Back | Next

Chapter Five

Chris Billingsley poured the final cup of coffee, set the carafe on the small side table, and withdrew without a word. Vice Admiral Gloria Michelle Samantha Evelyn Henke, Countess Gold Peak and commanding officer, Tenth Fleet, Royal Manticoran Navy watched him go, then picked up her cup and sipped. Other people were doing the same thing around the conference table, and she wondered how many of them were using it as a stage prop in their effort to project a sense that the universe hadn’t gone mad around them.

If they are, they aren’t doing a very good job of it, she thought grimly. On the other hand, neither am I because as near as I can tell, the universe has gone crazy.

The first intimation of what looked like it was going to come to be called “the Yawata Strike” because of the total destruction of the city of Yawata Crossing had reached Spindle twenty-six hours ago. At that time, all they’d had was the flash message telling them the Manticore Binary System itself had been attacked and that damage to the Star Empire’s industrial capacity had been “severe.” Now the first follow-up report, with a more detailed estimate of the damage—and the casualties—had arrived, and she found herself wishing the message transit time between Spindle and Manticore was longer than eight days. She supposed she should be glad to be kept informed, but she could have gone for years—decades!—without this particular bit of information.

“All right,” she said finally, lowering her cup and glancing at Captain Lecter. “I suppose we may as well get down to it.” She smiled without any humor at all. “I don’t imagine any of you are going to be any happier to hear this than I am. Unfortunately, after we do, we’ve got to decide what we’re going to do about it, and I’m going to want recommendations for Admiral Khumalo and Baroness Medusa. So if any of you—and I mean any of you—happen to be struck by any brilliant insights in the course of Cindy’s briefing, make a note of them. We’re going to need all of them we can get.”

Heads nodded, and she gestured to Lecter.

“The floor is yours, Cindy,” she said.

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Lecter didn’t look any happier about the briefing she was about to give than her audience looked about what they knew they were going to hear. She spent a second or two studying the notes she’d made before she looked up and let her blue eyes circle the conference table.

“We have confirmation of the original reports,” she said, “and it’s as bad as we thought it would be. In fact, it’s worse.”

She drew a deep breath, then activated the holo display above the conference table, bringing up the first graphic.

“Direct, immediate civilian loss of life,” she began, “was much worse than any pre-attack worst-case analysis of damage to the space stations had ever suggested, because there was absolutely no warning. As you can see from the graphic, the initial strike on Hephaestus—

* * *

“I never realized just how much worse a victory could make a defeat taste,” Augustus Khumalo said much later that evening.

He, Michelle, Michael Oversteegen, and Sir Aivars Terekhov sat with Baroness Medusa on the ocean-side balcony of her official residence. The tide was in, and surf made a soothing, rhythmic sound in the darkness, but no one felt very soothed at the moment.

“I know,” Michelle agreed. “It kind of makes everything we’ve accomplished out here look a lot less important, doesn’t it?”

“No, Milady, it most definitely does not,” Medusa said so sharply that Michelle twitched in her chair and looked at the smaller woman in surprise.

“Sorry,” Medusa said after a moment. “I didn’t mean to sound as if I were snapping at you. But you—and Augustus and Aivars and Michael—have accomplished an enormous amount ‘out here.’ Don’t ever denigrate your accomplishments—or yourselves—just because of bad news from somewhere else!”

“You’re right, of course,” Michelle acknowledged after a moment. “It’s just—”

“Just that it feels like the end of the world,” Medusa finished for her when she seemed unable to find the exact words she’d been looking for.

“Maybe not quite that bad, but close,” Michelle agreed.

“Well, it damned well should!” Medusa told her tartly. “Undervaluing your own accomplishments doesn’t necessarily make you wrong about how deep a crack we’re all in right now.”

Michelle nodded. The Admiralty dispatches had pulled no punches. With the devastation of the home system’s industrial capacity, the Royal Manticoran Navy found itself—for the first time since the opening phases of the First Havenite War—facing an acute ammunition shortage. And that shortage was going to get worse—a lot worse—before it got any better. Which was the reason all of Michelle’s remaining shipboard Apollo pods were to be returned to Manticore as soon as possible. Given the concentration of Mark 16-armed units under her command, the Admiralty would try to make up for the differential by supplying her with all of those they could find, and both her warships and her local ammunition ships currently had full magazines. Even so, however, she was going to have to be extraordinarily circumspect in how she expended the rounds available to her, because there probably weren’t going to be any more for quite a while.

