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Chapter Twenty-Two

"Sir, if the Nuncians and Lieutenant Hearns are still on profile and Bogey Three hasn't moved, they'll be coming up on crossover in approximately twenty-seven minutes."

Lieutenant Commander Kaplan's tone was crisply professional, and Aivars Terekhov nodded in acknowledgment of her warning. And also of what she hadn't said; assuming the conditions she'd described, Abigail Hearns' pinnaces were two minutes from the point of furthest advance at which they might have decelerated to a zero/zero intercept at Bogey Three's current position. The LACs, with their lower acceleration rate, were already past that point, and the joint force was about 2.86 million kilometers-a little over ninety-five light-seconds-from Bogey Three. Of course, they'd never really anticipated that the pinnaces would decelerate until after executing their attack run, but they were still getting dangerously close, against even a freighter's sensors, if Bogey Three's crew was on its toes. Theoretically, he could wait twenty-six minutes before transmitting the attack order, since the transmission time would be effectively zero for the grav-pulse com. Except for the minor problem that the moment Hexapuma's FTL com opened up, Bogey One and Two were going to know about it.

He tilted his command chair back slightly, steepling his fingers under his chin, and contemplated the master tactical plot.

As he'd anticipated, Bogey One and Bogey Two had continued in-system at their creeping velocity of eighty-six hundred kilometers per second for thirteen hours and twenty-two minutes, headed straight for the position Pontifex would have occupied when they arrived. Given that absolutely undeviating approach, it had been even simpler than he'd expected for Kaplan and Midshipwoman Zilwicki to track them, and the Nuncian LAC Grizzly had been duly vectored into position to "detect" the intruders and sound the alert. The bogeys had responded by cracking on a few dozen gravities of acceleration, accelerating along the same heading and trying to get far enough from Grizzly to drop back off her sensors again, just as he'd anticipated, and he conscientiously kept reminding himself not to get overconfident.

It wasn't an easy thing to remember, at least where the two lead bogeys were concerned. For the last hour and thirty-four minutes Bogey One and Bogey Two-now identified as a Desforge -class destroyer, one of the Havenites' older classes, but still a powerful unit for her type-had been chasing the terrified Rembrandt freighter Nijmegen (so identified by Hexapuma's transponder code) which had broken from planetary orbit in a foolish, panicky bid to evade them. Only a totally terrified merchant skipper would have fled deeper into Nuncio-B's gravity well, especially starting with a velocity disadvantage of more than eighty-five hundred kilometers per second and a ship whose best possible acceleration was no more than a hundred and seventy KPS.

They'd reacted to their juicy, unanticipated target by going in pursuit at five hundred and thirty-one gravities. The recon drones he'd more than half-feared, despite Bagwell's inspiration, hadn't materialized. Probably because Commander Lewis had cooperated so completely with the EWO's suggestions. No engineer was ever really happy about deliberately overstressing the systems under his care, but Ginger Lewis had seemed to find an unholy delight in the notion.

"Sucking pirates in where we can kill them, Skipper? And all you want me to do is take a few hours off the components?" The attractive engineering officer's smile had been decidedly predatory. "No sweat. And if these really are Peep commerce raiders, that's just extra icing on the cake! Remind me to tell you sometime about my first deployment. I'm in favor of killing as many of the bastards as we can catch!"

Terekhov had made a mental note to follow up and get the details about that first cruise of hers. But whatever had happened on it, she clearly harbored a pronounced distaste for any pirate, and she'd entered into Bagwell's ploy with a vengeance. She'd even added a few wrinkles of her own, including a brief, simulated total failure of the wedge while the bogeys were still too far out to actually see the ship herself.

Terekhov had had Kaplan deploy an additional remote array before Lewis' simulated failure so he could observe Hexapuma's sensor image directly himself. His array had been a lot closer than the bogeys were, and probably more sophisticated, to boot. But for all that, had he been one of the pursuing pirates and seen what the array had, he would have bought the illusion completely. The heavy flare Lewis had produced by heterodyning two alpha nodes-strictly against The Book, and, despite her enthusiasm, more than a little dangerous, even for someone with her skills-had duplicated the spike of a blown beta node almost perfectly. It had also taken something like three hundred hours off the service life of the nodes in question, but if they nailed a pair of Peep warships operating in the Cluster, Terekhov expected the Admiralty to forgive him for that.

