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A Rising Thunder: Chapter Nine

       Last updated: Thursday, February 23, 2012 19:43 EST



    “I don’t suppose we’ve received any updates on those damned missile ships?”

    Fleet Admiral Massimo Filareta’s hundred and ninety centimeters, broad shoulders, close cropped beard, strong chin, and dark eyes gave him an undeniably commanding physical presence. When he was angry, that presence tended to become actively intimidating, and at the moment, Admiral John Burrows, his chief of staff, estimated, he was somewhere well north of “irritated” and closing rapidly on “irate.” The rest of his staffers were busy finding other places to park their gazes, and quite a few seemed to have discovered that the wallpaper on their personal computers had become downright fascinating.

    “No, Sir, we haven’t,” the short, fair-haired Burrows said calmly.

    He’d been with Filareta long enough to develop a certain deftness at managing the fleet admiral, and to Filareta’s credit, he realized he needed a manager. He hadn’t risen to his present rank without family connections, but in Burrows’ opinion he was also one of a handful of truly senior officers who were actually competent. He was hardworking, levelheaded, and paid attention to the details all too many other flag officers simply ignored or shoveled onto their overworked staffs. At the same time, though, he was a man of passions, unruly emotions, and huge appetites, and he needed someone like Burrows to keep him balanced…or at least focused. Which was one reason John Burrows routinely faced an irritated Filareta with a confidence which filled lesser staffers with the sort of admiration normally reserved for counter-grav-free skydivers, alligator wrestlers, and similar adrenaline junkies.

    “Of course we haven’t!” Filareta more than half snarled, and this time Burrows simply nodded, since he and Filareta were both aware the fleet admiral had known the answer before he ever asked the question.

    Filareta clamped his teeth hard on his frustrated anger and turned to the briefing room’s smart wall bulkhead and the distant, fiery spark of the star named Tasmania. He clamped his hands equally tightly behind him and concentrated on fighting his temper under control.

    What he really wanted to do was to turn that temper loose. A good. old-fashioned, red-in-the-face-and-screaming tantrum might relieve at least some of the anger, frustration, and (little though he cared to admit it even to himself) fear swirling around inside him. Unfortunately, any relief would have been purely temporary, and he didn’t need to be displaying his own reservations in front of his staff.

    Especially not on the eve of the biggest combat deployment in the eight hundred-year history of the Solarian League Navy.

    “All right,” he said, once he was fairly confident he’d locked down his temper. “Since we’re stuck here, twiddling our thumbs until they do deign to arrive, I suppose we should look at the results of yesterday’s exercise.” He looked over his shoulder at Admiral William Daniels, his operations officer. “Suppose you start the ball rolling, Bill.”

    “Yes, Sir.”

    The brown-haired, brown-eyed Daniels had been with Filareta almost as long as Burrows, but he wasn’t as good at fleet admiral-managing, and he couldn’t hide his relief as the meeting turned to something less inflammatory than the ammunition ships’ much-discussed tardiness.

    “First, Sir,” he continued, “I’d like to observe that Admiral Haverty’s task force did particularly well in the missile-defense role. We all know ONI’s current opinion is that whoever leveled the Manties’ home system has to’ve blown a huge hole in their missile umbrella, and I know we all hope that’s true. If it isn’t, though, we’re going to need the kind of performance Haverty’s people turned in. In particular,” he activated his previously prepared report and a stop-motion hologram of a detailed tactical plot appeared above the briefing room conference table, “I’d like to direct everyone’s attention to this missile salvo here.” A flight of missile icons blinked scarlet on the plot. “As you can see, we adjusted the simulation’s parameters to reflect the reports of extended ranges we’ve been receiving. As of this time, we still don’t know what their actual ranges are, of course, but this simulation assigned them a fifty percent increase in powered envelope, and we didn’t warn anyone it was coming ahead of time. Despite that, though, if you watch what happens when Admiral Haverty’s task force detects them incoming,” he entered a command and the missile icons began moving steadily across the holographic plot, “you’ll see that –”



    “What did you think of Daniels’ analysis of Haverty’s performance?” Filareta asked Burrows some hours later.

    The two of them sat in Filareta’s dining cabin, forming a small island of humanity at the enormous compartment’s center, with the remnants of a sumptuous lunch on the table between them. Burrows was always a little astonished Filareta could eat as heartily as he did without ever appearing to gain a single gram. Of course, the fleet admiral did work out regularly, and there were those…other interests of his.

