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 Chapter Nine

“What’s the current status of Bogey Two, Utako?”

“No change in course or heading, Sir,” Lieutenant Commander Utako Schreiber, operations officer of Task Group 2.2, Mesan Alignment Navy, replied. She looked over her shoulder at Commodore Roderick Sung, the task group’s CO, who’d just stepped back onto MANS Apparition’s tiny flag bridge, and raised one eyebrow very slightly.

Sung noted the eyebrow and suppressed an uncharacteristic urge to snap at her for it. He managed to conquer the temptation without ever allowing it to show in his own expression, and the fact that Schreiber was probably the best ops officer he’d ever worked with, despite her junior rank, helped. Her willingness to think for herself was the reason he’d hand-picked her from a sizable pool of candidates when Benjamin Detweiler handed him this prong of Oyster Bay, after all. And the fact that he’d worked hard to establish the relationship of mutual trust and respect which let a subordinate ask that sort of silent question helped even more.

All the same, a tiny part of him did want to rip her head off. Not because of anything she’d done, but because of the tension building steadily in the vicinity of his stomach.

“Thank you,” he said out loud instead as he crossed to his own command chair and settled back into it.

At least I’ve demonstrated my imperturbability by taking a break to hit the head, he reflected mordantly. Unless, of course, Utako and the others decide I only went because the damned Graysons are worrying the piss out of me!

That second thought surprised a quiet snort of amusement out of him, and he was amazed how much better that made him feel. Of course, there was a galaxy of difference between “better” and anything he would describe as “good.”

Up until the past twelve hours or so, Sung’s part of Operation Oyster Bay had gone without a hitch, so he supposed he really shouldn’t complain too loudly, even in the privacy of his own mind, when Murphy put in his inevitable appearance. The advantages of technology and heredity were all well and good, but the universe remained a slave to probability theory. The Alignment’s strategists had made a conscientious effort to keep that point in mind from the very beginning, as had the planners of this particular mission. In fact, both Sung’s orders and every pre-op briefing had stressed that concern, yet he doubted his superiors would look kindly on the man who blew Oyster Bay, whatever the circumstances.

He frowned down at his small repeater plot, watching the red icons of the Grayson Space Navy cruiser squadron.

Just my luck to wander into the middle of some kind of training exercise, he thought glumly. Although I’d like to know what the hell they think they’re doing exercising clear up here. Damned untidy of them.

Oyster Bay’s operational planners had taken advantage of the tendency for local shipping to restrict itself largely to the plane of a star system’s ecliptic. Virtually all the real estate in which human beings were interested lay along the ecliptic, after all. Local traffic was seldom concerned with anything much above or below it, and ships arriving out of hyper almost invariably arrived in the same plane, since that generally offered the shortest normal-space flightpath to whatever destination had brought them to the system, as well, not to mention imposing a small but significantly lower amount of wear and tear on their alpha nodes. So even though defensive planners routinely placed surveillance platforms to cover the polar regions, there wasn’t usually very much shipping in those areas.

In this instance, however, for reasons best known to itself—and, of course, Murphy—the GSN had elected to send an entire squadron of what looked like their version of the Manties’ Saganami-C-class heavy cruisers out to play halfway to the hyper limit and due north of Yeltsin’s Star.

It wouldn’t have pissed Sung off so much if they hadn’t decided to do it at this particular moment. Well, and in this particular spot. The other five ships of his task group were headed to meet Apparition for their last scheduled rendezvous, and unless Bogey Two changed vector, it was going to pass within less than five light-minutes of the rendezvous point.

And considerably closer than that to Apparition’s course as she headed towards that rendezvous.

He propped his elbows on his command chair’s armrests and leaned back, lips pursed as he considered the situation. One of the problems the mission planners had been forced to address was the simple fact that a star system was an enormous volume for only six ships to scout, however sophisticated their sensors or their remote platforms were and however stealthy they themselves might be. At least it was if the objective was to keep anyone on the other side from suspecting the scouting was in progress.

