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Chapter Sixty-Four

"All right, Robert. Let's get those drones deployed."

"Aye, Sir!" Commander Zucker began punching in commands at his console, and Rear Admiral Oliver Diamato turned to his chief of staff.

"It's not going to take them long to figure out we're out here, Serena," he said, one hand gesturing at the master plot which showed the Manticoran Wormhole Junction. Just getting this close to the Junction made Diamato's skin crawl, because if there was one point—besides their home system's inhabited worlds—-guaranteed to make the Manties respond like a wounded swamp tiger, it was the Junction.

"As a matter of fact, Sir," Commander Taverner replied with a mirthless smile, "I sort of suspect they already know, don't you?"

"I'm an admiral. That means I can put the best face on things if I want to." Diamato countered with a taut, answering smile.

In fact, as both he and Zucker knew perfectly well, the Mantie's system platforms had detected and pinpointed their hyper footprints the instant they arrived. There was no point trying to fool those stupendous arrays. With dimensions measured in thousands of kilometers on a side, they could pick up even the most gradual translation into normal-space at a range of literally light-weeks, much less the signatures of two battlecruiser squadrons only six light-hours from the primary.

"I suppose so, Sir," Taverner agreed. "Maybe that's why I'm just a commander."

"And don't you forget it." Diamato could almost feel his flag bridge crew relaxing at the banter between him and the chief of staff, and that was good. But there were more serious things to consider, as well.

"What I meant," he continued, "is that I'd like to put as much distance—very stealthily—as we can between us and our arrival points. I doubt we'll be able to drop off their systems, but it's worth a try."

"Yes, Sir," Taverner said more seriously. She gazed at the plot along with him. Their recon drones were out, racing for the Junction to keep a close eye on things, and already the faint sensor ghosts which were all they ever seemed to see of the Manties' all-too-aptly named "Ghost Rider" drones were appearing, headed (as nearly as they could tell) in their direction.

"What about going to Shell Game, Sir?" she asked after a moment.

"That's what I was thinking," Diamato agreed.

His ships' job was to keep as close an eye as possible on the Junction for Second Fleet. Even with the FTL com, his reports to Lester Tourville would still be over six minutes old when they arrived, but that was infinitely better than the six-hour delay light-speed transmissions would have imposed. And at least the Manty defenses had made it easy for the planners to decide against sending in recon LACs, since none of them could have hoped to survive long enough to see a damned thing. That meant he wouldn't have LAC crews' deaths on his conscience, but it didn't exactly solve his other problems. Specifically, his drones, while more capable than they'd ever been before as recon platforms, still were nowhere near as stealthy as the Manties' drones. That meant he had to stay close enough to keep sending in fresh waves as the defenders picked off the earlier ones.

At the same time, there was no point pretending his command could fight off what the Manties could send its direction if they so chose. So instead of any deluded notions of martial glory and stand-up battle, it was time—as Taverner had just suggested—to rely on speed and dispersal. This far out from the system primary (and well to the side of the resonance zone), Diamato's sixteen battlecruisers were free to bob and weave. And once their hyper generators finished cycling, they could always disappear into hyper if things looked like getting too hot anyway. The trick was to avoid letting anything with MDMs get within four or five light-minutes of them.

"Should I pass the orders, then, Sir?" Taverner asked, and he nodded.

"Do it," he said.

* * *

"Oh, shit," Admiral Stephania Grimm, Royal Astrogation Control Service, said to herself very, very quietly as a soft but urgent audio alarm sounded. The napkin she'd been using to brush cake crumbs from her tunic was suddenly a crushed ball in her hand, and the people who'd just been wishing her happy birthday turned as one to look at the plot.

Figures, a corner of her brain thought. They would decide to come calling on my birthday! 

She looked around at the suddenly taut faces of her co-workers. ACS was a civil service organization, despite its military ranks, and most of her subordinates and staff had never imagined in their darkest nightmares that they might ever actually see combat. But Grimm's position as the commanding officer of the Manticoran Junction's traffic control service required her to cooperate closely with its military hierarchy. Not all ACS commanders had been comfortable fits for that side of their duties, but it helped that Grimm was herself ex-Navy. In fact, she'd reached the rank of captain of the list before transferring to ACS, and she'd quickly acquired a reputation among her military colleagues for efficiency and brains. That was especially welcome in the wake of her immediate predecessor, Admiral Allen Stokes, whose sole claim to his position had been his brother-in-law's close ties to Baron High Ridge and First Lord Janacek.

