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Operation Reunion began with an irruption of SBMHAWK carrier pods into the Zvoboda System. One moment the Republican Navy's detection screens were blank: the next a multitude of unmanned pods transited into the teeth of the forts guarding this gateway to the Terran Republic. A few came to grief in the warp point minefields; a few more emerged in overlapping volumes of space and died with the violence the gods of physics reserve for phenomena which violate their laws. But most survived to fling their missiles at the forts, announcing the arrival of the Federation's warriors in fire and death.

Probes of the Zvoboda System had been limited to avoid alarming its defenders, but Ian Trevayne had a fairly good notion of what he would face. The Republic had erected a formidable shell of big type four OWPs around the Zephrain warp point and another around the warp point to New India, but Lavrenti Kirilenko was convinced there would be few mobile units. The forts were typical of the Republic's designs, each incorporating two squadrons of fighters; that fighter strength, coupled with the forts' own weapons, needed no support to decimate any conventional assault.

Trevayne and Genji Yoshinaka agreed with Kirilenko's assessments; hence the lavish SBMHAWK bombardment that preceded their ships through the warp point. Such a heavy employment of SBMs would seriously deplete their stores for the next assault, but there was no point planning for the next battle if they lost this one. Besides, everything seemed to suggest that Zvoboda had been so heavily fortified that the Republic could have spared little for the defense of New India.

Missiles leapt from their carrier pods, but the Republican gunners hadn't been asleep. The Rim's decreased probe traffic hadn't lulled them; rather it had confirmed their suspicions, and they'd gone on round-the-clock alert. Still, no one could be a hundred percent alert at every instant, and if point defense stopped a lot of missiles, nothing could have stopped them all.

Antimatter warheads flared against shields. Tremendous fireballs wracked the space around them. Armor glowed, vaporized, flared away. Atmosphere whuffed outward, water vapor sparkling, as the missiles savaged the forts. Yet for all their savagery, all their violence, they couldn't prevent the Republic from launching the majority of its fighters.

But Trevayne had anticipated that, and he had no intention of offering up his strictly limited carrier strength for target practice, even if The Book did call for fighters as the best defense against fighters. Instead, the ships that followed the carrier pods into Zvoboda used a tactic which was new, one so unorthodox it took the defenders totally by surprise, yet so simple they wondered why no one else had ever thought of it.

TFNS Nelson was the first ship out of the warp point, followed by the monitor da Silva. As soon as da Silva emerged, Nelson grabbed her with tractor beams and began to tow her astern. Simultaneously, da Silva cut her own propulsion, maintaining just sufficient drive field to interdict missile fire, and rolled to place herself stern-to-stern with Nelson-an unheard of position. Then another supermonitor/monitor pair emerged, and another. . . .

All strikefighter pilots knew to attack battle-line units by maneuvering into the sternward "blind zone" created by the slow and clumsy ship's drive field, where its tracking systems were useless and its weapons could not be brought to bear. But the rebel pilots, racing to implement their fundamental tactical doctrine, were slaughtered by defensive fire from the supermonitors and monitors while searching for blind zones that were, in effect, not there! They inflicted damage, of course-quite a lot, in fact. But monitors were designed to absorb and survive damage, and supermonitors even more so. The fighters were cut down before their short-ranged weapons could take decisive effect, and the big ships lumbered towards the fortresses, contemptuous alike of the fighters and mines that sought to hinder them.

The fortress crews knew what their fighters' failure meant. They'd seen the reports on Second Zephrain, and they knew all about the improved force beams Trevayne's ships mounted, but they stood to their weapons, pouring in defensive fire against the oncoming ships. Damage control parties aboard the supermonitors and monitors found their services in high demand, but not critically so, and the capital ships riddled the forts with primary-mode fire and then reduced them to tangled wreckage with "wide-angled" fire even as Sean Remko's battlecruisers savagely hunted down the few mobile rebel units.

