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Options of War

The wide armorplast view port was partly blocked by Ivan Antonov's bulk as he stared at the panorama before him. Redwing's orbital yards seethed with activity such as they had not known since their original erection for the sole purpose of building The Line as men and machines swarmed over the torn and blistered skins of wounded orbital fortresses, and the light of laser welders flickered as the work of repair went on in shifts around the clock.

In some cases, those repairs looked all too much like rebuilding... but in the Federation's present pass, none of them could be written off. And the fortresses that had gotten off lightly enough to be considered operational by the elastic definitions that obtained these days had already been tractored to the QR-107 warp point, for the trap he'd sprung on the Thebans could be sprung only once.

At least the more-or-less operational fortresses were being reinforced by more and more mobile units as the Federation's unimaginable industrial potential was gradually mobilized. Antonov watched a newly-arrived Thunderer-class battleship slide into orbit, fresh from mothballs and bristling with old-fashioned but still lethal energy weaponry. He was glad to see her; there had been few ships of her weight in the Reserve, and she was one of the few heavy units that had yet reached Redwing. Most of his gradually increasing trickle of reinforcements were still of the lighter classes.

Even more welcome were the lowly freighters carrying more antimatter warheads... and also something new. The great problem of space warfare since the chance discovery of warp pointsthose ill-understood anomalies in space/time that allowed instantaneous transit at an insignificant energy costhad been an assault against an alerted defense. Even when a fleeting edge of surprise could be seized, attacking ships emerging one by one from a warp point into concentrated defensive firepower were at such a disadvantage that military historians could only compare them to infantrymen advancing across an open field of Flemish mud against machine-gun emplacements. Indeed, they were in even worse case, for these defenders could not be "prepared" by bombardment; nothing as small as a missile could carry the necessary instrumentation for a warp transit and a controlled attack.

But now a way around the conundrum had been found, thanks to new developments in artificial intelligence. (Could the "sentient computers" of the earlyand vastly over-enthusiasticcomputer pioneers be far away? Antonov rather hoped they were.) An unmanned carrier pack, smaller than any starship but far larger than a missile, could make a one-time warp transit and release its trio of "SBMHAWK" missiles against preprogrammed classes of targets. The missiles' "homing all the way killer" guidance circuits did the rest. Commodore Timoshenko promised eventual production of reusable packs with better on-board systems and larger missile loads, but even this early version would be an immeasurable advantage, and they'd begun arriving at Redwing at last... a few of them. Always too few.

Pavel Tsuchevsky approached from his right. "That fort there was one of the hardest hit to survive at all," he said grimly, pointing to a hulk whose original shape was barely discernible. "A second rammer got through after the impact of the first overloaded its shields and station-keeping drive. Most of its crew were killed by the concussionwe've never thought it was worthwhile to install first-line inertial compensators on forts. They're not exactly intended for high-gee maneuvering."

"But they held," Antonov growled.

Winnifred Trevayne stepped up to the left. "By the time the last waves of boarders arrived, many of the Marines had exhausted their zoot power cells," she said sadly. "They had to switch to ordinary battle dress. From what I've heard in the debriefings, the fighting was indescribable... toward the end, it was actually hand-to-hand."

"But they held," Antonov rumbled from deep in his cask of a chest.

Kthaara'zarthan spoke from directly behind him. "Most of the Fortress Command fighters managed to launch before the rams hit. They did what they could to blunt the attack, but many had to launch before they had rearmed. At least one managed to physically ram a Theban ship; he could not destroy it outright, but he left it unable to complete its attack run. Our report recommends the pilot for the Golden Lion of Terra." The last four words were barely understandable, but the tale flowed out naturally in the Tongue of Tongues, which throughout history had been a medium for such tellings. "We believe at least two other pilots did the same, but their mother fortresses were destroyed. Without the fortress records, we cannot identify them to record their names in honor as they deserve."

A raised hand showed its claws and clenched, sinking those claws into its fisted palm. Bright drops of blood welled as it opened in ritual salute.

"They fought as farshatok," he said softly. "When it was over, there were fewer usable recovery bays than there were fighters. By the time our carriers returned, many had exhausted their life support."

"But they held!" Antonov's voice was a deep, subterranean sound, welling up like magma from beneath the crust of one of humankind's planets. He turned heavily to face the half-circle of his subordinates.

"We've given the Thebans their first check, and they seem to have reverted to a holding operation in QR-107. Now, we don't know anything about their philosophy, or whatever is driving them, but their behavior so far suggests fanaticism of some stripe or other." He glanced at Winnifred Trevayne, who nodded. "If they're like human fanatics, they deal well with success, but poorly with defeat. After all, they expect success; their ideology tells them they alone understand the will of God, or"a wry expression, almost a wince"the dynamics of history, and that this enables them to ride the wave of the future. Failure is inexplicable, and shakes their faith."

He drew himself up against the backdrop of the stars, the mammoth orbital constructs, and the lovely blue-white curve of Redwing II.

"It is therefore essential we maintain pressure on them, remind them that they have lost the initiative. We remain too weak in heavy units to risk a decisive fleet action; but we can, and will, conduct a series of nuisance raids into QR-107, using our light carriers. I imagine," he added with a wintry, closed-lipped smile for Kthaara, "their earlier contempt for fighters has now turned into a very healthy fear, and that they're still feeling their way toward effective anti-fighter tactics."

Tsuchevsky cleared his throat. "Also, Admiral, the new SBMHAWKs give us a unique opportunity to clear the warp point for the raiders. The carriers and their escorts can be loose in QR-107 space before the Thebans understand what's happened!"

Antonov shook his head. "No, Pavel Sergeyevich. I know, it's tempting to give the SBMHAWKs an operational test... and, of course, reduce our casualties. But then the Thebans would know about the weapon. The shock value would be gone, and they could start to develop counter-measures. No, the system cannot be used at all until circumstances are such that it can be used to decisive effect."

Tsuchevsky looked almost mutinous. "But, Admiral... we used the antimatter warheads as soon as we had them... ."

"With great respect, Captain Tssssuchevssky," Kthaara cut in, "the circumstances are different. Our ability to hold this system was very much in doubt. We had to take every possible advantage, and the new warheads may have made the difference. Now, we have won the luxury of... I believe the Human expression is 'Playing our cards close to our chest.' And the need to make decisive use of a new weapon is a lesson the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee learned well from the Federation in the Wars of Shame. Yes," he raised a blood-dotted, unhuman hand, forestalling Tsuchevsky's protest, "we will lose more people this way. But... they are Warriors."

There was silence. There were no anti-Orion bigots in this group, but the fact remained that Kthaara was dispassionately discussing human deaths. And yet... everyone knew the bond that had formed between the big Tabby and Second Fleet's fighter pilots, many of whom would die if the SBMHAWKs weren't used. And everyone knew better than to think for a moment that he would ever play "yes-man" for the Admiral.

There was no further protest.

* * * | The Stars at War | * * *