CHAPTER FIFTEEN: ". . . and I'll take the low road."
Zhaarnak'telmasa exploded out of AP-5 behind a storm front of SBMHAWKs and SRHAWKs.
His most recent flights of RD2s had confirmed his vilkshatha brother's inference: one of the two mobile forces in the system had departed and now confronted TF 71 in Home Hive One. So TF 72 faced only (!) the second one-twenty monitors, sixty-seven superdreadnoughts, thirty-six battlecruisers, and seventy-five light cruisers-and by now the Bugs had learned to keep their starships well back from warp points that could suddenly belch forth torrents of SBMHAWKs. But the fixed warp point defenses were still very much in place: twenty-four massive orbital fortresses covered by two thousand laser-armed deep space buoys, shielded by four thousand patterns of mines and hiding amid six hundred ECM buoys. Zhaarnak intended to scorch the warp point's surrounding space clean of those defenses as though with a giant blow torch.
He had a new tool for the scorching. This was to be the debut of the new HARM2-an SBMHAWK-carried homing antiradiation missile. In addition to its SBMHAWK capability, it was able to home in on the later generation deception-mode ECM emissions as well as fire confusion ones. Everyone hoped it would be the answer to the clouds of ECM buoys the Bugs loved to deploy around warp points.
As Hia'khan emerged from the warp point into the maelstrom, a flood of data began to pour in from the ships of the initial waves that had preceded the flagship-mostly assault carriers and Gorm Toragon-class gunboat-bearing monitors. Kevin Sanders took a moment to glance across the flag bridge at Zhaarnak, who was stroking his whiskers with a smooth, almost caressing motion.
"Unless I'm mistaken, that's a look of great satisfaction," he murmured to Uaaria.
"So it is," the female Orion spook agreed. "He is observing the success rate of the HARM2 against the third-generation ECM buoys. He has a keen personal interest in the matter."
All at once, Sanders remembered the "April Fool" offensive Zhaarnak had led out of Zephrain. He also remembered that Orions did not enjoy embarrassment.
"Yes, I can see how those buoys might be rather a sore subject with him."
Uaaria gave him a quelling, slit-pupiled glare, and he hastily resumed his study of the data. Zhaarnak had assumed that the Bug capital ships wouldn't be sitting atop the warp point. Hence the composition of his first waves, which were now advancing sunward through the rapidly dissipating debris of the fortresses. Those monitors and CVAs, with their gunboats and fighters, were intended to counter the kamikaze gunboats and small craft that could be expected, sooner rather than later. So far, the Fifteenth Fang's predictions were proving out.
Sanders turned his attention to the system display.
Their warp point of entry lay five light-hours from the yellow Sol-like primary. The RD2s had detected only one other fortress-cluster of the precise composition that the Bugs-consistent to a fault-assigned to warp point defense. That consistency, Sanders reflected, certainly simplified the choice of where to go next. Unfortunately, that warp point was even further from the local sun than this one . . . and on a diametrically opposite bearing.
Between the two warp points, the inner planets warmed themselves around the hearth of the primary. One of them, Planet III, was life-bearing. From its energy emissions as reported by the RD2s, Uaaria and her subordinates had inferred a medium-sized population of no more than a few hundred million. This, clearly, was no home hive system. A colony, no doubt. Maybe a relatively new one, given the Bugs' propensity for multiplying up to the kind of ugly limits once prophesied by Malthus, who'd underestimated humankind's blessed disinclination to carry anything to its ultimate logical conclusion.
At any rate, even if there weren't tens of billions of Bugs here, there were Bugs. Acting on General Directive Eighteen and his own inclinations alike, Zhaarnak ordered the task force to shape a course for the inhabited planet.
Waves of gunboats and small craft began their suicidal attacks-if a word like "suicidal" was really applicable to a race with no sense of individual self preservation. Losses began to mount.
And yet . . .
Sanders had begun to notice it himself just before Zhaarnak stalked over to the intelligence station.
"Their capital ships are refusing battle," the Orion stated, leaving implicit his demand for an explanation.
"Yes, Sir," Uaaria acknowledged. "They are drawing back, keeping out of range, sending in their suicide craft." She gestured at the tactical display, from whose outer margin yet another swarm of tiny hostile icons was sweeping inward. "From the numbers of gunboats and small craft we are encountering, I gather that few such have been withdrawn from the system. Perhaps they think they do not need to commit their battle-line."
Zhaarnak made a dismissive gesture.
"Nevertheless, there is a Bahg-inhabited planet in this system. It is unheard of for them to restrict themselves to standoff suicide attacks when such a world is threatened."
Uaaria and Sanders exchanged glances. Neither had any answer.