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"They're altering course, Ma'am. It's not just an evasion maneuver; their base vector's coming fifteen degrees to starboard."

"I see." Admiral Chin's smile was a hungry wolf's. Those "SDs" had to be drones; if they'd been real ships of the wall, the battlecruisers would never have stopped running to meet them. And the course change itself, with its obvious invitation to pursuit, meant only one thing. The Manties had just run out of tricks. They wanted her to chase them in order to keep her out of energy range of their base because they damned well couldn't stop her any other way.

She knew what they were up to. They'd suck her well clear of the base, then scatter. They'd lose the advantage of their massed point defense when they did, but the range would be opening again by then. Only her dreadnoughts would have the weight of fire to get through their individual defenses, and she could only fire at a few of them.

She was tempted to ignore them, but the base wasn't going anywhere, and she might just get lucky. The Manties had lost a quarter of their battlecruisers and one heavy cruiser, and other ships were hurting. If they were willing to let her chase them, she was willing to accept the invitation in hopes of killing a few more of them before they scattered.

* * *

"They're taking the bait, Ma'am."

"I see it, Eve." Honor rubbed the tip of her nose and wondered if she were really pleased. The dreadnoughts' fire had eased as their swing back onto a pursuit vector restricted them once more to their chase armament, but their fire control was adapting to the task group's EW. Their targeting remained less effective than Sarnow's, but their warheads were far more powerful and, despite their losses, they still had the edge in launchers. Especially, a grim mental voice told her, now that Defiant and Achilles were gone.

Nike twisted around, leading her squadron through yet another evasion maneuver, and Honor bit her lip as fresh salvos of missiles tore down on Agamemnon and Cassandra. The damaged heavy cruiser Circe cut across Cassandra's stern as the screen conformed to the battle-cruisers' movements, and six of the birds targeted on Captain Quinlan's ship lost lock. They picked up the cruiser, instead, and their sudden swerve to pursue her took them clear of the counter missiles racing to meet them. Circe's laser clusters stopped two of them; the other four got through . . . and shattered the cruiser like a toy.

"Formation Reno, Com—get those cruisers in tighter!"

"Aye, aye, Ma'am. Formation Reno." George Monet's flat voice sounded incongruously calm as he acknowledged and passed the order, and only then did Honor glance at her flag bridge com screen. She'd given the order without thinking about Sarnow, intent only on bringing the escorts in closer to the battlecruisers for mutual support. But Sarnow only nodded in agreement, then turned his head as Cartwright spoke.

"The Peep SDs are starting to move, Sir," the ops officer said. "They're heading for the base."

* * *

"Admiral Rollins is moving in, Ma'am," Commander Klim announced.

Admiral Chin merely nodded. It was about time he figured out what those "SDs" were and got his ass in gear, she thought sourly. Not that it would have changed what had already happened to her, but a little psychological support might have been nice.

Of course, it probably meant the Manties would scatter sooner. There'd be no point in their taking any more lumps once they realized Rollins was moving on the base behind her own ships.

* * *

HMS Agamemnon never even saw the missile coming. It rolled up from astern, slicing through a narrow sensor gap where a previous hit had blinded her radar, and detonated just off her port quarter.

For a moment the damage seemed minor; then her entire after half exploded. The mangled stub of her forward hull lurched to the side, and then it, too, blew up, and her consorts raced away from the fading clouds of gas and heat which had once been a battlecruiser and her crew.

Mark Sarnow's face was bleak and hard. The Peeps' steadily growing accuracy already exceeded his projections, and the task group was still fifteen minutes short of its planned scatter point.

His people had performed superbly—but eight thousand of them had died doing it, and the Peep SDs were coming. There was no point throwing away more lives to protect a base he couldn't save anyway.

He looked at his com screen and saw the same, bitter thought in Honor Harrington's brown eyes. She knew the scatter order was coming, and he opened his mouth to give it.

"Sir! Admiral Sarnow!"

His head snapped around in surprise, for the voice was Lieutenant Commander Samuel Webster's. He'd almost forgotten Webster's presence, but the com officer was pointing at his display—the one tied into the FTL sensor net.

* * *

Commander Francis DeSoto bared his teeth as the third Manty battlecruiser died. He didn't need Admiral Chin's orders to look for a replacement target, and he searched his display hungrily. Another Homer. That was what he wanted—but then he stiffened as an icon suddenly changed. Agamemnon's destruction and a shift in the Manticoran formation had opened a hole in the maze of mutually interfering impeller signatures, and New Boston's computers got their first clear look at HMS Nike. 

The updated plot blinked at DeSoto again, and his eyes glittered. That ship was five percent larger than a Homer, and that made her one of the new Reliant-class ships.

