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A Rising Thunder: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Tuesday, January 10, 2012 22:50 EST



    “Oh, crap.”

    The words were spoken quietly, almost prayerfully. For a moment or two, Lieutenant Aaron Tilborch, commanding officer of the Zunker Space Navy’s light attack craft Kipling, didn’t even realize he’d spoken them out loud, and they were hardly the considered, detached observation one might have expected from a trained professional. On the whole, however, they summed up the situation quite nicely.

    “What do we do now, Sir?” Lieutenant Jannetje van Calcar, Kipling‘s executive officer, sounded as nervous as Tilborch felt, and Tilborch thought it was an excellent question. Not that there was much Kipling‘s small ship’s company could do about the events preparing to unfold before them.

    The ZSN wasn’t much as navies went. There were several reasons for that, and one was that the Zunker System’s nominal sovereignty had depended for the last T-decade and a half or so upon a delicate balancing act between the Star Kingdom of Manticore and the Solarian League. The Office of Frontier Security’s local commissioners had cast greedy eyes upon the Zunker System ever since the wormhole terminus associated with it had been discovered, but the terminus was the next best thing to six and a half light-hours from the system primary. That put it well outside Zunker’s territorial space, which meant simply grabbing off the star system wouldn’t necessarily have given OFS control of the terminus…especially since its other end lay in the Idaho System.

    In point of fact, the “Zunker Terminus” had been discovered by a survey crew operating out of Idaho seventeen T-years earlier. And Idaho, unlike Zunker, lay only seventy-two light-years from the Manticore Binary System — three weeks’ hyper flight for a merchant ship from the Manticoran Wormhole Junction. Actually, the survey ship had been Manticoran, not Idahoian, although it had been under charter to the Idaho government at the time. Prior to the discovery of the Idaho Hyper Bridge, Idaho had been a relative backwater, completely overshadowed by the bustling trade and massive economy of its Manticoran neighbor and fellow member of the Manticoran alliance.

    For Zunker, whose existence had always been even more hand-to-mouth than that of many other Verge star systems, the consequences had been profound. The hyper bridge between it and Idaho was over four hundred light-years long, and the system lay roughly a hundred and ninety light-years from the Sol System and just over a hundred and fifty light-years from Beowulf. In fact, it lay almost directly between Beowulf and Asgerd, closing the gap between the Beowulf Terminus of the Manticore Wormhole Junction and the Andermani Empire’s Asgerd-Durandel Hyper Bridge. That had turned both Zunker and Idaho into important feeder systems for the ever more heavily traveled Manticoran Wormhole Junction.

    The sudden influx of so much traffic, and the kind of cash flow that went with it, dwarfed anything Zunker had ever imagined…and it had turned out to be a mixed blessing. The cascade of credits and the frenzied construction of shipping and support structures for the traffic that produced it had fueled an economic boom such as no Zunkeran had ever dreamed was possible. Over the last fifteen T-years, something like decent medical care, a proper educational system, and the beginning of true prosperity had sprouted in Lieutenant Tilborch’s home star system. Yet that same abundance of cash had inevitably attracted the avarice of the Office of Frontier Security and its transstellar “friends.”

    Unfortunately for OFS, Idaho had no desire to do business with yet another tentacle of the OFS/corporate monstrosity. So when Frontier Security started sniffing around Zunker, Idaho mentioned the sudden upsurge in Solarian compassion and philanthropic urges to its neighbors (and allies) in Manticore. And those neighbors (and allies) in Manticore had intimated to Permanent Senior Undersecretary of the Treasury Brian Sullivan, Agatá Wodoslawski’s immediate predecessor, that Solarian transit fees through any of the Manticoran Wormhole Junction’s many termini might well experience an inexplicable upsurge if anything unfortunate were to happen to the Zunker System.

    The result was an official Solarian consulate in Effingham, Zunker’s capital city, an equally official OFS observation post right next door to it, and a clear understanding that although the League would be permitted influence in Zunker, it would not be allowed the sort of puppetmaster control it exercised in so many other “independent” star systems. As a sort of quid-pro-quo for the League’s…restraint, it was understood that Zunker fell ultimately under Solarian “protection,” rather than Manticoran. The terminus itself, on the other hand, was granted Idahoian extraterritoriality, recognized by both Manticore and the League, although Prime Minister Cromarty of Manticore had insisted that the Zunker System government receive one third of all transit fee revenues it generated.

    All of which meant the Zunker Space Navy consisted of little more than a double handful of LACs, suitable for policing the traffic which flowed through the star system’s freight-handling and servicing facilities. The ZSN certainly didn’t possess anything remotely like a true warship, although it did assign a squadron of its LACs to Zunker Terminus Astro Control, where it worked in concert with a similar force of Idahoian vessels.

    Which was how Lieutenant Tilborch and the crew of ZSNS Kipling came to have a ringside seat for what promised to be a most unhappy day in near-Zunker space.

    “What do we do, Jannetje?” he asked now, never looking away from the display where a single Solarian merchant ship headed directly towards the terminus, escorted by six Solarian League Navy battlecruisers. “What we do is get the hell out of the way and com home to Effingham.”

    “But what about –?” van Calcar began.

