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INFERNO

The quiet buzzer seemed raucous in the darkened cabin, and the tiny woman in the bunk opened her eyes instantly, reaching for her com key.

"Yes?"

"Message from Maori, sir. Rim units are emerging from Sagebrush."

"Thank you, Bob." Vice Admiral Li sat up and reached for her battle uniform. "Composition?"

"They wasted a lot of SBMHAWKs on the decoys, sir, then the battle-line came through. They're reforming now."

"Good. Ask Admiral Tsing to meet us on Flag Bridge."

"Yes, sir."

Han sealed her vac suit, and lifted her helmet from the bedside table. Her cabin door opened silently, and the Marine sentry snapped to attention. She nodded courteously as she passed him; her conscious mind never even noticed him.

Trevayne studied the big visual display unhappily. Zapata's G2 sun was a distant, unwinking flame, and the flotillas of Fourth Fleet glittered with its feeble reflected glow. Why did the sight fill him with foreboding? Was it the unexpected lack of resistance?

His recon drones had reported two dozen type four OWPs and extensive minefields covering the Sagebrush-Zapata warp nexus. That had been enough to draw the fire of almost all of his remaining SBMHAWKs, but there had been no shock of battle when the battle-line made transit, for the "fortresses" proved to be unmanned satellites armed only with sophisticated ECM gear to masquerade as forts in the eyes of his RDs.

He brooded over the display, pondering the system spread out before him in miniature. This warp point lay nearly in the system's plane of the ecliptic, as did his destination-the Iphigena warp point. But they were almost diametrically opposite one another, and between them was the inner system: the local sun, the two small, airless innermost planets, the Earth-like third planet, and an extensive asteroid belt.

Having the sun directly between him and his destination was annoying. That colossal gravity well made any sort of straight line route impossible, even in this day and age. He'd chosen his course long since: a hyperbola at right angles to the plane of the ecliptic, passing "over" the sun and its innermost children. He wanted to avoid the ecliptic anyway; it would distance him from any traps the opposition might consider springing.

But where was the opposition?

He knew he would encounter some fortresses, at least, at the Iphigena warp point; there'd been a couple there even before the rebellion, and the rebels must have reinforced them. After all, that warp point was far closer to the sun than most-less than ten light-minutes beyond the asteroid belt, in fact. The rebels couldn't have failed to construct some asteroid fortresses, the cheapest and in many ways best kind. But there had to be heavy mobile forces lurking beyond scanner range. He couldn't be that far wrong about rebel strategy. The increasing ferocity of their commerce raiders had managed to suck off a dismayingly high proportion of his light carriers-which had to be what they'd intended, assuming they meant to engage him here. Unless, of course, they'd followed the same line of reasoning and decided to do something else, just to be difficult. . . .

He shook free of his useless speculations and walked a few paces to join Yoshinaka and Mujabi, who were huddled in consultation.

"Problems, gentlemen?"

"No, sir," Yoshinaka replied. "Admiral Remko reports the screen's deployment complete."

Trevayne nodded. Remko's screen massed twelve battlecruisers and attendant half-dozen escort cruisers-light cruisers configured for the anti-missile and anti-fighter role. With Admiral Steinmeuller's fifteen heavy cruisers attached, he would precede the battle-line by fifteen minutes, sweeping the space before the ten supermonitors, ten monitors, eight superdreadnoughts, and twelve battleships. The battlegroups were flanked by more of the new escort cruisers designed and built in the Rim, not the destroyer escorts which had been the prewar standard, and Trevayne had held back three destroyer battlegroups, built around Goeben-class command cruisers.

The battle-line was also accompanied by Carl Stoner's six fleet carriers and three remaining light carriers, with over two hundred fighters. The rebels could put far more fighters into space whenever they finally offered battle, but at least they could no longer count on the edge their pilots' experience normally gave them-Stoner's people had been blooded repeatedly against both rebels and Tangri.

"The fleet is ready to proceed," Yoshinaka continued. "No, we were discussing the lack of opposition. It's almost eerie."

"Yes. I suppose it's possible I've been wrong all along about where the rebels will make a stand, but I still don't think so. And yet . . . if they do plan to put up a serious defense, letting us make transit unscathed shows a high degree of chutzpah." Mujabi's eyebrows arched in puzzlement, and Trevayne translated. "Outrageous self-confidence."

"Oh." Mujabi nodded. "New one on me, sir." He considered for a moment. "Rigelian word?"

