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PROLOGUE

Their hands were still tightly clasped when the universe reappeared.


Feridoun had taken Aileen's hand in his just before TFNS Jamaica made warp transit. No one else on the flag bridge had noticed the thoroughly unmilitary gesture as he reached out to his admiral, for they'd been fleeing with the hounds of Hell baying at their heels. The rest of Survey Flotilla 19's battered survivors had already preceded the flagship into the unknown. Then it had been Jamaica's turn, and Aileen had returned the pressure of his hand and smiled with the knowledge of a personal discovery that had come—as such things will—at the worst imaginable moment. That pressure, and that smile, had continued as the appropriately blood-red star had seemed to vanish down a well of infinity astern, and the two of them had gone through a hole in the continuum as one.


But then reality stabilized, and they were in a new stellar system, God knew how many light-years away in Einsteinian space, and reports of successful transit began to arrive from the ships ahead of them. As though with an electric shock of embarrassment, they each released the other's hand, and were once again simply Rear Admiral Aileen Sommers, Terran Federation Navy, commanding Survey Flotilla 19, and Captain Feridoun Hafezi, her chief of staff.


Not that the flotilla was much of a command anymore. It had escaped—barely, and with hideous losses—from the most horrifying enemy humankind had ever faced, or dreamed of facing. But the escape was only temporary. The Arachnids had witnessed their transit, and so should have little trouble locating the warp point they'd used. No, she corrected herself: would have little trouble. After the events of the past three and a half standard Terran years, no human was apt to underestimate Arachnid capabilities.


So she took command of herself and ordered the flotilla onward into the system under cloaking ECM, getting lost in the immensity of space before the Bugs could follow them through the warp point. She also sent the Hun-class scout cruisers ahead to begin surveying. They reported almost immediately that the system wasn't one of those in the Terran Federation's databases, and there was no point in searching for a native high-tech civilization. This star was a red giant, and like some insane god of ancient myth it had long since devoured any planetary children it might once have possessed. So Sommers ordered the Huns to search for warp points other than the one they'd just transited—warp points through which they could continue their hegira.


She wanted to pause and appease a lack of sleep which had almost exceeded the human organism's capacity to function. But there was no time. Instead, she called a staff conference.


* * *

At some point, Hafezi had somehow managed to repair the haggardness of battle. Sommers, gazing across the conference table at him, saw that he'd even restored his beard to its neatly sculpted norm . . . but she detected a salting of gray hairs among the black. Is it possible, she wondered, that what we've been through over the last few weeks could've done that already?


Or maybe it's been there all along and I've just never looked closely enough to notice.


Since the escape from the last system, their behavior towards each other had been scrupulously correct. Not, she thought wryly, that they'd had much opportunity for incorrectness. And not that they'd actually avoided each other—their duties would've made that difficult. No, they'd just worn formality as armor against their own feelings. Feelings they couldn't openly express under the present circumstances, even if they'd known how.


One crisis at a time, Sommers told herself firmly. And preferably not the personal one first. She concentrated on listening to Feridoun's—no, her chief of staff's—report.


Concentrating was hard, though. She already knew most of the facts he was reciting, and they were too painful to bear thinking about.


First, her loss figures. Out of SF 19's original strength of seven battlecruisers, one fleet carrier, two light carriers (both from the space fleet of Terra's Ophiuchi allies), nine light cruisers, and two freighters, she'd lost two battlecruisers, three light cruisers, and a freighter—every one of which she felt like a stab wound. And it was worse than it sounded, for practically all the survivors—including and especially Jamaica—were damaged in varying degrees. And besides . . .


Hafezi voiced her own gloomy thoughts as he summed up.


"Both the battlecruisers we've lost were Dunkerque-A-class, out of the four we originally had. The impact on our firepower—"


"Yes, yes," Sommers interrupted. The Dunkerque-A's were rated as BCRs: ships that combined a very respectable battery of capital missile launchers with a battlecruiser's speed and nimbleness at the expense of sacrificing almost everything else. They were formidable missile platforms, especially when knitted into datalinked firing groups by Jamaica and her other two Thetis-A-class command battlecruisers. All three of those had survived. But . . . her lips quirked into what could almost be mistaken for a smile. "Still just as many chiefs, but not as many Indians," she said aloud.


Hafezi looked puzzled for a moment—the joke belonged to her cultural background, not his. But then he caught the sense, and he responded with a smile as humorless as hers. It was a mistake, for their eyes met in a more direct contact than they'd known since the battle. Hafezi's shied away, and he hurried on.


"Furthermore, the carriers suffered heavy losses in their fighter squadrons." The figures appeared on the conference room's display screen. "And all our depletable munitions are in short supply after the loss of Voyager."


