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Chapter Sixty-Two

Admiral of the Fleet Sebastian D'Orville walked slowly onto his flag bridge, hands clasped behind him, expression suitably grave, and contemplated the perversity of the universe.

He'd spent his entire career in the service of the Crown, honing his professional skills, amassing seniority, proving his abilities. And what had all those decades of perseverance and professional excellence bought him? The most prestigious command in the Royal Manticoran Navy, of course.

Which meant he'd spent the dreary months since the Peeps' sneak attack doing absolutely nothing.

That's not true, Sebastian, and you know it, he scolded himself as he nodded pleasantly to the flag bridge personnel and crossed to the visual display. You've turned Home Fleet back into a proper weapon, after that asshole Janacek let training levels go straight into the crapper. And commanding the fleet charged with protecting the home star system hasn't exactly been the least stressful duty slot you've ever held down. 

Which hasn't kept it from being boring as hell, of course.

He chuckled inside at the thought, but that didn't make it untrue, and he suppressed an unworthy stab of envy as he thought of Honor Alexander-Harrington.

She always has had a way of putting your nose out of joint, hasn't she? he asked himself wryly. Starting with the way she blew your flagship out of space in that Fleet maneuver back when she was—what? Just a commander, wasn't it? He shook his head in memory. On the other hand, I don't suppose it's really fair to blame her for being so good. And she is awfully junior to you. Junior enough she gets the fun command—the one Admiralty House figures it can take chances with—while you get to be the Queen's one and only Admiral of the Fleet and stay stuck at home with the one command that can't be risked.

He chuckled mentally again, and then his thoughts saddened as he remembered James Webster. The two of them had been friends since Saganami Island, and it had been Webster's unenviable lot to command Home Fleet last time around. D'Orville remembered how he'd teased Webster at the time, and he snorted. What went round, came around, he supposed, and he'd clearly laid up enough bad karma to deserve what had happened to him.

Of course, there were compensations.

He turned from the visual display to regard the huge master plot, and allowed himself a feeling of satisfaction as he studied the icons of the new fortresses. A year ago, the Manticoran Wormhole Junction's permanent fortifications had been virtually nonexistent. In fact, they'd been so sparse he'd been forced to hang Home Fleet all the way out at the Junction to cover the critical central nexus of the Star Kingdom's economy against attack.

He hadn't liked that, but the Janacek Admiralty's failure to update the fortresses had left him no choice. And at least the Manticore System's astrography had let him get away with it for a while.

Classic system-defense doctrine, developed over centuries of experience, taught that a covering fleet should be deployed in an interior position. Habitable planets inevitably lay inside any star's hyper limit, and habitable planets were generally what made star systems valuable. That being the case, the smart move was to position your own combat power where it could reach those habitable planets before any attacker coming in from outside the limit could do the same thing.

Unfortunately, one could argue that the Wormhole Junction was what truly made the Manticore System valuable. D'Orville didn't happen to like that argument, but he couldn't deny that it had a certain applicability. Without the Junction, the Star Kingdom would never have had the economic and industrial muscle to take on something the Republic of Haven's size. And it was certainly the Junction which made the Manticore System so attractive to potential aggressors like Haven in the first place.

And therein lay the problem. Or, at least, one of the problems.

The Junction was almost seven light-hours from Manticore-A. Which meant any fleet stationed to cover the Junction was light-hours away from the planets on which the vast majority of Queen Elizabeth III's subjects happened to live. As the man charged with protecting those subjects, that was . . . inconvenient for one Sebastian D'Orville.

The Junction's position also put it over eleven light-hours from Manticore-B, which created Home Fleet's commander's second problem. But, fortunately, Manticore-B also lay far outside the resonance zone—the volume of space between the Junction and Manticore-A in which it was virtually impossible to translate between hyper-space and normal-space. Any wormhole terminus associated with a star formed a conical volume in hyper, with the wormhole at its apex and a base centered on the star and twice as wide as its hyper limit, in which hyper-space astrogation became less than totally reliable. The bigger the terminus or junction, the stronger the resonance effect . . . and the Manticoran Wormhole Junction, with its multiple termini, was the largest ever discovered. The resonance zone it produced was more of a tsunami, and it didn't just make astrogation "less than reliable." It made it the next best thing to flatly impossible. Any translation out of the resonance zone risked serious astrogational uncertainty, and any translation into the zone would have been no more than a complicated way to commit suicide. But since the Manticore Binary System's secondary component lay outside the resonance (and would for the next few hundred years or so), Home Fleet had actually been closer from its position covering the Junction—in terms of travel time—to Manticore-B than to Manticore-A.

