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Chapter Thirty-Three

Albrecht Detweiler looked out across the ranked seating of the palatial auditorium as he strode towards the lectern, and his expression was sober. The auditorium wasn't really all that large, despite its luxurious furnishings and absolutely state-of-the-art communications and briefing equipment. It was also buried under the next best thing to two hundred meters of solid earth and ceramacrete, making it impervious to any known snooping system, which was not a minor consideration on a day like this. And although its maximum seating capacity was under a thousand, there were no more than eight hundred people in its comfortable seats this afternoon. It was more than big enough for that, and he felt a sense of anticipation humming through his blood as he looked out at those eight hundred.

They represented the core leadership of the entire Mesan Alignment. A handful of people were missing, among them his sons Franklin and Gervais. He missed Franklin and Gervais more than most of the others, but their absence wasn't truly critical. Franklin was in charge of the Alignment's political penetration strategies, which meant most of his attention was focused on the Solarian League, and the Sollies were really at most a secondary concern today. Gervais, on the other hand, was effectively the Alignment's foreign secretary, the Alignment's primary contact with its out-system allies, which made his absence of greater significance than Franklin's this afternoon. Still, all of those allies already understood their parts in the overall plan, even if they didn't understand precisely how all of those parts fitted together or to what true end, and everyone had known for decades that when the time finally came to pull the trigger, there might well not be time to brief all of them first.

Although I doubt any of them expected it to come at them with quite this little forewarning, he thought wryly.

He watched the rustle of surprise running through the audience as he crossed the stage, for in a very real sense, today was the first time he'd ever really stepped out of the shadows. His own and his genotype's existence had been too important a secret for him to go gallavanting around openly, which, he had to admit, had always irked him more than a little. Oh, he'd been able to spend time in public, but always anonymously, without any activity or clue which might have led the Alignment's enemies to realize he existed, and even then only after the most stringent (if unobtrusive) security arrangements had been put into place ahead of time. That was why the majority of the people sitting out there had never actually met him...although he'd met several of them under the cover of carefully constructed false personae, especially when a firsthand evaluation had seemed necessary. Indeed, for many of these people, his very existenceand that of his sonshad been little more than a half-believed rumor until they received the emergency summons to this meeting, and even those among them who had received messages or com calls from him had never seen his natural face or heard his undisguised voice. But they recognized him now, and an electric shock seemed to fill the air as voices murmured in astonishment.

He stopped behind the lectern, looked out across their faces, and cleared his throat. The background hum of astonished speculation died almost instantly.

"I'm not going to bother with a lot of introductions this morning," he said, his amplified voice filling the auditorium while all of his sons who were physically present on Mesa filed onto the stage behind him. "The mere fact that I'm talking to all of you simultaneouslyand directlyhas no doubt already told you something important is going on, and it is. In fact, something very important is about to happen."

The silence intensified, and he gestured for Collin to join him at the lectern. Standing side-by-side, the physical resemblance between them was almost uncanny, despite the difference in their ages, and Albrecht took a half-step backwards, surrendering precedence to the younger man.

"Six days ago," Collin began without preamble, "the Republic of Haven attacked the Manticore home system."

A rustle of astonishment almost as great as that evoked by Albrecht's presence rushed around the auditorium, punctuated by more than a few exclamations of shock, and Albrecht smiled grimly. Their reaction didn't surprise him in the least, because no one had attacked the home star system of a major interstellar naval power literally in centuries, if ever.

"Havenite security was very tight, and we had absolutely no warning that this was in the works," Collin continued after a moment. "Thanks to the streak drive and the Beowulf conduit, we've been able to acquire at least preliminary estimates on the outcome of the attack, however. I'm not the best person to discuss the military implications of that outcome, so I'm going to ask Benjamin to address them. I'll be prepared to take any questions on the intelligence side after the main briefing when we break down into our initial task groups."

He stepped back from the lectern, and Benjamin Detweiler took his place.

"As Collin's just said, our estimates of exactly what happened are preliminary at this time. We don't have significant penetration of the Manticoran military, but the battle was fought inside the system hyper limit, for the most part, right under the Manticoran newsies' noses. Collin's estimate, with which I concur, is that the reports our agents in Manticore have been able to pick up from the media are essentially accurate, despite some possibility of exaggeration.

"Allowing for that exaggeration and rounding reported losses downward by twenty percent as a corrective, it would appear that the entire Manticoran Home Fleet has been destroyed."

A harsh sound, like a collective gasp, went through his audience. He seemed unaware of it as he continued speaking in the same, calm voice.

"Their Third Fleet would also appear to have beeneffectively destroyed. Preliminary estimates indicate that while a handful of its units may have survived, none of them are combat-capable at this time, and many of the survivors would appear to be damaged beyond a practical point of repair.

"On the Havenite side, our best estimate is that they committed between four hundred and five hundred ships of the wall to the attack. For all intents and purposes, that means they used at least ninety percent of their fully worked-up and trained wall of battle. According to the best information available to us, no more than twenty or thirty of their ships survived the engagement. The remainder were either destroyed outright or captured by the Manticorans."

