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Chapter Forty-Eight

Honor smiled as Nimitz crunched enthusiastically on a celery stick beside her. The 'cat sat upright on the stool to which one of her machinists had added a padded, upright rest that took the strain off his crippled midlimb, and he radiated a sense of vast contentment. The new strength their link had acquired on the planet Enki let her experience his blissful pleasure in full as he devoured the celery, and she'd discovered that the change made it much more difficult for her to ration his supply, even if he couldn't digest Terran cellulose properly.

Well, I suppose you could make a case for too much cocoa being bad for a person, too, she told her modestly guilty conscience, and chuckled mentally. She began to turn to say something to Commander Alyson Inch, her chief engineer, when an admittance chime (actually, it was a buzzer aboard a Peep ship) sounded and she looked up quickly. Andrew LaFollet, who insisted upon standing post behind her even when she ate, turned at the sound and crossed to the dining cabin hatch. He opened it and looked out, then stepped aside to let Lieutenant Thurman into the compartment, and Nimitz stopped chewing abruptly. He, too, looked up in sudden expectancy, and Honor's good eye narrowed as the lieutenant's excitement communicated itself to both of them.

She mopped her lips with her snowy napkin and laid it neatly beside her plate as Thurman crossed to her and came to attention. Since taking command of Farnese, Honor had made a point of dining regularly with as many of her officers as possible. It was one of the best ways she knew to become acquainted with them in a short period, and just as she had hoped, they had begun gelling in her memory as individuals. But only ten days had elapsed since Gonsalves' departure with the Longstops. That wasn't a lot of time. In fact, it remained a terrifying distance short of the respite she'd hoped and planned for, and she and her people were still feeling their ways into their working relationships.

But it seemed they had just run out of shakedown time, and she felt a ripple of sudden tension, like an extension of her own, spreading out about the table as the other people in the compartment realized that fact.

"I apologize for interrupting your meal, Admiral," Thurman told her.

"That's quite all right, Lieutenant," Honor replied calmly, using formality to help hide her own reaction. "May I ask why you've come?"

"Yes, Ma'am." The lieutenant drew a deep breath, and when she spoke again, her voice was flat. "Commander Warner extends his respects, Admiral," she said, "and we've detected hyper footprints. Eighteen of them."

Like most of the prisoners from long-ago wars the PRH had squirreled away on Hell, Amanda Thurman had been there long enough to become quite old for her official rank. In fact, she was older than Honor, and Honor could feel the lieutenant clinging to her pretense of calm with every iota of that hard-won maturity.

A sledgehammer blow of shock replaced the formless tension which had greeted Thurman's arrival as the numbers hit home with her officers. Eighteen point sources. It was an entire task group, Honor thought with a strange sense of detachment. That many ships couldn't possibly be here for the sort of casual visit which had brought Krashnark and Bacchante to Cerberus, and no courier boat had warned Camp Charon to expect more visitors on the Shilo model. Which could mean only one thing. But how? Shilo had asked for confirmation of Proxmire's departure for his next duty post, and Camp Charon had provided it. It might have made sense for StateSec to send someone to look more fully into the courier boat's disappearance, but why send this heavy a force even if they hadn't fully bought the explanation or had additional questions? Unless Krashnark or Bacchante had been missed, as well? But even then, the logical move would have been to send someone to make inquiries and check out the situation—not to reach straight for a short task force like this!

But even as the thoughts tumbled through her brain, she knew the reason wasn't really important. She had to deal with the consequences, regardless of the decision chain that had created them . . . and whatever happened now, the Peep authorities would know something was very, very wrong in Cerberus. Even if her orbital defenses and outgunned squadron should succeed in defeating these intruders and captured or destroyed every one of them, she and any of her ships which survived the battle would remain chained to Hell by the people still trapped on its surface. And when the incoming task group failed to report back, a still larger force would be sent. And a bigger one after that, if necessary. And then a bigger one yet. . . .

"I see," she heard her voice say to Thurman, with a calmness she didn't recognize. "Do we have an emergence locus and vector on them, Amanda?"

"Yes, Ma'am." Thurman tugged a memo board from her tunic pocket and keyed the display, but she didn't need to look at it. "They made a relatively low-velocity alpha translation, right on the hyper limit. At the moment, they're approximately fourteen-point-five light-minutes from Hades on an intercept course with a base velocity of just under twelve hundred KPS." She paused for just a beat, drawing Honor's eye to her face, and then added, "Their accel is only two hundred gravities, Admiral."

"Two hundred?" Honor's tone and gaze sharpened, and Truman nodded.

"Yes, Ma'am. CIC's best estimate is that two of them are in the four- to five-million-ton range, with civilian grade impellers. The rest are obviously warships—probably heavy cruisers and battle-cruisers. Given the size of the Mars-class ships, it's even harder than usual to distinguish between them at any kind of range, so CIC is uncertain how the ratio breaks down."

