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     © Copyright 1994 William R.Forstchen. Wing Commander Fleet Action
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     "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
Thrakhath, sat.
     "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
shoulders.
     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  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
reply.
     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
the plan.
     "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
replacement."
     "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
vessels."
     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
cowardice."
     "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
those present
     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
agreement
     "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
screens.
     "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
supplies?"
     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
Empire.
     "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
hurriedly.
     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
Confederation."
     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
worlds.
     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
enthusiasm.
     "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
agreement.
     "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
worlds."
     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
victory."
     "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
axis.
     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
somewhere else.
     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
attack.
     "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
his torpedo.
     "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
his Broadsword.
     "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,
until impact.
     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
the ship.
     "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  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
off.
     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
Geoffrey Tolwyn.
     "All strike craft return to base."
     Return to base? Hell, there was still a  major brawl going on down with
the Marines.
     "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.
     "Say, Hunter."
     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."

     "Attention!"
     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, To 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
and dead."
     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."
     "Dismissed."
     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
mission.
     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.
     Damn it.
     A knock on the door disturbed  him  and  he  set  his drink down on the
table behind his desk.
     "Come."
     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  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."
     "Sure."
     "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."
     Tolwyn nodded.
     "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
go home."
     "And do you really believe it?"
     Jason hesitated.
     "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."
     "Sir?"
     "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, this 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
little longer."
     "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.
     "Why?"
     "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
superior."
     "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
impossible."
     "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
wringer."
     "I best get  back  to my ship,"  Jason said  quietly  and  he stood up,
putting his glass down on the side table.
     "Jason?"
     "Sir?"
     "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
dishonorable."
     Tolwyn smiled.
     "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
raid.
     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
conference.
     "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."
     "Where?"
     "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
tantrum.
     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
corridor.
     "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
door.
     "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
conference room.
     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.
     "Make it?"
     "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
annihilation."
     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   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
carrier?
     "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
stirred uncomfortably.
     "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
like masks.
     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
we are."
     "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
age?"
     "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
Confederation.
     "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 out  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
room.
     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
and staff.
     "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.
     Ian smiled.
     "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?"
Jason asked.
     "Let's not talk  of  that now, Tolwyn  said quietly. "Shall we go watch
the show?"
     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
become secondary.
     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."
     Tolwyn nodded.
     "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
questions.
     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
Confederation side.
     "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
pass.
     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.
     "Yes."
     "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
masterful."
     Taken off guard Tolwyn said nothing.
     "I also understand  you commanded the  opening of  the recent action at
Munro."
     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
fire.
     "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.
     Jukaga smiled.
     "A hobby I've found fascinating. Your Chaucer's tales are much the same
as our own  Backrka's Tomes of Sivar,' about a group  of pilgrims traveling
to a holy shrine.
     Tolwyn smiled.
     "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?"
     Jukaga laughed
     "Amongst others."
     "And who are some of the others?" Tolwyn asked quietly.
     Jukaga smiled.
     "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
that?'
     "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
too."
     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
furballs as you so ineloquently put it."
     Jason felt uncomfortable  by his  attention but  looked  back  at  him,
saying nothing.
     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
off.
     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
nodded.
     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
saluted.
     "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
proud ship."
     "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  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."
     "Thanks, Kevin."
     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
Station.
     He  turned to face back  down the corridor  and  bowed  his head for  a
moment.
     "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
saluted.
     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
hostilities.
     "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
punishment."
     "Does that mean that he will now commit Zu'kara?"
     "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."
     Banbridge bristled.
     "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
downfall.
     "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."
     "Yes?"
     "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
Bar.
     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
round.
     "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  one hundred a week for forty weeks 
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
him.
     "I always knew it'd come to this end," Doomsday said quietly, and Jason
groaned
     "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.
     "Sire!"
     "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, and 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
home?"
     "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
quietly.
     "I don't care, we don't serve him."
     "Say, brother, how long you been working in this bar?"
     "A week."
     "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
bar.
     "You  blokes heard how Paladin  and me rescued that  Firekka princess?"
Ian replied.
     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
     "Yeah."
     "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
smiled
     "Why?"
     "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
foolish people."
     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
that amused.
     "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 steel 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
nightmares."
     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
asked.
     "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
eyed.
     "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
announced.
     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
head.
     "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
yesterday?"
     "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
innocent."
     "Why, he admitted that their fleet and military had done the same thing
too."
     "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
peace."
     "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
silent.
     "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
pale.
     "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."
     "It's Jason."
     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
Kilrathi?"
     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
to me."
     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
his shoulder.
     "Elaine."
     "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
his voice.
     "Jason," and she touched him on the shoulder.
     He looked over at her, shrugging his shoulder so that she drew her hand
away.
     "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."
     "A reporter?"
     "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.
     She laughed
     "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."
     Elaine smiled.
     "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.
     "Honestly."
     "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
at Kirha.
     "So you really think its a trap?"
     Kirha nodded.
     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,"
Kirha growled.
     "What the hell is that?"
     "It makes what you call single malt scotch look like bak."
     "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
expedition."
     "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.
     Kevin smiled.
     "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
its gate.
     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
him.
     "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.
     "Captain Hunter."
     "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,
are you?"
     "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
Jason's hand
     "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
sixty-degree climb.
     Ian looked around the  cabin  and  checked  over  the  half dozen other
passengers  crammed into the small plane and  realized  that several of them
looked familiar.
     "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
hand.
     "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
long.
     "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
for it.
     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
follow me?"
     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
recurring nightmares.
     "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
permanent settlement.
     "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
really is."
     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
offense.
     "We  are not  " he paused "   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
beforehand."
     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
figures.
     "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
class.
     "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.
     "Sir?'
     He looked back up.
     "Go ahead, Ian."
     "Just how reliable are these figures?"
     "I can t 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
armistice?"
     What kind of ships and where?"  a commodore asked from the back of the
room.
     "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
Tolwyn.
     "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 cause  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
suicide."
     "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
  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
fleet."
     "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
kicking."
     "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
out."
     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?"
Vanderman asked.
     "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
the room.
     "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
no 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
shoulders."
     Tolwyn smiled.
     "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
reasons 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
them."
     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
ground.
     "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."
     Thrakhath nodded.
     "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
intently.
     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
family.
     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
plans.
     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
bridge."
     The lieutenant looked at him and a thin smile crossed his features.
     "Good  luck,  sir," he whispered,  snapped  off a salute,  and left the
bridge.
     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  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
withdrawn."
     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
of here."
     "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
left.
     "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  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.
     "Captain?"
     "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
clear."
     Paladin smiled.
     "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
look?"
     "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."
     "Go ahead."
     "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
returned.
     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
friends.




