"Captain is on the br—" the quartermaster began, but Alice Truman's curt wave cut him off as she stormed out of the lift onto HMS Minotaur's command deck.
"Talk to me, Tactical!" she snapped, continuing in a straight line for her command chair.
"They came out of hyper five minutes ago, Ma'am," Commander Jessup replied quickly. "They made translation just above the ecliptic and just outside the hyper limit and headed straight in. Present range to the primary is six-five-six-point-six light-seconds. Bearing from Hancock Base is zero-zero-three zero-niner-two relative, range to orbit shell intercept three-five-one-point-eight-five light-seconds, closing at one-one-two-zero-one KPS and accelerating at four-point-zero KPS squared."
"Um." Truman had continued across the deck as Jessup spoke. Now she threw herself into the command chair McGyver had vacated at her approach. Her eyes darted down to the plot, and she frowned at the vector projections. Then she punched for a readout on the probable enemy types, and her frown deepened.
Thirty-plus battleships, ten or twelve heavy cruisers, and a half-dozen destroyers, she thought, fingers drumming nervously on the arm of her command chair. Individually, nothing in that force could stand up to Rear Admiral Truitt's superdreadnoughts; collectively, they could demolish everything Truitt had in twenty minutes of close action. They'd get hurt in the process, but they could do it. And their low acceleration made her wonder if they'd need even twenty minutes... or get hurt all that badly. They had to be towing heavy loads of pods to account for that acceleration, and Adler had proved Peep missile pods were not to be taken lightly. Which meant Hancock was going to fall, and that was more than just a disaster because there wasn't enough shipping with enough life support in the entire system to take off the personnel assigned to the steadily expanding fleet base. And—
Her fingers stopped drumming suddenly, and her eyes narrowed as a thought struck her. It was preposterous, of course. Or was it? She turned it over in her mind, examining it from all angles with feverish haste while the Peeps' vector built steadily towards Hancock Base. Could it really be—?
She began punching rapid-fire numbers into her plot.
"Could they have seen Minnie yet?" she demanded of the tac officer, using the nickname she'd done her level best to stamp out in her distraction.
"No way, Ma'am," Jessup replied confidently, and she nodded at the confirmation. Not that she'd expected anything else. Minotaur had been running silent under stealth for the point from which she and Harmon had decided to launch their "attack" on Hancock Base's defenders—which wasn't all that far, on the scale of deep space, from where the Peeps had actually appeared—and anything that could hide from the Hancock sensor net wouldn't be picked up by Peep sensors even if the damned Sollies had doubled their efficiency. And that meant...
She stopped, looking at the results on her plot, and swore silently. She couldn't quite pull off what she'd hoped for, but the fallback looked good.
"Check me on this, Alf," she said, turning to face the tactical section. "I make it that they're on course for a speed-zero/range-zero intercept with the orbit base. Do you concur?"
"Yes, Ma'am," Jessup replied. "Assuming accelerations remain constant at four KPS squared, they'll hit turnover in approximately forty-five minutes at just under six-zero-point-six million klicks from the base. Time to zero/zero intercept from now is one-three-six-point-seven-niner minutes."
Truman nodded again as he confirmed her figures. Of course, if the Peeps decided to, they could simply maintain a constant acceleration, in which case they would cross the base's orbital shell in only eighty-three minutes. They'd be well "ahead" of the base at the time if they stuck with their current heading, but they'd have plenty of time to adjust their course for a missile pass.
But whichever option they pursued, they would certainly remain on their current heading at their current acceleration at least to the turnover for the zero/zero approach, and that gave her forty-five minutes with which to work. She turned to look down at her plot again, then looked at her helmsman.
"Bring us to zero-one-zero zero-seven-eight at three-zero-zero gravities," she said.
"Aye, aye, Ma'am. Zero-one-zero zero-seven-eight at three hundred gravities," the helmsman replied, and Truman punched a comstud.
"LAC Control, COLAC speaking," Harmon's voice responded instantly.
"We're going to get a live-fire test of your birds after all, Jackie," Truman said with a tight smile. "Are they prepping?"
"Yes, Ma'am! We're loading the mags with war shots now. We'll be ready to launch in four minutes."
"Um." Truman punched a fresh set of assumptions into her plot and scowled. It would stretch the range envelope still further and require a higher acceleration from the LACs than she really liked, EW or no EW, but it would be possible. Probably.
"All right," she said. "Here's what we're going to do..."