"I won't do it," Mueller told him. "I don't share your confidence in your ability to recover the recorders, in the first place. And in the second, I can't risk being caught up in such a scheme. As you say, I am the leader of the Opposition. Can't you see how disastrous it would be — not simply for me, but for all of us who oppose the systematic destruction of our way of life — if Planetary Security were to find listening devices hidden in `gifts' which I, personally, had given to the Queen of Manticore and her Prime Minister? Tester, man! It would destroy my credibility, and that of the entire Opposition with it!" He shook his head firmly. "No. Not for something as speculative as rumors about possible plans being suggested by the Chancellor to the Protector."
   "The chance of detection is minute, My Lord," Baird replied, apparently unmoved by his vehemence. "The recording devices have been constructed using the best molecular circuitry, and since they'll be completely passive, aside from the location beacons, which must be activated by an encrypted external signal, there will be no emissions to draw attention to them. Besides, memory stones are religious objects. Even infidels like the Manticorans will be forced to treat them with due respect lest they anger the very people they want to seduce into joining their Star Kingdom. And they'll be gifts from one of the most prominent and respected steadholders on Grayson. Why in the world would they be suspicious of such a gift in the first place?"
   "No, I tell you! The potential return doesn't even come close to justifying the risk you're asking me to run!"
   "I'm sorry you feel that way, My Lord. I'm afraid, however, that I must insist."
   "Insist?" Mueller half-rose, and Higgins stepped forward behind him, but neither Baird nor Kennedy as much as turned a hair.
   "Insist," Baird repeated, his tone cool but inflexible.
   "This conversation is over," Mueller grated. "And if you insist on issuing such absurd demands, then so is our entire relationship! I am not accustomed to being dictated to, and I will not risk all I've striven for years to accomplish on your... your whim!"
   "It is not a whim. And you have no choice, My Lord," Baird told him.
   "Get out!" Mueller snapped, and gestured to Higgins. The corporal started forward, then stopped, more in shock than in fear, as Kennedy produced a small pulser and aimed it at his chest.
   "Are you mad?" Mueller demanded, as shocked as his armsman and far too furious to feel frightened. "Don't you know the penalty for bringing a weapon into a steadholder's presence?!"
   "Of course we do," Baird replied. "We refuse, however, to allow ourselves to be murdered as Steve Hughes was."
   "What?" Mueller blinked at the complete non sequitur.
   "Nicely done, My Lord, but your apparent surprise can't deceive us. We know you had Hughes murdered, just as we know why. I'll admit we were surprised you should do so in such a clumsy manner. Surely you knew that `failed robbery' wouldn't fool us! But it wasn't totally unexpected."
   "What are you talking about?" Mueller demanded. "He was my own armsman! Why in the Tester's name would I want him killed?"
   "It would be much simpler if you'd stop pretending so we could get back to the business at hand, My Lord," Baird said wearily. "We were under no illusions about your trustworthiness before, or we would never have placed Hughes in your service. And while some of our people were outraged by his murder, the rest of us had anticipated the possibility all along. As he did, when he volunteered. But that doesn't mean we can no longer work together... as long as you remember that we know exactly the sort of man with whom we're actually dealing."
   "You placed Hughes in my service?" Mueller stared at Baird for a moment, then shook his head. "That's a lie! Some sort of clumsy trick! And even if it weren't, I never ordered anyone to kill him, you lunatic!"
   "My Lord, you're the only one who could possibly have had a motive," Baird said with an air of weary patience.
   "What motive?" Mueller half-roared, and Baird sighed.
   "When you discovered he was secretly recording every one of my conversations with you, you must have realized who he was working for." He shook his head. "Whatever else you may be, you're an intelligent man, My Lord. Must I really draw you a detailed picture of our logic?"
   "Recording?" Mueller parroted. The other man's calm assurance gnawed away at the armor of the steadholder's rage, and he sagged back into his chair, staring at the men he'd been so confident he could effortlessly dominate.
   "Of course." Baird allowed a hint of asperity to creep into his own voice for the first time. "Really, My Lord! Why do you insist on pretending this way?" He shook his head again, then shrugged. "But if you insist, we'll give you proof. Brian?"
   Kennedy reached into his tunic once more, without ever letting his pulser's muzzle waver from Higgins, and tossed Baird a tiny holo projector. The older man held it on his palm and punched the play command, and Mueller swallowed as he saw the interior of his study, right here in Mueller House, while he and Baird discussed illegal contributions and the names of those through whom they could be routed.
   Baird allowed it to play for several seconds, then switched it off once more and slipped it into his own pocket.
