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Chapter Two

"It's Her Grace, Ma'am," Lieutenant Kaminski said quietly, and Michelle stood, rising from where she'd knelt on the decksole beside the sick-berth attendant working on an unconscious Manfredi.

"I'll take it there, Albert," she said, crossing quickly to the communications officer's station. She leaned over his shoulder, looking into the pickup, and saw Honor on the display.

"How bad is it, Mike?" Honor asked quickly.

"That's an interesting question." Michelle managed a twisted smile. "Captain Mikhailov is dead, and things are . . . a bit confused over here, just now. Our rails and pods are still intact, and our fire control looks pretty good, but our point defense and energy armament took a real beating. The worst of it seems to be the after impeller ring, though. It's completely down."

"Can you restore it?" Honor asked urgently.

"We're working on it. The good news is that the damage appears to be in the control runs; the nodes themselves look like they're still intact, including the Alphas. The bad news is that we've got one hell of a lot of structural damage aft, and just locating where the runs are broken is going to be a copperplated bitch."

"Can you get her out?" Honor's voice was suddenly softer as she asked the only question that really mattered, and Michelle looked into best friend's eyes for perhaps three heartbeats, then shrugged.

"I don't know," she admitted. "Frankly, it doesn't look good, but I'm not prepared to just write her off yet. Besides," she managed another smile, "we can't abandon very well."

"What do you mean?" Honor demanded quickly.

"Both boat bays are trashed, Honor. The bosun says she thinks she can get the after bay cleared, but it's going to take at least a half-hour. Without that—"

Michelle shrugged, wondering if she looked as stricken as Honor did. Not that Honor's expression would have given anything away to most people, but Michelle knew her too well.

They looked at one another for several seconds, neither of them willing to say what they both knew. Without at least one functional boat bay, small craft couldn't dock with Ajax to take her crew off, and she carried enough emergency life pods for a little more than half her total complement. There wasn't much point in carrying more than that, since only half her battle stations were close enough to the skin of her hull to make a life pod practical.

And her flag bridge was far too deeply buried to be one of them.

"Mike, I—"

Honor's voice seemed to fray around the edges, and Michelle shook her head quickly.

"Don't say it," she said, almost gently. "If we can get the after ring back, we can probably play hide and seek with anything heavy enough to kill us. If we don't get it back, we're not getting out. It's that simple, Honor. And you know as well as I do that you can't hold the rest of the task force back to cover us. Not with Bogey Three still closing. Even just hanging around for a half-hour while we try to make repairs would bring you into their envelope, and your missile defense has been shot to shit."

She could see it in Honor's eyes. See that Honor wanted to argue, to protest. But she couldn't.

"You're right," she said quietly. "I wish you weren't, but you are."

"I know." Michelle's lips twitched again. "And at least we're in better shape than Necromancer," she observed. "Although I think her boat bays are at least intact."

"Well, yes," Honor said. "There is that minor difference. Rafe's coordinating the evacuation of her personnel now."

"Good for Rafe," Michelle replied.

"Break north," Honor told her. "I'm going to drop our acceleration for about fifteen minutes."

Michelle opened her mouth to protest, but Honor shook her head quickly.

"Only fifteen minutes, Mike. If we go back to the best acceleration we can sustain at that point and maintain heading, we'll still scrape past Bogey Three at least eighty thousand kilometers outside its powered missile range."

"That's cutting it too close, Honor!" Michelle said sharply.

"No," Honor said flatly, "it isn't, Admiral Henke. And not just because Ajax is your ship. There are seven hundred and fifty other men and women aboard her."

Michelle started to protest again, then stopped, inhaled sharply, and nodded. She still didn't like it, still suspected that Honor's friendship for her was affecting the other woman's judgment. But it was also possible that that same friendship was affecting her own judgment, and Honor was right about how many other people were at risk aboard Ajax.

