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"What?" Lieutenant Judson Hines, GSN, swiveled his command chair towards the tactical section of GNS Intrepid's flight deck as the LAC loafed along, keeping precise station on Grayson One. The voyage out from Grayson had been a combination of boredom and intensity for Hines and his crew. Their slow pace had seemed to stretch the hours out, yet awareness of their responsibilities kept them glued to their instruments.
"I don't know 'what,' " Lieutenant (jg) Willis, his tac officer, replied reasonably. "If I knew what it was, it wouldn't be odd."
"I see." Hines gazed at Willis steadily, and, after several seconds, sighed. "Let me put this into simple, one-syllable language, Alf. What . . . did . . . you . . . see?"
"A sensor ghost, I think."
"Right about there." Willis threw a feed from the main plot to Hines' repeater. A small icon flickered in it, flashing alternatively amber and red to indicate a possible contact, and Hines frowned. The light code was very close to a larger green arrowhead which indicated a civilian vessel, and he punched an inquiry into the plot. An instant later, a small string of characters appeared beside the green arrowhead, identifying it as one of the Blackbird ore freighters.
"What did it look like?" he asked, his tone crisper, and Willis answered much more seriously than before.
"It's hard to say, Skipper. It wasn't much. Just a little flicker, like an up tick on the ore boat's wedge strength. I wouldn't even have noticed if it hadn't happened twice."
"Twice?" Hines felt one of his eyebrows arch.
"Yes, Sir. It was like a double flash."
"Um." Hines rubbed his chin. His was the closest unit to the ore boat, and from what Willis was saying, it was unlikely anyone else had been in a position to see whatever Intrepid's gravitics had picked up. But still . . .
"It was probably only a ripple in her wedge," he said. "Lord knows they work those boats hard enough for the nodes to flip an occasional surge. But just in case, put us on a vector to close for a closer look. And while Alf does that, Bob," he turned to the com officer, "pass his report and a copy of his data to the screen commander."
Honor Harrington frowned. Her com was tied into the screen's net, and her earbug carried Intrepid's routine message to her. She approved of Lieutenant Hines' attention to detail, although it didn't sound like his sensors had actually picked up much. Yet something about the report nagged at the back of her brain. She couldn't have said why, unless, perhaps, it was that she'd picked up only the verbal report. Her runabout wasn't tied into the screen's tac net, which meant she hadn't seen Willis' actual data.
She grinned at her own compulsiveness, but the truth was that she would always be a tac officer at heart. Whenever she could get it, she wanted the raw data so she could draw her own conclusions about it. Well, why not? Candless was no warship, and the unarmed runabout scarcely needed fire control, but she had an excellent sensor suite. A considerably better one, in fact, than any other "civilian pleasure craft" had ever boasted, and Honor punched a command into her main console.
Candless' central computer considered the command for a sliver of a second, and then a fresh data window blossomed in Honor's HUD as her own sensors reached out towards Intrepid's sensor ghost. Honor noted the ore freighter and nodded. No doubt Hines was right about the ripple in the ore boat's wedge, and
She froze, staring at the HUD as another icon blinked briefly in it. No, not one icon. There'd been two . . . and they were an awful lot closer than Willis' original "ghost" had been. She blinked and frowned, trying to come up with any reasonable explanation, but there wasn't one.
She entered more commands, and her frown deepened as a vector back-plot appeared. It strobed rapidly, indicating that the computer considered it tentative, but it connected the ghosts she'd just seen with the ones Willis had reported, and her eyes narrowed as she saw the accel value the plot had assigned. If there actually was a physical object out there, then it had to be under a high acceleration to account for that great a displacement. But the accel figure was far too low for any sort of missile. Besides, at this ridiculously low range, any missile drive would have showed up like a deep-space flare! So it couldn't possibly
Her plot flickered again. The ghosts were no stronger than before, but they'd continued to close, and Honor Harrington sucked in a shuddering breath as the tactical intuition she'd never been able to explain to anyone else realized what she was seeing.
Her right hand shifted on the stick, her second finger stabbing the button that accessed the screen's guard channel, and her voice rapped from every bridge speaker and com officer's earbug aboard every unit of the screen and both yachts.
