Yes, Antonov thought, I can use him. And, of course, to refuse his offer could hardly help Federation-Khanate relations, which needed all the help they could get, at the moment. But . . .
"Lord Kthaara," he began awkwardly, "I fully appreciate the significance of your offer, and I am grateful for it. But there are difficulties. As I don't need to tell you, any military organization has its professional jealousies . . . which can only be inflamed by bringing in an outsider to fill a billet as high as your rank and experience warrant. . . ."
"Rest assured, Admiral," Kthaara interrupted, "I will serve in any capacity you can find for me. If you want me to pilot a fighter, or operate a weapons console, I will do it."
And that, Antonov reflected, said a great deal about how serious Kthaara was. His clan had a high reputation, even among Orions, for the warriors it produced. Most Orion clan names and titles of nobility were identical, commemorating the heroism in battle which had earned their first Clan Father his lordship; the khanhaku of Clan Zarthan bore a secondary title, which was a proud honor indeed. For Kthaara to accept such a subordinate position was an almost unheard of concession, but even so . . .
"Unfortunately, that isn't the only problem." Antonov took a deep breath. "Our races have been allies for fifty Terran years, but it is an alliance that many in the Navy are still uncomfortable with. You see, fighting you was the TFN's reason for coming into existence in the first place. Before we met you, our Federation had no real military forces at all. The humans of that era believed that war was something that would never happen again . . . that any advanced civilization, anywhere, must be nonviolent."
"Why did they think that?" Kthaara asked, genuinely curious.
"Er . . . never mind. The point is, and I must be blunt, that dislike of your race is something of a tradition in the TFN. I regret that this is the case; but it is my duty to consider the effect the prejudices of others may have on the morale and effectiveness of my forces."
"Admiral, I fully understand. There are those among my race who still think of Humans as chofaki, in spite of the history of the Third Interstellar War . . . and in spite of Humans like my cousin's liaison officer, whom I believe you knew."
"Lieutenant Johansen?" Antonov was surprised anew. "Yes, I knew her; she served with my staff before her posting to Lord Khardanish's squadron. She was a fine officer. But—"
"A fine officer whom you encouraged to perfect her understanding of the Tongue of Tongues," Kthaara agreed with the Orion ear flick of acknowledgment. "Which is why I think you will be interested to know that her name has been entered among the Mothers in Honor of Clan Zarthan. My cousin, in his last courier drone, requested this . . . and made clear that she was fully deserving of it, that none of the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee could have better satisfied the demands of honor than she." He drew himself up. "I myself may do no less!"
For a moment, two pairs of eyes produced by two altogether separate evolutions met. Then Antonov spoke gruffly.
"Commissioning a foreign citizen is a little irregular, but with the good offices of such a dignitary as the Minister of War Production . . ."
Anderson smiled beatifically.
* * *
Admiral Antonov's staff contained an unusually high proportion of "Tabby experts." Despite that, and even though they'd known about it in advance, they couldn't quite hide their reaction when he entered the briefing room with a Whisker-Twister wearing a harness of TFN black-and-silver with the insignia of a commander in tow.
"As you were," Antonov rumbled, then continued matter-of-factly. "I would like to introduce Commander Kthaara'zarthan, who will be serving as Special Deputy Operations Officer of Strikefighter Operations." The title had been hammered out hours before, and the rank was a diplomatic courtesy. (The legal officer had been brought to the edge of a nervous breakdown by Kthaara's polite but relentless insistence that he was in no sense a diplomatic representative.) But none of that mattered. If Ivan the Terrible said the Tabby was a commander, then the Tabby was a commander. Very simple.
"Now," Antonov continued, with the air of a man who has made the most routine of announcements, "Lieutenant Commander Trevayne has prepared an intelligence update." He gestured to the intelligence officer, who activated a warp line display.
Winnifred Trevayne's face was dark, but her features were sharply chiseled and her speech held not a trace of the lilt an ancestor had brought from Jamaica in the late twentieth century; it was all clipped, upper-middle-class British.
"Thank you, Admiral. The Thebans have, at last report, secured the Laramie System." There was no reaction from the others; the news wasn't unexpected, and they were inured to shock by now. Trevayne summarized the fragmentary reports of fleeing survivors, adding: "This, combined with their known presence at QR-107, puts them in a position to attack Redwing along either—or both—of two axes. We do not know if they are in the same position vis-a-vis Griffin; the Manticore System has fallen, but at last report the Basil System had not."
