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Chapter Thirty-Three

"Do you believe this crap, Maxie?" Scooter Smith demanded in a disgusted mutter. He and PO Maxwell sat in the rear of the briefing room, listening while Lieutenant Gearman explained the day's program to the wing's engineering staff. Commander Stackowitz and Captain Harmon would brief in the squadron and section leaders a bit later, but as always, everyone else's efforts ultimately depended on the engineers. Which meant they had to get the word first, and at the moment, Smith wanted to spit as he glanced at Maxwell.

"What's not to believe?" his hirsute friend replied, using the junior officers and senior noncoms seated between him and the briefing lectern for cover as he scratched his ribs industriously. Then he shrugged. "The brass has decided to screw the Minnie over. You gonna try to tell me you've never been part of that procedure before?"

"Is that all you have to say about it?" Smith regarded him with pronounced disfavor, and Maxwell shrugged again.

"Hey, what I say—or you say—don't matter squat, Scooter. What matters is that that asshole Holderman's decided we're gonna blow this exercise. I don't know why he's so hot to make us look bad, but there's damn all you or I can do about it, so how's about you vent with just a little less fervor? Or on someone else, at least."

"You never look outside your toolbox, do you?" Smith snorted.

"Nope," Maxwell agreed, then grinned crookedly. "Course, that could be because I've had a little more experience dodging official displeasure than you have, Scooter m'boy."

"Well, that's true enough, anyway!" Smith grunted with a laugh. "You've had more experience at that than just about anyone else in the Service, 'Silver Spanner.'"

"A low blow," Maxwell observed sadly, "but no lower than I'd expect from someone like yourself."

Smith grinned, left more cheerful by the exchange despite his disgust with the briefing. But Maxwell was obviously correct about what was happening here. Rear Admiral Holderman had leaned on the umpires hard, and the result had been an order for the LACs to make their approach on Hancock Base without utilizing their stealth systems at all. They could come in at whatever acceleration they liked, on whatever vector they wished, from a starting point that would be completely their own choice. But they could not take advantage of a single aspect of their powerful EW suites on the approach. Worse, the umpires had decided to reduce their active missile defenses' efficiency by forty percent in order to "reflect probable enemy upgrades in scan data enhancement and fire control," which was bullshit if Smith had ever heard it.

But at least they'd get to try it in real space, not the simulators, he reminded himself. If nothing else, that would prevent Holderman and his merry band from fudging the exercise's parameters still further once it was actually underway—and Scooter Smith wouldn't put even that past this bunch. Unlike Maxwell, he had at least a suspicion of what had punched Holderman's buttons, and he wondered what in heaven's name had possessed the Skipper to do something that dumb.

Well, I guess even captains can fuck up, he thought as philosophically as he could, and at least there won't be all that many "bad guys" looking for us. Aside from the base itself, there's only five SDs and the battlecruisers. That's a lot of sensor ability, but Captain Harmon's a sneaky one. I'll bet she and Commander Stackowitz will figure out a way to get a hell of a lot closer in before detection than old Holderman even dreams is possible!


"Time to translation?" Citizen Rear Admiral Kellet asked her staff astrogator quietly as she and Citizen Commissioner Ludmilla Penevski stepped onto PNS Schaumberg's flag deck.

"Approximately six hours, forty-three minutes, Citizen Admiral!" Citizen Commander Jackson announced crisply.

"Good." She acknowledged his report with a nod and looked at Penevski. The other woman looked back impassively, then produced a smile.

"Our people seem confident, Citizen Admiral," she remarked quietly as the two of them walked towards the master plot, and Kellet shrugged.

"They should be, Citizen Commissioner. I could wish for a little more tonnage and a few ships of the wall, but I'm confident we can hold our own against any picket we're likely to hit."

"Even if, unlike us, they do have superdreadnoughts?" Penevski asked still more quietly, and this time it was Kellet who bared even white teeth in a thin smile. It was hungry, that smile, and most unpleasant despite its whiteness, and her dark eyes gleamed.

"The gap between our onboard systems efficiency and the enemy's has fallen since the war began, Citizen Commissioner," she said. "Oh, they still have an edge, but our best estimate is that our technology transfers have reduced it by at least fifty percent. What's really made them so dangerous to us for the last several years has been the fact that they had missile pods and we didn't. The overwhelming advantage that gave them in the initial missile exchanges would be very difficult to exaggerate. Certainly the sheer volume of a pod salvo was enough to make any real difference between our missile defense capabilities largely irrelevant. But now we have pods of our own, with a sixty percent edge in the number of birds per pod, and that means the playing field just got leveled big time, Ma'am."

