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An admiral's vac suit looked out of place on HMS Madrigal's cramped bridge, for a destroyer had never been intended as a flagship. The assistant astrogator had been squeezed out of his position at Lieutenant Macomb's elbow to provide Courvosier with a chair and a maneuvering display, and if Commander Alvarez seemed totally unbothered, almost everyone else was clearly a little ill at ease in his august presence.

But Lieutenant Commander Mercedes Brigham wasn't. Madrigal's exec had other things on her mind as she stood at the tactical officer's shoulder and peered at her displays, and those displays were why Courvosier wouldn't have been anywhere else, for they gave Madrigal infinitely better information than any other ship in the small fleet accelerating away from Grayson.

The admiral leaned back, resting one hand on his chair's waiting shock frame, and watched his own readouts. His cramped screen wasn't as detailed as the one Brigham and Lieutenant Yountz studied so intently, but it showed the Grayson ships deployed protectively about Madrigal. They'd lost a half-hour of their anticipated "free time" because a single Masadan destroyer had lagged behind her withdrawing consorts for some reason; aside from that everything was exactly on schedule, and two Grayson destroyers led Madrigal by a light-second and a half, covered by her sensors yet interposing themselves between her and any threat. Not that they were likely to meet one with her to watch their backs, but the Graysons were guarding her like a queen.

It was odd, Courvosier thought. Manticoran destroyers had excellent sensor suites for their displacement, but they were hardly superdreadnoughts. Yet at this moment, Madrigal was the closest thing around. She was a pygmy beside Honor's Fearless, much less a battlecruiser or ship-of-the-wall, but she massed barely twelve thousand tons less than Yanakov's flagship, and her command and control facilities, like her firepower, were light-seconds beyond the best the Graysons could boast.

Given the way Grayson's original colonists had marooned themselves, it was little short of miraculous their descendants had managed to rediscover so much—and survive—on their own, but their tech base was patchy. They'd been fifteen hundred years behind the rest of the galaxy when they were finally rediscovered, yet the progeny of Austin Grayson's anti-tech followers had demonstrated a positive genius for adapting what they already knew to any new scrap of technology they got their hands on.

Neither Endicott nor Yeltsin had been able to attract significant outside help until the Haven-Manticore confrontation spilled over on them. Both were crushingly impoverished; no one in his right mind voluntarily immigrated to an environment like Grayson's; and Masada's theocratic totalitarians didn't even want outsiders. Under the circumstances, the Graysons had made up a phenomenal amount of ground in the two centuries since their rediscovery by the galaxy at large, but there were still holes, and some of them were gaping ones.

Grayson fusion plants were four times as massive as modern reactors of similar output (which was why they still used so many fission plants), and their military hardware was equally out of date—they still used printed circuits, with enormous mass penalties and catastrophic consequences for designed lifetimes—though there were a few unexpected surprises in their mixed technological bag. For example, the Grayson Navy had quite literally invented its own inertial compensator thirty T-years ago because it hadn't been able to get anyone else to explain how it was done. It was a clumsy, bulky thing, thanks to the components they had to use, but from what he'd seen of its stats, it might just be marginally more efficient than Manticore's.

For all that, their energy weapons were pitiful by modern standards, and their missiles were almost worse. Their point defense missiles used reaction drives, for God's sake! That had stunned Courvosier—until he discovered that their smallest impeller missile massed over a hundred and twenty tons. That was fifty percent more than a Manticoran ship-killer, much less a point defense missile, which explained why they had to accept shorter-ranged, less capable counter missiles. At least they were small enough to carry in worthwhile numbers, and it wasn't quite as bad as it might have been, if only because the missiles they had to stop were so limited. Grayson missiles were slow, short-legged, and myopic. Worse, they required direct hits, and their penaids might as well not exist. They weren't even in shouting range of Madrigal's systems, and the destroyer could take any three Grayson—or Masadan—light cruisers in a stand-up fight.

