HMS Fearless decelerated smoothly towards a stop as she passed the inner perimeter of the Junction defenses. She was just under one day out of Manticore orbit, and Manticore System's G0 primary and its G2 companion were dim behind her, reduced to two more stars amid millions, for the Junction lay almost seven light-hours from them.
The duty watch manned their stations alertly, and a stranger on Fearless's bridge might not have recognized the air of gloom which clung to them. But a stranger, Honor thought, reaching up to rub Nimitz's jaw absently, wouldn't have lived with these people for weeks now. A stranger wouldn't recognize their humiliation at being condemned to Basilisk Station, or the way they'd withdrawn ever deeper into their shells until the duties they performed were all they really had in common with their captain.
She leaned back, hiding her desire to sigh sadly behind a calm face, and watched the tactical display. Fearless's projected vector stretched across it, terminating right on the half light-second outbound departure threshold of the Junction. The light cruiser's green bead tracked steadily down the thin line, threading its way through the mammoth defenses, and even in her own depression, Honor felt a familiar tingle at the firepower ringing the invisible doorway between the stars.
The smallest fortress out there massed close to sixteen million tons, twice as much as a superdreadnought, and its weapons-to-mass ratio was far higher. The forts weren't hyper-capable, for they used mass a warship might have devoted to its hyper generators and Warshawski sails to pack in still more firepower, but they were far more than immobile weapon platforms. They had to be.
Each of those forts maintained a stand-by battle watch and a 360º sidewall "bubble" at all times, but no one at this end of the Junction could know anyone was coming through it until they arrived, and no one could remain eternally vigilant. Thus a sneak attack—from, say, Trevor's Star—would always have the advantage of surprise; the attacker would arrive ready for battle, already seeking out targets for his weapons, while the defenders were still reacting to his arrival in their midst.
That was why no defensive planner placed his permanent defenses closer than a half million kilometers or so to a junction. If a hostile task force emerged within energy weapon range of the defenses, those defenses would be destroyed before they could reply, but ships transiting a wormhole junction arrived with a normal-space velocity of barely a few dozen kilometers per second, far too little for a high-speed attack run. With the closest forts so far from him and too little speed for a quick run-in to energy weapon range, any attacker must rely on missiles, and even impeller-drive missiles would require almost thirty-five seconds to reach them. Thus the forts' duty watches—in theory, at least—had time to reach full readiness while the weapons accelerated towards them. In practice, Honor suspected, most of them would still be coming on-line when the missiles arrived, which was why their point defense (unlike their offensive weaponry) was designed for emergency computer override even in peacetime.
In time of war, the forts would be augmented by thickly seeded remote laser platforms—old-fashioned, bomb-pumped laser satellites—much closer in and programmed to automatically engage anything not positively identified as friendly, but such measures were never used in peacetime. Accidents could always happen, and the accidental destruction of a passenger liner whose IFF wasn't recognized could be embarrassing, to say the very least. An attacker would still have sufficient surprise advantage for his energy batteries to kill a lot of satellites before they could respond, but enough of them would survive to handle him very roughly indeed.
Nonetheless, heavy losses could be anticipated in the inner fortress ring under the best possible circumstances, so the "forts" in the outer rings had to be able to move to fill in the gaps and mass upon an attacker. Their maximum acceleration rates were low, well under a hundred gravities, but their initial positions had been very carefully planned. Their acceleration would be enough to intercept attacking forces headed in-system, and their engines were sufficiently powerful to generate impeller wedges and sidewalls to protect them.
Nor was the threat of a wormhole assault the only reason for those forts, for the twenty-three and a half hours Fearless had required to reach the Junction underscored another defensive problem. Both wormholes and stars had hyper limits, within which no ship could enter or leave hyper. For junctions, the limit was, less than a million kilometers; for a G0 star, it was twenty-two light-minutes. But any wormhole terminus and the star with which it was associated created a roughly cone-shaped volume of mutual interference, lethal to any ship passing through it, in hyper-space's lowest bands. The danger volume wasn't perfectly cone-shaped, and each wormhole and star created its own unique threat zone, which generally threw off spurs about the wormhole itself. Because the Manticore System was a binary, with danger volumes for each star, the Junction's closed areas were more complicated than most, but there were always clear zones around the outer perimeter of any wormhole, gaps through which the wormhole could be approached from hyper. Which meant that while a defensive fleet stationed in orbit around Manticore or Gryphon would require a full day to reach the Junction through n-space, an assault from outside the system could (in theory, at least) drop out of hyper right on top of the Junction and already shooting.
In fact, it was less simple than that. Cutting a translation out of hyper that close was virtually impossible, so the attackers would almost certainly have to maneuver in n-space to get into attack range, which should give the forts time to detect them and, using their mobility, redeploy to meet their attack.
