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Marcus LeBlanc caught sight of a familiar figure across the great room through the rays of Alpha Centauri Alpha-light that slanted through the tall windows.


"Admiral! How are you-?" Kevin Sanders began, then remembered himself and started to come to attention.

"To hell with that!" LeBlanc strode up and shook hands with his one-time prot'eg'e, whom he hadn't seen in a year and a half. "I didn't know whether you'd be coming here with First Fang Ynaathar or not. It's good it to see you."

"Likewise, Sir. You're looking very well, if I may say so." Which was true, even though there was a little more salt and less pepper in LeBlanc's beard than there had been. Zephrain clearly agreed with him. That, and being close to Admiral Murakuma, Sanders added to himself with an inner chuckle. "Oh, and congratulations on your richly deserved promotion, Sir."

LeBlanc mumbled something insincerely self-deprecating. The conventional wisdom that promotions come fast in wartime actually held true for the combat branches-but not necessarily for intelligence and other restricted-line types, who weren't permitted to get the all-important tickets of command in space punched. Sanders, for example, was still a lieutenant. LeBlanc's sleeves, though, now bore the one wide silver-braided stripe and two narrow ones of a vice admiral-about as high as a spook could normally go.

"Not much has changed here, has it?" LeBlanc asked, changing the subject as he looked around the room. "How long as it been. . . ?"

"Five years and eight months, Terran Standard," Sanders replied instantly. Then he grinned. "That wasn't really a feat of quick recall. In fact, just before you arrived, I was thinking back to the last time we were here."

"Yes. . . ." The shadow of a wind-blown cloud of memory crossed LeBlanc's consciousness as he recalled that grim time after the inconceivable catastrophe in Pesthouse, when the successful defense of the "Black Hole of Centauri" had seemed merely a reprieve.

"Anyway," Sanders piped up, unable in his mercurial way to sustain any single mood for long, "one thing's the same: the tonnage of rank in this room. Do you think the floor will collapse?"

LeBlanc chuckled and looked around. The Joint Chiefs were here, with the exception of their Chairman. So were Raymond Prescott and Zhaarnak'telmasa, seemingly surrounded by a nimbus of legend. So was Ynaathar'solmaak, in whose train Sanders had arrived. The First Fang had also brought Robalii Rikka with him to speak for the Star Union in these councils. Rikka, in turn, had brought the commander of a task group that had only recently joined Task Force 86, as he'd long since become resigned to hearing First Grand Wing called. The newcomer drew stares even in this company: a radially symmetrical, three-armed triped-all of those limbs tentacular-whose mouth was set atop a disc-shaped body at a height of 1.3 meters, surrounded by three eye-stalks which provided a 360-degree field of vision. Xenobiological dogma, confirmed across almost five centuries of interstellar exploration, held that the evolutionary logic of tool-using mandated a bilaterally symmetrical form, bipedal or-in rare cases-centauroid. But even though Admiral Dar'sahlahk was a living affront to conservative xenobiologists, everyone else welcomed his presence. The Zarkolyans had paid a disproportionate price in the early fighting against Home Hive Four, and they had a debt to exact from the Bugs. Even the Orions understood that, however little else they had in common with that mercantile-oriented race.

Sanders sometimes thought that the paradox of the Zarkolyans' shift in orientation over the past few years supplied its own answer. A culture with a warlike tradition might have had more of a . . . well, sense of proportion about what they'd experienced. The Zarkolyans hadn't, and they'd taken to militancy in response to those experiences with the unleavened enthusiasm of the neophyte.

"There are still a few late arrivals yet to come," the lieutenant observed blandly, following LeBlanc's gaze around the crowded room and well aware of which late arrival the new-minted vice admiral was awaiting.

Then a side door opened to admit the combined staffs of Third and Sixth Fleet, just in from Home Hive Two. Vanessa Murakuma and Koraaza'khiniak entered side by side, but the former stopped dead when her eyes met LeBlanc's across the room.

LeBlanc muttered something that might have been "excuse me" and departed, leaving Sanders smiling.

As if the admirals' arrival had been a signal, the impending arrival of the Chairman was announced, and everyone hurried to his seat. Just as before, the high brass sat at the oval central table, with the staffers placed well back from it, and LeBlanc, despite his promotion, reluctantly took his place among the latter just before Kthaara'zarthan entered and everyone stood.

Intellectually, Sanders was aware that the Orions had no equivalent of the human antigerone treatments. Their natural spans were considerably longer than those of humans, which might explain some of the reason they didn't, and for some of them, a vague taint of dishonor attached to such research. The lieutenant also knew that once the Orion aging process set in, it proceeded with what humans found to be startling rapidity. But he hadn't seen the JCS chairman in some time, and he couldn't help being taken aback. Kthaara's pelt was ashen, like some ebon wood burned over by the fire of time. He'd grown gaunt, and could no longer manage the characteristic gliding Orion prowl-half-attractive and half-sinister to human eyes-but walked with a stiffness to which he imparted an awesome dignity.

