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Chapter Nine

"You're kidding."

Commander Eric Hertz looked in disbelief at Captain Everard Broughton's face on his com screen.

"No," Broughton said with commendable restraint. "I am not kidding. Neither is Dame Evelyn."

"But there's no need," Hertz protested. "I thought the entire idea was for us to be a hole in space until they really needed us!"

"Plans, apparently, have changed."

Broughton turned away from Hertz to glare disgustedly at the tactical plot. The oncoming Havenite LACs had been inbound for almost thirty minutes. They were up to a velocity relative to the system primary of 12,788 kilometers per second, and they'd traveled over twelve million kilometers. They were also only about twenty minutes from bringing the closest extraction ships under long-range missile fire.

"Whatever we may think of it, we've got our orders," he said, turning back to his com pickup. "And under the circumstances, since there's no way you're going to be able to actually intercept them before they hit the extraction ships, we might as well go for the whole enchilada."

Hertz's expression tightened.

"What do you mean?" he asked in the tone of a man who suspected he'd already guessed.

"The only way we're going to be able to do anything to save the extraction ships is to use the pods," Broughton said bitterly. "So since we're going to give away our presence, anyway, we might as well get the best return we can."

He looked across his command deck at his tactical officer.

"Activate the pods," he said. "Target the LACs with—" he glanced at the plot's data bars "—the gamma platforms that have the range. Then bring up the delta platforms and designate the CLACs for any of them that have the reach."

* * *

"Anything from the drone screen?" Oliver Diamato asked.

"Uh, no, Sir," Commander Robert Zucker, his ops officer said quickly, and looked a silent question at his admiral.

"There ought to be," Diamato said. "Look at it. The LACs are going to run right over those extraction ships. And it's going to take some sort of miracle for that merchantman to slip away. They've got to know we're here—for that matter, the fact that the extraction ships are scattering the way they are proves they know. So, where's the response? There ought to at least be a flock of Manty LACs coming out to meet us by now!"

"You think they're up to something sneaky, Sir?"

"I think there's a pretty good chance of it, yes," Diamato replied. "Manties can screw up just like anyone else, but counting on them to do that isn't exactly the smartest thing you can do."

He frowned at the master plot for a few more seconds, then wheeled around to face his communications officer.

"Get me a link to Admiral Duval."

"Yes, Sir."

Diamato crossed towards his command chair. He was just about to sit down in it when a strident alarm sounded.

"Missile launch!" a taut voice from CIC announced sharply. "Multiple hostile missile launches along the belt! Many missiles inbound at four-five-one KPS squared! Time to first impact four-zero-niner seconds!"

* * *

"Well, there they go," Hartnett observed bitterly as the firefly icons of multi-drive missiles suddenly speckled the master plot. They streaked across it, moving visibly even on the plot's scale, and the smaller, far more slowly moving light codes of LACs began to blossom as well, as the Shrike and Ferret squadrons lit off their impellers.

"Yes." Padgorny's single-syllable reply sounded as if she'd bitten it out of a sheet of hammered bronze. She found it difficult to believe just how angry she actually was, and she forced herself to lean back in her command chair and swallow all the other words she badly wanted to say.

"Broughton is targeting their CLACs with the delta platforms, Ma'am," Thackeray reported, and Padgorny nodded in acknowledgment. She hadn't specifically dictated targets, but she'd known Broughton would have to use at least some of the pods. His own LACs were much too far astern of the Peeps to overhaul them, after all. And he was right to go after the CLACs, as well. If they had to do this, then they might as well do it as effectively as possible. If he could pick off the CLACs, or even just hammer them badly enough to force them to withdraw into hyper, all the LACs the Peeps had committed to their probe would be doomed, whatever else happened. And killing a couple of the Peeps' superdreadnought-sized LAC carriers would be worthwhile in its own right.

"He's using the gamma platforms on the LACs," Hartnett observed. The chief of staff snorted. "I know it's the only way he can engage them short of the freighters, but his target solutions on them are going to be lousy at this range!"

"Better than he'd have on our LACs," Padgorny pointed out. "Their EW still leaves quite a bit to be desired."

* * *

Rear Admiral Diamato listened to the eruption of sharp, staccato combat chatter as the Manty missiles roared towards the task group.

The voices on the command circuits were harsh, strained, but not panicky. Communications discipline never really faltered, and the orders came crisply and quickly. He felt himself settling back into his command chair, nodding in satisfaction despite the suddenly altered tactical situation as he listened to his people responding to it. There was no need for him to give any orders; they were already doing exactly what they needed to do.