* * *

"It is Admiral Danislav, Sir!" Joseph Cartwright's confirmation of Webster's report was jubilant, and Sarnow fought his own elation. The enormous hyper footprint was well beyond Nike's onboard sensor range, but there was no question of who it was. The ten dreadnoughts at the formation's core burned sharp and clear, and Danislav must already be querying the sensor net.

The admiral made himself sit still and silent, watching the plot Webster was feeding from the sensor platforms' FTL transmissions. Danislav's ships held their arrival vector for ten seconds, then twenty, coasting without acceleration at the bare 8,000 KPS of their translation into normal space, and then the plot blinked. Danislav's heading changed, his ships went to an acceleration of four hundred and thirty gravities, and a new vector curled out across the display.

Numbers flashed with CIC's analysis. Twenty-six minutes. That was how much longer the Peeps had to keep chasing Sarnow to reach the point of no return. Just twenty-six minutes and they couldn't possibly escape Danislav's oncoming dreadnoughts.

He turned back to his com to give Captain Harrington the news.

* * *

Twenty-four missiles sped toward the task group. Five of them lost lock over a million kilometers out as jammers blinded their sensors. Another three locked onto decoys. Two of them couldn't see their primary target and shifted to the secondary, arcing away to strike at the heavy cruiser Warrior, and countermissiles smashed six more of them to bits.

Eight of them broke through the outer defense zone and bore in, weaving and bobbing while their own ECM parried and thrust with the systems trying to kill them. They were outclassed . . . but they were also closing at fifty-five thousand KPS. Laser clusters killed one of them, then two more. A fourth. The surviving quartet made their final course correction, two more of them blew apart, and then the last pair of missiles detonated.

* * *

HMS Nike heaved and twisted as x-ray daggers sank deep into her armored flank. Laser Seven and Graser Five exploded into wreckage. Radar Five went with them, along with Communications Two, Missile Thirteen and Fourteen, Damage Control Three, Boat Bay Two, and ninety-three men and women.

A secondary explosion boiled up out of Com Two and Damage Control Three. Incandescent gas and flying chunks of battle steel erupted into CIC from below, gutting it and killing or wounding twenty-six more people. Fire and smoke filled the compartment, and the massive concussion smashed across it and into its after bulkhead—the one that separated it from Nike's flag bridge.

The ruptured bulkhead spat out splinters with deadly velocity. One of them tore Admiral Sarnow's yeoman in half. A second killed three of Joseph Cartwright's ratings. Another shrieked across the flag bridge and decapitated Casper Southman, then ricocheted into Ernestine Corell's console. It missed the chief of staff by centimeters, and she lurched back from her shattered displays in horror, coughing and choking on smoke as the man beside her vanished in an explosion of blood.

And a fourth deadly splinter ripped into the back of Admiral Mark Sarnow's command chair.

It sheared through the chair, spinning end-for-end like a white-hot buzz-saw. The impact snapped the admiral's shock frame and hurled him forward, but the splinter caught him in midair. It severed his right leg just above the knee and mangled his left calf, chunks of the chair itself blasted into his back, and his ribcage shattered like a wicker basket as he impacted on the master plot and bounced back like a broken doll.

Samuel Webster flung himself toward his admiral while slamming blast doors chopped off the cyclone of escaping air. Sarnow's skin suit had already inflated emergency tourniquets on either thigh, and his scream was a faint, thready exhalation as Webster moved him gently to check his life-sign monitors.

The admiral stared up at his com officer, fighting the searing agony. "Don't scatter!" he gasped with all his failing strength, and his hand plucked at Webster's arm like a fevered child's. "Tell them not to scatter!"

Webster's face was white as Sarnow's terrible injuries registered, and his fingers darted across the skin suit's med panel. Blessed relief spread through the admiral, deadening the pain. Unconsciousness beckoned, but he fought it as he had the pain, clinging to awareness, as Ernestine Corell appeared beside him.

"Don't scatter!" he gasped again, and Corell looked at Webster.

"What did he say?" she demanded, and Webster shrugged helplessly.

"I don't know, Ma'am." Grief clogged his voice, and he touched Sarnow's shoulder gently. "I can't make it out."

Corell leaned closer, and Sarnow tried again, desperate to get the order out, but the blackness took him first.

* * *

Damage reports flooded into Nike's bridge, and Honor heard herself acknowledging them—calm and controlled, like a stranger—while her shocked eyes clung to the blank screen by her right knee.

She tore her gaze from it and looked at her own tactical repeater. CIC was gone, but Tactical's fire control systems had taken over the plot. She saw the cruisers Sorcerer and Merlin racing into new positions, taking up station on Nike's flanks to support her point defense as the task group recognized the Peeps' new target, and her flying thoughts were clear and cold.

She knew what Sarnow had been about to say. She'd been his tactical alter ego too long not to know . . . but he hadn't said it.

