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At All Costs: Chapter Twenty Six

       Last updated: Friday, October 28, 2005 09:46 EDT



    "Ma'am, I hate to disturb you, but I think you'd better see this."

    Rear Admiral Jennifer Bellefeuille, the Republican Navy's senior officer in the Chantilly System, turned towards the dining cabin hatch with a scowl that was angry, despite her best effort to control her temper.

    "What is it, Leonardo?" She tried to keep herself from chopping the words off in small, icy chips, but it was more than she could manage.

    "Admiral, Mr. Bellefeuille, I apologize for breaking in on your dinner, but I think this is urgent."

    Commander Ericsson, Bellefeuille's operations officer, held out a message board to his admiral. She managed to not -- quite -- snatch it out of his hand, and glared at the display. Then, abruptly, her angry expression smoothed into something very different.

    "This is confirmed?" she asked crisply, looking back up at Ericsson.

    "Yes, Ma'am. I had Perimeter Tracking doublecheck before I broke in on you." He smiled apologetically. "I know how much you and your family have been looking forward to this visit, Admiral. I really wish I hadn't had to disturb you on your very first evening."

    "I wish you hadn't had to, too," Bellefeuille said, her own smile thin. "For a lot of reasons." She glanced at the message board again, then set it down on the table. "Ivan's seen a copy of this, as well?"

    "Yes, Ma'am. And I also routed a copy to Governor Sebastian's office."

    "Thank you." This time Bellefeuille's smile was warmer, though it still seemed strained, a bit taut. "I don't think there's much we can do about it right now. If they get clumsy and we get a solid read on them, I'd love to nail them. I'm not going to try holding my breath until we do, though, and I don't want to give away anything we don't have to. So tell Ivan to activate Smoke and Mirrors. I want everything we've got brought to immediate readiness, but no one moves, and we shut down the Mirror Box platforms right now. And I want all of our stealth-capable units except the destroyers into stealth now. They stay there until I tell them differently."

    "Yes, Ma'am. Anything else?"

    "Not right now, Leonardo. Thank you."

    Commander Ericsson smiled, nodded once again to his admiral and her family, and withdrew.


    The Chantilly System commander looked up. She realized she'd been settling into what her mother used to call "a brown study," but the sound of her name pulled her back out of it abruptly. Her husband looked back at her, waiting patiently despite the concern in the back of his deep, brown eyes.

    "I'm sorry, Russ," she said quietly. "I know you and the girls just got here, and I've really been looking forward to this visit. But it appears the Manties didn't get the memo about your trip."

    Russell Bellefeuille's lips quirked very slightly at her feeble attempt at humor, but their children, Diana and Matthew, didn't even try to conceal their worry.

    "Can you tell us about it?" Russell asked. His tone said he'd understand if she couldn't, and she smiled at him, far more warmly, while she wondered how many other spouses could have honestly said the same in his position.

    Russell Bellefeuille had spent thirty T-years fighting a hopeless struggle against the "democratized" Legislaturalist educational system. Fortunately, he and his wife had been born and raised in the Suarez System, and Suarez had been added to the People's Republic only thirty-six years before the outbreak of the first war with Manticore, so at least he hadn't had to deal with the entrenched, massively intrusive bureaucracy of places like Nouveau Paris. He'd had enough slack to get away with actually teaching his students something, and although -- like his wife -- he'd hated and despised the People's Republic of Rob Pierre and State Security, he'd finally seen the idea that schools were supposed to teach students take root once more.

    Along the way, he'd found the time and patience to marry a serving naval officer, despite all of the dislocation a military career imposed on anyone's personal life . . . and the very real risk involved in marrying an officer while Oscar Saint-Just's State Security was shooting entire families under his infamous policy of "collective responsibility." And in the middle of all that, he'd somehow managed to raise two teenaged children, with only occasional visits from their mother, and done a damned good job.

