© Copyright 1994 William R.Forstchen. Wing Commander Fleet Action
"According to the final calculations projected on your holo screens, I
think it is evident that over the next eighty days we run the risk of a
serious reversal that could set our war effort back by years."
A rumble of stunned and angry growls shook the room. Baron Jukaga
settled back in his chair and waited for the storm to settle.
"This is preposterous, an insult," Talmak of the Sutaghi clan snapped,
looking around the room as if seeking to find someone to blame and thus
sacrifice. "How did we ever get to this state? Our fleets are the finest,
our warriors filled with the zeal of skabak, the will to die for the glory
of Kilrah. By the blood of Sivar, we even outnumber the low born scum in
nearly every class of ship. How did this happen!" and as he finished he
slammed his fist down on his holo projector, shattering it, as if by so
doing the grim figures would simply die.
Baron Jukaga of the Ki'ra clan silently turned in his chair and looked
to the end of the table where the Emperor, and his grandson and heir Prince
"Perhaps our Emperor can enlighten us," Jukaga said silkily, lowering
his head just enough to show obeisance, but doing it slowly, thus subtly
revealing a disdain and defiance. The Emperor, of course, was not visible to
those in the room. Sitting upon his high throne he was hidden from direct
view by a silklike screen emblazoned with the three crossed red swords of
the Imperial line. Sitting at the foot of the dias was Prince Thrakhath, who
shifted slightly under Jukaga's gaze, a soft yet audible growl echoing from
his throat as a signal of his readiness to accept challenge, and also in
reaction to the insult of directly placing a question to the Emperor.
Baron Jukaga struggled to conceal a flashing of teeth, a revealing of
his true hatred for this Emperor whom he believed to be of lesser blood and
who had attempted to place the blame for the disaster at Vukar Tag on his
He had endured over a year in exile because of that disaster. It was
only due to the latest reversals that the other clans had finally pressed
for his release and use of his known talents as one who better than most
understood the strangeness of human behavior.
The Emperor sensed the challenge and the trap. He stirred uneasily,
framing his thoughts. If he answered the question directly, it would be a
lowering of himself before the leaders of the eight clans of Kilrah; if he
deferred the question to his grandson, the Prince, it would appear as if he
were shifting responsibility þ and ultimate blame.
"You go too far, Baron," a voice rumbled from the corner of the room,
breaking the impasse.
Baron Jukaga looked over at the speaker, Buktag'ka, first born of the
clan of Sihkag. The Sihkag were, of the eight ruling families, considered to
be of the lowest blood and as such could usually be counted on to curry
favor with the Emperor in a bid to elevate their status whenever possible.
"Your insult to the Emperor is evident," Buktag'ka snarled, coming to
his feet and leaning over the table to stare at Jukaga. "It is not the place
of the Imperial blood to answer questions. We requested your release from
exile for the skills you have in understanding humans and as master of
spies, not for the surliness of your tongue, the haughtiness of all of your
blood line, nor for the plots you are known for."
Jukaga looked around the table, gauging the response which ranged from
nodded lowering of heads in agreement, to rippling of manes in defiance. It
was time to change approach.
"I stand rebuked before the Imperial blood and intended no insult," he
said, bowing low to the shaded throne. Prince Thrakhath, who sat at the foot
of the throne, and was not hidden from view like his grandfather, nodded
curtly in reply.
"Let us not ask the hows of it," the Emperor's voice whispered from
behind the screen, "there is blame enough for all. Rather let us talk of
what now is, and what is to be done."
Knowing he could not press the point, Baron Jukaga lowered his head in
You low born old bastard, Jukaga thought coldly. Everyone here knows
that this reversal is your fault and that of your fool grandson. Yet if
victory should come it will be you who will sweep the honors around your
feet. And even as he thought a concept that was beyond the range of most
Kilrathi, rage and intense hatred towards a sworn overlord, he still assumed
the posture of obeisance and then slowly rose up to speak again.
"Buktag'ka is right," Jukaga said, "and I accept the rebuke."
He looked around the room, gauging the responses and felt it was best
to simply push on with the facts and figures that needed to be presented.
"We do outnumber the human confederation in total number of carriers,
fighters of all classes, and heavy cruisers. However, as you can see by the
charts projected, we will see no new replacement of carriers of standard
design for the next three of eighty days. In the meantime it is projected by
my intelligence staff that the humans will have four of their new fleet
carriers coming into operations, thus enabling them to form an entire new
task force and reach a rough parity with our own carrier forces for the
first time in this war.
"This is due to the loss of the construction bays and nearly completed
ships in the raids on our construction sites over the last year. First they
hit our primary bases on our moon during the Vukar Tag debacle," and he
could not resist sparing a quick look at Thrakhath, "and then the two
follow-up raids which destroyed three other construction yards."
He paused for a moment, looking around the room, the other clan leaders
stirring uneasily. The successful human raids deep within the Empire had
been a source of extreme embarrassment for Thrakhath and for the clan
leaders. Jukaga smiled inwardly. If anything the exile after Vukar had
enabled him to wash his own talons of any responsibility. In a dispassionate
sort of way, he found he could even admire the human who had conceived of
the strategy of using light carriers for the strikes. Spy reports both from
their plant high inside the ruling circle of the Administration, and from
prisoner interrogation, indicated that it was Admiral Tolwyn who instituted
"Our shortages," the Baron continued, "are made worse by the fact that
within the next eighty days nearly one quarter of our carriers are due for
overhauls, resupply, and refitting, with one needing an entire reactor
"Can't such things wait?" Buktag'ka asked.
"It has already been delayed too long," Thrakhath announced coldly.
"The Ha'Tukaig's reactor is leaking so dangerously that engine room crews
have to be suited up and after three duty shifts retired. We might see a
total reactor failure if we push her any further. As for the other ships, a
variety of minor things threaten to soon become major problems if not
addressed. Remember the standard rule is that for every day of flight a
carrier needs one day of docking for a variety of reasons. We are stretching
that out to almost two to one, pushing our equipment too hard."
He fell silent and Jukaga made a show of nodding his thanks.
"I know the argument is that we cannot afford to move carriers out of
action at this time," Jukaga said, "but I believe Prince Thrakhath will tell
you we can not afford not to. Unfortunately the humans, at least for the
moment, have found a weak point and are exploiting it, using their new
escort carriers to raid deep into our Empire, seeking not to engage in ship
to ship combat, but rather to shatter our ships in their construction bays
before they are completed and launched. What is even worse is their use of
these strike forces to hit our transports and supply ships. Our losses there
have been disastrous."
"At least they have paid in turn," Thrakhath replied sharply.
"That is true, my lord, but let us look at those figures. In the last
standard year we can be certain that we have destroyed seven of their escort
carriers, two fleet carriers and seven eights of other ships. In turn they
have smashed eight carriers under construction, destroyed valuable equipment
and inflicted thousands of casualties on trained personnel. And perhaps most
seriously of all, just under seven eight-of-eights of transport and supply
He paused and looked around the room and could see the frustration of
the clan leaders as they looked to Thrakhath, who was forced to show
agreement with Jukaga.
"What sort of animals are these humans?" Buktag'ka asked rhetorically.
"What honor, what glory is there to be possibly gained by smashing a carrier
when it cannot even fly? Their gods must vomit in disgust at such craven
"I don't think their god sees it quite the same way ours do," Jukaga
said dryly, realizing the irony of what he was saying was completely lost on
That was the weak point. In his studies of humans he at least had
gained some small understanding of just how alien was their logic, their
beliefs, and their concept of the nature of war. To try to translate that
understanding to those gathered around him, no matter how intelligent they
were, was nearly impossible; the gap was simply too broad to leap.
It was, as well, the weak link in their military. All their previous
enemies had been totally destroyed in wars that lasted, at the longest, a
little more than four years, and that was simply due to the sheer size of
the Hari empire which had to be occupied and destroyed. In such a case,
where victory was usually assured from within hours of the first assaults,
the need to truly understand ones enemy was moot. The human war was now four
eights of years old and still most of those who led the Empire into battle
did not truly understand the thinking of their foes.
"With honor, or without, a carrier destroyed is still dead," Jukaga
said quietly, "a fact which can not be debated."
He looked over at Thrakhath, and to his surprise actually saw a nod of
"The real crisis, however, is in our logistical support, our transport
ships supplying the fleet."
There were several snorts of disdain from the clan leaders. Such ships
and those who served in them were considered to be beneath contempt. Any of
fighting age who accepted assignment to one was disgraced within his clan,
deemed not worthy to sire heirs for himself, but rather only to sit at the
edge of the feasting tables, heads lowered, when boasts of war were shared
and arm veins opened to pour out libations on the altars of Sivar. The
quality of personnel could be readily inferred from this.
"It is a simple fact that, without fuel, food, replacement parts,
weapons, and even such basics as air to breathe and water to drink a fleet
is useless. The humans have hit upon the strategy of avoiding direct
confrontation and striking instead to our rear, cutting our supplies,
destroying our transports, forcing us to detail off precious frigates and
destroyers to escort them. Their escort carriers attack and against them
even destroyers are outclassed, so that now heavy cruisers must escort
convoys. As a result there are not enough heavy cruisers to escort our
carriers and our own construction of these new light carriers has yet to
come fully on line."
He paused for a moment and looked at the charts projected on the holo
"We have lost over seven eight-of-eights of transports in the last
year, along with four yards for their construction. That is our weak point.
We have reached the stage where, for the moment, our carriers must leave the
front and return all the way to Kilrah to resupply since there are not
enough transports to bring supplies to them. As a result, in actual numbers
of ships at the front, our strength has been cut in half, and so, in most
sectors, Confederation ships outnumber us."
He paused again for effect and saw the cold looks of disbelief, that
something as mundane, as undignified as this issue, could actually affect
their fighting of the war.
"What I hear is impossible," Yikta of the Caxki clan snarled. "Are you
truly saying we have lost the war because of such a thing?"
"The humans have a saying that for want of a nail a horse-shoe was
lost, for want of a horseshoe a . . ."
"What is a horse?" Yikta asked.
"It is a beast of war which humans once rode upon, and then he
explained the rest of the statement and saw that it had its effect
"No, the war is by no means lost," Prince Thrakhath finally said,
stirring at last "The Baron tends, I think, to overplay his thinking and
chartmaking to scare us."
"But you will not deny that we are in trouble," the Baron retorted.
"Temporarily," Prince Thrakhath said, "perhaps."
"Prince Thrakhath," the Baron said smoothly, "more than six years ago
it was you who detailed off all new transport construction to your own
Project Hari. Just how many transports and other material has your own clan
tied up in that project, while the main battle suffers for want of
He paused, seeing the stirring of interest in the room.
"We are not here to talk of Hari," Thrakhath snapped, "we are here
instead to hear your own report and ideas first."
The clan leaders looked from Thrakhath to Jukaga and the Baron could
sense that more than one finally wanted the truth of this secret project
revealed. But first he would drive another point home.
Baron Jukaga nodded to an aide standing in the far side of the room who
controlled the holo screen.
The image shifted to a three dimensional map of the Empire and a
weaving of orange and red lines.
"Intelligence has found out that the humans are aware of the
opportunity that exists for them for at least the next two eight-of-eights
days, and are contemplating an offensive to exploit our short term weakness.
They will commit their carriers to an opening operation in what the humans
call the Munro System. They know we must hold Munro for it is a direct
doorway into a number of the shortest jump points into the heart of the
"Meanwhile, on eight different fronts," and as he spoke orange arrows
started to flash, "eight of their light escort carriers, along with raider
transports will jump into the Empire, aiming to cripple us from behind and
to smash our remaining transport, cruiser construction yards and light
carrier conversion centers, while ravaging planetary bases and crippling our
few supply convoys still in operation.
"That, in short, is the plan."
The room was silent as the clan leaders studied the screens.
"It is a hideous plan," Thrakhath said coldly, "a stabbing in the back
against defenseless positions. It lacks all honor, all meeting of steel
blade against steel blade, ship against ship."
"But it will cripple us even in its cowardice," Jukaga retorted and
Thrakhath could only lower his head.
The room was silent for a moment
"And yet," Vak of the Ragitagha clan whispered, unable to speak louder
due to the fact that the surgeons had experienced some difficulty in putting
his mouth back together after a challenge duel, "if all goes as rumors state
regarding this project in the Hari sector, within a year we will see such a
growth in our strength as to overwhelm the humans and end this war."
He looked straight at Thrakhath waiting for a response.
"Even here, Project Hari should not be spoken of," Thrakhath said
The clan leaders stirred. The project was nothing more than rumors, its
development under the complete control of the Kiranka clan of the Emperor
and the Prince.
"These are our brothers," the Emperor announced from behind the screen.
"Let it be spoken of."
Thrakhath looked back at the screen behind him as if to protest.
"Speak of it."
Jukaga could see the hesitation. It was known that there were a number
of security breaches coming out of the Imperial Palace and the less said
about certain things the better. He could see as well that the Emperor was
playing a maneuver of showing confidence in the other clan leaders, thus
winning favor for acting as if those in his presence were trusted comrades.
He could see the effect on Buktag'ka who puffed up visibly and leaned
forward to hear.
"Even before these human raids had started," Thrakhath said, "the
Emperor in his wisdom had foreseen certain dangers along these lines and
thus ordered a tremendous investment of wealth and material into the
building of a secret construction yard. It is located in the conquered realm
of the Hari on the far side of our Empire in relationship to the Terran
He took a holo cube out of his breast pocket and loaded it. Jukaga
found this alone to be interesting, that Thrakhath had come to the this
meeting fully prepared to reveal the extent of Project Hari. His own people
had found out most of its well-kept secrets to be sure and it seemed that
Thrakhath had expected Jukaga to force its full revelation at this meeting.
On the main holo screen a map of the Empire appeared, the frontier with
the Confederation at the top, Kilrah and the Empire in the middle, and far
down at the bottom the conquered space of the now dead Hari, a collection of
a thousand stars around which orbited more than a thousand blasted lifeless
Thrakhath highlighted a single star on the screen deep within the
former territory of the Hari.
"Here, for the last five years, a new class of carriers has been tested
and developed, overcoming the difficulties of translight jumping of ships
above a certain size and mass. These new carriers, what we call the Hakaga
class, are capable of carrying and servicing our newest Vatari-class
fighters to be launched next year. With their increased size the carriers
have shield generation systems capable of repulsing nearly any weapon the
Confederation now has, including their Mark IV & V antimatter torpedoes."
The image in the holo screen shifted and a carrier appeared. The clan
leaders looked at it excitedly and then Thrakhath pushed a button on his
monitor. Beside the carrier appeared a second image, that of a current fleet
carrier. The room echoed with shouts of surprise.
Even Jukaga could not conceal his curiosity. Though he had read the spy
reports, the only images he had seen so far were grainy two dimensional
shots clandestinely taken by a transport captain in his employ. The new
carrier was at least twice the length of the old design, and bristled with
six launch bays, three aft and three forward. As the image slowly turned
inside the holo field he saw that the vulnerable engine nacelles were
completely concealed and armored.
"The first of the carriers is already operational," Thrakhath announced
proudly, "and undergoing final testing in the far reaches of Hari space far
beyond any prying eyes of the Confederation."
He looked back at Jukaga as if saying that it was also beyond the
prying eyes of anyone else.
"What is its capability?" Vak asked.
"When fully loaded it carries three eighties and six eights of strike
craft and fighters, launching from six separately contained bays. Its ship
defense capabilities include four eights of mass driver quad batteries, four
eights of neutron and laser batteries, and six gatling launch tubes for
anti-torpedo defense. It has three concentric layers of interior armor, and
all six bays are self contained. Thus we can take hits on three, even four
bays and keep on fighting shifting fighters from one part of the ship to the
other by internal access corridors. As you can well guess, the material
required to build this carrier equals over six times that of a normal fleet
attack carrier. In addition we are building more than eighty escort ships of
frigate, destroyer and cruiser design. That is why we suffer the transport
shortage now. More than two hundred of them were committed to the hauling of
all that was needed from the Empire to the far side of Hari."
He looked around the room and saw the nods of understanding.
I think, my comrades," he said smoothly, "that is why you can also
understand why my clan alone took full responsibilities for the construction
of these ships. We had to maintain the tightest of security. The knowledge
of this leaking to our enemies would give them time to analyze our new ships
and perhaps find a counter."
He stared defiantly at Jukaga.
"That is why my clan placed such security around the project and kept
it hidden for so long."
Jukaga wanted to reply with a challenge, that it also insured the power
of the Imperial throne with such ships solely in its hands, but realized
that now was not the time, even though the subtle insult to the other clans
had not gone unnoticed.
"Then commit it now and block this human offensive," Buktag'ka said,
pounding the table excitedly.
Jukaga looked at Buktag'ka and wanted to laugh at the boot licker's
"That is not the way to win war," Thrakhath replied, an edge of sarcasm
in his voice revealing his sense that though Buktag'ka was a family leader,
he was still of a lower cast. Buktag'ka quickly looked around the room,
hoping for some sign of support and saw nothing but mocking stares and he
swallowed his rage.
"In eighty and forty days four more carriers of the Hakaga class will
be ready for their operational tests, in three eighty and forty days, we
will have a full fleet of eight and four Hakaga carriers fully operational.
"That means we will have a need for over forty eighties of fighter and
strike craft pilots. In spite of what the Baron might think, that is why I
had fully intended to reveal this information to you today. The first ship's
fighter crews were drawn from my clan, but as new ships come on line we will
need to draw the best pilots from all clans out of the training academies
and off existing fleet ships. All of your hrai, your clans, are to share in
the glory of this new fleet."
He looked over at the Baron and suppressed a scornful laugh. Though
indeed the Baron had pressured him into revealing the project too soon, it
was amusing to not let him think so.
"Only then will I release them, when the entire fleet is ready, using
them to cleave straight through the human defenses. Our war simulations have
gone over the plan repeatedly and our projection is that at least half of
these new ships will survive to reach Earth, while in the process smashing
the Confederation Fleet in one final climatic battle. Within one hour after
gaining orbit above their home planet either the Terran Confederation will
surrender or more than one eight and a half hundred of our fighters will
deliver antimatter bombs, leaving the planet a burned out cinder.
"The tides of this war have shifted back and forth for more than half
my reign, the Emperor interjected, his voice commanding total silence.
"Before I return to my ancestors, I wish to see my grandson destroy these
low born scum and the ball of offal that they call their world."
"I am moved to joy by this plan of Thrakhath," Jukaga interrupted,
"however, it is at least eighty days, more likely two of eighty days till
five of the new ships are ready, and three eighty and a half days until the
other seven he believes are required for victory are operational. Yet you
can all see that even if it is not a fatal blow, the humans will succeed in
penetrating our defenses and sowing a wave of destruction within the next
five of eight days. In this penetration, they will cripple our logistical
support, which will still be needed to keep Prince Thrakhath's new ships
supplied in their drive towards victory. If that is crippled the final
offensive to Earth is crippled."
He paused for a moment to look at Thrakhath who was forced to nod in
"We have heard Talmak suggest that the frontier be temporarily
abandoned and all defenses pulled into the center," Jukaga said reviewing
the earlier suggestions, "but we cannot allow such a stain on our honor, nor
can the Caxki clan, which owns many of the frontier worlds, allow it. Our
Prince has explained how a counter offensive into Enigma or through Munro
towards Earth is difficult if not impossible due to the question of supply,
and that the humans might ignore the threat anyhow and still ravage our
He took a deep breath and looked around the room.
Now it was to the true heart of the meeting. Thrakhath had revealed
what his clan had been planning, but no real suggestions as to how to
overcome the crisis of the moment.
"You have brought me out of exile saying that with my understanding of
humans I might suggest a third way and I have such away which will bring us
"And that is?" Buktag'ka asked, glad that it was obvious that soon this
talk would be over and the mid-day feasting could begin.
"Sue for an armistice and promise peace."
A roar of disbelief thundered from all the clan leaders.
Jukaga waited for several minutes for the anger to die down and thought
for a moment that more than one clan leader would call for a blood duel to
avenge what they saw as an obscene slight of honor.
"You have been driven mad by your reading of human books of filth and
weakness," Buktag'ka roared, coming up to Jukaga's side as if to strike him.
There was a moment of silence as all waited for the ritual first blow
to be struck across Jukaga's face and then all turned to look at the screen
behind which the Emperor sat.
The Emperor was laughing.
"Tell us your plan Baron, I think I see its merit even though I know
the gods will not be pleased."
"But even the gods are not immune to bribery," Jukaga said, a smile of
cunning lighting his features. "When my plan works, and is finished, Sivar
will be more than pleased with the final offerings."
And in the doing of it, I will be pleased as well, when Prince
Thrakhath's victory becomes mine instead, the Baron thought with a smile.
Captain Ian "Hunter" St. John crossed through the final nav check point
and turned in on attack approach. The lone habitable planet of the Munro
system was now straight ahead. A flurry of matter-antimatter bombs snapped
across the world, winking brightly even from thirty thousand clicks out, the
bombardment suppressing the Kilrathi ground defense systems. He clicked into
the Marine channel and listened for a moment as the second and third
divisions started their descent into their landing points. Ian switched back
to his main channel.
"Red squadron, arm all torpedoes, Blue and Green squadrons, keep close
in for support. Let's get the carrier!"
Off his port quarter he saw the Yellow, Orange, and Black squadrons
comprising the rest of the attack group fanning out into the standard delta
formation, while the red squadron Broadsword bombers lined up for a classic
anvil attack, swinging out to hit the Kilrathi carrier on its X, Y, and Z
They were going to lose people in the next couple of minutes, but the
light carrier straight ahead was going to be dead as well.
He did a quick scan on to the main tactical commlink net to check in on
how the rest of the fight was going, ready to divert part of his attack
force, which was damn near overwhelming, if something was going wrong
The Marines were going into their drop right on schedule, no serious
opposition, the landing area already saturated by the heavy bombardment from
four destroyers and a cruiser which had turned a thousand square kilometers
of the primary landing point into scorched rubble. What was left of the
Kilrathi bases on the planet continued to glow from the antimatter strikes.
This was a raid on one Kilrathi base which was going like clockwork and
that alone was troubling. Across the last thirty years Munro, ever since its
seizure by the Kilrathi during the open stages of the war, had been a long
standing goal for recapture. Beyond the simple fact that it was once human
territory it also stood as the primary approach into the heart of the
Empire. Conversely, from this base the Kilrathi stood astride a main jump
point terminus into the middle regions of the Confederation and from there
the main jump line straight back to Sirius and then on to Earth. It was the
front door to both the Empire and the Confederation. A lot of good ships and
a hell of a lot of personnel had died in six attempts to retake the planet.
Now it was falling like a ripe apple into their laps.
He wondered how the rest of the assault plan was going. This attack on
Munro, though crucial, was actually not the primary goal of Operation Red
Three. They were to act as a focal point for the Kilrathi to counter-strike
on and thus be drawn away from the main thrust of the offensive. Across
fifteen hundred light years of frontline that divided the Empire from the
Confederation, eight Task Groups, each comprised of an escort carrier, a
light cruiser, and four destroyers were poised to leap deep into the Heart
of the Empire. Their mission was to strike far into the rear to destroy
convoys, shatter bases, and smash construction yards. It was a tactical
innovation evolving out of Vukar Tag which appeared to be bearing fruit, a
constant harassing of the enemy that some claimed was actually beginning to
wear the cats down. He could only hope that the politicians were not about
to blow it as latest rumors indicated they would.
"Hunter, we got traffic, vectoring in on 032 degrees your heading true,
plus 060 degrees."
Hunter looked at his short range tactical scan and saw the swarm of red
blips snap on.
"Blue squadron, you on them?"
"Lone Wolf here, sir, vectoring in, you're covered."
"Get that double ace strip, boy, good hunting."
"Don't worry, you'll get your bottle of scotch off me when I do," Lone
Wolf replied. "Wish it was a carrier in my sights instead."
Hunter chuckled to himself. Admiral Tolwyn's nephew was eager for this
fight and he could understand why.
"The kid's been going nuts trying to get that strip."
Hunter spared a quick glance to Griffin, his co-pilot, and nodded.
Kevin Tolwyn's escort carrier, Tarawa, had joined up with the strike group
after the mission had already set out. In the skirmishes leading into Munro
young Tolwyn had drawn a blank hand in half a dozen fights and was eager for
a kill to round up his number to ten. Such eagerness could get a pilot
wasted but Hunter could understand it.
Hunter looked back down at his computer information screen, which
showed the other two Broadsword strike groups lining into position. All
three groups hit their jump-off marks precisely and started in on the final
"Range one thousand clicks, speed down to 110 kps," and Griffin started
the chant, marking off range and speed. The computer could do the job as
well, but a machine could always glitch off at a key moment and besides, he
preferred Griffin's soft feminine voice.
Hunter watched straight ahead, the planet filling space before him. He
could make out a sliver of reflected light, standing out against the
blue-green ocean below. The light shifted into a thin pencil-like form.
"Target is turning, following standard evasive maneuver alpha," Griffin
announced, "coming about to a heading 002 positive 80 degrees."
"Right on to a broadside target for us," Hunter chortled. That was the
beauty of a well timed attack on the three axis points, no matter which way
the enemy turned, someone would have a full broadside strike.
A low piercing hum echoed in his headset, the initial locking tone for
"Range fifteen kilometers, closing speed eight hundred fifty meters a
second and holding."
He was damn near hanging still in space, sparing a quick glance to his
tactical display, filled now with a swarm of blue and red dots. A Kilrathi
Gratha heavy fighter flashed by, followed by a Rapier. He heard Jonesy in
the turret behind him, stammering out a curse as she snapped off a quick
volley. His Broadsword shuddered, damage information blipping red for his
rear starboard stabilizer. A spray of mass driver rounds arched up from the
carrier as it twisted away, and he nudged up the throttle to follow the ship
as it continued to turn.
The tone in his headset started to slide up the scale, signaling that
his torpedo guidance system was breaking through the Kilrathi carriers
phased shielding distortion defense, the weapon gaining a secured lock.
The Broadsword to his right disappeared in a flash. He tried not to
think about the friends inside. A split second later Jonesy let out a whoop
from the rear turret.
"Got the furball bastard. Burn, damn you, burn."
Damn, she was bloodthirsty. But then, who could blame a nineteen year
old girl whose brothers were all dead in the war?
The tone in his headset started to warble and then set off three high
pitched beeps, the last beep going into a steady tone, indicating that the
heavy Mark IV torpedo was locked and armed. He felt his ship shudder as the
torpedo broke free from its pylon and streaked off towards the target.
Nearly a score of silver blips appeared on his tactical screen, showing the
inbound strike. The timing was damn near perfect.
Now was the time to test out the new weapons system
He slammed up throttle, yanked the stick into his gut and punched
straight up, exposing the laser guidance system strapped on to the belly of
"Have laser lock on torpedo," Griffin announced quietly, hunching over
her read-out screen. The new laser system was designed to provide in-bound
guidance for the torpedo, the designator locking on to the torpedo's tail.
If target lock should be lost, the weapons officer could now guide it in,
while also providing evasive for any anti-torpedo missiles and shield
jamming by the target's defensive systems. The only problem was that it
meant that the Broadsword had to loiter in the target area, belly exposed,
It might work, Ian thought, but I'd like to take the idiot who designed
it and have him fly the wait out with me to see what it's like.
The Kilrathi carrier's point defenses slammed on miniguns sending out
sprays of marble size mass driver bolts. Several torpedoes detonated.
Anti-torpedo missiles streaked out from launch bays mounted fore and aft on
"Still tracking, still tracking," Griffin chanted, grimacing slightly
and swinging a small joy stick over to put the torpedo into an evasive as
two anti-missiles closed. The evasive threw them off and they continued on.
Still tracking, impact in five, four . . ."
And suddenly it didn't seem quite right. They were using their old
single bolt anti-torpedo missiles. Hell, for nearly six months now Kilrathi
carriers had been carrying their damn new sub-munitions anti-torpedo
missiles which could break into half a dozen shots. The damn things had been
a nasty surprise. Ships armed with them were almost invulnerable to torpedo
strikes if they could get enough of them out there.
Fleet ordnance had been working like mad to come up with a counter, but
so far no one had been able to snag a round for evaluation since they were
armed with a timed detonator if they failed to strike a target, thus blowing
up anyhow and confounding the munitions experts.
The drama played out in seconds. Four more torpedoes, all of them the
older unguided models, went down to the counter-missile strike; it looked
like several more were hit by miniguns and then the silver blips converged
in on a single point two, one, got it!"
Space erupted with a brilliant flash as bright as the sun and the
carrier was gone, internal munitions stores and fuel detonating in a
firecracker string of secondary explosions that ripped the ship apart.
"Scratch one flattop," Ian shouted, comm channel discipline breaking
down as nearly everyone came on yelling and cheering. He rolled his ship
over, coming in on a banking turn, careful to avoid the edge of the
expanding cloud of debris, making sure his gun cameras were running at high
gain. A lot could be learned when the holo tapes were played back and
inspected þ did the torpedo guidance systems function correctly, exactly
where were the impact points, were any structural weaknesses revealed as the
enemy ship ruptured . . . even ship contents were important.
Several years back one of his old buddies, Paladin, had jumped a light
transport and wasted it while raiding inside enemy lines. An evaluation of
the explosion had shown a brief single frame image of several space suits
blowing out of the erupting hull. It was still a wonder how the holo
evaluation crowd had enhanced, magnified and fiddled with the shot and
finally figured that the suits were specifically designed for a high
radiation high gravity planet. The Hot Pit, a forward base in the Zarnobian
System fit the bill as the only military target in the sector that matched
up with the suits. A Marine raider battalion was rushed in, set up an
ambush, and nailed a landing raid bagging a regiment of elite Kilrathi
Imperial shock troops.
Hunter swept past the edge of the fireball, and then turned back
towards Munro, ready to offer backup support for the Marine landing
operation. The red blips of the few remaining Kilrathi fighters covering the
carrier were winking off the screen as the Rapier squadrons finished them
Hunter clicked back on to the main commlink channel, knowing that his
exuberant cry, "scratch one flattop," the fleet's traditional announcement
that a carrier had been killed, had already been received by the combat
information control officer and sent up to the other ships in the fleet.
He found the word flattop to be rather interesting, it came from old
English when carriers were ships of the seas, but in no way could it ever
describe a modem carrier with its bristling array of defenses and landing
bays covered over with heavy durasteel armor.
Tradition, how the Navy loves tradition, he thought with a smile.
"All attack squadrons, job well done."
He stiffened slightly. It was the old man himself, Rear Admiral Sir
"All strike craft return to base."
Return to base? Hell, there was still a major brawl going on down with
"Repeat, please?" Hunter clicked in.
"That means you, Hunter, just like everyone else. All attack squadrons
return to base," Tolwyn snarled.
"Yes, sir," he said. There was nothing to be gained by arguing with an
admiral. But it was certainly strange that the old man would actually allow
a voice transmission on his part. A Kilrathi listening post could pick it
up, figure out who he was, and perhaps even trace a fleet movement as a
result. Tolwyn knew better and it bothered him.
"What the hell is up, Ian?"
He looked over at Griffin and could only shrug his shoulders. This was
definitely not standard operation procedure. They had dumped the only
capital ship in the sector, now was the time to go after the few corvettes
and really smash up any ground resistance and save some grunt lives.
It was Kevin Tolwyn, Geoffrey's nephew.
"Yeah go ahead, Lone Wolf."
"I just heard the word on Tarawa's commlink to our two squadrons
covering the ground assault. They've been ordered to break off engagement
and withdraw out of the atmosphere."
"Yeah, that's the word. You got any inside stuff? What the hell is the
old man up to?"
"Damned if I know, sir."
"Follow orders, then," Hunter replied and then checked through his
channels to make sure that the other squadrons were following orders as
well. In the heat of a successful battle like this, it was tough at times to
break an action off. There could only be one of two reasons for this, either
some major Kilrathi reinforcements had been detected and Tolwyn was pulling
in his fighters to rearm, or the other possibility. He pushed that thought
aside as absurd.
"Griffin, get us on Concordia navlock."
"Already on, sir."
"Let's go back and find out what the hell is going on."
The squadron commanders, and section officers called together for the
staff meeting leaped out of their seats and came rigidly to attention.
Rear Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn, strode into the briefing room. He reached
the podium, lowered his head for a second and then raised it again to look
out at the men and women in the room. He felt a tug at his heart at the
sight of them.
"Never, for God sake never, let your people get inside your heart, for
your job is to use them, and if need be kill them," a voice whispered to
him. It was his old mentor Banbridge's classic piece of advice.
I guess that's what separates me from him, Geoff thought. With Clara
and the boys gone this is my family. It was something he never let show, no
matter what. He knew that behind his back he was "the old man," which was
the gentlest of epithets; usually it was far worse and ofttimes even angry.
They never really knew how he felt, especially when he looked into their
eyes just before a strike went out, knowing that he was ordering some of
them to their deaths. Well, at least that's finished for the moment.
He clicked a comm button which opened the public address channel for
the entire ship.
"All hands, all hands, this is Admiral Tolwyn," his deep baritone
voice, clipped with the refined touch of an Oxford education, echoing
through the ship.
"I have just received the following communication from C-in-C ConFleet,
it reads, óTo Tolwyn, commanding, Task Force 45. Armistice agreement and
cease fire has been reached with Kilrathi Empire, to be effective upon
reception of this signal. All offensive operations to cease immediately and
to withdraw to navigation point detailed below Repeat, all offensive
operations to cease at once. Fire only if fired upon. Signed Noragami,
commanding, Confederation Navy.' "
He hesitated as if wanting to say something and then lowered his head
"That is all," and clicked off the comm channel.
He looked back up at his officers who stood incredulous. In the
corridors outside the conference room distant cheering could be heard.
"I'm only going to say this once," Tolwyn said quietly. "I'm proud of
all of you for the job you've done. In the seven years I've been in command
of Concordia we've taken out eight carriers, a score of capital ships,
countless fighters and bombers, and fought in nine major fleet actions.
Concordia is not just steel, guns and planes, in fact it is you, it is your
flesh and blood and the spirits of all those who've served on her, living
He hesitated for a moment.
"When it comes time for her to fight again, I hope and pray that I'll
be able to count on you all in our hour of need."
He started for the door, the room silent.
"Damn, we're going home!" somebody shouted and the room erupted in
cheers. Tolwyn stiffened his shoulders and walked out.
He passed down the corridor, ignoring the cheers and the momentary lack
of discipline, retreated to his office, closed the door, and for the first
time in months poured a good stiff drink of single malt Scotch. Settling
back in his chair he started to review the first holo tapes of the strike
The timing was masterful, the strike crews the finest professionals he
had ever served with, nearly every Broadsword gaining lock and launching
simultaneously. A successful strike like that was even more intricate than
the most finely crafted ballet, and in his eyes even more beautiful.
A knock on the door disturbed him and he set his drink down on the
table behind his desk.
The door slid open and he could not help but allow a slight flicker of
a smile to light his features at the sight of Captain Jason "Bear"
Bondarevsky standing at attention in the corridor.
"Come on in, Bear. What brings you over here anyhow."
Jason came into the room and stood nervously in the middle of the room.
"We'll wave regs and at least let you have a sip," and he poured out a
thin splash of Scotch in a tumbler and passed it over.
"Thank you, sir."
"Have a seat."
Jason went over to the proffered chair by the admiral's desk and
settled in . He sniffed his glass and tasted the Scotch.
"Not bad, sir."
"The best, saved for special occasions."
"Like this one?"
"No, not really, I just felt a need for it."
Jason looked down at the floor and Tolwyn could feel the tension.
"Come on, son, out with it."
"Sir, something's troubling me, I thought I better come over and
discuss it with you privately."
"You mean this little thing called an armistice."
"In part," Jason said quietly.
"Well, what is it then?"
"Sir, that communication from ConFleet announcing the armistice came
through close to fifty minutes before our strike hit the carrier."
Tolwyn exhaled noisily and leaned back in his chair.
"How the hell do you know that, Bondarevsky?" he asked quietly, a
threatening chill in his voice. "That message was directed solely to me."
"Sir, Tarawa was the back up carrier for this operation. If something
should have happened to Concordia it would have been my job to assume
control of the air strikes. In that situation, I took it upon myself to
monitor all ConFleet channels and that included yours. Suppose you were hit,
sir? It would have then been my job to know the entire picture. I didn't
notice it immediately since it was simply decoded and stored in my personal
data system. But after the action I was going through the signals to dump
them off my system and I saw it."
What Jason was confessing was somewhat outside the regulations but it
showed careful planning and foresight on his part. If something had indeed
happened to Concordia the young officer before him might very well have to
take full responsibility for everything that transpired.
There was an ancient cautionary tale told in the service academies, the
incident dating back to a war once fought between England and America. In an
encounter between an American and British ship the commanding officer of the
American vessel was mortally wounded, and the junior officer took him down
below deck to the surgeon. In the short interval that followed all the other
officers were hit and, without his even being aware of it, the junior
officer was now in command. By the time he returned to the deck his ship had
already been battered into submission and forced to surrender after barely
putting up a fight. The junior officer was held responsible,
court-martialed, and found guilty of dereliction of duty, a duty he was not
even aware had suddenly come to rest upon his shoulders. The lesson was part
of the tradition and backbone of the fleet þ there is no excuse for defeat
Geoff looked at Jason and realized as well that he had made a crucial
mistake in not assuming that Jason might very well be listening in.
"And what do you think?" he finally said quietly.
"I lost two crews in that attack, two pilots and a gunner. I'm
wondering how their families would feel if they knew their kids got killed
after a war was officially over."
Tolwyn nodded and said nothing.
"I don't give a good damn about the furballs," Jason continued, "but
five hundred or more of them died when that carrier got cooked. I don't feel
too good about that either, sir."
"Neither do I."
"Then why did you do it, sir?"
"I'd rather not say, Jason, but let me ask you a question."
"If this was just another day in the war, how would you feel about
taking out that carrier."
"I hate losing people, but trading a Rapier, a Sabre and two of your
Broadswords for a light carrier is a damn fine piece of work in my book. I
wish it had always been that easy."
"That's how I still feel about it, Jason."
"But the war's over. We were hearing the rumors even before this attack
started out. Something about a peace party coming into power in the Empire,
Prince Thrakhath falling into disgrace, and Foreign Minister Jamison pushing
for an armistice. Damn it, sir, they're saying it's finally over and we can
"And do you really believe it?"
"Well, do you?"
"I want to believe it, sir."
"Damn it, man, that's exactly it. You want to believe it. Everyone
wants to believe it. But there's a hell of a long stretch between wishing
for something and actually seeing it come true. Anyone who believes
something simply because it sounds good and he wishes it to be true is a
damned fool and that's why I did what I did."
"This war is not over by a long shot," Tolwyn growled, "and I'll kiss
the hairy backside of the first Kilrathi I meet if they can ever prove it
differently to me.
"It's too pat, it's too damn straight forward and simple. I remember
once hearing a great line about another war, óthis is such madness only an
idealist could have started it.' Well, this peace offer is the same thing,
only an idealist would be stupid enough to believe it. By God, son, we were
finally getting an edge. We stumbled on the tactics of it all thanks to you,
realizing just how under-protected and vulnerable their construction sites
were. They haven't gotten a single new carrier on line in the last year.
They still outnumber us, but they're hurting, hurting even worse with the
loss of their transports. We just might be turning the edge in this war, and
now the damn fool politicians go for this armistice offer."
"So you disobey orders on your own and decide to keep the war going a
"The target was there and I took it, a carrier that if we allowed it to
get away might cost us fifty to a hundred pilots the next time around,"
Tolwyn said quietly. "And I think that even you, Jason, who once risked your
career to try and save a ship load of Kilrathi civilians, even you down deep
agree with me."
Jason drained the rest of the Scotch from his glass and closed his eyes
for a moment.
"Yes, sir, I do."
Tolwyn could see the struggle such an answer had created. From most
other officers he would have dismissed it as brown nosing a superior but he
knew that from Jason it came from the heart.
"Like you said," Jason replied. "It just doesn't smell right. I know
that even after Vukar Tag, and the Third Enigma Campaign they still have the
edge on us. For the Kilrathi, war is part of the core of their soul. This
intel stuff about a shift in the power structure of the palace. If it's
true, the new power behind the throne would have his throat ripped out if he
tried for a serious peace after all the sacrifices they've endured. Now I
don't know much about Kilrathi psychology other than what I got in the naval
college while waiting for Tarawa to finish out her refitting, but I know
enough that the seeking of peace other than after a total triumph is
anathema to them.
"Going for peace is impossible to their mindset. If they were losing
there would be only one possible action, a suicidal fight to the end; if
they were winning, a fight to ultimate triumph. There is no inbetween. Their
society functions primarily through submission to strength, with the one in
power gaining complete loyalty by refraining from killing the one who has
submitted. But since we are not of the blood, we are therefore inferior, and
as such it is impossible to submit to us. There might be exceptions, such as
that warrior who serves Hunter, but that was through direct orders from his
"So if the emperor or whomever is behind the emperor orders it, then
why not peace?"
"Because the power at the top derives its strength through conflict.
They know that if their aggressive instincts are not diverted outwards it
will turn inwards and the families will eventually destroy each other. And
besides, it's one thing for a lone warrior to submit, but for the highest of
noble blood to do so, to submit to someone not of equal blood, is
"Precisely," Geoff said quietly, inwardly pleased as if a favorite
pupil or son had mastered an intricate question.
He felt a flash of warmth for Jason, remembering the relief he felt
when he had jumped into the heart of the Empire to pull Tarawa out and
discovering that the ship was still alive. He felt the warmth as well
because it was Jason who had taken his nephew out to war as a spoiled brat
and brought him back as a man.
"This whole thing is a set-up, I'm convinced of it; and I tell you
this, Jason, if our government falls for it, all our butts will be in the
"I best get back to my ship," Jason said quietly and he stood up,
putting his glass down on the side table.
"What do you plan to do about my violation of orders?"
"If I'm asked about it, sir, I plan to tell the truth." He hesitated.
"I have to tell the truth, that you launched an attack after knowing that
the initial cease fire had been agreed to. To do anything else would be
"You're a good officer, son. I've always been proud of you; I know I
always will be."
He extended his hand and Jason took it.
"Let's hope I'm wrong about this armistice, but I know I'm not."
Jason Bondarevsky winced from the glare of the lights. Damn, how he
hated the press. He had endured "the treatment" before when he had brought
Tarawa back to Earth for refitting after the raid to Kilrah. The press
swarmed over the ship, poking cameras in his face, asking the same asinine
questions over and over again, probing far too deeply into parts of the raid
he simply wanted to forget. When one had finally hit him with a question
about the death of Svetlana, asking how he felt while watching his
girlfriend die, he had to be restrained from punching the reporter's lights
out, a fleet PR officer, all smoothness and charm, separating the two.
The press madness flared up again when Jason was presented with the
Medal of Honor and yet again when the absolutely ridiculous holo movie about
his raid, First to Kilrah, came out. The film was a humiliating
embarrassment, especially since the plot had little to do with the actual
raid, spending most of its time focused on his doomed affair with Svetlana,
with half a dozen steamy scenes padded in. It still made him boil that the
holo spent precious little time on the hundreds of others who had fought,
sacrificed, and died with him. He wanted to take the damn money the producer
had given him and jam it down the lying scum's throat after seeing the film,
which he had been promised would be shot as a straight forward documentary
honoring those who had served. The only satisfaction he got out of the whole
fiasco was in donating every dollar he earned from the film to a scholarship
fund set up for children of the Marines and naval personnel lost in the
And now he was stuck under the lights again, all because he had taken a
wrong turn while looking for a bathroom. The same lousy reporter who was far
too curious about Svetlana had seen him first and rushed over, the others
moving like a herd of cattle when the word spread that "the guy they made
the movie about," was present as a staff officer for the armistice
"So whatya think of the war ending? It's Bondevsky, isn't it?" one of
them shouted, aiming his holo recorder at Jason's face.
"That's Bondarevsky," Jason said quietly, remembering how his old
captain O'Brian had always mispronounced the name.
"Yeah, sorry. So tell us what you think?"
"First of all, negotiations for an armistice do not mean that the war
has ended. There's a big difference between an armistice and formal peace,
he tried to explain patiently. "Other than that, no comment," and he tried
to shoulder his way through the crush.
"Still hate the Kilrathi, is that it? Seems like you fleet officers
don't want peace," a sweating beefy faced reporter shouted.
Jason looked back at the fat-faced reporter.
"I'm a captain in the fleet. I'm a professional, I try to do my job and
leave the hating to others."
"Even though they killed your lover, that Marine, Susan wasn't it?"
He hesitated, wanting to turn and belt the reporter in the face, or
better yet strap him into a tail gunner's seat and take him out for a
mission to see what it was really like. Though he hated to do so, he turned
away and continued down the corridor, shouldering his way through the crush.
"Military's gonna be out of work, that's what's got them pissed off,"
he heard a reporter sneering.
He turned, knowing he shouldn't, but he simply couldn't take it any
longer. He put a finger into the man's face.
"What have you been doing the last couple of years?"
The man looked at him defiantly.
"Working for the holos."
"On Earth. United Broadcasting."
"While you've been sitting on your fat butt and grinning at the camera
I've watched hundreds of thousands die. I've seen entire continents on fire
from a thousand warhead bombardment, I've watched carriers bursting silently
in space, a thousand men and women spilling out, their blood boiling in the
vacuum. I've heard the screams of my comrades as their fighters burned, and
they were trapped, unable to eject. I've lost more friends than you'll ever
have, you belly crawling excuse for a worm. So don't you ever dare say to
me, or anyone else, that we want a war. We know what the hell the price is
while all you know is how to stuff your face and bloat your pride."
He turned and stalked off, hearing more than one reporter chuckle and
give a word of support, but most of them looked at him with a superior
disdain, as if he was an arrogant ignorant child who had just thrown a
A Fleet public relations officer slipped in beside Jason, grabbed him
by the arm and hustled him along.
"That wasn't very smart, sir," she whispered in his ear, while at the
same time smiling to the press, and quickly moved him back down the
"Go to hell. I'm here as an aide to Admiral Tolwyn, but I'm not going
to be insulted."
"Then stick to your job as an aide, things are bad enough as is with
the damned press without you making it worse," she hissed in his ear.
Jason forced back an angry retort while the other officer seemed to
instantly shift gears, smiling, holding up her hand to the press, repeating
that they'd have a story soon enough and finally hustled Jason through a
"Next time you need to find a bathroom, sir," the officer said quietly,
"for heavens sake, don't wander into the press area. Those bastards are like
sharks looking for blood."
"Well, where the hell is the bathroom?"
The officer shook her head.
"No time. The meetings about to start up again and it wouldn't look
good for you, a mere captain, to come wandering in late."
Jason sighed and the officer pointed him to an airlock door.
He suddenly felt self conscious.
"Do I look all right?"
She smiled, reaching up to adjust the Medal of Honor which hung from a
blue sash around his throat.
"Fine, sir, and paused for an instant. "And by the way I'm behind you
one hundred per cent with what you said back there, sir."
He forced a smile and went through the airlock and back into the
For a frontier orbital base the room was richly appointed, with dark
wood paneled walls, soft indirect lighting, and even a real oak table taking
up most of the center of the room. The chairs around the conference table
were all high backed, heavily cushioned and covered in the dark navy blue of
the fleet. In front of each desk was a small ensign denoting the rank of the
military officers present, and most of them were three and four stars.
The short recess was nearly over and Jason moved to his position
sitting directly behind Admiral Tolwyn. He looked over at Hunter, who Tolwyn
had picked as his second aide for this meeting, and Ian winked.
"No and I'm ready to burst," Jason groaned and Hunter smiled.
Why Tolwyn had picked the two of them to serve as his aides at this
meeting was beyond Jason. He knew the admiral's regular staff officers were
seething over being cut out of this armistice meeting and Jason could only
surmise that in part it was an act of friendship, to let him in at an
historic moment, but also as a sort of window dressing for Tolwyn to have
two of his most decorated and famous officers sitting directly behind him.
He looked around the circular table and saw that nearly everyone was
back from the short recess, aides sitting erect behind their superiors who
were talking softly to each other, some serious, others chuckling over a
shared witticism. Most of the laughter came from the civilian side of the
room. A door at the far side of the room opened and everyone rose, the
military personnel coming to stiff attention as the President of the
Confederation, Harold Rodham, stepped into the room. Jason had first met him
at the Medal of Honor presentation and was surprised with how short he
really was, something the holo films never seemed to pick up on.
"Be seated, please," Rodham said quietly.
Jason could feel the electric tension rippling through the room.
"I'm prepared to hear any last minute presentations, but I want it done
in a calm and logical fashion."
Jason knew that it was futile. In any other setting, without a sea of
admiral, commandant and generals' stars around the table he might even have
been tempted to speak up but Admiral Tolwyn relieved him of that by coming
to his feet.
"Admiral Tolwyn," Rodham said nodding his head.
Tolwyn looked around the room and then focused his attention on the
civilians sitting around Rodham.
"You are all well aware that I am the most junior officer sitting at
this table; perhaps for that reason it might be best for me, as a front line
officer, to review one more time our objections to this armistice which you
seem so intent on formalizing."
Jason could see Rodham bristle slightly.
"What you are agreeing to is a freezing in place of all forces until
such time as a peace commission can be established, agreeable to both sides,
who will then negotiate a permanent cease fire between the Terran
Confederation and the Kilrathi Empire. At the same time you are agreeing to
a freezing of all construction of military ships, the refitting of vessels
currently in dry dock, and the enlistment of new personnel."
Rodham gave a curt nod of reply.
"I find it difficult at best to accept this."
"You're in the military and don't you forget that you are under
civilian control, so you d better accept it," Rhonda Jamison, the foreign
minister who had been the key negotiator for the armistice announced coldly.
Rodham extended his hand towards Jamison as if to calm her.
"Go on, Admiral."
"I am not a politician, I am a warrior, following in the thousand year
tradition of my family who served in the ancient navy, army, and air force
of Britain and the space forces of the Confederation . My family has seen
the best of those moments, proud of the memory of six Victoria Crosses in
our past. Tolwyns served at Waterloo, on the Somme, in the Battle of
Britain, at Minsk and the siege of London and shed their blood heavily in
this latest war. We have seen the best and we have endured the worst, and
sir, I fear that this decision might very well produce the most disastrous
defeat in the history of the human race, and perhaps even spell its eventual
Jamison sniffed and then shook her head angrily.
"Admiral, we are not discussing genealogy or ancient history, a passion
I find many military men are fond of indulging in. We are discussing real
politics, the here and now."
"And so am I," Tolwyn replied. "Eighteen months ago I feared that at
best the war would simply drag on forever and more likely would eventually
lead to our defeat. And then, with new tactical innovations and the latest
improvements in technology we appear to have not only reached a balance but
in fact, for the first time in thirty years of fighting, appear to have at
least gained an edge. We found two weak spots: their logistical support, and
their construction. We found the ways to hit at them, to slip past their
main battle fleet and we are hurting them. Our intelligence net has detected
that some ships are forced to go into action with less than seventy percent
of their standard armaments. We've noticed dozens of small signs. The
crucial, the absolutely crucial element in this is to keep the pressure on
them, not to let it up."
Jason could see the clear division in the room, the military personnel,
especially the front line fleet commanders, nodding in agreement, the
civilian personnel sitting quietly.
"Don't let the pressure off now, I'm begging you, reminding you that
we've lost millions upon millions of our finest to get to this point. Now is
when we should be tightening the screws, hitting them all out with
everything we have. Until you stopped us ten days ago. Operation Red Three
held the promise of inflicting serious losses on the Empire þ it might have
permanently put them off balance.
"Might have," Jamison replied. "That is always part of your military
jargon, might have. There was no guarantee. In earlier testimony today you
heard Admiral Banbridge state that Kilrathi front line carriers still
outnumbered ours by nearly two to one. Simulation studies of Red Three
demonstrated that the probability for full success was less than twenty
percent, and there was a twenty-five percent chance of a reversal and a loss
of most of our escort carriers with little if anything gained. You might
take such things lightly, Admiral, after all you would be secure in your
heavy carrier, but I lost a son on one of those suicide missions you and
your people so blithely send out."
Tolwyn glared at Jamison.
Her loss was well known and she made a point of attacking the fleet
whenever possible as a result. He could feel some sympathy for her, but on
the other side of the coin was the fact that there was hardly anyone in the
room who had not lost loved ones in this war and to accuse him of not
feeling that pain was enraging.
He focused his thoughts and pushed on.
"With support it would have worked. But you obviously don't want to
give that support now."
"The question is moot," Admiral Banbridge interjected, looking over at
Tolwyn, extending his hand in a calming gesture. "Red Three was scrubbed ten
days ago and is impossible now to restart. Kilrathi intelligence definitely
has the plans by now."
"You just don't get the whole picture, do you, Admiral?" Jamison
snapped. "Do you know just how much it costs to build and launch one fleet
"Seventy three billion and some change," Jamison continued, not giving
Tolwyn a chance to interject. "A full compliment of fighters another ten
billion. In the last three years we've lost over one and a half trillion
dollars worth of carriers and fighters."
"I rather think of it as some fine young men and women that we lost,
such as your son," Tolwyn bristled.
Jamison stared at Tolwyn with hate filled eyes.
"You can think of it that way," Jamison replied, "but I and the rest of
the government also have to look at the war from a financial light. It cost
nearly eight trillion a year to run the war and we have a deficit of over
forty trillion. It'll take generations just to pay that off. Shortages are
wide spread, in a fair part of the Confederation rationing of everything
from fuel to nylon to eggs is in place. You say we shouldn't give the
Kilrathi a breather? I think rather it is we who are lucky to have a
breather. The civilian population is war weary, Tolwyn and after thirty-two
years of fighting I think we have had enough and for that matter the
Kilrathi have had enough as well. I'm sick to death of the old military
logic of having to waste more blood to somehow uphold the honor of those who
are already dead. It's time to let the dead rest, Admiral. Let's finish it
now and get on with the peace."
