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"We can't wait!"

One inescapable consequence of the physics of the reactionless drive was that the instant a drive field went down, any velocity it had imparted went with it. The energy shedding process as the immense forces concentrated in the surface of the field's "bubble" dissipated was spectacular but harmless, and the ability to decelerate virtually instantaneously from .1 c to whatever a starship's relative motion had been at the moment the drive was engaged could be invaluable. There were, however, circumstances under which the velocity loss required some inventiveness.

And this, Andrew Prescott thought sardonically, watching Daikyu's master display with what he hoped was an air of calm confidence, is one of them.

The battle-cruiser slid stealthily through the system's outer reaches, creeping along (for her) at barely 15,000 KPS under cover of her ECM while passive sensors probed the vacuum like a cat's quivering whiskers. Her course carried her directly towards the Justin-Sarasota warp point, but that invisible dot lay two billion kilometers ahead, and she had no intention of approaching it any more closely than she must. While a coward would never have let himself be "volunteered" for his present mission, Andrew Prescott was no fool. He was confident he could spot and evade any enemies which weren't cloaked, but even though his scanners hadn't found any, the presence of cloaked Bug pickets was a certainty, and logic suggested there were more of them than there were of him.

He looked around the bridge once more, and his mouth quirked at the duty watch's tense body language. The last three weeks had been nerve-wracking for his subordinates, but those same weeks had held another, even deeper strain for him. The others were concerned primarily only with surviving; he was responsible for the success of his mission, as well.

His half-smile vanished at the thought, for if his ship had evaded all enemies, her consort Longsword hadn't. He couldn't be certain, but he suspected Captain Daulton had gotten too close to the warp pointeither to probe it or in an effort to get a courier drone to Sarasotafive days ago. Whatever his intention, Longsword had been detected, ambushed and destroyed with all hands. Daikyu had been just close enough to catch the omnidirectional Code Omega which confirmed her destruction, and Andrew Prescott was determined the Bugs would not get his ship, as well. Daikyu had a job to do, and to do it, she must survive.

But she also had to know what was going on andtrickier stillwhether or not what she knew was important enough to report. Just securing the data was hard enough, as his present elaborate maneuvers illustrated, but it was easier than deciding when that data was vital enough to risk passing it on. He'd made up his mind at the outset not to make any reports that weren't vital, and Longsword's destruction reconfirmed his determination, for there was no way the Bugs could miss a transiting courier drone. Even assuming they didn't manage to backtrack it to Daikyu, its mere existence would tell them Longsword hadn't been the only spy left to watch them, and their efforts to find Daikyu would redouble if they knew positively that she was there to be found. Worse, it might cause them to rethink whatever deployment had inspired him to send the drone in the first place, and unless he was in a position to see any changes they madeand report them to Sarasotathose changes could turn his original message into a trap.

The same considerations applied to recon drones. An RD was a low-signature object, with every built-in stealth feature the TFN could devise, but even the stealthiest drone's drive field could be spotted under the wrong circumstances, especially at close quarters, and he needed to get his RD right on top of the warp point. Redemption couldn't be risked on questionable data; he had to reduce the uncertainty factor to the absolute minimum. The problem was to somehow get the damned thing to point-blank range without using its drive, and he and Fred Kasuga, his exec, had wracked their brains to find a way. The actual suggestion had been Kasuga's, but like everything else, the final responsibility for its successor failurewas Andrew Foote Prescott's.

He grimaced at the familiar thought, then sighed. There were times he wished he'd told Murakuma to hand the stinking job to some other captain, but someone had to do it, and he'd accepted it because it had to be done. And, he admitted privately, because deep down inside he was convinced he could do it better than anyone else.

Well, Mister Wonderful, if you're so hot it's about time you prove it, he thought, and glanced at his astrogator.

"On profile?" he asked quietly.

"Yes, Sir. Coming up on release point in" Lieutenant Commander Belliard glanced at the countdown ticking away in a corner of his display "eight minutes."

"Good." Prescott looked at his tac officer. "Status on the bird, Jill?"

"Just completed the final diagnostic, Skipper." Lieutenant Commander Cesia~no popped a chip out of her console, loaded it into a message board, and handed it to him, and he glanced over it. Every system checkedas he'd expected from Cesia~noand he handed it back with a nod.

"Outstanding. Now if everything works, we may even get away with it."

The tac officer grinned, and he smiled back at her as he felt the rest of the bridge crew respond to his wry tone. Funny how even really bright people can be amused by stupid jokes, he thought, and settled into his command chair to watch the final minutes limp into eternity.

"Stand by for release," Cesia~no said finally, and Prescott tipped his chair back and steepled his hands across his flat belly. All he could really do at a moment like this was try even harder to radiate confidence, and

"Drone away!" Cesia~no said, and Prescott's eyes narrowed. The RD's low-signature materials made it all but invisible even to Daikyu's sensors, and it radiated no active emissions at all. Even its drive was downindeed, Cesia~no's missile crews had physically disabled it, just in caseand it stopped dead as it penetrated Daikyu's drive field. But a readied tractor jerked it instantly back into motion. It couldn't accelerate without a drive of its own, but the tractor tugged it bodily along, imparting the momentum of Daikyu's velocity. It couldn't maneuver or change course, but it also offered no betraying energy source to warn anyone it was coming, and its present heading would take it directly past the Sarasota warp point in almost exactly thirty-six hours at a range of less than fifteen light-seconds. And in the meantime...

"Execute breakaway," he said.

"Aye, aye, Sir," Belliard responded. "Executing now."

Cesia~no cut the tractor, and Daikyu looped up and away from the drone. The range opened gradually, and Prescott inhaled in satisfaction as it vanished from even Daikyu's ken four minutes later. It was unlikely in the extreme that anyone would see it coming, but that left the trickiest parts still to accomplish. First, Daikyu had to up her speed (and consequent chance of detection) enough to circle round the warp point to catch the drone at the appointed rendezvous on the far side, and then

And then, Andrew Prescott told himself, I have to decide if the result of the exercise is worth breaking silence to inform Sarasota. He grimaced again and looked at the chronometer. Three days. The time, he knew, was not going to pass quickly.

* * * | The Stars at War | * * *