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Chapter Sixty-Six

"Sir, we've got impeller signatures moving clear of the Junction!" Commander Zucker said sharply.


"How many?" Diamato asked tautly.


"Hard to say with all this wedge interference, Sir." Zucker grimaced. "I make it at least fifty, though."


"Right." Diamato nodded and looked at his com officer. "Immediate priority for the Flag. Tell them we have fifty-plus wallers deploying for a hyper translation! Tell them—"


He broke off, as the deploying impeller signatures abruptly vanished.


"Correction!" he said sharply. "Inform the Flag that fifty-plus wallers have just translated out!"


* * *

"Captain Houellebecq says damage control has that fire in CIC under control, Sir."


"Thank you, Ace." Lester Tourville nodded to Lieutenant Eisenberg, and then returned his attention to Captain DeLaney.


"The numbers are still coming in, Boss," the chief of staff told him, her expression grim. "So far, they don't sound good. At the moment, it sounds like we can write off over half our wall of battle. Probably more than that, if we don't control the star system when the dust settles."


"We always knew we were going to get hammered," Tourville said, his own voice and expression calmer than DeLaney's. And it was true. His losses were twelve percent higher than his prebattle estimate—almost twenty-five percent higher than the Octogan staff weenies had estimated—because he hadn't anticipated how tightly the Manties would bunch their salvos. But from the beginning, everyone had understood that Second Fleet was going to take severe losses.


"But we cost them almost as many ships of the wall as we lost," he continued, "and if NavInt's estimates are accurate, we've got damned near three times as many of them as they do. Did. Not to mention the fact that we're about to take at least temporary control of their home star system away from them."


"I know," DeLaney said. "But I'm a little concerned about their LACs. We've got twenty-three hundred of them still coming in on us, and we're a lot lower on ammo than I'd like. We've fired off sixty percent of our MDMs, and we've lost effectively half our wall. I don't have exact numbers, but the current availability has to be no more than about two hundred thousand rounds. If we burn them trying to keep their Shrikes out of knife range, we're going to be sucking vacuum against Third Fleet."


"Then we'll have to let the Cimeterres and the screen fend off their LACs," Tourville said unflinchingly. "They'll get hammered at least as badly as we did, but they'll do the job."


"Yes, Sir." DeLaney gave herself a little shake, then bobbed her head in agreement. "I know we're still on profile for the operation, Boss. I guess I just never really thought about the sheer scale of things. Not emotionally."


"I made myself sit down and do that the day Thomas Theisman and Arnaud Marquette explained Beatrice to us," Tourville said grimly. "I didn't like it then, and I don't like it now. For that matter, they didn't like it. But it's a price we can afford to pay if it ends this goddamned war."


"Yes, Sir."


"Frazier."


"Yes, Sir?"


"What's our—"


"Excuse me, Sir!" Lieutenant Eisenberg said suddenly, pressing her hand to her earbug as she listened intently. "Admiral Diamato says the Manties have translated into hyper!"


"And so it begins," Tourville murmured softly, then gave his head an irritated shake as he realized how pretentious that sounded.


But that didn't make it untrue, and he watched the master plot intently, waiting for Kuzak's ships to reappear upon it.


He didn't have to wait long. Less than fifteen minutes after they'd vanished from the Junction, eight and a half minutes after they recepted Diamoto's warning, they reappeared dangerously close to the RZ's boundary. It was an impressive display of pinpoint astrogation—one that showed a steel-nerved willingness to cut their margin razor thin. And one which also put the Manties well out on Second Fleet's flank and headed for Sphinx on a least-time course.


"Exactly where I would have placed them myself," he said quietly to DeLaney, who nodded vigorously.


Second Fleet had started edging away from its original Sphinx-bound vector from the moment the shooting stopped. Five minutes later, it had altered course much more sharply, and at the moment, it was very obviously retreating from its original objective. In fact, Tourville had made the decision to sacrifice his worst lamed cripples within ten minutes. Any ship which couldn't produce an acceleration of at least 370 g had been abandoned, scuttling charges set. He hadn't liked doing that, but he couldn't afford to be hampered by them even if the rest of Beatrice worked perfectly. Even without them, Second Fleet's current maximum acceleration was barely 3.6 KPS2, and that was too low for it to completely avoid the Sphinx defenses' missile envelope, whatever he did. Which didn't even consider the vengeful presence of Third Fleet coming in from the side to pin him between Sphinx and its own batteries.


