The Stars at War David Weber & Steve White



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CHAPTER ONE

Exiles' Return


"Is the zeget to your liking?"

Twenty-Sixth Least Claw of the Khan Khardanish'zarthan, Lord Talphon, combed his claws suavely through his luxuriant whiskers, and his slit-pupilled eyes glinted across the table at his liaison officer.

"Yes, thank you, Captain. And it's quite well cooked, too."

Khardanish noted Lieutenant Johansen's teeth-hidden smile with approval, for Humans often forgot that bared teeth were a challenge among his people. He knew Johansen had studied the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee carefully in preparation for this assignment, yet it was still gratifying to see such awareness of proper behavior. Not that he was quite prepared to stop teasing his guest just yet.

"I am glad," he said, "and I apologize for how long the cooks took to grasp that you would truly prefer it cooked."

"Not necessary, Captain. I console myself with the thought that a TFN chef would find it just as hard to believe you would truly prefer it raw."

Khardanish allowed himself the snarling purr of a chuckle. It was remarkable how well he and Johansen had learned to read one another's nuances, particularly since neither had the proper vocal apparatus to speak the other's language. Khardanish suspected he had drawn the Lorelei Patrol at least partly because he understood Terran Standard English. There was much talk of new translating software, but the current generation remained crude and imprecise . . . and used too much memory for a lowly destroyer, anyway.

The least claw had been less than enthusiastic when he heard about his new post. It was flattering for a least claw to serve, in effect, as a small claw with his own squadron, but the Tenth Destroyer Squadron's four old ships hardly constituted the Navy's cutting edge, nor did the Lorelei System qualify as a critical sector. It was one of the very few systems the Khanate had succeeded in wresting from the Federation in the First Interstellar War of two Orion centuries before, but the thoroughly useless star was hopelessly indefensible (as the Terrans had proved in ISW-2), which, he suspected, was probably why the Federation had permitted his people to keep it. Lorelei had no habitable planets, and only one of its six warp points led to Orion territory; four led to Terran space, and the sixth led only to death, for no survey ship had ever returned from its far terminus. His Znamae and her sisters were here purely to "show the flag," as the Terrans put it.

Yet Khardanish had come to realize his duty held an importance too few of his fellows could appreciate. Most agreed that when the Federation and Khanate allied against the Rigelians in the Third Interstellar War, the Treaty of Valkha's assignment of liaison officers to all border patrols had made sense as a means of defusing potential incidents. Far fewer would admit that the contact those liaison assignments engendered remained equally desirable as a means of nurturing the still slow-growing mutual respect of the star nations' warriors.

Khardanish himself was surprised by how genuinely fond of the lieutenant he had become. He would never find Humans attractive. Their faces were flat; their ears were small, round, and set far too low; they lacked any hint of a decent pelt; and the absence of the whiskers which were an Orion's pride made it difficult to take them seriously. Even their males had only a soft, cub-like fuzz, but it was even worse in the lieutenant's case. She was a female, and the long hair which framed her face only emphasized its total, disgusting bareness. And if the Human custom of wearing body-shrouding clothing at all times was less aesthetically objectionable—at least it hid their naked skins!—it still seemed . . . odd.

But Samantha Johansen had many qualities he admired. She was observant, intelligent, and keenly sensitive to the inevitable differences between their cultures, and her military credentials were impressive. The lieutenant was only fifty-three—twenty-eight, by her people's reckoning—but she had seen the zeget. Her mess tunic bore the ribbon of the Federation's Military Cross, the Valkhaanair's equivalent, which must have been hard to come by in the fifty Terran years of peace since ISW-3. Perhaps, he speculated idly, she had been chosen for this duty by her superiors just as carefully as he was coming to believe First Fang Lokarnah had chosen him?

"Ah, Saahmaantha!" he said now. "At times, you are too much like one of my own for comfort."

"I take that as a compliment, Captain," Johansen said, chewing another slice of zeget appreciatively. In fact, she found it overly gamy, but it was a warrior's dish. The bear-like zeget was four furry meters of raw fury, the most feared predator of the original Orion homeworld, and Least Claw Khardanish had done her great honor by ordering it served.

"Do you?" Khardanish poured more wine. The Terran vintage was overly dry for his palate, but it had been Johansen's gift, and he drank it with the pleasure she deserved of him. He tilted his glass, admiring the play of light in the ruby liquid. "Then I will tell you something, Lieutenant. Do you know what we Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee call our two wars with you?"

"Yes, Captain," Johansen said softly. " 'The Wars of Shame.' "

"Precisely." He sipped delicately. "I find that apt even though we are now allies. We had twice the systems, ten times the population, and a navy, and you had—what? A few dozen lightly-armed survey vessels? Should not any warrior feel shame for losing to an enemy so much weaker than he?"

Johansen met his eyes calmly, and the least claw approved. Even among his own people, many would have sought to hide their discomfort with some polite nothing; this Human merely waited.

"But you were not weaker where it mattered most, Saahmaantha," he said seriously. "For your people, war was a matter for planning and discipline; for mine, it was a chance to win honor by individual bravery. Your First Fang Aandersaahn lured us into traps, ambushed us, and massed his fire to burn us down as we charged against him, and to the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee those were coward's tactics. My grandsire, the first Lord Talphon, fought in both Wars of Shame. He was an intelligent officer, one of Varnik'sheerino's protégés, but even he thought your people's way of war fit only for chofaki."

Johansen still said nothing, though her eyes flickered. Literally, the term meant "dirt-eaters"; figuratively, it implied beings so lost to courage and honor they could not even recognize them as concepts.

"Yet I have read his journal many times, Saahmaantha, and he learned better." Khardanish watched his guest relax. "He was not at Aklumar, but his ship was the sole survivor of the First Battle of Ophiuchi Junction, and he fought in every major engagement of the Junction Campaign. By the end, he had learned what your Federation Navy taught us so well; that the duty of a warrior must be to win, not to count coup. So if you are like one of us, perhaps that is in part because my people have grown more like yours."

"And is that a good thing, Captain?" Johansen asked.

"Yes, Saahmaantha." He refilled her empty glass and raised his own to her in the Terran manner. "We owe you much for teaching us there is no cowardice in forethought. Some might argue that point even now—they remember only the shame of defeat and prefer still to think of Humans as chofaki—but my grandsire died defending Tanama against the Rigelian First Fleet with a single Alliance task group, and his Terran units died with him. None fled, and the names of their commanders are inscribed among my clan's fathers and mothers in honor." He regarded Johansen levelly. "I believe he would approve of you."

"Your words do me honor, litter master," Johansen said quietly.

"True honor is in the heart which understands them, cubling," Khardanish returned the formality, then twitched his tufted ears in humor. "But listen to us! We grow too grave, Lieutenant."

"Perhaps." Samantha sipped her own wine, leaning back from the low table on the cushions which served Orions in lieu of chairs, then grinned wryly. "But if we're growing more like one another, we've paid enough along the way, sir. This very system's history is proof of that.

Khardanish nodded. A hundred and fifty Orion years before, a Terran fleet in Lorelei had cut off and trapped a third of the Khanate's battle-line. Forty years before that, an Orion flotilla had penetrated the Terran frontier undetected during ISW-1 and surprised an entire Human colony fleet here. There had been no survivors.

"Perhaps," he suggested dryly, "that is because we have always been alike in at least one regard, Saahmaantha." His liaison officer raised an eyebrow in the Human expression of interrogation, and he gave another chuckle. "Both of us are incredibly stubborn," he said simply.

* * *

A gentle vibration quivered through the superdreadnougnt Alois Saint-Just as Engineering ran her final drive test, and her captain watched his read-outs with profound satisfaction. There was honor in commanding even the smallest unit of Task Force One, but to command the flagship—!

He turned his eyes to the tactical display. Only Saint-Just's squadron mates Helen Borkman and Wu Hsin lay close alongside, but the dots of other ships dusted the three-dimensional sphere with a thick coating of data codes, and the nav beacons marking the warp point pulsed amid the minefields and asteroid fortresses. A thrill of pride ran through him, and he forced himself to settle back, watching the chronometer tick off the last few hours.

* * *

"Captain to the bridge. Captain to the bridge."

The computer recording was both calm and unhurried; the wail of alarms was neither, and Least Claw Khardanish erupted from his quarters, still sealing his vac suit. A luckless maintenance rating bounced off a bulkhead as his captain ran right over him and bounded into the central access shaft, cursing softly but with feeling. He loved Znamae, old as she was, but her accommodations had been designed by eight-thumbed zarkotga. Destroyers had no mass to waste on intraship cars, and his quarters were the full length of the hull from her bridge. It was bad enough to take so long to reach his station, but the unseemly haste it forced upon him could not be reassuring to his crew.

