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Chapter Thirty-Six

"Missile separation!" Andrea Jaruwalski announced. "I have multiple missile separations. Range at launch three-zero-point-four-five million kilometers. Time to attack range seven minutes!"

"Understood. Do not return fire."

"Do not return fire, aye, aye, Ma'am," Jaruwalski replied.

"Your Grace, I have that course," Kgari said.

"Give it to Andrea."

"Come to two-niner-three, zero-zero-five at six-point-zero-one KPS squared," Kgari said.

"Two-niner-three, zero-zero-five, six-point-zero-one KPS squared," Jaruwalski repeated, and the task force altered course while the first salvo howled up its wake.

* * *

Each of Javier Giscard's six SD(P)s could roll six pods simultaneously, one pattern every twelve seconds, and each pod contained ten missiles, each a bit larger than the Royal Manticoran Navy's own first-generation MDMs. The range was extremely long for accuracy, especially using Havenite fire control systems, so Giscard opted for maximum density salvos, both to saturate the enemy's defenses and to give him more possibilities of hits.

Each of his ships deployed six patterns—a total of one hundred and eight pods—programmed for staggered launch. And then, precisely on schedule, all of them launched and sent a total of almost eleven hundred multi-drive missiles screaming up Task Force 82's wake.

The range at launch was 30,450,000 kilometers. Given the relative motion of the two forces, actual flight distance was 36,757,440 kilometers. At that distance, and an acceleration of 416.75 KPS2, the MDMs attained a velocity relative to the primary of 175,034 KPS, which equated to an overtake velocity against Task Force 82 of 152,925 KPS, or fifty-three percent of light-speed.

Seventy-two seconds later, a second, identical salvo roared out of its pods.

And seventy-two seconds after that, a third.

In the space of just over thirteen minutes, eleven salvos—just under twelve thousand missiles—went hurtling after Task Force 82.

In a traditional engagement, the pursuing Republican superdreadnoughts would have been able to fire only a handful of missiles from their bow-mounted chase tubes. In an era of pod-layers, that limitation had long since disappeared, but what remained true was that missiles closing from directly ahead or directly astern faced the weakest defensive fire. There simply wasn't room to mount as many point defense laser clusters and counter-missile tubes on a warship's ends as on her broadside. The clusters mounted were the most powerful ones in her entire armament, but there could be only a few of them. Telemetry links to counter-missiles were also limited, and the fact that her wedge offered no protection against fire from those angles only made the situation worse.

And, of course, just to make things even better from Task Force 82's perspective, Havenite MDMs carried bigger and more powerful warheads as compensation for their poorer accuracy and penetration aids.

* * *

"Why aren't they returning fire?" Gozzi asked quietly.

"I don't know," Giscard replied. "Maybe they don't want their own attack birds' wedges interfering with their fire control. Besides, unless they want to alter heading to open their broadsides, they can't have the control links to manage a salvo dense enough to get through our point defense."

Gozzi nodded, and Giscard turned his attention back to the plot. His hypothesis was at least superficially logical, but deep inside, he didn't believe it himself.

* * *

Bogey Four's first salvo's MDMs raced onward, crossing the vast gulf between the ships which had launched them and their targets. Seventy lost lock and arced off uselessly four minutes into their flight, due to a telemetry glitch. One thousand and ten continued on course.

"Enemy fire appears to be tracking in on Imperator and Intolerant," Jaruwalski reported tensely.

"Not surprising, I suppose," Mercedes Brigham muttered.

"But maybe not the smartest targeting," Honor replied calmly. Brigham looked at her, and Honor shrugged. "I admit, it would pay the highest dividend if they managed to knock out an alpha node on one of the superdreadnoughts, but their defenses are a lot tougher than anyone else's, and given the geometry, they'll have a long time to throw missiles at us. If I were in command over there, I'd start with the battlecruisers, or maybe even the heavy cruisers."

"Kill the weaker platforms first and attrit our missile defenses," Brigham said.

"Exactly. Each of them represents a smaller percentage of our total defensive capability, but they'd be a lot easier to kill or cripple." Honor shrugged again. "You could argue it either way, I suppose—go for the 'golden BB' on an SD(P), or chew up the weaker escorts first. Personally, I'd have done it the other way."

She stood gazing into the master tactical plot, left hand resting on the corner of a tactical rating's console, right hand slowly, gently stroking Nimitz's head, and her expression was calm, thoughtful.

