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Chapter Thirty-Five

"We have Commander Estwicke's report, Your Grace," Andrea Jaruwalski said.


"Good."


Honor turned away from the visual display's gorgeous imagery. Task Force 82 forged through hyper-space, closing in on its objective steadily in close enough formation for the display to show the glowing disks of the nearest ships' Warshawski sails. Intolerant, Imperator's sister ship and the flagship of Rear Admiral Allen Morowitz, the division's CO, was the nearest vessel. Her sails—three hundred kilometers across—flickered with lambent fire, like a slice of heat lightning moving across the glowing depths of hyper-space in a visual spectacle Honor never tired of, but she turned her back upon it with what was almost a sense of relief at Jaruwalski's announcement.


"Let's see it," she said, crossing to the secondary plot at Jaruwalski's bridge station. The ops officer touched the keyboard, shunting the download from HMS Ambuscade onto the display, and then she and her admiral stood back and watched the data assemble itself.


"Not as much firepower as we'd anticipated, Your Grace," Jaruwalski observed after a moment.


"No."


Honor frowned and rubbed the tip of her nose. All their planning had assumed Lorn would be the target more likely to be covered by mobile units, which was why she'd swapped Alice Truman two of Alistair McKeon's superdreadnought divisions and Matsuzawa Hirotaka's older battlecruisers in return for Michelle Henke's more modern but understrength squadron. She'd also given Alice Winston Bradshaw's Seventh Cruiser Squadron, with its four Edward Saganami-C-class cruisers, while she took Charise Fanaafi's CruRon 12, with its older Saganami and Star Knight-class cruisers. Still, they'd anticipated more defensive strength than this for a target as populous and economically important as Solon.


"I make it two superdreadnoughts," she continued after moment, "plus seven battlecruisers and roughly—" she consulted a display sidebar "—a hundred and ninety LACs."


"For mobile units, yes, Your Grace," Jaruwalski agreed. "But it looks like they've got a fairly dense shell of missile pods in close to the planetary industry around Arthur."


"And another little clutch here, around Merlin," Honor pointed out, and frowned some more. "That's a rather strange spot for them, wouldn't you say?"


"I certainly would."


Jaruwalski looked at the data and pursed her lips while she considered it.


"That's much too far out to cover the Nimue Belt's extraction centers," she said. "Is there something going on out among Merlin's moons that we don't know about?"


"I suppose there could be," Honor mused, gazing at the stupendous gas giant—only a bit smaller than Old Earth's Jupiter—in question. "According to the astro data, a couple of Merlin's moons are darned nearly the size of Manticore, and it's got a total of eleven. There could be something exploitable in among all of those. But whatever it is, it's on the far side of the primary from Arthur at the moment, anyway. So I think we'll just leave Merlin alone and concentrate on Arthur and the belter installations."


"That suits me just fine, Your Grace," Jaruwalski agreed.


"It looks like our best bet is probably Alpha Three," Honor continued. "I'd just as soon avoid any unnecessary bells and whistles."


"Alpha Three works for me, Your Grace," Jaruwalski agreed again. "Shall I pass the word to Admiral Miklós?"


"Go ahead." Honor nodded. "And tell him to doublecheck his alternate recovery points with his COLACs."


"Of course, Your Grace," Jaruwalski said, then paused, looking at her admiral thoughtfully. "Um, is there some particular reason you wanted to do that, Your Grace?"


"Nothing I can put a finger on," Honor said after a moment. "I guess I'm just a little antsy. As you say, we'd anticipated a significantly heavier defensive force for a system this important."


"Yes, Ma'am. You're thinking that whoever's in command here has tried to pull a Bellefeuille on us?"


"Not really," Honor said almost unwillingly, then shook her head at her own formless misgivings. "Estwicke knows her job, and everybody was thoroughly briefed on what happened at Chantilly."


And, she reminded herself, that's one reason we gave her an extra eighteen hours to scout the system. If there'd been anything close enough to Arthur to pose a threat, Ambuscade and Intruder would have found it.


"I suppose part of it could just be the fact that Solon lies right in the middle of a gravity wave," she continued aloud. "I always get a sort of uncomfortable feeling between my shoulder blades in a case like this."


Jaruwalski nodded. No flag officer really liked attacking a star system which lay in the middle of a hyper-space gravity wave—not unless she was totally confident she'd brought along enough firepower to take the system outright—for a very simple reason. A starship could not enter a gravity wave and survive without functioning Warshawski sails, and no ship could produce a Warshawski sail if it had lost an alpha node out of one of its impeller rings. Which meant a single unlucky hit could leave a warship with otherwise trifling damage unable to withdraw into hyper if the rest of its task force or fleet had to run for it.


