Commodore Santander gripped her command chair arms to still the tremble of her fingers, and her face was haunted. Fifty-three sleepless hours might explain her gaunt, hollowed cheeks, but not the ghosts behind her eyes.
A strange and terrible tension had invaded Defender's heart, and the viscous air shimmered with a vibration as eerie as it was indefinable. It wore away at tempers and fogged minds which sought to concentrate on vital tasks, and voices sounded tinny and unnatural, falling upon the ear with a peculiar brittleness—a sense of déjà vu, as if each sentence were an echo of something which had been said but a moment before.
She no longer tried to hide her fear. It would have been pointless, for her people all shared it, just as they shared her exhaustion. Worse, every one of them knew what she knew: the fate of the human race rested upon their shoulders . . . and they were failing.
"All right, Steve," she said, "how bad is it?"
"Bad, Ma'am," Onslow said heavily. His screen image's shoulders hunched against the exhaustion and strain trying to drag him under, and his sentences were short and choppy. "No one's ever been this high in the eta band. Our scanners are packing up; they can't make the shift over the theta wall. We tried linking with Dauntless, but her scanners are in even worse shape." He drew a ragged breath and rubbed his puffy eyes. "I can't lock in a good solution, Ma'am. I'm sorry."
Santander closed her eyes under the strain of a responsibility greater than any task force or fleet commander had ever faced. One she faced with but a single dreadnought and only one heavy cruiser.
Beyond the hull, Defender's translation field was a crackling corona, a crawling sheet of icy flame no human had ever seen before. The eta band was worse than anyone had thought, and conditions in its uppermost levels were indescribable. Humanity had no business in this haunted, curdled space, in these distorted dimensions where even time felt twisted and alien. But they were here, and all of her destroyers had died, absorbing missiles meant for Defender, to get them here.
She shook the thought aside, forcing her mind back to the task at hand. She had one MDM left—only one. The Kanga cruisers and the Grendel were as dead as her destroyers, but three heavy units remained . . . three targets for her single missile. They had expended most of their own MDMs on her destroyers, but her increasingly unreliable instruments could not tell her exactly how many they still had. It could be as few as two or as many as six—she simply didn't know. And the only way to find out, she thought grimly, was to offer her own ship as a target.
"All right," she said finally, "how close do we have to get under these . . . conditions?"
"Two hundred thousand kilometers, Ma'am." Onslow's mouth twisted with the bitter taste of his words, and she flinched inwardly. Less than one light-second? That wasn't point-blank—it was suicide range. Under normal circumstances, that was. Here? Who could know? "Even then," Onslow continued slowly, "Gunnery can't guarantee to hit the Ogre. They're still holding translation lock—God knows how—and sensor conditions are so bad that the seeking systems can't possibly differentiate target sources, however close we come."
"All right," she sighed. "We're sixty-five hours from the theta wall, but our options won't change." She met his eyes levelly and drew a breath. "Close the range, Captain," she said formally. "Get us close enough to score just once more."
"Aye, aye, Ma'am," Onslow said simply, and the drive shrieked as it was suddenly reversed.
The abrupt alteration was a strange and terrible anguish in the uncanny surrealism of the eta bands, and Santander fought the quivering pain in her muscles and nerves, watching her plot as the range to the fuzzily defined dots of the enemy shrank. The glowing diamond of her last escort clung immovably to Defender's flank as the heavy cruiser Dauntless matched her flagship's maneuver.
"Range twelve light-seconds," Miyagi reported. "Eleven . . . ten . . . nine . . ."
"Bandits are slowing," Tracking reported suddenly, and Santander bit her lip. The Kangas had been glued to full power since detection, disdaining any tactical maneuvers as they followed the precise, preplanned course to their Takeshita Translation. She'd hoped they wouldn't change that now.
"Range still dropping," Miyagi said tersely, "but the closure rate's decreasing. Eight light-seconds. Coming up on seven."
"Hostile launch!" Tracking snapped. "Multiple launch. Four—no, five incoming! Time to impact twelve seconds!"
