with it had General Morris' sacrifice actually been necessary. She supposed it didn't help that when asked directly she'd said,
“As it wasn't necessary, I guess we'll never know.”
Which was the absolute truth; it wasn't something anyone could know until it happenedâno matter what they believed themselves capable of.
Her willingness to hack Major Svensson's arm off with an ax hadn't reassured anyone.
When she dialed the door open, her quarters looked just as she remembered them, right down to the Silsviss skull hanging on the wall over her entertainment unit. Weird. When she'd left for Ventris, she'd put everything she wasn't taking with her into station storage.
“Messages?” she asked as the door slid shut behind her.
She'd verbalized, so the station did the same. “One message to Gunnery Sergeant Kerr from Staff Sergeant Greg Reghubir. As follows: “Welcome back, Gunny. We figured the last thing you'd need to do was sort your crap out, so we did it for you. Lance Corporal Ressk says you need stronger encryptions on your storage unit.” Greg sounded matter-of-fact, but Torin would have bet hard currency that he'd changed his own unit's setting immediately after he saw what Ressk could do with an eight-digit code. “Twenty-thirty tonight in the SRM; don't be late, or we'll start without you.”
Torin patted the skull fondly as she passed on her way to the shower. It was good to be home.