But right at this moment, knowing she was well thought of was remarkably little comfort to Admiral Grimm. The huge hyper footprint just outside the system hyper-limit was bad enough, but for her, personally, the scattered footprints and spreading impeller signatures eight light-minutes out from the Junction were just as bad. There were going to be incoming drones very shortly, and there might be more superdreadnoughts hovering out there on the other side of the hyper wall, waiting to pounce, depending on what those drones told their masters.

She wasn't the only one thinking dark thoughts, she noticed, watching the huge astro plot's sidebars as the Junction forts rushed to battle stations. It would take a lot of SDs to deal with them, she told herself, but that didn't make her feel a great deal better. There were several hundred freighters, passenger liners, mail boats, and exploration vessels either already in transit through the Junction's various termini or else lined up in the transit queues awaiting their turns, and the thought of MDMs tearing around amidst all that defenseless civilian shipping made her physically sick to her stomach.

She flipped up a plastic shield and punched a large, red button on her console. A harsh, strident buzzer sounded, and every other sound on the command deck of HMSS DaGama, the Junction's central ACS platform ceased abruptly. Every eye turned towards her as the saw-edged audio alarm jerked her personnel's attention to her.

"It hasn't been declared yet, but we have damned sure got ourselves a Case Zulu, people," she announced in a flat, tense voice. "I'm declaring Condition Delta on my own authority. Clear the Junction—all traffic, wherever it is in the queue, not just the outbounds already on final. I want anything that might draw an MDM's attention way the hell away from here ASAP.

"After that, Jordan," she continued, turning to her exec, who still held half a slice of cake, "get ready for the ride of your life. Unless I miss my guess, what Admiral Yestremensky had to deal with when Earl White Haven took Eighth Fleet to Basilisk was a walk in the park compared to what's coming our way. Get a dispatch boat away to Trevor's Star with a sitrep immediately. Then go ahead and start setting up for a minimum-interval transit of everything Admiral Kuzak and Duchess Harrington have. I'm not sure what their deployments are, but we could have close to a hundred wallers coming through that terminus nose-to-arse. And if a couple of SDs misjudge their intervals and collide—or bring their wedges up too close together—we are going to have one hell of a mess."

"No joke," Captain Jordan Lamar said feelingly.

"So I want our best controllers on that lane," Grimm said. "Forget about the standard watch schedule. Pull in the best from wherever the hell they are and get them at those consoles—" she jabbed a finger at the Trevor's Star traffic controllers' section "—ten minutes ago. Then see what we've got available for tugs."

"Yes, Ma'am. I'm on it," Lamar said. He looked down, saw the cake as if for the first time, and stared at it for just a moment. Then he chuckled harshly, shoved it into his mouth, and turned to his own com to begin giving orders.

"Bradley," Grimm went on, turning to her official liaison to Admiral Thurston Havlicek, the Junction Defense Command's commanding officer, "bring Admiral Havlicek up to speed on what we've already done. I'm sure we're going to have drones incoming from these people in the next thirty or forty minutes, and I'm sure he's got his own plans for dealing with them, but ask him if there's anything we can do to help. I'm thinking we may need to be looking at ways to stack the incoming wallers to block the drones' LOS to the terminus, keep them from getting a close enough look to tell the Peeps what's coming or when. Whatever JDC needs and we can do, he's got, but I need to know what he wants now."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am!" Commander Bradley Hampton said with a grateful smile. "I'll get right on it."

"Good," Grimm said quietly, and looked back at the plot. The first Ghost Rider platforms were already twenty-five thousand kilometers out, accelerating at just over five thousand gravities. She couldn't see them, though she knew they were there. But she could see the blossoming impeller signatures of Junction Defense Command's LACs. Over thirty-five hundred were already in space, and more were appearing with metronome precision as the LAC platforms launched.

