Aivars Aleksovitch Terekhov swung out of his pinnace's personnel tube and into the boat bay of HMSBlack Rose through the wailing twitter of the bosun's pipes. He released the grab bar, landed neatly outside the deck line, and saluted the boat bay officer of the deck as the bay sound system announced, "Hexapuma, arriving!"
"Permission to come aboard, Ma'am?" he said to the BBOD.
"Permission granted, Sir," the lieutenant replied, and Captain Vincenzo Terwilliger,Black Rose's commanding officer, was waiting to clasp Terekhov's hand in greeting.
"Welcome aboard, Aivars."
"Thank you, Sir," Terekhov told his old friend, then reached out to take the hand of a short, slender man in the uniform of a Manticoran vice admiral.
"Captain Terekhov," Vice Admiral O'Malley said quietly.
Terekhov released O'Malley's hand and looked around the battlecruiser's boat bay. He'd always thought "Black Rose" was an unusually poetic name for a Manticoran battlecruiser, but he'd always rather liked it, too. And the reason O'Malley's flagship wore that name was that it—like the name of Terekhov's own heavy cruiser—was listed on the RMN's List of Honor, one of the names to be kept permanently in commission. Perhaps that was one reason he'd decided to come aboard and take his leave of O'Malley and Terwilliger face-to-face rather than simply bidding them—and the System of Monica—farewell over the com.
His mind ran back over the three months it had taken first Khumalo's repair ships and then the repair ships in O'Malley's support squadron, after the vice admiral had arrived and Khumalo had been able to head back to Spindle, to repairHexapuma and Warlock at least well enough for them to make the voyage home to Manticore under their own power. Altogether, he'd been in Monica for four T-months, and it seemed like a lifetime.
Actually, it was a lifetime for too many other people. Or the end of a lifetime, at any rate, he thought grimly, once again recalling the horrendous casualties his scratch built "squadron" had taken here. We got the job done, but, God, did it cost more than I ever dreamed it might! Even after Hyacinth.
"So you're finally ready, Captain," O'Malley observed, pulling his brain back to the present, and he nodded.
"I imagine you'll be glad to get home."
"Yes, Sir," Terekhov repeated. "Very glad. Ericsson and the other repair ships have done a remarkable job, but she really needs a full-scale shipyard."
Which, he reflected, was nothing less than the truth. And at least, unlike the older and even more heavily damagedWarlock,Hexapuma would be getting that shipyard's services. He didn't like to think about how long it was going to take to return her to active service even with them, but at least she'd be returning. Warlock, on the other hand, almost certainly would not. It wasn't official yet—it wouldn't be until she'd been surveyed back home at one of the space stations—and she deserved far better after all she'd done and given here, but she was simply too old, too small and outmoded, to be worth the cost of repair.
"Well, Captain," the vice admiral said, holding out his hand once more, "I'm sure the yard will put her back to rights quickly. We need her—and you—back in service. Godspeed, Captain."
"Thank you, Sir."
Terekhov shook his hand, then stepped back and saluted. The pipes wailed once more, the side party came back to attention, and he swung back into the personnel tube.
He swam the tube quickly, nodded to the flight engineer, and settled into his seat as the umbilicals disengaged and the pinnace began backing out of the docking arms under nose thrusters. His mind ran back through his brief visit to the flagship, and he wondered again why he'd made that visit in person. He doubted that he'd ever really be able to answer that question, although his present sense of satisfaction—of closure—told him it had been the right decision.
He frowned thoughtfully, gazing out the viewport as the pinnace cleared the threat perimeter of its impeller wedge from Black Rose and accelerated rapidly towards the waitingHexapuma. The two ships lay very close together in their parking orbits, separated by barely three times the width of the larger vessel's wedge. That was still too far apart for their relative size to be registered by the unassisted human eye, but Terekhov felt a familiar surge of pride asHexapuma swelled steadily as the pinnace approached her. His ship might be "only" a heavy cruiser, but she was a Saganami-C-class. At 483,000 tons, she was almost halfBlack Rose's size. Admittedly, she was far smaller compared to the RMN's more recent battlecruisers, but she was still a force to be reckoned with . . . as she'd demonstrated rather conclusively four months ago here in Monica.
