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Chapter Thirty-Four

"Captain is on the br—" the quartermaster began, but Alice Truman's curt wave cut him off as she stormed out of the lift onto HMS Minotaur's command deck.

"Talk to me, Tactical!" she snapped, continuing in a straight line for her command chair.

"They came out of hyper five minutes ago, Ma'am," Commander Jessup replied quickly. "They made translation just above the ecliptic and just outside the hyper limit and headed straight in. Present range to the primary is six-five-six-point-six light-seconds. Bearing from Hancock Base is zero-zero-three zero-niner-two relative, range to orbit shell intercept three-five-one-point-eight-five light-seconds, closing at one-one-two-zero-one KPS and accelerating at four-point-zero KPS squared."

"Um." Truman had continued across the deck as Jessup spoke. Now she threw herself into the command chair McGyver had vacated at her approach. Her eyes darted down to the plot, and she frowned at the vector projections. Then she punched for a readout on the probable enemy types, and her frown deepened.

Thirty-plus battleships, ten or twelve heavy cruisers, and a half-dozen destroyers, she thought, fingers drumming nervously on the arm of her command chair. Individually, nothing in that force could stand up to Rear Admiral Truitt's superdreadnoughts; collectively, they could demolish everything Truitt had in twenty minutes of close action. They'd get hurt in the process, but they could do it. And their low acceleration made her wonder if they'd need even twenty minutes ... or get hurt all that badly. They had to be towing heavy loads of pods to account for that acceleration, and Adler had proved Peep missile pods were not to be taken lightly. Which meant Hancock was going to fall, and that was more than just a disaster because there wasn't enough shipping with enough life support in the entire system to take off the personnel assigned to the steadily expanding fleet base. And—

Her fingers stopped drumming suddenly, and her eyes narrowed as a thought struck her. It was preposterous, of course. Or was it? She turned it over in her mind, examining it from all angles with feverish haste while the Peeps' vector built steadily towards Hancock Base. Could it really be—?

She began punching rapid-fire numbers into her plot.

"Could they have seen Minnie yet?" she demanded of the tac officer, using the nickname she'd done her level best to stamp out in her distraction.

"No way, Ma'am," Jessup replied confidently, and she nodded at the confirmation. Not that she'd expected anything else. Minotaur had been running silent under stealth for the point from which she and Harmon had decided to launch their "attack" on Hancock Base's defenders—which wasn't all that far, on the scale of deep space, from where the Peeps had actually appeared—and anything that could hide from the Hancock sensor net wouldn't be picked up by Peep sensors even if the damned Sollies had doubled their efficiency. And that meant . . .

She stopped, looking at the results on her plot, and swore silently. She couldn't quite pull off what she'd hoped for, but the fallback looked good.

"Check me on this, Alf," she said, turning to face the tactical section. "I make it that they're on course for a speed-zero/range-zero intercept with the orbit base. Do you concur?"

"Yes, Ma'am," Jessup replied. "Assuming accelerations remain constant at four KPS squared, they'll hit turnover in approximately forty-five minutes at just under six-zero-point-six million klicks from the base. Time to zero/zero intercept from now is one-three-six-point-seven-niner minutes."

Truman nodded again as he confirmed her figures. Of course, if the Peeps decided to, they could simply maintain a constant acceleration, in which case they would cross the base's orbital shell in only eighty-three minutes. They'd be well "ahead" of the base at the time if they stuck with their current heading, but they'd have plenty of time to adjust their course for a missile pass.

But whichever option they pursued, they would certainly remain on their current heading at their current acceleration at least to the turnover for the zero/zero approach, and that gave her forty-five minutes with which to work. She turned to look down at her plot again, then looked at her helmsman.

"Bring us to zero-one-zero zero-seven-eight at three-zero-zero gravities," she said.

"Aye, aye, Ma'am. Zero-one-zero zero-seven-eight at three hundred gravities," the helmsman replied, and Truman punched a comstud.

"LAC Control, COLAC speaking," Harmon's voice responded instantly.

"We're going to get a live-fire test of your birds after all, Jackie," Truman said with a tight smile. "Are they prepping?"

"Yes, Ma'am! We're loading the mags with war shots now. We'll be ready to launch in four minutes."

"Um." Truman punched a fresh set of assumptions into her plot and scowled. It would stretch the range envelope still further and require a higher acceleration from the LACs than she really liked, EW or no EW, but it would be possible. Probably.

"All right," she said. "Here's what we're going to do. . . ."


"Here come the Manties, Citizen Admiral," Citizen Commander Morris called out, and Jane Kellet looked up quickly. She'd known the defenders would have the precious advantage of near real-time data on her command thanks to their FTL sensor net, but her own gravitics were quite capable of picking up impeller signatures at this range. Now she saw them on her plot, coming at her, and her eyebrows rose at the data codes beside their icons.

"Are you certain about those class IDs, Olivia?" she asked her tac officer.

"CIC's confidence is high, Citizen Admiral," Citizen Commander Morris replied. "We see no evidence that they're trying to spoof us, nor are they running under stealth. Of course, with that much power to their wedges, even Manty stealth systems would be pushed to the max. Our best count makes it five superdreadnoughts and eleven battlecruisers with eight light cruisers or destroyers screening them."

"And they're accelerating at four hundred and thirty-five gravities?"

"Aye, Ma'am. CIC makes it ... four-point-two-six KPS squared. That's why their signatures are so clear."

"I see." Kellet leaned back in her command chair, stroking her chin, and Citizen Commissioner Penevski looked a question at her.

"I'm a bit surprised by their tactics, Citizen Commissioner," Kellet admitted. "Given their acceleration, they must have cut their pod strength to the bone. Everything they've got has to be inside their wedges, and that means we can't be looking at more than a hundred pods or so."