As for Manticore-A, the planets of Manticore and Sphinx—Home Fleet's major inner-system defensive obligations—had been well inside the same resonance zone when he took up command of Home Fleet, with Manticore, with its smaller orbital radius, steadily "overtaking" Sphinx as it moved towards opposition. Each planet spent half its year inside the zone, and Sphinx's year was more than five T-years long. That meant it took thirty-one T-months to cross through the RZ, and it had been almost in the middle of the zone when he took up his command.

Actually, Sphinx's position was the third, and in many ways worst, problem confronting any Home Fleet CO, because the planet's orbital radius was only 15.3 million kilometers—less than nine-tenths of a light-minute—shorter than the GO primary's twenty-two-light-minute hyper limit. In an era of MDMs, that meant an attacker could translate out of hyper with the planet, and its entire orbital infrastructure, already fifty million kilometers inside his missile range. Even a conventionally armed fleet, with old-style compensators, and a relative velocity on translation of zero, could have achieved a zero/zero intercept with the planet in under an hour. A fleet of superdreadnoughts with modern Alliance compensators could have done it in barely fifty minutes.

Which, all things considered, didn't leave the system defenses' commander a lot of time in which to react.

But with Sphinx so deep inside the zone, he'd actually had much more defensive depth. He'd still been able, at least in theory, to cover both habitable planets from his position at the Junction, since he could have micro-jumped away from the Junction (and the primary) and then jumped back in close enough to come in behind any fleet moving in on either planet. He would have found it difficult to actually overtake the attackers, perhaps, but the range of his MDMs would have compensated for that. And because it would have taken the attacker longer to reach engagement range of his target, Home Fleet had had time to make those jumps. In theory, at least.

But theory, as Sebastian D'Orville had learned over the years, had a nasty habit of biting one on the backside at the most inopportune moment. That was why he'd never really been happy with his enforced deployment. And now that Sphinx would clear the RZ in less than four T-months, he was even less comfortable with hanging his fleet on the Junction. The planet had lost too much of the additional "depth" the zone had created for him, and even in a best-case scenario, his need to make two separate hyper translations from the Junction would have placed him well astern of his hypothetical attacker, since he couldn't make even the first of them until after the aggressor force arrived and started accelerating towards its targets.

In effect, Home Fleet had been isolated from the rest of the inner-system's defenses, because any attacking fleet would be between D'Orville's ships and the fixed defenses which were supposed to support it. And that attacking fleet would have been able to begin building an acceleration advantage towards its objectives while Home Fleet was still getting itself organized.

Under those circumstances, an attacker without the strength to defeat both Home Fleet and the inner defenses together might well still have the strength to turn on Home Fleet—which would have no option but to pursue him—and crush it in a separate, isolated engagement.

Which was why D'Orville was so relieved the new forts were finally operational. Much smaller than the old prewar fortifications which had been decommissioned to provide the manpower to crew new construction, they were actually more powerfully armed, thanks to the same increased automation and weapons developments which had gone into the Navy's new warships. And each of those forts was surrounded by literally hundreds of missile pods, with the fire control to handle stupendous salvos. It would take an attack in overwhelming force to break those defenses, which had freed D'Orville to move Home Fleet closer to a more traditional covering position, locating his command in Sphinx orbit.

His new station provided Sphinx with badly needed, close-in protection. And with the planet of Manticore still trailing its orbital position, and so still deeper into the zone and (as always) further inside the hyper-limit, he was actually better placed to cover Manticore than he would have been anywhere else. Any least-time course to Manticore would require the attacker to get past his position at Sphinx, first, and he could easily intercept the opposing fleet short of its objective.