"Vampire! Vampire! Inbound missiles, bearing zero-three-zero zero-zero-two from Grayson One!"
Gavin Bledsoe swore softly as the nearest LAC altered course. The vector projection showed the warship's new heading bringing him within a mere forty thousand klicks of the ore carrier, yet that wasn't what had drawn Bledsoe's curse. He and his crew had accepted from the beginning that the screen would figure out where the missiles had come from after the fact, and they'd never had any hope of outrunning the apostate's retribution. But a course change this soon meant the LAC must have detected the launch, and the shipkillers' low acceleration would give the screen far too long to engage them.
Yet there was nothing he could do about it, and he closed his eyes, apologizing to God for his profanity before he offered a silent prayer of dedication . . . and for victory.
Honor's warning hit the screen and the yachts' crews like a thunderbolt. Had it come from anyone else, many of the officers involved would have discounted the absurd alarm. Even knowing who'd sounded it, disbelief held them all for precious seconds. But then trained reactions shook off the paralysis, and tac officers aboard the screening LACs swung their own sensors to the indicated bearing, searching frantically while point defense systems sprang from standby to ready status.
But they couldn't see the targets! There was nothing there . . . except . . .
"Well, Alf?" Lieutenant Hines snapped, and the tac officer shrugged.
"Skip, I can't find the bastards!" Willis said desperately. "I Wait!" He stabbed a key, then swore savagely. "I thought I had it for a second, Skip, but it's too damned faint a signalnothing but a frigging ghost! I can't get anything solid enough for a lock!"
"Shit!" Hines glared at his plot, then looked at the helmsman. "Close the son-of-a-bitch who launched them, Allen," he grated through barred teeth.
Honor swung Candless' nose, bringing her bow sensors to bear on the ghosts without any interfering wedge, and her strong-boned face was carved from stone as her plot refused to hold them. She'd never seen anything like it. Never imagined anything like it. Not in what was obviously an attack bird of some sort. The bogies were coming in very slowly, at little more than the acceleration to be expected from a long-endurance recon drone, and they obviously incorporated heavy stealth capabilities to conceal their low-powered wedges. Her sensors probably had a better look at them than any of the LACs in the screen, for she was only a few hundred klicks off the flank of Grayson One's impeller wedge, and the incoming birds were obviously targeted on one or both of the yachts. But even looking straight at them, with her bow sensors against the deepest, most easily detected portion of their wedges, she still couldn't get a solid lock. Not the kind point defense needed.
She punched more keys, routing her sensor readouts direct to the screen command ship, and her brain raced.
They had to be some sort of specially configured drone. Nothing else was that slow and long ranged. But where had it come from? The Alliance didn't have anything like it, and neither did the Peeps, so who had built it? And what was it doing here?
She shook her head impatiently, brushing off the extraneous questions. What mattered was what they were and how to stop them, not where they'd come from.
Low as their acceleration rates were compared to missiles, they were still much too high for any manned vessel to keep away from. Worse, they were coming in silent, with no active targeting emissions. That meant they were homers and, presumably, that they'd been homing from the moment of launch, but how could they be doing that? They'd been launched from outside the screen, and their tracks had taken them within less than five hundred klicks of one of Intrepid's sister ships, so why hadn't their seeking systems locked onto the LAC instead of the yachts? A LAC didn't look a lot like Grayson One or Queen Adrienne, but at that close a range, its impeller signature ought to have utterly blotted out the yachts' signatures. At the very least the things should have lost lock temporarily and been forced to reacquire it, but that obviously hadn't happened.
And the fact that they were coming in silent made stopping them exponentially more difficult. They were already far stealthier than any missile ought to be, and their lack of active sensors deprived the missile defense officers of any active emissions to track. They could see the missiles only in glimpses, no more than brief flashes before those damnably efficient ECM systems blanked them out again, and that wasn't enough. Not against a target as hard to kill as a missile or drone protected by its own wedge.
Countermissiles streaked out, but that only complicated the problem. The fantastically over-powered countermissiles were even less effective than their mother ships'. Worse, their wedges and emissions could be picked up . . . and blotted out even the feeble ghost returns Honor had managed to detect.
