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Chapter Thirty-Two

The alarm buzzed very quietly. Lieutenant Gaines would always remember thathow quiet it had been, how civilized. As if the central computer were merely clearing its throat politely to get his attention.

It was only later, in the nightmares that lasted for so many years, that he realized how utterly inappropriate that peaceful sound had been.

He reached out and killed the alarm, then checked the master plot. The cool K2 primary of the Seaford Nine System floated at the holo tank's center, and he frowned as his eyes swept the sphere indicating the star's hyper limit, searching for the icon that had to be there. Then they found it, and he nodded and began punching commands into his console.

The computers considered his instructions and obediently lit a smaller holo directly in front of him. It didn't have much detail yetjust a single blur of light blinking the alternating red and amber of an unknown, possibly hostile contact. His gravitic sensors had picked up the FTL hyper footprint, but at anything over two or three light-minutes, even the best sensors couldn't tell much about the sizes or numbers of ships which had created any given footprint. He needed individual impeller signatures before he could make that sort of estimate, and he waited patiently for the newcomers to light off their drives.

It was most probably simply an unscheduled friendly arrival, he thought, although, failing that, it might be one of the increasingly infrequent Peep scout ships. Gaines almost hoped it was. The Peeps seemed to pick their hottest hotshots for the occasional, screaming sensor pass, and watching Admiral Hennesy maneuver to try to intercept them had always been entertaining and sometimes downright exciting. He hadn't seen Admiral Santino in action yet, either, and he was curious about how well he'd stack up against the officer he'd relieved.

Then again, he reflected, the duration figure on the footprint would almost have to indicate a multiship transit, now wouldn't it? Hmmm...

That made the unscheduled friendlies rather more likely, he judged. Still, he couldn't rule out the possibility of three or four scout ships intended to work in concert, and a multibogie intercept of that sort would be even more entertaining than most, but it was going to take a while to figure out which it was. He nodded to himself as symbols began to blink beside the fuzzy haze in his display. They were picking up impeller drives now, but the range was still long, and he waited as the system began painstakingly enhancing the faint emissions which had attracted the computer's attention.

There were reasons it took so long. Not good ones, in Gaines' humble opinion, but reasons nonetheless. There had once been plans to provide Seaford with an FTL sensor shell as good as any other Manticoran fleet base outside the home system, but somehow those plans had gone awry. Personally, Gaines suspected the paperwork was simply lost somewhere in the bowels of BuShips' Logistics Command. He'd always figured Logistics was the closest humankind was ever likely to come to producing a genuine black hole, because any work orders or parts requests that came within shouting distance of it were doomed to be sucked in, mangled, and forever vanish from the known universe.

Of course, he could be wrong in this instance. Despite the mammoth orbital facilities the Peeps had put in before Sir Yancey Parks took the system away from them, Seaford had never had all that high a priority for the Royal Manticoran Navy. BuShips and BuWeaps had spent a year or two going absolutely wild over the opportunity to get a detailed look inside the Peeps' tech establishment. But once they'd finished crawling through every nook and cranny of the repair bases and parts storage depots and asteroid smelters, and inspecting the contents of the magazines, and carting off samples of the latest Peep computer hardware, the Star Kingdom really hadn't had all that much use for the base.

Oh, it was bigger than Hancock. In theory, the RMN could have taken over the old Peep shipyards and used them for its own construction programs. And if the Star Kingdom didn't want to do that, even the limited portions of the repair facilities it had chosen to crew could have supported a considerably larger local defense force than Hancock Station did. Unfortunately, Seaford Nine's equipment was crap compared to Manticoran hardware, and the system had no local population or even habitable planets. Upgrading the yard to Alliance standards and shipping in a work force large enough to operate it would have cost almost as much as it would have cost to build new building slips from scratch, and the system itself was badly placed as a major defensive node. Hancock was in a much better position for that, and the only reason Parks had wanted Seaford in the first place was to eliminate its threat to the long-haul Manticore-Basilisk hyper route and deny the Peeps a springboard against Hancock, Zanzibar, Alizon, Yorik, or any of the other Allied systems in the area.

Plans had been drawn at one point to upgrade at least the repair portion of the system's infrastructure to Manticoran standards despite the cost, and those plans were taken out and dusted off periodically. But the Navy was stretched too tight to make the project worthwhile. The Admiralty had acknowledged that months ago when it began pulling out picket ships for refit at Hancock or the home system without bothering to replace them. If there was anyplace the Star Kingdom had decided it could do without, Seaford Nine was it. And so there wasn't really very much here: a fairly good-sized caretaker detachment of techs to keep the huge, mostly empty main repair base more-or-less operational, two squadrons of heavy cruisers, and a reinforced division of superdreadnoughts, supported by a half-squadron of battlecruisers and a couple of destroyers. And, of course, one Lieutenant Heinrich Gaines, Senior Officer Commanding Her Majesty's Sensor Station, Seaford Nine.

It sounded impressive as hell, he thought with a chuckle, but the same considerations which gave the system such a low priority for modernization and enlargement had also reduced its priority for first-line sensor equipment. He had an extremely limited FTL net, built mostly on first and second-generation platforms only a very little better than those Lady Harrington had employed in the Second Battle of Yeltsin. They had a far slower data transmission rate than the new third-generation systems he'd heard rumors about, and

His ruminations chopped off as the holo at his console sudden dissolved and reformed. He stared at it, feeling his eyebrows try to crawl up into his hairline, and his mouth was suddenly dry.

The information wasn't complete. Over half the identifying data codes continued to blink, indicating that the computers had been forced to assign tentative IDs pending better data resolution, and the emission sources were still right on the K2 primary's 16.72 LM hyper limit, which put them over ten light-minutes from Gaines' main sensor arrays. That meant everything he did knowaside from the impeller signatures, which were FTL themselveswas better than ten minutes old by the time he saw it. But even the limited data he had was enough to turn his belly to frozen lead.

He looked at the display a moment longer, then punched a priority code into his com. The delay seemed interminable, though it could not in fact have been more than five or ten seconds, and then a voice spoke in his earbug.

"Task Group Combat Information Center," it announced in professional tones that still managed to sound ineffably bored. "Commander Jaruwalski."

"CIC, this is Sensor One," Gaines said crisply. "I have unknownrepeat, unknownvessels entering the star system, bearing one-seven-seven zero-niner-eight relative from the primary, range from base ten-point-seven-seven light-minutes. They have not transmitted an FTL arrival report."

"Unknown vessels?" The boredom had vanished from Jaruwalski's voice, and Gaines could picture the commander snapping upright in her chair. "Class IDs?" she demanded.

"I'm working with light-speed sensors here, Commander," Gaines reminded her. "My gravities make it" he double-checked to be certain "fifty-four point sources. At present" He paused and cleared his throat. "At present, the computers are calling it fifteen to twenty of the wall and at least ten battleships. That's based solely on the strengths of their impeller signatures, but the data enhancement looks solid, Ma'am."

For just a moment, there was total silence from the other end of the com, but Gaines could almost hear the thoughts flashing through Jaruwalski's brain. Twenty-five capital shipsminimumwas hardly a typical raiding force. And the three superdreadnoughts and four battlecruisers of the Seaford Picket could never stand up to what was headed for them.

"Understood, Sensor One," Jaruwalski said after several seconds. "Patch your output straight through to me and do what you can to refine it."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am." Gaines felt immensely relieved to have passed the knowledge on to someone elsesomeone senior to him, who had become responsible for dealing with it. All he had to do now was keep the information flowing... and hope he could somehow survive what he knew was about to happen.

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