Chapter Six


            Hexapuma's bridge was fully manned when Terekhov stepped onto it. The ship's casualties left her short of all the officers she truly needed, but the damage to Auxiliary Control and the backup bridge there had been far too severe to be repaired out of Hexapuma's shipboard resources. That meant there was no tactical crew to take over if anything happened to the bridge proper, but it also meant there was no need for an entire backup set of officers, either, which at least eased the pressure on the survivors. And that there was no reason Ginger Lewis shouldn't man her customary battle stations position in Engineering rather than haring off as acting exec to take charge of AuxCon.

            Midshipwoman Zilwicki stepped around Terekhov and walked quickly to her own position at missile defense. She seated herself at the elbow of Lieutenant Abigail Hearns, the Grayson born (and extremely youthful) young woman who had replaced Naomi Kaplan as Hexapuma's tactical officer.

            I wonder if any other heavy cruiser in the entire Queen's Navy's ever had a pair that young in charge of its tactical section? a corner of Terekhov's mind wondered. They can't have much more than forty T-years between them!

            Maybe not, he reflected, but the job that youthful pair had already done during the Battle of Monica left him without any qualms about relying on them now.

            "Any IDs?" he asked.

            "Not yet, Sir," Abigail replied without ever looking up from her own displays while long, slender fingers played across her console, working to refine the data. "Whoever it is, they opted for an almost polar approach, and we don't have any platforms in position for a close look at them. We're redeploying now, but it's going to take a while."


            Terekhov crossed to his own command chair, settled into it, and deployed its displays. There were several possible explanations for why someone might have opted to approach a star system from well above the ecliptic, but aside from gross astrogational error, very few of those explanations would have applied to merchant shipping. Most of a merchantship's likely destinations in any star system lay in the plane of the system's ecliptic, so translating into hyper in that plane and on the same side of the system as the destination in question required the shortest normal-space flight to reach it. Then, too, crossing a star's hyper limit from significantly above or below the plane of the ecliptic also imposed greater wear and tear — which equated to higher maintenance and replacement costs — on a freighter's hper generator and alpha nodes. That was true for warships, too, of course . . . but maintenance costs ran a poor second to tactical considerations where they were concerned.

            The most likely reason for a polar approach by a warship or a squadron of warships would be to avoid any nasty little surprises a defender might have attempted to arrange on a more conventional approach vector. The fact that it also gave better sensor coverage of the entire system (or, at least, of the entire ecliptic) wasn't anything to sneer at, either. A defender could still hide on the far side of the system's central star, or in the shadow of one or more of its planets or even moons, but it got harder against someone looking down — or up — from system north or south.

            "Sir," Abigail said after several more tense moments, "CIC's managed to isolate a count on the footprints. They make it ten. Best estimate is that five of them are in the four million-plus tonnage range."

            "Thank you." Terekhov's tone was calm, almost absent, as he studied his own repeater displays, and no one else had to know how difficult it was for him to keep it that way.

            If CIC's estimate was accurate, then five of the unknowns fell squarely into the tonnage bracket for ships of the wall. And if that was what they actually were, their arrival could be nothing but bad news for HMS Hexapuma and the rest of her squadron, because there weren't five Manticoran wallers in the entire Talbott Cluster. So if five of them were turning up now, they had to belong to someone else . . . like the Solarian League.

            Although, now that I come to think about it, just what the hell would Solly wallers be doing way out here? This is Frontier Fleet's bailiwick, not Battle Fleet's, so they shouldn't have anything bigger than battlecruisers in the vicinity, either. On the other hand, none of the local systems have anything the size of a dreadnought or a superdreadnought in inventory. So . . . .

            "Bring the Squadron to readiness, Mr. Nagchaudhuri," he said.

            "Aye, aye, Sir," the communications officer replied, and sent the order (which Terekhov was quite certain was thoroughly unnecessary) to the other three ships of his battered "squadron."

            The good news, such as it was and what there was of it, was that the missile pods deployed about his ships contained all-up Mark 23s, not the Mark 16s which normally lived in Hexapuma's magazines. The Mark 16's laser heads produced greater destructive power than almost anything else below the wall of battle, but they'd never been intended to take on superdreadnought armor. They could inflict a lot of superficial damage, possibly even cripple the heavier ship's sensor suites or rip up the vulnerable nodes of its impeller rings, but good as they were, they had far too little punch to actually stop a waller.

            But the Mark 23 was a very different proposition, he thought grimly. His control links were still too badly damaged to manage more than a few dozen pods simultaneously. Certainly he couldn't come close to matching the multi-thousand-missile salvos the Manticoran Alliance and the Republic of Haven had become accustomed to throwing at one another! But he could still fire almost four hundred attack birds in a single launch, and if those were Solly dreadnoughts or superdreadnoughts, they were in for an extraordinarily unpleasant surprise when three badly mauled cruisers and a single destroyer opened fire on them with that many capital missiles from well outside their own engagement range.

            And what if they are? that corner of his mind jeered. Even if you destroy all five of them outright, so what? Great! You'll begin the war with the Sollies with a resounding triumph. That should be plenty of comfort when two or three thousand ships of the wall head for Manticore with blood in their eyes!

            At least he'd have four or five hours before he had to start making any irrevocable decisions. Not that —

            "Sir, we're being hailed!" Nagchaudhuri said suddenly, spinning his chair to face his captain. "It's FTL, Sir!"

            Terekhov twitched upright in his own chair. If the unknowns were transmitting using FTL grav-pulses, then they damned well weren't Sollies! In fact, if they were transmitting FTL, the only people they could be were —

            "Put it on my display," he said.

            "Yes, Sir!" Nagchaudhuri said with a huge grin, and punched in a command.