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Chapter Fifty-Seven

"What's the latest on our visitors?" Admiral Alessandra Giovanni asked.

"Pretty much unchanged, Ma'am," Commander Ewan MacNaughton replied. "Their starships are still stooging around outside the hyper limit, but their platforms are dancing all over the damned place . . . and making sure we know it."

He grimaced and waved one hand at the huge display showing the Lovat System's inner planets and the space about them.

The system's G-6 primary floated at the display's center, orbited by the innermost cinder—which had never attained the dignity of an actual name, aside from Lovat I—and then the planets Furnace, Forge, and Anvil. At seven light-minutes from the primary, Forge, the system's only habitable world, would have enjoyed a pleasant climate, if not for its pronounced axial tilt. Although, to be fair, if you liked severe seasonal weather changes (which MacNaughton didn't), Forge was still a lovely world.

It was also heavily industrialized.

The Lovat System had originally been settled by the Aamodt Corporation, one of the huge industrial concerns which had helped build the original Republic of Haven's enormous wealth and power only to go the way of the dinosaur under the People's Republic. The current system governor, however, Havard Ellefsen, was a direct descendent of the Aamodt Coporation's founder, and Lovat had somehow avoided the worst consequences of the PRH's efforts to kill every golden goose it could lay hands on. Despite the fact that it was less than fifty light-years from the Haven System, Lovat had remained one of the unquestioned bright spots of the People's Republic's generally blighted economy, and the system's industrial concerns had played a major role in the Republic's industrial renaissance since the economic reforms Rob Pierre had forced through and the restoration of the Constitution.

Among other things, Forge's current population of almost three billion was deeply involved in the enormous naval construction programs Thomas Theisman had initiated after going public about the existence of the Republican Navy's new ship types. To be sure, the Lovat System wasn't one of the primary yard sites. Its local industry was much more heavily committed to the construction of light units—light attack craft and the new light cruiser classes—and fleet support vessels—ammunition ships, personnel transports, general cargo haulers, and repair ships. Despite that, it was among the Republic's twenty or so most important star systems, and its system defenses reflected that importance.

Just over eight thousand LACs were based on Forge and the system's orbital platforms. A permanent covering force of three battle squadrons—admittedly, of pre-pod types, but still a total of twenty-four superdreadnoughts—was assigned, and the system was liberally blanketed with system defense missile pods. In the last six months, Lovat had also received not just one Moriarty platform, but three, the second pair to serve solely as backups for the first.

And, MacNaughton thought, there's also the defenses I can't see. 

All of which explained why Commander MacNaughton was as confident as his admiral that no Manty raiding force was going to stick its nose into Lovat.

"We've got their arrays in several quadrants of the inner system," he continued, indicating the wavering icons representing the ghostlike sensor traces which were the best his platforms could do against current-generation Manticoran stealth technology. "They've been buzzing around for over sixty hours now, and we've still got hyper footprints jumping in and out all around the periphery. It's starting to get on my nerves, Ma'am."

"Which is exactly what it's supposed to do," Giovanni pointed out.

"I know that, Ma'am. And so do our LAC crews. But that doesn't keep it from being irritating, and Commander Lucas reports that Moriarty's gold crew is beginning to suffer from fatigue."

"I told the Octagon we needed more personnel," Giovanni growled. "Unfortunately, we don't really have them yet—not for Moriarty. Or, rather, we could have complete backup crews . . . if we were willing to do without backup platforms."

MacNaughton nodded. Admiral Foraker and her Bolthole command continued to work miracles in their training programs, but the Navy's enormous expansion was taking its toll. Despite the steadily climbing educational levels of the Republic, the Navy still had to spend far more time than the Manties did providing its recruits with the basic education needed to perform their jobs. Fortunately, Foraker had gotten very, very good at doing just that. Unfortunately, it still put a bottleneck into the availability of fully trained manpower.

"Shall I instruct Lucas to stand the gold platform down and bring up silver or bronze?"

"Um." Giovanni ran a hand over her dark hair, eyes thoughtful, then shrugged. "Go ahead and shift to silver. I doubt we're really going to need them, but it won't hurt for silver to get a little more hands-on experience, anyway."