Now, as he'd told O'Malley, it was time to take her home once more.
"Captain on the Bridge!" the quartermaster of the watch announced as Terekhov stepped ontoHexapuma's command deck.
"As you were," Terekhov said as the bridge watch started to come to its collective feet, and made a note to have a word with the quartermaster in question. Or, better yet, to have the XO have that word with her, which would probably feel less threatening to her. After all, Petty Officer 1/c Cheryl Clifford was young for her rate, one of the people who'd been promoted in the wake ofHexapuma's casualties. This was her first watch as bridge quartermaster, and it wouldn't do to step on her too hard . . . especially when her announcement was perfectly correct, according to The Book. It was not, however, Terekhov's preferred procedure. Like many of the younger captains in Manticoran service, he was normally less concerned about formalities on the bridge than he was about efficiency.
Ansten FitzGerald, however, continued to rise. He'd been sitting in the command chair at the center of the bridge, and Terekhov stepped across to him quickly.
It took a conscious effort on Terekhov's part not to reach out an assisting hand. Naomi Kaplan had been evacuated to Manticore aboard the high-speed medical transport which had departed along with Augustus Khumalo the day after O'Malley's arrival. Which, ironically, meant the tactical officer was almost certain to be returned to duty sooner than Fitzgerald. Although his wounds had been less serious, the medical technology available at Bassingford Medical Center, the huge (and, unfortunately, growing of late) hospital complex the Royal Manticoran Navy maintained just outside the City of Landing, was going to put Kaplan back on her feet much more quickly. "Less serious" than her massive skull trauma, however, didn't turn FitzGerald's injuries into "just a scratch," and the medical officers had . . . strongly suggested that he accompany her. But, as Terekhov had told Ginger Lewis, Ansten was a stubborn man. He'd been determined to return to Manticore with his ship, and Terekhov hadn't been able to bring himself to overrule his exec.
Acting Ensign Aikawa Kagiyama, currently standing his watch at Lieutenant Commander Nagchaudhuri's elbow asHexapuma's assistant communications officer, watched FitzGerald out of the corner of his eye. He had a distinct tendency to hover with what he obviously thought was unobtrusive worry where FitzGerald was concerned. It was rather touching, actually, Terekhov thought, although from the gleam in FitzGerald's eye, the XO found it at least equally amusing, as well.
"I have the ship, Mr. FitzGerald," Terekhov said formally, stepping past FitzGerald and seating himself in the command chair.
"You have the ship, Sir," FitzGerald acknowledged, and straightened his spine just a bit cautiously as he clasped his hands behind him.
"Anything fromBlack Rose, Communications?"
"Yes, Sir," Nagchaudhuri replied. "Vice Admiral O'Malley wishes us a quick—and uneventful—voyage."
"Well, that's certainly something I think we could all appreciate," Terekhov said dryly, and glanced across at Lieutenant Commander Tobias Wright,Hexapuma's astrogator.
"May I assume, Toby, that with your customary efficiency you have already computed our course?"
"Unfortunately, Sir, in this case I haven't," Wright replied with a sorrowful expression. The astrogator was the youngest of Terekhov's senior officers, and normally the most reserved. It turned out that he'd always had a lively sense of humor behind that reserved facade, however, and it had bubbled to the surface after the Battle of Monica. Which probably said something interesting about his basic personality, Terekhov reflected.
"I'm afraid," Wright continued, "that this time we're all dependent on Enign Zilwicki's astrogation."
"Oh dear," Terekhov said. He looked at the sturdily built young woman sitting beside Wright and shook his head with a doubtful air. "Dare I hope, Ms. Zilwicki, that this time you've done your sums correctly?"
"I've certainly tried to, Sir," Helen replied earnestly.
"Then I suppose that will have to do."
