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Commander Manning paused outside the briefing room and drew a deep breath.

Manning liked Captain Yu. In a service where too many senior officers came from Legislaturist families, Yu was that rarest of birds: a self-made man. It couldn't have been easy for him, but somehow the Captain had won his way to the very brink of flag rank without forgetting what he himself had been through on the way up. He treated his officers firmly but with respect, even warmth, and he never forgot those who served him well. Thomas Theisman commanded Principality because he'd served with Captain Yu before and Yu had wanted him for the slot, and Manning had been handpicked as Thunder's exec for the same reasons. That sort of treatment earned the Captain a remarkable degree of personal loyalty and devotion, but he was only human. He had his bad days, and when a CO-any CO—was out of sorts, his subordinates trod warily.

And if the Captain had ever had reason to feel out of sorts, now was certainly the time, Manning thought as he pressed the admittance button.

"Yes?" The voice over the intercom was as courteous as ever, but it held a dangerous, flat undertone for ears which knew it well.

"Commander Manning, Sir."

The hatch opened. Manning stepped across the sill and braced to attention, and some instinct told him to do it Havenite style.

"You wanted to see me, Sir?"

"Yes. Sit down, George."

Yu pointed to a chair, and the commander relaxed just a tad at the use of his first name.

"What's the status of Tractor Five?"

"Engineering says another ten or twelve hours, Sir." Yu's face tightened, and Manning tried to keep any defensiveness out of his voice. "The components were never intended for this sort of continual power level, Captain. They have to strip it clear down to the flux core to make replacements."

"Goddamn it." Yu ran a hand through his hair in a harried gesture he never let a Masadan see, and then his free hand suddenly slammed the table top.

Manning managed not to flinch. It wasn't like the Captain to carry on, but these Masadans were enough to try the patience of a saint. The cliché was less amusing than it might have been, but the fact that the Captain was allowing himself to use the sort of language he hadn't let himself use since arriving here was a fair indication of how far he'd been pushed.

Yu smashed the table again, then sat back in his chair with a groan.

"They're idiots, George. Fucking idiots! We could wipe out everything Grayson has left in an hour—in fifteen minutes!—and they won't let us do it!"

"Yes, Sir," Manning said softly, and Yu shoved himself up to stalk back and forth across the briefing room like a caged tiger.

"If anyone back home had told me there were people like this anywhere in the galaxy, I'd have called him a liar to his face," Yu growled. "We've got Grayson by the balls, and all they can see is how bad they got hurt! Goddamn it, people get hurt in wars! And just because Madrigal chewed the hell out of their piss-ant navy, they're shitting their drawers like they were up against the Manticoran Home Fleet!"

This time Manning was tactfully silent. Anything he said could only make it worse at this point.

No one, Captain Yu included, had been prepared for just how good Manticoran anti-missile systems had turned out to be. They'd known the RMN's electronic warfare capability was better than theirs, and they'd assumed a certain margin of superiority for their other systems as well, but the speed and accuracy of Madrigal's point defense had shocked all of them. It had turned what should have been a complete kill into something far less, and if the destroyer's defenses hadn't been overextended by her efforts to protect her consorts, she probably would have gotten out completely undamaged.

It would have been different in a sustained engagement, when their own computers could have gotten a read on Madrigal's responses and they could have shifted their firing patterns and penaid settings until they found a way through them. But they'd only had one shot each, and the destroyer had knocked down entirely too many of their missiles.

That had smarted badly enough for the "immigrants" in Thunder's crew—it had been their hardware that showed up so poorly, after all—but it had more than smarted for the Masadans. Sword Simonds had been livid as Madrigal and the two surviving Graysons raced out of their missile envelope. Manning was still astonished the Captain had managed to hang onto his temper as the sword ranted and railed at him, and despite his outward calm, Manning knew he'd been as close to murder as the exec had ever seen him when Simonds refused to order Franks to bypass Madrigal and pursue the Grayson survivors.

