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CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX: "Take them at a run."

"Well. Lieutenant Sanders, isn't it?" Vice Admiral Winnifred Trevayne pronounced it lef-tenant. Her medium-dusky coloring, a throwback to some twentieth-century Jamaican ancestor, was the only thing about her that wasn't stereotypically British. "What do you hear from Admiral LeBlanc, out at Zephrain?"

"Nothing lately, Sir." Kevin Sanders' usual insouciance was somewhat in abeyance. The Director of Naval Intelligence didn't exactly encourage informality, even among those well acquainted with her and close to her in rank, and Sanders was neither. "I and the rest of First Fang Ynaathar's staff have only just arrived."

"Of course. You had to come all the way from Anderson Four. I've been here less than two local days myself." Trevayne didn't get to Alpha Centauri often, but she'd made a special trip out from Old Terra for this conference, which promised to be crucial. Matters were coming to a head.

"I see the Sky Marshal gesturing for me, Lieutenant. And you'd best rejoin the First Fang's staff." With a final nod, Trevayne turned on her heel and crossed the GFGHQ formal conference room.

Sanders watched her go, then gazed around the room. It was much as he remembered it from the time he'd sat here with Marcus LeBlanc, nearly six standard years earlier. The light of Alpha Centauri A was even streaming in through the tall windows at about the same afternoon angle. But this was Nova Terra's spring, and the light wasn't the same dismal winter grayness.

As before, the top brass sat at the oval table: the Joint Chiefs and Ynaathar. Their staffers sat behind them, backs toward the wall. Trevayne was so close behind MacGregor that she was almost within the magic circle that shimmered-invisibly, to the uninitiated-around the table. Sanders sighed and took his own place, well back from Ynaathar.

In accordance with ritual, everyone rose as Kthaara entered-even Ynaathar, who technically outranked him. To Sanders, who hadn't seen him in a long while, the signs of Orion aging were unmistakable: the gait had grown too stiff to be called a prowl, and the fur too silvery to be called black.

"As some of you are aware," Kthaara began after the formalities were concluded, "I had hoped Fangs Presssssscottt and Zhaarnak would be present for this conference. Unfortunately, they are still en route from Shanak, where they have been consulting with Lord Khiniak. However, they have sent a dispatch ahead. It raises an issue which I would like to place at the head of our agenda."

He paused for a moment, then glanced sharply at Admiral Curtis Treadman and Fang Haairdaahn'usaihk, the senior permanent Terran and Orion members of the Joint Strategy Board. Neither of them seemed particularly pleased to find themselves the focus of his attention, but they returned his gaze steadly, and he gave a small Orion smile before he turned back to his colleagues.

"Fang Presssssscottt and Fang Zhaarnak have both informed me that they completely share Lord Khiniak's conclusions and his recommendations. In particular, Fang Presssssscottt's despatch emphasizes his belief that Lord Khiniak is entirely correct to fear that the Bahgs realize that we now know the location of their entry warp point and are making preparations to receive any attack from Shanak. I realize-" he glanced once more at Treadman and Haairdaahn "-that the consensus here at Centauri remains that the Bahgs do not know we have pinpointed their warp point. Further, I am aware that there is no hard evidence to prove or disprove the possibility, and I am familiar-as are we all-with the analyses of their dispositions in Shanak which argue that they do not.

"I am, as always, impressed by the thoroughness and energy with which the Strategy Board and its analysts have examined this entire question, and we are all painfully well aware that trying to determine how the Bahgs 'think' is . . . problematical, at best. Nonetheless, I am also impressed by the arguments Fang Presssssscottt and Fang Zhaarnak have presented. As Fang Presssssscottt points out, while it is essential that we do not allow ourselves to be misled by imputing our own thoughts and motivations to the Bahgs, it is equally essential that we do not simply conclude that they are completely inscrutable and unknowable. He agrees with the Strategy Board that it is best to rely on analysis of hard data rather than upon an evaluation of enemy intentions, but he points out that the data must be considered from all angles. And alien as the Bahgs have proven themselves, they face essentially the same physical and material constraints we do.

"He therefore respectfully suggests that the Joint Chiefs reconsider the timetable for Third Fleet and accede to Lord Khiniak's request that we bring forward the date of his attack from Shanak. Would anyone care to comment?"