There were no gasps this time. Genetically engineered for superiority or not, his audience was too stunned for that sort of expression.

"According to what our agents have been able to piece together, and what our analysts here at home have been able to do with their reports, it would appear the Havenites came within centimeters of succeeding in their objective. We're still trying to pull specific information on their tactics out of the reports we've received, but it looks like they used a two-pronged attack, bringing in a second force behind Third Fleet to ambush it when Admiral Kuzak came through from Trevor's Star in response to the initial attack. Unfortunately for the Havenites, it would appear thatEighth Fleet came through after Third Fleet, rather than in company with it, which allowed Harrington to ambush the ambushers, as it were. The result was to break the back of the Havenite attack, but every report available to us indicates that, for all intents and purposes, the Manticoran Navy's wall of battle has been pruned back to only Eighth Fleet and the odds and sods of wallers scattered around as pickets in places like the Lynx Terminus."

He paused and surveyed his audience levelly.

"What this means," he said flatly, "is that the combined walls of battle of Manticore and Haven have been effectively gutted. At this moment, the Manties' Eighth Fleet is probably the only organization on either side which actually deserves to be called a 'fleet' at all. I would be astonished to discover that they could have suffered fewer than a million and a half human casualties between them, which is bound to have its own impact in the not-too-distant future, but the critical point is that Haven no longer has an effective battle fleet at all, and that Eighth Fleet is going to be anchored to Manticore for the foreseeable future."

He stopped speaking and stepped back from the lectern, and Albrecht took his place there once more.

"Obviously," he said quietly, "there are still a great many things we don't know. But what we do know clearly indicates that, as Benjamin's just said, the combat power of both the Manticoran alliance and the Republic of Haven has been effectivelyif temporarilywiped out."

His smile would have done any Old Earth shark proud.

"In some ways, the timing on this is highly inconvenient for us. In others, it couldn't be better. And however we want to look at it, it represents an opportunity, an opening, and a warning we dare not ignore.

"What Harrington apparently managed to do to the Havenites is a warning that this new targeting system of theirs, whatever it is, is even more effective than we'd assumed from the original reports on it. I think we need to take it as a given that they'll be fitting the same technology into all of their new construction as it comes off the ways. That means Manticore is in a position to recover quickly from its losses, despite their severity, and that the Manticoran Navy will find itself in a totally dominating position once it does. According to all of our sources, Haven still has more ships under construction than Manticore does, but after the results of the Battle of Lovat and this new battle in Manticore, it's obvious that those ships are simply going to be targets for the Manties unless Haven somehow miraculously acquires the same technology for itself in the next few months. Which means Manticore is now in a position to score an outright military victory over the Republic of Havenone so overwhelming they'll be able to dictate the terms of any peace they want to cram down Nouveau Paris' throatwithin the next six to ten T-months. And if that happens, especially given their new targeting system and the fact that they'll be free to concentrate on something besides Haven, they will pose an extremely serious threat to our own strategy."

The auditorium was deathly silent when he paused. He let the silence linger for a moment, then continued.

"By the same token, however, neither Manticore nor Haven has been this vulnerable since their first war began. For all intents and purposes, Haven has no fleet, and Manticore's only existing fleet cannot uncover the Manticore System. That will change whenorifthe new wave of Manticoran construction starts coming out of their shipyards. All of our estimates are that that will begin happening quite soon, although it's highly probable that the need to incorporate this new technology into their new construction is going to push back their delivery dates somewhat. That gap between now and the delivery, manning, and training of their new wall of battle represents our window of opportunity.

"And, purely coincidentally, since none of us could possibly have seen this coming, our other operations have combined with this to present us with an opening, as well. Some of you are already aware of the operation we're currently pursuing in the Talbott Cluster. For those of you not yet aware of it, I'll simply say that we've set events in motion to bring about a direct, shooting confrontation between the Manties and more than seventy Solarian ships of the wall. I suspect that when the Manties realize what's coming at them in Talbott, it's going to rivet their attention fairly firmly in that direction.

"There are some downsides to that from our perspective. Prior to the Havenite attack on Manticore, we had every reason to project that the Manties would hammer the Sollies into drifting wreckage. That, of course, was what we wanted, given our own plans for the League. In light of the body blow the Manty Navy's just taken, they may not be able to hit the Sollies hard enough to fully accomplish our objectives for us in that respect. Our projections still indicate a significant chance that they would be able to, however, and even if that portion of our original plans achieves only partial success, it should still be adequate to set the stage for the next phase.

"Of course, the Manties are not alone at this time. In addition to the Royal Manticoran Navy itself, the Manticoran Alliance can count on the Grayson Navy and the Andermani. Indications are that the Andermani took significant damage themselves at Manticore, and previous reports have indicated that their general warfighting technology is still lagging behind the rest of the Alliance's. Moreover, the Andermani have always been...pragmatic. They signed on to the Alliance to fight Haven; none of our analysts believes they'd be willing to take on the SLN, especially if they'd be doing so effectively single-handedly. Which means that who we really have to worry about are the Manties and the Graysons. Given time, Haven would undoubtedly become a threat once more, as well, but once Manticore and Grayson go down, Haven won't have that time."

