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Chapter Fifteen

Citizen Vice Admiral Esther McQueen hadn't been told Operation Stalking Horse's full purpose, but she knew how hard-pressed the Navy was before Trevor's Star. That suggested Stalking Horse was very important, given the strength of her own task force. Not, she corrected herself sourly without looking up from her display, that Task Force Thirty was truly "hers." She was grateful that the Committee of Public Safety had removed the Legislaturalist officer corps from her path, but that didn't mean she liked having one of its lap dogs sitting on her own flag bridge to "oversee" her operations.


She slid that thought back into a well-hidden mental cupboard before she turned from her plot and looked across at Citizen Commissioner Fontein with a candor that was careful to conceal its resentment. One of these days, she promised herself. One of these days . . . 


Fontein smiled at her with his habitual air of slight befuddlement over all things naval, and the satisfaction it woke in her eyes irritated him. He no more enjoyed being thought a fool—especially by someone who hid it so poorly—than the next man. On the other hand, he'd worked hard to convince McQueen he was only one more ignorant Prole who'd risen to his level of incompetence, and he had no intention of revealing how well he actually understood her command's routine operations . . . or how much more thoroughly than she he understood her mission and its implications.


State Security had selected Erasmus Fontein carefully for McQueen's commissioner, though Citizen Secretary Saint-Just had disliked letting him go. Fontein was a wizened little man who looked like someone's harmless uncle, but appearances were deceiving. Most of the citizen commissioners (and, of course, one had to call them all "Citizen" today, Fontein thought dourly; "Prole" was, after all, a plutocratic, elitist denigration) came from the ranks of those who'd most hated the Legislaturalists before the Harris Assassination. In some cases their hatred had been a reasoned thing stemming from the inequities of the old order, but people were people. Most of the Committee's official spies had hated the old regime not on the basis of reason, but solely because they'd been losers under it. Too many of them took a fierce satisfaction in cracking the whip now that it was in their hands, despite the fact that the officers they were charged with overseeing were no more the old regime's minions than they were. An officer was an officer, and if they couldn't avenge themselves on the ones they believed had injured them, then they would assuage their hatred by sneering at the ones they could.


To a certain extent, that attitude was fine with StateSec and the Committee, neither of whom trusted the military, anyway. The animosity between the Navy's officers and the citizen commissioners both warned those officers that anything which even looked like treason would be fatal and insured that they and the commissioners were unlikely to join forces against the new regime.


Unfortunately, there were officers, like Esther McQueen, whose leashes required particularly deft handlers. Her political masters had no doubt where her loyalty lay; they knew it lay solely with herself, but she was also, by almost any measure, the best flag officer they had left. They needed her skills, yet the very intelligence which made her so useful meant a clumsy watchdog would be no match for her . . . and that she would maneuver carefully against any commissioner whose capabilities she had cause to respect.


Which was the reason for Fontein's assignment. His harmless façade concealed a computer's dispassionately amoral mercilessness, and unlike most of the citizen commissioners, he'd done well under the old regime. Indeed, he'd been a major in Saint-Just's old Office of Internal Security, where he'd specialized in keeping an eye on the military. But he'd hungered to do still better, and Major Fontein, whose familiarity with naval operations had been invaluable when Saint-Just and Pierre structured the Harris Assassination so as to implicate the Navy, had been promoted to brigadier when the SS succeeded InSec.


Saint-Just would much preferred to have used a man of his talents to head one of the planetary SS surveillance forces, but the combination of his competence and finely honed paranoia with an in-depth military background McQueen had no idea he possessed made him uniquely valuable as her watchdog.


"So the operation is on schedule, Citizen Admiral?" he asked now in his most undangerous voice, and McQueen nodded.


"It is, Citizen Commissioner. We'll hit the Minette alpha wall almost exactly on time."


"Excellent, Citizen Admiral. I'm sure the Committee will be pleased."


