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Chapter Thirteen

"We're cleared for station departure, Ma'am," Captain Lecter reported.

Michelle nodded as serenely as possible and wondered if she was doing a better job of hiding her relief than Cindy was.

Go ahead, admit it—to yourself, at least. You didn't think you were going to make it on deadline after all, did you?

Of course I did, she told herself astringently. Now shut up and go away!

"Very well," she said aloud, and touched a stud on the arm of her flag deck command chair. The small com display came to life almost instantly with Captain Armstrong's face.

"Hephaestus Control says we can leave now, Captain," she said.

"Did they happen to mention anything about missing personnel, Ma'am?" Armstrong inquired in an innocent tone.

"As a matter of fact, no. Why? Is there something I should know about?"

"Oh, no, Admiral. Nothing at all."

"I'm relieved to hear it. In that case, however, I believe Admiral Blaine is expecting us at the Lynx Terminus."

"Yes, Ma'am." Armstrong's expression turned much more serious, and she nodded. "I'll see to it."

"Good. I'll let you be about it, then. Henke, clear."

She touched the stud again, and the display blanked. Then she turned her command chair, once again admiring the magnificent spaciousness of Artemis' flag deck, and moved her attention to the huge tactical plot. Normally, that was configured into a schematic representation of the volume about the ship, spangled with the light codes of tactical icons, but at the moment, it was configured for direct visual from the optical heads spotted about the huge battlecruiser's hull, instead, and Michelle watched as Artemis' bow thrusters awoke. She felt the faint vibration transmitted through the ship's two and a half million tons of battle steel, armor, and weapons, and the big ship began to back slowly and smoothly out of the docking arms.

The moment when a starship actually began her very first deployment was always special. Michelle doubted she would ever truly be able to describe that specialness to someone who hadn't actually experienced it, but for someone who had, there was no other moment quite like it. That sense of newness, of being present at the birth of a living creature, of watching the Star Kingdom's newest warrior take her very first step. A keel-plate owner understood without any need of explanations, knew that whatever fate ultimately awaited the ship, he or she was a part of it. And knew that the reputation of that ship, for good or ill, would stem from the actions and attitudes of her very first crew.

And yet, this moment was different for Michelle Henke. Artemis was her flagship, but she wasn't her ship. She belonged to Victoria Armstrong and her crew, not to the admiral who simply happened to fly her flag aboard her.

She remembered something her mother had once said—"From those to whom much is given, much is taken, as well." It was odd how accurate that had proved since Michelle had attained flag rank herself. At the Academy, she'd known flag rank was what she wanted. That squadron, task force, or even fleet command was where she wanted to apply her talents, test herself. But she hadn't known then what she'd have to give up to get it. Not really. She'd never realized how much it would hurt to realize she would never again command a Queen's ship herself. Never again wear the white beret of a starship commander.

Oh, stop being maudlin! she told herself as the gap between Artemis' bow and the space station widened steadily. Next thing you know, you're going to be asking them to take the squadron back!

She snorted in amusement, and leaned back in her command chair as one of the waiting tugs moved in.

Artemis' thrusters shut down, and the ship quivered again—a subtly different quiver, this time—as the tug's tractors locked onto her. Nothing happened for a moment, and then she began to accelerate again, much more rapidly, although nowhere near so rapidly as she could have accelerated under her own power if she'd been permitted to use her impeller wedge this close to the station. Or, for that matter, as rapidly as the tug could have moved her, if not for niggling little considerations like, oh, keeping the crew alive. Without the wedge, there was no handy sump for the inertial compensator, which limited the ship's protoplasmic crew to an acceleration her internal grav plates could handle. If they'd really wanted to push the envelope, and if the squadron had been prepared to secure for heavy acceleration, they could have pulled at least a hundred gravities, but there wasn't really much point in that. No one was in that big a hurry, and modern starships weren't really designed to handle heavy accelerations for any extended period of time. The ships themselves might not have minded particularly, but their personnel was another matter entirely.

At least Artemis, Romulus, and Theseus were the only ones still docked at one of the stations, so you didn't have to worry about tug availability, she reminded herself.

