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Chapter Thirty-Eight

Michel Reynaud heaved a sigh of relief as the last protesting merchant skipper moved aside before the implacable approach of Cynthia Carluchi's pinnaces. A good quarter of the waiting merchantmen had already taken themselves off into hyper, where they were undoubtedly putting as many light-seconds as possible between themselves and Basilisk. The others—less than twenty ships all told, now—remained, hovering just beyond the half light-second volume of the terminus in hopes that normalcy would be restored and they would still be able to make transit to Manticore.

Personally, Reynaud didn't think there was a chance in hell "normalcy" would be restored to Basilisk any time soon.

He grunted at the thought and checked his plot once more. Almost exactly one hour had passed since the Peeps first turned up, and they were considerably less than nine light-minutes out from Medusa. Admiral Markham's horribly outnumbered task group was headed to intercept them, and Reynaud's stomach churned every time he thought of what would happen when they met.

Admiral Hanaby had been underway for forty-four minutes now, which put her over sixteen million klicks from the terminus, with her velocity up to 12,424 KPS. Which sounded impressive as hell, he thought bitterly, until he reflected that it meant she'd covered almost exactly one-and-a-half percent of the distance between the terminus and Basilisk. But at least the first of White Haven's destroyers should be arriving within another thirteen minutes, and—

An alarm shrilled. Michel Reynaud jerked bolt upright in his chair, and his face went paper white as the blood-bright icons of unidentified hyper footprints blossomed suddenly on his plot.


Citizen Rear Admiral Gregor Darlington swore with silent savagery as the plot stabilized. He felt his astrogator cringing behind him, and he wanted to turn around and rip the unfortunate citizen commander a brand-new rectum. It would have done the citizen admiral an enormous amount of good to vent his fury, but he couldn't. It wasn't really Citizen Commander Huff's fault, and even if it had been, Darlington would never have raked him down in front of a people's commissioner. The People's Navy had given up enough martyrs as scapegoats.

"I see we seem to have misplaced a decimal point, Gorg," he said instead, unable to keep an edge of harshness out of his voice, however hard he tried. Then he cleared his throat. "How bad is it?"

"We . . . overshot by one-point-three light-minutes, Citizen Admiral," Citizen Commander Huff replied. "Call it twenty-three-point-seven million klicks."

"I see." Darlington folded his hands behind him and rocked on his toes, digesting the information. Of course, it wasn't quite as simple as "overshot" might be taken to imply, he thought grimly. Task Group 12.4.2 had been supposed to emerge from hyper four million klicks from the Basilisk terminus, headed directly towards it with a velocity of five thousand kilometers per second. That would have put them in missile range and firing by the time the defenders could realize they were coming. And with any luck at all, the picket force normally stationed on the terminus would have been headed in-system at max for a full hour, which would have put those ships safely out of the way and left only the two operational forts to deal with. Thirty-two million tons of fort would still have been a handful, but he had eight dreadnoughts, twelve battleships, and four battlecruisers— a better than three-to-one edge in tonnage—and he should have had the invaluable advantage of complete and total surprise, as well.

But Citizen Commander Huff had blown it. In fairness, it was expecting a great deal to ask anyone to cut a hyper translation that close, but that was exactly what he'd been trained for years to do . . . and the reason TG 12.4.2 had dropped back into n-space less than two light-months out to allow him to recalibrate and recalculate. And he hadn't actually missed it by all that much, had he? His error was—what? Less than two-thousandths of a percent of the total jump? But it was enough.

"Time to decelerate and return to the terminus?" the citizen rear admiral demanded after a moment.

"We'll need about twenty-one minutes at four KPS squared to decelerate to relative zero," Huff said, watching the back of the citizen admiral's neck carefully. He saw its muscles tighten, and though there was no explosion, he decided not to mention that the battleship component could have decelerated considerably faster than that if they left the dreadnoughts behind. Citizen Admiral Darlington knew that as well as he did; if he wanted the numbers for just the battleships, he'd ask.

