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Chapter Twenty-Seven

"It looks like we caught them with their pants down, doesn't it?" Vice Admiral Dame Alice Truman observed as her Task Force Eighty-One accelerated steadily in-system towards Vespasien, the inhabited planet of the Chantilly System.

"Yes, it does," Michelle Henke agreed from the vice admiral's com. "Of course, I have this sneaky suspicion that it's supposed to look that way."

"Why, Admiral Henke! I hadn't realized you had such a broad streak of paranoia."

"It comes from associating with people like you and Her Grace," Henke said dryly. Then she continued more seriously. "As Honor keeps pointing out, the Peeps aren't stupid. And this time around, they don't have political masters insisting they act as if they were. They haven't had time to reinforce heavily, but Chantilly is a jucier target than Gaston was. It should have been more heavily defended to begin with, and they sure as hell had more hyper-capable units in-system than the three destroyers our arrays have picked up. Which suggests to my naturally suspicious mind that as soon as they realized we'd inserted those arrays, they went to full-court stealth on their main combatants."

"It's what I'd do," Truman agreed. She drummed lightly on the arm of her command chair for a few moments, then shrugged. "Our arrays are good, but their stealth systems have gotten a lot better, and any star system represents a huge volume. If you were going to hide your defensive task force, where would you put it?"

"It's got to be close enough to protect the near-planet platforms," Henke replied. "Ninety percent of the system's industry's concentrated there, so there's no point deploying to defend any other area. Greyhound and Whippet swept the entire volume on this side of Vespasien very carefully, though. Even assuming they were stealthed, our arrays probably would have spotted them. But they have to base their deployment plans on the probability that we'll go for a least-time approach and figure they'll adjust if we do something else, instead. So, if I were looking for a good hiding place, I'd probably put my units on this side of the primary, but inside Vespasien's orbit. Far enough in-system the other side's remotes would have to do a fly-by on the planet, and all of the bunches and bunches of recon platforms of my own I'd have concentrated covering the inner system, before they could see me. But close enough so I could build an intercept vector headed out to meet an attack short of the planet."

"More or less what I was thinking," Truman murmured.

"To be perfectly honest, I'm less concerned about their warships than I am about their predeployed pods," Henke said. "They didn't have a huge number of them in Gaston, but that's the most cost-effective area-denial system they've got. And we found out in Gaston that they're a lot harder to spot than we thought they'd be. It's pretty obvious—assuming we're right about where their starships are—that whoever's in command here's a pretty cool customer. Sneaky, too. I don't like to think about what someone like that could do with a big enough stack of system defense pods if she put her mind to it."

* * *

"Do you think their scouts spotted us, Ivan?"

"It's too soon to say, Ma'am," Commander deCastro replied. "If they got close enough, if they looked in the right direction—if they got lucky—then, yes. They probably know exactly where we are. But nothing Leonardo's sensor crews have picked up suggests they did."

And we both know it's not going to make a lot of difference, either way, he thought, looking affectionately at his admiral.

"I guess it's just the principle of the thing," Admiral Bellefeuille said whimsically, as if she'd heard what he carefully hadn't said. "Whether it does any good or not, knowing we managed to at least surprise them would do wonders for my own morale."

"Well, in that case, let's assume they're surprised until and unless we know differently, Ma'am."

* * *

"So I want you to take point, Captain," Michelle Henke said.

"I'm honored," the tall, gangly man at the other end of the com link drawled in a maddening aristocratic accent. "Be interestin' t' see how well she does in her first action, too."

"She's got a lot to live up to," Henke said.

"That she does," Captain (senior grade) Michael Oversteegen agreed. "In fact, I believe someone may have mentioned t' me in passin' that the last Nike's first captain and XO had a little somethin' t' do with that."

"We tried, Captain. We tried."

Despite Oversteegen's sometimes infuriating mannerisms and sublime—one might reasonably say arrogant—self-confidence, Henke had always rather liked him. The differences between their families' political backgrounds only made that liking even more ironic, as had the fact that their fathers had loathed one another cordially. But not even the Earl of Gold Peak had ever questioned Michael Oversteegen's competence or nerve, and she was glad he was senior to Captain Franklin Hanover, Hector's CO. She liked Hanover, and he was a good, solid man. But he wasn't Michael Oversteegen, and Oversteegen's seniority gave him command of Henke's third division. If ever there'd been a case of the right man in the right place, this was it, and she watched Nike and Hector crack on a few more gravities of acceleration.

Winston Bradshaw and his two Saganami-class cruisers—HMS Edward Saganami and HMS Quentin Saint-James—closed up on Truman's carriers, while Henke herself, with Ajax, Agamemnon, and the light cruisers Amun, Anhur, and Bastet followed in Oversteegen's wake. She didn't want the interval between her own ships and Oversteegen's division to get too great, but she wanted at least a few more seconds to react to any traps or ambushes Oversteegen might trip. And she wanted to be sure she kept her ships and the four squadrons of Katanas providing her close cover between Oversteegen and the two hundred-plus Peep LACs shadowing the Manticoran ships.