    "There's not much to tell . . . yet," she said. "Perimeter Tracking's detected what's probably a pair of hyper footprints well out from the system primary. It may be nothing."

    "Or it may be Manty scout ships, like I saw on the boards about Gaston and Hera," Diana said tautly. At seventeen, she was the older of Bellefeuille's children, with her mother's dark hair coloring and gray-green eyes. She also had her mother's sharp-edged, adrenal personality, and at the moment Bellefeuille wished she'd inherited more of her father's equanimity.

    "Yes, it may," Bellefeuille said as calmly as she could. "In fact, I think it probably is."

    "Here?" Technically, Matthew wasn't quite a teenager yet. One reason for this trip to Chantilly had been to celebrate his thirteenth birthday, and at the moment, he looked and sounded very young -- and frightened -- indeed. "The Manties are coming here, Mom?"

    "Probably," Bellefeuille repeated.

    "But --"

    "That's enough, Matt," Russell said quietly. The boy looked at him, as if he couldn't believe he could be so blasé about it. But then he saw his father's eyes, and his mouth shut with an almost audible click.

    "Better," Russell said, reaching out to ruffle his hair gently, the way he had when Matthew had been much younger. Then he turned back to his wife.

    "All I really know is what I've read in the 'faxes and on the boards," he told her. "Is this as bad as I think it is?"

    "It's not good," she told him honestly. "Just how not-good, I don't know yet. We probably won't, for at least a couple of days."

    "But you expect them to attack?"

    "Yes." She sighed. "I wish now you hadn't come."

    "I don't," he said softly, and her eyes pickled as he looked steadily at her across the table. Then he reached for his fork and glanced at their children. "I think we should go ahead and finish eating before we pester your mother with any more questions," he told them.



    "There's another one, Sir," Chief Sullivan said flatly.

    "Did we get a locus on it?" Lieutenant Commander Krenckel asked.

    "I wish, Sir," Sullivan replied in disgusted tones. He looked up from his display, and his expression was a mixture of frustration and apology. "Whatever it is -- and between you and me, Sir, it's got to be a stealthed Manty recon platform -- it's moving like a bat out of hell. I wish to hell I knew how they got these kinds of acceleration levels and endurance numbers on their platforms!"

    "NavInt says they've probably put micro fusion plants on them."

    Sullivan blinked.

    "Fusion plants? On something this small?"

    "That's what they say." Krenckel shrugged. "I haven't seen any raw data on captured hardware or anything to support it, but it comes out of Bolthole. And if anyone knows what they're up to, it's got to be Admiral Foraker and her teams."

    "Well, isn't that just peachy," Sullivan muttered, then grimaced. "Sorry, Sir."

    "You're not saying anything I haven't thought, Chief," Krenckel said dryly. "Still, it'd make sense out of how small they've managed to make their MDMs. Not to mention the hellacious power levels their remote EW platforms pump."

    "Yeah, it would," Sullivan agreed. Then he seemed to give himself a mental shake. "But what I was saying, Sir -- all we're getting is the back scatter, and their directional transmission capability's better than ours. The best read we've gotten was an accident -- one of our own platforms just happened to wander into their transmission path -- and we haven't gotten what we need for a good crosscut bearing for any of them. Even if we did, by the time we could vector anything out there, the platform would be long gone. It'd have to see us coming, and it can pull a hell of a lot more accel than any LAC we might send after it."

    "Then we're just going to have to hope we do get a cross bearing, I guess," Krenckel said.

    "Yes, Sir."

    Sullivan turned back to his display, bending once more to the wearisome task of listening for the tiny spies flitting about the Augusta System. Personally, he figured the effort was as pointless as it was exhausting. They knew the bastards were out there; they knew they weren't going to be able to run down any of the platforms, even if they spotted them; and they knew those platforms wouldn't be there if Hell itself wasn't coming to dinner.

    Still, he supposed he might as well waste his time doing this as anything else.