"When they see our accel drop, they'll have to act on the assumption Imperator has enough impeller damage to slow the rest of the task force," Honor continued. "Bogey Three should continue to pursue us on that basis. If you can get the after ring back within the next forty-five minutes to an hour, you should still be able to stay clear of Bogey Two, and Bogey One is pretty much scrap metal at this point. But if you don't get it back—"

"If we don't get it back, we can't get into hyper anyway," Michelle interrupted her. "I think it's the best we can do, Honor. Thank you."

Honor's mouth tightened on Michelle's com screen, but she only nodded.

"Give Beth my best, just in case," Michelle added.

"Do it yourself," Honor shot back.

"I will, of course," Michelle said. Then, more softly, "Take care, Honor."

"God bless, Mike," Honor said equally quietly. "Clear."

"Ma'am, it's Commander Horn," Lieutenant Kaminski said quietly. Commander Manfredi had been taken off to sickbay, and the communications officer had taken over Manfredi's duties as chief of staff. He was scarcely the most senior of her staffers still on his feet, but his official duties left him with the least to do, under the circumstances . . . and it wasn't as if Michelle any longer had a squadron which really needed a chief of staff.

"Thanks, Al," she said, and turned quickly to her own com screen as a face materialized upon it.

Commander Alexandra Horn was a stocky, short-haired, gray-eyed brunette. She'd been HMS Ajax's executive officer, up until the moment the death of Diego Mikhailov and every other officer and rating who'd been on his command deck changed that. Now she was the ship's commanding officer, and behind her, Henke could see the backup command crew in the battlecruiser's Auxiliary Control, located at the far end of Ajax's core hull from her normal command deck, as they bent over their command stations, working frantically.

"Yes, Alex?"

"Admiral," Horn's voice was hoarse, her face tight with strain and fatigue, "I think it's time to start evacuating everyone who has access to a life pod."

Michelle felt her own face turn masklike, but managed to hold her voice to an almost normal conversational pitch.

"It's that bad, is it?" she asked.

"Maybe worse than that, Ma'am." Horn rubbed her eyes for a moment, then looked back out of the display at Michelle. "There's just too much wreckage in the way. God only knows how all four rails can still be up, because we've got breaches clear through to the missile core in at least four places. Maybe as many as six. Commander Tigh still can't even tell us where the control runs are broken, much less when he might be able to get the after ring back up."

Well, that seems to be a fairly emphatic answer to the great fragility debate, doesn't it, Mike? a small voice said in the back of Michelle's head. Under the circumstances, it's a mystery to me why we didn't go up right along with Patrocles and Priam. What was that phrase Honor used? "Eggshells armed with sledgehammers," wasn't it? Of course, she was talking about LACs at the time, not battlecruisers, but still . . .

She gazed at the other woman for several seconds while her mind raced down the same logic trees Horn must already have worked through. Lieutenant Commander William Tigh was Ajax's chief engineer, and she knew he and his damage control crews had been prying, battering, and cutting their way through the wreckage aft of midships in their frantic search for the damage which had taken the after alpha nodes off-line. She couldn't say she was particularly surprised by what Horn had just told her, but that didn't make the news one bit more welcome.

Nor could she misunderstand what Horn was thinking now. They couldn't afford to let the technology aboard Ajax fall into Havenite hands. Haven had captured more than enough examples of Manticoran weapons and electronics tech at the outbreak of the war, but the systems aboard Ajax and her sisters now were substantially more advanced than anything they might have captured then, and the Alliance had already suffered graphic evidence of just how quickly Haven had managed to put anything they'd captured to good use. The Navy had built in the very best safeguards it could to make sure that as little as possible of that tech would be recoverable if a ship was lost, and virtually all of her molycircs could be wiped with the entry of the proper command codes, but no possible system was perfect. And if Tigh couldn't get the after ring back on-line, there was only one way to prevent Ajax and everything aboard her from falling into Havenite hands.

"What about the after boat bay?" Michelle asked after several moments.

