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"I am sorry to disturb you, Sir, but I think you should see this report."

Third Great Fang of the Khan Koraaza'khiniak, Lord Khiniak, sat up on his bed pad as Claw of the Khan Thaariahn'reethnau entered the cramped sleeping cabin. The small, spartan compartment was located immediately off Kinaasha'defarnoo's CIC, and the great fang had discovered that it was entirely too conveniently placed. The monitor's designers had intended it for the emergency use of a flag officer during sustained maneuvering and combat, not as someplace for a fleet commander to spend every night. He supposed some might argue that his decision to essentially move himself permanently into the cabin for the immediate future might be less than fully reassuring to some of his personnel, and he was certain that the proximity to CIC, Flag Bridge, and Plotting wasn't doing a good things for his own regular and undisturbed sleep patterns.

Despite that, he had no intention of changing his routine. From the moment Lord Talphon's official permission to proceed with his long-planned offensive had arrived in Shanak, he'd been an impatient zeget on a fraying leash, and he didn't particularly care that his behavior meant his officers and crews had to be fully aware of that fact. In fact, he wanted them to be aware. Wanted them to share his own focused, almost feverish sense of exalted anticipation.

And they did. Lord Khiniak doubted that anyone outside Third Fleet, with the exceptions of Raymond Prescott and Zhaarnak'telmasa, had anything like a true grasp of what his command had become over the seven dreary standard years of waiting in this accursed star system. It was the ambition of any officer of the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaiee to train his warriors as farshatok-that term the Humans translated, accurately but incompletely, as the "fingers of a fist." Of course, Human fists were blunt, clawless instruments, but the sense came through. But Third Fleet had gone beyond that. His personnel were not simply farshatok, not simply a band of warriors who fought with perfect unity, teamwork, and ferocity, but vilka'farshatok, warriors of a single clan-of one blood, whatever their birth or clan affiliation. Even the Gormish units of his command had been touched by Third Fleet's eagerness to avenge Kliean, and so Lord Khiniak had no fear they would misinterpret his eagerness as anxiety or uncertainty.

Unfortunately, despite the permission he'd been given to mount his longed-for attack, he wasn't free to proceed with operations the way he truly wished to. Given a more perfect universe, he would have restricted himself to a single recon drone probe of the closed warp point. Just enough to secure the data he required to program his SBMHAWKs before he launched his entire fleet at the Bugs' throats. In the long run, any risks involved in that approach would almost certainly have been offset by the fact that it would have allowed him to retain the element of surprise.

But there were other factors to consider-the same factors, in many ways, which had driven Zhaarnak'telmasa to fall back from Kliean before the Bugs' initial onslaught. Although Lord Khiniak and his crews regarded themselves as an offensive weapon, they could never forget that their true function for seven endless Human years-almost fourteen of their own-had been to stand as a barrier between any additional Bug attacks and the heavily populated star systems which lay beyond Kliean and Telmasa. Certainly, the Strategy Board hadn't forgotten, and Fang Kthaara's permission to proceed hadn't arrived completely free of strings.

Koraaza'khiniak suspected that Kthaara had been forced to attach those strings largely for political considerations, but to his own sensitive nostrils some of them carried the definite scent of Fleet Speaker Noraku's caution, as well. In fairness, few beings in the explored universe were less politically motivated than Noraku, and while Koraaza often found the Gorm representative's deliberate, phlegmatic approach to problems even more maddening than he found most Humans, the Third Fleet commander was forced to concede that this particular set of strings wasn't entirely senseless.

Given the fact that the Bugs clearly had been forced more and more heavily onto the defensive, it was impossible even for him to argue that an attack from Shanak was essential. Valuable and extremely useful, yes; essential, no. Koraaza believed fervently that his proposed offensive would help shorten the war, but he wasn't blind to the fact that his thirst to engage the enemy was as much the product of his people's code of honor as of cold, strategic analysis. The one didn't invalidate the conclusions of the other, yet the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaiee had learned the hard way (which-he conceded in the privacy of his own thoughts-was the way in which they seemed to learn all of their lessons) that the pragmatism of their Gorm allies and their one-time Human foes was just as important as honor when it came to planning military operations. And, pragmatically speaking, it was far more important to the Alliance that Third Fleet prevent any possibility of a last-ditch Bug offensive out of Shanak than it was for that same fleet to launch an offensive of its own.

If that was true, then it only made sense-however much he resented it-to be certain before any offensive was launched that it was in a position to succeed without risking the destruction of Third Fleet's protective barrier. Which explained both the substantial reinforcements GFGHQ had somehow managed to pry loose from the rear area pickets and also the very specific orders from Centauri which had required him to conduct a thorough reconnaissance of the warp point defenses-if any-awaiting him on the far side of the warp point in the system which the Alliance's astrographers had designated Bug-06.

