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Captain Brentworth accepted the message board without leaving his command chair. It was quiet on Jason Alvarez's bridge, but there was a tension under the surface, like silently snarling marsh cats, and he wondered how much longer it would take the waiting to dull the raw, sharp edges.

He finished the routine dispatch, fingerprinted his receipt on the scan panel, and handed it back to the yeoman with a nod of thanks, then looked automatically into his tactical display.

Virtually every ship in the Grayson Navy—a small force, by galactic standards, but infinitely more powerful than just a year before—formed a huge, tenuous sphere fourteen light-minutes from Yeltsin's Star and a hundred and fifteen light-minutes in circumference. Their Manticore-designed sensors reached out far beyond that, yet their presence was a deception measure.

Manty intelligence was positive the Peeps still hadn't realized that Manticore had finally found a way for remotely deployed tactical sensors to transmit messages at FTL speeds. Their range remained limited to less than twelve light-hours, but the specially designed generators aboard the Latest Manticoran sensor platforms and recon drones could produce directional grav pulses. And since grav waves were faster than light, so were their transmission speeds across their range.

The Grayson Navy knew about them, for their existence had been Lady Harrington's trump card in her epic defense of their world, but Manticore and her allies had gone to enormous lengths to deny the Peeps any evidence of their existence. Which, in no small part, explained the Graysons' present deployment.

By spreading themselves so thin, they virtually guaranteed they would be unable to intercept any intruders with more than one or two ships, but their purpose wasn't to intercept. Their job was to serve as obvious bird dogs for the heavy Manty battle squadrons behind them. Any Peep captain who poked his nose into Yeltsin would see their thin screen well before he saw any Manticoran ships of the wall, and the obvious assumption would be that it was the Graysons who'd picked him up and reported him to their allies. No doubt he would curse the luck which had placed an RMN battle squadron or two—purely fortuitously, undoubtedly as the result of some routine training maneuver—in a position to generate an intercept vector once the Graysons warned him.

Brentworth smiled unpleasantly at the thought. The sensor platforms would pick up any normal space approach at well over thirty light-hours and relay complete data back to Command Central by grav pulse, and with that data, High Admiral Matthews and Admiral D'Orville, the Manty commander, would pre-position their forces to meet the intruders at a time and place of their own choosing . . . and in whatever strength seemed required.

Of course, it was probable the Peeps would break and run the moment they saw capital ships, and that far out from Yeltsin they could pop straight into h-space, assuming their velocity was under .3 c. Still, if their velocity was higher than that, they'd have to decelerate to a safe translation speed. Under those circumstances, they were likely to run into a tiny bit of trouble before they could hyper out . . . and wouldn't that just be too bad?

A mere captain wasn't supposed to know about the inner deliberations of his supreme commanders, but Brentworth had connections few captains had. He knew Matthews and D'Orville would deliberately put together a force heavy enough to leave the Peeps no option but to run . . . but he also knew that if their approach vector made evasion impossible, the Alliance admirals intended to annihilate their entire force.

And that was why, after the murder of Convoy MG-19, Captain Mark Brentworth asked God each night to send the bastards in at too high a base velocity to hyper out before the superdreadnoughts caught them.

* * *

"—attle stations! Battle stations! All hands man battle stations! This is not a drill! Repeat, this is not a drill!"

The raucous, recorded voice and shrill, atonal alarm filled HMS Star Knight as her crew thundered to their stations. Captain Seamus O'Donnell sidestepped quickly to avoid a missile tech as the woman disappeared down the access tube to her station, then vaulted into the lift and punched the button. He was still sealing his skin suit when the doors opened on the bridge, and his exec looked up, then scrambled from the command chair with obvious relief.

O'Donnell dropped into the chair almost before Commander Rogers was clear. He racked his helmet by feel and familiarity alone, for his eyes were already busy absorbing the information on his tactical repeaters, and his mouth tightened.