Which, he reflected grimly, might be just as well in the next several hours, for something still bothered him about the entire Masadan operational pattern. It was too predictable, too . . . stupid. Of course, closing to three million klicks before engaging Orbit Four hadn't exactly been a gem of genius, either, but the Graysons and Masadans had fought their last war with chem-fuel missiles and no inertial compensators at all. Their capabilities had leapt ahead by eight centuries or so in the last thirty-five years, so perhaps closing that way resulted from simple inexperience with their new weapons mix.

But Grayson wouldn't have done it, his doubts told him, for Yanakov had seen to it that his people knew exactly what their systems could do. Then again, Yanakov was a remarkable man in many ways, not simply as an officer, and Courvosier regretted the brevity of his lifespan, already nearing its end after less than sixty years, almost as much as he regretted Fearless's absence.

He snorted to himself. Perhaps he shouldn't apply Yanakov's standards to his opponents, but he'd never met any Masadans. Maybe that was his problem. Maybe he was giving them too much credit because, despite their crude hardware, the Graysons were so good. Their opposition might really be as bad as their ops patterns suggested.

He shrugged. He was going to discover the truth soon enough, and-

"Ma'am, I've got—"

"I see it, Mai-ling." Brigham touched the ensign at the assistant tactical officer's station lightly on the shoulder and looked at Alvarez.

"We've got them on gravitics, Skipper, bearing three-five-two by zero-zero-eight. Range nineteen-point-one light-minutes, speed three-zero-eight-eight-nine KPS, accelerating at four-point-nine-zero KPS squared." She leaned closer to the display, studying data codes, then nodded. "All there, Sir. And they're on course for Orbit Seven."

"Closure time?" Alvarez asked.

"They'll cross our track port to starboard and begin opening the range in two-three-point-two-two-niner minutes, Sir," Lieutenant Yountz replied. "At present acceleration, we'll reach the crossover point in niner-seven-point-six minutes."

"Thank you, Janice." Alvarez glanced at the ensign beside his tac officer. Mai-ling Jackson was a petite young lady who reminded Courvosier a great deal of Dr. Allison Harrington, and he'd already noted the way her seniors trusted her judgment, especially where Grayson systems capabilities were concerned. "How long until their sensors can pick us up, Mai-ling?"

"Assuming we both maintain our current accelerations, make it . . . two-zero-point-niner minutes, Sir."

"Thank you." Alvarez turned to Courvosier. "Admiral?"

"Admiral Yanakov will have the data from CIC," Courvosier said, "but double-check to be certain."

"Aye, aye, Sir," Alvarez replied, and Lieutenant Cummings became very busy at his com panel.

"Flag confirms copy of our data, Skipper," he said after a moment. "Grayson is feeding us a fleet course change."

"Understood. Do you have it, Astro?"

"Aye, aye, Sir—coming up on the computers now." Lieutenant Macomb studied his panel. "Course change to one-five-one two-four-seven true with impeller shutdown in one-niner minutes, Sir."

"Make it so," Alvarez replied, and Yountz punched buttons.

"That brings us across their projected track in one-one-two minutes," she reported. "Assuming their acceleration remains unchanged, the range will be four-point-one-one-six light-minutes at crossover, but if they maintain heading and acceleration, they'll reach the point of no return for their recovery vector in just over nine minutes from our shutdown, Sir."

Alvarez nodded, and Courvosier echoed his gesture with a mental nod of silent satisfaction. Yanakov might be cutting his drives a little sooner than he had to, but it was probably better to be conservative.

He made quick calculations on his own number pad, and his smile grew predatory as the solution blinked. If the task force coasted for just thirteen minutes, then went back to max accel on an intercept vector, the Masadans would have to accept action or cut and run for the hyper limit the instant they saw its impeller signatures. If they ran, Yanakov would never catch them, but if he was right about their having supply ships out here, that would be tantamount to abandoning them to his mercy. And that would spell the defeat of their current operations at least until Honor got back.

And, his smile grew even more predatory, it was unlikely the Masadan commander would break off. He might have lost a light cruiser, but he still had nine ships to Yanakov's seven, and Yanakov had left the Glory in Grayson orbit. She was his oldest, least capable cruiser, and she'd been completing a routine maintenance cycle when everything broke loose. She needed another twenty hours to get back on line, but her absence had left a hole in Yanakov's order of battle for Madrigal to fill. With any luck, the Masadans would accept battle with their outnumbered enemies without realizing Grayson's third "cruiser" was, in fact, a Manticoran destroyer, and wouldn't that just be too bad?