He slowed abruptly as he spied the bridge hatch. By the time he reached it, he was moving with a warrior's measured, purposeful stride.

Son of the Khan Yahaarnow'ziltakan, Znamae's exec, looked up with obvious relief as Khardanish dropped into his command chair and racked his helmet. He was, he noted sourly, the last to arrive. Even Johansen, whose cabin was almost as inconveniently placed as his, had beaten him this time.

"Report!" he said crisply.

"Unknown drive fields, sir." Observer First Hinarou'frikish-ahn's experience showed in her precisely enunciated report. "Bearing oh-seven-two level by oh-three-three vertical. Range approximately three-point-two light-minutes. Estimated base course two-four-nine by oh-oh-three. Data are still rough, sir, but data base does not recognize them."

"Are you certain of that bearing, Observer?" Khardanish demanded.

"Positive, sir."

The least claw darted a quick look at Yahaarnow and Lieutenant Johansen and saw his own surprise on both faces.

"Astrogation, back-plot Observation's estimated base course."

"Aye, sir. Computing now." There was a moment of silence, and when the astrogator spoke again he sounded startled. "Sir, assuming Observation's course and bearing are correct, it looks like they came from warp point six!"

Khardanish's tufted ears flicked in quick acknowledgment, but he was deeply puzzled. Point six was the warp point Lorelei's Human discoverers had named Charon's Ferry, and if no survey ship had ever gone into it and lived, how in Valkha's name could anything come out of it?

"Unknowns are now at two-point-nine-five light-minutes, sir. Coming up in the outer zone of your tactical display—now."

Khardanish glanced into his holo tank. Human designers preferred a more compact, flat-screen display, but Orion eyes had problems with such systems. Now he watched drifting lights blink alive, glowing the steady yellow of unidentified vessels. They blinked again, and suddenly each bore a small light code denoting its estimated tonnage.

There were twelve of them, he noted digging his extended claws into the padded armrests of his command chair. Most were no larger than his own destroyers, but the largest was a heavy cruiser.

"Come to Status One," he ordered. "Prep and download courier drones." He waited for the acknowledgments, then made himself lean back. "All right, Communications—standard Alliance challenge."

"Aye, sir."

The range was still two and a half light-minutes—thirty minutes' travel for Znamae under full drive—and the five-minute wait seemed eternal.

"They are responding, sir. I do not recognize—wait! Coming up from data base now." The com officer paused, then continued flatly, "Captain, they appear to be using pre-Alliance Terran communication protocols."

Khardanish looked up sharply. Pre-Alliance? That would make them at least fifty Terran years out of date!

"Com Central confirms, sir. Their protocols match those used by the Terran Federation Navy at the time of the First War of Shame."

"Lieutenant?" Khardanish looked at his liaison officer, and Johansen raised her palms in the Human gesture of helpless ignorance. Which, he thought sourly, was a great deal of help just now.

"Can you unscramble, Communications?"

"Affirmative, sir. We have no visual, but audio is coming up now."

The com link was none too clear, and there was a hiss of static under the voice, but the distorted words were recognizable.

"Unknown vessels, this is the Terran cruiser Kepler. Identify yourselves."

"Khhepaahlaar?" Khardanish's tongue twisted on the word and he frowned at Johansen. "I do not recognize the name, Lieutenant. Do you?"

"No, sir." She punched keys at her console, calling up the TFN navy list. "No ship of that name is listed in my files, either, sir."

"I see." Khardanish combed his whiskers for a moment. There might, of course, be one explanation, for one could never be certain one had located all the warp points in any system. "Closed" warp points were undetectable; they could be located only by passing through from a normal warp point at the far end. It was possible a Federation survey flotilla had done just that—that they were coming not from Charon's Ferry but from a newfound closed point on the same approximate bearing. But that would not explain unknown drive frequencies or archaic communication codes. Or why this Kepler was not in Johansen's data base.

He pondered a moment longer, but there was only one way to find out.

"Identify us and ask if we can render any assistance, Communications."

"Aye, sir."

"Maneuvering, slow to thirty percent." There was no point closing too rapidly. The range was less than two light-minutes now, and his old destroyers were slow; if he should have to run he wanted all the start he could get. There was another frustrating wait as the signals crossed, and then—

"You are in Terran space, Znamae!" the voice from the speaker snapped, and Khardanish growled under his breath. This was becoming ridiculous!

"Sir!" Observer First Hinarou's voice was sharper. "Additional drive sources detected. Two new formations. Designate them Groups Two and Three. Group Two bears one-six-four by oh-three-three, range three-point-two light-minutes; Group Three bears oh-two-eight by oh-three-two, range three-point-one light-minutes. Both are on converging interception courses!"

Khardanish's eyes slitted. That sort of spread suggested only one thing: an attack formation. The first group must have been an advanced screen, and the others had spread out behind their scouts, maneuvering beyond scanner range to position themselves to run down his squadron whatever he did.

But why? If they were truly Terrans, they were allies, and if they were not Terrans, how could they have known to use Terran com protocols—even ones so sadly out of date? It made no sense! Unless . . .

No one had ever come back from Charon's Ferry, but Fleet records suggested that at least some of the Terran colony fleet annihilated here had fled down it in a desperate bid to escape. Was it possible they had survived?

It seemed fantastic, but it might be an explanation. After all, more than ninety Terran years had passed since then. Survivors might have managed to cling to their technology. But how could colony ships survive what survey ships could not? And how could they have produced sufficient population to build this many ships? And why wait this long to return? If—

"We have tentative classifications on Group Two, sir," Hinarou said tensely. "Coming up on your display."

Khardanish looked back down and tightened internally. At least seven of those ships were capital units; three were superdreadnoughts.

"Maneuvering, come about one-eight-oh degrees. Maximum power." Znamae swerved in a course change so radical it could be felt even through the drive field, and Khardanish turned to Johansen. "Observations, Lieutenant?"

"Sir, they may claim to be Terran, but they don't match anything in my records. I don't know what they are."

"Could they be survivors of the colony fleet of 2206?"

Johansen blinked, then frowned. "I suppose it's possible, sir, but if they are, where have they been all this time?"

"I do not know, but if that is the case, they cannot know what has transpired since. They may even believe we are still at war."

"Sir," Observer Hinarou broke in, "we are picking up additional sensor emissions. Battle Comp estimates they are targeting systems."

"Acknowledged, Observation."

Their pursuers were far outside weapon range, but that would change. The capital ships were gaining only slowly as they cut the angle on the squadron's course, but their escorts were twenty percent faster than his ships. They would reach missile range in little over two hours, and the first group was far closer. They would have the range in less than eighty minutes, and it was thirty hours to the nearest warp point.

Khardanish beckoned, and Johansen crossed to his side. He leaned close to her, speaking softly.

"Either those ships truly are Terran, however and wherever they have come from, or they are not. In either case, we cannot outrun them. If they attack, we will undoubtedly be destroyed, and the consequences to the Alliance may prove disastrous."

"I understand, sir," the lieutenant said when he paused.

"But perhaps we can avoid that eventuality. So far we have used only our own com techs, and they are Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee. You are Human. You must speak for us and convince them of the true state of affairs."

"I'll try, sir."

"I know you will, Saahmaantha." He waved her back to her console, then turned to his com officer. "Patch the lieutenant into your link."

"At once, sir." The communications officer touched a key, then flicked his ears to Johansen, and she drew a deep breath.

"Kepler," she said slowly and distinctly, "this is Lieutenant Samantha Johansen, Terran Federation Navy, aboard the Orion destroyer Znamae. You are not in Terran space. This system was ceded to the Khanate under the Treaty of Tycho. The Federation is not—I repeat, not—at war with the Khanate. We are allies. I say again, the Terran Federation and the Khanate of Orion are allies. Please acknowledge my transmission."

* * *

Lieutenant Johansen's words winged across space to the cruiser Kepler, and a stunned com officer relayed them to the superdreadnought Saint-Just.

"What did she say?!" The admiral commanding Task Force One stared at his flag captain in disbelief.

"That the Federation and the Orions are allies," the captain repeated shakenly.

"Holy Terra!" the admiral murmured. "It's worse than we feared possible!"

The captain nodded silently, trying to grapple with the blasphemous possibility, then shook himself.

"Shall we reply, sir?"

