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Chapter Sixty-Three

"How does it look now, Andrea?"

"Better, Your Grace."

Captain Jaruwalski flipped a sighting circle into the main plot, dropping it neatly around the icons of Battle Squadrons Thirty-Six and Thirty-Eight, Imperial Andermani Navy. The light codes of the sixteen superdreadnoughts burned steadily in the display, giving no indication of how hard they were to find, even for Imperator's sensors. The numbers in the CIC sidebar giving detected signal strength were another story, however, indicating exactly how hard they would have been to detect had Imperator not known precisely where to look for them. Not quite as hard as Manticoran ships might have been, but harder than anyone else's, Honor noted, and nodded in approval. Not so much of the EW capabilities, as of Vizeadmiral Morser's tactics.

"She's slipped around behind Admiral Yanakov," Jaruwalski continued. "I don't think he knows she's there, but he's a sneaky one. He may just be playing dumb until she's got him right where he wants her."

"Why do you think that might be?"

"Partly because of where he's got his carriers, Your Grace. He's got them pulled around, further ahead of his trailing battle squadron than his usual cruising dispositions. That puts the SD(P)s' onboard point defense between them and Morser's batteries. But they're still far enough astern that he could get their Katanas launched to thicken his task force missile defenses in a hurry. It may not mean anything, but it looks to me as if he's at least thinking about the possibility of being jumped from astern."

"I see."

Honor folded her hands behind her, standing beside her command chair while Nimitz draped bonelessly over its back, and contemplated the plot. Andrea had a point, she decided. Both about Judah's sneakiness, and about his formation. Personally, Honor gave it a sixty-forty chance Yanakov didn't know Morser was back there. Or, at least, how close she was. For the purposes of this exercise, he'd been denied the use of Ghost Rider's extended platform endurance, his sensor capability had been stepped down to no more than twenty percent better than ONI's current best estimate of the Republic's capabilities, and his acceleration rate had been reduced to match that of Republican superdreadnoughts. That meant he was more myopic than he was accustomed to being, and he must feel heavy-footed, slow to maneuver. So it made sense for him to be particularly wary about the possibility of being overhauled from behind.

Still, he was sneaky. . . .

Then again, so was Bin-hwei Morser. Honor still didn't like her much, and she was aware—painfully, one might say, given her ability to taste mind-glows—that Morser's feelings for her went far beyond "didn't like much." But the vizeadmiral was a superior tactician, and her very dislike for Manticore had inspired her to drive her personnel even harder over the five days since Aivars Terekhov's return from Monica. She hadn't come off very well in that series of exercises, and she hadn't liked that much, either. The last thing she wanted was to look inferior to the RMN.

When you're number two, you try harder, Honor thought wryly. Especially when you resent the heck out of your number two status. Well, whatever works. I don't really care why she does it, as long she does do it. 

She began to pace slowly back and forth, watching the gradually developing tactical situation. At the moment, Imperator was tagging along behind Konteradmiral Syou-tung Waldberg's Battle Squadron Thirty-Eight at the rear of Morser's formation. Yanakov had his own Fifteenth Battle Squadron and Vice Admiral Baez's Twenty-Third, plus Samuel Miklós' Fifth Carrier Squadron and all four of Eighth Fleet's Manticoran and Grayson battlecruiser squadrons. Alistair McKeon's Sixty-First Battle Squadron, most of Alice Truman's carriers, and the rest of Honor's cruisers and destroyers had stayed home, near the Trevor's Star terminus of the Junction with Admiral Kuzak's Third Fleet, for this one. The object was to give her Andermani units a significant force advantage, since they were tasked as the aggressors in this particular system defense exercise.

"Any word on Vizeadmiral Hasselberg's units?" she asked, after a moment.

"Welllll . . ." Jaruwalski said, and Honor looked at her sharply, one eyebrow rising as she tasted the ops officer's emotions.

"Spit it out, Andrea."

"Well, I know Admiral Yanakov can't use the all-up Ghost Rider capabilities, and I know we're supposed to be letting Vizeadmiral Morser call all the shots on this one. But I couldn't quite resist the temptation to deploy a few drones of my own, Your Grace. None of the take from them is going to Morser, but it sort of lets me keep an eye on things."

"I see. And no doubt you simply forgot to display the positions of Vizeadmiral Hasselberg and his ships. The fact that you were attempting to conceal your transgression from my eagle eye had nothing to do with the omission, right?"

