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Chapter Fifty-Six

"Any word on Commodore Horster's little invasion force?" Isidor Hegedusic asked.

"No, Sir." The communications officer half-turned in his comfortable chair on the spacious "flag bridge" of Alpha Prime, Eroica Station's main military component, to face the admiral. "Do you want me to try to raise him, Admiral?"

"No, no." Hegedusic shook his head, smiled, and turned away. He had plenty to do, and fretting over the way Janko Horster played with his new toys was unprofessional, to say the least.

Envy, he told himself with a mental snort. Pure, dyed-in-the-wool envy. I'd a hell of a lot rather be out there on a real flag bridge than playing senior officer here in this goldplated ration tin. Well, in another couple of weeks I'll have enough of them to justify taking Janko's toybox away from him and playing in it myself.

He chuckled and stepped through the hatch into his private office. The attention light blinked steadily on his personal com, and he dropped into his desk chair and pressed the acceptance key. Izrok Levakonic's personal wallpaper filled the display, and a courteous computer voice asked Hegedusic to hold briefly.

It couldn't have been more than fifteen seconds before the wallpaper vanished, and Levakonic smiled at him from the screen. Hegedusic smiled back. Although he'd been determined not to like the Technodyne executive-who, after all, was only one more corrupt, overachieving capitalist with a personal avarice on steroids-he'd ended up doing it anyway. He was scarcely blind to Levakonic's manifold character flaws. Most, however, were dismayingly common by the standards of those who surrounded President Roberto Tyler. Levakonic had simply had the advantage of falling into a larger feeding trough than most Monicans ever dreamed of. And, on a personal level, he had a ready sense of humor and a willingness to roll up his shirt sleeves and dig in when the task at hand required.

"Isidor," Levakonic said with a nod.

"Izrok," Hegedusic responded.

"Just thought I'd check and see how Horster's training maneuver is going so far," Levakonic said, and Hegedusic chuckled.

"You, too? I was just out pestering the com staff for any reports. So far, nothing."

"Good! I told you you'd like the EW capabilities."

"And I never doubted it. What I doubted, and still do doubt, for that matter, is whether or not our people will be able to get the same performance out of them that Solarians could."

"Solarian Navy crews aren't ten meters tall, and they don't take shortcuts by hiking across large bodies of water," Levakonic said dryly. "Basic education counts, sure. It counts for a lot. But not as much as hands-on training with good instructors. And you've got m y people to do the training. I guarantee you that the people who built the systems in the first place know more about what they can do than the uniformed types who actually use them in the field."

"I believe you. In fact, I'm inclined to think Janko's probably cheating a little right now. I'll bet he's got those same 'instructors' actually operating the systems for him. Otherwise, somebody would've spotted him by now. And, just between you and me, I hope to hell somebody does spot him pretty soon."

"Why?" Levakonic furrowed his brow. "Don't get me wrong, Isidor, but if he screws up and lets your people pick him up, that's a pretty bad sign. The Manties' sensors are a lot better than anything you've got-quite a bit better than anything we've got, for that matter, despite the opinions of several of our own senior R and D people that ours are the best in the universe, if our field reps' reports are accurate. We haven't been able to get any of those idiots in the SLN's R and D departments to pay any attention to us, of course. They're all locked into the 'Not Invented Here' automatic rejection reflex. Well," he added with a charming little-boy grin, "that and an equally automatic suspicion that we're only telling them all those tall tales about Manty capabilities to scare them into funneling more money into our R and D programs. Which there might be just a teeny-tiny bit of truth to.

"But my point is, that if you people can pick him up, then it's for damned sure the Manties could."

"Don't doubt you," Hegedusic said with a grin. "But this is still very early days. Hell, he's only had eighteen days to practice, and one thing about Janko, he's always had a pretty steep learning curve. I'm sure he'll manage to sneak tracelessly up on us soon enough, but there's an expensive dinner and an even more expensive bottle of wine riding on how well he does today. So, if it's all the same to you, I'll settle for his surprising hell out of us tomorrow as long as I don't have to feed his greedy face tonight."

"Ah! I hadn't realized the military stakes in today's exercises were quite that weighty. Now, of course, I fully understand."

"Good. And don't worry, I'll let you know as soon as-"

"Excuse me, Admiral."

Hegedusic turned his head at the interruption. A youthful-looking lieutenant stood in the open office hatch.

"Yes, what is it?" the admiral asked, with a trace of irritation at having someone break in on him in a private conversation.

"Admiral, I'm very sorry to disturb you. But we've just picked up a sizable hyper footprint."

"Hyper footprint? Where?"

For just a moment, Hegedusic wondered if it could be Horster. He was supposed to be "sneaking up" on Eroica Station, but Janko believed The Book had been written solely for him to personally ignore. That was why Hegedusic had chosen him as his first divisional commander. And it was possible he'd decided to try an open approach, pretending to be someone else and using his new EW to disguise his impeller signatures as merchants or something equally silly.

"Celestial azimuth zero-six-three, almost dead on the plane of the ecliptic, and about three-point-eight million klicks outside the hyper limit, Sir," the lieutenant replied.

Then it can't be Janko, was Hegedusic's first thought. His flight path originated at Monica; there's no way he could have gotten out across the hyper limit, circled around, and come in from the other side like this. Not this soon.

That was his first thought. His second was, But if it isn't Janko, who the hell is it?

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