   "You waited too long to murder him, My Lord. We have his recordings of every earlier meeting with you. I feel confident the Sword would be more than interested in proof of your illegal activities."
   "You wouldn't dare!" Mueller snapped, but his mind reeled. He had no idea who'd actually killed Hughes, and the enormity of the dead sergeant's betrayal was stunning, but the recording was obvious proof the armsman had really been working for Baird's organization from the very beginning.
   "Why not?" Baird asked calmly.
   "Because you're just as guilty of any crimes as I might be!"
   "First, My Lord," Baird said very precisely, "that presupposes that these are the only crimes of which we have evidence. In fact, they're not, nor was Hughes the only agent we've planted in... strategic spots, shall we say?" Mueller swallowed, and Baird smiled faintly. "We've been keeping an eye on you for quite some time. We're well aware of your activities and alliances — all of them, My Lord, from the beginning of your resistance to the `Mayhew Restoration.' I trust you'll forgive me if I don't provide matching documentation of them right this moment, however. In this case—" he tapped the pocket which held the projector "—you obviously already identified and murdered our agent. We have no intention of giving you anything which might suggest the identities of our other agents to you. But we would have no compunction about sharing that information with the Sword if you forced our hand.
   "Secondly, you assume we'd be afraid to admit our own complicity in your illegal campaign financing schemes." Baird allowed himself a small, cold smile. "Those schemes are the least of your worries, My Lord... and the greatest of ours. We have far less to lose than you even if we're arrested right alongside you. Which, by the way, would be rather more difficult for the Sword to accomplish than you appear to think. Surely you must realize that Mr. Kennedy and I have constructed in-depth covers rather than meet you under our own names and identities! Moreover, neither of us has ever appeared in Planetary Security's files. We have no records, and Security has no place to start in hunting us down. You, on the other hand, are just a little too prominent to elude their net, I think. And, finally, My Lord, we, unlike you, are truly ready to face arrest, trial, even conviction. If that should be our Test for serving God's will, then so be it."
   Mueller swallowed again, harder. How long had they been spying on him? From Baird's total confidence, it had to have been a long time. Even — the steadholder shuddered — long enough for them to have picked up some scrap of evidence linking him to Burdette and the murder of Reverend Hanks. That certainly seemed to be what Baird was implying, and it would justify the other man's obvious assurance and confidence. If there was even the faintest possibility they could connect him to Burdette's treason...
   "I did not have Hughes killed," he said firmly. "As for the rest of it, any `crimes' I may or may not have committed were in the name of all of Grayson and of God Himself."
   "I haven't said otherwise, My Lord," Baird said mildly. "Honesty requires me to say that I believe ambition has played a part in your actions, but only God can know what truly lies within any man's heart, and I might well be wrong. But the fact remains that however justified your actions may be in the Tester's eyes, in the eyes of the Sword, they remain crimes. Serious crimes, I fear, to which serious penalties attach."
   "You're mad," Mueller said. "Think about what you're doing, man! Are you really willing to throw away all we've already accomplished this way?"
   "We have no desire to throw anything away," Baird said in that same mild tone. "We see no reason we can't continue to cooperate in the future as in the past, unless you foolishly force us to hand our information to the Sword. And before you ask, My Lord, yes. We do think securing proof of the Protector's annexation plans justifies the risk that you might force us to do just that. Besides—" Baird allowed himself a thin smile "—some of us believe the public furor which would be generated by going public with our evidence would actually give us the platform we require to force the steaders of Grayson to recognize what the Sword truly intends. In which case—" he shrugged "—we accomplish as much as we could hope to accomplish with the recordings we need your help to obtain."
   Mueller sat motionless, staring at the other man, and his heart was a stone. Baird meant it, he realized sickly. He and his allies were genuinely ready to throw away everything, including the life and future of Samuel Mueller, on the off chance that their recording devices could be smuggled past Planetary Security and the Manticorans, capture something incriminating, and be recovered in a deep-space interception afterward. And the fact that they were insane to even contemplate such an operation meant nothing. They had the blackmail evidence to force him to go along with them.
   At least they're only recorders, he told himself, trying to pretend he didn't know he was grasping at straws. Even if they're found, and tied to me, all the Sword would have would be an attempt to obtain privileged information. That's serious, but nowhere near evidence of complicity in murder! And I am a steadholder. And the leader of the Opposition. Under the circumstances, they probably wouldn't even want to go public with the charges.
   The man who called himself Anthony Baird gazed into Samuel Mueller's eyes and watched the defiance run out of them like water.
* * *
   "Thank Tester, he actually fell for it."