Simonds had practically danced with rage as he rejected Yu's suggestion. The extent to which Madrigal had degraded the ambush had not only infuriated but frightened him, and he'd known perfectly well that at least some of Franks' ships would have been exposed to her fire, however widely they dispersed, if the squadron spread out to over-fly her.

Well, of course they would have been, but the Sword's response to the threat had proven once and for all that he was no tactician. If his ships had dispersed, he might have had to write off one or two cruisers to Madrigal's missiles, but the others would have been outside the destroyer's effective engagement range. She simply wouldn't have had the reach to hit that many targets. But he'd insisted on backing Franks' decision to go in together for mutual support—and paid the price hesitant tactics almost always exacted. The Masadan ships had actually decelerated to meet Madrigal in an effort to bring their own weapons into effective range and keep them there!

It had been like a mob armed with clubs charging a man with a pulser. Madrigal's missiles had blown the cruisers Samson and Noah and the destroyer Throne right out of space as they closed, and then the Masadans entered her energy range and it only got worse. The cruiser David had survived, but she was little more than a hulk, and the destroyers Cherubim and Seraphim had been crippled before they ever got into their energy range.

Of course, the clubs had had their own turn after that. Crude as Masadan energy weapons were, there'd simply been too many of them for her, and they'd battered her to bits. But even after she'd been mortally wounded, Madrigal had set her teeth in the destroyers Archangel and Angel. She'd pounded them until she didn't have a single weapon left, and she'd taken Archangel with her. Of the entire squadron which had closed with her, only the cruiser Solomon and the destroyer Dominion remained combat effective . . . and, of course, Franks' decision to slow for the suicidal engagement meant the surviving Graysons had escaped.

It shouldn't have mattered. If nothing else, what Madrigal had done should have made Simonds even more confident. If a destroyer could wreak that kind of carnage, what did he think Thunder could do?!

"Do you know what that insufferable little prick said to me?" Yu whirled to face his exec, one finger pointed like a pistol, and his eyes blazed. "He told me—told me, damn him!—that if I hadn't lied to him about my ship's capabilities, he might be more inclined to listen to me now!" A snarl quivered in the Captain's throat. "What the fuck does he expect is going to happen when his frigging 'admirals' have their heads so far up their asses they have to pipe in air through their navels?!"

Manning maintained his silence and concentrated on looking properly sympathetic, and Yu's lips worked as if he wanted to spit on the decksole. Then his shoulders slumped, and he sank back into his chair.

"God, I wish the Staff had found someone else to dump this on!" he sighed, but the fury had left his voice. Manning understood. The Captain had needed to work it out of his system, and for that he had to yell at one of his own.

"Well," Yu said finally, "if they insist on being stupid, I suppose there's nothing we can do but try to minimize the consequences. There are times I could just about kill Valentine, but if this weren't so completely unnecessary, I might almost admire the cleverness of it. I don't think anyone else ever even considered towing LACs through hyper space."

"Yes, Sir. On the other hand, they couldn't have done it with their own tractors or hyper generators. I guess by the time you've got the technical ability, you've figured out how to build good enough ships that you don't need to use it."

"Um." Yu inhaled deeply and closed his eyes for a moment. Stupid as he thought the whole idea was, he also knew that only his chief engineer's suggestion had kept the Masadans going at all.

They'd flatly refused to attack Grayson with their remaining combat strength in Yeltsin. As near as Yu could figure out, they were afraid Manticore might have slipped some sort of superweapon to the Graysons. That was the stupidest idea they'd had yet, but perhaps it shouldn't be so easy to blame them for it. They'd never seen a modern warship in action before, and what Madrigal had done to their antiquated fleet terrified them. Intellectually, they had to know Thunder and Principality were many times as powerful as Madrigal had been, but they'd never seen "their" two modern ships in action. Their capabilities weren't quite real to them . . . and Yu's credibility had been damaged by Madrigal's escape from the ambush, anyway.

For one whole day, Simonds had been adamant about the need to suspend all operations and seek a negotiated settlement. Yu didn't think Masada had a hope in hell of pulling that off after their sneak attack and Madrigal's destruction, but the sword had dug his heels in and insisted he simply didn't have the tonnage in Yeltsin to continue.

