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A quiet signal chirped through the eye-soothing dimness of the Central War Room, known to its inhabitants as "the Pit." Admiral Caparelli raised his head to check the master display at the far end of the Pit for the new incident's location, then punched up the details on his terminal, and his eyes flicked over the data.

"Bad?" Admiral Givens asked quietly across the smaller quadrant plot holo, and he shrugged.

"More irritating than serious—I think. Another in-and-out at Talbot. Of course—" he smiled without mirth "—the report is eleven days old. Things may have gotten a bit more than 'irritating' since."

"Um." Givens pursed her lips and brooded down at the holo between them. Her eyes were focused on something only she could see, and Caparelli waited patiently for her to hunt down whatever it was. Several seconds passed, then a full minute, while he listened to the Pit's quiet background sounds before she shook herself and looked back across the tiny stars at him.

"A thought, I take it?"

"More of a general observation, really."

"Well, don't sit on it till it hatches, Pat."

"Yes, Sir." She gave him a fleeting smile, then turned serious. "The thing that just occurred to me—something that's been occurring to me for several days now—is that the Peeps are being too cute for their own good."

"Ah?" Caparelli tilted his chair back and raised an eyebrow. "How so?"

"I think they're trying for too fine a degree of coordination." Givens waved at the display. "They've been turning the pressure up for weeks now. At first it was just 'mystery' raiders we couldn't positively ID, and when we knew they were Peeps, there was no combat. Then they started actively harassing our patrols. Now they're pouncing on convoys and system pickets with hunt-and-kill tactics. But every time they do something to up the ante, it starts at one point, then ripples out north and south."

"Indicating what?"

"Indicating that each increase in pressure is the result of a specific authorization from some central command node. Look at the timing, Sir." She reached into the holo, running her fingers up and down the frontier. "If you assume each fresh escalation was authorized from someplace fifty or sixty light-years inside the Peep border—like Barnett, for example—the delay in the incidents to either side of the first incident in the new pattern is just about right for the difference in the flight times to those points from Barnett."

She withdrew her hand and frowned at the display, worrying her lower lip between her teeth.

"So they're coordinating from a central node," Caparelli agreed. "But we figured that all along, Pat. In fact, we're doing the same thing. So how does that constitute 'too cute for their own good'?"

"We're not doing the same thing, Sir. We're channeling information and authorizing general deployments, but we're trusting local COs to use their own judgments because of the com lag. It looks to me like the Peeps are authorizing each successive wave of activity from Barnett, which implies a two-way command and control link, not just information flow. They're waiting until they hear back, then sending out orders to begin the next stage, then waiting for fresh reports before authorizing the next step. They're playing brontosaurus—that's why this whole thing seems to be building up so ponderously."

"Um." It was Caparelli's turn to stare into the holo. Givens' theory was certainly one explanation for the Peeps' increasing heavy-handedness. What had started out as a series of lightning pinpricks was becoming a chain of steadily heavier blows spaced out over longer periods of time. It felt undeniably clumsier, but then again, any strategist would try to build in cutouts: points at which he could abort the operation if he had to. It was quite possible Pat was right, that the coordination for this phase was emanating from Barnett, but it didn't follow that the same pattern would apply after they actually pulled the trigger. Once you were committed, there was no more point in cutouts; it was all or nothing, and if you had a clue as to what you were doing, you went for the most flexible possible command arrangements.

If you had a clue.

He turned his chair slowly from side to side, then raised his eyes once more to Givens.

"You're suggesting they may continue to operate this way once the shooting starts in earnest?"

"I don't know. It's possible, given their past operational patterns. Remember, Sir, we're the first multi-system opponent they've gone after. All their previous ops plans have involved closely controlled converging thrusts on relatively small targets, spatially speaking, and even the best staffs get into habits of thought. They may have overlooked some of the implications of the difference in scale.

"But my real point is that whatever they plan to do after the shooting starts, they're running under tight central control in the opening game. They have to have a detailed ops plan for when they finally move in strength, and after studying their previous campaigns, I'm willing to bet this one involves some careful—and cumbersome—timing constraints. Even if I'm wrong about that, at the moment they're going to react and respond to anything we do on the basis and within the limitations of that two-way traffic flow to Barnett."

"Assuming they haven't sent out orders for the next phase even as we sit here."