She tapped a control on her chair arm and her repeater plot deployed from the chair base. It configured itself into standard tactical format, and she watched the icons representing the three battlecruisers moving steadily away from the purple anchor which had been used for generations to represent space stations like Hephaestus. HMS Stevedore, the single tug towing all of them, showed as a purple arrowhead pointed directly at the five icons of the rest of the squadron, waiting under their own power for their last three consorts to make rendezvous.

Michelle didn't know whether or not the Admiralty intended to completely scrap the squadron reorganization plan the Janacek Admiralty had put into place. There were some advantages to the six-ship squadron format Janacek had adopted, much though it galled Michelle to admit that anything that ham-fisted idiot had done could possibly have any beneficial consequences. Fortunately for her blood pressure, if not for the Star Kingdom's wellbeing, there weren't very many instances in which she had to. But even though the smaller-sized squadrons offered at least some additional tactical flexibility, they also required twenty-five percent more admirals—and admirals' staffs—for the same number of ships. Personally, Michelle suspected that had been part of the attraction for Janacek and his partisans. After all, it had provided so many more flag slots into which he could plug sycophants, despite the way he'd downsized the fleet. Those of his cronies who hadn't been removed by the Havenites in the course of Operation Thunderbolt (she supposed any cloud had to have at least some silver lining) had been ruthlessly purged by the White Haven Admiralty, yet that had left a tiny problem. Finding that many competent admirals was a not so minor concern in a navy expanding as rapidly and hugely as the present Royal Manticoran Navy. Just as even the new, highly automated designs still needed complete bridge crews, complete engineering officer complements, admirals still needed staffs, and there simply weren't that many experienced staff officers to go around. For example, Michelle herself still didn't have a staff intelligence officer. At the moment, Cynthia Lecter was wearing that hat as well as holding down the chief of staff's slot, which was rather unfair to her. On the other hand, at least she'd spent a tour with ONI two deployments ago, so she knew what she was doing in both slots. And it didn't hurt that Gervais Archer was turning out to be a surprisingly competent assistant intelligence officer.

There were undoubtedly other reasons for the White Haven Admiralty's new thinking, as well, but in combination, they explained why the 106th Battlecruiser Squadron consisted of eight units, not six. And, to be perfectly frank, Michelle didn't really care what other reasons there might have been. She was too busy gloating over the possession of those two additional battlecruisers.

Not that most other navies would consider them "battlecruisers," I suppose, she told herself. At two and a half million tons, the new Nike-class ships were closing in on the size of the old battleships no one had built for the last fifty or sixty T-years, and some navies—like the Sollies, she thought sourly—still defined ship types by tonnage brackets which had become obsolete even before the First Havenite War. But even though the Nikes were the next best thing to half again the size of her dead Ajax, Artemis was capable of almost seven hundred gravities' acceleration at maximum military power. And her magazines were crammed with over six thousand Mark 16 dual-drive missiles.

I don't care how big she is, she's still a battlecruiser, though, Michelle thought. It's the function, the doctrine, that counts, not just tonnage. And by that meter stick, she's a battlecruiser, all right. One from the dark side of Hell, maybe, but still a battlecruiser. And I've got eight of her.

It was possible, she admitted to herself, watching the plot as the tugs moved her new command steadily away from Hephaestus, that flag rank did have its own compensations.

"We're being hailed, Ma'am," Lieutenant Commander Edwards reported.

"Well, that was prompt," Michelle observed dryly. Artemis had just emerged from the Lynx Terminus, a bit over six hundred light-years from the Manticore Binary System. In fact, she'd barely finished reconfiguring her Warshawski sails into a normal-space impeller wedge, and none of the other ships of the squadron had yet transited the junction behind her.

Edwards' only response to her comment was a smile, and she grinned back, then shrugged philosophically.

"Go ahead, Bill."

"Yes, Ma'am."

Edwards input the command that triggered Artemis' transponder, identifying her to the mostly-completed forts and the two squadrons of Home Fleet ships of the wall holding station here.

"Acknowledged, Ma'am," he said a moment later.

