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CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: Closing the Net

Admiral Vanessa Murakuma allowed her gaze to linger a moment longer on the featherleaf branches outside the window of the office that had been Raymond Prescott's, in the slanting afternoon rays of Zephrain A. Then she swung her swivel chair back to face her visitor.

"Well, Lieutenant Sanders, you've had quite a journey."

"I have that, Sir," the famously insouciant intelligence lieutenant agreed. He looked appropriately disheveled, but of course that was only from just having been whisked from the space port to this office the instant his shuttle had touched down. It had nothing to do with the truly immense voyage that had gone before: from Home Hive One to Zephrain by way of Alpha Centauri.

Speaking of Alpha Centauri . . .

"How is Rear Admiral LeBlanc?" Murakuma asked in a carefully neutral voice.

"Quite well, Sir. He sends his best regards. In fact, he asked me to deliver a personal message." Sanders reached inside his tunic and withdrew a datachip security folder-supposedly not to be used for mere private correspondence. Murakuma's scrutiny of his foxlike features turned up nothing but bland propriety-except, possibly, a very slight twinkle in his blue eyes.

"Thank you, Lieutenant." She reached out, took the folder, and, with an inner sigh, put it in a drawer. Business before pleasure. . . .

Sanders seemed to be having the same thought.

"Of course, I was only at Alpha Centauri very briefly," he prompted.

"Ah, yes. And you'd departed from Seventh Fleet just after Admiral Prescott shut down Operation Retribution. We've only just learned of that via the ICN here. I gather that the Joint Chiefs had some reason for sending you off again after barely letting you catch your breath."

"Yes, Sir. I've also brought official correspondence from them." Sanders patted the briefcase at his side. It looked unremarkable, but it was constructed of the same molecularly aligned composite as powered combat armor, and it incorporated a computer system whose miniaturization was just beyond cutting-edge. "Specifically, new orders for you and Sixth Fleet."

"Oh?" Murakuma kept her voice level. Could this be it? "Your duties aren't normally those of a simple courier, Lieutenant."

"No, Sir. I'm to report directly to Admiral LeBlanc on the state of this front, just as I was previously doing when attached to Seventh Fleet."

"Well, I can certainly find a place for you in Lieutenant Commander Abernathy's organization." Despite two promotions since the days when she'd been Marcus' painfully young understudy, Marina Abernathy was still very junior for her position as Murakuma's staff spook, which she'd been ever since her mentor had been called back to Alpha Centauri. She had, however, gotten over most of her youthful insecurity, and she should be able to cope with Sanders. "In the meantime, though, I gather that you're also supposed to give me some of the background to these orders. Am I correct in assuming that your recent experience with Seventh Fleet has something to do with your knowledge of that background?"

"You are, Sir. If I may . . . ?"

Taking Murakuma's assent for granted, Sanders opened the briefcase and activated the flat display screen on the inside of its top. A warp line chart appeared, filling the right-hand side of the screen. Murakuma recognized it before Sanders explained.

"As you know, when Admiral Prescott entered Home Hive One for the second time and commenced his destruction of the warp point defenses, he probed each of those warp points."

"And discovered that Home Hive One is connected to Pesthouse and the Anderson Chain," Murakuma agreed, leaning across her desk to trace that warp chain with a slim finger, all the way to Alpha Centauri and Sol, which were as far as this little display extended. "It's a pity he wasn't in a position to do anything about it, but given the Bug forces holding the intervening systems and our ignorance of how many warp points in those systems might serve them as avenues of attack . . ."

She shrugged, and her face clouded with the memory of Operation Pesthouse.

"Yes, Sir. But he sent RD2s through all of Home Hive One's warp points, not just that one." Sanders indicated the wheel-spokes extending from the hub that was Home Hive One. "None of the others turned up anything even remotely as interesting . . . including this one." Sanders pointed at the undistinguished dot of light at the end of one of the spokes. "Nevertheless, as a matter of course, all the data was sent to Alpha Centauri.

