Some people might have questioned that decision, since it put the smelters and repair yards so far from the asteroid belt which was the source of their raw materials, but it actually made a sort of sense — militarily, if not necessarily economically. By putting their bases well inside the hyper limit, the Allies had ensured plenty of warning time if anyone came calling with hostile intent. In this case, for example, the picket had five and a half hours of response time before the bogies (whoever and whatever they were) could reach the base structure. And Elric Station wasn't really all that important in terms of its support facilities, anyway. The RMN had established the station only to fill a hole in the outworks of the far more important satellite yard at Grendelsbane. Squarely between Treadway and Solway, two of the forward bases the RMN had taken from the Peeps early in the war, it helped cover the approaches to Grendelsbane by supporting a "picket force" large enough to pose a threat to the rear of any raiding force.
   But thirty-five ships of the wall was a bit more of a raiding force than the planners had intended Elric to stand off, even with Trikoupis' Harringtons in support. Which meant the Alliance was about to lose yet another system to the Peeps.
   The thought was not a palatable one, but it was hardly unexpected. No one had ever expected Elric to resist a major attack, and Trikoupis knew Admiral Malone's instructions were clear. He'd even surmised the strategy upon which those instructions rested, and while he liked giving ground no more than the next man, he rather approved of what he suspected Sir Thomas Caparelli and High Admiral Matthews had in mind. But that was for the future. For now, the evacuation order must already have gone out, and the transports held in-system for just this eventuality would already be filling up while the demolition charges were armed. It was a pity that so much investment — in time and effort more than in money — was about to be blown into very tiny pieces, but the Peeps would receive absolutely nothing of value for their efforts.
   And in the meantime, the Elric picket force, and Rear Admiral Aristides Trikoupis, had a little something to show them....
   "Wake up the tactical section, Jason," he told Haskins. "I'll be on Flag Deck in fifteen minutes."
* * *
   Citizen Admiral Groenewold stood beside the master plot on the flag deck of the superdreadnought PNS Timoleon. Citizen Commissioner O'Faolain stood beside him, her hands folded behind her back, and watched him study the display intently.
   There wasn't much for him to see just yet. Like everyone else in TF 12.3, O'Faolain knew the Manties' long-range sensor net had to have detected them. More to the point, its FTL transmission capability meant the Manties must already have a breakdown on TF 12.3, at least by type. Without similar technology, all Timoleon could expect to pick up at this range were active impeller drives, and even those would be invisible if the Manties chose to hold their accel down and use their EW properly.
   Under the circumstances, Groenewold couldn't actually expect to learn much from his intense scrutiny. With some admirals, O'Faolain would have written his intense concentration off as nothing more than an effort to impress his people's commissioner with the depth of his thought, but she'd come to know Groenewold too well to think anything of the sort here. The dark, intense admiral didn't have a devious bone, or even a politically circumspect one, in his entire body, and it never even would have occurred to him to worry about impressing his State Security watchdog. That made it very hard not to like him — a lot — and O'Faolain had to keep reminding herself that it was her job to watch the officers assigned to her charge, not to like them.
   Groenewold gave the display one last look, noting the rate of advance of TF 12.3's recon drones. Assuming nothing happened to them, they would start getting close enough to what Tactical estimated to be the most probable locations for Manty forces in another twenty minutes or so. Until then, he'd undoubtedly seen all he was going to see, and he rubbed his nose thoughtfully as he turned to walk back to his command chair. O'Faolain tagged along beside him, but he was barely even conscious of her presence while he contemplated the situation. It certainly never occurred to him to ask her opinion on how to proceed. This was an admiral's job, and all he really needed from her was for her to stay out of his way and see to it that the other people's commissioners aboard the ships of his task force did the same. As far as BJ Groenewold was concerned, that was an equitable division of labor, and he'd never actually considered how fortunate he was that O'Faolain was prepared to recognize the narrow intensity with which he focused on the task at hand rather than take offense at being ignored.
   Now he waved Citizen Lieutenant Commander Bhadressa and Citizen Lieutenant Commander Okamura closer and leaned back in his chair.
   "Don't see any sign of LACs out there, Fugimori," he murmured to his ops officer. Citizen Commissioner O'Faolain stepped up beside Okamura, and Groenewold nodded a welcome to her without ever taking his attention from the ops officer.
   "I'd be surprised if we did, Citizen Admiral." Okamura's voice was deep, rumbling up out of an immense chest. Despite his name, the blue-eyed citizen commander stood almost two meters tall, and his golden beard gave him the look of a Viking gone adrift in time. But there was nothing of the berserker about Okamura. Indeed, Groenewold had chosen him for his job in large part because the citizen vice admiral was aware that his own aggressive nature predisposed him towards rashness. Okamura was no coward, but his was a much more deliberative, thoughtful personality.