"Yes, Ma'am. I'll get on it right away, and—"

The rest of MacNaughton's sentence was slashed off by the sudden jangle of alarms as a massive hyper footprint exploded onto the plot.

* * *

"Well done, Theo," Honor Alexander-Harrington said.

Lieutenant Commander Kgari had dropped TF 81, Eighth Fleet's leading task force, into normal-space barely forty thousand kilometers outside the Lovat System's hyper limit. That was extraordinarily precise astrogation, and Kgari smiled in appreciation of the well-deserved praise.

Honor smiled back, but her true attention was focused on the huge flag bridge tactical display. She watched alertly, waiting for CIC to post any major changes, but the only differences from Skirmisher's last upload were insignificant.

Not that it's going to stay that way if we've got things figured right, she reminded herself.

"All right," she said. "Harper, pass the execute command."

"Aye, aye, Your Grace," Lieutenant Brantley acknowledged, and the eight CLACs of Alice Truman's reinforced carrier squadron launched almost nine hundred LACs as Alistair McKeon's BatRon 61 headed in-system, screened by fifteen Manticoran and Grayson BC(P)s and HMS Nike under the overall command of Rear Admiral Erasmus Miller. Michelle Henke would have had the command, except that the terms of her parole precluded her from serving against the Republic. So she'd been sent to Talbott, where Honor knew she would prove enormously useful, and Michael Oversteegen, promoted to Rear Admiral, had been given her squadron. But much as Honor approved of Oversteegen's demonstrated capability, he was junior to Miller. And the Grayson rear admiral was more than merely competent in his own right, she reminded herself.

Winston Bradshaw and Charise Fanaafi's twelve heavy cruisers, eight of them Saganami-C-class ships, backed Miller up, and six light cruisers under the command of Commodore George Ullman, who'd replaced Commodore Moreau when she died aboard HMS Buckler at Solon, thickened the screen.

It was a powerful force, by any measure, although Honor was fully aware that it was grossly outnumbered and outgunned by the system's defenders.

Just as it was supposed to be.

"Admiral Truman reports all LAC wings away, Your Grace," Andrea Jaruwalski announced.

"Very good. Instruct her to hyper out to the Alpha rendezvous."

"Aye, aye, Your Grace."

Honor watched the carriers' icons disappear, then settled herself into her command chair, a skinsuited Nimitz in her lap, and watched her thirty starships accelerate steadily in-system.

* * *

"Do you think this is another Suarez, Ma'am?" MacNaughton asked tensely as he watched the oncoming icons move steadily across the plot.

"I don't know."

Giovanni's own eyes were slitted in concentration, and he noticed she was wrapping a single lock of hair around her right index finger. It was a mannerism he'd grown accustomed to over the last three T-years, and he waited respectfully.

"No," she said after several moments of consideration. "I don't know why, but I don't think so. These people are really here."

"It seems awfully gutsy of them," MacNaughton said, and she shrugged. "And not especially bright, after Solon."

"I'm inclined to agree. On the other hand, maybe they think they can get deep enough in to do significant damage and still avoid interception. This is the strongest raiding force they've sent in yet, assuming the outer platforms' analysis is correct. It's possible they figure they've got the firepower to fight their way out past the sort of interception Admiral Giscard managed at Solon."

"If they do, they're wrong, Ma'am," MacNaughton said.

"We think they are, Ewan," Giovanni corrected. "Although, if they've got the sense God gave a Legislaturalist, at least they'll stay out of our inner-system missile envelope!"

* * *

Honor glanced at the date/time display and smiled sadly. If Illescue was on schedule, her daughter would be born in almost exactly eight minutes.

Katherine Allison Miranda Alexander-Harrington. She sampled the name silently, wishing with all her heart that she were there, watching the miracle of life, tasting her daughter's newborn mind-glow, and not here, orchestrating the deaths of thousands. She inhaled deeply, and sent a thought winging across the light-years.

