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CHAPTER THREE: "I am become Death . . ."

There was a long moment of brittle tension on the flag bridge after TFNS Dnepr emerged from the indescribable grav surge of warp transit. But then surrounding space began to crackle with tight-beam communications, and Commander Amos Chung, the staff intelligence officer, turned eagerly to Raymond Prescott. His face, despite its Eurasian features, was light-complexioned-his homeworld of Ragnarok had a dim sun-and now it was flushed with excitement.

"It worked, Admiral! We're in, and there's no indication that they've detected our emergence!"

"Thank you, Commander," Prescott acknowledged quietly. He didn't really want to deflate the spook's enthusiasm, but at times like this the most useful thing an admiral could do was project an air of imperturbable calm and confidence.

And, after all, it wasn't so surprising that Sixth Fleet had succeeded in entering the Bug system undetected. This was a closed warp point of which the Bugs knew nothing, little more than a light-hour out from the primary. The "vastness of space" was a hideously overused cliche, and like most cliches it tended to be acknowledged and then promptly forgotten. People looked at charts that showed the warp network as lines connecting dots, and they tended to lose sight of the fact that each of those dots was a whole planetary system-hundreds of thousands of cubic light-minutes of nothingness in which to hide.

Besides, Sixth Fleet had spent over a year stealthily probing this system with second-generation recon drones from Zephrain. They knew all about the scanner buoys that formed a shell around the system's primary at a radius of ten light-minutes. Armed with a careful analysis of the sensor emissions of those buoys, Commander Jacques Bichet, Raymond Prescott's operations officer, and his assistants had been able to rig a "white-noise" jammer to cripple their effectiveness. Coupled with the Allies' shipboard ECM, that ought to enable them to emerge unnoticed from this closed warp point and vanish back into cloak before anyone noticed them.

It was the kind of trick that could only work once. But evidently it had worked this time. So far, the long-awaited Zephrain offensive had succeeded in defying the great god Murphy.

Prescott stood up from his command chair and stepped to the system-scale holo display, already alight with downloaded sensor data. As per convention, the system primary was a yellow dot at the center of the plot. Just as conventionally, Prescott's mind superimposed the traditional clock face on the display. Warp points generally, though not always, occurred in the same plane as a system's planetary orbits, which was convenient from any number of standpoints. The closed warp point through which they'd emerged was on a bearing of about five o'clock from the primary. No other warp points were shown-they hadn't exactly been able to do any surveying here-but planets were. The innermost orbited at a six-light-minute radius, but at a current bearing of two o'clock. The second planet's ten-light-minute-radius orbit had brought it to four o'clock. An asteroid belt ringed the primary at fourteen light-minutes, and other planets orbited still further out, but Prescott ignored them. Planets I and II were the ones Sixth Fleet had come to kill.

A display on this scale wasn't set up to show individual ships or other astronomical minutiae. In a detailed display, those two planets would have glowed white hot from the neutrino emissions of high-energy technology and nestled in cocoons of encircling drive fields. This system was almost certainly one of the nodes of Bug population and industry that Marcus LeBlanc's smartass prot'eg'e Sanders had dubbed "home hives." It would have been a primary target even in a normal war-and this war had ceased to be normal when the nature of the enemy had become apparent. The Alliance had reissued General Directive Eighteen, which had lain dormant since the war with the Rigelians. For the second time in history, the Federation and its allies had sentenced an intelligent species to death.

If, in fact, an "intelligent species" is what we're dealing with here.

Prescott dismissed the fruitless speculation from his mind. The question of whether the Bugs were truly sentient, or merely possessed something that masqueraded as sentience well enough to produce interstellar-level technology, was one which had long exercised minds that he freely admitted were more capable than his own. It wasn't something he needed to concern himself with at the moment, anyway, and he turned to the tactical display.

One ship after another was materializing at the warp point, their icons blinking into existence on the plot, and as Sixth Fleet arrived, it shook down into its component parts. Prescott smiled as he watched. He and Zhaarnak had had four months since they'd returned from Alpha Centauri to Zephrain. They'd used the time for exhaustive training exercises, and it showed as the swarming lights on the display arranged themselves with a smoothness that had to be understood to be appreciated.

Sixth Fleet comprised two task forces. Prescott commanded TF 61, which held the bulk of the Fleet's heavy battle-line muscle: forty-two superdreadnoughts, including both Dnepr and Celmithyr'theaarnouw, from which Zhaarnak was flying his lights, accompanied by six battleships, ten fleet carriers, and twenty-four battlecruisers. Force Leader Shaaldaar led TF 62, and the stolidly competent Gorm's command was further divided into two task groups. TG 62.1, under 106th Least Fang of the Khan Meearnow'raaalphaa, had twelve fast superdreadnoughts and three battlecruisers, but those were mainly to escort its formidable array of fighter platforms: twenty-seven attack carriers and twelve fleet carriers. In support was Vice Admiral Janet Parkway, with the forty-eight battlecruisers that made up TG 62.2.

