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Chapter Thirty

I wonder if this was really such a good idea, after all? Helen Zilwicki asked herself wryly as she stepped into the lift car and punched in the proper combination.

She'd been half afraid the commodore might reconsider his choice of flag lieutenants once he discovered how unsuited to the position an officer as junior as she was truly was. She probably shouldn't have, since she'd had ample opportunity to observe just how decisive he was, but so far he actually seemed not even to have experienced any serious qualms. Which was more than she could say.

She grimaced at the thought, but there was at least some truth to it. Once upon a time, she'd thought the pressure a midshipwoman experienced on her snotty cruise was intense, and she supposed it was. She'd certainly felt more than sufficiently exhausted at the time, at any rate! But her present assignment had an intensity all its own.

Oh, stop whining, she told herself sternly."This, too, shall pass," as Master Tye was always so fond of telling you. You'll get your feet under yourself this time, too. After all, you've only beena flag lieutenant for four days! Scant comfort as she went scurrying about the passages of HMS Quentin Saint-James on Commodore Terekhov's missions.

When she thought about it, she rather suspected that the commodore was running her harder than he actually had to. For example, there was her present mission. There was absolutely no reason she could think of why the commodore couldn't have simply screened Commander Horace Lynch,Quentin Saint-James' tactical officer, for this particular message. In fact, it probably would have been more efficient. But, no; he'd decided Ensign Zilwicki should trot right on over to the TO's office and deliver it in person. Helen didn't mind the exercise, and the actual message was pretty interesting, but the fact remained that there had been otherand arguably much more efficientways for the commodore to deliver it.

But this one keeps me busy, she thought, watching the lift car's position indicator flicker across the display panel.And he's been doing a lot of that ever since we found out about that assassination attempt on Torch. Despite herself, she shivered at the thought of how close her sister had come to death. And she knew Berry entirely too well. She knew exactly how she must have taken the deaths of so many other people, especially as a consequence of an effort to murder her. And she could also understand why there'd been no message from her father about it. There probably was one chasing its way off towards Spindle, where he could expect it to be relayed toHexapuma, but she had no doubt that heand probably that scary son-of-a-bitch Cachat, too, now that I think about itwere off...looking into who had truly been responsible for it.

Unlike most subjects of the Star Kingdom of Manticore, Helen was less than convinced that Haven had orchestrated the attack on Torch. Of course, she had the unfair advantage of her sister's and her father's letters, which was why she knew Victor Cachat, that otherwise apparently unfeeling juggernaut of a Havenite secret agent, was madly in love with one Thandi Palane, who happened to be Berry's "unofficial big sister," as well as the commander-in-chief of the Torch armed forces. Not only would Cachat have refused to have anything to do with an assassination attempt which might so readily have caught Palane in its path, but he had to know how she would have reacted to his complicity in any attempt to kill Berry or Princess Ruth. And if he hadn't had anything to do with it, then it was for damned sure no other Havenite agent had. Not the way Cachat, the Audobon Ballroomand my own dear Daddy, of coursewere wired into the intelligence community.

Unfortunately, Helen Zilwicki was only one of the Royal Manticoran Navy's newest ensigns. The fact that she was convinced someone else had pulled the trigger wasn't going to cut very much ice with the powers that were. For that matter, she felt quite confident that one Anton Zilwicki had already reached as high up the intelligence food chain as he could in an effort to convince Manticore of that glaringly self-evident (in her own modest opinion) fact. If he hadn't been able to get anyone to listen to him, then no one was going to be listening to her anytime soon.

And fair's fair, she admitted grudgingly. We Zilwickis have had just a bit more experience than most people with the sordid world of espionage and dirty tricks in general. And too much of that experience has been with the ladies and gentlemen of Manpower. I suppose we're as naturally predisposed to look for the Mesa connection as other people are to look for the Haven connection. But I do wish some of those people thinking "Haven done it!"would stop and think about the weapon they used. Sure, the People's Republic carried out plenty of assassinations, but so far as anyone on our side knows, they never used a sophisticated neurotoxin like that. They thought in terms of bombs and pulser darts and missiles. But Manpower, now...they think in bioscience terms.