She looked at the tiny icons of the LACs on her plot, and once again, she was tempted to roll pods. The small vessels were well within her powered missile envelope, but far enough out accuracy would be even lower than usual against LACs, and Agamemnons weren't wallers. They had to watch their ammunition consumption carefully.

* * *

"I don't think they do know where we are, Ma'am," deCastro said. "It looks like they may suspect, though. And I'd say it's pretty definite that someone's figured out we're pretending we're a hole in space somewhere."

"Pity," Bellefeuille a replied. "I'd hoped they'd keep coming all fat and happy. Anyone care to speculate on whether or not they've deployed additional recon drones?"

* * *

"Anythin' on the drones yet, Joel?"

"Not yet, Sir. Betty is still steering them into position," Commander Joel Blumenthal said from the small com display connecting Oversteegen to Nike's backup bridge.

Joel Blumenthal had moved up from tactical officer to exec when Captain Oversteegen had to give up HMS Gauntlet in order to assume command of Nike. Linda Watson, Oversteegen's XO in Gauntlet had no longer been available, since she'd received a long overdue promotion of her own to captain and taken over his old ship. And, despite some people's possible qualms, Oversteegen had brought along the newly promoted Lieutenant Commander Betty Gohr to replace Blumenthal as Nike's brand spanking new tactical officer. Competition for any slot on Nike's command deck had been fierce, but Michael Oversteegen had a knack for getting the bridge crew he wanted.

Which probably, Blumenthal reflected, had something to do with the results he consistently produced.

"I believe Admiral Henke's correctly deduced the other side's most probable position," Oversteegen said now, tipping back in his command chair with a thoughtful expression. "The question in my mind is precisely what they hope t' accomplish."

"I imagine not getting shot at for as long as possible is pretty high on their list, Sir," Blumenthal said dryly, and Oversteegen gave one of the explosive snorts he used instead of a chuckle.

"No doubt it is," he said after a moment. "At th' same time, if that was all they wanted, th' simplest thing for them t' have done would be t' have simply decamped. No." He shook his head. "They've got somethin' more than that in mind."

He pondered for a few more moments, then looked at Lieutenant Commander Gohr.

"Have we confirmed Greyhound and Whippet's numbers on the pods they did detect, Betty?"

"No, Sir." Gohr looked up from her own console and half-turned to face her CO. "But as Commander Sturgis pointed out, his platforms had a very difficult time picking them up in the first place on passives," she reminded him. "It's probably not too surprising there's a discrepancy."

"Perhaps not. But are our numbers high compared t' his, or low?"

"Low, Sir. We seem to be coming in at least twenty-five percent lower than his original numbers overall."

"That's what I thought," Oversteegen said softly, and Blumenthal's com image gave him a sharp look. One that turned suddenly speculative.

"Precisely," Oversteegen said, then looked at his communications section. "Lieutenant Pattison, I believe I need t' speak t' Admiral Henke again. Would you be so kind as t' see if she's prepared t' take my call?"

* * *

"I think Oversteegen's onto something, Ma'am," Michelle Henke told Dame Alice Truman.

"But how could they have moved them without Sturgis' arrays seeing them?" Truman's question was thoughtful, not dismissive.

"Very carefully," Henke replied dryly. Truman made a face, and Henke chuckled humorlessly.

"Seriously, Ma'am," she went on, after a moment, "think about it. Whoever this is, she's cool enough, and she's thought far enough ahead, to get her mobile units—aside from her LACs—into stealth before our arrays found her. Personally, I'm betting she did it as soon as her sensors picked up Greyhound and Whippet's hyper footprints. And I'm also betting she'd already decided what she was going to do with her pods if it came to it. So what she's probably been doing is quietly using some of that near-planet 'merchant traffic' Sturgis reported to pick up and drop off previously deployed pods. If she did, I think we need to rethink our recon doctrine."

"Go ahead and park one or two in close and just let them sit?"

"Yes, Ma'am."

Henke didn't mention that she'd already suggested that modification only to have the Powers That Were at Admiralty House shoot it down. They were concerned that a stationary platform would be more readily tracked down, especially since it would be inside most of the system's defenders' surveillance platforms, which would give them a far better chance of detecting the array's directional transmissions and triangulating on their source. Having the arrays localized and destroyed would have been bad enough, but the present generation of recon drones had all the Ghost Rider bells and whistles, including the very latest grav-pulse coms and several other goodies Erewhon had never had to turn over to Haven in the first place. The possibility that one of them might be disabled without being destroyed, while slight, did exist, and Admiralty House strongly objected to the notion of handing the Star Kingdom's latest and best hardware to the other side for examination.