"That last loss worries me more than all the others. And not just—or even principally—because of the missiles she was carrying," Commander Arbella Maningo, the logistics officer, put in. In the earlier stages of their flight, she'd wavered on the ragged edge of panic. But she'd steadied as the situation had grown more desperate, as people sometimes did, and the freighter Voyager had been her special concern.


Sommers was inclined to agree with the logistics officer's observation. Still, she wished Maningo hadn't brought it up, for there was nothing they could do about it, and just thinking about it gave her the beginnings of a migraine.


With no other alternative but annihilation, Survey Flotilla 19 was fleeing outward into the unknown in the forlorn hope of eventually finding itself back in known space. The notion wasn't completely unrealistic—the warp connections sometimes formed clusters of interconnected nexi, and the Terran Federation and its allies encompassed a lot of warp points. But its chances of success were directly related to the length of time they could sustain the search. Under such circumstances, the loss of fifty percent of the flotilla's logistics support was a catastrophe so overwhelming that discussing it was pointless. Sommers had refrained from placing everyone on short rations; in the odd blend of shell shock and euphoria that had followed their escape, the morale impact of such a move would have been imponderable but almost certainly not good. She wouldn't be able to put it off much longer, though. . . .


"What happened?" Maningo was continuing, as much to herself as to the conference at large. "Where did they come from?" Sommers felt no inclination to slap the logistics officer down; she wasn't reverting to her former jitters, just voicing the question that had been in everyone's mind since the Arachnid ships had appeared behind them in the expanse of nothingness that was a starless warp nexus.


"That's clear enough," the electronic image of Captain Milos Kabilovic growled. Kabilovic, CO of the fleet carrier Borsoi, wasn't a member of the staff, but he was virtually present as commander of SF 19's "gunslingers"—the term for the explorers' Battle Fleet escorts that continued to be used even though the distinction between Battle Fleet and Survey Command had faded more than a little since the war began.


"It was a closed warp point," he went on, "either in that warp nexus or, more likely, one of those on the other side. The Bugs—" it had been years since anyone had called the Arachnids anything but that "—closed in on us as soon as they became aware of our presence."


At first, nobody showed any inclination to dispute the carrier commander's analysis. The anomalies in space and time known as warp points—usually, but not always, associated with stellar gravity wells—had been known to humans for over three centuries, ever since the day in 2053 when the exploration ship Hermes, en route to Neptune, had abruptly found itself in the system of Alpha Centauri, instead. They'd been known even longer to humanity's sometime enemies and current allies the Orions, the only known race to have theorized the phenomenon's existence rather than accidentally stumbling over it. Knowledge of the so-called closed warp points, invisible even to those who'd learned how to detect ordinary warp points by their associated grav surge, was of more recent vintage. But it was nonetheless common knowledge in this room, one of the fundamental background hazards of survey work, against which precautions were routinely taken. And SF 19's precautions had gone beyond routine. . . .


"But we were operating continuously in cloak!" Hafezi protested. "And we didn't even emplace any courier drone nav buoys at the warp points we passed through, just in case the Bugs had any cloaked pickets in those systems. How could they have found us?"


"None of that's foolproof. They could have detected us on any one of our warp transits, if they already had pickets in those systems." Kabilovic addressed the individual who had the most intimate knowledge of sensor systems. "Isn't that true, Lieutenant Murakuma?"


Fujiko Murakuma nodded slowly as everyone awaited her opinion, respectful of her expertise despite her junior rank. She was the flotilla's specialist in the new second-generation recon drones which had revolutionized survey work by marrying the technology of advanced sensors to that of the SBMHAWK missiles that allowed a bombardment of an unseen enemy at the other end of a warp line. Probing through unknown warp points in advance of the ships that launched them, the RD2 had removed some of the "shot-in-the-dark" quality from warp point exploration . . . and, with it, maybe some of the mystique, which was why certain old-timers affected to despise it. A generation which had grown up with the likelihood of Bugs on the far side of any unsurveyed warp point had little patience for such romanticism, on the other hand. It belonged to the days when survey ships had fared heedlessly into an illimitable frontier, seeking worlds to study and colonize rather than to incinerate.


Fujiko Murakuma belonged to the generation which had come to grips with the harsher, infinitely more terrifying present reality, and Sommers studied her. The fact that she put her individual name before her surname wasn't unusual; many Japanese-derived cultures had by now adopted that Western practice. Indeed, her name was more Japanese than her appearance, for she was tall and slender, her hair held a reddish glint in its midnight depths, and her eyes, despite a perceptible epicanthic fold, were hazel-green. But any ambivalence in her background was unimportant. What mattered was her professional competence, and as to that there was no uncertainty at all.