Frankly, Jaruwalski suspected that was one reason Honor had assigned herself to command the Solon attack. Well, that and the fact that they'd anticipated—erroneously, as it turned out—that Solon, with its heavily populated planet and relatively thriving economy would have considerably heavier fixed defenses than Lorn.


"As I say," Honor continued, "I don't have any real reason to feel uneasy, but have Samuel doublecheck, anyhow." She smiled crookedly. "I'm not trying to develop a reputation for infallible intuition, so it won't hurt anything if I do a little excess worrying and people catch me at it."


* * *

"Captain Durand! Captain Durand to the command deck immediately!"


Alexis Durand punched the flush button, yanked up his trousers, and hit the lavatory door running. One of the space station's civilian maintenance techs grinned as the naval officer charged past him, still sealing his trousers. Well, Durand could stand a little civilian amusement at his expense.


He came through the command deck hatch and slid to a stop at Plotting. Bibeau had the watch again, and he looked up as Durand appeared beside him.


"You wanted to know when anyone else turned up, Sir," the petty officer said grimly, waving at his display. "Well, here they are."


"So I see, Lieutenant. Have you informed Admiral Deutscher?"


"Yes, Sir. And passed to word to Moriarty, too."


"Good," Durand said softly, leaning closer to the display. "What does CIC make of it so far?"


"Twenty-eight point sources, Sir. It looks like seven superdreadnoughts or carriers, eleven battlecruisers or heavy cruisers, and nine light cruisers or destroyers, all on our side of the primary and right on the limit. Plus, of course, whatever they left in-system to keep an eye on us."


"Of course." Durand nodded, and he and the lieutenant exchanged wolflike grins.


"Sir," a communications rating said respectfully, "Governor Mathieson wants to know if she should begin evacuating the platforms?"


"By all means," Durand said. "And remind her to be obvious about it."


"Aye, Sir."


Durand returned his attention to Bibeau's plot and folded his arms across his chest while he thought.


"No sign of LAC separation yet?" he asked after a few moments.


"No, Sir."


"Very good. Inform me as soon as you see it, as soon as their lead starship crosses the hyper limit, or as soon as any of them micro-jump."


"Aye, Sir."


Durand gazed at the plot for a few more moments, then walked slowly to his own command chair and seated himself in it.


Despite Rear Admiral Deutscher's seniority, this portion of the operation was officially Durand's responsibility, and part of him wanted to send the message now. But he made himself put the temptation firmly aside; they needed to let the situation settle down a bit first.


* * *

"Very well, Samuel, let's be about it," Honor said. "Launch your LACs."


"Aye, aye, Your Grace," Vice Admiral Miklós acknowledged, and turned away from his com pickup on the flag bridge of HMS Succubus to pass the order. A moment later, Honor saw the first LACs' icons appear on her tactical plot.


The six CLACs carried over six hundred and seventy LACs between them, but she was leaving HMS Unicorn's wing behind to provide security for Miklós weakly armed carriers. She was also leaving three of Mary Lou Moreau's light cruisers—Tisiphone, Samurai, and Clotho—to help keep an eye on things, but the rest of the task force headed steadily in-system with her flagship.


She supposed she could have left a few main combatants, as well, given how sparse the defenses were, but she still felt that unaccountable itch between her shoulder blades. She was fairly certain she was jumping at shadows, but it wouldn't hurt anything to stay concentrated.


The five hundred and sixty LACs accompanying her starships spread out in a globe about them, and Andrea Jaruwalski sent an advanced guard of recon platforms out ahead as they shaped their course to intercept the planet Arthur's orbit.


* * *

"Sir, they're crossing the limit," Bibeau said. "Present velocity two-point-six-one thousand KPS. Range to Arthur ten-point-two light-minutes. Tracking makes their current accel four-point-eight-one KPS squared."


"They're staying concentrated? No detachments?"


"Pretty much, Sir. It looks like they're leaving their carriers behind with three cruisers and a LAC security patrol, but all the rest of them are headed in-system."


Durand nodded, not without a flicker of disappointment. Not that he was really surprised. He'd always thought the Merlin pods were unlikely to suck them in, but it had been worth a try. And they'd needed something to camouflage the Tarantula platforms, anway.


"Time to Arthur?" he asked.


