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CHAPTER EIGHT: Ride Boldly

Rear Admiral Andrew Prescott had discovered that he hated survey missions. This was only the third he'd commanded, but that was enough to know that he hated survey missions.

Someone had to command them, he admitted, and the ships assigned to them these days certainly made them big enough to be a rear admiral's responsibility. And the rise to flag rank which had made him a candidate for the job, while less meteoric than his brother Raymond's explosive elevation, was both professionally satisfying and a mark of his superiors' confidence in him. For that matter, his assignment to Survey Command at this particular point in the war was an enormous compliment . . . looked at in the proper light, of course.

He sighed and tipped back in his command chair on TFNS Concorde's quiet, efficiently functioning flag bridge while he contemplated the peaceful imagery of the main plot. They were nine months out of System L-169, floating near yet another anonymous, uncharted flaw in space, and he'd spent a lot of time on Flag Bridge over that long, weary voyage. The flotilla had charted sixteen new warp points during that time, including the present object of its attention, which wouldn't have been all that many for a peacetime cruise of that length but was quite an accomplishment under wartime conditions of stealth and caution. Yet despite their achievements, the peculiar amalgam of tension, concentration, and utter boredom of their mission so far would have been impossible to beat. It was far harder than a civilian might have believed for people to remain alert and watchful-even deep in unexplored, potentially hostile space for weeks on end-when absolutely nothing happened.

Of course, boredom is a lot better than what we'd be feeling if something did happen, he reminded himself, and let his eyes linger on the icons representing his command. Every unit was cloaked, and Concorde's sensors couldn't actually have found them all, even knowing where to look, but CIC managed to keep track of all their positions anyway.

Survey Flotilla 62 boasted twenty-three ships, from Concorde and the Borsoi-B-class fleet carrier Foxhound all the way down to four Wayfarer-class freighters and the escort cruisers Dido and Yura. They were all fast ships, too, and the flotilla's nine battlecruisers and three carriers represented a powerful striking force. But they weren't supposed to do any striking. If they were forced to, then their mission would have failed in at least one respect, for all this effort and tonnage truly focused on insuring that the five Hun-class survey cruisers and their crews of highly trained specialists were allowed to do their jobs unmolested and undetected, and everyone knew it. Especially the aforementioned specialists, who somehow managed (solely out of deeply ingrained professionalism and courtesy, no doubt) not to look too obviously down their noses at the ignorant louts from Battle Fleet assigned to do unimportant things like keeping the Bugs off their backs.

Prescott's lips twitched in a faint smile. It was possible, he supposed, that he was being just a bit overly sensitive. Under more normal circumstances, he suspected he would actually have enjoyed Survey Command. Even under those which presently applied, he wasn't completely immune to the wonder and delight of going places and seeing things no human could possibly have seen ever before. Unfortunately, circumstances weren't normal. Worse, he was one of those ignorant louts the specialists deprecated (although very respectfully in his case), for he'd never served aboard a single Survey Command vessel before he was assigned to ramrod an entire flotilla.

If it hadn't been for the war-and the Bugs-he probably would have repaired that omission in his resum'e by now. The Prescott family had a long, distinguished tradition of service to the Federation's navy. Indeed, there'd been Prescotts in the TFN for as long as there'd been a TFN, and before that they'd served in the pre-Navy survey ships of the Federation, and before that they'd served in wet-navy ships clear back to the days of sail and muzzle-loading cannon. In many ways, the Prescotts and the handful of families like them were anachronisms in a service whose officer corps took self-conscious pride in its tradition as a meritocracy. Ability was supposed to matter more than family connections, and by and large, it did. Yet everyone knew there were also dynasties within the Navy, families whose members were just a bit more equal than anyone else.

Andrew Prescott had always known it, at least. There were times he'd felt guilty over the inside track an accident of birth had bestowed upon him, yet in an odd way, that advantage had actually conspired to make him a better officer than he might otherwise have been. Family tradition was a powerful force, and generation after generation of Prescotts had simply taken it for granted that their sons and daughters would carry on their own tradition and excel in the process. Andrew's parents had been no exception to that rule, and there'd never been any question in anyone's mind, Raymond's and his own included, what the two of them would do with their lives. Yet the knowledge that the name he bore might give him an unfair advantage or let him get by with less than the maximum performance of which he was capable (and, worse, that some among his fellow officers would think it might, whether it did or not) had given Andrew a special incentive to prove it hadn't. He'd entered the Academy determined that no one would ever have the slightest reason to believe he hadn't earned whatever rank he might attain, and that determination had stayed with him ever since.

