"General signal from Flag, Ma'am. 'Preparative Baker-Golf- Seven-Niner.'"
Honor nodded acknowledgment of Lieutenant Webster's report without raising her eyes from her display. She'd expected the signal from the moment Admiral D'Orville's Aggressors settled on their final approach vector, and Seven-Niner was, in a very real sense, her personal creation. Admiral Hemphill's ops officer probably wouldn't see it that way, but Captain Grimaldi, Hemphill's chief of staff, had realized what Honor was up to and supported her hints and deferential suggestions with surprising subtlety. He'd even given her a grin of approval after the final captains' briefing, which had led Honor into a fundamental re-evaluation of him, despite his position in Horrible Hemphill's camp. Not that it took a mental giant to realize that no conventional approach would let a light cruiser, whatever its armament, survive to reach attack range of a hostile battle fleet.
There were only so many options for a commander faced by a normal-space action inside the hyper limit of a star. It was relatively simple to hide even a capital ship (at longer ranges, anyway) by simply shutting down her impellers and dropping off the enemy's passive scanners, but the impeller drive wasn't magic. Even at the five hundred-plus gravities a destroyer or light cruiser could manage, it took time to generate respectable vector changes, so hiding by cutting power was of strictly limited utility. After all, it did no good to hide if the enemy went charging away from you at fifty or sixty percent of light-speed, and you couldn't hide if you accelerated in pursuit.
All of which meant an admiral simply couldn't conceal her maneuvers from an opponent without risking loss of contact. And since hiding was normally pointless, that left only two real options: meet the enemy in a head-on, brute power clash, or try misdirection by showing him something that wasn't quite what he thought it was. Given Admiral Hemphill's material-oriented prejudices, it had taken all of Honor's persuasiveness to build any misdirection at all into the battle plan, for Lady Sonja believed in massing overwhelming firepower and simply smashing away until something gave, which at least had the virtue of simplicity.
Without Grimaldi's support, it was unlikely a lowly commander, even one specially selected to command Hemphill's secret weapon, could have convinced the admiral, but that was fine with Honor. Admiral D'Orville knew Hemphill as well as anyone else, and the last thing he'd expect from her was sneakiness. If the Defenders could mislead him into misinterpreting what he saw, so much the better; if they couldn't, they lost very little of importance. Only Fearless.
And so Honor watched the rest of the Defender task force moving towards her. In another sixteen minutes, the entire force would overrun her and keep right on going, leaving her single light cruiser alone and lonely almost in the Aggressors' path.
Admiral of the Green Sebastian D'Orville frowned over his own plot aboard the superdreadnought HMS King Roger, then glanced at the visual display. Visuals were useless for coordinating battles at deep-space ranges, but they were certainly spectacular. D'Orville's ships were charging ahead at almost a hundred and seventy thousand kilometers per second—just under .57 c—and the starfield in the forward screens was noticeably blue-shifted. But King Roger raced along between the inclined "roof" and "floor" of her impeller wedge, and the effect of a meter-deep band in which local gravity went from zero to over ninety-seven thousand MPS2 grabbed photons like a lake of glue and bent the strongest energy weapon like flimsy wire. Stars seen through a stress band like that red-shifted radically and displaced their images by a considerable margin in direct vision displays, though knowing exactly how powerful the gravity field was made it fairly simple for the computers to compensate and put them back where they belonged.
But what was possible for the generating warship was impossible for its foes. Civilian impeller drives generated a single stress band in each aspect; military impeller drives generated a double band and filled the space between them with a sidewall, for good measure. Hostile sensors might be able to analyze the outermost band, but they couldn't get accurate readings on the inner ones, and that was why no one could target something on their far side.
"Admiral Hemphill's deceleration is holding steady, Sir." His chief of staff broke into D'Orville's thoughts with a fresh update from Tactical. "We should enter missile range in another twenty minutes."
"What's the latest on her detached squadron?"
"We got a good cross-cut on their transmissions about twelve minutes ago, Sir. They're way the hell and gone in-system."
Captain Lewis's completely neutral tone almost shouted his derision for their opponent, and D'Orville hid a smile of agreement. Sonja was going to look mighty bad when they got done kicking her posterior clear back to the capital, and that was exactly what was going to happen to her if she tried a stand-up fight without those detached dreadnoughts. She should have gone on running until they could join up, not challenged this soon, but at least their absence explained her course. She was well off a direct heading for the planets she was supposed to be defending for the simple reason that it was the shortest route to the ships she'd forgotten to bring to the dance, and D'Orville was sadly tempted to ignore her and go kiting straight for the objective. It would be highly satisfying to "nuke" Manticore without letting Sonja fire a single shot in its defense, but his assigned objective was to capture the capital planet, not just raid it. Besides, no tactician worth his gold braid would pass up the opportunity to crush two-thirds of the enemy's forces in detail. Especially in one of the rare cases in which the opposition couldn't disengage without uncovering an objective they must hold.
"Is our deployment complete?" he asked.
"Yes, Sir. The scouts are falling back behind the wall now."
