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Chapter Thirty-Two

The alarm buzzed very quietly. Lieutenant Gaines would always remember that—how quiet it had been, how civilized. As if the central computer were merely clearing its throat politely to get his attention.

It was only later, in the nightmares that lasted for so many years, that he realized how utterly inappropriate that peaceful sound had been.

He reached out and killed the alarm, then checked the master plot. The cool K2 primary of the Seaford Nine System floated at the holo tank's center, and he frowned as his eyes swept the sphere indicating the star's hyper limit, searching for the icon that had to be there. Then they found it, and he nodded and began punching commands into his console.

The computers considered his instructions and obediently lit a smaller holo directly in front of him. It didn't have much detail yet—just a single blur of light blinking the alternating red and amber of an unknown, possibly hostile contact. His gravitic sensors had picked up the FTL hyper footprint, but at anything over two or three light-minutes, even the best sensors couldn't tell much about the sizes or numbers of ships which had created any given footprint. He needed individual impeller signatures before he could make that sort of estimate, and he waited patiently for the newcomers to light off their drives.

It was most probably simply an unscheduled friendly arrival, he thought, although, failing that, it might be one of the increasingly infrequent Peep scout ships. Gaines almost hoped it was. The Peeps seemed to pick their hottest hotshots for the occasional, screaming sensor pass, and watching Admiral Hennesy maneuver to try to intercept them had always been entertaining and sometimes downright exciting. He hadn't seen Admiral Santino in action yet, either, and he was curious about how well he'd stack up against the officer he'd relieved.

Then again, he reflected, the duration figure on the footprint would almost have to indicate a multiship transit, now wouldn't it? Hmmm . . .

That made the unscheduled friendlies rather more likely, he judged. Still, he couldn't rule out the possibility of three or four scout ships intended to work in concert, and a multibogie intercept of that sort would be even more entertaining than most, but it was going to take a while to figure out which it was. He nodded to himself as symbols began to blink beside the fuzzy haze in his display. They were picking up impeller drives now, but the range was still long, and he waited as the system began painstakingly enhancing the faint emissions which had attracted the computer's attention.

There were reasons it took so long. Not good ones, in Games' humble opinion, but reasons nonetheless. There had once been plans to provide Seaford with an FTL sensor shell as good as any other Manticoran fleet base outside the home system, but somehow those plans had gone awry. Personally, Gaines suspected the paperwork was simply lost somewhere in the bowels of BuShips' Logistics Command. He'd always figured Logistics was the closest humankind was ever likely to come to producing a genuine black hole, because any work orders or parts requests that came within shouting distance of it were doomed to be sucked in, mangled, and forever vanish from the known universe.

Of course, he could be wrong in this instance. Despite the mammoth orbital facilities the Peeps had put in before Sir Yancey Parks took the system away from them, Seaford had never had all that high a priority for the Royal Manticoran Navy. BuShips and BuWeaps had spent a year or two going absolutely wild over the opportunity to get a detailed look inside the Peeps' tech establishment. But once they'd finished crawling through every nook and cranny of the repair bases and parts storage depots and asteroid smelters, and inspecting the contents of the magazines, and carting off samples of the latest Peep computer hardware, the Star Kingdom really hadn't had all that much use for the base.

Oh, it was bigger than Hancock. In theory, the RMN could have taken over the old Peep shipyards and used them for its own construction programs. And if the Star Kingdom didn't want to do that, even the limited portions of the repair facilities it had chosen to crew could have supported a considerably larger local defense force than Hancock Station did. Unfortunately, Seaford Nine's equipment was crap compared to Manticoran hardware, and the system had no local population or even habitable planets. Upgrading the yard to Alliance standards and shipping in a work force large enough to operate it would have cost almost as much as it would have cost to build new building slips from scratch, and the system itself was badly placed as a major defensive node. Hancock was in a much better position for that, and the only reason Parks had wanted Seaford in the first place was to eliminate its threat to the long-haul Manticore-Basilisk hyper route and deny the Peeps a springboard against Hancock, Zanzibar, Alizon, Yorik, or any of the other Allied systems in the area.

