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     © Copyright 1995 William R.Forstchen, Andrew Keith
     Wing Commander-3: Heart Of The Tiger
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     Prince Thrakhath stood before the throne with head lowered.
     "You failed me, grandson."
     The Prince remained silent.
     "When your new fleet left for Terra you promised that the war was at an
end, that the  humans would be finished.  Now  you return, half  your  fleet
destroyed, a fleet that  strained our  resources to the utmost to build. Our
coffers are empty, grandson . . . ." The Emperor paused
     "Empty!" His voice thundered in the audience hall.
     Thrakhath looked back up.
     "What now?" the Emperor roared. "Wait another  half of  eight years  to
build more carriers? And how will they be crewed? Too many firstborn sons of
the nobles rode to their deaths aboard your fleet."
     "They died gloriously for the Empire," Thrakhath replied calmly. "Their
names shall be enshrined in the temples of their ancestors."
     "Do you really expect  them  to  believe  that  any more?" the  Emperor
gasped. "I am talking about our survival. After your defeat before Terra two
assassination plots  against  me were barely  thwarted. The  other clans are
poised on the edge of open rebellion."
     Thrakhath looked at his grandfather in open amazement.
     The Emperor nodded slowly.
     "And if they had succeeded I daresay you would  already be dead  now as
well."
     The old warrior sighed and fell back into his chair.
     "I want the new weapon unleashed," the Emperor finally said.
     Thrakhath growled angrily. "That has never  been our way. It is without
the joy of the kill."
     "I know, I know. But this war has changed beyond all our understanding,
thanks  to these  humans. Let me make this plain to you. We  can not sustain
this war  another yeer. It is not the humans. No, I believe the reports that
they are crippled as well. We  are two fighters who have battered each other
into exhaustion.  It  will  take but one more blow to finish them.  The real
threat now is  what  we fear  lurks beyond our  distant borders on the other
side of the Empire."
     "They are stirring?"
     The Emperor nodded. "New reports came in while  you were gone. They are
still  years, perhaps  eights  of years  away,  but  they  are coming in our
direction  again. When they  arrive we  must  be  ready,  our  other borders
secured. All our resources must  now be marshaled for that threat. For  that
reason alone I order that this war with the humans be finished,  whether you
like  the methods  or not.  Secondly, and more  immediate, is the clans. One
more defeat like the last one and  I fear  the grasp of our family upon  the
imperial throne will be finished."
     Thrakhath  stood  in silent  rage  at  the  mere suggestion that  those
beneath him  could even dare  to  dream of overthrowing his  clan's rightful
claim  to rule.  The last baron who dreamed of it was  now  dead, and he had
thought the infection of this alien thinking was gone with him.
     "I demand  that this new weapon be tested  as  soon as  possible,"  the
Emperor announced. "The humans  are to be exterminated like the  vermin that
they are.  Honor  and  the taste of blood are things of the past.  Test this
weapon, and  if it  works you are to  kill them  all,  kill them all without
warning.
     The Emperor hesitated and then grinned, his teeth bared. "And once that
is  done, if any of  the  clans  dare to resist  me, we  shall turn this new
weapon on them as well.




     Shuttle Horatio Nelson Torgo System

     "ETA  for  TCS  Victory   now  ten  minutes  .  .  .  mark."  The  soft
computer-generated voice  in  his ear made  Colonel Christopher Blair  shift
uneasily  in his seat.  He didn't  like being a  passenger  aboard any small
craft, even  a workhorse  orbital shuttle like  this one. For eighteen years
now  Blair had been a fighter pilot in the Terran Confederation Navy, and he
had flown everything in the Navy's arsenal short  of a frigate. It was still
difficult to sit back and leave the controls to someone else especially when
his  monitor  screens functioned intermittently  at best. Having  a computer
read canned approach announcements just made matters worse.  If  he had been
in the cockpit  with the control stick in his hand, he would have read times
and  distances, thrusts and  vectors, with the instincts of  a combat pilot,
honed in years of almost  continuous  warfare  and the ride might even have
been infinitesimally smoother.
     Warfare  .  .  .  the  war  between the Kilrathi Empire and  the Terran
Confederation started before  Christopher Blair  was born. For nearly  forty
years now, the  two  sides had hammered away at each other, and the Kilrathi
showed no signs of letting up. Sometimes Blair wondered if he  would live to
see the war end. And sometimes he was afraid he would.
     With  his  monitor still not working, he  switched his attention to the
tiny newscreen clipped  to one arm  of  his flight  couch. Hesitantly, Blair
tapped the green key at the bottom of  the  device.  The  logo of the Terran
News  Channel filled the  screen for  a  moment before  being replaced by  a
head-and-shoulder shot  of the TNC's  best-known anchorwoman, Barbara Miles.
Her attractive features were almost too perfect, and Blair smiled fleetingly
at the memory of a shipboard bull session a few years back where some of his
shipmates  claimed   that  the  woman  was   actually  a  computer-generated
simulation.
     The recording  was paused, of course, waiting for Blair  to  tap in his
choice of news items from a menu in  one  corner of  the screen. He selected
war news, then listened as  the anchorwoman summarized recent events in  the
struggle against the Kilrathi . . . the ones that had been declassified.
     He  had  heard  most  of  it  already from previous  TNC newsbriefs  or
official  channels  at the  Confed  HQ complex on Torgo  III. News  traveled
slowly  across  interstellar  distances,  and the average  lifetime  of  any
particular report was apt  to be long, especially from worlds along the more
distant frontiers.
     His attention snapped back to the screen as the report passed from news
stories to a more general commentary.
     "Despite   recent   losses  in  several  densely   populated   sectors,
Confederation spokes-people insist that humanity maintains the upper hand in
its galactic  struggle  with the Kilrathi. However,  our sources document  a
consistent  under-reporting  of  Kilrathi   incursions,  especially  against
civilian and industrial bases."
     The woman  paused,  looking directly into  the  camera, while conveying
thoughtful, serious  concern for  her viewers.  "There are even  reports  of
Confed plans for  a  doomsday evacuation' of Earth  to replant  the seeds of
humanity in a  distant part  of the  galaxy. The question is . . . who would
go?  Who  would be left behind? And, most  importantly, who  is making these
decisions?"
     Blair cut the newscreen off with a snort of disgust. Leave it to TNC to
come up with  that ancient evacuation rumor! That thing had  been making the
rounds of ships' wardrooms when Blair was  a junior  lieutenant.  The  sheer
logistical nightmare  of a wholesale  evacuation from human  space  made the
whole idea laughable. Anyway  it  was a plain  fact  that  any place mankind
could  reach the Kilrathi could follow. There  was no place for  humanity to
run.
     Still, it was certainly true that the heavily-censored news released by
the Confederation was  slanted to hide the truth about this war. After forty
years of warfare,  that was not new. But Blair was afraid  that  some of the
top brass  were actually starting to believe their own propaganda mills, and
that was a very bad sign indeed.
     Admiral Tolwyn, for instance . . . there was a man  who badly  needed a
reality check.
     It was Admiral  Geoffrey Tolwyn who had given Blair his new assignment.
A  vigorous  man in his sixties  who  spoke in a clipped  British accent and
radiated  the   very  essence  of  spit-and-polish  military  precision   in
everything  he  said and did, Tolwyn had earned quite a reputation  over the
years  as the mastermind behind a pair of great Confederation victories, the
raid on Kilrah  and  the Battle of Terra. But Blair had served under the man
before, and he knew that a  lot of the legend was little more than luck  and
PR hype.
     Still, Tolwyn had been brimming with  confidence and determination when
Blair reported to his  office. "Things are looking up, Colonel," he had said
with a smile. "The Confederation has been making some very positive strides.
The Kilrathi are on the run at Gardel and Morpheus . . ."
     True  enough,  except  that the Terrans  had lost  three systems to new
Kilrathi offensives at the same time, and  in much  more strategically vital
sectors. And, of course, there was the loss of the Concordia.
     Blair fought  back  a  shudder.  He'd been  wing  commander aboard  the
Concordia  for three years,  until  the Battle of Earth. If  he hadn't taken
that Kilrathi  missile which left him grounded for six  long  months,  Blair
would have been  on  board when  Concordia  fought the rearguard action over
Vespus: fought  and  died. Blair had been part  of the  survey crew that had
discovered the carrier's broken hull lying  half-submerged in the waters off
the Mistral Coast.
     Concordia was gone, and so were the men and  women who had served  with
Blair  for  so  long, through so  many battles. More casualties  of the war.
Statistics  tallied up in news reports  or concealed in  the falsehoods of a
Confed press  release.  But  those  people were more than mere statistics to
Christopher Blair They had been more than comrades, more  than friends . . .
a  family, united  by the  strongest possible  bonds  of shared dangers  and
difficult service far from home and loved ones.
     Blair closed his eyes, summoning up familiar faces. Iceman . . . Spirit
. . Knight . .  .  Bossman .  . .  the  list kept growing,  year after year.
Shipmates went to  the firing line and  died, and  a fresh crop of kids from
the Academy came in to replace them . . . to die in their turn. Sometimes it
seemed  as if the war had lost all point or purpose. Now it was nothing more
than good  people giving their lives fighting  for some  chunk  of rock that
wouldn't have deserved a second look before the war.
     Christopher Blair was tired: of fighting, of death, and of this endless
war
     Fate had spared him while so many others died. Now  Blair, certified to
be ready to return to full active duty, had received his new assignment from
Admiral  Tolwyn's  own  hands.  Wing  commander  once again . .  .  but wing
commander aboard the Victory.
     As if reacting to his bitter thoughts, the  monitor finally lit up with
an external  view from the shuttle's nose camera.  Victory rode in free fall
less than  half  a  chick  ahead. She was everything  Blair expected  (which
wasn't much).
     She  was a light  carrier left over from a  bygone era, designed nearly
half a century before  the beginning of  the Kilrathi  War. With most of the
newest carriers in the Confederation  fleet either lost in action or held in
the  Terran  Defense Fleet, ships like  the  old Victory were  becoming more
common  on  the  front lines. Perhaps,  Blair  reflected, that  was  why the
Kilrathi seemed to have the edge these days.
     Even  over this distance, it was  plain she had seen better days. There
were burn  marks  down  one  side  of  her hull,  and  deeper  scars  in her
superstructure where battle damage had been crudely patched.
     One thing was certain . . . she was no Concordia.
     The monitor flickered  off  again. This  shuttle was part of  Victory's
complement of small craft, and it was clear that non-essential  systems were
getting short shrift  when maintenance  schedules were being drawn  up.  The
interior  of the  vessel was  distinctly  shabby, with faded paint,  fraying
flight  couches, and missing access plates which revealed jury-rigged repair
work.  It  suggested the  low  standards in play aboard  Victory, but  Blair
planned to see things change once he took charge of the flight wing. Perhaps
the crew of the battered old carrier did  not care enough to do more than go
through the  motions,  but if  Blair  had  his way, that attitude would soon
change.
     "Preparing  for final  docking approach,"  the computer voice announced
quietly.
     An outdated ship  and a crew  that  apparently didn't give  a damn  any
more. If Concordia hadn't been able to stand against the Kilrathi, how could
Victory be expected to even put up a fight?
     Blair  had to ask  himself, as the  shuttle slowly maneuvered in toward
the  carriers  flight  deck,  what this  assignment really meant. Did Tolwyn
expect him  to knock the ship and crew into some kind of battle-ready shape?
Or did the High Command consider that Blair and Victory deserved each other,
two old warhorses who had outlived their usefulness put out to pasture?

     Flight Deck, TCS Victory Torgo System

     The boarding ramp made a grinding  noise as it swung down to  touch the
deck. Blair winced at the sound. His  first view of the  interior of his new
home made him wince again. It was even shabbier than he  had imagined. There
was a  distinct  smell in the  air;  an odor of  sweat,  lubricants,  burned
insulation, and other unidentified  unpleasant scents.  Apparently, the  air
circulation  systems were not capable of keeping  the atmosphere  fresh  and
clean.
     He slung his flight bag over his shoulder  and started  slowly down the
ramp. Crewmen  were drawn up in ranks in the huge  open hangar area, most of
them  dressed  in utility fatigues which had seen better days, Blair glanced
at the end of the  hangar where open space was visible beyond the faint glow
of the force fields which kept the deck pressurized. He found himself hoping
that they, at least,  were maintained better than the rest  of  the ship. He
pushed the thought away, trying to keep his feelings hidden from the crew.
     A  knot  of  senior officers  awaited  him at  the foot  of  the  ramp,
dominated  by a broad-shouldered  black man with  graying hair and  the four
stripes of  a Line Captain  prominently displayed  on  his sleeve. He didn't
give Blair time to study his  surroundings further, but stepped  forward  to
meet him.
     "Colonel Blair?"  he  said, smiling. "I'm William Eisen. Welcome aboard
the Victory."
     Blair  snapped  off  a  quick  salute  which  Eisen  returned  gravely.
Theoretically, they were of  equal  rank   a Colonel in  the  Confederation
Space Force  and a Captain of the Line  but  aboard any  ship in space, the
commanding officer, regardless of rank, was always  the senior officer (even
if he was a mere lieutenant entertaining a visitor of higher rank).
     The captain ended the salute by extending his hand. He had  a firm grip
that matched his proud bearing and an aura of quiet  authority. "Allow me to
present some  of my senior officers, Colonel. This  is  Commander Ralgha nar
Hhallas  "
     "Hobbes!"  Blair exclaimed, as Eisen moved aside to give  Blair a clear
view of the officers.  Ralgha nar  Hhallas would have stood out in any human
crowd, for  he was  a Kilrathi nobleman. Tall and bulky,  he was humanoid in
form  but distinctly alien in feature, with a head  too large and flat for a
man. His body and face were covered with thick fur, and his eyes,  ears, and
fangs gave him a distinctly cat-like appearance. The Kilrathi were not cats,
of course, but they had sprung from carnivore hunter stock  with many feline
traits,  and their  ways of thinking were even more alien to humankind  than
those of Earthly cats.
     Blair could  hardly  believe that more than ten years had  passed since
Lord Ralgha, a ship captain of the Imperial Kilrathi fleet, defected  to the
Terran Confederation.  TCS Tiger's Claw was in the squadron which helped him
carry out  his  defection, and Blair (a junior  lieutenant)  had worn polish
still  fresh on his flight wings. Ralgha moved from supplying information to
Terran  Intelligence  to serving in the Space Force, and he  had remained in
Blair's squadron for  a time before new assignments took them  down separate
paths.
     Many officers were reluctant to fly with a Kilrathi  wingman, but Blair
always  found Ralgha cheerful, competent, and capable:  a fine  pilot and an
excellent  comrade. He was the  one  to  bestow the nickname "Hobbes" on the
renegade Kilrathi after encountering  the name in an ancient piece of Terran
folk art in a fellow pilots collection.
     "You know the Commander, then?" Eisen asked, raising an eyebrow.
     "Not with that rank," Blair said "Hobbes here is one of the best pilots
who ever flew  with the Flight  Corps. What are you doing wearing that  Line
outfit? Getting too old to squeeze into a cockpit?"
     Ralgha bowed slightly. "It warms my heart to see you again Colonel," he
said,  his  voice low and throaty with the  odd intonation and slight accent
Blair  remembered well. "But  I fear  now  is  not  the  time  to swap  life
stories."
     Blair  grinned. "Still the  stickler,  eh,  Hobbes?  Well,  we'll  talk
later."
     The Kilrathi bowed again.
     Eisen introduced  the department heads and senior  staff officers. They
were no  more than a blur  of unfamiliar names and faces  to Blair . . . but
still he felt heartened to know  that at least one old friend  would be with
him on this cruise.
     The captain concluded by introducing a fresh-faced young man  wearing a
lieutenant's insignia. "And  this is Lieutenant Ted  Rollins, Communications
Officer."
     "And general dogsbody," Rollins grinned. "Sir."
     "I've  assigned  Mr.  Rollins to  extra  duty,  as  your  aide,"  Eisen
continued,  ignoring the lieutenants  interjection. "At least until  you get
settled  in  and  make staff  arrangements of your own. I hope that  will be
agreeable with you, Colonel."
     Blair nodded. "That will be fine, sir. Thank you."
     "The lieutenant will show you to your quarters and help you get the lay
of the land. I  would appreciate you joining  me  in my Ready Room at .  . .
shall we say sixteen  hundred hours, ships time? That  will  give you  a few
hours to get acclimated."
     "Sixteen hundred hours,"  Blair repeated.  He glanced around the hangar
again.  Would  any  length of time be  enough to get acclimated  to this old
rustbucket of a ship? "I'll be there, sir."
     "Very good. Dismissed." As Blair turned away, Eisen spoke again. "We're
glad to have you aboard, Colonel."
     Blair wished he could have returned the sentiment, but he knew it would
come out sounding bitter and ironic.

     Command Ready Room, TCS Victory Torgo System

     "Come in, Colonel. Come in. Have a seat."
     Blair glanced around the room, moving from the door to the  chair Eisen
gestured toward in  front of the captain's desk.  He noted that the tasteful
if spartan decor and the well-kept atmosphere produced a startling  contrast
to most of what he had observed aboard the Victory.
     "So,  Colonel, I trust  Mr. Rollins has been seeing to your needs." The
Captain stood, crossing to a counter at one end of the room. "Will  you have
something to drink? We picked up a load  of New Samarkand vodka a few months
back that has a kick like a Gratha's blasters."
     "Thank you, sir." Actually, Blair didn't particularly want a drink, but
it  was  never  wise  to  turn  down  a  commanding  officer's  hospitality,
especially not on the first day aboard.
     Eisen returned with two  glasses and handed  one to  Blair.  "A  toast,
then, Colonel. To Victory!"
     They touched their glasses  and Blair took a cautious sip. "Is that the
ship or the concept, sir?" he asked.
     "Both," Eisen said,  sitting  down. Thoughtfully  Eisen  added,  "We're
going to win this war, Colonel,  and I think this old ship will play a large
part in it before the shooting's over."
     Blair tried to keep his expression neutral. "I hope so, sir."
     The  captain regarded him with a penetrating  look. "I'll admit, Blair,
she's no Concordia . . ."
     "Neither is  the Concordia  .  . . any  more." This  time  Blair didn't
bother to hide his feelings.
     "It was a terrible loss," Eisen said. "It's never easy to lose so much.
You have my  sympathies." He paused, looking into his glass.  "Nevertheless,
you're here now, and  I  expect  nothing less  than complete dedication  and
loyalty from every officer and rating on board this ship."
     "You'll have mine, sir," Blair said quietly. "But if I may speak freely
. . . ?"
     "Always, Colonel."
     "From what  I've  seen so far, you need  a little less dedication and a
lot more maintenance work from this crew."
     Eisen leaned  forward. "I'll admit she doesn't look  like much, Blair,"
he  said solemnly. "We're shorthanded in every department, and  age  and too
damn  many  battles  have  taken  their  toll . The old girl  was slated for
retirement  over  a  decade ago, but they  put her back on the line instead.
Maybe she doesn't  look  as good as  the big ships  you've served  on in the
past, but that doesn't mean she's not able to do her job. And it's the crew,
the men and women  who  work overtime day after day just to keep her up  and
running,  who  are responsible  for  keeping  us on  the  firing line.  That
dedication makes all the difference, Colonel, and even if it doesn't  extend
to slapping  on a  fresh coat of paint or making sure the food dispensers in
the Rec Room have  a full  stock of chicken  soup  every day, it still means
something to me."
     Blair didn't answer right away. "I . . . take your point, sir," he said
at last. "I'm sorry if I seem to be running down your command . . ."
     Eisen smiled  easily. "I'm used to it by now, Colonel,  believe me. She
doesn't  look  like much,  I'll  grant you  that. But  I was  communications
officer on Victory's maiden voyage,  my first assignment out of the Academy.
I've  been with her many times throughout my  career, and I guess I'm just a
little bit protective about the old girl after all."
     "I can understand that, sir. You can get . . . attached to a ship, over
time."  He was thinking of the old Tiger's Claw . .  . and  Concordia. "I'll
admit  I wasn't looking forward to this assignment when Admiral  Tolwyn told
me about it. But I'm feeling much better about it now."
     "My pep talk was that good?" Eisen asked with a grin.
     "That  . . . and finding out you have Ralgha  nar Hhallas  aboard. He's
one of the best."
     "Commander nar Hhallas? Yes, he's a good officer. He'll be my Exec this
trip . . ."
     "Sir  . . . with all due respect, that's a real waste of talent. Hobbes
is a natural-born fighter pilot. Putting him  in a Line slot .  . . I  think
it's a mistake."
     "It was his  own request, Colonel. I know his record, but  . . ." Eisen
trailed off, then shrugged. "Fact is, no one aboard will fly with a Kilrathi
on his wing."
     "Fifteen years of loyal service and a string of combat kills as long as
my arm doesn't count for anything?"
     The  captain  looked away.  "Not  with these people, Blair.  Not  after
everything they've  been  through  in  this damned war. Anyway, he  made the
request for the good of the flight wing."
     "Well, I'm in command of  the  wing now," Blair  said. "And  I want him
restored to flight status immediately, for the good of the wing." He paused.
"Not that I would try to tell you how to run your ship, of course . . ."
     "Why not? Isn't that the accepted  role of  every wing commander in the
fleet? You guys always felt  the Line was nothing but a bunch  of  glorified
taxi drivers."  Eisen's smile faded quickly. "Look, Colonel, your loyalty is
admirable,  and I'll willingly  transfer him back to flight, but the problem
still remains  who would have a Kilrathi as a wingman?"
     "I'll fly  with him," Blair  said coldly. "Even  if none  of the others
will. He's the best damned  wingman  I ever flew  with, and I have a feeling
we're going to need him if we're heading into a combat zone."
     "If  you  say so, Colonel," Eisen  said, shrugging again. "But I  think
you're  asking for trouble. Not that I'd tell  you how  to run your wing, of
course . . ."


     Chapter Two

     Wing Commander's Office, TCS Victory Torgo System

     Blair's office was  small, tucked between the Flight Control Center and
one of the wing's four ready rooms. Aside from a desk with built-in computer
links  and  a set of  monitors, it  was sparsely furnished.  The only really
noteworthy touch was the wall behind  the desk: a single sheet of transplast
revealing a view into the main hangar deck.
     As Blair entered,  Rollins looked up  from one of the desktop monitors.
"Just setting your schedule,  Colonel,"  he  said, rising to  give Blair the
chair. "So, I take it you got the full pep talk from the Old Man, eh?"
     "Something like that," Blair said shortly. Rollins was  young and eager
to please, but there was an  edge  about him  that made Blair uncomfortable.
Rollins had a cynical air  and a  sharp tongue, and apparently  felt free to
say whatever  he thought. Blair was  a skeptic himself  and often outspoken,
but it seemed out of place coming from a kid fresh out of training.
     "Well,  take  heart,  Colonel.  we've still got an ample supply of  hot
water to shower away all the bull-shit."
     Blair fixed him with a long, penetrating stare. "Captain Eisen seems to
genuinely believe in his ship  . . . and in his crew. That's a good attitude
for morale."
     "You haven't been monitoring the command  traffic the way I have, sir,"
Rollins said.  "If the Old Man told the crew half  of what  he knows, they'd
jump sector in half a nanosec and never come back!"
     "Look, Lieutenant,  I  don't  care what kind of  paranoid fantasies you
indulge in during your  down-time," Blair  told him harshly. "But I'd better
not hear you sharing them with the rest of the crew. You read me, Mister?"
     "Yes, sir," Rollins replied stiffly. "But I wouldn't just ignore what's
going on out there, Colonel. Maybe it's not just paranoia, you  know? If you
change your mind and decide you want the straight dope, you just come to old
Radio Rollins." He paused. "Might save your life someday."
     "Yeah  .  . .  and  the Kilrathi might all become  pacifist vegetarians
overnight, too." Blair looked  down at his desk. "I won't need you any  more
today, Rollins, so you  can get back to your  other duties.  But on your way
out,  would you pass the word that  I  want  to see Ralgha nar  Hhallas? And
whoever's my Exec, too, in  that order. It's time I got this outfit properly
frightened for the safety and comfort of their butts."
     "Aye, aye, sir," Rollins said.
     Blair's  eyes followed the younger man as he left the office. It seemed
ironic  for Blair to be championing the  establishment, given his own bitter
feelings about the High  Command and the state of the war in general, but he
didn't  have  much choice. Private doubts were one  thing, but doubts spread
throughout the ship by someone in a  position to leak classified information
. .  . that was an open  invitation to disaster. One sour apple like Rollins
could ruin the best of crews.
     He put aside his concerns and turned to work;  punching up the computer
files on Flight Wing Thirty-Six. They had been assigned to  Victory for over
a year  now with operations mostly  in secondary theaters and rear echelons.
There were four combat  squadrons in the wing plus  a support squadron which
operated Victory's  contingent of  shuttles, small boats,  and other utility
craft.
     Four squadrons . . . forty fighters, interceptors, and fighter-bombers.
Red Squadron flew Arrow-class point-defense fighters  designed  to fly close
escort for the carrier and other capital ships.  Though limited in range and
endurance, they were well-armed for their size. In a close combat situation,
they'd be worth their weight in platinum.
     Blue    Squadron   flew   space   superiority   fighters,   Arrow-class
interceptors.  These  had  range,  speed,  and  endurance  for  long  patrol
operations or sustained  dogfights, but they were rather light when it  came
to arms and armor. Blair had flown  Arrows before  but  never cared much for
them. He liked a heavier ship, one with teeth, but still maneuverable enough
to outfly as well as outfight an enemy.
     Heavy fighter-bombers constituted the complement of the Green Squadron.
Using the F/A-76 Longbow-class attack  craft, the squadron gave Victory real
striking power  for offensive operations. The Longbow had  a reputation  for
being underpowered and clumsy, but  it had a good combat record nonetheless.
Blair never  considered himself  a bomber pilot and had only flown an F/A-76
in simulations.
     The Gold Squadron  remained,  based  on  the  HF-66  Thunderbolt  heavy
fighter. Heavy  fighters  were used during offense and  defense  alike, with
enough ordinance capacity  to be pressed into service as bombers if the need
arose.  They  still  maintained  the  firepower   and  speed  to  be  superb
dogfighters.  He was glad to  see the Thunderbolts listed in the  inventory.
When  the  wing  went into  combat,  Blair  planned to be  flying  with Gold
Squadron in the cockpit of one of those steady and reliable old fighters. He
would have to reorganize the flight roster accordingly to accommodate Hobbes
and himself . . . .
     As if on cue, there was  a knock at  the door. "Enter," Blair said, and
the computer picked up the order, opening the door. It was Hobbes.
     Blair stood  and  met him halfway with  one hand  extended  to  grasp a
large, stubby-fingered paw in a hearty handshake.
     "It is good to see you, old friend," Hobbes said. "You are looking fine
and fit. Does this war, then, agree with you so much?"
     Blair  chuckled. "Yeah, right, about  as  much as a pair of busted wing
flaps on an atmospheric run." He stepped  back, clasping  the  big  Kilrathi
renegade by the shoulders and looking him  up  and down. "Damn, it's good to
see you, buddy. Nobody told me I'd find you aboard."
     "Nor  did  we ever  expect to see  the likes of Maverick  Blair on  the
Victory, my friend," Ralgha responded. "You must admit, it is quite a change
from Concordia and her kind."
     "Yeah . .  . it is that." Blair said, looking away. "Come on, sit down.
We've got some things to talk about."
     "Old times?" the Kilrathi asked, lowering himself carefully into a seat
that had never been built with a Kilrathi's bulk in mind.
     "Nope.  New ones. I've got good news for you, buddy. You're back on the
flight  roster,  starting  immediately,  on  the  Gold Squadron   pushing a
Thunderbolt."
     Ralgha hesitated. "But I requested  "
     "Yeah, Eisen told me. But just because you ran into a couple  of bigots
is no  reason to sit on the sidelines now.  We need you on  the firing line,
Hobbes. I need you. You'll be flying as my wingman, at least until I knock a
few heads together and show these people the error of their ways."
     "Colonel .  . ."  Ralgha trailed off. "There are many brave  and  noble
pilots on this ship, my friend."
     "When my ass  is on the line, I want  a wingman I can trust. And you're
one of the damned few pilots I do trust, Hobbes. Like I said, I need you out
there."
     "Then I shall try not to disappoint you, old friend."
     "I  haven't had a  chance  to review the rosters yet," Blair said. "You
rate as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Space Force. Do you know where that puts
you in the chain of command?"
     "Now  that you  are  with us, I will  be  number two,"  Ralgha answered
solemnly.
     "My Exec?"
     The Kilrathi nodded gravely, the human gesture seeming out of place. "I
believe that was the principal reason for the opposition to my presence," he
said "Colonel Dulbrunin was the previous wing commander. He  was killed in a
battle just before I was transferred aboard, and I believe some of the other
pilots were reluctant to serve with a Kilrathi as their commanding  officer.
Perhaps there will be fewer objections with you in command."
     "I'll  guarantee that  much. Anyone with  objections will keep them  to
themselves or I'll move them to another wing."
     "Do not  judge them too harshly. This has been a bitter conflict. It is
difficult  to avoid hatred between two such different species  as  yours and
mine, and there are few  who can learn to distinguish between allegiance and
race when the differences are so plain to see."
     "You're too  damned noble,  Hobbes. That's  the only  thing about you I
still can't deal with.  I keep expecting you to act like a  human  being and
have a hidden dark side, but if you've got one it never shows."
     "Humans, too, have hidden depths, for good or ill." Ralgha paused. "But
there are better things to discuss than philosophy, such as old  friends and
comrades in arms. How is your mate, that fine pilot and comrade, Angel?"
     Blair  looked away again, his smile fading. He  had been trying not  to
think about Angel. "I don't know, Hobbes,"  he said reluctantly.  "I haven't
heard from  her in  months. She's been assigned to some  damn covert op, and
even Paladin's keeping quiet about it."
     "I . . . am sorry if I have stirred up bad feelings," Ralgha said. "But
you  know  as well  as I do that Angel  can take care of  herself. She  will
return to you in time, if the War God so wills it."
     "Yeah." Blair nodded, but the sinking feeling in his  stomach would not
go  away. Jeannette Devereaux  (callsign Angel) began with Blair aboard  the
old Tiger's Claw,  first as a  fellow  pilot, then a friend, and then  . . .
more, much more. But when Blair was offered the wing commander's slot aboard
the Concordia, Angel transferred to Brigadier General James Taggart's Covert
Operations  Division.  Blair never  understood  or  accepted  the  decision,
prompted so she said, by her regard for Taggart (who had flown with them  on
the Tiger's Claw under the running name of Paladin). Covert Ops seemed  such
a  complete  departure for Angel,  who was usually so cool and  rational, so
completely dedicated to the science rather than the emotions of warfare.
     But she joined Taggart's outfit, and though Blair  continued to see her
(when possible), they had drifted apart. Finally, just after the  Battle  of
Earth  and  Blair's long confinement  in the military  hospital, she  simply
vanished. Paladin admitted she was on a mission  when Blair confronted  him,
but  nothing  more.  Covert  Ops  drew  the  most  difficult  and  dangerous
assignments in the Confed fleet. By now, she might well be dead . . . .
     Blair forced himself to put aside  that bitter thought. "Look, Hobbes,"
he  said  slowly,  "I don't want to cut this short. I'd like  nothing better
than to grab  a  couple of jugs  of booze in the Rec Room  and toast the old
days with you, but  I've got  a  pile of stuff to wade through before  I can
declare it quitting time."
     "I understand,  my friend," Ralgha said, rising slowly. He gave Blair a
slight bow,  the Kilrathi gesture  of  respect. "When the Captain  makes  my
transfer official, perhaps I can take up some of the burden as your Exec."
     "Tomorrow will do fine, Hobbes. And . . . thanks."
     The Kilrathi pilot had not even reached the door when there was another
knock. Ralgha ushered in the newcomer as he left, leaving Blair face-to-face
with a familiar figure, another reminder of missions past.
     The man had changed little over the years. He was a little heavier than
Blair remembered him, and there was a touch of gray in his dark hair. But he
still had the same air of brooding intensity and fire in his eyes.
     "Maniac Marshall," Blair  said  slowly.  "So you managed to  stay alive
somehow. Who'd have guessed it?"
     "Colonel Blair." Major Todd  Marshall looked  anything  but glad to see
him, and the feeling was entirely mutual.  Marshall was another  of  the old
Tigers  Claw hands.  In  fact, he  and  Blair  had  a  history together.  As
classmates  in  the  Academy, they  had been  rivals in everything  from the
flight  competitions  in  their final  year  as  midshipmen  to  gaining the
attentions of a particular young lady.
     Marshall  earned  his  running name  in the Academy from  his slapdash,
hell-for-leather flying style.  Always volatile and eager for  glory, Maniac
never fit in quite as well as  Blair. He barely squeaked through  graduation
whereas  Blair  earned honors. While aboard Tiger's Claw, Marshall proved an
unpopular wingman who was considered unreliable, even dangerous, by the rest
of his squadron. He blamed  Blair from the start for always managing to come
out ahead  in kills,  awards, and  promotions. Blair had been delighted when
the two were posted in different ships after their tour aboard Tiger's Claw.
     Now Marshall was a major, and Blair was a colonel and the  high command
or some vengeful god of fate had thrown them together again.
     "It's  been a  long  time, Major."  Blair  didn't bother to  stand, but
gestured toward the chair  Hobbes had vacated. "Sit down and tell me  what I
can do for you."
     "Radio Rollins  said you wanted  to see your Exec," Marshall said as he
took  the chair. He  smiled, but  the expression held no  warmth at all.  "I
guess that's me."
     "That was you," Blair said bluntly. "But I've just asked the Captain to
restore Hobbes to flight status, and he outranks you,  I'm afraid.  He'll be
Exec and double as CO of Gold Squadron."
     Marshall's face fell. "That damned kitty . . ." He stopped as he caught
the look on Blair's face. "All right, all right. Can't go around maligning a
fellow officer, and all that,  right? But  I never could understand what you
saw in that cat, and that's the plain and simple truth."
     "That's simple enough. He's a wingman I can trust."
     Maniac gave a derisive snort. "Trust someone who'll kill  his own kind?
There's a great piece of command wisdom for you."
     "At least I've never known  Hobbes to break formation on me the way you
did at Gimle. I need to know  that  I can count on a wingman to back me  up,
and not go  hunting for glory, then yell for help when he gets in too deep .
. ."  Blair shrugged. He had gone over this same speech with Maniac time and
again,  but it had never done any good. He  didn't imagine the man was going
to change now. "When it comes right  down to it, Major, I can choose whoever
I want as my wingman. That's one of the privileges of rank, you know."
     "Yeah,"  Marshall  said, his  tone hollow, bitter.  "Yeah,  those  gold
tracers on your collar look real sharp, Colonel  Blair, sir. Bet you have to
stay up pretty late at night to keep em polished so pretty.
     "No, I don't," Blair said coldly. "I assign majors to do it for me."
     "The difference in our rank, sir, is just a formality,"  Marshall said,
standing up. "We both know who's the better man in the cockpit."
     "That's right.  We both do. And that's what has been eating at you ever
since the Academy, isn't it, Major?"
     Maniac's look was  one of pure hatred. "Will there be anything else . .
. sir? Or may I be dismissed?"
     "That's all,'  Blair said, turning away to look through the window into
the hangar.  He waited until  the door  slid shut behind Marshall,  then  he
wearily sat down.
     Blair leaned back  in his  chair  and closed his eyes, trying  to  calm
himself after  the angry  confrontation. He had  wanted to sit down with the
wing XO to get an  idea  of the unit's strengths and weaknesses in equipment
personnel, and  experience. But seeing  Marshall  after  so  many  years had
driven it all out of his mind, and he had let his personal feelings overcome
his judgment. Maniac always had a talent for bringing out the worst in him.
     Blair  turned back  to  his  desktop  computer and called up the wing's
personnel files on his  screen. He picked Marshall's records first. Studying
them, he began to understand the man's belligerence a little better.
     He'd been  the Exec  under  Colonel  Dulbrunin with enough seniority to
hope  for a promotion  to  lieutenant colonel  and to become  Victory's wing
commander. No doubt the  arrival of  Hobbes had been a blow. Blair  was sure
now that Marshall was behind the ill feelings toward the Kilrathi  renegade,
since Hobbes had snatched his chance at commanding the wing.
     Then Hobbes bowed  out,  and Blair  arrived aboard  to dash  Marshall's
hopes again. No wonder the man was feeling bitter . . . .
     Another  detail  caught his  eye. Marshall  was  also  the  CO  of Gold
Squadron. Blair  had decided to have  Hobbes take over that command, too. It
was one more blow to Maniac's fragile ego.
     He could reconsider the decision, of  course, and let Marshall keep his
squadron. But if Hobbes  was  going to  be Blair's wingman, the  two of them
would  have  to  fly  with  the same squadron,  and  Blair  still  felt more
comfortable  sticking with the  heavy  fighters  in Gold Squadron. Should he
reshuffle the roster to put Marshall in command  of another squadron? Maniac
certainly had the seniority,  even  if Blair doubted he  had the temperament
for squadron command.
     But which  squadron  could  Maniac  handle  best? He was  not suited to
command  bombers,  and  point  defense  work required  a  leader  who  could
subordinate  himself totally  to  the  needs  of the  fleet. Marshall  would
probably be happiest in command  of the interceptors of  Blue Squadron,  but
Blair  shuddered  at the  thought of  putting  Victory's  crucial long-range
strike fighters in Maniac's  hands. Patrol  duties would take  Blue Squadron
out  of reach of higher authority, and it needed a man  with a  good head on
his  shoulders who knew when to  fight when  to break away,  and when to get
word  of a distant contact  with the  enemy  back  to the carrier. No, Major
Marshall wasn't really suitable for  any  other squadrons. Colonel Dulbrunin
probably  made  the  same decision when making his original assignments. The
kind  of utility  combat  work  which heavy fighters drew  was  the  sort of
operation Maniac was least likely to knock off course if he lost his head in
a fight.
     Well, that  meant he would  have to stay where  he was,  at least until
Blair could  see if age and experience had mellowed  Maniac, at least in the
cockpit if not in  his dealings  with others. The  man would  just  have  to
accept flying under Blair and Hobbes.
     But Blair knew it would make a tough job much more difficult for all of
them.

     Flight Wing Officer's Quarters, TCS Victory Torgo System

     Blair was studying his predecessor's logs on the monitor above his bunk
when  he heard  a knock. "Enter," he  said sitting up as the door opened  to
reveal Lieutenant Rollins.
     "Sorry to  bother  you so  late, Colonel,"  Rollins  said,  "but  we're
boosting to  the  jump  point,  and  the  Comm  Shack's  been  buzzing  with
last-minute incoming traffic all evening. I just got off shift."
     "We've got orders, then?"
     Rollins nodded. "Orsini System. It's been pretty quiet up til now, but
the  scuttlebutt has  it the  cats have been moving in  lately.  Guess we're
supposed to make em feel safe or something."
     "Mmph." Blair stood  up. "Okay, so we're jumping and  you've been busy.
Is there something you needed from me, Lieutenant?"
     "I . . . wanted to make sure you got this. It came in with some  of the
other message traffic. Rerouted from Confed HQ, for you." He  handed Blair a
holo cassette. "Er . . . here it is, sir."
     "You don't  have to act so apologetic,  man," Blair  said realizing the
cause  of  his  embarrassed  manner. "Comm officers  see  a lot of  personal
messages.  I'm  not going  to  bite  off  your  head  for reading  my  mail,
Lieutenant."
     "Er . . . yes, sir. Thanks." Rollins left, still looking flustered.
     Blair set the cassette on the  small table beside the  bunk and touched
the message stud. Letters formed in the air above the device, spelling out a
message. The block of code numbers dated it to more than six months earlier,
before the Battle of Earth. That was typical enough for messages that had to
chase their intended recipients through space from one planet or one ship to
another.


     Colonel Christopher Blair
     Terran Confed Armed Forces
     TCS Concordia


     TCS Victory

     The words dissolved after a  moment, and an image formed. It was Angel,
still heart-stoppingly beautiful, looking out at him with the expression  he
remembered so well.
     "Hello, mon ami," she began, flashing her brightest smile. "I  hope the
fight  goes  well for you and  all  the others aboard Concordia. I have been
given new  orders to head  up a mission,  so  I'm afraid we must be  apart a
little longer. Always remember je t'aime, je t'aime . . . I love you . . ."
     Blair stabbed at the switch, cutting the hologram off while tears stung
his eyes. "Je t'aime, Angel," he said softly.  "I love you, wherever you are
. . . ."




     Flight Control, TCS Victory Orsini System

     "Now hear this,  now hear this," the  shipboard tannoy blared. "Prepare
for Flight Operations. Flight Deck personnel to launch stations."
     Blair's  stride  was  brisk and purposeful  as  he entered  the  Flight
Control Center,  his helmet under one  arm.  It was good to be back in his G
suit again, even if  the mission at hand was no more than  a routine patrol.
In  his  two weeks aboard the Victory,  he  had  been unable  to strap  on a
fighter once, but today he would finally  get a chance to be free of  a wing
commander's console work and move among the stars where he truly belonged.
     Chief Technician Rachel Coriolis looked up from a computer display with
a  grin. He had met her only once, in a general meeting of the flight wing's
support personnel, without time  to exchange more than a few words. That was
Blair's  problem ever  since he  took command  of  the wing: plenty of work,
reports,  plans,  forms,  and  requisitions  to be  filled out, but precious
little chance to know the rest of the crew.
     Chief Coriolis  was Gold Squadron's senior  crew chief, and as such led
the team of technical  experts who  maintained Thunderbolt 300, the  fighter
set aside for Blair's use. She  was young  not yet thirty  and attractive,
though her customary  baggy coveralls and the inevitable  layer of dirt  and
grime streaking her clothes and face tended to obscure her beauty. According
to  her personnel  file, she was  a competent technician  with an  excellent
service record. Blair hoped she would live up to those reports.
     "Colonel," she said,  straightening as he approached. "They say  you're
taking this patrol yourself. Your bird's just about ready."
     "Good," Blair responded.
     "Kinda strange seeing  the big brass flying  a routine patrol, though,"
she continued, apparently not affected by rank or seniority. "I don't  think
I ever saw  Colonel Dulbrunin fly  anything short  of  a  full  all-fighters
magnum launch."
     "I'm  not Dulbrunin,"  Blair  told her.  "I like  to get a few hours of
flight time as often as possible, so don't be surprised if you discover that
my bird needs more servicing than you planned."
     She  gave  a nod  in  satisfaction.  "Glad  to hear  it, skipper.  Your
predecessor   knew  how   to  fly  a  console  well  enough,   a   top-notch
administrator. But I like pilots who fly the real thing. Know what I  mean?"
She cocked  her  head to one side. "Are you really taking  on Hobbes as your
wingman?"
     "You got a problem with that, Chief?" Blair growled.
     "No,  sir,"  the technician said, shaking  her head. "I say it's  about
jolly well  time.  That cat's one hell of a good pilot, and I'm  glad to see
him back on the roster."
     Blair studied her for a long moment, then gave  an approving nod. "Glad
to hear  it, Chief," he  said, warming to her. At least there was someone on
the  flight deck  who  appreciated Ralgha  nar Hhallas.  Her  praise sounded
sincere. Rachel Coriolis struck  him as the kind of tech  who judged a pilot
on  how he handled his  fighter, not  on superficial  things like species or
background. "So . . . give me a status report on my bird."
     Using a remote, she switched on a set of  viewscreens filled  with data
readouts  on  the  fighter. "Here she is one  Thunderbolt; prepped,  primed,
locked, and loaded . . . and ready to kick some serious ass out there."
     Blair studied the data display for a few moments then gave an approving
nod. "Looks good, Chief," he finally said. "What about the ordinance?"
     "All taken care of,  skipper. The Captain  downloaded the mission specs
while  you  boys were finishing  your  briefing.  I doped  out  the  weapons
requirements and loaded her. You're all set for this one.
     Blair frowned. "Better let me review the load, Chief," he said slowly.
     "Typical," she said,  calling  up the ordinance display  on  one of the
monitors. "You flyboys just don't think anybody else knows what you're going
to need out there."
     He  checked the  weapons mix,  then  reluctantly  nodded.  "Looks  good
enough," he admitted.
     "Maybe next time you'll trust your Auntie Rachel with the loadout, huh,
skipper?"  She gave  him a quick smile. "I promise you, Colonel, I'll  never
disappoint you."
     "I'll bet you  won't," he said. Blair took a  last look  at the fighter
stats then turned toward the door. It was time to launch.
     "Good luck, skipper," the technician said, "and Godspeed."
     He  left Flight Control and  took the  elevator to the next level down,
emerging  on the main hangar  deck in the midst of a confusion of people and
machines engaged in  the familiar purposeful chaos of pre-launch operations.
Hobbes  was already there,  with  his  helmet  on  but  his  faceplate open.
"Fighters up, Colonel," he said seriously. "Ready to fly."
     "Then let's get out there," Blair responded, lifting his own helmet and
settling it over  his head carefully. His flight suit and gauntlets made the
motion awkward, but Hobbes helped him get seated and dogged down.  A pair of
technicians bustled around guiding  them toward the fighters resting side by
side in their launch cradles.
     Blair climbed into  the cockpit, his stomach churning the way it always
did in anticipation of a launch, as techs supervised the final preparations,
checked  the seals  on the  cockpit canopy, removed external  power and fuel
feeds, studied  readouts,  and compared  them with the  incoming  data  from
Flight Control. Blair ran through his own checklist.
     When all the lights on his panel glowed green,  he nodded his head  and
lowered  his  faceplate  into  place. He switched  his radio  to the command
channel. "Thunderbolt three-double-zero," he said. "Ready for launch."
     "Flight Control,"  Rachel's  voice sounded  in  his  ear.  "Confirming,
Thunderbolt three zero zero ready for launch."
     Blair's faceplate came alive with a Heads Up Display of  the  fighter's
major  systems.  Seconds  ticked  away on  a countdown  clock in  the  lower
left-hand  corner  of  the HUD  readout.  The time seemed  to drag  into  an
eternity, but at last  the readout flashed  through the  final few  seconds.
Blair  took a firm grip on the steering yoke with  one hand while the  other
rested on the engine throttles. Three . . . two . . . one . . .
     Blair  rammed  the  throttles  forward  and  felt the  engines  engage.
"Thunderbolt  three-double-zero, under power," he reported. Then he was free
of the carrier, climbing outward into the star-studded depths of open space.
     A moment later Hobbes came on the line, his voice slightly distorted by
the  computer  reconstruction  of  his  encoded  transmission.  "Thunderbolt
three-zero-one, under power."
     "Roger that,  three  hundred,  three-o-one," the  voice  of  Lieutenant
Rollins rang  loudly  in his headphones. "Your mission designation  is Snoop
Flight, repeating Snoop Flight."
     "Confirming,"  Blair  replied.  "Snoop  Leader,   establishing   flight
coordinates now." As Hobbes added his  own  response,  Blair tapped a key to
check the  autopilot's  flight  plan on  the  navcomp.  A  flight from  Blue
Squadron had detected signs of possible enemy activity on long-range sensors
around three different  coordinate points, but pursuant  to standing  orders
had  not investigated closely. Instead, they brought their information  back
to the Victory. Now Eisen wanted those potential trouble  spots checked more
thoroughly, with Gold Squadron's heavier Thunderbolts  doing the scouting in
case they ran into opposition.
     A routine patrol . . . except that Blair had long since learned that no
mission was ever entirely routine.
     The two fighters flew in close formation, side by side, with  a minimum
of  conversation passing  back and forth  between  them or the  carrier. The
first  of the three target  areas were  free  of  enemy ships, although some
random space debris did show up on sensors to  suggest what the first flight
had  detected.  They remained  in the area  long enough  to double-check all
their sensor  readings, then  set course for the second navigation  point on
the flight plan.
     "Range  to  navpoint,   eight  thousand  kilometers,"  Hobbes  reported
finally. "Switching to full-spectrum sensor sweep . . . now."
     "Confirmed," Blair replied  tersely,  activating his own  sensor array.
What  seemed like extremely  long  seconds  passed  as the computer began to
process the information pouring  through  the system. The tracking screen in
the center of his control console lit up with a trio of red lights.
     "Fighters,  fighters,  fighters,"  Hobbes  chanted  over  the  tactical
channel.  "I read three fighters,  bearing  three-four-six  by zero-one-one,
range two thousand, closing."
     Blair checked his own target  readouts. "Confirmed. Three bad guys, two
of us. But I'll bet you  they're only a little bit  nervous at the odds!" He
paused  for  a  moment,   studying   the  sensor  data.  "I  read   them  as
Dralthi-class, probably type fours."
     "Then  they  should offer  only  a  mild  challenge," Hobbes  said. The
Dralthi  IV was  a good  craft, but classed  as a  medium fighter with  less
weaponry and lighter armor  than the  Terran  Thunderbolt.  "May I have  the
honor of the first engagement, Colonel?"
     Blair frowned. His instincts were at odds with what he could see on the
screen. Something wasn't quite right . . . "Wait,  Hobbes," he said. "I want
to finish the scan."
     The  sensors  covered  the whole volume around  the Terran  fighters to
their  extreme  limits,  but  the computer was  still crunching  numbers and
trying  to extrapolate detailed information from their readings. There was a
single, massive asteroid near the  same  bearing as  the enemy fighters, yet
closer  and several  degrees to  port. An asteroid  that  size  could hold a
Kilrathi depot or advanced base, perhaps armed . . . .
     "Steer clear of that rock, Hobbes," he said,  still  frowning. "I don't
like the  looks of it.  Let's keep in supporting distance until we see which
way those boys are going to break."
     "Acknowledged," Ralgha responded. Blair thought he could detect a  note
of disappointment in the alien's voice.
     "Going to afterburners," Blair said, pushing the throttles into the red
zone and  feeling  the  press of acceleration  on his  chest.  Hobbes stayed
close, matching his course and speed.
     "They see us, Colonel," Ralgha reported a moment later.
     On Blair's targeting  screen, he  could see the three fighters breaking
formation. It looked  as if they were getting  ready  for a typical Kilrathi
attack  pattern,  with  individual  ships hurling themselves  into action in
succession rather than attempting a coordinated assault. That was the legacy
of their carnivore forebears:  the  instinct to  fight as individual hunters
and warriors rather than group  together in a mass effort. Blair knew Hobbes
was  feeling the pull of that  same age-old instinct, but he also  knew  his
friend's  rigid sense  of  duty and  self-control,  which  would hold him in
formation until he was released.
     The first Dralthi accelerated toward them,  driving at  maximum thrust.
Over the open  radio channel  the enemy  pilot screamed a  challenge.  "Die,
hairless apes!" translated the  communications computer. "Die as  you  live,
without honor or value!"
     "I am no ape,"  Hobbes replied. "I am Ralgha nar Hhallas, and my  honor
is not to  be  questioned by a Kilra'hra like you!"  Blair's wingman  rolled
left, opening fire on  the Dralthi  with blasters and  a  pair of  anti-ship
missiles.
     The lead Kilrathi fighter dodged and juked, eluding one of the missiles
and  increasing thrust  as it turned  onto  a new heading  angling away from
Hobbes.  The  other  missile  scored a  hit  on shields already weakened  by
blaster fire, raising a cloud of  debris  amidships as the blast ripped into
armor plating.
     Blair started to follow his comrade's course, ready to maintain a close
formation and keep enemies  off Ralgha's back. But he spotted  motion on his
sensor  grid,  and  swore softly.  "Damn it, the other  two aren't  sticking
around to fight," he said.
     "Pursue them if you wish, my friend," Hobbes replied grimly. "I wish to
finish this one."
     He hesitated  a  moment. Blair  was a  firm  believer in  the  value of
formation fighting  and  mutual  support  between  wingmen, but  the mission
profile  called for the Terran fighters to  eliminate as  many opponents  as
possible once an engagement began. The idea was to sweep each of the suspect
areas  clean  and  not  to  allow escaping  Kilrathi  to regroup  or  summon
reinforcements to redeem an  initial defeat.  If those two broke  off, there
was no telling how many of their friends they would contact.
     Blair changed his vector to follow  the two ships as they veered toward
the shelter of the  asteroid he had noted earlier. On their present heading,
they  would not pass  close enough to  pose  any particular danger to either
pursued  or  pursuer. If they could  put the irregular lump of rock  and ore
between  their ships and Blair's Thunderbolt, they  might be able to confuse
his sensors long enough to make their escape.
     On their  present course they were  opening  the range  separating them
from the  first  Dralthi, which  was running in the  opposite direction with
Hobbes close on the enemy  fighter's tail.  That was one less thing to worry
about.  Apparently  the  Kilrathi  had  no great interest in rescuing  their
comrade.
     Blair kept one eye on his fuel gauge and the other  on the enemy ships.
High-thrust operations burned fuel at a terrible rate, and the last thing he
needed  now was to use  so  much of his reserve that he wouldn't  be able to
make  it home. Judging from the  heat outputs of the  two Dralthi, they were
not using their  full thrusters.  They  were  probably already low  on fuel,
nearing the end  of an extended patrol.  That meant he could still close the
gap and engage them . . . .
     Then  the enemy exhaust plumes started burning hotter.  The  two  craft
suddenly began to swing around, their symbols changing quickly on his sensor
readouts.  They were  turning, but not  to run.  This  time they  planned to
attack.
     In the  same  moment,  three more  targets appeared on Blair's screens,
closing from starboard.
     These,  too, were  Dralthi. Blair cursed.  The new  arrivals  had  been
lurking in the  lee  of that asteroid, dangerously  close to the huge  rock.
Evidently  the Kilrathi picked up the first patrol flight and realized there
would  be  a  follow-up mission,  so they  organized  an ambush. With Hobbes
distracted by his one-on-one  fight  with  the  original attacker, the enemy
squadron could  concentrate  on  knocking  Blair out of action  while he was
still unsupported.
     "Hobbes," he  said urgently. "Talk to me, buddy. I've got  five bandits
surrounding  me with  damn  little running room. Break off  whatever  you're
doing and give me an assist."
     Blair  was already reversing  course as one of  the  Dralthi  broke and
plunged  toward him.  His fingers  danced over the autopilot keyboard  as he
programmed the computer to  begin random bursts of thrust  at odd vectors to
keep his opponent from getting a firm lock  on  the Thunderbolt.  Then there
was  nothing more  he could do except wait, jaw  clenched, as he watched the
Dralthi  slowly close in. Soon  the  enemy pilot  would be able to match his
vector, and when that happened . . .
     He  fired his maneuvering jets to  execute a tumbling turn  just as the
Dralthi  settled on the Terran  fighter's tail. Suddenly, the  Kilrathi ship
filled his  forward viewport,  and Blair opened fire with his blasters in  a
quick  succession of shots that burned  power  too quickly  for the  weapons
generators to respond. His  last shot was with a Dart unguided missile,  the
type pilots referred to  as "dumb-fires." But even without a homing  system,
the missile wasn't likely to miss at this range.
     The missile barely left  his  ship before Blair's  fighter was twisting
again.  He  didn't see  the missile punch through the weakened  shields  and
detonate  over the weakest  armor, around the  Dralthi's  cockpit.  But  his
sensors  registered  the blast,  and Blair  felt a  momentary  thrill  as he
realized he had scored a kill.
     But that still left four-to-one odds.
     He did not waste time. The other Kilrathi fighters  were still  out  of
range  even   though  they  were  closing  in  fast.  Blair   reignited  his
afterburners  and tried  to put some  distance between  his fighter and  the
pursuers, but  this time it was  Blair  who  was  concerned  about his  fuel
supply. The four Dralthi were running flat out, apparently unconcerned about
their reserves.
     "Talk to me, Hobbes," he said again. "Where the hell are you . . . ?"
     His  answer  was a blood-curdling, triumphant snarl  that  the computer
translator utterly failed to interpret, and for an instant, Blair thought it
was Ralgha's opponent proclaiming a triumph. Then he realized it was Hobbes,
giving  way  to  his  instincts  and  emotions  in the  heat of  battle  and
forgetting,  for  the  moment, the thin veneer of Confederation culture that
lay over his Kilrathi heritage.
     Then his rigid  control seemed to clamp down  again. "I have dispatched
my opponent," he said stiffly, as if  the earlier Kilrathi war-call had come
from someone else entirely. "I am coming to your support now, my friend."
     "Make  it soon, tall, dark, and furry," Blair said. "These guys want to
put me in a trophy room."
     Another Dralthi was approaching,  and once  again  Blair  knew  he must
steer a  fine line  if he was  going to fight. Every  time he let himself be
drawn into a dogfight, the other Kilrathi ships tightened the range a little
bit more. At that rate, he would never be able to  win. And sooner or  later
the odds would tell against him.
     This time  he didn't wait for the other ship  to get so close. Instead,
he  threw the Thunderbolt into a tight, high-G  turn and opened fire as soon
as his weapons came to bear. The Dralthi returned fire with a full spread of
blaster bolts and missiles, and for all of Blair's attempts at dodging, they
racked up  three  solid hits,  scoring away more than half the armor on  his
port wing.
     Blair  rolled away  from the  oncoming  fighter,  trying  to  keep  his
starboard  side facing the Dralthi, but the Kilrathi pilot was a veteran who
knew how to efficiently  maneuver his  craft. More  blaster shots struck his
weakened side in rapid succession, sapping his shields.
     But the attack carried the Dralthi past  Blair's Thunderbolt, and for a
few seconds the advantage went to the Terran. He slapped his weapon selector
switch and called up a Javelin heat-seeker. Blair's fingers tightened around
his steering yoke as  he  tried  to line up the  targeting reticule over the
Kilrathi fighter on his HUD display. It was close . . . very close.
     The  target  indicator glowed red,  and  Blair  fired  blasters  before
releasing the missile. The Javelin locked onto the heat  emissions from  the
Dralthi's engines and leapt outward.  Seeing his danger, the  Kilrathi pilot
made  a  fast turn,  attempting  to get under  the  missile's sensor cone to
confuse its on-board tracking system. Blair  cursed as his board  showed the
missile losing its lock.
     His energy readout  showed his guns hadn't finished  recycling yet, but
Blair took a  calculated  risk and  switched power  from  the shields to the
weaponry systems. Then, determined to keep his fighter in line with the rear
of the Dralthi  despite its twisting, turning  maneuvers, the Terran  opened
fire again. The blasters tore through the weakened  shields,  the armor, and
the  entire rear section of the Dralthi, which erupted in gouts of flame and
spinning metal. "Scratch two!" Blair called.
     Then Hobbes  was  beside Blair, firing a warning shot at long  range to
let  the  other  three  Kilrathi craft  know the odds  had  changed.  Almost
immediately they veered away,  charting new vectors, as if deciding  against
pressing the battle.
     "They are withdrawing," Hobbes said. "Do we pursue?"
     "I'm showing some pretty bad damage on the starboard side, and I'm down
to one missile," Blair replied grimly. "What about you?"
     "The first  foe put up a valiant  struggle," the  Kilrathi  replied. "I
fear my  own missiles are  exhausted, and I have forward and port-side armor
damage."
     "Those guys are fresh," Blair said. "I don't know why they're giving up
so easily, but  I  figure we'd better just count our blessings  and head for
home before they spring any more little surprises on us."
     "The Captain will not be pleased, I fear. It seems  we have not carried
out our mission."
     Blair didn't  answer his wingman's comment directly.  "Let's  get these
crates moving, buddy. Set course for home base, standard thrust."




     Thunderbolt 300 Orsini System

     Of all the evolutions carried out by a fighter on deep space service, a
carrier landing was  the most  difficult and  dangerous maneuver. Bringing a
fighter in with battle damage was that much worse, especially when shipboard
diagnostics could not pinpoint the full extent of the harm done by the enemy
hits.  Blair studied  his readouts  as  he  drifted in  his assigned holding
pattern, waiting for Hobbes to land.  Half a  dozen amber lights  were vying
for  his  attention  in  port-side  systems,  including  thrusters,  weapons
mountings,  and landing gear. Any one of  them  could  fail if put under too
much strain, and the results would be catastrophic not only for the fighter,
but possibly for the carrier as well.
     Therefore, Hobbes was going in first. Once Rollins established the fact
that Blair  was  uninjured and in  no immediate  danger,  the communications
officer  waved him off. If Blair crashed and burned coming  in,  it wouldn't
leave Hobbes stranded with a damaged flight deck and empty fuel tanks.
     So  Blair waited-gloomy  and brooding. His first  trip off  the carrier
deck  ended  in defeat. He  should have considered the possibility  of  more
Kilrathi ships hiding near that asteroid, kept a  tighter rein on Hobbes . .
.
     Right  now  he  was mostly surprised  by their survival.  The  cats had
surprised him twice today; once by springing the ambush, then by backing off
when he and Hobbes  were ripe for  the picking.  That seemed to be the  only
reason Blair and Hobbes were still alive, and that grim thought worried him.
Was he finally losing his edge?
     He  had witnessed  this  during years  of war.  A veteran pilot with an
exemplary record would find  his skills slipping away and his judgment calls
evolving  into errors.  Such flyers would get  sloppy and careless, and they
did not live very long.
     Ever since  the Battle of Earth, and especially after Concordia's loss,
Blair  found himself growing increasingly  uncertain  about  the war and his
role in it. Were his doubts starting to sap his cockpit performance? If that
was true, maybe it was time to rethink his  whole position. He could retreat
into  the  purely  administrative side of  his job,  as his  predecessor had
apparently done . . . or he  could request a new assignment, even resign his
commission and leave  the  war for a younger  generation who still knew what
they were fighting for and had the sharpened skills needed to carry on  that
fight.
     It was  a tempting thought. But how  could Blair drop out now? Wouldn't
that be a betrayal of all his  comrades  who hadn't been so lucky? He wished
he  could  talk  to  Angel. She  always  knew  how to  put  everything  into
perspective.
     "Snoop  Leader, you  are clear for approach,"  Rollins  said  over  his
bitter reflections.
     "Roger," he  acknowledged. Blair brought his full attention back to the
problems of landing. Fighter and carrier had matched  vectors and velocities
precisely, and they were drifting less than a kilometer apart. Using minimum
thruster  power,  Blair  steered  closer, lining up  the flight deck  with a
practiced eye while  watching the damage readouts for  any  sign of a sudden
failure in  a  critical subsystem. A  pilot like  Maniac Marshall would have
made a  more  dramatic approach, coming  in  under power and killing all his
velocity in one last, well-timed braking thrust, but Blair wasn't taking any
chances this time.
     The most critical moment of any  carrier landing came at the end. Blair
had  to  steer the Thunderbolt directly into the  narrow  tractor  beam that
would  snag  the fighter and guide it down  to the  flight deck and into the
hangar  area. A tiny error in judgment could  cause him to miss the beam and
plow  into  the  ship's  superstructure.  Or he could hit the  beam with the
fighter in the wrong attitude and damage both Thunderbolt and flight deck.
     As the range in meters dropped steadily on the readout in the corner of
his  faceplate HUD, Blair  held  his breath and  activated the  landing gear
control.  A few seconds  went  by,  and the  amber damage  light  flickered,
blinked.  .  . then went out. A green light nearby  declared the wheels down
and locked, but  Blair  raised a video view from the carrier deck and zoomed
in for a close-up of the fighter's undercarriage, just to be sure. The blast
burns and  pockmarked hull plating made him wince, but the gear had deployed
and the fighter looked as ready for a landing as it ever would be.
     He  killed  almost  all of his momentum  then,  and the range countdown
slowed.  Then,  abruptly,  the fighter shuddered as  the tractor beams  took
hold. Blair kept his hands poised over the throttles  and the steering yoke,
ready  to  apply thrust  quickly  in case the tractors failed and he had  to
abort. Slowly, carefully, painfully the fighter closed in, and the carrier's
superstructure loomed large in the cockpit viewport.
     The wheels touched down evenly, and the fighter rolled freely along the
deck,  still  pulled  along  by the  tractor beams that held the Thunderbolt
despite the  absence  of gravity. The force field  at the end of  the hangar
deck  cut  off and  the  fighter  glided  smoothly  into  the  depressurized
compartment.  A moment  later  Blair's craft rolled  to a complete stop, and
Blair gratefully relaxed and started the powering-down process.
     It took several  minutes to  repressurize  the  hangar deck. Blair  was
still  running  through his  shutdown  checklist  when the  overhead  lights
flashed  red, signaling  that the atmosphere was  safe to  breathe and  that
artificial  gravity  was about to  be restored.  Outside he  saw technicians
bracing themselves. Then the welcome sensation  of weight gripped him again,
gradually  rising  until the gravity was  set at  Earth-normal.  Techs, some
fully  suited and others in  shirtsleeves,  swarmed on the  deck  around the
fighter.
     The  cockpit  swung  open. Blair unstrapped himself  and stood  slowly,
stiff yet  glad  for  the  chance to move around again. After a  moment,  he
clambered down  the ladder built into the side of the Thunderbolt. "It's all
yours, boys and girls," he told the technicians.
     Rachel Coriolis was there, her face creased in a frown. "Looks like you
were nearly cat food, skipper," she commented. "You'd take a lot better care
of em if you were the one that had to fix em up!"
     He  shrugged,  not really  feeling up to a snappy comeback. "And  maybe
mechanics wouldn't grumble so much if they had to be on the firing line."
     "What, and give up  all  this glamour?" Her grin  faded. "Captain wants
you and  Hobbes  in his ready  room for  debriefing. And I don't  think he's
handing out any medals today. Know what I mean?"

     Captain's Ready Room, TCS Victory Orsini System

     "If  this mission was any indication of your abilities, Colonel, then I
must say that I wonder how you earned such a good reputation."
     Blair and  Ralgha stood at  rigid  attention in  front of the captain's
desk,  listening  to  Eisen's  angry  appraisal  of  their  patrol  mission.
Victory's captain  was plainly agitated, unable to sit still. He prowled the
confines of the ready room like a caged beast, pausing from  time to time to
drive a point  home to  the two  pilots.  Neither of  them  had  ventured  a
response to Eisen, and Blair for one agreed with most of what he had to say.
The mission had been mishandled from start to finish,  and as senior officer
Blair bore the full blame for everything that had gone wrong.
     Eisen leaned heavily  on his desk. "I expected better  of both of you,"
he  said, more quietly this time.  "Especially  you, Colonel. But maybe  I'm
just  expecting too  damned much.  Maybe the Confed has just pulled off  too
many miracles in the past, and the miracles are starting to run out now." He
looked up. "Well? Do either of you have anything to say?"
     "I screwed up,  sir," Blair  said softly. "Underestimated  the Kilrathi
and  let the situation  get out  of hand instead of keeping a  grip on . . .
things." He looked  at Hobbes. "I  allowed  myself  to get separated from my
wingman, and  soaked up unacceptable damage in  the process.  That  made  it
impossible to press  the fight  when we  were  able  to hook up again,  even
though the enemy seemed unwilling to stand and fight."
     "And you, Ralgha?" Eisen asked. "Anything to add?"
     The  Kilrathi  renegade shook his head.  "No, Captain,  save  that  the
Colonel fought with skill and honor."
     "Honor  doesn't  matter  to  me  nearly  as  much  as  winning,"  Eisen
commented, straightening  up slowly, "but at least you  both got back in one
piece." He mustered a  faint smile. "The Confederation needs  every pilot it
can muster, even a couple of senile old screw-ups like you."
     "Next time out, sir, I guarantee things will be different,  Blair  told
him. "You can count on it."
     "I'll hold you  to it," the captain  said. "All right, lets move on.  I
want a heavier patrol dispatched  as soon as possible. Draw up a flight plan
for my approval. I suggest a minimum of four fighters this time, and maybe a
backstop  of four more in case the first team runs into trouble. We'll smoke
the bastards out one way or another.
     "I'll get on it, sir," Blair said. "Hobbes and I will lead em . . .
     Eisen  shook his  head. "You  know the regs.  Except on magnum ops, you
stick to the flight rotation  schedule. You're the wing commander,  Colonel,
and you  can't  start  trying to jump on board every op. That will  burn you
out, and that's the last thing we need right now."
     Reluctantly,  Blair nodded  in acceptance. "As you wish,  Captain,"  he
said slowly
     "All right, then. You're both dismissed."
     Outside the ready  room,  Ralgha reached out  and halted Blair with one
massive paw. "I am very sorry, my friend," he said  gravely. "I let you down
out there today. And yet  you were willing to accept  the blame from Captain
Eisen that should have been directed at me."
     Blair shook his head. "Sure as hell wasn't all your fault," he told the
Kilrathi. "I should have been ready for the bastards."
     "Nevertheless, I failed you.  That insolent peasant and his challenge .
. .  I should  never  have allowed  myself to  be  drawn  into fighting him,
leaving you  to face the others alone." Ralgha paused. "Did it seem  to you,
my friend, that the enemy behavior was out of character?"
     "How so?" Blair  asked. He, too, had wondered about  the  way the  trap
unfolded, but he was  especially  interested in whatever observations Hobbes
might  share. After all,  Ralgha  nar  Hhallas was the  closest thing  to  a
genuine expert on Kilrathi psychology aboard the Victory.
     "In  the  beginning,  it  seemed  to me  they  were intending to fly  a
traditional attack  plan.  There was no  good  reason to  launch  that first
attack  if their aim was to draw us into an ambush. It  was only after I was
engaged that the others broke off and attempted to draw you into their trap.
Could it be that the Empire has a particular interest in you?"
     "In me? How  "
     "You can be  assured that the Empire has sources of  information within
the Confederation, agents  who  could have identified your new assignment to
this ship. Spies are remarkably easy to plant, particularly  when the Empire
has many human slaves to recruit."
     "You  really think  a  human would  spy for the Kilrathi?" Blair asked.
"And  that the Empire would rely on a human slave  to work  in the  Imperial
interest out of reach of the nerve lash?"
     "There are always a few who betray willingly, my friend. Their honor is
less strong  than  their ambition or  greed. And  Imperial Intelligence does
have  techniques  for  guaranteeing  cooperation  from even  the  unwilling:
personality overlays, deep conditioning . . . many things. There are  surely
spies reporting to  Kilrah.  And  with your  record  and reputation,  it  is
possible  that the Emperor or his grandson  has singled  you  out as a human
leader  to  be terminated. War is far more personal with my people than with
yours, and it would be a great triumph to eliminate a wing commander of your
stature in battle."
     "So you think the ambush was planned? That would mean there is an agent
aboard this ship . . ."
     "Not necessarily,"  Ralgha said slowly. "We know the Empire can monitor
some  of  our  ship-to-ship transmissions. I  used your rank  several  times
during radio messages, and if  that information was joined with knowledge of
your  assignment to the  Victory and of Confed troop movements .  .  .  .  I
merely feel you should consider the possibility. The trap may well have been
prepared in hopes  of your  arrival, but it was not  set in motion until the
battle had already begun."
     Blair  shrugged. "Maybe you're right. But on  the  other hand, if I had
been in command of that Kilrathi flight, I would have done my best to divide
and conquer, just the way they did; no matter who blundered into the  trap."
He paused. "Fact  is, it looked  more to me like they were damned interested
in you."
     "In me? It was only that first kilra'hra who dared challenge me."
     "That's my point," Blair  said.  "He  charged  in looking  for hairless
apes, and  it was only when you identified  yourself that  all hell  started
breaking  loose. And when you finished the first  guy off and hooked back up
with me, the other guys got pretty shy all of a sudden."
     "Are you coming to doubt me, my friend?" Ralgha asked.
     "You  know  better  than  that. I'm  just  curious,  that's all." Blair
studied  his friend's  alien features. "Maybe  it's you  they are afraid of.
Your reputation has to be at least as big  as mine, after all  these  years.
Maybe bigger  where the Empire's concerned. A renegade noble  turned  Confed
fighter pilot . .  . I could see a few Kilrathi getting  nervous if they ran
into you during a fight."
     The  Kilrathi  gave  a  rumbling  chuckle.  "That,  my  friend,  sounds
unlikely. I am a disgrace  among my people.  I  am nothing. It  is only to a
good friend like you that my poor life means anything at all." Ralgha looked
away for a moment, a surprisingly human  mannerism. "Although I must say, it
certainly  felt good to be out there  again. My gratitude for your trust and
support of me is endless."
     "Forget it, buddy," Blair told him. "You're back where you belong now."

