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Chapter Fifty-One

"Well, Theresa?" Admiral Frederick Topolev said, looking at his chief of staff.

"Captain Walsh says we're ready to go, Sir," Commander Theresa Coleman replied. "And Felicidad's boards are all green."

Coleman nodded her head in the direction of Commander Felicidad Kolstad, Topolev's operations officer. It was odd, a corner of Topolev's thoughts reflected for far from the first time, that three of the four most important officers on his staff were not only all female, but all quite attractive, in their own very distinct ways. Although, perhaps, that attractiveness shouldn't have been such a surprise, since all of his officers were the products of alpha, beta, or gamma lines.

At the moment, Kolstad was concentrating all of her own attention on the readouts which showed the exact position of every unit of Topolev's task force, literally down to the last centimeter. All twenty of his ships were tractored together into two big, ungainly formations, nine hundred kilometers apart, as they floated with the closest thing possible to a zero velocity relative to one another and to the normal-space universe they'd left three months earlier.

"All right, people," Topolev said as calmly as he could, "let's do this."

"Yes, Sir," Coleman acknowledged, and passed the order to Captain Joshua Walsh, MANSMako's captain.

Absolutely nothing seemed to happen for the next two or three minutes, but appearances were deceiving, and Topolev waited patiently, watching his own displays, as Task Force One of the Mesan Alignment Navy translated ever so slowly and gradually back into normal-space.

This maneuver had been tested against the Mesa System's sensor arrays by crews using the early Ghost-class ships even before the first of theShark-class prototypes had ever been laid down, and Task Force One had practiced it over a hundred times once the mission had been okayed. Despite all that, Topolev still cherished a few reservations about the entire operation. Not about the abilities of his people, or the technical capabilities of his vessels, but about the timing.

And about the fact that we were never supposed to carry this out with the Sharks in the first place, Freddy, he reminded himself. Don't forget thatminor point! This was what the Leonard Detweilerclass was supposed to be for after the Sharks proved the basic concept. They weren't supposed to carry out the actual mission themselves; they were supposed to serve as training ships for the crews of the ships that would execute the mission.

He felt himself scowling down at his console as the familiar, worn-out thread of worry trickled through the back of his mind. He banished the expression quicklyit was hardly the confident, calm look his officers needed to see at this particular momentand wished he could banish the worry with equal speed.

No one seemed to have noticed his momentary lapse, and his own concern smoothed into concentration as readouts began to slowly flicker and change. Both groups of his ships slid gradually, carefully towards the hyper wall, making the slowest possible translation back into normal-space.

It was physically impossible for any ship to cross the hyper wall without radiating a hyper footprint, but the strength of that footprint wasto a large extent, at leasta factor of the base velocity the ship in question wanted to carry across the wall. The alpha translation's bleed factor was roughly ninety-two percent, and all of that energy had to go somewhere. There was also an unavoidable gravitic spike or echo along the interface between the alpha bands of hyper-space and normal-space that was effectively independent of a ship's speed. Reducing velocity couldn't do anything about that, but a slow, "gentle" translation along a shallow gradient produced a much weaker spike, as well.

No translation, however slow and gentle, could render a hyper footprint too weak to be detected by the sort of arrays covering the Manticore Binary System. Yet arrays like that, because of their very sensitivity, were notorious for throwing up occasional "false positives," ghost translations that the filters were supposed to strain out before they ever reached a human operator's attention. And the most common ghosts of all normally appeared as a hyper footprint and an echo, which was precisely what Topolev's maneuver was supposed to counterfeit.

Under normal circumstances, there would have been very little point to deceiving the arrays where a simple hyper footprint was concerned, given the fact that those same arrays would almost certainly have picked up the impeller wedge of any ship headed towards the system. Even the best stealth systems were unreliable, at best, against a sensor array which could measure eight or nine thousand kilometers on a side, and Manticore's long-range sensors were even largerand more sensitivethan that. Closer in, where the gradient of the stellar gravity well provided background interference and there were dozens of other gravity sources to clutter the landscape and turn the master arrays' very sensitivity against them, yes. The really big arrays were all but useless once you got within a light-hour or so of a system primary or a wormhole junction. That was where the shorter-ranged sensors aboard warships and recon platforms took over, and with good reason. But this far out was another matter entirely. Really good first-line stealth systems might manage to defeat the big arrays at this range, but no betting man would care to risk his money on the probability.

Fortunately, Frederick Topolev had no need to do anything of the sort.

It seemed to take much longer to complete the maneuver than it had in any of the training exercises, although the time displays insisted it really hadn't. Personally, Topolev suspected the damned clocks were broken.

"Translation completed, Sir," Lieutenant Commander Vivienne Henning, his staff astrogator, announced. "Preliminary checks indicate we're right on the money: one light-month out on almost exactly the right bearing."

"Good work," Topolev complemented her, and she smiled with pleasure at the sincerity in his voice. He smiled back, then cleared his throat. "And now that we're here, let's go someplace else."

"Yes, Sir."