Command passed with the admiral. She knew that, too, yet there were no flag officers left. Captain Rubenstein was senior officer now, but Onslaught's gravitics were gone, her com section heavily damaged; she could neither receive the sensor platforms' transmissions nor pass orders effectively . . .  and Rubenstein didn't know Danislav had arrived or what the admiral had intended.

She felt George Monet watching her, knew he was waiting for her order to inform Rubenstein he was in command, and said nothing.

* * *

The task group raced onward, flailed by the Havenites' fire, and its return fire grew weaker and more sporadic as laser heads blew away missile tubes and clawed at sidewalls and hulls. The range was opening again, but slowly, and it had dropped to less than three million kilometers first. Mark Sarnow's captains clung grimly to their courses, knowing they'd done all they'd set out to do and waiting for the flagship's order to scatter.

Captain Pavel Young sat white-faced and sweating in his command chair. Warlock was untouched, one of the few ships which could say that, and her gravitics had picked up the same information as Nike's. He knew the relief force had arrived, and terror gnawed at his vitals as he waited for his ship's unnatural exemption to end.

He stared at the flagship's cursor, tasting blood from a bitten lip as direct hits and near misses lashed at her, their savagery made somehow more terrible by the quiet of Warlock's bridge. But even through his near-panic a corner of his brain exulted, for Van Slyke's death had given him squadron command at last, and command experience in a battle like this, however it had come his way, would wash away the Basilisk fiasco's stigma at last!

They reached the prearranged scatter point, and he tensed to order a radical course change at the flagship's command. But no command came. They passed the invisible dot in space, still charging forward, still on course . . . still writhing under the enemy's fire, and his eyes widened in disbelief.

He stared at Nike's data code desperately, almost beseechingly. What the hell was wrong with Sarnow? There was no more need for this! The Peeps would spot Danislav's dreadnoughts within twenty minutes—thirty-five at the most! Surely he knew they'd break off the action then anyway. Why wasn't he letting them save themselves?! 

And then Warlock's immunity ended. The missile wasn't even meant for her, but her port decoy sucked it away from Invincible. It detonated at twenty-four thousand kilometers, blasting through her sidewall to blot away Laser Four and rip Magazine Two open to space, and panic roared through Pavel Young's soul on the wail of damage alarms.

"Squadron orders!" His tenor's shrill, raw edges turned every head on his bridge in shock. "All ships scatter! Repeat, all ships scatter!"

* * *

Honor Harrington stared at her display as Heavy Cruiser Squadron Seventeen peeled away. It was too soon. They needed another twelve minutes—just twelve more minutes—to insure their pursuers' destruction!

Five of the heavy cruisers swerved away as she watched. Only Merlin held her course, glued to Nike's flank like a limpet, her laser clusters firing in desperate defense of the flagship.

"Contact Warlock!" she snapped. "Get those ships back in position!"

* * *

Pavel Young stared at his com officer.

"Orders, Sir?" His exec's voice was harsh, and Young wrenched his wild eyes back to his plot. The Peeps were ignoring his fleeing ships to hammer savagely at the battlecruisers exposed by his defection.

"Orders, Sir?!" the exec half-shouted, and Captain Lord Pavel Young clenched his jaw in silence. He couldn't go back into that horror. He couldn't! 

* * *

"No response from Warlock, Ma'am." Nike shook to yet another hit, and Monet's voice quivered with sympathetic vibration, but his stunned surprise at the heavy cruiser's silence came through clearly.

Honor's head whipped up, and Monet flinched back from her expression.

"Give me a direct link to Captain Young!"

"Aye, aye, Ma'am." Monet jabbed keys, and the blank screen at Honor's knee filled with Pavel Young's face. Sweat streaked his cheeks and ran into his beard, and his eyes were a hunted animal's.

"Get back into formation, Captain!" Young only stared at her, his mouth working soundlessly. "Get back into formation, damn you!" 

The screen went dead as Young killed the circuit. For one stunned second, she couldn't believe it, and in that second a fresh salvo of laser heads slammed at Nike's defenses. Her ship heaved and shuddered, frantic damage control reports crackled all around her, and she wrenched her eyes from the com screen to George Monet.

"General signal to all heavy cruisers. Return to formation at once. Repeat, return to formation at once!"

* * *

Puzzlement furrowed Admiral Chin's forehead as she watched the Manties' antics. Her fire must have taken out their flagship's communications, she decided. That was the only explanation for their sudden, ragged confusion. Their heavy cruisers dispersed before her eyes, taking themselves out of the antimissile net, and her missiles thundered down on the battlecruisers' weakened defenses. One of them staggered, belching air and debris, but she hauled back onto course and continued to run. Another salvo scorched in, ripping at them, maiming and tearing, and Chin smiled, sensing the kills to come—then snarled as four of the fleeing cruisers suddenly reversed course.