   "According to Citizen Captain Diamato, the first they saw of them at Hancock was when they opened fire from within graser range," Okamura went on calmly. "We're keeping the sharpest sensor watch we can, but if they got in that close against Citizen Admiral Kellet, I doubt we'll catch them a lot further out, however hard we look. Assuming Citizen Captain Diamato's memory of events is correct, of course."
   "Of course," Groenewold agreed, but despite the qualification, there was no doubt in his own mind. Lester Tourville had slipped him a copy of Diamato's report, and Groenewold had promptly shared it with his staff and all of his COs. Nor had he left any doubt in anyone's mind as to whether or not he expected them to give credence to the report's contents. He was no more able than anyone else to explain how anyone could squeeze so much nastiness into so small a package, but he wasn't about to put anything past those never to be sufficiently damned Manticoran R&D types. The overly clever bastards had hit the People's Navy with one unpleasant surprise after another, and while BJ Groenewold was not about to decide all Manties were three meters tall, covered with curly hair, and routinely walked on water, he had no intention of underestimating them, either. PN flag officers who did that had a nasty habit of not coming home again.
   "Our sources haven't said a word about LACs having been shipped in to any of these systems, Citizen Admiral," Ellen Bhadressa put in diffidently. The slender, chestnut-haired chief of staff shrugged. "I'm not suggesting that they couldn't have done it anyway, but our intelligence has been pretty impressive on this op. And LACs aren't exactly pinnaces. If any freighters big enough to deliver them in worthwhile numbers had been in the area, our friends would have had an excellent chance of spotting them."
   "Um." Groenewold nodded, but only in acknowledgment, not in agreement. The intelligence for the op had been extensive —he was more than ready to grant that — but he wasn't prepared to call it "impressive" until after the fecal matter hit the fan and he had a chance to see how close to right the spooks had come this time. And experience had taught him that not expecting great things from them was usually the path of wisdom. Especially given that most of the intelligence in this case came from neutral merchant spacers who'd passed through the region running supplies for the Erewhon Navy and then sold their information to StateSec's agents on Erewhon. Groenewold had a pretty shrewd notion of what had inspired them to be so forthcoming. After all, if he'd needed a few credits and known who the local spymaster was, he might've been tempted to do a little business with said spymaster himself. Which was not to say that he would have sold him accurate information... only that he would have sold a lot of it to someone who obviously wanted all he could get.
   It was a reservation he knew Tourville and Giscard shared, and even though the reports came from the NavInt section of Citizen Commissioner O'Faolain's own StateSec, she'd made her own reluctance to unhesitatingly accept them quite clear. But it was also the only recent information they had.
   "All right," he said after a moment. "You're probably right about how soon we'd see anything, Fugimori. And the people who don't believe in `super LACs' may have a point, as well. But we'll proceed on the assumption that they exist and that they're out there. Check?"
   "Check, Citizen Admiral."
   "Good. In line with that, screen Citizen Captain Polanco. If any LACs turn up, I want her ready to respond instantly, without waiting to pass any questions on to me."
   "Yes, Citizen Admiral. I'll get right on it."
   Okamura headed for his own station and Groenewold leaned further back in his chair and pursed his lips. Diamato's report had made it clear that the new Manty LACs had been hellishly difficult targets. At anything above point-blank range, energy weapons had been largely useless against them, but a laser or graser was a precision weapon that required precise fire control because it lacked the area-attack capability of a laser head. After a lot of careful thought, Groenewold had decided that the most effective way to deal with something like Diamato's LACs, even at what was normally energy range, would be with heavy shipboard missiles. If he got the opportunity, he was quite prepared to flush entire missile pods at the elusive little bastards, but he rather doubted he could pick them up far enough out for that. It was much more likely to be a matter of close-in — very close-in, compared to normal missile ranges — combat, with each ship or division taking snap shots whenever they were offered, and he'd trained for just that. Citizen Captain Bianca Polanco, Timoleon's skipper, had been involved with that training from the outset, and Groenewold had taken the highly unusual step of designating Polanco as the tactical commander of TF 12.3's anti-LAC defenses. She was specifically authorized to coordinate all of the task force's missile fire expressly to kill LACs, even if that meant ignoring hyper-capable units. A ship of the wall had a higher priority; nothing else did.
   Okamura and Bhadressa had dug in and worked hard to turn his ideas into reality, even though Bhadressa was one of those who seriously doubted that even Manties could build the sort of LACs Diamato claimed to have faced. Against normal LACs, even the improved Manty models NavInt had hard numbers on from Silesia, Groenewold's precautions were certainly excessive, and he knew it. But if Diamato was right about what the Manties actually had, the People's Navy was going to require a whole new defensive doctrine, and he saw no reason not to start formulating it right now.
