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Chapter One

Covered in sweat and blood
Yet still our heads held high
Actions have consequences
When you live for foolish pride


—Atreyu, "Honor"


Sunday, December 20, 2054

Major General Mike O'Neal rolled his AID, then slapped it onto his wrist forming a band. Slapped it on hard.


"Hey," Shelly said. "Don't take this out on me!"


"Sorry," Mike said grumpily.


He was intensely bored. Bored of gaming, bored of reading newsfeeds, bored of reading, period. Bored of watching movies, TV and every other form of video broadcast. Porn just wasn't his style but he'd even watched some of that. And found it very boring indeed.


In part it was his own fault. When he'd been recalled to Earth and boarded his first Fleet vessel he had treated the Fleet officers with even more disdain than usual. Fleet had, year by year, sunk lower and lower in his opinion. The officers were slovenly and corrupt, the sailors were abysmal and the only reason the ships operated at all was that they were Indowy made and damned hard to break. He'd never been the diplomatic type and his dislike of Fleet was displayed by saying he'd be in his cabin. An orderly, or whatever you called it in the Fleet, brought his meals, he made trips to the tiny gym and that was that. For the last five months the only time he'd spoken to a living soul was at starports.


The rest of it wasn't on him. First of all there was the fact of five months on board ships. That was just insane. These weren't even the bulk transports they'd used in the first part of the war. These were Fleet vessels, the fastest in the universe. But between having to hunt from star system to star system and tween-jump transits, not to mention jump transits, it just took forever to get to Earth from out on the edge of the Blight.


Then there was the recall. It read damned near as relief. Just a simple order to turn over command of the First Division to his assistant division commander and return to Earth. No clue as to why, no incoming division commander. Nada.


So five months of not speaking to a living soul and worrying, any time he let it get past his iron self-control, about what the orders meant.


Probably it meant a staff job on Earth. He'd done them. It wasn't his favorite job by a long shot but he could do the deal. But that begged the question why there wasn't an incoming division commander. And if it was just a staff job they'd probably have said that in the orders along with "and General So-And-So will be along at some point to take over the Division."


It could be forcible retirement. But Fleet Strike didn't have an "up or out" policy. To avoid the cronyism that was destroying Fleet, positions were purely merit based. To get his division, some younger brigadier would have to show that he was better at running the division than Mike. They rotated potential commanders in from time to time, shuffling the commander off to a staff position or sideways. But most of the time the new commanders, after a reasonable time to learn the job, went back to a lower rank or wherever they hell they'd come from. Mike and Major General Adam Lee Michie had been running divisions of the ACS corps for nigh on thirty years. Some time in and out but mostly in command. Mongo Radabaugh was the junior, having beaten out Bob Tasswell about five years ago to take over one of the division commander's slots.


Mike probably could have taken Corps at some point if he wanted it. George Driver was an excellent corps commander, no question. But Mike figured he had the edge. Thing was, Corps wasn't his style. It was a thankless job since the divisions were spread across a sizeable chunk of the galaxy clearing Posleen worlds. Corps Command was based on Avauglin, a marginally habitable "recovered" world about sixty light-years, and a month transit, from Earth.


The divisions, though, moved as a unit, lived as a unit, dropped as a unit. Mike knew every guy in the division, more or less. Hell, with the way that the ACS hadn't been restocking, First Division wasn't much larger than a brigade. One of the things he planned on bringing up whatever the reason that he'd been brought back to Earth. Surely they could get some ACS restock. It was getting as bad as back in the Siege . . .


And here he was stuck in the loop. Again!


"Shelly, time to Titan orbit?"


"One hour and twenty-three minutes, General," the AID said liltingly. "You did well, this time. Six minutes and seventeen seconds from the last time you asked. That's up from your mean of three."


"Iron self-control, Shelly," Mike said. "Iron self-control."


"Message from General Wesley's AID," Shelly said. "You're on another shuttle from Titan to Fredericksburg immediately after landing. Quote: Get some sleep on the shuttle; briefings immediately on landing so you can quit asking Shelly what's going on. The answer is good news and bad. Close quote."