"Now, you're also aware that back when Admiral Prescott and Fang Zhaarnak were here in Zephrain commanding Sixth Fleet, there was a period after the 'April Fool' offensive in '65 when the situation in Home Hive Three was very fluid and unsettled-a war of raids and counter raids. The Bugs weren't bothering to watch Home Hive Three's other warp points very closely-"

"They still aren't," Murakuma interjected. "My own probes indicate that they only have serious defenses at Warp Points Four and Six, as Survey's gotten around to designating them. Warp Point Four is the one connecting to Zephrain."

"Well," Sanders continued, "Admiral Prescott took advantage of that inattention at the time. In the course of his raids, his ships carried a lot of RD2s into Home Hive Three, and he was able to send at least a few through the system's warp points and get back some data on what lay beyond them. That data, naturally, was also sent back to Alpha Centauri."

Sanders gave the briefcase a command, and another warp line chart appeared, on the left side of the screen, showing Zephrain, Home Hive Three, and the warp lines radiating out from the latter, terminating in the little dots representing the systems Prescott's probes had discovered.

"It was only recently-while I was on my way back from Seventh Fleet, in fact-that the two sets of data got correlated."

Another murmured command, and the two charts moved together on the screen until two dots-one of them connected to Home Hive One, another to Home Hive Three-touched, and merged into one.

"You mean-?"

"Yes, Admiral. They're one and the same system. Spectrographic analysis of that star-it's a red giant, by the way-leaves no room for doubt on that score."

"Well, well . . ." Murakuma leaned back in her chair and steepled her fingers. "In addition to being one transit away from Home Hive Three, Zephrain is also only three away from Home Hive One." Her eyes remained on the screen with its now-unbroken pattern of warp connections, but they seemed focused on something far more distant. "Another piece of the puzzle."

"That's a good way to put it, Sir. Bit by bit, we're learning the layout of Bug space. Frustratingly little, so far. But-"

"But enough to account for the orders you're bringing me," Murakuma finished for him.

"Very perceptive, Sir." It wasn't the sort of thing lieutenants usually said to admirals. But Sanders' position as the Joint Staff's messenger was an anomalous one, and Murakuma possessed her soul in patience as he fell into lecture mode.

"As you've pointed out, Admiral Prescott was in no position to do anything with the new astrographic knowledge he'd acquired. We're as sure as we can be of anything that the Bugs have only three home hive systems left, but we don't know how big a 'support structure' of secondary colonies each of them has. The fact that Seventh Fleet found half a dozen such colonies that apparently existed to supply Home Hive One with resources is fairly discouraging. It suggests maybe fifteen to twenty remaining Bug systems-fewer than we once assumed, but still a lot, any or all of which could lie along the flanks of the Anderson Chain."

He ran a finger along the light-string from Home Hive One to Alpha Centauri, with its branching warp lines trailing off into unknownness.

"Now, I'm only repeating common knowledge when I tell you the Alliance is gradually assembling a new force-to be known as Grand Fleet-at Alpha Centauri for a massive push through Pesthouse to Home Hive One. But in the meantime, we need to get support to Admiral Prescott without delay. And since we've built up Zephrain's logistics capability, as well as its defenses-"

"I believe I'm one step ahead of you, Lieutenant," Murakuma interrupted.

"No doubt, Sir." Sanders patted the briefcase again. "The details are here. But in essence, you're being directed to seize control of Home Hive Three, destroy the remaining Bug warp point defenses-destruction of their mobile forces is secondary to that-and proceed to link up with Admiral Prescott."

Murakuma leaned forward, not troubling to conceal her eagerness.

"So we're finally going to kick the Bugs out of Home Hive Three permanently. Good! That will end the threat to Zephrain once and for all."

"And, by extension, the threat to Rehfrak," Sanders nodded. "That's an added benefit of the plan-and one reason why the Orions, including Lord Talphon, pushed hard for it."

Murakuma leaned back again, all thoughts of slapping Sanders down for his informality even further from her mind than before.

So, finally, I'm to go on the attack, for the first time in five years. . . . For the first time since Justin.

Five years of sitting on the defensive, first at Justin and then here, honing Fifth Fleet and then Sixth Fleet to a fine edge in preparation to stand off a counteroffensive that never came.

The ghosts still visit me, sometimes. I thought they might stop after I left Justin. But I suppose distance doesn't matter to them.

No, they have to be exorcized. With fire.



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