"It's White Haven," he rasped. "It has to be their Eighth Fleet. Maybe with their Third Fleet along to side it, judging from the preliminary numbers. Which means we're probably screwed, Citizen Commissioner."
   Connors' expression turned disapproving, but only briefly. And the disapproval wasn't really directed at Dimitri. She didn't like defeatism, but that didn't change what was going to happen, and she knew the citizen admiral was correct. Their own strength had been reduced to only twenty-two of the wall. Even with the new mines and missile pod deployment Theisman had devised, plus the forts and the LACs, that was highly unlikely to stop seventy or eighty Manty superdreadnoughts and dreadnoughts. And, she reminded herself, initial estimates at this sort of range were almost always low, not high, even if the enemy wasn't using EW to conceal still more ships. On the other hand...
   "We can still give them a fight, Citizen Admiral," she said, and he nodded.
   "Oh, we can certainly do that, Ma'am, and I intend to make them aware of that fact, too. I just wish I knew why they made translation so far out... and why they're coming in so slowly. I don't object to an enemy who gives me time to assemble all my forces to meet him, but I do have to wonder why he's being so obliging."
   "I had the same thought," Connors murmured, and the two of them turned as one to look out at the huge holo tank's light sculpture replica of the Barnett System.
   The angry red pockmarks of a hostile fleet hung in that display, twenty-six-point-three light-minutes from Enki and headed for it at an unhurried six thousand KPS with an acceleration of only three hundred gravities. Preliminary intercept solutions were already coming up on a sidebar display, providing Dimitri with his entire menu of choices. Not that he intended to use any of the ones that involved sending his mobile units out to meet that incoming hammer. His outnumbered units would undoubtedly score a few kills if he were stupid enough to do that, but none would survive, and his fixed fortifications and LACs would be easy meat for an unshaken, intact wall of battle. Nor did he intend to waste his long-ranged mines. Those would wait until he could coordinate their attacks with those of his mobile units' missiles. Which narrowed the only numbers he really needed to think about to the ones which showed what the Manties could do to him.
   Assuming they maintained their current acceleration all the way in and went for a passing engagement with Enki's close-in defenses, they could be on top of him in just under five hours. But they'd go ripping right on past him at over fifty-three thousand KPS. They could go for that option, but he doubted they would. It would get them to him a bit sooner, but that obviously wasn't a factor in their thinking, or they'd have made their translation further in and be coming in under a much higher acceleration. Besides, there was no point in their opting for a passing engagement. The fighting would be all over, one way or the other, by the time they reached Enki's orbital position, and if they overshot, they'd simply have to decelerate to come back and occupy the ruins.
   No, the way they were coming in, they meant to go for a leisurely but traditional zero/zero intercept. Which meant, assuming they stuck with their ridiculously low accel, that they would come to rest relative to Enki (and ready to land their Marines) in six and a half hours... by which time, all of his units would be so much drifting wreckage.
   But that wreckage was going to have a lot of Manty company, he thought grimly. That was all he could really hope for, and if he could take a big enough chunk out of those slow-moving, overconfident bastards, they might just find themselves fatally weakened when Operation Bagration went in, took Grendelsbane away from them, and started rolling them up from the southeast.
   He glanced at another display and grunted in approval. This one showed his mobile units, racing from their scattered patrol positions to form up with the forts. Another one showed the readiness states on his LACs, with squadron after squadron blinking from the amber of stand-by to the green of readiness, and he nodded sharply. He'd have plenty of time to assemble and prepare his forces, and the bastards didn't know about the new mines and pod arrangements he had to demonstrate for them.
   His upper lip curled, showing just a flash of white teeth, and he turned back to the main board, waiting patiently for solid enemy unit IDs to appear.
* * *
   "Here comes the first info, My Lord."
   Admiral White Haven looked up from a quiet conversation with his chief of staff, Captain Lady Alyson Granston-Henley, as the new data blinked onto his plot.
   "I see it, Trev." White Haven and Granston-Henley moved over beside Commander Trevor Haggerston, Eighth Fleet's dark-haired, heavy-set ops officer. The Erewhonese officer was attractive, in a rough-hewn craggy sort of way, and White Haven suspected that he and Granston-Henley might be getting just a bit closer than a narrow interpretation of the Regs would have approved. Not that the earl had any intention of finding out anything that would require him to take official notice of their relationship. They were entirely too valuable to Eighth Fleet's command team for him to worry about such foolishness.
   Now he and his chief of staff paused beside Haggerston, and watched with him as the FTL drones began reporting in.