   No doubt some of his fellow flag officers would think he was jumping at shadows, but Groenewold didn't especially care about that. For that matter, he himself doubted that even Diamato's super LACs would be capable of destroying properly handled ships of the wall without suffering murderous and prohibitive losses. But he might be wrong, and he could stand a little mockery if that was the price of covering his crews' backs against a threat whose parameters had yet to be fully determined.
   It was simply his misfortune that all of his laudable precautions had been directed against the wrong threat.


   "They don't seem very interested in letting us set up any ambushes, do they, Aristides?" Vice Admiral of the Red Frederick Malone's smile was wintry on Trikoupis' com screen.
   "No, Sir, they don't," Trikoupis agreed.
   Whoever was in command over there was obviously anxious about something. Trikoupis doubted it was Izzie and Esterhaus, since there was no way for the Peeps to know they were even here, much less what they were capable of, but if it wasn't BatDiv 62, he didn't know what else it could be, either.
   "I suppose they might be afraid we'd try to pull off the same sort of thing Admiral Harrington tried at Cerberus," he suggested, and Malone snorted.
   "I'll be delighted to take your money if you want to put down a bet on that! Or are you suggesting their intelligence people have some reason to question my sanity?"
   "Perish the thought, Sir." Trikoupis grinned, but then the moment of humor faded, and he shrugged. "It does make sense for them to come in cautiously, even with that sort of numerical advantage, Sir. I doubt they have any idea what we actually have waiting for them, but jinking that way is certainly complicating our intercept calculations."
   "Um." Malone nodded in agreement, but his expression reflected a certain contempt. "I can see that, I suppose. But all that dancing around wouldn't help them much against any serious defensive force. They've still got to come into weapons' range of Zelda... unless they really like stooging around the outer system while we do whatever we want in the inner system. That means all we'd have to do is sit right there in orbit until they had to commit to their actual approach vector, then come out and smash into them head-on before they ever got into attack range of the base."
   "Agreed." It was Trikoupis' turn to nod, but he went on in a respectful tone. "But that assumes we've got the strength to meet them toe-to-toe. And at the very least, they've already forced a half-dozen course changes on us and managed to slow our closure rate considerably. Which will also slow our breakaway rate when the time comes. And they've got recon drones out, Sir. Every course change they force and every minute they add to our intercept time gives their drones one more chance to get a sniff of us."
   "I know." Malone sighed, and rubbed his eyes. "You know, I really enjoyed my job more when things were simple and straightforward. I'm sure all the new toys people insist on giving us have their place, but each of them seems to make everything more complicated in some sort of geometric progression. Worse, some of the Peeps seem to be figuring that out."
   "That they do, Sir." Trikoupis glanced down at one of the displays deployed about his command chair. And they're getting slicker about their maneuvering, too. ONI was right; that does look more like an Allied formation than anything I'd expect a bunch of Peeps to put together. Look how tight those suckers are. "At least it looks like they may finally be steadying down for their final run in," he observed aloud.
   "Sooner or later they had to," Malone agreed, and his voice was crisper as he studied his own displays. "My tac people are suggesting we come to zero-zero-niner, zero-three-one at two hundred gravities. Does that sound good to you?"
   "Just a moment, Sir." It was unusual for a vice admiral of the Royal Manticoran Navy to ask someone who hadn't even made list in the RMN for advice on a fleet intercept, but Malone's entire force consisted of only five superdreadnoughts and a screen of battlecruisers and cruisers, and three of those superdreadnoughts — BatDiv 62's own Izzie and Esterhaus and HMS Belisarius, one of the RMN's Medusas —were under Trikoupis' command. They were also the only reason Malone hadn't already retired at his top speed. Adler, Basilisk, and Alizon had taught the Allies not to take Peep missile pods lightly, and it was obvious from the oncoming attackers' relatively low acceleration rate that they'd brought a copious supply of pods to the party.
   But Trikoupis' command made the difference. Or so he and Malone hoped, at any rate. In many ways, Malone's own flagship and her division mate were only along to thicken the antimissile defenses while Izzie, Esterhaus, and Belisarius did the fighting.
   "Zero-zero-niner, zero-three-one looks good to me, Sir," Trikoupis said as the projected vectors appeared in his own plot. "Assuming constant accelerations on both sides, that would bring us into launch range in about seventy-five minutes."
   "You don't think it'll take us too deep into their envelope?" Malone asked. There was no hesitation in the vice admiral's tone, only a note of professional question.
