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Chapter Fifty-Five

The Crown dispatch boat from Lynx came out of the central terminus of the Manticore Wormhole Junction in a blue lightning flash of transit energy. It seemed small and insignificant, lost amid the stupendous, lumbering freighters and passenger ships, but its imperiously strident transponder had priority over them all. Astro Control juggled arrival and departure queues, clearing a path for it, and it streaked towards Home Fleet's flagship under almost eight hundred gravities of acceleration.

It looked even tinier as it decelerated just as furiously to a zero/zero intercept with the massive SD(P), but appearances were deceiving. Tiny as it was, that dispatch boat carried the message that would set millions upon millions of tons of warships into motion.

"What sort of raw meat do you people feed your cruiser captains, Hamish?" Queen Elizabeth III of Manticore inquired acidly.

"With all due respect, Your Majesty," First Lord of Admiralty Hamish Alexander, Admiral of the Green (retired) and thirteenth Earl of White Haven, said with unusual formality to the woman he'd known since she was an infant, "that's not really fair."

"On the contrary, Ham," his brother, William Alexander, Lord Alexander, the recently created Baron of Grantville and Prime Minister of the Star Kingdom of Manticore, said tartly, "I think Elizabeth has an excellent point. We already have one war, and it's not going all that well. Do we really need to provoke another one with the Solarian League ?"

"Your Majesty, Mr. Prime Minister, I agree the timing could have been better," Sir Thomas Caparelli, First Space Lord and the uniformed commander-in-chief of the Royal Manticoran Navy, rumbled in a deceptively mild tone. "On the other hand, having read Admiral Khumalo's dispatches and gone over Terekhov's report with Pat Givens, I don't think Terekhov had a great deal of choice."

"Possibly-probably-not, but I have to admit I wish he'd at least consulted with Baroness Medusa before he went dashing off to violate Monican territorial space. Someone with his Foreign Office experience has to be aware of the laser heads he's juggling here!" Sir Anthony Langtry, Manticore's Foreign Secretary, had been a highly decorated Marine once upon a time, and he looked like a man caught between his political and military instincts.

"That's certainly true," Baron Grantville agreed grimly. "The political situation in the Talbott Cluster's complex enough without throwing a spanner like this into the works!"

"Fair's fair, Willie," Elizabeth said a trifle unwillingly. She reached up to caress the ears of the treecat stretched across the back of her chair, and her expression eased a little. "The political situation's improved enormously in the last couple of months, and from Dame Estelle's messages, it seems pretty evident Terekhov and Van Dort are responsible for that, as well."

"Despite Augustus Khumalo," Caparelli agreed sourly.

"I'm beginning to think we may've been a bit unfair in our opinion of Khumalo, Thomas," White Haven said. "He's no genius, and he's never going to be a brilliant combat commander, but it sounds to me as if he's been working his butt off. I question some of his deployment decisions, but all he's got to work with is what was left over after we wrung out the bar rag. And whatever faults he may have, he obviously understands when it's time to back a subordinate's hunch."

"Should I understand from that that you think Terekhov knows what the hell he's doing?" Grantville asked, and his brother cocked his head to one side for a moment, then nodded slowly.

"Yes," he said judiciously, "I think I do. At any rate, I'm not prepared to second-guess him from here. He's the man on the spot, and whether he's right or wrong, he's demonstrated the moral courage to make the hard call."

"Hamish," the Queen said more calmly, but with a worried expression, still stroking the 'cat, "I entirely agree that we have to know, one way or the other, what-if anything-Monica and Mesa are up to. I shudder every time I think of how the League's going to react to Terekhov's little act of piracy, but under the circumstances, I could even condone that. It's the rest of his actions, his willingness to court a shooting incident with a sovereign star nation with such a close client relationship with Frontier Security, that scares hell out of me."

"First of all, Elizabeth," White Haven said, "he's very carefully set this up to give you an out by sacrificing him. Second, if he's right, we've already got a shooting incident with the sovereign star nation in question-it just hasn't happened yet. And, third, there's no way in the universe 'President Tyler' would've signed on to risk something like this without the tacit approval of Frontier Security. So, assuming Terekhov is right, the only real change is going to be whose backyard the shooting takes place in. And, possibly, who gets shot."