   There were only a spattering of additional icons at first, but the initial spray grew quickly into a wider, deeper, brighter blur of light codes, and White Haven pursed his lips as CIC began evaluating the data. Unless the Peeps were trying to be sneakier than usual, they had considerably fewer ships of the wall than he'd anticipated. That probably indicated that Caparelli's diversionary efforts down around Grendelsbane had worked, White Haven thought, with a mental nod of respect for the First Space Lord's efforts.
   Of course, there was a downside to Caparelli's success. Under normal circumstances, fewer ships meant fewer opponents, which would have been a very good thing. In this instance, however, fewer ships simply meant fewer targets.
   "What do we make it so far, Trev?" he asked after a moment.
   "CIC is calling it twenty-two of the wall, ten battleships — there could be a couple more of those hiding behind the wedge clutter — twenty to thirty battlecruisers, forty-six cruisers of all types, and thirty or forty destroyers. Looks like they've got forty to forty-five of their forts on-line, as well, and there's one hell of a lot of LACs swanning around in that mess. CIC figures it for a minimum of seven hundred."
   "Um." White Haven rubbed his chin. Seven hundred was a lot of LACs... for a navy that didn't have Shrikes or Ferrets. Older style LACs simply weren't effective enough to build in huge numbers, and McQueen must have scraped the bottom of the barrel to put that many in one system. Unless, of course, the PN had started building the things again themselves. They'd be largely useless against hyper-capable warships, but enough of them could still inflict painful losses on the newer LAC types. The exchange rate would be ruinously in favor of the Shrikes and the Ferrets, but McQueen had already proved herself capable of playing the attrition game when that was her only option.
   Not that seven hundred old-style LACs or even twice that many were going to be much of a problem for Alice Truman's boys and girls.
   Assuming they had to fight them at all.
   "Range to their forces?"
   "We've been inbound for thirty-seven minutes, Sir. Range to zero/zero is roughly four hundred sixty-six million klicks — call it twenty-six light-minutes — and we're up to a smidge over seventy-two hundred KPS. Long way to go yet even for Ghost Rider, Sir."
   "Agreed. Agreed." White Haven rubbed his chin some more. The final — or currently "final"—version of the long-range missiles could reach 96,000 gravities of acceleration, four thousand more than the ones Alice Truman had deployed at Basilisk. That gave them a powered attack range from rest of almost fifty-one light-seconds at maximum acceleration. By stepping the drives down to 48,000 g, endurance could be tripled, however, and that upped the maximum powered envelope to well over three and a half light-minutes and a terminal velocity of .83 c. That was crowding the very limits of the fire control technology available even to the Royal Manticoran Navy, however.
   But given that the maximum possible engagement range from rest for the enemy, even at low accel, was going to be on the order of less than thirty light-seconds in maximum accel mode, things were about to get very ugly for the Peeps.
* * *
   "I think these guys are going to get reamed, Skipper," Sir Horace Harkness observed in tones of profound satisfaction as Her Majesty's Light Attack Craft Bad Penny led the Nineteenth LAC Wing towards the enemy.
   "Accurately, if inelegantly, put, Chief," Ensign Pyne agreed, and Scotty Tremaine nodded. His active sensors were shut completely down, but Bad Penny could tap the feeds from the recon drones just fine. His tactical display didn't allow for anything like the resolution and detail available to Benjamin the Great's combat information center, but he could see quite enough to know Harkness had it right.
   Against a conventionally armed Allied fleet, the Peeps could have put up a decent fight, he thought. They would have lost everything they had, but they would also have taken a hell of a bite out of their attackers. But that supposed their attackers had to come into their range... and Eighth Fleet didn't. Or its starships didn't, at least. It would be another story for the LACs, but they would be going in only on the heels of the missile strikes, and Tremaine very much doubted there'd be much left besides cripples waiting to be killed and the wreckage of ships which had already died.
   He was just a tad concerned by all the LACs he saw out there, but not enough to lose any sleep over it. By his most pessimistic estimate, they had less than half as many of them as Admiral Truman did, and all of hers were Shrike-Bs and Ferrets. And all of the Shrike-Bs of the Nineteenth Wing had the new, improved, better-than-ever Bolgeo-Roden-Paulk sternwall to make them even nastier.
* * *
   Citizen Admiral Dimitri accepted another cup of coffee from a signals yeoman. It was good coffee, brewed just the way he liked it, and it tasted like corrosion-strength industrial cleaner. Not too surprisingly, he supposed. Five hours and thirty-eight minutes had passed since the Manties' translation, and the bastards had come the next best thing to four hundred and sixty million kilometers in that time. They were down to just a hair over fifteen million klicks from Enki, decelerating now, and their velocity was back down to a little over ninety-three hundred KPS.
