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CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE The Trap Springs

Everyone on TFNS Xing'u's flag bridge had learned the inadvisability of bothering Sky Marshal Avram-not that most of them would have been inclined to do so in any circumstances. Even now, with the relief force assembled and ready for departure, she still paced in a veritable fury of impatience, occasionally turning to the view screen and glaring at Alpha Centauri A and the distant orange flare of Alpha Centauri B for reminding her by their presence that she hadn't yet departed the system.

Stop being such a goddamned kvetch, she chided herself. Admiral Chin's warnings of disaster had arrived only two standard days before, and this relief force-seventeen superdreadnoughts, ten battleships, eleven battle-cruisers and twelve heavy cruisers-had been organized slightly sooner than humanly possible. She would have preferred a heavier force-especially some carriers-but this was all that was available out of the Home Fleet elements immediately at hand. She'd commandeered virtually every one of Admiral MacGregor's mobile units-aside from those currently undergoing scheduled overhauls-and waiting for anything more to arrive from Sol would take time they didn't have. And, she thought grimly, we've already picked Sol so barefor Pesthouse and Fourth Fleet that waiting wouldn't add anything worthwhile to my strength, anyway.

No, she couldn't really complain about the pace of the preparations. And she'd had to waste less time than she'd feared shouting down various old ladies of both genders who'd gotten their undies in a bunch at the notion of the Sky Marshal taking personal command. No, she wouldn't have been in such a vile mood, except . . .

As though to rub it in, a com rating looked up. "Sky Marshal, Admiral Mukerji sends his apologies for the delay and reports that all elements of his command are ready for departure."

No good deed goes unpunished, Avram philosophized to herself. If she hadn't blocked Agamemnon Waldeck's attempt to put him in command of Fifth Fleet over Vanessa Murakuma's head, Vice Admiral Terence Mukerji would have been shipped off to the Romulus Chain. As it was, he'd been at Centauri in circumstances under which there was no way she could escape having him as her second in command.

"My compliments to Admiral Mukerji," she said through gritted teeth, "and if he's quite ready, perhaps we can proceed." Her staff took the hint; orders began to go out, and the ships of the relief force began to swing out of their orbits around the Nova Terra/Eden binary planet and set their courses for the Anderson One warp point.

Avram commanded herself to calmness. There was no way to know what had happened to the Fleet Train since Chin had dispatched his drones. Even less could she know what had happened to Second Fleet. But in all this fog of imponderables, she held fast to one datum. Norn had fired off her drones about six standard days ago, and surely she'd sent them to Antonov as well as to Chin. With an ease bred of two days' constant repetition, Avram ran the mental calculations: at their best speed, Bug superdreadnoughts would take a hundred and ninety hours to cross from one warp point to the other in Anderson Four-after transiting from Anderson Three. So Antonov ought to have at least a week's warning. Given that . . . well, if Ivan Nikolayevich couldn't extricate Second Fleet from Anderson Five and be well on the way back towards Centauri, nobody could.



* * * | In Death Ground | * * *



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