Happy birthday, baby. I hope God lets me watch you grow up . . . and that you never have to do something like this.

* * *

"Coming up on Point Samar in five minutes, Your Grace," Jaruwalski said.

"Thank you, Andrea."

Honor looked up and checked the time display. Her units had been accelerating towards rendezvous with Forge for thirty-five minutes at a steady 4.81 KPS2 from their relatively low initial velocity. They were up to 11,750 KPS, and they'd traveled just over fourteen million kilometers. They were still seventy-four minutes from turnover for a zero/zero intercept, but the one thing she felt absolutely confident of was that none of the defenders expected her to be making any zero/zero rendezvous with Forge.

Of course, they might be wrong, she thought coldly.

She returned her attention to the tactical plot. The old-style superdreadnoughts, which Jaruwalski had designated Bogey One, were holding their positions in-system, close to Forge, but the forward sensor drones showed that their impeller wedges were up, and their sidewalls were active. The massive LAC force their scouts had reported was also clearly in evidence. Whoever the system commander here in Lovat was, she didn't appear to have opted for the sort of deceptiveness Admiral Bellefeuille had displayed at Chantilly.

But appearances can be . . . deceiving, Honor reminded herself, with a slight smile. I hope they are, anyway. I'd hate to have wasted all this preparation if this is really all they've got. 

She pursed her lips slightly, looking down at the smaller repeater plot deployed from the side of her command chair. Unlike the main plot, it was configured to show the entire system, and her gaze rested on the green sphere which represented the Lovat hyper limit.

"Any time now, Your Grace. If we've got it figured right, at least." She looked up. Mercedes Brigham stood beside her command chair, looking down at the same repeater, and Honor nodded.

"If it were me, I'd figure I had the patsies right about where I wanted them," she agreed. "And by now, their recon platforms have to have gotten a good enough look at us to be sure we're not just drones."

Brigham nodded back, and the two of them watched the plot, waiting.

* * *

"Admiral, they're seventy minutes from turnover."

"Very good, Ewan. Send the execute to Tarantula."

* * *

"Hyper footprint! We have major hyper footprints directly astern and at system north and system south," Andrea Jaruwalski reported. "Designate these forces Bogey Two, Bogey Three, and Bogey Four! They're accelerating in-system at five-point-zero-eight KPS-squared."

"Very well," Honor said calmly.

She leaned back in her command chair and crossed her legs, stroking the plushy fur between Nimitz's ears.

* * *

"Admiral, Admiral Giovanni's platforms confirm that one of the superdreadnoughts matches the emissions signature of the ship that got away at Solon," Marius Gozzi said.

"So," Javier Giscard said softly, "'the Salamander' is back."

He shook his head with more than a trace of sadness. Eloise had tried to hide her despair in her last letter to him, but he knew her too well. When Elizabeth Winton had accepted her offer of the summit, it had been like watching the sun come out. And when whatever the hell had happened on Old Earth and Torch crushed any prospect of a negotiated settlement, it had been like watching a late blizzard bury the frozen blossoms of a murdered spring.

He supposed he couldn't really blame the Manties for leaping to the conclusion that the Republic was behind what had happened. It didn't make sense, in a lot of ways, yet people—and star nations—all too often did things that didn't make sense. But however well he might understand their reasoning, he still had to cope with the consequences of their actions.

And so do they, he thought grimly, watching that outnumbered force go to military power. Not that it was going to do it a great deal of good. Its six superdreadnoughts were thoroughly outgunned by the sixteen SD(P)s and four CLACs in each of his three intercepting forces; the inner-system's missile pods were far more numerous than they'd been at Solon; and he'd been able to plot his own translations much more closely. Unlike Solon, these Manties would be unable to avoid entering the effective missile envelope of at least one of his intercepting forces.

"Open fire, Sir?" Selma Thackeray asked, but Giscard shook his head.

"Harrington showed us at Solon what she could do to long-range missile fire," he told the ops officer, "and she's got a lot more defensive platforms than she had then. No. We'll just follow along. We're the beaters; Moriarty is the hunter. Once Giovanni chews them up, we'll worry about cleaning up the remnants."

