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Admiral Parnell gazed out a view port as his shuttle touched down at DuQuesne Central, the main landing facility for the PRH's third largest naval base. The sprawling military facility named for the master architect of the Republic's march to empire was the primary—indeed, the only real—industry of Enki, the Barnett System's single habitable planet. Well over a million Marines and navy personnel were permanently stationed on Enki, and the system seethed with warships of every size, all guarded by massive fixed fortifications.

Parnell had studied those warships from the bridge of the heavy cruiser which delivered him to Barnett, and he'd been impressed. Yet that wasn't all he'd been, for he recognized the risk he was committing his navy to accept, and he didn't like it.

As he'd told President Harris months ago, he didn't really want to take Manticore on at all. Unlike Haven's other victims, the Star Kingdom had had both the time and the leadership to prepare. Despite the confused pacifism of some of its politicians, its people were generally united behind their stiff-necked, almost obsessively determined queen, its wealth had let it amass a frightening amount of firepower, and the sheer breadth of its alliance system faced the People's Navy with a whole new dimension of threat. Unlike Haven's past, single-system conquests, there was no quick, clean way to take the Alliance out, short of a direct thrust to its heart, and driving clear to Manticore without protecting the Fleet's flanks and rear invited catastrophe.

No, if they wanted the Star Kingdom, they had to fight for it. And, as the very first step, they had to break its frontier defenses and annihilate a sizable chunk of its navy in the process.

The admiral climbed out of his seat as the landing gear engaged. He scooped up his briefcase, nodded to the security team which accompanied him everywhere, and made his way down the shuttle ramp with a smile that hid his inner apprehension.

* * *

DuQuesne Base's huge war room was even more lavishly appointed than Central Planning back home in the Octagon, and Parnell's staff stood in a silent arc behind him as he studied the status boards. It was a habit of his to absorb the raw data for himself. He knew it irked some of his staffers, but he didn't do it because he distrusted their competence. If he hadn't trusted them, they wouldn't be here in the first place, but even the best people made mistakes. He'd caught more than a few of them in his time, and while he knew he couldn't possibly assimilate that much detail, he'd trained himself over the decades to absorb a general overview.

The confirmed reports on Manty naval deployments were scantier than he'd hoped for, but what there were of them looked hopeful. There were signs of movement all along the frontier, and Operation Argus had done better than he'd ever expected when the notion was first proposed to him. Argus was hardly a speedy way to amass information, but the data it did bring in was surprisingly detailed, and that insight into normal Manty ops patterns was all that had made this entire operation workable. Besides, he admitted, Argus made him feel better. Manticore's persistently better hardware had begun to assume Sisyphean proportions for Parnell, and it pleased him to see the Manties' faith in their technological superiority boomeranging on them.

He noted with satisfaction the arrival of fresh Manticoran forces in Zuckerman, Dorcas, and Minette, and other reports indicated that the RMN had substantially reinforced its escort and frontier patrol forces. That was good. Every ship committed to any of those areas was one less he'd have to worry about when the ball actually opened.

He was less pleased by the information from Seaford Nine. The sheer spatial volume of the cursed Alliance meant it was out of date, of course, but it was also unfortunately vague. Well, Rollins knew how critical the situation was; undoubtedly he was working to refine his data even now, assuming he hadn't already done so.

The CNO let his eyes run down Nav Int's latest estimates (guesstimates, he corrected himself wryly) of the current strength of Manticore's Home Fleet. There was no possible way to confirm the accuracy of that, but it wasn't really vital at this moment, anyway.

He turned to the tally boards listing the planned first and second phase incursions and the results so far reported, and, for the first time since entering the command center, he frowned and glanced over his shoulder.

"Commodore Perot."

"Sir?" His chief of staff replied.

"What went wrong in Talbot?" Parnell asked, and Perot grimaced.

"We don't know, Sir. The Manties haven't said a word about it, but Admiral Pierre's ships must have run into some sort of trap."

"Something nasty enough to get all of them?" Parnell murmured, half to himself, and Perot nodded even less happily.

"Must have been, Sir."

"But how in hell could they have pulled it off?" Parnell rubbed his chin and frowned at the bland "UNKNOWN" glowing beside the names of four of the PN's best battlecruisers. "He should have been able to avoid anything he couldn't fight. Could they have known when and where he was coming in?"