"Thank you, Commander," Antonov said impassively. Then he addressed the room at large. "We now face the decision we knew must come. The Thebans have reached The Line at two points. They must know from captured data that they are finally about to run into something hard. Since there has been nothing stupid about their conduct of the war so far, we must assume they will concentrate their forces accordingly. The question is: will they attack Griffin or Redwing?" His voice seemed to drop an octave. "We must assume that their captured navigational data is complete. If so, they know Redwing is on the direct line to Sol. On this basis, I believe that Redwing is where they will attack. But, since we cannot be certain, I have no option but to divide our forces."
No one spoke. Antonov had invited neither comment nor advice. He'd taken the entire terrifying responsibility on his own massive shoulders.
"I will," he resumed, "take personal command of the Redwing task force. Captain Tsuchevsky," he said, turning to his chief of staff, "signal Vice Admiral Chebab. He will be taking the other task force to Griffin." Everyone present knew that dividing Antonov's new "Second Fleet" would result in two contingents whose size could scarcely justify the term "task force."
"And now, ladies and gentlemen," Antonov continued, "I believe we have a long night ahead of us."
"To Smite the Infidel . . ."
First Admiral Lantu watched the display as the destroyer slipped into orbit about Thebes, and frowned. He was too dutiful a son of the Church to begrudge the Synod's orders to return and confer, yet he found himself resenting the priceless time it took.
So far, the infidels had failed to mass a proper force against either First or Second Fleet, but he'd spent too many hours poring over captured data to expect that to continue. He'd smashed far more of their fleet in Lorelei than he'd dared hope, but they had reserves. And the Federation had grown far vaster than the Synod had believed possible. The infidels had found some way to make colonies spring up like weeds since the Year of the Annunciation, and Holy Terra's Sword must strike deep, and soon, or be overwhelmed.
He sighed heavily, and Fleet Chaplain Manak chuckled beside him.
"Patience, my son," he murmured.
"Is it so obvious?" Lantu asked with a grin.
"To one who has watched you grow from childhood? Yes. To the Synod? Perhaps not, if you keep your wits about you."
"I'll bear it in mind," Lantu said softly.
* * *
The chairs in TFS Starwalker's briefing auditorium were uncomfortable for Theban legs, but no one had ever even considered replacing them. The Synod of Holy Terra sat in state in its hallowed meeting place, eyes bright as Lantu entered with a measured tread and genuflected to the Prophet. He basked in their approval, yet he felt tension hovering like smoke.
"The blessing of Holy Terra upon you, my son," the Prophet said sonorously. "You return on the wings of victory, and we are well pleased."
"I thank you, Your Holiness," Lantu murmured, and the Prophet smiled.
"No doubt you begrudge time away from your fleet, First Admiral." Lantu glanced up in surprise, and the Prophet's smile grew. "That is only to be expected of a warrior, my son. We are not all"—the Prophet's glance rose to brush the grizzled bishops and archbishops—"too old and weary to understand that." There was a mutter of laughter, for the Prophet was even younger than Lantu.
"Yet it was necessary to recall you briefly. You are our warlord, the anointed champion of Holy Terra, and we require your advice."
"I am at your disposal, Your Holiness."
"Thank you." The Prophet gestured at a chair beside him. "Please, be seated, and I will explain our quandary."
Lantu obeyed, though he would have preferred to remain standing. It seemed impious to sit in the Prophet's presence.
"Now," the Prophet said briskly, "there has been some lively debate in this chamber, First Admiral. Your victories in Lorelei began our jihad with great success, yet success sometimes breeds dissension."
Lantu swallowed unobtrusively and looked out from the stage to find Manak. As First Fleet Chaplain, the old man was second only to the Prophet in rank, and his smile was comforting.
"The Messenger himself warned that Holy Terra might fall into the Satan-Khan's power, yet none of us ever truly anticipated the horror you discovered, my son," the Prophet continued, "and the truth has thrown us into turmoil. Our goal was to launch our jihad against the Satan-Khan, but the discovery of the Federation's apostasy divides us over how best to proceed. One portion of the Synod believes we should return to our original plan; another believes we must first crush the apostate. Both are infidel, so there is merit on both sides, and since we have not reached consensus, we ask you to speak your mind. Tell us how you think best to smite the infidel."