    “The Manties are the ones who announced they were closing the terminus to Solarian traffic, and Idaho backed them,” Tilborch replied, cutting her off. “You know where my sympathies lie, but we’ve got no official business poking our noses in. Besides”– he smiled humorlessly –”it’s not like Kipling was going to make any difference, is it?”



    Captain Hiram Ivanov watched his tactical display and frowned as he considered the odds and how they must look from the other side. His division of Saganami-C-class heavy cruisers was one ship understrength, leaving him only three to confront the oncoming Solarian battlecruisers. He also had four Roland-class destroyers, however, which actually gave him the numerical advantage, although destroyers and heavy cruisers were scarcely in the same league (nominally, at least) as battlecruisers. On the other hand, all of his ships had Mark 23-stuffed missile pods tractored to their hulls, which put rather a different complexion on traditional calculations combat power. Unfortunately, it appeared these particular Sollies still hadn’t worked through the implications of the Battle of Spindle.

    “How do you want to handle it, Sir?” Commander Claudine Takoush asked softly from his command chair com display. Ivanov looked down at her image and raised his eyebrows, and she shrugged. “I know what we’re supposed to do, Sir. I’m only wondering how much talking you plan to do first? I mean, this” — she twitched her head in the direction of her own tactical plot — “is just a bit more blatant than we expected.”

    “Blatant isn’t precisely the word I’d choose, Claudine,” Ivanov replied in a judicious tone. “In fact, on reflection, I believe ‘stupid‘ comes a lot closer to capturing the essence of my feelings at this moment. ‘Arrogant’ and ‘pigheaded’ probably belong somewhere in the mix, too, now that I think about it.”

    “Do you think it’s the local Frontier Fleet CO’s idea? Or that it represents orders from their admiralty?”

    “I’m inclined to think it’s the locals,” Ivanov said. “Especially given Commissioner Floyd’s attitude towards the Star Empire’s ‘interference’ in his personal arrangements,” he added, eyes drifting back to his own display.

    The incoming icons had made their alpha translation the better part of fifty million kilometers from the terminus. That represented either pretty poor astrogation or else a deliberate decision to give any Manticoran warships plenty of time to see them coming. Ivanov suspected the latter. It was entirely likely that someone like Commissioner Floyd would figure the Manticorans’ nerve would fail if they had to watch the slow, inexorable approach of the Solarian League Navy. Whether or not the Solly flag officer assigned to the mission would share that belief was another question, of course. Either way, it was going to take them a while to reach Ivanov’s small force. The velocity they’d brought over the alpha wall into normal-space was barely a thousand kilometers per second, and their acceleration rate, held down by the 4,800,000-ton freighter at the core of their formation, was barely 2.037 KPS2. At that rate, it would take them over two and a half hours to reach the terminus with a zero/zero velocity.

    “It’s only been a week since Idaho announced it was closing the terminus to Solly traffic,” Ivanoff continued. “That’s not enough time for the word to have reached Old Terra, much less for orders to deliberately create a provocation to’ve gotten all the way out here from Old Chicago. And this is a deliberate provocation if I’ve ever seen one.” He snorted. “It’s sure as hell not a case of a single merchie who simply hasn’t gotten the word, anyway!” He shrugged. “I know Astro Control’s transmission hasn’t had time to reach them yet — they’re still the better part of three light-minutes out — but I’ll bet a dollar I know what they’re going to say — or not say, more likely — when Captain Arredondo orders them off.”

    “No takers here, Skipper,” Takoush said sourly.



    “Well, until they get around to not saying it, there’s not a lot we can do.” Ivanov shrugged again. “We’ll just have to wait and see if they really are stupid — and arrogant and pigheaded — enough to keep coming. And after they demonstrate that they are,” he showed his teeth, “we’ll just have to see if we can’t convince them to…reconsider their intransigence.”

    “You know, Skipper,” Takoush observed, “I’ve always admired your way with the language.”



    Although there was no way for Captain Ivanov to know it, Rear Admiral Liam Pyun, the commanding officer of Battlecruiser Division 3065.2 of the Solarian League Navy, rather agreed with the Manticoran officer’s assessment of the orders he’d been given. Unfortunately, they were orders, legally issued by one Hirokichi Floyd, the Office of Frontier Security’s commissioner for the Genovese Sector.

    Floyd was one of the people who’d most resented OFS’ failure to add Zunker (and the terminus associated with it) to its long list of unofficially annexed star systems. It affronted his sense of the way the universe was supposed to run…and deprived him of his custom-hallowed rakeoff from the terminus’ lucrative use fees. To make matters worse, he’d been deprived by the then-Star Kingdom of Manticore, the most uppity of the neobarb star nations which were disinclined to grant the Solarian League the deference to which it was so obviously due. And, just for the frosting on Floyd’s cake of discontent, the Star Kingdom had pulled no punches when the terminus was discovered. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it was even then fighting for its life against the People’s Republic of Haven in a war which had begun at a place called Hancock less than three months earlier, Manticore’s explanation of why the League might choose to keep its fingers off Zunker had been presented rather more bluntly, one might almost say forcefully, than anyone ever spoke to the Solarian League, and Floyd had been a member of the delegation to which that “explanation” had been given.

    Hirokichi Floyd was scarcely unique among Solarian bureaucrats in having personal reasons to loathe the Star Empire of Manticore and its intolerable insolence. Rear Admiral Pyun was only too well aware of that. Most of those bureaucrats, however, were far, far away from Liam Pyun, and he wished Floyd were equally far away.