"The possibility can't be completely ruled out, Sir, but even Admiral Pierre didn't know his objective until he opened his sealed orders. And the Poicters side of the operation went off without a hitch. Commodore Yuranovich nailed a Star Knight-class cruiser right where he expected to find her. As you can see," Perot pointed at the information displayed below the names of the ships committed to the Poicters raid, "he took more damage than we'd hoped—I'm afraid Barbarossa and Sinjar are going to be in yard hands for some time—but there was no sign they'd suspected anything. Since both halves of the mission were covered by exactly the same security, our best guess is that they didn't know Pierre was coming, either."

"You're putting it down to coincidence, then," Parnell said flatly, and Perot gave a tiny shrug.

"At the moment, there's nothing else we can put it down to, Sir. We're due for another Argus dump from Talbot late next week, and we should get at least some information then. The birds cover the area where the interception was supposed to take place, anyway."

"Um." Parnell rubbed his chin harder. "Any response from Manticore over the Star Knight?" 

"Not in so many words, but they've closed the Junction to our shipping, ejected all our diplomatic courier boats from Alliance space without any formal explanation, and begun shadowing and harassing our convoys moving through Alliance territory. There was an incident in Casca, but we're not sure who started it. Casca may be officially nonaligned, but they've always leaned a bit towards Manticore, and some of my analysts think our Phase One operations may have pushed the Cascans themselves into pressing the panic button and asking for Manticoran protection. Our local CO exchanged long-range fire with a Manty cruiser squadron, then hauled ass." Perot shrugged again. "Hard to blame him, Sir. He didn't have anything heavier than a destroyer, and they would've eaten him for lunch if he'd stood and fought."

Parnell's nod was calmer than he felt. The situation was heating up, and Manticore was starting to push back, but they weren't lodging any formal diplomatic protests. That could be good or bad. It might mean they knew exactly what was happening and chose to keep silent in order to keep him in the dark about their response till they had it in position. But it could just as well indicate they didn't know what was going on . . . or just how much crap was about to fall on top of them. If they'd simply decided the incidents and provocations might be the start of some larger operation, they could be holding their protests until they figured out what that operation was.

In either case, they'd obviously decided protests would serve no purpose, and the way their forces were pushing back across the board, not just in a few local instances, certainly argued that new orders had gone out to their station commanders. And his fragmentary reports on their ship movements suggested they were also repositioning their units to support whatever those orders were. Now if they'd just do enough of that. . . . 

His eyes returned to the total lack of new data from Seaford Nine, and he grimaced.

"All right, ladies and gentlemen," he said finally, turning to regard his staff, "let's get down to it."

He led the way to the conference room, followed by his subordinates, and Commodore Perot began the detailed brief. Parnell listened closely, nodding occasionally, and deep inside he felt the moment of final decision rushing closer with every heartbeat.

* * *

On the face of it, the possibility of locating and attacking someone else's commerce in hyper shouldn't even exist. Maximum reliable scanner range is barely twenty light-minutes, hyper-space is vast, and even knowing a convoy's planned arrival and departure times shouldn't help much.

But appearances can be deceiving. To be sure, hyperspace is vast, yet virtually all its traffic moves down the highways of its grav waves, drawing both its power and absurdly high acceleration from its Warshawski sails. There are only so many efficient grav wave connections from one star system to another, and the optimum points of interchange are known to most navies. So are the points which must be avoided because of high levels of grav turbulence. If a raider knows a given ship's schedule, he doesn't really need its route. He can work through the same astro tables as his target's skipper and project its probable course closely enough to intercept it.

For those not blessed with such foreknowledge, there are still ways. Merchant skippers, for example, vastly prefer to ride a grav wave clear through their final hyper translation. Power costs are lower, and riding the wave through the hyper wall reduces both the structural and physiological stresses. Which means raiders often lurk at points where inbound grav waves intersect a star's hyper limit, waiting for prey to amble up to them.

And, if all else fails, there is always the blind chance method. Ships are at their most vulnerable at and shortly after they translate back into normal space. Their base velocities are low, their sensor systems are still sorting out the sudden influx of n-space information, and for at least ten minutes or so, while their hyper generators recycle, they can't even dodge back into hyper and run away if something comes at them. A translation right on the system ecliptic is the norm, if not the inviolable rule, so a patient raider might put his ship into a solar orbit right on the hyper limit, run his power (and emissions) down to minimum levels, and simply wait until some fat and unwary freighter translates within his interception envelope. With no emissions to betray it, something as tiny as a warship is extremely difficult to spot, and many an unfortunate merchant skipper's first intimation of trouble has been the arrival of the leading missile salvo.