"That's true, Sir," she replied to Kabilovic. "I'm firmly convinced that the Bug force that attacked us entered one of the star systems through which we'd already passed—or, to be precise, one of the warp nexi, with or without a star system—rather than the one in which they attacked us. We weren't aware of their entry because of our lack of coverage of those nexi, even with nav buoys."


It could have been interpreted as a veiled criticism of Sommers' decision not to emplace such buoys, since their absence meant it was impossible for any courier drone to find its way home with word of the flotilla's fate. But emplacing them would also have been a tell-tale trail of bread crumbs for any Arachnid picket or survey force which had chanced upon them, and the lieutenant's odd eyes met the admiral's squarely. Looking into them, Sommers detected nothing behind the words except a junior officer gutsy enough to say what she thought even at the risk of misinterpretation. What she did detect was a desire on Murakuma's part to say more, to go beyond the expert opinion Kabilovic had solicited.


"Do you care to theorize any further, Lieutenant?" she inquired, clearing the way for Murakuma to speak up in the presence of her superiors.


"Well, Sir . . . May I?" Murakuma indicated the holographic display projector at the center of the conference table. Sommers nodded, and the lieutenant manipulated controls. A series of colored balls connected by sticks, rather like a very simplified representation of a molecule, appeared in midair: warp nexi and the warp lines that connected them. There were nine of the immaterial spheres, and everyone present recognized the display as SF 19's route. It had, of course, no relation whatsoever to those various stars' relative positions and distances in real-space. Nobody except astronomers thought in such terms when the warp points allowed interstellar transits without crossing the intervening light-years.


"We began here," Murakuma began, using a light-pencil to indicate the ball representing the Anderson One system. Then she flashed the immaterial pointer four balls further along the string. "And here's where they attacked us. When they appeared, they didn't give the impression of a force that had just piled into the system and was still in the process of getting itself organized. That's why I believe they entered a closed warp point in one of the intervening warp nexi." She created the broken strings that denoted warp lines leading to closed warp points, indicating hypothetical routes into the three nexi they'd transited before the Bugs had overtaken them.


"Precisely," Kabilovic said with a satisfied nod, but Murakuma wasn't finished.


"But the question then becomes," she went on, "why did they wait so long to attack us?"


"Well," Hafezi ruminated, running his fingers through his beard in a nervous gesture he'd only recently acquired, "we were operating in cloak. Even if they were aware of our presence in a general way, maybe they took a long time to locate us precisely."


"But, Sir," Murakuma persisted, "it wouldn't have taken them long to do that if they'd come out of cloak themselves to hunt aggressively for us. Maybe they were unwilling to do so."


"Why?" Sommers demanded.


"Well, Admiral, if we'd become aware that there were Bugs in this warp chain, wouldn't our first order of business have been to get at least one ship back with the warning? And with them out of cloak, we might have detected them soon enough to do just that. So it could make perfectly good sense to them to stay cloaked to keep us from doing that. But," Murakuma continued relentlessly into what had become a profound silence, "why did they suddenly stop worrying about it?"


She made further adjustments, expanding her display to include the warp line of the far side of Anderson One, leading to Alpha Centauri with its eight other warp points, one of which connected with . . . Sol.


She said nothing. Nothing was needed. They all sat, no longer a staff but rather a collection of individuals, each alone with his or her own horrified speculations.


Sommers knew she needed to bring them out of it. But she couldn't, at first. She, too, was face-to-face with a nightmare from which there was no awakening.


But because she was in command, and habituated to looking at the big picture, she ran her mind over the events that had led them, and the rest of the human race, to this point.


* * *

It wasn't that humankind's expansion into the galaxy had been a peaceful process.


Quite the contrary.


Oh, it had been at first. After Hermes had shown the gateway to the stars—or, more accurately, blundered through it—colonization of what were now called the Heart Worlds had proceeded without any difficulties other than those humans had created for themselves. No dangerously advanced aliens had been encountered, and after the dodged bullet called the China War, no human with the brain to organize an effective opposition had challenged the peaceful hegemony of the Terran Federation. Earth and its children had settled comfortably into the belief that the universe was a fundamentally benign place, holding no real enemies, only those to whom one had somehow given offense and with whom one should therefore make amends. That attitude had always been common enough, at least among peoples who'd enjoyed a vacation from history. (Sommers, whose ancestry was North American, winced mentally.) And experience had finally seemed to be confirming it.


Then, one fine day in 2205, humanity had met the Orions.