"Wait," his admiral commanded, rubbing his prominent nose as he thought. He was silent for several seconds, then looked back up with cold eyes. "Instruct Kepler to reply, Captain. Emphasize that we've been out of contact for many years. Tell this Lieutenant Johansen"—the name was an epithet in his mouth—"we must investigate her claims. Request, politely, that the Orion ships halt and permit the screen to close with them."

"Aye, sir." The captain's voice was flat with disapproval, and his admiral's eyes flickered with cold amusement.

"If the infidel agrees, we'll halt the remainder of the task force while the screen closes, and then . . ."

* * *

The long delay between Johansen's transmission and the response was agonizing, but it finally came, and all eyes on Znamae's bridge turned unobtrusively to the least claw.

"Comments, Saahmaantha?" he asked quietly.

"I don't like it, Captain," she said flatly. "They don't feel right, but they've got the speed to catch us if we run."

"I share the lieutenant's suspicion, sir, and I must point out that if they close to such a short range, their weapons would—"

"I know, Yahaarnow," Khardanish said, "but we have small choice, and the Alliance serves both our Khan and the Federation well. If we risk our lives to preserve it, we do no more than our duty." He held the exec's eyes until his ears twitched agreement, then looked at Johansen.

"Very well, Lieutenant, inform them we will comply." He turned back to the exec. "Maintain Status One, but I want no active targeting systems."

* * *

The Orion Tenth Destroyer Squadron hung motionless, watching a handful of scanner dots close with it. The remainder of the "Terran" fleet had halted well beyond attack range, and Khardanish hoped that was a good sign, yet uneasiness simmered in his blood, and it was hard to keep his claws from twitching. The faceless com link had refused further communication until rendezvous was made, and its silence bit at his nerves.

He watched Kepler's light dot. The heavy cruiser was now at eight light-seconds and closing at a leisurely two percent of light-speed with two light cruisers and three of her brood of destroyers. The other six destroyers had halted at ten light-seconds, just within standard missile range. It looked as if the other side was doing exactly as agreed.

"Range six light-seconds, sir," Observer Hinarou reported.

"Lieutenant, request that they come no closer until we have established visual communications."

"Aye, sir." Johansen activated her com once more. "Kepler, this is Lieutenant Johansen. Our commander requests that you come no closer until visual communications have b—"

"Incoming fire!" Yahaarnow snapped, and the display was suddenly alive with missile traces.

"Return fire!" Khardanish slammed his clawed fist against his armrest. "Enemy flagship is primary target!"

"Aye, sir, opening fire now!"

The Tenth Squadron belched homing missiles, but the reply was pitiful beside the holocaust racing for it, and the enemy drive fields peaked as they charged in for the kill.

"Evasive action!" Khardanish commanded, and his ships, too, leapt to full power. They swerved in frantic evasion maneuvers, and Znamae lurched as the first warhead burst against her shields. The energy gunners had required a moment to activate their targeting systems, but now the force beams opened up, slamming at the enemy with electromagnetic fists.

"Launch courier drones," Khardanish said softly, and his bridge crew knew their commander had already written off his entire squadron.

* * *

"There," Kepler's captain said coldly. "That one's done all the talking. That's the one we want."

* * *

Courier drones spilled from the embattled destroyers, racing for the warp point beacons as nuclear flame boiled on their mother ships' shields. The squadron's overloaded point defense stations could stop only a handful of the incoming missiles, but Khardanish's own missiles were striking home, and he watched explosions crawl over the heavy cruiser's shields. The invisible blows of his force beams savaged them as well, and they were going down.

But so were his, and the light code of the destroyer Tramad flickered as her last shield died and the first missile impacted on her drive field.

"Target's shields are weakening," Yahaarnow reported. "One enemy destroyer streaming atmosphere. We—"

His voice broke off as a savage burst of energy swept past Znamae's shields and slashed into her bows, and Khardanish's eyes went wide in shock.

"Forward armor destroyed. Life Support Three inactive. Shield Compartment Two no longer responds. Heavy casualties in Missile One."

Khardanish slewed around towards Hinarou, and the observer first's ears were flat to her skull in disbelief.

"That was an x-ray laser, Captain!"

The least claw turned back to his display, but his brain raced. That surpassed anything the Khanate or Federation could do. It took a bomb-pumped laser to produce a weapon-grade beam of x-rays at such a range, and though independently deployed bomb-pumped lasers were feasible for static defenses, they were far too cumbersome for deep-space use against targets capable of radical maneuvers at ten percent of light-speed. And how could anyone use a bomb-pumped laser on board a ship, anyway?! Carbon lasers were retained there because their neutrally-charged photons could pierce a ship's electromagnetic shields, but none of them could do damage like that at this range!

His display wrenched his mind from its thoughts as Tramad's light code suddenly vanished. Now he commanded only three destroyers—and then Honarhae followed Tramad into destruction.

"Shields down!" Yahaarnow reported as Znamae's defenses crumbled under the enemy's pounding, but no fresh missiles darted in to take advantage of her nakedness. They were tearing his ships to pieces, but aside from that single laser hit, Znamae had taken no damage at all! Why?

"Enemy cruisers launching capital missiles!" Hinarou snapped, and Khardanish gripped his chair's armrests in fingers of steel. Capital missiles from cruisers? Ridiculous! And why wait this long and then launch extended range weapons at such close quarters?

"Sonasha is gone, sir," Yahaarnow said flatly. The least claw merely nodded. Znamae was alone, but there was no time even for grief; she would be joining her sisters soon enough.

The bridge lighting flickered as fresh energy stabbed his ship. Her shields were down, baring her to the enemy's needle beams, and the close-range precision weapons struck viciously. They ripped through her weapon bays, mangling her force beams and crippling her point defense, and the capital missiles screamed in to complete her destruction.

But they never struck. An explosion trembled through the hull, then another and another, but they were too weak for warheads. They were—

"Captain!" Yahaarnow whirled from his useless weapon console. "Those missiles were some sort of vehicles! Their crews are blowing holes in the hull and boarding us!"

Khardanish stared at his exec. Board a starship under way? How could they even penetrate the drive field?!

"Intruders on deck eight!" a voice shouted over the intercom. "Deck seven!" "Deck five!" Pressure loss telltales burned crimson, and a sick wave of understanding swept the least claw. He had no idea how it had been done, but he knew why. They wanted his ship . . . and her data base.

More explosions bit breaches in the hull, and vac-suited boarders swarmed through them like demons, armed with automatic weapons and grenades. Destroyers carried no Marines, and Znamae's pitiful stock of small arms was locked in the armory. Her officers were armed, but only with the edged steel of their defargaie, the honor dirks of the Khanate.

Yet Znamae's crew were Orions, and they turned on their enemies with clawed fists and feet and improvised bludgeons. They were cut down by bullets, slaughtered as grenades burst in the confines of steel passages, but they did not die quite alone. A few captured enemy weapons, turning them upon their foes before they, too, went down on the blood-slick decks and the tide of combat swept over them.

A tractor beam dragged Znamae toward Kepler, and Least Claw Khardanish rose, reaching for his own defargo as a thunderous explosion blew the sealed bridge hatch open and hurled Yahaarnow and two of his ratings to the deck in bloody gruel. Chattering gunfire cut down still more of his bridge crew, and then the first invader leapt through the hatch.

Khardanish's eyes were slits of fury, but even through his rage he realized it had all been a lie. Whatever their attackers were, they were not Terrans! The squat-bodied invader was too stocky, his arms too long and his legs too short. The least claw's mind recorded it all as the alien's thundering autorifle swept the bridge.

Observer First Hinarou vaulted her console, defargo drawn, but the invader cut her down and swung his weapon towards Khardanish. The entire bridge lay between them, and even as the least claw charged, he knew he would never reach his killer.

The rifle spoke, and Khardanish went to his knees in agony, dropping his defargo, as slugs mangled his right shoulder and side.

The invader took fresh aim, but before he could fire, Samantha Johansen was upon him with a zeget's scream, and the fallen observer's defargo flashed in her hand. She drove it deep, twisting her wrist savagely, and the alien went down. The lieutenant kicked the body aside, snatched up the fallen rifle, and threw herself on her belly in her enemy's blood. The weapon's function was easy enough to grasp, and she emptied its extended magazine down the passage in a single, endless burst that piled the rest of the assault team on the deck.

The silence was deafening as she stopped firing, and Khardanish heard a click of metal as she jerked a fresh magazine from the alien's body and reloaded. Blood pumped from his wounds, and he felt Death's claws grope for him, yet his mind was cold and clear as he dragged himself across the deck. Only he and Samantha remained, and more boarders would be here soon. She could never stand them off alone, and she did not know the proper codes. He must reach the engineering station before he died.