* * *

High Admiral Yanakov sat on his own bridge and yearned silently for the nest of repeaters which surrounded the captain's chair on a Manticoran warship. He had a clear view of all really critical readouts, but he didn't have anything like a Manticoran CO's ability to manipulate data.

Still, the situation was clear enough just now—thanks to Madrigal's keen eyes. He felt an odd, godlike sense of detachment, for he could see every move the Masadans made, but they couldn't even guess he was watching them. Their ships slid onward, driving ever deeper into the trap as his own vector angled towards theirs, and he smiled.

* * *

"Where are their LACs?" Sword of the Faithful Simonds fretted yet again as he stared into Thunder of God's holo sphere, and Captain Yu suppressed a desire to bite his head off.

Damn it, the man was supposed to be a naval officer! He ought to know no plan—especially one this complex—survived contact with the enemy. No one could cover all the variables, which was why Jericho had been planned with plenty of redundancy. Only a fool relied on a plan in which everything had to go right, and killing LACs was completely unnecessary.

For that matter, the entire trap was unnecessary. Left to his own devices, Yu would have preferred a direct, frontal assault, trusting Thunder's missile batteries to annihilate any defenders before they ever reached their own combat range of her. But for all their vocal faith in their own perfection as God's Chosen, what passed for Masada's General Staff held the Grayson military in almost superstitious dread. They seemed unaware of the true extent of the advantage Thunder gave them, but then, most of them had been very junior officers during Masada's last attempt to conquer Yeltsin's Star. That had been the sort of disaster even the most competent military people tended to remember with dread . . . and most of the senior officers who'd launched it and escaped death at Grayson hands had found it from the Church their failure had "betrayed." The consequences to fleet morale and training had been entirely predictable, and Yu had to concede that the present Grayson Navy was at least half again as efficient as his own allies.

The Masadans refused to admit that . . . but they'd also insisted the Grayson Navy must be wiped out, or at least crippled, before Thunder's existence was revealed to the enemy. The possible intervention of a Manticoran warship had made them even more insistent, yet despite all Thunder of God could do for them, it was the Graysons and their primitive weapons that really worried them. Which was stupid, but telling them so wouldn't be the most diplomatic thing he could possibly do, now would it?

"They've clearly left them home, Sir," he said instead, as patiently as he could. "Given what they know, that was the best decision they could have made. LACs would have reduced their fleet acceleration by twenty-five percent, and the LACs themselves are much more fragile than proper starships."

"Yes, and they don't need them, do they?" Anxiety put a venomous edge in Simonds' question, and he pointed to a single light code. "So much for your assumption the Manticoran warship would sit this operation out, Captain!"

"Its intervention was always a possibility, Sir. As I said at the time." Yu smiled, carefully not saying that, contrary to what he'd told the Council of Elders, he'd assumed from the beginning that the Manticorans probably would pitch in. If he'd told them that, the Masadan Navy would have sat in its corner and shit its vac suits rather than commit to Jericho. "And, Sir," he added, "please note that sh-he is, indeed, only a destroyer. A nasty handful for your people, yes, but no match for Thunder and Principality."

"But they're not coming in on the vector we wanted," Simonds stewed.

One or two people turned to glance at the sword, then whipped back around as they caught their captain's cold stare, yet Simonds hadn't even noticed. He was too busy glaring at Yu, as if challenging the captain to dispute his statement, but Yu said nothing. There really wasn't any point.

There'd never been any way to guarantee the exact course the enemy might follow once their own forces were spotted. In point of fact, Yu was quite pleased with how close his predictions had come. Thunder of God had enough tracking range to put the regular Masadan ships on the proper incursion vector even with light-speed communications, and the Grayson commander had selected very nearly the exact course change Yu had projected. Anyone but an idiot—or someone as badly rattled as Sword Simonds—would have allowed for how vast the field of maneuver was. Yu would have settled for getting one of his ships into attack range; as it was, both of them would have the reach, if only barely.

