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Chapter Thirty-Seven

Despite the temperature setting, most of the people in Basilisk ACS' central control room were sweating hard as they tried to cope. The initial reaction of the merchant traffic awaiting transit had been confusion, promptly followed by a panic that was as inevitable as it was irrational. They were ten light-hours from the Peeps' obvious objective, and every hostile starship in the vicinity was headed for Medusa, which meant almost directly away from them. There was ample time to get every one of them through the Junction and safely out of harm's way, and even if there hadn't been, they were far outside the Basilisk hyper limit. The FTL sensor net would give plenty of warning if any of the Peeps turned around and headed this way, and it would be relatively simple to duck into hyper and vanish long before the enemy could possibly get here.

Those comforting reflections, however, did not appear to be foremost in the minds of the merchant skippers arguing vociferously with Michel Reynaud's controllers. Lieutenant Carluchi and her pinnaces had already been required to physically intervene to keep a big Andermani ore ship and a Solarian freighter loaded with agricultural delicacies for the inner League worlds from jumping the queue.

Despite his fury with both skippers and a personal dislike for the Solarian League which had grown with each report of technology transfers to the Peeps, Reynaud could summon up rather more sympathy for the Solly than for the Andy. Asteroid ore was scarcely a perishable commodity, and the skipper's flight plan indicated he was on a fairly leisurely routing anyway. But while the Solly was less than two hours out of Sigma Draconis on a direct transit via the Junction, she would add over two T-months to her voyage just to reach Manticore the long way if she was forced to run for it in hyper. And her cargo was about as perishible as they came. Understanding the reasons for the woman's blustering anxiety hadn't made him any more patient with her, however, and he'd watched with satisfaction as Carluchi's pinnaces chivvied her ship back into line.

That was the only satisfaction he was feeling at the moment, however, and he darted a look at the main plot. The six dreadnoughts and eight battlecruisers composing the terminus picket had headed in-system at maximum acceleration the instant the first report came in. They couldn't possibly arrive in time to intercept the Peeps before they hit Medusa, but their CO could hardly just sit here and watch the system fall. The dreadnoughts had all received new compensators, but they were only second-generation upgrades with no more than a six percent efficiency boost over the old style. Nonetheless, Rear Admiral Hanaby was running them at full military power—right on four hundred and eighty gravities—and she'd been underway for ten minutes now. She was over eight hundred thousand kilometers from the terminus, up to a velocity of twenty-eight hundred kilometers per second and still accelerating at 4.706 KPS2, and as he watched the icons of her ships moving further and further from his command area, Michel Reynaud felt a chill of loneliness.

Hanaby's departure didn't leave the terminus completely unprotected. But the outbreak of hostilities and the more immediate needs of the Fleet had cut deeply into the funding originally appropriated to pay for the deep-space fortresses that had been supposed to protect the Basilisk terminus . . . and into the priority assigned to their construction, as well. What had been planned as a shell of eighteen sixteen-million-ton forts had been downgraded to ten . . . and only two of those had actually been completed. The other eight were anywhere from six T-months to a T-year from readiness—which put the most advanced of them something like five T-years behind the prewar schedule—and Reynaud gritted his teeth at the thought. Two fortresses should be ample to stand off any Peep battlecruisers which might be hiding out there to come running in and jump on the terminus from which Hanaby had withdrawn, but if there was something bigger and nastier in the offing . . .

He turned his mind away from that thought once again and concentrated on his own job.


"What?" The Earl of White Haven jerked around to face Commander McTierney. His com officer's face was pale, and her right hand pressed against her earbug as if she thought screwing it physically inside her head could force what it had just told her to make sense.

"The Peeps are attacking Basilisk, Sir," she repeated in shock-flattened tones still echoing with disbelief, and for once her Sphinxian accent did not remind White Haven painfully of Honor. "ACS has declared Case Zulu and began clearing the terminus of shipping six— No," she glanced at the time display, "seven minutes ago. Enemy strength estimate when Vice Admiral Reynaud dispatched his courier was a minimum of twenty superdreadnoughts with a light cruiser screen."

"My God" someone whispered behind White Haven, and he felt all expression vanish from his own face as the implications hammered over him. Basilisk. They were hitting Basilisk, and not with any raid-and-run force of battlecruisers, either. Twenty superdreadnoughts were more than enough to take out the entire Basilisk picket, given the way its strength had been drawn down—in no small part to build up your wall of battle, Hamish! a corner of his brain whispered—even if it hadn't been spread between Medusa and the terminus itself.