You bastards just go right ahead and come in on us, she thought venomously at the impeller signatures of the battlecruisers trying to spy on her command area. Come right ahead. We've got something for you.

* * *

Sebastian D'Orville's thoughts about the boredom of his assignment ran through the back of his brain like a bitter, distant echo as he strode onto HMS Invictus' flag bridge. Despite all his training, all his preparation, all the simulations and wargames and contingency planning, he suddenly discovered that he'd never really believed it would happen. That the Peeps would have the sheer, unadulterated nerve to actually attack the Star Kingdom of Manticore's home star system.

And why the hell didn't you believe it? his brain demanded contemptuously. You were ready enough to think about invading their home system during Buttercup, weren't you? Pissed off because Saint-Just's "cease-fire" ploy stopped the operation, weren't you? Well, it seems they can think big too, can't they? 

"Talk to me, Maurice," he said harshly.

"They're coming straight down our throats, Sir," Captain Maurice Ayrault, his chief of staff, replied flatly. "The only finesse I can see is their approach vector. It looks like they think they're going to take out Home Fleet and Sphinx first, then roll on over Manticore, but they're trying to leave themselves an out just in case, and their astrogation was first rate. They came in right on the intersection of the resonance zone and the hyper limit and split the angle almost exactly. It's not a least-time approach, but it means they can break back across the zone boundary if it gets too deep instead of being committed to the inner-system. At the moment, they're eight light-minutes out, closing at fifteen hundred KPS, and they're pouring on the accel. They must be running their compensators at at least ninety percent of full military power, because current acceleration is right on four-point-eight KPS-squared."

"Well," D'Orville said, "that's why we deployed this way. What does it look like for a zero/zero intercept on the planet?"

"Just under three hours," Ayrault said. "Turnover in roughly eighty-six minutes. They'll be up to twenty-six thousand KPS at that point." The chief of staff grimaced. "I suppose we should be grateful for small favors, Sir. They could have cut their time by over thirty minutes if they'd come straight in across the zone boundary."

"Time to range on the planet if they decide to go for maximum-range shots?" D'Orville asked levelly, hoping his tone and expression hid the icy chill running down his spine at the thought of weapons as notoriously inaccurate as long-range MDMs screaming through the inner system.

"On a zero/zero profile, ninety-four minutes. If they go for a least-time approach, without turnover, they can shave roughly a minute off of that. Either way, it's about an hour and a half."

"I see."

D'Orville considered what Ayrault had said. Home Fleet was still rushing to Battle Stations, but at least it was standing policy to hold his ships' nodes permanently at standby readiness, despite the additional wear that put on the components. He'd be able to get underway in the next twelve to fifteen minutes. The question was what he did when he could.

No, he told himself. There really isn't any question at all, is there? You can't let those missile pods get any closer to Sphinx than you can help. But, Jesus—over three hundred ships? 

"Does Tracking have a breakdown yet, Madelyn?" he asked, turning to his operations officer.

"It's just coming in now, Sir," Captain Madelyn Gwynett told him. She watched the information come up on her display, and he saw her shoulders tighten.

"Tracking makes it two hundred and forty superdreadnoughts, Sir. At this time, it looks like they're all pod-layers, but we're trying to get drones in closer to confirm that. They've also got what looks like sixteen CLACs and a screen of roughly ninety cruisers and lighter units, as well."

"Thank you, Madelyn."

D'Orville was pleased, in a distant sort of way, by how calm he sounded, but he understood why Gwynett's shoulders had stiffened. Home Fleet contained forty-two SD(P)s and forty-eight older superdreadnoughts. He was outnumbered by better than two and a half-to-one in capital ships, but the ratio was almost six-to-one in SD(P)s. He had twelve pod-laying battlecruisers, as well, but they'd be spit on a griddle against superdreadnoughts.

Still, he told himself as firmly as possible, the situation wasn't quite as bad as the sheer numbers suggested. The new tractor-equipped "flat-pack" missile pods would allow each of his older superdreadnoughts to "tow" almost six hundred pods inside their wedges, glued to their hulls like high-tech limpets. That was a hundred and twenty percent of a Medusa-class' internal pod loadout, and the ships were already loading up with them. Unfortunately, they didn't have the fire control to manage salvos as dense as a Medusa could throw. Worse, they'd have to flush the majority of their pods early in order to clear the sensor and firing arcs of their point defense and its fire control arrays. So he was going to have to use them at the longest range, where their accuracy was going to be lowest.

