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Chapter Twenty

"What the hell are those things?" Rear Admiral Beach murmured. Behind him, he could hear the disciplined bedlam as his communications staff coordinated the evacuation of Gaston's deep-space industrial infrastructure, but his attention was focused on two of the tentatively identified Manty battlecruisers.


"They've got to be battlecruisers," Commander Myron Randall, his chief of staff, replied.


"I know that," Beach said, just a bit impatiently. "But look at the tonnage estimates. According to CIC, these things mass dammed close to two million tons. That's a big dammed battle-cruiser, Myron!"


"The Graysons' Courvoisier IIs mass over a million tons," Randall pointed out.


"Which is still considerably smaller than these are." Beach shook his head. "I'll bet you this is the Manties' version of a pod-laying battlecruiser."


"Wonderful," Randall muttered.


"Well," Beach said, glancing at the shoals of LACs which had launched themselves from the incoming CLACs, "how much worse can it get, Myron? We've got three hundred Cimeterres, the missile pods, and four battlecruisers. I don't think the fact that they've brought along some of their newer toys is going to make a lot of difference in the long run."


* * *

"Message from Admiral Henke, Ma'am."


"Put it on my tertiary display," Dame Alice Truman replied, and a moment later Michelle Henke's ebony face appeared on the tiny flatscreen by Truman's knee.


"Mike," the vice admiral greeted her.


"Admiral," Henke responded.


"To what do I owe the honor?"


"We've been going over the fresh data from Intruder's platforms over here, Ma'am. Have your people noticed that odd little cluster of blips they're picking up in Charlie-Two-Seven now that they've gone active?"


"Just a minute, Mike." Truman looked up from the display, and beckoned to her chief of staff. Captain Goodrick crossed to her immediately, and she waved him forward into the field of her own com pickup. "Would you repeat that for Wraith, Mike?"


"Have your people noticed that cluster of blips in Charlie-Two-Seven?" Henke asked, after nodding a welcome to Goodrick.


"You mean the ones just to system north of the refitting platform?" She nodded again, and he shrugged. "We've seen them, but so far we've put them down as just orbital clutter. You know how sloppy a lot of civilian facilities are about disposing of their trash."


"Tell me about it," Henke said sourly. "In this case, though, I don't think that's what it is." Goodrick raised his eyebrows, and she grimaced. "The arrays aren't getting very clear returns off of them. In fact, it looks to us over here as if that could be because we're not supposed to."


"Low-signature platforms?" Truman asked.


"Definitely a possibility," Henke agreed. "Especially if you look at how they're distributed. Captain LaCosta's tactical section agrees with us that they look like what could be missile pods dispersed just widely enough to clear their birds' impeller wedges when they launch."


Goodrick was leaning over a secondary display, reexamining the sensor data for himself. Now he looked up and nodded to Truman.


"I think Admiral Henke has a point, Ma'am," he said. "As a matter of fact, it looks to me like what we're seeing here could be just a portion of the entire pattern. I'd say there's a good chance they've got a lot more of them than we've actually picked up."


"Well, we expected something like it," Truman observed. She considered for a moment, then shrugged. "I don't think it really changes anything, Wraith. But launch an additional shell of arrays and pass the word to Scotty. I want them sweeping the space in front of him like a fine tooth comb, and I want him tied directly into their take."


"Yes, Ma'am. I'll get right on it."


Goodrick began issuing orders, and Truman nodded to Henke over the com.


"Good catch, Mike. Aside from that, how are things looking from your side?"


"Nominal, so far." Henke's smile was unpleasant. "I know it's on a lot smaller scale, but I think we're about to get a tiny bit of our own back for Grendelsbane."


"That's what we came for," Truman agreed, and leaned back in her command chair, studying the plot.


Given Eighth Fleet's command structure, she was actually wearing three separate "hats." She was Honor's second-in—command and carrier commander; the commanding officer of CLAC Squadron Three; and the CO of CarRon 3's first division, the carriers Werewolf and Chimera. Of course, two of those three slots weren't especially relevant just now, she thought, watching Werewolf's and Chimera's LACs moving steadily away from their carriers. And, speaking as the commander of the first division—and the senior officer of the Gaston attack force—things seemed to be going quite well at the moment.