"I find it difficult to accept that a full accounting of the Kilrathi
armed forces has actually been reached," Tolwyn replied, falling back on the
second position of his argument. "I find it difficult to accept that we are
actually allowing Kilrathi personnel into Confederation space as observers
and in general I find it difficult to accept that our leaders would be so
foolish as to actually believe this entire affair."
The civilians in the room bristled, but Rodham held up his hand and
nodded for Tolwyn to continue.
"In the two years prior to your agreement to this armistice we dealt a
series of bitter reversals to the Kilrathi. It must have had an impact on
their morale. As you know, the young captain behind me," and he paused to
nod back towards Jason, "took part in the destruction of six carriers right
on the doorstep of the Imperial home planet.
"Now is not the time to call an armistice; now, if anything, is the
time to jack the pressure up to the breaking point. I've heard some of you
say that we don't really understand the Kilrathi, that down deep they are
just like us. I don't think so. Maybe there'll come a day when we can live
peacefully with them, but unfortunately it is not now. We must deal with
them through strength. All our psy-ops studies have shown that if the
Kilrathi have contempt for anything it is for one who displays hesitation or
weakness. Even their word for such a person, tuka, is spoken with a sneering
contempt, a word so insulting that a Kilrathi challenged with such a smear
will fight to the death. And I tell you now that we are tuka in their eyes
if we fall for this subterfuge."
There was an angry ripple in the room and even Tolwyn's superiors
"Only now are we really starting to learn of their political and social
system. Take that information and use it, consider the suggestion formulated
by the psy-ops division, plan K-7, which called for specific strikes against
the holdings of only one or two families, making them share an unequal
burden and perhaps cause a permanent rift triggering a civil war. Now is not
the time to stop, it's the time to finish this war on our terms."
Jason could sense the frustration and heartbreak in Tolwyn's voice and
looking around the room he saw the division in feelings, some present
nodding their heads in agreement, while others sat in silence, their faces
We are making the agreement on our terms," Jamison retorted sharply,
her voice hard with anger.
"Our observation teams have been granted full access to Kilrathi ship
yards as a gesture of good faith to see that no further military
construction takes place. They're pulling back their frontier bases and
limiting patrols to light corvette-size ships within the demilitarized zone.
I've spent countless hours hashing out the details of this with Baron Jukaga
and I know that he is just as fervent in his desire to see this war end as
"He is a liar."
A bit startled, all in the room turned to the Firekka representative
who throughout the two long days of meetings had remained silent.
Rikik, the flock leader of her world, stood up and cocked her head,
looking about the room. The Firekka were something of a strange sight,
looking like eight foot parrots one only encountered in nightmares or
hallucinations after a few too many drinks. Jason looked over at Hunter, who
had helped to save Rikik's life after she was taken prisoner by the Kilrathi
and his friend grinned.
"Baron Jukaga is a liar," Rikik announced, looking about the room. "If
you humans are so foolish as to believe his words then you are doomed.
Remember my planet, the only world we lived upon, was attacked by them for
their Sivar ritual. Millions of my flock died, our cities were smashed. It
will be a generation or more before we recover. I cannot now believe that
you will agree to this foolishness."
"My good friend," Rodham said quietly, smiling as if Rikik were an old
companion who might have spoken out of turn. "Remember we too have suffered
in this war. It has lasted for over thirty years. More than a hundred
colonial worlds, and half a dozen primary planets have been devastated.
Billions have died, billions," he paused for a moment, his features pained
and Jason knew it was not an act, for Rodham's youngest daughter had been
killed during the First Enigma campaign.
He cleared his throat and continued.
"Thirty years of our blood, our wealth, and all our ingenuity has been
poured into this conflict. Think of what we could have done with all that we
have spent and lost if it had only been applied to our continued peaceful
expansion into the universe.
"Admiral Tolwyn claims that the tide was starting to turn. I don't
think so. We have become like two wrestlers of equal strength, locked in a
hold neither can use to bring his opponent down, and yet unable to break the
hold of his opponent. How much longer must this go on? Another thirty years,
another generation dead and still no end in sight, until finally, one day
we'll have bombed and burned and stabbed each other back into the stone
"Baron Jukaga has offered a way out, to simply stop the killing. It is
just that simple. We simply agree to stop. I know you in the military don't
like this; you're thinking of all your comrades who have died and now you
wonder for what? I'll tell you that they did die for something. It wasn't
victory, since that is impossible, but they did prevent defeat. To call for
the war to continue now with the argument that the sacrifice had to mean
something is simply to ask for the pouring of yet more blood on the graves
of those who do not want it."
He hesitated for a moment.
"I do not want my grandchildren to die the way my daughter has. I think
she would want them to live, to grow up without fear and live in peace."
"They'll die, only it'll be worse. At least your daughter died
fighting, your grandchildren will die having their throats cut for the
Sivar, the way my people died," Rikik cried, her voice shrill.
"I think that's out of order and insensitive," an aide sitting behind
Rodham snapped angrily.
"One can't worry about being sensitive when the issue is the survival
of a nation or of an entire race," Rikik said in reply. "I'm sick to death
of the word sensitivity when it is a mask for those who wish to advance
their own cause at the expense of others. If the Confederation is foolish
enough to take this deal, then I will take the Firekka out of the
"And who will protect you then?" Jamison replied sarcastically.
"You did a damn poor job of protecting us when the Kilrathi hit us last
time, your fleet withdrawing óout of strategic necessity,' I think you
called it. It couldn't be any worse on our own, and I'll tell you this,
there'll be more than one frontier colonial world that will go with us. You
don't even see members of the Landreich worlds or the Grovsner colonies
here, since they want no part of this peace."
"That's treason," Jamison sputtered, "and if the colonial worlds
violate the armistice they will be disciplined.
"No, its survival and mark my words, there'll come a day when you will
choke on the papers you plan to sign here this day. And as for disciplining
the colonial worlds, just try it," Rikik said with a cold laugh.
She looked around the room, more than one of the military personnel
looking at her and nodding. Without another word she drew back from the
table and stalked from the room, followed by her one aide.
"Old K'Kai sure has taught her niece well," Hunter whispered, waving a
slight greeting to his Firekka comrade as she followed her niece out of the
There was a moment of uneasy silence.
"I think that continued debate on this subject will only serve to cause
more animosity and outbreaks," Rodham finally said. "I thank all of you for
your input over the last two days regarding this issue.
"Here it comes, Ian whispered.
"I plan to sign the articles of the armistice within the hour and with
it establish a bilateral peace commission to work towards a permanent treaty
between the Terran Confederation and the Kilrathi Empire. You are invited to
join me if you wish. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen."
Rodham stood up and walked out of the room, followed by the civilians
"Damn them to hell!"
Jason looked over at Admiral Banbridge who flung his memo computer down
on the table and stormed out of the room through the opposite door.
Tolwyn turned and looked back at Ian.
"Well, your Firekka friends sure played a damn fine scene," he said
with a grin.
"Think they'd really do it?" Jason asked, turning to Ian.
"Those birds might not look like much when you first meet them, but
I'll tell you this, they make the finest liquor in this corner of the
universe and straight or drunk when they make a promise they keep it."
"What about that threat of the colonies not observing the armistice?"
"Let's not talk of that now, Tolwyn said quietly. "Shall we go watch
Though he hated to admit it, Jason found that he actually did want to
see what was already being hailed as the most historic moment in a hundred
years, as if all the victories and even the defeats of the war had already
Tolwyn stood up and started for the door that Rodham had gone through.
Admiral Noragami, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff came around from the
other side of the table and approached Tolwyn.
"Nice try, Geoff, but it was doomed from the start."
"I heard that a little something regarding you has just come to light
as well," Nuragami said quietly.
Tolwyn merely smiled and Nuragami extended his hand.
"Take care of yourself, Geoff," Nuragami said and turning he went out
the opposite door taken by Banbridge. Knowing how Tolwyn felt about the
whole affair, Jason was more than a little surprised that his admiral was
not boycotting the signing as well.
They passed down a long corridor lined with Marine security guards and
stepped into an open cavernous hall which served as the hangar bay for this
deep space base, the vacuum of space on the other side kept out by the
magnetic lock field
How many times have I looked out a bay like that, he thought, sitting
inside my fighter, strapped in and waiting for the launch signal? The mere
thought of it set his heart racing again. Even though he was glad the
fighting had stopped, he knew he'd miss it, the adrenaline rush of
launching, the pure joy of flying the most powerful fighter craft ever
built. If this peace really did hold, all of that was finished. It was a
strange feeling of relief and regret all at once.
"Gonna miss it," Hunter said softly, standing by Jason's side.
Hunter nodded that they should follow Tolwyn, who was slowly weaving
his way through the crowd to stand with the small knot of military personnel
who had decided to witness the event
A polished durasteel table two meters wide was the only furniture in
the middle of the hangar. On the table, in ornate gold embossed folders
rested the armistice agreement with copies in Standard English and Kilrah.
To one side more than a hundred representatives of the Confederation were
present, easily outnumbered by the hundreds of members of the press. The
other side of the table and hangar was empty.
A door on the far side of the hangar opened and a lone Kilrathi emerged
without fanfare, dressed in a simple uniform of scarlet and gold. The press
turned their cameras on him, several breaking with protocol and shouting
Baron Jukaga turned, looked at them, and smiled, raising his paw in a
friendly wave. The press went wild, moving in closer.
"I have a little formality to attend to first," he announced, his
standard English nearly perfect and free of the tendency of putting a
hissing s on soft ending words and hard k's on most others, "then we'll have
a chance to talk later," and his disarming informality caused several of the
press to laugh.
Behind him came yet more Kilrathi, these in the more formal garb of
high officers and they filed silently past the cameras and lined up behind
Jukaga. Jason noticed that there was only one Kilrathi photographer
recording the scene as compared to the swarm of reporters from the
"We have reached agreement then?" Jukaga asked standing by the other
side of the table opposite Rodham.
The president smiled, nodded, and pointed at the formal documents set
in the middle of the table.
Without hesitating Jukaga took up a pen, signed the documents, and then
slid them back to Rodham, who signed it as well. The two shook and Jukaga
turned and looked back at the press.
"Friends, this armistice is but a start. Let us truly come to realize
that the universe is big enough for both of us and that a permanent peace
can be arrived at. These proceedings are now ended."
A cheer erupted and Tolwyn, shaking his head, looked back at Jason.
"He certainly knows his Earth history with that closing line. Let's
hope it isn't prophetic as to who the ultimate winner is."
Jason wanted to ask him to explain the reference but decided to let it
The crowd started to break apart into smaller groups many heading for
the refreshments arrayed along a side wall. Jason followed in Tolwyn's wake
and noticed a Kilrathi officer coming up to them.
"You are Tolwyn?' the Kilrathi asked.
"I am Tukarg. I was in command of the carrier Gi'karga in what you call
the Third Enigma Campaign. I wished to tell you your counterstrike was
Taken off guard Tolwyn said nothing.
"I also understand you commanded the opening of the recent action at
Tolwyn still remained silent. From behind Tukarg another Kilrathi
appeared and Jason was surprised to see that it was the Baron.
He was not as tall as most Kilrathi and could even be called slight by
their standards, though that was still powerful when compared to a human.
His coat was a smooth golden red, and from what little Jason knew of
Kilrathi blood lines, the coloring was a mark of the most noble breeding.
His eyes were dark, almost coal black, but as he approached a flash of
reflected light made them appear to glow for an instant with the color of
"A nice quote of MacArthur," Tolwyn said as Jukaga approached. "Did it
have some hidden meaning?"
Jukaga laughed softly.
"Maybe a bad choice on my part; I didn't want to imply that it was you
surrendering to us."
"I understand you've read a lot of our literature.
"A hobby I've found fascinating. Your Chaucer's tales are much the same
as our own Backrka's óTomes of Sivar,' about a group of pilgrims traveling
to a holy shrine.
"A nice choice of English works to study," Tolwyn said.
"Ah yes, you were born near Canterbury."
"However, the pilgrimage to the tomb of Thomas Becket had slightly
different rituals than the blood feast of Sivar," Tolwyn replied.
"Different people, different customs, as they say, but nevertheless I
do enjoy your literature."
"You've spent time then studying me?" Tolwyn asked.
"You were an adversary. I heard you led the first wave at Vukar Tag, of
course I would want to know more of you."
"So you read Chaucer, is that it?"
"And who are some of the others?" Tolwyn asked quietly.
"Political, intellectual writers."
"Such as Machiavelli, Sun Tzu," Tolwyn ventured, "or perhaps some pages
from the writings of Mao or General Giap and his writings on how to weaken
an opponent through means other than war; or perhaps a little Clausewitz or
the Alpha Centurian theorist Vitivius the Younger."
"Why those in particular? Is this a recommended reading list?"
"No," Tolwyn said quietly, "just speculation."
"Ah, another mistrustful military man," Jukaga replied his voice
pitched a little louder so that the press who had gathered at the edge of
the group could hear better.
"Your assumption, not mine," Tolwyn replied softly.
"Yet another prophet of doom that peace will never work," and he paused
for a second, noticing that several reporters and cameramen were jockeying
into position to catch the encounter.
"Admiral, aren't we late for our dinner appointment?" Jason said,
coming up behind Tolwyn, lying like mad, but unable to think of a better
excuse to extract his commander.
"Don't forget, Geoffrey . . ." and Jukaga paused, "May I call you
"My friends do," Tolwyn replied coldly.
"All right, then Admiral. Let me remind you that we Kilrathi have
suffered just as much in this unfortunate war. We have lost millions as
well. I've heard you people talk about atrocities, but we have suffered them
He looked over at Jason and smiled again.
"Though there were some of your warriors who did fight with honor and
tried to protect our innocent women and children, even if they were
ófurballs as you so ineloquently put it."
Jason felt uncomfortable by his attention but looked back at him,
Jukaga hesitated for a moment as if not wishing to say something.
"Speaking of atrocities," Tukarg, standing behind Jukaga, interjected.
"Let it drop, it's over," Jukaga replied
Tukarg shook his head
"I had clan blood on that ship," Tukarg said coldly and he turned to
look at the press.
We have intelligence information that your Admiral Tolwyn launched an
attack against one of our ships after he had already received the report
that a preliminary armistice agreement had been reached and that all
offensive action was to cease. Such an act is a war crime."
"An honest mistake," Jukaga said as if almost apologizing for Tukarg.
"And besides," he said with a forced laugh, "now you've gone and revealed
that we had cracked their latest fleet code.
"I'm sorry this has come up," Jukaga continued, "but perhaps there
should be an investigation to clear your name."
"There's no need for an investigation," Tolwyn said quietly
"Oh, then of course you are innocent."
"No, quite the contrary," Tolwyn replied, "I did it because it was my
duty. Now if you'll excuse me."
He nodded curtly and turned away.
The press swarmed after him shouting questions, shouldering Jason and
Ian out of the way.
"Nicely done," Jason said coldly, looking straight at Jukaga.
For a brief instant he felt as if he could almost sense the contempt
and then the smile returned.
"I didn't want it to happen. I know how a warriors blood can get up. It
was unfortunate but such incidents happen in war. It was best to leave it
forgotten now that it is over."
"But of course," Jason said coldly.
"You were the one who raided our home world, weren't you?"
"First to Kilrah," Jason said quietly, repeating what was now the
slogan of his ship.
Again there seemed to be that flash.
"Masterful; I studied it intently afterwards."
"I just bet you did," Ian replied.
"Perhaps we'll talk again someday," Jukaga said stiffly and turning he
walked off, the smile returning as he waved to the cameras.
"Come on," Jason said angrily, looking over at Hunter, "let's get out
of here, I need to find a bathroom."
Jukaga turned back and watched Tolwyn disappear from view, surrounded
by a horde of press shouting questions. Tolwyn's actions had caught him by
surprise. It was a convenient way of removing one of the finest fleet
admirals of the Confederation and to discredit the fleet as well. And yet it
struck him as strange that Tolwyn would allow his passion to get the better
of him. It did not fit the pattern at all of a man he had studied so
intently. He found that he almost felt sorry for him. How easily he had been
destroyed, not in battle, but by a ruse. The ever eager reporters of the
Confederation, who would now destroy a man that the best fleet officers of
the Empire found to be unbeatable.
Yes, he could feel sorry for him even if he was the enemy, and that
realization Jukaga found to be almost troubling.
"All engines stop."
"All engines stop, sir. Hard dock to station secured"
Docking a ship the size of an escort carrier was always a bit of a
tricky job, and with the maneuver finished Jason sat back in his chair and
took a sip of coffee.
He looked around at his bridge crew who stood silent. The speeches had
already been made earlier when the rest of the crew, except for the few
hands necessary for this final run out from Earth orbit, had transferred
There was simply nothing more to be said.
"Secure reactor to cold shut down," he said softly.
He paused for a moment.
"I guess that's it."
The crew was unable to reply.
"Dock yard officer coming aboard," a petty officer announced and Jason
A minute later he heard the footsteps in the corridor and tried to
force a smile. A lone officer came on to the bridge, faced Jason, and
"Lieutenant Commander Westerlin, commander fleet yard five, requesting
permission to come aboard, sir."
He tried to be formal in reply but his voice still caught slightly.
"Permission granted," and returned the salute.
The officer pulled out a small piece of paper and unfolded it.
"By order of C-in-C ConFleet, to Captain Jason Bondarevsky, CVE
Tarawa," the officer began, and Jason could see he had been through the
ritual so many times that he barely needed to read the orders.
"As of the this date, CVE 8 Confederation Fleet Ship Tarawa is hereby
officially stricken from active list and placed in inactive reserve. Unless
otherwise noted in attached form below, all officers and crew are hereby
discharged from active fleet service upon completion of all proper discharge
procedures and placed on inactive reserves. Signed C-in-C ConFleet."
The officer folded the paper and hesitated for a moment.
"Sir, its a bit out of form but I also received a note from the
Commander of Third Fleet, Admiral Banbridge, which he asked me to read."
Jason nodded, and the officer unfolded the piece of paper.
"Never in the annals of the fleet has so much been accomplished by a
ship such as yours. I am proud to have served with all of you. The name
Tarawa will not be forgotten, God bless you all."
The officer handed the paper to Jason, who smiled.
"Sir, for what's it's worth I hate this job," the officer said quietly.
"A lot of the other ships I don t really care about, but your ship, sir,"
and he hesitated. "Sir, I'm sorry I have to take over this old girl. She's a
"So am I," Jason sighed "Just take good care of her."
"We'll do our best."
He turned and looked back at his crew.
"Time you folks shipped off. I'll be along shortly."
One by one they filed off the bridge, Jason standing by the door and
shaking the hand of each until finally he was alone except for Westerlin.
"I'll leave you alone if you want, sir," the officer said, as if he
were a mortician withdrawing from the side of a grieving widower, and he
silently stepped off the bridge.
Jason walked around the bridge one last time. It had been his bridge
for really only a very short time. After the raid on Kilrah the ship had
been laid up for a year. It would in fact have been far cheaper to simply
scrap her and build a new one from scratch, but public opinion was dead set
against it. During that year he'd been stuck Earthside, assigned to the
fleet war college for advanced training, finishing up with a brief stint at
the Academy to run their latest holo combat simulator training program. But
the ship had sailed at last, only to serve in one final brief action before
the armistice. Yet, it was his ship, it was in fact, since Kilrah, the only
thing he really loved.
He could have stayed longer, but then farewells should never be drawn
out. Leaving the bridge without a backward glance he went into his cabin and
hoisted the duffel bag off his bed. The room looked sterile now, just
another standard ship's room, painted the usual light green, with one
closet, a bed, a desk, and a computer terminal and holo projection box. The
few pictures on his desk, his brother and himself taken before Joshua had
gone off to the Marines, and died on Khorsan, a faded two dimensional image
of his mother and father taken on the day they were married, and a shot of
Svetlana that one of her friends in the Marines had sent along after her
death þ they were in his duffel.
He closed the door behind him and walked down the now dimmed corridors.
He passed the flight ready room and had a flash memory of his first day
aboard, chewing out his new pilots, and passed on into the hangar deck. The
Rapiers, Ferrets, and Sabres lined the deck and it felt strange to hear the
silence. No engines humming, no shouted commands blaring over the
loudspeakers, the hissing roar of the catapult or the thunderclap of engines
kicking in afterburners on a hot launch. It was a silence that was as
complete and deeply disturbing as if he were walking through a tomb.
He turned to face the bulkhead and the roll of honor listing all those
who had died while serving aboard the ship. Coming to attention he saluted
the honor roll and then noticed that the commissioning flag which should be
to the right of the honor roll was missing. He felt a flicker of anger over
that, wondering who had taken it down, and turning started for the airlock
door which was secured to the shipyard docking station. Turning the corner,
he saw a small line of men and women waiting for him: Doomsday, Sparks (his
head of fighter maintenance), Kevin Tolwyn, and last of all Ian Hunter
looking strange indeed dressed in civilian mufti, having been already
retired from the fleet the day before. The group came to attention, saluted,
and Kevin stepped forward to hand Jason a folded flag, the commissioning
pennant of Tarawa.
"Thought you'd want this, sir," Kevin said with a grin. "Someday you
might want to hang it back up again."
To one side he saw a group of technicians, the mothballing crew, who
would finish the shut down of the ship for cold storage. Though the
government had agreed to the armistice and with it an immediate cut back of
fifty percent of the active fleet, at least they were not taking the ships
out and simply cutting them up as the Kilrathi had first suggested; the
military had managed to stop that mad idea. It had become a major fly in the
ointment in the four weeks since the armistice, with the Kilrathi
threatening to pull out of the peace talks but so far the civilian
government had not budged, though Jamison was screaming for even deeper
cutbacks. The inactive fleet was therefore, at least for the moment,
secured, the ships hooked to orbital bases for power and maintenance.
Rodham, however, had agreed to the ship's crews being paid off and assigned
to inactive reserves as a cost cutting measure, a fact which meant that
hundreds of thousands of highly trained personnel were being pulled from
their ships and demobilized as quickly as ships were pulled from the front
and sent to the main bases either above Earth, Sirius, or out at Carnovean
He turned to face back down the corridor and bowed his head for a
"Good-bye, my friends," he whispered, remembering all those who in a
way would be forever young, and forever bound to his ship. Fighting back the
tears he turned without another word and went through the airlock, his
friends following in silence.
* * * * *
"Rear Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn, approach the court."
Walking stiffly, Geoff came up before the court martial officers and
Admiral Banbridge, as the presiding officer, stood up, his hands
shaking as he unfolded a single sheet of paper.
"Rear Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn, it is the decision of this court that
you have been found guilty of disobedience of fleet orders, in that you
knowingly attacked a vessel of the Kilrathi Empire after being made fully
aware of General Order number 2312A, ordering the suspension of all
"It is the decision of this court that you hereby be stripped of your
rank and suffer a dishonorable discharge with the loss of all privileges and
honors due your rank."
Banbridge lowered his head and nodded. A Marine captain came forward
and took Tolwyn's ceremonial sword, which had rested on the desk of the
court martial officers since the opening of the trial. He placed the tip of
the sword on the ground and held it at an angle. Raising his foot he slammed
his heel down on the side of the blade, snapping it in half. The crack of
the sword breaking echoed through the chamber and Geoff winced at the sound.
The Marine tossed the hilt of the sword on the floor by Geoff's feet and
then stepped up to Geoff.
The Marine looked him straight in the eyes and Geoff could see that the
man hated what he was about to do.
Grabbing hold of the insignias of rank on Geoff's shoulders the Marine
tore them off with a violent jerking motion so that Geoff swayed and
struggled to keep at attention. The Marine again looked him in the eyes.
"I'm sorry, sir," he whispered and Geoff nodded a reply.
The Marine turned back to face the court and placed the torn bits of
fabric and brass on the desk.
Geoff looked squarely at Banbridge and snapped off a salute, trying not
to notice the tears in his old mentor's eyes. Breaking with tradition he
leaned over and picked up the broken hilt and blade of his sword, turned,
and marched out of the room. After he left a side door opened and a lone
figure came through it, bending low and then standing up to his full height.
"Ambassador Vak'ga," Banbridge said coldly, "the fleet wishes to extend
its apologies over this incident and as you were informed this morning,
restitution will be paid to the families of those killed in the incident.
Admiral Tolwyn has been dishonorably discharged from the service in
"Does that mean that he will now commit Zu'kara?"
"How do you say it?" Vak'ga rumbled. "Yes, ritual suicide in atonement
for an act of shame to ones hrai, I mean family."
"That's not our way, Banbridge replied coldly. "And besides, the
carrier he was attacking had also launched a strike after the armistice and
Tolwyn could be justified in his action by acting in self-defense. Good God,
Ambassador, we've logged more than a hundred such incidents during the first
day, and hundreds more since. Shutting off thirty years of war is not easy."
"So that is it?" Vak'ga snapped. "He is simply told to go away with no
further punishment? With us, for such a crime, he would not even be allowed
the glory of Zu'kara, his throat would be slit and his body hung by its
heels like a prey animal."
"I'm sure that would be the case for you," he finally replied, the
sarcasm in his voice evident. "As for Geoff Tolwyn, losing the fleet and his
rank is the worst punishment imaginable. After all it was the only family
he'd had for the last twenty years."
He knew that the Ambassador was most likely aware that Tolwyn's wife
and boys had been killed in a raid; most of the holo news reports had played
on that theme as a motivation for his spectacular career and his final
"I lost my family too," Vak'ga snarled, "or didn't you know that?"
Banbridge nodded but said nothing.
The Ambassador turned as if to leave.
"Mr. Ambassador, one question before you go."
"The issue of POW exchange. A full accounting within twenty four
standard days was promised on the day the armistice was signed. We have
fully complied and you have not."
"For us it is no issue," the Ambassador replied. "Anyone who allowed
himself to be captured has lost all honor, he is sa'guk, one who is already
dead to his hrai. We do not care. I do not see why it is of such great
concern to you."
"Because it is, damn it," Banbridge snapped. "We've lived by the
agreement on every point. You are already dragging your feet. I demand a
full reporting of all POWs immediately."
"Demand? We demanded the head of Tolwyn and you slap his wrist and send
him away. We demanded the suppression of your raiders based on your frontier
worlds and an apology from the Firekka for their belligerent statements. I
will not listen to demands from you in turn on such trivial things."
He turned and strode from the room.
War was a hell of a lot easier," Banbridge said darkly.
Jason looked up from his drink as Hunter came into the Vacuum Breathers
The "Vacuum Breather" was one of the favorite watering holes just off
the main military base on the moon. It had an old tradition that any patron
who had breathed vacuum, that is experienced the hulling of his ship, and
survived, received an honorary beer mug with his name on it. The far well of
the bar was lined with hundreds of mugs. The first beer of the day was
always free for such an honoree when he came in and his mug was pulled down
from the rack.
Gallagher, the owner of the bar, was legendary for his love of the
service. He was an old fleet lifer with over thirty years service before
retiring, thus his "boys and girls" as he called them, were almost like his
own family and he was always ready to loan an extra twenty, or stand a free
"Any luck?" Ian asked, pulling his mug down from the back of the room
and coming back to settle in by Jason and Doomsday. The barkeep came up,
took the mug, filled it and slid it back to Ian who nodded his thanks.
Sighing, Jason shook his head. Jobs, at the moment, were scarcer then a
good bottle of Firekka Firewater. There'd been a lead that an old
Victory-class transport, a ship that was already out of date when it was
mass produced in the first years of the war, needed a co-pilot and flight
engineer. When he showed up at the office he already knew it was hopeless.
At least a hundred others were there to apply, a few of them old comrades
that he hadn't seen since his days on Gettysburg. It was a great reunion but
no job, the slots filled by the former captain of a frigate and her first
officer who were willing to take pay fifty percent below standard. If it
wasn't for forty/one hundred benefits þ one hundred a week for forty weeks þ
and free housing in former barracks and training centers, nearly everyone in
the fleet would be starving to death.
"How about you?"
"Same story," Ian said with a sigh as he settled down to the bar beside
"I always knew it'd come to this end," Doomsday said quietly, and Jason
"Damn it, man, for years all I've heard you prophesy is that the war
was going to kill you. You've got eight campaign ribbons, a medal of honor,
two silver stars, the Vegan victory Award with diamonds, half a dozen
fighters shot out from under you and how many kills was it?"
"I lost count after sixty."
"And never a damn scratch," Jason said. "Besides that you cleaned us
all out in that poker game last night. You're the luckiest damn pilot in the
fleet and the most depressing."
Doomsday sighed, mumbled softly in Maori, and motioned for another beer
for himself and for Ian who nodded a thanks.
"And I lose all my hard won earnings buying you guys drinks."
"Well, at least we're here to drink," Jason replied, raising his voice.
"Yeah, great, brother, beer money for us all from a grateful
Confederation," someone announced from the other side of the bar.
A chorus of sarcastic laughter echoed in the room and then fell silent
as first one, and then the rest of the patrons of the Vacuum Breathers Club
turned and looked at the door.
A heavily built Kilrathi filled the entryway and though his frame was
imposing he somehow looked a bit lost and nervous.
"Oh god, it's Kirha," Ian sighed, coming to his feet and approaching
the Kilrathi as he leaped down the steps. He started to drop to one knee and
Ian grabbed him by the shoulders.
"Not here," he hissed, óand besides, remember I released you from your
oath of fealty."
"But such an oath can never be truly broken, sire," Kirha said
"Just what the hell are you doing here? It's been years since I've seen
you, I thought you were exchanged or something. Why aren't you going back
"I was with the first batch of prisoners to be released last week. It
was a sad sight, my lord. Many did not know where to go, what to do, not
sure if their hrai will still recognize them. I heard I could find you here
and thought you might know what to do."
Ian slowly grinned.
"You saved my butt once, my friend, and I must say it's a pleasure to
see you again. Come on, let's have a drink.
Kirha came up to the bar, looked at the chairs which had no place for
his tail to stick through, and simply leaned against the railing, towering
over all the others in the room.
"Hey, we don't serve his kind in here," the bartender growled.
"Listen, buddy, the war's over, or haven't you heard, Doomsday said
"I don't care, we don't serve him."
"Say, brother, how long you been working in this bar?"
"If Gallagher, the owner of this dive, heard you talking like that in
his joint he'd throw you out on your butt. This Kilrathi's a friend of ours
and that buys him a drink anywhere we are."
"I don t care, I'm not serving him."
Kirha looked around nervously.
"If this will cause trouble, sire, I can withdraw."
"Hey, Hunter, who the hell's your buddy?" a pilot wearing the insignia
of a fighter squadron leader on his lapel shouted from the other side of the
"You blokes heard how Paladin and me rescued that Firekka princess?"
Most of the men and women in the dimly lit room nodded their heads,
laughed, and groaned. Ian's ability at telling stories of his heroics was
legendary in the Vacuum.
"Well, this is the furball that saved my butt. I'd have been dead along
with Paladin and that Firekka princess if it hadn't been for him."
The crowd nodded their approval and several came up to shake Kirha's
paw, a human ritual which he still obviously found to be disconcerting.
Ian turned back to the bartender.
"So serve him his damn drink."
The man looked around nervously, and mumbled to himself.
"What was that you said about my Cat friend?" a pilot at the edge of
the group snarled.
The bartender looked at Kirha
"Whatya have?" he said quietly.
"Scotch, single malt, make it a triple.
A chorus of laughter echoed around the room, breaking the tension and
even the bartender forced a weak grin as he filled the glass and pushed it
over. Ian started to slide a bill across.
"Sorry about the mistake, Captain. Keep it, it's on the house," the
bartender replied and turned away.
Kirha took the drink up, and bowed to Ian.
"To peace between the hrai of the Kilrathi and of Humans."
He downed the drink in a single gulp and a flash of sharp canines
signaled his delight. The bartender shook his head
"I guess you're all right."
"I've waited a long time for this drink," Kirha sighed, and Ian ordered
up another round.
"So what do you think of all of this?" Ian asked.
"You mean the peace agreements?" Kirha asked
"It is, how do you humans say it, warmed leavings of a male cow."
A ripple of laughter echoed around the room and even the bartender
"I know of this Baron Jukaga of the hrai of the Ki'ra. They are the
most ancient of the families, their blood even thicker than that of the
Imperial line. Their hatred of the Imperial family is well known."
"How's that?" the bartender asked, coming over, obviously curious.
"Before we gained space, in the Seventh Dynastic War, the family of the
Emperor gained dominance over Kilrah, defeating the Ki'ra who were forced to
swear allegiance. It surely would have become an Eighth Dynastic war, except
for the arrival of the foolish Utara."
"The who?" the barkeep asked, leaning against the side of the bar and
pouring Kirha another drink.
Kirha laughed, nodded his thanks and downed the drink in a single gulp.
"The Utara came to Kilrah offering friendship, trade, and peace. They
showed us how to make spacecraft, and the secret of the jump points."
Kirha shook his head.
"As soon as we gained space we slaughtered them. They were a weak and
Kirha laughed and pounded the bar as if he had just told an hysterical
joke. His audience looked at him in silence.
"Some thanks," Ian mumbled.
"It's considered quite funny by us," Kirha said, looking around the
room, still chuckling though finally realizing that his audience wasn't all
"I guess you don't see the humor."
"Maybe something got lost in the translation, mate," Ian interjected.
Kirha nodded, looking at the bar patrons.
"I see here, yet again a difference between us," he finally said. "To
us, such weakness was stupidity so pathetic that it becomes funny. I take it
you don't see it that way."
"Something like that," a voice from the back of the room said.
"It is why I, and those still prisoners, roared with laughter when we
heard you agreed to this thing you call an armistice. It was an act of
weakness. It will cause a loss of face for you, a loss of respect that you
have in some way earned by your valiant resistance against the might of the
Empire. There is an old Kilrah saying ósteel against iron is not a testing.'
Though we hated you, and wished to overthrow you, still we came to see that
our own courage could be honorably tested by matching it against your own.
That is the way of finding honor and glory.
"Your leaders have thrown that away. When we come again, it will be
with contempt and the slaughter will be brutal beyond your darkest
There was a stirring in the room.
"And will you help them out, buddy?" the barkeep asked quietly.
"I am without hrai, without country," Kirha said in reply. "I have
sworn allegiance to Hunter; it is now impossible for me to ever go back."
He looked almost mournful and there were even a couple of nods of
sympathy from the others in the room.
"You were telling us about this Jukaga," Jason asked.
"Ah yes, Jukaga. With the freeing from our planet and the outward rush
to wars with races we had never dreamed existed, our own civil wars became a
thing of the past, for at last we had found others to test our steel
against. But the clan of Ki'ra never reconciled itself to the fact that it
was not upon the Imperial throne, seeing this as the fluke of but one battle
lost ages ago. In Jukaga this disdain became more openly voiced with the
reversals of our war against you. That is something I suspect your leaders
have not given full weight to."
"How so?" Jason pressed.
"The fact that it was Jukaga who made the first overture of peace I
find to be surprising. It was not someone of the Imperial line. It means
that he has gained enough power to actually allow the Emperor to permit him
to be the voice of the throne.
"It is an interesting point of balance. The Emperor must have agreed to
this peace because there was some pressure, either from your fleets, or from
the other clans, perhaps both. Yet if he allows the peace to continue,
without a clear cut victory, he and his grandson the Crown Prince will fall
and Jukaga will rise to seize the throne their hrai has coveted for so long.
Jukaga must know as well that if he seizes the throne, but the war is not
then immediately started, he will fall as well, for the drive to killing is
so strong in our blood that we will quickly turn upon each other."
"Did anyone from Intelligence ever talk to you Cats about this?" Jason
"Oh many times. They were quite nice, some could even speak Kilrah, a
wondrous and strange thing coming from the mouth of a human. We laughed and
told them what we thought."
"And the reports were ignored," Ian said coldly.
"There is a game here," Kirha said, "and you humans are, how do you say
it, paki, pawns, for the power play of Jukaga. I think his wish is to use
the peace to somehow then blame the Emperor, eliminate him, and then
successfully finish the war himself."
"You sound like you don't like Jukaga."
Kirha growled, his fur bristling.
"He and his hrai think my coat not red enough, my blood not thick
enough; my own hrai is descendent from the Ragitagha," and as he pronounced
his clan name his teeth flashed, his mane standing out so that he appeared
to nearly double in size and the crowd backed up a bit, looking at him wide
"The Ki'ra," and he hissed, spitting on the floor, "if they think they
can take the throne under the Baron, they must bring a great Victory. By the
blood of my clan I promise you there will be war again and your leaders are
fools not to see it."
"Just like Tolwyn figured it," Jason said coldly, and he heard a lot of
angry mutters of agreement.
"Tolwyn, that traitor," a voice announced from the back corner of the
room, "they should have shot the bastard"
The room went silent, everyone turning to look at the speaker, who sat
at a dimly lit table, surrounded by half a dozen men and women who looked
around nervously. Jason could tell instantly that they were outsiders and
that reaction he found to be curious. He'd been around military types for so
long a group of obvious civilians in a military bar seemed strange.
Nearly everyone who frequented the place now were either the few still
serving with the fleet or ex-service, easily identified by the gold star of
the army, fleet pin, or fouled anchor pin of a Marine on his collar. There
was also an unexplainable something else that so easily set the veteran
aside, a bit of a distant far away look, from having seen the far reaches of
known space, from having fought, and far too often having seen friends die.
The six in the corner were not of the club.
The room went quiet for a moment and Jason finally broke the ice.
"It's a free Confederation, go ahead and speak up if you want to," he
A short portly man stood up and came over to the bar, followed a bit
nervously by the rest of his group.
"Doctor Torg's the name, he said, "I didn't get yours."
"I didn't give it, but it's Bondarevsky."
"Oh yes," one of the women behind Torg gasped. "I saw the holo about
you. Oh, the girl you loved was just so beautiful."
"The actress didn't look anything like her," Jason said quietly.
"But still it was so sad," and she came up to Jason's side and actually
touched him on the shoulder and then looked back excitedly at her friends.
Another woman in the group looked at the excited girl and shook her
"Say, Lisa, just back off a bit, OK."
"But he's famous, Elaine."
"I don't think he really wants the attention," Elaine replied.
Jason nodded her a thanks and then looked back at Torg.
"You don t like the Admiral, is that it?" Doomsday growled.
Torg looked over at Doomsday and then turned away, ignoring him.
"Do you know how much this war's been costing us?" Torg asked.
"I think so," Jason said quietly.
"Just under eight trillion a year."
"That wasn't the cost I was thinking of," Jason replied slowly, his
voice barely a whisper.
"The Baron is right. Didn't you see his interview on the holo
"We kind of missed it, Doomsday interjected, so please enlighten us."
"Why, he said that this war was nothing but a conspiracy on the part of
the military to get power and make money. The longer the war dragged on, the
more power your admirals, generals, and military suppliers got."
"Oh, Baron Jukaga said this," a pilot from the other side of the bar
said, "how interesting, and what about their fleet? I guess they're
"Why, he admitted that their fleet and military had done the same thing
"Was this holo shown in the Empire as well?" Kirha asked.
Torg looked up at him nervously.
"I don't know, I guess so. He said that a full report would soon be
issued by the Kilrathi-Human Friendship Committee."
"The what?" several patrons of the bar asked in unison.
"Why, it's just a wonderful idea," the excited girl announced as she
walked to the far wall to look at the rows of silver mugs. "Doctor Torg is a
member of the committee, he's even met the Baron."
"The Baron is organizing a friendship committee that will provide for
peaceful exchanges between our peoples," Torg said. "I think he's really
quite sensitive to our culture, to a tolerance for multicultural diversity
in the universe, and the rights of indigenous peoples of all races to live
in peace. I've even arranged for him to speak at my university on Earth
about his understanding of our literature and how to strengthen our ties of
"Just wonderful. I can't wait to attend," Doomsday said, the sarcasm
dripping in his voice.
"I think you're being too narrow minded in all of this," Torg
announced, looking at Doomsday and at the rest of the patrons who were
shaking their heads.
"Narrow minded. I hung my hide out on the line for over fifteen years
with the fleet and you're saying I'm narrow minded?" Doomsday snapped.
"That's the problem with military types like you," Torg replied with a
superior disdain. "You forget to look at the broader issues. This war was a
lot more complicated than kill or be killed. You military types just don't
see the big picture, that's always been a problem throughout history. I have
my doctorate in sociology, I've made a study of this war and the conspiracy
of a number of people to keep it going."
"Say, I like these mugs up here," the woman who had been talking to
Jason announced, going up to the wall and taking one down. The bar went
"Especially the ones with the gold handle. How can I get one?"
"You get killed in action, that's how. Gallagher gilds the handle of
the mug when he hears that the owner bought a permanent piece of space,"
Jason said quietly, and the woman looked at him wide eyed and then turned
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I didn't know."
"That's all right," Jason replied softly.
She came back to Torg's side.
"Dave, maybe we should go."
"Just a minute, Lisa."
Come on, I think we've interfered enough here." Torg ignored her.
"Listen, pilot, I think I know a bit more about the complexity of this
than you do. As a professor it's been my job to study and interpret these
types of issues," Torg said. "Just because you got a service pin doesn't
mean you own the Confederation. Remember the war's over, friend, so get off
the taxpayers back, get a real job, and get a life."
Several chairs were kicked over and Jason held up his hand as if
signaling his friends not to do anything.
"Listen, buddy," Jason replied. "You heard what Kirha said. This whole
thing is a sham. The Baron's talking us into laying our necks on the
chopping block and he'll be back with the axe. In fact I think some people
in this government are so stupid they're even helping him sharpen the blade
and drawing the line on our necks for us, and you'll be there to help them.
"Are you saying that President Rodham and I are traitors?"
"No, just stupid."
"If there's a traitor around it's you and people like you," Torg
snapped. "It's time to shut the hell up and get behind the government. Those
who disagree now with Rodham are traitors.
"I was never behind our government," Jason replied. "I was out in front
of it, laying my hide on the line. Maybe you people back here on Earth have
forgotten what a real gut-busting war is all about. Yeah, you've paid your
taxes for it, bought your war bonds, and lord knows sent enough of your sons
and daughters off to die in it.
"You're damn straight," Torg replied, "my wife's brother got killed in
it, and more than one of my students, and for what?"
"For what? Listen, buddy, out on the frontier, on the colonial worlds
we damn well knew for what. We saw it up front and up close. We knew that if
the Kilrathi ever got through the thin line of fighters and carriers our
worlds could be scorched to a cinder. I saw enough worlds like that. You
folks back here on Earth maybe have forgotten that."
"Not all of us," Elaine interjected. "I want peace, and I'd like to
believe the Baron, but I can understand what you're saying, Captain."
She smiled and Jason could sense Torg bristling that someone in his
entourage was siding with the enemy.
"Then if you want war so damn much, why are you drinking with this
Jason started to laugh.
"You just don't get it, do you?"
"Listen, doc," a pilot said, coming up to join the argument. "If I had
met this Kilrathi in a fight, him and me out there in the middle of it, I'd
have killed him without a second thought and I bet he'd have done the same
Kirha grinned and nodded.
"But that's my duty and it was his duty. I can hate his Empire, I can
hate what it does, but I can tell you this, at least the Cats serving in the
fleet, the pilots the crews of the ships usually fought honorably. Imperial
legion assault troops, now they're a different breed, but not him, at least
I hope not."
"I was with the fleet," Kirha announced proudly.
The pilot nodded.
"And I respect him. At least he shared the same things I did, the fear,
the months of waiting, the moments of sheer terror. I have more in common
with him than I do with armchair philosophers like you who think you know
about war. You professor types kill me. You think just because you get that
Ph.D. you're God almighty and everyone is supposed to kneel and call you
doctor. Some of the biggest fools I ever met when it came to war and
politics I usually found back in the classrooms. You fill your students'
minds with a bunch of crap about a world you don't even understand. You
don't have a clue as to just how nasty the real universe is, and then you
attack those who are protecting you from the darkness that would rip your
guts out if it had the chance."
"You're just another ignorant military brute," Torg sneered.
The pilot snapped.
"I spent four years at the Fleet Academy and six years in advanced
training. I have the equal of a doctorate in aerospace engineering and nine
years of combat tours," the pilot snapped. "As for this Kirha, I'll buy him
a drink anytime. As for you, the damn thing is I'll die defending you when
this war starts again, and that kind of makes me want to puke right now."
Torg hesitated for a second, unable to reply.
"Let's get out of here," Torg finally announced, looking back to his
friends. "There's just no sense in arguing with people like this."
"What do you mean people like this?" Ian interjected.
"You know what I mean."
"No, enlighten me."
"War mongers, that's what you are. You get your kicks out of it, and
then live high on the hog, taking your hundred a week pension out of the
taxpayers like me. If I had my way, we'd have ended this war years ago and
then spent the money for things that really count and not waste it on your
high tech war toys that are good for nothing but killing."
"I thought freedom was worth something," Doomsday interjected "Enough
of my friends died for it. Enough of my friends died so you could come here
and play tourist and speak your piece. That's the problem with people like
you. You forget all too quickly just how expensive freedom really is and
then curse at the very people who gave it to you. No wonder I'm always
depressed," and he turned away.
"Now I know where I've heard your name," Torg snapped, ignoring
Doomsday and looking back at Jason. "It wasn't that holo movie, it's that
you're one of Admiral Tolwyn's hangers-on. He's just the type I'm talking
about and he got exactly what he deserved. In fact I agree with the Baron,
he should have been executed."
Even as he finished speaking he realized he had overstepped his bounds.
Jason stood up and Ian put out his hand to restrain him. The bar went as
silent as a tomb.
Torg backed away a step.
"Come on, let's get out of here," he snapped, trying to exit with a
display of bravado and contempt and failing miserably.
"He turned and headed for the door and then looked back nervously over
"Go on, Torg, just get out of here. Haven't you done enough already?"
Torg quickly went out the door and then started talking loudly again,
denouncing Tolwyn and the military to his followers.
Jason turned back to the bar as Elaine came up to his side.
"I'm sorry, Jason."
"Why don't you just go, he whispered, trying to control the anger in
"Jason," and she touched him on the shoulder.
He looked over at her, shrugging his shoulder so that she drew her hand
"He's a jerk," she said
"I'd call him something else," Kirha said, and she smiled.
"Listen, Jason. There's always some people like him around."
"Well, he sure seemed like one of your friends."
She laughed softly.
"Like hell. He's a professor on some stupid committee that's supposed
to look at turning over some of the bases here on the moon to civilian use.
I'm up here on assignment to cover it."
"Yeah, a writer of sorts, my magazine wants me to do a story on the
project. That's how I wound up with him this afternoon."
"Oh great, another member of the press," Doomsday mumbled.
"We're not all idiots," she replied, "and what you heard from Torg
isn't what most people think. Sure, we want peace, but most of us, myself
included, are still suspicious of this whole thing. And I'll tell you this,
you might have your idiots like Torg ranting and raving on some campus and
boring the hell out of his students but he's a joke to anyone with real
sense. Nine out of ten people are damn proud of you. My older brother put in
two tours with the Marines till he got invalided out and I'm proud of him.
Ordinary folks aren't big on talking about it, but they feel it inside," and
as she spoke tears came to her eyes.
"Well, the way the papers and holo stations report it, it doesn't seem
that way," Jason said
"You know and I know the full story never really gets told, and didn't
your mother ever tell you don't believe everything you read?"
He laughed softly.
"As a matter of fact, she did."
"Look, I've got to go," she said and then fumbled in the bag over her
shoulder. She pulled out a card, scribbled a number on the back of it and
handed it to him.
"That's my phone number while I'm out on assignment, and the card's my
business office. I'll be up here for a couple of more days, maybe we can get
together for a drink."
"I'd make a great story, is that it? Ex-hero, what is he doing now?"
"Don't be so defensive," she said quietly. "It's not that at all."
"A pick up then, is that it?"
"You wish," she laughed. "No, just being a friend. That jerk really
embarrassed me. Most all of us are damned grateful for what all of you did
in the war. A lot of us lost people we know. If we're buying the peace thing
its because we just want the damn thing to stop. The offer's just being a
friend, nothing more."
She looked at him and smiled.
"You know we want it to end too," Jason replied, "but we want it to
stop after we know it's really over, and that we or our kids after us don't
have to go back out and fight it all over again.'
She nodded in reply.
"Just a friendly gesture on my part, no strings attached. OK?" She
extended her hand.
"OK," and he smiled softly.
She shook his hand and turned to leave and then hesitated, looking up
"So you really think its a trap?"
She sighed and left the bar.
Shaking his head Jason watched as she headed out into the main corridor
and disappeared around the corner. He had to admit she certainly was
attractive, he always did have a thing for very slender brunettes. But then
the flash memory of Svetlana hit him and all the old pain came back again.
He folded her card up and pushed it under the coaster for his beer. The
whole thing with Svetlana was still too close for him to want to even make a
try at getting involved again.
"Think what that professor guy said is for real?" the bartender asked
"If so you'd better learn how to serve Vak'qu, because many of my
former comrades will be drinking in this place once the next war is over,"
"What the hell is that?"
"It makes what you call single malt scotch look like bak."
Kirha and Ian laughed
"It has something to do with old diapers, Ian cut in. "Let's just say
Vak'qu will burn a hole right through durasteel."
"Hey, look what just dragged in," Doomsday announced and to the shock
of everyone he leaped from his seat and went up to greet a short, almost
baby-faced pilot coming through the door.
"Lone Wolf Tolwyn," Jason shouted and went up to join Doomsday in a
round of backslapping.
At the name Tolwyn the other pilots and ex-service crowd in the bar got
up and gathered around him.
"How's the old man taking it?" and the question was shouted a dozen or
more times as Kevin made his way up to the bar and allowed Doomsday to buy
his "old life saving buddy," a drink.
"It's been tough on him," Kevin announced quietly. "He's retired to the
family estate out on the Shetland Islands. At least out there the press
can't get at him."
Kevin chatted with the crowd for several minutes and then caught
Jason's eye and motioned for him to break away from the group.
As they moved away Kevin nodded for Doomsday and Ian to join them in a
corner of the bar. Settling down around a table which was covered from one
end to the other with carved initials and squadron insignia Kevin looked
around at his old comrades and smiled.
"My uncle sent me up here on a little, how shall I say, recruiting
"For what?" Jason asked.
"I can't tell you, because I don't even really know myself, but he's
been calling in a lot of his old comrades and personnel to stop by his
estate for a visit. He sent me out to round up some of you hanging around
out here at the old base. Would you three be willing to drop down to Earth
for a day or two?"
"Anything the old man wants," Ian said.
"There's a shuttle leaving in three hours and I took the liberty of
booking some seats on it for you and a couple other people I'm looking for.
Transfer over to the London shuttle once you get to Earth orbit. Touch down
and head to gate 443, there'll be a ground hop waiting for you there. I
don't think I need to tell you that this little trip is very private, so
lets keep a secure lid on it."
Ian suddenly frowned and looked back to the bar where Kirha was looking
over expectantly at him.
"Got a problem," Ian said quietly and motioned to where his Kilrathi
friend was sitting.
"What about him?"
Kevin looked over at Kirha and smiled sadly.
"My uncle said that poor Cat might try and look you up. I'm sorry, Ian,
security is just too tight on this."
Ian nodded sadly.
"Look, let's do it this way," Jason interjected. "Your family still has
that farm back in Australia. Send him there until we finish up whatever it
is the Admiral wants."
Ian smiled and then reached into his wallet and pulled it out.
Doomsday, Kevin, and Jason, seeing the dilapidated condition of Ian's
wallet and overall financial condition pulled out what money they had.
"That ought to be enough to buy him a ticket. Thanks, lads."
"Look, he can take one of my seats down to London, and then you can fly
him to Australia from there. I'll get in contact with my uncle and make sure
someone meets us at the shuttle port to take him out."
Ian nodded his thanks.
Kevin smiled and shook hands around the table.
"I'll see you at Windward."
As the London shuttle turned on final Jason found that he had to nearly
fight with Kirha for a look out the window. Though he had spent a year
Earthside while Tarawa was going through refit, he had never had a chance to
get to London. He was seeing precious little of it now as Kirha kept leaning
over him to look out the window.
"Ah boys, it'll be good to hear real kings English spoken as it should
be," Ian said.
"Hell, you're from Australia," Doomsday replied.
"Once part of the same glorious Empire. Look, there's Westminster,
beyond that the Tower of London."
"I read they used to cut heads off at the Tower," Kirha said with a
note of admiration in his voice.
"We kind of gave up the sport," Ian replied.
"Too bad, I'd have liked to have seen the ceremony. You know it still
amazes me how you humans could beat the Empire to a standstill."
"How's that?" Jason asked, finally relinquishing the window to Kirha
and settling back in his chair.
"I always thought that you were rather soft, not a warrior's breed, no
claws, no fangs, no thrill at the sight and smell of blood."
"We still get by when we have to," Doomsday said.
"Yes, I know, most curious."
The shuttle banked over on to final approach and Jason closed his eyes,
the turning and decelerating of the shuttle giving him a nostalgic longing
to be in a cockpit again. The shuttle touched down smoothly and taxied to
When the hatch was popped the warm damp air of London filtered into the
cab and Kirha wrinkled his nose.
"How do you breathe this? It's like inhaling water."
"You should try it when a spring fog rolls in," Ian replied. The four
travelers pulled their duffle bags down from the overhead compartments and
went through the access tunnel into the main terminal. Kirha was, of course,
immediately noticed. The basic reaction, which was typical of most people
from a metropolitan area, was to act as if he wasn't there, except for
lingering sidelong stares. Several people displayed open hostility, and
Jason was embarrassed when an elderly man came up and spit in front of
Kirha, cursing all Kilrathi for killing his family.
Kirha, displaying a remarkable degree of tact, bowed to the man,
offered an apology and then continued on. As they walked down the main
corridor of the shuttleport they passed a booth displaying a banner
announcing that it was seeking donations for the Human-Kilrathi Friendship
Society. At the sight of Kirha several members came out from behind the
counter and approached him.