"Why would they do that?" Penevski asked.

"That's what I don't quite understand," Kellet said. "Unless . . ." She tapped some numbers into her plot and frowned at the vectors the display obediently generated. "Well, I suppose that could be it," she said finally.

"What could?" Pevenski's tone was that of a woman who was reining in her own frustration to be polite . . . and wanted the Citizen Rear Admiral to know it. Kellet's mouth quirked wryly at the thought, and she looked up at the people's commissioner.

"Their current course and acceleration will intercept our projected vector well before the point at which we'd make turnover for a zero-speed intercept of their base," she said. "They probably figure we have to maintain our profile that far whatever we intend to do—and they're right," she admitted. "I suppose what they could be hoping to do is to blow past us with the maximum velocity differential they can generate and rake hell out of us in a passing engagement, but I wouldn't have thought they'd try something like that."

"Why not?"

"Because it buys them the worst of all worlds, Ma'am. Their current acceleration indicates that they're light on pods, so they've sacrificed a lot of firepower to achieve it. At the same time, our accel curve almost has to have told them we're coming in heavy with pods—on the battleships, at least; they probably figure the heavy cruisers are light, since they can't know how much reserve impeller strength the Mars-class has. Our closing speeds won't really matter very much to the kind of missile exchange they're inviting, and we'll hurt them badly at the very least. And after we do, they'll be behind us, headed out-system and unable to kill enough velocity to stay with us while we go sailing merrily inward and blow their fleet base to dust."

"Could they be intending to reverse acceleration before we actually intercept them?" Penevski asked.

"Certainly they could, and it's what I would have expected them to do, assuming they intended to fight us at all," Kellet agreed. "But in their place, I'd want to do that at some point after we've made turnover . . . especially since that would've let them pull a lower acceleration. Which, in turn, would have meant they could have brought along a maximum pod load—and used their EW to hide their signatures longer to keep us guessing—instead of stripping down and coming in wide open this way."

"Could it be that they just want to engage as far from their base as possible?" Penevski wondered.

"It could," Kellet conceded, "but, again, I can't see a reason they should. Their accel will let them come further out to meet us and match vectors sooner—and further from their base—than they could have otherwise if that's what they want to do, Ma'am. What it won't do, however, is give them any particular advantage. Even with maximum pod loads, they'd have been able to match vectors far beyond our missile range of the base. Meeting us further out of range of it doesn't offer any advantage commensurate with the sacrifice in firepower they've accepted."

"Maybe surprise just panicked them into making a mistake, then," Penevski suggested.

"I suppose it's possible. . . ."


"What do you make of it, Ira?" Citizen Captain Hall asked calmly.

"Beats me, Citizen Captain," Citizen Commander Hamer replied from her com screen. The XO was in Auxiliary Control, as far away from the bridge as he could get, ready to take over in the event that something unfortunate happened to Schaumberg's command deck, but he had the same displays Hall did, and his expression was puzzled on the small com screen.

"Do you have any suggestions, Oliver?" the Citizen Captain asked next, glancing at her tactical officer, and Citizen Commander Diamato shrugged to indicate his matching bafflement.

As promised, Citizen Captain Hall and Citizen Commander Hamer had kept Diamato thoroughly busy with tactical problems in his putatively free time. Along the way, he had come to admire both of them—and especially the citizen captain—intensely. He still had some qualms about their possible political opinions, but they made a brilliant command team. And in another five or six years, Diamato calculated, he might be as good a tactician as the Citizen Captain, assuming she and Hamer kept hammering away at him hard enough. For the moment, however, he was devoutly grateful he was only third in Schaumberg's chain of command, for working so closely with Hall had shown him the weak spots in his own experience. He'd come up too quickly, been driven up the rank ladder too rapidly, to acquire the sort of foundation he truly needed, and he was grateful to the Citizen Captain for showing him that.

"I think someone over there's screwed up, Ma'am," he said, and felt his face stiffen, his eyes darting towards Citizen Commissioner Addison as he realized how he'd addressed her. Addison gave him a dagger-sharp glance, but then the Citizen Commissioner looked away without saying anything, and Diamato sighed in relief.

"You may be right," Citizen Captain Hall said, her voice as calm as if she hadn't heard anything at all out of the ordinary. "But while I have no objection at all to seeing the Manties screw up—and God knows Adler proved they can screw up just as badly as anyone else—I don't think I'm quite ready to leap to any conclusions here. Stay on your sensors, Oliver. I've got a feeling something nasty is headed our way. We just haven't seen it yet."


"So far, so good," Alice Truman murmured to herself. Minotaur had swept in from the side, angling to cross the Peeps' course well behind them. Her EW was the best in the RMN, which (presumably) meant the best in space, at least for the moment, and she was using it for all she was worth. Not that the Peeps would worry too much if they did see her. She would cross directly astern of them in a little over twelve minutes, but she would also be something like eight million kilometers from them, well beyond effective missile range, especially for missiles trying to overtake them from astern.

Of course, there were a few other things the Peeps didn't know about. Like the ninety-six LACs which had launched from the big carrier over half an hour ago and darted away on a radically divergent course. Their impellers were far more powerful than any previous LAC's, but they were still much weaker than any conventional warship's. Coupled with their EW, that let them move at almost five hundred gravities and remain undetected at a range as low as thirty light-seconds. They could probably get even closer than that under ideal circumstances—like against Peep-quality sensors manned by people who had no idea they existed. Their acceleration rates were rather lower than that by now, however, for this was no time to take unnecessary chances, and they were slicing in toward the Peeps on a sharply converging angle. In fact, they ought to be cutting their acceleration back to zero any moment now.


"Any sign they've spotted us?" Captain Harmon asked quietly.

