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"I'm afraid we don't have much on their merchant raiders, Skipper." The air-conditioned bridge was cool, but Alistair McKeon scrubbed irritably at a drop of sweat on his forehead as he downloaded what he did have to Honor's secondary tactical display.

"We don't have anything at all to indicate they've modified Astra-class ships like Sirius, so there's no telling what they did to her, but some of the refugees from Trevor's Star gave ONI pretty good stats on a Q-ship built on a Trumball-class hull. She was over a million and a half tons smaller than Sirius, but it's all we've got."

Honor nodded, studying the readout and trying not to show her dismay. Smaller than Sirius or not, the Trumball-class Q-ship had been more powerfully armed than most modern heavy cruisers, and she scrolled through the data till she found the notes on its chase armament. Three missile tubes and a pair of spinal mount lasers fore and aft. If Sirius's chasers had simply been scaled up proportionally, her fire would be twice as heavy as anything with which Fearless could reply.

She leaned back in her chair and felt her bridge crew's tension. This was no Fleet maneuver, and even if it had been, there was no brilliant ploy to let them ambush Sirius. A stern chase sliced away the options, and Fearless's sole, tiny advantage was that she was a smaller target. Even that was offset by the fact that the open front of her impeller wedge was twice the size of the after edge of Sirius's wedge, and despite her lower acceleration, the "freighter's" greater mass gave her wedge more powerful stress bands and, probably, sidewalls, as well.

She bit her lip while her mind raced, searching for an answer, but her thoughts slithered like a groundcar on ice. Once her overtake velocity was high enough, she could try turning from side to side. At anything above two or three million kilometers, she couldn't turn far enough to completely interpose her sidewalls—not without giving up too much of her acceleration advantage, if she meant to stop the other ship short of the hyper limit—but at least she might deny Sirius straight down-the-throat shots by zig-zagging across her wake. It wasn't much, but it was absolutely all she could do, and her mouth tried to twist bitterly. All those clever maneuvers at ATC, all that sneaky forethought she'd put into ambushing Admiral D'Orville's flagship, and all she could think of to do now was writhe like a worm in hot ashes to avoid destruction.

She glanced back at McKeon, trying to get behind his eyes and read his thoughts. He was a tac officer by training, too; what did he think she should do? Had it occurred to him that all she had to do was break off the pursuit? Fearless was the pursuer, not the pursued. If Honor let Coglin go, Sirius would simply vanish into hyper-space, and Fearless would survive.

But it wasn't an option. She might well be wrong about Sirius's mission. She was preparing to throw away her ship and her crew's lives in pursuit of a foe at least five times as powerful as they were when it was entirely possible that foe posed no threat to the Kingdom at all. Yet she couldn't know that, and she did know that if Haven was prepared to risk open war to secure Basilisk, Coglin's freighter might bring overwhelming firepower into the system before Home Fleet could respond.

Which meant she had no choice at all.

She checked the chronometer again. Sixty-three minutes into the pursuit. She'd come thirty-six and a half million kilometers, and the range was down to seven-point-six million kilometers. Another thirteen-plus minutes until her missiles could reach Sirius before burnout. She looked down at the Havenite's light dot and wondered what he was thinking.

"What's the range, Jamal?"

"Two-five-point-three-five light-seconds, Captain."

"Time to hyper limit?"

"Ninety-four-point-six minutes."

"Their overtake speed?"

"Four-five-eight KPS, Sir."

"Missile flight time?"

"Approximately one-eight-nine seconds, Sir."

Coglin nodded and rubbed his lower lip. His missiles would still burn out nine seconds before they reached Fearless, and part of him wanted to wait. To conceal the fact that Sirius was armed until Fearless was close enough that his birds' drives would last all the way to their target. The chance of a hit would be marginally greater if they retained their power to maneuver and follow Fearless's evasion, but only marginally at such a range. And, truth to tell, it probably wouldn't really make a good goddamn's difference. Under power or ballistic, the flight time would be long enough to give the cruiser's point defense plenty of time to engage them.

