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In Death Ground
By David Weber Steve White
Baen BooksCopyright © 1997 David Weber & Steve White
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Fate of the Argive
The drifting cruiser had missed Argive's arrival, but it stirred at last as a cluster of energy sources appeared where they had no right to be. Passive sensors reoriented on the betraying signatures of unknown starships, and a trickle of power sent it sliding closer to them, silent as the vacuum about it, a darker shadow in a lightless room. The newcomers were obviously practicing strict emissions control, but they were not cloaked, and the signatures of their standby drive fields betrayed them. The watching cruiser hovered, counting them, prying at their emissions to learn their secrets, and a com laser deployed. It adjusted itself with finicky precision, aligning its emitter on another patch of spaceone as empty to any sensor as that which held the cruiser itselfand a burst transmission flicked across the light-hours.
There was no acknowledgment, but the watching cruiser had expected none. It had discharged the first part of its own function by sounding the warning; now it set about the second part of its duties, maintaining its stealthy watch upon the intruders... and waiting.
"Everything in order at your end, Alex?" Commodore Braun asked the face on his com screen.
"Yes, Sir. Kersaint's got the backdoor, and the rest of the flotilla's ready when you are."
"Good." Braun nodded in satisfaction. Detaching the single destroyer to cover the Indra warp point was almost certainly unnecessary, but standing orders were firm. Kersaint was the insurance policy. If anything nasty transpired, the destroyer would be clear of it, able to fire out courier drones to alert the rest of the Federation, whatever happened to the rest of SF 27.
Not that anything was likely to happen. They'd spent almost four months sweeping Alpha One without turning up a single sign of intelligent life. The survey had taken much longer than usual due to Condition Baker's requirement that the Survey cruisers remain permanently cloaked, and Braun knew his personnel were even more eager than usual to check out the two outbound warp points they'd plotted. If neither of them led to closed points, the flotilla could revert to normal operations and put all this stealthy creeping about behind it.
"Very well, then, Alex. We'll check back with you shortly."
"We'll be here, Sir," Cheltwyn agreed, and Braun waved a casual salute to the screen and glanced at Elswick.
"Once more into the breach, dear comrades."
"Yes, Sir. You have the con, Stu."
"I have the con, aye," the astrogator confirmed, and TFNS Argive crept forward into yet another warp point.
A dozen ships waited, hidden in cloak and spread to intercept any vessel bound in-system from the warp point, but the picket cruisers' reports had revealed a problem: many of the intruders were faster than any of the waiting defenders. The defenders couldn't overtake them in a stern chase, nor could the pickets send warning when the intruders made transit. The alien ships were clustered about the warp point, certain to spot any courier drone which might be sent through, and that would warn them to flee. The defenders thus found themselves forced to guess about the enemy's current maneuvers and plans, but they knew he was surveying. That meant he was bound to come through eventually, and so the ambush had been set. If the intruders were obliging enough to send their entire force through the warp point and into point-blank range, there would be no need to pursue... and if they declined to do so, perhaps they could be induced to change their plans.
The transit was a rough one, but Braun shook off his disorientation and nausea as Argive's temporarily addled electronics sorted themselves out and Channing checked his readouts.
"System primary is a G0," the lieutenant reported.
Braun's display restabilized, and he grimaced. A starship's initial heading upon emergence from an unsurveyed warp point was impossible to predict. Grav surge couldand didspit a ship out on any vector, and until a point had been thoroughly plotted, no astrogator could adjust for it. Of course, that seldom mattered much. Since he didn't know anything about what lay at an unplotted warp point's terminus, one vector was as good as another.
In this instance, however, the system's central star lay almost directly astern. The warp point was well above the ecliptic, giving Argive's sensors an excellent look "down" at it, but her course took her steadily away from the primary, and Braun had just opened his mouth to order Commander Elswick to bring her ship about when Channing's senior petty officer spoke up.
"Emergence point is a Type Six," she announced, and Braun exhaled in satisfaction. A Type Six was open, so perhaps they could forget all this cloaked sneaking about and
"I'm getting artificial emissions!" Channing snapped suddenly, and Braun whipped his command chair around to face Plotting.
"What sort?" he demanded.