Knock on wood, she reminded herself. Knock on wood.


* * *

"They're coming right in on us, Sir," Commander Inchman said flatly.


"But they aren't closing into standard missile range, are they, Sandra?" Beach observed, standing at her shoulder and looking down at the icons on her plot.


"Their hyper-capable units aren't, Sir; it looks like they're decelerating to rest relative to the planet at about one light-minute. But their LACs are still boring straight in."


"And if anyone thinks they're going to leave our hyper-capable units intact to shoot at their LACs, they're dreaming," Myron Randall muttered from behind the rear admiral.


"Probably not," Beach agreed grimly, and Randall colored slightly. Obviously, he hadn't realized he'd spoken loudly enough for his admiral to overhear.


"On the other hand," Beach continued, "they are going to come into range of our missile pods." He showed his teeth in what only the most myopic might have called a smile. "Pity they didn't wait another couple of months."


"You've got that right, Sir," Inchman agreed, her voice harsh with angry frustration.


"Maybe, and maybe not, Sandra." Beach put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently. "Odds are Supply would've been sending us their regrets again."


He understood Inchman's frustration—and anger—perfectly. The additional pods they'd been promised would have increased their long-range missile power hugely. Then again, they'd been "promised" for quite some time.


"I know, Sir. It's just—" Inchman bit off what she'd been about to say, and Beach sighed.


"They're shipping them to the front line systems as quickly as they can, Sandra. Someone's got to suck hind teat when quantities are limited. And to be fair, if you'd been in charge of prioritizing deliveries, would you have predicted an attack on Gaston, of all damned places?"


"No, Sir," she admitted.


"So we do the best we can with what we've got," Beach said as philosophically as he could. He looked over his shoulder at Randall.


"How long until we can get underway, Myron?"


"Another twelve minutes," Randall said, after checking his chrono quickly. "Captain Steigert's engineers are doing their best, but—"


"Understood." Beach gave a bitter chuckle, and squeezed Inchman's shoulder again. "If I'd listened to Sandra, at least I'd have had our impellers at a higher state of readiness."


He brooded down at the ops officer's plot, then drew a deep breath and turned away.


"They'll be in range to engage us in another thirty-five minutes, even if we just sit here in orbit. To be honest, if I thought it would do any good, I'd order all of our hyper-capable units to just bug out."


Randall looked at him with an expression which mingled surprise and disapproval, and Beach snorted.


"Of course I would, Myron! It might not be particularly glorious, but if those are pod-laying battlecruisers out there—and their deceleration profile certainly suggests they are—then we're truly and royally screwed. Dying gloriously sounds good in bad historical novels. Speaking for myself, I think doing it in real life when you don't have to is fucking stupid, and it irritates the hell out of me that we don't appear to have any choice."


He couldn't quite keep the bitterness out of his voice, but he drew another breath and gave himself a mental shake.


"Since we can't avoid action with them, and since we can't match their engagement range, I want all of our ships moved around to the far side of the planet. We'll keep it between us and them as long as we can."


Randall looked vaguely rebellious. He didn't say anything, but Beach read his thoughts without much difficulty.


"No, it's not particularly glorious. And I doubt it's going to make a lot of difference in the end, for that matter. But if whoever's in command over there is feeling particularly stupid, he may send in his LACs to flush us out of cover. If he does, we might actually manage to pick a few of them off. Even if he doesn't, he'll have to maneuver his MDM-capable units to clear the planet if he wants a shot at us. For that matter, he may decline to fire from extended range at us at all, if we're close enough to the planet."


"I think the Admiral has a point, Myron," Inchman said. Both men looked at her, and she shrugged. "Given all the other irons the Manties have in the fire right now, they certainly aren't going to court a violation of the Eridani Edict, and even their MDMs' targeting discrimination is pretty shaky at long range. This is our best chance to at least draw them into a range where we'll get to shoot back."


