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Chapter Twenty-Nine

"Tell me you've got some good news for a change, Armand," Thomas Theisman said moodily as the naval Chief of Staff stepped into his office with a memo board clasped under his left arm.

"The only 'good' news I've got is a follow up report that Bellefeuille survived after all," Admiral Marquette replied.

"She did?" Theisman perked up just a bit, and Marquette nodded.

"She and her entire staff got off Cyrus before the scuttling charges blew. We lost a lot of good people, but not her, thank God."

"Absolutely," Theisman agreed fervently.

Of the four star systems Harrington had hit this time around, only Chantilly had mounted any effective resistance. Not for want of trying, he reminded himself grimly. Rear Admiral Bressand had done his best in Augusta, but he'd been totally outclassed and outgunned . . . and not as cunning as Jennifer Bellefeuille. Harrington's pod-layers had reduced his hyper-capable combatants to scrap metal in return for minor, if any, damage. And when his LACs had closed with suicidal gallantry, they had discovered that the Manties' counter-missile tubes, at least aboard their newer construction, were perfectly capable of launching the "dogfighting" missiles they'd developed for their damned Katanas.

It had been a massacre, and not one for which he could blame Bressand. A part of him would have liked to, and he could actually make a case for it, if he really tried. After all, Bressand could have exercised his discretion and declined to engage such a massively superior force. But the reason that force had been so superior to his was that his own superiors—headed by one Thomas Theisman—had failed to adequately support him.

Bressand had done his job with what he had, and, like Bellefeuille in Chantilly, he'd obviously hoped to inflict at least attritional damage on the raiders. And that, Theisman reminded himself, was probably a direct consequence of the staff analysis he'd ordered shared with all of his system commanders. Given the numerical advantage the Republic enjoyed—or shortly would enjoy—even an unfavorable exchange rate was ultimately in Haven's favor. He'd ordered that analysis disseminated because it was true, yet it had been much easier to accept its truth before so many thousands of Navy men and women had died in Augusta.

"Do we have a better read on the damage Bellefeuille managed to inflict?" he asked Marquette, resolutely turning his mind away from Bressand.

"We hurt their LACs pretty badly, relatively speaking," Marquette said. Then he grimaced. "I can't believe I just said that. Bellefeuille took out about seventy of their LACs, including fifty or so of their Katanas, in return for just over five hundred of our own. As exchange rates go, that sucks, but it's the equivalent of about three quarters of one of their LAC groups, and much as I hate to say it, we can replace our personnel and materiel losses more easily than they can.

"On the starship side, we didn't do as well. Mostly because those damned new battlecruisers of theirs are a hell of a lot tougher than a battlecruiser has any right being. We hammered one of their pod-layers pretty badly—her wedge strength was down, and she was venting a lot of atmosphere by the end. Bellefeuille's other main target—that big-assed 'battlecruiser' that just has to be this new Nike we've been hearing rumors about—got off with what was probably only minor damage."

Marquette shook his head, his expression rueful.

"That's a very tough ship, Tom. And they appear to have armed her with that new, smaller MDM NavInt's also been hearing about. By the way, that's how the staff weenies figure they've managed to cram so many missiles into their battlecruiser pod-layers' pods. They're using pods big enough to fire all-up missiles, but loading them with these smaller ones. It costs them something in total powered envelope, but it also increases their throw weight, and accuracy at extreme range's so poor the heavier fire more than compensates across the effective envelope. And the reports that they're somehow firing both broadsides simultaneously from their more conventionally armed ships—and doing it while they're rolled on their sides relative to their targets, to boot—seem to be confirmed."

"Wonderful." Theisman turned his chair to gaze out the window behind his desk at the massive towers of the city of Nouveau Paris, all of them freshly refurbished and properly maintained for the first time in his memory. Clean windows glittered in the slanting rays of the westering sun, air cars and air buses moved steadily in the traffic lanes, and the walkways and pedestrian slideways were crowded with busy, purposeful people. It was a scene of rebirth and revitalization—of rediscovery—of which he rarely tired, but today, his expression was profoundly unhappy.

"How are we going to respond, Tom?" Marquette asked quietly after a moment, and Theisman's expression turned unhappier still. He stared out the window into the sunset for several more seconds, then turned back to face the Chief of Staff.

"We've got two options—well, three, I suppose. We could do nothing, which wouldn't exactly sit well with Congress or the public at large. We could immediately launch a general offensive, which might succeed, but probably wouldn't—at least until we've got more of the new construction up to speed and ready for action—and which definitely would entail heavy casualties. Or we dust off the contingency plans for Operation Gobi and hand it to Lester."

"Of the three, my gut reaction is to favor Gobi," Marquette said. "Especially given the intelligence we've managed to gather and the operational data Diamato brought back."

"I think I agree with you, but that doesn't make me extraordinarily happy. It's going to divert us and disperse at least a sizable fraction of the striking force we've been working so hard to build up. Worse, it's going to take at least three weeks or a month for Lester to get it up and running. If the Manties stick to their apparent operational tempo, that means they'll hit us again at least once while we're hitting them."

"We could have him try something a little more extemporaneous." Marquette didn't seem especially pleased by his own suggestion, but he continued anyway. "He's got Second Fleet's core organization just about set up, and he's got a nucleus of experienced units to go with the new ones. He could probably slice off a battle squadron or two for a quick-and-dirty, off-the-cuff job if we told him to."

