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Chapter Eight

"Anything from Admiral Duval, Serena?" Rear Admiral Oliver Diamato, Republic of Haven Navy, asked quietly.

"No, Sir." Commander Serena Taverner, his chief of staff shook her head.

"Good."

Diamato nodded to her, rose from his command chair, and crossed to the master plot on the battlecruiser William T. Sherman's flag bridge. Sherman was no longer "his," and he'd already discovered just how much he missed the hands-on command of a ship. But at least the Octagon had let him keep her as his flagship.

He examined the plot carefully, hands folded behind him. By now, the posture was so familiar that it had become truly his, no longer an affectation deliberately copied from Captain Hall. He studied the icons, then nodded once in approval and turned away. This was the first time he'd served with Rear Admiral Harold Duval, CO of the 19th CLAC Division, and Duval had a reputation as a bit of a worrywart. Diamato had been half afraid he might come up with some last-minute alteration of the plan, but it seemed he'd been doing his superior an injustice, and that was good. He hated last-minute surprises.

Now he gazed at the pair of CLACs—RHNS Skylark, the flagship, and her sister Peregrine—his own squadron was escorting, then checked the time display ticking down in the corner of the plot. The combined force would translate out of hyper in another twenty-seven minutes, right on the hyper limit of the Zanzibar System's G4 primary.

After which, he thought, things will get . . . interesting.

* * *

"We have a hyper footprint, Ma'am."

Rear Admiral of the Green Dame Evelyn Padgorny looked up from her routine paperwork at her ops officer's announcement. Commander Thackeray stood in the flag briefing room's hatch, his voice a bit deeper than usual, and Padgorny cocked an eyebrow at him.

"I assume from the fact that you're telling me this that it isn't a scheduled footprint, Alvin," she said dryly.

"No, Ma'am. It isn't." Thackeray gave her a tight grin. "The outer reconnaissance platforms make it twelve units. At the moment it looks like a pair of either superdreadnoughts or their CLACs, with a battlecruiser squadron riding shotgun and a couple of light cruisers or big tin-cans for scouting."

"Another raid, then," she said.

"That's what it looks like to CIC and System Defense Command," Thackeray agreed. "The question, of course, is whether they are CLACs . . . or SD(P)s."

"You do have a way of cutting to the nub of a matter, don't you, Alvin?"

Padgorny smiled humorlessly, logged off her terminal, and stood. Thackeray stepped back to let her precede him through the hatch, then followed her across the deck to HMS Prince Stephen's master plot. At least the plot's details were clear, she thought. The FTL links to the reconnaissance platforms planted around the system periphery were real-timing their take to Prince Stephen, and she pursed her lips thoughtfully as she studied the crimson icons.

Assuming they were, indeed, Havenite units—and Padgorny couldn't think of any reason for anyone else to be coming in without identifying themselves this way—Thackeray's question was well taken. Prince Stephen and the other four units of the understrength Thirty-First Battle Squadron weren't precisely cutting-edge. Although the oldest of Padgorny's ships was less than eight T-years old, none of them were pod-layers. All five were surrounded by shoals of missile pods, waiting to tractor themselves to their hulls upon command, but they weren't really optimized for pod-based combat. They simply lacked the sophistication of the fire control built into ships of the wall which had been intended from the outset for the new operational environment. Prince Stephen could "tow" as many as five or six hundred of the new pods, whose internal tractors glued them limpet-like to a ship's hull, but loading up with that many would seriously compromise her combat ability by blocking sensor and firing arcs. Worse, the maximum number of missiles she could actually simultaneously control effectively at range was no more than a hundred. One of the Invictus-class SD(P)s could control two or three times that many birds, even without the new Keyhole platforms, and she had to assume Peep pod-layers would also have several times the missile telemetry channels her ships had.

On the other hand, she reminded herself, if these people really want to shoot at us, then they've got to come to us. Which means, in this case, not simply us, but all the rest of Zanzibar System Defense Command.

Unless, of course, the Peeps in question were prepared to simply flail away at extreme range. It was unlikely they would choose to risk even accidentally violating the Eridani Edict, but they were Peeps, after all. The bastards hadn't been at all shy about killing thousands of Padgorny's fellow naval officers and ratings in their goddamned sneak attack, so they might not lose any sleep about the odd civilian mega-death or two, either.

