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PART I

 
Mögen andere von ihrer Schande spreche,
Ich Spreche von der meinen . . .

O' Deutschland bleiche mutter!
Wie haben deine Söhne dich zugerichtet
Dass du unter dem Völken sitzest
Ein Gespörtt oder eine Furcht!
—Bertolt Brecht, 1933


Prologue

Villers Bocage, 12 June 1944


The soldier wore black. Silver lightning bolts flashed on his right lapel; the three rosettes of a Hauptsturmführer—or captain of the Schützstaffeln, the SS—shone on the left.


He stood in the hatch of a Tiger I tank, peering with binoculars through the gloom of the battlefield. Arising out of the gloom he saw the rising smoke from the engines of an enemy armored column halted on the road below. The soldier counted twenty-five or so enemy vehicles, mixed half-tracks and tanks. There were likely more, unseen. So much he suspected, in any case. He was unimpressed.


Though he stood alone, and though his tank was alone, the black-uniformed soldier knew no fear. If he had ever known true fear there were no witnesses to tell of it. His comrades had never seen it and few of his enemies could have detected it, even had they lived.


Neither, so far as the soldier could tell, had the enemy detected his tank.


It took him scant moments to reach his decision. With a roar hidden by the mass of the enemy's idling engines the driver started the engine and headed for a cart track to the left of the enemy column. Already the gunner, Wohl, was swinging his turret to the right.


"Take the first one, Balthazar," ordered the soldier, the commander.


"The half-track?" asked Wohl, incredulously. "It can't hurt us."


"I know. But by blocking the road it can help us."


"Ahhh . . . I see, Herr Hauptmann," answered Wohl, returning his attention to his sight. He whispered, "Come on, baby . . . just a little more . . ." then shouted into his microphone, "Target!"


"Fire."


The eighty-eight millimeter, L56 gun belched smoke and flame. Downrange, at the head of the enemy column, a British half-track was thrown violently across the road, blocking it. The half-track caught fire and began emitting great plumes of smoke of its own.


Onward the Tiger roared, its gun belching death and destruction at a fantastic rate. Tanks, Bren Carriers and half-tracks were smashed with each round. At this range Wohl couldn't miss. The enemy, blocked by the wrecked half-track, could not advance. Neither, given the narrowness of the road and its border of trees, could they easily retreat. Instead, they simply died.


A lone enemy tank swung into the path. In a race against time the two hostile turrets and guns swung towards each other. Though Wohl trembled slightly, the commander did not. The Tiger proved the faster of the two and yet another British machine went up in smoke and fire.


The way into the town was clear. Though built-up areas were death ground to a tank, the commander felt no fear. He directed his driver into the town. There the Tiger met three more British tanks. Boom . . . Boom . . . Boom . . . and they were reduced to charred, bloody scrap.


The road and the town littered with ruined fighting machines and dead and dying men, the soldier, the commander, withdrew to refuel and rearm. The Seventh British Armored Division had been stopped cold by a single tank, more importantly, by a single man's will and daring. Soon, the commander would return with reinforcements to finish off the point of their armored spear.


Though he had a month more to live, it was on this day, by this obscure town, that Michael Wittmann entered immortality.


* * *

In the recent past:


Though the smoke in the room came not from tobacco but from incense burnt upon the Altar of Communication, and though shimmering tuniclike garments covered the beings attending the meeting, and even though those beings were elfin, with pointed ears and needlelike teeth, any human corporate CEO would have recognized instantly that here was an assemblage of unparalleled economic and political clout.


The beings—they were called "Darhel"—were seated around the low boardroom table. All were senior leaders of most of the leading clans which formed that species. The table, a rare and precious iridescent hardwood from a little known or settled planet, spoke well of the wealth of the assembly. Each board member's chair was individual, crafted by a group of Indowy master craftsmen to suit that member's size and body shape alone. An Indowy servant—given the nuances of the galactic legal and economic system one might as well have said "slave"—stood behind each of the Darhel lords, ready to cater to their every need and whim. Though some Darhel were perhaps aware of it, most were blissfully unaware that these servants, never comfortable with their status as slaves, were one of the prime sources of intelligence to the Bane Sidhe, the galaxy-spanning plot to unseat the Darhel as lords of creation.


Holographic projections stood before each chair, visible to that board member alone. Though information was available concerning things like loss of life among the inhabitants, mostly the green-furred, humble Indowy, of the planets falling one by one into the fanged maws of the invaders, few Darhel cared to look at them. This was not squeamishness on their part. The Darhel were simply indifferent to loss of Indowy life. With eighteen trillion Indowy within the Federation, the loss of a few billion, or a few hundred billion, was a matter of no moment.


But profits? Losses? These were the key and critical bits of information played out on the holographic projections.


Studying his hologram intently, one Darhel burst out, "Lords of Creation, the loss of capital to this invasion is unsupportable! Factories lost? Profits squeezed? Trade imbalanced? Staggering! Intolerable! It must not be allowed to continue." Almost overcome by his own unseemly and even dangerous outburst, the Darhel then lowered his head, forced his breathing into a calm, steady, measured pace while reciting a mantra to fight off lintatai, a form of catatonia inevitably resulting in death, to which the Darhel were uniquely susceptible.


The Ghin, first among equals of those present, silently tsk-tsked, thinking, These young ones, and especially of the Urdan clan, are so emotional. They must spend half their lives bringing themselves to the very edge of lintatai, the other half recovering from that. Not for the first time the Ghin regretted the system of galactic control which allowed even third-rate Darhel to amass power and wealth, at the inevitable expense of the Indowy. Not that he cared a whit for the Indowy. But the Ghin was not without some sympathy for the plight of the Urdan. He knew they were very heavily leveraged. And they tended to produce far too many third-rate minds.


