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CHAPTER SEVEN: To Hold Back Hell

Another wave of fighters swept outward, glinting in the light of the blue giant star called Reymiirnagar-dazzling even across 3.6 light-hours-and arrowed away towards a warp point which, from the standpoint of the Bugs, justified this system's nickname: "Hell's Gate."

Actually, Reymiirnagar was called that because one of its eight warp points led to the system of Telik, which the Bugs had turned into a fair approximation of Hell after their first war with the Star Union of Crucis. Still, the mammoth asteroid fortresses which now guarded the system had given the name a whole new meaning. There were only six of those monstrous constructs, squatting sullenly within the minefields that protected them from ramming attacks. But they had expelled waves of missiles, over and over, each armed with the warhead equivalent of a deep-space laser buoy, to sear the warp point's circumambient space with bomb-pumped x-ray lasers.

And that warp point is about to get even more hellish, thought a shaken Aileen Sommers.

She stood before the great curving observation screen on the flag deck of Glohriiss. The flagship was a converted Niijzahr-class fast superdreadnought, but she thought of it as an assault carrier-which, functionally speaking, it now was. The deck vibrated under her feet as another squadron of fighters began to launch-the first fighters the Crucians had ever built.

No, she reminded herself firmly. Not "Crucians." The correct term is ghornaku, or "sharers of union." The Zarkolyans and Telikans and Br'stoll'ee and so forth like being called "Crucians" almost as much as the Scots and Welsh like being called "Englishmen."

But, she amended the thought as she watched the fighters streak outward, it's appropriate for those pilots. They really were Crucians, members of the batlike (to Terran eyes) race which had founded and still dominated the Star Union.

Wingmaster Demalfii Furra had also been a racial Crucian. Sommers would take to her grave the memory of her first sight of Survey Flotilla 19's mysterious rescuer in the com screen-the first time the two races had ever set eyes on each other. How long ago had it been . . . ? She did the mental arithmetic with practiced ease. Fourteen standard months. It was now April, 2365, on the world she didn't let herself spend too much time remembering.

She felt another launch through the soles of her feet, and watched as the fighters flashed outward into the starfields. "Green" was too weak a word for these pilots, going into action for the first time after crash training in their race's first fighters. But Sommers had watched that training, and understood the implications of what she was watching. The Crucians were unique: toolmakers who were also functional flyers. A species that possessed two such extreme specializations at once was like a custard pie in the pompous face of scientific dogma. Sommers couldn't bring herself to worry about the headache the news would give human xenologists. What mattered was that the Grand Alliance now had an ally-without knowing about it just yet-with the potential to produce even better fighter pilots than the Ophiuchi.

Now that they have fighters, came the inevitable, guilt-inducing afterthought.

As if to underline it, Feridoun Hafezi appeared beside her, looking his most disapproving.

"Don't say it!"

"Don't say what?" Hafezi's black eyebrows were arches of uncomprehending innocence.

"You know perfectly well what! You're going to tell me I had no authorization to give the Crucians strikefighter technology."

"I wasn't going to say that. Besides, I don't have to. Your own guilty conscience obviously already did it for me."

"I do not have a guilty conscience! How could I have kept it from them, short of blowing up all of SF 19's fighters and carriers, as well as wiping all our databases? Should I have done that just to keep a vital technological edge away from a race that's fighting for its existence against the Bugs? A race, I might add, that saved our personal bacon! And furthermore-"

"All right, I admit it! You don't have a guilty conscience." Hafezi held up a hand to ward off renewed expostulations. "Besides, that really wasn't what I was thinking of."

"Oh?" Sommers cocked her head. "Then how come you're looking like the righteous wrath of Allah?"

"You know perfectly well why," he grumped, echoing her in a way of which neither of them was aware, and she sighed.

