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Bernard Yanakov's uniform tunic hung over a chair, the topmost button of his shirt was open, and he frowned at his terminal, then looked up with a weary smile of welcome as the door opened to admit Raoul Courvosier and the background chatter of printers.

Civilian clothing or not, no one could mistake Courvosier for anything but a naval officer now, and Yanakov was devoutly thankful for his presence. Not only had he made his destroyer's sensors available to Grayson, but he'd also placed his own vast experience at Yanakov's disposal. Despite, Yanakov knew, protests from certain members of his delegation that he ought to load them all aboard Madrigal and get them safely out of the line of fire.

"You need sleep," the Manticoran said bluntly, and Yanakov nodded.

"I know," he sighed, "but—" He broke off and shrugged, and Courvosier nodded in understanding. Not approval, just understanding.

A fatigue-dulled mind was scarcely the best tool for his system's defense, but Yanakov couldn't sleep. Orbit Four had been joined by Orbit Five and Six, and neither of their commandants had gotten as lucky as Hill. Or, rather, the Masadans had gotten smarter. They were launching from six million kilometers or more, ranges so long the defensive missiles' drives burned out over five full minutes short of their targets. It gave the defenders longer tracking times and better point defense kill probabilities, yet sheer numbers more than made up for that by saturating the defenses. It might cost the Masadans a lot of missiles, but Grayson had already lost nine percent of its orbital resource processing capacity . . . not to mention twenty-six hundred uniformed defenders and sixteen thousand civilian workers.

"You know," the Manticoran admiral mused, looking out through the glass wall across the bustling battle staff, "there's something peculiar about this whole attack pattern." He turned to face Yanakov. "Why aren't they either pulling completely out of the system or continuing straight along the belt?"

"They are continuing along the belt," Yanakov said in some surprise. "They're picking off our nodes in a straight-line sequence, directly against the belt's orbit."

"I know, but why take so much time? Why dash in, hit a single target, then pull back out again, when they could blow their way right along the belt in a fraction of the time?"

"This way they can watch us coming, then choose a different target or even break off entirely, and we can't preposition ourselves to intercept—unless we spread ourselves so thin any force that does catch them will be cut to dog meat," Yanakov pointed out bitterly.

"No, that's not it." Courvosier rubbed his chin and frowned as he considered the board. The Masadan raiders tracked slowly across it, retiring from their third attack, and he shook his head. "Their sensors are no better than yours, right?"

"Probably not as good, actually."

"All right. Your orbital sensor arrays give you real-time gravitic detection out to thirty-four light-minutes—eight light-minutes beyond the belt on their normal retirement vector. More than that, the Masadans know they do."

"Well, yes." Yanakov scrubbed at burning eyes, then rose and walked across to stand beside his friend and watch the display. "Of course, there's a lot of transmission lag from the more distant arrays—especially those on the far side of Yeltsin—but they're working our side of the primary, so Command Central's got real-time data where it really matters. That's why they pull back out beyond our detection range after each raid, pick a new attack vector, and come charging back in. As you say, our shipboard sensors have very limited range compared to yours. Even if we happened to guess right and place a force where it could intercept them, its commander couldn't see them soon enough to generate an intercept, and we probably couldn't pass him light-speed orders from Command Central in time for him to do it, either."

"I could buy that," Courvosier agreed, "but you're missing my point. They keep pulling back out to the same damned place after each attack, and they have to know you can see them doing it."

"Um?" Yanakov frowned, and Courvosier nodded.

"Exactly. They keep heading back to the same spot before your sensors lose them. And as they work their way along the belt, they keep extending their flight distance back to that same place with each target they hit. That not only makes them more vulnerable to interception but also vastly extends the time they're spending on the entire operation, yet they keep poking along at no more than point-three cee while they do it. Now why would they be doing that?"

"Well . . ." Yanakov scratched his head. "They're throwing a lot of missiles in each attack. That has to run their magazines low—maybe they've got colliers out there with reloads and they have to return to them to rearm. And I suppose the low velocities could be so they don't have to kill too much vee if we do manage to hide something in front of them."

