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Chapter Thirty-Five

Admiral Kellet should be hitting Hancock about now, and Citizen Admiral Shalus should already have hit Seaford Nine," Citizen Commissioner Honeker observed. Tourville nodded but said nothing. Of course, Honeker hadn't really expected him to reply. The people's commissioner was just making conversation while he tried to ignore the worm of tension which had to be eating at his own belly.

"Twelve minutes to translation, Citizen Admiral." Citizen Commander Lowe sounded as professional as ever, but there was a certain undeniable edge even in her voice.

"Thank you, Karen." Tourville made his tone as calm and confident as possible. It wasn't much, but when it came right down to it, that was about all any admiral could really do at a time like this.


Rear Admiral of the Green Michael Tennard bounded out of the flag deck lift still sealing his skinsuit. Alarms blared throughout the eight-and-a-half-million-ton hull of his flagship, and he swore vilely as he saw the master plot.

Fifty-plus bogies were scorching in towards Zanzibar. Their velocity was already close to fifteen thousand KPS, and it was climbing at a steady four hundred and fifty gravities. That acceleration meant the intruders couldn't have anything heavier than a battleship, but he had only his own six ships of the wall, six RMN battlecruisers, and a handful of cruisers, destroyers, and obsolete LACs of the Zanzibar Navy to stop them.

"At least they can't be towing pods," his chief of staff observed beside him. "Not with that accel."

"Thank the Lord for small favors," Tennard grunted, and the chief of staff nodded soberly, for the unhappy fact was that Tennard didn't have anything like a full load of pods for his own ships, either. He could put a total of only seventy-three on tow, and that wasn't going to give him anywhere near the salvo density he wanted for his first strike. On the other hand, the Peeps wouldn't have anything at all to respond with, and his SDs had immeasurably better point defense. If he could take out a half dozen battleships in the first strike, then match courses and maintain separation for a classic missile duel, his people would have a fairly good chance of shooting the survivors up badly enough to make them think very hard about breaking off. Of course, the Peeps would be shooting up his ships in the meantime, and those damned missile-heavy battleships of theirs were just the thing to do it with. But—

He chopped his thoughts off and began issuing a steady stream of orders, and even as he gave them, he tried to pretend he didn't know what was going to happen. Not that it would have made any difference if he had chosen to admit it to himself. There was no way he could withdraw without at least attempting to defend Zanzibar. Even if the honor of the Royal Navy hadn't made that unthinkable, the act would devastate the faith of the Star Kingdom's other allies in the worth of a Manticoran guarantee of protection. But the truth was that if the Peeps were willing to take their losses and keep coming, they had the numbers to weather his understrength pod salvo, cripple or destroy his ships of the wall, and still carry through to take out every ship and structure in Zanzibar orbit.

All Rear Admiral Tennard could really hope to do was make it expensive for them, and he set grimly out to do just that.


"Coming up on translation in thirty-one minutes, Citizen Admiral," the voice over the com said, and Javier Giscard reached out to press the stud.

"Understood, Andy," he told Citizen Commander Macintosh. "Citizen Commissioner Pritchart and I will be up to the flag deck shortly."

"Aye, Sir," Macintosh said, and Giscard smiled crookedly at Pritchart as he released the stud.

"I do believe Andy has his suspicions about us," he remarked.

"You do?" Pritchart looked at him sharply, and he nodded.

The two of them sat in his day cabin, already skinsuited while they waited for the alarms which would summon Salamis crew to action stations. No doubt most of their subordinates thought they were deeply immersed in some last-minute planning session—and so they were, in a sense. But none of their subordinates would have expected to see People's Commissioner Pritchart sitting in Citizen Admiral Giscard's lap, nor guessed exactly what sort of plans they were laying. Or so Pritchart had thought, and Giscard's remark touched her topaz eyes with alarm.

"Why do you say that?" she demanded.

"Because he's gone out of his way to tell a few stories about incidents between us, love," Giscard said with a slow smile. "Incidents which never happened—or not, at least, quite the way he describes them—and all of which emphasize the 'tension' between us."

"You mean—?"

"I mean I think he's covering for us," Giscard told her. She gazed into his eyes for several seconds, chewing her lower lip with even white teeth, then sighed and twitched her shoulders in a shrug.

