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Gathering 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 a 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 premier 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.

"That, ladies and gentlemen, is the new Arachnid ship type that BuShips has dubbed the 'monitor,' " he stated without preamble. "You've probably seen the computer-generated imagery based on the sensor data from Second Fleet." He saw Raymond Prescott, who'd brought that data back, wince. "But that was only inference. Accurate inference, as far as it went—this ship is approximately twice the tonnage of a superdreadnought, just as that initial data suggested." The room grew very quiet. "But now, on the basis of closer acquaintance, we're in position to show you what it really looks like. We've also identified three classes. This one, which seems to be the 'basic' monitor, we've assigned the reporting name of the Awesome class." A few grim chuckles at the appropriateness barely dented the silence, and they ceased abruptly when a holographically projected display screen showed the class's armament. "As you can see, it's primarily a missile platform. Given the time it must take to construct such a thing, they have to have laid the class down before they acquired command datalink—presumably in an effort to compensate for that very lack by packing the maximum possible firepower into a single ship. Now, of course, they have command datalink, and our analysis of the attack on this system indicates that they've retrofitted at least some of the Awesome class with it—we call the refitted version of it the Awesome Beta class. Their datalink seems to be as capable as ours, as well; it can coordinate the offensive and defensive fire of up to six of these ships."

LeBlanc noticed eyes flickering toward MacGregor and Prescott, who'd faced an invasion led by those leviathans . . . and stopped it cold. If any of the people in this room hadn't grasped what that meant before, they did now.

He manipulated his remote, and the image was replaced by another, about the same size but visibly different in detail.

"This is what we've designated the Armageddon class. It's primarily a gunboat tender. We've been aware for some time that the Bugs' gunboats are significantly larger than ordinary auxiliaries, so internal boat bays can't accommodate them. Rather, they're carried externally, using these racks." He used a light pencil to indicate the hull features. "The class has twenty-five of them. At the same time, as you can see from the armament specs, it also carries enough force beams to make it formidable at close range. And, like the Awesome class, it has a version refitted with command datalink."

LeBlanc could read his listeners' minds without difficulty. They were trying to imagine going up at close range against a battle-line with that many force beams—the deadly application of tractor/presser beam technology that overstressed the molecular bonds of matter at a distance—especially when the ships mounting those beams had the capacity these had to soak up punishment. And they were contemplating the fact that fighting that way was only this class's secondary function.

Without comment, he brought up a third image.

"Finally, this is the Aegis class. It also carries twenty-five gunboats. But it's primarily a command ship, with less ship-to-ship armament but—as you can see—very tough defenses."

He dismissed the holo imagery and faced his very subdued audience.

"In addition to information on these new ship classes, we've been able to glean something even more important: a new insight into the nature of the enemy we're fighting. As you all know, such knowledge has been in extremely short supply throughout the war. I'll now turn the briefing over to Lieutenant Sanders, who initially grasped the significance of the data we were seeing and subsequently developed the theory he'll be presenting."

As a lieutenant who'd only recently shed the chrysalis of j.g.-hood, Sanders was easily the most junior officer in the room. It didn't seem to bother him in the least as he got jauntily to his feet and accepted the remote from LeBlanc. What did bring a small frown to his face was that the audience had come unfocused, dissolving into little clusters from which rose the worried buzz of discussion concerning the Bug monitors. Quite simply, a lieutenant wasn't inherently important enough to be taken seriously, much less to command their attention.

Sanders smiled lazily, like a man who knew just the solution to a dilemma. He touched the remote, and where the images of the monitors had floated there appeared . . . something else.

The radially symmetrical being bore neither relation nor resemblance to any Terran lifeform. But the six upward-angled limbs surrounding and supporting the central pod, the whole covered with coarse black hair, made it easy to see why the term "arachnid" had been applied. Those limbs rose to pronounced "knuckles" well above the central pod before angling downward once more, and two other limbs ended in "hands" of four mutually opposable "fingers," while above the eight limbs were eight stalked eyes, evenly spaced around the pod's circumference. And if all that hadn't been sufficient to show that this thing had evolved from nothing that ever lived on Old Terra, there was the mouth—a wide gash low in the body-pod, filled with lampreylike rows of teeth and lined with wiggling tentacles. Everyone present knew what those tentacles were for: to hold living prey immobilized for ingestion.