     Flight Wing Rec Room, TCS Victory Orsini System

     The  victory  party  was  in full  swing when the lift  deposited Blair
outside the recreation hall set aside for use by the flight wing. He  paused
in the corridor,  reluctant to go inside. After all, they were celebrating a
successful  op that had made  good the mistakes he and Hobbes made the first
time out, and  Blair didn't much care to  be reminded of  that fact tonight.
But  as wing commander, he had a duty  to his outfit, and part of that  duty
was  to show his support for them in success and failure alike, even when it
left a bitter taste in his mouth.
     He squared his shoulders and opened the rec room door.
     The  noise was almost overpowering at  first, with the  blare of  music
competing for dominance with the babble of  conversation, laughs, and cheers
coming from a cluster of  men and  women around the flight simulator in  one
corner  of the compartment. Blair  stopped  just  inside scanning the  room.
Gradually  some  of  the noise  died  away as pilots  became  aware  of  his
presence.
     "See, the  conquering hero comes!"  Maniac Marshall proclaimed  loudly.
The half-empty glass  in his hand and the slur in his voice made it clear he
was  well under  way with  his own celebration of the successful afternoon's
battle. The major  had a female crew  member with comm  department  shoulder
tabs backed  into  a corner,  but as  he turned  toward Blair,  she  quickly
slipped  away  to join  the  spectators by the  flight  simulators,  looking
relieved.
     "So," Marshall  went  on.  "Come  to join  the victory  party,  is  it,
Colonel? Guess you have  to  find em wherever you  can, huh? When you can't
manage to earn one, that is."
     That  provoked  a  few  nervous  laughs.  Luckily,  one  of the  pilots
approached  Maniac with  a pitcher  of beer, offering him a refill. Marshall
held  out  his  glass  unsteadily  and  let  her  fill  it for him.  In  the
comparative quiet that  followed, Blair took a  step forward and cleared his
throat. "I just wanted to drop by and congratulate Gold  Squadron for a  job
well done today," he said loudly. "I'm sure  there's nobody as  proud of you
people tonight as I am."
     "Damn  straight," Maniac interrupted. "Not just ten Kilrathi fighters 
two of em killed by yours truly   but also a cap ship. And a supply  depot
hidden inside that asteroid. All cleared out courtesy of Maniac Marshall and
the Gold Squadron . . .  with an able assist by those  two brilliant scouts,
Wrong-Way Blair and the King of the  Kitty Litter!  What would we do without
em, huh?"
     Blair  fought down a flash  of anger. Marshall was drunk and offensive,
but  he was entitled to  a  little boasting. The major had led  three  other
fighters  to probe  the same region where  Blair  and  Hobbes  had  run into
trouble,  and flushed  out a nest of  Kilrathi fighters  and a light cruiser
that had moved in after the first battle. According to all reports, Marshall
had done  a  decent job of keeping his command together  while  awaiting the
back-up  flight's  arrival. They  accounted for ten Dralthi and  managed  to
knock out the capital ship as well. Although  some  of the Thunderbolts were
heavily  damaged, none  had  been destroyed.  All in  all  it  had  been  an
excellent job.
     "Captain Eisen  asked  me to  let you know that  the drinks tonight are
being  charged to the  shipboard  recreation  fund,"  Blair  went  on  as if
Marshall  hadn't  spoken. Usually,  drinks were  paid for  by the individual
officers  and  crewmen,  with  their  cost  charged  against  shipboard  pay
accounts.  But this was a special occasion  the first triumph  of Victory's
new tour of duty. "So enjoy yourselves  while you can. You'll be back on the
flight line soon enough!"
     That brought cheers from everyone.  Most of the flight wing's personnel
were in  the rec room for  the party, except for pilots and technicians  who
had  duty  tonight  or first thing  in the morning. There  were also  a fair
number  of  people  from other  carrier  departments.  Blair  saw Lieutenant
Rollins  at the bar, deep in  conversation with a pretty  redhead from  Blue
Squadron.
     He  looked  around the room again and noticed a woman sitting  alone at
one of the tables, her eyes resting on him with a coldly intense expression.
He recognized her from the Wing's personnel files: Lieutenant Laurel Buckley
(callsign Cobra), a member of  Gold Squadron. That was all he knew about her
since  her  family and background  records were  sketchy.  She  consistently
received  high  marks  in Colonel Dulbrunin's quarterly  evaluations  in her
file, but beyond that she was a mystery.
     The door  opened behind Blair. He glanced over  his shoulder and smiled
at Ralgha,  receiving a slight bow in response before the Kilrathi moved  on
toward the bar.
     "Hey, Hobbes," a  new voice cut over the  chatter that filled the room.
"How about going a round with me, huh? Bet you a week's pay on one hand."
     The Kilrathi shook his head  gravely. "Thank you, no," he said, turning
to the bartender to order a drink.
     Blair  studied the man who had hailed his friend. He was seated nearby,
a Chinese flight lieutenant who looked about thirty standard years old until
you saw the age  in his eyes. The man caught Blair's look  and flashed him a
lazy grin, holding up a deck of cards in one hand.
     "What about you, Colonel?" he asked, riffling the cards expertly. "Want
to play  a hand?  Since  you're the new boy in  town, I'll  let you call the
game."
     "I think I'll keep my money if it's all the same  to  you," Blair said,
sitting  down. The man  was another pilot  from Gold Squadron, and from  all
appearances  didn't have any problem serving  with Hobbes.  That recommended
him to  Blair  right away. "I learned a  long,  long time  ago never to play
cards with the shipboard shark."
     "Well, it's a free Confed." The lieutenant put down the cards and stuck
out a hand. "I'm Vagabond. A belated welcome aboard's in  order, I guess. Or
would condolences for your little scrap this morning be more appropriate?"
     "Not much for protocol, are you?" Blair said, taking the proffered hand
in his. "Do you  always  go by your  callsign  or do you just have something
against the name Winston Chang?"
     He shrugged. "Formalities tend  to be forgotten when you spend  most of
your  time just trying to  survive, wouldn't you say?" He smiled, lifted his
drink, and took a sip. "What little spare time we have  should not be wasted
on practicing salutes and mastering the intricacies of military make-work."
     Blair looked  him  over,  liking  the  man despite  Chang's  irreverent
manner,  or maybe because of  it. "With that attitude,  I'm surprised you've
been able to adapt to the military life at all."
     Vagabond shrugged  again. "I've always  felt that  the  military should
learn how  to  adapt to me, Colonel," he said with another grin. "After all,
I'm a genuine high-flying hero type, with pilot's wings and everything!"
     Blair was about to make a sarcastic reply when his attention was  drawn
to Hobbes. The Kilrathi  had  finished his drink in silence and turned  from
the bar, heading for the  door again, probably uncomfortable in the crowd of
humans.  Ralgha, a Kilrathi noble  before his defection, never  relinquished
his aversion to large groups and  noisy  surroundings,  especially when they
involved non-Kilrathi gatherings. It was one of the reasons people found him
so aloof and seemingly unfriendly, but it was nearly  as  much  a matter  of
carnivore instinct as of aristocratic breeding.
     As he approached the exit he brushed against the woman Blair  had  seen
watching him earlier, Lieutenant  Buckley.  She reached the door just before
Hobbes and stopped to listen to someone. Hobbes barely  touched her, but she
spun  quickly  to  confront him  with an angry expression  which marred  her
attractive features. "Don't touch me!" she grated. "Don't ever touch me, you
goddamned furball!"
     Ralgha recoiled from  her as if stricken, started to speak, then seemed
to think better  of  it.  Instead  he  gave  one  of  his  bows  and circled
cautiously around her. She glared at him until the door closed behind him.
     "Excuse  me, Lieutenant," Blair  said,  suppressing  the anger  welling
inside him. "I have . . . a matter that needs to be attended."
     Chang looked  from Blair to Buckley and back again,  his smile gone. "I
understand," he said  with a nod. "But I hope you'll keep something in mind,
Colonel. We've got a lot of good people on this ship. Even the ones  who may
not fit in with your idea of . . . decorum."
     Blair  stood  up and  crossed to the door. Buckley was  still  standing
nearby,  flushed  and angry. He took her elbow and  pointed toward the door.
"Time we had a little talk, Lieutenant," he said quietly. "Outside."
     She  let  him lead her into the corridor. When the door closed  and the
party sounds were no  longer heard,  they faced each other for a long moment
in silence.
     "Want to tell me what that little  outburst was all about, Lieutenant?"
Blair asked.
     Buckley  fixed him with  an angry stare. "Ain't much to say,  Colonel,"
she said,  managing to  make the  rank sound more like a  swear  word.  "You
insisted on  flying with it,  and even after it let you down you'll probably
still take its part. Doesn't leave much scope for conversation, does it?"
     "Lieutenant  Colonel  Ralgha   nar  Hhallas  is   a  superior  officer,
Lieutenant," Blair said sharply. "You will refer to him with respect. I will
not have one of my officers treating another member  of  the  wing with such
blatant bigotry and hatred. Some day  you might have to fly on his wing, and
when that happens . . ."
     "That won't happen, Colonel," she said stiffly. "I can't fly with . . .
him,  and  if you order it, I will  resign my commission on the spot. That's
all there is to it."
     "I should take you up on that resignation right now, Lieutenant," Blair
said. "But  you're a good pilot, and we need all the good pilots we can get.
I'd rather work this thing out. If you'd just give Hobbes a chance  "
     "You  don't  want me flying with him, sir," she said.  "Because I won't
defend  him  in a fight. Better  we go  our  separate ways . . .  one way or
another."
     "Why? What's he ever done to you?"
     "He's Kilrathi," she said  harshly. "That's enough. And there's nothing
you can do to change the way I feel."
     "I  .  .  .  see."  Blair studied  her face. It was  a bad idea to  let
something like this simmer inside the wing, but he wasn't willing to force a
confrontation. Not yet, at least. "I'll try to keep the two of you apart for
the moment, Lieutenant, but I expect you to behave like a Confed officer and
not a spoiled brat. Do you understand me?"
     "I  wasn't asking  for special favors, sir," she said, shrugging. "Just
thought you should know how things stand."
     "Just so you know where you stand, Lieutenant," he  said softly.  "If I
have to pick between the two of you, I'll  pick Hobbes every time. I'd trust
him with my life."
     She gave him a chilly smile. "That, Colonel, is your mistake to make."




     Flight Wing Rec Room, TCS Victory Orsini System

     The rec room  was  much quieter tonight than the night of the party and
considerably less crowded. Blair finished another long shift of poring  over
reports and requisitions. He decided that a quick drink and a few moments of
simply sitting alone, perhaps  watching the  stars through the compartment's
viewport,  would  help   him  get   over  the  feeling  of  confinement  and
constriction which  plagued  him  more and more lately. As he walked briskly
through the door, he was hoping for some solitude. He wanted to forget, just
for a few  minutes, that  he had anything to do with  Victory, or the flight
wing . . . or the war.
     But the impulse for  solitude left him when he spotted Rachel  Coriolis
at a table near the bar, viewing a holocassette that seemed to be displaying
schematics of  a fighter Blair  didn't immediately recognize. The Chief tech
was one  of the few people on  board he felt comfortable around, and he  was
certain  she would know more than what information appeared  in his official
files: real stories of  some of  his pilots and their backgrounds. After the
incident  with Cobra Buckley  the  week before, Blair was  still in the dark
about  the  woman's attitudes,  and so  far he hadn't been  able to find any
answers.
     He stopped at the bar  and ordered  a glass of Tamayoan fire wine, then
walked over to Rachel's table. She  looked up as he approached, giving him a
welcoming smile. "Hello,  Colonel, slumming with the troops today? Pull up a
chair, if you don't mind being seen with one of us lowly techie types."
     "Thanks, Chief," he said.  He  sat down  across the table from  her and
studied  the holographic schematics  for  a moment. "Don't think I recognize
that design."
     "One  of  the  new  Excaliburs,"  she  said,   her  voice  tinged  with
excitement. "Isn't she a beauty? Heavy fighter with more guns and armor than
a Thunderbolt, but increased maneuverability to go with it. And I've heard a
rumor they're going  to  be  mounted with  a  sensor  cloak,  so the  little
darlings can  sneak  right past a Kilrathi  defensive perimeter and nail the
hairballs at close range!"
     "Don't they classify that stuff any more?" Blair asked with a smile.
     She  gave an unladylike snort.  "Get real, skipper.  Maybe you  flyboys
don't hear  anything til it gets declassified, but the techs have a network
that reaches damn near everywhere. We know what's coming off the line before
the brass does . . . and usually have all the design flaws spotted up front,
too."
     Blair chuckled. "Well, I hope  your techs don't  decide to turn on  the
rest of us. I doubt we'd last long if you did. You like your job, don't you,
Chief?"
     She  switched  off the  hologram. "Yeah.  I  always  liked working with
machines  and computers.  An engine part either works or it doesn't. No gray
areas. No double talk"
     "Machines don't lie," Blair said, nodding.
     "Not the way people do. And even when something's wrong with a machine,
you always know just where the problem is."
     Blair  didn't say anything for a few minutes. Finally he looked  her in
the eye. "I've got a people problem right now, Chief. I was wondering if you
could help me with it."
     "It ain't what I'm  paid for,"  she  told  him,  "and my free advice is
worth everything you spend for it. But I'll take a shot if you want."
     "Lieutenant Buckley. What can you tell me about her? The straight dope,
not the official file."
     She  looked  down at the table. "I heard  about her  little blowup with
Hobbes last week. Can't say anybody was surprised, though. She's never  made
any big secret out of the way she feels about the Kilrathi."
     "What I  want to know is  why? I've  been in  the Navy for  better than
fifteen  years,  Chief I've been in  all kinds  of crews, seen  all kinds of
shipmates and their  hangups. But I never met anybody so single-minded about
the  Kilrathi  before. I mean,  Maniac's got good  reason to  resent  Hobbes
personally .  . . but with Cobra, we're talking blind hatred. She won't even
give him a chance."
     "Yeah.  Look,  I  don't  know  the whole story,  so  don't take this as
gospel." The tech leaned closer over the table and lowered her voice. "Right
after she came on board a buddy of mine from the old  Hermes pointed her out
to me. She  served there a  year before she transferred here . . . her first
assignment."
     "I  was curious  about that  in her file," Blair commented.  "She seems
older than that. I'd have put her at thirty or so . . ."
     "That's about right," Rachel told him. "She got a late start. My friend
told me that the story on Cobra was that she'd been a Kilrathi slave for ten
years before the Marines rescued  her from a labor camp. She spent some more
time  in reeducation, then joined up. She won top honors  piloting, and just
cut  through  everything  with  this  single-minded determination.  I  think
sometimes that the  only thing holding Cobra's life together is the hate she
has for the Kilrathi. And I can't really say I blame her.
     Blair nodded slowly. "Maybe I can't, either," he said slowly. "I  can't
even begin to imagine what it would be like to grow up a Kilrathi slave. She
must have been taken as a kid, raised  to think of her own race as animals .
. ."
     "So it's no wonder she can't  stomach  Hobbes," the  tech said bluntly.
"You and I know he's okay, but to her he just represents everything she grew
up hating and fearing."  Rachel took a sip from  her drink. "So cut her some
slack, Colonel. If you really want to fix the problem, that is."
     "I do,"  he said quietly. "But there are limits, you know. I sympathize
with her, but sometimes you just can't bend things far enough in the Service
to make all the square pegs fit."
     "That's  why  I'd rather work with machines," she told  him. "Sooner or
later, people just screw up the works."
     "Maybe you're being too hard on people,"  he said. "Some of us are okay
when you get to know us."
     She  looked him up and  down with  a  slow  smile. "They  need  to pass
inspection,   same  as  anything  else."  She   stood   up,   collected  the
holocassette, then tucked it into a pocket of her  baggy coveralls.  "I  got
certain hours for that kind of quality control work, of course."
     Blair  returned  her smile,  warming  to her.  "You keep that  schedule
posted somewhere, Chief?"
     "Only for a select few, Colonel," she told him. "The ones with the best
schematics."

     Ready Room, TCS Victory Tamayo System

     "I  hope  you're not expecting anything  too  exciting,  Blair. This is
probably  just another milk run, from the looks of it. At  least that's what
we're hoping for."
     Blair studied  Eisen's face, trying to locate a hint  of sarcasm in his
expression. Since Gold Squadron's triumph over the Kilrathi cruiser  and its
escort, enemy activity  in  the Orsini system had virtually disappeared, and
Victory had jumped to the Tamayo  system, where they had been carrying out a
seemingly  endless string  of routine patrols. Blair  and Hobbes took  their
turn on  the duty schedule along with the rest of the wing, but so far there
was no  further combat. The only  excitement  since the first big clash came
when  a  pair  of interceptors  from Blue  Squadron tangled  with four light
Kilrathi fighters, sending them running in short order.
     Eisen  was right about the  missions  to date being milk  runs, but was
there something more behind  his comment?  Meaning  that was all Blair could
handle,  perhaps? His  impassive face gave away  nothing  as  he called up a
holographic mission plan for Blair and Ralgha to study.
     "The cats  " Eisen broke off, shooting a look at Hobbes. "The Kilrathi
have been steering clear of the Victory, but they sent a couple of squadrons
of raiders  to work the edges of the system, near the jump point to Locanda.
In the past  week,  they've  picked off three  transports  outbound  for the
Locanda colony while we've come up empty."
     Blair frowned.  "I was posted in that system  once, a  few  years back.
There's not a  hell of  a  lot there. I'm surprised we sent three transports
that way in one week."
     The captain  didn't reply right away. Finally he gave a  I shrug. "Some
of our  intelligence sources  in the Empire received word that  the enemy is
planning a move against the Locanda System.  Confed's been pumping resources
that  way to try to catch them unprepared. Apparently  the main reason  they
are hanging  around is  to harass our supply lines." He looked from Blair to
Hobbes, then back  to Blair again. "Needless to  say, that information stays
in this room.
     "Yes, sir," Blair said. Ralgha nodded assent.
     "Right, then.  Another transport is set to make  a  run today, but this
time we're sending an escort. We want to see if we  can  break  this  little
blockade of their's once  and  for all, then open the  pipeline into Locanda
again. Your  job  is to provide  the escort and be ready for trouble. Like I
said, with luck, they will miss this  one. But  if the  bad guys return,  we
want that transport covered. Understood?"
     "Aye, aye, sir," Blair replied formally.
     "Good. Let's cover the details . . ."
     It took  a  good ten  minutes to go over the specifics  of the mission,
establishing rendezvous coordinates and other details. When it was all over,
Blair and  Hobbes stood.  "We're  ready, Captain,"  Blair  said.  "Come  on,
Hobbes, let's get saddled up."
     "A moment more, Colonel, if you please," Eisen said, holding up a hand.
He shot Ralgha a look. "In private."
     "I will see you on the flight deck, Colonel," Hobbes said. The Kilrathi
seemed  calm and  imperturbable as ever, but Blair thought he could detect a
note of concern in his friend's tone.
     Blair sat back down as the  Kilrathi left the room. "What can I do  for
you, sir?"
     "Colonel, I'd like to discuss your attitude," Eisen said as soon as the
door had  closed behind Hobbes. He sounded angry. "Seems to me  you're under
the impression that you're too good to mix with the rest of the pilots."
     "I'm  not sure  I understand,  Captain," Blair said slowly.  "I've been
getting to know them . . ."
     "But in three weeks aboard this tub, the only wingman you've flown with
is Hobbes." Eisen cut his attempted protest off.  "I know he's your  friend,
and  I know there's still some bad feelings  among some of the others  about
working with him, but it isn't helping morale by  you refusing to  pair with
anybody else. I know Chang would  fly  with him, and probably one or  two of
the others as well, so you could at least trade off now and then."
     "Sir, with all due respect, that  isn't  your decision to  make," Blair
told  him  quietly.  "You  are CO  of this  ship, but  the flight wing is my
bailiwick. Mine  alone. I  run  the wing my way. A pilot has  to be able  to
trust his  wingman,  feeling complete  total  confidence  in  him, which  is
exactly the way I feel about Hobbes. I choose to fly with him."
     "Even though he let you down your first time out?"
     "Sir?"  Blair had been careful to keep the details  of the first patrol
ambiguous in his official report.
     "Come  on, Colonel, you  know  the  networks.  Even  the  CO hears some
things, no  matter how much everybody works to  cover them. Hobbes hared off
after an enemy fighter and left you in the lurch when they jumped you.
     "I  don't  blame  him, sir.  The  whole situation just  sort  of .  . .
developed."
     "Well, it's  pretty  difficult  to see  how  you can  continue  to have
confidence in Hobbes after that mess, no matter how much you close your eyes
to it. And there's another point here, Blair. By saying how  much you  trust
Hobbes,  you're implying that  you  don't have  any faith in the, others.  I
don't  like  that. It's  bad  for morale   not just in your precious flight
wing, but involving the entire ship. I won't stand for anything that hampers
the  performance  of  Victory or her  crew." Eisen studied  him  for  a  few
seconds. "Do you have a problem with the rest of the wing?"
     "Sir,  I just don't know them well  enough yet,"  Blair said. "The only
one I do know is  Marshall,  and quite frankly I wouldn't fly with him if he
was the only pilot on this ship. He's a menace who should have had his wings
taken away a long time ago."
     Eisen looked thoughtful, but didn't speak.
     "As  for the others,"  Blair  went on.  "Lieutenant Buckley has a  good
record, but I'm  not sure her head's screwed on straight. Chang seems like a
nice guy, but undisciplined and unpredictable. The others . .  .  I'm  still
finding  out  about them.  They  are  accustomed to  each other, and they're
already paired into some pretty good teams. I don't think it is wise to rock
the boat until I've got a better handle on how they perform."
     "How will you find anything out about them if you don't fly with them?"
     "Every  time they  go out the launch tubes, I follow the  mission  from
Flight Control, Captain.  Believe me, I'm starting to get a pretty good idea
of how they fly . . .  and  how they  think. I'll start rotating  the roster
when I'm ready . . . and not before then."
     "Well,  I strongly suggest you speed  up the process  a  bit, Colonel,"
Eisen said. "Get to know them  and start  flying with them. If  you don't, I
think you're going to have a serious morale problem. Is that clear?"
     "As a bell, sir."
     "Then you're dismissed." Eisen hesitated a moment. "And . . . good luck
out there today, Colonel."
     "Thank you, sir." Blair  stood and gave Eisen a quick salute, then left
the ready room. As he rode down the elevator to the Flight Deck, he reviewed
in his mind everything the captain said. By the time the doors slid open, he
was seething inside.
     Someone  plainly ran  to  Eisen behind his  back,  carrying tales,  and
hinting that Blair was unfit. Blair was sure he knew just who it was.

     Wing Commander's Office, TCS Victory Tamayo System

     A  knock  on  the door made Blair look  up from  his computer terminal.
"Enter," he said.
     "You  wanted  to see me, Colonel?"  It was  Maniac  Marshall, wearing a
flight suit and carrying his colorfully painted helmet under one  arm.  "I'm
up for a patrol in fifteen minutes, so this'd better be quick."
     "It will be, Marshall," Blair said coldly.
     The major started  to sit, but Blair fixed  him with an angry stare. "I
didn't  give you permission to make yourself  at home, Mister,"  he told the
pilot. "You're at attention."
     Marshall hesitated a moment, then  straightened up. "Yes, sir, Colonel,
sir," he responded.
     "I  have a  little  job for you, Major," Blair said,  his voice low and
dangerous.  "This  morning,  before my escort run with Hobbes, Captain Eisen
chatted with me  about this unit's  morale. He seemed to feel that I was not
inspiring confidence and good feeling among my people here.
     Marshall  didn't  respond.  There  was  a  long  silence  before  Blair
continued. "From  some of the things he said, I suspect that someone  in the
wing  has been going behind my back to him, carrying all sorts of complaints
about the way I choose to  run things. Needless to say, Major, I regard this
as a very  serious breach  of protocol. Members of a flight  wing do not  go
outside  the  chain  of  command  with their petty jealousies  and  personal
problems, and  I intend  to  have  no repetitions  of  this little incident.
Therefore, Major,  I'm  putting  you  in  charge  of  reporting  any further
violations  of  military  procedure  in the  wing to  me. If it comes  to my
attention that there have been additional incidents of wing personnel  going
outside the chain of command  this way, I'll hold you responsible. Do I make
myself clear, Major?"
     "Crystal clear,"  Marshall said,  enunciating each syllable  precisely.
After a long pause he added, "Sir."
     "Very good, Major," Blair said. "I  won't keep you from your patrol any
longer. You're dismissed."
     He leaned back in  his chair  as Marshall left the office, feeling some
of the anger  and tension draining  from him. Blair was  convinced from  the
very beginning  that Marshall was the one who had been complaining to Eisen,
but of course he had no proof. This put  Maniac on  notice without requiring
any actual accusations.
     The confrontation  alleviated some  of the frustrations  of the morning
operation.  He  and Hobbes had  escorted  the transport  to the  jump  point
without  any sign  of  an  enemy  fighter. The  return  trip proved  equally
peaceful. That was good, in one sense, but it was beginning to seem as if he
would never get a chance to compensate for their first unsuccessful mission.
It  was even more unnerving to discover that raiders  had hit  another  ship
leaving the  Locanda System at the same  jump point just an hour after Blair
and Hobbes returned to the Victory.
     The whole situation  gave him  pause  for  thought.  He  could not help
mulling over the  conversation  with Hobbes after their first battle and the
Kilrathi's speculations  about  the possibility of an  intelligence  breach.
Could someone be feeding details of Confed ship movements to the enemy? And,
if so, was there some specific reason why he and Hobbes might be singled out
for special attention? Blair was still struck by the fact that  the Kilrathi
had seemed to want to avoid engaging Hobbes . . . .
     He remembered old Cultural Intelligence briefings about Kilrathi social
customs.  Perhaps  there was a high-ranking  Imperial noble  assigned to the
Orsini System  who  had  declared a formal state  of  feud  with  Ralgha nar
Hhallas. That might make other pilots wary of getting involved, leading them
to avoid action against Hobbes.
     It sounded like a good working theory . . . but it still suggested that
the  Kilrathi knew much more about Confed operations than they should.  Were
they simply  keeping close track of Terran communications or might there  be
spies in the fleet, even here aboard the Victory?
     Did Cobra, the ex-slave, have any place in all this? Or was it all just
an unfortunate but suspicious coincidence?
     Blair hoped that was the case. He did not want to face the reality that
someone in his flight wing was actually a Kilrathi spy.

     Flight Control, TCS Victory Tamayo System

     "Sir?"
     Blair turned his chair to face the door to the  Flight  Control Center.
It was nearly midnight,  ship's time, but he had decided to spend some extra
hours tonight going over flight  plans  for the Wing's projected  operations
for the next day. He hoped to extend patrols to cover the Locanda jump point
more effectively so that  future losses in that  volume of  space  might  be
avoided. If he couldn't find a better way to keep the Kilrathi raiders under
control, he would talk Eisen into  actually moving the carrier closer to the
jump point for a more constant watch.
     He  was glad of the interruption.  It was difficult and tedious work at
best. After working for hours, any break in the routine was welcome.
     Blair studied the  slender, slightly-built young  woman standing in the
open  doorway. She was  another of Gold Squadron's  pilots, Lieutenant Robin
Peters, but  so  far he had  not spoken  with  her.  Nonetheless,  Blair was
impressed by both her  combat record and her patrol performance since he had
joined  the  ship. She was most frequently teamed with Chang as wingman. The
two made a competent team. "They call you Flint, right?" he asked.
     She nodded. "Glad to see you've at least looked over the flight roster,
sir," she said with a faint smile.
     "I've given it a glance," Blair responded.
     "Then maybe you've noticed, sir, that there are  other pilots on board,
aside from Colonel Ralgha."
     "People on  this  ship sure as hell  do take a  lot of  interest in  my
choice  of  partners,"  Blair  said.  "Wingman  assignments  were  still  my
prerogative, last time I checked."
     "Sir," the  lieutenant began, sounding tentative. "I  come  from a long
line of fighter pilots. My brother, my father, his father before him . . . I
guess you could say flying's in my blood."
     "Your point being . . . ?"
     "I know your record, and I would expect you to at least look over ours.
We have racked up our share of kills. We're not scrubs out here, sir."
     "Nobody said you were," Blair told her.
     "No, sir,  nobody  ever said anything. But you've made it  pretty clear
you don't think  the rest of us are worth flying with." She looked away. "If
you  don't give us a try,  how are  you ever going to decide if we're  up to
your standards?"
     "Oh,  I've  made  a  few  decisions already,  Lieutenant,"  Blair said.
"Believe it or not, I  do know something about how a flight wing works. I've
only been serving in the damned things  for my entire adult life." He paused
for a  moment. "So you feel I  should be flying with other wingmen, not just
Hobbes. You have any specific recommendations?"
     She  looked back at him with  a  hint  of a smile. "Oh, I  would  never
presume to do  your job for you, sir. After all,  choice of wingmen  is your
prerogative, isn't that right? I just work here . . ."
     "Well,  consider your message delivered, Lieutenant." He smiled, coming
to a decision  about the woman. "And tomorrow afternoon, when you take  that
fourth shift patrol you're scheduled for . . ."
     "Yes, sir?"
     "I hope you'll be willing to break in a new wingman. He's an old-timer,
but not a scrub . . . at least I hope not."
     "I'll be looking forward to it, sir."




     Thunderbolt 300 Tamayo System

     "Well,  looks  like  we came up dry  again,"  Blair  said over the comm
channel,  not bothering  to  hide his disgust.  "Shall  we  head  for  home,
Lieutenant?"
     "Sounds good to me, sir," Flint responded.
     The  patrol  was  routine, like  so  many others  the  Victory's pilots
encountered  these past few weeks. It  seemed  that changing wingmen had not
brought any corresponding change in Blair's luck.
     "Watchdog  Leader,  this  is  Kennel.  Do  you copy, over?"  The  voice
belonged  to Lieutenant Rollins. Victory's  Communications  Officer  sounded
keyed up.
     "This is Watchdog Leader," Blair said. "What've you got, Kennel?"
     "Long-range  sensors are picking up a large flight of incoming  bogies,
Colonel," Rollins said.  "And they ain't friendly, by the looks  of  things.
They're  coming  from quadrant Delta  . .  . looks  like a full-scale attack
force, not just a patrol. Captain requests you RTB immediately."
     "Roger that, Kennel," Blair said. "We will Return To Base immediately."
He was visualizing the tactical situation in his mind's eye. Relative to the
carrier's  position,  ships coming  out  of  Delta Quadrant would be  almost
exactly opposite  the point he and  Flint were covering on their patrol, and
if  the enemy  appeared on the  long-range  sensors, they  would be  located
within the  same range of  the  ship  as  the two Thunderbolts.  Blair could
expect to get back to Victory at approximately the  same time  as the enemy,
presuming they were planning to press home the attack.
     Suddenly he wished that he had not complained about the lack of  action
quite so much . . . .
     "Kennel, this  is  Watchdog Leader,"  Blair  went  on  after a moment's
pause. "Order Red and Gold  Squadrons on a full magnum  launch, all fighters
up.  Colonel Ralgha to take operational  command until I arrive. And call in
all Blue Squadron  patrols  as well.  I  want  them to rendezvous with me at
coordinates Beta-Ten-Niner."
     "Rendezvous   .  .  .  Beta-Ten-Zero-Nine,"  the  lieutenant  repeated.
"Understood."
     "Have Chief Coriolis put up a refueling  shuttle  to meet  us  at those
coordinates. Launch  ASAP .  .  . before  the  furballs  get close enough to
interfere."
     "A fuel shuttle, Colonel?" Rollins sounded uncertain.
     "You heard me, Lieutenant," Blair  said. "All of the patrol flights are
near the end of their cycles out here.  I was about to head  for home, but I
don't plan on  any of us hitting an all-out donnybrook  with  dry tanks,  so
we'll  do some in-flight refueling before we join  the  party. Any  problems
with that on your end?"
     "Ah . . . wait  one, Watchdog,"  Rollins said. Blair could  picture the
man,  in the  silence that  followed, passing on the gist of his  orders  to
Eisen for confirmation.
     While he waited for  a confirmation from Victory, Blair  called  up his
navigation  display  and  entered  the   rendezvous  coordinates  into   the
autopilot. "Flint, you copy all that?"
     "Yeah, Colonel," she responded, sounding excited. "Looks  like we get a
little party after all."
     "Watchdog, this  is Kennel,"  Rollins  said before he had  a chance  to
respond to Peters. "Your instructions  are being carried  out.  Captain says
not to stop for any sightseeing along the way."
     "Tell him the cavalry's on the way," Blair said, smiling. "Okay, Flint,
you heard the man. Punch it!"
     The computer  took over  the controls, steering the fighter toward  the
rendezvous point while Blair concentrated on monitoring the comm channels to
keep  track  of the  unfolding  operation.  It appeared  things  were  going
smoothly on the ship. Fighters were routinely kept on standby, prepped for a
magnum  launch on fifteen minute's  notice or less. If Blair was right about
Chief Coriolis, it would definitely be "or less" today.  He had faith in her
department . . . as well as in her.
     What  worried him  more was the wing itself. Hobbes would have  to take
charge until Blair was  close enough to do more than  hurl  advice, and with
the previous  bad  feelings  about  the  Kilrathi renegade,  there could  be
trouble on the  firing line. If a hot-head like Maniac or Cobra  decided not
to accept  Ralgha's orders,  the  whole  situation  could degenerate  into a
disaster in  minutes.  Hobbes knew all the  right moves, but did  he have  a
sufficiently forceful  personality to make a collection  of Confed pilots, a
notoriously independent  breed at the best of  times, carry out  those moves
the way they were supposed to?
     "Rendezvous coordinates coming up, sir," Flint  reported, jerking Blair
out of his reverie. "The shuttle's on my scope now."
     He checked his own  monitor. "Confirmed. Looks like  we're first." That
made  sense.  The long-range  interceptors  on patrol  in  Alpha  and  Gamma
Quadrants  were  further  from the  ship when he  issued  the recall  order,
probing ahead  of the Victory. He and Flint  took the rear patrol,  covering
both Beta and Delta  in  the carrier's wake. "All right, Flint,  belly up to
the bar and get your fighter a drink."
     "Roger," was her laconic reply.
     After a few minutes,  she reported her tanks full and cast off from the
shuttle, making room for Blair's fighter. He lined up the  boxy little craft
with  practiced  ease,   letting  the  shuttle's  tractor  beams  snag   the
Thunderbolt and  pull it in  slowly. When they were  bare  meters  apart,  a
refueling hose extended from the  belly of the shuttle to plug into the tank
mounted amidships. "Contact," he announced as the green light  showed on his
status board. Fuel began to flow from shuttle to fighter.
     When it was  finally over, Blair released the hose and  watched it reel
into the shuttle  before applying  reverse thrusters to edge the Thunderbolt
away. "Watchdog Leader  to Shuttle Hardy. Thanks for  a  wonderful time. But
I'm not always this easy on a first date, y'know?"
     The shuttle's pilot chuckled. You mean you're not going to stick around
and cuddle? You flyboys are all alike." There was a pause. "Nail a couple of
kitty-cats for us, Colonel, since we can't be in the shooting."
     "They also serve who only stand and pump fuel, Hardy," Blair misquoted.
"You just keep our people flying."

     Hunt Leader Tamayo System

     Flight Commander Arrak could feel the battle lust  surging through  his
veins. For  better than eight days, his squadron operated in this human-held
system, yet  with orders not to  press  a  full-scale battle with the enemy.
Ambushes  of enemy  transport ships  and clashes with Terran fighter patrols
were  reported by other squadrons off the carrier Sar'hrai, but all strictly
limited to the point where pilots were beginning to complain of the stain on
their honor.
     Now  that  was  changed.  Operation  Unseen  Death  was beginning,  and
Sar'hrai now was ordered to damage  or destroy the  Terran carrier stationed
in this system, to further isolate the main target of  the  Kilrathi strike,
the nearby system the humans called Locanda. Warriors of the Empire need not
hold back any longer . . . .
     "Hunt  Flight,  Hunt  Flight,  this is  Sar'hrai  Command."  The  voice
belonged to  Khantahr  Baron  Vurrig  nar  Tsahl,  the  carrier's commanding
officer. "Remember standing orders. Engage all enemy craft encountered . . .
but if you identify  the fighter belonging to the renegade Ralgha, he is not
to be attacked.  Repeat,  on positive  identification  of the  Terran  pilot
called Ralgha, or Hobbes, break off action and do not press the attack."
     The order made Arrak want to snarl in defiance. Didn't the High Command
realize what a problem it  was distinguishing Terran fighters in combat? The
orders  had been  issued  since the  arrival of  the  Terran ship. They  had
already deprived  Arrak of the chance to  score a  kill against the renegade
the  day before, his  one chance  of  real  action  to  date. Kilrathi ships
monitored  Terran  communications  closely  to  track the movements  of  the
renegade, and a pilot in the Talon Squadron was executed by the Khantahr for
protesting  those orders in  the name of  a  feud between  his clan and  the
renegade.
     Clearly the orders  came from very high up indeed, if they  overrode  a
clan feud. Arrak heard a rumor that the order originated within the Imperial
Palace,  which meant  Crown  Prince  Thrakhath  must  have  taken a personal
interest in the matter. But it  would  not  be easy, in  the heat of a major
battle, to carry out those instructions.
     The  renegade was  better  dead  anyway.  Years  ago  he  had defected,
carrying an  entire capital  ship  and  enough vital secrets to set back the
Imperial war effort by a decade. Since that time, the scum  (once a  Lord of
the Empire but now  nothing more than  an  outcast) actually dared fly human
fighters against his own kind.
     Well, the confusion of  battle made it  difficult to  know  when orders
were  violated  accidentally . . . or deliberately. And given  any chance at
all, Arrak knew he would  not turn from destroying the traitor Ralgha if the
chance presented itself.
     "Hunt Flight," he said, exulting at the approach of battle. "Prepare to
engage!"

     Thunderbolt 300 Tamayo System

     "Here they come!"
     "Maintain  formation. Meet the  enemy with  overwhelming  force, and he
will be ours."
     "Look sharp, people . . ."
     The voices on the radio were growing  more and more excited, except for
the  rigidly  controlled  growl  from  Hobbes.  Blair  could  feel  his  own
adrenaline pumping  as if he was already on the firing line beside the other
pilots. He fought to keep from adding encouraging comments of his own to the
radio traffic that was already out there.
     He checked his autopilot display again. ETA four minutes . . .
     Blair  was torn  between  waiting for  the  outlying  patrol  ships  to
assemble and refuel so the  entire force could  strike at once, and plunging
straight into  the  fray  as  quickly as  he  and Flint could to  reach  the
vicinity of  the Victory. Eisen had urged them not to lose  any time,  but a
larger relief force would certainly have been worth a few extra minutes.
     In the  end, though, Blair had decided that he and Flint needed to join
the  others as quickly as possible. The question of  how well  Hobbes  could
control the wing loomed over him in addition to the potential ill effects on
morale if Blair missed the  second large-scale fight mounted  by his  flight
wing. So he  left instructions for  the  two interceptor  patrols to form  a
single  relief  flight,  but he and  Flint were already  on their  way  into
battle.
     He was  glad  of the decision now.  It would be four minutes before the
two  Thunderbolts could  join  their  comrades, and in combat,  four minutes
could be an eternity.
     "They're breaking formation," a voice announced.  Blair  thought it was
Lieutenant Chang. "Starting their attack runs . . . now!"
     "I've  got the  first hairball," Maniac  Marshall  announced. "Watch my
tail, Sandman."
     "Do not lose contact  with your wingmen," Ralgha's voice urged. "And do
not let them draw you away from the carrier."
     From the chatter, Blair could  picture the unfolding battle even before
Rollins fed him tactical information on his  monitors. They counted at least
thirty incoming Kilrathi ships, a mix of  Dralthi and lighter Darket, ranged
against  eighteen  Confed  fighters  and  the  larger  but  less  responsive
hull-mounted defensive batteries aboard Victory.  From the sound of  things,
Hobbes was trying to  keep the Terran craft in  a rough defensive line, with
paired wingmen watching over one another.  But hotheads  like  Marshall were
likely to let  themselves be distracted  by  individual  opponents and drawn
into dogfights, forgetting the big picture.
     The Kilrathi had  ships to spare. They  would still be able  to  hurl a
powerful force against the Terran carrier after  all  the screening fighters
were accounted for.
     "I've got  the  next one."  That voice,  cold  and deadly, belonged  to
Lieutenant Buckley. Another pilot easily drawn by the enemy, if she took her
attitude into the cockpit with her. "See how you like this, kitty!"
     "I always heard  about target-rich environments!" Blair  recognized the
voice  as belonging to Captain Max  "Mad Max" Lewis, another  Gold  Squadron
pilot. "C'mon, Vaquero, let's show em a thing or two!"
     "Scratch one!  Scratch one! We have achieved  kitty litter!" Marshall's
cry was triumphant.
     "Make  that  two," Cobra chimed in a moment later. Despite the depth of
her  hatred, she  sounded as  tightly  controlled  as Hobbes, as if the wild
passion were translated into a cold, deadly intensity.
     Blair checked his autopilot. Two minutes . . .
     "Flint,  go to  afterburners,"  he  ordered. "Full power. Let's get  up
there!" He shoved his throttles fully into the  red  zone, feeling the extra
G-force press him against his seat.
     "Maniac! Maniac! I've got two on my tail! Give me a hand, Maniac!" That
was Marshall's wingman, Lieutenant Alex Sanders, running name Sandman. After
a pause, he went on, voice rising with excitement . . . or panic. "For God's
sake, Maniac, give me a hand!"
     "Break left on my signal, Sandman," Ralgha's voice cut him off. "Steady
. . . steady . . . break!"
     The  tactical  sensors were picking up details  of the  battle now, and
Blair watched as the symbols representing Hobbes and Vagabond moved together
to support the beleaguered Sanders. Maniac Marshall was far away now, almost
at the  limit of the scans, hotly  engaged with a Dralthi and  paying little
attention to the other Confed pilots.
     One of the  Kilrathi ships  pursuing  Sandrnan  disappeared  under  the
onslaught of Ralgha's sudden attack,  while Chang dove in toward  the second
and forced it to break off.
     "Thanks, Hobbes,"  Sanders said,  a little  breathless  now.  "I  . . .
thanks."
     "I'm hit! Front armors gone .  . . my shields . . ."  Mad Max Lewis was
almost incoherent. "He's coming in for another pass . . . Noooooo!!"
     The  symbol  representing the  Terran  Thunderbolt faded  from  Blair's
tactical  screen. The  rest  of  the fighters were jumbled together, a  mad,
chaotic dance played on the screen while Blair clenched his hands around his
steering yoke in frustration. Gold Squadron was fully engaged now, while the
lighter  craft of  Red Squadron  operated on  the  fringes  of  the  battle,
surrounding any Kilrathi ships that penetrated the defensive  line.  But the
sheer weight of numbers began to play a major role as more and more Kilrathi
pilots jumped into the fray. Even though they flew as individuals, they were
still a team determinedly pressing their Terran opponents.
     "Enemy   coming  into  range,  Colonel!"  Flint  warned.  "What's  your
pleasure?"
     "Stick close, Flint," he said, powering up his weapons and locking  his
targeting array on the nearest Dralthi. "And watch my back. Things are going
to get pretty damned rough out here in a second or two!"
     His target chased a Thunderbolt, the two fighters circling each  other,
attempting to find some type of advantage. Now, as Blair and Flint appeared,
the  Dralthi broke  off and rolled left,  dodging and  juking as it tried to
gain some distance.
     "Not this  time,  fuzzball," Blair said, lining up  the  crosshairs and
opening fire with his blasters. The energy bolts  raked along the top of the
enemy  fighter, hitting  directly  behind  the cockpit,  between two  large,
forward-sweeping bat-wings.  The Kilrathi  fighter  seemed  to  stagger  and
wrenched away to port as the pilot tried  to evade. Blair used his thrusters
to spin  his ship  in  flight and lined  up on  the Dralthi again before the
Kilrathi could finish his turn.
     His  fingers tightened  over  the  firing  stud, and  the blasters tore
through the weakened shields and armor. The fighter disappeared in a ball of
flame  and spinning debris. "Got  him!" Blair  said.  He checked his  sensor
rnonitor for a fresh target.
     "Thanks for the assist, Colonel," said the pilot of the  fighter he had
rescued. It was Lieutenant Mitchell Lopez, Vaquero,  who had been  Mad Max's
wingman.
     "Welcome to the  battle,  my friend," Ralgha said. "Will  you take over
the command?"
     "I  relieve you,  Hobbes," Blair told him.  "Gold Squadron, from Blair.
Reform on me! You're getting too damned spread out. Repeat, reform  skirmish
line around me. Hobbes, what's the story?"
     "One  Thunderbolt and  two  Hellcats destroyed,  Colonel,"  Ralgha said
formally. "And Lieutenant Jaeger's Thunderbolt is severely damaged."
     "Right. Jaeger, disengage.  If you  think you can make  a safe landing,
get  back to the carrier. Otherwise pull  back and we'll help you in  later.
Who's your wingman?"
     "Cobra, sir," Helmut "Beast" Jaeger responded.
     "Okay. Vaquero, Cobra, you're teamed now. Cover Beast's withdrawal  and
then get back in formation. Got me?"
     "Understood," Vaquero replied.
     There was a  pause before Cobra spoke up.  The tactical display  showed
she was still engaged with a Darket, but her opponent suddenly vanished from
the screen. "I'm on it, Colonel," Lieutenant Buckley said at last. "Let's do
it, Vaquero, so we can get back in there and kill us some cats!"
     The three Thunderbolts  peeled  off, while the rest of the Terran craft
began to take their positions around Blair and Flint . . . all except one.
     "Marshall!" Blair rasped. "Maniac, if you don't get your tail back here
I'll open fire on you myself!"
     "Coming, Mother," Maniac responded, unabashed.
     The  fighting was still going on,  and Blair  restrained  himself  from
flinging  himself  into  the action  as  he issued  orders  and  studied the
tactical situation. By now the  battle had moved close enough to the Victory
for the carrier's big guns to join in the defense, and that  was forcing the
Kilrathi force  to  be  cautious. Their casualties  were  heavier  than  the
Terrans', but they still  outnumbered Blair's command slightly, and more  of
their ships  were  comparatively fresh  and undamaged. The odds still didn't
look too good.
     Blair's mind  raced, grappling with the tactical picture on his screen.
Somehow the Terrans had to take the initiative force the Kilrathi  to battle
under  conditions favoring the defenders. Victory's guns would go a long way
toward redressing the balance. So would the four interceptors, but they were
still at  least six minutes away, and after  the initial  surprise  of their
arrival   they  could  not  sustain   a   long-term  advantage  under  these
circumstances. What  they  needed was a  way  to  maximize all of the Terran
assets in one thrust, something the Kilrathi would not see coming.
     He  found  himself  smiling  grimly  under  his helmet.  There  was one
maneuver that just might work . . .
     "Kennel, Kennel, this is Watchdog Leader," he said urgently. "Come  in,
Kennel."
     "Reading you, Colonel," Rollins replied.
     "Go to tight-beam and scramble,"  he ordered, switching the circuits on
his comm system. A moment  later  a green light  shimmered  under  the  comm
screen, indicating that Rollins  had  set up a tight laser-link  between the
carrier and his fighter. The system  was excellent for secure communications
between large ships or between the carrier and an individual fighter, but it
was inefficient for ship-to-ship transmissions between fighters due to their
smaller size, higher speeds, and unpredictable maneuvering.
     But what Blair wanted to do now must be kept secret until his trap  was
sprung.
     "I want you to  pass the word to each  fighter, Lieutenant," Blair said
without preamble. "New orders for all ships. On my mark . . .

     Hunt Leader Tamayo System

     Flight Commander Arrak  gave a snarl of triumph as he  listened to  the
computer translation of the Terran command frequency radio broadcasts.
     We can't  take any more of this!"  the human commander was saying. "All
ships, break off and withdraw! Break off while you still can!"
     That was what Arrak had been waiting to hear. The Terrans put up a good
fight, but they were outnumbered and  outgunned,  and he  knew they would be
stretched too thin sooner or later. This was his chance.
     "They are beginning  to withdraw," he  said, the battle madness singing
inside him. Concentrate fire on the carrier. We will deal with the apes once
the capital ship is destroyed!"
     On his  tactical screen, the Terran fighters were breaking off to  flee
past the covering bulk of the carrier. Arrak showed his fangs and pushed his
throttles forward. He sensed a moment's regret  that he was unable to corner
the ship he had identified as the renegade's, but his duty now was clear.
     The  renegade would still be out there,  and helpless, once the carrier
was destroyed.
     "Talons  of  the Emperor!" he  called,  the  old  battle cry making him
tremble with anticipation of glory. "Attack! Attack! Attack!"




     Thunderbolt 300 Tamayo System

     "They're heading in," Blair said. "Look sharp, people."  On his screen,
he  saw the blips representing the Kilrathi attack force gathering speed  as
they advanced  toward the Victory. With the Terran fighters withdrawing from
the battle, the Kilrathi could begin high-speed  attack runs on the carrier,
using  maneuverability  and  velocity  to evade  the beams from  the capital
ship's defensive batteries. It was exactly the kind of situation every pilot
hoped for: a  big, clumsy  carrier stripped  of its  defensive fighters  and
lying almost helpless against a massed bombing run.
     Only this  time, the  carrier  wouldn't  be quite  as  helpless as  she
appeared . . .
     "Captain says any time you're ready, Colonel," Rollins said, a note  of
worry creeping into his voice.
     He  didn't  let the lieutenant's  fears push him into  acting too soon.
Blair checked his sensors again,  saw  the four interceptors beginning their
swing  to bring them squarely  behind the  attackers.  His own fighters  had
started  this  maneuver  feigning  panic and disorder,  but  now  they  were
beginning to reform into four distinct groups.
     The time was almost right . . .
     "Execute!" He almost shouted the order as he wrenched the steering yoke
fiercely  and advanced the throttles into the afterburner red zone again. By
the  time this counterthrust was over  he  would be nearly  dry  again,  but
hopefully none  of the Confed  fighters would  need  any fuel reserves after
this. "Execute turn and attack at will!"
     Inevitably, someone  it sounded like Maniac  gave a whoop and shouted
"Who's Will?" Blair ignored it and concentrated on the enemy ships clustered
ahead.
     The carrier opened fire with a barrage  from her main batteries. One of
the attackers  flew straight into the  beams. It came  apart, looking like a
spectacular fireball that seemed to herald the beginning of the new phase of
this savage fight.
     Blair hoped it would be the final phase.

     Hunt Leader Tamayo System

     "It is a trap! The apes have set a trap!"
     Arrak  somehow  refrained  from  cursing or snarling,  but despite  his
control he still thought longingly of sinking his fangs into the neck of the
pilot,  whoever  he  was  who  filled the comm  channel  with  his  inspired
revelations of the obvious. Yes, the apes had set a trap, drawn his fighters
in closer to  the  Terran carrier where they  would  be  caught  between the
capital ship's big guns and four . . . no, make it five converging groups of
fighters. There were  more Confederation  craft out there  now,  a whole new
group that had  not  been in  the fight  until now. It was a masterful trap,
worthy of a Kilrathi hunter.
     "Break off!" he snarled. "Break off the action against the  carrier and
regroup. It seems we have to give the hairless apes another lesson before we
can finish this."
     Then  he had no more time for talk.  A  pair  of  heavy Terran fighters
suddenly appeared out  of nowhere and were trying to lock onto  him from the
rear.  Arrak needed all his skill and concentration to keep  the enemy  from
winning  that  decisive  advantage.  He  pulled  a  tight,  high-G  turn  to
starboard, using his attitude thruster to make the Dralthi swing around even
faster,  and opened fire with all guns at  once. The Terran fighters shields
absorbed most of  the damage, but his sensors  registered a hit  against the
underlying armor as well.
     "You fly well," the Terran pilot commented, using the standard Imperial
tactical band. "Are you  worth  fighting? Declare yourself if you  wish  the
honor of battle with Ralgha nar Hhallas."
     Arrak  showed  his  fangs  under  his flight  helmet. The renegade!  He
couldn't reply, lest he reveal to his superiors his disobedience of standing
orders, but he could defend himself against the enemy attack . . .
     The Kilrathi passed mere meters from  the Terran  fighter, close enough
to see the bulky spacesuited shape of his adversary through the viewport.
     It would be a battle to remember.

     Thunderbolt 300 Tamayo System

     "A hit! A hit! That'll show the kitty who's the boss!"
     "Rein it in, Maniac, and  do  your job," Blair snapped. He lined  up  a
shot  and launched  a heat-seeker at the nearest  Darket,  his  eyes already
searching the sensor screen for a fresh target. He hardly needed  to look to
know  when  the lighter Kilrathi  ship  blew  up. He  had encountered  these
fighters often enough  over the years to  know  just  about  what  level  of
punishment they could take, and he was rarely wrong.
     Close by,  Flint was heavily engaged with a  Dralthi, the  two fighters
weaving a complex pattern as they circled and dodged, looking for a moment's
advantage to administer a lethal strike.
     "You  need  an  assist,  Flint?"  Blair  asked,  steering  toward   the
dogfighters.
     The  Thunderbolt delivered a sustained burst of  energy  beams  at  the
Dralthi and dived in hard and fast. "Find your  own  party,  Colonel," Flint
said. "This furball is all mine!"
     A pair  of missiles streaked from the underside of her wings and struck
home  just above  the  Dralthis  engine  mountings.  An  expanding  ball  of
superheated gas and  whirling debris  consumed the Kilrathi ship, and Peters
drove her Thunderbolt straight through the fireball with a triumphant shout,
"Yes! That's another one for you, Davie!"
     Blair wondered who she was  talking about or to, but only for a moment.
His attention  returned  to  the  monitor  showing the  Terran  trap closing
perfectly.  By having Rollins  pass his orders  by tight-beam communications
links, he  was able to  prime  the entire Terran force to fall back  on  his
broadcast command.  It looked and  sounded like a panic-stricken withdrawal,
but  in  fact  everyone  knew  their  precise   jobs  and  prepared  for   a
counterattack as soon as he gave the signal. Now the carrier was laying down
a  withering barrage, and the four  refueled interceptors from Blue Squadron
appeared  to join the Hellcats and  Thunderbolts in  closing  off the  enemy
escape route.
     Now the Terran fighters were spread in a rough hemispherical formation,
trying to keep the Kilrathi  from escaping the trap. Even if  they did,  the
Kilrathi  took  heavy  losses in the counterthrust. They knew they were in a
fight, that much was certain.
     "Hobbes, can you help me  out?" That was Vagabond,  his breathing sharp
and rapid. "I got two of these guys all over my tail! I need help  here .  .
."
     "I  cannot  assist,"  Ralgha replied. "My  opponent is pressing me very
hard."
     Blair  checked  his screen, noted the  two  fighters.  They weren't far
away.  "Flint, you  back up  Chang," he ordered.  "I'll backstop Hobbes. Got
it?"
     "Got it," Flint confirmed. "Vagabond, you just keep the little bastards
busy. I'm on the way!
     Ralgha  and  his   opponent  were   well-matched,  though  the  heavier
Thunderbolt  should have given  Hobbes an edge. That was  probably offset by
the fact that the Dralthi was more maneuverable, at least in the hands  of a
good  pilot, and  from the  looks of things  this  one was  little  short of
brilliant. Before  Blair  could  get  into effective  range, the enemy  ship
executed a  perfect  fishhook maneuver,  angling  away  from the Thunderbolt
until just  the  right  moment,  then suddenly  turning back  on itself  and
driving in fast with guns blazing. Somehow Ralgha managed to evade the worst
of the fire  and  loop around to settle on the other pilot's tail as he shot
past,  but a moment  later the  Dralthi applied full  braking thrusters  and
Hobbes shot past him.  Now their roles were reversed, with the  enemy  pilot
tailing Ralgha.
     The targeting  reticule  on  Blair's HUD flashed red, the  signal for a
target  lock. Blair  opened fire, concentrating on  a weakened  spot in  the
Kilrathi's shields. The enemy ship  took a hit, then rolled out  of the line
of fire and accelerated off at an unexpected angle.
     "Damn," Blair muttered. "This guy's good."
     "Agreed,"  Ralgha said gravely. "But not, I think, good enough to fight
us both, my friend. He withdraws now."
     His sensor screen confirmed Ralgha's comment. The enemy pilot was still
accelerating  away from the two Terrans,  evidently  content to  leave  them
alone for the time being.

     Hunt Leader Tamayo System

     Flight Commander  Arrak felt  his blood lust begin  to fade. For a  few
moments  he nearly  lost himself  to  the  battle madness, until  the second
Terran fighter  appeared  and launched its  devastating attack.  Although he
managed  to evade  the worst  of  it the enemy fire  shorted out his weapons
systems and left Arrak without armaments, unable to carry on the dogfight.
     Some Kilrathi pilots might have continued in the battle anyway, seeking
one good chance  to ram an opponent and die  with  his claws figuratively at
the enemy's  throat.  That  was the stuff of  battle songs and the Warrior's
Path. But  Arrak was a flight commander, and he owed duty to his warriors as
well as to  his  Clan and  his  honor.  Right  now it  was  Arrak's duty  to
extricate as many of his  pilots from this debacle as possible. There was no
way that  throwing  himself into a collision with  the renegade  or  another
Terran ship would help to accomplish what needed to be done.
     He  studied his  tactical display with a  sinking feeling that was only
partial regret for failing to  finish the fight. Only one fighter in four of
his  original force of four eights was still  flying, and most of those were
damaged. Still  they broke clear  of  the  Terran  defensive line while  the
Confederation fighters engaged their less fortunate comrades. Now it was the
Imperial force that was outnumbered and outgunned, and there was little hope
of achieving any sort of dramatic success now. They might take  out a few of
the Terrans, but at an even heavier price than they had paid already.
     "All  ships return to Sar'hrai," Arrak ordered  reluctantly.  "Withdraw
and return to Sar'hrai immediately."
     "Flight  Commander, not  all of our comrades have disengaged," a  pilot
argued, snarling  anger. "If we withdraw they  will  fall to  the  fangs and
claws of the apes . . ."
     "Then stay and die with them!" Arrak snapped. "And your Clan will  know
the dishonor of owning  a warrior who disobeys a direct order in the face of
battle!"
     He  didn't wait for a reply. At full acceleration,  the  Dralthi turned
away from  the disastrous battle and  drove  through the empty dark, seeking
the security of home.

     Flight Deck, TCS Victory Tamayo System

     Blair's fighter  was last  to return  after  the  battle,  and  it took
several minutes for the backed-up traffic handlers on the flight deck to get
to him. By the time his Thunderbolt rolled  to a stop in its repair bay, the
deck was fully pressurized and the gravity was restored to Earth-normal. All
three shifts of technicians were assembled to handle the returning fighters,
and there was  a lot of  activity on the deck when Blair finally climbed out
of his cockpit and started toward the entrance to Flight Control.
     A  welcoming committee  met him, not just technicians  and some of  his
pilots  but crewmen  from  every department of the ship,  surging  into  the
expanse of the flight deck, cheering  loudly.  Eisen was  at the head of the
pack, with Lieutenant Rollins close behind him. Rachel Coriolis stood to one
side with a grin on her face, flashing him a thumbs-up sign.
     "Good job, Colonel, Eisen said. "A credit to the ship. You  did the old
girl proud today."
     "Outstanding!"  Rollins  added.  "You  really  outfoxed  those  kitties
today!"
     Blair  returned their smiles, but inside he was  feeling  anything  but
triumphant. They had barely beaten off the Kilrathi attack; a few more enemy
fighters would have turned the tide against  the Terrans. Then there was the
inevitable butcher's bill: Mad  Max Lewis  was dead, along with  five pilots
from  Red Squadron and  one from Blue. Seven dead  out of twenty-four pilots
engaged . . . steep  losses indeed. And some  of  the ones who  made it back
suffered serious  damage  in the fighting. They could easily have lost twice
as many  ships if  the Kilrathi  had only been a little  luckier or a little
better armed.
     Everyone else saw it as a great victory,  but for Blair it was just one
more battle.  One more  chance for good men to die staving off defeat for  a
little  while  longer  without  accomplishing anything  significant  in  the
process. That had been the story of the war for as long as he could remember
now: meaningless victories, defeats that drove the Confederation further and
further down, and always death. Death was the only constant through it all.
     He left the cheering throng behind and pushed through to the steps that
led  up to Flight Control. Maybe the others could celebrate,  but all  Blair
felt like doing now was mourning the dead.

     Flight Wing Rec Room, TCS Victory Tamayo System

     There  was another  victory party  scheduled for the  evening,  and  it
promised to be even  bigger and more  boisterous than the earlier one. Blair
knew he would  have to  put in an appearance, but he decided to drop  by the
rec room early  to  get a drink or two under his belt before things got  too
far out of hand.
     When he arrived, he thought for a moment that he was  already too late.
He  opened  the door to  a  blast  of raucous  music just  as  he had at the
previous  celebration. But  this  time there were  only a  handful of people
clustered around the bar.
     An  officer was  sitting  at the terminal controlling the sound system,
one hand making tiny adjustments to the board while the  other tapped to the
rhythm of  the  music.  The  man  slumped  in  his  chair,  his eyes closed,
completely mesmerized  by the sound. Blair recognized  his aquiline profile.
He was Lieutenant Mitchell  Lopez, callsign Vaquero, the man he had assigned
as wingman for Cobra in the middle of the battle.
     He stood  behind the man and waited for  a long while, wincing a little
at the loud music. When it was clear  that Lopez wasn't planning  to come up
for air any time soon, he finally tapped the pilot on the shoulder.
     "Hey,  man, can't you  have the decency to wait for the piece to  end?"
Vaquero said without opening his eyes.
     "Lieutenant . . ." Blair said the  word blandly,  but Lopez  recognized
his voice  at once. He was out of his chair and standing at attention in one
quick movement.  Blair  had to  fight  to keep  from  smiling at  the  man's
reaction.
     "Uh, sorry, sir,"  Lopez said, stammering  a little. "Didn't expect you
here until the party, sir."
     "At ease, Lieutenant," Blair said, smiling.
     Vaquero relaxed.  He caught the look Blair gave in the direction of the
speakers and hastened to turn down the volume. "Just getting the system  set
for tonight, sir," he explained.
     "Aren't  there  technical  people who're  supposed  to do  that?" Blair
asked.  He gestured to the seat Vaquero had vacated, and when the lieutenant
was sitting, Blair took another chair nearby.
     "The  last guy who did this job had  a  tin ear and  ten thumbs," Lopez
said with a grin. "And his musical taste left a lot to be desired, too. So I
just kind of took over."
     "Musical taste," Blair repeated.
     "Yes, sir.  You know, music really does set the mood. Playing something
with nothing but minor  chords makes  you want to run a suicide mission. But
this  is  different." He waved a  hand toward the board.  "Rockero  from the
Celeste  System. It's bright, it heats your blood, it makes you want to live
a long life."
     Blair gave him a sour look. "It makes me want to put on a flight helmet
to filter out some of the noise," he said, smiling briefly to take the sting
out of  the  comment. "I like  something a little more soothing . . . like a
bagpipe duet or a couple of cats in heat."
     The  Argentine  pilot  laughed. "I  guess  my  musical taste  isn't for
everyone. But I've had no complaints so far . . . until you, that is."
     "I'm   not  complaining,   Lieutenant.  Just  pleading  for  a   little
moderation." Blair signaled a waiter. "Can I buy you something to drink?"
     "Tequila," Vaquero said. The waiter nodded, taking Blair's  order for a
scotch as he left. "That was quite a fight today, wasn't it, Colonel?"
     Blair nodded. "I'll say. We were damned lucky."
     "Yes, sir. Uh . . . thanks again for the way you bailed me out. Thought
I'd played my last tune for sure."
     "Are you a pilot or a musician, Lopez?"
     "Oh, I'm a pilot, sir. Pretty  good one,  too. Check my  kills;  you'll
see." He looked down  at the table. "But  my family,  they made guitars  for
many generations.  I've  got one that's almost  two  hundred years  old. The
sound just gets richer as it gets older, you know?"
     Blair nodded, but didn't speak. There was something  in  the man s eyes
that made him unwilling to break his mood.
     "I'm the first one from my  family to go into  space," Lopez went on  a
moment later.  He  sounded wistful. "The first to be a  fighter instead of a
craftsman or a musician. But some day I'm going to open a cantina and  bring
in  the  best  to play that guitar. We need a place for old  fighter jockeys
like you and me, Colonel, where we can get  together and swap lies about our
battles and tell each other how  much different things are without the war .
. ."
     Blair looked away. It  was a pleasant dream, but  he wondered if  Lopez
would ever  really get his wish.  The  war had existed longer than either of
them had been alive,  and it didn't look like humanity was  likely to end it
soon. He was afraid that the only way the war  would end in his lifetime was
in a Kilrathi victory. More likely  it would claim  them all, and drag on to
claim another generation's hopes and dreams. "Hope there's  enough of us  to
keep you in business, Vaquero," he said quietly.
     "Don't you worry, sir. We'll make it through. And you and I can  sit at
a quiet table,  watch the  beautiful  women  and listen to the music of that
guitar . . ."
     "You still don't sound much like a pilot, Vaquero," Blair told him.
     "Don't get me wrong, sir. I do my job,  whatever it takes. But  some of
the others, they actually like the  killing. Me, I do it because I  have to,
but I take no pleasure from it. And when it's over, I will walk away with no
regrets."

     Command Hall, KIS Hvar'kann Locanda System

     "My Prince,  the  shuttle from the  Sar'hrai has  arrived.  With  Baron
Vurrig and the prisoner."
     Thrakhath,  Crown Prince of  the  Empire of  Kilrah, showed his  teeth.
"Bring  them, Melek," he said, not bothering to  hide the  contempt  in  his
voice. His talons twitched reflexively in their sheaths.
     A  pair of  Imperial Guardsmen ushered  two newcomers before the lonely
throne at the end of the Command Audience Hall. Here, by long tradition, the
noble commander  of a ship in space dispensed justice to the  warriors under
his command. Today Thrakhath upheld that tradition yet again.
     "My Lord Prince." Khantahr Baron Vurrig nar Tsahl  dropped to one knee.
The other officer, hands  in manacles, sank awkwardly  to both knees  beside
the noble. "Sar'hrai is at your command, as ever."
     "Indeed?" Thrakhath  fixed the  Baron with an icy  stare. "I wanted the
jump point from Orsini cut, and the Terran carrier damaged beyond capability
to  interfere  with  Operation  Unseen  Death. But  the  blockade  was  only
partially  effective  and the attack  on  the  carrier  was repulsed without
touching the ape ship. Is that a fair assessment of your performance?"
     "Lord Prince . . ." Vurrig quailed under his stare. "Lord Prince, there
were many . . . complications, especially due to the renegade.  We could not
press  home attacks against ships he escorted  without risking a  breach  of
your orders . . ."
     "This one did, or so your report claimed."
     "Yes,  Lord  Prince.  This  is Flight  Commander  Arrak. He engaged the
traitor in battle despite my specific orders to the contrary."
     "But Ralgha was not harmed?"
     "No, Lord Prince."
     "So, Arrak, you are inept as well as insubordinate, is that it?"
     Arrak  met  Thrakhath's stare with  unexpected spirit. "In battle, Lord
Prince, it is not always so easy to set conditions," he said defiantly.
     Thrakhath  felt a stir of admiration. The  flight commander knew he was
doomed for  his disobedience, so  he  met  his fate with a warrior's  pride.
Baron Vurrig on the other hand, danced and dodged like prey on the run  from
the hunter.
     "Let  Arrak  have  a  warrior's death. He  may  fight any  champion  or
champions  who wish the honor of  dispatching him."  Thrakhath noted Arrak's
nod. He was proud to the bitter end. "As for you, Baron . . . because of you
we  must push back the timetable for  Operation Unseen Death. We must  await
additional ships so that we  may ensure the Terrans not intervening  when we
launch our  strike. You will be  relieved as commander of Sar'hrai . . . and
suffer  the  penalty for  your incompetence. Death .  . .  by isolation. The
coward's end, alone, ignored, cut off until you die from thirst, starvation,
or madness. See to it, Melek."
     "Lord  Prince   " Vurrig  began. He was grabbed by  the guardsmen  and
dragged away, his appeals for mercy echoing hollowly in the chamber.
     "I regret the failure, Lord Prince," Melek said quietly,  "but at least
the renegade came to no harm."
     "We  must  hope that the  War  God continues to  smile on  us,  Melek,"
Thrakhath said coldly.  "The time is not yet ripe to deal with Lord Ralgha .
. . but it is coming. As is the day of our final victory."




     Captain's Ready Room. TCS Victory Tamayo System

     "According to Chief Coriolis, the  last of the battle damage  should be
repaired by this  afternoon," Blair concluded. "So  the wing will  be up and
running . . . except for the ships we lost."
     "Good job, Colonel," Eisen  said. "I'd say three  days is a pretty good
turn-around time, considering the way your fighters looked when they touched
down. Give my compliments to the Chief for a job well done by her techs."
     "Yes, sir. They did a fine job." Blair paused, then cleared his throat.
"About the losses . . ."
     "We've  already  taken  care of the situation,"  Eisen  told  him. "Mr.
Rollins?"
     The Communications  Officer  consulted his portable  computer terminal.
"No  problem at all on the  Hellcats, sir," he said. "The CO at Tamayo  Base
called  for  volunteers  from the  point  defense squadron stationed  there.
They'll be aboard first thing tomorrow."
     "Fast work, Lieutenant," Blair commented.
     "The commander was pleased with the support he's been getting  from the
Navy.  He was eager to help." Rollins frowned. "I'm  not so  sure  about Mad
Max's replacement."
     "What's the problem, Lieutenant?" Eisen asked.
     "There's a  home  defense squadron  on Tamayo that  flies Thunderbolts,
sir,"  Rollins  said  slowly.  "Strictly  reservists, mostly rich  kids  who
figured it  was a good dodge to avoid active military service and still  get
to  wear  a  pretty  uniform and boast about being hot fighter  pilots.  The
squadron was activated  into Confed service when  the  cats  moved  into the
system."
     "Well, we've  had  green  pilots  before," Eisen said. "I  dare say the
Colonel can break in one of these kids fast enough. Or are they being sticky
about transferring someone?"
     "Oh, they're willing  to give  us a pilot and his fighter, sir, Rollins
said. "A little too willing, the way I see it. I think they're  planning  on
handing us one of their discipline problems."
     Eisen shrugged.  "Hardly unusual. We'll just have  to ride him until he
snaps to attention. Right, Colonel?"
     "Or ground him and find another qualified pilot," Blair  said, nodding.
"What makes you think he's going to be a problem, Lieutenant?"
     "Hey, I  told you, Colonel," he responded with a  grin.  "Radio Rollins
always has his ear to the ground. One of my . . . sources at Tamayo Base was
warned by the Home Defense boys that they were  looking for  a place to dump
this guy. I just gotta wonder though, what kind of a screwup gets thrown out
of an HD squadron? Know what I mean?"
     "As long as  he can fly and he's  got a Thunderbolt,  I can  use him in
Gold Squadron," Blair said. "He can't be any  more difficult  to handle than
Maniac Marshall."
     "I hope you and Major Marshall can work out your little  . . . problem,
Colonel," Eisen said  quietly. "I don't like to have this  kind  of conflict
between two senior officers.  Marshall's record is impressive,  even if it's
not quite as outstanding as yours. I'm not sure I understand  why the two of
you have such difficulties with each other."
     "Part  of  it's  purely  personal,  Captain," Blair said.  "We've  been
competing  against each  other  since the  day we  met.  At  least he's been
competing  with  me." He smiled.  "I, of course, am  blameless in the  whole
thing."
     "Of course," Eisen said blandly. Rollins chuckled.
     "But I do my best to keep the personal problems and  the cockpit apart,
Captain," Blair went on seriously. "I mean,  you don't have to like a guy to
serve  with him. But Marshall's  flying  style . . .  it scares me, sir, and
just  about everybody else who flies with him. You saw the tactical tapes on
the battle?"
     Eisen nodded. "Yeah. Marshall  got heavily involved out there  a couple
of times."
     "He chased anything he could see," Blair told him.
     "Hobbes  saved  Sandman  because  Marshall  was  too  busy  playing the
personal glory  game  to support his own wingman. He gets kills, sir, but he
does it by  ignoring the team. You of all people  should know that the  team
must always come first."
     "Sounds like you don't want him on  your team at all," Eisen said. "I'd
rather not try to transfer him . . ."
     "I'm  not asking you to, sir," Blair told him. "Look  Maniac is  not my
idea  of the ideal  wingman,  but he's better than when  we  were on the old
Tiger's Claw together. And despite his lack of discipline, he's a good pilot
who knows how to  score kills. Right  now we need everyone like  that we can
find." He paused. "I  know  you're concerned  about having us  clash,  but I
guarantee that when the Kilrathi come into range we're on  the same side. If
there's one thing we agree on, it's our duty."
     "Glad to hear it, Colonel," the captain said. "I think things are about
to get a lot rougher for us, so I want to he sure we're all up to it."
     "Rougher, sir?" Blair asked.
     Eisen nodded. "That's  the reason for the big scramble to  get the wing
up to  full strength again. We've been  given new orders, Colonel. Seems the
situation in the Locanda  System  is  getting  tense. There has been a sharp
uptick in Kilrathi activity  there, even a couple of sightings that could be
the Hvar'kann, Crown Prince Thrakhath's new flagship. And we know for a fact
the carrier that launched the attack on us,  the Sar'hrai,  withdrew through
the Locanda  jump  point shortly after the  battle.  It  seems  that a major
installation of troops will arrive on Locanda,  so the High Command wants us
to reinforce them.
     "Seems  a  damned  strange  place for  a  push,"  Blair  commented.  He
remembered  the  Locanda  System:  a  struggling  colony  world  with a  few
scattered outposts, all of which  had seen better  days. "Twenty years back,
maybe,  it would have made sense, but they've  tapped out most of the really
valuable mineral resources. When I  was stationed there, they  were  in  the
middle  of  an  economic  depression  because  a  couple  of  their  biggest
industries  decided  to relocate  out-system. I don't see the attraction for
the Empire's attention . . . certainly not the Prince himself."
     "Yeah," Eisen grunted. "Intelligence hasn't  been able to come  up with
anything yet. But ours is not to reason why."
     Rollins looked like he was about to say something, but he didn't. After
a moment's silence, Blair spoke up. "When do we jump?"
     "Two  days.  Time enough to get  our rookies settled  and take on fresh
stores. Then we're out of here."
     "And smack in the  middle of  trouble," Rollins muttered. Blair doubted
that Eisen heard the comment.
     "The flight wing'll be ready, sir," he said formally.
     "Good. If it's true the cats are building around Locanda, we'll have to
be ready for anything." Eisen looked from Blair to  Rollins. "That's all for
now. Dismissed."
     Outside  the ready room door, Blair touched  the comm officer's sleeve.
"A moment, Lieutenant," he said.
     "Sir?"
     "I had the feeling  you knew something more about this Locanda op. Am I
imagining things, or have you been listening to more of your . . . sources?"
     Rollins met  his eyes  with a steady gaze. "You  sure you want  another
dose of paranoia, Colonel?"
     "Cut the crap, Lieutenant. If you know something about this operation .
. ."
     "It's nothing  definite, Colonel," Rollins said reluctantly. "Not  even
from the official channels. Captain doesn't know anything about it."
     "Tell?"
     "I know  a guy  on  General Taggart's  staff  in  Covert  Ops. He  said
Thrakhath was  reportedly working on some new  terror weapon  which was just
about ready for testing. I don't know if  this has anything to do with that,
but if Thrakhath's really in Locanda then this could be the  test.  It makes
sense, when you think about it."
     "How so?"
     "Well, like  you  said,  Locanda's  past  its  prime. It's of  no  real
strategic value, depleted of all valuable resources. The Kilrathi could raid
it for slaves, but they can get slaves anywhere. If they really do have some
new weapon something big enough that it will cause mass destruction, Locanda
Four would be a pretty good place  to try it. Whether it works  or not,  the
cats don t take out anything they want . . . but if it did work, it would be
a pretty damn good demonstration.
     "Any idea what this wonder weapon is?"
     "My guy didn't say.  But I've got my suspicions that Intelligence knows
more than  they're  telling us about  the whole  mess."  Rollins lowered his
voice. "You know those transports we've been trying to pump through the jump
point to Locanda? They've all been medical ships like the  High Command  was
getting ready for a lot of casualties."
     "Bioweapons," Blair said, feeling sick.
     "That's my take,"  the Communications Officer agreed. "Think about  it.
Thrakhath would love to get his hands on  the Confed  infrastructure. Except
for  a  small  stock of slaves, the  Kilrathi  don't  want  humans around to
compete with them. Seeding choice colony worlds with some new kind of plague
would  be the perfect way to kill us with a minimum  of damage to technology
or  resources. If the weapon tests  well,  you can bet the Kilrathi  will be
hitting someplace important the next time around: Earth."
     "Yeah  .  . . maybe. We  certainly showed  em the  way,  back when the
Tarawa made the  raid  on Kilrah  a couple  of years ago. If they've  got an
effective biological  agent and a  reliable  delivery  system,  a handful of
raiders  could wipe us out.  Blair fixed Rollins  with a  stern look. "Still
this is all just speculation, Lieutenant, based on  your leak over at covert
Ops and a lot of guesswork.
     "Theory fits the facts, sir . . ."
     "Maybe so.  But  it's still just a theory  until you get genuine proof.
Don't  spread this around, Rollins. There's no point in getting everybody in
an uproar over a possibility. You read me?"
     The lieutenant  nodded slowly. "Yes,  sir. I'll keep it to  myself. But
you  mark  my words, Colonel, this is going to be one hell of a  nasty fight
this time."