Several people chuckled. Astrogation wasn't precisely Helen's favorite occupation, and everyone knew it. By now, in fact, Terekhov reflected, there was very little about anyone in Hexapuma's company which "everyone" didn't know. Despite her impressive tonnage and firepower, the cruiser's total complement was little larger than a prewar destroyer's, and her ship's company had been through a lot together. They were all keel-plate owners, as well, and he knew that, like him, all of them already understood perfectly well that there would never be another ship like Hexapuma. Not for them, not ever.
His own awareness of that fact seemed to flow outward, settling across the entire bridge crew. Not oppressively, but almost . . . comfortingly. His subordinates' smiles didn't disappear; instead, they faded gradually into more serious expressions, as if their owners were soberly reflecting upon all they and their ship had endured and accomplished. Something very like love washed through Aivars Terekhov, and his nostrils flared as he inhaled deeply.
"All right, then, Astro," he said. "Let's go home."
"So what do you make of the Manties's latest little trick?" Albrecht Detweiler asked sourly.
He, Benjamin, and Daniel reclined on chaise lounges under the baking sun while turquoise waves and creamy surf piled on the eye-wateringly white beach, and despite the restfulness of their surroundings, his expression was as sour as his tone.
"You know, Father," Benjamin replied a bit obliquely with a slight smile, "you're a hard man to please, sometimes. We've got the Manties and the Havenites shooting at each other again. Wasn't that what you wanted?"
"I may be a hard man to please sometimes," Albrecht retorted, "but you're a disrespectful young whelp, sometimes, aren't you?"
"Isn't that one of my functions?" Benjamin's smile grew a bit broader. "You know, the lowly slave riding in the back of the chariot reminding Caesar he's only mortal while the crowd cheers."
"I wonder how many of those slaves actually survived the experience?" Albrecht wondered aloud.
"Odd how the history chips don't offer much information on that particular aspect of things," Benjamin agreed. Then his smile faded. "Seriously, though, Father, at this distance and this remove from Lovat it's hard to form any significant or meaningful opinion of what they've done this time."
Albrecht grunted in semi-irate acknowledgment of Benjamin's point. Even with streak-drive dispatch boats, there was a limit to how quickly information could get around. And to be honest, they were overusing the Beowulf conduit, as far as he was concerned. He knew there was nothing to distinguish a streak-drive equipped vessel from any other dispatch boat as far as any external examination was concerned, but he didn't like sending them back and forth between Mesa and Manticore any more frequently than he had to. Beowulf had closed its terminus of the Manticore Wormhole Junction to all Mesan traffic from the day of its discovery, with Manticore's complete support and approval. None of the dispatch boats of the Beowulf conduit were Mesan-registered, of course, but there was always the unhappy possibility that Beowulfan or Manticoran intelligence might manage to penetrate that particular deception. It was unlikely in the extreme, but the Alignment had developed a wary respect for both Beowulf's and Manticore's analysts over the decades.
But there's not really any choice, he told himself. It's only sixty light-years from Beowulf to Mesa via the Visigoth Wormhole. That's only five days for a streak boat. We can't possibly justify not using that advantage at a time like this, so I guess I'll just have to hope the wheels don't come off.
If he'd been the sort of man who believed in God, Albrecht Detweiler would have spent a few moments in fervent prayer that the wheels in question would remain firmly attached to the vehicle. Since he wasn't that sort of man, he only shook his head.
"One thing we do know is that Harrington just shot the shit out of another Havenite ambush attempt, though," he pointed out.
"Yes, we do," Benjamin agreed. "But we don't have any hard and fast numbers on the two sides' force levels, either. We think she was significantly outnumbered, but it's not exactly like the Manties' press releases are going to give out detailed strength reports on Eighth Fleet, now is it? And despite Collin's and Bardasano's best efforts, we still haven't been able to get anyone far enough inside the Manties' navy to give us that kind of information."