"Katenka," he said to Lieutenant Commander Lazarevna, "get me Admiral Caparelli."

"Aye, aye, Sir."

Caparelli appeared on D'Orville's com display almost instantly.

"Sebastian," he said, his voice level but his expression taut.

"Tom." D'Orville nodded back, thinking about how many times they'd greeted one another exactly the same way before . . . and wondering if they'd ever do it again.

"I think I've got to go out to meet them," D'Orville continued.

"If you do, you lose the inner-system pods," Caparelli countered, and D'Orville nodded grimly.

The inner system defenses relied heavily on MDM pods, and they'd been deployed in massive numbers. Unfortunately, he thought, the numbers weren't massive enough. They'd been designed to stop any likely attack cold, but the defensive planners hadn't counted on an adversary who was prepared to throw over two hundred modern podnaughts, and all the anti-missile defenses that implied, straight into their teeth. They might still be able to beat off the attack, but not without letting the attackers into their own missile range of the hideously vulnerable dispersed shipyards in which the Royal Manticoran Navy's entire next-generation of superdreadnoughts was approaching completion. He couldn't let the Peeps close enough to do to the home system shipyards what had already happened to Grendelsbane's.

And that doesn't even count what could happen if they open fire on the inner system from that far out and a couple of their missiles run into Manticore or Sphinx at seventy or eighty percent of light-speed, he thought with a shudder.

"If you go out to meet them," Caparelli continued, "you'll have to take them on without any support, and they've got a huge edge in numbers. You'll lose everything you've got if you meet them head-on."

"And if I don't take them head-to-head, I let them into range of the planet," D'Orville countered harshly.

"So far, they've stayed away from anything which might look like a violation of the Eridani Edict," Caparelli pointed out.

"And so far they haven't invaded our home system, either," D'Orville shot back. The Manticoran tradition was that the Admiralty did not second guess a fleet CO when battle threatened—not even Home Fleet's commander. What D'Orville did with his fleet was his decision. Admiralty House might advise, might provide additional intelligence or suggest tactics, but the decision was his, and it wasn't like Thomas Caparelli to try to change that.

But D'Orville wasn't really surprised by Caparelli's reluctance to admit what he knew as well as D'Orville did had to happen. The First Space Lord knew too many of the men and women aboard D'Orville's ships . . . and he couldn't join them. He would be safely back on Manticore when the hammer came down on Home Fleet, and Sebastian D'Orville knew Caparelli too well, knew exactly what the other admiral was feeling, the miracle he wanted to find. But there were no miracles, not today, and so D'Orville shook his head.

"No, Tom," he said almost gently. "I'd like to hang back—believe me, I would. But we can't count on continued restraint where their targeting's concerned. This one is for all the marbles. They've got thirty squadrons of SD(P)s—the equivalent of forty of our squadrons, with over a million people aboard them—coming at us, right into the heart of our defenses. That means they're ready for massive losses. I don't think we can expect them to take that kind of punishment without handing out whatever they can in return, and even if they never intentionally fire a single shot at the planet, think about how damned inaccurate end-of-run MDMs are. I can't let hundreds of those things go flying around this close to Sphinx."

"I know." Caparelli closed his eyes for a moment, then inhaled deeply and opened them once more.

"I've ordered the Case Zulu message transmitted to all commands," he said, his voice more clipped, his dread of what was to come cloaked in reflex professionalism. "Theodosia can start responding from Trevor's Star in about fifteen minutes, but most of Eighth Fleet is off the terminus, on maneuvers. I don't know how quickly it can get back there, but I'm guessing it'll take at least a couple of hours just for Duchess Harrington to get to the terminus. I'm recalling Jessup Blaine's squadrons from the Lynx Terminus, as well, but our best estimate on his current response time is even longer than Eighth Fleet's."