It was obvious how Kthaara himself felt on the matter, Sanders decided. And it was clever of him to emphasize Prescott's position, since it neatly undercut at least some of the impression that he was pushing a purely Orion perspective. Having watched Prescott and Zhaarnak operate, the lieutenant felt certain the vilkshatha brothers had deliberately drafted their recommendations in a way which gave precedence to the human partner's views, as well, in order to help Kthaara do exactly what he just had. But that didn't necessarily mean the decision was going to sail smoothly to a preordained rubber-stamp conclusion, and Fleet Speaker Noraku gave the basso rumble that was the equivalent of a human clearing his throat for attention.

Over the years, the Gorm had more and more emerged as the voice of caution on the Joint Chiefs. He'd also proven more and more willing to stake out positions independent of Orion ones. Indeed, there were rumors that Noraku had been the main advocate within the JCS for the Strategy Board's view of the position in Shanak, and Sanders sensed the tension which suddenly focused upon the fleet speaker.

"I have, of course, reviewed the despatches from Admiral Prescott and Fang Zhaarnak." As always, Noraku's tone was measured and thoughtful, and he cocked his head as if to consider Kthaara's expression. "I share the Strategy Board's view that it is best to err on the side of caution in analyzing the Bugs' intentions. Certainly we have all discovered that it's wiser to limit ourselves to analyses which depend upon known physical deployments and the capabilities those deployments and the enemy's known strength make possible rather than attempting to predict what they may do in a given situation. This has been my view in regard to the war in general and, especially, in respect to Shanak and Third Fleet."

Sanders carefully hid a frown of disappointment he was much too junior to go around showing in such senior company. Noraku had the definite sound of a being laying the groundwork to disagree with the Chief of the Joint Chiefs, and the lieutenant suspected it was a mistake. He had a lively respect for both Raymond Prescott and Zhaarnak'telmassa, and he felt certain Marcus LeBlanc would have supported them if he'd been present.

"Nonetheless," Noraku went on after a moment in exactly the same tone, "in this instance, I believe I must agree with Lord Khiniak, Admiral Prescott, and Fang Zhaarnak." Sanders managed not to blink in astonishment, and even from his distant position, something in the massive Gorm's body language suggested that the fleet speaker was rather enjoying the reaction he'd just drawn. Even Kthaara seemed surprised, but Noraku allowed no indication of amusement to color his voice or his manner as he continued.

"It's always wise to consider the viewpoint of the actual commander on the spot," he rumbled, "and Lord Khiniak's arguments have been, I believe, both cogent and persistent. This is not a sudden 'inspired guess' on his part, but rather the product of long and careful consideration. As for Admiral Prescott and Fang Zhaarnak, their reputations obviously speak for them. They are aggressive and bold, true, but they're also thinkers who have, I believe, demonstrated that they've come as close as anyone can to divining the essential principles which guide the Bugs' strategy. I am, therefore, disposed to support the recommendation that Third Fleet's operational schedule be advanced as per Lord Khiniak's request."

There was a moment of complete silence as the Gorm finished delivering his bombshell and then sat back in his saddlelike "chair" with an air of imperturbability which Sanders, at least, found distinctly irritating. But then Kthaara shook himself and turned his head to look at each of the other members of the JCS in turn, with one ear cocked in the Orion equivalent of a raised eyebrow. No one said a word, although it seemed to Sanders that MacGregor was having a hard time not grinning broadly.

"Very well," Kthaara said after a moment in a tone of calm finality. "It would appear we are agreed. I will have Lord Khiniak's orders prepared and dispatched. And now, let us turn to the original subject of this meeting: the timetable for Eighth Fleet's attack on Home Hive Four."

At once, Sanders perceived a change in the room's atmosphere. The debate on Lord Khiniak's request had aroused no great acrimony, but now the discussion was entering territory in which positions had been staked out and were bristling with emotional defenses. Looking at Ynaathar's back, Sanders could see it stiffen-the First Fang could sense it too. So could Robalii Rikka and Aileen Sommers, sitting close to him, and Noraku cleared his throat once more.