"Clear across the spectrum, Sir." Channing's voice was flatter, but it was the clipped, hard flatness of professionalism, not calmness. "Looks like navigation beacons further in-system, but I'm also getting radar and radio."
"I'm showing unknown drive fields in-system," the tac officer said in the same clipped tones.
"Lots of them, Sir," Tactical said grimly. "Over a hundred, at least."
"Jesus," someone whispered, and Braun felt his own face tighten.
"Condition Able, Captain Elswick!"
"Condition Able, aye." Elswick nodded sharply to the tac officer, and the shrill, atonal wail of Argive's General Quarters alarm whooped. Despite her size, the specialized equipment of her calling put a severe squeeze on the Survey cruiser's armament. She had barely half the broadside of Battle Fleet's Bulwark-class heavy cruisers, but her weapons crews closed up with gratifying speed as the alarm screamed at them.
"Update the drone. Append a full sensor readout and launch," Braun ordered through the disciplined chaos. Argive's speed was so low the range to the warp point had opened to little more than a thousand kilometers, and the courier drone's drive was no more than a brief flicker across the plot as it streaked away at 60,000 KPS. The commodore watched it go, then turned his eyes back to the fresh icons appearing on the large-scale master plot as Plotting and Tactical worked with frantic haste to update it.
"Commodore, I've got something strange here." Channing sounded as if he could hardly believe his own sensors, and Braun raised his eyebrows at him. "Sir, this system has at least three planets in the liquid water zone. I've only got good reads on two of them from here, but Sir, I'm picking up massive energy signatures from both of them."
"I can't be certain from this far out" Channing began, but the commodore chopped a hand at him.
"Give me your best guess, Lieutenant."
"Sir, I've never seen anything like it. Both of them look bigger than Old Terra herself."
Braun stared at him in disbelief. Humanity's home world was, by any measure, the most heavily industrialized planet in known space. Not even New Valkha came close.
"I'm sorry, Sir," Channing said defensively, "but"
"Don't sweat it." Braun shook himself and managed a crooked smile. "Just be sure the stand-by drone gets a continuous update of your findings."
"Aye, aye, Sir." Channing sounded relieved by the mundaneness of the order, and Braun turned to Commander Elswick.
"Let's not get in too deep, Ursula. Come to zero-five-zero. We'll sweep the perimeter for a while and see if we can get a better feel before we move further in-system."
"They've found what?"
Captain Alex Cheltwyn looked at his communications officer in disbelief, then yanked his eyes down to the display at his elbow as the drone completed its download and a new star system appeared. Detail was sadly lacking from the preliminary data, but bright, scarlet icons glowed balefully in its depths, and his nostrils flared as he studied them.
Commodore Braun held the ultimate responsibility, but he was on the far side of the warp point. It was up to Cheltwyn to decide what to do with the rest of the flotilla, not just the escort, and his brain shifted into high gear.
Even Argive's preliminary info suggested the presence of a massive, highly advanced culture, and, unlike the link to Indra, both of this line's warp points were openso why hadn't they seen any sign of these people on this side? There might not be any habitable worlds, but why weren't Alpha One's warp points even buoyed? It was possible its only other open point led to an equally useless cul-de-sac, which might explain the absence of navigation buoys, but Cheltwyn couldn't afford to assume that. Yet if that wasn't the case, then the absence of any spaceborne artifacts could only represent a deliberate decision on someone's part. Either that, or
"Com, raise Ute. Advise Commander Chirac of Argive's report and instruct him to stand by to fall back on the Indra warp point with the rest of the Huns. Then get off a transmission to Kersaint. Download the full report and instruct Commander Hausman to relay to Sarasota."
"Aye, aye, Sir."
"Allison, bring us to Condition Able and have Commander Mangkudilaga arm San Jacinto's squadrons for a shipping strike. We'll use Sha's for fighter defense if we need them."
"Yes, Sir." His exec turned to her terminal and began inputting orders, and Cheltwyn stared back down into his plot and gnawed his lower lip. Something didn't add up here, and a worm of acid burned in the pit of his belly.