Santander's eyes met Onslow's in horror, but neither spoke the truth both recognized. The enemy had preempted their own attack. His MDMs would arrive before Defender reached launch range. They had no way to know how good his targeting was. All they knew was that, unlike them, he was firing up-gradient, which meant his missiles' seekers would be far less degraded by the local conditions . . . and that there were five of them. The Kangas' odds of scoring a hit had to be several times as great as Defender's, which meant Santander had to launch now. She had to get her own MDM off before the incoming fire killed her ship and destroyed the weapon in its tube. But she couldn't hope to hit her target at this range and under these conditions, and the commodore's brain whirred desperately as she tried to find some answer—any answer—to her impossible dilemma. Only there wasn't one. There was only—
"Ma'am! Dauntless—!" Her plotting officer's shout whipped her eyes back to the display, and a fist squeezed her heart as the heavy cruiser began to move relative to Defender. Slowly, at first, then more rapidly. The commodore had a moment to realize that Captain McInnis had rammed his drive power past the red line. He'd known this moment might come, and her mind shied like a wounded horse from the thought of what conditions must be like aboard the cruiser as she crashed across the screaming distortion of Defender's drive wake and offered herself to Defender's executioners.
There was time for no more thoughts than that as Dauntless met the incoming missiles head-on. No more time for thought—only for grief as her last remaining escort vanished in a wracking spasm of outraged space-time and took the missiles with her.
"He did it," she said softly, appalled by the cruiser's sacrifice. Yet elation warred with her horror, and the realization touched her with self-loathing. Dauntless had died, but now no Kanga MDMs remained, and that was the only thing she could think about now. No other consideration was acceptable, and she kept her gaze on her plot, refusing to meet any other eyes.
"Captain Onslow," she heard her voice as if it belonged to someone else, "hold your fire, please. We will close to ten thousand kilometers and match speed and translation with the enemy before we attack."
The range dropped unsteadily, and inner ears rebelled as drive surges added to the stress already afflicting Defender's crew. The Kanga commander was desperate, Santander thought coldly. He'd shot his bolt, freeing Defender to seek optimum firing range at last, and he juggled his own drive frantically. But there was little he could do, and the dreadnought closed grimly, matching him lunge for lunge, sliding inexorably closer until the fringe of her own translation field was barely five hundred kilometers clear of her foes'. She dared come no closer, but at this range her missile could not miss at least one of her enemies, despite the fuzziness of her fire control. Not even Trolls would have time to react before it struck home, yet even at this short a range, fire control couldn't guarantee which enemy their bird would destroy.
Commodore Santander sat tensely in her command chair, knuckles white on its arms. One last shot . . . one chance in three. . . .
"We're as close as we can come, Ma'am," Onslow reported tersely.
"Very well, Captain. Fire at will."
It happened like lightning. There was scarcely time to register the launch before the missile flashed into the enemy formation . . .
. . . and struck the remaining Trollheim full on.
Josephine Santander sagged in her command chair. They'd come so far, paid so much, and they'd missed. Defender rode the Kangas' flank at less than a light-second, and it was over. The Ogre still had to make its final translation, but she couldn't stop it. She couldn't even follow into normal-space to engage the Kangas there. They knew when they were going, and even if she'd known that herself, it would have taken months of calculations by the best theoretical physicists to put Defender on the same gradient and follow them.
She'd failed. The bastards were going to get away with it, and there was noth—
But then her brain hiccuped suddenly, and she straightened slowly as an idea flickered. It was preposterous—insane!—but it refused to release her. . . .
She raised her head, looking into the screen to Defender's command bridge. Onslow had aged fifty years in the last twenty seconds, she thought, and his shoulders were as slumped as hers had been.
"Captain?" He didn't even blink. "Captain Onslow!" His dulled eyes flickered, and a tremor seemed to run through him.
"Yes, Ma'am?" His voice was mechanical, responding out of rote reflex.
"We may still have an option, Steve." He looked at her incredulously. "We've still got Defender's multi-dee," she said softly.
His face was blank for an instant, and then understanding flared.
"Of course." Life returned to his eyes—the blazing life of a man who has accepted the inevitability of something far worse than his own death and then been shown a possible way to avert it after all—and suppressed excitement lent his voice vibrancy as he nodded jerkily. "Of course!"
Animation rippled across the flag bridge as the commodore's words sank home. Defender herself could become a weapon. It had never been tried before—as far as anyone knew—but it was a chance.