"The Bosun's still working at clearing away the wreckage, Ma'am. At the moment, it looks like it's a horse race—at best."

Michelle nodded in understanding. Master Chief Alice MaGuire was Ajax's boatswain, her senior noncommissioned officer. At the moment, MaGuire and her own repair teams were laboring with frantic discipline to get at least one of the battlecruiser's boat bay's operational again. Unless they could manage to do that, there was no way anyone without an operational life pod was getting off the ship.

Technically, the decision was now Horn's, not Michelle's. The commander was Ajax's captain; what happened to her ship and her crew was her responsibility, not that of the admiral who simply happened to be aboard at the moment. Nor did Michelle think for a moment that Horn was trying to get her to take the weight of decision off of the other woman's shoulders. Which wasn't quite the same thing as saying she wouldn't be grateful for any advice Michelle might be able to contribute.

"Assuming you get the pods off, will you still have enough personnel to fight the ship?" she asked quietly.

"I'm afraid the answer to that question is yes, Ma'am," Horn said bitterly. "We'll lose most of our on-mount backup crews for the energy weapons and point defense clusters, but none of our remaining mounts are in local control at the moment, anyway. And, of course, our rails won't be affected at all. Within those limits, we'll still have more people than we need to fight her."

Michelle nodded again. The on-mount crews were there primarily to take over the weapons should they be cut off from the centralized control of the tactical officer on the ship's command deck. The probability that they'd be able to do any good—especially against the threat which had been rumbling steadily towards Ajax at almost twice the lamed battlecruiser's current maximum acceleration ever since Bogey Two abandoned its pursuit of the rest of the task force—was minute. The ship's primary armament, her missile pods, on the other hand, were buried deep at her core. The men and women responsible for overseeing them were much too far inside the core hull for any possible life pod to carry them to safety.

What it really came down to, Michelle thought sadly, was the fact that it was now too late to save the ship even if Tigh somehow managed to get the after ring back. They'd lost too much lead on Bogey Two. In less than twenty minutes, those six modern superdreadnoughts were going to enter their own MDM range from Ajax. When they did that, the ship was going to die, one way or the other. The only way to prevent that would have been to surrender her to the enemy, which would just happen to hand all of that invaluable technological data and examples of modern systems over to Haven.

I wonder if Horn's cold-blooded enough to give the scuttle order? Could she really order the ship blown up knowing over half her crew would go with her?

The fact that no court of inquiry or court-martial convened in Manticore would ever condemn her for honorably surrendering her vessel made the commander's dilemma even more hellish. For that matter, if she didn't surrender—if she went ahead and destroyed her own ship, with so many of her people still aboard—her name would undoubtedly be vilified by any number of people who hadn't been there, hadn't had to face the same decision or make the same call.

But she's not going to have to do that, Michelle thought almost calmly. If she tries to fight that much firepower, the Peeps will take care of it for her.

"If your ship will still be combat capable, Captain," she said formally to Horn, "then by all means, I concur. Given the tactical situation, evacuating everyone you can by pod is clearly the right decision."

"Thank you, Ma'am," Horn said softly. The decision had been hers, but her gratitude for Michelle's concurrence was both obvious and deep. Then she drew a deep breath. "If you and your staff will evacuate Flag Bridge now, Ma'am, there'll be time—"

"No, Captain," Michelle interrupted quietly. Horn looked at her, and she shook her head. "Those pods will be used by the personnel assigned to them or closest to them at the moment the evacuation order is given," Michelle continued steadily.

For a moment, she thought Horn was going to argue. For that matter, Horn had the authority to order Michelle and her staff off the ship, and to use force to accomplish that end, if necessary. But as she looked into the commander's eyes, she saw that Horn understood. If Michelle Henke's flagship was going to die with people trapped aboard it, then she was going to be one of those people. It made absolutely no sense from any logical perspective, but that didn't matter.