   He still didn't understand their approach course, and his brain continued to pick at its apparent illogic like a tongue probing a sore tooth. No doubt they were coming in heavy with pods — he certainly would have been in their place!—but Manty SDs could pull a lot more than three hundred gees, even with full pod loads on tow. So why had they wasted so much time? And why hadn't they gone for a least-time course at whatever accel they were willing to use? The logical thing for them to have done would have been to translate into n-space on a heading which would have pinned Enki between them and Barnett. As it was, they'd not only come in too far out and too slowly, but they were actually approaching Enki's position to intercept at a shallow angle. At the moment, their icons and those of the mobile units positioned to intercept them weren't even on anything approaching a direct line with the blue dot that marked Enki's position.
   It all looked and felt dreadfully unorthodox, which was enough to make Dimitri instantly suspicious, especially knowing that if that was Eighth Fleet out there, he was up against White Haven, who had systematically kicked the crap out of every Republican CO he'd ever faced. Which suggested there had to be some reason for the Manties' apparently inept and clumsy approach, except that try as he might, Dimitri couldn't come up with a single one that made any sort of sense. It was almost as if White Haven were intentionally making certain the defenders had plenty of time to concentrate their full forces to meet him, but that was ridiculous. Granted, Manty hardware was superior, but there were limits in all things. Not even Manties could be ballsy enough to deliberately throw away any chance of catching him before he could concentrate. Any flag officer worth his braid schemed furiously in search of some way to catch the defenders with their forces still spread out so he could engage and crush them in detail rather than facing all of them at once!
   But that seemed to be exactly what White Haven wasn't doing, Dimitri thought irritably, then shrugged. In another twelve minutes it would no longer matter what the Manty CO thought he was doing, because the range would be down to six million klicks. Given the geometry of the Manties' approach vector, they would be in his powered missile envelope — technically speaking — for at least two minutes before that, but against Manty electronic warfare, even six million klicks against a closing enemy might be a little optimistic. Which meant he and his people were going to have to take their lumps from the Manties before any of their own birds got home. But he'd be sending the mine-armed drones out in another four minutes, and at least he ought to be able to flush all of his pods before any of the incoming arrived, and—
   A shrill, strident alarm sliced through the war room's tense calm like a buzz saw.
* * *
   "Coming down on fifteen million kilometers, Sir," Trevor Haggerston said quietly, and White Haven nodded.
   "Anything more on those unidentified bogies?" he asked.
   "We still can't be positive, but it looks like most of them are missile pods, Sir. We're a bit more puzzled by some of the others, though. They're smaller than pods, but they seem to be bigger than individual missiles ought to be. About the size of a deep recon drone, actually."
   "I see." The earl frowned, then shrugged. Missiles or drones, a saturation pattern of heavy warheads should take them out with proximity kills handily enough... and before they could do anything nasty.
   The Peeps obviously didn't know it, but they'd been in his powered missile range for well over an hour, assuming he'd been willing to go for low-powered drive settings, but even with his RDs hovering just beyond the range of the Peeps' weapons, targeting solutions would have been very poor at sixty-five million kilometers... not to mention that flight time would have been the next best thing to nine minutes. That was plenty of time for an alert captain to roll ship and take the brunt of the incoming fire on his wedge, and even with Ghost Rider's EW goodies along for company, it might have given the defenders time to achieve effective point defense solutions.
   Besides, there was no need to do any such thing. He still had over twelve minutes before he entered the Peeps' effective envelope, and each of his Harrington/Medusas could get off sixty six-pod salvos in that time. That was over a hundred and eleven thousand missiles from the SD(P)s alone, and they weren't alone, and he checked his plot one last time
   Between the input from his drones and the long, unhurried time his fire control officers had been given to refine their data, his ships had tight locks on most of the Peep capital ships. Of course, "tight lock" at this sort of range didn't mean what it would have at lower ranges, and accuracy was going to suffer accordingly. On the other hand, the Peeps hadn't yet deployed a single decoy, and their jammers were only beginning to come on line. Which made sense, if they wanted to avoid putting too much time on their EW systems' clocks. Unfortunately, this time it was going to be fatal.
   "Very well, Commander Haggerston," he said formally. "You may fire."
* * *
   Citizen Admiral Dimitri's mug hit the floor and shattered, but he never noticed. Neither the sound of breaking china nor the sudden pool of steaming coffee registered even peripherally, for he could not be seeing what he saw.