"And even Theodosia can't do it in a mass transit," D'Orville said grimly. "She's going to have to do it one ship at a time, the same way Hamish did it when the bastards hit Basilisk, because we're going to need everything she's got."

Kuzak could have put almost thirty superdreadnoughts through the Junction in a single mass transit, but the destabilizing effect would have locked down the Trevor's Star-Manticore route for almost seventeen hours. Even in a sequenced transit, each ship of the wall would close the route for almost two minutes before the next in the queue could use it.

"You're right," Caparelli agreed. "Allowing for her screening units, she's going to need almost two hours just to make transit."

"By which time these people will be about an hour out from Sphinx, and she can't possibly catch them," D'Orville said.

"We're scrambling every LAC we've got," Caparelli said. "We should be able to get five or six thousand of them to you by the time you engage."

"That will help—a lot," D'Orville said. "But they've got sixteen carriers with them. That gives them over three thousand of their own."

"I know." Caparelli looked out of the display, his eyes and face grim. "All you can do is the best you can do, Sebastian. We'll do whatever we can to support you, but it isn't going to be much."

"Who would have thought they'd throw something this size at us?" D'Orville asked almost whimsically.

"Nobody on the Strategy Board, that's for sure." Caparelli's voice was briefly saw-edged with bitter self-reproach, as if there were some way he could have kept this nightmare from coming. Then he got control of it again. "Actually, I suspect Harrington's the only one who would have believed they might throw the dice this way. And I honestly don't think even she would have expected them to."

"Well, they're here now, and my nodes are coming up. It looks like we're going to be pretty busy in a little while, Tom. Clear."

* * *

"Your Grace!"

Honor stepped back from her sparring match with Clifford McGraw and looked up in astonishment as one of Major Lorenzetti's Marines came skidding through the gymnasium hatch. Spencer Hawke and Joshua Atkins wheeled towards the sudden, unexpected arrival, hands flashing to their pulsers, and she spat out her mouth protector and threw up her own hand.

"No threat!" she snapped.

Hawke continued his draw, but his pulser stayed pointed at the deck. He didn't even look at her; his attention was locked on the Marine, who, Honor knew, didn't begin to realize how close he'd just come to being shot. In fact, probably the only thing that had saved him was her armsmen's faith in her and Nimitz's ability to sense what was going on inside someone else.

But not even that faith was going to get Hawke's sidearm back into its holster until he knew positively what was happening.

At the moment, however, that was a completely secondary concern for Honor beside the consternation and turmoil boiling inside the Marine.

"Yes, Corporal . . . Thackston?" she said, reading the Marine's name off of his nameplate and deliberately pitching her voice into the most soothing register she could. "What is it?"

"Your Grace—" Thackston stopped and shook himself. "Beg pardon, Your Grace," he said after a moment, his voice under tight control. "Captain Cardones' compliments," he touched the communicator at his belt as if to physically indicate where Cardones' message had come from, "and we've just received a Case Zulu from the Admiralty."

Honor jerked fully upright. She couldn't have heard him correctly! But even as she told herself that, her memory flashed back to another day, aboard another ship. The last time someone had transmitted the code phrase "Case Zulu." In the Royal Manticoran Navy, those two words had only one meaning: "invasion imminent."

"Thank you, Corporal," she said, her voice crisp yet calm enough the Marine looked at her in something very like disbelief. She nodded to him, then wheeled to Hawke and Atkins while Nimitz came bounding across the gym towards her.

"Spencer, get on the com. Find Commodore Brigham. Tell her we're in the gymnasium, and that I'll see the staff on Flag Bridge in five minutes."

"Yes, My Lady!" Hawke reholstered his pulser with one hand and reached for his communicator with the other, and Honor opened her arms as Nimitz leapt into them, then turned to Atkins.

"Joshua, com Mac. Tell him I'll need my skinsuit and Nimitz's on Flag Bridge as soon as possible."

"Yes, My Lady!"

"Clifford," she said over her shoulder to her third armsman as she started for the hatch, "just grab your gunbelt. You can worry about the rest of your uniform later."

"Yes, My Lady!"

Sergeant McGraw snatched up his weapons belt and buckled it over his own gi.