Li Han folded her hands in her lap and watched her display.

The data codes were more tentative than usual because the single scout cruiser hidden outside the asteroid belt was at extreme range. Still, the essentials were clear. A powerful screen had moved away from Trevayne's main force, opening the gap between itself and the battle-line to a full ninety light-seconds, and she sat expressionlessly, watching her enemy advance into what-hopefully-would prove an unsuspected trap. She glanced at Reznick.

"Time to asteroid belt?"

"Their screen will cross it headed in-system in about six hours, sir. Their battle-line will be approximately fifteen minutes behind them."

"Thank you."

She turned back to the display, wishing Trevayne hadn't jumped the gun on them. He'd begun his breakout over a month earlier than predicted, and half her carriers had yet to reach her, nor did she have any idea how the defense against the Rump pincer was proceeding. Her ignorance gnawed at her, and she wished she dared communicate with Magda or Jason, but they needed com silence to do their jobs. She felt herself relaxing as she thought of her friends. If anyone could pull it off, they could.

Sean Remko sat in his command chair like a bear. His combat vac suit and grooming were impeccable, but somehow he always struck Cyrus Waldeck as unwashed and slovenly. The flag captain shook his head distastefully and glanced back at his own display as his ship crossed the asteroid belt, moving at a-to them-leisurely pace to allow the battle-line to keep up. He stiffened as a sudden flicker of light abruptly resolved itself into the data codes of enemy vessels.

"Admiral Remko! We've got-"

"I see them, Captain," Remko interrupted. "Brian-" he turned to his chief of staff "-come to a heading of one-one-six. Increase to flank speed. Prepare for missile engagement: carriers are primary targets."

"Aye, aye, sir!"

"Captain Waldeck, stand by to engage the enemy."

"Aye, aye, sir!"

Remko glanced at his elegant flag captain from the corner of one eye, then turned to his com officer. "Get me the flagship."

"Aye, aye, sir."

Remko watched the drifting data codes as he waited for the com link to be established. With transmissions limited to light speed, there was a time lag of just over ninety seconds either way, so he wasted no time trying for an integrated conversation when Trevayne's image appeared on his screen.

"Admiral, we've detected seven fleet carriers, seven battleships, and eight battlecruisers, with nine light cruisers maneuvering as regular three-ship squadrons-almost dead ahead at max scanner range. We should be able to engage them on our own terms-the battlewagons will slow them up for us. But we'll need carrier support . . ."

Trevayne nodded as Remko paused to acknowledge a report. He waved a hand at Yoshinaka and pointed at his chief of staff's communications panel.

"Launch them," he said.

"Sir," Remko looked back out of the screen, "the rebel carriers have launched what appears to be their entire fighter complement. ETA twenty-one minutes. Let me repeat my request for carrier support . . . urgently."

"Already granted, Sean," Trevayne replied. He glanced at Yoshinaka once more and received a nod of confirmation. "Admiral Stoner is proceeding to join you, and he'll be launching directly." And he could fight this lot on slightly better than even terms, he thought. "Good luck. Out."

He watched Remko's face as the seconds ticked past. Three minutes after his last word, his burly subordinate nodded with a grin.

"Thank you, sir. One trashed rebel task force coming up. Remko out."

"Well, you were right about the rebels offering battle here." Yoshinaka spoke as the screen blanked, then paused at Trevayne's unaccustomed scowl.

"Bloody hell, Genji, that can't be their entire force! Where're their battle-line and assault carriers? And look." He pointed to his battle plot. "They're backing away now that they've launched their fighters. Why? They can't outrun Sean with battleships to slow them down. Besides, battleships don't run away from battlecruisers, they try to close before a force like ours can come to their opposition's support." He scowled at the plot, as if by sheer concentration he could know the minds commanding those drifting bits of light. "I don't like it at all, Genji." But the blips told him nothing, and his eyes strayed back to the big visual display as Nelson neared the asteroid belt. Planet Three was the second brightest object in the heavens.

"Admiral Petrovna's launching, sir."

"Thank you. Time, Bob?"

"Oh-seven-forty Zulu, Admiral."

"Log it."

Han leaned back in her chair. The Book said a commander never committed her forces to combat when she couldn't exercise tactical control, but The Book didn't cover this situation. She'd agonized over her command structure before she finally made her call. Magda had proven her mettle too often to question her ability to handle the role thrust upon her, but Han had really wanted her for the other detached force, even if it was smaller. Timing, she told herself. Timing was everything. She could entrust her own force to no one else-it had to be under her direct control, with no com lag-and she needed Magda for the job she had, which left Jason for what was actually the most ticklish aspect of Operation Actium. Han didn't question his ability-only his experience.