She started to bark an order, but the screen commander had already seen what she had, and his own order beat her to it. The countermissiles vanished from her plot as the LACs which had launched them sent the self-detonation commands, and she breathed a sigh of relief as she managed to find the missiles again.
They were closer, and her mouth dried as the time to attack range counter spun downward on her HUD. Some of the LACs were firing their own point defense clusters, though the range was long for those weapons, and even their grasers at their best-guess positions on the missiles, but they had virtually no chance of hitting them. Grayson One and Queen Adrienne were also responding, turning away from the threat and rolling ship in an effort to interpose their wedges. Neither yacht carried any armament, but both were equipped with comprehensive EW fits, and their electronic defenses sprang to life. Yet there was little for those defenses to defend against, for the silently pursuing killers radiated no active targeting systems to be jammed, and they seemed utterly oblivious to the efforts to confuse them with decoys.
Major Francis Ney's head jerked up as Duchess Harrington's warning crackled from his earbug, and he punched a quick code into his personal com, dropping his earbug into the bridge circuits. It took him a few moments to realize what was happening. When he did, his face went pale, but he was already wheeling to throw open the stateroom hatch even as he snapped orders to his staff and the startled ministers.
Cromarty and Hodges seemed confused, but Prestwick and Earl Gold Peak were much quicker on the uptake. Fear flickered in their eyes, but they refused to panic, and the Chancellor and Foreign Secretary grabbed their colleagues and began hustling them down the passageway beyond the hatch. Ney grabbed Calvin Henke, the earl's son, by the collar and dragged him through the hatch behind them. Henke fought him for a moment, trying to break away and get the rest of the staffers out of the stateroom, but Ney was much strongerand nastierthan Lord Henke. A three-fingered jab to the solar plexus did the job quite nicely, and he scooped the suddenly paralyzed nobleman up in a fireman's carry as he jogged down the passageway behind the ministers.
The life pod hatches sprang open as the ministers turned the final bend, and two of Ney's assistants were waiting. They threw their charges into the pods, slammed the hatches, and armed the eject sequence, and then they simply stood there, staring at Ney while their chests heaved with exertion.
He stared back, and his brain whirred. Part of him wanted to launch the pods now, but if those were laser heads and the people who'd launched them had anticipated such a move, the slow pods would be sitting ducks, despite their armor. Better to leave them where they were. A laser head would shred the unarmored yacht like tissue, but the small, well-armored life pods would have an excellent chance of surviving. Ney and his people, none of whom were in skinsuits, would not, but it was the best chance the men they were sworn to protect had. But if it was an old-fashioned contact nuke . . .
If it's a laser head, they've got a chance, Ney thought. Please, Godplease let it be a laser head! he prayed, and bowed his head, waiting.
The weapons pursuing the yachts were the best Solarian hardware money could buy, but they were special-use devices, not regular weapons of war, designed for ambush scenarios. The people who'd designed them for the Solarian League Navy had waxed poetic about the capabilities they would confer upon the SLN. The SLN Weapons Division, however, had taken one look at them, yawned, and passed, for they were useful only as ambush weapons against an unsuspecting foe. Worse, their slow speed made them sitting ducks when their seekers were forced to go active over the last portion of their attack run.
The SLN's rejection, however, had left the firm who'd designed them with a large R&D expenditure and no legal way to recoup it. Because the weapons incorporated the very latest SLN stealth technology, their sale to anyone but the SLN was an act of treason, but no one really worried about that. The firms who built and equipped the SLN's warships had gotten into the habit of ignoring the technology transfer prohibition clauses in their contracts centuries ago, and no one had ever gotten more than a slap on the wrist for it. So when Oscar Saint-Just's StateSec representatives on Old Earth went shopping, an obliging salesman pointed them straight at the rejected weapons.
StateSec had been interested . . . and it hadn't shared the information with the People's Navy. It had occurred to the SS that ifor whenthe final showdown with the Navy came, it would be helpful to possess a stealth weapon the regulars didn't know about. A few preemptive strikes on trouble-making Navy ships would take out the officers likely to pose problems quite nicely.