     Flight Control, TCS Victory Tamayo System

     Flight Control  was fully crewed  with a  dozen techs  and  specialists
monitoring the activity going on around the  carrier and on the flight deck.
This morning, Blair  decided to preside over operations himself. He took his
place on the raised platform which  dominated the center  of the compartment
at  a horseshoe-shaped  console  that  could  tap  into all aspects of  wing
activities.
     "Last of the new Hellcats is down and safe, Colonel,"  a  tech reported
from a nearby work station.  "Deck  will be clear for the Thunderbolt in two
minutes."
     "Two minutes,  Blair repeated. "Well, Major,  what do you  think?  Will
they do?"
     Major  Daniel  Whittaker,  Red  Squadron's  CO,  watched  over  Blair's
shoulder while the new arrivals were coming in. He was old for his  rank and
position,  with iron-gray  hair  and  an air of  cautious  deliberation. His
callsign  was Warlock,  and  Blair had to admit he could  have passed for  a
high-tech sorcerer.
     "They  fly well enough,"  Whittaker  said  quietly. "I've  seen  better
carrier  landings,  but  these  boys and girls have  been rotting  away in a
planetside  base where you don't  get much chance  to  practice carrier ops.
We'll whip them into shape quick enough, I'd say."
     "We'll have to, Major. If the bad guys are out in force around Locanda,
point defense will get a real workout."
     "Thunderbolt  HD  Seven-zero-two,  you  are cleared  for  approach,"  a
speaker announced. "Feeding approach vectors to your navcomp . . . now."
     Blair  turned  his attention  back  to  the  external camera view.  The
computer  enhanced the image so he could see the Thunderbolt clearly against
the backdrop of brilliant  stars.  As he watched,  he could see the flare of
the fighter's engines  as  the pilot maneuvered his ship onto  its  approach
path.
     "What the hell  is that idiot doing?" someone  demanded. "He's ignoring
the approach vectors we're feeding him!"
     "HD  Seven-zero-two, you are deviating from flight plan," the comm tech
said. "Recheck approach vectors and assume designated course.
     The image on Blair's screen  swelled as  the fighter stooped in  toward
the carrier,  still  gathering  speed.  Blair  punched up a computer  course
projection  and  was relieved  to see  that  the projected flight path would
cause the ship to steer clear of  the  carrier, but it would be a near miss.
If the idiot deviated from his path now, he could easily dive right into the
deck. "Belay  that  transmission,"  he snapped,  "and  have the  flight deck
emergency crews on standby."
     An alarm,  low but insistent,  rang across  the flight deck, and  Blair
could see technicians scrambling to their emergency stations.
     The  Thunderbolt  streaked  over  the  flight deck with  bare meters to
spare, executing a roll-over as it passed. Then it looped away,  killing its
speed  with  a sharp  braking  thrust  and dropping  effortlessly  into  the
original approach path. Blair let out a sigh of relief.
     "He's on target," someone announced laconically.
     "He  does that again  and he'll be a target," someone  else said. Blair
shared the sentiment. Rollins had warned Blair that the new pilot was likely
to be  a problem, but he'd never  imagined the man would pull a stupid stunt
even  before  he  reported  aboard.  Fancy  victory  rolls  looked  good  in
holomovies and stunt  flying  by  elite  fighter show  teams, but  they were
strictly prohibited in normal carrier operations.
     The new pilot had a lot to learn.
     The   Thunderbolt  performed  perfectly,  hitting   the  tractor  beams
precisely and touching the deck in a landing maneuver  that could have  been
used  in  an Academy training  film. Moments later,  the fighter rolled to a
stop  inside the hangar deck. Gravity  and pressure were quickly restored as
the technicians secured from their emergency preparations.
     Blair, seething,  was  on  his way  to the deck before the gravity  hit
one-half G.
     The pilot climbed down the ladder from his cockpit and paused to remove
his helmet, an ornately decorated rig which carried the word FLASH in bright
letters, presumably his running name. He was a young man, under thirty  from
his  appearance, but his flight suit carried a  major's insignia. He glanced
around the hangar with an easy grin,  stopped to wipe away a  speck  on  the
underside of  the  Thunderbolt's wing,  then sauntered  casually  toward the
exit. He seemed completely oblivious to Blair.
     "Hold it right there, Mister," Blair snapped.
     The man  gave  him a quick look that  turned into  a double-take as  he
caught sight of the bird insignia on Blair's collar  tabs.  He drew  himself
erect in something that approximated attention and rendered a casual salute.
"Didn't expect a high-ranking welcoming  committee, sir," he said. His tones
were  lazy,  relaxed. "Major  Jace  Dillon,  Tamayo  Home  Defense  Airspace
Command. I'm your replacement pilot."
     "That remains to be seen," Blair said. "What's the idea of pulling that
damned stunt on your approach, Dillon?"
     "Stunt, sir? Oh,  the flyby. Hell, Colonel, it was just a little bit of
showmanship. They don't call me Flash for nothing, you know." Dillon paused,
seeming to realize the depth of Blair's anger for the first time. "Look, I'm
sorry  if I  did something wrong. I just thought  I had to show  you Regular
boys that  Home  Defense isn't a  bunch of no-talent weekend warriors,  like
everybody thinks. Figured if you saw I knew how to handle my bird then you'd
know I could pull my weight, that's all."
     Blair didn't  answer right away. He could almost  understand  the man's
thinking. Home Defense  units had  a poor reputation with the  regular Navy,
often  entirely undeserved. There had been  a time, back when Blair was this
kid's age, that he might have pulled the same kind of stunt to  make a point
with a new command.
     "All right,  Dillon, you can fly. You proved that much. Next time I see
you in that bird of yours you better show me you know how to obey regs, too.
You hear me?"
     "Yes, sir," Dillon replied.
     "Your Home Defense unit. . . does it use standard Confed ranks?"
     "Yes, Colonel."
     "And you're a major . . ."
     Dillon flushed. "Yes, sir, I am."
     "I find that a little difficult to believe, Dillon.  A major is usually
more seasoned."
     "The rank's  legitimate, sir,"  Dillon  said, sounding defensive. "Rank
earned in Home Defense units is automatically granted in the Confed Regulars
upon activation of the unit."
     "Of  course."  Blair studied him for a  moment. "So you  hold a major's
commission in the Home  Defense. Let me guess . . . your father's either the
unit commander or a prominent local backer who helped fund the unit, and you
were bumped through the ranks to Major in consequence, right?"
     "Sir, I'm fully qualified as a pilot . . ."
     "We   established   that,   Major.   I'm   interested  in   your   rank
qualifications. Is my assessment correct?"
     Dillon nodded reluctantly. "My  father donated some funds when the unit
was put together," he admitted.
     "But  the  rank is legitimate,  sir. I  was a test pilot  with  Camelot
Industries before I signed on  with  the HDS and I've been with  my squadron
for two years now."
     "Two years," Blair repeated. "Any combat action?"
     "Er. . . no, sir."
     He  sighed. "Well, Dillon, you're a  major  in the  Confed  Navy Flight
Branch  now,  heaven  help you .  .  .  and the  rest of us. Try to  conduct
yourself as a responsible officer  of this  ship and this flight wing. Do  I
make myself clear?"
     "Yes, Colonel."
     "Then . . . welcome aboard, Major Dillon. Report to Lieutenant  Colonel
Ralgha for indoctrination and assignments. You're dismissed."
     He watched the young man leave the hangar not quite as cocky or relaxed
any  longer. It seemed  that the  Home Defense  squadron had truly  dumped a
hard-shelled case on the Navy. Dillon was an inexperienced kid who carried a
major's rank and the powerful protection of a wealthy family to boot. Dillon
would soon  learn that neither  benefit would mean much  when the wing  went
into action. It  was ironic, in a way His  father had probably  put him into
the HDS to get him out of the dangerous job of test pilot
     Blair found himself hoping the  kid would not  have to learn his lesson
the hard  way.  Not that he particularly cared  what happened  to this young
showoff. .  . but if he turned out to be the weak link in the wing, he could
take better men and women down with him before it was all over.

     Wing Commander's Office, TCS Victory Locanda System

     The  ship completed the jump  to the Locanda  System and  began  normal
operations  immediately.  Blair  spent   a  long  day  in  Flight   Control,
supervising the first patrols dispatched to scout the region of space around
the jump point and trying to get a feel  for the  new pilots in his command.
As Whittaker had predicted, the new additions to  Red  Squadron seemed to be
settling  in well, but Flash was another matter. It still  bothered Blair to
have an  inexperienced combat  pilot with such a  high rank, and the problem
had caused him a sleepless night before he finally decided how to handle it.
     He needed  to team Dillon with  a wingman who  outranked him, that much
was evident.  Let Flash be the ranking officer on some patrol mission  which
ran  into trouble and the result would be disaster. Blair knew he would have
to match Dillon  with either himself Hobbes,  or Maniac Marshall   the only
three pilots  in Gold  Squadron with the  rank to  keep  Dillon  under tight
control.
     Blair was  sorely tempted to assign Flash  as Maniac's wingman. The two
deserved each other, and it  might have been a valuable lesson for  Marshall
to see what it was like to fly with someone unreliable on his wing. But that
would  have been  a  risky  choice  at best. If Maniac didn't  rise  to  the
challenge, Blair would end up  with two dead pilots. Even unreliable fighter
jocks were assets not to be squandered so carelessly.
     So the choice remained between himself and Hobbes. He hesitated over it
for  a  long time before finally  putting Flash on Ralgha's wing. Blair  was
concerned that he was  letting  his  personal distaste  for the  younger man
cloud  his judgment. but in the end, he decided that the Kilrathi renegade's
calm, tightly-controlled manner was  the  right  counterbalance to  Dillon's
inexperience and enthusiasm.
     Flash accepted the match-up with  equanimity. Apparently he harbored no
special  feelings  against  the  Kilrathi,  and seemed content to  fly  with
Hobbes.  The  two  left on patrol  soon  after the jump  and the patrol  was
successful, without incident.
     But Blair  found  himself resenting the necessity  which forced him  to
assign Hobbes and Flash together. He missed flying with Ralgha on  his wing.
Flint  had  done a competent job, and he had  flown a couple of patrols with
Vaquero that went well,  but it wasn't the same. He  still  didn't know  the
others in the squadron the way he knew Hobbes, and he couldn't count on them
to know his mind the way the Kilrathi always did.
     Blair wearily straightened in his desk chair. Sometimes it seemed as if
he  would  never get a  handle on the assignment to Victory.  He  had always
found  it easy  to  meld  into a  new  ship's  company,  but  this  time was
different. He came on board  determined to remain distant  from  the others.
Blair needed to avoid getting too close, as he had done with his comrades on
the  Concordia.  Blair doubted  he could handle  losing another  shipload of
friends .  .  . but he was finding it difficult to deal with day-to-day life
among  people who were still essentially strangers. Perhaps  he had made the
wrong decision from the start.
     He slowly rose. The day's work was done  and his bunk  was  waiting for
him.
     All that really seemed  to matter anymore was getting  through one more
day, performing his duties,  and somehow staying sane in the  face  of a war
that seemed more insane every day. It was a far cry from the dreams of glory
that had once beckoned Christopher Blair into the life of a  fighter  pilot,
but duty  simple and straightforward  was all that remained for him.




     Flight Wing Rec Room, TCS Victory Locanda System

     At first  glance, there were no customers in the  Rec  Room when  Blair
entered,  only  the grizzled  old  petty  officer who ran  the bar. He was a
member of the crew from  the old Leningrad years ago; one of the handful  of
survivors who managed to escape the Kilrathi attack that destroyed her.  The
wounds  he suffered in the escape were enough to have him  invalided  out of
active duty, but Dmitri Rostov loved the Service too much to  really retire.
So he tended bar and swapped  stories about the  old days, never complaining
about the arm and the eye sacrificed in the service of the Confederation.
     Ironically,  Leningrad  was  destroyed  by  the  Imperial  cruiser  Ras
Nik'hra, under the command  of Ralgha  nar Hhallas  before  his decision  to
defect. Blair had been pleasantly surprised to learn that Rostov didn't seem
to hold  a grudge  against the  Kilrathi, indeed he rather seemed  to  enjoy
talking to the renegade when Hobbes came in to drink.
     It was  a pity some of the people who served with  the  Kilrathi  pilot
could not bury the hatchet the same way.
     "Hey, Rosty, how's it going?" Blair  gave  him  a friendly wave. "Don't
tell me none of my drunks are hanging out here tonight."
     Rostov shrugged  and grunted  as Blair  approached  the bar,  gesturing
toward the observation window on the far side of the compartment. One lonely
figure stood framed against the star field, staring out at the  void. It was
Flint.
     "A slow night  tonight, Comrade Colonel," Rostov agreed. He  ventured a
heavy  smile. "Perhaps you work them too hard, tire them out too much.  Even
when I get a customer, it is to look, not to drink."
     "I'll take  a  scotch,"  Blair  said.  He  waited  while  the one-armed
bartender  programmed  the  order then  handed  him  the  glass,  using  his
thumbprint to charge the drink to his account. "Thanks, Bear."
     He crossed to  the window where Flint stood,  but didn't speak. Part of
him wanted to respect her privacy, but  another part wanted to draw her out,
discover something  about the  woman  behind  the  barriers she  put  around
herself. She was his  wingman, and Blair needed to know more about her, even
if she was reluctant to be open with others.
     The lieutenant seemed  totally absorbed in her own thoughts, and  Blair
doubted she even noticed him. But after a moment  she glanced at him. "Sir,"
she  said quietly.  That one word carried  a range of emotion,  sadness, and
loneliness  mixed with a hint of  stubborn pride, exposing  a  glimpse  into
Flint's soul.
     "I  didn't mean to disturb  you,  Lieutenant," Blair  said. "I was just
wondering what it was about the view that had you so . . . involved."
     "Just . . . thinking,'' she said reluctantly.
     "I  flew  here once," Blair went on. "A lot of places to  hide  in this
system, with the moons and the asteroids. Your first time?"
     Flint  shook  her head ruefully. "This is my home system sir," she told
him. "My father commanded a Home Defense squadron after we settled here from
Earth. Taught me everything he knew about flying."
     "A family tradition, then," Blair commented.
     She looked away. "He planned to pass it on to my brother David, but . .
. the Kilrathi had their own plans."
     "I'm  sorry," Blair said,  knowing  the inadequacy of words.  He should
never have questioned her, dredging up the past this way.
     "Everyone's  lost someone, I guess,"  Flint said  with  a little shrug.
"They  don't  give you medals  for it. But  coming back like  this  . . . it
brings back a lot of memories, is  all.  A  lot of stuff I  haven't  thought
about since I went away to the Academy."
     "You haven't been back since then?"
     She shook her head. "Not much point. My mother took Davie's death hard.
She just . . . gave up. He died when I was fifteen. My Dad was killed in the
cockpit fighting  the cats  when they raided here the year after I  left. He
scored twenty-one kills over the years after Davie was  killed. He said each
one of them was dedicated to Davie's memory, so he'd have a proper escort of
cats  to join him in the afterlife. They said . . . they said he died trying
to  nail  number  twenty-two, which would have  matched Davie's age, but Dad
didn't make  it."  Her voice was flat, level,  but Blair could see a hint of
tears in her eyes. "I've made eighteen kills since I left the Academy.  Four
more  for  Davie, and then I start racking them  up  for Dad. Maybe  I won't
score fifty-seven for him, but I'm damned well going to try."
     Blair didn't say anything for a long time. He wasn't sure what bothered
him   most,  the  woman  s  preoccupation  with  vengeance   or  the   cold,
matter-of-fact  way she  talked about it.  It was almost as  if she  was  so
wrapped up  in her quest that she had lost touch with the emotions  that set
her on the path in the first place.
     Finally  he changed the subject, gesturing toward  the viewport. "Which
one was home?"
     She pointed to a distant  gleam of blue-green, barely  showing  a disk.
"Locanda Four. The main colony world." She paused. "It's a pretty  world . .
. or it was.  Dark purple  nights, with bright  moons that chased each other
across the sky. The insects would sing  . . . different serenades, depending
on the closeness of the moons. Davie and I would sit up late  together, just
listening . . ."
     "I  could try to  get you some planet leave, while  we're  here," Blair
offered. "You must have some family left? Or friends, at least?"
     "Just  my uncle's family," she said. "I haven't been in  touch with any
of them for  years." Flint hesitated,  still staring at the distant point of
light that had been her home. "No, thanks, Colonel. I appreciate  the offer,
I really do, but I've got too much  I  need to  do here with the rest of the
wing.  I can't be on the  sidelines if the cats are really planning a fight.
Not here of all places. I need to be a part of whatever comes down."
     Blair studied her with a penetratingly probing gaze. "Look,  Flint," he
said at last, "I know something about the way you feel. Lord knows I've lost
many people who were  important to me over the years. But when we climb into
our  cockpits and get out there in space, I'm not sure  I can  afford  to be
with both you and your brother on my wing. I need you fighting for yourself,
for the  Wing,  for the ship  . . . not for a memory, not  for vengeance. It
cost your father his life. I don't want you to have to pay the same price."
     She  looked at him, the  tears in  her eyes catching the light. "I just
can't give up now, Colonel," she told him. "It's too much a part of who I am
and what I've become. You've seen me fly; seen me fight. You  know I can get
the job done. Don't take it away from me. Please . . ."
     Blair  took a long time to  answer, sipping  his drink  to give himself
more time  to think.  "All right," he said  at  last.  "I guess  you're  not
carrying around  any more baggage than the rest of us. Maniac's still trying
to prove  he's the best, Hobbes is trying  to live down being from the wrong
damned species,  and Cobra just .  .  .  hates cats.  You're in  pretty good
company, all things considered."
     "What  about  you,  Colonel? What  baggage is Maverick  Blair  carrying
around  after a whole lifetime spent fighting in the war?" Flint's eyes held
a glint of interest that made her whole face seem more alive.
     He thought  about Concordia .  . . and about  Angel,  still  out  there
somewhere on her secret  mission.  "Classified information,  Lieutenant," he
said, trying to muster a smile. "One of the privileges of being a colonel is
never having to let the troops know you're human."
     "And are you?" she asked.
     He let out a sigh. "All too human, Lieutenant. Believe me, I am all too
human."
     They stood side  by side  and  watched the  stars  for a  long time  in
silence.

     Flight Wing Briefing Room, TCS Victory Locanda System

     "Okay,  people, let's get down to business,"  Blair said. "I'd like  to
conclude this briefing sometime before peace is signed, if you don't mind."
     A few scattered chuckles greeted his sally, and the ready room quieted.
Blair  glanced  at  the  faces  grouped  around   the  table:  the  squadron
commanders, deputies from  each of the  four squadrons, and  representatives
from  the  Wing's  technical   and  maintenance  staff  and  from  Victory's
Intelligence Office. Rollins was there as well, still functioning as Blair's
aide and liaison between the flight wing and the bridge crew
     "Okay,"  Blair went on. "Here's  the drill. For  those of you who don't
pay  attention to the  daily shipboard news, we've  jumped into the  Locanda
System. It's been on or near the front lines for years now, and subjected to
repeated raids by the Kilrathi Empire." He pushed a  stray thought of  Flint
and  her  family from  his mind  and continued. "Until  sometime early  last
month,  there  was an  Imperial base deep in  the  asteroid belt on a fairly
large rock designated Felix on our charts."
     He activated a holographic projector to display  the star  system. "But
three weeks ago, a patrol out of Locanda Four discovered that the Empire was
no  longer maintaining  perimeter  patrols around Felix, so  a well-equipped
force was sent to check it out  a destroyer, a  heavy fighter escort, and  a
transport carrying  a company  of  Marines. They met no resistance, and they
discovered  that the Kilrathi base was  completely abandoned. Everything had
been  cleaned out. That base supported at least three  squadrons of fighters
and a depot large enough for a carrier to do a field refit. But they gave it
up  lock, stock, and fighter bay."
     "But I heard there was supposed to be all this activity here." That was
Denise Mbuto, callsign Amazon, the major commanding the interceptors of Blue
Squadron. "Everybody said there was going to be some kind of big push.'
     Blair  nodded. "Yeah. Felix was abandoned while  reports were  received
concerning increased  Kilrathi  ship  activities  in these  parts,  such  as
several capital ships, including three carriers. One was the Sar'hrai, which
launched that strike  on us at Tamayo. There was also a report placing Crown
Prince  Thrakhath's brand-new flagship here. Certainly there have been a lot
of  little dustups involving Kilrathi  fighter patrols  and a few light  cap
ships, destroyers and such.
     "It  would make  little sense  to  abandon  a well-defended  base while
building up the  fleet presence,"  Ralgha said  slowly. "Thrakhath  is  many
things  arrogant, ambitious,  ruthless  but I have never considered him to
be a fool. There is something here which we cannot see as yet."
     "Maybe  the local boys are  just  seeing things,"  Marshall  said. "One
carrier passes  through on the way to hit us  at Tamayo, and it turns into a
whole damned fleet with the head kitty-cat in person commanding."
     Blair shook  his head. "No. Most of the  reports are too well supported
by evidence. We have tracking and sensor data  that  bears out the notion of
three carriers and maybe  eight smaller capital ships.  That's a pretty fair
sized force  to  be  hanging around a backwater like Locanda. And  Hobbes is
right. The asteroid base would have been a useful adjunct  to operations . .
. too useful to be abandoned casually."
     "Perhaps  the  fleet was  sent to  cover  the  withdrawal  of the  base
contingent," Warlock Whittaker suggested. "It would take a lot of transports
to dismantle a  base that size, and  if they thought we had enough ships  to
interfere with them, they would have a powerful escort in place."
     "They might even be moving the base," Major Luigi Berterelli, commander
of  Green Squadron, added. "If they were looking to expand their facilities,
or  if  they just thought our patrols had learned too much about the post on
Felix,  they  might have  decided to  set  up something  bigger  and  better
elsewhere.  That would require an escort, too,  while the new base was still
getting up and  operating .  .  .  and  if they had  a new base, it could be
supporting whatever else the cats have planned for that flotilla of theirs."
Berterelli had an anticipatory gleam in his eyes, as if he could already see
this new base lined up in  his bombsights. Green Squadron  had not seen much
active service lately, but a Kilrathi base  would give the bombers a  chance
to show what they could do.
     "Those  are  possibilities,"  Blair agreed, "but  by no means  the only
ones."  He   nodded  toward  Commander  Thomas   Fairfax,  Victory's  senior
intelligence officer. "Commander?"
     "Headquarters  has   been   monitoring   Kilrathi  radio  transmissions
regarding  Locanda for several weeks now, trying to discover just what their
intentions are with  regard to  the  system.  A  courier in from Torgo  this
morning  brought  a summary of  the most  recent findings." Fairfax  paused,
consulting a portable  computer terminal. "First of all, it is believed that
their  original  timetable for  whatever is happening  at  Locanda  has been
rendered inoperative, possibly due to problems  which have arisen in related
missions elsewhere."
     "Tamayo, maybe?" Mbuto suggested with a savage smile.
     "Uncertain," Fairfax said seriously.  "At any rate, we believe them  to
be behind schedule already, which means the action  could get heavy any time
now.
     "The real  question is, what  action?" Major Ellen Pierce,  Whittaker's
Exec, put in.
     "Linguistics  are relating trouble  with certain  intercepted  Kilrathi
broadcasts." The Intelligence Officer plunged ahead as if she hadn't spoken.
"One message in particular definitely refers to Kilrathi intentions  for the
Locanda  System  .   .  .   it  uses  a   word  we've  never   seen  before.
Trav'hra'nigath."
     "Bless you," Maniac said with a grin.
     Blair glared at him. "Hobbes . . . does that mean anything to you?"
     Ralgha  was giving  the Kilrathi equivalent  of  a frown. "The  nearest
English  translation,  my  friend,  would  be literally  to grant the  prize
without  struggle." He  paused. "Surrender? That is not a concept  my people
embrace. Struggle is the one constant in life."
     "They are planning to surrender the system?" Blair asked. "That doesn't
explain  the buildup,  though it would at least  account for  abandoning the
base."
     "The implications  of the messages  we've intercepted suggest that  the
Empire  intends some gesture at Locanda," Fairfax said.  "A demonstration of
power . . . or of intentions. Again, we're not entirely sure about the exact
meaning of all that we've intercepted."
     Whittaker was nodding. "I  could see that. Even if  they're starting to
think in  terms of  giving  up real estate, the cats aren't  likely  to just
quietly  turn  tail  and run That wouldn't fit into  their system  of honor,
would it, Colonel?" He was looking at Hobbes.
     "Ceasing to struggle for a prize one deems worthwhile is not  honorable
at all,"  Hobbes  said slowly. "A tactical retreat, yes, especially if there
is duty  to one's  followers  involved,  but  the  ultimate object  is never
abandoned."
     "Well,  I  say  they  feel the  need  for a  parting  shot,"  Whittaker
insisted. "Something to salve their pride when they withdraw. Three carriers
could deliver a real punch and  flatten the colony facilities before anybody
knew what hit them. Then they sail away toward their real target."
     "Perhaps," Fairfax said He looked down at his terminal again. "The only
other possibility Intelligence  can  release to us right now is what appears
to be a code name for the Kilrathi operation here. Krahnakh Ghayeer . . ."
     "Unseen Death," Ralgha said.
     Blair  exchanged a quick  glance with Rollins. Nobody spoke  for a many
moments.
     "Unseen  Death,"  Maniac   repeated  at  last.  He   sounded  unusually
thoughtful. "I don t like the sound of  that. It reminds  me of  something I
heard  back at Torgo . . ." He trailed  off, frowning. "Yeah, that was it. I
remember a guy  telling me about some backwater system the Kilrathi raided a
few months back. Only instead of just dropping in  for a quick loot'n'scoot,
they cleaned the place with some kind of  new bioweapon. Pandemic, he called
it."
     "I  heard about that, too," Pierce said with a nod. "Rumor  has it that
Confed HQ slapped a blackout on the whole thing and quarantined the system."
     Rollins was  about  to  speak until he caught the look in Blair's  eye.
"The  war's bad  enough  without listening to all the rumors flying around,"
Blair said  sharply. "If  the cats have a  bioweapon,  we'll locate  it soon
enough, you can count on that. In  the meantime, we have  to concentrate  on
what we do know   and  on learning  what we don't  know. Isn't that  right,
Commander Fairfax?"
     The intelligence officer nodded, looking unhappy.
     "Right, then,"  Blair went on. "For the moment  the name of the game is
recon. We  know there's a  Kilrathi  squadron  in these  parts, and we think
they're planning something nasty.  If  Major Berterelli is right, we need to
look for signs  of a new base. At the very least, we need to pinpoint  areas
of enemy activity and try to  estimate both their intentions and their exact
strength."
     "So it's back to patrols, then," Amazon Mbuto said.
     "Unless one of you  has a  crystal ball  that can show us where they're
hiding," Blair  said. "We're drawing up  a full schedule of  recon  ops. I'm
doubling the shifts by putting more fighters out  at any  given time, so I'm
afraid we'll all be contracting extra duty for a  while. Major Berterelli, I
would like an assessment from you  on whether we can adapt Green Squadron to
take  over point defense work.  That would  give  us  the Hellcats for other
patrol ops."
     "Range would be  pretty short on Hellcats," Whittaker said.  "They were
never meant for long-duration patrol work."
     "After our  little  scrap  back  at  Tamayo,  I  started thinking about
in-flight refueling," Blair told him. "A refueling shuttle with an escort of
Thunderbolts could allow your whole squadron to operate over a normal patrol
route. He shrugged. "We'd better see  if the bombers can replace them before
we  talk  about  it  further.  At  any rate,  people, we've got  to find out
everything we can about the Empire's plans before they spring them.  So make
sure your pilots  are sharp and  ready for anything.  When  this thing  goes
down, whatever it is, we'll need to be ready. Dismissed."

     Command Hall. KIS Hvar'kann Locanda System

     Thrakhath lounged in  his  chair, his  thoughts far  away. The war  was
entering its final stage now, and soon the  Terrans  would  be brought  down
like prey caught in an open field. That would be his doing, Thrakhath, Crown
Prince, victor over the Terran prey, hero of Kilrah . . .
     And some  day soon his grandfather  would be dead and Thrakhath's claws
would grasp the Empire with a grip that would draw blood.
     "Lord Prince . .  ." It  was  Melek, his closest retainer  bowing as he
approached the throne.
     "Your report, Melek," he said mildly.
     "Lord Prince, the Terran carrier has been identified as the Victory. As
you predicted . . . the ship that carries the renegade."
     "The ship Sar'hrai failed to  neutralize," Thrakhath added, showing his
fangs. "It is  of small consequence. The  forces we  are mustering  now will
guarantee the success of Unseen Death, no matter what attempts the apes make
to  intervene. But be sure to emphasize that all pilots  must avoid  contact
with the renegade. I want no repetitions of the incident with Arrak."
     "Understood, my  liege," Melek  said with a bow. "Lord Prince . .  . we
know that the new weapon will work. The field tests revealed that. Why do we
not  simply mount a  raid on Earth now? It need not be a full-scale  attack.
All  that  is necessary is a single  ship, a  single missile, and the Terran
homeworld  is infected and wiped clean. That would shatter the apes,  making
them helpless prey under our talons."
     "Not quite, Melek," Thrakhath  said quietly.  "Do not  forget, we  have
attacked  their homeworld before, to devastating effect, and yet  done  them
only minor harm in the greater  scheme of things. Our agents claim they have
powerful  new weapons in preparation  now,  weapons  capable  of  destroying
entire planets  . .  .  even golden Kilrah  itself.  These  weapons are  not
deployed around  Terra,  so a  strike  on their homeworld will only  trigger
massive retaliation.  We cannot allow  that to happen. I  will not trade one
homeworld for another, Melek. That would be disaster."
     "But the loss of Terra . . ."
     "Would  mean less to the  apes than the  loss  of  Kilrah would to us,"
Thrakhath said, leaning forward. "You have not studied the humans as I have.
You do not  grasp their nature. If Kilrah was lost to us,  we  would  suffer
great harm. The Emperor, the heads of the great Clans, the ancient landholds
and  monuments of  our people . . .  these  are what  tie our race together,
separate us from the animals. Take those things away and the Empire withers.
But the apes are savages. Terrans would mourn the loss of their home, but it
would not destroy  them. They  would continue to  swarm in their multitudes,
disorganized but still determined."
     "Then can we truly  win this war?" Melek asked. "If we are so much more
vulnerable than they, do we have any choice but a glorious death?"
     Thrakhath smiled. "We know only a little of their doomsday weapon, this
. . .  Behemoth, as they call  it.  Our  agents say it is untested, but they
have not been able to penetrate its secrets as of  yet. We must draw out the
apes;  force them to commit their new weapon before it is  fully ready, in a
way  we can control and manipulate. Unseen Death will be the first stage. By
demonstrating our bioweapon  and proving our willingness to use it, we  will
leave the Terrans no choice but to deploy the Behemoth."
     "Against .  . .  against Kilrah?" Melek's look  was  one of horror  and
fear, but Thrakhath didn't reprimand him for his shameful display.
     "Not  at once,"  the Prince told him. "They will test it first. We will
learn where the weapon is to be tested and we will discover its  weaknesses.
For this purpose we keep the  Heart of the  Tiger in readiness. And  when we
have destroyed their one hope of retaliation, leaving their Navy demoralized
and confused . . ."
     "Then Terra dies," Melek said softly.
     "Then Terra dies," Thrakhath agreed. "The first of many human worlds  .
. . until their race is gone forever."




     Thunderbolt 300 Locanda System

     It felt strange to be in  the  cockpit  of a fighter  and yet  drifting
free, without acceleration  or preprogrammed destination.  Blair  had  never
thought of flying a Thunderbolt as a claustrophobic experience, not with all
of  space in full glory around  him . . . but he was ready to  admit that it
could be cramped, constricted, and more than a little bit boring.
     They  had been  in the  Locanda  System  now for three days,  operating
frequent  recon flights in search of some sign of  the Kilrathi fleet. Today
was the  first time they had put up the Hellcats in a recon role,  and Blair
had  elected  to fly escort on the  refueling shuttle with Flint rather than
assign the job to  one  of the other Gold Squadron  teams. The entire force,
four Hellcats, the two Thunderbolts,  and the shuttle, had flown together to
this prearranged rendezvous point at the edge of the point defense fighters'
maximum  range.  They topped off their tanks and set out  in two  patrols to
sweep a wide arc before  they returned. Then  they would refuel and make the
return trip to the Victory together.
     Everything went like clockwork Blair hoped their luck would continue to
hold.
     The  worst part of being alone in deep space for  long amounts  of time
was  the scope it provided for brooding. The lack of specific information on
Kilrathi  intentions  and dispositions made  for  a  game of  hide  and seek
extending over an entire solar  system, and it was a game where the Kilrathi
had  all  the  advantages. The idea that they might be planning a biological
attack  on Locanda bothered  Blair more than he cared to admit. It suggested
that the Empire  was  upping  the ante by  introducing the  prospect of mass
slaughter, possibly escalating to an all-out genocide. Blair had felt  that,
before, both sides had agreed on what "winning" meant. And now the  Kilrathi
might be trying to change that definition. If the Kilrathi turned to weapons
of mass destruction on any major scale . . . the Confederation would have no
choice but to answer them in kind.
     But something else  troubled  Blair;  something  he hadn't  shared with
anyone, not even Hobbes. Given that the  Kilrathi  had  this new weapon, and
given the rumors that it had already been tested elsewhere, why Locanda? The
system  was  practically worthless  in  any  strategic  or  material  sense,
although  its  long-time  position on  the  front lines  gave  it a  certain
sentimental and media prominence the place hardly merited.  It was as if the
Kilrathi  had  picked a  place to wield  their terror weapon which was  most
likely to attract Confed attention. It would be much  more difficult for the
High Command  to seal off the system and black out the news, because Locanda
was so well known to the Confederation at large.
     A bioweapon attack  here would be like a gauntlet thrown at the feet of
the High Command;  a  challenge.  . . but why hadn't the Empire chosen  some
system where they would win more than just a propaganda stroke? Tamayo, with
its high  population and  important shipyard facilities, or the Sector HQ at
Torgo, or any  of a dozen  other systems nearby  would have  made  far  more
logical choices than Locanda. There  had to  be  something  more  behind the
Kilrathi campaign, but Blair couldn't fathom it.
     He wasn't even sure that he was working  from anything more than rumor,
speculation, and fear.
     "Hey, Colonel, tell me  again how we're contributing  to the success of
the mission," Flint's  voice  crackled on  the  radio channel.  She  sounded
bored.
     "They  can't all  be free-for-alls, Flint," he  told  her, glad of  the
interruption.  He  didn't  like  the  depressing  turn  his   thoughts  were
following.
     "You really think this latest sighting's going to pan out? I'll lay you
ten to  one that freighter  captain was drunk  when  he  logged  that sensor
echo."
     The current  reconnaissance  effort had  started after  a report from a
tramp space freighter  of multiple sensor  readings at the edge of  his scan
range two days back. It wasn't much to go on, but it was the only solid lead
they had just now.
     "No bet, Flint," Blair said, checking his sensor screen as he spoke. "I
know better than to believe in elves, goblins, or reliable tramp skippers."
     "You  want to know  what  I  think,  sir?"  Flint  said. "I  think some
Kilrathi cap ships might've  shown themselves to that freighter  just to get
us away from the colony. Know what I mean?"
     "Any special reason,  or are you just  getting good at reading Kilrathi
minds? I can get  you a cushy job with Intelligence if you can tell what the
cats are thinking." Blair  caught a flash on his sensor screen. "Hold on . .
. "I'm reading contacts at two o'clock, low, outer ring. Check me."
     There was a pause before Flint responded. "Yeah, I got em. Three . . .
no, four bogies, inbound.  And  I  don't  think they're our buddies from Red
Squadron."
     "Shuttle, power up and get the hell out of here," Blair ordered, "we'll
cover your withdrawal. But keep in mind our guys will need a drink when they
get back here, so don t go too far unless the bad guys break through us."
     "Roger that,"  the shuttle pilot replied. Blair saw the  twin flares as
the boxy little craft  accelerated away, gathering speed. "We'll relay  word
to Victory, too."
     "Okay,  Flint,  let's welcome  our  guests," Blair  said,  bringing the
fighter  around and firing up the  engines. "Keep close formation as long as
possible,  but remember the top priority is to screen  the shuttle. You  see
somebody breaking past  and heading his way, you nail the bastard, and don't
stop to ask for permission."
     "Don't  worry,  Colonel," she replied.  "I hardly ever  ask  permission
anyway."

     Bloodhawk Leader Locanda System

     "I read  three targets, two fighters, the  other . . . a utility vessel
of some kind. It is moving off. The other two are turning our way."
     Flight Lieutenant  Kavark nodded  inside his bulky  helmet.  The report
matched what his  own sensors detected.  His  patrol, four  Darket  off  the
Imperial carrier Ras Nakhar,  was near the end of its scheduled pattern when
the targets suddenly appeared at the edge of their sensor range. He promptly
ordered a course change to investigate.
     "This  confirms my  readings,"  he  said.  "Target  computer  says  the
combatants are Thunderbolt class: heavy fighters. We have  the  advantage of
numbers even though they are better armored than us."
     "Then  the  greater  glory  accrues  to us for fighting  them!"  Flight
Lieutenant Droghar responded  eagerly.  Kavark  felt a surge  of pride.  The
pilots  in his section were warriors, one and all, and it  only enhanced his
honor to command them today . . .  even if it was a hopeless fight. "What of
the other vessel?"
     "It is an unarmed shuttle, of no importance. We may safely deal with it
after the  escort is  defeated  . .  . if  anyone feels the need for  target
practice."
     There were harsh laughs from the other three pilots. Kavark showed  his
fangs under his flight helmet, wondering briefly if any of them ever doubted
their place in  this  war. "Ghairahn, you  may have the honor of  the  first
challenge, if you wish."
     "Yes, Leader," Ghairahn replied.  He was a young pilot, newly  assigned
to the  section,  but  a distant member of Kavark's  Clan. This would be his
chance to earn his first blood in combat. "Thank you, Leader."
     "Remember the instructions. If  the renegade is detected, we  break off
the action. There will be no arguments, no loss of honor." Kavark paused. He
knew  they faced almost certain destruction by engaging, but  honor demanded
they fight. He would go through the motions, do all that was expected of him
. . . embrace death with talons unsheathed,  if that was what Sivar, the War
God,  demanded. "Now . . . for the glory  of the Empire  and  the  honor  of
Kilrah . . . attack!"
     He  forced  himself  to  bare  his  fangs  again in  a  savage smile as
Ghairahn's Darket fighter broke formation and accelerated toward the enemy.

     Thunderbolt 300 Locanda System

     "Here they come!"
     The  first  Darket was  at maximum thrust,  bare seconds  away from the
Thunderbolt's weapon range. A second fighter supported close behind, but the
other two, true to Kilrathi practice, had not yet  broken their formation to
join  the  battle. This gave  the Terran pilots  a brief  advantage, since a
Darket was no match for a Thunderbolt in a stand-up, one-on-one fight.
     They made use of this  advantage quickly.  To  cripple  or destroy  the
first two fighters before  the other Kilrathi ships  joined the fray was the
plan. If the enemy started  swarming around either Terran ship with superior
numbers, the odds could quickly turn against Blair and Flint.
     Energy weapons blazing, the lead Darket  dived directly  toward  Blair,
not even trying to use evasive tactics. The pilot was either very  confident
or very  inexperienced, Blair thought. He held off  returning fire. Instead,
he kept a  target  lock  on the  Darket  while allowing it to approach so he
could achieve the maximum effect from his weaponry.
     "For the honor of my noble race," a computer-generated voice translated
the Kilrathi pilot's radio call. "My claws  shall grasp  your  throat today,
human."
     Blair didn't respond. He watched the Darket streak in, keeping one  eye
on  the  shield  readouts.  His  forward screen took the  full brunt  of the
Kilrathi attack, and the power level was dropping fast . . . maybe too fast.
He rolled  sideways, killing  his forward speed with a hard  reverse  thrust
that  wrenched  his gut.  As the fighter  slowed,  he  used his  maneuvering
thrusters to put the fighter into a fast spin just as the Darket,  surprised
by the maneuver, darted past with weapons now probing uselessly into space.
     For a few brief moments, the Kilrathi's vulnerable stern was visible in
Blair's sights. Smiling  grimly, he powered up  his engines again and opened
fire  with  full blasters,  adding a heat-seeking missile for good  measure.
"Curl your claws around this, furball," he said.
     The volley cracked the Imperial fighter's rear shields and  the missile
flew right up the  tailpipe. It exploded, and  the  fighter came  apart in a
spectacular ball of raw energy.
     "You really nailed him, Colonel," Flint said. "Now it's my turn . . ."
     She drove her  Thunderbolt  right into the guns  of the  second Darket,
ignoring the withering fire her opponent was laying down. A moment later she
spoke  again. "Bye bye, kitty," she said.  Missiles and beams leapt from her
fighter's underbelly, and  the Darket went up in a second brilliant fireball
that momentarily dimmed the stars. "Never mess  with a gal on her home turf!
That makes nineteen, Davie . . . and more to follow!"

     Bloodhawk Leader Locanda System

     Kavark watched he destruction of Ghairahn's fighter with a curious lack
of emotion, showing neither anger  nor  blood  lust, nor even pride  in  the
warrior's  sacrifice. The  second Darket's loss  was the same; just  another
statistic in the long fight against the ape-spawn humans.
     Sometimes  it  seemed that the conflict  would  go on forever. Once  it
seemed a great thing, a  glorious thing, to  venture forth in battle for the
glory of  Empire and Emperor and Clan. But the fighting continued endlessly,
and  though  the Kilrathi  had  the advantage  of numbers and  sheer  combat
firepower, somehow the apes always  managed to move from the brink of defeat
to  rally and overcome the Emperor's  forces.  The Terran spirit  embodied a
refusal  to  give in despite  overwhelming  odds. And their warriors, though
outnumbered and outgunned, were superb fighters.
     "We must attack, Leader," urged his surviving pilot,  Kurthag. He never
doubted.  He saw  everything in  black  and  white,  honor against dishonor,
victory against death.
     "No, Kurthag," Kavark said. "One of  us must report  to the Fleet. They
must know where the Terrans are operating."
     "I will fight, Leader, while you withdraw . . ."
     "Sharvath!" Kavark snarled. "Would you have me abandon honor? I command
here. Mine is the honor of battle!"
     There was  a long pause. "Yes . . .  Leader," Kurthag said  at last. "I
obey . . . despite the dishonor."
     " The warrior  who obeys can  never be dishonored,' " Kavark told him,
quoting from the  famous words of  the Emperor Joor'ath. "Now, go. And . . .
tell my mate my last battle song will be of her."
     He cut  the channel and changed course to place his fighter between the
Terrans and Kurthag's craft.
     Sometimes  the only way  to deal  with doubts was to face them . . . no
matter what the price.

     Thunderbolt 300 Locanda System

     "They're splitting up," Blair said, studying his sensor screen. "One of
them  is  making a run  for it.  Why is  this  other idiot sticking  around?
Doesn't he know he's no match for two heavy fighters?"
     "Who  knows what  a  cats  thinking?" Flint said  sounding  distracted.
"Let's get him before he changes his mind!''
     "On my  wing, Lieutenant. We'll  take down this baby by the book . . ."
Blair continued to study the  screen as  he spoke.  If that Kilrathi fighter
was heading  for home, maybe he'd be able to lead the Terrans to the missing
Imperial fleet. Assuming they could track him somehow . . .
     "I  can get the one  who's running, Colonel," Flint announced suddenly.
"Going  to afterburners.  I'll be  back before you finish toasting  the dumb
one."
     She  suited  actions  to  words before  he could respond,  her  fighter
streaking away at maximum thrust. Blair wanted to call her back, but at that
moment the remaining  Darket  opened fire and accelerated toward him.  There
was no time to remonstrate with his headstrong wingman now.
     He looped into a reciprocal course, trying to keep his sights framed on
the Kilrathi, but this pilot was  no hotheaded  amateur.  His maneuvers were
unpredictable, and he knew just how to get the most out of his fighter..
     The combination was dangerous, even in an uneven matchup like this one.
Before Blair could line up a shot, the Darket pulled a tight turn and passed
directly under his port wing, blasters firing. None of the hits  pierced the
shield, but they weakened it. Then the Darket turned away to avoid  the  arc
of the Thunderbolt's rear turret.
     Blair turned again  at  maximum thrust, the G-force pressing him firmly
into his  seat. The enemy ship  appeared on his HUD  again, and he  tried to
center the  targeting reticule  on the fighter despite the  Kilrathi pilot's
evasive  action.  But the  other pilot seemed to anticipate his every  move,
weaving  in under him a second time,  unloading  a full volley of  beams and
missiles against the same weakened spot.
     A red light  flashed on his console. "Burn-through, port shield.  Armor
damage. Structural fatigue at ten percent." The computer's flat, unemotional
report  was incongruous, and  Blair didn't  know if he  wanted to scream  or
laugh.
     The Kilrathi fighter spun in a tight turn and started another run. "Not
this time, my friend," Blair muttered under his breath.
     The weakness on the port side of the Thunderbolt would be a real danger
now; another good hit in  the same area could seriously damage the  fighter.
Ironically,  it gave Blair an opportunity. There was little doubt as to what
the Kilrathi pilot would do this time. He would be drawn to repeat that same
attack a third time . . .
     Blair initiated a turn  before the  attack developed, letting  his nose
swing  down  and left. The enemy pilot opened fire, but the shots caught the
forward shields, not the  port side. Simultaneously, Blair triggered his own
weapons, and the Kilrathi  ship flew  right into the firing  arc.  A pair of
missile launches exhausted Blair's stocks, but they were sufficient.
     The  pilot  had time for one last  transmission before the end.  "There
must be . . . something more . . . than Death without end . . ."
     And then the fighter was gone.

     Flight Deck, TCS Victory Locanda System

     Blair scrambled from the cockpit  as soon  as the environmental systems
in the  hangar  were  restored, brushing  past the technicians  and ignoring
Rachel's grinning "Looks like you took a real pounding  out  there" comment.
Seething, he crossed  to Flint's fighter  and  waited for  the woman to come
down.
     By the time  he'd dealt with  the Darket, Flint had already engaged the
fleeing ship. She had dealt with it  quickly and competently, taking none of
the damage Blair had suffered in  his engagement. Her target had turned into
expanding gases in a matter of seconds.
     Before  Blair could  read  her the riot  act, though, the  shuttle  had
returned,  and  the sensors registered the  approach of the four Hellcats on
the return leg  of their patrol. He refused to dress down another pilot over
an  open  channel. But all the way back. his anger  had been building. Flint
had blown their best chance to track the enemy.
     She  let go of the  ladder  halfway down and dropped to the deck beside
him,  pulling off her flight helmet  to  reveal a grin. "Score's twenty now,
Colonel," she said. "Davie'll have his escort soon enough."
     "Only if you're flying, Lieutenant,"  he said, his voice low but harsh.
"And I'm not sure  how long that's going to be,  after what I saw out  there
today."
     "But  "
     "You talk when I say  you can talk, Lieutenant," he cut her off. "First
you listen. I gave you a direct order to stay on my wing when I engaged that
second Darket. Instead, you went charging after the other one. I expect that
kind of attitude  from Maniac  or even a rookie like Flash but not from  the
pilot I pick as my wingman."
     "But,  Colonel,  you  didn't  need  me  to  deal  with  a Darket,"  she
protested, looking stricken, "and I was able to make it a clean sweep."
     "A  clean  sweep,"  he  repeated. "That's  what it  was, all  right. Of
course, if there had been one survivor running for cover we might have  been
able to lie back at  extreme sensor range and track him  back to his  mother
ship. Maybe we'd find the whole damned Kilrathi fleet. But a clean sweep . .
. that's certainly worth passing up a result like that for, isn't it?"
     She took a step back. "Oh, God . . . Colonel, I never thought . . ."
     "No, you didn't," he said. "You never  thought. Well, Lieutenant, think
about this. Intelligence  thinks the cats are planning  an all-out attack on
Locanda Four,  not just a raid but something big and nasty. And if  we don t
find  their  fleet and pinpoint it pretty damned soon they will have a clear
shot. So when  your pretty  purple  skies are filled with Kilrathi missiles,
you  think about whether  we  could  have nailed them today if  you had just
obeyed orders instead of playing your little revenge game."
     She looked down. "I . . . I  don't know  what  to say,  sir," she  said
slowly. "I'm sorry. Were you serious . . . about yanking my flight status, I
mean?"
     He didn't answer right away. "I don't want to," Blair finally told her.
"You're  a  damned  good  pilot,  Flint,  and  you  know  how  to make  that
Thunderbolt dance. But I told you before that I need a wingman I can trust."
He paused. "Consider this a final  warning.  You screw  up again, Flint, and
I'll have your wings. You get me?"
     "Yes,  sir." She met  his angry eyes. "And.  . . thanks,  Colonel,  for
giving me a second chance."
     As  she  turned and walked slowly away, Blair  hoped he wouldn't regret
the decision later.





     Flight Wing Rec Room, TCS Victory Locanda System

     Blair paused at  the entrance  to the rec room and glanced around. This
evening the lounge  was  fairly busy,  the Gold  Squadron  particularly well
represented.  Vagabond,  Maniac, Beast Jaeger, and  Blue  Squadron's  Amazon
Mbuto were  playing  cards. Judging from  the  stack of  chips in  front  of
Lieutenant  Chang,  he was ahead. Vaquero  was  alone at another table  with
headphones over his ears, his eyes closed, and his hands tapping  out a beat
as  he  blissed out  on his rockero  music.  Hobbes and  Flash were  talking
earnestly at a table by the viewport, and Sandman was  sharing drinks with a
blonde from the carrier's weaponry division.
     Lieutenant Buckley, alone at the  bar with  a  drink in her  hand and a
half-empty  bottle on the counter  in front of her, looked up at Blair.  She
stood with exaggerated care and walked over to him.
     "I hear you're down on Flint," she  said, the  words slurring a little.
"What's the matter, Colonel, you only like pilots who've got fur?"
     He looked at her coldly. You've had too much to  drink Lieutenant," he
said. "I think you'd better head back to your quarters and get some rest."
     "Or  what? You'll ground me? Like you  threatened Flint?" She jabbed  a
finger at  him. "You  save your high-and-mighty Colonel  act for  the flight
deck or the firing line. I'm on down-time now . . ."
     He grabbed her shoulder as she staggered, steering her back to the bar.
"I don't know what set you off, Lieutenant, but. . ."
     "What set me off? I'll tell you what  set me off, Colonel, sir. Flint's
one of the best damned pilots on this tub, and you treat her like dirt. Just
like you treat all the pilots,  cept  your furball  buddy over there. After
she  came  off  the flight deck  this  afternoon, she  was ready to  find an
airlock  and cycle herself  into space. I spent the  whole damned  afternoon
trying to straighten out the damage you created, chewing her out that way."
     "She  screwed  up,"  Blair  said  softly.  "And  we  can't  afford  any
mistakes."
     "Can t you let her be human once in a while? Do you have any idea  what
kind of strain  Flint's under? This is her  home system, you know . . .  and
everybody's talkin' about the cats planning to use bioweapons here."
     "There have been stories about bioweapons," he said guardedly. Inwardly
he wondered who had been talking. Probably not Rollins; he'd sounded sincere
when he promised not to  spread  the story. But  everyone  at  the  squadron
commanders' briefing  knew about the rumors now, and some of them   Maniac,
for example   wouldn't think twice before sharing the stories with the rest
of  the  crew.  "Right  now  they're  just  that:  stories.  Whoever's  been
circulating them probably wouldn't know a bioweapon from a biosphere."
     "Oh, come  off it, Colonel,"  Cobra  said. "The cats've been working on
these kinds of weapons for  years. They use human  test subjects from  their
slave  camps. They've tried their bugs out on  other  human planets already.
It's only a matter of time before  they start using them  routinely. If  the
grapevine says it'll be here, I wouldn't argue with it.
     "You  know a  hell  of  a  lot  about  what  the  Kilrathi  are  doing,
Lieutenant," Blair said "Maybe you should spend more of your time talking to
Intell, and a little less on telling me how to run my Wing."
     "Intell! I've had enough  of  Intell people  and  their questions!" She
shook  her head. "Anyway, you're  just  trying to  change  the subject.  The
simple  fact is, Colonel, that there are  some damn fine people on this ship
who deserve better than what you're givin' em. Flint's jus' the worst case.
But if I was you, I'd start  treating  people right,  or you just might find
out what friendly fire's all about sometime  " She broke off and started to
stagger to another seat but ended  up sitting down heavily where she was and
putting her head down on the bar next to her bottle.
     "Should  I  call Security to give her  an escort to her quarters, sir?"
Rostov asked from  behind  the bar. Blair  wasn't  sure  how long  he'd been
there.
     He shook his head.  "Let's keep  this in  the family," he said, looking
around. He caught Flash's eye and summoned him with a wave. "Major, I need a
favor.  Could you help lieutenant Buckley back to her quarters please? She's
had a little too much to drink . . ."
     "Sure, Colonel," Flash said with a grin. "I  was starting to wonder how
much  booze  she  was going  to be able  to  put away  before she  pulled  a
crash-and-burn." He helped Cobra to her feet, wrapped one of her arms around
his shoulders. "Come on, Cobra, let's get you home."
     Blair watched  them  leave,  then  let out a  sigh.  "Give me  a drink,
Rosty," he said, feeling suddenly weary. "A double  anything. It's been that
kind of a day."
     He  took  the  glass from the one-armed bartender, but  didn't drink it
right  away. Instead he  stared into  the amber liquid, his mind a whirl  of
conflicting emotions. From the very start he was an outsider here, unable to
pass the barriers his  pilots  held against him. Sometimes it felt as if  he
was flailing the air. Most of  these pilots had been  through a lot together
and felt the same  type of comradeship he had shared with the men  and women
of the Concordia. They resented him, resisted him,  and everything Blair did
only seemed to make things worse.
     At least there were a few people he could still trust. Blair  picked up
the glass and  took  a sip, then walked to the table  where Ralgha was still
sitting, alone now. "Mind if I join you, Hobbes?" he asked.
     "Please, my friend,"  the  Kilrathi said, gesturing courteously  toward
the chair Flash had relinquished. "It would be  good to spend some time with
someone who . . . truly understands what this war is about."
     "I take it you and Flash don't see  eye to eye?" Blair sat down  across
from his old comrade.
     "That  cub!"  Ralgha  was   uncharacteristically  vehement.   "He  sees
everything through the eyes of youth. No judgment. No experience. No concept
of the truth of war."
     "When he  gets to be  our age, he'll  know better," Blair  said. "If he
lives  that long. But I know  what you mean. Things sure have changed  since
the old days."
     Ralgha  gave  him a very human smile. "Maybe not so much,"  he said. "I
can recall times when I thought I was immortal . . . and when you would  get
drunk and tell off a superior officer."
     Blair shot him a look. "You heard all that?"
     "My race has better hearing than  yours," Hobbes reminded him. "And the
lieutenant was not exactly concerned with keeping her voice low. Alcohol may
cause some people to speak and act in very strange ways, my friend. I do not
think there was any serious intent behind her words."
     "In vino veritas," Blair said.
     "I am  not  familiar  with those  words," the  Kilrathi  said,  looking
puzzled.
     "It's Latin. A dead Terran language. It means there is truth in wine.'
"
     "I  do  not  think Cobra  would  actually  fire  on  you," Ralgha said.
"Perhaps me,  given the intensity of her  dislike.  But  despite  her  anger
tonight, I believe  she respects you as a  pilot. . .  and even as a leader.
Unfortunately, she also has a high regard  for  Lieutenant Peters, who saved
her life  in  the  last battle before the  ship refitted at Torgo.  And  you
should understand what it means  to  defend a friend from  what you  see  as
unjustified persecution."
     "Yeah,  I understand. I just wish there was a way to get through to her
. . . to all of them."
     "Perhaps you should consider unbending somewhat," Hobbes  said  slowly.
"You have seemed . . . aloof . . . on  this mission. That contributes to the
trouble."
     "I know that, too," Blair admitted.  "But.  . . I don't know, Hobbes. I
just keep thinking  about all the other times aboard the Tigers Claw and the
Concordia. It  seems  like every  time  I make friends  and  start  to share
something  with good people,  they end up  dead.  When I  first  arrived,  I
thought I  would  be  better  off keeping  my distance. I thought  maybe  it
wouldn't  hurt as  much, if  it happened again. But  that isn't  the answer,
either,  because  even  if  I  can't  call  them  my  friends,  I still feel
responsible for these people. I respect them. And  I'll  still mourn them if
they buy it out there."
     "I doubt it could  be any other way,  my friend,"  Hobbes said gravely.
"Not as long as you are . . . yourself."
     "Maybe so." Blair drained his glass. "Well, who knows? Maybe we're into
the last  game, after  all, like all the Confed press releases claim.  Maybe
the Kilrathi Empire is about to give up the whole thing as  a  bad idea, and
we'll have peace and harmony and all that sweetness and light."
     Ralgha shook his head  slowly. "It  is a time  for strange  ideas,"  he
said.  "My people have invented a word  for surrender, a concept I can still
barely  grasp after years among your kind." He gestured toward the viewport.
"I used to raid these worlds with my brethren. Now I  defend them  . . . and
my people talk of giving themselves up without further struggle."
     The Kilrathi paused, and for a moment Blair thought he looked  lost. "I
cannot guess at  what my one-time  comrades  might  do next. But  I  do  not
believe that the Imperial family  can change  so totally. If there is peace,
it  will  be because the  Emperor  and  Thrakhath  are overthrown, and their
supporters broken. That will not  happen without a major  change in  the way
this war progresses "

     Flight Wing Officer's Quarters, TCS Victory Locanda System

     Angel was with him, looking just as she had the  day she left Concordia
with her kit bag slung over one arm and the open ramp to the shuttle yawning
behind her like a black, toothless maw.
     "Farewell, mon ami," she  said. "Look after  the others for me, all our
comrades. I will come back when Paladin does not need me . . ."
     "Don't go, Angel," Blair heard himself saying the words as if from some
great distance. "Stay here. If  you  go  everything will  fall apart  . .  .
everything . . ."
     The words were wrong. He knew it, even as a shrill screech rang in  his
ear and brought him out of the dream. The words were all wrong . . .
     He  had let her go  that day without a  protest. He told Angel that  he
understood, told her that he would wait for her. But she hadn't come back to
the Concordia. And he wasn't sure she'd ever come back to him. Angel . . .
     The noise didn't go away  even after he had sat up, his eyes wide open,
staring at the  bare walls  of  his quarters. It took Blair quite a while to
realize the  noise was the shrilling sound of the General Quarters alarm. He
started  to rise when a computer voice joined the  cacophony.  "Now, General
Quarters,  General Quarters. All  hands  to  Combat Stations. This  is not a
drill. General Quarters, General Quarters . . ."
     A  moment  later the computer voice was replaced  by  Rollins, sounding
excited. "Colonel Blair, to the Captain's Ready Room, please. Colonel  Blair
to Captain's Ready Room!"
     As he  finished tugging  on his  uniform,  Blair glanced  at the  watch
implanted in  his wrist.  It read  0135 hours,  ship time. With  a  muttered
curse, he grabbed his boots and started wrestling them onto his feet.
     He wasn't sure which was  worse the dream of his loss or the reality of
the war
     Dressed  and  almost awake,  Blair forced  himself to move  through the
corridors at a brisk yet  measured pace. Never let your people see  you run,
laddie, Paladin had  told him  once back in the days they  served on Tiger's
Claw  together. Even when the whole  bloody universe is falling around  your
ears, walk like you haven't a care in the world, and  the other lads'll take
heart and fight the better for it.
     It took  all his  willpower  to remember the  old warrior's lesson this
time. The incessant alarm and the crewmen hastening to their combat stations
set every nerve on  edge. He knew long before he reached the ready room that
this mission was the one which they had been awaiting   and dreading   for
so long.
     "Blair!"  Eisen's voice  boomed out  as  he  entered  the  compartment.
"Thought I was going  to have to send somebody to roust you out of bed, man!
We've spotted the bad guys, and we haven't got a second to lose."
     He joined the captain, Rollins, and Hobbes at the big table, watched as
Eisen manipulated a  terminal,  activating a  holographic  chart in  the air
above the smooth surface.
     "Leyland and  Svensson spotted two  carriers and  five destroyers  here
eighteen  minutes  ago,"  Eisen  said,  indicating  a  set  of   coordinates
approximately  ten  million  kilometers  ahead   of  the  carrier's  present
position. "They made  a  positive ID  on both of  the  carriers. One is  the
Sar'hrai our friend from Tamayo. The other is definitely the Hvar'kann."
     "So Thrakhath  is  here, just like the reports indicated. Blair  fought
himself to suppress a betraying tremor in his voice. "I wonder  how much  of
the rest of it's true?"
     "Most of  it,  Colonel,"  Eisen  said levelly, meeting his eyes with  a
bland stare. "Intell sent us an update last night. The Kilrathi are carrying
missiles armed with biological  warheads, and  they are  going to attempt to
use  them  against  Locanda  IV.  The  missiles are a new  type,  designated
Skipper. They're too big  to carry  aboard fighters, so they'll be  launched
from capital ships."
     "They had to wait until now to confirm it?" Blair asked bitterly. "They
couldn't give us time to get ready?"
     "The confirmation only came in from outsystem yesterday. One of General
Taggart's  resources finally gave  us the full specs on the weapon . . . for
what it's worth."
     "You haven't heard the really bad news, either," Rollins put in. "These
Skipper missiles carry cloaking devices, so they'll be damned hard to track.
And as for  the warheads . . .  well, we might as well not have the specs at
all. There's no counter for those bugs. Nothing."
     Eisen  gave  Rollins  a  quick,  angry  look.  "Once  the  pandemic  is
introduced into a Terrestroid ecosystem it'll spread very quickly," he said.
"And Mr. Rollins is correct. Even the Kilrathi don't have a cure for it."
     Blair's nod was sober. "So we can't  let them get any missiles  through
to  the  planet," he said. He  looked from Eisen to Rollins.  "But how do we
stop  cloaked  missiles? Hell,  I  didn't  think  the targeting  system on a
missile  could handle cloaked flight. Everything I ever saw said you need  a
pilot to handle a bird when it's under cloak."
     "According to the specs, the Skipper doesn't  stay under cloak all  the
time," Eisen said.  "It drops out of  cloak every few  seconds to update its
flight profile. So they can be tracked . . . but only intermittently."
     "Lovely. Any more good news?"
     "Leyland  was able  to get  an accurate scan  of the Kilrathi. From the
looks  of  things,  both  carriers  had  an  absolute  minimum  of  fighters
deployed."  Eisen's eyes  studied him through the  hologram. "They  have the
escorts doing  most of their recon and CAP work. You know what that means as
well as I do."
     "Yeah." Blair nodded again. "They're prepping the fighters for a magnum
launch. Right, Hobbes?"
     The Kilrathi renegade sounded grave.  "I fear that is the  only  likely
explanation, my friend," he agreed.
     "They're  still pretty far out for  a  strike,"  Blair  said. "Range is
extreme for a run against Four."
     "I agree," Eisen said. "But if I was about to make an all-out strike on
a well-defended target, I'd prep early and  keep my people ready. That way I
could launch the moment I knew  the enemy had discovered my  ships. They may
not be  planning the  strike  right away, but they'll be good to go  at  any
time."
     "Where does that leave us?" Blair asked. "No criticism intended for the
Victory and  her crew,  sir, but I'm not wild  about the idea of us tackling
the  whole Kilrathi force alone. We might  get in some hits, but some of the
bastards will escape . . . and then where would we be?"
     "Agreed," Eisen said. He looked at Blair. "Even I'm not so proud of the
old girl  that I think she'd survive a stand-up fight with  seven cap ships.
And our battle group isn't strong enough to even up the odds, either."
     That  prompted  nods  around  the  table. Three  destroyers,  Coventry,
Sheffield, and Ajax, had joined the carrier at Tamayo as escorts, but two of
them were as old and outdated  as Victory herself. Only Coventry carried her
own half-wing of fighters. All in all,  they  weren't much when  set against
the Kilrathi force.
     "Do you have any recommendations, Colonel?" Eisen went on.
     Blair  studied the chart. "Yeah," he said slowly. He allowed himself  a
wolfish grin. "Hit em now. . . and hit them hard."
     Eisen looked  doubtful. "It'll  be a  mismatch," he said.  "Can you  do
anything against those odds?"
     "Yes, sir, I can," Blair said, although a part of  him didn't share the
confidence  he tried to project. "We won't be going in to take  on the whole
Kilrathi  fleet. My notion is to threaten them with an attack  and make them
launch their missiles  early. That's what I'd do, if I  wasn't sure what was
hitting me. So we stir them up, make em commit.  And then we go after those
missiles with everything we've got. Victory  won't be in any danger, because
I  don't  see how they  could mount a  counterstrike  in the middle of their
attack op. The risk falls entirely to the Wing."
     "I was hoping you'd come up with something better Colonel," Eisen said,
sounding  weary, "because that was the  only  plan I was  able to rough out,
too. And I'm afraid your pilots are going to be in for one hell of a fight."
     "Yeah,"  Blair said. "I know. But  I don't see anything else we can  do
without throwing away the one advantage we have right now."
     "Advantage?  We   have  an   advantage?"  Rollins  looked  and  sounded
incredulous.
     "Surprise,  Mr. Rollins," Blair told him  with a slow smile.  "Fact is,
nobody would be crazy enough to do what we're talking about doing."





     Flight Control, TCS Victory Locanda System

     "Battle Alert! Battle Alert!" the computer announced.  "Now,  scramble!
Scramble!  Scramble! All Flight  Wing  personnel  to magnum launch stations.
Scramble!"
     A monitor showed  the  view  as the  ready rooms  erupted in  a  sudden
outburst  of activity. For a few seconds it was a scene of utter chaos, with
pilots running for the Hangar Deck. Some were still  zipping up flight suits
or dogging  down helmets as they moved, but there was an underlying sense of
order beneath  all the confusion.  These people were  professionals who knew
their jobs.
     Blair glanced  around Flight  Control Center,  nodding in satisfaction.
The room  was fully crewed,  with  captain Ted "Marker"  Markham,  Victory's
Flight Boss, presiding over the technicians with his usual autocratic flair.
Ignoring the others, Blair focused his attention on Maniac Marshall, who was
with  Rachel  Coriolis near the  door. The major seemed to be  debating  his
fighter's combat  loadout with  the technician,  waving his hands in the air
and talking with an excited intensity.
     He waited until the discussion was over before crossing  to Maniac. "We
don't have any room for grandstanding today, Major," he  said quietly. "This
mission has to  be flown perfectly. Otherwise . . . scratch  a  whole colony
world and everyone on it. You read me, mister?"
     Marshall met his eyes defiantly.  "I know  my  duty, damn it.  And I've
never let my end down."
     "Just remember what's at stake. You  don't have  to like me, major, any
more than I have to like you. But  today  you'll follow my  orders,  or I'll
have your head."
     "I'll do my job," Maniac told him. "You just do yours."

     Thunderbolt 300 Locanda System

     Blair  and Flint launched last, joining  the  other fighters already on
station  around  the  carrier.  All  four  squadrons were  up,  thirty-three
fighters   in  all.  Leyland  and  Svensson  had  two   of  Blue  Squadron's
interceptors  in  position closer to  the enemy flight,  and  the techs  had
down-checked five fighters  two Arrows, two  Hellcats,  and a  Longbow  as
unable to fly the mission.
     He was glad Gold Squadron hadn't suffered any down-checks. At least all
ten Thunderbolts would be going in today.
     "All squadrons,  this is Wing Commander,'' he  announced as he  settled
his fighter  into formation  between Flint and Hobbes.  We've gone over the
drill  often enough, so I expect you  all know your jobs  by now. Warlock, I
wish you were with us on this one,  but in-flight refueling would complicate
things too much.  Keep your  guard up, and make  sure  the old rust-bucket's
still here for us when we get home."
     "Godspeed, Colonel," Whittaker replied.
     "The rest of us have  a fleet to catch," Blair continued. "Amazon, take
the lead. Green Squadron to  follow, Gold in the rear. Let's punch it,  boys
and girls!" He  rammed his throttles  forward as if  to punctuate the order,
felt  the engines surging to  full power and the G-force pressing  him down.
"Engage autopilots," he said. "Anybody who thinks he can sleep, this is your
last chance for a catnap before things start getting hot!"
     He doubted if anyone actually slept,  though with the autopilots set it
would have  been  possible  assuming adrenaline and anticipation  left  any
room for  any of them to relax. It was a forty-five minute flight at maximum
thrust, and Blair spent the time reviewing his plans and trying to spot ways
to  improve  their  chances  of  success.  He saw  precious  little hope  of
shortening the daunting odds against them. Everything depended on luck, now.
     Blair was  surprised when the computer alarm sounded the warning.  They
were  close to  their navigation  checkpoint  now, and  the  autopilots were
disengaging   automatically.  He   checked   his  scanners,  saw  the  blips
representing  the  two  watchdog  interceptors trailing the  Kilrathi  fleet
ahead. The enemy  showed up on long-range sensors, which showed the presence
of large vessels, but so far his monitor showed nothing in range of the more
accurate but less powerful short-range scan.
     That was exactly as it should be. So far, so good . . .
     "Shepherd  to flock," he said, breaking  radio  silence. "Commence your
run . . . NOW!"

