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CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: "We'll do whatever we must, Admiral."

The lifeless red dwarf system really had held no organized resistance, and Task Force 71 had proceeded unmolested across the 3.6 light-hours that separated its warp point of entry from the only other warp point in the system.

Furthermore, as Prescott's lead elements closed in on that second warp point, the RD2s he'd dispatched through it had sent back the news he'd hoped for: the system beyond-a white star with a distant red dwarf companion-was the system where he and Zhaarnak would meet.

There was no possible doubt. The system matched the one Zhaarnak's RD2s had probed from the other side, as described in the reports he'd sent to Prescott. In addition to the expected warp point defenses, it held mobile forces corresponding in composition to those Zhaarnak had reported he still expected to have to face. Only now those forces were divided, for they had two warp points to cover. It would be unwise to rely too heavily on the colossal gunboat losses the Bugs had sustained in the recent battles, for the primary star's third planet gave off neutrino indications of the largest industrial base yet encountered in this warp chain-not in the same category as the home hive systems, but undoubtedly capable of cranking out large quantities of small vessels in short order. However, the losses in bases from which to operate those craft couldn't be so quickly made good. And the division of the Bugs' defensive assets was certainly hopeful.

All those factors were in Prescott's mind as he met with his staff. So was the fact that, in the teeth of his expectations, the Bugs had not appeared from somewhere along the Anderson Chain to pour through Pesthouse, reclaim Home Hive One, and isolate his task force. He was careful not to let his face and manner reveal to anyone his amazement that it hadn't happened . . . or his fear that it still might.

He grew aware that Chung had concluded his summary of the drones' findings. He opened the floor for comments, and a single throat was loudly cleared. The lack of any other response made it impossible not to recognize the throat-clearer, and Prescott suppressed a sigh.

"Admiral Mukerji?"

Mukerji had shaken off the jitters he'd experienced before they entered the system. Now he drew a deep breath and spoke like a man delivering a carefully prepared speech, a man who knew that his argument would be prejudiced by the very fact that he was the one presenting it.

"Admiral, these findings prove you were right. We are, indeed, looking from another direction at the same system Fang Zhaarnak faces. I therefore consider it likely that your other theory was equally well founded."

Prescott held the political admiral's eyes for a moment, and met only blandness. Mukerji was taking pains to construct a case too reasonable for Prescott to reject out of hand without laying himself open to the charge of personal bias.

"What 'other theory' is that, Admiral?" he inquired, knowing full well the answer.

"That Bug forces may appear in Pesthouse at any time, and move in to occupy Home Hive One. Indeed, I feel safe in saying that we're all somewhat puzzled that they haven't already done so."

Looking at the other staffers' faces, and the task force commanders' in the screens, Prescott saw no disagreement. Indeed, he felt none himself.

"Furthermore," Mukerji continued, still cautious, but visibly encouraged by Prescott's silence, "this task force and Fang Zhaarnak's have both suffered an unavoidable erosion of fighting power in the course of advancing to this point. And what we've just heard from Commodore Chung makes it clear that we're facing formidable defenses here. Now, surely, is a time for caution-a time to secure the gains we've made."

Not, Prescott noted, "the gains we've made through your sagacious plans," or anything like that. Mukerji was getting cagier. He'd carefully avoided any hint of overt flattery, or appeals to political self-preservation, or any of the other arguments he'd learned were counterproductive.

"What, precisely, are you proposing, Admiral Mukerji?"

"Simply this, Admiral: that instead of pressing on to the next system at this time, we pull back to Home Hive One, and that Fang Zhaarnak be ordered to join us there. Naturally, both task forces should leave warp point covering forces. But by sealing off this warp chain at the Home Hive One end with our combined fleet, we'll accomplish two things. First, we'll keep the system we're now facing isolated and neutralized, until fresh forces in overwhelming strength can be brought up along the Prescott Chain to reduce it. And secondly, we'll be in a position to protect the entire Prescott Chain while those forces are advancing along it."

And third, Prescott thought, we'll secure this task force-meaning you-from any nasty surprises coming up behind us from Pesthouse through Home Hive One. But the fact that danger to Task Force 71 also happened to be a personal danger to Mukerji didn't make it any less real. Did it?

He surveyed the room and the com screens.

"Comments, ladies and gentlemen?"

Anthea Mandagalla looked acutely uncomfortable.

"I must agree with Admiral Mukerji, Sir." She left off the arguably disrespectful qualifier regretfully. "I'm particularly disturbed by what Amos has told us about the way the Bugs are redistributing their fortresses to reinforce the warp point defenses we're facing." She turned to Chung. "I gather that still more are on the way."

"They are, Sir," the spook replied. "The RD2s report others being tractored in from across the system, presumably from other warp points which aren't immediately threatened. Still others are on the way to the warp point only eighty-four light-minutes from the one through which we'll enter-which confirms our identification of that warp point as the one where they're expecting Fang Zhaarnak, although we were already pretty sure of that on the basis of what his RD2s have reported."