The wedge shutdown which had followed instantly on the heels of the flare had been even better-a true work of art. It had been exactly the right length for a frantic civilian engineer to shunt the blown node out of the circuit, reboot her systems, and bring the wedge back up. If Terekhov had been on Bogey One's bridge, he would have been thoroughly convinced Hexapuma was a limping, staggering, desperate fugitive, running because running was all that was left, not because she truly expected to escape.

The bogeys seemed to have bought it without question, at any rate. They'd been burning along after Hexapuma at that same, steady five hundred and thirty-one gravities' acceleration from the instant they detected his ship, and the range between them had fallen from twelve light-minutes to only seven and a third. " Nijmegen" was up to ninety-five hundred kilometers per second, but the bogeys were up to a base velocity of almost thirty-nine thousand. Hexapuma was just over one and a half light-minutes inside Pontifex's orbit, eight and a half light-minutes from -Nuncio-B, which put the bogeys-at 15.8 light-minutes from the primary-almost exactly forty-eight light-seconds inside the system's hyper limit. Better yet, the acceleration they were turning out was fifty gravities lower than Hexapuma's standard maximum, and a hundred and ninety-five less than she could turn out if she cut her compensator margin to zero.

The only sour note was that, despite the Mars class's obsolescent power plants, she clearly had at least a late pre-cease-fire compensator. The Mars ships were enormous for heavy cruisers-at 473,000 tons, Bogey One was barely ten thousand tons smaller than Hexapuma -and they paid for that extra mass with sluggish acceleration. Bogey One's observed acceleration already exceeded the max her class had been capable of when they were first laid down, but Peep acceleration rates had been creeping upward even before the High Ridge cease-fire. With the latest pre-cease-fire version, a ship of her size could have pulled a maximum acceleration of six hundred and ten, which would have meant she was currently pulling a bit less than eighty-seven percent of her maximum possible acceleration. If she had the post -cease-fire compensator, her max theoretical acceleration should be about six hundred and thirty gravities, in which case she was pulling a bit under eighty-five percent. The Peeps tended to cut their margins finer than the RMN, accepting the risk of catastrophic compensator failure as the cost of shaving away some of the Alliance's acceleration advantage, so it was possible this ship could have the older compensator.

But Terekhov had to assume he was up against a post-cease-fire compensator, which meant Hexapuma's theoretical maximum acceleration was only ninety-six gravities higher than Bogey One's. Bogey Two, assuming equal generations of compensators, would have a slight acceleration advantage over Hexapuma , but not much of one. Like the Mars -class cruisers, the Desforge -class destroyers were big ships for their types, with correspondingly lower acceleration rates.

Yet even in a worst-case scenario, with the most modern compensators the Peeps had, there was no longer any way both bogeys could avoid action, given their overtake velocity and the current range.

They undoubtedly had at least a few gravities in reserve, but he couldn't know how many until they showed him, so he had to base his estimates on what he'd already seen. And assuming they'd already been operating at max, it would have taken them two hours and four minutes just to decelerate to zero relative to the system primary. At that point, they would have traveled to within 7.7 light-minutes of Nuncio-B, hopelessly inside the system's hyper limit. Even assuming post-cease-fire compensators, Bogey One would require an hour and forty minutes and be less than nine and a half light-minutes from the primary before she came to rest relative to it. In either case, neither of his targets could possibly escape back across the hyper limit before Hexapuma brought them to action. One of them might be able to avoid close action, if they split up quickly enough and both concentrated solely on running away from her. In that case, Aivars Terekhov knew exactly which ship he would run down and kill and not just because a cruiser was a more valuable unit than a destroyer.

He put that shivery, hungry thought aside and made himself consider the possible scenarios.

Even assuming they did have the later compensators and went to maximum military power with a zero safety margin, if Hexapuma turned on them this instant and went to her own max deceleration, they would meet in seventy-one minutes. Hexapuma's velocity relative to Nuncio-B would be over 20,550 KPS, directly away from the star, while the bogeys would still be traveling towards the primary at 12,523 KPS when their vectors crossed over at zero. They'd be down to a bit over nine and a half light-minutes from the primary, right in the heart of the system hyper limit, and given Hexapuma's range advantage and the fact that she had a bow wall while the bogeys almost certainly did not, she should manage to blow both of them out of space (assuming that was her objective) long before their vectors ever intersected.

