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CHAPTER THIRTY Blind in the Dark

"I have grown to hate my work."

Son of the Khan Shaairal'haairaa looked up as Small Claw Maariaah'sheerino spoke. Survey Flotilla 80's commander was tipped back in his chair while he nursed a beaker of chermaak. He flattened his ears in an expression of abject misery the most skilled actor could not have bettered, and Shaairal purred a soft chuckle.

The Orion term maavairahk was not one of approval when it was borrowed from humanity in ISW-3. That remained true for the majority of the KON's officers even now, but it certainly fitted Maariaah. Yet maverick or no, he was also one of the best survey officers the KON had ever produced, which explained his rank at such a young age. Well, that and his status as the great-great-grandcub of one Varnik'sheerino, the greatest First Fang in Orion history. Personally, Shaairal suspected Maariaah had deliberately developed his iconoclastic persona because of his lineage, for it could not be easy to bear such a name. Besides, Varnik himself had been a maavairahk in his day, even if the Tongue of Tongues had not then boasted the word.

But whatever the small claw's motives, Shaairal recognized a cue when he heard one.

"And why is that, Small Claw?" he asked respectfully.

"Because it is so boring," Maariaah said plaintively. Other ears cocked on Harkhan's bridge as Shaairal's officers and the small claws staff listened. The KON's survey crews were a tight-knit fraternity in which officers such as Maariaah inspired a sense of camaraderie rare outside the strikefighter community. "We go through the warp point, we look around, we hunt for fresh warp points, and, if we find one, we go through it and start all over again. Think of it, Shaairal. If we had but reactor mass enough, we could sail forever without ever reaching the end of it all." The small claw quaffed chermaak and shook his head mournfully. "There is too much emptiness in the universe, and I have already seen half of it."

"Perhaps so," Shaairal made his voice as sympathetic as he could, "but you should not think of it in that way, Sir. Instead, think of all the emptiness you may yet be the first to see."

"Oh, thank you, Son of the Khan! You have a gift-indisputably, a gift!-for encouraging your commander."

"Thank you, Sir," Shaairal replied as a chorus of chuckles ran around Harkhan's bridge.

"You are welcome."

The small claw let his command chair swing upright and set his chermaak aside, satisfied the byplay had taken some of the tension out of Shaairal's bridge watch. Not all of it-a little tension kept people on their toes-but enough that he could now put it aside and get down to business. And, he thought, it could be very serious business, indeed.

"Are we prepared, Son of the Khan?" he asked the flag captain.

"We are, Sir. The escort and fortresses are all at action stations."

"In that case, proceed to that fresh emptiness you promised me."

Shaairal began giving orders, and Maariaah left him to it. His own eyes strayed to the master plot, and he felt his claws try to ease from their sheaths. Survey Flotilla 80's eighteen cruisers were almost lost amid the multihued lights of their escorts, and like every other person aboard Harkhan, Maariaah devoutly wished those icons were somewhere far, far away.

But they were not. Four months-No, three standard months, he reminded himself, for the Grand Alliance had decided to use Human date conventions-had passed since Lord Khiniak's reconquest of Kliean demonstrated the consequences of the botched Shanak survey. Four billion dead, an entire star system's habitable planets reduced to so much useless, irradiated wasteland. It was a lesson the Alliance would not forget, and what had begun as a war of honor to succor an ally had become something else for the Orion Navy . . . which had no equivalent of the Human concept of "turning the other cheek." The fury the Kliean Atrocity had waked was impossible to exaggerate, and the consequences for the race which had wreaked it would be unimaginable.

But Kliean had also shaken the Alliance to its core. The millions who had perished in the Romulus Cluster had been bad enough; the death toll in Kliean was obscene, and a wave of panic had washed outward from it. If it could happen to Kliean, it could happen anywhere. It could not, of course. Maariaah knew that, but few civilians truly grasped the realities spacers took for granted. All they knew was that the planets of Kliean would lie lifeless for thousands of years.

Maariaah understood their fear, but he hated how the war had slowed as governments strove to calm the panic. Every nook and cranny was to be fortified; minefields were to be sown about every warp point, however far from the front; and massive covering forces were to be organized at nodal positions. It all amounted to an enormous diversion of industrial effort and priceless warships from offensive duties, and the impact on future operations would be profound.

And it is all so pointless, he thought moodily. Even if the fears are correct, the sheer size of the fleets these Bugs commit will make a mockery of our efforts. We cannot fortify every system sufficiently to stop them, and so all our efforts will do nothing but divert desperately needed strength into public relations activities which ultimately accomplish nothing.

Maariaah was not alone in his feelings. Both the Human Antonov and First Fang Ynaathar had protested the new directives, but in vain. The political leaders-Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee and Human alike-refused to heed them, and even in the Khanate, warriors had no choice but to obey orders.

And in this particular case, Maariaah conceded unhappily, those directives actually made sense, for the warp point SF 80 was about to explore was in a terrifying location. It lay in the Rehfrak System . . . a sector capital with a population even greater than Kliean's had been.

The small claw's lips wrinkled with disgust as he considered the long dead commander of the original Rehfrak survey. Type Eleven warp points were elusive, but the instruments of the time had been quite capable of locating them. It would have required a considerable investment in time, however, and Claw Faairnaas had been in a hurry. He had skimped on the survey-acursory reading of his log made that plain-and this was the result: an open, unsurveyed warp point at the heart of one of the Khanate's oldest, wealthiest and most heavily populated sectors.

Well, at least Rehfrak, unlike Kliean, had been fortified for over three Orion centuries. Once the initial panic passed, three dozen powerful OWPs had been towed to cover the newly discovered warp point, and the KON had assembled over a hundred warships to support them.

Quite an escort for one lowly survey flotilla, Maariaah thought, then tensed as Harkhan began to move towards the invisible hole in space. Soon enough, they would know if all this military might was no more than the wasted effort Maariaah devoutly prayed it was.



* * * | In Death Ground | * * *



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