"I'm glad you think so, Citizen Commissioner," McQueen replied, and returned her attention to her plot as fifty-five ships of the People's Navy, headed by the sixteen superdreadnoughts of Battle Squadrons Seven and Twelve, hurtled through hyper space at an apparent n-space velocity of just over thirteen hundred times light-speed.


* * *


Vice Admiral of the Red Ludwig Stanton, Royal Manticoran Navy, suppressed an urge to yawn as he carried his coffee cup over to HMS Majestic's master plot and stood gazing down at the light dots of his command.


Every unit of Task Force Minette-01 rode comfortably in orbit around Everest, the single habitable planet of the Minette System. It looked dreadfully complacent, even to him, but his dreadnought flagship's combat information center was tied into an FTL sensor net which covered the entire system. Nothing larger than a cutter could penetrate that kind of coverage under power without detection, and the outer shell of platforms was more than a light-hour out from the system's G3 primary. Using manned vessels as pickets would only have dispersed his strength while adding nothing to his surveillance capabilities, so his destroyers and heavy cruisers were tucked in close, able to respond to any threat in company with his half squadron of dreadnoughts.


It irked Stanton to be this far from the action while Admiral White Haven's forces skirmished back and forth with the main Peep fleet between Nightingale and the Alliance's advanced base at Thetis. Minette wasn't exactly of vital strategic importance. It served as an advanced picket, helping the enormous Grendelsbane fleet base cover the Alliance's southern flank against the Peep bases in Treadway and Solway, but those systems had been stripped of mobile elements as White Haven's offensive headed for Trevor's Star, and their immobile fixed defenses posed no threat. Stanton agreed that Minette's billion inhabitants had to be protected—the Minetians were charter members of the Alliance, and the Star Kingdom had a responsibility to look out for them—but his four ships of the wall represented a lot of firepower to waste a hundred and fifty light-years from the real action.


He sipped more coffee and watched the light dots of impeller-drive freighters plying back and forth between Minette's two asteroid belts and Everest's orbital smelters. Minette's industry was unsophisticated, but the system was an important source of raw materials and heavy industrial products, and there'd been plans, once, to upgrade its defenses by adding a powerful shell of orbital fortresses around Everest itself. Like much else, however, that project had been overtaken by the war. Although it required massive fixed defenses to cover the repair and maintenance bases that supported the Fleet in wartime, they were only built during peacetime. Once the fighting actually started, they cost too much, for not even the Star Kingdom could afford to build everything.


It was remarkable that the prewar arms race hadn't wrecked the Manticoran economy, Stanton mused. Although it had been a boom for the armaments industry and done amazing things for applied research, the monetary cost had been staggering. Only the Star Kingdom's enormously productive industrial base and vast merchant marine, coupled with its control of the Manticore Worm Hole Junction, had given it the wealth to absorb such huge peacetime military budgets without major disruptions.


It was getting worse now that the war had actually begun. Taxes and toll fees on the Junction's merchant shipping had already been raised twice. No doubt they'd be going up yet again soon, and finding the trained manpower to simultaneously crew the Fleet and merchant marine and sustain the work force might become a problem, but things might have been far worse. No one else in the Peeps' path had possessed the capability to build a war machine that might stand up to them. Only Manticore had been able to do it . . . and even then only with the Liberal and Progressive Parties screaming like gelded hexapumas at "diverting" so many tax dollars into "alarmist, unproductive military hardware."


Well, Stanton thought grimly, only a thin shell of Peep bases still stood between Admiral White Haven's "unproductive military hardware" and Trevor's Star, the single nexus of the Manticore Junction controlled by the People's Republic, and on his way there, White Haven had decisively blunted the Peeps' overwhelming prewar advantage in ships of the wall. At the same time, Stanton admitted, the Peeps had yet to lose a truly vital system. White Haven's capture of Sun-Yat and its major shipyards had hurt them (and, ultimately, with proper technical upgrades, would no doubt help Manticore), but Sun-Yat's loss was only a flea bite against the military infrastructure they'd spent fifty years building. Which explained why the Alliance could no longer divert capacity to fortifying its rear areas. It had to concentrate on the ships to take the war to the Peeps. And, as certain elements of BuPlan often pointed out, those same starships would also be the most mobile and flexible means of responding to any counteroffensive the Peeps managed to launch.