* * *

"They're pulling back behind the planet, Ma'am," Commander Oliver Manfredi said.


"Not very obliging of them," Michelle Henke observed dryly, and Manfredi chuckled without much humor.


Henke smiled and tipped back in her command chair, steepling her fingers under her chin in a posture she'd seen Honor assume scores of times. She couldn't say the Peep CO's choice of tactics was totally unexpected, but that didn't make it any more welcome.


"All right, Oliver," she told her golden-haired chief of staff after a moment. "Make sure Dame Alice has that information, and inform her that unless she disapproves my actions, I intend to execute Grand Divide."


"Aye, Ma'am," Manfredi replied.


The chief of staff's own smile creased his classically chiseled features and showed perfect white teeth, and Henke suppressed a mental laugh as he turned towards Lieutenant Kaminski, her communications officer. It wasn't anything Manfredi had done; it was simply the way he looked. He was as competent as he was decorative, but he really ought to have been on Truman's staff, not Henke's. For some reason, Alice Truman always seemed to have an executive officer, or a chief of staff, or a flag captain who was as golden-haired and blue-eyed as she was.


But not this time, Henke thought with amused satisfaction. This time, I've got him . . . not to mention the rest of my "harem." 


It was harder not to laugh this time. Unlike her friend Honor, Henke had always enjoyed an . . . energetic love-life, although she'd never allowed it to spill over on to her professional life. This time, though, it had been Honor's turn to twit her from the moment Henke had invited her to dinner aboard Ajax and she'd laid eyes on Henke's assembled staff. Manfredi was certainly the most gorgeous of her staffers, but every single one of them was male, and there wasn't a homely one in the bunch.


She pushed the thought aside and straightened in her chair. Grand Divide was the approach she'd worked out with her staff to deal with a situation like this one. It wasn't a perfect solution, but that was because there weren't any "perfect solutions." It was just the best available.


She glanced at the master plot, watching the projected vectors of her ships begin to shift. She had only four of her six battle-cruisers actually under her own command—her third division, HMS Hector and HMS Achilles—had been attached to Samuel Miklós' force for the attack on Tambourin, which left her only Agamemnon, Ajax (her own flagship), and the second division's Priam and Patrocles. They had four of the Edward Saganami-class heavy cruisers in support, including Henke's old ship, the Saganami herself, but none of them were equipped to fire internally launched MDMs. On the other hand, they did have several dozen of the new-style missile pods tractored to their hulls.


Now Agamemnon and Ajax, accompanied by two of the heavy cruisers, began to angle away from Priam, Patrocles, and the other two heavy cruisers. By spreading her forces, she ought to be able to bring the defenders' starships under fire with at least one of them. After all, the opposition commander couldn't keep the planet between her ships and everybody. But it meant Henke would probably be able to engage with only half her total platforms. Worse, it meant her two attack groups were moving steadily out of mutual support range for missile defense.


If the destroyers which had scouted the system had detected larger numbers of deployed missile pods, Henke would never have dared put Grand Divide into action. Even against the number of pods the destroyers had detected, she was risking significant damage. But they couldn't take out the system's industrial base without going in close, not when virtually all of it orbited the system's inhabited planet. Which meant the defending ships had to be neutralized first.


Well, at least it should be interesting, she told herself.


* * *

"They are splitting up, Sir," Inchman reported. Her in-system sensor platforms had the Manticoran units under observation, and she indicated the changing vector analyses under the icons of the two diverging cruiser forces. "CIC is designating this force Alpha and this one Beta."


"They're going to pincer us," Beach grunted. "About what I expected. Too bad they didn't just go ahead and send in the LACs as beaters."


"But look at this, Sir," Randall said, indicating the red arrows of projected vectors. "They may be going to try to open clear lines of sight to us, but on their current headings, the range will be less than seven million klicks."


"So they are a little nervous about Eridani violations," Beach observed, and smiled humorlessly. "On the other hand, our ships' best powered envelope from rest is under two million. Not a huge improvement."


"Except that we haven't fired any of our orbital pods yet, Sir," Inchman pointed out. "And the closer they come before we do, the better our firing solutions are going to be."