"So I understand," Penevski replied. "But there's no point pretending I'm as technically informed as you are, Citizen Admiral. I suppose it's just a little harder for me to accept the projections when I don't fully understand the basis upon which they were made . . . especially when you seem to be saying that we've reached a point at which the relative capability of our defenses does count once more."

"Understandable enough, Ma'am," Kellet said. Penevski had been assigned as her people's commissioner only three months earlier, and they were still learning to know one another. One thing she had already discovered, however, was that Penevski was at least willing to admit when she didn't know something. Jane Kellet was prepared to forgive any superior for a great many other failings when that was true, and she turned to face Penevski squarely.

"In the end, missile engagements come down to numbers, Citizen Commissioner," she said, "because probability theory plays no favorites. Differences in electronics warfare, jammers, and decoys can divert fire from a target, thus reducing the number of birds which become actual threats, but if a missile achieves lock, and if it retains maneuver time on its drive, only active defenses can stop it."

She paused for a moment, and Penevski nodded to show she was following her.

"Any ship, or squadron, or task force has only a finite active antimissile capability," Kellet resumed, "and that capability is defined by the interplay of scanner sensitivity, the sophistication of the defenders' fire control and supporting ECCM, and the effectiveness and numbers of the weapons systems the defender can bring to bear upon incoming fire.

"Since the war began, the Manties have held a considerable advantage in scanners, fire control, and ECCM. Their missiles' onboard seekers and penaids are also better than ours, but that's a separate issue and harder to quantify, anyway. Our countermissiles and laser clusters are roughly comparable to theirs, and it appears that we do a little better job with our main battery energy weapons when we use them in counter-missile mode, as well. But the Manties' electronics superiority, coupled with their previous monopoly on the missile pod, has given them a very substantial edge in missile engagements.

"But now our Solly . . . associates have helped us upgrade our electronics and reduce their superiority in that area from probably a thirty to thirty-five percent or so advantage to no more than fifteen or sixteen percent. Even more importantly, however, we can now swamp their fire control with massive salvos, just as they've been doing to us ever since the Battle of Hancock.

"What that means becomes apparent when we look at the probable numbers here. Intelligence estimates that the Manties have a maximum of a heavy battle squadron, with screen, waiting for us— call it twelve SDs, maybe the same number of battlecruisers, and twenty or thirty cruisers and destroyers. Assuming previous engagements are any meterstick, they'll choose a compromise between the maximum numbers of pods they can tow and their acceleration curves. They don't like to reduce their max accel, so their super-dreadnoughts will be good for ten to twelve pods each, but their battlecruisers will probably have a maximum of four on tow, with perhaps two more for each heavy cruiser. Taking the worst case estimate, then, they'll have a hundred forty-four behind the SDs, forty-eight behind the battlecruisers, and call it thirty-two behind heavy cruisers.

"That gives them two hundred twenty-four pods, with a total missile load of about twenty-two hundred. We on the other hand, have a lot more tractor capability than they do, and the new Mars-class heavy cruisers have more brute impeller strength than their compensators can handle anyway."

She chose not to complicate her little lecture by explaining that that was because the People's Navy had hoped that either they would have captured intact samples of the Manties' new inertial compensator technology or that their Solarian suppliers would have figured out how they worked by now. Neither had happened, which left the Mars-class ships ridiculously overpowered. But that had its good points, as well. For one thing, they could lose quite a few beta nodes before their maximum attainable acceleration dropped. For another, they could tow twice as many pods as a Manty Star Knight could for the same acceleration loss. And as far as the People's Navy knew, the Manties didn't yet have a clue that that was the case. Of course, if they'd had the compensator efficiency the Manties had, they could have towed three times as many pods, but who knew? The Republic might yet manage to acquire that efficiency somehow, and then . . .

"What all that means, Ma'am," she went on, shaking off the reflexive thoughts, "is that we'll be going in with twelve pods behind each battleship and six behind each heavy cruiser. It'll reduce our max acceleration substantially—by about twenty percent for the cruisers—but it will give us four hundred fifty-six pods and well over seven thousand missiles in our opening salvo. Which," she smiled again, with that same pearlescent ferocity, "is the reason I'm so looking forward to the Second Battle of Hancock."


