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CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX "I want them to escape."

Ivan Antonov's recon drones had told him of the dense minefields that surrounded the emergence warp point in Anderson Three, and of the fifty-seven heavy cruisers that covered those minefields. So he knew how intense an SBMHAWK bombardment was needed to burn a path through those defenses for Second Fleet.

The drones had also confirmed that the enemy's heavy units were being held well back from the warp point. As usual, that placed them outside SBMHAWK range, but Antonov didn't mind, for it allowed him to revive a classic tactic of carrier warfare.

This time, the first ships to enter the hostile system were Admiral Taathaanahk's assault carriers. The instant carbon- and silicon-based brains had reoriented themselves from the wrongness of warp transit, the electromagnetic catapults flung scores of fighters into space. Then the CVAs executed a tight turn and began vanishing back into the warp point from whence they'd come. Once back in Anderson Two they would turn again and re-enter Anderson Three, where their fighters would presumably be ready for rearming after fulfilling their task of covering the emergence of the subsequent assault waves.

It was the sort of maneuver which would have been flatly impossible in the days of reaction drives. Even today, such a turning radius was beyond the capabilities of any other ships in the new super carriers' size range-superdreadnoughts and the very largest freighters. But the maneuver worked, and the superdreadnoughts of Task Force 22 emerged into the unaccustomed environment of friendly-controlled space.

They faced an enemy who was behaving very oddly. Gunboat deployments were promptly detected, and TF 22 braced itself for kamikaze attacks. But none came, and the Bugs hung back in uncharacteristic hesitation while the bulk of van der Gelder's ships-including Colorado-transited unmolested. Only then did they close to long missile range.

Antonov had expended almost all his fourth-generation SBMHAWKs to clear the warp point, but he retained a substantial reserve of third-generation pods. These now transited and came under TF 22's control. They went far toward redressing the balance between fifty-six Bug superdreadnoughts and about thirty Terran ones. But the former did have command datalink now.

"Admiral," de Bertholet suggested after a time, "should we order the fighters to attack in support of the battle-line?"

"Nyet," Antonov answered absently. He knew what was bothering the ops officer. The initial missile exchanges had favored Second Fleet-but those loss ratios included the results of the SBMHAWK increment to TF 22's firepower, and couldn't be expected to continue after the missile pods were gone. Still . . .

"No," he repeated. "For now, we'll continue to hold them back as a shield against gunboat attacks. It's too soon to risk heavy fighter losses. Admiral Taathaanahk's carriers are due back shortly, in conjunction with Admiral Prescott's ships. When we have our entire carrier strength in this system, it will be time to launch a massive, coordinated strike."

Time wore on, and the anticipated gunboat attack failed to materialize. But the shift in the statistics of carnage after the SBMHAWKs ceased to be a factor was as per expectations. The Bugs were playing it very cagily, keeping the missile duel at long range and drawing back gradually as more and more Terran superdreadnoughts emerged. Antonov sensed a mood he didn't like on the flag bridge, a kind of nervous incomprehension of such a radical departure from the Bugs' "normal" suicidal eagerness to close to the shortest possible range. As Taathaanahk's and Prescott's carriers transited one by one, he found himself fretting as well. But the delay gave de Bertholet time to coordinate with TF 23 ops, and it was a very purposeful wave of over seven hundred fighters-Antonov was still holding back his defensive screen-that streaked away towards the silent black ships.

They encountered a nasty surprise: Bug gunboats in a purely defensive stance. The small craft drew as much blood as possible with their externally mounted anti-fighter missiles, then pulled back into a defensive envelope around their capital ships. Strictly defensive formations were rare in space warfare, and this proved to be a very strong one. Frustrated, stung by their losses, and still under orders to avoid excessive losses while still in Anderson Three's outer system, the fighters withdrew for rearming.

That operation reminded Antonov of a possibly decisive advantage that still remained to him, if he only exploited it. He proceeded to do so, ordering Second Fleet to press the missile duel, allowing the Bugs no respite in which to shut down their drives in order to rearm the gunboats. So it was with their internal weaponry alone that those gunboats faced a fresh assault by fighters laden with missiles and freed of their earlier tactical constraints.

