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On Basilisk Station

Copyright 1994
ISBN: 0-671-57772-7

by David M. Weber

DEDICATION

To C. S. Forester,
With thanks for hours of enjoyment,
years of inspiration,
and a lifetime of admiration.


PROLOGUE

The ticking of the conference room’s antique clock was deafening as the Hereditary President of the People’s Republic of Haven stared at his military cabinet. The secretary of the economy looked away uncomfortably, but the secretary of war and her uniformed subordinates were almost defiant.

"Are you serious?" President Harris demanded.

"I’m afraid so," Secretary Frankel said unhappily. He shuffled through his memo chips and made himself meet the president’s eyes. "The last three quarters all confirm the projection, Sid." He glowered sideways at his military colleague. "It’s the naval budget. We can’t keep adding ships this way without—"

"If we don’t keep adding them," Elaine Dumarest broke in sharply, "the wheels come off. We’re riding a neotiger, Mr. President. At least a third of the occupied planets still have crackpot ‘liberation’ groups, and even if they didn’t, everyone on our borders is arming to the teeth. It’s only a matter of time until one of them jumps us."

"I think you’re overreacting, Elaine," Ronald Bergren put in. The Secretary for Foreign Affairs rubbed his pencil-thin mustache and frowned at her. "Certainly they’re arming—I would be, too, in their place—but none of them are strong enough to take us on."

"Perhaps not just now," Admiral Parnell said bleakly, "but if we get tied down elsewhere or any large-scale revolt breaks out, some of them are going to be tempted into trying a smash and grab. That’s why we need more ships. And, with all due respect to Mr. Frankel," the CNO added, not sounding particularly respectful, "it isn’t the Fleet budget that’s breaking the bank. It’s the increases in the Basic Living Stipend. We’ve got to tell the Dolists that any trough has a bottom and get them to stop swilling long enough to get our feet back under us. If we could just get those useless drones off our backs, even for a few years—"

"Oh, that’s a wonderful idea!" Frankel snarled. "Those BLS increases are all that’s keeping the mob in check! They supported the wars to support their standard of living, and if we don’t—"

"That’s enough!" President Harris slammed his hand down on the table and glared at them all in the shocked silence. He let the stillness linger a moment, then leaned back and sighed. "We’re not going to achieve anything by calling names and pointing fingers," he said more mildly. "Let’s face it—the DuQuesene Plan hasn’t proved the answer we thought it would."

"I have to disagree, Mr. President," Dumarest said. "The basic plan remains sound, and it’s not as if we have any other choice now. We simply failed to make sufficient allowance for the expenses involved."

"And for the revenues it would generate," Frankel added in a gloomy tone. "There’s a limit to how hard we can squeeze the planetary economies, but without more income, we can’t maintain our BLS expenditures and produce a military powerful enough to hold what we’ve got."

"How much time do we have?" Harris asked.

"I can’t say for certain. I can paper over the cracks for a while, maybe even maintain a facade of affluence, by robbing Peter to pay Paul. But unless the spending curves change radically or we secure a major new source of revenue, we’re living on borrowed time, and it’s only going to get worse." He smiled without humor. "It’s a pity most of the systems we’ve acquired weren’t in much better economic shape than we were."

"And you’re certain we can’t reduce Fleet expenditures, Elaine?"

"Not without running very grave risks, Mr. President. Admiral Parnell is perfectly correct about how our neighbors will react if we waver." It was her turn to smile grimly. "I suppose we’ve taught them too well."

"Maybe we have," Parnell said, "but there’s an answer to that." Eyes turned to him, and he shrugged. "Knock them off now. If we take out the remaining military powers on our frontiers, we can probably cut back to something more like a peace-keeping posture of our own."

"Jesus, Admiral!" Bergren snorted. "First you tell us we can’t hold what we’ve got without spending ourselves into exhaustion, and now you want to kick off a whole new series of wars? Talk about the mysteries of the military mind—!"

"Hold on a minute, Ron," Harris murmured. He cocked his head at the admiral. "Could you pull it off, Amos?"

