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"Still nothing."

Sir Yancey Parks took another quick turn about his flag bridge, and his staff busied themselves with routine tasks that happened to keep them out of his path. All but Commodore Capra, who watched his admiral with a painstaking lack of expression.

"I hate this kind of waiting for the other shoe," Parks fumed.

"Perhaps that's why they're doing it, Sir." Capra's voice was quiet, and Parks snorted.

"Of course it is! Unfortunately, that doesn't make it any less effective." Parks stopped pacing and turned to glare down at the holo sphere. CIC had switched to astrography mode, showing the sparse stars of his command area and the most recent data on friendly and enemy dispositions, and the admiral jabbed an angry chin at the bland light dot of Seaford Nine.

"That bastard over there knows exactly what he plans to do," he said, pitching his voice for Commodore Capra's ears alone. "He knows when he plans to make his move, what he plans to do, and how he plans to bring it off, and all I know is that I don't know any of those things."

He fell silent again, chewing his lip while acid churned in his stomach. War games and training exercises, he was discovering, were one thing, with nothing more at stake than one's reputation and career. Actual operations were something else again—life and death, not simply for you, but for your crews and, quite possibly, your kingdom, as well.

It was an unpleasant discovery . . . and one which made him doubt his own competence.

He sighed and made his muscles relax by a sheer act of will, then turned to look Capra squarely in the eye.

"Was Sarnow right?" He voiced his own thoughts, and the commodore shrugged uncomfortably.

"You know my view, Sir. I've never been comfortable about leaving Hancock so weak, but whether our posture should be aggressive or defensive—" He shrugged again, almost helplessly. "I just don't know, Sir. I suppose the waiting is getting to me, too."

"But you're starting to think he was right, aren't you?" Parks pressed. The commodore looked away, then drew a deep breath and nodded.

Parks' mouth twitched, and he turned his back on the sphere, folding his hands behind him.

"If anyone needs me, I'll be in my quarters, Vincent," he said quietly, and walked slowly from the flag bridge.

* * *

PNS Alexander coasted silently through the outer reaches of the Yorik system on another Argus run. It should have been routine, given the light forces the Manties normally maintained here, but Alexander's tactical display was a blaze of crimson impeller sources, and her captain stood peering down at it in consternation.

"What the hell is all this, Leo?" Commander Trent asked her tac officer.

"I don't have the least idea, Ma'am," the tac officer replied frankly. "It looks like a task force picket shell, but what it's doing here beats me. It's more like something I'd expect to see at Hancock."

"Me, too." Trent's tone was sour, and she looked across at Lieutenant Commander Raven. Her exec was officer of the watch, seated in the command chair at the center of the bridge, but his attention was on his captain rather than his displays.

"What do you think, Yasir?" she asked, and he twitched his shoulders at the question.

"I think I'd like to abort the pickup, Ma'am," he replied in the careful tone of someone who knew what could happen to both their careers if they did. "There's too much traffic out here, and they're operating mighty aggressively. All it takes is one of them in the wrong place, and—"

He grimaced, and Trent nodded. Raven had a point. But the presence of so many Manty ships argued that something unusual was happening in Yorik, which made the Argus data even more important. That, she knew, would be the verdict of any court of inquiry, anyway.

She propped one shoulder against the tac display's hood and closed her eyes in thought. The risk to Alexander herself was minimal; they were still outside the hyper limit, and they could bring their wedge on-line in barely two minutes. The hyper generators would take a little longer—the trace signature from a standby translation field was simply too powerful to damp out—but Alexander could still be out of here long before anything got close enough to hurt her. No, the risk was to the Argus net itself. If they were picked up, the Manties were bound to wonder why a PN light cruiser would be skulking around way out here. And if something started them actively looking, not even the sensor arrays Solarian-built stealth systems could hide them forever.

"We'll continue the operation," she said finally. "We can't bring the wedge up without risking detection, anyway, so we're committed to the run in. But I want our sensor people on their toes. If there's even a hint of anyone in the area when we reach the transmission point, we'll pass up the data dump."

* * *

Commander Tribeca lounged comfortably in his command chair and chortled mentally while he watched the displays and thumbed his nose at Captain Sir Roland T. Edwards.