   "Worst case, assuming they alter and go to maximum accel on an intercept course, they could stay just in their extreme missile range of us for about fifty minutes, Sir," Trikoupis replied. "If they break directly away from us immediately and we do the same, their engagement window drops to barely ten minutes. And frankly, when they see what we've got for them, I doubt very much that they're going to want to close any more heroically than they have to in order to look good in their after-action reports."
   "You're probably right." Malone gazed down at his display for several more seconds, then nodded. "All right, Aristides. You're the lead element for this attack, so you call it for the run in. The rest of the task force will conform to your movements."
   "Thank you, Sir," Trikoupis said, and nodded to his ops officer. "You heard the man, Adam. Let's do it."
* * *
   "Citizen Admiral, we're beginning to pick up something on two of the drones," Citizen Lieutenant Commander Okamura reported. Groenewold looked up quickly from a side discussion with Citizen Commander Bhadressa, and Okamura frowned. "We're not sure what it is, Citizen Admiral. Their EW is obviously playing tricks on the drones, and even our position fix isn't all that positive, but it looks like they're coming in from starboard and high. If CIC's target track is accurate, they'll close to about six million klicks fifty-two minutes from now. Assuming constant accelerations, the range will start to open again almost immediately at that point."
   "Any idea at all what it could be?"
   "CIC says it looks like a couple of ships of the wall, Citizen Admiral."
   "I see."
   Groenewold frowned into his plot as the icons of the new contact — assuming it was a real contact and not just a case of sensor ghosts — appeared. He sensed someone beside him and glanced up to find Citizen Commissioner O'Faolain at his side.
   "What to do you think it is, Citizen Admiral?" she asked quietly.
   "Could be a lot of things, Citizen Commissioner, but I don't think it's Diamato's LACs. If Fugimori's vectors are right, whatever it is obviously doesn't want to get any closer than extreme missile range, and that doesn't sound like LACs with big, nasty energy weapons. They'd want to close, get into knife range and hit us hard."
   "Could the capital ships be planning to support a close-in LAC attack with long-range missile strikes?" O'Faolain asked, and Groenewold looked at her with respect.
   "It's certainly possible, Ma'am. But, again, I don't think it's what's happening. If they were going to commit to a LAC strike, it would probably indicate they meant to mount a serious defense of the system. In that case, their SD element shouldn't be on a vector that would make it all but impossible for them to stay in range if we break off sharply. They'd want to bring it in closer to their LACs and keep it in engagement range to cover the close-in strike." He shook his head. "No, I think those are SDs with missile pods out there. If NavInt was right about Manty forces in this area, there can't be more than six to eight of them, though, and their pods aren't good enough to even the odds against the greater number we have on tow. If these people want to close into missile range of us, they're dead meat.".
* * *
   "All right, Adam. Let's start rolling pods," Rear Admiral Trikoupis said, and Commander Towson nodded.
   "You heard the Admiral," he said, his Grayson accent just a bit crisper than usual as he turned to his assistants. "Plan Bravo Three. Execute now."
   Responses came back, and Trikoupis watched his repeater. A sparkle of diamond dust began to decorate it, each small cluster of gems a clutch of missile pods. They weren't launching yet. Instead, each cluster of pods went spilling out astern of one of the missile superdreadnoughts' wedges to be grabbed by the tractors of one or more of her consorts. With a Harrington along, a task force commander could accelerate at his maximum rate, without worrying about towed pods' drag on his compensators, because he could deploy any pods he needed from the missile ships just before the action opened.
   As Trikoupis watched, HMS Belisarius replenished the EW drones. There were only four of them, each pretending to be a superdreadnought trying unsuccessfully to hide under stealth, and Trikoupis smiled as he looked at them. Some might have assumed those four false SDs were there in an effort to bluff the Peeps into breaking off, but they were there for a very different purpose, and he wished he could have deployed even more of them. Unfortunately, four were all they could fit into their intended deception.
   Trikoupis watched the sprays of light a moment longer, reassuring himself that each pod's intended recipient was spearing her charges with her tractors as planned, and then looked back at the Peep formation. The enemy clearly had a hard fix on at least some of the picket force, and he was altering course to close with it. But Admiral Malone was also altering course, holding the range open, and it would be some minutes yet before anyone was in range for a normal missile exchange. Of course, the Peeps were in range of Trikoupis' missiles now, but he was under strict orders not to demonstrate the enormous reach advantage of the Ghost Rider birds.