Unfortunately, the vice admiral thought sourly, even the most mobile starship could be in only one place at a time, and those tied down on picket duty were effectively withdrawn from offensive ops. Worse, the very fact that White Haven had cut so deep left the Alliance with even more volume to protect, and while Stanton much preferred the strain that imposed to the alternative, they were getting dangerously thin in some areas.


He grimaced at the familiar thought and ambled back to his command chair. He couldn't avoid the conclusion that White Haven was right, that this penny-packet dispersal of ships of the wall hurt the Alliance more than it deterred the Peeps. Manticore was on the offensive—for now, at least—and White Haven needed those ships to maintain his momentum. The Admiralty ought to stop frittering away detachments in every hole-in-the-wall system and concentrate larger forces in nodal positions responsible for covering several systems each.


Minette itself was an ideal example of what was wrong with the RMN's current strategy. TF M-01 was strong enough to quash any thoughts of a hit-and-run Peep raid, but if the Republic managed to send in a real offensive, Stanton could never stop it. With fewer but more powerful forces covering larger spheres of space, counterattacks could easily squash any Peep activities in the Alliance's rear and simultaneously free dozens of ships of the wall for White Haven, which would let him keep the Peeps far too busy fighting to protect the heart of their empire to poke any hornets' nests in the Alliance's rear areas, anyway.


Vice Admiral Stanton sighed and shook his head, then stood and stretched. It was late, he was tired, and he'd drunk entirely too much coffee, and that probably explained his moodiness. It was time to turn in and hope things looked better after a good night's sleep.


* * *


"Coming up on translation in forty-five minutes, S—Citizen Admiral."


Citizen Vice Admiral Diego Abbot concealed a grimace as his ops officer corrected herself. The only individuals the People's Navy was allowed to call "Sir" or "Ma'am" these days were its citizen commissioners, and while Abbot was no Legislaturalist, there was such a thing as carrying egalitarianism too damned far. Military discipline required a certain degree of autocracy, and he resented the constant reminder that he was effectively junior to someone else even on his own flag deck. Especially when the someone in question had been an environmental tech (and not, Abbot thought nastily, a particularly good one) one bare T-year before. Not that he had an intention of letting Citizen Commissioner Sigourney recognize his resentment . . . assuming the woman had the intelligence to do so.


"Thank you, Sarah." Like many PN admirals, Abbot had begun making it a habit to use his officers' first names rather than play the "citizen" game with them. He would have avoided such familiarity under the old regime, but it was far better than the comic-opera formality of "Citizen Commander This" and "Citizen Lieutenant That." Besides, it contributed to an "us against them" mentality that made them less likely to try to curry favor with StateSec by turning informer for Sigourney and her like. Or he hoped it did, anyway.


Citizen Commander Hereux nodded in response to his thanks, and he rechecked Task Force Twenty's alignment one last time in his plot. His command was marginally less powerful than Esther McQueen's, but it ought to face lighter opposition, as well, and he was confident of his ability to complete the first stage of Stalking Horse. It would be nice to know why he was completing it—if nothing else, he could have worked up better contingency plans in case something blew up in his face—but the Committee of Public Safety had decreed that the Navy would operate on a strict need-to-know basis, and State Security, not Fleet HQ, decided just how much any admiral needed to know. Sigourney probably knew the real objective, but that was precious little consolation. The commissioner lacked the wit to make alternative plans even if she'd had the initiative to consider the need for them.


Abbot finished checking his formation, then sat back in his command chair, crossed his legs to display somewhat more assurance than he could quite feel operating blind this way, and glanced at Hereux.