"Negative, Skipper," Ensign Thomas, Gold One's tactical officer said. "They're sticking with their original flight profile. They'll cross our course starboard to port at a range of two-eight-four thousand klicks in—" he tapped on his key pad "—nine minutes. The angle won't be all that good, but our closing velocity at course intersection will be right on two hundred KPS."

"And their decoys and jammers are still down?"

"That's affirmative," Thomas replied. Then he grinned tautly. "Makes sense, doesn't it, Skipper? They've still got their share of maintenance problems, and they probably don't want to put any more time on their decoys' clocks than they have to. But we're well inside our own missile envelope, so the fact that they figure they don't have to bring their systems up yet has to indicate they don't have a clue we're here."

"Good." Harmon glanced across at her engineer. Lieutenant Gearman sat at his console, hands resting lightly on its edge. He looked almost calm, but a trickle of sweat down his right temple gave lie to that impression. "I'll want full power on the wedge and the forward sidewall the instant I give the word, Mike," she reminded him.

"Aye, Skipper. You'll get it."

"Good," she repeated, then glanced further aft to the second engineer's station and directed a ferocious mock glower at the hairy-armed first-class petty officer who manned it. "And as for you, PO," she said tartly, "I don't want any dropped spanners on my bridge!"

"No, Ma'am," PO Maxwell replied quickly, and rolled his eyes at his own console. He'd always suspected his nickname had made it to the officers' ears, but this was the first time the Skipper had ever used it. He had absolutely no doubt who'd passed her the word, and he resolved to do something to thank PO Smith properly for seeing to that little detail when he got back to the ship. Something humorous, he thought, with boiling oil or molten lead. . . .


"I'm picking up something a little odd, Citizen Cap—" Diamato began, then interrupted himself. "Unknown ship astern of us!" he announced sharply. "She's running under stealth, Citizen Captain!"

"What is she?" Citizen Captain Hall's deliberate tone was pitched to remind him to calm himself, and he drew a deep breath.

"I can't say for certain, Citizen Captain," he told her in a more nearly normal voice. "She's extremely hard to hold even now. I don't think we've encountered ECM this good before. She's about to cross our course about eight million klicks back, but it looks like she's altering heading to follow us in. CIC's calling her a dreadnought, but that's tentative."

"And she's all alone back there?" Hall's eyebrows rose in surprise, and Diamato nodded.

"She's all we see, Citizen Captain."

"Well, she's too far back to engage us even if she wasn't alone," the Citizen Exec murmured from the com screen. Hall had it in split-screen mode, with Hamer on the left side and Citizen Rear Admiral Kellet on the right.

"I agree with Citizen Commander Hamer," Kellet said now, "but what the hell is she doing swanning around all by herself? Why not shape a course to join the rest of them ahead of us? If her ECM's this good, she should have been able to do that."

"Unless she's coming in from the outer system," Hall pointed out, and tugged at the lobe of one ear, frowning down at her own plot. She didn't like the timing on this. The Manties coming out from the base had reversed course after all. At the moment, they were six-point-eight million kilometers directly ahead of TF 12.3, allowing the Republican ships to overtake them at a little over ninety-four hundred kilometers per second. That would let her into extreme missile range of them in another twelve minutes, and now this. . . .

"They're up to something, Citizen Admiral," she said softly, but try though she might, she couldn't figure out what that something was. Yet that was hardly her fault, for Manticoran security had held. No one in the People's Navy had yet heard even a whisper about the Shrike-class or HMS Minotaur and their capabilities.

"Agreed," Kellet said flatly, and looked over her shoulder. "Pass the word to finish prepping the decoys, Olivia," she ordered. "I want them ready to go on-line in five minutes."

"Aye, Ma'am. Shall I initiate jamming?" Citizen Commander Morris asked.

"Not yet," Kellet said after a moment's thought. "They haven't begun jamming yet, either—or deployed their own decoys, for that matter. Given the difference in the number of birds we've each got, I don't want to push them into starting to screw with our tracking capability any sooner than necessary."

"Understood, Citizen Admiral," Morris said.

"And in the meantime, Citizen Captain," Kellet went on, glancing back at Hall, "I think I want to have a little talk with Citizen Rear Admiral Porter." The two women didn't—quite—grimace at one another. That would have been prejudicial to good discipline, after all, for Porter was Kellet's official second-in-command . . . even if he did need an instruction manual to pour piss out of a boot.

"If you'll excuse me?" Kellet said. Hall nodded, and TF 12.3's CO looked at her com officer. "Get me Citizen Rear Admiral Porter."


"By God, it's going to work!" Alice Truman whispered to herself. She hadn't really believed it would when she'd thought it up, but it had seemed the only possibility worth trying, and so she'd done it. And to her astonishment, Rear Admiral Truitt had accepted her recommendation. He must have, although he hadn't commed her to say so, for his ships were doing precisely what she'd suggested.

Passing that suggestion had worried her. Not the mechanics of the transmission; Minotaur had been within less than two light-seconds of one of the FTL com platforms, easily close enough to hit it with a whisker laser and let it transmit her message in-system. Nor had she worried about the Peeps detecting the grav-pulse message and realizing someone was behind them. By now they had to be able to recognize such transmissions—any decent gravitic sensor could detect them; the trick was learning how to generate them ... or read them—but the entire FTL scanner net had been yammering away with enough data transmissions to hide a broadcast of the annual Address from the Throne in the background chatter.

No, what had worried her had been that she'd had to commit her ship and Jackie Harmon's LACs to her plan immediately if they were to get into position. And that meant that if Truitt had rejected her suggestion, the LACs could have found themselves pitted against the Peeps all alone. But that wasn't going to happen, and she smiled evilly as she watched the time display tick downward.


