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“All ships showing ready,” Belokas reported.

“What's your estimate on how many passengers we can take?”

Belokas huffed out a breath. “Between all four of us, I don't think we can take more than five hundred. And that's if we pack them to the deckheads. Not exactly luxury travel.”

“Still beats suffocating in the cold,” Woodburn said with a grunt.

“That it does,” Heissman agreed. “Send a copy of their distress call to Aegis with a request for aid. They're farther out, but they've got a lot more room.”

“Assuming Leviathan can hold its bottle together long enough for Locatelli to reach them,” Belokas warned.

“Nothing we can do about that,” Woodburn said.

“So we are going to head out there?” Travis asked.

All eyes turned to him. “You have something, Lieutenant?” Heissman asked.

“Something solid?” Woodburn added. “Because hunches don't—”

He broke off at a small gesture from Heissman. “Continue,” the commodore said.

Travis braced himself. “There's just something about this that feels wrong, Sir,” he said, hoping the words didn't sound as lame to the others as they did to him. Especially since Woodburn had already warned him that no one was interested in his hunches. “The timing, the vector—same bearing as the hyper ghost—the fact that they came here instead of trying for somewhere else—”

“Their wedge is showing signs of stress,” Heissman reminded him. “And all indications are that it's a merchant or passenger liner, not a warship.”

“Sir, zero-zero intercept course is plotted and ready,” the helm reported.

“Feed to the other ships, and let's make some gravs,” Heissman said. He looked at Travis. “And order all crews to Readiness Two,” he added. “Just in case.”

* * *

“They're coming,” Imbar announced. “Vector . . .too early to tell for sure, but it looks like they're lining up for a zero-zero intercept with Naglfar.”

“Excellent,” Gensonne said with a warm glow of satisfaction. The Manticorans had fallen for it. “Do we have a fix on Umbriel and Miranda?”

“Not yet,” Imbar said. “But we're monitoring the area where they should be. Assuming they made it in all right, they should be lighting off their wedges sometime in the next couple of hours to fine-tune their own intercept with Bogey One.”

Gensonne nodded. Having the two destroyers arrive just in time to catch the Manticorans in a cross-fire would be helpful, but it was hardly vital to his plan. If they missed out on this first skirmish, they would be able to switch to a similar attack role when the Volsungs came up against Bogey Two.

And if they also managed to miss out on that one, they would still be useful as scouts, sweeping the area ahead of the Volsung fleet toward Manticore proper after the two defending forces had been disposed of.

One way or another, Gensonne promised himself, every ship in the assault force would earn its pay today.

* * *

Janus was still two hours away from its projected zero-zero rendezvous with Leviathan, and was making yet another course correction as the damaged liner once again adjusted her own acceleration, when Gorgon signaled the news that two more wedges had appeared in the distance.

“Shapira says it's pure luck she spotted them in the first place,” Belokas said, hovering close beside Heissman's station as they gazed together at the unexpected and, to Travis's mind, unsettling data the destroyer had sent across. “Given that our wedges were all turned that direction, and all our crews busy with the course change, I tend to agree with her.”

“Captain Shapira has a bad habit of ascribing to luck things which properly belong to training and vigilance,” Heissman said thoughtfully as he gazed at the tactical. “Make sure we log a commendation for her and her bridge crew for this one. What do you make of it?”

“They're definitely smaller than Leviathan,” Belokas said. “Could be small freighters. Definitely not ore ships or anything else that's supposed to be running around out there.”

“Or they could be small warships,” Woodburn added. “Destroyers or light cruisers. Especially—there! Now, isn't that interesting?”

Travis felt his eyes narrow. As suddenly as they'd appeared, the mysterious wedges had vanished. As if the ships had finished with whatever course change or acceleration they'd come out of hiding for and then dropped back into the covering blackness of interplanetary space.

