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Chapter Thirty-Six

"Stand by for translation on my mark," Citizen Commander Tyler said. "Coming up on translation in five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one . . . mark!"

Task Group 12.4.1, composed of Task Force 12.4's superdreadnoughts and their screening light cruisers, exploded out of hyper into n-space in brilliant, multipeaked flashes of azure transit energy barely a hundred and eighty thousand kilometers outside the twenty-two-light-minute hyper limit of the GO star known as Basilisk-A. It was a phenomenally precise piece of astrogation, but Javier Giscard was unable to appreciate it properly as he fought the mind-wrenching, stomach-lashing dizziness the crash translation sent smashing through him. He heard others on Salamis' flag bridge retching and knew thousands of other people throughout his flagship's huge hull were doing the same, and even through his own nausea, he reflected on how vulnerable his task group was in that moment. His ships' crews were as completely incapacitated as he himself for anywhere from ten seconds to two full minutes, depending on the individual. During those seconds and minutes, only the ships' automated missile defenses were available to stave off attack, and had any hostile vessel been in position to take advantage of that brief helplessness, the price could have been catastrophic.

But no hostile ship was. Nor was one likely to be, for a star system was an immense target, and he had deliberately avoided a least-time course to the planet Medusa. Not that he was far off one. He intended to waste no time carrying out his mission, but even a slight diversion vastly increased the n-space volume into which his units might make translation. He preferred to have some room to work with . . . and it wasn't as if he was going to manage to evade the sort of sensor net the Manties must have assembled here. The PN had no hard data on the Basilisk net, but Giscard knew what the Republic's Navy had assembled to watch over its own core systems. The huge, sensitive, deep-system passive sensor arrays standing sentry over the Haven System for the Capital Fleet, for example, measured something on the order of a thousand kilometers in diameter and could detect the footprint of even a normal hyper translation at a range of up to a hundred light-hours. He had to assume the Manties' arrays were even better—after all, every other sensor they had was—which meant there was no point trying to sneak up on them with a slow, furtive approach.

Besides, the Manties were supposed to see him. If the timing worked properly, they would have almost an hour to react to his presence before Citizen Rear Admiral Darlington arrived. Which should give the defenders time to let themselves be well and truly caught between stools when they realized what was actually happening.

Of course, trying to achieve that sort of coordination comes awfully close to asking for the impossible, he acknowledged as his body's protests began to subside and his vision cleared enough for him to see his plot once more. But the beauty of it here is that we don't really have to achieve it. It'll be nice if we pull it off, sort of like frosting on the cake, but we should be all right either way. Should.

"Talk to me, Franny," he said.

"Uh, yes, S— Citizen Admiral." The astrogator shook herself and looked down at her readouts. "On profile, Citizen Admiral," she reported in a brisker, more normal-sounding voice. "Present position is three hundred ninety-five-point-niner million klicks from Basilisk-A, bearing oh-oh-five by oh-oh-three relative. Velocity is ... fourteen-point-one KPS, and task force acceleration is three-point-seven-five KPS squared. Range to Medusa orbit is two hundred twenty-nine-point-niner-five million klicks. On current heading and acceleration, we should reach a zero-range intercept with the planet in one hundred thirty-two minutes, with a crossing velocity of forty-three-point-eight-two thousand KPS at the moment we cut its orbit."

"Andy? Anything headed our way yet?" Giscard asked.

"Not yet, Citizen Admiral," Macintosh replied promptly. "We've got a lot of impeller signatures running around in-system, and some of them are almost certainly warships, but nothing seems to be heading our way yet. Of course, we are being just a bit visible, Citizen Admiral. Their sensor net has to have us, and I expect we'll be seeing a reaction soon."

"Thank you." Giscard glanced at Pritchart, then plucked his lip while he considered the two reports. Tyler's only reconfirmed the superb job of astrogation that she'd done to hit her intended n-space locus so closely. The acceleration numbers made Giscard a little nervous, however, even though he'd ordered them himself, for they were higher than was truly safe. Not that the PN found itself with a great deal of choice about cutting safety margins. Like the Royal Manticoran Navy, the prewar People's Navy had restricted its ships' top drive settings to a maximum of eighty percent of their full officially rated inertial compensator capacity. That was because the only warning a compensator usually gave that it was thinking about failing was the abrupt cessation of function . . . which instantly turned a ship's crew into goo. Since higher power settings were more likely to result in failure, most navies (and all merchant shipping lines) made a habit of limiting their ships to a comfortable safety margin of around twenty percent.