"I think you were probably right all along, Mike," Truman said after a moment. "Certainly, if they did what Oversteegen thinks they did, having a couple of platforms—or even just one—keeping a close, permanent eye on near-planet space would probably've caught them at it."

"Maybe. The question, though, Ma'am, is what we do about it," Henke pointed out.

"Well, I see two possibilities. First, we send in the LACs. That means radically slowing your ships' approach while Scotty and his LAC jockeys get themselves organized and catch up with you. Second, we go right on doing what we're doing. Which do you vote for?"

"A variant of Option Two," Henke said without any appreciable hesitation. "I don't want to waste any more time than we have to, since we don't know where any response force they've sent for is coming from, or exactly how long it's going to take to get here. What I propose is that I send the Katanas ahead to catch up with Oversteegen. Hopefully, the bad guys won't have guessed we've taken a page from their own missile-defense doctrine, but whether they have or not, forty-eight Katanas should help out quite a bit."

"I don't know, Mike," Truman said dubiously. "Scotty would only need a couple of hours more than Oversteegen to get there, and Shrikes and Ferrets are a lot harder targets for their fire control than battlecruisers."

"And a lot easier to kill if they get hit," Henke pointed out. "Besides, we're already inside their powered missile envelope, if they're where we think they are. At the moment, they're not firing because we're still closing, and they're willing to wait until we give them better firing solutions. But if we suddenly break off, they're going to fire anyway, well before we could get a LAC strike in close enough to start killing platforms. Since we've already stepped into their parlor, I think our best chance is to just keep going, offer Oversteegen as the most attractive target, and back him up with the best missile-defense capability we can."

Truman thought some more. Then she nodded, once, sharply.

"All right, Mike. Do it."

* * *

"They've definitely figured out roughly what we're doing with our main combatants, Ma'am," Leonardo Ericsson said. He tapped the projected vectors CIC was throwing into the master plot. "Look at this."

The four squadrons of LACs which had been glued tightly to the second Manty battlecruiser division were accelerating away from it, closing rapidly on the lead division. At the same time, some of the near-planet sensor platforms were beginning to pick up the shadowy ghosts of Manticoran recon drones. They weren't finding many of them, but that didn't mean they weren't there; the drones were hellishly difficult sensor targets at the best of times. The limited number they were actually seeing suggested there was probably a solid shell of them, spreading out in front of the oncoming Manty starships, and CIC was doing its best to project where that shell was in three-dimensional space. The tracking crews' hard data was limited, but Bellefeuille felt confident they'd gotten it effectively correct, and the shell they were projecting was aligned all too closely upon her own ships' positions.

"So," she said flatly, "the question is whether we fire now, when it's pretty clear they haven't quite locked in our positions, or wait a little longer in hopes of improving our firing solutions. Opinions, anyone?" She looked up from the plot. "Ivan?"

"Wait," Commander deCastro said, quickly and positively. She cocked an eyebrow, and he shrugged. "We're so outgunned that one good shot is all we're likely to get, Ma'am," he pointed out. "That being the case, I'd like it to be as effective as we can make it. That's what Smoke and Mirrors was all about to start with."

"I see. Leonardo?" she looked at her ops officer.

"Normally, I'd tend to agree with Ivan," Ericsson said after a moment. "But I don't like this." He indicated the steadily accelerating icons of the enemy LACs once more. "They've been careful to keep them between our known LAC concentrations and the rest of their ships. To me, that suggests they're probably Katanas in the escort role. But now they're sending them in along with their probe, and I'm wondering if they've evolved something like our LAC fleet missile-defense doctrine. If they have, then the people we're going to have the improved firing solutions on are also going to've significantly improved their defenses by the time we finally fire."

"On the other hand, Ma'am," deCastro pointed out, "the closer they get to us, the further they are from their main body. And if they are a sizable chunk of the Manties' Katana force, mousetrapping them now might be the best thing we could do. Especially since they also seem to've completely missed Mirror Box."

Jennifer Bellefeuille nodded slowly, and her senior staffers waited. She always invited opinions, careful to avail herself of the best advice available, and she always made the final decision herself.

"We wait," she said. "Not as long as you'd probably like, Ivan, but long enough for our solutions to tighten up. I think we'll wait until their Katanas—and I think you're right about what they are, Leonardo—are about ten minutes from matching vectors with their battlecruisers. I'd actually have liked to catch them close enough to engage our missiles with their counter-missiles but still too far out to use their laser clusters, but that's not going to work, given the geometry. I think we'll go with a staggered launch, though."

"Staggered, Ma'am?" Ericsson repeated.

"The first one to concentrate on their battlecruisers," she said, with a thin smile. "I'll want it heavy enough to get their attention pretty emphatically, too. Particularly, I'd like their Katanas to commit as many as possible of their counter-missiles to stopping the first wave."

Her thin smile grew vicious, and her staffers found themselves returning it slowly.

