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Prologue

Admiral of the Green Hamish Alexander, Thirteenth Earl of White Haven, sat on HMS Queen Caitrin's flag deck and gazed into his display. The Nightingale System's G3 primary was a white speck of fire, and its single habitable planet, too distant to be seen on visuals, showed as a tiny, blue-green light deep in the plot.


So did the angry red rash of enemy warships between it and Queen Caitrin, and White Haven studied that crimson wall of light with care. The People's Navy's sensors had detected him hours ago, but the Peeps hadn't tried anything fancy; they'd simply formed a wall between his task force and its objective and steered to meet him well inside the system's hyper limit. That left him the initiative, yet there was only so much he could do with it. They knew why he was here, and they were inside him and able to stay there. Worse, they were staying together, without the erratic maneuvering he'd seen so often. They outnumbered him by four to three, and he'd abandoned any thought of tactical sleight of hand in the face of their steadiness, but he was confident in his ships' qualitative superiority. If he could neither split them up nor outmaneuver them, he was willing enough to meet them head-on.


He checked the range once more, then looked into the com screen to Queen Caitrin's command deck.


"Very well, Captain Goldstein. You may open fire."


"Aye, aye, My Lord!" Captain Frederick Goldstein rapped, and the first, massive salvo spat from Queen Caitrin's port broadside.


The rest of Battle Squadron Twenty-One fired with her, and all eight superdreadnoughts simultaneously flushed the missile pods towing astern of them. BatRon Eight and BatRon Seventeen's dreadnoughts followed suit, and thirty-two hundred impeller drive missiles lanced out across five and a half million kilometers of vacuum.


White Haven watched their outgoing tracks, and his frown deepened. The opening phase was almost classic, straight out of the tac manuals, yet he felt a nagging, unformed uneasiness. He had nothing overt to justify it, but there were more targets over there than there should have been. Peep resistance had been spotty for months, based on whatever frontier formations had held together long enough to be redeployed against Manticore's drive on Trevor's Star. But this formation's unit strength looked far more like a proper task force, and the difference between its steady, unswerving course and the confusion which had plagued Peep fleet commanders since the war's start was too marked. It roused an instinctive wariness, and that instinct jabbed at him like a sharp stick. It was why he'd fired at such long range rather than closing before he unleashed his first and heaviest salvo, and he made himself sit motionless, fighting an urge to fidget, as return fire stippled his plot.


That fire was lighter than the deluge his own ships had spawned, for the Peeps had no equivalent of Manticore's missile pods, but there were four full battle squadrons—thirty-two ships of the wall, all of them superdreadnoughts—over there. The Peep wall of battle spat twelve hundred birds back at him, and White Haven swallowed a stillborn curse as he realized they'd concentrated solely on BatRon Twenty-One's eight units.


The deadly fireflies streaked towards one another. Queen Caitrin twitched as she expelled her second broadside, and her third, and then the green dots of defensive fire spewed out to meet the destruction roaring down on White Haven's lead squadron. Peep missiles began to die, ripped apart by charging counter missiles, but there were simply too many targets. The Peeps were catching on; their tightly concentrated fire was an unmistakable bid to saturate BatRon Twenty-One's point defense, and despite Manticore's superior technology, at least some of that massive salvo would get through.


White Haven's opening broadsides reached attack range first and drove in through the desperate lattice of last ditch defenses. Lasers swiveled and spat coherent light, fighting to kill the incoming missiles at least twenty-five thousand kilometers out, but probability theory plays no favorites. White Haven had spread his fire over three squadrons, not one, yet his salvo density was actually greater, and bomb-pumped lasers gouged at their targets as laser heads began to detonate.


Impeller wedge sidewalls twisted and attenuated the beams, but scores of them got through, and battle steel hulls spat glowing splinters. Atmosphere streamed from the Peep leviathans' lacerated flanks, men and women died, weapons were smashed away, and energy signatures fluctuated as drive nodes blew apart. Yet even as White Haven's missiles pounded his enemies, the remnants of the first massive Havenite salvo broke past his own counter missiles. It was his laser clusters' turn to spit fire, but BatRon Eight's lasers were too far astern to range effectively. It was all up to BatRon Twenty-One and BatRon Seventeen, and they simply had too few clusters. Sheer weight of numbers swamped them, and the green lights of friendly ships flashed the spiteful sparkle of battle damage.