"Yes, Sir," Thackeray acknowledged, and Giscard returned his attention to the plot.

They shouldn't have sent you out with so few ships, Your Grace, he told the light code of HMS Imperator. 

* * *

"All right, Andrea," Honor said, glancing at the time display once more. Twelve minutes had passed since the Havenite ambush force had translated in behind her. "Execute Ozawa."

"Aye, aye, Your Grace!" Jaruwalski said, her voice sparkling with excitement, and tapped a single command into her console.

* * *

"There's the execute signal, Ma'am!" Lieutenant Harcourt announced.

"Understood," Commander Estwicke replied, and looked at her astrogator. "Take us out, Jerome."

"Aye, aye, Skipper," Lieutenant Weissmuller acknowledged, and HMS Ambuscade popped back up into hyper-space.

Weissmuller had plotted his translation with care, and he'd had plenty of time to position his ship perfectly in normal-space before executing it. Ambuscade arrived precisely where she was supposed to be, and her plot suddenly blossomed with the light codes of capital ships.

"Communications, pass the word to Admiral Yanakov," Estwicke said.

* * *

"Hyper footprint!"

Javier Giscard's head snapped up at the unanticipated announcement. Commander Thackeray was bent over her console, fingers flying as she massaged the contact, and then she looked up, her face taut.

"Admiral, we've got eighteen superdreadnoughts or CLACs, well outside the hyper limit, directly astern of us. Range five-three-point-nine million kilometers. Velocity relative to Lovat two-point-five-zero-one thousand KPS. They—"

She broke off for just a moment, looking back down at her plot, then cleared her throat.

"Update, Sir. It's twelve SD(P)s and six carriers. The carriers just launched full LAC complements."

Giscard nodded, and hoped he looked calmer than he felt.

So she did set up her own mousetrap, by God, he thought. I wondered if she would, after what we did to her at Solon. And it looks like they've reinforced their Eighth Fleet more heavily than NavInt predicted.

He frowned down at the plot, his mind busy. The twelve superdreadnoughts behind him probably had the edge in total combat power, despite his numerical advantage, and the LACs they were deploying would be more effective in the missile-defense role. But they didn't have a big enough advantage, and their astrogation had been off. He was about to get hurt, but it was unlikely that they could have destroyed any of his wallers before he ran out of their effective range even if their astrogation had been perfect, and it hadn't been. They had him trapped deep enough inside the hyper limit that he couldn't avoid action, but they'd made their own alpha translation 2.8 light-minutes outside the limit. At that range, even Manty MDM accuracy was going to be significantly degraded, and he was too far ahead of them, with too great an advantage in base velocity, for them to overtake him.

And Harrington was still in front of him, driving steadily deeper into the waiting defensive missiles.

"Start rolling pods, Selma," he told his ops officer. "Fire Plan Gamma."

* * *

The outer-system FTL platforms reported the arrival of Admiral Yanakov's Task Force 82 to Alessandra Giovanni almost as quickly as Selma Thackeray reported it to Javier Giscard.

Despite a brief, instinctive panic reaction, Giovanni quickly reached the same conclusions Giscard had, and her smile was much more unpleasant than his expression had been.

So the great "Salamander" can fuck up just like the rest of us mere mortals, she thought. Pity about that.

"Range from Forge?" she asked.

"Still one-one-point-two light-minutes, Ma'am," MacNaughton replied. "Roughly another thirty-six minutes to missile range for Moriarty."

"Thank you," she said, and turned back to the outer-system plot as the multi-drive missiles began to launch.

* * *

The range was almost fifty-four million kilometers, and Bogey Two was running away from TF 82 at a relative velocity of more than four thousand KPS. Missile flight time was over eight minutes, and as Giscard had demonstrated at Solon, even Manticoran accuracy at that range was going to be poor.

Except . . .

* * *

"Sir, there's something . . . odd about the Manties' launch," Thackeray said.

"What do you mean, 'odd'?" Giscard asked sharply.

"Their attack birds are coming in . . . well, 'clumped' is the only word I can think of for it, Sir. They aren't spreading out in a proper dispersion pattern."


