Back | Next

Chapter Eighteen

"Ahhhhhhh! Here we go, S—Citizen Commander. We've got customers."

Citizen Commander Caslet grimaced and crossed quickly to the tactical section, hoping—without much hope—that Citizen Commissioner Jourdain hadn't heard Shannon's slip. PNS Vaubon, unlike most of the PN's ships, had survived the last year of purges with her crew essentially intact, and that had tended to shield the light cruiser's company from some of the Republic's harsher realities. Caslet had reminded his people again and again that the Committee of Public Safety and its minions were serious about their egalitarianism, yet some of them, and especially Citizen Lieutenant Shannon Foraker, had a hard time remembering it. Shannon did fine when she took time to think before speaking, but she was a quintessential example of what was still called "a techno nerd." She was brilliant in her area of specialization, but her social skills were an afterthought. When the tactical situation hit the fan—or when she simply got particularly intent on a task—she dropped back into old habits of speech without even realizing she'd done it.

But at least Jourdain was a pretty decent sort for a citizen commissioner, and Caslet had explained to him (at length) why Foraker was especially valuable to him. Shannon's talent for extrapolating data amounted to witchcraft, and she was one of the few Havenite tac officers immune to the PN's collective sense of techno-inferiority. She knew her instrumentation wasn't as good as the Manties', but she took it as a challenge, not a cause for despair. Caslet only hoped Jourdain grasped how important that was and would remain willing to put up with a few lapses in Shannon's revolutionary vocabulary.

He shook the thought aside and leaned over her shoulder to peer at her displays. Shannon was already bringing her computers fully on-line to enhance her passive sensors' data, and Vaubon's captain frowned as the distant light codes crept slowly across the plot.

"What do you make of it, Shannon?"

"Well, now, Skipper, that's hard to say just yet." She tapped in a fresh enhancement command. "Sure wish we were a little closer," she grumbled. "This passive shit's for the birds at this range, Sir."

"Citizen Commander, Shannon!" Caslet whispered, and hid a sigh as the tac officer blinked, then shrugged the reminder aside. She had more important things on her mind, and Caslet darted an apologetic look at Jourdain. The commissioner didn't look happy, but he only strolled across the bridge to examine the environmental readouts. That put him far enough away to pretend he wasn't hearing anything, and Caslet thought a very loud mental thank-you in his direction, then turned back to Foraker.

The tac officer was muttering to herself while her fingers caressed her keypad with surgical skill, and Caslet waited as patiently as he could for her to remember to report to the rest of the universe. Unfortunately, she seemed too intent on the marvelous toys the People's Navy had obviously provided for her sole entertainment, and he cleared his throat.

"Talk to me, Shannon!" he said sternly, and she straightened with a start. She looked at him blankly for a moment, then grinned.

"Sorry, Skip. What did you say?"

"I said tell me what we've got." Caslet spoke with the patience one normally reserved for a small child, and Foraker had the grace to blush.

"Uh, yes, S—Citizen Commander. The problem is, I'm not entirely sure what we've got. Is there any way we could maybe sneak in a little closer?" she asked in a wheedling tone.

"No, there isn't," Caslet replied repressively. Shannon was familiar with their orders and knew better than to ask—which was the main reason he didn't add that he wished they could close on the contacts, too. Unfortunately, his instructions were clear: he was to keep Vaubon's presence completely covert, which meant no live impellers where the Manties might see them.

In Citizen Commander Warner Caslet's considered opinion, that was a pretty damned silly restriction. Vaubon was a hundred thousand klicks outside the Casca hyper limit; he could dart in for a closer look, make positive identification on his targets, then vanish into hyper before anyone could do anything about it, and he couldn't quite see why he shouldn't do so. It wasn't as if finding a Republican picket watching the system should surprise the Manties. They wouldn't be reinforcing unless they believed Haven might be interested in Casca, and confirmation that the People's Navy was keeping an eye on it should only encourage that belief. Which, as he understood it, had been the whole purpose of Operation Stalking Horse in the first place.

Orders, he thought. Something unfortunate must happen to a person's brain when he turns into a flag officer.

