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"Courage above all things is the first quality of a warrior."

General Karl von Clausewitz, On War

Zephrain, as humans rendered the name bestowed by its Orion discoverers, was a distant binary system. Component B, an orange K8 star, swung ponderously around its yellow G5 companion in an orbit of over fifty percent eccentricity, coming as close as three light-hours at periastron. Both stars had small families of planets, and extensive asteroidal rubble marked the hypothetical orbits of stillborn gas giants which would have formed but for the gravitational havoc wrought by each star on the other's planetary system.

Zephrain A-II was Earthlike-a small, dense world with abundant liquid water and free oxygen. Named Xanadu by a humorously inclined Terran Survey officer, A-II was home to a thriving human population, but Zephrain RDS was on Gehenna, Planet A-III-a lifeless, nearly airless ball of sand not much better than Old Terra's neighbor Mars-precisely because the station must inevitably be the primary target in the system. Since Howard Anderson's day, the TFN had believed that "combat should be kept out in space where it belongs," or, if not in space, at least on worthless planets no one would miss when the planetbusters arrived.

And that, thought Vice Admiral Ian Trevayne, was a very fine policy against aliens who would lose no sleep over the incidental genocide of whole human colonies. But in a war between humans, there were arguments for placing targets like Zephrain RDS next to a city or two. Or would that have given the Terran Republic pause, after all? Certainly the murderous bastards had already shown their willingness to inflict noncombatant casualties, he thought bitterly.

The Terran Republic! Trevayne recalled a cynical query concerning Old Terra's Holy Roman Empire: in what respect was it holy, Roman, or an empire? He almost voiced the thought to the older man beside him, but he knew he would have gotten a look of incomprehension and polite disinterest. Vice Admiral Sergei Ortega was no history buff.

At any rate, there were more urgent matters at hand. Like persuading Ortega to stay aboard this ship.

They stood on the flag bridge of the monitor Zoroff, Trevayne's flagship. Accompanying her in orbit around Xanadu were the other ships of the battlegroup he'd brought through the chaos of insurrection to Zephrain. He still couldn't contemplate the journey without a feeling of awe that he had actually gotten away with it.

Battlegroup Thirty-Two had been stunned when news of the first mutinies arrived from the Innerworlds, but Trevayne had foreseen the storm and taken precautions. His personnel, even the Fringers, knew and trusted him, and his captains had been loyal to a man (or woman, as the case might be). The few outbreaks had been quelled with a minimum of bloodshed.

Only then had there been time to come to terms with the other news the light cruiser Blackfoot had brought. News of the bloody raid on Galloway's World, BG 32's home port, which had gutted the Federation's largest shipyards and destroyed, among other incidental items, Admiral's Row, where Natalya, with seventeen-year-old Courtenay and thirteen-year-old Ludmilla, had awaited his return. . . .

Doctor Yuan, Zoroff's chief medical officer, had explained the "denial phase," when tragedy remains merely unacceptable. Luckily for BG 32, Trevayne had still been in that state when a rebel fleet followed Blackfoot through the same warp point.

His orders had come with a methodical precision as ship after ship emerged from transit. There were too many to fight-but none had been monitors, and nothing lighter than a monitor really wanted to catch a monitor. That natural hesitancy to invite self-immolation had given him the chance to disengage and run, but there were few places to run as the Fringe went mad. He remembered the weary progression of systems: Juarez, Iphigena, Lysander, Baldur-where he'd hoped to break back to the Innerworlds only to meet a rebel carrier group which cost him both scouting cruisers. Baldur had been bad. It was at Baldur that he'd realized he was completely cut off from the Innerworlds, his only choice to stand and fight or head into Orion space.

The Orion commander at Sulzan had been a fool, and Trevayne was grateful for it. The Khan's official policy of neutrality should have meant internment for any TFN refugee, but Small Claw Diharnoud'frilathka had dithered long enough for Trevayne to transit out for the district capital at Rehfrak. The District Governor was no fool, but he, too, had turned a blind eye as BG 32 passed through. Probably, Trevayne suspected, because of the Khan's vested interest in an Innerworld victory . . . though BG 32's firepower might have been a factor, as well. Whatever the reasoning, the governor had allowed him to leave via the one warp point he'd really wanted: the one to Zephrain.

