Back | Next


Admiral of the Green Sir Thomas Caparelli, First Space Lord of the Royal Manticoran Admiralty, was a barrel-chested man with a weight-lifter's torso grafted onto a sprinter's legs. Although he was going just a bit to fat these days, the athlete whose bruising, physical style had run Hamish Alexander's soccer team into the mud of Hopewell Field—repeatedly—was still recognizable. Yet his face was taut, the unabashed swagger which had characterized him as both captain and junior flag officer in abeyance, for the First Space Lord was a worried man.

He and his fellow officers rose as Allen Summervale, Duke of Cromarty, leader of the Centrist Party and Prime Minister to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth III, entered the conference room. The PM was tall and slim, like all the Summervales, and, despite prolong, his hair was silver and his handsome face deeply lined. Cromarty had spent over fifty T-years in politics and headed Manticore's government for fifteen of the last twenty-two, and every one of those years had cut its weight into him.

The Prime Minister waved his uniformed subordinates back into their seats, and Caparelli's jaw tightened as he saw who'd walked into the room behind Cromarty. Lady Francine Maurier, Baroness Morncreek, had every right to be here as the civilian First Lord of Admiralty. So did Chancellor of the Exchequer Lord William Alexander, the Government's second ranking member. But Alexander's older brother didn't—officially, at least—and the First Space Lord tried not to glower as the Earl of White Haven found a chair of his own.

"Before we begin, Sir Thomas, I'd just like to mention that Earl White Haven is here at my request, not his." Cromarty's expressive, whiskey-smooth baritone had always been a potent political weapon, and his gentle announcement drew Caparelli's eyes to him. "As you know, he recently completed a survey of our frontier stations' readiness states for Admiral Webster. Under the circumstances, I felt his input might be of value."

"Of course, Your Grace." Caparelli knew he sounded grudging. It wasn't that he disliked the earl, he told himself. It was just that, athletics aside, Alexander—or White Haven, as he now was—had always had a knack for making him feel he was competing out of his class, and the earl's succession to his father's titles, coupled with the prestige of his year-old conquest of the Endicott System, only made it worse.

"Thank you for your understanding." Cromarty's smile was so winning Caparelli actually felt much of his resentment seep away. "And now, Sir Thomas, may I hear your conclusions?"

"Yes, Sir." Caparelli gestured at Second Space Lord Patricia Givens, head of the Bureau of Planning, under whose control the Office of Naval Intelligence fell. "With your permission, Your Grace, Admiral Givens will brief us on the high points."

"Certainly." Cromarty nodded and turned his attention to Admiral Givens as she stood and activated the holo wall behind her, bringing up an enormous star map of the frontier between the Manticoran Alliance and the People's Republic of Haven. She stood with her back to the display, facing the people around the table, and drew a light wand from her pocket.

"Your Grace, Lady Morncreek, Lord Alexander." She nodded courteously to each of the civilians and smiled briefly at White Haven, but she didn't greet him by name. They were old colleagues and friends, but Patricia Givens had a strong sense of loyalty. She was on Caparelli's team now, and, despite the Prime Minister's explanation, the earl was an interloper today.

"As you know, reports are coming in of incidents all up and down our frontier." She pressed the remote built into her light wand, and a sparkle of blood-red lights—a dangerous, irregular line of rubies that arced around Manticore in a complete half-circle—glittered in the display behind her.

"The first incident reported," Givens went on, turning and using her light wand to pick out a single red spark, "was the destruction of Convoy Mike-Golf-Nineteen, here at Yeltsin. It was not, however, the first incident to occur. We simply heard about it first because the transit time from Yeltsin to Manticore was shorter than for the others. The first known incursion into Alliance territory actually occurred here—" the light wand moved southeast from Yeltsin "—at Candor. Nineteen days ago, a light cruiser squadron, positively IDed by our sensors as Havenite despite its refusal to respond to our challenges in any way, violated the Candor System's territorial limit. Our local mobile forces were unable to generate an intercept vector, and the Peeps passed through the outer system, well within missile range of one of our perimeter com centers, without firing a shot, then departed, still without a word."

She cleared her throat and moved the wand again, first to the north, and then back to the southwest of Yeltsin.

"The same basic pattern was followed here, at Klein Station, and again here, in the Zuckerman System." The wand touched each star as it was named. "The only substantive differences between any of these incursions was that the force employed at Zuckerman was much heavier than either of the others, and that it destroyed approximately ninety million dollars worth of remote sensor platforms as it came in—after which it, like the others, turned around and withdrew without saying a word.