"Got 'em, Skipper!" Ensign Thomas announced.

"Well enough to guarantee lock-on?" Harmon asked sharply.

"I'll have to go active to guarantee that, Ma'am," Thomas said a little less exuberantly, and Harmon grunted. Her LACs were almost at their prebriefed attack points, coasting in ballistically with their wedges up but at minimum power. The range was a little under a light-second, and grasers were light-speed weapons. If everything worked perfectly, the Peeps would have no more than two seconds— certainly no more than four—to realize what was coming.

"All right," she said. "Stand by for energy weapons and missiles. Mike, I want the bow sidewall first, then full power to the rest of the wedge. Bring the wall up the instant Tommy gets his missiles away."

"Understood, Skipper," Gearman replied tautly.


A light began to blink on Citizen Commander Diamato's panel, and he frowned. He punched a query into the board, and his frown deepened as CIC responded.

"We're picking up something to port, Citizen Captain," he said.

"Something?" Citizen Captain Hall spun her command chair to face him. "What sort of 'something'?"

"I don't really know, Citizen Captain," he admitted. "It's too weak to be a ship's impeller signature or an incoming missile, and we're picking up at least a dozen point sources . . . unless it's some sort of scatter?" He frowned, then shook his head. "No, Ma'am," he said, this time using the old style address without even thinking about it. "It's definitely separate sources; I'm confident of that. But there's nothing like it in our sensor or threat files."

"Could it be some sort of drone?" Hall asked intently.

"That's what CIC thinks, Ma'am," Diamato said. "But I don't think so. It doesn't . . . feel right, somehow. And faint as it is, it's too strong for a stealthed Manty recon drone."

"Bring the jammers and decoys up now!" Hall snapped, and Diamato's thumb jabbed at the button.


"What the—?" Citizen Captain Hector Griswold, CO of PNS Citizen Admiral Tascosa, frowned as Tascosa's sister ship Schaumberg suddenly brought her defensive electronic systems fully on-line. He looked at the readouts for a second or two, then switched his eyes to his com officer.

"Anything from the Flag?" he asked.

"No, Citizen Captain," the com officer replied, and he turned towards Tactical.

"Why did the flagship bring her EW on-line?" he demanded.

"I don't know, Citizen Captain," the tac officer replied.


"Damn!" Ensign Thomas swore as a single Peep battleship suddenly lit off every defensive electronics system she had. Those systems remained considerably inferior to the Manticoran equivalents, but they were an awful lot better than they'd been eighteen or twenty T-months earlier, and he swore again as the single ship vanished into a ball of electronic fuzz which made it impossible to see anything as small as a train of towed missile pods.

He started to report it, but Jacquelyn Harmon had already seen it.

"Engage now!" she barked.


"She did what?" Citizen Rear Admiral Kellet looked up from the com screen and blinked at Citizen Lieutenant Commander Morris.

"She brought up our EW without orders, Citizen Admiral," Morris repeated, and Kellet frowned.

"Excuse me, Ron," she said to Citizen Admiral Porter and reached for the interrupt switch. But the display blanked, banishing Porter's image before she could hit the button, and then it lit once more and Citizen Captain Hall's face looked out of it.

"Froggie, just what the h—" Kellet began.

"Ma'am, CIC has just—" Hall said simultaneously, but a third voice cut them both off before she could explain.

"We're being hit with lidar!" Olivia Morris shouted. "Multiple emitters—very close, Citizen Admiral!"


"Locked up!" Thomas snapped as the ranging and targeting pulses from his lidar came back to Harpy. "Firing—now!"

Ninety-six LACs fired ninety-six grasers within the space of barely two seconds. Their angle of closure was too broad for them to get shots up the open after aspects of the Peep ships' impeller wedges, but they weren't shooting at ships. They were firing at missile pods, and they killed ninety-three of them in the first salvo.

The pods were utterly defenseless, following docilely along behind their mother ships, and grasers which could blast through a ship of the wall's armor ripped them to splinters with dreadful ease. When a weapons-grade energy beam hit a target, it didn't melt that target. The energy transfer was too enormous, too sudden. Natural alloy or synthetics, ceramics or human flesh, it vaporized explosively, literally blowing itself apart with fearsome force, and some of the first salvo's targets' sister pods succumbed to proximity damage as fragments blasted into them like old-fashioned prespace armor-piercing shot.

But the LACs weren't counting on that sort of fortuitous kills. Their fire control lashed the other pods viciously, despite the fact that the laser emissions were giving the Peeps' targeting beacons of their own, and a second fusillade of grasers ripped out even as the Shrikes' missiles tubes went to maximum rate fire.


"What's out there?" Jane Kellet demanded harshly. She felt the edge of panic trying to ooze into her own voice and throttled it savagely before anyone else heard it.

"I don't know, Citizen Admiral!" Morris replied, fingers flying over her console as she, CIC, and Oliver Diamato all tried to make sense of the preposterous readings. "There are—"

"LACs!" another voice came over the circuit, and Kellet's eyes snapped back to her com as a sidebar identified the speaker as Citizen Commander Diamato.

"Explain!" she snapped.

"It has to be LACs, Citizen Admiral," Diamato said urgently. "It'd take a dozen Manty battlecruisers to produce that much graser fire, but not even Manties could get something that big this close. And if they were battlecruisers, they'd be firing lasers, as well. And all the point sources, it—"

"Missiles incoming!" CIC reported.


Alice Truman watched the Peeps' jammers and decoys coming frantically on-line and bared her teeth at her plot. Minotaur was too far away to pick up any sort of accurate read on the Peeps' missile pods, but her sensors had reported the first tsunami of graser fire and hits on something astern of the enemy ships. And now the diamond-dust glitter of the LACs' outgoing missiles speckled her display against a background holocaust of independently firing grasers still ripping pods to pieces.