And after they punch out Markham's task force, they'll destroy every single installation in Medusa orbit, he thought with a dull sense of horror. Will they give the orbit bases' personnel time to evacuate? Of course they will . . . unless their CO is one of the new regime's fanatics. But even if they do allow an evac, that's still sixty T-years' worth of infrastructure. My God! Who knows how many trillions of dollars of investment it represents? How in hell will we manage to replace it in the middle of a damned war?

The ringing silence about him returned no answers to his questions, but then another, even uglier thought suggested itself to him.

"Did Reynaud say anything about Admiral Hanaby's intentions?" he demanded.

"No, Sir." McTierny shook her head, and White Haven scowled. Reynaud should have passed that information along, but the earl reminded himself to cut the ACS man some slack. For what was basically a uniformed civilian, he'd already done more than White Haven had a right to expect. Which didn't make the lack of information any more palatable.

Still, he thought, you already know what Hanaby is doing, don't you? Exactly what any admiral worth her gold braid would do: steering for the sound of the guns.

Which may be exactly what the enemy wants her to do.

He frowned down at the plot that showed his own command still holding station forty-five light-seconds from the Trevor's Star terminus of the Junction, and his thought stream flashed too rapidly for him to split it down into its component parts. His staff stood behind him on Benjamin the Great's flag deck, staring at his back, with no idea what thoughts were pouring through his head. Their own brains were still too shocked to think coherently, but they could see the weight of his conclusions pressing down on him, see his broad shoulders slowly hunching to take the weight. And then he turned back to them once more, his face set and hard, and began to snap orders.

"Cindy, record the following message to Admiral Webster. Message begins: 'Jim, keep your ships where they are. This could be a trick to draw Home Fleet into Basilisk to clear the way for an attack on the capital. Eighth Fleet will move immediately to Basilisk.' Message ends."

Someone hissed audibly behind him, and his mouth twitched without humor at the reaction. They should have thought of that possibility for themselves, he thought distantly, but his eyes never moved from McTierney.

"Recorded, Sir," she replied. Her voice was still shaken, but her eyes were coming back to life and she nodded sharply.

"Good. Second message, this one to CO Manticore ACS Central. Message begins: 'Admiral Yestremensky, upon my authority, you will clear all traffic—I repeat, all traffic—from the Manticore-Basilisk queue immediately and stand by for a Fleet priority transit.' Message ends."

"Recorded," McTierney confirmed again.

"New message," White Haven rapped, "this one to Rear Admiral Hanaby via Basilisk ACS. Message begins: 'Admiral Hanaby, I am headed to relieve Basilisk at my best speed from Trevor's Star via the Junction with forty-nine of the wall, forty battlecruisers, and screen.'"

"Recorded, Sir."

"Very well. I want information copies repeated to the Admiralty, special attention Admiral Caparelli and Admiral Givens, to Vice Admiral Reynaud, and to Vice Admiral Markham," White Haven went on with staccato clarity. "Standard encryption and code, Priority One. As soon as you've got them coded up, transmit them to Admiral Reynaud's courier boat."

"Aye, aye, Sir."

White Haven gave her a curt nod, then turned to his chief of staff and his ops officer.

"Alyson," he told Captain Granston-Henley, "I want you to grab that courier boat and send it straight back to Manticore as soon as Cindy's transmitted my message. Then I want you and Trevor to build me a transit plan: Trevor's Star to Manticore to Basilisk."

"Yes, Sir." Granston-Henley shook herself, as if to clear the last echoes of stupification from her brain and glanced at Commander Haggerston, then looked back at White Haven. "Standard translation order, Sir?" she asked.

"No." The earl shook his head curtly. "There's no time for a nice, neat, orderly transit; we'll send them through as fast as we can, in whatever order they reach the terminus. If it's a choice between a capital ship and a screening unit, the capital ship goes first; otherwise, it's strictly on an 'on arrival' basis. And, Alyson—" he looked straight into her eyes "—I want this set up to go quickly. Ships will move to the terminus at maximum military power, and transit windows are to be cut to the minimum possible, not the minimum allowed. Use the courier boat to inform Manticore ACS of that intention, as well."

"I—" Granston-Henley began, then stopped herself. "Yes, Sir. Understood," she said quietly, and White Haven nodded and turned back to his plot once more.