"There have also been more serious incidents, on the same pattern as the attack on Mike-Golf-Nineteen," she continued into the intense quiet, "but in these cases we cannot definitely assert that the Peeps were responsible. In Yeltsin's case, for example, the Grayson cruiser Alvarez got readings on the raiders. They were surprisingly good, considering Alvarez's limited tracking time, and our analysts have studied them carefully."

She paused and gave a small, almost apologetic shrug.

"Unfortunately, we don't have anything we could take to a court of law. The impeller wedge signatures were definitely those of a light cruiser and two destroyers, and their drive's gravitic patterns match those of Haven-built units, but their other emissions do not match those of the People's Navy. My own belief, and that of a majority of ONI's analysts, is that they were, in fact, Peeps who had deliberately disguised their signatures, but there's no way to prove that, and the Peeps have 'sold' enough ships to various 'allies' to give us a whole crop of other potential suspects."

Givens paused again, hazel eyes hard, then tilted her head.

"The same is true of the incidents at Ramon, Clearaway, and Quentin. In each case, we or our allies lost shipping and lives to the 'raiders' without getting a close enough look to positively ID the responsible party. The timing of the raids, coupled with the intelligence work it must have taken to plan and execute them so smoothly while denying us any interceptions, certainly suggests Havenite involvement, but again, we can't prove it. Just as we can't prove the recent heavy losses among the Caliphate of Zanzibar's picket and patrol ships are not the work of the ZLF. For that matter, we can't prove there's any connection at all between these episodes—except, of course, for our confirmation of Havenite involvement at Candor, Klein Station, and Zuckerman.

"Nonetheless, Your Grace," she said, looking straight at Cromarty, "it is ONI's considered opinion that we're looking at a pattern of deliberately engineered and orchestrated provocations. The timing is too tight, and they're too widespread, to be anything else, and the differences between them are far surpassed by the single thread common to them all: each of them has inflicted damage upon or underscored a threat to a star system which has been at the center of at least one confrontation between the Kingdom and the People's Republic over the past four to five years. Assuming that the same people planned and executed all of them—and I think we must—then the only possible suspect is the PRH. Only the Peeps have both the resources to manage something like this and any conceivable motive for provoking us in this fashion."

The brown-haired admiral switched off her wand and resumed her seat while the holo wall glowed behind her. Cromarty studied it with hooded eyes, and silence stretched out for a few seconds before the Prime Minister tugged at an earlobe and sighed.

"Thank you, Admiral Givens." He cocked his head at Caparelli. "Just how serious a threat do these incidents pose, Admiral?"

"Not much of one, in themselves, Your Grace. The loss of life involved is more than just painful, but our casualties might have been far heavier, and our strategic position remains unchanged. In addition, none of the forces we've seen has been powerful enough to pose more than a purely local threat. Admittedly, they could have taken Zuckerman out had they chosen to, but that was far and away the heaviest force they've committed anywhere."

"Then what are they up to?" Baroness Morncreek asked. "What's the point of it all?"

"They're crowding us, Milady," Caparelli said bluntly. "They're deliberately turning up the pressure."

"Then they're playing with fire," William Alexander observed.

"Exactly, Lord Alexander," Givens said. "Both sides have settled down in what we know have to be our final pre-war positions. We've developed 'bunker' mentalities on both sides of the line, and given the tension and suspicion that's provoked, 'playing with fire' is exactly what they're doing."

"But why?" Cromarty asked. "What does it gain for them?"

"Admiral Givens?" Caparelli invited heavily, and Givens sighed.

"I'm afraid, Your Grace, that their current activities indicate ONI's assessment of the Peep political leadership's intentions was fundamentally in error. The consensus of my analysts—and my own personal opinion—was that they had too many domestic problems to consider any sort of foreign adventures. We were wrong, and Commander Hale, our attaché on Haven, was right. They're actively seeking a confrontation, possibly as a means to divert Dolist attention from internal concerns to an external enemy."

"Then why the covert nature of the majority of the incidents?" Alexander asked.

"It could be a sort of double-blind, my lord. We know it's them, but if they demand we prove it, we can't. They may want us to accuse them of responsibility while they maintain their innocence for the benefit of their propaganda. That way they can have their cake and eat it, too: they get their incident, but we look like the crisis-mongers."