   But that was all right. The goodies from Ghost Rider he was allowed to play with today would make the missile exchange far less profitable for the Peeps than they could possibly anticipate... assuming they worked as well in action as they had in the exercises. And given what he'd surmised about the strategy Admiral Caparelli and High Admiral Matthews had put together, losing control of Elric would probably be a good thing, in the long run... and as long as the Peeps didn't take it too cheaply. Which they wouldn't, he thought grimly. He didn't know how many of Malone's ships the Peeps might have spotted, but his own tactical people had iron locks on the Peep SDs. The ones their onboard sensors couldn't see had been plucked from concealment by the improved recon drones which were also part of the Ghost Rider cornucopia. Those people were naked to his fire control solutions, and that changed them from warships into targets.
   Hmmmm... The more he studied that formation, the more it looked downright Manticoran. That was unpleasant. Closing up on one another that way gave each unit a much more restricted maneuver envelope when it came to rolling ship against incoming missile fire. There was simply less room — a lot less room — for the edges of their impeller wedges to clear one another. But it also brought them in closer under one another's point defense umbrellas, and the formation was tight enough that if the enemy managed to roll it simultaneously, its wedges would form a huge picket fence. Some missiles would penetrate the gaps between pickets, but not very many. Even a missile's wedge would be too wide to fit through the openings between the ships's wedges unless it hit at precisely the correct angle, which could only be the result of pure good luck. And any wedge that didn't clear the vastly stronger wedges of its targets would blow immediately, vaporizing the missile which had generated it in the process.
   Still, there was something a little odd about the intervals. No, not the intervals. About the relative attitudes of the superdreadnoughts at the center of the formation.
   "Have you taken a close look at the intervals in their wall, Adam?" he asked Towson, and the Grayson commander looked at him with raised eyebrows.
   "What about them, Sir?"
   "Look at the way they've got their units staggered," Trikoupis suggested, tapping keys to highlight selected units. "See the center of the wall? It actually extends out to starboard, almost like a cone with the closed end pointed straight at right angles to us. The vertical separation is the same for the ships in the cone as for any of the rest of their formation, but they're definitely extended perpendicular to our approach vector."
   "I see what you mean, Sir," Towson replied, but his voice was puzzled. "I don't think I understand it, though. It may help their sensor efficiency a little bit by clearing the interference of the ships between them and us, but it won't give them any advantage once they turn away to open their broadsides. In fact, it actually hurts their tactical flexibility, now that I think about it. With those ships pushed out to their port and our starboard that way, they don't have any choice but to turn to their starboard to bring their broadsides to bear. Swinging the other way would mask the fire of several of the units in the cone."
   "I'd think so," Trikoupis agreed, his tone thoughtful. "But that formation is far too tight for it to be an accident or something they just strayed into. That means whoever's in command over there has a reason for it."
   "But what kind of reason, Sir?"
   "I don't know," Trikoupis said slowly, but then his tone firmed up. "Unless—" He pondered for another few seconds, then nodded. "I think that may be the first effort to develop a new anti-LAC doctrine."
   "Anti-LAC?" Towson looked back at his own plot. "I suppose that could be it, Sir."
   "Frankly, I've been a bit surprised we haven't seen something like it before this," Trikoupis said. "Given what happened at Hancock, I'd be terrified of the new LAC classes in their place. I'd assumed the absence of any apparent precautions against them in engagements since Hancock meant they'd taken such heavy losses there that they genuinely didn't know what happened to them. But now..."
   "I can see some advantages, if that's what they're doing," Towson agreed. "It brings the sensors of the displaced ships clear of the fore-and-aft interference of their consorts, on one side of the wall, at least. And look at their screen, Sir." The tac officer touched a control, and the Peep battlecruisers and cruisers blinked brighter. "See how they have the bulk of them pulled further back and spread further to the sides? Spreading them that wide has to hurt their mutual support capability, and it cuts down on the screen's ability to support the wall's point defense, but look at the way it expands their sensor envelope to the flanks and rear. And it extends their total missile envelope, too. They can't get as much density at any given locus, but they can put at least some missiles into a much wider volume. That might make sense if they were hoping to pick LACs up early and then lay fire down on them while they close."
   The tac officer frowned and scratched meditatively at an earlobe.
   "Assuming you're right and it's an attempt to come up with an effective anti-LAC screen, though, Sir, why bulge out the heavy ships on only one flank? It gives them better sensor coverage, and probably more effective missile fire, on that side of the wall, but it doesn't do a thing on the other."
   "I don't know," Trikoupis admitted. "My best guess would be that they still don't feel confident enough of their ship-handling skills. If they have to reform on a radically different axis, just bulging one side will give them problems enough. Displacing the wall's plane on both sides at once?" He shook his head. "I'd hate to try that with Grayson or Manty units. No, I think what this represents is a compromise between what they'd really like to do and what they realistically believe they can do. Which only makes me respect whoever came up with the idea more. It must have been tempting to try to squeeze in every possible refinement, and he was smart enough to settle for what he figured would work rather than risk losing it all by trying for too much too soon."
