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Chapter Thirty-One

Alexander Thurston crossed to Conquistador's master plot. He folded his hands behind him and stood gazing into its holographic depths with a thoughtful frown, then looked up as Citizen Commissioner Preznikov joined him.

"You have a concern, Citizen Admiral?" Preznikov asked too quietly for anyone else to hear, and Thurston shrugged.

"Not really, Citizen Commissioner. More of a mental side bet."

"Side bet?" Preznikov repeated.

"Yes, Sir. I'm just making a little bet with myself on how soon we see the opposition." The commissioner looked puzzled, and Thurston waved at the plot. "They've known we're here for over thirty minutes, but all we've seen are a few destroyers and a dozen or so cruisers and battlecruisers, and half of them have been positively IDed as Manties. Intelligence says the Graysons alone have more light and medium combatants than that, and I'm fairly confident they left most of them behind to watch their home world when they pulled out their SDs. The question becomes where they are and when we'll see them."

"Ah." Preznikov turned his own gaze on the plot and wished—not for the first time—that he understood the drifting light codes as well as a trained naval officer. He was learning, but he still needed expert assistance to interpret them. At the moment, however, he saw perhaps thirty individual impeller wedges, the slowest of them accelerating at over five hundred gravities as they sped down converging courses which would intercept TF Fourteen's vector well short of Grayson, and he felt his face mirroring Thurston's frown.

"You think their main strength is in Grayson orbit, don't you?"

"Yes, Sir, I do." Thurston was surprised by how quickly Preznikov had reached that conclusion. Despite himself, it showed as he nodded, but the commissioner chose to be amused rather than offended.

"And the nature of your bet?" he asked dryly.

"How soon they'll move out to join the ships we can already see."

"Surely they'll do so at a time which permits them to rendezvous with these other forces?" Preznikov gestured at the moving impeller sources, and Thurston nodded once more.

"Of course, Citizen Commissioner, but the flight profile they choose to do that should tell us something about how good the opposing commander is."

"How so?" The commissioner's eyes flickered with genuine interest, and the citizen vice admiral shrugged.

"We're still over a hundred and ninety million klicks—about ten-point-seven light-minutes—from Grayson. That's well within detection range for an impeller drive's grav signature, but our sensors can't pick up anything else unless its emissions are extremely powerful, and even the light-speed signals we can detect are almost eleven minutes old by the time they reach us. We're picking up some fairly powerful active emissions from their orbital forts—and there are a few more of them than Intelligence had predicted, by the way—but we won't know a thing about whatever starships and/or light attack craft they have in Grayson orbit until they light off their drives."

He paused with an eyebrow raised, and Preznikov nodded to show he was paying attention.

"All right. Now, if our strength estimates are correct, they don't have anything heavier than a battlecruiser, and a battlecruiser can pull five hundred to five-twenty gees. A DuQuesne-class SD, on the other hand, can pull a maximum accel of only about four hundred and twenty-five. Intelligence estimates the Manties' new inertial compensators increase their efficiency by two to three percent, which would up that to four thirty-three to four thirty-eight, assuming they've had time to refit with it. Intelligence calls that unlikely, but even if they have, those figures are for maximum military power with no safety margin, and the Manties don't like to do that any more than we do. So figure eighty percent as their normal full power setting, and you get roughly three forty-six to three fifty gees for an SD even with the new compensator. If we see anything in that envelope, it may mean Stalking Horse didn't actually get all their SDs out of the system, and that means we'll have to rethink our entire plan."

Preznikov nodded yet again, and Thurston shrugged.

"On the other hand, how soon they head out to meet us will also give me a better read on their commander. It's hard to watch this much firepower coming at you and not start doing something, Sir, but a good CO will do just that. The critical factor is for his movements to unite his entire force before we make contact, but the longer he waits, the further committed we become. Given the disparity in force levels we anticipate, that shouldn't make any difference, but it's a matter of professionalism. A good CO will try to make us fully commit whether he figures he can stop us or not, almost by reflex action. And it's axiomatic, especially when you have an emplaced sensor net and the enemy doesn't, that you deny him any chance to gauge your strength—which means waiting to light off the drives we can detect—for as long as possible.