    “Sir,” Lieutenant Commander Turner, Pyun’s staff communications officer, said quietly, “we’ve received a transmission from Astro Control.”

    “Have we?” Pyun never turned away from the master display. There was silence on HMS Belle Poule‘s flag deck for several seconds. It was a rather uncomfortable silence, and Pyun’s lips twitched humorlessly as he finally took pity on the com officer and looked over his shoulder at him.

    “What sort of transmission, Ephram?” he asked.

    “It’s addressed to the senior officer present, Sir.” Turner looked relieved by Pyun’s even-toned response, but he clearly wasn’t happy about the message itself. “Should I put it on your personal display, Sir?”

    “No.” Pyun shook his head. “Put it up on the master.”

    “Yes, Sir.” Turner didn’t — quite — shrug, but there was an undeniable, if respectful, element of “if you say so” in his body language. A moment later, the face of a dark-haired, bearded man appeared on the main communications display.

    “I am Captain Fergus Arredondo, Zunker Terminus Astro Control Service.” The bearded man spoke with a pronounced Manticoran accent, despite the fact that he wore the uniform of the nominally autonomous ZTACS. Not surprisingly, Pyun reflected. Idaho was a Manty ally, and most of the experienced personnel handling traffic through the Zunker Terminus were actually Manties “on loan” to ZTACS.

    “You are hereby advised that, by order of the Royal Manticoran Navy, this terminus is closed to all Solarian warships and Solarian-registered merchant traffic,” Arredondo continued. “Be aware that the Royal Manticoran Navy has issued instructions to Astro Control to inform all incoming shipping that vessels approaching this terminus are required to activate their transponders immediately upon receipt of this transmission. In addition, all Solarian vessels are prohibited from approaching within one light-minute of the terminus. The Star Empire of Manticore has declared this volume of space a prohibited zone and will act in accordance with international laws governing such zones. Arredondo, clear.”

    “Well, that’s certainly clear enough, Sir,” Steven Gilmore, Pyun’s chief of staff said almost whimsically. “Arrogant, maybe, but clear.”

    “And not exactly a surprise,” Pyun agreed. “Interesting that Idaho’s telling us the Terminus is closed ‘by order of the Royal Manticoran Navy’ rather than on its own authority, though, isn’t it?” He smiled humorlessly. “There probably isn’t anything Idaho could’ve done to keep the Manties from closing the terminus, whatever their own feelings might be. But this way they get to hide behind the Star Empire — ‘Look what they made us do!’ — without officially doing anything to piss us off.”

    His eyes strayed to the single green light-bead of the Zambezi Treasure, the freighter Floyd had ordered his division to escort through the terminus, and wondered how Captain McKenzie had reacted to the transmission. He doubted, somehow, that McKenzie was any happier about it than he was.

    Not that the Manties are likely to start right out shooting at him if push comes to shove, the rear admiral reflected.

    “Any sign they’ve reinforced their picket, Josette?” he asked his operations officer, and Captain Josette Steinberg shook her head.

    “No, Sir. I can’t speak to what they might have lying doggo with its impellers down, but judging from the signatures we can see, it’s still just the three cruisers and four of those big-assed destroyers of theirs.”

    “Seven-to-six odds, their favor,” Gilmore observed. “In hulls, anyway. Of course, the tonnage ratio’s in our favor.”

    Pyun nodded. His six battlecruisers were all Indefatigable-class ships, rather than Battle Fleet’s newer Nevadas, but their combined mass was still over five million tons, whereas the Manty picket couldn’t mass much over two million, despite the fact that the Manticoran “destroyers” were larger than most SLN light cruisers. By any traditional measure, his force advantage ought to be overwhelming.

    One of the nagging little problems with traditions, however, was that they were subject to change.

    I wonder how many missile pods they have? he thought. Whatever Floyd thinks, they have to have some. I mean, Idaho’s barely seventy light-years from their home system! No matter how much damage they’ve taken, they’ve got to have scraped up at least some additional firepower if they’re going to count on only seven ships to cover the entire terminus.

    He would have been a lot happier if he’d had better information on what had happened in the Spindle System last month. He was sure the official version was on its way to Genovese from Old Terra, but Genovese was twenty light-years further from Sol than Zunker. It took the better part of a T-month for anything from Old Terra to reach Genovese, as opposed to the one week of hyper travel between Zunker and Genovese, so at the moment all he — and Commissioner Floyd — had to go on were the reports which had come through from Idaho. Which meant all they really knew was what the Manties had told them. Well, what the Manties had told them and the fact that someone — and not, apparently, the SLN — had kicked the ever-loving hell out of the Manty home system shortly after whatever they’d done to Admiral Crandall at Spindle. Assuming, of course, that they’d actually done anything to Admiral Crandall at Spindle.

    Commissioner Floyd was inclined to think they hadn’t.

    Rear Admiral Pyun was inclined to think Commissioner Floyd was an idiot.

    “Anything from their picket commander, Ephram?” he asked out loud.

    “No, Sir. Not yet, at least.”

    “I see.”

    Pyun turned his attention back to the master display.



    “I don’t suppose we’ve heard anything back from our visitors, Justin?” Captain Ivanov asked. “No transponder signals? No snappy little comebacks to Captain Arredondo’s instructions?”