"Assuming a zero/zero intercept and constant accelerations, approximately three hours and seventeen minutes, Sir. They'll make turnover niner-one-point-eight million klicks out in ninety-four minutes."


"Very good. Communications!"


"Yes, Sir?"


"Send Lieutenant Bibeau's data to Tarantula and instruct Lieutenant Sigourney to execute his orders."


"Aye, Sir."


* * *

"Their superdreadnoughts are starting to stir, Your Grace."


Honor broke off her conversation with Mercedes Brigham at Jaruwalski's announcement. Her own force had been headed in-system for thirty-seven minutes. Her velocity relative to the system primary was up to 13,191 KPS, and she'd come just over seventeen million kilometers since crossing the hyper limit . . . which meant she had a hundred and sixty-six million still to go.


She glanced at the plot, and noted the vector arrows which had appeared next to the tiny defensive force in orbit around Arthur. As Jaruwalski said, the starships—escorted by the swarm of LACs—were beginning to move. She studied their vector for a moment, then frowned.


"Odd," she murmured.


"Ma'am?" She looked up. Brigham stood at her elbow, where she'd been gazing at the same display, and the chief of staff arched one eyebrow as their eyes met.


"I said that's odd." Honor indicated the icons of the accelerating defenders. "They're coming to meet us, which is odd enough on its own. I would have expected them to wait for us as deep into the envelope of their system defense pods as they could. If they keep accelerating at that rate, they'll be right at the very fringe of their pods' effective range when we engage, which means accuracy will be even lower than usual. By the same token, the range to their ships will be lower for us, which means our accuracy will be greater. But not only are they coming to meet us, but from these acceleration numbers, they don't have many, if any, pods of their own on tow."


"You think they're up to something sneaky? Or is this just a panic reaction?"


"I don't see what kind of 'sneakiness' they could have in mind," Honor said after a second. "Estwicke's arrays got visual-range imagery off of both of the SDs, so we know they aren't pod-layers. That means they don't have any MDM capability, without towing pods, which they clearly aren't doing. Oh," she waved a hand, "they may have a few dozen tractored inside their wedges, but nowhere near enough to take us on in a missile duel, especially with the Katanas to thicken our point defense.


"On the other hand, this is a bit late in the game for a panic reaction. We've been in the system for over forty-five minutes. For them to be underway at all at this point, they must have been at at least standby readiness when we turned up—which makes sense, since they obviously realized Estwicke was scouting for a raid. But from standby readiness they could have been underway a good fifteen minutes sooner than this—a half-hour sooner, if they were sitting there with hot nodes. So why wait until now to 'panic'?"


"So what do you think they're doing?" Brigham asked.


"I don't know," Honor admitted, rubbing the tip of her nose once more. "It looks like they're reacting in confusion, and I suppose that could be what's happening. But that just doesn't feel right, somehow."


She contemplated the plot for a few more moments, then climbed out of her command chair, scooped a skinsuited Nimitz up in her arms, and crossed to Jaruwalski's station.


"How's their evacuation coming, Andrea?"


"It's still going full bore, Your Grace." Jaruwalski indicated a secondary display driven by transmissions from the stealthed arrays hovering near Arthur. "I wouldn't go so far as to call it panic stricken," she continued, "but they're obviously hauling everybody dirt-side as quick as they can."


"Still no word from the system authorities, Harper?" Honor asked, turning her head towards Communications.


"No, Your Grace," Harper Brantley replied, and Honor grimaced.


"But you're still picking up those grav-pulses?" she asked.


"Yes, Your Grace." The com officer nodded his head at Jaruwalski. "Captain Jaruwalski's arrays are actually picking up most of them, but we've been looking at them over here, as well. So far, it all looks like our own early-generation traffic, probably from fixed recon arrays scattered around the system. Their pulse repetition frequency rate's still on the low side, so the information they're passing is probably limited, but there are at least a couple of stations out there with a higher PRF."


"Can you localize the more capable transmitters?"


"We've nailed down two of them, Your Grace," Jaruwalski reported. "One of them seems to be aboard this space station."


A red sighting ring popped into existence around the system's main space station as she spoke. It was a big thing, though no more than twenty percent the size of Hephaestus, back home.


"And the other?" Honor asked, eyes narrowing intently.


"The other one is out here, Your Grace."


Jaruwalski dropped another icon into the display. This one appeared to be in orbit around Merlin, which put it over forty light-minutes outside the system hyper limit on the far side of the primary.


"Are they talking to each other, Harper?"