The First Interstellar War had been only the first movement of a symphony of carnage. One threat after another had materialized out of a galaxy which the conventional wisdom had never expected to hold so many species at essentially the same technological level in the same cosmological eyeblink of time. Next had come the three-cornered clash of Terran, Orion, and Ophiuchi known as the Second Interstellar War. Then all three erstwhile enemies had found themselves allies in the Third Interstellar War, for the Rigelians had offered none of them anything but equal opportunity genocide. But then had come a diminuendo of sorts, as the Terran Federation had dealt unaided with the truly weird Theban jihad for which humans were at least arguably responsible. That had been around the turn of the twenty-fourth century. Afterwards, there'd been no armed conflict to speak of for six decades. Even in this era of extended lifespans, that had been long enough to convince most humans that peace was the natural state of things.


The majority, as always, had been wrong. The orchestra of history hadn't come to a triumphant finale. It had barely paused before launching into the soul-shaking atonalities of what wasn't even like music composed by a madman . . . for a madman is, after all, human.


Nothing in history had prepared the human race—even that minority capable of learning from history—for the horror that had begun when a survey mission had stumbled onto the Arachnids. Nothing . . . not even the Rigelians, who'd been like a ghastly caricature—or, perhaps, surrealist painting—of the worst religious and ideological fanatics of Old Terra's past. (And presumably still were, on the few planets where they now existed, closely watched by orbital stations under standing orders to obliterate anything more advanced than a steam engine or a black powder muzzleloader.) The Bugs were something else altogether. And after three and a half years of war, no one was any closer to fathoming what that something else was than they'd been in 2360.


The Bugs were, of course, sentient . . . weren't they? Because they had to be . . . didn't they? Nonsentient lifeforms didn't build starships, or organize the kind of industrial base that had overwhelmed all initial resistance by sheer numbers, tonnage, and firepower. And yet . . . in all those three and a half years there had been no communication of any kind with them. Instead, mind-numbingly immense fleets had advanced in dead silence, indifferent to losses, grinding the defenses of one system after another to powder with a nonfeeling relentlessness even more horrible than Rigelian malevolence. Fantasies of runaway machine-life had soon been dispelled, however; the Bugs were organic. It would have been better if they hadn't been. The Frankenstein robots of popular fiction wouldn't have needed organic food. The Bugs did . . . and they regarded conquered sentients as a source of it. As they'd advanced along the Romulus Chain, whole human populations had vanished. So had Orion populations, after the Bugs broke into the Kliean Chain. Two races which had thought themselves inured to war had finally looked true horror full in the face.


Desperate fighting had eventually brought the war to a deadlock. And the Allies had finally gotten a break: the discovery of a system, Zephrain, which gave warp access to what was clearly an important system of the Bugs' unknowably large domain. Admiral Ivan Antonov—the victor of the Theban War, recalled from retirement as head of the Alliance's joint chiefs of staff—had begun to prepare an offensive, to be launched from that system. Not only would that offensive strike at a critically important Bug system, but it might well also open a fresh line of advance—a new point of contact which might allow Antonov to create a war of movement and put an end to the brutal, grinding, head-on war of attrition against an enemy who didn't seem to feel its losses.


But then the Bugs had appeared in the skies of Alpha Centauri, humanity's gateway to the galaxy, only one warp transit away from the home system itself. It was also the Grand Alliance's headquarters, and Antonov had abruptly changed his plans. Taking personal command of the forces being assembled for the Zephrain offensive, he'd led them through the previously unsuspected closed warp point that had admitted the Bugs into humanity's heartland.


Antonov's hastily organized Second Fleet had blasted its way into the system on the far side of that warp point, which he'd dubbed "Anderson One" in honor of his old friend and mentor Howard Anderson, hero of the first two interstellar wars. Then, judging the risks to be outweighed by the chance of putting a quick end to the war—and the Bugs—he'd pressed "Operation Pesthouse" onward towards the warp point into which the Bug defenders had fled.


But Anderson One had held a third warp point, and Antonov had been too canny an old campaigner to ignore the dangers that might lurk beyond it. Thus it was that Survey Flotilla 19 had departed through that third warp point, shortly after Second Fleet had fared deeper into the unknown.


They'd set out just after Antonov's first couriers had returned from his next conquest. Censorship had blanketed those couriers' tidings, but too late to prevent some disturbing rumors from circulating about what Antonov had found on Anderson Two's life-bearing world. Sommers had rejected those rumors out of hand as unthinkable. Yes, everyone knew the Bugs ate captured sentient beings. But ranches of such beings, raised as food animals that knew they were food animals . . . ? And there were human worlds that had been under Bug control for three years now—worlds on which there'd been children and adolescents. . . .


