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CHAPTER TEN: The Vengeance of Clan Prescott

"Attention on deck!"

The officers who filled TFNS Irena Riva y Silva's flag briefing room rose as Raymond Prescott-now Fleet Admiral Prescott, commanding Seventh Fleet-entered. The humans among them may have risen even faster than the others.

Not that the Gorm and Ophiuchi were tardy, by any means. And the Orions were even less so. They'd been vehement in their rejection of the idea that anyone else might command the fleet that would avenge his brother. They understood.

Indeed, they understood better than Prescott's own species . . . which was why the humans, including his own staffers who'd known him for years, came to attention like cadets in the presence of something that was changed, and cold, and more than a little frightening.

It wasn't that Prescott was outwardly different-at least not much. His hair was uniformly iron-gray now, and close inspection of his face revealed lines and creases that were more deeply graven, as though his features had settled under the weight of a grief he'd never vented aloud. He and Andrew had been very close, for all the age difference between them-twenty years was exceptional spacing, even for parents who'd both had access to the antigerone treatments-and many had expected the news from what was now being called the Prescott Chain to break him.

It hadn't.

A standard year and a half had passed since he and Zhaarnak had launched their abortive "April Fool" attack on Home Hive Three in 2365. After that, they'd settled into a routine of cautious probing, varied by occasional Bug gunboat raids. Zephrain was no different from Justin in that regard, and just as Fifth Fleet in Justin, Sixth Fleet's massive fighter patrols in Zephrain had burned any intruding gunboat instantly out of the continuum. Prescott and Zhaarnak had replied to the raids with SBMHAWK bombardments of the orbital fortresses on the Bugs' end of the warp connection, aware even as they did so that some of their firepower was almost certainly being wasted on electronic mirages. They would have been aware of that even if Vice Admiral Terence Mukerji, for whom Prescott had been forced to create a staff position ("governmental liaison," which at least sounded better than "commissar") hadn't repeatedly pointed it out from behind the shelter of his unassailable political protection.

Then, after more than a year of stalemate, had come the news that had electrified the Grand Alliance: a second El Dorado had been found! No one even claimed to have been present when Raymond Prescott received that news-or the other, personal, news which had accompanied it. Zhaarnak had arranged matters so that he would read that portion of the report in private. After he'd emerged from that enforced seclusion, the respect, admiration, and, yes, love that his human subordinates had always felt for him had been joined by something else: fear.

Not that his customary affable courtesy and sensitive consideration were gone. Not at all. But behind them was something new. Or maybe something was missing. It was hard to tell which . . . and that may have been the most frightening thing all.

The new monitors were finally coming into service, and SF 62's tidings had caused a radical rethinking of their deployment. Instead of being sent to Zephrain, or to Murakuma's fleet, they would form the core of a new offensive formation, to be designated Seventh Fleet. Rather than battering their way through long-established and well-prepared Bug defenses at known points of contact, they would carry the war to the Bugs through the doorway Andrew Prescott had died to open. And Kthaara'zarthan had surprised some humans by refusing to even consider the notion that one of his own race might command that Fleet.

Or perhaps it wasn't so surprising. By swearing the vilkshatha oath, Raymond Prescott had become one with the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaiee, and they understood the imperatives of vengeance.

Now Prescott took his place at the head of the table, facing officers who wondered anew at the change that everyone recognized, but no one could really define. A few of the older ones-those who could see beyond a total lack of physical resemblance-came closer than the rest. For their short, compact commander had acquired something they remembered in the bearlike Ivan Antonov. He had become embodied, ruthless Purpose. Like the Furies of ancient myth, he now existed only to be the agent of doom. Every aspect of his nature that might stand between him and the extirpation of the Bug species had been burned out of his soul, leaving him both more and less than human.

"As you were," he said quietly, and feet shuffled softly as the officers obeyed. As they took their seats, the holo sphere between them and the head table came to life, displaying the system designated Andrew Prescott-4 with its two warp points: the one through which they'd entered, and the one leading to AP-5. After a moment, the view zoomed in on the latter, and the icons of their own units became visible, deployed not far from the violet circle of the warp point.