"I thought we'd been over that. It's vital that I accompany this fleet personally, as an earnest of our commitment to-"

"You could have sent me to represent you. Or Milos." He waved vaguely outward, indicating the part of the formation where Kabilovic was launching his human and Ophiuchi-piloted fighters-the few that weren't scattered around the Star Union to serve as training cadre-in support of the Crucians. "Or . . . somebody. But you've got no business anywhere near this battle, Aileen!"

It had been some time since they'd called each other by anything but first names in private. She gazed at him appraisingly.

"There wouldn't, by any chance, be any personal feelings behind this line of argument, would there?"

"Of course not! I'm merely pointing out that you're too valuable to be risked."

"As is obvious to any dispassionate, objective person," she deadpanned.

"Precisely! You're the ambassador, damn it! The Crucians trust you. You're irreplaceable."

Sommers could no longer sustain a straight face.

"What a crock! You know as well as I do that my ambassadorial status is, to put it very politely, unofficial. I don't exactly carry credentials from the Federal Foreign Secretary, you know. How could I? In case you haven't noticed, we're completely out of contact with home."

"That's just the point. Survey commanders have always had broad latitude in dealing with newly contacted races. As senior officer, you represent the Federation. Your status may be a little irregular, but it's still real." His sudden smile was like the sun through a rift in dark clouds. "Don't be such a damned hypocrite! You didn't let questions about your authority prevent you from going ahead and handing the Crucians every bit of technology in our databases, and offering them full membership in the Grand Alliance."

"No, I didn't, did I?" Sommers looked thoughtful. "All things considered, maybe it's just as well that we're out of touch with the Federation!"

After their combined commands had finished off the last Bugs in the red-giant system Sommers had come to know as Pajzomo, she and Wingmaster Furra had managed to establish communication of a rudimentary sort. It hadn't been up to deep philosophical discourse, but it had sufficed for Furra to suggest that SF 19 proceed, escorted by the Scout Wing she'd been supporting, to the great base at Reymiirnagar, four systems away. The suggestion had made excellent sense to Sommers, who'd been only too willing to put as much distance as possible between SF 19 and the Bugs.

Reymiirnagar's blue giant primary had a red dwarf companion, one of whose barren moons held a hostile-environment settlement of Telikans. Their koala-bear-like forms (albeit with arms of gorilla length) had brought home to Sommers that she was dealing with a multispecies polity. The tales they'd told had brought home even more.

A little over a standard century before, the Crucians had encountered an enemy beyond their most diseased minds' imaginings of horror-an enemy who committed acts inconceivable to any save the demons of Iierschtga, the anti-god of their theology. Hence, in the absence of any responses to communication, the Crucians had named their enemy the Demonic Realm (it might sound a little old-fashioned, but Sommers' specialists had assured her that no other translation captured the flavor of the Crucian term) and its denizens the Demons. The Star Union had survived only through a fortunate dispensation of astrographics . . . which hadn't been so fortunate for the Telikans.

The Demon onslaught-the kind of grinding, crushing, unfeeling advance Sommers found all too familiar-had never been halted by the outmatched Crucians. Rather, it had finally reached a system where its sole avenue of further advance had been a closed warp point through which the Crucians retired . . . without revealing its location. That closed warp point had been in the Telik system. Heroic efforts by the forces of Warmaster Nokajii Rikka-now the most revered, almost deified, figure in Telikan history, Crucian though he'd been-had won time for the evacuation of part of the Telikan population. But at length the last ship had departed through the cosmic anomaly which the Demons could not find unless shown the way. The Telikan refugees had received two things from the Star Union whose location their race's tragic sacrifice had preserved inviolate: resettlement on the world of Mysch-Telik ("New Telik"), and confirmation of Nokajii Rikka's dying pledge that their homeworld would eventually be liberated.