Plans had been drawn at one point to upgrade at least the repair portion of the system's infrastructure to Manticoran standards despite the cost, and those plans were taken out and dusted off periodically. But the Navy was stretched too tight to make the project worthwhile. The Admiralty had acknowledged that months ago when it began pulling out picket ships for refit at Hancock or the home system without bothering to replace them. If there was anyplace the Star Kingdom had decided it could do without, Seaford Nine was it. And so there wasn't really very much here: a fairly good-sized caretaker detachment of techs to keep the huge, mostly empty main repair base more-or-less operational, two squadrons of heavy cruisers, and a reinforced division of superdreadnoughts, supported by a half-squadron of battlecruisers and a couple of destroyers. And, of course, one Lieutenant Heinrich Gaines, Senior Officer Commanding Her Majesty's Sensor Station, Seaford Nine.

It sounded impressive as hell, he thought with a chuckle, but the same considerations which gave the system such a low priority for modernization and enlargement had also reduced its priority for first-line sensor equipment. He had an extremely limited FTL net, built mostly on first- and second-generation platforms only a very little better than those Lady Harrington had employed in the Second Battle of Yeltsin. They had a far slower data transmission rate than the new third-generation systems he'd heard rumors about, and—

His ruminations chopped off as the holo at his console sudden dissolved and reformed. He stared at it, feeling his eyebrows try to crawl up into his hairline, and his mouth was suddenly dry.

The information wasn't complete. Over half the identifying data codes continued to blink, indicating that the computers had been forced to assign tentative IDs pending better data resolution, and the emission sources were still right on the K2 primary's 16.72 LM hyper limit, which put them over ten light-minutes from Gaines' main sensor arrays. That meant everything he did know—aside from the impeller signatures, which were FTL themselves—was better than ten minutes old by the time he saw it. But even the limited data he had was enough to turn his belly to frozen lead.

He looked at the display a moment longer, then punched a priority code into his com. The delay seemed interminable, though it could not in fact have been more than five or ten seconds, and then a voice spoke in his earbug.

"Task Group Combat Information Center," it announced in professional tones that still managed to sound ineffably bored. "Commander Jaruwalski."

"CIC, this is Sensor One," Gaines said crisply. "I have unknown—repeat, unknown—vessels entering the star system, bearing one-seven-seven zero-niner-eight relative from the primary, range from base ten-point-seven-seven light-minutes. They have not transmitted an FTL arrival report."

"Unknown vessels?" The boredom had vanished from Jaruwalski's voice, and Gaines could picture the commander snapping upright in her chair. "Class IDs?" she demanded.

"I'm working with light-speed sensors here, Commander," Gaines reminded her. "My gravitics make it—" he double-checked to be certain "—fifty-four point sources. At present—" He paused and cleared his throat. "At present, the computers are calling it fifteen to twenty of the wall and at least ten battleships. That's based solely on the strengths of their impeller signatures, but the data enhancement looks solid, Ma'am."

For just a moment, there was total silence from the other end of the com, but Gaines could almost hear the thoughts flashing through Jaruwalski's brain. Twenty-five capital ships—minimum—was hardly a typical raiding force. And the three superdreadnoughts and four battlecruisers of the Seaford Picket could never stand up to what was headed for them.

"Understood, Sensor One," Jaruwalski said after several seconds. "Patch your output straight through to me and do what you can to refine it."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am." Gaines felt immensely relieved to have passed the knowledge on to someone else—someone senior to him, who had become responsible for dealing with it. All he had to do now was keep the information flowing . . . and hope he could somehow survive what he knew was about to happen.


"Well, if they didn't have us on sensors before, it's clear they have us now," Citizen Vice Admiral Ellen Shalus remarked to her people's commissioner as the sparks of Manty impeller drives began to appear in the flag deck plot. She watched them carefully, then reached up and scratched an eyebrow while she frowned. Citizen Commissioner Randal saw the frown and cocked his head.

"Something is bothering you, Citizen Admiral?" he asked, and she shrugged.

"I don't see enough impeller signatures, Sir," she replied, and looked over her shoulder at her ops officer. "What did HQ say we were supposed to hit here, Oscar?"

"According to the analysts' best estimates, at least six or eight of the wall, plus a dozen battlecruisers, Citizen Admiral," Citizen Commander Levitt replied instantly. From his tone, he knew he was answering the question for the official record, not because his admiral hadn't already had the information filed away in her head, and Shalus looked back at Randal and pointed at the plot with her chin.

"Whatever that is—and we're still too far out for good reads—it sure as hell isn't a squadron of the wall, Citizen Commissioner. And I'll be very surprised if there are a dozen battlecruisers out there, either. It looks to me more like three or four of the wall with a screen of heavy cruisers."