"Coming up on translation in forty-five minutes, Citizen Admiral." The tone in which Citizen Commander Lowe made the announcement carried that unmistakable edge of professional calm—the sort pilots or surgeons always seemed to drop into when things threatened to fall into the crapper. Lester Tourville recognized it, but the rules of the game required him to pretend he hadn't, and so he simply nodded.

"Thank you, Karen," he replied with a sort of absent-minded courtesy . . . which sounded much more absent than he felt. To be sure, his attention was distracted by his plot and the serried icons of Task Force 12.2, but under the surface his thoughts tried to whiplash out in all directions. He was glad Lowe could sound so composed and collected, yet a part of him fretted that her apparent composure might mask some error in her calculations until it was too late. And the fact that his was by far the smallest of Twelfth Fleet's four task forces—in tonnage terms, at least; he had five more ships than Jane Kellet's TF 12.3, but she had nine more battleships than he did—and also had the farthest to go to launch its initial attack wasn't calculated to make him feel any calmer. Despite his earlier conversation with Everard Honeker, he couldn't help feeling more than a little nervous at the thought of hitting the home system of an important Manty ally when he was this far from Republican-held territory, and—

Stop it, Lester, a corner of his mind scolded while his eyes and the rest of his brain sorted out the icons and checked vector notations. So they're going to have at least some sort of picket there to support the Zanzibarans. They still aren't going to have the least idea you're coming, and if they turn out to have ships of the wall on station, you've sure as hell got the acceleration to pull away from them!

"Are the pods ready, Shannon?" he asked without looking up from the plot.

"Yes, Citizen Admiral," Citizen Commander Foraker replied in the carefully correct voice she had acquired since the Battle of Adler. Tourville regretted the wariness in it, but she'd been her old self—sort of—when it came to planning the actual attack, and whatever was going on in her head hadn't affected her flair for sneaky tactics. Or her willingness to make the case for her chosen approach with the sort of blunt succinctness which left no room for misunderstanding . . . although it sometimes left those who argued with her feeling as if they'd been run down by an out-of-control ground car.

For one thing, she'd argued for a high-speed run-in from the very start, despite some other officers' fear that such an approach could leave them with a dangerously high velocity if there were in fact, Manty ships of the wall in-system. Their concern had been that a high initial velocity would leave them with too much mometum to kill quickly if an evasive vector change were required, but Foraker had shown even less patience than usual with that argument. Even if there were ships of the wall present, she'd pointed out arctically, they would still have to generate an intercept vector, and the less time TF 12.2 took reaching its objective, the less time the Manties would have in which to intercept. In fact, the only way they could guarantee to intercept an attack on the planet Zanzibar would be for them to be in orbit around it and stay there ... in which case, TF 12.2 should see them long before they entered engagement range and would have a much higher base velocity from which to evade the defenders and go after its secondary objective: the system's asteroid extraction industry. Besides, a higher approach velocity would not only face the Manties with more difficult interception acceleration curves but force them to commit sooner and at higher power settings, which would degrade the efficiency of their stealth systems and make them far easier to detect early enough for it to do some good.

In keeping with that recommendation, she'd also argued that the retention of their own ships' full acceleration capability was more important than putting the maximum possible number of pods in space. That liveliness in maneuver, after all, was the one advantage battleships held over ships of the wall, and she refused to throw it away. So rather than tow the pods astern, she'd suggested, they should take a page from the Manties' book in the Fourth Battle of Yeltsin and tractor the pods inside the wedges of their battleships, where they would have no effect on their acceleration curves. Their battlecruisers could tractor only two pods inside their wedges, and the heavy cruisers and destroyers lacked the tractors and wedge depth to tractor any inside at all, but that was fine with her.

Some of the squadron ops officers had hit the deckhead at the very suggestion, but she had simply waited them out with a cold, almost mechanical patience. And when the hubbub had settled, she'd pointed out that battleships had been designed as general purpose workhorses, which meant, among other things, that they had more tractors on a ton-for-ton basis than any other ship type in the Republican order of battle. Each of them could tractor eleven pods— more than most superdreadnoughts, actually—tight in against their hulls. That meant that when they actually deployed them, they could still put over forty-two hundred missiles into space at once, with another three hundred eighty from the battlecruisers. In the meantime, their entire task force's ability to maneuver at full acceleration would not only make them fleeter of foot but might actually convince the defenders that they hadn't brought along any pods until it was too late.

