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Chapter Sixty-Seven

Admiral Genevieve Chin, CO Fifth Fleet, stood on the flag bridge of RHNS Canonnade and let the background murmur of readiness reports wash over her.

"We've got them, Ma'am!" Commander Andrianna Spiropoulo announced exuberantly. "Astro put us less than fifty million klicks behind them—right on the money!"

"So I see." Chin might have quibbled with her operations officer's assessment of their astrogation, since they were several million kilometers further from the limit than they should have been. She suspected that Lieutenant Commander Julian had deliberately dropped them in a bit further out than she'd specified. But Spiropoulo's assessment of the tactical situation matched hers perfectly, and she fought hard to keep the exuberance out of her own voice.

She also knew she hadn't succeeded completely.

Well, maybe I didn't, she thought. But if I didn't, I've earned it. We all have, after the way they pounded us in the last war. But it's more than that for me. 

"All right, Andrianna," she said, turning her back to the plot and the icons of the Manty wallers whose crews were beginning to realize they'd walked straight into a trap, "we don't have a lot of time before they run out of our envelope. Let's start rolling pods."

"Aye, Ma'am!"

Andrianna's dark eyes gleamed, and Chin glanced at Captain Nicodème Sabourin. Her chief of staff looked back, and then, unnoticed by the rest of Flag Bridge's personnel, he nodded, ever so slightly.

Chin nodded back. Sabourin was probably the only member of her staff who could fully savor her own sense of . . . completion. She'd come a long way to reach this point. She'd survived being scapegoated by the Legislaturalists for the disaster of Hancock Station at the very start of the last war. She'd survived long, dreary years in the service of the Committee of Public Safety—never quite trusted, too valuable to simply discard, always watched by her people's commissioner. She'd even survived Saint-Just's ascension to complete power . . . and the chaos following his overthrow.

She'd been "rehabilitated" twice now. Once by Rob Pierre's lunatics, solely because she'd been scapegoated by the previous régime. And once by the new Republic, because she'd damned well done a good job protecting her assigned sector despite the psychotic sadist they'd assigned as her people's commissioner.

This time, she actually believed it was going to stick. She'd still lost a lot of ground in the seniority game. Men and women who'd been junior officers, or even enlisted personnel, when she'd already been a flag officer, were senior to her now. Thomas Theisman, for one, who'd been a commander when she'd been a rear admiral. But she was one of only a handful of people who'd made admiral under the Legislaturalists who were still alive at all, so she supposed that was something of a wash.

And whether the universe was always a fair place or not, she couldn't complain about where she was today. The woman who'd been saddled with the blame for the Legislaturalists' disastrous opening campaign against the Star Kingdom of Manticore, was also the woman who'd been chosen to command the decisive jaw of the trap which would crush the Star Kingdom once and for all. She'd waited fifteen T-years for this moment, and it tasted sweet.

Nicodème Sabourin understood that. She hadn't known it for quite some time, but he'd been a second-class petty officer aboard one of her dreadnoughts at Hancock Station. Like her, he was looking forward to getting some of his own back this afternoon.

"How are your target solutions, Andrianna?" she asked calmly.

"They look good, Ma'am, considering their EW."

"In that case, Commander," Genevieve Chin said formally, "you may open fire."

* * *

"We walked right into it," Theodosia Kuzak said bitterly. "I walked right into it."

"It's not like we had much choice, Ma'am," Captain Smithson said.

The two of them stood staring into the plot, watching the overwhelmingly superior force which had suddenly cut in astern of them as it rolled pods. Waiting. The orders were already given. Their own missiles were already launching. There was, quite literally, nothing at all Kuzak could do at this point except watch other people execute her orders.

She turned her head, looking at her chief of staff, and Smithson shrugged.

"We couldn't let them punch out Sphinx, and we couldn't let them get away after the price D'Orville paid to stop them. That meant coming in after them," he said. "You did."

"I should have seen this coming," she shot back, but quietly, quietly, keeping her voice down. "After what Harrington did to them at Lovat, it was the logical response."