Whatever his thoughts, the Ghin knew that a Ghin must lead. "Fear not about losses of capital. Fear instead the extermination of our people if this plague of Posleen is not contained."


The Urdan leader looked up from his attempt to stave off catatonia and death just long enough to ask, "And what are you doing about it?" His head immediately dropped again, his lips playing the life-saving mantra.


"Everything possible," the Ghin returned calmly. "Armies and fleets of the barbarian mercenaries, the humans, are already engaged in holding the frontier, even in rolling it back in places. Projections show that, with current-sized forces, and with the ability to breed more human mercenaries from among their children we have taken as our . . . guests . . . we shall be able to insulate and isolate ourselves until this plague has passed. Look for yourselves."


With a wave of an arm, every hologram changed to show a map of the Federation sector of the galaxy, systems already fallen to the invaders appearing as red in contrast to Federation blue. The map was framed on all sides by statistical indicia, the profit and loss sheets so beloved of Darhel merchants and bankers.


"Obscene," muttered the Urdan. "By what right do you charge us the absurd wages these barbarians demand? I have shareholders and investors to whom I am responsible. The cost of these humans is unsupportable. They should take an Indowy's wage and be grateful for it."


The Ghin rather agreed with that last. The arrogance of the humans was infuriating. Nonetheless, he answered, "It is the fault of the most numerous among the human subspecies, the ones they call the Chinese." A little of the Ghin's own fury at human arrogance began to peek through. He suppressed that fury ruthlessly; lintatai, once entered into, was as much a danger to a Ghin as to any Darhel.


"The humans that are called 'Chinese' did some calculations and determined that the wages we were offering were much less than we would have been willing to pay. They, along with the other barbarians, simply held out and refused us aid until we had given them a better offer." With a smug smile the Ghin concluded, "Not that we would not have paid three times what the humans demanded. But they didn't know that, of course. Rejoice that the cost is so low. It could have been much worse. And rest assured, my expenses were even greater than yours. And I have plans for these Chinese to answer for their effrontery."


Head still bowed, because the Urdan really was dangerously close to lintatai, that Darhel lord raised his eyes back to the hologram and asked, "And that is another thing. I see the frontier plainly marked. But why have the human mercenaries permitted this open sector where the Posleen are pushing through en masse?"


In response, the Ghin merely smiled.


* * *

Closing on the present:


The tunneling ship hummed with life and purpose; though that purpose—life for the Po'oslen'ar, the People of the Ships—was death for all who stood in their path.


Athenalras mused in pride and satisfaction, contemplating the thrice-cursed Aldenata instruments few of the People but he could comprehend. Around him bustled the Kenstain, a few Kessentai, and the minimal number of superior normals necessary to the running of the battleglobe. The bulk of the People rested, unconscious and hibernating—most importantly, not eating—deeper in the bowels of the globe. All was well and the People were well on their way to yet another conquest in the long and fiery path of fury and war.


"My lord?" queried the Kessantai, Ro'moloristen, with something between respect and awe. "I have the information you demanded."


"Give it, young one," ordered the senior and elder, curtly.


"This peninsula, jutting away from the direction of rotation of the target, looks to be our best unclaimed landing area. It is populous, rich with industry and refined metal, fertile and fruitful. It would be a fitting place for the People of our clan . . . until, of course, it is time to move on again." The Kessentai then hesitated, his chief noted.


"Rich and fruitful, but . . . ?" queried the senior.


"It is a strange place, this 'Europe,' as they call it. United and divided. Wise and senseless. Fierce and timid. Heedless in peace, so say the records we have gleaned, but potentially fearsome in war."


The senior's crest came up. "They are worse than the gray threshkreen of Diess? The metal threshkreen of Kerlen? They are worse than the accursed thresh of the lesser continent, who battered and destroyed our first landing and even now defy the People with fire and blood?"


The younger God King looked deckward, answering, "My lord . . . these are the gray thresh, their home. The beings of the lesser continent? They are the descendants of colonists, much like the People, who left their original home for a new and almost empty one, smashing and exterminating the thresh they found there."


The chief bristled, crest unfurling. "So you are saying, young Ro'moloristen, that this place, this Europe, is too difficult a task for the People, too difficult for me?"


"No! My lord, no!" apologized the junior hastily. "It can be done. But we must approach more cautiously than is our wont. We must seize a base . . . or, I think, perhaps two. There we shall build our strength before completing the subjugation of the rest. Look, my lord. See. Here is my recommendation." The younger God King played claws over an Aldenata screen.


Mollified, if only partly, Athenalras glanced at the screen. "I see. You would have us land here, east on the flat open area . . ."


"They call it Poland, my lord."


"Poland?" queried Athenalras. "Barbarous name," he snorted.


"Indeed," agreed Ro'moloristen. "And the reputation among the threshkreen of these thresh of this barbarous place, Poland, in war is no mean one, though they have had scant success."


"And the other major landing?"


"They call that France. Again, their reputation on the Path of Fury is no mean one, and yet, they too have had scant success."


"I do not understand, puppy. We land, so you propose, at two locations where the local thresh are fierce in war but do not succeed in it? I simply do not understand."


Ro'moloristen answered, "Sometimes, my lord, one can be powerful on the Path of Fury, and yet fail because there is one more powerful still." The young God King touched a claw to the screen. "Here. Here is the place. The home of the gray-clad thresh. The place which puts into the shadow the threshkreen of France and of Poland. The place for which we must prepare an assault such as the People have never seen."


"And what is this fearsome place called, puppy?"


"My lord, the local thresh call their home, 'Deutschland.'"


 


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