"They'll cross your range more than six hundred thousand kilometers out at almost point-five cee!" Simonds went on. "And look at that vector! There's no way we'll be able to fire down their wedges, and that makes Thunder's energy weapons useless."

"Sir," Yu said even more patiently, "no one can count on having an enemy voluntarily cross his own T. And if we have to take on their sidewalls, that's the reason our missiles have laser heads."


"They may not be on the exact vector we wanted, Sir, but our flight time will be under forty seconds at their closest approach. Principality's will be somewhat longer, true, but they won't even know we're here until we launch, and there's no way they can localize us to shoot back."

Yu himself would have been happier if his targets had come straight at him, though he had no intention of telling Simonds that. Had they done so, he could have punched his missiles straight down the wide-open throats of their wedges. Even better, he could have used his shipboard lasers and grasers against those same unprotected targets.

As it was, Thunder of God's energy weapons would never penetrate their targets' sidewalls at their closest range, and he'd have to launch at better than three million klicks if his missiles were going to catch them as they passed, while Principality was even more poorly placed. He'd had to spread the ships to cover the volume through which the Graysons might pass, which meant the destroyer's closest approach would be over a hundred million kilometers, and that she would have to launch at something like eight million. But even Principality's actual flight time would be under a minute, and the two ships' salvos would arrive within twenty seconds of one another.

Of course, Thunder would have time for only one effective broadside, though Principality could probably get two off. Even in rapid fire, their best reload time was a tad over fifteen seconds, and the Graysons' crossing velocity was almost twice his missiles' highest speed from rest. That made it physically impossible for him to get off more than one shot per launcher before the Grayson fleet zipped across his engagement range at a velocity his birds could never overtake. But this was an almost classic ambush scenario, and Commander Theisman already had his ship spinning on her central axis. Thunder was too slow on the helm and too close, but Theisman could bring both broadsides to bear in his window of engagement. He'd fire the first one with its missiles' drives programmed for delayed activation, then fire the second as his other broadside rolled onto the target, which would bring them in together and let him get off almost as many birds as Thunder.

And, in a way, Yu was just as happy his energy weapons would be out of it. His jamming and other precautions should make it almost impossible for even the Manticorans to localize him if he used only missiles, but energy fire could be back-plotted far too precisely, and hiding his ships had required him to shut down his own drives, which deprived him of any sidewalls. Besides, Principality was one of the new city-class destroyers. She was short on energy weapons . . . but she packed a missile broadside most light cruisers might envy.

"I don't like how long the range is," Simonds muttered after a moment, more quietly but still stubborn. "They'll have too much time to spot our missiles after launch and take evasive action. They can roll and interpose their belly bands if they react quickly enough."

"It's a longer range than I'd really prefer myself, Sir," Yu said winningly, "but they're going to have to detect our birds, realize what they are, and react. That will take time, and even if they do manage to interpose their wedges, our birds will still have the power to maneuver to get at their sidewalls. And unlike your own weapons, these have a stand-off range. The Grayson defensive systems will have very little chance of stopping them far enough out, and if we take out only the Manticoran and both cruisers, there's no way the others can escape Admiral Franks."

"If." Simonds fidgeted a moment, then turned away from the sphere, and Yu sighed in silent relief. For a moment, he'd been afraid the Masadan would actually scrub the entire operation because of one stupid destroyer.

"May I suggest we adjourn to the bridge, Sir?" he suggested. "It's getting close to starting time."

* * *

GNS Austin Grayson's drive had been shut down for over twelve minutes while her enemies continued on course, and Admiral Yanakov checked his projections once more. The Masadan fleet was well past the point of no return; they couldn't possibly retire on whatever was so damned important to them without his intercepting them, which left ignominious flight or a resolute turn to engage as their only options.

He ran a hand down the arm of his command chair, wondering if the Masadan commander would cut and run or counterattack. He hoped for the latter, but at this point he would settle for the former.

He turned his head and nodded to Commander Harris.

* * *

"Signal from Flag, Sir," Lieutenant Cummings said suddenly. "Resume maximum acceleration at zero-eight-five by zero-zero-three in twenty seconds."

"Acknowledge," Alvarez said, and then, twenty seconds later, "Execute!"

