Back | Next

Chapter Thirty-Two

"Well, there they are, Citizen Commissioner." Thurston sounded disgusted, Preznikov noted, and looked a question at him. "Oh, I'm not complaining," the citizen vice admiral said. "But remember what I said about how when they decided to come out would indicate how good they were? Well, it looks like the answer is not too good."

He shook his head and gazed thoughtfully into the plot. Almost exactly seventy minutes had passed since the task force's arrival, and its units were up to 20,403 KPS. So far they'd covered over forty-six and a half million kilometers, and for a while he'd thought the Graysons were going to fight smart. Destroyers and dispatch boats had shot out in all directions, no doubt carrying word of his attack to nearby systems and screaming for help, but whatever they'd had in Grayson orbit had sat tight. The fact that one of those courier vessels had headed out on a least-time course to Endicott was irritating, since it meant the forces covering that system would be alerted to make whatever preparations they could before he detached Theisman and Chernov, but he'd known from the outset that that was likely to happen. He couldn't divide his own forces until he'd confirmed that there were no ships of the wall in Yeltsin, and every minute the Grayson commander had sat tight, denying him that confirmation, was one more minute he'd had to hold onto Theisman and TG 14.2's battleships and battlecruisers.

But now the enemy had come out of hiding, and his timing was execrable. The largest units Thurston's sensors could see were battlecruisers, but the Allied force's acceleration was 458 g, which was stupid. It was higher than a Manty BC's "normal maximum" of four hundred gravities at eighty percent power, so they'd obviously redlined their drives. Yet that was still over forty gravities lower than the maximum they could have pulled, which indicated that they had some of their damnable missile pods on tow. The extra launchers those things provided in the opening salvos had worried Thurston when he first conceived Dagger, but the battlecruisers coming at him couldn't be towing more than one or at most two pods each, or their accel would have been still lower.

That was what made their movements so stupid. If Grayson's defenders were going to come out at less than max accel they should have started even sooner, with an even lower acceleration, which would have let them tow more pods. The small number their BCs could have available at this accel would make no difference against battleship point defense, so all they'd accomplished by bringing them along was to cost themselves about a half KPS2 and give Thurston an earlier look at their numbers and formation than they had to.

If, he thought, you could call that a formation. The untidy gaggle of starships moved towards him in awkward clumps and knots, and he shook his head again. There were Manty ships in that mess, but its CO had to be a Grayson, because no Manty admiral would let himself fuck up this way. Thurston recognized the courage his enemy was displaying, but Lord was he dumb!

"Numbers?" he asked.

"Plotting makes it twenty-five battlecruisers, ten heavy cruisers, forty-odd light cruisers, and sixteen to twenty destroyers, Citizen Admiral," his ops officer responded. "We're not positive about the count on the light units because of their formation. They're not only getting in each other's way, but some of them are grouped so tight it's all but impossible to get a close look at their wedges."


"Not much point at this range, Citizen Admiral," his senior tracking officer replied. "We can't send drones in ballistic the way their formation's all tangled up—we'd need to bring them in under power and steer them into location. If we do that, their point defense will have so much tracking and solution time they'll pick them off in droves. Given our vectors, the missile envelope should be about thirteen million klicks, though. We could probably bury the drones in our missile fire then and sneak 'em past, but—"

"But by that time, we'll have plenty of direct observation without them," Thurston agreed. He rocked on his heels for a moment, then shrugged. "Do your best to refine your data."

He walked back to his command chair, and Preznikov accompanied him.

"Does it really matter exactly how many light units they have, Citizen Admiral?"

Thurston wondered if the question reflected honest curiosity, an attempt to jab him into something more "energetic," or simply a probe to see how he'd react to what might be a jab. Best to treat it as the first possibility, he decided.

"Frankly, no, Citizen Commissioner. But we've got plenty of time before we come into range, and I'd just as soon get a hard count if I can before I detach the other two task groups."

"You are planning to detach them, then?"

"I'm certainly considering it, Sir. We know they've already sent a courier off to Endicott. The closer on its heels Theisman and Chernov arrive, the less time Endicott'll have to set up any sort of defense, but I'm not turning them loose until I'm sure I won't need them here."

* * *

Honor sat back in her command chair, holding Nimitz in her lap, and stroked his ears while her ships accelerated towards the enemy. She'd have to resecure his safety harness before they got into range, but there was no need to worry about that yet, and she knew he could feel her anxiety.

The small plot on her console showed less detail than the holo sphere behind her, but her traitor legs had nearly collapsed the last time she'd started to stand. She thought she'd recovered quickly enough to hide it from her staff and bridge crew, yet there was no way she could fool them if she went staggering around like a drunk.