"We'll send the task force to general quarters in another thirty minutes, Sarah."


"Aye, Citizen Admiral," she replied, and this time he saw the corner of her mouth quirk in wry, bitter amusement at the title.


* * *


Rear Admiral of the Green Eloise Meiner leapt from her shower, snatched a towel about herself, and lunged for the com, for the attention signal was the piercing wail of an emergency message. Water runneled off her to soak the decksole as she dashed into her sleeping cabin, but her curse of irritation died unspoken as the sudden, atonal howl of HMS Hector's GQ alarm drowned even the com's wail.


She punched the audio-only acceptance key. Its activation automatically shut down the GQ alert in her quarters, and the silence was a vast relief, but she knew it was going to be an illusory one as her chief of staff appeared on the screen. Commander Montague's expression was strained, and Meiner deliberately made her voice calm and level.


"Yes, Adam?"


"We've just detected multiple hyper footprints, Ma'am." Montague cleared his throat, and his own voice was a shade calmer when he continued. "So far we make it fifty point sources, Ma'am. Looks like maybe fourteen or fifteen ships of the wall with about the same number of battlecruisers. The rest are small fry—light cruisers and tin cans."


"Locus?" Meiner asked more sharply.


"Thirty light-minutes out, Ma'am—two-zero-point-five from the task force, bearing zero-five-niner zero-zero-eight relative from the primary. We're working their vector now. Looks like they made a nice, gentle transit, but they're heading in at four hundred gees. Assuming they make straight for the planet with turnover at about one-eight-four million klicks, they'll come to rest relative to Candor at effective range zero in five-point-three-niner hours."


"Understood." Meiner ran a hand over her soaking hair and her mind raced. Her task force consisted of only twelve battlecruisers and their screen, which the Admiralty regarded as adequate protection for a system as far behind the line as Candor. Unfortunately, the Admiralty appeared to have been wrong.


Damn it to hell, what did the Peeps think they were doing? She had no idea how they'd pried a force this big loose from the fighting around Nightingale and sent it this far to the rear. For that matter, why had they done it? Candor was a hundred and fifty light-years behind the front, so they had to know there was no way they could hold onto it.


None of which meant they couldn't take it away from her.


She gave herself a shake. She had five and a half hours before the enemy could come into range of her own command, and it was time to start using some of those hours.


"Alert the planetary authorities," she told Montague. "Pass along your force appreciation and tell President Janakowski I'll do what I can, but that we probably can't stop them. Then pass the word to prep for Omega-One."


Omega-One was the emergency evacuation plan none of her staff had ever really expected to need, and Montague's mouth tightened, but he nodded.


"Next, send out dispatch boats to Casca, Minette, Yeltsin, Clearaway, Zuckerman, and Doreas. I'm sure they'll all relay, but be sure the Zuckerman courier carries specific orders to inform Grendelsbane."


"Ma'am, we only have three dispatch boats," Montague reminded her.


"I know. Use them for Minette, Yeltsin, and Zuckerman—that's where we need the shortest transit times. Detach destroyers for the others." She saw the look in Montague's eyes and snorted. "We're not going to need them, Adam! The best we can do is picket the outer system and keep an eye on these people; we sure as hell can't fight them!"


"Yes, Ma'am." Montague's nod was unhappy, but he knew she was right.


"While you're doing that, have Communications set up an all-ships' captain's conference link. I'll be on Flag Bridge to handle it in ten minutes."


"Aye, aye, Ma'am."


She cut the circuit just as Chief Steward Lewis stepped into her cabin. Lewis already wore her own skinsuit, and Meiner's was draped over her shoulder while the admiral's helmet hung from her left hand. Her face was grim, and Meiner made herself smile as she reached for her suit.


It wasn't easy.


* * *


"Task Force Twenty should be hitting Minette just about now, Citizen Commissioner," Citizen Vice Admiral McQueen observed.