He’d studied every available scrap about the Manties’ operations against Haven, and he’d been impressed by their reconnaissance platforms’ apparent ability to operate virtually at will without being intercepted by the Havenites. Unfortunately, if Sung’s presence was ever noted at all, whether anyone managed to actually intercept him or not, Oyster Bay was probably blown, which meant the Manties’ task had been rather easier than his own. He never doubted that he could have evaded the local sensor net well enough to prevent it from pinning down the actual locations of any of his units even if it managed to detect their simple presence. Unfortunately, the object was for the Graysons to never even know he was here in the first place. The Manties’ scout forces, by and large, hadn’t been particularly concerned about the possibility that the Havenites might realize they were being scouted, since there was nothing they could have done to prevent it and it wasn’t exactly as if they didn’t already know someone was at war with them. But if the Graysons figured out that someone—anyone—was roaming about their star system before the very last moment, they could probably substantially blunt Oyster Bay’s success. They’d still get hurt, probably badly, but Oyster Bay was supposed to be decisive, not just painful.

Bearing all of that in mind, the operational planners had ruled out any extensive com transmissions between the widely dispersed units of Sung’s task group. Even the most tightly focused transmissions were much more likely to be detected than the scout ships themselves, which was why the ops plan included periodic rendezvous points for the scouts to exchange information at very short range using low powered whisker lasers. Once all their sensor data had been collected, organized, and analyzed, Apparition would know what to tell the guidance platforms. But without those rendezvous, Sung’s flagship wouldn’t have the data in the first place, and that would be unacceptable.

Unlike some of the more fiery of the Alignment’s zealots, Roderick Sung felt no personal animosity towards any of the normals who were about to discover they were outmoded. However naïve and foolish he might find their faith in the random combination of genes, and however committed he might be to overcoming the obstacles that foolishness created, he didn’t blame any of them personally for it. Well, aside from those sanctimonious prigs on Beowulf, of course. But his lack of personal animus didn’t lessen his determination to succeed, and at this particular moment all he really wanted was for a spontaneous black hole to appear out of nowhere and eat every one of those blasted cruisers.

“Should we alter course, Sir?”

The commodore looked up at the quiet question. Commander Travis Tsau, his chief of staff, stood at his shoulder and nodded towards the plot by Sung’s right knee.

“Bogey Two’s going to pass within two light-minutes of our base course at closest approach,” Tsau pointed out, still in that quiet voice.

“A point, Travis,” Sung replied with a thin smile, “of which I was already aware.”

“I know that, Sir.” Tsau was normally a bit stiffer than Schreiber, but he’d known Sung even longer, and he returned the commodore’s smile wryly. “On the other hand, part of my job is to bring little things like that to your attention. Just in case, you understand.”

“True.” Sung nodded, glanced back down at the plot, then drew a deep breath.

“We’ll hold our course,” he said then. “Without even the spider up, we should be nothing but a nice, quiet hole in space as far as they’re concerned. And, frankly, they’re already so close I’d just as soon leave the spider down. I know they’re not supposed to be able to detect it, but . . .”

He let his voice trail off, and Tsau nodded. At the moment, Apparition was moving on a purely ballistic course, with every active sensor shut down. And, as Sung had just pointed out, that, coupled with all the manifold stealth features built into the scout ship, ought to make her more than simply invisible. The only real problem with that analysis hung on the single word “ought,” since if that assumption turned out to be inaccurate, Apparition would stand precisely zero probability of surviving.

The Ghost-class ships had no offensive armament at all. They were designed to do precisely what Apparition was doing at this moment, and there was no point pretending they’d be able to fight their way out of trouble if the other side managed to find them in the first place. So they’d been equipped with every stealth system the fertile imaginations of Anastasia Chernevsky and the rest of the MAN’s R&D establishment had been able to devise, packed into the smallest possible platform, and if that meant sacrificing armament, so be it. Even their antimissile defenses represented little more than a token gesture, and everyone aboard Apparition was thoroughly aware of that fact.

On the other hand, Chernevsky and her people are very, very good at their jobs, Sung reminded himself.

A huge chunk of Apparition’s available tonnage had been eaten up by the spider’s triple “keels,” and another sizable chunk had been dedicated to her enormously capable sensor suite. Habitability had also loomed as a major factor in her designers’ minds, since the Ghosts were going to be deployed on long-endurance missions, but the architects had accepted some significant compromises even in that regard in favor of knitting the most effective possible cloak of invisibility.