"Oh?" Smithson cocked his head, smiling ironically despite the hurricane of missiles rushing towards them. "And I suppose you were supposed to somehow use clairvoyance to realize they had another hundred wallers in reserve? That they were going to throw three hundred and fifty superdreadnoughts at us? Just you—not Admiral Caparelli, not ONI, not Admiral D'Orville, or Admiral Harrington. Just you. Because, obviously, this is all your fault."

"I didn't mean—" she began angrily, then stopped. She looked at him for a moment, then reached out and squeezed his shoulder.

"I guess I did deserve that. Thanks."

"Don't mention it." Smithson smiled sadly. "It's one of a chief of staff's jobs."

* * *

"All right, Alekan," Alistair McKeon told his ops officer harshly. "We're the only squadron with Apollo. Admiral Kuzak has authorized us for independent targeting to make best use of the system. That means it's going to be up to you."

"Understood, Sir." Commander Slowacki nodded hard.

"I want to concentrate on this new bunch," McKeon continued. "They haven't been hit yet, their fire control and their tactical departments are going to be in better shape. We'll take them one ship at a time."

"Understood, Admiral," Slowacki said again, and McKeon pointed at the icons of Genevieve Chin's task force.

"Good. Now go kill as many of those bastards as you can."

"Aye, aye, Sir!"

"I wish Her Grace were here, Sir," Commander Roslee Orndorff said quietly beside McKeon as Slowacki and his assistants began updating their targeting solutions.

"I don't," McKeon told Orndorff, his voice equally quiet, and shook his head. "This is one not even she could get us out of, Roslee."

"I guess not," Orndorff agreed. "And you're right. I shouldn't wish she was stuck in here with the rest of us. But—no offense, Sir—I . . . miss her."

"So do I." McKeon reached out and stroked the head of the treecat perched on Orndorff's shoulder. Banshee pressed back against his hand, but only for a moment. Then the 'cat pressed his cheek against the side of his person's head and crooned softly to her.

Orndorff reached up, caressing him tenderly, without ever taking her eyes from the plot.

* * *

Unlike Oliver Diamato's battlecruisers, Third Fleet couldn't dodge the pulser dart. Admiral Kuzak's command was too deep, pinned inside the RZ. Kuzak had intended to catch Second Fleet between her command and the Sphinx planetary defenses; now she was caught between the oncoming hammer of Genevieve Chin's MDMs and the battered anvil of Lester Tourville's surviving SD(P)s.

At least Third Fleet's base velocity was almost fourteen thousand kilometers per second higher than Fifth Fleet's, and almost directly away from it. Given that geometry, Chin's powered missile envelope was only fifty-one million kilometers. But the range was only 41,700,000 kilometers, and that meant Chin could keep Kuzak's ships under fire for eleven minutes before Third Fleet could run out of range.

Eleven minutes. It didn't sound like such a long time, but it was longer than Home Fleet had survived against Lester Tourville. And Home Fleet hadn't been running directly into the fire of one foe while the fire of a second came ripping into it from behind.

* * *

"Open fire!" Lester Tourville snapped.

"Aye, Sir!" Frazier Adamson acknowledged, and Tourville watched the icons of his missiles reaching out towards the Manties.

He'd almost left it too late, he thought. Chin's astrogation had been off by a good ten million kilometers, although it was hard to fault her for that. She'd had only a handful of minutes to adjust her position after MacArthur's arrival, thanks in no small part to how long Tourville had waited, and making that kind of delicate, short-ranged micro-translation was always infernally difficult.

Given that any error placing her alpha translation on the wrong side of the zone boundary would have resulted in the destruction of every ship under her command, it was inevitable—and proper—that she should err on the side of caution. Besides, it had never been part of the ops plan for her ships to move inside the resonance zone or hyper limit until she and Tourville were certain they'd dealt with the defenses. All the defenses.

Still, eleven minutes of concentrated fire from ninety-six SD(P)s should smash the hell out of the Manties' combat capability, even if it failed to destroy them outright. And in the meantime, he could do a little something to help Chin along.

The range for his missiles was only 32,955,000 kilometers, and unlike the range from Chin's ships, it was dropping by over a million kilometers per minute. Not to mention the fact that unlike Chin, his tactical officers had been tracking the Manties steadily, updating their firing solutions for the last thirty or forty minutes.