Courvosier felt his nerves tighten as the shock frame dropped into place and locked about him. He hadn't seen combat in thirty T-years, and the adrenaline rush was almost a shock after so long.

The Masadan ships could see them now, but it was too late for them to do anything about it. The Grayson Navy—and HMS Madrigal—snarled around, bending their vector into one that arced across to cut their enemies off from escape.

* * *

"Right on schedule, Sir," Captain Yu said quietly as the ships of Admiral Franks' squadron altered course abruptly. They turned directly away from the Graysons in what was clearly an all-out bid to run, and the Grayson commander did exactly what any admiral worth his braid would do: he went in pursuit at his own maximum acceleration—on the exact vector Yu had projected.

He watched his display and felt an edge of sympathy. Based on what he knew, that man had done everything exactly right. But because he didn't know about Thunder of God, he was leading his entire navy into a death trap.

* * *

Admiral Courvosier checked the numbers once more and frowned, for the current Masadan maneuvers baffled him. They were obviously trying to avoid action, but on their current course the Grayson task force would overtake well before they reached the .8 C speed limit imposed by their particle shielding. That meant they couldn't run away from Yanakov in normal space, yet they were already up to something like .46 C, much too high for a survivable Alpha translation, and if they kept this nonsense up much longer, they'd put themselves in a position where he would overrun them in short order if they tried to decelerate to a safe translation speed. Which meant, of course, that for all their frantic attempts to avoid action, they were painting themselves into a corner where they had no choice but to fight.

"Captain, I'm getting something a little witchy on my active systems," Ensign Jackson said.

"What do you mean 'witchy'?"

"I can't really say, Sir." The ensign made careful adjustments. "It's like snow or something along the asteroid belt ahead of us."

"Put it on my display," Alvarez decided.

Jackson did better than that and dropped the same data onto Courvosier's plot, and the admiral frowned. He wasn't familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the Yeltsin System, but the two clumps of cluttered radar returns certainly looked odd. They were fairly far apart and neither was all that big, yet the returns were so dense Madrigal couldn't see into them, and his frown deepened. Micrometeor clusters? It seemed unlikely. He saw no sign of energy signatures or anything else unnatural out there, and they were too far off the task force's vector to pose a threat with Masadan weaponry, but their illogic prodded at his brain, and he keyed his private link to Yanakov.


"Yes, Raoul?"

"Our active systems are picking up something str—"

"Missile trace!" Lieutenant Yountz snapped suddenly, and Courvosier's eyes jerked towards her. Missiles? They were millions of kilometers outside the Masadan's effective missile envelope! Not even a panicked commander would waste ammo at this range!

"Multiple missile traces at zero-four-two zero-one-niner." Yountz's voice dropped into a tactical officer's flat, half-chant. "Acceleration eight-three-three KPS squared. Project intercept in three-one seconds—mark!"

Courvosier blanched. Eight hundred and thirty KPS2 was 85,000 gees!

For just a moment, a sense of the impossible froze his mind, but then the missile origins registered. They were coming from those damned "clusters"!

"We've been suckered, Bernie!" he snapped into his com. "Roll your ships! Those are modern missiles!"

"Second missile launch detected," Yountz chanted. Brilliant lights flared in Alvarez's and Courvosier's plots. "Second launch interception in four-seven seconds—mark!"

Alvarez whipped his ship up on her side relative to the incoming fire, and Yanakov's order to the rest of his command came while Courvosier was still speaking. But his lead destroyers were two light-seconds from his flagship, and it took time. Time to pass the word. Time for stunned captains to wrench their attention from the Masadan warships clearly visible before them. Time to pass their own orders and for their helmsmen to obey.

Time too many Graysons no longer had.

The destroyers Ararat and Judah vanished in savage flashes. They were the flankers, closest to the incoming fire. It reached them thirteen seconds sooner than it did Madrigal, and they never had a chance. They'd barely begun to roll their wedges up to interdict when the incoming missiles detonated, and they carried laser heads—clusters of bomb-pumped X-ray lasers that didn't need the direct hits Grayson missiles required. They had a stand-off range of over twenty thousand kilometers, and every primitive point defense system aboard the destroyers had been trained in the wrong direction.

