In Death Ground

Copyright 1997

by David Weber & Steve White

Before the Thunder

The cruiser floated against the unmoving starfield with every active system down. Only its passive sensors were powered, listening, watchingprobing the endless dark. It hovered like a drifting shark, hidden in the vastness as in some bottomless bed of kelp, and no smallest, faintest emission betrayed its presence.

"So, Ursula! Is the circus ready?"

Commodore Lloyd Braun grinned at his flagship's captain. Despite requests, HQ had decided Survey Flotilla 27 was too small for its CO to require a staff, so Commander Elswick had found herself acting as his chief of staff as well as his flag captain. She hadn't known that was going to happen when her ship was first assigned to Braun, but she had the self-confidence that came with being very good at her job, and now she cocked an eyebrow back at him.

"It is if the ringmaster is, Sir," she said, and he chuckled.

"In that case, what say we get this show on the road? Outward and onward for the glory of the Federation and all that."

"Of course, Sir." Elswick glanced at her com officer. "Inform Captain Cheltwyn we're about to make transit, Allen."

"Aye, aye, Sir."

"As for you, Stu," Elswick continued, turning to her astrogator, "let's move out."

"Aye, aye, Sir." The astrogator nodded to his helmsman. "Bring us on vector, Chief Malthus, but take it easy till I get a feel for the surge."

The helmsman acknowledged the order, and Commodore Braun sipped coffee with studied nonchalance as the plot's icons blinked to reflect his command's shift to full readiness. The fact that Captain Alex Cheltwyn, commanding Light Carrier Division 73 from the light cruiser Bremerton, was Battle Fleet, not Survey Command, had bothered Braun at first. The captain's seniority had made him Braun's second-in-command, and while Braun knew too much about the sorts of trouble exploration ships had stumbled into over the centuries to share the cheerful contempt many Survey officers exuded for the "gunslingers" the Admiralty insisted on assigning to even routine missions, he really would have preferred Ursula Elswick or Roddy Chirac of the Ute in Cheltwyn's slot. Both of them were Survey veterans, specialists like Braun himself, with whom he'd felt an immediate rapport.

Yet any reservations about Cheltwyn had faded quickly. Alex wasn't Survey, but he was sharp, and, despite Braun's seniority, he was also a far better tactician. Of course, a Battle Fleet officer ought to be a better warrior than someone who'd spent his entire career in Survey, but Alex had gone to some lengths to pretend he didn't know he was. Braun wouldn't have minded if he hadn't bothered, but that didn't keep the commodore from appreciating his tact. And, truth to tell, Braun was delighted to have someone with Cheltwyn's competence commanding the warships escorting his six exploration cruisers. Traditionally, Survey crews found boredom a far greater threat than hostile aliens, but it was comforting to know helpand especially competent helpwas available at need.

The commodore blinked back from his thoughts as TFNS Argive edged into the fringes of a featureless dot in space, visible only to her sensors, and her plotting officer studied his readouts.

"Grav eddies building," Lieutenant Channing reported. "Right on the profile for a Type Eight. Estimate transit in twenty-five seconds."

Braun sipped more coffee and nodded. Survey Command had known the warp point was a Type Eight ever since the old Arapaho first plotted it during the Indra System's initial survey forty years back, but Survey considered itself a corps d'elite. Channing was simply doing his job as he always didwith utter competenceand the fact that he might be using that competence to hide a certain nervousness was beside the point . . . mostly.

Braun chuckled at the thought. He'd literally lost count of the first transits he'd made, yet that didn't keep him from feeling a bit of Well, call it nervous anticipation. R&D had promised delivery of warp-capable robotic probes for years now, but Braun would believe in them when he saw them. Until he did, the only way to discover what lay beyond a warp point remained what it had always been: to send a ship through to see . . . which could sometimes be a bit rough on the ship in question. The vast majority of first transits turned out to be purest routine, but there was always a chance they wouldn't, and everyone had heard stories of ships that emerged from transit too close to a staror perhaps a black holeand were never heard of again. That was one reason some Survey officers wanted to rewrite SOP to use pinnaces for first transits instead of starships. Unlike most small craft, pinnaces were big and tough enough to make transit on their own, yet they required only six-man crews, and the logic of risking just half a dozen lives instead of the three hundred men and women who crewed a Hun-class cruiser like Argive was persuasive.