Captain Hall would be proud of them, he thought.

* * *

"Oh, shit," Captain Morton Schneider said almost conversationally as the sudden ugly rash of crimson missile icons erupted behind him. His LAC formation had been just about to reverse acceleration when the hundreds of impeller signatures sprang into malevolent life.

"Range is approximately five-one million klicks," Lieutenant Rothschild, his tactical officer reported in a hard-edged voice. "At constant acceleration on our part, actual flight distance will be five-seven-point-five million klicks. Flight time approximately eight-point-four minutes."

"Acknowledged," Schneider replied.

"We have LACs lighting off as well," Rothschild continued. "Estimate approximately fourteen hundred MDMs targeted on us. Looks like somewhere between four and five hundred of their LACs accelerating to come in behind them."

"They're not a threat . . . yet," Schneider said, concentrating on the far more immediate danger. "Formation Mike-Delta-One. And prepare to implement Zizka."

"Aye, Sir!"

The LAC formation altered abruptly, each tiny vessel accelerating on its own, carefully preplanned vector change. Zizka was new—a variant of the "Triple Ripple" the Fleet had employed so successfully against the Manties' LACs. It was wasteful, in some ways, but with that many Manty MDMs coming towards them, they needed the best defense they could get.

Not that circumstances were perfect for Zizka. With the hostile missiles already launched and incoming, there was less response time than the doctrine's formulators had hoped there would be, but Schneider's battle-hardened squadron commanders had learned their trade well. He watched his plot—necessarily far less detailed than that available in a larger, more capable warship—as his strike formation transformed itself into a defensive one, designed to provide the maximum number of clear sightlines for his units' sensors and flight paths for their counter-missiles.

"They're targeting the task group, too, Sir," the tac officer said. "Looks like they're concentrating on Skylark and Peregrine."

"Makes sense," Schneider grunted. "Kill the carriers, trap the LACs."

"And they're firing a lot of missiles, Sir," Rothschild said quietly.

* * *

"Launching counter-missiles!" Commander Zucker reported, and Diamato nodded.

The range was still long, but Republican warships carried a lot of counter-missiles these days. They had to, given their weapons' individually poorer capabilities. Now all eight of his battlecruisers, both the carriers, and his two light cruisers, were pumping out every CM they could. Targeting solutions were marginal, at best, at such a distance, but just over eight hundred MDMs were headed for the two CLACs, and any kills were better than none.

The counter-missiles streaked outward, and the EW platforms accompanying the attack missiles brought up their onboard systems. Jagged cascades of jamming erupted all across the wavefront of Manty missiles, blinding the counter-missiles' rudimentary seekers and seriously degrading even the performance of the starships' far more capable fire control. Then the platforms the Manties had designated "Dragon's Teeth" lit off, and the threat sources abruptly multiplied impossibly.

They must have deployed hundreds—thousands—of pods around the periphery, Diamato thought coldly. That had to cost them a pretty credit. But I don't think they've got as many of them as they'd like to have.

Sherman quivered as a second wave of counter-missiles erupted from her tubes. The Republican Navy had refitted its battlecruisers heavily, doubling their original number of counter-missile tubes at the expense of a sizable percentage of their energy armament. More energy weapons tonnage and volume had gone into additional telemetry links, and Sherman and her consorts were tossing canisters of counter-missiles out of their standard missile tubes, as well.

"First wave intercept in twenty-three seconds," Tactical announced tersely as yet a third wave of CMs launched.

* * *

"Jesus," somebody muttered behind Everard Broughton. It was hardly a professional comment, but it summed up the captain's own reaction quite nicely.

The heavily stealthed reconnaissance platforms which had been observing the Peeps since their arrival were close enough to see the individual counter-missiles being launched, and Broughton had never seen so many CMs from so few launch platforms.

"They've got to be cutting their own control links to the first wave," Lieutenant Commander Witcinski said quietly. Broughton looked at him, and the LAC tender Marigold's captain grimaced. "They can't have clear transmission paths to them, Sir. Not with that many impeller wedges between them and the birds."

"They could be relaying through deployed platforms," Broughton countered, in the interest of considering all alternatives, not because he really disagreed with Witcinski.

"Then their platforms would have to be a lot more capable than anything they're supposed to be able to build, Sir," Witcinski returned, and Broughton nodded.