"I'm grateful to him if he is," she said unhappily, "but I'd be even more grateful if he'd never guessed. And he'd better be careful about his stories, too. If he gets too creative and StateSec starts comparing his versions with those of some other informer. . . ."

She let her voice trail off, and Giscard nodded again, this time soberly.

"You're right, of course. But I don't think he'll let himself get carried away. And don't forget—you and I are exhibiting a lot of 'tension' in our official relationship. What he's doing is mostly a matter of ... emphasizing that tension, and I suspect most of his embroidery is the sort that could be put down to someone exaggerating for effect. Or possibly an amateur angling for a job as an official informer."

"Um." Pritchart considered that, then sighed in resignation and leaned back against his shoulder. "Well," she said in a determinedly brighter tone, "at least you came up with a brilliant way to get rid of Joubert, Javier!"

"I did, didn't I?" Giscard said rather complacently. He had no doubt that StateSec would figure out that getting rid of Joubert was exactly what he'd done, but, then, he'd made it plain from the beginning that he'd accepted the chief of staff only under protest. And although Pritchart had argued strenuously against his decision to reassign Joubert to command PNS Shaldon, not even a commissioner as vigilant in the People's service as she could argue that it had been a demotion. No one had expected Citizen Captain Herndon to drop dead of a heart attack en route to the target, but his exec had been far too inexperienced to command a dreadnought in action, whereas Citizen Captain Joubert had both the experience and the seniority for the spot. And so Citizen Admiral Giscard had regretfully deprived himself of his services by transferring him to Citizen Rear Admiral Darlington's Task Group 12.4.2 and tapped Citizen Commander Macintosh to fill both the chief of staff's slot and the ops officer's, and everyone—except, of course, for Citizen Commissioner Pritchart's official persona—was delighted with the change.

He chuckled quietly at the thought, and Pritchart smiled, following the direction of his mind with her usual uncanny acuity. His arms tightened about her for a moment, and his mood darkened. At least I can say one thing for worrying about StateSec's reaction if they find out they've got an unregenerate Aprilist watching over a rogue admiral, he thought. It puts the thought of such minor things as being killed in action into their proper, unimportant perspective!

"We'd better go," he said quietly, and she turned to kiss him with fierce, quiet desperation before they stood and donned their masks once more.


"They're going for a straight-up duel," Citizen Captain Bogdanovich said, and shook his head.

"Why not?" Tourville replied quietly. The two of them stood gazing down into the master plot, hands clasped behind them, and the citizen vice admiral shrugged. "Thanks to Shannon, they may figure we forgot to bring any pods along, and their missiles—and point defense—have always been better than ours. In their place, I think I'd want to get to energy range as quickly as possible, but then, I do know about our pods. Even if I try to forget it, I can't, which may be affecting my opinion."

"No it's not," the chief of staff said with a wry smile. "You'd want to charge in and get it done anyway."

"I'm not that bad," Tourville protested. He turned to frown quellingly at Bogdanovich, but the chief of staff only grinned. "Am I?" the citizen vice admiral asked rather more plaintively, and Bogdanovich nodded.

"Oh, well. Maybe you're right," Tourville conceded. But maybe you aren't, too, my friend, he added silently. I may believe in getting in and getting it done, but I'm not prepared to be stupid about it. And I didn't just happen to decide to keep Count Tilly as my flagship, either. She's more fragile than a battleship, but battlecruisers are going to draw a hell of a lot less fire than the battleships are, too!

He smiled at the thought, then turned and walked back to his command chair.


Rear Admiral Tennard waited tautly as the range continued to drop. He'd gone out to meet the Peeps, then turned to decelerate back the way he'd come. The range was down to only a little more than six-point-seven million kilometers now, and he was letting it drop by a steady eight hundred KPS. They'd be in long missile range in a little over four minutes, at which point he would attack and then increase his accel to hold the range open as long as possible.

"Stand by to launch," he said in a firm, quiet voice.


"Recommend we deploy the pods, Citizen Admiral," Shannon Foraker said. The tension everyone else felt burned in her voice, as well, but on her it had a curious effect. It was almost as if this tension were a familiar one—even a welcome one—which displaced that other tension which had gripped her for so long. In that moment, she sounded more like Lester Tourville's old tac witch than she had since Honor Harrington's capture, and he turned his head to look at her. She glanced up, as if she felt his eyes upon her, and then, to his astonishment, she actually smiled and winked at him!