Fifteen seconds after Corporal Barnaby Thackston, RMMC, had delivered Rafe Cardones' message, Admiral Lady Dame Honor Alexander-Harrington was headed purposefully for the lifts with her armsmen jog trotting to match her long-legged strides.

* * *

"It seems they've made up their minds, Sir," Commander Frazier Adamson observed, watching the icons of the Manticoran Home Fleet.

"It's not as if we've left them a lot of options," Lester Tourville said without looking at his operations officer.

Adamson was a highly competent tactician, an efficient organizer, and a loyal subordinate. He was also a pretty fair pinochle player, and Tourville liked him quite a lot, under normal circumstances. But outside his area of professional interest, the commander had about as much imagination as a wooden post. It wasn't that he was a shallow person, or insensitive in his personal relationships. It was simply that it would never have occurred to him to put himself inside the minds and emotions of the people aboard the ships accelerating away from Sphinx to meet Second Fleet.

At the moment, Lester Tourville, who was cursed with entirely too much imagination, bitterly envied that inner blind spot.

"They can't feel confident we won't bombard the planetary orbitals—or even the planet itself—from long range," he continued, "especially if they use the inner system pods. So they're going to come to meet us, try to thin us down to something which won't dare continue inward to hit the fixed defenses at all."

"Yes, Sir," Adamson said. "That's what I meant."

He seemed surprised by his admiral's restatement of the obvious, and Tourville made himself smile.

"I know it was, Frazier. I know it was."

He patted the ops officer on the shoulder and walked a couple of paces closer to the main tactical display. He stood gazing into it until he sensed a human presence at his side and looked down to see Captain DeLaney standing there.

"Frazier means well, Boss," his shorter chief of staff said quietly.

"I know he does." Tourville smiled again, more naturally, but it was a sad smile, all the same. One only those he knew and trusted were ever allowed to see, since it accorded so poorly with his "cowboy" persona.

"It's just that he only sees them as targets," Tourville continued, equally quietly. "Right now, I wish I did, too. But I don't. I know exactly what they're thinking over there, but they're going to come out to meet us, anyway."

"Like you said, Boss," DeLaney's smile was a mirror of his own, "we didn't leave them much choice, did we?"

* * * ! ! !

"Forget the screen!" Admiral Theodosia Kuzak snapped. "We can cut fifteen minutes off our total transit time if we leave them behind, and it's not like cruisers and destroyers are going to make any difference, is it?"

"No, Ma'am," Captain Gerald Smithson, her chief of staff replied. He was a tall, spare-looking man, his dark hair and complexion a stark contrast to Kuzak's red-hair and fair skin, and he seemed to be coming back on balance after the shock of the Admiralty's Case Zulu.

"Has Astro Control responded?" Kuzak demanded, wheeling around to Lieutenant Franklin Bradshaw, her communications officer.

"Yes, Ma'am," Bradshaw said. "As a matter of fact, Admiral Grimm's courier boat just came back though from the Manticore end. She'd already started clearing the Junction even before she sent it through the first time. Now she's working out the best dispositions for our units to help screen the arrival terminus from Peep drones. And she's also moving tugs to the inbound nexus in case any of our units require assistance."

"A nice thought," Kuzak said with a mirthless smile, "but if any of our wallers bump, tugs aren't going to be much help."

"Take what we can get, Ma'am," Smithson said with graveyard humor, and Kuzak snorted a harsh chuckle.

"Actually, Ma'am," Smithson continued in a low-pitched voice, "I've just had a rather nasty thought. What if this isn't their only fleet? What if they've got another one waiting to hit Trevor's Star as soon as we pull out for Manticore?"

"The same thought occurred to me," Kuzak replied, equally quietly. "Unfortunately, there's not a lot we can do about it, if they do. We've got to hold the home system. If they punch out Hephaestus and Vulcan, take out the dispersed yards, it'll be a thousand times worse than what happened at Grendelsbane. I hate to say it, but if it's a choice between San Martin and Sphinx or Manticore, San Martin loses."

"At least the system defenses are better than they were when the shooting started," Smithson said.

"They are. But that's another reason we can't afford to lock down the Junction with a mass transit. If they do have something like that in mind, we've got to be able to get back as quickly as we left."