Sommers had learned all of this as she and her experts labored to establish in-depth communications with the Star Union's representatives. Given both sides' experience in such things, it hadn't taken long. Less than two standard months had passed before she offered the Star Union co-equal status in the Grand Alliance-including full access to technology the Crucians found dauntingly advanced-in exchange for assistance to her command and a promise of future cooperation in taking the war to the Bugs. Little more time than that had passed before the Niistka Glorkhus, the "Speaking Chamber," or all-Union legislature, had ratified the treaty produced by Sommers' legal officer-a mere lieutenant, who was surely the most junior individual ever to draw up such a document.

It was well that matters had proceeded so swiftly. Barely was the figurative ink metaphorically dry on the treaty when the word had arrived: the Demons had returned to Pajzomo.

The Crucians had held, but only at the cost of heavy casualties-including Warmaster Tuuralii Kerra, who'd arrived to take over from Wingmaster Furra during the four months that had passed since the latter's first contact with Sommers. Less than three standard weeks later, when the Bugs had come again in greater force, Furra-once again in command, following the warmaster's death-had been unable to do much more than beat a fighting retreat through a warp point other than the one Sommers had traversed to reach Reymiirnagar, seeking to draw the Bugs away from the most direct routes into the Star Union's heart.

However, in doing so Furra had led them toward the worlds of the Star Union member race known as the Br'stoll'ee. First in the Bugs' path, three systems away from Pajzomo, had been the infant Br'stoll'ee colony of Rabahl-a fabulously rich system with no less than three habitable planets.

Over the long generations of watchful waiting, the Star Union had built up a massive Reserve Fleet of mothballed warships, ready for instant activation, and the Reserve's mobilization had begun the moment Wingmaster Furra's first courier drones from Pajzomo had spread the tidings that the War of Vengeance had begun. The first of the Reserve formations to reach the front had, by a suicidal self-sacrifice against a technologically superior enemy that Sommers wondered if humans could have matched, won time to evacuate Rabahl's colonists. The Bugs had taken possession of an empty system, which they'd proceeded to convert into an impregnable bastion.

By then, the Bugs had completed their survey of Pajzomo, and located the system's third warp point-the one leading eventually to Reymiirnagar.

The heroes of Rabahl had inflicted losses sufficient to bring Bug offensive operations to a few months' halt. But it couldn't last, and at length the remorseless machine had begun clanking forward again, smashing its way through system after system in a series of battles almost unimaginable in their destructiveness and intensity.

But by then, desperate improvisation had borne fruit. Despite all the difficulties-language barriers, technological incompatibilities, building up a Crucian infrastructure that could make the machines that made other machines-fighter production had commenced earlier than anyone had a right to expect. Those first fighters and their half-trained pilots had been rushed to Reymiirnagar. They'd arrived there by the time the remnants of the defending force had straggled in from the neighboring system of Tevreelan, convoying that system's evacuated Telikan colonists and bearing the news that Reymiirnagar was next.

Warmaster Robalii Rikka, great-great-grandson of the famous Nokajii Rikka, commanding First Grand Wing, joined the two humans at the observation screen, bringing Sommers back to the present.

"Ambassador," the Crucian addressed her gravely, "the fighters are all away. Would you like to observe at my holo display?"

"Thank you, Warmaster." Sommers knew it was a little irregular for the ambassador of an allied power to be allowed on the flagship of a war fleet engaged in battle, but this whole situation was irregular. The Crucians, vastly experienced in interspecies diplomatic relations, had possessed a pretty good idea of how spurious the title "ambassador" was even as they granted it to her. But they'd also learned how far behind the Federation they were in technological terms-and she hadn't tried to hold back the fact that this meant they were very nearly as far behind the Demons. She might not be an officially accredited diplomatic representative, but to them she'd represented something far more important than that: hope.

Something else she hadn't held back was her total ignorance of how her own race and its friends were faring. It mattered scarcely more than the legalities of her status. Even the possibility of powerful aid against the Demons was enough to win a wholehearted commitment from the Crucians to join the Grand Alliance at such time as it could be contacted.