It was strictly a fighting fleet. There was no fleet train of supply ships, no repair or hospital ships, no assault transports full of Marines. None were needed, for the objective was not conquest and occupation, but pure destruction.

As he watched, Shaaldaar implemented the plan that had been contingent on an undetected emergence from warp. He detached ten of Meearnow's fleet carriers and temporarily assigned them to Parkway, with orders to stand ready to take out all the buoys within scanner range of the warp point the instant the main force was detected. Prescott gazed closely at TG 62.2's icons as they maneuvered away from the warp point and headed in-system to reach attack range of the buoys. And to be sure Parkway was far enough from the warp point when her carriers eventually launched that their fighters, whose drive field emissions couldn't be cloaked, didn't give away its location. They were Terran carriers-Borsoi-B-class ships-and they were more dangerous than they looked. Prescott had lobbied and fought and finally achieved his goal of putting two squadrons of Ophiuchi fighters aboard every TFN carrier in Sixth Fleet. The two species were sufficiently similar biologically that putting both aboard the same ship didn't complicate the supply picture too much . . . and those fighter squadrons were well worth whatever inconvenience they did cause. The ancestral proto-Ophiuchi might have traded the ability to fly for the ability to use tools, but renunciation of the innate sense of relative motion in three dimensions that went with natural flight hadn't been included in the evolutionary deal. Even the Orions grudgingly admitted that they were the best fighter pilots in the known galaxy.

As Parkway's reinforced command peeled off, a call from the com station interrupted Prescott's thoughts.

"Signal from the flagship, Admiral."

"Acknowledge."

Zhaarnak looked sternly out from the com screen. This, Prescott knew, wasn't a personal message-Shaaldaar and Meearnow were also in the hookup. It was the Fleet commander, not the vilkshatha brother, who spoke.

"As our arrival has gone undetected, Sixth Fleet will execute Contingency Plan Alpha."

Having delivered an order that his chief of staff could have passed along, Zhaarnak drew a breath and continued.

"In the past, the Alliance's offensive operations have only been in the nature of counterattacks, usually to liberate systems of our own. Even Operation Pesssthouse, our first venture into enemy space, was in response to the enemy's appearance in the Alpha Centauri System. But now, for the first time, we are striking at one of the enemy's home systems, from a quarter he has no reason to suspect poses any threat whatever to him. We possess complete strategic and tactical surprise. If we fail to capitalize upon those advantages, the fault will be ours alone, and we will have no excuse. However, I am confident that everyone in Sixth Fleet will live up to the unique opportunity that is ours."

Zhaarnak's eyes flashed yellow hell, and his speech grew more idiomatic.

"This is the beginning of the vilknarma, the blood-balance. The ghosts of Kliean, and of the Human systems which have fallen to these chofaki, fly with us, shrieking for vengeance!" He let a heartbeat of silence reverberate while the lethal fire of Orion retribution blazed in his eyes, and then he repeated the prosaic command, "Execute Contingency Plan Alpha," and signed off.

Prescott passed the command formally to his chief of staff. Captain Anthea Mandagalla nodded in reply, her eyes gleaming in her night-black face, and began firing off the long prepared orders-in space warfare, a flag officer's chief of staff performed many of the functions that the wet navies of old had assigned to his flag captain.

TF 61 shaped a course for its objective of Planet I, a flat hyperbola with the local sun to port. TF 62-meaning, in practical terms, TG 62.1-moved outward toward Planet II.

"It's Fleet Flag again, Sir," the com officer called out.

"Put him on." Prescott smiled. He had a feeling this one was going to be a personal message.

"Did I overdo it, Raaymmonnd?" Zhaarnak asked, looking unwontedly abashed. For all the sincerity of his emotions, his last speech had been most un-Orion, for the Tabby ideal eschewed volubility, and the more important the occasion, the fewer words they were likely to use. But Sixth Fleet's personnel-and flag officers-were drawn from every one of the Alliance's races, and Zhaarnak had tried to adjust his words accordingly. Which, unfortunately, had carried him into unknown territory.

"Not at all," Prescott assured him. "Although some might take exception to your use of the word chofaki." The Orion term, delicately translated into Standard English as "dirt-eaters," meant beings so lost to any sense of honor as to be inherently incapable of ever being amenable to the code of Farshalah'kiah. It was also one of the two or three deadliest insults in the Tongue of Tongues. "Lord Talphon, for example, claims that using it for the Bugs is like debasing currency, as it pays them too much honor."

"I lack his way with words. I must use the insults I know, even at the risk of diluting them." Zhaarnak straightened. "At any rate, the time for words is past. We will speak to the Bahgs in another language when we arrive at Planet I."

Prescott nodded, and his eyes strayed to the view-forward display. A tiny bluish dot was slightly less tiny than it had been when they'd begun accelerating.



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