"Ah, friend, so good to see you," one of them gushed.
Kirha looked at them suspiciously.
"How can we be friends? We have not been introduced, our blood lines
unknown to each other."
The man hesitated for a moment and then smiled.
"Yes, your ritual of meeting, how clumsy of me." He bowed low. "I am
Harrison of the hrai Harrison."
Kirha simply looked at him, shook his head, and continued on. Jason
looked over at the booth as he passed and saw the other members staring at
"You'd think they'd take those service pins off and get back to a real
life," an attractive young girl whispered, making sure her voice was loud
enough so that Jason could hear. He was tempted to say something but
realized it was futile and continued on.
A tall, slender woman with long blonde hair approached the group.
"Why, yes, that's me," Ian said with a grin. "Do we know each other?"
"No," she said with a mischievous grin lighting her features. "I'm here
to meet your friend and escort him to your home in Australia. Everything's
been arranged, we have him registered and security cleared."
"How about if we switch things around," Ian replied smoothly. "Kirha
can go take care of my business and you can escort me home."
"Not likely, sir," she said with a laugh. "Better luck next time."
Ian shook his head and sighed, looking over at Kirha who was evidently
distressed that his friend was leaving him.
"I know I cannot ask you where you are going and why," Kirha said
softly, "but I suspect it is dangerous. May Sivar watch over you and guide
you through the flowing of blood till we meet again.
Kirha went to his knees and Ian looked around embarrassed as he pulled
him back up to his feet and then shyly hugged him
"Take care, buddy. I'll see you soon. While you're there, try to learn
some horseback riding, you'd like it."
"As you command, my lord," Kirha said huskily.
The blonde took Kirha by the arm, looking a bit nervous, and she led
him down a side corridor. Ian watched them leave looking somewhat wistful.
"Come on," Doomsday said, "you're not getting sentimental over a Cat,
"Well actually it's the blonde," Ian replied, but Jason could tell that
Ian was actually fond of Kirha and hated to see him go.
"Damn, the sight of a Cat riding a horse," Doomsday said. "I'd pay good
money to see it."
Walking to the far end of the terminal, where private craft were
docked, they turned down a side corridor and reached their gate. A light
Zephyr trans-atmospheric transport was parked outside.
"Hey, it's Round Top!" Doomsday cried, and he raced up to the pilot and
grabbed hold of his hand.
"Did you run emotional therapy for that guy?" Ian asked, watching a
second display of joyful greeting on Doomsdays part in as many days.
"I guess he got kind of attached to our pups."
"Like hell I'm a pup, sir," Round Top announced, coming up to shake
"Excuse me, gentlemen."
Jason turned and saw a slender gray-haired man, wearing a simple pair
of flight coveralls, approaching them. He looked vaguely familiar and then
he realized that it was Tolwyn's old steward from the Concordia.
"Johnston, isn't it?" Jason asked, and the man nodded.
"I think you're the last for this load," Johnston announced. "Why don't
we get aboard?"
Jason picked his bag back up.
"And might I add, gentlemen, that it'd be best, for now, to drop your
old noms de guerre."
The group followed Johnston out the door and scrambled aboard the
Zephyr. Johnston secured the rear hatch and went up to the forward controls.
Putting on a headset he called in to the tower for clearance, powered up the
engines, and turned the ship to head for the runway. The Zephyr gained the
launch track, did a short fifty-yard roll and then nosed up, soaring up on a
Ian looked around the cabin and checked over the half dozen other
passengers crammed into the small plane and realized that several of them
"Vanderman from Tiger's Claw, isn't it?" Ian asked, and the old pilot
sitting across from him on the other side of the aisle nodded and shook his
"Hell, I thought you bought it when the Claw got it, Vanderman asked.
"I got transferred off on a two week furlough the day before she got
hit," Ian replied, a flicker of sadness crossing his features at the mention
of his old ship.
"Luck of the draw I guess," Ian mused, "if it hadn't been for the
furlough I'd have died with the rest of my friends.
"But what about you," he asked, forcing a smile, "I saw you go down
over Draga just before we pulled out."
"I ejected and made it down to the surface, mostly in one piece.
Stranded for a couple of years," Vanderman said, "kind of wild and woolly
down there, with the carnivores and such."
"I've heard of them," Ian interjected. "It was a famous hunting reserve
of the Cats and used for the old rites of coming of age."
"Well, it sure as hell aged me," Vanderman replied, "dodging the local
denizens and Kilrathi patrols until a raiding unit dropped in for a visit
and I got picked up. I tell you it was an experience."
With that he unbuttoned his shirt collar and pulled out a chain.
Dangling from the end of it was a gleaming serrated tooth several inches
"I heard the Cats take the tooth of a nalga as a trophy. I got one with
a bow that I made and hung on to it, figured if I finally got captured it
might make me look a bit better in their eyes. Actually I'm kind of attached
to it now."
"It doesn't look like much of a tooth," Ian retorted. "Why it ain't
much bigger than my little finger. Now on Farnsworth's World there, you'll
get big teeth. I remember . . ."
"The owner of this little gem's got claws bigger than your arm,"
Vanderman interrupted, "and you got your choice out of which of four heads
to pull the tooth from.
Ian, knowing he'd get outclassed in a tale swap, fell silent.
The Zephyr quickly boosted up on a high trajectory jump, so that the
breadth of England, from the Irish to the North Sea was clearly in view.
The shuttle reached apogee over Scotland and then started its long
curving descent over the North Sea, dropping down through a high bank of
dark clouds. Buffeted by the wind the shuttle bounced in the turbulence as
it crossed over the cliffs, circled to kill speed, and then touched down
hard, kicking on reverse thrusters and jerking to a stop.
"Welcome to Windward, gentlemen," Johnston announced as he walked
through the cabin and unlatched the rear hatch. "Move quickly now, lads,
it's a bit of a blow out there, and besides, the Admiral's waiting."
As Jason stepped through the doorway the stinging rain lashed into him,
the wind driving it in almost horizontally. Cursing he grabbed hold of his
duffel and ran towards the dark building barely visible in the driving
storm. A portal of light showed where a door was suddenly opened and he ran
Sliding on the wet paving stones he nearly fell on his backside as he
gained the door and rushed in, almost knocking over the man holding it open.
"Damn, what a blow," Jason said, wiping the rain off his face and then
he realized who was holding the door open and snapped to attention.
"At ease, Jason, remember we're no longer in the fleet," and Geoffrey
Tolwyn extended his hand.
The rest of the group came racing in behind Jason and all came to
attention at the sight of Tolwyn who smiled and shook their hands.
"Gentlemen, our little meeting was waiting for your arrival. Would you
He led them into a semi-darkened library room and Jason was surprised
to see real books made of paper lining the walls, something that had not
been produced in hundreds of years.
"It's the treasure of my family," Tolwyn said, "some of the volumes go
back to an age when England ruled most of the world before the time of
flying. This house is nearly as old, and was built in the style of manor
homes from an even earlier time."
At the far end of the library a fireplace glowed, and again it caught
Jason by surprise. Wood was far too precious on his home world to be used in
such a manner, but even as he looked at it he understood the strange almost
primal appeal of a fireplace, the smell of burning wood, and the comfortable
feeling it provided.
Going through a wide double doorway, they stepped into a broad open
room, at the far end of which was yet another fireplace, this one big enough
to walk into. Dozens of chairs were drawn in a circle around the fireplace,
each of them already occupied and Jason saw yet more familiar faces.
"Hey, it's Sparks," Doomsday announced and the chief fighter
maintenance officer from the Tarawa got out of her chair and came up to
Doomsday, shaking his hand and then Jason's in turn.
"It's like old home week here," she whispered, "pilots, a couple of
maintenance officers like myself, ship's computer officers, there's even a
commodore of a destroyer group over there in the corner."
"I'd like to get started," Tolwyn announced and he motioned for the new
arrivals to grab some chairs.
Tolwyn turned away for a moment and extended his hands to the fire,
rubbing them, silhouetted by the flames and Jason felt a flash memory of the
hangar deck of Tarawa on fire. He closed his eyes and pushed the thought
aside, knowing that it'd be back again tonight, one of the worst of the
"To start with the old familiar line. I guess you're wondering why I
invited you all here tonight."
The group laughed politely.
"We heard about your stockpile of Scotch," Ian quipped.
"Afterwards, Hunter, but business first."
The group settled down.
"It has been four weeks since the formal armistice agreement between
the Terran Confederation and the Kilrathi Empire. Starting tomorrow, the
peace commission starts its meetings to extend the armistice into a
"All of us, especially we who fought so hard, and for so long, prayed
daily for peace; for only one who fights can truly know how precious peace
He lowered his head for a moment.
"And all of us know what the price might be if this peace proves to be
an illusion, which I have feared from the beginning that it really is.
"What I'm about to share with you is level double-A classified
information. Though we are no longer in the military I will invoke a
military regulation regarding this information which is that the revealing
of double-A-level classified information in time of war is a capital
"We are not þ " he paused " þ officially at war, but I think that the
level of classification conveys just how sensitive this material is. If this
is something you feel might be over your head, Johnston will be happy to
lift you back to London and you'll be back in town in time to catch the
evening shows. If you stay, however, I expect a commitment from you to
follow through on what I'm going to ask you to do. I called you here because
I trust all of you. I'm asking in turn that you trust me and agree to this
He waited for a minute and no one stirred.
"Fine, then we understand each other."
He picked up a small hand controller off the fireplace mantlepiece and
clicked it. On a side wall a holo projection box hummed to life.
"The figures you see up there were only known at the highest level in
the military and in the civilian government on the day the armistice was
reached and, according to counter intelligence, were also revealed to the
Kilrathi through an as yet unidentified mole."
He waited for that bit of information to sink in and then continued.
"As you can see, it shows actual fleet strength. The numbers in black
are ships that were actively on line, the blue numbers were ships in for
repair or maintenance and the green numbers new ships projected to join the
fleet within the year.
He waited for a moment and then clicked the button again.
"The figures on the right side of the screen show the Kilrathi fleet
size according to the highest level of intelligence and believe me it cost a
hell of a lot of lives to get this information."
Jason scanned the figures. He knew the situation was bad, but he had no
idea that the margin between Kilrathi and Confederation carriers was as
large as indicated. He looked over at Tolwyn and realized yet again just how
much the man risked when he took the Concordia a deep into Kilrathi
territory to pull him out. The figures, however, for light craft, especially
frigate class and transports were far better, with the Confederation having
a significant lead in heavy transport capability.
A low murmur of voices filled the room as the group commented on the
"Now I should add here, that in terms of quality, our technology in
fighter craft was showing some significant edges, though they still had it
over us in terms of sheer numbers and in firepower, which we offset with
maneuverability and the ability to take more punishment, especially with our
new upgrades which were just coming on line with the Broadswords and Sabre D
"But these are the key figures that I want you to take a hard look at."
He snapped the controller again, and columns of figures in red appeared
alongside the Kilrathi column.
"Damn, look at that," Ian whispered, and Jason could only nod in reply.
"As you can see," Tolwyn announced, "from the day of the armistice and
for roughly twelve months afterwards not one new fleet carrier was going to
come on line for the Empire. Beyond that, it appears as if a significant
portion of their carrier fleet needed to be pulled off line for major
overhauls and refitting."
He paused for a moment
"This crippling of their carrier construction is thanks in part to a
rather neat job by one of those present here tonight," and Jason nodded a
thanks, but wanted to say that it wasn't him, but rather the nearly four
hundred Marine raiders who gave their lives destroying the construction
yards on Kilrah's moon that made the difference.
"Six carriers nearing completion were destroyed in the Tarawa raid and
even more importantly their key personnel and construction equipment went up
as well. Intelligence later ascertained that a high level design and
engineering team was visiting the moon on the day the raid hit, wiping out
some of their top brains. Tarawa also showed us a viable tactic for getting
at the Kilrathi. You might recall that CVEs Enigma and Khorsan were reported
lost, but no details were ever revealed for security reasons. The truth is
that both light carriers were sent on deep penetration raids on carrier
construction sites located in the Za'kathag region, killing three heavy
carriers that were still being fitted out. Seven more construction sites
were destroyed by other means that I'm not at liberty to discuss and in fact
I'm not even supposed to know."
He turned away for a moment and reaching over to a wood bin he tossed
another log on the fire and then looked back at the group.
"In other words, we had a window of opportunity which was starting to
kick in and would have lasted for roughly six months to a year. For a brief
period we would have, for the first time in the war, reached front line
parity in terms of carrier strength and then the numbers would turn against
us yet again. We might have been able to push them to the wall, though,
during that time."
He sighed with frustration and lowered his head for a moment.
He looked back up.
"Go ahead, Ian."
"Just how reliable are these figures?"
"I can ót really tell you how we got them, but they're hard core. But
now for the tough part, the classified information that only a handful
really know about.
We suspect that the Kilrathi went for this armistice for two reasons,
the first the operational concerns created by their crisis in transport
capability, the destruction of heavy ship yards and the stand down of at
least half their carriers for refit. If that alone was their reason behind
the armistice, it would be bad enough. There is, however, the second issue."
He paused a moment for effect and the room was deadly still, except for
the crackling of the fire.
"We have reason to believe that approximately five years ago the
Kilrathi started the secret assembly of a major construction yard outside of
their Empire's territory and at this site they are building an entire new
class of ships. If this is true, we can expect that when the fleet is
completed, it might be used to launch a preemptive and smashing blow to end
the war in their favor. The key question concerning this is if indeed this
fleet is real. If it is real and nearing completion, do the Kilrathi intend
to use it to launch a preemptive strike while we stand down due to the
óWhat kind of ships and where?" a commodore asked from the back of the
"It's called the Hari," a voice announced from the corner of the room.
"Paladin, damn me, I thought you got killed," Ian shouted, coming to
his feet and running up to embrace his old friend.
"As usual, laddie, the reports of my death are a bit premature."
The group roared with delight as the old pilot came up to stand by
"How the hell did you get out of that last scrape?" Ian asked. "They
said you were reported long overdue and presumed dead. Hell, man, you owe me
a drink ócause I bought a round at the Vacuum Breathers in your honor. Old
Gallagher even gilded your mug."
"It's a wee bit tied up in all of this here talk the Admiral's giving."
"So what's this Hari?" Doomsday grumbled.
"The Hari Empire," Tolwyn said, "once existed in what was the realm of
space on the other side of the Kilrathi Empire in relation to us. More than
two hundred of our years before we first made contact with the Kilrathi,
they fought a war with the Hari and annihilated them. So bitter was the
struggle that the Hari, in their pride refused surrender and committed
"All of them?" Sparks asked.
"That's what we've been told by prisoners," Tolwyn said. "It is a vast
empty reach of space, a good thirty jump points out from Kilrah. The Hari
never knew of the jump points, and traveled at speeds slower than light.
They made great ships that could journey between worlds in trips that took
lifetimes. When they found a world with resources they multiplied quickly,
in a hive-like manner. They quite literally wrecked the planet's biosphere
with overpopulation and exploitation of every resource they could find. When
the planet was used up, selected members were loaded back aboard their ark
ships and moved on, leaving the rest to die. Thus there was little on their
worlds worth the taking, the planets they occupied nothing but mined over
and scarred barren wastelands when they were finished.
"It's believed that the Kilrathi moved some of their ship construction
deep into Hari territory and for at least the last four years have been
working on a secret project. This information comes from bits and pieces of
a puzzle, made up of thousands of little details we've found over the years
þ a captured shipping report, a stray transmission coming from where it
wasn't supposed to. In part this might explain the anomaly of their
transport shortage which appeared to be even more acute than our figures
suggested, since part of their transport fleet appears to be committed to
hauling material out into Hari territory for the building of this secret
"Look, sir, if this is the case, then what the hell is our government
doing?" Round Top snarled. "What you're telling us is that the Kilrathi
called an armistice to get over a potential gap in numbers, and once they've
closed it and gotten ahead and get this new fleet ready, they'll come out
"Prove It," Paladin said quietly, "that's the problem. All I can tell
you is, getting into Hari territory reminds me of this lass I once knew who
was so . . ." He looked at the females in the audience and stopped.
"As I was saying, it's impossible and believe me, I know. You have to
cross all of Kilrathi space, hit into transit jumps that we don't even have
charts for, and then go a good thousand light years beyond. I think its fair
to assume that this here system is wired with security from one end to the
other. We might be able to put a concealed Kilrathi transport or trader
inside their own territory when there's a war on and a lot of traffic to
blend in with, but out there, it's military security all the way in and
He hesitated for a moment.
"Believe me, I know," he said softly as if recalling a nightmare that
still troubled him.
"So how do we know about this then?" Ian asked. "We might just be
chasing shadows, our own fears and nothing more."
"That I cannot say either," Paladin replied. "Not even the Admiral here
is cleared to know some of it, and remember, I worked for him before, same
as you, laddie. All I can say is, the information is good, and a lot of our
friends, who are listed as missing, in fact died to find out."
"Well, doesn't the civilian government know this?"
Tolwyn blew out noisily and nodded.
"A week before the armistice was agreed to, there was a meeting with
Rodham, Foreign Minister Jamison and the Chiefs of Staff. The information
was presented and Jamison said that it was unconfirmed, that the
intelligence community and military were conspiring to keep the war going
and as much as called the Chiefs of Staff a bunch of liars. Rodham finally
sided with Jamison, saying that at best it was rumor, and there were always
such rumors that could keep a war going, countering with the statement that
Jukaga had claimed the same thing was being done by us."
"So they accuse us of it, and that balances it out, is that it?"
"That's about it," Tolwyn replied. "I'd have to add that Jamison does
have the weight of history on her side. In the past, in the old Earth wars,
there were always such charges of secret bases and construction sites or
hidden redoubts. They usually proved to be false," he paused, "but then on
occasion they proved to be true."
Tolwyn paused, realizing he could say no more in front of this group,
for in fact the Confederation did have several secret projects in the works.
Jukaga's accusation had caused a flurry of concern on the part of the Chiefs
of Staff and intelligence, but in the end it was surmised that the Baron was
merely smoke screening and had not stumbled on any hard information.
A nervous rustle seemed to sweep through the room.
"Damn it, isn't anyone catching on?" someone grumbled from the back of
"Some people are, Commodore," Tolwyn replied. "Call it war weariness, I
don't know. I think after thirty years people wanted peace so badly that
they were willing to grasp at straws and this Baron knew how to play into
it. There was an old American military leader named Marshall who once said
óno democracy can endure a seven years war, and we've had thirty."
"Admiral, let's get to the point," the commodore replied. You dragged
us here for a reason, and not just so we could cry on each other's
"You always did get straight to the point, Weiss," and Tolwyn clicked
the hand unit once more and the figures in the holo field dissolved to be
replaced by a sector map.
"You're looking at the Landreich System."
"What a hell hole," someone growled.
"Its a hell hole all right, in fact one of their favorite planets is
named just that," Tolwyn replied. "As you can see from the map, the forward
edge of it borders on the Empire, and it's about the furthest you can get
from Confederation territory. Most of the worlds haven't even reached G
status for colonial outpost ranking."
He hit a couple of buttons on his controller and a number of flashing
red and yellow dots appeared.
"Each red dot represents a reported violation of the demilitarized zone
by Kilrathi vessels, each yellow dot by Terran or others. Incidents are
happening at better than two a day. Back here on Terra they might be
claiming peace, and the same on Kilrah, but the frontier regions are just
about as hot as ever. There's a lot of freebooting going on, organized
raiding cartels are forming and even some free corp units of ex-military on
both sides, who have no place else to go, are setting themselves up as petty
governments or as raiding groups.
"Now according to the peace agreement, the central government is
supposed to patrol these areas," and the group chuckled, "but hell, we could
barely do that when we had a full fleet and the war was on. Thirty years of
fighting has caused a lot of breaking down out on the edges."
He paused for a moment to throw another log in the fire.
"They might call it rebellious down here on Earth, but from the
viewpoint of the frontier governments it's being independent. They know what
it's like to live on the edge of total annihilation if the Empire ever broke
through, and they are none too pleased with the armistice, since if anything
it means that there's no Confederation fleet at all to back them up."
A thin smile creased his features.
"So they're quietly building their own for what they're calling
óreasons of internal security,' and that, my friends, is why you're here."
Jason felt a cool shiver run down his back.
"It might not be much but it's something. I'll not call it an ace in
the hole. When you look at the figures I just showed you it's more like a
deuce; but at least it's a start, a backup if things turn ugly.
"Shall we say, for convenience sake, that in my current disgraced
position I have been forced into a commercial venture in order to make ends
meet. I have been approached by a private contractor who wishes to purchase
a number of decommissioned ships that could be reconfigured for," and he
grinned, "civilian transport. It just so happens that I've located five of
these ships in a mothball yard orbiting the moon."
He paused for a moment
They're CVEs, light escort carriers, and I need some crews to run
Jason broke into a grin.
Prince Thrakhath stood up, extending his arms and groaning.
"So what you are telling me is that you cannot speed up the completion
of the fleet."
"No, my lord," and the admiral before him lowered his head to the
"Stand up and stop this groveling, I'm not going to tear your throat
out. I need leaders, not dead bodies just because you bring bad news."
The admiral came to his feet.
"It's the problem with the transports," the admiral said. "We simply
don't have enough to keep moving the material out to the Hari at the rate
you wish for."
"But what about those older ships we decommissioned?" and he almost
laughed at the thought of that. The vessels had been ready to fall apart and
yet they were checked off by the Confederation observers as first line
battle worthy. And even as he thought of it he realized that was precisely
why they were useless. The three eights number of jumps required to get to
the Hari base exceeded their need for overhauls after every two eights jumps
which older ships still required.
"Couldn't we establish an overhaul base at the half way point?"
"It might draw notice. It could be within detection range if they ever
slipped deep enough into our territory.
"Do it anyhow, and find a way to heighten security.
"There is another problem as well."
"And that is?"
"Fleet procedures have always been able to provide complete situation
updates by burst signal from fleet commanders on a daily basis. Some concern
has been expressed that the Confederation, with the rumor that they suspect
something in the Hari sector, might turn their attention there and detect
these signals. If they can decode enough of the signal it might reveal the
existence of the new fleet."
"The range of their detection equipment isn't that good," Thrakhath
replied, and then paused, "or is it?"
"We've received a couple of reports over the last year of a new project
of theirs to improve their equipment. But nothing is confirmed."
"Use courier ships, then."
"It is too far away to be efficient and too dangerous. The tactical,
strategic, and operational updates comprise tens of trillions of bits of
information right down to the need for a replacement screw. The signals back
from Kilrah also send out the key information obtained by our intelligence
operatives regarding all new information regarding Earth defenses. If we had
to suddenly launch a preemptive strike without warning, the fleet must know
on a daily basis the latest information regarding events across the Empire,
the demilitarized zones, and inside Confederation space. The fleet in hiding
needs this information instantly, and we need to know instantly what its
needs are, a time delay of eight and four or more days is dangerous."
"So what do you suggest?"
"Keep the communications open."
The Prince hesitated for a moment.
"How secure is the encoding?"
"Our intelligence indicates that the Confederation was breaking our
latest fleet code just as the armistice was reached. However, every five
eights of standard days, we changed the code anyhow. We could place our
latest one in, and reduce signal traffic to essentials only, keeping the
burst signals to under a second each way."
Thrakhath nodded. He could see the admiral's point. If the
Confederation picked up signal traffic going in and out of Hari territory,
it might draw notice, but then in order to do so, even if they could upgrade
their equipment, it would require a penetration into the Empire.
"Do so and inform our counter intelligence to keep careful watch inside
the Confederation as to any actions which might indicate that they know
something or are planning some action."
"So far we have detected absolutely none."
"There is never an absolute in war, the friction of war always causes a
breakdown. You have your orders, now leave me."
The admiral backed out of the room,
Prince Thrakhath settled back down at his desk and then turned to look
out the small oval window. In the darkness of space beyond he could see a
long sliver of reflected light. Craxha, the third of the new carriers to
have just completed its first transjump engine testing, was coming back in
to dock. Tomorrow the first squadron of fighters, transferred from one of
the now drydocked carriers would start to come aboard.
The ship turned slowly, lining up on the drydock pylon which jutted out
from the massive orbital base. He sat quietly, watching the maneuver
Docking a ship of such massive size was a difficult maneuver and the
commander on board performed it flawlessly.
Good, he had chosen that one well.
He turned away and looked back at his commscreen, intently studying the
latest intelligence report provided by the hrai spies of the Imperial
It wasn't good.
He closed his eyes, silently cursing the Baron. There was no denying
that the initial plan of the Baron, to have a temporary armistice, was
indeed a good one, no matter how humiliating it might be. Later, once things
were finished, the blame for the humiliation could be shifted back to the
Baron and away from the shoulders of the Imperial line.
It was the inner intent of the Baron which was disturbing. Already he
was trying to marshal support from the other clans against the Imperial
blood, while quietly working to extend the armistice far out beyond the
original intent. It was obvious now that the true intent was to let the
armistice continue, place the ultimate blame on the Emperor, and then
somehow seize power himself. When that was accomplished this new fleet would
fall into his hands, he would overawe the humans with it and thus secure
victory and his own control of the throne.
The alternative, the Prince realized, was to preemptively strike on the
humans right now. But the problem was that the fleet was not yet ready for
that. It would be at least another six eights of days before the fourth
carrier came on line. All battle simulations had shown that the full
strength of twelve carriers was needed for an overwhelming victory. Beyond
that, the twelve carriers would need more than forty eighties of fighters
and. more importantly, trained pilots, for them to be useful. So far he had
drawn pilots only from those hrai truly loyal to the throne. That was the
difficult part of the equation. Far too many of the Imperial Guard pilots
had been lost at Vukar, and it would be at least another year before their
losses were made good.
If he delayed, his military strength would grow, and the humans would
weaken, lulled by the false peace. That they would be so stupid had caused
him to lose whatever respect he had once held for them as foes worthy of the
testing of steel.
There was the chance as well that some in the Confederation military
might try to get the hard evidence regarding the new fleet and its intended
target. That they even had suspicion of its existence had been a blow, the
information revealed by their all so foolish traitor.
Turning her had been so easy, he thought with a cold smile. Her only
son had been captured during the Third Enigma campaign. That was a prize to
be sure. Her discontent with the war, and her political ambitions to replace
the president were known. The discreet passing of a holo of her son alive,
and in confinement had broken her will. To have a Foreign Minister of the
enemy working for you was indeed a great thing. She had been promised much
and if, when the Confederation was destroyed and she was still useful, they
would keep her as a puppet. The only problem with her was that it appeared
that she was under suspicion and thus blocked from certain key information,
especially regarding the reports of a Confederation secret project to build
a new class of weapons. That was a concern as well, for if their side
delayed, they might reach their goal and shift the balance of the war. It
was another argument against delay, even though every passing day made the
Confederation weaker and the Empire stronger.
Yet if he delayed, the discontent in the Empire at the humiliation of
peace would grow as well, and be focused upon the Emperor by the maneuvering
of the Baron.
It was a balancing act which had to be played out delicately, and he
sat in the silence of his war room, lights dimmed, and quietly formed his
Prince Thrakhath returned to his desk and settled back down, punching
up the latest reports on his screen. From the ambassador all was still going
well. The Confederation government was starting to protest more loudly about
the endless minor violations of the truce.
"Look, it's all perfectly legal, you've got the papers, the titles are
transferred, now get off this bridge," Jason snapped.
The lieutenant looked down again at the sheaf of paper in his hand and
back up at Jason.
"Ah, Mr. Bondarevsky, I've been ordered to have you wait until the
peace commission has fully reviewed this matter. You and your people are to
leave this ship at once."
Jason turned away and punched into a ship comm line.
"Gloria, how's reactor?"
"Up and cooking, sir."
"Masumi, we on line yet with pulse engines?"
"Can give you maneuvering thrust."
Jason looked back at the lieutenant.
"Mister, if you don't want to go for this ride, you'd better clear the
The lieutenant looked at him and a thin smile crossed his features.
"Good luck, sir," he whispered, snapped off a salute, and left the
Jason went over to his old command chair, and sat down, a light puff of
dust swirling up around him. He looked around at his skeleton crew which
were manning the bridge. Normal ship's complement was just under five
hundred personnel þ he had only thirty-five. Nearly three quarters of a full
crew were either support for the three squadrons the ship would normally be
carrying, or for the weapons systems, but even without them, running the
ship was going to be a chancy operation. And with only three Ferrets, and a
Sabre on board that had yet to be transferred off, he felt very naked.
"The Lieutenant has cleared the landing bay," Sparks announced on the
comm, "and is back aboard the docking station."
"Close off the docking collar, Sparks, and disconnect external power."
"Already done, sir, docking collar disconnected, external power cut and
Jason looked over at his helm crew.
"Take us out of here."
A barely perceptible vibration ran through the ship as Masumi tapped
into the reactors, lighting up the nuclear pulse maneuvering engines. He
felt a cold shiver run down his back.
"Velocity at 225 meters per second," helm announced, "heading 31
degrees, negative 8."
"By God, we're on our way," Jason laughed, coming to his feet
A cheer went up on the bridge, the crew laughing, slapping each other
on the back.
"Ship 2291, respond please."
It took a moment for Jason to realize that the incoming message was for
him, the caller using his ship's decommissioned identification number.
The communications officer looked over at him and Jason raised his
hand, signaling for her not to open a line.
"Ship 2291, you are in violation of peace commission procedures for
title transfer. You are ordered to turn your vessel about and return to the
decommissioning yard at once.
"Ship 2291, you are . . ."
"Turn that damn thing off, Jason snapped and the communications officer
switched the speaker off.
"Helm, set course for jump transit point 17A and let's get the hell out
"Come on, you two," Jason said, looking over at Ian and Doomsday and
they followed him off the bridge.
Picking up a small package he left the bridge and started down the
corridor out to the hangar bay. Reaching the bay he paused and looked
around. It actually looked big for a change. It was, of course, almost empty
of fighters, and it seemed strange to see it like this. He opened the
package up and unfolded the commissioning flag of Tarawa. He hung it back up
in its old spot, next to the roll of honor. A light film of dust was on the
honor roll and using his shirt sleeve he wiped it off, stepped back and
without any feeling of self-consciousness, he came to attention and saluted
He heard a light clicking of heels and looked over his shoulder to see
Sparks at attention, saluting as well. She came to at ease and smiled.
"It's good to be back with our friends, Jason."
He smiled, realizing that for the first time since he had known her she
had called him by his name. It took him a moment to even recall hers.
"It certainly is, Janet."
Her features flushed a bit
Ian coughed in a very self-conscious manner and nudged Doomsday.
"Come on, buddy, let's go clean up the pilot ready room," and the two
"Funny, folks back home called me by my name of course, but you know, I
can't remember the last time somebody didn't call me Sparks."
She had changed so much since becoming an officer, the hard edges
polished into a smooth professionalism, the dirty coveralls and oil-smudged
face long since gone. She was wearing a standard B class jump suit and he
realized yet again that it made her look awfully damn attractive. But he had
to push that away. Even though they were not part of the Confederation Fleet
anymore, he still wanted his ship run by Fleet rules, and one of them was
that no personal relationships were allowed between commanding officers and
those serving under them.
He lowered his gaze for a second and then looked back and her smile
faded a bit
"Sorry, Jason, I guess we're back to the old routine, aren't we? Funny,
I couldn't wait to get back, but I knew if I did, I'd have to give up
something to do it, a chance for you.
He nodded. He knew she was interested but maybe it was simply that the
sharp edge of pain in losing Svetlana still cut a bit too deeply. The few
encounters since her death had left him feeling cold and empty.
Before he could say anything she drew closer, leaned up, and kissed him
lightly on the lips, the kiss lingering. Startled, he looked at her and saw
the sparkling in her eyes. He suddenly felt so tempted to put his arms
around her þ but she drew back.
"I'd better get to work, sir," she said, sniffling slightly. "This
flight deck is filthy and I'll be damned if I'll allow a launch from it
before it's been cleaned up,"
"I'm glad Tolwyn let me take you as my maintenance officer, Janet, " he
hesitated, "and I'm just glad to have you with me as well."
She looked at him, shrugging a bit awkwardly, and went across the deck,
leaving him alone.
He exhaled hard and shook his head.
"On the flight deck."
"We've got a laser hookup from CVE 6 Normandy."
"Patch it through to flight operations bridge."
He double-timed over to the flight bridge and climbed up into the empty
room. The control positions were all empty and it seemed eerie with not a
single soul around. He switched on a comm channel and a holo image formed.
"How're you doing, laddie?"
"Little complaining from the decommissioning crowd but we're away and
"Even though those papers are nice and legal like, we are bending a
couple of the rules a wee bit," he said with a laugh. "I'm coming up now off
your starboard beam, Iwo and Wake and Crete are clear as well. How's Tarawa
"Everything nominal. We got a bonus of four fighters on board her as
well. The mothball maintenance seemed pretty damn good, all things
considered, but I feel awfully naked without at least one squadron aboard."
"One thing at a time, laddie. I've got to get off the line now, I'm
getting a bit swamped here with calls from those peace commission buggers,
and even one now from ConFleet. I tell you it'll be right good fun telling
an admiral to go to hell. They've got a couple of frigates out at the jump
point who might try to stop us, but we've got a dozen lawyers out at
headquarters arguing away right now that the sale is legal. Hopefully
nobody'll shoot. Hell, by the time they get it resolved we'll be on the
other side of the universe. And then what are they going to do, sue us?"
Laughing, he shut down the laser link and the holo screen went dead.
Stepping down from the flight bridge Jason saw the pinpoint of light of
Paladin's ship moving against the eternal night of space.
"Captain, this is helm."
"Cleared of near Earth orbit, ready to power up to full pulse drive on
course heading for jump point 17A."
"Get us out of here, then."
He felt the surge of power rumble through the ship as nearly all
reactor power was fed straight into the engines. The ship turned to line up
on the jump point and as he walked up to the hangar bay's magnetic airlock,
Earth drifted into view, a crescent blue-green ball hanging in the eternal
darkness. It gave him a curious sort of feeling. It was, after all, the home
world of his entire race, the Russia of his ancestors clearly visible even
from half a million clicks out, and yet now, he felt strangely detached from
it. He was a product of space, born on a world five hundred light years
away. If he had a home, it was this ship, a family, the people aboard her.
He knew that this insane adventure he was setting out on was motivated in
part by his allegiance to the Confederation and for the protection of the
world in front of him, even for the protection of those people who were so
ready to reject him and the military that he served. He knew that perhaps
that was always the lot of a warrior, to be turned to when trouble loomed,
and to be rejected and hidden away when it was believed that peace had
He was fighting for them but he realized as well that if he were
fighting for anything it was for his ship, his comrades, and the fleet which
they had so loyally served and now faced the most serious crisis in its
history, a crisis created not so much by their enemies, but rather by their
In a swirling cloud of dust, Hunter switched off power on his engines,
shut down the emergency ejector system, and cracked the canopy open.
A choking swirl of hot dry air rushed into the cockpit, taking his
breath away as he unsnapped his helmet.
"Damn, even worse than the outback," he mumbled, standing up to
A ground crew team strolled over, lazily pushing a ladder as he waited.
There was no sense in getting upset by their lackadaisical attitude, this
wasn't ConFleet þ the base belonged to the Landreich Colonial Air Guard and
a crew working in one hundred twenty plus heat had his sympathy.
The crew hooked the ladder against the side of his Sabre and he
scrambled down out of the cockpit
"Where's fleet headquarters?" he asked
"Over there," one of the crew announced, trying to be heard above the
cacophony of ships landing and taking off, and the sudden sonic boom of a
Ferret snapping by overhead, the shockwave causing him to wince and
instinctively look for cover.
He looked up and saw the Ferret climbing straight up, standing on its
tail. The Ferret punched a hole through the high thin overcast and then he
was gone, the ship's vapor trail climbing and then winking out as the Ferret
crossed into the far reaches of the upper atmosphere. The crew barely
noticed the show and obviously weren't running to combat positions.
"Is there a scramble on?"
"Nay, Charlie Boys just having a little fun."
"Who's Charlie Boy?"
"Why, he's the head of the squadron here."
Ian wanted to comment that at any fleet base punching sonic without a
scramble on would have cost Charlie Boy a month's pay and a possible
grounding. He had a feeling it was, if anything, a thumbing of the nose at
all the outsiders gathering on the base and he started to smile. Hell, he
might even like this place after all.
The ground crew looked at him and Ian was suddenly aware his old
ConFleet flight suit made him stick out like a sore thumb.
"A lot of you Fleet boys showing up here today," one of the crew
"The usual gab session," Ian replied. "You know how it is, ConFleet or
Colonial, the big wigs always like to have their meetings."
"And I suppose we oughta salute you, is that it, captain?"
Ian laughed and replied with a universal rude gesture.
One of the crew members smiled, reached into a tool box and pulled out
a can which was dripping with moisture.
"Have a cold one on us, cap'n."
Ian grinned with delight as he popped the lid. Landreich beer was rated
almost as good as the Outback Lager and Fosters of home. He took a long deep
pull on the can and then another, draining it off. With a contented sigh he
tossed the empty back to his benefactor.
"Ah, thanks, mate, now take care of my ship and by the way, if you
don't tell those customs people, you'll find a pint of Vega's best stashed
in the carry bag strapped behind my seat and I don't want to find it there
when I get back." The crew grinned.
There was nothing like a little gift giving with the locals to make
sure that things were taken care of right.
Turning, he started across the landing field, eager to get to the
shade. The twin suns of the planet were murder when both were at noon, the
red giant and white dwarf combining to cast a strange pattern of colored
shadows. He looked around, realizing that this military outpost of the
Landreich colonial worlds was definitely at the butt end of the universe.
There were a few modern buildings on the base, made of the standard poured
plasta-concrete. But most of it, and the small garrison and mining town
beyond the base, was made of either adobe or rough sandstone. If it wasn't
for the rich titanium deposits underneath the surrounding mountains this
world would have been bypassed except for the usual crop of hermits, crazy
cults, and freebooters looking for a place to hide. Buford's World they
called this place, after the first prospector to land here, but it was more
commonly referred to as the Hell Hole. Its inclination of axis was exactly
at zero degrees and there was no season except red hot summer with 90
degrees passing as a cool day.
It had but two jump points in the system, one heading away from the
demilitarized zone towards the capital world of Landreich, the other leading
off on a long lopping pattern through half a dozen uninhabited systems into
the flank of the Kilrathi Empire. Both in a strategic and tactical sense it
was nothing more than an outpost at the very edge of the war and totally
ignored by the main fleets of both sides. Thus space in this region was
controlled, if at all, by colonial guards of both sides, and more often by
freebooters which, in the eyes of the Confederation, was what the Landreich
system was anyhow.
He passed a plasta-concrete bunker, the lid partially open to reveal a
cluster of surface-to-space point defense missile-anti-missiles, the latest
Sprint 8s, no less. He paused to look in at the crew which was running a
"Got a lot of those, mates?"
"Who the hell wants to know?" and a tech sergeant wearing the tan
coveralls of a colonial guard non-com looked up at him, shading his eyes.
"Hey, just curious, that's all."
"Curiosity like that will get you in the brig right quick," the
The sergeant turned back to his work and Ian realized that maybe it was
best to simply move on.
Tucked into the hangars lining the field was a bizarre assortment of
ships. The heaviest was a medium corvette and it took Ian a moment to
recognize it as an old Granicus-class, a line discontinued more than twenty
years ago. The ship, however, was refitted with a couple of E-8 engines
attached to anchor points on the side of the hull, with half a dozen mass
driver turrets patched on as well. It was a hell of a smuggler's craft with
the firepower of a light frigate thrown in. A number of fighters were on the
field as well and it was easy to see which ones had ferried in the staff
attending today's meeting, their Confed insignia simply painted over with
standard fleet gray.
It was the other ships, however, that caught his eye. It looked like
the Landreich was planning to set up a museum, with some of the fighters
actual prewar ships of more than thirty years vintage. All of them, however,
were no longer spec in any way whatsoever. An early Ferret A had a new
engine housing with of all things a Mark 10 engine off an old Falcon light
corvette. It looked absolutely absurd, like nothing but an engine with a
cockpit up front, with a gatling mass driver gun strapped on underneath.
It'd be a hell of a ride, he realized.
Most of the ships were painted Stealth black without identification
numbers or even the blue circle and red Saint Andrew's cross of the
Landreich. He slowly walked past the hangars, noticing the less than
friendly stares of most of the crews. He wanted to take the time to go up
and chat, to ask about the specs on the strange array of ships, maybe even
try a climb into the cockpits but thought better of it. Ever since the
armistice the uneasy cooperation of the Confederation with the colonials was
now strained even further. He couldn't blame them, for when the stuff
finally hit the fan, it would be the outpost worlds that would get covered
by it first.
The high pitched voice was unmistakable and startled he looked around,
and then noticed a shadow cross over him. He looked up and saw a Firekka
"K'Kai, how the hell are you!"
K'Kai, folding her wings, landed beside him and moved up close, pecked
him lightly on the head and around the back of his neck in what he now knew
was a grooming which served as the Firekka equivalent of a handshake.
Overjoyed at seeing an old friend he threw his arms around her.
"Last time I saw you was when your niece told the Confederation to go
K'Kai clicked her beak and he knew that it was the Firekka equivalent
of an expression of pride.
"That speech was hers alone, a fine accomplishment for not much more
than a hatchling."
"How goes it on Firekka?"
"A lot of harassing raids, skirmishes, ships disappearing, not really
outright war, but definitely not peace." She cocked her head and looked at
him closely, an act which he always found a bit disturbing when an eyeball
the size of an orange aimed in straight at him.
"So you're part of this Landreich colonial fleet?" she asked.
"That's what I'm here for, and you?"
"Sent as a representative."
"Well, I think we're late," and he motioned for her to follow along.
They finally gained the shade of a broad veranda and he drew a breath
of relief. Two guards stood at the door and again it struck him how
different the colonials were. The men looked sharp enough, with standard
M-48 laser rifles on their shoulders. But the uniforms looked like they'd
seen better days, the tan coveralls faded from sun and washing, top collars
unbuttoned in the dry desert heat. They lacked the spit and polish of fleet
Marine guards and he found it appealing.
Both looked with open curiosity at K'Kai.
"Firekka, they make the best drink in the universe,," Ian announced,
and the guards grinned weakly.
"I take it this is headquarters?"
"This is the place."
"Well, I'm here to see Kruger."
A sergeant stepped out from inside the doorway, took their papers and
IDs, then handed them back.
"Down the hall, you can't miss it."
Ian opened the door for K'Kai and followed her in. At least the place
had cooling, but it seemed to be barely working. He strode down the open
corridor which angled down below the surface, K'Kai at his side. They turned
through a double set of blast doors and into the situation room which was
packed nearly to overflowing. They were stopped by what he assumed was a
security officer, though it was hard to tell by the uniform. He checked
their IDs once again and then marked off his and K'Kai's name on a list.
Ian immediately recognized more than one of those present: Jason and
Doomsday, who had flown down the day before from Tarawa, were in the back
corner engaged in what was obviously a heated conversation with several
colonial pilots. Sparks, waving a hand computer unit, was shouting at whom
he guessed was a supply officer, who in turn was shouting back with equal
vigor, and hunched over a table up in the front was a tall gaunt man with
sun scorched features and dark eyes. He glanced up at Ian and his gaze
seemed to pierce right through him and then, as if he didn't even exist, the
man looked back down at a shelf of printouts.
"Say, that's Kruger himself," Ian whispered
K'Kai bobbed her head.
Technically Kruger was a wanted felon within Confederation territory,
having once hijacked his fleet destroyer, which he was in command of, during
the early days of the war, when through "strategic necessity," the old
C-in-C ConFleet had decided to abandon the Landreich system in the face of a
Kilrathi offensive. Using the ship and an assortment of scrounged up
freighters and smuggler craft he fought the battle of the Hell Hole,
stopping a Kilrathi attack into this sector and according to legend chased
them back through twelve jumps.
His own ship was blown out from under him on the last jump through by a
Kilrathi ambush and Kruger, with the remaining members of his crew, survived
for three years on a planet inside the Kilrathi system, driving the locals
nearly insane with his commando style raiding until being picked up by a
freebooter who took them back to the Landreich. In the interim, ConFleet had
tried him in absentia and found him guilty of mutiny and hijacking of a
Confederation warship, a capital offense in time of war. He was hailed,
however, as a returning hero by the colonials and elected president of the
Landreich system within the year. The election made matters somewhat
complicated, presenting the Confederation with the unique problem of having
a felon serving as an elected member of the planetary senate and thus being
immune from arrest and trial.
Max Kruger had a hell of a reputation and was viewed either as a genius
improviser of small unit irregular tactics or a barbarian. In Ian's opinion,
he was both. The colonials definitely fought their wars with the Kilrathi,
and at times with each other, using cast-off equipment, shoestring budgets,
and a hell of a lot of guts. They also fought it with a cold ferocity that
rarely asked for or expected quarter. For Kruger there was only one rule of
war, ultimate victory.
"Everything back aboard Tarawa OK?'
Ian turned and smiled as Jason came up to join him.
"Another hundred crew members signed in last night off a transport that
ran out from Sirius. We've got eight more pilots and four Ferrets that were
strapped to the transports hull."
"Is that all, we were promised twenty."
"They had some problems getting the four, the peace commission kicked
up a royal stink. We're lucky we got what we did."
"It figures," Jason sighed. "That commission really screwed us up."
"What do you mean?"
That report that we'd have ten squadrons of Rapiers and Sabres, well
"What the hell happened?"
"The shipment was blocked by the commission. Seems that the Kilrathi
ambassador caught wind of the deal, screamed holy hell, and the Baron even
got into it, threatening to end all peace negotiations if the ships were
allowed to leave Earth system. Rodham, of course, caved in. The three
transports, loaded down with fighters and spare parts were blocked from
leaving moon orbit. So now we've got to scrounge up whatever we can find
"We ve got five escort carriers, and a grand total of twenty-nine
fighters and that's it, not counting the stuff the locals have."
More people crowded into the room behind Ian so that he, Jason, and
K'Kai were gradually shoved to the back of the room.
"Andrews, everybody here yet?" the gaunt man asked, looking over at the
guard at the door.
Well, damn it, we can't wait, let's get started then."
The gaunt man moved up to a small podium.
"For those of you Confed people who don't know it, I'm General Kruger."
Ian looked around the room and saw the outright admiration on the faces
of the men and women wearing the hodgepodge of jumpsuits, assault trousers
and vests, and coveralls that passed for colonial guards uniforms.
"First off, I welcome all you white and blue suits into the service of
the Landreich," Kruger began. "As already agreed upon, all ships that the
Landreich has purchased," and with that there was a ripple of laughter from
the colonial personnel, have been incorporated into our fleet. You will,
however, still have your own chain of command, answering to Admiral Tolwyn."
For the first time Ian realized that Tolwyn was in the room, his nephew
by his side. Tolwyn stepped out from a back corner of the meeting hall and
raised his hand in acknowledgment. It seemed strange to Ian to see the
Admiral not in standard fleet uniform, but in the khaki of a Landreich
Just how the hell did he get out here so fast? Ian wondered, what with
Jason's ship arriving only last night into orbit above Landreich.
"Those of you in colonial forces that are assigned aboard former Confed
ships will take orders from the duly appointed commander of that ship."
A low groan went up from the colonial personnel in the room.
We've got to coordinate this effort," Kruger snapped, "so no
The colonial officers looked at each other, mumbled a bit and said
Kruger nodded towards Tolwyn, who came up to the front of the room.
"Well, I'm glad to see that most of you at least made it out here.
"First off . . ." and Tolwyn was interrupted by the sharp spine
tingling wail of a klaxon.
The room went quiet as Kruger raced to a monitor, leaned over it, and
then turned back.
"Any pilots with strike craft please man them immediately."
Ian pushed his way out of the room, a stream of colonial pilots pushing
around him, Jason, Kevin, and Doomsday falling in at his side.
They ran up the corridor and out into the blazing heat, scattering
towards hangars, the high wail of sirens echoing against the surrounding
hills. The ground crew, which had so lazily come out to meet Ian when he
landed, were moving with a cool precision, unchocking the wheels, the crew
chief inside the cockpit, the engine already up and whining, four crew
members lifting two missiles up onto the Sabre's wing pylons. Ian ran to the
ladder, one of the ground crew tossing him his helmet which he snapped on,
the chief coming down the ladder and clearing it just as Ian leaped on to
the third rung and scrambled up, the chief now behind him. Ian saw Jason and
Doomsday running past, heading for the Ferrets they had flown down from
"Engine green, nav system loaded by combat control, all weapons green
with two radar trackers loaded, emergency eject armed and ready, good luck,
sir!" the chief shouted, even as he reached over and helped buckle Ian's
safety harness on, cinching the shoulder straps tight.
This is Hunter in Sabre 239A ready," Ian announced to the control
"Will advise, Hunter, ground chief will signal your clearance," the
ground control officer snapped and then switched off.
Ian gave a thumbs-up as the chief slid down the ladder and the canopy
snapped shut, the green light of airtight lock flashing on. The chief was
now out in front of Ian's fighter, hands held high over his head with fists
crossed, signaling that the taxi ramp was not yet cleared. The Ferret with
the light corvette engine he admired earlier bolted straight out of its
hangar to his right, not even bothering to go for the runway and not needing
one anyhow as it pitched its nose back, and within fifty yards stood on its
tail, flame slamming off the concrete taxiway as it screamed straight up
into the sky, riding a column of fire.
To his left he saw the armored bunker which contained the surface to
space missiles peel open, the silver tips of half a dozen Sprints pointing
"Hunter cleared for takeoff, once lifted depart angle nine zero," the
control officer's voice crackled in his headset and he grinned with the
order to go for a full burn vertical ascent into space.
The crew chief uncrossed his arms and leaped to the side of the Sabre,
crouched, and pointed forward. Ian released his brakes, slammed in full
afterburners and all aft maneuvering thrusters. The Sabre leaped forward and
within seconds he was up past a hundred and ninety clicks an hour. He yanked
back on his stick, pulling it into his gut, the nose lifted up and he was
Ian toggled up his landing gear as his Sabre pointed straight up into
the red sky, the altimeter spinning. Inertial dampening didn't work all that
well inside the gravity well of a planet and he started to breathe in short
convulsive grunts as the Gs built up. He knew his sonic boom was blasting
out across the landscape but it was almost silent inside the cockpit except
for the teeth-rattling rumble of the twin Tangent-class engines burning
white hot behind him. He punched through the thin clouds and the color of
the sky shifted, turning from a deeper red into violet, the first stars
starting to appear. He looked to his left to see the curvature of the world
and what looked like another Ferret rising up to close on his port wing.
"Combat information, this is Hunter, what's the trade today?"
"Forward scouts report detecting an ionized trail emerging from Jump
Point Beta 233. There have been weak radar detects and one laser scan lock
indicating a fighter of Kilrathi Stealth design is approaching. Patrol grid
is already fed into your auto-nav. If you encounter unknown you are cleared
to shoot to kill without warning."
"Just what I wanted to hear," Ian replied as he locked in on the auto
nav system and released his controls, the autopilot taking over. Cleared
into space, and with fuel scoops closed he continued to accelerate so that
within minutes the full sphere of the Hell Hole hung in space behind him.
The attempt to ship fighters to the Landreich was known by the Kilrathi
thanks to the peace commission and a scouting attempt had to be expected. At
least the colonials didn't fool around with diplomatic niceties, Ian
thought. If someone violated their space in a suspicious manner they were
taken out, no questions asked
He scanned the comm channels, listening in as pilots tersely called out
their check points and the search spread outward. The frustrating part of it
was that unless they had some really good luck, they could very well pass
right over a Stealth and not even know it. The mere fact that the Empire was
sneaking a very precious and rare fighter into this sector meant that they
had a good idea of what was going on.
He heard a call of a brief contact by Doomsday and then two more by
colonial pilots, in each case the Stealth was lost. Punching into his nav
computer he checked the three sightings and then overlaid the points into a
map of the system.
"Combat control, request break of my standard sweep, wish to
investigate region around coordinates 233 by ADF."
"Will advise," and the link clicked off.
A moment later it crackled back to life.
"This is Kruger, good thinking, Hunter; proceed at your discretion.
Grinning, he broke off the auto nav, opened his fuel and maneuvering
scoops, and turned. The coded coordinate was the location, at the moment, of
the Hell Hole system's largest planet, a gas giant named Thor. The three
brief sightings roughly matched a standard Kilrathi evasive maneuver called
the reverse claw, and it pointed towards Thor, which would be an excellent
place to hide out until the patrols simmered down.
Punching in the new nav coordinates, Ian closed his fuel scoops and
within minutes was up over three thousand clicks a second and climbing. Thor
was nearly twenty million clicks away and he settled back, nearly dozing off
as the Sabre closed, half listening to the commlink chatter as the scrambled
forces continued to prowl for the needle in a very big haystack.
Approaching within a million clicks of Thor he finally started into
reverse thrust, extending his fuel scoops to create drag. The stray hydrogen
atoms found in space impacted on the energy field surrounding his ship and
were then swept into the fuel tank. Each strike slowed him down by an ever
so minute fraction, which built up with each passing second.
He started a close scan of his instruments, knowing that any sweep
radar was next to useless.
"Now where would I go," he whispered, as if he could almost he heard by
his opponent and he felt that prickly uneasy feeling, knowing that some how
the Kilrathi was near. He had learned never to discount "the gut feeling."
Any fighter pilot who did not believe in the instinctive feel usually didn't
live very long.
Too close into Thor, he reasoned, and the passage of the ship would be
noticeable as a disturbance in the intense magnetic fields. If he went into
the atmosphere he'd kick up the soup and really give himself away. The one
advantage of chasing a Stealth, Ian knew, was that he was just as blind,
running on scan shut down, otherwise he'd be given away. He spared a quick
look at the map of the system. Two moons, one nearly the size of Earth's,
the other half the size.