"After that," the citizen commander went on, working furiously at his console as he spoke, "we'll be just over thirty million kilometers out. A zero/zero intercept with the terminus would take us a hundred and eleven minutes from now, with turnover for the original braking maneuver at twenty-one minutes and for the intercept at sixty-six minutes from now. A least-time course would get us to range zero in ... eighty-four-point-three minutes from now, but our relative velocity at intercept would be almost sixteen thousand KPS."

"Um." Darlington grunted and bounced on his toes once more. The Manties had seen him now; their forts were bringing up every jammer they had, including some remote platforms that seemed to be doing things the PN had never heard of before, and decoys were lighting off all over the place, as well. The entire area of the terminus was disappearing into a huge ball of electronic and gravitic fuzz that his sensors would be unable to penetrate at ranges much above four million kilometers. That was bad. On the other hand, he had a fix on the Manty dreadnoughts and battlecruisers normally assigned to watch the terminus, and they were a hell of a lot further from it than he was.

"Time for the Manty picket force to return to the terminus?" he demanded of his ops officer.

"Forty-five-point-two minutes just to kill their present in-system vector, Citizen Admiral," the ops officer said instantly. Clearly he'd been anticipating his CO's thoughts . . . and had no intention of being caught out like the unfortunate Huff. "At that point, they'll be almost two light-minutes in-system, and they'll need ninety more minutes to get back here. Assuming they begin decelerating immediately, call it a hundred and thirty-five minutes.

"Thank you." Darlington pondered a moment longer. He didn't like closing into all that jamming. Even with his Solarian-upgraded ECM and sensors, he'd have to cross something just under a million kilometers in which they'd be able to shoot at him, but he couldn't pick out a clear target to shoot back at. At the relatively low closing velocity he could generate between now and then, it would take him almost a minute to cross that fire zone. Which wouldn't have been all that bad if he hadn't been confident those forts were going to have missile pods—lots of missile pods—deployed and waiting for him.

He considered nipping back into hyper and trying to micro-jump his way to the terminus, but he rejected the notion almost instantly. Superficially appealing though it might be, a hyper jump this short was actually more difficult for an astrogator to calculate, not less. That, no doubt, was the reason the Manty picket commander was headed for Medusa in n-space instead of hyper. Control had to be so fine at such low ranges that something as small as a tiny difference in the cycle time of the hyper generators of two different ships could throw their n-space emergences off by light-seconds and hopelessly scramble his formation. No, either he pulled out completely, or he went back the hard way. Dicking around with still more hyper jumps would simply invite the ancient curse of order, counter order, disorder, and he had enough crap to deal with already.

He glanced at Citizen Commissioner Leopold.

"With your permission, Sir, I believe we should reverse course immediately and come back at the terminus."

"Can we still defeat the fortresses?" Leopold asked, not even glancing at Huff—which, Darlington reflected, boded ill for the citizen commander when Leopold turned in his report.

"I believe so, Sir. We'll take heavier losses than the ops plan originally contemplated, but we should be able to secure control of the terminus. Whether we can carry through and maintain control until Citizen Admiral Giscard rejoins us is another matter, however. The terminus picket has almost as many dreadnoughts as we do. They can be here well before Citizen Admiral Giscard if they reverse course promptly, and if they do that and we've taken heavy damage from the forts, then I doubt we could stand them off and pick off anything making transit from the Manties' Home Fleet. On the other hand, we're well outside the hyper limit here. If we see a force we can't fight coming at us, we can retreat into hyper immediately. That," he added quietly, "was the reason Citizen Admiral Giscard was willing to contemplate this maneuver in the first place, Sir. Because we can always run away if the odds turn to crap on us."

"I see." Leopold considered for several seconds, then nodded. "Very well, Citizen Admiral. Make it so."

