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Admiral Yuri Rollins paced slowly up and down his flag bridge as PNS Barnett moved ponderously in-system. His hands were back in his tunic pockets in his favorite thinking posture, and he clamped an unlit pipe between his teeth. That pipe was one of his few real affectations—smoking had only recently become fashionable once more among Haven's Legislaturalists—but he found it comforting at the moment.

So far, things had gone exactly as planned. They'd been shadowed, as expected, from the moment they pulled out of Seaford, but the three light cruisers watching over his force had gotten just a bit too confident. Commander Ogilve and five of his squadron mates had left ten hours before the rest of the fleet, and, unlike the Manties, they'd already known what course Rollins intended to follow. The Manties had known they were safely outside Rollins' range until Napoleon and her consorts suddenly appeared behind them, pinning them against the task force. It had been a massacre; in fact, the first of them had been destroyed without getting off a single answering broadside.

Their destruction had been a satisfying start to the operation, though Rollins didn't deceive himself about what the other Manticoran pickets had been doing. They'd hypered out in all directions almost the instant his own ships crossed the alpha wall. By now, they must be arriving wherever Parks had taken his ships, and that meant the Manty admiral would be in motion shortly. Parks might not have exact intelligence on his enemies' course, but an attack on his main forward base had to be high on his threat list. Under the circumstances, Rollins had to assume Parks was already en route, with a probable ETA of no more than seventy-two to eighty-four hours.

Which should still be more than adequate, for one thing was certain: the delay to query the Argus net's latest data had confirmed that Parks wasn't here now. The platforms didn't have the reach to see anything within ten light-minutes or so of the primary, but they would certainly have noted anything that came in far enough out to clear Hancock's hyper limit, and nothing heavier than a cruiser had.

He paused in his pacing to gaze into the master display. As planned, his own force lagged well astern of Admiral Chin. In fact, he intended to halt his ships eleven light-minutes from Hancock, right on the hyper limit, for he had no intention of miring his sluggish superdreadnoughts any deeper than he had to. Chin's task group would more than suffice to eliminate any Manty battlecruisers—and their base—and if it turned out after all that this was some sort of subtle trap, he refused to let it close upon the core of his task force's true fighting power.

He nodded to himself and resumed his measured pacing.

* * *

Honor finished sealing her skin suit and looked down at Nimitz.

"Time to go, Stinker," she said softly, and the 'cat rose to pat her knee with a gentle true-hand. She thrust her gloves under her harness and scooped him up, hugging him for a long moment before she put him carefully into the life-support module. He made his own check of his surroundings, then curled down in the soft nest. Both of them hated being separated at times like this, but it was something they were getting used to.

Honor gave his ears a last caress, inhaled sharply, and closed the door behind him. She double-checked the seals and failsafes, then picked up her helmet and left the cabin without a backward glance.

* * *

The quiet efficiency of Nike's command deck enfolded her as she stepped out of the bridge lift. She crossed to her command chair and sat, racking her helmet, and pressed the button to deploy her displays from their storage positions. They surrounded her in a nest of information flow, and she reached back to double-check her waiting shock frame by feel while her eyes flicked over the silent screens of data.

Nike and her squadron mates accelerated at a steady .986 gees, screened by Van Slyke's heavy cruisers and the ten light cruisers Cartwright and Ernie Corell had exempted from their picket deployments. The task group seemed to crawl at such a low accel, yet there were limits to even the best electronic warfare capabilities. While the RMN's stealth systems were highly efficient against active sensors like radar, the only effective way to limit detection range against an impeller wedge was to reduce its power.

But slow or not, Sarnow's main striking force was exactly on Charlotte Oselli's course towards its massive foes, and the Peeps were, indeed, maintaining the separation Eve had noticed. That was good—as good, at least, as they had any right to hope for against such a tremendous weight of metal. Operation Sucker Punch wasn't predicated on any ridiculous assumption that battlecruisers could stop ships of the wall, nor was it without serious risks, but it offered a definite chance to bleed the enemy—especially when the enemy was obliging enough to come in split up this way. And it was remotely possible they could delay the Peeps long enough for Danislav to arrive.


She completed her scan of the displays and leaned back to cross her legs and radiate the calm it was her job to display. She looked around the bridge and noted with satisfaction that none of her people were watching her. They had their eyes where they belonged—on their own displays.

She touched a com stud.

"Auxiliary Control, Commander Henke," a furry contralto answered.

"This is the Captain. I'm on the bridge."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am. You're on the bridge, and you have the con."

"Thank you, Mike. I'll see you later."

"Yes, Ma'am. You owe me a beer, anyway."

"I always owe you a beer," Honor complained. "I think there's something wrong with your bookkeeping." Henke chuckled, and Honor shook her head. "Clear," she said, and released the stud.