* * *

"Dagger One, Ramrod."

"Ramrod, Dagger One," Commander Dillinger replied. "Go."

Dillinger and his Katanas were over five million kilometers in front of Scotty Tremaine's command LAC and the rest of the carrier division's strike, but there was no perceptible delay in their grav-pulse FTL conversation.

"I'm getting that uncomfortable feeling between my shoulder blades, Crispus," Tremaine continued more informally. "I don't know why, but I've got the feeling there's something nasty waiting out here."

"Ah, Ramrod," Dillinger said with a smile, "I'm afraid I didn't quite copy that threat analysis. Could you repeat all after 'something.'"

"Dagger One, you're a smart ass," Tremaine told him. Then his tone sobered. "Seriously, Crispus. Watch your six. I don't like how conspicuous these people's inactivity has been. I don't know exactly what they're up to, but they're up to something. That much I am confident of."

"Ramrod, I hear you," Dillinger responded, his smile fading. "So far, though, I haven't seen a thing you haven't."

"I know." Tremaine frowned as he gazed at his own plot aboard Dacoit. "That's what worries me. Ramrod, clear."

* * *

"Another ten minutes, I think," Jennifer Bellefeuille said quietly.

She stood beside Commander Ericsson, gazing into the master plot of RHNS Cyrus, her battlecruiser flagship, at the icons of the oncoming warships. Even a few years before, she knew, the Manties would already have localized her own ships, opened fire, and almost certainly destroyed them by now. But one of the Manty drones had passed within less than ten light-seconds of her flagship and simply continued on its way, which made it obvious the improvements in the Republic's stealth systems were giving the enemy's sensors a hard time. The fact that none of her starships had their wedges up and that all of them had gone to total emissions control undoubtedly helped, but even so, she felt the tension prickling sharper in her palms. Cyrus and her consorts were barely one light-minute from Vespasien, and the Manties were clearly looking for them hard.

But they haven't found us yet, she reminded herself. So it's time to give them something else to think about before they do.

"Initiate Decoy," she said.

"Aye, Ma'am," Ericsson said, and nodded to the com officer. "Send 'Initiate Decoy.'"

* * *

"I have something, Sir!" Lieutenant Commander Gohr said sharply. "The Gamma-Three array is picking up what looks like stealthed impeller wedges. Bearing three-four-niner, zero-zero-niner from the ship, range approximately five-six-point-eight million klicks!"

Michael Oversteegen punched a command into the small-scale plot deployed from the arm of his command chair, and his eyes narrowed as the display zoomed in on the indicated datum.

Nike and Hector were still 20,589,000 kilometers from Vespasien, but their velocity was down to a mere 5,265 KPS as they continued to decelerate at a steady 5.31 KPS2. Their present flight profile would bring them to a halt, relative to the system primary, one light-minute short of the planet. That was close enough to bring all the near-planet orbital infrastructure into sufficiently short range to avoid any embarrassing accidents . . . like unintentional missile strikes on an inhabited world. But it was also far enough out to keep him at least two light-minutes from his own estimate of the enemy's closest probable position.

Commander Dillinger's Katanas were continuing to close from astern. Their higher acceleration rate meant they'd been able to attain a higher base velocity before they began decelerating towards a rendezvous, and their current velocity was 6,197 KPS. Their vectors would merge with Nike's in another ten minutes, at which point they would both be down to a velocity of 2,079 KPS and less than four hundred thousand kilometers from their planned zero-zero point—or about 18,400,000 kilometers from Vespasien.

The new emission signatures Gohr had picked up were just over two light-minutes inside Vespasien's orbit. Assuming the ships responsible for the signatures had pods of multi-drive missiles, that would put his ships inside their effective range, but far enough out for Havenite accuracy to be very, very poor.

"Move the platforms closer, Betty," he said, after a moment. "And don't forget t' watch the other approaches, as well."

"Yes, Sir."

* * *

Jennifer Bellefeuille watched her own plot, gray-green eyes slitted in concentration. It was impossible to tell whether or not the Manties had bitten, but the decoy emissions looked very convincing to her own recon platforms. She didn't have much faith in their ability to fool the Manties for long, but if CIC's projection of their recon shell's probable deployment was correct, it would take them precious minutes to get even one of their drones close enough to realize the units they were picking up were actually the recon variant of the Cimeterre. There were eight of them out there, each with a standard tethered decoy tractored to it, and their only job was to "leak" enough of an impeller signature to keep the Manties looking in their direction just a little longer.

* * *

"Dagger Flight will match vectors with us in about six minutes, Sir," Lieutenant Commander Gohr announced.

"Very good. Anythin' more on those impeller signatures?"

"Not a lot, Sir. But the arrays are closing in, and so far it looks like a half-dozen or so point sources. Maybe a few more."

