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CHAPTER EIGHTEEN "Welcome along, Sir."

The powered walker whined softly as Vanessa Murakuma "walked" from the intraship car into the boat bay. The muscle feedback-controlled walker was less responsive than the direct neural-feed prosthetics used to replace lost limbs, which made her progress more than a little clumsy, but she wasn't complaining. She didn't want permanent replacement parts, however efficient, and the surgeons promised her legs would be good as new in time. They were talking about six months, though she intended to make it in four, and this wasn't even the first time she'd had to use a walker, for her home world prepared its people poorly for the planets most humans lived on. She'd spent three years exercising her Truman-bred muscles before reporting to the Academy, but New Annapolis' 1.25 gravities had still been a hideous ordeal. The medical staff had insisted she stick with the walker for her first semester, and the aching cramps protesting a body weight sixty percent greater than the one she'd been bred to had made her perfectly willing to obey.

Now she maneuvered herself into position in TFNS Euphrates' boat bay and tried to suppress a pang of grief for her last flagship as another cutter docked. Cobra had been luckier than many of Fifth Fleet's ships, but she'd still taken a fearsome pounding. She'd only returned to service last week, and two-thirds of her tactical department were squeaky-new replacements for men and women who'd died in Justin. Murakuma no longer had a logical reason to oppose shifting her lights to one of the better-protected Mekong-class SDs-and, she admitted, she no longer wanted to. Seeing all those new faces in place of the ones she'd come to know so well . . .

She shook off the thought as a hatch opened and the side party's two separate honor guards-one of Terran Marines, gorgeous in black-and-green dress uniform, and a second of even more gorgeously bejeweled Orion Marines-snapped to attention.

The first person through the hatch was a human. He was of little more than average height for his race, but despite the snow-white hair and beard, he radiated a sense of purposeful mass which made him seem much bigger. His Orion companion's night-black pelt was liberally threaded with silver, yet the Tabby carried himself with a springy predator's grace, only slightly stiffened by age. No one, however, would have described the human as "graceful." He certainly wasn't clumsy, but he moved with a burly, unstoppable momentum which dared any object to intrude into his path . . . and promised no quarter for anything foolish enough to accept the challenge.

"Grand Fleet, arriving!" the intercom announced through the twitter of the bosun's pipes, and Euphrates' captain nodded to the side party.

"Preeee-sent, arms!"

The barked command was in Standard English, since Euphrates was a human ship, but both Marine contingents snapped to their version of present arms with the simultaneous precision of careful practice. A corner of Murakuma's eye noted the perfection of the maneuver, yet her attention was focused on the two visitors as they saluted the Federation banner on the boat bay's forward bulkhead, then turned to salute Captain Decker as well.

"Permission to come aboard, Sir?"

"Permission granted, Sir," Jessica Decker said.

The visitors crossed the line on the deck, formally boarding the ship, and Murakuma's walker whined as she stepped forward and saluted.

"Admiral Antonov, Fang Kthaara. Welcome to Fifth Fleet."

"Thank you, Admiral Murakuma." Antonov's deep, bass rumble hadn't gotten any frailer since his retirement. She'd met him several times during her stint as a War College instructor, and she felt a bit odd addressing him as "Admiral," since he'd been Sky Marshal at the time.

"It's good to see you again," Antonov went on, and waved a hand at the tall Tabby. "I don't believe you've met Lord Talphon?"

"No, Sir." Murakuma turned to the Orion with a polite, tooth-hidden smile of greeting. Ninth Fang of the Khan Kthaara'zarthan, Lord Talphon and Khanhaku'a'zarthan, had been a pilot's pilot in a service where the fighter reigned supreme. He was also the ninth ranking active-duty officer in the Khan's service and almost as legendary-in TFN service, as well as the KON-as Antonov himself, and Murakuma's small, Orion-style bow of greeting was deeply respectful. "I've certainly heard a great deal about you, however, Sir. I'm honored to meet you at last, and my carrier pilots have asked me to extend their invitation to a small party aboard Orca. I believe they want to offer you an, ah, traditional welcome to the Fleet."

The big Tabby's whiskers twitched as he gave her a small, answering bow of acceptance.

"I would be honored, Ahhhdmiraal," he yowled as her earbug translated, "although a warrior of my advanced years may find it somewhat difficult to do full justice to their invitation."

"Ha!" Antonov snorted derisively. "No doubt they'll offer you bourbon or some other anemic substitute!"

"No, Sir," Murakuma murmured. "Least Fang Anaasa has informed us Lord Talphon prefers vodka, and I understand a suitable supply has been laid in."

"Khorosho! Good! Perhaps we'll civilize our flight crews yet!"

"We'll certainly try, Sir," Murakuma agreed, then waved towards the intraship car. "In the meantime, I've asked the Fleet's senior officers to assemble in Briefing Room Three. If you and Fang Kthaara would care to accompany me-?"

"Of course, Admiral." Antonov nodded briskly to the side party and honor guards, and he and Kthaara adjusted their pace to that of Murakuma's walker as they crossed to the waiting car.

* * * | In Death Ground | * * *