"Counter-missile launch in . . . fifteen seconds," Jaruwalski announced.

* * *

The powered range from rest for the Mark 31 counter—missile was 3,585,556 kilometers, with a flight time of seventy-five seconds. Given the geometry of the engagement, effective range at launch was over 12.5 million kilometers, and the defensive missiles started to go out ninety seconds before the Havenite MDMs reached standoff attack range of their targets. The Mod-2-XR counter-missile launcher had a cycle time of eight seconds, which meant there was time for eleven launches per tube.

In the old days—all of four T-years ago—that wouldn't have mattered all that much, since the interference of the counter—missiles' own wedges would have blinded follow-up launches. Even now, that would have been true of a Havenite ship, although with the changes Shannon Foraker had made, any ship in a Havenite formation could now "manage" any other ship's counter-missiles, as long as both units had arranged the handoff prior to launch. That meant a Republican formation with the same degree of separation between units as Task Force 82 could have managed perhaps three times the number of counter-missiles it once could have.

But the Royal Manticoran Navy had added the Keyhole platforms to its bag of tricks.

Instead of a half-dozen or a dozen counter-missiles per ship, they could bring the fire of their entire broadside counter-missile batteries to bear. They weren't restricted to the telemetry links physically mounted on their after hammerheads; they had sufficient links to control all of their counter-missiles aboard each Keyhole, and each ship had two Keyholes deployed. And as missile defense Plan Romeo rolled Honor's ships up on their sides, those platforms gained sufficient "vertical" separation to see past the interference of subsequent counter-missile salvos fired at far tighter intervals than had ever before been possible.

They still couldn't control eleven salvos . . . but they could control eight, and each of those eight contained far more missiles than anyone else could have managed.

Javier Giscard's staff had anticipated no more than five CM launches, and they'd allowed for an average of only ten counter-missiles per ship, for a total of two hundred per launch. Their fire plans had been predicated on facing somewhere around a thousand ship-launched CMs, and perhaps another thousand or so from the Katanas.

What they got was over seventy-two hundred from Honor's starships alone.

* * *

"My God," Marius Gozzi said softly as the impeller signatures of their attack missiles vanished under the swarm of Manty counter-missiles. "How in the hell did they do that?"

"I don't know," Giscard gritted, "but that's why they didn't counter-launch MDMs. They figure their defenses can handle whatever we throw, and the bastards are simply conserving their ammo!"

He glared at the display, then looked up at Thackeray.

"Abort Baker. We're going to need a lot heavier salvos to get through that."

He jerked his head at the plot, where his second salvo had just disappeared as tracelessly as the first.

"I don't know if we can throw a dense enough salvo to get through it, Sir," Thackeray said. Her expression was almost shocked, but her eyes were intent, and it was obvious her brain was still working.

"Yes, we can," Giscard told her flatly. "Here's what I want you to do."

He explained for a few seconds, and Thackeray nodded sharply when he finished.

"It'll take me a little while to set it up, Sir."

"Understood. Go."

Giscard pointed at her console, and as she dived back into the tactical section, he returned his attention to Gozzi.

"I never counted on that level of defensive fire, either," he said. "But I think it means we're going to have to change our plans for Deutscher."

"What do you want him to do, Sir?"

"Their new vector is going to take them within fifty million kilometers of Arthur. Given that that's almost certainly Honor Harrington in command over there, I don't expect them to peg any missiles at the civilian orbital platforms as they go by. Of course, it may not be her, or I could be wrong about what she's going to do. At any rate, we're not going to be able to prevent her from passing that close. But given that, I don't want Deutscher getting any closer to her than he has to. Besides, if he stops accelerating now, he'll have extra time to build his own side of the trap."

"I understand, Sir."

* * *

"Your Grace, they've ceased fire!" Andrea Jaruwalski reported jubilantly.

"No, they haven't," Honor replied quietly. Jaruwalski looked at her, and Honor smiled thinly. "What they're doing over there right this minute, Andrea, is deploying a lot more pods. I'd guess they'll probably roll at least ten or twelve patterns each. Sequencing that many launches for a simultaneous time on target will be complicated, but not all that difficult."

"You're probably right, Your Grace," Jaruwalski conceded after only a moment's thought. "It's the obvious counter, now that you've pointed it out."

