Valors trial, p.1

Valor's Trial, page 1


Valor's Trial

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Valor's Trial

  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright Page
















  The Confederation Novels:

















  The Keeper’s Chronicles:







  Copyright © 2008 by Tanya Huff.

  All Rights Reserved.

  DAW Book Collectors No. 1442.

  DAW Books are distributed by Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

  All characters and events in this book are fictitious.

  Any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.

  The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal, and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage the electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

  Nearly all the designs and trade names in this book are registered trademarks. All that are still in commercial use are protected by United States and international trademark law.






  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 right—these 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 diran avirrk 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 her—although 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 Yellow—the alien spaceship that had turned out to be the actual alien, or aliens, the terminology remained uncertain—later, 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.”

  “Studying us?”

  “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 be 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 alien—as the alien—while 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.

  Technically, it hadn’t 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.

  Hadn’t and couldn’t 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 ticket—integrating 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 happened—no 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.

  “There’s been a lot of action out on the edge of the sector. Long-range sensors have picked up Susumi portals here, here, and here.” Captain Rose touched three points on the star field currently mapped out on the briefing room’s HMU and frowned at the resulting red lights. “Navy swears they’re not responsible.”

  Second Lieutenant Jarret’s lavender eyes darkened as light receptors opened to give him a better look at the map. “Civilians, sir?”

  The captain sighed. “It’s always possible some dumbass corporation or university has decided to scout the perimeter—those types always think they’re invincible until they find out they aren’t and we have to pull their butts out of the fire—but I don’t honestly think so. We usually get some kind of a heads up just so we’re available to pull those butts out of the fire, and, so far, no one’s admitting they’ve gone visiting.”

  “What about independents, sir?” Second Lieutenant Heerik was brand new, on her first posting with none of her enthusiasm blunted, and more than one of Sh’quo Company’s officers and NCOs bent over their slates and hid a smile at the intensity of the Krai lieutenant’s question.

  “What kind of independents did you have in mind, Lieutenant?”

  “Well, maybe civilian salvage operators.” Her nose ridges flared. “It was a CSO who found Big Yellow.”

  And Torin felt the attention of the room shift to her.

  “Gunnery Sergeant Kerr?”

  Torin had served with the captain long enough to know he was amused her relationship—or whatever the hell it was she had with Craig Ryder—had made it into the briefing. Although his reaction was subtle enough, the odds were good no one else could see it. “CSO Craig Ryder found Big Yellow because of a small error in his Susumi calculations.” She waited out the murmur of reaction. Small errors in Susumi calculations were usually fatal errors. “Spaced as they are . . .” She nodded toward the lights on the map. “. . . these portals are clearly deliberate. Salvage operators follow rather than lead, and there’s nothing happening out there. No debris, no reason for them to be deliberately jumping that way.”

  “Unless there’s something happening out there,” Lieutenant Jarret said thoughtfully.

  “Unless,” Captain Rose agreed. “Which is why the Navy has sent the Hardyr out to have a look around. Captain Treis came out of Susumi space here . . .” Another touch on the star map illuminated a fourth portal, this one green. “. . . and is proceeding with due caution to this system, ST7/45T2 . . .” One last touch. “. . . here.” The system was equidistant from all three red portals.

  “How long is due caution expected to take, sir?” Lieutenant Joriyl wondered.

  “You’ll likely be headed Coreward before it happens, Lieutenant.”

  Her pale orange eyes darkened as she smiled. “And not a moment too soon, sir.”

  Lieutenant di’Pin Joriyl was the senior platoon officer. With her heading into Ventris on course that meant . . .

  Torin blinked as she realized that meant Second Lieutenant di’Ka Jarret would be senior. The voice of reason and experience for Second Lieutenant Heerik and an even greener second lieutenant to be named later. It hadn’t been quite a year since a very green Jarret had been tossed into a stew of giant lizards and diplomacy gone bugfuk, and suddenly Torin felt old. Life was moving just a little too fast of late.

  “Captain Treis will keep Recar’ta Station informed, Recar’ta will keep Battalion informed, and—if we’re really lucky—Battalion will let us know what the hell is going on before they ship us out to deal with it. Platoons are nearly at full strength for the first time in a long time, so let’s make sure everyone’s geared up and ready to go.” The star field flicked off. Captain Rose swept his gaze around the room, then nodded once. “Details have been downloaded to your slates; get out there and get ready to save the galaxy’s ass yet again. Gunnery Sergeant Kerr, remain behind.”

  “Yes, sir.” Torin stood as the officers and NCOs made their way out of the small briefing room, Jarret throwing her a distinct we’ll get together later before turning his attention back to Heerik, who continued talking about the best responses to possible foothold situations, unaware of expressions exchanged nearly a meter over her head. Torin had been Jarret’s staff sergeant for that snafu of a giant lizard diplomacy trip, and she’d been impressed by the way the young officer had handled himself—both independently and under her guidance. If he stayed beyond his first contract, he’d be a credit to the Corps, and she’d be happy to serve under him again.

  When the room emptied, she followed Captain Rose and First Sergeant Siaosi Tutone through the door to the captain’s office.

  “Opinion, Gunny?” he asked, dropping into the chair behind his desk. Captain Rose’s voice had always seemed about three sizes too big for his body, but here, in the relative privacy of his office, he sounded tired. No, weary. Tired of all the crap that came from being a fair distance down the military food chain.

  Or maybe Torin was reading too much into it.

  “I think three Susumi points definitely indicates
the Others are interested in something in that end of the Sector,” she told him. “I think the lack of any significant attempt to hide their presence means they’re coming through in force. I think the Navy should have sent more ships because if the Others get that force on the ground we’re looking at Battalion moving the whole Ground Combat Team out in response. And I think that the music selection in the Senior Ranks’ Mess changed for the worse while I was gone.”

  “That would be my selection,” the first sergeant pointed out. His voice was as deep as the captain’s although less incongruous, rumbling up as it did from the depth of an enormous barrel chest. Torin was tall, but Tutone topped her by a head and a half—taller even than most di’Taykan—and proportionately broad. His hands were enormous, and muscle strained against the confines of his Class Cs.

  “Good choice, First. It’s past time I broadened my musical tastes,” Torin added, although she wasn’t sure whether she was aiming for more or for less sincerity.

  Tutone grinned, teeth flashing white against the rich mahogany of his skin.

  Captain Rose leaned back in his chair and smiled as well. “Welcome home, Gunny. It’s good to have you back.”

  “Thank you, sir. It’s good to be back.”

  “Recar’ta Station agrees with your analysis, by the way. When the orders come down, they’ll come down for the entire GCT. That’s why you’re here, specifically here with Sh’quo Company when we don’t generally rate a gunny. Aman’s short, and she’s not reupping. Unless we deploy in the next tenday, that’ll leave Jura’s platoon with a shiny new second lieutenant and Heerik, who’s almost as shiny, with a green staff sergeant. We’ll move the new staff sergeant in under Jarret, since he’s got a whole year of experience . . .” Pale eyes rolled, although for the most part he kept the sarcasm from his voice. “. . . but that’s going to leave the company scrambling for experience among the officers and senior NCOs. We need you to be a kind of utility player, coming in off the bench where needed both at the platoon level and keeping the company connected to Battalion.”

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