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CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR: "Some cripple!"

Restless, Vanessa Murakuma got up, threw on a sheer robe and walked to the open window. The morning light of Zephrain A streamed in, and a breeze off the Alph River caused the robe to flutter, caressing her slender body.

"Do you have any concept of how erotic you look?" Marcus LeBlanc inquired from the bed, and Murakuma gave a fairly delicate snort.

"Not bad for an old broad, I suppose."

"Spare me the false modesty." That, in fact, was precisely what it was. Murakuma couldn't take credit for the generations in low gravity that had produced a body form not unlike the elves of myth, nor could she take credit for the development of the antigerone therapies which kept her looking physically so much younger than her calendar age. But she wasn't unaware of her good fortune, and she did take the trouble to keep herself in condition.

Besides which, of course, now she knew Fujiko was alive after all-still inaccessible, somewhere in the far reaches of the Star Union of Crucis, but alive. LeBlanc, after the years of separation, could see the rejuvenation more clearly than she could herself.

She returned to the bed and settled in beside him.

"It's almost time," she murmured.

"Yeah, I know. You've got to go. One or the other of us always has to go. Are we ever going to get more than a few days at a stretch together?"

"We're lucky you're here at all."

"True," LeBlanc allowed, not particularly mollified. "But damn it, I should be going with you to join Sixth Fleet at Orpheus 1, not staying here at Zephrain!"

"That's not exactly our decision," she reminded him gently.

The Joint Chiefs had finally come to the realization that Prescott, Zhaarnak, and Murakuma, in their remote detached commands, were too far from Alpha Centauri for any kind of realistic turnaround on intelligence questions. The occasional Kevin Sanders junket was no substitute for ready access to the best possible intelligence information and analysis. And the organization LeBlanc had trained was by now quite capable of functioning without him. So the decision had been made to station him in Zephrain, to serve as a local resource of Bug expertise for Sixth and Seventh Fleets.

Now, of course, with the entire Anderson Chain in Alliance hands, that rationale had lost much of its validity as far as Seventh Fleet was concerned. So LeBlanc had argued-not entirely without ulterior motives-that it would make better sense to attach him to the staff of the one commander still operating in isolation from Alpha Centauri. He'd then proceeded to learn an immemorial truth: military orders are so hard to change that they often outlive the circumstances that caused them to be issued.

"Kthaara said something about not wanting to risk me with Sixth Fleet," LeBlanc groused. "Gave me direct orders to stay at Zephrain, in fact. Come to think of it . . ." He trailed off, then sat up straight as suspicion reared its ugly head. "Say! You don't suppose he's so bitter about . . . Well, I know they say misery loves company, but surely he wouldn't . . . Would he?"

"Kthaara? No!" Murakuma smothered a laugh.

"Anyway, I suppose it's just as well. They could just as easily have canceled the whole thing and kept me at Alpha Centauri. It probably helped that they wanted to send somebody anyway, to deliver your new orders."

"Yes." Murakuma sat up straight, and the room's atmosphere underwent a sudden change.

"You still have reservations about the plan, don't you?"

"Damned right I do! Everything about it oozes overconfidence-even that stupid code name GFGHQ's assigned to it. 'Operation Cripple' indeed!"

LeBlanc smiled at her vehemence. The "cripple" the code name referred to was the home hive system Sixth Fleet's RD2s had detected beyond Orpheus, which Murakuma had been ordered to attack.

"Well, your drones have established that there's a lot of industrial capacity in that system-"

"You might say that!" Probing through Orpheus 1's Warp Point Two, the RD2s had reported a binary system of two bright F-class stars. The secondary star, currently two hundred and fifty light-minutes out, was too remote for examination. But the primary had no less than three inhabited planets, each of them pulsating balefully with the intense energy signature of a heavily industrialized Bug world.

"And yet with all that capacity," LeBlanc pressed on, "they've made no attempt to dislodge Sixth Fleet from their doorstep at Orpheus 1. Headquarters thinks that means they can't, that they lack the mobile firepower."

"Of course they do!" Murakuma said with withering sarcasm. "It all just evaporated in the solar wind."

"Not quite," LeBlanc replied, suppressing an urge to smile while he wondered if there was anyone else she would have felt comfortable enough to vent with this way. "In fact, the theory is that between you, Seventh Fleet, and Fang Ynaathar, the mobile forces assigned to that system must have taken quite a beating."

"That's Headquarters thinking if ever I heard it. Have they even considered the fascinating little possibility that for all we know that system may have warp connections to both of the other two remaining home hives?"

"Maybe it does," LeBlanc said, still in devil's advocate mode. "But, by the same token, that could mean a lot of strength has been bled off from it to help those other home hives try to hold the Anderson Chain. You have to admit, your RD2s have detected very little in the way of heavy mobile forces."

"Which proves exactly nothing. The Bugs have been patrolling that warp point so heavily the drones haven't been able to penetrate any distance beyond it. Just because we haven't detected an ambush-"

"Relax!" LeBlanc sat up beside her. Their knees didn't quite touch. "I'm just pulling your chain. The fact is, I happen to agree with you. GFGHQ is suffering from a bad case of 'victory disease.' You'd think the losses in Operation Ivan would have cured it, but . . ." He trailed off into a brooding silence before resuming. "You're not going to protest it, though, are you?"

"No. I'll follow their orders. But that doesn't mean I have to share their cockiness. I've got a few precautions in mind."

"Yes, I know you do." LeBlanc brooded a moment longer. "I ought to be going with you," he repeated mulishly.

"No," Murakuma smiled, but her voice was very serious, "you shouldn't. You probably don't remember what we said to each other once-"

"-on a terrace on Nova Terra, looking out to sea, almost five years ago," LeBlanc interrupted, and she turned her head to stare at him.

"So you do remember! Then you must understand."

"No," he said flatly. "I didn't understand then, and I still don't. It's not your responsibility to keep those you care about alive, Vanessa."

"You're right: you don't understand. Can't you see? It's not a matter of some sort of moral responsibility, Marcus. It's fear." She turned her head and met his eyes unflinchingly as she finally admitted the truth and put it into words for them both. "It's bad enough having to function in the face of death, even though I've had to learn to do it. But if your life were on the line at the same time . . ."

And he did, indeed, see. He just didn't want to admit it, and so, without any words-he could think of none, anyway-he took her in his arms.

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