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The Stars at War II
By David Weber Steve White
Baen BooksCopyright © 2005 David Weber & Steve White
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGathering Stars
By the standard dating of Old Terra, it was the year 2364, and the month was May. But that had nothing to do with the revolution of the Nova Terra/Eden double-planet system around Alpha Centauri A, and wan winter light slanted through the lofty windows, making the air of the spacious conference room-well heated and crowded with human and other warm-blooded bodies though it was-seem chilly.
Which, thought Marcus LeBlanc, was altogether too damned appropriate. How could it be anything else, when every being sitting in that room was only too well aware of the catastrophic events which had swirled about them since Ivan Antonov had launched Operation Pesthouse?
They'd had such hopes. Even LeBlanc, whose job it was to remind them all of how little they truly knew-even now-about the Arachnids, had been unable to believe that any race could sacrifice so many ships, entire fleets of superdreadnoughts, even planets inhabited by its own kind, just to set a massive trap. Yet that was precisely what the Bugs had done, and Operation Pesthouse had turned into the most overwhelming disaster in the history of the Terran Federation Navy. The Arachnids had lured Antonov's Second Fleet on and on with sacrifice gambits beyond the bounds of sanity ...then they'd closed in through undiscovered warp points in the systems through which he'd passed. They'd sprung a trap from which Antonov, with the help of a hastily organized relief force headed by Sky Marshal Hannah Avram herself, had only just managed to extricate less than half his force-not including himself, and not including Avram.
It was hard to say which had been the more paralyzing body blow to the TFN: the deaths of two living legends, or the loss of ships-more than a quarter of the fleet's total prewar ship count, and more than half its total prewar tonnage destroyed outright. And that didn't even count the crippling damage to many of the survivors. Nor did it count the two survey flotillas that had been probing beyond the warp points through which the Bugs had come ... and which must have been like puppies under the wheels of a ground car against the massive armadas into whose paths they had strayed.
The losses were so horrifying that the survey flotillas scarcely constituted a material addition to the sum of destruction. But, the more LeBlanc thought about it, the loss that really couldn't be afforded was Antonov. His reputation had been that of a ruthless, unstoppable, unfeeling force of nature-in short, humankind's answer to the Bugs. If he could be overwhelmed, what hope had everyone else?
Ellen MacGregor and Raymond Prescott-whose brilliant execution of Antonov's escape plan had enabled some of Second Fleet to survive-had halted the tumble of Terran morale when they smashed the Bug counteroffensive that had followed the fleeing survivors of Operation Pesthouse into the Alpha Centauri System. The "Black Hole of Centauri," as it had come to be called after MacGregor's savage prediction of what the Bug invaders were going to fall into, had been only a defensive victory, but it had been one the Grand Alliance had needed badly. And it evidently had left the Bugs incapable of any further offensives for the time being, as there had been no such offensive since. So a lull had settled over the war as the TFN began to rebuild itself.
Yet even beginning that rebuilding had been an agonizingly painful process, and the dispersive demands of frightened politicians, terrified for the safety of other star systems whose population levels approached that of Alpha Centauri, hadn't helped. So, yes, he understood why a room which should have been warm felt anything but.
He was seated among the staffers who lined the room's periphery, well back from the oval table in its center. As a rear admiral, he had about as much chance of getting a seat at that table as did the young lieutenant beside him.
That worthy seemed to share his mood. Kevin Sanders looked as foxlike as always, with his reddish sandy hair and sharp features. But the usual twinkle was absent from his blue eyes as he turned to LeBlanc, and his whisper was subdued, even though it held the customary informality that obtained between them.
"Quite a change since the last time I was here," he said.
After a moment's blankness, LeBlanc gave a nod of understanding. Sanders, then an ensign, had been in this very room three and a half years before, when the Grand Allied Joint Chiefs of Staff had first convened. That had been before he'd joined LeBlanc's intelligence shop of Bug specialists-before it had existed, even-and he'd been present as a subordinate of Captain Midori Kozlov. She hadn't been a captain then, when Ivan Antonov had been named the joint chiefs' chairman, and she'd served as his staff intelligence officer.
And now Kozlov, like Antonov himself and so many others-too many others, hundreds of thousands of others-existed only as cosmic detritus in the lonely, lonely depths of space where Second Fleet had gone to find its doom.
"Yes, quite a change," LeBlanc murmured in reply as he studied those positioned at the oval table.
