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Chapter Forty-Nine

"Well, it would appear that our good friends in Chicago aren't in any tearing hurry after all, wouldn't it?"

Elizabeth Winton's tone was caustic enough to make an excellent substitute for lye, Baron Grantville thought.

Not that she didn't have an excellent point.

"They've only had our note for about ten days, Your Majesty," Sir Anthony Langtry pointed out.

He and Grantville sat in comfortable armchairs in Elizabeth's personal office, flanking her deck. They'd both eaten earlier, although each of them had a coffee cup, but the remains of Elizabeth's lunch had just been removed, and she continued to nurse a tankard of beer.

"Sure they have, Tony," she agreed, waving her tankard. "And just how long would it have taken us to respond to an official note alleging that we'd killed somebody's spacers with absolutely no provocation? Especially if they'd sent along detailed sensor data of the event...and informed us that they were sending a major naval force to find out what the hell happened?"

"Point taken, Your Majesty." Langtry sighed, and Grantville grimaced.

The Queen did have a point. In fact, she had a damned good one, he thought glumly. Assuming the League had decided to respond immediately, they could have had a reply back to Manticore at least four T-days ago. And even if they hadn't wanted to make a formal response that quickly, at the very least they could have acknowledged receipt of the note! The Foreign Office had Lyman Carmichael's confirmation of his meeting with Roelas y Valiente, and a memo summarizing the essentially meaningless verbal exchange which had accompanied it. But that was all they had. So far, the Solarian League's government had simply ignored the communication entirely. That could be construedno doubt with total accuracy, in this caseas a deliberate insult.

"Obviously they're trying to tell us something by their silence," he said, his tone almost as acid as Elizabeth's had been. "Let me see now, what could it possibly be...? That we're too insignificant for them to take seriously? That they'll get around to us in their own good time? That we shouldn't get our hopes up about any willingness on their part to acknowledge Byng's culpability? That it'll be a cold day in hell before they admit to any wrongdoing?"

"Try 'all of the above,' " Langtry suggested sourly.

"Well, it's stupid of them, but we can't exactly pretend it's unexpected, can we?" Elizabeth asked.

"No," Grantville sighed.

"Then I think it's probably time we thought about turning up the wick," Elizabeth told him just a bit grimly. He looked at her, and she shrugged. "Don't get me wrong, Willie. This isn't just the famous Winton temper talking, and I'm not eager to be sending them any fresh notes until we've heard back from Mike again. The last thing we need to do is sound like anxious little kids pestering an adult for a response! Besides, I've got a pretty strong suspicion that when we do hear from Mike, we're going to have all the justification in the world for sending them an even stiffer follow-up note. But it might just be time to consider going public with this."

"I think Her Majesty has a point, Willie," Langtry said quietly. Grantville switched his gaze to the Foreign Secretary, and Langtry snorted. "I'm no more eager to 'inflame public opinion' than the next man, Willie, but let's face it. As you just said yourself, four days is too long for a simple 'delayed in the mail' explanation. What it is is a calculated insult, for whatever reason they decided to deliver it, and you know how big a part perceptions play in any effective diplomacy." He shook his head. "We can't allow something like this to pass unanswered without convincing them they were right in their obvious belief that they can ignore us until they get around to bullying us into accepting their resolution of the problem."

"Agreed," Grantville said after a moment or two of silence. "At the same time, I'm still more than a little anxious over how the Solly media is going to react when they find out about this. Especially if they find out about it as 'unconfirmed allegations' from a bunch of neobarbs they already despise."

"That's going to happen in the end, anyway, Willie," Elizabeth pointed out.

"I know."

Grantville sipped coffee, then put his cup back on the saucer and rubbed an eyebrow in thought. Elizabeth was certainly right about that, he reflected. The first Manticoran reporters had been briefed by the Foreign Office and the Admiralty after they and their editors had agreed to abide by the government's confidentiality request. Legally, Grantville could have invoked the Defense of the Kingdom Act and slapped them with a formal order to keep silent until he told them differently, but that particular clause of the DKA hadn't been invoked by any prime minister in the last sixty T-years. It hadn't had to be, because the Star Kingdom's press knew it had been official policy over almost all of those T-years to be as open as possible in return for reasonable self-restraint on the 'faxes' part. He had no intention of squandering that tradition of goodwill without a damned good reason.

