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Fire wracked the skies of Thebes as the planet's orbital fortresses died.

Ivan Antonov had no intention of allowing those fortresses to figure in whatever action he finally took-or was required by his political masters to take-with respect to the planet. Nor did he have any intention of bringing his surviving capital ships within range of the weapons mounted by those forts and the planet they circled. Even assuming that the planetary defenses had not been strengthened since Lantu's fall from grace (and Antonov cherished no such fatuous assumption), Thebes was best thought of as a fortress itself-a world-sized fortress with gigatonnes of rock to armor it and oceans to cool the excess heat produced by its titanic batteries of weapons.

So Second Fleet stood off and smashed at the orbital forts with SBMs. Fighters also swooped in, their salvos of smaller missiles coordinated with the SBMs to saturate the Theban defenses. They took some losses from AFHAWKs, but the forts had no fighters with which to oppose them. The drifting wreckage to which Second Fleet had reduced the enormous Theban orbital shipyards would build no more, and all of Thebes' limited number of pilots had been committed to the captured carriers and barges . . . and died with them.

Everyone made a great production of stressing that point to Winnifred Trevayne: the Shellheads' fighter strength had been limited after all. It didn't help. She might sometimes fall into anguished indecision when lives were immediately at stake-her well-hidden but painfully intense empathy, Antonov had often reflected, would have made her hopeless as a line officer-but in the ideal realm of logic, with the actual killing still remote enough to admit of abstraction, her conclusions were almost always flawless. It was a weakness, and a strength, of which she was fully cognizant. Yet this time a misassessment of a mentality utterly foreign to her own had led her to a conclusion as inaccurate as it was logical. No one blamed her for the lives which had been lost . . . no one but herself.

It worried Antonov a little. Irritating as her certainty could sometimes be, she would be no use to him or anyone else if she lost confidence in her professional judgment. So it was with some relief that he granted her uncharacteristically diffident request for a meeting with him, Tsuchevsky, and Lantu.

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