D'Orville glanced into the huge main tactical tank, double-checking Lewis's report in pure reflex. His capital ships had spread into the traditional "wall of battle," stacked both longitudinally and vertically into a formation one-ship wide and as tight as their impeller wedges permitted. It wasn't a very maneuverable arrangement, but it allowed the maximum possible broadside fire; and since they could no more shoot out through their impeller bands than an enemy could shoot in through them, it was the only practical way to accomplish that.
He checked the chronometer against Tactical's projections again. Seventeen minutes to extreme missile range.
The first missiles went out as the range dropped. Not a lot of them—the chances of a hit at this distance were slight, and not even capital ships could pack in an inexhaustible supply of them—but enough to keep the other side honest.
And enough to give any good Liberal or Progressive a serious case of the hives, Honor thought, watching them go. Each of those projectiles massed just under seventy-five tons and cost upward of a million Manticoran dollars, even without warheads or penaids. No one would be fool enough to use weapons that could actually get through and damage their targets, but the Fleet had steadfastly refused every political pressure to abandon live-fire exercises. Computer simulations were invaluable, and every officer and rating of whatever branch spent long, often grueling hours in the simulators, but actual firings were the only way to be sure the hardware really worked. And, expensive or not, live-fire exercises taught the missile crews things no simulation could.
But she had other things to worry about as Admiral D'Orville charged towards her, and worry she did, for Honor wasn't precisely the RMN's best mathematician. Despite aptitude tests which regularly said she ought to be an outstanding number-cruncher, her Academy performance scores had steadfastly refused to live up to that potential. In point of fact, she'd nearly flunked out of multi-dimensional math in her third form, and while she'd graduated in the top ten percent overall, she'd also held the embarrassing distinction of standing two-hundred-thirty-seventh (out of a class of two hundred and forty-one) in Mathematics.
Her math scores hadn't done much for her own selfconfidence at the time—and they'd driven her instructors to distraction. The profs had known she could handle the math. The aptitude tests said so, her tac simulator scores had blown the roof off the curve—which wasn't exactly the mark of a mathematical moron—and her maneuvering scores had been just as high. Her kinesthetic sense was acute, she could solve multi-unit three-dimensional vector intercepts in her head (as long as she didn't think about what she was doing), and none of that ability had shown up in her applied mathematics grades. The only person it never seemed to have bothered was Admiral Courvosier—only he'd been Captain Courvosier, then—and he'd ridden her mercilessly until she came to believe in herself, whatever the grades said. Give her a real-time, real-world maneuver to worry about and she was fine, but even today she was a poor astrogator—and she could worry herself into panic attacks just thinking about math tests. Which, she knew, was the reason for her present, carefully hidden jitters; she'd had too much time to worry about today's maneuver.
Yet this was hardly a case of hyper-space navigation, she reminded herself firmly. Just four simple little dimensions, something Sir Isaac Newton could have handled, and she probably wouldn't have worried about it if it had come at her cold. When that sort of thing happened, she didn't worry—she simply responded as Admiral Courvosier had trained her to, trusting the abilities she couldn't quite seem to lay her cognitive hands upon, and her unbroken string of "Excellent" and "Superior" tactical ratings had confounded even her most dubious Academy critics.
But in this instance, she'd had plenty of time to worry about it ahead of time, and telling herself—truthfully—that only the Aggressors' closing speed made it time-critical hadn't helped tremendously. Still, Lieutenant Venizelos, her tactical officer, had run the numbers five times, and Lieutenant Commander McKeon had double-checked them. And Honor had made herself check McKeon's calculations a dozen times in the privacy of her quarters. Now she watched the chrono counting off the last, fleeting seconds and double-checked her engineering displays. Everything on the green.
"You know, Sir," Captain Lewis murmured, "there's something a little weird about this."
"Weird? How so?" D'Orville asked absently, watching the missile traces streaking towards Hemphill's wall of battle.
"Their counter-fire's mighty light," Lewis said, frowning down at his own displays, "and it's scattered pretty wide, not concentrated."
"Umpf?" D'Orville craned his neck to glance at Tactical's target projections, and it was his turn to frown. Lewis was right. Sonja was a great believer in concentration of fire—it was one of her few real tactical virtues, in D'Orville's opinion—and given her numerical disadvantage, she ought to be pouring it on, hoping for a few lucky kills to decrease the odds. Only she wasn't, and the admiral's eyebrows drew together in puzzlement.
"Are you positive about the fix on her detached units?" he asked after a moment.
"That's what I was thinking about myself, Sir. I'm certain our fix was solid, but what if the transmitting ship was all alone out there? You think she could be leading us into a trap?"
"I don't know." D'Orville rubbed his jaw and frowned harder. "It wouldn't be like her, but Grimaldi might just have put her up to something along those lines. Bit risky if he did, though. She'd have to have them free-falling on the same base vector to pull it off, and we've got the edge in force levels even if her entire force were concentrated. . . ." He wrinkled his forehead, then sighed. "Pass the word to Tactical to prepare for a radical course change just in case."