Get into the lee of the orbit of the moon is what I'd do, Ian thought,
blocking direct approach from one entire side, hide out and then wait for
the patrols to give up before a final run in on the recon sweep.
But which one? If he had had a coin on him he would have flipped it.
Ian shrugged his shoulders and started for the smaller of the two, shutting
down all scanning systems. He maneuvered so as to approach the moon from the
forward side relative to its orbital direction. He throttled back and then
came in a mere hundred clicks above the surface, crossing up over the pole
and moving down the other side.
Ian punched up a full high intensity burst scan, diverting nearly all
ship's power into radar. If there was anyone within a million clicks the
radar burst would damn near rattle the fillings out of his head, Ian
thought, suddenly wondering if the Kilrathi even had fillings. He waited,
watching his screen. The trick was that, even if it didn't detect a Stealth,
it just might panic the pilot into thinking that he had actually been found.
There! Just under two thousand clicks away. Damn, he had found the
A faint echo blipped on his screen, the computer working to gain a
lock, narrowing the radar beam down and firing off another pulse, this one
concentrating nearly all the energy of the previous pulse into a narrow
cone. It was enough energy to fry out every circuit on an unshielded vessel
a hundred thousand clicks away.
The second burst hit, painting the enemy ship clearly on his screen at
a range of eight hundred clicks. The target acquisition computer, upgraded
to handle Stealths, threw a laser lock on the ship. The lock hung on and
held as the pilot fired up to full throttle and went into evasive.
"Combat control, this is Hunter. Got him! One Kilrathi Stealth, on his
tail and closing."
A high pitched whine suddenly cut in on his headset. The Kilrathi had
dumped three missiles which Ian's computer told him were IFFs. Ian countered
by punching in an IFF scramble. In a full running fleet engagement such an
act could be suicide because the moment his transponder switched there was
still no guarantee that the enemy missile which had already gained lock
would veer away. On the other hand, everything else flying around, either
human or computer guided, would assume that he was not on the same side and
act accordingly þ but out here it was a safe maneuver.
The computer raced through thousands of possible transponder codes,
searching for the right one to throw the missiles off, but they kept
closing. Ian toggled off a guided bolt in return, which used the laser beam
as a guide in to its target.
He continued the chase, running blind. There was nothing to see, only a
blip on the screen.
The Kilrathi ship suddenly dropped out of Stealth mode, flashing full
visible, and at the same instant Ian picked up a high energy burst signal.
The pilot was good, he realized, never forgetting his mission, even while
flying to evade death. Whatever he was sent here to find out, he was making
sure word got out.
"Combat control, bogey has sent burst signal, repeat, bogey has sent
The first incoming missile closed in. Ian nosed over hard and then
banked back up, the missile jinxing down to follow and then shooting past.
The second and third missiles, momentarily thrown off by his attempts at
jamming, regained lock but missed as well due to the same maneuver. Ian felt
the sweat streaking down the small of his back. His own bolt was leaping
forward, guiding straight in.
There was a brilliant flash of light as bright as the sun and then
darkness. It took Ian a second to realize that his own missile was still a
dozen clicks away. The Kilrathi had self-destructed with a small
matter/antimatter warhead, vaporizing himself and his ship. Now there would
never he any evidence at all of the violation of the armistice since a
missile hit tended to leave a lot of wreckage behind which could be
Watching the ship, he momentarily forgot what was now behind him, and
suddenly a high undulating warble sounded in his headphones. One of the IFFs
had turned around, regained lock and was closing straight in.
He punched hard over, aiming straight back towards the moon, popping
out chaff and a noise maker. He turned his transponder off completely,
slamming off all energy sources.
The damn thing kept closing, following his every turn and then a high
energy ping sounded.
What the hell was this?
"Combat control, combat control!"
"Kilrathi seem to have new prototype weapon. It's ignoring chaff and
noise maker. It registered first as an IFF missile but the damn thing must
have a smart weapon program that continues to recognize its target once
locked," Ian shouted, realizing that even if he bought it, it was essential
that his friends knew exactly why and learned from it. It was part of the
training and it was loyalty as well.
He had no tail gunner to pop the missile at the last second, or wingman
to peel it off his back, or the mad confusion of a hundred fighters and
ships filling space with metal and energy. He was naked and alone, the IFF
following remorselessly, like a cold deadly shark that could kill without
thinking or feeling.
He skimmed down over the moon's airless surface, weaving a low sharp
turn into a narrow canyon and the missile impacted against the side of cliff
behind him. He breathed a deep sigh of relief and then a second warble
kicked in, showing that another of the missiles had regained lock as well.
The missile was above him, streaking down. He blew his remaining chaff
and the missile streaked straight through and closed. He was boxed in.
The warble climbed in tone and then plateaued on a high spine-tingling
pitch, the warning of an unavoidable impact.
He yanked his stick back hard, popping up off the moon's surface, then
reached between his legs, grabbing hold of the ejector D ring and pulled,
even as the explosion engulfed him.
"I think we know why we are here," Baron Jukaga said, his voice quiet,
low pitched, his mane lying nearly flat so as to show neither dominance nor
"It is the fault of the hrai of Vak," Qar'ka Baron of the Qarg clan
hissed, springing to his feet and pointing accusingly across the table.
"Low born scum," Vak snarled in reply, reaching for the claw dagger at
"Silence!" Jukaga roared. "Damn all of you, I want silence! and his
golden red mane bristled up.
The two stopped and turned, fixing the Baron with hate-filled eyes.
"Jukaga, either one of us could cut your guts out and spill them on the
floor for the rats to eat," Vak said coldly. "You of the Ki'ra hrai are
weaklings compared to either the Qarg the Ragitagha, or any of the other
"And if you did," Jukaga replied smoothly, "then you truly would have
civil war and the humans would finish up with what was left."
"Sit down," Baron Ka'ta of the Kurutak clan hissed, "Baron Jukaga is
right. Let us listen to him first."
Jukaga nodded his thanks to Ka'ta. At least he knew that the Ka'ta out
of all the eight families of the Empire was solidly behind him. It was
almost amusing. The Kurutak, along with the Sihkag, had always been viewed
as the lowest of the eight, their blood never considered as thick. It was
almost a guarantee that when approached by his own clan, the ancient family
of Ki'ra, that the Kurutak would grovel over the honor of being treated as
equals. It was a mistake the Kiranka, the clan or hrai of the Emperor, never
realized in their treatment of those residing in the royal palace. In
public, of course, the positions of dominance and submission were closely
observed during audiences and open ritual, but in private, it was something
else, especially when all the other families viewed the Emperor's line as no
better than their own.
"This petty feud between the clan of Vak and that of the Qarg is to
stop here and now," Jukaga announced. "It is a disgrace that royal blood has
been spilled like this in feuds within the confines of the Imperial Palace.
Five of the Qarg have died in duels and five of the Ragitagha. It is enough
and it is finished."
Vak started to open his mouth and Jukaga extended his paw, talons
retracted in a sign of peace.
"It is enough," he said quietly.
"You are not the Emperor," Vak replied, "you have not the power to
order me or Qar'ka to stop," and he looked across the table at Qar'ka, whom
only a moment ago he would have gladly knifed, for support.
Qar'ka nodded his head in agreement.
The Baron inwardly sighed. The fools, could they not see the weakness
revealed in that simple statement? It was something he had learned in his
years of study and it had come to him with a crystal clarity. The wars
against other races, the ritual of Sivar, were designed above all else as a
civilizing factor to the race of the Kilrathi, to quite simply keep them
from killing each other. Aggressive combat, the instinct to hunt and to kill
was far too close to the surface. Within the hrai, the clan and families
were controlled by the rigid system of caste. But the clan instinct only
extended as far as the clan. Though all might espouse the concept that they
were Kilrathi it was only in the face of a prey outside of themselves. War
and Sivar were essential for the survival of the race, to keep it from
killing itself off and nothing more. It was something he did not discuss,
for to even question the divinity of Sivar as nothing more than a social
tool would be his ruin.
All the wars had so well served that purpose, the humans, the Hari, the
Gorth, Sorn, Ka, and Utara. Thank Sivar for the Utara who in their
foolishness had come to Kilrah in peace, gave them space travel as a
friendly gesture, and died as a result. If it had not been so, we would have
destroyed ourselves when the secret of atomics came into our hands, the
Baron thought, even as he surveyed the other clan leaders in the room.
Aggressive races rarely survived the move into technology and made it to the
point where space offered them an outlet.
He looked around the table. Qar'ka was a fool, Vak not much better;
they would not see such things. All they knew was that there was no war for
the moment and the pressure within their own hrai was building, petty
quarreling, long forgotten feuds building to the flashing of claw daggers.
And yet, when Vak had turned to Qar'ka and offered him Jukaga as an opponent
that they could unite against, Qar'ka was ready to agree.
"The feuding in the palace must stop," Jukaga said coldly. his mane
still flushed outward.
"And I say you are not the Emperor to so order me," Vak snapped in
"Is he really our Emperor?"
There was a moment of stunned silence.
"Are you mad?" Qar'ka asked
"He and that fool grandson have led us into one too many disasters,"
Jukaga replied coldly.
"How many of us have lost our sons, the best of our hrai, to the
Terrans? How many of us have listened to our first chosen ones and
concubines crying at night, their faces buried in their pillows to muffle
the sobs, crying for those lost in this war?"
The other hrai leaders lowered their heads and even Vak, who only
moments before wanted to knife him, nodded in agreement.
"Vak, you lost your first born of your first litter at Vukar Tag, I
know, I saw his gallantry, his heroic death when he tried to ram the enemy
carrier. He died kabaka, his soul winging to Sivar for his courage."
Vak looked up at Jukaga, his eyes cold with anger at the wasted death
of his eldest son. Jukaga almost felt guilty for so easily manipulating him
"He would be alive today, sitting by your side, sharing your feasting
cup but for the Emperor. It was the Emperor that ordered the splitting of
the fleet and Thrakhath agreed. If all our carriers were there for that
fight we would have smashed the Confederation and pressed the war to
victory. I was blamed and you now know the lie of that. I languished in
exile, expecting at any moment that the Emperor's poisoner would come."
He looked around the room and stood up.
"We must stay united, we must control our hrai and stop this petty
feuding which threatens to turn the palace into a slaughter pit. Don't you
think the Emperor is quietly encouraging us thus to fight against each
other, to thus keep us from standing united against him?"
He could see more than one nod of agreement to his statement and smiled
"Then start the war now!" Qar'ka snarled. "End this ridiculous farce.
We have lulled the humans to sleep, now let us rip their throats out and be
done with it."
Qar'ka hesitated for a moment as if not willing to speak.
"We must finish it before the Mantu return," he said quietly, "and take
us in the back while we still fight the Confederation."
The others looked over nervously at Qar'ka and then back to Jukaga
Jukaga nodded and said nothing. Just after the defeat at Vukar, a
report had come in from a deep space remote probe, far beyond the edge of
Hari space, a probe so far removed that it had taken a year even to bring it
in. There was an indication that the Mantu, who had once before invaded
Kilrathi space, had completed their war against an unknown neighbor and
might very well return. Seventy years past there had been a brief encounter
with them, and though the fight had been a draw, it was suspected that the
Mantu might in fact be far superior in their weapons technology. They had
disappeared, drawing back to fight other foes, but it was always suspected
that there would come a day when the Mantu might turn their full attention
on the Empire, a concern that deeply troubled Jukaga as he watched their
resources being spilled against the humans.
Jukaga turned away and pointed at a long list of figures displayed by a
"This war against the Confederation has lasted over thirty years, the
borders barely shifting after our first gains. War is not just fighting, it
is economics, and resources, and production and morale and perhaps most
importantly the learning of the way our enemy thinks. I know some of you
might scoff at such concerns but that last factor has been my chief concern
"You and the nobles of your hrai have remained safe at home, playing
with numbers and reading while we spill our blood," Vak laughed coldly.
"Without the weapons my hrai designed and the intelligence my spies and
remote devices have gained, you would have been frozen meat floating in
space," Jukaga replied.
"He speaks the truth," Talmak of the Sutaghi interjected before Vak
could reply. "Now let him finish. If Thrakhath had listened to Jukaga's
concerns before Vukar the battle would have turned out far differently."
"The war had become a balanced match without end in sight until now,"
Jukaga continued. "We almost had the edge until Vukar and their raid to our
base on our moon. If it had not been for Thrakhath and the Emperor, as I
already said, we might very well have taken Earth.
"Earth, that has always been the key, and Thrakhath forgot that. A
human warrior once wrote that in war one must find the focal point that will
cause the collapse of his enemy and then throw all resources against it
"This time I want no mistakes. Give this armistice just a little more
time until the enemy is asleep and our secret fleet is completed. Let the
fools get used to peace. Let them believe in this friendship. Let our secret
fleet continue to be built even as we make a show of decommissioning our
current ships. Then we will strike and crush them."
"But the Sivar," Vak replied. "Where is the Sivar to be this year? Our
people demand that."
"You have the prisoners that we have kept hidden, do it to them,"
Jukaga replied coldly.
"Prisoners, there is no honor in that. I still say that in eight eight
of days, when Sivar comes, then we should launch our strike and turn the
rivers of Earth red with the blood of the slaughter."
"And I tell you that it must be yet five eighty of days. Look at the
charts, can't you see the truth in them?" and he pointed to the wall."
"War is not simple numbers, it is blood," Vak snorted.
"Four more carriers at Vukar is a simple number, Vak and that number is
the difference between your first born still floating in space, his body
unclaimed, versus his living and breathing this day."
Vak snarled and Jukaga was not sure for a moment if the anger was aimed
at him, or at the humiliation over the useless death of a son.
"Listen to me, my takhars," and he deliberately chose the word which
meant brothers of equal rank. He looked around the room and saw that even
Vak was at last willing to listen, unable to argue with the cold facts of
"Let the plan unfold. When the time is ripe, over a dozen carriers will
leap forward, slashing through their near defenseless border region. Before
they can even hope to mobilize, we will jump straight to Earth, and there I
promise you a slaughter like no other. In our plan we already have our
agents at work, weakening their will to fight, ready as well to kill their
leaders of war when the time is right. When we cut the heart out of the
Terran Confederation, then in the years to come we can go at our leisure
from planet to planet, saving some for Sivar, others destroying if they are
a threat. Thus we will win, and thus we will be ready as well if our old
enemy the Mantu should again return."
He settled back in his chair and waited. Vak looked around the room,
saw the nods of agreement and finally lowered his head.
"The feud stops, you have my support," he said quietly.
Jukaga did not allow himself to show his teeth in a gesture of triumph.
"Then I have the promise of all of you to control your hrai in the
"It will be difficult, but it will be done," Qar'ka finally said. "But
what of your other words about the Emperor?"
"In the days to come just consider this. He is old, he will not live
forever. When he goes to his fathers, Thrakhath will take the golden throne.
Given the leadership both have shown, do we truly want them to lead us to
our final victory, or even more importantly against the threat of the Mantu
if they should return?"
"Are you suggesting the breaking of our oath-sworn word?" Vak asked.
Jukaga slowly shook his head.
"Just that I want you to consider my question, nothing more, Jukaga
replied. "Other than that I suggest nothing."
Vak smiled, and for an instant Jukaga was not sure if it was a sign of
aggression at himself or towards the Emperor and without another word he got
up and strode from the room, the other clan leaders following.
Jukaga sighed with relief as the door closed behind them. How the feuds
had truly started was all too evident. The Emperor had manipulated the hrai
of Vak into feeling slighted at the court rituals by the other clans. He had
not intervened when blood started to spill as a result.
It was masterful on the Emperor's part, keeping the clans from uniting
and turning their aggressive energy against him. Jukaga closed his eyes to
clear his thoughts.
The Emperor by now must see the threat forming. The Emperor must
somehow sense that he was actually contemplating the unthinkable, the actual
elimination of the Imperial line. If the war was on, such an act would be
absolutely intolerable, in peace it might just be successful. The Emperor
therefore needed peace to finish the building of the fleet, but at the same
time needed war to secure his throne.
Jukaga reached over to a side table and poured himself a cup of wine
and quietly lapped it up. And yet there was far more. If he had learned
anything from his study of the humans, it was that there was more than one
way to win a war. Direct and brutal combat was the only thing the Kilrathi
knew and understood. Yet there were so many other ways. It was already
evident that the humans were weakening themselves in a foolish bid for
peace. A year from now, if all could be kept quiet they would cripple
themselves beyond all hope of recall.
If he could eliminate the Emperor and the Prince, and then personally
lead the new fleet into Terran space they would most likely capitulate in
despair. Thus the fleet would be preserved. For if the Mantu were coming,
the fleet, and far more beyond it, would be needed to stop them; a
subjugated race of humans, and the vast resources they controlled, would
help in that survival. The Emperor was too much a Kilrathi to see that.
Brutal all-out war was the only path the Kilrathi had ever understood. It
had, for so long, been the fundamental key to their success. Now, it might
very well be the path to their destruction, fighting themselves to
exhaustion only to then be conquered by others. He even half suspected that
this was part of the Mantu plan, for surely they must know what was going
The Emperor would have to go, it was that simple, and he found that he
could indeed contemplate something that the humans so often practiced in
their political struggles but which was unknown to the Kilrathi, political
assassination of a superior without direct confrontation and challenge.
As he contemplated he smiled remembering his favorite readings of the
human English author and his play MacBeth. It was that reading which had
first planted the thought
Tolwyn. The English race of humans and their cousins the Americans were
an interesting study. So violent but also so imbued with a strange idealism.
Tolwyn fascinated him, a cultured man, and yet a complete warrior.
He knew that there was something hidden behind the downfall of Tolwyn's
career, and his reported move to the Landreich reinforced that. Tolwyn was
too honorable to break the old English code of warfare with its bizarre
notion of fair play and rules. He was following orders from someone above
him, to be removed so he could go to the Landreich. But for what?
Jukaga called up a holo map of the Landreich sector and its jump point
pathways into the Empire.
The realization finally came. Tolwyn was being sent out as a spy, to
try to find the fleet, and if discovered, his link to the government could
"Masterful," Jukaga said softly. The information matched into the
report he had obtained from one of his operatives inside Thrakhath's
military intelligence. Thrakhath must have surmised this concern as well,
and thus sent out a precious Stealth to investigate.
Tolwyn had to be blocked. If the humans found out the truth, the peace
would indeed be shattered, the timing of his own plans destroyed. Though he
hated to do it, he would have to send a message to Thrakhath outlining his
concerns for security and to recommend that it be doubled.
Tolwyn was a fascinating challenge, a worthy foe. Though he would not
openly admit it even to himself, he was finding in his heart that the humans
were a race he had almost come to like, and more importantly, a race he was
even willing to spare in his own quest for power.
"Well look what the birds dragged in," Jason laughed, trying to conceal
the fact that he had been sweating out the last twenty hours, increasingly
convinced that his old friend had bought a permanent piece of space.
K'Kai, ignoring Jason's teasing remark, led Ian up to the bar. Ian
looked around the room with a grin, though Jason could see that the rescued
pilot had most definitely had the wits scared out of him.
"Yeah, I know, the drinks are an on me, "Ian announced, and a cheer
went up from the pilots who swarmed up to the bar. Ian looked around a bit
glumly, realizing that the old fleet tradition could be rather expensive.
"I'll have this thing Ian talks so much about, a single malt scotch,"
The bartender looked at Ian.
"For that kind of sippin' liquor it's ten dollars for a shot."
"Give it to her," Ian sighed, "the bird was the one that rescued me.
The bartender seemed to relax a bit, especially when Jason reached into
his pocket and fished out a wad of bills, hard Confederation currency, and
tossed them on the counter.
"I don't think you've got much change on you at the moment, Jason said
looking over at Ian. "You can pay me back later."
Ian nodded his thanks and called for a Scotch as well, downing it in
one gulp. He looked over at Jason and smiled weakly.
"I was scared out of my wits," Ian said quietly. "Maybe I might have
been able to dodge that second missile, but it just kept boring in on me.
When I popped out of there my ship was already blowing."
Jason could easily see that by the scorching on Ian's flightsuit.
"By popping up at the last second I had enough forward velocity to go
into a low orbit around the moon. I looped over a mountain range not
clearing it by a thousand meters. Every time I circled the moon my orbit
kept degrading until finally the mountain range was straight ahead and I
knew I was going to slam in. If K'Kai had gotten there thirty seconds later
I'd have been splattered. Her tractor beam caught me just in time."
He raised his glass and Jason could see the trembling which Ian
struggled to control. Everyone who flew experienced it sooner or later,
especially with the life expectancy of pilots being what it was. There was a
point though when one too many close brushes simply drained the well dry. If
they were back with the Confed Fleet, Ian would have been in to the psych
officer and most likely stood down for a couple of weeks of R&R before being
sent back in. But there wasn't any time, and in this stripped down fleet a
psych officer was a luxury that Kruger would have considered pure idiocy.
"Captain Bondarevsky, Captain St. John?"
The two looked over their shoulders at a colonial officer.
"You got us."
"You're wanted by Kruger."
"On our way," Hunter said, forcing a smile.
Jason looked around at the bar, fished into his pocket and pulled out
what he had left and tossed it to the bartender.
"Keep it flowing on me till the money runs out"
The colonial pilots cheered a thanks, as Jason left. Hunter looked back
at K'Kai, and silently nodded a thanks as he went out the door.
The bar was conveniently across the street from the entry into the
command post. Following their guide they passed the security guards and went
back down into the basement command post.
Kruger and Tolwyn looked up as Ian and Jason came into the room.
"Glad you're alive," Geoff said.
"So am I."
"But you lost a Sabre," Kruger interjected, "a first line ship in
return for one Kilrathi Stealth, not a good trade in my book at all."
"Return with your shield or upon it, is that it?" Ian said dryly.
"Something like that," Kruger retorted. "You Confed boys might think
it's all right to blow a ship apart or prang one up on a bad landing, get
out, and then have another one handed to you, but out here it's different.
We're at the butt end of any supplies. With your asinine Confed signing that
article 23 of the armistice forbidding the resale of fighter aircraft, a
Sabre is precious."
"Sorry," Ian replied, "next time I'll make sure to blow up with my
"At least we know about their new missile," Tolwyn interjected, while
pouring himself a cup of tea and motioning for Ian to come over and join
"You go too easy on your boys," Kruger said, looking over at Tolwyn.
Jason found it hard to suppress a low chuckle.
"Something I say amusing to you, mister?" Kruger asked, looking back at
"As a matter of fact, yes, sir," Jason replied.
Kruger looked at him coldly and again Jason found himself wondering if
his honesty would get him into hot water. Whether Kruger could really
discipline him or not was problematic, he was after all a "volunteer" in the
Landreich's Free Corp, not even officially sworn in, but he did suspect the
gaunt one-eyed leader could make life difficult.
"We've got a little surprise for you two," Tolwyn said handing a cup of
tea to Ian and moving to get between Jason and Kruger. Glad for the excuse
to break eye contact Jason focused his attention on Tolwyn.
"What is it, sir?"
"The special equipment we were hoping to get made it out of the
Confederation and will arrive here tomorrow. It's the real reason I wanted
to get these carriers out here," and he looked over at a frowning Kruger and
smiled "besides helping out our allies in the Landreich.
"Therefore Tarawa and Normandy aren't going out on forward patrol with
the other three carriers."
"Why, sir?" and the disappointment in Jason's voice was evident.
"I couldn't let you in on it till now, but your ship has been selected
for the real mission. Let's head up there now, Paladin's moved over from
Normandy and he's already on board waiting for us."
"What is it, sir?" Jason asked, feeling like a child who was being held
back from looking under the Christmas tree.
"Let's just say we've decided to add to Tarawa a little something
special that just came in."
Hard docking completed, Jason followed Geoff Tolwyn to what usually
served as the entry bay for his fighters and was now blocked by the side of
the heavy transport which was almost as big as Tarawa.
The crew worked around him, extending the docking collar through the
magnetic field which separated the pressurized flight deck from the vacuum
of space. The collar snapped onto the side of the transport and the deck
officer turned to Jason nodding that an airtight seal had been secured. The
side of the transport popped open and a thin, nearly bald man, who Jason
judged to be in his early sixties, came through.
"So the Cats have been snooping around?" the man asked, coming up to
shake Tolwyn's hands.
"They know we're here."
"And they'll be back for a closer look. I think I managed to get here
without their knowing and I can tell you what's inside my hold is secure."
Tolwyn looked back at his companions.
"Admiral Vance Richards, I'd like to introduce you to Captain
Jason came to attention and the Admiral motioned for him to stand at
"Everyone here's retired at the moment, Captain, so let's cut all the
Jason took Richards' hand, surprised at the firmness of the grip.
Tolwyn went down the line introducing him in turn to Hunter, Doomsday,
Kevin, and finally Paladin.
"Ah, Vance, tis good to see ya again," Paladin said with a laugh, the
two slapping each other on the shoulders. "Did you bring me my new toy?"
"That I did," Richards said, "it's tucked into the forward cargo bay."
Paladin grinned with delight
Jason watched the familiar greeting with surprise. Admiral Richards,
until his retirement only days before the armistice, had been head of
military intelligence for the entire Confederation. He was, to the members
of the fleet, a shadowy figure, a name without a picture, an individual
never seen þ though it was often rumored that he traveled into more than one
action, hidden away as a staff officer under an assumed name.
"Let's start unloading and get to work" Richards said with an almost
boylike enthusiasm, and he motioned for the group to follow him off the
deserted hangar bay.
The group started down the corridor back to the bridge and Jason looked
back to see a team of black cover-alled personnel emerging from the
transport ship, each of them saluting the lone Marine guard by the hatch and
requesting permission to come aboard.
"Who are those people?" Jason asked, motioning back towards the stream
of personnel filing off the transport.
"That's part of our surprise," Tolwyn said with a grin.
The new arrivals started to maneuver long black canisters from out of
the transport, moving them with small hand-held null gravity units. They had
a certain look to them, tech personnel he could almost guess out of hand,
but beyond that a cold professional look as well.
"Since I am captain of this ship, sir," Jason said, looking over at
Tolwyn, "can you finally let me in on what's going on? You've been looking
like a cat that just swallowed the canary."
"We're installing a D 3S 5 on board your ship, Jason," Richards said,
motioning for Jason to turn into the wardroom off the bridge and indicating
that Ian, Doomsday, Paladin, Geoff, and Kevin were invited to join as well.
"Just what the hell is a D 3S 5?" Ian asked.
"Deep Space Surveillance System Five," Richards said quietly, closing
the door behind them.
"Something then with signal intelligence, is that it?"
Richards smiled and sat down on the small table that filled most of the
room, motioning for the rest of group to sit down. It suddenly caught Jason
that Richards was awfully familiar with light escort design, having made it
straight from the hangar to the bridge wardroom without a single false turn.
"The sig intel department's been working on this new design for years,
in fact they were just getting set to deploy it when the armistice hit. This
system was a black project. The only ones who knew about it were the chiefs
of staff and several hundred design and research techs working on a base
buried inside one of Neptune's moons, and that was it. Security was so tight
that the techs were only allowed to bring their spouses and children with
them and then were listed as killed in a transport accident."
Jason noticed that Richards had neglected to say if anyone inside the
civilian government knew of the project. Chances were not even the president
fully understood it, nor perhaps did he want to.
"I should add it is strictly a military project," Richards said, as if
reading Jason's thoughts. I think it's fair to tell you that we've suspected
a mole in the inner circle of government for some time now. The money for
this project has therefore been buried, and no one else knows about it.
"So what's so important about all of this?" Ian asked.
"Since this war started, signal and photo intelligence has been
crucial. From the little bits of information that we've been able to
occasionally get, victory or defeat in some of the major battles of the war
has often been decided. Vukar started because of a recon survey and in a lot
of those missions good people died as a result.
"We ve even got picket ships specially designed for the work, and
they've been hiding on the edge of the frontier for years, quietly parked in
asteroid fields. Hell, some of them are camouflaged to look like asteroids.
Gods, it must be boring work, but to the sig intel crowd it's like a giant
game, figuring out one puzzle after another.
"The problem is that we're trying to listen in on everything from old
sub light ship-to-ship radio communication, through newscasts, right up to
fleet command high density translight burst signals. It comes down to
hundreds of billions of signals floating around, made even more complicated
by old radio waves, signals maybe five hundred years old, drifting by. The
Kilrathi of course, assume we're listening in, so throw in language and
coding and you see how complex it gets.
"D 3S 5 might be a partial answer. It's not only the detecting
equipment, it's also the analysis software which can sort through these
millions of signals, crack codes, figure out which ones have certain things
we're looking for and then give them as hard copy to intelligence. When they
started the design work twenty years ago, the antenna nets were twenty miles
across, it took five hundred personnel to run it, and it needed a ship
bigger than a carrier. The early models were, as result of these
limitations, well inside Confed space for security reasons, trying to squeak
out information from as much as five hundred or more light years and ten or
more jump points from the front. Now we've finally got it down to something
we can deploy inside the flight deck of a light escort carrier, with a fifty
meter antenna array mounted outside."
"So that's why the other ships got the fighters, leaving us just four,
and you wanted them moved to a corner of the hangar?" Jason asked, looking
over at Tolwyn.
The Admiral smile.
"Tarawa's got a different job, in fact the real reason behind our
moving out here to the Landreich. The Landreich needed the carriers, to be
sure, and some of us wanted to keep a light strike force ready and available
on the edge of the frontier. But it also served as a smoke screen for the
real mission, the mission you and your carrier have been chosen for. We re
going to take our new ears inside the Empire, and get the evidence we need
to pull the mask off what they're doing. When we have the proof of what
they're doing, believe me, things will hit the fan."
"Just one question then, sir," Ian asked.
"Sure, what is it?"
"How the hell did we get this equipment? It must be worth hundreds of
"Just roughly over eighty billion and some odd change." Richards
replied. "What's inside those boxes piling up on the flight deck cost more
than the entire Concordia."
"So how then?"
"Don't ever ask," Tolwyn replied quietly. "People have died for knowing
a hell of a lot less and I suspect there's more than one person who'd be
glad to kill all of us if they knew what we were up to."
"And my ship?" Paladin asked.
"Once we off load the equipment to Tarawa, we'll leave the Hell Hole
and head off to a quiet corner a couple of jump points up, and then off-load
your new toy."
"Off-load what?" Doomsday asked, unable to hide behind his usual mask
of disinterest and depression.
"A light smuggler craft with Stealth technology," Paladin said with a
"How the hell did we get that?" Kevin asked excitedly.
"Oh, let's just say a Kilrathi Stealth fighter they thought was killed
somehow wound up in our hands," Richards replied. We've yet to really figure
out how it works, but we did manage to take it apart and install it in one
of our ships and the damn thing actually works!"
"Paladin's going in as our point man on this operation, so we thought
we'd give him a little something extra this time around," Tolwyn
"And its about time, considering what you folks pay me, Paladin replied
with a grin.
Bowing low, Vak, baron of the hrai of the Ragitagha slipped into the
darkened room, went down on both knees, head bowed to the floor and waited.
"You may arise, the voice whispered hoarsely and Vak came to his feet.
The bent figure motioned for him to approach and sit by his side, an
act of great honor, and Vak moved quickly to obey.
"You at least I still know are loyal."
"As always, my Emperor," Vak said softly, not daring to raise his voice
much above a whisper. Though the room was supposedly secured and swept, and
the walls were mounted with vibration dampeners, it was still possible that
something might have been overlooked.
The Emperor touched a control panel by his side and Vak felt the
electrostatic tingle of a force field clicking in. Nothing now could hear
them, unless a bug had been planted in the very chair in which the Emperor
"We can talk freely now," the Emperor said.
Vak tried to relax.
"I have read the report you sent to me regarding this meeting. They are
fools if they continue to follow Jukaga."
"I think you should know that you are not the only one to report to me
Vak felt a cold uneasiness. Was this a lie or not? If not, then it
meant that at least one other of the eight families had had second thoughts
about Jukaga. Could it be that all the others might very well be playing
both sides in this? Or was the Emperor truly alone and simply making him
nervous, to insure that he told the truth? He tried to analyze this bit of
information. He had no love for the Emperor, and that he had led them to the
brink of disaster was obvious. But he feared civil war as well, knowing that
if it came it would be his worlds that might very well be swallowed up if
the humans should attack in the wake of the chaos.
We need the Emperor to hold us together, yet in the needing of him we
are destroying ourselves as well, that is the paradox of it all, as Jukaga
"You're wondering who?" the Emperor said with a cold laugh.
"Of course I would wonder such a thing."
"And of course I will not tell you. In fact, you've already thought I
might be lying; I'll leave that for you to meditate on."
"Don't you trust me?" Vak asked, his voice and demeanor showing a
"Don't be a fool, of course I don't trust you. Remember that, Vak,
anyone who wears the Imperial crown must learn that lesson first. I did not
trust even my own son and in the end I ordered his death. There are times I
am not even sure of my grandson, the heir."
He paused for a moment as if the memory did in fact still pain him in
spite of his apparent lack of remorse in the years since the execution.
He lowered his head again, growling softly.
"You know that when I go," the Emperor finally said, "if my grandson is
not supported, civil war will be the result. My hrai has ruled the Empire
for centuries, that must continue, for no family will support the rise of
another to rule over them."
Vak said nothing.
"But tell me," the Emperor chuckled, "why have you betrayed Jukaga's
intentions to me?"
"Because I am loyal sire."
The Emperor leaned back and barked out a laugh.
"Do not play the fool, the real reason. I know you hate my grandson and
me, blaming us for the death of your first born."
Vak was taken aback. His first answer had actually been the truth. If
loyalty to a sworn oath was viewed as nothing more than a political toy, to
be abandoned without thought, then they were indeed truly lost.
The Emperor looked at him closely and finally nodded.
"I believe you actually are loyal."
Vak, feeling insulted that such an issue had even been questioned,
The Emperor looked away from Vak. Jukaga, as head of intelligence, had
placed his spies not only beyond the borders but within even the palace
itself. There was nothing he did not know. Poisoning him would be the
easiest answer, but that might very well make the loyalty of Vak and the
other family heads waver. The tacit agreement between hrai leaders and
Emperors had stood for generations: both sides will support the other,
neither will attempt to kill the other.
He thought of Thrakhath. He was tempted to recall him from his
assignment with the new fleet but then thought better of it. The new fleet
was not only the tool for the final offensive against the Confederation, but
also a replacement for the home fleet lost in the last two years of
campaigns. Three carriers were ready, at the very least six more had to be
completed if the next campaign was to be a guaranteed success. He could not
afford one more lost opportunity, for it would shake whatever power they had
left to the very core and perhaps trigger open rebellion. Yet if they
waited, Jukaga in his slyness might very well gain even more power.
It was an amusing question to ponder and he knew if he pondered long
enough he would find the answer.
"You know just how munificent my reward might be if you provide me with
information valuable enough, including perhaps even the marriage to one of
my great nieces. It could very well mean that your family might even thus be
in line for the Imperial succession," the Emperor said softly. And Vak
"Jump transition on automatic sequencing and counting at ten, nine,
eight . . ."
Jason settled back into his chair and waited. A cold rush of excitement
tingled down his spine. No matter how many times he had jumped he always
felt the same, especially when going into hostile space. One of the key
tactical points with jumping was the simple fact that you never knew what
was on the other side. Inside secured shipping lanes behind the lines there
were beacons placed at both points, monitoring traffic, sent up to avoid the
possibility of a ship materializing in the same point of space occupied by
someone else, an event that always had spectacular results. But beyond that
was the question of just who was waiting. Paladin, piloting his new ship
which he had named Bannockburn, with Ian aboard as his co-pilot, had already
gone ahead to scout. The fifteen minutes' wait had passed and now it was
time to follow through and the potential for an unpleasant surprise was
He felt Tarawa drop away, and there was a momentary queasiness then the
flash of rematerialization. He looked over at his navigation officer who was
peering intently at her holo display.
"Correct jump alignment confirmed," she announced. "Bannockburn
reporting in on laser lock."
Paladin's image appeared on the screen.
"This Stealth works like a charm. We found a remote sensor and took it
out, it never even put out a signal. Optical scan shows the entire system's
clear right up to the next jump point."
Jason looked over at Tolwyn and grinned.
"It looks like we got through. We've crossed from the frontier into the
heart of the Empire."
He looked up at his aft visual and less than a minute later his escort
CVE-6 Normandy came through.
"All ships through," communications announced, "all systems running
nominal, Bannockburn reports successful take-out of remote drone without
detect signal being activated."
Geoff Tolwyn, standing behind Jason, nodded, letting out an audible
sigh of relief. Jason found that alone to be surprising; he was used to his
old chief being absolutely unflappable.
They were now four jumps into the Kilrathi Empire, tracking down one of
the hundreds of transition points leading from neutral territory into the
Empire in the one direction and Confederation space on the other.
Surveillance drones of course monitored these points, but "accidents" like
the one Paladin had just arranged for the drone covering this jump point
were easy enough to set up. It could be days or even weeks before a picket
ship came out to replace the drone with a new one.
"Let's hit the flight deck and see what Richards is up to," Tolwyn
said, motioning for Jason to follow.
Excited, Jason came out of his seat. He had been waiting for days to
get a look at what Richards was doing.
Leaving the bridge they went down the main corridor to the forward part
of the ship. At the airlock door two guards came to attention at Tolwyn's
approach but did not step aside.
Internal ship security was nothing new to Jason but this was different.
The two men were not dressed in the usual Marine class B uniform, for after
all this was not a Confederation ship any longer. There was something
disquieting about the black khaki uniform the two guards were wearing
without a single insignia or marking on them. The easy way they held their
laser rifles told him that these two were highly trained professionals.
Only seven members of the Tarawa's operating crew were allowed on to
the hangar deck, Tolwyn and himself, along with Kevin, Doomsday and two
Landreich pilots cleared to fly one of the four craft still left in the very
forward part of the hangar, and finally Sparks as the one overworked
maintenance officer permitted to work on the fighters. Everyone else aboard
ship had already been told that the guards had standing orders to shoot
first and then ask questions. Jason could tell this was simply not rhetoric,
these two would do it without batting an eye.
Clearing the doorway, they stepped out into the hangar deck. Equipment
was spread out across almost all the floor space which once was occupied by
forty-four fighters. He realized that he was, in fact, looking at perhaps
the single largest concentration of computing power anywhere in the
Confederation except, perhaps, for the administrative centers of Earth and
the moon, and even then he wondered. Banks of storage systems were arrayed
along one wall, dozens of holo display fields were already up and running,
and he approached one of them, a field nearly half a dozen meters cubed. A
technician was standing inside the display field, which showed a three
dimensional model of what he recognized as the near space environment around
Kilrah. Bright hovering points of light represented the stars, their
planets, and transition jump points, with blocks of data appearing above
them, the information readable from any angle one looked at it. The
technician standing inside the holo display looked almost godlike as she
walked about inside it. He was totally mystified by what she was doing as
she pulled out what looked like a laser pointer, aimed it at the orange size
planet floating in the middle of the field and squeezed.
Another holo field popped into action next to the first, this one a
close up of the planet the first technician had pointed at. The entire field
was occupied by what looked like a solid ball, its continents covered with
hundreds of flashing lights
"That's Kilrah," Jason whispered.
"Using this, they can lock in on any one of millions of sources even
while continuing to scan all other traffic and look for new sources at the
same time," Tolwyn replied softly,
Several white overall clad techs gathered around the globe, pointing,
talking softly, arguing, and then aiming pointers at particular flashing
lights. Behind them, two dimensional flat screens flared into light, streams
of data flashing across some, others showing pictures, one of which caught
Jason's eye, of Kilrathi wearing heavy leather armor slashing at each other
Vance came up to the two and nodded a greeting.
"Say, what the hell is that on the monitor?" Jason asked, pointing to
"A Kilrathi drama from the Gakarg Period."
"Their ancient history. They love holos about the ancient wars when the
various clans were feuding with each other before the unification. We
monitor every such station from Kilrah, their media links are translight
signalled throughout the Empire. It cost them a bundle but it helps keep
them unified. Watching their stations might give us clues as to internal
politics. We have a lot of software tied up with analysis of their popular
shows, since there might be some subtle clues as to what's going on based
upon the type of entertainment the government is broadcasting. In the last
three days we've noticed an increase of Gakarg Period dramas dealing with
"I never heard of him either. Seems to be an evil emperor who was
insane and finally killed by a virtuous warrior in order to save his people.
It's worth watching. It's interesting that since the armistice we never see
a single drama about the war with us, or any of their previous ones, only
ancient history. Their news programs are the same, really tight on war news
and only one brief announcement of the armistice and then nothing. These
furballs are mighty security conscious on such things, but we still gleam
occasional facts; that's why it's worth monitoring."
Lance led them around the holo display of Kilrah raised a pointer and
aimed it at a flashing blue light
"Blue means commercial communication line," and he nodded back to a
screen which was filled with what looked like shipping orders, instantly
translated into standard English.
"This D-5 is monitoring everything that's reaching the antenna arrays
mounted outside this ship. If it's non-coded it immediately translates it.
We have the computers programmed to look for certain things on the
commercial channels. For instance, a shipping order for IFF missiles gets
tagged into a higher priority slot. We can even look for orders related to
just one component of an IFF missile. If certain patterns of shipping
develop or if something outside of the ordinary happens, the computer will
alert a human operator who then analyzes it and decides if there's something
important enough that it has to be kicked upstairs. That's the key job,
looking for the little nugget of gold inside the tons of gravel and mud.
"One of the first things that started to tip us off to the fact that
the Kilrathi might be building something was that certain commercial links
for the ordering of military parts suddenly went into a new code system,
which was changed every eight days. Significant orders for supplies, parts,
and shipping became highly classified.
"That started some real questions being asked. The problem was that
they shifted this classified work to the part of the Empire out beyond
Kilrah, as far from our listening posts as possible The question of why
really put the pressure on us to get this D-5 on line and also caused the
loss of a lot of good intel people behind the lines. The jump we just
completed is the deepest in we've ever been able to take equipment like
this. You can see already the streams of data pouring in.
Richards led them over to his command booth and offered a couple of
cups of coffee to his guests. Jason noticed that these people seemed to live
on caffeine, and a fair number of them were addicted to Ian's habit of
tobacco, a practice he found totally mystifying and somewhat disgusting.
"The D-5 can monitor any signal within its six hundred light year range
and pinpoint its origin. The hard part is programming it to figure out what
is worth looking at out of the billions of messages it picks up every day
and then passing it to a human analyst for evaluation.
"The analyst's job is the toughest. It takes someone with a sixth sense
to decipher what appear to be unrelated facts but actually are part of a
"We do the same thing for the media channels, the public communication
lines, and of course the military and government lines," and he pointed to
the flashing red and yellow lights back on the holo display of Kilrah.
"Those are the tough buggers, a lot of it is burst signalled and highly
"Damn, there's hundreds of them," Jason said. "Something must be up."
Vance laughed softly.
"Over ninety percent are dummy channels, broadcasting complete
gibberish, total nonsense words that actually tie up most of our decoding
equipment since we're not sure if its garbage or the real thing. Sometimes
you might have a burst signal with a million words in it, all encoded, and
the real message is twenty words in the middle, each word separated from the
next by say six thousand four hundred words.
"Why that number?"
"Remember they have eight fingers and we have ten, so their numerical
system is base eight. We tend to look a bit more intensely at base eight
numerical lines as a result. What gets frustrating is that they are using at
least a dozen different codes at any given time, with the highest level
material going on what we call Fleet Code A, which tends to change every
twenty-four to forty days. The real messages are hidden in a lot of garbage
and we have to wade through each message and might spend weeks tracking down
promising stuff only to discover its a decoy."
"Some of their people even have a sense of humor about it. One message,
when finally translated, was a simple óHey, stupid, we fooled you,' and
another was a long excerpt from what I guess was a Kilrathi dirty book.
Decoding and translating each of those things took up time and equipment. We
can't ignore a single message because we never know if we might hit paydirt
or not. So we wade through all of this, figure out the real signals from the
fake, then spend a hell of a lot of time cracking the code, and just when we
think we've got it, they go and change the code and we're back to square
one. Then to top it off they might have a station that's quiet for weeks or
months, and it pops off a lone burst signal then shuts down. Trying to even
figure out where it came from out of a billion cubic light years of space
was nuts until the D4 model, which could do a Doppler analysis and at least
do a probable trace."
"I'd go mad," Tolwyn said.
"Some of us do," Vance replied. "It takes a special kind of person to
do this. You fighter jockeys, your battle is one of skill and wits, but it
gets played out in seconds. Some of our battles last years.
"I've been in this game for twenty-nine years. I've dreamed all those
years of having something like this D-5. With the new antenna array we can
pick up bursts from up to six hundred light years out; only a couple of
generations back in the system we were lucky to get consistent reads from
ten light years away. We used to spend billions on recon drones which would
go in, store up data for a week, then send out a burst signal. Once it
signalled the Kilrathi would be onto it and take it out. Now this one system
can cover an area that would have required thousands of drones.
"The big problem now is that counter intel believes they knew of the
D-4 and maybe suspected our D-5. We've noticed a decrease in signal traffic
and suspect they're shifting more to courier. So far we've yet to figure out
how to read a dispatch pouch six hundred light years behind the lines."
As they continued to talk, Vance led them around the flight deck. Small
cubicles had been set up in the center of the room, and hunched over in each
was an operator, going through data that the computer felt was of sufficient
importance to bring to the attention of a human operator.
"I've got a hundred and three analysts with me on this mission, each of
them a specialist and the best in his field with eight or more years of
training behind him. There are another forty programmers who feed in the
requests and another twenty just to troubleshoot any glitches in the
Jason looked around the room, wondering just who indeed was paying for
all of this. He had his suspicions but knew it was best not to ask. What was
equally troubling was the matter-antimatter mine that was almost casually
brought aboard with the rest of the equipment. It was placed in the center
of the room and would be activated if it appeared as if Tarawa might be
captured. In this case there was definitely no surrender although,
technically, they were not even at war.
A technician came up to Vance's side, looked over at Jason and Tolwyn
and said nothing. Vance smiled and nodded.
"I think Jenkins here has something to tell me that he'd rather not say
in front of the two of you," Vance said quietly.
Tolwyn, smiling, nodded and turned and walked away.
"Hey, we're on the same team," Jason finally said as they went back
down the corridor to the bridge.
"Just remember, Jason, if there's no need to really know, then you
definitely better not know. Believe me, son, there's a hell of a lot I wish
I didn't know at this moment."
Tolwyn looked over at him and smiled.
"Come on, I think it's safe for us to have a short drink, help us
unwind. It's going to be a boring float out here until something comes up."
Jason was awakened by a gentle, but insistent shaking.
Damn, what was it now, and then he was instantly awake. The room was
dark, there was no klaxon, no attack. He suffered a moment of
disorientation, the old dream had come back, the explosions silently
bursting across the surface of the moon orbiting Kilrah. Svetlana . . .
"Jason, it's Tolwyn, something's up."
He stood up, rubbing the sleep from his eyes and snapped on the light.
"Nothing, but I want you in on this."
Jason reached into his closet, pulled on a fresh jumpsuit, slipped into
a pair of shoes and followed Tolwyn out the door.
It was the midnight to four watch, one officer and four enlisted
personnel manning the controls. Actually, the time was an artificial
creation, complete to the dimming of all lights aboard ship except in work
areas. He looked over at the chronometer, 0308 Confederation standard time
and it certainly felt like it. He realized it had to be important if Tolwyn
was pulling him out of the sack now. Well, at least it was some excitement
for a change. They'd been on station eight jump points inside the Empire for
twenty days, the three ships of their fleet rigged down for complete silent
running, tucked into an asteroid field in a small system that didn't even
rate a name on the charts, only a numbered designation.
Jason followed Tolwyn on to the flight deck and saw a small crowd
gathered around a monitor. They quietly approached. Vance looked up and
nodded a greeting.
"We've just had a break on cracking their latest A code and we've
caught a burst signal from Kilrah but again it was garbled, emanating from
the far side of the planet aimed towards Hari. They're only sending this
particular burst when this one station is facing towards the Hari system and
thus turned directly away from us. We get bounce reflections off of their
moon, but the signal is degraded to near gibberish as a result. It's a
pattern which seems to be adding up to something. We've also had a couple of
partial locks on a burst coming out of the Hari system but it's still beyond
our range to get a clear read and fix on it."
"So?" Jason asked, wondering why he had been pulled out of bed to hear
what was not any of his business to know anyhow.
"I want to take us closer in," Vance replied casually, as if asking to
do a little jaunt from Earth to the moon and back as a Sunday afternoon
Vance motioned for the two to go into an empty cubicle. He punched up a
holo display and then a two dimensional screen on one wall.
"This is why I wanted to get in closer," Vance said quietly, pointing
at the holo map which floated in the corner of the cubicle and then to the
flat screen where a long string of what appeared to be gibberish, marked by
occasional intelligible words scrolled by.
"It's definitely fleet code, their highest grade. We had a twenty-three
percent decipher on the last one, then this new code came on line but is
being used only by this one station aimed at Hari. It has all the markings
of a highest priority fleet code. We got really lucky when one of my people
saw a similarity to a code they used nearly eight years ago and pulled it
for comparison. We immediately broke a string of words and can do a six
percent translation and it's less than twelve hours old. In five or six days
I can bring that up to thirty percent and from there comparisons of word
groupings, even knowing the writing styles of certain operators and
officials, can help us break the rest.
"So why go deeper in now?"
"Because in five or six days I might have enough of the code broken so
that we can get some hard core information. When we do, I want to be in
position to scoop those signals from Hari and also the signals going out
"That means getting some place between Kilrah and Hari," Jason said
Vance smiled again and nodded
"Do you know what you're asking? Only one ship's ever gone to Kilrah
and back and that's this baby. I don't know how many Confed spy or recon
ships have gotten into the area and back, but I bet it's precious few."
"Enough to prove it's possible," Tolwyn interjected. "But you are not
going in to Kilrah, you're going to circle the edge of the Empire out to the
far side and head into Hari territory."
"You didn't say we, you said you," Jason replied, looking over at
"I'm taking the jump-capable Sabre on this ship back to Landreich in an
hour," Tolwyn said
"Hell, that's at least a seven day run, it'll be a nightmare in a ship
that small. It doesn't even have ahead on board."
"Well, if you don't mind, I'm taking Kevin along to keep me company.
It'll be a chance for us to catch up on family matters. We'll just have to
make do and rough it a bit. One of us can sleep in the tail gunner's slot
while the other flies."
Jason smiled, glad at least for once that Tolwyn was dropping the stiff
upper lip routine and allowing himself to show some open attachment to his
"I'm putting you in command of this fleet Paladin is being sent out in
Bannockburn within the hour, doing forward recon and moving ahead of you.
His orders are to go straight into Hari territory, to track down their burst
signal, monitor it, and if possible close in for a visual check on its
"I'm ordering you to go cautiously, feel your way out around the edge
of the Empire but don't go beyond extreme burst signal range to a relay
drone that I'll make sure is deployed here," and he pointed to a map, which
he quickly pulled up on a screen, showing a position four jump points inside
of the Empire. "If something should come up, either with you or back home,
we don't want you out of touch. I need to go back, some things have come up
I've got to attend to and Vance has a little assignment for me."
Vance nodded and pointed back to the screen.
"There's several standard code words imbedded in these signals that
we've seen before. They're just like Kilrathi general fleet communications
during the war, daily updates on the various fronts that fleet commanders
had to be made aware of. I suspect this word óNak'tara' that keeps coming up
refers to a possible target of interest to those furballs. We're going to
try an old trick to see if we can smoke them out. Geoff here has to take the
message back personally. It's something I would never trust to a burst
signal ócause it could tip off this whole operation. I don't even want it in
writing. It goes out in his head, and he can see to it along with his other
Jason looked over at the screen. This system was literally receiving
and analyzing hundreds of millions of words, millions of conversations in
Kilrathi, all its various dialects, and coded talk, hundreds of hours of
video, and thousands of holo images every day. It was analyzing it, and
boiling it down for info, and now because of a six percent translation of a
half heard signal, he was being asked to jump Tarawa to the far side of the
Empire. He had wandered into a shadow world of a quasi war which was beyond
his ability to really understand. Either they were on to something, or they
were all definitely nuts and he tended to think it was the latter.
Baron Jukaga smiled as he read the report. It seemed that both the
Emperor and his son were to take the Imperial cruiser out to Largkza, the
second moon of Kilrah to attend the yearly ritual of Pukcal, the day of
atonement at the famed temple to Sivar located on that planet.
That the two would travel together was interesting in the extreme, a
rare breach of security in allowing both the Emperor and the heir to travel
aboard the same ship.
It was an opportunity he had to take though the thought chilled him. It
was, after all, the greatest sin possible, one even beyond the imagining of
nearly all of his race, to strike down a liege lord in secret without direct
and open challenge. It was impossible, for to do so was seen as being
beneath the contempt of the gods, and beyond that, would usually solve
nothing for without challenge, one could not take the place of the rival
And yet I would succeed to the throne in the end, he realized. And as
for the sin of it, he thought, I do not believe in the gods, so it does not
matter. Even as he thought that heresy, however, he still felt chilled by
it. He found it interesting that some humans could believe thus, and
therefore deny any ultimate reason for existence, but for one who knew the
hierarchy of the hrai, the clan, and the Empire with the godlike Emperor
above all, it was impossible to contemplate. For was it not evident that in
the hierarchy of the living there was also a hierarchy in the universe with
the gods above the Emperor so that even in death one would sit with his hrai
He knew that here again his study of humans had triggered this line of
thinking which had taught him just how easy it was to gain power if one was
willing to seize it; for after all did not a prince of ability have to reach
for power for the benefit of his state?