“At least I don’t expect anyone to be eager to poke his nose back into this particular hornets’ nest anytime soon,” she said out loud.

“Unless, of course, whoever hit the home system wants to send his ‘phantom raiders’ our way,” Khumalo pointed out sourly.

“Unlikely, if you’ll forgive me for sayin’ so, Sir,” Oversteegen observed. Khumalo looked at him, and Oversteegen shrugged. “Th’ Admiralty’s estimate that whoever did this was operatin’ on what they used t’ call ‘a shoestring’ seems t’ me t’ be well taken. And, frankly, if they were t’ decide t’ carry out additional attacks of this sort, anything here in th’ Quadrant would have t’ be far less valuable t’ them than a follow up, knock out attack on th’ home system.”

“I think Michael’s probably right, Augustus,” Michelle said. “I don’t propose that we take anything for granted, and I’ve got Cindy and Dominica busy working out the best way to generate massive redundancy in our sensor coverage, just in case, but I don’t see us as the logical candidate for the next sneak attack. If they do go after anything in the Quadrant, I’d imagine it would be the Terminus itself, since I can’t see anything else out this way that would have equal strategic value for anyone who obviously doesn’t like us very much. And that, fortunately or unfortunately, we’re just going to have to leave in other peoples’ hands.”

Her uniformed fellows nodded, and Baroness Medusa tilted back her chair.

“Should I assume that—for the moment, at least—you feel relatively secure here in the Quadrant, then?”

“I think we probably are,” Khumalo answered, instead of Michelle. He was, after all, the station commander. “There’s a great deal to be said for Admiral Oversteegen’s analysis where these mysterious newcomers are concerned. And, frankly, at the moment, the League doesn’t have anything to send our way even if it had the nerve to do it. That could change in a few months, but for now, at least, they can’t pose any kind of credible threat even against ships armed ‘only’ with Mark 16s.”

“Good.” Medusa’s nostrils flared. “I only hope that sanity is going to leak out somewhere in the League before anyone manages to get additional forces out our way. Or directed at the home system.”

* * *

“Any change in the escorts’ formation, Guns?” Commander Naomi Kaplan asked.

“No, Ma’am.” Lieutenant Abigail Hearns replied. “They’re maintaining interval and heading.”

The slender, brunette lieutenant didn’t add that the escorts in question had to have picked up the impeller signatures of the two destroyers overtaking them from astern. Naomi Kaplan had been HMS Hexapuma’s tactical officer back when Abigail Hearns had been the heavy cruiser’s assistant TO, and Abigail had learned a great deal from her. Including the fact that only rarely did the commander need the painfully obvious explained to her in detail.

“I see.” Kaplan nodded acknowledgment and tipped back in her command chair, frowning, as she contemplated the current tactical situation as seen from the probable mindset of one Captain Jacob Zavala.

Zavala had originally been the senior officer of Destroyer Squadron 301’s second division. He’d inherited command of the entire squadron from Commodore Ray Chatterjee following the massacre of three quarters of DesDiv 301.1 at New Tuscany, however, and reorganized the squadron’s surviving five ships into two understrength divisions. As part of that reorganization, he’d shifted his flag from HMS Gawain to HMS Kay and left Gawain in DesDiv 301.2, where her skipper, Captain Frank Morgan, had become the division’s new senior officer. At the same time, Kay had been detached from DesDiv 301.2 and, along with Kaplan’s own Tristram, now constituted a half-strength DesDiv 301.1. They’d been promised enough ships to make up the squadron’s losses and bring both divisions back to full strength, but that had been before the Yawata Strike. Now it was anyone’s guess how long they’d have to wait . . . or, for that matter, if they’d ever see the promised replacements at all. Frankly, Kaplan didn’t think it was likely they would.