"Assuming that," Givens agreed. "But if they haven't reached that point yet, it could be useful to consider inserting information we'd like them to have into that command loop."

"Such as?"

"I don't know," Givens admitted. "I just hate the thought of losing any opportunity to throw them off stride. The worst thing we could do is let them steamroller us on their timetable. I'd like to shake them up, draw them off balance."

Caparelli nodded and joined her in pondering the holo afresh.

His eyes flitted automatically back to the three most worrisome points: Yeltsin, Hancock Station, and the Talbot-Poicters area. Although the pace and violence of Haven's war of nerves had increased steadily, Manticore had held its own in actual encounters to date. The loss of Star Knight with all hands was more than offset, albeit fortuitously, by Bellerophon's destruction of two entire Peep battlecruiser divisions in Talbot. By the same token, the tragic loss of Captain Zilwicki's entire squadron had not only earned her the Parliamentary Medal of Valor, the Kingdom's highest award for heroism, but saved every ship in the convoy under her protection . . . and cost the People's Navy almost twice her own ships' combined tonnage. Other Peep attacks had been more successful, of course, for they had the advantage of the initiative. And, he conceded unhappily, they also seemed to have fiendishly good intelligence on supposedly secure star systems. But by and large, their successes were outweighed, in the cold, brutal logic of war, by their less numerous but more spectacular failures.

Unfortunately, that didn't mean their operation as a whole was failing. Although his redeployments to face the threat had been much less drastic than he'd originally envisioned, there was still a general shift and flow of task forces and squadrons all throughout the volume of the Alliance. That left him feeling off balance and defensive-minded, driven into passive reaction, not initiation, and some of his local commanders seemed similarly afflicted. They were making decisions which looked more than a little questionable from his own vantage point, at any rate.

He tapped his fingertips on his console, and his frown deepened. Talbot-Poicters worried him because there'd been so much Peep activity in the area. Both star systems were exposed, and the incidents within them could simply be classic probing missions. Reconnaissances in force which happened to run into local pickets—or over them, he thought grimly—in the course of pre-attack scouting missions. Except that their timing argued that the Peeps already had detailed intelligence.

Yeltsin and Hancock, on the other hand, worried him because there'd been no action in their areas, other than the original convoy raid in Yeltsin and the Caliph's mystery losses in Zanzibar. Perhaps it was because he viewed them as his most vulnerable points, but the lack of activity around either star made him wonder why the Peeps didn't want him worrying about them.

Added to which, Admiral Parks' decision to uncover Hancock was enough to give any First Space Lord ulcers. He understood Parks' reasoning, but he wasn't at all certain he shared it. In fact, he'd gone so far as to draft a dispatch ordering Parks back to Hancock only to file it unsent and settle for ordering Admiral Danislav to expedite his own movements. The RMN tradition was that the Admiralty didn't override the man on the spot unless it had very specific intelligence that he didn't have . . . and the one thing Sir Thomas Caparelli currently had in abundance was a lack of specific intelligence.

"They're going to do it, Pat," he murmured, eyes still fixed on the display. "They're really going to do it."

It was the first time either of them had said so in so many words, but Givens only nodded.

"Yes, Sir, they are," she agreed, her voice equally soft.

"There has got to be some way to pull them off balance," the First Space Lord muttered, drumming his fingers harder on the console. "Some way to turn this thing around so it bites them on the ass."

Givens gnawed her lower lip a moment longer, then drew a deep breath and reached back into the display. She cupped her palm around Yeltsin's Star, and Caparelli's eyes narrowed as he raised his head to look at her.

"I believe there may be, Sir," she said quietly.

* * *

"Let me be certain I understand this correctly, Sir Thomas." The Duke of Cromarty's voice was very quiet. "You're suggesting that we deliberately entice the PRH into attacking Yeltsin's Star?"

"Yes, Sir." Caparelli met the Prime Minister's gaze levelly.

"And your reasoning for this is?" Cromarty prompted.

"In essence, Sir, we hope to set a trap for the Peeps." Caparelli cleared his throat and activated a small-scale holo display of the Yeltsin System in the high-security conference room just off Cromarty's office.

"At present, Yeltsin's Star represents our most powerful concentration short of Home Fleet itself, Your Grace," he explained. "We've taken pains to keep our exact strength in the system a secret. Given the intelligence the Peeps seem to have on our routine movements elsewhere, it's quite possible they know much more about Yeltsin than we'd like, but Admiral Givens' plan offers us at least the possibility of turning that around on them."