And, so far, the members of the media here in the Star Kingdom who knew anything about it were clearly living up to their end of the bargain. In the meantime, the first of their correspondents would have reached Spindle yesterday aboard an Admiralty dispatch boat. In another couple of weeks, those correspondents' reports would be coming back through the Junction to their editors, and it would be both pointless and wrong to expect their 'faxes not to publish at that point. So...

"You're both right," he acknowledged. "I'd like to hold off for a little longer, though. For two reasons. One is that they may actually have sent us a response that just hasn't gotten here yet. But the other, to be frank, has more to do with whacking them harder when we do turn it loose."

"Really?" Elizabeth cocked an eyebrow, and Ariel raised his head on his perch behind her chair. "I think I'm in favor of that," the Queen admitted after a moment, "but I'm not sure I see exactly how we're going to do it."

"I was thinking about that passage from St. Paul, but instead of doing good unto them in order to 'heap coals of fire upon their heads,' I'm in favor of using obvious restraint," Grantville said with a nasty smile. "What I suggest is that we hold off for another four days. That will just happen to have given the Sollies exactly twice as long as they really needed to acknowledge the receipt of our note, and we make exactly that point in our official news release. We explain that we'd delayed making the news public both to give us time to notify the next of kin of Commodore Chatterjee's personnel and to be sure that the Solarian League government had been given ample time to respond to our concerns. Now that they've had twice as long as needed for that, however, we feel no further point can be served by failing to make the news public."

"And waiting that long makes the point that we had a specific delay interval in mind all along," Langtry mused. "We're not just going ahead and calling in the newsies because were getting nervous about the Sollies' failure to respond."

"Exactly." Grantville nodded with a nasty smile. "Not to mention the fact that, as the real adults of the piece, we gave the petulant, spoiled children of the piece extra time before we blew the whistle on them. But, equally as the real adults of the piece, we are not going to allow the spoiled brats to hunker down forever in the corner with their lips poked out while they sulk."

"I like it," Elizabeth said after considering for a moment or two, and her answering smile was even nastier than Grantville's had been.

She sat for a moment longer, then took another sip from her tankard and tipped her chair back.

"All right. Now that we've got that out of the way, what do we want to do about Cathy Montaigne's suggestion that we beef up Torch's security? To be honest, I think there's a lot of merit to the idea, and not just because Barregos and Rozsak got hammered so hard. There're some good PR possibilities here, not to mention the possibility of easing into a closer relationship with the Maya Sector's navy, and it can't hurt where Erewhon's concerned, either. So"

"I can't say your report is very cheerful reading, Michelle," Augustus Khumalo said heavily. "On the other hand, I completely endorse all of your actions."

"I'm glad to hear that, Sir," Michelle Henke said sincerely. She and Khumalo sat facing one another in comfortable armchairs in his day cabin aboardHercules, nursing large snifters of excellent brandy. At the moment, Michelle was far more grateful than usual for the way the brandy's comforting warmth slid down her throat like thick, honeyed fire.

And I damned well deserve it, too, she thought, allowing herself another sip. Maybe not for what happened at New Tuscany, but definitely for putting up with Baroness Medusa's tame newsies!

Actually, she knew, the newsies in questionMarguerite Attunga of the Manticoran News Service, Incorporated; Efron Imbar of Star Kingdom News; and Consuela Redondo of the Sphinx News Associationhad been remarkably gentle with her. None of them had been gauche enough to say so, but it was obvious to her that they and their editors back home had been very carefully briefed before they were allowed in on what promised to be one of the biggest news stories in the Star Kingdom's history.

Especially now that things had just finished going so badly south in New Tuscany.

Unfortunately, they were still newsies, they still had their job to do, however nonadversarial about it they'd been this time, and she still hated sitting in front of their cameras and knowing that the entire Star Kingdom would be seeing and hearing her responses to their questions. It wasn't nervousnessor she didn't think it was, at least. Or maybe it was, just not on a personal level. What really worried her, she admitted finally, was that she'd say or do something wrong, and the combination of her naval rank and her proximity to the throne would elevate whatever mistake she made to the level of catastrophe.

"I agree that there's nothing particularly cheerful about the situation, Sir," she continued out loud after a moment, shaking offmostlyher reflections about potential media disasters with her name on them. "In fact, I'm beginning to wonder if it was such a good idea to sendReprise off to Meyers before we knew exactly what was going to happen at New Tuscany. Especially since I didn't manage to keep the Sollies from getting a dispatch boat out."

