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"They're up to something." Mackenna frowned across the conference table at Murakuma. "I know they're up to something."

"Demosthenes?" Murakuma said, and the Corporate World admiral shrugged.

"Leroy's right," he said, and Mackenna nodded vigorously. Interesting, she thought. Once it was only "Captain Mackenna" and "Admiral Waldeck." I wonder if either of them even realizes how much his attitude has changed? "They're burning too many pinnaces probing us," Waldeck continued, "and I can only think of one reason to do that."

"With all due respect, Admiral Waldeck, I'm not certain we can assume that," Ernesto Cruciero said politely. "It's been seven months since we kicked them out of the system. They haven't made a serious attempt to take it back yet, and we know how close one of their core systems is to us. If they planned an attack here, surely they could already have reinforced to launch it, and we've had similar upsurges before when no attacks were launched."

"Not to this extent," Mackenna countered. "Look at it-they've sent three waves of fifty-plus through in just the last two weeks. The CSP killed ninety percent of them, too. Even for Bugs, that's a lot of pinnaces to throw away if they're not planning something!"

"I don't categorically say they aren't, Sir. All I'm saving is that we shouldn't assume they are. As Admiral LeBlanc keeps saying, these things just don't think like we do."

Murakuma looked from one face to another. As a rule, she preferred to let subordinates debate without committing herself, for she got the fullest exposition of their views by letting them argue with one another rather than work, however unconsciously, to her viewpoint. But in this case they'd begun to rehash old positions, and all eyes snapped to her as she cleared her throat.

"Your point's valid, Ernesto," she said, "but Leroy and Admiral Waldeck have a pretty convincing argument. And the bottom line is that we're better off going to an enhanced readiness state when they're not about to attack rather than failing to do so when they are."

"It's the SBMHAWKs and energy platforms that concern me, Sir." Cruciero's tone was diffidently stubborn. "We could put a lot of time on their clocks for an attack that never comes."

"That's true enough," Waldeck murmured, and Murakuma nodded. Energy platforms were maintenance-intensive compared to minefields. They tended to get temperamental if they were held too long at full readiness without periodic overhaul, and the same was true of the two hundred SBMHAWK pods deployed to cover the warp point.

"I know," she said, "but the first OWP strikegroups will be ready in five weeks. Once they're on-line, we'll be far less reliant on the platforms. I think we can stretch them to cover that five-week gap, then shut down for complete maintenance once the forts are in place."

Her juniors cocked their heads in consideration. Now that the Sarasota fortress shell was complete, the construction ships were assembling still more prefabricated bases in Justin. Given the Bugs' mass transit tendencies and the possibility of their developing their own SBMHAWKs, Murakuma had argued that Justin's forts should all be fighter-armed Type Fives or Type Sixes. They mounted no offensive weapons, but each OWP-5 could put seventeen fighter squadrons into space, while an OWP-6 could launch twenty-seven, and she intended to deploy them well back from the warp point and use their strikegroups to swamp any attack. Ten Type Fives were already operational, but she had no intention of exposing them to attack until she was confident of their ability to hold, for she refused to abandon their crews if her mobile units were forced back. Her five-week deadline would see another ten forts-all Type Sixes-on-line . . . and put the equivalent of seventy-four more fleet carriers into her defensive order of battle.

Until they were ready, however, and-especially-until their strikegroups had worked up, Fifth Fleet's mobile units had to shoulder the burden. And to do that, they needed the energy platforms and SBMHAWKs on-line the instant any attack came through.

"The platforms would be good for that long," Cruciero agreed. "They won't go much longer before effectiveness degrades, but they should make five weeks. The pods won't, though."

"They won't have to," Murakuma replied, "I want their tasking changed."

"Change their tasking?" Waldeck echoed, then his eyes narrowed. "You want to take them out of independent mode?"

"Exactly. If we slave them to the battle-line's fire control, they'll never go on-line at all unless we send the Fleet to general quarters."

"You'll cut way down on salvo density," Cruciero pointed out.

"Not really," Mackenna said. "We'll pick up anything we lose with better targeting. A Matterhorn can control up to ten pods-that's a fifty-missile salvo, enough to saturate the point defense of any ship without command datalink."

"And you've got twenty-five SDs, Demosthenes," Murakuma pointed out. "We can pound hell out of them in one firing pass even without a mass launch."

"I like it," Waldeck agreed.

"In that case, I think we can consider the matter decided. Ernesto, I'd like you to have the new fire plans to me by dinnertime."

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO "What are those things?" | In Death Ground | * * *