Under the circumstances, Tourville had had no choice—for several reasons—but to settle on a course which formed a sharp angle from his original vector. Since he couldn't avoid going at least as far as Sphinx, he had pitched up vertically, to climb above the plane of the ecliptic, while simultaneously changing heading by 135 degrees. That let him pile on side vector to generate as much separation from the planet as he could get as he slid past it . . . which also happened to be the fastest way out of the system. The Manticoran resonance zone was so much "taller" than it was "broad" that the faces of the cone were almost parallel to one another, even this close to its base. Sphinx lay 102,002,500 kilometers inside the zone, and his original heading had been directly towards the planet, which defined just how much side vector he actually needed.


Even on his current profile, his restricted acceleration meant he'd pass within less than forty million kilometers of Sphinx, but he'd be further out—and longer getting there—than almost any other heading would have produced. If he hadn't changed course at all, he would have overflown Sphinx (and its defenses) seventy minutes after the brief, titanic engagement with Home Fleet, at an effective range of zero. If he'd changed heading by ninety degrees, he would have made his closest approach to Sphinx eight minutes later than that, at a range of only thirty-five million kilometers. On his current heading, his units' closest approach would come eighty-three minutes after changing course, and the range would be 39,172,200 kilometers.


He didn't much care for any of those options, given the pounding Home Fleet had given him, but the one he'd chosen was the best of the lot. It was still going to give the planet's defenders a shot, which he'd hoped wouldn't happen—yet, at least—but it would be long-ranged enough to degrade the Manties' accuracy, and the fire wouldn't be coming straight into his teeth the way Home Fleet's had. His missile defenses would be far more effective against whatever Sphinx had, and he frankly doubted that it had anything as heavy as ninety SDs had been able to hand out, anyway. And he'd needed to break back out across the RZ boundary for several reasons. Partly to get his cripples safely out of harm's way, but mostly because—as Taverner had just pointed out—he was critically low on ammunition. He needed to rendezvous with his ammunition ships and restock his magazines before driving back into the system defenses.


But Sphinx wasn't all he had to worry about, and Kuzak had dropped her own units in further "up" the zone's outer surface than he had. That put her in a position to move quickly to Sphinx's relief, accelerating directly towards the planet on a least-time course along the shortest passage through the RZ . . . which would also catch him between her fire and Sphinx's. In fact, Third Fleet would be less than 33,000,000 kilometers from him at the moment of his closest approach to Sphinx. Yet if he turned away from her, he would have no choice but to flee deeper and deeper into the resonance zone (without reammunitioning), and her higher base acceleration would readily permit her to overhaul him there. So he had no choice but to hold his present course.


It was a masterful move on Kuzak's part . . . and exactly the one Lester Tourville had hoped for.


* * *

The orphaned LAC survivors of Sebastian D'Orville's fleet came slashing in towards Second Fleet's screening units.


The screen had taken losses of its own—heavy ones—during the massive missile exchange, but, like the Manticoran LACs, the damage had been purely collateral. No one had been wasting missiles deliberately trying to hit battlecruisers when there were SD(P)s shooting back. But the inaccuracy for which long-range MDM fire had become justly famed had come into play, and "lost" missiles intended for superdreadnoughts had latched onto whatever targets they could find.


There were still thirty-three battlecruisers and forty-one heavy cruisers waiting for the incoming strike, ready to begin punching missiles at it as soon as they had the range. But the Manticoran LACs' closing velocity was over fifty thousand kilometers per second. Current-generation Havenite single-drive missiles had a powered range from rest of just over seven million kilometers. Given the geometry, they had a theoretical maximum range of almost 16.5 million, as did the LACs' attack missiles. That sounded like a lot . . . except that, at the Manticorans' closing velocity, they would streak straight across the entire engagement envelope in 317 seconds.


That wouldn't give much time for a lot of launches, and Republican accuracy against Alliance LAC electronic warfare capabilities was poor.


* * *

"Get on them! Get on them!" Captain Alice Smirnoff barked.


She was Second Fleet's senior surviving COLAC, and the crews of her twenty-seven hundred LACs, positioned between the cruisers screening Lester Tourville's battered ships of the wall and the incoming Manties, fought manfully to obey her orders.