     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
stretch.
     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  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
drawled.
     "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
service check.
     "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
sergeant growled.
     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.
     "Iannn!"
     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
hovering overhead.
     "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
to hell."
     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
forget it."
     "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
around here."
     "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.
     "Near about."
     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
officer.
     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
complaints."
     "Any questions?"
     The colonial officers  looked at each other,  mumbled  a bit  and  said
nothing.
     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
Tarawa.
     "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
tower.
     "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
straight up.
     "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
off.
     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
needle!
     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  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
burst signal."
     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
evaluated later.
     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!"
     "Control here."
     "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.
     Damn!
     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
submission.
     "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
his belt.
     "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
families."
     "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
reply.
     Jukaga smiled.
     "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
thus.
     "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
holo projector.
     "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
and responsibility."
     "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
numbers.
     "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
palace."
     "It will be difficult, but it will be  done," Qar'ka finally said. "But
what of your other words about the Emperor?"
     Jukaga nodded.
     "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
on.
     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
be denied
     "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,"
K'Kai announced
     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
ship."
     "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
him.
     "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
Jason.
     "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
Bondarevsky."
     Jason  came to attention and  the Admiral motioned for him to  stand at
ease.
     "Everyone here's retired at the moment, Captain, so let's  cut all  the
saluting crap."
     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  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
millions."
     "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
grin.
     "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
interjected.
     "And its about time, considering what you folks pay me, Paladin replied
with a grin.

     "Enter."
     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
sat.
     "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."
     Vak nodded.
     "I think you should know that you are not  the only one to report to me
thus."
     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
would say.
     "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
genuine concern.
     "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,
remained silent.
     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
smiled.

     "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
always there.
     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
with swords.
     Vance came up to the two and nodded a greeting.
     "Say, what the hell is that on the  monitor?" Jason asked,  pointing to
the screen.
     "A Kilrathi drama from the Gakarg Period."
     "What?"
     "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
Emperor Y'taa'gu.
     "Who?"
     Vance chuckled.
     "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
pattern.
     "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
encoded."
     "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  Hey,  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.
     Vance smiled.
     "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
machine."
     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.
     "What's wrong?"
     "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
pleasure ride.
     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
from Kilrah."
     "That  means getting  some  place between  Kilrah and Hari," Jason said
quietly.
     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
Tolwyn.
     "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
nephew.
     "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
location.
     "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 Nak'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 cause 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
business."
     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
destroyed.
     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
in paradise?
     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
thing."
     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
lead
     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
relief.
     "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
surveillance instruments.
     "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."
     "How old?"
     "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
point.