She would have preferred, in a way, to have Mike on the bridge with her, but unlike any of her earlier ships, Nike was big enough for a duplicate command deck at the far end of her core hull. Known informally as Coventry, Auxiliary Control was manned by a complete backup of her own bridge crew under Henke's supervision. It was a chilling thought in some ways, but knowing someone she trusted was waiting to look after her ship for her eased her mind more than she'd once expected it could.

She settled herself more comfortably in her own chair and checked the plot. The minelayers had already completed their part of the initial operation and started back for the base, and she wished with all her heart that Paul were among the people they were about to pick up. But he wasn't, and at least the base wasn't totally helpless. It mounted no offensive weapons, but it was fitted with generators for a spherical sidewall "bubble" almost as strong as Nike's own, and its active antimissile defenses were excellent. They'd been unable to adapt its defensive fire control to handle parasite pods, so it still had no offensive punch, but it could protect itself quite well— until, at least, some Peep capital ship got into beam range.

And that was going to happen. She made herself face it. Sarnow would do his best, but not even his best was going to change Paul's fate. Even if the task group succeeded in drawing the Peeps' lead element after it and away from the base, they could only delay the inevitable. Oh, Danislav might get here in time, but no one was stupid enough to count on that . . . and even if he did, his own ships would be hopelessly outnumbered.

No, they weren't going to save the base, but at least the Admiral had ordered Paul's CO to surrender once the enemy reached energy range. The thought of losing him to a POW camp—especially a Peep POW camp—was heartbreaking, but he'd be alive. That was the important thing, she told herself. He'd be alive. 

She allowed herself one more moment of silent anguish, then put all thought of Paul Tankersley into a cupboard in her brain and closed the door upon it as lovingly and gently as she'd closed Nimitz's life-support module. Her face smoothed, and she touched another com stud.

"Flag Bridge, Chief of Staff."

"This is the Captain, Ernie. Please inform the Admiral that I'm on the bridge awaiting his orders."

* * *

Rear Admiral Genevieve Chin watched her display on PNS New Boston's flag bridge and tried not to fidget. It wasn't nerves, she told herself. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. The fact that she'd been tapped to lead the first real assault on the enemy despite her relative lack of seniority would be a tremendous feather in her cap, and aside from the pair of tin-cans hovering stubbornly just beyond her missile envelope, there wasn't a sign of the Manties. Of course, those spying destroyers meant the defending CO was getting excellent information on her, wherever he was hiding, but she wasn't too concerned. EW or no, there was no way he was going to sneak into range under power without her seeing him. And unless he'd been in exactly the right position when the first light-speed reports of her arrival came in, there was no way he'd have time to get into an attack position—not, at least, one that wasn't suicidal—without coming in under power.

Yet despite her own reasoning, she felt undeniably tense. She was almost to turnover, so where were the bastards? They should have shown up by now . . . unless they'd decided to abandon Hancock without offering battle.

Assuming her information on their strength was accurate, that would certainly be a rational move, yet it would also be completely at odds with her own assessment of the Manticoran Navy. Edward Saganami had set the RMN's standards in his final engagement when he died defending a convoy against five-to-one odds. His inheritors had proven themselves worthy of their founder over the centuries, and that sort of tradition wasn't built in a moment; somehow she couldn't picture any Manticoran admiral letting it be torn down without a fight.

No, he was out there somewhere, and he was up to something. She couldn't see him, but she didn't have to see him to know that.

* * *

"Drive shutdown in five minutes," Oselli reported.

"Thank you, Charlotte." Honor looked down at the screen, which now showed Mark Sarnow's face, and started to open her mouth.

"I heard," he said, and his expression was less tense than it had been before. In fact, it was almost relaxed, as if he, too, were relieved that the moment was approaching. And, she thought dryly, that they'd gotten this far without being spotted. The Peep dreadnoughts had made turnover twenty-eight minutes ago, and they'd hardly be continuing their deceleration if they knew the enemy was now directly ahead of them.

"Yes, Sir. Any orders?"

"None, thank you."

"Very well, Sir."

She leaned back again, resting her elbows on the arms of her command chair, and looked back at the plot. Six and a quarter hours had passed since the Peeps' arrival; now the crimson data codes of enemy ships of the wall plowed up their wake, decelerating steadily but still overtaking at over twenty thousand KPS, and the fact that that was exactly what Hancock's defenders wanted them to do didn't make it any less unnerving.

* * *

"Argus is reporting something, Sir."

Rollins stopped pacing to dart a quick look at Captain Holcombe. The chief of staff was bent over Captain Santiago's shoulder, watching the ops officer's display, and the admiral made himself wait without comment while the data coalesced.

"Five ships, Sir," Holcombe said finally. "Acceleration about four-point-niner KPS squared. They're on the far side of the inner system, headed directly away from the Manty base—and Admiral Chin—toward the hyper limit." He glanced at a time readout. "Transmission lag is about thirty-three minutes from the platforms that picked them up, Sir."