But Saint-Just had been interested in them for additional reasons, as well. Their greatest weakness was, as the manufacturer admitted, the weapon's extreme vulnerability to active defenses during its final attack run. Its passive sensors were quite capable of picking up and homing on the wedge of a target which had been pointed out to them, and it had the speed and endurance to follow evasive maneuvers far better (and longer) than any standard missile. But for the final run, it needed more precise data to achieve the proper angle of attack against a mobile, impeller wedge-protected target, which meant its seekers had to go active. And once a military target's sensors could see it, its low speed would make it an easy kill for laser clusters.
StateSec had recognized the problem, but they'd also had a solution. Homing beacons had been surreptitiously placed aboard every capital ship of the People's Navy during refits. They were carefully hidden and did absolutely nothing . . . until they received the activation command. But once activated, they would radiate a target source which the weapon could track completely passively, without ever going active. That meant it could be launched even from a ship which couldn't actually see the target . . . and would remain no more than a ghost up to the instant of detonation. And what would work against rebellious units of the People's Navy would work just as well against a Manticoran target if only some way could be found to get an equivalent beacon aboard the intended victim.
Nothing the PRH had could pick the new weapons up unless its seekers went active. Saint-Just's technical people estimated that the Manties probably could detect them, but not even Manticoran technology would be able to localize them well enough to generate a targeting solution as long as they stayed silent.
And so Saint-Just had reached out to Randal Donizetti. Donizetti was hardly what StateSec would call reliable, but the money Saint-Just had authorized his agents to pay him had been irresistible, especially since Donizetti would also be paid by the Faithful. All Saint-Just's local network had had to do was point Donizetti at the appropriate contact man for the fanatical Faithful and then stand back.
From Saint-Just's viewpoint, the arrangement was ideal. He'd controlled the Faithful by instructing Donizetti to limit the rate at which he handed over the necessary hardware, and the fact that Donizetti was a known weapons-runner had obscured the SS's involvement neatly. All that had really been necessary was to blow up the Solly's ship when he completed his task, and that had gone off as smoothly as any of the rest of Operation Hassan. Should the Manties succeed, as Saint-Just anticipated they would, in backtracking the assassins to Masada, they would find only the Faithful, who'd made their independent arrangements with a known Solarian criminal . . . and then killed him to hide the connection.
It was a tortuously complicated plan, fraught with opportunities for failure. But it had also offered at least the possibility of success without any risk of implicating the People's Republic of Haven. More to the point, it had worked, and now Oscar Saint-Just's warheads raced down upon their targets like the outriders of doom.
Honor stared at the closing icons, and sweat beaded her forehead. It was impossible to be certain, but it didn't look as if any of the LACs' defensive fire was even coming close, and even at their slow overtake speed, they were only minutes from impact. The yachts were rolling hard now and, unknown to any Manticoran or Grayson, their maneuvers had effectively cut the weapons off from their targeting beacons by interposing their wedges. But it no longer mattered. The passive sensors had a tight lock on the impeller wedges of the targets themselves now, and they arrowed onward, courses arcing and diverging slightly as they positioned themselves for pop-up attacks on the sides of their targets' wedges.
Honor gazed at the indistinct icons, lost almost completely in the futile hurricane of the LACs' fire, for a fraction of an instant longer, and made her decision.
"Grayson One, hold your heading and orientation," she said into the com. "Do not, I say again, do not alter course or roll ship further!"
"What the h?!" Alfred Willis cut himself off in mid-curse, and his already dry mouth went even drier as he watched Jamie Candless' impeller strength peak.
"What's happening, Alf?" Hines snapped. "Talk to me, damn it!"
"It's . . . it's Lady Harrington, Skip," Willis said hoarsely. "She's going to kamikaze the bird off Grayson One!"
"Sweet Tester," Captain Leonard Sullivan, CO of Grayson One, whispered as he watched his plot in horror and desperate hope. Lady Harrington's runabout was accelerating madly, at a rate not even one of the new LACs could have matched, as she raced up on Grayson One's flank. The fleet little vessel rolled as it closed, turning the plane of its wedge perpendicular to Grayson One's, and he knew what she meant to do.