"I see." Michael Oversteegen grimaced. Over the years, he'd learned to trust his instincts, and those instincts told him something wasn't quite right. He looked back down at Blumenthal's face on the com screen deployed from his command chair.

"Why d'you suppose these fellows are just sittin' there, Joe?"

Blumenthal frowned. He gazed down into his own plot for a second or two, then looked back up.

"If they're planning to let us continue to close, which seems to be what they've been doing so far, then they're probably waiting until they're sure they've been detected," he said, in the tone of a man who wondered if he'd just been asked a trick question.

"Unless they're complete and total idiots, like my beloved cousin, Countess Fraser," Oversteegen replied, "they've got t' have a pretty shrewd notion we've already picked them up. One thing Commander Sturgis was able t' positively confirm is that the space around Vespasien is crawlin' with Havenite reconnaissance assets. D'you seriously think we managed t' get that many of our own drones right past the planet without any of those assets noticin' as they went by?"

"Well, no, Sir. Of course, they are very stealthy."

"Yes, they are," Oversteegen agreed dryly. "But good as our stealth technology is, it's not yet perfect. And, much as it pains me t' admit it, between what they got from the Erewhonese and what they've probably managed t' pick up on their own from examinin' captured hardware, our cloak of invisibility's probably just a tad thinner than any of us would like t' think. I'm not sayin' they can get solid lockups on our platforms. But when we operate this many of them, in such close proximity and so deep into the other side's sensor envelope, they're bound t' pick up at least some of them. And if they've managed t' do that, any tac officer worth his salt should be able t' project our basic deployment pattern. In which case, they damned well ought t' know that if they're sittin' there with active impeller wedges, we're goin' t' have picked them up by now."

"Put that way, Sir, you may have a point," Blumenthal conceded. "At the same time, they may be waiting until our platforms go active and they know we've got them."

"Maybe so, but why put themselves that far from the planet?" Oversteegen asked. "It puts Vespasien outside their best MDM envelope by a considerable margin, which means they're riskin' an accidental hit on the planet if they engage us. They didn't have t' let us this close t' the planet in the first place. They ought t' be at least a light-minute closer, and if they aren't, then they ought t' still be lyin' doggo." He shook his head. "No, they've got somethin' else in mind."

He brooded down at the plot for a few more seconds, then looked up at Gohr.

"Launch another shell," he said. "I want t' sweep this area again."

He tapped a command into his armrest alphanumeric pad, highlighting the indicated volume of space on Gohr's larger plot.

"Sir, I can recall the Beta platforms to cover that volume," she pointed out.

"I'm certain you could," he agreed pleasantly. "Unfortunately, that would require at least twenty minutes, and I want it swept now."

"Yes, Sir."

Gohr beckoned to her assistant, and the two of them began punching in commands to deploy the specified drone shell to cover the area to system north of Vespasien once again.

* * *

"Crap," Leonardo Ericsson muttered as the fresh drones began deploying from the outsized Manty battlecruiser.

"So they didn't buy the decoys after all," deCastro said.

"No." Bellefeuille shook her head. "They bought them—for a little while, at least. But whoever that is over there, she's a suspicious one. So she's doublechecking the 'clear areas' just in case."

"Well, they're going to pick us up, emissions control or no emissions control, in about another seven minutes, Ma'am," Ericsson pointed out. "These two, especially, are coming straight down our throats."

He tapped two light codes on his display, and this time Bellefeuille nodded.

"Yes, they are. And they're about where we wanted them anyway." She straightened, inhaled deeply, and nodded to deCastro.

"It's time," she said.

* * *

"Missile launch!" Betty Gohr barked suddenly. "Multiple missile launches!"

Oversteegen looked up sharply as the deadly, blood-red icons appeared on the master plot.

"Range at launch eight-five-point-two light-seconds," Gohr said flatly. "Time to attack range six-point-one-three minutes!"

* * *

Jennifer Bellefeuille and her staff had devised the operational plan she'd dubbed "Smoke and Mirrors" in response to the Manticorans' first set of raids. Although Chantilly had been assigned a substantially heavier system defense force than Gaston or Hera to begin with, she'd known it was grossly insufficient to hold off attacks in such strength using any conventional defensive plan, so she'd had to go outside the box.

Her six heavily refitted Warlord-class battlecruisers and three Trojan-class destroyers were the only hyper-capable combatants she had, but she also had almost six hundred Cimeterres and almost a thousand system-defense missile pods to back them up. And she also had two hundred and forty standard MDM pods to go with it.

The problem was that although the system-defense pods' out-sized, over-powered birds could actually slightly exceed Manticoran MDMs' acceleration rates, her standard pods' missiles couldn't quite match them, and neither of them were as accurate as Manty missiles. In addition, what had happened in Gaston demonstrated that her LACs simply could not mix it up with Katanas—on Manty terms, at least—and win. So she'd had to get creative if she wanted to do any good.

