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To Vanessa Murakuma, the 4.8 light-hour-distant dot of white brilliance that was Home Hive Two A as viewed on emergence from Warp Point One was getting to be an old . . . not "friend," certainly, but perhaps the word "acquaintance" was permissible.

In one respect, though, this transit from Orpheus 1 was different from her previous two. It was almost unopposed.

Not altogether, of course. As her probes had indicated, the Bugs had abandoned any hope of mounting a full-dress crustal defense after the losses they'd taken in starships and orbital fortresses. But they'd continued to patrol the warp point with planet-based gunboats-lots of them, many equipped with jammer packs.

But Murakuma had anticipated that. She'd employed SBMHAWKs with devastating prodigality, then sent her own gunboats from Force Leader Maahnaahrd's Task Force 62 through to deal with the survivors before allowing her starships to commence transit.

So Sixth Fleet stood in these now-familiar spaces undepleted in its starship strength: eleven monitors, seventy-one superdreadnoughts, eighteen battleships, thirty-four assault carriers, twenty-four fleet carriers, and seventy-six battlecruisers in the three primary task forces. Small Fang Meearnow's Mohrdenhau-class light carriers provided additional fighter support, and were escorted in turn by ten battlecruisers, thirty light cruisers and twenty destroyers. Also under Meearnow's command was Commodore Paul Taliaferro's Task Group 64.1: eleven Guerriere-C-class command battlecruisers, thirty-one combat tugs of the Turbine-B and Wolf 424 classes (built on battlecruiser and battleship hulls respectively), and twenty-four massive freighters, including nine of the Krupp-A-class mobile shipyards.

Murakuma smiled as she contemplated Taliaferro's command. The Bugs might well wonder what such an oddly constituted formation-all those command ships in a task group that didn't even include any other combatants-was doing amid a battle fleet. They'd have a while yet to wonder, but it would become clear in the end. Essentially, the rest of Sixth Fleet was here to protect TG 64.1 as it set up what Murakuma had had in mind when she'd quipped to her staffers-human, so most of them had understood-that "it's time for a cushion shot."

Her smile deepened as she recalled the hardcopy that rustled against her rib cage where it lay inside her tunic. Indeed, it was all she could do to avoid chuckling at Fujiko's references to a certain Marine captain-references whose disdain was exceeded only by their frequency. The message's Terran Standard date was December 9, 2369, for Fujiko had sent it from Telik just after the liberation of that tragic world. Now that the Star Union was hooked into the local interstellar communications network at the Telik-Franos warp point, that message had taken less than one full standard day-twenty-three hours and twenty-two minutes, to be precise-to reach her across the real-space light-minutes between the light-year-distant stars. It was more wonderful than Murakuma could have expressed to have her daughter so close, figuratively speaking, at last, but she didn't allow herself to dwell upon it at this particular moment. She had other things to think about, for it was now late December and Sixth Fleet was here in Home Hive Two again, for what they confidently hoped would be the last time, awaiting Third Great Fang Koraaza's Third Fleet and wondering-

"Where is Third Fleet?"

Murakuma sighed at Leroy McKenna's irritable ejaculation. This wasn't the first time she'd heard it, from the chief of staff and others as well, and she set her persona on "soothing" mode.

"Remember the time lag, Leroy. We're thirty-six light-minutes away from Warp Point Two."

"I haven't forgotten, Sir. But we've been here long enough-especially with our recon fighters deployed in the direction of Warp Point Two-to have picked up Lord Khiniak's signal, if he were here to send it."

"Communications between us and Third Fleet have been incredibly roundabout even with the ICN. Yes, the plan called for both fleets to enter this system simultaneously. But . . ." Murakuma stopped herself short of the patronizing lecture on military history Tadeoshi would probably have delivered, with emphasis on the words "Leyte Gulf." McKenna was well aware of the difficulty of coordinating widely separated forces. "If Lord Khiniak had really made transit at precisely the same time we did, it would have restored my faith in miracles! Let's give him a little longer before we start panicking."

"Aye aye, Sir," McKenna clearly wasn't happy, but just as clearly he understood the force of Murakuma's argument.

Murakuma sensed the unhappiness, but it wasn't blatant enough to merit a rebuke. Instead, she leaned close enough to speak privately.

"I know he'll come, Leroy. And so do you."

"How long do we wait, Sir?" McKenna's question might have been regarded as truculent. Murakuma knew it wasn't. The chief of staff was raising a legitimate point.

"I'll decide that. For now, we'll use the time to shake down the fleet and resolve any organizational issues that may exist. When Third Fleet appears, we'll be ready."

"Aye aye, Sir."

In the end, it took less time than Murakuma had feared before the signals of Lord Khiniak's emerging ships began to impinge on Sixth Fleet's electronic consciousness. Ignoring the excitement around her, and carefully concealing her relief, she turned to the flag bridge's system-scale holo sphere, where the green icon of Third Fleet was blinking into life at Warp Point Two, a hundred and twenty degrees counterclockwise from Warp Point One's bearing and 4.2 light-hours from the primary. The incoming data indicated that Koraaza'khiniak was encountering the same kind of limited resistance as she had, and was dealing with it in the same way. No surprise. RD2 findings and logic alike had suggested that the Bugs wouldn't try to contest the warp point. No, they'd pull back within medium-to-close range of the three inhabited planets and exact the highest possible price from any who violated those spaces.

Not that Murakuma and Koraaza had any intention of paying it. That was what Taliaferro was here for with his curiously constituted task group. And it was why the Bugs were about to watch, with whatever degree of surprise they were capable of feeling, as the two invading fleets proceeded toward their rendezvous-away from those planets.

Murakuma's eyes went to the halo of tiny lights that girdled the central sun-icon-a very wide halo, well outside the orbits of the inhabited planets. Twenty-four light-minutes was uncommonly far from a sun to find an asteroid belt; normally, a Jupiter-sized gas giant coalesced just outside the outermost limits of the liquid-water zone, gravitationally aborting planet formation just inside it and leaving a trail of planetoidal rubble to mark what would have been the orbit of an unborn world. But, as astronomers had been learning for centuries, the rules of planetography were made to be broken. The brutally massive Home Hive Two B had somehow formed at a forty light-minute orbital radius, and the result was the stream of glowing dust motes in the sphere towards which Sixth and Third Fleets were bound. When they met, Murakuma would assume overall command of the combined fleets-a truly massive array of killing machinery with the addition of Third Fleet's two hundred and forty starships.

Leroy McKenna followed the admiral's eyes and read her thoughts.

"I wonder what the Bugs will think?" he murmured.

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