"All right, Alf," she said to Jessup. "Let's you and Commander Stackowitz just see what you can do to help out."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am! Firing now!"

Minotaur twitched ever so slightly as her bow missile tubes opened fire. She was nine million kilometers astern of her enemies and losing ground steadily. Her superior acceleration would change that shortly, but it hadn't yet, which should have made the launch a futile gesture. But she had the first fruits of Project Ghost Rider in her magazines, and the missiles she fired in salvos of nine were like none that had ever been fired in anger before.


"Bow wall up!" Michael Gearman barked as the last of twelve shipkillers erupted from Harpy's bow-mounted tubes.

"Wedge nominal!" PO Maxwell snapped almost simultaneously.

"Ready to answer the helm on reaction thrusters, Skipper!" Lieutenant Takahashi said.

"Very good," Harmon acknowledged, watching her small plot, and her lips curled back from her teeth. The wing had already gutted the Peeps' pods—they might have a dozen or so left, hiding amid the wreckage, but certainly not enough to have any great impact on the coming engagement—and now the Shrikes' missiles were howling in on their targets. The angle was still bad, but the range was down to only 220,000 kilometers, and the closure rate at launch was close to three hundred KPS. That would leave the birds plenty of time on their drives, and with an acceleration of 85,000 g, their flight time was barely twenty-two seconds.


Oscar Diamato watched in horror as the huge cloud of missiles flashed towards TF 12.3. He was right, he thought numbly. Those had to be LACs out there—the individual missile salvos were too small and coming from too many dispersed points to be from anything larger. But there were so many of them! Worse, they'd launched from such short range, and from so many places on so many vectors, that point defense was caught hopelessly flatfooted. CIC and the sensor crews did their best, but the target environment was too chaotic. They needed time for their plots to settle, only there was no time.

The Manticoran missiles came howling down on their targets, in final acquisition before more than a handful of counter-missiles could launch, and laser clusters and main energy mounts vomited beamed energy in a desperate effort to pick them off. PNS Alcazar, senior ship of the task force's understrength destroyer screen, took a direct main battery hit, squarely amidships, from Tascosa. The battleship was only trying to protect herself, but Alcazar was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the hapless ship blew up with all hands as the massive graser ripped contemptuously through her sidewall.

Schaumberg was firing as desperately as anyone else. Diamato's hands flew over his console, his entire universe focused on his responsibility to somehow break through the Manties' EW and find them for his own weapons, yet he felt the ship shudder and buck as the first bomb-pumped lasers tore at her. Citizen Captain Hall's orders to bring Diamato's ECM up on her own initiative made the flagship a much harder target than the other battleships, but with so many missiles flying some of them simply had to get through, and alarms wailed as she jerked again.

"Graser Three down! Direct hit on Lidar One, switching to backup! Citizen Captain, we're taking hits forward! Beta Thirteen and Fourteen are out of the ring! Heavy casualties in Point Defense Five!"

Diamato cringed as the litany of damage reports rolled through the bridge, yet even as he cringed, he knew it could have been far, far worse—would have been worse, if not for Citizen Captain Hall. But that was cold comfort as—

"Direct hit on Auxiliary Control!" someone shouted, and despite himself, Diamato looked up from his own displays at the damage schematic. Auxiliary Control turned bright, blazing crimson as he watched, and he darted a look at the citizen captain. Hall's face was a mask etched from stone, her presence an eye of calm as she forced her bridge crew to hold together by sheer willpower, yet he saw the pain—the loss—in her eyes as she realized Ira Hamer was dead.

"Find me those LACs, Oliver!" she commanded, her voice very nearly as even as it had been before the Manties launched, and he wheeled back to his display.


Reaction thrusters flared, pushing LAC Wing One's bows sideways with old-fashioned brute power. It was slow and ponderous compared to maneuvering on impellers, but it let them maintain their powerful bow sidewalls as they simultaneously turned and rolled to present the bellies of their wedges to the enemy.

Jacquelyn Harmon watched the maneuver with fierce elation. That asshole Holderman might have hung them up out here for months while he tried to sabotage Operation Anzio, but at least his machinations had given her people plenty of time to train. They were reacting like veterans, bringing themselves far enough around to deny the Peeps down-the-throat shots so they could go in pursuit, and she felt herself leaning forward against her shock frame as if to physically urge Harpy on.

But then something caught her eye, and she blinked, lips pursing in surprise, as HMS Minotaur's first nine missiles came shrieking in from astern. They'd taken one hundred and forty-three seconds to overhaul their targets, and their overtake velocity was over a hundred and twenty-six thousand kilometers per second. No other missile in space could have done that; simply to get the burn time would have required a thirty-five-percent reduction in maximum acceleration, which would have put it three million kilometers behind these birds with a velocity almost twenty thousand KPS lower. More to the point, any other missiles would have been ballistic and unable to maneuver by the time they overhauled their prey, whereas these birds would still have close to forty seconds on their drives.


No one in TF 12.3 saw them coming—not even Oliver Diamato. The PN tactical crews could be excused for that. There was so much other confusion on their displays, so many other known threats scorching in on so many different vectors, that none of them had any attention to spare for the single dreadnought so far behind them that it couldn't possibly represent a danger.

And because none of them did, Minotaur's first salvo came slashing in completely unopposed.

All nine missiles were locked onto a single target, and they had not only plenty of power for terminal attack maneuvers but a straight shot directly up the after aspect of its wedge. Two of them actually detonated inside the wedge, and the other seven all detonated at less than eight thousand kilometers. The hedgehog pattern of their X-ray lasers enveloped the stern of PNS Mohawk in a deadly weave of energy, and the battleship's after impeller room blew apart, and her wedge faltered. Unfortunately, however, it didn't fail . . . and every man and woman aboard her died almost instantly as one laser scored a direct hit on her inertial compensator and two hundred gravities smashed the life from them like an enraged deity's mace.