"My iron self-control is clearly well known," Mike said.


 


To human eyes, the Ghin was an average-looking Darhel. To human eyes, Darhel fur looked metallic gold or metallic silver, with black traces threading through it, and the Galactic's eyes a vivid green in a white sclera, laced with purple veining.


There were no humans in the office. The Tchpth who was present saw the Ghin in a rather different light. The eyes, so vivid to humans, were rather dull; but the fur glinted brightly, like the color play across anodized titanium.


"I greet you, Phxtkl. Thank you for granting me the favor of a game," the Ghin said.


"It is always a pleasure to instruct, O merely expert student of aethal."


The Tchpth bounced rapidly upon its ten legs, tapping in a sequence that was either arhythmic or too complicated for the Darhel to decode. No one knew if the Tchpth meant to give offense or not when they used blunt descriptors in speaking to others. Since they were similarly descriptive with their own, more often than not, and still seemed to interact in a functional way, the other Galactics had decided that tact was absent from the Tchpth makeup.


It didn't matter. Tact was no part of the Ghin's purpose today. He made no further commentary, but merely moved to the aethal table in the center of the room. Pieces were positioned within a holographic display.


"I wished to start from this position and play out the problem, if you would."


"You are placing me in a position of much advantage, although you are allowing yourself much opportunity. Are you sure you wish to choose this starting configuration?"


"Yes. Very sure."


"This is quite likely to be in my critique at the end of the game."


"I understand. Perhaps better than you realize."


"Ah. So you have a purpose in your choice. You make the game interesting. And, of course, your problem draws from existing conditions, with much variation."


"Of course. Many problems and configurations may arise in the game," the Ghin offered.


"Within reason, O erring and insufficiently experienced student," the Tchpth said.


Their play proceeded at a dignified rate, Phxtkl withholding commentary for most of the game, as was his custom. He would wait until major crises in a problem emerged before lecturing on errors and the alternate options which a lower ranked opponent might have selected.


Merely rating high expert in the game, the Ghin was not ranked in the Galactic standings. Tchpth and Indowy masters played him on request out of deference to his position, but equally from what the humans would call the "waltzing bear" factor. Very few Darhel treated aethal with anything other than tolerant contempt, as a meaningless distraction from the realities of power and commerce. Intangible relationships had power only so long as they were honored. Darhel only honored relationships as stipulated by contract, rendering the alliances and intricacies of aethal meaningless from their point of view. Or, more accurately, irrelevant to their own lives.


The game drew to a crisis, a positioning almost certain to weaken the Ghin's position enormously and, by extension, grossly distort the interactions of Phxtkl's pieces in an unfavorable way.


"Now it is time for my comment, O arrogant slave to physical items." The master highlighted a section of the display in a red haze. "Observe this section and how it is now cut off from the influence of your web, held by only the tiniest of threads, the minimum connection that never ends. It may seem an insignificant set of resources, but look at the potential." The Tchpth pointed to various nexus pieces above the table. "Despite the loss of face here, here, and here, or the losses in several of your tertiary relationships, this was a critical play."


"I see that. I will set up an alternate problem for just a moment," the Ghin said. He had no worry of losing the current game which was, of course, saved in his AID. If Phxtkl was surprised that the referenced alternate problem was already crafted and saved, he gave no sign, bouncing and tapping upon his low stool as always.


"Here is a starting problem. You will see the relationship to a recent past current Galactic situation. Here is the current situation. You see, of course, the likely moves if no sacrifices are made to alter the web."


The alien creature was silent for a long few moments, looking at the three displays. "I disagree with a number of the particulars of the various patterns, but . . . your overall point is taken. Isolation is loss of influence. Avoiding that is worth much. Worth enough, in this case." Phxtkl was still for a few seconds, in his species' equivalent of a deep, martyred sigh. "This is one of the least enjoyable games of aethal I have ever played, O intriguing schemer of much age. Today, I have been the student; unpleasantly so. I must make some necessary social sacrifices to continue the movement you have begun just now. I wish you success, O annoying one, and I leave."


