The grim pursuit was coming to its inevitable conclusion, Michelle thought. Her belly was like a lump of congealed iron, and she felt almost lightheaded. Fear was a huge part of it, of course — she wasn't insane, after all. And yet excitement, anticipation, gripped her almost as tightly as the fear.

            If it's the final shot I'm ever going to get, at least it's going to be a doozy, she told herself tautly. And it looks like I'm actually going to get to see it fired, after all. Hard to believe.

            It had become only too evident over the last forty-seven minutes that Stackpole's assessment of the Peep commander's intentions had been accurate. That was how long it had been since Bogey Two had entered its own extreme missile range of Ajax, but the enemy was clearly in no hurry to pull the trigger.

            And rightly so, Michelle thought. The Peeps had every advantage there was — numbers, acceleration rate, firepower, counter-missile launchers and laser clusters, and missile range — and they were using them ruthlessly. She was a bit surprised, to be honest, that the enemy had managed to resist the temptation to start firing sooner, but she understood the logic perfectly. As Stackpole had suggested, the Peeps would close to a range at which they remained just outside the powered envelope of Ajax's Mark 16s, then open fire. Or, perhaps, call upon Ajax to surrender, since the situation would have become hopeless. There would have been just about zero probability of even Manticoran missiles getting through Bogey Two's defenses in salvos the size a single Agamemnon could throw and control at any range, but with the need for them to incorporate at least a brief ballistic phase in their approach, the probability would shrink still further. And no matter how good Ajax's missile defenses might be, she was still only a single battlecruiser, and she would be thirty million kilometers inside Bogey Two's maximum range. Light speed communication lags would be far lower, which would improve both the enemy's fire control and its ability to compensate for Manticore's superior EW.

            Of course, there could be a few minor difficulties hidden in that tactical situation, couldn't there? Michelle thought.

            She turned her command chair back towards Stackpole once again. Her tactical officer's shoulders were tight, his attention totally focused on his displays, and she smiled at him with a sort of bittersweet regret. He and Harrison had implemented Michelle's brainstorm quickly and efficiently. Now —

            Michelle's com beeped softly at her. The sound startled her, and she twitched before she reached down and pressed the acceptance key. Vicky Horn appeared on her display, and this time there was something very different about the commander's gray eyes. They literally glowed, and she smiled hugely at Michelle.

            "Master Chief MaGuire's cleared the after bay, Ma'am!" she announced before her admiral could even speak, and Michelle jerked upright. The Bosun and her work parties had continued laboring heroically, but after so long, Michelle — like everyone else aboard Ajax, she was certain — had come to the conclusion that there was simply no way MaGuire's people were going to succeed.

            Michelle's eyes darted to the countdown clock blinking steadily towards zero in the corner of her tactical plot, then back to Horn.

            "In that case, Vicky," she said, "I suggest you start getting our people off right now. Somehow, I don't think the other side's going to be very happy with us in about seven minutes."

* * * * * * * * * *

            No one aboard Ajax had needed their admiral's observation.

            The range between the battlecruiser and her overwhelming adversaries was down to little more than 48,600,000 kilometers, which put them far inside the Havenites' engagement envelope. No doubt those SD(P)s astern of them had already deployed multiple patterns of pods, tractored to their hulls inside their wedges, where they wouldn't degrade anyone's acceleration. The Peep commander was no doubt watching his own tactical displays intently, waiting for the first sign that Ajax might change her mind and attempt a long-range missile launch. If he saw one, he would undoubtedly roll his own pods, immediately. And if he didn't see one, he would probably roll them anyway within the next ten to twelve minutes.

            Small craft began to launch from the boat bay Master Chief MaGuire and her people had managed — somehow — to get back into service. The bad news was that there weren't very many of those small craft available. The good news was that there were barely three hundred people still aboard the battlecruiser. Of course, for some of those people, getting to the boat bay was going to take a bit longer than for others.

* * * * * * * * * *

            "Admiral," a voice said from Michelle Henke's com. "It's time for you to go, Ma'am."

            It was Commander Horn, and Michelle glanced at the display, then shook her head.

            "I don't think so, Vicky," she said. "I'm a little busy just now."

            "Bullshit." The single, succinct word snapped her head back around, and Horn shook her own head, her expression stern. "You don't have a damned thing to do, Admiral. Not anymore. So get your ass off my ship — now!"

            "I don't think –" Michelle began once more, but Horn cut her off abruptly.

            "That's right, Ma'am. You aren't thinking. Sure, it was your idea, but you don't even have a tactical link to the pods from Flag Bridge. That means it up to me and Dwayne, and you know it. Staying behind at this point isn't your duty, Admiral. And it doesn't have anything to do with courage or cowardice."

            Michelle stared at her, wanting to argue. But she couldn't — not logically. Not rationally. Yet her own need to stay with Ajax to the very end had very little to do with logic, or reason. Her eyes locked with those of the woman who was effectively ordering her to abandon her and her tactical officer to certain death, and the fact that no one had expected to have the opportunity to escape only made her own sense of guilt cut deeper and harder.

            "I can't," she said softly.

            "Don't be stupid, Ma'am!" Horn said sharply. Then her expression softened. "I know what you're feeling," she said, "but forget it. I doubt Dwayne or I could get to the boat bay in time, anyway. And whether we can or not, it doesn't change a thing I just said to you. Besides, it's your duty to get off if you can and look after my people for me."

            Michelle had opened her mouth again, but Horn's last seven words shut it abruptly. She looked at the other woman, her eyes burning, then inhaled deeply.

            "You're right," she said softly. "Wish you weren't, Vicky."

            "So do I." Horn managed a smile. "Unfortunately, I'm not. Now go. That's an order, Admiral."

            "Aye, aye, Captain." Michelle's answering smile was crooked, and she knew it. "God bless, Vicky."

            "And you, Ma'am."

            The screen blanked, and Michelle looked at her staff officers and their assistants.

            "You heard the Captain, people!" she said, her husky contralto harsh and rasping. "Let's go!"