"I see," Honor said. Thurman was right, of course. At six hundred k-tons, a Mars-class was as big as many an older battlecruiser, and their impellers had brute power to burn. "And their locus?" she asked after a moment.

"Right in the middle of the Alpha Zone, Admiral," Thurman said, and this time there was a sense of something very like exultation under the completely understandable fear the odds had produced in her.

Honor understood exactly why that was, and Nimitz made a soft sound, midway between a growl and a snarl, as he shared her fierce surge of satisfaction.

That has to be a pair of transports—probably stuffed full of more SS intervention units, or even Marines—and a heavy escort, she thought. It's the only thing that makes sense . . . and the fact that there are only two transports and nothing heavier than a battlecruiser means someone threw the entire force together in a hurry. Battlecruisers can do the job of blowing a hole in the orbital defenses if they have to, but if they had their druthers, they'd certainly have brought along at least a few battleships, and preferably a superdreadnought or two. And if they put it together too hastily, then maybe—

She closed her eyes for a moment while her thoughts raced. Were those ships SS, PN, or a combination of the two? She would prefer for them all to be SS, given the difference in training standards and general capability, but it might be even better if they were a scratch force from both services that hadn't had time to shake down into an efficient fighting machine. Sort of like us, in that respect, a corner of her brain thought wryly.

Yet there was no way she could divine the origin of the task group's units, and she put the thought aside as one worth keeping in mind but not one she could afford to waste time upon. Instead, she felt her brain turning into another channel, following smoothly down the logic tree she'd put together last week. She hadn't really expected to need it this soon, and she wasn't at all sure her crews were sufficiently trained to pull it off even if everything went perfectly. Even so, she blessed the circumstances which had put her in position to at least try it. And if they could make it work . . .

Honor had run endless computer analyses of every tracking report in Charon Control's main data base, examining the record of every single arrival in the history of the Cerberus System. She hadn't known exactly what she was looking for—only that no information was ever completely useless and that she needed any data she could possibly get if she was to evolve a tactical approach that might have a chance of dealing with a heavy enemy force. And so she'd set the computers to work, churning their way through the raw reports, and last week, those computers had reported an interesting fact.

Every InSec and SS ship ever to visit Cerberus had translated into n-space at loci and on headings very close to least-time courses to Hell, allowing for h-space astrogation discrepancies . . . and so had the only two regular Navy units—Count Tilly and Heathrow's courier boat—ever to visit Cerberus. But they'd all done so from above the plane of the ecliptic. That was unusual. Most skippers tried to make transit in or very close to the system ecliptic because the hyper limit tended to be a little "softer" in that plane. It made for a slightly gentler transit, reduced wear on a ship's alpha nodes by a small but measurable degree, and allowed a little more margin for error in the transiting ship's hyper log position. So if every skipper made a high transit approaching Cerberus-B, she'd realized, there must be a specific reason for it.

It had taken Command Phillips another full day of digging to confirm Honor's suspicion, and the explanation had vastly amused her, for there was no reason . . . except for the fact that Peep bureaucratic inertia seemed to be even greater than the RMN's. Honor had always assumed that the Manticoran Navy held the galactic record for the sheer mass of its paperwork, but she'd been wrong, for the Peep arrival patterns went back to a bureaucratic decree that was over seventy T-years old, and as foolish today as it had been when it was originally promulgated.

The very first InSec system CO had taken it upon herself to instigate the procedure as a "security measure," and no one had ever bothered to countermand her orders. As nearly as Honor could figure out, the high transit had been designed as an additional means of identification. Because it represented an atypical approach pattern, Camp Charon's tracking officers would be able to recognize friends even before they transmitted their IDs in-system. Given how much sensor reach and tracking time Charon had, the maneuver was among the more pointless ones Honor had ever come across. The planetary garrison had ample time to identify anything that came calling long before it reached their engagement envelope, and over the years, the high approach had probably cost hundreds of millions of dollars in gradual, unnecessary wear on the alpha nodes of the ships that had executed it.

But it had never even been questioned. Indeed, by now, she suspected, no one had the least idea why the measure had been instituted in the first place. It was simply a tradition, like the equally irrational RMN tradition that light cruisers and destroyers could approach one of the Star Kingdom's orbital shipyards from any bearing, but heavy cruisers and capital ships always approached from behind, overtaking the yard in orbit. No doubt there had once been a reason (of some sort, at least) for that; today, neither Honor nor anyone else in the Navy knew what it had been. It was simply the way things were done.

But if the reason for the SS's traditional approach to Hell really didn't matter at the moment, the fact that it had offered Honor the chance to lay the equivalent of a deep space ambush certainly did, and she'd grabbed it. There was always the chance that someone would break the pattern, but if they followed it, she could make a much more precise prediction than usual of where they would drop into normal-space . . . and of the course they would pursue after they did. That was why she had chosen to hold her ships where they were while her crews worked doggedly in the simulators. She could have kept them in orbit around Hell or hidden them behind the planet's moons, but they could carry out sims as well here as there, and if someone happened to come calling in the meantime . . .

