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Chapter 8

Ft. Indiantown Gap, PA, United States of America, Sol III
1023 EDT June 6
th, 2004 ad

"Does he ever lighten up?" asked Lieutenant Nightingale as she stepped onto the covered porch of the company headquarters. Tall and greyhound thin, the blonde XO had just been the victim of an O'Neal smoking. She now took a moment in the shade out of sight of the troops to regain her composure.

"I don't think so," said Lieutenant Arnold, her fellow sufferer. The tall, balding thirty-two-year-old weapons platoon leader shook his head.

Until the arrival of the second draft, he had been the executive officer of Bravo Company. He knew exactly how stringent their commander's standards were. He had come to grips with them. Teri, on the other hand, was having problems.

In the captain's eyes, the faults of the two lieutenants were too numerous to list.

The job of an executive officer was usually to ensure that the unit was functioning smoothly first and learn to be a company commander second. O'Neal, however, had put "tuning" the company in the lap of their extremely competent first sergeant and insisted that Nightingale become as competent as he was at maneuvering the company in combat. She had thus far failed miserably.

She was having a hard time adjusting her command style to combat troops. The gentle cajoling that worked well with the techs who had been in her previous intelligence company was perceived as weakness by grunts. She also seemed to have no tactical sense at all. The fact that she was for all practical purposes a neophyte was beside the point. From Captain O'Neal's uncluttered point of view she was one heartbeat away from having his company in her hands and either she could cut the mustard or she could not.

In Arnold's case, the new weaponry and employment techniques were the problem. He was having to adjust to ranges of fire and maneuver he had previously never considered. At the same time he was overseeing the training of troops in a variety of weapons beyond their dreams.

The military had learned some lessons on Diess and Barwhon, and the ACS weapons platoons now packed so much firepower they were jokingly referred to as the Grim Reapers. They had initially been deployed with 75mm automortars and terawatt lasers. Diess had proven that the standard suit grenade systems were superior to the automortars at short ranges while the lasers were too bulky and awkward for the sort of rapid movement ACS had adopted. The mortars and lasers were effectively retired, but in their wake came a diversity of suit-mounted special weapons. From this diversity the platoon leader was supposed to choose which would be appropriate for the probable mission. Since no mission ever went as planned, there were far more wrong choices than right.

If the probable mission was indirect fire-support, the platoon packed individual multimortars. These were enhanced grenade launchers and each weapon-suit packed four: one on each shoulder and one on each arm. They threw 60mm rounds up to five miles with pinpoint accuracy and had fourteen separate munition types from which to choose.

The basic munition was a standard high-explosive (HE) round that could be set for airburst, surface detonation or delay. The weapons graded up from there through "enhanced conventional munitions," i.e., cluster bombs, to antimatter rounds with a "soft kill" radius larger than the range of the mortar. Thus any unarmored humans, or Posleen, in the immediate area of the mortar platoon would be fried if these were used. Unfortunately, for everyone involved, these heavy weapons suits could run through the available onboard rounds in twenty seconds. The "Reapers" joked that they all needed one platoon of grunts apiece, just to carry ammunition.

If the probable mission was close support there were three separate weapons systems to chose from, depending on how close and how personal. The simplest was a set of super shotguns with multiple types of rounds from which to choose. From there it got complicated.

Unfortunately each suit could only mount one type of weapon and choosing the right weapons mix could make or break an engagement. The Old Man was actually beginning to perfect some beautiful sucker moves for the playbook that involved the heavy weapons platoon. But they required that the platoon leader be able to read his mind. As the playbook got firmed up it might be a little easier but in the meantime there were far more wrong mixes than right.

"Well, I don't care what anybody says," continued Nightingale, angrily, "there's such a thing as— What the hell is that?" she broke off.

"Those are Indowy, I think," said Arnold seriously.