    “No, Sir,” Lieutenant Justin Adenauer replied.

    “Somehow I thought you would have mentioned it if we had,” Ivanov said dryly, then looked down at the display screen connecting him to Auxiliary Control at the far end of HMS Sloan Tompkins‘ core hull from his own command deck.

    “I guess it’s time we got into the act, Claudine,” he observed.

    “Bound to get interesting when we do, Sir.”

    “There’s a lot of that going around.” Ivanov smiled grimly. “It seems we’ve been cursed to live in ‘interesting times.’”

    “True.” Takoush nodded. “Of course, we can always try to make things more interesting for others than for us.”

    “My goal in life,” Ivanov agreed, then turned back to Adenauer. “Record for transmission, Justin.”



    “Admiral, we have another message,” Ephram Turner announced. “This one’s not from Astro Control.”


    Pyun turned away from the master display and crossed to Turner’s station. Zambezi Treasure (and his battlecruisers) had been in n-space for almost exactly ten minutes. During that time they’d covered almost a million kilometers and raised their closing velocity relative to the terminus to approximately 2,200 KPS. He’d wondered how long the picket force commander was going to wait to contact him. In fact, he’d just won five credits on a side bet with Captain Steinberg on that very point.



    “Go ahead and play it, Ephram,” the rear admiral said, standing at Turner’s shoulder and looking down at the com officer’s console.

    “Yes, Sir.”

    Turner touched a stud, and a brown-haired, green-eyed man in the uniform of a senior-grade RMN captain appeared on a small display.

    “I am Captain Hiram Ivanov, Royal Manticoran Navy.” Ivanov’s voice was crisp and professional, and if he was dismayed by the disparity between Pyun’s force and his own there was no sign of it in those green eyes. “I’m aware that you’ve been instructed by Astro Control to activate your identification transponders and that no Solarian warships or Solarian-registry merchant vessels are allowed to approach within eighteen million kilometers of this terminus. Be informed at this time that while my Empress continues to desire a peaceful resolution to the current tensions between the Star Empire and the Solarian League, I have orders to enforce my government’s directives concerning this terminus by force. Moreover, I also hereby inform you that I have no choice but to construe the presence of so many ‘unidentified’ battlecruisers in company with a single merchant ship as a deliberate effort on your part to defy those directives. Should you continue to approach this terminus without active transponders and close to a distance of less than thirty million kilometers, I will engage you. I would prefer to avoid that, but the choice is in your hands. Ivanov, clear.”

    Ivanov nodded almost courteously, and Turner’s display blanked. Pyun stood gazing down at it for a heartbeat or so, then inhaled deeply.

    “Thank you, Ephram.” He patted the com officer on the shoulder and walked back across the flag bridge to Captain Gilmore.

    “Well, that’s clear enough, too,” he observed dryly.

    “Yes, Sir. And that thirty million-klick tripwire of his is consistent with what they say happened at Spindle, too.”

    “Agreed. On the other hand, it would be consistent, don’t you think? Whether the ‘Battle of Spindle’ ever really happened or not.”

    Gilmore nodded, but his expression was unhappy, which pleased the rear admiral no end, since it indicated the presence of a functioning brain. Plenty of Frontier Fleet officers were just as wedded to the notion of Solarian invincibility as any Battle Fleet pain in the ass, but Pyun hadn’t chosen his staff from among them. No one could ever reasonably call Steven Gilmore an alarmist, yet he was at least willing to admit the Manties might actually have learned a little something — or even developed a few new weapons systems — in the course of surviving a twenty-T-year war against the far larger People’s Republic of Haven.

    Of course, neither he nor Pyun had been anywhere near the Talbott Sector when that incomparable military genius Josef Byng managed to get his flagship blown away at New Tuscany. Nor had they been in the vicinity when Sandra Crandall set out to avenge her fellow genius, so there was no way they could have any firsthand impression of the weapons Manticore might have used. Unlike Gilmore, however, Pyun had enjoyed the dubious pleasure of actually meeting Crandall, and based on that, the Manties’ version of what she’d done at Spindle carried a pronounced ring of truth. Which suggested the rest of their version of the Battle of Spindle was also at least reasonably accurate. Pyun might be willing to play devil’s advocate with Gilmore, but he shared his ops officer’s disinclination to simply dismiss the “preposterous” ranges which had been reported by at least some Solarian observers even before whatever happened to Crandall. Thirty million kilometers still sounded like too much to be true, but…

    Pyun considered his orders once again. They were as clear as they were nondiscretionary, yet he hadn’t earned flag rank in the Solarian Navy without discovering how much easier it was for people who were going to be far, far away at the critical moment to issue such unflinching directives.

    Maybe it is, but he’s still the Commissioner, and you’re still a Frontier Fleet officer assigned to his sector.

    “Copy Captain Ivanov’s message to Captain Zyndram, Ephram. Inform the Captain that I see no reason to alter our intentions at this time.”

    “Yes, Sir.”

    He folded his hands behind himself and stood gazing into the master display once more.



    “I don’t suppose the Admiral actually replied to this, Vincent?” Captain Nereu Zyndram, CO of SLNS Belle Poule, asked.

    “No, Sir,” Lieutenant Vincent Würtz replied. The com officer started to say something else, but then he closed his mouth, and Zyndram smiled thinly.