Zephrain, gateway to the region known as the Rim. Zephrain, the largest naval base humanity had ever built. Zephrain, where-to his relieved surprise-the Federation's writ still ran.

The people of Xanadu shared the same political and economic grievances as other Fringe Worlds, and they contemplated the proposed Federation-Khanate amalgamation with equal revulsion. But militant loyalty was bred into them, for their system had borne the brunt of the Fourth Interstellar War. Every man, woman, and child in the Zephrain System had been an expendable frontline soldier against an enemy who saw humans as culinary novelties. Between them and the Arachnids there had been only one shield: the Federation's ships. The Federation was nearly a religion to these people, and they had not been prepared to entertain a schism.

Isolated by rebellion from the rest of the broken Federation, they'd formed a loyalist provisional government. Since Admiral Ortega, commanding the Frontier Fleet elements at Zephrain, had found himself equally isolated from his superiors, he had placed his forces at the disposal of the provisional government. He was neither brilliant nor imaginative, but his integrity was absolute and he had the seniority. Trevayne had placed himself under his command.

But once the desperate race was won, what had happened came crowding back like a slow, dreary drumbeat to which the rest of his life was mere counterpoint. The realization that only Colin was left to him. Colin . . . whom he had last seen as an angrily retreating back.

He remembered the quarrel with merciless clarity. Colin had declared his sympathy for the Fringers, and Trevayne reacted with fury. And that, he thought, was because his son had blurted out things he himself felt but could not say, so that he'd been reduced to sputtering like an idiot about "Your oath . . ."

"My oath," Colin had shot back, glaring at him with Natalya's blue eyes, "is to the Federation, not a bunch of greasy Corporate World political hacks! Can't you see, Dad? The Federation you and I swore our oaths to died with Fionna MacTaggart!"

"That's enough!" Trevayne had roared. "D'you think I don't know the Fringe Worlds have grievances? But neither those grievances nor anything else can justify shattering over four centuries of human unity!"

So it had gone: the sterile repetition of incompatible positions and the final, angry parting. Now the only anger Trevayne had left was reserved for the fate which had kept him in deep space as a junior officer for most of Colin's boyhood. Only later, with more time in port, had he found that which is given to a parent but once: to rediscover the universe while first watching a child discover it. And he'd found it with Courtenay.

Trevayne made one last try as he and Ortega left the flag bridge.

"Damn it, Sergei, Zoroff's command facilities are far better than Krait's, and incomparably better protected. It doesn't make sense to keep fleet command in something as fragile as a battleship-and you bloody well know it!"

Ortega smiled wearily. He followed Trevayne's advice on most things, but on this he had his heels dug in and there was no moving him.

"Ian, Krait's been my flagship ever since I've been out here. Most of my people are from the Rim, and we've gotten to know one another, they and I. But if I transfer to Zoroff, no matter why, they'll think I don't trust them anymore . . . and they won't trust me. Things are chaotic enough; let's disturb routine as little as possible."

He paused for a moment, then resumed as if reluctantly.

"And don't start again on my allegedly indispensable personal acquaintance with the key people in the provisional government. We both know the Rim is still pretty volatile and that we'll probably have to proceed under martial law in one form or another."

"Now you're underestimating these people," Trevayne demurred. "They know better than most what war is about, and they put together the provisional government because they're loyal. So you are important because of your connections with it. Why, your daughter's one of its founders! There's no need to bypass it. Let's just give it a chief executive who represents the Federation and has extraordinary powers for the emergency. My legal officer and I have come up with a precedent: a captain who assumed emergency powers as temporary military governor of the Danzig System during the Theban War and was upheld afterward. We'll declare you-oh, say Governor-General of the Rim for the duration."

He held up a hand against the objections that were halfway out of Ortega's mouth.

"If the Assembly doesn't like it, they can say so when contact is reestablished. But for all we know, Sergei, the Rim is all the Federation that's left. Old Terra could have fallen into a black hole last month, and we'd have no way of knowing it. We're on our own out here, and we'd better start acting accordingly. That's why you're so bloody important . . . because you're one of these people's own, at least by adoption!"