Too bad the Grand Alliance doesn't know it has a new member, Sommers reflected. A member which, while maybe not in the same league as the Federation or the Khanate, is considerably larger than either the Ophiuchi Association or the Empire of Gormus. And one with some offsetting tech advantages of its own, like those anti-shield missiles and their laser warheads. Or those box launchers of theirs. And one whose peoples are just as motivated as any human or Orion to hate the Bugs.

She thought of that motivation as she looked into Rikka's holo display and recalled the earlier stages of this battle. The Crucians had displayed once again their capacity for countering Bug technological superiority with sheer guts, and she'd watched, speechless, as swarms of corvettes had gone unflinchingly in against the mammoth ships emerging from the warp point. Those corvettes, smaller than any starships the TFN had used since the Second Interstellar War, almost a century and a half ago, were little more than second-generation ECM installations with engines strapped on, and their crews had spent themselves like wastrels to get in among the invaders and use their ECM2 to jam the Bugs' command datalink. By their suicide-there was no other word-they'd momentarily stripped away the Bug battlegroups' ability to coordinate their offensive fire . . . or point defense.

The Crucians had prepared for this moment by towing their asteroid fortresses and orbital weapon platforms across the Reymiirnagar system from the Telik warp point to this one, which they'd never expected to have to defend. Now that awesome array of fixed defenses had taken ruthless advantage of the Bugs' fleeting vulnerability and poured missile fire into the maw of the warp point, turning it into a searing hell of x-ray detonation lasers. Bug ships had died at a rate that, Sommers had told herself, must surely be more than even Bugs could endure.

Robalii Rikka had evidently been thinking the same thing.

"I hadn't wanted to commit the fighters in this action," he said. "I'd hoped to hold them in reserve for a time when they're truly ready and can be employed with decisive effect."

Sommers nodded. It seemed a shame to tip their hand now, revealing the Star Union's new fighter capability rather than waiting until it could be sprung as an overwhelming surprise. She knew exactly how Rikka felt.

But, like Rikka, she'd watched in the holo display as the Bugs, characteristically, kept coming without any apparent consciousness of the terrific losses they'd sustained. And as the deaths of the last of the gallant little corvettes had given the invaders back their command datalink and the rate of those losses had dropped, Rikka had seen that every remaining card had to be played.

He'd given the order to launch the fighters.

Now they were sweeping outward from Glohriiss and her sisters, a curving wall of tiny lights in the holo display that converged on the warp point and the spreading infection of "hostile" icons. No words were spoken as Rikka and his two human companions watched. They knew that, but for the few fighters piloted by Kabilovic's veterans, every one of those lights represented a young being about to pit an untried vehicle and all-too-brief training against enemies that summoned up nightmares from the depths of his culture's most terrible mythology.

But, Sommers reminded herself, those pilots had more than their inadequate training and nonexistent experience standing behind them. They had countless generations of ancestors who'd sought prey in the skies of the Crucian homeworld, swooping and soaring through a three-dimensional environment. Humans had to be taught the kind of spatial sense the Crucians got gratis from their upbringing and from their chromosomes.

The light-points swept in, and swatches of them were blotted out by the tremendous wealth of defensive fire from the Bug ships. But the missile-storm from the fortresses was unabated, and the damage it inflicted inched back up as the fighters distracted the Bugs' point defense. And as the Bugs sought to apportion their resources in response to multiple threats, more and more of the fighters got through, as well.

Sommers wasn't a specialist in fighter operations, but she was sure Kabilovic would confirm the impression that grew on her as she watched the display with occasional side-glances at the statistical readouts. The Crucian pilots displayed the raggedness one might expect of newbies, but little of the awkwardness and none of the hesitancy. What they performed was an inexpert dance, but it was a dance. And they remembered the fundamental rule of fighter warfare, and used their superior maneuverability to work their way into the blind zones created by enemy starships' drive fields. It was what made the tiny craft so deadly, despite their limited ordnance loads, that Federation and Khanate had once been forced to forget their own enmity, however temporarily, out of sheer self-preservation in the face of the fighter's genocidal Rigelian inventors.