   "Why, `Brian,' " James Shackleton said, his voice gently mocking. "How could you possibly have doubted me?"
   "I didn't doubt you, Jim. I just had trouble believing he'd cave in with so little proof we had the goods on him." Angus Stone, whom Samuel Mueller knew as Brian Kennedy, shook his head.
   " `The guilty flee where no man pursueth,' " Shackleton quoted. "The only real question was whether or not Hughes was actually working for him. That was always a possibility... up until we got our hands on that camera button. Hughes must have been on his way to deliver it to someone else. If he'd been working for Mueller, he would've handed it over before he left Mueller House that night. And we were lucky there were several days worth of imagery stored on the chip. If Mueller'd insisted on more proof, we could have shown him some of that footage without starting him wondering why the only evidence we had was recorded the night Hughes died." Shackleton shrugged. "Once we convinced him we had any evidence, his reaction was completely predictable, Angus. After all, he had to be guilty of things we didn't know a thing about."
   "Um." Stone leaned back in the passenger seat of the air car, gazing out at the night sky, and frowned. "I wish we knew who Hughes had been working for."
   "If it wasn't us, and it wasn't Mueller, then it almost has to have been Planetary Security," Baird said equably, "though I suppose it might be one of his fellow Keys. From all I've heard, Harrington would certainly be capable of taking direct action against him if she suspected the sort of action he was contemplating against her or Benjamin. It doesn't really matter in either case, though. The man's been dead for months. If whoever he was working for felt they had sufficient evidence to nail Mueller, they would certainly have acted by now. And if they don't have sufficient evidence to charge him, then they have no choice but to pretend nothing's happened at all."
   "And do you really think this is going to work?" Stone asked much more quietly.
   "Yes, I do," Shackleton replied, his own eyes on the instrument panel. "I wasn't especially confident to begin with. The whole thing seemed like such an outside shot that I was afraid to let myself hope for too much. But whatever anyone may suspect about Mueller, it would never cross Palace Security's mind that such a prominent member of the Keys would risk trying to plant electronic devices on the Protector's guests. If they do—" he shrugged "—all we lose is Mueller."
   "And the opportunity to strike."
   "And this opportunity to strike," Shackleton corrected. "And I don't think we will lose it. When Donizetti came through with the weapons, I began to think it might succeed. And when he came up with the molycircs for the memory stones as well—"
   He shrugged once more.
   "I only wish we weren't so reliant on Donizetti in the first place." Stone sighed.
   "He's an infidel and a mercenary," Shackleton agreed, "and I'm sure he's taken a bigger `commission' off the top than he says he has. But he's also managed to come up with everything we needed. Not as quickly as I might have wished, especially on the memory stones, but he got it all in the end, and we couldn't have done it without him. And the bottom line, Anson, is that we have to remember we're about God's work. He won't let us fail Him as long as we trust in His guidance and protection."
   "I know." Stone drew a deep breath and nodded. "This world is God's," he said softly, and Shackleton nodded back.
   "This world is God's," he promised.


   "We've got a solid lock, Skipper," Audrey Pyne announced, and Scotty Tremain nodded. According to ONI, the MacGregor System lacked the enormous passive arrays which could pick up hyper transits light-days and even further out. That was why the CLACs had made their hyper translation one full light-day out... and why Bad Penny and the rest of her silent brood had been slicing in-system for over two days.
   Their acceleration had been held down to a leisurely four hundred and fifty gravities to help the efficiency of their stealth systems. At that rate, it had taken them over sixteen hours just to accelerate to the eighty percent of light-speed their particle shielding could handle. Once they'd done that, they'd taken their wedges down entirely and simply coasted for twenty-one hours. They'd come swooping in out of the outer darkness at almost two hundred and forty thousand kilometers per second and blown right past the outer perimeter sensor platforms like hyper-velocity ghosts. The mid-system arrays had been a little trickier, and the destroyer screen had been trickiest of all, for they'd had to begin decelerating before they hit it, and even at a mere 4.127 KPS², they'd had to be careful about their EW. Their active sensor suites were down for the same reason, but the Ghost Rider teams had provided the LACs with their own FTL recon drones. Their drives had a very short endurance compared to the all-up drones, but Tremaine had deployed them hours ago and let their base acceleration carry them inward without any drive power at all. They'd come ghosting in even more stealthily than the LACs themselves, and their very weak, directional gravitic transmissions had told Bad Penny's passive sensors exactly where to look.
   "Have all our birds confirmed data receipt, Gene?" he asked now, and Lieutenant Eugene Nordbrandt, Bad Penny's com officer, nodded.