"True." Beach nodded and frowned thoughtfully down at the plot. "I know doctrine says to kill the CLACs as our first priority in a situation like this one," he said, after a moment, "but they aren't being obliging enough to bring them in closer. If we had more pods, if we could get a better salvo density, it might still make sense to go after them, first. Under the circumstances, though, I think we'll hold our fire as long as we can, then concentrate it all on Alpha. Run your firing solutions accordingly, Sandra."


"Yes, Sir."


"And while we're waiting, Myron," Beach turned to the chief of staff, "tell the LACs to continue to fall back. If they can, I want them drifting towards system east."


"You want them in position to hit Alpha if the pods actually get through, Sir?"


"Exactly."


"What about us, Sir?" Randall waved one hand at the icons representing Beach's battlecruisers.


"It's tempting, but it wouldn't work." Beach shook his head. "We're too far away. Even at our best acceleration, it would take us over an hour to get into our range of them. Unless the pods and the LACs do a hell of a lot better than I expect, they'd pick us off with MDMs before we ever reached them. Worse, as soon as we left the planetary shadow, Beta would nail us." He shook his head again. "No. We stay put, using the planet for cover against Beta. If we can hammer Alpha, so much the better, but we can't afford to get out into deeper water against sharks like these."


* * *

"That's a pretty cool customer over there, Ma'am," Commander Manfredi said.


"That it is, Oliver," Henke agreed. "I don't think it's going to do her a lot of good in the end, though. She's obviously decided to play it all the way out, but she's holding a losing hand."


She swivelled her command chair to face Lieutenant Commander Stackpole, her operations officer.


"John, I think she's going to hold fire on her pods to the last possible minute. I know I would, in her place. And notice the way her LACs are shifting oh so casually over to flank our vector."


"You think he's going to concentrate on us and ignore the carriers, Ma'am?"


"It's what I'd do. She can't possibly hope to kill them, anyway, and she's not going to beat off our attack. So the only thing left for her to do is to inflict whatever losses she realistically can. Which means us."


Stackpole considered it for a moment. Although he was physically attractive—taller than Honor and almost as dark as Henke herself, with high cheekbones and a powerful nose—he was nowhere near as decorative as Manfredi's holo-star good looks. He was probably, however, even better at his job.


"You're thinking about the pods, aren't you, Ma'am?"


"I am."


"Well," he said thoughtfully, "we've still only picked up a couple of hundred of them. With hard locks, I mean. CIC's projecting general zones for about twice that many, but we don't have anything we could use for reliable targeting information on them. We could kill most of those we've actually found with proximity warheads, but they're all awfully close to the planet, Ma'am."


"Too close," Henke agreed. "Especially for MDMs at this range. We might have a nasty accident, and Duchess Harrington wouldn't like that."


"No, Ma'am, she wouldn't," Stackpole agreed with feeling.


Honor had made it abundantly, one might almost say painfully, clear that she would not be amused by anything which might be remotely construed as a violation of the Eridani Edict's prohibitions, even by accident. And if smacking an inhabited planet, however accidentally, with a ninety-five-ton missile moving at fifty percent of light-speed couldn't be construed as using a "weapon of mass destruction" against it, very few things could be.


"I think we've still got to find a way to make them use them at longer-range, though," Henke said. "Albert."


"Yes, Ma'am?" Lieutenant Kaminski replied.


"Message to Admiral Truman. My compliments, and I would appreciate it if she could order the LACs to go after the pods."


"Yes, Ma'am."


"Antonio."


"Yes, Ma'am?" Lieutenant Commander Braga, her astrogator, responded.


"Compute us a new course. I want to end up in the same spots, but assuming the Admiral agrees to let the LAC jockeys kill pods for us, I want to reduce our acceleration to give them more time."


"Yes, Ma'am. How much more time?"


* * *

"They've reduced their acceleration, Sir."


Beach swung his command chair to face Commander Inchman.


"By how much?"


"Almost fifty percent," Inchman replied.


"And their LACs?"