A single data code blinked angry scarlet amid the massive Aggressor formation in Honor's display, and she grinned. She didn't know if Admiral D'Orville's spies (unofficial and strictly against the rules, of course) had penetrated the security screen around Fearless, but Admiral Hemphill's spies had penetrated his own security. Not very deeply, but far enough to ID his flagship. That was one of the great potential weaknesses in any Fleet maneuver; each side had complete files on the electronic signatures of the other side's units.
The chrono sped downward, and she raised her head to glance at McKeon and Lieutenant Venizelos.
"All right, gentlemen," she said.
"Sir! We've got a new bogey, bearing—"
Captain Lewis's frantic warning was far too late, and the range was far too short to do anything about it. Admiral D'Orville had barely begun to turn towards him when a crimson light glared on King Roger's main status board, and damage alarms screamed as the vastly understrength grav lance smashed into the superdreadnought's port sidewall. It was far too weak to inflict actual generator damage, but the computers noted it and obediently flashed their failure warning—just as an incredible salvo of equally understrength energy torpedoes exploded against the theoretically nonexistent sidewall.
The admiral jerked upright in his command chair while the visual display flickered and glared with the energy torpedoes' fury. Then the display went blank, and his strangled, incredulous curse echoed across the hushed flag bridge as every weapon and propulsive system shut down.
* * *
"Direct hit, Ma'am!" Venizelos screamed, and Honor permitted herself a fierce grin of triumph as the Aggressor flagship went ballistic. Other ships peeled out of formation to maintain safe separation, but King Roger was "dead," locked down by her own computers to simulate her total destruction at the hands of a lowly light cruiser! It was almost worth being Horrible Hemphill's handpicked hatchet woman just to see it.
But there was still the little matter of Fearless's own survival.
"Bring the wedge up now!" Honor's soprano was a bit higher than usual, if far calmer than her tac officer's voice, and Engineering's response was instantaneous. Lieutenant Commander Santos had been standing by for over an hour; now she closed the final circuit and Fearless's impeller wedge sprang to life.
"Helm, execute Sierra Five!"
"Sierra Five, aye," the helmsman replied, and Fearless rolled madly on her gyros and attitude thrusters. She flipped up on her side relative to the Aggressor wall of battle, interposing her belly impeller bands just as the first Aggressor energy weapons began to fire. Incredulous fire control officers poured laser and graser fire at the tiny target which had suddenly materialized on their displays, but they were too late. The impeller bands bent and splattered their fire harmlessly, and Honor felt a huge smile transform her strong features.
"All right, Chief Killian." She allowed herself an airy gesture at the forward visual display. "That away—full military power."
"Yes, Ma'am!" the helmsman replied with an equally huge grin, and HMS Fearless leapt to an instant acceleration of five hundred and three standard gravities.
Fifty years of self-discipline allowed Admiral D'Orville to stop cursing as the computers permitted his command chair's tactical display to come back up. His com systems were still locked, preventing him from doing anything about it, but at least he could see what was happening. Not that it made him feel any better. The light cruiser that had "killed" his flagship with a single broadside held its course, speeding with ever-mounting velocity on a direct reciprocal of his own fleet's vector. Its course took it through the optimum firing arc of his entire wall, but its impeller bands laughed at his capital ships' best efforts, and not even his light units had a hope in hell of catching it. They could never dump enough velocity to overhaul, and he could almost hear its captain's jubilant rasberry as he sped towards safety.
"You were right, George," he told Lewis, fighting hard to keep his voice normal. "Sonja was up to something."
"Yes, Sir," Lewis said quietly. He rose from his own command chair to stand at D'Orville's shoulder and watch the only operational tactical display on the bridge. "And there's the rest of it," he sighed, and D'Orville winced as his chief of staff gestured at Hemphill's main body.
The Defender wall of battle was changing its vector. It went from partial to maximum deceleration, and even as it did the entire formation shifted. Its new course cut sharply in towards the Aggressor task force's, and the range raced downward as Sonja's formation slowed. The separation was still too great for her to achieve the classic ideal and cross his "T," firing her full broadsides straight into his teeth while only his leading units' bow weapons could reply, but the obviously pre-planned maneuver, coupled with the command confusion created by King Roger's "destruction," was enough to let her leading units curl in around his own. The Defenders' broadsides were suddenly ripping down his wall's throat, and if the angle remained acute, it was still sufficient to send missiles racing in through the wide-open frontal arcs of his impeller wedges. Point defense was stopping a lot of them, but not enough, and bright, vicious battle damage codes appeared beside the light dots of his lead units as long-range beam fire ripped at those delicious, unprotected targets, as well.
Admiral D'Orville clenched his fists, then sighed and made himself lean back in his chair with a wintry smile. Sonja was going to be impossible to live with for months, and he could scarcely blame her. Few of his ships would be "destroyed" before the wall got itself sorted out and altered course, but enough were already crippled to even the odds . . . and who knew when her "detached units" would suddenly appear, as well?
It was all most un-Sonja-like, but it had certainly been effective, and Admiral Sebastian D'Orville made a mental note to find out exactly whose light cruiser that had been. Anyone who could bring that little maneuver off was someone to watch, and he intended to tell him so in person.
Assuming he could keep himself from strangling the sneaky bastard long enough to congratulate him.