     Flag Bridge. KIS Hvar'kann Locanda System

     "Lord Prince!"
     Thrakhath looked  up  from  his computer display. The Tactical  Officer
sounded frightened, but whether it was due to something  on his scanners  or
the  danger of  bothering  Thrakhath  was difficult to tell. "Lord Prince, I
have  multiple targets  on close-range  sensors. Small  .  . . a  cluster of
fighter-class targets. At least four eights of them!"
     "Position?" Thrakhath rasped.
     "Bearing to port and low, range five thousand octomak and closing." The
officer paused. "They are Terran by their signatures, Lord Prince . . ."
     "Of  course they are  Terran, fool!"  Thrakhath raged. "Who else  would
send fighters against us? But how . . . ?"
     "The Terran carrier," Melek said. "Victory."
     "Victory," Thrakhath repeated, his claws twitching in and  out of their
sheaths with the violence of  his emotion. "The Terrans must  not be allowed
to stop  Unseen Death. Order all Vrag'chath  missiles fired immediately, and
launch fighters. Do it now!
     "We could deploy the Red Fang squadron to engage them, Lord Prince  "
     "No! Red Fang has its own role to play. They will  adhere to the battle
plan!"
     "As you wish, Lord Prince. But I am  afraid that the Terrans might have
more  surprises  planned for us."  Melek's words  were  grim as he turned to
carry out Thrakhath's orders.
     The Prince summoned up a holographic tactical chart in the air in front
of his command seat. He glared into it as if the very  anger in his eyes was
a weapon to destroy the Terran with. "It  is they  who will be surprised,  I
think," he said quietly.
     Melek  glanced up from  his  console. The renegade  will be among these
pilots, Lord Prince," he pointed out. "Do the orders regarding him stand?"
     Thrakhath didn't  answer  right away. If only Sar'hrai  had carried out
the  job  of  crippling   the  Terran  carrier  at  Tamayo,  none  of  these
complications would he around to plague him now. Carrier and renegade  would
be safely ensconced in some  Confederation shipyard,  waiting for the moment
when they would join in the intricate dance  of Thrakhath's grand design. He
hoped Sar'hrai's late captain was suffering on the unending barren plains of
the Kilrathi netherworld for his failure. "If detected, the renegade must be
avoided," the Prince said at last. "It is not yet time for Ralgha to realize
his destiny . . ."

     Thunderbolt 300 Locanda System

     "The  big boys  are launching missiles, skipper." The voice in  Blair's
headphones had  been scrambled, decoded, and computer-reconstructed, but  he
recognized Vagabond's smooth, laid-back  tones. "Big suckers . .  . must  be
those Skippers you warned us about."
     "Time to give them something else to think  about,  Blair  said. "Green
Squadron, execute Plan Hammer. Amazon, give em cover . . ."
     "Acknowledged," Major Berterelli said, his tone bland and professional.
     "On  it,  Colonel,"  Mbuto  chimed  in  a moment later. "Come  on, Blue
Squadron, let's give the cats something they can really chew on!"
     The Longbows and  Arrows peeled away, headed toward Thrakhath's command
carrier. Blair had been forced to improvise an attack plan quickly  once the
Kilrathi fleet  had been spotted, and Plan Hammer  was a  modification of  a
standing tactical operation he hoped would do the job.
     The main vulnerability  of the  Kilrathi was their reliance on a highly
organized leader  cult at all levels of their society. From the Emperor down
to  the most  ordinary noncom, leaders  were  looked  to  for  virtually all
decisions, even minor tactical choices a human  would automatically make  on
his own initiative. The chain of command in the Empire allowed for a certain
amount of  flexibility, but an Imperial force without a leader  grew rapidly
unstable.
     And Kilrathi leaders were well aware  of this. They fought honorably in
battle, like any  of their race, but they were also all too conscious of the
need for protection.
     A threat  to Thrakhath's  flagship,  then,  might  just  get  the  full
attention  of  the Kilrathi  prince, at least for  a time. He  would  almost
certainly concentrate his capital ships  to meet the danger, and  that might
just give Blair and Gold Squadron the time they needed to do something about
the Kilrathi missiles  that  were  already accelerating away from  the enemy
fleet. If the Kilrathi concentrated  on defending themselves, their missiles
might just be vulnerable.
     "Gold Squadron, stay with me," he went on.  "Let's give the heavy stuff
a wide berth if we can."
     "I'm for that!" Vaquero said. "The wider, the better."
     Still at full thrust, the Thunderbolts raced in pursuit of the Kilrathi
fighters, but despite Blair's preference their course led them directly past
one of the enemy destroyers. For a moment  he debated steering  clear of the
ship,  but that would give  the Kilrathi  strike  force too  much lead time.
Blair decided their  only choice was  to  risk the capitol ship's  defensive
fire. . . .
     "Check  your  shields, people,"  he ordered. "And  hold your fire.  Our
targets are the fighters."
     "Goddamn,"  Maniac said, almost too soft  to hear.  "We could nail this
bastard if we wanted to. . . ."
     "Stick to the program, Maniac," Blair warned.
     "I know,  I  know,"  Marshall  said.  "But  you can't  blame a  guy for
dreaming can you?"
     The  destroyer  opened fire, massive energy discharges  crackling  from
each of her turret batteries. One shot grazed Blair's starboard shields, and
his status board  lit  up red as the computer  assessed  the power loss.  It
wouldn't  take  too many such  hits  to overwhelm the  shielding  and  start
sloughing off armor.
     The biggest problem, though,  was just gripping  the steering yoke  and
trying to stay on course. Every nerve and  muscle within him  wanted to take
action,  any kind of action, but Blair forced himself to maintain his course
and press on. He hoped the others would follow his lead.
     "I'm  hit!  I'm  hit!" That  was  Beast  Jaeger.  "Direct  hit  on  bow
shielding. The generator's overloaded  "
     "Hold  on, partner," Cobra  said.  She was flying  as his wingman again
today.  "Ease  off a bit. I'll slide in ahead of you." Blair  glanced at his
tactical display  and saw that the  lieutenant was suiting actions to words,
bringing her Thunderbolt in directly ahead of Jaeger's. She could soak up at
least some of the energy that came his way  now . . . but it was a dangerous
move, keeping such a tight formation.
     "What's your status, Beast?" he asked.
     "Bow shield  generator's off-line, Colonel,"  Jaeger  reported,  calmer
now. "But  I'm re-routing the  system now. It'll  be makeshift, but I'll get
the shields back up."
     "You could abort . . ."
     "No way, Colonel. I'm in it for the long haul."
     "Bastard's still firing," Maniac commented. "Damn near singed my wings.
I still wish I could take him down."
     "Maniac,  if  we take out  those  missiles, I  personally guarantee you
we'll  come back and toast this cat's  whiskers," Blair told him. "Any other
damage?"
     There was none. They had cleared the destroyer's primary kill zone now,
though a few stray shots might  still find them even here. But the worst was
over. . . .
     Except, of course, for stopping those missiles.

     Flag Bridge. KIS Hvar'kann Locanda System

     "The stalker  is loose among the meat-herd, Lord Prince.  Their bombers
have  damaged  the  forward  shields and  knocked  out our  primary  missile
launcher."
     "The  Terrans are prey, not predators,"  Thrakhath  snarled.  He didn't
like the  way Melek was beginning to regard the enemy. Respect or admiration
was an accolade to be accorded only to  predators, and the Terrans certainly
didn't qualify for that status  no matter how hard they fought to stay clear
of the Imperial claws and fangs.
     "Perhaps not," Melek said, almost  mildly. "But at the moment that prey
is dangerous. The threat to the flagship cannot be ignored, Lord Prince. And
it is not the only problem  "
     "The Terran success  will not last,"  Thrakhath told him. "They are too
badly outnumbered to deal with all our ships. Particularly once the fighters
are fully deployed.''
     "The attacks  on the  flagship may be  no more  than  a diversion, Lord
Prince. The Terrans feint and threaten, but do not press home their thrusts.
Nor  are  they  eager to  engage our fighters.  We have destroyed two medium
interceptors  and  a bomber,  and  others  are  damaged. But  one  of  their
squadrons  is  pursuing the  missile  flight.  If  they  can  intercept  the
missiles,  the  whole  plan  will  be  lost. We  should  consider  diverting
additional fighters to cover the missile strike."
     "No, Melek," he said at last. "No, the Red Fangs will be sufficient for
that task. The other fighters will remain here, to support the fleet. And to
threaten the Terran carrier, once they break off their attacks here."
     "As  you  command,  Lord  Prince,"  Melek  acknowledged.  But Thrakhath
thought he could detect  an undercurrent of dispute in his  retainer's tone.
That would  have to be dealt with, at  some  point, lest it  grow  into open
rebellion.
     A pity, really, if Thrakhath ultimately was forced to do away with him.
Melek was too useful a subordinate to dispose of casually.

     Thunderbolt 300 Locanda System

     "Stay on em," Blair said through tight-clenched teeth. "Stay on them .
. ."
     A  cluster  of  Kilrathi  missiles  glowed  bright on  his  short-range
scanner, almost  within  weapons  range now as the  Terrans continued  their
pursuit. Then they were gone again, cloaked, equally invisible to electronic
scanning and the naked  eye. It  made  the chase a  frustrating  one,  never
knowing just  when the targets might be  visible or where their  essentially
random course changes might  put them next. But patience and a little bit of
luck would still be enough to stop the Kilrathi  warheads . . . provided the
Terrans  kept  on  top  of  the  Skippers.  If  any of  them  got  past  the
Confederation  fighters,  picking  up  their  trail  again  later  would  be
well-nigh impossible.
     "Hobbes,  you and  Flash  get  to play  tag  with  these  boys,"  Blair
announced  on the tactical channel. "Stick  with it until you clean them up.
and try to let us  know if any  of them get past you. Save your missiles  if
you can .  . . there  might  be  some tougher opponents for you to go  after
later on." He paused.  "The rest of  you stay with me. We'll track down that
next batch while Hobbes has his fun here. Fire at any target of opportunity,
beams only . . . and don't deviate from your flight paths. Let's do it!"

     Red Fang Leader Locanda System

     Flight Captain Graldak nar Sutaghi accelerated  his Strakha fighter  to
full power  and studied the tell-tales flickering on his sensor screen.  The
Terrans were among  the missiles now,  beginning to  fire as the  Vrag'chath
popped  in  and  out  of  view  to  allow  their  computers  to make  course
corrections in flight.  It was time for  Graldak's  warriors  to make  their
presence known.
     He outnumbered the Terrans, with  two eights of fighters in his command
against  eight-and-two of the Terran Thunderbolts. But it  wasn't  much of a
margin  of  superiority.  If  only Prince  Thrakhath had provided additional
fighter support for the missiles! But instead he had chosen to hold back the
bulk  of the  Imperial  fighters  to defend  his  flagship,  even  though  a
half-blind churnah could see that the Terran attack had been a mere feint to
hold Imperial assets in place around the fleet  while they tried to stop the
missiles.
     It  would be fitting if  Thrakhath's  flagship was  blown away, Graldak
thought. The  Prince and his half-senile grandfather had  done nothing right
since  the  war  with  the  Terrans  had first begun. There was  a  stirring
throughout the Empire these days, the first scent of change on  the wind. If
only the Imperial familys iron talons could be pried  loose for a  time, the
Clans would  rise and sweep  them aside. Then  the  Empire  could  end  this
fruitless  war with the humans,  come to terms with them as predators rather
than continuing to view them, as Thrakhath did, as prey.
     But  meantime  the War went  on, and  Graldak  had  duty  and honor  to
maintain.
     "Red Fang Leader to Gleaming Talon Squadron," Graldak said aloud. "Drop
out of cloak and engage the Terrans. The honor of battle is yours."
     Gleaming   Talon's   fighters   were  a  good   match  for  the  Terran
Thunderbolts, especially with  the  element of surprise  on their side. They
would  tie the Terrans up for a  few  critical minutes, at least,  and  that
would give the other flights of missiles time to get further away. Once they
were more than a few thousand  octomaks from the Terran fighters, they would
be even harder to detect.
     And, meanwhile, Red Fang squadron  would remain clear of the  fighting,
until Graldak could decide how best to intervene. After all, it  wasn't just
missiles that could hide behind a cloak.




     Thunderbolt 300 Locanda System

     "We got us some company, Colonel. I count eight on an intercept course,
bearing zero-one-six by three-five-eight."
     The target reticule flashed on his HUD,  and Blair glanced  down at the
targeting data display  to his right even as Flint's words were registering.
Targets . . . ? Where had they come from?
     The  answer made a cold lump in his stomach as the computer displayed a
diagram of the nearest target, asymmetrical, with projecting horns that gave
it a menacing, alien shape. Even before he saw the name Blair recognized the
design and cursed under his  breath. He should have realized  what he was up
against immediately.
     Strakha fighters.
     They  were  comparatively  rare in  the  Kilrathi arsenal  as  yet,  an
advanced-technology  space fighter on the cutting  edge of Kilrathi science.
Intelligence had nicknamed  them "Stealth Cats"  before they'd ever actually
been  encountered  in  combat,  and  they lived  up  to the  name. They were
designed for  sneaking, pure  and simple,  with sensor-distorting  materials
incorporated into the hull and a  shape that tended to confuse most scanning
systems.  Worst of all, though, they  mounted a  cloaking device that  could
actually obscure the craft from any detection whatsoever, at least for short
periods of time. But unlike the Skipper missiles, they  could  stay  hidden,
without having to drop the cloak to make navigation checks.
     The new Excaliburs Rachel Coriolis had been drooling over a  few  weeks
back  had  been designed to incorporate  a  Terran knock-off  of a  captured
Kilrathi cloak,  but the Excaliburs weren't in production  yet Strakha were.
And they were here, in the Locanda system, right now.
     "I see them, Flint," Blair  acknowledged his wingman's call.  "Escorts,
to take our minds off the missiles."
     "Hard to ignore em," Flint said. When they want to meet us so bad  and
all . . ."
     He  didn't answer her.  "Maniac,  Cobra,  engage  the escort  fighters.
Wingmen, stay with your leaders. The  rest  of you, stay on course  and only
engage if you have to.
     "Ready to rock'n roll!" Marshall  responded. "C'mon Sandy,  let's teach
these kitties a few new flying tricks!"
     "We're on it," Cobra added a moment later.
     Four Thunderbolts  broke formation,  Maniac and Sandman  rolling  left,
Cobra and  Beast to  the  right as  they  spread  out  to meet the  oncoming
Kilrathi craft. He hoped his people could deal with two-to-one odds.
     That left four  Terran fighters to pursue the Imperial missiles. And if
even one of them got through . . .
     Blair forced the thought from his mind. He couldn't afford doubts now.
     "Here, kitty,  kitty," Maniac was taunting. "Get  ready to  become  cat
chow!"
     The Thunderbolts  maintained formation as they drove through the  enemy
squadron. Blair's  target computer  selected the closest fighter and  locked
on, and as  the  crosshairs glowed on  his HUD Blair triggered his blasters.
Energy beams  raked  the Kilrathi  ship, not quite  enough to penetrate  the
shields. But a moment later Flint was firing. The target ship tried to dodge
out of range, but too late. Flint's blaster tore through shields, armor, and
hull, and the Strakha blew.
     "Twenty-one!"  Flint  called. She sounded  excited,  eager. "Thanks for
laying him open for me, Colonel!"
     "Any  time,  Lieutenant," Blair  told  her. "Just remember to keep your
wits about you. Keep it frosty."
     Another explosion flared  to  port, where  Vagabond  had scored  a hit.
Hobbes  and Flash, meantime,  had  broken formation to pursue the  flight of
missiles. The four remaining Thunderbolts  in Blair's  dwindling force raced
on,  past another Skipper  that Vaquero and Blair each  managed to  tag.  It
didn't blow, but Blair's targeting computer reported extensive damage to the
guidance systems and  steering jets. That made it virtually certain to  miss
its target.
     They didn't  have to destroy  their targets, just disable them. Another
advantage, however slight . . .
     They still needed every advantage they could muster.

     Thunderbolt 308 Locanda System

     "Look  out,  Beast,  you've  got  one on your tail!"  Lieutenant Laurel
Buckley bit off a curse as she brought her fighter around to support Jaeger.
Almost from the moment they'd come into weapons range  the Kilrathi had been
pressing their attack hard,  their  fighters  swarming  like  angry  hornets
around the  outnumbered Terrans.  Strakha were dangerous foes when the  odds
were even. When they had numbers on their side as well they were deadly.
     But the four  Thunderbolts could keep them  busy for a while,  and that
might give Blair the time he needed. Cobra found herself wondering, briefly,
if  the colonel's decision to order her  and Maniac to deal with the escorts
was Blair's way of getting  rid of the pilots he trusted  least. Everyone in
the Wing knew how he felt about Marshall . and she suspected he had the same
opinion of her, after their clashes over Ralgha and Flint.
     And Jaeger had the only fighter damaged by the destroyer's fire. Was he
being left as a diversion because he, too, was considered expendable?
     On the other hand, he'd kept Dillon  paired with his  precious Kilrathi
friend, and nobody figured Flash as anything but deadwood.
     No,  Blair  didn't  strike  her as the kind  to  let personal  feelings
dictate his tactical choices. He probably figured  that she and Maniac would
be better at this kind of free-for-all dogfighting than they were  likely to
be pursuing and attacking the strike craft.  Four Thunderbolts against eight
Strakha  no, six, now, after Flint and Maniac had each managed  to take one
out  called for aggressive flying, and that was one thing Cobra Buckley was
good at.
     "Hold  her steady, Beast,"  she said, lining up  on the fighter  behind
Jaeger. "Steady  . . . turn  port!  Port!" She squeezed  the  trigger on her
blasters as she shouted.
     Jaeger cut sharply to  the  left, then broke right  again as he applied
braking  thrust.  The  Strakha,  pounded by Cobra's beams, shot past Beast's
Thunderbolt,  and  Jaeger opened fire on the  exposed tail where the shields
were still shimmering from the fury of Buckley's attack.
     For a moment nothing  happened. Then the shields collapsed and Jaeger's
blasters tore through armor. A shot penetrated to the  power plant, and  the
Strakha exploded.
     "Nice shooting, partner!" Cobra called, grinning.
     You set it up," Jaeger said. "Only five more to go!"
     "Four!" Maniac  cut in. "I've already nailed two of the bastards.  Come
on, you two, join the party! Plenty of little kitty asses for everybody!"
     "Two more coming in, Cobra," Jaeger reported. "Up ahead . . .  shit! My
shield generator's fritzing on me again!"
     "Back off, Beast, let me handle 
     The two Strakha dived straight in, concentrating their fire on Jaeger's
Thunderbolt. Shot after  shot raked the fighter. He was trying to turn away,
but Buckley could see he was too late. The bow shield was failing . . .
     Then it was over. The  fireball consumed Jaeger's fighter so bright her
computer cut in the polarizers for an instant to protect  her eyes. When she
could  see  again,   nothing  remained  of  Helmut  Jaeger's  craft  but   a
rapidly-expanding cloud of twisted, scorched metal fragments.
     She  could  hardly  believe it had happened so  suddenly.  One  instant
Jaeger  had  been  out there  .  . . now, nothing.  It took her  back to the
horrors of  the  Kilrathi labor camp to guards who would strike down a slave
without warning  and  to people she knew who vanished in the night. The cats
were always the  same, always killing  without warning  and  without  mercy,
taking joy from death and fear and pain . . .
     "Bastards!" she screamed,  hitting her afterburners to dive toward  the
nearest  Strakha as she  opened fire  with  all  her energy weapons at once.
"Damn cat bastards! I'll see you all in hell!"

     Strike Leader Locanda System

     Graldak nar Sutaghi bared his fangs as four Terran fighters accelerated
away from the developing battle. So, the Terran strike  leader knows how  to
hunt,  he  thought  grimly. Prince  Thrakhath had bestowed a name upon their
Flight Wing commander: The Heart of the Tiger. Today the human was living up
to the honor of that name, clinging to his mission despite all the  barriers
the Empire raised in his path.
     Did Thrakhath realize  what kind of  warrior  this ape  was? The Prince
wasn't  known  for esteeming  his  Terran  foes, even those who  received  a
Kilrathi vendetta-name.
     No matter, now. The only thing that counted at the moment was  victory,
and  that was very nearly under Graldak's claws. The Terrans  had managed to
destroy two of the four flights of missiles, and they had almost reached the
third. But they would get no further.
     "Red  Fang squadron," he  said aloud,  feeling the battle-lust  surging
through his veins. "Decloak and engage at will!"

     Thunderbolt 300 Locanda System

     "Keep  them off me!  Keep  them off me!" Vaquero's  voice was urgent in
Blair's headphones. "Where the hell are you, Vagabond?"
     "Just hang in there a little longer," the Chinese pilot responded. "The
cavalry's coming."
     Blair wrenched his attention back to his  HUD as a Strakha dived toward
him, guns blazing. This last batch of enemy fighters had come at them out of
nowhere  eight against  his four, and the Terrans  were fighting  for  their
lives. Even as he flipped the Thunderbolt  into a tight, high-G evasive turn
a part of his mind was on another part of  the  battle entirely . . . and on
the  clock.  Each  second  ticking  away took the  final  flight of Kilrathi
missiles further from  the Terran fighters, letting them spread out. Soon it
would be all but impossible to detect them even when they weren't cloaked.
     He tracked the Strakha in, holding his fire and waiting for an opening.
Then Flint swept  past, her blasters searing,  battering at the other ship's
shields. Blair joined the barrage, and the Strakha came apart.
     "Twenty-two, Lieutenant " he remarked dryly.
     "No, sir, that one was yours. I just softened him up." Flint sounded as
tired as he felt.
     "We'll debate it when we get back to Old Vic," he said, trying to sound
encouraging.  Flint  had  done  yeoman  duty  on  his  wing  today,  keeping
formation,  supporting  him constantly, never forgetting herself or yielding
to temptation. Since that first hit she hadn't scored a clean kill,  but she
didn't  seem to be concerned at missing her chance to rack up more points in
her  quest  for revenge.  After this, he wouldn't doubt her  again, he  told
himself as he turned his  attention back to his  sensor  readouts. "Scanning
for new targets."
     There were four more Strakha ahead.
     "Everybody  up  to  another  dogfight?"  he  asked. "Targets at  eleven
o'clock, low. Let's nail them!"
     The four Thunderbolts closed up into tight formation and drove for  the
newest  targets. The Strakha broke  formation promptly, not waiting for  the
usual  round  of  individual  sorties that usually  marked  a fight with the
Kilrathi. Their CO must he one hell of a leader, Blair thought.
     "Vaquero, Vagabond, you guys dance  with these four, Blair  called.  "I
want to try for the rest of the missiles. You with me, Flint?"
     "On your wing, Colonel," she told him.
     He broke  to port and increased  thrust, with Flint's fighter  sticking
close by. The other two Thunderbolts drove straight  toward the Strakha, but
these Kilrathi pilots didn't rise to the bait of close combat. Blair saw the
images on his scanner flicker and go out as the Strakha engaged their cloaks
again. He muttered a curse under his breath.
     "Keep a sharp eye out, people," he said over the comm channel. "They'll
be back. Bet on it."
     And  suddenly  they  were back,  two  of  them, at least.  The  pair of
Kilrathi fighters materialized right  on  his  tail,  releasing missiles and
then fading out of sight once again. Blair dumped a decoy missile and banked
sharply, feeling the familiar rush of adrenaline in his  blood.  One  of the
enemy missiles picked up the decoy and homed in on it, but the second wasn't
fooled  by the electronic  signature  and  continued  to  hurtle  after  the
Thunderbolt. Blair  altered course  sharply again,  veering back toward  the
decoy's flight path. The timing would have to be damned tight. . . .
     His  fighter  flashed past the  two  missiles  just  seconds before the
Kilrathi warhead detonated. The  blast that  erupted behind him  was  like a
false  dawn.  His  shield indicators registered a noticeable power loss, but
nothing close to what he would have suffered if  the full force of the blast
had been absorbed by the shields  themselves. After a moment he checked  his
screens, and let out  a  sigh.  The explosion had  caught  the second  enemy
missile.
     Then  another  Strakha  was in  sight,  firing on  him  with beams  and
missiles  from  dead ahead. Blair  returned fire,  and seconds  later  Flint
joined the fray  with  all  her guns blazing. Just as Blair's forward shield
was registering zero, the  Strakha went up in a magnificent  fireball. Blair
heard  Flint cheering. A  moment later Vaquero and Vagabond were joining in,
proclaiming another kill.
     "The  other two boys are  running!"  Vaquero shouted  all  trace of the
peaceful musician submerged now. "Looks like  we've  taught em a real lesson
this time!"
     "Permission to pursue, sir?" Flint added a moment later.
     "Negative," he  snapped.  "Negative! We've still  got missiles to track
down! Get on your scanners, people. Now!"
     But it was too  late. His sensors turned up nothing but debris and open
space, out to their maximum limit  The remaining Skipper missiles,  five  at
least, were gone
     Blair  stared at  the  empty screens, unable to  accept what  they were
telling him. They'd come so damned close.

     Flag Bridge, KIS Hvar'kann Locanda System

     "A report, Lord Prince."
     "What have  you got, Melek?"  Thrakhath leaned forward in his chair  to
study the bulky figure of the retainer.
     "The  Strakha have  eluded the  Terran Thunderbolts Lord Prince." Melek
paused. "The  surviving missiles are well on  their way, and interception by
the Terrans now is most unlikely. The colony will not survive."
     Thrakhath bared his  fangs. "Good. Then we have done what we came  here
to  do.  This  will  surely  spur   the  Terrans  into  a  rash  attempt  at
retaliation."  He could barely  contain the pleasure that burned inside him.
This was the first step to  ending the long war. "The  fleet  will disengage
and set  course  to the jump  point  to the  Ariel system. Let us leave  the
Terrans  to their . . .  possession. Let them decide  if they are pleased at
the price they have paid to drive us away from their colony."
     "Lord Prince  . . . many of  the  fighters are damaged and low on fuel.
The Strakha are at the very limit of their range. Should we not move to pick
them up first?" Melek's look was almost challenging.
     "The Terran reaction will be unpredictable, Melek. They could decide to
launch  a retaliatory  strike, once  they realize that all they have left is
vengeance. We must not delay too long. Any fighters that can rendezvous with
us may do so, but we will  not wait for stragglers." Thrakhath paused.  "You
may order tankers  to refuel them  if you wish. Carry  out my orders  .  . .
now."

     Thunderbolt 300 Locanda System

     "Good  God, Colonel, what do we do now?" Flint's voice was ragged, with
fatigue or shock or  disappointment. Blair wasn't sure which. "They're . . .
gone."
     "We  do  whatever  we  still  can," he  said, hard-pressed to keep  the
despair out of his own voice. "And we pray the in-system defenses spot those
bastards before they do any damage to the colony . . ."
     "I  counted five of them all  told, Colonel,"  Vaquero said.  "Can t we
blanket the approaches and pick them up before they reach the planet?"
     "We can try," Blair said.
     "So . . we head for home, skipper?" Vaquero asked.
     "But . .  . the colony," Flint  said.  "We can t just turn back now. We
have to try to stop those missiles!"
     "We'll do  what  we  can,  Lieutenant," Blair told her. "Spread out and
keep hunting,  and  call for refueling  from  Victory.  The  Home Guard  and
whatever  other ships are  closer in to Four can search,  too.  But we can't
track what we can't see. And I don't hold out much hope at this point."




     Thunderbolt 300 Locanda System

     "The last  word we received put the Kilrathi concentrating  around  the
jump point to Ariel. Looks like they  re  pulling out. Not even bothering to
gather in all their fighters, either. Could be we can round up a few more of
the bastards before the whole thing's over."
     Blair wasn't particularly interested in the Kilrathi, not any more.  He
had other concerns. "Any word on the situation on Four, Lieutenant?"
     "It doesn't look good,  sir," Rollins  said heavily. "The  reports from
the  colony indicate at least  five missiles  got through. They were set for
high airbursts, so the  ground defenses never had a chance to fire at  them.
We won't know for a while if the pandemic is as bad as everybody claims, but
. . . well, like I said, it doesn't look good."
     "Acknowledged, Victory. Leader clear." Blair nodded slowly. The  report
was about  what he expected, but that didn't  make it any easier to swallow.
Five Kilrathi  biowarheads  exploding high  above the surface of the  colony
world  . . .  that would ensure a  fast spread of the  tailored disease they
carried. It would  not  be long  before the  effects of  the  attack  became
visible.
     Locanda IV  was as good as  dead already, and Maverick Blair, the great
pilot and war hero, was the man to blame for it all. The man who failed. . .
.
     He forced the thought aside and concentrated on his fighter's controls.
Blair's Thunderbolt came through the long fight with  only light damage, but
he had trouble with  the port-side  maneuvering  thrusters, and the computer
was unable to reroute the circuits through a more dependable network.
     They were near  the  original coordinates of the Kilrathi  fleet, which
thankfully  was moving away at full speed  toward  a nearby jump point. Blue
and  Green Squadrons,  after maintaining  a  prolonged  diversionary  action
against  Thrakhath's  flagship,  had  returned  to  Victory.  Gold  Squadron
remained out, however, searching for a lost sheep.
     Incredibly, only  Beast Jaeger's fighter was confirmed  as destroyed in
battle,  though several  of the  others were in terrible  shape.  How Hobbes
still  flew  at all  was a mystery, and  Vaquero's  weapons  systems finally
overloaded  in   the  last  fight  against  the  Strakha.  But  one  of  the
Thunderbolts remained missing, and Blair ordered Gold Squadron to spread out
and search for the missing man . . . or some sign of his fate.
     Lieutenant Alexander Sanders. callsign Sandman . . . Blair never really
knew  him.  He  had  served  as  Maniac's  wingman  throughout  the  current
deployment  and  spent  most of his  off-duty hours  hanging  with Marshall.
Although he always struck  Blair as a complete opposite to Maniac   steady,
dependable, loyal, reliable  Sanders and Marshall were good friends as well
as wingmates.  Neither Blair nor  the lieutenant were very comfortable  with
each other  as a result of the  on going feud dividing the colonel  from the
major.
     Now it looked as if Blair  would never  get a chance  to know the  man.
Maniac had allowed  himself to be separated  from his  wingman in the battle
with the Kilrathi escort squadron while Cobra covered herself after Jaeger's
death,  so no one saw Sandman fighting. He  might have  been  destroyed,  or
simply  damaged and left adrift .  . . or  he  might  have ejected  from his
fighter. Until they were sure, they had to look.
     A  refueling  shuttle  arrived  from Victory  to  rendezvous  with  the
squadron and top off their tanks,  and now the eight remaining fighters were
to form a  broad search pattern, hunting for some signs of  the lost  pilot.
They  were  barely within sensor range of each other, and the  comm channels
were  mostly  quiet. Everyone  knew the  mission  had failed.  Everyone  was
exhausted  by  hours of  continuous  stress and tension  punctuated  by more
fighting than any of them had seen in a long, long time.
     "Bad news, Colonel," Cobra broke  into his reverie.  "I've got a debris
field  here.  Material analysis  reads consistent with  a Thunderbolt's hull
armor . . . It's gotta be Sandy's."
     "You're sure it isn't part of Jaeger's ship?"
     "No way, sir. Too far from where Beast caught it."
     "Start a close scan, Cobra. If there's an escape pod around there, find
it.
     "I'll try, sir, but  you know the cats.  If they spot  a pilot after he
ejects, they'll either blast him  where they find him or tractor him  in for
interrogation and a sporting death entertaining a ship's nobles."
     "Check  it out,  anyway,  Lieutenant. If  there's any  chance Sandman's
still alive, I want  to find him." Blair paused. "All fighters, from Leader.
Converge on Cobra's beacon and concentrate your search there."
     Bringing the  fighter around, he increased his thrust. Cobra was right,
of course.  The  odds against finding Sanders  alive were too high a bet for
anyone but a blind optimist, but he had to try.
     It was a pitiful gesture set against  his failure defending the colony,
but it was all he could do right now.

     Bridge, TCS Victory Locanda System

     'Approaching Gold Squadron's search grid now, sir.
     "Very good, Mr. DuBois," Eisen  acknowledged the helmsman's report. "Go
to station-keeping. Sensors to full sweep.  Let's help the  Colonel look for
his man. Any word, Lieutenant Rollins?"
     "Nothing from Gold Squadron, sir." Rollins turned in  his chair to face
the captain. "Coventry's broadcasting updates on the Kilrathi fleet. Several
of their ships have jumped, but it looks like Sar'hrai is delaying. Probably
to pick up stragglers from the  cat fighter strike. If we teamed up with the
cruiser, sir, we might get a few licks in . . ."
     "This is a carrier, not a dreadnought, Lieutenant,"  Eisen told him. "A
carrier with a  fighter wing that isn't likely to  be able  to pull a strike
mission for quite a while. And that close to a jump point you always run the
risk of something popping in when you least expect it."
     "Yes, sir," Rollins said. He sounded disappointed.
     "Look,  I know how everybody feels.  The  cats broke through,  and  the
colony's probably . . . in  trouble. You want to  hit back. So do I, believe
me.  But there's no sense in compounding  one tragedy with another. ConFleet
can't afford to throw away ships on meaningless gestures, and that's what it
would be if we tried to take Sar'hrai."
     They were the right  words, Eisen told himself. But he didn't like them
at all.
     "Captain?"  That was Tanaka, the Sensor Officer. "Sir, I'm only reading
seven fighters in the search grid. There ought to be eight . . ."
     "What the devil?" Eisen demanded. "Find that other fighter. And Rollins
. . . get on the line and tell Blair it's time he took roll call!"

     Thunderbolt 300 Locanda System

     "Sensors confirm it, Colonel. Lieutenant Peters didn't  respond to your
orders to tighten the search grid.  Instead she's  vectored  off toward  the
Ariel jump point."
     "Goddamn.  .  ."  Blair  didn't  finish  the  curse.  "She must've been
listening  on the comm channel when you filled me  in  on  enemy  movements.
Decided to even some scores  with the Kilrathi fighters you said were likely
to get left behind."
     He should have watched Flint  more closely,  he told himself, angry and
bitter. She had been a model wingman throughout the battle, but it must have
been dreadful for her to see those last few fighters  escape to launch their
deadly missiles at the colony.
     At her homeworld . . .
     All she needed  was one  more  kill  to  fill  the score to avenge  her
brother, with nearly sixty more for her father.  But  how many more Kilrathi
would Flint have to kill to avenge the population of an entire world?
     "Colonel,"  Eisen  broke onto the  channel.  "There  s still a Kilrathi
carrier near  the jump point. Possibly some undamaged fighters as well. Your
Lieutenant  Peters  is  heading  right into a  slaughterhouse, and she's not
acknowledging our  return-to-ship orders. Can you do  anything to stop her?"
The captain paused for several seconds. "It's your call, Blair."
     He stared at Eisen's image on his comm  screen, his mind racing.  Flint
had a huge head start, and by the time he mounted any sort of rescue mission
she  might  be  dead.  Gold  Squadron  was battered, exhausted, with missile
stocks low and battle damage  plaguing every one of the Thunderbolts. Common
sense dictated that they cut their losses now and let Flint have  her final,
suicidal  gesture.  No matter how upset she  might  be,  Robin Peters was no
fool. She just wanted to go down fighting.
     But there was another  part of Blair that couldn't just give up on her.
The same  part that prolonged the search for Sandman. Good pilots don't give
up on their own, especially not on their wingmen.
     "I'll go after her, sir," he said at  last. "See  if there's anything I
can do."
     Eisen  didn't  respond right away. "Understood, Colonel,"  he  said  at
last. "And . . . Godspeed."
     "This is Leader," Blair said, more  crisp than before. "If  Sanders had
managed  to eject,  we  would have found  him  by  now.  Pack it in, people.
Hobbes, get em down to the deck I'm going after Flint."
     "My friend, you cannot go alone  " Hobbes protested.
     "I'm  with you, Colonel," Cobra  overrode  Ralgha's  soft voice.  "Lets
move!"
     "I'm alone on this one," Blair said firmly. "That's a direct order. All
fighters return to Victory. One rogue pilot in a day is enough."
     "But  " Cobra sounded ready to start another war.
     "A  direct order,  I said." Blair paused. "But  .  .  . Cobra,  you and
Vagabond  have the least damage,  after  me. Get  down on  the deck, let the
techs patch anything essential that's damaged,  and then rearm  and  refuel.
Prep another  fuel shuttle  and escort it toward the Ariel jump point. Flint
and I will be needing fuel before we get back."
     "If  you get back" Ralgha said. "I  do not understand why you are doing
this, my friend. You are putting yourself in danger for no good purpose  . .
."
     "She's my wingman, Hobbes. I have to go. Now carry out your orders." He
cut the channel with  a savage stab at the comm button, then switched on the
navigation computer to plot a course after Flint.
     Blair's only hope  was that he wasn't making the  same empty gesture as
she was.

     Thunderbolt 305 Locanda System

     Flint glanced mechanically from  her sensor board to the weapon  status
display, hardly aware of what she was doing  any more.  Somehow the shock of
what had happened was dull and  distant, as  though she was watching someone
else react in her place. The emotion that  nearly overpowered her as she had
realized her planet was under a slow, savage death  sentence faded away now,
replaced by grim determination.
     It felt the same way when Davie died . . . and when the news came in to
the  Academy about her father. The grief  and pain were there, but they were
suppressed by the overwhelming need to act, to do something.
     She must do  something,  even though she knew it  was hopeless.  If she
didn't die on the firing line, her career would probably  be over  anyway by
the time Blair  got through  with her. She had disobeyed  orders and let her
vengeance get in  the way of the mission once again, even  after the Colonel
gave  her  a second chance.  This  was the  last  time she would  be  in the
cockpit, facing the Kilrathi, one way or another.
     Robin Peters intended to make this last time count.
     Her navigational computer signaled that she was  fast  approaching  the
Ariel  jump  point. Her autopilot cut out  instantaneously, and Flint forced
herself to relax and let her combat training take over.
     The sensor board came alive with targets.

     Thunderbolt 300 Locanda System

     "Blair  to  Peters. Blair to Peters. Respond, please." Blair closed his
eyes for a moment, caught somewhere between anger and concern and fear. "For
God's sake, Flint, answer me.  Break off  and head  for home before it's too
late."
     But his autopilot told him it probably  was too late already. With  her
head start, she would have reached  the  jump point zone eight  minutes ago,
and eight minutes could be an eternity in a dogfight.  By  his best estimate
Blair's Thunderbolt was still two minutes from contact.
     He  ran  a  quick  inventory  of  his  weaponry. There  was  still  one
fire-and-forget missile slung under  his  wing and both his gun turrets were
fully charged. If there  was any real opposition waiting  ahead, it would be
all too inadequate, but he didn't plan to remain for  a long dogfight. Blair
wanted to find Flint in one piece, then persuade her to withdraw in a hurry.
Hopefully, the Kilrathi would be  too concerned with getting their  fighters
back to  Sar'hrai so  she could  jump  to worry about chasing  two foolhardy
Terrans . . .
     If not . . . well, it wasn't likely to be a long battle in any event.
     The computer beeped a  warning and cut the autopilot, and Blair focused
on the sensor  board as it began  to register  targets.  The view before him
wasn't encouraging.
     The Kilrathi carrier dominated the scene, huge  and menacing,  hovering
near the jump point. There was a great deal of activity around the big ship,
and for a moment, Blair  feared that Flint had driven straight in to  attack
the capital ship, a brave but utterly futile  gesture indeed.  But the blips
he was registering were all Kilrathi, and after a moment,  he  realized that
the  bulk  of  the targets  were  keeping  close to  the  carrier to protect
incoming fighters attempting to land on Sar'hrai's flight deck.
     Then he picked up Flint. She had not pursued the carrier after all, but
she was heavily involved with a trio of Vaktoth fighters which locked her in
a  classic  wheel attack circling her  fighter and pounding at  her  shields
without mercy. Flint handled  her Thunderbolt impressively, managing somehow
to dodge and  turn out of the line of fire again and  again, but  inevitably
some of those enemy beams penetrated  her defenses. It was  only a matter of
time before  her  shields finally failed, leaving her fighter exposed to the
full fury of the Kilrathi attack.
     Blair took in the scene in an instant and cut in his  afterburners. The
Thunderbolt surged forward as if eager for battle, and in  mere seconds  his
targeting computer locked on to one  of the  heavy  fighters ahead. He would
have to make this fast before any of the other Imperial  fighters decided to
intervene.
     His blasters caught  the Vaktoth  at  its  weakest  point,  in the rear
section  just  above the  engines. There was  a  flaw in the shield  pattern
there, making the fighter vulnerable to a concentrated attack, but  even the
weak spot on a Vaktoth was formidable by anyone's standards. Blasters  could
punch  through the shields, perhaps  even damage armor underneath, but  they
didn't cycle fast  enough to allow  the Thunderbolt to  exploit a successful
hit.  The usual  tactic  was  to add  a  missile to  the  mix, preferably  a
heat-seeker that  could fly light up  the  enemys main thruster outlet while
the shields were off-line .  . . or, lacking missiles, to  rely on a wingman
to finish the attack.
     Blair couldn't count on his  wingman, not until  she snapped out of her
crazy urge for vengeance. He must use his last missile.
     It  was over  in an  instant. The  Vaktoth  came apart  in  a  blinding
fireball. The other two Kilrathi pilots broke the wheel and turned away, but
Blair  knew they weren't ready  to run yet.  They  just wanted  to  regroup,
assess the new threat.
     And perhaps call in reinforcements.
     "Flint!" he called. "This  is the only chance we're going to get. Break
off now!"
     "Break off. . . Colonel? What are you doing? You're supposed to be back
at the ship . . ."
     "So are you," he snapped. "I decided you needed a personal invitation."
On his  screen he  saw  the two  Vaktoth  making slow, wide, outer  loops to
launch  a  converging  attack  from two directions. There was  no sign  that
others  planned to join them, but it  would only be a matter of time. Sooner
or  later more fighters would  reinforce these two,  unless  the two Terrans
abandoned the battle.
     "Leave me here, Colonel. I'll cover your retreat."
     "Forget it, Lieutenant," he told her. "I don't abandon my wingmen . . .
not even when they abandon me. Either we both go back to the ship or neither
one of us does."
     "I . . . yes, sir." Her voice was like lead.
     "Those two are coming in fast,"  he said,  still  studying  the  sensor
board. "We'll have to fight our way out. Follow my lead, Flint. I'm counting
on you."
     He   banked  left,  accelerating,  driving   toward  one  of  the   two
widely-separated Vaktoth. Flint stuck close to  his  wing, trailing a little
but evidently obeying him.
     Blair locked on his  targeting computer, but held his fire. The Vaktoth
grew in  his crosshairs, looming closer.  It opened fire,  and blaster shots
slammed  into  the  Thunderbolt's shields  where  the  earlier  fighting had
already  weakened his defenses. There  was precious little armor left  under
those intangible barriers of energy, and  if they failed now it would be the
end.
     He pulled his steering  yoke  up  hard  at  the  last  possible second,
sliding over the top  of the Kilrathi ship with only meters to spare.  Blair
spun the Thunderbolt around using maneuvering jets, praying  the damaged one
wouldn't let him down  this  time. Then, applying  full thrust, he tried  to
kill his velocity while opening fire with his blasters at point-blank range.
Shot  after shot pounded the rear shields of the Vaktoth  until the blasters
exhausted their energy banks.
     Blair spun the fighter around again and accelerated before the Kilrathi
pilot reacted. Moments later Flint was there, unleashing  her own beams in a
furious attack  on the weakened Vaktoth. The enemy ship  began bringing  its
weapons to bear, but too late. Flint's blaster fire penetrated the hull  and
set  off  a chain reaction  of  explosions in  the  fighter's fuel  and ammo
stores.
     For the first time since he'd flown with  her,  Blair didn't hear Flint
counting her score.
     "Let's  get  going,  Lieutenant.  Before  the  rest  of  the  welcoming
committee catches us."
     The last Vaktoth came into weapon range, firing a few random shots just
to measure  the distance. On his screen,  Blair  could see  four  more ships
detaching themselves from the force watching over the carrier.
     If  they got too involved with  this one,  they'd soon be facing  those
reinforcements, and Blair doubted he could manage another stand-up fight.
     "Your  hull  looks  pretty  bad,  Colonel,"  Flint  said,  echoing  his
thoughts. "I'll drop back and hold them."
     "You'll  follow my lead,  like I said before." More shots probed  after
them, and Blair could feel the sweat starting to run down his forehead under
the  flight  helmet despite  the  carefully-maintained  environment  of  the
cockpit. He  wasn't sure he could pull another  rabbit out of  his hat  this
time.
     "Colonel! Targets! Targets ahead!" Flint's voice was  more alive as she
called the warning.
     Four blips appeared ahead, blocking their escape route back to Victory.
With pursuers  behind and this new force ahead, they couldn't evade  another
battle for long. Blair knew they couldn't last once engaged.
     Suddenly the  four new blips changed from amber, the color-code  for an
unidentified bogie, to green.  Friendlies . . . Confed fighters. Blair could
hardly keep himself from whooping in sheer joy at the sight.
     "This is  Flight Captain Piet  DeWitt of  the  destroyer  Coventry,"  a
cheerful Terran voice  announced. "Captain Bondarevsky tells me you  carrier
hot-shots need a little assist. We're here to escort you home, Colonel. Fall
in ahead of our formation, and leave the bad guys to us."
     "We're in your hands, Captain," Blair said, breathing out a long,  soft
sigh. Already the nearest Vaktoth broke  off at the sight of the four  Arrow
interceptors, and the rest of the Kilrathi pursuit was slowing noticeably as
they studied the  newcomers  and  tried to assess what the Terrans  would do
next. "We thank you all."
     "Compliments of  Captain Bondarevsky, Colonel.  He told me  to tell you
this makes up for that time off New Sydney."
     Blair  felt  the  relief flowing  through  him,  and  with  it  another
sensation . . . fatigue. Now  that  the pressure was gone, it took the  full
force of his will to program the autopilot to take the Thunderbolt home.
     Then, at  last, he  slumped in  his  acceleration  couch exhausted.  He
didn't win any  victories today, but he survived, and  Flint  with him.  And
maybe that was enough.




     Flight Deck. TCS Victory Locanda System

     Blair stepped to the makeshift podium reluctantly,  and bowed  his head
for a moment before  speaking.  There were many aspects of a wing commanders
duties he didn't like, but this morning s duty was the worst of them all.
     He  raised his  head  and  studied  the  ranks  of officers and crewmen
gathered on  the  flight deck, assembled in orderly rows, and wearing  their
dress  uniforms to mark the solemn  occasion. Pilots  from the  four  combat
squadrons were prominent in the front of the formation. Even Maniac Marshall
looked solemn today as he mourned the loss of his best friend on board.
     Commander  Thomas  White,  Victory's  chaplain,  gave  Blair an  almost
imperceptible nod.
     "We're here to say good-bye to the men and women of the flight wing who
gave their lives in battle yesterday," Blair began slowly. "Nine pilots were
killed fighting the Kilrathi, dedicated warriors  whose places  will  be  as
difficult to fill in our hearts as they will be to replace on our  roster. I
haven't  served on this  ship very long, and I  didn't know any of  them all
that well, but I know they died heroes."
     He  paused  for a long time before continuing, fighting back a wave  of
emotion. These nine  officers would hardly be  noticed in  comparison to the
population of the  colony  on Locanda  IV, but  their deaths were  much more
immediate  and vivid to Blair. They died trying to carry out his orders in a
failed  mission,  and  as  wing  commander  he  carried the  full  burden of
responsibility for their deaths   and for the colonists they were unable to
protect  squarely on his own inadequate shoulders.
     "I wish I knew the right words to say about each and every one of these
lost comrades," he went on at last.  "But the only  accolade I can give them
now  is  this:  each  of them died  serving in the  best  traditions  of the
Service, and they will be sorely missed."
     He stepped back from the  podium  and gave  a signal.  Behind  him, the
first  of nine sealed coffins rolled forward. Only one of them actually held
a body, since  Captain  Marina Ulyanova was the  only pilot who  managed  to
eject before her ship was destroyed during the fighting  around the Kilrathi
flagship. She died from her wounds a few hours later. The other coffins were
empty except for plaques identifying the pilots they commemorated.
     "Present . . . ARMS!" the Confed Marine commanding the seven-man  honor
guard  barked.  The  first  coffin  stopped moving for  a moment,  ready for
launch.
     From his place in  line,  Hobbes looked up and  spoke in slow, measured
tones. "Lieutenant Helmut Jaeger," he said.
     Up in Flight  Control  a technician activated the launch  sequence. The
coffin hurtled into space on fiery boosters, and the second one rolled in to
replace it.
     "Lieutenant Alexander Sanders," Hobbes went on. Beside him Maniac bowed
his head, his  lips moving  silently.  In prayer? Or  just saying  good-bye?
Blair didn't know.
     When the  third coffin was  in  place  Amazon Mbuto took over  the roll
call.  "Captain  Marina  Ulyanova,"  she  said.   Then,  "Lieutenant  Gustav
Svensson.
     The  grim muster went  on until all nine coffins were ejected. When the
task  was completed,  the  honor guard  raised their weapons and fired three
low-power laser  pulses through the force field at  the  end  of the  hangar
deck, then  stepped  back,  standing  at  attention.  Chaplain White stepped
forward. "We commit these  men and women to the empty depths of interstellar
space," he said slowly. "Watch over them, Lord, that they may find peace who
died in the fires of war. In the name of Jesus . . . Amen."

     Wing Commander's Office, TCS Victory Locanda System

     "You wanted to see me, Colonel?"
     Blair was hard-pressed to  speak. Instead he nodded and gestured toward
the chair near his desk. This was one interview he didn't want to conduct.
     Lieutenant Robin Peters sat  down. "I guess I know what this is about,"
she  said,  almost too softly to be  heard.  "You might have died out there,
chasing after me."
     He found his voice. "I might have."
     "The captain ordered you . . ."
     "No." Blair shook his head. "It was my call to make."
     "Well . . . I suppose you had your reasons. In your shoes, I would have
stayed  put.  Let the stupid bitch  get what she deserved." She looked away.
"Sorry, Colonel. I've never been very good at saying thanks."
     "You're welcome," he told her dryly.
     "I want you to understand, sir  "
     "Understand? There's  nothing  to  understand, Flint. You  lost  it out
there.  Maybe  you had good reason.  Lord knows what  it's like to have your
homeworld . . . infected, like that. All at once, and despite  everything we
could do."  Blair paused. He didn't want to go on, but he knew he must. Even
though  he  understood  Flint's  feelings, he  couldn't  simply  ignore  her
actions. "We don't just decide to fly off on a suicide mission because we're
hurting. You have to fly with your head, Flint, not with your heart."
     "You've never done that, sir? Flown with your heart?"
     He  fixed  her with  a steady stare.  "The  day  you  see  me  do that,
Lieutenant, you can shoot me out of space yourself." A part  of him, though,
was well aware that he might have done the same thing himself.  No pilot was
an automaton, able to ignore his feelings at will. "We  already  talked once
about  this, Flint.  And I told you what would happen if you let  your heart
get  in  the  way of your  duty.  You haven't left me  a hell  of  a  lot of
choices."
     "I  know,  sir," she said,  dropping her gaze. "I  guess  I was kind of
hoping you'd let me off easy, let me keep flying. But you can't."
     "No, I can't," Blair said, voice level  and cold. "We  can't afford  to
let every pilot pursue some private little war. That's a sure way to let the
Kilrathi  win.  Until  further notice,  Lieutenant,  your  flight  status is
suspended. You're grounded."
     Now it was Blair who couldn't meet her eyes . Something left them both,
and only the expression of hopelessness and death remained.
     "Dismissed,"  he added,  and turned  back to his computer terminal.  He
waited until she  left  the office before sagging into his chair, feeling as
though he had just taken on an entire Kilrathi squadron on his own.

     Captain's Ready Room, TCS Victory Blackmane System

     "Sit down, Colonel. I'll only be a minute."
     "Take your  time, sir," Blair said, settling wearily into a chair while
Eisen turned his attention back to a computer terminal.
     Victory's captain  looked even more  tired than  Blair felt,  with  the
haggard expression of a  man  who  had gone  too many nights  without enough
sleep.  Everyone had been working overtime in the five days since the battle
off Locanda  IV. Yesterday they had  jumped from Locanda  to  the  Blackmane
System,  leaving behind  a world  already in the grip of spreading panic and
plague.
     Eisen finished whatever he was working on and turned his chair  to face
Blair. "Well, Colonel. How's the work going with the flight wing?
     "About  what you'd expect, sir. The techs have most of  the fighters up
and running  again. There was  some battle damage we  couldn't fully repair,
but we're getting  back on  track. I hope we can get  some replacement birds
from Blackmane Base  .  .  . and some pilots to fill the roster  out,  while
we're at it."
     Eisen frowned. "That won't be so easy, but I'll see what I can do."
     "Sir?"
     "Word  just  came  in.  With  Locanda Four  gone  and  the whole system
quarantined, HQ's decided to consolidate our  resources in this sector. That
means Blackmane Base is being shut down. Everything's shifting to Vespus and
Torgo.  Anybody who  can herd a boat  will be  needed to fly ships  for  the
evacuation. I might be  able to snag some fighters. They'll probably be glad
to unload a few from their  reserve stocks and save space for other outgoing
cargo."
     Blair felt a  sinking sensation  in his gut. "Evacuate the base?  Isn't
that a pretty extreme move? What about the colonists in this system?"
     The captain shook his head, frowning. "Doesn't look good. Confed's just
getting stretched too damn thin. If  the Kilrathi are  going to start  using
these bioweapons routinely, we can't  mount  an effective  defense in  every
system. So  the  orders are  to  concentrate on defending  the ones that are
really vital.  For  the rest .  . .  I  guess they get to rely  on the  good
old-fashioned cross-your-fingers defense initiative."
     "If  the  Confederation  can't  protect  its  own  civilian  population
anymore, we're in worse shape than I thought,"  Blair said quietly.  "Things
can't go on like this."
     Eisen nodded agreement. "According to our resident rumor mill, Rollins,
they won't. There's supposed to be some kind of big plan circulating back at
Torgo to end the war once and for all. Tolwyn and Taggart are  both supposed
to be involved somehow, and if you believe Rollins and his  sources  it will
be something pretty damned spectacular."
     "Great," Blair said without enthusiasm. "We're stretched  to the limit,
and HQ is going to unveil another one of their master plans."
     "All we can  do  is hope it  works," Eisen said. He  studied Blair from
dark narrowed eyes. "Have you had a medical evaluation lately, Colonel?"
     "No,  sir.  Blair  frowned,  uncertain  at  the  sudden  change in  the
direction of the conversation. "Why?"
     "You look like hell, for one thing."
     "Right back at you,  Captain.  I don't think there's a man on this boat
who looks too good now . . . except maybe Flash. I've never seen him looking
anything but perfect."
     "I'm serious, Blair. We've  all been working hard, but I've had reports
on  you. You're pulling double shifts every day. You're  not  eating enough,
and  you're certainly not  getting enough  sleep.  You  haven't been,  since
before the fight at Locanda."  Eisen  hesitated.  "And, frankly,  I  have to
wonder if it hasn't been screwing up your judgment."
     "My combat judgment, you mean," Blair amplified the thought for him.
     The captain  met his  look. "You came  on board with  a hot reputation,
Colonel. And I'd  stack your wing up against any in the Fleet. But it wasn't
enough to  turn the  cats  back at  Locanda Four. There are some people  who
claim you  had  just . .  . come back from  your medical  leave a little too
early,  that  your  judgment  was  impaired and  the  mission  suffered as a
consequence."
     "Captain, I never  claimed the  reputation everyone  insists hanging on
me,'' Blair said slowly. He was angry not just at  Eisen's words, but at the
fact that deep down he had been trying not to think the same things himself.
"Fact is, we were just plain outmatched. There were too  damn many of  them,
and yet  we  still came  within a few minutes of nailing the bastards. If it
hadn't been for those damned Strakha . . ." He took a breath. "My people did
everything humanly possible,  and I think I did as well. But if  you want me
to apply for a transfer, let someone better qualified take over  "
     Eisen  held up a hand "I wasn't suggesting any such thing, Colonel. All
I'm saying is that you're  human, too, just like the rest of  us. And if you
drive  yourself too  hard, something's  going  to give eventually. Find some
balance, man . . . before you really do screw up a mission."
     "It's easier said  than done, sir," Blair said. "You should know it, if
anyone does. You have to hold this old rustbucket together, come what may."
     "Oh, I understand  what you're going through,  all right," the  captain
told him. "More than you might imagine. There've been a few ops I've been on
where I  didn't live  up to the reputation I'd racked up, and then I'd  work
twice  as hard trying  to recapture what I thought I'd lost. Usually I  only
got half as much done in  the process. Take my advice, Blair. Don't dwell on
the past  too much. Even if you've made mistakes, don't let them become more
important  than the here and now. And don't  take  out  your frustrations on
other people. Like Lieutenant Peters, for instance."
     Blair looked at him. "Are you overriding me on Flint, sir?  Putting her
back on flight status?"
     The  captain  shook  his  head. "I don't get  involved  in  flight wing
assignments unless I have to. You grounded her. You'll have to be the one to
decide to  reinstate her."  He paused. "But I  should tell  you. She applied
this morning for a  transfer to Blackmane  Base. She needs to fly again, one
way or another. I turned her down. With the base shutting down, nobody needs
the complications a transfer would involve. But something'll have to be done
on that front sooner or later, Colonel. She's a pilot, and a damn good one .
. . when her head  is screwed on straight. Weren't you the one griping about
wasting good pilots, back when you found Hobbes off the roster?"
     "Hobbes never pulled a stunt like  Flint's, sir," Blair shot back. "And
he's from a race that raised the vendetta to an art form."
     Eisen nodded  reluctantly. "As long as  you're aware, Colonel. I  agree
she needs  to get her act together. But too much time on the sidelines could
ruin her."
     "I know, Captain. I know."
     Blair left the ready room more uncertain than ever.

     Wing Commander's Quarters, TCS Victory Blackmane System

     Vespus . . .  he was back on Vespus again, and Angel was with him. They
walked hand in hand along the top of a bluff overlooking the glittering sea,
with a light breeze blowing off the water to stir her auburn hair.
     Blair  knew  it  was a  dream,  but the  knowledge  didn't  change  the
intensity of  the  illusion.  He was  really with  her, on Vespus,  the week
they'd taken leave together. It was a time when neither of them had imagined
ever being apart again.
     The  view from the clifftop was  beautiful: the setting sun, one of the
three great moons hanging low above  the horizon, sea and sky  red  with the
gathering twilight. But Blair turned away from the spectacular vista to look
into  Angel's eyes, to  drink in her beauty. They  kissed, and in  the dream
that kiss seemed to last for an eternity.
     Now they were  sitting side  by side, lost in each other,  oblivious to
their surroundings. Another kiss, and a long, lingering embrace. Their hands
explored each other's bodies eagerly as passion stirred.
     "Is  this  forever, mon ami?" Angel asked,  looking deep into his eyes,
almost into his soul.
     "Forever's not long enough," he told her. They came together . . .
     The dream changed. Vespus again, where sea and shore came together, but
stark, bleak, with storm  clouds gathering on  the horizon. Blair stood with
General Taggart, this time, looking  down  at the broken  spine  of the hulk
that been Concordia.  He stirred, but he couldn't awaken, couldn't recapture
the other dream . . .
     Now he stood  on the flight deck, near the podium, as a line of coffins
rolled past.  The general  was with him again, reading out the names of  the
dead in deep, sonorous tones. "Colonel Jeannette Devereaux . . ."
     Blair  snapped awake,  stifling a cry. His hands  groped on his bedside
table until they wrapped around the holocube  she had sent him. For a moment
he  fumbled with it, and then  her  image appeared,  lips moving soundlessly
with the volume turned down.
     He stared at  the ghostly figure and  tried  to control his  breathing.
Blair  was never a superstitious man, but the nightmare  was like an omen, a
vision. Angel was gone, and he was afraid that he would never get her back.

     Flight Wing Rec Room. TCS Victory Blackmane System

     Another  evening,  another day of  seemingly  endless work.  Blair  was
looking forward  to a tall glass and a  chance  to unwind, and  although  he
wasn't eager for company, the rec room  was  preferable  to his quarters. He
spent  too  many  nights lately staring  at  those four walls, awakened from
sleep by the recurring nightmare. At least Angel couldn't haunt him here.
     There was a cluster of officers at the bar, Lieutenant Rollins right in
the  middle. They were grouped around  a newspad, watching the latest Terran
News Channel update just beamed in from Blackmane. Barbara Miles, perfect as
ever,  looked  out of the screen with an expression  of mingled concern  and
reassurance as she spoke.
     "Despite  denials from official  Confederation channels,  TNC  now  has
independent confirmation that the Locanda star system  has been placed under
absolute quarantine  in the wake of an outbreak of a virulent plague said to
be the result of a Kilrathi biological weapons attack. There are unconfirmed
rumors  that this is  not the first time such weapons have been used against
human colonies. It is now generally believed that the colony on Locanda Four
has already  suffered  heavy losses, and  may be  all  but  wiped out as the
disease runs its course."
     She  paused  significantly.  "In  other  news  from the  front, TNC has
learned that a strategic withdrawal of Confed  forces is underway in several
outlying  sectors.  While government and military  spokesmen officially deny
any  such actions,  unofficially several sources have suggested  that  these
withdrawals have been ordered as a means of consolidating the front lines by
surrendering unimportant territory in the hope that the Kilrathi will spread
themselves too thin and thus be exposed to a  significant counterstroke. But
independent military analysts  retained by TNC have  labeled this suggestion
as  spurious,  and  believe  the  consolidation'  is  merely an  improvised
response to the advances of the enemy.
     "This is Barbara Miles reporting, with another TNC Infoburst . . ."
     "Shut  it  off,  Radio," a  lieutenant Blair recognized  as one of  the
carrier's  shuttle pilots growled. "Always the same old line  from those cat
symps."
     Rollins blanked the screen. "Hey, Trent, where've you  been? We were at
Locanda . . . and they're breaking  down Blackmane  Base right  now.  I hear
tell there's been talk of sending a  peace envoy to Kilrah . . . that  we're
as  good as ready to surrender. So how can you keep buying the  fantasy that
we're actually winning this war?"
     "What  I want  to know, Rollins," Blair said,  placing  a hand  on  the
lieutenant's shoulder, "is why you're so  all-fired eager to tell us how bad
everything's going?"
     "Ah, c'mon, Colonel," Rollins said. "You'd have to be blind to miss the
facts. Things are  bad . . . and they're getting worse. Fact: we haven't had
a real  shore leave in months. Fact:  they  keep shuttling this  old  bucket
around from one trouble spot to  another, as if one battered carrier and one
fighter wing was all they could spare to cover half the  sector. Fact: we've
been on one defensive op after another, and we always seem to end up pulling
back when  it's over. Seems pretty damned  clear to me,  Colonel. This war's
winding down, all right. But we're not on the winning side."
     Blair  looked from Rollins to  the  others grouped around him. Most  of
them  were nodding  their heads in agreement, though a few,  like Lieutenant
Trent, were  frowning at his words.  "You want facts, Lieutenant?" I'll give
you a few  to chew on.  Fact: the grunts  on the front lines,  even the ones
with lots of well-placed sources. never see the whole picture in a war. Fact
the fastest way to lose a war is to allow morale  to be sapped by half-assed
young officers with big ears, bigger mouths, and no common sense at all. And
fact: I know a communications officer with too much time on his hands who is
letting his love for gossip jeopardize the morale of this ship."
     "With  all due respect, sir, I'm entitled to my opinion,"  Rollins said
stubbornly.
     "Indeed you are. But if I hear any more of this defeatist talk,  you'll
be reassigned to Waste Recycling, where your crap belongs. Get my drift?"
     "Telling him to shut up won't make the truth  go away, sir," one of the
others spoke up.
     "If it is the truth, wailing  about it  isn't going  to change a damned
thing," Blair said. "We'll just have to play the cards we're dealt. But like
I said, the grunts at the front  hardly ever  know what's really  happening.
Hell, maybe it's worse than old Gloom and Doom here thinks. But maybe it's a
lot better. Point is, if we decide everything's lost anyway, and give up, we
might end up letting down some folks who need us to  turn things around." He
paused. "I'm not telling  anyone what to think.  Or  even saying  you  can't
shoot the bull  over a few drinks. But spreading the worst possible rumors 
that's crossing the line. I've heard my share of rumors that were a lot less
nasty, and I'm sure Rollins here has heard them too. . . but those don't get
much play, because they're not spicy enough."
     Rollins gave him a long look, then shrugged. "Maybe you're right, sir,"
he said. "Maybe I do like to shoot my mouth off.
     "Well, as  of now,  consider  the  safety  on."  Blair forced  a smile.
"Anyway, aren't there better things to talk about than this  damned war? The
girl  you left  behind . . . or the shore  leave you'll never live down?" He
turned to the bartender. "Rosty . . . a round on my account. But only to the
ones who have something pleasant to talk about, okay?"
     That  boosted some spirits, and the others were laughing and chattering
happily  as  Blair  moved  to an empty  table by the viewport.  He sat there
staring into the darkness.
     He could have been quoting from a manual on keeping up morale when he'd
spoken to them. The trouble was he didn't believe a word of it himself.