   But the sensors and the computers didn't care what their human masters thought. They insisted on presenting the preposterous data anyway, and Dimitri heard other voices, several shrill with rising panic, as the war room's normal discipline disintegrated as completely as his broken cup. It was inexcusable. They were trained military men and women, manning the nerve center of the system's entire defense structure. Above all else, it was their primary duty to remain calm and collected, exerting the control over their combat units upon which any hope of victory depended.
   But Dimitri couldn't blame them, and even if he could have, it wouldn't have mattered. No conceivable calm, collected response could have affected the outcome of this battle in the least.
   No one in the history of interstellar warfare had ever seen anything like the massive salvo coming in on his ships. Those missiles were turning out at least ninety-six thousand gravities, launched from pods and shipboard tubes which were themselves moving at over nine thousand kilometers per second, and that didn't even consider the initial velocity imparted to them by their launchers' grav drivers. A corner of Dimitri's brain wanted to believe the Manties had gone suddenly insane and thrown away their entire opening salvo at a range from which hits would be impossible. That the incredible acceleration those missiles were cranking meant they could not possibly have more than a minute of drive endurance. That they would be dead, unable to maneuver against his evading units, when they reached the ends of their runs.
   But one thing the Earl of White Haven was not was insane. If he'd launched from that range, then his birds had the range to attack effectively... and none of Dimitri's did.
   He watched numbly as the missiles roared down on his wall. The entire front of the salvo was a solid wall of jamming and decoys, and he clamped his jaw as he pictured the panic and terror crashing through the men and women on those ships. His men and women. He'd put them out there in the sober expectation that their ships would be destroyed, that many — even most — of them would be killed. But he'd at least believed they would be able to strike back before they died. Now their point defense couldn't even see the missiles coming to kill them.
   It seemed to take forever, and he heard someone groan behind him as the Manty wall belched a second salvo, just as heavy as the first. Which was also impossible. That had to be the firepower of a full pod load out for every ship in White Haven's wall. He couldn't have still more of them in tow! But apparently no one had told the Manties what they could and couldn't do, and yet a third launch followed.
   The first massive wave of missiles crashed over his wall, and his numb brain noted yet another difference from the norm. The tactical realities of towed pods meant each fleet had no real choice but to commit the full weight of its pods in the first salvo, because any that didn't fire in the first exchange were virtually certain to suffer proximity kills from the enemy's fire. They were normally concentrated on the enemy vessels for whom the firing fleet had the best firing solutions, as well, because firing at extreme range rather than waiting until the enemy had irradiated your weapons into uselessness meant even the best solutions were none too good.
   All of that tended to result in massive overkill on a relatively low number of targets, but that wasn't happening this time. No, this time the Manties had allocated their fire with lethal precision. There were well over three thousand missiles in the first wave. Many of them were jammers or decoys, but many were not, and Hamish Alexander's fire plan had allocated a hundred and fifty laser heads to each Peep ship of the wall. His targets' hopelessly jammed and confused defenses stopped no more than ten percent of the incoming fire, and Havenite capital ships shuddered and heaved, belching atmosphere and debris and water vapor as massive, bomb-pumped lasers slammed into them. Hulls spat glowing splinters as massive armor yielded, and fresh, dreadful bursts of light pocked Citizen Admiral Dimitri's wall as fusion bottles began to fail.
   But even as the SDs and DNs reeled and died under the pounding, a second, equally massive wave of missiles was on its way. This one ignored the surviving, mangled ships of the wall. Its missiles went for Dimitri's lighter, more fragile battleships and battlecruisers, even heavy and light cruisers. Fewer of them went after each target, but even a battleship could take no more than a handful of hits from such heavy laser heads... and none of them could begin to match the point defense capability of a ship of the wall.
   The third wave bypassed the mobile units completely to swoop towards Enki's orbital defenses. They ignored the fortresses, but their conventional nuclear warheads detonated in a blinding, meticulously precise wall of plasma and fury that killed every unprotected satellite, missile pod, and drone in Enki orbit.
   And then, as if to cap the insanity, a tidal wave of LACs — well over fifteen hundred of them — erupted from stealth, already in energy range of the broken wreckage which had once been a fleet. They swept in, firing savagely, and a single pass reduced every unit of Dimitri's wall to drifting hulks... or worse. The LACs were at least close enough that his fortresses could fire on them, but their EW was almost as good as the capital ships, and they deployed shoals of jammers and decoys of their own. Even the missiles which got through to them seemed to detonate completely uselessly. It was as if the impossible little vessels' wedges had no throat or kilt to attack!