    “I thought he was pretty much on the mark, Sir.” The chief of staff sipped from his wine glass. “I think we probably need to push the simulator parameters further out — I agree with you there, entirely — but he was right about how well Haverty did within the existing parameters. And, frankly, there’s at least some question in my mind about how far we want to go in simulating Manticoran range advantages.”

    Not many officers would have admitted that so frankly, Filareta reflected, but Burrows had a point. If they started putting their fleet through simulations which assumed the Royal Manticoran Navy’s effective missile ranges really were as extreme as some reports claimed, it would devastate their own morale.

    And if the bastards do have that kind of range — and accuracy — there’s no point training to fight them, anyway. We’ll be dead meat no matter what we do!

    It wasn’t a thought he was prepared to share even with Burrows, although he suspected the chief of staff had reached the same conclusion. On the other hand, Burrows continued to believe — probably correctly, Filareta thought — that the Manty missiles at Spindle must have come out of system-defense pods, not shipboard launchers. No matter what else, missiles that long-ranged had to be huge, which meant no mobile unit could carry them in the numbers which had been reported. And if they had come out of system-defense pods, then even that incomparable military genius Rajampet was probably right about how the January attack on the Manties’ home system had depleted their supply of them.

    Unfortunately, that attack had occurred at least six T-months before Filareta could possibly get there to exploit it. He wasn’t as confident as Rajampet that the Manties wouldn’t be able to make a lot of that damage good in the meantime. And, even more unfortunately, there were a few things Burrows didn’t know and Filareta was in no position to tell him.

    The fleet admiral picked up his own wineglass, sipping with less than his usual appreciation while his mind flowed down internal pathways which had become entirely too well worn over the two T-weeks since he’d received his orders for Operation Raging Justice. Actually, they’d started wearing their way into his cortex the instant he heard about Sandra Crandall’s debacle. Or, at least, the instant he first heard the Manticorans’ analysis of how Crandall had come to be aimed at them in the first place.

    Burrows, he knew, put zero credence in Manty claims that Manpower and/or other Mesa-based transstellars had deliberately fomented the incidents in the Talbott Quadrant. The chief of staff was no innocent virgin where corporate influence on naval policies was involved, but it was preposterous to suggest that any transstellar, however powerful, could actually control major fleet movements! That was the stuff of paranoid conspiracy theories, as far as Burrows was concerned.

    It might not have been if he’d known what Massimo Filareta knew.

    Filareta couldn’t be positive Crandall had been influenced by Manpower, but he knew for damned certain that he had. He knew all about his own reputation as a hard-partying fellow, and he knew there were rumors about certain other of his more…esoteric tastes. As far as he knew, though, no one knew about his most deeply hidden cravings. No one, at least, but his “friends” at Manpower, who’d long since fallen into the habit of providing for those cravings. Those same “friends” had eased his way in other fashions, as well, and he’d always known that someday they’d want payback. But he’d been all right with that; it was the way the system worked, even if his particular set of incentives would have been regarded as beyond the pale even by jaded Solarian standards.



    So he hadn’t been surprised when one of his “friends” explained why they wanted him in command of the task force to be deployed to Tasmania. They wanted a Solarian naval presence close to the Manties — close enough to discourage them from diverting strength to Talbott to respond forcefully to Manpower’s proxies — and they wanted its CO to be someone they could trust to make that point to Manticore if the need arose.

    And you just can’t quite brush off the suspicion that they may have sent Crandall out to Talbott with exactly the same “you’re just a diversion” explanation, can you, Massimo? Especially when you’re sitting here waiting for the damned missile colliers.

    That was the final element which had him considering the sort of “paranoid conspiracy theories” with which Burrows had so little patience. The order to prepare to receive a massive influx of reinforcements had arrived on April the eleventh, with instructions to sortie no later than the twenty-fifth. Obviously, the reinforcements he was to expect had already been put into motion, and although the timetable had been tight, he’d felt reasonably confident of making the ordered departure date. Except that two days later, he’d received orders to await a convoy of ammunition ships loaded with the latest Technodyne ship-to-ship and system defense missile variants. As a follow-up dispatch had explained, it would delay the operation by no more than forty-eight hours, assuming the missile colliers experienced no delays of their own.