"Changing course and coming straight in on the planet, Sir." It was apparent from Inchman's tone that she'd anticipated her admiral's second question, and Beach nodded unhappily.


"So they aren't going to reach their originally projected firing points until after the LACs' get close enough to start killing pods," he said.


"No, sir, they aren't. And," Inchman turned her head to meet Beach's eyes, "if they're close enough to kill pods, they're also close enough to kill all our orbital platforms on their side of the planet."


"Are the LACs on profile for a zero-zero approach?"


"Yes, Sir. They'll hit turnover on their current profile in about twenty minutes."


"Crap." Beach drummed on the arm of his command chair for a moment, then shrugged.


"So much for using the Cimeterres against Alpha. Contact Captain Abercrombie. Order him to reverse course and engage the Manties' LACs."


"Aye, Sir."


"At least they'll meet far enough from their battlecruisers and cruisers to be out of standard shipboard weapons range," Commander Randall observed quietly.


"That should help some," Beach agreed, although both of them knew it wouldn't make a great deal of difference. Gaston System Command had three hundred and twenty Cimeterre-class LACs. The Manty attack force had just over two hundred Shrike and Ferret-class LACs, and they knew about the "Triple Ripple" by now. Given the difference in the basic capabilities of the two sides, Beach's LACs were about to face a painful exchange rate.


In theory, Beach could have moved his battlecruisers out to support them, since the Manty LACs would have to enter the reach of his own shorter-ranged shipboard missiles. But that would have required him to come out from behind the planet and expose his ships to MDM fire.


He couldn't do that. And so he sat in his command chair, watching the plot, as his Cimeterres swept around and headed directly towards their much more dangerous foes.


* * *

"Vector change!" Lieutenant Veronika Chernitskaya announced. "Their LACs are coming back around, Skipper."


"They have to protect their pods, Vicki," Captain Tremaine replied philosophically. "Frankly, I'm a bit surprised they didn't make the move sooner."


"Probably didn't like the odds, Skip," Chief Harkness replied from HMLAC Dacoit's engineering station. "Might've taken whoever's in command a few minutes to decide he had to bite the bullet and do it anyway."


Tremaine nodded, but his attention was focused on Dacoit's plot as the tight formation of Havenite LACs accelerated towards his own formation at almost seven hundred gravities. Numerically, the odds were better than three-to-two in the Havenites' favor; in terms of actual combat power, they weren't even close. Examination of the Havenite light attack craft captured at the Battle of Sidemore made it clear the Cimeterres carried more missiles than even a Ferret, but those missiles were much less capable than those in Tremaine's LACs' magazines. And the Havenites had nothing remotely comparable to the massive grasers built into his Shrikes.


Of course, it didn't take weapons that powerful just to kill another LAC. Anything would kill a LAC . . . assuming it could score a hit in the first place. But the Havenites' sidewalls and EW were both far inferior to their Manticoran counterparts, and none of the Cimeterres at Sidemore had mounted a bow or stern wall at all. Worse, from the Havenites' perspective—though they might not realize it yet—six of Tremaine's squadrons were Grayson Katanas.


Designed specifically as "space superiority" LACs, the Katanas were the Alliance's conceptual equivalent of the Cimeterre itself. Unlike the Cimeterre, however, the Katana incorporated all of the Alliance's tech advantages. It was smaller than its Havenite rival—and also faster, more maneuverable, far better protected, with enormously superior electronic warfare capabilities and the LAC-sized version of the new bow wall "buckler," and equipped with what were for all intents and purposes a trio of superdreadnought point defense laser clusters, in addition to the Grayson-designed Viper anti-LAC missile.


The Viper was about two-thirds the size of a standard LAC missile, but it was quite different. It carried a much smaller warhead, without the multiple lasing rods of a conventional warhead, in order to incorporate significantly better seekers and an enhanced AI. And it also was designed for engagements at much shorter ranges. Engagements in which massive acceleration, agility, and the ability to reach targets quickly were vastly more important than endurance. Which was why the Viper used the same drive systems as the Mark 31 counter-missile.