Outside the headquarters the Pennsylvania summer sun stirred up the yard of the company area in playful dust devils. Emerging from the swirling dust was a group of squat green humanoids. Looking superficially like fat children, their coloring derived from a chlorophyllic symbiont that wavered across their lightly clad skin like green fur. Their faces were nightmarishly batlike but their eyes were large and round, giving them an ingenuous expression that actually went well with their personalities. In their midst they towed a large crate on an anti-grav dolly.

"No, that. It looks like a coffin," said Nightingale.

"Little coffin," commented Arnold. Neither of them had ever seen the traveling carton for an armored combat suit.

The nine Indowy were led by an individual with somewhat more ornamentation, but otherwise indistinguishable to the pair of officers. When the lead Indowy reached the bottom of the rickety metal stairs leading to the company headquarters it stopped and bowed. The following Indowy set the box down and shuffled nervously.

"Is this the clan of the most illustrious Michael O'Neal?" The AID translation was in a higher pitch than the two were used to, almost off the audible scale.

Arnold nudged Nightingale.

"Yes," she said. "Yes, it is. I am Lieutenant Nightingale," she continued more firmly, "his second-in-command."

"I bear a gift from my master, the Indowy Aenaol," said the leader with a deep bow. At a gesture the remaining Indowy righted the sarcophagus and touched a button. The box opened to reveal a small combat suit that sported some notable modifications from the standard command suit.

The first thing the officers noticed was the ornamentation. The suit was covered in complex designs that at first appeared to be three-dimensional, an absolute no-no when dealing with penetrating fire. On closer examination they appeared to be holograms somehow incorporated into the armor. There were some elegant fins running down the arms and legs that might help with heat dissipation, a major fault of most combat suits. The helmet was formed into the face of some sort of demon or horrific alien creature, smooth to the front with pointed demon-ears and fangs dangling nearly to the suit's chest. Both arms sported underarm daggers and more weapons peeped from unlikely places. It appeared that if it was surrounded the whole suit might start blasting. More of the company were gathering around to look at the apparition as First Sergeant Pappas stepped through the door.

"Okay, what the hell is . . . that?" the tall, Herculean Samoan NCO said, uncharacteristically dumbfounded.

"The captain's new suit, Top," chuckled Arnold. "Why don't you go get him?"

Mike walked through the door a moment later to the relief of the Indowy team, who were becoming nervous at being surrounded by humans. For the Indowy, dealing with humans had much the same effect as a human dealing with a tiger. The trainer can tell you all day it is harmless, but once you're in the cage it is just a damn big carnivore.

"Top, clear these people out," Mike said, instantly analyzing the situation. He turned a bit of dip between his lip and gum, then spat in the dust to the side of the porch.

"What the hell does this look like, a fuckin' circus?" the first sergeant said, rounding on the first NCO in sight. "Sergeant Stewart! Move your squad out of here before I find something useful for you rag-bags to do! What? None of you have anything better to do? Maybe we need to GI a few barracks?" The crowd rapidly dispersed leaving only the captain, the lieutenants and the first sergeant.

"Indowy Aelool, taon, I see you," said Mike, making a fractional bow. He had not dealt with any Indowy since Diess, but he had kept current with the position of the human military ranks in the complex hierarchy of the Federation. However, the decorations marked the Indowy as a senior craftsman. As a Fleet Strike captain Mike outranked the Indowy by several degrees despite the fact that it might command thousands of Indowy. In the Federation scheme of things, Indowy had incredibly low caste.

O'Neal was not certain but he suspected the senior craftsman was a transfer/neuter. That Indowy sex had a natural advantage career-wise, since they were only peripherally involved in childbirth; they also were a strong political force within the Indowy ranks. That made his assignment to a fitting team unusual to say the least. Mike would have expected a lower-rank female craftsman.

"Inspired Lord O'Neal, I see you," the Indowy intoned.