Giscard punched a command into his own repeater plot and frowned. Thackeray was right. His own outgoing missiles were spreading out, distancing themselves from one another to reduce wedge interference with their telemetry links to the ships which had launched them. Everyone's missiles did that.

But the Manties' missiles weren't.

"Query CIC," he told Thackeray. "I want an analysis of this pattern. There's got to be some reason for it."

"CIC's already on it, Sir. So far, they don't have any explanation."

Giscard grunted in acknowledgment. Actually, he realized, the attack missiles were spreading out, just not the way they should have. They were coming in in discrete clusters, spread across an attack front which would bring them all in simultaneously in the end, but making the trip in relatively tight groups of about eight or ten missiles each.

No, he thought as a preliminary analysis from the Combat Information Center came up as a sidebar to his plot. They're coming in in clusters of exactly eight missiles each. Which is stupid, since they have twelve missiles in each pod! 

* * *

It was called "Apollo," after the archer of the gods.

It hadn't been easy for the R&D types to perfect. Even for Manticoran technology, designing the components had required previously impossible levels of miniaturization, and BuWeaps had encountered more difficulties than anticipated in putting the system into production. This was its first test in actual combat, and the crews which had launched the MDMs watched with bated breath to see how well it performed.

Javier Giscard was wrong. There weren't twelve missiles in an Apollo pod; there were nine. Eight relatively standard attack missiles or EW platforms, and the Apollo missile—much larger than the others, and equipped with a down-sized, short-ranged two-way FTL communications link developed from the one deployed in the still larger Ghost Rider reconnaissance drones. It was a remote control node, following along behind the other eight missiles from the same pod, without any warhead or electronic warfare capability of its own.

The impeller wedges of the other missiles hid it and its pulsed transmissions from the sensors of Giscard's ships, and from his counter-missiles. But its position allowed it to monitor the standard telemetry links from the other missiles of its pod. And it also carried a far more capable AI than any standard attack missile—one capable of processing the data from all of the other missiles' tracking and homing systems and sending the result back to its mothership via grav-pulse.

The ships which had launched them had deployed the equally new Keyhole II platforms, equipped not with standard light-speed links for their offensive missiles, but with grav-pulse links. Virtually every Manticoran or Grayson ship which could currently deploy Keyhole II was in Eighth Fleet's order of battle, and Honor Alexander-Harrington had taken ruthless advantage of the capability when she formulated her attack plans.

The grav-pulse transmissions were faster than light, although they weren't instantaneous. Actual transmission speed was "only" about sixty-four times the speed of light, but that was enormously better than anyone had ever been able to do before. The updated sensor information from the on-rushing missiles crossed the distance to the tactical sections and massively capable computers of the superdreadnoughts which had launched them, and at this range, the transmission lag was less than three seconds. For all practical purposes, they might as well have made the trip instantaneously. As did the corrections those tactical sections sent back.

In effect, Apollo gave the Royal Manticoran Navy effectively real-time correction ability at any attainable powered missile range.

* * *

Javier Giscard's tactical officers didn't realize at first what they faced. In fact, most of them never did realize.

The Manty missiles ignored their decoys almost contemptuously, and those peculiar clumps of MDMs maneuvered with a precision no missile-defense officer had ever seen before. It was almost as if each clump were a single missile, one which bored in through the defensive shield of the task group's electronic warfare as if it didn't exist.

Counter-missiles began to fire, and something else very peculiar happened. The EW platforms seeded throughout the Manticoran salvo didn't come up simultaneously, or in groups, the way they ought to have. Instead, they came up individually, singly, almost as if they could actually see the counter-missiles and adjust their own sequences.

Dragon's Teeth activated at precisely the right moment to draw the maximum number of counter-missiles into attacking the false targets. Dazzlers blasted the onboard sensors of other counter-missiles . . . just as the attack missiles behind them arced upward, or dove downward, to drive straight through the gap the Dazzlers had burned in the defensive envelope.