The solution wasn't perfect, of course. For one thing, the move left Manticore-B and its inhabited planet of Gryphon more exposed than it had been when Home Fleet was stationed at the Junction, since D'Orville would now have to get clear of the zone before he could hyper out to the system's secondary component. But the extra danger wasn't very great, now that Sphinx was within eight light-minutes of the zone's boundary. And more vulnerable or not, Gryphon had the smallest population and industrial base of any of the Star Kingdom's original inhabited worlds. If something had to be exposed, cold logic said Gryphon was a better choice than the other two planets, and the Admiralty had compensated as best it could by assigning the buildup of Manticore-B's fixed defenses a higher priority than Manticore-A's. In fact, Manticore-B's forts and space station were already refitting with Keyhole II and would begin deploying the first of the system-defense Apollo pods within the next three weeks, on the theory that it would need them worse since it couldn't call as readily on Home Fleet's protection.

And once Manticore-B's defenses were fully up to speed, Sphinx would receive the next highest priority, despite the fact that the planet of Manticore had the largest population and the greatest economic and industrial value of any of the binary system's worls. Like Manticore-B, Sphinx was simply more exposed than Manticore.

D'Orville agreed with both those decisions, although that didn't mean he was happy about the policy they implied. It was merely, in his opinion, the best of several options, none of which could have been completely acceptable. And at least the Strategy Board's decision that Gryphon would have to look after itself instead of relying upon immediate intervention by Home Fleet had enormously simplified D'Orville's responsibilities and problems.

But today, Sebastian D'Orville and half of Home Fleet were back out at the Junction, waiting. Waiting not for an enemy attack, but to welcome back two of the Manticoran Navy's own.

He had to admit that he felt a twinge or two of anxiety over taking his command so far from its new inner-system station, but his qualms were tiny things. And given the way the Solarian League seemed to be pulling in its horns over events in the Talbott Cluster, the entire Star Kingdom owed a stupendous debt of gratitude to the two ships who were coming home today. Queen Elizabeth and her government had chosen to acknowledge that debt, and Sebastian D'Orville was out here to do just that.

He glanced at the date/time display, and nodded in satisfaction. Another thirty-two minutes to go.

* * *

Honor Alexander-Harrington glanced at the date/time display, and nodded.

If she'd had the choice, she would have loved to have been back in the Manticore System in about half an hour. Unfortunately, she didn't really have that choice. Vizeadmiral Lyou-yung Hasselberg, Graf von Kreuzberg, and the leading elements of his Task Force 16, IAN, had arrived at Trevor's Star less than a week earlier. Two of his three battle squadrons were at full strength, and the Imperial Andermani Navy, like the Republic of Haven's, still used eight-ship squadron organizations. His third battle squadron remained short one of its four divisions, but what had already arrived had added twenty-two SD(P)s—every one of them Keyhole II-capable—to Eighth Fleet's order of battle.

Unfortunately, none of those ships had ever functioned as part of Eighth Fleet before, and eleven of them had finished their post-refit working up exercises less than two weeks before they deployed forward to Trevor's Star. And, just to add a little more interest to the situation, Vizeadmiral Bin-hwei Morser, Graffin von Grau, Hasselberg's second-in-command, was not one of the Royal Manticoran Navy's greater admirers. In fact, she was a holdover from the same anti-Manticoran faction within the IAN which had produced Graf von Sternhafen, who'd done so much to help make Honor's last duty assignment . . . interesting.

The rest of Hasselberg's senior flag officers seemed much more comfortable with the notion of their Emperor's decision to ally himself with the Star Kingdom, and she suspected that Chien-lu Anderman had had more than a little to do with their selection for their present assignments. Morser obviously had patrons of her own, however, since she'd received command of the very first squadron of refitted Andermani SD(P)s. And, Honor admitted just a bit grudgingly, she also appeared to be very good at her job. It was just unfortunate that she found it difficult to conceal the fact that she would have preferred to be shooting at the rest of Honor's fleet, rather than accepting her orders.

Still, the graffin's attitude only lent added point to the need to get TF 16 fully integrated into Eighth Fleet as quickly as possible. And the best way to do that was to drill the Andermani ships in conjunction with the rest of her units.