"I'd say, yes, Your Grace. I can't be positive, of course, but pattern analysis strongly suggests that they are."


"Thank you."


Honor nodded and walked slowly back across to her command chair, right hand gently caressing the plushy fur between Nimitz's ears.


"Your Grace, I know that expression," Brigham said quietly as Honor and Nimitz rejoined her.


"I beg your pardon?"


"I said I know that expression. May I ask what's provoking it this time?"


"I don't know, really." Honor shrugged. "There's just . . . something wrong. It's like they're going off in all directions at once—panicky evacuation of their orbital platforms, ships heading out to meet us without even bringing along heavy pod loads, no effort to communicate with us at all, and now this FTL message traffic."


"Maybe they really are going off in all directions at once, Your Grace," Brigham suggested. "It's one thing to know the other side is scouting your system; it's another to see a force this powerful coming down on you."


"I know, I know." Honor snorted. "Maybe I'm simply being paranoid! But I just can't shake the feeling that there's something out of kilter."


"Well, Ma'am, even if Arthur is talking to someone out at Merlin, it's not like either of them were close enough to pose any sort of threat to us. For that matter, Merlin's on the entirely wrong side of Solon!"


"Exactly. So why—"


Honor broke off abruptly, her eyes suddenly widening.


"Your Grace?" Brigham asked sharply.


"Sidemore," Honor said. "They're taking a page from Sidemore!"


Brigham looked blank for a moment, then inhaled deeply.


"They'd have to have accurately predicted our objectives," she said.


"No reason they couldn't have," Honor replied almost absently, eyes intent as she stared into the depths of her tactical plot. "Not in a general sense, at least. Deciding what sorts of targets we'd be likely to hit wouldn't be that hard. Picking the exact, specific targets would probably come down to a guessing game, but it looks like someone guessed right."


She looked into the plot for a few more seconds, then turned away.


"Harper, get me a priority link to Admiral Miklós!"


* * *

"Too bad they didn't go for the cheese, Sir," Captain Marius Gozzi said as he and Javier Giscard studied the master plot aboard RHNS Sovereign of Space.


"I never figured there was more than one chance in three they would," Giscard replied. "Still, it was worth a try."


He stood back from the plot and folded his hands behind him while he thought. From the reports of his own sensor platforms, it was very likely that one of those Manty superdreadnoughts was Eighth Fleet's flagship. In which case, he was about to sit down across the table from the best the Manties had.


But this time I get to use my own cards, he reminded himself. And they're marked.


The one thing he wished he had was real-time intelligence on exactly what the Manties were up to, but that simply wasn't possible. The Tarantula net could get tactical information to him, but only by sending it aboard dispatch boats, and he didn't have an unlimited supply of them. Nor could he send any of the boats back after they'd reported to him, since the Manties would have been much too likely to detect their hyper footprints when they translated back into normal-space.


At least, so far, the raiders appeared to be doing what he wanted them to do. He would have preferred for them to take the "cheese," as Gozzi had called it. If they'd decided the missile pods planted around Merlin indicated there was something out there worth attacking, they might have divided their forces. Of course, the real reason for the pods had been to provide background clutter to hide the Tarantula platforms, because Shannon hadn't been able to get the new FTL coms into something small enough to count on evading the notice of Manty sensor arrays. But there'd always been the chance of killing multiple birds with a single stone. And once they'd come in close enough to Merlin, they would have been trapped inside the massive gas giant's own hyper limit, pinned while his units closed in behind them. Still, as he'd told his chief of staff, he'd never really had much confidence they would.


He checked the time display. Four minutes until the next dispatch boat was due.


"Selma, pass the preparatory signal for Ambush Three," he said.


"Aye, Sir," Commander Selma Thackeray, his operations officer responded.


* * *

"Yes, Your Grace?" Vice Admiral Samuel Miklós said as he appeared on Honor's com display.


"It's a trap, Samuel," Honor said flatly. The FTL com grav pulses meant there was no light-speed lag in their conversation at this short range, and Miklós' eyes widened in surprise. "I can't prove it—yet," she continued, "but I'm sure of it. Get your carriers out. Go to Omega One."


It was obvious from Miklós' expression that he wanted to ask her if she was certain that was what she really wanted to do, but he didn't. He only nodded.


"Yes, Your Grace. At once. And you?"


"And we, Samuel, are going to have our hands full, I'm afraid," she said grimly.


* * *

"Captain Durand!"


"Yes, Charles?" Durand turned quickly towards Bibeau.