"That decision was Baroness Medusa's...and mine," Khumalo told her. "As I recall, you were against it at the time, too."

"Yes, Sir, but not for exactly the same reasons I'm regretting it now. I didn't want to telegraph anything to Frontier Security and Frontier Fleet. I wasn't worried about one of our ships sailing into a broadside of missiles the instant she showed her face!"

"Commander Denton is a competent, conscientious officer, and no fool," Khumalo pointed out. "I think he demonstrated that pretty clearly in Pequod, and he'll follow the established protocols. BeforeReprise ever gets into range of any Solarian ship, Mr. O'Shaughnessy will have delivered Baroness Medusa's note via com. And Commander Denton will also, by my specific instruction, carry out a Ghost Rider sweep of the system before Reprise even squawks her transponder. I authorized him to use his discretion if he happened to spot anything of concern, and he is specifically directed to remain outside weapons range of any Solarian unit until and unless Commissioner Verrochio has guaranteed our envoy's safety as per the relevant interstellar law."

"I know, Sir." Michelle's expression was grim. "What concerns me is that Verrochio might give that guarantee, then have Reprise blown out of space, anyway."

Despite everything that had already happened, Khumalo looked shocked, and Michelle smiled tightly at him.

"Mr. Van Dort and Commodore Terekhov and I have discussed this situation at some length, Sir. It's evident to us from what V'ezien and his people had to say that we're looking at a very complex, very expensive, and extremely far-reaching operation. I'd call it a conspiracy, except that it looks very much to usto meas if some outside party is pulling all the strings and most of the people actually carrying out the dirty work don't have any clue what the ultimate objective is. They may be conspirators, but they're not part of the same conspiracy as the puppeteer behind them, if you see what I mean."

"And all three of you believe the 'puppeteer' is Manpower?"

"We do, Sir."

"Well, so do Baroness Medusa and I," Khumalo told her, and smiled faintly at her surprised expression. "As I say, we've both read your report already, and we find ourselves in fundamental agreement with your conclusions. And, like you, we're deeply concerned about the apparent scope of Manpower's intentions and ambitions. It's completely outside anything we would have expected out of them, even after the business with Monica and Nordbrandt. And I find the degree of reach and influence required to position Byng as disturbing as you do. I think you're absolutely right; they are acting as if they thought they were a star nation in their own right."

"What's even more worrisome to me, especially where Reprise is concerned," Michelle said, "is that they'd managed to maneuver an officer like Byngone who would pull the trigger without even blinking when they presented the right scenariointo a critical position in New Tuscany. If they've done the same thing in Meyers, and if there's another Anisimovna placed to provide the right stimulus at the right moment, some 'out-of-control' Solly officer may go ahead and blow Denton away whatever guarantees Verrochio may have given. After all, they've already got two incidents. Why shouldn't they go for three?"

"Now that is an unpleasant thought," Khumalo said slowly. "Do you think Verrochio would be in on it?"

"I genuinely don't have a clue what to think about that particular aspect, Sir." Michelle shook her head. "We know he was more or less in their pocket last time around, so I don't see any reason to assume he's going to be pure as the driven snow this time. By the same token, though, they had V'ezien at least as firmly in their pocket this time around, and they obviously cut him entirely out of the loop when they punched Byng's buttons. I'd say they've shown a remarkably good grasp of what they could reasonablyand I use the term looselyconvince one of their tools to do. If they need something they're pretty sure she won't be willing to do, then they manipulate the situation without warning her until they get it. That's what happened to V'ezien. I don't doubt that he was entirely prepared for an incident between one or more of Byng's ships and our vessels, and I don't think he would have shed any tears about getting quite a few of our people killed. But there was no way he expected the incident to happen right there in the middle of New Tuscany, and he certainly never counted on having Giselle blown up to provide the necessary spark! Besides, he knows what the Star Kingdom's policy has always been when someone fires on one of our ships without provocation. Trust me, he didn't plan on doing the firing himself, and he sure as hell didn't plan on its happening right on his doorstep. So I don't see any reason to assume Verrochio would have to know what's supposed to happen if they really have arranged a Byng Mark Two in Meyers."

"Wonderful," Khumalo sighed.

"I'm afraid it gets even better, Sir. All they managed to give Byng was battlecruisers. This Admiral Crandall they were telling V'ezien about apparently has a lot more than that under her command."

"Do you think 'Admiral Crandall' really even exists?"