"But an inexperienced commander will want to get his entire force in motion as soon as possible. He'll feel the strain of waiting more, and if he's unsure of himself, he may be looking to react to an enemy's actions rather than initiate his own. In that case, it makes sense to show himself early so he can see what the enemy does and try to take advantage of it . . . but that also lets the enemy dictate the conditions of engagement—which, by the way, is a mistake our own Navy's still making against the Manties. So," Thurston turned away from the plot and started back towards his command chair, "a good CO will probably wait until the last moment, then bring his ships out of Grayson orbit under high accel, and a nervous, or tentative CO will probably bring them out sooner, at a lower accel. And knowing which sort of commander you're up against, Citizen Commissioner, is half the trick of winning."

* * *

"—still coming in at four-point-four KPS squared, My Lady," Commander Bagwell said tautly, and Honor nodded.

She lounged back in her chair, legs crossed and spine curved in a pose of comfortable confidence. Her officers had to know that was a pretense, for she had nothing to be confident about. But what they didn't know (she hoped) was that it was also designed to hide the weary sag of shoulders she lacked the energy to hold erect. She knew how exhausted she was, but she had no intention of letting them guess.

Now she rubbed the tip of her nose and forced her tired mind to work.

The good news—such as it was—was that the Peeps had nothing bigger than a battleship. At four and a half million tons, a Triumphant-class BB—the standard Peep design for the type—was fifty-six percent as massive as her own SDs, but it had no more than forty-five percent of the firepower, and its defenses were little more than a third as effective as her own ships' had been even before refit.

The bad news was that they had thirty-six of them, supported by twenty-four battlecruisers, twenty-four heavy cruisers, thirty-eight light cruisers, and forty-two destroyers. She had six superdreadnoughts, nineteen battlecruisers (including all those racing in from various other locations to rendezvous with her main force), ten heavy cruisers, forty light cruisers, and nineteen destroyers. There were, in fact, eight more BCs—Mark Brentworth's First Battlecruiser Squadron—and four more CAs in Yeltsin, but none of them could reach her before the Peeps reached Grayson, and she'd used her grav-pulse transmitters to order them to go silent and hold their positions rather than reveal their locations. Mark's battlecruisers had done so even before she ordered it, and she was glad they had, for they'd been at rest relative to Yeltsin and less than eight million klicks from the Peeps when they made transit. The Peeps' higher base velocity would have made it easy to run Mark down if he'd tried to break in-system to join her.

The problem was that her total available force fell well short of the firepower headed for her. She enjoyed the Alliance's usual tech advantage, but that was most effective in a long-range missile duel, and, in this case, the nature of the opposing forces went far towards offsetting it. The armament of Peep battleships was heavily biased in favor of missile tubes—they had little more than fifteen percent of an SD's energy armament but thirty percent of its missile power—precisely because they were supposed to stay out of energy range of true ships of the wall. Sluggish as they might be compared to battlecruisers or lighter units, BBs could pull much higher accelerations than dreadnoughts or superdreadnoughts. These people would be able to avoid Honor's SDs with relative ease, and although battleships were more fragile, the sheer numbers of tubes on the other side would give the Peeps something like an advantage of two to one in missile throw weight in a sustained engagement. She could offset some of that with missile pods, but only in the initial—and longest-ranged—salvos, given the pods' susceptibility to proximity soft kills.

She made herself stop rubbing her nose and folded her hands on her raised right knee. The situation was further complicated by the fact that only a tiny handful of her captains had ever seen action. She had no doubt of their courage or individual skills, but as Admiral Henries had demonstrated, they were still weak in coordination and prone to the mistakes of inexperience. Worse, the Peeps had more total platforms than she. The loss of any one of her SDs would hurt her far more than losing a BB would hurt the Peeps.