Lantu had suspected what they would ask, but the Prophet gave no sign of his own opinion, and the admiral gathered his thoughts with care.
"Your question is difficult, Your Holiness, and Holy Terra did not call me to the priesthood, so I can speak only to its military aspects. Is that satisfactory?"
"Thank you, Your Holiness. In that case, I would begin by setting forth the military position as I now understand it.
"So far, we have occupied ten of the apostates' star systems and four of their starless warp junctions. We've also taken three unpopulated star systems from the Satan-Khan, which brings us almost into contact with the permanent fortifications of both of our enemies. Only one apostate system—Danzig—has withstood us. We could take Danzig, but the system's warp point is heavily fortified; our initial probe was thrown back with heavy losses, and I have decided against further attacks until we can deal decisively with the infidels' remaining fleet strength. The cost of Danzig's final conquest, though not unbearable for the capture of an entire star system, will be high. Indeed, no matter which direction we next strike, we will confront permanent defenses and, I fear, pay a high price to break through them. It is for that reason that I wish to defer attacks against nonessential objectives in the immediate future.
"Our losses to date are not severe in light of our achievements: a superdreadnought, four battleships, seven battle-cruisers, five heavy and light cruisers, and a dozen or so destroyers. Several more ships are under repair, but most of our losses will be made good by the repair of our prizes."
He paused and folded his hands before him.
"Before I continue, Your Holiness, may I ask Archbishop Ganhad to explore the question of weapons production for us?"
"Of course." The Prophet gestured for the stumpy old archbishop, the Synod's Minister of Production, to rise.
"Thank you, Your Holiness." Lantu turned to Ganhad. "Your Grace is more knowledgeable than I. Could you explain briefly to the Synod how what we've learned of the infidels' weapons affects our own production plans?"
"I can." Ganhad turned to face his fellows. "The infidels have attained a generally higher level of technology than the People," he said bluntly. "The gap is not tremendous, and some of our weapons surpass theirs, yet it exists.
"They have no equivalent of our samurai sleds, nor have we seen any equivalent of our Ramming Fleet, and their lasers, while somewhat more sophisticated in manufacture, are much less powerful and shorter ranged than our own.
"It would appear that they possess only four major weapon systems which we do not, and one is merely a highly refined development of another.
"First of these is the so-called 'capital missile,' which marries a long-ranged drive and powerful seeking systems with a heavy warhead. Such weapons can engage us from beyond our own range, and they carry ECM systems which make them difficult for point defense to stop. Accordingly, we've made their development our first priority, and our own capital missiles will begin reaching the fleet shortly.
"Second are the attack craft they call 'fighters.' These are one- and two-man craft, armed with short-ranged missiles and light lasers, capable of operating up to several light-minutes from their carriers. Their data base and tactical manuals indicate that they think highly of this weapon, but it has not proven effective in any of our engagements. Further, the infidels have developed the 'AFHAWK'—a small, high-speed missile with a light warhead but very sensitive homing systems—for anti-fighter defense. This weapon is ingenious but straightforward and is already in production. In light of the inefficacy of their fighters to date and our possession of the AFHAWK, we've given development of our own fighters a low priority.
"Third is the device they call a 'force beam.' While somewhat longer-ranged than our lasers, with a better power-to-mass ratio, it is simply a powerful Erlicher generator—or tractor beam—of alternating polarity. In essence, it wrenches its target apart by switching from tractor to presser mode in microsecond bursts. Although it cannot penetrate intact shields as lasers can, it remains a most formidable weapon. Since, however, it is no more than an application of technology we already possess, we can put it into production rapidly if we so desire.
"Fourth, but perhaps most important, is their 'primary' beam. In simplest terms, this is merely a vastly refined force beam so powerful and focused as to overload and penetrate shields locally. In addition, its power is sufficient to punch through the thickest armor or, indeed, anything in its path. It is slow-firing and its focus is extremely narrow—no more than four or five centimeters—but that is quite sufficient to disable any system. Since, however, it is basically only a powerful force beam, development of the one should lead naturally to development of the other, and we expect to have both in production shortly, although we will assign a higher manufacturing priority to the primary in light of our laser weapons' superiority."
He turned to Lantu with a courteous bob of his head.
"I trust that covers your question, First Admiral?"