On this scale, the icons represented task groups. Seventh Fleet would (eventually) consist of two task forces, and Prescott had led TF 71 here in his dual capacity as its commanding officer and overall fleet commander. Its backbone was Task Group 71.1, headed by Force Leader Shaaldaar. The imperturbable Gorm commanded an awesome battle-line of thirty monitors (including Riva y Silva) and thirty superdreadnoughts. Four of his monitors were fighter-carrying MT(V)s of the new Minerva Waldeck class, and six assault carriers provided additional fighter support. But the bulk of the fighter strength was concentrated in Task Group 71.2, whose Ophiuchi commander, Vice Admiral Raathaarn, led ten assault carriers and twelve fleet carriers, escorted by thirty-three battlecruisers. Either could call on Vice Admiral Janos Kolchak's Task Group 71.3, with its twelve fast superdreadnoughts and thirty-four battlecruisers, for assistance. Finally, Vice Admiral Alexandra Cole commanded Task Group 71.4, a support group whose thirteen transports and supply ships were protected by twelve battleships, nineteen battlecruisers, and twelve light cruisers.

The cluster of four innocuous-looking icons in the holo sphere represented the greatest concentration of tonnage and firepower the Grand Alliance had yet fielded. And it didn't include Seventh Fleet's other task force. Zhaarnak'telmasa was still organizing TF 72, and was to bring it up to rendezvous with TF 71 in the AP-5 system after Prescott's command had returned from . . . what it was about to embark on.

"As you know," Prescott resumed in that same quiet voice, "this will be our last staff meeting before we commence Operation Retribution by entering AP-5." The system in which my brother died, he didn't add, nor did he need to. "I will now ask Commodore Chung to brief us on what we can expect in that system."

The intelligence officer stood up. His recent promotion to captain helped compensate-somewhat-for the separation from Uaaria'salath-ahn. He'd come to rely on the Orion spook as a supporter and a sounding board, and they'd both asked Prescott not to break up a good team. But it had been decided to keep each of the two staffs intact, so Uaaria had remained with Zhaarnak.

"With your permission, Admiral, before going into what we can expect in the AP-5 System, I would like to share with everyone the information I reported to you personally after we received our most recent courier drone from Alpha Centauri."

Prescott nodded, and Chung turned to the assembly.

"The usual security restrictions apply to this information, ladies and gentlemen," he began using the form of address which, as a matter of sheer practicality, had become acceptable usage for females and males of all the Grand Alliance's member races. A war to the death had done much to erase cross-cultural diplomatic misunderstandings. "But with that caveat, I'm authorized to tell you that detailed analysis of the data brought back by TF 62's survivors has confirmed the conclusion reached by the survey flotilla's own specialists. Admiral LeBlanc's team agrees that the Bug system they discovered is Home Hive One."

A stir ran through the compartment. There'd never been any real doubt that what lay on the other side of the closed warp point from the system Andrew Prescott had dubbed "El Dorado" was one of the home hives. Still, there was something to be said for being able to give their target a name.

"And now," Chung resumed, "turning to the system we're about to attack, we've been going on the assumption that the Bugs aren't aware of the El Dorado/Home Hive One connection that SF 62 discovered. If they were so aware, we can be sure they would have mobilized everything capable of reaching AP-5 and made the system impregnable. But our assumption, it turns out, was correct. The Bugs have only the minimal forces we would expect in AP-5, to discourage further visits by stronger survey expeditions."

Chung's audience responded with nods and various nonhuman equivalents thereof. Prescott had assumed from the outset that the Bugs, not knowing what SF 62 might have discovered, would take precautionary measures. So he'd done no less, advancing slowly down the Prescott Chain and probing with RD2s through all the warp points his brother had discovered. He'd continued to do so after arriving here in AP-4, and the drone reports from that system were the basis for Chung's current briefing.