"Central, Dagger One," he said to Dacoit's com system. A tone sounded in his earbug as the AI which had replaced the regular communications officer aboard the highly automated LACs routed his transmission to Commander Crispus Dillinger, the senior Katana Squadron CO.


"Dagger One, Ramrod," Tremaine said, identifying himself as the Third Carrier Squadron's COLAC.


"Ramrod, Dagger One," Dillinger's voice came back instantly.


"They're coming to meet us after all, Chris. I think it's time your people took center stage. We'll go with Bushwhack Three."


"Ramrod, Dagger One copies Bushwhack Three."


"Go get them," Tremaine replied. "Ramrod, clear."


* * *

Captain Boniface Abercrombie watched the Manticoran LACs on the plot of his command LAC. He didn't much care for the odds. The Cimeterre was a pure attrition unit, designed to overpower the individual superiority of its Manty opponents by means of massive numerical superiority. Abercrombie knew Admiral Foraker and her staff were working furiously to improve the Cimeterre's capabilities in the Republic's second-generation light attack craft, but the limitations of their tech base, even with the rumored upgrades from the Erewhonese, meant her teams simply couldn't match the Manties' capabilities.


Current doctrine called for engaging Manty LACs at minimum odds of four-to-one. Even at that level, Republican casualties would probably be heavy in a straight-up fight. It was hard to say for certain, because the only LAC-on-LAC engagements so far had been dominated by the Republic's surprise "Triple Ripple" tactic. But the MDM missile profiles employed against Captain Schneider at Zanzibar were chilling proof the Manties knew all about the Ripple. They'd undoubtedly adjusted their LAC tactics even more than their MDM doctrine, and Abercrombie didn't look forward to being the first Republican COLAC to discover exactly how they had.


Unfortunately, it appeared he didn't have any choice.


"Stand by for Zizka," he said tautly. Lieutenant Banacek, his tactical officer, looked at him, and he shrugged. "I don't know if they're going to give us the opportunity to use it, but if they do, I want it ready."


"Yes, Sir," Banacek acknowledged.


"It's more likely we'll be looking at a close-in dogfight," Abercrombie continued. "I want squadron discipline maintained. They're going to have the range advantage, and our point defense is going to have to carry the load until we get close enough to hurt them."


"Understood, Sir." There was the slightest edge of a tremor in Banacek's voice, but her gray eyes were steady, and Abercrombie gave her a tight smile of approval.


* * *

"Range four-point-six-eight million klicks. Closing velocity one-two-thousand KPS."


Commander Crispus Dillinger, call sign "Dagger One," grunted in acknowledgment of Lieutenant Gilmore's report while his brain whirred steadily, balancing variables and possibilities.


At their closing velocity, the missile geometry extended their powered missile envelope at launch by almost five hundred thousand kilometers from the 3.6 million kilometers the Viper could attain from rest. Which meant they'd be in extreme range in another thirty-five seconds.


He wondered why the Peeps hadn't fired yet. The one drawback of the Viper was that its maximum range was little more than half that of a more conventional anti-ship missile. In theory, that had given the Peeps almost three minutes in which they could have fired upon their opponents without taking return fire. From the Katanas, at least; if they'd opened fire from that far out, the Ferrets backing the Dagger squadrons would have replied in kind.


Probably holding their own birds as long as we'll let them, he thought. All the indications are that their accuracy sucks compared to ours, and their tac crews have to baby them more on the way in, so they've got to worry more about light-speed transmission lags. They'll want to get to as short a range as they can in order to maximize their hit probabilities. And they may think they can get away with that damned EMP maneuver of theirs. If they do, it's time we . . . disabused them of the notion. 


"All Daggers, Dagger One," he said over the net. "Bushwhack Three is confirmed. Repeat, Bravo-Whiskey-Three is confirmed. Stand by to initiate launch sequence on command."


Acknowledgments came back from his squadron commanders, and he felt himself settling deeper into his flight couch as the range flashed downwards. Then he nodded sharply to Gilmore.


"Initiate!" she said sharply. "Repeat, initiate!"