HMS Arrowhead and the two other destroyers from her division were cast in the role of aggressors for this particular exercise, and, at the moment, Arrowhead and Attack were busy pretending to be holes in space and watching the rest of the flotilla look for them. Every system was powered down to a bare trickle while his passive sensors tracked the other nine destroyers and the light cruiser bumbling along astern of them in the role of a "merchantman." Another couple of hours should bring the whole "convoy" within missile range, and, at the moment, every one of those destroyers was looking in exactly the wrong direction. There were going to be some red faces at the exercise debrief, he thought complacently.

Of course, it was always possible one of the other cans would double back and look in his direction, but even if they did, they were unlikely to spot him. If he was picked up, he was going to have to go for a high-accel run in and hope he got lucky, yet that was a worst-case scenario, and it didn't look like happening. Captain Edwards had obviously decided Tribeca was outside him—not without a little help from Tribeca. Ambush, the third destroyer of Tribeca's division, was somewhere out there, where she'd deliberately leaked a carefully designed scrap of divisional com chatter, and Edwards thought he had a fix on the division's general location.

Tribeca gave a silent snicker at the thought. Edwards was such a pompous ass. It would never occur to him that anyone could out-sneak him, and—

"Excuse me, Skipper, but I just picked up something odd. It— There it is again."

"What?" Tribeca spun his chair toward his tactical officer and frowned. "There what is, Becky?"

"I don't know, Sir. It's like . . ." Her voice trailed off and she shook her head, then looked at the com officer. "Hal, sweep zero-eight-zero to one-two-zero. I think it's a com laser."

"On it," the com officer replied, and Tribeca's frown deepened.

"A com laser? From who?"

"That's just it, Skip." The tac officer's fingers redirected her own passive sensors as she replied. "I don't see anything. If it's a com laser, it's awful low power, and I'm just catching a trickle now and then."

"It's intermittent?" Tribeca's brow furrowed, and the tac officer nodded.

"I've got it, too, Sir," the com officer said. "Zero-eight-eight." He frowned and adjusted a rheostat carefully. "It's a com laser, all right. We're just catching the fringe of it. If I had to guess, I'd say there's a glitch in the sender's tracking systems. Not much of one—the beam's only kicking a little—but enough to swing it intermittently our way. It's scrambled, too . . . and I don't recognize the scramble code."

"What?" Tribeca shoved himself out of his chair and moved quickly to the tac station. "You don't see anything out there, Becky?"

"No, Sir. Whatever it is, it's running silent and too far out to find on passives. Should I go active?"

"Wait." Tribeca rubbed an eyebrow furiously, the exercise forgotten. Arrowhead was over ten light-minutes from the nearest senior officer. If he passed the buck, he'd give whoever was on the other end of that laser at least twenty minutes to coast out of active sensor range while he awaited orders, and he had no idea what the bogey's vector might be. But he did know the bogey wasn't Manticoran—not if Hal couldn't ID its scramble code.

He dropped back into his command chair and depressed a stud.

"Engineering, Lieutenant Riceman," a voice said.

"Rice, this is the Captain. We're about to go to battle stations." He heard someone inhale sharply on the bridge and ignored it. "Forget the exercise. How quick can you bring the wedge up for real?"

"Eighty seconds and you're hot, Skipper," Riceman said flatly, and Tribeca nodded.

"Get ready, then," he said, and looked back at the tac officer. "I want you to take us to battle stations on my command, Becky, but leave fire control and sensors on standby. Whatever this is, it's in range for a com laser. It could also be in energy weapon range, so I don't want any active emissions until the wedge and sidewalls come up. Got it?"

"Yes, Sir. What about Attack, Sir? She'll be a sitting duck without her wedge if someone takes a shot at her."

"Agreed, but if whoever's out there knew we were here, they wouldn't have been transmitting in the first place, so I don't think they've got us on passive, either. If I'm right, they'll be too busy looking at our big, noisy emissions signature to notice Attack before she figures out something's going on and gets her own wedge up. Just the same, Hal," he looked at the com officer, "lay a laser on her and order her to action stations as soon as our wedge goes up."

"Aye, aye, Sir."

"All right, then, Becky. Battle stations!"

* * *

"Contact!" Alexander's tac officer shouted. "I have an impeller wedge, bearing one-three-six by oh-niner-two!" He slapped keys on his console. "Manty destroyer at eighteen million klicks, Captain!"

"Shit!" Commander Trent slammed a fist into the arm of her command chair. "Battle stations, but do not go active! Confirm!"