   The LACs had obviously planned their approach maneuver very carefully. Their velocity relative to their victims had been very low, no more than fifteen hundred KPS, and their vector had been designed to cross the base track of Dimitri's wall at an angle that carried them away from his forts and his own LACs. A few squadrons of the latter were in position to at least try to intercept, but those who did vanished in vicious fireballs as hurricanes of lighter but still lethal missiles ripped into their faces. Then the Manty LACs — Esther McQueen's much derided "super LACs," Dimitri thought numbly — disappeared back into the invisibility of their stealth systems. And just to make certain they got away clean, that impossible Manty wall of battle blanketed the battle area with a solid cone of decoys and jammers which made it impossible for any of the surviving defenders to lock onto the fleet, elusive little targets.
   Alec Dimitri stared in horror at the display from which every single starship of his fleet had been wiped without ever managing to fire a single shot. Not one. And as he stared at the spreading patterns of life pods, someone touched him on the shoulder.
   He flinched, then turned quickly, and his com officer stepped back from whatever she saw in his eyes. But he stopped, made himself inhale deeply, and forced the lumpy muscles along his jaw to relax.
   There was no more shouting, no more cries of disbelief, in the war room. There was only deep and utter silence, and his voice sounded unnaturally loud in his own ears when he made himself speak.
   "What is it, Jendra?"
   "I—" The citizen commander swallowed hard. "It's a message from the Manties, Citizen Admiral," she said then. "It was addressed to Citizen Admiral Theisman. I guess they don't know he's not here." She was rambling, and her jaw tightened as she forced herself back under control. "It's from their commander, Citizen Admiral."
   "White Haven?" The question came out almost incuriously, but that wasn't the way he felt, and his eyes narrowed at her nod. "What sort of message?"
   "It came in in the clear, Citizen Admiral," she said, and held out a message board. He took it from her and punched the play button, and a man in the black-and-gold of a Manticoran admiral looked out of the holographic display at him. He was dark haired and broad shouldered... and his hard eyes were the coldest blue Alec Dimitri had ever seen.
   "Admiral Theisman," the Manty said flatly, "I call upon you to surrender this system and your surviving units immediately. We have just demonstrated that we can and will destroy any and all armed units, ships or forts, in this system without exposing our own vessels to return fire. I take no pleasure in slaughtering men and women who cannot fight back. That will not prevent me from doing precisely that, however, if you refuse to surrender, for I have no intention of exposing my own people to needless casualties. You have five minutes to accept my terms and surrender your command. If you have not done so by the end of that time, my units will resume fire... and we both know what the result will be. I await your response. White Haven, out."
   The display blanked. Dimitri stared at it for several seconds, his stocky body sagging around its bones. Then he handed the message board back to the com officer, squared his shoulders, turned to Sandra Connors, and made himself say the unthinkable.
   "Ma'am," his quiet voice cut the silence like a knife, "I see no alternative." He inhaled deeply, then went on. "I request permission to surrender my command to the enemy."


   "Citizen Admiral Theisman, report to the bridge! Citizen Admiral Theisman, report to the bridge at once!"
   Thomas Theisman's head jerked up from his book viewer as Citizen Lieutenant Jackson's voice rattled from the speakers. Theisman had been less than overwhelmed by Jackson when he first boarded the citizen lieutenant's boat. Not that he'd thought the man couldn't handle his present duties. In fact, Jackson was, in many ways, what Theisman considered the perfect courier commander: stolid, phlegmatic, predictable, and utterly incurious. Men like that were never tempted to tamper with or snoop around among the sensitive documents in their computers. From a security perspective, that was wonderful, but it didn't exactly recommend them for any job except that of a postman.
   But the voice jarring from the intercom was anything but phlegmatic, and Theisman didn't even think about hesitating. Aboard a ship this small he could reach the bridge almost as quickly as he could have screened it, and he dropped the book viewer and was out his cabin hatch and thundering down the passage before it hit the decksole.
   What in God's name can his problem be? The question crackled in Theisman's brain as he pounded towards the ladder. The passage here from Barnett was so routine, Denis and I almost died of boredom, and his translation back into n-space was obviously nominal. So what in hell is going on?!
   He vaulted up the ladder onto the bridge, and his eyes automatically darted to the main view screen. It was in tactical mode, and his blood ran cold as he saw the two battlecruisers. They were barely three million kilometers distant, and their icons radiated the vicious, strobing rays of radar and lidar while a warning signal warbled.