Two members of the original joint chiefs that Sanders remembered were still there: Admiral Thaarzhaan of Terra's Ophiuchi allies, and Fleet Speaker Noraku of the Gorm, whose relationship with the Orions defied precise human definition. But Sky Marshal Ellen MacGregor now represented the Terran Federation, and there were others besides the joint chiefs, crowding the table's capacity. Admiral Raymond Prescott, who was to have commanded the Zephrain offensive, was seated beside Ninety-First Small Fang of the Khan Zhaarnak'telmasa, Lord Telmasa, who was to have been his carrier commander ... and who, more importantly, was his vilkshatha brother, for Prescott was the second human in history to have held that very special warrior's relationship with an Orion. Across the table from them was another Orion, Tenth Great Fang of the Khan Koraaza'khiniak, Lord Khiniak, just in from Shanak, where he commanded Third Fleet on the stalemated second front of the Kliean Chain. Fleet Admiral Oscar Pederson of the Federation's Fortress Command was also there, in his capacity as the system CO of Alpha Centauri. And, at the end of the table ...
There, LeBlanc's eyes lingered. Beside him, Sanders chuckled, once more his usual self.
"I wonder if there's ever been so much rank at one table?" the lieutenant mused. "You'd think it would reach critical mass!"
When he got no response from LeBlanc, he glanced sharply at his chief. Then he followed the rear admiral's gaze to the woman on whom it rested.
Admiral Vanessa Murakuma had the red hair, green eyes, and elvish slenderness of Irish genes molded by generations on a low-gravity planet. The initial impression, to eyes accustomed to the human norm, was one of ethereal fragility.
"Yeah, right," Sanders muttered to himself sotto voce.
Murakuma, thrust into command of the frantically improvised defenses of the Romulus Chain in the early days of the war, had fought the Bug juggernaut to a standstill in a nightmare thunder of death and shattered starships. She'd fallen back from star system to star system, always desperately outnumbered, always with her back to the wall ... always aware of the civilians helpless beyond the fragile shield of her dying ships. Sanders knew that he would never-ever-be able to truly understand the desperation and horror which must have filled her as she faced that implacable avalanche of Bug warships, saw it grinding remorselessly and unstoppably onward towards all she was sworn to protect and defend. Yet somehow she'd met that avalanche and, finally, stopped it dead. She'd nearly died herself in the process, yet she'd done it, and in the doing earned the Lion of Terra, an award that entitled her to take a salute from anyone in the TFN, regardless of rank. And the intelligence analyst who'd been beside her throughout the entire hideous ordeal had been then-captain Marcus LeBlanc, the only intelligence officer the TFN had thought loose-screwed enough to have a prayer of understanding the Bugs.
And now, as Sanders watched, she made a brief eye contact with Rear Admiral LeBlanc, and smiled ever so slightly.
Once again, Sanders looked at LeBlanc, who was also smiling.
He wondered if the rumors were true.
But it seemed that his boss had heard him, after all.
"Yes," LeBlanc agreed, still smiling. "There are a hell of a lot of stars, and the various other things nonhumans use for flag-rank insignia, up there. But there's more to come."
"Attention on deck!" the master-at-arms at the main doorway announced, as if on cue.
Everyone rose as Kthaara'zarthan, Lord Talphon, Chairman of the Grand Allied Joint Chiefs of Staff, entered with the prowling stride of the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaiee-a name which humans, for reasons too obvious for discussion, preferred to render as Orions, after the constellation which held the heart of their interstellar domain.
Most Orions, including Zhaarnak and Koraaza, came in various shades of tawny and russet. But there was a genetic predisposition, which kept popping up in the Khanate's noblest families, toward fur of midnight-black. Kthaara epitomized that trait, and even though he was beginning to show the frosting of age, he still suggested some arcane feline death-god. It was an impression few humans, even those used to Orions in general, could avoid on first seeing him. And it had grown more pronounced since Operation Pesthouse.
Everyone had heard the stories of Kthaara's reaction on learning of the fate of Ivan Antonov ... or Ivan'zarthan, as he was also entitled to be known, as the very first human to be admitted to vilkshatha brotherhood. It had been Kthaara who'd admitted him, at the height of the Theban War, when Antonov had allowed the Orion to serve under him because he'd understood the blood debt Kthaara had owed to the killers of his cousin, Khardanizh'zarthan. As he'd listened to the reports that Antonov's flagship had not been among the battered survivors that had limped back from Operation Pesthouse, the Orion hadn't emitted the howl a human, misled by the catlike countenance evolutionary coincidence had put atop a body not unlike that of a disproportionately long-legged man, might have expected. Nor had he made any sound of all. Nor any movement. Instead, like black lava freezing into adamantine hardness, he'd seemed to silently congeal into an ebon essence of death and vengeance.
