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Marcus LeBlanc sat in his quarters, fingers occasionally flicking his keypad, but even as his eyes scanned the neat blocks of characters, his mind was less on the ops plan before him than on the woman who'd created it. He came to the end of a section, sighed, and sat back, rubbing his face with both hands, and wrestled with his dilemma.

Vanessa was losing it. He knew she was... he simply didn't know what to do about it. No one else seemed to realize the ragged thread by which her stability hung, but they didn't know her as well as he did. Even Mackenna and Waldeckthat ill-assorted pair who worked so closely with herwere blinded by the magnificent job she'd done so far. They knew her pain cut far deeper than she let them see, but like everyone else, they were mesmerized by the losses she'd inflicted on the enemy. By any meterstick, no admiral in historynot just human history, but anyone'shad ever wreaked such one-sided havoc on a foe. Their own losses, however savage, paled to insignificance beside the enemy tonnage Vanessa had smashed into glowing wreckage.

Yet none of those other officers were in command, and none of themexcept, perhaps, Jackson Tellercould truly understand the crushing psychic wounds her authority had inflicted upon her. But LeBlanc did. He'd seen them growing deeper for weeks, for he was the only one with whom she'd dared drop her mask, and there was so pathetically little he could do. He could only be there, listen, share her pain, try to find some wayany wayto ease it. Old feelings he'd thought had transmuted into simple friendship long ago complicated his efforts, yet this was no time to think about such things, especially when it was his job to remain her clearheaded analyst, and so he'd shoved them back down, pretended they didn't exist. But he'd known about her pain.

He saw the ghost of every butchered civilian in her green eyes, felt the despair in her soul, and he knew she was a woman with her back to the wall. One who couldn'tnot wouldn't, but literally could notabandon still more people to death. That was the true reason she'd made no contingency plans for a withdrawal this time; because another retreat, however desperately the military situation demanded it, simply was not an option for her.

For her, Vanessa Murakuma the woman, not Vice Admiral Murakuma.

He rubbed his face harder, wondering yet again if he should speak to Waldeck. It would be a personal betrayal of someone he'd once lovedstill loved, if he was honest with himself, or perhaps loved againbut it was also his duty. If Fifth Fleet fought to its own destruction, the Federation would lose not only Sarasota but the entire Romulus Cluster. Surely his responsibility to prevent that outweighed his loyalty to Vanessa!

But

The door chime sounded, and he lowered his hands and pressed the admittance button, then snapped to his feet in surprise as Vanessa stepped through the hatch.

"Good evening, Marcus." Her eyes flickered to the ops plan on his display, then back to his face, and she smiled. There was no humor in that smile, and he wondered uneasily what his own expression might have betrayed before he got it back under control.

"Hello, Vanessa," he replied after a moment, and watched her sink into a chair, cross her legs, and clasp her hands on her raised knee while she surveyed him.

"To what do I owe the honor?" He tried to make his voice light and knew he'd failed when her lips quirked again.

"To the fact that you think I'm losing my grip," she said softly, and he winced.

"Vanessa, I"

A raised hand stopped him in mid-protest, then rejoined its companion on her knee.

"Don't." She sat deeper in the chair, jade eyes dark. "I didn't want to discuss this with anyone, especially you, but you've been watching me too closely. You know, don't you?"

"Know what?" he asked as neutrally as possible.

"Please, Marcus. We've known each other too long for lies."

He winced again at her voice's quiet, infinite weariness, then bowed his head to stare down at his own hands. He longed to pretend he didn't know what she meant, but she was right. They had known each other too long, and so he nodded slowly, without looking up at her.

"Why haven't you said anything?"

"Because" He stopped and inhaled deeply, then shrugged. "I don't know why, really. I'm your intelligence officer. I know what will happen if we lose Fifth Fleet, and this" he looked up at last and gestured at his display "is a very good way to do just that if we don't hold them. Vanessa, it's my duty to point that out, but" He shrugged again.

"I thought so," she said so softly he hardly heard her, and stared deep into his eyes for a long, still moment. Then she leaned back, crossing her arms below her breasts, and smiled with a dreadful, aching whimsy.