Not all the defensive missiles could be blinded or evaded, of course. There were simply too many of them. But their effectiveness was slashed.

The twelve superdreadnoughts of Task Force 82 had rolled quadruple patterns before they launched. Two hundred and eighty-eight Apollo pods had launched nineteen hundred attack missiles and four hundred EW platforms, along with two hundred and eighty-eight control missiles.

Javier Giscard's counter-missiles stopped only three hundred of the attack birds. His desperate point defense clusters, in the single volley each of them got, killed another four hundred.

Twelve hundred got through.

* * *

Damage alarms screamed on Sovereign of Space's command deck and flag bridge. The huge ship shuddered and bucked as not one, or two, but scores of Manticoran missiles ripped straight through the heart of the task group's missile defenses. Armor splintered, atmosphere spewed into space, weapons mounts and point defense clusters were blasted into shattered wreckage, and the drum roll of destruction went on and on and on.

All of Judah Yanakov's fire had been concentrated on only two ships. Partly, that was because no one had really known how effective Apollo would prove against live opposition, and partly it had been because superdreadnoughts were simply so inconceivably tough. Killing targets that rugged was hard, and Honor and Yanakov had been determined to do as much damage with the first salvo, before the enemy had any chance to adjust to the new threat, as they could.

They did.

Javier Giscard clung to the arms of his command chair, surrounded by the frantic combat chatter of his task group, listening to the shrilling alarms, the desperate reports of damage control parties fighting the tidal wave of damage. His link to Damage Control Central lacked the detail of Captain Reuman's displays, but huge swathes of crimson damage blasted their way across the ship's schematic as he watched.

And then there was one brief, terrible flash as something ripped into the far end of the flag bridge. His head whipped up, and he just had time to see Selma Thackery and her tactical party torn apart by the blast front screaming towards him. Just long enough for his brain to begin to realize what was happening.

"Eloi—" he began, his voice soft in the hurricane of alarms and devastation.

He never finished her name.

* * *

"Jesus Christ," Ewan MacNaughton whispered, his face white.

The first Manticoran missile salvo had killed two of Admiral Giscard's superdreadnoughts outright . . . including Sovereign of Space. The second salvo, rumbling in on the first launch's heels forty-eight seconds later, killed two more, and the one after that, two more.

It took a total of eleven salvos—less than eight minutes' fire—to kill every superdreadnought in Bogey Two.

"How the hell did they do that?"

MacNaughton didn't even realize he'd asked the question aloud, but Admiral Giovanni answered it anyway.

"I don't know," she said, her voice ugly. "But it's not going to help their lead ships in another twenty-five minutes."

* * *

"CIC estimates another twenty minutes until we hit the envelope for their inner-system pods, Your Grace," Mercedes Brigham said quietly, and Honor nodded.

Imperator's flag bridge was oddly silent. Far astern of them, Judah Yanakov's missile batteries had just finished off the helpless CLACs of Bogey Two. He wasn't wasting any of his fire on the orphaned LACs. Instead, he'd recovered his own LACs and translated back out, and Honor watched her display, waiting.

Then Task Force 82 translated back into normal-space yet again. This time, much closer to the limit, and directly behind Bogey Three.

"Admiral Yanakov is launching against Bogey Three, Your Grace," Jaruwalski reported, and Honor nodded.

"Too bad he won't have time to catch Bogey Four before it gets too far in-system for him to range on, as well, Your Grace," Brigham said. "I'd love to make a clean sweep."

Honor glanced at her, remembering what had happened to her own command at Solon. Part of her agreed entirely with Brigham, and not just because of the professional naval officer in her. But the taste of revenge had a bitter tang, and she looked back at the plot.

"We'll just have to settle for what we can get," she said calmly. "And it's about time to see how vulnerable Balder really is. Andrea," she looked back up at Jaruwalski.

"Yes, Your Grace?"

"Activate the Mistletoe platforms."

* * *

"What the—?"

Commander MacNaughton stiffened in consternation.

"Admiral Giovanni! We've got—"

Giovanni was still turning towards her display when the explosions began.

