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CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX "Buy me some time."

Ivan Antonov sat in his quarters, staring sightlessly through the armorplast view port at the glowing ember of Lorelei. His broad shoulders were squared, but the hands in his lap were very still and his mind worked with a strange, icy calm.

There had been few data bases to capture in Lorelei, but the fragments Winnie Trevayne's teams had so far recovered confirmed every word Lantu had said, and the thought of what that meant for his fleet was terrifying.

He stood and leaned against the bulkhead, searching the velvet blackness for a way to evade what he knew must be, but there was no answer. There would be none. The price Second Fleet had paid for Lorelei would pale into insignificance beside the price of Thebes.

He paced slowly, hands folded behind him, massive head bent forward. The far end of Charon's Ferry was a closed warp point. Unlike an open warp point, the gravity tides of a closed point were negligible. Even something as small as a deep-space mine could sit almost directly atop one, and the minefields the Thebans had erected to defend their system beggared anything Ivan Antonov had ever dreamed of facing.

And behind the mines were the fortresses. Not OWPs, but asteroid fortresses-gargantuan constructs, massively armed, impossibly shielded, and fitted with enough point defense to degrade even SBMHAWK bombardments. Dozens of them guarded that warp point. Enough SBMHAWKs could deal even with them, but he didn't have enough. He wouldn't have enough for months, and if Howard Anderson's letters from Old Terra were correct, he didn't have months.

A soft tone asked admittance, and he turned and opened the hatch, watching impassively as Kthaara'zarthan entered his cabin. The midnight-black Orion looked more like Death incarnate than ever, and Antonov studied his slit-pupilled eyes as Kthaara sat at a gesture.

"Well?" the human asked quietly.

"I have studied the intelligence analysis," Kthaara replied equally quietly. "I still do not share your concern for the Thebans, Ivaaan Nikolaaaaivychhh, for the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee do not think that way, but you and your warriors are Human. You cannot fight with honor if you act contrary to your honor. I accept that. But, clan brother, I do not see how such defenses may be broken in the time you say you have."

"Nor do I," Antonov rumbled, "but I have to find one. And there's only one person who may be able to find it for me."

"It goes against all I know and feel," Kthaara growled, and his ears flattened. "Thebans are chofaki, and you ask me to trust the very chofak who murdered my khanhaku."

"Kthaara Kornazhovich," Antonov said very softly, "the Orions are a warrior race. Has no Orion ever acted dishonorably believing he acted with honor?"

Kthaara was silent for a long, long moment, and then his ears twitched unwilling assent.

"I believe in Admiral Lantu's honor," Antonov said simply. "He did his duty as he understood it-as he had been taught to understand it-just as I have and just as you have. And when he discovered the truth, he had the courage to act against the honor he had been taught." The admiral turned back to his view port, and his deep, rumbling voice was low. "I don't know if I could have done that, Kthaara. To turn my back on all I was ever taught, to reject the faith in which I was reared, simply because my own integrity told me it was wrong?" He shook his head. "Lantu is no chofak."

"You ask too much of me." Kthaara's claws kneaded the arms of his chair. "I cannot admit that while my khanhaku lies unavenged."

"Then I won't ask you to. But will you at least sit in on my conversations with him? Will you listen to what he says? I've never admitted helplessness, and I'm not quite prepared to do so now . . . but I feel very, very close to it. Help me find an answer. Even-" Antonov turned from the port and met Kthaara's eyes once more "-from Lantu."

Two very different pairs of eyes locked for a brief eternity, and then Kthaara's ears twitched assent once more.



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