No! Once again, Sommers' mind dismissed the thought with a spasm of revulsion.


Anyway, there was nightmare enough without it.


* * *

Murakuma's voice resumed, bringing Sommers back to the present.


"The Bugs appeared from behind us, so they have precisely what we were dispatched to warn against: a way into Anderson One, enabling them to cut off Second Fleet."


The implications were lost on no one. Every pair of eyes was on the holo display, and every mind was following the arrangement of prettily colored lights to its logical conclusion.


Was there still a Second Fleet?


Even as Sommers watched, the horror on certain faces deepened visibly as those faces' owners allowed their eyes to follow the warp chains in the other direction from Anderson One, to Alpha Centauri . . . and Sol.


In their fight for survival, they'd had no time to contemplate their aloneness, cut off from the rest of the human race. But now people began to make hesitant eye contact, as they silently asked each other the question no one dared utter aloud: Are we now really alone?


Maningo's features began to tremble. Sommers opened her mouth, prepared to forestall whatever the logistics officer was about to release into the oppressive air of the conference room.


But Hafezi beat her to it, tossing his head like a tormented horse and speaking angrily—although who or what his anger was directed against was not immediately apparent.


"No! It's not possible! We've only been gone nine months. And the Bugs jumped us only about a month and a half ago. There hasn't been time for . . . well, anyway, remember all the other worlds we've settled! They're still there, even if . . . if . . ." He couldn't continue, nor was there any need for him to complete the thought. Everyone knew what he meant, and no one wanted to hear it. He rallied himself. "Whatever's happened, there's still a Federation for us to find our way back to. And there's still our duty!"


They all sat up a little straighter, and even Maningo's incipient quivering solidified into determination. Thank you, Feridoun, Sommers thought, and in that fierce hawklike face she thought to glimpse the Iranian mythic hero whose name he bore.


She didn't dare allow her gaze to linger on that face.


"Commodore Hafezi is correct," she rapped, reasserting control of the meeting. "We can't allow ourselves to dwell on speculative possibilities. All that can accomplish is to cripple our will. Our sole concern must be the accomplishment of our mission and the return to safety of the people entrusted to our command. To that end, we must locate another warp point as soon as possible." She felt no useful purpose would be served by mentioning the possibility that this might be one of the occasional "dead end" systems with only one warp point. Instead, she decided to attend to what she'd been putting off. "In the meantime, it's necessary for us to restrict our consumption of nonrenewable supplies, especially in light of the loss of Voyager. Therefore, effective immediately, we'll—"


The whoop of the general quarters klaxon shattered the air.


The voice of Jamaica's captain came from Sommers' chair arm communicator, speaking to no one, for she was already off at a dead run for Flag Bridge. She needed no explanation of what that whooping meant.


Well, she thought as she ran, at least I won't have to worry about breaking the news to people that we're going on short rations.


* * *

She stood beside Hafezi and watched doom approach in the holo sphere.


"I'd hoped they wouldn't find us so soon," she said quietly. Not so long ago, she wouldn't have made a remark like that to her chief of staff. Now . . .


He didn't reply. His eyes, like hers, remained fixed on the display of the Bug pursuers, approaching on what wasn't quite a stern chase they could run directly away from and which would therefore intersect their course with the inevitability of death.


The wavefront of that oncoming force was composed of what humans termed gunboats—larger than fighters. In fact, they were larger even than the auxiliary small craft carried by starships, but they generated an intermediate form of reactionless drive field which conferred speed and maneuverability far greater than that of any conventional starship. Indeed, their speed approached that of the fighters the Bugs, for whatever reasons, couldn't or at least didn't use . . . and, unlike fighters, they could make unassisted warp transit. They were a Bug invention, and had come as a shocking surprise to the Allies, who hadn't thought the Bugs could invent. At least they had some countervailing disadvantages; they were energy hogs, and in consequence had emissions signatures that made them as readily detectable—and targetable—as full-sized starships.


Not that the Bug force would have been all that hard to detect in any case, for its second wave consisted of battlecruisers, advancing uncloaked in justifiable contempt of their quarry. Lots of battlecruisers . . . all the survivors from their fight in the last system, in fact. Some were simply gunboat tenders, but the majority were fighting vessels comparable to her own Dunkerque-A-class BCRs—the classes the Alliance's intelligence had dubbed Antelope, Antler, and Appian. Enough of them to smother SF 19's defenses with missiles.