Fresh salvos scorched out, battle chatter and the beep of priority signals washed about White Haven, and his eyes narrowed. His squadron commanders and captains knew their business, and their first broadsides had hurt the Peeps badly. CIC's estimates of enemy damage danced across the bottom of his display, and three times as many Peep ships had taken hits. One or two looked to have been half-wrecked, but they kept coming, and Queen Caitrin lurched as something got through to her. She bucked again to a second hit, and his plot flickered. It steadied almost instantly, and a corner of his mind noted the damage control side-bar. Queen Caitrin's wounds were light, but the two walls of battle angled together, missiles streaking back and forth with mounting fury as the range fell, and he knew it was going to be ugly.


"There goes the first one, My Lord!" his chief of staff announced as a crippled superdreadnought pulled out of the enemy wall and rolled up to interpose the belly of its wedge against the Manticoran fire.


"I see it, Byron," White Haven replied, but his flat voice lacked Captain Hunter's exultation, for his sense of this engagement's new and dangerous rhythm only grew as the wounded vessel withdrew. Mounting damage might have driven that ship out of formation, but its consorts held their course, missile tubes belching back at his wall, and his jaw clenched as he realized the Peeps had finally gotten themselves back together. Their initial, concentrated targeting had been a far cry from the dispersal of the earlier battles, and so was their steadiness under fire. By now, that wall should have been shedding ships by twos and threes. It was being hit far harder than his own, and the fresh proof of Manticore's technical superiority should have taken the heart out of the demoralized Peeps. But it hadn't, and that was frightening to any admiral who knew how the People's Navy still outnumbered the RMN. These people knew Manticore's superior missiles and electronics gave White Haven every advantage in a missile engagement, and they were coming in anyway, taking their losses in ships and lives to get to energy weapon range.


A green light in the plot suddenly flashed the red critical damage icon as half a dozen Peep lasers blasted into HMS King Michael, and White Haven's hands clenched on his command chair's arms. The superdreadnought's wedge faltered, then came back up, and for a moment he thought that was the extent of it—until the entire ship simply blew apart. Eight-and-a-third-million tons of warship and six thousand human beings vanished in a sun-bright boil of plasma, and someone behind him gasped in horror.


"Starboard fifteen, Captain Goldstein." White Haven's voice was cold as his eyes while his flag captain acknowledged the order. His vector edged away from the Peeps—not in flight, but simply to hold the range open and exploit Manticore's missile advantage—and his lips tightened as the Havenite force matched his maneuver. More than matched it; they were coming in even more sharply, despite the marginally better angle that gave his fire. More of his missiles were detonating in front of their ships now, sending lasers lashing down their wedges' open throats, and the first Havenite ship suddenly exploded. The range was down to a bare four million kilometers, and more of White Haven's ships were taking hits, but so were the Peeps. Another enemy ship blew apart, then a third. CIC's projections flickered and changed, the odds against his command falling as still more Peep weapons were destroyed, and he bared his teeth as he felt them shifting in his favor.


"Port ten, Captain Goldstein. If they want to close, let's oblige them."


"Aye, aye, My Lord. Coming ten degrees to port," Goldstein replied, and the task force stopped trying to hold the range open. The missile exchange redoubled, but the weight of fire favored Manticore more and more heavily as Peep launchers fell silent. Another Havenite fell out of the wall, covering herself with her impeller wedge as best she could, and something stirred in the back of White Haven's mind. That was five Peep SDs destroyed or out of action to only one of his. At this rate, he'd have a decisive edge, even at energy range, when the two fleets finally came together. Whoever was in command over there had to know that, so why in hell was he still coming in this way? Nightingale was an important outwork for Trevor's Star, but hardly worth the destruction of a force this size! There had to be a reason—


"New contact! Multiple contacts—multiple capital ship impeller sources at zero-four-six zero-three-niner! Range one-eight million klicks and closing! Designate this force Bogey Two!"


White Haven's head snapped around to the main plot as the passionless computers updated it. Two dozen fresh lights glowed crimson off Queen Caitrin's starboard bow as a second force of Peep superdreadnoughts lit off their drives, and his nostrils flared in sudden understanding.


No wonder that wall had closed so steadily! White Haven extended his enemies a single moment of ungrudging respect as he recognized the trap into which that unflinching Peep formation was herding his own. Another fifteen minutes, and he would have been hopelessly boxed, committed to close action against Bogey One even as Bogey Two came boring into his flank from above, and he'd walked straight into it.


But they didn't have him boxed yet, he thought grimly. The new Peep government's purges of its officer corps had cost them dearly in experience, and it showed. Bogey Two's commander had jumped the gun, possibly out of panic at the losses Bogey One was taking, and lit off his drives too soon. A more experienced CO would have waited, whatever happened to Bogey One, until he had the Manticoran wall at point-blank, trapped between both enemy walls and with its long-range advantages negated in an energy weapon engagement.