In the meantime, it seemed probable the squadron was going to find itself tasked for independent operations. Its Roland-class destroyers were big, powerful units, and the devastating, long-range punch of their Mark 16 missiles made them ideal commerce-raiders. They also made excellent convoy escorts, of course, but locating convoys in hyper was hellishly difficult, and the Talbott Quadrant’s member star systems were already well protected against raiders once a ship dropped back into n-space. That meant Tristram and her sisters could be dispensed with in the escort role, which left them available for other duties. Given the fact that Manticore’s confrontation with the Solarian League was likely to get a lot worse before it got any better, and given the further fact that the Madras Sector’s star systems were not well protected against Manticoran raiders, whatever Frontier Fleet might fondly imagine, it wasn’t hard to figure out how DesRon 301 was likely to find itself employed in the painfully near future.

Hence the current exercise.

Why do I have a bad feeling about this? Kaplan asked herself. I mean, there they sit, plodding along at barely forty thousand kilometers per second—slow, fat, dumb, and happy. Sure, they’ve got a pair of light cruisers to back the destroyers, but that’s still no match for a pair of Rolands, damn it!

She frowned some more, one dark-skinned hand playing with a lock of bright blonde hair. On the face of it, there wasn’t much the putative Solly escorts could do to stop Tristram and Kay from skinning their convoy like a Sphinxian prong buck. Kaplan’s Mark 16s had over three times the reach of the SLN’s Javelin-class shipkillers, which meant she could destroy all of those merchies without ever even entering their escorts’ range.

Of course, a Roland carried only 240 Mark 16s, and accuracy would be significantly degraded at maximum range, even against merchantships. True, the simulation’s parameters assumed the raiders were accompanied by a missile transport from which they could resupply, but with the Yawata Strike’s catastrophic consequences for missile production, no one wanted to waste any of the limited number available. So the logical move was to get as close to her prey as she could without ever entering the escorts’ powered envelope. That would maximize the accuracy (and economy) of her own fire while maintaining her immunity from the defenders.

Which is exactly what I was planning to do. And so far I haven’t seen any reason to change my mind. Not one I could put my finger on, anyway. But still . . .

Her eyes narrowed as she finally realized what was bothering her. She didn’t know Captain Zavala as well as she wished she did, but he struck her as quite a different proposition from the larger-than-life, almost boisterous Commodore Chatterjee. No one who’d ever served with Chatterjee could have doubted the commodore’s competence, but his enthusiasm and inexhaustible energy had been the first things to strike almost anyone on first acquaintance, and he’d had a very . . . direct approach to problems. Not only was Zavala barely two thirds as tall as Chatterjee had been, he was also far quieter, with a thoughtful, almost preoccupied air which she’d quickly realized was deceptive. Chatterjee had been well suited to his nickname of “Bear,” but Zavala was a treecat—compact, sleek, and with the confident, composed watchfulness of a patient predator.

She’d also done a bit of quiet research since he’d assumed command of the squadron and found that Commander Zavala had been a senior tactical instructor at Saganami Island for four years. He’d been slated for command of a destroyer at the time Oscar Saint-Just had been toppled, but he’d lost that appointment in the Janacek build-down and been sent to the Academy instead. In fact, his Saganami Island stint had coincided almost exactly with Edward Janacek’s tenure as First Lord of Admiralty, and being beached by the Janacek Admiralty was a recommendation in its own right, as far as Kaplan was concerned. From the look of things, he’d done a damned good job as an instructor, though, and the White Haven Admiralty had given him command with almost indecent haste. He’d posted a pretty good record as a destroyer skipper since, too. In fact, he’d been jumped straight past captain (junior-grade) to captain of the list on the basis of his performance with Eighth Fleet. Well, that was scarcely surprising. All false modesty aside, Kaplan knew the Navy wasn’t choosing Roland skippers at random, and every CO in the squadron had amply demonstrated his or her capabilities before being selected.

Yet for this exercise, Zavala had relegated himself to the role of a passenger aboard his flagship. He was only there to observe, he’d explained, and that was the reason Kaplan’s mental antennae were quivering.

An observer, yes, but to observe exactly what, I wonder?

She stroked one eyebrow with an index finger, remembering how straightforward the simulation had sounded when she read the initial ops order. In fact, it had gone beyond mere straightforwardness to the absurdly simple, and for the life of her she couldn’t remember the last time a good senior officer had organized a training sim as a “gimme.” The Manticoran tradition was to train its people in exercises which were deliberately harder than actual operations were likely to prove. That obviously wasn’t the case here, yet someone like Zavala was unlikely to forget the tradition. Which meant there was a nasty hook somewhere inside that tasty-looking bait. But what sort of hook . . . ?