He checked the time display. Flight time for his missiles was just under six minutes, two minutes less than for Chin. Although she'd fired first, his missiles would reach their targets before hers.

* * *

"We are truly and royally screwed, Skipper," Chief Warrant Officer Sir Horace Harkness said quietly from HMLAC Dacoit's engineering station.

Scotty Tremaine glanced at him, then looked back at the plot, and wished there were some way he could disagree.

"You have a message from Admiral Truman, Captain," Dacoit's com section AI said. "Personal to you."

"Accept, Central," Tremaine said. A moment later, Alice Truman appeared on his com display.

"Admiral," he said, watching the missile icons spreading like the tracks of pre-space wet-navy torpedoes.

"It looks like we're going to get hammered, Scotty," Truman told him bluntly. "I want you to detach your Katanas. Leave them behind to help thicken Admiral Kuzak's defenses. Then take all the rest of your birds and head for the in-system force now."

Tremaine looked at her for just a moment. He knew what she had in mind. His Ferrets and Shrikes, especially the former, were preparing to help bolster Third Fleet's missile defenses, yet compared to his Katanas, their contribution would have been relatively minor. But by sending them against the survivors of the first Havenite attack force, she might compel it to divert its fire. It no longer had a screen, its attached LACs had taken severe losses, and it couldn't simply run away from him into hyper. It would have no choice but to stand and fight, and if it let him get into attack range without severe losses of his own . . .

"Understood, Dame Alice," he said. "We'll do our best to keep their heads down."

"Good, Scotty. Good hunting. Truman, clear."

* * *

"Crap," Molly DeLaney muttered, and Lester Tourville chuckled harshly.

"They're a little quicker off the mark with it than I expected," he said, watching the Manty LACs arc away from Third Fleet. Missile flight times were long enough—and the Manty reaction fast enough—that their course change was already evident, even though Second Fleet's first salvo had yet to reach attack range.

"Still," he continued, "it was the logical move, once we lost the screen. Frazier."

"Yes, Admiral?" Commander Adamson replied.

"Send Smirnoff out to meet these people."

"Captain Smirnoff is dead, Sir," Adamson said. "Commander West is COLAC now."

Tourville winced internally. He hadn't known Alice Smirnoff well. Only met the woman twice, actually, and then only in passing. But somehow her death, unnoticed in the general carnage, suddenly seemed to symbolize the hundreds of thousands of his personnel who had perished in the last three hours.

"Very well," he said, an edge of harshness burring his otherwise level response, "send West out to meet them."

"Aye, Sir."

"Is that going to be enough, Boss?" DeLaney asked quietly, and Tourville shook his head.

"No. They aren't sending in as many, but these people are fresh, and Smirnoff—West—and his people burned too many missiles stopping the last attack. We're going to have to take them with MDMs."

"Do you want to shift targeting?"

"Not yet." Tourville shook his head. "That's what they want us to do, and I'm not taking any pressure off Kuzak until we have to. But it's going to limit the number of salvos we can give her."

He punched in a command, calling up the fleet status display. He studied it for several seconds, then looked at Adamson.

"Frazier, tell Admiral Moore and Admiral Jourdain to abort their engagement of Third Fleet. I want their squadrons to reserve their total remaining pods for use against the Manty LACs."

"Yes, Sir."

Tourville nodded and sat back in his command chair. Moore and Jourdain had taken the lightest losses of any of his battle squadrons. Between them, they still had fourteen SD(P)s, and much as he hated taking them out of the firing queue at this particular moment, he had a feeling he was going to need their missiles badly in another half-hour or so.

* * *

"Here it comes," Wraith Goodrick murmured, and Alice Truman nodded.

Counter-missiles tore into the oncoming MDMs, and at least this time they hadn't been able to deploy whatever had let them throw such monster salvos at Home Fleet. These were merely "normal" double-pattern broadsides from over a hundred SD(P)s.

Nothing to worry about, she told herself; only twelve thousand missiles or so. No more than a couple of hundred per ship. Just a walk in the park.