At the same time, he'd been aware for years that he was being groomed for eventual flag rank, and in the peacetime TFN, that had meant at least a brief stint attached to Survey Command. An admiral was supposed to have well-rounded experience in all phases of the Navy's operations, which meant that on his way to his exalted status he had to have his ticket punched in battle-line and carrier ops, survey missions, dirtside duty with BuShips and BuWeaps, War College duty, JCS staff duty, and probably some diplomatic service, as well. As both a Prescott and an officer who'd demonstrated high ability (and ambition), Andrew had been in line for the appropriate ticket punching when the Bugs appeared. He'd commanded the battlecruiser Daikyu, and he'd already known his next command would be the Borsoi-class fleet carrier Airedale, after which he'd been almost certain to move over to Survey for at least one tour with one of the smaller prewar flotillas. Not as its CO, of course. That was a job for the specialists who spent virtually their entire careers in Survey. But he would have commanded one of the survey cruisers, which would have given him some hands-on experience with the job. From there, he would probably have moved up to take over a destroyer squadron or a cruiser division and might well have finished up with a second Survey tour as a flotilla's tactical coordinator, in command of its attached escort of "gunslingers."

But all nonessential personnel reassignments, including his transfer to Airedale, had been frozen when the sudden explosion of combat rocked the Navy back on its heels. That had been fortunate in many ways, given Airedale's destruction with all hands at Third Justin, but it also meant that, as the war's enormous casualty toll shattered the Bureau of Personnel's neat, peacetime training and promotion plans, Prescott never had gotten a carrier command. On the other hand, he'd been kicked up to commodore, despite his lack of carrier experience, at least eight years sooner than could possibly have happened in time of peace, and he'd made rear admiral by forty, barely two years after that. He could wish his indecently rapid promotions owed less to the old tradition of stepping into dead men's shoes, but he was scarcely alone in that. And by prewar standards, virtually all of his new-minted flag officer colleagues and he were drastically inexperienced for their ranks. Ticket punching had been placed on indefinite hold, because the holders of those tickets had suddenly found themselves faced with doing something no Navy officer had done in sixty years: fighting an actual war.

But it also meant he'd never gotten that assignment to Survey, either, and more than a few Survey officers (including, unfortunately, Captain George Snyder, who commanded SF 62's Huns from TFNS Sarmatian) deeply resented being placed under the command of someone who had no exploration experience of his own. Snyder was at least professional enough to keep his resentment under control and accept Prescott's authority gracefully, but he was Survey to his toenails. He might be forced to admit the force of the logic which put experienced Battle Fleet officers in command of flotillas which might run into Bugs at any moment, yet that didn't mean he had to like it. And, truth to tell, Prescott had to admit that there was at least a little reason on Snyder's side. Survey work was a specialist's vocation, and it was painfully obvious to Prescott that Snyder, two ranks his junior or not, knew far more about the art and science of their current mission than he did.

The rear admiral rummaged in a tunic pocket and dragged out his pipe, and a throat cleared itself pointedly behind him.

He glanced over his shoulder with a grin as he extracted a tobacco pouch as well, then stuffed the pipe slowly under the disapproving frown of Dr. Melanie Soo. He met her gaze squarely, noting the twinkle lurking in her dark eyes, and replaced the pouch and reached for his lighter.

Dr. Soo-Surgeon Captain Melanie Soo, formally speaking-was the flotilla's chief medical officer. But her commission was a "hostilities only" one, and she would always remain a civilian at heart, with little of the veneration career Navy types extended to the lordly persons of flag officers. And for all that she was technically his subordinate, he always felt just a little uncomfortable giving her orders, since the white-haired surgeon captain was almost thirty years his senior. But all that was fine with Prescott. Soo had more medical experience than any three regular Fleet surgeons, and although she was the only officer of the flotilla who could legally remove him from command, he found her enormously likable. Which was one reason he enjoyed provoking her with his pipe.