The instant Perimeter Tracking picked up evidence the Manties were scouting Chantilly, her battlecruisers, already in their preselected positions, had gone to stealth and strict emissions control under the Smoke and Mirrors operational plan. In addition, two-thirds of her total LAC strength had gone to immediate readiness, but been restricted to its bases. She'd continued to operate two hundred LACs normally, making certain the Manties saw them, but four hundred additional Cimeterres, based on Vespasien's main space station and a dozen other innocuous orbital platforms, outwardly indistinguishable from any freight-handling facility, had stayed completely covert.

Now, like any good magician, Bellefeuille began her stage show by fixing her audience's attention firmly on the distraction she wanted it to see.

* * *

"Estimate nineteen hundred incoming," Lieutenant Commander Gohr announced.

"Understood. Lieutenant Pattison, request Dagger One t' expedite his arrival, if you please."

Michael Oversteegen's voice was as calm and drawling as ever as he watched the cyclone of missiles tear through space towards his command.

"Defense Plan Alpha," he continued, and HMS Nike and HMS Hector altered course. They rolled up on their sides to turn the bellies of their wedges towards the incoming fire while Keyhole platforms deployed far beyond the boundaries of their protective sidewalls, and counter-missile defense solutions were already cycling.

"Looks like you had a point, Sir," Blumenthal observed quietly. "Those—" he jabbed a hand at his own plot's icons representing the elusive impeller signatures "—have to be decoys."

Oversteegen nodded. The missiles coming at Nike and Hector had been launched from a point in space this side of Vespasien and just under one light-minute "north" of it . . . the next best thing to four light-minutes away from Blumenthal's decoys.

"Obviously they wanted t' get us in as close as they could before launchin', so they kept us lookin' somewhere they weren't," he agreed. But even as he spoke, something continued to bother him.

* * *

"All Daggers, Dagger One!" Commander Dillinger snapped. "Flyswatter. I say again, Flyswatter!"

The forty-eight Katanas of Dagger Flight changed acceleration in almost instant response. One moment they were decelerating at seven hundred gravities, sixty thousand kilometers astern of Nike and slowing neatly towards rendezvous; the next, they were accelerating at the same seven hundred gravities as they charged to catch up with and pass the battlecruisers. Although they were smaller and far frailer than any battlecruiser, they were also much more difficult targets for long-range missile fire, and they raced towards the enemy to place their own defensive missile launchers between the incoming MDMs and their targets.

* * *

"The Katanas are moving to intercept, Ma'am," Ericsson announced, and Rear Admiral Bellefeuille jerked her head in combined acknowledgment and approval. The possibility of Cyrus' surviving the next half-hour or so was remote, but she'd actually managed to put that out of her mind as she concentrated on the task in hand.

"Remind the Mirror Box platforms that they do not launch without my specific order," she said.

"Aye, Ma'am."

* * *

"Damn," Michelle Henke said, far more mildly than she felt. The fact that her instincts had been correct didn't make her feel much better as she watched the massive missile launch sweeping towards Nike and Hector.

"Take us to maximum acceleration," she told Stackpole. "Close us up on Oversteegen and prepare to support his missile defenses."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am!" her ops officer said crisply. "But it's going to be awfully long range for our CMs," he pointed out. "And we're really too far out to coordinate with Nike and Hector. Even with FTL telemetry, we're simply too far away to data share effectively."

"I understand that, John. But, worst case, any attack bird we kill is simply one Oversteegen would have nailed anyway. And if we take out one he would have missed . . ."

"Yes, Ma'am."

Stackpole began issuing orders, and Henke turned back to her own display. The ops officer was certainly correct about the dispersal problem, she thought. Her own battlecruiser division was two and a half million kilometers behind Oversteegen. She had the reach—barely, with the new extended-range counter—missiles—to bolster his defensive umbrella, but her support would be far less effective from this far out. Still, something about the attack pattern—

"There aren't enough birds," Oliver Manfredi said suddenly. She looked up, turning towards the chief of staff, and Manfredi shook his golden head. "There's less than two thousand in the salvo, Ma'am. That's less than three hundred of their standard pods. So where are the others?"

Henke looked at him for perhaps three seconds, then spun her chair to face Lieutenant Kaminski.

"Get me an immediate priority link to Captain Oversteegen!"

"Aye, aye, Ma'am," the communications officer replied instantly.

* * *

"Weapons free!" Commander Dillinger snapped, and the Katanas of Dagger Flight began punching counter-missiles at the incoming fire.

Dillinger didn't really like to think about just how expensive each of his LACs' "counter-missiles" actually was. The systems built into the Viper for its anti-LAC role meant it cost twice as much as the standard extended-range Mark 31 CM on which it was based. But the Viper retained the Mark 31's basic drive system, and a counter-missile's impeller wedge was what it used to "sweep up" attack missiles. Which meant the Viper was still perfectly capable of being used defensively, and earmarking a percentage of them for missile defense, rather than using magazine space on dedicated Mark 31s which couldn't be used in the anti-shipping role, simplified their ammunition requirements and gave them a potentially useful cushion both offensively and defensively.