"Possibly, possibly," Courvosier murmured. "But their timing suggests they had somebody hidden out there, watching when Fearless, Apollo, and Troubadour left. They may think that was our entire escort force, and they may not have any idea those ships are coming back, but they have to know there's a high probability some Manticoran squadron's likely to drop by. That should be a factor in their planning. They ought to be going for a fast decision, hoping to finish you off before some RMN admiral intervenes on your behalf."

"One already has, in a sense," Yanakov said with a tired grin.

"You know what I mean."

"True—but I'm not too sure about your basic premise. There's no commerce between Yeltsin and Endicott. That means no information flow, so how could they know you were ever here in the first place?"

"The fact that we were sending a diplomatic mission—and a convoy—has been general knowledge for months," Courvosier argued, "and they must've known we'd send along an escort. Once we arrived, all they'd have needed to make a pretty fair projection of what we were up to is a single hidden picket. And look at the timing. Allow a day or so for their picket to sneak back out to Masada after Fearless left, then another day to mobilize, and they'd be back here just about the time they started shooting." He shook his head. "They know at least some of the escorts pulled out, and they're trying to get in before any other Manticoran force gets here to replace them."

"I don't think they have the technical capability to pull off that kind of operation, Raoul. Oh, certainly they could get a ship in or out. All they'd have to do is translate beyond our detection range and come in with a low-powered wedge, then hide in the asteroid belt. Even if we saw them, we'd probably put them down as routine mining traffic, and getting out would be just as easy. But even if they did that, they'd need sensors almost as good as yours to tell what's happening in the inner system." Yanakov shook his head. "No, the timing has to be a coincidence."

"Maybe." Courvosier shook himself. "At any rate, Captain Harrington will be back within another four days."

"I can't wait that long," Yanakov said, and Courvosier looked at him in surprise. "They've taken out close to ten percent of our processors; if I give them another four days, they'll destroy forty years of investment—not to mention killing several thousand more people—especially if, as you yourself have pointed out they should, they drop this in-and-out nonsense and start working their way straight around the belt. I've got to stop them sooner than that . . . assuming I can figure a way to intercept the bastards in strength."

"I see." Courvosier chewed the inside of his lip for a minute, then frowned intently. "You know, there just might be something you can do."

"Such as?"

"You're too tired to think straight, Bernie. If they keep heading back to the same spot every time, you don't have to let them see you coming."

"You're right." Yanakov sat back down abruptly, then began punching keys. "If we know where they're going, we could wait till they pull back from this last attack, then put everything we've got on a course to intercept their retirement vector for the next one!"

"Exactly." Courvosier grinned. "Get your people out there, accelerate like hell once the bad guys are out of their sensor range of you, then kill your drives and coast until they start back out after their next attack. What's your max fleet acceleration?"

"Five hundred gees, more or less, for the hyper-capable units," Yanakov said. "Three seventy-five for the LACs." He studied his calculations for a moment, then grimaced and started changing numbers.

"Do the LACs add enough firepower to justify holding your starships back?"

"No. That's what I'm reworking." Yanakov nodded as new numbers began to come together. "Okay, that's better. Now, given their operational pattern to date, I think we can assume a sensor window of—" He tapped a quick calculation. "Call it three and a half hours. Three to be on the safe side."

"Which means you could be up to—?"

"Approximately fifty-three thousand KPS. And even if they don't come back in at all, that would take us to the point where our sensors keep losing them in . . . roughly four hours from Grayson orbit," Yanakov said, still working at his terminal. "Given their attack patterns, we can kick our drives back in . . . call it three hours into their next run and still intercept even if they pull back out the instant they pick us up!" His hands stilled on the keys and his tired eyes were almost awed. "By the Grace of God the Tester, you're right. We can do it."

"I know," Courvosier replied, but he sounded less enthusiastic. Yanakov looked a question, and he shrugged. "Oh, it's neat, and I like the notion of using their predictability against them, but there's still something I can't quite put my finger on. It just doesn't make sense for them to give us an opening like this."