Woodburn was obviously thinking the same thing. “They're hiding, all right,” he said grimly. “You'll also notice that they saved their maneuvers for a period when we were doing some adjustments of our own and were theoretically at our least attentive. With all due respect, Commodore, this is starting to look less like a rescue mission and more like an invasion.”

“Agreed,” Heissman said. “Mr. Long, what did you come up with on our battle inventory?”

“Not as good as it should be, Sir,” Travis said.

And instantly regretted the words. The fact that Janus wasn't running at full strength was the fault of the politicians in Parliament, not RMN Command. But his thoughtless comment could easily be construed as criticism of that leadership.

Or, worse, as a criticism of his own commander. Neither was acceptable, especially not on that commander's own bridge.

Fortunately, Heissman didn't seem to take it that way. “No argument here, Lieutenant,” he said, a bit dryly. “Continue.”

“Without the editorial comments,” Belokas added more severely.

“Yes, Ma'am,” Travis said, wincing. “My apologies. Our missile count is down to eighteen, but both fore and aft lasers are fully functional, as are the broadside energy torpedo launchers. One of our autocannon is a little iffy—cooling problems; the techs are working on it. We also have nineteen countermissiles, and all four of the launchers read green.”

“What about the other ships?” Belokas asked.

“Gorgon has eight missiles and Hercules and Gemini each have four,” Travis said. “Their point-defenses are about in the same shape and with the same capacity as ours.”

“How many of those missiles are practice rounds?” Heissman asked.

“None, Sir,” Travis said, frowning. “I didn't think I should count those.”

“They still look like real missiles, even if they can't go bang,” Heissman pointed out. “What's the count?”

“We have four, Gorgon has two, Hercules one, Gemini two,” Travis said. But if the missiles had no warheads . . . ?

The confusion must have shown on his face, because both Heissman and Woodburn favored him with small smiles. “Never underestimate the power of a bald-faced bluff, Mr. Long,” Heissman said. “At worst, a dummy missile can make an enemy waste rounds from their point-defenses. At best, its wedge can shred a hull with the best of them.”

The smile vanished. “So basically, we're underarmed, undercrewed, and even with Aegis pulling all the gees they can we're a fair ways from any reinforcement. Recommendations?”

“The safe move would be to break off,” Woodburn said reluctantly. “Our limping passenger liner could be anything up to and including a battlecruiser, and by the time we have accurate sensor data it'll be too late to get away.”

He gestured. “And then we've got those two ships playing hide-and-seek out there. We're lucky to see two visiting ships a month; and now we've suddenly got three of them on the same day? And three ships which seem to be coordinating movements?”

“So you're recommending we alert Command and break with an eye toward a rendezvous with Aegis?” Heissman asked calmly.

“I said that would be the safe move,” Woodburn corrected, just as calmly. “But we're not out here to play safe. We're out here to look for trouble, and when we find that trouble to assess and deal with it.”

“So your actual recommendation is that we fly into the mouth of the beast?” Belokas asked.

“Right square into it,” Woodburn confirmed. “But I a

lso recommend we have Gorgon start drifting a little behind us and the corvettes. Not so fast or far that our friends out there take notice and wonder what we're up to, but far enough for her to run communications between us once we raise our sidewalls.” His lips compressed briefly. “Hopefully, she'll be able to stay clear long enough to send back a full record of whatever's about to happen.”

Travis swallowed. The implication was painfully clear. Woodburn didn't expect Casey or the two corvettes to survive the approaching encounter.

But that, too, was why Janus was out here.

“XO?” Heissman invited.

“I agree with Commander Woodburn's assessment and proposed action, Sir,” Belokas said, her voice formal.

“Very good,” Heissman said, his tone matching hers. “Alert all ships as to the situation, and have them stand ready for farther orders. Albert, draw up a proposed timeline for detaching Gorgon and shifting us into combat formation. XO, we'll stay at Readiness Two, but warn all ships that we could go to Readiness One at any time. If we've got any spare warheads aboard, have the crews start swapping them into the practice missiles.”

