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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

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