Back | Next


"Thank God."

Commander Ogilve relaxed at last as PNS Napoleon dropped out of hyper and the primary of the Seaford Nine System blazed ahead of her. Realistically, they'd been away and free from the instant they went into hyper, but his sleep had been haunted by nightmares of some disaster that would prevent him from delivering his data.

He glanced at his com officer.

"Record a most immediate to Admiral Rollins' personal attention, Jamie. Message begins: Sir, my latest Argus dump confirms total—repeat, total—withdrawal of Manticoran wall of battle from Hancock. Analysis of data suggests maximum remaining force in Hancock consists of one battlecruiser squadron and screening elements. Napoleon is en route to rendezvous with your flagship, ETA—" he glanced at his display "—two-point-two hours, with complete data dump. Ogilve clear. Message ends, Jamie."

"Aye, Sir."

Ogilve nodded and leaned back, letting himself feel his weariness at last even as he envisioned the hive of activity his signal was about to kick off aboard Admiral Rollins' flagship. A footstep sounded beside his chair, and he looked up at his exec.

"Somehow I don't think this is going to hurt our careers, Sir," the exec murmured.

"No, I don't imagine it will," Ogilve agreed unsmilingly. His exec came of prominent Legislaturalist stock, and the commander didn't like him a bit. Worse, he didn't trust his competence. But it sometimes seemed the political game was the only one that counted in the People's Navy, and if that meant Commander Ogilve had to carry his exec on his back, then Commander Ogilve had better just have strong back muscles.

And, he thought sourly as the exec moved back to his own station, if he did get promotion out of this, maybe it would mean a new assignment that got him away from at least one incompetent asshole.

* * *

Admiral Yuri Rollins shook his head, still suffering the lingering aftereffects of numb disbelief, as the Argus dump's images played themselves out in his flagship's main holo sphere for the third time.

"I can't believe it," he muttered. "Why in hell would Parks do something this stupid? It's got to be a trap."

"With all due respect, Sir, I don't see how it can be," Captain Holcombe disagreed. "For it to be a trap, they'd have to know about Argus, and there's no way they can."

"Nothing is impossible, Captain," Rear Admiral Chin said frostily, and Rollins' chief of staff flushed at her tone.

"I didn't mean to say that they couldn't possibly have detected the birds, Ma'am," he replied a bit stiffly. "What I meant was that if they knew about them, they would certainly have taken them out by now."

"Indeed? Suppose they know about them and choose subtlety over brute force? Why destroy them if they can use them to lie to us?"

"Unlikely," Rollins said, almost against his will. "Whatever tactical advantage deceiving us in Hancock might offer would be more than outweighed by the strategic damage they're suffering in other systems. No," he shook his head, "they'd never let the net stay up if they knew it was there."

"And if Admiral Parks is the only one to have noticed the platforms?" Chin asked. "If he's only just become aware of them, he might have chosen to use them in his own case while dispatching couriers to the commanders of other stations to alert them to the danger."

"Possible, but again, unlikely." Rollins turned away from the display and thrust his hands into his tunic pockets. "If he knows about them at all, then presumably he also knows they cover the entire system periphery. That means he can't sneak back in to set any sort of ambush without being picked up. Somehow I don't think he'd deliberately risk letting us in unopposed on the off chance that he could intercept us from some distant position."

"I suppose not." Chin folded her arms and looked accusingly into the sphere. "In that case, though, I have to wonder what he thinks he's up to."

"I think it's another indication he doesn't know about Argus, Ma'am," Captain Holcombe offered. She raised an eyebrow at him, and he shrugged. "If he's not in Hancock, he almost has to be picketing the Alliance systems in the area. Assuming that to be the case, I believe he uncovered Hancock precisely because he feels we can't know he's done it. After all, one of Argus' primary objectives was to cut down normal scouting ops to make Manty commanders overconfident in hopes they'd make mistakes just like this."

"True." Chin pursed her lips a moment, then nodded. "I suppose it just seems too convenient for him to suddenly do exactly what we want him to."

"But do we want him to?" Rollins said, and both his subordinates turned to him in surprise. "Certainly this offers us a perfect opportunity to smash Hancock, but it also means any attack would close on so much empty space, as far as warships are concerned. Battlecruisers? Piffle!" He took a hand from a pocket to wave it dismissively, then stuffed it back in place. "We wanted battle squadrons, and they're somewhere else now. Besides, how long do you think Parks is going to stay wherever he is? Their Admiralty won't let him leave Hancock uncovered for long, whatever he wants to do, so if we're going to take advantage of his absence, we have to move now."