"Citizen Commander," Darlington said, turning to Huff, "we'll go with the least-time course. We should have time to decelerate and come back again—" he managed, somehow, not to stress the adverb " —if their terminus picket wants a fight, and I want to cross their forts' missile zone as quickly as possible."

"Aye, Citizen Admiral," Huff said, and began passing maneuvering orders to the rest of the task group.


Reynaud smothered a groan as the fresh Peep force began to decelerate. He knew exactly what they'd intended to do, and exactly how it had gone wrong, but the fact that it had didn't make him feel much better. He could run the numbers just as well as they could, and his fingers flew as he punched them into his plot. But then he felt his spine slowly stiffen as the new vectors blinked in the plot before him.

The Peeps could be here in roughly eighty-five minutes — into missile range, even with the jamming, in about eighty-four—and unlike the Peeps, Reynaud knew that the operational forts' supply of missile pods was dangerously low. The two of them together probably couldn't put more than a hundred and fifty into space. But Eighth Fleet's first destroyer would arrive in eleven minutes . . . and its first superdreadnought would be here in twenty-six. And assuming White Haven could actually pull it off without turning his capital ships into billiard balls (or expanding plasma), another SU would arrive every one hundred and thirteen seconds after that. So he could have . . .

The Astro Control vice admiral's fingers flashed, and a most unpleasant smile appeared on his face.


Vice Admiral Markham felt his heart spasm as the FTL net reported the arrival of still more enemies. He realized as quickly as Reynaud what the original Peep intent had been, and the bitterness and despair he fought to keep out of his expression deepened at the fresh proof of how utterly the RMN had underestimated the "defensive minded" People's Navy.

But he also knew, thanks to the FTL com relays between the terminus and Medusa, that Eighth Fleet was on its way, and he bared his teeth in a death's head grin as he, too, worked the numbers on its arrival time. It didn't change what was going to happen to his own task group, of course. Nothing short of a direct act of God could have changed that. But it did change what was going to happen to the Peep bastards who thought they were going to kill the terminus forts and then wait to ambush Home Fleet if it tried to respond.

"Missile range in thirty-nine minutes, Sir," his ops officer said quietly, and he nodded.


"I wonder how Citizen Admiral Giscard is making out," Citizen Commissioner Leopold said quietly, and Darlington turned his head to meet his eyes. The people's commissioner had spoken softly enough no one else could have heard, and the citizen admiral replied equally quietly.

"Probably just fine, so far, Sir," he said. "I doubt he's made contact with their main force yet."

"I wish we could know what was happening to him," Leopold said, and Darlington shrugged.

"If we had the FTL relays the Manties have, we could, Sir. Without them, we can only guess. But it doesn't really matter. Nothing that happens that far in-system can have any immediate effect on us, and even if the Medusa picket turned out to be a hell of a lot heavier than we thought and it killed every one of the Citizen Admiral's ships and then came after us, we'd have plenty of warning to hyper out before it got here."

He glanced back up, and his mouth twitched as he saw the stricken look on Leopold's face.

"I didn't mean that I think anything of the sort is going to happen, Citizen Commissioner," he said with a barely suppressed chuckle. "I only meant to present a worst-possible-case scenario."

"Oh." Leopold swallowed, then smiled wanly. "I see. But in future, Citizen Admiral, please tell me ahead of time that that's what you're doing."

"I'll remember, Sir," Darlington promised.


The air-conditioned chill of Basilisk ACS' control room was a thing of the past. Vice Admiral Reynaud felt the sweat dripping down his face as his controllers hovered over their consoles, and even though he saw it with his own eyes, he could scarcely believe what was happening.

Thirty-nine destroyers hovered just beyond the terminus threshold. They'd come through in a steady stream, as rapidly and remorselessly as an old, prespace freight train, and Reynaud had felt like some small, terrified animal frozen on the rails as the train's headlamp thundered down upon him. But he'd handed each warship off to its own controller, cycling through the available list with feverish speed, and somehow—he still wasn't sure how—they'd managed to avoid outright collisions.