"So the next salvo is going to be just a bit more difficult to kill. In which case," Honor said grimly, "it may be time to distract them just a bit. I want the battlecruisers held in reserve—they don't have enough ammo capacity to use up pods at this range—but Imperator and Intolerant will engage the enemy. Pick one superdreadnought and pound it, Andrea."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am!"

"Admiral," one of Jaruwalski's ratings said, "Bogey One just killed its acceleration."

"I expected that," Honor said. "Bogey One was never strong enough to fight us. I suspect the only reason it headed towards us in the first place was to contribute to the impression of a system defense force that was thoroughly uncoordinated and panicked. Now that the trap's been sprung, they're not going to want to get any closer to us than they can help."

* * *

"We're ready, Admiral," Selma Thackeray said.

"Very well. Execute."

Javier Giscard's task group abruptly altered heading by ninety degrees, bringing its broadsides to bear on Task Force 82. The maneuver cut their acceleration towards the Manticoran ships to zero. But their relative velocity was losing ground steadily, anyway, and the turn also brought all of their broadside fire control to bear. Which meant they had many times as many control links as they'd had before. He was effectively conceding the pursuit in order to maximize his chances of crippling one or more of his foes.

"Missile launch!" Thackeray's assistant operations officer barked suddenly. "We have multiple missile separations, Admiral! Range at launch three-niner-point-four-oh-four million kilometers! Time to attack range seven-point-six minutes!"

"Well, that wasn't exactly unexpected," Giscard said, just a bit more calmly than he actually felt. "They've figured out what we're up to, and they want to force us to 'use them, or lose them.'"

"Launching now, Sir!" Thackeray said, and Giscard nodded.

* * *

"So, they have a few new wrinkles of their own," Honor observed.

Selma Thackeray had spent the last six minutes deploying missile pods. In that time, she'd positioned 1,080 of them. Now she launched all of them simultaneously.

The next best thing to eleven thousand MDMs hurled themselves at Task Force 82. Given their lower acceleration rate, and the fact that TF 82 was continuing to accelerate away from them, their flight time would be twenty-five seconds longer than TF 82's, and their closing velocity would be almost nine thousand KPS lower when they arrived, but what they lacked in performance, they more than made up in sheer numbers.

They couldn't possibly have enough control links to manage that many missiles simultaneously, Honor thought. But the way the individual components of the enormous salvo were spreading out and separating, it looked as if they'd come up with a data sharing approach similar to that of the Alliance. If she was right, their control circuits were bouncing back and forth between individual sub flights of missiles, which was going to cost them even more in accuracy. But given the size of the attack wave it made possible, they probably figured the new technique was well worth it.

And they're probably right about that, too, she told herself.

"All units, Missile Defense Sierra!" Jaruwalski snapped. "Carter, stay on the attack birds!"

"Aye, aye, Ma'am!" one of her assistants replied, and Jaruwalski turned her full attention to the defensive engagement.

* * *

"We have a probable total of two hundred and eighty-eight incoming in each salvo, Sir," Thackeray reported.

Giscard nodded in understanding. Given the greater capacity per pod the Manties appeared to be getting out of their new, downsized MDMs, Thackeray's estimate worked out to a double pattern from each of the Manty superdreadnoughts. Of course, given the fiendishly capable EW capabilities of Manty missile penetration aids, an accurate count of the incoming was a virtual impossibility. Still, the interval between salvos—twenty-four seconds—accorded well with Thackeray's estimate.

"Get the Cimeterres into position," he said.

"Aye, Sir," Thackeray replied, and he heard her coaching the escorting LACs into positions from which their counter-missiles and laser clusters could engage the incoming warheads without fouling Thackeray's telemetry to her own attack birds.

* * *

"They're moving their LACs in to intercept," Lieutenant Carter announced, his voice a bit hoarse.

Despite his superb instrumentation, he himself had absolutely no control over the attack. He was simply monitoring it for Honor while the tac officers of the individual ships executed the instructions Jaruwalski had already transmitted, and he was very young.

"It's to be expected," Honor told him quietly. She stood behind Jaruwalski, watching the ops officer's plot as the incredible Havenite missile storm roared towards her command. "Just take it as it comes, Jeff."

"Yes, Your Grace."

Carter drew a deep breath and settled himself in his chair, and Honor reached out to rest her right hand lightly on his shoulder for a moment. But even as she did, her eyes stayed on Jaruwalski's plot.