"Hamish is right, Your Majesty," Langtry said. "And I have to say this, too. There are huge holes in what Terekhov's put together, but just on the basis of what he's already been able to prove, this stinks to high heaven. I pulled the intelligence bio on Lorcan Verrochio, the Frontier Security Commissioner in the region. We don't have as much detail as I'd like, but there's no question that he's inside Mesa's pocket. There were even suggestions in that heap of data Anton Zilwicki dropped on us a few years back that he's directly involved in payoffs to protect the slave trade. If Jessyk is involved, you can be absolutely certain they're operating with Verrochio's knowledge and consent."

"Wonderful," Grantville sighed. "So we probably are looking at direct Solarian involvement."

"Yes and no, Willie," White Haven said. "From what Tony's saying, OFS is involved. That's not the same thing as the League's being involved. It's not even the same as having all of Frontier Security involved. Verrochio has his own little satrapy down on the Cluster's southern frontier. Whether or not he can count on support from his fellow OFS satraps or the SLN's an open question, and it probably depends on how deeply-and publicly-into the cookie jar he has his fingers."

"Either way, Your Majesty, there's nothing we can do to undo what Terekhov's already done," Caparelli observed, pulling the discussion back to its primary focus. "All we can really do is determine how to respond to it."

"What's the Admiralty's serious estimation of how likely we are to see a response from the Solarian Navy to an attack on Monica, Ham?" Grantville asked.

"In the short term, that may well depend on how willing we are to reinforce Lynx and the Cluster. Khumalo's present strength is so low the local SLN forces assigned to support OFS could probably take him without heavy losses. If we reinforce with a squadron or two of modern capital ships, though, we can ensure that Commissioner Verrochio would have to ask for substantial reinforcements to have any hope of taking us out. And, as I say, at that point it comes down to how much Verrochio himself is willing to risk and how likely anyone else is to want to jump into this with him. If we make it obvious that it's going to cost far more than the League can expect to make back off of the Cluster, the odds of his getting any support ought to go down sharply."

"That's true, My Lord," Caparelli said. "On the other hand, I'm not comfortable about the notion of diverting sufficient strength to Talbott to be a realistic deterrent. Not when we're still stretched so tight at the front. We've finally gotten Eighth Fleet reinforced to a level that will let Duchess Harrington shift from a purely defensive stance to a limited offensive one. I'd hate for this to turn into a diversion that would push her entirely back onto the defensive."

"Agreed," White Haven said grimly, remembering the endless months when he'd been the one in command of Eighth Fleet, waiting for reinforcements that never seemed to come. And he had a special, deeply personal reason for ensuring that Eighth Fleet's present commander got everything she needed before she went into battle.

"Nonetheless," he went on, "I think we're going to have to divert at least some strength to Talbott. Suppose we sent a couple of battlecruiser squadrons and a single CLAC squadron to the Cluster proper and moved two SD(P) squadrons and another squadron of CLACs from Home Fleet to the Lynx Terminus?"

"Play a shell game with them through the Junction?" Caparelli said thoughtfully.

"Yes." White Haven grimaced. "I don't really like it. Theoretically, it's elegant enough, I suppose, but if we find ourselves forced to move the Home Fleet detachment further into the Cluster, we lose the ability to recall it quickly in an emergency. And if push came to shove, we could find ourselves in a situation where we'd have to recall the detachment regardless of the exposure for Lynx or the Cluster because of a possible threat to the home system."

"The Lynx Terminus forts will come on-line starting in another few months," Caparelli pointed out. "Once they can take responsibility for protecting the terminus itself, we could withdraw the heavy squadrons and probably make up the combat differential for the Cluster itself with additional cruisers and battlecruisers. And if the annexation does go through-" he glanced at Grantville and the Queen and got matched nods of confidence "-we can begin deploying LAC groups to each of our new systems. That should give us some local defense in depth and free up our hyper-capable units to act as a roving fire brigade."

White Haven nodded slowly, lips pursed as he considered options and scenarios. Caparelli's proposal sounded like their best bet. And, he reminded himself, Caparelli was First Space Lord. Operational decisions were properly his, however hard it was for his political superior to keep his own spoon out of the soup.

"It's an operational decision, Your Majesty," he said, looking at the Queen. "As such, it's Admiral Caparelli's bailiwick. For what it's worth, I'd say it sounds like the most workable option, and I'll endorse it officially in my capacity as First Lord."

Caparelli said nothing, but his expression showed his appreciation for how difficult it was for a flag officer of White Haven's experience and stature to refrain from jostling his uniformed subordinate's elbow at a time like this.