"Leave for Earth." The Ghin was uncharacteristically blunt. "You have something to repair."


 


Her silver-blond hair framed her face, drawing attention to the startlingly intense, cornflower-blue eyes. Other than a subconscious awareness of the soft brushing against her face and neck as she walked, her hair was the last thing on Cally O'Neal's mind as she rubbed sweaty palms on her jeans before entering Monsignor Nathan O'Reilly's secular sanctum sanctorum.


"Cally. Good, you're here. Can I get you some water or a soft drink?" the priest inquired gently.


Uh-oh. Whenever the leader of the O'Neal Bane Sidhe started out with the kind and gentle routine, you knew you were in for it. Not that it was her fault. At least, she didn't think there was anything serious going on that was her fault. She was a bit late on her expense report for the last mission, but she'd think he'd give her some slack for blowing it off over Christmas. She had had a feeling something was wrong, but this was obviously more serious than she had thought. She allowed a wrinkled forehead to show her worry as she started to get up. There was a cooler just outside.


"Just water, I'll get it," she said.


"Sit." The gentle tone carried the force of command; he pulled a pitcher from his small refrigerator and poured her a glass.


Her eyebrows lifted as Granpa came in, sitting across and facing her. They were both facing her. She instantly noticed that Papa O'Neal had no chew, and no cup. This was not good.


"Papa, can I get you anything?"


"Nothing, thanks."


"Can I ask?" the assassin asked.


"Cally, you have got to learn not to kill someone on a job just because he's a bad man and he's in your way," the monsignor said. "In this case, he wasn't even in your way."


"What in the world was wrong with killing Erick Winchon, and if you didn't want him dead, why the hell did you send me? Dead's what I do."


"The Aerfon Djigahr was your target, not Winchon," Papa pointed out. "Also, if you remember, we didn't pick you for this mission, your sister did. Not that we wouldn't have anyway. Personally, I think the little prick looked a lot better as a corpse, granddaughter, but there have been . . . complications."


"Michelle said she could deal with all that." She absently brushed her hair back, tucking the strands behind her ear.


"No, she said she'd try," O'Reilly said. "It didn't work. We've been disavowed."


"Disavowed by who and why? I thought violent mass-murderer scumbags like Winchon were persona non grata with all the races."


"The Tchpth, the Himmit, the Indowy with whom we still had a minimal backdoor relationship," the monsignor said with a sigh. "Thank God Aelool and Beilil felt too much personal responsibility to join the exodus. The whole reason the Crabs wanted Pardal dead was that plotting the death of one of only five emergent human mentats, the beginning of our species' enlightenment, was a far worse evil. Turns out, they viewed it as a problem on the scale of the Posleen war. That is the only reason they authorized the killing of Pardal, to protect Michelle. And then you have to go and kill one of the other four mentats!"


"He was a freaking psychopath," Cally said. "A powerful and dangerous one for that matter."


"They feel they could have managed that," O'Reilly said, holding up his hand to forestall a reply. "The point is, I've tried to find words to describe to you how angry they are, and I can't come up with anything remotely adequate."


"Like a kicked hornet's nest?" Papa said.


"Angry like a supernova is hot?" Cally asked.


"Angry like I'll get if you two can't take this seriously!" O'Reilly shouted. "Cut off. NO support. None! Totally on our own!"


"We've got funding," Cally pointed out, shrugging. "A lot more funding than we did before this went down."


"Would you care to consider what we don't have?" O'Reilly asked sarcastically. "Just consider the following. No access to GalTech. No access to Galactic medicines. No access to Galactic injury care, not nannites, not even a tank much less a slab. We don't even have human medical support. The next time you get seriously injured, you'd better be able to do internal surgery, Cally, because otherwise you're going to die for real and for certain."


"Oh," Cally said.