   "Aye, Skip. All ships report locked and ready to fire."
   "All right, then," Tremaine said, with a nod of his own. "Put Audrey on voice."
   "Me, Skip?" Pyne sounded surprised, and Tremaine grinned.
   "You're the tac officer who set this up, Ensign. The shot is yours to call."
   "Uh... yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir!"
   "Thank me if it works," Tremaine advised her, and looked back at Nordbrandt.
   "Ready, Gene?"
   "Live mike, Skipper," Nordbrandt confirmed, and Tremaine waved a hand at Pyne, who drew a deep breath.
   "All Hydras,Hydra One," she announced crisply into the mike. "Tango. I say again, tango, tango, tango!"
* * *
   Citizen Commodore Gianna Ryan sat in her tipped-back command chair on the flag deck of PNS Rene d'Aiguillon, legs crossed, and nursed a cup of coffee. The MacGregor System was fairly important to the PRH. It had long served as a sentinel for Barnett's northeastern flank, but it also boasted a robust economy. The system population was over two billion, and despite decades of bureaucratic management, it was one of the few systems in the Republic which continued to generate a positive revenue flow every year.
   Despite that, MacGregor had never received a genuine deep-space sensor net (the financially-strapped PRH was parsimonious about emplacing those anywhere), and its picket force had been steadily reduced over the last several years. The lengthy stalemate on the Barnett front after the fall of Trevor's Star helped explain a lot of that, but so did Citizen Secretary McQueen's decision to reinforce Barnett so heavily. The strength Citizen Admiral Theisman had received had made a flexible, nodal defense practical, and Ryan's job was not to try to stave off the Allied Hordes all by herself. Her job was to fend off raiding squadrons and serve as a distant early warning post. If the Manties came after her in strength, she was supposed to avoid action but remain in-system, shadowing and harassing the intruders, if possible, but staying the hell away from a serious fight while she screamed for help from Barnett.
   Unfortunately, she reflected as she sipped at her coffee, that had presupposed Theisman would be allowed to keep his reinforcements. A mere citizen commodore was not, of course, privy to the inner deliberations of the Octagon, but Ryan doubted Citizen Secretary McQueen could have been very happy about the need to take away so much of the strength she'd scraped up for Barnett. If the rumor mill was correct about Twelfth Fleet's successes down on the southern flank, it was unlikely the enemy was going to feel like showing any sudden activity on the Barnett front. Even so, depleting Theisman's strength was risky. MacGregor, along with the Owens, Mylar, and Slocum Systems, represented a valuable little cluster of prizes, and Barnett, at the center of the rough square they formed, was the lynchpin of their joint survival. Ryan was confident the PRH could survive even if it lost all four of them but as her staff intelligence officer had remarked the other day, "A system here, a system there... keep it up long enough, and pretty soon you're talking about some serious real estate, Citizen Commodore."
   Still, there'd been no sign of any—
   Alarms whooped, suddenly and savagely, and Gianna Ryan threw her coffee cup aside as she hurled herself out of her command chair. That was the proximity alarm!
   She spun to her dreadnought flagship's flag plot, and her heart seemed to stop as she saw the rash of angry red icons. There were hundreds of them... and they were less than eight million klicks out and closing at twenty-five thousand kilometers per second! How in God's name had even Manties gotten that close without a single one of her scanner arrays or starships spotting them?!
   There was no way to answer that question, and she leaned on the rail around the main plot, hands white-knuckled with the force of her grip, and watched disaster roar down on her command. Only her ready squadron of battlecruisers and the three squadrons of picket destroyers the Manties had somehow slipped right past had hot impeller nodes. All the rest were at standby, for she'd been confident no force big enough to pose a serious threat could slip through her sensor net, even with Manty stealth systems. But these Manties could, and at their current velocity, they'd be right on top of her two squadrons of dreadnoughts and battleships in five minutes... and they were already within missile range. Had been for at least a full minute, and—
   "Hostile launch! I have multiple hostile launches!" someone barked.
* * *
   Tremaine's Nineteenth Wing led the assault, and he watched his Ferrets salvo their shipkillers. A deadly swarm of missiles streaked towards the sitting targets of the main Peep force, and the crest of that wave of destruction was heavily seeded with Dazzlers and Dragons' Teeth, two more selections from the LACs' arsenal of Ghost Rider systems. The downsized versions which could be crammed into a LAC-sized missile were far less individually capable than the versions capital missiles could carry, but they were nastier than anything any LAC had ever been able to deploy before.
