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Chapter Thirty

"Contact!"


Admiral Chin jerked upright in her chair. DeSoto was bent intently over his display, and she frowned as seconds leaked away with no more information.


"I'm not sure what it is, Ma'am," he said finally. "I'm picking up some very small radar targets at about seven million klicks. They're not under power, and they're too small to be warships, even LACs, but they're almost exactly on our base course. We're overtaking them at about five-five-niner-four KPS, and—Jesus Christ!"


* * *


Admiral Mark Sarnow's task group had completed its turn, presenting its broadsides to the oncoming enemy, and the missile pods streamed astern like lumpy, ungainly tails.


"Stand by," Honor murmured. No active sensors were live, but they'd had literally hours to refine the data from their passive systems, and she felt her lips trying to draw back from her teeth.


The tactical net's hair-thin lasers linked the task group into a single, vast entity, and data codes flashed as each division of battlecruisers and cruisers confirmed acquisition of its assigned target. She waited two more heartbeats, then—


"Engage!" she snapped, and Task Group Hancock 001 belched fire.


Nike and Agamemnon alone spat a hundred and seventy-eight missiles at the Peeps, almost five times the broadside of a Sphinx-class superdreadnought. The other divisions of her squadron had fewer birds, but even Van Slyke's cruiser divisions had twice a Bellerophon-class dreadnought's broadside. Nine hundred missiles erupted into Admiral Chin's teeth, and every ship's drive came on line in the same instant. They swerved back onto their original heading, redlining their acceleration, and deployed decoys and jammers to cover themselves as they raced ahead down the Havenites' base course at 4.93 KPS2.


* * *


For one terrible moment, Genevieve Chin's mind froze.


Two superdreadnought squadrons couldn't have spawned that massive salvo, and the Manties only had battlecruisers! It was impossible!


But it was also happening, and forty years of training wrenched her brain back to life.


"Starboard ninety! All units roll ship!" she snapped, and her fist pounded the arm of her command chair as her ships began to turn. It was going to be close, for dreadnoughts were slow on the helm, and she cursed the precious seconds her own stunned surprise had lost her.


A hurricane of missiles tore down on Havenite ships whose startled missile defense officers had been slow to start their plots. There'd been no one on their sensors to run plots on, and they weren't clairvoyant.


Countermissiles began to fire, sporadically at first, then in greater and greater numbers. Dreadnoughts were lavishly equipped with active defenses, but the Manties had targeted the full fury of their fire on just four dreadnoughts and the same number of battlecruisers . . . and almost a third of the incoming missiles carried neither laser heads nor nukes. They were fitted instead with the best ECM emitters and electronic penaids Manticore could build, and they played hell with Havenite tracking systems. Missile impeller signatures split apart and recombined with insane abandon, jammers scrambled defensive radar, and sheer, howling electronic noise attacked squadron tactical nets that hadn't had the least idea they were about to be assailed. Half of them went down—only for seconds, perhaps, before they recovered, but for those seconds Admiral Chin's ships found themselves suddenly alone in the path of the storm. They were forced back into local control, and without centralized direction, two and even three ships attacked some missiles . . . while no one at all engaged others.


Countermissiles and laser clusters tore dozens—scores—of them apart, but nothing could have stopped them all, and Chin clung to her command chair as her massive flagship heaved in agony. Laser heads stabbed at New Boston with x-ray stilettos, people and alloy blew apart and vaporized under their deadly impact, and those were the light hits, the ones that had to get through sidewalls and radiation shielding first.


Nouveau Paris, Chin's lead dreadnought, was slow getting around, and over a dozen missiles detonated almost dead ahead of her. Lethal clusters of lasers ripped straight down the wide-open throat of her wedge, and Chin stared at the visual display in sick horror as she blew apart. One instant she was six megatons of capital ship; the next she was an expanding ball of fire.