Star Knight was the lead ship of the Manticoran Navy's most powerful heavy cruiser class. At three hundred thousand tons, she was fit to take on anything smaller than a battlecruiser, and, under the right conditions, she might even engage a battlecruiser with a chance of victory. It had been done, after all. Once.

But she wasn't the equal of the force coming at her today.

"IDs?" he snapped at his tac officer.

"None definite, Sir, but preliminary signature analysis says they're Peeps." The tac officer's reply was tight with anxiety, and O'Donnell grunted an acknowledgment.

"No response to our challenges, Com?"

"No, Sir."

O'Donnell grunted again, and his mind raced. The Poicters System was hardly crucial in military terms. The powerful base built at Talbot had reduced Poicters to little more than a flank guard for the task force stationed there, but it was still an inhabited system, with a total population of almost a billion, and the Star Kingdom was committed to defend those people. That was why Star Knight and the other ships of her squadron were here, but none of her consorts were within light-minutes of her at the moment.

"Positive ID from CIC, Sir," his tac officer said suddenly. "They're Peeps, all right. Sultan class."

"Damn," O'Donnell said softly. He tapped on a command chair arm for a moment, then looked across at the tac officer. "Enemy vector?"

"They're on an almost exact reciprocal, Sir—one-seven-three zero-one-eight relative. Their base velocity is point-zero-four-three cee, and their current acceleration is four-seven-zero gees. Range one-point-three-zero-eight light-minutes. They just popped out of hyper less than two minutes ago, Sir. We didn't have a clue they were coming."

O'Donnell nodded, silently cursing the luck which had put him in such a position. Or was it luck? The squadron had maintained the same patrol schedule for months now. Had the Peeps slipped a scout into range to analyze their movements? He hoped not, because if they had, this was a deliberate interception, and there was no way Star Knight could face four battlecruisers.

He laid maneuvering cursors on his display and looked for some way out. His ship was headed almost straight down their throats at a closing speed of over 33,000 KPS, and the powered missile envelope would be close to 19,000,000 kilometers under those conditions. That meant he'd enter it in less than two and a half minutes unless he found some way to avoid it. But the maneuvering computers told him what he'd already known: there was no way he could. He had little more than a 50 g acceleration advantage; even if he turned directly away, it would take him over seventeen hours to begin pulling away from them, and he'd overshoot their present position in less than thirteen minutes, even at max decel. If they were here to attack, their broadsides would rip his ship apart long before he did.

"Helm, roll ship and bring us to zero-niner-zero by zero-niner-zero at maximum acceleration," he ordered.

"Aye, aye, Sir. Coming to zero-niner-zero zero-niner-zero at five-two-three gravities acceleration," his coxswain responded, and O'Donnell watched his display for the Peeps' reaction as Star Knight rolled up on her side, presenting the impenetrable belly of her impeller wedge to them, and snapped through a skew turn down and away to starboard. It was a clear bid to avoid action, and it would work . . .  unless the Peeps chose to split their formation and go in pursuit.

"Com, get a report off to Commodore Weaver," O'Donnell said, his eyes glued to his display. "Inform him we have positively identified four Havenite Sultan-class battlecruisers in violation of Poicters space. Include our position, tac analysis, and current vectors. Request assistance and inform him I am attempting to avoid action."

"Aye, aye, Sir."

O'Donnell nodded absently, still staring at his display, and then his hands clenched. The glaring dots of hostile impeller wedges were shifting their vectors—not simply relative to Star Knight, but to one another, as well. They were altering course to intercept . . . and splitting their formation to come at him from so many angles he could never interpose his wedge against all of them.

"Amend that signal, Com," he said quietly. "Inform Commodore Weaver I do not expect to be able to avoid action. Tell him we'll do our best."

* * *

Rear Admiral Edward Pierre leaned back in his command chair with a hungry smile as his four ships swept towards the hyper limit of the Talbot System. He'd heard for years how good the Manticorans were—how they had a tradition of victory, how hard they trained, how good their tactics were, how their analysts and planners were up to every trick—and it had always irritated him immensely. He hadn't seen any of their graveyards, and if they were so damned good, why was the People's Republic of Haven gobbling up every choice bit of stellar real estate in sight, not them? And why were they so damned scared to pull the trigger themselves, if their superiority was so great?