Yet HQ had so far rejected the notion. Survey Command lost more ships to accidents in normal space than on exploration duties. Statistically speaking, a man had a better chance of being struck by lightning on dirt-side liberty than of being killed on a first transit, and that, coupled with the enormous difference in capability between a forty-thousand-tonne cruiser like Argive and a pinnace, was more than enough to explain HQ's resistance to changing its operational doctrine.

A pinnace had no shields, no weapons, and no ECM. Because a Hun-class CL did have shields, it could survive a transit which would dump a pinnace within fatal proximity to a star. It could also defend itself if it turned out unfriendly individuals awaited itsomething which might have happened rarely but, as Commander Cheltwyn's presence reflected, could never be entirely ruled out. And while its emissions signature was detectable over a far greater range than a pinnace's, it also mounted third-generation ECM. Unless someone was looking exactly the right way to spot it in the instant it made transit, it could disappear into cloak, which no pinnace could, and, last but not least, its sensor suite had enormously more reach than any small craft could boast. All in all, Braun had to come down on HQ's side. Things that could eat a "light" cruiser the size of many heavy cruisers were far rarer than things that could eat a pinnace.

"Transitnow!" Channing reported, and Braun's stomach heaved, just as it always did, as the surge of warp transit wrenched at his inner ear. He saw other people try to hide matching grimaces of discomfort, and his mouth quirked in familiar amusement. He'd met a few people over the years who claimed transit didn't bother them at all, and he made it a firm policy never to lend such mendacious souls money.

But that was only a passing thought, for his attention was on his display. For all his deliberate disinterest, this was the real reason he'd fought for Survey duty straight out of the Academy. Survey attracted those with incurable wanderlust, the sort who simply had to know what lay beyond the next hill, and the first look at a new star systemthe knowledge that his were among the very first human eyes ever to see itstill filled the commodore with a childlike wonder and delight.

"Primary's an M9," Channing reported, yet not even that announcement could quench Braun's sense of accomplishment. A red dwarf meant the possibility of finding a "useful" habitable planet was virtually nonexistent, but that didn't make the system useless. Many an unpopulated star system had proved an immensely valuable warp junction, and

"Sir, our emergence point's a Type Fourteen!" Channing said suddenly, and Braun twitched upright in his command chair.

"Confirm!" he said sharply, but it was only a reflex. Officers like Channing didn't make that sort of mistake, and his mind kicked into high gear as Plotting double-checked the data.

"Confirmed, Commodore. Definitely a Type Fourteen."

"Prep and launch the drone, Captain Elswick. Then go to Condition Baker, standard spiral." Braun made himself sit back once more, laying his forearms on the arms of his chair, and pushed the sharpness out of his voice. No need to get excited just because it was a closed warp point, he told himself firmly. They weren't all that uncommon.

"Aye, aye, Sir. Communications, launch the drone. Tactical, take us into cloak at Condition Baker and confirm!"

Braun frowned at his plot as Argive expelled a warp-capable courier drone to alert Cheltwyn and the rest of the flotilla then began to move once more, sweeping outward in a standard survey spiral, hidden by her ECM while passive sensors peered into the endless dark. A subtly different tension gripped her bridge crew, and Braun's frown deepened as he ran through his mission brief once more.

There'd been little pressure to survey the Indra System's unexplored warp point for forty years for two reasons. First, there'd been no human population within five transits of it until the first outposts went in in Merriweather and Erebor, so Survey had seen no pressing need to explore further. That, as Braun well knew, reflected budgetary constraints as much as anything else. The Corporate World-dominated Federal government was much more inclined to fund Survey's operations to maintain nav beacons and update charts for heavily traveled areas than to "waste" money on "speculative missions" in underpopulated regions of the Fringe.

But the second reason no one had attached any urgency to exploring Indra's single unsurveyed warp point was that nothing had ever come out of it. The nonappearance of anyone else's surveying starships had seemed to indicate there was no star-traveling speciesand so no external threat to the Federation's securityon its other side.

But that comfortable assumption had just become inoperable. "Closed" warp points were far less common than "open" onesor, at least, astrographers had traditionally assumed they were. It was hard to be positive, since the only way to locate a closed point was to come through it from an open one at the far end of the link, and the latest models suggested closed points might in fact occur much more frequently than previously assumed. Indeed, the more recent math predicted that the conditions which created such warp points in the first place would tend to put closed points at both ends of a link.

