"We must all do our duty, Admiral Berenson."
"Before we begin," Ivan Antonov rumbled, eyes sweeping his assembled officers, "Commander Trevayne has prepared an intelligence update based on new findings. Commander."
"Thank you, Admiral." The newly promoted intelligence officer rose. In an era when defects of eyesight had not been biochemically corrected, Winnifred Trevayne would surely have had a pair of spectacles perched on the end of her nose, the better to peer over them at her class. "As you all know, the Thebans have always followed a policy of destroying their ships to avoid capture. On the few occasions when they've been prevented from doing this, they have nonetheless suicided as individuals after activating an automatic total erasure of their data bases. So we've been able to ascertain their physiology but little else, other than their seemingly inexplicable use of Standard English and of ship names from human history and languages.
"Now, however, we've finally had a spot of luck. One of the Theban destroyer squadrons trapped in QR-107 managed to avoid interception far longer than any of the others, largely by hiding where we never expected to find them: on the deep-space side of the Redwing warp point. They might be hiding still, if their commander hadn't elected to launch a virtual suicide attack on the fleet train and run straight into the convoy escorts. Most of them were destroyed, but one of them took a very lucky—from our viewpoint—hit which set up a freak series of breakdowns in its electronics, involuntarily shutting down its fusion plant and also crippling the crew's ability to lobotomize the computer. With no power, they couldn't evade, and our Marines got aboard." She turned to Antonov. "Incidentally, Admiral, our report specifically commends Captain M'boto, the Marine officer who led the boarding party. He not only secured their fusion plants before they could restore power but also dispatched a hand-picked force directly into their computer section, which prevented them from physically destroying their data. There were, as usual, no prisoners—but we're now in possession of priceless information. Far from complete information, of course... but I'm now in a position to tell you what this war is all about."
A low hubbub arose, stilled as much by everyone's eagerness to hear more as by Antonov's glare. They all knew about the captured Theban destroyer, but Trevayne had been playing its significance very close to her chest. This was due partly to a natural reticence that her profession had only reinforced, and partly to sheer inability to credit her own findings and conclusions. Only Antonov had heard what she was about to reveal.
She began—irrelevantly, it seemed—with a story most had heard many times: the colony fleet, bound for New New Hebrides in the darkest days of the First Interstellar War, all but wiped out in the Lorelei system, whose survivors had fled down Charon's Ferry from whence no ship had returned before or since. But the tale took a new twist as Trevayne neared its end.
"Now we know why the early survey ships hadn't returned," she stated flatly. With unconscious drama, she activated a holo display and gave them all their first glimpse of the Thebes System. "As you will note, the Theban end is a closed warp point inside an asteroid belt." She held up a hand to still her audience's incredulous sound. "Yes, I know it's a freakish situation—possibly unique. But, as you can see, that system is bloody full of asteroids, as is often the case with binaries; the secondary sun's gravitation prevents planetary coalescence throughout a far wider region than does a mere gas giant. At any rate, the point is that those colony ships—big brutes equipped with military-grade shields because of the war—survived the meteor impacts which pulverized small survey ships with prewar meteor shielding."
Most of the officers sat speechless, dealing as best they could with a surfeit of new facts. Berenson was the first to make, and accept, the logical conclusion.
"So, Commander," he grated, leaning forward as if to come physically to grips with the unknown. "You're telling us those colonists—or, rather, their descendants—are behind this war? That this is why the Thebans speak Standard English? I suppose it would account for the ship names from human history... but what about the ships with human names no one can identify?"
"As a matter of fact, Admiral, it was those names that put me onto the scent—those and repeated references to an 'Angel Saint-Just' in the Theban religious material of which the data base is full. I was afraid I was going to have to send back to Old Terra, but fortunately the archives at Redwing contain exhaustive personnel records of the old colonization expeditions in this region. A computer search of that fleet's complement turned up all those ship names—and one Alois Saint-Just."
Her eyes took on a faraway look. "Finding specific information on Saint-Just himself wasn't as hard as it might have been, as he seems to have made an impression on everyone who met him. A xenologist by profession, he was also a student of history, with a particular interest in ancient Egypt; hence the name 'Thebes.' He had many other interests as well." Her voice grew somber. "A brilliant man—and a very troubled one. He was obsessed with a foreboding that Terra was going to lose the war—a not unreasonable supposition at that time." She shot an apologetic glance at Kthaara, who sat listening impassively. "After he disappears from sight, we're thrown back on inference from the Theban religious references. But there are so many references we can form a pretty clear picture of what happened.
"The survivors, led by Saint-Just, found a Theban society on the threshold of the Second Industrial Revolution, but whose ancien regime was still in political control, and which had retained an unhealthy predilection for religious mania. They landed on a largish island-nation, to which—in direct contravention of the Non-Intercourse Edict of 2097—they gave modern technology so that it could forcibly unify the planet into a world-state, a potential ally for the Federation against the Khanate.