"Commodore Hafezi," she said crisply. (Even at this time, there was no need to deny him the traditional courtesy "promotion" accorded to anyone aboard a ship other than its skipper whose normal rank-title was "captain." Indeed, Sommers was beginning to understand what she'd always read, that tradition became particularly important at times like this.) "We need to be able to launch the fighters at the precise moment when interception becomes unavoidable. Notify Captain Kabilovic." Milos, after all, wasn't aboard this ship. Tradition . . . again. "And order the Huns to stay well clear and continue their present survey pattern."


Hafezi's nod showed his understanding. The scout cruisers might, after all, find another warp point. And their combat value was almost negligible.


"Aye, aye, Admiral," he replied with a crispness matching hers. Then, as though by common consent, their eyes met in a way they hadn't been allowed to meet of late. And, a tremulous instant later, so did their hands.


What does it matter, now that we're all dead? She turned, with a look of what might have been called defiance, to face any of the flag bridge crew who might have seen them.


Some had. They were staring openly. But not with amazement. They were grinning.


The amazement was all Sommers'.


They knew? But how long . . . ?


Then, all at once, her sense of the ridiculous came bubbling up. Surprise, outrage, and even despair all drowned in it. She turned back to face Feridoun. A smile began to tremble on her lips. . . .


"Admiral!" Fujiko Murakuma—not one of those who'd been grinning—shattered the brittle moment, calling out in a puzzled voice from the sensor station where she'd been observing the Bugs. "We're picking up something else."


* * *

Wingmaster Demlafi Furra, commanding Sixth Strike Wing, felt a need to relieve her tension. So she spread her wings a little—not to their full two-meter span, of course, here in the confines of her flag bridge—and waved them gently back and forth. The mild enhancement of her blood's oxygen, though nothing like the full rush of flight, did its work, and she turned with renewed calmness and energy to the holo display.


The strike wing had been on full alert ever since the scout destroyer's courier drone had emerged from one of Pajzomo's three warp points, shattering the boredom of a routine patrol of vast emptiness lit by the sullen red glare of Pajzomo. But now they were closing to within eleven light-seconds of the hunters who didn't know yet that they were being hunted. And the need of everyone in the strike wing, from Furra on down, to open fire was becoming a sensual thing.


"Wingmaster," the flag captain, as humans would have called him, interrupted Furra's thoughts, "what about the other group of aliens?"


"I haven't forgotten them, Nestmaster." The imprinted caution of generations had prevented Furra from trying to contact the unknowns when they first appeared. And after that, any electronic emissions that might have revealed the strike wing's presence to the Demons had been out of the question. Now she gazed at the icons representing those ships, whose unimaginable crews must be preparing themselves for their last battle. "What about them?"


"Well, Wingmaster," the flag captain spoke diffidently, "I mention this only as a possible option, but . . . we could wait and let the Demons overtake them. They don't stand a chance, of course. But they'd probably leave fewer Demons for us to deal with afterwards."


Furra didn't reprove him for a suggestion flagrantly contrary to the precepts of Kkrullott. She had her faults, but sanctimoniousness wasn't one of them. Neither was hypocrisy . . . and the same idea had crossed her own mind. Nevertheless, she gave her head the backward jerk that meant what shaking it would have to most humans. "No. Aside from the ethical issues involved. It occurs to me that we may be looking at an opportunity here."


"Wingmaster?"


"These beings are obviously enemies of the Demons." Which, she reflected, was merely to say they had encountered the Demons. "This makes them potential allies of ours."


"But how useful? They're in headlong flight!"


"These ships are, granted. But that doesn't mean the rest of their race isn't still holding out somewhere." Furra straightened up into a posture which put an end to discussion. "We'll proceed as planned. If the unknown ships initiate hostilities against us, we will of course defend ourselves. But if they try to communicate with us, we'll respond."


The flag captain gestured understanding and obedience and they resumed their waiting. It wasn't long before they closed to within the preplanned range of the unsuspecting Demons.


Furra leaned forward in a crouch and gazed at the icons of the Demon ships for another instant—a dreamy gaze, almost. Some might have thought it a loving gaze, completely misinterpreting the nature, but not the intensity, of the emotion it held.


But then she bared omnivore's teeth, and no one, of whatever species or whatever culture, could possibly have misunderstood any longer.


"Disengage cloaking," she ordered the flag captain. "And . . . kill!"