   "I see what you mean. On the other hand, it's going to hurt them once the actual missile exchange begins. Unless they tighten up again between then and now, of course."
   "I don't think they're going to. If they were, they'd already have— Look! They're altering to port now."
   Towson nodded but did not reply to his admiral directly. He was too busy passing instructions over his tactical net, and Trikoupis left him to it. At this point, there was very little an admiral could do to influence the outcome. The training, planning, deployments, and opening maneuvers were all behind, the options for both sides stark and simple, defined by the closing range and the numbers of missiles on either side, and Rear Admiral Trikoupis and Admiral Malone were little more than high-ranking spectators while they relied upon their subordinates to get things right.
   Towson was right about how that unorthodox formation was going to affect the Peeps' point defense, Trikoupis reflected. It pushed the displaced ships closer to the Allied formation as the two walls altered heading to clear their broadsides. In so doing, it both made them easier targets and gave their more distant consorts' point defense poorer firing angles to help cover them. But it was a marginal difference, and Trikoupis felt another moment of respect for whoever had come up with the idea. The ideal time for LACs to jump a wall would be when their own capital ships were punching missiles into it. The incoming fire would confuse the enemy's tracking data and, more importantly, force his tac officers to decide whether to fire their close-in defensive weapons at LACs or missiles. Which meant it was just as critical to keep an eye out for stealthed LACs now, and that was precisely what the Peeps were doing.
   "We're coming up on our firing bearing now, Sir!"
   "Engage as instructed, Commander," Trikoupis said formally for the record.
* * *
   "Their acceleration's stopped dropping, Citizen Admiral," Okamura reported. "It's holding steady at five hundred and ten gees. Call it five KPS squared."
   "Um." Citizen Vice Admiral Groenewold plucked at his lower lip. Allowing for the apparent efficiency of the Manties' new inertial compensators, that was about right for an SD with pods deployed outside her wedge. So if the Manties were dropping their accel now, that would indicate they were, indeed, deploying their pods. But it also meant none of their light units had full pod loads. They couldn't have, because, unlike superdreadnoughts, they lacked the tractor capacity and room to tow full loads inside their wedges, which meant they couldn't have stayed with the ships of the wall on the approach run. And since Tactical reported that his ships of the wall outnumbered the Manties by almost three to one and his screening elements were towing full pod loads, it looked like things were about to get messy for the Manty CO.
   But he has to know that as well as I do, which means either he's an idiot — which they've proven is possible but still seems pretty unlikely — or else he figures he's got an edge to compensate for his missile inferiority. Which means we may just see Diamato's LACs popping out of stealth any time now.
   "Pass the word to the screen. I want an even closer scan watch. If they've got some sort of `super LAC,' this is the time I'd be producing it against us."
* * *
   "Coming up on firing position... now!" Adam Towson snapped, and the Elric picket force flushed its pods.
   All of its pods... including the full loads that had been passed to every single ship of the screen by Isaiah MacKenzie, Edward Esterhaus, and Belisarius. Between them, the three SD(P)s were also able to deploy enough additional pods to account for the four extra "superdreadnoughts" on the Peeps' tracking displays, and their crews rolled the extras off the internal rails with glee.
   The Allied chiefs of staff had been firm in their instructions: the new ships were not to go about flaunting their ability to roll waves of pods from their hollow-cored central magazines. If the Peeps didn't know about them yet, this was not the time to alert the enemy to their existence. But that didn't mean they couldn't pass those same pods on to their consorts. The Peeps' point defense tracks would amply demonstrate that the incoming fire had originated with the units actually towing the missiles at the moment they launched. What it wouldn't tell them was that all of those missiles were under the fine-meshed, carefully honed fire control of GNS Isaiah MacKenzie, with her two division mates poised to assist if they were needed.
   Admiral Malone had five superdreadnoughts, sixteen battlecruisers, ten heavy cruisers, twelve light cruisers, eight destroyers... and four electronic warfare drones. When BatDiv 62 finished distributing its gifts, those ships (and drones) had a total of four hundred and four pods, each containing ten missiles. Adding the internal launchers brought the total number of missiles in that first, massive salvo up to forty-nine hundred.
   It could have been higher still, but BatDiv 62's internal launchers were busy firing something besides shipkillers. They were firing more electronic warfare drones that took station on the formation and began to thresh the Peeps' targeting systems with jamming, and others that took on the appearance of more superdreadnoughts, more battlecruisers, more heavy cruisers, all beckoning to the Peep's sensors.