Ortega opened his mouth, then closed it. Finally he shook his head.

"For God's sake, Ian, you're moving too fast for me again! Let's at least defer this until the immediate threat is past."

The "immediate threat" was, of course, the rebel attack that must come, sooner rather than later. Not because of the mammoth building and refitting facilities. Not even because Zephrain held the "Gateway," the warp point which was the Rim's only practicable link with the rest of the Federation. What made Zephrain unique was the RD Station, where two generations of brilliant minds had happily turned out the blueprints for a whole new order of military technology. They'd been cheerfully oblivious to the fact that none of it was being produced. (Who wanted a new arms race with the Khanate of Orion?) But what they'd never seemed to notice was that their quest for a heavier, longer-ranged missile had brought them innocently to the threshold of a gravitic engineering revolution that would transform more than just warfare. The memory banks of Zephrain RDS were a womb wherein a whole new era gestated-and Trevayne would unflinchingly perform a thermonuclear abortion if he saw the station about to fall into rebel hands.

Zephrain RDS was the key to the Rim. If enough of the new weapons could be put into production-and the Zephrain Fleet base was one of the two or three places in the Federation where it might be done-then the Rim would survive. And, knowing that, Trevayne and Ortega had to assume the rebels also knew it and would act to prevent it.

The intraship car reached Zoroff's boatbay, and the two admirals emerged, a study in physical contrast. Ortega was short and slightly overweight, his stocky frame and broad, high-cheekboned face reflecting his Slavic and Mesoamerican ancestry. Trevayne was tall, lean, and very dark, an Englishman with more than a trace of the "coloured" genes that the departing empire had bequeathed to the island's population in the late twentieth century. His hair was beginning to thin on top, but unlike some (including Ortega) he'd made a good job of growing the short, neat beard currently in vogue among male TFN officers. The latter caused him more satisfaction (and the former more annoyance) than he cared to admit.

"After I get back from the exercises, let's both visit Xanadu for a few days," Ortega said. "You've been ship-bound too long, Ian-getting a touch of bulkhead fever, I'd say." He grinned toothily. "Besides, I want to introduce you to some of the people in the provisional government-especially Miriam." His face took on the expression it usually wore when he spoke of his daughter: a mixture of pride and bewilderment. "She's been wanting to meet you."

"I'd be delighted," said Trevayne, not sounding particularly delighted. Ortega noticed the lack of enthusiasm and smiled again.

"You may as well resign yourself, Ian. She's like you-she tends to get her way. It's almost unnatural how much like her mother she is."

They proceeded towards Ortega's cutter, and Ortega paused as the Marine honor guard clicked to attention.

" "Governor-General'!" he snorted. Then, with a sudden twinkle, "Well, at least it got your mind off trying to keep me aboard Zoroff!"

The next day found Trevayne in the small staff briefing room adjacent to Zoroff's flag bridge with his chief of staff, Captain Sonja Desai, while his operations officer, Commander Genji Yoshinaka, described the exercises planned for the next few days. Captain Sean F. X. Remko, Zoroff's CO, attended via com screen from his command bridge. Part of Trevayne's brain listened to the briefing, but another part considered his three subordinates.

Desai listened to Yoshinaka with her usual thin-lipped lack of expression. Looking at her dark, immobile face, a blend of Europe and India, Trevayne knew she would never be a charismatic leader, but her brilliance was acknowledged even by those-and they were many-who disliked her.

Remko's ruddy, brown-bearded face nodded in the com screen as he followed Yoshinaka's comments. Trevayne could easily visualize the workings of the burly flag captain's mind. Remko was a battlecruiser man by temperament, but he performed his present duties with aggressive competence. He was a fighter, a man whose sheer guts and ability had carried him from a childhood in the Hellbroth, the worst slum on New Detroit-a planet noted for its slums-to his present rank despite the prejudice his buzz-saw accent engendered.