"Could the other units be hiding in stealth?" Anxiety honed the edges of Randal's question, and Shalus smiled thinly. The same thought had already occurred to her, because it was just the sort of thing those sneaky Manty bastards liked to do.

"I don't know, Sir," she said honestly. "It's certainly possible. On the other hand, Citizen Admiral Giscard and Citizen Lieutenant Thaddeus did warn us that a lot of our data was out of date. We haven't exactly swamped this area with scout ships since the war began, after all. That's one of the reasons we figure the Manties are probably feeling smug and secure about it. And I suppose the answer could simply be that they've pulled the missing SDs home for refit. Intelligence said they have a lot of capital ships in the body and fender shop."

"Um." Randal moved to stand beside her and folded his arms, gazing down into the plot. "Can you make any estimate of what they're up to?" he asked after a moment.

"Right now, running around like headless chickens, I imagine," Shalus replied with a cold smile. "Even if they are hiding people in stealth, they can't have enough firepower to stop us—not this far from the front line. My gut feeling is that what we see is what they've got; they're just trying to get it all concentrated while they figure out what to do with it. As for what they can do—" She shrugged. "We've got the pods on tow, and we've got the advantage in numbers, and in tonnage, and in surprise, Sir. All I really see that they can do is run away ... or die. And frankly," her smile turned even colder and a predator glow flickered in her eyes, "I don't really much care which."


"I want options, people!" Rear Admiral of the Red Elvis Santino snapped.

In that case, you should have gotten off your fat ass and spent at least a few hours thinking about this sort of situation ahead of time! Andrea Jaruwalski thought coldly.

Santino had succeeded Vice Admiral Hennesy two and a half months earlier when the picket was reduced to its present strength, and he had not impressed Jaruwalski. He'd made a big deal out of retaining Hennesy's staff when he took over Hennesy's flagship, treating their retention as a generous sign of his trust in them. After all, if he hadn't trusted them, he would have brought in his own command team, wouldn't he?

Unfortunately, Jaruwalski didn't believe for a moment that that was what had happened or why. Personally, she suspected Santino had been sent here because the system, however prestigious command of it might look on paper, was about as much use to the Star Kingdom as a screen door on an air lock. It was a supremely unimportant slot, suitable for shuffling off nonentities who might have been embarrassments in significant assignments. And Santino hadn't retained Hennesy's staff because he trusted them; he'd retained them because he didn't give a good godamn. He certainly hadn't bothered to set up anything remotely like an exercise schedule, after all. Or even arranged regular planning sessions, for that matter!

She let no sign of her contempt shadow her expression, despite her thoughts, but she knew she wasn't the only one who felt less than total confidence in the CO of Seaford Station.

"Sir," she said in her most reasonable tone, "assuming Sensor One's figures on enemy strength are accurate—and I feel confident that they are—we don't have a lot of options. There are at least twelve superdreadnoughts and eight dreadnoughts out there; we have three ships of the wall. They have twelve battleships and four battlecruisers; we have five battlecruisers." She gave a tiny shrug. "We don't have the firepower to stop them, Sir. In my opinion, our only real option is to order the immediate evac of the orbit base technicians and pull out."

"Not acceptable!" Santino snapped. "I'm not going to be another Frances Yeargin and let the goddamned Peeps take out my command area without a fight!"

"With all due respect, Sir," Jaruwalski said, "we cannot go toe-to-toe with these people, and they know it." She checked the tactical data CIC was relaying to her briefing room terminal as further updates became available from Sensor One. "They've been in-system for eleven a half minutes, and they're now nine light-minutes out, moving at over forty-five hundred KPS. Assuming they're headed for a zero-zero intercept with the main orbital facilities, they should hit turnover in another hundred and seventeen minutes and reach the base in two hundred and fifty-nine. That's only a little over four hours, Admiral, and it leaves the evac ships very little time to get moving."

"Goddamn it, you're supposed to be my frigging operations officer, not some gutless civilian! Or don't you care about showing cowardice in the face of the enemy?" Santino snarled, and Jaruwalski's eyes snapped up from her display. Anger smoked like liquid nitrogen at their cores as they locked with Santino's, and the staffer next to her shrank away from the sudden ferocity which filled the air about her.