"That's a good question," Michelle admitted. "Anisimovna told V'ezien and the other New Tuscans about Crandall, but no one on the planet ever actually saw her or any of her ships. Given what happened toGiselle, it's pretty evident Anisimovna wouldn't have suffered any qualms of conscience over lying to them about a little thing like fifty or sixty superdreadnoughts. And I'd really like to think that it's one thing to get a Battle Fleet admiral with a pathological hatred for all things Manticoran assigned to a Frontier Fleet command but another thing entirely to get an entire fleet of Battle Fleet ships of the wall maneuvered this far out into the boonies. If Manpower has that kind of reach, if it can really move task groups and battle fleets around like chessmen or checkers, we've obviously been underestimating the hell out of them for a long, long time. And if that's true, who knows what else the bastards are up to?"

The two of them looked at one another unhappily for several silent minutes, then Khumalo sighed again, heavily. He took a generous sip of brandy, shook his head, and gave her a crooked smile.

"You and Aivars do have a way of brightening up my days, don't you, Milady?"

"I wouldn't say we do it on purpose, Sir," Michelle replied with an answering smile.

"I realize that. In fact, that's part of what makes it so...ironic." Michelle cocked an eyebrow at him, and he chuckled and a bit sourly. "For quite some time, I was convinced I'd been sent out hereand left herebecause the Cluster was absolutely the lowest possible priority for the Admiralty. In fact, to be honest, I still cherish rather strong suspicions in that direction."

He smiled more warmly at her, and she hoped she'd managed to conceal her surprise at hearing him say that. The fact that it accorded well with her own view of the situation made it even more remarkable that he'd brought it up. And especially that he'd done it with so little evident bitterness.

"In fairness," he continued, "I'm relatively sure the Janacek Admiralty sent me out here because of my connections with the Conservative Association and the fact that I'm related, although rather more distantly than you are, to the Queen. It put someone they considered 'safe' out here, and my connection to the Dynasty didn't hurt any in terms of local prestige. But they never showed any interest in providing Talbott Station with the ships required to provide any sort of real security in such a large volume of space. It was one of those 'file and forget' sorts of situations.

"Then the new Government came in, and I wondered how long I'd stay here until I got yanked back home. Politics being politics, I really didn't expect to be left out here for long, and it got more than a little unpleasant waiting for the ax to fall. But it became pretty evident that the Grantville Government had assigned a lower priority to Talbott than to Silesia, and, again, I couldn't really argue on any logical basis. So, here I sat in a humdrum, secondaryor even tertiaryassignment out in the back of beyond, with the firm expectation that the most exciting thing likely to happen was the chance to chase down an occasional pirate, while I waited to be relieved and banished to half-pay.

"Obviously," he said dryly, "that's changed."

"I think we might both safely agree that that's an accurate statement, Sir," Michelle said. "And, if you'll forgive me, and since you've been so frank and open with me, I'd like to apologize to you."

He quirked an eyebrow, and she shrugged.

"I'm afraid my evaluation of why you were out here was pretty close to your own, Sir," she admitted. "That's what I want to apologize for, because even if the logic that got you out here in the first place was exactly what you've just described, I believe you've amply demonstrated that it was a damned good thing you were here."

She held his eyes, letting him see the sincerity in her own, and, after a moment, he nodded.

"Thank you," he said. "And there was no need to apologize. Not when I'm pretty sure you were right all along."

There was another moment of silence, then he shook himself.

"Getting back to the matter of the hypothetical Admiral Crandall," he said in a determinedly lighter tone, "I have to say I'm rather relieved by one of the dispatches I received day before yesterday."

"May I ask which dispatch that may have been, Sir?"

"Yes, you may. That, after all,"this time the smile he gave her was suspiciously like a grin"was the reason I casually worked mention of it into the conversation, Admiral Gold Peak."

"Indeed, Admiral Khumalo?" she responded, raising her brandy snifter in a small salute.

"Indeed," he replied. Then he sobered a bit. "The dispatch in question informed me that, despite whatever is or isn't going on closer to home, Admiral Oversteegen and his squadron will still be arriving here in Spindle. In fact, I expect him within the next twelve to fifteen T-days."

"Thank God!" Michelle said with quietly intense sincerity.

"I agree. It's taken some time for them to feel comfortable enough back home after the Battle of Manticore to go ahead and release him, and I still don't have an exact projected arrival date, but he's definitely in the pipeline. I understand he'll be bringing another squadron ofSaganami-Cs with him, as well, and I'm sure we'll all be relieved to see them."