"Do you think that's all there is to it, Admiral?" Cromarty asked.

"There's too little evidence to know, Sir," Givens said frankly. "All we can do is guess, and guessing about an enemy's intentions is an excellent way to stumble right into a confrontation neither side can back out of."

"What do you recommend we do, then, Admiral Caparelli?"

"We have three main options, Your Grace." Caparelli squared his shoulders and met the Prime Minister's eyes. "The first is to refuse to play their game—whatever it is. Given that they've hit our merchantmen and destroyed two of our warships, plus the damage they've done our allies, I see no option but to strengthen our convoy escorts and patrols. Beyond that, however, we can refuse to react in any way. We can't deny them a confrontation if they really want one, but we can make them come out into the open to get it. If we pursue that option, however, we voluntarily surrender the initiative. If they're willing to commit an overt act of war, our frontier forces will be too light to stop them from hurting us badly wherever they finally do so.

"The second option is to give them the incident they want by formally accusing them of responsibility and warning them that we will hold them accountable for any future aggression. If we follow that route, then my staff and I feel we must simultaneously reinforce the covering forces for our more important and/or exposed bases and allies. Such a redeployment would both underscore the fact that we're serious and constitute a prudent adjustment of our stance to protect ourselves against future frontier violations.

"Third, we can say nothing but carry out the same reinforcement. That leaves the ball in their court. They can still have their confrontation, but we'll be in a position to hurt them badly when they reach for it. In addition, of course, it will protect our own subjects and allies, and any incident which does take place will occur in Alliance space, so they can hardly claim that we went after them." 

"I see." Cromarty returned his gaze to the holo wall for a long, silent moment. "And which option do you favor, Admiral?" he asked finally.

"The third, Your Grace." Caparelli didn't hesitate. "As I say, we can't stop them from pushing it if they really want to, but I see no reason to help them do it. If we make our frontier detachments powerful enough, they'd have to commit heavy forces of their own—and quite possibly kick off a full-fledged war—if they decide to keep pushing. That might cause them to back off entirely if this is no more than an effort to divert Dolist attention from domestic complaints. Even if it doesn't have that effect, we'll give our local commanders the strength to stand a fighting chance when they come in."

"I see," the Prime Minister replied, then glanced up the conference table at Admiral White Haven. The earl had sat silent throughout, thoughtful blue eyes studying each speaker in turn. He showed no disposition to speak up now, and Cromarty was fully aware of the awkward position he'd put him in. But he hadn't brought the admiral along for his silence, and he cleared his throat. "Which option do you favor, Earl White Haven?"

Caparelli's eyes flashed, and one fist clenched under the table, but he said nothing. He simply turned to look at White Haven.

"I think," the earl said quietly, "that before we recommend any of them, we might ask ourselves exactly why the PRH has chosen this particular pattern of provocations."

"Meaning?" Cromarty prompted.

"Meaning that they could have achieved the same degree of tension without spreading their efforts all up and down the frontier," White Haven replied in the same, quiet voice. "They've hit us—or prodded us, at least—all the way from Minorca to Grendelsbane, but aside from Yeltsin, they haven't hit any of our nodal fleet stations like Hancock, Reevesport, or Talbot. Any of those are more important than someplace like Zuckerman or Quentin, yet they've stayed well away from them, again with the exception of Yeltsin, even though they must know how much more sensitive we'd be to any threat to them. Why?"

"Because those are our nodal positions." Caparelli's voice was a bit harsh, but he made himself pull his tone back to normal. "Our mobile forces are enormously stronger in those systems. That's why they got in and out so fast at Yeltsin. They knew that if they'd poked their noses deeper in the way they did at Zuckerman or Candor, we'd have sawed them right off at the ankles."

"Agreed." White Haven nodded. "But what if they did it for another reason? A specific purpose, not simply to minimize their risk?"

"A bait? Something they want us to do in response?" Givens murmured, her eyes thoughtful as she turned in her chair to study the holo wall afresh, and White Haven nodded again.

"Exactly. As Admiral Caparelli says, they've virtually left us no choice but to reinforce the frontier. Certainly they have to know that increases their risk in any future incident . . .  but they also know those reinforcements will have to come from somewhere."

Caparelli grunted unhappily, his own eyes clinging to the display, and felt an acid burn of agreement as he realized White Haven might just have a point . . . again.

"You're suggesting that they're trying to pull us into strategic dispersal," he said flatly.