But the most likely scenario was that the bogeys would remain at their current compensator settings and begin decelerating within the next twenty-four or twenty-five minutes. If Hexapuma truly had been the crippled, fleeing freighter she'd taken such pains to portray, they'd have to begin decelerating within that time frame to achieve a zero/zero intercept with her if she continued to "flee." That would take them another ninety-odd minutes, depending on the exact point at which they decided to begin decelerating, and hunter and hunted alike would be traveling at somewhere around 20,200 KPS towards the primary at the moment their vectors merged. Ideally, Terekhov wanted to encourage the bogeys to pursue the "freighter" as long as possible. The shorter the range, and the closer to equalized their velocities, the more devastating his own sudden surprise attack would become.

The problem was how to tell Hearns and Einarsson within the next twenty-seven minutes that they were cleared to engage the freighter without dissuading the pirates from continuing to close

"Guns."

"Yes, Skipper?"

"How far out are the tertiary arrays?"

"They're approximately thirteen light-minutes outside the bogeys, Sir."

"Lieutenant Bagwell."

"Yes, Sir?"

"How likely would you say our bogeys would be to detect a directional grav pulse transmitted directly away from them by one of the stealthed arrays thirteen light-minutes astern of them?"

"That would depend on how good their sensor suites are, and how good the people using them are," Bagwell replied. "BuWeaps' R and D people evaluated and tested as much of their hardware as we could recover from the ships Duchess Harrington knocked out at Sidemore Station. On the basis of their tests, and assuming these people have well-trained, alert sensor crews," he was punching information into his console as he spoke, cross-indexing against the recorded test data, "I'd have to say they'd have somewhere around a one-in-ten chance. That might be a little pessimistic, but I'd rather err on the side of overestimating their chances, rather than underestimating."

"Understood." Terekhov pursed his lips for a few moments, then looked back at his EWO. "On the other hand, you're evaluating their chances on the basis of current first-line equipment, correct?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Assume instead that they have what was first-line equipment as of Operation Buttercup." Despite himself, Bagwell's eyebrows rose, and Terekhov smiled thinly. "It's not as loony as it sounds, Commander. We know these people have Goshawk-Three fusion plants, and those should have been replaced even before the High Ridge cease-fire. They weren't. I'd say there's at least a fair chance that if they didn't replace something as dangerous as that, they also didn't waste any effort on upgrading Bogey One sensors. Mind you," his smile got a little broader, "I can't imagine why they didn't upgrade both, if they were going to keep the ship in inventory at all. But since we know they didn't change out the fusion plants-" He shrugged.

"Yes, Sir." Bagwell input additional data, then looked back up at his captain. "Assuming the parameters you've specified, Sir, even a well-trained and alert sensor watch would probably have no more than one chance in about two hundred."

"Thank you." Terekhov tipped his chair back once more and thought hard for perhaps ten seconds. Then he straightened up again.

"Commander Nagchaudhuri."

"Yes, Sir?"

"Assume we wanted to relay through one of the tertiary arrays to the array we deployed with Lieutenant Hearns. Would her array be able to receive a transmission from the FTL telemetry downlinks aboard the tertiary array?"

"Um." Nagchaudhuri squinted thoughtfully. "I can't see why not, Skipper, although that's actually more of a question for Commander Kaplan and Lieutenant Bagwell, in some ways. There's no reason the transmitters and receivers aboard the arrays couldn't manage it, but we'd have to remotely access the software to redirect the downlink to the pinnaces instead of CIC. I've got some familiarity with that, but not enough to feel comfortable estimating how complicated it might be."

"Guns?"

"No reason I can think of why we couldn't do it, Skipper," Kaplan said enthusiastically. "Lieutenant Hearns is already hardwired into the telemetry links from her array. We just have to convince the tertiary array to aim its pulses at her, instead of the inner system, and that's a snap. The systems were designed to allow single arrays to share data between distant recipients by rotating their downlink channels through more than one addressee. Of course," she cautioned, her expression sobering slightly, "there is at least a small chance Bogey One or Two will also pick them up. The transmitters are directional, and we've made a lot of progress since the first FTL coms came in, but we're still a long way from completely eliminating backscatter. There's going to be something to see. All in all, I'd say Guthrie's probability estimate is probably pretty close to on the money, but we could both be wrong."

"Very well. Commander Nagchaudhuri."

"Yes, Sir?"

"Commander Kaplan and Lieutenant Bagwell will put together the programming elements. Once they have, you'll immediately transmit them and release authorization to attack and retake Bogey Three to one of the tertiary arrays, via com laser, for relay to Lieutenant Hearns."



Chapter Twenty-One | The Shadow of Saganami | * * *