Yoshinaka was gesturing at the clustered display lights that represented all of Ortega's Frontier Fleet strength, except those units keeping watch over potential trouble spots throughout the Rim, as they floated near the Gateway and its fortresses in preparation for exercises with Zephrain Skywatch. Like Trevayne, the ops officer was that rarity in the TFN, a native Old Terran, and that distinction had always formed a bond between them. It was an unspoken bond-not much ever had to be spelled out for Yoshinaka. He was a deft, subtle man who stayed in the background. No one but Trevayne fully recognized the unobtrusive ops officer's importance to what Yoshinaka himself called BG 32's wa, a word inadequately translated into Standard English as "group harmony."

Remko suddenly turned a scowling face to someone outside the screen's pickup. He listened a moment, his scowl fading into tense understanding, then broke in on Yoshinaka.

"Priority signal from Skywatch, Admiral! Missile pods are beginning to transit the Gateway! The minefields are taking some out-but not many!"

Trevayne looked quickly at the display unit. Clearly Ortega had gotten the same message. Some of the yellow and orange lights in the tank-his faster cruisers and destroyers-were already accelerating away from the red lights of his capital ships.

"Captain," Trevayne clipped as he rose from his chair, "sound general quarters. Commodore Desai, we're leaving orbit immediately and proceeding to the Gateway under maximum drive."

He strode onto the flag bridge, Desai and Yoshinaka on his heels, as a com rating looked up with a signal from Krait that confirmed the orders he had anticipated.

Beneath his decisiveness, Trevayne was amazed that the rebels (he would not call them "the Terran Republic") had managed to organize their attack so soon. But then he saw the intelligence center's preliminary analysis of the forces emerging from the Gateway even as the last wave of pods launched their clusters of homing missiles to seek out the orbital forts. They were in less strength than he would have anticipated, particularly in carriers. Perhaps they were attacking before they were quite ready. And perhaps they didn't realize BG 32 had arrived? His lips curved wolfishly at the thought.

The fortresses were taking a terrible beating-not surprisingly, in light of how close to the point they'd been deployed. Trevayne hadn't liked that, but one had to work with what one had, and those forts were armed with heavy batteries of primaries. It was, in his considered opinion, a criminally stupid design philosophy, given what sprint-mode SBMHAWKs could do to any platform. No doubt it had made sense to the overly clever theorist in his safe office back on Old Terra who'd ordered its adoption . . . and who was not, unfortunately, present to share in its test by fire. But there'd been no time to even contemplate changing their armament, and the short effective range of their weapons dictated the range at which they could be deployed, so he and Ortega had been forced to settle for beefing up their missile defences as much as possible and hoping.

It was obvious that the platforms were taking murderous punishment and heavy casualties, despite the missile defense upgrades, but their primaries-those that survived to fire-were doing their intended job. Trevayne hated the exorbitant cost in lives and material, but he had to admit that they were pulling a lot of the attackers' teeth, and Ortega's battleships were launching long-ranged strategic bombardment missiles. To which they inevitably would soon be receiving a reply in kind. In fact, the first rebel missiles were already spitting back, and a high percentage of those missiles were targeting the respective flagships, for both side's fire control could pick out targets on a "first name" basis. It would not, Trevayne thought sourly, be a healthy war for the top brass.

BG 32 was still beyond scanner range of the Gateway. In some commands, the fact that the only hostile warp point into the system was beyond scanner range might have led to a certain laxness in the scan ratings: not in BG 32. Trevayne expected maximum scanner capability whenever the ships were at general quarters, and his captains had learned that his standing orders were best taken seriously. Thus it was that Sonja Desai, her usually immobile hatchet face animated by excitement, exclaimed:

"Admiral, we've picked up a trio of cloaked assault carriers! Now that we've isolated them, we should be able to catch any escorts. . . . Yes, they're coming in now: two fleet carriers and a light cruiser. The cruiser must be a scout, since she's carrying third-generation ECM. Distance just over eighteen light-seconds, heading . . ."

She rattled off the figures, then her head jerked up to dart a startled look at her admiral.

"Admiral, they're on a course about seventy degrees from ours, converging rapidly, and they seem to be coming from somewhere around Zephrain A!"