If true, there could be hundreds of undetectable warp lines threaded all through explored space, but what mattered just now was that the discovery that Indra's open warp point connected to a closed one here automatically upgraded SF 27's mission status. If no one could even find the thing, the fact that no one had come through it meant nothing, so the possibility of meeting another advanced species increased exponentially. Star-traveling races were rare. So far humanity had encountered barely half a dozen of them, but some of those encounters had been traumatic, and Survey Command's operational doctrine had been established as far back as the First Interstellar War. The first responsibility of any Survey ship was to report the existence of such a race before attempting to make contact, and the second was to see to it that no potentially hostile species learned anything about the Federation's astrography until formal contactand the newcomers' bona fideshad been established. The best way to accomplish both those ends was to be sure no newly encountered race even knew the survey force was present until it had been observed at length, which was the reason the Hun-class mounted cloaking ECM.

"We've completed the initial sweep, Commodore." Braun looked up as Channing swiveled his own bridge chair to face him. "No artificial emissions detected."

"Thank you." Braun leaned back once more and crossed his legs, rubbing his chin as he glanced at Commander Elswick. "It looks like we're in clean," he said, and she nodded.

"Yes, Sir. The question is whether or not there's anyone out there to notice anything anyway."

"True. True." Braun pursed his lips, then shrugged. "You know the odds against that, but we'll play this strictly by The Book. Continue your spiral but hold your drive to no more than half power and maintain Condition Baker."

"Of course, Sir."

Elswick returned her attention to her own console, and Braun settled himself in his chair. It was going to be a longer watch than he'd anticipated.

"Well, that seems to be that, Sir," Commander Elswick observed.

"Um." Braun nodded slowly, his eyes still on the rough holo chart. The system they'd assigned the temporary name of Alpha One was thoroughly unprepossessing, with only eight planets, the innermost a gas giant seven light-minutes from its dim primary. Argive had been in-system for over six days now without detecting anything but lifeless worlds and what might be a second warp point just over three light-hours from the star. There'd certainly been none of the clutter star-traveling civilizations tended to leave lying about, like nav buoys or com relays. On the other hand, any star system was an enormous haystack. Scores of starships could be hidden in this one, and as long as they radiated no betraying emissions, they'd all be effectively invisible. Argive by herself had far too little sensor range to sweep such a huge volume for covert targetsassuming there were, in fact, any to be foundand Braun was eager to get on with the system survey which was his proper task.

The question was how he did so. SOP required him to bring his escorts through to cover the Survey cruisers, but Cheltwyn's "gunslingers" had no cloaking ECM. If Braun brought them up, the flotilla's presence would be obvious to any hidden watcher. The cloaked Huns might not be detectable, but the carriers and their screen would be, even under tight emissions control.

He snorted mentally at his own thoughts. If Ursula's scanner crews hadn't spotted anything, odds were there was nothing to spot, despite the volume to be searched, for Argive had a far better chance of detecting anyone else than they had of detecting her. Even the best sensors had an omnidirectional range of little more than seventy-two light-minutes against something as small as a starship's drive field, and given that their entry warp point had been a closed one five light-hours from the primary, no one could even have known where it was in order to keep a sensor watch on it. Not even the most eagle-eyed watcher could have detected their actual arrival, and they'd gone into cloak immediately, so for anyone to be out there and unseen, they'd have to be hiding just as hard as Argive was, and that was ridiculous. Why should anyone hide in his own stellar backyard, particularly when he thought the backyard in question held no unexplored warp points? It would take something more severe than mere paranoia to inspire that sort of behavior!

"All right, Ursula," he said finally. "Call Alex forward. We'll hold the gunslingers on the warp point under tight em-con and turn the rest of the squadron loose in cloak."

"Yes, Sir." Argive's captain seemed to hesitate a moment, her eyes on Braun's face, and the commodore quirked an eyebrow.

"Something on your mind?"

"I was thinking about asking you that, Sir. I've got the feeling you're not entirely comfortable about something."

"Not comfortable?" Braun frowned at the holo, then shook his head. "I'm not uncomfortable. This isn't my first closed warp pointjust the first one when I've been the fellow in command. I suppose I'm finally beginning to understand why the old fuddy-duddies I used to serve under seemed to take so long to get off the pot. But" he shoved himself up with a grin "that's why they pay me the big money, isn't it? Go ahead and get the drone off to Alex."

Copyright 1997 by David Weber & Steve White

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