As someone had, she told herself, and opened her eyes once more.

"Their time to Hades?" she asked Thurman crisply.

"CIC makes it roughly six and a quarter hours, with turnover a hundred and eighty-two minutes after arrival, Ma'am." Thurman glanced at her pad, then checked her chrono. "Call it another six hours even from right now for a zero-zero intercept."

"They won't go for a zero-zero," Honor said, and one or two of the people seated at her table looked at her a bit oddly as they heard the absolute assurance in her voice. She felt their reservations and turned her head to give them one of her crooked grins. "Think about it, people," she suggested. "They didn't bring all those escorts along just to say hello to Warden Tresca! The fact that they're present in such force indicates that they have to be suspicious, at the very least. And that means that whoever's in command over there has no intention whatsoever of straying into Camp Charon's powered missile envelope."

"Then where do you think they will, stop, Admiral?" Commander Inch asked quietly.

"Right around seven million klicks from the launchers," Honor said positively. One or two other sets of eyes went blank for a moment as people worked the math, and then several heads nodded slowly.

Manticoran missiles and seekers had improved steadily since the war began, and the Peeps' front-line weapons had followed suit, although their improvements had been less dramatic. But Cerberus was a rear-area system whose primary defense had been that no one had the least idea how to find it. Its missiles were the same ones it had been given before the war began, with standard prewar drive options and a maximum acceleration of eighty-five thousand gravities. But by dialing the birds' acceleration down to half that, endurance could be tripled from sixty seconds to a hundred and eighty . . and range from rest at burnout upped from one million five hundred thousand kilometers to approximately six million seven hundred and fifty thousand. The lower acceleration made them easier to intercept in the early stages of flight, but velocity at burnout was actually fifty percent greater. Just as importantly, it also allowed them to execute terminal attack maneuvers at much greater ranges, and Charon Control had enough launchers to fire salvos sufficiently massive to swamp anyone's point defense.

But ships which stopped outside that range from Charon would be the next best thing to immune to missile attack. Oh, the defenders might get lucky and pop a laser head or two through their defensive fire. But once the missiles' drives went down, they would be dead meat for the attackers' laser clusters, and the orbital launchers, which lacked the powerful grav drivers built into a warship's missile tubes, could impart a maximum final velocity of only a little over seventy-six thousand KPS. That was much too slow to give modern point defense fire control any real problems against a target which would no longer be protected by its own wedge or able to execute evasive maneuvers as it closed. Even worse, the attackers (unlike the orbital launchers) were mobile. They could dodge, roll ship to interpose their wedges, and otherwise make it almost impossible for birds which could no longer maneuver to register on them.

"You really think they'll come in that close, Ma'am?" someone asked.

"Yes," she said simply. "Either that, or they wouldn't have come in at all. If they wanted to be really safe from our fire, they would have made translation further out, accelerated to maximum velocity, and launched from several light-minutes out. Their birds would come in at point-nine-cee or more, much too fast for our fire control, and we'd never be able to intercept them effectively."

"Why didn't they do that, then, Ma'am?" the same officer asked.

"Either because they're still not positive Camp Charon is now hostile, or because they're worried about accidentally hitting the planet," she replied. "The inner-shell launchers are dangerously close to Hell for that kind of work. Even a slight malfunction in a proximity fuse or a targeting solution, and they could ram a bird right into it. I don't think they'd worry unduly about killing fifty or sixty thousand prisoners, but they've got people of their own down there. Whoever's in charge of this task group doesn't want to kill her own personnel by mistake, and she probably knows all there is to know about the defenses. That means she knows we're weak on point defense and counter-missiles, so she'll come right to the edge of our envelope, stop, and send her missiles in at lower velocities. We'll stop a lot of them—initially, at least—but she doesn't need to score direct hits on us, and we do need to score them against her ships."

More heads nodded. Modern warships did not succumb to proximity soft kills—unless, like Farnese or Hachiman, the proximity was very close and the explosion very violent indeed and none of their passive defenses, like impeller wedges, sidewalls, and radiation shielding, were on-line. Orbital launchers and weapons platforms did. Which meant the exchange rate in destroyed weapons would be hugely in the attackers' favor.

Usually, Honor thought with a shark-like grin, and felt Nimitz's fierce approval in the back of her brain. Oh, yes. Usually. And maybe this time, too. But I will by God let them know they've been in a fight, first!

"Lieutenant Thurman, please return to the bridge," she said calmly. "Inform Commander Caslet that the squadron will execute Operation Nelson. He will pass the word to the other ships by whisker, then lay in a course for Point Trafalgar and prepare ship for acceleration. Is that understood?"

"Aye, aye, Ma'am!" Thurman snapped back to attention, saluted, spun on her heel, and hurried away. Honor watched her leave, then turned back to her dinner guests.

"I'm afraid our meal has been interrupted," she said calmly. "All of you will be needed at your posts shortly. First, however—" She reached out and lifted her wineglass, raising it before her.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, the toast is 'Victory!'"


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