"Good," Michelle replied. And it was good that the local picket was obviously on its toes, she reflected. To be sure, no hostile force was likely to be coming through from Manticore. Or, if one was, the Star Kingdom would have to be so well and truly screwed that it really wouldn't matter how alert anyone in the Talbott Quadrant might be. Still, alertness was a state of mind, and anyone who let herself grow slack and sloppy in one aspect of her duties was only too likely to let the same thing happen in all aspects. Not that any Manticoran admiral was likely to let that happen after the reaming Thomas Theisman's navy had given them in Operation Thunderbolt.

Or we'd better not be, at least, she thought grimly, then shook herself. Time to make our manners.

"Raise Lysander, please, Bill," she said, walking back across the bridge to her command chair. Gervais Archer looked up from his own bridge station to one side of her chair as she seated herself. "My compliments to Vice Admiral Blaine," she continued, "and inquire if it would be convenient for him to speak with me."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am," Edwards replied, exactly as if he hadn't known she was going to say exactly that . . . and exactly as if there were, in fact, the remotest possibility that Vice Admiral Blaine would not find it convenient to speak to a newly arrived admiral passing through his bailiwick.

"I have Admiral Blaine, Ma'am," Edwards said a handful of minutes later.

"Put him on my display, please."

"Yes, Ma'am."

Vice Admiral Jessup Blaine was a tallish, bland-faced man with thinning hair and a thick beard. The beard was neatly trimmed, but the contrast between it and his far sparser hair made him look vaguely lopsided and scruffy, and she wondered why he'd grown it.

"Welcome to Lynx, Milady." Blaine's voice was deeper, and much more smoothly modulated than she had allowed herself to expect from his appearance.

"Thank you, Admiral," she replied.

"I'm glad to see you," Blaine continued. "For a lot of reasons, although, to be honest, the biggest one from my perspective is because it means I'll probably be getting Quentin O'Malley back from Monica sometime soon."

That's coming right to the point of things, Michelle thought dryly.

"We'll get him back to you as quickly as we can, Admiral," she assured him out loud.

"It's not that I'm not glad to see you for all those other reasons, as well, Milady," Blaine told her with a quick smile. "It's just that, technically, I'm still one of the reserve forces for the home system, and Quentin is supposed to be my screening element. I'd really like to have him back just to give me a little extra depth here in Lynx until the forts come on-line. And if things go so wrong they do call me back to Manticore, I think I can assume I'll need all the screening support I can get."

"I understand," Michelle assured him, and she did. "On the other hand, according to my last briefing at Admiralty House, there should be quite a few additional forces headed this way shortly."

"And not a moment too soon."

Blaine's fervent approval was evident, and Michelle smiled slightly. She doubted that they'd pulled Blaine's name out of a hat when they decided they had to dispatch reinforcements to Talbott, which argued that there was a very competent officer under that bland exterior. But even the most competent officer had to feel the occasional moment of . . . loneliness when he found himself hanging out at the far end of the Manticoran Wormhole Junction waiting for a possible attack by the Solarian League. No wonder Blaine wanted to see all the friendly faces he could find.

"Do you know Rear Admiral Oversteegen, Admiral?" she asked.

"Michael Oversteegen?" Blaine frowned. "Last I heard, he was a captain." He sounded a bit plaintive, and Michelle chuckled.

"And I was a rear admiral up until a week ago," she said. "I'm afraid they're going to be pushing a lot of us up quickly, with all the new construction coming out of the yards. But my point, Sir, was that they've given Michael the 108th. And assuming he makes his deployment schedule, he should be following along behind me within a couple of months or so. And the first squadron of Rolands is about ready to start working up. In fact, it may already have begun the process."

"That, Milady, is very good news," Blaine said frankly. "Now, if this cease-fire only lasts long enough to get all that new construction deployed."

"We can hope, Sir."

"Yes. Yes, we can." Blaine seemed to give himself a mental shake, then smiled. "I appear to have forgotten my manners, though. Would you and your captains have time to join me for dinner, Milady?"

"I'm afraid not," Michelle said with genuine regret. Like Honor, she believed personal, face-to-face contact was the best way for officers who might have to work together to feel confident they actually knew one another.

"I'm under orders to expedite my arrival in Spindle by all possible means, Sir," she continued. "As a matter of fact, Artemis still has over a dozen of Hephaestus' yard dogs on board, working at adjusting this and that. And Captain Duchovny has even more than that aboard Horatius."