Taathaanahk's pilots went relentlessly in, the humans hurling missile strikes at the gunboats while their Ophiuchi comrades covered them against the anticipated counterattack by those gunboats. But the Bugs stubbornly refused to be drawn out of their defensive hedgehog, and the Ophiuchi were denied the dogfighting at which they were the acknowledged masters. Instead, the fighters pressed their attack home into the defensive envelopes of the Bug capital ships' massive energy weapons and numerous missile launchers, grimly accepting whatever losses it took to blast the gunboats out of the equation.

"And," de Bertholet concluded his report to a hastily convened staff meeting, "the last of the squadrons have reported in or are accounted for. They're all en route back to their carriers, and the loss figures can be regarded as definitive." He indicated the columns of color-coded numbers on the display screen of the small conference room just off Colorado's flag bridge.

Antonov eyed those figures with scant favor. He'd been forced to jettison his original guidelines for what constituted acceptable fighter losses, and he didn't like it. Still less did he like the way the Bugs-sans gunboats but still formidable-were continuing to be coy. Their tight formation held back just outside missile range, five and a half light-hours from the K type primary star of this undistinguished binary system whose details the probing RDs were gradually filling in on the plot. They'd already ruled out any high-tech population centers, and Antonov caught himself sighing with relief that there'd be no Harnah here. He shook the thought aside and glared anew at the red icons representing the Bug force, not giving battle but impossible to ignore.

He grew aware that de Bertholet had finished. "Thank you, Commander. Now, Commodore Kozlov, have you been able to form any rationale for the enemy's behavior?"

"We've all been thrashing that one out, Sir. The consensus seems to be that they're being cautious about risking ships equipped with their new datalink technology. Also, they may not have settled yet on a tactical doctrine for utilizing that technology."

"You mean," Stovall queried, "they're still experimenting, and right now they're impressed with its defensive possibilities?"

"That accounts for the observed facts while minimizing assumptions." She gave one of her infrequent smiles. "I'm not sure Bugs shave with Occam's Razor. But it's the best I can do at present."

Antonov continued to glare at those red icons. "If they won't come to us," he rumbled, "we'll go to them. With our tactical speed advantage, we can force engagement. But before we do, I want our emergency repairs completed. There should be time, because I also want us to wait until the fleet train can rendezvous with us and replenish our depletable munitions."

"Aye, aye, Sir." The relief on Stovall's face was palpable. "Might I suggest that we also consider some organizational adjustment on the battlegroup level? Our losses-especially the five superdreadnoughts-have resulted in some imbalances."

"An excellent suggestion, Commodore. See to it that-"

What brought Antonov up short was the sudden jerk of Midori Kozlov's left forearm. He recognized the reaction of one who was being given an emergency jolt by a wrist communicator-an entirely unexpected jolt, for she'd left orders not to be interrupted. She gave Antonov an embarrassed look.

"Answer it, Commodore Kozlov," he said mildly.

She complied, with the device on minimal volume and held close to her ear. Whatever she was hearing caused the blood to drain from her face. But she reported to Antonov in level tones.

"Admiral, one of our drones has detected hostiles transiting into this system through a warp point located almost directly between us and the system primary-and only about eighty light-minutes from us. CIC designates them Force Two, and they'll be appearing on the display directly."

She'd barely stopped speaking before the fresh icons started blinking into existence. The reporting drone was very close, and data on their force composition began to roll in quickly.

"Lordy," Stovall broke the silence. "This is like Anderson One all over again!"

"Not quite, Sir," Kozlov said, her eyes still fixed on the unfolding data. "There, the second Bug force didn't arrive until we had finished wiping out the system's defenders. This force has appeared when we're just preparing to do so."

"Precisely, Admiral," de Bertholet said, in rare agreement with the spook. "And on their present vectors the two forces will rendezvous before we can complete the repairs and resupply you've ordered."

Antonov nodded absently as he studied Force Two's composition: eighteen superdreadnoughts and twenty-four battle-cruisers. He could continue as planned, and then a rearmed, repaired Second Fleet would face defenders reinforced by those forty-two fresh ships-which, he had to assume, possessed command datalink. Or he could strike now and seek to defeat the two enemy fleets in detail. Given those alternatives, his choice was clear if far from easy.

"Commodore Stovall, as soon as the fighters have rearmed, all elements of Second Fleet will advance to attack Force One. Our objective is to annihilate it before the new arrivals can make contact." He raised a hand in a gesture which foreclosed any discussion. "Yes, I know, we're battered and depleted. Well, they're also battered and depleted. I want there to be nothing but cooling plasma for Force Two to rendezvous with!"



* * * | In Death Ground | * * *



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