He manipulated controls, and the tiny star system above the table was suddenly lit by tinier flecks of bright green light.

"The Graysons have spent the last year fortifying their system with our assistance, Your Grace. We're still a long, long way from completing our plans, but as you can see, we've made considerable progress and Grayson itself is well covered by orbital forts. They're small, by our standards, because they're left over from the Grayson-Masada cold war, but there are a lot of them, and they've been heavily refitted and rearmed. In addition, the Grayson Navy itself must now be considered equivalent to at least a heavy task group of our own Navy—a truly enormous accomplishment for a seventeen-month effort from their beginning tech base—and Admiral D'Orville's Second Fleet is an extremely powerful formation. All in all, Sir, this system has turned into an excellent place for an attacker to break his teeth."

"But it also happens to belong to a sovereign ally of the Star Kingdom, Admiral." Concern and more than a hint of disapproval tinged Cromarty's voice. "You're suggesting that we deliberately draw the enemy into attacking one of our friends—without consulting them."

"I fully realize the implications of my suggestion, Your Grace, but I'm afraid we've reached a point at which we don't have time for consultations. If Admiral Givens is correct—and I think she is—the Peeps are counting down against a timetable they may have spent years perfecting. We have our own defensive plans, but allowing them to begin a war on their terms, at a time of their choice, against a target of their choice, is extremely dangerous. If at all possible, we need to draw them into a false start or, at least, into attacking a target of our choice. But to do that, Your Grace, we have to get the information we want them to have into their hands in time for them to rethink their operations and send out new orders from their central command node before their scheduled 'X' hour.

"The key to the plan is one of Admiral Givens' communication officers at BuPlan. The Havenite ambassador's gone to great pains to suborn him. He's been working for them for almost two T-years now, but what they don't know—we hope—is that he's actually working for Admiral Givens. To date, his reports have been one hundred percent accurate, but he's reported only information which couldn't hurt us or which we were reasonably certain the Peeps could obtain by other means.

"What we propose is to use him to inform the Peeps, through Ambassador Gowan, that the activity around Talbot Station has concerned us so deeply that we're transferring several of D'Orville's battle squadrons there as reinforcements. We'll be sending replacements to Yeltsin, of course, but not for two or three weeks. At the same time as he passes the information off to Gowan, we'll send the same instructions to Admiral D'Orville through regular channels. As far as anyone will know, it will be an absolutely genuine order . . .  but the same courier boat will carry separate orders under a diplomatic cover instructing Admiral D'Orville to disregard the redeployment instructions. If the Peeps have sources in our communications sections that we don't know about, they may pick up the 'official' orders as confirmation of our double agent's report.

"If our present analysis of Peep operations is accurate, they're probably coordinating from their base in the Barnett System. If we can get this false information to Barnett quickly enough, whoever's in command there will have a window to hit Yeltsin before our 'replacements' arrive. Only when he does, he'll find out none of D'Orville's ships ever left."

"I understand that, Sir Thomas, but what if he hits Yeltsin hard enough to take the system despite Admiral D'Orville's strength? Bad enough that we're asking our allies to take the brunt of the first blow, but what if that blow is heavy enough to conquer them despite all we can do?"

Caparelli leaned back in his chair, his face like stone. He was silent for several seconds. When he spoke again, his voice was heavy.

"Your Grace, they're going to attack us. Neither I nor any member of my staff doubts that, and when they do, Yeltsin will be a primary target. It has to be, given the shallowness of our frontier at that point. I realize the risk I'm suggesting we expose the Graysons to, but it's my opinion that drawing the Peeps into attacking us there on our terms is our most effective option. In a best-case scenario, they'll underestimate D'Orville's strength and attack in insufficient force, in which case officers like D'Orville and High Admiral Matthews will hand them their heads. And even if we lose D'Orville's entire fleet and Yeltsin, we'll hurt them very, very badly, and a prompt counterattack from Manticore should retake the system with an overall loss rate which will be heavily in our favor."

"I see." Cromarty rubbed his chin, eyes dark, then drew a deep breath. "How quickly do you need a decision, Sir Thomas?"