But the heavy cruiser PNS Sword and her consorts had no need for such hit-or-miss hunting techniques, Captain Theisman thought. Thanks to Nav Int's spies, Commodore Reichman knew her prey's exact schedule. In fact, Theisman's tac officer had spotted the five-ship convoy and its escort hours ago as Sword's squadron lay doggo in a handy "bubble" in the local grav wave, letting them pass without being spotted in return before emerging in pursuit.

Theisman didn't like his present mission, partly because he disliked both Commodore Annette Reichman and her proposed tactics. Given his druthers, he would have moved to catch the convoy six light-years further along, when it would have to transition between grav waves under impeller drive. Reichman had decided differently—and stupidly, in his opinion—yet that explained only a part of his dislike. He was also a naval officer, with a naval officer's innate instinct to protect merchantmen, and the fact that two of the squadron's targets weren't really freighters at all only made it worse. But he'd been asked to do a lot of things he didn't like in his career, and if he had to do it, he might as well do it right . . . assuming Reichman would let him.

He stood on Sword's command deck, studying his plot, and frowned silently while he awaited the commodore's next order. The Manties were good, as he could attest from painful personal experience, yet Reichman seemed confident. Possibly more confident than the situation merited. True, the convoy escort consisted of only two light cruisers and a trio of tin-cans, but hyper-space combat wasn't like an n-space engagement. Much of a heavier ship's normal defensive advantage was negated here, and Reichman's unconcern over her squadron's increased vulnerability worried Theisman.

Still, the tactical situation was developing much as the commodore had predicted. With so few ships, the escort commander had opted to sweep ahead of the merchies against the greater danger of a head-on interception while only a single escort watched their rear to cover what should have been the vector of minimum threat. Only Reichman didn't need a head-on intercept. The maximum safe velocity in hyper for any merchantman was barely .5 c. That translated to an effective normal-space velocity of many hundreds of times light-speed, but all that mattered were relative speeds, and their better particle and radiation shielding let Reichman's ships attain a velocity twenty percent greater than that. Which meant that she was currently overtaking the convoy at just under thirty thousand KPS and that the trailing destroyer ought to see them just . . . about . . . now.

* * *

Lieutenant Commander MacAllister jerked upright in his command chair as threat sources sparkled suddenly in his plot. His destroyer's sensors should have read them sooner, even under the conditions of hyper-space, but the count was tentative, and the identifying data codes shifted and flowed as he watched them. Someone back there had some pretty decent electronic warfare capabilities, and they were using them.

His eyes darted to the vector readouts, and he swallowed a curse. They were barely three hundred million klicks back. At their closing speed, they'd overtake the convoy in under three hours, and there was no way in hell merchantmen could outrun them.

He swore softly, rubbing his palms up and down the chair arms. Whoever was sneaking up on them had to have military-grade shielding to generate that much overtake velocity, so they had to be warships. A fact, he thought grimly, their EW activity had already confirmed. Just as that activity confirmed their hostile intent. But who were they? Were there more of them back there than he could see yet? And how powerful were they?

There was only one way to find out.

"Battle stations," MacAllister told his tactical officer grimly, and alarms began to whoop as he turned to his com officer. "Ruth, get a signal off to Captain Zilwicki. Tell her we have bogies coming up from astern—append Tactical's present data—and that I'm turning for a positive ID."

"Aye, aye, Sir."

"Helm, bring us around one-eight-zero degrees. Maximum deceleration."

"Aye, aye, Sir."

"Manny," MacAllister looked at his astrogator. "I want a turnover that puts us back at our present closure rate at ten light-minutes. We may not be able to fingerprint them from there, but we can sure as hell figure out what size they are."

"Yes, Sir." The astrogator bent over his console just as MacAllister's vacsuited exec appeared on the bridge with the lieutenant commander's skin suit slung over her shoulder. He smiled at her in grim thanks and nodded to the display as he took the suit.

"It seems we're invited to a party, Marge." He started for his minuscule briefing room to change. "Hold the fort while I get suited up."

* * *

"The tin-can's coming back at us, Sir," Theisman's tac officer reported, and the captain glanced at Reichman. The commodore didn't even blink. No doubt she'd expected it, just as Theisman had. In fact, he'd expected it sooner, and he felt a dull sense of sympathy for the crew of that ship.

"Well, they see us, Ma'am," he said after a moment. "Any orders?"