"I understand, of course, the desirability of eliminating Home Hive Four," the fleet speaker said. "And I also understand that it lies beyond Anderson Four's second warp point, judging from Eighth Fleet's analysis of the wreckage in that system. But the fact remains that we have no idea how many systems lie between Anderson Four and Home Hive Four. We would be going in blind."

"Perhaps not altogether, Fleet Speaker," Kthaara said. He turned to Ynaathar. "First Fang, would you like to respond?"

"Yes, I would, Lord Talphon. As would Warmaster Rikka. He has a particular stake in this, as he will now explain."

The Crucian shifted his folded wings back and forth slightly, drawing breath. His words reached his listeners through their translators, in their various native languages.

"Now that Lieutenant Sanders has supplied us with your intelligence data on the technological characteristics that identify the different Home Hives, we've been able to compare them with our own databases. The results are unambiguous: the Demon forces fighting the Star Union have all come from Home Hive Four."

There was a stir around the table. This was news to everyone but Kthaara and a few others.

"Well and good," Noraku's deeply reverberating voice replied. "But I wonder, Warmaster, if you may be allowing that discovery to prejudice your judgment. No offense intended-"

"None taken," Rikka interjected.

"-but you may be predisposed to favor aggressive action against what you now know to be the particular Bug system that has been your people's nemesis. And, at any rate, how does this relate to the problem of determining Home Hive Four's location?"

"Cub Saaanderzz," said Ynaathar. "If you please. . . ."

Sanders stood and walked to the controls at the far end of the table from Kthaara. An immaterial warp line diagram appeared above the gleaming tabletop. It showed Alpha Centauri at the upper left corner, with the Anderson Chain extending below it to Anderson Four, whence a branching warp line led to a system designated Bug-21 under the new system, beyond which a broken string-light straggled out to the right, into the unknown. From Anderson One, another series of system-icons linked by string-lights grew out to the right: the warp chain Rikka had followed from the Star Union to Alpha Centauri.

Using a light-pencil, Sanders indicated the second system of that chain.

"As you will recall, ladies and gentlemen," he began, "Warmaster Rikka's forces encountered stiff fighting here, in Bug-25, on their way to Alpha Centauri. The Bugs withdrew essentially intact, however, proving that the system has a closed warp point-which, unfortunately, wasn't located." He touched the controls, and Bug-25 sprouted another of the dashed string-lights, pointing downward.

"A dissssturrrrbing datummmm," Admiral Thaarzhaan fluted.

"Indubitably," Rikka admitted. "However, I left a force there to watch for any Demon incursions and, hopefully, follow them to the closed warp point. Lieutenant Sanders, please continue."

"Yes, Warmaster. Our analysis of the data on the Bug ships involved in that fight confirms, to no one's surprise, that they came from Home Hive Four." Sanders gestured vaguely at the blank area of the display, toward which the two broken lines pointed from different directions. Here there be dragons, he thought, recalling the unexplored areas of Old Terra's ancient maps. "But, more to the point, certain individual Bug ships that fought Warmaster Rikka in Bug-25 turned up later in Anderson Four."

"Can you be certain of that?" rumbled Noraku.

"Yes, Fleet Speaker. Comparison of Warmaster Rikka's data with First Fang Ynaathar's leaves no room for doubt. They were the same ships. And the elapsed time between their two appearances was short enough to suggest that the warp chain they followed from Bug-25 through Home Hive Four to Bug-21 can't be a very long one."

"In other words," Ynaathar took up the thread, "there cannot be many warp transits between Anderson Four and Home Hive Four. It is my personal belief that there are only two, that Home Hive Four lies just beyond Bug-21."

"You're asking us to stake a great deal on your 'personal belief,' First Fang." Noraku's tone wasn't truculent, but it held profound skepticism. "Even assuming you're correct, we have no up-to-date intelligence concerning what you would have to face in Bug-21. After all, you haven't been probing it with RD2s recently."

"Truth, Fleet Speaker. We have refrained from doing so in order to lull the Bahgs into a false sense of security. However, we did some probing in the immediate aftermath of the fighting in Aaahnnderrssson Four, so we can speak with some confidence on the warp point defenses. These consist of eighty heavy cruisers of the Danger and Derringer classes, twenty Estoc-class suicide-rider light cruisers, thirty-two thousand patterns of mines, and slightly over eleven thousand deep-space buoys of various configurations."