"Frankly, Your Grace, the sooner the better. We don't know that we still have enough time to bring this off—assuming it works at all—before they launch an attack elsewhere. If we do have time, we don't have a lot of it."

"I see," the duke repeated. "Very well, Admiral. I'll give you my decision, one way or the other, as quickly as possible."

"Thank you, Your Grace."

Caparelli withdrew from the conference room, and the Prime Minister leaned his elbows on the table and propped his chin in his cupped palms while he stared at the holo for long, silent moments. His was a politician's well-trained face, yet his expression mirrored his internal struggle, and, at last, he reached for his com terminal and pressed a key.

"Yes, Your Grace?" a voice asked.

"I need a high-security scrambled link to Admiral White Haven's flagship, Janet," he said quietly

* * *

Hamish Alexander paced back and forth across his briefing room aboard HMS Sphinx, hands folded behind him, and scowled as he listened to the Prime Minister's voice from the com.

" . . . and that's about the size of it, Hamish. What do you think?"

"I think, Allen, that you shouldn't be asking me that," the Earl of White Haven said testily. "You're undercutting Caparelli's authority by asking me to second-guess him. Especially by ignoring official channels to go behind his back this way!"

"I realize that. Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on one's viewpoint—you're my best source for a second opinion. I've known you and Willie for years. If I can't ask you, who can I ask?"

"You're putting me in a hell of a spot," White Haven muttered. "And if Caparelli finds out about it, I wouldn't blame him for resigning."

"A risk I'm willing to take." Cromarty's voice hardened. "What he's proposing comes very close to betraying an ally, Hamish, and you happen to be not only a respected strategist but the officer who conquered Endicott and finalized our alliance with Grayson. You know the people involved, not just the military situation. So give me an opinion, one way or the other."

White Haven clenched his teeth, then sighed and stopped pacing. He recognized an order, however distasteful, when he heard one.

"All right, Allen." He sank into a chair in front of the terminal and thought deeply for a few moments, then shrugged. "I think he's right," he said, and smiled crookedly at Cromarty's obvious surprise.

"Would you care to elaborate?" the duke asked after a moment.

"Or, put another way, why am I backing a man I don't like?" White Haven's smile grew broader, and he waved a hand. "If it works, it does exactly what Caparelli says it will—let's us call the opening shot and, probably, hit them with a much heavier force than they're expecting. He's also right that they're going to hit Yeltsin anyway, and this gives us our best chance to hold the system. At the very least, we should tear a real hole in their attack force, and that makes it exactly the sort of battle we need to fight. One that gives us an excellent chance at an outright victory—which would be of incalculable psychological importance at the outset of a war—and inflicts severe losses on them even if we lose. As for the Graysons, they're tough people, Allen. They knew they were making themselves targets the day they signed up with us, and they still thought it was worth it."

"But doing it without even warning them. . . ." Cromarty's voice trailed off, but his acute unhappiness was evident.

"I know," White Haven murmured, then paused.

"You know," he went on after a moment, "I've just had a couple of thoughts. First, you might want to suggest to Caparelli that there's a way to make his strategy even more effective." Cromarty looked a question, and the admiral shrugged. "I know I've opposed dispersing Home Fleet, but suppose that at the same time as we leak the information that we're stripping Yeltsin's Star we actually pull three or four squadrons out of Home Fleet and send them in to reinforce D'Orville. If the Peeps think we pulled, say, four squadrons out of Yeltsin when in fact we've just put four additional squadrons into the system, their force estimate is going to be very badly off."

"And if they're watching Home Fleet? I'm no admiral, but even I know it's not too hard for even merchantmen to track impeller drives for a force of that magnitude. And it's virtually certain that at least some of our 'neutral' merchant traffic is actively spying for Haven."

"True, but we can set it up as a training exercise for, say, two squadrons, and cut the other two official orders for Grendelsbane, then do the same sort of trick Caparelli's already talking about for D'Orville. Not even the admirals involved would know where they were actually headed until they opened their sealed orders after going into hyper, and any taps the Peeps have on us would show them departing on the proper headings for their official orders. You might even ask Pat Givens whether she thinks a reference to their movements could be added to her leak without making the bait too obvious."

"Um." Cromarty frowned at the other end of the com link, his eyes thoughtful. Clearly the idea of reinforcing Yeltsin appealed to him, and he pondered it for several seconds, then nodded. "All right, I think I will suggest it. But you said you had 'a couple of thoughts.' What's the other one?"