Over two-thirds of Smirnoff's ships were Cimeterre Alpha and Cimeterre Beta birds, built around the new fission power plants and improved capacitors Shannon Foraker and her technical crews had been able to produce after the windfall of technical data from Erewhon.


The Alphas were equipped with lasers powerful enough to punch through the sidewalls and armor of destroyers and cruisers at normal engagement ranges. They couldn't match the performance of the massive grasers of the Alliance's Shrikes, but they were far more dangerous in energy range than any Republican LAC had ever been before. The Betas weren't a lot more combat capable than the original Cimeterres had been, since they were still armed solely with missiles and those missiles hadn't been significantly improved. But—like the Alphas—they had bow walls and vastly enhanced power budgets and endurance.


Now, for the first time, they went up against the Alliance in truly significant numbers.


The engagement was brief. It had to be, with the Manticorans barreling in at such a high closing velocity. Smirnoff had arranged her LACs "above" and "below" the sensor and firing arcs she'd left open for the screen, and her own shorter-legged missiles streaked towards the incoming strike. She had more units than the Manties did, but the Alliance's superior EW more than offset her sheer numerical advantage.


Her Alphas never really got the chance to use their lasers. Their targets were too hard to lock up, streaking across their engagement window too quickly, and her firing angle meant all too many of the laser shots which were fired wasted themselves on the roofs or bellies of their targets' wedges. But her Betas' missiles, although less accurate and capable than the Katanas' Vipers, were fired in enormous numbers.


Six hundred of the Alliance LACs were killed in the fleeting moments Smirnoff had to engage them, but at a price. It was the first time the Allied LAC crews had gone up against someone else's LAC bow walls, but Alice Truman's reports from Lovat had been taken to heart. They might never have encountered it before, but they'd allowed for the possibility, and although the new technology made the new Republican LACs far harder to kill, they still lost at a two-to-one rate as the Allied strike roared past them, into the teeth of the screen's fire.


The screen killed another three hundred, but the price it paid for its success was far higher than the one Smirnoff had paid. The Alliance lost six thousand men and women aboard the LACs Smirnoff's units had killed, and she'd lost roughly eighteen thousand, in return. Now the Alliance lost another three thousand people aboard the LACs the screen had killed. But as the surviving graser-armed Shrikes crashed over the screening cruisers which could not avoid them, they wreaked havoc.


There were "only" sixteen hundred Allied LACs left, but nine hundred of them were Shrikes, and they ignored the heavy cruisers. Those they left to the missile-armed Ferrets, whose light shipkillers were unlikely to do more than scratch the paint of a capital ship. Since they couldn't hurt wallers anyway, there was no point saving them, and three hundred Ferrets flung every missile they had into the teeth of Second Fleet's heavy cruisers. They fired at the last moment, at the shortest possible range, when their victims' defenses would have effectively no time at all to engage with anything except laser clusters. They paid heavily to get to that range, but when they reached it, they spewed out well over sixteen thousand shipkillers.


Those missiles carried only destroyer-weight laser heads, but a heavy cruiser's sidewalls were weaker than a battlecruiser's, and it mounted very little armor compared to any capital ship. Certainly not enough to survive against a fire plan which hit each ship with four hundred missiles from a range at which each laser cluster had time for—at most—a single shot.


The Ferrets fired at a range of 182,000 kilometers, and it took their missiles barely two seconds to cross the range. In those two seconds the heavy cruisers' desperate offensive fire killed another hundred and twelve LACs, but when the surviving Ferrets crossed the screen's position one and a half seconds behind their missiles, they did it in the glaring light of the failing fusion plants of the cruisers they had just slaughtered.


None of the screen's heavy cruisers, and very few of the fifty thousand men and women aboard them, survived.


The battlecruisers fared no better. There were fewer of them, and three times as many attackers. True, each of those attackers got only a single shot, but they were using grasers as powerful as most battlecruisers' chase weapons. They drove straight into the teeth of the battlecruisers' broadsides, closing with grim determination, and they fired at a white-knuckle range of less than seventy-five thousand kilometers.


Four hundred and eighty-one Shrikes and roughly another five thousand Allied personnel died, blown apart by the battle-cruisers' energy weapons in the brief engagement window they had. In return, twenty-eight Republican battlecruisers were completely destroyed, five more were reduced to shattered, broken wrecks, and seventy-seven thousand more of Lester Tourville's personnel were killed.