     "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
for conquest
     "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
wine.
     "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
in space.
     "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
boredom?
     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
enemy.
     "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
ships.
     "Paladin, switch to my  screen," Ian whispered, his voice suddenly high
and tense.
     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
out.
     "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  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
it yet."
     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
computer.
     "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."
     "Loaded!"
     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
closed.
     "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.
     "Got what?"
     "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
stations.
     "Here's what all the excitement is  about. I thought you should know in
case anything happened."
     "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
found out"
     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
would act.
     "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
immediately.
     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
available.
     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
line.
     "It is time that we leave for the ceremony," the Emperor said  and then
clicked off.




     "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
detected."
     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
once."
     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 ship.
     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."
     "That's Paladin!"
     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
apart?"
     "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
beating.
     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
the door.

     * * * * *

     "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 target 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, relax, 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.
     "Just four?"
     "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?"
     Banbridge sighed.
     "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
a refill.
     "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
line.
     "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 bring 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."
     Banbridge nodded.
     "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
differently.
     "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."
     Banbridge sighed
     "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
with Kruger."
     "How so?"
     "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
supplies.
     "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."
     "Legitimate channels?"
     Geoff laughed.
     "They're  still getting  some interesting equipment, but don't  ask  me
how."
     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
engines on.
     "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
best."
     "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."
     Tolwyn smiled.
     "But I do, and don't ask me how."
     Banbridge nodded.
     "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 attach 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
to pay."
     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
apart."
     "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
apart.
     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
me."
     "Hunter!"
     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
the radio.
     "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
Ferret.

     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,
accelerating fast.
     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
see why."
     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
already know.
     "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
up.
     "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.
     "What?"
     "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
Richards' face.
     "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.
     "Thanks, laddie."
     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
arrives."
     "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,
trembling.
     "Go on."
     "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."
     Thrakhath smiled.
     "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."
     Jukaga hesitated.
     "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
quietly.
     "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
anyone else.
     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
neck.
     "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
hospital."
     Grecko looked to the Marine guard standing at the door.
     "Sergeant, either  escort  this pest out of  here or shoot him, I don't
care which."
     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
strength.
     "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.
     Grecko stiffened.
     "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
location."
     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
made.
     "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
space."
     "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  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
son?"
     Jamison turned towards the President.
     "I want him fired as of this minute and Tolwyn here put in jail pending
an investigation."
     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
comes around."
     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
flushed.
     "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
political intentions."
     "You're  the president, Harry,"  she snapped  coldly.  "The buck  stops
here, remember."
     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
room.
     Rodham  watched her go and  wearily he  turned back  to face Tolwyn and
Grecko.
     "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
done."
     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
me."
     "I  think that's a good idea, sir," Duke replied,  his voice  cold  and
even.
     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
fiery pit."

     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
commanded.
     "I wanted you to gaze upon me, to dispel any  lingering doubts as to my
continued existence."
     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 peace."
     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,"
Jukaga snapped.
     "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  to  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
back door.
     "Flight deck."
     "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."
     "Standby."
     "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."
     "And Vance?"
     "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?"
     "Just barely."
     Jason punched into the engine room.
     "Shovel  on  the coal  back  there.  I  want  full  thrust, fuel scoops
closed."
     "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
thought aside.
     "Good morning."
     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
laughter.
     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
strike craft."
     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."
     "Just five?"
     "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
unilaterally disarm.
     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,
of extinction.
     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."
     Tolwyn nodded.
     "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
chance.
     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
of agreement.
     "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
located.
     He could only hope  they had dug their shelters  deep enough to survive
bombardment.
     "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
days."
     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
Confederation."
     "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
news coming.
     Duke nodded.
     "I just got a signal in the clear from Kruger."
     "Go on."
     "He  told us and I quote  you  created this mess, you  solve it. Go to
hell.' "
     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  do you leave your homes open to attack  by marching off somewhere
else?"
     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.
     "Grandfather?"
     "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.
     "Wondrous."
     "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
replied.
     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
we strike."
     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
in reserve."
     "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
door.
     "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
following orders."
     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
evaporating.
     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
smiled.
     "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."
     Kruger smiled.
     "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
losing Hunter.
     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
off."
     Vance, 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
decoration."
     "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
to do.
     "I want to rejoin the Confederation fleet with my ship."
     "Impossible,"  Kruger  snapped.  "I  need  you  here, and  here  you're
staying."
     "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
point.
     "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
ships."
     "Eighty seven."
     "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
were.
     "No, sir."
     "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
since."
     "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
panic.
     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
Fleet.
     "All signal traffic from Station  Hanover and the  Hanovian  System was
lost forty-five minutes ago,  the last report stating they  were under heavy
attack."
     "Good God, there's two million  people on that world," a  staff  ensign
whispered.
     "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.
     Masterful.
     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
myself.
     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
carriers.
     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
Verdun.
     "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
cruisers."
     "They're diversions. Thrakhath will come straight  on in, looking for a
fight."
     "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
first."
     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
carriers.
     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."
     "Damage?"
     "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  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.
     "Weapons check?"
     "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
maneuvering scoops.
     "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 em!"
     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
range.