He would do it, he had to. He looked again at the report. He would have
to find a means of placing a small device on the cruiser, no easy task. He
realized now that he was committed, and the thought brought him some comfort
as he spun out his plan.
"You know, laddie, I think I'm getting a bit too old for this sort of
Ian shook his head and said nothing, waiting for the jump transit to
hit. Space forward blurred and then snapped back into focus, his stomach
dropping, flipping over, and nearly coming up his throat. Ian scanned the
nav screen, waiting for the locks to set in on the various stars to confirm
that they had jumped into the system they wanted. Anomalies in jumps were
not uncommon even in the heavily traveled lanes in the heart of the
Confederation. In the barely charted jump points beyond the outer border of
the Kilrathi Empire it vas almost a guess at times where the next jump would
Paladin leaned over Ian's shoulder to watch, the seconds ticking by,
finally a confirm light flashed on the screen and both breathed a sigh of
"At least according to what our charts tell us, we're in the right
place," Paladin said. "It's a bit hard to tell though. Hell, laddie, we're
going down one narrow little road here, we might have passed hundreds of
other jump points in between and not even known it. The last time I did this
I had to feel my way blind through it all.
"I can tell you this, though, I think we've definitely gone a good bit
into Hari territory, and Kilrah is somewhere off there," and he waved his
hand vaguely off towards the port side of his ship, "roughly three hundred
odd light years away. Where we're heading towards, that signal is sort of
this way," and he vaguely waved his hand straight ahead, a gesture which Ian
found to be strange and somewhat amusing.
"In the olden days they used to draw places on the map and say, here
be'eth dragons," and Paladin chuckled.
"It's a long way back home," Ian said quietly.
"Aye," Paladin said quietly turning in his swivel chair to scan his
"Oh, we've got a little company way out here," he announced and pointed
to the screen. "Ionization wake coming through here, heading straight for
what I think's the next jump point."
"Not very, hard to tell, sir, maybe ten hours."
"Could he have spotted us on the other side and jumped out?"
Paladin sat quietly for a minute thinking that question over yet again.
One of the problems with this cat Stealth machinery was the simple fact they
were not even sure if it was really working right anymore. At least when
Tarawa was alongside they could get a very quick and easy read. They hadn't
seen Tarawa in ten days; it was now a good eight jump points behind them,
holding itself at extreme burst signal range back to the edge of the
frontier in case it had to get an emergency signal out.
He had figured out by now that the Stealth gear was to be used for only
short periods of time, and the drain it made on ship's energy was
tremendous. So they had finally agreed to use it only at the moment of jump,
and then when the coast was clear to come out of it and recharge their power
by running with full scoops open. There was the other simple question as
well. The Stealth might work against Confederation ships, but no one had yet
to figure out if the Cats had a simple way of detecting it themselves.
"Hard to tell, he could even be hiding somewhere in this blasted system
and we don't have time to check it all."
Ian looked over at the chart which showed a dozen planets in orbit
around the red giant star of this sector. Information beyond that was
nonexistent, nothing on any of the planets, resources, whether they were
even inhabited or not Paladin pursed his lips for a moment and then sighed.
"Well, laddie, let's power her up, get our tanks full, then close
scoops and run to the next jump somewhat straight ahead. It'll take some
time, we'll have to sniff it down."
Ian nodded, taking the helm, turning Bannockburn and headed towards
where they hoped the next jump point was located. It was tedious work,
jumping through, snooping on passive listening, and then hunting up the next
jump point and moving forward again.
The engines of Bannockburn powered up and hours later it was far across
the system, zeroing in on the next jump point. Long after their passage,
what appeared to be nothing more than a small boulder, floating through the
darkness a million kilometers from the jump point, shed its exterior. The
Kilrathi light picket ship turned and accelerated away towards another jump
"I think he is planning to assassinate me," the Emperor said
Prince Thrakhath was surprised by just how casual his grandfather was,
as if discussing plans for yet another boring court ritual.
His choice of the word assassinate was interesting as well. In the
language of Kilrah there was no such term, the word having filtered into the
language from the Hari during the war of three eight-of-eights years past.
For the Hari such disgusting practices appeared to have been their means of
selecting who would rule, a chaotic and degrading system that left them ripe
"What purpose would it serve?" Thrakhath asked. "After all, I would
then rise to power," and even as he spoke the words he felt foolish,
realizing that if Jukaga were planning to kill his grandfather, he would be
killed as well.
He fell silent for a moment, lowering his head to lap up a gulp of
"We can't simply denounce him," the Emperor said. "The evidence is far
too flimsy, a mere hint, an inquiry as to who would be on the security
detail guarding our cruiser the night before we leave for the Pukcal, but it
fits him and what he has become."
Prince Thrakhath nodded in agreement. There was no denying that Jukaga
was far too right in many of his criticisms of how the war had been run. He
alone, out of nearly all the Kilrathi, had taken the time and effort to
truly study the humans. It was, after all, his assignment as head of spying
to learn the secrets of the enemy and how they thought.
That fact in and of itself had been troubling. In the past victory had
come so quickly and with such assurance that there was little or no need to
study the enemy; they were merely prey to be hunted down and exterminated.
The Mantu did not count; their onslaught had come suddenly and with near
overwhelming power, and then they had simply disappeared back into the void,
apparently threatened by another unknown race. The human war, however, had
dragged on for years. The exposure to them had been constant, even to the
point of having a city's worth of human slaves right here in Kilrah, some of
them even laboring in the subterranean caverns below the palace. Such
contact had to, in the end, bring about changes. Jukaga had embraced them in
order to understand and thus defeat them. It had thus introduced to him
other ways of thinking as well.
But to assassinate? The mere thought of the alien word was repulsive,
it was killing without any honor, without challenge. It was done in the
dark, without any hope of then picking up the fallen sword of the slain in
order to take his mantle of power and honor.
"If we both were killed," Thrakhath said, "there is no direct heir. In
the chaos that followed, as head of his hrai, he would be in position to
take the throne himself by playing off one faction against the other,
something which he is a master at."
He said the words softly. The shame of even thinking it was hard to
bear. There was no denying the horrifying fact that the seed of his family
was weakening. His grandfather had sired many litters, most of them born
dead, with but two sons surviving. His father had actually been executed by
direct order of the Emperor, his uncle killed in the first days of the war.
He was now the only heir, and not one son had been born to him, a
sickly daughter his only surviving offspring from a single litter, and that
from a lowly concubine of the second order. It was a humiliation almost
beyond bearing. He should have sired dozens of offspring by now. He felt a
deep and lasting shame. War was the only outlet left to him to vent his rage
over his failure on the mating couch.
There were a number of cousins descending from his grandfather's
sister, so many that the chance of blood feud and civil war was the most
likely result. Is that what Jukaga wanted, a civil war? He thought of his
cousins. It would be easy enough to trigger a dynastic struggle with them,
and Jukaga could weave his way through the alliances, weakening the family
until finally it would be his own hrai that would be the strongest and could
then finish them off. It would be a civil war unlike any fought since they
had first ventured off their home world over eight eight-of-eights ago.
It was a dreadful thought. He had always assumed that in the passage of
years he would either sire a son to succeed him, or, when he was old, he
would choose a cousin to sit upon the golden throne. His choice would then
ritually kill him and thus take the sword and throne by right of blood.
"We cannot kill him," the Emperor said, "not now. There is first of all
the simple fact that his plan for the war has so far indeed worked,
degrading as it is. The humans have been placed off guard, our shortage of
transports is being rectified, and the new fleet is moving towards
completion. If we ordered his death it would upset that plan, and beyond
that, appear to be an act of jealousy. The other hrai leaders forced his
return and the killing of him out of hand would bring their wrath down upon
us. There is no denying the fact that, like it or not, his plan pulled us
out of a difficult impasse."
Thrakhath nodded in agreement.
"And the onus of such an act we can place upon his shoulders,"
Thrakhath replied with a smile.
"There is the other fact as well," the Emperor continued. "He heads the
operation of our spies. He knows perhaps even more than I do. His operatives
are everywhere. Any attempt to take him would be known long before we were
ready to strike."
The Emperor stood up and went over to stare at a tapestry hanging
behind the throne, which showed an ancient hunt scene, all the time making
sure to stay within the stasis field that blocked all detection devices.
Thrakhath looked back at the Emperor, who looked at him sharply.
"Could your fleet take the humans now?" he asked.
"It is not certain. Four carriers are now ready, the fifth in two
eights of days."
"Could you win?"
All the variables, all the calculations said that a swift attack with
five new carriers would succeed, though there was a slim chance that the
losses would be heavy.
"Remember, the humans have weakened themselves," the Emperor said, "and
our traitor in their ranks keeps us informed."
Thrakhath nodded. He did not want to take any risks and then he
wondered if this peace had made him weak as well. War was risk, that was the
thrill of it.
"We can take them with five carriers, my lord. However, we would have
to strike with full and overwhelming surprise. Any warning before we cross
the frontier could give them time to prepare a defense."
"Then be sure that this unconfirmed report of their having a spy ship
in our space is acted upon at once. They are not to get through or see
anything, that is still crucial."
Thrakhath nodded in agreement.
"If he makes this attempt and we survive, politically it would still
make us look weak, having first agreed to this disgusting peace and then
suffering the indignity of having someone attempt to strike us."
"Then kill him now and be done with it," Thrakhath snarled.
"No. We would never have the evidence we need, he is too cunning for
that. Let him make his strike, but then let us shift the blame on to the
humans. It will serve a two fold purpose of discrediting his peace effort
and help to enrage our own against both him and the humans. I think it is
time as well to have a talk with our ambassador in their camp. He has waited
too long for his revenge, let him have it.
The radar burst pinged across the screen and Jason sat silent,
watching, looking over at his counter electronics officer. She was hunched
over her own screen staring at it as if mesmerized. The young woman, she
could not have been more than twenty, punched an order into a flat touch
screen, absently reaching up occasionally to push an unruly wisp of red hair
from her freckled forehead. He felt as if she was not much beyond being a
very young child, and the thought struck him as almost funny. He was, after
all, only twenty-seven, the youngest carrier commander in the fleet. In any
other type of life the woman would have been very dateable. Out here, in
this situation, the difference seven additional years of war added was a
chasm almost too deep to comprehend. Another ping washed over the screen.
"They're close, they're very close," Vance whispered.
Jason felt that if he went to a topside view port he could almost see
the Kilrathi scout ship. A hundred thousand clicks was damn near next door
"Still an unfocused radar sweep," the electronics officer announced.
Another ping hit
"Doppler shifting away, he's moving past us, sir."
Jason let out a sigh of relief.
"Keep secure for silent running," Jason announced and he left the
bridge, followed by Vance.
"I thought you were crazy to land like this," Vance said and Jason
looked over at him and smiled weakly.
"Maybe I am."
The move was unorthodox in the extreme. Less than twelve hours ago
Vance's team had picked up a series of orders shifting more than a hundred
scout and recon ships into the sector they were now occupying and to cover
all the surrounding jump points. Apparently something had tipped the
Kilrathi off to their presence. His first thought was to run and hide inside
the atmosphere of a gas giant but there were none to be found within the
system. There was, however, a green housed world cloaked in heavy clouds,
its surface boiling hot and scored by deep canyons. Placing two light
carriers down on the surface under the lip of an overhanging cliff had been
tricky. If discovered they would be near defenseless. A light fighter armed
with just a couple of antimatter warheads would make short work of them if
they were caught and unable to lift off in time.
So far the subterfuge had worked, and with the planet's extremely slow
rotational period, Vance had been able to keep a watch on but signals from
the direction of Kilrah, now three hundred and eighty light years away.
However, the Hari system was blocked by the bulk of the planet.
The only problem was that the scout ships simply refused to leave and
had thus kept them pinned for three days, out of touch with Paladin,
wherever he might now be.
"Here we go, laddie, jump in ten seconds."
Paladin cinched up his safety harness and waited. He spared a quick
glance over at Ian who sat placidly next to him.
This next jump was totally blind, leaping into a jump point without any
idea where they were going. The last three jumps had taken them further than
any human had ever ventured before, far beyond the outer run of the Kilrathi
Empire and into the completely uncharted realm of the long dead Hari. The
burst signal they were tracking down had fired off again only six hours ago
and was very close, in a star system less than eight light years away. They
had slipped through the sector using the Stealth, though it appeared as if
one of the dozen picket ships they had passed had at least gotten a
temporary lock on them. In a couple of seconds he would know if this jump
would take them to their goal.
The jump transit hit, blurring vision. The stars ahead disappeared.
Paladin swallowed hard and waited. Maybe I'm getting too old for these sorts
of games, he thought. Twenty years of fighting is pressing the edge of the
envelope just a little too much. He pushed the thought aside, no sense
dwelling on it. Besides, what the hell would I do with myself to kill the
A new starfield snapped into focus and at the same instant the radar
detection alarm started to shriek its warning.
He leaned over in his chair, punching the alarm off and turned to look
at the readout screen.
"Well, lad, we're being tracked," he announced, trying to keep the fear
from his voice. It always amazed him how all the others looked to him as
someone with ice water in his veins. If only they really knew just how
gut-wrenching the fear could really be.
He watched his screen as optical mounts turned, tracking down the
incoming paths of the radar, passively searching out the darkness for the
"Got one sighted, make that two, now three, the closest standing at
thirty eight thousand clicks, a light corvette."
Another high energy radar burst snapped on them, this one a narrow
focus beam. It could only mean that the Cats were on to him.
He spared a quick look up at the unknown system they had just entered.
The jump point was fairly close into the systems sun, a standard class M. He
continued the optical sweep. He'd have a good five minutes before the
corvette would start to close. Now that they'd been found out, they could at
least do a quick scan before jumping back out and shaking off the pursuit in
the system which they had just jumped from.
"Getting an awful lot of sublight radio traffic in this sector," Ian
announced. trying to get an optical lock on the signals."
Ian, working the long range optical scanners, stayed hunched over his
screen. A full radar sweep would have been better, but they would be long
gone before the first returns even started to bounce back. The use of the
narrow band translight pulse was out of the question. They'd have to drop
completely out of Stealth and it'd reveal their true mission to the picket
"Paladin, switch to my screen," Ian whispered, his voice suddenly high
Paladin switched into the long range optical scan, his eyes straining
as Ian spun the optics up to their highest magnification, which could pick
up an object the size of a one pound coin from two hundred thousand clicks
"My lord," Paladin gasped, "hit the holo recorder switch."
"Already running," Ian replied.
Paladin stared at the screen in disbelief when Ian punched in a
computer enhancement with scale gradients superimposed over the image. They
were looking at a ship that was at least fifteen hundred meters in length.
Several seconds later the computer, now armed with more information, cleared
the first image from the screen and replaced it with a higher resolution
enhancement, with the beginning of an analysis of what they were looking at.
"Fifteen hundred and eighty meters, estimated half a million ton bulk
weight," Paladin whispered. "Range 102 million clicks, orbiting the only
planet in the system.
"Dozens of ships orbiting that planet," Ian announced, "coming up now
on second screen."
Paladin spared a quick glance over to the secondary images forming,
three more ships like the first one, half a dozen more apparently still
under construction, a dozen cruiser type vessels that were bigger than the
old Concordia þ battleships he could only guess would be the word for them,
drawing the term out of ancient nautical history. Part of the screen was
tallying off a count of transports, more than a hundred of them either
docked into what appeared to be an orbital construction yard that filled
half a dozen cubic kilometers of space, or hovering around it
The alarm went off again, warbling with a high insistent tone and
Paladin turned to look back at his tactical.
We've got company, laddies. Looks like two Stealths just jumped in
behind us. Prepare for evasive!"
"We'll lose the visual lock, Ian shouted. "I don't have a full read on
Paladin weighed the variables and in less than half a dozen seconds
from the sounding of the second alarm he came to his decision. Turning back
to his main screen he cleared it of the optical and punched in the order for
a translight beam sweep, dropping his ship out of Stealth mode. The pulse
went out, even as he swung his ship hard over into an evasive. The first
Stealth already had a lock on him and dropped a missile which he assumed was
one of the new and more deadly IFFs. Before the missile was even clearly
away Paladin popped a scrambler, a decoy pulsing with a standard Confed IFF
code and capable of reflecting back a radar image of a fleet light corvette,
a counter he had rigged up based upon Ian's unpleasant experience.
Ian looked over at him in surprise and grinned, as the transponder
snapped to life. It was a clear give away as to who they really were along
with the translight pulse sweep. Seconds later the data came sweeping back
in with a high resolution read of the enemy fleet. The first missile at the
same time streaked into the decoy and detonated. Two more missiles swept out
from the Stealths which were turning to follow Bannockburn in its evasive
and Paladin punched out another decoy while at the same time launching half
a dozen dumb fire flechette bolts from his rear tubes that would fill space
behind him with thousands of nail-sized shot that could rip a fighter to
shreds if it got caught in the spread.
Even as he piloted the ship he watched the other screen. A green flash
indicated that the pulse had been successfully read and stored by the ship's
"Check it!" Paladin shouted.
"We've got good data," Ian replied.
"Load it along with the optical read and our coordinates into a burst
signal, aim it back towards Tarawa."
Paladin toggled a switch into the burst signal line.
"Green one, green one, this is green two, am under attack, cover blown,
repeat cover blown, get the hell out and back to the barn."
He hit the burst signal button and the light; in the cabin momentarily
dimmed as nearly all the ship's energy was diverted to powering out the
signal across the hundreds of light years of space back to Tarawa.
At least they'd have the information even if they bought it. He
realized that in the scheme of things his job was done, he had uncovered the
suspected fleet. Within minutes Tarawa would have the information and it'd
blow the lid right off the armistice when it came out that the Kilrathi were
building the ships in clear violation of the terms. The political
ramifications would be explosive, he realized. At the very least Rodham's
government would fall. It'd also mean that the war would be back on. He
thought again of what he'd just uncovered and the images still locked on the
secondary screen chilled him. The carriers were more than twice as big as
anything now in the fleet. Even if every ship was still active and on line
the new Kilrathi ships had the power to do anything in space.
The Cats undoubtedly knew that their cover had just been blown. The
only hope was to fully remobilize before the ships already completed could
be moved up into action and meet them on the frontier. If they gained
confederation space with our defenses down it was over.
The two missiles hit the second decoy and detonated. The Stealths
dropped out of masking and came to full visual, transferring their energy to
neutron guns and laser. A shot lanced into the portside stabilizer of
Bannockburn and Paladin pulled hard to starboard, lining up a deflection
shot on one of his tormentors. He flared off half a dozen more flechette
rounds, followed by two dumb fired bolts. The flechette rounds broke open,
each deploying a spread of sixty thousand nail-sized shot across a hundred
meter wide piece of space. The wave slammed into the Stealth, shredding it
to ribbons and the ship silently detonated.
The picket ships were already racing in to join the fray, their speed
well up past a thousand clicks a second with maneuvering scoops fully
"Turning in on jump point. Get ready for uncalibrated jump in fifteen
seconds!" Paladin shouted.
Another laser burst hit Bannockburn dead astern, overloading the
shields, cutting into the Y-axis maneuvering thrusters, and Paladin cursed
as he purged the thrusters fuel lines before they detonated.
He spared a quick thought for the message he sent out, hoping that
Tarawa was at least still alive to get it, otherwise this whole damn thing
was for naught. "How the hell did I ever get into this business?" he shouted
even as the jump transit hit.
"We've got it"
Jason looked up at Vance who had not even bothered to knock before
bursting into his cabin. The normally unflappable director of intelligence
seemed almost giddy with excitement.
"The signal damn it, the signal. Come on, I'll show you."
Jason followed Vance back down the corridor into the fighter bay. He
had a flash memory of the same corridor, running towards the bridge when it
was hit by the Kilrathi suicide pilot, killing O'Brian, the first captain of
the Tarawa, the corridor decompressing when the hull was shattered
They reached the end of the corridor, the two security guards still
requiring that even Vance show ID and undergo a corona laser scan. It struck
him as a bit absurd, here they were hiding on a planet's surface, no one
could possibly sneak aboard to impersonate Vance, and the man had come down
the corridor only a minute before. But he knew that security above all else
required no relaxation.
He showed his ID as well and leaned into the corona scanner.
The guards opened the doorway into the bay and saluted, the door
slamming shut behind them.
The D-5 team was gathered in a knot around what was Vance's cubicle,
and to Jason's surprise he saw bottles of champagne being passed around. He
was about to raise an objection to such an open violation of fleet
regulations but then realized that fleet regs no longer applied, since
officially they were not part of the fleet, and in fact officially did not
even exist. Intel people had always struck him as a little strange and he
realized that perhaps they needed to blow off steam like this otherwise they
would have cracked under the pressure long ago. They were no different than
pilots in that respect.
The crowd parted for Vance, patting him on the back.
"Good job, people, now let's finish our party and get back to work,
there's a hell of a lot to be done before this mission is finished"
The crowd seemed to immediately sober up and drifted away back to their
"Here's what all the excitement is about. I thought you should know in
case anything happened."
"We could take a hit to this bay and our entire team gets wiped out. I
want someone off this deck to know what we've just found out I want you to
remember the message but you are to immediately, and forever, forget how we
Jason nodded in agreement
Vance pointed to a two dimensional screen. On the right side was what
Jason assumed was phonetically translated Kilrathi, on the left long series
of white blocks, and occasional words in English which were partial
translations of the message.
"When Geoff left he went back amongst other reasons, to have ConFleet
send out a false message which stated that our primary matter-antimatter
assembly plant on the moon had been destroyed due to an accidental
detonation. As a result no new weapons would be delivered for several
months. The message of course was a complete fabrication.
An hour ago we picked up this message from Kilrah to their Hari base
and cracked part of it."
Jason leaned over to look at the screen.
Most of the message was untranslated but one line highlighted in red
leaped out at him . . . "Remove target 2778A on moon of nak'tara from
primary strike list Accident has destroyed target, . . ." there were several
lines untranslated . . . "shortage in antimatter weapons produced from 2778A
expected, will update."
Jason looked back up at Vance.
"They took the bait. We broadcast the false message on a code we knew
they had already cracked. Their listening post, most likely right in their
embassy office picked it up and passed it back to Kilrah. Nak'tara means
Earth. It means that whatever it is they're preparing out there in Hari is
being aimed for an attack straight at Earth. Damn it, the bastards are
getting ready to strike."
Jason leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes for a moment. He
could understand the elation of Vance's crew. Their job was to get
information and they had just pulled out a gold nugget of information unlike
anything found in years. They had reason to celebrate. But it meant as well
that the armistice was nothing more than a sham. Though he had assumed it to
be so from the beginning, there had always been a small part of him that had
hoped against hope that maybe the peace was real after all. This was a dark
proof that shattered the dream.
Damn all of them, the Kilrathi, the political leaders back home that
had led them into this fix, damn all of them.
"Think we should lift off and get the hell out of here?" Jason asked.
"We could punch our way through the picket screen.
Vance shook his head.
"And bring back what? One partially decoded message as proof. The peace
party crowd would say it was cooked up to restart the war. A lone burst
signal does not an ironclad case make."
"They could be moving at any time now. We should be alerting ConFleet,
they'll believe us."
"Son, ConFleet will believe us, but they're the only ones. You've got
to remember this as well. We don't exist as far as the government is
concerned. There aren't more than half a dozen people off this ship who even
know we're out here. How do you think it'd be presented if we go rushing
back home and stand up to announce that we parked this ship clear on the
other side of the Empire in clear violation of the armistice? The real truth
of what we found would be lost in the screaming and protests not only from
the Kilrathi but from some of our own people as well. It'd also blow the
cover on this D-5 system. That's one of the problems with intelligence. If
we make public what we've found, the Kilrathi will figure out just how
capable our surveillance is and change their procedures and it might be
years before we can break it back down again."
Jason nodded. They'd need something hard, clearly recorded visuals, and
even then some people would claim it was a fake out. Hell, the Kilrathi
would most likely have to start kicking down the front door before anyone
"So we just sit here and wait."
"Too bad this planet screens us from your friend Paladin. Maybe he
might have something by now," Vance replied. "Hell, we're stuck here, unable
to move and one ship out to scout. I doubt if he's even got within a hundred
light years of their base."
* * * * *
Standing up to stretch, Prince Thrakhath growled softly as he continued
to look at the screen which showed the latest intelligence report.
The intelligence report from Jukaga matched that of what his own
military chain of command had stated. Jukaga most likely knew that Thrakhath
had his own lines of communications, and since the incident took place
within a military command district he would find out about it almost
Someone, almost undoubtedly from the Confederation, had penetrated
right into the very system where the new fleet was being constructed. The
translight radar sweep could only have been done by a very well outfitted
spy ship, as no smuggler could afford to carry such equipment. Beyond that,
the ship had been using Stealth masking. The fact that the humans had either
learned the secret of Stealthing or captured such equipment was stunning.
They were on to something. The question now was whether the information had
gotten back to the Confederation and their fleet command. No burst signal
could possibly cross such a distance. The spy ship had sent out three burst
signals so far, all of them aimed towards the Paghk System, where a
suspected ship was still being hunted. But no burst signal had come from
that system to relay the message on.
No, Confleet did not yet know.
He turned to a holo projection, ordering up a map of the Paghk system,
and then ordered a projection of jump lines and systems back to where the
spy ship had been sighted. Next he ordered in a display of where the spy was
now located, the position of ships in pursuit and where nearby ships might
be located to move in to aid the chase. Finally he ordered a projection of
jump lines from the Paghk system back towards the Confederation ship.
The holo field was a maze of blue lines, blinking lights representing
ships, and steady yellow lights representing the array of stars which were
terminus points for the jump lines.
He studied it intently, shifting, moving in the focus, calling up more
data, formulating plans, then shifting the field yet again to examine
another part, a side screen scrolling out data on the various ships
Yet this was no simple intercept operation. There was a political
consideration as well, involving Jukaga, and just what he might be doing in
regards to this new situation. As he studied the holo projection Thrakhath
developed his plan.
He was interrupted by a paging call. It was the Emperor on an open
"It is time that we leave for the ceremony," the Emperor said and then
"We've picked up a threefold increase in signal traffic within the last
six hours, chief."
Vance nodded wearily, looking through the report handed to him by one
of his assistants. He was exhausted. Against all rules of proper procedure,
he had put his people on eight hour on, four hour off duty shifts. He knew
exhaustion was cutting into their performance, that it'd be best to give
everybody a day off to unwind, but it was getting too hot. Earlier in the
day they had made a quantum jump in cracking Fleet Code A, bringing the
translations up to nearly sixty percent. It was increasingly revealing the
full extent of the conspiracy, ranging from continual updates of military
actives and deployments around Earth, but also a thousand other details down
to spare part requests, and shipping orders for the transport fleet that was
slipping deep out into Hari space, hauling the millions of tons of supplies
needed to build a new fleet from scratch. A signal earlier in the day
reported the transfer of more than a thousand pilots, their plane
maintenance crews and the fighter craft off of carriers in drydock, and thus
supposedly deactivated to the reserves, to the new fleet.
Something was definitely up. The Kilrathi were acting, but on what, and
for what reason? And now the signal increase.
"We're also getting ship to ship communication increase within this
system. Two light cruisers have moved in along with one heavy cruiser just
That made Vance sit up and take notice. He looked at the report that
the analyst pointed out on the screen, a real time translation of the
messages, broadcast on a low priority code racing across the screen.
"They're setting up for an intercept from the looks of things," Vance
said "Send a messenger down to Captain Bondarevsky, tell him to come here at
There were times when security got on his nerves. All communication
lines between the fighter bay and the rest of the ship had been sealed off
based upon the near infinitesimal chance that a member of the ship's crew,
and one of his own people might collaborate in trying to get information off
The analyst turned and started for the door while Vance punched over to
his head of Alpha team security, informing the captain to let the analyst
pass into the ship and return with Jason.
A side channel suddenly leaped into activity on the display screen,
originating from inside the system they were now occupying. It was one of
the standard Confleet bands. But from where?
The D-5 had already locked on to it, a reflected signal skipping over
the horizon of the planet, the message breaking up. "Just what the hell is
this?" Vance whispered, turning more of the computer's power loose from
other activities to focus in on the signal and enhance it.
It was an audio signal, and he turned on a speaker.
"Green one, Green one, this is Green two over."
Vance turned to see Jason coming up behind him.
"Green one, where the hell are you, am under attack, over.
"Where's it coming from?" Jason asked.
"Looks like from directly on the other side of the planet. Getting some
skip through the atmosphere, wait a second."
He typed in a quick order and the D-5 turned one of its antenna array
to aim at the small moon of the planet which was nothing more than an
oversized rock orbiting half a million clicks overhead.
"Getting a reflection signal from the moon as well, give me a second
here . . ." and he punched in another command.
"There, got it. Triangulate the signal as coming from near directly
behind us, thirty five million clicks back."
"Straight back towards the jump point towards Hari," Jason said,
turning to look at a holo map of the system which one of Vance's assistants
activated, a blinking yellow dot showing where Paladin must be.
"We're getting in the clear attack signals from the Kilrathi cruisers,
one of them is launching fighters," the assistant announced.
"They're moving in to cut Paladin off," Jason said quietly, looking at
the map which was now showing the enemy ships in the sector. Several
corvettes were already moving to set up a picket across the jump point
leading out towards Confederation space while the cruisers positioned
themselves for an easy kill.
"Either they found him out before he got the information, or after he
picked it up; it's one of the two," Vance said quietly.
"Why are you telling me this?" Jason asked, suddenly aware that Vance
was staring at him in a coldly detached way.
"If he doesn't have the data, and we go up to try and save him, our
cover is blown and we'll have to get the hell out. For that matter I wonder
if we can get out now considering the hardware they've brought in here."
"Are you suggesting that I do nothing and let them blow Paladin and Ian
"The mission comes first, Captain."
"And suppose he does have the data we need?"
"I haven't heard it yet, and frankly, son, his chances of finding them
were slim to none to start with when we sent him on alone."
Jason looked back at the screen.
"Green one, Green one, am under attack, where the hell are you?"
Jason closed his eyes and tried to focus his thoughts, while. Paladin's
insistent call for help echoed across the deck.
"Green one, Green one, this is Green two over."
Paladin, exasperated and filled with a frustrated rage, punched the
channel off and slammed his fist down on the console.
To have come so far back and now to be cut off. The next jump point out
of this system was blocked, and already half a dozen ships which had been
pursuing him for days were coming through behind, a fact made worse by the
more than fifty patrol craft and three cruisers currently in the sector. The
heavy cruiser was already launching its squadron of fighters which would
close with him within the hour.
The game was up and Bannockburn was about to get fried. As soon as he
had jumped, the pickets waiting on the far side plastered him with high
energy radar bursts and then threw on laserlocks he simply couldn't shake.
Just before they hit him he'd try one more burst signal, feeding every
erg of power he had into it, but the chance of it reaching Confed space at
this range was remote and made even more implausible by the fact that it was
dicey at best if someone had a listening array focused on this region. If
only he knew where Tarawa was he could transfer the info off and the they'd
have the power to punch a signal through, plus they would also know where to
aim it for an intercept.
"Damn it all to hell, if I get out of this I quit," Paladin snarled.
"I'm heading back to Scotland and I'll be damned if I ever let my two feet
get off the ground again.
"Ian, you'd better launch now. I'm glad that the Admiral managed to get
a jump capable Ferret tucked into this ship's cargo bay. I thought he was a
wee bit crazy trying that out. I'm ordering you to break off and try and
make it through the jump point. I'm loading the information into your
fighter's computers now. You've got to get that information back to Confed
territory. Tarawa's either gone or bought it."
Ian looked over at Paladin. He knew Paladin was right. The swarm of
enemy fighters was closing.
He wanted to say something but couldn't find the words.
Paladin looked up and forced a smile.
"Lift one for me at the Vacuum Breathers Club, laddie. Now get the hell
out of here."
Ian turned and headed for the door.
"Good luck, Paladin."
Paladin shook his head and laughed.
Ambassador Vak'ga paused for a moment and looked back at the holo image
on his desk. Again he felt the tug of pain and silently cursed himself for
still feeling it. After all, the mourning should have ended on the first
Sivar after the death of his sons. That was, after all, six years back. But
no, the pain had never stopped. His seed was gone and when he died, his hrai
would die with him.
He thought yet again of the agreement he had made with Prince Thrakhath
on the eve before leaving for Earth. When Thrakhath had first suggested it
to him his blood had burned with the thought of at last gaining vengeance.
But now, it was so cold, there was no rage, no pain, just a detachment, a
coldness, as if the goddess had already reached into his heart to still its
The coded message to commit the act had arrived this morning, and soon
the pain would stop. At least I will see my sons again, my sons taken from
me by the humans. At least we will again embrace and go forth on the hunt
with our ancestors.
He thought of the detonator and antimatter explosive buried in his
chest cavity. Strange, there will be nothing more of me, nothing to be found
to be buried. Fitting perhaps, since there will be no one to mourn me.
The Ambassador walked out of his office, not even bothering to close
* * * * *
"How are you doing, Geoff? It's damn good to see you again."
Admiral Banbridge came around from behind his desk, hand extended.
Former Rear Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn grasped it, and to his surprise
Banbridge grabbed hold of him in a friendly bear hug. Turning he looked at
Kevin, who stood at attention, and smiled.
"I heard you're one of the fleet's best," Banbridge said approvingly.
Geoff smiled broadly at the compliment to his nephew. The long transit
back to Landreich, and from there hidden aboard a high speed smuggler craft
to Earth, had given him the opportunity, for the first time, to really find
out just who his nephew truly was. In the back of his mind, in spite of
Kevin's actions aboard Tarawa, he still perceived him as a child. That was
now dispensed with, their relationship changing to the close bond that can
form between an uncle or father, and his son who is now a man.
"Kevin, I hate to ask this, but would you mind waiting for us? My
steward will show you a damn nice shower and cook up some food for you."
Kevin saluted and followed the steward into the rear of the small
apartment Banbridge had down in the basement of Fleet headquarters.
"He reminds me of you at that age, Geoff," Banbridge said with a smile,
as he led his old student into his office and closed the door.
"Glad you're back safe. Have a seat and fill me in."
Geoff settled down into the proffered chair, his old boss sitting down
across from him.
"First of all, what the hell was this signal you had me send?"
As Geoff explained Banbridge's features lit up.
"Same trick we Americans once used against the Japanese at Midway with
the fake report of a water distillery breaking down. The Japanese picked it
up and reported to their fleet that ótarget X was short of water, and by
that little trick we knew their next target was Midway. Vance always did
know his history."
"Have we had any word yet from out there? Since I left Landreich I've
been out of touch."
Admiral Banbridge shook his head and Geoff silently cursed.
"What's been happening back here on Earth?"
Banbridge blew out noisily and reached around to his desk, pulling out
two glasses and a small decanter of port wine, pouring out a drink for
himself and Tolwyn.
"The damn fools are eating up the crap that Vak'ga and Jukaga keep
feeding them. Hell, Rodham has even agreed to a cultural exchange, with a
bunch of Kilrathi singer's and dancers coming to Earth next month. The damn
brie and wine crowd at the capital are eating it up, begging for tickets to
the performance. The Chief of Staff raised holy hell about it, pointing out
that we'd have over a hundred Kilrathi running around the capital and damn
near everyone of them an intelligence operative. He was hooted down by
Jamison and told to, órelax, the war is over.'
"It's nuts, I tell you. Anyone who talks about preparedness, about
keeping the fleet appropriations up, is denounced as a war monger."
"And just how is the fleet?" Tolwyn asked.
"Four fleet carriers are still on line.
"It's worse. Two of them are drydocked at the moment but it's claimed
they can be brought back up to operational status within thirty days.
"What about the others?"
"In drydock, reactors pulled, crews on extended leave."
"What the hell for?"
"Jamison convinced the President, and he convinced the Senate, that if
the Kilrathi were going to make a move we'd have plenty of warning and she
pointed out that all but six of the Kilrathi carriers had been put into
inactive reserve as well. So as a cost cutting measure the carriers were
pulled in for major refitting and overhaul. Getting them on line could take
up to three months."
"God help us," Tolwyn whispered, draining his glass and then accepting
"Forty-eight percent of the rest of the ships of the fleet are still on
line, the rest are skeleton crewed in reserve. Operationally we're losing
our edge. Flight training time for the fighters has been cut by nearly half,
even our main battle fleet ships still in active service, our heavy
cruisers, are tied off with crews on leave. It'd take weeks, maybe a month
to two months to even get one full Task Force Group organized and back on
"What's worse is the freeze on construction. We should have had a new
fleet carrier and four more cruisers operational by now and a number of
other ships started. We tried to get through a government decree requiring
all shipyard works to stay on their jobs; that caused a hell of an uproar
and some of our best technicians are quitting to look for work else where.
Key war industries, which during hostilities were forbidden to strike, are
now having walkouts with people wanting higher wages, made worse by what
looks like an economic depression due to a freeze on new defense contracts.
"Morale is down in the gutter. The career people are sore as hell. They
wanted this thing seen through to the finish. Most of our old line people
know that this war won't really be over till we storm through the rubble of
the imperial palace and raise the Confederation flag. Anything else is a
prelude to defeat. The reservists and draftees on the other hand are all
clamoring to get discharged. Hell, senators are getting flooded with letters
from parents, wives, and even our own troops demanding demobilization, the
old óbring the boys and girls back home.' "
"I guess it's kind of hard to blame them when you think of it. To them
it really does look like it's over."
"I tell you, Geoff, I think a democratic republic is the only way to
run the show; you English are the ones who really invented it and then we
Americans picked it up. But there's always been one flaw in it and that is
the sustaining of a long-term war. It's hard at times for civilians to truly
understand the military; we have a thousand year tradition of always being
at odds with the civilians we're sworn to defend. The military at times gets
turned into the Greek messenger who gets blamed for simply telling people
the truth of how the universe works. People get too caught up in the wish
for peace and forget that the law of the jungle is still the law in most
parts of this universe, and they don't like it when we try to tell them
"Got any suggestions on how to change it?"
Banbridge smiled and shook his head.
"It's what I've spent forty-three years in the service fighting to
defend. No, it's got its problems but I'd keep it.
"That's if it survives one year longer. Don't people realize what the
Cats are up to?"
"Oh, a hell of a lot of ordinary people do, especially in the outer
planets and the frontier. They've lived on the real edge of the war,
sometimes in the middle of it. They know what even a momentary slip of
vigilance can do. But the inner system of planets, and especially Earth,
have been bearing the financial burden of a war that's been fought several
hundred light years and a dozen or more jump points away, I think they're
willing to grab at anything if it'll mean peace. We've got an entire
generation that's been born and come to adulthood knowing nothing but war
played out nightly on the holo screen, and the ruinous taxes to support it;
to them peace is a dream as powerful as any narcotic."
"And it just might kill them."
"The damn media is part of the problem. The Kilrathi have done a
masterful job of feeding them selected footage of furball planets bombarded
in the war, tearful interviews with widows who ask for peace, the usual
propaganda crap. But try and send our own crews in to film freely and the
curtain gets slammed down. It seems to be really popular of late, especially
on the college campuses, to buy Jukaga's line that the war was a conspiracy
of their military and ours to make themselves powerful and big industry
rich. The majority of people see through it, but there's enough out there
buying what ever they see on the holo to make things a bit hot.
"But enough on that, fill me in on what's happened with you over the
last two months."
As Geoff described his arrangement of ship transfers to the Landreich
and the mission into Kilrathi space with the D-5 team Banbridge remained
silent, sipping on his port and refilling Geoff's glass when it went dry.
"When I got back to Landreich, that's when things started to get dicey
"He's absolutely furious with the Confed and the blockage of the
fighter shipment. At least they were getting a trickle during the war, but
the peace commission has shut off any further shipments of war-related
"I tell you, Wayne, those colonials are absolute masters at cobbling a
fleet together and keeping it flying. What they're having an impossible time
getting through legitimate channels are the latest high tech fighters,
electronics, and ship to ship missiles."
"They're still getting some interesting equipment, but don't ask me
Banbridge nodded and smiled.
"Spare parts they get from cannibalizing, patching, and making do.
They've even produced their own heavy fighters, by taking obsolete three-man
patrol ships and jacking on the most god awful bizarre engines you've ever
seen. Anyone who flies them deserves a medal of honor just for turning the
"Now for frontier raiding, dealing with Kilrathi colonial guard forces
or even light raiding fleets they could teach us a thing or two . But if the
main battle fleet ever hits through there, every planet in the Landreich
will be glowing and Kruger knows it. By heavens, Wayne, the way he swore at
you, the Chief of Staff and Rodham were a thing to behold."
"Will he stick with us though when the time comes?"
"Only as far as Landreich interests are concerned. Frankly, I think
he'd be happy if the Confederation and the Empire blew each other the hell
apart and the colonials were the only ones left."
"I just bet that old bastard does," Banbridge said with a smile. "He's
the most amazing pain in the butt I've ever known, and also one of the
"When do you want me to go back out?" Tolwyn asked. "I think it's
crucial that if things go bad that I'm out there with him. I know he sees
through this little court martial game I went through. He knows I'm
operating covertly for the Chief of Staff and intelligence, and I guess he
sort of likes me as a result."
"That's part of the reason you got picked for the assignment, I had a
gut feeling he'd see you as a bit of a renegade, and your fighting record
was sure to impress him."
Geoff nodded and was silent. There was nothing really to be said. He
had been asked to volunteer for the assignment, to deliberately provoke a
court martial offense, to seek a dishonorable discharge in order to go into
covert operations. It had destroyed his reputation, making him a pariah in
his own service, except for the half dozen or so people who were in on the
secret. If his old mentor and friend had asked him to kill himself for the
good of the service he would not hesitate.
"I do have one question that's troubling me though," Geoff finally said
and he hesitated for a moment.
"What about Project Omega?"
Banbridge looked over at Tolwyn in surprise.
"Son, you were never cleared to know that. Damn, if I had known you
were on the in on Project Omega I'd never have let you go running off with
Tarawa the way you did. You aren't supposed to know anything about it."
"But I do, and don't ask me how."
"Still being supported through black funds. This project Rodham does
know about, but no one else in the cabinet has been cleared. He agreed to
keep it going, I guess in part as a lever to force the Chief into signing
the armistice. Rodham thinks Omega is our ace in the hole."
"And how close is it to completion?"
Banbridge shook his head.
"A hell of a lot of snags, six months before we could even fire up the
engines on the first ship, a year more likely, though the conservatives are
saying eighteen months is a safe bet."
Tolwyn shook his head at the news. There was something ironic about the
war that he felt an outside observer would find amusing. The Kilrathi had
gone through incredible expense and effort to start the secret building of a
new class of carriers, if indeed what flimsy information intel had been able
to dig up so far was true. The Confederation was doing the same thing. It
was not so much a super carrier along the lines of suspected Kilrathi
design, but more a Stealth, heavily armored battlewagon with upgraded
shielding that was proof against medium-yield antimatter warheads. There
were rumors as well of a super weapon to be carried on the new ship, but
that was an even darker secret. They were still a dream, however, and would
have no impact on this war, hidden like the Kilrathi construction yard, as
far as possible from the battle front.
"Any word yet from Tarawa?"
Banbridge shook his head.
"Silent, though forward listening posts have picked up orders pulling
several cruisers off from patrol on the frontier to head back in towards the
sector Tarawa and Normandy are operating in. It might be a coincidence."
"I don't believe in coincidence, the Cats must be on to something."
"That's what I thought as well."
"Wish I was back out there with them," Tolwyn whispered.
"Bondarevsky's a good man. If he's in a scrape he'll figure away out."
Geoff nodded in agreement. Jason had become like the son he had lost.
If Reggie had not been killed twenty years ago he'd even be Jason's age.
"When do you want me to go back out to Landreich?"
"The Chief of Staff wants to hear a full briefing from you tomorrow
morning," Banbridge paused to look over at his computer screen.
"Speaking of the old man, there's a staff meeting in ten minutes. Why
don't you stay here, I'll have my aide get a meal into you, and for heavens
sake, Geoff, let's see if we can get you some better clothes."
Tolwyn nodded in agreement. He felt absolutely ridiculous wearing the
coveralls of a civilian maintenance worker, and the beard he had grown on
the way back from Tarawa was itchy as all hell. It was a convenient enough
cover for him to slip through the underground parking lot of fleet
headquarters. Once he was inside, a Marine security team had ushered him
down a private corridor the rest of the way to Banbridge's private quarters.
He rubbed his chin.
"Wish I could shave this off."
"You do look kind of ridiculous, Geoff."
Banbridge stood up and grabbed his attachÝ case.
"What's the meeting about?"
"Always curious, aren't you?"
Tolwyn smiled. "Working with Vance kind of rubs off on you."
"That damn Kilrathi ambassador asked for a meeting with the Chiefs of
Staff and some of our fleet admirals. He's screaming over a list of
grievances about border violations by military patrols, and incidents from
the Landreich are top on the list. So just lay low here, there's bound to be
some press trying to sneak around, and if they ever saw you, there'd be hell
Geoff shook hands with his old academy instructor and smiled as
Banbridge headed out the door.
Banbridge paused and looked back at Geoff.
"You've done damn good, son; I'm proud of you," and then he was gone.
The aide came in a minute later and offered to lay out some fresh
clothes while Geoff took a shower, an offer he eagerly agreed to after weeks
in space, surviving the usual water rationing of one minute showers. As he
walked past the small bedroom he saw Kevin stretched out on top of the
sheets, fast asleep.
"Didn't even bother to eat, sir," the steward whispered. "He stretched
out and was asleep like a baby inside of a minute."
"It's been a tough time. Geoff said quietly.
Closing the door of the bathroom he peeled off the grungy coveralls and
stepped into the hot stream of water.
He didn't so much hear it as feel it, a vibration slamming through the
building. He turned the shower off and from a far-off distance heard a
klaxon. Not bothering to towel off he pulled his coveralls on and opened the
door. Banbridge's aide was standing alert by the entry into the admiral's
quarters and to Geoff's surprise had a laser pistol up and at the ready.
Kevin came out of the bedroom, already up and alert and Geoff could see that
the klaxon had triggered him into thinking that there was a scramble alert.
"Stay where you are, sirs," the steward snapped, holding his free hand
back for them to remain still. "Something's going on."
Geoff felt defenseless, dressed in nothing more than oil stained
coveralls. He knew the aide, besides being Banbridge's personal steward, was
also a highly trained Marine commando. He'd have to leave things up to him.
The aide quietly spoke into a small lapel mike, receiving orders and
information back through a tiny earphone.
What seemed to be an eternity passed and then he saw the man visibly
pale, right hand clenching tight around the pistol grip.
The aide looked back at Geoff.
"Sir. Admiral Banbridge, the Chief of Staff, and we don't know how many
other officers are dead. The entire top floor of the building has been blown
"Merciful God," Geoff whispered, bowing his head.
"I'm going to keep you secure right here, sir. We have had an incident
and we don't know what the hell is going on yet."
An incident, Geoff thought. Most of the fleet's top command were most
likely dead and it's called an incident.
"Hunter, break off, break off!"
Ian switched off his visual and audio back to Bannockburn. The order to
abandon Paladin was simply too hard to stomach. The wave of Kilrathi
fighters was now less than five thousand clicks off and closing in fast,
their maneuvering scoops popped wide open to break after the high speed run
in from the cruiser that had launched them. There was a slim chance that he
might be able to pop off the two fighters on the forward left edge of their
sweep, thereby punching a hole through for Paladin to follow.
He could imagine that Paladin was swearing a blue streak at the moment,
but to hell with him if he didn't want to be saved.
Ian turned in towards the approaching fighters, toggled up his IFF
missiles and dumped them off in a long range spread to stir things up. The
missiles leaped forward and several of the approaching Kilrathi fighters
pulled into sharp turns. As soon as the tail of the nearest one was exposed
Hunter fired off an infrared tracker which instantly locked on to the
fighter's engines which were glowing white hot from the high speed approach.
The missile slammed up the exhaust nozzle of the fighter and detonated.
First kill of the new war, he thought grimly.
Within seconds the fight was on. several Dralthi fighters peeling off
to swing in on Hunter, while the forward edge of the strike, six Grikath
fighters, pushed straight on towards Bannockburn. Paladin let loose with his
remaining salvo of flechettes and then toggled off a battery of IFFs from
his gatling mount missile launcher. Space was a mad confusion of explosions
and Ian pulled a tight turn to try and shake off an incoming infra tracker,
firing off a flare, which the missile went for, detonating silently a
kilometer behind him.
A Grikath shot directly across his starboard bow and with a perfectly
timed deflection Ian nailed him solidly amidships and turned inside of the
Cat, firing three more rapid mass driver rounds into the Grikath which blew
He spared a quick glance at his tactical display and saw that the
Kilrathi cruisers were spread out into an open sweep, coming up behind the
wave of fighters in case there was anything still to be finished off. Behind
them more than a dozen patrol craft and a light frigate were coming in as a
second wave, while from the other direction half a dozen patrol corvettes
were closing, pushing Bannockburn into the trap. A wave of fast moving
fighters was moving ahead, above, and below to close the trap.
With a sickening finality he realized the futility of the gesture he
had just offered. The game was up. He switched back on to Paladin's channel.
"Not looking good, buddy."
"Hunter, break free, make the run, I'll provide support."
"Like hell, they're on me, now run for it and get that damn information
out, otherwise this whole thing is useless."
"Hunter, damn it, get the hell . . ."
"I think its the other way around, buddy, I'll cover you, now run for
it. When you get to the Vacuum Breathers buddy, lift the first round for
He punched ahead of Bannockburn, moving to break up the forward screen
so Paladin could slip through
A spread of half a dozen missiles leaped forward from the next Kilrathi
attack group, the new IFF and radar trackers. Ian swallowed hard and keyed
up his own transponder to draw the missiles in.
The warbling tone in Ian's head set clicked to a steady hum, increasing
in pitch. The incoming were all locked on to his ship. He pulled up hard,
leading the missiles away from Bannockburn.
"Pop out, Ian!" Paladin shouted, and then there was another voice on
"Green two, Green two, this is Green one, strike on the way."
Ian started to reach down to pull the ejector D ring when he saw a
fighter lining up to hit Bannockburn from above.
He dropped the ring, lined up on the target and toggled off the one
missile strapped beneath his fighter. Even as it streaked away he knew the
game had finally caught up with him at last. He bit down hard on his cigar
and closed his eyes.
Six Kilrathi IFF's impacted across the stern of Ian Hunter St. John's
Jason leaned over the tactical display on the screen, watching as
Normandy launched her fighters. Already one of the cruisers was turning back
around as he cleared the north pole of the planet at an altitude of three
hundred clicks, just barely skimming above the edge of the atmosphere,
If only I had a full bay of fighters, he cursed silently, we'd swamp
them under. Normandy had already launched her full load of fighters, twenty,
and Doomsday along with two other pilots had taken out the remaining three
fighters in his own bay. He could already sense that this was going to he a
ship-to-ship action and he didn't relish the idea of facing a cruiser head
on with a light escort carrier.
"Knew you wouldn't leave me in the lurch, laddie."
Paladin's wavery image appeared on the screen.
"You certainly brought along enough company, Paladin."
"Aye, that I did. Get ready for a coded burst, unscramble it and you'll
Seconds later the signal came through and Jason turned to watch his
communications officer decode it. He started to see the holo read out and
turned to one of his watch officers.
"Get down that corridor fast and tell those gorillas guarding the door
to send Vance up here on the double!"
"Fighters are breaking off from attack on Paladin, returning to cover
cruiser," the combat information officer announced, looking back at Jason.
They must have detected the burst signal and realized we're carrying
the football now, Jason thought.
"I already got it on our system," Vance said, coming on to the bridge
and Jason realized that with the gear down in the fighter bay Vance would
"Look at the size of those damn ships," Jason whispered, and he looked
back at Vance who was intently studying the screen.
"Should we send the signal?" Vance asked.
Jason looked back at the holo. Their cover was fully blown now. He knew
that was the end result the moment he made the decision to come up and save
Paladin. He knew as well that if Paladin had come back empty-handed he would
be in very hot water for having blown the mission cover just to save a
friend. But then again it was extremely difficult to argue with success, and
his decision would now be viewed as the right move and the personal reasons
for Paladin and Ian forgotten.
The Kilrathi already had a visual lock on his ship. Within seconds
they'd known the type and model and would quickly figure out it was Tarawa
with Normandy right alongside. The antenna array atop his carrier would
definitely tip them off as well as to the mission of his ship. If not for
the information they had, it would be a diplomatic explosion. There was no
sense in giving the Kilrathi the first jump on that front. If the
information was released after the Kilrathi started screaming about the
border violation the information might be dismissed as an attempt to cover
"Send it out now," Jason said.
"Good decision, son," Vance said with a grin and he turned back towards
the flight deck. A minute later Jason noticed the momentary flicker in the
ship's- battle lighting as the translight burst signal went out, repeated a
minute later by a second burst for good measure.
All three cruisers had now come about and were closing in, the ranging
indicator marking down the rapid drop in range. The forward spread of
Normandy's fighters closed with the Kilrathi fighters launched from the
cruiser and the fight was on. The edge on skill was clearly on the side of
the colonial and ex-fleet pilots, deployed out to take on the heavy cruiser
and its lighter escort.
One of the cruisers, however, pushed on through and Jason felt the cold
sweat start to streak down his back as he sat on the bridge, waiting for the
Kilrathi cruiser batteries to open up. He had never fought a carrier in a
head to head engagement and he longed for a joystick and throttle, rather
than the cumbersome relaying of orders.
The first volley of missiles spread out from the lead cruiser, even
while the second one in line exploded from the direct hit of a torpedo
spread from a Broadsword.
We've got four incoming warheads," the combat information center
officer announced, "blowing chaff, flares, and radar noise makers."
"All weapons fire," Jason announced, struggling to keep his voice calm.
Mass driver cannon mounted forward went into action, a volley of
torpedoes leaping out from the forward launch tubes. The range was below a
hundred kilometers and closing.
