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CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN At All Costs

Ivan Antonov walked through the outer reaches of the Thebes System with light-second strides, and occasional asteroids whirled past him like insects. Not many-the Thebans had had generations to clear away a horizontal segment of the belt, as if it had been sliced across by a war-god's sword, and Antonov walked on a "floor" of artificially-arranged space rubble, while over his head there streamed a like "ceiling." Both held asteroids in a far higher density than anything in nature, but they were principally defined by the regularly spaced giant planetoids that had been forged into fortresses of unthinkable strength. Considerations of weapons' ranges and fields of fire had created that pattern, and the precision of its geometry was almost beautiful, like a decorative tracery worked in the dull silver of dim, reflected sunlight that would have been lovely . . . save for the mass death it held.

He turned his two-hundred-thousand-kilometer body on its heel and started back toward the warp point, deep in thought. He reached it in a few steps, and the universe wavered, then dissolved, returning him to the human scale of things, facing the small group of people standing against the outer wall of Gosainthan's main holo tank.

Amazing how good these computer-enhanced simulations have gotten. Of course, this one was Winnie's pride and joy, painstakingly constructed with Lantu's help. He sometimes worried about the day when simulacra this good became commercially available-the sensation could become addictive. . . .

He shook off the thought and addressed his staff. "I have reviewed all aspects of our operational plan and can find no fault with it-except, of course, that it requires a force level that we don't have entirely in place as yet. Still, the build-up is on schedule, and that will soon change."

"True, Admiral." Lantu crossed his arms behind him as he studied the holo display Antonov had just left and gave the softly buzzing hum of a Theban sigh. "Yet I remain somewhat concerned over the one completely uncertain variable. I wish I knew what the Ministry of Production's done about strikefighter development in light of Redwing. I suspect recent events have lent the project rather more urgency than my own earlier recommendations."

He paused, and his yellow eyes met Antonov's with an almost-twinkle, half-apologetic and half-rueful. The human admiral looked back impassively, but there might have been the ghost of an answering twinkle, the commiseration of one professional with a fellow hamstrung by inept, short-sighted superiors. Lantu turned back to the holo with a tiny shrug.

"Of course," he continued wryly, "I haven't exactly been privy to the Synod's decisions since Redwing, so I can only offer the truism that knowing a thing can be done is often half the battle in matters of R and D."

Winnifred Trevayne gave the somewhat annoying sniff that, in her, accompanied absolute certitude about her own conclusions. "I don't entirely share First Admiral Lantu's worries, sir. Permit me to reiterate my earlier line of reasoning.

"I don't think there can be any doubt that the Thebans have become well aware of the disadvantages imposed by their lack of fighters, but Lorelei's defenders obviously anticipated a desperate defensive action, as proved by their crustal defense and clearly pre-planned ramming attacks. This was natural, given Lorelei's crucial nature and the fact that the best they can possibly hope for against the Federation's mobilized industrial potential is a defensive war. Anyone prepared to expend starships in Kamikaze attacks would certainly have committed fighters to the defense of Lorelei if they'd had them." She glanced at Berenson, who nodded; the intelligence officer had stated simple military sanity.

"We can therefore conclude," she resumed, all didacticism, "that three months ago, when we took Lorelei, the Thebans did not possess fighters-not, at least, in useful numbers. Given this fact, they cannot possibly have built enough of them, or produced sufficient pilots and launch platforms, to make a difference when our attack goes in next month."

She stopped and looked around triumphantly, as if challenging anyone to find a flaw in her argument.

"Your logic is impeccable, Commander," Lantu admitted. "But permit me to remind you of the great limitation of logic: your conclusion can be no better than your premises. And one of your premises disturbs me: the assumption that the Church does, indeed, consider itself on the defensive . . . or, at least, that it did at the time of the Battle of Lorelei."

They all stared at him, speechlessly wondering how the Synod could not so regard itself in the face of its disastrous strategic position. All but Antonov, who looked troubled.



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