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"The Line will hold!"

"Attention on deck."

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 quietominously 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'texactlyshouting, 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 translationthe 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 attemptone more timeto 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 nexusbut 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 Stars at War | * * *