"Nothing in the Articles of War requires me to listen to that, Admiral Santino," she said in a tone of chipped ice. "My duty is to give you my best assessment of the tactical situation, and my assessment is that we have a hundred and forty-seven million tons of ships of the wall coming at us and that we have just over twenty-five million tons with which to face them. That works out to an enemy tonnage advantage of just about six to one, Sir—and completely ignores the twelve battleships supporting them."

"You'll listen to whatever I goddamned tell you to listen to, Commander!" Santino bellowed, and pounded a meaty fist on the table. Jaruwalski half-rose and opened her mouth to say something career-ending as answering fury flashed through her, but then she stopped, frozen in mid-movement, as she recognized what lay behind Santino's belligerent choler.

Fear. And not just the totally rational personal fear any sane person would feel as that juggernaut roared down upon her, either, the commander realized. It was the fear—almost the terror—of responsibility. That, and the fear of what retreating without firing a single shot might do to his career.

She swallowed hard while tension roared and sang in the silence of the emotion-lashed briefing room. Nothing in her training told her how to deal with a commanding officer so consumed with moral panic his brain had ceased functioning, yet that was what she faced.

I suppose any CO could be excused for being afraid of her duty in this situation, she thought almost calmly, but it's worse for Santino after the way he shot his mouth off about Adler and Commodore Yeargin. And the way he just sat on his butt and vegetated out here. He's always been a sanctimonious pain in the ass, but all those lordly pronouncements about what he would have done if he'd been in her position—

Nor had Santino been alone in that. The total destruction of Yeargin's task force had shaken the Royal Manticoran Navy to the core, however little it cared to admit it, because Peeps weren't suppose to be able to do things like that. Not to them. The official Board of Inquiry had delivered its verdict six months ago, following its painfully emotionless analysis of Yeargin's (many) mistakes with a scathing condemnation of the mindset which had let her make them. The Board had pulled no punches, and that was good. The last thing the Fleet needed was some whitewash which would allow other station commanders to make the same mistakes. Yet the report had its downside, as well, for in its wake, some officers had become more terrified of being labeled "unprepared" or "insufficiently offensive-minded" or "lacking in the initiative properly expected from a flag officer" than they were of dying.

And Elvis Santino had just proved he was one of those terrified officers. Worse, he had been caught unprepared, and insufficiently offensive-minded, and lacking in initiative . . . and whatever he chose to admit to his staff, inside he knew he had. Which only made his terror worse . . . and his desperate determination to prove he hadn't been still stronger.

"Sir," Jaruwalski said after a moment, her voice as calm and unchallenging as she could possibly make it as she sought another way to get through to him, "whatever you or I may want can't change the facts of the tactical situation. And the facts of the situation are that our capital ships are outgunned by theirs by approximately five-to-one in grasers, five-and-a-half-to-one in lasers, and well over six-to-one in missile tubes . . . and that, of course, assumes they don't have still more units hiding under stealth out there somewhere. Under the circum—"

"I am not giving up this system without firing a shot, Commander," Santino said, and the sudden flat intensity of his voice was more frightening than his bellow had been. "I'll evacuate the noncombatants, but there is no way—no way in hell, Commander!— that I am giving them Seaford Nine without a fight. I know my duty, even if other officers may not know theirs!"

"Sir, we can't fight them broadside-to-broadside! If we try—"

"I'm not going to," Santino said in that same flat tone. "You're forgetting our missile pods and our edge in electronic warfare."

"Sir, they have pods, too!" Jaruwalski tried to keep the desperation out of her voice and knew she was failing. "And ONI believes they've been using Solly technology to upgra—"

"Their pods aren't as good as ours," Santino shot back obstinately. "And even if they were, their point defense and ECM suck. We can close with them, fire at extreme range, and break off, and all of our superdreadnoughts have the new compensators. They'll never catch us in a stern chase, and if they try to overhaul, it will only divert them from pursuing the evac ships."

Jaruwalski felt a chill of horror as his eyes brightened with the last sentence. Oh my God, she thought despairingly, now he's come up with a tactical justification for this insanity! He's going to get us all killed because he's too stupid—too afraid of showing lack of fighting spirit—to do the sensible thing, and now he's found a "logical reason" he thinks he can use in his after-action report to justify his stupidity!

"Sir, it doesn't matter if our pods have an edge if they have enough more of them than we do," she said as reasonably as she could. "And—"

"You're relieved, Commander," Santino grated. "I need advice and some offensive spirit here, not cowardice."

Jaruwalski jerked as if he'd slapped her, and her face went white— not with shame or fear, but with fury.