Pierre wasn't like the majority of the People's Navy's senior flag officers, and he both resented the distinction and took immense pride in it. His father's political power helped explain Pierre's rapid rise, but Rob Pierre's fight to claw his way off the Dole as a young man had imbued him with a burning contempt for "his" government, and his son had inherited that contempt along with the benefits of his power. That was one of the several reasons Admiral Pierre belonged to the Navy's "war now" faction.

There was an invisible wall in the People's Navy. If you wanted rank above a rear admiral's, then you had to be born a Legislaturalist. That alone would have made Pierre hate most of his superiors—not that he didn't have other reasons. The Legislaturalist admirals, safe from competition behind their wall of privilege, had gotten fat and lazy. They'd had it too good for too long, and the guts had gone out of them, until they were afraid to risk their power and wealth and comfort even against a two-for-a-credit single-system threat like Manticore. Pierre despised them for that, and he'd been delighted when he was picked for this mission and the chance to show them how groundless their fears were.

He rechecked the chrono and nodded mentally. His ships were right on schedule, and for all their overinflated reputation, the Manticorans were as blind-drunk stupid as a Prole on BLS day. Pierre didn't know the details—he wasn't senior enough for that, he thought sourly—but he knew the People's Navy had sneaked powered-down scout ships into and through the Manties' outer systems on ballistic courses for over two years now, plotting their patrols' movements, and the idiots didn't even seem aware of the possibility. If they had been, their patrols wouldn't have followed clockwork schedules that left them wide open for the sort of pounce Pierre planned today. For both pounces, actually; Commodore Yuranovich and the other half of the squadron should be killing themselves a Manty cruiser about now.

Just as Pierre intended to do in the next—he checked the chronometer again—two and a half hours or so.

* * *

Commander Gregory, captain of the light cruiser HMS Athena, stood by his tactical officer's shoulder and shook his head at the image on the visual display. The dreadnought Bdllerophon was coming up fast from astern, overtaking Gregory's cruiser as she eased along on another long, slow leg of her patrol.

Gregory had known Bellerophon was due to rotate home, but he hadn't known she was leaving today, and she certainly made an impressive sight to break up the monotony of patrol duty.

The six-and-a-half-megaton leviathan swam closer and closer, dwarfing the light cruiser into minnow insignificance as she rode up five thousand kilometers off Athena's port quarter. Even a ship her size was no more than a dot of reflected sunlight to the naked eye at that range, but the visual display brought her into needle-sharp focus, and Gregory shook his head again as he watched her sweep up on Athena's beam. She out-massed his ship by over sixty to one, and the difference between her broadside and Athena's was quite literally inconceivable. The commander wouldn't have traded his lithe, beautiful ship for a dozen clumsy dreadnoughts, yet it felt reassuring to see that much firepower and know it was on his side.

Bellerophon overtook Athena and forged past with a velocity advantage of twelve thousand KPS on her way to the hyper limit, and Gregory grinned as he nodded to his com officer to flash Athena's running lights in the close-range visual salute starships seldom got a chance to exchange in deep space. Bellerophon returned it; then she was gone, roaring ahead under a steady 350 g's acceleration, and the commander sighed.

"Well, that was exciting," he told his tac officer. "Too bad it's the only excitement we're going to get today."

* * *

"Hyper limit in thirty seconds, Admiral Pierre."

"Thank you." Pierre nodded to acknowledge the information, and the battlecruiser Selim's GQ alarm whooped once to warn her crew.

* * *

"Hyper transit! I'm reading an unidentified hyper footprint!" Athena's tac officer snapped. His surprise showed in his voice, but he was already bent over his panel, working the contact.

"Where?" Commander Gregory demanded sharply.

"Bearing zero-zero-five, zero-one-one. Range one-eight-zero million klicks. Christ, Skipper! It's right on top of Bellerophon!" 