   My God, he thought almost calmly, they've got us locked up for missile fire!
   He felt Citizen Lieutenant Jackson behind him and glanced over his shoulder. The dispatch boat's CO was white-faced and sweating, and his hands trembled visibly.
   "What is it, Citizen Lieutenant?" Theisman made his voice as deep and calm as he could, and wished he could project that calm directly into Jackson's brain without the clumsy interface of language.
   "I-I don't know, C-C-Citizen Admiral," the citizen lieutenant stuttered. Then his chest swelled as he sucked in a huge breath. When he exhaled once more, it looked as if some of the calmness Theisman had tried to will into him must have taken, and he cleared his throat.
   "All I know is that we made transit as usual, and everything seemed just fine, until all of a sudden those two—" he jabbed a finger at the battlecruisers on the plot "—lit us up and ordered me to cut my accel immediately or be destroyed. So I did that," he astonished Theisman with a tight, death's head grin, "and then they demanded my ID all over again. I sent it to them, and they... they said they didn't accept it, Citizen Admiral! They ordered me to leave the system! But I told them I couldn't. That I had you and Citizen Commissioner LePic aboard and I was supposed to deliver you to the capital. But they said no one — no regular Navy ships, that is — were getting through, and when I insisted my instructions came directly from the Octagon and the Committee, they ordered me to get you on the com in person, and... and..."
   His voice trailed off, and he raised both hands in a gesture of helplessness. It was hardly the picture of a decisive CO, but if his account was even half accurate, Theisman could hardly fault him for that. The citizen admiral felt sweat popping out along his own hairline, but he made himself nod calmly, then turned and beckoned the com officer out of her chair. She hastened to obey, scrambling up as if to put as much distance as physically possible between her and the com station, and Theisman took her place.
   It had been years since he last personally placed a ship-to-ship com request, but he hadn't forgotten how, and his fingers moved quickly while his brain tried to imagine what the hell could have happened. It had obviously been drastic, and "drastic" was a word that terrified anyone who'd lived through the massive upheavals of the People's Republic over the last decade. The part of him that concerned itself with minor matters like survival had no interest at all in comming the waiting battlecruisers. All it wanted to do was tell Jackson to turn and slink away, exactly as ordered, and as he worked, it occurred to Thomas Theisman that this would no doubt be an excellent time for an ex —naval officer to consider a lengthy vacation somewhere like Beowulf or Old Earth.
   But he was an admiral of the Republic, however he'd gotten there. That gave him responsibilities he simply could not turn his back upon, and so he waited while the com link came up and steadied.
   Despite himself, Theisman's lips tightened as he saw the woman at the other end. She wore the crimson-and-black of State Security, and her narrow face was cold and hard. Even across the vacuum, Theisman could feel her hatred and desire to go ahead and fire. He didn't think it was because of anything Jackson had said, or because of who Thomas Theisman was. She wanted an excuse to blow something — anything —apart, and a fresh wave of tension rippled through his belly.
   "I am Citizen Admiral Thomas Theisman," he told that hating face as calmly as he could. "And you are?"
   At three million klicks, it took more than ten seconds for his light-speed transmission to reach her... and another ten for her response to reach him. The delay in transit did not seem to have improved it.
   "Citizen Captain Eliza Shumate, State Security," she snapped. "What business do you have in Haven, Theisman?"
   "That's between myself and... the Committee, Citizen Captain," Theisman replied. He wasn't certain why he'd switched from "Citizen Secretary McQueen" to "the Committee" at the last moment, but when his instincts shrieked that loudly, he made a point of listening to them.
   "The Committee." It wasn't a question the way Shumate said it, and the hate in her eyes flared higher. But Theisman didn't flinch, and a sliver of grudging respect crept into her expression as he glared back at her unyieldingly.
   "Yes, the Committee. Citizen Commissioner LePic and I are under orders to report directly to Citizen Chairman Pierre on our arrival."
   Something changed in Shumate's eyes yet again — a flicker of something besides hate or suspicion, though Theisman wasn't prepared to hazard any guesses on what it was instead. She stared at him for perhaps three extra heart beats, then expelled her breath in a harsh, angry grunt.
   "Citizen Chairman Pierre is dead," she told him flatly.
   Theisman heard someone gasp behind him, and knew his own face had turned to stone. He hadn't liked Pierre. Indeed, he'd learned to loathe everything the man stood for. But Rob Pierre had been the Titan looming over the pygmies who served with him on the Committee of Public Safety. His had been the guiding hand behind the People's Republic since the Coup, and especially since Cordelia Ransom's death had removed the one true challenge to his power from within the Committee itself. He couldn't be dead!