"Admiral, it's my duty to give you my best est—" she began, and his hand slapped the tabletop like a gunshot.

"I said you're relieved!" he shouted. "Now get the hell out of here! In fact, I want your gutless ass the hell off my flagship right now, Jaruwalski!" She stared at him, speechless, and his lip drew up in a snarl. "I'll pass the evac order to the base in five minutes—now get the hell out of here!"

"Sir, I—"

"Silence!" he bellowed, and even through her own anger and sense of despair, she knew she was simply the focus his panic-spawned rage had fastened upon. But the knowledge helped nothing, for he could not possibly have chosen a worse one. She was his ops officer, his staff tactician, the one officer he absolutely had to listen to in this situation, and he refused to. She stared at him, trying to think of some way—of any way at all—to reach him, and he punched a com stud savagely.

"Bridge, Captain speaking," a voice replied.

"Captain Tasco, I have just relieved Commander Jaruwalski of duty," Santino said spitefully, his burning eyes locked on the ops officer. "I want her off this ship—now. You will provide a pinnace to deliver her to one of the evac ships immediately. I don't care which. Just see to it. And, Captain—" He paused briefly and let his lips curl with contempt before he resumed. "If necessary," he said coldly, "you will have Colonel Wellerman remove her from Hadrian under guard."

The com was silent for at least ten seconds. Then—

"Sir," Tasco said in a voice which was just that little bit too unshaken, "are you certain about this? I—"

"Dead certain, Captain," Santino said icily, and took his thumb from the com stud.

~"Get out," he said flatly to Jaruwalski, and then turned his back on her and turned to the rest of his white-faced staff.

The ops officer stared at him a moment longer, then let her gaze sweep the other officers in the compartment. Not one of them would meet her eyes. She had become a pariah, her career ended in that single instant. It wouldn't matter in the end if she'd been right or wrong; all that would matter was that she had been relieved of duty for cowardice, and her fellow staffers—her friends—refused to look up, as if they feared the same leprosy would infect them if their gazes should touch.

She wanted to scream at them, to demand that they support her, present a united front against Santino's insanity. But it was useless. Nothing she could say would move them, even though they had to know she was right, and she felt her own anger flood out of her as suddenly as water from a shattered pot. They would sooner risk their own deaths, and the deaths of thousands of others, than Santino's rage . . . and their careers.

She gazed at them for one more second, some corner of her mind already knowing she would never see them again, and then turned and walked silently from the compartment.


At least the evacuation plan seemed to be working, Lieutenant Gaines thought thankfully as he swam quickly down the pinnace's personnel tube to HMS Cantrip's boat bay. Unfortunately, that seemed to be the only thing that was.

He reached the end of the tube, caught the grab bar, and swung himself into the heavy cruiser's internal gravity.

"Gaines, Heinrich O., Lieutenant," he told the harassed ensign waiting by the tube. The young woman's fingers flew over her portable touchpad, feeding the name into the ship's computers to check against the current personnel list Orbital Base Three's computers had transmitted twenty-three minutes ago.

The touchpad beeped almost instantly, and she turned to look over her shoulder at the lieutenant serving as boat bay officer.

"Last man, Sir!" she announced. "Everyone's confirmed aboard."

The lieutenant nodded and bent over his com.


"The last evac ship is underway, Sir," Captain Justin Tasco told Admiral Santino. He knew his voice sounded flat and unnatural, yet he couldn't seem to do anything about it. He'd tried to argue with Santino only to be chopped off with a violence as extreme as it was sudden and unexpected. Now he was trapped by his own duty, his own responsibilities, and knowing it was stupid did absolutely nothing to change any of it.

"Good," Santino said, and his broad face smiled fiercely on the small com screen linking Tasco to Hadrian's flag bridge. Then the admiral's smile faded. "You got that bi—" He clamped his jaws and drew a deep breath. "Commander Jaruwalski is off the ship?" he demanded after a moment.

"Yes, Sir," Tasco said woodenly. He'd been Vice Admiral Hennesy's flag captain for two years and worked closely with Jaruwalski all that time, but he was only a captain and Santino was an admiral, and the Articles of War forbade "comments detrimental to the authority of superior officers," so he couldn't tell the fatheaded, pig-ignorant fool what he really thought of him. "Our pinnace put her aboard Cantrip eighteen minutes ago."

"Excellent, Justin! In that case, put us on course and let's get underway."