Then again, he thought sourly, it was possible Harrington already suspected Sirius was armed. She certainly seemed to have figured everything else out! If she did suspect, holding his fire to try to surprise her would be pointless, yet even if she did suspect the truth, it was unlikely she realized quite how heavily armed the big Q-ship actually was. Coglin had come to possess a lively respect for the Manticoran officer's sheer guts as he watched her actions in Basilisk, but this was entirely too much like a mouse chasing a cat.

He considered his options carefully. The smartest thing to have done, he acknowledged grudgingly, would have been to obey Harrington's order to heave to. If he'd stopped, let the cruiser come into energy range, and then blown his panels, he could have wiped her out before she even realized what was happening. But he hadn't, and that mistake left him with a much less attractive range of choices.

Fearless was out-gunned by a factor of ten, whether Harrington knew it or not, but RMN cruisers were tougher than the numbers might suggest. If he turned on her, she would not only have the higher base velocity as they closed, but her higher acceleration and lower mass would make her far more maneuverable than Sirius in close combat. The way she'd taken out the courier boat's drive told him Harrington was no shiphandler to take lightly, and if his sidewalls were tougher than hers, her main impeller bands were just as impenetrable as his own. If he got drawn into a close-range dogfight against a more agile opponent, she might just get lucky and score a hit or two in the right place before she died. If she crippled his Warshawski sails, for example, it wouldn't even matter whether or not he could get into hyper. He'd get home eventually, no doubt, but he could never reach the rendezvous in time to stop the task force. Not under impeller drive alone, and especially not when he'd have to detour around the Tellerman rather than using it.

On the other hand, holding to his present course pointed his vulnerable stern straight at her, and it was always possible she might pop a missile past his point defense and through the rear of his wedge to score that same lucky hit. The odds were against it, given the angle at which any missile would have to come in, but it was possible. Yet his after firepower was three times as great as Fearless's forward armament, and he had missiles to burn, many times the number that could possibly be crammed into a Courageous-class cruiser's magazines. That meant he could start firing early and hope he got lucky, whereas Harrington's limited ammunition supply would force her to hold her fire until she could reasonably hope for a hit. And her ship's greater theoretical maneuverability wouldn't help her as long as he held the range open while he smashed at her.

The only drawback was that she might break off once she realized what she was up against, and if she did, he would have to let her go. He hated that. The instant he opened fire, she'd have proof he was armed. That would be bad. Not only would it give away the fact that Haven had armed some of its Astraclass ships as commerce raiders, but the fact that a Q-ship had been in the system would certainly be persuasive evidence that Haven had played a major role in fomenting the native unrest on Medusa. And if he opened fire before she did, then Haven would be guilty of committing the first overt act of war, as well. On the other hand, her only proof would be her instrument readings, and everyone knew data could be faked up. In effect, it would be Manticore's word against Haven's, and while that might be embarrassing to certain high-ranking jackasses who had planned this entire abortion, it wouldn't necessarily be disastrous to the Republic. More importantly, it wouldn't be disastrous to PMSS Sirius, the waiting task force, or Captain Johan Coglin.

No. Obliterating Fearless before she could tell Manticore—and the galaxy at large—that Sirius had been armed would be the best possible outcome, and if Harrington didn't break off or if an opportunity to destroy her without jeopardizing his primary mission presented itself, that was precisely what he would do. In the meantime, he'd concentrate on discouraging her and keeping her from reporting back in case he did get a chance to kill her, but he'd do it while he kept right on running away . . . even if he did have the more powerful ship.

"Inform me when missile flight time drops to one-eight-eight seconds, Jamal," he said. "And stand by to jam on my firing command."

"Yes, Sir."


The range continued to fall as Fearless's greater acceleration boosted her speed relative to Sirius. It wasn't a tremendous advantage at first, not when viewed against their absolute velocities, but it grew steadily, and a strange sort of tranquillity settled over Honor as it climbed.

She was committed. The first shot had yet to be fired—indeed, she didn't yet have any real proof Sirius was even armed—but she knew what was going to happen. Not how it was going to come out, perhaps, but how it was going to begin . . . and what she would do about it.

"Mr. Cardones," she said quietly.