"No access to GalTech weaponry," O'Reilly pointed out, turning to Papa. "No plasma weapons. No grav-guns. No armor. No plasteel. No logistic support except what the Clan can provide. And entirely out of Clan funds instead of the trickle of continued support we got. We're entirely on our own for buying ammo for what weapons we've got or buy on the open market. Only our own access to black market."


"Stewart can help there," Cally said.


"Minimally," Papa pointed out. "Unless you want to get my son-in-law killed."


"Not . . . usually," Cally said.


"No access to Bane Sidhe intel," O'Reilly continued. "Or Himmit. No—"


"Okay," Cally said. "Okay. Got the picture. I fucked up. I was under a certain amount of pressure at the time."


"Not a good enough excuse for the mess you've created," O'Reilly said. "However, even though you were intimately involved in the unfolding of this mess, I can't figure out a way to help in the salvage operation."


"Yes, sir. No excuse, Father," she said.


"Cally, what were you thinking?" O'Reilly asked.


"I made a serious mission planning error, sir, and I was winging it."


"Quit sirring me, this isn't the army."


"Yes, sir—I mean, yes, Father." She watched him sigh and knew it wasn't the response he'd been looking for.


"In any case, you're not here for a dressing down. Or, more accurately, I'm done. What you're here for is a joint Clan/Organization planning meeting," the priest said, sitting down in a chair next to Papa's.


It wasn't what she'd expected to hear. Cally decided it was a very good opportunity to keep her mouth shut.


"My own mistakes in this debacle include not having pulled your grandfather behind a desk, doubtless kicking and screaming, ten or fifteen years ago. My reasons seemed good at the time." He sighed. "Hindsight is twenty-twenty." The young-looking old man rubbed his thumb and forefinger together, fingering rosary beads that weren't there.


"They say that infantry captain is the best job in the army. Every generation, every new crop of captains, has to face the same fact—you can't be a captain forever. Operations is fun."


"You're pulling me from the field," she said woodenly.


"I certainly would if I could, but but we don't have a good replacement. And we're down on support for training. Right now, with Direct Action Group no longer being trained by the Federation and both you and Papa in the field, we're effectively eating our seed-corn. Your DAG recruits aren't ready to do covert ops. So you're going to have to do the two-hat shuffle and train them."


"Can I ask what the other one is?"


"You just did. We cannot survive without Galactic allies. We need raw materials, transportation, tools, technology, information. These are all things they have, that we need. Papa here is going to have to put on his clan-head hat and go play diplomat for us."


"Granpa? Diplomat . . . ? Have you gone bonkers?"


"Why does everyone react that way?" Papa asked. "I'm a perfectly diplomatic person."


Nathan gave Cally a wry grin.


"He's the only one who can," the monsignor said, serious again. "As bad as things are, they'll only meet with a clan head—O'Neal's clan head. We're all going to be making some sacrifices and doing things we'd rather not. From the point of view of the Galactics, the only way to ensure that Clan O'Neal isn't going to go rogue, again, is to have agreements with the Clan Leader."


"If I promise you won't kill any more of the nomenklatura without authorization, they'll accept that as an unbreakable promise," Papa said. "Which it will be, granchile o' mine."


"Yes, O Great and Powerful Oz," Cally said flippantly.


"Which means that we're all going to have to be doing things we'd rather not," O'Reilly said. "I will be without my right arm, for example, since he'll have to go with Papa. His assistant will therefore have to speed up her learning curve, something that is good for her but not welcome. Which brings us to your second job. Although in normal line of succession your father would be clan head, that's not . . . appropriate at this time. You will, therefore, be acting clan head in your grandfather's absence."


"Which means you get all the headaches of running Clan O'Neal," Papa said with an evil grin. "Like herding Bengal tigers that is."


Cally felt the beginnings of a crushing sensation in her chest, her face automatically defaulting to an expressionless mask. Perversely, the first coherent thought to wander through her head was that this would ruin Christmas, and how was she going to tell Shari.


"Don't get used to that feeling," O'Reilly said. "You have a lot of material to cover, and then you can expect a lot of practical work. In an area that is about as far from your skill set as any I can imagine."