He heaved to his feet with a kitten's mewl of pain and clung drunkenly to the console. His strength was going fast, but the visual display showed what he had hoped for. Kepler's tractor had drawn Znamae close aboard!

Fresh thunder bellowed as Samantha fired down the passage yet again. Return fire whined off the bulkheads, but she was protected by the ruins of the hatch. She could hold a moment longer.

He flipped up the plastic shield and entered the code slowly and carefully. The single red-tabbed switch was cool under his claws, and he looked at Samantha one last time. Her round-pupilled, Human eyes met his, and he saw her agreement.

"Together, clan sister!" he gasped, and pressed it home.


CHAPTER TWO

A Decision of State


The Honorable Francis Mulrooney, Terran Ambassador to the Khanate of Orion, leaned against one side of the deep window and watched the light of a sun very like Sol stream across an oddly blue lawn of "grass" whose like Terra had never imagined. The "trees" beyond the courtyard wall were feathery spires, caparisoned in the orange and yellow and fire-red blossoms of spring, and wispy creatures flapped lacy wings above them.

To Mulrooney, Valkha'zeeranda had always seemed a fairy wonderland. On the surface, it was hardly the proper capital world for a warrior race, yet there was a subtle undercurrent of rightness to it. He'd often wondered what "New Valkha's" first colonists had thought and felt as they left the ships which had borne them here from the world their Wars of Unification had reduced to ruin. How must they have felt to leave their breath masks and chemical detectors and radiation counters behind forever?

He stroked the deeply incised shield and crossed swords of the Khanate, graven a centimeter deep in the windowsill, then swept his gaze over the magnificent white spires and minarets of the imperial compound and knew he saw the answer. Mulrooney was one of the very few Terrans who had visited Old Valkha and seen the cyclopean fortresses which dominated pre-stellar Orion architecture like expressions of a warrior ethos in stone and mortar. New Valkha did not boast their like. As a fortress, the imperial compound equaled any planetary defense center in the Federation, yet it hid its teeth like an Orion smile. An almost tangible sense of peace hovered over its elfin beauty, perfected by the background of the Khanate's mailed fist.

And that, he told himself, was how the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee saw their imperial capital. It was flowers and cold steel, the jewel in the Khan's iron crown, an eye of tranquillity in a hurricane's heart.

He sighed and turned from the window, pacing slowly back and forth. The summons had come from the kholokhanzir, the grand vizier, himself, and it was unusual to be kept waiting so long. Mulrooney had many contacts in the Orion bureaucracy, and he knew some major crisis had blown up with absolutely no warning. He could uncover no clue as to what it was, but the whispers of rumored disaster made an ominous counterpoint to this unprecedented delay.

The sharp rap of wood on stone interrupted his thoughts, and he turned, reminding himself just in time to avoid any quick movement which might suggest impatience. The kholokhanzir's personal herald met his eyes, gripping the elaborately carved haft of his gemmed pike of office. There was more than a little white in the Orion's tawny felinoid pelt, but his spine was straight and he bowed with limber dignity. Then he straightened and beckoned politely for Mulrooney to follow.

The herald led him down a sunny hall fringed by balconies with balustrades entwined in nodding tendrils of ornamental vines. It wasn't a long walk, but Mulrooney's heart was beating fast when the herald knocked at the door at its end. Two statue-still guards flanked it, armed not with ornamental, palace-duty weapons but with businesslike needle rifles and side arms. Then the herald opened the door and bowed him through.

Mulrooney entered with a crisp stride, then stopped dead. He'd expected the kholokhanzir, but it seemed he'd been summoned to meet another.

He recovered and moved forward once more towards the ancient Orion seated on the cushion-strewn dais in the center of the room. He was bent with age, but his silvered pelt still showed the midnight black of the noblest Orion bloodlines.

Mulrooney stopped a precise three meters from the dais and pressed his clenched right hand to his chest as he performed his most graceful bow. Then he straightened and stood silently, giving no sign of his racing thoughts, as he met the old, knowing eyes of Liharnow'hirtalkin, Khan'a'khanaaeee of all the Orions.

"Greetings, Ambassador," the Khan said, and Mulrooney swallowed. Orions guarded their khan's person fanatically, yet he and Liharnow were alone. It was unheard of for any person not sworn to hirikolus or hirikrinzi—much less an alien—to be allowed into the Khan's presence unguarded, and there was no protocol to guide him in modes of address, for the Khan never spoke directly to a foreign envoy.

"Greetings, Hia'khan." He hoped it was an appropriate response.

"I have asked you here to discuss a most urgent matter," Liharnow came to the point with typical Orion brevity. "It is vital that there be no misunderstanding, so I ask you to forego the courtesies of diplomacy. I shall speak my mind fully and frankly, and I wish you to do the same."

"Of course, Hia'khan," Mulrooney replied. He had no choice but to accept whatever ground rules the Khan chose to set.

"Thank you." Liharnow settled more comfortably into his cushions, combing his shoulder-wide whiskers, and his ears inclined forward as if to underscore his serious mood.

"Two weeks ago, the Tenth Destroyer Squadron, commanded by Lord Talphon and stationed in the Lorelei System, was treacherously attacked." Mulrooney stiffened. There could be only one Orion response to an attack they labeled "treacherous."

"The attackers apparently entered the system through its sixth warp point, the one which your astrographers call 'Chaaraahn's Ferry,' and enticed Lord Talphon into attack range with a false parley offer. The frequencies of their drive fields matched none in our Navy's data base, but they identified themselves"—the Khan's eyes locked with the ambassador's—"as Terrans."

Despite himself, Mulrooney gasped, and the Khan shifted his ears slowly, as if obscurely satisfied.

"Lord Talphon's courier drones bore our equivalent of your Code Omega. They were dispatched very early in the engagement, as it was obvious his ships could not survive. Their messages were transmitted to Valkha'zeeranda by the warp point relay net and reached here five days ago. During those five days, our intelligence service has analyzed Lord Talphon's report and reached certain conclusions.

"First, the attackers did employ Terran Federation Navy communication protocols, although they were of an obsolete nature. Second, the single ship name provided by the enemy was Kepahlar"—Liharnow did much better with the Terran name than Khardanish had managed—"and our xenologists have identified this as the name of an ancient Terran scientist. Third, all communications from the enemy were in Terran Standard English. From these findings, a board of inquiry has judged that the attackers were in fact a Terran survey force."

Mulrooney's face was white.

"There are, however, several points which puzzle me," the Khan went on levelly. "The odd drive frequencies are one such point, as also are the peculiar communications protocols employed. In addition, our intelligence arm has observed no re-deployment of additional Federation units, nor is the Lorelei System of great military value. Finally, I have reviewed Lord Talphon's last report, and I am at least partially inclined to accept his hypothesis as to his attackers' identity. I do not believe the Federation attacked the Tenth Squadron," Mulrooney's shoulders relaxed, only to tighten afresh as Liharnow finished, "but I suspect its attackers were Terrans."

"Hia'khan," the ambassador began, "I—"

"A moment, if you please," the Khan said softly, and Mulrooney closed his mouth. "Lord Talphon concluded that these unknown 'Terrans' might be descended from survivors of the Terran colonization fleet attacked in Lorelei by the Eighty-First Flotilla in 2206, who fled down 'Chaaraahn's Ferry.' If this is indeed the case, the Federation Navy and Assembly cannot, of course, have ordered the attack, yet it was still the work of Terrans.

"I make this point," Liharnow said very carefully and distinctly, "because a majority of the Strategy Board have officially advised the Khan'a'khanaaeee that they reject Lord Talphon's hypothesis and that, even if he were correct, that fact could not in their judgment absolve Terra of responsibility. They recommend"—he met Mulrooney's eyes once more—"that the Treaty of Valkha be immediately repudiated as the first step in a renewed war with the Federation."

"Hia'khan," Mulrooney chose his words as carefully as the Khan, "this is the first I have heard of any of these events. My government will be as shocked by them as your own, but I implore you to proceed with restraint. If the Khanate attacks the Federation, we will have no choice but to defend ourselves, and the consequences for both our peoples will be terrible."

"That," Liharnow said quietly, "is why I have summoned you in this irregular fashion. I have over-ruled the Strategy Board"—Mulrooney breathed in thankfully—"so far, and First Fang Lokarnah has supported my decision, but our courses of action are limited."