"Nick?" Santander watched Miyagi fight off his own despair to grapple with the new idea. His was the closest thing she had to an expert opinion.
"I . . . don't know, Ma'am." He closed his eyes in thought, his tone almost absent. "It might work. But it wouldn't be like an MDM . . . not a surge so much as a brute force hammer. There's the Harpy, too, and the interference of our n-space drive. . . ."
Sweat gleamed on his forehead as he tried to envision the consequences, then he opened his eyes and met her gaze squarely.
"I'll need to build some computer models, Ma'am. It might take several hours."
"In that case," she said, glancing at the chronometer, "you'd better get started. Even with their evasive maneuvering, we're only about sixty hours from the wall."
"Yes, Ma'am. I'll get on it right away."
"Good, Nick." She stood with a chuckle that surprised her even more than the others. "Meanwhile, I'm going to take a shower and grab a little nap." She reached out in a rare gesture of affection and squeezed his shoulder. "Buzz me the minute you have anything."
Commodore Josephine Santander walked slowly from her bridge. As she stepped through the blast doors into the passage, she heard Miyagi calling sickbay for another stim shot.
"All right, Nick."
Commodore Santander leaned back in her chair, incredibly restored by a shower and eight straight hours of sleep. Her crushing sense of failure had been driven back by the forlorn hope of her inspiration, and her face was calm once more, filled only with sympathy for the bright, febrile light in Miyagi's eyes. He was paying the price for seventy hours of strain and stim shots, and his glittering gaze held a mesmerizing quality, like the fiery intensity of a prophet.
"I can't give you a definitive answer, Ma'am, not without more time than we have, but the models suggest three possible outcomes." His voice was as tight and intense as his eyes.
"First, and most probable, we'll all simply go acoherent." He said it without a quaver, and she nodded. Survival was no longer a factor.
"Second, and almost as probable, all three ships will drop into normal-space with fused multi-dees and heavy internal damage—possibly enough to destroy them. If our own multi-dee were up to Fleet norms, we'd have a better chance of surviving than they would; as it is, it's a toss-up. Either way, though, they'll be light-months from Sol without FTL capability and in easy detection range of Home Fleet's pickets. Which—" his grin was feral, flickering with drug-induced energy "—means the bastards are dead."
Captain Onslow made a savage, wordless sound. He, too, had rested, yet he was not so much restored as refocused, with a flint-steel determination to destroy his enemies. Steven Onslow was a wolf, his teeth death-locked on a rival's throat, unwilling and possibly even unable to relinquish his hold.
"Third, we may push them right through the theta wall," Miyagi went on. "I can't predict what will happen if we do, Ma'am, but I suspect it will still throw them into a Takeshita Translation. On the other hand, our hitting them will screw their flight profile all to hell. We might throw them further back than they planned, but it's more likely they'll come up short, and the degree of deviation is absolutely unpredictable, whichever `direction' it goes. There's even a faint possibility we could toss them into the future. In any case, the further from their planned break point we hit them, the wider the diversion will be."
"I see. And if they go through the theta wall, what happens to us?"
"Commodore, I'd say there's about an even chance we'd go with them. It depends on two factors: the exact mass-power curve of our translation fields at impact and how close to phased our n-drives are. Our scan data's too unreliable for us to match deliberately, but the tolerance is pretty wide—assuming my model's sound." He showed his teeth again. "I'm wired to the eyebrows, Ma'am, but I think it's solid."
"And if we go with them?"
"Then we're probably looking at something very like possibility two, Ma'am. All three of us in normal-space, no multi-dees, and unpredictable degrees of damage all round. The odds are we'd bleed a lot of the surge in the translation, so the damage might be less extensive than if we don't break the wall, but that's only a guess."
"I see." She looked at her two ranking officers. "Captain Onslow?"
"I say do it," the captain said savagely. "Even if we don't kill them outright, we may drop them in short enough for Home Fleet—or a fleet, anyway—to be waiting for them."
"Colonel?" The commodore swiveled her gaze to Leonovna.
"The Captain is right, Ma'am. It's our only option."
