Bogey Two kept charging after HMS Ajax. The Havenites' sensor resolution was problematical at best against something as small as a pinnace or a cutter at such an extended range, but the remote arrays they'd sent ahead of them were another matter. Less capable, and with much shorter endurance than their Manticoran counterparts, they'd still had Ajax under close observation for the last half-hour. They were close enough to recognize the impeller wedges of small craft, and to confirm that they were small craft, and not missile pods.

            "They're abandoning, Sir."

            Admiral Pierre Redmont turned to his tactical officer, one eyebrow quirked.

            "It's confirmed, Sir," the tac officer said.

            "Damn." The admiral's lips twisted as if he'd just tasted something sour, but he couldn't pretend it was a surprise. Under the circumstances the only thing that qualified as a surprise was that the Manties had waited so long. Obviously, they didn't intend to let him take that ship intact, after all. They were getting their people off before they scuttled.

            "We could always order them not to abandon, Sir," the tac officer said quietly.  Redmont shot him a sharp look, and the tac officer shrugged. "They're deep inside our range, Sir."

            "Yes, they are, Commander," the admiral said just a bit testily. "And they also aren't shooting at us. In fact, they can't shoot at us from here — not effectively enough to make us break a sweat, anyway. And just how do you think Admiral Giscard — or, worse, Admiral Theisman — is going to react if I open fire on a ship that can't even return fire just to keep them from abandoning?"

            "Not well, Sir," the commander said after a moment. Then he shook his head with a wry smile. "Not one of my better suggestions, Admiral."

            "No, it wasn't,"  Redmont agreed, but a brief smile of his own took most of the sting from it, and he returned his own attention to his displays.

* * * * * * * * * *

            Michelle Henke and her staff made their way quickly down the passage towards the lift tubes. The passageway itself was already deserted, hatches standing open. The ship was running almost entirely on her remotes as her remaining personnel hurried towards the restored boat bay, and a spike of worry stabbed suddenly through her.

            Oh, Jesus! What if the Peeps decide all of this was nothing but a trick? That we could have abandoned any time, but we didn't because

            She started to turn around, reaching for her personal communicator, but it was too late.

* * * * * * * * * *

            An alarm shrilled suddenly.

            The flagship's tactical officer's head jerked up in astonishment as he recognized the sound. It was the proximity alarm, and that was ridiculous! The thought flashed through his brain, but he was an experienced professional. His automatic incredulity didn't keep him from turning almost instantly towards his active sensor section.

            "Radar contact!" one of his ratings snapped, but it was too late for the warning to make any difference at all.

            Current-generation Manticoran missile pods were extraordinarily stealthy. Against a powered-down missile, active radar detection range was around a million kilometers, give or take. But then, missiles weren't designed to be as stealthy as the pods that carried them, because any attack missile was going to be picked up and tracked on passives with ludicrous ease thanks to the glaring signature of its impeller wedge. Which meant stealth wasn't going to help it very much.

            But a missile pod was something else entirely. Especially a pod like the current-generation Manticoran "flatpack" pods with their onboard fusion plants. They'd been designed to be deployed in the system-defense role, as well as in ship-to-ship combat. After all, BuWeaps had decided, it made more sense to build a single pod with the features for both, as long as neither function was compromised. It hugely simplified production and reduced expense, which was a not insignificant consideration in an era of MDM combat.

            All of which meant the Havenite radar crews had done extraordinarily well in the first place just to pick up the missile pods HMS Ajax had deployed in a single, massive salvo. The sheer size of the radar target helped, no doubt, despite the stealthiness of the individual pods of which the salvo consisted, and the range was just under nine hundred thousand kilometers when the alarms went off.

            Unfortunately, Bogey Two's velocity was up to over twenty-seven thousand kilometers per second, and its starships had been charging directly up Ajax's wake for well over an hour now. The missile pods had been continuing onward at the speed Ajax's velocity had imparted to them at launch, which meant the steadily accelerating units of Bogey Two overflew them at a relative velocity of 19,838 KPS. At that closure rate, Bogey Two had exactly 1.2 minutes to detect and react to them before they found themselves half a million kilometers behind Bogey Two . . . and launched.

            There were three hundred and six pods, each loaded with fourteen Mark 16 missiles. Of those forty-two hundred-plus missiles, a quarter were EW platforms. The remaining thirty-two hundred laser heads were far lighter than the laser heads mounted by capital ship missiles. In fact, they were too light to pose any significant threat to something as heavily armored and protected as a ship of the wall. But Bogey Two's SD(P)s were screened by battlecruisers, and battlecruisers didn't carry that sort of armor.

            The Havenite tactical officers had eighty-four seconds to recognize what had happened. Eighty-four seconds to see their displays come alive with thousands of attacking missiles. Despite the stunning surprise, they actually managed to implement their defensive doctrine, but there simply wasn't enough time for that doctrine to be effective.

            The hurricane of missiles tore into the Havenite formation. Michelle Henke had indeed taken a page from Honor Harrington's and Mark Sarnow's tactics at the Battle of Hancock Station, and her weapons were far more capable than the ones Manticore had possessed then. Although the Mark 16 hadn't really been designed for use in any area-defense mine role, its sensors were actually superior to those carried by most mines. And Henke had taken advantage of the improvements in reconnaissance platforms and communications links, as well. Along with the missile pods, Ajax had deployed half a dozen Hermes buoys — communications platforms equipped with FTL grav-pulse receivers and light-speed communications lasers. Ghost Rider recon platforms had kept the Havenites under close observation, reporting in near real-time to Ajax, and Ajax had used her own FTL com and the Hermes buoys to feed continuous updates to her waiting missile pods.

            Any sort of precise fire control over such a jury rigged control link, with its limited bandwidth and cobbled-up target selection, was impossible, of course. But it was good enough to ensure that each of those missiles had been fed the emissions signatures of the battlecruisers it was supposed to attack. Accuracy might be poor, compared to a standard missile engagement, and the EW platforms and penetration aids were far less effective without proper shipboard updates, but the range was also incredibly short, which gave the defense no time to react. Despite any shortcomings, that huge salvo's accuracy was far greater than anything Haven could possibly have anticipated . . . and not one of its missiles wasted itself against a ship of the wall.

* * * * * * * * * *

            Admiral  Redmont swore savagely as the missile storm rampaged through his screen. The missile defense computers did the best they could, and considering how completely surprised their human masters had been and the attack's deadly geometry, that best was actually amazingly good. Which, unfortunately, didn't mean it was even remotely good enough.

            There was no time for a counter-missile launch, and the attack from almost directly astern minimized the number of laser clusters which could defend any of the Manticorans' targets. Hundreds of incoming missiles were destroyed, but there were thousands of them, and their targets heaved in agony as lasers stabbed through their sidewalls or blasted directly up the kilts of their wedges. Hulls shattered, belching atmosphere and debris, and the fragile humans crewing those ships burned like straw in a furnace.

            Two of Bogey Two's eight battlecruisers died spectacularly, vanishing into blinding fireballs with every single man and woman of their crews as the demonic bomb-pumped lasers stabbed through them again and again and again. The other six survived, but four of them were little more than broken and battered wrecks, wedges down, coasting onward while shocked and stunned survivors fought their way through the wreckage, searching frantically for other survivors in the ruin.

            The admiral's jaw muscles ridged as his battlecruisers died. Then he twisted around to glare at his tac officer.

            "Open fire!" he snapped.