Back | Next


Admiral Parnell entered the DuQuesne war room briskly despite the late hour. No one looking at him would have thought he'd had less than three hours sleep, but Parnell himself was naggingly aware of his fatigue. He considered—again—taking a stim tab, but if he did that he'd never get back to sleep again. Better to see what hot coffee could accomplish first.

Commodore Perot was already there, and he turned quickly, a message board tucked under his arm, at his boss's approach.

"This better be important, Russell." Parnell's tone was only half joking, and Perot nodded.

"I know, Sir. I wouldn't have bothered you if I didn't think it was." Perot's voice was calm, but he tilted his head to one side, inviting the admiral into one of the high-security briefing rooms, and surprise raised Parnell's eyebrows before he could stop them.

Perot closed the door behind them, shutting out the war room's background murmur, and punched a complicated security code into the message board before pressing his thumb to the scanner. The display blinked obediently to life, and he passed it to the admiral without a word.

Parnell frowned at the diplomatic corps header, then glanced at the text and stiffened. He sank into a chair, running his eyes slowly back over the terse sentences, and felt the rags of weariness blowing away from his brain.

"My God, Sir. They've done it," Perot said softly.

"Maybe," Parnell said more warily, but his own exultation warred with his caution. He laid the message board on the desk and rubbed his temple. "How reliable is this source of Ambassador Gowan's?"

"No intelligence source can ever be absolutely guaranteed, Sir, but everything this ones ever given us has panned out, and—"

"Which could mean they know all about him and they've been setting us up for the big one," Parnell interrupted dryly.

"That's always the problem with spies, Sir," Perot agreed. "In this case, however, we have some additional intelligence to support him." Parnell raised an eyebrow, and Perot shrugged. "If you scroll to the next page of the Ambassador's dispatch, you'll see that both of the Home Fleet detachments mentioned in his source's initial report departed almost exactly on the schedule he gave us, and their headings matched his version of their orders. Gowan had a day or two to work his other contacts, too, and some of the personnel involved were fairly loose-lipped. Three of his people—two restaurant workers and a barber, all on Hephaestus—report overhearing customers complaining about being ordered clear out to Grendelsbane."

"What sort of customers?" Parnell asked intently.

"Enlisted and noncom, Sir—not officers. And they were all regular patrons." Perot shook his head. "They certainly weren't ringers brought in for the occasion, so unless we want to assume Gowan's entire network's been broken and Manty intelligence knew exactly who to have gossip in front of who—" The chief of staff broke off with a shrug.

"Um." Parnell stared back down at the message board, wanting to believe and fighting his own desires. If only they'd been able to extend the Argus net to Yeltsin! But there hadn't been enough time to set it up—even assuming the seething deep-space activity in Yeltsin hadn't ruled it out. The Graysons seemed intent on smelting down every asteroid in the system for their orbital and planetary projects, and Nav Int had decided they were too likely to stumble over one of the sensor platforms, however heavily stealthed, and blow the entire Argus operation. Which meant he didn't have the same "look" into Yeltsin. Maybe that was his problem. He'd gotten used to more detailed intelligence than he had any right to expect.

"Anything from Rollins?" he asked.

"No, Sir." Perot glanced at the time and date display on the wall and made a face. "The Argus ships can't maintain a guaranteed schedule, but if they're running as close as they usually do, he should have gotten the latest dump from Hancock no later than yesterday."

"Which means seventeen more days before we get it," Parnell grunted.

He leaned back, nibbling on his lower lip. Seventeen days was far too long to wait. Barnett was a hundred and forty-six light-years from Yeltsin, a three-week trip for superdreadnoughts, and his window was barely twenty-six days wide. He couldn't possibly delay his decision until he had Rollins' report, and, by the same token, if he went, he'd have to go in without Admiral Ruiz's three battle squadrons, still en route to Barnett. He could substitute the two squadrons his original deployment plan had assigned to reinforce Seaford, then send all of Ruiz's to Seaford to replace them . . but if Ruiz was delayed, Rollins might come up painfully short against his objective.