Now she gazed at the plot and wondered what the Peep CO made of her formation. It was certainly the sloppiest one she'd ever assembled, but there was a method to her madness. One she hoped wouldn't occur to him.

There were limits to even a Grayson-refitted SD's EW capabilities. Terrible could do a lot to make her impeller wedge look weaker, yet it was so powerful that the deception was unlikely to hold if someone got a good, hard look at it. Which was why she'd "disarranged" her formation and put at least three other ships in front of each SD. With their wedges directly between the superdreadnoughts and the Peeps' sensors, interference should mask the greater power of the SDs' drives. Coupled with the heavier ships' EW activity, that should keep the Peeps from realizing what they were truly up against . . . unless they got a recon drone close enough for a good look.

The trick, of course, was to dissuade them from trying to do just that. The chance of getting a big, relatively slow RD past her point defense was low, but it was possible, especially if the Peep commander should feel uneasy enough to expend the huge numbers of RDs needed to swamp her defenses.

So what she needed to do was to make the Peeps so confident of what they saw that they felt no need to confirm it, and she'd taken a risky step to do just that. She was running her superdreadnoughts flat out at full military power and zero safety margin, which gave the squadron about a three percent chance of someone suffering a compensator failure—with fatal consequences for whoever it happened to. But it also let them pull an acceleration of over 4.5 KPS2, far higher than any "normal" SD could manage, and she hoped Peep intelligence hadn't yet figured out that the new compensators had increased Alliance acceleration rates by over six percent virtually across the board. If they hadn't, her accel should look too high to be an SD's.

Her eyes moved across the plot to the ships racing towards her from other points in the system. They were decelerating to match vectors now, bringing the formation together well short of the Peeps, and, so far, things seemed to be working. She hoped.

She took her hand from Nimitz's ears long enough to pinch the bridge of her nose hard, but it didn't really help. Her exhaustion actually seemed to be making her mind work faster, not slower, yet it was an undisciplined speed, one that tried to race off in too many directions at once. Would her accel convince the Peeps she had no SDs? Or would it actually make the Peep CO more suspicious with its proof that her BCs couldn't be towing enough missile pods to make a practical difference? For that matter, what if his sensor crews had already seen past her EW and figured out exactly what she had? Or—

She lowered her hand and gritted her teeth, then leaned back in the support of her contoured chair while she prayed her fatigue hadn't already drawn her into a fatal mistake she was just too tired to recognize.

* * *

"Anything more?" Thurston asked his ops officer.

"Not really, Citizen Admiral. We've positively IDed one more light cruiser, but the mutual impeller interference is still too bad to say anything more certain than that."

"Understood," Thurston grunted, and looked at Preznikov. "With your permission, Citizen Commissioner, I think we can detach the other task groups now. We've got reasonably good reads on their units, and the biggest we've seen are battlecruisers. Admiral Chavez's group can come within one unit of matching them ship-for-ship with battleships, and she's got six BCs of her own for good measure. We can handle them without Citizen Admiral Theisman."

"Very well, Citizen Admiral, I agree."

"Communications," Thurston looked over his shoulder, "signal Conquérant to execute Alpha-Three."

* * *

"Signal from Flag, Citizen Admiral. Execute Alpha-Three."

Thomas Theisman nodded, but also made a disgruntled sound, and Citizen Commissioner LePic glanced at him.

"A problem, Citizen Admiral?"

"Um?" Theisman grimaced at the commissioner, then shook his head. "No, not really. I've expected it for five minutes now, given the strength coming at us. I just—"

He chopped himself off, and LePic cocked his head.

"You just what, Citizen Admiral?" he asked, and Theisman sighed.

"I just wouldn't have done it yet," he said. "I don't mean that as a criticism of Citizen Admiral Thurston, but it's not actually going to save us that much time against Endicott. Under the circumstances, if I were him, I'd have preferred to stay concentrated until after I'd blown away the opposition here."

"You think he may be unable to destroy them?" LePic looked surprised, and Theisman laughed harshly.

"Twenty-four battleships destroy twenty-five battlecruisers? Oh, no, he'll take them out. It's just a matter of technique, I suppose. My own inclination would be to start decelerating now to hold the range open longer. Given the disparity in tonnages, we've got the missile advantage for a change, and I'd like to chop them up before closing to energy range to finish them off." The citizen rear admiral paused, then smiled almost sheepishly. "I suppose part of it's that I've been on the receiving end of Manty missiles too often, Citizen Commissioner. I haven't enjoyed any of those experiences, and I'd like the chance to give them a bit of their own back."

"Well, you should have that opportunity shortly in Endicott, Citizen Admiral," LePic said encouragingly, and Theisman nodded.

* * *

"Status change!"

Honor twitched in her chair and jerked her eyes open, shocked to discover she'd actually dozed off at action stations. She shook herself and blinked, then peered at her plot.