"Sir, their carriers just translated out!"


"Damn."


Durand thought furiously for perhaps ten seconds. There could be a perfectly innocent reason for the Manties to have suddenly decided to move their carriers, but he didn't believe it for a moment. No. Somehow, they'd guessed what was coming, and he suppressed a desire to swear yet again.


"Communications, pass Lieutenant Bibeau's current sensor data on to Tarantula. Tell them I recommend an immediate relay to Admiral Giscard."


* * *

The dispatch boat one light-minute outside Merlin's orbit received the Durand's FTL transmission, relayed to its light-speed communications arrays by the Tarantula net, seventy-two seconds after it was transmitted. The boat's computers updated, and it translated smoothly across the alpha wall. Javier Giscard's task force was waiting exactly where it had been for the past week and a half, and the dispatch boat quickly relayed the tactical update to his flagship.


"Sir, it looks like the Manties smelled a rat," Commander Thackeray reported. "Their CLACs just translated out."


"Damn it," Gozzi muttered, but Giscard only showed his teeth in a tight grin.


"Actually catching them that far outside the limit would have been problematical, at best, Marius," he said. "You know how hard it is a to plot a hyper jump this short. And they weren't exactly likely to be sitting there with their hyper generators off-line and their impeller nodes cold. Unless we'd translated down right on top of them, they'd have had time to get into hyper before we could range on them." He shrugged. "I'd figured we were going to lose them from the moment the Manties left them behind. However," his grin turned positively lupine, "if the carriers are gone, the LACs are stuck, aren't they?"


He looked at the updated plot for a few more seconds, then nodded decisively to himself.


"Selma, execute Ambush Three."


* * *

"Oh, crap," Commander Harriman muttered.


"Talk to me, Yolanda!" Raphael Cardones said quickly.


"CIC reports multiple hyper footprints, Skipper," Imperator's tactical officer reported harshly. "Three separate clusters—one dead astern of us at three-zero-point-four million clicks, one at polar north, and one at polar south. They've got us boxed, Sir."


Cardones felt his jaw muscles clench as his own tactical plot updated with the new icons.


Well, the Old Lady's been warning us the Peeps were eventually going to get wise, he told himself. I could wish they hadn't gotten quite this wise, though! 


* * *

"It's confirmed, Your Grace," Andrea Jaruwalski said. "Three separate forces, a total of eighteen wallers and six CLACs, plus screening elements. We're designating the Arthur detachment Bogey One, the task group to system north is Bogey Two, the one to system south is Bogey Three, and the one astern of us is Bogey Four."


"And their units are evenly distributed between Two, Three, and Four?"


"That's what it looks like, Your Grace."


"So, three-to-one in wallers, at best," Mercedes Brigham said quietly, her expression taut. "Nine-to-one if they manage to concentrate. Plus the older ships in-system, of course!"


"If we let them concentrate on us, we'll deserve whatever happens to us." Honor's soprano was completely calm, almost detached.


The good news was that the three ambushing task groups had clearly been waiting in place in hyper, motionless relative to Solon. They'd come across the alpha wall with an effectively zero velocity, and though they were accelerating hard at five hundred and twenty-nine gravities, which meant their compensator safety margins must be down to zero, it was going to take them time to build a vector, whereas her own command was already up to over fourteen thousand kilometers per second. Moreover, her maximum acceleration rate was higher than theirs, so the force astern of them couldn't possibly overtake them unless they suffered drive damage. The bad news was that they were only thirty million kilometers back . . . and on low-powered settings, current-generation Havenite MDMs had a powered range of almost sixty-one million kilometers from rest.


"Missile defense, go to Plan Romeo," she said crisply. "Shift to formation Charlie. Theo."


"Yes, Your Grace?" Lieutenant Commander Kgari said instantly.


"We'll break south," Honor told her staff astrogator. "Take us to military power and plot me a course that bends us the maximum distance away from Bogey One but maintains at least current separation from Bogey Four."


"Aye, aye, Ma'am."


Kgari bent over his console, and Honor returned her attention to the tactical plot, watching the icons of her formation shift rapidly.


It won't be long now, she thought.


* * *

"Sir, we've got about the best targeting solutions we're going to get," Commander Thackeray reported. Giscard looked at her, and she met his gaze frankly. "Our accuracy isn't going to be very good at such extended range," she said.


"Understood, Selma. On the other hand, we've got a lot of missiles. Let's start getting them into space. Fire Plan Baker."


"Aye, Sir!"


 


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