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FORTRESS

Ian Trevayne stood on the flag bridge of his new flagship, in orbit around Xanadu, and watched the great curve of the planet on the big screen. That blue, cloud-swirling loveliness woke the home-calling of his blood, and his eyes swung toward the constellation Xandies called the Hexagon. There, the astronomers asserted, lay Sol.

How far was Sol from Zephrain? The question was a fascinating one for the theoretical astronomers (whose current best guess was seven hundred light-years), but of no significance whatsoever to the working spacers who traveled the mad ingeodesics of the warp lines. Yet Trevayne contemplated the sheer distances involved more often of late, deliberately dwelling on the immensity of space and time as a sort of tonic when his spirits flagged. For huge though the universe might be, Man's very presence here, in this system, was the best measure of his own stature. Seven centuries from Earth Trevayne had come, as the lonely radiation of light rode the vacuum. Surely after such a voyage as that he could accomplish what duty demanded.

He shook himself and dismissed that thought to consider the ship he rode. Shortly before the war, the Zephrain Fleet base had laid down a prototype fortress, larger even than a monitor and with far more mobility than the usual OWP's station-keeping capabilities. As far as Trevayne was concerned, anything mobile, however slow and clumsy, was a ship, and after completing it with major modifications, he'd given it a name. It was now TFNS Sergei Ortega, and it was the largest self-propelled structure ever wrought by homo sapiens-but not for long. The militant energy of the Rim had come together with the scientific wizardry slumbering at Zephrain RDS and birthed the five mammoth constructions that orbited alongside Ortega in various stages of incompletion, overshadowing even her bulk. Destroyer-sized construction ships slid between their massive ribs; tractored barges piled high with steel and beryllium and titanium from Zephrain's mammoth smelters shuttled back and forth among them; and fierce, tiny constellations of robotic welders lit their bones. Only one was even partially operational, but he'd at least decided on a name for that one: TFNS Horatio Nelson. When Miriam had asked who that was, he'd told her she could bloody well look it up.

He thought of those gargantuan monsters-he would, he supposed, probably call them supermonitors-and of the wholesale refitting of the other Fleet units, and, not for the first time, he was awed and even a little frightened by the Faustian dynamism of the Rim society. He never realized (no one did, except Miriam Ortega, and she only dimly) that it was he who had tempered that unique human metal into the terrible weapon now poised to strike.

It struck on the twenty-third standard day after Trevayne had been piped aboard Ortega.

Genji Yoshinaka (a captain, now, and Trevayne's chief of staff) scanned the reports of SBM carrier packs coming in from the closed warp point near the photosphere of Zephrain A-the "Back Door," as it had come to be called-then looked up to meet Trevayne's eyes as they realized they'd won their first gamble. They'd counted on the rebels rejecting another pincer after their earlier disaster and made their own deployment accordingly. Their mobile units-now officially listed by the TFN as Fourth Fleet-covered the Gateway, but the orbital forts which once had protected it did not. They'd been repaired, refitted, and towed across the system to join the handful of new forts protecting the Back Door. There was a reason for that redeployment, and the rebels were about to discover it.

Trevayne spoke a few quiet words, and the orders went out, setting in motion long-prepared contingency plans, both in space and on Xanadu. The fleet uncoiled itself from the Gateway in response, reaching out on the flag plot like gleaming tendrils of light. And on the planet, sirens screamed and civil defense teams sprang into orderly action. Kevin Sanders' briefing might stress the rebels' promise to avoid further strikes on populated worlds so long as the Federation did likewise, but Ian Trevayne would take no chances. There would be no mass murder on Xanadu.

He watched his secondary plot-the one tied directly into the Back Door fortresses-and his hard smile tightened as a crazy quilt of explosions erupted about the warp point. The hordes of tiny robotic spacecraft with their loads of homing missiles were taking a beating, he thought coldly. SBMHAWK carriers had always been largely immune to minefields, for it was hard for the hunter-killer satellites to target something so small, and harder still for them to catch the agile, wildly evading pods before they stabilized their launchers and fired. That was what made them so deadly against fixed defenses like OWPs . . . until Zephrain RDS had supplied an answer: a new mine with vastly improved tracking systems and a far higher attack speed. Their attack radius was shorter than for conventional mines, and their lighter warheads were largely ineffectual against shielded and armored warships, but they were deadly against the unprotected SBMHAWKs.

Their shorter range required denser patterns and there had been insufficient time to build enough for both warp points. But Trevayne and his staff had reasoned that the rebels would prefer the Back Door to the long-established Gateway defenses, and placed their limited supply accordingly.

"Skywatch says the new mines took out ninety-plus percent of the missile pods before launch, Admiral," Yoshinaka reported crisply. "Operational orders transmitted to mobile units and acknowledged. All ships closed up at action stations and redeploying towards the Back Door. All civil defense procedures implemented on Xanadu."

"Thank you, Commodore," Trevayne acknowledged formally, his eyes on the main battle display. Any moment now, he thought. . . .

The rebels received the first of several surprises as their lead units emerged to find their attack warp point still covered by heavy OWPs. Vice Admiral Josef Matucek, commanding the Republican van, watched in horror as his superdreadnoughts transited into a holocaust of close-range beam fire. Shields flared like paper in a furnace as the heavy batteries of energy weapons-energy weapons which should have been blasted to rubble by the torrent of SBMHAWKs-ripped his ships apart.

It was incredible! How had they survived? And having survived, where was that hurricane of force beams coming from? Every Terran fortress designer was imbued with the necessity of balancing force beam and primary beam armaments-the former to batter down shields and armor at close range when the capital ships came through; the latter to lacerate the hangar bays of the carriers in the follow-up waves-but those forts couldn't possibly mount anything but force beams! There was no room for anything else, and their heavy fire gutted the leading Republican ships. Fragile datalink systems collapsed in electronic hysteria under the pounding, and the superdreadnoughts had to fight as individuals, surrounded by those demonic fortresses like mastodons besieged by tigers.