"I'm saying that may be what they want. They know we won't reduce our strength at our major frontier nodes. That means any meaningful reinforcement has to come from Home Fleet, and anything we send to, say, Grendelsbane or Minorca, will be far beyond support range of Manticore. If someone pushes the button, it would take them almost as long to get back to the home system as it would take a Peep task force to make the same trip—and they couldn't even know to start home until we got a courier to them with orders to return."

"But that only makes sense if they really are considering pushing the button." There was a new note in Caparelli's voice, a combination of devil's advocate and an unwillingness to believe Haven might actually do that after so long. Yet his eyes said the idea did make sense, and silence hovered once more in the wake of his words.

"Admiral Givens," Cromarty broke the stillness at length, "is there any intelligence to support the possibility Admiral White Haven and Sir Thomas have raised?"

"No, Your Grace. But I'm afraid there isn't anything to dismiss it, either. There may be some pointers that are simply buried in the sheer mass of data coming at us, and I'll certainly try to find them if there are, but if the Peeps are finally getting ready to attack, none of our sources in the PRH have picked up on it. That doesn't mean they aren't doing it—their government's had a lot of experience in security, and they thoroughly understand the advantage of surprise after a half-century of conquest—but there's simply no way to get inside their heads and know what they're thinking."

The Second Space Lord studied the display a moment longer, then turned back to face the Prime Minister.

"Having said that, however, I don't think it's a possibility we can afford to ignore, Sir," she said quietly. "The first principle of the military analyst is to figure out how the enemy can hurt you worst with his known capabilities and then plan to stop him, not hope he won't try it."

"Admiral Givens is right, Your Grace." Part of Caparelli still wanted to glower at White Haven just for being there, but his own integrity wouldn't let him reject the earl's analysis. "You can't avoid running risks, sometimes, where military operations are concerned, but prudence is a powerful military virtue. And prudence suggests that you err on the side of pessimism, especially before the shooting starts."

"Which means what, in terms of deployments?" Baroness Morncreek asked.

"I'm not certain yet, Milady," Caparelli admitted. He looked at White Haven with opaque eyes. "I don't think there's much question that, whatever they're up to, at least some redeployment of our forces to strengthen the frontier is in order," he said in a toneless voice, and his shoulders relaxed minutely at White Haven's firm nod of agreement.

"Even if they are seeking no more than a confrontation short of war," the First Space Lord continued more naturally, "we have no choice but to increase the forces that may have to respond to it. At the same time, any major dispersion of our wall of battle clearly constitutes an unwarrantable risk." He paused and rubbed his right temple for a moment, then shrugged.

"I'll want to do some very careful force analyses before making a formal recommendation, Your Grace," he told the Prime Minister. "Despite our buildup, our margin for error is slim. Their wall of battle has an advantage of almost fifty percent in hulls, and their tonnage advantage is even higher, since our fleet has a much higher percentage of dreadnoughts.

"Most of our ships are bigger and more powerful than theirs on a class-for-class basis, but their edge in superdreadnoughts means we not only have less hulls but that our ships of the wall actually average smaller. That means each battle squadron we remove from Home Fleet will weaken us more than diverting the same number of ships would weaken them, both proportionately and absolutely."

He shook his head, powerful shoulders hunching as he considered the unpalatable numbers, then sighed.

"With your permission, Your Grace, I'd like to ask Admiral White Haven to join me and Admiral Givens at Admiralty House." He made the admission with only a trace of his earlier resentment as his mind grappled with the problem. "Let the three of us take a very close look at our commitments, and I'll try to have a recommendation for you by sometime tomorrow morning."

"That will be more than satisfactory, Sir Thomas," Cromarty told him.

"In the meantime," White Haven said in his quiet voice, "I think it would be a good idea to send a formal war warning—and the reasoning behind it—to all our station commanders."

The tension in the room clicked back up at the suggestion, but Caparelli nodded with another sigh.

"I don't see any option," he agreed. "I don't like the potential to increase anxieties. A nervous CO is a lot more likely to make a mistake we'll all regret, but they deserve our confidence . . . and the warning. The communication lag's always meant we had to trust them to act on their own initiative, and they can't do that intelligently without information that's as complete as we can give them. I'll instruct them to be on the alert for provocations, as well, and to do their best to hold any confrontation to a minimum, but we've got to warn them."

"Agreed—and may God be with us all," the Prime Minister said softly.


Back | Next