The discordant buzzing of many unfocused conversations ceased. Instead, a single low sound, below the level of verbalization, arose from the room in general. That sound was like a single musical note sounded by a whole orchestra of instruments simultaneously, for while the mode of expression varied with species and temperament, the overall tone was uniform. A Terran dog, laying its ears back and growling low in its throat, couldn't have been any less ambiguous.

All right, Kevin, LeBlanc thought desperately in his young subordinate's direction. That'll do. You've got their undivided attention.

But Sanders knew what he was doing.

"The face of the enemy, ladies and gentlemen," he announced rather theatrically. Then he switched off the holographic Bug and continued in a more matter-of-fact tone. "Unfortunately, what his face—and the rest of him—looks like is just about all we've ever known about him. That, and the fact that I should be saying it rather than him, because contrary to an early misconception, the Bugs are either neuter workers and warriors, or hermaphroditic breeders. Every attempt to communicate with them has been an abject failure. It's not even clear that they could communicate with us if they wanted to. We assume, in the absence of any plausible alternative, that they're exclusively telepathic. We've captured mountains of electronically stored records—none of which has ever been made to yield an iota of intelligible output. We know nothing about their society, their government, their objectives—"

"Their objectives," Sky Marshal Ellen MacGregor cut in, "seem to be crystal clear." She was a Scot of the "old black breed" and her dark-brown eyes held none of the liquidity of similarly colored eyes from warmer climes. They were like chips of black ice, and Sanders had the grace to look abashed under their level, frigid weight.

"True, Sky Marshal, at least as viewed from our perspective," he agreed. "But we haven't had a clue as to how they're organized—until now."

That sent a rustle of interest through the audience, and he went on.

"I must emphasize that a 'clue' is all we've got even now. But our analysis of the Bug wreckage has led us to the conclusion that there are different . . . 'subsets' among the Bugs."

"What does that mean?" Pederson demanded.

"Simply this, Admiral: the ship classes we've long since identified, as well as the new monitors, can actually be subdivided into five groupings based on differences in construction."

"But," Fleet Speaker Noraku protested in his race's basso profundissimo but quite intelligible Standard English, "there are always some differences within a class. No two ships are truly identical." His face—unsettlingly humanlike despite its gray skin, broad nose, and double eyelids—looked perplexed, and he shifted his massive hexapedal form on the saddlelike couch that served the Gorm as a chair.

"Granted, Fleet Speaker. But we're not talking about slight variations or upgradings here. Rather, we're looking at different construction techniques, too pronounced to be accidents—especially since they're not random, but fall into five definite patterns. In other words, there are four or five sources of Bug warships, all of them working from the same blueprints, but each with its own idea as to how those blueprints should be translated into actual hardware.

"The details of the analysis that led us to this conclusion will be made available for your perusal. We can't say whether these sources of ship construction represent different systems or clusters of systems within a more or less decentralized Bug empire, or autonomous Bug star nations acting in alliance, or . . . something else. So, for the time being, we're assigning the convenience-label 'Home Hive' to each of them, with a number that was arbitrarily assigned as the distinctive construction technique was identified. Is assigned, I should say, given that the identification effort is an ongoing process, since we can't be certain there aren't still more of them out there."

Raymond Prescott sat up straighter, and spoke as much to himself as to Sanders. "So the system that the warp line from Zephrain leads to . . ."

"That's occurred to us, Admiral. The massive high-level energy emissions from that system's inhabited worlds, and the density of drive fields around them, clearly indicate a major industrial center. We would be very surprised if it wasn't one of the home hives. We're not in a position just yet to speculate as to which one it is. But, as you no doubt recall, the Bug system at the end of the Romulus Chain that Commodore Braun's survey flotilla discovered—and was ambushed in—at the very start of the war was also quite obviously a major center of population and industry. Presumably, it's supplied the bulk of the ships we've faced on that front. And, now that we know what to look for in the wreckage Admiral Murakuma retrieved after the Fourth Battle of Justin, we're prepared to go on record and identify it as Home Hive Five."

There was a thoughtful silence as they all assimilated what this whippersnapper had told them. It might not be much, but it was the first hint of detail or texture in what had been a featureless cliff-wall of menace and mystery. Kthaara allowed them to consider it for a moment, then spoke.