    He’d been surprised Technodyne was supplying anything, given the legal firestorm still swirling around the huge arms manufacturer. But then he’d examined the new order a bit more closely and discovered that the “Technodyne” shipment had actually originated in the Mesa System.

    Which was odd, since there was no Technodyne manufacturing facility in that star system.

    Technodyne did have a corporate headquarters on Mesa, so it might have made sense for shipping orders to originate there, but there was no way the missiles themselves should be coming from that star system. Not if they’d actually been built by Technodyne, at least. Unless, perhaps, they were coming out of ammunition stockpiles already amassed by someone — someone other than the Solarian League Navy — in the aforesaid system.

    As far as Filareta knew, not even Burrows had noticed that discrepancy. Nor had the chief of staff looked at the transit times involved. Oh, if anyone did look, they’d probably find that the colliers had been “diverted in transit” from some other, reasonably innocent destination, just like quite a few of his reinforcing superdreadnought squadrons. Massimo Filareta wasn’t “anyone,” however. He was as certain as a man could be that the missiles in question had actually left Mesa before his orders to sortie had been written on Old Terra, and they hadn’t been “diverted in transit,” either. They’d been intended for Tasmania from the outset…which, in turn, suggested that the same someone in the Mesa System from whose stockpiles they’d been drawn had calculated that Filareta’s command was going to receive exactly the orders it had received.

    And those orders had been written only as a consequence of what had happened to Sandra Crandall.

    Given all that, the Manties’ “preposterous” claims about Mesa began to seem a lot less preposterous. And the fact that “Technodyne” just happened to have been developing a longer-ranged, tube-launched shipkiller missile at the very moment the analysts back home in Old Chicago had finally become aware of Manticoran missile ranges was another of those “coincidences” Filareta found difficult to swallow.

    No, he thought now, lowering his glass and staring down into the wine. No, you’re a pulser dart aimed at Manticore by your “friends,” Massimo. And so was Crandall. And someone else — someone back in the Sol System itself — has to be in on this, too. It’s the only way those oh-so-fortuitously available missiles could have been slipped into the order queue so smoothly. It could be Kingsford, I suppose. He’s spent long enough learning to punch Rajampet’s buttons. Or it could be Rajampet himself. I never would’ve thought he was smart enough to make a good conspirator, but someone else could be calling the shots for him the same way they were for Crandall…or me, for that matter. And when you come down to it, it doesn’t really have to’ve been someone at the top. Someone in the right position in Logistics could’ve stage-managed the whole thing, at least as far as the missiles are concerned. Not that it really matters how they managed that part. No, what matters is whether they pre-positioned me just in case I’d be needed, or because they figured all along that Crandall was going to get reamed? Because if they deliberately set her up to get wasted, they could be doing exactly the same thing to me.

    On the face of it, he couldn’t see any advantage for anyone in the Mesa System in getting another three or four hundred Solarian ships-of-the-wall killed. On the other hand, he was damned if he could see what advantage they’d gotten out of what had happened to Crandall. So either they’d miscalculated in her case, or else they saw an advantage he couldn’t.

    It was odd how neither of those possibilities reassured him.



    The bored-looking electronics tech swiped her ID and presented a palm to the scanner before stepping onto SLNS Philip Oppenheimer‘s flag bridge. The scanner considered the card’s biometric data, comparing it briefly but thoroughly to the DNA of the proffered hand. Then it blinked a green light, and the officer of the watch glanced in the newcomer’s direction with a raised eyebrow.

    “Permission to enter Flag Bridge, Ma’am?” the tech asked with a salute which might have been a bit sharper.

    “Do we have a fault I don’t know about, PO…Harder?” the officer of the watch responded, checking the readout from the ID for the tech’s name before acknowledging her salute.

    “I don’t think so, Ma’am,” Harder replied. “Just a routine, scheduled maintenance check somebody forgot to make. Or forgot to log, anyway.”

    Harder’s tone made it clear she didn’t appreciate having been sent to tidy up someone else’s mistake.

    “The Chief Engineer sent me to make sure it’s done and done right,” she continued. “Everything’s probably fine, really, but Captain Hershberger wants to be certain it really is, under the circumstances.”