"Helm ten degrees to port, fifty degrees down." He started a curving
turn downwards and then countered the order, bringing his carrier straight
back up towards the underside of the rear cruiser.
"Torpedo attack diverting," combat information announced, "regaining
lock on Normandy."
Several Kilrathi fighters raced across his bow, dropping missiles, the
weapons impacting on the forward shield.
"Normandy's in trouble!"
Jason turned to look back at his communications officer and then
toggled over to a damage display of his sister ship.
A torpedo from the first spread impacted on his sister ship's bow.
Forward shielding was gone. Two colonial fighters on close in escort
maneuvered and rammed two of the next spread of torpedoes coming out from
the Kilrathi cruiser while Normandy fired a spread in return.
The torpedoes crossed each other's paths and seconds later Normandy and
the enemy cruiser fireballed, the two ships so close that the explosion
merged into one vast expanding cloud of white hot flame.
A colonial fighter came through the wreckage, spinning wildly. The
pilot, however, was still able to maintain some control and he aimed his
craft straight in at the cruiser in front of Jason. Punching on afterburners
the modified Ferret slammed straight into the Kilrathi bridge.
"Damn," Jason whispered. Within seconds he had seen three colonial
pilots go kamikaze.
The enemy cruiser started to rupture along its bow, internal explosions
detonating off from the blow. Half a dozen fighters swung in front of the
cruiser, matching speed so as to hover, and ignoring the defensive fire they
poured mass driver rounds into the ruptured hull. The cruiser started to
disintegrate, mass driver rounds punching clean through the hull and the
ship detonated, taking another colonial fighter with it.
The explosion from Normandy was still spreading out and Jason realized
he had just under twenty strike craft out there, some of them still engaged
in eliminating the rest of the fighters, others moving forward to provide
cover for Bannockburn, or pursuing the light corvettes and patrol craft.
Jason left the bridge and headed down the corridor to the fighter bay,
stopping before the ever present guards and waiting impatiently until they
brought Vance out.
"I want your gear torn up and moved out of the way for fighter
recovery," Jason said.
"You heard me, Admiral. I've got twenty fighters out there, some of
them undoubtably hurt and I plan to recover them."
"Jason, it'll take days to disassemble the D-5. Most of it is hard
wired into the floor."
"I'm sorry, sir, I don't have days, for some of those ships I might
only have minutes. D-5 has to be moved."
Vance started to bristle.
"Son, there's billions of dollars' worth of equipment in there. Enough
money to buy a couple of hundred fighters. Tell your pilots to eject and
we'll pick them up."
"I'm sorry, sir, that's not the way it's going to be. Those are
colonial fighters and I'm not going to go back and tell Kruger that we
ditched them to save a surveillance computer which has already done its job.
Beyond that, if we don't have those fighters for the run back home, I don't
think we'll make it. We've put a real burr in the ear of the Cats and
they'll want our hides as vengeance. This is going to be a running fight all
the way home."
"Listen, son, I hate to pull rank, but I think you should know I'm a
full admiral in the fleet."
"I know that, sir, but I am captain of this ship."
Vance looked at him appraisingly and after a brief span of seconds,
which to Jason seemed like an eternity, a thin smile creased Admiral Vance
"Aye aye, sir. I'll have a landing area cleared."
Jason inwardly breathed a sigh of relief.
"Thank you, sir," and he headed back to the bridge.
"Message for you, sir."
Jason nodded and went over to the communications officer and saw that
Paladin had established a laser link.
Jason sensed that something wasn't right.
"Are you all right?"
Paladin nodded and then lowered his head for a second.
"Jason. Ian's gone."
Jason felt as if he had been punched in the stomach. He stood silent
"I told the lad to run for it, he stayed to get me out instead. They
burned him with a missile spread meant for me."
"Damn it all to hell," Jason whispered.
"Aye, lad, damn all of it," Paladin sighed.
There was a moment of silence and then Paladin finally stirred.
"By the way, did you get the message out?"
"On its way."
"I think the old proverbial manure is about to hit the fan when that
"It's only just started," Jason replied coldly, remembering the holo
display of the new Kilrathi carriers. He realized that chances were they
might already be heading to Earth. The armistice was a fraud as he always
knew it was, and by falling for it, the Confederation might very well have
lost the war. But for the moment it was hard to think of that. He had just
lost one of his closest friends and that was all that he could grasp.
"Sire, there has been an accident."
Jukaga looked up from his desk at the aide who was bowed low,
"Sire, we've just received a burst signal that the Emperor's personal
cruiser suffered a reactor detonation, and that all aboard are lost."
"Oh, really, how tragic."
The aide looked up at him, confused by his tone.
"You are dismissed," and he turned away, barely able to hide a flashing
of teeth in satisfaction. So it had worked as planned. Getting a reactor
fuel tube aboard, with the tiniest of pinholes drilled into it, had been a
chore. The fuel rod had been a trick thought up years ago, the idea being to
have smuggler craft carry it into the frontier region and sell them off,
with the hope that the rods would eventually wind up on Confederation ships.
The rod would then rupture in the white hot heat of the pulse engine reactor
and cause a chain reaction detonation. The idea never worked, but he always
remembered where they were stockpiled while everyone else forgot. It had
taken a little maneuvering of computer shipping files to get it into the
right place, knowing that the Emperor's ship never left Kilrah without an
entirely new load of rods on board.
He smiled. Yes, that had been masterful, and it helped when one of your
own deep agents worked on ship maintenance. Fortunately, the poor fool never
even really knew what he was doing, which made the plan leak-proof.
A moment later there was a flurry of angry roars in the corridor
outside. As he stood up the door slammed open.
Prince Thrakhath strode into the room.
Baron Jukaga knew that in spite of all his effort at self-control his
mane was bristling with fear. He struggled to bring it under control.
"Surprised to see me?" Thrakhath growled.
Jukaga stood, speechless and then finally recovered.
"I just heard of the tragedy, the Emperor?"
Better than you had hoped for," Thrakhath snarled.
"Whatever do you mean, my Prince?" Jukaga replied, angry with himself
that there was the slightest of tremors in his voice.
"That is for you to figure out," Thrakhath stated coldly.
"I don t understand what you are moving towards.
Thrakhath stood silent, eyeing him coldly. He could see the Baron
regain his self control. What was enraging was the simple fact that the
Emperor, through intuition or information had suspected that his ship would
be destroyed, but as to how it would be done they had never figured out, and
still did not know and most likely never would. His only real hope had been
to so startle the Baron as to make him say something foolish and
incriminating and that, Thrakhath could already see, had failed. It was
obvious now that the Baron will claim that he was being blamed unjustly. If
directly accused, the other clans might very well rally to his side as they
had once before after Vukar.
Thrakhath snarled angrily, seeing that his bluff had failed.
Thrakhath, still glaring at Jukaga, waited for him to speak.
"What are these two reports I just received," Jukaga finally said,
motioning to his comm screen. "regarding a bombing on Earth and that the spy
ship was located too late before it sent a burst signal out?"
"It means that we have to move for war now."
"That is madness," Jukaga snapped, regaining his full composure. "The
plan called for another four and a half eight-of-eights of days."
"Impossible now," Thrakhath replied. "Many of the humans are already
blaming us for the bombing, and with the information regarding our fleet it
means a renewal of war."
"And an end to your weak scheming."
"What is the truth about this bombing?" Jukaga asked coldly.
"Oh, undoubtedly one of their own did it and then will blame it on us.
Perhaps the attempt on the Emperor can be linked to it."
"They would never do that, kill their own military leaders like that.
There's more to it than that."
"Are you accusing me?" Thrakhath snapped.
Jukaga looked at him coldly but knew it was best to back off.
"And how did this signal get out? We suspected the carrier was in that
system and we knew that their scout ship was running back towards it. How
could this have happened? There should have been a carrier and a full
cruiser squadron there."
"And are you accusing me of a fault in that as well?" Thrakhath asked
"You don't understand at all, do you?" Jukaga finally replied. "If we
had but waited the year, they would have fallen into our hands, weak and
divided. Now, they will feel nothing but rage at a betrayal of their trust,
they will fight with a fanaticism you have never seen.
"Remember I warned your father and uncle of this back when the war
started and they so foolishly decided to open with a surprise attack."
"Then it is your job to disarm them of this fanaticism, and if you fail
and they do not submit . . ."
"Then what?" Jukaga snarled
"I will annihilate their worlds and no one will be left alive, no one,
and you will be responsible."
"Show that transmission from Tarawa on the main holo."
"Big Duke" Grecko, the Marine general of the Joint Chiefs and the only
survivor of the explosion, settled back painfully in his chair. Geoff Tolwyn
looked over at him anxiously. The bleeding from the lacerations to his back
and neck had soaked through the bandages and his shirt, staining the khaki a
dark red. Geoff wanted to say something but knew it was useless. Grecko was
a Marine, and would bite the head off of anyone who tried to show sympathy.
The wonder of it was that Grecko had survived at all. He had walked out
of the meeting with the ambassador in disgust, threatening to resign his
commission, and was down the far end of the corridor when the bomb went off.
The explosion had ripped Grecko's left arm off. Fortunately it was an
artificial arm which had replaced the one lost at Vukar and the plasti limb
absorbed the blow from a shattered support pillar which would have killed
Grecko started to move his shoulder, as if the lost limb was still in
place, swore vehemently and then clumsily used his right hand to scratch his
"I'd leave that alone, sir, there's still some shrapnel in you," an
attentive medic standing behind Grecko said.
"I didn't ask for your advice, son, and besides I don't think your
security clearance allows you to be in here, so get the hell out."
"I've got my orders to stay with you, sir, until you report to the
Grecko looked to the Marine guard standing at the door.
"Sergeant, either escort this pest out of here or shoot him, I don't
Geoff smiled sympathetically at the medic, who looked flustered as he
left the room, mumbling that all Marines were nuts.
"Nothing a good shot of whiskey and a couple of minutes with the
tweezers can't cure," Grecko snapped, still scratching his neck.
The holo screen in the middle of the room activated and Grecko studied
it intently for a long silent minute.
He picked up a secured phone and punched in a number.
"Mr. President, this is Grecko, are you still in the building, sir?
Good, I think you need to come to my office at once," and hung up.
He looked back at Geoff.
"We re really in the barrel this time, Geoff. Are you sure that this
stuff Vance just sent is the real goods?"
"I wasn't there when he got the data," Tolwyn replied, "but you know
Vance even better than I do, sir. He wouldn't have sent it if it wasn't
genuine." Grecko nodded grimly.
"We've got five admirals and seven generals dead in the morgue
downstairs, a hundred and thirty one other key personnel gone as well, a
military half dismantled and now this," and he viciously pointed at the holo
as if it were something he could vent his rage on.
Grecko shook his head wearily and Tolwyn could see that the man was
struggling to control the pain, both physical and emotional. Geoff felt it
as well. He had just lost his old mentor and one of his closest friends and
many other comrades whom he had served with through the years.
"How does this all fit together?" Grecko asked.
"The armistice, I think we had that figured from the beginning," Tolwyn
replied. "Now we know it was to buy time so they could reorganize and
concentrate on finishing their super carriers. They know that we now know
and I guess that's where this bomb plot figured in, to decapitate our high
command, sow confusion and then strike hard straight at Earth."
"How long before that fleet could get here?"
"If they were fully ready to move, flank speed could put them across
the Empire in twelve, fourteen days. From the frontier to Earth, another ten
days. Even if we had full resistance up, I think those carriers could cut
through inside of two and a half weeks from the time they cross the
demilitarized zone. Remember, just before the armistice we wargamed that one
out, the assumption of a surprise attack with our own defenses down. With
these new carriers, it doesn't look good at all, sir."
Grecko exhaled noisily.
"According to what Banbridge briefed me on just this morning, it'd be
at least four months to bring the fleet back up to full pre-armistice
"Damn all to hell," he snapped.
The door to the small conference room opened and President Rodham
stepped in, followed by Foreign Secretary Jamison.
Grecko stood up as did Tolwyn. Geoff still found the nickname "Big
Duke" amusing since Grecko barely stood over five two. His pugnaciousness,
however, more than made up for his shortness and more than one Marine or
fleeter had found himself on his back after making a comment.
"How are you doing, Duke?" Rodham asked, looking at the Marine
general's torn and empty sleeve in surprise.
"Nothing like getting shot in a plastic arm. Didn't hurt a bit."
Rodham nodded and then shifted his gaze to Tolwyn.
"What in hell are you doing here?" and his features went cold.
"He was here today as a personal guest of Admiral Banbridge when the
explosion happened," Duke replied.
"You have no security clearance," Jamison shouted. "Grecko, get this
man the hell out of here right now! I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out
that he had something to do with this bombing."
"No, sir, he isn't moving."
Jamison turned on Grecko in surprise.
"Rear Admiral Tolwyn," and Geoff was surprised to hear Grecko use his
official and former title, "was acting under the direct orders of the Chief
of Staff when he violated the cease fire order, with the intent of thus
having a cover to subsequently engage in a covert operation."
"If that bastard were alive right now, I'd see that he was stripped of
his rank," Jamison snarled.
"That bastard, as you call him, ma am, was my closest friend. I'd like
to suggest, ma'am, that you go down to the morgue and tell what's left of
him that he's a bastard."
"General, would you explain Tolwyn's presence here?" Rodham asked,
stepping between the two as Jamison leaned forward, ready to explode.
"The Chief of Staff suspected the armistice from the beginning, sir and
asked Geoff to volunteer for a covert mission. If the mission were
undertaken by someone already dishonorably discharged it would give us," and
he looked coldly at the President, "plausible deniability if something went
wrong. Geoff organized the transfer of some of our demobilized assets to the
Landreich where the equipment could be kept on line and then went out on a
deep reconnaissance mission inside the Kilrathi Empire. He returned from
that mission and arrived here only minutes before the bomb went off.
"We've just received an official protest over that escapade," Jamison
snapped "The Kilrathi are screaming their heads off claiming that five of
their cruisers were hit in an unprovoked attack and destroyed."
"What about Tarawa and Normandy?" Tolwyn asked anxiously.
"They claim they got one."
"Not a bad exchange," Grecko said dryly. The Kilrathi must be damned
embarrassed, but Tarawa only reported three confirmed kills for the loss of
Normandy and I'll take their word over the furballs'."
"They're claiming the right, as provided in the armistice, to hunt the
other one down and have requested information regarding the ship's
Jamison looked over at Rodham who nodded sadly.
"The Kilrathi have demanded information regarding the ship's location
and destination. If we refuse to provide that immediately, a condition of
war might be declared."
"Tell them to go burn in hell," Grecko said.
"And besides," Tolwyn said quietly, a smile creasing his features,
"those ships are not of Confederation registry."
"Look, General, the armistice is hanging by a thread," Rodham replied,
ignoring Tolwyn. "First the violation of their territory and then this
terrorist bomb plot to kill the ambassador and make it look like the Cats
did it by killing some of our people as well."
"Are you trying to tell us that some of our own people did this
bombing?" Tolwyn asked, incredulous that such a suggestion could even be
"Well, its one serious possibility," Rodham replied, "and we have to
look at all angles."
Tolwyn was about to come back with a rather angry and very obscene
retort, but Grecko held his hand up for him to be silent
"Sir, I would appreciate it if you took a look at this holo display and
the data printouts. We just received it as a burst signal relayed in from
Tarawa less than a half hour ago. Their mission was to follow up our
suspicions regarding Kilrathi construction inside the Hari sector," and
Grecko pointed to the three dimensional projection, in the middle of which
floated the images of the Kilrathi super carriers.
Rodham went over and looked intently at the carriers, requesting that
the computer rotate the images and then provide data on mass, length,
armaments, and projected fighter carrying capacity.
Tolwyn watched the President closely and could detect a paling of his
features and more surprisingly a nervous tic at the corner of his eye. It
was obviously a hell of a shock for the President, but he had little
sympathy for him at this moment, still remembering how not so long ago the
head of the Chiefs of Staff, with tears of frustration in his eyes, begged
for the armistice not to be signed, warning of what would be the end result.
Noragami was now dead as a result.
"Is this genuine?" Rodham asked quietly, now examining the map which
showed where the fleet was and projected times of arrival into Confederation
territory if an offensive were launched.
"The data was burst signaled from Tarawa, located here," and Grecko
pointed at the map showing the last reported position of the carrier. "The
data was obtained from a deep reconnaissance probe which ventured into Hari
"On whose orders?" Jamison asked. I was never informed of this
escapade. Remember, I am the Foreign Minister and if you were contemplating
a violation of the armistice I should have been informed."
On the orders of the Chief of Staff," Grecko said coldly, not even
bothering to turn.
"Is there a chance this is falsified information?" Rodham asked, and
Tolwyn could detect the slight note of hopefulness in his voice, as if
wishing that the entire problem would, simply be shown to be a hoax.
"It was sent in personally by Admiral Vance Richards, sir, and that's
good enough for me.
"Richards is out there þ I thought he retired?"
Grecko merely smiled.
"What you've committed here is outright mutiny," Jamison snarled. "If
the rest of the Joint Chiefs were not already dead I'd demand their
resignations as I am now demanding yours."
Grecko turned slowly and stared at Jamison.
"If you were not a lady," he said coldly, "I'd loosen your teeth for
what you've done to us. If you want my resignation you can have it, but only
after we have a full investigation of myself, the Joint Chiefs and more
importantly of you. Would you care to see the file military intelligence has
on you and your suspected cooperation with the Kilrathi in return for your
Jamison turned towards the President.
"I want him fired as of this minute and Tolwyn here put in jail pending
Rodham looked over at Jamison in confusion and then slowly sat down,
turning to look back at the holo.
"Your report on the false signal and the Kilrathi message regarding the
antimatter warhead plant, does that fit into this?
"It fits right in, sir," Grecko replied.
"Sir, you are looking at the beginning of a full scale offensive with
an upgraded fleet," Tolwyn said. "In less than a month the Kilrathi will be
above Earth demanding our surrender if we're lucky, though if past practices
are any indication they'll flatten us with a full antimatter warhead
bombardment and then come down to gloat over the wreckage and tear out the
throats of the survivors with their claws when their next Sivar ceremony
Rodham nodded slowly and closed his eyes for a moment. Jamison started
to speak and the president held up his hand for silence. He finally turned
and looked over at Tolwyn.
"You were the best fighting admiral in the fleet, Geoff. Banbridge told
me more than once that he wanted you to replace him as commander of Third
Fleet when he retired."
Geoff lowered his head, saying nothing.
"Admiral Tolwyn, I am officially pardoning you for the incident at
Munro. As of this moment I am reinstating you as a full admiral in command
of Third Fleet, with the mission of organizing defenses against the
anticipated Kilrathi invasion. General Grecko, I am appointing you the new
head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in command of all Confederation forces."
"Just what the hell is this?" Jamison roared.
"Secretary Jamison, I expect your resignation as Foreign Secretary
effective immediately and also advise you that you will face an
investigation. I have refused to believe the allegations made against you
for too long. I think this matter has to be looked into." Jamison's features
"Harry, you can't do this," she said quietly, her voice full of menace.
"I am the President of the Confederation, and I can damn well appoint
and fire my cabinet as I see fit."
"And have me as the whipping boy for this situation? Like hell. Your
charges against me are nothing but a smokescreen to shift blame. It was your
decision to sign the armistice."
"Based upon the information you provided to me regarding Kilrathi
"You're the president, Harry," she snapped coldly. "The buck stops
Rodham lowered his head, nodding sadly.
"Yes, it does. I fully realize that," he whispered. "And that is one of
the reasons I demand your resignation. Admiral Richards presented me with a
report more than six months ago, indicating that you might present a
security risk since the capture of your son and that the Kilrathi might be
in contact with you for a possible deal."
"Are you calling me a traitor?" Jamison roared.
"Not yet," Rodham said quietly.
"You want my resignation, well you can go to hell. Make it a public
firing in front of the press, and believe me, my side of the story will be
told as well."
She looked around the room angrily.
"I'll see all of you in hell," and she stormed out of the conference
Rodham watched her go and wearily he turned back to face Tolwyn and
"I'm sorry, Duke, you and the other officers were right."
"Even if we turn them back, Mr. President, a lot of good youngsters are
going to die in the doing of it. We had them, sir, we had them on the ropes
and we could have crippled them. Now it's the other way around."
"You don't need to remind me, Duke."
"I do need to remind you, sir, Grecko snapped back. "It's always been
this way. The civilians start to forget just how dangerous the world, or the
universe really is. They start to believe their fantasies, and then in the
end it's the kids on the front line who pay for it. Well, sir, on this
little folly the human race might very well become extinct before it's
Rodham started to speak and then stopped and looked away.
"After I take care of Jamison, I'm resigning as President," he said
quietly. "Vice President Dave Quinson never did support this idea; he was as
much as public about it. I think he could help rally our people better than
"I think that's a good idea, sir," Duke replied, his voice cold and
Rodham stood up and looked back at the holo display.
"You know, Jamison will make this an ugly fight. It might slow down our
mobilization. I'm therefore issuing as my final executive order a full
mobilization of the fleet, along with wartime governmental control of the
economy. Jamison is most likely running to the press right now so I'd better
act first. When I resign my cabinet will have to resign as well. Maybe it'll
clear the deck for Quinson."
"A smart move, sir."
Rodham nodded again and extended his hand.
"I'm sorry, Duke. Sorry for everything."
Wayne hesitated for a moment and then shook hands.
Harold Rodham, shoulders slumped in defeat, turned and walked out of
the room, not even noticing the salute of the two officers behind him.
"I guess his heart was in the right place," Geoff said quietly.
You know what they pave the road to hell with," Duke replied, "and
frankly, Geoff, I think we're all on a greasy slope aimed straight into the
The Emperor, in an unusual gesture, ordered the screen removed so that
he was fully visible to those who sat before him. As the two Imperial Guards
drew the screen back the clan leaders went down on their knees, foreheads
touching the cool turquoise inlaid floor of the audience chamber.
"Raise up your heads, return to your feet," he said, and they did as
"I wanted you to gaze upon me, to dispel any lingering doubts as to my
They stood silently, furtively looking from one to the other, but most
of them finally turned their gaze upon Jukaga, who stood in the middle of
the group, staring straight at the Emperor.
"You have heard the rumors, and they are true," the Emperor said.
"Someone indeed attempted the most heinous of all crimes, a crime so
loathsome that there is not even a word in our own tongue to describe it, so
that we must borrow this word from corrupt and downcast races."
He fell silent as if waiting, and the silence dragged into long
uncomfortable minutes, as if he were waiting for one of them to throw
himself upon the foot of the throne in supplication.
No one moved.
"He shall be found out," the Emperor finally said coldly. "Now let us
discuss the war."
The group visibly relaxed.
"The fleet made jump fourteen days ago from their base, within hours
after being discovered, and is moving at flank speed to the front. It will
arrive here at Kilrah later today."
"Then it has begun," Vak breathed, trembling with excitement and a low
murmuring of growls filled the audience chamber.
The Emperor nodded.
"We have placed blame, both for the bomb in their headquarters, and for
this other loathsome act, upon the humans."
"Could it not be, Jukaga replied, his voice soft and even, "that both
bombs were indeed acts of humans?"
"I heard a report that you yourself said that the bombing of their
headquarters could not have been done by them," the Emperor retorted.
"It is a mere conjecture," Jukaga replied, "for I have not heard any
admission that we planted the bomb in their headquarters and thus wrecked
The Emperor smiled. Both he and the Baron knew the real truth, yet
neither could admit it.
"I expect, Baron, that you will continue to keep them divided as long
as possible. Even now they still argue, though, before they shut our embassy
down and arrested the staff, we had information that they were mobilizing."
"What of our spy?"
"We have lost touch with the embassy and thus no longer have direct
contact. It is assumed that she is gone."
"And what of the human embassy here on Kilrah?" Vak asked.
"I ordered their throats torn out this morning," the Emperor said
coldly. "In public we are blaming them for the bombing of my cruiser. It is
a convenient excuse now to treat them all as they deserve: total
annihilation, total destruction of every world they inhabit."
Jukaga looked up at him in shock.
"That was in violation of the rules of war and of the agreement,"
"What rules of war?" Vak retorted. "There are no rules with such beasts
who have lost whatever shred of respect we once held for them. They are
lower than prey and should be exterminated without thought or mercy."
The Emperor laughed coldly.
"I am sick to death of this human scum and the potential for corruption
that they present to us. I am therefore issuing the following order: all
human prisoners that we still hold as well as slaves are to be slaughtered.
Secondly, the new fleet is to be armed with thermonuclear weapons that are
clad in strontium. These heavy weapons, when detonated in the atmosphere of
a planet, will make uninhabitable. They shall be annihilated."
As he finished speaking he looked straight at Jukaga while the others
in the room roared with delight.
Jukaga looked around at the clan leaders and for the first time truly
felt as if a distance had opened up. If his plot had succeeded, even now
they would be turning to him for guidance. Now instead they were eager to
close in on him for the kill. But there was more. He felt a cool distaste
for what the Emperor now proposed. Though he wanted to see the humans
humbled and defeated, he found that of late he was feeling something far
more, what could almost be called, if not a fondness, at least the beginning
of a respect. He knew he was falling into a trap, that if one studied his
enemy long enough, and came to know him, in the end one would find things,
beliefs, and individuals one could identify with. What the Emperor was now
proposing was monstrous.
"Such an action will arouse them to a frenzy," Jukaga said. "They will
fight as they have never fought before."
"They are animals to be hunted," the Emperor replied.
"No, my lord."
A stunned silence filled the chamber at his direct contradiction to the
Imperial word. He did not care. How could he even begin to explain what he
knew, the countless examples of humans, motivated to fight without thought
of self, fully willing to die fighting rather than submit.
"Terror will not breed submission as it did with others," Jukaga said
quickly. "It will instead create a wish, as the humans put it óto take one
of the bastards with me.' "
The utterance of an obscenity, which to the Kilrathi was the most foul
of insults shocked the other clan leaders.
"Do what is assigned to you, Baron," the Emperor replied sharply.
"Convince them to submit. Now leave me!"
Baron Jukaga backed out of the room, barely inclining his head.
Jason "Bear" Bondarevsky opened his eyes as the distortion field from
the transit jump settled down and looked over at his navigation officer.
"Alignment correct, star lock confirmed, jump was on the mark."
"Tactical," and he turned in his chair to look at the officer hovered
over the holo display of the sector.
"Bannockburn in position eighty nine thousand clicks dead ahead. Too
early to tell yet, sir, on passive optical sweep. At jump transit our
pursuers, three corvettes and one frigate, were forty-two thousand nine
hundred clicks dead astern and gaining at eight point two clicks a second."
Jason nodded. There was time to scout around before worrying about the
"Doomsday here, sir."
"How are the birds?"
"All fighters ready and armed, just give us the prey."
"What about munitions?"
Doomsday gave his usual glum look.
"Enough for one more strike, sir. Eight torpedoes are all we have left
for ship busters. The fighters will have to sortie with half standard
missile and mass driver round bolts."
"Paladin on laser lock, sir."
Jason looked over at the communications officer and nodded for her to
put it on the main holo.
"How goes it, laddie?"
Jason smiled. Even though he was technically the commander of this two
ship fleet, he knew Paladin would never follow protocol of address and the
fact was refreshing.
"Fighters are up and armed. Damage control's repaired the hull breech
in the port engine room."
"Madder than hell. Seems Sparks broke one of his computers moving it
out, said something about the machine costing just under half a billion.
Sparks frowned, then said he could dock her pay if he was upset, but she had
fighters to service."
"Good for Sparks. She's a rare lass," Paladin laughed and then his
features went glum.
"We've got some trade up ahead, lad. Another cruiser just came through
from the jump point leading back to Kilrah with two destroyers leading.
Looks like standard tactical for more coming behind. I tapped into their
comm channel and they're madder than hell and lookin for blood."
"Can we run past them to our jump point?"
Jason punched into the engine room.
"Shovel on the coal back there. I want full thrust, fuel scoops
"Close the scoops and we'll run her bone dry by the next jump.
"Just do it."
He switched back to Paladin.
"Let's get the hell out of here, and hope they don't have more waiting
at the next jump."
"Laddie, from the looks of It I think the whole Empire is gonna be
stirring to fry us."
"Let's just hope Kruger figures a way to get us out of here.
Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn stood up and walked to the front of the room.
He looked down the length of the conference table and felt a cold twinge of
pain. So many familiar faces were gone, killed in the bomb attack. It felt
strange now to be standing before this group; after all it was Banbridge's
job to run Third Fleet. He suddenly felt old and very lonely. He pushed the
He paused, reached into his breast pocket, pulled out an envelope and
opened the letter. A paper letter such as the one he was holding was a
wonderful gesture out of the past, part of the old traditions that the
military still hung on to.
"By order of the JCS, Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn is appointed commander
Third Fleet as of this date, with the primary mission of meeting, engaging,
and destroying any hostile invasion into Confederation space which is
directed towards the inner system of worlds. You are authorized to employ
any means necessary as outlined in Emergency Decree 394 issued this date by
the President of the Confederation. Your command will include 3rd Destroyer
Group, Commodore Polowski commanding . . ."
He paused and looked back up at the group.
"Anyhow, all of you are listed here," he said quietly, "and if you
aren't listed, I'm taking you anyhow," and the room echoed with nervous
Geoff activated the main holo screen which displayed the new Kilrathi
heavy carriers, while a side screen displayed the surmised position of the
fleet and its possible route into Confederation space.
A low murmur of voices filled the room as the dozen group and squadron
commanders, representing the ships and Marine assault regiments under his
command examined the data.
"Our task is to meet and stop this force before it gains the inner
worlds of the Confederation."
"Just how many fighters will these ships carry?" Lyford Beverage,
commander of the First Cruiser Squadron asked.
"We're working off of only one intelligence sweep, a long range optical
examination followed by a translight radar burst, so our data is sketchy.
Our evaluation team believes they carry four launch bays, and perhaps six.
It's hard to tell, since all the ships were aligned identically at the time
we swept them so we don't have a full examination from all angles. Given the
mass of the ships, our best guess is two hundred and forty fighters, scout
and bomber craft, perhaps three hundred. Close analysis of the scan detected
five of the ships emitting infrared signatures for functional reactors. The
other seven were cold."
"Good lord, Geoff, if five of those things are coming at us that means
we'll be facing upwards of fifteen hundred attack ships," Rear Admiral Allen
Zitek growled from the back of the room, his speech computer making him
sound almost robotic. Zitek had been badly burned years before leading a
squadron against a Kilrathi carrier. It still amazed Geoff what the surgeons
could do if a man could be brought in while still alive.
"Don't forget that the Kilrathi had a minimum of nineteen other
standard carriers and at least twenty heavy cruisers that carried thirty
fighters each. That comes to over three thousand seven hundred additional
There was a chilled moment of silence.
"What about logistical support, supplies, and training from the
Kilrathi view point?" Duke Grecko asked from the back of the room.
"That's the one hope," Geoff replied. "We now understand the mystery of
their transport shortage and their occasional shortages of missiles. They
were straining their system beyond the max to keep the war going and at the
same time building this new fleet in secret. I've handed this data over to
intelligence analysis, and I'm stilling waiting for the full report. My gut
feeling on it is that they couldn't fully do both. I think they stripped
some of their best squadrons off their front line carriers during the
armistice and shipped the personnel out to the new ships, replacing them
with new recruits. The burst signal from Tarawa already indicated a thousand
fighters transferred off ships that had been put into their inactive
reserve. I'm certain we'll see their best shot from the new carriers, which
will be fully loaded for combat. The rest of the fleet will be held in a
secondary support role or open action on other fronts as diversions."
"That still would leave a minimum of fifteen hundred strike craft on
five carriers coming straight at Earth, not to mention what looks like close
to a hundred escort ships," Zitek replied. "And just how many fighters will
we have to meet this?"
"We can have five carriers fully on line within two weeks, with forty
one escorts, carrying a total of six hundred and eighty-nine strike craft."
"Actually, only two are on line and fully operational at the moment,
Geoff said shaking his head.
"With crews working around the clock and cutting a lot of corners, I
expect to see three more carriers ready to join the fleet by the time the
Kilrathi penetrate into Confederation space. It'll be forty-five days, more
like sixty, before our remaining carriers will be on line again."
"Jamison was brilliant pushing that deactivation through," Grecko
snapped and Geoff could only nod his head in agreement.
The political arena with Jamison standing in the center was now one of
absolute chaos. Less than twenty-four hours ago Rodham had announced the
existence of the Kilrathi super carriers and the assumption that Earth had
been directly targeted for attack. He then called for the Confederation
Senate to renounce the armistice and to mobilize for a renewal of the war,
closing with his resignation as president. Minutes later the vice president
was sworn in and delivered a sharp rousing speech, demanding that the
Kilrathi open their border for full inspection of the new fleet or face
offensive action. It was all a bluff on Quinson's part, but it at least
sounded good. The Confederation had been thrown into a state of panic by the
announcement, with every holo reporter scrambling to put their spin on the
issue, which ranged from "we've been stabbed in the back by the Cats," to
"the evil military was pushing for a war." The situation was further stirred
up by the Kilrathi reply that the bombing of headquarters and the attempt on
the Emperor's life were part of a military coup by pro-war officers and that
they were totally innocent of any wrong-doing.
At first Geoff had naively assumed that this had closed the deal, that
the Senate would vote for war and that the new president's declaration of a
full military emergency would be observed.
Jamison had triggered near chaos instead. First she refused to resign,
even though Quinson had appointed a new Foreign Minister. Next she accused
the military of conspiring to renew the war, a position that the Kilrathi
were pumping out through their propaganda agencies.
The result was that the Senate had still not declared war, wavering,
some even adopting the Kilrathi line, and demanding that the military
Quinson had stood firm, however, evoking executive right to order the
military to mobilize for emergency action. The one restraint, however, was
that such an emergency did not give the fleet the right to take offensive
action. Tolwyn had actually fallen into a shouting match with the senate
military committee over that point, wanting to free his two light escorts
that were operational for a spoiling and recon raid into Kilrathi space, but
he had been held back.
Sometimes it really bites to be in the military," Polowski snapped from
the back of the room. "I'd just love to get Jamison onboard my ship as a
forward turret gunner's mate when we charge those carriers and let her see
what her peace loving friends have done while we slept," and there was a
chorus of approval.
Geoff held up his hand for silence.
"Remember, we are the military. Civilian politics is outside of our
control and like it or not that's a tradition we must observe. It's our job
to defend the Confederation from the attack we all know is coming, and I'm
counting on you to give it everything you have. Some really big damn fools
got us into this fix. The hell with them, push them out of your minds. I
want you to focus on the billions of innocent people who will be under the
Kilrathi antimatter bombs and the survivors who will face their knives if we
fail. The existence of the human race now hangs in the balance
He paused for a moment. The words had come out of him, not planned at
all. In any other setting he felt they would have sounded worn. But it was
the simple truth: the actual existence of his entire species rested in their
hands. One wrong move on his part and it might all be over with. All of it
gone forever, two thousand years of England gone, a cold silence of death,
I can't dwell on this, he realized. It'll drive me insane if I do, so
stay focused on the job and nothing else.
He switched the holo screen to a map of the inner core of planets and
the jump lines leading out to the frontier.
"The Kilrathi have three main lines of approach, all of which finally
come in here," and he pointed to a blue white star from which radiated a
number of jump lines. "Here at Sirius and the jump point behind Sirius the
shortest routes of jump lines come together and then from there straight
back to Earth. By the shortest route, jump line alpha, it's ten jump points
from Sirius to the frontier, four back to Earth. The next route, beta is
twelve jumps to the frontier and delta is thirteen. All the other routes
meander back and forth. For the Kilrathi I think they'll be so confident of
their strength, and also concerned about not giving us time to rearm, that
they'll come straight on in.
"I propose to meet them in front of Sirius."
"Geoff, that abandons several hundred inhabited colonies further out,"
Polowski said quietly, "my own home of Planet Warsaw being one of them."
"There are eighteen major jump points leading across the frontier and
several dozen other jump points running parallel or zigzagging back and
forth. Before the armistice neither we nor the Kilrathi had the strength to
simply go charging in, saying the hell with our rear and leaping towards the
jugular. They now do. We lack the strength of a major counter strike and
even if we did have it, it'd be weeks before we could even begin to move it.
By then it'll be too late. In addition they can hold a number of their
standard fleet carriers in reserve as a reaction force to counter even light
escort raiders the way we had been using them in the past. We have to fall
back and concentrate what assets we have. If we try a forward defense they
might swing around us."
"Why not an offensive, Geoff? Split them off the way we did at Vukar
Tag," Grecko asked from the back of the room.
"It won't work this time, sir. Even if we took what we had right now
and shot it straight in, their older carriers acting as a reserve would stop
us cold, while the new fleet would just continue on into Earth. Second,
they'd see it for what it was, an effort to split their offensive. They'd
ignore it and still bore straight in. What we have to do is seek a meeting
engagement with their main fleet and stop it, that's the only viable option
left open to us."
"So what about my home planet?" Polowski asked
Geoff paused for a moment. The cold hard word for it was "abandon" but
he could not bring himself to say that, or even really admit it to himself.
"Mike, the Kilrathi have two ways to run this offensive. The first is
to break through our forward defenses, then spread out and start ripping the
colonial worlds to shreds. Every day that they do that is one more day for
us to rearm and they know it. The second way is to come charging straight
in, figuring they can mop up the colonies at their leisure after the core
planets have been destroyed along with the fleet."
"I'm betting on the second method. It's sound militarily and it's what
we would do: kill the home world and inner planets and end the war. The only
advantage we can hope for is to stand and defend as close to our main base
as possible, thus stretching their line of communication while we can
continue to pour into action whatever ships come on line at the last minute.
It is the one classic advantage of the defensive the ability to fall back
upon your base of supplies, and it's our only hope."
"Easy for you to say," Mike replied. "My entire family's out there on
Warsaw, two jumps from the frontier."
"Can you propose any other alternative given what we have?" Geoff
asked, his voice filled with a genuine concern. He knew he couldn't simply
order men to abandon their homes and families. They'd have to be willing to
do it with the hope of final victory and then rescue, no matter how slim the
Mike looked down at his memo pad and then finally shook his head
"You're right, Admiral, its the only way," and there was a soft chorus
"I wish we could inform the governors and presidents of the various
colonial worlds of our strategic plan, though for security reasons it is
obvious we cannot. For that matter, gentlemen, no one outside this room is
to have any knowledge of what our strategy is.
"That'll give precious little warning to whichever worlds are in the
way of the fleet," Zitek said. "Even if they're coming straight on, they'll
still dispatch some cruisers on the way in to scorch the planets directly in
their path. They'll have to, they can t afford to leave potential bases in
their rear. Nearly every one of those outer worlds has at least one base on
them, the major systems garrisoned with troops and orbital bases. They could
stand against raiders, but not against what they'll be throwing in."
Geoff nodded grimly. It meant that millions in the outer worlds might
die. He could only hope that those who could get out of the way would,
heading to remote areas of their world to wait out the attack. At least most
of the worlds were sparsely populated, with a lot of room to hide. In the
early days of the war the outer regions, except for the Landreich on the
flank of the Confederation, had been devastated, and billions had died. The
region had yet to recover. It wasn't until Sirius was reached inside the
area never touched by the war, that the major inhabited regions were
He could only hope they had dug their shelters deep enough to survive
"So the colonies are a write off?" Duke asked quietly, obviously
wanting to make the fact absolutely clear.
"Local guard units will be given the discretion to stay, but I want
everything here for the major showdown," and he pointed at Sirius, hanging
in the middle of the holo. "Sirius is where the decision will be made."
"What about the Landreich and Kruger?" Polowski asked.
"I'll ask them for help and for the release of the escorts we signed
over to them, but I doubt old Kruger will be amused that once again we're
pulling a withdrawal due to strategic necessity."
He could well imagine the explosion that would be created when the
burst signal reached Kruger on that one.
"Gentlemen, I want the fleet fully loaded and ready to move within four
The men looked at him incredulously.
"Geoff, it'll be eight, more like ten days before we get all our
personnel back in aboard ship," Zitek replied. "Even our active carriers had
half their crews on leave. Some of them are at the far end of the
"You'll find a clause in Emergency decree 394A that allows for the
drafting of emergency replacements off civilian ships, and retired personnel
if need be for the duration of the emergency. Use it, shanghai your crews if
necessary, but I want full ship's complements inside of ninety-six hours.
Now let's get to work." The admirals and Marine officers filed out of the
room. Geoff looked back down at his memo pad, ready to feed in a long series
of orders. Looking up he saw that Duke had stayed behind.
"Something's wrong, isn't it?" Geoff said, sensing that there was bad
"I just got a signal in the clear from Kruger."
"He told us and I quote óyou created this mess, you solve it. Go to
Geoff chuckled sadly.
"Doesn't the damn fool realize," Grecko snapped, "that if the
Confederation goes down, the Cats will turn on him next?"
"If he comes to help us, he'll get hit from the rear. It's the old
classic problem of frontier militia being called up to serve with the
regulars þ do you leave your homes open to attack by marching off somewhere
Geoff paused, realizing that there was something else to the message.
"You're holding something back, Duke, what is it?"
"He also reported, in the clear, that Tarawa has failed to return and
is assumed lost."
Geoff remained standing, staring straight at Duke.
"Damn this war to hell."
Eyes wide with excitement and with the thrill of the hunt, the Emperor
turned to face his grandson.
"Magnificent, simply magnificent," he growled, turning back to look out
the forward view port of the cruiser that now served as the Imperial ship.
Less than a kilometer away, the Kilrathi Fifth Fleet of the Claw passed by
in review. The light frigates, corvettes and three destroyer groups had
already passed. The last of the heavy cruisers was just passing to port and
now the first of the new carriers, Hagku'ka, came into view.
Every fighter had been launched and moved in formation ahead of the
carrier, three and a half eighties of fighters arrayed in eight V
formations. The bow of the carrier came into view, the heavy durasteel
forward edge studded with quad mounted mass driver guns and anti-torpedo
launch tubes. Three launch decks, one on either side and one topside opened
into the vast interior of the ship, which was mostly comprised of the huge
hangar bays, workshops, and armament storage areas needed for the fighters.
Internal bulkheads had been double layered, compartmentalizing the ship
so that even if the forward end was shattered all the way back amidships,
the aft half could continue to fight. Three belts of armor sealed off the
outside of the ship from the interior so that if a torpedo did penetrate the
phase shielding and outer layer of armor, its detonation would not burst
into the vulnerable inner decks and fuel storage areas. Sealed internal
access shafts even allowed for the transfer of fighters from one bay to
another for launching if a bay opening were shut down. Just aft of amidship
three more launch bays were mounted pointing aft, in the same configuration
as the forward half of the ship. The six Yatug class engines were actually
buried inside the ship, wrapped in heavy armor, their exhaust vents
tunneling through thirty meters of ship before reaching open space. If a
spread of missiles were closing from astern, the engines could be throttled
off and the exhaust vents slammed shut, the missiles impacting impotently
against heavy durasteel. The shields could then be retracted, or if need be
blown clear and the engines unharmed, fired back up.
The first carrier passed, followed by four more and the Emperor
watched, speechless. So this was the culmination of years of secret planning
and the stripping of the best resources of the Empire. All for this, a fleet
of ships unlike anything ever before seen in this sector of the universe.
When the war with the humans was done, such ships could even stand against
the Mantu, if they should dare to return.
"Grandson, with this fleet victory is ours."
"Remember, my Emperor, the fleet is but half the size we planned,"
Thrakhath said cautiously. "Victory should not be counted until the blood of
the prey is in one's mouth."
The Emperor nodded, realizing that his enthusiasm had taken hold too
deeply. He was still shaken by the murder attempt. It had been his dream to
see at least one ceremony of Sivar in the burned ruins of Earth, for he knew
that it would not be much longer before his ancestors finally called.
"Bring me victory," the Emperor finally said, "that is all I ask. You
should take Earth in time for Sivar, we'll celebrate it there. Be sure that
it is ready for my arrival."
"Yes, my Emperor."
"And as for Jukaga, have you found anything more?"
"Three have died under the question, none have spoken. His path seems
to be secured. If we put him directly to the question, the other clan
leaders would again object. That path is closed as well."
"Then take him with you on this expedition," the Emperor said quietly.
"You heard me. I've summoned him to this ship, he is in the next
chamber. He is to go with you.
"He is head of spies, it is not his role to be a fleet warrior."
"He is a clan leader, a post of honor with the fleet he can not refuse.
I think you will know what to do with him once battle is joined."
"It might be dangerous having him with us," the Prince replied.
"You will find a way," and the Emperor turned, motioning for a guard to
open the door into a side chamber.
* * * * *
Baron Jukaga entered, looking around cautiously. When summoned to the
cruiser he had not known what to expect, and now the moment had come
"Arise, my Baron. Was not the sight of our fleet wondrous?"
Jukaga stood up again.
"And what of the Confederation government?"
"Their senate still debates. It was reported however that two carriers
sortied from their main base above their moon with a third to soon follow,
and that the shipyards are working full time to prepare those in drydock for
launching as well. Even though their government debates, their new president
is acting quickly, with declaration of war or without. There have been
forays by the Landreich into our territory, but no deep penetrations."
"I cannot even begin to comprehend how they function, the Emperor
Jukaga nodded as if in agreement.
And that is why you never won, you old fool, he thought coldly.
"I have a new assignment for you, Baron."
He waited, tense and expectant.
"You go with the fleet to speak to their leaders one more time before
The Baron nodded. Would they simply arrange "an accident?" That now
seemed to be the path.
"I am master of spies, my Emperor. Would not one of your warrior
leaders be more appropriate?"
"You know this species of prey the best. It is your voice that they
know, let them hear it one more time before we strike. You seemed disturbed
by our ultimate plans, let us see if you can convince them to submit and
thus save this species you seem to like so much."
He looked around the room, which was filled with the leaders of the new
fleet. He was trapped and could not refuse.
"As you command it, my Emperor."
The Emperor turned away back to his grandson.
"Your plan is set, then?"
"Yes, my Emperor. The fleet will head towards the frontier at flank
speed. Refueling tankers will accompany them so that we may move swiftly
without need of deploying fuel scoops. The Second Fleet of the Claw, with
four of our older carriers, will join us before we reach the frontier and
make the first penetration, thus shielding our main fleet as long as
possible. The Fourth Fleet of the Claw, with three carriers, will sortie
towards the Landreich to pin down any forces they might have there,
preventing them from shifting against our flank. The First Fleet of the
Claw, with three carriers, will make up the reserve. The other carriers have
been stripped of their crews and pilots for the Fifth Fleet and will be held
"That is ten carriers," the Emperor said quietly.
"You know the shortage of trained pilots has become serious. Either our
best pilots went with our new carriers or else the new fleet would be manned
by pilots with no combat experience. It will be a year before we have enough
fully trained pilots and fighters to bring the older reserve carriers back
to operational strength.
The Emperor nodded grimly.
"So let it be," he said, turning away. "Now bring me victory."
Weary with exhaustion, Captain Jason Bondarevsky strode across the
landing field towards the command post with Admiral Richards behind him.
Stepping onto the veranda he coldly eyed the two Landreich guards at the
"I'm here to see Kruger."
"We have no orders to let you pass, sir."
"To hell with your orders, I want to see that son of a bitch now," and
he moved to shoulder his way past the guards.
Caught by surprise they backed up slightly and then physically moved to
block the doorway, one of them grabbing him by the shoulder.
"Listen, sir, don't make me get rough about this," the guard snapped.
"Get the hell out of my way right now, mister."
"Hold it, Jason," and he looked back at Richards. "They're just
The guards looked to Richards with some relief. They obviously knew
that Kruger would skin them alive if anyone got past. They knew as well who
it was they were trying to stop, and even if he was Confederation, he was
also a first class hero.
"Sir, if you stay put, I'd go in and get my captain," a sergeant
growled, coming out of the doorway to the aid of the two guards.
"Well, damn it, go get him," Jason snapped, and the sergeant turned and
went into the building.
Jason paced up and down the length of the veranda angry at everything,
his mood made worse by the searing heat of the Hell Hole. He could feel the
moisture draining out of his body, barely cooling his skin before
He looked back at one of the guards.
"You know something, corporal, this planet of yours truly sucks."
The corporal showed the faintest of smiles.
"I fully agree," he whispered.
No longer able to get mad at the man, Jason turned away.
"Admiral Richards, Captain Bondarevsky?"
Jason turned back to see a very young captain, wearing commando
fatigues and barely out of his teens, in the doorway. Though the man was
shorter than him by a good half a foot, and skinny as a rail, Jason could
tell from his eyes that he was deadly.
"President Kruger is expecting you, sir, come on in."
Jason nodded, grateful to be stepping out of the blazing heat of the
twin suns and into the dark cool corridor. He followed the captain down into
the below ground bunker, the captain leading him through the blast doors
into Kruger's small and austere office. The captain withdrew, closing the
door behind him.
Kruger looked up from his desk
"Care for a cold one?" and he motioned to a refrigerator.
"Don't mind if I do," Richards said, and he went over to the refrige
and pulled out a beer.
Jason looked at the Admiral angrily and then back at Kruger who sat
behind his desk, smiling.
"Well, young captain, out with it."
"We monitored that signal reporting the confirmed loss of Tarawa,
Bannockburn, and Normandy," he continued. "Just who the hell do you think
you are to do that?"
"Last time I checked I was president of the Landreich son. Just who the
hell are you?"
"An officer in the . . ." he paused. He was, in fact, not an officer in
Confederation at all but rather on leave, serving the Landreich forces.
"You are under my orders, young captain, and need you or not, I'll put
your ass in the clink till this planet turns into an ice ball if you ever
talk like that to me again."
Jason stood silently, still seething with anger.
"How about that beer, Jason?" and Richards came back to his side,
holding an open container.
Jason stared at Richards, expecting support, but Richards merely
"But the emergency decree. Three-ninety-fourA is mobilizing all fleet
personnel, and that includes me and my ship," Jason finally replied.
"Jason, we are officially listed as missing in action, presumed dead,"
Richards replied, "and I think our host intends to keep it that way."
Jason looked back at Kruger.
"I have your carrier and the others," Kruger replied. "We can make this
happen one of two ways, young sir. Either you continue to command your ship
under Landreich colors or one of my people will. I'd rather have you do it.
You know the ship better than anyone else, and besides that, you're damn
good. You managed to bring her out in one piece.
"No thanks to you."
"You're here, aren't you? Therefore, any effort expended on my part to
pull you out would have been a waste."
Jason felt ready to explode again. He had made a fifteen day run out,
pursued all the way to the frontier Bannockburn, the only Stealth light
recon ship in the fleet was finally turned around and sent back on auto
pilot with Paladin cramming into a light shuttle sent over from Tarawa. The
momentary delay created by the supposed counter attack had gotten them
through the final jump with a very angry Paladin cursing the entire universe
over the loss of his ship,
He had not been able to snatch more than two hours' sleep at a stretch
throughout the entire retreat and all he really wanted now was for someone
at whom to vent his rage for being left out in the cold after doing his
mission. A barroom brawl might even serve the bill, and then a good drink
followed by a long sleep. And beyond that, there was still the pain of
Richards, without waiting for the offer from Kruger, settled down on a
sagging and thread bare sofa, which obviously doubled as Kruger's bed, and
took a long pull on his beer.
"You know something, Kruger," Richards said, "I got holy hell over the
fact that you hijacked that destroyer from my squadron and went gallivanting
óVance, that was thirty years ago."
"Well, I got a reprimand in my file thanks to you, and wound up a desk
jockey in intelligence.
"Consider that beer as payment then. You most likely would have had
your butt blown off by now if I hadn't worked your transfer for you like
that. There are very few old destroyer skippers floating around. Besides,
last I heard you loved intelligence work."
Richards chuckled and held up the container in salute and then looked
back at Jason.
"Settle down, son, the old man did the right thing. He didn't have the
assets to pull us out, it was that simple. You did a damn masterful job
getting out on your own. So damn good I think Kruger here owes you a
"I hereby award you the Order of Nova with diamonds and promote you to
commodore," Kruger said sarcastically. "My adjutant will send you the award
and paperwork when he gets the time. It's a nice looking piece of tin,
you'll like it. Does that settle it?"
Jason could see that he wasn't going to win but still didn't know what
"I want to rejoin the Confederation fleet with my ship."
"Impossible," Kruger snapped. "I need you here, and here you're
"Look, son," Richards said, suddenly serious. "It's a ten day transit
back to Earth at full speed. You'll arrive back to the inner worlds with
just twenty fighters on board."
"None," Kruger growled. "Most of them are mine anyhow, and I'm
requisitioning the rest."
"All right then, none, and no munitions, because even if Kruger did let
you go I doubt he'd spare one IFF missile out of his stores to refit you."
Kruger nodded and said nothing.
"The battle shaping up back there, wherever it is they're going to
fight it, might already be over. Meanwhile, we can expect a major sortie by
the Cats straight in here to pin us down. You could very well run from one
action to the other and miss both. It's that simple."
Jason had already heard the argument once before from Richards just
before loading him into the Sabre for the trip from orbit down to the Hell
Hole. He'd been too damn angry over the abandonment and then from the signal
reporting him dead to think. He realized now he could no longer argue the
"Damn you," he said quietly, looking back at Kruger. "All right, you
won. You've got me."
"I'm so honored that you would volunteer to join me," Kruger replied
with false sincerity.
He took an old style printout report and held it up.
"This is our latest intelligence report. Three Kilrathi carriers are
moving to the frontier and are expected to cross it momentarily, with an
estimated eighteen escort ships. They're moving straight at Landreich and
will make planetfall here in this system within eighteen hours."
And your response."
"Meet them and beat them, it's that simple."
"Four escort carriers going head to head against three Kilrathi fleet
carriers?" Jason asked. "At best we've got a hundred fighters on board our
"They'll have over three hundred. We'll be frozen meat an hour after
the action starts."