"That's all true enough, Ben," Daniel said. "On the other hand, there are a few straws in the wind. For example, it sounds like they've managed to improve the accuracy of their MDMs by a hell of a lot. And I'm inclined to think—mind you, I haven't had a chance yet for any sort of rigorous analysis of what information we do have—that the Havenites' missile defenses' effectiveness must've been reduced rather significantly, as well. Unless Harrington was reinforced a lot more powerfully than any of our admittedly limited sources have suggested, then the Manties' announced kills represent an awfully high ratio for the number of hulls they could have committed to the operation."
"I'd have to agree with that," Benjamin conceded. "Do you or your people have any idea about just how they might have accomplished that, though?"
Just as Everett Detweiler was the ultimate director of all of the Alignment's biosciences research and development, Daniel was the director ofnon-bioscience R&D, which meant he and Benjamin normally worked very closely together.
"I can only speculate," Daniel replied, looking at his brother, and Benjamin nodded in acknowledgment of the caveat. "Having said that, however," Daniel continued, "I'd have to say this sounds an awful lot like it's another example of their damned FTL capability."
He grimaced sourly. He felt fairly confident that his research people had finally figured out essentially what Manticore was doing, but duplicating the ability to create grav-pulses along the hyper-space alpha wall in anything but the crudest possible fashion wasn't a particularly simple proposition. It was going to take a lot of basic research to figure out how they were doing it, and even longer to duplicate their hardware, given that the Alignment, unlike the Republic of Haven, hadn't been able to lay its hands on any working examples of the technology.
And even the frigging Havenites can't begin to do it as well as the Manties can . . . yet, at least, he reminded himself once again.
"If I'm right about what they're doing, it's the next logical extension of what they've already accomplished, in a lot of ways," he said out loud. "We know they've got FTL-capable reconnaissance drones, so theoretically there isn't any reason they couldn't eventually cram the same capability into something the size of an MDM."
"Come on, Daniel!" Benjamin protested. "There's a hell of a size difference between a reconnaissance drone and even one of their big-assed missiles! And most missiles I know anything about are already crammed just about as full as they can be with other absolutely essential bits. Where would they put the damned thing?"
"I did say it wastheoretically possible," Daniel pointed out mildly. "We couldn't do it, I'm pretty sure, even if we were certain how they were managing it in the first place. Not yet. But that's the significant point here, Ben—not yet. They've been using this thing for over twenty T-years, and they thought it up, in the first place. That means they know how to do it better than anyone else does, and it's obvious from the hardware they've deployed that they've been progressively downsizing the volume and mass constraints—and upsizing bandwidth—steadily. If I had to guess, I'd say that what they've probably done is to somehow squeeze an FTL receiver into a standard MDM. If they were to deploy one of their drones close enough to the target—and we know their stealth systems are probably as good as our own, if not better—then they'd have an effective FTL command and control loop. That would probably help to explain not only the increased accuracy, but also the apparent decrease in the effectiveness of the Havenites' defenses, as well. It would let the Manties manage their attack profiles and penetration EW on something a lot closer to a real-time basis than anyone has been able to manage since they started pushing missile ranges up in the first place."
"Does that sound reasonable to you, Ben?" Albrecht asked after a long, thoughtful moment, and Benjamin nodded. It was evident from his expression that he didn't much care for his brother's hypothesis, but he nodded.
"If Dan is right, though, then this constitutes a major—another major—shift in the balance of military capabilities, Father," he said. "Unless my staff's analysis of the two sides' overall relative ship strengths is way off, I don't think there's any way Haven is going to have enough of a numerical advantage to take Manticore out. Not if the Manties are able to get this thing into general deployment, at any rate. And once they do have it into general deployment, and their new construction programs start delivering, they're going to make what White Haven did to the Havenites in the last war look like a squabble at a kids' picnic."
"And even if Haven somehow manages to survive, it's only going to mean both of them are going to develop this capability—or at least its rough equivalent," Albrecht observed sourly.