    “Well, I’m not about to argue with that,” the officer of the watch agreed, and nodded for Harder to get on with it.

    The noncom pulled up her mincomp work order, then double checked the command station number to be certain before she headed across the bridge. She pulled the access panel on the back of Admiral Daniels’ console, laid out her toolkit, flopped down, on the decksole and slid under the complex collection of molecular circuitry with her testing equipment.



    “Well, there’s a thing,” Anton Zilwicki said mildly.

    He sat at the communications officer’s station on the Havenite dispatch boat’s cramped bridge. Such bare-bones craft couldn’t begin to match the sensor reach of a real warship, and their much simpler sensor suites had no dedicated plot, either. Instead, they used the main com screen to display such data as they managed to collect, and it was customary for the com officer to be responsible for them. As it happened, the dispatch boat’s official com officer — who seemed to be about twelve, anyway — was in sickbay with, of all ridiculous things, an impacted wisdom tooth.

    The situation, Zilwicki thought, said volumes about just how poor medical care, and especially preventative medical care, had been under the People’s Republic of Haven. The restored Republic was working hard to get the backlog of completely preventable complaints — like dental problems — under control, but it hadn’t caught up yet.

    Fortunately for Lieutenant Dahmer, the boat’s skipper, Anton Zilwicki had forgotten more about sensor systems and communications equipment than his ailing com officer had yet learned. Which explained why Zilwicki was monitoring the display as the small vessel accelerated towards the planet of Haven. Now he leaned forward, fiddling with the controls and frowning at the icons before him.

    “What?” Victor Cachat demanded after a moment, and Zilwicki looked up over his shoulder.

    “What ‘what’?”

    “You said, and I quote, ‘Well, there’s a thing.”

    “Did I?” Zilwicki raised both eyebrows and sighed. “A bad sign, Victor. Talking to myself, I mean.” He shook his head. “I hope you avoid this kind of mental disintegration when you get to be my age.”



    The Havenite glowered at him. Victor Cachat was extraordinarily capable, even gifted, in certain very specific, very narrow types of human endeavor. You needed someone killed? Victor Cachat was your man. A lock picked, an extortionist shown the error of his ways, a counterespionage sting run with consummate artistry, a planetary régime destabilized? Pish-tush! Mere bagatelles! Any of those minor challenges, and he was quite literally in a league of his own.

    Step outside those…call them his “core competencies,” however, and his expertise disappeared rapidly. When it came to electronics (other than those specifically associated with explosions, arson, and general mayhem, at least) he was not, to put it charitably, at his best. Indeed, Thandi Palane had been known to observe that he was the only man in the universe who could make a standard wrist chrono explode…accidentally. Zilwicki, on the other hand, was one of the galaxy’s top handful of hackers, cyberneticists, and mollycirc wizards. Worse, at the moment, he was a trained naval officer, fully at home on the bridge and (unlike Cachat) able to absorb and interpret its displays as naturally as breathing.

    “You know,” Cachat said now, “it would be a tragedy if the working relationship you and I have developed should come to a catastrophic end due to the sudden, unanticipated demise of one half of that relationship.”

    “Really?” Zilwicki’s tone remained grave, but there might have been the merest hint of the twinkle in those dark eyes, and his lips twitched ever so slightly. “Are you feeling ill, Victor? You don’t have a bad tooth, do you?”

    “Oh, no.” Cachat smiled sweetly. “I’m feeling just fine.”

    “Oh, stop it, you two!” Yana said from behind them. Both men looked at her, and she shook her head, her expression disgusted. “I swear, I’ve known three-year-olds with higher maturity quotients than either of you!”

    “Hey, he started it!” Cachat said virtuously, jabbing a finger in Zilwicki’s direction.

    “Did not.”

    “Did too!”



    “Stop it!” Yana thwacked Cachat on the back of the head, then shook an index finger under Zilwicki’s nose. “Victor isn’t the only one you’re teasing, Anton, so don’t think I’m going to let you keep this up.”

    “Just as a matter of idle curiosity, what do you propose to do about it?” he inquired mildly.

    “Me? Nothing.” Yana’s smile was even sweeter than Cachat’s had been. “Not directly, anyway. No, I’ll just mention your behavior to Her Majesty. I’m sure you don’t want Berry taking you to task for picking on Victor this way, do you?”