That caught the attention of the tactical officers aboard Mohawk's sisters, and a fresh surge of consternation washed through them as they realized the Manties had just hit them with yet another new weapon. Their counter-missiles and laser clusters trained around onto the threat bearing, firing furiously at the followup salvos, and at least they had plenty of tracking and engagement time against this threat.


"Admiral Truitt is coming back at them, Skipper!" Evans reported, and Harmon nodded. Truitt's task group had reversed acceleration, charging to meet the Peeps now that their pods had been mostly destroyed, and his own pods launched as he entered attack range. They flew straight into the Peeps' faces, and ships slewed wildly as they tried to turn the vulnerable throats of their wedges away from the incoming fire. But that turned them almost directly away from Harmon's LACs, exposing their vulnerable after aspects, and her people had turned far enough away that they were no longer crossing their own "T"s for the enemy. That meant they'd been able to take down their bow walls, unmasking their missile tubes once more

"Reengage with missiles! Flush the reserves now!" she ordered over the wing command channel, and the missiles she'd held back from the initial attack for just this moment went roaring out.


It was a nightmare for Jane Kellet—or would have been, if she'd had even a single microsecond to dwell upon it. But she didn't have that microsecond. Her task force writhed at the heart of a deadly ambush, with missiles flying at her seemingly from every possible direction, and the Manty SDs were closing on her battleships. They couldn't fight those leviathans—not in energy range—and win . . . and that didn't even count the damned LACs. Her tac people could find them now that they'd made their presence felt and brought their wedges up, but their decoys and jammers were hellishly effective for such small vessels. Locking them up for fire control should have been easy at this short range, but it wasn't. Worse, they were splitting into two forces which angled away from one another, obviously intending to race out on either flank before they turned and scissored back towards one another with her in the middle. She could see it coming, but the maneuver had turned the bellies of their wedges towards her, which meant she could engage only with missiles.

"All ships, stand by to come to course oh-niner-oh by two-seven-oh!" she barked. It wasn't much, but it would turn her sterns at least a little further away from the LACs and twist her vector violently away from the Manty SDs. Even with their new compensators, those SDs had a lower max accel than her battleships, and if she could just draw out of their range—

"Flush remaining pods at the LACs!" she snapped, her brain whirring like a computer as she considered options and alternatives. She didn't know how many missiles she had left, but she had a decent chance of keeping the ships of the wall from getting into energy range. That meant it was the damned LACs which were the real threat. They, and they alone, had the acceleration and, more importantly, the position from which to overtake her fleeing units. Which meant that every one of them she killed would be—

The incoming missile from Rear Admiral Truitt's superdreadnoughts detonated nineteen thousand kilometers in front of Schaumberg, and the battleship writhed like a tortured animal as two massive X-ray lasers, vastly more powerful than anything the LACs could have fired, slashed into her. One destroyed three missile tubes, breached a magazine, demolished a graser mount and two of the ship's bow lasers, and killed eighty-seven people. The other smashed straight through armor and blast doors and bulkheads with demonic fury, and Citizen Rear Admiral Jane Kellet and her entire staff died as it blew her flag deck apart.


Joanne Hall felt her ship lurch, heard the alarms, saw the flag bridge com screen go blank, and knew instantly what had happened. Disbelief and horror foamed up inside her, but she had no time for those things. She knew what Kellet had been thinking and planning, and as the crimson bands of battle damage flashed in her plot, ringing the icons of the task force's ships, she had no idea who was the surviving senior officer. Nor was there time to find out.

"Message to all ships!" she told her com officer without even looking away from her plot. " 'LACs are primary targets. Repeat, LACs are primary targets. All ships will roll starboard and execute previously specified course change.'" She looked over her shoulder at last, meeting the white-faced Citizen Lieutenant's eye. "End it Kellet, Citizen Rear Admiral," she said flatly.

The Citizen Lieutenant's eyes darted to Calvin Addison. The citizen commissioner looked at Hall for one brief instant, then back at the com officer and nodded sharply.


"They're turning away from us, Skipper," Ensign Thomas reported. "Looks like they're trying to evade Admiral Truitt."

"I see it," Harmon replied. She gazed at her plot with narrow eyes, her mind racing. The Peeps were clearly trying to run for it, and after the hammering they'd already taken, they wouldn't be back any time soon. All she and her LACs really had to do was chase them; catching them was no longer necessary to save Hancock, because those ships weren't going to stop running as long as a single Manticoran starship or LAC appeared on their sensors.

But her plot showed their projected vector, and she swore silently. It was going to take them out of Truitt's envelope—not without giving him the chance to batter them with missiles, but staying well out of his energy range—and that meant a lot of them were going to get away. Only three battleships, two destroyers, and six heavy cruisers had actually been destroyed so far, and she gritted her teeth at the thought of letting all those cripples get away. But the only Manticoran ships which could possibly overtake them and keep them from escaping were her LACs, and they were out of missiles. Which meant graser-range attacks on targets which were individually enormously more powerful than her ships were. And which also meant turning the wing's bows dangerously close to its enemies as it pursued.

And they're learning, she thought grimly as two LAC icons flashed crimson on her plot. One broke off, limping away from the battle while the data codes of severe damage blinked beside it; the other simply vanished. They know we're out here, and they're not running scared or shocked anymore, so if we do follow them up, it's going to get ugly. Uglier, that is, she corrected herself grimly, for she'd already lost four ships—five with the latest casualty.