"Well, maybe a little, Your Grace," Jaruwalski admitted with a grin. "You want to see him?"

"Go ahead and show me."

"Coming up now," Jaruwalski said, and the understrength Forty-First Battle Squadron of Vizeadmiral Hwa-zhyou Reinke, screened by the sixteen battlecruisers of Konteradmiral Hen-zhi Seifert and Konteradmiral Tswei-yun Wollenhaupt and accompanied by Rear Admiral Harding Stuart's Mermaid and Harpy, appeared suddenly on the master plot.

Mermaid and Harpy formed Carrier Division Thirty-Four, detached from Truman's CLAC squadron to give the Andermani a carrier element. At the moment, they and the superdreadnoughts they were accompanying were well ahead of Yanakov's force, closing in on an almost directly converging heading, and Honor frowned.

Reinke's squadron had only six SD(P)s, which meant Yanakov's wallers outnumbered him by better than two-to-one. Stuart's carriers were outnumbered by three-to-one, and even in battle-cruisers, Hasselberg was outnumbered four-to-three. That was bad enough, but coming in as he was, he'd be in MDM engagement range at least a half-hour before Morser closed up from behind Yanakov, and a half-hour was a long time in an engagement between pod-layers.

She started to say something, then changed her mind. She didn't really care for tactics which split an attacking fleet up into penny packets. It was too good a way to fritter away a numerical advantage and invite defeat in detail, especially if your timing screwed up, and that seemed to be what was about to happen to Hasselberg and Morser. It looked as if Hasselberg had planned on a simultaneous attack, enveloping Yanakov from ahead and astern at the same time. If he had, however, his timing was decidedly off.

But that was a point for her to make to him privately, where he could be positive she wasn't criticizing him in front of his juniors. She wasn't afraid Jaruwalski would have let anything slip to anyone else even if she'd commented on Hasselberg's error, but it was a bad habit to get into, even with her own staff. And so she possessed her soul in silence, watching the situation unfold.

And then—

"Your Grace, look at this!" Jaruwalski said suddenly, and Honor frowned. It took her an instant to recognize what she was seeing, but when she did, she decided she was glad she hadn't criticized Hasselberg's timing after all.

"Is he doing what I think he's doing, Your Grace?" Jaruwalski asked, and Honor chuckled.

"He is, indeed, Andrea. And I'll be interested to see how Judah reacts. This is very like something he once pulled in a training exercise in Yeltsin."

She stepped over closer to Jaruwalski, resting her right hand lightly on the ops officer's shoulder as they both watched the plot. Hasselberg had obviously just deployed Ghost Rider drones of his own. These weren't sensor platforms, though; they were EW platforms configured to counterfeit the emissions signatures of Morser's superdreadnoughts. And he was being subtle about it. The signal strength off the drones was very weak—barely more than ten percent higher than what could have been expected to leak through a standard Andermani stealth field. Given the way Yanakov's sensor capabilities had been dialed back for the exercise, his tac officers were going to have a hard time recognizing what Hasselberg was doing.

In fact, as became apparent a few moments later, they hadn't recognized it. Yanakov was changing course, turning away from the threat he'd just detected, and launching his LACs. With only Republican levels of capability allowed to his reconnaissance drones, his LACs were his best long-range sensor platforms, despite their far lower acceleration rates, and he was sending them out to check out the suspect contacts. At the same time, as a precaution, he was deploying the bulk of his Katanas between his battle squadrons and Hasselberg. His battlecruisers were redeploying, as well, shifting to cover the threat axis with their anti-missile defenses.

It was clear Yanakov didn't intend to allow himself to be drawn into automatically assuming he was seeing what his tactical sections thought they were seeing. At the same time, he'd equally clearly decided he had to honor the threat and shift his formation to meet it.

Which was exactly what Hasselberg had wanted him to do.

The next thirty minutes passed slowly as Honor and Jaruwalski watched the shifting patterns in the plot. Yanakov's turn away from Hasselberg had the effect of closing the range to Morser even more rapidly, but at such ranges "rapid" was a purely relative term.

Hasselberg was playing the game well, Honor decided. Once he'd given Yanakov a sniff of his position and drawn an obvious response, he cycled down the power of his decoys' signatures. It looked exactly as if he wasn't positive he'd been detected and he was reducing acceleration to cut back the strength of his impeller signatures and make his stealth systems more effective. The maneuver both lent verisimilitude to his deception and made it even harder to penetrate by requiring the reconnaissance LACs to close to much shorter range for positive identification.