“Abigail,” she said.

“Yes, Ma’am?” Lieutenant Hearns looked over her shoulder, one eyebrow raised.

“Do you have those reports on what happened at Torch handy?”

“Such as they are and what we have of them, yes, Ma’am.”

“I know we don’t have much detail,” Kaplan acknowledged, which was unfortunately true. Admiral Luis Rozsak and the Erewhonese were keeping any reports of the actual engagement pretty close to their vests. “But I’m thinking more about ONI’s speculations. About the performance of the missiles Mesa equipped those StateSec retreads with.”

“We don’t have any hard numbers, Ma’am.” Abigail’s own expression turned thoughtful as she paged through her orderly mental files. “In fact there’s nothing specific about the Mesan-supplied missiles at all. But one of the analysts on Admiral Hemphill’s staff did suggest they may not have been standard Solly issue. Is that what you were thinking of, Ma’am?”

“That’s exactly what I was thinking about.” Kaplan nodded. “Refresh my memory.”

“Well, as you said yourself, it’s all speculative, Ma’am. But stripped of all the statistical analysis, his basic point was that we know Erewhon is building new units for Governor Barregos. We also know Erewhon has multidrive missiles of its own. They’re still the big, bulky capacitor-powered model, but they’ve got plenty of legs, and their warheads and seekers are better than anything the Sollies have. For that matter, Erewhon certainly ought to be able to manufacture the old Mark 13 extended-range missile for smaller launchers, and he suggested Barregos and Rozsak would have held out for at least the Mark 13. Whatever they may or may not be telling Old Chicago, they’re obviously aware missile ranges have been climbing in our neck of the woods. That being the case, they probably would have insisted on buying the longest-ranged birds they could get.”

She paused, as if to be sure her CO was with her so far, and Kaplan nodded again.

“The point he made—the one I’m pretty sure you’re thinking about, Ma’am—was that given Rozsak’s reported losses and assuming he had acquired longer-ranged missiles from the Erewhonese, he must either have fought like a complete and total idiot, which isn’t what his résumé would lead someone to expect, or else significantly underestimated his enemies’ range. If he hadn’t, he never would have entered it in the first place. If he did, he may have shaved the margin too tightly trying to get in close enough to maximize his hit probabilities.”

“Exactly.” Kaplan smiled thinly. “We don’t know what the range actually was, but I think your analyst was onto something, Abigail.”

“I admit it makes a lot of sense, Ma’am. But we’ve gotten really good intel on the Sollies’ weaponry since Spindle. We haven’t found any extended range missiles in any of their magazines. For that matter, there’s absolutely no reference to anything of the sort in their tac manuals or the training sims we captured from them. I’ve been playing with their missile doctrine—offense and defense—ever since we got access, and it’s all concerned with really short-range engagements, at least by our standards. And they obviously never saw the range of the Mark 16 or the Mark 23 coming at Spindle.”

“I know. In fact, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if whatever the Mesans handed their mercenaries for the attack on Torch was another little toy their good friends and fellow scum at Technodyne whipped up just for them. I’m thinking about those system-defense missiles they surprised us with at Monica.”

Their gazes met, and Kaplan saw the same memory in Abigail’s gray-blue eyes. The memory of how those system-defense missiles had ravaged Aivars Terekhov’s scratch squadron—and damned near killed Naomi Kaplan—from far beyond the threat range Kaplan herself had projected based on known Solarian missile performance.

“Those were awfully big missiles, Ma’am,” Abigail pointed out. She wasn’t arguing, Kaplan realized. She was simply thinking out loud. “We haven’t seen any sign these people have pods on tow, and no Sally cruiser or destroyer could launch birds that size without being virtually rebuilt. Even then, they probably couldn’t get more than four or five launchers and forty or fifty missiles aboard something the size of one of their light cruisers. And even completely ignoring the mass and volume penalties of launchers that size, I’d be surprised if one of their tincans could squeeze in more than twenty birds that big. On a good day.”

“Agreed. But suppose Technodyne came up with something smaller that still offered a significant range increase over the standard Javelin? They wouldn’t have to have the kind of legs we ran into at Monica to come as a nasty surprise to someone who thought she knew exactly what kind of range they did have. And somehow I can’t escape the suspicion that Captain Zavala may just have read the same reports—and the same ONI ‘speculation’—you and I read. In which case, I think we might want to consider the possibility that these foolishly overconfident escorts know something we don’t know about their missiles.”