   The Dazzlers were an in-your-face, burn-out-your-sensors jammer of unprecedented power. They were burst emitters (no missile a LAC could carry could sustain such power loads for more than a few seconds), but before their EW warheads burned out, they produced savage strobes of jamming. They started going off like a cascade of prespace magnesium flares, beating down the fire control of any Peep ship which might manage to get her sensors on-line in the first place.
   The Dragons' Teeth came behind them, and Tremaine smiled nastily as they flashed to life. Personally, he thought they might be the nastiest offensive EW system the LACs had been given, for each missile was basically a powerful decoy. As it headed for the enemy, it made itself look like a Ferret's entire missile load, roaring down in a concentrated salvo which had to draw heavy countermissile fire. Which, of course, meant the same countermissiles couldn't go after the real shipkillers.
   Not that either Dazzlers or Dragons' Teeth were actually going to be necessary this time, he realized. A single battlecruiser squadron appeared to have its point defense on-line, and it looked as if a couple of its ships were far enough away, and alert enough, to get their wedges and sidewalls up before the missiles arrived. The remainder of the Peep picket force had been caught almost as flatfooted as Commodore Yeargin at Adler. And with far more justification, Tremaine thought, remembering the picketing destroyers his attack force had passed on its way in. Nothing larger than a LAC, and no LAC which had lacked the Shrikes' and Ferrets' EW, for that matter, could have penetrated that screen undetected, and he allowed himself a moment of sympathy for the Peep CO.
   But only a moment, for he had the Nineteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Wings under his command, and his missiles were in final acquisition. The Peeps had stopped less than three percent of his original launch, and the explosions began as twenty-seven hundred shipkillers speared into their formation.
* * *
   Citizen Commissioner Halket arrived on the flag deck just as the first missiles came in, but Ryan never even noticed him. Her attention was locked to the plot, and she heard one of her staff officers groan in horror as missiles began to detonate.
   They were small, the sort of missiles which might come from destroyers or light cruisers, and a corner of Ryan's mind nodded in bitter understanding. LACs. These had to be the Manty "super LACs" StateSec had assured one and all couldn't possibly exist. Well, they did exist, and they were about to rip the guts right out of her command.
   Under normal circumstances, such light laser heads would have posed no threat to dreadnoughts. They could have hurt battleships, though it was unlikely they could have killed even a battleship outright, and enough of them could have crippled a battlecruiser easily enough. But dreadnoughts were simply super dreadnoughts writ small, with the same massive armoring scheme and active and passive defensive systems. Those missiles ought to have been mere fleabites to such vessels.
   But the Manties had caught the deep-space equivalent of an anchored fleet. Her ships couldn't maneuver, their weapon systems were down, and the absence of wedges and sidewalls was fatal. The loss of their sidewalls was bad enough, but even that paled beside the consequences of their cold impeller nodes, for the wedges which should have protected their topsides and bellies were nonexistent. And the spine and belly of a ship of the wall was completely unarmored, because nothing could get to them to inflict damage in the first place... as long as its wedge was up. Which meant the designers could use all the mass devoted to its stupendous armor on its vulnerable flanks and even more vulnerable hammerheads.
   And not a single one of those Manty missiles showed the least interest in attacking any of Gianna Ryan's ship's sides or hammerheads.
* * *
   Tremaine's missiles streaked "across" and "under" the helpless Peep leviathans at ranges as short as five hundred kilometers, and as they crossed their targets, they detonated. Their lasers struck with lethal accuracy, knifing into hulls which might as well have been totally unarmored, and thin battle steel skins shattered under the transfer energy. Clouds of atmosphere and water vapor exploded from the hideous rents, and Tremaine's jaw clenched as he pictured the carnage aboard his targets. It was obvious no one had seen them coming, and that meant there'd been no time for the Peeps to set general quarters, evacuate atmosphere from the outer hull segments, insure internal hull integrity... get into their skin suits.
   A wave of flame marched through the Peep formation, tearing its ships apart. Three dreadnoughts, five battleships, and at least a dozen battlecruisers and cruisers died under its pounding. One of the ships of the wall completely vanished as one of her fusion bottles failed, and the others were beaten into wreckage. Life pods spilled from their flanks, but not very many of them, Tremaine noted grimly.
   Yet he had little attention to spare them. His Ferrets had expended their offensive missile loads. Under normal circumstances, it would have been time for them to break off and roll away from the Peeps. This time, though, they stayed tucked in tight, each Ferret squadron dropping back to form the apex of an inverted cone behind three squadrons of Shrike-Bs, as the entire formation smashed straight into the main Peep force.
