Several minutes passed, and Michelle listened to the background flow of clipped, professional voices as her staff officers and their assistants continued refining their assessment of what had just happened. It wasn't getting much better, she reflected, watching the data bars shift as more detailed damage reports flowed in.

          As Manfredi had already reported, her own squadron — aside from her flagship — had suffered no damage at all, but it was beginning to look as if Stackpole's initial assessment of HMS Intolerant's damages had actually been optimistic.

          "Admiral," Lieutenant Kaminski said suddenly. Michelle turned towards her staff communications officer, one eyebrow raised. "Duchess Harrington wants to speak to you," he said.

          "Put her through," Michelle said quickly, and turned back to her own small com screen. A familiar, almond-eyed face appeared upon it almost instantly.

          "Mike," Honor Alexander-Harrington began without preamble, her crisp, Sphinxian accent only a shade more pronounced than usual, "Intolerant's in trouble. Her missile defenses are way below par, and we're headed into the planetary pods' envelope. I know Ajax's taken a few licks of her own, but I want your squadron moved out on our flank. I need to interpose your point defense between Intolerant and Arthur. Are you in shape for that?"

          "Of course we are." Henke nodded vigorously. Putting something as fragile as a battlecruiser between a wounded superdreadnought and a planet surrounded by missile pods wasn't something to be approached lightly. On the other hand, screening ships of the wall was one of the functions battlecruisers had been designed to fulfill, and at least, given the relative dearth of missile pods their scouts had reported in Arthur orbit, they wouldn't be looking at another missile hurricane like the one which had just roared through the task force.

          "Ajax's the only one who's been kissed," Michelle continued, "and our damage is all pretty much superficial. None of it'll have any effect on our missile defense."

          "Good! Andrea and I will shift the LACs as well, but they've expended a lot of CMs." Honor shook her head. "I didn't think they could stack that many pods without completely saturating their own fire control. It looks like we're going to have to rethink a few things."

          "That's the nature of the beast, isn't it?" Michelle responded with a shrug. "We live and learn."

          "Those of us fortunate enough to survive," Honor agreed, a bit grimly. "All right, Mike. Get your people moving. Clear."

          "Clear," Michelle acknowledged, then turned her chair to face Stackpole and Braga. "You heard the lady," she said. "Let's get them moving."

* * * * * * * * * *

          BCS 81 moved out on Task force Eighty-Two's flank as the Manticoran force continued accelerating steadily away from its pursuers. The final damage reports came in, and Michelle grimaced as she considered how the task force's commanding officer was undoubtedly feeling about those reports. She'd known Honor Harrington since Honor had been a tall, skinny first-form midshipwoman at Saganami Island. It wasn't Honor's fault the Havenites had managed to mousetrap her command, but that wasn't going to matter. Not to Honor Harrington. Those were her ships which had been damaged, her people who had been killed, and at this moment, Michelle Henke knew, she was feeling the hits her task force had taken as if every one of them had landed directly on her.

          No, that isn't what she's feeling, Michelle told herself. What she's doing right now is wishing that every one of them had landed on her, and she's not going to forgive herself for walking into this. Not for a long time, if I know her. But she's not going to let it affect her decisions, either.

          She shook her head. It was a pity Honor was so much better at forgiving her subordinates for disasters she knew perfectly well weren't there fault than she was at forgiving herself. Unfortunately, it was too late to change her now.

          And, truth to tell, I don't think any of us would want to go screwing around trying to change her, Michelle thought wryly.

          "We'll be entering the estimated range of Arthur's pods in another thirty seconds, Ma'am," Stackpole said quietly, breaking in on her thoughts.

          "Thank you." Michelle shook herself, then settled herself more solidly into her command chair.

          "Stand by missile defense," she said.

          The seconds trickled by, and then —

          "Missile launch!" Stackpole announced. "Multiple missile launches, multiple sources!"

          His voice sharpened with the last two words, and Michelle's head snapped around.

          "Estimate seventeen thousand, Ma'am!"

          "Repeat that!" Michelle snapped, certain for an instant that she must have misunderstood him somehow.

          "CIC says seventeen thousand, Ma'am," Stackpole told her harshly, turning to look at her. "Time to attack range, seven minutes."

          Michelle stared at him while her mind tried to grapple with the impossible numbers. The remote arrays deployed by the task force's pre-attack scout ships had detected barely four hundred pods in orbit around Arthur. That should have meant a maximum of only four thousand missiles, so where the hell –?

          "We've got at least thirteen thousand coming in from Bogey One," Stackpole said, as if he'd just read her mind. His tone was more than a little incredulous, and her own eyes widened in shock. That was even more preposterous. Two superdreadnoughts and seven battlecruisers couldn't possibly have the fire control for that many missiles, even if they'd all been pod designs!