"First, we may accede to the demands of the Strategy Board. Second, we may punish these Terrans ourselves, as honor demands. Third, we may require the Federation to punish them. Should we accept the Strategy Board's recommendations, the result will certainly be general war. Should we punish them ourselves, we embark upon an almost equally dangerous road, for I cannot believe the Assembly would permit the Federation Navy to stand idle while we kill Terrans, regardless of their origin, for attacking the ships of a navy with whom they may believe themselves to be still at war. But, Ambassador, should we adopt the third option, the Federation may still find itself in a most unenviable position.

"You know our honor code. My warriors' blood has been shed by shirnowmakaie, oath-breakers who have violated their own sworn offer to parley in peace. There must be khiinarma, scale-balancing. I could not deny that even if I wished to, and Ambassador"—the Khan's eyes were cold—"I do not wish to. There is one and only one way in which the Federation may intercede between the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee and those who have attacked us."

"And that way is, Hia'khan?" It was a question, but Mulrooney's tone said he already knew the answer.

"The Federation must become khimhok ia' Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee," the Khan said softly, and Mulrooney swallowed. The term had no precise Terran equivalent, but it translated roughly as "scale-bearer to the Orions." In effect, the Terran Federation must step into the Khanate's place, assuming the duty to punish those who had offended. Yet it was far more complex than that, and his brain raced as he tried to envision all the implications.

The Federation would have a free hand but no Orion assistance. From the moment Terra accepted the "scale-bearer" role, the Khanate would stand totally aloof, and the Alliance's mutual assistance clauses could not be invoked. Worse, in a way, the final resolution must be acceptable to the Khanate. The Federation might choose to be merciful or harsh, but if the Orions did not perceive the ultimate solution as one which satisfied their own honor, the Federation would assume the guilt which the Khan had now assigned solely to those beings who had attacked his ships, and the consequences of that did not bear thinking upon.

"Hia'khan," the ambassador said finally, "I will transmit your words to my government, yet I must tell you that I foresee grave difficulties. If, indeed, those who attacked you are Terrans, then the people of the Federation will find it most difficult to demand blood balance of them."

"I understand," Liharnow said gravely, "for we would find it difficult to demand vilknarma of Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee who had been lost for two of our centuries and attacked Terran warships in ignorance of the truth. Indeed, I understand too well, and that is one reason I would prefer to place the matter in Human hands. Honor demands punishment for treachery, yet if these Terrans truly believe we are still at war, then they did well to defend their own people, however dishonorable the manner in which they did so.

"Moreover," he continued even more seriously, "I have spent my life teaching my people the Galaxy can belong neither to he who is too cowardly to fight nor to he who is too stupid to know when not to fight. It has not been easy, and suspicion of other races remains strong, but I do not wish to see the Treaty of Valkha torn up and lost while our peoples destroy one another. And so I make this offer not just as Liharnow but as Khan'a'khanaaeee.

"We have no colonies between Lorelei and our own fortifications. Should the Federation become khimhok ia' Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee, the Khanate will cede the Lorelei System to the Federation and withdraw all units from its borders. We will regard the affair as an internal problem of the Federation, to be settled by the Federation, and we will renounce vilknarma and accept reparations and shirnowkashaik, acknowledgment of guilt by the offenders. My people will find this difficult to bear, for we do not equate reparations with restitution as yours do, but if I accept in their name I sacrifice only my own honor, and they will abide by my pledged oath. This I will give in the cause of peace."

Mulrooney drew a very deep breath. The Khan's offer was an enormous concession, and the ambassador allowed himself to feel cautiously hopeful for the first time since the interview had begun.

"I thank you, Hia'khan," he said with utmost sincerity, "and I will immediately transmit your generous offer to Old Terra."

"My heart is not generous," Liharnow said flatly. "It cries out for vilknarma from the chofaki who have done this thing. Were they not Terrans, I would crush them into dust, but I cannot heed my heart in this. It is a decision of state, and so I must decide it, so hear my oath, Ambassador. I do not hold your government responsible, and I swear upon the honor of my clan fathers and of Valkha, shield-bearer to Hiranow'khanark, that I will sheathe my claws. Whoever these chofaki and wherever they spring from, I declare that I will accept the Federation as khimhok, to act in my stead and the stead of all my people. I have spoken."

The aged Khan lowered his ears and raised one hand in dismissal, and Ambassador Francis Mulrooney turned silently to leave.


CHAPTER THREE

The Peace Fleet


Howard Anderson was in a grumpy mood as he walked through Federation Hall's huge doors onto the Chamber's marble floor. He supposed change was inevitable, but in his day, the Legislative Assembly had simply called its meeting place the Assembly Chamber, and the new, highfaluting, title irritated him immensely. "Chamber of Worlds" indeed! It was all part of the damned imperial trappings—and so was the revolting deference everyone insisted on paying him. He suppressed an urge to kick the lictor who escorted him almost reverently to his seat, then sat and listened to the rustling mutter as the Chamber filled.

"Hello, Howard."

Anderson looked up and smiled as a small, uniformed figure paused beside him.

"What's an honest sailor doing in this whorehouse, Chien-lu?"

"I admire the effort you put into perfecting your curmudgeonly image, Howard, but you might consider the virtue of an occasional courteous word."

"Damn it, man, I'm a hundred and fifty years old! If I can't be a cranky, difficult son-of-a-bitch, who can?"

"Given how many people feel you are the Federation, I might suggest a proper decorum is in order," Admiral Li Chien-lu said with gentle malice.

"Do that and I'll drop kick your scrawny Oriental ass clear to the speaker's podium!" Anderson snorted, and the admiral laughed.

"Very well, Howard. Play your silly game if it amuses you."

"Damn straight it does." Anderson thumped the chair beside him with the gnarled walking stick he affected. "Sit down, Chien-lu." His grumpy tone had become serious. "I want to talk to you." Li hesitated, and Anderson's blue eyes hardened. "Now, Admiral," he said softly, and Li sat with a small shrug.

"You take unfair advantage of our relationship, you know," he said mildly. "A fleet admiral is no longer an ensign on your HQ staff."

"Granted. But we've known each other longer than either of us wants to remember, and I want to know what the hell Sakanami thinks he's doing."

"Precisely what he's said." Admiral Li shrugged again. "I won't say I'd do it the same way myself, but he hasn't slipped me any secret orders, if that's what you mean."

"I wouldn't put it past Sakanami—or that vulture Waldeck—but that wasn't what I meant. I suppose I should have asked what you and the CNO think you're doing?"

"Howard," Admiral Li said plaintively, "why is that when you were President 'cheerful and willing obedience to the lawful commands of civilian superiors' was a virtue?"

"When I was President, you insubordinate young sprout, your civilian superiors knew what they were doing. This bunch of fuck-ups wouldn't know a sane military policy if it shot them in the ass, and you know it!"

"You know a serving officer has no right to admit that. Besides, you're far more eloquent than I. And you carry a bigger stick."

Anderson grunted and folded his hands over the head of his cane. Despite the lightness of his earlier words, he knew Li was right. Commander Anderson had won the first battle of ISW-1, and Admiral of the Fleet Anderson had ended it as chief of naval operations, a post he'd retained throughout ISW-2. In a very real sense, the Terran Federation Navy had been his personal creation, and then he'd stepped over into politics. By the time of the Third Interstellar War, he'd been serving his second term as President Anderson. Even now, when he was all but retired, he commanded a unique respect.

Unfortunately, respect and power weren't the same thing.

There'd been intrigues enough within the Fleet, but at least responsibility and the chain of command were always reasonably well defined. Politics were different. He'd never been comfortable with greasy-mouthed politicos, and he'd spent a great deal of his time in office keeping people like Sakanami Hideoshi and Pericles Waldeck out of office.

He sighed, feeling the full weight of his age. He supposed those two—and especially Waldeck—bothered him so because he was at least partly responsible for their existence, but they represented a new and dangerous power in the Assembly, and what Anderson didn't know about their plans worried him far more than what he did.

He'd always been unhappy over the chartered companies, yet the Federation of a century ago could never have built the Navy and financed colonization without ruinous taxation. The Khanate had simply been too big to match credit-for-credit, even with humanity's greater productivity, so something had to give, and that something had been BuCol.

It had made good financial sense to license chartered companies to finance colonization as a profit-making proposition. It had freed current revenues and expanded the tax base at an incredible rate, and Anderson knew he'd been at least as strident about the need to fund the Fleet as anyone. But the companies had been too successful. The Assembly had been unable to resist turning them into money machines, offering ever greater incentives. Before the practice finally ended in 2275, some of the chartered companies had acquired virtual ownership of entire worlds.