He understood Cranston-Henley's reaction, but he had no choice. His fleet was forty-five light-seconds from the Trevor's Star terminus. A destroyer with the latest compensator could accelerate at six hundred and twenty gravities with its safety margin cut to zero, but his superdreadnoughts could manage only four hundred and sixty-six with the same generation of compensator. That meant his destroyer screen could reach the local terminus on a least-time course in approximately thirty-five minutes while his SDs would need closer to forty-one. But a least-time course allowed no room for turnover and deceleration, and this large a force would have no choice but to decelerate to zero relative to the terminus before making transit, however urgent the crisis. And that meant those same destroyers would take fifty minutes while the SDs took just over fifty-seven. And once they'd gotten there, they still had to make transit—not once, but twice—just to get to the Basilisk terminus.

Nor could they go through together. Oh, it was tempting. There was an absolute ceiling on the amount of tonnage which could transit through any wormhole junction. In the case of the Manticore Junction, the maximum possible mass for a single transit was approximately two hundred million tons, which meant he could put that much of Eighth Fleet's wall—twenty-two SDs, for all practical purposes—through the junction in one, convulsive heave. Unfortunately, any wormhole transit destabilized the termini involved for a minimum of ten seconds, and vessels which massed more than about two and a half million tons destabilized it for a total interval proportional to the square of the transiting mass . . . which meant a maximum-mass transit would lock the route from Manticore to Basilisk solid for over seventeen hours.

If twenty-two superdreadnoughts were sufficient to deal with what White Haven feared the Peeps might be up to, that would pose no problem. But they might not be, and he had fifteen more of them, plus twelve dreadnoughts, under his command. They were the only ships which could possibly reach Basilisk in less than thirty hours, and he dared not leave any of them behind.

But that meant sending them through one by one. As long as there were no hostile units in range to engage them as they threaded the needle back into n-space, there was no tactical reason why he shouldn't do that, and he should know whether or not any bad guys were likely to be in range before he began sending them through. Yet each individual transit would also destabilize the junction route, even if for vastly shorter periods.

His screening units, up to and including his battlecruisers, would each produce a ten-second blockage of the route for whoever came next in line, but his dreadnoughts would close the route for almost seventy seconds and each superdreadnought would shut it down for a hundred and thirteen. Which meant that cramming his entire fleet through would require a minimum of a hundred and eight minutes. Add in the time required just to reach the Trevor's Star terminus, and it would be over a hundred and sixty-six minutes—over two and three-quarters hours—before his last ship could possibly reach Basilisk.

That was an immensely shorter response time than for anyone else, but it was still too long to save Medusa. And to achieve even that, he had to cut the transit windows to the bare minimum, which was going to give ACS fits. Under normal circumstances, the minimum allowable transit window was one minute. Usually the windows actually ran considerably longer than that, since the number of ships awaiting passage was seldom large enough to cause ACS to push the minimum. But that limitation had been adopted for a very simple reason: to give people time to get out of the way.

A ship made transit under Warshawski sail. Those sails provided no propulsion in n-space, but a wormhole junction was best thought of as a frozen funnel of hyper-space which happened to connect to n-space at either end. That meant sails not only could be used in a junction transit, but that the transiting vessel had no option but to use them. And that, in turn, meant each ship had to reconfigure its impeller nodes from sail to wedge as it emerged from the far side of the wormhole. Its sails would leave it with some momentum, but not very much, and if the lead ship in a transit was even a little tardy reconfiguring and the one astern of it ran up its backside—

White Haven shuddered at the thought, but he knew how he would have set up this attack, and knowing that, he had to get into Basilisk as quickly as he possibly could. And so he watched his plot, his face grim and set, as Eighth Fleet began to accelerate towards the local terminus at its best possible speed.


Admiral Leslie Yestremensky, Manticore ACS, stared at the message on her display in disbelief. Forty-nine ships of the wall? He was going to bring forty-nine ships of the wall through her wormhole at minimum intervals? He was insane!

But he was also the third-ranking serving officer of the Royal Manticoran Navy, and in wartime that gave him the right to be just as crazy as he wanted. Which wasn't going to make the disaster one bit less appalling if anyone's numbers were off by as little as one ten-thousandth of a percent.

She shook herself and checked the time. At least she still had over half an hour before the first of the lunatic's destroyers arrived. Maybe she could do a little something to reduce the scale of the catastrophe she felt coming.

"All right, people," she announced in a clear, ringing voice which showed no sign of her own horror. "We've got a Category One Alpha emergency. Manticore ACS is proclaiming Condition Delta. All outgoing merchant shipping will be cleared from the Junction immediately. Dispatch, tag a message to that courier boat before you let it go back to Basilisk. Inform Vice Admiral Reynaud that he will halt all outbound traffic from Basilisk thirty minutes from now. There will be no exceptions, and he may inform any merchant master who objects that he is acting under my authority as per Article Four, Section Three, of the Junction Transit Instructions."

