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CHAPTER SEVEN To Face the Hurricane

"The Admiral is on the bridge."

Officers looked up, but Murakuma's wave sent them back to their tasks as she crossed to her command chair, settled into it, and fiddled with her plot's contrast controls. She adjusted it to her satisfaction, then looked up and beckoned to Commander Ling, and the ops officer gathered up her memo pad and crossed to her side.

"Good afternoon, Admiral." The commander was ten centimeters shorter than Murakuma, but she was also a native of Old Terra-one of the very few native Terrans, relatively speaking, in TF 59-and for all her petite slenderness, she looked almost stocky beside the taller admiral.

"Tian," Murakuma acknowledged, then pointed at the memo pad. "Did you and Admiral Teller reach the same conclusions I did?"

"Yes, Sir." Ling set the pad on Murakuma's console and switched it on. Its tiny holo unit projected its display before the admiral, and Ling highlighted a block of characters in amber. "You were right," she said. "Akagi, Bunker Hill, Cabot, Emperor and Kuznetzov didn't want to admit it, but analysis of their operations indicates pilot fatigue's become a definite problem for them."

"Not surprising," Murakuma murmured, studying the numbers. Sarasota had been able to make good the enormous hardware losses of Jackson Teller's strikegroups by sending forward every reserve fighter in inventory, but Admiral Eusebio had been unable to replace their dead flight crews. It was a hellish choice, for Sarasota depended heavily on fighters for its own defense, and Eusebio could, in fact, have brought Teller's groups back up to strength . . . but only by sending up enough pilots to critically reduce his own capabilities. As it was, the Fleet Base's squadrons were at barely sixty percent strength, and he refused to deplete them still further.

Murakuma couldn't fault him for that. What had happened in Erebor was grim proof of the sort of casualties TF 59 might suffer, and if that happened, Eusebio's fighters were all he'd have. But understanding made her own problems no less pressing, and she frowned at the uncaring numbers.

Teller's staff had done its best to redistribute its available pilots, but fighter squadrons were intricately meshed organisms whose members worked together almost as much by instinct as order. Breaking them up or introducing newcomers, however well trained, degraded effectiveness until the replacements had time to settle in, and no one knew how much time they had. They knew only that TF 59 would be heavily outnumbered when the time came, and the Federation's apparent monopoly on the strike-fighter made those fighter groups pearls beyond price. They had to be as efficient and deadly as possible, so Teller, with her approval, had left the groups of the four newly arrived carriers untouched, and mixed and matched to rebuild those of the Erebor survivors as best he could.

They had sufficient personnel to operate all their fighters, but fighter ops were the most physically demanding duty the TFN offered. They were also among the most dangerous, as Vanessa Murakuma knew only too well, for Lieutenant Tadeoshi Murakuma had died on routine ops exactly three days after their second daughter was born. But it was the fatigue factor which worried her now. A carrier normally carried twice as many crews as fighters, so it could rotate its personnel, but the groups of the five carriers Ling had listed were at barely forty-two percent strength, and most were scratch-built out of bits and pieces from Sarasota after the complete replacement squadrons had been distributed to other ships. The strain of shaking down as combat-capable entities while simultaneously pulling their weight in TF 59's routine patrols showed, and pilot fatigue was rising rapidly towards unacceptable levels.

"All right," she said finally. "I want those groups stood down for at least forty-eight hours-have Admiral Teller redistribute patrol assignments to adjust. Once they've had a couple of days to recuperate, he can reintegrate them, but I want his primary emphasis to be on getting them shaken down, not scouting duties. After all-" she smiled thinly "-we know where the enemy will be coming from."

"Yes, Sir." Ling tapped a note into the memo pad, and Murakuma crossed her legs.

"The minelayers completed their operations on schedule?"

"Yes, Sir." Ling's reply was as calm as ever, and Murakuma surprised herself with a brief chuckle. She'd been an ops officer herself, and Tian's unflagging courtesy couldn't fool her. The commander didn't have to say "of course" for Murakuma to hear it.

Ling arched a graceful eyebrow, but Murakuma only shook her head. Bad enough that she was fretting over routine details without admitting she knew she was.

"That's all for now, Tian," was all she said, and smiled fondly at the commander's back as Ling returned to her station. Then her smile faded, and she steepled her fingers under her chin as she gazed back down at her icon-frosted plot.

Classic warp point defense doctrine was to hit the enemy as he made transit in the old wet-navy equivalent of catching him as he emerged one ship at a time from a narrow strait. Sixty years ago, before the Theban War, the defender's advantage had been so crushing the mere thought of a full-scale warp point assault could turn any admiral gray, but the pendulum had shifted in the attacker's favor with the SBMHAWK. The warp-capable missile pods were expensive, both to build and in terms of freighter lift, but enough of them could gut any close-in defense . . . as Ivan Antonov had proved almost exactly fifty-nine years before at the Fourth Battle of Lorelei.

But this enemy didn't seem to have SBMHAWKs, which made a close defense far more appealing-or would have, without his assault fleet. Murakuma couldn't afford to expose her lighter battle-line to a mass simultaneous transit that was almost certain to enjoy the advantage of surprise, however briefly. Even light cruisers could tear battleships apart if enough of them caught the capital ships when they weren't at battle stations.

Yet she did have one huge advantage Villiers had been denied in Erebor. The minelayers had emplaced every antimatter mine and laser buoy Sarasota could scrape up around the enemy's entry warp point. There weren't as many as Murakuma could have wished, and neither mines nor buoys could be placed directly atop an open warp point, since the grav tides of an open point would suck in and destroy anything that small. But they could be placed around the point, and Ling's patient report confirmed that hundreds of them had been.

No doubt most of the single-shot buoys would expend themselves on the simultaneous transit rather than its betters, but the mines behind them should at least pen the big boys up until they could be cleared. It was tempting to hold her full force-or at least the ones armed with strategic bombardment missiles-in range to batter them while they fought to break through the mines, but the enemy would have an enormous advantage in launchers, and the fact that he hadn't used the extended range SBMs yet didn't prove he didn't have them. Worse, Sarasota's RD staff still couldn't give her a definitive estimate on the range of those damned plasma guns. She dared not assume their envelope was as tight as RD thought it was, and even if it was, they knew the enemy had the capital force beam. Add capital missiles from his missile-heavy SDs, and sheer volume of fire would quickly cripple her lighter battleships if she met him head on.

No, she told herself again. A conventional defense was out of the question. She had to concede the warp point-bleed them on it, yes, but let them have it-and make it a running fight in deep space, where her speed and tech advantages could be exploited to the maximum. If she'd had any chance at all of stopping them dead, she would have accepted the losses of a close defense to do it, but she didn't. All she could do was mount a fighting retreat that inflicted the maximum attrition . . . and pray the people trapped in Merriweather when she finally withdrew wouldn't haunt her dreams with the horror she knew they would.



* * * | In Death Ground | * * *



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