"No." Theisman shook his head firmly. "If we hand him Gobi—and I think we're going to have to—he gets time to set it up right. I saw too many operations fucked up when the old management decided to improvise and demand miracles. I won't send our people in without adequate time to prepare unless there's absolutely no other alternative."

"Yes, Sir," Marquette said quietly, and Theisman smiled almost apologetically at him.

"Sorry. Didn't mean to sound like I was biting your head off. I think maybe I'm using you to rehearse what I'm going to wind up saying in front of the Naval Committee when it wants to know why we haven't already kicked the Manties' asses."

"I suppose it shouldn't really have come as a surprise that a genuine representative government's no more immune to the 'But what have you done for me recently?' syndrome than the Legislaturalists were," Marquette said sourly.

"No, it shouldn't have. But it's still a lot more satisfying to work for. And at least we don't have to worry about being shot, just fired."


Marquette stood for a moment, rubbing his chin thoughtfully, then cocked his head.

"Actually, Tom," he said slowly, "there may be a fourth option. Or, at least, one we could try in conjunction with Gobi."

"Really?" Theisman regarded him quizzically.

"Well, Lewis and Linda have handed me their tea leaf—readers' best guess as to the most threatened systems. Their report is full of qualifiers, of course. Not so much because they're trying to cover their asses, as because they really don't have a good predictive model. They're having to use more intuition and old fashioned WAGs than number-crunching at this point, and they don't like it. Despite that, though, I think they're on to something."

"Tell me more," Theisman commanded, and pointed at one of the chairs facing his desk.

"Basically," Marquette said, sitting obediently, "they tried looking at the problem through Manty eyes. They figure the Manties are looking for targets they can anticipate will be fairly lightly defended, but which have enough population and representation to generate a lot of political pressure. They're also hitting systems with a civilian economy which may not be contributing very much to the war effort, but which is large enough to require the federal government to undertake a substantial diversion of emergency assistance when it's destroyed. And it's also pretty clear that they want to impress us with their aggressiveness. That's why they're operating so deep. Well, that and because the deeper they get, the further away from the 'frontline' systems, the less likely we are to have heavy defensive forces in position to intercept them. So that means we should be looking at deep penetration targets, not frontier raids."

"All of that sounds reasonable," Theisman said after considering it. "Logical, anyway. Of course, logic is only as good as its basic assumptions."

"Agreed. But it's worth noting that two of the systems they predicted might be hit were Des Moines and Fordyce."

"They were?" Theisman sat a bit straighter, and Marquette nodded.

"And Chantilly was on their secondary list of less likely targets."

"That is interesting. On the other hand, how many other systems were on their lists?"

"Ten on the primary list and fifteen on the secondary."

"So they hit three out of a total of twenty-five. Twelve percent."

"Which is a hell of a lot better than nothing," Marquette pointed out.

"Oh, no question. But we could fritter away an awful lot of strength trying to cover a list of systems that long without being strong enough in any one place to make a difference."

"That wasn't really what I had in mind."

"Then tell me what you did have in mind."

"You and I—and our analysts, for that matter—agree that these raids represent what's basically a strategy of weakness. They're trying to hurt us and throw us off balance for a minimal investment in forces and minimal losses of their own. So I would submit that we don't really have to stop them dead everywhere; we just have to hammer them really hard once or twice. Hurt them proportionately worse than they're hurting us."

"All right." Theisman nodded. "I'm in agreement so far."

"Well, Javier's doing a lot of expansion work, too, if not as much as Lester. He's been discussing training missions and simulations to fit his new units into existing battle squadrons and task group organizations, and he'd really like a chance to try some of his task force and task group commanders in independent command before it's a life-or-death situation. What if we were to take, say, three or four—maybe a half-dozen—of those task groups and pull them back from the front? We're not going to be committing them to offensive action anytime soon, and it's obvious the Manties aren't going to launch any frontal assaults when they're running this sensitive about losses. So it wouldn't weaken our offensive stance, and it would give us some powerful forces close to likely targets, plus an opportunity to test and refine our new tactical doctrines."

"Ummm . . . ." Theisman gazed into space, the fingers of his right hand drumming lightly on his blotter. He stayed that way for quite some time, then refocused on Marquette.

"I think this has . . . possibilities," he said. "I should've thought of a similar approach on my own, but I guess I've been too fixated on maintaining concentration instead of swanning around in understrength detachments the way we used to operate. There are still some risks involved, though. Strategy of weakness or no, this is clearly their first team we're talking about. If it weren't, Harrington wouldn't be in command of it. So it's not something we want to throw green units in front of."

"I was figuring we'd use detachments working up a relatively smaller percentage of new units," Marquette replied. "And, while I'm thinking about it, I think it would be a very good idea to put Javier himself in position to cover the system we think is most likely to be hit."

"Now that is a very good notion." Theisman nodded enthusiastically. "He's still kicking himself over Trevor's Star, and pointing out to him that he's being wise with the benefit of hindsight doesn't seem to help much. It'd make a lot of sense for him to be involved in training his own squadrons, and if he just happened to kick the ass of a Manty raid . . ."

"That's what I was thinking," Marquette agreed. "It would do a world of good for his confidence, and the shot in the arm it would provide for public and fleet morale wouldn't be anything to sneer at, either."

"And if we get some of Shannon's new goodies deployed to help him out, things could get hot enough for even 'the Salamander' to think twice about climbing back into the oven again," Theisman said.

He thought about it again for several seconds, then nodded once more.

"Sit down with Linda. Draft me a preliminary plan for it by tomorrow afternoon."


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