"Really?" Fontein let a perplexed look cross his face as he studied the chrono on the flag deck bulkhead, then nodded. It wouldn't do to seem too incompetent, and it wasn't all that hard to allow for the dilation effect of their own velocity. "And us, Citizen Admiral?"


"Another fifteen minutes," McQueen replied, and looked around the flag deck. Her staff bent intently over their consoles, completing last-minute checks, and a frosty smile lit her green eyes. The Manties remained better than her people—she didn't like admitting that, but there was no point lying to herself—yet that was beginning to change. Their technological superiority might be insurmountable, for now at least, but they weren't five meters tall, and a lot of what had happened to the People's Navy had resulted from more mundane factors. Put simply, the Manticorans not only had better equipment, but they were better trained and much more confident, as well.


Well, they also had a five-T-century tradition of winning every war. And though it would never do to say so where someone like Fontein could hear, their better education system explained why their R&D establishment was so much better than Haven's. But the PN was learning, and McQueen's officers were about to receive another lesson in the only school that really mattered. Assuming Intelligence was right, they had enough firepower to annihilate the Manty picket in Minette whatever the enemy tried, and every battle the PN fought gave it that much more insight into Manty doctrine and capabilities. And more experience and confidence in itself.


"Do you expect much resistance, Citizen Admiral?" Fontein asked.


"That depends on how stupid their CO is, Citizen Commissioner." McQueen was damned if she would call this man "Sir." "He'll have the initial advantage, thanks to his sensor net. I understand Intelligence thinks it's figured out how they can use real-time tactical data on us, but until we manage to produce matching systems, we can't do the same thing to them."


Fontein frowned, but McQueen wasn't worried. What she'd said was self-evident and not quite a criticism of her own superiors, but if Fontein reported it, it might just goad some of those same superiors into finding a way to match the Manties' technology. Their new com system was technically elegant, if Intelligence was right about how they were doing it, and McQueen had her own ideas about how to deal with the Republic's own R&D types' inability to duplicate it. The Solarian League had embargoed technology and war materials to both sides in this war, but the human race had sought an FTL means of communication for almost two thousand T-years. If the Republic could give the League a hint about how the Manties were doing it, then some greedy bastard in one of the League's member navies would be delighted to work a deal that guaranteed the PN an equal share in the hardware its raw information allowed the Leaguers to produce.


After all, she thought cynically, the embargo had been around a long time, and it wouldn't be the first time the Republic had found someone willing to violate it for the right price.


"For the moment, however," she went on, "it shouldn't matter much. I'm not planning on anything fancy, Citizen Commissioner, and they shouldn't have the firepower to do anything fancy to us, either. If they want to stand and fight, we'll smash them to wreckage; if they choose to withdraw, we'll just gather in the system and laugh at them."


A soft almost-growl rose from her staff, and she bared her teeth at Fontein. She had plans of her own, but she wasn't immune to the Navy's collective desire for revenge. The Manties had made them look bad too often; it was about time the People's Navy got a little of its own back . . . and they didn't need any damned "citizen commissioners" to make them want that.


* * *


"It's confirmed, Sir. Sixteen SDs, seven BCs, and thirty-two lighter units." Vice Admiral Stanton grimaced as his ops officer cataloged the enemy's strength. It was very quiet on Majestic's flag deck, and the red light codes advancing on Everest seemed to pulse with menace in the plot. They'd translated into n-space right on the 20.7 light-minute hyper limit of a G3, and they were boring straight in to catch the planet between them and the primary.


And, he thought, there was nothing he could do to stop them.


"Tracking's latest estimate, Sir."


Captain Truscot, his chief of staff, passed over a message board, and Stanton grimaced again as he scanned its display. Just under three hours on their present course, assuming they maintained their current accel the entire way. Of course, that would also bring them scorching past Everest at well over 44,600 KPS, and the planet had to be their primary objective. It was, at any rate, the one thing in the system they'd know he had to fight for—assuming he stood and fought at all—so it was more likely they'd go for turnover at the halfway point.