Most of the doubters had acquired suddenly thoughtful expressions at that, and those who hadn't had shut their mouths anyway when Tourville glared at them. This was the command team which had produced the Battle of Adler, after all. And even if it hadn't been, Lester Tourville was a citizen vice admiral who clearly enjoyed the full-bodied support of his people's commissioner.

Now Tourville grinned crookedly at the memory. Perhaps there were some advantages to promotion after all, he mused. But then his thoughts slipped back to the little matter of astrogation, and he leaned back in his chair with a quiet sigh which he hoped concealed the tension coiling tighter in his midsection from any of his juniors.

Karen Lowe was an excellent astrogator, but a hyper voyage this long provided a great deal of scope for minor astrogation errors to produce major results. Overshooting their intended n-space translation point wouldn't be all that terrible . . . unless, of course, they overshot it too badly. A ship which attempted to translate out of hyper inside a star's hyper limit couldn't. As long as it made the attempt within the outer twenty percent of the hyper limit, all that happened was that it couldn't get into n-space. If it made the attempt any further in than that, however, Bad Things happened. Someone had once described the result as using a pulse cannon to fire soft-boiled eggs at a stone wall to see if they would bounce. Lester Tourville rather doubted they would, and even if he was wrong, it was a proposition he had no desire at all to test firsthand.

And that was what made the nervous serpent shift and slither in his belly as the digital display counted down towards the translation, because after a voyage of over a light-century and a half, it would take an error of only one five-millionth of a percent to give them all an egg's-eye view of that stone wall. He trusted Citizen Commander Lowe implicitly . . . but he couldn't quite shut his mind off when it yammered about teeny-tiny errors and misplaced decimal points.

And, he thought dryly, your having supported Shannon's insistence on coming in fast and hot won't make things any easier for Karen, now will it?

It wouldn't, and he knew it. But he wasn't about to change his mind, either, because his tac witch was right. His task force was in the lowest alpha band, traveling at .6 c and headed for a crash translation. He knew what most of his crews were going to have to say about that, but they should have plenty of time to stop throwing up before the Manties could come into range. And by hitting the wall at roughly a hundred and eighty thousand kilometers per second, he would carry an n-space velocity of a bit more than fourteen thousand KPS across it with him.

The system's G4 primary had a hyper limit of just over twenty light-minutes, the planet Zanzibar orbited it at nine light-minutes, and their course had been chosen to drop them into n-space at the limit's closest approach to the planet. All of which meant that if Lowe hit her translation point exactly right, they should drop into n-space almost exactly eleven and a half light-minutes from their target. And with an initial velocity of 14,390 KPS and a maximum fleet acceleration of 450 gravities, they could reach Zanzibar's orbit in one hundred and sixteen minutes. They'd be moving at over forty-five thousand KPS when they crossed it, and decelerating and coming back to tidy up would be a time-consuming pain, but the advantages of a high-speed pass more than compensated. Even if the Manties and Zanzibarans were there in sufficient strength to stand and fight, his velocity would be such as to make their engagement window very brief. And whatever happened, his units would pass close enough to the planet to take out its orbital installations with missiles without hitting too many neutral merchantmen ... or the planet itself.

He damned well hoped so, anyway. If he launched missiles that went wild and hit the surface of an inhabited planet in the middle of a civilian population somewhere, even by accident—

He shuddered. He would never forgive himself if he let something like that happen. But more important than any personal guilt he might feel, however traumatic, violation of the Eridani Edict's ban on indiscriminate planetary bombardment was the one thing guaranteed to bring the Solarian League Navy down on any star nation like a hammer. There wouldn't be any internal Solarian debate, no arguments or resolutions or declarations, for none would be needed. Enforcement of the Eridani Edict had been part of the League's fundamental law for five hundred and three years, and the League Navy's standing orders were clear: any government or star nation or rogue mercenary outfit which indiscriminately bombarded an inhabited planet or directed a bombardment of any sort against a planetary population which had not first been summoned to surrender would be destroyed.

It was probably the closest the Sollies would ever come to a clear-cut foreign policy decision, at least in his lifetime, Tourville reflected. But it was one they came by naturally . . . and one they had implemented five times since 1410 p.o.