Unfortunately, the new Manty compensators made that unacceptable to the People's Republic. Unable to match the new compensators' power levels, they had opted both to begin building dreadnoughts for the first time in eighteen T-years and to cut their prewar compensator safety margins in half. The new dreadnoughts were considerably less powerful than superdreadnoughts would have been, but their lower tonnage gave them something approaching the acceleration curves a Manty superdreadnought could pull with the RMN's new compensators. By the same token, cutting the safety margins let the People's Navy steal back most of the Manties' advantage across the board. Which didn't help a whole lot when the Manties decided to go to full military power and toss their safety margins out the airlock, but at least it reduced the differential a little.

But Macintosh's report was the really interesting one. Giscard hadn't expected to hear anything just yet, for any defensive picket would need at least ten or fifteen minutes just to get organized . . . and as much as forty if its CO had been so overconfident he'd let his units sit in orbit with cold impellers. For that matter, Giscard probably wouldn't know for some time even once the Manties began responding, given the quality of their stealth systems. Still, he'd be happier when Macintosh's sensor crews finally detected some reaction to their arrival. In no small part, that was simply because he always hated waiting for the other shoe to drop, but there was more to it this time. Until he had some sign of what the Manties intended to do, he would have no idea whether or not the diversionary effort had worked ... or just what sort of hornet's nest he might be sailing into.


Vice Admiral Michel Reynaud, Manticore Astro-Control Service, looked up and quirked an eyebrow as a distinctive three-note alarm chimed. It wasn't a particularly loud alarm, but it didn't have to be, for the master control room buried deep at the heart of the multimegaton space station that housed Basilisk ACS was a calm, quiet place. Not that it wasn't busy. Basilisk ACS oversaw all the traffic passing through the Basilisk terminus of the Manticore Wormhole Junction. A single mistake by one of its controllers could result in the complete loss of several million tons of shipping, not to mention the human cost to the crews of the ships involved, and that was the very reason the main control room was kept calm and quiet and efficient.

It was also the reason the lighting was intentionally adjusted to be on the dim side, the better to make the various displays visible, and why, in a practice dating back to the earliest days of electronic watch standing on Old Earth, the temperature was kept decidedly cool. (Except, Reynaud reminded himself wryly, for the handful of Sphinxians on staff; they insist it's like a balmy spring day . . . the showoffs!) The deliberate chill was carefully designed to prevent people from becoming so comfortable they dozed off on duty. Not that anyone on Reynaud's staff was likely to have enough idle time to doze off. He snorted at the familiar thought, but his eyebrow didn't come down, for he didn't recall any scheduled exercises with the picket force or Basilisk Station Command, and those were the only people who ever used that particular com circuit.

He turned his well-padded command chair to watch the com officer of the watch kill the alarm and begin inputting the primary authorization code. It always took a fair amount of propitiating with codes and responses to various challenges to convince the FTL com systems to disgorge their contents. Of course, that was to be expected. In Reynaud's humble opinion, most people who went into the Navy tended to be on the anal retentive side (ACS personnel were civil servants, not military—and proud of it—despite their uniforms and rank insignia), and they were especially retentive about toys like their FTL com. Except under very special and carefully defined conditions, ACS was absolutely forbidden the use of its own FTL transmitter, and the fact that only Manticore knew how to read the grav pulses hadn't prevented the RMN from insisting on all sorts of internal security fences.

But despite his private conviction that it was unnecessary, Reynaud was perfectly content to wait out the delay. For that matter, he didn't really mind any of the military-style crap he had to put up with, because he remembered when he and his people had been left all on their own out here. Michel Reynaud was an old Basilisk hand— he had fourteen T-years on the station, longer than anyone else aboard the huge base—and there had been a time when he'd felt nothing but contempt for the Navy. Which had been understandable enough, he reminded himself, considering the useless screw-ups and idle layabouts who used to be exiled to Basilisk. But these days—

A bright red light began to blink on the master communications panel, and Vice Admiral Reynaud never remembered getting out of his command chair. He simply found himself suddenly standing behind the com officer, as if the blood-red flash that announced an emergency Priority One signal had teleported him there. And perhaps it had, a distant corner of his brain thought as he watched over the com officer's shoulder and the message began to appear on her display. But that thought was far away and unimportant compared to the content of the short, terse sentences, and his thoughts reeled as he read the estimate of what was headed for Medusa and all the orbital warehouses, freight transfer points, repair shops, and supply bases that served the commerce which poured through Basilisk daily.

