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CHAPTER FORTY Even Legends Die

TFNS Colorado's flag bridge was deathly silent as the holo of an unbelievable starship hung in the tactical display. It wasn't a real visual, just computer imagery generated from the fighters' sensor data, but that made it no less terrifying. Twice the size of a superdreadnought, it hung there like a curse and chilled every heart with the firepower it must pack.

Too bad LeBlanc isn't here, Ivan Antonov thought distantly. He keeps insisting Bugs don't think like we do, and here is the proof. Three entire fleets, counting the one we just destroyed. Over five hundred starships-a hundred and sixty of them superdreadnoughts-God only knows how many gunboats, and the surrender of a populated star system just to bait a trap, and I walked straight into it.

He glared at the image, feeling the sickness and self-disgust at his core, then closed his eyes and sucked in a deep breath.

No. It can't all have been a trick. They would have required omniscience to deliberately let us see them in Centauri just to lure us here. No. They set this up only after we destroyed their covering force in Anderson One, yet that makes it no better. I have led three quarters of Home Fleet into a death trap.

He opened his eyes once more and made himself think.

"Estimates on firepower?" he asked de Bertholet quietly.

"Impossible to say, Sir." The ops officer seemed almost grateful for the technical question. "We've never even considered building something that size, so I don't have any idea how much mass its engines eat up. At a guess, I'd say it probably has about a sixty or seventy percent edge over a superdreadnought in weapons' tonnage. It can't be a lot more, even as big as it is; the support systems for its crew have to be scaled up, as well."

"So it has only a seventy percent individual superiority, eh?"

Antonov's wry voice was poison dry, and de Bertholet surprised himself with a bark of strained laughter. He smoothed any sign of levity from his face instantly, but Antonov only produced a wintry smile without taking his eyes from the display.

"Unless their construction rate is far higher than our own, it must have taken at least two years to build such vessels," he spoke as if only to himself, then nodded. "Yes, that would make sense. Especially since they lacked command datalink at the outset. They couldn't match our datagroups' size, so they built bigger individual units to even the firepower." He frowned, rubbing his chin. "Yet why wait this long to commit them? Unless their breakthrough into modern datalink came as a surprise to them?" He cocked his head, then nodded again. "If that were the case, then they would have had to refit with the new command systems before committing them-possibly even redesign their entire armaments. We know they prefer specialized designs, after all. . . ."

He gazed at the holo a moment longer, then turned away. A raised hand summoned Stovall and Kozlov to join de Bertholet at his side, and he folded his hands behind him as he faced his senior staffers grimly.

"The level of threat has just risen," he said flatly. "We lack even the most imperfect estimate of the firepower this new class represents, nor do we know how many of them the enemy has. We have seen only one. There may be dozens, or they may have only a handful; the only way we can discover which is to engage them."

Stovall nodded with matching grimness. The others simply waited, eyes and mouths tense.

"Unfortunately, we must assume that whatever force their drones summoned also has such units. If this is true, a warp point assault against them becomes even more unacceptable. Nor can we risk a head-on engagement with the enemy force we have detected. If we take heavy losses against the single force we know about, we weaken ourselves-perhaps fatally-against any additional enemies."

He paused, and Stovall frowned. "You're correct, of course, Sir," he said slowly, "but they're between us and the warp point. To me, that suggests they must have had us under observation the entire time, probably with cloaked light cruisers, or they couldn't have positioned themselves so precisely. Assuming that's true, they have the advantage of knowing where we are. If we let them choose the time and place to hit us-" He shrugged, and Antonov nodded.

"True enough, but we have advantages of our own. Our ships' drives may be less than fully reliable, yet while they last, we retain our speed advantage, and for all we know, this new class is still slower. With a fighter shell posted sufficiently far out, we should be able to detect them-even cloaked-soon enough to evade them."

"While our drives last," Stovall conceded.

"And," Antonov went on, "if they bring up light cruisers to screen their formations against our fighters, they'll become much easier to track, since their fleet-type CLs can't cloak. The same is true of their gunboats, the only vessels with sufficient speed to overhaul us. In short, they cannot force us to commit to close action until and unless we allow them to."

"But, Sir," de Bertholet said quietly, "sooner or later, we'll simply run out of supplies, or our drives will pack in. All they have to do is sit on our exit warp point long enough, and we'll have no choice but to come to them sooner or later."

"Precisely," Antonov said, and his staff blinked at his icy, armor-plated smile. "And that's why we must keep them from deciding to do just that. We must draw their attention and be certain we hold it-be certain they keep trying to overtake us rather than give up and fall back on the warp point-until the final component of their trap makes transit."

"That could take another ten or twelve days, Sir," Stovall said, "and they're going to be throwing every gunboat they can at us the entire time."

"Understood. It will be up to our fighters and escort vessels to hold them off. It will be difficult, and our orders must stress the absolute necessity of conserving ammunition, yet it is the only hope I see. We must stay alive long enough for their full force to arrive and then break out at a time of our choosing." He paused and swept his eyes slowly from face to face, and his deep voice was a subterranean rumble when he spoke again. "Whatever we may do, our losses will be heavy. Accept that now, for it is inevitable. But we must get whatever we can out of this trap."

One by one, his staff nodded. He was right. The task he proposed to accept was virtually impossible-evading multiple enemy fleets while playing matador to all of them would require maneuvers no navy had ever trained for-yet it was the only chance Second Fleet had. And if any flag officer in the Terran Navy could pull it off, the man before them was that officer.

"Very well," Antonov said. "We will alter course, Commander de Bertholet. Turn us away from them and take us above the ecliptic. We will begin by heading away from the warp point."

"Yes, Sir."

"Before altering course, however, detach Admiral Prescott. He knows what I want him to do, but it is essential the Bugs not see him separate from us, so he must go immediately."

"If they do have us under observation from cloak, they'll see him drop off their scanners, Sir," Stovall said.

"We'll take the entire Fleet into cloak simultaneously," Antonov replied. "Any scout ships must be outside our present fighter shell, cloaked or not. That means they're too far out to track us in cloak even with known starting positions . . . but they will be able to track our fighters. Let them think they've panicked us into a useless attempt at concealment. The picket fighters will maintain their positions relative to the flagship as we move away, and TF 21 will go dead in space. The enemy will track the fighter shell and be drawn after us; once we're well clear, Admiral Prescott will bring up his drives and proceed with his mission."

"And when they send in their first strikes?" the chief of staff asked, "if they have a good count on us now, they're likely to realize someone's missing, Sir."

"A risk we must take, but the Fleet will remain cloaked throughout. Their gunboats shouldn't be surprised if they can't see all of us at any given moment. With luck, they'll assume that's where Prescott is-just out of sight in cloak, but still with the rest of the Fleet."

"Yes, Sir." Stovall nodded. It was a gamble, but, then, so was Antonov's entire plan. And who knew? It might even work.



* * * | In Death Ground | * * *



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