"Yes, Ma'am," Horn said, and produced something almost like a smile. "Now, if you'll excuse me, Admiral, I have some orders to issue," she said.

"By all means, Captain. Clear."

"You know," Lieutenant Commander Stackpole said, "I know we're pretty much screwed, Ma'am, but I really would like to take some of them with us."

There was something remarkably like whimsy in his tone, and Michelle wondered if he was aware of that . . . or how ironic it was.

Ironic or not, a part of her agreed with him. Bogey Two had continued its pursuit of the rest of the task force only until it became obvious that it would be impossible to overtake Imperator and the other ships in company with her. At that point, Bogey Two—all of Bogey Two—had altered course to pursue Ajax, instead, with acceleration advantage of almost 2.5 KPS2. Thanks to her own damage, and the fact that Bogey Two had been able to begin cutting the chord of Ajax's course after abandoning the pursuit of the rest of the task force, the pursuing Havenites had already been able to build a velocity advantage of over two thousand KPS. With that sort of overtake velocity and such an acceleration advantage over a ship which couldn't escape into hyper even if she managed to get across the hyper limit before she was intercepted, this chase could have only one outcome.

Maximum range for Havenite MDMs was just under sixty-one million kilometers, and the range was already down to little more than sixty-three million. It wouldn't be long now, unless . . .

"You know," Michelle said, "I wonder just how close these people are willing to come before they pull the trigger?"

"Well, they must know we've loaded our battlecruiser pods with Mark 16s," Stackpole pointed out, turning to look over his shoulder at her. "I can't believe they'd be interested in coming into our range!"

"I certainly wouldn't be, in their place," Michelle agreed. "Still, their hard numbers on the Mark 16's performance have to be a little iffy. Oh," she waved one hand in the air before her, "I know we've used them before, but the only time they've ever seen them used at maximum powered range was right here, in Fire Plan Gamma, and that had that ballistic component right in the middle of it. It's remotely possible Bogey Two hasn't had the benefit of a full tactical analysis yet."

"You're suggesting they might just come into our range, after all, Ma'am?" Stackpole sounded like a junior officer doing his best not to sound overtly dubious.

"It's possible, I suppose," Michelle said. Then she snorted. "On the other hand, it's entirely possible I'm grasping at straws, too!"

"Well, Ma'am," Stackpole said, "I hate to rain on your parade, but I can think of at least one damned good reason for them to be doing what they're doing." She cocked an eyebrow at him, and he shrugged. "If I were them, and if I did have a pretty good idea what our maximum powered envelope was, I wouldn't be in any hurry. I'd want to get as close as I could and still stay outside our envelope before I fired. Of course, if we want to start engaging them at longer ranges, with a ballistic component in the flight, they'll probably shoot back pretty damned fast."

"I know," Michelle said.

She smiled thinly, then tipped back in her command chair. It was remarkable, actually, she mused. Whatever the Peeps were up to, she was going to die sometime in the next hour or so, and yet she felt oddly calm. She hadn't resigned herself to death, didn't want to die—perhaps, deep down inside, some survival center simply refuse to accept the possibility, even now—and yet her forebrain knew it was going to happen. And despite that, her mind was clear, with a sort of bittersweet serenity. There were a lot of things she'd meant to do that she'd never have the chance to get around to now, and she felt a deep surge of regret for that. And, for that matter, she felt an even deeper, darker regret for the other men and women trapped aboard Ajax with her. Yet this was a possible ending she'd accepted the day she entered the Academy, the day she swore her oath as an officer in the Royal Manticoran Navy. She couldn't pretend she hadn't known it might come, and if she had to die, she could not have done it in better company than with the crew of HMS Ajax.

She considered the men and women who'd escaped aboard the battlecruiser's remaining operational life pods, wondered what they were thinking as they awaited rescue by their enemies. There'd been a time when the Manticoran Navy had been none too sure Havenite ships would bother with search-and-rescue after a battle, yet despite the sneak attack with which the Republic had opened this war, no one on either side had ever doubted that the victor in any engagement would do her very best to rescue as many survivors from both sides as possible.