   Now it was the Shrikes' turn. Their missile loads were lighter than the Ferrets' had been, but there were far more of them, and they'd deliberately reserved their fire when the Ferrets launched. Now orders flashed across the wing command nets, from Audrey Pyne and Eugene Nordbrandt, and fresh squadron salvoes began to launch. Those salvoes were more scattered than the original, massive assault, but they were targeted with merciless precision upon the mangled survivors of the first strike, and the Peeps' confusion was now complete.
* * *
   Gianna Ryan dragged herself back to her feet. Dust hung in the air, seasoned with the smell of burning insulation, and she scrubbed the back of her hand across her mouth. It came away smeared with blood from her mouth and nose, but she scarcely noticed. Her attention was on the catastrophe in her plot. She had no energy to waste wondering how d'Aiguillon's CIC had managed to keep the display up after the pounding her flagship had just taken, but they'd done it. Despite their best efforts there were entire dead quadrants, yet it scarcely mattered. She felt d'Aiguillon buck, shuddering again and again as still more lasers slammed into the big ship's vitals, and most of the rest of her capital ships were in even worse shape.
   Three of the ready duty battlecruisers, on the far side of her formation from the attacking LACs, had managed to get their wedges and walls on-line and even to roll ship before any missiles reached them. They, and the units of her so far unengaged destroyer screen, were the only relatively unscathed ships she still had, and she watched the battlecruisers accelerating out of their positions. Not that it was going to help them much. Even at maximum military power, they could never hope to stay with the Manties — not with the tremendous velocity advantage the LACs had brought with them. But at least they were accelerating to meet the enemy, she thought with forlorn pride, not simply panicking and trying to flee.
   "Com! Order the picket destroyers to get out of here!" she heard herself snap. "Tell them they have to warn the rest of the fleet about these new LACs!"
   "Aye, Citizen Commodore!"
   She never turned her head. She simply watched the plot, and wondered if her com section would have time to get the order out before the Manties killed them all.
* * *
   "Hydra Six, take the lead battlecruiser. Three and Five, you've got the trailers. All other squadrons, attack as previously briefed!"
   Lieutenant Commander Roden and the skippers of Tremaine's third and fifth squadrons acknowledged their orders and veered slightly away from the main axis of the attack. He'd chosen them because they were his most experienced squadrons... and because they'd had the sternwall Roden's crew had devised longer than any of the others. They'd had more time to drill with it, and they were the ones most likely to take fire from surviving enemy units as the strike overflew the Peep formation.
   Three hundred and twenty-four LACs, two hundred and fifty-two of them Shrike-Bs, slammed into the Peeps like the hammer of Thor. It was the opportunity of a LAC's lifetime, a virtually unopposed, energy-range run against capital ships who still didn't have wedges or sidewalls up, and the Shrikes' grasers began to fire. Dreadnoughts which had survived the missile storm staggered bodily as those impossible beams smashed into them. At least half the LACs were able to target their unarmored topsides and bellies, just as the missiles had... and with horrifically greater effect.
   Other LACs found themselves shouldered aside by the crowding. Deprived of equally prestigious targets, they vented their fury on battlecruisers, cruisers, and destroyers, and beams which could disembowel dreadnoughts tore lighter units to pieces. It was a massacre, a nightmare vortex of ships ripping apart in mighty spasms of destruction, dotting the night skies of the planet MacGregor with their eye-tearing pyres, and the Shrikes and Ferrets slashed through the heart of the inferno like demons.
   But it wasn't quite all one-sided, and Scotty Tremaine swore bitterly as he watched icons blink and flash on his plot. Even some of the ships which had been unable to bring their wedges up had managed to get at least a few of their weapons on-line. They were probably in local control and feeding only from the capacitor rings, but they struck back with the defiant gallantry of despair. Here and there a graser or laser got lucky and slammed its way through a LAC's sidewall or bow-wall. One actually scored a direct up-the-kilt hit on a Ferret that had its bow-wall, and not its sternwall, on-line.
   Two of Tremaine's strike died, then a third. A fourth. Three more flashed the amber of serious damage, but they were through the Peep formation and streaking away, safe from further harm while their crews fought to make emergency repairs.
   The three squadrons Tremaine had diverted to the battlecruisers swarmed over their massive foes, firing savagely. The sheer fury of their headlong attack seemed to touch them with invulnerability, and two of the Peep ships blew up in spectacular boils of light as raking graser shots slammed down the throats of their wedges and directly down their long axes. But the third survived, brutally wounded, probably dying, but still in action, and her commander wrenched his broken ship around, rolling his less-damaged broadside onto his attackers as they overflew him and receded rapidly into space's immensity.