"Without confirming with Admiral Parnell?" Chin's question was a statement, and Rollins nodded.

"Exactly. We're eighteen days' message time from Barnett, even by courier boat. That's thirty-six days for a two-way message. If we wait that long, they're bound to reinforce Hancock."

"Can we wait until the scheduled deadline, Sir?" Chin asked, and Rollins frowned. Officially, only he and his staff were supposed to know the timetable, but he'd invited Chin here, despite her status as his most junior battle squadron commander, because he respected her judgment. And if he wanted her input, she had to know the extent of his problems.

"I don't think so," he said finally. "Assuming Admiral Parnell doesn't postpone, we're supposed to move in another thirty-one days."

Chin nodded, her face showing no sign of triumph at finally learning the date the war was supposed to begin.

"In that case, of course, you're right, Sir. We can't wait that long if we want to hit them before they come to their senses."

"I said from the beginning this whole thing was over-centralized," Holcombe muttered. "Linking ops schedules that tightly with this much distance between operating areas is—"

"Is what we're stuck with," Rollins said a bit sharply. His chief of staff closed his mouth with a snap, and Rollins shrugged. "As a matter of fact, I tend to agree with you, Ed, but we're stuck with the way things are."

"So what do you plan to do, Sir?" Chin asked.

"I don't know." Rollins sighed. "I suppose it comes down to which is more important—Hancock's facilities, or its task force."

He lowered himself into a chair and stretched his legs out before him while he frowned up at the deckhead and considered his options.

The original plan had given good promise of success against Hancock. Admiral Coatsworth's arrival from Barnett would increase his own "official" strength by over fifty percent, and the Manties wouldn't even know Coatsworth was coming until he hit Zanzibar in their rear. With Coatsworth behind them and the Seaford task force in front of them, they'd be caught in a vise.

But if Hancock was empty, the entire ops plan went straight out the lock. There was no telling where the Manties were, or in what strength—not, at least, until the other Argus collectors reported in. Still, Hancock was the only Manty repair facility in this sector. If he was going to have to hunt for them anyway, depriving them of anywhere to repair damages would be an invaluable first step.

He drew a deep breath and straightened, and Holcombe and Chin turned toward him at the movement.

"We'll do it," Rollins said simply. Holcombe nodded in approval, and Chin looked relieved that someone else had had to make the call.

"Shall we wait until we hear from the other Argus nets, Sir?" Holcombe asked. Chin said nothing, but she shook her head in instant, instinctive disagreement, and Rollins agreed with her.

"No." He thrust himself up out of the chair. "Waiting would burn another six or seven days, and if we're going to do this, we don't have the time to spare."

"Yes, Sir."

The admiral paced briefly back and forth, thinking hard, then nodded.

"I want the task force ready to move out within twenty-four hours, Ed. Send a courier to Barnett to advise Admiral Parnell of our intentions. It should still get there before Coatsworth pulls out, so instruct him to rendezvous with us at Hancock. We'll consolidate our forces and then move on Zanzibar together. After that, we can hook up to take out Yorik or Alizon. By that time, we'll probably have picked up enough additional intel to know where Parks went and how he's deployed."

"Yes, Sir."

"Admiral Chin, I'll want your squadron to probe Hancock as we go in." Chin nodded, but her surprise showed, for her dreadnoughts were less powerful than the other battle squadrons.

"I haven't lost my senses, Admiral," Rollins said dryly. "Your ships are lighter, but they should be more than adequate to deal with battlecruisers, and if we're not going to get anything bigger, I at least want to nail as many of them as possible before they run. Besides, if there is something nasty waiting for us, you can pull a higher acceleration than superdreadnoughts."

In short, he thought, they could get the hell out of it faster than anything else he had, and he saw understanding in Chin's eyes as she nodded.

"And Admiral West's battlecruisers, Sir?" she asked.

"We'll attach them to you, but don't let him get too far ahead of you. His squadron's understrength to start with—I don't want him tangling with Manties at three-to-two odds while you're too far astern to assist."

"Understood, Sir."

"Good." Rollins shoved his hands back into his pockets and rocked on his heels, staring down into the holo sphere, and his eyes were hard.

"Very well," he said at last, "let's get moving. We've got a lot of details to settle before we pull out."

The three officers turned and strode from the compartment, leaving the display alive behind them, and the empty, quiet image of the Hancock System glowed silently in its depths.


Back | Next