"Recommendation approved, Citizen Commander," he told her, and Citizen Lieutenant Frasier passed the order over the intership net.


"Sir! Admiral Tennard, they're—"

"I see it," Tennard said, and the sound of his own voice surprised him. It was even, almost relaxed, when every cell of his brain screamed his fatal mistake at him. It hadn't even occurred to him that they might have held their pods inside their wedges, and it should have. Such a simple thing to do ... and he'd never seen it coming, never even considered it.

But it was always the simple things, wasn't it? And he knew now. The long, lumpy trails of pods deployed astern of the battleships and battlecruisers in ungainly tails, revealing themselves to his sensors, and there were far more of them than he had.

"Course change," he said. "Let's close the range."

"Close the range, Sir?" his chief of staff asked as Tennard's flag captain acknowledged the order.

"Close it," the rear admiral confirmed grimly. "Those people are going to blow the ever living hell out of us when they launch. And then, if they have a clue at all, they'll be the ones holding the range open. They'll stay outside our energy envelope and pound us with more missiles until we're scrap metal."


"I know," Tennard said softly. "But our best shot is going to be to get in close enough to land a few good licks with our energy weapons before they take us out." He managed a tight, bitter smile. "I screwed up, and I'm going to lose this system, but nothing I can do will get our people out of the trap I walked them right into," he said almost calmly. "That being the case, all we can do is try to take some of them with us."


"They're altering course, Citizen Admiral," Foraker reported, and studied her plot carefully. "They're coming to meet us again," she announced after a moment.

"Trying to get into energy range," Tourville grunted. He rubbed his luxuriant mustache for a moment, then shrugged. "Bring us about as well, Karen," he told Citizen Commander Lowe. "They must have figured out how Shannon suckered them, but there's an old, old saying about suckers and even breaks."


The two forces continued to close, but at a much lower rate, and as the range fell below six and a half million kilometers, both opened fire almost simultaneously. Rear Admiral Tennard's missiles slashed out, driving for the solid core of Tourville's battleships. But unlike Alice Truman, he had none of Ghost Rider's experimental missiles. Those he possessed had marginally greater range and marginally greater acceleration than the People's Navy's, coupled with superior penaids and seekers, but not enough to make up the difference in numbers. Even with his internal tubes to thicken the launch, he could put only twelve hundred missiles into space; Lester Tourville and Shannon Foraker replied with almost six thousand.

The two salvos interpenetrated and passed one another, and both admirals turned their walls of battle broadside-on to one another, swinging the most vulnerable aspects of their wedges away from the incoming fire . . . and also clearing their broadside tubes to pour maximum-rate fire into one another.

The displays in CIC showed the holocaust reaching out for both of them, showed the fury hurtling through space, and yet there was something unreal, almost dreamy about it. There were only the light dots of hostile missiles, not the reality—not yet. For now, for a few seconds still, there was only the professional tension, the slivered edges of what they had thought was fear only to feel the reality of that emotion trying to break loose within them, and wrapped about it all the quiet hum of ventilators, the beep and murmur of background chatter, and the flat half-chants of tracking officers.

They seemed to last forever, those last few seconds, and then the illusion shattered with the silence as counter-missiles began to launch and the reality of megatons of death howling towards rendezvous burst in upon them.

Incoming fire began to vanish from the plot as counter-missiles blotted it away, tearing great holes in the shoals of destruction. And then laser clusters began to fire, and broadside energy mounts, and both sides ripped great swathes through the other side's fire. But it was not the sort of battle the Royal Manticoran Navy had become accustomed to fighting. TF 12.2's point defense was far better than the People's Navy's had been, its Solarian enhanced ECM was more effective . . . and there were far fewer missiles coming at it. The counter-missiles killed almost half of them, and the laser clusters killed a third of those that remained. Scarcely four hundred broke through to actually attack, and half of those were spoofed and confused by decoys and false targets far superior to anything the people who'd launched them had expected.

Two hundred missiles plummeted inward, targeted on thirty-three battleships, but those battleships turned as one, in the exquisitely choreographed maneuver Shannon Foraker had conceived and Lester Tourville had ruthlessly drilled them upon all the way here. The maneuver which turned the entire wall up on its side, showing only the bellies of its wedges to the missiles.