    "Commander Estwicke's data is coming in now, Your Grace."

    "Thank you, Andrea."

    Honor nodded to her ops officer, then turned back to the com.

    "You heard, Rafe?"

    "Yes, Ma'am. Yolanda's already looking at the preliminaries. So far, it seems to be about what we expected."

    "Then it probably is. But remember, surprise --"

    "Is usually what happens when someone misinterprets something he's seen all along," Cardones finished for her. She closed her mouth, then chuckled.

    "I think I may have spent too many years at the Island."

    "No, Ma'am. You've always been a teacher."

    Honor was a little surprised by the flicker of embarrassment she felt at the sincerity in Cardones' tone.

    "Well, I had some pretty good teachers of my own," she said, after a moment. "Admiral Courvoisier, Captain Bachfisch, Mark Sarnow. I guess once you get stuck in the pattern, it's hard to break."

    "If it's all the same to you, Ma'am, I think we'd all just as soon you didn't try."

    "I'll . . . bear that in mind, Captain Cardones."

    "Good. And now, if you don't mind, Your Grace, we've both got some tactical information to look over. So," he grinned broadly at her, "let's be about it."



    "Tell the Admiral we've got a major hyper translation."

    Commander Ivan deCastro, Rear Admiral Bellefeuille's chief of staff hoped he looked calmer than he felt as he gazed into the display at Commander Ericsson.

    "How big is it, Leonardo?" he asked.

    "At least thirteen footprints," Ericsson said grimly. "It may be fourteen. We're working to refine the numbers."

    "Not good," deCastro said, and Ericsson snorted.

    "I see you subscribe to the theory understatement can be its own form of emphasis."

    "When it's all you've got, you might as well be witty, I suppose." DeCastro produced a wan smile. Then he squared his shoulders. "All right, I'll tell her. At least she's got her family dirt-side now, not on the flagship."

    "I know." For just a moment, Ericsson's expression was haunted. "Christ, that's got to be hard. Knowing your kids are down there. That they know exactly what's happening."

    "It's a bastard, all right," deCastro agreed. "Get me those refined numbers as soon as you can."



    "How big a force did you say?"

    Governor Joona Poykkonen's face was gray on Rear Admiral Baptiste Bressand's com. Not that Bressand blamed him a bit. The rear admiral intended to do his best to defend Augusta, but after he had -- and after the wreckage had dissipated -- Poykkonen was going to have to deal with what the frigging Manties were about to do to his star system.

    "Perimeter Tracking makes it four superdreadnoughts, four battlecruisers, and seven heavy and light cruisers," Bressand repeated. "It's possible one or more of the superdreadnoughts could be a carrier, but so far the emissions signatures are consistent with Invictus and Medusa-class SD(P)s. If I had to guess, I guess we're up against the same force that hit Hera."

    "Harrington is here?" Poykkonen's face got a little grayer, if that was possible.

    "Honor Harrington is not the devil herself," Bressand said testily. "So far as I'm aware, she hasn't even made any deals with the devil -- assuming the devil exists. Which I don't."

    "I'm sorry, Baptiste." Poykkonen shook his head like a man trying to shake water out of his ears and managed an apologetic smile. "It's just, well . . . . Oh, hell! You know what it is."

    "Yes." Bressand sighed. "Yes, Joona, I know what it is."

    "Do you intend to fight her?" Poykkonen asked quietly after a moment.

    "I've got some orders around here somewhere that say something about my being the Augusta System's naval commander. If memory serves, they also say something about defending my station against attack."

    "I know they do." Poykkonen's tone told Bressand his feeble attempt at humor had failed. "But that doesn't change the fact that you've got one old-style superdreadnought, six battlecruisers, and a couple of hundred LACs. That's not enough to stop her, and you know it."