    Würtz was young, the flag captain thought. In fact, he was younger than he thought he was, prey to both the confidence and the trepidation of his youth. There was no way, in young Würtz’ worldview, that any neobarb Navy could possibly stand up to the SLN. As far as the lieutenant was concerned, the Manty accounts of the Battle of Spindle could only be disinformation. No other possibility was admissible. Yet despite that, another part of the youngster was secretly afraid the Manty claims might contain at least a particle of truth, after all. And like the vast majority of Belle Poule‘s company, Würtz had never seen actual combat. The possibility that he might see it very soon now had to be gnawing away inside him.

    Fair enough, Zyndram thought. You have seen combat, Nereu. And you’ve been around long enough to have a better feel than young Vincent for when someone’s shooting you a line of shit, too. Which is why you’re feeling a little nervous just this moment, yourself.

    Nereu Zyndram had felt profound reservations about this operation from the moment Rear Admiral Pyun shared their orders with him. Those reservations hadn’t grown any smaller since, either. On the other hand, he’d known Pyun for a lot of years. There wasn’t much chance the admiral was going to start ignoring orders just because he thought they were stupid.



    “He doesn’t seem very impressed by my warning, does he?” Hiram Ivanov observed as the icons of the Solarian formation continued their remorseless, silent advance on the terminus.

    “Typical pain-in-the-ass Solly response, Sir, if you don’t mind my saying so,” Lieutenant Commander Brian Brockhurst, Sloan Tompkins‘ tactical officer, replied, his voice harsh. “Or maybe I should say lack of response!”

    “I don’t mind your saying it, BB,” Ivanov said in a rather milder tone. “On the other hand, let’s not jump to any conclusions. We’re a long way from Spindle, and there’s no way this fellow could’ve gotten any detailed information from Old Terra yet. All he’s got is whatever’s come through from Idaho and trickled into his information net. So it’s entirely possible he’s basing his assessment of the opposing force levels on…flawed data, let’s say.” The captain’s expression turned bleak. “He may be almost as ill-informed about our actual capabilities as we were about whoever ripped up the home system last month.”

    Brockhurst’s own mouth tightened. His older brother, his sister, and their families had lived on a space station called Hephaestus prior to the attack on the Manticore Binary System, and a part of him wanted vengeance on someone — anyone. If he couldn’t get at the people who’d actually launched “the Yawata Strike,” he’d settle for any legitimate target he could get at. Nor was he inclined to be any more sensitive to the Star Empire’s enemies’ perceptions, or the reasons for them, than he had to be.

    “Closing velocity when they get to thirty million klicks?” Ivanov asked after a moment, and Brockhurst punched in the numbers.

    “Just a shade under nine thousand KPS when they cross the line, Sir.” He looked back up at his CO. “That’ll add about another three-point-two million klicks to the powered envelope.”

    Ivanov nodded. He’d factored that into his calculations when he warned the Sollies not to approach within thirty million kilometers of the terminus. That was actually exceeding the letter of his orders, but the Royal Manticoran Navy’s tradition was that an officer was expected to use his own judgment — and discretion — within the understood intent of his orders. Case Lacoön, the Royal Navy’s long-standing contingency plan to close all termini normally under its control to Solarian shipping, didn’t really apply to blowing Solarian battlecruisers out of space thirty million kilometers short of any of the termini in question. On the other hand, it was obvious the Navy was shortly going to move to full implementation of Lacoön Two. When that happened, Manticore would begin seizing control of every terminus it could, whoever those termini legally (or nominally, at least) belonged to, and closing all of them to the Sollies, as well.

    Whatever that took, and whatever the range at which the Navy found itself opening fire.

    The fat is well and truly in the fire, no matter what happens, Hiram Ivanov thought grimly. If those bastards in Old Chicago were going to do the reasonable thing, they’d already’ve done it. Since they haven’t, things are going to get a hell of a lot worse before they get any better, and I think it’s time to begin making that clear to the other side.

    “All right, BB,” he told Brockhurst after a moment. “We’ll go with Volley Alpha if our uncommunicative friends do cross the line.”



    Brockhurst looked as if he’d like to object. He hadn’t been a huge fan of the Volley Alpha ops plan when Ivanov first trotted it out, and he still wasn’t. But whether or not he wanted to object, what he actually did was nod.

    “Volley Alpha, aye, Sir,” he said. “I’ll get it set up now.”



    “Coming up on the thirty million-kilometer mark in one minute, Admiral,” Lieutenant Estelle Marker, Rear Admiral Pyun’s staff astrogator announced.

    “Thank you, Estelle,” Pyun acknowledged, and cocked his head at Josette Steinberg. “Status?” he asked.

    “We’re as ready as we’re going to be, Sir.” It wasn’t the most formal readiness report Pyun had ever received, but Steinberg had been with him for almost three T-years. Unlike Battle Fleet, they’d actually accomplished something during that time, too.

    “Halo is deployed and prepared for full activation,” the ops officer continued. “Captain Zyndram reports all missile-defense systems are manned and ready. The rest of the division is green-board, as well. I don’t know what these people think they can hit us with at this range, Sir, but whatever it is, we’re ready for it.”

    “Thank you,” Pyun said, and returned to his contemplation of the master astro display. The distance to the terminus was as ridiculously high as Steinberg’s readiness report implied, and he found himself wishing he shared the ops officer’s dismissal of the range at which the Manties claimed to have devastated Sandra Crandall’s command. For that matter, he was pretty sure Steinberg wished she really and truly disbelieved those claims.