* * *

The Fleet had run the Enemy to ground once more, and this time there would be no escape. This group of Enemy ships had proved as troublesome as any the Fleet had yet encountered, and there was no reason to suppose they would prove less troublesome once the Fleet managed to close with them. Still, it was obvious, despite their attempts to cloak themselves from the Fleet gunboats' sensors, that they'd taken serious losses and damage in their last clash with the Fleet. Indeed, had it not been for the fortuitous discovery of yet another warp point by the Enemy's scout ships, the Fleet would have finished them off the last time. It was a pity that the Fleet had never previously discovered that warp point for itself. Had it known that it existed, it might have been possible to place ships on this side of it to await the Enemy in ambush. In that case, none of the survey ships could possibly have survived. As it was, it was essential to overtake the Enemy and destroy him utterly lest he find yet another warp point somewhere in the depths of this unexplored star system and escape once more.


At least the infernally fast small attack craft which had done so much to fend off the Fleet's last attack had suffered heavy damage in the process, and it seemed apparent that there could not be many of them left. The Enemy was obviously aware of the Fleet's presence—the maneuvers of his surviving units was sufficient proof of that—yet the small attack craft had not yet been committed.


The battlecruisers held their courses, covered by the protective shield of the gunboats, waiting to pounce upon the Enemy small attack craft when they finally were committed, but the Fleet allowed itself to feel a cold anticipation of the upcoming victory. As the range dropped, the emissions signatures of the Enemy starships had become increasingly clear, and the evidence of severe damage to his long-range missile ships had been still further promise that the troublesome survey force and its escorts would soon be dealt with.


That would be good. Once the survey ships had been erased from existence, this component of the Fleet could retrace its steps and rejoin the remainder of the Fleet committed to the carefully prepared counterattack upon the Enemy core system from which the Enemy had emerged. And when that hap—


* * *

The first Bug starship blew up with no warning at all.


The Antelope-class battlecruiser on the flank of the Arachnid formation had never even realized its killer was there. All of its sensors had been locked upon the Allied survey flotilla fleeing before it, and it had never occurred to the beings which crewed that battlecruiser that there might be anyone else to worry about. And because it hadn't occurred to them, they were taken fatally by surprise as the missile salvo erupted out of the blind zone astern of it, created by the sensor interference of its own drive field. There were no point defense counter missiles, no fire from close-in laser clusters, and the lethal salvo smashed home like so many hammers of antimatter fury.


The battlecruiser's shields did their best, but the savagery of the attack was scarcely even blunted, and the entire ship vanished in a sun-bright bubble of fire.


The Antelope was the first to die; it wasn't the last. The other salvos which had accompanied the one that killed it began to arrive almost in the same instant, and ship-killing blasts of fury marched through the Arachnid formation like the hobnailed boots of some demented war god. A second battlecruiser, a third—and then the killing spasms of flame came for the gunboats, as well. They were smaller, easier and more fragile targets, without the shields that protected their larger consorts, and—like the battlecruisers—they'd never even guessed that any danger might lurk behind them. A single hit was sufficient to kill any one of them, and the hits came not in singletons, but in dozens. Shattered and vaporized hulls, clouds of plasma and blast fronts littered with the splintered fragments of battlecruisers . . .


The Arachnid fleet reeled under the devastating impact of the totally unanticipated carnage. For a handful of minutes, even the boulderlike discipline which had sent attack force after attack force of Bug superdreadnoughts unwaveringly into the teeth of the Alliance's most furious firepower wavered. The sheer surprise of their losses, far more than the scale of those losses—grievous though they were—stunned them, and separate squadrons reacted as separate squadrons, not the interchangeable units of the finely meshed machine their enemies were accustomed to facing. Some of them, in the absence of any order to the contrary, continued to close in on the fleeing remnants of Survey Flotilla 19, even as successive waves of missiles sliced into them from astern. Other squadrons of battlecruisers, and even more of the harrowed gunboats' survivors, turned abruptly to charge towards the source of that fire.


Even those who continued to close upon the Allied survey force were at least no longer taken completely unawares by the fire screaming down upon them. Their command datalink installations had taken charge of their point defense systems, concentrating counter missiles and laser clusters alike upon the incoming weapons which any unit of any battlegroup could see. Some of those missiles still got through, of course. Not all of them could be seen by any member of the battlegroups they targeted, and the uncaring laws of statistics said that even some of those which could be seen would evade all fire directed upon them. But the defensive systems managed to sharply reduce the number of warheads getting through to their targets, and whoever had suddenly attacked them found himself forced to concentrate his fire upon the hostile warships suddenly charging straight towards him.


* * *

The Fleet staggered under the sudden, merciless fire ravaging its neat formation. It couldn't be coming from the Enemy survey force the Fleet had been pursuing, for there had never been a sufficient number of survey ships or escorts to generate the number of missiles sleeting in upon it.


Besides, the sensor sections reported as the Fleet quickly began to recover its balance, the Enemy had never used weapons similar to some of those blasting into its ships. No, these missiles carried warheads of types the Fleet had never seen before, and even if the Enemy had somehow developed them and put them into production without the Fleet realizing it, the survey ships would surely have used them in the previous battle had he possessed them.