But in its destruction, Second Fleet's screen had done its job. The LACs which survived the exchange were a broken force, streaming through and past Tourville's surviving superdreadnoughts so rapidly not even the Shrikes had time to inflict significant damage on such massively armored targets. Not without numbers they no longer had.


* * *

"I've got the preliminary figures, Boss," Molly DeLaney said. Her expression and hoarse voice showed the strain they were all under, Tourville thought, and nodded for her to continue without ever taking his own attention from the plot.


"It looks like only about two hundred of their LACs got away," his chief of staff said. "The wall's energy weapons managed to nail most of the others as they crossed our vector."


"Thank you," Tourville said, and closed his eyes briefly.


My God, he thought. I came into this thinking I knew what the casualties were going to be like, but I didn't. Neither did Tom Theisman, really. No one could have projected this kind of carnage, because no one's had any experience, even now, with this kind of fight. Both sides are so far outside our standard operational doctrines that we're in virtually unknown territory. Podnaughts aren't supposed to close head on until they get into mutual suicide range. And we're not supposed to let LACs get that close to our starships. Our wall is supposed to be able to kill them before they ever get to us. But I didn't have the missiles left to do it, and they whipped through our engagement window so quickly our energy weapons couldn't stop them in time, either. 


He opened his eyes again, looking back into the plot. In a galaxy where indecisive maneuvers had been the norm for so many centuries, two decades—even two decades like the ones which had begun at Hancock Station—simply hadn't been enough to prepare anyone for this.


But the galaxy had better get used to it, he thought grimly. Because one thing he knew: the lethal genies were out of the bottle, and no one was going to get them back inside it.


"Any new orders, Sir?" DeLaney asked, and he shook his head.


"No."


* * *

"Hyper footprint at two-point-three-six million kilometers!" Commander Zucker barked. "Many footprints!"


Oliver Diamato's head whipped around as the erupting footprints speckled the plot. There were eighteen of them, and he swore with silent, vicious venom as they sparkled like curses in the display.


Whoever had taken the Sherman as his intended target had come in far closer than most of the others, but all of them showed remarkably good astrogation for such a short jump. Then the vector readouts came up, and he swore again. From their headings, and especially from their velocity numbers, they'd obviously managed to hyper out of the Junction without his ever noticing, then come back in after building their velocity in hyper, so the jump wasn't quite as short as he'd thought it was.


Not that he had much time to think about it.


"Missile launch!" Zucker said. "Many missiles, incom—!"


Diamato's mouth had opened before the ops officer spoke, and his order chopped off the end of Zucker's announcement.


"All units, Code Zebra!" he barked.


RHNS William T. Sherman blinked into hyper less than three seconds before HMS Nike's missiles would have detonated. Two of Diamato's other battlecruisers were less fortunate, a bit slower off the mark. They took hits—RHNS Count Maresuke Nogi lost most of her after impeller ring—but they, too, managed to escape into hyper.


Diamato breathed a sigh of relief when he realized all his units had gotten out. But however relieved he was by their survival, the fact remained that he'd been driven off his station. Frustratingly incomplete as his observations had been, his had been the only eyes located to watch the Junction at all for Second Fleet.


* * *

"Admiral Diamato's been forced to fall back to the Alpha Rendezvous, Sir," Lieutenant Eisenberg reported.


"Damn," Molly DeLaney murmured, but Tourville only shrugged.


"It was bound to happen sooner or later, Molly. On the other hand, it may actually be good news."


"Good news, Sir?"


"Well, they didn't bother to send through screening units to chase him off before, because they were too busy bringing in their wallers. If they've sent in battlecruisers and cruisers now, it probably confirms that they've already got all their capital ships through the Junction. In which case, this—" he nodded at the oncoming rash of scarlet icons, already well inside their theoretical MDM range of his own battered survivors "—probably is all we've got to deal with."


"With all due respect, Sir, 'this' is quite enough for me."


"For all of us, Molly. For all of us."


Tourville considered the plot for several more seconds, then looked back at Eisenberg.


"Ace, message to MacArthur. 'Stand by to execute Paul Revere.'"


"Aye, Sir."


* * *

"Any change in his heading, Judson?" Admiral Kuzak asked.


"No, Ma'am. He's maintaining exactly the same heading and acceleration," Commander Latrell replied.