"Turning to the defenses of AP-5, we've detected eight hundred patterns of mines around the warp point, covered by an estimated four hundred laser-armed deep space buoys." The audience reacted with steadiness. That was no more than what they would have expected from Bugs who knew that part of SF 62 had gotten away. "In addition, our RD2s have detected several emissions signatures suggesting the presence of Bug superdreadnoughts sitting virtually on top of the warp point, within energy weapons range." That got an uneasy mutter out of Chung's listeners. "However, we're proceeding on the assumption that these are, in fact, third-generation ECM buoys masquerading as superdreadnoughts-"

"A thoroughly unjustified and highly dangerous assumption," Terence Mukerji blustered from his seat at the far end of the head table, with the sneer he customarily bestowed on those he outranked. "And, I might add, only to be expected from an intelligence analyst who's previously suffered the embarrassment of being taken in by the same type of subterfuge. 'Once burned, twice shy,' eh, Commodore Chung?"

Raymond Prescott leaned forward, turned to his left, and stared down the table at Mukerji, and his voice was even quieter than before.

"In point of fact, Admiral Mukerji, it was I who made the decision to regard these sensor returns as spurious." The compartment grew very still, and Mukerji visibly wilted. "The reasoning behind the assumption is unrelated to our experience at Second Home Hive Three. Rather, it's based on the fact-established by SF 62's thorough survey-that there are no other open warp points to any Bug system along the Prescott Chain. That means the Bug force which ambushed SF 62 must have entered the AP-5 system through a closed warp point. That closed warp point might conceivably be in any of the systems of the chain, but the fact that SF 62 was ambushed here, strongly suggests that it lies in this system. Whether it's in this system or another one, however, is less significant than the fact that it must be a closed one. And since it is, it's my considered judgment that they're unlikely to have diverted any units as heavy as superdreadnoughts-especially given their new sensitivity to losses in such units-to cover the system when a dispensation of astrographics causes them to believe they have no security concerns here in the first place. I trust, Admiral, that this makes my reasoning clear."

Prescott's voice remained quiet and even throughout, but the last sentence's tone said he was unaccustomed to explaining himself . . . and was unlikely to make a habit of it.

Mukerji managed a jerky nod. Everyone else kept very quiet. Prescott's elaborate public explanation of what a member of his staff ought to have already known would have been a staggering insult, had it not been inherently impossible to insult Mukerji.

"And now," Prescott resumed, "if there are no further questions or comments, we'll proceed with the operational portion of the briefing. Commodore Bichet, if you please."

Jacques Bichet was another relatively new-minted captain. He went back even further on Prescott's staff than Chung, however, and by now the fighter types had gotten over their original misgivings at having an ops officer whose background was line-of-battle . . . as, for that matter, was Prescott's.

"Thank you, Admiral," he began, and adjusted the holo sphere to strategic scale, showing the entire Prescott Chain.

"We believe that the AP-5 System represents the only real barrier we face between here and El Dorado, and Home Hive One beyond it." He indicated the El Dorado System, and the broken string-light beyond it that denoted a warp line leading to a closed warp point. "The Bugs have no reason to suppose that there's anything in the rest of the chain that needs defending."

He switched to tactical scale.

"In accordance with our analysis of the RD2 returns, we'll concentrate on the minefields and laser buoys, conserving our SBMHAWKs for tactical deployment within the AP-5 System." He didn't even glance at Mukerji. "We'll clear a path through the mines with an initial AMBAMP bombardment, after which TG 71.1 will lead the way through the warp point, in this order."

A readout appeared on a flat screen behind the head table. The initial waves consisted of Terran assault carriers and Gorm superdreadnoughts of the gunboat-carrying Gormus-C and Zakar-B classes. Bichet allowed a few moments for his audience to study the display, then answered the unspoken question in the minds of many.

"Our new monitors are still unknown to the Bugs. The longer we can postpone revealing their existence, the better. Nor should they be required to deal with AP-5's defenses."

There was some muttering, but no discussion. The briefing moved on into the comfortable realms of detail.

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