"You know," Lieutenant Commander Stackpole said, "I know we're pretty much screwed, Ma'am, but I really would like to take some of them with us."

            There was something remarkably like whimsy in his tone, and Michelle wondered if he was aware of that . . . or how ironic it was.

            Ironic or not, a part of her agreed with him. Bogey Two had continued its pursuit of the rest of the task force only until it became obvious that it would be impossible to overtake Imperator and the other ships in company with her. At that point, Bogey Two — all of Bogey Two — had altered course to pursue Ajax, instead, with acceleration advantage of almost 2.5 KPS2. Thanks to her own damage, and the fact that Bogey Two had been able to begin cutting the chord of Ajax's course after abandoning the pursuit of the rest of the task force, the pursuing Havenites had already been able to build a velocity advantage of over two thousand KPS. With that sort of overtake velocity and such an acceleration advantage over a ship which couldn't escape into hyper even if she managed to get across the hyper limit before she was intercepted, this chase could have only one outcome.

            Maximum range for Havenite MDMs was just under sixty-one million kilometers, and the range was already down to little more than sixty-three million. It wouldn't be long now, unless . . . .

            "You know," Michelle said, "I wonder just how close these people are willing to come before they pull the trigger?"

            "Well, they must know we've loaded our battlecruiser pods with Mark 16s," Stackpole pointed out, turning to look over his shoulder at her. "I can't believe they'd be interested in coming into our range!"

            "I certainly wouldn't be, in their place," Michelle agreed. "Still, their hard numbers on the Mark 16's performance have to be a little iffy. Oh," she waved one hand in the air before her, "I know we've used them before, but the only time they've ever seen them used at maximum powered range was right here, in Fire Plan Gamma, and that had that ballistic component right in the middle of it. It's remotely possible Bogey Two hasn't had the benefit of a full tactical analysis yet."

            "You're suggesting they might just come into our range, after all, Ma'am?" Stackpole sounded like a junior officer doing his best not to sound overtly dubious.

            "It's possible, I suppose," Michelle said. Then she snorted. "On the other hand, it's entirely possible I'm grasping at straws, too!"

            "Well, Ma'am," Stackpole said, "I hate to rain on your parade, but I can think of at least one damned good reason for them to be doing what they're doing." She cocked an eyebrow at him, and he shrugged. "If I were them, and if I did have a pretty good idea what our maximum powered envelope was, I wouldn't be in any hurry. I'd want to get as close as I could and still stay outside our envelope before I fired. Of course, if we want to start engaging them at longer ranges, with a ballistic component in the flight, they'll probably shoot back pretty damned fast."

            "I know," Michelle said.

            She smiled thinly, then tipped back in her command chair. It was remarkable, actually, she mused. Whatever the Peeps were up to, she was going to die sometime in the next hour or so, and yet she felt oddly calm. She hadn't resigned herself to death, didn't want to die — perhaps, deep down inside, some survival center simply refuse to accept the possibility, even now — and yet her forebrain knew it was going to happen. And despite that, her mind was clear, with a sort of bittersweet serenity. There were a lot of things she'd meant to do that she'd never have the chance to get around to now, and she felt a deep surge of regret for that. And, for that matter, she felt an even deeper, darker regret for the other men and women trapped aboard Ajax with her. Yet this was a possible ending she'd accepted the day she entered the Academy, the day she swore her oath as an officer in the Royal Manticoran Navy. She couldn't pretend she hadn't known it might come, and if she had to die, she could not have done it in better company than with the crew of HMS Ajax.

            She considered the men and women who'd escaped aboard the battlecruiser's remaining operational life pods, wondered what they were thinking as they awaited rescue by their enemies. There'd been a time when the Manticoran Navy had been none too sure Havenite ships would bother with search-and-rescue after a battle, yet despite the sneak attack with which the Republic had opened this war, no one on either side had ever doubted that the victor in any engagement would do her very best to rescue as many survivors from both sides as possible.

            So we've made some progress, at least, she told herself sardonically. Then she gave herself a mental shake. The last thing she should be doing at a moment like this was feeling anything except gratitude that the people Commander Horn had gotten off Ajax were going to survive!

            We really have come a long way since Basilisk Station and First Hancock, she told herself. In fact —

            "John." She let her command chair snap back upright and turned it to face the tac officer.

            "Yes, Ma'am?" Something about her tone brought his own chair around to face her squarely, and his eyes narrowed.

            "These people just finished borrowing Her Grace's tactics from Sidemore, right?"

            "That's one way to put it," Stackpole agreed, his eyes narrowing further.

            "Well, in that case," Michelle said with a razor-like smile, "I think it just might be time for us to borrow her tactics from Hancock Station. Why don't you and I kick this idea around with Commander Horn for a couple of minutes? After all," her smile grew thinner yet, "it's not like any of us have anything better to do, is it?"

* * * * * * * * * *

            "I like it, Your Grace," Vicky Horn said grimly from Michelle's com screen.

            "According to our best figures from here," Michelle said, "we've got roughly three hundred pods still on the rails."

            "Three hundred and six, Admiral," Commander Dwayne Harrison, who had become Ajax's tactical officer in the same instant Horn had become the battlecruiser's captain, said from behind Horn.

            "Just over twelve minutes to roll all of them, then."

            "Yes, Ma'am," Horn agreed. "Use their tractors to limpet them to the hull until we're ready to drop all of them in a single clutch?"

            "Exactly. And if we're going to do this, we'd better get started pretty quick," Michelle said.

            "Agreed." Horn frowned for a moment, then grimaced. "I've got too much else on my plate right now, Admiral. I think this is something for you and Commander Stackpole to work out with Dwayne while I concentrate on pushing the repair parties."

            "I agree, Vicky." Michelle nodded firmly, even though she knew Horn was as well aware as she was that all the repairs in the world weren't going to make much difference. Master Chief MaGuire and her repair parties were still fighting to get at least one boat bay cleared, but the Bosun's last estimate was that she'd need at least another hour, and probably at least a little longer. It was . . . unlikely, to say the least, that Ajax was going to have that hour.

            "Very well, Ma'am." Horn nodded back. "Clear," she said, and Harrison's face replaced hers on both Michelle's and Stackpole's com screens.