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So the question now became why Axelrod would be interested in Manticore. Was it the treecats? Something else hidden in the forests of Sphinx or the wastes of Gryphon?

“Admiral?” Imbar's voice came from the com speaker.

Gensonne keyed the transmitter. “Yes?”

“Captain Blakely's compliments, Sir,” Imbar said. “He confirms hauling carcass as ordered, and anticipates fourteen hours to zero-zero.”

Gensonne checked his chrono. “Tell him that if he doesn't make it in twelve he might as well not bother,” he warned.

“He anticipated that request,” Imbar said, his voice going a little brittle. “He said to tell you that fourteen should do just fine if you can get the loaders to haul carcass at even half the speed he's doing it. If you can't, he'll just have to do it himself.” The captain gave a little snort. “He added a ‘Sir' to that, but I don't think he really meant it.”

Gensonne smiled. Blakely was as arrogant and snarky an SOB as they came. But he was also a hell of a scrappy fighter, and Gensonne was willing to put up with the one if he could have the other. “Tell him he'll be losing one percent of his profit cut for every ten minutes after twelve hours he ties up.”

“Yes, Sir, that should do it,” Imbar said slyly. “I'll let him know.”

“Do that,” Gensonne said, his attention already back on the upcoming campaign. Standard military doctrine, of course, said that you went after the biggest ships first, taking them out as soon as you could clear away their screening vessels.

But in this case, it might well be smart to seek out Casey earlier rather than later and make sure it was out of the fight. If it was the Manticorans' modern showcase, its destruction might help convince them to sue for terms more promptly.

Which could be useful. Standard rules of war dictated that a planet was supposed to surrender once someone else controlled the space around it, a convention designed to avoid the wholesale slaughter of civilians in prolonged combat. Taking out Casey would give the Volsungs that control all the faster, and once Gensonne had King Edward's formal surrender document any forces that remained at large would be legally bound to stand down.

Gensonne liked quick surrenders. It saved on men and equipment, and it boosted profits.

And if Casey wasn't, in fact, anything special?

He shrugged. It wasn't like the ship wouldn't have to be destroyed eventually anyway.

“Admiral, I have a response from Captain Blakely,” Imbar once again interrupted. “He sends his compliments, and says he'll see you in hell.”

Gensonne smiled. “Tell him it's a date,” he said. “I'll be the one wearing white.”

IV

The midwatch was technically the first watch of the ship's day, though whether it felt like the earliest or the latest was largely a function on how a given crewmember's biological clock operated. Some of Casey's officers and crew actively hated it, while others were less passionate on the subject but not any happier with the duty.

Travis had no such animosities toward midwatch assignments. On the contrary, he rather enjoyed them. Midwatch was the quietest period of ship's day, with the bulk of the crew asleep back in the hab module, only essential operations running, and minimal routine maintenance scheduled.

It was the best time of day, in short, to just be quiet and think.

He certainly had plenty to think about. For the past six weeks most of his waking hours had been devoted to learning everything he could about Casey, her armaments, her capabilities, and her crew. Lieutenant Commander Alfred Woodburn, the ship's tactical officer, had ridden him hard, but unlike some of the officers back on Phoenix Woodburn was eminently fair and always seemed more interested in teaching Travis the ropes than in making himself look superior or his student look stupid.

Travis sent his gaze slowly around the bridge, at the men and women strapped into their stations, casually alert even in the quiet of absolutely nothing happening. Casey wasn't exactly home—Travis wasn't sure if any place would ever truly be home for him—but the ship and her crew had all the little quirks that he'd always imagined would exist in a home. There were a few irritating personalities aboard, and Travis had had his share of small clashes with some of them. But for the most part, the crew seemed to be compatible with each other.

The commissioned complement had even more of that same pseudo-family feeling. On the bridge, Commodore Heissman typically dispensed with the formalities that Captain Castillo had always maintained aboard Phoenix, addressing his senior officers by their first names or even nicknames, some of which Travis still hadn't puzzled out. There was an air of easy camaraderie, the kind that Travis had read about in military-themed books and had experienced to some degree back at OCS.