"They're pretty big, Sir," Santiago replied. "Pulling that accel, they're probably battlecruisers, but there's no way to confirm that."


"No sign of any, Sir."

"I see." Rollins stuffed his hands deeper into his pockets and resumed his pacing. Five probable battlecruisers headed away. It made sense, especially if the defenders had been completely surprised. They couldn't possibly have crammed the base's entire personnel aboard that few ships, but if they'd had to respond to an emergency and organize an evacuation on the fly to get out what they could, the timing was about right. Only where were their escorts?

He frowned and paced a bit faster. Argus had spotted quite a few destroyers and cruisers clustered to cover the most likely approaches from Seaford, not to mention the tin-cans clinging to Chin's flanks. It was possible the Manties had deployed all their light units as pickets, which, in turn, would explain the absence of any screen for the battlecruisers, but even so—

"Ed, signal New Boston," he said. "Inform Admiral Chin that Argus confirms the departure of five enemy units, possibly battlecruisers. Give her their vectors and emphasize that our IDs are only tentative."

"Aye, Sir. Shall I instruct her to go in pursuit?"

"Hell no!" Rollins snorted. "There's no way she could overtake, and if they're up to something sneaky there's no reason to do what they want."

"Yes, Sir."

* * *

"Coming up on shutdown . . . now," Oselli said, and Chief Constanza killed Nike's drive in instant response.

"Rotate," Honor said quietly. "George, confirm the same order to the rest of the task group."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am." Monet spoke into his pickup, for the task group com net emanated from his panel now, just as Chandler's controlled the tactical net. Admiral Sarnow's com section was tied into Nike's gravities, reading direct from the FTL sensor platforms and feeding the data to CIC.

"Rotating now, Ma'am," Chief Constanza murmured, and her hands gentled the battlecruiser through an end-for-end turn that left her bows-on to the oncoming Peeps. It wasn't a very quick maneuver, for with her wedge down Nike maneuvered like a pig—a lazy pig—on attitude thrusters alone. The parasite pods trailing astern didn't help, either, yet they were also the reason for the turn. Nike's stealth systems could do a lot to hide her from the enemy, but the tractor-towed pods extended beyond their effective coverage. The only way to hide them was to put them in the ship's shadow.

"All units rotated, Ma'am," Monet announced at length.

"Thank you." Honor looked down at her link to the flag bridge, and Sarnow nodded to her.

"And now," he said quietly, "we wait."

* * *

"Another message from the flagship, Ma'am," Chin's com officer said. The admiral quirked an eyebrow at him. "Argus reports the impeller sources departing the base are still holding vector for the hyper limit."

"Thank you."

Chin exchanged glances with her chief of staff and ops officer. Commander Klim's frown was as intent as her own, but Commander DeSoto seemed unconcerned. Which didn't mean much. The ops officer was a good, sound technician, but he lacked the chief of staff's imagination.

She scooted down in her command chair and crossed her ankles as she leaned back to think. She no longer felt any inclination to fidget, as if the appearance of those drive signatures on the far side of the base had erased some of her tension, yet a nagging little spike of doubt jabbed at her mind.

They almost had to be battlecruisers to pull that accel, and they'd been doing it too long for them to be EW drones. Yet she'd been too convinced the Manties would try something before tamely surrendering a base they'd spent so much time, money, and effort building to accept it without reservation.

"Range to their base?" she asked DeSoto.

"Coming down on one-oh-eight million kilometers, Ma'am."

* * *

"Range to base is now one-zero-one million kilometers, Sir," Honor told Mark Sarnow, and the admiral nodded.

"Stand by to rotate and engage." His tenor's slight harshness was the only sign of the last two hour's nerve-wracking strain, and Honor's respect for him clicked up another notch. The dreadnoughts had closed the range by more than ninety-three million kilometers, and their velocity remained almost fifty-six hundred KPS higher than his own. If they went in pursuit at maximum power now, they could force him into energy range, despite his higher accel. She knew all about the ploys he hoped would slow them down, for she'd helped him devise them, but she also knew what would happen if his stratagems failed. There were too many enemy ships back there for merely scattering to save his battlecruisers if they pressed a resolute pursuit, and he'd deliberately accepted that to maximize the one truly heavy blow he could deliver. It required either immense moral courage or a total lack of imagination to do something like that.

She looked back at her plot and let her thoughts turn to the missile pods. Nike's redesigned inertial compensator and more powerful impellers let her tow a total of seven of them; Achilles, Agamemnon, and Cassandra could manage six each, but the older, Redoubtable-class ships could tow only five. "Only" five. The right corner of her mouth twitched at the thought.

Tension wound tighter and tighter at Honor's core, the first red claws of anticipation ripping at her professional calm as the kilometers oozed away, and then Mark Sarnow spoke from the screen at her right knee.

"Very well, Dame Honor," he said very formally. "Execute!"


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