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CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE "What else are we to do?"

Jessica van der Gelder's superdreadnoughts emerged into the new system amid the final reverberations of the SBMHAWK-spawned holocaust among its warp point defenses.

Antonov wasn't advancing into the altogether unknown. RD2s had established that this system was heavily populated, which tended to confirm the conclusions de Bertholet had drawn from the Bugs' avenue of retreat. They'd also provided enough data on the defenders to satisfy Antonov that his fleet train's SBMHAWK inventory would suffice to blast a path through them.

Now he stood on Colorado's flag bridge as the superdreadnought advanced in van der Gelder's formation (he wasn't about to depart from a tradition which dated back to the First Interstellar War; the supreme commander would go in with the first waves) and saw that view confirmed. Some of the dying glows of SBMHAWK warheads were actually visible to the naked eye in the expanding clouds of vaporized metal they'd wrought, and the holo tank told an ever-elaborating tale of smashed or crippled fortresses. Extensive minefields remained, but Second Fleet's AMBAMs had already cleared paths through them.

TF 22 forged ahead, and Admiral Taathaanahk's TF 23 was already beginning to transit. Soon Raymond Prescott would bring TF 21 through. But Antonov, staring fixedly at the holo tank, had eyes only for the scarlet icons in Second Fleet's path.

"Commodore Kozlov," he rumbled without shifting his eyes, "have you been able to reach any conclusions regarding the mobile Bug forces?"

"Yes, Sir. Now that our leading elements have begun to exchange fire with them, we're getting harder data. These have to be the same ones that withdrew from Anderson One just ahead of us. The force composition by ship classes is an exact match-too exact for coincidence."

"So they haven't been reinforced yet," de Bertholet breathed. "We've caught them still trying to mobilize against us. This force is still all they can put in our path; it must be under orders to stand and fight this time because this is an inhabited system." He turned to Antonov, his excitement barely under control. "Admiral, this could be the beginning of the end of the war! If we can continue to advance, continue to keep them off balance-"

"Excuse me, Admiral." Kozlov didn't often interrupt de Bertholet, and something in her tone caused even Antonov to turn away from the plot to face her. "We're starting to get some disturbing tactical analyses from the ships most heavily engaged. They're receiving precisely coordinated time-on-target fire from as many as six Bug ships at once."

The silence lasted less than a heartbeat before de Bertholet broke it. "But . . . but that's as many ships as one of our own battlegroups! D'you mean to suggest . . . ?"

"I'm not the one suggesting it, Commander. The data speak for themselves." She jerked her chin toward the tank and the midair columns of luminous figures that told the tale of damage well beyond what they'd allowed for at this stage of the engagement. "And," she continued, "why should it be such a surprise? Admiral LeBlanc's been telling anyone who'll listen that it was only a matter of time. The Bugs have seen command datalink in action often enough, and it doesn't require any basic technology beyond their demonstrated horizons. It's just that we've come to take our monopoly for granted, as though it were somehow in the nature of things-"

"Thank you, Commodore," Stovall cut in quietly but authoritatively. He understood her accumulated frustration at the immemorial reluctance of line officers to listen to the intelligence community until after its forecasts had become fact, but this wasn't the time for her to get uncharacteristically worked up about it. "Admiral, we can defer interpreting these data until later. But it's clear that, at a minimum, our projections have erred on the optimistic side where Bug fire control is concerned. Should we implement our contingency plan for breaking off engagement?"

"Nyet." Antonov's voice held absolutely no invitation to debate. "Signal Admiral van der Gelder to press her attack with maximum aggressiveness. And raise Admiral Taathaanahk as soon as he's transited; it is imperative that he begin launching fighter strikes as quickly as possible." He met his staffers' eyes, each in turn. The Theban War lay beyond living memory for their generation, and day-to-day contact tends to rub away the patina of legendry. But all at once the tales they'd grown up on came crowding back, for this was the man who had advanced through every defense like an unstoppable force of nature, grimly disregarding casualties as he gained his objectives . . . and the nickname Ivan the Terrible.

All at once, those tales seemed very real.

"Aye, aye, Sir," Stovall said quietly.

Antonov turned back to the tank and watched van der Gelder's task force advance into a holocaust of fire unprecedented in its intensity. It soon became apparent that at least a dozen of the Bug superdreadnoughts belonged to the missile-heavy Archer class. Even with the defensive firepower of her new SDEs, van der Gelder didn't relish missile duels with six-ship battle groups of those behemoths; she ordered her ships to close to beam range while trying to stay outside the zone in which plasma guns were truly deadly. It was a difficult balancing act, performed while nervously awaiting the onset of gunboats on suicide runs.

But no kamikaze attacks came, and the reason became apparent when Taathaanahk's fighters entered the fray. The Bugs, perhaps out of confidence in the way their new datalink technology enhanced their firepower, had held the gunboats back as anti-fighter escorts, adding their loads of AFHAWKs to the tremendous defensive fire from the tight enemy formations.

Losses continued to mount, and periodically Colorado, fighting in TF 22's battle-line, shuddered for a sickening instant. Calls for damage control began to reverberate through the great ship, but Antonov never flinched. He held grimly to the rail that surrounded the holo tank and stared at the battle the tank revealed, as though it was a living being with which he was in silent communion, broken only to bark occasional orders.

Finally the balance commenced to tilt. Ships continued to emerge from the warp point, as did the reserve SBMHAWKs, which came under the control of Fleet command. Their firepower, and Second Fleet's overall numerical superiority, began to tell. Almost abruptly, the Bugs broke off in an orderly retreat, and van der Gelder's shaken task force left the job of harrying that retreat to Taathaanahk's already weary fighter pilots and Prescott's newly arrived ones.

"Admirals Taathaanahk and Prescott both report heavy fighter losses," Stovall reported as the fighting receded out of missile range and a palpable air of relief suffused Colorado. "The volume of anti-fighter missile fire seems unabated."

"It will abate as the attacks continue to be pressed." Antonov was as impervious to the flagship's new mood as he had been to the earlier tension. "Their magazines aren't infinite. And the attacks must be pressed without letup. Make that very clear to Taathaanahk and Prescott. Losses are secondary; we have nearby sources of reinforcement, which they apparently do not."

Stovall swallowed hard. "Aye, aye, Sir."

"Oh, and one other thing, Commodore. As soon as practicable, I want recon drones dispatched sunward. We already know there's a planet here that's a high-energy population center. It must be quite close to a dim sun like this one. We will, of course, proceed there as soon as the Bug forces are cleared from the system."

"You mean, Sir . . . ?"

"Yes." Antonov's expression was absolutely unreadable. "Our orders are clear. We are about to become the first in well over a century to implement General Directive 18."

* * * | In Death Ground | * * *