"I'd say that follows logically, Father," Daniel agreed. "Haven comes closest to matching the Manties' capabilities already. Their education system sucks, but they're fixing that. In fact, let's be fair, the main thing that was wrong with it to begin with wasn't that they didn't have at least a core cadre of competent teachers and scientists. It was that the Legislaturalists had managed to hobble the general system with so much political indoctrination and water it down with so much 'feel-good' insistence on passing students regardless of their actual academic achievements, that the ratio of competent researchers to useless drones was so far lower than Manticore's. Research priorities tended to be assigned on the basis of who the researchers' patrons were, rather than any impartial analysis of potential benefits, too. And the fact that they'd made so little investment in basic infrastructure improvement meant even the competent researchers they had didn't have the resources or the sophisticated industrial platform Manticore had, either, regardless of who their patrons might've been. But they always had a bigger talent pool than most people would have thought looking at what they managed to accomplish, and whoever's running their R and D now is obviously making the best possible use of the pool they have.
"Not only that, but they're the only ones who really have access to firsthand sensor readouts and observational data, not to mention captured hardware to examine. And let's not forget the old saying about the man about to be hanged. They have a considerably more pressing motivation to figure out what the Manties are up to, or at least how to counter whatever they're up to, even than we do. So either they're going to figure out how to do this—or something like it—on their own, or else they're going to get plowed under, like Ben says. And if Manticore doesn't completely disarm them, then they're going to do exactly what they did after the last war and go away and think about it until they have figured out how to do it. We'd probably have at least a few more years before they managed that, under that scenario, but that would be about it."
"Don't you think the Manties would insist on their complete disarmament this time, given what happened last time?" Albrecht asked.
"I think I would, in their place," Benjamin said before Daniel could answer. "On the other hand, let's say they do make that demand. Do you really think even Manticore could ultimately keep Haven from managing a secret rearmament program somewhere? I'm not talking about the short term. But as time passed, I'm sure someone who's already figured out how to build a completely secret shipyard complex and R and D center once could figure out how to do it again. It would still be the best-case scenario from our perspective, though, since I don't think it's very likely Haven could manage to pull it off before we were ready. And I imagine Manticore would probably accept at least a modest build-down in its own active wallers once it had disarmed Haven."
"Against which, they'd have the countervailing pressure to maintain fleet strength if this expansion of theirs into Talbott and Silesia prospers," Albrecht observed.
"Probably." Benjamin shrugged. "The problem is that all we can do at this point is speculate, and we don't have enough information—or enough penetration, especially of the Manties, to get enough information—to base any sort of solid projections on."
"Assume Daniel's hypothesis is accurate," Albrecht said. "On that basis, does this represent a significant threat to Oyster Bay?"
"No," Benjamin said promptly. "It's not range or fire control that could hurt us where Oyster Bay itself is concerned, Father, and there's absolutely no evidence that anyone else anywhere, even the Manties, has remotely considered the possibility of the spider. If they don't know about it, then the odds of their ever even seeing Oyster Bay are virtually nil. If they do find out about the spider, though, and if they have time to develop some sort of countermeasure, then this could be a major problem for us in any period of sustained warfare."
"So our real best-case scenario would be to see the Manties finished off before they get it into general deployment," Albrecht mused.
"Yes, it would," Benjamin agreed, looking at him a bit warily.
"Could you expedite Oyster Bay?"
"Not significantly, Father." Benjamin shook his head with the expression of a man who'd heard pretty much what he'd been afraid he was going to hear. "The spider is an entirely new technology. Daniel and I think we've gotten all of the bugs out of it, but like I told you before, we're still prototyping. Technically, I suppose, the Sharks are warships, but their primary function's always been to serve as testbeds and training vessels, not strike units. I don't see any way we could produce enough of the new hardware to carry out Oyster Bay much sooner than we've already been projecting."
"I see." Albrecht's expression was enough like Benjamin's to make it obvious he'd expected that response, and it was his turn to shrug. "In that case, I think this whole Lovat business gives rather more point to the desirability of remounting the Monica operation, covered by an appropriately new lambskin, as soon as we can, doesn't it?"