"I agree," Santander said calmly. She folded her hands on the table in front of her and nodded. "Very well, we'll try it. But when we do, we'll play the odds—all of them. If we do drop into normal-space and all three of us survive, we'll have our hands full. The Ogre's got at least as much firepower as we do and a lot more defense, and they still have their Harpy." She nodded to Leonovna. "Assuming she survives—and we do, of course—your interceptors are going to be outnumbered three to one. Can you hack those odds, Colonel?"
"My birds are better, Ma'am, and so are my people. We'll keep the Harpy off your back." Leonovna's smile echoed Miyagi's.
"Good. But, Colonel, remember this—" Santander stabbed her with her eyes "—the carrier is secondary. The Ogre and the Kangas are what matter. If even one Kanga tender gets away, you will break off the engagement and pursue it. Kill that tender, Colonel Leonovna! If they dust the planet, everything we've done is meaningless. Is that understood?"
"Yes, Ma'am," the colonel said softly.
"All right." Santander glanced at the bulkhead chronometer. "We're still over forty hours from the wall. I'll give you twelve hours to make your final preparations. Captain, have Doctor Pangborn and his staff get out their injectors. I want every member of this crew to get at least six hours of sleep during that time if it takes every trank in his dispensary."
"Very well," the commodore said. "Let's get to it, then." She rose, and the others rose with her, but she stopped them with a raised hand.
"In case I don't get a chance to tell you afterwards," she said quietly, "I just want to say well done . . . and thank you."
She held their eyes for a moment, then turned away before they could respond. They followed her from the briefing room in silence.
" . . . so our attack plans have to be extremely tentative," Major Turabian, Strike/Interceptor Squadron 113's exec, said. "Red and Blue Sections will be tasked with fighter suppression and armed accordingly. White and Gold Sections will carry mixed armament. White Section's primary target will be the Harpy; Gold Section will form the reserve with primary responsibility for nailing any Kanga tenders. Captain Hanriot will lead Red Section, Captain Johnson will have Blue, and I will lead White. The Colonel will lead Gold Section and exercise overall tactical command. Primary and alternate com frequencies are already loaded into your birds' computers."
He sat down, and Ludmilla Leonovna crossed slowly to the traditional lectern, her hands clasped behind her. Interceptors required youth and fast reflexes, and the colonel was by far the oldest person in the squadron, yet she looked absurdly young as she faced her crews. Like them, she wore her flight suit, her side arm riding low on her hip, and if she looked like the newest of new recruits, none of them were fooled. This was a veteran outfit, all of whom had flown combat with the colonel before.
"All right, people," she said softly. "I only have a few points.
"First, you can all count, so you know casualties will be high—accept that now, but don't resign yourself to being one of them." Her voice was cool and calm; only her sharpened eyes betrayed her own tension. "Anyone who goes out expecting to get the chop will get the chop, and we need to kill Trolls and Kangas, not ourselves.
"Second, you've got better onboard systems, smarter weapons, and more reach—maintain separation and use them. Don't screw around in gun range.
"Third, kill any Kanga tender any way you can out here, but if it turns into a stern chase, either get them short of atmosphere or make damned sure you use a heavy nuke. We don't know what kind of bugs they're carrying, and if they get to air-breathing range, any non-nuke shot could be as bad as not shooting at all."
She paused and surveyed them levelly once more, as if to make certain that they all understood.
"And fourth, remember this: Whenever we are when the shit stops flying, we're going to be in life-support range of a planet full of humans. And humans, people, have bars." A soft chuckle ran through the assembled flight crews. "And while—" she flashed a wry smile "—I am the sole member of this squadron who doesn't partake, I realize full well that I'm going to have to buy every one of you thirsty bastards a drink. But I warn you—I'll be damned if I'll listen to more than one glorious lie from each of you!
"All right," she said when the laughs died away, "let's saddle up." And her flight crews funneled through the hangar deck hatch.
Colonel Leonovna strode briskly to her own interceptor. Some pilots carried out a meticulous inspection of their birds before any launch, but she wasn't one of them. Sergeant Tetlow had looked after her fighter for over three subjective years; if anything ever had been wrong, Tetlow had fixed it long since.