   Such decoys had always been available, but only in limited numbers. The power required to sustain a convincing false sensor image of a warship in engagement range was so high that a drone required direct power transmission from the ship it was protecting. That meant standard practice had always been to deploy decoys only on tractors and in low numbers. But the same technology which had provided the power plants for the RMN's FTL recon drones had been brought to bear on the decoy problem by the R&D types responsible for Project Ghost Rider, and the result — one of the results — was a completely independent unit with an endurance of up to twenty minutes from internal power alone, depending on the strength of the sensor image it had to duplicate. And one that could be fired from one of the new capital missile tubes, at that. Now BatDiv 62's internal launchers went to rapid fire, spewing them out, multiplying the Peeps' targets catastrophically with each broadside.
   Rear Admiral Aristides Trikoupis felt his lips skin back in a cold, predatory grin as his plot blossomed with waves of false targets.
   It was not, he thought, going to be pleasant afternoon in Elric for the Peeps.
* * *
   "Holy Mother of God!" someone whispered. BJ Groenewold wasn't certain who it had been, but whoever it was had summed up his own emotions quite well.
   The Manties couldn't have fired that many missiles at him, not with the approach accelerations his tac teams had monitored! It simply wasn't possible.
   But it had happened, and he felt a ball of ice in his belly as the avalanche of fire soared towards his own force. Okamura had to be just as stunned as he was, but the tac officer wasn't letting it rattle him, and despite his disbelief, Groenewold was pleased with the citizen commander's self-control. Manticoran fire control and missile sensors were better than the People's Navy's. To compensate, Okamura was holding his own launch, refining his firing solutions up to the very last moment. He had to get his birds off before any of the incoming got close enough to target his own pods or score proximity soft kills on them, but every second he waited improved his hit percentages by a small yet possibly significant amount. Given his druthers, Groenewold would have launched at the very edge of the missile envelope, but Manticoran EW was too good for that. It had been impossible to get hard locks at that range, and having come this deep into the enemy's envelope, neither Okamura nor Groenewold had any intention of launching with less than the very best solutions they could generate.
   Okamura gave his displays one final glance, then grunted in satisfaction.
   "Launch," he said, and TF 12.3's missile pods belched return fire. The missiles streaked out, charging towards their meager number of targets, and—
   The plot shifted again, and Groenewold's jaw tightened at the sudden, ridiculous increase in targets. He swore, silently but bitterly and with feeling, as the tide of false target sources danced and capered. He'd never seen so few ships produce so many decoys, and even as he watched, the plot began to fuzz with strobes of jamming far more powerful and widespread than anything Groenewold had ever seen before.
   TF 12.3's thirty-five superdreadnoughts and their escorts had over eight hundred pods on tow, with twelve missiles per pod. The salvo it had produced had more than thirteen thousand missiles in it, nearly three times the weight of incoming fire, and ought to have been able to achieve a far heavier concentration on the much smaller number of targets which faced it. By any rational prebattle calculation, even allowing for the acknowledged superiority of Manticoran missiles and fire control, the result should have been the virtual extermination of the Elric picket force.
   But that would have been before the People's Navy had met Project Ghost Rider, and BJ Groenewold — who had done everything right — was about to discover just how wrong his calculations had been.
* * *
   "Initial tracks look very good, Sir," Commander Towson reported. "Telemetry from the birds indicates half already have internal lock."
   "Very good, Adam!" Trikoupis allowed himself a full-fledged smile. Another of Ghost Rider's gifts had been an increase of almost eighteen percent in the sensitivity of the new capital missiles' onboard seekers, coupled with almost as great an increase in their onboard computers' ability to discriminate between genuine and false targets. R&D was still working on enhancing both those areas — a practical necessity, once the Fleet was allowed to begin using the full, extended range of the new missiles — but what they had now was already showing marked dividends. Izzie and her sisters were able to hand off from shipboard to missile fire control much sooner, which let them spend longer on the more difficult targeting solutions and should substantially increase the percentage of hits.
* * *
   Range at launch was six-and-a-half million kilometers, with a closing speed of three hundred and twenty kilometers per second, which gave TF 12.3's missiles a nominal flight time of a hundred and seventy-two seconds. Terminal velocity would be just over 75,700 KPS, and Citizen Vice Admiral Groenewold's birds would have a bare eight seconds left on their drives for terminal attack maneuvers. At their attack velocity, eight seconds ought to be enough... assuming the active defenses didn't zap them all short of their laser heads' 30,000-kilometer stand-off range. Of course, Manty missiles had marginally higher accelerations. Flight time for their birds would be ten seconds shorter, giving them even more time for attack maneuvers and a terminal velocity over two thousand KPS higher, but Groenewold had no choice but to accept the disadvantage.