    Whatever else happens, at least the Solarian League Navy knows how to maintain a brave face, he thought.

    The thought amused him, in a black-humor sort of way, yet he’d discovered he vastly preferred Steinberg’s attitude to the panicky response he suspected the Manticoran reports had engendered elsewhere. Not that a little panic wouldn’t do certain Battle Fleet officers he could think of a world of good. At the moment, though –

    “Missile launch!” one of Steinberg’s ratings suddenly announced. “CIC has multiple missile launches at three-zero million kilometers!”



    HMS Sloan Tompkins, like her sisters Bristol Q., Yakolev and Cheetah, was a Saganami-C-class heavy cruiser, and each of them mounted twenty launchers in each broadside. With the RMN’s ability to fire off-bore missiles, that gave them the ability to fire forty-missile strong double broadsides in a single launch, and they were armed with the internally launched Mark 16 dual-drive missile. Because of that, their tubes (and, just as importantly, their fire control) had been designed take advantage of the Mark 16′s drive flexibility and fire what were actually quadruple broadsides — salvos of eighty missiles each, not “just” forty — in order to “stack” their fire and saturate an opponent’s missile defenses.

    At the moment, Hiram Ivanov’s ships had literally dozens of missile pods limpeted to their hulls, as well, and those missile pods were loaded with full capability Mark 23 multidrive missiles, with even more endurance and powered range (and heavier laser heads) than the Mark 16. MDMs were in shorter supply than Mark 16s, though, and Ivanov had no intention of using them up unless he had to. So Volley Alpha used only the cruisers’ internal tubes, and even the Roland-class destroyers attached to his force were mere spectators at the moment. They had barely a quarter of the cruisers’ magazine capacity, and Ivanov had no more intention of wasting their limited ammunition than he did of wasting MDMs.

    Which was why “only” two hundred and forty missiles, launch times and drive activations carefully staggered to bring all of them in as a single salvo, went howling towards Rear Admiral Liam Pyun’s battlecruisers.



    “Two hundred-plus inbound,” Josette Steinberg reported tersely. “Acceleration approximately four-five-one KPS-squared. Activate all Halo platforms now!”

    “Activating Halo, aye, Ma’am!”

    “Damn,” Steven Gilmore said, so quietly only Pyun could possibly have heard him. “That’s got to be a warning shot, Sir!”

    “You think so?” Pyun’s eyes were on the tac display now, watching the scarlet icons of the Manticoran missiles streak towards his command.

    “Has to be, Sir.” Gilmore shook his head. “Even assuming they’ve got the legs to reach us without going ballistic, their targeting solutions have to suck at this range.”

    “I imagine that’s what Sandra Crandall thought, too.” Pyun showed his teeth. “Assuming the Battle of Spindle really happened, of course.”

    Gilmore started to reply, but a fresh report from Steinberg cut him off.

    “Admiral, assuming these drive numbers hold up, those things are going to be closing at better than a hundred and seventy thousand KPS when they get here.” She looked over her shoulder at Pyun. “It looks like I may’ve been wrong about whether or not they can reach us, Sir.”

    “Time to attack range four minutes, Ma’am,” one of her ratings told her, and she nodded.

    “Halo active,” another rating confirmed.



    “This is not good,” Lieutenant Commander Austell Pouchard muttered under his breath.

    “I think we could all agree with that, Lieutenant,” Commander Hiacyntá Pocock, Belle Poule‘s executive officer observed caustically, and Pouchard grimaced as he realized he’d spoken more loudly than he’d meant to.

    “Sorry, Ma’am,” he said. “But if these numbers—”

    He shook his head, and it was Pocock’s turn to grimace. Pouchard was the flagship’s senior tactical officer. As such, he, like Pocock, was assigned to Control Bravo, the SLN’s equivalent of the Manticoran Navy’s Auxiliary Control. Control Bravo was a complete duplicate of Captain Zyndram’s command deck, tasked to take over if anything unfortunate happened to Control Alpha. Because of that, Control Bravo’s personnel were supposed to be just as completely immersed in the tactical situation as anyone in Control Alpha, poised to assume command instantly in an emergency. In practice, though, there was a tendency for Control Bravo to be just a little detached. To stand back just a bit and watch the flow of a simulation or training exercise, looking for the patterns.

    Except, of course, that this was no simulation.

    Nonetheless, Pouchard had a point. If those incoming missiles could maintain their current acceleration numbers all the way in, stopping them was going to be a copperplated bitch. And somehow she couldn’t convince herself the Manties would have fired a “warning shot” quite so massive. Even with pods, three heavy cruisers couldn’t have unlimited ammunition, and she couldn’t see them expending that many missiles if they didn’t have the legs to reach their targets with maneuver time still on their clocks.