But there wasn't very much she could do about it, especially considering the fact thatQuentin Saint-James (which had already come to be known asJimmy Boy by her crew, despite the fact that she was less than three T-months old) was headed in exactly the wrong direction. And, since that was the case, she did her best to put it out of her mind once more and, as the lift car stopped and the doors slid open, turned her attention to the other reason she suspected Commodore Terekhov was keeping her so enthusiastically on the run.

She hadn't really thought about it when the commodore offered her the flag lieutenant's slot, but there were several very good reasonstwo of which had presented themselves strongly to her over the last few dayswhy that particular position was never offered to someone who wasn't at least a lieutenant.

First, the reason a flag officer needed a personal aide to help keep him, his schedule, and his workload organized was fairly glaringly apparent. And, generally speaking, it took someone with rather more experience than any ensign could have accrued to do all that organizing. Helen had never actually realizednot in any emotional way, at leastjust how much time a flag lieutenant spent making certain her flag officer's time was spent as efficiently and productively as possible.

When she'd discovered just how thoroughly she was supposed to be tapped into all of the squadron's departments, even her naturally hardy soul had quailed. The responsibility for learning what went on in the administration and coordination of all those various departmentsplus operations and logisticsand their respective duties had come as something of a shock to Helen. And the fact that they still didn't have an operations officer, a staff astrogator, a staff communications officer, or a staff intelligence officer didn't help any, either. At the moment, Commander Lynch was holding down the operations department for Commodore Terekhov, and Lieutenant Commander Barnab'e Johansen and Lieutenant Commander Iona T"or"ok,Quentin Saint-James' astrogator and com officer, respectively, were filling in as his astrogator and communications officers, but the whole arrangement had an undeniably temporary, makeshift feeling do it.

Helen suspected that everyone felt as off-balance in that regard as she did herself, but at least all of them were the heads of their own departments aboard the squadron flagship. That meant they had a far better understanding of what they were supposed to be doing than she did. Despite the fact that a midshipwoman on her snotty cruise was given experience working in every ship's department, Helen's perspective during her time aboardHexapuma had always been that of a relative peon. Now she had to understand not simply what each department did, but how it did it in relationship to every other department, which was another kettle of fish entirely. Besides, even Lieutenant Ram'on Morozov, Terekhov's logistics officer, was monumentally senior to her. Dealing with all of those other department heads on a "The-commodore-says-you-have-to-do-this-right-now!" basis could be...daunting, to say the least.

Even worse was the fear that she might drop some critical ball simply because of her own lack of experience. She knew she could count on Commodore Terekhov to keep an eye on her, but she'd also learnedthe hard way, which, she often thought, was the way she tended to learn most thingsthat failure taught more than success. The commodore, unfortunately, was also aware of that minor fact, and she had no doubt at all that he was prepared to allow her to fail as part of the learning process. Which was probably all well and good from his perspective, but tended to suck vacuum from hers. Helen Zilwicki was unaccustomed to failing. She didn't like it when it happened, she didn't handle it well, and, she admitted to herself as she trotted down the ship's passage towards Lynch's office, she absolutely hated the thought of letting someone else down through her own ineptitude.

But that brought her to the other reason her present assignment was usually reserved for a full lieutenant. A flag lieutenant didn't exist simply because a flag officer needed an aide. She existed because an assignment as a flag lieutenant was a teaching experience, too. Well, in fairness,every naval assignment was a teaching experienceor it damned well ought to be, at any rate. But Manticoran flag lieutenants were far more than just aides and what were still called go-fors, and RMN flag lieutenacies were normally reserved for officers being carefully groomed for bigger and better things. The experience of managing a flag officer's schedule and sitting in on staff discussions and decision making processes other lieutenants never got to see was supposed to give a flag lieutenant a deeper insight into a flag officer's responsibilities. It was supposed to teach someone whose superiors felt she had already demonstrated the potential for eventual flag rank herself how the job was supposed to be done...and also how it wasn't supposed to be done.