Sanders looked around at the other Orions in the room. He'd come to know the race well, and now he read their body language. The pack elder has entered the circle of the fire-a mighty hunter, who's lived to such an extraordinary age that they know they're in the presence of great skill, or great luck, or maybe the great favor of Valkha. Even sophisticates like Ynaathar and Koraaza feel it; they're back at that campfire along with all the others, and they're unconsciously showing it.

Kthaara lowered himself carefully into his chair, and everyone else followed suit. When he spoke, his voice had lost some of its resonance, but none of its firmness.

"Thank you all for coming. I especially welcome Ahhdmiraaaal Muhrakhuuuuma and Great Fang Koraaza'khiniak, the conquerors of Home Hive Two. What they have done there has set the stage for this conference." Kthaara's pause seemed longer than the heartbeat it was. "We are here to plan the concluding campaign of this war."

For a moment, time hung suspended as all in the room sought in their own various ways to decide how to react to the words they'd sometimes doubted they would ever hear, to the imminent disappearance of what had been the central fact of their lives for a decade.

Will we know how to come to terms with the absence of this war? Sanders wondered. Is it even possible we may actually miss it?

In a pig's ass we will!

Kthaara raised a clawed hand to halt a low sound that had begun to rise from his audience.

"Do not misunderstand me. There will remain some work to be done afterwards. Worlds like Harnah and Franos will have to be dealt with, now that our allies of the Star Union have shown us how planets with hostage indigenous populations can be retaken. And, of course, the Star Union will have to complete the reduction of the Bahg stronghold at Rabahl-an operation for whose support we have already earmarked ten percent of the Grand Alliance's available units. But all of that will be in the nature of what Humans call 'mopping up.' Ahhdmiraaaal LeBlaaanc, who returned from Zephrain several local days ago and has had time to review and correlate the latest astrographic data, will present our reasons for believing this to be the case. Ahhdmiraaaal?"

LeBlanc stepped to a podium-cum-control console that had been set up at the opposite end of the table from Kthaara. He manipulated the controls, and the windows polarized to darken the room. Then a holographically projected display screen appeared against the wall behind the Chairman, showing a warp chart in the standard two-dimensional way: rather like a circuit diagram, or an ancient railway switching board, without any foredoomed attempt to approximate the real-space relationships of the stars in question.

It was the largest such display that most of them had ever seen, at least indoors. It had to be, to hold more warp lines and warp nexi than any of them had ever seen before on one chart.

Most of them recognized it for what it was even before LeBlanc spoke.

"Since securing Home Hive Two," he began, "Third and Sixth Fleets have probed through that system's warp points. Their findings have answered the last questions we had. We now know the warp layout of Bug space in its entirety. Here it is."

Everyone stared at that display, and especially at the five icons they'd all come to know as representing home hive systems. Four of them glowed sullenly with the dismal dark-red of clotted blood, meaning that they'd been burned clean of life in accordance with General Directive Eighteen. Only one-Home Hive Five-still glowed like a malevolent scarlet eye.

After a moment, though, people began looking elsewhere for other, secondary hostile-system icons, both living and dead. Presently, a low murmur began, and, finally, Raymond Prescott gave it voice.

"You mean-? Well, I'll be damned!" he turned in his chair and looked to where Amos Chung and Uaaria'salath-ahn sat, looking stunned. "When you two broached your theory about the Bugs back in late '64, did you expect this?"

"No, Sir," Chung admitted. "We believed that each of the five Bug sub-groupings Lieutenant Sanders had identified represented a small group of intensively industrialized systems. Since then, we've had to constantly revise our estimate of the number of those systems downward as more and more of Bug space was revealed. But we never dreamed that the entire Bug industrial infrastructure was concentrated in the five home hive systems, with only a few other occupied systems to support them with resources."

Sky Marshal MacGregor gave her head a slow shake of the wilderness.

"But how can that be possible?" She twitched a shoulder in an almost irritated shrug. "Granted that the home hives are overpopulated and overdeveloped beyond any nightmares we've ever had and that the whole concept of a 'standard of living' is foreign to the Bugs. Granted even that their single-mindedness is literally beyond our comprehension. But . . ." She shook her head again. "How could five industrialized systems-any five industrialized systems-have supported the overwhelming fleets we faced at the beginning of the war?"

"I believe I know the answer," Robalii Rikka said. "After their first war with the Star Union, the Demons began building up reserves in anticipation of a subsequent meeting. We ourselves did the same-but their buildup was far greater, due to the factors you just mentioned. Then they encountered the Terran Federation. So you, not us, had to face those reserves." Rikka looked somber, for he'd studied details of those desperate early battles in the Romulus Chain. "Truly, we owe you a debt above and beyond the new technology that Admiral Sommers brought to us. You bore the brunt of what was intended for us-and wore it down, at terrible cost to yourselves."