"Yes, Ma'am?" Cardones sounded tense, perhaps a bit breathless, and very young, and she smiled at him.

"I imagine we're going to be under fire for some time before we can reply, Guns," she said, and saw his quick flush of pleasure, the slight relaxation of his shoulders, at her choice of title. "I don't want to do anything to suggest we suspect Sirius is armed until and unless she actually opens fire—she may let us in closer if she thinks we're unaware of the danger—but be ready to bring up the ECM and point defense the instant something comes our way. Don't wait for my order."

"Aye, aye, Captain."

"Mr. Panowski."

"Yes, Captain?" The navigator sounded much more anxious than Cardones, perhaps because he was a bit older, a bit more aware of his mortality.

"We're committed to a stern chase. Once we close to two million kilometers, however, I will want to zig-zag randomly either side of his base course to interpose our sidewalls as far as possible. Set up your plot accordingly and maintain a running update for Chief Killian."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am." Panowski turned to his console with renewed energy, as if relieved to have something to do. Or, Honor thought, perhaps it was her suggestion that they would survive to within two million kilometers. She felt herself smile once more, and to her amazement, it felt completely genuine. She looked up to see McKeon smiling back at her and shook her head at him. He shrugged, his smile suspiciously like a grin for just a moment, and she returned her attention to the chronometer. Sixty-six minutes into the pursuit.


"Missile flight time now one-eight-eight seconds, Sir."

"Very well." Coglin settled himself in his chair and crossed his legs. "Commence jamming and open fire with tubes twenty and twenty-one."

Buzzers snarled aboard Fearless.

Honor opened her mouth to snap orders, but Rafael Cardones had the reflexes of the very young. He had already reacted. The tactical board flashed as his ECM sprang from standby to active, and two fifty-ton decoys snapped out of their broadside bays, popping through specially opened portals in Fearless's sidewalls. Tractors moored them to the cruiser, holding the driveless lures on station to cover her flanks, as passive sensors listened to the incoming missiles, seeking the frequencies of their active homing systems, and jammers responded with white noise in an effort to blind them while fire control systems locked on the small, weaving targets.

Cardones started to reach for his counter-missile firing key, then paused and glanced over his shoulder at her.

"Not yet, Mr. Cardones," she said quietly. "Let the plot settle. Fire at a half-million kilometers to catch them as their drives go down."

"Yes, Ma'am."

The youthful tactical officer tapped the command into his computers, then sat tense and still, waiting, and Honor looked at Webster just as the com officer sat back from his own console in disgust. She raised an eyebrow in question, and he nodded.

"We're jammed, Ma'am. We're too far out on the wrong vector for me to hit any of the buckets in Medusa orbit with a laser, and they're blanketing everything else."

"Understood, Mr. Webster." She returned her attention to the tactical display, watching the missiles race towards her, and counted down the range. There! Cardones's counter-missiles streaked away at over ninety thousand gravities, charging to meet them, and she watched the incoming weapons' drives burn out. They coasted onward, suddenly sitting targets, unable to maneuver, and the counter-missiles adjusted their own vectors with finicky precision. They carried no warheads; their small but powerful impeller wedges were their weapons, sweeping the space before them, and she watched Sirius's missiles vanish from the display.

But there were two more behind them, and another pair launched as she watched. Cardones tapped keys, bringing his point defense laser clusters on line, and she made herself look calmly and deliberately at her own tactical readouts.

Ten more minutes before she could return fire with any realistic hope of a hit, and her forward magazines held less than sixty missiles. She couldn't waste them hoping for a lucky hit as Sirius was doing, and she cursed Lady Sonja Hemphill with cold and silent venom. If Hemphill hadn't butchered her armament, she might have turned long enough to open her broadside and pump a full seven-missile salvo back at Sirius, just to test the limits of her point defense. But she no longer had a seven-tube broadside, and even if she'd had one, she didn't have the missiles to support that kind of fire.

She looked back up as Cardones picked off two more missiles and suckered the third pair with his decoys.