He smiled again, and this smile was even colder than the one before.

"A very few of you are aware that Benjamin has been working for quite some time now on an operation codenamed Oyster Bay. Those of you who know about it, also know we're still far short of all of our projected readiness dates for mounting it. However, Oyster Bay was originally intended to strike Manticore, Grayson, and all of the major Havenite building centers simultaneously. It would be impossible for us to launch an operation on that scale before the Manties' new construction comes out of the yards. But the fact that that new construction is still in the yards, concentrated in a limited volume of space where we can find it and get at it, and without the ability to defend itself, represents an enormous force multiplier for the Oyster Bay resources already available to us. In addition, we don't need to strike the Havenites at this moment. Their wall of battle has been effectively destroyed; their construction rates are still much slower than those of the Manties or the Graysons; and they don't have this new targeting system the Manties have deployed. In other words, we can deal with them later, using more conventional tactics if we have to.

"So, what it comes down to is this. The Manties' new technology is more dangerous than ever, but their combat strength has been cut back to no more than forty to sixty ships of the wall, and they have to be reeling strategically from the losses they've already taken. Despite their new tech, they're vulnerable in a way they've never been before. We have the means already in place in or approaching Talbott to cut off that entire lobe of this new 'Star Empire' of theirs, and get them into the shooting war with the League we've always wanted. And, after discussing our own readiness states with Benjamin and Daniel, I believe we're in a position to launch a modified, downscaled Oyster Bay, targeted on Manticore and Grayson only, within six T-months."

He paused once more, looking out across the motionless bodies filling the deathly still auditorium.

"I know that after so many centuries, recasting and reorganizing our plans on such short notice is enough to make anyone nervous. But let's face it, we've always known that when the time actually came, we were going to have to change planning and operational tempos. In many ways, I would prefer to continue with our original timetable. Unfortunately, the opposition hasn't chosen to cooperate with us in that respect. In my judgment, and especially in light of the outcome of the Battle of Manticore, the threat Manticore represents to our entire strategy has just increased exponentially. We cannot allow them to consolidate a clear-cut military victory over Haven, especially if they simultaneously manage to deploy four or five hundred podnoughts equipped with whatever it was they used to smash the attack on their home system. The odds of their having the strength to move directly against us under those circumstances if they realize what's really happening would be unacceptable, despite anything the Sollies might do.

"It's distinctly possible that our estimates of the completion times on their new construction are overly optimistic. In fact, we've been picking up some indications to that effect. Collin will be more than willing to discuss those indications with you shortly. At the moment, however, they are only indications, and, as I say, the need for the Manties to refit with their new targeting systems will probably slow them down.

"All of that is true, but even if we catch only halfor even less than thatof their new wallers still in the yards, it would be enormously advantageous for us. And, of course, that completely ignores the damage to their basic military building and support infrastructure. Not only that, but even if a sizable portion of their fleet escapes destruction in Oyster Bay, they'll still find themselves in an all-out war with the Solarian League. I know what we all hope will happen within the League as a consequence of that, but even if it does, it will take time for the realization to filter through such a huge dinosaur's nervous system.

"In other words," he said slowly and clearly, "for whatever combination of reasons, the moment is now. There are risks involved, but there have been risks involved at every step for the last six hundred T-years, and the nature of the opportunity and the scale of the threat if we do not act now, are overwhelming. Which is the reason I called all of you here today. Calling this many of us together in one place is always a security risk, but I think the time has come for us to realize that we have to step out of the shadows.

"I fully realize that many of you have ongoing projects of your own which are going to be thrown into significant disarray by stepping up the timetable on Oyster Bay. One of the things we'll be doing after this briefing is breaking up into task groups responsible for examining all of those operations and evaluating how Oyster Bay will affect them. In some cases, we'll need to accelerate your projects to coordinate with Oyster Bay. For example, I think we need to look very closely at expediting the neutralization and reconquest of Verdant Vista. We always intended to do that before kicking off the full-scale Oyster Bay, and even with the scaled-down version we're talking about now, having that extra avenue into the Manties' and Havenites' backyard would be extremely valuable.

"In other cases, some of you may find that accelerating Oyster Bay will prove fatal to your objectives. I recognize that, and I'm afraid it's simply going to have to be the price we pay. In other words, there will be no repercussions for anyone who does find his or her areas of responsibility severely damaged as a consequence.

"And whether that happens or not, my decision has been made. Although we still have to complete the detailed plans for a scaled-back Oyster Bay, our studies indicate that it will be completely feasible for us to do so. And on that basis, I have instructed Benjamin to plan for an execution date of a modified Oyster Bay strike no later than six T-months from today."

Chapter Thirty-Two | Storm From the Shadows | Chapter Thirty-Four