"It does, indeed, Your Grace." Lantu chose not to mention that his own reports had suggested giving rather more priority to the fighter. The infidels hadn't yet had a chance to employ them as their tactical doctrine decreed, and the prospect of facing swarms of small, fast attackers operating from ships he couldn't reach was an unpleasant one. But development and production facilities had to be prioritized somehow, and a warrior—as he'd been rather pointedly told—fought with the weapons he had, not the ones he wished for.
He turned back to the task at hand.
"As I see it, Your Holiness, we have two strategic options and, within them, two operational problems.
"First, we may attack the Satan-Khan. This must, of course, be our ultimate goal. Until he's defeated, Holy Terra can never be safe, yet he has so far been content to let us smite the apostate unhindered. No doubt he finds this entertaining, but it may well prove his downfall.
"Second, we may continue to attack the apostate, and this, I think, is the wiser choice. We've occupied three of their inhabited worlds, and all we've seen suggests that it shouldn't be difficult to convert their industrial plants to our own use. If, in addition to this, the Holy Inquisition can bring substantial numbers of infidels to recant and embrace the True Faith, we will acquire large additions to our labor force. Finally—forgive me, I realize this is a spiritual consideration, yet it must be mentioned—we may liberate Holy Terra Herself much more rapidly if we continue to advance towards Her.
"If the Satan-Khan is prepared to allow us to defeat the Federation and add its industry to our own, then his own conceit will be his undoing."
He paused and saw Manak's approving nod. More importantly, he saw several other prelates nodding slowly.
"That is well-argued, my son," the Prophet said softly. "But what of these operational problems you mentioned?"
"Your Holiness, we've driven as far into infidel space as we can without confronting their fortifications. I lack sufficient data on what they call 'The Line' to evaluate its strength, but while the forts are quite old, the infidels seem to consider them powerful, which suggests they've been refitted and updated heavily. Certainly the only fortifications we've actually encountered—those of the Danzig System—are, indeed, formidable.
"Further, we know their reserves have not yet been committed. I would feel happier if they had been, preferably in bits and pieces we might defeat in detail. Instead, the infidels seem intent on gathering strength for a heavy blow.
"Our problems thus are, first, whether or not to continue to advance and, related but separate, how we shall advance.
"At the moment, we have near parity with the infidels, and no other sectors to guard. We are concentrated, if you will, to an extent they cannot match. But if we suffer heavy losses, we may forfeit that advantage.
"On the other hand, we occupy systems they must eventually seek to regain. I suggest, therefore, that we stand temporarily on the defense and let them come to us in order to eliminate as much as possible of their reserves before we assay 'The Line.' "
"Stand on the defense?!" An elderly bishop jerked upright in shock. "When you've defeated them so easily at every attempt?"
Lantu glanced at the Prophet, who nodded for him to reply.
"Forgive me, Your Grace, but to date we've had the advantage of surprise and overwhelming numbers against naked warp points. Contested warp point assaults will be costly, particularly if we attack fleet units supported by fixed defenses. If, on the other hand, we revert to a defensive stance, we invite their attack and we hold the defender's advantage."
"So your defensive stance is actually an offensive one?" Manak asked.
"Exactly, Holiness," Lantu said gratefully.
"Yet you yourself point to their greater resources!" the bishop protested. "If we yield the initiative, may they not assemble such force as to overwhelm us, defensive advantage or no?"
"That is, of course, possible, but the infidels are not wizards. It takes time to build ships, and if much time passes without an attack, we may rethink our own deployments. But it seems wiser to me to tempt them into a mistake than to make one ourselves."
"Hmph!" the bishop snorted. "These are not the words I expected of a warrior! You say our losses are scarcely a score of ships, while they have lost many times that many—is this not a sign their apostasy has sapped their ability to fight? With Holy Terra at your side, do you fear to confront so contemptible a foe?"
Lantu bit off a hot retort as he recalled the stubborn, hopeless fight of the infidel battle-line at Lorelei. Whatever else it was, the Federation was not a "contemptible foe," but he must be wary of charges of cowardice.
"Your Grace," he said carefully, "with Holy Terra at my side, I fear neither to confront any foe nor to die. I only advocate caution. We have won great victories against a powerful enemy; I would not see them thrown away through overconfidence."