The twenty Shark-class ships, each about midway between an old-fashioned battleship and a dreadnought for size, deactivated the tractors which had held them together. Reaction thrusters flared, pushing them apart, although they didn't seek the same amount of separation most starships their size would have. Then again, they didn't need that much separation.

A few moments later, they were underway at a steady seventy-five gravities. At that absurdly low acceleration rate it would take them a full ninety hoursalmost four T-daysto reach the eighty percent of light-speed that represented the maximum safe normal-space velocity permitted by available particle shielding, and it would take them another three T-weeks, by the clocks of the rest of the universe, to reach their destination, although the subjective time would be only seventeen days for them. Another ship of their size could have attained the same velocity in a little more than thirteen hours, but that was all right with Admiral Topolev. The total difference in transit time would still be under six daysless than four, subjectiveand unlike the units of his own command, that hypothetical other ship would have been radiating an impeller signature...which his ships weren't.

"What've you got for me, Clint?"

Lieutenant Clinton McCormick looked up from his display as his supervisor, Lieutenant Commander Jessica Epstein, appeared at his shoulder. McCormick liked Epstein, but he sometimes wondered why in the world she'd ever decided to pursue a naval career. Born and bred on Gryphon, the dark-haired lieutenant commander was an avid backpacker, camper, and birdwatcher. She also liked cross-country running and marathons, for God's sake! None of those hobbies were particularly well-suited to the constrained dimensions found on the insides of spacecraft.

At least her assignment to Hephaestus meant she spent her time someplace big enough that there were actually personnel tubes, not just treadmills, set aside for the use of people who wanted to jog or run, but she clearly still had a lot of excess energy to burn off. Most other supervisors would simply have requested that McCormick shunt his data to their console, but not Epstein. She wanted any excuse to get out of her command chair and move around, which explained why he found her peering over his shoulder at his display in the big, cool, dimly lit compartment.

"Probably nothing, Ma'am," he told her now. "Looks like a ghost to me, but it popped through the filters. Right here."

He used a cursor to indicate the faint, almost invisible light splotch, then zoomed in. At maximum zoom, it was evident that there were actuallytwo light splotches, each tagged with the time it had appeared, and Epstein grimaced at the telltale sign of a ghost footprint.

"I take it that this thing was strong enough the computers classified it as a genuine possible?" she said.

"That's what happened, all right, Ma'am," McCormick agreed.

"Well, better safe than sorry." Epstein sighed, then flicked her head in a sort of shorthand shrug. "I'll kick it upstairs, and they'll roust out some poor cruiser or destroyer division to go take a look."

"Hey, they ought to be grateful for us for finding them something to do instead of just sitting around in orbit," McCormick replied, and Epstein chuckled.

"If you think that's the way they're going to react, should I go ahead and tell them who spotted this in the first place?"

"Actually, now that I've thought about it, Ma'am, I think I'd prefer to remain anonymous," he said very seriously, and her chuckle turned into a laugh.

"That's what I thought," she said, then patted him on the shoulder and turned to walk back to her own command station.

Given the range on the possible footprint, the datum was over twelve hours old. Footprints, like gravitic pulses, were detectable by the fluctuations they imposed on the alpha wall interface with normal-space, which meant they propagated at roughly sixty-four times the speed of light. For most practical purposes, that equated to real-time, or very near to real-time, but when you started talking about the detection ranges possible to Perimeter Security Command's huge arrays, even that speed left room for considerable delays.

It seemed like an awfully long way to go for very little return. There'd been no sign of an impeller wedge, which meant no one was out there accelerating towards the star system. If there'd been an actual hyper footprint in the first placewhich Epstein frankly doubted was the caseit had to have been some merchantship coming in with appallingly bad astrogation. Whoever it was had popped out of hyper a full light-month short of his intended destination, and then promptly (and sensibly) popped right back into hyper rather than spending the endless weeks which would have been required to reach anyplace worthwhile under impeller drive. And when she did arrive in the star system, or at the Junction, she wasn't going to tell a single solitary soul about her little misadventure. That kind of astrogation error went beyond simply embarrassing to downright humiliating. In fact, if Astro Control had hard evidence of a Manticoran astrogator who'd been that far off, they would undoubtedly call her back in for testing and recertification!

But, as she'd said to McCormick, better safe than sorry. That could have been the motto of Perimeter Security Command instead of the official "Always Vigilant," and Epstein, like virtually all of the officers assigned to PSC, took her responsibilities very seriously indeed. They were there, maintaining their endless watch, precisely to make sure everyone knew they were, which meant no one would even make the attempt to evade their all-seeing eyes. Checking out the occasional ghost was a trivial price to pay for that.

Commander Michael Carus, the commanding officer of HMSJavelin, and the senior officer of the second division of Destroyer Squadron 265, known as the "Silver Cepheids," sighed philosophically as he contemplated his orders.

At least it was something to do, he supposed. And he wasn't surprised they'd gotten the call. The squadron had earned its name from its demonstrated expertise in reconnaissance and scouting, although he'd always wondered if it was really all that appropriate. Cepheids were scarcely among the galaxy's less noticeable stars, after all, and recon missions were supposed to be unobtrusive.