"Very well, Sir Thomas," Elizabeth said. "I'll want to send someone senior from the Foreign Office to deal directly with Monica. Who would you suggest, Tony?"

"We could just add it to Terekhov's load," Langtry said with a crooked grin, and the Queen snorted.

"I think his Foreign Office experience is a bit too far in the past for me to feel comfortable with that, Sir Thomas. Besides, having the fellow whose actions we're contemplating disavowing potentially in charge of doing the disavowing in our name might be just a little awkward. Next suggestion?"

"My first reaction would be to ask Estelle to take this over, now that the draft Constitution's been voted out," Langtry said much more seriously. "Unfortunately, she's still back in Spindle." He frowned, thinking hard. "I think we might hand it to Amandine Corvisart. What do you think, Willie?"

"I think it's an excellent idea," Grantville replied. Dame Amandine Corvisart was a second-generation Manticoran whose family had fled the People's Republic of Haven sixty-five T-years earlier. "She's tough-minded as a bulldog, but she understands the need to control situations instead of exacerbating them."

"And she'd be ready to actively enlist Van Dort in any negotiations," Langtry said with a nod.

"How soon could she be briefed and ready to go?" the Queen asked.

"Unfortunately, Your Majesty," Langtry said wryly, "there isn't a lot of briefing we can do in this instance. I'd say it'll take me forty-five minutes to give her her instructions, and probably another couple of hours for her to pack. Then however long it takes to get her out to join the relief force. She can read up on the situation from Terekhov and Khumalo's raw dispatches en route ."

"And how soon can we begin redeploying, Sir Thomas?" she asked.

"I can slice one battlecruiser squadron and a CLAC division off Home Fleet with orders for Monica within two hours, Your Majesty. I think I'll ask Admiral Yanakov if I can swap out a division of his BC(P)s for one of our Redoubtable divisions. It'll take a little longer to move the heavy squadrons, but I should be able to have them on their way within, say, six hours. I'll send the support elements through over the next day or two."

"In that case," the Queen told him, brown eyes hard, "we'll leave that in your hands. Go ahead and get the lighter forces off as soon as possible. We'll send Dame Amandine after them in a dispatch boat. She'll catch up with them long before they get to Monica."

"Yes, Your Majesty."

"When you give your officers their orders, Admiral," the Queen said, "there's one point I want you to be perfectly clear about. You will inform them that they're to avoid incidents with Solarian units if at all possible. They're authorized to engage Monican units at their own discretion, based on the situation they encounter when they reach that star system, but I would very much prefer to avoid escalating this into a direct, open confrontation between us and the Solarian League. But at the same time, be certain they understand that avoiding incidents with Sollies 'if at all possible' doesn't-I repeat, Admiral, does not- include yielding a single centimeter on our claim of sovereignty over the Lynx Terminus or in the defense of the territorial integrity of any star system represented at the Constitutional Convention on Flax. Not a single centimeter."

She glanced at Grantville, who simply nodded his understanding of the policy she'd just announced. Then she looked back at Sir Thomas Caparelli, and the 'cat on the back of her chair yawned at the admiral, showing needle-pointed, snow-white fangs.

"God knows we don't need a war with the League. But we aren't going to let some corrupt Frontier Security bureaucrat connive with leeches like Manpower or the Jessyk Combine to drive us out of the Cluster so they can suck it dry. Not now that the Constitutional Convention's finally voted out an acceptable draft. If that means engaging the SLN, so be it."

"Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen," Aivars Terekhov said.

He sat at the head of the briefing room table, flanked by Ansten FitzGerald to his left, and Ito Anders to his right. The junior-grade captain was his second in command, and FitzGerald was the closest thing the Squadron had to a flag captain. Naomi Kaplan sat beside FitzGerald, and the three of them faced the holographic com display at the far end of the table. That display had been set to its maximum size, stretching from the top of the table to the deckhead above, and it was intricately divided into nineteen quadrants, each occupied by one of the Squadron's commanding officers or XOs.