Fourth Fleet reformed into a more conventional order of battle, complete with escort cruisers, and lumbered into a hyperbolic course across the system. Ian Trevayne sat in his command chair, listening to the reports as his crews worked frenziedly on the damage. It wasn't quite as bad as he'd anticipated, he thought. Bad enough, certainly-especially in terms of human life-but no internal damage his repair crews couldn't put right in the seventy-eight hour trip across the system. It was a case of slapdash repairs, of course, but aside from the damage to his ships' armor, virtually full combat efficiency had been restored between the first engagement and the moment the New India warp point fortifications hove into range.

Not that he had any intention of exposing those repairs to fresh damage if he could help it. And he could help it, for the Terran Republic still had no counterweight for the HBM.

The rebel commander knew it, too, and he launched his fighters before the supermonitors came into HBM range. That saved them from destruction in their bays but exposed them to extended-range AFHAWK fire from Trevayne's screen and interception by Carl Stoner's fighters. A few broke through both missiles and defending fighters, displaying the skill and determination which were the hallmarks of Republican fighter pilots, but they were a spent force. The escorts and capital ships blasted them apart in return for trifling damage, and shortly thereafter the HBMs began to batter the fortresses.

The Republican commander had no more desire to die uselessly for a point of honor than Trevayne himself. As soon as he'd satisfied himself of all the facts (and fired courier drones out to New India with them), he surrendered.

His surrender was followed four hours later by another, rendered to the cruiser screen as Remko cleaned up the pieces. Occupation of the domed mining colony on the largest satellite of Zvoboda IV, a "brown dwarf' so massive as to be almost self-luminous, completed the conquest, and Trevayne called a halt. It was time to garrison the domes and send prisoners back to Zephrain, in addition to the usual post-battle chores.

He remained on the bridge while his ships carried out the most urgent of these-the replenishment of their magazines from the fleet train beginning to emerge from the warp point-and waited until the repair ships moved alongside to make good his most critical damage. Then he called a meeting of all ship captains aboard Nelson and finally left his flag bridge.

Trevayne couldn't help feeling amused by Yoshinaka's morose expression as they rode the intraship car toward the wardroom. The chief of staff was a natural worrier, and he seemed to feel duty bound to compensate for everyone else's euphoria.

"Well," he grumbled, "at least you followed my advice to hold this skippers' meeting after the first battle."

"Why, Genji-san, I always follow your advice," Trevayne said in the bantering tone he affected when Yoshinaka was in one of his moods. "Didn't I give the second Nelson the name you wanted?"

Yoshinaka refused to be mollified.

"Right. You named her Togo . . . which," he added pointedly, "you would've had to do eventually anyway, having decided to name the class after wet-navy admirals. After all, he was the greatest fighting admiral in the entire history of Old Terra." He waited, but Trevayne declined to rise to the bait. "And you couldn't have ignored him for long, either-not after copping the first ship in the class for your precious Nelson! But then you named ships three and four after Raymond Spruance and Yi Sun-Sin, both of whom made their reputations swabbing the decks with the Japanese! Has anyone ever told you you've got a strange sense of humor?"

"The Grand Councilor for Internal Security has mentioned it once or twice," Trevayne admitted airily.

Yoshinaka's scowl dissolved into a grin. Trevayne had been practically whistling as he was piped aboard Nelson on the eve of Operation Reunion, when many others had had an understandable case of dry-mouth. Yoshinaka had no idea what had passed between his admiral and Miriam Ortega, but he was grateful for it-and not just because Trevayne's cheerfulness in the face of a frontal assault through a fortified warp point had been a shot in the arm for everyone's morale.

The car hummed to a stop, and they emerged into a crowded wardroom filled with an uproar of shoptalk as the battle was refought. The monitor skippers-already dubbed the "bass-akwards brigade" by their disrespectful fellows-were the butt of the occasion.