"Do not go active, aye." The tac officer confirmed the order even as Yasir Raven's thumb jammed down on the battle stations alarm. Staying in passive meant the cruiser couldn't bring up her impeller wedge or sidewalls, but it was still remotely possible that they hadn't been detected, and—

"Radar pulse!" Tactical snapped through the yowl of the alarm. "They've got us, Ma'am!" He paused, then, "Second drive source detected! Two destroyers at eighteen million klicks!"

Trent bit back another curse. At that range and on that bearing, there was only one reason for a Manty to suddenly light off his drive. Damn the luck! What the hell had they been doing lying doggo in just the right place for her com beam to hit them?!

"Vector change," Tactical announced in a taut voice. "They're coming to an intercept course, Ma'am. Acceleration five-two-oh gravities."

"Bring the wedge up." Trent turned to her astrogator. "Plot your translation, Jackie, and execute a random vector change the minute we cross the wall. I want us out of here the instant the generators spin up."

"Aye, Ma'am. Feeding the plot now."

"Impellers nominal, Captain!"

"Helm, turn us away from them. Come to one-two-five level and roll port."

"Aye, Ma'am. Coming to one-two-five level and rolling port."

Trent turned back to her display, glaring at the brilliant dots of the Manticoran destroyers. Barely a light-minute, right in her goddamned lap. They were too far out to engage her—even assuming they were confident enough of their ID to class her as definitely hostile—but the damage was done.

She made herself lean back, mouth tight, and drummed on the chair arms. There was going to be hell to pay for this, and whatever else came of it, all the shit in the galaxy was about to come down squarely on her head.

* * *

"She's gone active," Tribeca's tac officer reported, her voice almost dreamy with intensity. "Looks like a Conqueror-class light cruiser, Sir. She's altering vector away from us."

"Any chance of engaging her?" There was more hope than expectation in Tribeca's voice, and she shook her head.

"Sorry, Sir, no joy. She's way outside our missile envelope, and she's rolling to bring up her belly bands."

"Damn," the commander murmured. He watched his own display, ignoring the confused questions rattling over the com from Attack's skipper, while the Peep cruiser spun still further away from him. She was piling on the accel, too, and this far out—

The impeller source vanished in the sparkle of a hyper footprint, and he grunted. So much for catching her.

"Cut the accel, Helm." He shoved himself more firmly into his cushioned chair while his brain raced. "Hal, get off a contact report to Captain Edwards with all of Becky's data. Repeat it to Admiral Parks."

"Aye, aye, Sir."

The bridge lift hissed open to admit his vacsuited exec. The exec's skin suit looked out of place on the bridge, for there'd been no time for the duty watch to suit up, and Tribeca grinned sourly as he saw his own suit over the exec's arm.

"Thanks, Fred, but I think it's all over."

"What's all over?" the exec demanded in exasperation. "I hope you realize we just blew off the whole exercise, Skipper!"

"I know, I know." Tribeca stood and crossed back over to the tac station to watch the entire bizarre incident replay itself. "What do you think that was all about, Becky?"

"Well," the tac officer leaned back and scratched her nose, "the one thing I can tell you for sure, Sir, is that she was way too far out to pick up anything from the inner system on shipboard sensors. Add that to the fact that she was hitting something with a com laser, and—" She shrugged.

"But how in hell could they have—?" Tribeca shook his head. He couldn't quite believe the Peeps had some sort of stealth system RMN sensors couldn't penetrate, but as Becky said, that cruiser had been lasing something. And since his own sensors still didn't show anything for that something to have been, the empirical evidence said they did have a stealth capability far better than ONI had ever guessed.

"Helm," he said, still staring down at the tactical display, "put us back where we were when we picked up the first trickle, then come to zero-eight-eight. Take it slow, I don't want to overrun anything."

"Aye, aye, Sir. Reversing course now."

"Good." He put his hand lightly on the tac officer's shoulder. "If there really is something out here, it's going to be harder than hell to spot, Becky. Don't make any assumptions about Peep systems capabilities. Pretend it's something of ours that doesn't want to be found, then find it."

"Aye, aye, Skipper. If it's there, I'll find it," she promised, and he squeezed her shoulder.

"Skipper, will you please tell me what's going on?" his exec pleaded, and Tribeca grinned, despite his tension, as the voice of Attack's skipper, still squawking over the com, echoed the question. Then the grin faded.