"What the hell does he think he's doing, Ma'am?" Captain Smithson asked quietly, and Kuzak shrugged in irritation.


"Damned if I know," she acknowledged frankly. "Maybe he just figures he's still got the firepower to take us. After all, he's still got a hundred and eighteen wallers, and we've only got fifty-five, even with Duchess Harrington's orphans."


"But he's had the crap hammered out of him, Ma'am," Smithson objected. "The recon platforms indicate he's got heavy battle damage to at least half his survivors, and his acceleration rate would be proof enough of that, even without the platforms' reports. So say he's got the equivalent of eighty wallers' combat power—which is generous, I'd say—and they're still Peep SD(P)s. We don't have as many units as Home Fleet had, but all of ours are Medusas or Harringtons, and that gives us the edge in real combat power. Not only that, but he's got to have used up a lot of ammo. Hell, he didn't fire a single MDM at the LACs, and you saw what they did to his screen. His magazines have to be close to empty."


"So if his situation is so desperate," Judson Latrell asked, "why didn't he abandon the rest of his ships with impeller damage and run for it at a higher acceleration rate in the first place?"


"I suppose the answer to that depends at least in part on exactly what their actual objective is," Kuzak said.


She glanced at the master plot. Twenty-six minutes had passed since Third Fleet had translated back into normal-space. It was hard to believe that barely two hours ago, Home Fleet and all of its units had been safely in orbit around Sphinx. Now they were gone, reduced to spreading patterns of wreckage, and her own command was accelerating steadily towards battle with their killers at 6.01 KPS2. Her base velocity was up to almost ten thousand kilometers per second, she'd traveled the next best thing to eight million kilometers into the RZ, and the range to Second Fleet was coming down to right on sixty million kilometers. Which meant, of course, that they were already in her range, just as she was in theirs.


"Whatever they're up to," she said grimly, "I think you've got a point about their ammunition supply, Jerry. In which case, they aren't going to be hitting us with any more of those monster salvos. And it also means they haven't got enough birds left to waste them firing at long range, with their hit probabilities. We, on the other hand, have full magazines."


"You want to open fire now, Ma'am?" Commander Latrell asked, but she shook her head.


"Not just yet. In fact, not until they do." Her thin smile was cold. "Every kilometer the range drops increases our accuracy by a few thousandths of a percent. As long as they're willing not to shoot, so am I."


"They'll be coming into range of Sphinx in another ten minutes or so, Ma'am," Smithson said quietly.


"A good point." She nodded. "But that means the defense pods deployed around Sphinx are going to be coming into range of them, too, and the system reconnaissance platforms are going to give the defense pods very good accuracy."


"But if they open fire, the Peeps will return it," Latrell pointed out.


"I know," Kuzak agreed. "I've been thinking about that."


She considered numbers and ranges, then turned to Communications.


"Franklin, contact Admiral Caparelli. Tell him I recommend that the Sphinx defenses not fire on these people unless and until they launch against Sphinx."


"Yes, Ma'am," Lieutenant Bradshaw replied.


"Are you sure about that, Ma'am?" Smithson asked. Kuzak looked at him, and he looked back levelly. After all, one of a chief of staff's jobs was to play devil's advocate. "If they're going to bombard the planet, letting them get the first launch off unopposed is likely to cost us," he pointed out.


"But as Judson's just pointed out, if they aren't prepared to bombard the planet and the near-planet yards, and the orbital defenses open fire, they may go ahead and return it," Kuzak responded. "And they have been hammered hard. If Sphinx doesn't fire on them, they're probably going to reserve their fire for us, since we're obviously a much greater threat. Under the circumstances, I think it's worth risking letting them have one launch against the defenses, now that they're all on-line. Especially if they decide not to launch."


"Yes, Ma'am."


* * *

"No change in their dispositions, Your Grace," Andrea Jaruwalski reported, and Honor frowned.


"What is it, Your Grace?" a voice asked, and she looked up at her com display. Rafe Cardones looked back at her from it.


"What's what, Rafe?"


"That frown," her flag captain said. "I've seen it before. What's bothering you?"


"Besides the fact that somewhere around a million people have already been killed this fine afternoon, you mean?"


Cardones winced slightly, but he also shook his head.


"That's not what I meant, Ma'am, and you know it."


"Yes, I suppose I do," she agreed.