"What about Duchess Harrington?" Smithson asked. "She's too far out to rendezvous with us before we make transit. Should we ask her to stay behind and mind the store while we're gone?"

"I wish we could, but we'll have to see what happens with Home Fleet. And of course, I can't give her direct orders, since—"

"Excuse me, Ma'am. You have a com request from Duchess Harrington," Bradshaw interrupted suddenly.

"Throw it to Jerry's display," Kuzak said, bending over the chief of staff's console rather than waste time walking back to her own. An instant later, Smithson's flatscreen lit with the image of Eighth Fleet's commander.

Harrington had obviously been as surprised as everyone else, Kuzak thought, noting the gi she hadn't burned up time changing out of.

"Admiral Harrington," she said with a choppy nod. Eighth Fleet was almost seventy-eight million kilometers from the terminus. At that range, even the FTL com imposed a noticeable lag, and eight seconds passed before Honor nodded back.

"Admiral Kuzak," she replied, then continued, getting straight to business, in light of the delay. "I assume you're already planning an immediate transit to Manticore with Third Fleet. I'm sending my battlecruisers ahead, but it's going to take most of my units another two hours-plus to reach the terminus. With your permission, I'll temporarily assign Admiral McKeon's battle squadron and Admiral Truman's carriers to you."

"Thank you, Admiral," Kuzak said very, very sincerely.

"The sooner they get there, the better," Honor replied eight seconds later. "And please remember that three of Alistair's superdreadnoughts are Apollo-capable. I don't know how much difference it's going to make, but—"

She shrugged, and Kuzak nodded grimly.

"I'll remember, Your Grace. I only wish I had more of them."

"I'll bring the rest through as quickly as I can," Honor promised after the inevitable delay.

"And I'll try to make sure there's still a Star Kingdom when you do," Kuzak replied.

* * *

"Well, Sir," Commander Zucker said, "the good news is that they don't seem to be deploying anything but LACs to cover the Junction. The bad news is that they've got a hell of a lot of them."

"So I see," Oliver Diamato murmured. Like Zucker, he was delighted he wasn't already having to play tag with hordes of Manty battlecruisers or—worse!—those damned MDM-armed heavy cruisers he'd heard so much about from NavInt since that business at Monica. But the shoals of LAC impeller signatures sweeping outward from the Junction were building a solid wall of interference which made it almost impossible for his shipboard sensors to see a damned thing, even at this piddling little range. The density of that LAC shell also augured poorly for the survival of his recon drones when they finally got close enough for a look of their own.

On the other hand . . .

"All right, Serena," he said quietly. "Think with me here. They're covering up big time with LACs, and they aren't sending a single hyper-capable unit after us. What does that suggest to you?"

"That we don't want to get much closer to them, Sir?" the chief of staff suggested with a tight grin, and he snorted a chuckle.

"Besides that," he said.

"Well," she frowned thoughtfully, running one hand over her hair, "I'd say they're probably trying to use the LACs as much to blind us, keep us guessing about what's going on on the Junction, as to actually defend it. Which suggests they're doing something they think we wouldn't like. Like bringing bunches of big, nasty ships through from Trevor's Star."

"Yes, it does. But what do you get when you add the fact that no one is heading our way? No battlecruisers or heavy cruisers swanning around trying to nail us, or at least push us further away from the Junction?"

"That they're bringing through wallers, not screen elements," Taverner said after a second or two.

"Exactly." It was Diamato's turn to frown. "Much as we may hate to admit it, a one-on-one engagement with one of us would be a Manty BC skipper's wet dream. So if they're not sending them after us, then they must've had wallers in place and ready to start coming through almost immediately, instead. And they're going right on doing it. Which suggests they have quite a few of them on call."

He frowned some more, then looked over his shoulder at his com officer.

"Record for transmission to Guerriere, attention Captain DeLaney."

* * *

"So Kuzak or Harrington—or both—are officially on their way, Boss," Molly DeLaney said quietly, and Tourville nodded.

"So far, so good," he agreed, and looked at Adamson.

"Start deploying the donkeys, Frazier," he said.


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