The earliest signs of trouble reached them faintly across distance.
Fifty astronomical units from Zoria and well off the ecliptic plane, the
Hooligan phased out of hyperdrive into normal state. Engines idle, she
drifted at low kinetic velocity among stars, her destination sun only
the brightest; and instruments strained after traces.
Flandry took readings and made computations. His lips tightened. “A
substantial space fleet, including what’s got to be a Nova-class
dreadnaught,” he told Kossara and Chives. “In orbits or under
accelerations that fit the pattern of a battle-ready naval force.”
The girl clenched her fists. “What can have happened?”
“We’ll sneak in and eavesdrop.”
Faster-than-light pseudospeed would give them away to detectors. (Their
Schrodinger “wake” must already have registered, but no commander was
likely to order interception of a single small vessel which he could
assume would proceed until routinely checked by a picket craft.)
However, in these far regions they could drive hard on force-thrust
without anybody observing or wondering why. Nearing the inner system,
where ships and meters were thick, Flandry plotted a roundabout course.
It brought him in behind the jovian planet Svarog, whose gravitational,
magnetic, and radiation fields screened the emissions of Hooligan.
Amidst all fears for home and kin, Kossara exclaimed at the majestic
sight as they passed within three million kilometers–amber-glowing
disc, swarming moons–and at the neatness wherewith the planet swung
them, their power again turned off, into the orbit Flandry wanted,
between its own and that of Perun to sunward.
“With every system aboard at zero or minimum, we should pass for a rock
if a radar or whatever sweeps us,” he explained. “And we’ll catch
transmissions from Dennitza–maybe intercept a few messages between
ships, though I expect those’ll be pretty boring.”
“How I hope you are right,” Kossara said with a forlorn chuckle.
He regarded her, beside him in the control cabin. Interior illumination
was doused, heating, weight generator, anything which might betray. They
hung loosely harnessed in their seats, bodies if not minds enjoying the
fantasy state of free fall. As yet, cold was no more than a nip in the
air Chives kept circulating by a creaky hand-cranked fan. Against the
clear canopy, stars crowned her head. On the opposite side, still small
at this remove, Zoria blazed between outspread wings of zodiacal light.
“They’re definitely Technic warcraft,” he said, while wishing to speak
her praises. “The neutrino patterns alone prove it. From what we’ve now
learned, closer in, about their numbers and types, they seem to match
your description of the Dennitzan fleet, though there’re some I think
must belong to the Imperium. My guess is, the Gospodar has gathered
Dennitza’s own in entirety, plus such units of the regular Navy as he
felt he could rely on. In short, he’s reached a dangerous brink, though
I don’t believe anything catastrophic has happened yet.”
“We are in time, then?” she asked gladly.
He could not but lean over and kiss her. “Luck willing, yes. We may need
patience before we’re certain.”
Fortune spared them that. Within an hour, they received the basic
information. Transmitters on Dennitza sent broadbeam rather than
precisely lased ‘casts to the telsats for relay, wasting some cheap
energy to avoid the cost of building and maintaining a more exact
system. By the time the pulses got as far as Hooligan, their dispersal
guaranteed they would touch her; and they were not too weak for a good
receiver-amplifier-analyzer to reconstruct a signal. The windfall
program Flandry tuned in was a well-organized commentary on the
background of the crisis.
It broke two weeks ago. (Maybe just when Kossara and I found out about
each other? he wondered. No; meaningless; simultaneity doesn’t exist for
interstellar distances.) Before a tumultuous parliament, Bodin
Miyatovich announced full mobilization of the Narodna Voyska, recall of
units from outsystem duty, his directing the Imperial Navy command for
Tauria to maintain the Pax within the sector, his ordering specific
ships and flotillas belonging to it to report here for assignment, and
his placing Dennitzan society on a standby war footing.
A replay from his speech showed him at the wooden lectern, carved with
vines and leaves beneath outward-sweeping yelen horns, from which