"Inspired Lord?" asked Mike. It was an Indowy rank equivalent to a clan leader; he was not aware that it was ever bestowed on non-Indowy. He could not immediately determine a human equivalent, but there was rarely more than one per planet, sometimes none on a minor planet.

"It was the determination of the grouped clans that such would be your rank among the Indowy, henceforth until time should end. Never has one done so much for so many. I grieve that no greater lord than my humble self could greet you as fit."

"I understand the difficulty." And he did. The Darhel would probably look poorly on this example of Indowy independent thought. "But," he continued determinedly, "the success on Diess was the result of the actions of many."

"So you have said, repeatedly," the Indowy Master agreed. "Yet the strategy for success did not exist until you showed your own commanders the Way. The forces necessary for success were freed by the action of men under your command. The final action, protecting the assembling defenses by single-handed destruction of a command ship, was not done by others." It wrinkled its jowls, an Indowy head shake. "Your humility is in keeping with the finer traits of the humans, but it is false. Argue not, you are an Inspired Lord, in thought as well as deed.

"In keeping with your new assumption," it continued, "it was found mete to gift you with this token of our gratitude. A free gift, freely given as you gave so freely to our brothers." He gestured grandly at the suit. "It incorporates every aspect of suit design that you called for, that was possible to construct."

"Power source?" asked Mike glancing quickly at the suit. He moved the bit of dip to the side as a slight smile violated his face.

"Class Two antimatter reactor, as you specified. Equivalent to a five-kiloton antimatter warhead, but small enough to armor against almost any strike. Just such a warhead could go off next to the armor and not penetrate the energy core, so strongly is it protected."

"Armor?" Mike asked on a rising tone.

"Sixty-millimeter frontal monomolecular uranium-silicon alloy with energetic reinforcement. The energetic reinforcement is logarithmically autocontrolled against nonrelativistic–velocity projectiles. As the round comes closer to a penetrating angle, the deflection energy increases logarithmically."

Mike stepped gingerly down the steps and ran his hand down the front of the suit. "Inertial systems?"

"Two hundred eighty gravities with full lift and drive, seven inertial sump points. Sorry," he said with a shrug. The gesture was shared by Indowy and humans. "It was the best the Tchpth could do."

Mike turned with a closed-mouth smile—he knew what the sight of teeth did to the Indowy—and gleaming eyes. "Tell the Indowy that I accept with thanks!"

"Umm, sir?" interjected Nightingale.

"Yes, Lieutenant?"

"Is that legal? I mean, isn't there some law against it?" she asked.

"No," he responded definitively. His face was quite closed as he turned slightly to spit out another stream of tobacco juice.

"Sir? I mean, conflict of interest? And gifts from contractors? I know there are Army regulations, sir." She finished with a moue of distaste. He was the commander and could have any filthy habit he wanted to have. But he could at least have the decency to keep it private. Her former unit had a zero-tolerance tobacco policy.

"There aren't any in the Federation laws, Lieutenant. None at all," said the Indowy Master. "We checked quite carefully, and it is entirely within the agreed-upon structure for the Federation Armed Forces remuneration process. Also, since it is a necessary piece of equipment for the captain's function, it is not taxed."

"Oh." The group of officers and NCOs shared looks. The Indowy had just handed their captain nearly half a billion credits worth of suit, untaxed. In perspective, an Indowy junior craftsman earned less than five credits a month.

"Again, my thanks," Mike said to the Indowy.

"It is little. My team will be staying to fit your clan. I guarantee you the best fitting possible."

"Why don't you come inside out of the dust and we can talk," said Mike, gesturing towards the headquarters. "There are a few things I've been hoping to talk to a good technician about."

"Thank you. And my team?"

"Top," O'Neal said.

"Right you are, sir. Beds for the Indowy, coming right up. I think a trailer to themselves?"

"Reading my mind again, Top."

"Yes, sir," said the darkly tanned mountain with a smile. "That and training is what NCOs is for."

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