* * *

"Missile separation!" Lieutenant Banacek called out. "Multiple missile separations. Flight time . . . seventy-five seconds?"


Disbelief burned in her voice as her computers reported the enormous acceleration rate of the incoming missiles, and Boniface Abercrombie didn't blame her a bit.


"Christ," somebody whispered, and Abercrombie felt his own jaw tighten.


"So that's their answer to the Ripple," his XO said quietly, bitterly.


"That's got to be Katanas launching," Abercrombie replied, almost calmly. He'd wondered what the infernally inventive Graysons had come up with. NavInt had managed to confirm that they had, indeed, developed a dedicated space control LAC, but no one in the Republic had had any idea exactly what they'd done.


Until now.


"They can't sustain that kind of accel for long," the XO said. "It's got to be some adaptation of a counter-missile."


Abercrombie nodded, never taking his eyes from the plot.


"They'll be short-legged," he agreed. "But they're going to be a real bitch to stop. Worse, they're launching staggered."


It was the XO's turn to nod. He and Abercrombie had discussed it often enough, and it seemed the Manties—or Graysons, as the case might be—had come up with the same solution to the Ripple as they had. They weren't going to let their onboard sensors be blinded again; that part had been a no-brainer, once the Manties realized what had been done to them. Nor were they going to expose their decoys and EW platforms any sooner than they must, and it was a given that they'd have spread their remote recon platforms as widely as possible in order to get them outside the Ripple's area of effect.


And now they'd taken Zizka out of the equation, as well, by the simplest expedient of all. They knew Republican missile defense doctrine, especially for LACs, relied more on mass and volume than individual accuracy, so they'd realized it was less the density of a missile salvo than its duration which really mattered. At any sort of extended range, Abercrombie's LACs had no choice but to attempt to saturate the incoming missile patterns rather than attempting to pick off individual threats, the way Manty missile-defense crews would have. So it wasn't really necessary for the Manties to achieve the sort of precise time-on-target concentrations which would have been used to saturate more sophisticated defenses. Or, to put it another way, Abercrombie's defenses were too crude to be significantly degraded by that sort of sophistication.


So the Manties had staggered their launches, spreading them out in time, and seeded their attack birds with their damnably effective EW platforms. Coupled with the impossibly high speed of the attack missiles themselves, those decoys and jammers were going to degrade point defense kill probabilities catastrophically. And by stretching out their launch envelope, by creating what was effectively a missile stream, rather than a single, crushing hammer blow, they'd made it impossible for a single Ripple launch to kill more than a fraction of their total attack. Worse, the LACs who'd launched the Ripple could no more see through it than vessels on the other side could, and Abercrombie couldn't afford to further hamstring his missile defense by providing the enemy with the opportunity to effectively attack "out of the sun."


A part of him cried out to issue orders, enforce his will on the engagement, do something to give his people a better chance. But there was no time for that, no last-minute adjustments that would have any impact on what was unfolding. For all intents and purposes, he was a passenger now, waiting to see how well his battle plan worked.


He didn't entertain very high hopes in that regard.


* * *

Commander Dillinger's missiles streaked towards the Havenite LACs.


It was the first time they'd ever been used against live targets, and even Dillinger was a bit surprised by how well they performed. Their AIs were better than those of any previous missile remotely close to their size, and those AIs had been carefully optimized to go after small, fast, fragile targets. They were far more capable of independent engagements, with less need for telemetry links to the vessels which had launched them. After all, LAC EW—or, at least, the Havenite version of it—was much less capable than that of a starship. There was less need for fire control officers to correct for the sort of sophisticated razzle-dazzle larger ships could perform, and their shorter powered envelope meant the Vipers' sensors had a much better look at their target when they were launched.


In effect, they were launch-and-forget weapons, which saw to their own midcourse corrections, and the Katanas were free to maneuver, and to employ all of their fire control links for counter-missiles, once they'd gotten the Vipers away.


And it was obvious the Peeps hadn't had a clue that they were going to face attack missiles whose acceleration had just been increased by forty-two percent. The incoming Vipers were actually over thirty percent faster than the counter-missiles trying to kill them.


