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CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE The Final Option

"Good Lord!" Winnifred Trevayne blinked at the technical read-outs on the screen. "What in heaven's name is that?"

Admiral Lantu was silent-he'd said very little for days-but Colonel Fraymak snorted at her other elbow. The colonel had read Starwalker's records for himself, and the stance he'd taken largely out of respect for Lantu had been transformed by an outrage all his own as he threw himself wholeheartedly into collaboration with his "captors."

"That, Commander," he said now, "is an Archangel-class strategic armored unit."

"The hell you say," General Shahinian grunted. "That's a modification of an old Mark Seven CBU." Trevayne looked blank. "Continental bombardment unit," Shahinian amplified, then frowned. "Wonder where they got the specs? Unless . . ." He grunted again and nodded. "Probably from Ericsson. I think I remember reading something about BuCol giving colonial industrial units military downloads after ISW-1 broke out." He made a rude sound. "Can you see some bunch of farmers wasting time and resources on something that size?" He shook his head. "Just the sort of useless hardware some fat-headed bureaucrat would've forgotten to delete."

"I've never seen anything like it," Trevayne said.

"You wouldn't, outside a museum, and it's too damned big for a museum. That's why we scrapped the last one back in-oh, 2230, I think. Takes over a dozen shuttles to transport one, then you've got to assemble the thing inside a spacehead. If you need that kind of firepower, it's quicker and simpler to supply it from space."

"When you can, sir," Colonel Fraymak pointed out respectfully.

"When you can't, Colonel," Shahinian said frostily, "you've got no damned business poking your nose in in the first place!"

Trevayne nodded absently, keying notes into her memo pad. That monstrosity would laugh at a megatonne-range warhead, and that made it a sort of ultimate area denial system, assuming you planned to use the real estate it was guarding.

She sighed as she finished her notes and punched for the next display. The data they'd pirated from Starwalker was invaluable-the Synod had stored its most sensitive defense information in the old ship's computers-but the more of it she saw, the more hopeless she felt.

Thebes was the best textbook example she'd ever seen of the sort of target Marines should never be used against. The planet was one vast military base, garrisoned by over forty million troops with the heaviest weapons she'd ever seen. And while those weapons might be technical antiques, Marines were essentially assault troops. The armored units they could transport to the surface, however modern, were pygmies beside monsters like that CBU. Even worse, their assault shuttles would take thirty to forty percent casualties. Fleet and Marine doctrine stressed punching a hole in the defenses first, but not even Orions had ever fortified an inhabited planet this heavily. There was a fifty percent overlap in the PDCs' coverage zones. The suppressive fire to cover an assault into that kind of defense would sterilize a continent.

She glanced guiltily at the sealed hatch to the admiral's private briefing room. In all the years she'd known and served Ivan Antonov, she had never seen him so . . . elementally enraged. It had gone beyond thunder and lightning to a cold, deadly silence, and her inability to find the answer he needed flayed her soul. But, damn it-she turned back to the display in despair-there wasn't an answer this time!



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