He drew a deep breath and stood back from the plot. At the moment, the enemy was still close to two hundred and fifty million kilometers from the planet, which meant he couldn't even see Stanton's ships. But that would change as soon as TF M-01 lit off its drives, and gravitic sensors were FTL. Unless he chose to hold his power settings down to something his stealth systems could hide, they'd be able to track him in real time, just as Majestic was doing to them now through the FTL net. They wouldn't be able to tell what his units were until they got much closer, but they could tell where they were.


Not good, he thought. Not good at all. Manticoran missiles were at least thirty percent more effective than Peep missiles, and Stanton's ECM and point defense had similar, if slimmer, margins of superiority. But his biggest ship was a mere dreadnought, and he had only four of them, while there were sixteen Peep superdreadnoughts out there. Those odds would make even a missile duel suicidal, and if he tried to defend Everest, they could pin him against it and close to energy range. In that sort of engagement, his task force might last twenty whole minutes. He'd hurt them before they killed him, but the loss of his own ships would hurt the Alliance worse than whatever he did to them . . . and buy Everest less than half an hour.


"We can't stop them," he said quietly, and Truscot nodded tightly. The chief of staff's eyes were bitter, but there was no point pretending they could do the impossible.


"Helen," Stanton looked at his communication officer, "get me a direct link to Premier Jones." The com officer nodded, and Stanton turned back to Truscot and Commander Ryan, his ops officer. "George, you and Pete set up for a passing engagement on a direct reciprocal. There's no sense thinking we can hold 'em, but I want them hurt as we go by. Plot a course that will bring us past them at a range of five million klicks. If they decide to maneuver against us, it'll buy Jones and the evacuation ships a little more time; if they don't maneuver, I want to burn past them with the max possible velocity. They'll probably decel to increase the engagement window, but they won't be able to stretch it too far, and I want our magazines emptied into them on the way by. Rapid fire with everything we've got till the tubes run dry."


"Sir, if we do that—"


"I know, we won't dare let them back into missile range later, because we won't have anything left to shoot at them with." Stanton shook his head hard, angry not with Truscot for protesting but with the circumstances which drove his own plan. "George, we can't afford any extended engagement against that many launchers whatever we do. This way we can at least slam them with the maximum throw weight in the shortest possible time, and their point defense is more susceptible to overload. If we saturate 'em, we should get at least a few good hits."


Truscot considered for a moment, then nodded.


"Yes, Sir," he said. "Targeting priorities?"


"We'll go for the big boys. We could probably kill more of the battlecruisers, but if we hammer one or two of the SDs hard enough it'll make taking the system back easier when we get around to it."


"Yes, Sir." Truscot sounded more positive this time.


"Admiral, I have the Premier," his com officer said, and Stanton held up a hand at her.


"Just a second, Helen," he said, still looking at Truscot. "Once you and Pete work out the rough plan, let him finish it up while you make sure Tracking Central blows all the inner-system platforms, George. Tell Central I want them to confirm their own scuttling charges before they bail out, then detach Seeress and Oracle to pick them up and get them the hell out of here while the rest of us deal with the Peeps. I do not want any of those grav techs winding up as Peep POWs, understood?"


"Aye, aye, Sir." Truscot nodded grimly. Blowing the FTL sensor platforms would cost Stanton a major tactical advantage, but he wasn't planning on standing and fighting, and the grav-pulse transmitters were one of the RMN's most closely held secrets. None of them were to be allowed to fall into Peep hands. In the case of a ship like Majestic, that would require massive internal destruction to wreck her own com section beyond reconstruction; in Tracking Central's case, it would require total destruction. Even more to the point, perhaps, among them, the techs in Tracking Central had the specs on the system filed in their brains, as well as their computers.


"All right." Stanton drew a deep, bitter breath and straightened his spine as he turned to the com officer. "I'll talk to the Premier now, Helen," he said quietly.


 



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