“Yes, Sir.” Woodburn nudged Travis. “Come on, Lieutenant. We have work to do.” He pushed off the hand grip and floated toward his station.

Travis followed, long practice enabling him to stay close to his superior without bumping into him. “A question, Sir?” he asked.

“Why Gorgon instead of one of the corvettes?”

Travis felt his lip twitch. “Yes, Sir,” he admitted. “Gorgon has more missiles, more armor, and better sidewalls. If we're heading into a fight, we could use her up here with us.”

“She also has aft autocannon,” Woodburn reminded him. “If it comes down to the last surviving ship of Janus Force making a run for it, we need to make sure it's the ship with the best chance of making it through a barrage of up-the-kilt missiles.”

Travis nodded, an odd thought flicking through his mind. Casey also had aft autocannon, and a better chance of survival even than Gorgon. If the most critical priority was to gain information on the intruder and then run, the strictly logical answer was for Casey to take the rear position instead. Depending on what kind of warship was lurking behind the crippled-liner masquerade, having Casey in the battle probably wouldn't make that much of a difference in the outcome anyway.

He wondered if the option had even entered Heissman's mind. Or Belokas's, or Woodburn's. Probably not. They were in command, and they would of course take Casey into the thick of whatever was about to happen.

Yet Travis had thought of that option.

Did that mean he was a coward?

He stole a glance at Woodburn's profile. There was a tension around the other's eyes . . .and only then did it dawn on Travis that probably none of Casey's senior officers, from Heissman on down, had ever been in actual combat. The Star Kingdom had been at peace for a long time, out here in its backwater isolation, and it was entirely possible that no one in power had ever seriously expected that to change. Certainly the faction of Parliament dedicated to gutting the fleet operated under that assumption.

Maybe Leviathan really was a damaged liner. Maybe there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for those other two here-then-gone wedges. Maybe this was just a bizarre coincidence that all of them would get together and laugh about over a drink someday.

But if it wasn't, then they were all about to see how the RMN handled a real, nonsimulated battle.

Back on Phoenix, Travis had wondered whether a taste of warfare would shake up some of the Star Kingdom's complacency. Now, it looked like they were going to find out.

* * *

It was time.

Gensonne ran his eyes over Odin's bridge displays one final time. He and Tyr were in their combat stack, Odin a thousand kilometers above the other battlecruiser, where the constraints of wedge and sidewalls gave give both ships optimal fields of fire for their missiles and autocannon. The two heavy cruisers, Copperhead and Adder, were in their own stack a thousand kilometers ahead and slightly above and beneath the two battlecruisers, positioned so their countermissiles could protect both of the larger warships. Fifteen hundred kilometers ahead of the cruisers and another thousand to starboard, the destroyer Ganymede guarded the starboard flank.

Ideally, Gensonne would have liked to have Phobos mirror-image Ganymede on the formation's portside flank. But with communications through sidewalls tricky at best, it was more important for Phobos to hang far back in com-relay position. In the heat of battle a communications blackout, even a brief one, could spell disaster. The only way to assure that didn't happen was to dedicate one of his ships to bounce signals back and forth through the unobstructed gaps at the other ships' kilts.

Besides, his full force was hardly necessary to complete the task at hand. In a pinch, Odin and one of Gensonne's cruisers could easily take out the four undersized Bogey One ships the Volsungs were closing on. Probably without even scratching their paint.

Just the same, Gensonne would indeed throw the full weight of his force against the Manticorans. After all, the only thing better than a painless victory was a fast painless victory.

He keyed his com. “Admiral to all ships,” he called into the microphone. “Stand by battle stations. Relay status data now.”

For a moment nothing happened. Then, in proper order, the status board indicators began to wink on. Odin showed green; Tyr showed green; Copperhead—

Gensonne felt his eyes narrow. Floating in the sea of soothing green were a pair of red lights. “Captain Imbar?”

“It's their ventral autocannon,” Imbar called from the com station. “Starboard sensor miscalibration. They're working on it.”

