The range-to-target sidebar on the tactical display was preposterous.

            The missile salvo was sixty-eight million kilometers from Achilles, speeding steadily onward at 150,029 KPS. Its birds had been ballistic for four and a half minutes, ever since the second drive system had burned out, and they were still ninety-three seconds — almost fourteen million kilometers — from their target, even at half the speed of light.

            And the attack missiles still hadn't been assigned targets.

            Michelle Henke sat quietly to one side, playing the umpire's role as she watched Dominica Adenauer, Wilton Diego, and Victoria Armstrong work the simulation. It felt just plain wrong to have attack birds that far out at all, she reflected, far less have them swanning around without targets already locked into their cybernetic brains. And yet, what was happening was only a logical consequence of the new technology.

            Admiral Hemphill, she'd decided, had been absolutely right about Bill Edwards. The "communications officer's" intimate knowledge of the entire Apollo project had proved invaluable when she and her staff started kicking around the new system's potentialities. In fact, Adenauer and he had spent hours off to one side, talking animatedly, scribbling on napkins (or any other unwary surface which made itself available), and tweaking the simulation software. Michelle had been relieved to see that. Some tactical specialists would undoubtedly have rebuffed a mere communications type's suggestions, wherever he might have spent her last tour. Adenauer, on the other hand, was sufficiently self-confident to welcome insight, regardless of its source, and over the last six days of ship's time, she and Edwards had established not simply a sound working relationship, but a warm friendship. And the fruits of their efforts were readily apparent. In fact, Michelle suspected that the two of them had come up with at least a few wrinkles which hadn't occurred to anyone at BuWeaps.

            "Coming up on Point Alpha," Diego said quietly.

            "Acknowledged," Adenauer replied.

            The actual firing and management of the missiles was Diego's responsibility as Achilles's tactical officer, but the management and distribution of the squadron's massed firepower was a function of its operations officer. Normally, Adenauer would have given Diego Michelle's attack criteria and established general attack profiles before the first missile was launched. Diego would have taken things from there, assigning individual missiles to specific targets and — with Lieutenant Isaiah Maslov, Achilles' electronics warfare officer — slotting them into the attack, EW, and penetration profiles Adenaur had laid down.

            But today, they were examining a completely different capability. A capability no squadron commander in history had ever before enjoyed. For the purposes of today's simulation, HMS Achilles had been promoted from a battlecruiser to an Invictus-class SD(P). Every unit of the squadron had undergone a similar transformation, which meant that instead of the sixty Mark 16s each ship could normally fire in a single double-broadside salvo, each of them could deploy six full pods of Mark 23s. Normally, that would have meant that each ship rolled one pattern of Mark 17 "flat pack" missile pods, each of which contained ten Mark 23s, every twelve seconds. In this case, however, they were rolling the Mark 17, Mod D, which contained only eight Mark 23s . . . and a single Mark 23-E.

            So instead of sixty Mark 16s every eighteen seconds, with a maximum powered attack range (without a ballistic segment, at least) of only a shade over twenty-seven million kilometers and "cruiser range" laser heads, they were firing forty-eight attack and dedicated EW Mark 23s every twelve seconds.

            That was a sufficiently heady increase in firepower, Michelle thought dryly, but the technique which she and Adenauer — and Edwards — had come up with for today made it even sweeter.

            One of the Manticoran Alliance's most telling advantages was Ghost Rider, the highly developed — and constantly evolving — family of FTL recon and EW platforms. Deployed in a shell around a single ship, squadron, or task force, they gave an Alliance CO a degree of situational awareness no one else could match. Alliance starships could simply see farther, faster, and better than anyone else, and their recon platforms could deliver their take in real-time or near real-time, which no one else — not even the Republic of Haven — could do.

            But there were still drawbacks. It was still entirely possible to detect the impeller signatures of a potentially hostile force and not have a recon platform in position to run and find out who the newcomers were. Even if a tactical officer had very good reason to believe the newcomers in question cherished ill intentions, she still had to get one of her platforms into position to look them over from relatively close range before she could be positive of that. Or, for that matter, before she could be positive that what she was seeing were really starships and not electronic warfare drones pretending to be starships. And it was generally considered to be a good idea to have that sort of information in hand before one sent an entire salvo of attack missiles screaming in on what might, after all, turn out to be a neutral merchant convoy.

            In one of Adenauer's and Edwards' brainstorming sessions with Michelle, however, Edwards had pointed out a new possibility which Apollo made possible. Fast as the Ghost Rider platforms were, they were immensely slower than an MDM. They had to be, since stealth and long endurance were completely incompatible with the massive acceleration rates produced by an attack missile's impeller wedge in its brief, incredibly un-stealthy lifetime. But Apollo was designed to combine and analyze the readings from the attack missiles slaved to it . . . and to transmit that analysis back to the launching ship at FTL speed. Michelle and Adenauer had grasped his point immediately and run with it, and this simulation was designed to test what they'd come up with. What Adenauer had done was to fire a single Apollo pod thirty seconds before they fired a complete squadron salvo. And that pod was now one minute's flight from the "unknown impeller wedges" eighty-two million kilometers from Achilles.

            "Jettisoning the shrouds now," Diego reported as the first pod's missiles reached Point Alpha.

            "Acknowledged," Adenauer replied.

            The shroud-jettisoning maneuver had been programmed into the missiles before launch. Unlike any previous attack missile, the Mark 23s in an Apollo pod were fitted with protective shrouds intended to shield their sensors from the particle erosion of extended ballistic flight profiles at relativistic speeds. Most missiles didn't really need anything of the sort, since their impeller wedges incorporated particle screening. They were capable of maintaining a separate particle screen — briefly, at least — as long as they retained onboard power, even after the wedge went down, but that screening was far less efficient than a starship's particle screens. For the most part, that hadn't mattered, since any ballistic component of a "standard" attack profile was going to be brief, at best. But with Apollo, very long-range attacks, with lengthy ballistic components built into them, had suddenly become feasible. That capability, however, would be of limited usefulness if particle erosion had blinded the missiles before they ever got a chance to see their targets.

            Now the jettisoning command blew the shrouds, and the sensors they had protected came on-line. Of course, the missiles were 72,998,260 kilometers from Achilles. That was over four light-minutes, which in the old days (like five or six T-years ago) would have meant any transmission from them would take four minutes to reach Achilles.

            With the FTL grav-pulse transceiver built into the Mark 23-E, however, it took barely four seconds.