So we've made some progress, at least, she told herself sardonically. Then she gave herself a mental shake. The last thing she should be doing at a moment like this was feeling anything except gratitude that the people Commander Horn had gotten off Ajax were going to survive!

We really have come a long way since Basilisk Station and First Hancock, she told herself. In fact—

"John." She let her command chair snap back upright and turned it to face the tac officer.

"Yes, Ma'am?" Something about her tone brought his own chair around to face her squarely, and his eyes narrowed.

"These people just finished borrowing Her Grace's tactics from Sidemore, right?"

"That's one way to put it," Stackpole agreed, his eyes narrowing further.

"Well, in that case," Michelle said with a razor-like smile, "I think it just might be time for us to borrow her tactics from Hancock Station. Why don't you and I kick this idea around with Commander Horn for a couple of minutes? After all," her smile grew thinner yet, "it's not like any of us have anything better to do, is it?"

"I like it, Your Grace," Alexandra Horn said grimly from Michelle's com screen.

"According to our best figures from here," Michelle said, "we've got roughly three hundred pods still on the rails."

"Three hundred and six, Admiral," Commander Dwayne Harrison, who had become Ajax's tactical officer in the same instant Horn had become the battlecruiser's captain, said from behind Horn.

"Just over fifteen minutes to roll all of them, then."

"Yes, Ma'am," Horn agreed. "Use their tractors to limpet them to the hull until we're ready to drop all of them in a single clutch?"

"Exactly. And if we're going to do this, we'd better get started pretty quick," Michelle said.

"Agreed." Horn frowned for a moment, then grimaced. "I've got too much else on my plate right now, Admiral. I think this is something for you and Commander Stackpole to work out with Dwayne while I concentrate on pushing the repair parties."

"I agree, Alex." Michelle nodded firmly, even though she knew Horn was as well aware as she was that all the repairs in the world weren't going to make much difference. Master Chief MaGuire and her repair parties were still fighting to get at least one boat bay cleared, but the bosun's last estimate was that she'd need at least another hour, and probably at least a little longer. It was . . . unlikely, to say the least, that Ajax was going to have that hour.

"Very well, Ma'am." Horn nodded back. "Clear," she said, and Harrison's face replaced hers on both Michelle's and Stackpole's com screens.

The grim pursuit was coming to its inevitable conclusion, Michelle thought. Her belly was like a lump of congealed iron, and she felt almost lightheaded. Fear was a huge part of it, of course—she wasn't insane, after all. And yet excitement, anticipation, gripped her almost as tightly as the fear.

If it's the final shot I'm ever going to get, at least it's going to be a doozy, she told herself tautly. And it looks like I'm actually going to get to see it fired, after all. Hard to believe.

It had become only too evident over the last forty-seven minutes that Stackpole's assessment of the Peep commander's intentions had been accurate. That was how long it had been since Bogey Two had entered its own extreme missile range of Ajax, but the enemy was clearly in no hurry to pull the trigger.

And rightly so, Michelle thought. The Peeps had every advantage there was—numbers, acceleration rate, firepower, counter-missile launchers and laser clusters, and missile range—and they were using them ruthlessly. She was a bit surprised, to be honest, that the enemy had managed to resist the temptation to start firing sooner, but she understood the logic perfectly. As Stackpole had suggested, the Peeps would close to a range at which they remained just outside the powered envelope of Ajax's Mark 16s, then open fire. Or, perhaps, call upon Ajax to surrender, since the situation would have become hopeless. There would have been just about zero probability of even Manticoran missiles getting through Bogey Two's defenses in salvos the size a single Agamemnon could throw and control at any range, but with the need for them to incorporate at least a brief ballistic phase in their approach, the probability would shrink still further. And no matter how good Ajax's missile defenses might be, she was still only a single battlecruiser, and she would be thirty million kilometers inside Bogey Two's maximum range. Light-speed communication lags would be far lower, which would improve both the enemy's fire control and its ability to compensate for Manticore's superior EW.