The battlecruisers Walid and Sulieman died with her, and other ships took hit after hit. The dreadnought Waldensville staggered as her forward impeller ring was blown apart, and the battlecruiser Malik careened out of formation as her wedge went down completely. A heavy cruiser division tried to cover her against Manticoran sensors with their own wedges, but with neither wedge nor sidewalls, Malik was doomed. Even as Chin watched, her crew took to their escape pods, fleeing their helpless ship before the Manties localized her despite her screen and blew her apart. Waldensville's impeller damage had cut her maximum acceleration in half, the dreadnought Kaplan had lost a quarter of her port broadside, her sister ship Havensport was almost as badly damaged, and the battlecruiser Alp Arslan trailed atmosphere and debris.


Yet her surviving ships were around at last, presenting their full broadsides to the enemy, and their missiles raced after the Manticorans. It was a feeble response to the massive salvo which had ravaged her command, yet she watched the outgoing missile traces with hungry eyes. The Manties were running straight away from her, giving her birds ideal, up-the-kilt shots, but her hand fisted in rage as decoys sucked her fire wide and countermissiles and lasers knocked down the birds that held lock. Unlike her, the enemy had known they'd be taking fire, and their active defenses were frighteningly effective.


A fresh salvo of Manticoran missiles scorched in on Malik. There were only a few dozen of them this time, yet the battlecruiser was a sitting target. Her cruiser screen did its best to stop them, but at least ten got through, and they weren't even laser heads. Megaton-range fireballs enveloped Malik in a star-bright boil; when it cleared, another eight hundred and fifty thousand tons of warship had been wiped away, and Chin swore with silent, bitter venom.


A dreadnought and three battlecruisers—all of them Sultans—gone just like that. The enemy's targeting had been as deadly as the sheer weight of his fire, and she'd walked straight into it. She made herself accept that, then looked back at the plot, and her teeth showed as she digested the data. She didn't know how battlecruisers had pumped so many missiles at her, but they'd exposed themselves to do it. Despite their higher accelerations, she had more than enough overtake advantage to bring them into beam range, and no battlecruiser could stand up to a dreadnought's energy armament.


"Bring us back around," she grated.


"Aye, Ma'am." DeSoto sounded sick and shaken, but he was regaining his balance, and her wounded command swung back to pursue its tormentors. Then—


"Fresh contact, Admiral. Correction—multiple contacts, bearing one-seven-niner by oh-oh-eight, range one-oh-six-point-niner million klicks!"


New light codes appeared in her command chair's tactical repeater, and her jaw clenched. Superdreadnoughts. Sixteen of them—two full battle squadrons—coming at her from the "helpless" repair base at 4.3 KPS2.


"Reverse course. Maximum deceleration!"


* * *


Honor's eyes blazed as the "superdreadnoughts" headed toward the Peeps. The repair base might not be armed, but its gravitic sensors had watched the savagery of the initial exchange, and its traffic control systems had sufficed to activate the preprogrammed electronic warfare drones Sarnow had left in orbit with it. Now the drones raced outward, and the Peeps had no choice but to go to maximum power in the other direction in the faint hope of escaping the "capital ships" lunging to complete their destruction.


* * *


Admiral Chin sat motionless for long, silent seconds. A minute passed, then two. Three. Her ships' drives fought desperately to slow their headlong charge toward the Manty superdreadnoughts, but the range fell inexorably and the admiral's eyes burned with frustrated rage as the battlecruisers sped away from her. The missile exchange continued, no less ferocious despite the drop in volume as both sides turned their broadsides away from one another, but the Manties' superior missiles and—especially—defensive EW let them more than hold their own. Worse, they were ignoring everyone else to pound doggedly at Waldensville, whose damaged drive, unable to match her consorts' decel, lagged further and further astern—closer and closer to the battlecruisers—as Chin's ships fled the superdreadnoughts.


She stared down at her tactical repeater, then shoved herself out of her chair with a muffled curse and stamped across to the master plot. DeSoto and Klim exchanged unhappy looks as she abandoned the protection of her shock frame and left her helmet racked, but neither dared protest as she glared down into the holo.


"Confirm ID on those SDs!" she snapped.