"Based on the Sollies' performance at New Tuscany, and what my people were able to see of their hardware on the prize ships, I'd say that with Michael and another squadron of the Charlies we ought to be able to handle just about anything below the wall they're likely to throw our way."

"I'm sure you would," Khumalo said even more soberly. "But I'm afraid that's sort of the point, isn't it? I'm not too worried about anything below the wall, either."

"What do you think happened at New Tuscany?" Lieutenant Aphrodite Jackson, HMS Reprise's electronic warfare officer, asked quietly.

Lieutenant Heather McGill, the destroyer's tactical officer, looked up from her book reader. She and Jackson were off duty, seated inReprise's wardroom. At the moment, the EWO's hands were busy building a sandwich out of the ingredients she'd collected from the mid-rats laid out as a buffet, and Heather smiled slightly. Promotions came quick in the electronics warfare specialty these days. That tendency was probably going to become only more pronounced as the new construction began to commission in Manticore, and Jackson had actually been a JG when she arrived aboard Reprise. In fact, her current rank was still technically "acting" (although everyone was certain it would be confirmed in due time). Which meant that although McGill was still short of her own thirty-fifth birthday (standard reckoning), Jackson was a good nine T-years younger than she was.

Yet there were times when Heather felt a lot more than nine years older than Jackson. The younger woman often seemed to suffer from the perpetual, ravenous hunger which afflicted all midshipmen, and there was a new-puppy eagerness about her. Maybe that was part of the reason Heather had more or less taken the electronics warfare officer under her wing off duty, as well as on.

"I don't know, Aphrodite," she replied after a moment. "I know what probably happened if that idiot Byng didn't do exactly what he was told to do, though."

Jackson' blue eyes looked up from her plate and darkened. Unlike Heather, she'd never personally experienced combat, and what had happened to Commodore Chatterjee's destroyers had hit her hard.

Well, Heather couldn't fault her for that. In a lot of ways, she supposed, she'd been lucky that she'd been far too busy during her own first taste of violence to think about it very much. Not that she'd felt particularly "lucky" at the time. Still, at least she'd been too...preoccupied during Esther McQueen's Operation Icarus to dwell on the horrors about her. She'd been on her snotty cruise at the time, almost ten T-years earlier, and there'd been very little time to think about anything besides doing her joband hopefully survivingas the sullen chain of Peep superdreadnoughts came over the hyper wall, missile batteries firing. The entire universe had seemed to go insane all about her as x-ray lasers chewed viciously into her ship and three of her fellow middies were torn apart less than fifteen meters from her own duty station.

But Aphrodite Jackson had never faced combat herself. And Commander Denton had quietly informed Heather that Lieutenant Thor Jackson had been Commander DesMoines' astrogator aboard HMS Roland, Commodore Chatterjee's flagship at New Tuscany. She hadn't seen the sights and smelled the smells Heather had, yet she obviously had an excellent imagination, and like every other member of Reprise's company, she'd seen the detailed tactical and visual imagery of the savage attack Tristram's platforms had recorded with such merciless accuracy. Even at second hand, the blinding speed with which those three destroyersand her big brotherhad been wiped away was its own sort of brutality, and Heather saw the ghosts of it behind her eyes even now.

"I...still can't really believe they're all gone, sometimes," Jackson said, speaking even more softly, and Heather smiled sadly.

"I know. And don't think it's something you'll 'get over.' Idiots tell you that, sometimes, you know, but what happened stays with you. And it doesn't get any easier the next time it happens, eithernot emotionally, anyway. You just have to figure out how to deal with the memories and keep going. And that's not very easy, either."

"How do you do it?"

"I don't really know," Heather admitted. "I suppose a big part of it is family tradition, actually, in my case." She smiled just a bit sadly. "There've been McGills in the Navy as long as there have been Saganamis, when you come right down to it. A lot of them have gotten themselves killed along the way, so we've had a lot of practiceas a family, I meandealing with that kind of loss. My mom and dad are both serving officers, too. Well, Mom's detached from Bassingford right nowshe's a psychologist, and the Navy has her working with Dr. Arif and her commission on treecatsbut Dad's a senior-grade captain, and according to his last letter, he's in line for one of the new Saganami-Cs. Between the two of them, they make a pretty good sounding board. And," her eyes darkened, "we all had to figure out how to cope when my brother Tom was killed at Grendelsbane."

