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CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE "Security is relative."

Commander Nobiki Murakuma had found that being the older daughter of one of Battle Fleet's rising captains-and then of one of its more respected junior admirals-was a burden for someone determined to make her career on her own, but being the daughter of Vice Admiral Vanessa Murakuma was worse. The newsies had dubbed her mother "The Savior of Sarasota," and every time Nobiki turned around some fresh infernal busybody wanted a "background interview." And the questions they came up with!

She shook her head as she checked the status boards in Sky Watch One, the massive orbital station which coordinated the Centauri System's fixed defenses. She loved her mother, but truth to tell, she'd seen more of her since joining the Navy than she had as a child. Vanessa Murakuma's daughters were Navy brats, and they'd learned early that an officer went where she was sent. They'd understood there was seldom any way to take children along, and no one could have given them a more secure (if sometimes confining) childhood than their grandparents. Their mother's slender, very un-Japanese beauty, long absences, and infrequent appearances had imbued her with a sort of glamorous magnificence which joined with the Murakuma tradition to make it inevitable they would follow her into uniform, and both of them were proud of her, yet they had few of the mother-daughter childhood memories civilian families seemed to take for granted.

The newsies appeared unable to grasp that. They kept plaguing Nobiki for background when, frankly, they could have gotten better information from the public record! Fortunately for Fujiko, her Survey Command duties put her safely beyond their reach. Nobiki had no such luck. She wished Captain Hammani would let her tell them where to go, but someone from Public Information had gotten to her CO and stressed the necessity of cooperating with the press, and-

An anomalous reading caught her attention, and she frowned. Her eyes darted back across the boards, and her frown deepened. Surely that couldn't be right!

She punched up her traffic files. There was a lot of data, for Centauri was always busy. Every starship to or from Sol had to pass through it, and powerful Home Fleet detachments were permanently on station to support the heavy fortifications guarding The Gateway-the single warp point from Centauri to Sol which was humanity's door to the stars. Despite the apparent confusion of ships moving about the system, its traffic was meticulously regulated . . . yet none of the information in her files explained what a ship would be doing out there.

She rubbed her chin, thinking hard. There were Fleet exercises underway-three of them, in fact-but only one involved cloaked units, and she plugged a query into the system, then swore softly as the computers refused to answer. Well, of course they did, she scolded herself. Admiral van der Gelder is supposed to be sneaking up on us, after all.

Still, there was no good reason for van der Gelder's big, new CVAs to be stooging around out in Theta Quadrant. Which added to her mystification, but didn't offer any answers.

She turned back to the scanner ghost. It wasn't much, but with a little enhancement . . .

She hummed as she worked. Sensor glitch was the most likely explanation, but it was also possible someone had decided to throw an additional surprise exercise at them-a sensor shell test, perhaps. Centauri's open warp points had been plotted three hundred years before, but the TFN had always worried about closed warp points in strategic systems, and especially in this one. Like all core systems, it had been provided with a sphere of scansats three light-hours from the primary to provide warning in the unlikely event some unfriendly soul did find a closed point in-

Nobiki Murakuma's thoughts froze as the computers beeped. She stared at the analysis of the enhanced datum, held by shock for just a second, and then a flashing hand punched a com key.

"CIC, Captain Hammani," a tenor voice said in her earbug.

"Captain, this is Murakuma in Plotting," Nobiki replied, and the professionalism of her own voice amazed her in a distant sort of way. "Sir, according to my board, we have a cloaked Bug force operating in unknown strength in Theta Quadrant."



* * * | In Death Ground | * * *



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