     "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
holo displays.
     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
detonation.
     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
maneuver.
     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
one percent"
     "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
about them.
     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
proud.
     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.
     "Gallipoli's going!"
     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
carrier.
     They  darted  past the  ship, turning  to starboard while  the Kilrathi
carrier edged over to port and started to dive.
     "Tactical report!"
     "Enemy  carrier suffered multiple  hits, computer counting  two hundred
plus  hullings,  secondary  explosions igniting, three of  five engine  pods
destroyed.
     "Damage control?"
     "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.'
     "Aye, sir."
     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
fighters.
     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.
     "What?"
     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
fleet."
     "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
Confederation."
     "What do you want, Baron?" Geoff replied coldly.
     "Your surrender."
     "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.
     "Touch. 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
yours.
     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
eradication."
     Geoff felt a cold chill.
     "Has it not always been thus?" he finally ventured.
     "No.  This  is  different. He will not  only slaughter everyone   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,
lifeless."
     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
reply."
     "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
live.
     "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
announced.
     "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
defense."
     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
screen.
     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
support.
     "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,  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.
     "Now what?"
     "Ah, what you came to hear."
     Jason nodded.
     "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."
     Jason nodded.
     "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
pilots."
     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
you flee."
     Kruger  said nothing, as if having heard the  argument  too  many times
before.
     "So you won't go?"
     "You guessed it."
     "Will you release me and  my  people, give  us at least  Tarawa to head
back?"
     "No."
     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
Kruger's office.





     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
whispered.
     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 em 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
escorting.
     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
replied.
     "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 em 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
surviving Broadswords.
     "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
bastard!"
     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
carrier.
     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   it was  impossible after four torpedo
strikes!
     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.
     "Where's Ching?"
     "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
monitors.
     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
comfortable."
     "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
private quarters.
     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
look."
     "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."
     You 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
wanted.
     "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
moment."
     "So  what do  you  want, Duke?" Geoff asked,  cutting  straight  to the
point.
     "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."
     Duke nodded.
     "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."
     "What?"
     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."
     "Go on."
     "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."
     "Secondary shielding?"
     "At ninety-one percent, expected to upgrade to ninety- three within the
hour."
     "Fighter losses?"
     "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  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
ambush."
     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
about it."
     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 em  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.
     "Attention!"
     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
rage.
     "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
indicated."
     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
interplanet transports."
     Thrakhath nodded.
     "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
them."
     "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
yellow.
     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
rest."

     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
disappearing.
     He switched to strike two's main comm channel.
     "Ten seconds, nine, keep em off, keep em 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
of light.
     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
full evasive!"

     "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
suicide.
     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  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
hatch open.
     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
 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
launchers.
     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
craft.
     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,
disappearing.
     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   a Kilrathi heavy carrier turning in
evasive.
     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
were gone.
     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
different frequency.
     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
team."
     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
security squad."
     "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
sketchy."
     "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."
     He paused.
     "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
console.
     "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
carriers."
     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
and rearm."
     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
speed.
     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   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
fight.
     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.
     "Your platoon?"
     "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
childlike.
     "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
assault.
     "I  know, sir, we went through boot  together. She was awfully proud of
you."
     "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  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   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
sudden reversal.
     Thrakhath  stepped  out  of  his  fighter and instantly the  deck  went
silent.
     "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
operations office.
     "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."
     Mike nodded.
     "Torpedo room."
     "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.
     "Torpedo room."
     "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
ship.
     "We've lost lock, sir. Torpedo guidance control off line."
     "Damn it!"
     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
ship!"
     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."
     They hesitated.
     "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
door.
     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."
     Aye, sir.
     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,
letting go.
     "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
overboard"
     "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   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
closed.
     "We have  first  target  solutions  and locks," the captain  announced.
"After our first hit and destruction of their defensive centers, we drop the
thermonuclears."
     "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
Europe.
     "Incoming fighters!"

     "No!"
     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
Kiev.
     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
defenses."
     "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
charnel house."
     "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
hissed.
     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
Kilrah.
     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.
     "Go on."
     "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,
including himself.
     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.
     "Ian?"
     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.
     "Kevin?"
     "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
see defeat."
     "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
never would.
     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.
     "Admiral Tolwyn."
     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
back.
     "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."
     "Why?"
     "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
quietly.
     "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
given him.
     "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
casualties in."
     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
climbed in.
     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."


: 57, Last-modified: Sun, 31 Dec 2000 16:26:10 GMT