But not all damage. HMS Glorioso had been just a fraction of a second too slow reconfiguring from sails to wedge, and HMS Vixen had run right up her backside. Fortunately, perhaps, the second destroyer had gotten her wedge up quickly, for it had come on-line one bare instant before Glorioso's had, but without building to full power. Which meant that only Glorioso's after nodes had blown. The resultant explosion had vaporized two-thirds of her after impeller room, and Reynaud had no desire at all to think about how many people it must have killed when it went, but it hadn't destroyed her hull or her compensator, and the fail-safes had blown in time to save her forward impellers. Momentum, coupled with instantaneous and brilliant evasive action on Vixen's part, had been just sufficient to carry her clear of an outright collision, and two of her sisters had speared her with tractors and dragged her bodily out of the way of Vixen's next astern. But for all that, it had been impossibly close. A thousandth of a second's difference in when either wedge came on-line, a dozen meters difference in their relative locations, a single split-second of distraction on the part of Vixen's watch officer or helmsman, and not only would they have collided, but the next ship in line would have plowed straight into their molten wreckage in the beginning of a chain-reaction collision that could have killed thousands.

But they'd avoided it, and now the first superdreadnoughts were coming through. The huge ships were much slower on the helm, but they were almost as quick to reconfigure from sails to wedge, and their longer transit windows gave them precious additional seconds to maneuver. They were actually easier to handle than the destroyers had been, and Reynaud leaned back in his chair and mopped the skim of sweat from his forehead.

"Did it, by God," someone whispered, and he looked over his shoulder. All four watches had assembled, which meant he had more controllers than he did consoles, and the off-duty people with nothing to do were probably in the least enviable position of all. They knewhow insanely dangerous this entire maneuver was, but there was nothing they could do about it except hold their breaths and pray whenever things looked dicey. But now Neville Underwood, the number-three man on the fourth watch, stepped up beside his own command chair and shook his head as he gazed down into the plot.

"Maybe yes, and maybe no," Reynaud replied. "We've got three— no, four—SDs through with no collisions so far. But if two of those babies bump—" He shuddered, and Underwood nodded soberly. "And even if we don't have any collisions, there's always the chance the Peeps'll detect them and stay the hell out of range."

"Maybe," Underwood conceded. "But they'll need damned good sensors to pick up their arrivals through all the jamming the forts are putting out. And once our people maneuver clear and take their wedges down to station-keeping levels, they should be downright invisible at anything above a few light-seconds. Besides," he summoned up a ragged smile, "at this point I'll be delighted to settle for the Peeps staying the hell away. It beats the crap out of what I thought was going to happen to us, Mike!"

"Yeah," Reynaud grunted, turning back to his console. "Yeah, I guess it does, at that. But I want these bastards, Nev. I want them bad."

Underwood eyed him sidelong. Michel Reynaud was one of the easiest going—and least military—people he knew. In fact, Underwood had always suspected that the reason Reynaud had gone ACS instead of Navy in the first place was his deep-seated, fundamental horror at the thought of deliberately taking another human being's life. But he didn't feel that way now, and when Underwood glanced at the display tied into the FTL sensors, he understood exactly why that was.

Vice Admiral Markham's gallant charge was less than twenty minutes from contact with the main Peep force, and Reynaud and Underwood both knew what would happen then.


"Their EW is getting even better, Citizen Admiral," Darlington's ops officer reported. The citizen rear admiral walked over to stand beside him, looking down at the hazy sphere that had enveloped the terminus, and frowned.

"Are their jammers hitting us harder?" he asked.