"Well, anything I tell you from this far out's gonna be a guess, Skipper," Shannon warned.

"So guess."

"Yes, Sir." The tac officer tapped a function key, and two of the thirteen capital ship codes on her display were suddenly ringed in white. "It looks like they must've refitted even more heavily than we figured they would," she said, " 'cause I'm getting Manty emissions off all of them. Looks like they've done the next best thing to a complete replacement on their active sensors, but I'm picking up emissions from an Alpha-Romeo-Seven-Baker off these two puppies here, Skip."

"Are you, indeed?" Caslet murmured, and Foraker nodded happily. The AR-7(b) was the standard search radar mounted in PN dreadnoughts and superdreadnoughts. It wasn't as good as the Manty equivalent—after all, he thought sourly, what Republican equipment was?—but that was mostly because the Manties' enhancement let them do more with the data they picked up. The AR-7 was about as powerful as its Manticoran equivalent and, all in all, a damned good installation, so it made sense that the Grayson Navy would have retained it if it had survived the ships' capture.

"Yep," Foraker replied cheerfully, but then her smile faded. "Problem is, Skip, that these're the only two I'm sure about. I've got the computers trying to run a correlation between impeller strength and acceleration, but we know the Manties are refitting across the board with the new inertial compensator. We're still guessing how much that improves their efficiency, and these birds are taking it mighty easy, so I don't have max power signatures to work with, but it may give us something on their masses." She shrugged. "Our SDs are smaller than theirs are. If I can get an idea—"

She broke off as an alarm chimed softly. Her fingers flickered across her panel again, and her face lit with a devilish smile.

"Well, now! I may just owe my 'puters an apology." She touched another function key, and three more light codes suddenly grew white rims. "Okay, what we've got here is speculative as hell, Skipper, but stay with me for a minute." Caslet nodded, and the tac officer tapped one of the light codes which wasn't ringed in white. "What I've done, Sir—oh, damn. I mean Citizen Commander." She sighed, looking past Caslet at Jourdain with an expression that mingled repentance and impatience, then shrugged. "At any rate, what I've done is make the best read I can from this range on their impeller strengths and correlate it with their observed acceleration rate. It's not going to tell us much about absolute masses, but it can indicate which ships are bigger than others, right?"

"Right." Caslet tried very hard not to sigh. Shannon really didn't understand how irritating it was to have things you already knew explained to you. On the other hand, her lecture mode normally insured that she caught anything you might not know . . . or that you'd simply forgotten to consider.

"All right," the tac officer said. "What I can tell you for certain, Skip, is that this—" she tapped the display again "—is the biggest single ship I've got good reads on, and that makes her an SD." Caslet nodded again. That was an unprovable assumption, but it was also a virtual certainty, and his eyes narrowed as Foraker flicked a finger at the trio of lights she'd just painted with white borders. "Well, these three here are in the same mass neighborhood, but they're pulling the same accel with only point-niner-five the impeller strength. Assuming that all of 'em have the new compensators, then that means they're smaller than our big boy, but not a lot. If the big guy is an SD, that means they're a hell of a lot bigger than any DN I've ever seen. Matter of fact, they match pretty damned well with the impeller strengths on the two we know have our radars aboard."

"The Manties have some smaller superdreadnoughts," Caslet pointed out, and Foraker nodded.

"Yep, but we know how many of 'em they've got, and that's the other thing my 'puters've been up to. See, Intelligence says they've got thirty-two of those smaller SDs at Thetis and Lowell, and the spooks put another five of 'em down south at Grendelsbane. That only leaves sixteen more in the whole Manty Navy, and ten of them're supposed to be in their Home Fleet. There's no way anything could've gotten here from Manticore this fast, so we can ignore those ten—assuming Intelligence isn't talking out its ass again—and that gets us down to six unaccounted for. So since all five of these are smaller than Mister Big Fella, they're either five of the DuQuesne-class SDs the Manties gave Grayson or else they just happen to've sent out eighty-odd percent of all the Manty-built ships they could be in one fell swoop. I don't know what the odds against that are, Skip, but they've gotta be pretty high."