Honor pursed her lips thoughtfully as the range from Morser's squadrons to Yanakov's dropped steadily. Yanakov was already in MDM range, and in another few minutes his LACs were going to get close enough to see through Hasselberg's masquerade. So if she were Morser, she'd be firing just about—

"Vizeadmiral Morser's opened fire, Your Grace," Jaruwalski said, and Honor nodded.

"So I see," she said mildly, folded her hands behind her once again, and walked calmly back to her command chair.

Judah was going to be . . . irritated with himself, she thought with a mental grin. He'd obviously taken Hasselberg's bait, after all. He might not have allowed himself to go charging after it, but Hasselberg and his skillfully deployed drones had riveted Yanakov's attention on the smaller of the Andermani task groups. His tac crews hadn't been paying as much attention to other possible axes of threat, and when Morser launched, Yanakov's screen—and Katanas—were badly out of position, with very poor shots at the incoming tide of missiles. Moreover, Morser had stacked her pods deeply. Her sixteen superdreadnoughts had deployed almost six hundred pods; now they launched a total of 4,608 attack and EW missiles . . . and five hundred and seventy-six Apollo control missiles.

Flight time was still almost six minutes, which gave Yanakov some time to adjust, but it wasn't long enough to significantly reposition his units. And as the missiles came streaking in, for the first time, Eighth Fleet units found themselves on the receiving end of an Apollo attack.

It was not, Honor thought, watching the first few damage codes appear on her display, like the first drifting flakes of a Sphinx mountain blizzard, going to be a pleasant experience.

* * *

"Admiral, it's time," Captain DeLaney said quietly over the com, and Lester Tourville nodded.

"Yes, I suppose it is," he agreed. "Send the Fleet to battle stations, Molly. I'll be up directly."

"Yes, Sir."

Tourville terminated the connection and stood. He patted his skinsuit's cargo pocket automatically, checking to be certain his trademark cigars were where they were supposed to be. They'd become so much a part of his image that he probably could have demoralized his entire flag bridge crew by the simple expedient of giving up smoking.

The thought made him chuckle, and he was glad he was alone as he detected the edge of nervousness in the sound.

Let's just get that out of our system right here, Lester. No butter-flies in front of the troops. They deserve a hell of a lot better than that out of you.

He glanced at himself in a bulkhead mirror. It was probably just as well none of his personnel knew he'd been sitting here, already skinsuited, for the last fifteen minutes. Not that it had been because of any opening-night jitters. Or, at least, not very much so. It was more calculating than that. By suiting up early, he could take the time to do it right and arrive on flag bridge calm and collected, looking as if he'd just stepped out of a training holo. Just another of those little tricks to inspire his subordinates to pretend, even to themselves, that he was an unflappable, calm, confident leader. So sure of himself he would turn up perfectly turned out, without a single hair out of place.

He ran one hand over the hair in question, and chuckled again, much more naturally . . . just as the music began to play.

One of Thomas Theisman's reforms had been to allow the captains of capital units the right to substitute more personalized selections for the stridency of the standard fleet alarms. Captain Houellebecq had a fondness for really old opera, much of it actually dating from pre-space Old Earth. Tourville had cherished private doubts when she decided to use some of it aboard Guerriere, but he had to admit she'd come up with a suitable selection for this particular signal. In fact, he'd thought it was an appropriate one even before she told him what it was called.

"Now here this! Now here this! All hands, man Battle Stations! Repeat, all hands man Battle Stations!" Captain Celestine Houellebecq's calm, crisp voice said through the ancient, surging strains of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. 

* * *

"Ma'am, the Alpha Arrays are reporting—sweet Jesus!"

Lieutenant Commander Angelina Turner turned quickly, eyes flashing angrily.

"Just what the hell kind of report do you call that, Hellerstein?" she demanded harshly, even angrier because Chief Petty Officer Bryant Hellerstein was one of her best, steadiest people.

"Commander—Ma'am—this can't be right!" Hellerstein blurted, and Turner strode quickly towards his station. She'd opened her mouth in another, still sharper reprimand, but Hellerstein's shocked expression when he turned to look at her stopped it unspoken. She'd never seen the tough, competent noncom look . . . terrified before.

"What can't be right, Bryant?" she asked, much more gently than she'd intended to speak.

"Ma'am," Hellerstein said hoarsely, "according to the Alpha Arrays, three hundred-plus unidentified ships just made their alpha translations right on the limit."


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