"No, Citizen Admiral. Or I don't think so, at least. But look here and here." The ops officer keyed a command, and the plot blinked as it replayed what had happened over the last several minutes at a compressed time rate. "See?" He pointed at the flickering shift of questionable icons in the display. "It looks to me like their decoys must be considerably more advanced and flexible than we'd thought, Citizen Admiral. We've still got probable fixes on the forts themselves, but our confidence in them is degrading steadily because they're throwing so damned many false impeller signatures at us."

"Well, we knew it was going to happen." Darlington sighed after a moment. "Do your best, Citizen Commander."

"Yes, Citizen Admiral."


White Haven stood stock still on Benjamin the Great's flag bridge and stared at the order slowly gelling in the depths of the master plot. He'd brought his Grayson SDs through first, because even if it might hurt the Royal Navy's pride to admit it, they were newer, more powerful units than most of his Manticoran ships. Eight of them were through the Junction now, with three more to go and the first Manticoran units following on behind them. He'd gotten here in time to defend the terminus against the second prong of the Peep attack, but his pride at his achievement tasted of ashes and gall.

It wasn't because of the damage to Glorioso, or even the loss of life entailed. The destroyer's list of known dead already stood at thirty-five, and dozens of people remained unaccounted for, dead or trapped in the tangled wreckage of her after half. He felt the weight of those deaths, knew they were his responsibility and his alone. But in eight bloody years of war he had learned that there were always deaths. The best a wartime commander could hope for was to minimize the toll, to lose no more than he could possibly avoid . . . and to make certain the lives he could not save were not bartered away too cheaply.

Nor did this leaden fist crush down upon his heart because Rear Admiral Hanaby hadn't even tried to reverse course. That was her smartest move, he conceded—for all the good it would accomplish. The only thing she could realistically hope to do now was to put some sense of time pressure on the main Peep force, and she could never have gotten back to the terminus in time to affect the outcome there, anyway.

But she wasn't going to save Vice Admiral Markham . . . and neither was White Haven's brilliant transfer from Trevor's Star.

He drew a deep breath and made himself turn away from the main plot to look at the smaller display tied into the in-system FTL net. He didn't want to. There was a peculiarly detached, mesmerizing horror about seeing something like this in real-time and yet not being close enough to somehow forbid it or alter the outcome. But he could no more not have looked than he could have stopped it from happening.

Diamond dust icons speckled the plot as both sides flushed their pods and the missiles went out. Markham launched first, and his fire control was better, but the Peeps had many more birds than he did. There was a mechanistic inevitability to it, a sense that he was watching not the clash of human adversaries, but some dreadful, insensate disaster produced by the unthinking forces of nature.

A distant corner of his mind noted the huge numbers of incoming missiles Markham's ships picked off or fooled with their ECM and decoys, but it wasn't enough. It couldn't have been, and he bit his lip until he tasted blood as the first Manticoran superdreadnought vanished from the plot. Then another died—a second. A third. A fourth. A fifth. Three of them survived the opening exchange, led by King William, but the flickering sidebars of damage codes told how savagely wounded they were as they closed to energy range of the Peeps behind their flagship. The butchery grew suddenly even worse, yet no one flinched, no one surrendered—not on either side.

Two Peep superdreadnoughts had died with King William's consorts, and others had been damaged, if none had been hurt so dreadfully as the Manticoran ships of the wall. Now the two forces slammed together and interpenetrated, short-range weapons ripping and tearing with brief, titanic fury.

It took only seconds, and when it was over, two more Peep SDs had been destroyed. At least three more were severely damaged . . . and every single ship of Vice Admiral Silas Markham's task group had been obliterated.

A spreading lacework of life pods beaded the display, Manticoran and Havenite alike. The pattern they made was less dense than the missile storms had been, and here and there one winked out as battle-damaged life-support systems or transponders failed. White Haven's lips worked as if to spit, but then he wrenched his eyes away from the secondary plot as the first Manticoran superdreadnought of Eighth Fleet came out of the Junction behind him. He darted a bitter, hating look at the dreadnoughts and battleships accelerating steadily towards him, and his face was hard.