Smoking wasn't-quite-officially banned on TFN ships, but that was solely a concession to the Fleet's increasing percentage of Fringe Worlders. Modern medicine had been able to handle the physical consequences of abusing one's lungs with tobacco smoke for centuries, and the lingering Heart World and Corporate World laws banning the vice in public places had less to do with health concerns than with core world standards of courtesy. Or that was they way they saw it, anyway. Fringers were more inclined to see it as an enforced courtesy, one more example of the intrusion of the Federal government into matters of personal choice which were none of its business, and the result had been an amazing resurgence of a habit which had been almost entirely wiped out over three hundred years earlier. And an insistence that they be permitted to indulge in that habit publically, as per the personal liberty provisions of the Constitution.

As a Heart Worlder himself, Prescott felt no need to make his pipe into a political statement. It was simply something he enjoyed, although he'd found lately that he took a sort of gloomy pleasure in knowing his vice was bad for him. And in indulging a habit he knew at least half his staff-and especially Dr. Soo-disapproved of strongly.

Does them good, he thought. Hell, think how miserable they'd be if I didn't give them something to disapprove of!

He chuckled mentally as he applied the lighter and sucked in the first fragrant smoke. As always, the ritual was soothing and comforting, and the fond resignation of his staffers only made it more so, in an odd sort of way.

Probably a sign of senility on my part, he told himself with another mental laugh, studying his unlined face in an inactive com screen. Or maybe it's just the beginning of lunacy brought on by terminal boredom.

Or tension, perhaps.

"That is a truly disgusting habit . . . Sir," Soo's soprano voice observed. It was, perhaps, a sign of her essentially civilian background that a mere surgeon captain would make such a remark to a rear admiral, and Prescott smiled around the pipe stem.

"Oh, yes? Well, at least it's not as disgusting as something like chewing gum!" he retorted. "And given all the other things that could happen to me-or any of us-out here, I fear that even your disapproval, much though it pains me, is endurable. Besides," he jabbed a thumb upward at the mesh covered opening directly above his command chair, "I had that air intake relocated specifically to prevent my smoke from offending your effete, over-civilized nostrils."

"And sinuses. And lungs," she agreed.

"All those persnickety internal components," he said with a lordly dismissive gesture.

"Just wait until your next physical, boy-o."

"Ha!" He grinned at her again, then looked over his other shoulder. Commander Joshua Leopold, his chief of staff, was bent over a console with Lieutenant Commander Chau Ba Hai, his operations officer, conversing in lowered voices rather like those of students who hoped the professor wasn't going to call on them until they got their class notes straightened out.

"Problems, Josh?" Prescott asked mildly, and Leopold looked up quickly.

"We don't have a complete report yet, Sir," he said.

"What's the delay, Commander?"

Leopold was not misled by the admiral's amiable tone. Andrew Prescott was a fair man and a considerate boss, but God help the man or woman he decided was incompetent or (far worse, in his book) a slacker.

"We're having problems with interference and disorientation again, Sir," Lieutenant Commander Chau said before Leopold could respond. The dark-haired, slightly built ops officer was the staff officer technically responsible for the use of the new RD2 recon probes, and he met the admiral's gaze squarely. "I know the probes are officially cleared for field use, but they still don't reorient well after emergence-especially from an uncharted point. The guidance and memory systems just aren't tough enough to handle the grav surge yet."

"You're saying the data have been delayed."

"Yes, Sir. I'm afraid I am. We lost seven out of eight from our flight, and the docking program on the only one we got back aborted. I had to bring it in on a tractor, and it's pretty well scrambled. In fact, the computer rejected our first two data runs. I've got two yeomen decoding now, but I'm afraid these things can still stand some improvement."

"Understood," Prescott said after a moment. "Inform me as soon as you have something positive; don't bother with preliminary reports. And check with Sarmatian, too, Josh. Captain Snyder and his people seem to have some sort of mystical understanding with those drones of yours."

"Aye, aye, Sir," Leopold said just a tad stiffly, and Prescott nodded and turned back to his own plot.