Just as Madrigal's were.

Stunned Manticoran brains raced to keep up with their computers as their weapons went into action without them. Madrigal's people were only human, but her cybernetic reflexes—and a quite inordinate amount of pure luck—saved her from destruction in that first volley. Nine missiles tore down on her, but counter missiles went out at almost a thousand KPS2 and point defense lasers tracked and slewed with calm technological haste. A dozen X-ray lasers lashed harmlessly at her impenetrable belly band, yet the two laser heads which might have pierced her sidewalls were picked off just short of detonation.

But simply surviving wasn't enough, and Courvosier cursed with silent ferocity. Their attackers had to be in those "clusters," and in order to hide, they'd had to shut down their own impellers and sidewalls. That meant they were not only immobile targets but buck naked to any return fire. Yet, small as the clusters might be on a solar system's scale, they were far too vast to cover with area fire. Madrigal needed a target, and she didn't have one.

"Point defense to task force coverage!" he snapped to Alvarez.

"Make it so, Tactical!" The commander listened to Yountz's acknowledgment and watched her punch the command into her console, then said, almost conversationally, "That's going to leave us mighty weak ourselves, Sir."

"Can't be helped." Courvosier never looked up from his display. "Whoever's shooting at us can't have time for more than one or two broadsides each at this velocity. If we can get the Graysons through them—"

"Understood, Sir," Alvarez said, then wheeled back to Yountz. "Can you get me any kind of target?" he demanded harshly.

"We can't even find them, Skipper!" The tac officer sounded more frustrated than afraid . . . but the fear would come, whether it showed or not, Courvosier thought. "They must be inside that crap, but my radar's bouncing right back in my face. That's got to be some kind of reflectors, and—" She broke off for a moment, and her voice went flat. "Now something's jamming hell out of me, too, Skip. There's no way I can localize."

Alvarez swore, but Courvosier made himself ignore the commander and his tactical officer and stared at his own display. The Grayson destroyer David streamed a tangled blood-trail of atmosphere, but she was still there, and she was up on her side, showing only the impenetrable belly of her impeller wedge to the second broadside already rushing down upon them.

Her sister Saul looked untouched on the far side of the formation, but both light cruisers had been hit. Covington held her course, trailing air but with little other sign of damage, while her crude point defense lasers continued firing after missiles which had already passed. She didn't have a prayer of hitting them, and it wouldn't have mattered if she had, yet the volume of her fire indicated she couldn't be too badly hurt.

Austin Grayson was another story. Debris and atmosphere trailed in her wake, and she wasn't under complete control. She'd completed her roll but was still rolling, as if she'd lost her helm, and her impeller wedge fluctuated as Courvosier watched.

"Bernie?" There was no reply. "Bernie!" Still nothing.

"Second salvo impact on David in seventeen seconds," Yountz snapped, but Courvosier hardly heard her.

"What's the status of the Flag, Tactical?" he demanded harshly.

"She's been hit several times, Sir." Ensign Jackson's voice quivered, but her answer came promptly. "I can't tell how badly, but she took at least one in her after impellers. Her accel's down to four-two-one gees and falling."

Courvosier nodded and his mind raced even as Madrigal's counter missiles went out once more. This time her human personnel knew what was happening as well as her computers did; that should have made her fire even more effective, but she was spread thinner, trying to protect her consorts as well as herself. There were almost as many missiles in this salvo—with fewer targets to spread themselves among—and whoever had planned their targeting clearly knew what Madrigal was. The missile pattern was obviously a classic double broadside from something fairly powerful—probably a light cruiser—and he'd allocated six of the birds in his second launch to Madrigal. Whether it was an all-out bid for a kill or only an effort to drive her anti-missile systems back into self-defense was immaterial.

All of that flickered at the back of Courvosier's mind, yet he couldn't tear his eyes from Austin Grayson's silent light code. Then-

"Raoul?" Yanakov's voice was twisted and breathless, and Courvosier bit his lip. There was no visual, but that breathless quality told him his friend was hurt—hurt badly—and there was nothing at all he could do for him.

"Yes, Bernie?"

