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A Hymn Before Battle

By:John Ringo

PROLOGUE

“How many worlds does this make?” The dialogue took place before a wall-sized view-screen. The image was not one to make for happy conversation.

The aide knew the question was rhetorical. As the Ghin aged he was becoming soft, without direction. Yet powerful still.

“Seventy-two.”

“Not including Barwhon or Diess.”

“They have not yet fallen.”

The answer was silence. Then,

“We will use the humans.”

At last!

“Yes, your Ghin.”

Silence, a glance at the view-screen.

“That makes you happy, does it not, Tir.”

“I believe it to be a wise decision, as all of your decisions are wise, your Ghin.”

“But slow to come, late. Without decisiveness, without, what is that human word? ‘Élan.’ ”

The words of the aide’s reply were carefully chosen. “Had the decision been reached sooner, there, perhaps, would have been greater profit. Certainly the loss would have been reduced.”

A long minute later the answer: “The profit will be greater in the short run, surely. But at what loss in the long, Tir?”

“Surely the programs have taken effect. The humans are controllable.”

“So thought the Rintar group.”

“Those humans were half formed, brutish. They were unrefined and wild. The new races are much more malleable and well adjusted to technological controls. They are minimally dangerous and after the invasion the few that remain will be grateful for any bone we toss them.”

Another long silence as the Ghin stared at the view-screen.

“Perhaps you are right, Tir. But I doubt it. Do you know why I am allowing the human project to go forward?”

“If you think the premise flawed, I wonder, yes.”

Silence.

“Why?”

“Guess.”

A pause, a breath, then a longer pause.

“Because we will lose many more worlds without their aid?”

“In small part. Tir, we will lose all the worlds without the humans.”

“Your Ghin, our projections indicate that the Posleen will fail if slowed to their current rate, they will senesce. However, we stand to lose two hundred more worlds before that happens, surely an unacceptable loss.”

“Those projections are flawed as our projections of the humans are flawed. At the end of this era the humans will be the masters and the Darhel will be an outcast race living on the edge of civilization scavenging the garbage. And your human project will be the cause.”

The Tir carefully schooled his features. “I . . . question that projection, your Ghin.”

“It isn’t a projection, you young fool, it’s a statement.”

On the view-screen a world burned.





1

Norcross, GA Sol III

1447 EDT March 16, 2001 AD





Michael O’Neal was a junior associate web consultant with an Atlanta web-page design firm. What this meant in practice was that he worked eight to twelve hours a day with HTML, Java and Perl. When the associate account executives or the account executives needed somebody along who really understood what the system was doing, when, for example, the client group included an engineer or computer geek, he would be invited to the meeting to sit there and be quiet until they hit a snag. Then he opened his mouth to spit out a bare minimum of technobabble. This indicated to the customer that there was at least one guy working on their site who had more going for him than good hair and a low golf score. Then the sales consultant would take the client to lunch while Mike went back to his office.

While Mike had fine hair, he played neither golf nor tennis, was ugly as a troll and short as an elf. Despite these handicaps he was working himself steadily up the corporate ladder. He had recently gotten an unasked-for raise in lieu of promotion, which surprised the hell out of him, and other rattling noises had been heard that indicated the possibility of further upward mobility.

The office he moved into was not much; there was barely room to turn his swivel chair, it was right next to the break room so several times a day it was overwhelmed by the smell of popcorn, and he had to install a hanging book rack for his references. But it was an office, and in a time of cube farms that meant everything. Someone in the background was grooming him for something and he just hoped it was not a guillotine. Unlikely—he was the kind of aggressive pain in the ass every company secretly needed.

He was currently in a mood to kill. The overblown applets on the newest client’s site were slowing their page to a crawl. Unfortunately, the client insisted on the “little” pieces of code that were taking up so much of their bandwidth, so it was up to him to figure out how to reduce it.

He sat with his feet propped on his overloaded desk, gripping and releasing a torsional hand exerciser as he stared up at the “Tick” poster on his ceiling and thought about his next vacation. Two more weeks and then it would be blue surf, cold beer and coral reefs. I should have gone SEAL, he thought, his face fixed in a perpetual frown from weight lifting, and become a surfing instructor. Sharon looks good in a bikini.

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