"No. I doubt he'll come all the way into range before he gets an accurate read on us, but we can hope. Besides," the commodore smiled without humor, "it's not like the bastards can get away from us, now is it?"

"No, Ma'am," Theisman said softly, "I don't suppose it is."

* * *

HMS Hotspur decelerated towards the bogies at over 51 KPS2 as her Warshawski sails channeled the grav wave's power. Nineteen minutes later, she flipped end for end, accelerating away from them until their overtake speed had dropped once more to thirty thousand KPS at a range of just under a hundred and fifty-eight million kilometers, and Lieutenant Commander MacAllister's face tightened as Hotspur's sensors penetrated their ECM at last.

"Get another message off to the Old Lady, Ruth," he said very quietly. "Tell her we have six Peep heavy cruisers—they look like Scimitars. I estimate they'll enter range of the convoy in—" he glanced back down at his plot "—two hours and thirty-six minutes."

* * *

Captain Helen Zilwicki's face was stone as she listened to MacAllister's analysis of the threat thirteen and a half light-minutes behind her tiny squadron. Six of them to her five, and all of them bigger and far more heavily armed. Even the technical edge her ships might have exploited in normal space would hardly matter here, for it paid its biggest dividends in missile engagements, and missiles were useless within a grav wave. No impeller drive could function there; the wave's powerful gravitational forces would burn it out instantly. Which meant any missile vaporized the second its drive kicked in—and that none of her ships had the protection of their own impeller wedges . . . or sidewalls.

She didn't even consider the possibility of breaking free of the wave. It would have restored her sidewalls and let her use her missiles, but her charges were four light-hours into the wave. They'd need eight hours to get clear, and they didn't have eight hours.

She felt her bridge crew's tension, smelled their fear like her own, but no one said a word, and she closed her eyes in anguish. Two of her huge, clumsy ships were combination freighter-transports, bound for Grendelsbane Station with vitally needed machine tools, shipyard mechs and remotes . . . and over six thousand priceless civilian and Navy technicians and their families.

Including Captain (Junior Grade) Anton Zilwicki and their daughter.

She tried not to think about that. She couldn't afford to. Not if she was going to do anything to save them. But there was only one thing she could do, and she felt a terrible stab of guilt as she looked up at her officers at last.

"General message to all units, Com." Her voice sounded rusty and strained in her own ears. "Message begins: From CO escort to all ships. We have detected six warships, apparently Havenite heavy cruisers, closing from astern. Present range one-three-point-six light-minutes, closing velocity three-zero thousand KPS. On present course, they will overtake us in two hours and fourteen minutes." She drew a deep breath, staring down into her display. "In view of Admiralty warnings, I must assume their intention is to attack. All escorts will form on me and turn to engage the enemy. The convoy will scatter and proceed independently. Zilwicki clear."

"Recorded, Ma'am." The com officer's voice was flat.

"Transmit." The word came out fogged with tears, and the captain cleared her throat harshly. "Helm, prepare to bring us around."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am."

She kept her eyes on the display, trying not to think of the two most important people in her universe or how they would react to her last cold, official message, and someone touched her shoulder. She looked up, blinking to clear her vision. It was her exec.

"Tell them you love them, Helen," he said very softly, and she clenched her fists in agony.

"I can't," she whispered. "Not when none of the rest of you can tell your— 

Her voice broke, and his hand tightened painfully on her shoulder.

"Don't be stupid!" His voice was harsh, almost fierce. "There's not a soul on this ship who doesn't know your family's over there—or who thinks for one minute they're the only reason you're doing this! Now get on the com and tell them you love them, goddamn it!"

He shook her in her command chair, and she ripped her eyes from his, staring almost desperately at the other officers and ratings on her bridge, pleading for their forgiveness.

But there was no need to plead. She saw it in their eyes, read it in their faces, and she drew a deep breath.

"Helm," her voice was suddenly clear, "bring us about. Jeff," she looked at the com officer, "please get me a personal link to Carnarvon. I'll take it in my briefing room."

"Yes, Ma'am," the com officer said gently, and Helen Zilwicki pushed herself out of her chair and walked to the hatch with her head high.

* * *

Thomas Theisman's jaw clenched as the drive sources came back toward him in attack formation. He folded his hands tightly behind his back and made himself look at Commodore Reichman without expression. She'd been so sure the Manty commander would order the entire convoy, escorts and merchantmen alike, to scatter. After all, she'd pointed out, the grav wave would strip them of the long-range missile advantage, which might have given them the chance to achieve anything worthwhile. That was the whole reason for intercepting here rather than between waves, as Theisman had suggested. No commander would throw his ships away for nothing when scattering meant at least four of his ten ships would survive.