"Ma'am?" Surprise startled DeSoto into the question, but the ops officer cleared his throat quickly when Chin turned her glare upon him. "Uh, CIC's confidence is high, Ma'am," he said hurriedly, glancing back down at his own display. "Emissions and impeller strength both conform to data base's threat files on Sphinx-class superdreadnoughts across the board."


The admiral made an ugly sound deep in her throat. She folded her hands tightly behind her, and her staff sat silent in the face of her anger as she rocked up and down on her toes. The master plot confirmed the ops officer's report, but now that her instant, instinctive reaction had passed, her own tactical sense warred with the data. It didn't make sense. If battlecruisers could pump that many missiles at her—and she was beginning to suspect how they'd done it—surely ships of the wall could have laid down even more fire! Two squadrons of superdreadnoughts could have annihilated her entire force and come close to evening the odds against Rollins' total task force in a single blow, and if the Manties could get battlecruisers into range undetected, there was no reason they couldn't have done the same thing with SDs.


And if those were superdreadnoughts, why were the battlecruisers still running? They were accelerating away from her at almost five KPS2; combined with her own deceleration, that produced a cumulative vector change of 9.45 KPS2. Of course, no battlecruiser wanted to get any closer to a dreadnought than it had to, but their heading also meant they could reply to her ships' after chase armament only with their stern chasers. True, their fire was hammering Waldensville with ever mounting damage, but they could have turned to open their broadsides and quadrupled the weight of their fire, and with SDs coming to their assistance, Chin couldn't possibly have risked slowing her escape efforts by turning to reply in kind.


Her furious rocking motion slowed and her eyes narrowed as another thought chased itself through her mind. If those were SDs, why hadn't the Argus net detected their return to the system?


She glanced at the chrono. Seven minutes since course change. Her velocity had fallen by nineteen hundred KPS and the battlecruisers' had climbed by over two thousand. She'd already lost the chance to bring them into energy range, but if she turned back to pursue them once more, she could hold them in her powered missile range for more than an hour. Except that doing so would also doom her ships by matching them against those SDs. Unless . . . 


* * *


A trio of Havenite missiles found a gap in the task group's hard-pressed defenses and charged down on HMS Crusader. The heavy cruiser's decoys and laser clusters did their best, but the Peeps' fire was too heavy. There were too many threat sources, and the tac net's computers released her systems to self-defense a fraction of a second too late.


The laser heads detonated at less than 13,000 kilometers, and they were capital ship missiles. Their lasers burned through her sidewall as if it didn't exist. Battle steel shattered and vaporized, and a failsafe circuit took a microsecond too long to function.


Commodore Stephen Van Slyke's flagship vanished in the eye-tearing flare of a failing fusion bottle, and Captain Lord Pavel Young suddenly inherited command of Heavy Cruiser Squadron Seventeen.


* * *


Admiral Chin barely noticed Crusader's destruction. One heavy cruiser either way hardly mattered against the scale of the engagement . . . or the threat sweeping towards her from the Manty base. If it was a threat.


She bit her lip. If those weren't SDs, then they were the best EW drones she'd ever seen, and instinct seemed a frail thing matched against the cold, hard reality of her sensors, but . . . 


She inhaled deeply without turning from the display.


"Bring us back around." Her voice was cold and hard. "Pursuit vector, maximum acceleration."


* * *


"Admiral Chin is reversing course, Sir!"


Admiral Rollins twitched as Captain Holcombe's report penetrated his sick despair at the trap he'd stumbled into. He twisted in his chair, double-checking his own plot in sheer disbelief, then slumped back and watched Chin's impeller signatures complete their suicidal swing.


"Orders, Sir?" Holcombe asked tautly, and Rollins could only shrug his helplessness. He was over two hundred million kilometers astern of Chin. Any order of his would take over twelve minutes to reach her, and her vector would merge with the Manty SDs' in less than fifty. Her chance of escaping them was already minute; if she accelerated towards them for twelve more minutes, it wouldn't even exist.


"What good would it do?" he asked in a voice of quiet bitterness. "We can't call her off in time, and we couldn't get close enough to help even if she kept running straight towards us. She's on her own."


* * *


"They didn't buy it, Sir," Honor said quietly.