"And the station commander let you go without opening fire, did she?" Blaine inquired with something suspiciously like a chuckle.

"I don't think she would have without Admiral D'Orville standing behind me with his energy batteries cleared away," Michelle replied.

"Actually, I don't find that particularly hard to believe. I've had my own dealings with yard dogs over the years, Milady. The stories I could tell you!"

"As could we all, Sir."

"True." Blaine smiled at her, then inhaled with an air of finality. "Well, in that case, Milady, we won't delay you. Please give my respects to Admiral Khumalo when you reach Spindle."

"I will, Sir."

"Thank you, Milady, And on that note, I'll wish you a speedy voyage and let you be on your way. Blaine, clear."

The display blanked, and Michelle looked back up at the tactical plot.

While she'd been talking to Blaine, Artemis' division mates in BCS 106's first division—Penelope, Romulus, and Horatius—had followed her through the terminus. As she watched, Filipa Alcoforado's Theseus, the flagship of Commodore Shulamit Onasis, who commanded the squadron's second division, erupted from the invisible flaw in space, radiating the blue glory of transit energy from her sails.

Not much longer, she thought, and glanced at Commander Sterling Casterlin. As she'd told Cortez, she'd met Casterlin before, although they'd never served together until now. They'd almost served on the old Bryan Knight together, but she'd just been leaving the ship when he came on board. She actually knew his cousin, Commodore Jake Casterlin, better, and from what she'd seen of Sterling already, she was willing to bet that Jake's Liberal Party sympathies drove the far more conservative Sterling bananas.

She might be wrong, though, since it looked to her as if it would probably take quite a bit to shake Commander Casterlin's equanimity. He'd been late arriving aboard, through no fault of his own, but he hadn't even turned a hair at the prospect of having less than forty hours to "settle in" with an entirely new department, aboard an entirely new ship, under an entirely new vice admiral, before departing for a possible combat deployment. Under the circumstances, he'd shown remarkable aplomb, she thought.

"It seems we'll be leaving soon," she observed.

"Yes, Ma'am," he replied without turning a hair. "I've just passed our heading and course to Commander Bouchard."

"Good," she said.

He looked over his shoulder at her, and she smiled. She'd known she wasn't going to catch him out without a course already figured, but he'd quietly one-upped her by going ahead and passing the course to Jerod Bouchard, Artemis' astrogator, before she asked.

"I believe he'd already worked out approximately the same course, Ma'am," Casterlin observed.

"No, really?" Michelle rounded her eyes in innocent astonishment, then chuckled as Casterlin shook his head.

Daedalus and Jason had followed Theseus through the Junction, now. All they still needed was Captain Esmerelda Dunne's Perseus, and they could be on their way, and Michelle was looking forward to the voyage. It was sixteen days from the Lynx Terminus to the Spindle System, and just as Spindle had been the site of the Constitutional Convention, it had been chosen—at least provisionally—as the Talbott Quadrant's capital system. Which meant that was where she was going to find Baroness Medusa and Vice Admiral Khumalo. When she did, she'd finally be able to begin forming a realistic idea of what she was going to have to do and what she was going to do it with. Under normal circumstances, her desire to hit the ground running would have left her feeling impatient and antsy, but not this time. The sixteen days' passage would undoubtedly be welcome to her captains, even though it would be only ten days for them, given the relativistic effect, since it would give them additional time to complete bringing their ships' hardware to full readiness. And, of course, getting their ships' companies trained up to something approaching the standard expected out of a Queen's ship.

"Remind me to invite Captain Conner and Commodore Onasis to dine with me tonight, Gwen," she said.

"Yes, Ma'am," Archer replied. "Should we invite Commander Houseman and Commander McIver, as well?"

"An excellent thought, Gwen," Michelle approved with a smile. "For that matter let's get Captain Armstrong, Cindy, Dominica, and Commander Dallas and Commander Diego on the guest list, as well. And you can drop them a little hint—unofficially, of course—that we'll be talking about training schedules."