He indicated the flat-screen system display, and the two warp points that lay less than ninety light-minutes apart, about 5.8 and 4.4 light-hours, respectively, and on the same approximate bearing from the system primary.

"Fang Zhaarnak's initial probes detected twelve fortresses of that warp point. The Bugs customarily allocate identical fixed defenses to all the warp points in a given system, so presumably that was the force level in place at this warp point, as well, at that time. Now, as I said earlier, we're looking at twenty fortresses . . . all more than monitor-sized. In addition, there are the almost two thousand deep space buoys I mentioned. Our RD2s weren't in a position to survey Fang Zhaarnak's warp point, of course, but I would be very surprised if they haven't been beefed up to the same degree."

A muttering ran around the room. Heads nodded.

I wish I knew my history better, Prescott thought. Which American president was it, centuries ago, who put a crucial question to his cabinet? All nine of them voted in the affirmative. And he said, "That's nine ayes . . . and one nay. The nays have it unanimously."

But I can't put it that way, can I? Never mind Mukerji. All these other splendid people, who've been with me through years of hell, deserve an explanation.

Especially considering what I'm going to have to tell them afterwards . . .

So he spoke deliberately.

"There's certainly a case for Admiral Mukerji's proposal to consolidate our fleet in Home Hive One and wait for fresh forces. But we're not going to do it." He ordered himself not to feel amusement or satisfaction at the way Mukerji's expression rose and then fell.

"I have two reasons for that decision. First of all, we have no way of knowing how great a force the Bugs will bring through Pesthouse against Home Hive One when they finally get around to it, as we're all agreed they eventually will. They ought to have done it already, and we dare not assume that their delay has been for lack of resources. It could just as easily mean that they're taking the time to amass a truly crushing superiority. If that's the case, we'll need a second line of retreat. Breaking open this warp chain is the only way to provide it.

"Second, we know the system ahead of us has more than just the two warp points. The fact that they have additional defenses they can redistribute to meet immediate threats proves that. But where do those additional warp connections lead? What reinforcements could they bring through those connections? We have no way to know."

Mandagalla filled the silence.

"Sir, there's no indication that system has been significantly reinforced."

"No, there isn't. But would there be, necessarily?" A wintry smile. "Remember, we're working from recon drone data. And I, of all people, am not likely to forget what the Bugs can do with third-generation ECM!"

His smile softened.

"Relax, people! I don't really believe that's what's happening here. I don't think any possible application of cloaking ECM could hide really massive forces from the swarms of RD2s we and Task Force 72 have both been expending. After all, the Bugs know the system is threatened from two separate directions. And we aren't the only ones who can't be certain about potential threats; for all they know, our side has massive reinforcements advancing along the Prescott Chain in Zhaarnak's wake. Under the circumstances, it would be logical for them to pour in any reinforcements they could and hold fast on both warp points. If we break into the system, it will become a war of movement in which our superior speed and our fighters will give us the advantage-which they won't in a warp point action. And that kind of saturation defense would involve forces so massive that, to repeat, our RD2s would probably have detected them regardless of ECM."

Prescott saw the relief spread through the room. He let it live for a couple of heartbeats, then leaned forward and spoke in a very different tone.

"But even if we assume such reinforcements aren't present, there's no guarantee that they couldn't arrive later. Remember, we know nothing about the warp lines beyond this system's other warp points. Suppose one of them leads to another of the remaining home hive systems by a very long and circuitous route. That would explain why reinforcements haven't arrived yet-but it would mean they were going to arrive. The question is when.

"Accordingly," Prescott resumed after a brief interval of dead silence, "we'll press the attack as we originally intended. Given the fact that the warp point defenses we're going to be facing are strong, and getting stronger, time is of the essence. We will, however, take the time to communicate our operational plan to Zhaarnak, along with orders to commence his attack just before ours is scheduled to go in. The purpose, of course, is to draw some of the massive gunboat reserves we know that system is capable of producing towards him in order to give us a window of opportunity."

"Aye, aye, Sir." Mandagalla's lack of enthusiasm was palpable. Her ancestry was African with a dash of French, lacking even a tincture of Japanese, but Prescott knew precisely the words she was thinking: Leyte Gulf. Those were words burned into the brains of all TFN officers, schooled in the perils of plans requiring precise coordination of widely separated fleet elements. It wasn't so much because of any wet-navy traditions as it was a result of finding a purely Terran teaching example of the perils of the sort of complex, converging operations the Khanate of Orion had been so fond of employing in its first two disastrous wars against the Federation.

"I must point out, Sir," the chief of staff went on, "that while the two warp points are unusually close together as warp points go, they are eighty-four-plus light-minutes apart. So the lag for any communications between them will be almost an hour and a half, and-"

"Rest assured, Commodore," Prescott said, his tone unusually formal, almost stiff, "Lord Telmasa won't fail us. Remember, his task force's fighter strength is closer to intact than ours, and he's had time to replenish his supply of SBMHAWKs. Furthermore . . ."