"Not completely, no," Sarnow agreed from her com screen. There was no surprise in his voice—not really. They'd both hoped the Peeps might break off their attack when they saw the "superdreadnoughts," yet it had never been more than a hope. "But they know they've been kissed. And they did slow down enough to keep us out of beam range."


Honor nodded silently, and her eyes moved back to her plot and the growing sidebar list of damaged ships. Commodore Prentis' Defiant had taken impeller damage, though it wasn't critical yet, and Onslaught had also been hit. All her weapons remained in action, but her gravitic sensors had been knocked out, and her communications had been damaged seriously enough for Captain Rubenstein to pass control of his division's tactical net to Invincible. The cruisers Magus and Circe had taken two hits each, as well, but Crusader was their only total loss.


A corner of her brain was appalled that she could apply the word "only" to the deaths of nine hundred men and women, but it was the appropriate one, for their casualties were minuscule beside those Sarnow had wreaked in reply. She knew it, yet another corner of her mind still railed at her admiral; for all of his brilliance and audacity he had failed to stop the enemy. They'd hurt the Peeps, but they hadn't saved the base—and Paul—after all.


She stamped a mental foot on her resentment, shamed by its total unfairness, and made herself consider the situation coldly. At least the second Peep element was holding position right on the hyper limit. The contest was still between them and the battered force on their heels, and the glittering icon of the hastily laid minefield blinked in her plot, a bare three million kilometers ahead. Not even Nike's sensors could see the mines clearly, despite knowing where they were, and the Peeps should have even poorer luck against their low-signature materials.


"Our time to minefield is two-point-niner-six minutes, Ma'am," Charlotte Oselli said, as if the astrogator had read her mind. "The Peeps should enter attack range in . . . seven-point-five-three minutes."


Honor nodded in acknowledgment, never looking up from her plot. Now if only the mines didn't make a mistake where the task group's IFF was concerned.


* * *


"You're right, Ma'am. They've got to be drones."


Genevieve Chin gave Commander Klim a sharp nod and turned from the master display. She stalked back to her command chair and sank into it, locking her shock frame with slow deliberation, then looked at DeSoto.


"Lay in new firing orders. They're concentrating on Waldensville; let's give them a little of their own medicine. Pick two BCs and hit them with everything we've got."


"Aye, Ma'am!" Matching hunger sharpened DeSoto's reply, and Chin smiled a thin smile. They'd been suckered and they'd taken their lumps; now it was time to hand out a few in reply.


* * *


The sudden shift in fire patterns took Sarnow's missile defense officers by surprise, and the first, concentrated salvo blew a hole through their countermissiles, sweeping into attack range of Defiant and Achilles. Defiant took only three hits, none critical, but a dozen lasers lashed at the open rear of Achilles' impeller wedge, and damage alarms screamed as five of them blasted deep into her hull.


"We've lost Graser One-Six and Laser One-Eight, Sir. Five casualties in Radar Eleven. Missile Five-Two's down, but damage control is on it."


"Acknowledged." Captain Oscar Weldon didn't even look up at his exec's report. He only looked at the flag bridge com screen and saw the same awareness in Commodore Banton's eyes. It had been only a matter of time until the Peeps concentrated their fire; now they knew who their targets would be.


Achilles shuddered as another salvo flailed at her, and the battlecruiser writhed into a fresh evasion pattern while two light cruisers closed in tighter on either flank to add their weight to her defense.


* * *


"Crossing minefield attack perimeter—now!" Charlotte Oselli snapped, and Honor's eyes darted to Eve Chandler's back. The tac officer said nothing for a second, but then a green light flashed on her boards and her taut shoulders relaxed imperceptibly.


"IFF transponders challenged and accepted, Skipper! We're in clean."


She glanced back over her shoulder, and Honor raised one hand in the ancient thumbs-up gesture. Identification friend or foe circuits could always screw up, especially when ships had taken battle damage that could knock out their onboard transponders or change their emission signatures radically. But the minefield had recognized them; it wouldn't kill their own wounded ships, and, almost more important still, would not reveal its position to the enemy in the process.


