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CHAPTER SIX The Path of the Storm

First Admiral Lantu stood on the bridge of the superdreadnought Hildebrandt Jackson, double-jointed arms crossed behind him, and contemplated his visual display. The Alfred System was a distant G0/K2 binary, and each component had a habitable planet, yet only one was inhabited. Alfred-A IV, known to its inhabitants as New Boston, was on the dry side, but it lay within forty hours of a warp point. Alfred-B I, though suitably damp, was over a hundred hours from the nearest warp point-almost two hundred from the next closest. Lantu tended to agree with the infidels; there was little point wasting time going to Hel when Boston was so much closer to hand.

He rocked on his wide feet, watching another wave of shuttles slice into the planetary atmosphere. The space about New Boston was crowded with the ships of First Fleet of the Sword of Holy Terra, but he was beginning to think his concentration of firepower might be a bit excessive. Most of the survivors of the infidels' massacred fleet had escaped through the closest warp point, to the starless nexus JF-12 and the Blackfoot System. First Fleet's battle-line, headed by six superdreadnoughts and nine battleships, had encountered exactly five small frigates in Alfred, and those had fled at high speed. Lantu didn't blame them; there'd been no point in those ships sacrificing themselves to defend an unfortified world.

He shook his head at the blue and green planetary jewel on his display. There were over a million infidels on that gem, and not even a single missile platform to protect them. Incredible.

He settled into his command chair. Most of the infidels had blown their fusion plants when his samurai infantry sleds swamped them with boarders, but they'd fought well first. Captain Kurnash's beloved Saint-Just would be in yard hands for months, and her sister Helen Borkman would never fight again. The ferocity with which the infidel battle-line had turned on him, forcing him to let many of their light ships escape despite his initial success, had dismayed him. The Synod was pleased, but it saw only the destruction he'd wreaked without grasping what it had taken for the infidels to strike back so fiercely after their surprise, and the Church's obvious contempt for its enemies worried him.

Yet even he found the total lack of defenses in Alfred . . . odd. Most of their Lorelei prizes had managed to dump their data bases before they were taken, but Thebes had learned much. Among other things, they'd learned of the "Treaty of Tycho," and Lantu was inclined to concede that only demonic influence could account for its irrationality. The original assumption that the accursed Khanate had conquered humanity might have been an error, but the infidels had certainly been seduced into apostasy somehow. How else could a victorious Federation not only have concluded peace with the Satan-Khan but suggested a prohibition against fortifying "transit" systems along their mutual frontier? It was insane enough not to destroy their enemies when they lay prostrate, but this-!

Lantu shook his head again, baffled. Of course, there were those none-too-clear references to "The Line." The Redwing System, five transits beyond Alfred, was its closest outpost, and he gathered from the scanty data that the infidels regarded it as a formidable obstacle, even though its fortifications were eighty and ninety Terran years old. But he and First Fleet would cross that bridge when they came to it. In the meantime, the shipyards could take the prizes apart and analyze away to their heart's content while Lantu tidied up by occupying all the systems the infidels had so obligingly left totally undefended.

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