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CHAPTER ELEVEN: Chaff in the Furnace

In the words of the legendary and doubtless apocryphal Yogi Berra, it was d'ej`a vu all over again.

They'd entered Home Hive One just as unobtrusively as they'd once slipped into Home Hive Three, emerging from the closed warp point into Stygian regions where a six light-hour-distant Sol-like sun barely stood out from the starfields. Then they'd formed up and proceeded sunward in a long-prepared order, toward the three Bug-inhabited planets which a chance bit of orbital choreography had placed in a neat row, at a three-way aphelion.

As he gazed into the system-scale holo display, Raymond Prescott found himself wondering if the Bugs believed in astrology. Somehow, he doubted it. But if they did, they were about to get a whole new perspective on planetary alignments as a harbinger of ill luck.

He and Shaaldaar and their staffs had discussed the upcoming operation and its execution in exquisite detail, poring over the survey data Andrew had died to get home. They had a very good notion of the daunting scope of the task which faced them, and the discussion of precisely how to go about it had waxed voluble. Indeed, given the Orion and Gorm traditions of free-wheeling debate-which were considerably more fractious than the TFN normally embraced-the debate had moved beyond free-wheeling to vociferous on more than one occasion.

The overwhelming temptation was to try to repeat what Sixth Fleet had managed to accomplish in Home Hive Three. Hopefully, the "Shiva Option," as the Alliance's strategists had decided to label it, would have the same disorienting effect here that it had had there.

Unfortunately, there'd been two major problems in relying on that strategy. First, the Bugs must have suffered a severe jolt to their confidence in the inviolability of their home hive systems after what had happened to Home Hive Three. At a bare minimum, they'd almost certainly upgraded their sensor nets in the other home hive systems, and it was unlikely that Seventh Fleet would succeed in creeping in quite as close as Sixth Fleet had managed. Given the orbital defenses and the massive mobile force Andrew had detected in Home Hive One, it was very unlikely that Seventh Fleet could land a repeat of that devastating strike without first fighting its way through everything the Bugs could throw at it.

Second, and perhaps even more important, there was no way to be certain that the "Shiva Option" would even work a second time. If what seemed to have happened in Home Hive Three was in fact a universal Bug response to massive "civilian" casualties, then breaking through to directly attack the planetary surface, even at the risk of ignoring the fixed defenses on the way in and of paying for the attack with heavy losses in the strike forces, was the only logical way to go after a home hive system. Unfortunately, there was no way to be certain the effect was universal. Or even that the effect was what everyone thought it had been in the first place, for that matter. Hopefully, one result of Operation Retribution would be to confirm the universality of the effect, but no responsible strategist could plan an attack on this scale on "hopeful." Because if it turned out that the effect wasn't universal, the fixed defenses would use the time consumed by the planetary attack to get their own systems fully on-line and massacre the strike wave as it attempted to withdraw.

In the end, although certainly not without regrets, Prescott had decided that he had no choice but to plan for a conventional assault intended to cripple or destroy the defenses before going after the planetary population centers. He wasn't the only one who regretted the logic which left him no other option, but it was a bit of a toss-up. There were at least as many staffers who were relieved by his decision as there were those who were disappointed by it.

But as Task Force 71 moved in-system, and as the recon fighters and drones probed ahead, thoughts about astrology, bad luck, and the "Shiva Option" all left his mind to make room for a single perplexing question. Where was the bulk of the massive Bug fleet presence his brother had found here?

"It's a trap," Terence Mukerji jittered at an informal staff meeting on the flag bridge. "They knew we were coming, and they're in cloaking ECM, waiting for us. Once they know we're in the system, they'll move in and seal the warp point behind us."

Jacques Bichet cleared his throat.

"There may be some reason for concern, Sir," he said, loudly not adding Even though Mukerji thinks so. "The Bugs do have a history of using cloaked forces to spring surprises, starting with what they did to Commodore Braun," he pointed out, and Prescott turned a carefully noncommittal face to his intelligence officer.

"Amos?"

"I disagree, Sir. It's true that the Bugs have a history of using cloak, but I don't believe they set up an ambush because they knew we were coming. If the Bugs knew that your bro- er, that SF 62 had probed Home Hive One, then they would have put a major fleet presence in AP-5, not just the light forces we encountered."

Bichet looked unconvinced.

"Maybe. But isn't it also possible that they might have decided not to do that in order to lure us deep into the system and trap us there?"

An unspoken frisson ran through the group, for Bichet had summoned up the ghosts of Operation Pesthouse, but Chung stood his ground.

"I don't think so, and not just because I think they would have tried to stop us in AP-5. Everything our scouts have reported so far indicates that the units we can see are at a low state of readiness, like the ones we encountered in Home Hive Three. To me, that suggests the same kind of 'cost-conscious' resource husbanding we've deduced about their defense of that system. And that sort of stance is totally inconsistent with the notion that they're keeping forces as large as SF 62 reported permanently under cloak and at general quarters. The resource demands would simply be too prohibitive, in my opinion. Admiral, I've prepared an estimate-a rough one, necessarily-of what that would cost, if you'd like to see it."

"That won't be necessary, Amos. I can readily imagine it. And I agree with you." Prescott faced the rest of staff. "I don't pretend to know where the heavy fleet elements that were in the system have gone, but I'm entirely satisfied that they're not here now. We'll proceed as planned."

He activated the holo sphere around which they stood. In the inner-system display, the green icon that was Task Force 71 split into two smaller ones, which homed in on Planets I and III. Prescott himself would lead the attack on the innermost planet, leaving the outermost-the most populous and important of the three inhabited worlds, judging from the energy emissions-to Shaaldaar. Planet II would be dealt with later.