That was when Commander Valentine made his suggestion, and Yu didn't know whether to strangle his engineer or kiss him. It had wasted three days already, and Tractor Five's breakdown was going to stretch that still further, but it had gotten Simonds to agree, if only hesitantly, to press forward.

Valentine had pointed out that both Thunder and Principality had far more powerful hyper generators than any Masadan starship. In fact, their generators were powerful enough to extend their translation fields over six kilometers beyond their own hulls if he redlined them. That meant that if they translated from rest, they could take anything within six kilometers with them when they did. And that meant that if Masadan LACs clustered closely enough around them, they could boost the lighter vessels into hyper space.

Normally, that would have been little more than an interesting parlor trick, but Valentine had taken the entire idea one stage further. No LAC crew could survive the sort of acceleration ships routinely pulled in hyper for the simple reason that their inertial compensator would pack up the instant they tried it. But if they took the entire crew off and removed or secured all loose gear, Valentine suggested, there was no reason the ships themselves couldn't take the acceleration on the end of a tractor beam.

Yu had thought he was out of his mind, but the engineer had pulled up the numbers on his terminal and demonstrated the theoretical possibility. Simonds had jumped at it, and to Yu's considerable surprise, it had worked.

So far, they'd lost only two of the tiny ships. The LACs were just big enough it took three tractors to zone each of them, and one tractor had lost lock during acceleration. That LAC had simply snapped in half; the second had survived the journey only to have its crew find a ragged, three-meter hole torn half the length of their ship where a twelve-ton pressure tank had come adrift and crashed aft like an ungainly cannonball.

Of course, the towing ships had been crowded almost beyond endurance by packing in the crews who couldn't survive aboard their own ships and, as Manning had said, the strain on their tractors had been enormous. But it had worked—and Yu had found Thunder and Principality playing tugboat back and forth between Endicott and Yeltsin's Star.

It was a short hop, barely twelve hours either way for a modern warship, even towing LACs behind her, but there were only two vessels capable of pulling it off, and they could tow only three LACs at a time: two behind Thunder and one behind Principality. They simply didn't have enough tractors to move more than that. In three days, they'd transferred eighteen of Masada's twenty LACs to Yeltsin—well, sixteen, discounting the two they'd lost. This final trip by Thunder would move the last of them, and if he couldn't see that their firepower afforded any particular tactical advantage, it seemed to have bolstered the Masadans' confidence, so perhaps it hadn't been an entire waste.

"I need to talk to the Ambassador," he said suddenly, and Manning's eyebrows rose at the apparent non sequitur. "About getting out from under Simonds' thumb," Yu clarified. "I know we have to maintain the fiction that this is a purely Masadan operation, but if I can give them a good, hard push just once, we can tie this whole thing up in a couple of hours."

"Yes, Sir." Manning felt oddly moved by his captain's openness. It wasn't the sort of thing one normally encountered in the People's Navy.

"Maybe repairing Tractor Five will give me enough time ground-side," Yu mused. "It'll have to be face-to-face; I don't trust our com links."

Actually, Manning knew, the Captain didn't trust his com officer, since that was one of the slots now filled by a Masadan.

"I understand, Sir."

"Good." Yu rubbed his face, then straightened. "Sorry I screamed at you, George. You were just handy."

"That's what execs are for, Sir," Manning grinned, not adding that few other captains would have apologized for using an exec for one of his designed functions.

"Yeah, maybe." Yu managed a smile. "And at least this will be the last tow trip."

"Yes, Sir. And Commander Theisman will keep an eye on things in Yeltsin till we get back."

"Better him than that asshole Franks," Yu growled.

* * *

Sword of the Faithful Matthew Simonds knocked on the door and walked through it into the palatially furnished room. His brother, Chief Elder Thomas Simonds of the Faithful of the Church of Humanity Unchained, looked up, and his wizened face was not encouraging. Senior Elder Huggins was seated beside Thomas, and he looked even less encouraging.