"Can't argue there, Sigismund," he conceded. "On the other hand, this looks like a straight evolution of the same basic missile defense doctrine they apparently employed at Sidemore. They're throwing everything they can at the birds, and it looks to me like they must have refitted heavily with additional counter-missile tubes and control links. It's the only way that few ships could produce that volume of defensive fire."

"I suppose it makes sense, especially if they can't deploy their version of the MDM aboard something as small as a battlecruiser," Witcinski said.

"And it's going to play hell with our calculations of the necessary salvo density for effective system defense," Broughton agreed.

* * *

Morton Schneider watched the Manticoran missiles knife towards his LACs like so many space-going sharks. A blizzard of counter-missiles raced to meet them, but the attack missiles' accompanying electronics warfare platforms were far too capable. CM after CM lost its target, wandering hopelessly off course. The first wave intercept killed only twenty of the incoming MDMs. The second wave of counter-missiles did better—over a hundred and fifty of the Manticoran missiles disappeared—but that left over twelve hundred, and he wasn't going to have time for more than another two or three CM launches. Only, if he took those launches, there wouldn't be time for Zizka, and in the face of that massive missile storm . . .

"Implement Zizka now!" he snapped.

"Aye, Sir. Implementing Zizka," Rothschild replied instantly, and smacked the heel of his hand down on the big, red button beside his tactical panel.

Two hundred Cimeterre-class LACs launched their full missile loads. Six thousand far-shorter ranged missiles, launched in three slightly staggered waves, went streaking to meet the incoming Manticoran MDMs, and Broughton watched his display narrowly as they spread apart, each bird positioning itself precisely to play its part in the "Triple Ripple." Designed to knock back the sensors and EW of Manty LACs, it ought to do a real number on missile sensors which had to be pointed directly towards their target at this point.

The lead wave of his missiles was almost into position when the MDMs abruptly changed heading. Schneider's jaw muscles clenched painfully as the attack missiles' vectors changed. Half of them were "climbing" sharply, while the other half "dove" equally sharply, and he swallowed a venomous oath as he realized what they were doing.

So one of their pickets who saw the Ripple did get home, he thought. And the bastards decided to do something about it. Worse, they figured out the possibilities for missile defense and did something about them, too.

The maneuver had to be the result of a preprogrammed attack profile. There was far too little time for whoever had fired them to change profiles that quickly on the fly. But whoever had done the preprogramming had timed it well. The change in attitude interposed the floors and roofs of the MDMs' impeller wedges between them and the Cimeterres' missiles just as the powerful, dirty warheads of the Republican missiles began to detonate. The solid wall of blast fronts and EMP which was supposed to blind and burn out the Manticoran missiles' seekers wasted itself against sensors which couldn't even see it.

All three Zizka waves detonated, and the flood of attack missiles which had parted around the Triple Ripple's roadblock altered heading once more. Their noses swung back towards their targets, and there wasn't time for another counter-missile launch.

Laser heads began to detonate in deadly sequence. X-ray lasers, designed to engage superdreadnoughts, ripped and tore at mere LACs, and space was abruptly ugly with broken and dying craft. Light attack craft shattered, vomiting hull splinters and bodies. Fusion bottles flashed like funeral pyres, and a tsunami of fire washed over Schneider's formation.

The evasion maneuver programmed into the Manticoran missiles as a counter to the Triple Ripple had blunted the defensive maneuver, but it had also broken the attack missiles' locks on their designated targets. They had to reacquire on their own, without guidance from the ships which had launched them, and their onboard targeting systems were far less capable than the fire control of their motherships.

Twelve hundred missiles reached attack range, but over half of them never managed to relocate a target before their overtake velocity carried them clear past the Havenite LACs. Of the five hundred-plus which did see a target, the vast majority concentrated on the most exposed, clearly visible targets. "Only" one hundred and seventy-five of Schneider's LACs were actually attacked. Of that number, seventeen survived.

* * *

"Well, that sucks," Lieutenant Janice Kent observed.

The youthful, dark-haired lieutenant was the tactical officer aboard HMS Ice Pick, the command LAC of Captain Broughton's strike. Commander Hertz, Ice Pick's commanding officer and Broughton's COLAC, glanced sideways at her.

"It's an almost thirty percent kill of their entire formation," he pointed out, and she made a face.

"Sure it is, Skip," she agreed. "But it's less than a ten percent kill ratio for the launch as a whole. Against targets we're supposed to be killing with a single hit each."

