The Road Home
The enemy had escaped.
It was not possible, yet he had. The Fleet had paid heavily to bait the trap, to close it behind him, to draw him in and expose his core systems to counterattack, and still almost half his warships had escaped.
Attack Force Four turned vengefully on the handful of cripples which remained in the system. The enemy's lamed vessels were no more than wrecks, yet they fought to the last, and when their final weapons were gone, they closed in agonizingly slow ramming attempts. Few succeeded, but each of those who did took yet another starship with it, and so the Fleet stood off and smashed the final units with missile and energy fire.
But when the last died, the Fleet's quandary remained. The plan had called for the enemy to perish here, and he had not. A review of the tactical data indicated that most of his escapees were damaged—many critically—and his losses in attack craft had been even heavier, proportionately, than in starships. Yet those starships remained faster than the Fleet's battle-line, else they had not escaped at all. The handful of new, fast battle-cruisers might be able to overtake, as could the light cruisers of the other attack forces, once they reached the warp point, but by that time the enemy's capital ships would have had many hours to make emergency repairs. Superdreadnoughts, even damaged, would be more than a match for such light units, and if the enemy had detached yet another sacrificial rearguard to cover the warp point, the Fleet's starships would pay a hideous price to pursue him.
Yet there might still be an answer. The gunboats of Attack Force One were barely twenty-five minutes from the warp point, with those of Attack Force Two only an hour behind. If Attack Force Four's survivors took those gunboats under command, they could be thrown through the warp point in a single wave fourteen hundred strong. The enemy's decimated attack craft could not stop such a mighty force, and gunboats had the speed to run down any starship.
The decision was made, and Attack Force Four closed on the warp point, licking its wounds and reorganizing its shattered datagroups while it awaited the gunboats.