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David Weber

At All Costs

Prologue

The big Aviary-class CLACs and their escorting battlecruisers crossed the Alpha wall into normal-space just outside the hyper limit. There were only two of the superdreadnought-sized vessels, but their LAC bays spat out almost six hundred light attack craft, and if the Republic of Haven's Cimeterre-class LACs were shorter-legged, more lightly armed, and nowhere near so capable as the Star Kingdom of Manticore's Shrikes and Ferrets, they were more than adequate for their current assignment.

They accelerated in-system, building vectors towards the industrial infrastructure of the Alizon System, and discovered an unanticipated bit of good fortune. A pair of lumbering freighters, both squawking Manticoran IDs and bumbling along on the same general flight plan, found themselves squarely in the path of the incoming storm and already within extreme missile range. They accelerated desperately, but the LACs had an overtake velocity of over a thousand KPS at the moment they were first detected, and the freighters' maximum acceleration rate was little more than two hundred gravities. The Cimeterres were capable of very nearly seven hundred, and they were armed... which the merchantmen weren't.

'Manticoran freighters, this is Captain Javits of the Republican Navy,' a harsh, Haven-accented voice said over the civilian guard frequency. 'You are instructed to kill your impellers and abandon ship immediately. Under the terms of applicable interstellar law, I formally inform you that we do not have the capacity to board and search your vessels or to take them as prizes. Therefore, I will open fire upon them and destroy them in twenty standard minutes from... now. Get your people off immediately. Javits, clear.'

One of the two freighters killed her impellers immediately. The other skipper was more stubborn. He continued to accelerate, as if he thought he might somehow still save his ship, but he wasn't an idiot, either. It took him all of five minutes to realize-or, at least, to accept-that he had no chance, and his impellers, too, went abruptly cold.

Shuttles spilled from the two merchant ships, scuttling away from them at their maximum acceleration as if they expected the Havenite LACs to open fire upon them. But the Republic hewed scrupulously to the requirements of interstellar law. Its warships meticulously waited out the time limit Javits had stipulated, then, precisely on the tick, launched a single pair of missiles at each drifting freighter.

The old-fashioned nuclear warheads did the job just fine.

The Cimeterres sped onward, ignoring the dissipating balls of plasma which had once been somewhere in the vicinity of fourteen million tons of merchant shipping. Their destruction, after all, was a mere sideshow. Ahead of the Havenite units, a half-dozen destroyers and a division of RMN Star Knight-class CAs accelerated to meet them. The range was still too long for the Cimeterres to actually see the defenders, but the remote reconnaissance platforms spreading out ahead of the LACs were another matter, and Captain Bertram Javits grimaced as he took note of the drones' relayed report of the defenders' acceleration rates.

'They're not killing themselves to come out and meet us, are they, Skip?' Lieutenant Constanza Sheffield, his executive officer observed.

'No, they aren't,' Javits said, and gestured at the cramped, utilitarian LAC's bare-bones plot. 'Which probably means Intelligence is right about what they've got covering the inner system,' he told her.

'In that case, this is gonna hurt,' she said.

'Yes, it is. If not quite as much as they hope it will,' Javits agreed. Then he punched a new combination into his com panel. 'All Wolverines, this is Wolverine One. From their acceleration rate, it looks like they've got to be towing pods. And from the fact that there's so few of them, I have to assume Intelligence is right about their defensive stance. So instead of walking obligingly into the inner system, we're shifting to Sierra Three. We'll change course at Point Victor-Able on my command in another forty-five minutes. Review your Sierra Three targeting queues and stand by for a defensive missile engagement. Wolverine One, clear.'

The range continued to fall, and the recon platforms began to report widespread active sensor emissions. Some were probably search systems, but the primary search platforms for any star system were passive, not active. So the odds were high that most of those active emitters were tied into fire control systems of one sort or another.

Javits watched his own platforms' telemetry as it streamed across his plot's sidebars. The far more capable computer support aboard the CLACs and battlecruisers which had launched the platforms could undoubtedly do more with the data they were acquiring, and he knew how the tech teams back at Bolthole would salivate when they got a look at it. All that was rather secondary to his own calculations, however, since those calculations were mostly concerned with how to keep as many as possible of his people alive through the next few hours.

'Looks like we've got four main nets of platforms on this side of the primary, Skipper,' his XO said finally. 'Two of them spread to cover the ecliptic, and one high and one low. Gives them pretty fair coverage of the entire sphere of the limit, but they're obviously concentrating on the ecliptic.'

'The question, of course, Constanza,' he replied dryly, 'is how many pods each of those 'clusters' of yours represent.'

'Well, that and how many pods they want us to think they have, Sir,' Lieutenant Joseph Cook, Javits' tactical officer pointed out.

'That, too,' Javits conceded. 'Under the circumstances, though, I'm prepared to be fairly pessimistic on that particular point, Joe. And they've clearly gone ahead and deployed the sensor platforms to control the pods. Those're probably at least as expensive as the pods themselves would be, so I'd say there's a good chance they wouldn't have deployed them if they hadn't also deployed the pods for them to control.'

'Yes, Sir.'

Lieutenant Cook's expression and manner couldn't have been more respectful, but Javits knew what he was thinking. Given the totality of the surprise Operation Thunderbolt had achieved, and the equally total incompetence of the previous Manticoran government, it was entirely possible-even likely-that Alizon's defenses had not been significantly upgraded in the immediate run up to the resumption of hostilities. In which case the defenders might, indeed, be attempting to bluff Javits into believing they had more to work with than they really did. On the other hand, there'd been time since Thunderbolt for the Manties to ship a couple of freighter loads of their multi-drive missile pods out here. And however incompetent Prime Minister High Ridge might have been, the new Alexander Government knew its ass from a hole in the ground. If those additional missiles hadn't been shipped out and deployed, the recon platforms would have been reporting a far heavier system picket than they were actually seeing.

'We're coming up on course change, Skipper,' Sheffield told him several minutes later, and he nodded.

'Range to the nearest active sensor platforms?' he asked.

'Closest approach, twelve seconds after we alter course, will be about sixty-four million kilometers,' she replied.

'A million inside their maximum effective range from rest,' Javits observed, and grimaced. 'I wish there was another way to find out if Intelligence knows what it's talking about.'

'You and me both, Skip,' Sheffield agreed, but she also shrugged. 'At least we're the ones calling the tune for the dance this time.'

Javits nodded and watched the icon representing his massive flight of LACs sweeping closer and closer to the blinking green crosshair which represented Point Victor-Able. By this time, the Cimeterres had traveled almost thirty-three million kilometers and were up to a velocity of over twenty thousand kilometers per second. The Manty picket ships were still accelerating to meet them, but it was obvious that they had no intention of entering standard missile range of that many LACs. Well, Javits wouldn't have either, if he'd been towing pods stuffed full of multi- drive missiles with a standoff range of over three light-minutes. However good Manticoran combat systems might have been, six hundred-plus LACs would have swarmed over that handful of ships like hungry pseudo-piranha if they could get into range of their own weapons. If there'd been heavy defending units in-system, things might have been different, but in that case, Javits would never have come close enough for them to get a shot at him in the first

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