    "So what do I do, Joona?" Bressand sat back and raised one hand, palm uppermost. "Do I lie down and play dead? Do I just let her -- or whoever's in command over there -- waltz right in and blow this system's economy and industrial base to hell? We've got pods on tow, we've got the system defense pods already deployed, and if they don't have any CLACs of their own, then at least they don't have any of those damned Katanas to throw at us. I sent off a dispatch boat to Haven as soon as we realized they were scouting the system. A relief force is probably already on its way. If I can just delay these people until it gets here, we may be able to save at least some of your star system for you, after all."

    "We're thirty light-years from the capital, Baptiste. That's four days' transit for a task force and your message can't reach the Octagon until sometime later today. Do you really think you can stand off a force this size for four frigging days?"

    "Probably not," Bressand said bleakly. "But that doesn't mean I don't have to try." The two friends looked at one another for a moment, and then Bressand cleared his throat. "In case we don't get another chance to talk, Joona, take care of yourself."

    "I will," the Governor promised softly. "And if you don't mind, I'm going to ask that God you don't believe in to look after you."



    "They're here, Ma'am," Commander Alan McGwire said. "Perimeter Tracking makes it at least six of the wall -- some of them might be carriers, of course -- ten cruisers, and at least three destroyers."

    Commodore Desiree Carmouche, CO of the 117th Heavy Cruiser Squadron and the Republic of Haven Navy's senior officer in the Fordyce System, looked at her chief of staff and shook her head.

    "Bit of overkill there, wouldn't you say?" she observed with ironic bitterness.

    "I'm guessing their intelligence appreciation was off," McGwire replied. "Up until Thunderbolt, we had a much heavier system defense force stationed here." He shrugged. "Without an actual recon before they dropped their damned destroyers and stealthed arrays in on us, they had no way of knowing the system picket had been so reduced."

    "For what I'm sure seemed like a perfectly good goddamned reason at the time," Carmouche grated. She glared at the plot for several seconds, eyes fiery as she studied the blood-red rash of incoming enemy warships and the seven threadbare green icons of her own understrength squadron, and then her shoulders sagged visibly.

    "There's nothing we can do to stop them, Alan," she said heavily.

    "No, Ma'am, there isn't," he agreed softly. "Petra's already passed the word to Governor Dahlberg."

    Commander Petra Nielsen was Carmouche's operations officer, and the commodore nodded in understanding and approval.

    "I've been on the horn with Captain Watson, myself," McGwire continued. Captain Diego Watson commanded the Fordyce LAC groups. "He says his people are prepared to engage."

    "In which case I might as well simply shoot them myself." Carmouche turned away from the plot at last. "For Christ's sake, Diego has less than a hundred and fifty Cimeterres! If I commit him against these people, they'll blow him out of space before he even gets into his missile range of them. And just what the hell does he imagine he'd accomplish against superdreadnoughts even if he got into range in the first place?"

    "Of course he wouldn't accomplish anything, Ma'am. But what did you expect him to say?"

    "That he was ready to go in," Carmouche sighed, then shook her head wearily. "And I suppose the rest of our magnificent 'task force' is equally ready to get itself killed for absolutely nothing?"

    "They are if you ask them to, Ma'am," McGwire said softly, and she looked at him sharply. He met her eyes steadily, and after a moment, she nodded.

    "It does come down to that, doesn't it?" She inhaled deeply. "Well, Alan, as it happens, I'm not prepared to get all those people killed pointlessly. Have Communications pass the evacuation order for all of the civilian platforms, as well as the Fleet yard and repair station. If these are the same people who hit us last month, they're probably going to be careful about inflicting civilian casualties. But they might not be the same ones, so let's not take any chances."

    "Aye, Ma'am," McGwire said formally.

    "Then turn the Squadron around. We've got time to get out of the system before the Manties can range on us, but only if we start now. Any civilian starships who can evade are to do the same thing, but if the Manties bring them into range and order them to halt, they are to obey immediately. Make certain that's clearly understood."