"Didn't someone say the general who makes the last mistake loses?"

"Wellington, I think. Or maybe it was Rommel." Courvosier frowned. "Tanakov?" He shrugged it away. "The point is, we want them to make the mistake."

"I don't see how it can hurt us," Yanakov argued. "Holding the Fleet in-system accomplishes absolutely nothing. At least this gives us a chance. And, as you say, Captain Harrington will be back in four days. If they have missile colliers out there, we may be able to knock them out and choke off their supplies, even if we miss an actual interception. And even if we only derail their operations for a few days, that'll still be long enough to prevent further damage before she gets back and kicks the bas—"

He broke off, a curious expression on his face, and Courvosier cocked an eyebrow.

"Sorry," Yanakov half-muttered. "I was simply assuming you'd commit her ships to help us."

"Why in the galaxy shouldn't you assume that?" Courvosier demanded.

"But you're not—I mean, we're not—" Yanakov paused and cleared his throat. "We don't have a treaty yet. If you lose ships or take damage on your own responsibility without one, your government may—"

"My government will do what Her Majesty tells it to do," Courvosier said flatly, "and Her Majesty told me to come back with a treaty with Grayson." Yanakov looked at him wordlessly, and he shrugged. "I can't very well do that if I let Masada wipe you out, can I?" He shook his head. "I'm not too worried about the Crown's reaction, or even Parliament's. The Queen's honor is at stake here. And even if it weren't, I wouldn't sleep too well nights if I turned my back on you people, Bernie."

"Thank you," Yanakov said very softly, and Courvosier shrugged again, uncomfortably this time.

"Forget it. It's really just a sneaky maneuver to bring your own conservatives around."

"Of course it is." Yanakov smiled, and Courvosier grinned back.

"Well, I can pretend, can't I?" He rubbed his chin again and fell silent for a moment. "In fact, with your permission, I'm going to take Madrigal out with your interception force."

"What?!" Surprise betrayed Yanakov into the undiplomatic exclamation, but Courvosier only shook his head in mock sorrow.

"I told you you need sleep. Madrigal's sensors are better than anything you—and, ergo, the Masadans—have. If we include her in your intercept force, her gravitics'll pick them up a minimum of two light-minutes before they have the reach to see you. That means you can keep your force under power longer, build a higher base vector, because you'll only have to shut down when they do come back, not when we think they might come back. And just between the two of us, I don't think any Masadan cruiser out there is going to enjoy meeting up with her, Bernie."

"But . . . but you're the head of a diplomatic mission! If anything happens to you—"

"Mr. Houseman will be only too happy to take over in that unhappy event." Courvosier grimaced. "Not the happiest of outcomes, I agree, but scarcely disastrous. And I told the FO when I took the job that it was only temporary. As a matter of fact—" he grinned slyly "—I believe I may have slipped up and packed a uniform or two along with all these civvies."

"But, Raoul—!"

"Are you saying you don't want me along?" Courvosier asked in hurt tones.

"Of course I do! But the possible repercussions—"

"—are far outweighed by the probable benefits. If a Queen's ship fights alongside you against your traditional enemy, it can only be a plus for the ratification of any treaty, don't you think?"

"Of course it would," Yanakov said, but the words cracked around the edges, for he knew it wasn't diplomatic considerations which shaped the offer. "Of course," he went on after he got his voice back under control, "you're senior to any of my other officers. Hell, you're senior to me!"

"I'll certainly waive seniority," Courvosier said wryly. "After all, my entire 'fleet' consists of a single destroyer, for God's sake."

"No, no. Protocol must be observed," Yanakov said with a tired smile. "And since this is all a sneaky diplomatic ploy, not a spontaneous and generous offer to help people who have done their best to insult your senior subordinate and half your other officers, we might as well play it to the hilt." He held Courvosier's eyes warmly and extended his hand.

"I hereby offer you the position of second in command of the Grayson-Manticoran Combined Fleet, Admiral Courvosier. Will you accept?"


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