Unlike the starships of most navies, the MAN’s scouts hadn’t settled for simple smart paint. Other ships could control and reconfigure their “paint” at will, transforming their hulls—or portions of those hulls—into whatever they needed at any given moment, from nearly perfectly reflective surfaces to black bodies. The Ghosts’ capabilities, however, went much further than that. Instead of the relatively simpleminded nanotech of most ships’ “paint,” the surface of Apparition’s hull was capable of mimicking effectively any portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Her passive sensors detected any incoming radiation, from infrared through cosmic rays, and her computers mapped the data onto her hull, where her extraordinarily capable nannies reproduced it. In effect, anyone looking at Apparition when her stealth was fully engaged would “see” whatever the sensors exactly opposite his viewpoint “saw,” as if the entire ship were a single sheet of crystoplast.

That was the theory, at least, and in this case, what theory predicted and reality achieved were remarkably close together.

It wasn’t perfect, of course. The system’s greatest weakness was that it couldn’t give complete coverage. Like any stealth system, it still had to deal with things like waste heat, for example. Current technology could recapture and use an enormous percentage of that heat, but not all of it, and what they couldn’t capture still had to go somewhere. And, like other navies’ stealth systems, the MAN’s dealt with that by radiating that heat away from known enemy sensors. Modern stealth fields could do a lot to minimize even heat signatures, but nothing could completely eliminate them, and stealth fields themselves were detectable at extremely short ranges, so any ship remained vulnerable to detection by a sufficiently sensitive sensor on exactly the right (or wrong) bearing.

In this instance, though, they knew right where the Graysons were. That meant they could adjust for maximum stealthiness against that particular threat bearing, and as part of his training, Sung had personally tried to detect a Ghost with the MAN’s very best passive sensors. Even knowing exactly where the ship was, it had been all but impossible to pick her out of the background radiation of space, so he wasn’t unduly concerned that Bogey Two would detect Apparition with shipboard systems as long as she remained completely covert. He was less confident that the spider drive would pass unnoticed at such an absurdly short range, however. Chernevsky’s people assured him detection was exceedingly unlikely—that it had taken them the better part of two T-years to develop their own detectors, even knowing what they were looking for, and that those detectors were still far from anything anyone would ever call reliable—but Sung had no desire to be the one who proved their optimism had been misplaced. Even the spider had a footprint, after all, even if it wasn’t something anyone else would have associated with a drive system. All it would take was for someone to notice an anomalous reading and be conscientious enough—or, for that matter, bored enough—to spend a little time trying to figure out what it was.

And the fact that the spider’s signature flares as it comes up only makes that more likely, he reflected. The odds against anyone spotting it would still be enormous, but even so, they’d be a hell of a lot worse than the chance of anyone aboard Bogey Two noticing us if we just keep quietly coasting along.

At the same time, he knew exactly why Tsau had asked his question. However difficult a sensor target they might be for Bogey Two’s shipboard systems, the rules would change abruptly if the Grayson cruiser decided to deploy her own recon platforms. If she were to do that, and if the platforms got a good, close-range look at the aspect Apparition was keeping turned away from their mothership, the chance of detection went from abysmally low to terrifyingly high in very short order. Which meant what Sung was really doing was betting that the odds of the Grayson’s choosing to deploy recon platforms were lower than the odds of her shipboard systems detecting the spider’s activation flare if he maneuvered to avoid her.

Of course, even if we did try to crab away from her, it wouldn’t help a whole hell of a lot if she decided to launch platforms. All we’d really manage to do would be to move her target a bit farther away from her, and there’s a reason they call remote platforms remote, Rod.

No. He’d play the odds, and he knew it was the right decision, however little comfort that might be if Murphy did decide to take an even more active hand.

I wonder if Østby and Omelchenko are having this much fun wandering around Manticore? he thought dryly. I know no one ever promised it would be easy, and I’ve always enjoyed a hand of poker as much as the next man, but this is getting ridiculous.

Roderick Sung settled himself even more comfortably in his command chair and waited to see exactly what sort of cards Murphy had chosen to deal this time.

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