"Nailed that one," Cally said, trying not to grin.


"Hush," the monsignor said, suppressing a chuckle. It wasn't a moment for humor. "If you see less than a ten hour day the whole trip, praise God for the break."


Cally took the opportunity to grab her grandfather in a tight bear hug, loosening up when he grunted from the pressure of her Crab-upgraded muscles.


"Good luck in the lion's den," she said.


"Good luck to you in the hot seat. See you when I get back. If you get a chance, hug your sister for me."


In the hall, she watched him walk away, O'Reilly's deputy at his elbow, until they turned and were out of sight.


 


The first thing Michelle noticed when she entered her construction bay an hour before Adenast's nominal start time was the unaccustomed emptiness of the bay. A lone employee sat at the far end of the bay, headset engaged, holding the existing products static. She recognized him as one of the Sohon masters. Below adept level, the masters were the middle managers whose coordination skills, paired with their technical competence, glued each project together by mutual communication and ensuring everybody knew his or her assigned tasks. Everything from starships to the enormous building control machines grew whole in a single tank, a massive endeavor regarding years of effort by a single family—"family" for Indowy could encompass generations of an older breeding group—and it all had to be coordinated by the masters. Mental visions of the project had to remain in tune, and across multiple work shifts. Apprentices had to feed the great tanks with needed raw materials on a precise schedule and at precise input loci to support local control of the necessary reactions. In the rare but inevitable case when one of the experts found an engineering issue in the design, it was the masters who coordinated with the adepts to design a fix and communicate the revised design image to every member of the production team.


In the current case, the Indowy Iltai Halaani sat on a stool at one end of the bay, headset connected to all the tanks with an absurd spaghetti tangle of wiring, holding all the tanks in a stable state. Work had stopped. Michelle walked to the center of the bay and turned full circle, absorbing the sight. She had expected the response, once word got back to Adenast that she had at last been compelled by circumstance to see her clan head. With that meeting ended the polite fiction that the estrangement of the human Clan O'Neal from the rest of the Indowy species did not reach to Adenast. Clan Aelool and Clan Beilil had remained aligned with O'Neal in the Bane Sidhe split of 2047. Aelool was minuscule, and had a paltry three breeding groups on Adenast, and those refugees lived completely on the other side of the world. Beilil was also quite small, one of the smaller groups reoccupying the most habitable portions of Dulain.


Despite growing up there, Michelle O'Neal had no pressing reason to live and work on Adenast rather than relocating to Dulain—no reason except for the contracted projects in the middle of construction in this very bay. Once again, she faced a life or death situation. If she could not complete her projects on time, within specified variations of delivery, theoretically she could be hauled into contract court and her debts called in. With the troubles the Darhel Epetar Group was having from their recently foiled plot to do just that, she doubted another group would court similar disaster. Also, one of her projects had been contracted by the Epetar Group. In the likely event of its default, she would have to write a new contract with a new buyer. A building main control system wouldn't lack for demand, and she could write its contract for delivery as late as she had to, effectively keeping the project in abeyance for years.


Her mind busily calculated the options. What was that saying? I expected this, but not so soon. Her problem was that she would have to exquisitely coordinate schedules and new project deadlines to move her operations, picking up lower-return short-term work as the long-term projects completed. It would cost a great deal of FedCreds, and further her debt. It was possible but only if she had the workers to get those coordinated projects to completion. The Aelools had contracts. She might be able to find a couple of Beilil families who were between contracts and could help her wind up her operation in the interim, but her work was large. There was low probability that their help would be enough, and the scheduling delays while they traveled from Dulain to Adenast were going to be prohibitive.


It wouldn't be enough.


Her mind turned the problem over like a game of aethal laid out on the board. It was a losing board, but her highly skilled gamesmanship refused to stop gnawing away at the problem.


The Aelools were not blacklisted. It was possible she could get the Adenast families to swap out other-clan replacements for their current projects. If she could persuade them, she could have the Adenast Aelools relocated and working in any time between one and ten days. Three breeding groups could take on one eighth of her current projects, and she could make all but one of her immediate deadlines for the Group most likely to be hard cases about her "issues."