"Enemy carriers advancing, sir. They're launching. Plotting estimates two hundred plus fighters. Estimated time to our fighters is twelve minutes."

"Thank you, David. Commander Jorgensen?"

"Full decks, sir, or right next to them. They should have two-forty, plus or minus twenty."

"It sounds like they're biting, sir," Tomanaga observed cautiously.

"Perhaps. But don't underestimate Ian Trevayne, Bob." Han tapped her fingertips gently together, then glanced at Tsing Chang. "Admiral, prepare to move out. Bob, same message to the other battlegroups on whiskers."

"Aye, aye, sir."

The needle-thin com lasers woke, murmuring across the emptiness to the tightly grouped capital ships of the Terran Republic. Han looked back at her display, watching as Magda's fighters plunged into the oncoming Rim ships.

Running battle snarled viciously across the Zapata System, and space became leprous with the ugly pockmarks of nuclear warheads and dying humans. Trevayne felt Nelson tremble under full drive, but even at her maximum speed, the ponderous supermonitor fell further and further behind as Stoner's carriers raced ahead to cover Remko's cruisers. His pilots had moved in with the wary skill of professionals, but they'd been disconcerted to find that the rebel fighters mounted a new weapon-a kind of flechette missile, short-ranged and useless against starships but dismayingly effective against fighters. They faced a daunting exchange rate, yet they hurtled into action.

Trevayne sat motionless but for the slow drumming of his fingers. The whole unorthodox course of the battle disturbed him. Simple attrition made sense against the flanks of an extending corridor, but not in a set-piece battle to defend a vital system. And the presence of battleships this far from their retreat warp point did not offer advantages commensurate with the risk. To be sure, they were heavy metal for battlecruisers, but they weren't fast enough to crush Sean before he could fall back on the battle-line, however far ahead he got. Damn it, what were the rebels up to?

His battle-line had drawn almost level with Planet Three when Trevayne thought his questions had been answered.

"Admiral," Yoshinaka announced, "scanners report nine battlecruisers leaving Zapata III. Evidently they've been hiding behind the planet-now they're on course to intercept our screen from behind." Even as he spoke, the computers dispassionately added the newcomers to the display.

Things clicked in Trevayne's mind. Of course! The rebels had known he was as likely as themselves to deduce that Zapata was the logical place for them to make a stand-so they'd decided to make it elsewhere! Iphigena? Probably. It didn't matter. What mattered was that their objective for this battle was to strip him of his screen for the decisive clash . . . just as their false "fortresses" had already stripped him of most of his SBMHAWKs. And, he thought grimly, they were going about it in an all-too-rational fashion. Caught between these new battlecruisers and the force with which he was already engaged, Remko would be overwhelmed before he could disengage.

But . . . the rebel's timing, while excellent, wasn't perfect. The geometry of the engagement had forced them to jump as soon as Stoner's carriers came to them . . . while the onward-lumbering battle-line was still close enough, still had the range, to reach them with its heavy external ordnance load of SBMs. Yet there was no time to lose, or the battlecruisers would soon draw out of range. He gave the command, and the capital ships' external ordnance lashed outward, the salvos of SBMs thickened by the supermonitors' internally launched HBMs.

Trevayne sat back, awaiting further reports as the missiles speckled his display. Those battlecruisers were doomed. Nothing that size could stand up to that hurricane of missiles. Nothing. Yet there remained the unidentified worry nagging at the back of his mind, the sense of something overlooked. He was still scratching at the mental itch when Yoshinaka turned a carefully controlled face to him.

"Admiral, we've lost missile lock. Those 'battlecruisers' . . . it seems they were scout cruisers with their ECM in deception mode. They've dropped it and gone to evasive action."

Their eyes met, and neither needed to speak. The rebels had just stripped the battle-line of its external ordnance.

Somewhere in the back of Trevayne's mind a part of him reflected that perhaps he'd been too worried about his subordinate's cockiness to recognize it in himself. Or had he simply fallen into a belief in the infallibility of his own judgment? It was easy to do, when Miriam wasn't around. . . .

It only remained to learn why the rebels had mousetrapped him into firing off his missiles.



OPERATION REUNION | Insurrection | * * *



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