"True," Hertz conceded. "But I'll bet you it came as a nasty surprise to them. And at least we know the pop-up maneuver works. Not well, maybe, but well enough to get at least some hits through."

"And now they know we know," Kent said. "Which means they're going to be thinking of another new wrinkle of their own."

"If you can't take a joke, you shouldn't have joined," Hertz told her, and she chuckled sourly.

* * *

Oliver Diamato watched his plot as the counter-missiles tore into the cloud of attacking missiles. Despite their relatively poor targeting solutions and limited tracking capability, the sheer mass of Republican CMs had to have some effect, and dozens of Manticoran missiles began to disappear.

Unfortunately, there were hundreds of them.

Next time, a distant corner of Diamato's brain thought, we hold some of the LACs back. We need their point defense.

The second and third waves of counter-missiles killed still more of the attackers, but the Manticoran electronic warfare platforms were fully active, now, and intercept accuracy plummeted.

The torrent of MDMs slammed across the outer and middle intercept zones, and shipboard point defense laser clusters began to fire. Broadside energy weapons joined them, blazing away in defiant fury as the heavy warheads thundered down upon them.

Everard Broughton had fired eight hundred and thirty missiles at Diamato's squadron and the CLACs he was escorting. Counter-missiles killed two hundred and eleven of them. The close-in energy weapons killed another two hundred and six. Of the remaining four hundred and thirteen, fifty-one were EW platforms, and another hundred and six were defeated by Republican ECM and simply lost lock and wandered off course until they self-destructed at the end of their run.

But that meant that two hundred and fifty-six reached attack range and detonated.

The long range had aided the Republic's defenses by giving them longer tracking time and a deeper engagement envelope. The capability of Manticoran EW had gone a long way towards offsetting that, but nothing the Manticorans could do could magically erase the fire control problems inherent in targeting a maneuvering starship at a range of almost three light-minutes. Every one of the attack missiles had been initially targeted upon one of the CLACs, but a third even of those which reached attack range had lost their original targets and took whatever they could find in replacement.

Some of them reacquired one or the other of the CLACs. Others didn't.

William T. Sherman staggered as a dozen X-ray lasers gouged at her. Half of them wasted their fury against her impeller wedge, and her sidewalls caught at the other half-dozen, bending and deflecting them. Only two actually struck the ship, but they blasted deep into her, shattering her relatively light armor with contemptuous ease.

"Heavy damage starboard forward! Grasers Three and Five are gone—heavy casualties on both mounts! Missile One, Three, and Seven are out of the net! We have a breach in the core hull between Frame Sixty and Frame Seventy!"

Diamato heard the damage reports, but his eyes were riveted to the icons of RHNS Skylark and Peregrine as the full brunt of the Manticoran attack slammed down upon them.

Skylark heaved as the X-ray lasers blasted into her. Over half the total surviving laser heads went after her, and the big ship shuddered in agony as laser after laser ripped into her. The carrier division's flagship was big—bigger than most superdreadnoughts—but she wasn't a superdreadnought. She was a CLAC, her flanks studded with launch bays which simply could not be as massively armored as a superdreadnought's hull. Her core hull, wrapped around her fusion plants, her magazines, her life-support and other critical systems, could be and was, but it lacked the layer upon layer of defenses built into the outer structure of a ship of the wall.

Hull plating shattered. Glowing splinters—some bigger than one of her own LACs—flew like sparks from some hideous forge. Counter-missile tubes and point defense stations were blasted away, along with their crews, and the stilettos of bomb-pumped fury tore deeper and deeper into her.

Diamato would never know exactly how many of them stabbed into her, but, in the end, it was one too many.

Her entire forward impeller room exploded in a chain reaction of arcing capacitors. Her wedge faltered, letting still more lasers through to rend and tear, and power surges blew through her systems like demons.

One of them reached her inertial compensator. It failed, and the two hundred-plus gravities of acceleration from her still-active after impeller ring killed every man and woman aboard her in the fleeting seconds before it broke her back. The white-hot flare of her failing fusion bottles simply punctuated her destruction.

The light cruiser Phantom went with her, victim of at least three MDMs intended for her betters, and Peregrine was severely damaged. All of Diamato's battlecruisers took at least some damage of their own, but Peregrine was far more badly hit.