She reached up to stroke Nimitz's ears, and the 'cat pressed back against her hand, purr buzzing as his mind-glow caressed hers in reply. She treasured that small moment of unqualified support and love, clinging to its warmth against her cold, bleak awareness of so much death and devastation. Then she looked back at Cardones.


"I just can't escape the feeling that there's a shoe somewhere we haven't seen yet," she said slowly. "I know there's not a vector available to them which would let them avoid both Sphinx's envelope and Admiral Kuzak's. Under those circumstances, I guess it's not too surprising they're simply holding their course. What else can they do?"


"Not much, Your Grace," Mercedes Brigham said, when Honor paused. "From where I sit, it looks like they're screwed. The bastards hurt us badly enough, first, but they're in too deep to get out now, and Admiral Kuzak is going to hammer them into scrap."


"That's what's bothering me," Honor said slowly. "They didn't have to come in this way. They could have come in more slowly, left themselves a broader menu of maneuver options. Why did they simply come charging straight in towards Sphinx?"


"They didn't," Brigham pointed out. "They cut the angle on the limit and the zone so they could angle back out if they had to."


"No, Mercedes." Cardones shook his head on Honor's display. "I see what she means. It's the acceleration rate, isn't it, Your Grace?"


"That's exactly what it is," Honor agreed. "They can't have known exactly what was going to happen when they ran into Home Fleet, but they had to have known they'd almost certainly be intercepted well short of the planet and hammered. But by charging in at such a high acceleration when they didn't have to, they built up a vector they couldn't possibly overcome before whatever we brought through from Trevor's Star hit them, as well. That's not like Theisman. He should have left his commander on the spot more freedom of maneuver, should have tried to protect his units from getting caught in this sort of trap."


"Then why didn't he?" Brigham frowned as she followed Honor's logic.


"I thought at first it probably did indicate they were going to try some sort of a two-pronged operation," Honor said. "Go ahead and hit us in Manticore, figuring we'd have to pull off of Trevor's Star to defend the home system, and then hit San Martin when we uncovered it. In that case, they might have hoped to catch us with Third Fleet and Eighth Fleet between two separate offensives, unable to respond adequately to either."


"Now that's an ugly thought, Your Grace," Brigham murmured.


"But that's not like Theisman, either," Honor pointed out. "He understands the KISS principle, and in their initial attacks, 'Operation Thunderbolt,' he planned each of his operations independently of one another. They all tied together into one overall design, but he was careful to avoid any attempt to coordinate widely dispersed fleets or require them to go after objectives in mutual support. The entire offensive was very carefully coordinated, except for the decision to send Tourville all the way to Marsh, but the success of any one operation didn't depend on the success of any other simultaneous operation."


"And hitting both Trevor's Star and Manticore would." Brigham nodded.


"It certainly would," Honor agreed. "And they wouldn't have any way to communicate with one another, so if either attack force screwed up its timing, it might blow the entire operation by alerting us early. It's still possible that that's what they're going to do, which is the main reason I still don't want to lock down the Trevor's Star terminus with a mass transit, but I don't think it's what's coming.


"But if they don't have something like that in mind, I'm at a loss to understand exactly what they're doing. According to ONI's estimate of their current fleet strength, this is a huge percentage of their total wall of battle, and they've rammed it straight into the teeth of our defenses on a vector which makes it impossible for them to avoid action with Third Fleet. That's what I don't like about it. It's stupid . . . and one thing Thomas Theisman isn't, is stupid."


* * *

"Boss, with all due respect," Molly Delaney said, "I think it's time."


"No, do you really?" Lester Tourville replied, his tone so dry that DeLaney looked up in surprise. Then, almost against her will, she chuckled.


It wasn't a very loud chuckle, but it sounded that way on Guerriere's tense, silent flag deck. Heads came up all around the deck, eyes turned towards the chief of staff, and Tourville smiled. He could almost literally feel their astonishment that he could make even the smallest joke at a moment like this. And then he felt that same astonishment breaking at least a little of the taut fear and anxiety which had enveloped all of them as he continued to hold off on Paul Revere, continued to wait. They knew the Beatrice Bravo ops plan as well as he did, and they had to be wondering what the hell he was waiting for.


Which was fair enough. A part of him wondered what he was waiting for, as well.