He dared say nothing stronger, but he saw disagreement on the bishop's face—and others—and his heart sank. The Synod hadn't personally faced the infidels. They had only his reports, and the bishop hadn't seen—or had ignored—the warnings he'd tried to give.
"Thank you, my son," the Prophet said expressionlessly. "You have spoken well. Now we ask you to retire while the Synod debates."
"Of course, Your Holiness." Lantu effaced himself and left, trying not to let his apprehension show.
* * *
More than an hour passed before Manak rejoined Lantu in the small antechamber. The old churchman's expression was heavy as he beckoned to Lantu, and the admiral fell in beside him as he headed for Starwalker's ramp. The chaplain rested one hand on his shoulder and shook his head.
"They've heeded you, in part. We will let the Satan-Khan wait. It makes good sense to gain the Federation's resources, and it is our duty to reclaim the apostate for the Faith, so you left little to argue on that point. But they reject your proposal to stand on the defensive."
"Hush, my son." Manak looked about quickly, then spoke in a softer voice. "I expected that to come from old Bishop Wayum, but the Prophet himself agreed. The matter is closed. We will continue the attack."
The assembled officers rose silently as Admiral Antonov entered the briefing room, accompanied by Kthaara and Captain Tsuchevsky.
"As you were." The admiral's bass voice was quiet—ominously so, Tsuchevsky thought. He'd known Antonov for years, and he knew the signs. In particular, he noted that the boss's faint accent was just a trifle less faint than usual.
"Commodore Chandra," Antonov addressed the CO of Redwing Fortress Command, "I have reviewed your proposals for defensive dispositions. I believe the essence of these is that all orbital fortresses be tractored to within tactical range of the Laramie and QR-107 warp points, there to fight a delaying action while Second Fleet covers the evacuation of essential personnel to Cimmaron."
"Correct, sir," Chandra acknowledged. He and the others were actually showing relief at Antonov's calm and measured tone, Tsuchevsky noted with a kind of horrified fascination. "Of course," Chandra babbled on, "I've given a high priority to detaching part of Second Fleet's assets to cover the Novaya Rodina warp point during the withdrawal. I was certain this would be a matter of special concern to you and—" an unctuous nod "—Captain Tsuchevsky."
"I took note of this, Commodore. I also took note," Antonov continued just as emotionlessly, "that the 'essential personnel' to be evacuated included the upper management levels of the Galloway's World industrial interests with branches here . . . as well as everyone in this room." The increase in volume was so gradual only the most sensitive souls perceived it. Chandra was not among them.
"Er, well, Admiral, there are, after all, a hundred and fifty million people on Redwing. Since we can't possibly evacuate all of them, we have to consider who among those we can evacuate will be most useful to the war effort, so certain hard choices . . . yes, Hard Choices . . . must be made. And, obviously, special consideration must be given to—"
"You are relieved, Commodore." Antonov's voice cut Chandra's off as if the latter hadn't existed. "There is a courier ship leaving for Terra at 22:00; you will be on it . . . along with my report to Admiral Brandenburg."
Chandra blinked stupidly. "But, but, Admiral sir, I only . . ."
"Do you wish to add insubordination to charges of incompetence and cowardice, Commodore Chandra?" Antonov wasn't—exactly—shouting, but his voice had become a sustained roar from which everyone physically flinched, "Yob' tvoyu mat'!" Realizing he'd lapsed into Russian, he obligingly provided a translation. "Fuck your mother! Get out of here and confine yourself to quarters until departure, you worthless chernozhopi!"
Chandra's staff sat paralyzed as he stood clumsily, face pale, and then stumbled from the room. Tsuchevsky sighed softly in relief that Antonov hadn't continued his translation—the fine old Russian term of disapprobation "black ass" might have been even more offensive than the admiral intended. Every other face was blank . . . except Kthaara'zarthan's. The Orion watched Chandra with a grin that bared his ivory fangs.
"Now," Antonov continued, not quite as loudly (one could merely feel the vibrations through the soles of one's feet), "the rest of you will continue in your present duties . . . on a probationary basis, contingent upon acceptable performance of those duties. And I trust I have made clear my feelings on the subject of defeatism." His voice lost a little volume but became, if possible, even deeper. "There will be no more talk of retreats or evacuations! The Line will hold! As of now all leaves are canceled. Captain Lopez!" That worthy jumped in his chair. "You are now a commodore. You should regard this not as a promotion but as an administrative necessity for you to assume Commodore Chandra's duties. You will coordinate with Captain Tsuchevsky to schedule operational readiness exercises around the redeployment of this system's defenses." He activated the room's holographic unit and indicated the orbital works surrounding the Laramie and QR-107 warp points. "All of these fortresses are to be tractored —here." The cursor flashed across the planetary system to the Cimmaron warp point.