"Thank you, gentlemen," he said to the intelligence officers, then turned back to the gathering as a whole. "And now, we will adjourn, as we all have an early start ahead of us tomorrow." The word tomorrow was conventional usage. Actually, it would be nighttime. But none of the Allied races was accustomed to a day nearly as long as this double-planet system's sixty-one-hour rotation around its components' center of mass.

The meeting broke up, and the room began to empty. Sanders finished clearing the display from the holo system and stood up and spoke over his shoulder.

"Well, Sir, shall we—?"

Once again, he became aware that his boss wasn't listening to him. He turned around.

Among the scurrying figures still remaining, one was standing quite still. From across the room, Vanessa Murakuma held LeBlanc's eyes.

Sanders sighed, gathered up his things, and departed, whistling softly.

Murakuma and LeBlanc approached each other slowly, oblivious to anyone else. They paused within a few feet, but didn't touch—they still weren't entirely alone in the room.

"How are you?" she asked tentatively.

"Hanging in there . . . Sir." LeBlanc said, and gestured towards the row of French doors that lined one end of the room. Wordlessly, they went out onto the terrace. The nano-fabric of their black-and-silver uniforms adjusted its "weave" against the winter chill so automatically that neither of them even noticed.

The building, which the planetary government of Nova Terra had placed at the disposal of the Grand Allied Joint Staff, crowned a low cliff overlooking the Cerulean Ocean to the west. The ocean extended around the globe in that direction, covering the opposite hemisphere where the permanent tidal bulge created by the companion planet Eden submerged all but a few scattered chains of islands, including New Atlantis, where LeBlanc's intelligence outfit had its isolated digs.

He leaned on the balustrade and gazed westward. Alpha Centauri A hung at its protracted afternoon, but the clouds had rolled in to cover it, and there was a low rumble of distant thunder. Heavy weather coming, he thought with a small fraction of his mind, while the rest of it sought to organize his thoughts. Finally, he turned to meet Murakuma's gaze, which had never left him.

"Have you had a chance to see Nobiki?" he began lamely. Murakuma's older daughter was serving with Alpha Centauri Skywatch. LeBlanc hadn't actually spoken to her in over two months, however, and looking at the mother he felt a sudden pang of guilt over the neglect of his semiofficial uncle's duties to the daughter.

"No." Murakuma shook her head unsteadily. "I hope to manage while I'm here. She and I have a lot of talking to do." Her eyes flickered for just a moment. "Especially about Fujiko."

LeBlanc savored the sensation of having put his foot in it up to mid-thigh.

There was no excuse. He'd just been thinking of the lost Survey Flotilla 19 earlier, and he'd allowed himself to forget that Vanessa's younger daughter had been one of those who'd vanished tracelessly into the darkness with it. He should have remembered. Should never have let himself forget the night Nobiki, despite the reserve of her upbringing, had wept for her sister on his shoulder. Perhaps it was the very pain of that memory which explained his failure to recall it now, but that was only the reason, not an excuse for it. No, there was no excuse—so he made none.

Instead, he started over. "I've missed you," he managed.

"And I you," she whispered. His heart leapt, but the accumulated hurt of many months would not be denied.

"You haven't answered my letters in a while," he got out in a very level voice, and she gestured vaguely.

"I've been . . . occupied."

"Occupied? With what, out there at Justin?"

The instant it was out of his mouth, he realized it had been precisely the wrong thing to say. Her eyes flared with green flame.

"Oh, nothing, of course! Just wait for the Bug offensive that never comes, and—"

"Vanessa, I'm sorry! I didn't mean that!" He shook his head, cursing himself for timing his maladroitnesses so close together. There were only three points of contact between the Alliance and the Bugs: the Romulus Chain, the Kliean Chain, and Alpha Centauri. There would be a fourth once the Zephrain offensive finally began, but until then only those three existed . . . and LeBlanc knew most of the human race prayed nightly to God that it would stay that way.

"Look," he said after a very brief moment, "I know you're running a third of this war! Maybe you're bored, but it's thanks to you that it's been so quiet for so long out there. The very fact that you're covering the Justin System, and that you kicked the butts the Bugs haven't got out of it—"

"Yes. So I can still look down at that planet and all its ghosts, and wonder whether they'd still be alive if I'd done . . . something different."