Yet Anderson was less concerned by the planetary oligarchies the chartered companies had birthed on what were coming to be known as the "Corporate Worlds" than by the way those oligarchies were extending themselves into an interstellar political machine of immense potential power.

The chartered companies had concentrated on choice real estate in strategic star systems, which had suited the Federation's military needs by providing populations to support Fleet bases and fortifications in choke point systems. But the Corporate World oligarchs were more concerned with the economic implications of their positions. Their warp lines carried the life blood of the Federation's trade, and they used that advantage ruthlessly to exploit less fortunately placed worlds.

Anderson found their tactics reprehensible, and he was deeply concerned by the hostility they provoked among the Out Worlds, but he would be safely dead before that problem came home to roost. He'd done his best to sound a warning, yet no one seemed to be listening, so he'd concentrated on more immediate worries, particularly military policy.

Now that the oligarchs had it made, they were far from eager to create potential rivals, so they'd cheerfully repealed the chartered company statutes and resurrected BuCol. They'd been less interested in paying for it, however, and they'd beaten off every effort to raise taxes. Instead, their Liberal-Progressive Party had found the money by slashing military appropriations.

The Fleet was badly understrength, and the state of the Reserve was scandalous. Officially, BuShips' moth-balled Reserve should have at least seventy-five percent of Battle Fleet's active strength in each class, yet it boasted barely thirty-six percent of its authorized numerical strength . . . and less than ten percent of its authorized tonnage. And the ships it did have hadn't been modernized in thirty years! It was bitterly ironic, but the worlds settled under a military-economic policy of expedience were now killing the very military which had spawned them.

The LibProgs might point to the Treaty of Valkha and fifty years of peace, but Howard Anderson knew better than most that when something went wrong it usually did so with dispatch, and Battle Fleet was twenty percent understrength for its peacetime obligations. In the event of a shooting war, any substantial losses would be catastrophic.

Which, he reminded himself, straightening in his chair, was why Sakanami's current policy was the next best thing to certifiable lunacy.

"Chien-lu," he said softly, "they can't send that much of the Fleet into Lorelei. Not until we know exactly what we're really up against."

"Then you'd better convince them of it," Admiral Li sighed. "For your personal—and private—information, Admiral Brandenburg and I said the same thing. Loudly. We have, however, been overruled by the defense minister and President Sakanami. And that, as you must realize as well as I, is that."

Anderson began a hot retort, then stopped and nodded unhappily.

"You're right," he said. "I'll just have to take the bastards on again and hope. In the meantime, how's the family?"

"Well, thank you." Admiral Li's smile thanked him for the change of subject. "Hsu-ling has emigrated, you know."

"No, I didn't know, but I approve. The Heart Worlds are getting too damned bureaucratic for my taste. If I were a half-century younger, I'd go out-world myself. Where is he?"

"He and my charming daughter-in-law signed up for the Hangchow Colony, and you should see the holos they've sent back! Their planetary charter is a bit traditional for my taste, but I'm seriously considering retiring there myself."

"You do that, Chien-lu, and I'll load this ancient carcass on a ship for a visit."

"It's a deal," Admiral Li said, and grinned toothily.

* * *

" . . . and so," Defense Minister Hamid O'Rourke said, "in accordance with the President's directives, the required units have been ordered to rendezvous in the Redwing System to proceed to Lorelei in company with Special Envoy Aurelli. That concludes my brief, Madam Speaker."

"Thank you, Mister O'Rourke." Speaker of the Legislative Assembly Chantal Duval's cool, clear voice carried well. Now her image replaced O'Rourke's on the huge screen about her podium. "Is there any discussion?"

Howard Anderson pressed his call key and watched Duval's eyes drop to her panel.

"The Chair recognizes President Emeritus Howard Anderson," she said, and the mutter of side conversations ended as Anderson replaced her image on the huge screen behind her podium. Even after all these years, his ego found the attention flattering, and he propped himself a shade more aggressively on his cane as an antidote.

"Thank you, Madam Speaker. I will be brief, but I would be derelict in my duty if I did not voice my concern—my very grave concern—over the Administration's plans." The silence became a bit more profound, and he saw a few uneasy faces. His caustic attacks on the Sakanami-Waldeck military policies had a nasty habit of singling out delegates who'd received their kilo of flesh to support them.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, we have agreed to assume the role of khimhok in this confrontation between the individuals who call themselves 'Thebans' and the Khanate. As one who knows Khan Liharnow personally, I may, perhaps, have a better grasp than many of his tremendous concession in allowing us to do so, and, as President Sakanami, I see no alternative but to accept it. Yet we must be cautious. While circumstantial evidence certainly appears to confirm that the Thebans are descendants of the Lorelei Massacre's survivors, all the evidence to date is just that—circumstantial. And even if they have been correctly identified, aspects of their conduct both before and since their attack on the Tenth Destroyer Squadron cause me to have grave reservations.

"First, they have, as yet, failed to explain to my satisfaction why they refused even to consider that Lieutenant Johansen's messages outlined the true state of affairs. It is evident from the courier drones the Khanate has made available to us that they never had the least intention of making rendezvous to confirm or disprove her statements; their sole purpose was to close to decisive range and annihilate Lord Talphon's command.

"Second, they have permitted only unarmed courier vessels to enter Lorelei since our first attempts to communicate with them, and they continue to refuse all physical contact. Their visual links to our courier ships have also been most unsatisfactory, and I find these 'technical difficulties' of theirs suspiciously persistent.

"Third, they continue to refuse to explain how colony ships survived transit into the Theban System when no survey ships have done so.

"Fourth, they have now refused all further negotiations until we demonstrate our ability to protect them from Orion reprisals by dispatching to Lorelei sufficient forces to mount a creditable defense of the system. Coming after their steadfast refusal to permit even a single destroyer into the system, this seems a trifle peculiar, to say the very least."

He paused to gauge the effect of his remarks. One or two faces looked thoughtful, but most were bored. None of what he'd said, after all, was new.

"I can readily understand that a colony which has been isolated for almost a century would be cautious. I can even understand a certain degree of paranoid intransigence, given the traumatic circumstances which carried their ancestors to Thebes in the first place. What I do not understand is why that cautious culture should now obligingly invite us to send no less than thirty percent of Battle Fleet to their very doorstep. It is all very well to call it a major step forward, but it is a step which appears to make very little sense. If they are truly beginning to feel more confident, why do they not invite one of our harmless, unarmed courier craft to make the first contact? Surely that would be the rational approach. This sounds entirely too much like their offer to Lord Talphon."

This time, he saw some concern in his audience when he paused.

"Certainly it would be insane of any single planet to challenge both the Orions and us, but we may err seriously if we assume they are rational by normal standards. Were the Fleet up to strength, I might feel less concern, but the Fleet is not up to strength, and we can neither be certain what a potentially irrational culture may do nor risk substantial Fleet losses."

He paused once more, wondering if he should state his case even more strongly, then decided against it. The LibProgs already called him a senile crackpot in private.

"Madam Speaker, while military and diplomatic policy fall within the purview of the Executive, the Constitution grants the Assembly an oversight role, specifically confirmed by the Executive Powers Act of 2283. I therefore move that this Assembly instruct the Administration to hold its 'Peace Fleet' at readiness in Redwing pending a fresh approach to the Thebans, and that the Thebans be informed that the Federation requires direct, face-to-face contact before any Federation warship enters the Lorelei System. If these people are sincerely eager to rejoin the rest of humanity, they will accept. If they are not sincere, it would be the height of foolhardiness for us to expose so substantial a portion of our Navy to risk without overwhelming support.

"Thank you."

He sat in silence, and Speaker Duval's image reappeared.

"It has been moved that the Administration be instructed to hold the 'Peace Fleet' in Redwing until such time as the Thebans agree to direct contact with Federation negotiators," she said clearly. "Is there a second?"

"Madam Speaker, I second the motion." It was Andrew Spruance of Nova Terra, one of Anderson's Conservative Party allies.

"Ladies and Gentlemen of the Assembly, the motion has been seconded. Is there any debate?" An attention chime sounded almost instantly, and Duval looked up. "The Chair recognizes the Honorable Assemblyman for Christophon."

"Thank you, Madam Speaker." Pericles Waldeck, the LibProg Assembly leader and Anderson's personal bête-noire, smiled from the screen. "As the distinguished President Emeritus, I will be brief.

