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Pause in the Storm

Kthaara'zarthan rose from the Terran-style chair behind his desk as Ellen MacGregor and Raymond Prescott walked into his office. A week had passed since the Battle of Alpha Centauri, and the RD2s had confirmed what was happening in Anderson One.

The Bugs were digging in. Their minelayers were emplacing their own mines-and, undoubtedly, energy buoys-on their side of the warp point. Powerful mobile forces, including still more of their monitors, hovered watchfully behind the minelayers, but they remained carefully beyond SBMHAWK range of the warp point. No one was prepared to predict that they would stay on the defensive forever, but the implications were clear, and Kthaara bowed to the two officers who had been most responsible for stopping the enemy dead.

"Ahhhdmiraal MaaacGregggorr, Fang Pressscott. Be seated, please," he invited. His guests obeyed the polite command, and he resumed his own seat and regarded them levelly across the desk. "You have done well, both of you," he said quietly. "The Grand Alliance owes you and your farshatok more than it can ever hope to repay, and I-" he paused to look directly into Prescott's eyes "-owe a deeply personal debt, for I cannot doubt that among the chofaki you and your warriors slew were those responsible for my vilkshatha brother's death. There will be more blood balance before this war is over, yet you have exacted the first vilknarma, and for that I will be always in your debt."

MacGregor looked a little embarrassed, but Prescott only nodded soberly, and Kthaara flicked his ears twice, then cocked his chair back.

"You have also," he went on in a less emotionally charged voice, "bought the Alliance some additional time. Had the enemy succeeded in taking Centauri, he might well have carried through against Sol. Even if he had not, we would have been forced to retake Centauri at any price, and the losses his monitors might have inflicted against warp point assaults or in deep space could have been devastating. As it is, and despite the losses Fourth Fleet suffered, he has clearly abandoned attacks on this system for the immediate future. By the time he feels secure enough to attempt them once more, we will have three or four times your strength waiting on the warp point for him. I do not think-" he bared his fangs in a lazy, hunter's grin "-that he will enjoy any future attacks on this system even as much as he did his last."

"But that doesn't mean he won't make them, Sir," Prescott pointed out quietly. "And all he has to do is get lucky once."

"Truth, Fang Pressscott," Kthaara acknowledged. "And it will remain true until we are able to take the offensive to them once more. Hopefully," a cold, bleak hatred glowed in the Orion's slit-pupilled eyes, "on our terms this time,"

"You're referring to Zephrain, Sir?" MacGregor asked, and her eyes were troubled when Kthaara nodded. "With all due respect, Sir, I'd think that what happened here-what almost happened here-gives even more point to the fears of what might happen to Rehfrak if we attack through Zephrain and fail."

"Truth," Kthaara agreed once more. "There are many who would agree with you, Ahhhdmiraal, and I share your views in great part, as well. There will be no precipitous attacks. This war has lasted for three and a half of your years, almost seven of my people's, and the ghosts of Kliean will not soon be forgotten by any of us. It will take time to prepare our blow, for we must first build our own monitors. Yet I feel it is particularly important that I, as the Khan'a'khanaaeee's representative to the Joint Chiefs, press for the earliest possible date for such an attack. Above all, we dare not allow these creatures leisure to press their own exploration until they find the equivalent of Zaaia'pharaan and a blow such as the one you have just stopped falls unopposed upon one of our core systems. I recognize the need to prepare carefully, however hard inactivity comes to one of the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee in war, yet we must not allow ourselves or our superiors to forget that the breathing space you and your valiant warriors have bought can be only a pause in the storm . . . and that it must be allowed to linger no longer than absolutely necessary."

He gazed at the two human admirals, and they nodded back soberly.

"I am glad you agree," he said after moment, "for you both will have major parts to play. From what I have heard from your admiralty, you, Ahhhdmiraal MaaacGregggorr, will soon be confirmed as Sky Marshal and designated as the Federation's permanent representative to the Joint Chiefs." MacGregor hissed in shock, sitting suddenly very straight in her chair, and Kthaara gave another lazy Orion smile. "You have earned it, Ahhhdmiraal," he told her. "Besides, you remind me in many ways of a younger Eevaahn'zarthan . . . although you still have much to learn of the proper way to describe politicians. Still," he permitted himself a purring chuckle, "your new position will no doubt provide sufficient exposure to them to hone your vocabulary."

"I-" MacGregor started to speak, then closed her mouth and settled for a nod, and Kthaara looked at Prescott.

"For you, Raaymmonnd'telmasa, there will be another task," he said quietly. "As you know, our original plan for the Zaaia'pharaan operation would have placed you in command of its battle-line under Ahhhdmiraal Antaanaav while Zhaarnak'telmasa commanded its carriers. That will not now be possible, but after much discussion with my colleagues of the Joint Chiefs, we have decided that you will command the entire operation in Eevaahn's place. I believe he would have wished it that way . . . and I can think of no officer whom I would prefer to see in that position. Fang Zhaarnak will, of course, be made available to you as your second in command."

"Thank you, Sir," Prescott replied in the Tongue of Tongues, and Kthaara nodded, then inhaled deeply.

"None of that will be happening anytime soon, however," he said more briskly. "In the meantime, I feel confident that we can keep both of you suitably busy right here, overseeing Centauri's defense and helping me kick the droshokol mizoahaarlesh of our various research and shipbuilding commands into action. And, I fear," he bared just the tips of his fangs, "making occasional public appearances with our highly respected political leaders."

Prescott groaned aloud, and Kthaara laughed.

"Come now, Raaymmonnd! I can even promise you a special treat this afternoon, for First Fang Ynaathar's personal representative will be passing through Centauri tomorrow, and he has been invited to address your Naval Oversight Committee. I realize how much you dislike interviews and politician's speeches, but I believe you and Ahhhdmiraal MaaacGregggorr will both take particular pleasure from Fang Ulaahkhaa's speech. You see, Fang Ulaahkhaa has served as a member of our equivalent of your Naval Oversight Committee, and I fear he is somewhat of the old school. He is also known to share Eevaahn'zarthan's view of politicians, and he continues to be known for the, ah, blunt, plainspoken fashion in which he expresses his views. I mention this only because I understand that both Msss. Wisssterr and Mr. Waaaldeccck will be attending his speech, and-" the big Tabby's smile took on an almost seraphic quality "-I will be most interested to hear how the interpreters render his remarks for them."



* * * | In Death Ground |



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