Deacon Ronald Sands sat opposite Huggins. Sands was one of the youngest men ever to attain the rank of deacon, and his face was much less thunderous than his seniors'. Part of that was probably because he was so junior to them, but Sword Simonds suspected most of it was because Masada's spy master was smarter than either of them and knew it.

Cloth rustled, and he turned his head to see his brother's junior wife. He couldn't recall her name, and she wore the traditional form-shrouding dress of a Masadan woman, but her face was unveiled, and the Sword suppressed a grin as he suddenly realized that at least a portion of Huggins' obvious anger was directed at that shocking breach of propriety. Thomas had always been vain about his virility, and it had pandered to his amour propre to take a wife barely eighteen T-years of age. He already had six others, and Matthew doubted he still had the endurance to mount any of them, but Thomas had taken to flaunting his new prize's beauty whenever his associates met in his home.

The practice drove Huggins berserk—which was one reason Thomas did it. Had the wench belonged to anyone else, the fire-and-brimstone elder would have sent her to the post for a public flogging prefaced by a few pointed words on the laxity of the man who allowed his wife to behave in such ungodly fashion. If the man in question had been unimportant enough, he might even have called for his stoning. As it was, he had to pretend he hadn't noticed.

The sword advanced across the carpet, ignoring her presence, and sat in the chair at the foot of the long table. The appearance of a tribunal, with himself in the role of the accused, was not, he was certain, a coincidence.

"So you're here." Thomas' voice was creaky with age, for he was the eldest child of Tobias Simonds' first wife, while Matthew was the second son of their father's fourth wife.

"Of course I am." Matthew was well aware of the danger in which he stood, but if he showed any consciousness of his vulnerability his enemies would close in like a rathound pack pulling down a Masadan antelope.

"I'm gratified to see you can follow at least some orders," Huggins snapped. The rancorous elder considered himself the sword's main competition for the Chief Elder's chair, and Matthew turned to him, ready to strike back, but Thomas' raised hand had already rebuked the elder. So. At least his brother wasn't yet ready to cut him totally adrift.

"Peace, Brother," the Chief Elder said to Huggins. "We are all about God's Work, here. Let there be no recriminations."

His wife moved silently about the table, refilling their glasses, then vanished as a jerk of his head banished her back to the women's quarters. Huggins seemed to relax just a bit as she disappeared, and he forced a smile.

"I stand rebuked, Chief Elder. Forgive me, Sword Simonds. Our situation is enough to try even Saint Austin's Faith."

"Indeed it is, Elder Huggins," the sword said, with just as much false graciousness as Huggins, "and I can't deny that, as commander of our military, the responsibility for straightening that situation out is mine."

"Perhaps so," his brother said impatiently, "but it was no more of your making than ours—except, perhaps, in that you supported that infidel's plans." The Chief Elder's jaw worked, and his head seemed to squat lower on his shoulders.

"In fairness to Sword Simonds," Sands put in in the diffident tone he always assumed before his superiors, "Yu's arguments were convincing. And according to my sources, they were generally sincere, as well. His motives were his own, of course, but he truly believed he had the capabilities he claimed."

Huggins snorted, but no one disputed Sands. The Masadan theocracy had gone to great lengths to deny its "ally" any participation in its own covert activities, and everyone in this room knew how extensive Sands' network was.

"Nonetheless, we're in serious trouble because we listened to him." The Chief Elder gave his brother a sharp glance. "Do you think he's right about his ability to destroy what's left of the Apostate fleet?"

"Of course he is," the sword said. "He overestimated Jericho's initial effectiveness, but my own people in his tactical section assure me his fundamental assessments are correct. If a single destroyer could do so much damage to our fleet, Thunder and Principality together could make mincemeat of the Apostate."

Matthew was aware that Huggins no longer trusted Yu—or anyone who agreed with him, for that matter—a millimeter. Yet what he'd just said was self-evidently true . . . and he'd avoided mentioning what those same people of his in Yu's tactical section had had to say about his own decision to support Franks' tactics in Yeltsin. He hadn't been too happy to hear it himself, but if he punished them for it, they would almost certainly start telling him what he wanted to hear, not what they truly thought.