   But he could, and Theisman felt a fresh stab of fear when he put that together with Shumate's hair-trigger balance... and apparent hatred for officers of the People's Navy.
   "I'm sorry to hear that, Citizen Captain," he said quietly, and to his surprise, he meant it, if not for the same reasons Shumate might have.
   "I'm sure." Shumate didn't sound anything of the sort, but at least she mouthed the words, and her tight shoulders relaxed ever so slightly. Theisman felt someone step up beside him and realized it was LePic. The people's commissioner had obviously arrived in time to hear Shumate's announcement, for his face was pale. He moved into the range of the pickup and addressed the StateSec citizen captain.
   "Citizen Captain Shumate, I'm Denis LePic, Citizen Admiral Theisman's commissioner. This is terrible news! How did the Citizen Chairman die?"
   "He didn't `die,' Citizen Commissioner. He was murdered. Shot down like an animal by one of that bitch McQueen's staffers from the fucking Octagon!"
   All the hatred which had faded from her face and voice was back, redoubled, and Theisman suppressed an urge to wipe sweat from his forehead. No wonder Shumate was so antagonistic.
   He started to speak, but LePic's hand squeezed his shoulder, and he made himself sit silently, leaving the conversation to the commissioner who had become his friend.
   "That sounds terrible, Citizen Captain," LePic said. "Still, the fact that you and your ships are on patrol out here suggests to me that the situation is still at least marginally under control. Can you tell me anything more about it?"
   "I don't have all the details, Sir," Shumate admitted. "As far as I know, no one does yet. But apparently that bi—" She stopped and made herself draw another deep breath. "Apparently McQueen," she went on after a moment, "had been plotting with her senior officers over at the Octagon for some time. No one knows why they moved when they did. It's obvious their plans weren't fully mature — which is probably all that saved any of the situation. But they'd still managed to put together one hell of an operation."
   "What do you mean?"
   "There were at least half a dozen assault teams. Every one of them was made up of Marines, and McQueen had insured that they had access to heavy weapons. Most of them had battle armor, and they went through the quick-reaction security forces like a tornado, starting with the Citizen Chairman's. One of their teams wiped out a platoon of Public Order Police, rolled right over three squads of the Chairman's Guard, and eliminated his entire StateSec protective detail in less than three minutes, and the Citizen Chairman was killed in the fighting. We think that was an accident. There are indications McQueen wanted him and as much of the Committee as she could capture alive, if only to try to force him to name her his `successor.' But whatever their intentions, he was dead in the first five minutes. Citizen Secretary Downey, Citizen Secretary DuPres, and Citizen Secretary Farley were also killed or captured by the insurgents in the first half hour. As nearly as we can make out, Citizen Secretary Turner had thrown his lot in with McQueen. Apparently they intended to make themselves the core of a smaller Committee they could dominate while presenting the appearance that it was still a democratic body."
   Shumate's expression didn't even flicker with the last sentence, and Theisman had to control his own face carefully. "Democratic body" was not a term he would have applied to the Committee of Public Safety, but perhaps she honestly believed it fitted. And whether she did or not, this was hardly the time to irritate her by calling her on it.
   "The only one of their initial targets they didn't get was Citizen Secretary Saint-Just," Shumate went on, and this time her tone carried bleak satisfaction that her own chief had eluded McQueen's net. "I don't think they realized how good his security really was, but it was a hell of a shootout. His protection detail took ninety percent casualties, but they held until a heavy intervention battalion took the attackers in the rear."
   "My God," LePic said softly, then shook himself. "And Capital Fleet?"
   "Didn't make a move, for the most part," Shumate replied. Her distaste at having to do so was manifest, and she went right on, "Two SDs did look as if they might be about to intervene on McQueen's behalf, but Citizen Commodore Helft and his State Security squadron blew them out of space before they even got their wedges up." She smiled with bleak ferocity. "That took the starch out of any other bastards who might've been tempted to help the traitors!"
   And from the sound of it, the kill-happy, murderous son-of-a-bitch killed them when there was absolutely no need to, Theisman thought with sick loathing. Nine or ten thousand men and women, wiped out as if they were nothing at all, when all the bastard had to do was order them to stand down— if they were really thinking about supporting McQueen to start with! If he caught them with their wedges still down, there wouldn't have been anything they could've done but obey him. And if they'd been stupid enough to refuse his orders, then he could have blown them away. But that's not what happened, is it, Citizen Captain Shumate?