"Aye, aye, Sir," Tasco said flatly, and began giving orders.


Despite his relatively junior rank, Gaines was able to fast-talk his way into the heavy cruiser's CIC on the basis of his status as the senior sensor officer for Seaford Station. Or at least my recent status as SO, he thought with graveyard humor as the ship's assistant tactical officer nodded him into the compartment and then waved him back out of the way. Gaines found a position against a bulkhead from which he could see the master plot's holo sphere and took a moment to orient himself to the smaller display. Then he stiffened in shock.

"What the—?!" He shook his head and leaned forward, watching in horror as the main body of the system picket began to move at last. Not to escort the ships detailed for evacuation clear of the system, but to advance towards the Peeps!

"What the hell do they think they're doing?" he muttered.

"They think they're going to 'distract' the enemy," a drained-sounding soprano said from beside him, and he turned his head quickly. The dark-haired, hawk-faced woman wore a skinsuit with commander's insignia and the name jaruwalski, andrea on its breast, and her eyes were the weariest, most defeated-looking eyes Gaines had ever seen.

"What do you mean, 'distract'?" he asked her, and she turned her head to look at him with a considering air. Then she shrugged.

"Are you familiar with the term 'For the honor of the flag,' Lieutenant?"

"Of course I am," he replied.

"Do you know where it came from?"

"Well, no ... no, I don't," he admitted.

"Back on Old Earth, one of the old wet navies had a tradition," Jaruwalski said distantly, returning her eyes to the display. "I can't remember which one it was, but it was way back before they even had steam ships. It doesn't matter." She shrugged. "The point is, that when one of their captains found himself up against an enemy he was afraid of engaging or figured he couldn't fight effectively, he'd fire a single broadside—frequently on the disengaged side, so as to avoid pissing the enemy off so badly they shot back—and then haul down his flag as quickly as he could."

"Why?" Gaines asked, fascinated somehow despite the disaster brewing in the display.

"Because hauling down his flag was the same as striking a wedge is today," Jaruwalski said in that same detached voice. "It was a signal of surrender. But by firing a broadside first—'for the honor of the flag'—he covered himself against the charge of cowardice or surrendering without a fight."

"He—? That's the stupidest thing I ever heard of!" Gaines exclaimed.

"Yes, it was," she agreed sadly. "And it hasn't gotten any less stupid today."


"What the devil do they think they're doing?" Citizen Commissioner Randal demanded.

"I'm not certain," Citizen Vice Admiral Shalus replied, her eyes fixed on her plot. Then she looked up with a bone-chilling smile. "But I'm not complaining, either, Citizen Commissioner." She looked at her ops officer. "Time to optimum launch range, Oscar?"

"Seven minutes, Citizen Admiral," Levitt responded instantly.

"Good," Shalus said softly.


"We're in range now, Sir," Captain Tasco told Admiral Santino. "Shall I give the order to fire?"

"Not yet, Justin. Let the range close a little more. We only get one shot here, so let's make it a good one."

"Sir, from their acceleration curve they have to be towing pods of their own," Tasco pointed out.

"I'm aware of that, Captain," Santino said frostily, "and I will pass the word to fire when I am prepared to do so. Is that understood?"

"Aye, aye, Sir," Tasco said bleakly.


"They must think they can hit us with one or two heavy salvos, then pull away with their compensator advantage," Citizen Commander Levitt said quietly, and Shalus nodded.

She could scarcely believe anyone—especially a Manty—could be that stupid even when she saw it happening, yet it was the only explanation for their antics. They'd come to meet her decelerating task force, then executed a turnover of their own. The range was coming down on six and a half million kilometers, and her overtake speed had reduced to only four hundred kilometers per second. She could never overtake them if they chose to go to a maximum safe acceleration, which meant they were deliberately allowing her to edge into range of them.

Are they that confident of the superiority of their systems? she wondered. Nothing in our intelligence briefings indicates that they ought to be . . . but, then, we don't know all there is to know about their R&D, now do we? But I simply cant believe they could possibly have a big enough tactical advantage to justify letting us into range! At max, they cant have more than forty-five or fifty pods on tow . . . and I've got three hundred and twenty-eight!

"Dead meat," she heard someone mutter behind her, and nodded.


"Let the range drop a little more," Santino said quietly. "I want the best lock-up fire control can give us. And when we launch, I want all our fire concentrated on their two lead SDs."