* * *

Boniface Abercrombie listened to the combat chatter, jaw clamped as he heard the consternation—in all too many cases the outright panic—of missile-defense crews who'd suddenly discovered all of their defensive programs' threat parameters were out of date. He turned his head, watching Banacek working frantically, trying to update her tracking and threat prioritization in the seventy-odd seconds she had.


Then he looked away. Not even Shannon Foraker could have pulled that one off, he thought grimly.


* * *

Each Katana fired twenty-five Vipers.


The six Dagger squadrons between them put eighteen hundred of them into space over a thirty-second window, and they scorched through the shell of Havenite counter-missiles like white-hot awls.


Some of them were killed.


A few of the counter-missiles—a very few—managed to discriminate between real threats and the false targets of the Dragon's Teeth platforms. Managed to see through the blinding strobes of jamming. Managed to steer themselves and their wedges into the path of the preposterously fleet attackers. But they were the exception. Most of the kills were attained only because even against an attack like this, Shannon Foraker's layered defense was at least partially effective. There were simply so many counter-missiles that blind chance meant some of them had to find and kill Vipers.


Under the circumstances, any kills were an impressive achievement . . . but the counter-missiles managed to actually stop less than three hundred.


Laser clusters began to fire as the Vipers scorched in, clearly visible to fire control at last as they broke clear of the blinding interference of outgoing counter-missile wedges. The missile-defense crews were highly trained, highly disciplined. A substantial percentage were veterans of the bloody multisided civil war Thomas Theisman had fought against breakaway adherents of the old régime. Even now, very few of them panicked, and they stood to their stations, firing steadily, doing their best.


But their best wasn't good enough. Their fire control software simply wasn't up to the challenge, couldn't react quickly enough, to missiles capable of that sort of acceleration. Not at such short range, not without more time to adjust.


Vipers broke past the last, desperate shield of laser fire, and warheads began to detonate.


* * *

"Oh my God," Sandra Inchman whispered, her face white as her surveillance platforms showed Cimeterre after Cimeterre disappearing from her plot. They went not by ones or twos, but by tens.


Captain Abercrombie's was one of the first to die, but he'd kept his tactical uplink on-line to the very end. Inchman could scarcely believe the acceleration numbers, yet she had no choice but to believe as the brutally efficient massacre wiped away the Gaston System's total LAC force in less than three minutes.


Everette Beach sat frozen in his command chair. His swarthy face was the color of cold gravy, and his hands were pincers clamped on the armrests of his chair.


"I can't—" Commander Randall paused and cleared his throat. "I can't believe that," he said.


"Believe it," Beach rasped. He closed his eyes for a moment, then thrust himself up out of the chair.


"I knew we were going to lose them," he said flatly. "But I never would have sent them in if I'd even guessed they wouldn't kill a single Manty."


Some of Abercrombie's Cimeterres had gotten off their own offensive launches, but they'd achieved nothing. At their slower acceleration rate, it had taken them nine seconds longer to reach their targets, and most of the ships which had launched them were already dead by the time they did. Even the handful of Cimeterres which hadn't already been destroyed had had little or no attention to spare for the attack profile updates Republican missiles needed so much more badly than Manty missiles did, anyway. The tactical crews which would normally have provided those updates had been too distracted by the threat they'd faced . . . and too busy dying.


Superior Manty EW, sidewalls, point defense, and maneuverability had done the rest.


"You couldn't have known, Sir," Inchman said quietly.


"No. No, I couldn't have. And just at the moment, that's remarkably cold comfort, Sandra."


He gave her a tight smile, trying to take the sting from his response to her effort to comfort him, and she managed to smile back, briefly.


"What now, Sir?" Randall asked in a low voice.


"First, we make sure all of the tactical details on what they just did to Abercrombie get recorded in the secure database dirt-side. The next poor son-of-a-bitch some stupid fucking admiral sends in against Manty LACs needs to at least know what he's getting into. And after that—"


He turned to look at his chief of staff.


"After that, it's our turn."


 


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