Still, that familiarity and camaraderie went only so far. Heissman and the other senior officers still addressed Travis formally as Lieutenant or Mr. Long, and he was of course expected to reciprocate with that same formality. Hopefully, it was just a matter of Travis being on probation, that somewhere along the line he would be accepted as a full-fledged member of Casey's family.

Unless Phoenix's same political underpinnings were roiling quietly and undetectably beneath the surface. If so, he might as well get used to being Casey's ugly duckling.

“XO on the bridge,” Lieutenant Rusk called from the sensor station.

Travis looked up from his board to see Commander Belokas float onto the bridge. “Ma'am,” he greeted her, reflexively reaching for his restraints before he could stop himself. Regulations said that when a senior officer entered the bridge all crew members were to immediately rise to attention, a standing order Captain Castillo had enforced aboard Phoenix. Commodore Heissman and Commander Belokas dispensed with that particular formality, and Travis was still getting used to it.

Briefly, he wondered if the officers and crew of Invincible had to float upright in zero-gee every time Admiral Locatelli came into any compartment, not just the bridge. He suspected they probably did.

“What can we do for you, Ma'am?” he asked as Belokas drifted across the bridge, her gaze moving back and forth between the various status monitors.

“I was wondering if there was anything new on that flicker we got from the northwest sector sixteen hours ago,” she said.

“I don't believe so, Ma'am,” Travis said, frowning as he pulled up the log. There hadn't been any mention of activity on the watch report he'd read when he'd arrived on duty an hour ago.

No wonder. The flicker Belokas was referring to was the barest bloop, something that would never even have been noticed if the rest of the universe hadn't been so quiet and Casey's crew so bored. The duty officer had put it down to a sensor echo; the sensor officer, after a thorough examination of his equipment, had suggested it was probably a hyper ghost, a phenomenon that shipboard instrumentation was unfortunately not well-equipped to pinpoint or identify. For that, a large-scale orbiting sensor array was necessary, and Manticore wasn't likely to be buying one of those monstrosities anytime soon.

But if the frown on Belokas's face was any indication, she wasn't happy with either explanation. An odd reaction, really, given that such ghosts weren't exactly unheard of out here. “There's been nothing new, Ma'am,” Travis told her. “Do you want us to run another sensor diagnostic?”

For a few seconds Belokas didn't answer, but merely continued her drift toward the command station. Travis watched her approach, his heartbeat picking up a bit. He was still somewhat new to this whole officer-in-charge thing, and he already knew how lousy he was at reading Belokas's expression and body language. Should he have run such a diagnostic already? Was she holding her peace merely because she wanted to be close enough to chew him out quietly, without the rest of the bridge crew listening in?

“More diagnostics won't tell us anything new,” she said at last, catching hold of the hand grip beside his station and bringing herself to a halt. “Let's try something else. Run me a simulation of what a soft translation about fifteen light-minutes outside th

e hyper limit would look like.”

“Yes, Ma'am,” Travis said, and swiveled around to his console. That possibility had already been considered, he'd seen from the report. But between the diagnostics and the hyper ghost hypothesis, that scenario had apparently been dropped. Certainly there was no record of anyone having done a simulation or even a data-curve profile.

Fortunately, it was a fairly easy job, with most of the necessary templates already stored on the ship's computer. A couple of minutes, and he was ready. “Here we go,” he said, starting the run. “I set it to cover the full range of thirteen to eighteen light-minutes. If that doesn't work, I can extend it outward—”

“Hyper footprint!” Rusk called.

For a fraction of a second Travis thought the sensor officer was talking about the simulation. Then his brain caught up with him. “Acknowledged,” he said, swiveling again and checking the sensor display. It was a translation, all right, a big, fat, noisy one.

And it was in the northwest sector, right on the same vector where the sensor bloop had registered. “We have anything on her?” he asked.