"Yes, Ma'am." Archer made a note to himself, and Michelle smiled at him. The youngster was working out even better than she'd hoped he would, and it looked as if at least some of the ghosts of Solon were fading out of the backs of his eyes. She hoped so, anyway. It was obvious that nature had intended him to be a cheerful extrovert, and she was pleased to see him shedding the . . . somberness which had been so much a part of him at their first meeting.

He was quick, too. His suggestion that Conner and Onasis bring along their chiefs of staff was an excellent one, and exactly the sort of anticipation and thinking ahead a good flag lieutenant was supposed to provide to her admiral. And it probably represented his own experience aboard Necromancer, as well. Obviously, Gervais was aware of the squadron's rough edges and recognized the need to start filing them down.

Her nostrils flared at that thought. Those rough edges weren't her captains' fault, any more than they were hers. In fact, they weren't anyone's fault. Despite which, Michelle was uncomfortably aware of just how unprepared for battle her command truly was, and that was precisely why she, too, was looking forward to those ten days of exercises. Hard exercises, she thought—as demanding as she and her captains could make them. Given the situation she might well find herself facing in the very near future, it was time she and her officers started finding the problems, figuring out what to do about them, and doing it.

And the sooner the better, she reflected grimly. The sooner the better.

The range-to-target sidebar on the tactical display was preposterous.

The missile salvo was sixty-eight million kilometers from Artemis, speeding steadily onward at 150,029 KPS. Its birds had been ballistic for four and a half minutes, ever since the second drive system had burned out, and they were still ninety-three seconds—almost fourteen million kilometers—from their target, even at half the speed of light.

And the attack missiles still hadn't been assigned targets.

Michelle Henke sat quietly to one side, playing the umpire's role as she watched Dominica Adenauer, Wilton Diego, and Victoria Armstrong work the simulation. It felt just plain wrong to have attack birds that far out at all, she reflected, far less have them swanning around without targets already locked into their cybernetic brains. And yet, what was happening was only a logical consequence of the new technology.

Admiral Hemphill, she'd decided, had been absolutely right about Bill Edwards. The "communications" officer's intimate knowledge of the entire Apollo project had proved invaluable when she and her staff started kicking around the new system's potentialities. In fact, Adenauer and he had spent hours off to one side, talking animatedly, scribbling on napkins (or any other unwary surface which made itself available), and tweaking the simulation software. Michelle had been relieved to see that. Some tactical specialists would undoubtedly have rebuffed a mere communications type's suggestions, wherever he might have spent his last tour. Adenauer, on the other hand, was sufficiently self-confident to welcome insight, regardless of its source, and over the last six days of ship's time, she and Edwards had established not simply a sound working relationship, but a warm friendship. And the fruits of their efforts were readily apparent. In fact, Michelle suspected that the two of them had come up with at least a few wrinkles which hadn't occurred to anyone at BuWeaps.

"Coming up on Point Alpha," Diego said quietly.

"Acknowledged," Adenauer replied.

The actual firing and management of the missiles was Diego's responsibility as Artemis' tactical officer, but the management and distribution of the squadron's massed firepower was a function of its operations officer. Normally, Adenauer would have given Diego Michelle's attack criteria and established general attack profiles before the first missile was launched. Diego would have taken things from there, assigning individual missiles to specific targets and—with Lieutenant Isaiah Maslov, Artemis' electronics warfare officer—slotting them into the attack, EW, and penetration profiles Adenaur had laid down.

But today, they were examining a completely different capability. A capability no squadron commander in history had ever before enjoyed. For the purposes of today's simulation, HMS Artemis had been promoted from a battlecruiser to an Invictus-class SD(P). Every unit of the squadron had undergone a similar transformation, which meant that instead of the sixty Mark 16s each ship could normally fire in a single double-broadside salvo, each of them could deploy six full pods of Mark 23s. Normally, that would have meant that each ship rolled one pattern of Mark 17 "flat pack" missile pods, each of which contained ten Mark 23s, every twelve seconds. In this case, however, they were rolling the Mark 17, Mod D, which contained only eight Mark 23s . . . and a single Mark 23-E.

So instead of sixty Mark 16s every eighteen seconds, with a maximum powered attack range (without a ballistic segment, at least) of only a shade over twenty-seven million kilometers and "cruiser range" laser heads, they were firing forty-eight attack and dedicated EW Mark 23s every twelve seconds.