* * *

"Contact! Enemy vessel bearing oh-five-three, oh-oh-six, range five-seven-four thousand kilometers!"

Pierre jerked in his command chair and twisted toward his ops officer's sudden, unanticipated report. They should be eleven light-minutes from their target! What the hell was the woman talking about?!

"Contact confirmed!" Selim's tac officer called out, and then— "Oh, my God! It's a dreadnought!" 

Disbelief froze the admiral's mind. It couldn't be—not way the hell out here! But he was already turning back to his own display, and his heart lurched as it showed him CIC's confirming identification.

"Put us back into hyper!"

"We can't translate for another eight minutes, Sir," Selim's white-faced captain said. "The generators are still cycling."

Pierre stared at the captain, and his mind whirled like a ground-looping air car. The man's words seemed to take forever to register, while his ships closed with the enemy at over forty thousand kilometers per second, and the admiral swallowed around an icy lump of panic. They were dead. They were all dead, unless, just possibly, that dreadnought's crew was as shocked as he was. He had a clear shot down the front of her wedge if he could get his ships around to clear their broadsides, and they couldn't possibly have been expecting him to appear in their face. If they took long enough reacting, long enough getting to battle stations—

"Hard a port!" he barked. "All batteries, fire as you bear!"

* * *

"Sweet Jesus, they're Peeps!" Bellerophon's junior tactical officer whispered. The Book didn't like enemy reports like that, but Lieutenant Commander Avshari felt no inclination to criticize. After all, The Book didn't envision this lunatic sort of situation, either.

The lieutenant commander watched his status boards' green lights turn amber and red and wished to hell the Captain would get here. Or the Exec. Or anybody senior to him, because he didn't have a clue and he knew it. This was supposed to be a milk run, a good opportunity for junior watch keepers to get a little bridge time on their logs, but he was a communications officer, for God's sake—and one whose Academy tactical scores had been a disaster, to boot! What the hell was he supposed to do next?

"Sidewalls active! Starboard energy batteries closed up on computer override, Sir!" the youthful lieutenant at Tactical said, and Avshari nodded in relief. That decided which way to turn, anyway.

"Bring us hard to port, Helm."

"Aye, aye, Sir. Coming hard to port."

The dreadnought began her turn, and fresh alarms whooped even as she swung.

"Incoming fire!" the tac officer snapped, and lasers and grasers ripped at Bellerophon's suddenly interposed sidewall. Most of them achieved absolutely nothing as the sidewall bent and degraded them, but red lights bloomed on Avshari's damage control display as half a dozen minor hits cratered her massive armor, and this time he knew exactly what to do.

"Ms. Wolversham, you are authorized to return fire!" Bellerophon's com officer barked the order straight from The Book, and Lieutenant Arlene Wolversham punched the button.

* * *

Admiral Pierre swallowed a groan as the dreadnought snapped around and her sidewall swatted his broadsides contemptuously aside. He'd never seen a ship that size maneuver so rapidly and confidently. She'd taken barely ten seconds to bring her sidewalls up and get around—her captain must have the instincts and reactions of a cat!

He could see his intended prey's impeller signature in his display now, millions of kilometers astern of the dreadnought, and realized intuitively what had happened. His intelligence had been perfect, but he'd blundered into an unscheduled departure. A stupid, routine transit there'd been no way to predict. And now there was no way to evade the consequences.

"All units, roll ship!" he barked, but even as he snapped out the order, he knew it was futile this deep into the enemy's missile envelope. Even if his ships rolled up behind their wedges in time to evade the dreadnought's beams, it would only delay the inevitable, require her to kill them with laser heads, instead. . . .

And then he realized they weren't going to manage even that much.

* * *

HMS Bellerophon's broadside opened fire, and enough energy to shatter a small moon flashed through the "gunports" in her starboard sidewall.

A quarter-second later, Battlecruiser Divisions 141 and 142 of the People's Navy ceased to exist.


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