Yet this time she paused by the ladder, looking up at the sleek shape of her weapon. A hundred meters from blunt nose to bulbous stern but barely twenty in diameter, the interceptor crouched in her launch cradle like Death waiting to pounce. Her hull bore a stenciled ID number, but, like most such craft, she had been named. Yet this name had been chosen not by her pilot but by her tech crew, who knew all about their squadron CO's heritage and her fascination with history. The name Sputnik Too gleamed in scarlet above the golden stencils of thirty-four oddly shaped silhouettes: one for each fighter Ludmilla Leonovna had killed. Under them were thirteen larger silhouettes, representing the starships squadrons under her command had destroyed. She looked at them silently, then reached up to touch the lowest—and largest—symbol, the silhouette of an Ogre-class capital ship. Only her interceptor had returned from that multisquadron strike.
Sergeant Tetlow was there when she lowered her hand. It was impossible to tell from his demeanor that he knew he was almost certainly about to die, and the colonel squeezed his shoulder gently.
"Ready to flit, Sarge?"
"Green and go, Ma'am." He nodded. "Give 'em hell."
"With pitchforks," she agreed, and climbed the ladder without another backward glance. She had to find her grip by feel, for her eyes burned strangely, and it was hard to focus.
She settled into her padded seat before the steady green and amber glow of her instruments. Light from the hangar deck flooded through the centimeter-thick armorplast overhead, and despite the grim situation, her lips quirked with familiar amusement. The human eye was useless in deep space combat, but something about human design philosophies demanded a clear all-around view anyway.
The familiarity of the thought put her back on balance, and she pulled her helmet down against the tension of the connector cables. She drew it over her head, sealing it to her flight suit, and the flat electrodes pressed her temples.
"Activate," she said clearly, and shuddered as the familiar sensory shock hit her. Sputnik had a complete set of manual controls, but using them in combat gave a Troll too much advantage, so human ingenuity had provided another solution. Her nerves seemed to reach out, expanding, weaving their neurons into the circuits of the gleaming weapon which surrounded her. Direct computer feeds spilled information into her brain—weapon loads, targeting systems, flight status. . . .
Even after all these years, the rush of power was like a foretaste of godhood, she thought, dimly aware of her crewmates strapping in. Unlike the other ships in the squadron, Sputnik and Major Turabian's Excalibur carried three-man crews, not two. Each of her pilots had an electronic systems officer to run the electronic warfare systems and monitor all functions not directly linked to combat and maneuvering, but she and her exec had a com operator, as well, who also served a plotting function for engagements which could range over cubic light-minutes of space.
She grinned as Lieutenant O'Donnel, her ESO, plugged in and she felt an echo of her own sense of invincibility in his cross-feed.
"All systems green and go, Skipper."
"Green board, Skip," Sergeant Priscilla Goering announced from her isolated compartment behind them.
"Good." Leonovna pressed a button that lit Sputnik's light on the hangar deck officer's console, then settled down in her seat. "And now, boys and girls," she announced over the squadron net, "we wait."
"Ma'am," Captain Onslow said formally to the commodore who no longer had a battle division, "we are closed up at action stations."
"Thank you, Captain." Commodore Santander glanced at her plot. Defender had climbed slightly "higher" in the eta band than her quarry and dropped astern. According to Miyagi's models, their best chance for success was to strike their enemies' translation field down-gradient at a slightly accelerating velocity. It was grimly ironic, she reflected, how synonymous "success" and "self-immolation" had become.
She touched a com button.
"Stand by, Colonel Leonovna," she said.
"Standing by, Commodore." The strike group commander sounded as unflappable as ever, and Santander's lips twitched in a ghost of a smile.
"Very well, Captain. Execute your orders."
"Aye, aye, Ma'am," Captain Onslow said, and Defender's bones came alive one last time with the high-pitched scream of a multi-dee in over-boost as she stooped upon her foes.
The glaring corona of Defender's translation field filled the visual display—a chill, beautiful forest fire that dazzled the eye and hid the featureless gray of alien dimensions. It beckoned and whispered to Commodore Santander, but she wrenched her eyes from it with an effort and watched the plot as the diamond dot of her last vessel plunged towards the tight-linked rubies of her foes. The range fell with terrifying speed, and she had time only for one last surge of adrenaline and excitement and fear and determination.
