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Chapter Forty-One

The flag cabin boasted an armorplast view port, but it was covered.

That was one of the things Howell hated about wormhole space. He loved to contemplate the stars' sheer, heart-stopping beauty, especially when he needed something other than his orders to think about, yet the mechanics of interstellar flight stripped them away. The approach to the light barrier was spectacular as aberration and the Doppler effect took charge. The ever-contracting starbow drew further and further ahead, vanishing into the blind spot created by the Fasset drive while a ship sped onward through God's own black abyss … until the transition to supralight chopped even that off like an axe. Then there was only the nothingness of wormhole space, no longer black, neither dark nor light, but simply nothing at all, an absence. Howell wasn't one of those unfortunates it sent into uncontrollable hysteria, but it made him … uncomfortable.

He snorted and turned to check the plot repeater. He'd brought only the three fastest freighters this time, and the squadron formed a tight globe about their light dots and that of his flagship. They slowed the warships despite their speed (for freighters), but the squadron was still turning out eight hundred times the speed of light through its own private universe. Or that, at any rate, was the velocity the rest of the universe would have assigned Howell's ships. In fact, not even a Fasset drive ship could actually crack the light barrier. The attempt simply threw it into a sort of subcontinuum where the laws of physics acquired some very strange subclauses.

For one thing, the effective speed of light was far greater here, yet the maximum attainable velocity was limited by the balance between the relativistic mass of a starship and the rest, not the relativistic mass of its Fasset drive's black hole. The astrophysicists still hadn't worked out precisely why that was-the blood tended to get ankle deep whenever the Imperial Society discussed alternate hypotheses-but they'd worked out the math to describe it. The whyfor didn't really matter to spacers like Howell as long as they understood the practical consequences, and the practical consequences were that stopping accelerating was equivalent to decelerating at an ever-steepening gradient, and that continuous acceleration eventually stopped increasing velocity and simply started holding it constant.

He checked his watch. Alexsov would be along shortly, he told himself, chiding his impatience, and returned to brooding over his plot.

They were running blind-another thing he hated about wormhole space. Gravitic detectors could look into it to track the mammoth gravitational anomaly of a supralight ship at up to two light-months, but no one had yet devised a way to peer out of it. Which was why you made damned sure of your course and turnover time before you went in, because you sure as hell couldn't correct in transit. In many ways, wormholing was like crawling into a hole and pulling it in after you, though there were difficulties with that analogy.

For one thing, someone else could crawl into a hole with you, for wormhole space was less a dimension than a frequency. If another ship could match relativistic velocity to within fifteen or twenty percent, his wormhole space and yours were in phase. If he was a friend, that was well and good; if he was an enemy, he could go right on trying to kill you.

Of course, Howell reminded himself with a wry grin, there were problems with pursuing an adversary too closely here. The instant he stopped accelerating, his velocity started to drop; if he did an end-for-end and swung his Fasset drive into your face, his massive deceleration could not only cause you to overrun him but, if he hit it hard enough, also snatch him back into normal space as if he'd dropped anchor. Either way, you were in trouble. If you stayed in phase, his fire was suddenly coming up your backside without interdiction from your drive mass, and if he did drop sublight and your people weren't very, very sharp, you never saw him again. By the time you punched back out into normal space, you might be light-hours away from his n-space locus, probably beyond anything but gravitic detection range, which meant that cutting his drive simply made him disappear.

Still, it was a desperation move for the pursued, as well. If the side shields on his drive mass-or that of one of his enemies-failed, those black holes could crunch him up without even spitting out his bones. Worse, he might actually meet one of them head-on in mutual and absolute destruction, and if it was unlikely, well, unlikely things happened.

Assuming he avoided immolation on his pursuers' Fasset drives, their fire control might just get lucky when they overflew him, and even if they didn't, wormhole trajectories had to be very carefully computed. The least deviation threw off all calculations, and that kind of acceleration change screwed a flight profile to hell and gone. Once he lost his original vector, he had to go sublight and relocate himself before he could program a fresh supralight course, and that could take days, even weeks, of observations. At the very least, that played hell with any ops schedule, and -

A soft, musical chime interrupted his drifting thoughts, and he turned to touch the admittance button. Gregor Alexsov stepped through the hatch, and Howell looked ostentatiously at his watch.

"You're three minutes late. What dire emergency kept you?"

Alexsov's harsh mouth twitched obediently, but both men knew it was only half a jest. Howell had known Alexsov for twelve years, yet they weren't really friends. They came nearer to it than anyone else who knew Alexsov, but that wasn't saying a great deal. Howell's compulsively punctual chief of staff reminded him more of an AI than a human being … which, the commodore thought, was just as well, given their present activities.

"Not an emergency," Alexsov said now. "Just a little delay to counsel Commander Watanabe."

"Watanabe?" Howell cocked his head. "Problems?"

"I don't know. He just seems a little jumpy."

"Um." Howell dropped into a chair and pursed his lips. Months of careful pre-planning had provided him with an initial core of experienced officers, but there were never enough. That was why Control continued his cautious recruitment. Most of the newcomers had slotted neatly into place, but the realities of their duties were grimmer than anyone could truly imagine until he actually got here. A certain percentage proved … unsuitable once they fully realized what would be demanded of them.