"Poor Marcus," she murmured. "You know I'm losing my grip, and the officer in you needs to tell someone, but the man in you..." She shook her head sadly. "You're a good man, Marcus LeBlanc. Too good to be caught in a disaster like this. But, then, I suppose a lot of good people are caught in it with us, aren't they?"

"Vanessa, please," he leaned towards her, extending one hand. "You've done a brilliant job. God knows, if anyone in this universe has a right to lose her grip you're her, and I don't wantGod, how I don't want!to dump anything else on you. But we both know you're right. You can't take much more of this. You know you can't."

"What do you want me to do?" she asked in a bleak, terrible voice. "Request my own relief? Dump the responsibility on Demosthenes? Go back to the rear and say, 'Well, you gave it your best shot, Vanessa. Now let someone else shoulder the guilt'?"

He flinched, then shook his head.

"You're not God. None of this is your fault, and, intellectually, you know that. But this battle plan..." He shook his head again. "Vanessa, you can't stake an entire star cluster's survival on holding them here, not if they keep coming like they have."

"Oh yes I can," she said, and he heard the ring of steel in her deadly-soft voice. "This time we hold. Not the Bugs, not the devil, not God Himself, is pushing me out of Sarasota. No more retreats. No more slaughtered children. No more parents who die knowing the Fleet abandoned them. Not this time, Marcus!"

"But"

"No." She cut him off again, more sharply, and a dangerous fire flickered in her eyes. "I know the risk, but there's a point where 'military logic' becomes irrelevant, and that point is right here, right now. There are a hundred million humans in this system, and I won't let these fucking monsters have it while I have a single starship or fighter to throw at them!"

She paused, glaring at him, then drew a deep breath and made her voice calm.

"Oh, you're rightif I dig in to hold to the last ship, I can lose it all, but have you really considered what happens if I don't dig in? How many systems can we write off out of 'military necessity' without devastating not only our own morale but our allies', as well? The first Ophiuchi units are only two weeks out, with the first Orions right behind them. We're stronger than we've ever been, reinforcements are on their way, and Remus is right behind us. If we lose that system, we lose the entire cluster, and this is the last place we can stand short of it. If we don't fight to the last ship here, what does that say to the next CO... or the civilians of the next system on the Bugs' list? They just keep coming, Marcusnot like a navy, but like some pestilence or forest fire. You've seen how desperate our people are. You know why they have to regard Redemption as a major victory. If they don't, they have to admit it's hopeless, and if we ever admit that, what happens to our will to fight? No." She shook her head sharply. "We have to stop these monsters somewhere, whatever it costs, and that somewhere is here. This time, we hold!"

LeBlanc sat back, staring at her while madness edged her voice, and knew, with absolute certainty, that she'd made her decision for all the wrong reasons. All her arguments, however logical, were no more than afterthoughts to her own bleeding need to die before she fell back again. Yet that didn't necessarily make them wrong, and he wondered, suddenly, how many of history's great stands had been fought by people who simply couldn't make themselves do anything else. Leonidas and the Three Hundred, Maccabeus and Masada, Zizka and his war wagons, Castle Saint Elmo and the Siege of Malta, Hougemont and La Haye-Sainte, Travis and Bowie, Gordon and Khartoum, Leningrad, the Warsaw Ghetto, First Tannerman, Second Redwingthe list went on and on, and if all too many of those desperate stands had ended in death and defeat, a handful had not. And even the ones which had weren't always in vain... .

" 'They shall not pass,' " he murmured. Murakuma blinked at him, and he smiled sadly. "From another war, Vanessa. From another war." He cocked his head, and a faint edge of true amusement edged his smile's sadness. "Sometimes it takes a madmanor womandoesn't it?"

"Am I mad?" she asked with almost childlike wonder, and he shook his head.

"Maybe you are, but your secret's safe with me." Her shoulders twitched with relief, and he smiled again. "Go fight your battle, Vanessa. And, do you know, I think you may be right. We may just hold this time after all."



CHAPTER FOURTEEN | The Stars at War | CHAPTER FIFTEEN