Then they struck, and Josephine Santander screamed. She wasn't alone. No human frame could endure that crawling, twisting agony in silence. It was like every translation she'd ever endured, combined into one terrible whole and cubed. She writhed in her chair, eyes blind and staring, nerves whiplashing within her flesh as overloaded synapses shrieked in protest. It went on and on and on—an eternity wrapped in a heartbeat—and ended so abruptly it nearly broke her mind.
She moaned softly, pushing herself weakly up in her chair, feeling the warm trickle of blood over her chin and down her upper lip. She shook herself groggily, fighting for control, and looked around her flag bridge.
Commander Miyagi hung in his combat harness, his blood-frothed lips blue. He was not breathing, and beyond him a scanner tech was curled as close as her own harness allowed to a fetal knot while a high, endless mewl oozed from her. Santander had no idea how long that terrible moment had lasted, but she felt her own heart still shivering madly within her chest as she reached shakily for her com controls.
Her screen lit a moment before she touched them. Captain Onslow looked out at her, and she'd never seen him look so . . . dreadful. His face was cold, hammered iron, but there was a terrible, hungry fire in his eyes. He was no longer simply a warrior; he had become a killer.
"Commodore." His voice was hoarse as he wiped blood off his chin and glanced at his reddened fingers almost incuriously.
"Captain," she managed in return. "We've . . . got some casualties up here," she said. "One of the scan crew . . . and Nick. . . ."
"Here, too, Ma'am," Onslow said, and an echo of the horror they'd endured touched his voice. But he shook himself, and a bleak smile mingled with the cold fire of his hunger. "Scanning's still here, Ma'am, and Nick's—" He faltered for a moment, then made his voice go firm once more. "Nick's models seem to be holding; we've got a gradient I never saw before: straight down. Of course, we've got a long way to fall. We should hit bottom in about twenty minutes . . . and both of those bastards are coming with us."
"Damage?" she asked, feeling something almost like life spreading back through her abused flesh.
"Multi-dee's fused, Ma'am, and Power Two and Four went with it. N-drive is functional. We've lost about twenty percent of our computers and a quarter of our energy weapons. Defensive systems are generally intact. Personnel losses are still coming in." Pride in his ship strengthened his voice. "She's hurt, Ma'am, but the old bitch is still game!"
"Good, Captain," Commodore Santander said. "Stand by to engage."
"Aye, aye, Ma'am."
Three ships fell through the depths of dimensions not their own, plunging like storm-driven mariners towards the reefs of normal-space, and throughout Defender's hull dead or incapacitated men and women were hauled away from their consoles. Casualties were worst closest to the fused multi-dee at her core, and the interceptor squadron, isolated by the hangar deck's location just inside her armored skin, had come through dazed but intact. Now Colonel Leonovna scanned the data feeding into her brain as the moment for launch approached. Drive and translation fields came to standby aboard thirty-two sleek and deadly vessels, and she felt the electronic caress of the launch field on her fighter's flanks like silken fingers.
"Stand by," she told her crews, and then the seconds were flashing by and the moment was no longer approaching—it was there.
"Hangar Deck, Bridge: launch interceptors."
"Launching, aye, Bridge!" the hangar deck officer snapped, and the launch fields focused tight. "Good hunting, Colonel!" an unknown voice called, and then the fields hurled the fighters from their launch cradles and drive interface penetration whiplashed through bone and sinew.
Leonovna took the shock with the ease of long practice, hardly even noticing the sudden, high-pitched squeal of her fighter's n-drive as Sputnik crashed through Defender's drive into space. The awareness of godhead was upon her, and her senses reached out into the cold, black-velvet vastness upon the wizardry of her scanners. The emptiness which had frightened her so the first time she tasted it had become an old friend long, long ago, and her magic vision saw and absorbed everything in the flicker of a thought.
The Ogre was already turning to flee Defender, and there was the Harpy, to the side and "below" the others. She concentrated on the carrier as the first missiles went out from the warring capital ships, and Troll interceptors were already spitting from their bays to meet her fighters.
"Red Leader, take the first wave head-on. White Section, get that bitch before she respots her cradles! Blue Section, cover the strike."