Johan Coglin snorted through his nose as his light-speed sensors reported what had happened twenty-five lightseconds behind him. The speed with which Fearless's decoys and ECM had sprung into action certainly answered the question of whether or not Harrington had suspected Sirius was armed! And they were better than NavInt had projected, he noted. Fleet HQ had been unable to provide him with solid data on Manticoran system capabilities, and it seemed their estimates had been low.

He watched his display, noting the cool professionalism with which Fearless had held her counter-fire until she had perfect targets, and filed that away with all his other data on Commander Harrington's capabilities. A dangerous, dangerous woman, he told himself as two of his missiles were decoyed off course and exploded harmlessly outside Fearless's sidewalls. But not dangerous enough to make up for the difference in firepower.

"Go to rapid fire on twenty and twenty-one, Jamal," he said.

Honor winced inwardly as the Q-ship ahead of her began to spit paired missiles at fifteen-second intervals. They came racing astern from the big freighter, and the sheer prodigality of that stream of deadly projectiles was frightening. At that rate of fire, Sirius would fire off more missiles than her own forward magazines held in barely seven minutes, and she doubted it was a panic reaction. Coglin had been too cool and deliberate throughout. He knew precisely what he was doing, and that meant he had the magazine capacity to burn through ammo this way.

"Evasion pattern Echo-Seven-One, Chief Killian," she said.

"Aye, aye, Ma'am. Commencing Echo-Seven-One."

Echo-Seven-One was just about the simplest evasion pattern Honor had practiced with Killian, little more than an erratically timed barrel roll along the same vector. It only moved them a few dozen kilometers either side of their base course each time they rolled, but there wasn't a lot else Fearless could do to evade Sirius's fire. Not unless Honor wanted to angle far enough off the base track to interpose a sidewall, and that would give away too much of her acceleration advantage over the Q-ship. Yet it wasn't quite as useless as one might have thought, for she'd included Cardones and McKeon in the same drills. Now Cardones retained control of his active defenses, but McKeon took over the passive systems and began a deliberate jingle-jangle between the flanking decoys. Fearless's rolling progress swept them in a complete circuit about the cruiser, and the exec shifted their power levels in a carefully timed pattern which gave the impression that the ship's heading was veering from side to side, as well. It wasn't, of course, but, hopefully, Sirius's tactical officer would be forced to use up missiles covering the course changes the cruiser might be making because he couldn't be certain she wasn't.

Honor certainly hoped he would. The Q-ship's missiles were still burning out before they came in, but the engagement time between salvos was too short for Cardones to wait them out. He had to launch sooner, with poorer solutions and lower counter-missile accelerations to give him more time—and range—on their impeller wedges. The laser clusters began to fire as a handful of Sirius's shots got past his counter-missiles, and she looked up at the main visual display as incandescent bursts of brilliance pitted the starfield ahead of her. Unless she missed her guess about the warheads those missiles carried, she had to stop them at least twenty thousand kilometers short of her ship, and they looked frighteningly close.

But none of them were getting closer than a hundred thousand . . . yet.

* * *

"Coming up on twenty-four light-seconds' range, Captain," Lieutenant Commander Jamal reported. "We're getting them in closer, but those decoys of theirs are better than anything I've ever seen before."

Coglin grunted acknowledgment without even looking up from his tactical display. Jamal was right. Oh, there was more than a bit of ass-covering in his remark, but Fearless's ECM was a hell of a lot better than NavInt had believed possible, and it was making Jamal's job a pain in the ass. It was also using up a lot of ammunition, and he hated to think about how much money each of those missiles cost. He knew damned well some braided idiot was going to climb all over him for the expense, but they cost a lot less than Sirius did.

Honor flinched as Cardones finally missed an incoming missile. It darted in to twenty-two thousand kilometers; then it vanished in a brilliant eyeblink, and she bit her lip as her worst fears were confirmed. Sirius was using laser warheads, turning each missile into a remotely targeted cluster of bomb-pumped x-ray lasers.

The rate of closure was over seventy-seven thousand KPS, which didn't allow for a lot of accuracy from the fire control that could be squeezed into a warhead, especially not fire control dazzled by McKeon's ECM, but one of the beams picked off her port decoy. McKeon deployed another without orders or comment, but there was no need for comments. Fearless carried only three more decoys; when they were gone, her ECM's effectiveness would be more than halved, and she hadn't even gotten into range of her opponent yet.