"That was nasty, Andy," Soo chided too quietly for other ears to hear, and he quirked an eyebrow at her.

"Nasty? Whatever do you mean, Melly?" he asked equally softly.

"Commander Leopold is a nice young man, and that crack about Captain Snyder was a low blow. We all know he's some kind of electronic genius. Is it really fair to underline his superior performance for Commander Leopold and Commander Chau?"

"It keeps them on their toes, Melly. Besides, why do you think Snyder is an 'electronic genius'-aside, of course, from his extensive Survey Command experience? I'll tell you why. Some senior SOB like me dumped all over him when he was just a little feller, and he got good just to spite the bastard. That's known as proficiency enhancement."

"I don't believe I've ever had the mysteries of command explained to me quite so clearly, Admiral." Dr. Soo grinned. "But, then, I'm only an old country doctor who got drafted. As soon as this unpleasantness with the Bugs is over, I'll hie me back to my cottage and retire for good."

Prescott snorted derisively. Dr. Soo had been number two in the neurosurgery department at Johns Hopkins-Bethesda back on Old Terra before she volunteered for naval service. And she'd volunteered only because she knew about the grim, genocidal reality behind the 'unpleasantness' with the Bugs and couldn't not try to do something about it. She knew he knew it, too, and that he was damned glad to have her. It had always been TFN policy to assign only the best medical talent to survey flotillas, for there was always the chance of running into some new and nasty microorganism or disease, and there was no time to reach base med facilities if something went wrong in the Long Dark. The longer (and much more risky) survey missions which had become the norm over the last five years had only reinforced the logic behind that policy, but Dr. Soo was heavy metal even for survey duty.

"Watch me," she assured him. "But as a pseudo-civilian, I've been wanting to ask you something. It's driving me crazy, in fact."

"What? Asking for free professional advice? For shame, Doctor!" Prescott chuckled, but he also swung his chair to face her fully and cocked it back. "Okay, Melly. What's on your mind?"

"These probes keep breaking down. Everybody knows that, and Josh and Ba Hai just lost seven out of eight, and the one they got back at all is obviously pretty addled. So how come you professional military types carry on like they're the greatest thing since sliced bread if they're so temperamental and unreliable?"

"Because those probes are what's going to win the war-if anything will-once we get the kinks out," Prescott said flatly. Soo's eyebrows rose at his suddenly dead serious tone, and he reminded himself that she really was the pseudo-civilian she'd called herself. It was easy to forget, most of the time, given how thoroughly and well she'd gained command of the areas of responsibility which were her own. But questions about things like the probes drove home the fact that she truly wasn't a Navy surgeon. Not the way men and women who'd spent their entire careers attached to the Fleet were, at any rate. She simply didn't have the background to understand why the new probes were like a gift from the gods themselves in the eyes of professional naval officers.

"I mean it," he told her, and then puffed on his pipe again while he considered how to continue. "This war isn't like any of the others we've fought," he went on after a moment. "We knew a hell of a lot more about the opposition from the outset when we went up against the Tabbies and the Rigelians-even the Thebans-than we do about the Bugs. Aside from the fact that this time the galaxy really isn't big enough for the two of us, of course."

He smiled around his pipe stem, totally without humor.

"Even the best failsafe system can't guarantee total destruction of a ship's astrogation database, Melly. And even when the main system's scrubbed exactly as intended, there are so many backup data files, or even hard copy records, that after most really big battles one side or the other usually captures at least part of the other side's nav data. We catch some of theirs; they catch some of ours; and we both churn it through computers to translate and correlate it. And what do we get for our trouble?"

"Information, I suppose," Dr. Soo said.

"Exactly. We get pictures of how their systems look, possibly an idea of how many inhabited systems and worlds they have, and maybe we can even figure out how some of their internal warp lines run. Even in best case situations, it's information we can't use without a starting point, a break-in on one of their warp lines we can recognize . . . and one where there's not a damned fleet or fortifications from Hell to keep us out. But at least it gives us some notion of what we're up against.