"Our turn now, you bastards," he murmured to himself, so softly no one else ever heard at all, and beckoned Commander Haggerston over beside him.


Javier Giscard handed the memo board back to the skinsuited yeoman. The hammering Salamis had taken in the last few seconds of the engagement made him wonder if the Manties had somehow deduced that she was the task group flagship, but it turned out that Citizen Captain Short had had good reason to feel confident about the quality of her techs back in Secour. Giscard intended to have a little talk with her, find out just how she'd managed to pull the strings to get her hands on a fully qualified engineering department in the present day People's Navy, but for now it didn't really matter. What mattered was that, according to the report he'd just been handed, Salamis would have all of her alpha nodes back within twenty-five minutes. That was good. In fact, it was outstanding, for it meant his flagship—unlike her consort Guichen—would be able to withdraw if that became necessary.

He sighed and lowered himself into his command chair, then raised a hand at Julia Lapisch. The com officer looked up, then trotted over to him.

"Yes, Citizen Admiral?" she asked. That withdrawn, disconnected edge remained somewhere inside her, but her gray-green eyes glowed with a sort of dark fire. Giscard wasn't certain what that meant. It was almost as if in the last few minutes she had seen something more terrifying than even StateSec could be, a threat which had put the relative threat of the SS into a different perspective in her mind. Or it could simply be that she had just discovered that, as someone on Old Earth had once put it, "Nothing in the world is so exhilarating as to be shot at ... and missed."

"Are you ready to transmit?" he asked her now, and she nodded.

"Yes, Citizen Admiral."

"Then do so," he instructed, and she nodded again and headed back towards her console, right hand above her head while she whirled her index finger in a "crank it up" signal to her assistants.

Giscard leaned back in his chair and rubbed his closed eyes. His ships had been decelerating from the moment they opened fire on the Manties, and they were still decelerating hard. But their base velocity was too high to kill. He was going to slide right past Medusa, and all he could do was slow it down, stretch the pass out a bit ... and give the Manties a little longer to evacuate their orbital installations.

He sighed. This was what he had come for, the part he had most looked forward to and, conversely, dreaded. The destruction of eight Manticoran SDs had been worth accomplishing, even if he had lost four—five, probably, as he would have to leave Guichen behind if he was forced to pull out—of his own to accomplish it. But it was the devastation of Basilisk Station, the utter destruction of Medusa's orbital bases and Gregor Darlington's destruction of their incomplete fortresses and Basilisk Astro Control, which would strike the true blow. It would be a shot not to the body of the Star Kingdom, but to its soul, for this was no frontier fleet base or allied system. Medusa was Manticoran territory, as much an integral part of the Star Kingdom as Sphinx, or Gryphon, or Manticore. For eight years, the Manticoran Alliance had taken the war to the Republic, fought its battles on Republican territory, smashed and conquered Republican planets. But not this time. This time it was their turn, and Javier Giscard was too good a strategist—and too hungry for vengeance—not to long to drive that lesson home with all the brutal power Esther McQueen or Rob Pierre could have desired.

Yet the waste of it appalled him. The lives he had squandered, Havenite and Manticoran alike, and the untold trillions of dollars of material he was about to destroy. He knew many of his fellow officers saw it only as material, and the true believers among them undoubtedly saw it as the best, most fitting way possible to punish their "plutocratic" enemies. But it wasn't as simple as "hitting them in the pocketbook" for Giscard. He couldn't help seeing his target in terms of all the time and effort, the labor and sweat and hopes and dreams, as well as the monetary investment, which had gone into building it. He would be smashing livelihoods, even if he took no more lives at all, and deep inside, he knew there would be more deaths. The message Julia Lapisch was broadcasting ordered the immediate evacuation of every orbital structure. It warned the people who crewed them to abandon ship and gave them the precise timetable on which his missiles would launch, and he knew anyone but an idiot would have begun evacuating to the planetary surface an hour before, when it became obvious the defending task group couldn't stop him.