    "And the LACs, Ma'am?" McGwire's voice was completely nonjudgmental as Carmouche announced her intention of abandoning the star system to the enemy.

    "They're to return to base immediately, and those bases' personnel are to be evacuated dirt-side as rapidly as possible. After which they'll blow their fusion plants," she replied flatly. "I wish we had the personnel lift to pick up Diego's crews in passing, but we don't. And I very much doubt the Manties brought along transports to haul prisoners home with them, anyway."

    "That would require a bit of gall, Ma'am," McGwire agreed. "On the other hand, look how close to Haven they're operating. I'm afraid gall is one thing they obviously aren't short on."



    "Well, this is an anticlimax," Alistair McKeon observed to his chief of staff.

    "ONI can't get it right all the time, Sir," Commander Orndorff said. "The last time we looked, there was a substantial picket here. Obviously, times have changed." She shrugged philosophically. She was a substantial woman, who produced a substantial shrug, and the treecat on her shoulder flirted his tail in agreement with his person's observation.

    "As if you know anything about intelligence appreciations!" McKeon told the 'cat.

    "Banshee made it all the way through the Crusher with me, Sir," Orndorff pointed out. "You might be surprised what he picked up along the way."

    "I might at that," McKeon agreed, chuckling as he remembered the first treecat he'd ever met. Then he shook himself.

    "All right, CIC is confident about its tracking data?" he asked.

    "Yes, Sir," another voice said. It belonged to Commander Alekan Slowacki, McKeon's ops officer and a relative newcomer to his command team. Now Slowacki gestured at the master plot's display of the Fordyce System, indicating a small cluster of red dots accelerating rapidly towards the hyper limit.

    "That's all seven of the heavy cruisers Venturer's arrays picked up, Sir," he continued. "And this," he pointed to another swarm of ruby light chips, "is over a hundred LACs returning to base." He shook his head. "Their system commander, whoever he is, hasn't commed us to announce he's standing down, but he's obviously intelligent enough to know what would happen if he didn't."

    "And their missile pods?"

    "No word on those, Sir. Probably the reason the system CO hasn't contacted you directly," Slowacki said. "He's not prepared to stand them down, as well, and he's afraid you might insist he do so."

    "Damned straight I would," McKeon half-growled. Then he shook his head. "Not that I'd be inclined to commit any atrocities if he declined. Mind you, it'd tempting, but Duchess Harrington would feed me to Nimitz, one bite at a time if I did anything like that!"

    "That's probably an understatement, Sir," Orndorff said with a ghost of a smile.

    "Whatever." McKeon brooded over the plot for several more seconds, then nodded decisively.

    "Okay. They're abandoning the system -- or, at least, they aren't going to defend it with anything except the pods -- and according to Venturer and Mandrake, they don't have more than a hundred or so of those. I'm going to assume they have at least twice as many as we've actually found, however. And if they don't want to get their LACs killed, I don't see any reason we should get ours killed, either. Contact Admiral Corsini. I want only the Katanas deployed, strictly in the missile defense role. We'll take Intransigent and Elizabeth in, covered by Gottmeyer's cruisers and the Katanas. Corsini is to retain Atchison's cruiser division and the destroyers as a screen for the carriers and stay outside the hyper limit. If any unpleasant strangers appear, she's too immediately withdraw and return directly to Trevor's Star."

    "We could probably sweep up the pieces faster with a couple of LAC groups, Sir," Orndorff pointed out in a diplomatic tone, and McKeon nodded.

    "Yes, we could. On the other hand, a couple of SD(P)s can wipe out every significant platform out there in less than fifteen minutes if we have to. I'm not going to send in the LACs while holding the wallers out of missile range, and if I'm going to take the division in anyway, there's no point exposing Shrikes and Ferrets to potential lucky hits from the pods. If it takes us a little longer to do the job this way, so be it."