Which meant that the Fleet had encountered yet another Enemy.


* * *

On Jamaica's flag bridge, puzzlement at the strange ships that had suddenly emerged from cloak gave way to stunned incredulity as one Bug battlecruiser after another vanished in the hell-glare of antimatter annihilation.


Sommers was the first to recover.


"Commodore Hafezi! Order Captain Kabilovic to launch every fighter he's got, and take those gunboats. And have Nomad and the Huns proceed on course, but get the rest of the flotilla turned around. Move!"


The last word was yelled as much for the entire bridge crew's benefit as for Feridoun's. Everyone was staring, open mouthed, as two more Bug battlecruisers vanished from the threat board, and all but two of the others were rendered naked by some totally unknown weapon—some sort of missile warhead which evidently stripped away electromagnetic shields. It was too unexpected, too sudden a reversal of the inevitable course of whatever brief lives remained to them. Sommers was as whipsawed as the rest of them, but she couldn't let herself—or anyone else—remain paralyzed.


She rose from her command chair and strode towards the com console.


"Raise those unknown ships!" she commanded. As the com officer fumbled to obey, she watched data codes blossom beside the icons of the unknowns on her plot as the computers received more sensor data. She gulped as tight formations of superdreadnoughts appeared. But even those ships, she saw, were going to have to move in to closer range, now that the Bugs were aware of their presence and fighting back. One of the Bug squadrons had survived entirely intact, and now that it had turned to face its enemies, its datalinked point defense was proving impervious to the long-range missile bombardment that had been so devastating coming from the blind zones of surprised ships.


She spared a glance for the status of her own flotilla. Feridoun had passed her orders along, and the fighting ships were performing the kind of course reversal that was merely difficult nowadays, rather than impossible, as it would have been in the days of reaction drives. And either Kabilovic had set new records in responding to her command to launch his fighters, or else he'd already begun to do so on his own initiative.


Feridoun joined her.


"Are you sure this is wise?" he muttered.


"What do you mean? Joining the unknowns' battle with the Bugs? Or trying to communicate with them?"


"Both."


Sommers smiled in the way that transformed her appearance in a way she'd never suspected . . . any more than she'd ever realized how inaccurate her idea of that appearance as "mannish" was.


"There's an old saying: 'The enemy of my enemy is my friend.'"


"I've heard that saying. It doesn't necessarily follow."


"No, it doesn't, really." She drew a breath. "But what choice do we have, Feridoun? To continue fleeing in the hopeless way we have been?" Inasmuch as she was the one who'd been driving them so mercilessly in precisely that direction, she wouldn't have dared say such a thing to anyone else. Hafezi didn't respond, and she pressed on. "Besides, we know the Bugs are enemies. These new arrivals may turn on us and finish us off after they're done with the Bugs. But we don't know that. And maybe we can at least put them in our debt by helping them finish off this battle, first."


"Still . . ."


"Admiral!" The com officer cut Hafezi's skeptical voice off. "We're getting a response! They're—"


All conversation halted as the image appeared on the com screen.


Flying sentient races were one of those theoretical possibilities which had never panned out. It wasn't hard to understand why. If a species was going to specialize, it generally specialized in only one thing. Besides, it took a large body to support a large brain, and in any normal environment an avian couldn't afford a large body. At most, a formerly avian race like humanity's Ophiuchi allies might exchange flight for the ability to use tools in an evolutionary trade-off.


But Sommers, looking at the long arms of the being on the screen and the membranes they supported, had no doubts. Even in their present folded state, those wing-membranes were obviously too extensive to be vestigial. Despite the short, downy sand-colored fur and the red-trimmed black clothing, the overall impression was vaguely batlike—much as the Orions suggested bipedal cats to humans, who recognized the fallacy of the comparison but still couldn't avoid making it.


The being's mouth was working to produce sound: gibberish, of course. The com officer checked his readouts, nodded to himself, and turned to Sommers.


"The translator software is starting to kick in, Sir. Of course, it'll need some time to pull together enough vocabulary to start building on. The more he or she or whatever talks, the more it'll have to get its teeth into," he added, "and assuming that they've got similar capability, the more you talk, the faster they'll be able to translate what you're saying."


Sommers glanced at the plot again. Kabilovic's fighters were beginning to engage the surviving Bug gunboats. So were destroyer-sized vessels of the new arrivals.


"I don't think we've really got much in the way of options, Feridoun," she said quietly. And she began to speak, very distinctly, into the com pickup.


 


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