But superdreadnoughts were tough. Eight were destroyed outright, and a dozen more were crippled, half-demolished, hulls glowing with the energy bleeding into them from the defenders' force beams, but they struck back hard. Their crews were every bit as courageous, every bit as determined, as the defenders, and they blew a gap in the in-system edge of the defensive ring. Neither Matucek nor many of his people lived to see it, but the follow-on wave of carriers found a hole wide enough to offer escape from the full fury of the distance-attenuated force beams.

They charged through it-only to reel in shock as every surviving fortress cut loose with the same incredible number of primaries and taught the Republican Navy the power of the "variable focus" improved force beam refined from the theoretical data at Zephrain RDS. Stressed field lenses allowed the same projector to operate in primary mode, projecting a beam which was tiny in aperture and brief in duration compared to a regular force beam. And while, like all primaries, it lacked the wide area effect of the force beam, it was a weapon to which electromagnetic shields, metal armor, and human flesh all offered equal resistance-that is to say, none at all.

The vicious beams stabbed through the carriers, crippling electromagnetic catapults and, all too often, the readied fighters, as well, and the first carrier wave staggered aside, toothless, their riddled fighter bays useless.

But even the improved force beam required a cooling period between primary-mode shots, and the rebel commander turned the full fury of his fleet upon the remaining fortresses. The Book called for intact forts to be bypassed, for the follow-up waves to flood through the holes opened by SBMHAWKs and the assault waves to draw out of range of the surviving energy weapons, but that was impossible here. Admiral Anton Kellerman threw the surviving ships of the first wave into the teeth of the big forts, and the primaries' slow rate of fire proved decisive. They died hard, but they died . . . and took half a dozen more superdreadnoughts (and six assault carriers which had no business-by The Book-in such an engagement) with them into death.

Trevayne watched grimly as the relayed scanner images recorded the destruction of Zephrain Skywatch. He'd known from the first that this was the probable outcome of a truly determined assault-and so had the Skywatch crews. He wondered how many of his personnel had died with their fortresses. Not so many as would normally have been the case, but far more than he would find it easy to live with. He'd done his best to reduce the death toll by employing as much automation as possible, but there had to be some human brains behind the robotics. There had been, and most of them had been volunteers. He only hoped the specially designed escape pods built into the fortresses had saved more than a tithe of those extraordinary people.

It might have been different if he'd dared to marshal Fourth Fleet behind Skywatch. The firepower of his mobile units, coupled with that of the forts, would have smashed the rebel attack into dust-but someone had had to cover the Gateway in case he and Yoshinaka had guessed wrong.

He studied his display narrowly, wishing for the thousandth time that even one of his supermonitors was operational, but only the immobile, half-finished Nelson was even partly so. Another thirty standard days might have changed that, but he had to fight with what he had, and, as he watched Anton Kellerman gather his shaken units back into some sort of formation amid the drifting rubble of Skywatch, he wondered grimly if it was enough. He'd been confident when he told Sanders he could hold Zephrain, but ONI had underestimated the rebel attack strength by at least a factor of three. Too many of those ships out there weren't listed in his flagship's data base. New ships, the fruit of the shipyards Sanders had warned him about.

But Skywatch had done bloody well, and that had to be a very shaken rebel commander. Virtually all of his superdreadnoughts had been crippled or destroyed outright, and his carriers had suffered heavily. He had to be wondering what fresh disaster awaited him from Zephrain's Pandora's Box, and if he could just be convinced that what awaited him was even worse than it actually was . . .

He watched a small rebel force line out for Gehenna while a second, larger one headed directly for Xanadu and his own forces, and wondered what the rebel commander would do with his surviving strikefighters? The Book called for a close-in launch to avoid as much AFHAWK attrition as possible, but he might be shaken enough to launch at extreme range. Trevayne hoped not, for that was the one thing he truly feared.

He encouraged the enemy's adherence to The Book by holding back his own fleet-including the monitors of BG 32, commanded now by Sonja Desai and very different from any other monitors in space. There were a few monitors in the rebel fleet. They must have been the rear guard, protected from the first crushing embrace of action because their long building time made them so hard to replace. But his primary interest lay with the surviving carriers as Ortega shivered, moving into a slightly wider orbit in company with BG 32. Ortega and Desai's monitors were datalinked to the immobile Nelson; they couldn't leave Xanadu without dropping the partially operational supermonitor out of the net, and he needed Nelson. He needed her badly, and he had to suck those carriers into range of her weapons before they launched. . . .

Anton Kellerman watched the plot aboard his CVA flagship Unicorn and wondered just what Trevayne was playing at. He'd once served under the Rim commander, and the one thing Trevayne had never seemed was hesitant. Yet he wasn't moving forward to engage. True, he was badly outnumbered-by at least three-to-one in fighters, Kellerman judged-but still . . .

It was possible he wanted to engage close to Xanadu for a very simple reason: he could have based hundreds of strikefighters on the planet. Yet those stupendous, half-completed hulls drifting in orbit above the Fleet base seemed to argue that he couldn't have built too many fighters. Could it be they'd caught him with his pants down? Was it possible that, despite the long delay, he wasn't ready for them?

Kellerman hoped so. His own people were badly shaken. Few of them had ever imagined an opening phase such as they'd just endured; none had ever actually witnessed its like. He settled deeper into his command chair, watching his plot, wondering, and the gleaming diamonds of his battlegroups crept across it toward the waiting wall of Trevayne's warships.



* * * | Insurrection | * * *



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