Her move to call in the units which could reach her had been an instinct reaction. Their velocity at rendezvous would be low enough that they could still reverse course and stay away from the Peeps, and concentrating them had been an obvious first move. But now that it had been made, she still had to decide what to do with her total force, and her options were unpalatable.

If she stayed where she was, with Grayson's orbital forts in support, the Peep commander would be foolhardy to risk a close action. But though they hadn't launched any yet, the Peeps were bound to probe the space about Grayson with recon drones before they closed. That meant they'd spot the squadron before they entered attack range, and they had the acceleration to crab aside and break past Grayson without ever coming into the forts' range.

Which, unfortunately, would not save Grayson, for neither the planet, its shipyards, its orbital farms, nor its forts could dodge, and immobility was the Achilles' heel of any fixed defenses. The Peeps could break off into the outer system and come back in at as much as eighty percent light-speed, and missiles launched from that velocity against nonevading targets would be deadly. Once their drives burned out, the incoming missiles would be impossible to track on gravitics, and even Manticoran radar had a maximum detection range of little more than a million kilometers against such small targets. Oh, they might get a sniff at as much as two million, given the Peeps' less effective penetration ECM, but they could never localize at more than a million—and if the Peeps launched at .8 c, their birds' drives would boost them to .99 c before burnout. That would give the point defense systems three seconds to lock on, engage, and stop them, which brought the old cliché about the snowflake in Hell forcibly to mind.

Almost as bad, the Peeps would be free to do whatever they wanted in the outer system if she held her position in near-Grayson space, and they would undoubtedly demolish Yeltsin's asteroid extraction infrastructure. That, alone, would devastate the system's industrial base, and they'd still be able to turn around and attack Grayson itself whenever they chose. Or, for that matter, they could detach a large enough force to pin her in Yeltsin and send a half dozen battleships to Endicott. The heaviest RMN or GSN ship covering Masada was a battlecruiser, and there were only eighteen of them. They could never stand off an attack with battleship support, yet if they failed to do so—

She shuddered at the thought of the bloodshed which could sweep over Masada and closed her eyes, hiding her desperation behind a calm mask while she fought to find an answer. But she couldn't, and she felt a horrible fear that there was one, that only her exhaustion was keeping her from seeing it.

Her mind churned with a frenetic, fatigue-glazed intensity. She understood the attacks on Candor and Minette now, she thought. The Peeps were learning. They'd analyzed Alliance operational patterns and predicted the Allies' probable response perfectly, and their diversionary plans had sucked more than half of Grayson's defensive strength out of position. In fact, the only point on which she could fault their execution was the way they were heading straight for the planet now. They didn't have to do it. They should have made their n-space translation further out, built their speed, and gone straight into long-range missile launch mode—unless those transports tagging along astern of them meant they actually thought they could secure control of the system and wanted to take it intact?

She shook her head mentally. No, they couldn't be that stupid. BBs had the firepower for a smash-and-grab raid, and they probably could have taken out just the forts, but they didn't begin to have the firepower to take out the forts and her SDs in a conventional engagement.

Her tired reflections paused. The Peeps didn't have the strength for a conventional engagement, yet their flight profile indicated they were planning just that. If they didn't make turnover to engage Grayson's fortifications, then they'd overfly the planet in little more than two hours at under forty-two thousand KPS, and that would buy them the worst of both worlds. They couldn't use a ballistic missile attack, because the maximum velocity for their birds would be on the order of barely a hundred thousand KPS at a launch range so short her gravitic sensors could hand directly off to radar. Even without her ships, the forts had more than enough point defense capacity to deal with any broadsides a force this size could throw. Some of it would get through, but very little, and the combined firepower of her ships and the forts would rip the guts out of them as they passed. That meant they had to be planning a turnover, which was stupid.

But what if it was? Their RDs would still see her squadron soon enough for them to break off, so why was her battered, aching mind insisting that their approach profile was so important? It didn't make—

And then it hit her.

"They don't know we're here," she said softly.