He nibbled harder. The master plan envisioned hitting Yeltsin in overwhelming force for the express purpose of isolating and destroying any Manty units stationed there as the first step in demoralizing and grinding away the RMN. If Caparelli really had pulled four squadrons out, then the size of the prize had been cut roughly in half, assuming their original estimates of the Yeltsin deployment were accurate, and he hated to give up the extra kills. On the other hand, the morale effect might be even greater, since a smaller force might well be completely annihilated without any substantial Havenite losses. And a part of him would actually prefer to go in against relatively weaker opposition until he'd had a chance to evaluate the technical differential firsthand. Available combat reports indicated it was at least as bad as he'd feared, possibly even worse, which made it tempting to stack the numerical odds as heavily in his favor as he could until he knew for certain.

The worst part was that it would mean reshuffling the entire operation on very short notice. His own forces and those at Seaford had been intended to act in concert, moving simultaneously in accordance with final attack orders issued from Barnett. If he moved now, the war would begin the instant he entered Yeltsin space, and he was too ignorant of the situation in the Seaford-Hancock area to be certain Rollins had sufficient superiority—even with Ruiz—to carry out his part of the plan.

He sighed and rubbed his temple again. This was the entire reason he'd moved his HQ to DuQuesne Base in the first place, he told himself—and also the reason President Harris had authorized him to use his own judgment for the final timing. But he'd expected a more gradual buildup, not this last minute, lightning-bolt change in the data available to him.

He closed his eyes for a moment, then inhaled sharply and let his chair snap upright.

"We'll go for it," he said crisply.

"Yes, Sir." Suppressed excitement quivered in Perot's voice, but he, too, was a professional. "And Admiral Rollins, Sir?"

"Get a courier boat to him. Send two, in case something happens to one of them. Tell him we'll be departing with our full available strength within forty-eight hours."

"Our full strength, Sir?"

"Less Admiral Coatsworth's Seaford task group," Parnell amended. He plucked at his chin, then nodded. "If they've pulled that much out, we don't need to raid the Seaford detachment to take them at better than two-to-one odds. On the other hand, we don't know the exact situation in Rollins' sector. He may need more muscle than we originally assumed, so tell him the originally assigned elements will depart from Barnett to join him within eight days or as soon as Admiral Ruiz arrives, whichever is sooner. I'll leave orders attaching Ruiz to Coatsworth—that'lI thicken up Rollins' order of battle, just in case."

"Yes, Sir." Perot was punching notes into his memo pad at a furious rate.

"As soon as you get those dispatches off, dig out Base Ops. I'll give them forty-eight hours if I have to, but don't tell them that. If at all possible, I want to be ready to roll within twenty-four. Make sure they copy all of our Yeltsin simulations to each battle squadron. I want to run them backwards and forwards on our way to the target."

"Yes, Sir"

"And be sure to specifically instruct Admiral Coatsworth to send a courier to Rollins before he actually departs. I know he'll do it anyway, but make it official. Rollins has to know his schedule—and whether or not Ruiz is with him—to coordinate his own movements, and we can't afford any screw-ups when we're changing plans on the fly this way."

"Yes, Sir."

"After that, we'll have to inform the President. I'll record the dispatch while you start everything else in motion, and I'll need another courier to get it back to Haven."

This time Perot merely nodded, fingers still tapping notes into his memo pad, and the admiral smiled thinly.

"I suppose I ought to think up some dramatic, quotable phrase for Public Information and the history books, but I'm damned if any of them come to mind. Besides, admitting the truth wouldn't sound too good."

"The truth, Sir?"

"The truth, Russell, is that now the moment's here, I'm scared shitless. Somehow I don't think even Public Information could turn that into good copy."

"Maybe not, Sir . . . but it certainly sums up my feelings nicely. On the other hand—"

"On the other hand, we've got them by the short and curlies, assuming our data's reliable,"

Parnell agreed. He shook himself and stood. "Well, even if it isn't, we should see them in time to hyper the hell out. In any case, we've got to go find out one way or the other."


Back | Next