"Attention on deck!" Mujabi's basso profundo cut through the hubbub with ease, and all talk subsided as Trevayne and Yoshinaka mounted the improvised dais where Sandoval waited. Standing at the podium, Trevayne looked down at the array of faces, faces of every color and cast of features in which homo sapiens came. Outside himself and Yoshinaka, no one in the room wore the broad stripe; he wanted these men and women to be able to speak their minds freely and openly. His own deep baritone filled the room.

"As you were, ladies and gentlemen. First, congratulations are in order. Your performance in battle was exactly what I would have expected of you-and I can think of few higher compliments. In particular," he added with a slight emphasis, "the monitor commanders are to be congratulated for performing superbly under highly unorthodox conditions." That was true of everyone, he thought. Only a superbly trained and motivated fleet could have achieved the organizational flexibility these people had displayed.

"The reason for this captains' meeting," he went on, "is that we've now seen at first hand what we're up against. You're here because I want to directly answer any questions you may have, and because Commodore Yoshinaka, Commander Sandoval, and I need your feedback. So let's hear any questions or comments."

Numerous hands went up, and Trevayne recognized what looked to have been the first of them. "Captain Waldeck?"

Sean Remko's flag captain rose. He had the Waldeck look-burly, with a jowly, florid face boasting a big nose and massive chin oddly at variance with the small, pursed mouth.

"A comment, Admiral. If what we've encountered here is any indication, this operation should be a walkover. I refer specifically to the cowardice of the rebel commander. He surrendered when he still had the capability to do us some damage or at least force us to expend a lot of our HBMs on his forts. I think the inference is clear: all the rebels ever had going for them was the elan of their initial successes. Now that that's worn off, they're reverting to their natural state-rabble!"

Mujabi's face got, if possible, a bit darker, even though Waldeck had been careful to refer to "rebels" and not to "Fringers." His eyes flashed dangerously, but he was saved from the need to speak by an anonymous voice.

"Sure," it piped up from the back of the wardroom. "Just like the rabble on Novaya Rodina!"

Waldeck flushed, and his massive jaw clenched as a sound swept the wardroom. It wasn't-quite-a chuckle, but rather an inarticulate amusement too great to be entirely suppressed. For a moment he seemed about to snarl a response, but thought better of it at the last moment.

Trevayne himself was torn by several conflicting emotions. The remark was well-taken (if unkind), and he couldn't help sharing the assembled captains' amusement just a bit. Yet at the same time, the whole Novaya Rodina episode left a bad taste in his mouth.

But as far as Waldeck himself was concerned, Trevayne had tried to keep an open mind. He was born of the close-knit world of the TFN's "dynasties," with few illusions about its inhabitants, and he'd never liked Captain Cyrus Waldeck. And that, he thought, was unfortunate in a way, because for all his abrasive arrogance and snobbery, there was no question of Waldeck's competence. It was because of that competence that he'd assigned Waldeck to command the Arquebus, Remko's flagship. Yet he couldn't help chortling to himself just a bit whenever he thought of Waldeck, the embodiment of that clan of Corporate World magnates, directly under Sean Remko's command. Could it be that Miriam and Genji were right about his sense of humor?

"Let's not get carried away by our own elan, Captain Waldeck," he said calmly. "It would be the height of recklessness to assume on the basis of one battle that the rebels have lost their edge-and I remind you that the first fortress commander we engaged most certainly hadn't lost his. That's an attitude we'll have to be particularly wary of in the next few weeks; now that we've broken the rebel frontier, we're likely to be passing through lightly defended systems until we reach Zapata. The rebels will have to offer battle there. I don't want us to arrive for it in a mood of fatuous overconfidence."

A murmur of agreement ran through the wardroom, and Waldeck, his face once more tightly controlled, sat down. Trevayne's voice had been as pleasant as ever, but his remarks stung all the more following that fathead hiding in the rear ranks.

Waldeck surveyed his fellow captains with hidden contempt. These people's attitude towards Ian Trevayne ran the gamut from deep respect through awe all the way to idolatry, he thought. But, of course, he hadn't assigned them to be flag captain to a jumped-up prole from the slums of New Detroit-the cesspool of the Corporate Worlds!