ONI estimated that the latest Havenite SD(P)s carried approximately the same number of missile pods as a Medusa-class. Assuming that was accurate, then each of the six superdreadnoughts pursuing her task force carried five hundred pods. They'd expended at least a hundred and sixty each in the first exchange, and there had to be at least a thousand pods in this monster salvo. That came to a total of somewhere around two thousand. So, if the six of them carried three thousand pods between them, that meant they'd have expended two-thirds of their total ammunition allotment by the time these missiles arrived.

They can't sustain this level of fire, she told herself. On the other hand, if they get through with enough of it this time around, it may not matter.

"They're targeting the battlecruisers this time, too, Your Grace," Brigham said softly, and Honor nodded curtly. They weren't ignoring the superdreadnoughts, but they'd clearly devoted at least some of their total fire to Henke's battlecruisers.

* * *

"Here it comes," someone said.

The voice was low, and Giscard didn't recognize it. Nor did he try to. He doubted whoever it was realized he'd spoken aloud, anyway.

Not that anyone had required the announcement.

The first Manticoran salvo streaked into his task group's teeth, and it was obvious the Manties had concentrated everything on a single target.

* * *

Task Force 82's missiles roared down on the superdreadnought RHNS Conquete. There were, in fact, two hundred and forty attack missiles and forty-eight EW platforms in the lead salvo. Half of the EW birds were Dragon's Teeth, and as they entered Bogie Four's counter-missile envelope, they suddenly appeared on the Havenite tracking displays as two hundred and forty additional attack missiles. Counter-missiles which had been locked onto them suffered massive confusion as their targets abruptly shoaled into literally dozens of false images. Other counter-missiles, which had been earmarked for genuine threats, diverted to the new targets, spending themselves uselessly.

Fourteen of the Dragon's Teeth survived to cross the first interception zone. Six of them survived to cross the second interception zone. Two of them made it halfway across the inner counter-missile zone. But before the last of them was destroyed, they'd carried a hundred and fifty-six attack missiles and fourteen Dazzler EW platforms with them.

Laser clusters tracked onto the surviving Manticoran missiles, but those missiles were closing at sixty-two percent of light-speed. Each cluster had an effective range of 150,000 kilometers, but Manticoran MDMs had a standoff attack range of 40,000 kilometers . . . and it took them barely half a second to cross the intervening 110,000 kilometers. There were literally thousands of laser clusters aboard the superdreadnoughts and their escorting Cimeterres, but they got at most one shot each.

And just before they fired, the fourteen surviving Dazzlers erupted in bursts of jamming that blinded sensors searching desperately for targets.

Despite everything the superior Manticoran EW could do, Shannon Foraker's defensive doctrine worked. Not as well as a Manticoran defense might have, perhaps, but sheer volume of firepower still made itself felt. Of the two hundred and forty attack missiles in the salvo, only eight survived to attack range.

Two of them detonated late, wasting their power on the roof of Conquete's impenetrable impeller wedge. The other six detonated between fifteen and twenty thousand kilometers off the ship's port bow, and massive bomb-pumped lasers punched brutally through her sidewall.

Alarms howled as the Temeraire-class ship shuddered in anguish. Five point defense clusters, two counter-missile tubes, and three graser mounts, blew apart. Beta Nodes One, Three, and Five; Radar One; Gravitic One; and three of her fire control telemetry arrays were blotted away. Fifty-one members of her crew were killed, another eighteen were badly wounded, and splinters of armor—some the size of a pinnace—blasted away from her hull. But for all the horrific power of those hits, the damage was actually minor. Superdreadnoughts were designed and built to survive the most savage punishment imaginable, and Conquete went right on rolling missile pods.

* * *

"It looks like we got at least a couple of hits through, Your Grace," Lieutenant Carter reported. "It's hard to be certain at this range, even with the remote arrays, but CIC feels fairly confident."

"Good," Honor said. "Good."

"And here comes the response," Brigham said grimly. "What was that old wet-navy saying you told me about, Your Grace? 'For what we are about to receive—'?"

"'May we be truly thankful,'" Honor finished without looking away from the plot.

"That's it," Brigham agreed, and then the MDMs were upon them.

It was the Republic's turn, and the tsunami of missiles crashed into Task Force 82's outer counter-missile zone. Havenite EW might not be as good as the RMN's, but it did its best, and that best was much better than it once had been.