Of course, there could be a few minor difficulties hidden in that tactical situation, couldn't there? Michelle thought.

She turned her command chair back towards Stackpole once again. Her tactical officer's shoulders were tight, his attention totally focused on his displays, and she smiled at him with a sort of bittersweet regret. He and Harrison had implemented Michelle's brainstorm quickly and efficiently. Now—

Michelle's com beeped softly at her. The sound startled her, and she twitched before she reached down and pressed the acceptance key. Alexandra Horn appeared on her display, and this time there was something very different about the commander's gray eyes. They literally glowed, and she smiled hugely at Michelle.

"Master Chief MaGuire's cleared the after bay, Ma'am!" she announced before her admiral could even speak, and Michelle jerked upright. The bosun and her work parties had continued laboring heroically, but after so long, Michelle—like everyone else aboard Ajax, she was certain—had come to the conclusion that there was simply no way MaGuire's people were going to succeed.

Michelle's eyes darted to the countdown clock blinking steadily towards zero in the corner of her tactical plot, then back to Horn.

"In that case, Alex," she said, "I suggest you start getting our people off right now. Somehow, I don't think the other side's going to be very happy with us in about seven minutes."

No one aboard Ajax had needed their admiral's observation.

The range between the battlecruiser and her overwhelming adversaries was down to little more than 48,600,000 kilometers, which put them far inside the Havenites' engagement envelope. No doubt those SD(P)s astern of them had already deployed multiple patterns of pods, tractored to their hulls inside their wedges, where they wouldn't degrade anyone's acceleration. The Peep commander was no doubt watching his own tactical displays intently, waiting for the first sign that Ajax might change her mind and attempt a long-range missile launch. If he saw one, he would undoubtedly roll his own pods, immediately. And if he didn't see one, he would probably roll them anyway within the next ten to twelve minutes.

Small craft began to launch from the boat bay Master Chief MaGuire and her people had managed—somehow—to get back into service. The bad news was that there weren't very many of those small craft available. The good news was that there were barely three hundred people still aboard the battlecruiser. Of course, for some of those people, getting to the boat bay was going to take a bit longer than for others.

"Admiral," a voice said from Michelle Henke's com. "It's time for you to go, Ma'am."

It was Commander Horn, and Michelle glanced at the display, then shook her head.

"I don't think so, Alex," she said. "I'm a little busy just now."

"Bullshit." The single, succinct word snapped her head back around, and Horn shook her own head, her expression stern. "You don't have a damned thing to do, Admiral. Not anymore. So get your ass off my ship—now!"

"I don't think—" Michelle began once more, but Horn cut her off abruptly.

"That's right, Ma'am. You aren't thinking. Sure, it was your idea, but you don't even have a tactical link to the pods from Flag Bridge. That means it up to me and Dwayne, and you know it. Staying behind at this point isn't your duty, Admiral. And it doesn't have anything to do with courage or cowardice."

Michelle stared at her, wanting to argue. But she couldn't—not logically. Not rationally. Yet her own need to stay with Ajax to the very end had very little to do with logic, or reason. Her eyes locked with those of the woman who was effectively ordering her to abandon her and her tactical officer to certain death, and the fact that no one had expected to have the opportunity to escape only made her own sense of guilt cut deeper and harder.

"I can't," she said softly.

"Don't be stupid, Ma'am!" Horn said sharply. Then her expression softened. "I know what you're feeling," she said, "but forget it. I doubt Dwayne or I could get to the boat bay in time, anyway. And whether we can or not, it doesn't change a thing I just said to you. Besides, it's your duty to get off if you can and look after my people for me."

Michelle had opened her mouth again, but Horn's last seven words shut it abruptly. She looked at the other woman, her eyes burning, then inhaled deeply.