"Aye, aye, Sir," Captain Tasco said, and Santino smiled nastily. Even after detaching a full squadron of heavy cruisers for the evacuation, he had fifty-four pods. Adding his ships' internal launchers, he could put almost nine hundred missiles into space, and his lip curled as he contemplated what that would do to ships with Peep missile defense systems.

I'll blow those two fuckers right out of space, he told himself. And, really, everything else in the system combined is hardly worth two of the wall. Oh, it might be worth something to the Peeps, but this junk is hardly worth our time. Everyone will understand that. Nobody'll be able to say I didn't make the bastards pay cash to take over my command area, and—

"Enemy launch!" someone shouted. "Multiple enemy launches! Multi—My God!"


"Launch!" Citizen Vice Admiral Shalus snapped, and three hundred and twenty-eight missile pods belched fire. The People's Navy's missiles were less individually capable than the RMN's, with slightly shorter range, but to make up for it, each of their pods had sixteen launchers to the Manticorans' ten. Now all of them vomited their birds, and TF 12.1's internal launchers sent another fifteen hundred along with them. All together, over six thousand seven hundred missiles went screaming towards the outnumbered Manticoran task force.


Elvis Santino clung to his command chair arms with white knuckles, his eyes pits of horror as he saw the solid wall of missile icons streaking towards him. It wasn't possible. He knew it wasn't. But it was happening, and he heard orders crackling over the com link to Hadrian's command deck as Captain Tasco fought frantically to save his ship.

Lieutenant Commander Uller, Santino's acting ops officer after Jaruwalski's eviction, barked the command to flush their own pods without Santino's orders, but the Manticoran response seemed feeble in the face of the Peep tsunami, and Santino closed his eyes, as if he could somehow evade his hideous responsibility by shutting the sight away.

ONI had warned him, and so had Jaruwalski, but he hadn't believed it. Oh, he'd heard the reports, nodded at the warnings, but he hadn't believed. He'd seen the Manticoran missile storm loosed upon the Peeps, but he had never seen an answering storm front, and somewhere deep down inside him, he'd believed he never would. Now he knew he'd been wrong.

Yet he'd been almost right, after all; he would only see it once.


Heinrich Gaines and Andrea Jaruwalski huddled together as if for warmth, their sick eyes locked to the display. Cantrip was safely beyond the Peeps' reach, with a velocity advantage which would take her across the hyper limit and to safety long before any Havenite ship could even think about interfering with her. But none of the Peeps were thinking about anything as unimportant as a fleeing heavy cruiser. Their attention was on more important prey, and Gaines groaned as he read the data codes beside the icons.

ONI was wrong, Jaruwalski thought detachedly. They said the Solly systems had probably improved the Peeps' point defense by fifteen percent; it's got to be closer to twenty. And their penaids must be better than we thought, too. Of course, with that many incoming birds to swamp the systems—

Her detached thoughts froze as the Peep missiles reached attack range. Santino's desperate point defense had thinned them, but no force as small as his could possibly have killed enough of those missiles to make any difference. Almost four thousand of them survived to attack, and a holocaust of bomb-pumped X-ray lasers ripped and tore at impenetrable impeller bands, all-too-penetrable side walls . . . and the wide open bows and sterns of Santino's wedges.

It was over quickly, she thought numbly. That was the only mercy. One moment, three RMN superdreadnoughts led four battlecruisers and eight heavy cruisers on a firing run; nineteen seconds after the first Peep laser head detonated, there were two damaged heavy cruisers, one crippled hulk of a battlecruiser . . . and nothing else but wreckage and the eye-tearing fury of failing fusion bottles. She heard someone cursing in a harsh, flat monotone—heard the tears and rage and helplessness behind the profanity—but she never looked away from the display as the Peeps' internal launchers dealt with the cripples.

Santino's return fire hadn't been entirely futile, she saw. A single Peep SD blew apart as violently as his own flagship had, and a second reeled out of formation, her wedge down, shedding lifepods and wreckage. But the rest of the Peep armada didn't even hesitate. It just kept driving straight ahead, and she looked away at last as the missile batteries which had massacred men and women she had known and worked with for over two T-years came into range of the orbital facilities. Old-fashioned nuclear warheads bloomed intolerably bright as the enemy fleet methodically blew the abandoned, defenseless installations into half-vaporized wreckage, and Andrea Jaruwalski felt old and beaten and useless as she turned her back upon the hideous plot at last and made her way from Cantrip's CIC.


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