He thought bitterly of Trevayne's reputation for being above social prejudice. For Waldeck's money, that only meant he didn't feel any more superior to Fringe Worlders than he did to everyone else!

And yet, he thought, listening to Trevayne responding to questions and comments, not even his resentment made him immune to the admiral's magnetism. The man had the sort of sublime self-assurance that came from being perfectly suited to the role of leadership he'd been born to fill; people followed him because he expected to be followed, expected it with such certainty that he had no need for bombast. Well, Cyrus Waldeck would follow him, too, but with bitterness eating at his heart.

The assault shuttles were on their way once more, carrying garrison troops to the inhabited planet of the Purdah System, when Trevayne called another meeting aboard Nelson. It was a small gathering; Sanders, Yoshinaka, Sandoval, and Kirilenko were there, as was Ingrid Lundberg, the supply officer. Sonja Desai had come over from Togo, her flagship, but she couldn't stay long, for she was in charge of organizing the temporary military government of this system. Of Trevayne's closest allies, only Remko was absent; he was busy deploying forces to screen the fleet train while it licked its wounds from the latest of the raids which had occasioned this meeting.

At Trevayne's request, Lundberg began with a summary of the supply picture as the stewards poured coffee. (It was late by ships' clocks.)

". . . And that's about the size of it, Admiral." She ran fingers through her auburn hair. "We lost a lot of general stores when Falkenberg blew up, and I'm not happy about losing all those medical stores when they crippled Jolly Merchant, but we've actually been fairly lucky . . . so far. The munition ships have avoided any serious losses-though I'm not too happy about the missile supply." She glanced at Sandoval from the corner of one eye. "Some people seem to have the idea missiles come straight from God as needed; they don't. If we can't move colliers safely, I can't continue to meet the ammo demands of the Fleet."

"I see." Trevayne nodded and glanced at Kirilenko. "Lavrenti, what do you have for us on these raiders?"

"Less than I'd like, sir. They're using carriers and staying at extreme range. I suspect we're looking at escort carriers rather than light or fleet carriers-the attack patterns suggest small fighter groups-but whatever they are, we haven't been able to run any of them down. They obviously carry cloaking ECM, and they're as fast as anything we've got." He shrugged. "The best I can report right now is that they're losing fighters steadily, but that's not the way to stop determined commerce raiders."

"Anything more on my pet hypothesis, Lavrenti?" Sanders asked.

"I've subjected it to computer analysis and lots of plain, old-fashioned human skepticism, sir," Kirilenko said, "and I'd say you're probably right. They've set up some sort of deep-space basing facilities out there. Maybe just a couple of old freighters hiding somewhere, but something-and in more than one system too. They're rearming somewhere, and I'd bet they've got replacement fighters stashed out there, too. All of which supports your theory: this was carefully planned. It's no last-minute improvisation."

Trevayne's officers and advisers exchanged looks and glanced covertly at the admiral, who leaned one elbow on the polished tabletop and thought. Finally he leaned back and rapped the edge of the table with his light pencil, breaking the grip of the silence.

"Very well. Matters have gone pretty much as expected, in the sense that the rebels haven't committed major forces to defend either New India or this system. They've fought token holding actions, forcing us to expend munitions and inflicting maximum losses in a short time before withdrawing.

"We also anticipated that our advance would expose the fleet train to flank attacks through warp points leading to rebel systems off our line of advance. Again, no surprises . . . except possibly for the weight of the attacks and the fact that they're also using these deep-space bases Admiral Sanders and Commander Kirilenko have hypothesized to operate inside the systems we've reoccupied. And, of course, for the number of escort carriers-or whatever-they've committed."

He paused and looked around the table. "Now, what do these facts, taken together, mean? I realize one school of thought holds that our rapid advance means the rebellion is collapsing like a house of cards. That, I'm sure, is Captain Waldeck's view," he added with a crooked smile. "But I don't believe it. These raids show too much forethought, and they're being pressed too aggressively; we're clearly not fighting a beaten enemy. I still think the decisive battle will come at Zapata, whatever anyone else believes, but in the meantime we can expect more of the same at Sagebrush.