But he also knew some of them hadn't left. That some of them would not . . . and that others could not. They had their own duties, their own responsibilities, and despite all the planning that might be done, and all the exercises which might be held, it would be physically impossible to get everyone off of some of those bases. They would do their best, and he would hold his fire until the very last moment, until the instant before he lost lock and range to hit them. He would do all that the Deneb Accords and the Epsilon Eridani Edict required of him and more, and still some of them would not get out . . . and he would kill them.

He longed not to, yet he had no choice. If Darlington had won against the forts and the terminus picket, if the Manty Home Fleet would be unable to come charging through the Junction after him, then he could afford to take the time. To decelerate and come back at a lower rate of speed, to wait and be sure there were no civilians still aboard his targets. But he couldn't know what was happening out there for at least another six hours, and he dared not squander that time if it turned out that Darlington had lost, or that they had been wrong about the strength of the terminus picket, or that Home Fleet had already made transit into the system to come rushing up behind him.

And so he sat back in his chair, watching the time display tick downward while elation and shame and triumph and grief warred within him.


"They're fourteen minutes out from the terminus, Sir," Captain Granston-Henley said quietly, and White Haven nodded.

He clasped his hands behind him and turned his back on the main plot. He no longer needed to see it to know what was happening, anyway. He had twenty-three superdreadnoughts in the system now, and they were as ready as they were going to get.

The Peep commander obviously intended to make a maximum-velocity pass, flushing his pods as he came and hoping to saturate the forts' defenses. He must have what he considered to be damned reliable intelligence about the status of the other forts, or he would never have risked it. Unfortunately, he was risking it, and White Haven was relieved that the work crews had managed to abandon the incomplete fortresses. Those unfinished hulls were sitting ducks, with neither active nor passive defenses. Their only protection would be the decoys and jamming of their active sisters—and Eighth Fleet—and any missile which acquired them was virtually guaranteed to hit.

More losses, he thought, gritting his teeth. I'll be amazed if even one of them comes through this intact enough to make it worthwhile bothering to finish the damned thing. And that, of course, will make a continuing—and heavily reinforced—Fleet picket here absolutely unavoidable.

He shuddered at the thought, already hearing the strident demands that the Fleet provide sufficient protection to stop this sort of thing. If the Peeps were smart and audacious enough to try similar raids against another system or two, they could throw a monumental spanner into the works for the RMN. It had been hard enough to scrape up the forces for offensive action before; now it would get astronomically harder. Yet if they didn't resume the offensive, they only gave the Peeps time to pick their spots with even more care, land their punches with even more weight behind them, and that—

He jerked his mind back from useless speculation and inhaled deeply. The active forts had strictly limited numbers of pods—another point to take up with Logistics Command, he thought grimly; when a fort is declared operational, then it should damned well receive its full ammunition allocation immediately, not "as soon as practical!"— but, fortunately, the Harrington and her two sisters were another story. Built to the radical new design proposed by the Weapons Development Board, they'd been constructed around huge, hollow cores packed full of missile pods and ejection racks to deploy them. Between the three of them, they carried no less than fifteen hundred pods, and they'd been busy launching them into space ever since their arrival. Unlike older ships of the wall, they also had the fire control to handle a couple of hundred pods each, and they'd been handing the other eleven hundred off to the two forts and to their fellow SDs. But it was the Honor Harrington and Admiral Judah Yanakov who would call the shot for them. Not only did he have the best fire control equipment, but they were his navy's pods . . . and the Grayson Navy had earned the right.

"Any sign they've detected us?" he asked Granston-Henley.

"No, Sir," she said firmly, and Commander Haggerston shook his head in support of her statement.