Yet for all their numbers, firepower, and mobility, the fortresses were too weak to stop a worst-case, multiple-transit attack by an opponent as powerful as the Havenite Navy. And that, she told herself moodily as Fearless killed the last of her speed and slid to a halt, was the real reason Manticore had annexed Basilisk in the first place.
The central nexus was the key to any wormhole junction. Ships could transit from the central nexus to any secondary terminus and from any secondary terminus to the central nexus, but they could not transit directly from one secondary terminus to another. Economically, that gave Manticore a tremendous advantage, even against someone who might control two or more of the Manticore Junction's termini; militarily, the reverse was true.
There was an inviolable ceiling, varying somewhat from junction to junction, on the maximum tonnage which could transit a wormhole junction terminus simultaneously. In Manticore's case, it lay in the region of two hundred million tons, which set the upper limit on any assault wave the RMN could dispatch to any single Junction terminus. Yet each use of a given terminus-to-terminus route created a "transit window"—a temporary destabilization of that route for a period proportionate to the square of the mass making transit. A single four-million-ton freighter's transit window was a bare twenty-five seconds, but a two-hundred-million-ton assault wave would shut down its route for over seventeen hours, during which it could neither receive reinforcements nor retreat whence it had come. Which meant, of course, that if an attacker chose to use a large assault wave, he'd better be absolutely certain that wave was nasty enough to win.
But if the attacker controlled more than a single secondary terminus, he could send the same tonnage to the central nexus through each of them without worrying about transit windows, since none would use exactly the same route. Choreographing such an assault would require meticulous planning and synchronization—not an easy matter for fleets hundreds of light-years apart, however good the staff work—yet if it could be pulled off, it would allow an attack in such strength that no conceivable fortifications could stop it.
Not even Manticore's, Honor thought as Fearless slowed to rest relative to the Junction. Even though the Junction fortresses accounted for almost thirty percent of the RMN's budget, the security—or at least neutrality—of the Junction's other termini simply had to be guaranteed.
"We have readiness clearance from Junction Central, Ma'am," Lieutenant Webster announced. "Number eight for transit."
"Thank you, Com." She glanced at her maneuvering display as the scarlet numeral "8" appeared beside Fearless's cursor, then turned her gaze to the duty helmsman. McKeon sat silently beside Lieutenant Venizelos at Tactical, but her eyes passed over him without even acknowledging his presence. "Put us in the outbound lane, Chief Killian."
"Aye, aye, Ma'am. Coming to outbound heading." Killian fell silent for a moment, then, "In the lane, Captain."
Honor nodded her satisfaction and glanced up at the visual display just as a stupendous bulk carrier erupted from the junction. It was an incredible sight, one she never tired of, and the display's magnification brought it to arm's length. That ship had to mass over five million tons, yet it blinked into sight like some sort of insubstantial ghost, a soap bubble that solidified into megatons of alloy in the blink of an eye. Its huge, immaterial Warshawski sails were circular, azure mirrors, bright and brilliant for just an instant as radiant transit energy bled quickly into nothingness, and then it folded its wings. The invisible sails reconfigured into impeller stress bands, and the freighter slowly gathered way, accelerating out of the nexus while it cleared its final destination with Junction Central and requested insertion into the proper outbound lane to continue its voyage.
Fearless moved steadily forward with the other outbound vessels. In time of peace, she had no greater priority than any of the gargantuan merchantmen who dwarfed her to insignificance, and Honor leaned back in her chair to savor the bustle and purposeful energy of the Junction in action.
Under normal circumstances, the Junction handled inbound and outbound vessels at an average rate of one every three minutes, day in and day out, year after year. Freight carriers, survey vessels, passenger ships, inner-world colony transports, private couriers and mail packets, warships of friendly powers—the volume of traffic was incredible, and avoiding collisions in normal-space required unrelenting concentration by the controllers. The entire Junction was a sphere scarcely a light-second in diameter, and while that should have been plenty of space, each terminus had its own outbound and inbound vector. Transiting to the proper destination required that those vectors be adhered to very precisely indeed (especially when not even Junction Central knew exactly who might be inbound from where at any given moment), and that meant traffic was confined to extremely limited areas of the Junction's volume.
Chief Killian held Fearless's place in the outbound queue without further orders, and Honor punched up Engineering as they neared the departure beacon. Commander Santos appeared on her small com screen.
"Commander. Stand by to reconfigure to Warshawski sail on my command."
"Aye, Ma'am. Standing by to reconfigure."
Honor nodded, watching the freighter ahead of them drift further forward, hesitate for just an instant, and then blink out of visibility. The numeral on her maneuvering display changed to "1," and she turned to Webster and quirked an eyebrow, waiting out the seconds until he nodded.
"We're cleared to transit, Ma'am," he reported.