"Do you have any better ideas?"
Jason looked at the President. Though he was still simmering with rage
he could not help but wish that it had been Kruger who had been running the
Confederation instead of Rodham. They wouldn't be in this mess now if it
"Then get back to your ship . We leave here in six hours."
"What about the Confederation, sir, what's happening there?"
"The usual screw-up. The only positive sign is that Geoff is heading
Third Fleet. They moved out five days ago, and have kept radio silence
"Admiral Tolwyn commanding the Third? What about Banbridge?"
Kruger told him of the bomb plot, the pardon, and the political
confusion that still gripped the Confederation, along with the growing
Jason took it all in, wishing more than ever he could be back under his
old commander for the showdown.
"If Geoff stops the invasion, it'll be a miracle," Kruger said.
"And if he doesn't, what about you then?"
Kruger smiled, the first time Jason had ever seen him do it.
"We'll survive. It's what we've been doing for thirty years, with
precious little help from your Confederation, I might add."
"It's official, gentlemen, a state of war now exists between the
Kilrathi Empire and the Confederation. Four old style carriers crossed the
frontier four hours ago, and the Senate passed the declaration."
He looked around at his bridge crew on Concordia flagship of Third
"All signal traffic from Station Hanover and the Hanovian System was
lost forty-five minutes ago, the last report stating they were under heavy
"Good God, there's two million people on that world," a staff ensign
"There were two million people there," Geoff said.
Geoff saw a young communications technician lean over his desk,
covering his face, and he inwardly cursed, realizing that Hanover was most
likely the boys home. He wanted to say something, to apologize for his lack
of tact, but knew he couldn't. The cold reality of what they were facing had
to be driven home.
The bridge was silent, more than one turning to look at the boy as he
muffled a sob and then sat back up, his features pale.
"We're going to lose a lot of worlds in the days to come," Tolwyn said,
"a lot of worlds."
"Communications, put laser locks on the other ships in the fleet, pass
the information, and order all ships to continue silent running."
He turned and retreated back to his wardroom. Sighing, he settled down
into his chair and looked at the holo map. They were now positioned three
jump points ahead of Sirius in towards the frontier. The Kilrathi had yet to
show their main fleet. The carriers could be a diversion, or the vanguard of
the main assault
Damn, to be able to use full size carriers as a vanguard, while he had
to husband the five ships that would be under his command, that is if
Saratoga and Leyte Gulf could get up in time to join his other two ships. He
ran a quick question into his nav system and the answer coldly blinked back
at him. If the Kilrathi came on at flank speed, they'd get to Sirius a day
and a half before the other two carriers could join up.
He looked at the three dimensional map, pausing for a moment as a new
signal burst in, updating the situation. Three more red blips appeared, the
three tentatively identified as cruiser squadrons, crossing the frontier.
Far off to one side, over by Landreich, a thin red line was already traced
deep into Kruger's territory, two definite and one probable carrier moving
fast towards the core worlds of Landreich.
Which was the main assault? The carriers at Hanover could be a feint to
draw him in, the main fleet following behind one of the three cruiser
squadrons. If he had the strength, that would be his approach, hoping to
draw the enemy forward, then flanking by a side jump line, cutting him off
from the rear.
He sat back, hands clasped, pondering, wishing he could somehow
penetrate the fog of war. The Kilrathi had shut down nearly all military
channels and kept silence ever since the burst signal from Tarawa got
through, except for the nonstop bombardment of propaganda. The mere fact
that signal traffic was nonexistent showed just how well planned the
operation was. In the ordinary sphere of war, it was impossible to maintain
operations for long without a steady flow of information.
I've got to buy a little time till they show their hand, but at the
same time I need to wiggle a little bait, bringing the main assault on
It was almost a foregone conclusion that Thrakhath was in charge of the
main fleet. He was always bullheaded, and when he believed himself to have
the upper edge, arrogant. Thrakhath never really gave a damn about taking
territory; he wanted battle, to close with his enemy and destroy him.
He'll come straight in and dare me to stop him. He was behind the
I need to show confidence, aggression, he thought, not let them think
we're already whipped.
Geoff punched in to his bridge officer.
"Pass the word to the fleet. We jump forward to the Warsaw system and
will move at full speed to meet the carriers head on. Get Admirals Ching and
Bjornsson on laser."
He turned the channel off and within seconds felt the vibration run
through the ship as the helm officer called for full engine thrust.
Ching's image materialized on a flat screen, the bridge of his carrier,
Moskva, in the background, followed seconds later by Bjornsson, commander of
"We're going up to bloody nose them a bit and get their attention,"
Geoff said. "It'll be three on four, and with luck we'll buy enough time for
our other two ships to get into position."
"Tough move, Geoff," Ching said. "They could be flanking in behind the
"They're diversions. Thrakhath will come straight on in, looking for a
"I hope you're right, Tolwyn. If not, they won't be too happy back on
Earth if those super carriers get there and we're out chasing shadows.
Tolwyn laughed grimly.
"If they do, we won't hear the complaining for long."
"It's a risky move, Geoff," Bjornsson said, her features grim. "If we
lose a carrier that'll leave just four to face off against the big ones."
"If we don't slow them, there'll only be four anyhow in front of Sirius
when they arrive. It's a risk I'm willing to take though.
"Glad you're running this one, Geoff. This isn't just a battle, its the
whole shooting match."
"Yeah, thanks. If there's ever another time, remind me to retire
The two admirals laughed softly and signed off.
Again the thought crept in. The old rhetoric of the battlefield, how
the fate of civilization depended on what happened next. It had been used by
his ancestors when they had stood at Agincourt, Waterloo, the Somme and
against Hitler and Zhing. In most cases it was just rhetoric; this time it
was for real. He realized that if he allowed himself to dwell on the
outcomes it'd cripple him, and he pushed the fear aside. There would be time
enough for that later.
Another update flashed on the holo, a blinking purple light, showing
that action had started in the Landreich. It had taken hours for the signal
to travel, even at burst speed. Three carriers of the Kilrathi fleet now
confirmed against what a colonial militia could put up. Their chances were
next to nothing, he thought, just about the same as ours.
* * * * *
"Ten seconds to jump and counting at nine, eight . . ."
Jason punched in to the deck flight officer.
"All fighters prepare for launch!"
"Two, one, jump initiated."
The phase shift of the jump field kicked in, space in the forward and
aft screens disappearing in a wavy haze. Jason swallowed hard, the momentary
nausea of jump taking hold, as Tarawa and everything inside of it winked out
of existence at jump point 324C and then rematerialized seconds later half a
dozen light years away, back into position in the Hell Hole system.
The screen shifted, star fields returning to view.
"All ahead full, move it!" Jason shouted and Tarawa surged forward. Not
five seconds later Gallipoli appeared behind him in nearly the exact same
space he had just been occupying, followed seconds later by two more escort
The maneuver was insane. Standard fleet procedure was to have at least
one minute intervals between jumps. The actual point of rematerialization
was problematic, never occurring at precisely the same spot, and if a ship
in transit should come out of jump in the same space occupied by another
vessel no one in the two ships involved would ever even realize that their
existence had suddenly winked out in a white hot explosion.
"Launch all fighters, launch all fighters!"
A hazy shimmer appeared in the forward screen.
"Helm hard to port, up ninety degrees!"
Tarawa shifted, turning, as a destroyer of the Landreich fleet
materialized out of jump less than four hundred meters ahead.
Jason was nearly knocked from his command chair and at the same instant
a bank of red lights started to flash at the damage control desk.
"Ship hulled starboard side, sections twenty-two through twenty-four
Decompression hull breach!"
Internal bulkheads had already been sealed for action stations. Jason
looked over at the damage display board. Three sectors of the outer hull
were gone, crew quarters. He could only hope no one was still in there. He
waited, watching to see if the breach would rip down the length of the hull
or burst into the heart of the ship. It held.
"What ship was that?"
"Destroyer Blitzkreig, Kruger's flagship, sir."
"Part of her port rear stabilizer gone. Hull integrity holding."
"Then the hell with her, get the rest of those fighters out!"
He turned back to tactical display and drew in his breath.
Kruger was either a genius or a madman, the next five minutes would
tell þ so far the plan had worked.
Directly ahead, at less than a thousand kilometers, were the three
Kilrathi carriers, moving in line abreast formation. Kruger had met them ten
hours earlier as they jumped into the Hell Hole system, fought a brief
skirmish, trading a corvette and two fighters for two destroyers and nearly
twenty fighters of the Cats and then fled, the enemy in hot pursuit.
They had jumped out of the Hell Hole System, come to a dead stop, and
then turned, jumping straight back into the system they had just fled.
The Kilrathi, assuming they were chasing a beaten and far weaker foe,
had recovered nearly all their fighters in preparation for jump in pursuit.
Forward of the carriers by three hundred clicks was the outer screen of
frigates, which would, according to standard doctrine, jump through first to
secure the next point in preparation for the carriers to follow.
Range to the forward ships would close in under a minute.
Doomsday gave the thumbs up to the deck launch officer. She saluted,
crouched down low, pointing forward, and the senior deck officer in the
launch control room hit the catapult button.
In under two seconds Doomsday was clear of Tarawa, full afterburners
roaring, even as Tarawa turned to avoid colliding with Kruger's flag ship.
Doomsday banked hard over, skimming past the destroyer with less than a
dozen meters to spare, and took a deep breath as he shot clear.
His heavily modified Sabre, with side-by-side pilot and co-pilot seats
crammed in, and a single heavy Mark IV torpedo slung underneath shook with
the 110% power surge. Grinning, he looked over at Paladin who was flying the
right hand seat as weapons officer.
"Here we go again, laddie," Paladin said calmly, though Doomsday could
tell that the old pilot was miffed that there weren't enough fighters in the
fleet for him to get one of his own.
"Torpedo armed and ready, now give me a target."
Doomsday spared a quick look down at his tactical screen. The forward
string of frigates were less than a minute away, the first of them already
slowing, turning to move in across the carriers. Less than thirty seconds
behind them the three carriers were starting to come about
"All hells about to break loose," Paladin chuckled. "These two fleets
are about to go straight through each other.
"There's the rest of the strike," Doomsday announced, pointing nearly
straight up, and he edged his stick back, climbing a thousand meters to tuck
himself in under a Broadsword's belly, giving himself a little more
protection from the heavy strike craft's gunners.
"We're going for the middle carrier," Doomsday said quietly.
"We'll go for his port launch deck, you take the starboard one, lad,"
the Landreich pilot of the Broadsword above them replied and Doomsday
clicked his mike twice as an affirmative.
"Hang on, crossing through the frigates!"
A crisscrossing of neutron bursts, laserflashes, and mass driver rounds
snaked out from the Kilrathi picket line. Doomsday held steady on his
course, working for an early fix and lock on the center carrier, which was
now full broadside and starting to come around astern.
"Launch bay hits are out," Paladin announced. "Go for main engines."
A Landreich fighter, moving ahead of the two, winked into a fireball
and disappeared. They shot through the wreckage, Doomsday wincing when a
bloody smear of what had once been the pilot smashed into his forward canopy
and spun away into the darkness. The blood seemed to be a dark omen and he
started to breathe hard, fighting down the sense of premonition and Paladin
looked over at him.
"He was already dead, laddie, already dead."
Doomsday gulped hard and shook his head. He pulled open his helmet
visor. wiped the sweat from his face. He reached into a breast pocket and
pulled out a short cigar and clamped down hard on it, chewing the end.
Ian had given the cigar to him long ago. He had never smoked it, but
somehow, for this mission he felt it was a talisman and he brought it along.
They shot under the belly of a frigate, the two attack craft shuddering
as they skimmed through the high energy field of the ship's fuel and
"I have target lock," Paladin announced calmly, "and counting at thirty
seconds, twenty nine."
Doomsday hated torpedo launches more than anything else. It required
the fighter to stay on a straight and steady course for thirty seconds until
the torpedoes' guidance and arming systems cut through the high energy
shielding of the target, decoded the shield phasing, and then countered the
phasing so that it could penetrate for the kill.
The carriers were now clearly visible in space, three silvery masses
less than fifty clicks ahead, the ships completing their turns, engines
winking white hot. Three Landreich fighters darted past Doomsday, their
afterburners flaring, diving straight in, loosing a string of infrared
guided missiles. The shots would not penetrate but their explosions on the
carriers aft shields would momentarily blind the point defense systems.
"First fighters coming out," Doomsday announced, able to clearly see
the pinpoints of light leaping out from the Kilrathi carriers.
"The furballs are a bit late today. Caught them with their pants down
this time, that is if the buggers are wearing pants."
The pin points of light disappeared, and Doomsday knew that meant they
had turned and were coming straight back towards him.
He caught the first hum of an IFF locking on. and then three more.
Taking over defensive systems control from Paladin, he launched one of the
new noise makers, hoping it would distract the missiles. The Kilrathi
carrier seemed to fill all of space in front of him and he felt that if he
closed any further, he'd run straight into it. The sweat was soaking his
back and he found himself silently praying.
A modified Ferret, stitched onto what looked like old twin Sabre A
engines, slammed past, diving straight into the emerging fighters. Several
flashes of light appeared, fighters being killed, though Doomsday could not
tell who had bought it
"Ten seconds, nine. eight. Signal lock on, phase counter lock on,
warhead armed, three, two, one . . . it's away!"
Doomsday felt his ship lurch as the ten meter long torpedo dropped from
the underbelly pylon, its engine flaring to life. He looked up and saw a
Landreich craft above him dropping his spread of three Mark III Torpedoes as
well. Breaking his ship hard to starboard Doomsday nosed straight down and
then spun over, keeping his belly turned towards the carrier so that the new
laser torpedo guide could maintain lock. Paladin stayed hunched over the
weapons screen, ready to take over manual guidance of the torpedo if
Kilrathi jamming should throw it off course.
Doomsday spared a quick glance at his tactical as half a dozen red
blips closed in.
"She's closing, closing," Paladin chanted softly, punching in a
guidance command as the torpedo lost lock for a second, his guidance laser
firmly tracking on the torpedoes tail. The fact that Kruger had half a dozen
of the new ship-to-torpedo laser guiding systems in his munitions inventory
had surprised Doomsday, who figured it was best simply not to ask how they
got into Landreich hands.
"Closing, closing . . . impact, laddie, we got óem!"
Doomsday punched in an aft visual and saw an expanding fireball of
light erupting from the carrier's main engine bank. A second ball of light
snapped as one of Doomsday's torpedoes slammed into the explosion. Four of
the Landreich's old obsolete scimitars darted in towards the carrier's tail,
disappearing into the inferno, two of them reemerging from the fireball
seconds later and as they pulled out, a solid ripple of explosions shuddered
across the carrier's stern from the missile spread they had launched, now
that the aft shielding was overloaded and down. The entire aft end of the
carrier suddenly disappeared in a white hot light.
Doomsday watched the Scimitars, amazed yet again at the suicidal
tactics of the Landreich pilots, flying fighters that should have been on
the scrap heap years ago.
"Fuel igniting, she's going!"
The explosion burst out, the blast wave washing over Doomsday's Sabre,
shuddering it as if from a direct hit. He lost sight of the two surviving
Scimitars, who were simply consumed in the ball of light, the enemy fighters
pursuing them disappearing as well.
"Look out ahead!" Paladin shouted, and Doomsday looked up to see a
frigate turning directly in front, her gun mounts shifting, tracking
straight down on him, preparing to fire a full broadside at near point blank
"All weapons fire independently and at will," Jason announced calmly,
standing now and pacing behind his row of bridge personnel, who remained
hunched over their tactical, communications, damage control, and fire system
He looked up at the main holo battle screen, watching the converging
line of blue and red dots. A blue dot, representing a light frigate winked
out, followed an instant later by two red dots to either side, one of them a
cruiser, the other a destroyer.
"Landreich frigate just detonated her reactor pile, crew has ejected,"
the tactical officer announced calmly.
"These people are insane," Jason whispered, realizing that even if the
crew had ejected, a bridge team would have had to stay on board to time the
The explosion cut an opening straight through the middle of the
Kilrathi defense line deploying aft of the three carriers. All of the strike
fighters from the four escorts had already launched and were inside the
picket line, engaging the carriers. A dozen fighters disappeared within
seconds caught by the crossfire between the picket line and carriers,
hundreds of blinking yellow dots marking the crisscrossing paths of
missiles. Bright green snaps of light flared inside the holo display,
detaching from half a dozen fighters.
"Torpedoes are launched and running," tactical reported.
"All ships close and advance on carriers, follow me."
Kruger's image appeared on the command screen only long enough to pass
the order then disappeared. Helm, lock on Kruger's ship, follow her
Kruger turned in, racing through the opening created by the Landreich
frigate's sacrifice, and within seconds every battery on Tarawa was engaged,
trading shots with Kilrathi frigates, and destroyers to either side.
Jason suddenly imagined that he could almost hear a bugler blowing
charge, the way the Marines still did when their landing craft went in on an
assault. as they raced straight towards the three carriers. It was madness;
they were about to close and trade broadsides with capital ships at point
blank range. The center carrier in the holo flared, exploding outward.
"Scratch one flattop!" tactical shouted, and Jason looked up at the
visual, watching the explosion, then back down at the holo as two fighters,
his own, emerged out of the fireball. A Kilrathi frigate turning towards
Tarawa moved in front of the fighters, its guns turning to fire.
"All weapons, train on frigate, port side!" Jason shouted.
Turrets swung about, fire rippling out from Tarawa, the frigate
swinging her guns back on Tarawa, ignoring the two fighters as they raced
between the two ships.
A shuddering explosion ran through Tarawa, battle lights winking out
for a second, a gust of acrid smoke filling the bridge, red lights coming
back on again in the now shadowy gloom
"Main generator off line, emergency back up, shielding down to seventy
"Tarawa, close it up, hit the carrier to starboard."
Kruger's image appeared for only a second and was gone again
The fleet flagship was out forward of the charge, a Kilrathi cruiser
angling in, opening with a spread of missiles. Flare, chaff, and noise
makers streamed out of the destroyer and the two ships traded fire. Behind
the flagship the four escorts, moving in two lines of two, stormed through
the maelstrom, while frigates, corvettes, destroyers, and fighters swirled
Another shudder ran through Tarawa, damage control shouting out a
report, red lights blinking on his screen. Jason could barely hear the
officer as the explosions echoed through his ship, the concussion nearly
bringing him to his knees. The Kilrathi cruiser shot past, unable to turn in
tight enough to run parallel.
On the port side the still expanding wreckage of the blown carrier
continued to swirl out and then was astern. Kruger arced his destroyer
directly across the stern of the carrier they were pursuing, lashing out
with a volley of torpedoes and missiles at near point blank range. Landreich
corvettes raced past the escort carriers, closing in on the prey, two of
them fireballing from the strikes of Kilrathi fighters, the survivors
launching torpedoes, most of which were shaken off by the carrier but three
impacting nevertheless. Four more of the corvettes disappeared.
"Her shieldings down!" tactical shouted.
Jason felt as if he were about to explode with excitement. The battle
had lost all semblance of tactical maneuvering, the old standard of fleets
launching fighters at long range, and capital ships rarely if ever coming
within ten thousand clicks of each other, was gone in the mad confusion. He
thought of Nelson at Trafalgar, charging into a broadside exchange with the
French and Spanish, and felt that if Tolwyn were here the old man would be
The Kilrathi carrier was less than fifteen hundred meters ahead.
"Fire on her, fire!
Simultaneously the four escort carriers opened fire, hundreds of mass
driver rounds and neutron bolts, from the anti-aircraft batteries, now
slamming into the stern of the enemy carrier. Explosions rippled, jagged
fragments of metal hurtling off into space. Tarawa raced down the length of
the carrier, stitching the side of the ship with everything she had, while
Gallipoli turned to cross the T of the Kilrathi carrier astern. The
Kilrathi, however, were firing with everything in return, and explosions
rocked Tarawa. Jason felt as if the frenzy of battle had torn into the heart
of his soul. He stood rigid, wanting to roar with both rage and delight.
More than one of the bridge crew had broken discipline, pounding the sides
of their monitors, screaming curses, oaths, encouragement, and whooping with
joy at the destruction.
Jason looked up at the aft visual and saw his sister ship splitting
open as if she had run straight into a buzz saw that was tearing the ship
apart from stem to stern. The fuel cells astern ignited and the ship
fireballed, her flame washing over the topside stern of the stricken enemy
They darted past the ship, turning to starboard while the Kilrathi
carrier edged over to port and started to dive.
"Enemy carrier suffered multiple hits, computer counting two hundred
plus hullings, secondary explosions igniting, three of five engine pods
"Sections one, three through five portside hulled, midships port mass
driver gun mounts destroyed, main generator still off line, shielding down
to forty-two percent, holding steady."
Jason looked back at the tactical.
The enemy carrier was turning hard over to port, now moving away at a
right angle, debris trailing out behind her as she struggled to accelerate.
The other carrier was coming around to flank the stricken ship. The enemy
picket line was now racing full back, coming abreast of their two surviving
carriers and moving to pursuit.
"Helm, prepare to come about for a second strike," Jason announced, and
his crew looked up at him, startled.
He knew it was madness, but they had not finished the carrier off and
he'd be damned if it was going to get away.
"All ships follow me,"
Jason looked up at Kruger's image and then back at tactical.
Kruger was moving straight away from the engagement, heading back
towards the Hell Hole.
"Get me Kruger," Jason snapped.
The old man's image reappeared, looking annoyed.
"Let's finish em, sir, he's crippled."
"We killed one, we crippled another and lost one escort," Kruger
snapped. "Go back and we'll lose the rest of our escorts just to finish a
kill. We want him crippled. They'll have to protect him. Bondarevsky, I'm
breaking the engagement. We got what we wanted, they'll run for home now.
Hell Hole is still under bombardment and that's our main priority now.'
The image winked off.
Jason took a deep breath, realizing that the excitement of the charge
and the lust of battle had clouded his judgment
"Belay helm over, lock on Blitzkreig and follow."
He could see that some of his crew were disappointed while others took
a sigh of relief
"Damn good, I'm proud of all of you," he announced and then settled
back into his command chair.
He looked up at the chronometer.
It was less than six minutes since they had jumped through, undoubtedly
one of the shortest fleet actions in history. Kruger had lived up to form,
shattering an invasion, killing a carrier, and crippling another. He had
certainly taken them in harm's way.
The question now was, what would Kruger do next?
"Signal all fighters, return to your ships for recovery."
Admiral Tolwyn stood silently, watching the display screen.
It had been a standoff for more than a day. They had met the four enemy
carriers just inside the Warsaw system, his fleet and theirs arriving at
opposite jump points almost simultaneously.
He had raced to cover Warsaw but the Kilrathi carriers had held back,
staying close to the jump point.
The question had been whether to close and engage, or wait. It could be
that they were holding at the edge of the jump point, waiting to lure him in
and then the main Kilrathi fleet would jump through. A listening post inside
the next system had managed to get out a brief burst signal, reporting the
transit of more than thirty escort ships and then had gone off line. It
could only mean that the main fleet was coming up fast. Yet if he did
advance and close for action there was a chance to meet the enemy three on
four, with the possible edge that the pilots aboard the enemy ships were not
their first line Guard fighters.
He had opted for action, but with the stipulation that his carriers
would not close within ten million clicks and engage at long range only with
The action had been inconclusive throughout the day, with the loss of
thirty-eight fighters in exchange for two hits on a carrier with moderate
damage, and three enemy frigates destroyed in return for one hit on Moskva
and a destroyer lost.
But now there was no longer a question as to Prince Thrakhath's
strategy. He was indeed coming straight on.
For the last hour, the jump point covered by the carriers had disgorged
destroyers, frigates, fuel tankers, and supply ships. And now at last the
first of the new carriers had emerged.
His intelligence officer passed up a continual stream of reports, the
hazy images from Paladin's recon scan, replaced now by clear optical and
radar images passed up by light Ferret recon fighters moving back from the
edge of the fleet.
Tolwyn continued to pull back, his fighters coming in to land, a screen
of escort ships guarding the sterns of the carriers from enemy fighters,
while dropping out a spray of porcupine mines to slow the relentless advance
of the enemy fleet.
A fourth carrier appeared and then a fifth, each of them identical,
each of them terrifying.
"Sir, we are receiving a hailing from the Kilrathi fleet.
The communications officer looked back at his console for a moment and
then turned again to Tolwyn.
"Confirmed, sir. It's an in the clear translight signal from their
"I'll take it in my office."
He left the bridge and stepped into his wardroom. He spared a quick
glance at a mirror. The circles under his eyes would tell of his exhaustion
but there was no helping it.
He settled into his chair and punched the holo screen to life.
"Go ahead, comm, patch it in."
The image of Baron Jukaga appeared.
"Ah, Admiral Tolwyn, our intelligence reports said that you were in
command of Third Fleet. My congratulations on your promotion. We have always
admired you as perhaps the best of the fighting admirals of the
"What do you want, Baron?" Geoff replied coldly.
"I'm a military man, not a diplomat, Baron. Direct your inquiry to
President Quinson. I'm sure he will tell you to go perform a certain
impossible anatomical act."
The Baron chuckled.
"You humans and your sexual obsession. So strange, we must discuss the
differences some time. But I am asking a military question, Admiral. I'm not
demanding the surrender of your Confederation, merely your fleet."
Geoff replied with what he assumed the President would have said.
"Such crudity, Admiral it's not becoming of one of your breeding and
education. You and I are alike in our study of human warfare. It creates a
bond between the two of us, a bond I should add that I feel is even stronger
towards you than to many of my own species. It would be distressing to see
you defeated and dead."
"You assume too much, Baron. Do not worry about my death until it is
accomplished, but instead worry about your own.
"TouchÝ. But come, can't we reason this disagreement out?"
Geoff laughed coldly.
"My government was stupid enough to believe you once. It'll be a very
cold day in hell before we believe you again. This time the fight's to the
death, no quarter asked or expected."
"A shame you put it that way."
"No, I want it that way, Geoff snarled, angry with himself that he was
losing his temper. "You murdered my closest friends in your bomb plot. I
heard as well about your attempt on the Emperor. I'm surprised they didn't
rip your guts out for that, you utak."
He deliberately chose the Kilrathi word used to describe the lowest
caste member of Kilrah society, the cleaners of privy pits for fertilizer,
one considered so untouchable that it was a defilement if his shadow even
touched the shadow of anyone of a higher class.
He could see that the word caused Jukaga to bristle.
"I'm surprised the Emperor even allowed one such as you to live. I've
heard that assassination is all but unknown in your society. It seems you
learned it from us. You know nothing of us. You learned but the worst and
learned none of the best. You are beneath the contempt of both my race and
He noticed a change in Jukaga's demeanor and his image disappeared.
"Communications, what's going on?"
"Signal shifted, sir, coming back in, on a fleet scramble line."
Jukaga's image reappeared on the screen
"I feel more comfortable now, Admiral, talking without anyone able to
listen in on my side for the next several minutes. May I have your agreement
that this conversation will be kept strictly between us?"
"I can't promise that," Geoff replied.
"Then at least do not let it be shared with my own people. I've managed
to have the signal scrambled from here but soon it might be compromised."
"I agree then, it will not get back to your side."
"We don't have much time to talk, Admiral. I want to give you a
warning. I was supposed to do this anyhow but I want you to understand that
my concern in this is genuine."
"Go on then."
"If you do not surrender your fleet, Prince Thrakhath has declared that
this shall be a war of gatagak'vu. How do you say, a war of total
Geoff felt a cold chill.
"Has it not always been thus?" he finally ventured.
"No. This is different. He will not only slaughter everyone þ man,
woman and child, but he will also slaughter the very worlds you live on
through the use of high radiation doses. Nothing will be left, nothing. Your
home, your Earth, with all its long history, will be dead, uninhabitable,
His words trailed off and Geoff was startled to realize that Jukaga's
voice was filled with remorse.
"You wanted us destroyed, enslaved, why your concern now?" Geoff asked.
Jukaga smiled and shook his head.
"That is not your concern, Admiral Tolwyn, only my own. I therefore
implore you. Surrender. If you do, I will ensure that you and your warriors
are treated with honor, that your Earth will continue to live."
"Better to die as free men then live as slaves," Geoff replied coldly.
Jukaga nodded, a smile lighting his features.
"As any true warrior would reply, he said quietly, "as I knew you would
"Then there's nothing more to be said."
"I have been told to advise you that you have twenty four of your
standard minutes to reply. If not, the planet you call Warsaw will cease to
"Go ahead and do it now," Geoff replied coldly, "but by God, Baron,
tell Thrakhath that if he does, there'll come a day when we'll come back. If
it takes a hundred years, we'll come back and we'll watch Kilrah as it's
burned to ashes."
"Good-bye, Admiral," Jukaga said quietly and he started to reach over
to switch off his screen. He paused and looked back up.
"I'm sorry," and then his image disappeared.
Shaken, Geoff sat back in his chair. He had just condemned more than
twenty million to death
"God help me," he whispered and he lowered his head for a moment,
offering a silent prayer for forgiveness and strength.
He stood back up finally and went back out on the bridge.
"Warsaw, now five million clicks astern sir," the helm officer
"Make course back towards Sirius, order destroyer squadron three." He
paused. "No, make that squadron two, to form rear guard using maneuver delta
for delaying action."
He settled into his command chair, watching the tactical. The enemy
carriers, masked by more than a hundred escorts, continued their relentless
move forward, while one of the older carriers, escorted by a cruiser
squadron, broke away, turning towards Warsaw.
"Get me Mike Polowski on laser link," Geoff said quietly.
Seconds later the commander of squadron three appeared on the holo
screen. Geoff felt as if the commodore were in the room with him. His
features were pale, jaw quivering.
"I've got bad news for you, Mike."
"I can see it, Geoff."
"I'm sorry. They demanded the surrender of the fleet. If we didn't they
said they'd hit your home world."
Mike lowered his head
"You did what you had to do, Geoff. God help me, I would have done the
same. Anything else, sir?"
"It's going to be bad, Mike. They're going to radiation-bombard it as
well, killing the planet and everything on it.
Mike's jaw started to tremble and he turned away from the screen for a
moment and then finally looked back, his eyes filled with anguish.
"Why? It's not even a military target."
"To make an example of what's to come."
Mike stood silently, unable to speak.
"I'm sorry, Mike."
Polowski nodded silently and then his image winked off.
"Give me full optical power on Warsaw, patch in to their planetary
The orbital base commander appeared on the side screen, while optical
locked on the planet. It still looked peaceful, an illusion since with
visual scan it now took more than two minutes for the image to reach him.
"White Wolf, this is Warsaw defense. We are under attack. As per your
orders, primary station has been abandoned. Civilian population are in
shelters. All ground to space missiles have been expended.
"White Wolf, this is Warsaw defense. We have high speed incoming! We
have . . ."
The image snapped off.
Geoff watched the optical scan in silence, and then the first blossom
of light snapped across the northern continent's surface. Seconds later
hundreds of snaps of light erupted, blanketing the continent. the snake-like
chain of islands in the southern hemisphere erupting as well.
"We are picking up thermonuclear air bursts in the five hundred megaton
range. The nukes are emitting strontium ninety," the tactical officer
announced, her voice hard-edged with rage.
"The bastards," Geoff whispered, "the damn bastards."
It had gone even beyond genocide. The planet was seeded with enough
strontium 90 to wipe out the entire biosphere. The Kilrathi were destroying
an entire planet simply as a demonstration of what was to come.
"I know why you're here, Captain, excuse me, I think I made you a
Commodore. Anyhow, Commodore, you're wasting your time."
Without even waiting for an invitation Jason went over to the refridge
in Kruger's wardroom, pulled out a container of beer and popped it open.
"Help yourself," Kruger said quietly and then paused, "you deserve it."
"You did well out there," Jason replied.
"Not good enough," and Kruger motioned to a flat screen projecting an
image from a drone probe that was circling above the main airfield and town
on the Hell Hole, at least what was left of it.
"Four antimatter warheads and one thermonuclear airburst loaded with
strontium ninety. The world's a write-off."
"The bastards," Jason hissed, looking at the radiation read-outs. There
had been an unwritten and unspoken agreement between the two sides since the
start of the war, that no matter how grim the conflict was, the deliberate
destruction of life-bearing capability of a planet was beyond the limits. It
had been in part a self-serving rule for both sides, for both sides hoped
for ultimate victory and with it the worlds inhabited by their foes.
"We just got this burst signal from the Confeds," and he switched the
It was an official government news service report on the opening action
in the Warsaw system and Jason watched, seething with rage as an optical
scan showed the annihilation of Warsaw. The report finished with a demand
from Baron Jukaga, delivered in the most sincere of voices, as if he were on
the human side of the conflict, calling for an end to hostilities through
the surrender of the Third Fleet. The closing comment came from President
Quinson, a wonderfully crude response, delivered before a packed Senate
meeting, and as he said the words the Senate came to its feet, roaring their
"I actually rather like Quinson," Kruger said, turning the screen off.
"Too bad he's going to get his ass kicked."
"At least he'll go down fighting."
"A gallant gesture but useless in the end, ó Kruger said quietly.
Jason spared a look over at the holo tactical display.
"The Cats have pulled back?"
"Into the next system already. I've got a squadron of destroyers in
pursuit. They're circled around the crippled carrier like a wolf pack
defending its pups. Just what I wanted, they're shaken and are afraid of
losing a second carrier.
"Ah, what you came to hear."
"Stay here. The bastards will be back. We know where seven of their old
carriers are now, rather six, thanks to the kill your pilots helped put in.
That still leaves at least ten unaccounted for. They might hit us from
another direction at any moment."
Kruger paused and looked up at Jason.
"Go on, I'm expecting to hear it. Even old Richards on that frigate I
gave him is mumbling about it."
"Head for Sirius or Earth. Look, I'll admit when I first got here I
didn't think much of your Landreich fleet and pilots. But by God I'll admit
it now, they're the best I've ever seen. Brave to the point of suicidal."
"Sometimes I even have to ask that," Kruger replied quietly. "A
trade-off of a couple of lives for many."
"They might help tip the scale."
"First of all, action will be joined there by then."
"But it still might be going on and we could help."
"And while I go running off what about my own people out here? You're
proposing that I leave the planets and orbital colonies of my system
defenseless and go riding off to help the Confederation? Your Confederation
was willing to write us off thirty years back, and they did it again this
time. Why the hell should I care?"
"Because the Confederation needs you, needs your leadership and your
Kruger snorted with disdain.
"Oh, solidarity of race against the Cats, is that your next pitch?"
"I knew that wouldn't work," Jason replied. "But you know damn well
that when Earth and the inner worlds fall it's finished. What happened to
Warsaw will happen to them. The Kilrathi are on a killing frenzy and they
won't stop. They've levered the war up another notch. When they're done in
there, they'll come out here and follow you and your people no matter where
Kruger said nothing, as if having heard the argument too many times
"So you won't go?"
"You guessed it."
"Will you release me and my people, give us at least Tarawa to head
Jason had already calculated the chance of doing a Kruger on Kruger, of
hijacking his carrier out of the fleet and knew it was impossible and
useless. Nearly all the pilots and over half his crew were Landreich. Kruger
had shrewdly made sure that none of the carriers had a majority of
Confederation crews on board.
"You just can t forgive, can you?" Jason asked coldly. "Thirty years
ago the Confederation made a mistake and I'd admit you made the right move
in response. You know enough about me to know I did the same thing. I led a
mutiny against an officer who ordered us to murder Kilrathi civilians and it
would have destroyed my career if it hadn't been for Admiral Tolwyn.
"I went through hell because of that, but I never blamed the
Confederation. I blamed the bastard who forced me to mutiny. For thirty
years you ve been carrying a grudge and because of your damned stupid blind
pride you'll condemn humanity to death.
"I'm not going to mutiny against you, Kruger, but when the Kilrathi
finish with you, if I'm still alive, I'll spit on whatever is left of you."
Without waiting for a reply Jason Bondarevsky stormed out of President
The two inhabited worlds of Sirius glimmered in the aft screen, showing
themselves as two pale green points of light in the middle of the holo
display of the system. Geoff jacked up the magnification level of the holo
and the further of the two planets disappeared. On the far side of the holo
display a nearly solid swarm of red blips were arrayed in five large
clusters. Hundreds of smaller red lights, Kilrathi strike fighters and
interceptors, were moving ahead, coming straight in at his own thin blue
line, behind which were positioned four large blue dots. In the middle
region of space between the two groups, two V wedges of small blue dots were
aiming straight in at the heart of the enemy fleet.
"Strike forces crossing into Kilrathi controlled space," a voice
The Combat Information Center, buried in the heart of Concordia was
almost like a tomb, encased in a double layering of durasteel, illuminated
by soft diffused light and the shimmer of holo displays and flat screens.
Outside a battle was raging, in here, where the decisions were being made,
the cool professionalism of his staff made it seem almost like an exercise.
Yet, as he spared a glance from the holo and looked around the room he could
see the grim determination. After retreating through three star systems, and
impotently witnessing the annihilation of the worlds he had been forced to
abandon, Geoff Tolwyn had finally turned his fleet about. The Battle of
Sirius had begun.
"Blue Squadron, this is Lone Wolf. Close it up. Remember, we want the
big ones, nothing else, so cover your Broadswords."
"Lone Wolf, this is Round Top, read me?"
Kevin Tolwyn smiled; it was his old comrade from the Tarawa days.
"Where are you, Chamberlain?"
"Right above you in Broadsword Two off Moskva, so be sure to cover my
butt, son, while I win the glory.
"With you all the way, Round Top."
Kevin tightened the grip on his joystick, his Rapier G jiggling
slightly from his nervous hold on the stick. It was certainly the biggest
strike group he had ever flown with, more than two hundred and fifty
fighters and attack bombers launched from four carriers. The extra fifty
heavy strike craft from Saratoga were missed, the carrier still half a
system away with a main engine fuel pump acting up. Two hundred and eighty
fighters were being held in reserve as protection for the fleet carriers and
as a second strike wave.
Kevin looked down at his tactical display. Straight ahead the
individual blips of enemy fighters, corvettes, frigates and destroyers had
merged into a solid wall of red.
He clicked into a side band to the main fleet communications line. A
real time image of Gilead, the second inhabited planet, was being
transferred out to the fleet even while the battle was about to be joined.
He was past the point of rage. The planet flickered on his screen,
bursts of five hundred megaton thermonuclear warheads, clad with strontium,
detonating high up in the atmosphere, destroying yet another world. The
image winked off, replaced by his uncle.
"This is Tolwyn. Good luck to all of you and good hunting."
The image winked off and Kevin smile. Typical Brit understatement.
The forward edge of Rapiers, Raptors, Ferrets and Hornets, running
ahead of the attack wave, slammed into the opposing wall of opposition
defending the Kilrathi heavy carriers
From out of the red wall dozens of blinking orange dots appeared,
aiming straight in at the attack force.
"All right, Blue team, we've got incoming antimatter area strike, the
strike leader announced. "Let's bring'em up."
The strike force diverted from its straight in approach, turning up at
a ninety degree angle relative to the orbital plane of the Sirius system.
The area bombardment missiles started to turn to follow, the range closing.
The first one winked into a white hot ball, dozens more detonating, catching
half a dozen fighters at the back of the strike.
The squadrons nosed back over, following the strike commander, slicing
in through the explosions, and as they came out the opposite side, the
Kilrathi fighters were upon them.
Kevin fought down a moment of panic. The largest action he had ever
been in was at Munro, a cakewalk attack on one carrier. Even the Academy
holo simulators had never been programmed to handle the number of enemy
fighters now coming in on him.
It was impossible to sort out which target to lock on. Hundreds of IFFs
streaked across space and within seconds dozens of ships on both sides were
exploding. The Broadsword and Sabre gunners sent out sprays of shot in every
direction as wing group size attack waves by the Kilrathi came in. The four
light corvettes escorting the attack dropped out sprays of chaff, jammers,
and flares. The first wave passed and Kevin, ashamed, realized he had not
fired even a shot.
He looked up at the Broadswords he was escorting. One was gone, another
turning out of formation, spinning, its port engine blown apart, its
starboard engine apparently jammed at full throttle. Its crew ejected and
the ship spun away, exploding seconds later.
From out of the confusion a wave of Dralthi, Krants, and Gratha, flying
nearly wing tip to wing tip, came sweeping in, forward cannons firing.
"Blue three, there's our Cats. Let's break óem up."
He edged his throttle forward, leaping ahead of the Broadswords, lining
up on the lead Dralthi and putting a dumb fire bolt straight into the
furballs' canopy, blowing the top of the enemy fighter apart. The enemy
attack broke apart, three Dralthi dead, and Kevin came around, seeing that
his number three man was gone. There wasn't even time to ask.
"Keep moving in, close in maneuvering scoops," the strike commander
called. "We want the carriers!"
Kevin swallowed hard, passing the order on to his squadron, and he
closed scoops in.
It was no longer possible to pull the tight-in maneuvers. It was going
to be a straight in high speed run.
Blasts snapped around him, missiles detonating, his number five pilot
ejecting from her fighter as it crumpled up in a ball of flame.
He pulled in close under the bellies of the Broadswords he was
The outer row of enemy picket ships was straight ahead and their
barrage opened up, two of the escorting corvettes taking multiple hits and
disappearing. As they shot through the line of Kilrathi frigates and
destroyers, more than a hundred missiles were dropped by the furballs,
slashing into the squadrons, the two remaining corvettes blowing out more
sprays of chaff, jammers, and flares. The curtain of distractors diverted
most of the missiles, but enough found their mark and more than two dozen
Confederation fighters and bombers were gone.
Kevin pulled open his visor and wiped the stinging sweat from his eyes.
His back was soaked with sweat, the suit coolant unable to evaporate it off
fast enough. His mouth felt dry, as if he had swallowed a ball of cotton and
he suddenly understood why Ian had developed the revolting habit of chewing
on an old cigar while in a tight spot.
Straight ahead on his tactical were five large clusters of red. He no
longer needed to use the screen. Even from extreme range he could already
pick out a thin sliver of reflected light.
"Bombardment groups one and two, take center carrier," the strike
commander announced, and Kevin could see on the comm screen that the
leader's ship had been hit, smoke in the cockpit making him barely visible,
"three and four carrier to port, five and six to starboard. Range nine
hundred clicks, open maneuvering scoops, full reverse thrust for
deceleration in ten seconds."
"Got that, Lone Wolf?"
"Straight in we go, Round Top. Make it a good one, buddy," Kevin
"Nothing less will do."
"Three, two, one, decelerate!"
Kevin pulled his maneuvering scoops wide open and slammed in reverse
thrust, instantly slowing his fighter, which shuddered to a near stand still
less than fifty clicks out from their target.
A swarm of Kilrathi fighters closed in on them.
There was a flash of light forward off the carrier's bow and Kevin
realized that someone, driven by rage, had simply tried to ram the enemy
ship. Such a maneuver at full closing speed was nearly impossible to do and
the fighter had deflected off the side of the carrier's heavy shields.
"I've got initial torpedo lock," Round Top announced, "and counting at
thirty, twenty nine . . ." The other strike craft that Kevin was protecting
joined in with their own announcements of initial lock.
They slowly drifted in towards their target and Kevin felt as if his
heart were wrapped in ice. The ship was massive, more than twice the size of
any carrier he had ever seen before. He could barely spare it a glance,
however, as hundreds of enemy fighters swarmed in upon them.
Within seconds he had lost the rest of his squadron in the mad melee as
he twisted and turned his fighter, struggling to stay alive while at the
same time desperately attempting to cover the Broadswords as they hung near
motionless, waiting for their torpedoes to gain full lock.
Broadsword after Broadsword disappeared in white-hot explosions. Three
Krants lined in on Round Top, his countdown still echoing in Kevin's
headphones as he weaved into them, crippling one with a dumb-fired flechette
spray, and destroying a second with a stream of neutron bolts cutting into
the fighter's engine mounts.
The third stitched a flurry of rounds across the portside gun turret of
Round Top's ship, and Kevin caught a glimpse of the gunner's body shredding
to pieces, his canopy bursting into shards from the strike.
"Keep óem off me," Round Top shouted. "Ten seconds and counting."
The strike squadron had drifted to within eight clicks of the carrier
and what appeared to be a solid wall of mass driver rounds snaked out from
the ship's bow, blowing three more Broadswords apart. Kevin struggled with
his stick as a shudder ran through his fighter, starboard shielding
overloading and a laser hit sheered of the last meter of his wingtip.
He turned inside the laser beam, blowing out reflective chaff which
temporarily blinded the laser's target lock, the beam skewing across his
bow, cutting a gouge into the forward durasteel armor.
"Three, two, one, it's away!"
The fifteen surviving Broadswords out of the thirty in the strike group
launched their torpedo loads. Round Top, along with half the remaining
ships, were armed with the laser lock guidance and they turned upwards
making sure that the laser emitters were pointed at the torpedoes.
The space between the attacking fighters and the carriers turned into
an insane explosion of anti-torpedo missiles, dogfighting ships, and point
defense blasts from the Kilrathi carrier.
"We've got lock, we've got holding lock," Round Top shouted.
Kevin turned his fighter to circle around Round Top and saw yet another
swarm of Kilrathi fighters cutting in, dropping a wall of missiles on the
"Round Top, evasive, evasive!"
"Can't! We still have lock, three seconds, two, one . . ."
Kevin screamed with rage as five missiles detonated across the top of
his friend's Broadsword. The ship simply disappeared.
From off his portside wing he saw four torpedoes impacting on the
carrier's bow. In the silence of space it seemed some how surreal, as if a
holo movie was being played out. For a brief instant the carrier disappeared
behind the exploding curtain of antimatter warheads. He waited for the
secondary explosions to begin.
"Scratch one flattop," someone screamed on the commlink. "We've got the
And as he waited, the carrier emerged from out of the fire. Its forward
bow, and for nearly a hundred meters back, was a twisted wreckage, but the
ship continued to purposefully move forward.
Making sure his gun cameras were still on, Kevin turned in towards the
Wreckage was trailing off from the bow of the ship as he raced in and
he could see fires flaring inside the ruins of the forward portside launch
bay. He crossed up and over the top of the carrier and then suddenly the
anti-aircraft defenses of the carrier kicked back on.
She still had internal power þ it was impossible after four torpedo
Jinxing to throw off the gunners, he raced down the length of the ship,
passing one of the aft launch bays. He locked his camera into a laser
designator and swung the designator in on the bay. On his small comm screen
he caught a quick glimpse inside the ship. Another fighter was coming down
the launch ramp, afterburners flaming. Internal lighting was still on and
launch crews were purposefully working, some of them still picking
themselves up, shaking off the after effects of the torpedo hammer blows.
The image disappeared as he flashed across the stem of the ship.
He looked up and saw that more than a dozen Kilrathi fighters were
streaking in to pick him off and he went into a violent spin, cutting down
over the stern of the ship, his fighter bucking and shuddering as he got
caught in the exhaust plume of the carrier.
He punched through into the fleet comm channel.
"White Wolf, this is Blue One. No joy, repeat, no joy, carrier still
running after four torpedo hits. Catch my video transmit."
He sent the signal through and then looked at his tactical.
Space was dotted solid with red, with only an occasional blue dot. The
strike force had shot its bolt and been destroyed, and the Kilrathi Fleet
continued on in.
Sick at heart, Admiral Tolwyn silently watched as the action reports
came in. He coughed again, wiping the tears from his eyes. The Combat
Information Center was still filled with smoke, the air filtration plant
still off line from the torpedo hit to Concordia.
"Message from Moskva, sir."
"Put it on man."
A young woman, blood trickling down from her forehead, appeared in the
flat wavery image.
"Dead, sir. Last hit took out the bridge."
He nodded silently. Damn.
Sir, we have to abandon ship, all engines are dead. We're moving on
inertia and one bank of maneuvering thrusters only. Secondary generators are
going off line, hull integrity lost in sixty-three percent, remaining
bulkhead are leaking and will rupture with one more hit."
"Get your people into the escape boats. I'll have Polowski stand by to
pick up survivors."
"I'm sorry, sir."
"You fought her well, lieutenant, you fought her well."
He looked back at the action reports that streamed in across the
Two of the new carriers and one of the old ones had been hit in his
strike. The old style carrier was gone, but the two new ones still appeared
to be relentlessly moving forward. In return, all four of his carriers had
been hit. Verdun was lost with all hands. and now Moskva was finished Leyte
Gulf, which had only joined him this morning, had one bay down from a direct
hit. Of the more than four hundred and eighty strike craft and bombers he
had launched three hours ago, less than two hundred and twenty were still
able to fly. Worst of all was the loss of Broadswords; less than a quarter
had returned. Estimates of Kilrathi fighter loss stood at just over seven
hundred. He knew the figure would be cut once the debriefing teams had a
chance to look at all the camera footage. In short, he had lost.
He looked at the status plot boards. Only twenty-nine Broadswords and
twenty modified Sabres were armed and ready for a second strike. Already the
Kilrathi were sending up their next strike wave which was even stronger than
their first as they shifted craft over from defensive to offensive
operations. He turned back to his strategic communications officer, who was
burst signal linked back to Earth.
"Latest reported position of Saratoga?"
"Still six hours twenty-one minutes short of jump point 3A."
Geoff looked back at his main nav screen. Jump Point 3A, the connecting
link back from Sirius towards Earth was an hour behind him.
Saratoga would never come up in time to help repel the next attack, let
alone be able to aid in a second strike.
"Signal all ships by laser link. We are withdrawing from Sirius."
His bridge crew looked around at him startled.
"We'll be swarmed under in the second strike. If I thought we had a
chance of hitting them back hard enough, I'd do it. There's no sense in
dying for no reason."
"What about Sirius, sir?" a helm ensign asked angrily. "Damn it, sir,
that's my home."
"Son, it's finished whether we stay here and die, or leave. We need
time to repair damaged planes, get Leyte's port launch bay back on line and
prepare a second strike. Saratoga will nearly double our heavy strike
fighter strength if we fall back on her."
The ensign looked around, realizing he had spoken way out of turn to a
full admiral. He started to open his mouth again and was restrained by his
section lieutenant who took him by the shoulder and turned him away.
Gilead, the smaller of the two worlds, was already flaming ruins.
Sirius Prime, thirty nine million clicks to port, was now wide open and
already a section of Kilrathi cruisers was turning towards it. He didn't
even want to think about how many people were down there.
"Helm, turn us about. Let's get the hell out of here," he snarled.
"Recall those cruisers now!"
Prince Thrakhath turned to gaze coldly at Baron Jukaga.
"Growing soft, my good Baron?"
"Your senseless barbarism will only arouse them further. You've made
your point, now spare the second planet. Show mercy and it still might
weaken their will."
"Terror breeds terror, Baron."
"Terror can also breed fanaticism and hatred. Your demonstration at
Warsaw did not intimidate the humans, instead it caused them to stop their
internal bickering and unite. You know nothing of humans. Senseless
bombardments of their civilian populations have always tended to unite them.
The deliberate destruction of entire worlds with radiation will cause them
to fight us tooth and nail to the death rather than surrender."
"And that s what you wanted, wasn't it, surrender?"
The Baron attempted to control his loathing and rage.
"You are a barbarian," he snapped. "We could have undermined them, let
their natural weaknesses play into our hands. You have gone on a rampage and
destroyed eleven of their worlds so far, and their fleet is still intact.
"We just crippled it, or weren't you watching?"
"They still have fight left in them. Remember, Prince Thrakhath, the
new fleet is to serve two purposes: one to win this war, and second to
prepare us for the Mantu if they should ever return. You are now gambling
that fleet in your drive for vengeance on the humans."
"Not vengeance, extinction."
Sickened, the Baron turned away. He knew now that the accusations were
right. Study one's enemy for too long and in the end you might come to
admire them. He did not admire the humans, the very essence of his nature
prevented that, but he could acknowledge them as something more than mere
prey to be slaughtered. His plan, if it had been allowed to be played out,
might very well have resulted in a near bloodless victory, a Confederation
completely divided, lulled by peace, and then psychologically overwhelmed
when the dozen new carriers appeared. It all suddenly became very clear.
"You allowed that recon ship of the humans to slip into Hari space and
then allowed it to escape. You wanted the peace ended, didn't you?"
"In spite of your claims of intellect, Baron, you are often rather slow
at figuring things out."
"You wanted this war to end in a blood bath. You were the one who
triggered the bomb in the human headquarters.
Prince Thrakhath smiled.
"You were never a prisoner of the humans. I was. You have not lost
comrades to them, I have. I shall rise to the Imperial Throne, hailed as the
conqueror of the humans and winner of this war, while as for you . . ." and
he leaned over, touching a button on his console.
The doors to his wardroom were flung open and four Imperial Marine
guards stepped in.
"Escort the Baron to his quarters and make sure he is very
"Are you arresting me?"
Prince Thrakhath shook his head.
"Let us say that there are certain questions to be asked of you later,
once the battles are completed and I am secure in my victory."
Baron Jukaga smiled coldly.
"Don't underestimate Tolwyn and his people. They are not finished yet."
"They soon will be, Baron," and he laughed coldly as Jukaga was lead
from the room.
"How are you, Geoff?"
Geoff looked up in surprise as "Big" Duke Grecko walked into his
Geoff started to get up from his cot and Duke motioned for him to relax
while he pulled a chair around and sat down across from Tolwyn.
"What the hell are you doing out here, Duke?"
"Can't keep the Marines in port when the action starts. I'm not
interfering out here, Geoff, but I thought I should come out and have a
"You got the after action report then?"
Duke nodded glumly.
"It was relayed up to my frigate a couple of hours ago."
"I screwed up, Duke. I should have fallen back from Sirius and then
held here with Saratoga joined in for the strike."
óYou couldn't abandon Sirius without a fight. Civilian morale would
have gone off the deep end."
"So we lose two carriers and still lose Sirius."
"At least you bloodied them."
"One old carrier destroyed, one damaged and one of their new carriers
reported heavily damaged, but no kills on the new fleet. Which is what I
"We're reporting that big carrier as dead for now," Duke said quietly.