That was a sufficiently heady increase in firepower, Michelle thought dryly, but the technique which she and Adenauer—and Edwards—had come up with for today made it even sweeter.

One of the Manticoran Alliance's most telling advantages was Ghost Rider, the highly developed—and constantly evolving—family of FTL recon and EW platforms. Deployed in a shell around a single ship, squadron, or task force, they gave an Alliance CO a degree of situational awareness no one else could match. Alliance starships could simply see farther, faster, and better than anyone else, and their recon platforms could deliver their take in real-time or near real-time, which no one else—not even the Republic of Haven—could do.

But there were still drawbacks. It was still entirely possible to detect the impeller signatures of a potentially hostile force and not have a recon platform in position to run and find out who the newcomers were. Even if a tactical officer had very good reason to believe the newcomers in question cherished ill intentions, she still had to get one of her platforms into position to look them over from relatively close range before she could be positive of that. Or, for that matter, before she could be positive that what she was seeing were really starships and not electronic warfare drones pretending to be starships. And it was generally considered to be a good idea to have that sort of information in hand before one sent an entire salvo of attack missiles screaming in on what might, after all, turn out to be a neutral merchant convoy.

In one of Adenauer's and Edwards' brainstorming sessions with Michelle, however, Edwards had pointed out a new possibility which Apollo made possible. Fast as the Ghost Rider platforms were, they were immensely slower than an MDM. They had to be, since stealth and long endurance were completely incompatible with the massive acceleration rates produced by an attack missile's impeller wedge in its brief, incredibly un-stealthy lifetime. But Apollo was designed to combine and analyze the readings from the attack missiles slaved to it . . . and to transmit that analysis back to the launching ship at FTL speed. Michelle and Adenauer had grasped his point immediately and run with it, and this simulation was designed to test what they'd come up with. What Adenauer had done was to fire a single Apollo pod thirty seconds before they fired a complete squadron salvo. And that pod was now one minute's flight from the "unknown impeller wedges" eighty-two million kilometers from Artemis.

"Jettisoning the shrouds now," Diego reported as the first pod's missiles reached Point Alpha.

"Acknowledged," Adenauer replied.

The shroud-jettisoning maneuver had been programmed into the missiles before launch. Unlike any previous attack missile, the Mark 23s in an Apollo pod were fitted with protective shrouds intended to shield their sensors from the particle erosion of extended ballistic flight profiles at relativistic speeds. Most missiles didn't really need anything of the sort, since their impeller wedges incorporated particle screening. They were capable of maintaining a separate particle screen—briefly, at least—as long as they retained on-board power, even after the wedge went down, but that screening was far less efficient than a starship's particle screens. For the most part, that hadn't mattered, since any ballistic component of a "standard" attack profile was going to be brief, at best. But with Apollo, very long-range attacks, with lengthy ballistic components built into them, had suddenly become feasible. That capability, however, would be of limited usefulness if particle erosion had blinded the missiles before they ever got a chance to see their targets.

Now the jettisoning command blew the shrouds, and the sensors they had protected came on-line. Of course, the missiles were 72,998,260 kilometers from Artemis. That was over four light-minutes, which in the old days (like five or six T-years ago) would have meant any transmission from them would take four minutes to reach Artemis.

With the FTL grav-pulse transceiver built into the Mark 23-E, however, it took barely four seconds.

The display in front of Adenauer blossomed suddenly with icons as the first missile pod's Apollo faithfully reported what its brood could see, now that their eyes had been opened. The light codes of three hostile superdreadnoughts, screened by three light cruisers and a quartet of destroyers, burned crisp and clear, and for a heartbeat, the tactical officer did absolutely nothing. She simply sat there, gazing at the display, her face expressionless. But Michelle had come to know Adenauer better, especially over the last six days. She knew the commander was operating almost in fugue state. She wasn't actually even looking at the plot. She was simply . . . absorbing it. And then, suddenly, her hands came to life on her console.