          "How could –?" someone began.

          "Those aren't battlecruisers," Oliver Manfredi said suddenly. "They're frigging minelayers!"

          Michelle understood him instantly, and her mouth tightened in agreement. Just like the Royal Manticoran Navy, the Republic of Haven built its fast minelayers on battlecruiser hulls. And Manfredi was undoubtedly correct. Instead of normal loads of mines, those ships had been stuffed to the deckhead with missile pods. The whole time they'd been sitting there, watching the task force flee away from Bogey Four and directly towards them, they'd been rolling those pods, stacking them into the horrendous salvo which had just come screaming straight at TF 82.

          "Well," she said, hearing the harshness in her own voice, "now we understand how they did it. Which still leaves us with the little problem of what we do about it. Execute Hotel, John!"

          "Defense Plan Hotel, aye, Ma'am," Stackpole acknowledged, and orders began to stream out from HMS Ajax to the rest of her squadron.

          Michelle watched her plot. There wasn't time for her to adjust her formation significantly, but she'd already set up for Hotel, even though it had seemed unlikely the Havenites' fire could be heavy enough to require it. Her ships' primary responsibility was to protect Intolerant. Looking out for themselves came fairly high on their list of priorities as well, of course, but the superdreadnought represented more combat power — and almost as much total tonnage — as her entire squadron combined. That was why Missile Defense Plan Hotel had stacked her battlecruisers vertically in space, like a mobile wall between the planet Arthur and Intolerant. They were perfectly placed to intercept the incoming fire . . . which, unfortunately, meant that they were completely exposed to that fire, as well.

          "Signal from the Flag, Ma'am," Stackpole said suddenly. "Fire Plan Gamma."

          "Acknowledged. Execute Fire Plan Gamma," Michelle said tersely.

          "Aye, aye, Ma'am. Executing Fire Plan Gamma," Stackpole said, and Battlecruiser Squadron Eighty-One began to roll pods at last.

          It wasn't going to be much of a response compared to the amount of fire coming at the task force, but Michelle felt her lips drawing back from her teeth in satisfaction anyway. The gamma sequence Honor and her tactical staff had worked out months ago was designed to coordinate the battlecruisers' shorter-legged Mark 16s with the superdreadnoughts' MDMs. It would take a Mark 16 over thirteen minutes to reach Bogey One, as compared to the seven minutes one of Imperator's Mark 23s would require. Both missiles used fusion-powered impeller drives, but there was no physical way to squeeze three complete drives into the smaller missile's tighter dimensions, which meant it simply could not accelerate as long as its bigger brother.

          So, under Fire Plan Gamma Imperator's first half-dozen patterns of pod-launched Mark 23s' drive settings had been stepped down to match those of the Agamemnons' less capable missiles. It let the task force put six salvos of almost three hundred mixed Mark 16 and Mark 23 missiles each into space before the superdreadnought began firing hundred-and-twenty-bird salvos at the Mark 23's maximum power settings.

          All of which is very fine, Michelle thought grimly, watching the icons of the attack missiles go streaking away from the task force. Unfortunately, it doesn't do much about the birds they've already launched.

          As if to punctuate her thought, Ajax began to quiver with the sharp vibration of outgoing waves of counter-missiles as her launchers went to sustained rapid fire.

          The Grayson-designed Katana-class LACs were firing, as well, sending their own counter-missiles screaming to meet the attack, but no one in her worst nightmare had ever envisioned facing a single salvo this massive.

          "It's coming through, Ma'am," Manfredi said quietly.

           She looked back up from her plot, and her lips tightened as she saw him standing beside her command chair once more. Given what was headed towards them at the moment, he really ought to have been back in the shock frame and protective armored shell of his own chair. And he damned well knows it, too, she thought in familiar, sharp-edged irritation. But he'd always been a roamer, and she'd finally given up yelling at him for it. He was one of those people who needed to move around to keep their brains running at the maximum possible RPM. Now his voice was too low pitched for anyone else to have heard as he gazed down into her repeater plot with her, but his eyes were bleak.

          "Of course it is," she replied, equally quietly. The task force simply didn't have the firepower to stop that many missiles in the time available to it.

          "How the hell are they managing to control that many birds?" Manfredi continued, never looking away from the plot. "Look at that pattern. Those aren't blind-fired shots; they're under tight control, for now at least. So where in hell did they find that many control channels?"

          "Don't have a clue," Michelle admitted, her tone almost absent as she watched the defenders' fire ripping huge holes in the cloud of incoming missiles. "I think we'd better figure it out, though. Don't you?"

          "You've got that right, Ma'am," he agreed with a mirthless smile.