"Have you mentioned him to Rachel?"

"Of course." Alexsov stood behind his own chair and shrugged minutely. "That's why I was late. She's promised to keep an eye on him."

Howell nodded, perfectly content to leave the problem of Commander Watanabe in Rachel Shu's capable hands, and turned his mind to other matters.

"So much for him. But I rather doubt he was why you asked to see me."

"Correct. I've been going back over Control's latest data dump, and it worries me."

"Oh?" Howell sat a bit straighter. "Why?"

"Because the more I see of the post-op reports on Mathison's World, the more I realize how badly Control screwed up there. I don't like that-especially not when we're about to hit a target like Elysium."

"Oh, come on, Greg! Control was right on the money about Mathison's defenses, and the planetary maps checked out to the last decimal place. No one could have known that tin can would be in the area!"

"I know, but he should have warned us about DeVries."

Howell leaned back, eyes touched with disbelief, but Alexsov looked back levelly. He was dead serious, the commodore realized.

"There were forty-one thousand people on that planet, Greg, and Alicia DeVries was only one of them. You're asking a bit much if you expect Control to keep track of every sodbuster on every dirtball we hit."

"I'm not asking for that, but a drop commando-any drop commando-isn't exactly a 'sodbuster.' and this drop commando was Alicia DeVries. And then there was the little matter of her grandfather-two Banner of Terra holders for the price of one, and Control didn't think that was significant?" He shook his head disgustedly. "O'Shaughnessy would have been bad enough by himself, but if I'd known DeVries was there, I'd've scheduled an orbital strike on her homestead and had done with it."

"Jesus, Greg! She's only one woman!"

"I was Ctesiphon's senior fire control officer when she supported the Shallingsport Raid," Alexsov said. "I was there, Commodore. Believe me, tangling with someone like her on her own terms isn't cost effective."

Howell grunted, a bit taken aback by Alexsov's vehemence yet forced to agree at least in part. But even so …

"I still can't fault Control when everything else checked out perfectly. And it's not exactly as if she did us irreparable damage."

"I'm not so sure of that." Alexsov's response surprised him yet again. "Certainly the loss of a single assault team wouldn't normally matter very much, but they IDed Singh, so they know where we've been recruiting. I don't know McIlheny, but I've read his dossier. He'll keep on picking at it forever. If he digs deep enough, that could lead him to Control, and none of it would have happened if Control had warned us about DeVries in the first place. Damn it, Commodore," the swear word was highly unusual for Alexsov, "Control's got the conduits to know about things like this, and he's supposed to tell us about them. That is exactly the sort of crack that could blow the entire op wide open."

"All right, Greg!" Howell waved a placating hand. "But cool down. Done is done-and I'm sure Control will try even harder in future. In fact, I'll have Rachel send him a specific request to that effect. Will that suit?"

"It'll have to, I suppose," Alexsov said dourly, and Howell knew that was as close to agreement as he was going to get. Alexsov seemed personally affronted by the surprise he'd suffered, but it was that very perfectionism (and the ice-water in his veins) which made him ideal for his job.

"Good. In that case, how'd your trip to Wyvern go?"

"Quite well, actually." Alexsov finally sank into the waiting chair. "I placed our initial orders with Quintana. He seems unperturbed by the change in our priorities-no doubt because of how much he stands to make-and he assures me he can acquire anything we need and dispose of anything we send him. We won't see quite the same return on industrial and bulk items, since he'll be dumping them on less advanced Rogue Worlds outside the sector, but I think that's well worthwhile from the security perspective, and it sounds as if we'll actually make out better on luxury items through his channels than we did through the Lizards. I expect revenues to balance out overall, and it's not exactly as if we were in this for the profit, is it, Sir?"

"No," Howell agreed. "No, it's not." He sighed. "I take it you've had time to sit down with Rendlemann and discuss Elysium. Satisfied?"

"Yes, Sir. We've discussed a couple of minor changes, and we'll be running them on the simulator to see how they pan out."

"Got any specific concern over Control's intelligence on this one?"

"Not really, Sir." Alexsov rationed himself to a slight headshake. "It's more a matter of once burned, I suppose, but I've made a point of sharing Control's report on the DeVries episode with all of our assault team commanders, just in case. Still, this one will be more of a smash and grab job with the troops in battle armor, anyway, so unless Control's screwed up in some truly major respect, we shouldn't have any problems groundside."

"Anyone seem worried about hitting an Incorporated World's defense?"

"I think there's a bit of dry-mouth here and there, but nothing too serious, and having Admiral Gomez's deployment orders could help defuse what there is of it. With your permission, I intend to post them where the team leaders can check them personally to reassure their people we'll be clear."

"Is that a good idea? This'll be our toughest job yet, and you can bet anyone who's captured is going to talk, one way or another."

"I don't believe that will be a problem, Sir. The troops will all be in battle armor, and I've had a word with Major Reiter. The suicide charges will be armed and rigged for remote detonation." Alexsov smiled a thin, cold smile that chilled Howell's blood, but his conversational tone never changed. "I don't see any reason to mention that. Do you, Sir?"

* * * | In Fury Born | * * *