The Fortress Command staff's shock was now complete. Lopez found his tongue. "But, sir, what will we use to defend the Thebans' entry warp points? And what about the Novaya Rodina warp point?"
"Nothing is to defend the ingress warp points, Commodore," Antonov rumbled. "If we try to defend them, not knowing which the Thebans will choose, we must divide our forces. And even if we stop them, they will simply bring in reinforcements and try again. And they have reserves available now." He glared around the table. "I will attempt—one more time—to make myself clear: this is not a delaying action. Our objective is to smash the Thebans! If any one of you fails to understand this, or to carry out my orders, I'll break him.
"As for the Novaya Rodina warp point," Antonov continued after a pause of a few heartbeats, "its defenses are not to be reinforced. Novaya Rodina is a major warp nexus—but mostly of warp lines leading to uninhabited systems. The Thebans must know this. And, so far, they've consistently advanced toward the Inner Worlds. I believe they will continue to do so."
The briefing room was silent again, but this time not entirely from fear. Everyone present knew Antonov had relatives on Novaya Rodina . . . and that Pavel Sergeyevich Tsuchevsky was one of the first native-born citizens of that fledgling colony.
"And now," Antonov resumed, "we have much planning to do. In particular, it is necessary that Fortress Command and Second Fleet coordinate fighter operations. Commander Kthaara'zarthan will be in charge of this project." He paused, then continued in the calm, low voice no one in the room was ever likely to misinterpret again. "Is this a problem for anyone?"
* * *
The disorientation of warp transit faded as Hildebrandt Jackson followed her escorts into Redwing, and First Admiral Lantu watched the superdreadnought's displays confirm his advance elements' incredible report. The warp point was undefended.
It was anticlimactic . . . and disquieting. Holy Terra's warriors had prepared themselves for Her sternest test yet: an assault on a warp point of the infidels' long-established, much-vaunted "Line." But already his scouts were proceeding unmolested across the system as his capital ships emerged into an eerie calm which shouldn't exist.
"I don't like this, Holiness," he said, but quietly. His subordinates must not see his uncertainty. "All our data speaks of massive fortifications at all of Redwing's warp points, and simple sanity says the infidels must commit their available mobile forces to its defense. So where are they?"
"Ah, my son, who can fathom the minds of the apostate?" Manak said too calmly. He knew better than to fall into the Synod's complacency, and Lantu started to say so, then paused before the unspoken worry in the prelate's eyes. The Fleet Chaplain wasn't getting any younger, he thought with a sudden pang.
"Holiness. First Admiral." Lantu looked up at Captain Yurah's voice. "The scouts have reached sensor range of the other warp points. They're downloading their findings now, and—"
The flag captain paused as fresh lights awoke in the master plot's three-dimensional sphere. Most of them were concentrated at one point.
"So," Lantu murmured. "That's where they went, Holiness! The infidels have tractored everything but the planetary defenses to our projected exit warp point. It would seem they've anticipated our objectives . . . but why not contest our entry transit?" The first admiral rubbed the bridge of his muzzle unhappily. "Even their energy weapons could have hurt us badly at a range that low. It makes no sense. No military sense," he added. "Surely even heretics . . ."
"Remember, my son, that these fortifications are old. Indeed, they date almost from the days of the Messenger! Perhaps they're feebler than we thought." Lantu carefully took no note of Manak's self-convincing tone, but the fleet chaplain frowned. "Still, perhaps it would be wise to wait until after they've been reduced before detaching units against the planet."
"I agree, Holiness. Captain Yurah, inform Commodore Gahad that the Fleet will execute deployment Plan Gamma. He is not to detach his task group without my specific instructions."
"Aye, sir," Yurah confirmed, and Lantu watched his display as First Fleet of the Sword of Holy Terra advanced steadily towards the clustered fortresses. He didn't like it, but the Synod's instructions left him no choice.
* * *
"Enemy fleet is proceeding towards the Cimmaron warp point, Admiral."