All at once, Prescott was at a loss for words. How to convey to these people, not one of whom belonged to the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaiee, the absolute mutual trust implicit in the oath of vilkshatha? And, on a less esoteric note, over the years of shared fleet command he and Zhaarnak had acquired an ability to read one another's minds that had nothing to do with telepathy. And besides . . . Prescott's lips quirked briefly upward as he contemplated the irony and remembered the lecture Zhaarnak had delivered to him when he'd first proposed this entire campaign to him. His vilkshatha brother had conscientiously cautioned him in terms not unlike those Mandagalla was using now. And, to his credit, he'd actually meant it . . . more or less. But if the truth be known, the Orions secretly reveled in complex operations like this.

He suppressed an inappropriate smile and started over.

"Take my word for it, Anna, we can count on Task Force 72. Zhaarnak will do his part. We only need to worry about doing ours." Prescott's flash of amusement-all too rare these days-guttered out, for he could no longer put off breaking this to them.

"In light of the urgency of bursting open our line of communication with the Prescott Chain, and the Federation beyond, it's necessary to adapt our warp point assault tactics. Accordingly, we'll expend our entire remaining SBMHAWK and AMBAMP stocks in the initial bombardment. The first wave to go in after the bombardment will consist of relatively expendable battlecruisers and fleet carriers.

"And that wave will go through in a simultaneous transit."

Prescott paused. For a while, there was no response beyond a generalized puzzlement as to what he was waiting for. Then his words began to register visibly, one thunderstruck face at a time.

"I realize," he resumed, "that we've never used this tactic before. I'm also aware that we've been accustomed to regard it as epitomizing the Bugs' appalling alienness from our own races. I myself have often thought-and said-as much. So I understand what you're feeling. But I've also come to understand that such an attitude is a luxury we can no longer afford. We must relearn the same lesson war has taught our ancestors throughout history: you cannot fight an enemy without becoming more like him. The more repugnant the enemy is, the more unpalatable that truth becomes-and the more necessary victory becomes, regardless of the means that must be used. In the case of this enemy, we're fighting for the very survival of our various species. In the face of such a moral imperative, all other ethical considerations shrink into insignificance. I will let nothing deter me from doing whatever it takes to eradicate the plague we're fighting! Do I make myself clear?"

None of them had ever heard Prescott speak like this, and no one even considered protesting or arguing. After a moment, though, Mukerji spoke very cautiously.

"Ah, Admiral, may I ask . . . Well, that is, will you ask for volunteers to crew the ships of the first wave?"

You had to get on record with that, didn't you? Prescott silently asked him. Very important to insulate yourself from any future political consequences of this, in case there's an inquiry later.

He opened his mouth, but before he could respond, Anthea Mandagalla stunned everyone present by stepping out of line in at least two ways. She not only answered Mukerji, who outranked her, but did it in place of Prescott, who outranked her even more. Not that she seemed in any mood to worry about improprieties.

"Certainly not, Admiral! Every one of those people-every member of the TFN and its allied services-understands what goes with his or her uniform. They all know warp point assaults are part of the ordinary, expected hazards for everyone-regardless of rank." The last three words were a little pointed, but they were true. Howard Anderson himself had chiseled that into the marble of the TFN's traditions, a century and a half ago. "Furthermore, we all take it as a given that the Bugs have substantial numbers of kamikazes available. Any losses we take from interpenetrations will probably be less than those we'd sustain if we didn't get our first wave through the warp point and into that system as quickly as possible."

At any other time, Mukerji might have reacted by indignantly protesting the chief of staff's "insolence." Uncharacteristically, he replied directly to her.

"But if the operation goes according to plan, Fang Zhaarnak's earlier attack will draw them away."

"The immediately available ones, Admiral. But a 'proper' warp point assault might well give them time to deploy fresh waves of kamikazes before we can get into the system and turn the battle into one of movement. I'm confident that our personnel understand the reasoning behind this-especially coming from . . ."

Mandagalla's voice trailed off, and if it had been possible, she would have blushed. She'd almost forgotten herself, almost spoken of those personnel's willingness to do this, and more, if asked to by Raymond Prescott. But anything that smacked of flattery was as foreign to her as it was repugnant to Prescott.

Force Leader Shaaldaar's basso came from the direction of the com screens like a rumble of distant thunder.

"I concur. And it is not completely without precedent. As you all may remember, on the occasion of our second incursion into Home Hive Three, my Gorm gunboat crews willingly performed a simultaneous mass warp transit. Synklomus mandated then that they do whatever the exigencies of war required in defense of their larger lomus. That same consideration applies here-with even greater urgency."

"But those were gunboats! We've never done it with starships. Besides, these are-" Mukerji jarred to a halt, stopping just short of saying, Human crews, not Gorm. He turned hastily to Prescott. "So, Sir, as you can see, there are unprecedented aspects to this. Perhaps, under the circumstances-"

"No, Admiral Mukerji. Commodore Mandagalla and Force Leader Shaaldaar are right. We'll do whatever we must, Admiral. All of us."

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