Bug-06, his probes had quickly revealed, was a largely useless binary system with a K-4 class primary and a dim ember of a red dwarf secondary component. The two-star system boasted a total of ten planets, one of them inhabited, and a single massive asteroid belt, but it was obvious that it could have been only a staging point for the massive forces which had streamed forward to murder Kliean and to threaten Alowan and Hairnow with matching destruction seven years earlier. The relatively small (by Bug standards, at least) population of the K-4 star's innermost planet was far too tiny to have supported such an attack . . . or the massive Bug fleet which hovered now within two light-minutes of the closed warp point's far terminus.

The drone probe data had to be taken with a grain of salt, as a Human might have put it, given the Bugs demonstrated ability to use deception mode ECM effectively. Even allowing for that, however, it was clear to Koraaza that his earlier suspicion that the Bugs realized perfectly well that the Alliance had determined the warp point's location had been accurate. At least seventy massive Type Six OWPs hovered within missile and beam range of the warp point through which any attack must come, supported by forty-plus heavy and light cruisers, at least ten thousand patterns of mines, and thousands of laser buoys, all liberally seeded with jammer and deception-mode ECM buoys. Which didn't even include any of the hundred-plus superdreadnoughts, their supporting battlecruisers and cruisers, and the hordes of gunboats and suicide small craft which undoubtedly stood ready to assist them in repelling any attack.

In light of the way in which Operation Retribution and Operation Ivan had obviously stretched the Bugs' available strength to and beyond the breaking point, even Koraaza had been surprised by the numbers of starships detailed to defend what clearly was at best a secondary system. On the other hand, the presence of so many mobile units might well serve as further support of his theory that one of the "home hive" systems stood in relatively close proximity to Shanak. If there were only one or two stars between Shanak and one of the Bugs' core population concentrations, then this "secondary" star system would be of crucial importance despite its unprepossessing appearances. Not only that, but the Bugs had discovered by now, if they hadn't already known, what happened when the "Shiva Option" was applied in a heavily populated system. They must realize as well as the Alliance that they simply could not allow a bombarding fleet into range of a major population center without effectively writing off every military unit in the same star system. Which meant the pressure to defend such perimeter systems as Bug-06 must be even greater than ever.

None of which had made the forces arrayed against Third Fleet any more palatable. Despite the firepower massed to cover the warp point, Koraaza was confident he and his vilka'farshatok could fight their way into the system with acceptable losses. The problem was that there was no way to predict what additional forces the Bugs might hold in reserve. Losses which would be acceptable under other circumstances would become intolerable if the Bugs turned out to have had the resources and cunning to bring up an even more powerful fleet and hide it in cloak somewhere beyond the units the recon drones could see. It was extremely unlikely, given how hard-pressed they were on other fronts, but the shattering experience of Operation Pesthouse continued to loom in the back of every Allied strategist's thoughts. If the Bugs were able and willing to sacrifice the OWPs and their immediate supporting warships as bait, inflicting attritional losses on an attacker in a "losing" battle that lured the attacker into position to be crushed by an even more powerful fleet waiting in ambush, then a quick riposte through Shanak and Kliean could win them enormous prizes.

It was that same thinking, in no small part, which had inspired GFGHQ to come up with the reinforcements headed towards Shanak. Although Koraaza was far too good an officer to turn up his nose at the offer of additional forces, he had to admit that he was of two minds in this instance. On the one hand, such a substantial increase in his order of battle would be highly welcome. On the other, any newcomers, however well-trained and motivated, would be just that-newcomers.

Few civilians, and, unfortunately, not all flag officers, truly understood the extent to which any effective fleet was a single living, breathing organism. Oh, if a Navy had fundamentally sound doctrine, uniform training standards, and officers who made it their business to see that both of them were firmly adhered to, then there was no reason-in theory-why a fleet or task force organization couldn't simply be made up of randomly selected units and committed to battle. But theory, as always, had a distressing tendency to come up short when confronted with reality.

There had been altogether too many occasions in history, Human as well as that of the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaiee, when there'd been no option but to assemble such scratch forces, commit them to action, and pray for the best. On occasion, they'd actually produced victory, but that virtually never happened when they faced competent opposition, and the reasons were simple. In battle, it was absolutely essential that cohesion and the unity of purpose be maintained, and that an entire fleet act in unison with a clearly understood objective. That was true from the very highest level of strategic planning down to-and perhaps even more especially at-the tactical level of individual squadrons and starships. Teamwork, training, mutual confidence, and the knowledge that when an order was given both he who gave it and he who received it understood it to mean exactly the same thing. . . .

Those were fundamental keys to success, and to commit a fleet which lacked them to battle, was to send it against the foe with its claws broken and one hand tied behind its back. That was the very reason that Zhaarnak'telmasa and Raymond Prescott had been forced to hold so long and so desperately in Alowan and Telmasa seven years earlier before Koraaza brought Third Fleet to their relief. His ships had come from every conceivable source, piled together in whatever order they had arrived, and he'd had no choice but to hold them at the sector capital while he drilled them mercilessly until they could at least all get underway, on the same course, on the same day.