     Captain's Ready Room, TCS Victory Blackmane System

     Blair paused at  the entrance to the captain's ready room, reluctant to
touch  the buzzer. Victory was astir with  fresh rumors today,  speculations
rising from the arrival of a  courier ship from Sector HQ  at Torgo. No  one
knew what word the ship brought to Eisen, but everyone was sure  it heralded
a change of  orders,  perhaps fresh action. Blair  wasn't looking forward to
learning what was in  store  for them  now. He didn't feel ready to  go back
into action  again so soon,  not with the  failure at Locanda  still hanging
over  him. It wasn't something he could admit to anyone, either, not without
requesting a transfer to some rear-echelon outfit, off the firing line.
     As tempting as that idea might be, Christopher Blair refused to give in
to  it. There  was no  way he could let others fight the war while he sought
safety. He owed it to all his comrades who had stayed and fought.
     With an effort  of will,  he forced himself to compose his features and
hit the buzzer.
     "Enter," Eisen's voice came, and the door slid open.
     "Reporting as ordered, sir," Blair said.
     "Ah, Colonel, good." Eisen  stood up, and the  officer in crisp  whites
opposite him did likewise. "This is Major Kevin Tolwyn, from sector HQ."
     "Hey, Lone Wolf," Blair said, genuinely pleased to see the younger man.
He advanced  to clasp Tolwyn's hand, smiling broadly. "Its been a long time,
kid."
     "Another old acquaintance, Colonel?" Eisen asked.
     "Yes,  sir," Blair responded. "We  served together  on the Tarawa a few
years back." He looked Tolwyn over. Short, baby-faced, the nephew of Admiral
Geoff Tolwyn didn't look  old enough to  shave,  much less  to  be a  Confed
officer. "Major,  now,  is  it? That's  a pretty  good bump.  You were  only
Lieutenant Tolwyn last time I heard . . ."
     Tolwyn blushed. "Brevet rank,  Colonel. I made Flight Captain after the
Battle  of Terra,  the  brevet came through  after I got wounded  during the
mop-up after Vespus." He hesitated. "I guess one fighter too many cooked off
underneath  me and my uncle pulled me  into a staff job  for awhile, he said
I'd  already  cashed  all  my lucky chips in and  he  wasn't going to take a
chance on next time."
     "Staff slot,  huh.  I'm sorry to hear it. You  should be  on the flight
line, kid, where you belong."
     "Don't I know it," Tolwyn said. "But . . . I didn't have any say in the
matter. The admiral wouldn't take no for an answer, and here I am."
     Blair nodded in understanding. He'd heard stories  of Admiral  Tolwyn's
open displays  of emotion, first when he had feared Kevin  missing  or dead,
then later when the younger man was  recovered  and  returned to the  fleet.
Maybe the staff  job was a real  effort to  keep Kevin  Tolwyn out of harm's
way. He was, after all, the  admiral's closest  surviving kin  and  had done
more than his share of  fighting while  serving on the  Tarawa. The Medal of
Honor on his chest was more than enough proof of that.
     "If I can interrupt the reunion,  Colonel, I think we'd better get down
to business." Eisen gestured to the chairs by his desk. As they sat down, he
continued. "Major Tolwyn brings us  fresh orders from HQ. It looks like  the
war's heating up, at least as far as we're concerned. Major?"
     "The attack on Locanda Four was a real wake-up call," Tolwyn said.  "We
knew the cats were working on a number of strategic weapons projects, but we
didn't expect them to bring them into play as long as  their fleet was still
able to hold its own. It s against everything in the  Kilrathi philosophy to
resort to  this kind of blatant genocide.  They're  supposed to  like  their
fights  up  close and personal,  and  this  is  a  complete  departure  from
everything we thought we knew about them."
     "Do we have any  evidence they're going  to  use bioweapons elsewhere?"
Blair asked. "Or was this some kind of . . . special case?
     "We don't know," Tolwyn said. "And that has the High Command doing some
serious  nail-biting,  let me tell you. All we  know is  that  the cats have
escalated the war, and if we don't match the ante we might as well just fold
now."
     "Match the ante . . . how?" Blair asked.
     "The  Confederation's  been working on its share of  doomsday  weapons,
too," Tolwyn  told them. "The Battle of  Terra scared the hell out of all of
us.  The big Kilrathi offensive caught everyone off guard. I don't  think  I
need to tell you that we're on the ropes.  One more attack like that and the
game's over. Remember, they managed to drop over twenty standard warheads on
Earth in the last attack. If only one  of them had been  a bio the homeworld
would  be a lifeless desert today. There's  no way around it, this one's  to
the death and we have a couple of counter punches almost ready to go."
     Blair said  nothing.  The  idea  of matching the Kilrathi  atrocity  at
Locanda with  a Terran  retaliation against civilians appalled him,  but  he
tried to keep his reaction from showing in his voice or expression.
     Tolwyn fixed Blair with his gaze. "One of the  projects is being pushed
by General Taggart  and the folks  at Covert Ops, and the other's my uncle's
pet project. That's  why he  got pulled  from Concordia just before  it went
down."
     Eisen cleared his  throat. "If you don't mind, Major, I'd appreciate it
if you'd stick to the briefing."
     "Sorry, sir," Tolwyn said. "Both projects  actually  stem from the same
basic research.  It seems some of our survey work off Kilrah during Tarawa's
little  end run raid  there  a few  years back  has yielded  some unexpected
results. Kilrah  is much less stable, in planetological terms,  than  Terra.
Subject to seismic problems,  quakes, volcanoes, the whole  bit.  Apparently
there  are some severe  tidal stresses at  work  on  Kilrah that  render the
planet  extremely  vulnerable to  widescale  seismic  activity." He  paused.
"Given a big enough shaking, Kilrah would literally come apart.
     "And HQ has a weapon that could do it?"
     "More  than  one,  Colonel.  I've not  been  briefed on the  Covert Ops
project,   except  for  generalities.   But  Project  Behemoth,  my  uncle's
preference,  uses high-intensity energy beams  on a massive scale to trigger
seismic shocks. Aimed and fired properly, the Behemoth weapon could  trigger
the destruction of Kilrah."
     "And the loss of the homeworld would cut the  foundation from under the
whole  Empire," Eisen  said slowly, with a  slight  smile. "It certainly  is
ambitious, I'll say that."
     "It's  genocide,"  Blair  said quietly. "How many civilians would we be
killing?"
     "How  many died on Locanda Four?" Tolwyn demanded.  "How many more will
die if  they unleash their pandemic again? Look Blair,  our intel people are
telling  us the Empire  is tottering  on the edge of civil war. The  various
clans  are  fed  up,  especially after  the failure of  the attack on Earth.
That's why  they  didn't  immediately  launch a  second attack  when we  had
nothing left to stop them. The Emperor had to regroup  build back his fleet
and keep  enough  forces close  at home to counteract  any threatened coups.
It's given us the breathing room to  get our new weapons on-line. If we wait
any longer, though the Kilrathi might be the ones  to  strike first and then
its us that are finished."
     Blair shook  his head "The end justifies  the  means? That wasn't  what
they  taught back  at the  Academy.  I  thought the Confederation stood  for
something better than that."
     Tolwyn looked away. "Yeah .. . yeah, you're right. It does." He paused.
"Well,  anyway, we're hoping we don't have to  actually attack Kilrah.  That
was  the deciding factor  when  it came down to  choosing  Behemoth over the
Covert  Ops concept. Apparently whatever they've hatched is a one-shot deal.
But  Behemoth is a weapon that can be used several times and the idea is  to
try a  few very public tests on  Kilrathi military bases.  Let the cats draw
their  own conclusions  about  what we  could  do  to Kilrah with  the  same
weaponry.  That's  the  operational plan,  at  least.  Our  hope  is  a good
demonstration  might actually push the clans into a palace coup. The Emperor
and his grandson are overthrown and the other clans sue for peace."
     "I guess that's better than  blasting Kilrah  out  of existence," Blair
said. "I mean, the Empire's the enemy and we have to do whatever it takes to
win.  But there are a lot of innocent Kilrathi out there who have nothing to
do with the  Emperor or Thrakhath  or the whole damned war effort.  Some  of
them are dissidents,  like Hobbes was before he defected. I wouldn't want to
be party to killing them all."
     "Well, we'll hope  it  doesn't come  to that," Eisen said. "I agree, it
would be a nasty choice to have to make. But if we can convince them we mean
business . . ."
     "So what's our part in all of this?" Blair asked.
     "Right now,  we're still putting the finishing  touches on  the weapon,
Tolwyn  said.  It won't be ready to deploy  for a few more weeks. But in the
meantime, we're  starting to prospect  the sector for a likely-looking first
target. We need to conduct some extensive recon work, checking defenses, and
surveying  possible  target  planets  to  make sure  the  Behemoth  will  be
effective against  them. It  wouldn't do to cruise  in, open  fire, and then
find out the place  was so tectonically dead we  couldn't even cause  a good
earthquake."
     "Recon  work,"  Blair repeated. "That'll be quite a  change, after what
we've been doing."
     "It'll be difficult and dangerous,"  Tolwyn  said.  We  can't afford to
send large  forces in anywhere, for fear of putting the cats on guard. We've
got a handful of carriers going  out  individually into  the selected target
systems. Victory's drawn Ariel, where we're fairly certain we've got a  very
suitable Kilrathi base to test."
     "Ariel's  a  pretty tough nut,"  Blair  commented. "I  hope you're  not
expecting us to take them on single-handed."
     "The system is inside  the Caliban Nebula,"  Eisen said. "Dust  and gas
and  energy discharges  will play hell with  shipboard sensors . . . on both
sides.  We  can sneak in, gather as  much information as possible, and sneak
out again and probably never tip the cats off that we were there. Maybe even
pull off a few ambushes along the way."
     Tolwyn nodded. "You'll actually have  it  better than some of the other
carriers on this  duty,"  he  said.  "And when you  get back, the  admiral's
already  decided  that Victory will get the  real plum job. Flagship for the
Behemoth Squadron . . . so you'll be in on the kill, as it were."
     "Flagship?  Us?"  Blair  raised his  eyebrows.  "Your  uncle must  have
developed a sudden taste for slumming, if he's not going to go out in one of
the big boys."
     "Victory has its . . . compensations, Colonel," Tolwyn told him.  "Like
a genuine  expert on Kilrathi psychology, your buddy Hobbes. You also have a
one-time  Intelligence  source with specialized  knowledge  of cat behavior,
too.  I think the name is Lieutenant Buckley. In fact, the admiral  had this
in mind when he assigned you here as wing commander."
     "That  was  before Locanda," Blair said, "before  things escalated. You
mean Tolwyn planned to use this Behemoth thing even before the cats  started
with the bioweaponry?"
     "Some of the data we  later  decoded from  that deep intel probe Tarawa
had on  board, leading  into the discovery of  the  Kilrathi super-carriers,
contained information about the bio  program. That's why we've  been running
the race to get the new weapons on line and why Behemoth sails now, ready or
not. Locanda  was a horrible tragedy,  but  thank God it wasn't one  of  the
innerworlds or Earth  and believe me, that will be their next target."
     Blair  held up his hand.  "Never mind, Kevin,"  he said.  "Don't try to
explain.  I  know your  uncle well enough to  know what he had  in mind. And
why."
     "Just what are you getting at, Blair?" Eisen asked.
     He shrugged. "It's just that the admiral has always been . . . zealous,
sir. I've  served with him a few  times, and  he's always been  the same. He
wants to win the war . . . Admiral Geoff Tolwyn, himself. He'd love it if he
could  lead the  ConFleet to victory,  sign the papers that ended the war in
orbit  over Kilrah . . . whatever.  And if  Behemoth can  make it  possible,
he'll use it . . . and the devil take moral questions and anything else that
stands in the way."
     Eisen's frown deepened. "I don't think it's a good idea to pursue this,
Colonel,"  he said  slowly.  "Its coming  dangerously  close to  libeling  a
superior officer."
     "Maybe  so, Captain," Blair said, shrugging  again. "But it isn't libel
when you're telling the truth."  He shot  the younger Tolwyn a look. "Sorry,
Kevin. I know he's family but . . . well, you know how I've always felt."
     "You haven't  said  anything  I haven't  thought a  dozen  times  over,
Colonel," Tolwyn said. "But, like the Captain says, we'd better stick to the
briefing."
     "Agreed. What else do we need to know about?"
     "Captain  Eisen's  been  bruising  a lot of ears back  at  HQ about the
flight  wing's  shortages.  I've   brought  out  authorization  for  you  to
requisition fighters, munitions parts, and stores from Blackmane Base before
the  last  load  goes  out next week. They've got  all types  of fighters in
mothballs there already, so that won't be a problem."
     "The real shortage is in pilots," Blair said. "We have nine empty slots
to fill."
     "You won't  get all  of them, I'll tell you that much up front," Tolwyn
said.  "I've already spoken to the base commandant. You'll get four or five,
no more. Sorry I couldn't do better." Tolwyn looked wistful.  "I'd volunteer
for a slot myself, but the admiral would never approve it."
     "I wish you could," Blair  told him. "Well, four or five is better than
none at  all. Major Mbuto  lost  five ships at Locanda Four, so  she'll  get
first call on any pilots we do get. I just hope to God it's enough."
     "It has to be, Colonel," Eisen said. "Now that we finally have a ray of
hope that we might see the end of this damned war, it has to be enough."

     Flight Deck, TCS Victory Blackmane System

     "Okay,  skipper,  this one checks out  too. Looks like  those no-talent
bums  at Blackmane Base actually  sent  us some  real fighters, and not just
junk off the scrap line."
     Blair checked off the last of the new fighters on his portable computer
pad and nodded.  "I'll  breathe a little easier now, Chief," he  told Rachel
Coriolis. "I was  starting to think we'd never get  the replacement fighters
aboard."
     Four days  had passed since Kevin Tolwyn was whisked aboard his courier
ship to report to  his uncle,  and in that time, Blair's life became nothing
but a string of petty frustrations. The  worst  problem  was  expediting the
requisitions Tolwyn issued to Blackmane  Base in the  midst of the chaos and
confusion  which reigned during the last days of the base's closing process.
But  after  many shouting matches over  the comm channel,  Blair finally got
results. Now  he possessed a full contingent of fighters in Victory's hangar
deck, store rooms bulging  with spare parts  and  stores  of all kinds,  and
three new pilots to assign to Mbuto's interceptor squadron. It was progress,
of a sort. But it had been slow  going for a  time, and Blair  was worn  out
with the constant strain of it all.
     A tractor towed the fighter, a  Longbow looking as if it had never been
flown, toward a storage bay. The flight deck was bustling with activity, but
for the  moment Blair and  Rachel were out of problems.  It  was a  rare yet
pleasant feeling.
     "Uh . . . skipper?" Rachel spoke with none of her accustomed brashness.
"Can we chat? Off the record . . ."
     "Isn't that the way we usually do it?" Blair asked her.
     "Yeah,"  the chief  admitted.  "That's one of  the  things I like about
you." She hesitated "And the  fact that I do like  you is why I want  to say
this . . ."
     "Spit it out, Chief," he said as she paused again.
     "You've got this . . .  look in  your eyes that I've seen  before," she
said slowly. "I had this guy, see? A pilot. One day  he saw his wingman  get
fried,  and he came  in blaming himself for  it. Didn't matter what  I said,
what anybody said, he was convinced he let old Shooter down."
     "And?" Blair prompted.
     A few days later . . . he took an Arrow out and just kept on going. Hit
a jump  point  just as the Kilrathi were coming through. There were a lot of
fireworks . . ." She trailed off, her  eyes focused  on someplace  far away.
"They never found him . . . not even a debris field.  He might still be  out
there, for all I know."
     "I'm . . . sorry," Blair said quietly. "But. . . why tell me about it?"
     "That  look in your eye,  it's like the  one he had  before he cracked,
skipper." She paused again. "You want to talk? I may  be a lowly techie. but
I've got a sympathetic ear."
     Blair didn't  answer for a  long time. "I had . . . have . . . someone,
too. I don't know which it is, any more. She got caught up in some hush-hush
mission,  and  nobody's heard  from her for months. Maybe she's  managed  to
sidestep the whole war-ditched in  neutral  territory somewhere. But  I keep
having  these nightmares about her . . He looked away. "I keep thinking, one
way or the other I would hear . . . only I haven't heard, and I'm afraid . .
. you know."
     Rachel nodded. "I know.  Maybe your gal and my guy found each other out
there."
     He forced a smile. "Yeah . . . maybe so. At least they'd both be alive,
then . . ."
     "Yeah,  but on the other hand if I found out he'd been making time with
some hot-shot lady  pilot, I'd have to  kill him  myself when he finally got
back." She managed a laugh.
     After a moment, Blair joined in. It felt good to laugh.

     Flight Wing Rec Room, TCS Victory Blackmane System

     "Scotch," Blair  said,  perching  on  a  stool at the bar.  "Preferably
something that's at least been in the same sector as Scotland, this time."
     Rostov  grinned  at  him. "There's a  war on, Colonel. You  gotta  take
whatever they hand you, da?"
     Maniac   Marshall  was   sitting  further  down  the  bar,  studying  a
holomagazine and sipping at a  tall  glass of beer. He looked up as  if only
just  noticing  Blair's arrival.  "Well, well,  honoring  the  peasants with
another  visit, eh, Colonel?  Shall  I kiss your ring, or will a reverential
bow be enough?" He mimicked the slight bow Hobbes often made.
     "Can't we  have  a  truce, at  least for tonight, Maniac?"  Blair  said
wearily. "I'm not in the mood for sniping."
     "Hah!  You looked like you were in a pretty good mood down there in the
hangar deck today," Marshall said. "What's the matter, loverboy? You put the
moves on everybody's favorite grease monkey and get yourself shot down?"
     Blair frowned. "I didn't put the moves' on her . . .
     "Hey,  man, it's all right, really it is," Maniac told him with a grin.
"I mean, even a high flyer like you has to have an off day now and then.  Of
course, I doubt it'd take a whole hell of a  lot of high-risk maneuvering to
get into her pants, but maybe you're just out of practice . . ."
     "So  what's  your excuse,  then, Maniac?" Blair  asked. "You must  have
tried out your usual wit and charm on the lady. Did you crash and burn?"
     "Yeah, right," Marshall said, looking away. "As if I'd waste my time on
some  punked-out little  techie. Of course, you  never  did have  any taste.
First that snotty French bitch . . . now. . . . Wise up, Blaze-Away. There's
a lot better to choose from on this tub than that cheap slut . . .
     Blair was  out of his seat and  beside Marshall in a single quick move.
He grabbed  the front of Maniac's  uniform  and hauled him to his feet. "Get
this, Marshall, and get it good,"  he hissed. "You can talk about me any way
you want to. But I won't tolerate you running down anyone in this wing, man,
woman .  . .  or  cat. And if you  want  to keep using  that nose to breathe
through,  you won't ever insult Angel again . . . or Rachel Coriolis either,
for that matter. You getting any of this, mister?"
     Maniac pulled  back, freeing himself  from Blair's  grip and holding up
both hands. "Whoa! Back off, man. He studied Blair for a moment. "Looks like
you've got a real case, after all. Question is, which one's the lucky girl?"
     Blair took another  step  forward. "I told  you  to lay off, Major," he
said slowly.
     "Okay, okay, I'm sorry. It was supposed to be a joke, man.  I'm sorry."
Maniac turned to leave, then faced  Blair one more time. "But listen to  me,
Colonel,  sir.  If you don't start loosening up  pretty damn  quick.  you're
cruising for a  psych  hearing.  You're  tighter than  a vacuum  seal and  I
wouldn't like to be around when everything blows out."
     "Mind  your own business,  Maniac, and let me worry about  mine," Blair
told him. "And in the meantime, just stay out of my way."




     TCS Victory Ariel System

     In due course,  Victory entered the Ariel System, traveling by way of a
jump point in the Delius Belt. Deep in the heart of  the Caliban Nebula, the
system had only one planet of any notable size, though there were many other
smaller worldlets, asteroids, and similar junk  in the system as well. Ariel
I  was  never judged  worthwhile as  a  potential colony, but  Confederation
Intelligence  sources had long identified it  as a  major  headquarters  for
Kilrathi  raiders.  Previous Terran attempts to deal with the base  met with
little success, thanks  to the strength of the ground-based defenses  on the
planet and  the  difficulties  of  mounting  operations  within  the nebula.
Long-range  sensors  were  virtually  useless,  and  even  shortrange  scans
required more time, more power, and  more computer interpolation than usual,
which made for many extra problems.
     But the conditions  also helped  hide Victory from detection, as  Eisen
had  explained  during  the  original  briefing. The Kilrathi  maintained  a
network of detection  buoys  around the planet  and  near most  of the  jump
points, but  away from those the Terran  carrier  was able to avoid  contact
from everything except an extremely close pass by enemy ships. It was almost
as good, Eisen maintained, as mounting a cloaking device aboard the ship.
     On  the  other hand, the sensor  limitations  cut  both ways. Blair was
forced  to  double patrols again  just  to sweep  nearby space  for Kilrathi
shipping. It required some skillful flying to penetrate the web of detection
buoys to  put  fighters close enough  to  Ariel  I  to  conduct  the surveys
Headquarters needed. Over the  course of  nearly two weeks, the flight  wing
operated  at peak capacity, almost without let-up, and the strain inevitably
took its toll on people and equipment alike.
     Blair could only hope that ship and crew were up to the job.

     Flight Control, TCS Victory Ariel System

     Blair came out of the  elevator next to Flight  Control and nearly  ran
into Rachel Coriolis. She was clutching a personal data pad in  one hand and
a half-disassembled control module in the other, walking briskly with an air
of distracted urgency. As she caught sight of Blair she made a face.
     "Can't talk  now, skipper,"  she said, hardly slowing her pace  at all.
"All  you  fighter jocks were so damned eager to  draw recon work. Well, now
you  got it, and that means us common techies have to bust our asses to keep
you flying."
     "Okay,  okay, Chief," he said, holding up one hand. "On  behalf  of the
entire wing, I apologize. Next time HQ gives us an assignment, I'll tell em
to clear it with you first."
     She  grinned as she dodged  past  him  and into the lift.  "Maybe if us
techs had  a say  in things  you hot-shots wouldn't always be getting in  so
much trouble."
     The doors snapped shut, and Blair turned back to the entrance to Flight
Control.
     There were only  routine patrols out  now  no survey missions,  so  the
chamber  was manned at minimal  levels. The relative calm in the  room was a
stark contrast to  the scene  visible through the  windows  overlooking  the
hangar deck,  where  technicians  and fighter crews were  hard  at  work  on
maintenance,  repairs,  and mission prep  for  the next  batch  of launches,
scheduled to  begin shortly. The bustle  of activity would have been a scene
of utter  confusion  to the uninitiated, but Blair  recognized the order and
purpose underlying  the chaos.  It  was  the  dance  of the deck, the almost
rhythmic cycle that made any pilot's heart beat just a little bit faster.
     He  became  aware of another figure standing  by the windows,  intently
watching. It was Cobra, wearing her  flight suit and carrying a helmet under
one arm. Blair was surprised to note her smile. It transformed her entirely,
changing her customary bitter moodiness  into a  genuine  look of enthusiasm
and anticipation.
     "About time," he heard her say softly, as if to herself. "About time we
showed em."
     "Lieutenant," he said quietly.
     She looked at him. "Sir?"
     "I don't recall ever seeing that  before,"  he  said.  When she  looked
confused he continued with a grin. "That smile on your face. It  looks good.
Suits you."
     The wolfish smile reappeared. "It's good to be in their back yard for a
change. I can almost smell em, Colonel. And with any kind of luck, I'll get
a couple of them in my sights sometime soon . . ."
     He  raised  an  eyebrow.  "Well, being on the  offensive seems to  have
helped bring you out of your shell, I'd say."
     "Scuttlebutt says we're here  to scout the cats out  for a real attack.
That HQ has a weapon that'll blast them to hell, where they  belong. I  want
to be here for the kill. I didn't become a  pilot just to baby-sit bases and
such."
     Blair  frowned  He supposed  the  spread of  rumors about  the Behemoth
project was almost inevitable. Nothing stayed secret  on a ship in space for
very  long  it  seemed,  despite  the best efforts of  Confed  security.  He
wondered if Rollins had been leaking  information, or if  this story started
somewhere else.
     At any rate, at least  this rumor  was having a more positive effect on
morale than some of the earlier ones.
     "Look, Cobra, I'm glad to  see that smile, I really am, Blair told her.
"But you've got to be pumped on every mission, not just the ones you like."
     "Point  taken,  Colonel,"  she said  slowly. The smile had  faded  now.
"Well, I guess I'd better get down to the launch bay. I'm up  in fifteen . .
."
     After she  left, Blair frowned at his own reflection in the window. For
some reason  he  could never  find  the right  things to say when talking to
Lieutenant Buckley. Why couldn't he have  allowed  her to enjoy her newfound
enthusiasm for Victory's current operation? Instead, he'd managed to deflate
her just when it seemed she  was ready  to  start letting  down the barriers
which kept her apart from the rest of the wing.
     Sometimes he wondered if he would ever really get a handle on his job.

     Flight Wing Rec Room, TCS Victory Ariel System

     "Pull up a  chair, Colonel, and join me. I'll  stand  you to the  first
round."
     Acknowledging Vagabond's greeting  with a nod and  a  smile, Blair took
the chair  opposite him. Lieutenant Chang played with the inevitable deck of
cards in front of him, and if the continual cycle of missions was getting to
him it didn't  show  in his grinning face. The  pilot  might have been fresh
from leave instead of unwinding after flying a survey sweep with Hobbes only
a few hours earlier.
     "You must be getting pretty lonely if you want to buy your CO a drink,"
Blair commented. "What's the matter? You already clean everybody else out?"
     "Unfortunately, it  doesn't take too long to  get  a reputation, if you
know what  I mean. And even the new chums  from Blackmane  caught on  to  me
after a few days.  Gets pretty tough to get up a game when everyone's afraid
to take you on. Know  what I mean?" Chang held up the deck. "C'mon, Colonel.
Why don't you  try  your luck?"  Without waiting  for an  answer, he started
dealing.
     "Whoa, there, sharpie,"  Blair  said, holding up a  hand.  "Don't I  at
least get to cut the deck?"
     Vagabond laughed and gathered in the cards  again.  "You'd be surprised
how many rookies just  ante up and look surprised when they lose  the  first
pot."
     "Well,  they deserve  what  they  get,  then." He took the  cards  from
Vagabond and shuffled the deck with  practiced ease, getting a reluctant nod
of admiration from the Chinese pilot. "Me,  I've been around. And early on I
discovered  the  two things you  never leave to somebody else: shuffling the
cards and checking your ordinance."
     Chang accepted the deck from Blair and started to deal again. Though he
was still smiling, there was  a troubled look in his eyes. "This mission . .
. you know there are stories going around about some superweapon. That's why
we're supposed to be running recon.
     "You know, Lieutenant, that if the info wasn't officially released then
I can't comment on it one way or the other," Blair said quietly. "Rumors are
just that-rumors. Even if I knew anything, I couldn't talk about it."
     "Yeah, I know."  Vagabond looked at his hand for a moment, then laid it
on the table.  "Look, Colonel, I know  you can't spill any secrets, but  the
stuff I've been hearing . . . it really bugs me."
     "How so?" Blair asked.  He  laid his own cards  aside  and met  Chang's
level gaze.
     "Word is  this  weapon, whatever  it  is,  will scorch  a whole  damned
planet. A  strategic weapon, I guess  the brass  would call it. And I'm  not
sure I want to be part of something like that."
     "Conscience bothering you, Lieutenant?"
     "Yeah, it is, Colonel.  I didn't sign on to  be  part of something that
kills civilians,  whether  they're people or cats or  something slimy living
under the  rocks  on  Alphacent." Vagabond  looked  down at the table. "Some
folks  take the war real personal, like  Cobra and Flint. But that's not me.
When I wax somebody out  on the  firing line.  I  like to think  it's a fair
fight. That he's got an equal chance to nail me. Pretty stupid, I guess, but
that's the way it is."
     Blair nodded,  understanding. He shared Vagabond's doubts. "Fact is,  I
understand  you  a lot better  than I'll ever understand Cobra or Flint. The
last thing you need in the cockpit with  you is hate. And I think you really
have to hate before you could go along with something as horrible as wasting
an entire planet, civilians and all." He hesitated. "Look, secrets aside . .
. if you've heard  the rumors  right,  we're scouting  for this new  weapon,
right?"
     Vagabond nodded.
     "All  right, then,  we're  surveying a planet we know has nothing but a
military installation on it. No colony.  No civilians, or at least  none who
aren't  involved  in  base operations somehow.  Seems  to  me  if there is a
superweapon, HQ must figure on aiming at a military target."
     "Maybe so," Chang said, nodding  but still looking uncharacteristically
serious. "Maybe so." He paused "Still it bothers me a little.  I mean, maybe
they'd start with a base  like  this. But where does it end? HQ's got a real
bad  habit  of  labeling  every  target  a  military installation, even when
they're not. So, what if we cross the line later?"
     Blair looked away,  uncomfortable. He  was  thinking of  Kevin Tolwyn's
comments about  Kilrah,  and about the Covert Ops plan that apparently could
only be used against the enemy homeworld. If the Kilrathi didn't comply with
the threat posed by the Behemoth, where would HQ draw the line?
     And,  more importantly,  where would he stand if  the  next target  did
include large numbers of civilians? Just how  badly did he  want this war to
end?
     He looked back at  Vagabond. "Hey,  we're  the good guys, remember?" he
said, forcing a smile. "We don't kill the  innocents. That's  supposed to be
the  difference  between  us and them,  you  know? Inwardly  he felt  like a
hypocrite,  but he couldn't admit his own doubts to Chang without confirming
the stories about the mission.
     The Chinese  pilot touched  the deck  with  one slender  finger. Well,
Colonel,  the way I figure it, it's a lot like  cards. A lot of people never
think to cut the deck before they see what they're getting dealt."

     Wing Commander's Quarters, TCS Victory Ariel System

     "Colonel  Blair to  Flight Control! Colonel  Blair  to Flight  Control!
Urgent!"
     Blair  flung down the PDP he was studying and swung his feet out of the
bunk This was not  a General Quarters alarm, but the voice on the intercom 
Flint's  voice    sounded worried. A sinking feeling gripped  his  stomach.
Vaquero and Flash were on survey duty tonight.
     With the Wing already short-handed and Flint still grounded,  Blair had
been  forced  to  rotate  wingman assignments  frequently  since  the  Ariel
operation began. That meant he couldn't always keep Flash under the watchful
eyes of Hobbes or  himself any more. And  Vaquero, experienced  as he  might
have been,  was what  pilots referred to as an "RV," a Recon Virgin, someone
who  had  never  conducted  behind-the-lines  reconnaissance  missions.  The
combination  was  potentially  explosive, but Blair had simply  run  out  of
options.
     He forgot his usual rule about not running and raced down the  corridor
to the lift, hoping he  was wrong. If Flash and Vaquero had run into trouble
out there, it would be his fault for letting the two of them team up. . . .
     Flight  Control was fully  manned,  and  the tense  atmosphere that met
Blair as the doors slid open for him did  nothing to calm  his  fears. Flint
had the duty  as Officer of the Watch,  her  suspended flight status leaving
her plenty of time to serve in such shipboard wing duties.
     "What have  you  got?"  he  asked  crisply,  joining her  at  the  Duty
Officer's command console.
     "Trouble, sir," Flint said "Flash and Vaquero were on their way back in
when  they read  a  bogie  on their short-range  scanners, and  Major Dillon
decided  they should check it out. He ordered Vaquero to back him up  before
we could countermand the orders from here, and since they were already right
on top of the Kilrathi . . ."
     "Any idea what they're up against?"
     "At least six  Dralthi, Colonel," Flint told him. "But Vaquero reported
he was getting some other readings that might  have been something bigger, a
whole lot bigger."
     "Christ," Blair muttered. "Probably a transport . . . but it might be a
cap ship under fighter escort. How're they doing so far?"
     "Holding their own, but they haven't been able to obey recall and break
away. The Dralthi keep swarming them." Flint looked  apologetic. "We  didn't
want to  commit the ready  alert  birds  without  your say-so,  Colonel. The
standing orders are to avoid a fight.''
     "Yeah, I know. I  helped draft em,  remember?" Blair realized his tone
had been sharper than he'd intended. "You did well, Lieutenant. Okay,  who's
on ready alert?"
     "Maniac and Vagabond," Flint said. "They're in their fighters and ready
to launch."
     "Good. Launch immediately,  then. But tell  the flight crew  to get two
more Thunderbolts ready for launch."
     "Who's on deck, Colonel?" There was a faint light of hope in her eyes.
     "I'll  take one. Call  Hobbes to fly wingman with me."  He saw her face
fall, disappointed. "I  know you want back on the roster, Flint, but I don't
have time to discuss  it tonight. Call out Hobbes. I'll be in the ready room
suiting up.  Put  through a call  to the captain and  route it  to me there.
He'll have to know what we're getting into."
     "Aye, aye, sir," she said, voice flat.
     He had his flight suit on and  was wrestling with his boots when a  vid
screen  came  to  life  on one wall of the Gold Squadron  ready room.  Eisen
looked like he'd been  asleep. "They tell me you have a situation, Colonel,"
he said.
     "We certainly do, sir," Blair  told him. "Two of my pilots  ran into  a
Kilrathi  flight and have become heavily engaged. I've got two more  on  the
way to back them  up, and Hobbes and I  are joining the party as soon as our
fighters  are  prepped."  Hobbes  came into the  ready room as he  spoke and
crossed to his locker.
     "That's  a pretty  strong response, Colonel," Eisen said quietly. "Just
how many Kilrathi did your people run into out there, anyway?"
     "That's  not  clear yet, sir," Blair  said. "That's why I'm flying  the
extra cover. There could be a cap ship involved, too. We're not sure yet."
     "Damned  sensor  clutter," Eisen  said, nodding. "Well I guess all good
things must come to an end. After all this, the furballs won't be letting us
sneak  around any more. We'll  have to hope we've got all the data HQ wants,
because I'm ordering a withdrawal to the jump point ASAP."
     "Agreed, sir" Blair said, "though  I'd appreciate  it if you'd hold off
until we're back. I wouldn't want to misplace the Victory  in the middle  of
this mess."
     Eisen  chuckled. "Oh,  I think we can  wait for you Colonel. Just don't
keep us waiting too long, okay?" He cut the intercom without  waiting or  an
answer.
     "Another flight together, my friend,"  Hobbes  commented. "I am glad It
has been too long since you were on my wing."
     "Yeah, I'll say." Blair picked up his helmet and looked at the renegade
Kilrathi pilot for a long moment. "Do you ever find yourself wishing for the
old days, Hobbes? Back when we were junior pilots, flying for the sheer hell
of it all? Sometimes  I'd give everything I've  got to be  back on  the  old
Tiger's Claw with you, and Angel, and Paladin, and the rest of the old gang.
No decisions to make, nothing to worry about but flying . . ."
     Hobbes shook his head. "I do not think about that time often,  I fear,"
he said. "It  was a  period of great  stress for me,  as  you may  remember.
Trying to prove myself  to you  all." Ralgha's expression became bleak. "But
sometimes, in my dreams, I find myself yearning  for the days  before I left
the Empire. Once, long ago, I did not have doubts about my own  kind. I knew
my place in the universe,  and I  was proud of it. Those are the days I find
myself remembering." He picked up his  helmet and fell in beside Blair. "But
the past is gone, my friend. All we have now is the present."
     "And the future?" Blair asked.
     Hobbes shook his head. "For many years I have known that I have no real
future. In peace or in war, my own kind reject me and your kind, with only a
few exceptions, shun me. What future do I have, save to fight and die in the
cockpit  of my fighter? Sometimes I  feel that I am  somehow bound up in the
whole outcome of this war, that I might play a key part in victory or defeat
before I die. But that is not a future. That is my fate, hovering over  me .
.  ."  He  looked  at  Blair.  "It  is  not  a  concept  easily  grasped  by
non-Kilrathi. But it is all I understand."
     "Come on, Hobbes," Blair said, troubled by the glimpse Ralgha had given
into  his alien  soul. "Let's get  down to  the flight line. That's  all the
future either of us can afford to worry about for now."

     Command Hall, KIS Hvar'kann Ariel System

     "Lord Prince, we  have  a report  of enemy activity  in  the  system. A
convoy is under attack by Terran fighters."
     Thrakhath leaned forward in his chair to study  Melek  in  the dull red
light of the  audience chamber. "They  dare attack us  here,  in  our space?
Perhaps they did not learn their lesson at Locanda."
     Melek bowed acknowledgement. "You did say you expected them to respond,
Lord Prince," he  pointed out. "Intercepted radio traffic indicates that the
Terran ships may be from the Victory."
     "So  . . ." Thrakhath turned the report over in  his mind. "This . .  .
complicates our response. I had not  looked for them to be ready for further
operations for some time to come.  We must drive them out .  . . and we must
discourage them from  looking toward this system any further. It would be an
embarrassment if they were  to  plan to demonstrate their  new  weapon  here
before the fleet was fully assembled."
     "Yes, Lord Prince," Melek said, "though it would be  a worthy  irony if
they brought their weapon here and fell into your trap."
     Thrakhath  gestured negation. "No. No, I  do not want to stage  a major
battle here.  Not when  the nebula effects make detection so difficult. When
the Terrans  reveal their doomsday weapon, and we learn its secrets, I  want
no chance of mistakes when it comes  time to destroy it. We must . . .  urge
them to take an interest in some other system, not this one." He paused. "So
we  must  threaten  their ship, but  ultimately  allow  it  to  escape  with
sufficient evidence that they should leave us alone here. Order the fleet to
cover  the  jump  points  to Locanda,  Delius, and  Caliban.  And  have  all
squadrons prepare to initiate the Masking Effect."
     Melek bowed again. "As you direct, Lord Prince."
     Thrakhath watched him leave. When he was alone, he allowed his fangs to
show for an instant. It was unfortunate that the  Terrans must be allowed to
win free in the end. He  would have relished the destruction of that carrier
. . . but it carried the key to ultimate victory for the Empire, and nothing
could be allowed to interfere with that now.




     Thunderbolt 300 Ariel System

     "Victory,  Victory,  this  is Backstop Leader,"  Blair said,  hoping he
didn't sound  as  tired  and  discouraged as he  felt.  "Requesting  landing
clearance. Over."
     "Roger that, Leader," Rollins  replied. "Clearance is granted. Good job
out there, Colonel You really showed those cats a thing or two."
     Blair  went through  the approach checklist  by rote, his mind  ranging
back to the mission they just completed in support  of Flash and Vaquero. By
the  time he and Hobbes launched, Marshall  and Chang had already joined  up
with  the two beleaguered pilots and extricated them from the fight with the
Dralthi.  But  Major Dillon not  only  insisted  that he  didn't really need
support, he  had actually  been eager to seek out  the larger contact at the
edge of their scanning range to try to score  a real  kill, a cap ship kill.
Blair  barely arrived  in time to keep Maniac  from agreeing with  the idea.
Thereafter,  they  were  dogged   by  Kilrathi  fighters   but  not  pressed
particularly  hard.  The  most  difficult  mission  problems were  the  ones
associated with reining in the two majors.
     Vaquero's fighter incurred  damage during  the fighting and  the  pilot
himself  sounded shaky.  He  was waved off Victory's flight deck three times
before finally catching the tractors and making a successful touchdown. This
worried  Blair  even more  than  Dillon or Marshall. Lieutenant Lopez always
struck him  as steady and reliable, but  plainly he  took  more than  just a
physical pounding on the line this time.
     Blair shook off his doubts and worries, forcing himself  to concentrate
on  the  final approach.  He  was the last  man inside, and  by the time  he
clambered  down  the ladder from the cockpit, the others, except for Hobbes,
were heading for the ready room to give their after-action reports.
     The  Kilrathi  pilot  looked  at him with  a very  human  expression of
concern on his  alien  visage.  "Are  you well, my friend? You seemed .  . .
distracted,  near the  end. By more  than just the need to  control our more
spirited comrades."
     "Just tired, Hobbes," Blair told him. "Tired of bucking overeager jocks
who still think  this  is all some  kind of big game.  And  tired  of  . . .
everything."
     He  wasn't sure  Ralgha could understand  his mood. They had accounted,
among the six of them,  for four more Dralthi out there, but in the long run
it  was just another number to  be totaled for the  kill board.  It wouldn't
matter  a bit the next time  they went into  battle.  There were always more
Kilrathi to replace the ones who died,  and Blair was getting sick of having
to kill and kill with never a sign that some day the killing might stop.
     "It was  good, though, to fly  a combat  mission  again," Ralgha  said,
clearly misunderstanding the attitude behind Blair's bitter words  and tone.
"To take the battle to the enemy once more. I have missed the chance to test
my skills, since we started this mission."
     "Yeah," Blair  said.  Though  he didn't  share  in  the  sentiment,  he
understood how the Kilrathi felt. Ralgha might fly with the Terrans, but his
emotions and  reactions were still those  of his predator species.  "Yeah, I
suppose all  this  skulking and hiding's  been pretty  rough on you. Maybe a
little dogfighting is good for your soul, at that."
     Hobbes caught something of  his real feelings that time, and cocked his
head to one  side  as he regarded Blair. "It is strange,"  he said. "We  are
very different, you and I, though I  would say you are closest to me  of all
the  humans I  know.  Your kind  does not relish  conflict,  though you have
proven very able warriors. But the  Kilrathi spirit . . . despite  the skill
and  courage  demanded in flying  is never  entirely satisfied  by combat in
space."
     "You  like it  up  close  and personal," Blair said, mustering a  faint
smile.
     The Kilrathi  renegade  raised a paw, allowed  his  sheathed  claws  to
extend for a moment. "We are taught to use these even before we can speak or
walk. To your species this seems . . .  what is the word? Savage? Primitive?
But it is fundamental to who and what we are."
     Blair's eyes narrowed.  "Then  how  can Thrakhath  order the  death  of
millions with  bioweapons? That's about as  impersonal a  weapon  as you can
use."
     "Thrakhath.... That one defines honor in  his  own way, I fear," Ralgha
said slowly. "When he looks at  humans, he sees  only animals, fit for labor
or food  or prey in a hunt. It  is not an attitude that  is  held by all  my
kind, but it  is a convenient way to excuse acts that would otherwise defile
Kilrathi honor. Does not your kind hide behind any number of similar  . .  .
conveniences? To justify acts you would otherwise condemn?"
     Blair shrugged,  then  nodded reluctantly.  "I guess we  do. But .  . .
killing is killing.  Hot-blooded or cold. You do it when you have to because
you have  to . .  .  to  defend  yourself,  your people,  your civilization.
Whether it's hand-to-hand  fighting,  or  dogfighting, or  bombing  a  whole
damned planet out  of  existence; it's still killing, though. And I guess we
each have to decide whether what we're protecting is  worth the  death we're
being asked to deal out."
     "This  is not normally  a question a Kilrathi  needs to ask himself, my
friend," Hobbes said  slowly. He fixed Blair  with a long, penetrating look.
"And in all honesty,  there are times I wish your kind had  not taught me to
ask them. There is no comfort in doubting the wisdom of generations."

     Captain's Ready Room, TCS Victory Ariel System

     Blair and Hobbes were both summoned to the captain's ready  room before
even exchanging  their  flight suits for  more  comfortable  clothing. Eisen
looked  worried  as he sat opposite them. He energized the holographic chart
display on his desk top.
     "I  know you  just got back from  a tough  one, but I doubt you'll have
much  chance  to rest up," the captain told them without preamble. "We're on
course for the jump  point to the Caliban System. It has the closest  Confed
military  facility,  although it's a  small  one, just  an outpost. The main
advantage  as  I  see it is that it's like  this system,  inside the nebula,
which means  we can hope  to elude a  Kilrathi pursuit  quickly even if they
should  chase us  through the jump point. That  could be important,  if they
have any kind of fleet following us at all."
     "You anticipate opposition, then," Hobbes said slowly.
     "As soon as your pilots engaged out there you can bet the word went out
that there were Terrans in the neighborhood,"  Eisen said grimly. "If I  was
the  cat CO in these parts, I'd do  my best to block as many jump  points as
possible. We'll have to fight our way out." He looked from  Hobbes to Blair.
"That's  another  reason  to  go  for  Caliban,  though.  They might  not be
expecting a  withdrawal to such  a minor system. Maybe that  jump point will
have  fewer  defenders .  . . maybe  none at all, if their  fleet isn't very
strong in these parts."
     "Don't  count  on  it, sir,"  Blair said.  "I've  been  going over  the
incoming  survey reports.  While  we  haven't seen much in open space, there
were indications of tremendous shuttle  traffic over the  base on One, and a
fair number of ships in orbital docks and so on. You don't think they  would
leave all that unprotected, do you?"
     Eisen pursed his lips. "No, I guess they wouldn't.  A big fleet here. .
.  that sounds bad. For the Admiral's project." He  glanced  at  Ralgha  and
changed  the  subject. "All  the more reason, though, to hope we can get the
hell out of here without running into too much  opposition. And if we do . .
. we try to shake them as best we can and still make jump."
     "Risky," Blair commented. "But, as you say, it's all we can try. Do you
have any special orders for us, sir?"
     "I'll want you to deploy a reconnaissance in force ahead  of us when we
approach  the jump point, Colonel," Eisen said. "With scanning so limited, I
want an idea of  what's waiting for us before we  blunder into the middle of
it. The  timing will be  tricky. You'll have to stay out long enough to give
us our sneak  peek at  the situation, and maybe to discourage the  bad  guys
from  interfering  with  our  approach.  But then you'll  have to  get  your
fighters aboard fast, before we jump .  . . and possibly under fire. Anybody
who misses the boat is stuck." His  eyes  narrowed. "We can't afford another
incident like Locanda, for instance. I don't think we'll  be in any position
to loiter around waiting for stragglers. Can your people do this?"
     Blair nodded slowly, but inside his mind was racing to consider all the
problems against them.  "It'll be tricky, Captain, but I'll see what  we can
put together to eliminate the problems as much as possible."
     "Good.  Navigation tells me it'll be  eighteen hours  before we hit the
jump  point. So your people will have  a  little sack time, at least, before
they have to launch." Eisen gave him a look. "Try to get some yourself, too,
Colonel. We need you out there fresh and at your best."
     "Yes, sir," Blair said, but he knew the  planning and  preparation time
would make things tight. Sleep was a luxury he had to postpone until he knew
the wing was ready. He stood up slowly, and Ralgha  did the same. "I'll keep
you  posted on our plans, Captain. Come  on, Hobbes. Looks  like we burn the
midnight electrons again."

     Thunderbolt 300 Ariel System

     "All  right, people, you know  the drill," Blair  said over the general
comm  channel.  "Do this  thing by the numbers, and  we'll be past the  cats
before they know we're  even in the neighborhood. But  don't get distracted.
You stop  to look  at the scenery and you'll be stuck seeing it for the rest
of your life . .  . which won't be long if Thrakhath's little playmates have
their way. so . . . let's do it!"
     It  was  another  magnum  launch, with a  full  contingent of  fighters
deployed  in space  around  the  Victory  as she cruised slowly through  the
colorful, swirling gases of the nebula toward the jump point to Caliban.  As
before the point defense  squadron  would  be  held back to defend  the ship
against  Kilrathi fighters while the  rest of the wing mounted Eisen's recon
in force ahead of the carrier.
     Blair hoped  he'd  covered all  the likely contingencies in formulating
his plans  for the mission. If  he'd left something out, it was too late now
to deal with it. They were committed, for good or ill.
     "Major Mbuto, you're up," he said. "Good luck. . . but I hope you won't
be mad if I don't wish you good hunting!"
     Amazon Mbuto chuckled. "This  is  one time when we'd all be glad for an
empty scanner screen, Colonel," she said.
     Mbuto's  interceptors were on point,  as  usual, scouting ahead of  the
others in hopes of  locating any enemy ships around the  jump  point  before
they realized the Terrans were on their way. She had six Arrows in all, with
orders to  locate the Kilrathi but, if possible,  to avoid engaging. Victory
would keep a secure laser channel open with her fighter throughout the op so
that  Rollins  could  pick  up  her sensor  feed  and  analyze the  tactical
situation ahead of time, despite the sensor interference from the nebula.
     If she did spot enemy ships blocking Victory's chosen escape route, the
other squadrons would  be  called: Berterelli's Longbows to  launch  bombing
strikes  on capital ships and Gold Squadron to  provide cover for them or to
engage Kilrathi fighters. Meanwhile, once the initial scouting was finished,
Mbuto would withdraw and land on Victory, followed by the bombers as soon as
they dumped their loads and, hopefully, disrupted any enemy capital ships in
the  neighborhood.  The Thunderbolts would  be the last  to  return  to  the
carrier, thus reducing the amount of traffic Flight Control  would deal with
in the critical minutes before the ship attempted to jump.
     That was the plan,  at least.  But  Blair couldn't help  remembering an
ancient military maxim . . . No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.
Any number of things could go  wrong, and there was precious little room for
error.
     At least  a mistake today wouldn't  end in the devastation of an entire
colony  world. But  that was  cold  comfort as  far  as Blair was concerned.
Victory's fate  was on  the  line,  and despite his  early reaction  to  the
battered  little escort carrier, Blair had learned to think  of the ship  as
home  and her crew  as comrades, even friends. Losing  her wouldn't be  like
losing the Concordia, but . . .
     He shook himself out of his reverie. If Victory didn't make it, neither
would Colonel  Christopher Blair. This time he  wasn't likely to outlive his
carrier by more than a matter of minutes, hours at most.
     The time passed slowly as they  waited for a  report  from  the scouts.
Comm line chatter was subdued and sporadic, and Blair had plenty of time for
second  and even  third  thoughts.  Periodically  he  cursed  the  prolonged
inactivity, knowing it would be demoralizing  the others as much as himself,
but there was nothing to be done. Until the interceptors reported, the other
pilots  could do nothing more than keep  formation, watch their screens, and
wait.
     Victory to  Recon  Leader," Rollins said at last. "We're getting sensor
imagery  from Amazon.  Captain  was  right,  Colonel.  There's  a  welcoming
committee out there. Stand by for coordinate feed."
     In seconds,  his scanner began displaying  targets  around the  Caliban
jump point, and  Blair studied them intently. There were half a  dozen large
targets there,  probably destroyers escorting a cruiser  or a small Kilrathi
carrier. A  handful of smaller contacts  were  fighters, probably  Darket on
escort duty. The enemy force wasn't  overwhelming, but  it  would  present a
significant challenge nonetheless.
     "Okay," he said at length, using a low-power general broadcast  channel
that would  keep his transmission  localized and, hopefully, secret from any
Kilrathi  who might be trying  to  monitor  Terran comm frequencies.  As  he
spoke, his computer relayed additional data  as he  entered  it,  projecting
courses, targets, and other information. "We ve got em  spotted  now. Major
Berterelli,  you're  going  to  circle  the jump point outside  their likely
sensor  range and attack the targets designated Four  and Five on the sensor
feed.  Gold  Squadron will cover for you. When you withdraw, go to  ecliptic
heading one-eight-one by zero-six-four."
     "That's away from Victory," Berterelli pointed out.
     "Got  it in  one, Major," Blair told him. "I want to hit the cats fast,
rile  them  up, and then draw them away from the jump  point. If they  think
Victory's  coming  from the far  side of the  point,  they'll deploy in that
direction and throw out a wide cordon to try and spot her."
     "Leaving the route in  wide  open," Maniac said.  "You  know, Maverick,
sometimes you're almost as smart as everybody says you think you are!"
     "Thanks  for the vote  of  confidence,"  Blair said.  "Once  you  break
contact with the bad guys, Green Squadron should circle around to rendezvous
with the carrier. Gold Squadron will continue to  withdraw on  the  original
heading until I give the word. Then I want you  to separate into wing  teams
and head for home. Don't leave your wingman unless absolutely necessary, and
remember  the timetable.  Victory will be at the jump point in . . . seventy
minutes from now. If you're not back on board by then, you've lost your ride
out of here. Any questions?"
     There were  none. "Good,"  Blair continued. "Now  . . . Hobbes, you and
Vagabond  are on point. Then the Longbows. The rest of us bring up the rear.
You have your orders. Make sure you all come back in one piece. You know how
I hate filling out casualty reports."
     Hobbes  and Vagabond were  already  accelerating, steering  the  course
Blair indicated. As he  waited for the  Green Squadron  bombers to move out,
Blair switched to  the tactical channel for his wingman. "This is it, Cobra.
Hope there's enough cats out here for you."
     "It'll do," she said. "But I'm  still kind of wondering how I ended  up
on your wing, Colonel."
     "Not a whole lot of options, Lieutenant," he told  her. "With Flint off
the  roster and Vaquero  banged up from that fight yesterday,  I'm juggling.
Sorry if the arrangements don't suit you."
     "I guess I figured you'd team with Hobbes, is all."
     "Not this time," Blair told her. "I figured it was about time I let you
show me some of those moves of yours."
     Actually, it  had been a  difficult decision  to make,  pairing  up the
pilots in  Gold Squadron for this mission. He had wanted Hobbes on point, no
question; the  Kilrathi's instincts and discipline made him the ideal choice
to  lead them  in.  But  much  as he would have relished flying with Ralgha,
Blair's place wasn't  on the very  front line. As wing commander  he  had to
stay out of the action until he was sure of the tactical situation.
     But  there were sharp limits in  how he could  deploy  the rest of  the
squadron.  He  still couldn't  trust  Buckley to  cooperate with Ralgha, and
neither Flash nor Maniac was his idea of a  good point man to team with  the
Kilrathi. So Vagabond was  with Hobbes.  With great  reluctance Blair teamed
the  two majors  together,  even  though  he knew he was asking for trouble.
Neither one was very reliable anyway, so it seemed  better to have them  let
each other down instead  of breaking up two different teams if and when they
let themselves run wild.
     So he'd crossed his fingers and put them together and  ordered Cobra to
fly on his wing. He hoped neither choice would turn out  to  be  disastrous.
But Vaquero, though physically fit after  the battle with the Dralthi, was a
bundle of nerves and not really ready for duty so soon. And as for Flint . .
.
     He almost put  her back on  the roster,  but  with so much at stake, he
wasn't  willing to  risk  a repeat performance. She  was  on  duty in Flight
Control again.
     Cobra stuck close by him as they trailed the rest of the Terran flight,
keeping  strict radio  silence  now. They wouldn't  use their comm  channels
until they engaged  the enemy.  Blair  hoped Amazon Mbuto  had  followed her
orders and headed back for the carrier. He wouldn't know  for sure until the
operation was nearly over. . . .
     On his sensor screen, images began to appear, seemingly out of nowhere,
as  he  came  into range of  the enemy force. The blips that represented the
Confed  fighters  and bombers seemed  pitifully inadequate  to take  on  the
Kilrathi  ships,  but  they  were already  starting  their runs. Hobbes  and
Vagabond opened the fight by  engaging a trio of Darket close to the nearest
of the two targeted  capital ships.  Berterelli's  bombers ignored  them and
plunged  past, hurtling at top speed toward  the Kilrathi  destroyer.  There
were more fighters registering beyond that large ship,  and they  could pose
trouble for the Longbows.
     "Maniac! Flash!" Blair  said sharply. "You  see that  formation  on the
other side of the destroyer? Get in there and have some fun with them."
     "Yes, sir, Colonel, sir," Maniac said. "Come on, rookie last one firing
is kitty litter!"
     "What about us, sir?" Cobra asked.
     "We  stick with  Berterelli, Lieutenant,"  Blair  told  her,  "in  case
something crops up he can't handle."
     For several minutes they maintained  their position behind the bombers,
spectators as Berterelli's pilots unleashed a heavy attack against the first
destroyer and then broke off  to climb  away from the deadly warship dodging
defensive  fire all the way. One of the Longbows didn't make it out, but the
other  five did. The attack  didn't  destroy the Kilrathi  ship, but Blair's
sensors registered serious damage to shields, armor, and propulsion systems.
The cats knew they'd been hit, that much was sure.
     The second destroyer was a tougher  nut  to crack.  Forewarned, it laid
down  a devastating pattern of fire  against the incoming Longbows. A series
of shots raked across Major Berterelli's bomber,  and the Longbow came apart
under the force  of the barrage .  . .  but  not  before  the  Italian pilot
released  a  full spread of  ship-killer missiles.  And  the  other  bombers
dropped their  remaining loads simultaneously. As if  avenging the  squadron
leader,  they  received  the satisfaction  of  seeing those shots hit  home.
Explosions rippled down the spine  of the destroyer. A few  seconds later, a
massive fireball consumed it. Some of the chunks were bigger than the Terran
Thunderbolts,  adding  to  the  confusion  that  reigned   on  the  Kilrathi
perimeter.
     "Retreat!  Retreat! All  fighters  retreat!"  Blair  called. The Terran
ships began to  disengage, even  Maniac and Flash. They turned  away now, on
their false  escape  heading, but Blair  and Cobra  hung  back to cover  the
retreat.
     So far, neither had fired a shot.
     A pair of Darket gave chase, but  Cobra took out one with a well-placed
barrage from her tail gun, and Blair used a hard  braking maneuver to change
vector  and let  the second  one shoot past  him. Then  he took it  out with
sustained blaster fire, saving his missiles in case a real threat developed.
No other fighters approached them as they continued their retreat.
     Just before  losing sensor contact  with the Kilrathi ships  Blair  saw
that the destroyers were in  motion. He allowed himself a grim smile. As  he
hoped, they were spreading out to throw up  a detection net .  . . but  they
were on the wrong side of the jump point to block Victory now.

     Bridge, TCS Victory Ariel System

     "Last  of the Hellcats is  aboard now, sir,"  Rollins reported from his
post at Communications. "And the first Longbows just checked in, looking for
clearance. Looks like it's going down smooth."
     "Let's  hope  it  stays  that way," Eisen growled.  "Helm?  What's  our
status?"
     "ETA is fifteen minutes. sir, the helmsman reported.
     "Blair's cutting it  fine," Rollins muttered.  "Hope he knows what he's
doing out there."
     "A little less  chatter, Lieutenant, if you  please," the captain said.
"Navigation, begin plotting for jump.  Mr. Rollins, make it Jump Stations,'
if you  "
     "Sir!" The Sensor Officer broke in. "Captain, the jump point . . . it's
not there!"
     "What?"  Rollins spoke  before he  could stop himself. "It ain't there?
What do you mean, it ain't there?"
     "Lieutenant!" Eisen snapped. "Explanations, people. I need explanations
. . ."
     "It's like the cats just managed to  . . . to dose off the jump  point,
sir," the Sensor Officer said. "I don't know how. But it isn't out there any
more."
     "And without it, we're stuck," someone else said aloud.
     Rollins  looked at Eisen. The man's face was darkly  impassive, but  he
could see the expression  in  the captain's eyes. However the  Kilrathi  had
done it, there was one thing certain. Victory was trapped





     Thunderbolt 300 Ariel System

     "We  haven't been able to determine  exactly what's  going on, Colonel,
but it appears that the Kilrathi  have somehow managed to close off the jump
point to Caliban."
     "How the hell can they do that? It ain't poss  "
     "Clear the channel,  Maniac!" Blair snapped. He understood how Marshall
felt, but they couldn't afford  to waste precious time in useless hysterics.
"Sorry, Captain. Continue the message."
     "We're going to have to try for another jump point instead," Eisen went
on as if there hadn't been an interruption. "The Delius jump point isn't far
. . . if it's still out there. We're downloading the coordinates to you now.
Reform your squadron and keep their light  stuff off  our backs until we get
there, And keep your fingers crossed that this door isn't closed, too."
     "Understood, Captain,"  Blair said. He paused. "And if there's a picket
at the other  jump point, sir?  I  doubt  we  can out fox them a second time
around . . ."
     "Just pray  we  get lucky, Colonel," Eisen said grimly. "Because luck's
about the only thing that'll bail us out at this point."
     "Roger that," Blair responded. "Okay, Gold Squadron, you heard the man.
Form  on  me and keep  a sharp eye on  your  sensors. By  this  time they've
probably got more than Darket out there, so be ready."
     "If they can close down one jump point, they can close em all," Maniac
said, still sounding ragged. "How the hell are we supposed to fight  them if
they can do that?"
     "Stay frosty,  Maniac,"  Blair told him.  "Same  for  the rest of  you.
Whatever the cats are doing, we can't let  it put us off our stride now. The
ship's counting on us."
     He adjusted his course  to match the vectors Victory's computers fed to
the fighters and adjusted the sensitivity on his scanners.  If the  Kilrathi
really could shut down a jump point at will, the war was as good as over . .
.  but Blair refused to allow  himself to dwell  on the bitter thought.  For
now, all that mattered was survival.

     Command Hall, KIS Hvar'kann Ariel System

     "They are moving again, Lord Prince." Melek gave a deep,  formal bow as
he approached the throne on its raised dais. "The destroyer Irrkham has them
at the very  edge  of his  sensor  range. Their  vector indicates  they  are
probably  trying  for the Delius  jump point.  It is  the  closest to  their
present location."
     Thrakhath  studied  Melek  without  speaking,  and  the  retainer  grew
uncomfortable under his lingering stare. Finally the Prince spoke. "The Mask
has performed its function, then?" he asked.
     "Yes,  Lord Prince," Melek replied.  "The  Galiban jump  point does not
register  on any sensors. The Terrans must  have  believed we simply  cut it
down, like helpless prey."
     "The apes  should have  remained in the  trees of their  homeworld, and
never challenged warriors of  the stars," Thrakhath said, showing his fangs.
"They are fools."
     "Yes, Lord Prince," Melek agreed quietly. Inwardly  he  wasn't so sure.
It was  true  that  the  Terrans still lagged behind the  Empire in cloaking
technology, but they were catching up fast. They would realize, soon enough,
that the Kilrathi  couldn't  actually  close  down a  jump  point, but  only
obscure it with  a particularly powerful cloaking field  and even then only
where the dust and gas of a nebula made it possible for the cloak to operate
effectively over the large distances needed to cover the jump point.
     But Thrakhath remained utterly contemptuous of  the Terrans. It was  an
attitude that  worried  Melek more  and  more as the climax of  the campaign
approached. So far events had unfolded much as the Prince planned, excluding
the continued interference of the Victory after  several attempts to cripple
the carrier  had failed.  No doubt the unexpected Kilrathi  ability  to make
jump points seem to vanish would, as Thrakhath intended, cause the humans to
choose  a  different  target  system  when they deployed  their  new weapon,
regardless of  the knowledge  concerning  their adversaries.  But, sooner or
later,  Thrakhath's   disdain  for  the  Terrans  might  well  lead  him  to
underestimate them  at  a critical moment, and that  could  have  disastrous
consequences.
     Melek  began  to  wish he  had never accepted the  post as  Thrakhath's
chee'dyachee. As senior vassal and retainer to the Crown Prince,  he wielded
great power and commanded much influence . . . and  was perfectly  placed to
watch the Imperial  family in  the interests of  his  own Clan. But it was a
precarious perch at  best,  given the Prince's temper, and sometimes it  was
difficult to restrain himself  from  voicing  the  doubts he  could  not put
aside.
     He became  aware that the Crown  Prince  was still eyeing  him  with an
almost predatory look.
     "You seem . .  .  distracted,  Melek," Thrakhath  said. "Is  there some
problem?"
     "No, Lord Prince," he replied. "No problem. I was merely . . . awaiting
your instructions now that the Terrans have set their new course.
     "The plan remains  as  I outlined it  earlier.  Now that they have been
frightened by our power over the jump points,  we will  allow them to escape
through the Delius point. Order the ships there to drop the Mask and proceed
toward the Caliban  jump point,  as if to reinforce our squadron there after
the Terran attack. If they can punish the carrier along the way, they may do
so, but remember that the vessel must escape, both to  carry word of our new
weapon to their leaders and to preserve . . . our other asset. Understood?"
     "Yes, Lord  Prince."  Melek bowed  again  and  withdrew,  thankful  the
audience was over.

     Thunderbolt 300 Ariel System

     "We've got company, Colonel. Looks like a destroyer, with  at least two
fighters on escort. Feeding you the coordinates now . . ."
     The information scrolled across Blair's monitor before Rollins finished
speaking. The Kilrathi ship was ahead and  to port  of Victory, and from its
heading was  returning from the Delius  jump  point. The  cats  were  either
reinforcing  their first  squadron or  throwing out  a net  to intercept the
Terrans.
     In either case, the destroyer could be trouble. There were two fighters
flying close by, Vaktoth by  the look of their sensor signatures. They could
complicate any attempt to deal with the bigger ship.
     Blair  wished he  still had  some of the  Longbows available, but  Gold
Squadron was the only  fighter force that had not landed  on the flight deck
and started securing for jump. It was up to the six Thunderbolts to  do what
they could to protect the carrier.
     "Gold  Squadron, this is Leader," Blair said. "Tally-ho!"  It  was  the
age-old  pilot's cry that the enemy was  in sight,  dating  back to the days
before spaceflight. "Follow me in, people!"
     He  kicked in  his  afterburners  and  steered  the  fighter toward the
Kilrathi targets, the rest  of the squadron  trailing him. Blair checked his
weapons status  and armed blasters and heat-seeking missiles. He  and  Cobra
had engaged in the  least amount of  fighting at the first jump point, their
ships with the  least damage and the most reloads available. That made  them
the best candidates for  taking  on the destroyer. But it was essential that
they get some reliable protection from the enemy fighters.
     "Hobbes,  Vagabond,  you two  keep those Vaktoth  off  our  backs,"  he
ordered. "The rest of us are hunting the big cat this time. Understood?"
     "We are complying," Hobbes said calmly.
     "Just  let  me  at em," Maniac said. He sounded a little less  nervous
now, as if  the  prospect of  a  stand-up fight helped steady him after  the
shock of having the jump point vanish. Blair hoped he would keep his head.
     "Lead the  way,  Colonel,"  Cobra  added a  moment  later. She  sounded
professional, but a little grim.
     He reduced his speed and allowed Hobbes and Vagabond to accelerate past
the rest  of  the squadron, diving  in toward  the  enemy  formation. Hobbes
screamed a Kilrathi challenge as the two fighters closed with their opposite
numbers, and that seemed to unnerve the Vaktoth pilots. Both  enemy fighters
circled  away,  evading  rather  than  offering  battle   unusual  for  the
Kilrathi. Perhaps these  were inexperienced flyers, Blair told himself.  But
was it significant that they were running from Hobbes again . . . ?
     He forced the thought from  his  mind  and concentrated instead on  the
destroyer. It loomed ahead, all menacing points and angles, an asymmetrical,
four-pronged dagger aimed at Victory.
     "Let's rock!"  Maniac called, accelerating  suddenly to full speed  and
diving toward the destroyer, all guns firing wildly. Flash was  right behind
him. The destroyer's  main  batteries opened up, driving bolt  after bolt of
raw energy at the fast-moving Terran  ships. Somehow neither Terran  fighter
was hit, but  their blasters battered  the destroyer's shields. There  was a
ripple of explosions  as  Flash dumped  three missiles in quick  succession.
None penetrated the shields, but  Blair's scanners showed the enemy defenses
weakening.
     Blair killed his momentum, bringing  the fighter practically to  a dead
stop. It was  a risky move so close to a  capital ship, but with  Maniac and
Flash doing such a good job of drawing the enemy's attention it was too good
a chance to miss. Now the destroyer was lumbering toward him, a nice, steady
target. If he could just get in enough good shots at the weakened section of
the shielding . . .
     He opened fire with  his blasters, squeezing off  shot after shot until
his power reserves  were  exhausted  and  the guns  shut  down  until  their
generators could recycle and  bring them back up to full power. The Kilrathi
shields  still  held.  It  was only  then that he  realized  that Cobra  had
emulated his move. Her ship was a  bare thirty meters off his wing,  and now
her blasters focused on the same narrow target area as Blair.
     The  enemy ship's  shields  failed, and Blair gave a  wolfish grin. His
blasters came back on-line, and he started firing again. This time the shots
were taking off armor, chipping  away ever  closer to the vulnerable hull of
the  destroyer. The enemy captain  must have  recognized his  danger by this
time,  but Maniac and Flash were still closer, still  weaving in and out and
raking  the big  ship with sustained if  less concentrated  fire.  Automatic
shipboard defense  systems  would  naturally  try to  track and  destroy the
nearer threats first, and crewed guns took time to realign on  new targets .
. .
     Blair's blasters  ran down a second time, and he switched to a salvo of
missiles.  Cobra  launched  at  almost  the same moment. "Let's get  moving,
Lieutenant,"  Blair  said,  starting  up  his  engines  again. He  was  just
beginning  to  accelerate  to  full speed  when  a  blast  from  one  of the
destroyers  main  guns caught  his port-side shield, knocking  it  down  and
ripping into the wing armor in one blow. Then he was clear of the danger and
turned quickly  to place  some  distance between  his  Thunderbolt  and  the
Kilrathi ship.
     The missiles began  to detonate, tearing through the last  of the armor
and  deep  into the bowels of the capital  ship. It almost seemed to shudder
before it finally tore itself apart.
     "Ye-es!" That was Maniac, exultant. "Scratch one great big kitty!"
     "Good shooting, Colonel," Cobra added.
     "Good shooting, all," Blair corrected. "That one was a team effort. Now
let's  see  if  Hobbes and  Vagabond need any help cleaning  up their little
mess.
     One  of the  Vaktoth was running, the  other  was  heavily engaged with
Vagabond's Thunderbolt. By the time the rest of Gold Squadron  was in range,
Hobbes had already come to the aid of his wingman and sent the heavy fighter
off to join the shattered destroyer.
     "What's your  status, people?" Blair asked, calling  up  his own combat
data. He couldn't  afford to  take another hit on  his port side, and he was
down to only a single missile. Another serious  fight would probably  be too
much for his battered Thunderbolt to handle.
     "Damage is minimal, Colonel," Cobra reported. "But I'm out of missiles,
and my fuel reserves aren't looking good."
     "I, too, am  out of missiles," Hobbes said.  "And my  forward  armor is
badly damaged."
     The others made similar reports, with damage ranging from  Cobra's very
minor hits up to Flash,  who  had suffered serious damage in the  fight with
the destroyer and  was now running with  damaged engines and an intermittent
fault in  his sensors.  Blair  frowned as  he considered the  situation. The
squadron  couldn't do a  whole lot more at this point.  But they had no idea
what else the Kilrathi might throw at them.
     "Jump point is on our screens,"  Rollins reported suddenly. "Looks like
we got lucky this time!"
     "What about enemy activity?" Blair asked, still frowning. "Anything  on
your sensors?"
     "Looks  like another cat  destroyer out  there, Colonel but at  extreme
sensor range,  Rollins  reported after  a moments  pause.  "From his current
vector, it  doesn't look like he'll be in any position to interfere with us.
Captain says to bring your birds back to the  nest, sir You're clear to land
.  .  .  and  .  .  .  you  guys  sure did  a  good job  holding  off  those
sons-of-bitches."
     "Thank God for small favors," Blair muttered. "All right Gold Squadron.
Let's pack it in. And pray we don't get any new  surprises before we hit the
jump point."

     Flight Deck, TCS Victory Ariel System

     Blair climbed slowly from  his cockpit, tired and stiff  after the long
strain of flying. He hadn't  realized his personal toll  from the  operation
until  now.  With the mission over,  all he  wanted  to  do was  take a long
shower, then catch a few hundred hours of sack time.
     Unfortunately, that wasn't how it worked. Before seeing his bunk again,
Blair knew there was a load of work to finish first.
     ALL   HANDS,  ALL   HANDS,  JUMP   STATIONS.   REPEAT,  JUMP  STATIONS.
INTERSTELLAR TRANSIT IN THREE MINUTES. The computer announcement blared over
the ship's  tannoy, and all around Blair techs hastened to get ready for the
jump, like so many ants stirred up by a threat to their hill.
     "You sure did bang the old girl up this time, skipper," Rachel Coriolis
said from behind him. He turned to see her pointing at the twisted armor and
scorched hull plating where the  destroyer's gun  had  pierced  his shields.
"Better get clear, sir, before the jump."
     He  nodded,  then turned  toward  the far  end  of the  hangar.  Safety
precautions called for  the hangar deck to be cleared prior to any jump, and
already the huge chamber was nearly empty  of crewmen. Blair  strode rapidly
across the deck with Rachel, a few stragglers close behind
     The doors snapped  open to reveal a  tense scene in the corridor beside
the elevator. A number of pilots and  technicians were present, but the main
focus was  on  Cobra and Hobbes, standing  face to face in the middle of the
passageway. Lieutenant Buckley had an angry expression on her face,  and her
hands were flexing as if she, like the Kilrathi,  had  claws that could tear
at  her  enemies'  throats.  In  contrast,  Ralgha  nar  Hhallas  was  calm,
impassive, a stoic figure facing Cobra's venom.
     "Why didn't you warn us that  your  kind  could close jump points?" she
demanded, her voice low and menacing.
     "I was not aware that they could," Ralgha told  her. "This is obviously
a recently developed advancement to Kilrathi technology. And a  very serious
threat. The ability to close  down a jump point will give the Empire a great
advantage, I fear."
     "Come off  it, you fur-faced son-of-a-bitch," Cobra snarled.  "You mean
to tell us you didn't know anything about this? I don't believe you!"
     "I have been in Confederation service for  over  a decade, Lieutenant,"
the Kilrathi told her, drawing himself  up  with  an air  of  quiet dignity.
"Much  has changed  during that time, on  both sides of the  border. Perhaps
this represents a breakthrough in jump theory."
     "More  likely in  cloaking technology," Rachel  said,  stepping between
them.  "I  don't think the Kilrathi can  actually shut down  a jump point at
all."
     "Hey, I wasn't hallucinating  out there," Cobra said, turning her angry
glare on the technician. "We all saw the first jump point drop right off our
screens."
     "Look, I've been studying cloaks," Rachel said. "The new Excaliburs are
supposed to  mount them.  In theory a  big  enough generator could project a
cloak that could  mask out something as large as a jump  point. But it would
only  work in a  nebula, and it would be damned hard to maintain even  then.
That's what we were facing. I'd bet hard credits on it.
     "Well, whether they can kill it or just hide it, the  cats can  mess up
our jump points," Cobra said, a  little less wild but still  clearly  angry.
She stepped past  Rachel and jabbed a  finger at Hobbes. "And you claim  you
had no clue they could pull that?"
     "No more than you, Lieutenant," Ralgha told her.
     "You're a liar."
     Blair stepped forward, thrusting himself between the two pilots.  "That
will be enough,  Lieutenant," he said harshly. "Colonel  Ralgha's loyalty is
not to be questioned in this way again. Is that understood?"
     "But. . ."
     "I  will not have a junior officer making wild accusations about one of
her  seniors. If you  gather concrete evidence to back  up your claims, then
you see me, in private,  through proper channels. Otherwise, you  keep  your
mouth shut!"
     "Yes, sir, she said at last.
     "JUMP SEQUENCE ENGAGED. ONE MINUTE TO JUMP," the loudspeaker announced.
     The elevator doors opened, and Cobra pushed through the  semi-circle of
onlookers into the car. Neither Blair nor Hobbes chose to follow her.

     Bridge, TCS Victory Ariel System

     "And ten seconds . . . nine . . . eight . . ."
     Eisen was determined not to betray his mounting tension as the computer
ticked off the final seconds of the  countdown to jump. What if the Kilrathi
really could shut down a jump point? If they cut this one now, Victory would
be trapped and totally vulnerable  to the  destroyers that were beginning to
close in.
     Or . . .  what would happen to a ship initiating a jump sequence if the
jump point  failed?  Would  it remain in  place . . .  or end  up trapped in
hyperspace, unable to complete the transition to its destination?
     "Three . . . two . . . and one . . . initiating transit. . . now."
     He felt the familiar gut-twisting sensation of transit, and despite the
nausea, muscle spasms, and the wrenching disorientation  of  the jump, Eisen
was relieved. At least Victory had escaped the cats, whatever happened  next
. . .
     The jump was over in an  instant. Eisen had to blink and shake his head
a  time or two  to clear  the fog in his brain, but  it  didn't take long to
regain control over his body, though every nerve  was  still protesting over
the unnatural  act of being flung across an unimaginable distance  through a
realm no human was ever supposed to enter.
     "Report," he croaked.
     Lieutenant Commander Lisa Morgan, Victory's Navigator, managed to sound
alert. "Aye,  aye,  sir," she said, her fingers moving over her  controls to
call up a computer program that would analyze their surroundings and confirm
that they had emerged on target. After a moment  she went on.  "Stellar type
and data match within 99.4 percent. No planets registering. Asteroid belts .
. . it checks, Captain. Delius System . . . or its twin."
     Eisen nodded slowly. "Very good. Commander Morgan, set course to Delius
Station. Mr. Rollins, raise the local defense forces and let them know we're
here. Secure from Jump Stations and resume in-system operations." He paused.
"I want the ship combat-ready as soon as possible. After that, I want a full
after-action analysis by all combat  departments. We have to  determine what
the hell went on back there, before the cats pull it on us again."
     His officers responded promptly, and Eisen felt a glow of pride. They'd
been close to the breaking point, but somehow they'd kept on going.
     In the end, that was the only thing that counted.




     Command Hall, KIS Hvar'kann Ariel System

     "The Terrans have withdrawn, then,  Melek?"  Thrakhath was  lounging on
his throne, feeling satisfied. A pair of destroyers had been lost along with
a  few fighters, and  he intended to see to it that whoever  was responsible
for  the losses paid  the  supreme  penalty.  But overall,  everything  went
exactly  as planned. The  apes had been given a warning they  would not soon
forget. It  would make them cautious  for a time,  and even if they realized
that the Empire's ability  to mask  jump points was limited  to nebulas they
would surely shun this system,  so the base where the Imperial  Fleet  would
gather for Thrakhath's grand stroke would remain secure.
     Now it was time to think of the next stage in the plan.
     "Yes,  Lord Prince," Melek  said. "They have  withdrawn into the Delius
System. Of course, there is no way of telling how long they will remain  . .
."
     "Then we must  act  quickly, before they  move on," Thrakhath told him,
pounding the arm of his  throne to  emphasize the point. "Is it certain that
the one called Blair is still assigned to the carrier?"
     "Yes, Lord Prince," Melek acknowledged. "We  monitored his voice on the
comm channels during the fight, a perfect match to our files. He is the wing
commander.  According to  recent  intelligence,  the renegade serves as  his
deputy."
     "Excellent," Thrakhath said, showing his fangs for an instant. "Perhaps
it is best that the human  escaped our earlier attacks. We have  the perfect
weapon to use against him, and the results will leave these apes demoralized
just when our blow is about to fall."
     "You think, then, that the challenge will work, on a human? Their sense
of honor is not the same as ours Lord Prince." Melek bowed low, to show that
he did not mean to doubt his Lord's judgment.
     "Oh, this challenge will work, I think," Thrakhath said  quietly. "They
do not have honor, Melek, but  they do have  pride . . .  and anger. We will
goad this ape into a foolish gesture, and at the same time . . ."
     "The Trigger," Melek said.
     "The Trigger. And we will have our claws at their  throats once and for
all."  Thrakhath  straightened.  Pass  the  orders,   Melek.   Assemble  the
designated task force and be ready to jump within a cycle."
     "Yes, Lord Prince." Melek withdrew, bowing again.
     Crown Prince Thrakhath contemplated the  stars that blazed  through the
dome  above  his  dais.  The stars  that  would soon  belong entirely to the
Empire.