"Unless I'm mistaken, Michael Mayhew's right here on Manticore. I know he's enrolled for graduate work at King's College—has he left because of the crisis?"

The Prime Minister stiffened, then shook his head, and White Haven shrugged. "In that case, you've got access to Protector Benjamin's heir, effectively the crown prince of Grayson. It wouldn't be the same as talking to their head of state, but it would certainly be the next best thing."

* * *

" . . . so I'm sure you can see why I asked you to visit me, Lord Mayhew," the Duke of Cromarty said quietly. "My senior officers all agree that this represents our best strategic option, but it necessarily means exposing your homeworld to enormous risk. And because of the time pressures involved, there is quite literally no time to discuss it with Protector Benjamin."

Michael Mayhew nodded. He looked (and was) absurdly young for a graduate student, even on Manticore. In fact, he was young enough his body could still accept the original, first-generation prolong treatments, something which had been unavailable to Grayson's isolated people before they joined the Alliance. Now Cromarty watched that youthful face frown in thought and wondered if Grayson was ready for the longevity its children were about to inherit.

"I see the problem, Sir," Mayhew said at last. He exchanged glances with the Grayson ambassador and shrugged. "I don't see that we have a lot of choice, Andrew."

"I wish we could speak directly to the Protector about it," the ambassador worried, and Mayhew shrugged again.

"I do, too, but I think I know what he'd say." He turned back to Cromarty, and his young eyes were level. "Your Grace, my brother knew what he was getting into when he chose to ally with Manticore rather than be digested by Haven—or, worse yet, Masada. We've always known that when the showdown finally came we'd be caught in the middle, so if we're going to be attacked anyway, anything that improves our chances of winning has to be worth trying. Besides," he finished simply, a flash of genuine warmth lighting those steady eyes, "we owe you."

"So you think we should go ahead?"

"I do. In fact, as Steadholder Mayhew and heir to the Protectorship, I formally request that you do so, Mr. Prime Minister."

* * *

"I don't believe it," Sir Thomas Caparelli murmured. He folded the short, terse, handwritten directive, and slid it back into the envelope with the bright yellow and black security flashes. He dropped them both into the disposal slot on his desk, then looked up at Patricia Givens. "Less than five hours, and we've got the go-ahead."

"We do?" Even Givens sounded surprised, and Caparelli snorted a laugh.

"More than that, he's directed us to up the stakes." He slid a sketched out deployment order across the desk to her and tipped back his chair as she scanned it.

"Four squadrons?" Givens murmured, absently twisting a lock of brown hair around an index finger. "That's quite a diversion."

"You can say that again—and all superdreadnoughts." Caparelli smiled a bit sourly. "That's twenty-six percent of Home Fleet's superdreadnoughts. If we get hit here while they're out there—" He broke off and waved both hands in a throwaway gesture, and Givens pursed her lips.

"Maybe, Sir. Then again, maybe not. It won't exactly leave us uncovered, and if the Peeps buy our fake redeployments, they'll run into over sixty superdreadnoughts they think are somewhere else."

"I know." Caparelli frowned a moment longer, then nodded. "All right, let's get this set up. And I guess we'd better send along a flag officer with the seniority for that big a reinforcement."

"Who did you have in mind, Sir?"

"Who else?" Caparelli's sour smile was back. "It'll almost have to be White Haven, won't it?"

"White Haven?" Givens couldn't quite hide her surprise. Not only did she know Caparelli and White Haven disliked one another, but White Haven was currently second in command of Home Fleet, as well.

"White Haven," Caparelli repeated. "I know it'll make a hole in Webster's command structure, but so will the squadrons we're taking away from him. And White Haven not only has the seniority and the savvy to command them, he's also our most popular officer—after Harrington—in Grayson eyes."

"True, Sir. But he's senior to Admiral D'Orville, as well. That means he'll supersede the man on the spot when he arrives. Will that cause problems?"

"I don't think so." Caparelli thought for a moment, then shook his head. "No, I'm certain it won't. He and D'Orville have been friends for years, and they both know how critical the situation is. Besides—" the First Space Lord bared his teeth in a mirthless smile "—there ought to be plenty of crap to fall on both of them, even if this works."


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