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CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR: The Vengeance of Kthaara'zarthan

The end could not be long-delayed.

The Fleet stood at bay in defense of the final System Which Must Be Defended, and the massive waves of robotic probes the Enemy had sent through the warp point again and again and again promised that its wait would not be much longer.

Introspection was not something to which the beings who crewed the Fleet were given, nor-in any sense humans or any of their allies would have understood-were hope, or happiness, or despair. Yet those units of the vast, corporate hunger which had spawned the Fleet who were responsible for analysis and strategic planning understood what had happened . . . and what was about to happen.

Not fully, of course. Those analysts had no equivalent of the emotions, the terror and hate, which drove their Enemies. They didn't understand love, or the ferocity broken love and loss-born vengeance could spawn. They served colder imperatives, ones in which the things which made their Enemies what they were-individuals-could have no place, for theirs was not a society of individuals, it was . . . an appetite. An omnivoracity, whose every facet and aspect rested upon a single, all-consuming compulsion: survival.

Survival at all costs. At any cost. Survival which had no other objective beyond the mere act of surviving. Survival which would inspire nothing but survival: not art, not epic poetry, not music or literature or philosophy. Not ethics. And certainly never anything so ephemeral and yet so central to all their Enemies were as honor.

And because that single imperative was all the Fleet's analysts truly understood, they could never grasp the entirety of what drove their enemies. Not that they would have cared if they had been able to grasp it. What mattered motivation, in the end? Their own imperative would have demanded the same action, although they would never have been so wasteful as simply to exterminate potential food sources if there was any way to avoid it. But emotionless, uncaring survival was a harsh and demanding god, and the analysts who had preceded those who now served the Fleet had given dozens of other species to it as its sacrifices. In the end, those sacrifices had been in vain. Indeed, although the analysts were far too alien to their Enemies to ever visualize the concept that any other course of action might even have been possible, those sacrifices were what had made the present disaster inevitable. The complete impossibility of coexistence-the all or nothing appetite which had driven something which could never truly be called a "civilization" to the very stars-left no other option, no other possible outcome, than this one.

That much, in their own way, the analysts grasped. The greater must overwhelm and devour the lesser. That was the law of the universe, the only path of survival, and their kind had enforced that law against every other species it had ever encountered, with a cold, uncaring efficiency which couldn't even be called ruthlessness, for the existence of "ruthlessness" implied the existence of an antitheses, and the analysts' kind could imagine nothing of the sort. Yet they'd always understood that he who could not eat his Enemies must, in turn, be eaten by them, and so they'd always known this moment must come if they failed to conquer.

And they had failed.

It was easy-now-to look back and trace the course of their failure, yet even now, on the brink of their final defeat, it was impossible for those analysts even to consider having followed any different course of action. Oh, yes-there were minor changes they might have made, a swifter response to overcoming the technological advantages of their Enemies, perhaps. Or possibly a less profligate expenditure of the Reserve in the early, all-out offensives of the war. Perhaps they might have diverted the resources of more than a single System Which Must Be Defended to the destruction of the Old Enemies . . . or perhaps they might have diverted less, in order to concentrate more fully against the New Enemies. Or-

There were many such possibilities, yet in the end, all were meaningless beside the one possibility which had never existed for a moment: the possibility of never beginning the war at all. Even now, the recognition that their automatic, instinctive response to the discovery of yet another sentient race might have been in error was impossible for the analysts to grasp or even consider.

They were what they were, and they'd done what they had done because what they were had been incapable of any other action, any other response. And so, in the final analysis, they weren't even "evil" as those who'd gathered to destroy them understood the term, for "evil" implied a choice, a decision between more than one possible course of action. And because the analysts had never been able to envision the possibility of choice-because they couldn't do so even now-they felt no guilt as they awaited the destruction of the final System Which Must Be Defended. Not for what they'd done to other species, and not even for what they had brought down upon their own. It would have been like expecting a whirlwind to feel a sense of blame, or a forest fire to feel remorse.

And yet, for all the monstrous gulf which separated them from their Enemies, the analysts shared, however tenuously, two emotions with those Enemies. In their own cold, dispassionate way, they knew despair. The despair which had swept over the citizens of Justin, of Kliean . . . of Telik. The despair which knew there was no escape, that no last-second miracle would reprieve the Worlds Which Must Be Defended or turn aside the fiery doom their species' own actions had laid up for it.

And even in their despair, they knew one other fragile emotion: hope. Not for themselves, or for the System Which Must Be Defended, but rather for the System Which Must Be Concealed. For the single star system of which the very last courier drones to reach them from a murdered System Which Must Be Defended had whispered, and which might someday attain once more the status of a System Which Must Be Defended.

In time, perhaps, the System Which Must Be Concealed would wax powerful once more. Indeed, it must do so, if it survived at all. And perhaps, in some far distant day, the analysts which served the System Which Must Be Defended would return to this area of space-wiser, better prepared, knowing what they faced-and secure the survival of the new System Which Must Be Defended and its daughter Systems Which Must Be Defended in the only way that was certain: by destroying all possible competitor species, root and branch. And perhaps those future analysts would not return here. Perhaps they would seal off the warp point behind themselves and avoid these Enemies-forever, if that were possible, and for as long as possible, if it were not.

The present analysts couldn't know the answers to those questions. Nor, to be honest, did they much concern themselves with them, for they weren't questions these analysts would ever have to answer.

The questions they faced would be answered shortly . . . and forever.



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