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"I wish I could spare more."

"I'm afraid that's it, Ellen," Oscar Pederson said wearily. He ran a hand through his hair and leaned back in his chair aboard Sky Watch One, gazing into the system schematic displayed above his desk. It was littered with the wildly scrambled icons of Fortress Command units, and Ellen MacGregor sat in the flag briefing room of TFNS Amaretsu, studying its twin from the other end of their conference link.

"I wish I could spare more," he went on, "but if it comes apart on you, I'll need everything I've got just to fend them off Nova Terra and Edennot to mention this side of The Gateway."

"I understand, Oscar," MacGregor replied in a sympathetic tone. It was a bit hard, just at the moment, to sympathize with anyone but herself, yet she didn't envy Pederson a bit. They held the same rank, but he was Fortress Command while she was Battle Fleet, and that gave her command authority in Centauri until Hannah Avram's return. If she ordered him to give up still more fortresses, he'd have no recourse but to obey, and part of her wanted to do just thatespecially since she was busy leaving the system at the moment with every warship she could scrape up. She was also leaving the warp point mother naked in her absence, but if she didn't take those ships forward into Anderson Two, the gunboats on that system's warp point to Anderson Three would have a field day against Second Fleet's survivors. Uncovering Centauri didn't make her any happier than it made Pederson. But the very fact that she was leaving only gave added point to his responsibility for all of Centauri, not just the Anderson Two warp point, in her absence, and she refused to second guess his dispositions.

"It ought to be enough," she told him now, lips pursed as she continued her study of the schematic. Alpha Centauri was the second most heavily fortified system in human-held space, with powerful fortress shells and minefields on each of its eleven open warp points. Fortress Command had begun assembling fresh forts to cover the system's newly discovered twelfth warp point even before Second Fleet's departure, and a potent shell of eighteen fortresses had been "borrowed" from the other warp points to cover it while its own OWPs were built. Pederson had personally overseen both the siting of the forts and the beginning of the new minefields, and since the new warp point was a closed one, he'd been able to emplace the mines directly atop it. That would deny an attack any clear zone into which it might transit, and he'd ringed the mines with independently deployed energy platforms, including both laser buoys and primary beam platforms, for good measure. With that backing, MacGregor had felt thoroughly confident of even her badly understrength Fourth Fleet's ability to guarantee Centauri's security in Second Fleet's rear.

But that was the critical point: she'd expected to cover Second Fleet's rear, and like everyone else, she'd thought she had months to perfect her defenses. Second Fleet was driving the Bugs back, after all, and even if the enemy managed to mount a counterattack, Ivan Antonov's warships would be between him and Centauri. At the very least, Antonov would be able to slow him down and buy time for MacGregor and Pederson to dig in behind him.

That comfortable assumption no longer applied, and Pederson had every minelayer in the system employed in the frantic placement of more mines and platforms. It was going slower than MacGregor would have liked(of course, she thought wryly, it couldn't go fast enough to make me happy!)but that wasn't because the weapons weren't available. Mines and energy platforms were being produced at a staggering rate by the system's spaceborne industry, and even if they hadn't been, she and Pederson could have raided the other warp points' long established defenses for them. No, the problem was that there were only so many minelayers, and their crews, however skilled, could physically position weapons only so quickly. They were working till they dropped, but the mine densities needed to blunt a Bug attack simply couldn't be built up overnight.

Which was why she was having this conference. Pederson and his staff had stripped ten of Centauri's eleven open warp points of virtually all their OWPs and commandeered every available tug in Centauri and Sol to reposition those forts. Both he and MacGregor were aware that the Grand Alliance was straining every nerve to reinforce Fourth Fleet, and even if MacGregor lost control of the outer system, the forces rushing back towards Centauri would almost certainly regain it in time. But it was Oscar Pederson's job to see to it that there were still live humans on the system's planets when that time camenot to mention his responsibility to protect Centauri's mammoth orbital industrial infrastructure and provide the maximum possible cover for The Gateway. Humanity's home system was even more heavily fortified than Centauri, but Centauri was Sol's buffer and glacis. That had been the bedrock of the TFN's strategic planning ever since there'd been a Federation Navy, and thatand Pederson's local concerns here in Centaurihad governed his proposed OWP redistribution. The majority were bound for positions around the system's twin planets to bolster Sky Watch One and the other orbiting space stations. Those not headed there had been divided equally between The Gateway and the closed warp point beyond which Hannah Avram's relief force wasmust beleading Ivan Antonov's survivors towards safety. Once they were all in position, MacGregor would have seventy fortresses, with something like a thousand fighters embarked, to bar the Bugs' passage into Centauri.

And a damned good thing, too, she thought mordantly, 'cause I sure as hell don't have anything else to do the job with!

She grimaced at the familiar thought. The Federation was enormous, and ships took months to travel from its core to its borders. Those vast distances had always spread the TFN far thinner than raw hull numbers might suggest to the layman, for a starship could be in only one place at a time, and that simple fact was the crux of Ellen MacGregor's problem.

Home Fleet, as the biggest single concentration of Terran warships, had been heavily raided in the war's opening phases. As every available forward-deployed unit had been rushed towards threatened sectorsthe Romulus Cluster, originally, and then KlieanHome Fleet units had been redeployed to fill the vacuum created by their departure. Then the need to build up nodal reaction forces throughout Allied Space had put still more strain on the Alliance's navies, and once again, Home Fleet had been tapped to help make up the required numbers. MacGregor understood the logic behind that. Given Sol's position at the very core of the Federation, it had certainly seemed as unthreatened as any star system was likely to be, and the needed ships had to come from somewhere.

But then the Bugs had stumbled into Centauri and Operation Pesthouse had been mountedfrom Centauriten months before it was scheduled to kick off from Zephrain. Half the units originally earmarked for Second Fleet had already been en route to Zephrain, so the cupboard had been bare when GHQ started looking around for the muscle Pesthouse required, and its eye had fallen yet again on Home Fleet. All of which meant that, at this moment, Ellen MacGregor had precisely forty-seven starships, headed by only six superdreadnoughts, nine battleships, and Home Fleet's last eleven carriers and assault carriers, to support those seventy OWPs. More were coming as fast and hard as they could, but they weren't here yet, and she didn't even know precisely how many were on their way. And however many there might be, neither they, nor the forts, nor the minefields were on the warp point now.

She shook herself and produced a crooked half-smile for Pederson's benefit.

"It ought to be enough," she repeated. "And it damned well better be, hadn't it?"

* * * | The Stars at War | * * *