"Any communication from them yet?"

"No, Ma'am," the com officer of the watch replied. "Of course, they've just come over the Alpha wall."

"Yes, they have," Padgorny agreed. "But by now, even the Peeps know our sensor platforms are out there and that they're FTL. Don't you suppose they might have figured out that a light-speed omnidirectional broadcast would be picked up and relayed to us?"

"Ah, yes, Ma'am," the hapless communications officer said. Obviously the Old Lady was not in a good mood, he noted.

"Sorry, Willoughby," Padgorny said a moment later, lips twitching in a wry smile. "Didn't mean to bite your head off."

"Yes, Ma'am," Lieutenant Willoughby said in a somewhat different tone, and returned her smile.

Padgorny nodded and turned away from him. She didn't really require any self-identifications from the intruders. The lack of any transmissions from them meant they had to be Peeps, since any Allied units most definitely would have identified themselves by now. So there was no point in taking out her frustration on Willoughby. Still, she would dearly love to know exactly what—

"LAC separation!" a voice announced. "We have LAC separation on Bogeys Alpha and Bravo! Estimate five hundred-plus inbound at six-eight-zero gravities!"

Well, it seemed that sometimes wishes came true. At least she knew, now, and it was unlikely the Peeps intended any Eridani violations if they were sending in LACs armed with short-ranged missiles.

"What about the battlecruisers?" she asked.

"They're maintaining constant decel with the CLACs, Ma'am," Thackeray replied. "Looks like this is more of a probe than a serious attack. The battlecruisers are hanging back to cover the CLACs while their birds are away."

Padgorny nodded in agreement with Thackeray's assessment.

"They're going to get hurt," another voice said, and Padgorny looked up as Commander Thomasina Hartnett, her chief of staff, arrived on the flag bridge. "Sorry I'm late, Ma'am," Hartnett continued with a grimace. "My pinnace was on final approach when these people turned up."

"Inconvenient of them," Padgorny replied with a thin smile, "but what can you expect out of Peeps?"

"Anything from Defense Command?" Hartnett asked Willoughby even as she accepted a memo board with a full situation update from Thackeray.

"Not after the initial alert, Ma'am," Willoughby said.

"Probably waiting to see whether or not they launched LACs," Padgorny said with a shrug, when Hartnett looked at her.

"Well, Ma'am," the chief of staff said, eyes scanning the memo board as she spoke, "I stand by my own initial assessment. These people are gonna get seriously hammered if they keep on coming in."

"A point which I suspect has occurred to them, as well," Padgorny said. "But it all depends on how deep in they want to get, Tommy."

"True, Ma'am." Hartnett nibbled on a thumbnail, eyes intent as she studied the master plot. "I really wish that bastard Theisman hadn't shot Saint-Just," she said, after a moment.

"Really?" Padgorny cocked her head inquiringly, and Hartnett shrugged.

"At least State Security kept their admirals looking over their shoulders all the time, Ma'am. They were too busy watching their own asses to think up inventive things to do to us. And they'd have thought two or three times about proposing probes like this one. They'd have been afraid they'd be expected to carry through with a serious attack."

"I don't know if it's really that much of an improvement," Padgorny objected in her best, approved devil's advocate tone. "McQueen did a number on us when she did carry through with 'a serious attack,' StateSec or no StateSec."

"Oh, she certainly did that," Hartnett agreed. "But that was a heavy-duty, full-press fleet operation. These people—" she jabbed an index finger at the plot's icons "—aren't here to hurt Zanzibar. They're here probing for information, and they're willing to take significant losses to get it. Which means they're planning on doing something with whatever info they can get, and, frankly, that could be a hell of a lot more dangerous to us than a serious attack on the system might have been."

Padgorny nodded thoughtfully. There was a new, tough-minded professionalism behind the Peeps' operations in this new and more dangerous war. The clumsy amateurism the previous régimes' civilian masters had imposed on their uniformed subordinates had disappeared, and it was painfully obvious the new management was working from a cohesive, carefully thought-out playbook. And Hartnett was right. Providing that sort of navy with the information needed to accurately assess just how threadbare the Alliance's defenses really were—everywhere, not just in Zanzibar—came under the heading of Really Bad Ideas.

"Well," she said after a moment, "in that case, I suppose we ought to get busy seeing these people off without giving them any better look at us than we can help."