    In theory, a purely ballistic missile with the standoff range of a modern laser head was just as accurate as one which could still maneuver. Even an impeller-drive starship couldn’t produce enough Delta V to change its predicted position sufficiently to get out of the laser head’s effective range basket during the three minutes or so of the missile’s flight. But theory had a tendency to come unglued when it ran headlong into the reality of that same impeller-drive starship’s maneuverability within the range basket coupled with the impenetrability of its impeller wedge. The actual vulnerable aspects of a modern warship were remarkably narrow, unless one could attack the throat of its wedge, and a ship’s ability to make radical maneuvers at four or five hundred gravities could do a lot to deny incoming missiles a favorable angle of attack. A missile which couldn’t maneuver to pursue its target was unlikely, to say the least, to achieve that angle. Which didn’t even consider a ballistic target’s total vulnerability to defensive fire. No. Like an old pre-space wet-navy torpedo at the very end of its run, a missile which had exhausted its drive endurance before reaching attack range represented a negligible threat to any maneuvering target.

    Which was why Hiacyntá Pocock was grimly certain those acceleration numbers were going to stand up.



    “Good telemetry on both the missiles and the Ghost Rider platforms, Sir,” Lieutenant Commander Brockhurst reported. “Halo emissions match Admiral Gold Peak’s reports almost perfectly.”

    Captain Ivanov only nodded. His attention was on his repeater plot.



    “Admiral, CIC’s picking up something –”

    Liam Pyun turned towards Captain Steinberg. The operations officer’s eyes were on a side display, then she looked up at the rear admiral.

    “It’s coming up on the master plot now, Sir,” she said, and Pyun’s eyes darted back to the display. The new icons pulsed to draw the eye, help him separate them out of the clutter, and he frowned.

    “What the hell are those?” he demanded as the absurdly low ranges registered. Those things were less than ten thousand kilometers clear of his flagship!

    “We don’t know, Sir,” Steinberg’ admitted. “All we do know is that they seem to’ve been there all along. They just popped up a second ago when they cut their stealth.”

    “Cut their stealth?” Captain Gilmore repeated. “You mean the Manties got recon platforms that close to us without our ever even seeing them?”

    “That’s what it looks like,” Steinberg grated harshly. “And I doubt they just dropped their stealth for no reason at all. They want us to know they’re there.”

    “Ma’am,” one of her assistants said, “we’re picking up grav pulses all over the place. Dozens of point sources.”

    “Are these” — Pyun used a light pointer to jab at the new icons in the master plot — “some of those point sources, Chief Elliott?”

    “Uh, yes, Sir. I think they are,” the chief petty officer acknowledged.

    “Oh, shit,” Gilmore muttered.



    We are so going to get hammered, a quiet little voice said in the back of Pyun’s mind.

    “How the hell did they fit FTL emitters into something that small?” Steinberg demanded almost plaintively.

    The question was obviously rhetorical, which was probably just as well, since no answer suggested itself to Pyun. Not that it would have made any difference at the moment. What mattered was that the Manties had managed to do it. Unless he was badly mistaken, those had to be recon platforms — dozens of them, as Chief Elliott had just pointed out — and if they were capable of what the wilder theorists had proposed, they were feeding those Manty cruisers detailed tracking information at FTL speeds. Which meant their missile control loop had just been cut in half, and the implications of that…

    Belle Poule vibrated as counter-missiles began to launch, but it was already evident to Pyun that his ships mounted far too few counter-missile tubes and point defense clusters to deal with this salvo.



    “Coming up on Point Alpha,” Brockhurst announced.

    “Execute as specified,” Ivanov said formally.

    “Aye, aye, Sir. Executing…now.”



    There was little panic aboard SLNS Belle Poule, but only because her crew was too busy for that. There was no time for those who could actually see the displays, recognize what the readouts meant, to really consider what was happening, the stunning realization that they truly were as out-classed as the “preposterous” reports from Spindle had indicated.

    And they were out-classed.

    The Manticoran missiles came flashing in, still at that incredible — impossible — acceleration rate, and just before they entered the counter-missile zone, the electronic warfare platforms seeded among the attack birds spun up. Of the two hundred and forty missiles launched by Hiram Ivanov’s three cruisers, fifty carried nothing but penetration aids, and they’d been carefully saved for this moment. Now “Dazzler” platforms blinded Solarian sensors even as their accompanying “Dragons Teeth” suddenly proliferated, producing scores of false targets to confuse and saturate their targets’ defenses. The Solarian battlecruiser crews had never seen, never imagined, anything like it. Ignorant of the energy budgets the RMN’s mini-fusion plants allowed, they simply couldn’t conceive of how such powerful jammers could be crammed into such tiny platforms. The threat totally surpassed the parameters their doctrine and their systems had been designed to cope with.

    Pyun’s battlecruisers managed to stop exactly seventeen of the incoming shipkillers in the outer zone. The other hundred and seventy-three streaked past every counter-missile the Solarians could throw with almost contemptuous ease.



    Liam Pyun watched his command’s destruction ripping through his defenses. He’d always been more willing than most of his fellow officers to consider the possible accuracy of the outlandish reports coming back from the endless Manticore-Haven war. He’d had to be careful about admitting he was, given the contempt with which virtually all of those other officers greeted such “alarmist” rumors, but now he knew even the most bizarre of those reports had understated the true magnitude of the threat. No wonder the Manties had managed to punch out Byng’s flagship so cleanly at New Tuscany!

    His people were doing their best, fighting with frantic professionalism to overcome the fatal shortcomings of their doctrine and training in the fleeting minutes they had. They weren’t going to succeed, and he knew it, but they weren’t going to simply sit there, paralyzed by terror, either, and he felt bittersweet pride in them even as he cursed himself for having walked straight into this disaster.

