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CHAPTER TWELVE: "This is Terran space!"

I will never grow accustomed to Humans, the newly promoted Fifteenth Fang of the Khan Zhaarnak'telmasa thought.

But no, he amended. With the help of his vilkshatha brother, he might very well grow accustomed to Humans.

He would just never grow accustomed to Kevin Sanders.

The Cub of the Khan-no, Zhaarnak reminded himself, the lieutenant, as if anyone could pronounce such an outlandish sound-had been assigned to Task Force 72 just before its departure, to serve as the eyes and ears of Marcus LeBlanc at the front. At least he hadn't actually been in Zhaarnak's fur for the most part. He'd been able to turn the young caraasthyuu over to Uaaria'salath-ahn, who, for some perverse reason, actually seemed to like him.

And besides, the small fang thought with returning frustration, the new addition to his staff was the least frustrating of the decisions that had been made for him around that time.

He grew aware that he was pacing-more accurately, prowling-the flag bridge of Hia'khan, first of a new class of command monitors to which the Bugs were about to be introduced. Assuming, that is, that we ever reach them! He suppressed the thought and ordered himself to assume the posture of assured, controlled aggressiveness that the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaiee expected of their commanders. It wasn't easy, and in an attempt to keep his mind off his impatience, he studied the tactical display of his task force in his private holo sphere.

TF 72 was divided into two task groups. The first was the battle-line, commanded by Twelfth Small Fang Yithaar'tolmaa: twenty-four monitors, including Hia'khan, and eighteen superdreadnoughts. Thirty-First Small Fang Jaarnaa'kolaak-ahn, one of the first females of Zhaarnak's race to attain such a rank, commanded the carrier task group of fifteen assault carriers and fifteen fleet carriers, escorted by thirty battlecruisers. All were ships of the Khanate and its component the Empire of Gormus, and Zhaarnak permitted himself a moment's surge of pride.

But then his eyes strayed to the other icons in the sphere-the flock of freighters he was shepherding-and the moment ended. It was all he could do not to bare his teeth and snarl futile commands for more speed.

Out of the corner of one eye, he caught Uaaria and Sanders approaching from across the flag bridge. The Human no longer drew stares, and Zhaarnak had come to grudgingly admire the aplomb with which he handled being the only member of his species aboard the flagship. In the entire task force, come to that.

"Small Claw Uaaria, Cub Saaanderzzz," Zhaarnak greeted them. Early on, he'd observed elementary courtesy by asking Sanders if the Orion equivalent of his unpronounceable rank title would be acceptable. The Human had assured him that it would, with the grin that was the outward manifestation of his trademark insouciant self-assurance in the presence of his astronomically higher-ranking elders.

"There is no sensor indication of any Bahg presence in this system, Fang," Uaaria reported. "Any more than there has been anywhere else along the Presssssscott Chain."

Zhaarnak gave the low growl that answered to a Human grunt.

"Very good. We had not expected any, of course, this side of AP-5. Still, if they emerged unexpectedly into that system, it is not impossible they could do the same elsewhere."

"At least, Fang," Sanders said smoothly, "these precautionary scouting missions can be carried out by sensor drones, and don't entail any delay."

Zhaarnak glanced up sharply. Sanders' eyes-of that weird bluish color-met his unflinchingly. He has recognized my impatience, he thought. Then he had to laugh inwardly at himself. No great feat! I have not exactly made a secret of it.

Sanders raised his eyebrows, and his lips quirked upward.

He has recognized my amusement at myself, as well, Zhaarnak thought. He is remarkably-almost disturbingly-perceptive about a race that is not his own.

He also has a way of inspiring frankness.

"Yes, Cub Saaanderzzz, as you and everyone else are aware, I am impatient. Desperately so." Zhaarnak glowered at the display again. "What you perhaps are not aware of is the reason for my impatience. Just before we departed-after my vilkshatha brother was already beyond ICN range-the decision was made to use this task force to escort a convoy of freighters carrying replacement fighters for Task Force 71. I argued that speed was of the essence. But I was overruled."

Even Sanders was a bit hesitant, in the face of the glimpse he'd gotten into the depths of Zhaarnak's frustration, when he spoke again.

"Perhaps, Fang, the fighters will be badly needed after Admiral Prescott has fought his way out of Home Hive One."

"Oh, I do not doubt that the fighters will be welcomed. But the point is, we are scheduled to rendezvous with Task Force 71 in the AP-5 System at a certain time. And despite everything I have done to make up the time it cost to assemble the convoy, we will not make that rendezvous. Nor," Zhaarnak had begun pacing again, and this time he didn't even notice that he was, "has it been possible to inform Task Force 71 of the delay, because of the decision against extending the ICN along the Presssssscott Chain. I have sent a dispatch boat ahead, but I was unable to send it off until I knew what my true schedule might be . . . which I have only recently learned. It will not arrive greatly in advance of the entire task force, and TF 71 will know nothing of the alteration in schedule until it does. I only hope Raaymmonnd'presssssscott-telmasa is not counting on me to make the schedule of which I had advised him before the convoy escort mission was decided upon."

Abruptly, the intelligence officers forgotten, he whirled around and strode to the com station.

"Inform the staff that I want a report containing detailed proposals for decreasing our transit time."

No one in earshot dared to exclaim, "Another one?"



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