"Yes, Ma'am," Hartnett agreed. "Flush the LACs?"

"Not all of them." Padgorny shook her head. "Let's keep at least one pulser up our sleeve. Alvin," she turned back to the ops officer, "launch just the in-system platforms. Have them form up on the squadron. We'll move out together."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am," Commander Thackeray acknowledged. "Should I inform System Defense that we're executing Hildebrandt?"

"Yes, of course you should." Padgorny grimaced. "I should have thought of it myself. In fact, before you pass the orders, contact System Defense. Inform them that I intend to put Hildebrandt into operation unless otherwise instructed."

"Yes, Ma'am."

Padgorny gave the expressionless operations officer a quick smile. The diplomatic management of allies had never been one of her own strong suits, and managing those allies had become both more important and much more difficult in the wake of the High Ridge Government's disastrous foreign policy. Stepping on the Zanzibaran System Navy's sensibilities by ignoring it in its own star system would have been less than brilliant. Especially after the system's industry and economy had been so brutally shattered by the Peeps "Operation Icarus" barely eight T-years ago. And extra especially, in the wake of the High Ridge Government's incredibly incompetent foreign policy, when the Treaty of Alliance specifically assigned command authority to the ZSN. Existing doctrine and previous discussions with the Zanzibarans made it obvious which system defense plan was called for, but that wasn't really the point . . . diplomatically speaking.

"Good catch, Ma'am," Hartnett said very quietly, cutting her eyes sideways to indicate Thackeray as the operations officer and Lieutenant Willoughby put the com call through to Zanzibar System Defense Command.

"Agreed," Padgorny replied, equally quietly, nodding her head. "Alvin does have his moments."

The admiral shoved her hands deep into her tunic's pockets, lower lip protruding slightly as she studied the plot, waiting for System Defense's response.

The Peeps were still boring steadily in, but there was plenty of time to show a little sensitivity to inter-allied coordination. Zanzibar was a G4, with a hyper limit of just over twenty light-minutes. The planet of the same name orbited its primary at just under eight light-minutes, which put it 12.3 light-minutes inside the limit, and most of the system's manufacturing and commercial infrastructure (rebuilt with the very latest technology and the aid of massive Manticoran loans and subsidies after Icarus) orbited the planet. The intruders were already inside both of the system's asteroid belts, and even if they hadn't been, Zanzibar's extraction industry was less centralized than most. There were very few belter nodes for them to hit, which meant any truly worthwhile targets had to be deep in-system.

They had arrived with a fairly low normal-space velocity—less than twelve hundred kilometers per second—and they were over two hundred and twenty million kilometers from any of those worthwhile targets. Even at their LACs' rate of acceleration, it would have taken them over two hours—132.84 minutes, to be precise—just to reach the planet, at which point their velocity would have been well over fifty-four thousand kilometers per second. And if they'd wanted a zero/zero intercept, flight time would have been roughly fifty-six minutes longer.

Of course, they weren't going to do either of those things. As Hartnett had observed, this was a probe, not a serious attack. They wouldn't commit that many LACs to a flight profile that would force them to enter the engagement envelope of Zanzibar's orbital defenses. Those tiny craft had nowhere near the firepower to tackle the orbital defenses, and there were six or seven thousand men and women aboard them. Sending them to their deaths for no meaningful return was something the Pierre régime or Saint-Just might have done. Theisman wouldn't. No, they were here to drag their coats behind them. To be just threatening enough to provoke the system's defenders into revealing at least a part of their capabilities. Even relatively tiny pieces of data could be combined, massaged by computers and human analysts, to reveal far more about the state of Zanzibar's defenses and, by implication, the status of the Alliance as a whole, than anyone wanted Theisman to know.

But probes of the defenses were precisely what System Defense Plan Hildebrandt was intended to prevent. With BS 31 and the inner-system LACs anyone but an idiot already knew were present advancing to meet them, the Peep LACs would be forced to withdraw without the defenders having revealed their full capabilities. Which—

"Excuse me, Admiral."

Padgorny turned her head and looked up, frowning slightly as Alvin Thackeray's tone registered.

"Yes?" she said.

"Ma'am, Admiral al-Bakr is on the com." Padgorny's eyebrows rose, and Thackeray gave a very slight shrug. "He says he's not prepared to authorize Hildebrandt, Ma'am."