Almost eleven thousand MDMs had been launched. Six hundred and seventeen had simply become lost and wandered away as Bogie Four's fire control strained to meet the demands placed on it. The remaining 10,183 continued to charge forward as the Mark 31s came to meet them. Twenty-six hundred of them died in the outer interception zone. Another three thousand two hundred died in the intermediate zone, and the Mark 31s killed another two thousand nine hundred in the inner zone. But then it was their turn to slash across the laser clusters' engagement envelope in less than a second, and there were still 1,472 of them left. Two hundred were EW platforms, and the targeting solutions of the other twelve hundred were far poorer than Task Force 82's had been, but there were a great many of them.

The last-ditch lasers aboard the warships and their escorting LACs killed over nine hundred. Of the three hundred and seventy-two surviving attack missiles, a hundred and three wasted themselves uselessly against their targets' impeller wedges. Of the other two hundred and sixty-nine, a hundred and seventy-two attacked the two superdreadnoughts, and Imperator and Intolerant heaved as lasers ripped into them. Their sidewalls intercepted and blunted most of the lasers, but it was the turn of Manticoran armor to shatter under the pounding.  

Imperator emerged with relatively minor damage, including the loss of three grasers and half a dozen laser clusters, but Intolerant staggered as dozens of hits hammered her thick, multi-ply armor. Huge splinters of it blew away, energy mounts and laser clusters were wiped out, and communication and fire control emitters, radar and gravitic arrays shattered. She bucked in agony under the pounding . . . and then a final, freak hit ripped straight into the gaping missile hatch in the center of her after hammerhead.

Rear Admiral Morowitz's flagship rocked as the powerful energy blast smashed forward along the unarmored, open central core of a pod-layer. Hundreds of missile pods were wrecked, turned into twisted and shattered alloy and wreckage. The missile handling rails were torn apart, and over thirty of her crew were killed.

Yet terrible as the damage was, BuShips had considered the possibility of just such a hit. Unlike the original Medusa/-Harrington-class SD(P)s, the Invictus-class had been built from the beginning with a double-sided core hull wrapped around its hollow center, and the walls of her central missile well were armored almost as heavily as her flanks. The cofferdamming and compartmentalization weren't as deep, but they were far deeper than in the earlier classes, and the additional defenses proved their worth as a ring of vaporized and splintered alloy blasted back out of the shattered missile hatch, for the ship survived. Not only survived, but maintained her maximum acceleration while her antimissile defenses continued to engage the last of the incoming MDMs.

* * *

"Your Grace, Intolerant's lost her entire offensive missile armament and both Keyholes," Jaruwalski said in a tight voice. "Casualties are heavy, and her flag bridge took a heavy hit. Sounds like something blew back through CIC. Admiral Morowitz and most of his staff are down." She shook her head. "It doesn't sound good for the Admiral, Ma'am."

"Understood," Honor said quietly.

"Star Ranger also took a beating," Jaruwalski continued. "She's still combat capable, but she's already confirmed sixty-two dead, and her starboard sidewall is at less than half strength forward.

"Aside from that, the only other damage is to Ajax." Honor's expression didn't even flicker, but a cold fist seemed to touch her heart, and she looked quickly for the sidebar on Henke's flagship. "It's relatively minor," Jaruwalski went on. "She's got half a dozen wounded, only a couple of them seriously, and she's lost one graser and two point defense clusters out of her port broadside."

"Understood," Honor said again. She looked at Lieutenant Brantley.

"Harper, inform Captain Cardones that Admiral Morowitz is down and that I'm assuming tactical control of the division for now."

"Aye, aye, Your Grace."

"Andrea," Honor turned back to Jaruwalski, "drop the LACs back. With Intolerant's damage, we'll need the Ferrets and the Katanas' Vipers.

* * *

Task Force 82's second wave of MDMs roared in on Bogey Four. Counter-missiles streamed to meet them, Dragon's Teeth spawned, targets proliferated, Dazzlers flared, counter-missile and MDM impeller wedges vanished in mutual self-destruction. And then the surviving attackers hurled themselves once again upon Conquete.