"You're right," she said softly. "Wish you weren't, Alex."

"So do I." Horn managed a smile. "Unfortunately, I'm not. Now go. That's an order, Admiral."

"Aye, aye, Captain." Michelle's answering smile was crooked, and she knew it. "God bless, Vicky."

"And you, Ma'am."

The screen blanked, and Michelle looked at her staff officers and their assistants.

"You heard the Captain, people!" she said, her husky contralto harsh and rasping. "Let's go!"

Bogey Two kept charging after HMS Ajax. The Havenites' sensor resolution was problematical at best against something as small as a pinnace or a cutter at such an extended range, but the remote arrays they'd sent ahead of them were another matter. Less capable, and with much shorter endurance than their Manticoran counterparts, they'd still had Ajax under close observation for the last half-hour. They were close enough to recognize the impeller wedges of small craft, and to confirm that they were small craft, and not missile pods.

"They're abandoning, Sir."

Admiral Pierre Redmont turned to his tactical officer, one eyebrow quirked.

"It's confirmed, Sir," the tac officer said.

"Damn." The admiral's lips twisted as if he'd just tasted something sour, but he couldn't pretend it was a surprise. Under the circumstances the only thing that qualified as a surprise was that the Manties had waited so long. Obviously, they didn't intend to let him take that ship intact, after all. They were getting their people off before they scuttled.

"We could always order them not to abandon, Sir," the tac officer said quietly. Redmont shot him a sharp look, and the tac officer shrugged. "They're deep inside our range, Sir."

"Yes, they are, Commander," the admiral said just a bit testily. "And they also aren't shooting at us. In fact, they can't shoot at us from here—not effectively enough to make us break a sweat, anyway. And just how do you think Admiral Giscard—or, worse, Admiral Theisman—is going to react if I open fire on a ship that can't even return fire just to keep them from abandoning?"

"Not well, Sir," the commander said after a moment. Then he shook his head with a wry smile. "Not one of my better suggestions, Admiral."

"No, it wasn't," Redmont agreed, but a brief smile of his own took most of the sting from it, and he returned his own attention to his displays.

Michelle Henke and her staff made their way quickly down the passage towards the lift tubes. The passageway itself was already deserted, hatches standing open. The ship was running almost entirely on her remotes as her remaining personnel hurried towards the restored boat bay, and a spike of worry stabbed suddenly through her.

Oh, Jesus! What if the Peeps decide all of this was nothing but a trick? That we could have abandoned any time, but we didn't because

She started to turn around, reaching for her personal communicator, but it was too late.

* * *

An alarm shrilled suddenly.

The flagship's tactical officer's head jerked up in astonishment as he recognized the sound. It was the proximity alarm, and that was ridiculous! The thought flashed through his brain, but he was an experienced professional. His automatic incredulity didn't keep him from turning almost instantly towards his active sensor section.

"Radar contact!" one of his ratings snapped, but it was too late for the warning to make any difference at all.

Current-generation Manticoran missile pods were extraordinarily stealthy. Against a powered-down missile, active radar detection range was around a million kilometers, give or take. But then, missiles weren't designed to be as stealthy as the pods that carried them, because any attack missile was going to be picked up and tracked on passives with ludicrous ease thanks to the glaring signature of its impeller wedge. Which meant stealth wasn't going to help it very much.

But a missile pod was something else entirely. Especially a pod like the current-generation Manticoran "flatpack" pods with their on-board fusion plants. They'd been designed to be deployed in the system-defense role, as well as in ship-to-ship combat. After all, BuWeaps had decided, it made more sense to build a single pod with the features for both, as long as neither function was compromised. It hugely simplified production and reduced expense, which was a not insignificant consideration in an era of MDM combat.

All of which meant the Havenite radar crews had done extraordinarily well in the first place just to pick up the missile pods HMS Ajax had deployed in a single, massive salvo. The sheer size of the radar target helped, no doubt, despite the stealthiness of the individual pods of which the salvo consisted, and the range was just under nine hundred thousand kilometers when the alarms went off.