"Yes, Ma'am," Dispatch said. Manticore ACS tended to be rather more formal than the crews who worked the Junction's secondary termini, but it was stunned shock, not discipline, that wrung that "Ma'am" from Commander Adamon.

"Jeff, Sam, and Serena," Yestremensky went on, her index finger jabbing like a targeting laser as she made her selections. "The three of you turn your boards over to your reliefs. We've got a two-hundred-ship, minimum-window, double transit coming at us, and you're elected to supervise it. Get started planning now."

"Two hundred ships?" Serena Ustinov repeated, as if she were positive she must have misunderstood somehow.

"Two hundred," Yestremensky confirmed grimly. "Now get cracking. You're down to ... forty-three minutes before the first one comes in from Trevor's Star."


Michel Reynaud listened to Admiral White Haven's clipped, gunshot voice and pursed his lips in a silent whistle. He'd never participated in a transit of such magnitude. For that matter, no one had, and relieved as he was by the thought of reinforcements, the potential for disaster twisted his stomach into an acid-oozing ball of lead. But no one had asked him, and he turned to his staff.

"Heavy metal coming through from Manticore in thirty-eight minutes," he told them. "All outbound transits are to cease twenty-five minutes from now. Anyone we can't get through in that time frame is to be diverted immediately. I want the holding area as well as both the inbound and outbound lanes cleared in precisely twenty-six minutes, 'cause we're sure as hell going to need the space to park warships. Now move it, people, and don't take any crap!"

The emergency had already stretched the voices that replied too wire-thin for them to register fresh shock, but he felt the disbelief under the surface and his mouth twitched in a wry grin. But then the grin faded as he glanced back into the master plot. Rear Admiral Hanaby had been underway for nineteen minutes now. She was over three million kilometers away . . . and message or no message, she showed no signs of slowing down.

Well, I suppose it makes sense, he thought. We've got the two forts to watch out for us till White Haven gets here, and with someone coming in behind to watch the back door, she must feel even more pressure to get into the inner system ASAP. She can't change what happens to Markham, but if she gets there quick enough, close enough on the Peeps' heels, they may not have enough time to wreck the orbital stations completely.

He snorted contemptuously at his own desperate need for optimism, and returned to his duties.


"Time to Medusa intercept, Franny?" Giscard asked quietly.

"Fifty-nine minutes, Citizen Admiral," Tyler replied. "Current closing velocity is thirty-point-niner-two thousand KPS; range one-fifty-point-two-five-five million klicks." The Citizen Admiral nodded and looked at Macintosh.

"Are we ready, Andy?"

"Yes, Citizen Admiral," the ops officer said. "The enemy's velocity is up to just over nine thousand KPS—closure rate is ... twenty-three-point-one-five-two KPS, and range is just under a hundred thirty-nine million klicks. Assuming all headings and accelerations remain constant, we'll hit a zero-range intercept in almost exactly forty-six minutes."

"Very good." Giscard nodded and glanced at Pritchart from the corner of one eye. At moments like this, he almost wished he had one of the other people's commissioners—the sort he wouldn't miss if Salamis happened to take a hit on Flag Bridge. And also at moments like this he bitterly resented the game they had to play, the way it kept him from looking at her, holding her while they waited for the missile storm. But wishing and resenting changed nothing, and he locked his eyes resolutely on his plot.

The Manties were coming hell for leather, and he didn't blame them. Even with their present high accel, his task group would be only thirteen minutes' flight from Medusa when their vectors converged. If their vectors converged. It was hardly likely that the Manties would break off at this late date, but they had to survive clear across his missile zone to get to energy range . . . and even with a closure rate of over sixty thousand KPS, he doubted very much that any of them would.

He grimaced at the thought, already feeling the weight of all the deaths about to occur. Yet what made him grimace was the fact that even knowing the nightmares he would face in years to come, he was eager for it. His Navy had been humiliated too many times. Too many men and women he'd known and liked—even loved—had been killed, and he was sick unto death of the handicaps under which he had taken other men and women into battle so many times. Now it was his turn, and if his execution of Esther McQueen's plan was working even half as well as the two of them had hoped, he was about to hurt the Royal Manticoran Navy as it had never been hurt. Hand it not one but an entire series of simultaneous defeats such as it had not known in its entire four-hundred-year history.

Yes, he thought coldly. Let's see how your damned morale holds up after this, you bastards.


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