Thaarzhaan stirred, with a rustle of feathers, on the framework that served his species as a chair. To anyone familiar with the Ophiuchi, as Sanders was, his ambivalence was blatantly obvious.

"Butttt you havvvve no conccccception whhhhhhhatever of the deffffffenses of Hhhhome Hhhhhive Ffffour itsssselffff!"

"That is not precisely the case," Kthaara put in. "No direct observational data, true. But I believe our intelligence analysts have been able to draw some inferences. Is that correct, Sky Marshal MaaacGregggorr?"

Ellen MacGregor looked as torn as Thaarzhaan, and she spoke with uncharacteristic hesitancy.

"Vice Admiral Trevayne, the Director of Naval Intelligence, is here, and she's had time to consult with the specialists on New Atlantis Island. Admiral, would you elaborate?"

"Certainly, Sky Marshal." Winnifred Trevayne had a way of tilting her head back and peering down her long, straight nose that not everyone found endearing. "Thanks to Warmaster Rikka, we now have access to the Star Union's data on the Bug losses on that front-specifically, Home Hive Four's losses, as we now know them to be. Coupling those with the observed Bug losses in the Anderson Four fighting, and assuming resources of the same order of magnitude as those of the home hive systems we've been able to observe, the analysts have concluded that Home Hive Four must have expended virtually its entire starship strength."

A Gorm laugh sounded rather like a short blast from a foghorn. Noraku produced one, then turned to Kthaara.

"That, Lord Talphon, is the kind of thinking that almost lost us Admiral Murakuma and Sixth Fleet at Home Hive Two! What if Home Hive Four has also produced tens of thousands of gunboats and small craft? Eighth Fleet could likewise find itself facing more than it could handle. No, I say we should wait until Seventh Fleet is in a position to support the attack, in accordance with the original plan."

Aileen Sommers leaned forward. Her status here was ambivalent. A mere rear admiral, she wasn't even one of Ynaathar's task force commanders-Rikka's official reason for being present. But her self-bestowed, never-ratified position as "ambassador" gave her a unique standing which had made it out of the question to exclude her from this conference.

"In point of fact, Fleet Speaker, Sixth Fleet's experience in Home Hive Two is the very reason we're advocating prompt action against Home Hive Four. Remember, Seventh Fleet is still undergoing major repairs and reinforcement. At one point, I believe, there was serious discussion of disbanding it altogether and incorporating its remanents into Eighth Fleet. If we're to strike quickly, Eighth Fleet must do it unaided. And consider: Home Hive Two had been under a threat a single warp transit away ever since Admiral Murakuma completed Operation Orpheus. Presumably, it began at that moment to concentrate on gunboat production, with the results we all know. Home Hive Four, on the other hand, has been facing the threat of a direct attack for a considerably shorter period-even assuming, as I and everyone in Eighth Fleet does, that it lies just beyond Bug-21. So the longer we wait, the more time it has to mass-produce kamikazes."

A silence settled over the room. Sanders used it to unobtrusively retreat to his position in the rearmost row of seats.

"Lord Talphon," MacGregor finally said, "we're admittedly dealing with a long chain of inferences here. But in my opinion, we face much the same situation here, although for different reasons, that Lord Khiniak faces in Shanak. Assuming First Fang and Warmaster Rikka are correct about the length of the warp lines in question-and I think they probably are-then the possibility of giving Home Hive Four more time to build up the kind of defenses Admiral Murakuma faced is decisive. We can't wait for Seventh Fleet. We must go in now."

"I agrrrrrree," said Thaarzhaan, his indecision hardening into quiet resolution.

Noraku watched the defection of the waverers without expression, then turned to Ynaathar.

"In the end, First Fang, it comes down to this. Are you confident of Eighth Fleet's ability to fight its way through Bug-21's defenses and on to Home Hive Four without pausing? Are you that confident of the intelligence estimates and of your own conviction that you will have only one more warp point to get through?"

"I am."

"Very well. Lord Talphon, I withdraw my objections."

"So be it." Kthaara gave his carnivore's smile. "We are agreed, then. We shall, in the Human phrase, 'take them at a run.' "


* * * | Shiva Option | CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN: "And then there were two."