"No one in this Chamber can match President Anderson's lifetime of experience. As both war hero and statesman, he deserves our most serious attention. In this instance, however, I am unable to agree with him. Prudence, certainly, is much to be admired, but President Sakanami has been prudent. Three months have passed since the regrettable attack on the Orion squadron—three months in which no Theban vessel has attempted to depart the Lorelei System or fired upon any of our courier craft within it. They have been cautious, true, and perhaps less than courteous and forthcoming by our standards, but let us remember their history. Is it reasonable to expect any culture which began in massacre and desperate flight from the Orions, which must have spent virtually an entire century in preparation to return and, if necessary, confront those same Orions, to react in any other way?

"I am not well versed in technical matters, but many experts have agreed that the communications problems cited by the Thebans are, indeed, possible, particularly when technologies attempt to interface once more after a ninety-one-year separation. And their sudden about-face in requesting a powerful Fleet presence does not strike me as inconsistent. After all their people have endured, an element of 'show me' must be inevitable where their very survival is concerned.

"Finally, let us consider the strength President Sakanami proposes to commit to his Peace Fleet. We will be dispatching twenty-one capital ships, fifteen fleet and light carriers, and a strong escort of lighter units. The Thebans have shown no reluctance to allow our couriers to approach Charon's Ferry, and their fleet strength in Lorelei has never exceeded seventy vessels, only twelve of them capital ships. While this is an impressive strength for any isolated system—indeed, a strength which, following the Thebans' reunification with the rest of humanity, will do much to repair the weakness which President Anderson has often decried in our own Navy—it cannot be considered a serious threat to the Peace Fleet.

"With all of this in mind, and conceding every argument which urges caution, I cannot support President Anderson's contention that still more caution is required. Let us not jeopardize the chance to achieve a quick and peaceful resolution by an appearance of irresolution. Ladies and Gentlemen of the Assembly, I ask that President Emeritus Anderson's motion be denied.

"Thank you."

He sat, and Anderson leaned back, his own face expressionless, as the LibProg steamroller went smoothly to work. A dozen delegates rose to endorse Waldeck's words. They couldn't have been more respectful and deferential towards the Federation's "Grand Old Man," yet their very deference emphasized that he was an old man—one, perhaps, whom age had rendered alarmist.

And, he was forced to admit, many of their arguments made sense. A dangerously complacent sense, perhaps, but one against which he could offer little more than instinct. It might be an instinct honed by over a century of military and political service, but it couldn't be quantified as ship strengths could, and it wasn't enough to convince the Liberal Democrats or the handful of Independents to join his Conservatives in bucking a powerful president and his party under the terms of an act whose constitutionality had always been suspect. . . .

The final vote rejected his motion by more than three to one.


CHAPTER FOUR

A Slaughter of Innocents


Fleet Admiral Li Chien-lu frowned as Special Envoy Victor Aurelli entered his private briefing room and sat. Aurelli's patrician face wore a faintly supercilious smile, and Li was hard pressed to keep his frown from becoming a glare as he placed a memo chip on the conference table.

"Thank you for coming so promptly, Mister Aurelli," he said.

"You sounded rather emphatic," Aurelli replied with a slight shrug.

"I suppose I did. And if I did, Mister Aurelli, this"—Li tapped the chip sharply, eyes suddenly dagger-sharp—"is to blame."

"I take it those are my modest amendments to your . . . battle plans?"

"No, Mister Aurelli, they're your unwarranted intrusion into my standard operational directives."

Two pairs of eyes locked across the conference table, and there was no affability in either.

"Admiral," the envoy finally broke the silence, "this is a diplomatic mission, not an assault on a Rigelian PDC, and I do not propose to permit you or anyone else to jeopardize its success. This crisis is too grave to justify offering gratuitous insult to Theban sensibilities."

"Considering those same Thebans' record to date," Li returned coldly, "I fail to see how any prudent deployment of my forces could be deemed a 'gratuitous insult' to their gentler natures. And, sir, while you may command the mission, I command this task force."

"Which is a subordinate component of the over-all mission, Admiral. I direct your attention to paragraph three of your orders."

Aurelli's gentle smile made Li wish briefly that they were on one of the Out Worlds which had resurrected the code duello.

"I am aware of my instructions to cooperate with you, sir, but Fleet orders are for a flag officer's guidance. If in his judgment the situation on the spot requires prudent and timely precautions not visualized when those orders were written, he is expected to take them. And, Mister Aurelli, this latest Theban 'request' requires the precautions laid down in my ops order."

Aurelli sighed. The admiral was a typical Academy product: dedicated, professional, and utterly unable to see any further than his gunnery console. Of course the Thebans were acting irrationally! What else could anyone expect from a colony with their history? How would Admiral Li have felt if a "negotiator" allied with the Rigelians had told him the Third Interstellar War was all a misunderstanding?

That was why this was too important to botch by letting the military fumble around in charge of it.

"Admiral Li," he said, "you may not believe this, but I sympathize with your concerns. As a military commander, it's your duty to project possible threats and counter them. I accept that. But in this instance, I must insist that you follow the instructions I've given you."

"No." Aurelli's eyebrows rose at Li's flat refusal. "The Thebans have 'requested' that we rendezvous with them on their warp point with our entire strength. That will place my carriers and battle-cruisers twenty hours from the nearest friendly warp point. My battle-line units will be over a full day from it. I will not place my ships and my people in a position from which they cannot withdraw in the event of hostile action."

It was Li's turn to lean back and glare. Victor Aurelli was an ass. The sort of idiot who chopped away at every military budget on the theory that if the Fleet could do its job—somehow—last year, it could do it with a bit less this year. And now he wanted a third of Battle Fleet to advance beyond withdrawal range into a star system occupied by a fleet which had already demonstrated that it would shoot a man out from under a flag of truce?

"Admiral, have you detected any additional Theban units?"

"No, but a star system is a very large haystack. Against a ship with powered-down systems, our scanners have a maximum detection range of under five light-minutes under ideal conditions. The entire Orion Navy could be out there, and without a proper network of scan sats we'd never know it."

"But you have not detected any additional units?" Aurelli pressed, and Li shook his head curtly. "And if there were any such units, could they enter attack range without being detected?"

"Not without better cloaking technology than we know of," Li admitted.

"Excellent. Then whether there are additional Theban warships or not, we need concern ourselves immediately only with those we can detect. Given that, would you say you were confident of your ability to engage and defeat, if necessary, the forces you've so far identified?"

"Given that they have no radical technical or tactical surprises for me, and that there are no additional hostile forces hidden away, yes."

Aurelli hid a sigh. Why did the military always insist on qualifiers? They used the same worn-out tactic every time they demanded a bigger budget. If the Orions do this, if a new Rigelian Protectorate turns up, if the Ophiuchi do that, if, if, if, if!

"Admiral, if you were defending the Centauris System and the sole warp point to Sol, would you allow a hostile force into Centauris instead of trying to stop it at the warp points?"

"Under some circumstances, yes," Li said surprisingly. "If my forces were strong enough to defeat the enemy in a head-on engagement but too weak to block all potential entry warp points, I would concede the warp points rather than risk being defeated in detail. And"—his dark eyes stabbed the envoy like a force beam—"if I could, I'd suck the hostiles too deep in-system to run before I let them know I had the strength to smash them."

"I'm not going to argue anymore, Admiral." Aurelli's voice was cold. "You will muster the entire task force—not just a screen of cruisers and battle-cruisers—and advance to Charon's Ferry. You will rendezvous with the Thebans, and you will refrain from potentially provocative actions."

"Sir, I must respectfully refuse to do so," Li said equally coldly.

"You have no choice." Aurelli's thin smile was dangerous as he reached inside his jacket. "President Sakanami anticipated that there might be . . . differences of opinion between the military and civilian components of this mission, Admiral Li, and he took steps to resolve them."

Li unfolded the single sheet of paper, and his face tightened. The orders were crisp, cold, and to the point, and he refolded them very carefully before he returned them to the envelope.

* * *

"Do you really think they'll do it?"

First Admiral Lantu glanced at Fleet Chaplain Manak as he spoke, and the churchman shrugged. His yellow eyes were thoughtful as he stroked his cranial carapace, and his ring of office glinted on his three-fingered hand.

"Yes," he said finally. "I had my doubts when the Prophet decreed it, but Holy Terra works in mysterious ways. It would seem the infidels have been blinded by our words."

"I hope you're right," Lantu grunted, turning back to his large-scale nav display. The light dots of the infidel task force moved steadily towards him, led by the single destroyer squadron he'd sent out as guides and spies. It was hard for Lantu to believe anyone could be this stupid.

"I believe I am," Manak replied with the serenity of his faith. "The cursed Orions fell into your snare, my son. If the Satan-Khan's own children can be taken so easily, should not the apostate fall still more easily?"