Thomas Theisman had known better, but Annette Reichman had never fought Manticorans before. And because Theisman had lost when he fought them, she'd ignored his warnings with barely veiled patronization.

"Orders, Ma'am?" he asked now, and Reichman swallowed.

"We'll take them head-on," she said after a moment. As if she had a choice, Theisman thought in disgust.

"Yes, Ma'am. Do you wish to change our formation?" He kept his tone as neutral as possible, but her nostrils flared.

"No!" she snapped.

Theisman raised his eyes over her shoulder. His cold glance sent her staff and his own bridge officers sidling out of earshot, and he leaned toward her and spoke quietly.

"Commodore, if you fight a conventional closing engagement with your chase armaments, they're going to turn to open their broadsides and give us everything they've got at optimum range."

"Nonsense! That would be suicide!" Reichman snapped. "We'll tear them apart if they come out from behind their sails!"

"Ma'am," he spoke softly, as if to a child, "we out-mass those ships seven to one, and they have to close to energy range. They know what that means as well as we do. So they'll do the only thing they can. They'll open their broadsides to bring every beam they can to bear, and they'll go for our forward alpha nodes. If they take out even one, our own foresail will go down, and this deep into a grav wave—"

He didn't have to complete the sentence. With no forward sail to balance her after sail, it was impossible for any starship to maneuver in a grav wave. They would be trapped on the same vector, at the same velocity. They couldn't even drop out of hyper, because they couldn't control their translation attitude until and unless they could make repairs, and even the tiniest patch of turbulence would tear them apart. Which meant the loss of a single sail would cost Reichman at least two ships, because any ship which lost a sail would have to be towed clear of the wave on a consort's tractors.

"But—" She stopped and swallowed again. "What do you recommend, Captain?" she asked after a moment.

"That we do the same thing. We'll get hurt, probably lose a few ships, but it'll actually reduce our sails' exposure and give us far heavier broadsides and a better chance to take them out before they gut our sails."

He met her gaze levelly, strangling the desire to scream at her that he'd told her this would happen, and her eyes fell.

"Very well, Captain Theisman," she said. "Make it so."

* * *

Anton Zilwicki sat on the padded decksole, eyes closed, arms tight around the four-year-old girl weeping into his tunic. She was too young to understand it all, but she understood enough, he thought emptily as he listened to the voices behind him: the voices of Carnarvon's taut-faced bridge officers, clustered around the huge transport's main display.

"My God," the exec whispered. "Look at that!"

"There goes another one," someone else said harshly. "Was that one of the cruisers?"

"No, I think it was another can, and—"

"Look—look! That was one of the Peep bastards! And there goes another one!"

"Oh, Jesus! That was a cruiser!" someone groaned, and Zilwicki closed his eyes tighter, fighting his own tears for his daughter's sake. He knew Carnarvon was piling on every scrap of drive power she had, running madly away from her sisters, seeking the elusive safety of dispersal. If two of the Peeps were gone, then at least one merchantman would live . . . but which one?

"My God, she got another one!" a voice gasped, and his arms tightened about his child.

"What about that one?" someone asked.

"No, he's still there. It's just his sail, but that should— Oh, God!"

The voices cut off with knifelike suddenness, and his heart twisted within him. He knew what that silence meant, and he raised his head slowly. Most of the officers looked away, but not Carnarvon's skipper. Tears ran down the woman's face, yet she met his gaze without flinching.

"She's gone," she said softly. "They all are. But she killed three of them first, and at least one survivor's lost a sail. I . . . don't think they'll continue the pursuit with just one ship, even if she's undamaged. Not with a cripple to tow clear."

Zilwicki nodded, and wondered vaguely how the universe could hold so much pain. His shoulders began to shake as his own tears came at last, and his daughter threw her arms around his neck and clung tightly

"W-what's happening, Daddy?" she whispered. "Are . . . are the Peeps gonna hurt Mommy? Are they gonna get us?" 

"Shssssh, Helen," he got out through his tears. He pressed his cheek into her hair, smelling the fresh, little-girl smell of her, and closed his eyes once more as he rocked her gently.

"The Peeps won't get us, baby," he whispered. "We're safe now." He drew a ragged breath. "Mommy made it safe."


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