She was turning her own vessel into the sidewall Grayson One lacked, deliberately positioning herself to take the missile's attack herself.
If it was a contact nuke, she would probably survive, for her impeller wedge, though much smaller than Grayson One's, was just as impenetrable. But if the weapon was a laser head and detonated even slightly above or below her ship, it was virtually certain to kill her.
Yet either way, Grayson One would survive, and Sullivan closed his eyes to pray for the Steadholder.
"I'm in position, Grayson One," Honor said into the com, her soprano crisp and clear. "Alter ninety degrees to starboard, same plane, on my mark. Do you copy?"
"Aye, My Lady. We copy," a voice came back. And then, a moment later, "Tester bless, My Lady."
She made no response, watching her plot, her hand light on the stick. She felt Nimitz in the back of her brain, felt his love and courage clinging to her, supporting her, never questioning her decision. And beyond him, she could taste the terror and matching determination of Wayne Alexander at his engineer's station and Andrew LaFollet alone in the passenger compartment.
The LACs were still firing, and her mouth quirked a humorless smile. It would be bitterly ironic if one of the LACs accidentally hit and killed Candless before the missile ever reached her, but she didn't even consider ordering them off. Even if she'd had the authority to do so, she was in position to protectto try to protect, she corrected herself grimlyonly one ship. Queen Adrienne was on her own, for none of the screening units were close enough to attempt Honor's own insane maneuver. Which meant the only chance the Manticoran ship had was for one of the LACs to get lucky against the missiles. But the missiles were streaking straight in now, popping up higher, swinging a little ahead of their targets, and that meant they were going to go for down-the-throat shots, but they were already inside the threshold for laser head detonation, so that meant
The oncoming missile's seekers abruptly went active, and it swerved.
"Break, Grayson One! Break now!" she snapped, and the yacht wrenched around to starboard.
Jamie Candless rode the flank of Benjamin Mayhew's ship like a limpet. There'd been no time to precalculate or rehearse the maneuver. Honor did it by hand and eye, holding her position, watching the missile roar in, seeing it vanish from her sensors at last as the belly of her wedge swung up to cut it off. It disappeared, and she held her breath, waiting for it to pop up at the last instant, and then
A two-hundred-megaton warhead detonated less than fifty kilometers from her ship. For one fleeting instant, Jamie Candless was trapped in the very heart of a star, and Honor's canopy went black as the armorplast polarized. But even through her own visceral stab of terror, a corner of her mind exulted, for it was a standard nuke, not a laser head. And that meant there was a chance, if only
The plasma wave came on the heels of the flash, ripping out across Grayson One's course. But Honor had anticipated that. Her order to turn away had snatched the vulnerable open throat of the yacht's wedgeand her ownaway from the center of detonation. The true fury of the explosion wasted itself against Candless' belly stress band. Only its fringes reached out past the wedge, and generators shrieked in torment as the particle and radiation shielding which protected the throat of any impeller wedge took the shock. Those generators were designed to protect the ships which mounted them against normal space particles and debris at velocities of up to eighty percent of light-speed. Grayson One and Candless were moving far slower than that, at barely nine thousand KPS, but their shielding had never been expected to face the holocaust which suddenly erupted across their base course, and the demon howl of the generators and the scream of audible warnings filled the universe. Honor yanked on the stick, jerking Candless away from what she hoped was still the bearing to Grayson One, and her darkened flight deck was a trapped, madly heaving pocket of hell as she shot the rapids of nuclear destruction.
They weren't going to make it. She knew they weren't.
And then, suddenly, the generators stopped shrieking.
Her eyes darted over her HUD, and she drew a deep, shuddery breath. One of her antiparticle generators was gone and the other was damagedshe'd be going back to Grayson at a very low velocitybut she was alive, and so was Grayson One! She stared at the icon of the Protector's yacht, watching as the bigger ship's wedge flickered and went down. Grayson One was hurt, but her com link to the yacht's flight deck was still open, and the bridge crew's harsh, staccato reports told her all she needed to know. Hurt the ship might be, but she was intact . . . and so were her passengers!
But then, on the heels of her elation, a fist of shock struck, for there was only one golden icon on her HUD.
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