"Multiple hits aft!" Conquete's captain listened to his senior engineering officer's report from Damage Control Central. "Heavy damage between frames one-zero-niner-seven and two-zero-one-eight. Graser Forty's gone—just gone; there's a hole you could park a fucking pinnace in where it used to be, and it looks like hundred percent casualties on the mount. Forty-Two's out of the fire control net, as well, and Sidewall Ten and Eleven are toast. We've got a core hull breach at frame two-zero-zero-six, I've lost at least three more laser clusters, and they just took two beta nodes out of the after ring."

"Do what you can, Stew," the captain replied, looking at the scarlet-splashed damage control schematic on one of his secondary plots.

"We're on it," the engineer replied, and the captain nodded to himself. Conquete was hurt, no question about it, and he knew the pain of the people he'd just lost was waiting for him. But she was still combat capable, and that was what really mattered.

* * *

"Conquete reports moderate damage," Marius Gozzi told Giscard. "Captain Fredericks says she's still combat capable, but he's rolling ship to pull his starboard sidewall away from the Manties."

"Good," Giscard replied, never looking away from the main tactical plot. He didn't like the fact that the Manties had managed to hit Conquete that hard with only two salvos, but Fredericks was a solid, reliable CO. And by simply rolling ship rather than delaying to ask permission, he was showing the sort of intelligent initiative Giscard, Tourville, and Thomas Theisman had worked so hard to create.

The thoughts ran through the back of Giscard's mind, but virtually all of his attention was focused on the plot as he waited for the light-speed report on what his first huge salvo had accomplished.

"Sir, we're showing hits on multiple enemy units!" Selma Thackeray said suddenly, her voice jubilant, and Giscard's eyes narrowed as the same results appeared on the plot's sidebars.

"Hits on both SDs and at least two of the cruisers," Thackeray continued, listening to CIC's verbal report over her earbug. "And . . ."

She paused, listening intently, then turned her head to look directly at Giscard.

"Sir, the platforms confirm major damage to one of the SD(P)s!"

"Good work!" Giscard replied, but his pleasure at the report was not unalloyed. The third Manty MDM launch was coming in, and he watched the missiles slashing in on Conquete.

* * *

"At least five more hits, Your Grace," Jaruwalski reported. "Her wedge strength is dropping, and her point defense is weakening."

"Which would be nice, if we still had the missiles to pound her with," Mercedes Brigham said quietly to Honor. Honor glanced at her, and the chief of staff bobbed her head in Jaruwalski's direction. "Do you want to use the Agamemnons to make up for Intolerant's pods?" she asked.

"No." Honor shook her head, watching Giscard's second stupendous missile wave overtake her ships from astern. "This has to be the last launch this size they can manage. They've shot themselves dry to manage this kind of density, and I won't do the same thing with Mike's battlecruisers just to try to kill a ship that can't shoot at us anymore, anyway. Not when we may need them worse shortly."

"Yes, Ma'am."

The attacking MDMs came sweeping in, like a comber rearing higher as it neared the beach, and Mark 31s, Vipers, and standard LAC counter-missiles from the Ferrets, slashed into it. The loss of Intolerant's Keyhole platforms weakened the defensive umbrella significantly, but the time the Havenites' needed to "stack" patterns had increased the interval between salvos enough for Honor's LACs to drop back and take up optimum intercept positions astern of her starships.

Several dozen MDMs lost lock on their programmed targets as the LACs' impeller signatures cluttered the range. They quested for replacements, obedient to their onboard programming, and twenty-six of them found LACs. Nineteen of them got through, and seven Shrikes, nine Ferrets and three Katanas—along with the hundred and ninety men and women aboard them—died.

Thirty-seven other MDMs got through everything Task Force 82 could throw at them. Six of the leakers were EW platforms; the other thirty-one streaked in on Imperator and Intolerant.

* * *

"Four hits starboard aft," Commander Thompson reported to Rafe Cardones from Damage Control. "Two more midships, about frame niner-six-five. Graser Twenty-Three's out of the net, but the mount's undamaged; it's prepared to fire in local control. No major penetrations and no personnel casualties, but we've lost a couple of laser clusters from the after starboard quadrant, and we're down one beta node from the after ring. I think I can get the node back in about twenty minutes, but I could be wrong."

"Do what you can, Glenn," Cardones said, but his attention was on a secondary display. His own ship's wounds were minor, superficial, at worst. The same couldn't be said for Intolerant.

* * *

"Intolerant reports loss of her entire starboard sidewall aft of midships, Your Grace. She has at least three core hull breaches, and one fusion plant's off-line. Her shipboard fire control and point defense are seriously compromised."