    But how could I have known? How could I really have known? And even if I had –

    And then the Manticoran missiles burst past the inner edge of the counter-missile zone. They came driving in through the desperate, last-ditch, last-minute fire of the battlecruisers’ point defense clusters, and the laser clusters were almost as useless in the face of the Manty EW as the counter-missiles had been. They managed to pick off another twelve missiles, but that still left a hundred and sixty-three shipkillers, and Pyun felt his belly knotting solid as his ships’ executioners came boring in on the throats of their wedges. They were going to –

    One hundred and sixty-three Mark 16 missiles, each with the better part of thirty seconds’ time left on its drive, swerved suddenly, in a perfectly synchronized maneuver, and detonated as one.



    “Nicely done, BB,” Hiram Ivanov said approvingly as the FTL reports came in from the Ghost Rider drones and Sloan Tompkins‘ CIC updated the master tactical plot. “Very nicely. In fact, I think that rates a ‘well done’ for your entire department.”



    “They hit our wedges!” Steinberg blurted. “My God, they hit our wedges!

    Her tone was so disbelieving — and so affronted — that despite himself, Pyun actually felt his mouth twitch on the edge of a smile. The ops officer was staring incredulously at her displays as CIC’s dispassionate computers updated them.

    It was true. It had happened so quickly, the X-ray lasers had cascaded in such a massive tide, that it had taken Steinberg (and Pyun, for that matter) several endless seconds to grasp what had actually happened — to realize they were still alive — yet it was true.

    The rear admiral would dearly have loved to believe Halo had succeeded in its decoy function. That the Manty missiles had been lured astray by his battlecruisers’ sophisticated electronic warfare systems. But much as he would have preferred that, he knew differently. No defensive system in the galaxy could have caused every single missile in an attacking salvo to waste its fury on the roofs and floors of his ships’ impeller wedges. No. The only way that could have happened was for the people who’d fired those missiles to have arranged for it to happen.

    “Christ!” Captain Gilmore shook his head like a man who’d been hit one time too many. “How the hell –?” He stopped and gave his head another shake, then grimaced. “Sorry, Admiral.”

    Pyun only looked at him, then wheeled back towards Steinberg at the ops officer’s inarticulate sound of disbelief. She looked up and saw the admiral’s eyes on her.

    “I –” It was her turn to shake her head. “Sir, according to CIC, Retaliate took one hit and Impudent took two. That’s it. That’s all!

    “Casualties?” Pyun heard his own voice asking.

    “None reported so far, Sir.”

    “But that’s ridic –” Gilmore began, then made himself stop.

    “Ridiculous,” Pyun agreed grimly. “Except for the minor fact that it happened. Which suggests it was what the Manties intended to happen all along. In fact, the hits on Retaliate and Impudent must’ve been unintentional.” He smiled very, very thinly. “I suppose it’s nice to know not even Manty fire control is perfect.”

    Steinberg looked back up at him, and Gilmore inhaled deeply.

    “Sir, are you suggesting they deliberately targeted our wedges?” the chief of staff asked very carefully. “That it was some kind of…of demonstration?

    “I don’t have any better explanation for it, Steve. Do you?”

    “I –”

    “Excuse me, Captain,” Lieutenant Turner interrupted respectfully, “but we’re receiving a transmission I think the Admiral had better hear.”

    “What kind of transmission?” Pyun asked.

    “It’s from the Manties, Sir. But it’s not a direct transmission from any of their ships. It’s coming from…somewhere else.”

    “‘Somewhere else’?”

    “Yes, Sir.” The communications officer seemed torn between relief at his continued existence and unhappiness at something else. “Sir, I think it’s being relayed from another platform. From several other platforms, actually.” Pyun only looked at him, and Turner sighed. “Sir, it looks to me as if they must have at least ten or fifteen relay platforms out there, and they’re jumping the transmission between them to keep us from locking them up. And, Sir, I think they’re transmitting to us in real time.”

    Pyun started to protest. They were still over a light-minute and a half from the Manties. There ought to be a ninety second-plus transmission lag. But then he remembered all those grav pulses, and his protest died.

    “Very well,” he said. “Put it on the main display.”

    “Yes, Sir.”

    The same brown-haired, green-eyed man appeared, and Pyun felt his jaw muscles tighten.

    “I trust,” Captain Ivanov said, “that you realize we just deliberately didn’t destroy your ships. As I’ve already said, my Empress would prefer to resolve the differences between the Star Empire and the League without further bloodshed. That doesn’t mean more blood won’t be shed anyway, but I’d really prefer not to have it happen here, today. If you persist in approaching this terminus, however, I will have no choice but to continue this engagement, and the next salvo won’t be targeted on your wedges. You have ten minutes to reverse acceleration or translate into hyper. If you’ve done neither at the end of those ten minutes, I will open fire once more, and this time we’ll be firing for effect. Ivanov, clear.”

    It was very quiet on Belle Poule‘s flag bridge. No one said a word. In fact, for several seconds, no one even breathed. All eyes were on Liam Pyun as he stood continuing to gaze at the blank display from which Hiram Ivanov had disappeared. Then the admiral squared his shoulders, drew a deep breath, and turned his back on the display.

    “Captain Gilmore, instruct Captain Zyndram to reverse acceleration immediately. And tell him to get our hyper generators online.”

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