    Zilwicki regarded her thoughtfully, then shrugged. His daughter was unlikely to “take him to task,’ but that didn’t mean she couldn’t find ways to demonstrate her disapproval. And Yana had a point. Berry did have an especially warm spot in her heart for Victor Cachat, galaxy-renowed assassin, ice-cold killer, and general purveyor of doom, chaos, and despair. Besides…

    “All right,” he said. “There’s good news, and there’s bad news. The bad news is that there’s no sign of Eighth Fleet. The good news is that the star system’s still intact. So we’re not likely to find Duchess Harrington on-planet, but it doesn’t look like the talks could’ve collapsed too disastrously.”

    “Are you sure you’d be able to find Eighth Fleet if it was still here?” Cachat asked. Zilwicki looked at him, and he shrugged. “You’re the one who told me our sensors were crappy, Anton, and everybody knows Manty stealth is better than anyone else’s.”

    “That’s true,” Zilwicki acknowledged. “On the other hand, according to your friend Justice, Eighth Fleet wasn’t making any effort to hide. First, I imagine, because the whole point was for the Pritchart administration to be well aware –painfully well aware, if I may be so bold — of the iron fist inside Duchess Harrington’s velvet glove. And, second, because sitting there with its stealth and EW online for such extended periods would give your Navy entirely too good a look at their capabilities under what would amount to laboratory conditions. In other words, if they were still here, we’d be able to see them even with this one-eyed bastard.”

    He jerked his head at the display pretending to be a plot, and Cachat nodded. It would have taken someone who knew the Havenite spy as well as Zilwicki did to recognize the worry in his expression.

    “Hey, it’s not the end of the world, Victor,” Zilwicki said more gently. “Like I said, the system’s still here. For that matter, I’m picking up Capital Fleet’s transponder beacons. If the talks had come apart spectacularly, there’d be a lot fewer ships and a lot more wreckage.”

    “True enough, I suppose.” Cachat nodded brusquely, then gave himself a mental shake. “I could wish Duchess Harrington were still here, for a lot of reasons. But all we can do is the best we can do. Are we close enough for me to call in?”

    “You’ll still be looking at a twenty-five minute two-way lag,” Zilwicki told him. “Do you want to send a one-way burst, or are we going to have to go through some kind of challenge-response validation?”

    “Burst, I think,” Cachat said after a moment’s reflection. “We can at least get the ball started rolling.”

    “Fine. In that case, you’d better get started recording it.”



    The officer of the watch looked up from her own paperwork as Petty Officer Harder finished re-securing the access panel and started folding up her toolkit once more.

    “Any problems, PO?”

    “No, Ma’am.” Harder smiled wryly. “Matter of fact, it looks like they did catch up on the last inspection and just forgot to log it. Everything’s fine.”

    “Good.” The officer smiled back and shook her head. “Sorry you had to come all the way down for something that was already done, but Captain Hershberger’s right. Everything has to be four-oh on this one.”

    “You got that one right, Ma’am,” Harder agreed, and headed for the flag bridge hatch.



    The uniformed four-man escort waiting dirt-side for the shuttle seemed unable to decide whether its passengers were honored guests, prisoners, or homicidal maniacs. Since the escort was meeting Victor Cachat, Zilwicki thought that wasn’t an unreasonable attitude on its part.

    “Officer Cachat,” the senior man said, looking at Cachat.

    “Yes,” Cachat replied tersely.

    “And this would be Captain Zilwicki, then?”

    “Yes, and this is Yana Tretiakovna.” Cachat’s tone had taken on a certain dangerous patience, Zilwicki noted.

    “Thank you, Sir. But I don’t believe anyone’s told me who this is,” the escort commander said, twitching his head in Herlander Simões’ direction.

    “No, they haven’t, have they?”

    “Sir, I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist on some identification.”

    “No,” Cachat said flatly.

    “Officer Cachat, I realize you’re senior to me, but I’m still going to have to insist. My orders are to escort you directly to Péricard Tower, and I don’t think Presidential Security’s going to be happy about admitting someone they don’t even have a name for!”