Even as Courvosier replied, two missiles slashed in on the damaged David. The destroyer's outclassed defenses nailed one of them; the other popped up to cross her starboard quarter at less than five hundred kilometers. The sides of her impeller wedge were protected by the focused grav fields of her sidewalls—far more vulnerable than the wedge's "roof" and "floor," but powerful enough to blunt the heaviest energy weapon at anything above pointblank range. But this was pointblank for the laser head . . . and Grayson sidewalls were weak by modern standards.

A half-dozen beams ripped at David's sidewall. It bent and degraded them as it clawed at their photons, and the radiation shielding inside the wedge blunted them a bit more, but not enough.

Three of them got through, and the destroyer belched air. Her impeller wedge flashed—then died as the ship broke almost squarely in half. Her forward section vanished in an eye-tearing glare as her fusion plant's mag bottle went, and her frantically accelerating sisters left the madly spinning derelict of her after hull—and any survivors who might still cling to life within it—astern as they raced for salvation.

No less than four missiles attacked Saul, yet once again, David's sister ship emerged miraculously untouched. Her crude counter missiles were useless, but this time her gunners were ready. Primitive as their fire control was, they nailed two of her attackers; Madrigal got a third, and the single laser head they missed wasted itself harmlessly against her upper impeller band.

Covington was next as the missiles sleeted across what was left of the fleet. Three went after her, but Madrigal picked two of them off just short of detonation. The third got through, and the cruiser took yet another hit, but she shook it off and kept charging.

Grayson didn't.

Only a single missile had targeted her, but it came in on a wicked, twisting flight path, and Madrigal's own evasive maneuvers had taken her away from the cruiser. Her counter missiles went wide, none of her lasers had a shot, and Grayson's faltering drive made her easy meat for its terminal attack maneuver. At least four lasers—possibly more—slashed through her weakened sidewall. The Grayson flagship's impeller wedge went dead, and Courvosier heard the scream of damage alarms over his com link to her flag deck.

"It's up to you, Raoul." Yanakov's voice was weaker, and he coughed. "Get my people out of it if you can."

"I'll try," Courvosier promised softly as Madrigal's laser clusters opened up against the quartet of missiles still homing on her.

"Good man." Yanakov coughed again, the sound harsh through the voice and electronic chatter of Madrigal's point defense. "I'm glad I knew you," he said faintly. "Tell my wives I love th—"

The cruiser Austin Grayson blew up with the silent fury of deep-space death. A sliver of a second later, a single missile penetrated Madrigal's over-extended defenses.

* * *

Admiral of the Faithful Ernst Franks gloated as he remembered another battle—one in which Grayson had forced Subofficer Franks' crude destroyer to surrender with demeaning ease. Not this time. This time was different, and his teeth flashed in a feral smile.

The Grayson Navy had been savagely mauled. They were still too far away for him to make out details, but there were only three impeller signatures left, and he nodded as he watched them twist onto a new heading. They must have cleared Thunder's active missile envelope as she crouched amid the asteroids; now they were trying desperately to break away from his own ships. But unlike them, he'd known the ambush was coming and shaped his vector accordingly. He had just as much acceleration as they did, and his apparently suicidal course had placed him inside them. Not by much, but his nine ships would intercept them in scarcely two hours as they struggled to reach home.

No, he thought, in less than two hours, for the survivors must have taken impeller damage. Their acceleration was less than 4.6 KPS2, under four hundred seventy gravities.

* * *

"Commodore, I have a signal from Madrigal."

Commodore Matthews looked up from the damage control reports. Covington was badly hurt—still a fighting force, but with a quarter of her weapons out of action. Worse, the forward third of her starboard sidewall was down, leaving a deadly chink in her armor, yet something about his com officer's tone cut through his own shock and near despair.

"Put it on the main screen," he said

The big com screen blinked to life, but not with the face he'd expected to see. He recognized Commander Alvarez, instead. The commander's helmet was sealed, and a gaping bulkhead hole behind him explained why. Matthews could actually see stars through it.

"Commodore Matthews?" Alvarez's voice was harsh and strained.

"Here," Matthews replied. "Where's Admiral Courvosier, Captain?"