Except, of course, that they weren't spreading them over all of Third Fleet's ships.

Scotty Tremaine's detached Katanas were tucked in close, hovering "above" Third Fleet, rather than going out to meet the incoming missiles as normal doctrine would have dictated. Normal doctrine, after all, hadn't anticipated a situation in which a fleet would screw up so badly it found itself squarely between two widely separated enemy fleets, each numerically superior to itself, and in range of both. The LACs couldn't place themselves between one threat and the rest of Third Fleet without leaving it uncovered against the other, and so they held their position, spitting Vipers against the wall of destruction crashing towards Theodosia Kuzak's command.

Thousands of Mark 31 counter-missiles went out with the Vipers, and Truman felt Chimera quiver as her own counter—missile tubes went to rapid fire, but nothing was going to stop all of that torrent of MDMs. Decoys and Dazzlers strove to bewilder or blind the incoming missiles, but still they came on.

"They're concentrating on the Nineteenth," Commander Janine Stanfield, Truman's operations officer, reported.

"They'll have a lot of strays at this range," Goodrick said, and Truman nodded agreement with her chief of staff. Not that having a few hundred MDMs wander off was going to do Vice Admiral Irene Montague and her command a lot of good. Not with two thousand missiles targeted on each of her six superdreadnoughts.

Even with its attention divided between the salvos rumbling down on it from opposite directions, Third Fleet's missile defense was far more effective than Home Fleet's had been. Partly that was simply the difference in the numbers of missiles in each incoming salvo. Another part was the difference in closing velocities, which improved engagement times. And, especially against Second Fleet, it was because so many of the ships launching those missiles had themselves been damaged, in many cases severely, before they launched. They'd lost control links, sensors, computational ability, and critical personnel out of their tactical departments, with inevitable consequences for the accuracy of their fire.

But twelve thousand missiles were still twelve thousand missiles.

Twenty percent were electronic warfare platforms. Another twelve percent simply lost lock, as Goodrick had predicted. The massed counter-missiles of Third Fleet and Alice Truman's Katanas killed almost four thousand, and the last-ditch fire of the 91st Battle Squadron and its escorts killed another fifteen hundred. It was a remarkable performance, but it still meant twenty-seven hundred got through.

The heavy laser heads detonated in rapid succession, bubbles of brimstone birthing X-ray lasers that ripped and tore at their targets. The superdreadnoughts' wedges intercepted many of those lasers. Their sidewalls bent and attenuated others. But nothing built by man could have stopped all of them.

The massively armored superdreadnoughts shuddered and bucked as transfer energy blasted into them. Armor and hull plating splintered, atmosphere gushed from gaping holes, and weapons, communications arrays, and sensors were torn apart. HMS Triumph staggered as her forward impeller ring went into emergency shutdown. Her wedge faltered, and then she staggered again, like a seasick galleon, as a half-dozen more laser heads detonated almost directly ahead of her. Her bow wall stopped most of the lasers, but at least twelve stabbed straight through it, hammering the massively armored face of her forward hammerhead. Her forward point defense clusters went down, her chase energy weapons were pounded into broken rubble, and one of her forward impeller rooms blew up as the massive capacitors shorted across.

For a moment, it looked like that was the extent of her damage. But deep inside her, invisible from the outside, the energy spike of that demolished impeller room drove deeper and deeper. Circuit breakers failed to stop it, control runs exploded, power conduits blew up in deadly sequence, and then, suddenly, the ship herself simply exploded.

There were no small craft, no life pods. No survivors. One moment she was there; the next she was an expanding sphere of fire.

Her squadron mates were more fortunate. None of them escaped unscathed, however, and HMS Warrior lost over half her port sidewall. HMS Ellen D'Orville lost half the beta nodes in her after impeller ring, and HMS Bellona's port broadside point defense clusters and gravitic arrays were beaten into scrap. HMS Regulus escaped with only minor damage, but HMS Marduk lost a quarter of her broadside energy weapons. All of them survived, and their ability to deploy pods remained intact, but the follow-up salvo from Second Fleet was close on the heels of the first, and the first salvo from Fifth Fleet came crunching in almost simultaneously.