The first two centuries after the Warshawski sail had rendered interstellar warfare practical had seen more than their share of atrocities, including ruthless attacks on defenseless planetary populations. It had been bad enough then; with the weapons available now, it would be far worse. A single superdreadnought—for that matter, even a single battlecruiser—could exterminate every city, town, and village on any planet once the target's defenses had been suppressed. These days, they could do it with kinetic missile strikes, duplicating on a far grander scale the so-called "Heinlein Maneuver" Old Earth's rebellious colonists had employed in the Lunar Revolt of 39 a.d. The Lunar rebels had settled for dropping cargo shuttles loaded with rock into Old Earth's gravity well; a missile capable of eighty or ninety thousand gravities of acceleration was incomparably more effective than such crude, improvised weapons. And a kinetic strike would do minimal damage to the rest of a planet and leave it suitably empty for the attacker's own colonists.

Except that the Solarian League, having experienced the bitter horrors of trying to clean up after such an atrocity on one of its member worlds, had not only unilaterally issued the Eridani Edict but incorporated it as Amendment Ninety-Seven of the League Constitution. Seven billion human beings had died in the Epsilon Eridani Massacre. The Solarians had not forgotten them, even today, and no one who was still in shouting distance of sanity wanted to remind them once again and bring the League Navy down on his head by violating the edict.

He pushed the thought to the back of his brain with an impatient flick of a mental hand. The Eridani Edict had no bearing on today's mission, and it was time he stopped fretting about the Sollies and started concentrating on the Manties.


"Well, you said you wanted to push him into cooking the exercise," Jackie Harmon observed to Alice Truman as the two captains rode the lift down to Harmon's wing briefing room.

"I did," Truman agreed calmly. "On the other hand, I'm a little disappointed in him if this is the best he can do."

" 'Best he can do'?" Harmon echoed. The COLAC shook her head. "Let's see, he's increased our vulnerability to detection by about eighty-five percent, reduced our EW's ability to confuse his fire control by the same amount, and reduced the effectiveness of our active defenses by forty percent. Just what exactly did you expect him to do for an encore?"

"Oh, I admit it should do the job," Truman agreed with a chuckle. "He's going to wax most of our wing, though your people are enough better than he's willing to admit that I think he's still going to get hurt a lot worse than he expects. But it's a purely brute force approach . . . and one he's going to find extremely hard to justify when Admiral Adcock and Admiral Caparelli start asking pointed questions."

The lift came to a stop and the doors slid open, and she went on speaking—in a lowered voice—as she and Harmon stepped out into the passage.

"Reducing your EW is the most arbitrary change he could possibly have made—and it's also one which is totally unjustifiable on the basis of ONI's estimates of Peep capabilities, present or near-term future. He's being so ham-handed I almost feel guilty ... as if I've just pushed a baby chick into a pond full of Sphinx near-pike."

"Oh?" Harmon cocked her head to regard Minotaur's captain sidelong, and her smile was wry. "Well, just at the moment, I feel more like the chick, knowing what's coming. So I hope you'll excuse me if I don't feel a great deal of sympathy for the good admiral?"

"I suppose I'll have to," Truman agreed with a theatrical sigh as they reached the briefing room hatch and it opened before them.

"Attention on deck!" Commander McGyver barked as the two captains appeared. He and Barbara Stackowitz had been conducting the preliminary brief, and Harmon smiled again, more wryly even than before, as she sensed her officers' reaction to what they had already heard.

"At ease," Truman told them, and they settled back in their chairs, regarding their superiors warily. Truman took her own seat without another word—she was still the senior officer present, but this was Harmon's domain—and the COLAC folded her arms as she faced her people.

"All right," she said, "the XO and Commander Stackowitz have already given you the bad news. Yes, we're going in with our electronics artificially degraded, and, yes, we're going to get our butts kicked. But along the way, we're going to do a little—"

A sharp, shrill sound interrupted her, and she turned her head quickly. Stackowitz was already reaching for the acceptance key, and she cut the priority com signal off with a sort of dying wheep! The screen lit, and the commander's eyebrows arched in surprise as she recognized Minotaur's executive officer on the display.

"Briefing Four," she told him. "Commander Stackowitz. How can I help you, Sir?"

"I need the Captain, Commander," Commander Haughton replied crisply, and his Gryphon accent was much more pronounced than usual. Truman frowned as she heard it, then crossed to stand beside Stackowitz' chair and lean into the com pickup's field.

"Yes, John? What is it?"

"Captain, we need you on the bridge," Haughton told her flatly. "The FTL net's just reported a bogey, Ma'am—a big bogey, that hasn't pulsed us an arrival notification—and it's headed straight in system at ten thousand KPS, accelerating at four-point-zero KPS squared." He paused and cleared his throat. "I don't know who they are, Ma'am, but they sure aren't ours."


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