"Very good. Transmit my thanks to Junction Central," she said, and looked back at Chief Killian. "Take us in, Helm."
"Aye, aye, Ma'am."
Fearless drifted forward at a mere twenty gravities' acceleration, aligning herself perfectly on the invisible rails of the Junction, and Honor watched her display intently. Thank God for computers. If she'd had to work out the math for this sort of thing, she'd probably have cut her own throat years ago, but computers didn't mind if the person using them was a mathematical idiot. All they needed was the right input, and, unlike certain Academy instructors she could name, they didn't wait with exaggerated patience until they got it, either.
Fearless's light code flashed bright green as the cruiser settled into exact position, and Honor nodded to Santos.
"Rig foresail for transit."
"Aye, aye, Ma'am. Rigging foresail—now."
No observer would have noted any visible change in the cruiser, but Honor's instrumentation told the tale as Fearless's impeller wedge dropped abruptly to half-strength. Her forward nodes no longer generated their portion of the normal-space stress bands; instead, they had reconfigured to produce a circular disk of focused gravitation that extended for over three hundred kilometers in every direction from the cruiser's hull. The Warshawski sail, useless in normal-space, was the secret of hyper travel, and the Junction was simply a focused funnel of hyper-space, like the eye of a hurricane frozen forever in normal-space terms.
"Stand by to rig aftersail on my mark," Honor murmured as Fearless continued to creep forward under the power of her aft-impellers alone. A new readout flickered to life, and she watched its numerals dance steadily upward as the foresail moved deeper and deeper into the Junction. There was a safety margin of almost fifteen seconds either way, but no captain wanted to look sloppy in a maneuver like this, and—
The twinkling numbers crossed the threshold. The foresail was now drawing sufficient power from the tortured grav waves twisting eternally through the Junction to provide movement, and she nodded sharply to Santos.
"Rig aftersail now," she said crisply.
"Rigging aftersail," the engineer replied, and Fearless twitched as her impeller wedge disappeared entirely and a second Warshawski sail sprang to life at the far end of her hull from the first.
Honor watched Chief Killian closely, for the transition from impeller to sail was one of the trickier maneuvers a coxswain had to deal with, but the diminutive CPO didn't even blink. His hands and fingers moved with complete confidence, gentling the cruiser through the conversion with barely a quiver. She noted his competence with satisfaction, then turned her attention back to her maneuvering display as Fearless gathered still more forward way.
Killian held her rock-steady, and Honor blinked as the first, familiar wave of queasiness assailed her. Very few people ever really adjusted to the indescribable sensation of crossing the wall between n-space and hyper-space, and it was worse in a junction transit, for the gradient was far steeper. By the same token, however, it was over sooner, she reminded herself, and concentrated on looking unbothered as the rippling nausea grew stronger.
The maneuvering display blinked again, and then, for an instant no chronometer or human sense could measure, HMS Fearless ceased to exist. One moment she was here, in Manticore space; the next she was there, six hundred light-minutes from the star named Basilisk, just over two hundred and ten light-years distant in Einsteinian space, and Honor swallowed in relief as her nausea vanished, disappearing with the transit energy radiating from Fearless's sails.
"Transit complete," Chief Killian reported.
"Thank you, Helm. That was well executed," Honor replied, but most of her attention was back on the sail interface readout, watching the numbers spiral downward even more rapidly than they had risen. "Engineering, reconfigure to impeller."
"Aye, aye, Ma'am. Reconfiguring to impeller now."
Fearless folded her sails back into her impeller wedge and moved forward more rapidly, accelerating steadily down the Basilisk outbound traffic lane, and Honor gave an inner nod of satisfaction. Shiphandling was one of the very few areas in which she never questioned her own competence, and the routine maneuver had gone as smoothly as even she could have asked for. She hoped that might be a sign for the future.
The light codes were far sparser in the tactical display than they had been in Manticore, she noted. There were no fortifications at all, only a cluster of navigation buoys and the small (relatively speaking) bulk of Basilisk Traffic Control, almost lost in the clutter of merchantmen awaiting transit.
"Com, notify Basilisk Control of our arrival and request instructions."
"Aye, aye, Ma'am," Webster replied, and Honor leaned back and laid her forearms along the command chair's armrests. They were here. They'd hit rock bottom, for no less appealing assignment could have been devised, but perhaps she could turn that into an asset. Surely they had nowhere to go but up! And for all its indignity, Basilisk Station should give them time to put the disastrous maneuvers behind and settle down into the sort of ship's company she'd envisioned from the start.
She felt Nimitz's tail steal around her throat and hoped she wasn't just whistling in the dark.
"Message from Basilisk Control, Captain."
Honor twitched herself up out of her thoughts and gestured for Webster to continue.