The problem there was that Beilil, while remaining friendly with O'Neal, did not owe much of a favor balance to the clan. She'd have to get the word to Dulain, get groups with the right skill mix re-tasked, get those groups to Adenast for even on the most temporary of jobs. She calculated best and worst case estimates. It was an impossible task.


If grandfather's diplomatic mission to Barwhon was a complete success, he might succeed in mending relations with at least one of the major clans on Adenast. The Koolanai Clan who raised her were, on the whole, quite fond of her. They, reasonably, felt that her high achievement reflected well on them and brought their own clan honor. Or, they had. If Clan O'Neal's reputation was restored, they stood to gain as much as anyone. They were also one fourth of her work force.


Clan Roolnai was her real problem. They had staked a lot of personal reputation on the collaboration with humans, albeit covertly through the Bane Sidhe, and were furious at the embarrassment caused by the now near-universal public opinion verdict of humanity's irredeemable mass insanity.


Since 2047 she'd held her Roolnai workers through force of personality, sheer will, and a very liberal hand with favors to the breeding groups contracted for her project. That same liberality with favors had prevented her from replacing Roolnai families with Koolanai families as several projects had completed and been replaced with new work.


The bottom line was that without some kind of give from the Indowy Roolnai, she was toast. Maybe not dead, but in so unenviable a debt position that her carefully nurtured ability to pick and choose her projects would be gone for life. She'd have to take whatever projects would give her the best short-term profit, like crumbs from the Darhel tables.


However, if Grandfather agreed it was useful to the Clan, trickling in the credits she'd won for the O'Neals by "fencing" the level nine code keys would gradually pull her back up, but slowly, so slowly as to stretch even a mentat's long-term view.


First, try the obvious, she thought, resisting the temptation to smack herself on the forehead. She walked the length of the bay, using the transit belts to cover the vast distance, until she stood beside Iltai Halaani. "I will take over this task. Please convey my regards to the Indowy Roolnai and pass on to him my humble request that he agree to see me on a matter of importance to his clan."


 


"Indowy Roolnai, I see you," she said, rising effortlessly to her feet.


She had been honestly worried he wouldn't come. If he hadn't, it would have spelled ruin.


Iltai Haalani had accompanied the clan head back to the bay and, as they had come in at the end where she'd been keeping vigil over her work, he was able to immediately resume control of the tanks, freeing her for discourse with the clan head.


"Human Michelle O'Neal, I see you," Roolnai replied politely, his green-furred face blank of all expression.


"I appreciate your great kindness in coming to meet me personally," she said.


The Indowy inclined his head in acknowledgment, an expressive gesture common to both species. "Knowing you, I am sure you would not represent a matter as important to my clan if it was not."


A warning. He was prepared to hear her out, but not favorably inclined, and not disposed to spend any great time on the meeting. "I notice that the workers on these projects are absent today," Michelle got right to the core of the problem.


"Did you expect otherwise?" he asked.


"No. Not under the circumstances. I did, however, hope that they might remain while Clan O'Neal reorganized obligations with allied labor."


"Such action is not customary in the circumstances. The clans who formerly worked on these projects are at odds with Clan O'Neal. How can the estranged exchange favors?"


"I recognize that Clan Roolnai and Clan Halaani have already been more than kind."


"You had not yet communicated with your clan head. How could we decently proceed without allowing time for both sides to receive the news?"


She accepted the polite fiction for what it was—a recognition of her own history of proper loolnieth towards her clan.


"In my . . . news . . . from the O'Neal, he also communicated his intention to travel to Barwhon and attempt to restore relations with the Tchpth," she offered. Leaving out the chronology also preserved necessary fictions about the speed of communications and related matters for discretion.


"Interesting news," he said, ears twitching in surprise. "Still, the nature of the breach is of a delicate kind, possibly unmendable."