The missiles in the attack salvo had been preloaded with dozens of possible attack and EW profiles. Now Adenauer's flying fingers transmitted a series of commands which selected from the menu of preprogrammed options. One command designated the superdreadnoughts as the attack missiles' targets. Another told the Dazzlers and Dragon's Teeth seeded into the salvo when to bring their EW systems up, and in what sequence. A third told the attack missiles when to bring up their final drive stages and what penetration profile to adopt when they hit the enemy force's missile-defense envelope. And a fourth told the Mark 23-Es when and how they should take over and restructure her commands if the enemy suddenly did something outside the parameters of her chosen attack patterns.

Entering those commands took her twenty-five seconds, in which the attack missiles traveled another 3,451,000 kilometers. It took just under four seconds for her commands to reach from Artemis to the Apollos. It took another twelve seconds for her instructions to be receipted, triple-checked, and confirmed by the Apollo AIs while the shrouds on the attack missiles were jettisoned. Forty-five seconds after the first pod's missiles had jettisoned their shrouds, the follow-on salvo opened its eyes, looked ahead, and saw its targets, still two and a quarter million kilometers in front of it. They were 4.4 light-minutes from Artemis . . . but their targeting orders were less than sixty seconds old, and the computers which had further refined and analyzed the reports from the first pod's Apollo were those of a superdreadnought, not a missile, however capable.

The simulated targets' fire control had only a relatively imprecise idea of where to look for the attack missiles before their third-stage drives came suddenly on-line. They'd still been so far out when they shut down for the ballistic leg of their flight that the defenders' on-board sensors hadn't been able to fully localize them. The target ships had gotten enough to predict their positions to within only a few percentage points of error, but at those velocities, and on such an enormous "battlefield," even tiny uncertainties made precise targeting impossible. And precise targeting was exactly what was necessary for a counter-missile to hit an attack missile at extended range.

The defenders saw the Mark 23s clearly when the attack missiles' final stages came suddenly and abruptly to life, but by then it was already too late. There was no time for any long-range counter-missile launch, and even the short-range CMs had rushed targeting solutions. Worse, the EW platforms supporting the attack came on-line at the worst possible moment for the defenders. The counter-missiles' rudimentary sensors were totally outclassed, and there was no time for missile-defense officers to analyze the Manticoran EW patterns. Point defense clusters blazed desperately in a last-ditch effort to stop the MDMs hurtling in on the superdreadnoughts, but there were too many of them, they were closing too quickly, and the ballistic approach had robbed the defenders of too much tracking time. Many of the Mark 23s were destroyed short of target, but not enough.

The imagery on Adenauer's plot froze abruptly as the attack missiles and their Apollos slammed into their targets, were picked off by the defenses, or self-destructed at the end of their programmed runs. For an instant or two, the plot simply stayed that way. But then it came abruptly back to life once more. Just as a single pod had preceded the attack wave, another single pod followed in its wake. Its missiles had jettisoned their shrouds at the same moment the attack missiles executed their final runs, and Michelle watched in something very like disbelief, even now, as the results of the initial strike reached Artemis in less than five seconds.

One of the superdreadnoughts was obviously gone. Her wedge was down, she was streaming atmosphere and shedding debris, and the transponders of her crew's escape pods burned clear and sharp on the plot. One of her sisters was clearly in serious trouble, as well. From her impeller signature, she'd taken massive damage to her forward ring, and her emission signature showed heavy damage to the active sensors necessary for effective close-ranged missile-defense. The third superdreadnought appeared to have gotten off more lightly, but even she showed evidence of significant damage, and a second, equally massive attack wave was already tearing down on her.

My God, Michelle thought quietly. My God, it really works. It not only works, but I'll bet we've still only begun to scratch the surface of what this means. Hemphill told me it would be a force multiplier, and, Jesus, was she right!

She watched the second salvo bearing down on its victims, and even though it was only a simulation, she shivered at the thought of what it would be like to know that wave of destruction was coming.

Lord, if Haven knew about this, they'd be begging for a peace treaty! she thought shakenly.

She remembered something White Haven had said after Operation Buttercup, the offensive which had driven Oscar Saint-Just's People's Republic to its knees. "It made me feel . . . dirty. Like I was drowning baby chicks," he'd said, and for the first time, she fully understood what he'd meant.

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