"We are instructed to proceed to Medusa orbit to rendezvous with the picket's senior officer aboard HMS Warlock, Ma'am."
"Thank you." Honor managed to keep any trace of derision out of her response, but Fearless had held her initial parking position two light-seconds from the terminus for almost forty minutes. In total, she'd been in Basilisk space for over fifty-three minutes, which seemed to indicate some pretty sloppy message traffic management aboard Basilisk Control. Fearless's routing instructions must have been transmitted to Control well before her arrival, given the current ten-hour-plus transmission lag between the terminus and Medusa, Basilisk's single habitable planet. The fact that Control had required the next best thing to an hour just to find them did not, she thought, augur well for its efficiency in other matters.
"Thank them for the information," she went on after a moment, and turned her chair to face Lieutenant Stromboli. "Do you have a course for Medusa, Lieutenant?"
"Uh, no, Ma'am." The beefy lieutenant flushed under her steady regard, then became very busy plugging figures into his console.
She waited patiently, though he should have worked up the heading for Medusa almost by reflex, as that was obviously their most probable destination. An on the bounce astrogator tried to anticipate his captain's needs without prompting, and Stromboli's flush showed his own awareness of that. He bit his lip as he concentrated on his panel, and his eyes refused to meet hers while he worked, as if he expected her to bite his head off at any moment.
She didn't. If one of her officers needed reprimanding, she would attend to it in private, just as she made it a point to deliver praise in public. Surely they ought to be figuring that much out by now! She bit off another sigh and refrained from tapping her toe on the deck.
"Course is zero-eight-seven by zero-one-one at four hundred gravities, with turnover in one-five-point-zero-seven hours, Ma'am," Stromboli announced finally.
"Thank you, Lieutenant," Honor said gravely, and he flushed more darkly yet. No need for a reprimand there, she decided. Stromboli was unlikely to embarrass himself that way a second time. She glanced at Killian.
"Make it so, Helm."
"Aye, aye, Ma'am. Coming to zero-eight-seven zero-one-one. Acceleration four-zero-zero gravities," Killian replied in a deadpan voice, and Fearless swung onto her new heading and began accelerating. The silence on her bridge was uncomfortable, like that of school children caught out on a pop quiz by a new teacher.
"Punch up Warlock, please, Tactical. Let's find out who our senior officer is," Honor said, more to break the uneasy quiet than for any other reason—though, now that she thought about it, Basilisk Control should have passed that information along already. More sloppiness. Maybe it was a side effect of being banished here, but she certainly intended to see that it wasn't allowed to infect her ship, as well.
She was reaching for the insulated cup of cocoa in her armrest beverage holder when Venizelos reported.
"Here it is, Ma'am. HMS Warlock, CA Two-Seven-Seven. Three hundred k-tons. She's a Star Knight-class. Captain Lord Pavel Young, commanding."
Honor's hand froze three centimeters from her cup, then continued its progress. It was a tiny hesitation, no more than a second in length, but Commander McKeon looked up sharply, and his eyes narrowed at her expression.
It was a subtle thing, more sensed than seen, an infinitesimal tightening of her lips. The ridges of her sharply-defined cheekbones stood out for just an instant, and her nostrils flared. That was all—but the treecat on the back of her chair rose to his full height, ears flat, lip curled back to bare needle-tipped fangs, and his true-hands tensed to show half a centimeter of curved, white claw.
"Thank you, Lieutenant." Harrington's voice was as courteous and level as ever, but there was something in it—an uneasiness, a cold bitterness at odds with his maddeningly self-possessed captain.
He watched her sip her cocoa and replace the cup neatly, and his mind raced as he tried to recall if he'd ever heard of Lord Pavel Young. Nothing came to him, and he bit the inside of his lip.
Was there something between her and Young? Something which would affect Fearless? Her flash of immobility, coupled with the treecat's powerful reaction, certainly seemed to suggest there was, and with any other captain, he would have found some excuse to ask her in private. Not out of morbid curiosity, but because it was his job to know about such things, to protect his ship and his commanding officer from anything that would hamper their efficiency.
Yet the barriers sealing him off from Harrington had grown too thick for that. He felt them rising into place, holding him in his chair, and then Harrington stood. She rose without haste, but he seemed to sense a jerkiness to her movement, a hidden urgency.
"Commander McKeon, you have the watch. I'll be in my quarters."
"Aye, aye, Ma'am. I have the watch," he acknowledged automatically. She nodded, dark eyes looking right through him with a curious, dangerous hardness, then scooped up her treecat and strode into the bridge lift. The door closed behind her.
McKeon rose and crossed to the command chair, settling into it and feeling the warmth her body had left behind. He made himself look away from the bland lift door and leaned back against the contoured cushions, wondering what fresh disaster was headed Fearless's way.