     Wing Commander's Office, TCS Victory Delius System

     "Reporting as ordered, sir."
     "Come  in,  Lieutenant," Blair said, gesturing to the chair in front of
his desk. "Sit down."
     Flint settled  into the seat, her eyes holding a look somewhere between
hope  and  wariness. "Thank  you, sir," she said. "Ah . .  . those were some
good moves  you guys  put  on yesterday, Colonel. Although I couldn't really
tell everything that was going on . . . from Flight Control."
     He  smiled. "You don't need to drop hints, Lieutenant. I know it's been
difficult for you, sitting on the sidelines."
     "It's just . . . Look, sir, it  just isn't the same, flying  a  console
aboard  ship.  I belong  in  the cockpit. That's all there is to  it. If you
can't  put  me there, then transfer me to  a unit where  I  can  get a fresh
start."
     "You're pretty blunt,  Lieutenant," he said. "Let me be  the same. If I
don't put you  back  on  the flight  roster here,  it'll be because I have a
problem with you flying.  So you can be damned  sure my report  in your file
would reflect my doubts. Don't think a transfer is going to get you  back in
the cockpit just because I'm not your CO any longer."
     Her look was bleak, bitter. "I lost  it, back  at Locanda. I  admit it.
But  I don t  think  that mistake should  hang  over  me  forever,  Colonel.
Watching those  bastards  slip past us,  knowing  they were  going to spread
their plague  on  my home  that was more than  I could  handle. But it isn't
likely to come up again." She managed a crooked smile.
     "The stakes are less . . . personal, now. Is  that it?" He kept his own
tone serious.
     "I guess so, sir," she said. "I hate to admit it.  I  mean, when I took
my oath it was to the Confederation,  not to any one planet. But Locanda was
so much  more real to me, when it went down. I could see it, in my mind: the
places, the people. It made a difference."
     "If it didn't, you wouldn't be human," he said. Blair studied her for a
moment. She seemed too small, too fragile to be a combat pilot. "The problem
is, you made me a promise  once before, and you didn't keep it. Do  you want
to get back in that cockpit bad enough to follow through this time?"
     "I can't prove that unless you give me the chance, Colonel,"  she said.
"When I'm out there with that bird strapped around me and a cat in my sights
. . . that's the only time I really feel alive."
     Blair  nodded  sadly. He remembered  Angel  saying something  like that
once, back on the Tiger's Claw. I knew .  . . I know  someone who  felt  the
same way. She lived to fight the good fight,' as she called it."
     "For me, it's  the  flying," Flint told him. "I love the purity  .  . .
nothing  holding me  back. Knowing  I'm in complete  control,  for better or
worse."
     "Yeah,"  Blair said,  nodding again. "Yeah,  only  a  pilot knows  that
feeling."
     "Well, Colonel, if  you understand how  I feel,  then you have  to know
what I'm  going through now. I  wasn't  designed  for cheerleading from  the
sidelines,  or  playing traffic director in Flight  Control. I'm  requesting
reassignment to flight status." She paused. "Please. . ."
     "I don't  usually give third chances, Lieutenant,"  he said slowly "But
we  could have used you out there yesterday. Next  time we'll need  you even
more. You're back on the roster, effective immediately, Flint."
     "Thank you, sir. . ."
     He held up a hand. "But  if you screw up again  . . . heaven help  you.
Because I won t."
     "Understood, Colonel." She stood up. "This time you won't regret it."

     Flight Wing Rec Room, TCS Victory Delius System

     A jagged, irregular chunk  of rock eighteen kilometers across dominated
the  view  from  the  rec room. A  few moving  lights marked  the passage of
shuttles and service pods back  and forth between carrier  and  asteroid. In
the three hours since Victory matched orbits with Delius Station, a thorough
inspection  of  the  ship's  hull and  external fittings  had  already  been
completed,  and  the captain had authorized liberty for the off-duty  watch.
There  weren't as  many takers as  might  be expected   Delius Station  was
reputed to be one of the most boring stopovers in the sector  but there was
a definite  easing of tensions on board at the  realization that they really
were back in friendly territory at last.
     Blair  sat  alone at  a  table, sipping his  scotch  and gazing at  the
planetoid and the star field beyond. In one corner of the room, Vaquero  was
softly strumming his old guitar, a quiet,  mournful sound.  Lieutenant Lopez
had been certified fit for flight duty by the ship's Medical Officer the day
before, and Blair restored him to the roster. But he still wondered if Lopez
was fully  recovered from the battering  he  had taken in the first clash in
the nebula.
     He  heard Maniac Marshall call a greeting  as he entered the  rec room,
and half-turned in his chair to watch the major at the bar. Marshall was his
usual self, boisterous self-assured, wearing a  broad smile  as he  took his
drink from Rostov and waved an airy  greeting  to  Flint and Cobra, who were
sitting together at a nearby table.
     To Blair's  surprise, Maniac ambled  to  his table. "Colonel," he said,
giving him a nod.
     "Major," Blair replied. He waited a moment before going on.  "Something
I can do for you."
     Maniac grew visibly uncomfortable, all his cockiness disappearing as he
stammered a response. "Er . . . fact is, I wanted to tell you . . . I wanted
to say . . . Maverick, that was a damned impressive  show back at Ariel. The
way you  faked that first bunch out  of position . .  . and the way you kept
your cool  after  the  cats  pulled  their little  magic  trick." He  looked
embarrassed. "I know we don't always operate on the same frequency.  . . but
I thought I should give credit where it's due."
     Blair raised an  eyebrow.  "Well. .  ."  He wasn't sure how to respond.
Maniac Marshall had never before made such an overture. "Thanks for the vote
of confidence. It was touch and go there for a while, though."
     "Yeah,"  Marshall agreed.  "Tell me about it. When they made  that jump
point disappear . .  . God, I almost lost it. I  never thought I'd feel that
way, Maverick. Never.
     "You kept your  head pretty well, all  things  considered,"  Blair told
him. "We couldn't have nailed that destroyer without you and Flash."
     "We could  have taken her  out by ourselves, if  you and  Cobra had let
us,"  Maniac said with a trace of his old spirit. "But . . . yeah, it was  a
good score all the way  around." He  looked  out the  viewport and continued
with a sour note in his voice. "You think Chief Coriolis was right about the
Kilrathi using a cloak on the jump points, Maverick?"
     "That's the official verdict," Blair  said.  "The analysis the  captain
ordered  turned  up  sensor traces  consistent  with  the  use  of  cloaking
generators. That's the report he ordered dispatched to Sector HQ."
     "So  we only have to worry about them pulling something  like that in a
nebula, huh?" Marshall looked solemn. "I guess that's good news, at least."
     "It also means we won't be stuck, next time out," Blair said. "It might
take longer, but we could use a cloaked jump point providing  we already had
it thoroughly plotted on our charts."
     "Does that mean we're going back? To finish the mission?  Or  with this
weapon everybody's talking about?"
     "That'll be up to the brass," Blair told him. "But I doubt it. If we're
going to use an experimental  weapon under difficult conditions,  why borrow
even  more trouble? Of course,  I'm not an admiral.  Maybe they could find a
good reason, but it seems like a silly risk to me."
     "Hope you're  right,"  Maniac said.  He  studied  the  view outside  in
silence for a long moment. "Nebulas and asteroid belts . . . I'll be glad to
see the last  of  them. Give me  a stand-up fight, not all this dodging  and
ducking and worrying about what your sensors aren't showing you."
     "Look at the bright side, Maniac," Blair told him.
     "There's a bright side?"
     "Sure. The  bad guys  don't like flying through all this space junk any
more than we do."
     "Maybe not," Maniac said. "But they can take more risks out  there than
we can. After all, they've got nine lives."

     Flight Control, TCS Victory Delius System


REPEAT, ALL HANDS TO BATTLE STATIONS!"
     Blair turned in his chair to face a monitor  and punched up an intercom
link to the bridge. "This is Blair. What's going down?"
     The  screen showed Rollins in the foreground, with the running  figures
of bridge crewmen hurrying to their posts visible behind him. From somewhere
out of the  picture the sensor officer  was talking.  "I'm  reading multiple
contacts,  Captain. Eight  . . .  no,  ten capital  ships. Four of  them are
carriers. Configuration. . . they're Kilrathi, sir. No doubt about it."
     Rollins  turned  to  look  into  the  camera.  "We've got a mountain of
trouble  out there, Colonel," he said "A whole  damned  cat task force  just
popped onto our scopes."
     The  image in the monitor broke up, replaced by Eisen's heavy, scowling
features.  "I'll take it,  Lieutenant," he said crisply.  "Colonel Blair, we
have four carriers  plus escorts incoming. No fighters  yet, but you can bet
they'll launch a flock of em when they've closed the range."
     "That's pretty long odds,"  Blair said slowly.  "Delius Station doesn't
have much firepower."
     "Not enough to make  a difference," Eisen agreed. "We're breaking orbit
and heading for the nearest jump point. There's no sense in buying it here."
     "And our orders? The flight wing?"
     "Get ready for a  magnum launch, Colonel. Get your  birds ready. We may
need them to buy the ship enough time to reach the jump point." Eisen's look
was grim. "Another bug-out, Colonel. I'm sorry, but it looks like you'll  be
covering our tails one more time."
     "Understood, sir," Blair said.
     Eisen had already turned away  from the intercom, issuing orders to his
bridge crew. "Navigation! Plot course to the nearest jump point. Helm, break
orbit. Proceed at full thrust. Gunnery. . . be ready to clear a path  if the
debris field gets too thick . . ." The intercom went dead.
     Blair slapped the red switch that issued the magnum launch alert. A new
alarm  shrilled,  followed  by the  computer's public  address announcement.
"LAUNCH  STATIONS! LAUNCH STATIONS!  ALL  FLIGHT  WING  PERSONNEL TO  LAUNCH
STATIONS MAGNUM LAUNCH!"

     Flight Deck. TCS Victory Delius System

     Blair checked his instruments for what seemed  like the hundredth time,
knowing  that nothing had changed  yet  feeling compelled  to do  something.
Every one of Victory's fighters  was crewed and  ready, even a pair that the
technical staff had down  checked as  unreliable. Now they were waiting, and
that was an agony worse than any combat situation.
     The carrier had opened up  a fair lead over the Kilrathi ships, bulling
her way  through the  asteroid field with  weapons blazing to clear away any
chunk of rock big enough to pose a threat to the  ship. The Imperial vessels
were more cautious,  keeping to a tight formation and lumbering slowly after
Victory as if reluctant to commit themselves to  an attack. Perhaps they had
learned  to respect  the Terrans in  earlier clashes .  .  . or perhaps they
simply  regarded it as triumph  enough to drive  the ship away  from  Delius
Station, leaving the Terrans there   including  a  small  contingent of the
carrier's crew still  on liberty   completely  at the mercy of the Kilrathi
task force.
     Blair was  starting to hope they might not have to beat off any genuine
attack, but the threat remained. They  wouldn't be able to relax their guard
until they made the jump to Tamayo, if then.
     "Colonel,  sensors  are reporting a launch  in progress  from the  lead
Kilrathi carrier." Rollins  gave him a welcome distraction, however grim his
news might be.  "It's the flagship  . .  . Hvar'kann.  Looks like you'll  be
having a party after all.''
     "Acknowledged,"  Blair  said. "Flight wing, from  Blair.  Begin  launch
sequence on my mark."
     At that  moment his comm panel went  crazy. The visual display broke up
in a  kaleidoscope of  patterns and colors,  and the speakers in  his helmet
squealed and  whined. It took several seconds for the  noise to fade and the
screen  to come back on-line. Blair  stared at  the  monitor, as if it might
give him some clue to what had just happened.
     A glowering Kilrathi face filled the screen, a face Blair had seen many
times before.
     Thrakhath.
     The image  jumped  and jittered  again, then returned. Blair studied it
thoughtfully, wondering what was causing the distortion. Ship to  ship video
transmissions used  computers to encode and decode  messages, and to provide
automatic  translations  of foreign languages. For the computer to have this
much  trouble  reconstructing whatever  message  Thrakhath  was broadcasting
meant  the  signal  content  must be  massive.  Evidently, the Kilrathi were
trying to overload Victory's whole comm system and  Jam  every frequency the
Terrans might be using.
     Thrakhath's  image began  to  speak  as  the  computers processed their
translation of the Kilrathi language. I have heard of your Terran Bible with
its predictions that there will  be  a  weeping and gnashing of teeth. These
the Imperial Race will  soon fulfill. We will tear out your tongues, we will
scoop out your brains. You will learn to beg for the release of death."
     Blair tried  to switch to  a different  comm  channel, but  Thrakhath's
hissing, taunting image remained on the  screen. "You will be prime examples
to the other races  in  the  galaxy, you clownish  baboons.  Your race  will
suffer  a thousand torments and more. And do not think that the  presence of
the Heart of the Tiger among you  can make a difference. Colonel Blair  will
be reduced to a pile of entrails, his bones will be gnawed by our young."
     Hearing  himself  referred to  directly made  Blair stiffen.  It wasn't
often  that  the Kilrathi  chose  to  grant  a  name to one  of their  human
adversaries . . . and it inevitably  meant that the individual they chose to
"honor" had become the prime target of a Kilrathi challenge.
     "Heart of  the Tiger, you  shall  pay for the blood of  every  Kilrathi
noble you have dispatched in baffle. They shall make songs of your death, of
the failure and disgrace you shall know even  before your death. Already you
have failed, Heart of the Tiger, failed at Locanda Four, failed at Ariel . .
. failed your lair-mate, the one known as Devereaux, the Angel."
     Blair gasped as the image of Thrakhath on his monitor blacked out, only
to be replaced by a new scene. . . .
     A scene from hell.
     It  was  a  large   room,  red-lit,  dark,  with  ornate  fittings  and
decorations more suggested than seen among the shadows. A throng of Kilrathi
in garb Blair recognized as that of  the high  nobility were gathered in the
middle of the  open  chamber, bowing low as Thrakhath and  an aged Kilrathi,
the  Emperor  himself, entered. As the Emperor sat on the  imposing  throne,
Blair became aware of movement in the shadows on  either  side  of  the  two
figures. It was difficult to judge exactly what was  happening, but when  he
finally realized what he was witnessing, he wished he had not.
     There  were  Terrans  along  the  wall behind  the throne men and women
hanging in chains, their  Confed-issue flight suits  in rags. Bulky Kilrathi
guards carrying nerve-prods moved among them, striking out almost at random,
eliciting cries and moans from their victims.
     "Once again an enemy threat to our very homeworld has  been  thwarted,"
the  Emperor  intoned solemnly. "This  puny contingent of their soldiers was
captured  aboard  a  hijacked  Imperial transport  in  orbit  around  Kilrah
itself."
     There was  a  scattering  of calls  from the  assembled nobles  shock,
anger, hatred plain in  their voices and bearing.  The Emperor silenced them
with a curt gesture and gave Thrakhath a sign to speak.
     "This incursion was an act  of  desperation," the  prince said, showing
his fangs. His arms made encompassing gestures toward the victims behind the
throne. "Look at these pathetic  hairless apes. They have failed their  race
utterly."
     A growling cheer rose from the crowd.
     "Do what you will with them," the Emperor said.
     Red  light  glimmered   off  Thrakhath's  fangs.  "There  will   be  no
interrogation for these pitiful apes .  . . and no warrior's death. They are
offal,  fit only for death."  The Prince waved a dismissive  hand. "Only one
among them is worthy of being  treated as a warrior. Their leader  . . . the
one they call . . . Angel."
     Blair  wanted  to  look  away  as  a  pair  of burly Kilrathi  warriors
half-pushed, half-dragged a  familiar petite  figure into the  middle of the
throne room directly in front  of Thrakhath. Like the other Terrans, she had
been  tortured,  her flight  suit  reduced  to tattered ruin, the  face that
haunted  Blair's  dreams bruised. There  was dried blood on  her forehead, a
livid welt  on  one cheek, but she wore her defiance like a shield. Whatever
the Kilrathi had done to her, Jeannette Devereaux's spirit remained as fiery
and determined as ever.
     At the  sight of the woman,  the  Kilrathi nobles grew  more  agitated.
Blair  recognized the bloodlust in their  eyes, in the way they bared  claws
and fangs  as they  jeered the  captive. Only the sheer force of Thrakhath's
personality held them  at bay as he  stepped  down from the dais to  inspect
Angel more closely.
     "Still defiant, Colonel Devereaux?"  the prince asked. "You should know
by now  it  is a pathetic and useless gesture. The hunt  has nearly run  its
course, and your race is prey beneath our claws."
     "You bore me, monsieur, she told him, mustering a faint smile. "I would
prefer to join my comrades, rather than listen to more of your boasting."
     "You will not join them, Colonel," Thrakhath said.  "Your fate shall be
different."
     Angel replied by spitting in his face. There were hisses and jeers from
the crowd, a harsh growl  from Thrakhath's throat. He turned to address  his
nobles.
     "The  human cannot appreciate  the honor I bestow upon her. She  is not
only a great warrior, but her lair-mate is the one known as the Heart of the
Tiger."  He  turned back to  her; his eyes narrowed in a  deadly stare.  The
cries of the Kilrathi reached a bloodthirsty crescendo. "You have slain many
fine warriors during your career You have earned this honor."
     The  prince  unsheathed his claws. With  a single thrust he jabbed them
deep  into her  stomach and lifted  her off the ground,  high into the  air.
Blood  flowed  freely from the wound. The view on the screen caught her face
in close-up as the  life drained from her eyes. Blair thought he saw a final
look  of appeal there,  as if she was  crying out to him for rescue . . . or
for vengeance.
     Then the  prince released her, and  her lifeless body  crumpled to  the
ground.
     Thrakhath's image filled the screen again. "Come, Heart of the  Tiger,"
he said. "I am leading; my warriors into battle today.  If you would live up
to the  honor your  lair-mate earned, come  and  fight.  Or be shown for the
pathetic coward you are."
     Christopher Blair stared at the screen,  his mind a whirl of anger  and
pain and hate. At that moment, all he wanted to do was kill. . . .




     Bridge, TCS Victory Delius System

     "Can't you  shut  the damned thing off, Lieutenant?" Eisen demanded. On
his communications  screen,  Thrakhath's  feral features continued to  glare
hatred and challenge. The message was starting all over again.
     "I'm  trying,  sir,"  Rollins  answered.  "But  it's  not  an  ordinary
transmission. Damn thing's got the  whole comm system tied in knots. Hold on
a minute  . . . I think I can kick  in a backup system . . . everybody cross
your fingers!"
     The  communications officer entered a code sequence on his board, and a
moment later the Kilrathi message broke up into static. A few  seconds later
Eisen's  screen  was back  to  normal,  the  green light  shining  above  it
indicating the system was ready to use.
     "Thank you, Mr. Rollins," Eisen said. "Ensign Dumont, get me an updated
sensor  reading. What are  those bastards doing  out there? Oh  .  .  .  and
Rollins, put me through to Colonel Blair."
     "On the line, sir."
     Blair's head appeared on  the  monitor. Even  though his flight  helmet
faceplate hid Blairs features,  Eisen  thought he  looked pale and stricken.
There  was no mistaking the barely-suppressed snarl in his voice. "Ready  to
launch, Captain," he said.
     "Not so fast,  Colonel," Eisen told him. We're  still trying to  get a
picture of  what the  cats  are doing. The  ship s less than fifteen minutes
from the jump point, and we might make it yet without having to launch."
     "If they've got fighters out, sir, you'll  have to put us out  there to
hold them off," Blair replied. "At least for a little while."
     "Look, Colonel . . ." Eisen trailed  off. He didn't know what to say to
the  man, after Thrakhath's message.  "Maybe you ought to sit this one  out,
Blair. Let Hobbes take over."
     "No, sir," Blair said curtly.
     "Is that  the Wing Commander talking  . . . or  a man who's looking for
revenge?"
     "Both, sir," Blair answered. He was silent  for a moment  before  going
on. "Look, Captain, I won't pretend. . . that  bastard got  me where I live,
using Angel like that.  He's trying to  goad me into doing something stupid.
And I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to oblige him  . . . bad. Real bad.
But in this case, playing along with his little game is our best  option. As
long  as Thrakhath figures  I'm going to  take him up on his challenge,  the
rest of his  fighters will hold back. Nobody's going to get into  the middle
of the Crown Prince's blood feud."
     "I  don't like it," Eisen said. "I've never  thought this Thrakhath was
very  well-equipped in the honor department, however much the  cats  make of
it. What do you say, Colonel Ralgha? You know more about the Prince than any
of us."
     Hobbes was slow  to answer, and  when he did his voice sounded blurred,
distant. "I could not  . . . say for sure. The message was intended to . . .
provoke a response. But the challenge  could well  be legitimate. If Colonel
Blair  has been  honored with his own warrior's  name then  the Prince  must
consider him to be important somehow."
     Blair's voice betrayed a  sudden concern. "You all right, buddy? What's
wrong?"
     "A  . .  . headache,"  Hobbes said slowly. "Some of  the higher-pitched
harmonics in the message were .  . . grating. "He paused. "And, of course, I
mourn for Colonel Devereaux. She was a brave warrior. And a friend."
     "That she  was," Blair  said. "Captain, what about  it?  Do we get  out
there and buy you some time?"
     "I don't  like it, Blair.  But  I don't have  a whole  lot of options."
Eisen  paused as the  Sensor Officer displayed new data on  the main  bridge
monitor.  "We  definitely have  a  launch  in  progress  from  the  Kilrathi
flagship. So far they're  still forming up.  No way to  tell if they plan to
press something, or if they're just threatening. Looks like . . . at least a
squadron already. More likely two, if they're still launching."
     "Then  we'd better get out  there,"  Blair said. He cut the  connection
without awaiting a reply.
     Eisen  leaned forward in his chair. "God go with you, Colonel," he said
softly.

     Flight Deck. KIS Hvar'kann Delius System

     "Lord Prince,  surely you do  not need to take  personal command today.
The cockpit of  a fighter  is no place for the Imperial Heir when the battle
is so insignificant."
     Thrakhath paused halfway up the ladder to the cockpit of his  Bloodfang
and  turned  to  glare  his  contempt  down  on Melek.  "I  have  issued the
challenge. Would you have me hold back now, in front of our warriors?"
     "No, Lord  Prince. . ." Melek trailed off, looking  uncomfortable. "But
if something  was to  happen to you  now, with triumph  so close  under  our
talons, we  would lose  everything  we have worked  to achieve. The personal
challenge  was a risk you did not need to take. Others would  have willingly
taken on the Heart of the Tiger for you."
     "No! We want to cut  this ape out of his troop, and for that he must be
goaded beyond all reason. I killed his lair-mate. He will not turn back from
the chance to kill me in return. And then . . . we have him."
     "He is a skilled pilot, Lord Prince," Melek warned.
     "I know it well." Thrakhath  showed his fangs. "I am not a fool, Melek.
Honor requires me to be present for the challenge, but it doesn't require me
to sacrifice myself.  My escorts will intervene if the need  arises. But the
important thing is  to eliminate this  Colonel Blair now so that he does not
stand in the  way of our plans  for the  Behemoth  Go now. You command in my
absence. Let the hunt begin!"

     Thunderbolt 300 Delius System

     Blair's  fighter  leapt from the end of the launch tube into  the void,
building thrust  as he steered toward  the rest of  Gold Squadron assembling
beyond the stern of the Victory. It required all of his will to stay focused
on his instruments,  the sensor screen, and  the  battle ahead.  He couldn't
afford to let himself dwell on Angel.
     "Thunderbolt three-zero-zero, under power," he reported. "Gold Squadron
deployed and ready."
     "You sure we shouldn't; let Whittaker's boys  and girls give you a hand
out  there, Colonel?" The duty  Flight  Control Officer, Lieutenant  Rashad,
sounded worried.
     "Keep them on stand-by, Lieutenant," Blair said. "I'll let you know  if
we need them."
     It was the same problem encountered at Ariel.  With the carrier heading
for the  jump point, too many fighters in space would only  complicate their
escape. Blair overruled the original call for a magnum launch, preferring to
put out the eight fighters of Gold Squadron and hold  the others in  reserve
in case they were needed. But he  didn't intend to need them, not today. All
the Terrans  needed to  do at the moment  was  keep  the Kilrathi distracted
until the carrier was ready to jump.
     So far,  the cats were  cooperating quite  nicely.  Their fighters were
maintaining a tight  formation well out of range of the carrier's guns. None
showed any desire to venture close enough to threaten the Terran vessel.
     "Eight minutes," Rollins' voice informed them.
     "What are they waiting for?" Flash complained.
     "Maybe they're scared of you, kid," Maniac responded.
     "Cut  the chatter,  people," Blair growled. He was feeling as impatient
as Dillon. If only Thrakhath would put his fighter in Blair's crosshairs . .
.
     "Does the Heart  of the Tiger  hide among  the other apes?" Thrakhath's
mocking  voice filled his helmet  speakers. "And under the guns of his ship?
The challenge was to meet in personal combat."
     On his  screens,  he  saw  a Vaktoth  accelerate away  from  the  other
Kilrathi ships, but  it  stayed  well  clear of  Victory. For a moment Blair
toyed  with the idea  of ordering  the squadron to  attack, but he  knew the
Kilrathi would he on  their guard against such a move. The name of the game,
for now at least, was to keep from letting a full-scale  battle  develop for
as long as possible.
     Thrakhath must have realized the same thing, for a  few seconds later a
pair of Vaktoth broke formation followed by two more. These streaked  toward
the carrier. Gold Squadron lay directly in their path.
     "Here they come!" Cobra called. "Permission to engage?"
     "Let them  come to  us,"  Blair  ordered Wingmen,  stick close  to your
partners."
     The  first two Vaktoth  drove into the  center of the  Terran formation
then  rolled outward,  opening  fire with guns  and  missiles. Cobra and her
wingman,  Vaquero,  went after the  first  one,  while  Maniac  and Vagabond
engaged the second. Blair watched the  second pair of fighters and  felt his
pulse race.  "Hobbes, you and  Flash  take the  one on  the left," he  said.
"Flint and I'll take the other guy."
     "Understood,"  was Ralgha's reply. He still  sounded  distracted. Flash
gave  a whoop and kicked  in his afterburners, racing  to  meet the oncoming
fighter.
     Blair couldn't  spend  any more  time worrying  about  the  others. The
fourth Vaktoth  was  almost  on  them,  concentrating  fire  against Flint's
Thunderbolt.  Blair turned  sharply  and accelerated, opening fire  with his
blasters,  while  Flint  banked  sharply left  to try to keep  her  weakened
port-side shields from taking any more damage.
     The Vaktoth pilot  was good. He maintained his fire  on Flint, randomly
altering vectors to dodge most of Blair's fire while he kept up the pressure
on his original target. Blair gave a  curse  and locked a heat-seeker on the
Vaktoth's tail, then followed the missile with his blasters, pouring out all
the power his weapons system could muster. The shield collapsed, and blaster
fire tore into the armor until the power cut out, recharging.
     His opponent seemed to realize then that Blair represented too great  a
threat to ignore any longer. He started turning away from Flint to bring his
weapons to bear and to cover his exposed rear, but as  he turned, Flint took
the opening  without hesitation. Her blasters continued where Blair's ended,
and a moment later the Vaktoth exploded in a thousand whirling fragments.
     "Nice shooting, Lieutenant," Blair called. "Good to have you back on my
wing."
     "Its where I belong Colonel," she replied.
     "Somebody  get this bastard off me! Hobbes! Colonel!" Flash's voice was
hoarse with panic. "I can't shake him!"
     On his scanner, Blair saw Flash trying to break away from  the  Vaktoth
he challenged, but the enemy pilot was right on his tail. Hobbes was closing
in,  but slowly,  cautiously,  as if  the  Kilrathi  renegade was  afraid of
getting too close  to the dogfighting pair.  Blair  banked  the Thunderbolt,
increasing his speed, but he knew he wouldn't be able to reach Flash in time
to do any good.
     Hobbes took up a position behind the enemy fighter and opened fire, but
his first shots went wild. The Vaktoth unleashed another attack. This time a
deadly hail of energy bolts and missiles rained on Flash's ship as the young
pilot tried to turn out of the Vaktoth's line of fire.
     He  was too late.  Blair heard  him  scream  as a fireball consumed his
craft.
     Once again Hobbes fired, but this time his opponent rolled sideways and
accelerated back  toward the rest  of  the Kilrathi  formation. More Vaktoth
were on their way.
     "Five  minutes  to  Jump  Sequence start,"  Rollins announced. "Captain
wants to know if we should launch additional fighters?"
     "Negative," Blair grated. His sensors showed that the other two Vaktoth
from  the first  flight had both  been destroyed. The Terran  fighters  were
regrouping again, ready to meet the next threat. "Hobbes,  without a wingman
you'll be a sitting duck. Retreat to the carrier and land."
     "I should remain, my friend."
     For a moment Blair considered having the Kilrathi switch positions with
one  of the  other  pilots,  someone less steady,  less reliable.  Flint, or
Vaquero, or  perhaps Maniac. But the way  Hobbes had  been handling  himself
today, he  was  no more reliable than any of them. Even  Marshall seemed  to
have himself  under control, but  Ralgha was plainly off his game. And Flash
had paid the price. "No, Hobbes. Pack it in. That's an order."
     "As you command." Ralgha's Thunderbolt broke away and headed toward the
carrier. Now there were  only six  Terran fighters to face the  next wave of
Kilrathi.
     This time four Imperial craft came at  once,  holding a tight formation
all  the way.  Blair waited  until  they were just outside  of weapons range
before ordering  Gold  Squadron to turn from the oncoming  Vaktoth and go to
afterburners. The Kilrathi gave chase.
     "Maintain  course,"  Blair  said  quietly.  It  was  almost  a  mantra.
"Maintain course . . . Break! Break and attack! Victory, pour it on!"
     The  Terran fighters split  up, each pair of wingmen peeling  off  in a
different  direction and  looping back toward  the pursuing Kilrathi. At the
same  time, Victory's defensive batteries opened fire, filling the void with
searing bursts of raw energy. A pair of hits took out one of the enemy ships
in the blink of an  eye, and another  suffered  heavy damage as it tried  to
dodge  the carrier's beams and pursue Cobra. Vaquero, on her  wing, finished
the attacker off with a well-placed missile.
     Maniac dove straight towards his target, all guns blazing, passing bare
meters away from his opponent before the  Kilrathi pilot could  even  react.
Slowly,  carefully, Vagabond trailed him,  and  his  blasters  exploited the
weakened shields  to burn through the fighter's cockpit and kill the  pilot.
The  Vaktoth  plunged on, uncontrolled, until  Victory  destroyed it  a  few
seconds later.
     Meanwhile, Flint and Blair split and  circled the last Imperial fighter
from opposite sides, hammering  the hull with blasters as they sped past. As
a  parting  shot,  Blair  dropped  a  fire-and-forget  missile.  It  hit the
Vaktoth's  starboard wing moments  later. The explosion  didn't destroy  the
enemy craft, but it  was  visibly  damaged  as  it turned and ran,  trailing
debris and leaking atmosphere. Maniac caught the fighter as it tried to flee
and finished it with a few well-placed blaster shots.
     "Three minutes," Rollins said.
     Blair studied his scanners. The Kilrathi fighters were still out there,
but the countdown  was  getting close enough  that he had to start  thinking
about getting the rest of the  squadron on board. Anyway, the Imperial ships
wouldn't be  inclined to cut things too fine  by  staging an attack now. The
energy discharge  of a carrier going into jump  could do terrible damage  to
fighters close enough to be caught by the creation of the Transition Field.
     "Take them in, people,"  he ordered "Maniac,  Vagabond, you  two first.
Don't miss  the first  approach. You might  not  get another one. Cobra  and
Vaquero, you go as soon as they're clear. Flint, you're with me."
     No  one argued, though he thought he heard Maniac muttering  a protest.
The first two  Thunderbolts peeled off and headed back  for the carrier; the
second two followed, but more slowly, to give Marshall and Chang time to set
down and clear the flight deck. Time passed with agonizing slowness, with no
further moves from the Kilrathi. But Blair was  tense. He was sure Thrakhath
wouldn't let them leave without some kind of final shot.
     "Two minutes,"  Rollins announced at  length. "Maniac  and Vagabond are
aboard. Vaquero's in the beam now."
     "You're up, Flint," he said. "Take her inside."
     "Don't be slow following me, Colonel,"  she responded. "I'm getting too
used to flying on your wing."
     She left  him, and Blair started a quick checklist for his own approach
and landing. It was starting to look like  Thrakhath wasn't  planning a last
push after all . . .
     "Jump Sequence  start in ninety seconds," Rollins said.  "Better  bring
her in now, Colonel."
     As  he started to turn, Thrakhath's voice boomed  loud in his speakers.
"So, I was right, ape. In the end you do run. You did not meet my challenge.
. . Even your lair-mate showed more courage, facing death."
     "Seventy-five seconds, Colonel."
     Blair  tried  to  shut  Thrakhath's  words  out  of  his mind,  but the
Kilrathi's mocking voice went on. "We misnamed you, perhaps, in  calling you
the Heart of the  Tiger.  You  are weak. .  . a  coward.  . . a failure. Not
worthy of  your  lair-mate at  all." The Kilrathi's voice took on  a harsher
edge now. "I enjoyed the feel of her blood running over my hands, Terran. As
I enjoyed the taste of her flesh, in the victory feast."
     The words hammered at him on a level below conscious thought, and blind
rage  threatened  to claim him. The carrier was  looming large ahead of  his
fighter, but Blair hardly saw it through the red haze that clouded his eyes.
He wanted  to turn around, accept  the Kilrathi's challenge,  batter through
Thrakhath's  defenses and  silence his taunts once and for  all. That thing,
that animal,  had killed Angel  and  served  her up at  one of the  barbaric
Kilrathi ritual feasts.
     "Almost  in the beams, Colonel." Rollins  said. "Keep her  steady . . .
steady  .  .  . Reduce your  speed!  If  you  don't  cut your  speed  you'll
overshoot!"
     "For Gods sake, skipper, don't  let him get to  you!" That was  Flint's
voice. "If you take his challenge, you're stuck out there! Thrakhath'll wait
. . . you'll get another chance at him!"
     The  words  penetrated his fog, and  Blair  killed his forward momentum
with  a  hard braking thrust,  like a kick from a horse.  Almost sobbing, he
stabbed at the landing gear controls as the beams took hold.  Slowly gently,
the fighter dropped toward the deck and touched down.
     He hardly noticed as the fighter was drawn into the hangar area. A pair
of  spacesuited  figures  released his cockpit,  urging  him to get out even
before  gravity  or  pressure  were restored, and Blair neither  helped  nor
resisted them. They guided him across the open space in long,  low-G bounds.
Pressure  was  restored  as  they reached the  door,  and one of  them-Blair
vaguely realized it was Flint, still clad in flight suit and combat helmet 
helped him remove his  own helmet as  they guided him into the corridor. His
other helper  fumbled  with helmet  releases  and  finally freed  the  bulky
headgear. It was Rachel Coriolis.
     "JUMP SEQUENCE ENGAGED, the computer announced  blandly. ONE MINUTE  TO
JUMP."
     "You gave us a  scare, skipper,"  Rachel said. "Thought you were  gonna
pull a bolter and miss the landing."
     "I should have," Blair said. "I should have stayed out there and nailed
that damned furball."
     "That's exactly what he wanted," Flint  told  him. "If  you had let him
draw  you into a fight, you'd  never  have made  it back before we jumped. I
thought  you were the  one who never let  it get to you? Isn't that what you
said when you were chewing me out?"
     He looked at her and slowly shook his head. "Maybe  so. And maybe I was
wrong when I said it." Blair looked away. "I guess I'll never know, now.
     Blair brushed away their offered help as  the elevator doors opened and
he stepped  into the cab. They  followed, but he  ignored them both, staring
rigidly  ahead at the  keypad  controls, unwilling to talk. Inside  he  felt
drained, empty of everything except the knowledge that he had failed.
     The knowledge that Angel remained unavenged.

     Flight Deck, KIS Hvar'kann Delius System

     An  honor guard greeted Thrakhath  as he  disembarked from his fighter,
but he ignored them all in his anger. He glared as Melek approached, bowing.
     "Lord  Prince,  the  Terran  carrier  has  jumped. The  captain of  the
Toor'vaas  reports  that the  asteroid base has been breached,  and  Assault
Marines are penetrating the station. There is no sign  of further resistance
anywhere."
     Thrakhath gave  him a dismissive gesture. "I expected  none,"  he said,
not bothering to hide the angry  growl in his voice. "See to it there are no
apes left alive once their base has been secured."
     "But, Lord  Prince,  there  will be  many suitable slaves there." Melek
looked shocked. "Surely you  would  not deny  the Clans their right  to take
back captives  "
     "No survivors, I said!" Thrakhath snapped.
     Melek  stepped  back as if  physically  stricken. "As  you  wish,  Lord
Prince," he said, bowing again.
     "We have been at war with these apes for more than a generation, Melek.
But I still cannot understand them. How could any sentient creature, however
lacking in honor, fail to  respond  to  a  chance for  vengeance?" Thrakhath
studied  his retainer for a long moment. "You  are sure that this  Blair was
truly lair-mate to the one we killed?"
     "Intelligence   reports   claimed  so,  Lord   Prince.  Based  on  many
interrogations of captured human pilots. The knowledge  was evidently widely
known in their warrior community."
     Thrakhath  took  a  moment  to chain  his  anger and  speak calmly,  as
befitted a Prince. "Clearly the animal  humans are  even less civilized than
we  thought. They do not even respect  their lair-mates  enough to fight for
them." He paused. "But  even if the Heart of the Tiger survives, the rest of
the  plan shall  move forward.  He  cannot deflect the fate that pursues the
Terrans now.
     "Yes, Lord Prince."
     "Order a carrier to follow the Terran ship, but  wait until it  has had
time to get well clear of the jump point before sending it Sar'hrai would be
a good choice. Give his new captain a chance to prove his worth. They are to
mount  a close surveillance on the enemy carrier, using stealth  craft. When
our agent makes his move,  we must be ready." Thrakhath showed his fangs for
a moment. "Our  claws are at their throats, Melek. They  will not escape the
hunt."




     Flight Deck, TCS Victory Tamayo System

     Once again the  flight  deck  was  crowded  with officers  and  crewmen
gathered to bid farewell  to one  of  their  own. The neat ranks  of pilots,
technicians, and  ship's crew . . . the  honor guard with weapons held in  a
stiff rifle  salute  . .  . the  chaplain's  service,  and the  empty coffin
waiting by the launch tube  only the names changed, but never the trappings
or the emotion.
     Christopher Blair  slowly  stepped forward to  the temporary podium. He
never relished this duty, but today he hated everything about it.
     "Major Jace  Dillon  was  a reluctant  warrior in  the  Confederation's
battle  against the Empire," Blair said  slowly. He raised his eyes to study
the  front ranks, especially the  pilots of Gold  Squadron.  For  a fleeting
moment he wondered what  Ralgha  was  thinking. Did  the  Kilrathi  renegade
regret letting  the young Terran pilot down in that last  battle? Hobbes had
certainly been  withdrawn  ever  since.  It was  a feeling Blair  understood
entirely. "Nevertheless, Flash never turned back when the  going got  tough.
He more than made up for his youth and inexperience by flying with vigor and
courage, and he died carrying the fight to the enemy."
     As he stepped back  to allow the chaplain to advance and carry  on with
the  funeral ceremony, Blair's eyes rested on the lone coffin. He  wished he
could have said a few words about Angel, but it would have been out of place
here. Still, it wasn't Flash he was thinking about as the coffin accelerated
out of  the  hangar  deck,  or  as the  honor  guard fired their low-powered
volleys. And when  he bowed his  head to offer up  a  prayer,  it was  Angel
Devereaux who was foremost in his mind.

     Flight Wing Rec Room, TCS Victory Tamayo System

     Blair sat alone at a table by the viewport, staring down into his empty
glass as if it was  a crystal ball that might give him  a glimpse of another
time and  place. He  was hardly aware of  his surroundings, the other pilots
and crewmen who talked, laughed and carried  on with  their lives, with only
an  occasional  glance  at the  solitary,  withdrawn  figure  of  their wing
commander.
     A shadow fell across the table, and he looked  into the knowing eyes of
Rachel Coriolis. She put a bottle down on  the table  beside him.  "You look
like you could use a little more anesthetic," she said softly.
     He poured a shot and drank, wincing a  little at the bite  of the cheap
liquor in his  mouth and  throat. Rachel studied him  for  a  moment, as  if
waiting  for  him to speak.  Instead  he  refilled  the  glass and  held it,
watching the reflections dance in the amber liquid.
     "Thrakhath really  got to you, didn't he?" Rachel  asked. "He  knew all
the right buttons to push."
     Still Blair didn't answer. He took a longer, slower sip, then looked up
at Rachel.
     "I know  how  you feel, Colonel,"  she said, even softer this  time. "I
know what  it's like,  losing someone to this damned war."  She hesitated  a
moment. "Do you want company? Or is the bottle enough?"
     Those words got through his defenses at last.  He looked from Rachel to
the  bottle, then  back at her again. "Company? Yeah." He  pushed the bottle
away. "Yeah, I guess talking is better than drinking, but it isn't easy."
     She  settled into  the chair  across from  him.  "No, it isn't. But you
can't run away from people,  and  you  can't  take refuge in  getting drunk.
Those things just postpone the inevitable."
     "I knew, deep down, that she might not be coming back," he said slowly.
"I was afraid  she was dead. I  had nightmares about it. But seeing  it like
that . . . and having that bastard gloating about it . . ."
     "Well, kick in a bulkhead or something. Get it out somehow, okay? Don't
wait until you're back in the  cockpit again. If you try  to take it out  on
the cats  look, I've been through that already, with somebody I cared about
very much. I wouldn't want to go through it again."
     He met  her eyes.  "Somebody  you cared about,  . .  I hope  you're not
thinking. . . ."
     Rachel  looked away. "I know  better than to put the moves on  somebody
who's  just had a kick like the one you've had," she said. "Let's just say .
.  . Let's just  say  you're a man I could  care about .  .  . if  there was
nothing else holding you. And  I  wouldn't want  to see you throw  your life
away, no matter what."
     "I'm  a dangerous man to be around, Rachel," he told  her. "My friends,
my shipmates . . . Angel . . . they keep leaving on the  last flight without
me. If you're smart, you'll give me a wide berth."
     "Nobody's ever accused me of being smart," she  said with  a ghost of a
smile. "And I think it's better  to take your chances than to steer clear of
. . . a friend."

     Wing Commander's Office, TCS Victory Torgo System

     "All  right,  last  item  on the list," Blair said, ticking off another
point on his personal data display. "Captain says we re due for a visit from
some VIPs tomorrow. Thirteen  hundred  hours. We need  to police  the flight
deck and  hangar areas and try to get them somewhere approaching  shipshape.
Maniac, I'm putting you in charge of that detail."
     Marshall looked up. "Me? When did I become the maid around here?"
     Whittaker,  Mbuto, and Captain Betz, the  acting  CO of Green Squadron,
all chuckled.  Ralgha. sitting in  the corner  of  the  office away from the
others  around  the desk,  studied his claws with  an  expression resembling
boredom.
     "Just do it, Maniac. We  want to make a good impression. Now that we're
back at Sector HQ, we have to pretend we're in  the  Navy instead of playing
at  being the  pirate scum  of the galaxy." Blair  looked around the office.
"Anybody have anything else to talk about?"
     No one  spoke, and  Blair nodded  sharply.  "That'll  be all, then." He
stood up when the  others did and watched them file through the door. Hobbes
was the  last  to leave and Blair intercepted  him. "Anything  on your  mind
buddy? You've been pretty quiet, the last few days."
     Ralgha shook his head ponderously. "Nothing of importance," he rumbled.
     "Look, if you're upset at getting sent in after Flash bought it . . ."
     "I  am not," the Kilrathi said. He fixed  Blair with a  look the  human
couldn't easily  fathom. We  have been friends for  many  years, you and I.
Faced many things  together. But just as you have trouble  sharing your pain
over Angel, I have . . . feelings I find hard to share now."
     "Losing her hit you pretty hard, too, didn't it?"
     The Kilrathi didn t speak for a long moment. "I fear  that humans . . .
have rarely been  my friends. She was one  of  the few. I .  . .  regret her
passing. And what it may lead to." He was watching Blair closely.
     "If you're  worried  about me, don't," Blair said. "I  had a  long talk
with myself the other day, after Flash's funeral. Somebody  reminded me that
I've  got responsibilities I  can't afford  to let go  of  just because  I'm
hurting over her. So I won't do anything stupid."
     The Kilrathi gave a very  human shrug. "Your species is  resilient," he
said. "But. . . Colonel Devereaux's death may not be the worst thing we will
see, before the end."
     "I know what you mean, buddy," Blair told him. "Look you get some rest.
I think this whole mess  has been about as rough on you as it's been on me."
He clapped Hobbes on the shoulder. "If it helps any, I want you to know that
I think she d be proud, knowing you thought of her as a friend."
     Before Ralgha  could  answer,  the  door buzzed,  and Blair  opened it.
Rollins  stood outside, with Cobra behind him. She  gave Hobbes a disdainful
look as he passed them, then followed Rollins into the office.
     "What can  I  do for  you two?" Blair asked, gesturing to the chairs by
the desk and resuming his own seat.
     "Colonel,  we've   been   talking,"  Cobra  said.   "About  Thrakhath's
broadcast, before the battle at Delius."
     Blair frowned. "What about it?"
     "We're puzzled,  Colonel,"  Rollins said. "The whole  thing was  pretty
strange, by my way of thinking. All that effort to issue a challenge to you,
and then . . . well,  not much of a follow-up. I  mean, he did  his best  to
sucker you  into a dogfight, but  think of how poorly they handled the whole
op. They gave us plenty of  warning they were coming, and let us get all the
way  to the jump  point  before  they put  on much of an  attack. Then  that
signal, and some bluster and threats. It doesn't add up."
     "Hmmm . . ." Blair nodded slowly. "You're right. It's almost as if they
wanted  me, but they  didn't  care  about the ship. If  they'd come in  with
everything blazing while we were still at  Delius station  they could've had
Victory  for breakfast . . . and me with  it. You think they wanted the ship
to get away? Bad enough to let me go despite Thrakhath s challenge?"
     "It could be, Colonel," Rollins said.
     "The question is, why?"
     Cobra leaned forward in her seat. "Colonel, there's something else that
could  be  important here. I don't know what it was for sure, but there  was
something . . . familiar about that transmission."
     "What's that supposed to mean?"
     She  shrugged.  "I can't put  it into words, sir. It wasn't anything  I
heard. . . or saw. I just had a sense of. . . something. Something familiar.
It . . . it gave me a headache, when I was watching it."
     "Hobbes said  something similar,"  Blair  mused. Rollins, can you shed
any light on it?"
     "Beats the hell  out of me, Colonel,"  the communications officer said.
"I want to run some checks on the recordings we made. That  wasn't  just  an
ordinary audio/video signal, you know. It was a broad-spectrum  transmission
that had damn near every channel blocked. At  first I thought they were just
trying to jam  us so our comm system would crash. But it was like the  whole
attack. In  the  end, they  just weren't trying  very  much.  Otherwise they
would've kept the jamming up during the battle. But I have to say this . . .
if all they  were trying to do was get you upset with their challenge and. .
. all the rest. . . well, it was overkill. Pure and simple."
     Cobra  bit  her lip. "Sir, I know we've had our differences, and I know
what you  told  me about accusations. About  wanting proof.  . . and I don't
have any. But I have to say this anyway, even if you're going to throw me in
the brig over it. I think there could have  been some kind  of hidden signal
in all that junk. To a Kilrathi agent."
     "You're  talking  about  Hobbes,  of  course,"  Blair  said,  frowning.
"Lieutenant . . ."
     "I didn't say  it was Hobbes, sir," Cobra  said. "But we  know the cats
have agents in the Confederation."
     Rollins cleared his throat. "Colonel, I  think you should hear her  out
on this. It would explain a lot, if the cats had an agent aboard."
     "Like  how they  keep throwing  us softballs in tight corners," Buckley
amplified.  "Letting us get away at Delius. Ariel, too, if  you think  about
it.  They could make jump points disappear, but the  second one stayed  open
for us. And it wasn't defended, either."
     Blair looked from one to  the other. "It  still isn't proof of anything
except the fact that both of you have active imaginations," he said at last.
"You know where I stand. I don't like having  accusations leveled at Hobbes,
and  all  you've really got here is a conspiracy theory." He looked  down at
his desk. "It's a very serious charge to make . . ."
     "Hell,  Colonel, I'm not saying it is Hobbes," Cobra told him. "I mean,
he's a Kilrathi, and you  know how I feel about him, but I know this doesn't
prove anything." She Laughed,  a  short, bitter, humorless sound. "For all I
know, Colonel, you're the Kilrathi  spy. You love the cats .  . .  a cat, at
least,  and you were in command  when things went  sour at Locanda Four. All
I'm  saying is that it would explain some pretty strange shit.  I  think  we
have to consider it."
     "All right,  Lieutenant. I'll  consider it."  Blair leaned back  in his
chair. "Suppose you two keep looking into the matter, and let me know if you
find anything concrete we can use.  And keep your suspicions  to yourselves.
Have you talked with anyone else?"
     "No, sir.'  Rollins said. "I was going  to take it to  the captain, but
Cobra wanted to come to you first."
     "I  didn't want  you  to think  I was  going behind your back with this
thing, sir," she amplified.
     "Good. For now, let's keep the  matter between us. That way nobody gets
embarrassed by a lot of gossip. Nobody. You read me on this?"
     "Yes, sir," Rollins said.
     Cobra met his look with a level stare. "Aye, aye, Colonel," she said.
     "All right. Dismissed, then."
     They both started for the  door,  but Blair  held up  a  hand.  "Mister
Rollins. I  have  some reports for the captain. Stay  a moment while I round
them up, if you please."
     "Yes, sir," he responded.
     Blair  waited  until the door closed  behind Cobra.  He  gave Rollins a
long, hard look. "Forgive me, Lieutenant, but I have  to  ask this. How much
stock do you put in all this?"
     "Sir? I think there's a lot to consider here."
     "How much of this is your idea?"
     Rollins frowned.  "Well,  Lieutenant Buckley  came to me asking what  I
thought about the battle . . . about how the Kilrathi fought it, I mean. She
made some  good  points  . . ."  He trailed off,  frowning. "But I had  some
suspicions about the signal content already, sir. She had nothing to do with
any of that." He hesitated. "Just  what are you  trying to get  at with  all
this, Colonel?"
     Blair sat down heavily. "Cobra makes a good case, give her that. And if
I didn't have complete faith  in Ralgha nar Hhallas I might be  ready  to go
along with  it. But she doesn't know  how much we've been through  together,
Hobbes  and I. And all her hate isn't going to  make me change my mind about
him now."
     "She admitted she wasn't pointing any fingers, sir."
     "True enough. But ever  since  I've  been on board  she's been  running
Ralgha down. She  accused  him  of everything but mopery  and dopery on  the
spaceways." Blair paused,  reluctant to  go on, but Rollins was the only one
he could talk to, under  these circumstances. There s another possibility I
can't help but think about, Lieutenant."
     "Sir?"
     "Rumor is  that Cobra was a Kilrathi slave  for ten years. You hear any
of that from your sources?"
     "Er . . . no, sir. Not really. Some scuttlebutt in the rec room, maybe,
but nothing solid."
     "I heard it from somebody I trust," Blair told him. Rollins didn't need
to know  about Rachel Coriolis and her friend from the Hermes. "The point is
this: if I was in Kilrathi  Intelligence, and wanted  to plant  spies in the
Confederation, I don't think I'd use Kilrathi as agents. They'd have a tough
time winning  acceptance.  I'd  use  humans,  slaves who  had grown up  in a
Kilrathi labor camp.  The things they can do with  personality overlays  are
pretty wild from what I've heard, and I'll bet you could make sure  they got
through debriefing so they were rescued' and brought back to Terran space."
     "You  think  Cobra's  our  spy?"  Rollins  looked  incredulous.  "Hell,
Colonel, she's the one who suggested we look for a spy!"
     "As you  said,  you  already  had  some questions about those  Kilrathi
signals." Blair frowned. "You thought there might be other signals buried in
there somewhere? Maybe there were   orders, for instance. But  a clever spy
might want to figure out how much we  suspected, and steer our suspicions in
an acceptable direction."
     "Like Hobbes." Rollins  was frowning.  "It's. . .  how did you put  it,
Colonel? A conspiracy theory? But I don't see any more proof that it's Cobra
than I  do  for Hobbes. And Cobra  . .  .  she'd have  to be one  hell of an
actress, making believe she hated the cats so much."
     "It's  pretty  thin, isn't it?" Blair gave him  a sour smile. "I  don't
want to believe it, Lieutenant She's  a good pilot, and a  good wingman. But
Hobbes is one of the best friends I ever had."
     "Why are you telling me this, sir?"
     "I just want you to  . . . keep your eyes open. And your mind, too. You
two are going to be looking for proof about  a spy on board. I  just want to
make sure none of that proof  winds  up  somewhere  it  doesn't belong. Like
Ralgha's cabin, for example."
     "So you want me to spy on Cobra? Is that it, Colonel?"
     "I just  want you to put that famous Rollins  paranoia  to work for our
side for a  change. If there's a spy on this ship, we have to know about it.
Whether  it's Hobbes, or Cobra,  or somebody else entirely. Just  don't make
the mistake of letting Cobra steer you the wrong way. "He held up  his hand.
"And I don't just mean because  she might be  a  Kilrathi agent.  She  could
believe  everything she's saying, sincerely and totally. But her hate .  . .
it  warps things. I'm counting on you to get past her  bias and look at this
whole mess objectively."
     "I'll. .. do what I can,  Colonel," Rollins said. He sounded reluctant.
"But I'm not sure I'll like it."
     "You think I do? Damn it, I like Cobra, despite  the  attitude. Despite
the bigotry and the hate. Down  deep, she's always struck  me as somebody to
admire for being tough enough to overcome everything she's been through, and
for being one  hell of a good flyer." He shook his head. "No, Lieutenant,  I
don't  like this  any better than you do. But  it's something that has to be
done."
     "Aye, aye, sir, Rollins said quietly.

     Flight Deck, TCS Victory Torgo System

     "Ship's company, atten-SHUN!"
     Blair  straightened  at the  crisp order from Eisen,  feeling  a little
uncomfortable in his starched dress uniform  with the archaic sword  hanging
at his side. The assembled crewmen were all dressed in their best, though in
some cases  it  was  a little difficult to tell. And  despite Maniac's  best
efforts, there was no disguising the run-down appearance of Victory herself.
He remembered his  own first  impression of the carrier's  shabby,  overused
fittings, and wondered what the admiral would make of it all.
     He found himself  wondering  when had  he come to  accept  the carriers
faults, to think of the ship as his home?
     The crewmen lined up  in ranks on either side  of a red carpet that was
unrolled to the shuttle's door. It looked out of  place on the flight  deck,
gleaming, new, a gaudy bauble cast into a peasant's hovel.
     The door  opened slowly, and Admiral  Tolwyn stepped into view, pausing
to survey the deck before descending the ramp. A trio of aides followed him,
Kevin Tolwyn conspicuous among them, and a pair  of Marine  sentries brought
up the rear. Geoff Tolwyn was dressed in  the plain tunic of a deck officer,
the only sign of his rank the cluster of stars pinned to his lapel.
     Eisen  stepped forward  to meet him.  "An honor and a privilege to have
you aboard, Admiral," he said, snapping off a salute.
     Tolwyn returned it. "Pleasure to be here, Captain," he said. His roving
eye caught sight of Blair. "Colonel Blair, good to see you."
     Blair saluted, saying nothing.
     He  turned  back  to Eisen.  "This is  the  beginning  of  a  momentous
campaign,  Captain. The end of  the  war is in sight at  last." He  gestured
toward a second shuttle that was just opening up to disgorge the rest of his
staff and entourage. "Let's get to work, gentlemen," Tolwyn announced and he
headed for the bridge. Blair  fell in behind the Admiral. Geoff Tolwyn had a
reputation as a man who got things done . . . he hoped the man would live up
to that reputation now.





     Flight Wing Rec Room, TCS Victory Torgo System

     "Scotch," Blair told Rostov. "Make it a double."
     "Sounds  like you're having  a bad day, Colonel. That was Flint, coming
toward the bar behind him. "Not looking forward to dinner with the Admiral?"
     As he  took his  glass from Rostov and turned to meet her, Blair's look
was sour. "Let's  just  say there  are things I like better . . . like being
out on the firing line with my missiles gone and my shield generators down."
     She smiled. "Must feel like  old home week, though. I mean, Maniac, and
Hobbes, and now Admiral Tolwyn. And Thrakhath, for that matter. Who's next?"
     For a moment he saw Angel in his mind's eye,  and it must have shown in
his expression.  Flint's smile vanished. "Sorry . .  ."  she said. "That was
stupid of me. I should have realized . . ."
     "Never mind, Blair said, shaking his head. "It was just force of habit,
I guess. I get to thinking about the people I've flown with, and she's right
at the top of the list."
     "I know," Flint  said  quietly.  "It was that  way with Davie  too. One
minute, you're fine. The next . . . Bamm! The memories just won't let go."
     "Yeah." He took a sip. "Look, Flint, I never took the time to thank you
for what you did back there at Delius. I was just about ready to circle back
and go after Thrakhath. You're the one who got through to me. I won't forget
it."
     "You did it for me," she said. "And took  a  lot more risks. I was just
looking out  for my wingman." Flint  hesitated. "Angel  Colonel Devereaux 
tell me about her. She was in Covert Ops, wasn't she?"
     Blair studied  her  through  narrowed eyes. "I  didn't  think  that was
common knowledge," he said slowly. "Are you a mind-reader, or have  you been
cultivating some of Rollins' sources?"
     She laughed.  "Neither  one. Just . . . a student of history. I  try to
make it a point to study things and people. For instance, the way I hear it,
you and Admiral Tolwyn have crossed paths a time or two before."
     "Bumped heads is more like it,"  Blair told her.  "He's a good man,  in
his own way. I just have a little trouble dealing with his ambition. It puts
lives on the line. And he's always been big on rules and regulations."
     "I know the type," Flint said. "He  knows  the  rulebook  backwards and
forwards . . . he just doesn't know anything about the human heart."
     "Can't argue with you  there, Flint," he said.  His  mind went  back to
that time aboard  the  Tiger's  Claw, when  the admiral made the carrier the
flagship  of  a  ramshackle  squadron.  He  took  her  into  action  against
overwhelming  odds to  hold off a  Kilrathi fleet until Terran relief forces
could arrive. At the height of the action he relieved old Captain Thorn, the
ship's commanding officer, and filed  charges against him for  cowardice  in
the  face of  the enemy. Thorn had later been reinstated, but no one serving
with the old man ever quite forgot the day.
     There was a short, awkward silence before Flint spoke again. "I . . . I
was  serious  about wanting to hear  about  Angel. If it would help to  talk
about her at all . . . well, I'm a good listener."
     Blair  hesitated.  "I appreciate it, Flint, I  really do. But. .  ." He
shrugged. "Maybe another time. I'm . . . supposed to meet someone."
     At  that moment the door  opened and Rachel Coriolis  came in, greeting
him with a cheerful wave. Flint looked from Rachel to Blair.
     "I  see. I'm  sorry . .  . I  didn't  know  you moved quite that  fast.
Colonel." She turned and walked away before he could respond.

     Admiral's Quarters, TCS Victory Torgo System

     Admiral  Tolwyn took over a set of interconnected compartments one deck
below the bridge; one of these was converted into a dining room with a table
able to seat twelve. Blair was the first to arrive,  and Tolwyn  greeted him
with a hearty smile and a handshake.
     "Ah,  Colonel," he said expansively. "Let's hope  that this is our last
cruise together."
     Blair felt a  flicker of apprehension. The comment could be interpreted
several  different  ways  and  he  wondered  if  subconsciously  Tolwyn  was
revealing an anxiety about his plan to end the war.
     Tolwyn glanced around the room. Though clean and reasonably neat, there
was no disguising the fading paintwork, the frayed carpets,  or the  general
air of age and neglect that permeated the entire ship. "I never dreamed that
we'd be reduced to  pulling ships  like  this back into the front  line. The
Battle  of Terra put us  on the ropes, no  matter what the government is now
saying about it being a glorious victory. One more victory like that and the
human race will be a forgotten footnote in the history of the universe!"
     Tolwyn  looked  away for a  moment. "When will this end," he whispered.
Blair watched him closely, surprised at the clear evidence of strain.
     "She's a  good ship, Admiral," Blair said quietly.  "And Eisen's a good
captain. We haven't  had much  time for spit and polish lately. The Kilrathi
have been keeping us busy.
     "Indeed." Tolwyn looked back up,  barely regaining his composure. "I've
been following your operations with some interest, Colonel. You ran into our
old friend Thrakhath, I hear."
     "Yes, sir,"  Blair admitted,  trying to keep his voice level. He looked
away, thinking about Angel again.
     "I was sorry to hear about  Colonel Devereaux," Tolwyn went on,  almost
as if he was reading Blair's  mind.  "A pity, really. General Taggart made a
mistake, committing her to his little project before  a  final  decision was
made.
     "When did you know she was dead?" Blair demanded.
     "The information couldn't be released," Tolwyn said quietly. "I'm sorry
Blair, we had  to  keep  our  sources  safe. It was  strictly  need-to-know
material. You understand."
     "What I understand,  sir, is that  you  and  General  Taggart have been
competing  over your damned  secret  projects  and  Angel got caught in  the
middle." Blair gave Tolwyn an  angry look. "And now it's our turn. Victory's
. . . and mine. I don't much care what happens to me  any more, Admiral, but
I hope  you don't make these  other people pay the  same kind of price Angel
already shelled out  just to prove that  your damned gun  works the  way you
said it would."
     "Still the same old  Chris Blair," Tolwyn said  evenly. "Always tilting
at windmills. Look, Colonel, I know you don't like my methods, but the  fact
is that I get things  done. I first got involved with the early planning; of
Project Behemoth nearly ten  years ago. I  got pulled from my job as head of
Terran  Defense to bring it on-line and I'm  going to see it through  to the
end. And God help  anyone who stands in my way, even  a living  legend  like
yourself.  Son, I know you don  t  like some of the implications behind this
project, but it is kill or be killed. It's that simple."
     "I'm all for ending the war, Admiral," Blair told him. "And if it means
giving  you  the  credit    and  a shot  at  being  the  next Confederation
President, no  doubt  that's fine by me. But I won't stand by and watch you
trample good  people in the dirt. Captain Eisen, for instance. What are your
plans for him? Are you planning  on usurping command  of this ship  the same
way you did on Tiger's Claw?"
     "I'd  be careful regarding my choice of words if I  were you, Colonel,"
Tolwyn said. "Admirals, by definition,  do not  usurp command. Captain Eisen
retains his post . . . but I am in overall command of this mission. Period."
He  turned away from Blair. "I  had hoped that  we  would finally achieve  a
measure of respect  for one another  after all this time, Colonel. I am  the
first to admit that I once misjudged you, back  at the start of your career,
with  the Tiger's Claw  incident. Perhaps now you are misjudging me.  Still,
you'll obey  your  orders,  like a good soldier, won't you, Blair? No matter
where they end up taking you."
     Blair  studied the slender,  elegant back for a long moment  in dawning
understanding. "All  that  guff Kevin handed  us about warning shots  .  . .
We're headed to Kilrah with that thing, aren't we? No matter what . . ."
     The Admiral turned back to him.  "What would you aim for if you had the
biggest gun  in the universe? When are  you  going to realize, Colonel, that
we're  playing  for keeps here?  I would have thought  you, if anyone, would
approve . . . after what happened to Angel."
     He had  trouble framing a  reply. There was a part of Blair that agreed
with  Tolwyn. After what happened  to Angel,  he wanted  nothing  more  than
revenge, and if that meant taking apart all of Kilrah . . .
     But despite the rage inside him, Blair couldn't see himself taking part
in the destruction of an entire race.
     The  door  buzzed  before  he could come up with an answer.  As  Tolwyn
admitted Captain Eisen and Commander Gessler, Victory's First Officer, Blair
found himself wondering if the admiral might be right after all. Perhaps all
that really mattered, in the end, was winning.
     He was very quiet over dinner that evening.

     Captain's Ready Room, TCS Victory Torgo System

     The atmosphere in the ready  room was tense  as  Blair entered.  It was
strange for Eisen to be relegated to a chair at the foot of the table, while
Tolwyn presided in the captain's  accustomed place. The sight sent  a little
shiver down  Blair's  back,  making  him think  of  Tiger's Claw and Captain
Thorn, all those years ago.
     Commander Gessler  and Colonel Ralgha were also  present,  as was Kevin
Tolwyn and another of  the  admiral's aides, Commander Fairfax, representing
the carrier's intelligence  department. They watched the admiral expectantly
as  he settled into his seat  and  switched  on the map  table's holographic
projector.
     "Gentlemen," he said, smiling  with  the pride  of a  father displaying
photos of his firstborn. "I give you the Confederation's finest  achievement
. . . the Behemoth."
     The image was ugly, an ungainly, bulky, barrel-shaped  monstrosity that
dwarfed  the  Confed  dreadnought shown alongside it for scale.  A few dozen
ships the size of  Victory could have fit in the  enormous maw at one end of
the  barrel. Behemoth  might well  have  been  the  largest spacecraft  ever
constructed, certainly the largest ship to sail under Confederation colors.
     "This  device is the product of a decade of research and development by
some of the finest scientific minds in the Confederation," Tolwyn continued.
"It is the weapon that will bring an end to this war once and for all."
     The  view  changed  from  an external shot to a  computer schematic  as
Tolwyn continued. Taking up a  laser pointer, he used its narrow light  beam
to  highlight  features  as  he  spoke.  "Behemoth is  a  series  of  linked
superconducting energy amplification  conduits,  focusing  an output of five
hundred  million  gigawatts into one  lancing point. A  target at the end of
that point is destroyed . . . utterly. And the energy released by the impact
is enormous: devastating. Even the scientists can't say for sure whether the
energy beam  itself would  destroy an entire planet, but they do agree  that
the  resultant  seismic  stresses  should  be  enough   to  tear  it  apart,
particularly  a  world like Kilrah which  is  already  highly  unstable. The
upshot,  gentlemen,  is this.  Behemoth  can  destroy  worlds,  and properly
employed it can  knock the Kilrathi  Empire  out of the war in a  few  short
strokes."
     Some  of the others  made suitably impressed noises, but Blair remained
silent. He was still thinking  over his own distinctly mixed reaction to the
weapon's capabilities.
     "We would have liked another year or two for testing  and development,"
Tolwyn said. "Unfortunately circumstances have forced me to order the weapon
to be deployed now." He gave Blair  a long, hard stare. "We are in danger of
suffering  attacks  similar to the  biological  devastation on Locanda Four,
perhaps against more vital targets."
     "Seems a pretty large escalation, Admiral," Blair said.
     "The truth  is, Colonel, that even without the  biological  attack, the
Confederation is in  trouble." Tolwyn  looked around the room, speaking more
softly  now. "This  is  not for public  consumption,  of course.  It remains
classified. But  the Kilrathi are winning on just  about every front, and if
the  worst-case  scenario  were to come true  they would be in a position to
land troops  on Terra  herself within  another six months.  We have  to  use
Behemoth, gentlemen. And we have to use it now."
     Once  that  information sank in, he used the pointer again. "Because of
the accelerated  deployment, the ship's defensive systems are . . . somewhat
incomplete. There  are a few, shall we say  .  . . soft spots . . .  located
here  . . .  and here . . . where the  shields are thin and there's been  no
time to complete  keel mounts  or add extra  shield  generators or defensive
laser turrets.
     "Those soft spots could spell real  trouble, Admiral," Blair commented.
"Looks like a couple of well-placed shots could take that monster out."
     Tolwyn gave him a stern look.  "That  is why your flight wing is  being
assigned the job of protecting Behemoth, Colonel," he said. "I expect you to
be  especially  aware of the vulnerable points.  Make  sure your people know
what must be  protected, under any circumstances. Make  no mistake, Colonel,
gentlemen. This weapon  is our last hope. Nothing must be  permitted to  get
through to threaten it."
     "Protecting the  weapon will  be a  large  task, Admiral," Hobbes  said
slowly. "It makes a . . . very big target."
     "Hmmph." Tolwyn  looked at Ralgha for  a moment, as if trying to decide
if  he  was  being  sarcastic. "Colonel full data on the defense of Behemoth
will  be made available to  your people for analysis. Major Tolwyn will also
assist you in programming  a series of simulations so that they can practice
before we begin the actual deployment."
     "Sir, the wings pretty short-handed. What's the chance of getting  some
new blood to bring us up to strength?"
     "We're damned short-handed as it  is, Blair," the admiral told him "Two
carriers  just passed through last week and pretty well  cleaned out Torgo's
replacement  pilot  pool.  However,  I  did arrange to  rotate  your  bomber
squadron off the ship and replace them with a second point-defense squadron.
Victory won't be called upon to perform  offensive operations this time out,
and the additional Hellcats will be used to cover the Behemoth."
     Blair  frowned.  Something  told  him   that   behind  Tolwyn's  smooth
explanation  there were  other problems he  wasn't willing  to  discuss. The
admiral had  more  than his  share of  political  enemies  within  the  High
Command, and it was likely that he'd found it necessary to tread on a lot of
toes  to  get his Behemoth  project approved.  Not  everyone would share his
belief that this overgrown cannon could bring  the war  to an end, and Blair
could see stubborn rivals of Tolwyn's digging in their heels and refusing to
give him all of the ships and men he wanted. Very likely he  snagged Victory
because she was widely perceived as the fleet's poor relation.
     That  raised  other  questions  about  the  whole  affair.  Tolwyn  was
convinced he was on the winning track with Behemoth, but what  was the  High
Command  really  planning,  at  this juncture?  If  they  didn't  agree with
Tolwyn's threat  assessments, they might be looking  for the admiral to fall
on his face.
     "Now. . . as  to operational planning.  Behemoth  is  undergoing  final
power-up  tests this afternoon. By eighteen hundred hours  standard tomorrow
evening, we will leave the  Torgo  Proving Area and  proceed in company with
the weapons platform to the Blackmane jump point." He looked at Eisen. "It's
plain from your reports that Ariel is a totally unsuitable test site for the
weapon.  Luckily,  Captain Moran and the Hermes turned up a much more likely
target: Loki Six. There is a jump point to the system from Blackmane,  so we
will pass  directly  between  jump points  in the  Blackmane System and then
transit to Loki."
     Fairfax cleared  his throat. "I've reviewed the data downloaded from HQ
on the Hermes survey mission. Loki Six  is a fairly minor  Kilrathi outpost.
Not likely to be heavily defended. In fact, it's only apparent purpose is to
serve  as a  sort  of  advanced base  for raiders passing through the  Ariel
System." He looked doubtful. "I'm not sure what kind of a message we'll send
the Kilrathi  by destroying  the outpost. A larger facility would have  been
better. The Empire may not take the hint if all  they lose is a  second-rate
base."
     Tolwyn gave  him  a stern look. "If Loki  doesn't  give them the  right
message, we'll give them  something bigger to think about." He shot  Blair a
glance.  "We have to take this one step at a time, gentlemen. But one way or
another, Behemoth is going to end this war."
     On the map table, the schematics of the weapons platform  were replaced
by a chart of  the Loki System. "We will proceed from the jump point to here
. . . Loki Eight, a gas giant. Behemoth will require fuel, which we can skim
from  the gas giant's atmosphere. Then  we  will move to this position, near
Loki  Six,  and   begin  the  firing  sequence.  Throughout  the  operation,
gentlemen,  we  will  be  accompanied  by  a  small escort  squadron,  three
destroyers.  They will be used for advanced scouting, and as general support
vessels. But  Victory and her fighters  will have the primary responsibility
of providing close support to Behemoth. I want you to  be clear on this. The
mission stands or  falls on this  ship's ability  to  protect that  weapon."
Tolwyn's look was challenging. "Any questions?"
     There were none, and Tolwyn turned his intense gaze on Hobbes. "Colonel
Ralgha, I would like you  to work with Commander  Fairfax and  my staff over
the next several days. You're the closest thing we  have to a genuine expert
on the Kilrathi mind. I'd like  you to help us develop some likely models of
how  the Empire  will  react. To  the destruction of Loki Six, and  to other
measures  we  may be forced to take if that doesn't bring  them to the peace
table."
     Hobbes inclined his head.  "As you wish, Admiral," he rumbled. "I  warn
you, though, that I cannot predict the reactions of my . . . former comrades
. . . with any degree of certainty. Anything I suggest will necessarily be .
. . imperfect at best."
     "It  will do, Colonel. It  will  do." Tolwyn  glanced around  the  room
again, then nodded crisply. "Very well. That's an overview of the situation.
You'll each  be receiving detailed orders as needed. In the meantime, you're
dismissed.
     Blair  took a  last look  at Tolwyn  before  he left  The  admiral  was
studying the map of the Loki system intently, the expression on his face one
of anticipation and  undisguised eagerness. He wasn't sure  he cared for the
look in the  man s eyes. It promised victory or death with no middle ground,
and no room to adapt to circumstances.