White Haven studied the projected vectors, and his blue eyes hardened in concentration. He couldn't fight a force that size and live. He had to break back across the hyper limit before they trapped him, and he couldn't simply reverse course to do it. The Peeps' vectors converged twelve million kilometers ahead of him on his present track, and his velocity was too high to kill before he reached that point. His only chance was to break to port, away from Bogey Two, but that would take him right into Bogey One's teeth, and for all its damage, Bogey One still had the energy weapons to kill too many of his ships.


He made himself accept it. It was going to be even uglier than he'd thought, but at least his people would give as good as they got as they broke past Bogey One's wall. His fingers flew as he punched a new course into his auxiliary astrogation display. Numbers flickered, and a core of fire flashed in his eyes as vector projections changed. He was ahead of Bogey One. Not by much, but by enough that he could cross its track without turning straight into its broadsides and letting them rake his entire wall. The Peeps would have to alter course, curving inside him, or let him cross their wall's bows. They could stay with him, if they chose, draw out the pounding match to cost him more ships, but it would cost them more ships, too.


"Come to two-seven-zero zero-zero-zero! Maximum military power! All units roll ship against Bogey Two and continue engagement against Bogey One!"


Acknowledgments crackled, and his wall turned sharply towards Bogey One. Its units rolled, presenting the roofs of their impeller wedges to Bogey Two—still far beyond the powered missile envelope—while their own missiles ripped into Bogey One across the dwindling light-seconds between them, and White Haven glared at his plot as he ran for it.


And he was running. He knew it, just as he knew how much the approaching beam engagement was going to cost, and so did everyone else, the Peeps as well as his own people. For the first time, the People's Republic of Haven had stopped a Manticoran offensive cold, and he watched numbers dance across the bottom of his plot as both Peep forces changed course and CIC worked the new numbers to tell him just how bad it was going to be.


It would be close, even if he made it out, but the problem with this sort of trap was that the timing had to be exactly right. Space was big enough to hide whole fleets as long as they radiated no betraying emissions, yet for an ambush to succeed, the ambushers had to be on the right vector when they did bring their drives up, and even when the intended victim cooperated as he had—


The numbers froze, and Hamish Alexander breathed a silent, heartfelt prayer of thanks. They'd missed. Bogey Two had lit off its drives just too soon to catch him. That meant it was all up to Bogey One, and—


Another green light flashed scarlet in his plot, and he tasted blood from a bitten lip as HMS Thunderer broke in half. Life pod beacons flashed in the display as her survivors bailed out, but he could do nothing for them. If he slowed to pick them up, Bogey Two would overhaul his wall, and any light units he detached for search and rescue purposes would be overtaken and destroyed.


Thunderer's broken halves vanished in a brilliant flash as her scuttling charges blew. A sixth Peep superdreadnought joined her in death moments later, and Hamish Alexander clenched his jaw and shoved himself firmly back in his command chair. At least Bogey Two would have plenty of ships available for SAR. No doubt they'd pick up his people as well as their own, and he tried to soothe his guilt with that cold comfort. A prisoner of war camp—even a Peep POW camp—was better than death, he told himself bitterly.


"Energy range in thirty-seven minutes, My Lord," Captain Hunter said quietly. "CIC estimates Bogey One can stay with us clear to the hyper limit if it wants to."


"Understood." White Haven made himself sound calm and unworried. He knew he wasn't fooling Hunter, but the rules required them both to pretend.


He watched a seventh SD withdraw from Bogey One's wall and tried to be glad. It was only twenty-two to twenty-five, now, and his missile crews would make those odds still better before they reached beam range, yet Bogey One maintained its unwavering course. The People's Navy was larger than the RMN, able to accept heavier losses, and Bogey One's obvious intention to do just that sent a fresh chill through White Haven.


The war had just changed, he thought distantly, watching the exchange of fire grow still more furious. The Peeps were back on balance. They were initiating, no longer reacting with clumsy panic to Manticoran attacks. He'd known it was coming, that the People's Republic was simply too vast to be toppled in a rush, but he'd prayed for it to take longer. Now he knew it hadn't, and he drew a deep breath.


"We'll go with Delta-Three, Byron," he said quietly, formally committing himself to hyper out and run for it as quickly as possible. "Put everything we've got on their central squadron. That's probably where their flagship is; maybe we can take it out before we get to energy range."


"Aye, aye, My Lord," Captain Hunter replied.


The Earl of White Haven listened to his chief of staff passing orders over the task force command net and leaned back in his chair, watching the flash of warheads pock the visual display. He'd done all he could.


Now it only remained to see how many of his people would survive.


 


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