“She's reasonably big,” Rusk said, frowning at his displays. “Low-power wedge, low acceleration. Probably a freighter, possibly a passenger liner. There's something funny about her wedge, too—some sort of nonrhythmic fluctuation. Could be she's having reactor problems.”

Travis looked at Belokas, wondering if she would formally relieve him and take command. Ships didn't show up at Manticore every day, after all.

But she was just gazing silently at the displays. Waiting, apparently, for the officer of the watch to respond to the situation.

Travis squared his shoulders. “Send a request for identification and status, and inform the rest of Janus that we have a visitor,” he ordered. “Then send an alert to System Command.” He squinted at the tactical. “What is she, about ten light-minutes out?”

“Yes, Sir, just a shade under,” Rusk confirmed. “So about twenty minutes until we get a reply.”

“Unless she is having problems, in which case she's probably already screaming for help,” Belokas said. She tapped her cheek thoughtfully. “Where's Aegis at the moment?”

Aegis, the callsign for Admiral Locatelli's Green One force. “The far side of Manticore,” Travis said. “About twenty-two light minutes away from us, maybe thirteen or fourteen from the bogey. Shall I send an alert directly to Admiral Locatelli?”

“That would be a good idea,” Belokas confirmed. “If there's trouble, we're definitely closest. But depending on what's going on, he may want to reconfigure Aegis while we head out there.” Her lips compressed briefly. “And while you do all that, I also recommend calling Commodore Heissman to the bridge.”

* * *

“—and I think the reactor's mag bottle is also starting to fail,” Captain Olver's frantic voice boomed over Odin's com speaker. “My engineer says it could go at any time.”

Gensonne listened closely, trying to ignore the annoying flutter in the carefully mistuned old-fashioned radio that Olver was using to supplement his com laser, hoping the other would remember his instructions to keep his voice pleading but not whiny. People hated whiny, even upstanding naval types willing to risk their lives for those in danger. Making Naglfar look stoic and sympathetic would encourage the Manticorans listening to his distress call to charge to the rescue with a minimum of delay and, hopefully, a minimum of prudence.

“Repeating: this is the personnel transport Leviathan, heading for the Haven Sector with three thousand passengers,” Olver continued. “The same power surge that damaged our forward alpha nodes and the fusion bottle's also compromised our life-support system—we're trying to fix it, but it's not looking good, and I don't know how long before it fails completely. If you have any ships in the area, for the love of God please get them out here. We're making as many gees as we can, but I don't know how much longer before we'll have to shut down the wedge completely, and we're a hell of a long way from anywhere. Whatever ships you've got—freighters, liners, ore ships—anything we can pack our people into—please send them. For the love of God, please.”

The plea broke off as one of Olver's crew came up with his own anxiously delivered and almost off-mike report on the supposed fusion bottle failure, and Gensonne keyed off the speaker. They were still a good distance out from the inner system, but it looked like the nearest Manticoran force was about ten light-minutes away, which meant a twenty-minute turnaround for any conversation.

The Manticorans' response should be interesting. In the meantime, Gensonne had plenty of other matters with which to occupy himself. “What's the status of the main force?” he called across the bridge.

“We've temporarily lost contact, Admiral,” Imbar called back. “They're definitely still behind us, but they're hard to spot with their wedges down.”

Gensonne grunted, looking across the relevant display screens. Being difficult to spot was the whole idea, of course. But knowing exactly where to look should make the task a lot simpler.

Though perhaps he was being too harsh on Imbar and the sensor team. The fourteen ships of the advance and rear forces had translated into n-space together a few hours ago, coming in softly and quietly about forty light-minutes out from Manticore-A, where they ought to have been well out of range of RMN sensors. The enormous passive arrays typical of more populous star systems would certainly have picked them up, but shipboard sensors' range was always far more limited. The invaders had sorted themselves into Gensonne's six-ship advance force and Thor's eight-ship main force, then headed toward the inner system in two waves spaced about an hour apart. A couple of hours of acceleration by both groups to build up some respectable speed, and then all fourteen ships had dropped their wedges to standby as they coasted inward. Even knowing where to look, the distant ships should barely even reflect Manticore-A's distant light.