At least all of the arguments in favor of using Trevor's Star as a training site still held good. And Vizeadmiral Morser's professionalism was responding to the challenge. She couldn't have enjoyed admitting that the Andermani simply weren't quite up to Manticoran or Grayson standards of proficiency, but neither could she deny it. Of course, the IAN hadn't spent most of the last twenty T-years fighting for its survival against the People's Republic of Haven, either. A navy either got very, very good under those circumstances, or else the star nation it was charged to defend got very, very dead, and both Grayson and the Star Kingdom were still here. The complacency the Janacek Admiralty had allowed to blunt the RMN's finely honed edge during the cease-fire had been a major factor in what happened during the Republic's Operation Thunderbolt, but most of it had been scoured away by the grim sandblaster of combat. The less than brilliant but politically acceptable flag officers and captains Janacek had appointed to sensitive positions had been shuffled aside or eliminated in the opening battles, and the officers who remained had been given a rather brutally pointed refresher course.

The bottom line, though, was that the Manticoran and Grayson navies were the explored galaxy's most experienced, battle—hardened fleets. Their margin of superiority over the revitalized navy of Thomas Theisman was far narrower than it once had been, but it remained the Alliance's most significant advantage. And the Andermani, although they were very, very good by any less Darwinian standard, simply weren't up to their allies' weight.

Yet, at least.

Hasselberg appeared to have understood that even before his arrival, which was another bit of evidence that Herzog von Rabenstrange had handpicked him for his assignment. Hasselberg clearly intended to bring his command up to Manticoran standards as quickly as possible, and if any of his subordinates—including Vizeadmiral Morser—had entertained any reservations about that, they were smart enough to keep those reservations to themselves. And, in all fairness, they'd buckled down hard.

They still had a way to go, though, which was the real reason Honor had turned down Admiral D'Orville's invitation to join him aboard HMS Invictus for today's ceremony. She'd scheduled yet another in her series of increasingly rigorous training problems for Eighth Fleet, and she couldn't justify giving herself the day off while she made everyone else work.

She chuckled quietly at the thought, and Mercedes Brigham—standing beside her and watching the master plot with her—looked at her with a raised eyebrow.

"Nothing, Mercedes." Honor shook her head. "Just a passing thought."

"Of course, Your Grace."

Brigham's slightly mystified tone almost set Honor off on another chuckle, but she suppressed the temptation sternly.

"Anything yet from Vizeadmiral Hasselberg, Andrea?" she asked instead, turning her head to look at Jaruwalski.

"No, Your Grace. I think it's still a little early. His recon drones can't be fully into position yet."

"I realize that," Honor said quietly, pitching her voice low enough so that only Jaruwalski and Brigham could hear her, "but his first wave platforms have to be close enough by now to be picking up at least the outer edge of Alistair's screen."

"You think he's waiting until he has a more fully developed picture?" Brigham asked.

"I think so, yes." Honor nodded. "The question is why he's waiting. Is it strictly because he wants to watch the situation develop a little more, get a better feel for it himself, before he reports it to the flagship? And if that's why he's waiting, is it because he's exercising intelligent initiative or because he resents being tied so tightly to our apron strings?"

"And which do you think it is, Your Grace, if I can ask?"

"Honestly, if it were Morser, I'd call it a toss-up," Honor admitted. "In this case, though, I think it's probably the former. And that's good. But we need to find a way to tactfully suggest to him that it's more important to inform us immediately, even if he has only partial information."

"Kapitan der Sterne Teischer is a tactful sort," Brigham said. "I could probably have a little discussion with him—one chief of staff to another. He's pretty good at post-exercise analysis, too."

"That's an excellent idea, Mercedes," Honor approved. "I'd much rather have any suggestions come to him in-house, as it were, rather than sound as if I'm stepping on his toes. Especially when he's pulling out all the stops to make this work the way he is."

"I'll see to it, Your Grace."

* * *

"Astro Control reports that Hexapuma and Warlock are making transit, Admiral," Lieutenant Commander Ekaterina Lazarevna, Sebastian D'Orville's communications officer announced.

"Very good." D'Orville turned from the main plot to the screen which showed his flagship's captain. "Let's get it right, Sybil," he said.

"We'll get it done, Sir," Captain Gilraven assured him.


"Junction transit completed, Admiral," Lazarevna said.

"Very good. Send the first message, Katenka."

"Aye, aye, Sir. Transmitting . . . now."