Third Fleet's defenses were simply spread too thin. Twelve thousand missiles came pounding down on it from Lester Tourville. Another 11,500 came crashing in from Genevieve Chin, and there simply weren't enough counter-missiles and Katanas to stop them all.

Second Fleet's second salvo concentrated on the same targets as the first, and those targets were already damaged, their defenses thinned. Warrior blew up, and Marduk took a catastrophic series of hits which virtually destroyed her starboard sidewall. Bellona staggered, impeller wedge dying, life pods beginning to fan out from her hulk. Ellen D'Orville took at least twenty more hits, but continued to run, and Regulus moved up on Marduk's naked starboard flank, trying to shield her consort from the third salvo already streaking towards them.

The gallant effort to protect her sister cost Regulus her life twenty-three seconds later as over eight hundred laser heads took the only target they could see.

* * *

"We just lost Bayard, Sir," Molly DeLaney said, and Lester Tourville nodded, hoping his expression disguised his pain.

Second Fleet had sprung the trap exactly as planned, except for the fact that it had been supposed to close on Eighth Fleet, as well, and he tried to feel grateful. But it was hard. There came a time when phrases like "favorable rates of exchange," however accurate, were cold comfort in the face of so much death, so much destruction. And however hopeless Third Fleet's position, there was nothing at all wrong with the Manties' determination and sheer guts.

They recognized Second Fleet as the greater prize—and the greater threat—despite its previous damages. It was still the larger of Tourville's two task forces, and the one in the best position to strike Sphinx, and they were pouring fire into his bleeding ranks. He'd already lost three more superdreadnoughts, counting Bayard, and it was only a matter of time until he lost more.

* * *

Theodosia Kuzak stared into the master plot as the Havenites' task forces sledgehammered her fleet again and again. Battle Squadron Ninety-One was effectively destroyed in the first sixty seconds, and Second Fleet's follow-up salvos switched to BS 11. Her own missiles were striking back, and the system reconnaissance platforms showed fireballs glaring amid Second Fleet's formation, but she knew the exchange rate was completely in the Republic's favor, and there was nothing she could do about it.

"Incoming! Many incoming!" Commander Latrell barked suddenly, and HMS King Roger III heaved like a maddened animal as a storm of laser heads blasted into her.

* * *

"Jesus Christ! What the fuck is that?" Commander Spiropoulo demanded harshly as RHNS Victorieux blew up.

"It's got to be that new targeting system they used at Lovat," Captain Sabourin replied harshly. "Somebody over there has it, after all. But it can't be coming from more than a few of their ships, thank God!"

"Any is too goddamned many, Nicodème," Genevieve Chin grated. "And I don't like the targeting of whoever the hell it is!" she added, and Sabourin nodded.

Most of Fifth Fleet's wallers were more than holding their own against the Manties' fire. That was largely because at least three-quarters of that fire was still raining down on Lester Tourville's superdreadnoughts. Probably, Chin thought, because Tourville was still headed in-system. It looked as if Kuzak had decided stopping him was more important than shooting at ships which could vanish into hyper any time they chose, once their hyper generators had finished cycling from their last translation.

But if most of Third Fleet's missiles were headed in-system, three or four of Kuzak's ships were firing on Chin's wall with deadly accuracy. Their missiles threaded through the cauldron of counter-missiles, EW, and blazing laser clusters like awls. It was as if they could literally see where they were going, think for themselves, and they were coming in behind a deadly shield of closely coordinated electronic warfare platforms. Her missile defenses were hopelessly outclassed against them, and whoever was coordinating their targeting had chosen one of her battle squadrons and begun working her way through it.

Each individual salvo wasn't particularly large. Indeed, by the standards of pod-based combat, they were ludicrously tiny. But all of them seemed to be getting through. None of them wandered off. None wasted themselves by detonating high, or low, where their target's impeller wedge might stop them. And as they sent their avalanches of lasers through that target's wavering sidewall in deadly succession, they killed.

"Goddamn it!" she heard Sabourin say with soft, passionate venom as RHNS Lancelot slewed suddenly out of formation, impeller wedge dying.