"I never liked doing that."
"Sometimes we have to, and for all practical purposes it is dead at the
"So what do you want, Duke?" Geoff asked, cutting straight to the
"I'm ordering you to fall back on Earth."
"What? Hell, Duke, if they break our line there they'll fry Earth in a
matter of minutes.
"I know, but we've been busy. By the time you pull back, Lexington and
Ark Royal will be on line."
"How? The jump engines on Lex and Ark Royal were fully out for
realignment, and core reactors had been dumped."
"If we're fighting inside the home system we won't need jump engines
and both ships have one reactor back up and running."
"They'll be sitting ducks."
"They'd be sitting ducks in the dockyard anyhow. At least they can
still launch fighters."
Though neither one said it, they both knew as well that the two
additional carriers would serve as targets, forcing the Kilrathi to spread
out their attack.
"Mars is the closest planet in towards the jump line," Duke continued.
"We've packed every landing field there full of every damn fighter, trainer,
and even civilian light craft."
"You've got to be kidding. I stripped out every good plane and pilot
before I left. Put what's left into space and they'll die like flies."
"And the Kilrathi will burn up ammunition while some of our people
still get in for another strike."
He knew it was better than a desperate stand out here with no hope of
winning. If he stood now, it'd only delay the inevitable by maybe a day or
two at most.
"Our psych analysis people tell me that even if you abandon this key
jump point, Thrakhath will not spread out into the inner worlds until he
completes his kill of you and Earth. The bastard hates your guts, according
to psych, for too many humiliations. He wants your hide almost as much as he
wants Earth. He'll follow you straight in."
"You know, Duke," Geoff said quietly, "even with the additional
material and manpower, they still have us. You saw what happened to my last
strike, and those boys were the finest pilots in the fleet."
"I know, Geoff, I know. But there's one more idea I sort of cooked up
on my own, that might help things out."
And as Duke told him, Admiral Tolwyn came to his feet.
"You're mad, Duke, that's senseless murder. You're bloody mad to even
think of it."
"And that's why it might work," Duke said with a cold smile.
"My lord Thrakhath."
He turned to look at a holo display of his bridge captain.
"The latest report, sire."
"The human fleet is turning about, retreating back towards Earth."
"Are you certain?"
"Yes, my lord."
That caught him slightly off guard. He had thought that Tolwyn would
make his final stand here. One system past Sirius, eight jump lines diverged
outward into the inner worlds of the Confederation and also back outwards
towards the frontier. Control of the next system would be a major victory in
and of itself. Yet he was abandoning it now without a fight. Damn him.
"Latest intelligence report?"
"Three carriers still confirmed with their Third Fleet. Intelligence is
still working on their latest code but we have picked up a civilian channel
reporting that a carrier left its Earth base six hours ago, and that a
second carrier is moving up to join the fleet. The signal was from one of
their news stations and its coding simple to break."
"The stupid fools."
"Our latest damage report?"
"Tarvakh is still contending with internal fires, all three forward
launch bays are closed. Yu'ba'tuk's main shield generator is still off line
and one launch bay closed."
"At ninety-one percent, expected to upgrade to ninety- three within the
"Heavy, sire. Seven eight-of-eights and two eights today. Eight
eight-of-eights and five eights total."
Not good at all . The Empire could invest all it wanted on new carriers
that were next to indestructible, but at the core, it still came down to
having fighters that were equal to or better than the latest Confederation
designs, and pilots who were trained to fly them. It had always been the
weak edge. Except for the handful of Stealth fighters possessed by the
Empire, fighter design and pilot training had never fully kept up with that
of the humans. The emergencies of the last two years had forced them to
repeatedly reach into the academies and throw half-trained cadets into
action þ where most of them died within a matter of days. The survivors were
tough, but there were always too few.
He looked at what he had left and made his decisions.
"Order Tarvakh to transfer her remaining fighters to my flagship. That
will make good on our losses. Detail off," and he paused to look at the
status of the three surviving older carriers. "Detail off Notakgak and
Darthuka and their support ships to escort Tarvakh back to the Empire. Both
the retreating carriers to transfer their heavy strike squadrons to this
ship as well. Order the flanking cruiser squadrons to join us in the next
sector forward. Their fighters will equal those we lose from Notakgak and
Darthuka. Order the fleet to move up to flank speed in pursuit. When we
reach the next jump point send the first wave of light corvettes and
minesweeps through first, followed by cruisers in case they are waiting in
The officer bowed in reply.
"The cruiser squadron detailed to the main planet of this system has
suppressed the planetary defenses, my lord. They are awaiting orders."
Prince Thrakhath smiled.
"Annihilate the planet, and then we go for Tolwyn and Earth."
Transjump completed, Prince Thrakhath stood up, expectant. A tremor of
excitement coursed through him. Involuntarily his talons extended and he
felt saliva filling his mouth. He waited, heart racing as the jump point
confirmation flashed across the main screen of the battle bridge. Optical
scanners swept space and then finally locked on to what the Prince was
seeking. Magnification and computer enhancements kicked in and the image
zoomed in, expanding.
Earth floated in the middle of the screen. A growl of triumphal shouts
echoed on the battle bridge, a total breakdown of discipline that he was
willing, at least this once, to ignore and forgive, as his own howl of
triumph mingled in with that of his crew.
"Signal the fleet on an open channel, Thrakhath roared and his
communications officer opened the line.
"Today we shall watch Earth burn. Long live the Emperor and the Empire.
Standard battle formation, advance full speed ahead!"
"They're starting to advance," Duke Grecko said quietly.
Geoff Tolwyn said nothing, intently studying the long range tactical
display, as the information was relayed in by a line of picket ships pulling
back ahead of the Imperial Fleet.
The advance came straight on with a defiant certainty. There was no
elaborate maneuvering, no attempts at tactical ploys. The Kilrathi main
battle fleet came on in a solid mass, arrogant in its overwhelming power.
"I'd better get to my ship," Duke said.
"Your tactical plan is suicidal, Duke. Ship-to-ship fighting isn't a
Marine job. Leave it to the fleet. And by God, Duke, boarding is something
straight out of Nelson and Trafalgar."
"I'll be damned if we're sitting this fight out, so don't argue with me
Geoff looked over at him, smiled, and took his old friend's hand.
"All right, it just might work. But you know, Duke, the proper place
for the Head of Joint Chiefs is back at headquarters on Earth."
Duke sniffed angrily.
"Look, Geoff. Up until they decided to make me a hero after Vukar I was
a line officer. Being in command of the whole show was never my plan. I'll
be damned if I hide in a bunker while my grunts are fighting for survival.
Anyhow, I've always wanted to lead a battle like this."
"Leading men in a desperate battle, against impossible odds?" Tolwyn
said with a smile. "What are you, the reincarnation of Patton?"
"Don't let anyone in on the secret, Geoff"
"Take care, Duke."
"God speed and good hunting, Geoff. I'll see you at sundown."
Geoff laughed softly and walked his commander off the bridge and down
the corridor to the starboard launch bay. Fighters were lined up down the
length of the deck, crews going over last minute checks, armament teams
finishing up loading, and repair crews off to one side, struggling to
salvage and bring back into the fight craft damaged in the Battle of Sirius.
A Marine landing craft was on the launch line, pilots standing by the
open door, talking with the launch officer. At the sight of Grecko
approaching they stiffened, came to attention and saluted.
"At ease, boys. Fire the engine up and let's get to work."
Geoff saluted Duke, who looked back at him and smiled.
"Give óem hell, Geoff," and then he was gone, the entry hatch closing
behind him and snicking shut.
Geoff stood back from the launch line as the deck launch officer
stepped up forward and beside the Marine landing craft. She held her hand to
her ear protectors, waiting to hear from the senior launch officer that
Marine 1 was cleared. She saluted the pilot when word of clearance was
passed, crouched down and pointed forward. The landing craft started
forward, clearing the airlock, then kicked on full afterburners and, turning
to starboard, disappeared.
Thirty million clicks beyond the airlock Mars hovered in the darkness,
a bright point of red light. Thin lines of reflected silver light moved past
the airlock, hundreds of light civilian ships heading outward, with several
hundred Marine landing craft moving in the middle of the formation.
Geoff felt sick at heart watching them and turned heading back up the
corridor. He was already late for the final briefing and he moved
purposefully down the main corridor into the pilot quarters and ready room.
Geoff came into the ready room, his features set, and reached the
lectern. He looked out at his pilots.
Nearly half the faces were new, many of them cadets pulled straight out
of the Academy to replace the losses from Sirius.
God, we're sending children out now.
"At ease. Be seated."
"I'll keep this short, we don't have much time. You'll be pleased to
know that Lexington has just cleared dry dock, carrying fifty-seven
fighters. That'll give us five fleet carriers for this action."
Actually he knew it was almost meaningless. Lexington was coming up
with just a little more than half her complement and running on secondary
reactor power only. It was nothing more than bait, moving ahead of
Concordia, Saratoga, Ark Royal and Leyte Gulf. With three hundred additional
fighters sortied up from Mars and Earth orbital bases, there'd be just over
six hundred fighters, half of them with green crews who'd never seen action
beyond a flight simulator.
"You know your missions. Blue Three, you're flying Combat Air Patrol
over the carriers. Blue Two, you're escorting in the Broadswords."
He could see Blue Three was less than amused, getting stuck in a purely
defensive role. Blue Two knew what was going to happen to her but didn't
display a flicker of emotion. The Kilrathi would turn their full fury on the
Broadswords and Sabres, and with less than eighty making up the strike and
eighty escorts, the chances of any of them coming back was nil.
He hesitated for a second.
"Blue One, you have the second strike escort slot. It's going to be
grim. You have to remember what the final objective is, and remember that
they're all volunteers out there."
His nephew looked up at him and forced a smile. Geoff paused and looked
over at the tactical display flickering in the briefing room's holo.
The Kilrathi Fleet was still staying together, coming straight in at a
range of twenty million clicks and closing. Thanks to simple orbital
mechanics, Mars was the closest planet to the jump point, with Earth seventy
million clicks behind it
The huge colonies on the moons of Saturn and Jupiter were on the far
side of the system. The only settlement areas now being over run were in the
asteroid belt and had already been abandoned.
"Pilots, man your planes," Geoff said quietly and he saluted first as
they came back to their feet.
The pilots and crews stormed out of the room. The usual banter and
bravado was gone today. They were silent, some obviously frightened, all of
them filled with a grim determination. He felt he could have made a bit more
of an emotional appeal, but knew that was nothing but crap. Everyone of them
knew that this was no ordinary battle. If this one was lost the Kilrathi
would be above Earth within hours.
Kevin came past him, helmet tucked under his arm. His nephew slowed,
looking at him out of the comer of his eye.
The hell with protocol, Geoff thought as he stepped forward and put his
hands on Kevin's shoulders.
"I've never been prouder of you, Kev. Now take care of yourself."
Kevin looked at him, his eyes bright.
"It's an honor to be with you today, sir," he said, trying to control
the tremor in his voice. Geoff let go of him and the boy followed the stream
of pilots out the door.
"Launch all fighters. Let us finish this hunt."
Prince Thrakhath turned away from the screen, a tingle of excitement
coursing through him as the fighter launch klaxon sounded through the ship.
Before him stood the Baron.
"You do not look thrilled about our impending victory, Baron."
Baron Jukaga merely snarled, looking at the Prince defiantly.
"I have one final little assignment for you, Baron."
"Go on then, what is it?"
And as Thrakhath told him the Baron's eyes went wide with shock and
"It is useless, senseless. The Emperor ordered you to preserve the
planet for the next Sivar."
"There are a hundred other worlds to choose from once this is done. A
squad of Imperial Marines will now escort you to your ship, Baron."
Baron Jukaga looked coldly at the Prince and then spat on the floor.
Prince Thrakhath merely laughed in reply as Baron Jukaga was escorted
from the room.
"My lord, there are significantly more ships than intelligence
Thrakhath looked back at the main screen and ordered the forward picket
ships to send back enhanced optical scan. He waited for the visuals to be
returned, watching the display of the two fleets being deployed. More and
more blips of enemy ships were appearing, moving out from behind other ships
which had been masking them. He had his suspicions as to what the new ships
were and did not feel overly worried. One of the advantages of having had an
embassy team on Earth was the ability to conduct reconnaissance. It was made
even better by the fact that their own Foreign Minister had become a
traitor. Too bad she was under arrest.
"They're civilian ships, my lord. Numerous light craft, personal ships,
light business ships of corvette size, shuttle craft, and civilian
"They're throwing everything in as a screen to waste our weapons on.
Order the outer wave of fighters to ignore them and to concentrate on the
incoming Broadswords and Sabres. Once their offensive capability has been
smashed we can turn our attention to this chaff they throw out and destroy
"We're also detecting Marine assault and landing ships, my lord."
Thrakhath stirred, ordering that this new sighting be highlighted on
the main display. Several hundred of the blips started to blink bright
What were they up to?
"A diversionary effort, my lord?"
He looked over at his chief tactical officer.
He still had over seventeen hundred fighters at his disposal, almost
all of them already launched and moving towards position. The first
offensive strike wave was already committed, four hundred strike craft
moving out past the outer line of picket ships with four eights of corvettes
and light frigates in escort. Long range Confederation patrols were already
moving to intercept, a pitiful six eights of fighters.
He was holding back over a thousand craft, assuming a more defensive
posture than in the last battle. One of his carriers was gone, another
slightly damaged. He would absorb and totally destroy the offensive strike,
eliminating the final threat. Then he would smash through with a totally
annihilating second strike, smashing whatever was left of the enemy fleet.
They could no longer retreat and regroup, they would have to stand and die.
But the Marines? What were they for? To draw fire, obviously, while the
last of the Broadswords went in.
"Still concentrate on the Broadswords," he said. "Then we slaughter the
Kevin tried to purge the anguish, to block it out. His friends, his
comrades were dying. Flickers of light filled space straight ahead and to
starboard a hundred and fifty clicks away. The Broadsword strike was going
in. His tactical screen traced the attack. The first wave of Broadswords,
what few were left, was slowing, hovering. Going through the agonizing
thirty second countdown to launch. And one after another their transponders
winked off, the blue blips replaced by brief flashes of light and then
He switched to strike two's main comm channel.
"Ten seconds, nine, keep óem off, keep óem off. . ."
"I can't eject, I can't get out, oh God I'm burning . . ."
"Six on your tail, Maria, break, break . . ."
"Yellow three, torpedo lock failed, am . . ."
The signals became fewer, space ahead flashing with hundreds of points
The second wave, going towards the carriers, was straight ahead,
slashing into the storm of defense. A hundred Kilrathi fighters were now
hitting into his own attack column and ships were dying, but the main blow
had not hit yet.
"Blue One, we've got company coming."
Kevin tore his attention away from the dying attack and saw a wave of
fifty fighters coming in from above and slashing into the column behind him.
He held course, looking over his shoulder.
Nearly a thousand craft were spread out around him. Off his port
quarter he saw a civilian transplanet liner trying an evasive and disappear
in an explosion after a single burst of neutron bolts from a light fighter.
It was suicide and he had to harden his heart to the realization that
was precisely what the pilots flying the civilian craft had signed on for.
They were nothing more than sitting ducks, unshielded, totally defenseless.
Having been given pressure suits and rescue transponders, the pilots were
told to bail out if things got too hot. But they were serving their purpose.
The first waves of Kilrathi fighters, wading into the hundreds of targets,
had become drunk with the thrill of killing. He watched as a flight of
Krants shot right through a line of Marine transports, not even bothering to
fire, racing ahead to smash a cruiser size liner, a dozen fighters tearing
into the defenseless ship until it split apart. And each fighter that took
thirty seconds to line up and fire on a useless ship was one less fighter
engaged in the real fight, while the hidden weapon drew even closer.
"My lord, we might have a tactical analysis on what they are doing."
Thrakhath looked over at his tactical officer.
Even as the officer started to offer his analysis the truth of what he
was saying sunk in.
All fighters strike them now! Strike them now. Order all carriers into
"Here we go! All ships pick your targets. If you can't get to a
carrier, nail a cruiser. Charge!"
General Duke Grecko leaned forward, looking over the shoulder of his
assault craft pilot. A recorded charge blared on the assault craft's loud
speaker and Grecko grinned with delight.
Behind him, in the aft personnel bay, a hundred assault troops cheered,
thumping the butts of their laser rifles on the floor of the ship.
Space around him was pure chaos. Hundreds of Kilrathi fighters were
swarming in, escort ships moving to intersect the attack. Dozens of ships
and assault craft were vaporizing every second in the slaughter, so that he
thought for an instant that his plan was exactly what Geoff, and for that
matter everyone else from the President on down, had declared it to be: pure
The only advantage he could now see in being head of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff, was that he didn't have to convince anyone þ he simply had to give
the order, and then go.
A civilian liner twisted in front of him, blocking the rush of three
incoming Dralthi, diverting their shots. His own pilot dived under the liner
as it exploded and then lined back up on their target.
"The carrier, go for the carrier!"
"We'll never make it. Let's nail the destroyer to port!"
"Damn it, son, I'm the general here. Anything less than a carrier is an
insult, now move it!"
Kevin weaved his way through the melee, moving up to protect an assault
wave of twenty Marine landing craft, a full brigade of troops packed inside.
They were breaking through.
A Kilrathi destroyer was moving in towards the group and he saw three
of the landing craft turn towards the destroyer. The destroyers defensive
batteries nailed two. The third closed in, letting loose with its ground
bombardment armaments which leaped across space, exploding across the bow of
the enemy ship. The rounds were designed for area suppression, not shield
and hull penetration, but they nevertheless blinded the ship. The landing
craft swung across the top side of the destroyer, matching speed and then
slammed down on its main cargo hatch. Explosive shape charges mounted to the
bottom of the landing craft detonated, blowing the destroyer's main access
The landing craft edged forward, gaining magnetic lock on the
destroyer's hull. No matter what the ship now did as evasive, the Marine
assault craft was glued to its side like a lamprey eel on the side of a fish
þ and it was just as deadly.
The back hatch of the landing craft blew open and assault troops
streamed out, wearing magnetic-soled shoes and swarmed in through the
ruptured cargo door, firing RPGs, miniguns, and assault recoilless flechette
Kevin shot past the destroyer.
The damn plan just might work!
The seventeen assault ships ahead pressed in, Kevin now riding herd
above them. He tried to ignore everything else: the hundreds of ships
fighting and dying around him, the total chaos, as all tactical formations
were lost. Kilrathi fighters, now fully committed to this new threat,
swarmed in, space so thick with them that he witnessed half a dozen
collisions between turning fighters, their own ships, and Confederation
Five of the Marine ships disappeared a full battalion of five hundred
men winking out of existence. In any other situation their loss would have
been viewed as a disaster. Here, with the final desperate defense of Earth,
it was the mere incident of a second's time. Three Jalthi turned in on the
group, ignoring Kevin. He slashed two out of existence, while the third took
out three landing craft and then broke hard down and to the left,
The Marine craft pressed on in, dodging past a lumbering cruiser, with
the lead landing craft pushing up and over.
"Come on, take it, just take it before you're all killed," Kevin
thought, wanting to scream at the assault unit's commander. The cruiser fell
astern, taking out three more craft as they shot past, with a mass driver
burst shutting down his own aft shields and slicing deep into his armor. Six
craft were left and then he saw the target straight ahead as he looked up
after dispatching yet another fighter þ a Kilrathi heavy carrier turning in
The carrier, with a mix of twenty civilian and assault ships behind it,
was going through a slow, ponderous turn, its aft, top, and bottom batteries
all engaged, slaughtering their pursuers. Within seconds the twenty ships
They were racing straight in on the carrier. The six craft he was
escorting opened fire, sixty area suppression bombardment missiles
blanketing the ship's bow.
"Fighter following me, we're going for their topside forward bay, match
speed and give us suppressive!"
Startled, Kevin looked at his comm screen. It was Duke Grecko on a
laser link line.
The order was insane and yet he followed it. He leaped ahead of the six
landing craft, even as two more of them exploded, then slammed in reverse
thrusters, coming to a dead stop fifty meters in front of the launch bay.
Kevin toggled through every weapon he still had, dumping out IFFs, dumb
fire and then mass drivers. The spread exploded across the airlock bay,
which shimmered and glowed red, part of the concentrated blast kicking
through the shielding, blowing apart a mass driver turret above the bay. Two
landing craft came streaking past and headed in. An explosion rocked his
ship, spinning it over in a cartwheeling pivot away from the carrier. A
quick scan of his instruments told him the worst and he reached down between
his legs, grabbed hold of the ejector ring, and pulled.
"Switch IFF transponders now!" Grecko roared.
The pilot flipped the switch to the preprogrammed Kilrathi IFF, which
intelligence claimed would get them through the airlock if they activated it
at the last second before the deck officer could toggle the channel to a
He closed his eyes as they hit the field. If intelligence was off, the
landing craft would not be able to handle the head-on collision and would
vaporize on the shield.
An explosion rocked the ship and he was slammed forward by a jarring
blow. He opened his eyes. They were skidding down the length of the flight
deck, the Kilrathi launch crew scattering in every direction.
"Blow rear hatch!"
The rear hatch swung open even as the landing craft continued to skid
down the deck in a shower of sparks.
Duke, unbuckled from his jump seat, stood up clenching a laser gun and
started for the rear.
"Let's kick ass!" he roared
The Marines closest to the hatch were already up, leaping out the door,
rolling on the deck coming up and firing. Grecko hit the back edge and
jumped, deliberately rolling on to his new artificial arm which could take
the blow better. Gaining his feet he nailed a furball pilot coming at him
with a drawn pistol, cutting him in half, then dropped a ground crew coming
out from under a Krant.
The landing craft skidded to a stop and Duke raced towards it. He
looked back at his other landing craft. It was on its side, burning,
survivors struggling out from the wreckage.
"Get that mine out now! First platoon with me on the advance. Second
platoon knock out their launch bridge and secure a perimeter, then help any
survivors from the other landing craft. Third platoon escort the demolitions
Duke looked around, trying to figure out where to go next. Intelligence
had never said anything about the internal layout of the ship. But then
again, what the hell did intelligence know about these damn ships anyhow,
other than that they were big? The only plan they had was to board and then
get as deep into the ship as possible.
He saw an oversized door. Hell, they were all oversized given the size
of the Cats. Flight deck personnel were fleeing through it and it looked as
good as any.
"First platoon, let's go!"
He raced for the door, firing as he advanced, dropping Cats, their
bodies piled up at the entryway. He hit the corridor, started to step in,
and then ducked back from a flurry of laser shots. Two of his Marines leaned
in, firing a suppressive spray while a third held up a minigun. The
explosive roar of the gun drowned out all other sound, filling the corridor
with fire, smoke, and a hundred rounds a second. Another Marine threw a
concussion grenade in; it detonated and they waded through. Each door that
they passed was kicked open and a grenade dropped in.
They reached the end of the corridor which broke into an intersection
of four hallways radiating outward.
"We have to get down, damn it, into the guts of the ship!"
He sent sections running up each of the corridors and thirty seconds
later a runner came back.
"Access hatch to lower levels, sir, this way."
"First section, first squad, secure this point. Get the demo team up
here and move them in after us."
He looked back at the rest of his team.
"I'm getting too old for this crap," he grinned. "Come on, let's go!"
"My lord, they've boarded the ship through the topside launch bay!"
Stunned, Prince Thrakhath looked over at the ship security officer.
It was madness, absolute madness. And brilliant. Why could he have not
seen that in desperation this would be a final tactic?
"How many Imperial Marine guards are on board?"
"A security detachment of fifty, my lord, not counting your own
"Where are they heading?"
The security chief toggled through a schematic of the ship and traced
out a line.
"They're moving down into the second level already. Reports are
"They're going to set mines and blow them," Thrakhath said coldly and
he looked over at his damage control officer.
"What can they do?"
The damage control officer looked at him wide-eyed.
"All our calculations of damage containment were based upon external
torpedo and missile strikes. Our armor is layered, through several sectors
of the ship, strongest outside, with two internal belts. Into the core
there's no armor at all, my lord."
"If they blow a demolition charge in the middle of the ship, the armor
will actually act to contain it, making the damage far worse." He swallowed
hard. "It'll destroy the ship, my lord."
Prince Thrakhath roared with anger, slamming his fist down on a
"Get everyone who can carry a weapon forward. Block them off!"
The security chief ran from the bridge.
"Boarding parties now reported on two other carriers, my lord, as well
as twenty-nine other ships."
"And the enemy fleet?"
"Still holding position, my lord. Two of their carriers have been
destroyed, all the others damaged."
"Press the attack press it in!"
Prince Thrakhath looked back up at the main tactical display. Hundreds
of his fighters were now circling around his carriers, nearly all of the
enemy strike waves destroyed. There was nothing for them to go after, their
armaments expended in the mad shooting match.
"Order all on defensive to prepare for second strike on enemy
The combat commander looked up.
"Their armaments have nearly all been expended, my lord."
Prince Thrakhath growled angrily. If he landed them and any of the
carriers were destroyed by the boarders he'd lose his pilots.
"Order the fighters to hold until boarders are disposed off, then land
He looked up at the internal security display and saw a white line
tracing the enemy attack into the second level of the ship.
"I'm going to the forward launch bay," he announced coldly. "The attack
to finish their fleet I'm personally leading
He started off the bridge and then paused.
"Order the cruisers to break through and finish Earth now!"
In anguish Geoff Tolwyn watched the flickering two dimensional image on
the tactical display. All holo displays were now off line as was primary
shielding jump engines, and port launch deck. Concordia had survived two
more torpedo hits and was crippled, barely able to make twenty percent
The offensive strike waves had simply disappeared into the heart of the
enemy fleet. He knew some successes were made, with more than a dozen
frigates, destroyers and cruisers gone. But the carriers were still intact.
Whether any of the boarding parties had even gotten into the heart of the
fleet was merely a guess at this point. The computers handling the hundreds
of comm channels was down, as was burst signal link to Earth.
They had fought the enemy offensive strike to a stand-still. Not fifty
of the enemy fighters out of the four hundred that had come in had survived.
Two more of his carriers were gone, the surviving three damaged, with
Lexington threatening to blow from internal fires þ and there were still
close to a thousand enemy fighters left along with a hundred escort ships.
But what was worse, far worse, was the cruiser squadron that at the
opening of the action had flanked far out to port by more than five million
clicks and was now plunging straight in towards Earth, scoops closed and up
to flank speed. Not even his fastest ships could close with them now. The
light picket line of a cruiser section, Earth orbital defenses and moon
ground based defenses and a handful of obsolete frigates would have to stop
them. It had been assumed that at least one section of enemy ships or more
would go for a straight breakthrough under the screen of the fleet-to-fleet
action. Earth was on its own now.
He thought for a moment of a distant ancestor of long ago, who, when
contemplating the invasion and destruction of England, announced that even
if England fell, the Empire, and with it the fleet, would still continue the
England. No, he didn't want to think of that now.
"Get me Polowski on laser link."
The image flickered on the screen.
"Mike, they're going to come in to finish us off. We still need to keep
our carriers alive. I want you to close and see what you can do to knock
them off balance."
"What I've been waiting to hear," Mike replied, his voice sounding
distant and strained.
"Take care, and God's speed to you, Mike."
Mike did not even reply. Seconds later Destroyer Squadron Three leaped
forward into the attack.
Duke Grecko, his good arm shattered by a blast from a grenade, sat
against a bulkhead wall. A lone runner came back from the point squad.
"The bastards are insane up there. At least a hundred of them charged
when we hit the next deck. It was hand to hand."
The runner was panting hard.
"Finished, sir," and she paused "I got out because Lieutenant Flory
sent me back just before they overran us."
"It's all right, Marine. How long before they get here?"
"I lasered the door shut, sir. Not more than a minute or two."
Duke brought his laser up with his artificial arm at the sound of
running. From around a corner a Marine appeared, gun down low, ready to
fire, and relaxed at the sight of Grecko. He looked back and waved on his
unit and came up to Grecko.
"Demo team reporting, sir. How's it up ahead?"
"As far as we're getting son."
"Only three levels down, sir. Can't we get one more?"
Duke looked at the young woman who had been on point.
She shook her head
"Then it's right here, son," and as he spoke the survivors of the demo
team and the platoon escorting them came up, pushing a steel crate,
maneuvering it with null gravity handles.
"Open her up," Duke said quietly, and the team lowered it down, popping
the lid open.
Duke looked at the detonator for the thermonuclear warhead.
"All right, now get the hell out of here. I'm giving you five minutes,"
and he reached over, first arming the device and then turning the timer on.
The demo team looked at him and grinned
"Let's go, sir."
"I'll be along in a minute," Duke said quietly.
The surviving corporal of the team hesitated.
"That's my job, sir."
"I'm not going to play hero, son. Now get the lead out of your butt and
that's an order. I'll be along shortly."
The Marine looked at him, hesitating. A thin smile creased his
features. He saluted and then turned, heading back down the corridor,
leading his team with him.
Duke settled back against the wall and sighed. He simply couldn't admit
that he was played out and exhausted. Perhaps the president was right, he
had never really recovered from his wounds taken at Vukar. He should have
stayed at his desk rather than running off to play commando. Since someone
did have to stay behind, just in case the Cats got through and knew how to
disarm the weapon, it might as well be him.
"You all right, sir?"
He looked up. It was the young woman who had been on point.
"Marine, get the hell out of here."
"Like hell, sir," she said quietly. "I'll hold point." He smiled sadly.
"I thought you might want some company," and her voice was almost
"What's your name, Marine?"
"Jenny McCrae, sir."
"That's my girl's name too," he said, a fatherly tone evident in his
voice. "She's with the Fourth Marine."
He didn't want to think about that now. She was somewhere in the
"I know, sir, we went through boot together. She was awfully proud of
"Really? I wondered. I haven't seen her in years. Her mother and I . .
"I know, sir. It's all right though."
They heard the door down the corridor burst open a thundering roar
filling the corridor. He looked down at the chronometer ticking off on the
bomb. A minute forty-five to go. The squad just might have made it back by
now and gotten off.
I'll give them a few more seconds.
The first Cat turned the corridor and Jenny dropped him. And then a
swarm of them came on. He started to slam his fist down on the firing button
when a solid blow knocked him off his feet, slamming him against the
bulkhead. He tried to get back up, barely seeing the Kilrathi Imperial Guard
trooper closing in on him from behind.
The Cat fired again, stitching a burst across his chest and the world
started to go warm and hazy.
He looked up and saw Jenny standing over him. She looked like his
daughter, or was it his wife, or mother þ filled with gentleness.
She looked at him, a smile lighting her innocent face, and then her
fist slammed down on the ignitor.
Kevin Tolwyn flung his hand over his visor as a sun ignited before him.
They got it!
He knew he was getting dosed but he didn't care. Not now. The entire
top forward half of the carrier was engulfed in the fireball, the lower and
aft parts of the ship tumbling down from the shock of the explosion. The
rest of the ship appeared to hold together for a brief instant and then
fractured open, the engine cells igniting, the fireball racing outward.
Another flash detonated to his right followed by half a dozen more. He
guessed that two of them were cruisers, the others, he wasn't sure of.
But two more of them were heavy carriers! The glare of the explosions
filled space across hundreds of cubic kilometers. His dose meter clicked
off, beeping an alarm. He didn't care. He just didn't care anymore. They had
finished the bastards.
He closed his eyes, feeling at peace.
Stunned, Prince Thrakhath turned his fighter around, looking back at
his flagship as it blew apart, a dozen clicks behind him.
He knew that those on the deck had thought him a coward for leaving the
ship, seeing through his excuse that he was going to personally lead the
next wave into battle.
Well, they were dead now and he was still alive.
His heart filled with mad rage as more detonations let go, two more of
his prized ships disappearing, and he howled with insane fury.
The explosions died away. He scanned through his tactical.
He still had one old carrier and Craxtha intact.
He punched into Craxtha's main channel and called in the commander of
the ship obviously startled.
"We feared you were dead, my lord."
"I was off ship, preparing to lead the next strike."
"Sivar be praised. She guided you thus, my lord."
"The status of your ship?"
"She is fully operational, my lord. We repelled all boarders þ my
fighters stopped them long before they closed."
He could detect the pride in the commander, as if he were saying that
the other ships were lost through negligence.
"Yes, of course, praise to Sivar. Order all heavy strike fighters from
all ships to land on your carrier and rearm immediately for a killing strike
on the enemy fleet. We will still win this action."
The commander hesitated.
"We have reports of an incoming strike of enemy destroyers, my lord.
And besides, you are talking about turning around over five hundred strike
craft on this one ship
"Your ship is designed to handle that. Now pass the order. Let the
remaining fighters and our escorts block the destroyers."
"As you command, my lord."
Thrakhath turned his fighter in towards Craxtha, which within minutes
was surrounded by swarms of fighters who were lining up for recovery on the
six launch bays.
Thrakhath cut into the front of the landing pattern and came in,
touching down in the forward portside landing bay.
Inside the hangar deck was mass confusion, the bay crammed from one end
to the other with fighters. Fuel lines were snaked across the deck,
armaments lockers were open and torpedoes were being hoisted out. Crews
struggled with long energy cables, hooking them into ships, recharging
neutron guns, batteries, and shielding systems.
There was no semblance of order: pilots and ship crews from the other
three heavy carriers milled about, most of them in obvious shock at the
Thrakhath stepped out of his fighter and instantly the deck went
"Keep working," he snarled. "We will still finish the scum before this
day is done."
He felt the ship start to heel over, the starfield outside the entry
lock shifting. He could imagine the confusion this sudden maneuver was
causing with the hundred or more fighters and strike craft still lined up
for recovery. Angrily, he strode across the deck into the launch officer's
"Put the bridge on," he thundered.
"What are you doing up there?" he shouted. "We need to get these
fighters in as soon as possible and turned around."
"Five destroyers have broken through the inner screen and are coming
straight in on us."
"Enemy carrier turning away, sir.
"Keep on closing," Mike said calmly.
He looked over at his helm officer and smiled.
"Just like the Battle of Leyte Gulf," Mike said.
"I was thinking that," the helm replied "One of my illustrious
ancestors commanded a cruiser there. We should have won that day."
"Torpedo room, sir."
"Have lock yet?"
"Twenty-two seconds and counting, sir."
Mike looked back up at his tactical. Of the twelve destroyers in his
squadron only four were left. There was a flash of light on his main visual
and he realized he was down to three.
"Hell of a day to be a destroyer skipper," and then he focused back on
the enemy carrier, a dozen clicks ahead as it turned hard over, now
presenting a full amidships shot and then started to present its stern.
A swarm of Kilrathi fighters shot in, stitching his destroyer with
everything they still had. Four of them elected to simply come straight in,
one of them kamikaziing through the shield as it struggled to recover from
the repeated hammer blows. The kamikaze hit just aft of the bridge, blowing
into the center of the ship, knocking Mike to the deck. Decompression alarms
sounded off, the damage control board sparkling with red lights.
"Twelve and counting, sir. What the hell happened back there?"
"Never mind, just get those birds launched."
Another string of fighters swooped in, concentrating on the bow of the
"We've lost lock, sir. Torpedo guidance control off line."
To his right, Roger Young launched its torpedoes just before blowing.
The spread of a dozen rounds leaped forward
"Helm, follow those torpedoes in," Mike shouted, and then he reached
over, punching the abandon ship alarm.
"This is the captain speaking. If you wanna see your families again,
you've got thirty seconds to get to the escape pods and the hell off this
He looked over at his helm and fire control officers.
"I hate to ask this of you two."
"It's all right, sir," the helm officer said. "This time the family
wants to be on the winning side."
Mike looked at the rest of his team.
"You heard me, get the hell off this ship."
"Damn it, you fools. You've got something to live for, now move it,"
and he grabbed hold of his damage control officer and pushed her towards the
She looked at him, wide-eyed, torn.
"For God's sake, Elaine, you've got kids back home. Now move it!"
She struggled to hold back the tears and then, turning, ran down the
corridor to the nearest escape pod, the rest following.
"Helm, follow those torpedoes in."
Mike stood, watching the screen, ignoring the fighters that swarmed
around his ship. A staccato series of hammer blows blew the main generator
off line, dim emergency battle lamps coming back on. All but two of the
torpedoes launched by Young were gone as well.
"Torpedo room, still with me?"
"Still here, sir. Figured we should hang around for the fun.
"Get ready for blind fire. Set fuses at point one seconds!"
"Point one seconds, sir?"
"Shut up and do it!"
"Point one seconds, sir, and we'll see you in hell."
"Helm, do your job right. Bring us in on the landing bay an instant
after Young's birds hit."
The helm officer grinned as he delicately worked the controls, weaving
the destroyer in, as it came up directly astern of the enemy carrier.
The carrier's point defenses tore into his ship and he felt her dying,
"Helm, full speed ahead now!"
He felt the final surge of his ship thundering under his feet.
"Torpedo room, ready, ready, fire!"
The one surviving torpedo from Roger Young hit the carrier's aft
starboard launch bay and blew, distorting the phase shielding. An instant
later a dozen more torpedoes fired at point blank range detonated.
The last thing Mike Polowski saw were his own torpedoes blowing less
than fifty meters ahead of his own ship. He thought of the warm hills of his
now dead world and smiled as the blast wave blew his ship apart. The forward
momentum of what had been the aft end of his destroyer, however, continued
on, even as it died, adding its thousand tons of mass into the detonating
firestorm of the torpedoes impacting against the carrier's overloaded
shields. Most of the mass was repelled away, but the aft end of the ship,
engines still pulsing, even as the ship ahead of it vaporized, continued
onward, driving through the shattered hull, pushing before it fragments of
bulkheads, decking, and those few still on board. The engine mounts, made of
solid durasteel, were all that was left a hundredth of a second later as
they impacted through the landing bay's airlock. Several dozen tons of
molten durasteel blew into the vast hangar bay, vaporizing flesh, cutting
into fuel lines, igniting ammunition, and ripping open the hundred and three
fighters being readied for launch.
The entire bay exploded in a white-hot fireball of destruction.
Prince Thrakhath staggered through the wreckage and onto Craxtha's main
bridge. The room was choked with smoke, half the bridge crew dead or
wounded, open fires still licking out of shattered equipment. The ship's
commander was dead, slumped in his chair, the top of his head gone.
"Who's in command here?"
The crew looked at him, stunned.
"I think I am now, sir," and Thrakhath saw the green tabs of damage
control on the officer's collar.
"Can you save her?"
"We've lost two aft bays, my lord," the officer reported. "The
explosion started in starboard aft bay, then leaped through an open access
elevator to topside bay."
"Why was it open?"
"The commander ordered it. They were out of torpedoes in the lower bay.
We were shifting them down from above."
Thrakhath looked back at the commander and silently cursed. If he were
still alive, he would have him executed on the spot for such stupidity.
"Two of our main engines are gone as well, sir. We're lucky the main
fuel cells didn't go up. I'm purging out the three cells closest to the fire
right now. I've also ordered all armaments in the aft topside bay dumped
"Do that and we have to run with scoops full open!" Thrakhath roared.
"We'll lose whatever offensive capability we have left. With half our
remaining armaments gone, we're finished!"
"Sire, if you don't like what I'm doing then execute me and do it
yourself," the officer snapped. "We're lucky to be alive as is. If we don't
purge those cells now they'll blow. It's an inferno back there."
Thrakhath stood silently, looking over at the flickering display on the
damage board and finally lowered his head.
"Tell me what we can still do."
"We still have more than five hundred of our best fighters out there,
my lord. They have no offensive strike capability left; they're mostly light
fighters. I think it's time we landed them, my lord, to get our pilots back.
We won't have enough room for them, so the craft will have to be dumped
overboard as fast as we recover them."
Thrakhath looked up at him, unable to speak.
"It's time to go home, my lord. We've done all we can do today. One
more hit and we ll lose this ship as well. We've got to save our pilots now,
my lord. There'll be over a thousand of them on board here. They'll still
give us victory once we've repaired this ship, and the rest of the new
carriers come on line."
Thrakhath looked around the bridge. He knew the young officer was
right. He had to save his pilots; he had lost too many already.
The only satisfaction left now was the fact that within a matter of
minutes the cruiser squadron would close on Earth. At least with Earth
destroyed, this would still be a victory.
"Launch fighters now!"
Jason Bondarevsky leaned forward in his chair, wishing now more than
ever to be back in a fighter.
The first fighter, piloted by Doomsday, cleared the bay.
The blue-green home of his race filled the forward screen.
The run in from jump point 12Y, the line leading back towards the
Landreich, had been with scoops fully closed. Kruger had even committed the
ultimate madness of doing the final jump at full speed. A third of the fleet
had missed the Jump point completely, forcing them to decelerate, turn
around and come back in. They were now several hours behind. They were the
lucky ones. Two frigates had only achieved partial jump, hitting the point
as fast as they did. Part of the two frigates had come through, the other
part had simply continued on back in the last system. The crews never knew
what hit them, their molecules spread between Alpha Centuri and Earth.
The maneuver, however, had gained them precious time, and moving at a
good fraction of the speed of light they had closed from the jump point to
Earth in under three hours.
They were too late for the main battle, but the threat closing in on
Earth was all too obvious and Kruger had ordered them in to head it off.
He could only hope that they would be there in time.
Baron Jukaga watched as the three escort carriers came up over the
northern pole of the planet, a spread of fighters leaping ahead of them.
He had but one cruiser left with him, seven falling to the inner
defense line. The other two cruisers had turned to bombard the naval yards
of the Earth's satellite, the bright flashes of explosions tearing through
the military bases and construction yards spread out on its barren airless
surface and in orbit above it, smashing dozens of ships of the fleet
including the carriers still caught in drydock. Both were destroyed by point
defenses but they had successfully smashed a military target þ an action
which, at least for the moment, had filled him with pride.
That, at least, he approved of. It was a target worthy of being hit, a
fitting vengeance for the raid on the moon of Kilrah.
He stood silently behind the cruiser's captain, ignoring the Imperial
Marines standing to either side as his guards.
"We'll only have time for one pass," the commander said quietly,
looking up at the tactical display in rage. They had detected the small
fleet of escort carriers and destroyers only minutes before, the enemy ships
coming from the direction of another jump point at full speed with scoops
"We have first target solutions and locks," the captain announced.
"After our first hit and destruction of their defensive centers, we drop the
"First wave, antimatter warheads ready for firing."
The commander grinned, looking over at his weapons control officer.
"For the glory of Kilrah, the Emperor, and the Empire. Fire!"
Baron Jukaga watched as the first weapons leaped forward, tracking
downward, racing in towards the North American continent and Northern
Doomsday screamed with impotent rage as he saw the heavy antimatter
rockets streak away.
A light screen of enemy fighters, launched from the cruisers, moved to
intercept, and with a wild frenzy Doomsday slashed into them, killing them
with a mad insane glee, while behind him, four modified Sabres lined up for
the first torpedo launch.
The torpedoes leaped out, tracking in on the first cruiser, and seconds
later detonated. Kruger's fighters swarmed in, slamming the cruiser, which
appeared for a second to collapse in on itself before bursting asunder. The
comm link was filled with mad screams of hatred and rage as the strike team
turned towards the other cruiser.
Down in the Earth's atmosphere Doomsday could see pinpoint winks of
light as point defense systems fought to knock down the incoming wave of
more than a hundred missiles. And then there was a flash of light over the
center of the North American continent. It looked like Chicago going up,
followed seconds later by a dozen more: Pittsburgh, Boston, Miami, Quebec,
then across in Northern Europe: Amsterdam, Berlin, Stockholm, Constantinople
and Paris. Other flashes detonated over the primary control center; for
Earth's American and European space defenses at Omaha, Rio, Tripoli, and
He started to close towards the next cruiser, knowing in his heart that
it would be too late.
"We have incoming, still closing."
The commander looked up at his tactical screen and could see that
within less than a minute he would be under attack.
"First strike report?"
"Primary strategic defense centers over target areas destroyed, ground
to space anti-missile defensive system seriously damaged except for point
"Second weapons load," the commander announced with a cold glee.
"Prepare thermonuclear strontium clad weapons for air bursts."
He looked back at the Baron.
"We might not have the pleasure of first pounding their cities to
rubble, but we'll poison them all anyhow. In a month their world will be a
"And you call this victory," the Baron hissed. "May Sivar spit on you."
"No, I call it revenge," the commander said coldly and he turned away.
Behind him he heard the cold laughter of his guards who stepped forward
to look at the screen.
"Weapons ready for launch."
The commander held up his hand, talons extended.
Baron Jukaga lunged forward, grabbing at the commander's holster and
pulled out his pistol. The commander turned, wide-eyed, even as Jukaga
brought the gun up, jamming it up under the commander's jaw and squeezed the
trigger. The laser burst streaked through his head, the top of his skull
erupting a boiling mass pouring out.
The Marine guard to his left started to turn, startled, and Jukaga
dropped him in turn. He then swung about, killing the weapons officer, the
blast knocking him backwards and away from the firing switch.
A stunning blow knocked Jukaga to the deck, and he realized with an
almost detached emotion that he could no longer feel his legs. The shot must
have severed my spinal cord, he thought, even as he brought his gun up,
toppling the other guard over.
Jukaga lay back, wide-eyed, looking at the rest of the bridge crew. One
of them tried to lunge for the firing panel and he dropped him and then two
more. The two surviving bridge crew members stood still.
"You filthy traitor, Sivar will roast you in hell forever," one of them
Jukaga laughed softly. It was all such a wonderful joke, he realized.
Just what was a traitor to a traitor, and who exactly had he betrayed? It
was an interesting logic question to be certain.
He looked up at the main visual screen.
Earth actually did look beautiful; in a sense far more beautiful than
And then the explosion of the impacting torpedoes washed over him.
Stunned, Prince Thrakhath sat alone in the wardroom of the Craxtha's
now dead commander.
The long range opticals showed the end of the drama. Their moon bases
were totally shattered, but that was not the ultimate prize. Less than three
eights antimatter warheads had hit Earth. The final wave of thermonuclears
had never been launched.
He looked at the status reports of his losses. But one more carrier
here and we could still press through to victory. But one more carrier.
All the if's started to play out in his mind. If only he had waited but
five eights more days, he would have had his sixth ship, but Jukaga had to
be contended with.
He looked back at the visual, glad at least that Jukaga was dead.
Another explosion shuddered through the ship and he held his breath,
waiting. The explosion rumbled away.
A piping call sounded and he connected into the bridge. It was his
chief navigation officer.
"Sir, your orders. With the engine speed we now have, we'll only be
able to make it to the next jump point with less than four eights of minutes
to spare ahead of those new ships coming up from Earth orbit."
Thrakhath nodded silently. They had at least crippled the human fleet:
three of their five carriers gone, the third exploding only minutes ago, at
least three more smashed at the moon base along with the construction yards
and several eights of other ships. Nearly two eights of their major cities
were now smoldering ruins. He could still pull back, his one remaining older
carrier covering him, repair the damage sustained on his two surviving heavy
carriers. His precious pilots would be brought back as well to fly once more
off the new carriers still coming on line. If he stayed now, chances were
good that they would finish this carrier off, and everything would be lost,
He looked back at the screen.
"Order the fleet to retreat," he hesitated. "The battle is over.
Geoff Tolwyn, in spite of his exhaustion, forced a smile as the shuttle
craft door swung open. He walked forward, extending his hand as President
Kruger, followed by Jason, Paladin, Doomsday and Richards, stepped down.
Kruger hesitated ever so briefly and then took Geoff's hand.
"Damn it all, Kruger, thank you."
"I'm rather surprised myself that I did it," Kruger said. "It was your
young commodore there who just kept badgering me until finally, to shut him
up, I said all right."
Geoff looked at the group and though he was afraid to ask he had to.
Jason shook his head.
Geoff sighed and then came up to shake Jason's hand.
"How are you doing, sir?" Jason asked.
"A terrible day, Jason."
Jason hesitated and then finally asked.
"Missing in action," Geoff said quietly.
"He might still turn up, sir."
Geoff nodded, unable to reply.
Jason looked around at the smoke-filled flight deck.
"Looks like it was kind of rough here."
Geoff couldn't even reply. He had lost three carriers, Lexington
finally succumbing to internal explosions, and over seventy percent of his
pilots. First reports indicated that the Marines had suffered over ninety
percent casualties. Duke Grecko was confirmed as dead, his landing craft
crew telling what happened. As for the civilian pilots, their casualties
were almost at one hundred percent. The primary bases on the moon were all
gone, as were the drydock yards and three carriers hangared there. The
casualties on Earth, he didn't even want to think about that. The only
bright spot was that for some reason the Cats had not launched a wave of
strontium clad thermonukes. England had been spared as well, though it
seemed at the moment to be an almost selfish thing to think about.
Geoff led his guests down to his wardroom and without even asking,
pulled out a bottle of single malt Scotch, six tumblers and poured out six
very stiff drinks, draining the bottle dry.
"To our comrades," he said quietly, and they silently drank the toast.
Geoff settled back in his chair and looked around.
"If this is victory," Geoff finally said, "I sure as hell would hate to
"You stopped the bloody Cats at least, sir," Jason replied. "Hell,
three of their super carriers blown apart, more than half their best pilots
gone, forty other ships crippled. I heard the report coming in that they're
dumping fighters off their carrier as they retreat, not even enough room to
haul them all out."
Geoff nodded, fighting an exhaustion that had all but robbed him of any
ability to do anything beyond sitting in silence and staring.
"I heard about Polowski, sir," Doomsday said.
Geoff looked over at him. When he had ordered Mike in, he knew in his
heart that Polowski would get his revenge and die doing it. If the Cats had
miscalculated anything, it was that. They had pushed the intimidation a
notch too far, and rather than terrorize it had aroused every pilot, spacer,
and Marine in the fleet to a willingness to die rather than submit. He
suspected that Jukaga had realized that but it was obvious that Thrakhath
The war had changed, changed far from anything that either side had
ever anticipated. The manipulation of the human desire for peace had
backfired, their collective rage turning the enemy back, though at best it
was a Pyrrhic victory.
The Cats still had seven more heavy carriers close to completion. If
they came on again, he dreaded to think what would happen. They had shot
their bolt in turning back the attack. Perhaps the new dreadnought-class
battleship under construction on the far side of the Confederation might
reverse that, but in his heart he doubted if it would be ready in time to
repulse the next attack.
All he could be certain of now was the fact that those who had survived
this attack would stand united to the end. He could even see that in the
eyes of Kruger, who, upon seeing him, lifted his glass in a salute.
"To the Confederation Fleet," Kruger said.
"And to comrades gone," Paladin replied softly.
Geoff looked over at the comm screen, dreading that it was yet another
battle report stating that the Kilrathi had turned about and were coming
"The Kilrathi?" he blurted out.
"Their carriers have already jumped through in retreat, sir, still
trailing abandoned fighters. Cruisers are now jumping out as well. Picket
squadrons are reporting no further action."
He let out an audible sigh of relief. The battle was really over.
"Admiral, sir, you're wanted on the port flight deck."
"Don't know, sir. Launch officer requested your presence, that's all."
"On my way."
Geoff stood up, his knees suddenly weak and Jason rose from his chair
coming up to his side.
"I'll go down with you, sir."
Geoff smiled a thanks and looked back at his guests.
"There's another bottle in the cabinet. Finish it off," he said
"Best advice I've had in weeks, "Doomsday replied even as he reached
into his pocket and pulled out the chewed on remains of the cigar Ian had
"Geoff, for heaven's sake," Kruger interjected, "would you order him to
get rid of that god-awful cigar? It's enough to turn my stomach."
"Hell, he's still officially Landreich," Geoff replied. "He's your
responsibility, not mine."
Doomsday pulled out a lighter and puffed the cigar to life, Kruger,
Richards and Paladin cursing him while they poured out another drink.
Geoff left the wardroom and headed back to the launch deck, pressing up
against the wall as a med team came past, bearing a stretcher, a bloody
towel draped over the body's face.
Geoff watched it silently as they passed.
Jason reached out, and put his hand on Geoff's shoulder.
"No matter what you might think, you did good, sir. Earth is still
alive, the Confederation still lives."
"And how many did I lose, Jason?"
"I once asked the same thing after Vukar Tag, sir. It's the nature of
war, you told me. Even when you win, it still breaks your heart and will
crush your soul if you let it."
"And you call this winning?"
"It's a damn sight better than what the Cats wanted. You turned them
back and you brought us time."
Geoff nodded and then continued on, reaching the flight deck. The
launch officer was by the door.
"I thought you should come down here, sir. We just brought some
Geoff looked at him, confused, as the officer pointed him over to a
flame scorched landing craft. Its back hatch was open, pilots and Marines,
most of them wounded and still in their pressurized flight and combat suits,
being helped out.
Geoff looked back at the launch officer who smiled and nodded.
Geoff ran to the back of the landing craft, Jason at his side, and
On the flight deck was a bundled up form, two medics working over him,
one holding an IV, another injecting an anti-radiation dose straight in
through his suit.
Geoff knelt down by their side.
A blood-stained medic looked up and she smiled softly.
"Picked him up an hour ago. He caught a hell of a dose, sir, over four
hundred rem. He's gonna be a sick fighter jockey for awhile but we got him
anti-radiation dosed in time. He'll be all right."
Geoff nodded and looked over at Jason.
Kevin Tolwyn opened his eyes and saw Jason first.
"Hi ya, Jason. What the hell you doing here?"
"Came to save your ass, boy, that's all."
Kevin smiled weakly and then saw his uncle kneeling by his side.
"Did we win?" he whispered.
Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn nodded, no longer able to fight back the tears.
"Yes, son, we won."
õÉÌØÑÍ æÏÒÓÔÞÅÎ. Wing Commander: âÉÔ×Á ÆÌÏÔÏ× (engl)
ðÏÐÕÌÑÒÎÏÓÔØ: 3, Last-modified: Sun, 31 Dec 2000 16:26:10 GMT