"I believe so," Parnell replied more cautiously. "The problem would be timing." He touched a button and a holo map glowed to life above the table. The swollen sphere of the People’s Republic crowded its northeastern quadrant, and he gestured at a rash of amber and red star systems to the south and west. "There are no multi-system powers closer than the Anderman Empire," he pointed out. "Most of the single-system governments are strictly small change; we could blow out any one of them with a single task force, despite their armament programs. What makes them dangerous is the probability that they’ll get organized as a unit if we give them time."

Harris nodded thoughtfully, but reached out and touched one of the beads of light that glowed a dangerous blood-red. "And Manticore?" he asked.

"That’s the joker in the deck," Parnell agreed. "They’re big enough to give us a fight, assuming they’ve got the guts for it."

"So why not avoid them, or at least leave them for last?" Bergren asked. "Their domestic parties are badly divided over what to do about us—couldn’t we chop up the other small fry first?"

"We’d be in worse shape if we did," Frankel objected. He touched a button of his own, and two-thirds of the amber lights on Parnell’s map turned a sickly gray-green. "Each of those systems is almost as far in the hole economically as we are," he pointed out. "They’ll actually cost us money to take over, and the others are barely break-even propositions. The systems we really need are further south, down towards the Erewhon Junction, or over in the Silesian Confederacy to the west."

"Then why not grab them straight off?" Harris asked.

"Because Erewhon has League membership, Mr. President," Dumarest replied, "and going south might convince the League we’re threatening its territory. That could be, ah, a bad idea." Heads nodded around the table. The Solarian League had the wealthiest, most powerful economy in the known galaxy, but its foreign and military policies were the product of so many compromises that they virtually did not exist, and no one in this room wanted to irritate the sleeping giant into evolving ones that did.

"So we can’t go south," Dumarest went on, "but going west instead brings us right back to Manticore."

"Why?" Frankel asked. "We could take Silesia without ever coming within a hundred light-years of Manticore—just cut across above them and leave them alone."

"Oh?" Parnell challenged. "And what about the Manticore Wormhole Junction? Its Basilisk terminus would be right in our path. We’d almost have to take it just to protect our flank, and even if we didn’t, the Royal Manticoran Navy would see the implications once we started expanding around their northern frontier. They’d have no choice but to try to stop us."

"We couldn’t cut a deal with them?" Frankel asked Bergren, and the foreign secretary shrugged.

"The Manticoran Liberal Party can’t find its ass with both hands where foreign policy is concerned, and the Progressives would probably dicker, but they aren’t in control; the Centrists and Crown Loyalists are. They hate our guts, and Elizabeth III hates us even more than they do. Even if the Liberals and Progressives could turn the Government out, the Crown would never negotiate with us."

"Um." Frankel plucked at his lip, then sighed. "Too bad, because there’s another point. We’re in bad enough shape for foreign exchange, and three-quarters of our foreign trade moves through the Manticore Junction. If they close it against us, it’ll add months to transit times . . . and costs."

"Tell me about it," Parnell said sourly. "That damned junction also gives their navy an avenue right into the middle of the Republic through the Trevor’s Star terminus."

"But if we knocked them out, then we’d hold the Junction," Dumarest murmured. "Think what that would do for our economy."

Frankel looked up, eyes glowing with sudden avarice, for the junction gave the Kingdom of Manticore a gross system product seventy-eight percent that of the Sol System itself. Harris noted his expression and gave a small, ugly smile.

"All right, let’s look at it. We’re in trouble and we know it. We have to keep expanding. Manticore is in the way, and taking it would give our economy a hefty shot in the arm. The problem is what we do about it."

"Manticore or not," Parnell said thoughtfully, "we have to pinch out these problem spots to the southwest." He gestured at the systems Frankel had dyed gray-green. "It’d be a worthwhile preliminary to position us against Manticore, anyway. But if we can do it, the smart move would be to take out Manticore first and then deal with the small fry."

"Agreed," Harris nodded. "Any ideas on how we might do that?"

"Let me get with my staff, Mr. President. I’m not sure yet, but the Junction could be a two-edged sword if we handle it right. . . ." The admiral’s voice trailed off, then he shook himself. "Let me get with my staff," he repeated. "Especially with Naval Intelligence. I’ve got an idea, but I need to work on it." He cocked his head. "I can probably have a report, one way or the other, for you in about a month. Will that be acceptable?"

"Entirely, Admiral," Harris said, and adjourned the meeting.


Copyright 1994 by David M. Weber
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