"Very good, Shannon," Caslet said with a smile, and patted her on the shoulder. She was right—it was speculative. But it was good, intelligent speculation, and if their orders wouldn't let them go in for a decent look that was about the best he could hope for. "Anything else?"

"You want pretzels with your beer, Skipper? There's no way I can say anything more certain from this far out." Foraker frowned and tapped in yet another command, then grimaced. "Nope. All those other drive sources are kicking up too much interference. I can tell you there are at least five more of the wall on the far side of their main body, but I can't tell you anything about them. And on this heading, they're not gonna give me a good look before they go completely out of range into the inner system."

"All right, Shannon." He gazed at her display for another moment, then shrugged. "You did good to get this much."

"Any chance anyone else's gonna get a look at the other side of their formation?" Foraker asked hopefully.

"I'm afraid not," Caslet sighed. "De Conde is over there, but we're spread too far, and—" he grinned suddenly "—Citizen Commander Hewlett's tac witch isn't as good as mine." Foraker grinned back, and he patted her shoulder again before he turned and crossed the bridge to Jourdain.

"Well, Citizen Commander?" the commissioner asked.

"As I warned you, Citizen Commissioner," Caslet said formally, "we're too far out to be certain." Jourdain nodded with a trace of impatience, and Caslet shrugged. "With that proviso, I have to say it looks like the operation is succeeding. If you'd come with me?"

Jourdain followed him over to the astrogator's station, and he waved at the display. "As you can see, they came in on the right heading for a least-time passage from Yeltsin's Star. Moreover, Citizen Lieutenant Foraker has positively confirmed emissions from our own radar systems aboard two ships of the wall, which would seem to prove that they're two of the prize ships the Manties handed over to the Graysons.

"We also have evidence that at least three more of their ships are smaller than most Manticoran SDs. Again, that probably indicates that they're ex-PN prizes, but that conclusion is based solely on inferential evidence. There's no way we can confirm it without closing with the enemy, and our orders preclude that."

Jourdain nodded, and Caslet sighed.

"The main thing that worries me, Citizen Commissioner, is that there seem to be too many of them."

"Too many?" Jourdain repeated.

"Yes, Sir. We count thirteen of the wall."

"Ah." Jourdain gazed down at the astro display and plucked at his lip, and Caslet was grateful for the obvious intensity of the other man's thoughts. Jourdain had an undeniable edge of priggish revolutionary ardor, but he was also an intelligent man who paid as much attention to mission briefs as to the political reliability of Vaubon's crew.

"Exactly," the citizen commander said, after letting the commissioner ponder for a moment. "If these are the Grayson SDs, then they've picked up a pair of hitchhikers somewhere."

"There could be any number of explanations for that," Jourdain countered. "The Manties are probably pulling in everything they can to respond to our attacks on Minette and Candor. This could be no more than a pair of dreadnoughts detached from convoy escort."

"No, Sir. At least one of them is an SD."

"They could still be convoy escorts."

"They could be, Citizen Commissioner, but it's not like the Manties to have single divisions of superdreadnoughts wandering around."

"Agreed," Jourdain sighed. He stood pondering the astro display a moment longer, then shrugged. "Well, whatever they are, they came in on a heading from Yeltsin, as you say. For that matter, Intelligence only gives about a sixty percent chance that even the Manticorans could have gotten all eleven prizes back into service this quickly. The Graysons are probably a bit slower than that, so it's possible we're looking at two divisions of Manty SDs, not one, and they're more likely to have been moving a half-squadron independently than they are to move a single division."

Caslet nodded thoughtfully. That was a possibility he hadn't considered, and it made sense.

"At any rate," Jourdain went on, "if at least five of them are Grayson ships, it seems likely they brought everything Yeltsin could spare." The citizen commissioner sounded a bit as if he were trying to convince himself of that, Caslet noted, and said nothing. A brief silence stretched out between them once more, and then Jourdain nodded sharply to himself.

"All right," he said. "If we've gotten all the information we can from this range, then I suppose that's the best we can do, Citizen Commander. Let's pull out for the rendezvous."


Back | Next