Since then, his trademark cosmopolitan urbanity, the product of six decades of close association with humans, had returned somewhat. It was in evidence now as he sat down at the place at the head of the table he'd inherited from his vilkshatha brother and addressed the meeting.
"As you were, ladies and gentlemen," he said in the Tongue of Tongues. Orion vocal apparatus was incapable of pronouncing Standard English, and that of humans was almost as ill-adapted to the universal Orion language. No Orion had ever been able to speak Standard English, and only a tiny handful of gifted mimics-like Raymond Prescott-had ever been able to reproduce the sounds of the Tongue of Tongues. But the two races could learn to understand each other's speech, and many of the non-Orions present-including LeBlanc and Sanders-could follow the Tongue of Tongues. Those who couldn't (like Vanessa Murakuma, who was Orion-literate but whose tone deafness made it impossible for her to comprehend the spoken version of the language) had earplug mikes connected to translators who could.
Several new Orion-English translation software packages were in development, spurred by the absolute necessity the Grand Alliance had created for human-Orion communication across the incompatible vocal interface which separated them, but they still left a lot to be desired. Memory requirements were very large, which limited their use to systems-like those on planets, large space stations, and capital ships-which could spare the space from other requirements. Worse, however, was the fact that they tended to be very literal-minded, and Orion was not a language which lent itself well to literal translation into English. Which was one reason organic translators were employed at plenary meetings like this one, where clarity of understanding was essential. The steady improvement in the software, especially by the Orions (who were the known galaxy's best cyberneticists) was bound to solve all of those problems-probably fairly soon, to judge by current results-but in the meantime, the software was reserved for occasions when misunderstandings would be less critical.
"I wish to welcome Lord Khiniak, Lord Telmasa, Ahhdmiraaaal Murraaaakuuuuma, and their staffs," Kthaara continued. "You have been recalled because I consider it necessary to bring all our principal field commanders up to date on our current status and future intentions. This will occupy an extensive series of conferences and briefings, as you already know from the material you have received. The purpose of this initial session is twofold. First of all, I wish to inform you that the last six months' strategic lull is soon going to come to an end."
That got the undivided attention of everyone who'd been expecting to sit through lengthy platitudes. Kthaara smiled a tooth-hidden carnivore's smile.
"The course of events leading up to the lull," he added, "is, of course, well known to us all."
That, LeBlanc thought with a fresh inner twinge of pain as he recalled his own earlier thoughts, was one way to put it.
It's still felt ... odd to hear an Orion say it, though. Or, rather, to hear an Orion say it as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Not so long ago, that position would have gone as a matter of course to a representative of the Terran Federation, the Alliance's technological pacesetter and industrial powerhouse, as well as its premiere military power. But now the TFN lay prostrate, its proud tradition of victory tarnished and the sublime self-confidence born of that tradition badly shaken. True, the awesome shipbuilding capacity of the Federation's Corporate Worlds remained intact, and the reconstruction of the Navy had commenced. Yet for the time being, the Orions would have to take the lead in any initiatives the Alliance attempted. So the chairmanship had fallen to Kthaara-the logical choice anyway, in terms of seniority and prestige as well as his unique experience in dealing with humans.
And now his voice continued in the Tongue of Tongues ("Cats copulating to bagpipe music," as a human wit had once described the sound), bringing LeBlanc back to the matter at hand.
"It is therefore unnecessary to review those events at any great length. Instead, I would like to use this initial plenary session to bring everyone up to date on our intelligence specialists' evaluations of the wreckage retrieved from the force that attempted to penetrate this system. Ahhdmiraaaal LeBlaaanc, you have the floor."
LeBlanc stood, unconsciously smoothing back the sparse hairs on his scalp and then stroking the beard he'd grown to compensate. He manipulated a small remote unit, and a holo image appeared in midair above the table. An image of a warship of space.
A low rumbling arose from his audience, hushed with shock.
Excerpted from The Stars at War II by David Weber Steve White Copyright ©2005 by David Weber & Steve White. Excerpted by permission.
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