Sommers maintained her ambassadorial gravitas when the fighters claimed their first Bug ship. Hafezi, under no such constraints, whooped something in Iranian.

There weren't enough fighters to be decisive by themselves. But they complicated the tactical problem faced by Bug ships already dealing with the massive bombardment from the fortresses, rather like a swarm of mosquitos around the head of a man trying to fend off a bear. And Rikka's battle-line was closing in to missile range.

And yet the Bugs kept emerging from the warp point, in their patented nightmare way.

Will that nightmare ever stop coming back for me? Sommers wondered.

But then there came a kind of crack, almost audible. Rikka, Sommers and Hafezi looked at each other wordlessly, recognizing it a heartbeat before the readouts confirmed it. The Bug ships already in Reymiirnagar space turned away, and new ones ceased to appear. The cacophony of death began to give way to a diminuendo.

Sommers became aware that she was drenched with sweat. Barely able to make the effort of turning her head, she looked around the flag spaces. The Crucians were physically and psychologically able to at least partly suppress their need for room, which otherwise would have made space vehicles out of the question for them. But this area was still more open and spacious than any human ship's interior, and she was able to see many of the crew.

Their reaction was interesting. It wasn't the demonstrative jubilation that humans might have evinced. It wasn't her own drained weariness. It was a kind of dawning awe. The Demons had been stopped.

"They'll be back," Rikka was saying. "And in greater strength. But reinforcements are on the way. . . including many more fighters. We will be ready for them."

Sommers nodded. They would. Reymiirnagar would hold. Humanity, without knowing it, had an ally that would live.

Assuming, said the voice she could never dismiss, that it's not too late for humanity. And once again her nightmare returned-her real nightmare, the one that battle and sex and a few other things could momentarily banish but which always came crowding back to fill her waking consciousness with unthinkable dread.

So it was confirmed. The elusive survey flotilla had survived after all. There was no other explanation for the fact that these other Enemies-rediscovered after their seeming vanishment so long ago-now had the small attack craft that had given the Fleet so much trouble, and which their own technological base could not have produced unaided. Worse, much of the huge stockpile of mothballed warships the Fleet had built up since the Old Enemies' disappearance, steadily assembling the mammoth reserve forces its doctrine called for, had been seriously depleted by the war against the New Enemies. Those ships had been intended as the spiked mace which would demolish any fleet the Old Enemies might have managed to build up by the time the Fleet found them once more. Now, at the very moment for whose inevitable coming all of those years of industrial effort had been committed, virtually all of the reserve had already been destroyed.

It was most inconvenient.

Of course, the strength of the warp point defenses-especially those asteroid fortresses-had also been unexpected. Such fortresses, unlike ordinary orbital weapons platforms, could hardly have been brought in piecemeal from elsewhere. To justify such extraordinary protection, there must be something special about the system from which the Fleet had just been repulsed. Perhaps it was these Enemies' equivalent of one of the Systems Which Must Be Defended.

But the attack craft had been the worst surprise. Now the Old Enemies had access to the technology of the new ones. That made it even more imperative that the two threats be kept from communicating with each other. Which, in turn, necessitated diverting more resources to this front. One of the Systems Which Must Be Defended had been assigned the responsibility for dealing with the Old Enemies while the others continued to concentrate upon the new, but that decision had been made in large part because the Old Enemies' technology had appeared substantially inferior to that of the New Enemies. Now, it seemed, that might no longer be the case . . . and that the resources of a single System Which Must Be Defended might not be enough.

But it would have to be. For one of the other four was now radioactive cinders, leaving only three to deal with the far greater threat posed by the New Enemies.

It was, indeed, inconvenient.


* * * | Shiva Option | CHAPTER EIGHT: Ride Boldly