"I don't think they'll be able to see us much above three or four million klicks, Sir, and they're still thirty-nine light-seconds out," he said. "The forts' EW isn't as good on a ton-for-ton basis as our latest mobile refits, but they've got an awful lot of it aboard each of those platforms, and their decoys are a lot bigger—and better—than anything a warship could deploy. I figure those people are going to have to keep coming for another nine and a half minutes before they have a chance of picking us out of the clutter. Whereas we—"

He shrugged and nodded to the crimson display burning in one corner of his plot. It said time to launch 00:08:27, and as White Haven followed his nod, another second ticked inexorably away.


"Citizen Admiral, we seem to be picking up something new from the Manty decoys," Darlington's ops officer said.

"What sort of 'something'?" the citizen rear admiral demanded testily. They were only a little more than a minute outside their own effective engagement range—which probably meant they were already inside the Manties', if only barely—and they'd managed to lock up the two forts again. Or they thought they had, anyway. They couldn't be sure, and anticipating a tidal wave of missiles while he sailed straight into the teeth of launch platforms he wasn't even certain he'd found well enough to shoot back at was not making him feel any more tranquil.

"I'm not really certain, Citizen Admiral," the ops officer said slowly, shaking his head. "We've had impeller ghosts coming and going inside the jamming all along, of course. Now more of them seem to be hardening up simultaneously, and there's something else going on. It's almost as if we were taking lidar and radar hits from a lot more units all of a sudden."

"What?" Darlington spun to face the tactical section, but it was already too late.


"Sir, I've just picked up something I think you should hear," Cynthia McTierney said.

"What?" White Haven looked at her irritably. "Cindy, this is hardly the time—"

"It was an all-ships transmission from Admiral Yanakov to all Grayson units, Sir," McTierney said with stubborn diffidence, and then, before White Haven could respond, she pressed a stud and Judah Yanakov's harsh recorded voice echoed in White Haven's earbug.

"Admiral Yanakov to all Grayson units," it said, and White Haven could almost hear the clangor of clashing swords in its depths. "The order is—Lady Harrington, and no mercy!"

"What?" White Haven spun towards his own com, but it was already too late.


Sixteen hundred and ninety-five missile pods fired as one, and broadside launchers fired with them. The next best thing to nineteen thousand missiles went howling towards the Peeps at 95,000 gravities, and the range was only five million kilometers and the Peeps were headed straight to meet them at over fourteen thousand kilometers per second.

"Take us into hyper!" Darlington shouted, but flight time was under ninety seconds, and he'd wasted four responding.

Counter-missiles launched desperately, and laser clusters trained onto the incoming fire, but there simply wasn't time. His engineers needed at least sixty seconds to bring their generators on-line, and by the time Darlington snapped the order to Citizen Commander Huff, and Huff relayed it to the captains of the other ships, and they relayed it to their engineers, time had run out.

Space itself seemed to vanish in the titanic violence as thousands upon thousands of laserheads exploded in a solid wall of fury. At least a thousand of the Allies' own warheads killed one another in old-fashioned nuclear fratricide, but it scarcely mattered. There were more than enough of them to deal with eight dreadnoughts, twelve battleships, and four battlecruisers. Amazingly, and against all apparent reason, two of Darlington's six destroyers actually escaped into hyper. Because no one was intentionally wasting missiles on such small fry, no doubt.


Alexander Hamish grabbed for his own com with frantic haste with Judah Yanakov's order still ringing in his ears. He was horrified by the implications, and his horror grew as the Graysons' fire control continued to sweep the tumbling wreckage and the handful of life pods which had escaped. But none of them fired, and as he slowly relaxed in his chair once more, his memory replayed the words once more. "No mercy," Yanakov had said, not "No quarter," and a long, quavering breath sighed out of him as he realized he was not about to see a vengeful atrocity by units under his command.

He inhaled slowly, then looked at Granston-Henley.

"Remind me to have a little discussion with Admiral Yanakov about communications discipline," he said, and his mouth quirked in a wry, exhausted grin that might actually hold true humor again someday.


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