"Is there any way to identify where this is coming from, Andrianna?" she demanded.

"No way, Ma'am," Spiropoulo said through gritted teeth. "They could be coming from anywhere in the middle of that mess." She jabbed an angry index finger at the crimson icons of Manticoran capital ships. "There's no way to localize who's actually firing the damned things!"

"Just thank God there aren't more of them, Ma'am," Sabourin said tightly. "It looks like Admiral Theisman was right. If we'd waited until they had that thing in general deployment, we'd have been toast."

* * *

Dame Alice Truman watched her plot sickly as missile after missile slammed its lasers into Third Fleet's superdreadnoughts. Her carriers were taking hits, too, but nothing compared to the agony of Kuzak's wall. It looked to Truman as if most of the hits on her carriers were overs or unders—MDMs which had lost the wallers on which they'd been targeted and found one of her carriers instead.

The bastards figure they can always get around to killing carriers later, she thought coldly, and felt an incredible stab of guilt as she realized how grateful she was. Yet she couldn't help it, for the people aboard her ships were her people, the people for whom she was responsible, and she wanted them to live.

"They're targeting Admiral McKeon, Ma'am!" Commander Stanfield said suddenly, and Truman's eyes snapped to the icon of HMS Intransigent.

* * *

"We nailed the son-of-a-bitch, Sir!" Commander Slowacki said, and despite his own fear, his voice was jubilant.

"Well done, Alekan!" Alistair McKeon replied, teeth bared in a wolfish grin of his own. His battle squadron had landed four salvos of Apollo-guided MDMs, and they'd killed a Havenite superdreadnought with each of them. In fact, they'd done better than that; the kill Slowacki had just announced was their fifth.

"Now go find another one," he said, and Slowacki nodded.

"Yes, Sir!"

The ops officer bent back over his displays, eyes bright, and McKeon felt a stab of envy. Slowacki was actually doing something, accomplishing something. In fact, the four Apollo-capable ships of McKeon's squadron were killing Havenite wallers in rapid succession, and Slowacki was too caught up in his task to realize that while he'd been killing five superdreadnoughts, the Havenites had already killed nine of Admiral Kuzak's. And it wouldn't be long before—

"Incoming!" someone shouted, and Intransigent lurched indescribably as the first deadly hits slammed home.

* * *

Alice Truman watched in horror as the Havenite flail came down on Alistair McKeon's squadron.

Was it deliberate? she wondered. Were they able somehow to figure out where Apollo was coming from? Or was it just the luck of the draw? 

Not that it mattered.

* * *

Intransigent heaved madly as the lasers blasted into her. Astern of her, HMS Elizabeth I staggered as at least eighty direct hits slammed into her. She seemed to hesitate for a moment, and then, like her older sister Triumph, she vanished in a brief, terrible new star. Second Yeltsin and Revenge shuddered in agony of their own as the focused hurricane of destruction swept over McKeon's squadron. HMS Incomparable, Imperator's division mate in place of the dead Intolerant, lurched out of formation, impellers dead, wreckage trailing, life pods launching. Then the last few hundred missiles of the concentrated salvo came punching in, and Second Yeltsin blew up while Revenge's wedge went down. She started to fall behind, but before she could at least twelve lasers slammed directly into the unarmored top of her hull, which was supposed to be protected by her wedge. With no armor to stop them, the powerful lasers ripped deep into the superdreadnought's core, probing until they found her heart.

Thirty-one seconds after Second Yeltsin, HMS Revenge joined her in fiery death.

Intransigent survived. The only survivor of her entire squadron, Alistair McKeon's flagship staggered onward, little more than a wreck, but still alive.

* * *

Yet another hit slammed into HMS King Roger III. It stabbed deep, ripping through the wounds two of its predecessors had already torn. It breached the flagship's core hull, tearing its way into central engineering, and the superdreadnought's inertial compensator suddenly failed.

The emergency circuits shut down her impellers almost instantly, but "almost instantly" wasn't good enough for a ship under six hundred and twelve gravities of acceleration.

The ship sustained only moderate structural damage; none of her crew survived.


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