Lantu didn't reply. Satan's children or no, those Orions had shown courage. It had been obvious from the initial reports that the boarding attack had been a total surprise. There'd been no hope of organized resistance, yet somehow Znamae's bridge officers had held long enough to blow their fusion plants . . . and take Kepler with them.

He glanced at the huge portrait of the Angel Saint-Just on the flag bridge bulkhead and closed his inner eyelids in sympathy. How must the Holy Messenger feel to see his own people brought so low?

* * *

Admiral Li sat on the superdreadnought Everest's flag bridge and ignored Victor Aurelli. Neither training nor personality would let him show his contempt before his officers, but he was damned if he'd pretend he liked the man.

"Coming into scan range of the Ferry now, sir," his chief of staff reported. "The drive source count looks consistent."

"Thank you, Christine. Any new messages from the Thebans?"

"None, sir."

Li nodded and watched his display. The "Peace Fleet" continued its stately advance at four percent of light-speed, and he tried not to think of how far from home they were.

* * *

"Hmmmm . . ." Admiral Lantu studied the images relayed from his flanking destroyers, then gestured to his flag captain. "Look there. See how carefully they're protecting those units?"

"Yes, sir." Captain Kurnash rubbed the ridge of his snout, staring at the ships at the center of the infidel formation. "Those are the ones that carry the small attack craft, sir."

"I know." Lantu drummed on the arm of his command chair and thought. Their contact vessels had watched the infidels closely since they'd entered Lorelei, and he'd viewed the reports on those small craft with interest. Their routine operations had shown they were fast and highly maneuverable, though he had no idea what their maximum operating range might be or what weapons they carried. Missiles, most probably, but what sort of missiles? The People had nothing like them, and the lack of any sort of comparative meterstick bothered him.

"I think we'd better deal with them first, Kurnash," he said at last. "Can we get salvos in there?"

"Certainly, sir. We won't be able to get to beam range immediately, but if they really wanted to protect them, they should have left them out of missile range."

"Thank Terra for Her favors, Captain, and get your revised fire plan set up. Oh, and send a drone to the reserve with the same instructions."

* * *

"Approaching rendezvous," Commander Christine Gianelli reported. "Range to Theban flagship fifteen light-seconds. ETA to contact six minutes."

"And the Thebans' status?" Li asked sharply.

"Shields down, as our own. We're picking up a lot of primary and secondary sensor emissions—mostly point defense tracking stations, though CIC thinks some may be targeting systems—but no Erlicher emissions, so at least they aren't warming up any force beams or primaries."

"Thank you." Li turned his chair to face Aurelli at last. "Mister Envoy, we are coming onto station," he said with cold formality. "I suggest you hail the Theban representatives."

"Thank you, Admiral, I think that would be an excellent idea," Aurelli said smugly, and Li nodded curtly to his com officer.

* * *

"The infidels are hailing us, Holiness."

Fleet Chaplain Manak glanced at his assistant and nodded.

"Are the computers ready?"

"They are, Holiness."

"Then we shall respond." Manak glanced at Admiral Lantu. "Are you ready, my son?"

"We are, Holiness." Manak noted the tension in Lantu's eyes and smiled. He'd watched the admiral grow to adulthood and knew how strong he was, but even the strongest could be excused a bit of strain at such a moment.

"Be at ease, my son," he said gently, "and prepare your courier drone. We shall give the infidels one last chance to prove they remain worthy of Holy Terra. If they are not, She will deliver them into your hand. Stand by."

"Standing by, Holiness."

* * *

"Greetings, Mister Aurelli. My name is Mannock."

The voice was clear, despite the poor visual image, and Victor Aurelli wondered what mix of colonist dialects had survived to produce its accent. The Standard English was crisp, but there was a hard edge to the vowels and a peculiar lisp to the sibilants. Not an unpleasant sound, but definitely a bit odd. And this Mannock was a handsome enough fellow—or might have been, if not for the flickering fuzz of those persistent technical problems.

"I'm pleased to meet you, sir," he replied, "and I look forward to meeting you in person."

"As I look forward to meeting you." The poor signal quality prevented Aurelli from noticing that the computer-generated image's lips weren't quite perfectly synchronized with the words.

"Then let us begin, Mister Mannock."

"Of course. We are already preparing to initiate docking with your flagship. In the meantime, however, I have a question I would like to ask."

Of course, Mister Mannock. Ask away."

"Do you"—the voice was suddenly more intent—"accept the truth of the Prophet's teaching, Mister Aurelli?"

Aurelli blinked, then frowned at the com screen.

"The teaching of which prophet, Mister Mannock?" he asked . . . and the universe exploded in his face.

* * *

"Incoming fire!" someone screamed, and Captain Nadine Wu, CO of TFNS Deerhound, stared at her display. Missiles were coming at her carrier—not one, or two, or a dozen, but scores of them!

"Impact in eighteen seconds—mark!" her gunnery officer snapped. "Weapons free. Stand by point defense."

"Launch the ready fighters!" Captain Wu ordered, never looking away from her plot. The stand-by squadron might get off before those missiles struck. No one else would.

* * *

"Oh, dear God!"

The anguished whisper came from Victor Aurelli, but Admiral Li had no time to spare the envoy.

"Execute Plan Charley!" he barked, and his answering missiles whipped away. But he needed time to power up the shields and energy weapons Aurelli had forbidden him to activate on the way in, and Everest trembled in agony as the first warheads erupted against her naked drive field.

"Captain Bowman reports we're streaming air, sir," Gianelli reported. "Datalink gone—we're out of the net."

"Acknowledged. Get those beams up, Christine! We need them badly—"

"Energy fire on Cottonmouth!" Li turned to his ops officer in surprise. Energy fire? How? They hadn't picked up any Erlicher emissions, so it couldn't be force beams, and the battleship was too far out for effective laser fire.

"Specify!"

"Unknown, sir. It appears to be some sort of x-ray laser."

"X-ray laser?" Li stole a second to glance at his own read-outs and winced as the impossible throughput readings registered.

"Cottonmouth is Code Omega, sir," Gianelli reported flatly. "And the carrier group's taking a pounding. Deerhound and Corgy are gone. So is Bogue, but she got about half her group off before they nailed her."

"Many hits on enemy flagship," Gunnery announced, and Li watched Saint-Just's dot flash and blink. His missiles were getting through despite her readied point defense, but her armor must be incredible. Her shields were still down and fireballs spalled her drive field like hellish strobes, but she wasn't even streaming atmosphere yet!

"Admiral Li!" He looked up at his Plotting officer's summons. "We're picking up additional drive fields, sir—they're coming out of the Ferry!"

Dispassionate computers updated the display silently, and Li looked at the destruction of his task force. They must have had a courier drone on the trips, ready to go the instant Aurelli fumbled their question. Now the rest of their fleet—the fleet no Terran had ever seen—was coming through, and six more superdreadnoughts headed the parade.

He swore silently and ran his eyes back over his own battered force. The carriers had taken the worst pounding. Half were gone and most of the rest were cruelly mauled—the bastards must have gunned for them on purpose. His surviving units were getting their shields up at last, but most of the capital ships were already streaming air. At least half of them must have lost their datalink, which meant they'd be forced to fight as individuals against trios of enemy ships whose fire would be synchronized to the second. Worse, it was already obvious the "Peace Fleet's" supposed numerical advantage was, in fact, a disadvantage.

They'd timed it well. If he'd been only a little closer to the Ferry, he might have been able to bull through and sit on it, smashing their reserves as they made transit. As it was, he couldn't quite get there in time, and trying to would only put him closer to those damned lasers. They were almost as long-ranged as his force beams and, unlike force beams, they could stab straight through his shields. If he got even closer to them—

"Pull us back, Christine." He was amazed he sounded so calm.

"Aye, aye, sir," his chief of staff said levelly, though she knew as well as he that backing off the warp point was tantamount to admitting defeat.

If only more of his fighters had gotten into space! The ones which had launched were doing their best, but once their missiles were expended they would have only their single onboard laser mounts, because there would no longer be any hangar decks to rearm them. Only Elkhound and Constellation had gotten their full groups off, and even now heavy missile salvos were bearing down on both frantically evading carriers.

"Sir!" The utter disbelief in Gianelli's voice wrenched his head around. She sat bolt-upright at her console, her face white. "Greyhound reports she's being boarded, sir!"

* * *

"Ramming Fleet in position, Admiral. First samurai salvos away.

"Thank you, Plot. Captain Kurnash, where are my shields? I—Ahhhh!"



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