    “Then they’re just going to have to be unhappy,” Cachat told him. “I’m not simply posturing, Officer…Bourchier,” he went on, reading the other man’s nameplate. “This man’s identity — for that matter, the very fact of his existence — is strictly need-to-know. Frankly, I’d be a lot happier if you’d never even seen him. But the only four people who have the authority to decide you have a need-to-know who he is are Director Trajan, Director Usher, Attorney General LePic, or President Pritchart. Now, do you want to get one of them on a secure com to get that kind of clearance, or do you want to just take my word for it?”

    “Believe me,” Yana said in an exaggerated stage whisper, one hand cupped beside her mouth. “You want to just take his word for it.”

    Bourchier looked at all of them for a long moment, then inhaled deeply. Obviously he’d heard the stories about Victor Cachat.

    “Fine,” he said. “Have it your way. But if Agent Thiessen shoots him on sight, nobody better blame me for it.”



    Approximately ninety minutes later, Cachat, Simões, and Zilwicki were escorted into a maximum security briefing room. Yana had declined Cachat’s invitation when she found out who else was going to be present. Apparently there were limits to her insouciance, after all.

    Actually, Zilwicki didn’t really blame her as he surveyed the briefing room’s occupants. President Eloise Pritchart, Secretary of War Admiral Thomas Theisman, Attorney General Denis LePic, Vice Admiral Linda Trenis of the Bureau of Planning, and Rear Admiral Victor Lewis, the CO of the Office of Operational Research, sat waiting for them, along with three members of the President’s security detail. All of whom, Zilwicki noted, looked just as unhappy as Officer Bourchier had suggested they might.



    Well, that was fine with him. He wasn’t especially happy himself. To Bourchier’s credit, he’d refused to allow even Victor Cachat to simply steamroller him. Instead, he’d flatly insisted on clearing Simões’ presence with some higher authority before he’d go any further. Wilhelm Trajan, the Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service, hadn’t been available — he was off-planet at the moment — so Bourchier had gone directly to LePic. Who, not unreasonably, had insisted on meeting Simões himself before he’d even consider authorizing his admittance into Pritchart’s presence.

    Zilwicki had no problem with that. What he did have a problem with was that their interview with the attorney general had been the first any of them had heard about what had happened — or, at least, what Mesa claimed had happened — in Green Pines. Discovering that he’d been branded as the worst mass murderer in recent memory tended to be just a tad upsetting, he’d discovered.

    And thinking about how the people he loved must have responded to that lie was even more so.

    “So, our wandering boy returns, I see,” Pritchart murmured. She regarded all of them for a moment, then looked directly at Zilwicki.

    “I’m afraid the galaxy at large thinks you’re, well, dead, Captain Zilwicki,” she said. “I’m pleased to see the reports were in error. Although I’m sure quite a few people in Manticore are going to be just as curious to know where you’ve been for the last several months as we are about Officer Cachat’s whereabouts.”

    “I’m sure they are, too, Madam President. Unfortunately, we had a little, um, engine trouble on the way home. It took us several months to make repairs.” Zilwicki grimaced. “We played a lot of cards,” he added.

    “I imagine so.” The President cocked her head. “And I imagine you’ve also discovered there have been a few developments since whatever happened — and I do trust you’re going to tell us what it was that did happen — in Green Pines?”

    “I’m sure that will be covered, Ma’am,” Zilwicki said grimly. “It wasn’t much like the ‘official version’ I’ve just heard, but it was bad enough.”

    Pritchart gazed at him for a moment, then nodded slowly and looked at Simões.

    “But I don’t believe I know who this gentleman is,” she continued.

    “No, Madam President, you don’t — yet,” Cachat replied. “This is Dr. Herlander Simões. Of the planet Mesa.”

    Pritchart’s spectacular topaz eyes narrowed slightly. The first-class brain behind those eyes was obviously running at top speed, but all she did was sit back in her chair.

    “I see,” she said after a moment, gazing speculatively at the Mesan. “May I assume Dr. Simões is the reason you’ve been…out of touch, let’s say, for the last, oh, six or seven T-months?”

    “He’s one of the reasons, Ma’am.”

    “Then, by all means be seated,” she invited, waving a hand at the empty chairs on the other side of the table, “and let’s hear what you — and Dr. Simões, of course — have to tell us.”



    “Readiness reports complete, Sir,” Admiral Daniels reported. “All squadron and task group commanders report ready to proceed as ordered.”

    “Thank you, Bill,” Fleet Admiral Filareta acknowledged.