Honor nodded, keeping her expression calm as she listened to Jaruwalski's report.

"Harper, get me Captain Sharif."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am."

"Captain," Honor said, moments later as Captain James Sharif appeared on her com display.

"Your Grace." Sharif's face was taut, but his expression and voice were under firm control.

"How bad is it over there, James?"

"Honestly?" Sharif shrugged. "Not good, Your Grace. I've got serious personnel casualties, and Engineering's lost about twenty-five percent of its damage control remotes—almost a hundred percent in the missile core. Our compensator's undamaged, and we've got enough node redundancy to maintain military power, but our offensive combat capability outside energy range is shot. And I'm afraid our missile defense pretty much sucks right now."

"That's what I was afraid of." Honor glanced at the astrogation display, then looked back at Sharif. "We've run out of Bogey Four's MDM range, and on our present heading, we'll just scrape by outside Bogey Three's envelope. But that's going to take us within range of the pods they've got deployed around Arthur in about another fourteen minutes. How much missile defense can you restore in that much time?"

"Not a lot," Sharif said grimly. "We've lost both Keyholes. I don't think we can get either of them back this side of an all-up shipyard visit, Your Grace, and we still have a major fire in secondary fire control. My shipboard control links to starboard have taken a real beating, too. We're mostly intact to port, so as long as I can keep that side of the ship towards the threat, we'll be able to control three or four CM salvos, but, at best, I figure we'll be at maybe forty percent of design missile defense capability."

"Do what you can," she said. "Go ahead and roll ship now. I'll try to adjust the formation to give you a little more cover."

"Thank you, Your Grace." Sharif smiled tightly. "I'm glad you're thinking about us."

"Take care, James," Honor replied. "Clear."

She looked over her shoulder at Lieutenant Brantley.

"Admiral Henke, Harper," she said.

"Aye, aye, Ma'am."

Less than ten seconds later, Michelle Henke's face had replaced Sharif's on the com display.

"Mike," Honor began without preamble, "Intolerant's in trouble. Her missile defense is way below par, and we're headed into the planetary pods' envelope. I know Ajax's taken a few licks of her own, but I want your squadron moved out on our flank. I need to interpose your point defense between Intolerant and Arthur. Are you in shape for that?"

"Of course we are." Henke nodded vigorously. "Ajax's the only one who's been kissed, and our damage is all pretty much superficial. None of it'll have any effect on our missile defense."

"Good! Andrea and I will shift the LACs as well, but they've expended a lot of CMs against those two monster launches from Bogey Four." Honor shook her head. "I didn't think they could stack that many pods without completely saturating their own fire control. It looks like we're going to have to rethink a few things."

"That's the nature of the beast, isn't it?" Henke responded with a shrug. "We live and learn."

"Those of us fortunate enough to survive," Honor agreed, just a bit grimly. Then she gave herself a little shake. "All right, Mike. Get your people moving. Clear."

* * *

"They're shifting formation, Admiral," Selma Thackeray reported. "It looks like they're moving their battlecruisers between their damaged superdreadnought and Arthur."

"Sounds like we got a pretty good piece of her, Sir," Gozzi observed.

"I'd have preferred a better one," Giscard said, his eyes on the damage control report from Conquete scrolling up his display.

Despite the disparity in firepower, the Manties' stubborn concentration on a single target had paid them dividends. Conquete was the only one of Giscard's ships they'd damaged, but they'd hammered her severely. Her max acceleration was down by almost twenty-two percent, her point defense had been significantly degraded, she had over two hundred casualties, and like all Giscard's SD(P)s, she'd effectively exhausted her offensive missile capacity.

But superdreadnoughts were tough, and the Republic's damage control capabilities had improved dramatically over the past few years. Conquete might be hurt, but she would still have been combat capable . . . if there'd been anyone in range for her to fight.

"Their present course is going to carry them clear of Sewall, isn't it, Marius?" he asked after a moment.

"Yes, Sir, I'm afraid it is," Gozzi replied. Rear Admiral Hildegard Sewall commanded the Republican task group closing in from system south. "Not by very much, though," the chief of staff continued. "If Deutscher manages to inflict more impeller damage, I think she'll probably be able to bring them into her engagement envelope."

"And with one of their superdreadnoughts already beat up on." Giscard nodded. "Well, I suppose it's all up to Deutscher, then."


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