* * *

The Havenite tracking crews had become accustomed to the fact that they simply couldn't localize and destroy the highly stealthy Manticoran reconnaissance platforms used to scout their star systems. It was galling, but true. And so, aside from a certain deep-seated irritation, they'd actually paid relatively little attention to the long-endurance Ghost Rider reconnaissance drones the Manticorans had distributed throughout the inner system of Lovat.

Which was unfortunate.

Sonja Hemphill had personally chosen the name "Mistletoe" in honor of the dart which had killed the god Balder in Norse mythology, and the name proved apt.

* * *

"Where the hell are they coming from?" Giovanni demanded.

"I don't know, Ma'am!" MacNaughton replied, his voice as anguished as his expression as the Manticoran laser heads ripped into the Moriarty platforms. Not just one of the platforms; all three of them. The stealth and dispersion which were supposed to have protected them obviously hadn't, he thought, and closed his eyes for a moment as the relentless avalanche of fire blew them apart.

Alessandra Giovanni's face was white with shock. With the Moriarty platforms gone, she had nothing that could control missile salvos of the size needed to batter down Manticoran missile defenses. And given what the Manties had already done to Admiral Giscard's forces, it was painfully obvious her own anti-missile defenses were going to be at best marginally effective.

"The recon platforms!" MacNaughton said suddenly. "The bastards put laser heads on their goddamned recon platforms!"

Giovanni blinked, then shook her head and looked sharply at MacNaughton. He was right, she realized. It was the only explanation.

"But how did they find Moriarty?" she demanded. "Unless—"

"Unless what, Ma'am?" MacNaughton asked when she broke off suddenly.

"Suarez," she said sharply. "That's what Suarez was all about! They figured out what happened to them at Solon, and they used their EW drones to trick us into activating the Moriarty net at Suarez after they'd already planted their recon platforms deep enough in-system to see them. They had complete, detailed fingerprints on what they were looking for!"

"And then they mixed in armed recon drones to kill them after they found them," MacNaughton said through clenched teeth.

"That's exactly what they did," Giovanni agreed harshly. "Damn! They can't have the acceleration to be very effective against moving targets at any sort of range, but against fixed targets, especially when the attack birds know exactly what to look for . . ."

"Commander MacNaughton!" a rating called, and MacNaughton whipped back to his own displays. His shoulders went absolutely rigid for a moment, then slumped, and he looked back at Giovanni.

"Not just Moriarty, Ma'am," he grated. "It looks like we're going to have to start deploying the system defense pods further apart. They just took out three-quarters of the Beta echelon and almost that many of the Delta birds."

"How?" Giovanni asked flatly.

"More of their damned recon platforms. It had to be. They got old-fashioned nukes—the yields are somewhere in the five-hundred-megaton range—close enough to the pods to take them out with proximity explosions."

Giovanni nodded silently. Of course. If you could put laser heads on the things, then why not regular nukes? Not that they'd really had to. Given the accuracy they'd just shown against Giscard, they could take the pods out with proximity-armed MDM launches from beyond any range at which she could possibly expect to score hits in return.

"Admiral Giovanni," a shaken communications officer said, "Admiral Trask is asking for you."

Alessandra Giovanni glanced once more at the plot where the heart and mind of her defenses had just been annihilated, then drew a deep breath. Of course Trask wanted to speak to her. His obsolescent superdreadnoughts were going to be little more than targets for Harrington's SD(P)s, and Giovanni wasn't optimistic about her LACs' chance to get through Harrington's defensive fire and damned Katanas without the support of massed attacks from the system defense missile pods.

Which meant that if she committed Admiral Wentworth Trask's ships, he and all of his people were going to die.

* * *

"According to the standard recon platforms, we just took out all three of their control stations, Your Grace!" Jaruwalski announced jubilantly.

"Very good, Andrea. In that case, we'll proceed with the Alpha plan. Let's whittle their deployed pods down as far as we can before we enter their envelope."

"Aye, aye, Your Grace."

Honor nodded and turned back to her plot, hoping that whoever was in command over there would realize how helpless her defensive starships were and surrender before she had to kill them all.



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