Padgorny's raised eyebrows lowered, and her frown deepened.

"Did he say why not?" she asked, quite a bit more crisply than she'd intended to.

"He feels the Peeps' approach is too obvious," Thackeray said expressionlessly. "He thinks it may be a feint intended to draw us out of position."

Padgorny's lips compressed tightly, and the hands shoved into her tunic's pockets clenched into fists.

"A feint?" Commander Hartnett's voice was sharp as she asked the question Padgorny had kept herself from voicing. "And what does he think the system surveillance arrays are for?" she demanded.

"Calmly, Tommy," Padgorny said. The chief of staff looked at her, and the admiral let her eyes sweep around the flag bridge, reminding her of all the listening ears. Not that Padgorny didn't agree completely with Hartnett's response.

"Sorry, Ma'am," Hartnett said, after a moment. "But there's no way they're going to sneak another attack force into the system without our spotting a hyper footprint when they arrive, and the remote platforms have these people right under their eye. There's no way anyone else is lurking around out there to take advantage of any diversion the LACs might represent. This has to be exactly what Hildebrandt is supposed to stop."

"I'm inclined to think you're right," Padgorny replied. She was faintly surprised by how calm she managed to sound, and she looked past Thackeray to Willoughby.

"Please put the Admiral through to my display," she requested, striding across to her command chair and settling herself into it.

"Yes, Ma'am," Willoughby said, and Admiral Gammal al-Bakr's face appeared on the flatscreen display deployed from the left arm of Padgorny's command chair.

"Admiral al-Bakr," she said courteously.

"Admiral Padgorny," he responded. Al-Bakr wore the ZSN's visored cap, maroon tunic, and black trousers, with the doubled crescent moons of his rank glittering on his collar points. Like most Zanzibarans, he was dark-haired and eyed. He was also of medium height, with a lean, hawkish face and a neatly trimmed beard and mustache streaked with white around his lips.

"I understand you're opposed to the activation of Hildebrandt, Admiral?" Padgorny said as pleasantly as possible.

"I am," al-Bakr replied levelly. "I believe it's possible this attack represents a feint, intended to draw your units out of position and clear the way for a direct attack on the planet and its orbital installations."

"Sir," Padgorny said, after a brief pause, "we've detected no indications of any force waiting to exploit any diversion the LACs might manage to create. I feel confident your surveillance arrays would have detected any such force upon its arrival."

"They may have taken a page from Admiral Harrington's Sidemore tactics," al-Bakr countered. "They could very well have an entire task force waiting in hyper. If you activate Hildebrandt and move away from the planet, they could send a messenger into hyper to bring those reinforcements in at any point around the hyper-limit sphere of their choice."

Padgorny managed not to stare at him. It wasn't easy.

"Admiral," she said instead, controlling her tone carefully, "the incoming forces we know about are on Zanzibar's side of the primary. They're coming in on the shortest, least-time approach. If we move towards them, we'll remain between them and the inner system. Forces approaching from other directions will have much further to travel, and I think it's unlikely we could be drawn far enough out of position to prevent us from responding if and when they make their alpha translation and we detect their footprints."

And even if that weren't true, she thought, why in the world would they be bothering with diversions if they have an all-up task force or fleet out there in the first place? If they've got that kind of firepower, they certainly don't need to "distract" a single understrength battle squadron!

"Overall," al-Bakr said, "I agree that your assessment is logical. However, if you advance far enough from the planet under Hildebrandt, they could execute a polar translation and effectively cut in behind you. Particularly since your base velocity would be directly away from the planet at the moment they made translation."

Padgorny's jaw muscles tightened. What al-Bakr was suggesting was at least theoretically feasible. But it wouldn't be easy, and she couldn't conceive of any rational reason for the Peeps to attempt any such complicated maneuver.

"Sir," she said, "given the range of our MDMs, they would have to time things very, very carefully if they intended to remain outside our engagement envelope. Moreover, they would be attacking directly into your own orbital defenses and the fire of our inner-system defense pods. They would have to be present in overwhelming strength to crack those defenses, even without the presence of my own battle squadron. In my estimation, this represents another probing attack, precisely the scenario Hildebrandt is designed to defeat. They're looking for information on your star system's defensive capabilities for future reference. And if we don't execute Hildebrandt—don't move out to engage these LACs short of the inner-system—they'll be able to get much deeper in and get a far better look at those defenses."