So far, none of the senior officers she'd found herself working with seemed to resent the fact that she was a mere ensign. She didn't know how long that was going to last, though, and she had a sinking sensation that more than one lieutenant she ran into was going to resent it. Not to mention the fact that she could absolutely guarantee that at some point in her future career some officer to whom she'd just reported was going to have looked in her personnel jacket, examined her Form 210, noted her present assignment, and concluded she was receiving preferential treatment from Commodore Terekhov.

Which, after all, is only the truth, she admitted. It wasn't the first time that thought had crossed her mind, and she tried to banish it with the memory of Commander Kaplan's comments to Abigail. Which, of course, only made her wonder if she was reading too much into them in her own case...and if she was headed for what her father had always called a terminal case of infinitely expanding ego.

She reached her destination and pressed the admittance chime.

"Yes?" a velvety tenor inquired over the speaker above the button.

"Ensign Zilwicki, Commander," she said crisply. "Commodore Terekhov sent me."

The door opened, and she stepped through it.

Lynch's office was considerably larger than Helen's modest cubbyhole. In fact, it was larger than many an executive officer might have boasted aboard an older, more manpower-intensive ship. With a crew as small as a Saganami-C carried, there was room to give personnel a bit more cubage.

The commander was seated at his workstation in his uniform blouse, and the desktop around his terminal was mostly covered in neat stacks of data chips and sheafs of hardcopy. He was a man of moderate height, with sandy hair and deep set brown eyes, and he had a magnificent singing voice. He also appeared to be quite good at his job.

"And what can I do for the Commodore this morning, Ms. Zilwicki?" he asked.

"He asked me to bring you this, Sir," she said, placing a chip folio on the corner of his desk. "It's some thoughts he's been having about the new laser head modifications."

"I see." Lynch drew the folio closer to him, but he wasn't looking at it. Instead, he had cocked his head and those sharp brown eyes were studying Helen. "And would it happen that he discussed some of those thoughts with you before he sent you to see me?"

"As a matter of fact, he did say a little something about them," Helen acknowledged a bit cautiously.

"I rather thought he might have." Helen's eyes widened slightly, and Lynch chuckled, then pointed at a chair stacked high with what looked like tactical manuals of one sort or another. "Dump that stuff somewhere and have a seat, Ms. Zilwicki," he invited.

Helen obeyed, and Lynch tipped back his chair and gazed at her thoughtfully. She wondered what he was thinking, but the commander would have made an excellent poker player. His expression gave away virtually nothing, and she tried not to sit too nervously upright.

"Tell me, Ms. ZilwickiHelen. What do you think of the new laser heads?"

"I think they're a great idea, Sir," she said after a moment, then grimaced. "Sorry, Sir. That sounded pretty stupid, didn't it? Of course they're a great idea."

Lynch's lips might have twitched ever so slightly, but if they had, he managed to suppress the smile quite handily.

"I think we might agree to consider that a prefatory remark," he said gravely. "But with that out of the way, what do you think of them?"

The faint twinkle Helen thought she might have seen in his eyes eased some of her tension, and she felt herself relax a bit in the chair.

"I think they're going to have a very significant tactical impact, Sir," she said. "The Mark 16 is a big enough advantage against other cruisers and battlecruisers as it stands, but with the new laser heads, they're actually going to be able to hurt genuine capital ships, as well." She shook her head. "I don't think the Havenites are going to like that one bit."

"No doubt," Lynch agreed. "Although I trust," he continued more dryly, "that what you've just said doesn't mean you think it's going to be a good idea for a heavy cruiser to take on a superdreadnought, even with the new laser heads?"

"No, Sir. Of course not," Helen said quickly. "I guess I was just thinking about Monica, Sir. If we'd had the new laser heads there, I don't think those battlecruisers would have gotten into their effective range of us in the first place. Or, at least, if they had, they would've had a lot more of the stuffing kicked out of them first."

