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CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT: "We're going back."

As they walked along the curving passageway just inside Li Chien-lu's outer skin, they passed a viewport. Beyond it, the light of Orpheus 1 glinted off ships which, to their practiced eyes, were clearly too small to have any business in this brutal new era's battle fleets.

The sight was enough to set Marcus LeBlanc fuming.

"Goddamn all politicians to hell! But no; as usual, it isn't really them who belong there, it's their cretinous constituents. Not even Bettina Wister could do any harm if the voters weren't such goddamn silly sheep! When I think of all the heavy ships that are tied down when they're needed at the front-!"

Vanessa Murakuma smiled. She was still buoyant with the recorded message that had finally gotten to her through the long and tortuous communication line from deep in the Star Union of Crucis.

"Well, you can't really blame people for worrying about home defense. If the Bugs can find a closed warp point into Alpha Centauri, they can appear anywhere. Even civilians understand that much."

"That's exactly the point-and exactly what even Heart World civilians ought to be able to grasp . . . if certain politicians and their pet so-called admirals weren't so busy feeding them sound bytes instead of accurate analysis! To provide total security for everybody, we'd have to keep forces equal to the combined Bug fleets in every inhabited system in the Alliance at all times!"

"Shhhh! Don't say that so loudly." Before LeBlanc could reach critical mass, Murakuma turned serious. "Just be thankful that all these light carriers were available. You might also," she continued in a subtly different tone, "be thankful that you finally got permission to come this far forward."

"Hmmm . . . There is that." LeBlanc was still forbidden to accompany Sixth Fleet when it set out into Bug space, but he'd managed to wheedle GFGHQ into letting him come as far as Orpheus 1. He pondered that accomplishment with a certain undeniable complacency, and he was in a visibly better mood when they reached the briefing room. Murakuma's staff and task force commanders stood as they entered.

"As you were," Murakuma said crisply. "As some of you already know, we're fortunate to have Admiral LeBlanc here from Zephrain. He's been studying the data from our incursion into Home Hive Two five months ago. Admiral LeBlanc, you have the floor."

"Thank you, Admiral Murakuma," LeBlanc replied formally. (Everyone refrained from cracking a smile over the exchange of formalities.) He activated a holo of the Home Hive Two binary system, with the two star-icons a little over a meter and a half apart.

"Fortunately," he began, "one of the last waves of Bug kamikazes appeared on Sixth Fleet's scanners just before you completed your withdrawal from the system. I say fortunately, because it provided fuller data on the vectors involved. Your own intelligence people's studies of those data have been invaluable."

He inclined his head in the direction of a smiling Marina Abernathy. The pat on the head was intentional. Abernathy had been flagellating herself for the past five months over inaccurate threat estimates.

"Our analysis leaves no room for doubt: that wave-and, unquestionably, others-came from Home Hive Two B. So we may infer that Component B has one or more inhabited planets of its own."

"Besides the three around Component Alpha." Leroy McKenna looked and sounded faintly ill.

"Indeed, Commodore," LeBlanc nodded, still in formal mode. "This system is as heavily developed as any of the other home hives we've observed-probably more so."

Ernesto Cruciero stared at the hologram, his eyes dark.

"I wonder which of these systems their species actually evolved in?" he half-murmured.

"Do you suppose they even remember?" Marina Abernathy asked very softly. Eyes moved towards other eyes, then slipped away uneasily. A silence fell, and hovered there, until LeBlanc cleared his throat to banish it.

"Well, at any rate," he went on a bit more briskly, "this helps explain why Home Hive Two was able to produce gunboats and small craft in such enormous numbers. The good news is that we believe your previous incursion left their starship strength crippled-at least in the heaviest classes, which can't be replaced in five months or anything close to it."

He raised a hand as if to ward off skepticism.

"Yes, I know: we're getting into speculative territory here. And we can't ignore the possibility that they can bring in reinforcements through some warp point we know nothing about. But I've already gone on record with the opinion that another shot at Home Hive Two is worth the risk if an answer to the kamikaze threat can be found."

"And we believe we have such an answer," Murakuma said, leaning forward in her chair, "in the form of the Mohrdenhau-class light carriers which have become available." She inclined her head in the direction of Eighty-Seventh Small Fang Meearnow'raalphaa, who'd previously commanded TF 63, Sixth Fleet's heavy carrier task force. Now he'd turned that command over to Thirteenth Small Fang Iaashmaahr'freaalkit-ahn, one of the highest ranking female officers in the entire KON, and taken over the newly formed TF 64: eighty Mohrdenhau-class CVLs, escorted by sixty cruisers of various sizes.

A prewar class, the Mohrdenhaus were rather low-tech, and hence apt to be underappreciated by the cutting-edge-happy TFN. It was also a quintessential Orion design: an uncompromisingly pure carrier with twenty-four fighter bays crammed into a hull no larger than a heavy cruiser's, which left very little room for anything else . . . including the ability to absorb punishment. Its life expectancy was measured in minutes after it came within weapons range of enemy capital ships. But it was never intended to be there. Instead, the Khanate had used it as a frontier picket . . . which was why its designers had somehow made room for a cloaking ECM suite. More recently, it had been used to secure the Allied fleets' lines of communication. Now, with those lines secure enough and the Bugs sufficiently on the defensive (apparently) to justify a little less caution . . .

And the Khan released them, not having to appease the kind of popular hysteria that scum like Agamemnon Waldeck and Wister promote so they can exploit it, Murakuma thought with a subversive bitterness she hadn't allowed Marcus to see. Then she shook off the mood and chided herself sternly. Of course we ought to have a whole flotilla of the big Terran carriers that're sitting around in the nodal systems, neutralized by our own politicians as surely as the Bugs could hope for. And of course we shouldn't have to rely on fragile Tabby designs that're out of date where everything but their ECM and their crews' guts are concerned, instead. But instead of crying into your beer about it, you ought to be giving thanks to whatever gods you worship that you've got those eighty fragile ships and their nineteen hundred-plus fighters.

"So," she said aloud, "even though we all know the Mohrdenhaus are far too light for a warp point assault, they can provide anti-kamikaze cover once we're in Home Hive Two-where, based on Admiral LeBlanc's findings, we have some new ideas on how to proceed. Those ideas will be detailed in the staff briefings."

She paused for a moment, and then spoke in a voice whose quietness left no question about her assumption of undivided responsibility for the decision.

"We're going back in."

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