He looked at the plot. The Manticoran response from Trevor's Star had been accelerating in-system for almost fifty minutes. Its velocity was up to just over eighteen thousand kilometers and it had traveled roughly 27,045,000 kilometers. The range to Second Fleet was falling rapidly towards thirty-three million kilometers, and he was frankly astonished that they hadn't already opened fire. Yet still that nagging little doubt, that voice of instinct, told him to wait.


He looked at a secondary plot, frozen with the last tactical data Oliver Diamato had been able to download before being forced off the Junction. He considered it for two or three seconds, careful to conceal his own mental frown lest it undo the beneficial consequences of DeLaney's chuckle.


You've got to get off the credit piece, Lester, he told himself. You've already waited as long as you can; Molly's right about that. If Eighth Fleet were coming, it should already be here. And you can't justify holding off forever "just in case" it turns up. Because whether it's coming or not, you can't let the people you know about get any closer. 


"All right, Ace," he said in a calm, confident voice. "Send MacArthur the execute signal."


* * *

"Captain Higgins! We have the execute signal from Guerriere!"


"Maneuvering," Captain Edward Higgins said almost instantly, his voice sharp, "execute Paul Revere."


"Aye, Sir!" his astrogator replied, and the battlecruiser RHNS Douglas MacArthur, which had never accelerated in-system with the rest of Second Fleet's doomed screen, translated smoothly into hyper.


* * *

"I think we're just about ready to open the ball, whether they want to or not," Theodosia Kuzak told Commander Latrell. "How do our firing solutions look?"


"I think the old saying about fish in a barrel comes to mind, Ma'am," Latrell replied.


"Good. In that case—"


"Hyper footprint!" one of Latrell's ratings barked suddenly. "Hyper footprint at four-one-point-seven million kilometers, bearing one-eight-zero by one-seven-six!" He paused a second, then looked up, his face white. "Many point sources, Sir! It looks like at least ninety ships of the wall."


* * *

"Oh my God," Mercedes Brigham said softly as the plot abruptly altered. The FTL feed from the recon platforms made what had just happened all too hideously clear.


"You were right, Your Grace," Rafael Cardones said flatly. "They aren't stupid."


Honor didn't reply. She was already turning to the sidebars of her own tactical display. Sixteen of her thirty-two superdreadnoughts were still in Trevor's Star, as were all of Samuel Miklós' carriers and thirty of her battlecruisers. She looked at the numbers for perhaps one heartbeat, then turned back to her staff.


"Mercedes, send a dispatch boat back to Trevor's Star. Inform Admiral Miller that he's in command and that he's to hold all of our battlecruisers there. Tell him he's responsible for covering Trevor's Star until we get back to him. Then instruct Judah to bring Admiral Miklós' carriers and all the rest of the wallers through in a single transit."


Her voice was crisp, calm, despite her own shock, and Brigham looked at her for a moment, then nodded sharply.


"Aye, aye, Your Grace!"


"Theo," she continued, pointing one index finger at Commander Kgari, "start plotting a new micro-jump. We'll go straight from here; no dogleg. I want us at least fifty million kilometers outside these newcomers. Seventy-five to a hundred would be better, but don't shave it any closer than fifty."


Kgari looked at her for a moment, and she tasted his shock. She was allowing him a much larger margin of error than Admiral Kuzak had allowed Third Fleet's units, but she was also requiring him to jump straight from a point inside the RZ to one on its periphery. Safety margin or no, astrogation that precise was going to be extraordinarily difficult to deliver, given the fact that his start point's coordinates were going to be subject to significant uncertainty, whatever he did.


But despite his shock, his voice was clear.


"Aye, aye, Ma'am!"


"Harper," she continued, turning to the communications section. "Immediate priority message to Admiral Kuzak, copied to Admiralty House. Message begins: 'Admiral Kuzak, I will be moving to your support within—" she looked at the chronometer, but nothing she could do could make time move more slowly "—fifteen minutes. If I can reduce that, I will.' Message ends."


"Aye, aye, Your Grace!"


Honor nodded, then sat back in her command chair and rotated it slowly to face the rest of her flag bridge personnel. She could see the echo of her own horror on their faces, taste it in their mind-glows, as they realized what was about to happen to Third Fleet, whatever they might manage to do.


They stared back at her, but they saw no horror in her calm expression. They saw only determination and purpose.


"All right, people," she said. "We know what we have to do. Now let's be about it."


 


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