"Deacon Sands? Do you agree?"

"I'm not a military man, Chief Elder, but, yes. Our own sources had already indicated that Manticoran systems are better than those of Haven, but their margin of superiority is vastly less than Thunder's superiority to anything the Apostate have."

"So we can let him proceed if we must?" the Chief Elder pressed.

"I don't see any option but to let him if Maccabeus fails," Sands said unflinchingly. "In that event, only a military solution can save us. And with all due respect, time is running out. Maccabeus wasn't able to tell us if the Manticoran escort was returning, but we must assume it will be back within days. One way or the other, we must control both planets by that time."

"But Maccabeus is our best hope." Huggins shot a venomous glance at the sword. "Your operations were supposed to support him, Sword Simonds. They were supposed to be a pretext, not a serious attempt at conquest!"

"With all respect, Elder Huggins," Matthew began hotly, "that—"

"Peace, Brothers!" The Chief Elder rapped a bony knuckle on the table and glared at them both until they sank back into their chairs, then turned his basilisk gaze on Huggins. "We're all aware of what was supposed to happen, Brother. Unfortunately, we couldn't exactly tell the Havenites that, nor could we proceed without their support in case Maccabeus failed. God has not yet decided our efforts merit His Blessing, but neither has He condemned us to failure. There are two strings to our bow, and neither has snapped yet."

Huggins glowered for a moment, then bobbed his head stiffly. This time he didn't even pretend to apologize to the sword.

"Very well." Thomas turned back to his brother. "How much longer can you stall direct military action without arousing Haven's suspicions?"

"No more than another thirty or forty hours. Thunder's tractor damage buys us a little time, but once all of our LACs are in Yeltsin, we'll either have to move or admit we have no intention of doing so."

"And your last contact with Maccabeus?"

"Cherubim lagged far enough behind on our fourth strike to speak with his courier. At that time, Maccabeus believed there was still too much popular support for the current regime, despite our attacks. We've been unable to contact him since, of course, but he indicated that he was prepared to move if public morale began to crack, and Jericho must have weakened it further."

"Do you concur, Deacon Sands?"

"I do. Of course, we can't know how much it's weakened. Our own losses and the fact that any of their ships escaped may have an offsetting effect. On the other hand, they now know that we have at least some modern vessels, and the Apostate media has no Synod of Censors. We can assume, I think, that at least some accounts of the battle—and the odds they face—have found their way into the planetary news net."

"Does Maccabeus know what strength we have?" Huggins demanded.

"No," Sands said. "He and Jericho were completely compartmentalized for operational security. Given his position under the current regime, however, he must know that what we have outclasses anything in the Apostate navy."

"That's true," Elder Simonds mused, then inhaled deeply. "Very well, Brothers, I think we have reached our moment of decision. Maccabeus remains our best hope. If he can secure control of Grayson by domestic means, we'll be in a far better position to stave off further Manticoran intervention. No doubt they'll demand steep reparations, and I am prepared even to bend my neck to publicly apologize for our 'accidental' attack on a ship we didn't realize wasn't Apostate-built, but the destruction of any local regime to support their aims in the region should cause them to cut their losses. And, given their traditional foreign policy, it's unlikely they'll have the will and courage to conquer us to gain the base they desire. Most importantly, if Maccabeus succeeds, we can gain gradual control of Grayson without further overt military action, which means we will no longer need Haven, either, so I think we must delay Thunder's return to Yeltsin for at least one more day to give him time.

"Nonetheless, we must also face the possibility that he will fail—or, at any rate, require a further demonstration of the hopelessness of the Apostate military position to succeed."

He paused and looked at his brother.

"Bearing all of this in mind, Sword Simonds, I hereby direct you to begin military operations to reduce the Apostate navy, followed, if necessary, by demonstration nuclear strikes on their less important cities, to create the conditions for Maccabeus' success. You will begin those operations within twelve hours of your return to Yeltsin with the last of our LACs."

He looked around the table, his rheumy old eyes flat as a snake's.

"Is there any disagreement with my directions?"


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