Now the Vipers bored out of their launch tubes, streaking to meet the incoming missiles, and Dillinger smiled nastily. He was willing to bet the Peeps had never seen LACs kill missiles at this range!

* * *

"You were right, Ma'am," deCastro said. "They do use those things for counter-missiles, too."

"Made sense," Bellefeuille said almost absently, watching her plot. "The signatures Admiral Beach recorded at Gaston made it pretty clear they were basically the same missile body and drive package, after all."

"And it's a reasonable decision from the viewpoint of ammo supply, too," Ericsson agreed, then showed his teeth. "Of course, sometimes even the most reasonable decisions can bite you right on the ass."

"Especially if someone else helps it do it," deCastro said with a tight, answering grin.

* * *

"Tactical," Michael Oversteegen said suddenly. "Have the near-planet pods we've located launched?"

"Sir?" Lieutenant Commander Gohr sounded startled. It took her a fraction of a second to shake her mind loose from the anti-missile engagement as the steady vibration of counter-missile launches shook Nike. The first wave of Vipers from Dagger Flight was beginning to rip holes in the Havenite salvo, and her own missile defense section was running at full stretch, analyzing the attack missiles' EW patterns. But then she stabbed a quick look at a secondary plot, and Oversteegen saw her twitch upright in her chair as the data registered.

"No, Sir," she said, turning her head to look directly at him. "None of this fire's coming from Vespasien orbit!"

"That's what I thought," he said grimly. "Com, get me Dagger One."

"Sir," Lieutenant Pattison said, "you have an immediate priority signal from Admiral Henke."

"Put it through, Jayne—and get me Dagger One!"

"Aye, aye, Sir."

Michelle Henke's face appeared on Oversteegen's display, her expression tense.

"Michael, I'm looking at the missile density, and—"

"And it's too low," Oversteegen broke in. "We've just confirmed the near-planet platforms haven't launched a single bird." A window opened in the corner of his display, showing Crispus Dillinger's face. "And now, I've got t' go," Oversteegen told his admiral, and punched the button that brought Dillinger to the center of the display.

"Yes, Sir?" Dillinger said.

"There's somethin' peculiar about their attack pattern, Commander," Oversteegen said quickly. "They're only using a fraction of their total missile power—and everything they're actually firin' is coming from further away, with what have t' be poorer targetin' solutions."

"Sir?" Dillinger looked puzzled, and Oversteegen shook his head impatiently.

"They're tryin' t' distract us—and quite possibly t' lure us into expendin' counter-missiles before their real attack."


"This isn't a debatin' society, Commander," Oversteegen said. "Abort your missile defense of this division—now!"

* * *

Crispus Dillinger looked at the face on his communications display with something very like incredulity. The man had to be insane! There were almost a thousand missiles tearing down on each of his ships, and he wanted Dillinger to stop defending them?!


"All Daggers," he said harshly, "Dagger One. Abort Flyswatter. Repeat, abort Flyswatter. Missile Defense Alpha is now in effect."

* * *

"Well, it was nice while it lasted," Jennifer Bellefeuille said as the torrent of counter-missiles pouring from the Katanas slowed abruptly to a trickle. She looked at Ericsson. "Estimates on their expenditure, Leonardo?"

"Assuming they have the same basic magazine space as the Manty missile LACs we were able to inspect after Thunderbolt, and that these things are basically the same size as their standard counter-missiles, that has to be at least fifty percent of their total loadout, Ma'am. Possibly as high as sixty, if they've committed additional volume and mass to more point defense clusters, as well."

"And they did a real number on our missiles with them, too," deCastro pointed out. "Their kill percentages are damned close to twice what Cimeterres would have managed, even at much shorter ranges."

"True." Bellefeuille nodded. "On the other hand, there are less than fifty of them, and if Leonardo's right, they don't have a lot of missiles left."

She gazed at the plot a second or two longer, then nodded again, crisply.

"Initiate Phase Two, Leonardo."

* * *

HMS Nike twisted sinuously as the depleted missile storm tore down upon her and her division mate.

The Katanas had thinned it considerably before Oversteegen ordered them to stand down. Of the nineteen hundred missiles which had launched, the LACs had killed seven hundred. The battlecruisers' counter-missiles killed two hundred and sixty, and another hundred and fifty or so simply lost lock and wandered off on their own. Three hundred and twelve more locked onto the Ghost Rider decoys Nike and Hector had deployed, and another sixty looped suddenly back towards the Katanas, only to be ripped apart by the LACs' point defense clusters.

But that left four hundred and seventy-eight, and as they streamed past the Katanas, the battlecruisers were on their own.