Antonov grunted. They'd had some bad moments as the Theban scouts approached within scanner range of this stretch of the asteroid belt between the system's gas-giant fourth and fifth planets. But the scouts had been mesmerized by the mammoth orbital forts. They hadn't been looking for ships with their power plants stepped down to minimal levels, lurking amid the rubble of an unborn planet.
He looked around the improvised flag bridge of TFNS Indomitable. A Kongo-class battle-cruiser wasn't intended to serve as a fleet flagship, and accommodations for his staff were cramped. But there'd been no question of flying his lights on one of the capital ships holding station in the Cimmaron System, thirty-two light-years distant in Einsteinian space but an effectively-instantaneous warp transit away, awaiting the courier drone that would summon them when the moment was right. No, he would live or die with the ships that would be trapped in Redwing if his plan failed and the Thebans secured its warp points.
Kthaara approached. "Admiral, they are nearing Point Staahlingraad." He gestured at the scarlet point in the navigational display.
Antonov nodded, watching from the corner of one eye as Kthaara's ears flattened and his claws slid from their sheaths. Labels like "Felinoid" were usually misleading, he thought; an Orion, product of an entirely separate evolution, was less closely related to a Terran cat than was a Terran lizard, or fish, or tree. The resemblance was mere coincidence, bound to happen occasionally in a galaxy of four hundred billion suns. But Kthaara was nonetheless descended from millions of years of predators . . . and Antonov was just as glad humans weren't this day's prey.
"Commodore Tsuchevsky," he said unnecessarily, "when Thebans reach Point Stalingrad, you will bring fleet to full readiness and await my word."
"Understood, Admiral." Tsuchevsky knew how much strain the boss was under when he started voicing redundant orders . . . and when his Standard English started losing its definite articles.
"Commander Kthaara," Antonov continued, "you will order our fighter launch at your discretion, within parameters of operations plan." Once that would have been unthinkable, but not after the past few weeks' exercises. There might still be officers who didn't accept the Whisker-Twister; none of the fighter jocks were among them.
He settled back in his command chair and waited.
* * *
Aboard the command fortress, other eyes watched the Thebans approach Point Stalingrad. They reached it.
"Launch all fighters!"
Commodore Lopez committed Fortress Command's full fighter strength, and, for the first time, the TFN's fighters hurled themselves at the Thebans in a well-organized, well-rehearsed strike from secure bases.
* * *
Lantu hunkered deeper into his command chair as his tactical sphere blossomed with new threat sources. He'd been afraid of this. Those well-ordered formations were a far cry from the scrambling confusion he'd faced at Lorelei, and they might explain why the infidels had conceded the entry warp points. It was clear their fighters had even more operational range than he'd feared—enough, perhaps, to fall back and rearm to launch a second or even a third strike before First Fleet could range on their launch bays.
But First Fleet wasn't entirely helpless, he reminded himself grimly.
* * *
Lieutenant Allison DuPre of Strikefighter Squadron 117 led Fortress Command's fighters towards the enemy, hoping Admiral Antonov and the Tabby were right about Theban underestimation of their capabilities. They'd better be. She was one of the very few veteran pilots Fortress Command had, and they'd need every break—
Her wingman exploded in a glare of fire.
"AFHAWKs!" she snapped over the command net. "Evasive action—now!"
Only then did she permit herself to curse.
* * *
Lantu watched the first infidel fighters die and thanked Holy Terra Archbishop Ganhad had agreed to make AFHAWK production a priority, but he didn't share his staff's satisfaction. The kill ratio was far lower than predicted; clearly the infidels had devised not only an offensive doctrine to employ the weapon but defensive tactics to evade it, as well. No wonder their tactical manuals stressed that the best anti-fighter weapon was another fighter!
The survivors streamed forward past the wreckage of their fellows. They would be into their own range all too soon.
* * *
Lieutenant DuPre's surviving squadron spread out behind her, settling into attack formation, and she felt a glow of pride. They might be newbies, but they'd learned their stuff. And the Tabby had known a few wrinkles even DuPre had never heard of. She watched her display as the cursor marking their initial point flared. Any moment now—
"Follow me in!" she snapped, and massed squadrons of fleet little vessels screamed through a turn possible only to inertia-canceling drives. They howled in, streaking in through the last-ditch fire of lasers and point defense missiles, breaking into the sternward "blind spots" of ionization and distorted space created by the Theban capital ships' drives.