"But not this time. I suppose it's possible some egghead back at Centauri will eventually figure out how to read what-if anything-we've actually captured from the Bugs, but it's not going to happen soon. Which means that everything we know, or think we know, about the enemy in this war is pure speculation. We like to think it's informed, intelligent speculation, but the hard evidence we have to work from is mighty sparse, and that's particularly true where their astrogation data is concerned.

"Oh, we know more than we did before the war began." He tamped the tobacco in his pipe and sucked in more smoke. "We know how the Anderson Chain lays out, for example. As far as Pesthouse, at least," he added grimly, and Soo nodded soberly. "And we know that Zephrain links directly to one of their central systems-one of the 'home hive' systems, to use Admiral LeBlanc's terminology. But we don't know anything about any point in their territory beyond Pesthouse or Home Hive Three, and every time we poke our heads through from Zephrain, they chop us off at the ankles. And we do the same for them, of course."

He smiled again, this time much less grimly, with pride in his older brother.

"But even if we were able to break through from Zephrain, take Home Hive Three completely away from them, and keep it, they'd only fall back fighting and fort up in the next systems down the warp lines, because by now they know about that connection. We managed to do to them more or less what they wanted to do to Centauri . . . and did do to Kliean. However big they are, we know we must have hurt them badly in the process, but we need to do it again. We need to break into their internal warp lines again somewhere else-preferably somewhere important enough that they have to commit to defending it-and rip them up. Cut loose in their rear areas and hit their battle fleet from as many directions as we can. Doing as much damage as possible before they can redeploy to stop us would be worthwhile in its own right, but a big part of our objective is to force them to redeploy. We want to avoid easily predicted frontal attacks and their casualty tolls as much as possible, but we also want to stretch them out, force them to defend as many points as we can. Given the nature of warp points, it's virtually certain that there are more points of contact waiting to be found, too-ones that would let us into their rear areas . . . or them into ours. But we don't know where they are."

"Well, the same thing's true for them, isn't it?" Dr. Soo pointed out. "I mean, we're no worse off than they are in that respect."

" 'No worse off' doesn't win wars, Melly. Besides, how can we be sure that's true? The Tabbies thought Kliean was a safe rear area, and we thought the same thing about Centauri, but we were both wrong, and the Bugs found both connections before we did. Remember the Centauri Raid? We were lucky as hell we spotted their survey force and that they didn't have one of their damned assault forces handy. And that they probably don't have any more of a clue about how our warp lines lay out, or how close to Sol they were, than we have about theirs. By the time they were ready to try a real assault, Ray and Sky Marshal MacGregor were ready to slap them down, but it was all a matter of timing, and it could have broken in their favor just as easily as in ours.

"But what if the same thing happens again? What if they find a closed warp point in Galloway's Star? Or what if they find the warp point-in Sol or New Valkha-this time without our noticing before they bring in the heavy attack force? I'm sure you've heard what everyone's calling what Ray and Zhaarnak did to Home Hive Three. How would you like the Bugs to apply 'the Shiva Option' to Old Terra?"

"But they haven't found anything like that," Dr. Soo pointed out with a shiver. "Damn you, Andy! You shouldn't give old lady doctors the shakes!"

"No, they haven't found it . . . yet," Prescott agreed. "But they still can if we don't find them first. And find them quietly, without an engagement that tells them we've done it. Which is why we're sweating bullets to make these probes work. We've already proved at Home Hive Three that they're our best chance to sneak into the Bugs' backyard without their knowing we've done it, and sending them through does two things. It doesn't risk lives sending ships into God knows what, and, more important, we may get a glimpse of another El Dorado without alerting the local Bugs. If we get a look-see at another of their home hives, say, and they'd don't know it . . . Well, let's just say Battle Fleet would drop in one afternoon without calling ahead for reservations."

"I see." Dr. Soo rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "But if the probes are so good-or will be, once the bugs (you should pardon the expression) are out of them-wouldn't that also let us send out smaller survey forces?"

She gestured at the tactical display, whose three-dimensional sphere showed the glittering light codes of everything within thirty light-seconds, by way of illustration. Concorde herself showed gold, denoting her flag status. The other battlecruisers, the carriers, and the destroyers and freighters burned the color-codes of their types, all ringed in the green which identified them as friendly Battle Fleet ships. Only the Huns gleamed the blue-banded white of Survey Command.