"I didn't know thatabout your brother, I mean," Jackson said softly, and Heather shrugged.

"No reason you should have."

"I guess not."

Jackson looked down long enough to finish constructing her sandwich, then picked it up as if to take a bite out of it, only to lay it back down again, unbitten. Heather looked at her a bit quizzically, cocking her head to one side, and the EWO snorted softly.

"I'm dithering," she said.

"I wouldn't go quite that far," Heather disagreed. "You do seem to have something on your mind, though. So why don't you just go ahead and tell me what it is?"

"It's just" Jackson began, only to break off. She looked down again, staring at her own hands as her fingers methodically shredded the crust away from her sandwich's bread. Then she inhaled deeply and looked back up, meeting Heather's eyes squarely, and her own gaze was no longer hesitant. This time, it burned.

"It's just that I know I shouldn't, but what I really want is for Admiral Gold Peak to blow every one of those fucking bastards right out of space!" she said fiercely. "I know it's wrong to feel that way. I know most of the people aboard those ships didn't have any voice at all in what happened. I even know that the last thing we need is a war with the Solarian League. But still, I think about what happened to Thorto all those peoplefor absolutely no good reason at all, and I don't want the 'right response.' I want one that kills the people who killed my brother and his friends!"

She stopped speaking abruptly, and her lips thinned as she closed her mouth tightly. She looked away for a moment, then made herself smile. It was a tight, hard expressionmore of a grimace than a smile, reallybut at least she was trying, Heather thought.

"Sorry about that," Jackson said.

"About what?" Heather looked at her quizzically. "Sorry because you want them dead? Don't be ridiculousof course you want them dead! They killed someone you love, and you're a naval officer. One who chose a combat specialty. So should it really surprise you when your instincts and your emotions want the people who killed your brother to pay for it?"

"But it's not professional," Jackson half-protested. Heather quirked an eyebrow, and the EWO made an impatient, frustrated gesture. "I mean, I ought to be able to stand back and recognize that the best thing all around would be for us to settle this without anyone else getting hurt."

"Oh, don't be so silly!" Heather shook her head. "You do recognize that, that's the reason you're upset with yourself for wanting something else! And if you want me to tell you you're right to be upset with yourself for that, I'm not going to. Now, if you were in a position to dictate the outcome, and you let your emotions push you into a massacre that could have been avoided,then you'd have a problem. But you're not, and I suspect that if you were, you'd still do that 'right thing' you really don't want to happen. In the meantime, I'm sure a young, attractive, female officer of your precocious bent can go out and find all sorts of better things to spend your time regretting!"

"Coming up on the hyper wall, Sir," Lieutenant Bruner announced.

"Very well," Lewis Denton told his astrogator, and glanced at the quartermaster of the watch. "Pass the word, PO."

"Aye, aye, Sir," the quartermaster said, and pressed a button. "All hands," he announced over the ship's com system, "stand by for translation into normal-space."

Thirty-two seconds later, HMS Reprise's crew experienced the familiar but never really describable queasiness of an alpha translation as their shipcrossed the hyper wall and the G0 star called Meyers blazed twenty-two light minutes ahead of her. She'd come out almost exactly on the hyper limit, in a piece of virtuoso hyper navigation, and Denton smiled at Bruner.

"Well done!" he said, and the lieutenant smiled back at him as Reprise altered heading slightly, aligning her prow on the spot in space the planet Meyers would occupy in two hours and fifty-three minutes, and went to five hundred gravities of acceleration. Then Denton's smile faded and he turned his attention to Heather McGill.

"Deploy the platforms, Guns," he said.

"Aye, aye, Sir. Deploying the alpha platforms now."

Heather nodded to Jackson, who gave her readouts one last check, then pressed the key. Heather watched red lights flash to green and watched her own panel carefully.

"Alpha patterns have cleared the wedge, Sir," she announced a few moments later. "Stealth is active and deployment appears nominal." She glanced at a time display. "Beta platforms prepped for launch in...ten minutes and thirty-one seconds."

"Very good," Denton said again, and as he leaned back in his chair, his earlier smile was not even a memory. His imagination pictured the Ghost Rider platforms speeding outwards, peering at the emptiness around them, and his eyes were hard with the memory of the last Solarian-occupied star system a Manticoran destroyer force had entered.

Not this time, you bastards, he thought coldly. Not this time.


* * * | Storm From the Shadows | Chapter Fifty



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