Acknowledgments flowed over her, and her unfocused eyes were dreamy as her brain digested direct sensory input with long-trained efficiency. She absorbed and registered everything as the first wave of ripple-launched homing missiles went out from Red Section and White Section snarled up and around, going in over the Troll fighters under Blue Section's protective fire. Enemy interceptors tore apart or exploded, but there were so many of them! Even more than predicted! They must have fitted extra cradles and stuffed that Harpy to the deckheads, she thought, but if they had, something else had to have come out, and it might just be—
White Section's heavy ship-killers speared out, and the battle screen which interdicted them was far weaker than it ought to have been. The protective force field wavered as the first warhead detonated, and Leonovna felt a stab of elation. Turabian's impeccable attack had been sequenced to take out full-strength battle screens; the understrength defenses he actually faced were hopelessly outclassed. Fireballs polarized visual pickups and clawed her electronic senses with thunderbolts of static, and a glaring patch of localized failure crawled along the Harpy's screens just as the second wave of ship-killers arrived. The heavy missiles plunged through the opened chink, and two million tons of carrier buckled, broke, and vaporized as megaton-range warheads savaged unshielded plating.
She took her second wave with her, but her first outnumbered One-Thirteen's fighters by more than two to one, and human fighters began to die.
"Blue Section, take them from behind. White Section, form on me. And maintain separation, damn it!"
Acknowledgments came through the blur of battle chatter, mingled with shouts of triumph and the sudden, mid-word interruption of thermonuclear death. Even with her computer sensors, she had trouble sorting out details, but the pattern was clear. Her crews had struck first and hard with their longer-ranged missiles, but the number of first-wave Troll fighters was far higher than expected, and their massed missile fire had saturated the defenses of more than one of her interceptors. Red Section had lost three already, and Blue was down two. White Section had lost none on the run against the Harpy, but Lieutenant Kittihawk paid for their success. Elated by the destruction of their target, she allowed her attention to waver, and a Troll rolled in behind her before she could evade.
The Troll fighters lacked humanity's advanced tracking systems, "smart" missiles, and sophisticated ECM, and their less efficient drives were slower to accelerate. But the cyborgs had a reaction speed few humans could match, even with their neural links, and their fighters were marginally faster and far, far more maneuverable than any human-crewed interceptor ever designed. At knife range, nothing in the galaxy was as deadly as a Troll interceptor, and snarling power guns ripped Kittihawk's fighter apart.
The victorious Troll tried to swing onto her wingman, but Casper Turabian was there, raging back and around in a vicious climbing attack that took it from below like a shark.
Twenty percent of Leonovna's fighters were gone, but the Troll losses were even higher, and her order to open the range took effect quickly. The humans used their higher power curves ruthlessly, accelerating clear to use their missiles like snipers before the Trolls could close again. Gold Section joined them, streaking in behind the turning Trolls, and an almost orgasmic thrill ran through the colonel as her first missile dropped free and guided. She picked another victim, lips wrinkled back in a hunting tiger's snarl as she tracked her second target and—
"Defender to Strike Leader!"
She broke instantly, turning away from the snarling ball of fighters to refocus her attention, and her wingman came with her, guarding her back. The capital ships had drawn well away from the fighters, and she blanched as the fury of their engagement registered.
Both ships were haloed in escaping atmosphere and water vapor, trailed by drifting wakes of molten debris, and she winced as fireballs savaged Defender's battle screens, frantic to claw a hole for follow-up fire. The Ogre was in trouble, too, and the big ship staggered as one of Defender's heavy missiles exploded just short of her heavily armored hull, but her sheer size was gradually overpowering the smaller human-crewed ship.
"Defender, this is Strike Leader," she snapped. "Go ahead."
"Colonel, this is the Captain." The blurred voice could have been anyone as radiation threshed the com channels with static. "The Commodore's had it. We've got heavy damage, but this bastard isn't getting away." More explosions flared, and the vicious thrust and parry of energy weapons was like ozone on her skin through her sensors.
"They're launching tenders with escort, Strike Leader. Go get 'em."
"Understood, Defender. I'm sending White Section to your assistance. Red and Blue will—"
"Don't bother, Strike Leader," Onslow said distantly through the crashing static. "Just kill those fucking tenders. See you in Hell, Col—"
The channel went dead as TNS Defender rammed her massive enemy and their outraged drive fields exploded like a nova.