"My Lady," Bagwell began, "the enemy—"

"I see it, Fred," she said quietly, and her aching eyes narrowed in disbelief as the Peep formation changed. A full third of their battleships—and two-thirds of their battlecruisers!—had just begun decelerating at 470 g. That must be running the BBs' compensators close to redline, although they didn't have missile pods to complicate their lives, of course, and she frowned. The larger group continued onward at a steady 450 g, still heading for its eventual turnover, which meant the gap between it and the smaller force was growing at over nine KPS2.

She reached out to punch numbers into her plot, but she'd never been a confident mathematician, and fatigue seemed to have put extra joints in the middles of her fingers. She fumbled at the keypad, then grimaced in frustration with her own clumsiness and looked at Bagwell.

"Have CIC designate the lead formation as Force Alpha and the trailer as Force Zulu, Fred."

"Aye, aye, My Lady."

"Allen," she turned to her astrogator, "assume all accelerations remain constant to Force Alpha's projected turnover and that Alpha decelerates at four-point-four KPS squared thereafter. What will the range to Zulu be when we're nine million klicks from Alpha?"

"Nine million?" Commander Sewell repeated, and bent over his own console at her nod. His fingers moved with the brisk assurance which had evaded her own, and he looked back up in mere seconds. "Under the assumptions you specified, My Lady, the range to Force Zulu at that point will be approximately six-seven-point-six-eight-eight million kilometers."

"And Zulu's distance from the hyper limit?"

Sewell tapped keys once more, then looked up at her. "Approximately seven-eight-point-two million klicks, My Lady."

"Thank you," she said. She glanced down at her com screen to Alfredo Yu, and for the first time, there was a sharp, predatory edge to her exhausted smile. Her flag captain returned it, and she turned back to her own plot. Oh, yes, people, she thought silently at the enemy light codes on her display. You just go right on putting distance between yourselves.

* * *

"Coming up on turnover, Citizen Admiral," Thurston's astrogator announced, and the citizen vice admiral nodded without even looking up. Meredith Chavez's battleships had five times the tonnage—and thirty times the firepower—of the battlecruisers coming at him. All he had to do was blow straight through them, then decelerate to engage the orbital forts, and he'd control the entire star system in time for a late dinner, he told himself, and smiled at the thought.

* * *

"Turnover on Force Alpha, My Lady," Bagwell reported, and Honor nodded, then rubbed her eyes yet again and turned to Allen Sewell once more.

"Time to Point Luck, Allen?"

"Approximately three-three-point-six minutes, My Lady." The astrogator replied so instantly she smiled, then looked down at her com link to Terrible's command deck, still rubbing Nimitz's ears.

"Begin shifting formation in five minutes, Alfredo," she said.

* * *

"Why aren't they decelerating, Citizen Admiral?" Preznikov asked. Thurston gave him a look of surprise, and the citizen commissioner gestured at the plot. "Their velocity's almost ten thousand kilometers per second, and ours is almost thirty thousand. Surely they don't want to let us past them to attack their planet!"

"They aren't decelerating, Citizen Commissioner," Thurston replied, "because they're battlecruisers and we're battleships. They can't fight us head-on, so they're trying to break past us, hopefully without getting hurt too badly in the process, to 'trap' us between them and Grayson."

"Trap us?" Preznikov looked puzzled, and Thurston nodded.

"As I say, those ships can't fight us, Sir—not and live—but they can pull a much higher acceleration once they get rid of their missile pods. They can overfly us, then use their decel advantage to get back into range of us before we hit the planet, and what they'd like is for us to be so worried by the possibility of their hitting us in the back that we decline to engage their orbital forts for fear they'll attack us from two directions at once." The citizen vice admiral shook his head. "It won't work, of course. We've got the firepower to deal with their forts and fend off their entire mobile force if we have to, but we won't. Most of them will be dead before they pass us, even with the closing velocity we'll have then."

"You sound very sure of that, Citizen Admiral."

"I am, Citizen Commissioner. Oh, fluke things can happen—and usually do—in battle, but the odds against them are just too high for it to work."

"If that's so obvious to you, then why are they trying it? Why isn't it equally obvious to them?"

"It is obvious to them." Thurston turned to gaze at the commissioner. "They understand the odds just as well as we do, Citizen Commissioner." He knew his voice was dangerously patient, but at the moment he didn't really care. "They've got a losing hand here, Sir, but it's the only hand they've got, and that planet—" he pointed at the green light code of Grayson "—is their home world. Their families are down there. Their children. They don't expect to live through this, but they'll play it out to the bitter end and hope somewhere, somehow, a break goes their way when they need it."

The citizen vice admiral shook his head, eyes once more on the crimson beads of the battlecruisers sweeping towards his formation, and sighed.