Oversteegen watched them come, absolutely motionless in his command chair, narrow eyes very still. Thirty point defense laser clusters studded each of Nike's flanks. They were individually more powerful than any past Manticoran battlecruiser had ever mounted, with fourteen emitters per cluster, each capable of cycling at one shot every sixteen seconds. That came to one shot every 1.2 seconds per cluster, but that was only twenty-five per broadside per second, and these were MDMs. They had traveled over twenty-five million kilometers to reach their targets, their closing speed was almost 173,000 KPS—fifty-eight percent of the speed of light—and they had a standoff attack range of 30,000 kilometers.

They crossed the inner perimeter of the counter-missile interception zone, losing another hundred and seventeen in the process. Of the three hundred and sixty-one survivors, fifty-eight were electronic warfare platforms, which meant "only" three hundred and three missiles—barely fifteen percent of the original launch—actually attacked.

The space about Nike and Hector was hideous with incandescent eruptions of fury, and bomb-pumped lasers ripped and gouged at their targets. But these battlecruisers had been designed and built to face exactly this sort of attack. Their sidewalls—especially Nike's—were far tougher and more powerful than any previous battlecruisers had mounted, and both of them were equipped with the RMN's bow and stern walls. The fact that they'd been able to keep their wedges turned towards the incoming fire even while they engaged it with their own counter-missiles presented additional targeting problems for the Havenite missiles' onboard systems. Instead of the broadside aspect ships were normally forced to show attack missiles' sensors, all these missiles saw was the wedge itself. But no sensor could penetrate a military-grade impeller wedge, which made it impossible for them to absolutely localize their targets. They could predict the volume in which their target must lay, but not precisely where within that volume to find it.

And that was why Nike and Hector survived. The missiles' sensors could have seen through the battlecruisers' sidewalls, but the sidewalls were turned away from them. Most of them streaked "above" and "below" the Manticoran battlecruisers, fighting for a "look-down" shot, while others crossed the Manticorans' bows or sterns, trying for "up-the-kilt" or "down-the-throat" shots. Tough as Nike's passive defenses were, they were no match for the raw power of the Havenite lasers, but the very speed which made MDMs such difficult targets for short-range point defense fire worked against them now. They simply didn't have time to find their targets and fire in the fleeting fragment of a second they took to cross the Manticoran ships' tracks.

* * *

"No damage, Sir!" Lieutenant Commander Gohr announced jubilantly. "None!"

"Well done, Guns," Oversteegen replied.

"Captain Hanover reports one hit forward on Hector, Sir," Lieutenant Pattison reported. "No casualties, but she's lost one graser and a laser cluster."

"Good," Oversteegen said. "In that case, let's—"

"Missile launch!" Gohr said suddenly. "Multiple launches! Sir, I have LAC separation from in-system platforms!"

Oversteegen's eyes flew to the main plot, and his jaw tightened as threat sources exploded across it. A fresh wave of MDMs had abruptly appeared, launched from the same spot as the first salvo. But this one was considerably more massive. The next best thing to six thousand missile icons spangled the display, streaking towards his ships—and also Dillinger's LACs and Michelle Henke's division—and Gohr was right about the LAC launches, as well. The two hundred Task Force 81 had already known about went suddenly to full acceleration, charging towards the Manticorans, but twice that many more were erupting into space, turning towards Dillinger's Katanas and the battlecruisers behind them.

Oversteegen glared at the innocent icons of the near-planet missile pods Gohr's sensor crews had managed to locate. They hadn't launched yet, but they would, he knew. They were waiting, until their missiles could join the missile storm coming in from further out. Their lower base velocities when they arrived would make them easier targets, but it would also give them better shots at his sidewalls, and there were probably at least another two or three thousand missiles aboard them. The tactician in him cried out to hit them with proximity-fused warheads, to kill them before they fired. But they were too close to Vespasien. There was too big a chance a faulty firing solution would hit the planet itself or kill one of the unarmed civilian platforms and everyone aboard it.

No. They were simply going to have to take it, and his expression was bleak as he watched the attack come in. It was unlikely that even this would destroy his ship. The one mistake whoever had planned the attack had made was in his targeting selection. He ought to have directed all of that fire at no more than one or two targets, not spread it among so many. But it was hard to fault him for that, when he probably hadn't realized just how tough the battlecruisers he faced truly were. And if he wasn't going to kill them, that didn't mean he wasn't going to hurt them badly. Which didn't even consider what was going to happen to Dillinger's Katanas after they'd been mousetrapped into expending so many of their missiles against the first wave of MDMs.

For just a moment, behind the armor of his eyes, Michael Oversteegen felt a fleeting glow of admiration for his opponent. Whoever he was, he'd made maximum use of his limited resources, and Task Force 81's lead elements were about to get hammered.

But the moment passed, and Oversteegen straightened in his command chair.

"Defense plan Alpha-Three," he said calmly.


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