"Now that, Ms. Zilwicki, is a very valid observation," Lynch said.

"I also think it's bound to have at least some implications for all-up MDMs," she continued. "I mean, I don't see any reason why the same engineering can't be applied to bigger laser heads, as well."

This time, Lynch simply nodded.

There was a reason it had taken so long for the laser head to replace the contact nuclear warhead as the deep-space long-ranged weapon of choice. The basic concept for a laser head was actually quite simple, dating back to pre-Diaspora days on Old Terra. In its most basic terms, a hair-thin, cylindrical rod of some suitable material (the Royal Manticoran Navy used a Hafnium medium) was subjected to the x-ray pulse of a nuclear detonation, causing it to lase in Gamma-rays until the thermal pulse of the detonation's core expansion reached the rod and destroyed it. The problem had always been that the process was inherently extraordinarily inefficient. Under normal conditions, only a few percent of the billions of megajoules released by a megaton-range nuclear warhead would actually end up in any single x-ray laser beam, mostly becauseunder normal conditionsa nuclear detonation propagated in a sphere, and each rod represented only a ridiculously tiny portion of the total spherical area of the explosion and so could be subjected to only a tiny percentage of the total pulse of any detonation. Which meant the overwhelming majority of the destructive effect was completely lost.

Given the toughness of warship armor, even two or three T-centuries ago, that was simply too little to have any appreciable effect, especially since the resultant laser still had to blast its way through not just a warship's sidewalls, but also its anti-radiation shielding, just to reach the armor in question. So even though the odds of achieving what was effectively a direct hit with a contact nuke were not exactly good, most navies had opted to go with a weapon which could at least hope to inflict some damage if it actually managed to hit the target. Indeed, pre-laser head missiles had been most destructive when they achieved skin-to-skin contact as purely kinetic projectiles. That, unfortunately, had been all but impossible to achieve, even with the best sidewall penetrators, so the proximity-fused nuclear missile had become primarily a sidewall-killer. Its function was less to inflict actual hull damage than to burn out sidewall generators.

Unfortunately from the missile-firer's perspective, active missile defenses had improved to such a degree that "not exactly good" odds of scoring a direct hit had turned into "not a chance in hell," which was the real reason capital ships had gone to such massive energy batteries. Missiles might still be effective against lighter combatants, but they'd been for all intents and purposes completely ineffective against the active and passive defenses of a capital ship, so the only way to fight a battle out had been to close to the sort of eyeball-to-eyeball range at which shipboard energy mounts could get the job done.

But then, little more than a century ago, things had begun to change when some clever individual had figured out how to create what was in effect a shaped nuclear charge. The possibility had been discussed in several of the galaxy's naval journals considerably longer than that, but the technology to make it work hadn't been available. Not until improvements in the gravitic pinch effect used in modern fusion plants had been shoehorned down into something that could be fitted into the nose of a capital missile.

A ring of gravity generators, arranged in a collar behind the warhead, had been designed. When the weapon fired, the generators spun up a few milliseconds before the warhead actually detonated, which was just long enough for the layered focal points of a gravitic lens to stabilize and reshape the blast from spherical to Gaussian, directing the radiological and thermal effects forward along the warhead's axis. The result was to capture far more of the blast's total effect and focus it into the area occupied by the lasing rods. By modern standards, the original laser heads had been fairly anemic, despite their vast improvement over anything which had been possible previously, and capital ship designers had responded by further thickening the already massive armor dreadnoughts and superdreadnoughts carried. But the ancient race between armor and the gun had resumed, and by fifty or sixty T-years ago, the laser head had become a genuine danger to even the most stoutly armored vessel.

There were other factors involved in the design of a successful laser head, of course. The length and diameter of a lasing rod determined its beam divergence, with obvious implications for the percentage of energy the laser delivered at any given range. Ship-mounted energy weapons, with their powerful grav lenses, could squeeze beam divergence in a way no laser head possibly could. There was simply no way to design those lenses into something as small as a laser head which, despite many refinements in design, remained essentially a simple, expendable rod which would have been easily recognizable by any pre-Diaspora physicist.