"They've got guts, Citizen Commissioner," he said quietly, "but they're not going to get that break. Not this time."

* * *

"Something funny going on here, Skip."

" 'Funny'? What d'you mean 'funny'?" Citizen Commander Caslet demanded. TG 14.1 sped straight towards the enemy at a combined closing velocity of over forty-six thousand KPS, which meant maximum effective missile range would be just over thirteen million kilometers. They'd enter that range in less than five more minutes, and he was more anxious than he wanted to reveal. Vaubon was only a light cruiser, hardly a high-priority target with battleships to shoot at, but there were light units on the other side, as well, and they might well choose to engage Vaubon simply because she was small enough they might actually get through her defenses.

"It's just—" Citizen Lieutenant Foraker leaned back, rubbing the tip of her nose, then grimaced. "Let me show you, Skip," she said, and switched her own tactical readouts to Caslet's tertiary display. "Watch this motion," she said, and he gazed intently at the display as the raggedy-assed enemy formation bobbed and swirled. There'd been some movement in it all along, but it had become more pronounced as the range dropped—a fact he'd put down to nerves.

"I don't—" he began, but Foraker was tapping commands into her console, and Caslet's mouth closed with a snap as the same movement replayed itself. The only difference was that this time a half-dozen or so of the dots left little worms of light behind, charting their paths, and the "formation" they'd dropped into. . . .

"What is that?" he asked slowly, and this time there was more than a trace of worry in his techno-nerd tactical officer's reply.

"Skip, if I didn't know better—and I don't know better—I'd say six of those battlecruisers just slid into a modified vertical wall of battle."

"That's crazy, Shannon," Caslet's astrogator said. "Battlecruisers don't form wall against battleships! That'd be suicide!"

"Yep," Foraker agreed. "That's exactly what it would be—for battlecruisers."

Caslet stared at the glowing light worms and felt his stomach drop clear out of the universe. It wasn't possible. And even if it were possible, surely one of the battlecruisers or battleships with their better sensors and more powerful computers would have seen it before a light cruiser did!

But those battlecruisers and battleships didn't have his resident tac witch, a cold, clear voice said in his brain.

"Communications! Get me a priority link to the Flag—now!"

* * *

"He says what?"

Thurston wheeled his command chair around to face his ops officer with a glare. The enemy formation had begun to put out decoys and brought its jammers on-line, which was making it even harder to keep track of anything in that mishmash formation. His own ships were doing the same things, of course, but the Manties had obviously provided their Grayson allies with first-line EW equipment. First-line Manty EW equipment, he amended sourly. The range had fallen to just under thirteen million kilometers, well within theoretical missile range, but those decoys and jammers cut the effective range to seventy percent of theoretical, max. He had perhaps four-and-a-half minutes before both sides began to fire, and he didn't have time for last-minute nonsense.

"Citizen Commander Caslet says a half-dozen of their BCs have dropped into a modified wall of battle, Citizen Admiral," his com officer repeated. The ops officer was bent too intently over an auxiliary plot watching something play out to respond, and Thurston glowered at his back. Then the man straightened and met his CO's eyes.

"Caslet . . . may have something, Citizen Admiral. Watch your plot."

Thurston swung back to his own display and opened his mouth impatiently, then paused. Six Alliance battlecruisers were now highlighted in a darker red, and they formed—indisputably, they formed—what might just possibly be a formal wall of battle. It was an unorthodox one, like a huge "V" laid on its side in space, but the intervals were unmistakable. The confusion of the rest of their formation had hidden it from him, but now that those individual units had been highlighted, the spacing virtually leapt out of the display at him. Yet there was something wrong with it. . . .

Citizen Vice Admiral Alexander Thurston punched a query into his console, and his face went pale as dispassionate computers answered it. No, that interval was all wrong for a wall of battlecruisers—but it was just right for one of superdreadnoughts. . . .

* * *

"All right, people." All of Honor's divisional commanders looked out from her subdivided com screen as they neared the point in space she'd named "Point Luck," and she gave them a smile she hoped looked more confident than exhausted. "I think we're about ready. Captain Yu," as in the RMN, so in the Grayson Navy, an admiral's flag captain was her tactical deputy, and Yu was far fresher than she, less likely to make a mistake through simple, molasses-minded fatigue, "the task force will rotate and engage on your signal."

"Aye, aye, My Lady," Alfredo Yu said quietly, then raised his voice to the other commanders. "The screen will scatter on my Alpha Mark; the squadron will rotate on my Beta Mark," he said crisply, and Honor sat back, waiting like every other officer in her task force, while her flag captain watched a digital timer tick downward.

"Twenty seconds," he said. "Ten. Five. Alpha Mark!"


Back | Next