"Surely that would let us use our strength more economically! And wouldn't smaller forces be less likely to be detected in the first place?"

"What? Leave the gunslingers behind?" Prescott's grin was just a trifle sour as he used Survey's derisive nickname. "Melly, you're a hell of a doctor, but you'd make a lousy fleet commander. Space is pretty big, you know, and an entire flotilla isn't measurably easier to spot than a single unit, assuming the flotilla in question exercises proper caution. So sending out a smaller force wouldn't appreciably lessen the risk of detection but would lessen the flotilla's ability to stand up to anything that did detect it. Hence the gunslingers. Only five of those ships really matter-Sarmatian and her bunch." He jabbed his pipe stem at the white dots. "The rest of us are just along to make sure their information gets home. That's why a mere light cruiser like Sarmatian has a full captain for a CO. And why Snyder is my second in command."

"Redundancy?"

"Partly. Any good com net has built-in redundancy, of course. We could lose every ship but one and still do the job, which is why all our databases copy all astro data. In fact, though, the rest of us are here to protect those cruisers. They've got better instrumentation and specialist crews, thus our Captain Snyder, who's so good at his job. If only one ship gets home, GHQ hopes she'll be one of those five, though they'd never be so tactless as to tell the rest of us so."

"They don't have to with you along," Dr. Soo told him.

"Upset to find out you're expendable?" he teased.

"At my age, you're always expendable. But is there any chance of transferring to Sarmatian? I'd feel better knowing you were protecting me along with the crown jewels over there."

"Shame on you, Melly!"

"Cowardice is a survival trait," Dr. Soo said tartly.

"Well, there is always the chance of running into-or over-a cloaked Bug picket," Prescott conceded. "They don't seem to survey on anywhere near the scale we do, but intelligence's estimate is that they probably station picket ships in permanent cloak in every system they know about. Which is another reason for the probes, of course. We send them through to sanitize the area within scanner range of any warp point before we send any manned units through, then go back into cloak ourselves immediately. But the chance of our actually running into one of those pickets-and being spotted-is pretty slim, so the odds are a thousand to one that you'll get home safe and sound. Even aboard the flotilla flagship."

"Oh? And if we do run into Bugs?" She was suddenly serious.

"If they're electronic, we sic Captain Snyder on them. And if they're eight-legged, warm-blooded pseudo-insects," he turned serious himself, "why, then, Melly, we gunslingers do our job."

Soo was about to reply when Prescott's console beeped the tone of an outside com connection. He raised an eyebrow and touched a stud, and the com screen lit with Captain Snyder's boyish face.

"Captain," the admiral said with the courtesy he and Snyder were always careful to show one another. "A welcome surprise."

"I've got a bigger one for you, Admiral," Snyder said, and his taut, barely suppressed excitement pulled Prescott up in his command chair. Snyder had spent over twelve years in Survey command. He wouldn't be this excited just because his probes had worked.

"Perhaps you'd better tell me about it, Captain," the admiral said quietly.

"The point's a type fourteen, Sir," Snyder said, and Prescott's intent gaze sharpened. A type fourteen was rare-a closed warp point, with extreme tidal stresses, which probably helped explain the high RD2 loss rate Chau and Leopold had reported.

"A type fourteen, eh? How close in is it?"

"About six light-hours, Sir," Snyder replied. "That's our best guess, anyway. The probe data are pretty badly scrambled, and we could be off by as much as ten or fifteen light-minutes. The tidal stress is more wicked than usual, even for a type fourteen, but we can use it all right."

"And you think we'll want to use it?" the admiral asked softly.

"I think we'll have to, Sir," Snyder said soberly, but still with that undertone of excitement.

"Why?"

"As I said, the data are badly scrambled, but I've got my best people working on it, and their consensus is that there's a high-tech presence in the system. A big one. And even if our astro data are less than perfect, we've been able to establish that this isn't any system we've ever seen before." His eyes blazed on the com screen, and he showed his teeth in a hungry grin. "Admiral, I may be wrong, but it looks to me like there's a damned good chance we just hit an El Dorado!"



CHAPTER SEVEN: To Hold Back Hell | Shiva Option | * * *