She didn't have to do it. Not to save the system. And what had already happened was a brilliant vindication of Operation Anzio. But that wasn't the point, was it?


"The LACs are pursuing, Citizen Captain," Diamato reported.

"The superdreadnoughts?"

"They're turning to cut the angle on us as well as they can, but they're not going to be able to overtake, Ma'am. I make their closest approach something over a million and a half klicks—well outside effective energy range, anyway. Whoever that is out-system of us could, but she's not trying to." He actually managed a death's head grin. "I don't think I would, either, if I had her missile range," he added.

"Understood," Hall grunted. She glanced at the damage report sidebar scrolling down her plot and winced. A third of the surviving battleships had been hammered into wrecks. And despite what Diamato had said, two of them, at least, weren't going to make it clear after all. They'd taken too much impeller damage to stay away from the Manty capital ships, yet the task force had no choice but to leave them behind and save as many other units as it could.

I hope to hell the other attacks are doing better than we are, she thought bitterly.

"Citizen Captain, I have a com request from Citizen Rear Admiral Porter. He wants to speak to the Citizen Admiral," the com officer said quietly.

He would, Hall thought, watching the missiles fly. And I have to give him command . . . which I wouldn't mind at all—at least I could also let him have the responsibility!—except that he doesn't have a clue what to do with it.

She darted a look at Addison.

"Citizen Commissioner?" She couldn't ask him for what she really wanted, not in so many words. But he recognized her expression and drew a deep breath. He looked back at her for several seconds, then spoke to the com officer without even glancing in the young woman's direction.

"Inform the Citizen Rear Admiral that Citizen Admiral Kellet is . . . unavailable, Citizen Lieutenant," he said flatly. "Tell him—" He paused, thinking hard, then nodded once. "Tell him our com systems are badly damaged and we need to keep our remaining channels clear."

"Aye, Sir," the Citizen Lieutenant said in a tiny voice, and Hall turned back to her plot.


"All right!"

Michael Gearman heard Ensign Thomas' cry of delight as Harpy and the rest of Gold Section concentrated the fire of their grasers on one of the Peep cripples. The battlecruiser-weight weapons blasted through armor and structural members like battleaxes, and their target heaved, belching atmosphere and debris and bodies. Gearman shared Thomas' exultation, but he remembered another battle, another ship—this one a superdreadnought—heaving as she was battered to wreckage and her people were slaughtered ... or maimed. His hand went to the thigh of his regenerated leg, and even in the heart of his own battle fury, his lips murmured a silent prayer for their victims.


"We've drawn out of range of their superdreadnoughts, Ma'am," Diamato reported hoarsely.

"Understood." Hall nodded. Yes, they'd left the ships of the wall behind, but not before their fire, coupled with those incredible missiles coming in from the lone dreadnought so far astern of her— and, of course, the LACs—had killed another four battleships. That made nine gone out of thirty-three, with all of the survivors damaged. All the tin cans were gone, as well, and only two heavy cruisers remained to her, both badly damaged.

Which means I have no screen at all, she thought coldly as the LACs raced back up on her flanks like shoals of sharks. She had a count on them now, and her people had managed to destroy sixteen of them outright and drive another five off with damage. But that left seventy-five, and their acceleration was incredible. The bastards were hitting her with what was obviously a well-thought-out maneuver; charging up on TF 12.3's flanks, taking their licks from her missiles—which were far less effective than they ought to be— until they reached their attack points, and then slashing in in coordinated runs from both sides. They were scissoring through her formation, firing as they came, and the damage they were doing was immense.

But they lost ground and velocity on her each time they crossed her base course. For some reason, they appeared to completely stop accelerating each time they turned in for a firing pass, but they were turning out over six hundred and thirty gravities of acceleration before they turned in, and they snapped right back up to it as they turned back to parallel her course once more at the end of each pass. Which meant they had more than enough maneuvering advantage to continue battering away at her remaining twenty-six ships all the way to the hyper limit.

Which meant the only way out was going to be through them.


"All right," Jackie Harmon told her squadron and section commanders. Her voice was still relaxed, almost drawling, but her face was taut. She'd lost three more LACs, two of them on cowboy solo attacks they should never have attempted, on the last firing run.

She was down to seventy-two effectives now, and she tried not to think of all the people who had died aboard the LACs she no longer had. "Admiral Truitt's lost the range, so it's all up to us, now. I want full squadron attacks—no more individual horse shit, here, people, or I will provide some unfortunate souls with new anal orifices!" She paused a moment to be sure it had sunk in, then nodded. "Good! Ensign Thomas will designate targets for the next attack run."


"They're turning in on us again, Ma'am!" Diamato snapped.

"I see them, Oliver," Hall said calmly. "Citizen Admiral Kellet's" orders had already gone out, and she bared her teeth at her plot. She knew what was going through the mind of whoever was in command over there. The LACs were enormously outmassed and outgunned, despite TF 12.3's damage. But her opponent simply couldn't stand to see her getting away, and the Manties were clearly out of missiles. They had to come into knife range and engage with energy weapons, where they should have been easy meat for battleships, but she and Diamato had already deduced that there was something very peculiar about these particular LACs. Not only did their acceleration fall to zero whenever they fired their grasers, but even the accel for their lateral maneuvers dropped enormously, almost to what she would have expected out of old-fashioned reaction thrusters. She didn't know precisely what it meant, but they were incredibly resistant targets—extremely difficult just to lock up on fire control and almost as hard to actually kill even when Tracking had them firmly. Could they be generating some sort of shield forward? Something like a sidewall? But how was that possible?

A vague suspicion glimmered at the corner of her adrenaline-exhausted brain, but there was no time to follow it up now. She'd have to be sure she mentioned it to NavInt later, though, and—

"Here they come!"