Captain Coglin's smile was thin as his first warhead got close enough to detonate. There was no sign it had inflicted any damage, but that would come in time.

"Range coming down to twenty-three-point-four light-seconds." Cardones's harsh voice showed the strain of thirteen minutes under fire to which he could not reply, but there was exultation in it, as well.

"Very good, Guns." Honor heard a shadow of matching hunger in her own voice. They'd lost another decoy, but they'd been incredibly lucky so far. Fearless was undamaged—and she had the range at last.

"Fire plan Tango on my command," she said.

"Aye, aye, Ma'am. Setting up fire plan Tango." The lieutenant punched commands into his systems. "Fire plan Tango locked."

"Then you may engage, Guns."


"Incoming fire!" Jamal snapped, and Coglin smothered a curse. Damn it, what did it take to hit that frigging ship?! He'd fired over ninety missiles so far; six of them had gotten through Fearless's counter-fire, but the cruiser's ECM was hellishly effective, and not one of them had scored a hit! Now Harrington was shooting back, and despite his firepower advantage, he felt a shiver of anxiety. But if the range was low enough to let her fire full-power shots, the same was true for him, he told himself firmly.


Coglin's head jerked up as Jamal spat out the incredulous curse. A damage alarm screamed, the bridge twitched, and he whipped around to his display in panic, then relaxed convulsively. The laser warhead had savaged Sirius's flank, ripping number four cargo hold open to space like a huge talon, but number four was empty, and Sirius had suffered no casualties. Her capabilities were unimpaired, and he swiveled his cold eyes to the tactical officer.

"Well, Jamal?" he snapped.

"They suckered me, Sir," Jamal admitted. Sweat beaded his forehead, but his fingers were already racing across his panel. "They fired a pair of laser warheads and staggered their launch." He pressed the commit key, locking his new firing orders into the point defense computers, and twisted around to return his captain's look. "The interval was less than half a second, but the lead missile mounted some kind of ECM emitter, Captain. I'm not sure what it was, but it covered the gap between their launch times. The computers thought they were coming in simultaneously, and our fire solution missed the separation, so we nailed the lead bird, but the second one got through. It won't happen again, Sir."

"It better not," Coglin growled. "It's a hell of a long walk home." He glared at his display and bared his teeth. So Commander Harrington wanted to show him a few surprises, did she? Well, he had one for her, as well.

"Go to rapid fire on all after tubes," he said coldly.

* * *

"A hit, Ma'am!" Cardones crowed. The gush of escaping air was clear to his sensors, like blood on a wounded animal's flank, and a soft sound of approval rippled across the bridge.

Honor didn't share it. She was watching her other sensors, and there was no change in Sirius's energy profile. She understood Cardones's jubilation perfectly—a similar hit on Fearless would have inflicted serious damage—but he'd forgotten how big Sirius was. She could suck up far more destruction than Fearless could, and—

The tactical display blinked, and Honor inhaled sharply. Sirius was no longer firing salvos of two missiles each; she was firing six at a time.

The two ships charged onward, and Fearless writhed from side to side under her opponent's steady pounding. Honor felt sweat trickle down her temple and wiped it irritably away, hoping no one had noticed it. She was losing a tiny fraction of her effective acceleration advantage, yet she had no choice; the shallow S-turns she'd added to Killian's wild, erratic rolls weren't much, but she'd lost another decoy. She had only one spare left, now, and the hail of missiles sleeting at her from Sirius was inconceivable. A regular capital ship might have fired more in a single salvo, but no warship—not even a superdreadnought—boasted the magazine capacity to keep up such density for so long! She herself was able to fire little more than one salvo a minute; for every missile she sent after Sirius, the Q-ship sent twelve back into her teeth.