Chandler managed a tight answering grin, but then she whipped back around to her display as fresh damage signals shrilled over the task group tactical net. Her grin vanished, and her lips drew back in a snarl.


"They're concentrating on Achilles and Defiant, Ma'am," Eve Chandler said, and Honor bit her lip, wondering how the Peeps had identified the two divisional flagships.


"Enemy time to minefield?"


"Five-point-two-two minutes, Ma'am."


* * *


"That's better," Admiral Chin murmured. According to the emissions signatures, DeSoto had picked himself a Redoubtable and a Homer-class battlecruiser. The older Redoubtables were on the small side, but the Homers were every bit as powerful as Haven's later and somewhat larger Sultans. She watched a fresh salvo claw at Achilles' heels, and her smile was thin and cold.


A Homer would make a nice down payment on the revenge Genevieve Chin intended to collect.


* * *


"Three minutes to minefield attack range." Lieutenant Commander Oselli's voice was flat and taut.


Honor didn't even bother to nod. Her eyes were glued to the plot as missiles lashed back and forth between the warring ships. The Peep formation had overtaken and passed the crippled dreadnought they'd been pounding, hiding her from Eve Chandler's fire control behind their massed impeller wedges, and the task group shifted to a fresh target. They were getting good hits—a far higher percentage of them than the Peeps—but the enemy was sending in two missiles for every one of theirs, and all of them were targeted on Achilles or Defiant. Defiant seemed to be holding her own, but Banton's flagship had taken at least a dozen hits and lost most of her chase armament. Worse, she'd lost two beta nodes, and the strength of her wedge was falling. She could still match the task group's acceleration, but if she kept taking hits—


"Two minutes to minefield attack range."


* * *


Commander DeSoto stiffened as a faint radar return flickered in his display. Adrenaline flared as he remembered the last time his radar had picked something up, and he stabbed a key, interrogating his data base threat files. The computers considered dispassionately, then blinked an obedient reply.


"Minefield dead ahead!" he shouted.


"Roll starboard!" Admiral Chin barked instantly, and her task group swerved once more in the face of a fresh threat.


* * *


"They've seen them, Sir," Joseph Cartwright said, and Sarnow grimaced.


He'd hoped they'd come even closer—maybe even straight into the mines' attack—before they spotted them, but the Peeps had gotten a lot sharper since their initial surprise. He watched them slew sideways, and eyes of hard, green flint narrowed as new vector analyses blinked on his plot.


"They see them, but they're not going to avoid them," he said grimly.


* * *


The Havenite task group slid into range of the clustered mines like an out-of-control ground car or a ground-looping air car. Chin's lightning-fast response had blunted the threat, yet her velocity was far too high to sidestep it completely. Her ships were up on their sides relative to the field, presenting the bellies of their wedges as they came in, but the people who'd laid that field had known their business. They'd also known the exact vector on which Admiral Sarnow intended to suck her into it, and the mines were a disk perpendicular to her line of approach, stacked as "high" as they were "deep."


Space erupted in a wall of light as the bomb-pumped laser platforms spewed concentrated fury at Chin's ships. Thousands of laser beams, each more powerful than any missile laser head could generate, stabbed and tore at their prey. The vast majority wasted themselves harmlessly against her interposed impeller bands, but there were too many of them and they had too much spread for the wedges to intercept them all.


New Boston shuddered as fresh wounds cratered her massive armor and wiped away weapons and their crews. Three beta nodes and an alpha node went with them, and her flag bridge displays flickered as Fusion Four went into emergency shutdown, but her other power plants took the load and damage control and medical parties charged into her wrecked compartments. New Boston was hurt, but she was still a fighting force as she cleared the attack zone.


Other ships weren't. Alp Arslan broke in half and vomited flame as her number two fusion plant's containment bottle failed, and the heavy cruisers Scimitar, Drusus, and Khopesh vanished in matching fireballs, their weaker sidewalls and radiation shielding no match for the fury that could rip straight through a dreadnought's defenses. Half a dozen destroyers joined them, and Waldensville, already lamed and crippled, reeled out of the holocaust as a dying hulk.