"Dead, Sir." There was more than harshness in Alvarez's voice now. There was pain—and hate.

"Dead?" Matthews repeated almost numbly. God the Tester, aid us now, his mind whispered, and only then did he realize how desperately he had depended on the Manticoran to save what was left of Grayson's fleet.

"Yes, Sir. You're in command now." Matthews couldn't see Alvarez's face clearly through his suit visor, but the other man's mouth seemed to tighten before he spoke again. "Commodore, what shape are your impellers in?"

"Untouched." Matthews shrugged. "Our weapons have been badly hit, and my forward starboard sidewall isn't there anymore, but our drive's fine."

"And Saul's undamaged," Alvarez said flatly. Then he nodded. "We're slowing you down, aren't we, Sir?"

Matthews didn't want to answer that question. The Manticoran ship had taken at least two hits from the last broadside, and one must have gone home in her impellers. Her acceleration was dropping even further as Matthews watched, but they would all have been dead already if not for Courvosier's warning . . . and if the Manticoran ship hadn't exposed herself to save them. Besides, abandoning Madrigal would only delay the inevitable a dozen minutes or so.

"Aren't we?" Alvarez pressed, and Matthews clenched his jaw and made himself nod.

The commodore heard Alvarez inhale deeply, then the commander straightened in his chair. "That makes things much simpler, Commodore. You're going to have to leave us behind."

"No!" Matthews snapped in instant, instinctive response, but Alvarez shook his head.

"Yes, you are, Sir. That's not a suggestion. I have my orders from Admiral Yanakov and Admiral Courvosier, and we're all going to obey them."

"Orders? What orders?"

"Admiral Yanakov told Admiral Courvosier to get you home, Sir . . . and Admiral Courvosier lived long enough to confirm those orders to me."

Matthews stared at the hole behind the commander and knew that was a lie. There was no way anyone killed by that hit had lived even briefly, much less issued any orders. He started to say so, but Alvarez went on too quickly.

"Madrigal can't outrun them anyway, Sir. That means we're dead. But we've still got our weapons. You don't, but you've still got your drive. We're elected to play rearguard whatever happens. Don't waste that, Commodore."

"Saul's still undamaged—and we're not completely out of it!"

"Both of you together wouldn't make a damn bit of difference to what happens to us," Alvarez said harshly, "but if we hit them head-on—" Matthews saw his bared teeth even through his visor. "Commodore, these assholes have never seen what a Manticoran destroyer can do."


"Please, Commodore." There was an edge of pleading in the harsh voice. "It's what the Admiral would have wanted. Don't take it away from us."

Matthews' fists clenched so hard they hurt, but he couldn't tear his eyes from the com, and Alvarez was right. It wasn't much of a chance for Saul and Covington . . . but refusing it wouldn't save Madrigal.

"All right," he whispered.

"Thank you, Sir," Alvarez said. Then he cleared his throat. "Admiral Yanakov passed one more message before he died, Sir. He . . . asked Admiral Courvosier to tell his wives he loved them. Will you pass that on for us?"

"Yes." Tears glittered under the word, but Matthews made himself get it out, and Alvarez squared his shoulders.

"I'm not sure what hit us, Sir, but assuming they both fired double broadsides, I'd guess one was a light cruiser. The other was bigger—maybe a heavy cruiser. They're both modern ships. We couldn't get a read on them, but they have to be Havenite. I wish we could tell you more, but—"

He broke off with a shrug, and Matthews nodded again.

"I'll inform Command Central, Captain Alvarez—and I'll see to it Manticore knows, as well."

"Good." Alvarez inhaled deeply, then laid his hands on the arms of his chair. "Then I guess that's about it," he said. "Good luck, Commodore."

"May God receive you as His own, Captain. Grayson will never forget."

"Then we'll try to make it worth remembering, Sir." Alvarez actually managed a smile and sketched a salute. "These bastards are about to find out how a Queen's ship kicks ass."

The signal died. GNS Covington went back to full power, racing desperately for safety while her single remaining destroyer covered her wounded flank, and there was silence on her bridge.

Astern of her, HMS Madrigal turned alone to face the foe.


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