"They can do that with recon drones, if they wish to," al-Bakr countered. "There's no need for them to risk their LACs doing the same job. So, with all due respect, Dame Evelyn, I believe the reason they are using LACs is specifically to draw you out of position."

"I doubt very much, Sir, that Peeps are going to be able to sneak recon drones deep enough in-system to obtain the sort of information they need without our detecting them. Their drones simply aren't as stealthy as ours, and their sensors aren't as good. They couldn't pick up our concealed units . . . unless those units go active. Which is why they're using LACs. They may well have a drone screen out, but they want us to engage the LACs—or at least move to do so—because their drones can't pick our units up unless and until we bring them on-line."

"Havenite technology has clearly improved greatly since the previous war, Admiral," al-Bakr said. "I believe it may be good enough to accomplish the task even if our defenses remain covert—or that they believe it is, at any rate. And it is, after all, their own assessment of their technology's capabilities which will govern their choice of tactics."

"Sir, I'm afraid I can't share your interpretation of their intentions." Padgorny kept both her tone and her expression as nonconfrontational as she possibly could. "But whichever one of us is correct, we're faced with the fact that almost six hundred hostile LACs are headed in-system and accelerating at over six and a half KPS squared. And while they're already inside most of your asteroid industry, there are—" she checked the CIC sidebar on the main plot "—twenty-three of your extraction freighters directly in their path. In addition to one Manticoran, one Solarian, and two Andermani merchantmen. If we don't respond, most of those extraction vessels and at least one of the Andermani freighters will find themselves in the Peeps' attack range before they can reach the cover of your orbital defenses."

"I'm aware of the shipping movements, Admiral Padgorny," al-Bakr said a bit frostily. "This, after all, is not the first time the Peeps have visited this system," he added pointedly. "And I haven't said you can't engage these intruders. I've simply said that I won't authorize Hildebrandt. Your vessels, and the inner-system LACs, must remain in position to cover the planet and our most vital space infrastructure. I would point out to you that it was for precisely this sort of circumstance that the outer-system LACs and pods were deployed in the first place."

Padgorny discovered that her teeth ached from the force her jaw muscles were now exerting.

"Admiral al-Bakr," she said after a moment, "at this time, we have no reason to believe the Peeps realize the outer-system defenses are present. If we use them against this attack, however, that will change. Which will provide their planners with valuable intelligence in the event that they do decide to execute a serious attack on Zanzibar in future. I strongly urge you to allow me to use Hildebrandt rather than reveal that capability."

"I'm afraid I can't do that," al-Bakr said flatly. "I realize you continue to have a great deal of faith in the superiority of our—and, particularly, your Star Kingdom's—technology over that of Haven. However, I—and my Caliph—are no longer in a position to place complete trust in that superiority, especially in light of the price the Caliphate has already paid. I believe it's probable Haven already knows from its own recon drones or other intelligence sources that we've been deploying LAC tenders and pods in the outer system. Which is one reason I believe this is a feint."

Padgorny tried hard not to goggle at him. If the Caliph and his military advisers thought anything of the sort, why the hell hadn't they said so sooner than this? From the hardening of his expression, she realized she hadn't fully succeeded in controlling her own.

"At any rate, Admiral Padgorny," his voice was flatter than before, "I am not prepared to further debate my decision as the commander of this star system's defenses. You will not execute Hildebrandt and uncover the inner-system. And you will use the outer-system defenses to deal with this attack. Is that understood?"

Padgorny inhaled deeply, nostrils flaring, and reminded herself diplomacy wasn't her forte.

"It is, Admiral al-Bakr," she said, her voice almost as flat as his. "For the record, however, I strongly dissent from your analysis of the situation and of the enemy's intentions. I wish for my objection to the orders you've just issued to be made part of the official record. And I will be reporting that objection to my own superiors in my next dispatch."

Their eyes locked in the com display. It was hard to say whose were harder, and tension hovered between them.

"Both your dissent and your objection are noted, Admiral," al-Bakr replied. "And, you are, of course, free to state whatever objections you choose to your superiors. Nonetheless, at this time, my orders stand."

"Very well, Admiral," Padgorny said coldly. "With your permission. Padgorny, clear."


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