Genevieve Chin listened to the torrent of loss and damage reports, and her face was hard, hating stone. Again. They'd suckered her again! But how, damn it?! There was no way a minefield should be sitting way the hell out here, and she was the one who'd picked her approach vector! The Manties had matched her course, not lured her onto one of their choosing, so how in hell could they have known exactly where to put their field?


The last of her battered ships—the ones that survived—streamed out of the attack and rolled back down to engage the enemy once more, and her mouth was a knife-thin line as she absorbed her losses. She was down to only two battlecruisers, both old Tiger-class ships and both damaged, and five dreadnoughts, all damaged to greater or lesser degree. Kaplan's armament had been almost completely gutted, and Merston had lost half her energy weapons and a third of her starboard sidewall. New Boston, Havensport, and Macrea's Tor were hurt less badly, but the lighter ships of her screen had been devastated. Barely half of them remained combat effective, and God only knew what else the goddamned Manties had waiting for her!


She opened her mouth to order the pursuit broken off, then froze as the data on her plot changed once more.


* * *


A fierce, harsh sound of exultation filled Nike's bridge, and Honor's eyes glittered. They were hopelessly outgunned by the ships behind them, but they'd already destroyed more than twice their own total tonnage! If Parks had left even a single battle squadron to support them, they could have annihilated the Peeps' lead element, maybe even saved the entire system, but the task group had nothing to reproach itself for. And maybe, just maybe, their fresh losses would finally convince the Peeps to break off after all.


Then the dreadnoughts rolled back down. Only four of them remained combat effective, but their course change had brought their full broadsides to bear, the range had fallen to little more than five million kilometers, they'd had time to absorb and adjust to the task group's defensive EW patterns, and their furious, humiliated gunners had blood in their eyes.


Two hundred and fifty-eight missiles erupted from the battered dreadnoughts and their surviving escorts, and twenty-two of them broke through everything the task group could throw at them.


HMS Defiant staggered sideways under the stunning body blow. Her port sidewall vanished, and half her after impeller ring vaporized. Two of her three fusion plants went into emergency shutdown, and she rolled over on her back, trailing air and shattered plating. There was no one left alive on her bridge, but her executive officer took one look at his displays in Auxiliary Control and knew she was done. The heel of his hand slammed down on a red button, and abandon ship alarms screamed over every speaker and suit com aboard her.


Barely a sixth of Defiant's crew escaped before the followup salvo killed her, but she was luckier than Achilles, and Honor's face went white as Commodore Isabella Banton's flagship blew up with all hands.


* * *


"Yes!"


DeSoto's shout was swallowed in the hungry bray of triumph from Admiral Chin's other officers as the Manticoran battlecruisers died, and her eyes flamed. She swallowed the impulse to break off and threw her ops officer a savage grin.


* * *


"Coming up on Point Delta."


Charlotte Oselli's soft voice broke the stunned silence, and Honor had her expression back under control as she looked down at her com screen. Admiral Sarnow had to be as shaken as she was by the loss of his two senior division commanders and a quarter of his squadron, but he met her eyes levelly.


"Course change, Sir?" she asked.


"Bring the task group fifteen degrees to starboard," Sarnow replied, and Honor heard someone inhale sharply.


They'd planned to alter course at Point Delta all along, for the mines had been their last trump card. With no more tricks to play, their sole chance to buy the base—and Admiral Danislav—a few more hours lay in convincing the Peeps to alter their own vector away from it to pursue the task group. But fifteen degrees was the sharpest alteration they'd discussed. It would let the enemy cut inside them, hold them in missile range longer.


She knew what Sarnow was thinking, for the same thought had occurred to her. Coupled with what had just happened, that big a course change would make the temptation to pursue them almost irresistible. His decision was a cold, calculated bid to offer the chance to destroy his entire squadron as bait to win the base time that probably wouldn't matter anyway.


Dame Honor Harrington looked back into her admiral's eyes and nodded.


"Aye, aye, Sir," she said softly.


 


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