But Trevayne's mind had already gone to full emergency overload as he assimilated the data and its implications. There was only one possible answer: a defense planner's worst nightmare-a "closed" warp point. The only way to locate a closed warp point was to come through it from the normal warp point at the far end. Obviously the rebels had done just that, undoubtedly with cloaked survey probes, and now that they had the defenders' attention riveted by their great, noisy frontal attack, they'd sent this lot in through the back door neither he nor Ortega had suspected existed.

Yes, it made sense-whether they knew about BG 32 or not. Carriers to get up close undetected and launch a massive fighter attack from the rear, and a scout cruiser's scanners to provide "eyes" without using easily detected recon fighters. And the buggers should have gotten away with it. The chance of long-range scanners picking up a cloaked ship at this distance were minute.

Yet they had been caught . . . but long-range scanners were passive . . . it'd be some seconds before they tumbled to the fact that they had. . . .

An unholy glee pushed the dull drumbeat from his consciousness. The sods had their ECM set for cloak, and it took time to shift ECM modes. As far as fire confusion was concerned, those ships were mother-naked! Now that they'd been spotted at all, they might as well not even have ECM! But they didn't know that yet! If he attacked now-before they realized and launched . . . !

The stream of thoughts and conclusions ripped through his mind in so small a fraction of a second that his stream of orders never even hesitated.

"The battlegroup will alter course to intercept the carrier force. Commence firing with SBMs-now." They were still outside normal missile range-but not SBM range. "Implement anti-fighter procedures."

BG 32 reoriented itself. The four Brobdingnagian monitors lumbered into a tight, diamond-shaped formation with their two escort destroyers positioned to cover their blind zones. The attached recon group (a light carrier with two escort destroyers) took up position astern and launched all three of its fighter squadrons. AFHAWK missiles slid into their shipboard launchers. And before the maneuver was even completed, the monitors twitched and shuddered, expelling a cloud of lethal strategic bombardment missiles from their external racks. The deadly swarm of missiles flashed away, closing on the rebel ships.

"We're getting some individual IDs, Admiral," Desai reported as her screen flickered with sudden data. "The CVAs are Gilgamesh, Leminkanien, and Basilisk, sir. CVs Mastiff and Whippet, and . . ."

She sucked in her breath sharply and stopped dead.

Trevayne heard the hiss and turned toward her in concern. Her face was even more frozen than usual, and her eyes were haunted as she looked up at him over the terminal.

"What is it, Sonja?"

"Admiral," she said, very quietly, "the scout cruiser is Ashanti."

Every officer on the flag bridge either personally knew or had heard of Trevayne and what had happened to his family-and that Lieutenant Commander Colin Trevayne was executive officer of TFNS Ashanti. Heads turned and eyes looked at the admiral.

"Thank you, Commodore," Trevayne said levelly. "Carry on, please."

Yoshinaka glanced quickly at the command bridge com screen, seeing the pain in Remko's dark eyes. Years before, struggling upward through the tight, almost hereditary ranks of the peacetime TFN, the flag captain had encountered Innerworld senior officers who'd barely troubled to conceal their snobbery and others who'd displayed their enlightened social attitudes with forced, patronizing tolerance. And then Lieutenant Commander Sean Remko had found himself serving a flag officer who quite simply didn't give a damn about where Sean Remko had been born or how he talked.

And now, watching Remko stare from the com screen at that same officer, Yoshinaka understood the inarticulate flag captain's need to offer Trevayne something.

"Sir, the carriers are what matters. A scout doesn't have enough armament to hurt us much . . . and the missiles are still under shipboard control . . . it ought to be possible to . . ."

Trevayne also understood, but he turned to the screen and calmly cut Remko's stammering short. "Fight your ship, Captain," he said.

Then he settled back in the comfortable admiral's chair. The drumbeat was back, but he ignored it. There were decisions to be made in the next few minutes, and there was no time for anything else. No time to examine the new sensation of being utterly alone in the cosmos but for the cold companions Duty and Self-Discipline. No time for grief, or self-hatred, or nausea. Plenty of time for all of that, later.