Gensonne mouthed a curse as he looked back at the status board, where more green was filling in around Copperhead's red lights. Should he give Copperhead a few more minutes? The Manticoran force was in deceleration mode, their kilts to the incoming Volsungs as they aimed for a zero-zero at the distant Naglfar far behind him. If Gensonne signaled Naglfar to raise its acceleration a bit, the Manticorans would presumably respond by increasing their deceleration rate, which would postpone the rapidly approaching moment when the enemy's sensors would finally pick up the warships coasting stealthily toward them.

Gensonne straightened up, feeling the uniform collar peeking out from above his vac suit's helmet ring pull briefly against his neck with the movement. Ridiculous. Even if every one of Copperhead's lights went red he still had overwhelming superiority.

Besides, the far larger Bogey Two was also burning its way toward them across the Manticoran system. Postponing the Bogey One skirmish would mean less time to reorganize and rearm before Bogey Two showed up.

Bogey One was nearly in range.

Time for them to die.

“Tell Copperhead to keep working until they get it right,” he growled to Imbar. Keying his mike again, he straightened a little more. “All ships: stand by to light up wedges.”

* * *

Heissman had sent Belokas and Woodburn off the bridge for a short break, and Travis was strapped into the tac station when the moment everyone aboard Casey had been waiting for finally came.

Only it wasn't the single ship they were expecting. It was far, far worse.

“New contact!” Rusk snapped from the sensor board, the words cutting across the low-level conversation murmuring across the bridge. “I make it six ships on intercept vector at two hundred fifteen gees. Missile range, approximately sixteen minutes.”

“All ships, increase deceleration to two kilometers per second squared and go to Readiness One,” Heissman called into his mike, the calm of his voice in sharp contrast to the sudden pounding of Travis's heart. “Mr. Long?” he added.

Surreptitiously, Travis touched the helmet of his vac suit, fastened securely beside his station. Knowing it was there made him feel marginally safer. Marginally. “Six ships confirmed for Bogey Three,” he said, his eyes flicking back and forth between the displays and the computer

's analysis of the incoming data. One of the many things Woodburn had beaten into him over the past few weeks was that you never simply took the computer's word for anything when you could do your own assessment and analysis. “From wedge strength I'm guessing two battlecruisers, two heavy cruisers, and two light cruisers or destroyers. One of the latter is hanging back in com position.”

“Which pretty much confirms they're a war fleet,” Woodburn's voice came over Travis's shoulder.

Travis looked up to see the tac officer float up behind him, the other's hard gaze flicking coolly across the displays. “Yes, Sir,” Travis agreed, reaching for his restraints.

To his surprise, Woodburn waved him to stay where he was. “Any read on origination or class?” Heissman asked.

“No, Sir,” Woodburn said as he settled into a hovering position beside Travis. “But the over/under configuration of the battlecruisers and cruisers might indicate Solarian training and military doctrine.”

“Which doesn't actually tell us where they came from,” Belokas pointed out as she floated rapidly across the bridge toward her station. “A lot of militaries use Solly doctrine.”

“Maybe they'll be kind enough to tell us,” Heissman suggested. “Everyone watch and listen.” Reaching over, he keyed the com. “Unidentified ships, this is Commodore Rudolph Heissman, Royal Manticoran Navy. Kindly identify yourselves and state your business in Manticoran space.”

There was a short pause, not much longer than the fifteen seconds that the signal would take to make the round trip. Clearly, the other commander had been expecting the call and already knew what he was going to say. “Greetings, Commodore Heissman,” a deep voice boomed from the bridge speakers.

Travis looked at the com display. The face now filling the screen was light-skinned, the color of a man who seldom ventured out into the sun, with blue eyes and a mouth that had a sardonic twist to it. From the shape and angles of its creases, Travis guessed that sardonic was the mouth's most common mode. Above the face was a slightly balding carpet of pure blond hair cut in short military style. Below the face, a couple of centimeters of high-collared tunic could be seen above his vac suit.



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