And that was the reason his current reinforcements were, to some extent, what the Humans called a "double-edged sword." Their firepower would be most welcome, but unlike his vilka'farshatok, they wouldn't be completely familiar with his plans and his thoughts or the procedures of his existing fleet. Nor would it be possible to truly integrate them into Third Fleet's structure in the time available, and so they would bring weaknesses as well as strengths.

But whatever impact the reinforcements' arrival might have, they weren't here yet. Koraaza wasn't categorically forbidden to begin his attack without them if the Bugs' dispositions in Bug-06 offered him an opportunity. At the same time, he was well aware that he was expected to defer any offensive until they joined him. Any great fang was also expected to exercise his own judgment, but if he began operations before his entire assigned force had assembled and things went poorly, more than enough critics would emerge to explain to him precisely how he'd failed his Khan and his people.

It had seemed any such quandary was unlikely to arise, however. Koraaza was confident his analysts would eventually be able to determine what the Bugs were actually up to with a reasonable degree of certainty. Thanks to the Humans, there was no shortage of recon drones, and since his orders had already cost him the chance for strategic surprise, he was prepared to expend the drones in any required numbers before he committed his warriors to an attack. And he remained confident that the analysts' final conclusion would support his own theory. But until that happened, he was bound by the letter of his orders to proceed with all deliberate caution. Which meant Third Fleet would sit here, sending massive waves of drones through at staggered intervals while its covering fighters pounced upon and annihilated any Bug gunboat that dared to show itself in Shanak space, until Koraaza's honor permitted him to conclude in good faith that he could launch his own attack without jeopardizing the security of the populated systems behind him.

It appeared that it would require weeks to reach that point, during which time the Bugs would be given every opportunity to prepare for his obviously impending offensive. The fact that it would also give time for the arrival of his own reinforcements had struck him as no more than partial compensation for alerting the Bugs to the incipient threat, but there'd been nothing he could do about that except prowl around CIC and Flag Bridge like an irritated zeget to "encourage" his tactical officers' efforts.

Unless, of course, Thaariahn's diffident interruption of his sleep meant something important had changed.

"What is it you wish me to see?" he asked his operations officer as he brushed the sleep from his eyes.

"We have just recovered the latest probe volley, Sir," Thaariahn replied, and held out an electronic message board. Koraaza took it, but he never lowered his eyes from the claw's face, and one ear cocked in question.

"The Bahgs' ECM continues to generate hundreds of false sensor images," Thaariahn said, answering the unasked question, "but this data-" he gestured at the pad Koraaza now held "-appears to indicate that their entire mobile force is withdrawing."

"Withdrawing?" Koraaza repeated sharply, and Thaariahn flicked both ears in agreement.

"The sensor readings are unambiguous, Sir. It is, of course, possible that this represents some sort of ruse or deceptive maneuver on their part, but CIC's confidence is high. A follow-up probe volley has already been dispatched on my authority to confirm the original readings, but I do not expect its findings to alter CIC's present evaluation."

The effort the claw made to restrain his own enthusiasm was obvious, despite his deliberately measured tone, but he was far too professional to allow overconfidence-his own, or anyone else's-to lead Third Fleet into a Pesthouse-style ambush. Koraaza approved heartily, and he concentrated on matching his ops officer's restraint as he keyed the message board alive and studied its contents.

There was no way to know what had caused the sudden change in the enemy's long-standing defensive deployments, but as Thaariahn had said, the readings themselves were certainly clear enough. Whatever the Bugs were up to, they didn't appear to be wasting any effort on subtlety. They hadn't even attempted to conceal their departure. Indeed, the suddenness with which they'd brought up their drives and the engine-straining speed at which they'd sped off across the star system, had all the earmarks of an emergency departure.

"It would appear that you and CIC are correct, Thaariahn-at least as far as the fact of the Bahgs' starships' departure is concerned," Koraaza said after a moment. "As you say, however, the question of precisely why they have been so obliging as to suddenly withdraw by far the more effective portion of their defensive force is quite another consideration."

"Truth, Sir," the ops officer agreed. "But whatever their motive, it seems they have presented us with the opportunity we have sought. Assuming, that is, that this is not an elaborate effort to bait some sort of trap for us."

"A possibility no one is likely to overlook after what happened to the Humans' Second Fleet," Koraaza acknowledged. "And one which assumes added weight given the fact that our own reinforcements have not yet arrived. By the same token, however, we cannot allow ourselves to worry our way into ineffectiveness. Nothing is ever truly certain in battle . . . except that he who attempts to avoid all risk will never attain decisive victory."

He switched off the pad, laid it aside, reached for his uniform harness, and stood.

"You have done well," he told his ops officer. "I will join the duty watch in CIC until your fresh probe volley returns and its data can be processed. But you, I fear, will have other duties while I await that information."

"Other duties?" Thaariahn cocked both ears, and Koraaza gave a purring chuckle as he buckled his harness.

"Indeed, Claw Thaariahn. I realize it will require some hours of frenzied effort on your part, but I want the Fleet brought to immediate readiness and a complete SBMHAWK bombardment plan ready for implementation the instant I give the command!"

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