"Here, Linda," he said, handing the message chip to Lieutenant Linda Petersen,Javelin's astrogator. "We're going ghost hunting. Work out a course, please."

"To hear is to obey," Petersen replied. She plugged the chip into her own console, then looked over her shoulder at Carus.

"How big a hurry are we in, Skipper?" she asked.

"The datum is already almost thirteen hours old," Carus pointed out. "I feel sure our lords and masters would like us to go check it out before it gets a bunch older. So I'd say a certain degree of haste is probably in order."

"Got it, Skip," Petersen said and began punching numbers. A couple of minutes later, she grunted in satisfaction.

"All right," she said, turning her chair around to face Carus. "This is going to be a really short jump, Skipper. Not quite a micro-jump, but close, so if we build up too much velocity"

"Once upon a time, in the dim mists of my youth, all of, oh, three years ago, I was an astrogator myself, my daughter," Carus interrupted. "I seem to have a vague recollection of the undesirability of overrunning your translation point in a short hop rattling around somewhere in my aging memory."

"Yes, Sir," Petersen acknowledged with a grin. "Anyway, what I meant to say is that I'd just as soon not get much above forty-two thousand KPS as our base velocity. That gives us a total flight time of about three hoursa tad less than that, actuallyif we hit the theta bands."

Carus nodded. As he'd just said, he'd been an astrogator himself, once, and his own mind ran through Petersen' decision tree. Translating steeply enough to hit the theta bands in a relatively short hop like this would probably take a couple of hours off the ships' hyper generators and alpha nodes, but it wouldn't be too bad.

"Figure about five hundred gravities?" he said.

"That was what I was thinking. Take us about two hours to hit our transit velocity at that rate. I don't see any point pushing it harder than that and risking overrunning the translation point at the other end."

"Sounds good to me," Carus said, and turned to his communications officer.

Three hours later, the destroyers Javelin, Dagger, Raven, and Lodestone arrived at the ghost footprint's locus and began to spread out.

"You and Bridget take the outer perimeter, John," Carus said, looking at the trio of faces on his divided com display. "Julie and I will take the inner sweep."

"Understood," Lieutenant Commander John Pershing of theRaven acknowledged, and Lieutenant Commander Bridget Landry,Dagger's CO nodded.

"Which of us plays anchor?" Lieutenant Commander Julie Chase asked fromLodestone's bridge, and Carus chuckled.

"Rank hath its privileges," he said just a bit smugly.

"That's what I thought," she huffed, then smiled. "Try to stay awake while the rest of us do all the work, all right?"

"I'll do my best," Carus assured her.

"Almost exactly on schedule, Sir," Commander Kolstad observed. "Nice to have punctual enemies, I suppose."

"Let's not get too overconfident, Felicidad," Admiral Topolev responded, giving her a mildly reproving look.

"No, Sir," Kolstad said quickly, and he allowed his slight frown to turn into an encouraging smile, instead.

If he were going to be honest, Topolev supposed, he wasn't immune to the ops officer's sense of euphoria. In the roughly seventeen hours since their arrival, their velocity had increased to better than forty-five thousand kilometers per second, and they were almost a hundred and thirty-eight million kilometers closer to their destination. Under most circumstances, 7.6 light-minutes wouldn't have seemed like very much of a cushion against military-grade sensors. Especially not against Manticoran military-grade sensors. The Mesan Alignment had plowed quite a few decadesand several trillion creditsinto the development of its own stealth technology, however, and the MAN was at least two generations ahead of the Solarian League in that capability. Their analysts' best estimate was that their stealth systems were equal to those of Manticore at a minimum, and probably at least marginally superior, although no one was prepared to assume anything of the sort. But as the Manties' own Harrington had demonstrated at a place called Cerberus, the key element in any passive detection of a moving starship was its impeller signature...and Task Force One didn't have an impeller signature.

The Royal Manticoran Navy was the enemy, and Frederick Topolev was prepared to do whatever it took to defeat that enemy, but neither he nor Collin Detweiler's intelligence services were prepared to underestimate that enemy or permit themselves to hold mere "normals" in contempt. Especially not given the RMN's combat record over the last twenty years. The MAN was almost certainly the galaxy's youngest real navy, and its foundersincluding one Frederick Topolevhad studied the Manties, and their officer corps, and their battle record with painstaking attention. They'd learned quite a few valuable lessons of their own in the process, and the admiral knew the crews of those destroyers were firmly convinced they'd been sent out here to investigate a genuine ghost. If anyone had thought anything else, they wouldn't have sent just four destroyers to check it out. But he also knew that, routine or not, the crews of those ships were doing exactly what they were supposed to be doing. He recognized the standard search pattern they were running, knew their sensor crews were monitoring their instruments and their displays intently. If there was anything out there to find, those destroyers would find it.

Except that no one in the entire galaxy knew how to find it. Knew even how to recognize that there was something out there to find. And so, despite the absurdly low range, and despite his own ships' ridiculously low top acceleration rate, Topolev felt just as confident as he looked.

* * * | Storm From the Shadows | Chapter Fifty-Two