One-Seventeen lost two more fighters on the way in . . . including Lieutenant DuPre's. But the three survivors broke through into the blind spots where no weapons could be brought to bear. And then, at what passed for point-blank range in space combat, their weapons spoke, coordinated by their dead skipper's training and energized by vengeance.
* * *
Lantu kept his face impassive, but he heard the fleet chaplain's soft groan as the infidels broke through everything First Fleet could throw. Their weapons were short-ranged and individually weak, but they struck with dreadful, beautiful precision. Entire squadrons fired as one, wracking his ships' shields with nuclear fire, then closing to rake their flanks with lasers as they streaked forward past the slow, lumbering vessels. None of them had targeted Jackson, but the superdreadnought Allen Takagi was less fortunate. Her shields went down, and even her massive armor yielded to the insistent pounding of her attackers. She faltered as a drive pod exploded, but she lumbered on, bleeding atmosphere like blood.
"They're breaking off, sir," Yurah reported, but the admiral shook his head. They weren't "breaking off." They'd executed their attack; now they were withdrawing to rearm for another.
"Sir, John Calvin and Takagi can no longer maintain flank speed. Shall I reduce Fleet speed to match?"
"Negative. Detail extra escorts to cover them and continue the advance at flank. We've got to hit those forts as soon as possible."
* * *
"Admiral," Tsuchevsky reported, "the Fortress Command fighters are fully engaged. The enemy has sustained heavy damage and seems to be detaching some destroyer formations for fighter suppression—a task for which"—he added with satisfaction—"they clearly lack the proper doctrine and armament. But their heavy units are proceeding on course for the warp point. They'll be within capital missile range of the fortresses shortly."
Antonov nodded as he stared fixedly at the system-wide holo display. To communicate with the fortresses would be to risk revealing himself. He could only trust that Lopez would play his part.
"Commodore Tsuchevsky," he spoke distinctly and formally, "Second Fleet will advance."
The deck vibrated as Indomitable's drive awoke. On the view screens, the drifting mountain that had concealed her slid to one side, revealing the starry firmament, and reflected starlight gleamed dimly as other ships formed up on the battle-cruiser while the last fighter warheads flashed like new, brief stars amid the Theban fleet.
Antonov sat back and heaved a sigh. Then he leaned over and spoke in Tsuchevsky's ear. "Well, Pasha, we're committed. Let's hope Lopez doesn't have his head too far up his ass."
"Da, Nikolayevich," Tsuchevsky replied just as quietly.
* * *
Fortress Command's fighters fled back to their bases to rearm, pursued by a badly shaken Theban fleet. Few ships had been destroyed—the orbital forts had too few fighters for a decisive strike, as Kthaara had observed with exasperation—but many were damaged. Some were injured even more seriously than Calvin and Takagi, and keeping formation was becoming a problem, but Lantu pressed on at his best speed. He wanted very badly to get within missile range and smash those looming fortresses before they relaunched their infernal little craft for a second strike . . . if he could.
His fleet entered capital missile range, and he braced himself again as the big missiles began to speed toward First Fleet.
The Thebans had encountered those missiles before; what they hadn't encountered were the warheads Howard Anderson had somehow managed to get to Redwing ahead of all realistic schedules. Not many of them, but a few. And as one of them came within a certain distance of its target, a non-material containment field collapsed, matter met antimatter, and the target ship experienced something new in the history of destruction. The field-generator was so massive that little antimatter could be contained—but even a little produced a blast three times as devastating as a warhead of comparable mass that relied on the energies of fusing deuterium atoms.
Some Thebans panicked as the hell-weapons crushed shields with horrible ease and mere metal vaporized . . . but not on Lantu's flag bridge. Face set, the first admiral ordered still more speed, even at the expense of what remained of his formation. There was no doubt now. He had to close the range and stop the terrible fighters and missiles at their source. And the new technology must be captured and turned to the use of Holy Terra. But even as he passed the word for the boarding parties to prepare themselves, infidel superdreadnoughts began to emerge ponderously from the Cimmaron warp point and the first rearmed fighters spat from the fortresses.
All of which meant that neither organic nor cybernetic attention was directed sternward in the direction of the barren asteroid belt they'd passed earlier. So the small fleet of carriers and their escorts that proceeded in First Fleet's wake went unnoticed.