    He stood on the flag bridge of SLNS Philip Oppenheimer, flagship of the Solarian League Navy’s newly designated Eleventh Fleet, gazing at the endless rows of status reports and thinking. The missile ships had taken a few days longer than expected to join him, which had given just enough time for a last set of dispatches from the Sol System to reach Tasmania. Which, in his opinion, was very much a mixed blessing.

    The news that the Manties were closing wormhole termini to Solarian traffic was not something he’d wanted to hear. Whatever else it might indicate, it hardly sounded like the action of a star nation reeling from a surprise attack and terrified for its very life. One might have expected people in that position to be looking for ways to avoid infuriating something the size of the Solarian League, which didn’t appear to have even crossed the Star Empire’s mind. That was a disconcerting thought, and the fact that neither Rajampet nor his civilian masters seemed to share it was even more unpleasant. Judging from their amendment of his original mission orders, however, the only “thinking” they appeared to have done was to fasten on it as yet another Manty “provocation” to justify their own actions. They certainly hadn’t been dissuaded by it, at any rate!

    They probably think the Manties are just running a bluff, trying to convince us to back down, he reflected. And maybe they are. But maybe they aren’t, too. Maybe it’s an indication they’re genuinely that confident they can stand up to us, instead, and I sort of wish at least someone in Old Chicago was willing to at least consider the possibility. That’d be asking too much, though, I guess, since it would require a brain bigger than a pea!

    He shook his head mentally. It was far too late to be worrying about the blindness — or desperation — of the people behind his orders. It was too late to be worrying even about how large a hand Manpower might have had in drafting those orders in the first place, and at least four hundred and twenty-seven of the four hundred and thirty-one ships-of-the-wall which had been ordered to join him had actually arrived. That was a phenomenal accomplishment, by SLN peacetime readiness standards. In fact, he suspected the status reports on a half dozen or so of his SDs had been fudged by captains who had no intention of being caught short at a moment like this, but as long as they weren’t covering up fundamental problems, that was fine with him.

    The more the merrier, he thought sardonically, yet not even his cynicism was proof against commanding the most powerful armada the Solarian League had ever launched. As he looked at those status reports, at the glittering sea of icons, he was aware of the true size and power of the Solarian League Navy in a new and different way. His concerns about Manticoran weapons hadn’t magically disappeared, by any means, yet despite those concerns, what he felt at this moment was the ponderous, unstoppable power of all those millions upon millions of tons of starships.

    Four hundred and twenty-seven ships-of-the-wall. Thirty-two battlecruisers, thirty light cruisers, and forty-eight destroyers to screen the battle squadrons and provide the scouts they’d probably need. And fifty fast freighters (and personnel transports), all with military-grade hyper generators and particle screening. All told, his command counted almost six hundred starships, massing over three billion tons. Indeed, his wallers alone massed 2.9 billion tons, and counting the freighter and transport crews, he commanded over 2.7 million naval personnel, which didn’t even count the transports’ 421,000 Marines and support personnel. By any meter stick, it was an enormous force, and fifty percent of the missiles in his SDs’ magazines were the new dual-drive Technodyne Cataphract-Bs. He would have preferred a heavier warhead, but that was what the five thousand pods loaded with Cataphract-Cs were for. At over sixteen million kilometers, their powered envelope was better than twice that of the Trebuchet capital missiles they’d replaced.

    He was still a long way from truly leveling the playing field, assuming there was any truth in the Manty accounts of Spindle. As it happened, he was convinced there was quite a lot of truth in those accounts, but almost despite himself, he’d been deeply impressed when he saw the Cataphracts’ performance numbers. Whether they’d come from Technodyne or the tooth fairy was far less important than how enormously his fleet’s effective reach had been increased. He was going to be outranged by any surviving Manty system-defense missile pods, but he should at least come close to matching their shipboard missiles. If there was any validity at all to the Office of Strategy and Planning’s assessment of the Star Empire’s morale, that ought to be enough to convince them that no qualitative advantage could ultimately offset the sheer quantitative edge of the Solarian League.

    Sure it will, he told himself. You go right on thinking that way. But don’t get your ass so wedded to the concept that you end up getting yourself and a couple of million other people killed!

    “Very well,” he said at last, then drew a deep breath and turned to face Daniels once more.

    “I believe we have a date with the Manties, Bill. Let’s get this show on the road.”

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