D'Orville watched his chrono carefully as his message congratulating Aivars Terekhov and his surviving personnel for their accomplishments in the Battle of Monica flashed across to HMS Hexapuma. The two damaged heavy cruisers' icons blinked on his plot, accelerating slowly out of the Junction, and D'Orville felt something he hadn't felt since the day he'd watched the broken and crippled light cruiser HMS Fearless limp painfully home from Basilisk station.

Odd, he thought. The second time, and Warlock was involved in both of them. But a bit differently this time. I'm glad. She needed her name cleared.

"Now, Sybil," he said quietly, and the hundred and thirty-eight starships and seventeen hundred LACs of the Home Fleet detachment brought up their impeller wedges in perfect sequence. The impeller signatures radiated outward from Invictus, but Invictus wasn't in the traditional flagship's slot at the center of that stupendous globe.

That space was occupied by HMS Hexapuma and HMS Warlock.

"Second message for Hexapuma," Fleet Admiral Sebastian D'Orville said quietly. "'Yours is the honor.'"

"Aye, aye, Sir," Lazarevna said, equally quietly, and Home Fleet moved steadily in-system around the two battered, half-crippled heavy cruisers which had saved their Star Kingdom from a two-front war it could not possibly have won.

* * *

"Admiral Fisher's task force just came in, Sir," Captain De-Laney said.

"I see. Thank you, Molly. I'll meet you on Flag Bridge in fifteen minutes."

"Yes, Sir. DeLaney, clear," she said, and broke the com connection.

Lester Tourville sat at his desk for several seconds, looking around his day cabin, feeling the massive megaton bulk of RHNS Guerriere around him. At that particular moment, his flagship felt oddly small, almost fragile.

He stood and walked across to the view screen configured to show him the diamond-studded depths of space. He gazed deep into it, seeing the dim sparks of reflected light from the nameless star system's red dwarf primary.

Each of those specks of light was a starship, most of them as massive and powerfully armed as Guerriere herself. Now that Fisher had arrived on schedule, the reinforced Second Fleet was complete, as was Admiral Chin's Fifth Fleet, and both were under Tourville's command. Three hundred and thirty-six SD(P)s, the flower of the reborn Republican Navy, and by any standards, the most powerful battle force ever assembled for a single operation by any known star nation. They lay all about him, floating in distant orbit around the star system's second gas giant, waiting for his orders, and he felt a shiver of apprehensive anticipation flow through him.

I never really thought it would all come together, even after Tom told me. But it has. And now it's all mine.

It should have been Javier Giscard's command, he thought. Javier should have had Second Fleet and overall command, while he had Fifth, but Javier was gone, and so the task had fallen to him.

He thought about his orders, the different sets of contingency instructions, the planning and coordination and incredible industrial effort his huge fleet represented. The Republic's defenses had been unflinchingly reduced everywhere, despite the Manties' widespread scouting activities. Hopefully, however, the enemy wasn't aware of that. Not yet. All of his units had been left where they were, each drilling relentlessly in the simulators, until the operation actually began expressly to keep the Manties blissfully unaware of what was coming.

He hadn't liked that. In fact, it was the one part of the operational plan which he'd actually protested. Simulations were all well and good, but no one had ever put a fleet this size together before. He'd needed to practice coordinating with Chin, needed to drill the actual units, put the subunit commanders physically through their paces where he could watch them, evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. He'd asked—almost pleaded—for the chance to do that, but his request had been turned down. And even though he was the one who'd asked for it, he'd understood why Thomas Theisman had refused it.

It wasn't because Theisman didn't understand exactly why Tourville had made the request in the first place. It wasn't because Theisman disagreed with him, either. But for Operation Beatrice to succeed, complete strategic surprise was an absolute prerequisite. Indeed, surprise was so important it had trumped even the need to conduct extensive hands-on training exercises. Given the activity of the Manty scouting forces, they'd dared not withdraw their picket forces from the stations closest to the enemy early. Even more, they hadn't dared to combine Tourville's units somewhere where a Manty reconnaissance drone might have picked them up and started their Office of Naval Intelligence wondering just why the Republic might have concentrated such a huge percentage of its total battle fleet in one place.

But we still have over a week before we sortie, plus the transit time, he thought. It won't be as good as I would have preferred, but we can do a lot in that much time. And we'd better, because at the end of it . . . 

He let the thought trail off, because he didn't really know what would be waiting "at the end of it."

Except for the biggest naval battle in human history, of course.


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