Eileen Sommers squirmmed uncomfortably in her place seated among Ynaathar's staffers. She looked around at the hectares of silver braid, stars, and other gleaming and gemmed insignia which made it painfully clear just how junior a mere rear admiral was in a room like this. But then she cleared her throat.

"We can't take undeserved credit, Warmaster. We were fighting for our own survival, not for the Star Union's. In fact, we didn't even suspect that you existed."

"Perhaps. But the fact remains that those inconceivable fleets would have overwhelmed us if we'd had to face them in the fullness of their strength. We feel ourselves in your debt, even if you don't regard us as your debtors. Which is why my Grand Wing is remaining under First Fang Ynaathar's command, as an integral part of Eighth Fleet, rather than returning to the Star Union to participate in the Rabahl operation. We wish to contribute what we can to the eradication of the home hive whose forces you first encountered. We feel there is a . . . fitness about it."

"You are correct," Kthaara said. "Honor is a concept which our cultures may express differently, but we all possess it in some form-it is what sets us apart from the less-than-chofaki we fight. And honor, however each of us understands it, demands that all our races be present for the completion of the vilknarma. Which leads me to a related matter."

The aged Orion turned to Prescott.

"Fang Presssssscottt, you honored me with the suggestion you made in connection with the final assault on Home Hive Five."

"Every other fleet commander has endorsed it, Lord Talphon. I was merely the first to voice what everyone feels."

"I appreciate that. Nevertheless, as I explained at the time, my orders from the Khan required me to reject it. Since then, however, I have made a direct appeal to the Khan, and he has been gracious enough to rescind his previous command. So I now take this opportunity to announce that I will assume direct personal command of Grand Fleet for this operation."

Kthaara raised his hand once more, this time to quell the incipient applause, and turned to Vanessa Murakuma.

"Ahhdmiraaaal Muhrakhuuuuma, if you are agreeable, I will fly Grand Fleet's lights from Li Chien-lu."

He made a remarkably creditable attempt at pronouncing the name of Sixth Fleet's flagship, and all eyes went to the slender, flame-haired human woman. The politics of the choice were obvious: if an Orion was to command the operation, balance required that he do so from a ship of the other superpower. But far more was involved in this decision than mere politics, and everyone knew that, too. Vanessa Murakuma was the first naval officer in the history of the galaxy to actually stop an Arachnid offensive-an offensive launched with all of the massive, crushing superiority of the reserve to which Robalii Rikka had just referred. The senior officers in this conference room knew far better than most just how impossible a feat that had been, just as they knew that the juggernaut she had somehow battered to a halt had come from Home Hive Five. It was entirely fitting-indeed, inevitable-that her flagship should carry Grand Fleet's commander-in-chief for the final home hive assault, and Sanders stole a glance at LeBlanc, who was looking at his lover and grinning like an idiot with pride.

"I-" Murakuma began, then stopped and almost visibly got a grip on herself. "I mean, I would be honored, Lord Talphon," she said. "Thank you."

Sanders decided that if she hadn't genuinely been taken by surprise, the galaxy had lost a great actress when she'd opted for a military career.

"Excellent. And now, Ahhdmiraaaal LeBlaaanc, please continue."

LeBlanc activated a flashing cursor that pointed to the solitary balefully red gleam. A warp line connected it with Anderson Three, the system where the first units of Grand Fleet was even now beginning to converge. The string-lights of the Romulus chain grew from its other side.

"There's still a vast Bug war machine in the systems between Home Hive Five and Justin, still facing Fifth Fleet. But there's no need to fight it. Home Hive Five is the Arachnids' last remaining resource base. After it falls, the forces confronting the Romulus Chain can be left to die on the vine. We estimate it will take six months to a year before lack of maintenance renders them incapable of offering meaningful resistance. It might take somewhat longer, depending on the extent of their forward-deployed stockpiles, but the ultimate result will be the same however long it takes."

"All well and good," Fleet Speaker Noraku rumbled. "But in the meantime, what of the opposition we will face in Home Hive Five?"

"We're presently conducting RD2 probes from Anderson Three. They're incomplete as yet, and it will take additional time to analyze the findings. If I may, I'd like to defer my response until that work is complete."

"I agree," Kthaara interjected. "We should await definitive findings. In the meantime, we will turn our attention to the routing of our fleets to Anderson Three."

From some standpoints, Sanders reflected, assembling an attacking force before knowing what it was going to have to go up against might have seemed an odd way of proceeding. But in this case it made perfect sense. They were going to have to go into Home Hive Five regardless of what it had in the way of defenses, and Anderson Three's Warp Point One was the only way to get there. It was simple to the point of crudity.

But, his familiar imp whispered, remember what Clauzewitz said about the simplest things often being very difficult.

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