Unfortunately, Bogey Two's velocity was up to over twenty-seven thousand kilometers per second, and its starships had been charging directly up Ajax's wake for well over an hour now. The missile pods had been continuing onward at the speed Ajax's velocity had imparted to them at launch, which meant the steadily accelerating units of Bogey Two overflew them at a relative velocity of 19,838 KPS. At that closure rate, Bogey Two had exactly 1.2 minutes to detect and react to them before they found themselves half a million kilometers behind Bogey Two . . . and launched.

There were three hundred and six pods, each loaded with fourteen Mark 16 missiles. Of those forty-two-hundred-plus missiles, a quarter were EW platforms. The remaining thirty-two hundred laser heads were far lighter than the laser heads mounted by capital ship missiles. In fact, they were too light to pose any significant threat to something as heavily armored and protected as a ship of the wall. But Bogey Two's SD(P)s were screened by battlecruisers, and battlecruisers didn't carry that sort of armor.

The Havenite tactical officers had eighty-four seconds to recognize what had happened. Eighty-four seconds to see their displays come alive with thousands of attacking missiles. Despite the stunning surprise, they actually managed to implement their defensive doctrine, but there simply wasn't enough time for that doctrine to be effective.

The hurricane of missiles tore into the Havenite formation. Michelle Henke had indeed taken a page from Honor Harrington's and Mark Sarnow's tactics at the Battle of Hancock Station, and her weapons were far more capable than the ones Manticore had possessed then. Although the Mark 16 hadn't really been designed for use in any area-defense mine role, its sensors were actually superior to those carried by most mines. And Henke had taken advantage of the improvements in reconnaissance platforms and communications links, as well. Along with the missile pods, Ajax had deployed half a dozen Hermes buoys—communications platforms equipped with FTL grav-pulse receivers and light-speed communications lasers. Ghost Rider recon platforms had kept the Havenites under close observation, reporting in near real-time to Ajax, and Ajax had used her own FTL com and the Hermes buoys to feed continuous updates to her waiting missile pods.

Any sort of precise fire control over such a jury rigged control link, with its limited bandwidth and cobbled-up target selection, was impossible, of course. But it was good enough to ensure that each of those missiles had been fed the emissions signatures of the battlecruisers it was supposed to attack. Accuracy might be poor, compared to a standard missile engagement, and the EW platforms and penetration aids were far less effective without proper shipboard updates, but the range was also incredibly short, which gave the defense no time to react. Despite any shortcomings, that huge salvo's accuracy was far greater than anything Haven could possibly have anticipated . . . and not one of its missiles wasted itself against a ship of the wall.

Admiral Redmont swore savagely as the missile storm rampaged through his screen. The missile defense computers did the best they could, and considering how completely surprised their human masters had been and the attack's deadly geometry, that best was actually amazingly good. Which, unfortunately, didn't mean it was even remotely good enough.

There was no time for a counter-missile launch, and the attack from almost directly astern minimized the number of laser clusters which could defend any of the Manticorans' targets. Hundreds of incoming missiles were destroyed, but there were thousands of them, and their targets heaved in agony as lasers stabbed through their sidewalls or blasted directly up the kilts of their wedges. Hulls shattered, belching atmosphere and debris, and the fragile humans crewing those ships burned like straw in a furnace.

Two of Bogey Two's eight battlecruisers died spectacularly, vanishing into blinding fireballs with every single man and woman of their crews as the demonic bomb-pumped lasers stabbed through them again and again and again. The other six survived, but four of them were little more than broken and battered wrecks, wedges down, coasting onward while shocked and stunned survivors fought their way through the wreckage, searching frantically for other survivors in the ruin.

The admiral's jaw muscles ridged as his battlecruisers died. Then he twisted around to glare at his tac officer.

"Open fire!" he snapped.

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