   Had he and his captains known it, even at those numbers, the performance of Vice Admiral Malone's missiles had been deliberately degraded. The new multiple-drive missiles Ghost Rider had produced could have made the entire attack run at 96,000 gravities rather than stepping down to the 47,520 KPS² at which they actually bored in. At that acceleration, they would have made the crossing in barely a hundred and eighteen seconds and come in with a terminal velocity of over 110,000 KPS... and well over a minute left for terminal maneuvers. At that velocity, and with that much time on their clocks, they would have slashed through TF 12.3 like thunderbolts, but the Alliance high command had decided those capabilities were also to be held in reserve.
   Still, what TF 12.3 actually got was bad enough. Every fifth missile in that massive salvo was either a jammer or a decoy pretending to be an entire pod's worth of missiles all by itself. Both sides had used jammers and electronic warfare birds before, of course. It was routine. But the People's Navy had never imagined EW missiles with so much power to burn, and the raw ferocity of the jamming and the blazing strength of the decoys' false signatures surpassed anything Groenewold or Okamura could possibly have anticipated. Their point defense was less than half as efficient as it ought to have been, and the incoming missiles obviously had far better seekers than anything the Manties had previously employed.
   The Elric picket had launched fifty seconds ahead of TF 12.3, and its missiles reached their targets over a full minute before Groenewold's began their own final attack maneuvers. Countermissiles sped desperately to meet them, and Groenewold watched in disbelief as countermissile after countermissile was sucked off by the decoys or blinded by the jammers. The last-ditch laser clusters opened fire, spitting coherent light at the oncoming laser heads, but they, too, suffered from the jamming and spent all too much of their effort engaging harmless decoys. Barely twenty percent of the incoming were picked off by the missiles, and the laser clusters got only another eighteen percent.
   And then twenty-four hundred Allied laser heads detonated almost as one, and a massive tide of destruction broke over Task Force 12.3.
   Every single one of those missiles had been fired at a mere five ships, and the chosen victims staggered in agony as almost five hundred missiles attacked each of them. Superdreadnoughts were tough almost beyond comprehension. Even capital ship missiles were seldom capable of doing truly critical damage against their massive armor and powerful active and passive defenses. They could be killed with missiles, certainly, but normally only as part of a long, painful pounding match in which they were literally battered to bits one centimeter at a time.
   The reintroduction of the missile pod and the enhanced lethality of its missiles had not changed that calculation. It still took scores — or hundreds — of individual hits to kill any SD, but the long, brutal pounding matches were no longer required to put those missiles on target. Now it could be done in a single broadside, and Task Force 12.3 writhed at the heart of a vortex of bomb-pumped lasers. No one would ever know how many hundreds of individual lasers wasted themselves uselessly on the impenetrable gravity bands of their targets' impeller wedges, or how many more were twisted aside at the last minute by the sidewalls shielding their victims' flanks. For that matter, no one would ever know exactly how many lasers actually got through to their targets' hulls.
   And it didn't matter. One moment TF 12.3 had a solid core of thirty-five ships of the wall; a moment later, it had thirty-one. The terrible glare of failing fusion bottles lit the heart of the Havenite formation, lighting the graves of what had been multimegaton superdreadnoughts mere seconds before, and there were no survivors at all from any of Rear Admiral Trikoupis' targets. Twenty-five thousand men and women died in those incandescent pyres, and among them was Citizen Vice Admiral BJ Groenewold, who had prepared his task force against every threat he could imagine, only to encounter one only a psychic could have anticipated.
* * *
   Aristides Trikoupis watched his victims vanish from his plot, and then it was the turn of the Peeps' missiles. There were far too many of them for the outnumbered picket force's active defenses to destroy, but Ghost Rider's children were waiting, and his eyes flashed with triumph as missile after missile veered off to engage one of the decoys, or wandered suddenly aside, blinded by jamming, or simply streaked straight past, unable even to see its intended target through the warships' own jamming and the remote Ghost Rider platforms. Of the thirteen thousand missiles sent back at the picket, over ten thousand were spoofed or blinded. Two or three thousand of those streaked in to obliterate the four EW drones masquerading as additional superdreadnoughts, and the three thousand which actually attacked genuine targets were spread over every ship in the picket. Given the sheer number of incoming missiles, that had actually made sense, since that weight of fire was certain to overload the active defenses. All the Peeps had really needed to do was lame or cripple the ships of Admiral Malone's command, leaving them unable to accelerate clear and escape the follow-up attacks of the far more numerous raiding force, and that should have been relatively simple once the active defenses were suppressed and beaten down.