The fact that the intruder had emerged from an unexplored warp point headed out-system wasn't surprising, but it hadn't changed course to head in-system. Like all its other electronic systems, its cloaking ECM had fluctuated as it made transit, and the watching sensors had spotted it easily. With that head start and helped by its low speed, they tracked it with relative ease despite its cloak, but its heading took it directly away from the ships deployed to catch it. Worse, it had not summoned its fellows forward, and its sensors must be amassing more system data with every passing second. Minutes trickled past while the intruder continued to move away from them, and then, at last, six superdreadnoughts and six battlecruisers turned to pursue.
"Sir? I think you'd better take a look at this."
"At what?" Commander Salvatore Hausman looked up with a frown. Captain Cheltwyn's electrifying transmission had come in three hours ago, and Hausman had been deep in discussion of its implications with his executive officer.
"This, Sir." The tac officer tapped his display, and Hausman stepped closer to look over his shoulder. A vague blur of light flickered in the plot, and Hausman's frown deepened.
"What is that, Ismail?"
"Skipper, that's either a sensor ghost... or an active cloaking system at about thirty-six light-seconds."
"A cloaking system?" Hausman stiffened, eyes suddenly wide, and the tac officer nodded grimly. "How long has it been there?"
"Just turned up, Skip. If it is somebody in cloak, he's closing in very slowly. I make it about fifteen hundred KPS."
Hausman grunted as if he'd been punched in the belly, and his mind raced. It couldn't be a cloaked starship... could it? The very idea was insane, but Ismail Kantor wasn't the sort to make that kind of mistake.
The commander turned away and pounded his fists gently together. Kersaint was four and a half light-hours from the rest of the flotilla, and that meant Hausman was on his own. If that was a cloaked ship, it could only mean the people whose existence Commodore Braun had just discovered already knew the flotilla was here. But if they knew and hadn't even attempted to make contact, and now they were trying to sneak in close
"Stay on it, Ismail," he said. "Don't go active, but get Missile Defense on-line. I want an intercept solution cycling ten minutes ago."
"Aye, aye, Sir."
"Com!" Hausman wheeled to his communications officer. "Record for transmission to Captain Cheltwyn."
"Recording," the com officer replied instantly, and Hausman faced the pickup.
"'Sir, Tactical has just detected what may beI repeat, may bea cloaked starship closing my position from'" he glanced at his repeater display "'zero-niner-two one-zero-three at approximately fifteen hundred KPS. I will initiate no hostile action, but if attacked, I will defend myself. Please advise me soonest of your intentions and desires.' Got that?"
"Send it Priority One," Hausman said grimly, and settled back in his chair as the light-speed burst transmission sped across the vacuum. His warning would take over four hours to reach its destination. Any reply would take another four hours to reach him, and, he thought grimly, if that signature was a cloaked ship, that would be at least six hours too long.
The picketing cruiser eased closer to the unsuspecting enemy ship that sat motionless on the warp point. Its active sensors and targeting systems remained on standby, but its missiles were ready, and its mission was simple.
Commander Elswick and Braun stood side by side, staring into the master plot, and Argive's captain shook her head as still more icons appeared. The range was far too great for detailed resolution, but Braun had decided to chance deploying a pair of recon drones. It was a risk, since the drones couldn't cloak, but their drive fields were weak. The chance that someone might notice them was remote, yet they extended Argive's sensor reach over a light-hour further in-system, and what they reported was incredible.
The system swarmed with activity. Drive fields tentatively IDed as freighters moved back and forth between its huge asteroid belt and the inner planets, and the RDs had long-range readings on the mammoth orbital constructs those freighters apparently served. Braun had once spent twenty months in the Sol System on a routine cartography update, and the spaceborne activity of this system dwarfed anything he'd seen there. He pinched the bridge of his nose, then looked up as Lieutenant Channing appeared beside him.
"Commodore, you're not going to believe this," the lieutenant said quietly, "but I've just gotten a look at the third orbital shell. It's not another habitable planetit's two of them."
"Yes, Sir. They're both around one-point-two standard masses, orbiting about a common center." The lieutenant shook his head. "That makes four of them, Sir. Four in one system."
"Lord." Braun shook his own head, trying to imagine the sort of industrial base a star system with four massively populated planets could support.
Excerpted from In Death Ground by David Weber Steve White Copyright © 1997 by David Weber & Steve White. Excerpted by permission.
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