* * *
"Well, you said you wanted to push him into cooking the exercise," Jackie Harmon observed to Alice Truman as the two captains rode the lift down to Harmon's wing briefing room.
"I did," Truman agreed calmly. "On the other hand, I'm a little disappointed in him if this is the best he can do."
"'Best he can do'?" Harmon echoed. The COLAC shook her head. "Let's see, he's increased our vulnerability to detection by about eighty-five percent, reduced our EW's ability to confuse his fire control by the same amount, and reduced the effectiveness of our active defenses by forty percent. Just what exactly did you expect him to do for an encore?"
"Oh, I admit it should do the job," Truman agreed with a chuckle. "He's going to wax most of our wing, though your people are enough better than he's willing to admit that I think he's still going to get hurt a lot worse than he expects. But it's a purely brute force approach... and one he's going to find extremely hard to justify when Admiral Adcock and Admiral Caparelli start asking pointed questions."
The lift came to a stop and the doors slid open, and she went on speaking—in a lowered voice—as she and Harmon stepped out into the passage.
"Reducing your EW is the most arbitrary change he could possibly have made—and it's also one which is totally unjustifiable on the basis of ONI's estimates of Peep capabilities, present or near-term future. He's being so ham-handed I almost feel guilty... as if I've just pushed a baby chick into a pond full of Sphinx near-pike."
"Oh?" Harmon cocked her head to regard Minotaur's captain sidelong, and her smile was wry. "Well, just at the moment, I feel more like the chick, knowing what's coming. So I hope you'll excuse me if I don't feel a great deal of sympathy for the good admiral?"
"I suppose I'll have to," Truman agreed with a theatrical sigh as they reached the briefing room hatch and it opened before them.
"Attention on deck!" Commander McGyver barked as the two captains appeared. He and Barbara Stackowitz had been conducting the preliminary brief, and Harmon smiled again, more wryly even than before, as she sensed her officers' reaction to what they had already heard.
"At ease," Truman told them, and they settled back in their chairs, regarding their superiors warily. Truman took her own seat without another word—she was still the senior officer present, but this was Harmon's domain—and the COLAC folded her arms as she faced her people.
"All right," she said, "the XO and Commander Stackowitz have already given you the bad news. Yes, we're going in with our electronics artificially degraded, and, yes, we're going to get our butts kicked. But along the way, we're going to do a little—"
A sharp, shrill sound interrupted her, and she turned her head quickly. Stackowitz was already reaching for the acceptance key, and she cut the priority com signal off with a sort of dying wheep! The screen lit, and the commander's eyebrows arched in surprise as she recognized Minotaur's executive officer on the display.
"Briefing Four," she told him. "Commander Stackowitz. How can I help you, Sir?"
"I need the Captain, Commander," Commander Haughton replied crisply, and his Gryphon accent was much more pronounced than usual. Truman frowned as she heard it, then crossed to stand beside Stackowitz' chair and lean into the com pickup's field.
"Yes, John? What is it?"
"Captain, we need you on the bridge," Haughton told her flatly. "The FTL net's just reported a bogey, Ma'am—a big bogey, that hasn't pulsed us an arrival notification—and it's headed straight in system at ten thousand KPS, accelerating at four-point-zero KPS squared." He paused and cleared his throat. "I don't know who they are, Ma'am, but they sure aren't ours."