Now, after hours of tedium, things were finally about to heat up. Far ahead, Naglfar had translated into the system—not with the same undetectable entry as the rest of the Volsung ships, but with a big, noisy translation that should have grabbed the attention of every RMN ship in the region. That sloppy entrance, along with Olver's frantic plea for help, should get the Manticoran ships falling all over themselves scrambling to come to his aid.

It would no doubt be highly entertaining to see how a Manticoran boarding party would react to finding out that a shipload of supposedly helpless civilians was actually five battalions of crack Volsung shock troops. Sadly, Gensonne would miss out on that picture. If all went according to plan, the Manticorans' first encounter with those troops wouldn't be in deep space, but at the Royal Palace in Landing City.

By then, of course, the surprise would be long gone. Still, the purpose of this exercise was capture and occupation, not entertainment. And once the RMN had been eliminated, Volsung control of the Manticoran centers of power would be a mere formality.

“Got a bearing on Naglfar, Admiral,” Imbar called. “We're on a good intercept course. We should pass it in about ninety-seven minutes.”

Gensonne checked the tac display. Ninety-seven minutes was shorter than he'd planned, but within acceptable parameters. “Have Olver increase acceleration to ninety-five gees,” he instructed Imbar. He could always have Naglfar cut back later if Gensonne needed to fine-tune the intercept. “Any movement from the Manticorans yet?”

“No, Sir,” Imbar said. “But Bogey One should just be hearing Olver's distress call now.”

“Keep an eye on them,” Gensonne ordered. “Once we know their jump-off time and acceleration, I want a quick plot of their zero-zero intercept. We need to make sure we're far enough ahead of Naglfar that they won't be able to turn tail and run once they spot us.”

Though the other little surprise Gensonne had planned should help alleviate that problem. If the destroyers Umbriel and Miranda had translated in on schedule at their own spot around the edge of the hyper limit, there was a good chance their timing and vector would help cut off an

y retreat the Manticorans might attempt.

“Yes, Sir,” Imbar said. “We're also picking up a second group of wedges, bearing oh-two-one by oh-one-eight. From the signature there seem to be significantly more ships there than in the first group. That probably makes them the main Bogey Two force.”

“Distance?”

“Just under fourteen light-minutes.”

Gensonne nodded in satisfaction. Llyn's most recent intel had suggested the two task forces would be positioned more or less this way relative to Manticore and Sphinx, and Gensonne had relied on that data in mapping out his attack plan. But there'd been no way to know for sure how the Manticorans would be arrayed until the Volsungs actually entered the system.

Now, with the defenders' positions confirmed, the plan was officially a lock. Assuming the Manticorans bought into Olver's story, Bogey One would rush to Naglfar's rescue and be quickly destroyed by Odin and the rest of the advance force. If Bogey Two followed and moved to engage, its ships should arrive just in time to face the entire Volsung force as Thor and the rest of the rear group caught up with Gensonne's first wave.

If Bogey One opted instead to avoid battle and run for home, the end result would still be the same, just a few hours later. Either way, Manticore was as good as taken.

Llyn would be pleased. More to the point, Llyn's boss over at Axelrod would be paying a nice contractual bonus.

Smiling tightly, Gensonne settled back and waited for the Manticorans to take the bait.

* * *

“We're making as many gees as we can,” the tense voice came from the bridge speaker, “but I don't know how much longer before we'll have to shut down the wedge completely, and we're a hell of a long way from anywhere. Whatever ships you've got—freighters, liners, ore ships—anything we can pack our people into—please send them. For the love of God, please.”

Heissman gestured, and the com officer keyed the volume back down. “XO?” the commodore invited, looking at Belokas.



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