Only one of them continued its flight, and her fire control ignored it to concentrate on the ones who stood to fight.

* * *

Honor Harrington spared one last, hating glance for the single data code that continued to streak away from her formation. Cassandra had been savagely mauled when Young broke away. Her entire port sidewall was down, leaving her naked and vulnerable, but the other cruisers slotted back into the net, and Honor snapped fresh orders. Intolerant and Invincible dropped back between Cassandra and her enemies, shielding her with their own interposed sidewalls while her crew worked frantically at repairs.

They had nine minutes to get that sidewall back up.

* * *

Admiral Yuri Rollins jerked around in his command chair to stare at Captain Holcombe. The chief of staff was white, and Rollins felt the blood drain from his own face as Holcombe's report registered.

He vaulted from his chair and half-ran to the master plot, staring into it in disbelief as the Argus sensors updated the imagery. It had taken over fifteen minutes for the sensor platforms to relay the data to him, and the Manticoran dreadnoughts were already up to twelve thousand KPS.

A blood-red line extended itself from the newly arrived ships, racing out towards Chin's battered squadron, and the admiral's blood turned to ice as CIC's projection flashed before him. Chin would be trapped, unable to evade the threat, in less than ten minutes . . . and it would take any warning from him thirteen minutes to reach her.

"Reverse course—maximum military power!" he snapped, and turned away as startled responses came back to him. He walked heavily back to his chair and lowered himself into it.

Those fresh ships of the wall weren't enough to stop him—but they could maul him badly before he destroyed them. Nor could he be certain no more were coming . . . and their sudden arrival, coupled with the ambushes through which the Manty battlecruisers had led Chin, argued that they weren't.

It had been a trap after all, he thought dully. He didn't know how they'd managed it. Perhaps they'd had a relay ship waiting out beyond the hyper limit, ready to summon reinforcements at the opportune moment. He didn't know, and it didn't matter. He had to break back out across the hyper limit before anyone else turned up—and his course reversal was the only warning he could give Chin. Her gravitics would pick it up . . . and she might even figure out why he'd done it in time.

* * *

"Admiral Rollins has gone to maximum decel, Ma'am."

Commander Klim sounded puzzled, and Admiral Chin frowned in surprise. She craned her neck to see the master plot, and her own puzzlement grew.

* * *

A light blinked in Honor's display at last as the dispassionate computers confirmed it: her pursuers could no longer escape the retribution of Danislav's reinforced squadron, whatever they did.

She tried to feel exultant, but Mark Sarnow and his people had paid too high a price for that.

"Status on Cassandra's sidewall?"

"Still down, Skipper. She's lost five beta nodes, as well; her max accel's down to four-point-six KPS squared."

Honor inhaled deeply. With the pounding the Peeps had taken, their accel was low enough Cassandra could still draw away from them, but she'd never live to get out of range. Not without her sidewall.

"Bring her up on our starboard side. Tuck her in as tight as you can and reduce our accel to match hers. Instruct her to maintain station on us—then order the rest of the task group to scatter."

* * *

Admiral Chin's frown deepened as the Manty task group unraveled. There was no mistake about it this time; each ship spun away from its fellows, scattering far and wide in what was clearly a carefully planned maneuver.

All but two of them. One pair of battlecruisers clung together, so tight her sensors could hardly distinguish one from the other, and she nodded. The closer one was the Reliant-class ship, and she was obviously covering a damaged consort, which made the two of them her logical target. But even as she thought that she continued to stare at the decelerating impeller sources of Rollins' superdreadnoughts.

Now why would they be doing that, unless—

* * *

The battered Havenite dreadnoughts slowed abruptly, and Honor bared her teeth. They'd figured it out at last. She didn't know how, but they knew . . . only they didn't know it was already too late.

The dreadnoughts completed their turn, decelerating as hard as they could, and she pictured the scene on their flagship's bridge. Their CO couldn't know what bearing the threat was coming from. Until her own sensors picked up Danislav's ships she could only decelerate back the way she'd come, and every second of deceleration increased Nike's relative velocity by nine KPS. Which made it time to make the Peeps' targeting problems a little worse.

"Execute Shell Game," she said.

Eve Chandler punched commands into her panel, and eight EW drones erupted away from the two battlecruisers. They scattered in four different directions, each pair tucked in tight, mimicking the signatures of their mother ships, and Nike and Cassandra altered course sharply to charge off on yet a fifth vector.

The sudden multiplication of targets did exactly what Honor had intended. Unable to be certain which were the real ships, the Peep commander chose not to waste her ammunition on might-have-beens . . . especially when she must have figured out she was going to need every missile she had very shortly.

All fire ceased, and the brutally wounded flagship of TG-H001 and her crippled consort raced for safety.


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