He stared at it for one more moment, mouth dry, then wheeled to face the rest of his staff.

"Listen up, everybody!" he snapped, and heads turned throughout the control room, for they had never heard that particular harshness from him. "There's an unidentified task force headed in-system. Vice Admiral Markham estimates it at a minimum of twenty super-dreadnoughts and fifteen to twenty light cruisers."

Someone gasped in horror, and Reynaud nodded grimly.

"I'm sure the terminus picket will be getting underway shortly," he went on, "but even if they could get there in time, there aren't enough ships in the system to stop this kind of attack. Which means—" he inhaled deeply "—that I am declaring Case Zulu. Jessie—" he looked at his senior watchkeeper "—you're in charge of organizing the evac queue. You know the drill: neutrals and passenger ships first, bulk carriers last."

"I'm on it, Mike." The woman waved for two assistants to follow her and headed for the huge holo tank that plotted every ship movement within five light-minutes of the junction, and Reynaud laid a hand on the com officer's shoulder.

"Pass the word to the standby courier, Angela. Download Mark-ham's dispatch and my own Case Zulu, and get it on its way. Jessie— " he looked back over his shoulder "—clear a priority route for the courier as soon as Angela's finished."

Jessie nodded, and Reynaud wheeled and beckoned to another controller.

"Al, you and Gus are in charge of short-range com traffic from here on out. I want Angela undisturbed on the Fleet com, just in case." Al, the senior of the two nodded, and Reynaud went on in a voice which was both calm and urgent. "There's going to be hell to pay when some of the merchant skippers figure out what's going on. We're ten light-hours from Medusa out here, but they're not going to be thinking about that, and they're going to demand priority to get their own precious asses out of here. Don't let them browbeat you! Jess will give you the movement schedule as soon as she's got it organized. Stick to it."

"Yes, Sir," the senior man said, almost as if he meant to salute—which simply wasn't done in the ACS. But Reynaud had already turned away, eyes searching for yet another officer. She had to be here somewhere, but he couldn't seem to spot her.

"Cynthia?" he called.

"Yes, Admiral?"

Reynaud almost levitated, for the reply came from directly behind him. He wheeled quickly—so quickly, in fact, that Lieutenant Carluchi stepped back to avoid him—and managed, somehow, not to glare at the speaker. It was his own fault, he told himself. Carluchi had commanded Basilisk ACS's Marine detachment for almost five months now, and he should have had plenty of time to get used to the silent, catlike way she moved.

"Oh, there you are," he said with just enough emphasis to make her blush. At any other moment, he would have taken time to enjoy his minor triumph, for Lieutenant Carluchi was as perpetually self-controlled and composed as she was attractive and young. But he had other things on his mind today, and he looked grimly down into the slim, wiry Marine's huge aqua eyes.

"You heard what I told Al and Gus?" he asked, and she nodded without the usual trace of discomfort she felt at ACS' casual, highly unmilitary modes of address. "Good," he said even more grimly, "because it's going to be up to you to put some teeth into their orders if some of those skippers out there actually panic. Can do?"

"Can do, Admiral," Carluchi said flatly.

Unlike the others, she snapped him a sharp salute, and Reynaud actually found himself returning it, albeit with much less precision. Then she turned and left at a trot he knew was going to turn into a run the instant she was out of his sight. Well, that was all right with Michel Reynaud. Lady Harrington had begun a tradition when she detached two of her pinnaces to support ACS' antismuggling inspections twelve years ago. But these days there were twelve pinnaces, not two, and the personnel to man them were assigned directly to Basilisk ACS by the Royal Marine Corps. A pinnace's twin pulse cannon and single light laser weren't even popguns compared to the weapons carried by real warships, but they were more than powerful enough to deal with unarmed, unarmored merchantmen who got out of hand. More than that, Reynaud knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Cynthia Carluchi and her Marine crews would use those weapons in a heartbeat if the situation required it.

He just hoped the merchies knew it, too.


Vice Admiral of the Red Silas Markham managed to keep himself in his seat aboard the pinnace only by main force of will. Eleven minutes ago, he had been ensconced in his comfortable office aboard Medusa Gold One, the Navy's relatively new orbital HQ for the Basilisk Station. He'd been buried to the elbows in boring, frustrating paperwork and feeling ticked off—as usual—by the way the picket had been reduced over the last seven T-months. He'd understood the logic. Hell, he'd even agreed with it! But that hadn't make it any more pleasant to hold what was supposed to be a vice admiral's billet and see the forces assigned to him reduced to something a rear admiral would probably have been too senior to command had it been located anywhere other than a single junction transit from the Manticore System.