   "The situation was pretty much deadlocked in Nouveau Paris by that time, though," Shumate went on more heavily. "The Citizen Chairman was dead, and McQueen had control of the Octagon. She probably had five or six thousand Marines and Navy regulars siding her, and she and Bukato had gotten control of the place's defensive grid. Worse, they had at least half a dozen members of the Committee in there with them, where they were effectively hostages. We tried to land intervention units on them, and the grid blew them away. Same thing for the air strikes we tried. And the whole time, McQueen was on the air to the rest of the Navy and Marine units in the system, claiming she was acting solely in self-defense against some sort of plot by the Chairman and Citizen Secretary Saint-Just to have her and her staff arrested and shot. Some of them were beginning to listen, too."
   "So what happened?" LePic asked when she paused once more.
   "So Citizen Secretary Saint-Just did what he had to do, Sir," she said in a cold voice. "McQueen and Bukato might've gotten control of the defensive grid, but they didn't know about the Citizen Secretary's final precaution. When it became obvious it was going to take us days to fight our way in, and with reports more and more Marine and Navy units were beginning to turn restless, he pressed the button."
   "The button?" LePic asked. The citizen captain nodded, and LePic scowled. "What button?" he demanded with some asperity.
   "The one to the kiloton-range warhead in the Octagon's basement, Sir," Shumate said flatly, and Theisman's belly knotted. "It took out the entire structure and three of the surrounding towers. Killed McQueen and every one of her traitors, too."
   "And civilian casualties?" Theisman asked the question before he could stop himself, but at the last moment he managed to make it only a question.
   "They were heavy," Shumate admitted. "We couldn't evacuate without giving away what was coming, and the traitors had to be stopped. The last estimate I heard put the total figure somewhere around one-point-three million."
   Denis LePic swallowed. The casualties had been even worse in the Leveler Rising, he knew, but another million civilians? Killed simply because they happened to be too close to a building Saint-Just had decided had to go... and warning them might have warned McQueen what was coming?
   "So how much of the Committee is left, Citizen Captain?" he heard himself asking, and Shumate looked at him with some surprise.
   "I'm sorry, Sir. I thought I'd made that clear. The only surviving member of the Committee is Citizen Secretary — only he's Citizen Chairman now, of course — Saint-Just."
* * *
   Several hours later, a silent, hard-faced StateSec major showed Thomas Theisman and Denis LePic into an office in Nouveau Paris. The major was clearly unhappy about their presence, and the daggers his eyes kept shooting Theisman's way ought by rights to have reduced the citizen admiral to ribbons. Nor was his attitude unique. Hostile, hating StateSec eyes had followed Theisman all the way from his air car to this office, and an ominous quantity of firepower, from pulsers to plasma rifles, was on prominent display.
   And all of them want to rip my head off and piss down my neck, Theisman thought mordantly. Hard to blame them, really. I'm a senior Navy officer, and they just blew up most of the command structure of the Navy and the Marines. They have to be wondering where I'd have stood if I'd been here. Or, for that matter, where I stand now.
   The major opened the office door and stood aside with one last, distrustful glare for Theisman and a curt nod for LePic. Both of them ignored him and stepped into the office, and Theisman watched the small man behind the desk rise.
   Funny. I was surprised Ransom was so much shorter than her HD imagery, and here Saint-Just is, almost as short as she was. Is there some sort of overcompensation for small size going on here?
   "Citizen Commissioner. Citizen Admiral." Saint-Just sounded weary, as well he might, and there were fresh, harsh lines in his face. For all that, however, he was still the same harmless-looking little man... with all the emotions of a cobra. "Please," he invited, waving at a couple of chairs. "Sit."
   "Thank you, Sir." By previous agreement, LePic took the lead as their spokesman. Neither of them wanted it to be too obvious that he was trying to protect Theisman, but it seemed wiser to avoid possible confrontations as much as possible.
   The two visitors sat, and Saint-Just perched on the corner of his desk.
   Remarkable, Theisman thought. This man started out as the second-in-command of Internal Security and betrayed the Legislaturalists to Pierre and helped him blow them up. Then he played second fiddle to Pierre for over a decade... and now he's the whole show, the entire "Committee of Public Safety." And all he had to do was blow up the rest of the Committee along with Esther McQueen. What a sacrifice. The citizen admiral snorted mentally. Wasn't there someone back on Old Earth who once said "we had to destroy the village to save it" or something like that? Suits this cold-blooded little bastard to a "T," doesn't it?