Sweat plastered Cardones's hair to his scalp, and McKeon's face was etched with strain as the two of them battled against that incredible weight of fire and tried to strike back. They were outclassed. She knew it, and every one of her officers knew it as well, but she no longer even thought of breaking off. She had to stop that ship, and somehow—

Fearless lurched. The entire ship bucked like a terrified thing, alarms howled, and Killian's head jerked up.

"Forward impellers down!" he barked.

Dominica Santos's face went white in Central Damage Control as the focused blast of X rays slashed into Fearless's bows. Alarms shrieked at her, screaming like damned souls until Lieutenant Manning stabbed the button that killed them.

"Forward hold open to space. Mooring Tractor One's gone. Heavy casualties in Fusion One," Manning snapped. "Oh, Jesus! We've lost Alpha Two, Ma'am!"

"Shit!" Santos pounded on her keyboard, querying the central computers, and swore again as a scarlet-daubed schematic of the forward impeller nodes flashed before her. She studied the damage for just a moment, dark eyes bitter, then hit her intercom key.

"Bridge. Captain," a cool soprano, barely frayed about the edges, said in her ear.

"Skipper, this is Santos. The whole forward drive segment's gone into automatic shutdown. We've lost Number Two Alpha node, and it looks like Beta Three went with it."

"Can you restore them?" There was urgency in the captain's voice, and Santos closed her eyes in furious thought.

"No way, Ma'am," she said through gritted teeth. Her eyes popped back open, and she traced the blinking schematic with a fingertip while her mind raced. Then she nodded to herself. "The main ring's broken at Alpha Two and Beta Three. I think we've got some more damage at Beta Four, but the rest of the ring looks okay," she said. "I can probably route around the wrecked nodes, then run up Beta Two and Four—assuming Four's still with us—to compensate in the impeller wedge, but it's going to take time."

"How long?"

"Ten, maybe fifteen minutes, Ma'am. At best."

"Very well, Dominica. Get on it as quickly as you can."

"I'm on it, Skipper!" Santos unlocked her shock frame and jerked up out of her chair. "Allen, I'm going forward. You're damage control officer till I get back."

"But what about Fusion One?" Manning demanded. "It's open to space and we've lost two-thirds of the forward power watch!"

"Oh, shit!" Santos bent over his panel, studying the readouts, and her face tightened. Not only were most of her people dead, but there was already an imbalance in the fusion bottle temperature. She stabbed keys and grunted in relief as the data readouts changed.

"The bottle's holding steady," she said quickly. "Cut the reactor out of the circuit to be safe—Fusion Two can handle the load—and keep an eye on that temperature. If it starts climbing any faster than it is, let me know."

"Yes, Ma'am." Manning bent back over his console, and Santos headed for the hatch at a run.

* * *

"Direct hit, Sir!" Lieutenant Commander Jamal announced, and Coglin nodded in sharp approval. At last! And about damned time, too; they'd been firing at Fearless for over seventeen minutes.

"Her acceleration's falling, Sir." Jamal's voice was sharp with excitement, and he grinned hugely. "We must have taken out her forward impellers!"

"Good, Jamal. Very good! Now do it again," Coglin growled.

"Aye, aye, Sir!"


Honor bit her lip so hard she tasted blood, but somehow she kept the sickness from her face. Fearless had just dropped to half power, which was bad enough, but the loss of the alpha node could be disaster. Despite the loss in acceleration, she was continuing to close the range on Sirius, if more slowly, for her velocity was almost fifteen hundred KPS higher than the Q-ship's. But Sirius was now out-accelerating her by almost 1.5 KPS2. Unless Santos could restore the forward nodes, the range would begin to open again in less than seventeen minutes.

Yet that was the least of Honor's worries. She stared into the visual display, watching it sparkle and flash as Fearless's over-strained point defense beat aside the missiles coming in at shorter and shorter intervals, and fought her despair.

Without the alpha node, Fearless couldn't reconfigure her forward impellers for Warshawski sail. If Sirius broke through into hyper-space and reached the Tellerman, she would run away from Fearless at over ten times the cruiser's maximum acceleration . . . and Honor couldn't follow her into the wave on impellers alone, anyway.

She had forty-three minutes to destroy the Q-ship; otherwise, it had all been for nothing.


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