     Flight Control. TCS Victory Torgo System

     "Okay," Blair said into the microphone. "That's it. End simulation."
     Kevin Tolwyn looked at him from the adjacent console. "Not bad. Not bad
at all. Your boys and girls are pretty damned good, Colonel."
     "It could've  been better," Blair  grumbled. He  switched  on  the mike
again.  "Cobra, Vagabond, if that  had been the real thing there  would have
been a fifty-fifty  chance of that Vaktoth slipping past you and getting off
a shot  at the Behemoth. You were  lucky  the computer called it the way  it
did, but you're going to have to tighten  up next time, okay? The  defensive
specs  are  in the tactical database. Study them. We  can't afford to  leave
those weak spots uncovered."
     "You want us to run through it again?" Vagabond asked.
     "Not now," Blair  told him. "We'll  run another set  tomorrow  morning,
after  the new  point-defense squadron is on board. For now, get  some rest.
And study that database. Now. . . dismissed."
     You're starting  to  sound  like  my uncle,"  Tolwyn said  with a grin.
"Don't tell me you've become a convert."
     "Hardly. Matter of  fact, I  have a feeling you've been  holding out on
me,  Kevin.  The admiral as much as  admitted he's  planning  to  take  that
monstrosity to  Kilrah, one way or another. I don't think  he'd stop if  the
Emperor himself offered to sign peace terms . . . with Thrakhath's blood for
the ink!"
     Tolwyn shrugged. "I told  you everything I know, Maverick. But you know
the admiral. He wouldn't tell his left hand what his right hand was doing if
he thought it would get him a tactical advantage."
     "Yeah  .  . ."  Blair trailed off.  He looked hard into Tolwyn's  eyes.
"What  do you think, Kevin? Really? Should we blow Kilrah while we have  the
chance?"
     "I don't know, Maverick, and that's a fact." Tolwyn looked down. "After
what you  said the last  time, I started doubting the whole  project. At the
Academy they taught us we were serving  a higher purpose, and a  weapon this
devastating . . . But what if the Intell reports are right? What if we're on
the verge of losing  everything? If  it's us  or them . . ." He  met Blair's
eyes again. "Don't tell me you've changed your mind."
     Blair shook his head. "Not  . . . changed. But nothing's as clear as it
was before. Angel died out there, and Thrakhath's the one who killed her. In
front of a damned screaming audience of . . . barbarians.  Part of  me would
like  to wipe them all out, Kevin. But  another part of me says it's wrong."
He paused. "I'm glad it's the admiral who has to  pull the trigger  on  that
thing. I'm  not sure I could do that. And  if I did, I would never know if I
did it to save the Confederation, or to even the score over Angel."
     Tolwyn  nodded  slowly.  "Yeah.   And  could  you  live  with  yourself
afterward, whichever course you took?"



     Communication Center, TCS Victory Torgo System

     The intruder  entered the  compartment silently,  moving  with complete
confidence  among the consoles and computer banks in the darkened room. Seen
through a bully night vision device, the room  glowed with an eerie greenish
light. Normally, no one stood a watch in the  Communications  center  except
when the ship was  at General  Quarters, and the intruder was confident that
no one would notice this stealthy foray.
     Gauntleted  hands fumbled for a moment with the controls on  one of the
consoles. The panel came to life. On a monitor screen, bright letters glowed
as the computer responded to the intruder's commands.
     ENTER IDENTIFICATION AND SECURITY CODES.
     The intruder tapped the keypad awkwardly. Voice command would have been
easier under the  circumstances, but it was  more difficult  to  cover one's
tracks afterward with a voice record . . .
     IDENTITY AND SECURITY CODE ACCEPTED. PLEASE INDICATE DESIRED FUNCTION.
     It  took  a  moment  to  identify  the proper selection and key  it in.
Another console came to life across the room.
     TIGHT-BEAM LASER LINK ON-LINE. INPUT LINK COORDINATES.
     Consulting  a personal  data  pad  for  the required  information,  the
intruder entered a short alphanumeric  string through  the keyboard. A green
light glowed beside the monitor as the computer's reply appeared.
     COORDINATES ACCEPTED. READY TO TRANSMIT.
     The intruder slid a tiny cartridge into  the chip receptacle below  the
monitor, then keyed in another command. The computer responded.
     DATA ON-LINE. TRANSMITTING AT 100:1.
     The monitor showed a dizzying succession of images, external views  and
schematics of the Behemoth platform. Seconds later, a new message flashed on
the screen.
     TRANSMISSION COMPLETED. FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS?
     The  intruder paused a moment, then entered another command. Once again
the computer was quick to flash an answering message on the monitor.
     WIPING . . . TRANSMISSION RECORDS PURGED.
     The screen went blank, and  the intruder powered  down the console  and
collected the  PDP and the data  cartridge, tucking them into a  pocket. One
last quick sweep  using  the light  intensification headset, and the job was
done.
     Within moments there was nothing in the compartment to suggest that the
intruder had ever been present.

     Bridge, KIS Sar'hrai Torgo System

     "Message coming in, my Lord. From the Watcher."
     Khantahr   Tarros  nar  Poghath  turned  in  his  chair   to  face  the
communications officer. "On my screen," he ordered.
     His monitor lit up with a series of images,  transmitted at  high speed
from  the stealth  fighter  that had penetrated  the  Terran defenses around
Torgo. Tarros watched the fast-changing views thoughtfully.  It  seemed that
Prince Thrakhath's  plan was unfolding  perfectly. The Kilrathi  spy in  the
Terran  fleet had completed the mission and was transmitting the information
the Prince  required to the  waiting  fighter,  and now the  data was  being
relayed  to  Sar'hrai. Soon  the  carrier  would  be on its  way  to  rejoin
Thrakhath, and the next phase of the operation could begin.
     The  transmission  ended  with charts  detailing  a star system and the
operational plans for  a  Confederation  incursion. Tarros leaned forward in
his  seat.  "Navigator,  plot  a  course  to the  jump point. Communications
Officer, when the Watcher communicates with us again instruct the Watcher to
rendezvous  with us there. Pilot Officer, best speed." He allowed himself to
relax again.
     They had done their duty. Prince Thrakhath would reward them well, once
the Terrans had fallen into his trap.

     Flight Wing Rec Room, TCS Victory Blackmane System

     The  view from the  rec  room was impressive, Blair had  to  admit that
much.  As  he walked in, his  eyes were drawn to the massive  shape  of  the
Behemoth keeping pace with the carrier  as they  cruised slowly  through the
Blackmane  System. Since leaving orbit around Torgo their pace had been slow
  apparently  the weapons  platform  didn't  carry  its full  allotment  of
engines,  either  but they had made the transit  to  Blackmane  and were on
their way to the next jump point, and Loki VI.
     He found  himself wishing they could make better time. Limping along at
this snail's pace only gave them all time to think, too much time. There was
a restlessness in the  air, a feeling of mingled  excitement and tension. It
wasn't long before the rumor mill started churning out details about the new
Confederation weapon, and for  many on board the Victory the war was already
as good as over.
     Vaquero looked up  from a  table by the door as Blair  stood  there and
watched the monster shape outside the viewport. "Want to buy a ticket, sir?"
     "To what?" Blair looked down at the man's smiling face.  He, at  least,
seemed pleased.
     "Opening night party  at  my  cantina," Lopez told  him, grinning  more
broadly. "Once we pull the trigger on that Behemoth thing, it'll be hasta la
vista  a  los gatos. And I  figure on  filing for retirement pay  about  two
minutes after that.  I've  got  enough to  make the  down payment  on a nice
little place . . ."
     "Don't  start  calculating your  profit margins just  yet, Lieutenant,"
Blair  said  quietly. "Even  that monster might not be  enough to  shut  the
Kilrathi down overnight."
     He turned away, leaving Vaquero to  frown over the words. Blair spotted
Rollins and  Cobra sitting together in a  remote corner, well away  from the
rest of the crowd. He crossed the floor to join them.
     "So  .  . . how's the  espionage business today?" he asked  flippantly.
"Run any Kilrathi agents to ground yet?"
     Cobra gave him an unpleasant look. "I know you don't take us seriously,
Colonel."
     "No, Lieutenant, you're  wrong.  I  take you  both very  seriously. But
you've been on this for . . . how longs it been? Over a week, now, isn't it?
I'm just not sure there's anything there for you to find."
     Rollins  looked up at  him. "Don't be so  sure, Colonel," he said. "Two
nights back, after  we broke orbit, there was a two-minute dead space on one
of my  computer  commo logs. And  I  can  t account  for it.  I think it was
sabotage."
     "It could  also have been  a computer glitch," Blair pointed out.  "You
might  have  noticed that the systems on  this  ship  are not exactly up  to
snuff."  He  paused. "Or, if it  wasn't  the  computer, it  might have  been
something to do with the admiral. He  might've  ordered a message sent, then
had the record wiped."
     "Nobody said anything about a transmission . . ."
     "Nor would they, Lieutenant, if Admiral Tolwyn told them to keep quiet.
You've said it yourself, Lieutenant. The brass don't tell us everything. And
the admiral's always been particularly good at playing his hand close to his
chest." Blair shrugged. "A little paranoia can  be  a  good thing, but  make
sure you've discounted the other possibilities before you see sabotage every
time the computer hiccups or the  admiral decides  to keep  his laundry list
classified."
     "Yeah, maybe  so," Rollins  said. "But I've also  been  analyzing  that
original transmission. Some of the harmonics in the message are pretty wild,
Colonel." He produced a  personal  data  pad  and called up  a file  on  the
screen. "Look at this . . . and this."
     "I'm no expert  in signals analysis, Lieutenant," Blair said.  "To  me,
you've got  a bunch of spikes on  a  graph. You  want  to tell  me what they
mean?"
     "I'm not  sure  yet," Rollins  admitted. "But I've seen these  kinds of
signals  somewhere before  .  . . something outside of normal communications
use.  If I  could  just  figure out  where . .  ." He trailed  off,  looking
apologetic. "Sorry, Colonel I guess  I still  have a ways to go before I can
deliver. But it isn't for  want  of trying, or for a  lack of things to look
into, either."
     Blair looked again at the Behemoth, framed in the viewport.  "I have to
admit, if there was  a  spy around, he'd surely be interested in that thing.
But I'd figure the admiral's staff would be the place to plant an agent."
     "Hobbes is working with the  staff," Cobra said quietly. "Or hadn't you
noticed?"
     Rollins stood up, looking  uncomfortable. "I've got to be on watch in a
little  while. I'll catch you both  later." He moved away quickly. Blair sat
in the chair he'd vacated.
     "It never stops with you, does it,  Lieutenant?"  he asked. "An endless
program loop."
     "You'd never understand, Colonel,"  she said, looking weary.  "You just
don't have a clue."
     "'Maybe  that's  because  you've  never  tried to explain it," he  said
bluntly. "Blind hatred isn't very pretty, or persuasive, either."
     "It's the way I'm wired," she said. There was a long silence before she
spoke again. "I'm sure  you've heard the rumors. Some guys from  the  Hermes
spread  a lot of stories  around.  I  used  to have  these . . . nightmares.
People talked, you know how it is."
     "Rumors don't always tell the whole story," Blair said.
     "The stuff I heard was . . pretty accurate, I guess. Look, they took me
when I was ten . . ."
     "The Kilrathi?"
     She  nodded "I ended up in a slave labor  camp. Escaped during a Confed
attack ten years  later. Most of  the  camp  was destroyed  in the fighting.
Might have been  the Navy's  fault, might have been the cats,  I don't know.
But there were only a few of us who lived through it.
     "It must have been  "
     "You'll never have any idea of what it must have been' like, Colonel. I
saw things . . ." She trailed off, shuddering. Her eyes were empty.
     "So the Navy pulled you out of there . . . and you signed up?"
     "The Psych guys spent a  couple of years  wringing me  out," she  said.
"First it was  debriefing . . . you know, regression therapy, trying to find
out everything I'd seen and heard in case there was something worthwhile for
Intelligence.  Then they started on  the  therapy."  She  paused.  "But they
couldn't wipe it all  out not without giving me a personality overlay. And I
wouldn't  let  them  do that. I'm Laurel Buckley,  by  God,  and if the cats
couldn't take that away I'm damned if my own kind will!"
     "You must have been damned tough, Lieutenant, after something like that
. . . to go on to join the fight . . ."
     "It was all I ever wanted, Colonel. A chance  to kill  cats. And that's
what I'm still doing today."
     He gestured toward  the Behemoth. "And if that thing puts an end to the
war? What then?"
     She shrugged. "I don't know. Hating cats is the only way I know to keep
myself human." She gave a short,  grotesque laugh, an unnerving  sound  that
reminded  Blair of jeering Kilrathi. The fact  is, Colonel, there's a little
bit of the  Kilrathi prowling around inside my skull and I can't get it out.
Every day, I can  feel  it getting a little bit stronger . .  . and one day,
there won't be any human left inside me any more."
     He didn't answer right away. "I think you aren't giving yourself enough
credit, Lieutenant. You survived  a horror most people  could  never handle.
You'll outlive this, too. I'm sure of it."
     Her look was bleak. "I hope you're right, Colonel. I really do. But . .
. well, maybe you don't understand it, but I can't let go of the hate."
     He thought of Angel,  of the  raw emotion that had  surged  through him
when Thrakhath's taunts were ringing in  his  ears. "Maybe I do  understand,
Cobra. Maybe, in your place, I would have cracked up long ago."
     She  raised  an eyebrow.  "Cracked? You?  I  can't imagine  you  giving
anybody the satisfaction of seeing you crack."
     Blair didn't tell her that she was wrong.

     Flight Deck, TCS Victory Blackmane System


     Blair glanced up  at the  digital readout below the Flight Control Room
window  to confirm the time remaining.  Activity was reaching  a fever pitch
aboard the carrier as they approached the jump point taking them to the Loki
System. No  one really  expected the Kilrathi to  have much  in  the way  of
defenses at  their  Loki outpost, but  the preparations in hand assumed they
would be  jumping into a combat  zone. With so much riding  on the Behemoth,
nobody wanted to make any mistakes.
     Technicians prepped the fighters for  launch working quickly but with a
care  born of long experience and  a  respect for  the dangers of the flight
deck.  Red-shirted  ordinance  handlers  busily  fit  missiles  and  checked
fire-control circuits while engineering techs dressed in blue supervised the
topping of fuel tanks. Thrusters were put  through their  final  checks. The
huge hangar area was one large scene of frantic action, and  Blair felt like
an outsider as he watched the crews go about their jobs.
     Rachel Coriolis appeared from behind the tail section of a Hellcat. Her
coverall was considerably cleaner than usual . . . and so were her hands and
arms.  She looked,  in fact, almost  regulation,  a  far cry from her  usual
go-to-blazes sloppiness. Blair smiled at the sight, earning himself an angry
glare.
     "Don't say a thing," she growled. "Unless you want a number-three sonic
probe up your nose."
     "Heard you got  chewed out by the  admiral himself," Blair said. "But I
never thought it would actually take."
     "Sloppy dress  means  sloppy  work," she said, mimicking Tolwyn's crisp
British accent flawlessly. "Well, excuse me, but I don't have time to change
my uniform every time I swap out a part, you know?"
     Blair shrugged. "He's  got a real thing for  the  regs. But you  should
wear  the  reprimand  as a badge of honor. I figure it's a wasted week  if I
don't get at least  one  chewing-out and a couple of black scowls from  him,
myself."
     "After the war,  I'm going to make it  my personal  mission  in life to
loosen the screws  on  all the moving  parts  on  guys like  him."  She  was
smiling, but Blair heard the edge in her tone.
     "Save a  screwdriver for  me, okay?" Blair said. "Meanwhile, what's the
word on the launch?"
     "Pretty good,  this  time  out,"  she  said.  "Only three down-checks."
Rachel hesitated. "I'm afraid one of them's Hobbes, skipper."
     "What's the problem?"
     "Power surge fried half  his electronics  when we  went  to  check  his
computer. It's about a fifteen hour repair job."
     Blair frowned. "Damn, bad  timing. But I guess  his bird was about due.
What about the others?"
     "Reese and Calder. One interceptor,  one Hellcat.  There's  an  outside
chance we can  get the Arrow up and running by H-hour, but I wouldn't  count
on it."
     "Do what you can," Blair told her.
     "Don't I always?" she said with a grin. As he started to turn away, she
caught his sleeve.  "Look . .  .  after the  mission  . .  . what say we get
together?"
     He  looked into her  eyes, read the emotion  behind them. Everyone  who
served on the flight deck knew that  each mission  might  be  the  last one.
"I'd. . . like that, Rachel," he said slowly, feeling awkward. "Ever since .
. .  ever since I found out  about Angel, I've felt  like you were there for
me. It's . . . made a big difference.
     Someone  called  for  her, and Rachel turned back to her  work  without
another  word.  Blair watched her hurrying  away.  She wasn't  anything like
Angel Devereaux,  but  there was  a  feeling between  them that was just  as
strong, in  its own way, as the one he'd shared with Angel. Less passionate,
less intense,  yet it was a more comfortable  and familiar feeling,  exactly
what he needed to balance the turmoil around and within him.

     Bridge, TCS Victory Blackmane System

     "Coventry has jumped, sir. Sheffield is next up."
     Eisen  acknowledged the Sensor  Officer's  report with  a curt  nod and
studied  the  tactical display  with  a critical eye. This was the period of
greatest  danger  in  any squadron  operation,  when ships  performed  their
transits in succession and everyone involved hoped and  prayed they wouldn't
be emerging in the middle of an enemy fleet.
     They  weren't taking any  chances this time. Coventry would  go through
first,  ready  to engage anything waiting  near  the other end of  the  jump
point.  The  destroyer that followed  her  would jump at  the first  sign of
trouble, to warn off the rest of the Terran force.
     That  would be tough on Coventry. Eisen wondered how  Jason Bondarevsky
felt  about flying  point  on  this mission. He was  supposed to be  one  of
Admiral  Tolwyn's  shining  young proteges,  but  apparently  the  admiral's
patronage didn't extend to protecting a favorite from a dangerous mission.
     Eisen glanced  uneasily at the admiral.  He was  dressed to perfection,
uniform  starched  and  crisp, every hair  in  place.  But Tolwyn  did  look
nervous, pacing  restlessly  back  and  forth  behind  the Sensor  Officer's
station. For all the man's air of  confidence, it was clear that he  had his
share of worries.
     "Sheffield has powered up her jump coils," the Sensor Officer reported.
"Jump field forming . . . there she goes!"
     Tolwyn  glanced at the  watch implanted in his wrist. "Start the  final
countdown, Captain," he ordered.
     For an instant, Eisen wanted to bristle. Ever since the admiral came on
board he'd interfered in routine  ship's operations: barking  orders, taking
over briefings, dressing down  crew members  who didn't live up to his image
of the ideal Terran warrior. Tolwyn seemed to need to control everything and
everyone around him, as if his personal intervention was the only thing that
could guarantee the success of the mission.
     But  perhaps  Tolwyn had  good  reason  to  be concerned. Eisen  leaned
forward in his chair and  repeated the Admiral's  order.  Commander  Gessler
slapped the switch that started the automated jump sequence.
     "NOW, JUMP  STATIONS,  JUMP  STATIONS," the  computer  announced. "FIVE
MINUTES TO JUMP SEQUENCE START."
     The seconds ticked away, with no sign of Sheffield turning back to warn
them away from the jump. Eisen began to relax a little. Maybe this operation
would go by the numbers after all. . . .
     "Remember,  Captain, Behemoth  will be  five  minutes behind us all the
way," Tolwyn said. "I expect  response times to be  tight. We can't afford a
screw-up. Not now."
     "Yes,  Admiral,"  Eisen said. They'd  been over it  all  a dozen  times
before. He decided Tolwyn was talking just to distract himself from thinking
about the ticking clock. In a few more minutes, they'd be committed.
     And nothing would ever be the same again.

     Flight Deck, TCS Victory Loki System

     "And five . . . and four . . . three . . . two . . . one . . ."
     Jumpshock!
     Blair's  guts  twisted   and  churned   as  the  carrier  went  through
transition. No  matter how often he experienced it, he could never  get used
to the sensation. The  physical nausea passed quickly enough, but there  was
always the disorientation, the essential feeling of wrongness  that left him
confused, numb.
     He blinked and shook his head, trying to  get his bearings. Everyone in
the  wing had gone  through  this transit  strapped  into their  cockpits, a
standard  precaution  when jumping into hostile space. They  had the  flight
deck  to themselves.  Force fields and gravity generators sometimes faltered
during jump, and technicians stayed clear of the  flight deck for  fear of a
catastrophic failure.  So  the pilots were alone,  lined up at their  launch
tubes, as ready for action as anyone could be in the aftermath of jumpshock.
     Blair's eyes came back  into  focus,  and he checked his  readouts  and
control settings automatically.
     A  voice crackled  in  his  headphones.  "Jump  complete," Eisen  said.
"Welcome to Loki System."
     There was a pause before  Rollins took over. "According to sensors, the
area  is  clear," the  communications  officer  announced, still sounding  a
little groggy. "And Coventry says the same. Sorry to disappoint you,  ladies
and gents, but it looks like an all clear."
     Blair let out a long sigh, not sure if he was disappointed or relieved.
They had  cleared the first hurdle, but they weren't finished yet,  not by a
long shot.
     The  admiral's voice  came  over  the  channel,  clipped  and  precise.
"Colonel Blair, you will relieve yourself from launch stations  immediately.
All flight wing personnel remain on alert status until further notice."
     He still disagreed with the admiral's  decision  to suspend all  flight
ops from the  carrier  until  they  had to deploy to  protect  the Behemoth.
Coventry's  four  fighters  and  the destroyers  flying  escort  would  give
adequate cover, but Blair didn't  like keeping all of  his people on standby
alert for hours on end  without relief. Better to  let them fly patrols, get
some down-time, and  take the risk that the wing might be a few hands  short
when things hit the fan. But Tolwyn had overruled him.
     He  started  to unstrap himself from the Thunderbolt's cockpit.  If all
went well, Blair thought hopefully, this interlude would soon  end. And then
. . . ?
     It  was difficult to picture what peace would be like, after a lifetime
dedicated to the war.




     Bridge. TCS Victory Loki System

     "God,  that sucker sure is thirsty," Rollins commented. "Good thing you
don't have to pay for a fill-up when you're skimming hydrogen."
     "Eyes on  your board, Lieutenant," Eisen growled. "And put the mouth in
neutral."
     "Yes,  sir," Rollins replied quickly. The edge in Eisen's voice made it
clear that the captain was dead serious.
     The Terran squadron  had proceeded from the jump  point to their  first
destination,  the  gas giant  Loki  VIII,  without encountering any  sign of
Imperial resistance. Victory remained close by while the Behemoth moved into
a tight, hyperbolic orbit around the huge ball of  gas. The cruiser and  her
consorts stood  further  off to give warning of  any enemy interference, but
there  was nothing.  The weapons platform  dipped  into the atmosphere  long
enough to  top off the depleted tanks of liquid hydrogen needed as  reaction
mass to move her ponderous bulk toward the target world.
     "Sensors are still reading  clear, sir," the  Sensor  Officer reported.
"Looks like we're home free."
     A red light flashed on the Communications board and Rollins called up a
computer analysis of the  stray signal locking onto his computer. "Captain .
.  ." he  began,  hesitating a moment.  "Sir, I've got some  kind of lowband
transmission here. Seems to be coming from one of the gas giant's moons."
     "What  do you make of it, Mister Rollins?" Admiral Tolwyn cut in before
Eisen could respond.
     "I'm  not sure, sir .  . . uh, Admiral. I don't think  its a ship. More
like an automated feed . . . from an unmanned relay station  or sensor buoy.
But powerful. A very strong signal . . ."
     "Any idea what it's saying?" Tolwyn asked.
     "No, Admiral. It's scrambled. Could be almost anything." Rollins looked
up at him, apologetic, but Tolwyn had already turned away.
     "Colonel Ralgha? What do you think?"
     Hobbes had been scratched from the fighter  roster with a down-gripe on
his Thunderbolt,  so  Tolwyn  decided he should join  other members  of  the
admiral's staff  at  supernumerary positions  on  the  bridge. The  Kilrathi
renegade shook his head, a curiously human gesture.
     "I am sorry, Admiral. I do not know."
     "Well,  I do," Tolwyn said. "It  means we've been noticed. And the cats
will be organizing a welcoming committee for us."
     "Any orders, Admiral?"  Eisen  asked. Rollins had never heard him sound
quite so stiff and formal.
     "The squadron will continue as before," Tolwyn ordered.  "Have Behemoth
secured from fueling  stations and  fall  into  formation. Coventry  to take
station ahead." He paused, almost seeming to strike a heroic pose. "Maintain
your vigilance, gentlemen. And be ready for anything."

     Audience Hall, KIS Hvar'kann Loki System

     "Lord Prince," Melek said, approaching the dais and bowing deeply.  "We
have a  report from one  of the  sentinel  stations  near the eighth planet.
Terran  ships  have  been detected. Their  movements conform to a wilderness
refueling  operation, and one  of the  vessels appears to be their  Behemoth
weapon."
     Thrakhath leaned forward on his  throne, his eyes gleaming in the harsh
red light. "Ah  . . . so it  begins." He showed  his fangs. "You see, Melek,
how well our agent has performed? Not only the design specifications of  the
weapons platform,  but also the  intended Terran movements. Refuel at planet
eight,  then a  crossing  to six. Exactly  as  specified  in the report from
Sar'hrai."
     "Yes, Lord Prince," Melek agreed. Behind his mask, he allowed himself a
moment's  impatience.  As   the  plan  unfolded,  the  Prince  was  becoming
increasingly filled with a sense of his  own self-importance.  The arrogance
of  the Imperial Family was one of the  major sources of disaffection  among
the  great nobles  of  the  realm, and  Melek  was finding it  difficult  to
maintain his pose of sycophancy  as Thrakhath's posturing grew more blatant.
"It seems we will indeed have a battle here, and soon."
     Thrakhath's gesture  called for  silence.  "The strength of the  Terran
force?" he asked.
     "Five capital ships,  Lord  Prince," Melek replied. "Plus  the  weapons
platform itself.  Only one carrier .  . . Victory. The others-a cruiser, and
three destroyers. Nothing to challenge our force significantly."
     "Excellent. They assumed  the outpost  here  was  not  worth  a  larger
squadron." Thrakhath paused. "How are our preparations proceeding?"
     "Nearly completed, Lord  Prince. The  Terrans  will find  their planned
firing  position difficult to reach. Our own forces will be deployed by  the
time they  realize the threat." Melek  paused. "There is  still  time,  Lord
Prince,  to order more  capital ships  into  the battle zone, to ensure  the
Terrans are destroyed."
     The  Prince gestured  denial. "No,  Melek. Fighters  will have the best
chance to penetrate the defenses of the weapons  platform. We do not want to
scare the enemy away with too great  a . .  . detectable show  of  strength.
Even if some of their ships escape, we will have the Behemoth. And with it .
. . the war."
     "As  you wish, Lord Prince." Melek  bowed and retreated, but  a part of
him wished he could  see Thrakhath  lose some  of  that arrogant  assurance.
Perhaps then the prince would finally come to  understand the true nature of
the dangerous game he played with the future of the Empire.

     Gold Squadron Ready Room, TCS Victory Loki System

     It took hours to cross  interplanetary distances, and the  flight  wing
settled into a grim routine of waiting, with two squadrons on watch in their
ready rooms  and the  other two snatching  downtime while they could.  There
were only six  of them in the Gold Squadron ready room,  with  Hobbes on the
admiral's personal  staff, but it  seemed unpleasantly cramped after  nearly
four hours of boredom waiting for an alarm that never came. No one wanted to
take  up Vagabond's challenge at  cards any more, and talk lagged.  Most  of
them sat quietly, enveloped in their own thoughts.
     Blair wasn't sure how much longer his staff could wait.
     "Man, I'd almost rather the cats would try to stop us," Maniac Marshall
said suddenly.  "Anything would beat sitting here  on our asses with nothing
to do."
     "Hey, get used to it, Vaquero told  him. "If that Behemoth thing works,
and we get peace, then we're history. No  more magnum launches, no more long
patrols . . ."
     "I'll believe it when I see it," Cobra said. "I figure we'll still have
to keep the  fleet ready, peace  treaty or  no. You can't trust the  cats to
keep to any treaty. Just look at what they did  the  last time we signed  an
armistice with them!"
     At  that moment  an alarm siren  cut off  all talk.  "LAUNCH  STATIONS,
LAUNCH STATIONS, the computer announced. ALL FIGHTERS UP. MAGNUM LAUNCH."
     The Gold Squadron pilots scrambled to their feet,  snatching up helmets
and gauntlets and heading for the door.
     "Thanks a  lot, Maniac," Blair said  as the two  nearly collided at the
door. "Looks like you're getting your wish."
     Marshall  grinned,  a  wolfish, uncanny  smile  similar  to  Paladin's.
"What's the  matter, Colonel, sir? You'd  rather  sit here and collect  dust
than get out on the firing line again?"
     He ignored the comment and followed the others down the corridor to the
entrance to the hangar area. Just inside he stopped at  an intercom  station
and punched for the bridge.  "This is Blair," he said as Rollins appeared on
the screen. "What's the scoop, Radio?"
     Rollins looked flustered. "Wait one minute, Colonel," he said.
     A moment  later Admiral Tolwyn's  face filled the  monitor. "Coventry's
hit a mine," the  admiral said. "She's falling behind, with heavy  damage to
her  shield  generators.  Looks like a Kilrathi mine field right across  our
planned course, and I don't like it one little bit. So I'm putting your boys
and girls out there until we see what else  the cats might have waiting  for
us."
     "So we  don't have anything definite yet . . . except the mines?" Blair
wasn't sure if he was relieved or concerned. If this was just a false alarm,
it would sap the wing's  morale  even  more. But  the  Hermes survey  hadn't
reported any mine fields on the approaches to Loki VI. Blair didn't like any
coincidence this suspicious. Not here, not now.
     "Finding a  bunch of mines this close to the planned firing point . . .
I don't  like it, not one bit."  Tolwyn's words  echoed  Blair's uneasiness.
"Your  job is simple, Colonel. Cover  the Behemoth until it's ready to  open
fire."
     "Sounds simple  enough,  Admiral," Blair  replied.  "But  sometimes the
simple jobs are the real killers."
     Tolwyn broke the circuit.  Blair  retrieved  his flight gear and turned
back to the bustle in the hangar deck. Four of the Thunderbolts were already
rolling into place in front  of  their launch tubes, while  four Arrows from
Denise Mbuto's  squadron were in place on the opposite side. By the time the
two ready squadrons launched,  preparations were well  in hand for the other
two:  the  point-defense  fighters.   By  then  their  pilots,  roused  from
much-needed rest, would be ready to fly.
     Rachel Coriolis  hurried to him.  "Better  get saddled up, Colonel,  or
you'll miss the party," she said.
     He  smiled. "They can't do that. Didn't you hear? I'm  the Heart of the
Tiger. Can't have a party without the Heart of the Tiger, you know."
     Her  look  was serious.  "Take care of yourself out  there,"  she  said
quietly. "I wouldn't like it if . . . someone else I cared about didn't come
back."
     "I'll be back.  Now that I  know I have something worth coming back to,
they won't get to me again." He turned away and hurried toward his  fighter,
drawing on his  helmet and gauntlets as he  strode briskly across  the broad
metal deck.

     Stalker Leader Loki System

     Flight  captain Graldak  nar  Sutaghi studied  his  sensor  screens and
wished  his pressure gauntlets had  room for him  to unsheathe his claws  in
anticipation. The  Terrans had discovered the mine field  and were beginning
to  deploy  their  fighters. It  was  unfolding  just  as  Prince  Thrakhath
outlined. with  the mines across  their intended course occupying  all their
attention for  a  critical few  minutes,  there was a  perfect  opening  for
stealth fighters lying in wait to launch a devastating attack.
     The huge blip on his screen had to be the weapons platform, the primary
target. It  had come to  a dead stop  while the  carrier edged closer to the
mine field and began  to launch its fighters. For the moment, at  least, the
Behemoth  was actually closer to the waiting  Kilrathi ships than  the enemy
carrier.
     Now was the time to strike.
     "Stalker Flight, this is Leader," he said aloud. "Stand by to disengage
cloaks and attack on my mark.  Three . . . two . . . one. . . mark!  Attack!
Attack!  Attack!" As he spoke,  he  cut the power to  the  Strakha's stealth
device  and  brought  his shield and  weapons  power  on-line. He rammed his
throttles full forward  and felt the fighter surge, a predator eager to seek
out the prey.
     "All  fighters,  concentrate attack on  the  weapons platform," Graldak
ordered. "Remember the briefings . . . attack the weak points."
     "And the enemy fighters?" someone asked.
     "Do not  let  them  interfere  with  you," Graldak said. "But do not be
drawn into a dogfight until  the  primary  mission  is achieved." Inside his
bulky flight helmet, he  was showing his fangs. Graldak was eager to get the
first phase finalized so his squadron could engage the Terran  fighters.  In
the fighting at Locanda, it had been  galling to avoid combat and  run under
cloaks. This time they would show the apes how warriors fought.
     And  today  there were  no limits  on  engagement, no fighters declared
off-limits to attack Any enemy pilot  who wanted to fight, even the Heart of
the Tiger or the Kilrathi renegade, was fair prey to the hunters today.
     The Kilrathi attack group, four squadrons strong drove straight  toward
the daunting bulk of  the enemy planet killer.  Graldak's blood  sang within
his veins.

     Thunderbolt 300 Loki System

     "Targets! Targets! Targets!"
     Blair's eyes  shifted  instinctively to  his sensor screen  as  Rollins
chanted the  warning. Suddenly the monitor  was crawling with the red-orange
dots representing  enemy  fighters, four distinct  swarms of Kilrathi  craft
arranged in a rough half-globe. But they  were close,  too close  . . . well
inside the range of Terran sensors. And on the far side of the Behemoth from
Victory.
     Cloaked Strakha, then. They had lain  in wait while the Terran squadron
passed by, striking  only now when the mine field cut  off their advance and
the Behemoth was momentarily uncovered and vulnerable.
     The Kilrathi  must have known the significance  of  the weapon and  the
Terran plan of attack. It  was blatantly clear that  all the  talk  about  a
possible  spy  giving  away  secrets  to  the  Empire  was  more  than  just
speculation.
     Blair pushed the thought aside. Time enough to worry about that  later.
Right now, the Kilrathi were closing fast with the Behemoth.
     "Red and White Squadrons!"  he snapped.  "Double  back  and  engage the
enemy as quickly as possible." That  would send the point defense ships into
action directly, but it wouldn't provide much cover to the weapons  platform
itself "Blue Squadron, Gold Squadron, follow me!"
     He banked sharply, lining up on the Behemoth's looming mass and opening
up  his  throttles  to full  power.  With  afterburners blazing, Blair  dove
straight  toward  the  huge weapon.  The  others trailed  him, only thirteen
fighters  in all.  A  part  of Blair's mind dwelt idly  on  the  question of
whether or not the number of ships was significant. An ill omen, perhaps?
     "Skipper. . ." Denise  Mbuto  roused  him from his reverie. "Don  t you
think . . . ?"
     "Comm silence!" he snapped. "Follow my lead, damn it!"
     And  still they  dove,  until the  weapons platform  filled the  entire
forward  cockpit  view  and  he  could  make out  individual  structures and
projections on the hull of  the gigantic device. As they  swept  down toward
the metal surface, Blair suddenly pulled up, skimming within fifty meters of
the  Behemoth.  He  had  a maniacal  grin  on his face  as  he  pictured the
reactions in the other fighters behind him.
     "Whooeee!  What a ride!" Marshall  shouted, and Blair didn't  reprimand
him for breaking communications silence. The man's reaction was something he
could understand perfectly. He wanted to shout out loud himself.
     Instead  he  forced himself  to think  about the  battle  as  a  whole.
"Watchdog,  Watchdog,  this  is  Guardian  Leader," he said  on the  command
channel. "Come in, Watchdog."
     Again it  was Tolwyn, and not Rollins, who answered his call. "Damn it,
Blair, get in there!'' he snapped. "You have to protect the Behemoth!"
     "We're on  it,  Admiral,"  Blair  replied. "But  some support from  the
destroyers would be a good idea. Coventry, too, if she's able."
     "Negative  on that," Tolwyn replied. "We've  just spotted a flotilla of
Kilrathi cap  ships  closing on us.  They're at extreme range but coming  in
fast. Sheffield is moving to delay them. And Ajax is trying to clear a route
through the minefield."
     "She'll never make it," Blair said. "You know the odds against spotting
every mine when you're in something as big as a destroyer."
     "Coventry's  launching  her  fighters,  but  she's  in  bad  shape. And
Bondarevsky's  been  wounded. . ." The  Admiral was  struggling to  maintain
control. He stopped, visibly gathering his composure before he  spoke again.
"Just do your job, Blair. Tolwyn clear."
     The channel went dead, and Blair cursed under his breath. Tolwyn was so
concerned  with finding a way around  or  through those  mines  that  he was
throwing away valuable assets just when they needed them most.
     Blair dismissed  the thought. Tolwyn would fight  this battle  his  own
way. What mattered now was the flight wings part in it all.
     Still  skimming low over  the curved  body of the Behemoth,  the Terran
fighters flashed past the pressurized section of the hull where  the control
center and  crew's quarters were housed. Beyond  lay the battle zone,  where
the  two  squadrons  of Hellcats were  already making their  presence  known
against the Strakha. Blair pulled up sharply as  his sensors registered  the
fighting, climbing steeply away from  the weapons platform. His maneuver had
placed the two  squadrons, Arrows and Thunderbolts, between the Kilrathi and
their target Now all they had to do was make the move count for  something .
. .

     Stalker Leader Loki System

     Graldak  let out  a Kilrathi oath as he  spotted  the  Terran  fighters
forming  near the hull of the weapons platform. He hadn't  expected the apes
to fly so recklessly  close to the surface of the  huge weapons platform. It
was a daring  move. A  warrior's move.  He recognized  the  hand  of the one
Thrakhath had dubbed the Heart of the Tiger, the same one who had so  nearly
defeated the attack force off Locanda IV. That was one ape  who knew  how to
fight. . . .
     "So, Heart of  the  Tiger," he  said over the  comm channel. "You would
stand in my way? You will not stand long, I assure you."
     The Behemoth was the primary target, but that did not preclude swatting
aside any resistance  that sought to stop his attack run. With  all  weapons
armed,  Graldak switched on  his targeting computer  and  drove the  Strakha
straight toward the Terran fighters.

     Thunderbolt 300 Loki System

     "Here they come!"
     Blair saw the leading Strakha accelerating toward  them just  as  Flint
gave  her warning cry. The  Kilrathi fighters were no longer spread out, but
formed a wedge behind their leader. They were keeping tighter formation than
usual,  probably  hoping to bore  through  the  Terran  defenses  and  reach
Behemoth through sheer numbers and concentrated firepower. A quick glance at
the  sensor screen revealed the other Kilrathi ships now thoroughly engaged.
The  two Hellcat squadrons tied  up most  of the  enemy, while the rest were
being  pursued by  the half-squadron  off  of Coventry.  The cruiser  itself
limped in closer. Apparently Tolwyn was wrong about the situation aboard the
capital ship. . . .
     "Close up," Blair  ordered. These  were the  only Kilrathi  ships  in a
position to hit Behemoth for the  moment, but unless  the Terrans shifted to
meet the unexpected  Imperial formation their advantage would be lost. "Form
on me."
     But  the cats were driving in  too fast.  An Arrow flashed  past Blair,
blasters  firing wildly, but  three of the Strakha hit  the interceptor with
massed fire. Blair  tried to catch up to support the Arrow,  but  he was too
late. The Terran fighter's shields went down,  and  in seconds  the Kilrathi
blasters chewed through armor  and hull,  boring into the reactor. The Arrow
went up in a blaze of raw energy.
     It was only then that Blair realized it was Denise Mbuto's fighter.
     Now  the  leader was  almost on top of him,  and the rest of  the wedge
close behind. Blair set  his crosshairs on the lead Strakha and opened fire.
Several Kilrathi  ships  began to return his volley,  but  Cobra and Vaquero
appeared from nowhere  to engage on their flank, and in their haste  to meet
the new threat, the Kilrathi did little more than graze Blair's shields.
     He  maintained fire on the leader, looping to follow as  the wedge shot
past him. Fingers dancing over  the fire controls, Blair called up a pair of
dumb-fire  missiles. They  were simple  unguided rockets, without any of the
sophisticated homing systems common in other weapons in the  Terran arsenal,
but  in this situation they were exactly what Blair needed. If he  fired any
of  the other  types, they were  apt to be confused  by  the sheer number of
available targets. And Blair wanted the leader.
     He  kicked in his afterburners  once more, driving right into the enemy
wedge. His targeting reticule  centered over the  lead Strakha  and flashed,
and Blair's  fingers stabbed  at the fire  controls. The two  missiles leapt
from their launch rails almost as one, speeding straight toward the Kilrathi
ship.  His opponent,  realizing  what  was happening  at  the  last possible
moment, started to swerve, but it  was too late. The missiles detonated, and
the Kilrathi shields began to fluctuate wildly.
     Blair locked on his blasters and opened fire.
     The Kilrathi pilot continued  his maneuver even as the  armor was being
ripped off his stern section. The Strakha was changing course, but no longer
in  an  evasive turn. He was lining up on a vector only  slightly  different
from his previous heading . . . straight toward the Behemoth.
     With  a  shock,  Blair realized that  the  pilot's new course  had  his
fighter aimed directly at one of the exposed shield generator  housings that
Tolwyn had indicated as a weak point in the weapons platform's defenses. The
Kilrathi pilot had decided to make his death count. . . .
     The Strakha came apart, but hurtling chunks of debris stayed on course,
raining on the surface  of the Behemoth. A ripple of explosions erupted from
the huge vessel's hull. A moment later, two nearby Kilrathi ships  let loose
missile  barrages to take  advantage  of collapsing  shields on the weapons'
platform. Flint and Maniac  accounted for the two cats,  but the damage  was
already done.
     Blair could  see lifepods and shuttles detaching from the  Behemoth  as
the  explosions  spread  and swelled.  He  pulled up sharply,  steering back
through a gauntlet of Kilrathi Strakha,  knowing he had to put some distance
between his fragile fighter and the doomed planetkiller.
     The final explosion, when it came, overwhelmed his sensors and external
cameras.  For a moment  he was  flying  blind, buffeted by  spinning bits of
metal and stray shots from enemy fighters. Kilrathi  jeers and  taunts  were
loud on the comm channel, a demonic cacophony of hate and glee.
     Behemoth was gone. . . .
     Elsewhere,  the  Kilrathi  fighters  were   turning  away.  The  Terran
resistance had been stiff, and with the  destruction of the weapons platform
their mission  was  accomplished. As the Kilrathi  began to withdraw  in the
direction of their capital ships, Blair ordered the  flight wing  to regroup
near Victory. No one offered to pursue the retiring foe.
     Tolwyn's face appeared on Blair's comm screen. "I'm  ordering the fleet
to withdraw,  he said, shock and pain etched plainly on his face. "Ajax will
stall the enemy fleet as long as possible. Land your fighters, Colonel." The
admiral's shoulders seemed to sag. "It seems we've lost  our last chance . .
."




     Flight Deck, TCS Victory Blackmane System

     The retreat from Loki had cost  the  flight  wing five more pilots, and
the  destroyer Ajax was destroyed while attempting to hold off the  enemy so
the rest of the squadron could  withdraw through  the jump  point. Still, it
might  have been  considered  a victory  of  sorts,  extracting  the  Terran
squadron from the trap at Loki VI . . .  if it  hadn't been for the loss  of
Behemoth.
     The last hope for mankind. . . that was how the Behemoth was described.
Now it was gone. And it was Christopher Blair who had failed in his duty  to
protect the weapon from the Kilrathi attack.
     The bitter thought  gnawed at Blair  as  he stood  on the flight  deck,
surrounded  by  other senior ship's officers. The failure had been his . . .
but   right  now,  it  was  Admiral  Geoff  Tolwyn  who  was  suffering  the
consequences of that failure. The orders came in two days after the squadron
retreated to the Blackmane System. They were conveyed by a fast courier ship
that had carried Tolwyn's report to sector HQ and then  returned. Tolwyn was
relieved of  command  over  the erstwhile Behemoth Project. He was to strike
his flag aboard Victory and return to  Torgo immediately to face  an inquiry
into his handling of the entire operation.
     Victory, meanwhile, was to maintain position and complete field repairs
pending the arrival of a new squadron commander. No one aboard was sure what
that portended
     Tolwyn  dressed as  precisely as  ever, but  defeat was  plain  in  his
carriage as  he stepped onto the flight deck, his staff trailing behind him.
The admiral  did  not  seem surprised  to  note that the turnout to see  his
departure was smaller and less  impressive than upon his  arrival. His  star
fell, and  he  with  it. Tolwyn was  well aware of  the fact.  He stopped to
return Eisen's crisp salute.
     "I relieve you, sir," the captain said quietly.
     "I stand relieved," Tolwyn replied. "Permission to leave the ship?"
     "Granted, Admiral." Eisen saluted a second time.
     "A word of warning," Tolwyn said, again returning the salute. "The cats
knew exactly where we were going, and when. They even knew exactly where  to
strike." He paused, running a sour eye over  the  assembled  officers behind
Eisen. His gaze seemed to come to rest on Blair. "I believe  you may  have a
leaky ship, Captain."
     "With  all  due respect, sir,"  Eisen responded stiffly. "I  resent any
such  suggestion  regarding  my  people.  They've  served  this ship and the
Confederation with honor, one and all. There are  never  any guarantees when
it comes to battle, Admiral. And no such thing as certain victory, no matter
how awesome your weapon may be."
     Tolwyn's expression was bleak. "Victory is certain enough now, Captain,
for the Kilrathi. I hope  the honor of your crew is  enough, in the fighting
that lies ahead. It will only get worse from here."
     He turned away  and stalked toward the  shuttle without  another  word.
Climbing  the ramp, he turned back to look at the flight deck one last time,
and again Blair felt that the admiral's gaze singled him from the rest. Then
Tolwyn boarded the craft, and  the door swung shut behind him. The assembled
officers and men withdrew as the shuttle powered up.
     The hangar area was empty by the time the shuttle rolled  onto the open
deck beyond the force field curtain, rising slowly away from the carrier and
into the black void.

     Bridge, TCS Victory Blackmane System

     "Captain, we've got a ship coming  through the Torgo jump  point. Looks
like a big one . . ."
     "On the main monitor," Eisen ordered, leaning forward in his chair. The
viewscreen showed a computer-enhanced view  of open  space, with no  outward
sign of the jump point or the disturbance the sensors picked up indicating a
ship in transit.
     Four  days had passed since Tolwyn's departure, and aboard  Victory and
the other ships in the ill-fated Behemoth Squadron,  the passage of time was
starting to weigh heavily on crew morale. Being driven back with the loss of
the  weapons  platform  not to mention Ajax   was bad  enough. But to wait
here, useless, without a word of the war from other quarters .  . . that was
even worse.
     A ship took form on the  viewscreen,  slightly larger  than Victory but
similar in configuration. It was one of the latest models of escort carrier,
but its sleek, modern lines were marred by battle damage.
     "Jesus,"  someone  muttered.  "Looks  like half  the  flight  deck  got
cooked."
     "Transponder code's on  line,  Captain," Rollins said a  moment  later.
"She's the Eagle. Captain Chalfonte."
     "Confirming," the sensor officer added a moment later.
     "Message  coming  in,  Rollins  reported.  "They're  sending  across  a
shuttle. No details,  sir. Just . . . sending a shuttle.  We're to  stand by
and await further communication."
     Eisen  nodded. "Very  well. Alert Flight Control  we  have  an incoming
shuttle.  Mr. Gessler,  you  have the bridge.  I'll be  in my ready room  if
there's anything further."

     Flight Control, TCS Victory Blackmane System

     "Victory, Victory, this is shuttle Armstrong. Request landing clearance
and approach vector.
     "Shuttle Armstrong, cleared to land," Blair replied.  He was standing a
turn as OOD in Flight Control, one more way to keep himself busy so  that he
wouldn't brood over recent events. He signaled to one  of the technicians to
activate the carriers approach beacon.
     The  shuttle skimmed low over the flight deck and allowed  the  tractor
beams to  lock on and pull it in. Blair monitored the landing,  and when the
stubby  little craft  was down,  he gave curt orders  to activate the  force
fields and revive pressure and gravity inside the hangar  area.  Behind him,
two of the techs were swapping speculations about the shuttle and its reason
for paying the ship a visit from Eagle, but Blair silenced them with a quick
look.
     The shuttle doors opened up, and a single stocky figure appeared at the
top of the ramp.  Blair stared, wide-eyed  as  the  man  glanced around  the
hangar deck and gave an approving nod of his graying  head. Rachel  Coriolis
appeared at  the bottom of the ramp, holding out a PDP so that the shuttle's
pilot could  log  in,  but  she  nearly dropped it as she  took  in the rank
insignia on the man's well-worn flight suit.
     It wasn't  often that  a  full general  visited  the flight  deck  of a
carrier.
     Blair wasted  no time in getting to the  flight deck to join Rachel. By
the time he reached the  shuttle, General James Taggart had descended to the
deck, taking the data pad  from the chief technician's hands. He was smiling
as he signed it and thrust it back at her.
     "There, now, lassie, tis all legal and proper,"  the general said, his
thick  Scots accent a welcome reminder of better  days. He caught  sight  of
Blair  and his grin  broadened. "Och, lad, dinna hurry! I'm nae sae old that
ye maun rush tae see me before I keel over!"
     "Paladin!" Blair said, saluting the man who had been his first squadron
leader on the old Tiger's Claw. "Er . . . General . . .
     "Paladin I'll always be  tae my auld mates, laddie,"  Taggart told him,
returning  the  salute carelessly  and then seizing Blair's hand  in a  warm
handshake. " 'Tis aye good tae see ye again."
     "Why didn t someone  tell  us you were on the shuttle?" Blair demanded.
"We would  have  laid on a proper welcome." He was thinking of the  contrast
between Taggart's arrival and Tolwyn's just two weeks earlier.
     "Och, lad, I cannae be bothered with all the pomp  and circumstance. Ye
should ken that well enough by  now. The business I'm on doesna  allow  time
for all that folderol."
     "Business?"
     "Aye, lad."  Paladin stroked his salt-and-pepper beard and fixed  Blair
with a steely stare. "The business of putting right the mess Auld Geoff made
of  things, at Loki. I just hope tis nae too late tae  salvage this  mess."
The general gave him another smile. "So,  if ye dinna mind,  lad, I need tae
see Captain Eisen as soon as may be. But I'll be  wanting tae talk to ye, as
well, soon enough."
     General  Taggart strode  briskly toward the door, leaving Blair behind.
Rachel exchanged glances with him.
     "That  was  General  Taggart?"  she  asked  as  Paladin's   broad  back
disappeared through the doorway.
     Blair nodded. "In the flesh."
     "Good God," the woman said  softly.  "I feel sorry for the Kilrathi who
gets in his way . . ."
     "The last  one who tried ended  up with  a  Paladin-sized hole in him,"
Blair agree. "I just wonder what the hell he's doing here. . .?"

     Wing Commander's Quarters, TCS Victory Blackmane System

     The door buzzer made an irritating noise, and Blair swung his feet from
his bunk  and said "Enter" just to shut it off.  He  wasn't surprised to see
Paladin when the door slid open. "Come in, General," he said formally.
     Taggart  cocked  an eyebrow at him.  "General,  is it,  again? Have  ye
decided tae go all formal on me, lad?"
     Blair shrugged wearily. "It's hard to think of you as Paladin any more,
you know. It's been a long time."
     "Those  were the good days, though, laddie," Paladin told him, crossing
the cramped cabin to perch on the only chair. "I wish I was still out on the
firing line with you young lads and lasses, instead of flying a bloody desk.
     "I wish you  were out here,  too," Blair told  him. "A  few more pilots
like we had in the old gang and we might've saved Behemoth last week."
     "That bucket of bolts," Paladin said, making a face. "Auld Geoff really
thought that monster of his would work. He always  believed that  bigger was
better."
     "You had  a better solution, I take it? Kevin said you had some  scheme
cooked up,  over in  Covert Ops." Blair couldn't  help  letting  some of his
anger show in the comment.
     Taggart studied  him. "I hear you  . .  . heard  about Angel," he said,
answering  Blair's  tone  rather  than  his  question.  "In  a  tangle  with
Thrakhath, no less."
     "Yes, I did, you son of a bitch."
     "I'm sorry that ye had tae find out that way."
     "How long have you known?" Blair demanded.
     Paladin didn't  answer right away.  "Since. . . since before  Concordia
was lost," he admitted.
     Blair felt  the  anger surging  within,  his fists  clenching  with the
sudden desire  to strike  out  at the  man. "You  bastard," he said. "When I
asked, you stood there and lied to me."
     "Laddie, I had to do it. I was under orders myself. . . ."
     "All the missions we flew together  they didn't mean a damn thing, did
they?" Blair demanded. "You out there on my wing, protecting me . . ."
     "Don't you  see  that's what I  was doing by  not telling you?" Paladin
said. "Look, ladie . . . look  what ye almost did out there, when ye learned
of it all. I was protecting you again . . . from yourself."
     Blair  looked away, at the holo projector  sitting  beside  his bed. He
hadn't played the message again since learning she was dead, but he heard it
in his dreams all too often. "You know what she meant to me."
     "Aye, lad,  I do indeed." Taggart paused. "But  we're  fighting  a war,
son. We've all lost someone close to us. It doesna make you special."
     "Yeah, right," Blair  said. "I've  heard  the whole routine  before. It
doesn't get better with repetition."
     Paladin shrugged. "I suppose not. But the fact is, lad, that we couldna
tell anyone about Angel. Not until now. Not without ruining the work she did
before she died."
     He didn't answer, but he met Taggart's eyes.
     "Her  last mission was a  part of my  project,  laddie.  Not sae grand,
perhaps, as  Auld Geoff and his Behemoth, But a way  tae end this  war, once
and  for all.  And  tis  up tae  you, Chris Blair,  tae finish  what  Angel
started."

     Captain's Ready Room, TCS Victory Blackmane System

     Like his arrival, the  briefing  Paladin gave  the  next morning was  a
low-key affair.  Instead  of an audience  of aides and ship's officers,  the
general limited  the  briefing  to Blair  and  Eisen.  He  wasted no time on
useless preliminaries or self-congratulation.
     "We've got a lot to cover, and damned  little time to do it in."  Blair
always  noticed  that  Paladin's  accent faded  as he focused  on  important
matters, and today was no exception.  "Covert Ops lost out to Admiral Tolwyn
when it came time for HQ to decide on a response  to the Kilrathi biological
threat, but like  him we've had an operation in train for several years. Its
a long shot, I'll grant you, but it can work. It has to."
     Blair  noticed a look  of distaste  on  Eisen's  face.  After Behemoth,
another long shot was the last thing any of them wanted.
     "You hae  already been briefed  on  the seismic instability of Kilrah,"
Paladin  went on. "It was central  to the whole Behemoth project, the notion
that even if the weapon wasn't able to bust a planet cold, it could at least
shake the place  apart when  applied against the right  target.  Our project
tackled the same concept from anither  angle,  one more in keeping  with the
philosophy of Covert Ops."
     He punched a code into the  keypad in  front of him  and the  map table
came to life,  projecting  an image of a torpedo-shaped device into  the air
between the  three men. "This is the Temblor Bomb," he said quietly. "It was
developed by  Doctor  Philip  Severin, one  of  the top research men  in the
Confederation. It's  been undergoing tests for some time now . .  . nearly a
decade, in fact."
     The  view changed to schematics. It brought back unpleasant thoughts of
Tolwyn's Behemoth  lecture, and  Blair  shifted  uncomfortably in  his seat.
Eisen's face was a study  in bland neutrality as he regarded the holographic
image
     "The  bomb operates  on the  principle of  seismic resonance,"  Taggart
continued. "Detonated in the right place, at the proper juncture of tectonic
fault lines,  it  will set  up a series  of  quakes which will  increase  in
intensity until Kilrah is  quite literally shaken apart." Paladin spread his
hands.   "Unfortunately,   the  weapon   doesna  lend   itself   to   pretty
demonstrations  on backwater worlds. There's  only  a handful  of planets we
know of where the Temblor Bomb  could do  its work, and Kilrah is at the top
of the list.  The High Command  wanted  something they could escalate up  to
gradually,  so  they  threw their  weight  behind  Admiral  Tolwyn  and  the
Behemoth."
     Blair frowned. "I've said all along that I'm against  "
     "Laddie," Taggart said sternly. "I'd like nothing better than to find a
solution that didn't involve civilian casualties, but the simple fact is  we
do  not have one at hand."  He paused. "Right now we have to stop the Empire
cold. Not just a defeat, but a  final defeat. The Imperial hierarchy  is  so
centralized, so built around the idea of Kilrah as  the core of their entire
culture,  that the destruction  of the  planet  will bring the rest  of  the
Empire  to a halt. Even if there are a few warlords  who  want to fight, the
other  Kilrathi worlds will come apart  as clans  and factions  and splinter
groups  start fighting for a new  equilibrium.  And that's  our only hope of
bringing the war to a quick end."
     Eisen  looked  at  him.  "The  brass  must  have thought  a  negotiated
settlement  was possible," he commented. "They wanted Tolwyn  to demonstrate
Behemoth and make the Kilrathi come to the peace table."
     "Aye,  that  was the hope," Paladin  admitted  slowly. "Though you must
know  that the admiral had  no plans tae stop  with Loki. He knew, just as I
do, that Thrakhath and his Emperor willna stop fighting  as long as they see
a  hope  of winning.  And a balance of  power,  their bioweapons against our
Behemoth, would  have meant the advantage of numbers and  strategic position
was still with the Empire."
     "It sounds to me like there was never  any choice at  all,"  Blair said
quietly.
     "Laddie,  there wasn't." Paladin looked  grim. "Fact  is, even  if Auld
Geoff had decided tae hold off, I was  ready to launch a Temblor Bomb attack
on Kilrah on my ain authority."
     "What?" Eisen looked shocked. "You'd have been court-martialed six ways
from Sunday!"
     "Aye, true enough," Paladin  said. "But my career doesna mean much  set
against  the end of this  damned war. Our hope was that the cats would  hear
about Behemoth's attack on Loki and assemble the bulk of their reserve fleet
tae intercept it. I persuaded Captain Chalfonte tae take Eagle into Imperial
territory tae launch the Temblor Bomb strike on Kilrah while the  cats  were
chasing Behemoth. But they were a step ahead of us,  it seems. Thrakhath had
a strike force ready at Loki, and never touched the reserves. Eagle ran into
trouble before we got anywhere near Kilrah. We had tae break off and retreat
with heavy damage."
     "So it's over, then," Blair said bitterly.
     "Not  yet, it isn't,"  Taggart  said. "That's why I'm  here.  Now  that
Behemoth has failed, Sector HQ has authorized the Temblor strike. This time,
when we  go  in, we'll be  supported  by a fleet. If  we can  penetrate  the
defenses  that turned  Eagle  back, and  get a few fighters through, we  can
still drop the bomb and destroy the planet."
     "That doesn't sound like a long  shot,"  Blair said. "It sounds like no
shot at all. A fleet couldn't penetrate all the way to  Kilrah, and anything
less  than a fleet  would be  carved  up before  you could say here,  kitty,
kitty!
     "Dinna be sae sure, laddie," Paladin said with a wolfish  grin. "Covert
Ops didna gae into this thing blind. Fact  is, a squadron of fighters can do
what a fleet cannot hope to . . . thanks to Jeannette Devereaux."
     "Angel? Where does she come into all this?" Blair was still frowning.
     "Her  last mission was to  Kilrah, laddie,  aboard a  captured Kilrathi
freighter we  rigged up with  a  nice little cargo of goodies."  Despite his
almost bantering tone, his eyes were dead serious.  "You see, we kenned just
fine  that we  couldna  bull  our  way through  to Kilrah.  So instead we've
arranged for a  . . .  more stealthy approach." He manipulated his keyboard,
and  a  new schematic appeared. Blair  recognized  it. He  had  seen  Rachel
pouring over these same plans once.
     "An Excalibur?" he said, raising his eyebrows.
     "Aye. Eagle carries a squadron of them, the first operational squadron.
They have  a limited jump capability,  and a cloaking  device   which means
they can penetrate the Kilrah System  in secret, carry out the  mission, and
hopefully get clear again when it's over." Taggart raised  his  hand to ward
off the protests that sprang to  Blair lips. "Hear me out, laddie. You'll be
wanting to say yon fighter doesna have the range tae make a jump and proceed
all the way  in to  Kilrah. That's true  enough.  But Angels mission was  to
survey  a jump point that we didna previously  know about, and tae make some
stops along the  way in to Kilrah." A map appeared  over the  table, showing
the Kilrah System. "Here . . . here . . . and again, here. Asteroids  .  . .
the last of them Kilrah's outer moon, which barely merits the label. And  on
each one,  a  hidden  supply  cache hollowed out by Angel and  her crew. Big
enough  to take in a squadron of  ships, but well camouflaged. Each equipped
with  fuel, missile  reloads,  the  works.  And this one    " He  indicated
Kilrah's tiny  second moon. "In this cache, a pair of Temblor Bombs, all set
and ready to load."
     "You  mean they're  already  out there?"  Blair demanded.  "But Angel's
people were caught. Interrogated. The Kilrathi could  have found them all by
now. . . ."
     Taggart  shook his head. "Nae, laddie.  These were Covert  Ops  people,
dinna forget. Conditioned  not tae  remember  anything  of the mission, once
they were caught.  Not  even Thrakhath's torturers  could hae pried anything
out of them."
     "So  the  caches  are still  there,"  Blair said  slowly. "Just  . .  .
waiting."
     "Aye. Waiting," Paladin said. "Angel did her job well. Those bombs  are
aye big, laddie, so big ye couldna carry any other missiles once you mounted
one. Planting them here was the best  solution. You go into the system fully
armed, so you can deal with any patrols you run into along the way. But when
you make  the bomb run,  it'll be from close  range. There's less chance  of
disaster this way. Even  if you lose ships going in, the  ones that are left
can still pick up the bombs and carry out the mission."
     "If   they're   hidden,   how  do   we  locate   them?"   Blair  asked.
"Transponders?"
     Paladin nodded.  "Aye. They'll respond on a very  high band,  and  only
when you fire a query at them. Believe me,  laddie, we've done everything we
can tae make this work."
     "You're sure  Colonel  Devereaux got all the way and set  up all  three
depots?" Eisen asked.
     "She  did,"  Paladin said quietly. "She  managed tae  send out  a coded
signal, before the cats took her ship. A scout ship posted in the Oort Cloud
monitored  it  and brought word tae  us." He  paused. " Twas  frae them  we
learned of the capture. . . and the execution, as well. Then the cats put it
out on their propaganda broadcasts. . . ."
     "And you really think this plan can work?" Blair said quietly, changing
the subject. He didn  t  want to  think about  Angel's death, not now. "Aye,
laddie, it will work. Because it has to."

     Officer's Quarters, TCS Victory Blackmane System

     "Because it has to." The image on the screen was  too small to pick  up
details,  but  the voices had  been clear enough. It had  been  a good idea,
placing cameras where they might pick up important meetings.
     The spy  shut off the monitor as the briefing dispersed. It seemed that
the threat to  Kilrah  was  not  over  yet,  even  with the  destruction  of
Behemoth. Thrakhath's instructions  didn't cover this eventuality, and there
would be no ships lurking nearby to pick up another broadcast.
     If the spy was to alert the Prince  of this new danger it would require
careful preparation indeed. But it had to be done. . . .
     For the glory of Kilrah!




     Flight Control, TCS Victory Blackmane System

     "That's  the last  of  em,  Colonel. Eight  Excaliburs,  all ready for
action."
     Blair stared at the flight deck through the transparent  wall of Flight
Control,  studying the lines of the  last of  the new fighters as it  rolled
slowly to a halt inside the hangar area. On Paladin's orders, the Excaliburs
came from Eagle in exchange for Gold Squadron's Thunderbolts. They certainly
looked impressive  enough.  Blair hoped a few days of patrols would give the
pilots  a  chance  to  get used to  them before  they went  into  action  in
Paladin's crazy scheme to attack Kilrah. "I hope they're all they're cracked
up to be," he said quietly.
     "Believe me, skipper, they're  the  hottest birds that ever hauled jets
off a carrier deck,"  Rachel  Coriolis said. She wore an expression of sheer
joy  as she contemplated  the new  craft. "These beauties  are a  mechanic's
dream. At long last, I get to really show what I can do."
     "Oh, I don't know, Chief," Blair said,  glancing at her enraptured face
and giving her a smile. "I've been pretty impressed right from the start."
     "Yeah, but  you haven't seen everything, not by a long shot," she said,
flashing an answering grin. She moved a little closer to him and lowered her
voice.  "It might  not  be proper protocol to  make the  first move with  an
officer and all . .  . but how bout we get together later  on and I'll show
you  the rest?  Sooner  or  later,  you and me, we've got  to  let go of the
ghosts. Figure out if the parts'll fit somewhere else . . . if you know what
I mean?"
     Blair hesitated, looking into her dark eyes. He couldn't now deny being
attracted  to Rachel, her quiet strength  and  her  irreverent humor. Always
before it seemed too much like a betrayal of Angel. . . .
     But  Angel was gone, and she would have been the first one to want  him
to pick up the pieces of his life and move on. Rachel had already helped him
over the first,  most difficult adjustment. It seemed  right, somehow,  that
they  travel  further down the  road she helped him find that led out of the
darkness.
     "You  think our  parts  might  mesh,  Chief?" he asked her,  his  smile
broadening.
     "You never know until you take a test run," she said. "Tonight, maybe?"
     "Tonight," he agreed quietly.
     He was almost surprised at the intensity of the emotion behind that one
simple word.

     Flight Wing Rec Room, TCS Victory Blackmane System

     "Got a minute, Colonel? Before I have to go on watch?"
     Blair looked up at  Lieutenant Rollins and gave him  a curt nod. "Sure.
Pull up a chair." He hesitated,  studying the young communications officer's
worried expression. "What's on your mind, Lieutenant?"
     Rollins  sat down, looking uncomfortable. "I think I've  finally turned
up  something  solid, Colonel. In  that .  .  .  matter Cobra and I've  been
looking into."
     "And that is?"
     "I  figured out where  I'd  seen that harmonic pattern before," Rollins
told him.  "It's been used a  time  or two in psychiatric work.  Personality
overlays . . ." Rollins hesitated.  "Sometimes, with a subject,  you want to
be able to switch  from  a substitute personality to  the original,  or back
again.  They use it in therapy, overlaying a well-adjusted behavior  pattern
over a personality that's got problems, but the  doctors want to  be able to
retrieve the original identity, locate the root of the problem."
     "Yeah, I've heard about it. You think it applies here?"
     "If I'm right, the Kilrathi might have used that message from Thrakhath
as a carrier for a personality trigger. When it  was played, it brought up a
different personality in a Kilrathi agent on board."  Rollins hesitated. "If
Cobra's right, it would have brought back an original personality in Hobbes,
something overlaid by the one we've known all along. Or . . ."
     "Or what?" Blair demanded.
     "I .  .  . was thinking about what you said. About Cobra.  She admitted
there was something familiar about the signal,  but she didn't say what. But
it  set  me  to thinking. What  if the  signal  was  supposed to bring up an
implanted personality in her .  . . something programmed by the  Kilrathi to
make her work as a spy. Hell, she might not even be aware of it any more, if
the work was sophisticated enough."
     Blair looked down at his drink. "Once again, there's no real proof," he
said  slowly. "We can hatch theories  until the sun goes  nova,  but without
real evidence . . .
     "I know, sir,"  Rollins said, biting his lower lip and looking worried.
"But  .  . . hell, I  don't know  what to think any more  or who to trust. I
think I've identified  another part of Thrakhath's transmission that carries
a low-frequency side message,  but it seems like it's a  pretty old code. It
was  discontinued  a while back, and is no longer in our current  files. I'm
still trying to reconstruct it. Maybe we'll know more  then.  But  meantime,
what do I do? Tell Cobra? If she's the spy . . .
     "Keep it to yourself, Lieutenant," Blair said. His wrist implant chimed
a  reminder. "Damn.  I've got a meeting with Paladin and  the  Captain."  He
stood up. "You  keep  working on  that  signal,  Lieutenant.  Crack  it fast
because  we have  to find out if  there really is a  leak   before we start
General Taggart's new mission.

     Flight Deck, TCS Victory Blackmane System

     Lieutenant Laurel Buckley studied the sleek lines of the Excalibur  and
gave  a  low  whistle of  appreciation.  "Man,  oh  man, that  is a thing of
beauty,"  she said softly. Cobra was looking forward to trying the new craft
out, even if it was only a routine patrol.
     "I'll  say," Chief  Coriolis  said,  looking  up  from  where  she  was
kneeling, checking the locking mechanism on  the forward landing  gear "This
is one nice piece of machinery."
     "Where's Ski, Chief?" Cobra asked. Technician First Class Glazowski was
her usual plane captain, but he was nowhere in sight.
     "Had to put all the Gold Squadron plane captains through a crash course
on  how to care and feed these beauties," Rachel told her. "I'm the only one
who's up on the specs at the  moment. Don't worry, he'll be done by the time
your patrol gets back." She looked around. "Who's going out with you?"
     "Vaquero," Cobra said. "Except he's late, as usual."  She moved over to
the cockpit ladder. "I swear he'll be late to his own cantina opening."
     "I'll  have Flight Control  put out  a call for him," Rachel said. "You
need any help strapping on this baby?"
     "Nah. Looks like you're overworked as it is."
     "I'll say.  I'm  supposed to have five techs on every  bird. Today I've
only  got  three  to  get both you  guys  up and  flying." The  tech  looked
disgusted. "My watch roster looks thinner every day, seems like."
     "Well, I can  run through my checklist  just fine by myself. Just don't
forget  to send somebody out here to give me my  clearance when it's time to
launch!"
     Rachel chuckled and  turned away. Buckley paused at the bottom  of  the
ladder and cocked  her head to one side. Something . .  . someone was moving
around on the other side of the Excalibur.
     She set her helmet and gauntlets  down on the wing and ducked under the
fuselage  to investigate. From what  Rachel  just said there shouldn't  have
been any technicians working in that corner of the bay. . . .
     Something struck her  in the stomach as  she straightened, knocking her
backward against the hull of the fighter with such force that she banged her
head. As she shook  it, trying to clear her blurring  vision and the ringing
in her ears, she became  aware  of  the  pain in  her  abdomen. Her fingers,
clutching at the spot, came away sticky with blood
     And then her vision did  clear, for  a moment, as she  slumped  to  the
deck. The bulky figure standing over her might have stepped out of her worst
nightmare.
     "Hobbes . . ." she gasped. Then blackness took her.