Commander Bagwell frowned and shot a tense, questioning look at Mercedes Brigham, but the chief of staff held up a silencing hand. Honor's relaxed pose hadn't fooled Mercedes, for the captain knew her too well, just as she knew what Honor had been through in the past fifty-six hours. And as Honor had sat silent in her command chair without speaking, without issuing a single order, Mercedes Brigham had felt her heart sink within her, for that passivity was totally unlike the Honor Harrington she knew. But now—

Honor said nothing more for several seconds, and, finally, Mercedes cleared her throat.

"I beg your pardon, Milady. Were you speaking to us?"

"Um?" Honor looked up at the polite question, then shook her head in frustration with her own slowness. She made herself slide upright in her chair, laying her hands along its arms and fighting for a grip on her rubbery thoughts, then nodded.

"I suppose I was, Mercedes. What I meant was, judging from the way they're coming in, they don't know the squadron is here."

"But . . . but they must, My Lady," Bagwell protested. "They have to know—from neutral press accounts, if nothing else—that Admiral White Haven turned his prizes over to us after Third Yeltsin. That means they know the GSN has eleven SDs." He looked at Commander Paxton. "Don't they?"

"I'm sure they do," the intelligence officer replied, but his eyes were on Honor, not Bagwell, and they were very intent.

"But they don't think they're in Yeltsin." Honor saw only confusion on her staff's faces, except, perhaps, on Paxton's, then dropped her eyes to her com link to Terrible's command deck. Alfredo Yu looked back at her from its screen, and she smiled—with absolutely no idea how heartbreakingly exhausted that smile looked. "Candor and Minette, Alfredo," she said simply, and saw the sudden understanding in his eyes.

"Of course, My Lady. This was their objective the whole time, wasn't it?"

"I think so. I hope so, at any rate, because it may just give us a chance. Not a good one, but a chance."

"My Lady, I still don't understand," Bagwell protested.

"They hit Candor and Minette to draw our SDs out of Yeltsin, Fred," Honor said, "and they think they've succeeded. That's the only reason for them to head in for a normal engagement with the forts. They think they can take them out, and those 'freighters' are probably transports with an occupation force to take over the shipyards after they knock out the defenses. They can't hope to hold onto them, but they can certainly destroy them, and if they've brought along the right tech teams, they could learn an awful lot about our latest systems for their own use."

"It makes sense, My Lady," Paxton said with a sharp nod. "We've been Manticore's most visible ally since the war started. If they can take us out, wreck our infrastructure, then they've proved they can raid any of the Kingdom's other allies. What that could do to the Alliance's long-term stability would be well worth the risk of a few battleships to them, even without the possibility of raiding our tech base."

Honor saw the same thoughts racing through the rest of her staff. One by one, they began to nod, but then, predictably, Bagwell stopped.

"You may be right, My Lady. But how does it give us a chance?"

"They don't expect anything heavier than a battlecruiser, Commander," Yu said from his com screen. "When they realize they haven't drawn all the SDs out of the system, it's going to be a nasty surprise for them."

"More to the point," Honor said more briskly, "the fact that they're not expecting to see any ships of the wall may just let us get close enough to do some real damage before they break off."

There was a moment of silence, and then Bagwell cleared his throat.

"You're going out to meet them, My Lady?" he asked very carefully. "Without the support of the forts?"

"We don't have a choice, Fred. They'll probably spot us in time to stay outside the forts' engagement envelope even if we don't go to meet them, and in that case they can use cee-fractional missile strikes to take us all out. No, we have to get close—clear into energy range, if we can—and kick their guts out before they know we're here."

"But, My Lady, while we 'kick their guts out,' that many battleships will destroy us, as well," Bagwell pointed out quietly.

"Maybe they will, and maybe they won't," Honor made herself sound far more confident than she felt, "but it's still our best chance. Especially if we can sneak in close enough." Bagwell looked frightened—less, Honor knew, by the prospect of dying than of losing so much of the Grayson Navy—but she held his eyes until, almost against his will, he nodded.

"All right, then, people," she said, leaning forward in her command chair, "here's what I want to do."



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