    "Aye, aye, Sir," Orndorff said, and waved Slowacki towards the flag bridge's com section.



    Captain Arakel Hovanian, acting commodore of the 93rd Destroyer Squadron, Republican Navy, glared at the master plot showing the icons of four CLACs, four battlecruisers, and seven destroyers and light cruisers sweeping inward from the hyper limit of the Des Moines System.

    "Sir, Governor Bruckheimer is on the com," Commander Ellen Stokley, the skipper of the destroyer RHNS Racer and Hovanian's flag captain said quietly.

    "Switch it to my display," Hovanian directed, and the small com flatscreen filled with the image of Governor Arnold Bruckheimer as the commodore slid into his command chair.

    "Commodore Hovanian," the Governor said without preamble. "What the hell are you still doing here?"

    "I beg your pardon?" Hovanian's eyes narrowed in surprise.

    "I asked you what the hell you're still doing here," Bruckheimer repeated flatly. "Aside from the very high probability of getting yourself and all of your personnel killed, that is?"

    "Governor, I'm responsible for the defense of this system, and --"

    "And if you try to defend it, you're going to fail," Bruckheimer interrupted brusquely. "I can still read a tactical plot, you know."

    Hovanian had opened his mouth to reply hotly, but he closed it again with a click at the reminder that Bruckheimer was a retired admiral.

    "Better," Bruckheimer said a bit more conversationally. Then he cocked his head to one side, his eyes compassionate. "Commodore -- Arakel -- you just got dropped straight into the crapper through absolutely no fault of your own. If they'd waited another three weeks, we'd have had some significant reinforcements waiting for them. But they didn't, and you don't have a single capital ship under your command. There are exactly twenty-six Cimeterres in this entire star system; I know even better than you just how thin our missile pods are stretched; and you've got less than half your own squadron present for duty. There's no way you're going to stop this with three destroyers, and," Bruckheimer's voice hardened around the edges once more, "if you try -- and survive the experience -- I will personally see you court-martialed. Do I make myself clear?"

    "Yes, Sir," Hovanian said after a long, still moment. "Yes, Sir. You do."

    "Good." Bruckheimer ran the fingers of his right hand through his hair and grimaced. "We're going to have to come up with some sort of response to this strategy of theirs, but I'm damned if I know what the Octagon's going to do about it. In the meantime, get your people out of here before they all get killed."

    "Aye, Sir," Hovanian said. He nodded to Stokely, who began issuing the necessary orders, then looked back at Bruckheimer. "And . . . thank you, Sir," he said to the man who had just saved his life.



    "I wonder what other systems they're hitting today?" Admiral Bressand said.

    "Maybe they aren't hitting any other systems, Sir," Commander Claudette Guyard, his chief of staff said.

    "Oh, please, Claudette!" Bressand shook his head.

    "I didn't say I thought they weren't, Sir. I just pointed out a possibility."

    "Theoretically, anything is possible," Bressand said. "Some things, however, are more likely -- or, conversely, less likely -- than others."

    "True, but --"

    Guyard paused as Lieutenant Commander Krenckel appeared quietly at her elbow.

    "Yes, Ludwig?" she said.

    "We've confirmed it," Bressand's ops officer said. "Assuming they haven't decided to try to spoof our identification for some reason, two of those ships are definitely a pair of the Invictuses that hit Hera. I'm guessing one of them is the Manties' Eighth Fleet's flagship."

    "Which means we probably are about to play host to 'the Salamander' herself," Guyard observed. "There's an honor -- you should pardon the pun -- I could have done without."

    "You and me both," Bressand said, remembering his conversation with Poykkonen. "Not that it's going to take any tactical genius to kick the crap out of us with this kind of force imbalance."

    "Maybe not, Sir," Krenckel said. "On the other hand, there's a sort of backhanded compliment in getting pounded by the other side's best."

    "Did I ever mention that you're a very strange man, Ludwig?" Guyard asked.

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