"Come on into the briefing room, Fred." He sighed. "I might as well explain it to you and Commander Fargo at the same time."

* * *

"My God." Admiral Parks shook his head, staring at the message on his screen. "I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it. How in hell did Peeps pull this off, Vincent?"

"I don't know, Sir." Capra pushed to his feet and prowled restlessly around the briefing room. "Oh, I can think of enough different ways to get the platforms into position; I just can't imagine how they came up with the stealth systems to hide them from us after they did it."

"I'd say Commander Tribeca's probably on the right track, Admiral," Zero O'Malley said. The intelligence officer scrolled back up to the pertinent portion of Tribeca's message and tapped it with a stylus. "We can't be sure till he gets back here with the relay and we tear it apart, but his preliminary description of it certainly suggests the fusion of more than one outfit's tech, and God knows there's enough Havenite trade with the Solarian League."

"But the League's embargoed military technology to both of us," Parks pointed out, and O'Malley nodded. Getting that embargo in place had been one of the Star Kingdom's more effective diplomatic moves, for it certainly favored Manticore's generally superior tech base over Haven's. It had also been hard to achieve, and only Manticore's control of the League's traffic through the Sigma Draconis terminus of the Manticore Worm Hole Junction had given the Foreign Office the clout to bring it off.

"Agreed, Sir, but I'm not suggesting this was an authorized technology transfer. The League's organized on an awful loose, consensual basis, and some of its member planets resent how hard we pushed for the embargo. It's possible one of them, or even a rogue defense contractor or a bribable League Navy officer, would be willing to violate it."

"Zero may be right, Sir," Captain Hurston put in, "but I don't think how they did it is as important just now as the fact that they have done it." The ops officer ran a hand through his hair, and his voice was worried. "And, of course, there's the question of where else they've done it. Yorik isn't anywhere near as critical as other Alliance systems, which suggests that it wouldn't have had overriding priority. Which, in turn, suggests—"

"That they've done it all along the frontier," Parks finished grimly, and Hurston nodded.

The admiral tipped his chair back and scrubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, wishing he could believe Hurston was wrong. But he couldn't. If the Peeps had bugged Yorik with their damned invisible sensor platforms, then they'd done it elsewhere, as well.

He clenched his jaw and swore silently. Manticore had gotten too confident of its technical edge, refused to contemplate the possibility that the Peeps, equally aware of the differential, might take steps to redress it. And he himself had been as blind as anyone else.

"This changes everything," he said finally. "Our—my—belief that Admiral Rollins couldn't know we'd pulled out of Hancock no longer applies. Which," he forced himself to make the admission in a level voice, "means Admiral Sarnow was right all along."

He drew a breath and shook himself, then popped his chair upright, lowered his hands, and spoke crisply.

"All right, people. I screwed up, and it's time to try to fix it. Mark," he looked at Hurston, "I want you to tear every one of our contingency plans apart. Crank in the assumption that the Peeps have been watching our deployments all along the frontier for at least the last six months and find any spots in the plan that need adjustment in light of that capability. Zeb," he turned to the intelligence officer, "I want you to take charge of the relay Tribeca's bringing in. Strip it completely. Find out all you can about it—not just how it works, but anything you can tell me about the components and who made the damned thing initially. And see to it that Tribeca knows I intend to commend him strongly for his initiative."

The intelligence officer nodded, and Parks turned to Captain Beasley.

"Theresa, set up a com conference for—" he glanced at the chrono "—zero nine hundred. I want all squadron commanders, their staffs, and flag captains tied in. Then get courier boats off to Hancock, Zanzibar, and the Admiralty. Inform all of them of our findings, and instruct Admiral Kostmeyer to move immediately from Zanzibar to rendezvous with us at Hancock. See to it that Admiral Sarnow gets an information copy of our dispatch to her, as well."

"Yes, Sir."

"Vincent," Parks swung back to his chief of staff, "I want you to work with Mark on his planning review, but first give me a new deployment here. Assume we'll be leaving a destroyer flotilla and a light cruiser squadron to patrol the system . . . and find the rest of these damned sensor platforms. If the Peeps have been watching us all along, the absolute first priority is to get ourselves concentrated again, so draw up the preliminary orders to get us underway as soon as my conference with the squadron COs is over."

"Yes, Sir."

"Very well." Parks laid his hands on the table and squared his shoulders. "Let's get started, then. And let's just hope to God we're in time."


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