In the current Mark 23 warhead, the laser heads (the assemblies containing the actual lasing rods) were roughly five meters in length and forty centimeters in diameter, which carried the thread-thin lasing rods suspended in a gel-like medium. The laser heads also incorporated the wolter mirrors to amplify the beampath, reaction thrusters, lots of fuel, on-board power, telemetry, and sensors. They were carried in bays on either side of the weapons bus, which ejected them once the missile had steadied down on its final attack bearing. Each of the laser heads mounted its own thrust-vectoring reaction control system, which acquired the target on its own sensors, thrust to align itself with the target's bearing, and quickly maneuvered to a position a hundred and fifty meters ahead of the missile. At which point the gravity lens came up, the warhead detonated, and the target found itself out of luck.

The critical factors were laser head rod dimensions, the yield of the detonation, andin many ways the most critical of allthe grav lens amplification available. Which was the main reason capital missiles were so much more destructive than the smaller missiles carried aboard cruisers and destroyers. There was still a minimum mass/volume constraint on the grav lens assembly itself, and a bigger missile could simply carry both a more powerful lens and the longerand therefore more powerfullasing rods which gave it a longer effective standoff range from its target. That was also the reason it had been such a challenge to squeeze a laser head capable of dealing even with LACs into the new Viper anti-LAC missile. The bay for the single lasing rod was almost two thirds the length of the entire missile body, and finding a place where it could be crammed in had presented all sorts of problems.

The general Manticoran technical advantage over the Republic of Haven had made itself felt in laser head design, as well. Manticoran missile gravity generators had always been more powerful on a volume-for-volume basis, and Manticoran sensors and targeting systems had been better, as well. The Star Kingdom had been able to rely upon smaller warheads and greater lens amplification to create laser heads powerful enough for its purposes, especially since it could count on scoring more hits because of its superior fire control and seeking systems. The Republic had been forced to adopt a more brute force approach, using substantially larger warheads and heavier lasing rods, which was one of the factors that explained why Havenite missiles had always been outsized compared to their Manticoran counterparts.

But now, thanks primarily to fallout from the Star Kingdom's ongoing emphasis on improving its grav-pulse FTL communications capability, BuWeaps had completed field testing and begun production of a new generation of substantially more powerful gravity generators for the cruiser-weight Mark 16. In fact, they'd almost doubled the grav lens amplification factor, and while they were at it, they'd increased the yield of the missile warhead, as well, which had actually required at least as much ingenuity as the new amplification generators, given the way warheads scaled. They'd had to shift quite a few of the original Mark 16's components around to find a way to shoehorn all of that in, which had included shifting several weapons bus components aft, but Helen didn't expect anyone to complain about the final result. With its fifteen megaton warhead, the Mark 16 had been capable of dealing with heavy cruiser or battlecruiser armor, although punching through to the interior of a battlecruiser had pushed it almost to the limit. Now, with the new Mod G's forty megaton warhead and improved grav lensing, the Mark 16 had very nearly as much punch as an all-up capital missile from as recently as five or six T-years ago.

Producing the Mod G had required what amounted to a complete redesign of the older Mark 16 weapons buses, however, and BuWeaps had decided that it neither wanted to discard all of the existing weapons nor forgo the improvements, so Admiral Hemphill's minions had come up with a kit to convert the previous Mod E to the Mod E-1. (Exactly what had become of the Mod F designation was more than Helen was prepared to guess. It was well known to every tactical officer that BuWeaps nomenclature worked in mysterious ways.) The Mod E-1 was basically the existing Mod E with its original gravity generators replaced by the new, improved model. That was the only change, which had required no adjustments to buses or shifting of internal components, and the new warheads could be fused seamlessly into the existing Mark 16 weapons queues and attack profiles. Of course, with its weaker, original warhead it would remain less effective than the Mod G, since its destructiveness was "only" doubled...while the Mod G laser heads' throughput had increased by a factor of over five.