All at once, LeBlanc understood. He remembered the day her Marine landing force had reported the hideous death toll on Justin. The virtual annihilation—the consumption—of the millions of civilians the TFN—and, especially, its commander, Admiral Vanessa Murakuma—had been responsible for defending. The civilians they hadn't been able to defend, because if they'd stood to fight in their defense, they would have died and left the billions of civilians behind them unprotected.

It wasn't proper procedure for an intelligence officer of the TFN to hold his admiral in his arms while she sobbed her heartbroken grief and guilt, but "proper procedure" hadn't been very important to him just then.

"So you think you've been left in command of a stalemated front as a kind of exile?" he said quietly. "Because people blame you for the losses on Justin?" He took a deep breath. "Listen Vanessa: nobody blames you for that, except possibly yourself. You couldn't have prevented what happened there, and you know it. Hell, I've already told you all this in person! No one could have—and at least most of the people who died went down fighting because of the weapons and the advisors you left them. And, I might point out, if you hadn't retaken the system, the Bugs would still be occupying it. And we all know what that would mean!"

"Yes, yes," she muttered, and turned her back, turning away from both LeBlanc and that to which he was alluding. Ever since Ivan Antonov had entered the Anderson Two System and discovered the planet that had been named Harnah, the human race had lived with the knowledge that there were worse things than genocide.

The first grim lesson in that awareness had come over a communications link to an occupied planet from some forever unknown reporter's camera. The horrifying footage that anonymous witness to atrocity had recorded had been humanity's first hint that their utterly unknown, implacably advancing foes were, like the Orions, carnivores. But that same footage had also revealed that that was the Bugs' only point of similarity to the Orions, for they preferred their prey living . . . and human children were precisely the right size.

That had been horror enough for anyone. By itself, it had been enough to wrack Vanessa with guilt—indeed, to consume the entire human race with guilt and terror alike. Yet even that had paled beside what Second Fleet had discovered upon Harnah, where the local Bug population had fed upon vast herds of the domesticated animals who'd once built their own flourishing civilization . . . and who clung still to the broken fragments of that culture even in the shadow of the hideous predators who battened upon them.

And that, too, Vanessa Murakuma's heroic stand had stopped short of the millions upon millions of human beings who lived in and beyond the Romulous Chain.

"Yes," she repeated dully, gazing westward at the Cerulean Ocean. "I know all that—at least with my forebrain. But even if the Navy doesn't blame me, maybe they think I'm . . . burned out." She laughed harshly. "Sometimes I wonder if I am."

"Being bored isn't the same as being burned out."

"Maybe not. But still, I've made up my mind; I'm going to request a transfer, to take part in the Zephrain offensive."

"What? But Vanessa, that's already locked in. Raymond Prescott and Zhaarnak'telmasa are—"

"Oh, I'm not expecting to command it. I know I won't get another shot at command of a fleet. I just want to do something, in some capacity. You may be right that being burned out is one thing and being bored is another, but the fact remains that, at a minimum, I am bored."

"You're not going to get any sympathy from most combat veterans. They like being bored!" The corners of Murakuma's mouth quirked upward, and a ghost of the old jade twinkle arose in her eyes. LeBlanc pressed his advantage. "And as for being burned out . . . do you really think they'd leave a burned-out admiral in command of forces that've been built up to the level yours have?"

Her head began to nod, as though acting on its own, but then her innate self-honesty stopped the gesture. Whatever else she might think, she had to admit that Fifth Fleet had been reinforced to a size that amply justified the presence of a full admiral as CO. And she'd been able to use the time to shake that massive force down into a smoothly functioning whole, its parts commanded by flag officers she understood and trusted.

"Yes, you're right of course. And you haven't told me anything I didn't already know. So . . ." She turned to face him, smiling, and the old Vanessa Murakuma was back. "So why do I feel so much better?"

"Sometimes you can know something and still need to hear it from someone else. Especially from someone who . . ." He didn't continue, nor was there any need for him to.

The raw ocean breeze had driven everyone else inside, leaving them alone on the terrace. As he took her hands in his, the weather finally fulfilled its promise with a gust of wind and a spatter of rain, and waves began to hiss and crash against the base of the cliff.

"I suppose we'd better get inside," Murakuma suggested.

"Yeah." LeBlanc nodded. "Uh, I've been assigned temporary quarters here. They're not far."

Moving as one, they turned away from the balustrade and, for a while, left the storm behind.


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