"The plan worked—up to a point. Then most of the humans died of what must have been a Terran microorganism that mutated in the new environment. Saint-Just and a few others lived, but they were so few they became more and more dependent on high-ranking Thebans, especially a noble named Sumash. He seems to have been of an unusually mystic bent even for a Theban, and he must have regarded himself as Saint-Just's chief disciple. I like to hope Saint-Just himself hadn't come to think in these terms, but we'll never know... for shortly, the same bug returned, in an even more virulent form, and killed all the remaining humans, leaving Sumash to his own devices.
"The colony ships' data bases must have held lots of Terran religious history. Using this for raw material, Sumash proceeded to manufacture a theology in which Saint-Just and the other humans had been messengers sent by God to bring the fruits of technology to Thebes, and the Orions who'd killed so many of these benefactors"—(another embarrassed glance at Kthaara)—"became the minions of the devil, led by the 'Satan-Khan.' Saint-Just had explained that the Orions were in control of Lorelei, at the other end of the warp line, so Sumash—the 'First Prophet,' as he's now remembered—proscribed all outside contact until Thebes was capable of mounting a full-scale jihad—"
"—which has now commenced," Berenson finished for her grimly. "But, Commander, if we humans are some kind of angels according to this crazy ersatz religion, why have the Thebans attacked us?"
"As often happens, Admiral, this religion took unintended turns after its founder's death. In particular, there was a shift of emphasis from humans to Terra as the fountainhead of enlightenment. It must have been a shock for them, finally emerging into Lorelei, to hear a human voice challenging them from an Orion warship. Clearly, the Angel Saint-Just's worst fears had been confirmed: his own race had been conquered or seduced by the Satan-Khan, leaving the Thebans standing alone as the true children of Holy Mother Terra."
This time it was Tsuchevsky who grasped it first. "Good God, Winnie! Are you telling us the Thebans' goal is to... to liberate Terra—from the human race?"
Trevayne nodded slowly. "I'm afraid that's exactly what I'm telling you—as insane as it may sound."
"But it's absurd!" Berenson's outburst shattered the stunned silence. "They must have learned by now, in the human systems they've occupied, that we won the First Interstellar War, and that we've never heard of any religion of 'Holy Mother Terra'!"
"I'm afraid, Admiral, that you underestimate the True Believer mentality's capacity for convoluted rationalization. The facts you've cited merely 'prove' the Satan-Khan and his human quislings have succeeded in reducing humanity to a state of hopeless apostasy by falsifying history and expunging all memory of the true faith!"
Antonov's basso sounded even deeper than usual in the flabbergasted stillness that followed. "Thank you, Commander... and congratulations on a brilliant piece of intelligence analysis." Everyone knew Antonov wasn't given to—nor, it was widely believed, capable of—fulsome praise. "However, the data on the Lorelei defenses are of more immediate military interest."
"Of course, Admiral." Trevayne manipulated controls and the holo projection changed to display Lorelei's five uninteresting planets, its six considerably more interesting warp points... and what appeared to be a rash of red dots infesting the regions of the four warp points connecting with Federation space.
"You realize, of course," Trevayne began earnestly, indicating the read-out of the warp point defenses, "that these data are somewhat out of date and therefore almost certainly on the conservative side, as the Thebans have had time to..." Her voice trailed off as she saw the needlessness of what she was saying. They were impressed quite enough by the raw data.
"This changes things," Antonov stated quietly. "The defenses of Lorelei are at least twice as powerful as we'd believed possible. But that was before we realized how heavily industrialized Thebes is, or what kind of fanaticism is driving them. And Lorelei is, after all, their final line of defense outside their home system. To break these defenses, we must hold one surprise in reserve." He gazed directly at Berenson. "I have therefore decided that we will forgo use of the SBMHAWKs at Parsifal and rely on our hetlaser-armed capital ships, as soon as sufficient of them become available, to break into that system."
The room was deathly silent. Antonov had invited neither discussion nor questions. But Berenson rose slowly to his feet. For several heartbeats, he and Antonov stared unblinkingly at each other. When he spoke, it was in an anticlimactically quiet tone—almost a pleasant tone, compared to the explosion they'd all anticipated.
"A point of information, Admiral. Are we to understand that the entire rationale for sending the crews of three destroyers on a suicide run into Parsifal has now become... inoperative? That those crews died for absolutely nothing?"
"Hardly, Admiral Berenson." Antonov's voice was equally quiet and controlled. This clash of wills had reached a level at which mere noise was superfluous. "Intelligence information has uses other than programming SBMHAWK carrier packs. Tactically, that information will be priceless to us when we attack. Those crews did their duty... as we must all do our duty, Admiral Berenson."
"Of course, Admiral. Our duty. I will assuredly do my duty. I will also send a personal message to Admiral Brandenburg stating for the record my feelings concerning your conduct of this campaign. That, too, is part of my duty, as I conceive it."
Again, the entire room braced for Apocalypse. Again, they were both disappointed and relieved. Antonov only looked somberly at Berenson for a long moment, then let his face relax into what looked very much like an expression of grudging respect. "You must do as you feel you must, Admiral Berenson," he said slowly. "As I must."