     Flight Control, TCS Victory Blackmane System

     Rachel Coriolis entered the Flight Control Center and dropped into  the
nearest  vacant  seat.  "God, I'll be glad to get some sack time," she said.
She suppressed a grin as she remembered the plans she'd made with Blair. She
doubted  either one of them would get  much sack time tonight.  "They're all
yours, Captain. And good riddance."
     Lieutenant  Ion Radescu, the duty  Flight Controller, gave  her a grin.
"Come  on, Rachel, you know you  love  it. What  would your life  be without
fighters to work over, huh?'
     "A hell of a lot cleaner," she said, returning his smile. Since Admiral
Tolwyn's departure, she'd gone right back to her old habits of dress.
     Radescu chuckled and  turned to  his console.  "Okay, boys  and  girls,
let's  get  this show started." He thumbed a  mike switch. "Prowler  Flight,
this is Control. Radio check."
     "Prowler Two," Vaquero said. "Read you five by five."
     There  was  a  moment of silence  before  Cobra's  voice  came  on  the
speakers. "Clear signal."
     The FCO frowned.  "Prowler  One, I'm not getting anything on video from
you. You got a fault showing?"
     Again there was a pause. "Negative."
     "Damned thing ought to be working, Rachel said, joining  Radescu at the
console. Those birds are so new you can still smell the fresh paint."
     "Want to have a look?" Radescu asked.
     "It  ain't  enough  to get  a  down-gripe," Rachel told him.  "Long  as
audio's working, I don't see a problem." She  paused. "I'll take a look when
they get back in."
     "Okay, Chief," the FCO nodded. "Prowler Flight cleared to launch."
     Out on the flight deck below them, the fighters rolled into position in
their  launch tubes. Green lights flashed  on Radescu's board. "Launch  when
ready," he ordered.
     And the two Excaliburs hurtled into space.
     Rachel  turned away. "I'm gonna grab me a cup of something hot and then
check on my students in Ready Room Three," she said over her shoulder. "Yell
if you need me 
     The intercom shrilled. "Flight Control, Bay Twelve," a hoarse voice was
loud over the speaker. "I just found Cobra down here. She's hurt . . .  real
bad!"
     "Cobra?" Rachel and Radescu spoke at the same moment.
     "What the hell . . . ?" the FCO added. "Rachel, get down there and find
out what's  going  on."  He was  already punching  in a  combination  on the
intercom "Bridge, this is Flight Control. We have a problem . . ."

     Captain's Ready Room, TCS Victory Blackmane System

     "Our job,  then, is  tae remain clear of the fighting unless absolutely
necessary.  Let  the rest  of the fleet thoroughly engage the bloody moggies
and  then  slip  around to the  back  door,  the jump point to Kilrah. Then,
laddie, your squadron will launch."
     Blair nodded as Paladin finished. "With luck, the Excaliburs will cloak
before the cats see us out  there, and we can reach  the  jump point without
ever being noticed. Very pretty planning, General."
     Taggart  grinned.  "Another  fine  product of  the Covert Ops  planning
staff," he said. "Just remember, laddie, that the cloak's  nae good at close
range. It hides ye from sensors, but it doesna make you invisible."
     "I'm  still not very  happy about  sending the fighters through blind."
Eisen spoke up for the first time since  the briefing had  started. "They'll
have no support . . . and  if they  run into trouble before they refuel they
won't  be able  to  recharge  their jump generators and make  it  back  here
safely.  If this really is a  back door  into Kilrah,  wouldn't it be better
going in with them?"
     "We dinna ken how well defended the jump point might be," Paladin said.
"The  fighters will have  to  decloak to  jump,  of course,  and they'll  be
detected as they  enter the system. But if they cloak right away,  they  can
evade any reception  committees in the  neighborhood. Send a carrier in, and
we stir up a hornet's nest."
     "I appreciate the concern, Captain," Blair added, meeting Eisen's eyes.
"Fact  is, our chances of getting back aren't that good one way  or another.
I'm treating this as a one-way mission . . .  volunteers only. If we can get
back, great. But none of us will be under any illusions."
     "Laddie  " Paladin  began. He was cut off by the ululation of an alarm
siren.
     "Flight deck. Emergency."  The voice on the tannoy belonged to Rollins,
but it was almost unrecognizable, choked with emotion. "We have a problem on
the flight deck!"
     "Blair,  get  down  there,"  Eisen rasped, pushing back  his chair  and
getting to his feet. "I'll be on the bridge . . ."
     "On  my way," Blair  said.  He was  already  halfway to the  door,  but
Paladin, despite his age and bulk,  was right behind him. They raced to  the
elevator, all pretense of officer s dignity forgotten.
     Rachel met them at the door to the hangar deck. "Bay Twelve," she said,
grim-faced. The two  men didn't wait for an explanation. They  hurried  down
the  row of fighter  bays  to the empty  space that had housed the Excalibur
assigned to Lieutenant Buckley.
     Cobra was  lying near  the  back of  the bay, half  hidden by a rack of
testing equipment. There was blood on the  deck where  she'd been dragged to
the niche, and  a  larger  pool  of  blood around her. Someone  had tried to
staunch her  wounds with a makeshift bandage, but it wasn't  controlling the
flow of blood. Blair knelt beside her and lifted it to examine her injuries.
Four deep slashes cut across her stomach, and the sight of those wounds made
Blair, hardened veteran that he was, turn his head away.
     He had  seen that  kind of  disemboweling  cut  before after the ground
fighting on Muspelheim a decade ago. The cuts could only have been made by a
Kilrathi's claws.
     Blair tried to  ignore  the nausea welling  up inside him. Cobra's eyes
fluttered open. "Colonel . . ." she gasped.
     "Hobbes?" he asked, knowing the answer.
     "He . . . hit me. Don't know why . . ."
     "I do," Paladin said grimly. He held up a holo-cassette. "He must  have
dropped this when he dragged her over here."
     Taggart pressed  a button,  and a small holographic image formed in the
air above  Cobra. It took Blair a  moment to recognize  the scene. It  was a
view of Eisen's ready room, shot from a high  angle. The three figures there
belonged to Eisen, Paladin, and Blair.
     "This is the Temblor Bomb,"  Paladin's image said. "It was developed by
Doctor  Philip Severin,  one of the top research men in  the  Confederation.
It's  been  undergoing  tests for some time now .  .  .  nearly a decade, in
fact."
     Taggart switched it off. "The briefing . . ."
     "All this time," Blair  said slowly, shaking his head. "All this  time,
he's had us bugged. . . .
     Rachel returned, with a team of medics running after her. Paladin moved
away to give  them room to work, while Blair cradled her  head and shoulders
in his arms. "We'll get you to sick bay," he told her.
     "Too late  . . . for me," she gasped out. "Get Hobbes.  You still  have
time . . ."
     He could  almost feel the life ebbing out of her as the awareness faded
from her eyes.  One of the medics  shook his head. "It's no  good,  sir," he
said. "She's gone."
     Blair  lowered her head to the  deck gently  and stood up. "What  about
Hobbes?" he asked Rachel, voice flat and harsh. "Any idea where he is?"
     "He took  Cobra's  fighter,"  she  said. "Launched with  Vaquero a  few
minutes ago.  He  must have had a tape  of  her voice to  answer  the  radio
check."
     Flint appeared at the mouth of the bay, running. She pulled up short at
the  sight of Cobra,  then  fixed her eyes on Blair. "Prowler One just broke
off the patrol route,"  she said,  breathing hard. "Fired on Vaquero when he
tried to intercept." She paused.  "The fighter's heading for the Freya  jump
point, maximum speed Vaquero's pursuing.
     Blair looked at Paladin. "Even without that holo, Hobbes can  tell them
about the plan. About the caches . . ."
     Taggart nodded. "If he makes it through the jump point, it's all  over,
lad," he said.
     "Not yet, it  isn't,"  Blair said.  He looked at  Rachel. Which  of the
Excaliburs is prepped for Alert Five?"
     "Three-oh-four," she said "Maniac's bird."
     "Get it on the line now. And get me a flight suit." He turned to Flint.
"You get  to Flight Control. Order Vaquero to  keep up the chase.  Stop that
bastard at all costs, or at least slow him down until I get there."
     He looked back down at  Cobra, and had to blink back tears of grief and
rage.  "You were right," he said through clenched teeth. "It was Hobbes  . .
."
     Blair  turned  away  and  started  toward  Maniac's  fighter,  grim and
determined. Hobbes  had betrayed them  . . . and now the renegade had  to be
stopped before he destroyed everything.

     Excalibur 304 Blackmane System

     "Victory, Victory, I need help out here! He s flying rings around me!"
     Blair  muttered  a curse  under his  breath.  Even with the Excalibur's
superior acceleration, it would take three more minutes to overtake  Vaquero
and Hobbes. The Latino pilot had managed to engage Ralgha and keep him busy,
but it was an uneven match.  Hobbes had always  been a good pilot, but Blair
had never expected to see him matched against one of his own comrades.
     On his sensor screen, he  saw Hobbes  making a long slow loop, circling
back toward Lopez. Vaquero had already  taken damage to his engines, and was
having trouble matching the Kilrathi's maneuvers.
     "He's coming in again . . ." Lopez said. "Firing . . ."
     A smaller blip showed up on the sensors. Vaquero launched a missile. It
must have been a  fire-and-forget model, judging from the way it bobbed  and
weaved in pursuit  of Ralgha's fighter.  Hobbes tried  to dodge it,  but  it
caught him  across  the port-side  shield. Lopez let  out a whoop and  dove.
Blair could almost see his blasters pouring on the fire.
     "All right!"  Lopez shouted.  "That one's for Cobra!  Get ready to  say
good-bye, Hobbes."
     "Not today,  I'm afraid," Ralgha replied evenly. The Kilrathi's fighter
released a barrage of missiles. They struck in quick succession.
     "Cristos . . . I'm breaking up!" Vaquero called. "Adios, amigos . . .
     And then he was gone.
     "God damn you," Blair growled. "God damn you to hell."
     "Is  that you.  . . old friend?" Hobbes asked. For a moment, he sounded
like Blair's old wingman, worried, ready to help. "It would be wisest if you
turned back, Colonel. Before I am forced to deal with you as well."
     "Deal with this . . . old  friend!"  Blair shouted. Ralgha's  Excalibur
was just coming into extreme range, and  Blair let loose a volley of blaster
fire. But Hobbes anticipated it, and the shots only grazed his shields.
     Ralgha turned  away,  as  if  to  run. Blair's  hands  clenched  on the
steering yoke. If Hobbes decided to use his cloak, he might still get away .
. .
     But a cloak used a lot of power, and that would slow him down. Too much
of a delay would give Victory time enough to get more fighters into the area
and since Hobbes could only be heading for  the Freya jump point to warn the
Kilrathi fleet, it wouldn't be that difficult to find him.
     Ralgha suddenly rolled up  and back,  a classic  Immelman maneuver that
almost took Blair by surprise. He cursed again  as he dodged the  Kilrathi's
fire. He of all people should have anticipated Ralgha's moves. But he wasn't
flying quite the  way he usually did.  There was something different  in his
style, more reckless, more  aggressive. More like the Kilrathi Blair usually
met in battle.
     As Hobbes sped  past, Blair  checked  his sensor  readouts on the other
Excalibur.  Vaquero had penetrated the armor, all right. If  the port shield
went  down, Ralgha  would be vulnerable, and he was sure  to be sensitive to
that  weakness. Hobbes had  used  all of his  missiles to knock  out  Lopez,
giving Blair a significant advantage.
     The Kilrathi started to swing around as Blair turned to follow him.  He
let Hobbes  finish his turn,  then suddenly opened up his afterburners for a
charge right at the  other fighter, a  move he was  sure Hobbes  would never
expect  from  him.  Blaster fire raked across  his  forward shields,  but he
ignored it, even when  the shield generator alarm went off. His shields were
going down . . .
     Ralgha stopped  firing, his  weapons on recharge. The Kilrathi  swerved
sharply away, trying to keep his port side out of Blair's line of fire.  The
two fighters  were close  together now,  and Blair  had to kill his momentum
quickly to keep from shooting right past Hobbes.
     The  Terran  allowed himself a  grim  smile  and  locked  on a pair  of
heat-seekers.  As Ralgha finished  his  turn and exposed his tail, Blair let
the missiles go and opened up with every beam weapon he possessed.
     "Impressive,  my  friend,"  Hobbes said as  the  barrage  struck  home.
"Impressive . . . I fear that you have bested me . . . Now I shall never see
Kilrah again."
     The missiles  detonated almost simultaneously as  the  Excalibur's rear
shields went down. The fighter came apart.
     Blair thought he heard  Hobbes  call out  his name before the  fireball
consumed his craft.
     "Excalibur three-o-four,"  he said, his voice sounding dead in  his own
ears.  He  couldn't  feel anything,  either sadness or  satisfaction, at the
knowledge that Ralgha was gone. "Hobbes . . . is gone. I'm coming in."




     Flight Wing Quarters, TCS Victory Blackmane System

     Blair punched in a security code to unlock the door and stepped quickly
inside. He was glad there had been no one in the corridor to see him, to ask
questions, or to offer comments.  He didn't think he could  face anyone just
now, especially not here, in  the quarters  that had  belonged to Ralgha nar
Hhallas. The door slid shut behind him and the lights came on automatically.
They were set to the dim reddish hue  Hobbes favored, a reminder of Kilrah's
K6 star.
     A reminder of Ralgha's home . . .
     Ralgha . . . Hobbes . .  . It surprised Blair to realize how  deep this
wound went, deeper even than Angel's death. He had known Ralgha nar Hhallas,
flown  with him,  loved him like a brother  over the better  part of fifteen
long years. When others had  raised doubts, he had been firm in his faith in
Hobbes,  the  one being Blair would have trusted to  the bitter end. . . and
beyond.  Yet  Hobbes betrayed  him, betrayed them all. And the knowledge  of
that betrayal hurt as nothing Blair had ever felt.
     He  turned to check the cabin control keypad beside the  door, punching
for  Terra-normal  lights  and  lower  heat  and  humidity  than  Ralgha had
preferred. The  changes helped him push away the bitter  thoughts of Hobbes,
but not far enough for any real peace of mind.
     No doubt Paladin would want Ralgha's effects searched with a fine-tooth
comb in hopes of  finding clues about the Kilrathi's treachery. Blair didn't
plan to disturb anything that might interest Covert  Ops. But it was one  of
his  duties, as  wing commander, to deal  with the personal property  of any
pilot who died while  under his command, and much as he wanted  to  delegate
it, this was one duty Blair felt he had to see to himself. He could at least
take a quick inventory of Ralgha's property, though he had  no idea where it
would  go when  Paladin  was through with  it. Usually personal effects were
returned to the family, but what family did Hobbes leave?
     He defected in the company of a retainer named  Kirha. Had the retainer
been another  agent? Or legitimate?  Blair  wasn't even  sure  if  the other
Kilrathi was still alive. The last he'd heard, Kirha had vowed allegiance to
a Terran pilot, Ian "Hunter" St.  John, but that was years ago. Blair hadn't
heard anything of Hunter for a long time.
     Well, if  nothing else, he could always have Ralgha's property returned
to the Empire  when the  war  was over, if it ever was  over. Perhaps Hobbes
still  had family  somewhere.  He  claimed  they  had all  died  before  his
defection, but that could have been yet another lie.
     Blair shook his head sadly. He didn't know what the truth was any more,
about Hobbes . . . or about anything else.
     A slender  box lying on  the bunk drew his  eye,  and Blair crossed the
room to pick it up. It was a holographic projector,  much like the one Angel
had sent him. Curious,  Blair sat  on the edge  of the bed  and  thumbed the
switch.
     A life-sized image of Hobbes appeared in front of him.
     "Colonel  Blair,"  the  holographic figure  said in  Ralgha's  familiar
tones. "I am returning to my Homeworld, but my admiration for you compels me
to provide an explanation for my actions."
     "You must understand that the being you knew as Hobbes was a construct,
the result of an identity-overlay experiment initiated long ago by  Imperial
Security at  the behest  of Prince  Thrakhath. You have  never met  the real
Ralgha nar Hhallas, nor  would you have become his friend, for he was and is
dedicated to the service of the Empire Only the construct-personality  could
become your comrade  and  friend.  I myself was  entirely unaware of my true
self until the message broadcast by Prince Thrakhath that day at Delius, the
message where you  were given your Kilrathi title,  the Heart of  the Tiger.
Embedded in  combination  with a  signal  embedded in that transmission, the
phrase  Heart  of  the  Tiger'  was  the  trigger  that  awakened  my  true
personality, hidden for so many years. There were buried messages  within it
that  gave me  my Prince's instructions, which I have carried out since that
day. Once Ralgha nar Hhallas was restored within me, I had no  choice but to
act as  I did. Thus, my friend, you possess the Heart of the Tiger, but I am
the Heart of the Tiger."
     The Kilrathi paused for a long  time. His expression  was one Blair had
never seen on his stern, solemn features before, the look of someone torn in
two by conflicting emotions. "Kilrathi  do not surrender, my old friend, and
neither do they betray a trust once given. And yet, in being true to my race
and obedient to my duty, I have been  forced  to betray you. For though I am
no longer the  same being you once named  Hobbes and  befriended when  I was
alone among strangers, I retain  a  full  memory of  everything  that Ralgha
thought and did. I remember  you, Colonel,  for  what you were and are,  and
know that  you are an  honorable warrior. If I could  have performed my duty
without betraying you, I would have done so,  but that was not possible. And
if we meet again .  . . we will have no choice but to perform our duties . .
. with honor."
     "I hope, Colonel Christopher Blair, that we need never meet in  battle.
But if we  do, I will salute you as a warrior . . . and I will mourn you, as
a friend lost to me forever."
     The holograph flickered and faded out, leaving Blair alone again in the
tiny cabin with bitter thoughts as his only companions. He remained  there a
long time, unmoving, until someone buzzed at the cabin door.
     He put the projector down. "Enter," he said harshly.
     It was Maniac. "Thought I might find you  here.  Captain called down to
Flight  Control  asking  after the final operations plan for this mission of
the General's." Marshall looked around the cabin, plainly curious. "Cleaning
out the cat's stuff, huh?"
     Blair shook  his head.  "Not yet," he  said. "Just  . . . an inventory.
Before the captain gets started with the investigation . . ."
     "Yeah," Maniac nodded. "Guess they'll have to look into . . everything,
huh? What'd I tell you about trusting a cat, all those years back?"
     Blair just stared at him, wordless. There was nothing to say any more.
     "Too bad Cobra had to die to get her point across, Marshall said.
     Blair surged out of the  bunk and caught  him by the collar, raising  a
hand  to  strike  the man.  All his anger  had  came rushing out, and all he
wanted to do was knock the mocking smirk off Maniac's face.
     "Temper, temper,"  Marshall said.  "You shouldn't  start something  you
can't finish,  Colonel, sir. And you know you can't afford to  lose any more
wingmen. Not now.
     Blair dropped his hand and  let go of Marshall's collar. The major took
a step back, smoothing his wrinkled uniform.
     "For once, you're right," Blair said slowly.
     "I am?"
     "Yeah.  Yeah, there's  precious few of us left, Major.  Two  Excaliburs
destroyed yesterday, and another one damaged. Only  four of us left  in Gold
Squadron." Blair backed away a few paces, his eyes fixed on Marshall's face.
"I'd deck  you right now, Maniac, and to  hell with the  consequences. But I
figure I'd rather have you on my wing when we hit Kilrah."
     Maniac snorted. "Yeah, right.  You never thought I was any good before.
So why would you want me this time?"
     "Simple," Blair  told  him. "Odds are none of us  are coming back  from
this  one, but I figure  you're too arrogant and too stupid to bow down.  So
maybe I will have the pleasure of seeing you fry before the damned mission's
over and done with."
     Marshall looked at  him doubtfully, as if uncertain  how  serious Blair
was. "You're crazy, man," he said.
     Blair didn't answer him.  He pulled a PDP out of his pocket and started
the inventory, ignoring  Marshall until the other man snorted again and left
the cabin.
     After  Maniac left, he took  time out to  use  the intercom  to pass  a
message to  Eisen,  identifying  the computer  file that held the  work  the
flight  wing  staff had  put  into  refining Paladin's attack  plan. Then he
finished up in Ralgha's cabin and  left,  locking the door behind him with a
security seal to keep out unauthorized visitors.
     He still had  other unpleasant duties to take care of however. The next
one took him down the corridor from the single rooms assigned to senior wing
officers to the block of double cabins assigned to Gold  Squadron. He halted
in front of the door labeled LT. WINSTON CHANG  LT. MITCHELL  LOPEZ and set
down the empty cargo module he picked up on his way.
     Blair touched the buzzer  beside the door and stepped  back.  It took a
few moments before it slid open. Inside, the lights  were out, but a  figure
was sitting on one of the two narrow beds.
     "Come  in,"  Vagabond  said. There  was  little of his usual  bantering
manner about him today. He squinted into the light. "Oh, Colonel. What can I
do for you?"
     Blair  kicked  the cargo  module  through the door and stepped  inside,
letting the door slide shut behind him. "Sorry to bother you, Lieutenant, he
said, feeling awkward. He wished he could have faced  this  part  of the job
alone, as he had in  Ralgha's  quarters. "I  just .  . . I came to round  up
Vaquero's  stuff.  Shuttle's heading back to  the Eagle later  today,  and I
figured  they could take the personal effects back to Torgo when they jump .
. ."
     "In  case  we don't make  it,"  Chang finished  the thought for him. He
raised his voice slightly. "Lights."
     The  computer brought the light level up.  Under the  illumination, the
lieutenant's expression was bleak.
     "Don't borrow trouble, Vagabond," Blair  said quietly. "I know how  you
feel . .  . this mess is getting to all  of us. But we've all  got  to get a
grip. Bounce back."
     "The clich of the week," Chang  said. He pointed to one of the lockers
on the  far wall. "That one's  Vaquero's.  Was Vaquero's." The Chinese pilot
paused. "He was a good roommate. And a good wingman, for a kid."
     Blair nodded and crossed to the  locker, opening  it  with  a  security
magnakey  that overrode Vaquero's lock. It was crowded and untidy. Evidently
Mitchell Lopez had managed to accumulate a fair number of possessions in the
short time he'd been aboard Victory.
     "Tell  me  this much,  Colonel," Vagabond said from  behind him. "Rumor
mill says we've got a shot at the cats after all, even after Behemoth. Is it
true?"
     Blair looked at him, nodded. "Yeah.  A shot . . . a  pretty damned long
one, but a shot."
     "Good." Chang gave a  curt nod. "Good.  Cause  I want a  piece  of the
bastards."
     "Are you sure?  You  were the one who had doubts about  Behemoth, as  I
recall. And  the new mission's  also designed to knock out  Kilrah.  No ifs,
ands, buts, or maybes . . ."
     Vagabond shrugged. "I'm past caring about it now, Colonel. Damn it, the
kid didn't have to die like that. He was going  to retire, open his cantina.
He  had it all  planned out,  and that bastard  Hobbes  snuffed him out. And
Cobra, too. It's one thing to lose your buddies on the firing line, but this
. . . it's just wrong."
     Blair fixed  him with  a level stare. "I  hear you, Vagabond. I've been
there myself, and not  just  this cruise, either.  But you can't let it  eat
away at you." He pointed to the locker. "Do  you  know how much  I hate this
ritual? As his CO, I'm the one who has to send the comm  to Vaquero s family
. . . you know, the one that's supposed to make them feel proud of their son
and the way  he died. What  am  I supposed to tell them? That my best friend
turned  traitor and killed him  in a sneak attack? That I might have stopped
it  if I hadn't been so  convinced that Hobbes was one of the good guys?" He
shook his head.
     Vagabond  shrugged and  sighed.  "I used to think I  could  keep myself
apart from it, you know? Be the cool professional  on duty, and the squadron
clown  in the rec room. But for the first  time, here on Victory, I actually
felt like I was starting to put down roots. I made friends, real friends . .
. Cobra, Vaquero, Beast Jaeger. Now they're gone, and all I want is  to  see
the end of it all . . . one way or another."
     Blair  didn't  reply  right  away. Vagabond's  words struck a  familiar
chord. "The attack on Kilrah's likely to be a one-way trip, Chang,"  he said
at last. "It's supposed to be an all-volunteer run. I was going to encourage
you  to  opt out of  it,  since you  were pretty  well  set  against bombing
civilian targets.  Now  .  . . hell, I  don't  have  enough  pilots in  Gold
Squadron as it is.  If  you really want in, I'll be  glad to have you there.
But  if  you're not sure, speak  up now.  So I can try  to  get someone else
checked out on the Excalibur from one of the other outfits."
     Vagabond shook his head. "Don't bother. I'm in."
     "It's nice to know you can count on . . . people." Blair turned back to
the  locker, saw Vaquero's  prized  old  guitar. He  picked  it up, ran  his
fingers over  each string. "His family will want this, I  suppose . .  ." he
said softly.  Then, with another flash of anger, he went on.  "It just isn't
fair, Chang. That kid should never have been a pilot."
     "But he was," Vagabond told him. "A good  one, too.  We're all going to
miss him, before this thing is over."
     Together, they emptied out the locker  and packed Vaquero's gear in the
cargo module. When it was done, Blair tagged it and left it outside the door
for a  work  detail to  pick up later. He fetched a  second  module  from  a
storeroom nearby and headed for his last stop. He knew this one would be the
most difficult of all.
     Cobra had shared her quarters with Flint, and the lieutenant opened the
door at Blair's signal. She saw the cargo module and nodded. "Cobra's stuff,
huh?"
     "Yeah." He followed her in. "Er . . . you knew her  pretty well, didn't
you?"
     "As  well  as anyone, I guess," she said. "Laurel didn't  make a lot of
friends."
     "I guess not." Blair looked away.  "Fact is,  I'm supposed  to send her
effects  to her  family, write a note, the usual  routine. But  I don't even
know if she has a family. Her file was pretty thin."
     "We were the only family she had," Flint said softly.
     "I didn't treat her  very well,  for family," Blair said, looking away.
"I trusted Hobbes, not her . . ."
     "You  had  your reasons," she replied. "Blaming yourself  won't  change
what happened . . . won't bring Cobra back, or Vaquero, either."
     "Maybe you're  right. I don't know any more. It seems like every choice
I've made, every turn I've taken since  I  came on board  this ship has been
wrong. I'm starting to second-guess myself on everything."
     Flint hesitated a moment before responding, her look intent,  searching
for  something in his face.  "Everything? Does that mean  your  romance with
your little grease monkey has fallen through?"
     "What's that supposed to mean?" he demanded. He  was still  feeling bad
about  breaking  his  date  with  Rachel the  night  before,  but under  the
circumstances he hadn't felt like seeing anyone.
     She looked away. "I just  thought . . . you could do a lot  better, you
know?"
     "No,  I don't know," Blair told her. "Rachel's been a good friend to me
. . . more  than a friend." He  studied her. "I know you thought there might
be  something between you  and  me. I'm sorry if I gave  you the  wrong idea
about how I felt."
     "Just how do you feel?" she demanded.
     "You've been a  good  friend, too,  Flint. Hell, I probably owe  you my
life,  after Delius. And under other  circumstances, things  might have gone
further between us."
     "Other circumstances . . . ?"
     "Don't you get it,  Flint? Rachel's not a  pilot.  You are.  And  after
Angel  I  just  don't think I  could  handle getting  involved with another
pilot. Especially one who might end up flying on my wing. "He paused. "Truth
is, it isn't fair to either  one of  you, now. When we hit  Kilrah, odds are
none of us  are coming  back.  So  any romance  I get  into now  is strictly
short-term."
     "Maybe that's all there is for any of us, now," Flint said quietly. "If
this next fight goes against us, there won't be time left for anyone."
     Blair nodded. "That's true enough. Look .  . . I'm sorry. I didn't want
to hurt you."
     "I'm grown up," she told him. "I can handle rejection. But I don't take
kindly to  losing  out  to some mechanic who smells  like synlubes  and uses
grease for make-up."
     He looked away, feeling helpless. "If it helps any, I doubt she  and  I
are going anywhere, now."
     Flints look was cold. "Do what  you  like, flyboy,'' she said. "Doesn't
matter  to me.  And like you said,  this next op's probably  going to be the
last, right? For all of us."
     "It's a volunteer mission, Flint. You don't have to fly it. Maybe you'd
be better off staying with the ship."
     She  shook her  head.  "You've  been telling  me not to put my feelings
ahead of my duty, and that's just what I'm going to do now. I  will be in on
the kill, all right. Just try and stop me." Flint paused. "But I'll give you
a word of  warning, Colonel. I may try  to keep  my  personal feelings  on a
leash, but I don't make any guarantees. And it might not be such a good idea
for you to pick a  wingman you've just  kicked in  the teeth. If you take my
meaning. . . sir."
     Blair had no answer  for that. He  left  Flint to pack up Cobra's gear,
and headed back to his office to think.
     Sometimes it was easier to face  the enemy than it was to deal with the
people he cared about most.

     Flight Wing Rec Room, TCS Victory Freya System

     The carrier made the jump from Blackmane to the Freya System, where the
High Command ordered  the strike force to assemble  for the attack  that was
supposed to cover the raid on Kilrah. Through  the viewport in the rec room,
Blair could see a few of the ships of the Terran fleet, some close enough to
recognize shapes and configurations, others so far away  that they glimmered
as moving lights against the starfield.
     It was a powerful force, but nowhere near the  size of the  fleet  that
had held the Kilrathi at Terra. Yet this was supposed to be Earth's decisive
strike, the knockout punch that would end the war.
     Blair watched the other ships. and doubted.
     "You look like you  could use some company, Rachel  Coriolis said  from
behind him.
     Blair turned in  his  chair.  "Rachel . . .  I thought you had the duty
until seventeen hundred hours."
     "This is just  a break,"  she  said. We've still got a lot to get  done
before the jump to Hyperion tomorrow, so I'm grabbing a  bite to eat now and
then pulling a double shift." She mustered a weary smile. "So, are you going
to invite a girl to sit down, or what?"
     "Sure, sure," he said hurriedly. "Please. Sorry . . ."
     Rachel laughed. "So, the  rough,  tough  pilot  goes  to  pieces  under
pressure." She took the seat across from him,  her  eyes searching  his face
under a worried frown. "What's the matter? Is it . . . Hobbes?"
     He shook  his head. "Not  that  . .  . not really. Fact is . . .  it's,
well, it's us."
     "Us? As in you plus me equals us?"
     "Yeah. Look, Rachel, I started thinking some  things  over today, and I
realized  something. Yesterday  I  was all set  for  a nice little seduction
scene.  Dinner. Music. A quiet talk that could lead to . .  . whatever."  He
looked away. "After what happened . . ."
     "Hey,  I understood  then. I understand now. We'll  still have our time
together."
     "Maybe  it  was  best  that  we couldn't make it  happen,"  he  went on
doggedly. "It might be the best thing if we don't try to push it now . . ."
     "Are you backing out on me?" Her expression hovered between concern and
anger. "I thought . . ."
     "Look, Rachel, by this  time tomorrow,  God  only knows  where I'll be.
Even  if we carry  out  the  mission, the deck's stacked against any  of  us
coming back from Kilrah. It isn't fair  to start something with you  that  I
might not be able to finish. I wouldn't want you to have  to go through what
I did . . . with Angel."
     "Pilots . . ." She shook her head. "They'd rather crash and  burn  than
make  a commitment. Look, Chris, I've been there, remember? I know what it's
like. And I also know that if we keep putting our own lives aside because of
what  might happen  tomorrow, eventually  we'll  run out of tomorrows. We'll
never have  anything to look back at, anything  to remember  except the war,
just fighting and killing. I want something  else to remember . . .  whether
it's one night, or an eternity. Don't you?"
     "Do  you really mean that? You want to go ahead, even  knowing it might
not be more than one night?''
     She  met his  eyes and  nodded.  "I'd rather  we  had  just  one  night
together.  Especially  if the alternative is . . . never  having any time at
all."
     "Your shift . . ."
     "Ends at  midnight.  I'll  skip  the dinner and the music if  you'll be
there for me when I come . . ."
     "Midnight, then." She stood when he  did, and they came together  in  a
long, lingering kiss. "Midnight . . ."




     Excalibur 300 Hyperion System

     Acceleration pressed Blair  into his  seat as the Excalibur burst  into
open space. He  cut  in his engines  and  steered hard  to port,  toward the
unseen jump point that would carry him to the enemy homeworld.
     To the real Heart of the Tiger, he thought idly.
     "Excalibur three-zero-zero,  clear and  under power," Blair said aloud.
"Lancelot Flight, form on me and proceed as planned."
     The other three pilots acknowledged, closing around him. Four Excalibur
fighters,  to  attack the Imperial  homeworld.  It  still seemed  like sheer
madness. But this time it was truly mankind's last chance for victory.
     "Lancelot Flight, Lancelot Flight, this is Round Table," Eisen's  voice
crackled over the comm channel. "Good luck to you all . . . and Godspeed."
     Blair didn't reply. Instead he  checked his power levels, then spoke to
the other pilots. "Go to cloaks . . . now!" he ordered, switching on his own
cloaking  system.  There  was  no  apparent effect,  other  than the  sudden
increase  in  the fighter's  power  drain. Weapons  and shields were useless
while  the  shroud  concealed  the  craft,  but  detection would  be  nearly
impossible. Already the other  Excaliburs had vanished.  He was all alone in
an endless night.
     He checked the  range to  the jump point, and asked the computer for an
ETA. Ten minutes. . . .
     The timing  of this  phase of the operation was  critical. The Confed's
battle  fleet  had  jumped  into  the  Hyperion  System  from  nearby Freya,
challenging  the  local Kilrathi  garrison  forces with a  series  of strike
attacks by  fighters and  capital  ships.  Victory had  remained  in reserve
throughout  nearly a  week  of  combat ops,  keeping to  the fringes  of the
action. The Kilrathi were given every opportunity to commit  their forces to
the system, and they'd pumped in enough ships to  put the  Terran fleet at a
serious disadvantage. It  was all  a part of the plan, to encourage the cats
to  thin out their  home defenses and divert attention away from Kilrah. But
it had been a costly fight already, and it was likely to get worse.
     Today the admiral commanding  the fleet had passed the word  to General
Taggart aboard Victory. There was no guarantee that the fleet could maintain
the fight for more than a few more hours. Then they would have to break off,
or go down  fighting. Paladin had  given the  orders. The attack  was  on at
last.
     The  carrier edged  toward the jump  point, seemingly  to reinforce the
Terran battle group built  around  the Hermes and  the Invincible which  had
been  heavily   engaged  in  the   area  for  several  hours.  According  to
intelligence reports,  the Kilrathi  were unaware of the Terran survey  work
done around Hyperion, and thus thought the Confederation knew nothing of the
Kilrah jump point. But they  had to  be careful to keep from  tipping  their
hands too soon.
     As  it  was, they nearly ran  into trouble  when  a Kilrathi  destroyer
escort left the enemy fleet  on course for  the jump point, but Eisen turned
the situation to their  advantage by pretending to  pursue the  enemy  ship.
That ship had passed through the  jump point less than half an hour ago, and
that transjump became the main reason for Blair's present preoccupation with
the ticking countdown clock.
     If the escort  withdrew to  Kilrah to summon additional reinforcements,
the Terrans had to hope nothing  else was waiting close to the jump point on
the other side. Otherwise  they  might be blundering into trouble before the
mission was even fairly under way.
     He checked the ETA again. Three minutes . . .

     Audience Hall, KIS Hvar'kann Kilrah System

     "Message  from  the escort  Ghordax, Lord  Prince.  From the  fleet  at
Hyperion."
     Thrakhath  allowed  his  throne  to swivel  past the viewscreen  he was
contemplating so he could look down on Melek. "What is their report?"
     "'The  battle  proceeds well,  Lord Prince,'' Melek  said bowing.  "The
Terrans cannot last long."
     "So there is no further need for reinforcements, then?"
     "No, Lord Prince. None."
     "Good," Thrakhath said. "I do not wish to further disrupt  our buildup.
Is there any word from the Logistics Masters on  the timetable for launching
the Grand Fleet?"
     "Six  eights of  hours, Lord Prince. The  bombardment missiles will  be
fully loaded by then, and the fleet can break orbit any time after that."
     "Excellent. Then  we will soon be on our way to the  Terran  homeworld.
This time they shall not  turn us  back." Thrakhath turned his throne again,
gesturing to the  screen. It showed a view of Kilrah's  orbital  yards, with
capital  ships  grouped  around  orbital  depots and swarms of smaller craft
moving among them, preparing  the  Grand Fleet for the last  great campaign.
"Victory, Melek," the prince continued. "It smells sweet, does it not?"
     "Yes, Lord Prince," Melek replied dutifully.
     "Still,  there is  one thing  missing,"  Thrakhath went  on, almost  to
himself. "I can only hope for one last chance to meet the Heart of the Tiger
in battle. It will make our triumph all the more complete . . ."
     Thrakhath continued to  study the viewscreen, the  light of victory  in
his eyes.

     Excalibur 300 Kilrah System

     Jumpshock  made  Blair  sluggish, but he forcing his body  to obey  his
will, he switched power from  the  transjump  drive to the cloaking  device.
Powering up  his  engines, he steered the  fighter  out of  the jump  point,
setting course inward, toward the Kilrathi homeworld.
     On his  sensor screen,  another blip flickered  into  existence astern,
then faded a few moments later. That  was Vagabond, acting as wingman on the
mission. Maniac and Flint followed  in succession, apparently  without being
noticed. There were  no Kilrathi ships in the  immediate  area,  though  the
escort they  had  trailed in the  Hyperion System  was  at  the very edge of
detection range,  also  on course toward Kilrah.  Hopefully, if they spotted
anything suspicious at all they wouldn't  be able to react until the cloaked
Terran ships were well clear of the area.
     Blair's comm  monitor came  alive  with  an image  of Paladin. The  old
warrior had warned  him that the computers  aboard all  four fighters  would
trigger periodic briefings as they headed in  toward their goal.  This tape,
for Blair, had been personalized. Taggart smiled out at him.  "Laddie, we've
covered  this  ground backwards  and  forwards waiting  for  the mission  to
launch, but I'll give you the  straight dope one more time now. Since you're
seeing  this,  you've made the jump successfully, and you're in the Kilrathi
System  now." The screen changed to show a chart of the Kilrah star  system,
with navpoints glowing brightly.  "Your first  job, now that you're through,
is  tae bring  your fighters in tae  the first asteroid  depot. There you'll
find a stock of fuel, spares, and missiles, everything you'll need tae carry
you all the way in tae the outer moon of Kilrah." The first depot faded, and
another  more  distant  asteroid was  indicated.  "Should  ye find the first
position compromised, laddie, there  is a second choice. But remember, if ye
canna keep one depot in  reserve, there'll nae be enough fuel in  your birds
tae  get  you through  the jump  point after the mission's done.  The second
depot is supposed  to be for  the trip back but I ken well you'll do what ye
have tae if the mission depends upon it."
     Paladin's face appeared on the screen again. "Good luck, laddie. You'll
need it.
     The screen went blank.
     Blair  set his course for  the nearer depot,  knowing that  the  others
would be doing the same. They were maintaining absolute comm silence, hoping
to avoid  any detection by the Kilrathi. Surprise was their only hope  . . .
surprise sheer flying skill and pure, unadulterated good luck.
     He hoped it would be enough.

     Excalibur 302 Kilrah System

     A  warning alarm  beeped  for attention,  and Lieutenant Winston  Chang
checked  his sensor board. There was something  ahead, a powered target that
glowed amber on his screen as the computer tried to identify it as friend or
foe. A moment later,  it changed to  a reddish orange.  An enemy, then . . .
no,  two enemies, a  pair of  Darket fighters,  evidently making  a  routine
patrol sweep.
     Vagabond muttered an old  Chinese curse under his breath  and cut power
to  his engines.  The  two Darket  were dead  ahead  and only  a few hundred
kilometers  beyond  lay  the  large  asteroid  where  the  first  depot  was
established. In order  to reach their  destination,  transmitters aboard the
Excaliburs were programmed to send out  short-burst signals  to activate the
locator transponders in  the depot.  As long as those two Darket were in the
neighborhood, the  Terrans were stuck.  The  depot  might as well be  around
Sirius.
     Meanwhile, there was  another danger. If  the  Kilrathi got too  close,
they would spot the Terran ships, cloaked or not.
     The two  light fighters  were  making  a slow, graceful  turn. Vagabond
warily watched them, alert for any signs of their detecting the  location of
one  of the  Terran fighters. He wondered  about the others. Their  original
tight formation had become tenuous  en  route to the asteroid, and he was no
longer sure where any of his comrades might be.
     The Darket  were  going to pass close to him  . . . too close. Vagabond
engaged his engines again and started to bank  away,  but it  was  too late.
Suddenly the  two  Kilrathi ships  were  picking up speed, swinging  around,
pointed directly at  him. Cloaked, he had no shields.  A few shots would  be
enough to knock him out.
     He cut the cloak, shunting  power to the weapons and  shield generators
and  cutting back on his own course with a sharp pull on the steering  yoke.
Maybe  if he disposed of these two  fast enough there  would be no  time for
them to summon help.
     One of the  Darket opened fire just  as the green  light on  his shield
status display  appeared. Blasters  pounded at  the  shields,  but to little
effect.  He returned fire with blasters and a  pair of heat-seekers, closing
the range fast. The Darket's  shields crumbled  beneath the  heavy pounding,
and a moment later his beams  bored through armor and  set  off the missiles
slung under the Kilrathi crafts wings. He was  close enough now to  actually
be caught  in  the  fireball, and  the  energy release  and spinning  debris
overloaded his own shielding.
     In  that moment, the second Darket  engaged. He didn't  have to look at
the  damage control  panel  to  know  that he was  losing  armor  around his
reactor.  Desperately,  Vagabond  tried to  dodge,  but  the  controls  were
sluggish.
     He  broke comm  silence. "I  can't shake him! I'm going  up."  And just
before  the Darket fired again,  he managed to add a final plea. "Don't give
up, Colonel. You've got to take them down . . . for all  of  us  who  didn't
make it!"
     He slammed the switch to trigger his ejection system, praying he wasn't
already too late.

     Excalibur 300 Kilrah System

     Blair  saw Vagabond's Excalibur go up in  flames of fury. He let out  a
cry of rage and  grief. The Chinese pilot's last  words echoed in his  mind,
and he made a grim, silent vow that Chang's last effort wouldn't be in vain.
     Then Maniac's fighter appeared on  his sensors  swooping in from beyond
the expanding fireball. Blair spotted the Excalibur a moment later as Maniac
opened fire, battering through the Darket's shields. The fighter exploded.
     His  satisfaction  was short-lived, though.  Flint broke comm silence a
moment later. "We've got trouble, boys," she said. "Heading our way."
     Two  more Darket appeared from beyond  the bulk of the asteroid, moving
slowly  but gathering  speed as  they came. Blair's comm monitor picked up a
transmission from one of them. They were summoning help.
     "Lancelot Flight, break off  action," he ordered  sharply. "Recloak and
head for the backup rendezvous."
     It  galled him to run,  but  they didn't  have much  choice. Though the
Excaliburs could deal with  these two  fighters easily enough, they couldn't
count  on being able to  refuel and  rearm  at this  depot before a swarm of
additional Kilrathi ships turned up. A thorough search of the asteroid would
turn  up the  depot, and  if  they were  caught inside the  result  would be
disastrous.
     He  hit  his  afterburners  and  punched in the  new  course. Paladin's
warning ran through his mind. With  this depot compromised and the secondary
one depleted, the Terrans were on a one-way trip to Kilrah.
     if they made it that far.

     Audience Hall, KIS Hvar'kann Kilrah System

     The Audience Hall was  empty except for  the  Crown Prince, brooding on
his throne.  Melek hastened to  the foot of  the dais, bowing low. Thrakhath
raised his head at the retainer's approach.
     "I left orders that I was not to be disturbed," the Prince rumbled.
     "An urgent message,  Lord Prince," Melek told him.  "One of our patrols
reported  engaging Terran  fighters. Here  in  our own system . . . and they
escaped using cloak technology."
     "Ape ships  . .  .  here?"  Thrakhath  straightened, eyes flashing with
anger. "Cloaked . . . spies, seeking word of our fleet, then."
     "We cannot say, Lord Prince," Melek said. "But . . . we intercepted one
exchange of  messages between  them. And our computers  have identified  the
voice of the apparent leader." He paused. "It was . . . the one named Blair.
The Heart of the Tiger."
     "Him . . ." Thrakhath stood slowly, drawing himself to his full height.
"That one would not come on a mere spy mission. Could it be . . .  could the
Terrans be planning a strike? Perhaps they plan to attack our fleet while it
is still taking on  armaments  . . .  to break up our attack  before we  can
leave orbit."
     "It is possible, Lord Prince. But we cannot be  sure." Melek hesitated.
"The cruiser Kheerakh discovered  a hidden supply cache  in an asteroid near
where the encounter took place . . .  but I  fear the  fools destroyed it by
bombardment rather than investigating."
     "I trust Kheerakh has a new captain now?"
     "Yes, Lord Prince. One who is . . . less impulsive
     "We  must look to our defenses, Melek. I do not believe the Terrans can
mount a serious threat, but even a few shipkiller missiles released into the
fleet while it  is  bunched  up  would be an  .  . . annoying setback. Order
fighter  patrols around  the orbital  yards  doubled." Thrakhath paused. And
have my personal ship and squadron readied to launch on short notice. If the
Heart of the Tiger has come, I mean to take him myself."
     Melek bowed again.  "As you order, Lord Prince. He backed away, leaving
Thrakhath alone in the empty hall.
     It  seemed the apes were far more resilient than the Emperor's grandson
had  ever realized.  Melek  wondered what  other surprises the Terrans might
have in store.

     Covert Ops Depot #3 Kilrah System

     They had  come farther than  Blair ever dared to  hope they would.  The
three Excaliburs located the backup depot and set down long enough to refuel
and  replace  the missiles Maniac used  to  destroy the Darket that took out
Vagabond. From there, they pushed into the Kilrah System, all the way to the
outer moon of the Kilrathi homeworld itself, and the last Terran depot.
     Like the  first station, this depot  was a crude chamber  carved out of
solid rock with mining lasers. A force field curtain allowed the interior to
be pressurized,  so  Blair and  his two pilots worked unencumbered by  bulky
pressure gear. But the facilities were primitive, and the work was difficult
enough even so.  The near-weightless conditions  didn  t  help matters much,
either.  Though the  equipment had virtually no weight, it retained its full
mass,  and  none  of  the  three  were  accustomed  to  working  under  such
conditions. Care and  caution  were required at  a time  when every instinct
cried out  for  them to hurry, to finish the job and get  back into space as
quickly as possible. It made for frayed nerves.
     Nonetheless,  they  did the work, exchanging the  missiles  slung under
Blair's Excalibur for one of the  two  massive Temblor Bombs  stowed  in the
depot. He decided against  loading the second one onto a different  fighter.
Originally, he  hoped to  have two  fighters fitted with bombs, each with  a
fully-armed  escort, but  Vagabond's death  changed  his  plans.  A  fighter
without missiles wasn't worth much  in a dogfight, and one  escort  couldn't
hope to cover two bombers at once. If this run  failed  and anyone survived
to return to the depot  they  could try  again later, perhaps. But for  now
Blair figured two fighters flying cover gave him that much more of a  chance
to make the bombing run successful.
     With the bomb loaded, they topped  off their fuel tanks and ran a final
test of their on-board systems.
     "Do  you really think this is going to work?" Flint asked as  they were
finishing. "Or are we just going through the motions?"
     "It'll work," Blair  said.  "We have to  make  it  work." He  was still
thinking about Vagabond's last transmission. So many people died to get them
here, starting  with Angel. Blair  was  determined to make  their sacrifices
count.
     "I'd be a damned sight happier if Vagabond was still with us," Marshall
said. "He wasn't very flashy in the cockpit, but he was steady. And we'll be
missing him soon enough, I bet."
     "I  already miss him," Blair growled.  "And not  just  because he was a
good wingman." He caught sight of the sheepish look on Maniac's face.  "Look
. . . we'll all miss him, the way we miss every single one of the others who
bought it. I read somewhere that the darkest times are supposed to bring out
the best in  people." Blair looked  away. "I don't know about that. All I do
know  is this: we've got  to finish the  job.  Because  if we don't, there's
nobody else to  pick up and carry on after us. So . .  . give me  everything
you've got. That's all I can ask."
     He turned  away and shoved a chip cartridge  into the portable computer
they used for their tests. The oversized monitor screen came on, and Paladin
looked down at the three with a serious expression.
     "This  is  the final  briefing, laddie," Taggart's recorded  image told
them. "By now  you've finished  loading the T-Bomb, and you're ready for the
final phase of the mission. I pray to God you can carry it out. If you canna
do it, I dinna ken who can."
     Paladin was replaced by a satellite photo  showing part of the  surface
of Kilrah,  a  long,  jagged canyon in the middle of rocky desert land. "You
are  looking at your target, a deep  natural canyon that goes down  nearly a
mile. It was formed by one of the  most active fault lines on the planet." A
computer-generated  map replaced the photo  image.  "If our calculations are
correct, this point, here, near the northern end of the canyon, is critical.
Three faults come together  at this one point,  and  if  the Temblor Bomb is
detonated  there  it  should set up a  chain  reaction of quakes  that  will
devastate Kilrah."
     Taggart appeared again. "Lay  it in  there sweet and  easy laddie.  The
exact coordinates are  already  preprogrammed  in your  flight computers. To
make the run, though, you'll have to  descend into the  atmosphere, into the
canyon  itself, and drop  the bomb on the target.  Because you'll  need your
shields to handle a  high-speed atmospheric insertion, you'll have tae go in
the last  stretch without your cloaks. It'll be dangerous . .  .  but if you
move fast and hit hard, you'll have a chance."
     The general paused, and Blair had the feeling his old eyes were looking
right out  of  the screen  at him.  "It's almost over, laddie. You and  your
people are the best for the job, and I know you'll do Terra proud. You'll be
in my prayers, all of you. Good luck."
     The screen went blank, and Blair turned back to the others. "All right,
time to  saddle up. We've got a message  to deliver to the Emperor,  and the
clock is ticking."

     Excalibur 300 Kilrah System

     Kilrah was a dirty orange-brown sphere that filled his field of vision,
swelling  visibly as  the  Terran  fighters  pressed forward at full thrust.
Blair ran  his eyes over his instrument board, checking over all systems one
more time  and praying nothing would go wrong now that  the final attack was
so near.
     His hull  temperature  gauges  were  just  beginning  to  register  the
friction of the tenuous upper  atmosphere.  Soon he would have to switch  to
shields  or  drastically cut  his rate of descent.  Blair  waited  until the
cockpit was  noticeably  hot,  until the outer hull was  beginning  to  glow
faintly,  before  he  finally  cut  the  cloak  and  activated   the  shield
generators.
     Screaming  through the  thickening atmosphere under  the dull  light of
Kilrah's red-orange sun, three  Terran fighters plummeted downward toward  a
final rendezvous with death.




     Audience Hall, KIS Hvar'kann Kilrah System

     "Lord Prince, the ground-based defenses have picked up three intruders.
Terran fighters matching the description of those engaged yesterday."
     Thrakhath  rose  from  his throne and stepped  down from the dais. "The
ground defenses?"  he  demanded.  "Is every one of my  ship  captains blind,
then?"
     "No, Lord  Prince,"  Melek  said,  voice quavering a little.  "But  the
Terrans  . .  .  are entering the  atmosphere. They came out of cloak almost
directly below our present orbit, descending at high speed."
     "Scramble  all  available interceptors,  Melek,"  Thrakhath  commanded,
starting toward the door. "Including my own squadron. We will show them they
cannot defile the Homeworld with impunity!"

     Excalibur 300 Kilrah

     "Eighty kilometers up  . . .  two  hundred  ten kilometers to  target,"
Blair  said over the comm  channel. There was no need for  comm silence now.
The Kilrathi  had  surely  detected  the  Terran fighters. "Maniac, you take
point. Open me  a path. And you watch my tail, Flint. They're going to throw
everything they can our way."
     "Affirmative," Flint replied.
     "You got it," Marshall chimed in a moment later. His fighter swept past
Blair's to take the lead.
     He was hardly in position before the first targets  appeared ahead. "We
got  bogies," Blair said. "They  look like atmospheric craft   ground-based
interceptors.
     "Piece of  cake," Maniac told him. The Excalibur's afterburners cut in,
and Marshall surged ahead, his blasters beginning to fire as he closed in on
the enemy aircraft.
     Conventional  atmospheric  fighters  weren't as well-equipped  as space
fighters,  but  they  were  fast and  maneuverable  in  their  own  element.
Marshall's  guns cut a swath through the  leading  fighters, but the  others
rolled out and then swung inward  from  either  flank, unleashing a  massive
bombardment. Caught in a crossfire from four aircraft at once, Maniac rolled
left to concentrate  on one  threat. Blair  banked  sharply right and opened
fire  on the  remaining  pair. His  blasters raked across the nearer target,
which came apart under the savage force of the beams.
     The  second  fighter  looped  up,  turning  away  from the  battle  and
accelerating fast.  Evidently the pilot had decided against a glorious death
today . . .
     "There's more of the bastards up  ahead, Colonel," Marshall reported as
he finished off his last opponent and swung back into formation. "Looks like
we're not welcome around here."
     "As long as they're just conventional aircraft, they shouldn't be  much
trouble,"  Blair said. "Stay focused, though.  You can bet they'll bring  in
the big guns soon enough . . ."
     "Targets! Targets! Targets!" Flint chanted.  "I've got six  . . . eight
targets on my board. Coming in from orbit!"
     They  weren't showing  on  Blair's  sensors yet, so they  were still at
extreme   range.  "Watch  em,  Flint,"  he  ordered.  A  whole  squadron  of
space-based  fighters  would  be  a  lot harder to handle than the  aircraft
ahead, but they'd be hard-pressed  to close the range as long as the Terrans
could keep moving.
     The  second  wave  of   interceptors  closed  in   from  below,   eight
high-performance jet  aircraft  in a tight  formation. They  broke  just  as
Maniac opened fire, scattering,  curving in on the Terrans and engaging with
missiles  and beam weapons. Once again Maniac and Blair had to  engage them,
and by the time  the attackers had been destroyed  or  forced  to flee Blair
realized  what the enemy strategy was. Each time the Terrans got caught in a
dogfight, however short, the orbital fighters closed the range a little more
. . .

     Excalibur 303 Kilrah

     A  near miss  by  a  missile buffeted her fighter, and Lieutenant Robin
Peters had to fight her steering yoke to maintain control. It had been years
since she'd last had to fight a battle in  a planetary atmosphere, where all
the rules were different from those she was used to in  deep space fighting.
Shock waves  carried.  .  . and shields were  weakened by  the  energy  they
absorbed from friction in high-speed maneuvers.
     "They're  firing," Flint reported. "One Vaktoth . .  . and a Bloodfang,
both of them in combat range. More Vaktoth coming up fast behind them."
     "Bloodfang . . . Thrakhath s personal fighter." Blair's voice was grim.
"Damn it all!"
     She  nodded  Intelligence reports on  the  Prince's  personal  fighter,
code-named Bloodfang by the Confederation, suggested it would be one hell of
a tough opponent. "Don't know if I can take the bastard, skipper," she said.
"You have any bright ideas?"
     "Go to afterburners," Blair ordered. "Let's see if we can outrun them."
     She kicked  in  the  extra power,  but  the Vaktoth  matched her.  .  .
continued closing  the  range.  Another missile  detonated, even closer this
time. "No joy, skipper," she said. "Looks like there's going to be a fight .
. ."
     Kilrathi blaster  fire probed  at  her rear shields, sapping  the power
levels with each hit. Cursing, she pulled up in a sharp loop and opened fire
on one of her two  pursuers with blasters and a spread of four missiles. The
two fighters were having as much trouble fighting in  atmosphere as she was,
and the weakened forward shields of her target went down  under  the fury of
her attack. The  Vaktoth exploded in a shower of debris, and Flint let out a
whoop of triumph.
     It died on  her lips as  the Bloodfang opened fire. She  tried to  roll
out, but blasters  pounded at her shields. They were going down . . . and  a
pair of heat seekers were already on the way.
     "He's got me, skipper!" she called. Can t . . evade. Don't forget . . .
I could have loved  "
     She didn't live to finish the sentence.

     Excalibur 300 Kilrah

     "Flint!"  Blair shouted, but it  was  too late. The  rearmost Excalibur
went up in a dazzling fireball, and Robin Peters was gone.
     A new voice crackled in his headphones. "So  it  shall  be  with you as
well,  Heart of  the  Tiger."  He  recognized  the  harsh,  sibilant  voice.
Thrakhath .  . .  "You are foolhardy,  to venture with  so  few  against  my
Homeworld. Once  before you lacked the courage to  fight me.  This time, you
shall not  escape. Welcome, Heart of  the Tiger, to Kilrah . . . and to your
death!"
     "The canyon's in sight ahead, Colonel," Marshall reported.  "I'll  drop
back and have the next dance. You get in there and do your stuff!"
     Blair hesitated.  Thrakhath  had challenged him once again . . . and he
couldn't stand and fight. It took  every bit of his self-control to grit his
teeth and acknowledge Marshall's call.
     Maniac executed  a tight Immelman  loop, swinging up and around to head
back toward the on-coming Kilrathi fighters. Thrakhath's Bloodfang was still
well in the lead, but there were two others closing fast.
     Blair  saw the  canyon  ahead, a  long, jagged  scar on the  surface of
Kilrah. His target was there, at the far end of the deep trench . . .
     "Watch  your  tail, Colonel!" Maniac called suddenly. "Don't  know if I
can cover you!"
     His  sensor  board  told  the  story. Thrakhath  had  ignored  Maniac's
Excalibur entirely, refusing to  be  drawn into  a dogfight. Instead he  had
plunged past Marshall, and the two trailing Vaktoth were all over the Terran
pilot now. Blair cursed aloud  Maniac couldn't last  long against two  heavy
fighters . . .
     And his underarmed Excalibur was no match for Thrakhath's Bloodfang.
     He swung  sharply left, away  from the  canyon, as the  Kilrathi prince
opened  fire. The blaster shots went wide  but  the Bloodfang  followed  his
turn, still clinging stubbornly  to his tail. All the  advantages  lay  with
Thrakhath now.
     Blair was only dimly aware of  the explosion higher up and off  to  his
right. His monitor told him it was one of the Vaktoth facing Maniac. Somehow
Marshall had managed to  savage one  of his  foes, but the other  was  still
pressing  hard. For  the  moment  Blair couldn't  afford to think about him,
though. He cut in full afterburners  and tried to climb up  and out of range
of  Thrakhath's  fighter.  A  Kilrathi  missile exploded  against  his  rear
shields, sending  the power levels fluctuating wildly.  And  still Thrakhath
held on behind him.
     "Heads up,  Colonel!  Incoming!"  Maniac's call  was  loud  and  almost
exultant.  Marshall had swung away from his  second  opponent and was diving
down  on Thrakhath, heedless  of the  Vaktoth  behind  him  slashing  at his
shields with bolt after bolt of raw energy.
     Marshall  released two missiles,  then two more, holding  steady on his
target and refusing to be drawn off by the dire threat behind him.
     "Shields are failing," he  said as he released the  missiles, his voice
almost matter of fact now. "Looks like you're  on your own now, Colonel. For
what it's worth. I'm proud I flew with you . . ."
     And  then his  fighter was gone, too, an expanding cloud of  flame  and
smoke and  whirling  debris.  Blair  thought  he  caught  a  glimpse of  the
Excalibur's escape pod boosting clear  of  the explosion, straining to reach
orbital velocity but he wasn't sure.  And even if Maniac had somehow managed
to  survive  that blast,  he wouldn't be playing  any further  part in  this
battle.
     Blair was alone.
     He threw the Excalibur into a tight  turn to  port and opened fire with
his  blasters  just  as  Marshall's  first two  missiles  detonated  against
Thrakhath's shields. The Bloodfang passed close beside Blair's craft, and he
maintained his tight turn  to  stay lined  up on the Kilrathi  fighter.  The
other missiles  struck the  Prince's  rear shields,  and  Blair squeezed the
trigger again. Beams tore through  the  weakened shields,  chopping  through
armor.
     "Curse you, ape!" Thrakhath  snarled. "You have won today, Heart of the
Tiger: But it will not bring back your mate . . . and it will not save  your
kind from the vengeance of the Empire. This I swear!"
     Explosions  tore  through  the  Bloodfang, and  it seemed to stagger in
mid-air before plunging downward.  Blair  watched  as  Thrakhath  fought  to
maintain  control, saw the  nose just start to come up as the Prince managed
one  last masterful maneuver. But it  was  too late. The  Bloodfang ploughed
into the red-lit desert floor, erupting in fire and thunder.
     There were still several fighters above  Blair, but they seemed stunned
by the loss of their leader. He  turned his  fighter back  toward the canyon
and opened up  his throttles. Perhaps  there was just time to start his  run
before the Kilrathi recovered . . .
     He  dropped down into the steep-sided,  twisting gorge It took all  his
skill to weave through that  narrow gash in the  desert. His HUD  reeled off
the range  to  the preprogrammed drop  coordinates,  and  Blair's thumb grew
tense hovering over the switch  that would release the Temblor Bomb from the
belly of his fighter.
     A part  of him recoiled  from what he had to do. The  destruction of an
entire planet, warriors and civilians  alike. Once he would  never even have
considered making this desperate gambler's last  throw. What had led to this
moment, then? Was it just a thirst for vengeance? Thrakhath's death had left
him feeling curiously  empty of  feeling, as if all  his  hate after Angel's
death had  been for  nothing. It had been the same with Hobbes. In  the end,
revenge was a sterile thing. He could slaughter  every Kilrathi, here and in
the  farthest reaches of the  Empire, and the killing would never change the
facts. Angel and Cobra  and  Vaquero and all the others would still be dead,
and his life would still be empty.
     He felt as if they were all there in his mind Vagabond . .  . Flint . .
.  even Maniac, who in the end had risen above their long rivalry  and given
his life so  that Blair  could finish the mission.  But  in the long run, he
knew it was wrong to use that bomb in the name of those who had died.
     His range indicator continued to count down . . .
     Blair thought of the ones who  hadn't died. Paladin  and Eisen, Admiral
Tolwyn and his  nephew. Rachel Coriolis,  who  had accepted the fact that he
might never come back  and still dared to love  him. They were the  ones who
counted. And if the War went on, they would ultimately pay the same price as
all the ones who had gone  before. He pictured Victory broken and  shattered
as  he had last  seen  Concordia, imagined plagues spreading across Terra as
they had spread on Locanda Four. It was war to the knife with the Kilrathi.
     Kill or  be  killed.  Not for  revenge. Not  for hate.  But  for simple
survival of the human species.
     He gritted his teeth and  watched the range  tick down. The  target was
coming up fast. It was now or never . . .
     His thumb stabbed  down on the release, and as the bomb dropped away he
jerked hard  back  on the steering yoke  and cut  in his  afterburners.  The
Excalibur  climbed  fast,  the  atmosphere  screaming  past  as  the fighter
accelerated. A Vaktoth  had followed him into  the canyon and opened fire as
Blair pulled up. The Kilrathi pilot followed, but at that moment the Temblor
Bomb went off, and the shock wave threw  the Imperial craft against the side
of the narrow trench.  The  fireball was  lost  in  the greater blast of the
bomb.
     He had to  wrestle with his own controls  as the  blast battered at his
Excalibur.  The rear shields failed,  and Blair  thought he  could feel  the
impact of bits of debris against the tail  section of the fighter. He had no
way of  telling how much damage he took, but the controls were feeling heavy
and sluggish under his hands as he  continued his  steep  climb, clawing for
the safety of open space.
     Behind and below him, the force  of the Temblor  Bomb triggered a quake
in one of the major fault lines. The effects spread, and spread again, until
the entire  canyon was  trembling with  the  force  of a  seismic  event  of
unparalleled ferocity.

     Blair  didn't see the  effects of the bomb.  It took time for the first
quakes to trigger  subsidiary  effects,  radiating outward through  all  the
interconnected fault lines. The  Excalibur had already  reached orbit by the
time the quakes became planet-wide,  collapsing  Kilrathi-made buildings and
structures within the major quake zones. The Imperial Palace was one of  the
first to suffer, as the entire  massive edifice caved in on itself, crushing
the Emperor and his court before they had a  chance to react to the violence
consuming their world.
     The ground was heaving even in regions far from the fault lines now, as
the pent-up  energy of the entire world's tectonic stresses was all released
at once. Dust clouds rose into the atmosphere,  huge rents  opened up in the
crust of the planet. As Blair finally cut his engines and looked down at the
planet, it  was  to  see Kilrah disfigured by  angry orange gashes spreading
across the  face of the globe The Kilrathi homeworld was coming apart before
his eyes . . .
     And then it  happened. Overcome  by  the awful  forces set free by  the
Temblor Bomb, the planet's core exploded, hurtling huge chunks of the mantle
and crust outward. Vast  planetoids tore through the orbital yards, smashing
the  assembled might of the Kilrathi  Grand  Fleet. Only a few ships,  those
under power and able to maneuver escaped the death of the Homeworld.
     Blair managed  to steer clear  of the  largest of the debris,  but  his
Excalibur was battered by smaller fragments. As Kilrah came apart, spreading
out  into  a cloud  of drifting  asteroids,  the fighter's  engines  finally
failed. He was drifting free now . . . trapped in the doomed system.
     Christopher Blair sagged back in  his acceleration  couch, closing  his
eyes. He was exhausted, drained of anger and fear and hope alike. He knew he
would  die here, along with the planet  and the  empire his bomb had brought
down.
     Barely conscious,  Blair  didn't see the  Kilrathi  carrier that  edged
through the  whirling  debris  toward  his drifting  fighter. Tractor  beams
lanced out to seize the  Excalibur and  pull it down toward the flight deck.
He realized, too  late, that his death would not be as  quick and easy as he
had hoped. He would, after all, face the enemy one more time.

     Audience Hall, KIS Hvar'kann Kilrah System

     Kilrathi guards in the elaborate harness of the  Imperial Guard  hauled
Blair from the cockpit of his battered Excalibur and used gunbutts and nerve
prods to  herd  him  through a  maze  of  dim-lit  corridors.  Still  barely
recovered from the beating his  ship had taken, staggering  with exhaustion,
Blair still tried to force himself to remain  stiffly upright. He remembered
the last images of  Angel, the pride she'd  conveyed even after  torture and
imprisonment. The least he could do was to emulate her now.
     They brought him into the open expanse of the audience chamber, shoving
him forward until he stood before  the raised dais that dominated one end. A
stocky,  massive Kilrathi figure stood beside the throne, regarding him with
dark, hooded eyes that gave away nothing.
     He  was vaguely aware of other Kilrathi warriors in the hall, hidden in
the  shadows, hissing their  hatred, but his full  attention was focused  on
this one dominating figure
     "The  Heart  of  the  Tiger,"  the  Kilrathi said  in  heavily-accented
English, sounding  like a judge  about  to  deliver a verdict. "I  am Melek.
Prince Thrakhath was my master."
     Blair  remained silent, staring into those dark pools that were Melek's
eyes.
     "In my bones, I wish to kill you . . ." Melek let the words hang in the
chamber. From the shadows, there was muttered agreement, sibilant curses.
     "Do it, then," Blair  said. "Get it over with. It won't bring back your
world."
     "And what is the Race without the Homeworld?" Melek asked. "Nothing . .
.  dust in the wind." He paused.  "You have defeated us, Heart of the Tiger.
Brought down the Empire with one blow. Thrakhath was a fool to discount what
you  Terrans  could  achieve,  but he and his accursed grandfather have both
paid the price for that folly."
     Blair squinted up at him, a faint hope stirring within. He hardly dared
fan it for fear it would be false.
     "But you Terrans have committed your own  folly, this  day," Melek went
on. "For now the  Empire  will fall . .  . and the enemies who  harassed our
outer  marches  will  now  have nothing  to  stand  between  them  and  your
Confederation.  They have a power that  even Thrakhath was  wary  of: Do you
Terrans,  who barely held against us, have the  strength to face  them  when
they come?"
     Blair found his voice again. "If we're  attacked, we'll fight back," he
said. "As we did with you."
     Melek stepped down from  the dais,  his face only inches  from Blair's.
"With the Homeworld gone and the  Emperor dead, the rest of  the Empire will
fall  apart.  There will be civil war, factions fighting for  power, subject
races throwing  off  our  rule. Chaos.  And enemies waiting  to exploit  our
weakness . . ." He lowered his voice, until Blair had to strain to  hear the
words. "Perhaps the only hope for either of our races is to face the  future
together. The Kilrathi Race has become too corrupt, slaves to blood lust and
the evils brought by too much power. We have paid a heavy price . . ."
     He stepped back and raised  his voice again. "Killing the  Heart of the
Tiger, the one warrior  great enough to humble the Empire, will bring me  no
honor." Melek looked at Blair for a  long  moment, as if struggling  for the
will to go on.  "Your claws are at our throats. Would your people accept our
.  . . surrender?  The Race  cannot be allowed to die, even it means placing
our fate in the hands of our enemies."
     Blair nodded slowly. "Peace  is  what we both  need now. If you can end
this war, I think you'll find we  won't  demand  more than you're willing to
give." He paused. "And maybe one day, when the  War is  over and the hate is
past, you and I will be able to meet . . . as friends."
     "Friends  .  .  ."  Melek  seemed to ponder  the  idea.  "Perhaps it is
possible. Will you carry our offer to your superiors? To  help us put an end
to the fighting?"
     Blair nodded, the effort almost more  than he could manage. As the fear
and  the adrenaline both ebbed  away,  he could feel the fatigue sapping his
strength. "I'll do it," he said. "We'll do it . . ."
     Then  blackness  took  him.  He  never  felt  himself hit  the  smooth,
unyielding deck below him.




     Shuttle Ciudad de Buenos Aires Terra System

     "Our  top  story  is the  historic news  from  the Torgo  System, where
delegates from  the Kilrathi Empire  signed a peace treaty to  put an end to
the war . . ."
     On the newspad monitor screen, the view showed the interior of the huge
auditorium  at Sector  HQ.  There  was  a large  audience,  mostly uniformed
members of the Confed Armed  Forces, gathered  around a raised stage beneath
the transparent dome. The ceremony took place at night, and a thousand stars
blazed brightly above the delegates.
     Blair   noted   Paladin   prominently   seated   among    the    Terran
representatives, and near him was Admiral Tolwyn. The court of inquiry found
the admiral  blameless in the loss of the Behemoth, and  he had  returned to
active  service just  in time to  be a part of the protracted  negotiations.
Blair  thought it was fitting,  somehow, that  Tolwyn played  a  role in the
final triumph.  Though he never agreed with  the man's style or motivations,
Admiral  Geoff Tolwyn was a central  figure in the  Confederation resistance
throughout  the  war, and it was only right that he should see it through to
the  very  end.  His  nephew, Kevin,  was also  among  the host of aides and
assistants, and Eisen's dark craggy  features were  visible at the table  as
well. Among the Kilrathi, the  only one Blair  recognized was Melek, but the
ornamentation  of the  other  Imperial  delegates  made it  plain  that they
represented  a  cross-section  of important surviving  nobles  and  military
leaders.
     Barbara   Miles   continued   her  voice-over  report.  "Following  the
incredible  raid  which  led to  the destruction  of the Imperial homeworld,
Kilrah, the Kilrathi  decision  to  sue for peace was  greeted  with excited
celebrations   throughout   human  space.  After  months   of  peace   talks
deliberating  a  final  settlement,  the  initial  cease-fire  was   finally
converted to a lasting  peace  through the Kilrathi acceptance of the Treaty
Of Torgo."
     The  view switched back  to a head-and-shoulder shot  of Barbara Miles.
"TNC attempted to contact the pilot who carried out  the Kilrah raid for his
reaction to the peace  treaty, but Colonel Christopher Blair was unavailable
for comment. We will have further details on the signing of the peace treaty
later in this Infoburst . . ."
     Blair switched off the newspad and glanced out the port beside him. The
shuttle  began its descent now, crossing the terminator  just as the dawning
sun lit below the curved blue and white arc of the planet.
     Earth . . .
     He had dedicated his entire adult life  to  defending  her, and now the
long  battle  was over. And despite  Melek's fears of  another alien  empire
beyond the Kilrathi sphere threatening future wars, Blair  knew his own days
as a warrior were over. After a well-deserved period of leave, he was slated
to go on the inactive list so that he could begin a new career, serving with
the  diplomatic staff that would  soon begin work turning the abstract peace
treaty with the  Empire into solid,  working reality. Henceforth Christopher
Blair  would be a warrior in the cause of  peace,  fighting  a  new  kind of
battle to ensure that all of his fallen comrades  Angel and Flint, Vaquero,
and Hunter and Iceman, Cobra and  Flash and all the rest,  even Hobbes  had
not died in vain.
     It was a daunting challenge, but Blair would not be facing it alone.
     She  hurried  down the  aisle as  the seatbelt warnings flashed  on the
forward bulkhead. Blair met her eyes, and they shared a smile.
     "What  would  you  like  to do  first,  after  we're down?"  he  asked,
strapping her in.
     Rachel  Coriolis took  his hand in hers. "I'd  like to take a long walk
along the seashore," she  said, "with wet sand between my toes . .  . and no
bulkheads or metal decks or spare parts in sight."
     "Sounds good to me, Blair told her, settling into  his seat and closing
his  eyes.  The  others were all still  there, in his  mind, but  no  longer
demanding or clamoring. They  and he  had finally discovered peace.



: 9, Last-modified: Thu, 09 Dec 2004 23:14:28 GMT