LAC Wing One altered course and came slashing in, firing savagely. Another Peep battleship blew up, and one of the surviving cruisers, but the enemy had been waiting for this, and their own energy batteries replied savagely. Even more dangerously, the Peeps were firing missiles past them now, as if someone on the other side had figured out about their bow walls. A passing shot was always a harder targeting solution, but the laserheads exploding astern of the LACs probed viciously at their wedges' open after aspects. One of them died, then two more, then a fourth, but the others held their courses, unable to accelerate as they locked their bow walls and poured fire into the enemy.


Too many! Jacquelyn Harmon thought. I'm losing too many! They're running now, and their fire's too heavy for us to take them alone.

"Last pass, boys and girls," she announced over the com. "Make it count, then break off and head back for the Minnie."

Another battleship blew up, then yet another, and she stared into her plot as Harpy reached her own turn-in point and began to pivot.


PNS Schaumberg staggered drunkenly as three grasers burned through her port sidewall like red-hot pokers. The sidewall flickered and died, then came back up at half strength, and four of her energy mounts and two missile tubes were torn to wreckage by the same hits.

But then a fourth graser struck home, and Oscar Diamato slammed his helmet shut as the port bulkhead shattered and air screamed out of the breached compartment. Fragments of battle steel blasted across the bridge, killing and wounding, but Diamato hardly noticed. His eyes were on the lurid damage codes for the port sidewall, and he darted a desperate look at the plot. There! If he rolled ship just right—

"Roll ship twelve—no, fourteen degrees to port!" he shouted.

"Rolling fourteen degrees port, aye!" the helmsman's voice replied over his suit com, and Diamato gasped in relief as the ship turned. But then a sudden, icy shock washed through him as he realized he hadn't heard the Citizen Captain confirm his order.

He turned his head, and his face twisted with horror as he saw thick, viscous blood bubbling from Citizen Captain Hall's skinsuit as the last of the bridge's air fell away into vacuum.


"Damn, I didn't think she could do that," Jackie Harmon muttered as she watched her target roll. Whoever was in charge over there must have ice water in her veins. She'd managed to roll at exactly the right angle to turn her weakened port sidewall away from the LACs following Lieutenant Commander Gillespie in from port for a followup shot. Unfortunately for the Peep, however, it had forced her to give Harmon's group an almost perpendicular shot at her other sidewall, and that was about as good as it was going to get this side of a hot tub, a good-looking man, and a chocolate milkshake.

"Stand by to take us in, Ernest," she told Lieutenant Takahashi.

"Aye, Ma'am." Takahashi checked his own plot, then looked up at Harpy's engineers. "Watch the power to the forward nodes when I call for the wall, PO," he reminded Maxwell.

"I'll watch it, Sir," Maxwell promised him.

"Yeah, I've heard about you and forward nodes, 'Silver Hammer,'" Takahashi said with a grin, and the hirsute petty officer chuckled.

"Take us in—now!" Harmon snapped as the numbers matched on her plot.


"Captain! Captain Hall!"

Diamato knelt beside the command chair while fat, blue-white sparks leapt and spat silently in the vacuum. Citizen Captain Hall sat upright on the decksole, but only because he held her there, bracing her shoulders against his body while he tried desperately to get her to respond. By some miracle, his tactical section was untouched, and so was the com and the helm. Everything else was gutted, and he fought nausea as he tried to ignore the slaughterhouse which had engulfed his fellow officers and friends.

Citizen Commissioner Addison had been torn almost in half, and most of the rest of the bridge personnel were just as dead. But Citizen Captain Hall was still alive . . . for the moment.

He'd slapped patches over the worst holes in her skinsuit, but her life-sign readouts flickered on the med panel. Diamato was no doctor, but he didn't need to be one to know she was dying. There was too much internal bleeding, and no one could do anything about it without taking her out of her suit . . . which would kill her instantly.

"Captain!" he tried again, and then froze as the dark eyes inside the blood-daubed helmet opened.

"O-Oliver." It was a faint, thready sound over his suit com, with the bubbling sound of aspirated blood behind it, and his hands tightened on her shoulders.

"Yes, Skipper!" He felt his eyes burn and blur and realized vaguely that he was crying. She must have heard it in his voice, for she reached out and patted his skinsuited thigh feebly.

"Up ... to you," she whispered, her eyes burning into his with the fiery power of a soul consuming itself in the face of approaching death. "Get—" She paused, fighting for breath. "Get my people . .. out. Trust . . . you, Oli—"

Her breathing stopped, and Oliver Diamato stared helplessly into the eyes which had suddenly ceased to burn. But something had happened to him, as if in the moment of Joanne Hall's death, the spark had leapt from her soul into his, and his nostrils flared as he drew a deep breath and laid her gently down.

Then he rose and crossed almost calmly to his panel. Half his starboard energy weapons were gone, he noted, and most of the other half were in local control. But that meant half of them remained, with on-mount crews to fire them, and he bared his teeth as his gloved fingers flew. There was no time to set it up with proper double-checks, and his internal data transmission links had taken too much damage for him to rely on computer target designation. He was going to have to do this the hard way—the deep-space equivalent of shooting from the hip—but his eyes were cold and very still.

There, he thought. Those two.

He laid the sighting circles by eye, hit the override button that stripped the targeting lidar away from the central computer's command, and painted his chosen targets for his energy battery crews' on-mount sensors. Green lights blinked — he couldn't tell exactly how many—as at least some of his crews picked up the designator codes and locked onto them. However many it was, it would have to do.

See you in hell, Manty! he thought viciously, and pressed the fire key.

A fraction of a second later, LAC 01-001, call-sign Harpy, exploded in an eye-wrenching flash as Oliver Diamato's crews sent two capital ship grasers cleanly through her bow wall.

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