But he hadn't been able to argue. The Peeps hadn't even sniffed around the perimeter of the Basilisk System for a standard decade. This was a routine, unthreatened sector, much too far behind the front for someone as defensive-minded as the post-Coup Peep Navy had proven itself to hit. And if that should change, the entire strength of Home Fleet was only a transit away. There would be plenty of time to adjust deployments to beef up his task force if the Peeps ever seemed to be headed this way.

Only now it looked as if no one had remembered to tell the Peeps they were too defensive-minded and timid to try a deep-strike raid like this, because as sure as Hell had a monopoly on brimstone, somebody was headed in to blow the holy howling bejesus out of Markham's command area. And all the comfortable assurance—his, as well as the Admiralty's, he admitted bitterly—about redeployments from Home Fleet were crap in the face of something like this. Even battlecruisers would require almost nineteen hours just to reach the Basilisk terminus from Manticore orbit; SDs would take almost twenty-two . . . and that was for ships with the latest-generation compensators. Ships could make the actual transit from Manticore to Basilisk in mere seconds, but to do that they first had to get to the central Junction terminus in Manticore. And even after they hit Basilisk space, they would be another twenty-two and twenty-six hours respectively from Medusa. Which meant that getting any reinforcements out here was going to take time. Virtually none by the standards of normal interstellar movement, but tactical combat within a star system operated on another scale entirely. And on that scale, forty-one hours was a very long time indeed . . . especially with the enemy barely two hours out from Medusa and coming hard.

The pinnace was running flat out, straining to catch up with HMS King William. The flagship, known affectionately to her crew as Billy Boy, was holding her accel down enough for the small craft to overhaul, and Markham watched out the port as the pinnace maneuvered to dock. He didn't think of himself as a particularly brave man, and his belly knotted with tension as he thought of what King William and the rest of his understrength force was going out to face. But heroic or not, Silas Markham was a vice admiral of the Royal Manticoran Navy, and his place was aboard his flagship when she faced the foe, not in some damned office light-minutes behind the battle.

The superdreadnought's tractors reached out to the pinnace, capturing it and easing it into the brilliantly lit cavern of a boat bay, and Markham stood. It was against Regs, of course. Passengers were supposed to remain seated and strapped in during any approach maneuver, but he was in a hurry . . . and he was also a vice admiral, which meant no one was going to tell him no.

He snorted at the thought, bending to keep peering out the view port as the pinnace settled towards the docking buffers. His eye caught the ship's crest, painted on the outer face of the docking gallery below the armorplast viewing area, and his mouth twitched. The crest was built around the personal seal of King William I, for whom the ship was named, and Markham wondered once again how many of Billy Boy's crew ever considered the fact that their namesake had been assassinated by a psychotic.

It was not a thought he particularly cared to contemplate at a moment like this.


"They're coming out, Citizen Admiral," Citizen Commander Macintosh announced. Giscard held up his hand, interrupting a report from Julia Lapisch as he turned to face the ops officer.

"Strength estimates?" he asked.

"Still too far for any sort of positive count, Citizen Admiral, but it looks like they're present in considerably lower strength than predicted. We make it six to eight of the wall and an unknown number of battlecruisers. They seem to be headed our way at about three hundred gravities."

"Thank you." Giscard turned his chair towards Citizen Lieutenant Thaddeus. "Reactions, Madison?" he asked the intelligence officer.

"Our estimates were the best we could give you from the data we had when Icarus was planned, Citizen Admiral," Thaddeus said.

There was an edge of something almost like challenge in his voice, but Giscard was prepared to let that ride as long as Thaddeus kept it under control. He'd wondered why someone of the citizen lieutenant's obvious ability had not been promoted; now he knew, for the answer had been in the StateSec files Pritchart had received just before their departure from Secour. Thaddeus' older sister had been denounced to the People's Courts by a vengeful lover—falsely, as it turned out—as an enemy of the People. The lover had hanged himself when his anger cooled and he realized what he'd done, but his remorse had come too late to save Sabrina Thaddeus' life, and the SS feared that his sister's fate might turn the citizen lieutenant against the New Order. From what Giscard had seen of the man, they were right to be afraid of that. But it had never affected his work for the Citizen Admiral, and Giscard was hardly in a position to fault another over divided loyalties.