There were chinks in that wall of wedges—huge ones, for battleships required wide safety perimeters for their wedges—but it was far tighter than anything a Havenite fleet had assembled in over eight T-years. It was a Manticoran-style defense, one only a superbly drilled formation could attain, and the chinks in it were fewer, and smaller, and further apart than they ought to have been. Missile after missile wasted its fury on the unyielding defenses of the wedges of which it was built, and Lester Tourville smiled savagely as he watched it.

He lost ships anyway, of course. He'd known he would. Manticoran missiles were too good, their warheads too powerful, for it to have been any other way. But as he had told Everard Honeker three T-weeks before, Esther McQueen and Javier Giscard—and Lester Tourville, for that matter—had allowed for that. They had expected to lose ships . . . and to keep coming anyway.

Two battleships were destroyed outright, with two more driven out of the wall in a debris-shedding slither, but that left twenty, and they rolled back down to pour fire into what remained of their opponents.

Not that there was much left to shoot at. TF 12.2's fire had been five times as heavy as Rear Admiral Tennard's, and every missile had been concentrated solely upon his superdreadnoughts. Nine hundred and sixty missiles roared in upon each of them, and Tennard's ships were too far apart to duplicate Tourville's maneuver and build a wall in space with their wedges. The Manticoran admiral had never anticipated such a weight of fire. Against what he'd thought he faced, it had made sense to maintain unit separation, give each ship room to maneuver independently within the envelope of the task group's combined point defense. There had been no time to close up his formation when he realized what he actually confronted . . . and even if there had been, the galling truth was that his force was insufficiently drilled for it. This time, at least, it was the despised Peeps who possessed the superior training, the superior weight of fire . . . and the superior command team.

Michael Tennard knew that. He admitted it to himself, draining the bitter cup of his own assumptions as he watched a corona of fire envelop his lead superdreadnought. It flashed back along his formation, reaching for his flagship like some monstrous dragon from Old Earth's legends, and then there was only the terrible, unending, world-shattering succession of blows as laser after laser blasted into his flagship. He clung to the master plot, fighting to stay on his feet, watching the lights flicker, the dust filter from the overhead, and then there was a final, smashing concussion and a brilliant flash of light . . . and darkness.


"My God," Yuri Bogdanovich muttered. "It's like Adler all over again!"

"Not quite, Yuri," Tourville said grimly, looking at the icons of his dead and wounded ships. Three of the twenty battleships he'd taken into the final exchange had suffered severe damage. All told, the enemy had put twenty-nine percent of his wall out of action . . . but they'd completely ignored his battlecruisers to do it. Now those ships joined their fire with that of the remaining seventeen battleships, battering the Manty battlecruisers into wreckage one by one with merciless concentration. Here and there a Manticoran missile still got through to wreak more damage, but there weren't enough of them . . . and there were still fewer in each successive salvo as Shannon Foraker's precise fire demolished the enemy launch platforms in ruthless succession.

Nausea stirred in Tourville's belly as he looked out at the spreading patterns of wreckage, the life pods and unidentifiable debris which had once been megaton ships of the wall, each with a crew of over five thousand, and wondered how many of them had survived.

Not many, he thought. No, not many at all. And what the hell am I thinking of? Would I rather it was my people who'd died out there in such numbers? Hell, I have lost eight or nine thousand of my own! I should be glad the bastards who killed them are dead.

But he wasn't. Proud of his own people, yes, and grimly determined to carry through with the job for which so many had paid so much. But no one could look at that display and count all those dead and be glad. Or not anyone Lester Tourville ever wanted to know, at any rate.

He shook himself as the last Manticoran battlecruiser blew apart. The surviving cruisers and destroyers and LACs kept boring in, trying to get to energy range with utter gallantry and total despair, and he turned away, unable to watch their dying.

"Put us on course for Zanzibar again, Karen," he told his astrogator quietly, and looked at Shannon Foraker.

"Start calculating your fire patterns, Shannon," he said. "I hope to God they're smart enough to surrender, and if they are, I'll give them up to twelve hours to evacuate their orbital installations before we take them out. But I don't intend to spend much time discussing it with them." He produced a wintry smile. "If this can't convince them to accept sanity, then nothing I can say will, now will it?

He sat down in his command chair, tipped it back, crossed his legs, and felt in his breast pocket for a cigar, and all the time he wanted to weep.


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