“I don’t have any problem with that, Ma’am,” Abigail agreed with a smile.

“Of course, there’s the little problem that we don’t know just how much of a range extension Captain Zavala might have opted for,” Kaplan mused out loud. Several of her other bridge officers were listening in now, and other smiles began to blossom. “I think the simplest way for him to go about it would have been to simply double their effective range,” she went on. “Of course, he may have settled on some other multiplier just to be difficult, but their accuracy at any sort of extended range is going to be a lot worse than ours. Unless he’s decided to go ahead and give them Ghost Rider, as well!”

It’s always possible he’s done exactly that, she reflected to herself. But let’s be reasonable here. The idea’s to make exercises difficult, not automatically suicidal! Well, unless you’re Lady Gold Peak pinning back Admiral Oversteegan’s ears, at least.

She chuckled at the thought, but it was unlikely Zavala would have been quite as nasty as Lady Gold Peak. After all, the countess and Oversteegan had something of a history, according to the rumor mill.

“Sixteen million kilometers, you think, Ma’am?” Abigail asked politely, interrupting her thoughts.

“Let’s make it seventeen,” Kaplan demurred. “It gives us a little more of a fudge factor, and with Ghost Rider, we ought to be able to punch out merchies at that range without wasting too many attack birds.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Abigail glanced down at her displays, lips pursed, then looked back up at Kaplan. “I’ll need five or six minutes to reconfigure my firing plans, Ma’am.”

“Well, by my calculations it’s going to take us another three hours to get to seventeen million klicks,” Kaplan observed dryly. “I think we’ve got time.”

* * *

“Used up quite a few missiles there, didn’t you, Captain Kaplan?” Jacob Zavala inquired testily. “They don’t grow on trees, y’know! Especially not now.”

“No, Sir, they don’t,” Naomi Kaplan acknowledged with a mildness which would have raised warning flags with anyone who knew her well. “On the other hand, we did take out every one of the freighters without ever entering the escorts’ reach.”

“True, but you could’ve saved at least twenty percent of your ammo expenditure if you’d closed another five or six million kilometers, and that still would’ve left you outside even Javelin range,” Zavala pointed out.

“Yes, Sir, it would have.” Kaplan nodded. “On the other hand,” she continued in the same mild tone, “it probably wouldn’t have left me outside the range of the missiles you actually gave the Sollies for the exercise.”

“What’s that?” Zavala cocked his head, blue eyes narrowed as he gazed quizzically at Kaplan. “Are you suggesting I’d cheat, Captain?”

“To quote one of my tac instructors at the Crusher, Sir, if you aren’t cheating, you’re not trying hard enough.” Kaplan shrugged. “Just as a matter of curiosity, how much of a range boost did you assign?”

“You, Captain Kaplan, have a disrespectful and insulting opinion of my fair-mindedness,” Zavala said severely, then snorted. “As a matter of fact, they had a nominal effective range of twelve million kilometers. A twenty-five percent jump seemed about right.”

“Really?” Kaplan smiled. “I figured you’d settle for a nice round number and just double it, Sir.”

“Now that, Captain, would have been underhanded, unfair, sneaky, and generally despicable. Which is why I’ll probably do exactly that to Captain Morgan’s division when it’s his turn in the barrel.” Zavala waggled a finger in Kaplan’s direction. “And don’t you go warning him, either!”

“Me? Warn him about it?” Kaplan laughed. “Oh, don’t worry about that, Sir. As a matter of fact, I’ve already bet him a bottle of Glenfiddich Grand Reserve that he can’t match our score on the sim. I’ve known Captain Morgan for a while, you know. And somehow I seem to’ve forgotten to mention to him the range at which we engaged the convoy. I hate to say it,” she assumed a mournful expression, “but under the circumstances, I strongly suspect he’s going to decide that if he closes to just outside Javelin range, he’ll be able to punch out all of the merchies with a lot fewer missiles than we expended.”

She shook her head sadly, and Zavala laughed.

“A woman after my own underhanded, unfair, sneaky, and generally despicable heart,” he observed. “I definitely see an admiral’s flag in your future, Captain Kaplan!”

Back | Next