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Authors: William R. Forstchen,Andrew Keith

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Heart Of The Tiger

BOOK: Heart Of The Tiger
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Annotation
Terran forces are pushed to the wall by the ever-encroaching Kilrathi hordes. The end seems very near — it is time for desperation measures. Against overwhelming odds, the humans try to launch a last desperate offensive against the Kilrathi homeworld. Once again, humanity's last best hope is embodied in her flyers.
William R. Forstchen, Andrew Keith
Heart Of The Tiger
PROLOGUE
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.
CHAPTER I
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.
BOOK: Heart Of The Tiger
2.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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