Despite the efficiency of the electronic conference, Terekhov would much have preferred for those holographic ghosts to be physically present. But the Squadron was plunging ahead along one of hyper-space's grav waves. Ito had been on board Hexapuma since they'd left Point Midway, conferring personally and directly with Terekhov in order to be sure he understood exactly what his superior had in mind. The other officers were stuck aboard their own ships-for now, at least-however, since it was physically impossible for any impeller-drive small craft to transfer personnel in the midst of a gravity wave. And they didn't have time to wait until the Squadron cleared the wave. It was only six days from Point Midway to Monica by the universe's clocks, and Hexapuma and her consorts were traveling at seventy percent of the speed of light. That velocity reduced the time available to their crews to only a little over four days.

"Commander Kaplan is about to brief you on our ops plan," he continued levelly, facing the com. "Let me emphasize one more time that while I'm prepared to use force, if necessary, I regard that as a last-resort option. I intend to demand that the Monican Navy stand down all its units. And, specifically, that they evacuate all personnel from Eroica Station, leaving all starships in place, pending the arrival of competent Manticoran authority to deal with the situation on a diplomatic basis. I'd like to believe President Tyler's too good a poker player to ride a busted flush down in flames. Failing that, I'd like him to be conniving enough to figure we'll probably be withdrawn from Monica quickly, possibly after a show of force to drive home the point that we're keeping an eye on him. In that case, presumably, he'd get to keep his new toys, and that prospect would have to be attractive to him. The bottom line is that I don't want to kill anyone we don't have to kill, and I'm not interested in destroying starships simply to be destroying them. If we can control the situation without firing a single shot, I'll be delighted."

He let them digest what he'd said, then flicked his right hand.

"Having said that, however, we must be prepared for the possibility that Tyler will opt not to comply with my demand. Perhaps even more to the point, we need to be aware that a government like his, by its very nature, is likely to try to stall. If nothing else, to keep us talking while he brings up his entire navy to confront us. I think he would anticipate that confronting us in that way would cause us to blink and at least hesitate. If we're-I'm-right in my suspicions, there's also the very real threat that still other forces are already in motion, and that if he can stall long enough, still more Solarian, or at least OFS units, will turn up to support his own forces.

"So, eager as I am for a diplomatic solution, I have no intention of allowing this to turn into a long, drawn out standoff. I intend to crowd the senior officer at Eroica Station hard. If at all possible, I want to push him into accepting the stand-down order immediately, on his own authority, then push hard to secure physical control of Eroica as quickly as possible-hopefully before Tyler is able to order him to stall. If there is League involvement in this, I don't intend to give Tyler time to send off to his OFS friends and whistle up an SLN task force to invite us to leave. If he doesn't immediately show clear signs of agreeing to my demands, we will destroy his battlecruisers and any other units they send in to oppose us. Which is a very good reason to deny them the time to send those other units in. If nothing else, it will be that many fewer people for us to have to kill."

No one said a word, and he let his eyes move from quadrant to quadrant, meeting their gazes one by one, then nodded slowly.

"Commander Kaplan will now brief you on how I intend to do that, if it becomes necessary. Commander?"

He turned to Naomi Kaplan.

"Yes, Sir." She turned to face the com more squarely and tapped a command into the console in front of her, bringing up a holographic schematic of the Monica System.

"As you can see, Ladies and Gentleman, Eroica Station, the main shipyard nexus of the Monican Navy, is located in the Eroica asteroid belt, which has an average orbital radius of roughly nineteen and a half light-minutes. The Station is an extensive complex, larger than a Navy this size would normally require, because they took advantage of the proximity of the Eroica Belt to set up a basic heavy industry node for the entire system. All this section here," she superimposed a larger-scale schematic of Eroica Station itself and circled about a third of its total area with a green hairline, "is essentially a commercial civilian operation, servicing the belt's extractive industries."

She moved the superimposed image to the side to clear the schematic of the entire system.

"As you can also see, at this moment, Eroica Station is almost in direct opposition from the planet Monica. They're the next best thing to thirty light-minutes apart, with the primary directly between, so light-speed communications between Eroica Station and the Monican government are going to be slow and ponderous. The need to relay around the primary's going to increase their message lag to just over forty-five minutes. In addition, Eroica Station's less than one-point-two light-minutes inside the hyper limit, where we can get at it quickly."

She gave them a few moments to study the system display, then slid the Eroica Station schematic back to center stage.