The Indowy deciding humanity was fundamentally insane qualified as unmendable if anything did. Her only hope lay in introducing doubt in that conclusion.


"Perhaps. You are aware that certain intriguers among my race massively altered their brain chemistry." There. Frame the "insanity" as artificially induced by primitive medical practices.


"The Indowy Clans, as all civilized races, recognize consumption of flesh as a dangerously primitive trait." Roolnai shuddered at the word "flesh." "There are natural concerns about such a species from the very beginning."


"Of course. But the 'beginning,' as you say, goes back far beyond the present eye-blink. Your race has a great deal of experience of mine, and of your clans engaging with ours."


Again the clan head's ears twitched, surprised. "I suppose it is to be expected that you would be better informed than other humans. Your observation is true. It is also true that human clan structure has weakened, particularly in the survivors of the great slaughter, and many clans have judged that change not to be for the better. Including my own. Advancing medical care an infant's step is all very well, but if the fundamental cause lies elsewhere. . . ."


"Recent events, deplorable though they have been, should properly mitigate one of the causes for concern. However horrific the events, the O'Neal's judgment of the value to our very small clan of a particular member has in some measure been vindicated. Primitive skills, but a link in the chain not only to Clan O'Neal survival but to Path value that even the Tchpth acknowledged."


"You would speak to me of that?"


He was stiff with rage, as she had expected, given the bloody nature of her sister's skills—and actions. Still, her case largely rested on the proved truth that Grandfather's choice to rescue Cally, in violation of the will of a large chunk of the Bane Sidhe, was not mere sentiment, but rationally in the interests of Clan O'Neal and not adverse to its then-allies. She had no doubt that Grandfather's choice was based entirely on human two-way loyalty and his personal sense of honor, with sentiment to sweeten the pot, but the Indowy understanding of human xenopsychology was limited. The Indowy Roolnai was not, in the next five minutes, going to come to an understanding of why two-way loyalty was a survival advantage for human clans. She had to use the argument that would work—she hoped.


"Primitive. Abhorrent. But the action was not only arguably necessary to Clan O'Neal's vital interests, it also appeared," she strongly emphasized the word, "appeared so favorably tied to Galactic interests and the safety of the Path itself that even the Tchpth believed those abilities were strictly necessary. Outside precedent, but necessary. I concede that aspects of the outcome were overwhelmingly unfortunate—"


Roolnai's expression of complete revulsion told her she'd better win him over fast or she'd have lost her chance.


"The Tchpth are wiser than all of us. If their wisest, for a time, believed the Path itself was at stake, how can the Clans judge the same decision to be insane in a species all admit is underdeveloped and primitive? How can one judge a species, even a clan, on the action of one member who, under the greatest possible stresses and absent full information, took an action that the Tchpth contemplated?"


The Galactic turned away from her, breathing slowly and carefully, in an action reminiscent of the Darhel breathing exercises. Emotional control was not vital to his continued existence as it was for theirs. That did not negate his need to recover it. After a long moment he turned back to face her.


"We may have acted in excessive haste. May," he emphasized.


"When a breach is not sure, a small favor of keeping families on their current, well-paid contracts while the matter is under consideration is surely not unusual."


"When you were personally in danger, I saw no emotion for yourself—which is only proper. Now, with far more of your clan's interests at stake, emotion leaks through despite yourself. Knowing your professionalism and dedication to the Path, that is no small thing. This is what persuades me. Clan Roolnai will agree to continuing this exchange of favors with Clan O'Neal for the present. I feel confident that Clan Halaani, having an even closer personal tie in the matter, will take a similar view. And, as you say, the Tchpth are wiser than we, and farther along the Path. We will permit time for the reconsideration."


Oh my. Grandfather, I hope you do a very good job, she thought. I cannot believe that my lapse in control was the deciding factor. Even for me, what my sister says holds true: alien minds are alien.


Before he turned to go, Roolnai's face crinkled in amusement. "Some of your workers may not arrive back until tomorrow morning. I understand many have taken the opportunity to do something with their children. I believe that is something our species have in common."


 


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