   His fire ripped at them, and the sternwalls Roden and his crew had designed proved their worth as they bent and diverted the handful of shots which struck home.
   But even as relief began to flash through Tremaine, the single Peep battlecruiser got off one last broadside... and a single graser struck squarely on the grav eddy Horace Harkness had spotted so long ago.
   Her Majesty's Light Attack Craft Cutthroat exploded as violently as any of her victims had, spewing herself into the void like a fleeting nova, the only casualty of the three-squadron strike on the battlecruisers.
   There were no survivors.


   "You'd better talk to him, Tom. Someone has to, and I can't risk making him suspicious of me."
   "I see." Thomas Theisman gave his people's commissioner a long, cool look across the conference table. "So since we can't risk making him start to feel suspicious of you, we have to go ahead and make him more suspicious of me?"
   "Actually, yes." Denis LePic smiled crookedly. He'd gotten just as little rest as Theisman since their return to the capital, but the lines in his face were less deeply grooved, and there was actually a faint gleam of genuine humor in his eyes. "Face it, Tom. You're a regular. That means he's automatically suspicious as hell whenever you suggest something. At the same time, you're the man he picked to command Capital Fleet, and he hasn't un picked you, which suggests he distrusts you less than he does most regular officers. The fact that you've been so matter-of-fact about acknowledging that he has reasons to feel suspicious probably helps with that, and I think he actually respects you a bit for standing up to him over Graveson and MacAfee. But the main point is that the one thing we can't afford is for him to decide he has to replace me with some commissioner who'd be... less disposed to protecting your confidences, shall we say?"
   "Um." Theisman nodded, though his expression was sour. The problem was that Denis was right, and he knew it. Which meant he really had no choice but to yet again examine the backsides of the lion's teeth by poking his head down its throat.
   He sighed and scrubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, once more wishing Esther McQueen and Rob Pierre were still alive so he could strangle both of them with his bare hands. What in hell's name had those two idiots thought they were doing? To kill each other off and throw the PRH's entire command structure, civilian and military alike, into chaos at a moment like this?
   He lowered his hands and made himself step back from the useless rage. Not only were its objects safely beyond his reach, but it was unfair to blame them for the exact timing of the clash between their mutually homicidal ambitions. They hadn't had any way to know the Manties were about to unveil a quantum leap in interstellar warfare. And, truth to tell, the timing probably wouldn't matter in the end. If the reports from MacGregor, Mylar, Slocum, Owens, and — especially!—Barnett were accurate, nothing was going to matter, because the Fleet was screwed. And the Republic with it.
   His jaw tightened . He didn't like admitting that. In fact, his belly knotted every time he contemplated the Navy's helplessness. But there was no point pretending. The new Manty missiles were able to engage from far beyond any range at which the PN could return fire. On top of that, it was obvious now that the reports about their new EW hardware from Operation Scylla had, if anything, under stated its capabilities. Worst of all, or most demoralizing, at least, it appeared every one of Esther McQueen's fears about the much derided "super LACs" had been totally justified.
   Personally, Theisman suspected that the LACs were probably the one system the People's Navy had some hope of mastering, or at least offsetting. But the preliminary reports indicated that most of the survivors had actually found the LACs more psychologically devastating than the new missiles. The fleet little craft's maneuverability, high acceleration rates, massive short-range armament, and apparent near invulnerability to defensive fire were a completely new departure. Long-range missile duels had always been part of the naval mix, and especially in the last few years as both sides deployed the updated pod technology. The PN's personnel had been given time to adjust to that fact of life, and while they might intellectually recognize the threat of the Manticoran range advantage, it hadn't come at them completely cold, as it were. The LACs had, and word of the massacre of Citizen Commodore Ryan's picket force had sent a shudder of terror through the rest of the Navy. And, Theisman admitted, the thought of LACs which could actually kill ships of the wall, no matter how bizarre the circumstances which had made it possible, was terrifying. Such tiny, relatively inexpensive craft could be built in enormous numbers, and there were those who believed the Battle of MacGregor proved traditional capital ships had been rendered obsolete overnight.