"I know the analysts' data was limited, Madison," the citizen admiral said now, putting just enough patience into his tone to remind the intelligence officer to watch his manners in front of others. "But this is a considerably lighter force than we anticipated, and I'd prefer not to find out the hard way that they actually have all those other ships we expected headed at us in stealth somewhere. So if there was any information, even questionable information, that could shed some light on this, I'd like to hear it."

"Yes, Citizen Admiral. Sorry," Thaddeus apologized, and leaned back in his chair, thinking hard. Finally he shook his head. "I can't really think of anything concrete that could explain it, Citizen Admiral," he said in a very different voice. "But that doesn't mean as much as I'd like. We haven't made any scouting sweeps of Basilisk since the war started and the Manties blew out Seaford Nine. Instead, we've relied on covert intelligence gathered by merchant skippers on our payroll. For the most part, they're foreign nationals, not our own people, which means any report from them has to be taken with a grain of salt, but they're the best we've had."

He paused, glancing at Giscard, and the Citizen Admiral nodded in combined understanding and an order to go on.

"Within those qualifications, they've been able to give us a pretty solid count on the forces deployed to watch over the terminus itself," Thaddeus said. "Those units are easily inside the sensor reach of any merchie using the Junction. But the numbers have always been a lot more . . . amorphous for the rest of the picket."

"Why is that, Citizen Lieutenant?" Pritchart asked in neutral tones. "My understanding was that over half the traffic passing through this system transships at least some cargo at the warehouses in Medusa orbit before continuing through the terminus."

"That's correct, Ma'am," Thaddeus said much more stiffly. Pritchart, after all, was the enemy as far as he was concerned, yet he seemed a little baffled by his own reaction to her. It appeared that he couldn't quite work up the hate for her that he felt for StateSec's other minions, and that seemed to puzzle him.

"In that case, wouldn't they have been able to observe the other portion of the picket in some detail, as well?"

"Yes and no, Ma'am," Macintosh said, coming to Thaddeus' aid. "They'd get a good look at anyone in close proximity to Medusa, but not at any units that were further out—on patrol, say, or conducting exercises. And the Manties are as sensitive to the possibility of espionage here as we would be in their place. They don't exactly encourage through traffic to use active sensors in areas like this, and there are limits to what merchant-grade passives can pick up. Unfortunately, part of the inspection the Manties have been insisting on since the war started includes a very close look at the sensor suites of visiting merchantmen, and if they find something more sophisticated than they feel is appropriate, the ship in question better have a very good justification for it. If she doesn't—pffft!" The Citizen Commander made a throwing away gesture with one hand. "That ship and that merchant skipper are banned from any use of the Junction for the duration of hostilities, which leaves them no real legitimate reason to be anywhere in the Basilisk System, much less anyplace they could see something that would do us any good to know about. Sort of cavalier of them, I suppose, but effective, and I'd do the same thing in their position."

"The Citizen Commander is correct, Ma'am," Thaddeus added. "We've had some reports that they've been drawing down the strength of the picket for the past several months, but no hard evidence to support them. Under the circumstances, NavInt—" it wasn't actually Naval Intelligence anymore, but Thaddeus, like a great many naval officers (and with more personal reason than most), still referred to the military intelligence section of State Security by the old pre-Coup name "—went with the last definite numbers we had. I suppose the theory was that it was better to make a worst-case assumption. And according to those figures, there ought to have been at least twelve of the wall assigned to the inner-system picket here."

"I see. Thank you, Citizen Lieutenant. And you, Citizen Commander." Pritchart gazed down into the master plot for several seconds, then looked at Giscard. "Does this change your intentions in any way, Citizen Admiral?"

"I think not, Citizen Commissioner," he replied with the exquisite courtesy he habitually used in public to depress her pretensions to interference in his tactical decisions. "There may be less opposition than we expected, but there's still enough to hand us some nasty lumps. And their Home Fleet is still no more than forty to forty-eight hours from Medusa even if it has to come all the way from Manticore orbit." He shook his head. "Hopefully their units will try to come through piecemeal and let Citizen Rear Admiral Darlington chop them up, but if anything goes wrong at that end, they can put a hell of a lot more firepower into this system than we have. I think we'll just continue the profile and head straight for a flyby firing run on Medusa. Unless, of course, you wish to proceed in some other fashion, Ma'am?"

"No, Citizen Admiral," she said in chill tones.

"Excellent," he replied, and folded his hands behind him and turned back to the plot.


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