There was no argument, not even from Bichet. There was, however, an undercurrent that Prescott had no trouble detecting. They wonder if I'm predisposed to favor whatever interpretation of the facts allows me to get down to the business of sterilizing the system without delay.

I wonder if I am, too.

But Chung does make sense.

"Ah, one other matter, Admiral." Mukerji broke the silence. "I understand why you've found it necessary to split Force Leader Shaaldaar's task group into two elements, one of them under your own direct command. But you've also split Admiral Raathaarn's and Admiral Kolchak's task groups between the two elements. I'm concerned about the complications that introduces into the command structure."

"It's a little late to be bringing it up, Admiral Mukerji," Prescott observed mildly. Or it would be, if you were doing it for any reason except to build a case for possible later use in playing the blame game. But in that event, you'll probably be dead-proving the old adage about silver linings. "And, at any rate, I see no alternative. It's necessary to provide each of the two attack elements with comparable fighter strength, and this is the only way to do it."

"Of course, Sir," Mukerji murmured obsequiously, and Prescott suppressed an urge to wipe his hands on his trousers.

The task force continued on its sunward course, and increasingly detailed sensor returns from the scouts and RD2s brought the system's defenses into clearer focus. Each of the three inhabited planets had the array of orbital fortresses, with a mammoth space station as centerpiece, that Andrew had reported. Indeed, it was all very reminiscent of Home Hive Three, even to the low state of readiness. Equally quiescent were the mobile forces-twelve monitors, twelve superdreadnoughts, and eighteen battlecruisers-in orbit around the third planet. Their presence there tended to confirm the identification of that world as the system's demographic and industrial center of gravity.

Prescott studied the readouts in a black abstraction that no one was inclined to interrupt. He didn't take Mukerji's funk seriously, of course. But . . . where had they gone, those other ships that Concorde had detected? Thirty-five monitors and almost forty superdreadnoughts, not to mention their escorting battlecruisers, represented one hell of a lot of firepower. Something must have inspired the Bugs to send it elsewhere, but Prescott had been thoroughly briefed on all of the operations the Grand Alliance currently contemplated. Nothing on the schedule-except for his own offensive-should have required reinforcements that heavy. And Chung was completely correct in at least one respect: if the Bugs had been given any reason to suspect Seventh Fleet was en route to the system, the logical place to stop it would have been in AP-5, and none of the missing ships had been there. So where where they?

The obvious answer was that they could have gone anywhere. This system could be a staging area for any of the war's fronts, and even though the Bugs did appear to have reverted to the strategic defensive, they could have moved those ships for any number of reasons, not just in response to Allied moves. Given the Alliance's near-total ignorance of the internal warp layout of the Bugs' domain, who was to say where Home Hive One's open warp points might lead?

It was a reasonable question, but a basic stubbornness wouldn't let him simply file the matter away under the heading of "Answer Unknowable." This couldn't be an accident. There must, he felt with a certainty beyond mere logic, be some immediate significance to the absence of such an awesome assemblage of tonnage and firepower at this particular time in this particular place. And yet, like a dog without a bone or even a stick to gnaw, he lacked any solid basis for speculation. Given the unpredictable nature of the warp connections . . .

For lack of any other starting point, he cleared the holo sphere and summoned up a strategic-scale view of the warp lines he did know: the Prescott Chain, proceeding from what was now officially known as Prescott's Star through the glowing little orbs of four more systems before reaching AP-5. From AP-5, it ran through four more nexi, the last of which was El Dorado with its broken string-light closed-warp connection to Home Hive One . . . beyond which lay the unknown.

It called nothing to mind. The display was only a chain of lights, connecting two known points across an unknown distance with an unknown number of closed warp points on its flanks. He frowned thoughtfully at it, and then began to trace it in reverse. He worked backwards from Home Hive One to AP-5, where Andrew had met his death and where he was certain he would have to fight his own way through on his return, against whatever forces the Bugs had been able to rush through the closed warp point that system must hold. . . .

And all at once, dizzyingly, he knew.

There was one perfectly good reason why those massed formations of capital ships might no longer be in the system. He'd been correct in supposing that the Bug pickets still in AP-5 had summoned help to cover that system against his return. What he hadn't guessed then was that the help they required had been available from only one source-Home Hive One.

His imagination supplied another warp chain, one originating with an open warp point of Home Hive One and running parallel to the Prescott Chain, doubling back through some unknown but probably small number of intervening systems to AP-5, which it entered through a closed warp point. That closed point had allowed the Bugs to ambush Andrew there on his return leg . . . but they'd done so without any way of knowing just where he'd been returning from. And because they didn't know what he'd discovered for the Alliance, they'd reached, quite logically, for the closest nodal reaction force when Raymond's own, far heavier fleet crashed through AP-5.

The main Bug forces had been speeding frantically away from this system even as TF 71 had been advancing slowly but steadily towards it.

He brought his excitement under stern control and suppressed his instinct to share his theory with his staff and flag officers. He would have confided in Zhaarnak, had his vilkshatha brother been here. But he wasn't, and Prescott knew this couldn't be proved.

But he also knew that he needed no formal proof that the observed facts weren't mere coincidence. Coincidence simply wasn't that energetic. Of course, it was entirely possible that what seemed so clear to him might be somewhat less obvious to others.

No. This wasn't the time to make his staff any more doubtful about his ability to maintain professional detachment. So he'd just keep this insight to himself. And use it. . . .



* * * | Shiva Option | * * *