And, she thought, if they apply the same approach to the Mark 23assuming the new grav lens scalesand then couple it with whatever it was Duchess Harrington's fire control used at Lovat...

"And what else did the Commodore discuss with you about them, Ensign Zilwicki?" Lynch's question recalled her from her thoughts, and she gave herself a mental shake.

"Sir, it's all on the chips there," she said respectfully, indicating the folio she'd just delivered.

"I'm sure it is," Lynch agreed. "On the other hand, I've come to know the Commodore at least a little better since he came aboard, and I'm inclined to doubt that he 'just happened' to discuss this with you before he sent you off to deliver his memo to me. He doesn't strike me as the sort who 'just happens' to do much of anything without a specific purpose in mind. So why don't we just consider this an opportunity for a little hands-on tactical brainstorming session for just you and me?"

Helen felt a distinct sinking sensation and suppressed a powerful urge to swallow hard. Then, as Lynch tipped his chair further back, she saw the amusement in his eyes. Not the amusement at having put her on the spot she might have seen in some superior officers' eyes, but the amusement of watching her work through his reasoning and discover he was almost certainly right about what the Commodore had had in mind.

"All right, Sir," she replied with a smile, settling herself more comfortably in her own chair. "Where were you thinking we should begin?"

Her tone was respectful, but almost challenging, and he smiled back at her as he heard it.

"That's the spirit, Ensign Zilwicki! Let's see..."

He swung his chair gently back and forth for a few moments, then nodded to himself.

"You've already mentioned what happened at Monica," he said. "I've read the tac reports from the battle, and I know you were on the bridge during the engagement. In fact, you were acting as missile defense officer, correct?"

"Yes, Sir." Helen's eyes darkened slightly at the memories his question brought back. Memories of her, sitting at Abigail Hearns' side, managing the entire squadron's missile defenses while the Monican-crewed battlecruisers stormed steadily closer.

"In that case, why don't we start with your evaluation of how the availability of the Mod Gor, for that matter, the E-1would have affected Commodore Terekhov's choice of tactics?"

Helen frowned thoughtfully, the darkness of memory fading as she concentrated on his question. She considered it carefully for several seconds, then gave her head a little toss.

"I think the main change in his tactics might have been that he'd have gone for early kills."

"Meaning what, exactly?" Lynch's tone was an invitation to explain her thinking, and she leaned slightly forward.

"The thing was, Sir, that I think we all knew the only way we could realistically hope to stop those battlecruisers was with massed missile fire at relatively short range. Oh, we got one of them at extreme range, but that had to have been a Golden BB. No way did we manage to get deep enough to hit anything that should have blown her up that way!"

She shook her head again, her expression grim as she recalled the spectacular destruction of MNS Typhoon and her entire crew. Then she shook herself mentally and refocused on the present.

"Anyway, we knew we sure couldn't afford to let them into energy range of us, and because our laser heads were so much lighter, we knew we were going to have to concentrate a lot of hits, both in terms of location and time, if we were going to get through their armor. TheKittyI mean,Hexapumawas the only ship we had that was Mark 16-capable, and that meant we couldn't achieve that kind of concentration outside standard missile range. So what the captain was actually using our long-range fire for was to get the best possible feel for the Monicans' active defenses and EW capabilities. He was using the Mark 16s to force them to defend themselves so we could get a read on their defenses and pass it to the rest of the squadron to maximize our fire's effectiveness once they came into the range of the rest of our ships.

"But if we'd had Mod Gs, instead of the old Mod Es, we would have been able to get through battlecruiser armor even at extreme range and without the kind of concentration we had at the end of the battle. So, in that case, I think he still would have been probing for information, but at the same time"

Helen Zilwicki leaned further forward in her chair, hands beginning to gesture enthusiastically as she forgot all about her qualms over her junior rank and lack of experience, and never even noticed the amused approval in Horace Lynch's eyes as she gave herself up to the discussion.


Chapter Twenty-Nine | Storm From the Shadows | Chapter Thirty-One



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