   Theisman didn't think so. Ryan had been caught completely unprepared for the attack. That was hardly her fault, and Theisman was honest enough to admit that the same thing probably would have happened to him under the same circumstances. Certainly the defensive plan Alex Dimitri had ridden down in flames at Barnett had been the product of Theisman's own planning sessions, although that (fortunately, perhaps) seemed to have escaped Oscar Saint-Just's attention. But the burned hand taught best, and it was unlikely the Manties would be able to repeat MacGregor's devastating, close-in run on ships of the wall with cold nodes. Which meant they would be unable to get any more of those perfect, lethal shots against the unarmored portions of their targets' hulls, which meant, in turn, that dreadnoughts and superdreadnoughts would be as hard for them to kill in the future as they ought to have been at MacGregor. Besides, impressive as the new LACs were, enough old-fashioned light attack craft, operating purely defensively, should be able to considerably blunt their effectiveness. They couldn't possibly be as tough as the more panicky analysts suggested. Theisman was willing to concede that they obviously had something new in the way of sidewalls to go along with their EW, but it was also obvious that it had been possible to get through their defenses occasionally... and that they were no tougher than any other LAC when someone actually hit them. So if he could swamp them with old-style LACs and generate lots and lots of firing angles, he should be able to kill them. Or at least force them to operate far more circumspectly, which would be almost as good.
   But nothing the Navy had was going to offset the enormous range advantage of the new Manty missiles. Or their new rate of fire. Theisman might still be in the dark about how they'd achieved such a leap forward in range, but, unlike many of his fellow officers, he'd at least realized almost instantly how they must have managed to sustain such a heavy volume of fire. Of course, he'd had the advantage of long discussions with Warner Caslet about the citizen commander's sojourn aboard Honor Harrington's armed merchant cruiser in Silesia. Caslet had long since figured out how HMS Wayfarer must have been modified to produce the weight of missile fire he'd observed. It was unfortunate he and Shannon Foraker had been almost completely ignored by the people running the PRH's intelligence agencies on their return, though it had probably been inevitable, given the suspicion in which they were held over the loss of their ship and the fact that they had been prisoners of war, after all.
   But if the Manties could put some sort of pod-dispensing system inside a freighter, there was no reason they couldn't do the same thing with a superdreadnought, and if anyone had bothered to listen to Caslet and Foraker, the PN might actually have figured out how to do the same thing. He doubted it had been easy, and he shuddered at the thought of all the design and redesign studies which must have been involved in restructuring a ship of the wall's internal anatomy so completely. But difficult was hardly the same thing as impossible, and the payoff for their efforts had been a handsome one. Not only did their ships dramatically outrange the People's Navy, but their rate of fire was devastatingly superior, as well. Which meant no Republican commander was going to survive to get into effective range of a Manticoran fleet no matter what he did.
   He sighed and looked across at LePic once more. The war was lost. It seemed obvious the Manties didn't have a huge number of their new classes, but the reason for their quiescence had become painfully obvious the instant they cut loose at Dimitri. McQueen had been right — again. They'd been waiting until they could build up a decisive strength, and they'd done so. No doubt they'd be at least a little cautious, for they couldn't afford heavy losses among their new units, but they had enough, concentrated in one spot, or at least on one front, to smash anything the PN put in their way. The only thing that could prevent them from cutting their way right through to the Haven System itself, and that in a matter of months, not years, would be ammunition constraints. The new weapons had to be in short supply, just like the ships equipped to fire them, but Theisman doubted that anyone like White Haven had been stupid enough to launch his offensive without an ample reserve of the new missiles. And, much as he hated to admit it, they were actually using less of the new birds than they had of the old. Their standoff range should be (and probably was) lowering accuracy, but the new EW missiles and drones more than compensated for that by blinding the active defenses. Which meant far more hits were getting through on a per-missile basis.
   "We're screwed, Denis," he said now, quietly, admitting aloud what they both already knew. "I trust, however, that you don't expect me to put it to the Citizen Chairman in quite those terms, however."
   "I think that would be... um, inadvisable," LePic agreed with another of those weary smiles. "Maybe we can bring him around to accepting that after another month or so, assuming the Manties haven't arrived here in the capital and made the point for us by then, but for now, I think we have to concentrate on lesser matters. Maybe if we can talk some sense into him on smaller issues, he'll listen more closely when the time comes to tackle the greater ones."
   " `If we can talk some sense into him,' " Theisman repeated, then chuckled tiredly. "All right, Denis. I'll see what I can do," he promised.
* * *
   Oscar Saint-Just watched Citizen Admiral Theisman enter his office with eyes which were beginning to show the strain a bit too clearly for his own taste. He was unhappily aware that he was retreating into a bunker mentality, hunkering down as the entire galaxy prepared to come crashing down on his head. There was altogether too much desperation in his thinking of late, and he knew it was pushing him towards ever more excessive responses, but he couldn't help it. Which only made it even worse. That sense of sliding helplessly down into a pit of quicksand could either paralyze a man or drive him into a mad, senseless effort to lash out at the universe, however uselessly, before it killed him, and the strain of trying to steer a course between those two extremes was grinding away at his stability.