"She's down two alphas and five betas out of her after ring, Sir," Zucker reported. "Half her starboard bays are out of action, and she's lost at least thirty percent of her missile defense. Her starboard sidewall's down to about forty percent, and Captain Joubert reports very heavy casualties."

"Thank you, Robert," Diamato said, projecting a calm he was far from feeling.

He looked back at his master plot. With Duval—and Skylark—dead, the full responsibility of command had just landed squarely on his shoulders, and he forced himself to draw a deep breath. As Captain Hall had once said, there was always time to think. Maybe not a lot, but there was always some time . . . or else you were already so screwed it didn't matter what you did.

His mouth quirked mordantly at the thought, and his brain began sorting through the situation.

Sherman was hurt, but still combat capable . . . except for the minor fact that he couldn't see anything to engage other than the Manty LACs who were far, far out of his range. And while it seemed likely that the torrent of missiles which had ravaged the task group had come from independently deployed pods, it was entirely possible they hadn't. There might well be Manty battlecruisers—or even a couple of ships of the wall—out here. A couple of old-style wallers, without onboard MDM capability, would make mincemeat out of his remaining strength without breaking a sweat, and if there were even a single pod-layer in range . . .

Captain Schneider's LACs were shaking back down into formation, he saw, and made his decision. The Republic's FTL communications ability continued to lag far behind that of the Manticorans, despite the tech windfall from Erewhon. It was better than it had been, and there were promises of better still, but the new Havenite systems were more massive than their Manty counterparts, and they were difficult to refit to an existing ship's impeller nodes. New-build ships would come from the yards with vastly improved capabilities, but older ships—like Sherman—remained far more limited. Still, what Diamato had was going to be enough for what he had to do.

"We've got to get Peregrine clear, Serena," he said flatly. "Instruct Captain Joubert to translate out immediately. He's to take his ship to the Alpha rendezvous and wait for us there. If he hasn't seen any of us within forty-eight hours of his own arrival, he's to return independently to base. Instruct Specter to escort Peregrine."

"Yes, Sir," Commander Taverner said quietly, and Diamato's mouth twitched in a bitter almost-smile at the chief of staff's tone. Detaching Peregrine meant Diamato was writing off all of his LACs, but the rear admiral had no choice. The ship was simply too badly damaged, and the Republic couldn't afford for him to lose her as he'd already lost Skylark.

"Send a message to Captain Schneider," Diamato continued, turning to Communications. "Inform him that Plan Zulu-Three is in effect."

"Aye, Sir."

Diamato sat back in his command chair, watching his plot with hard blue eyes, as his orders went out. Peregrine's icon turned away, accompanied by the surviving light cruiser, and disappeared into the concealing safety of hyper-space.

At least I got her safely out of here, he thought. He knew his bitter self-recrimination was undeserved. He and Harold Duval had done exactly what their orders had specified, and the people who'd written those orders had known something like this might happen. The entire point of the attack had been to discover how the Manties' system defense doctrine was evolving, and in the callous calculus of war, the price the Republic had paid to achieve that goal was not excessive. Or, at least, it was far lower than the price the same sort of defenses might have exacted against a heavier, serious attack in force which didn't know about them.

But that made him feel no better about Skylark's destruction. Even with her LACs away, there had been over three thousand men and women aboard that ship, and not one of them had survived. That was a bitter price, excessive or not. And it did not include the sixty-five hundred Republican naval personnel aboard the task group's LACs. Too many of them were already dead, more of them were going to die, and Oliver Diamato had just ordered the only ship which could have recovered their LACs out of the system.

He watched the impeller signatures of Schneider's LACs breaking down into three and four-squadron formations, scattering on individual evasion courses. This, too, had been planned for, however little anyone had actually expected the plan to be needed. Under Zulu-Three, Schneider's units would make for half a dozen widely separated rendezvous beyond the hyper limit, where Diamato's battlecruisers would recover as many of their crewmen as possible.

It was going to be tight, and difficult. The odds were that Schneider's escape courses would take his LACs into the reach of still more of the deployed system defense pods. It was possible none of his ships would survive to reach a rendezvous, or that the Manties would manage to deduce the rendezvous locations and get something into position to interdict them. Or that the faster, more capable Manty LACs would intercept the Cimeterres short of the limit.

But Oliver Diamato was grimly determined that anyone who did reach one of the rendezvous points would find someone waiting there to take him home.

"All right," he said. "Take us into hyper. Astrogation, start your update on the Zulu-Three positions."

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