"Therefore," he continued, "we need to further reinforce the escort elements for the fleet train. Commander Lundberg is quite correct about the state of our missile supply-we must both restrict our expenditures and safeguard our existing supplies. For this purpose, I intend to detach Admiral Stoner's light carriers."

"Carl won't like it," Sonja Desai foretold.

"He'll ricochet off the bulkheads," Sandoval added, earning a glare from Desai.

"I know. I also know our carriers are already stretched thin, but it can't be helped. Supplies are our Achilles heel, and whoever's orchestrated the rebel strategy has grasped that fact very well." Trevayne had a pretty definite idea who that person was, but he kept it to himself. "We may as well face the fact that whenever the rebels finally decide to offer battle in earnest, they're going to greatly outnumber us in fighters. Our great strength is our battle-line." (The finest in the Galaxy, he thought, but silently; he didn't want to add to the general cockiness.) "It's more important to assure ourselves of an abundant supply of missiles-especially HBMs-for the decisive battle than it is to hoard fighters that won't, after all, be able to go toe-to-toe with their opposite numbers on even terms."

Heads nodded around the table. Then Yoshinaka spoke up.

"Admiral, another concern is the relatively heavy losses among our scout cruisers. We're not exactly oversupplied with them to begin with."

"True," Trevayne acknowledged. "Of course, you expect high losses among them due to the nature of their missions." Deep within him an old pain stirred briefly. He sternly suppressed it. "I'm thinking we ought to conserve them for now and rely on drones and recon fighters. In fact, we might make the two problems solve each other by temporarily detaching the scouts to help escort the fleet train." He held up a hand. "Yes, I know it's not what they're designed for, but with their missile armaments, they've got a lot of AFHAWK capability. Besides, I don't think the rebels are going to be expecting escorts with third-generation ECM! It could make things interesting the next time their 'vanishing carriers' pull one of their long-range raids if a couple of light cruisers suddenly drop out of cloak into their midst."

Glances were exchanged around the table as people found, to their surprise, that they liked the idea.

"Yes, sir," Sandoval said. "Of course, the scout cruiser types won't like it at first. They're a bunch of hot dogs . . . almost as bad as fighter jocks," the former fighter jock added. "But give them some rebel fighters to chew on, and maybe an escort carrier or two, and they'll come around."

"Also, Ian," Sanders put in, "we don't need them for recon just now anyway. We've already probed Sagebrush, and I gather we shouldn't need scouts there." He looked to Sandoval and Yoshinaka for confirmation. "We should be able to go through that system rather easily and quickly."

Sandoval grinned from ear to ear. "Like beans through a Gringo, sir."

Sanders spluttered into his coffee and nearly choked. Trevayne, pounding the older man on the back amid the general laughter, tried to give Sandoval the full-powered glare that had reduced strong men to jelly. He failed utterly. It was difficult to get mad at the irrepressible ops officer, and impossible to stay that way.

Impossible, that was, for most people. Sonja Desai's lips, always thin, became practically invisible, and they barely moved as she clipped out, "Admiral, if you'll excuse me I think I'd better get back to Togo. The shuttles should have landed by now, and the reports will be coming in." She carefully did not glare at Sandoval.

"I think we've about finished anyway," Trevayne said, and turned to Yoshinaka as Desai rose. "I'll be on the flag bridge for a while, Genji. There are still a few loose ends to tie together before I can turn in." He smiled ruefully. "Y'know, we can use robot probes for reconnaissance-don't you think someone would invent a robot admiral, too?"

After he was gone, Sandoval grinned at Desai's retreating narrow back and muttered to Yoshinaka, "I think we've already got one, sir."

"That will do, Commander," Yoshinaka replied, pleasantly but with finality. Opposites, he reflected, don't always attract.