"Here's what Copenhagen's recon drone was able to find for us. I've highlighted the Indefatigables in red. As you can see, most of them are clustered fairly tightly around the main naval space station, on the far side of the complex from the civilian elements. These two over here," two of the red icons flashed where they nuzzled up against a pair of amber light codes actually in among the civilian platforms, "are being serviced by the repair ships indicated in amber. There are also six cruisers and destroyers, all older ships, in the same area-or, they were in the area when the drone dropped by. Frankly, aside from the 'stakes raising' potential the Captain's already referred to, the Monicans' present naval units don't pose a significant threat to us unless we screw up by the numbers. In addition to the ships, however, there are also remotely deployed missile launchers on these asteroids here, highlighted in yellow, and the naval space station itself mounts thirty-two tubes. We don't know how modern their ordnance is, but the launchers the drone actually saw are big enough to fire current-generation Solarian capital missiles. Under normal circumstances, someone like Monica would only have the export version, with the downgraded seekers and EW systems, but given the Indefatigables' presence, that may not be the case here. We don't know that, but we need to keep in mind that they could be extremely bad medicine if we stray into their effective range."

She paused again, waiting to see if there were any questions. There were none, and she resumed.

"In addition to the naval units and repair ships, the drone also picked up half a dozen large freighters. There's no way to know why they were there, but it seems like an excessive concentration of merchant tonnage for a system like Monica, especially that far away from its only inhabited planet. Until we actually secure control of the Station, we can only guess at what they're up to, but my gut feeling is that they're involved in the arrival of all these battlecruisers and, possibly, Jessyk's support for the FAK and MIM. Unless they do something to convince us they represent an immediate threat, however, we intend to treat them as more of the civilian infrastructure and attempt to limit damage to them if it comes to a shootout."

She banished the schematic of Eroica Station back to the borders of the system display and a green line drew itself from a point just outside the system hyper limit to an arrowhead pointed directly at the Station.

"In the broadest possible terms, what we intend to do is make our alpha translation just beyond the hyper limit. As soon as we emerge into normal-space, Volcano will begin decelerating, since we have no intention of taking your ship into the path of any missiles, Captain Badmachin."

"That's nice to know, Commander," Commander Badmachin said with a throaty chuckle. "My hull's too thin to react well to sharp pointy objects or lasers."

"That's what the Captain thought, too," Kaplan told her with a grin. "At the same time as you begin decelerating, however, you'll also begin deploying missile pods. We're reverting to older tactics, and we'll go in with heavy loads on tow. Eroica Station may have Solly capital missiles for its tubes, but there's no way they have anything that can match the powered range of our pods or Hexapuma's Mark 16s.

"Once the pods are distributed, we'll continue towards Eroica Station. We'll make turnover to decelerate to rest relative to the Station at approximately eight million kilometers, which should put us a million and a half klicks outside their best range. That will enable us to keep them under our guns while we negotiate. We'll also deploy a shell of sensor remotes to cover our flanks. Frankly, it would be suicidal for the remainder of the Monican Navy to try to engage us, even if it had a chance of sneaking through our sensor coverage, but we don't intend to take any chances.

"If the Captain and Mr. Van Dort achieve a negotiated resolution, we'll also be close enough to get positive sensor confirmation of their evacuation of Eroica Station. Once we're reasonably confident the Station has, in fact, been evacuated, we'll send in the Squadron's Marines in pinnaces to secure it. If, however, the Monicans refuse to stand down and evacuate, we will attack.

"Even the most accurate bombardment with laser heads is going to inflict collateral damage," she said, looking up from the system plot to meet their combined gazes squarely. "At eight million klicks, our fire control should give us good accuracy, and we'll do our level best to restrict our fire to the battlecruisers. Our objective is to neutralize those ships, Ladies and Gentlemen, not to kill Monicans and not to wreck Eroica Station. We aren't even interested in destroying their defensive missile launchers or their point defense stations, if we can take out the battlecruisers without engaging those installations. Nonetheless, if it comes down to it and we're required to open fire, we are going to inflict serious damage to at least the military component of the Station, and we are going to kill Monican personnel. We'll do our best to avoid that, but we aren't going to take the Squadron into a range at which we suffer avoidable ship losses or casualties just to hold down Monican casualties."

She fell silent again, looking at them while they looked back, then nodded slightly.

"That's the general outline," she said. "Now I'll take you back through it in more detail and discuss individual ship assignments. I'd appreciate it if you'd hold questions till the end, when I'll try to go back and answer them all as fully as possible."

She waited until everyone nodded in understanding, then began.

"As soon as we make our alpha translation, Captain Badmachin, your ship will-"

* * * | The Shadow of Saganami | Chapter Fifty-Six