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David Weber

Flag In Exile


Admiral of the Green Hamish Alexander, Thirteenth Earl of White Haven, sat on HMS Queen Caitrin's flag deck and gazed into his display. The Nightingale System's G3 primary was a white specie of fire, and its single habitable planet, too distant to be seen on visuals, showed as a tiny, blue-green light deep in the plot.

So did the angry red rash of enemy warships between it and Queen Caitrin, and White Haven studied that crimson wall of light with care. The People's Navy's sensors had detected him hours ago, but the Peeps hadn't tried anything fancy; they'd simply formed a wall between his task force and its objective and steered to meet him well inside the systems hyper limit. That left him the initiative, yet there was only so much he could do with it. They knew why he was here, and they were inside him and able to stay there. Worse, they were staying together, without the erratic maneuvering he'd seen so often. They outnumbered him by four to three, and he'd abandoned any thought of tactical sleight of hand in the face of their steadiness, but he was confident in his ships' qualitative superiority. If he could neither split them up nor outmaneuver them, he was willing enough to meet them head-on.

He checked the range once more, then looked into the com screen to Queen Caitrin's command deck. "Very well, Captain Goldstein. You may open fire."

"Aye, aye, My Lord!" Captain Frederick Goldstein rapped, and the first, massive salvo spat from Queen Caitrin's port broadside. The rest of Battle Squadron Twenty-One fired with her, and all eight superdreadnoughts simultaneously flushed the missile pods towing astern of them. BatRon Eight and BatRon Seventeen's dreadnoughts followed suit, and thirty-two hundred impeller drive missiles lanced out across five and a half million kilometers of vacuum.

White Haven watched their outgoing tracks, and his frown deepened. The opening phase was almost classic, straight out of the tac manuals, yet he felt a nagging, unformed uneasiness. He had nothing overt to justify it, but there were more targets over there than there should have been. Peep resistance had been spotty for months, based on whatever frontier formations had held together long enough to be redeployed against Manticore's drive on Trevor's Star. But this formation's unit strength looked far more like a proper task force, and the difference between its steady, unswerving course and the confusion which had plagued Peep fleet commanders since the war's start was too marked. It roused an instinctive wariness, and that instinct jabbed at him like a sharp stick. It was why he'd fired at such long range rather than closing before he unleashed his first and heaviest salvo, and he made himself sit motionless, fighting an urge to fidget, as return fire stippled his plot.

That fire was lighter than the deluge his own ships had spawned, for the Peeps had no equivalent of Manticore's missile pods, but there were four full battle squadrons, thirty-two ships of the wall, all of them superdreadnoughts, over there. The Peep wall of battle spat twelve hundred birds back at him, and White Haven swallowed a stillborn curse as he realized they'd concentrated solely on BatRon Twenty-One's eight units.

The deadly fireflies streaked towards one another. Queen Caitrin twitched as she expelled her second broadside, and her third, and then the green dots of defensive fire spewed out to meet the destruction roaring down on White Haven's lead squadron. Peep missiles began to die, ripped apart by charging counter missiles, but there were simply too many targets. The Peeps were catching on; their tightly concentrated fire was an unmistakable bid to saturate BatRon Twenty-One's point defense, and despite Manticore's superior technology, at least some of that massive salvo would get through.

White Haven's opening broadsides reached attack range first and drove in through the desperate lattice of last ditch defenses. Lasers swiveled and spat coherent light, fighting to kill the incoming missiles at least twenty-five thousand kilometers out, but probability theory plays no favorites. White Haven had spread his fire over three squadrons, not one, yet his salvo density was actually greater, and bomb-pumped lasers gouged at their targets as laser heads began to detonate.

Impeller wedge sidewalls twisted and attenuated the beams, but scores of them got through, and battle steel hulls spat glowing splinters. Atmosphere streamed from the Peep leviathans' lacerated flanks, men and women died, weapons were smashed away, and energy signatures fluctuated as drive nodes blew apart. Yet even as White Haven’s missiles pounded his enemies, the remnants of the first massive Havenite salvo broke past his own counter missiles. It was his laser clusters' turn to spit fire, but BatRon Eight's lasers were too far astern to range effectively. It was all up to BatRon Twenty-One and BatRon Seventeen, and they simply had too few clusters. Sheer weight of numbers swamped them, and the green lights of friendly ships flashed the spiteful sparkle of battle damage.

Fresh salvos scorched out, battle chatter and the beep of priority signals washed about White Haven, and his eyes narrowed. His squadron commanders and captains knew their business, and their first broadsides had hurt the Peeps badly. CIC's estimates of enemy damage danced across the bottom of his display, and three times as many Peep ships had taken hits. One or two looked to have been half-wrecked, but they kept coming, and Queen Caitrin lurched as something got through to her. She bucked again to a second hit, and his plot flickered. It steadied almost instantly, and a corner of his mind noted the damage control side-bar. Queen Caitrin's wounds were light, but the two walls of battle angled together, missiles streaking back and forth with mounting fury as the range fell, and he knew it was going to be ugly.

"There goes the first one, My Lord!" his chief of staff announced as a crippled superdreadnought pulled out of the enemy wall and rolled up to interpose the belly of its wedge against the Manticoran fire.

"I see it, Byron," White Haven replied, but his flat voice lacked Captain Hunter's exultation, for his sense of this engagements new and dangerous rhythm only grew as the wounded vessel withdrew. Mounting damage might have driven that ship out of formation, but its consorts held their course, missile tubes belching back at his wall, and his jaw clenched as he realized the Peeps had finally gotten themselves back together. Their initial, concentrated targeting had been a far cry from the dispersal of the earlier battles, and so was their steadiness under fire. By now, that wall should have been shedding ships by twos and threes. It was being hit far harder than his own, and the fresh proof of Manticore's technical superiority should have taken the heart out of the demoralized Peeps. But it hadn't, and that was frightening to any admiral who knew how the People's Navy still outnumbered the RMN. These people knew Manticore's superior missiles and electronics gave White Haven every advantage in a missile engagement, and they were coming in anyway, taking their losses in ships and lives to get to energy weapon range.

A green light in the plot suddenly flashed the red critical damage icon as half a dozen Peep lasers blasted into HMS King Michael, and White Havens hands clenched on his command chair's arms. The super-dreadnoughts wedge faltered, then came back up, and for a moment he thought that was the extent of it, until the entire ship simply blew apart. Eight-and-a-third-million tons of warship and six thousand human beings vanished in a sun-bright boil of plasma, and someone behind him gasped in horror.

"Starboard fifteen, Captain Goldstein." White Havens voice was cold as his eyes while his flag captain acknowledged the order. His vector edged away from the Peeps, not in flight, but simply to hold the range open and exploit Manticore’s missile advantage, and his lips tightened as the Havenite force matched his maneuver. More than matched it; they were coming in even more sharply, despite the marginally better angle that gave his fire. More of his missiles were detonating in front of their ships now, sending lasers lashing down their wedges' open throats, and the first Havenite ship suddenly exploded. The range was down to a bare four million kilometers, and more of White Haven’s ships were taking hits, but so were the Peeps. Another enemy ship blew apart, then a third. CIC's projections flickered and changed, the odds against his command falling as still more Peep weapons were destroyed, and he bared his teeth as he felt them shifting in his favor.