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Chapter Nine

Honor Harrington sat in her command chair, one hand caressing the treecat in her lap, as HMS Wayfarer decelerated towards the central terminus of the Manticore Wormhole Junction at the eighty percent power setting the Navy allowed as its normal maximum. Vulcan had completely stripped the freighter's original bridge and refitted it with what could have passed for a regular warship's command stations, but one look at Lieutenant Kanehama's power settings gave the lie to that illusion, Honor thought dryly, for Wayfarer's "maximum power" was only 153.6 g.

An impeller drive vessel's nodes generated a pair of inclined, plate-like gravity waves which trapped a pocket of normal space in their wedge-shaped grasp. The ship floated in that pocket, like a surfer poised in the curl of a comber which, in theory, could have been accelerated instantaneously to light-speed, taking the vessel with them. But minor practical considerations—like the fact that it would have turned the ship's crew into paste—mitigated against it, and the fact that the physics of the drive required the bow and stern aspects of the wedge to be open limited the maximum speed of any starship, as well. Whatever its possible acceleration, the open throat of a ship's wedge meant it had to worry about particle densities and the rare but not unknown micro-meteorite. A warship's particle and anti-radiation fields let her pull a maximum normal-space velocity of .8 light-speed in the conditions which obtained within the average star system (max speeds were twenty-five percent lower in h-space, where particle densities were higher, and somewhat higher in areas of particularly low densities), but merchant designers wouldn't accept the expense and mass penalties of generators that powerful. As a consequence, merchantmen were limited to a maximum n-space velocity of about .7 c and a max h-space velocity of no more than .5 c . . . and Wayfarer was a merchant design.

The fact that an impeller wedge's throat was almost three times as "deep" as its stern aspect, also explained why every tactician's dream was to cross an opponent's "T", since the wedge itself was impenetrable by any known weapon and its sides were protected by weaker but still extremely powerful gravity sidewalls. Energy weapons could burn through a sidewall at close enough range, but a raking shot down the wedge's throat both exposed one to far less return fire and also gave one an unobstructed shot at one's target. But Honor's greatest concern was her ships' sluggishness, for they were going to be slower in sustained flight than any warship they met . . . and they were also going to be slower to accelerate.

A ship's maximum acceleration rate depended upon three factors: its impeller strength, its inertial compensator's efficiency, and its mass. Like impellers, military-grade compensators were more powerful than the far cheaper installations merchantmen mounted, and the Caravan-class were the size of many superdreadnoughts. Given equal compensator efficiency, a smaller ship could dump a higher proportion of the inertial forces of its acceleration into the "inertial sump" of its wedge, which explained why lighter warships could run away from heavier ones despite the fact that their maximum velocities were equal. The smaller ship couldn't go any faster, but it could reach maximum speed more quickly, and unless its heavier opponent was able to close the range before it did so, it could never be forced into action. The situation was even worse for Wayfarer than it would have been for a ship of the wall, however, for an SD her size could have pulled over twice her acceleration.

All of which meant that Wayfarer maneuvered like an octogenarian turtle and that bringing an enemy to action would require guile and cunning.

Honor smiled wryly at the thought. It would take some getting used to, but she and her captains had spent hours discussing possible tactics and then trying them out in simulations and the limited time their rushed deployment had allowed for maneuvers. No doubt some of their ideas would prove impractical in action, but she'd been conscious of a growing confidence as they explored their ships' capabilities, and they did have one major advantage. If the bad guys thought they were merchantmen, then they could pretty much count on the enemy's closing the range for them. Which was where the cunning and guile came in, for it would be up to her to convince the enemy Wayfarer truly was a fat, juicy, defenseless prize until it was too late for him to avoid her.

Honor let her eyes run over the displays deployed about her command chair with a sense of satisfaction. Parnassus and Scheherazade hung neatly off Wayfarer's port and starboard quarters, holding station clear of her hundred-kilometer-wide wedge, while Gudrid brought up the rear of their diamond-shaped formation. Their intervals were professionally tight, and, given the time constraints, Honor was pleased with how well their working up had gone. Not that she wouldn't dearly have loved just a little more time. Wayfarer had completed her acceptance trials with flying colors three weeks before, closely followed by Parnassus and Scheherazade, but Gudrid had been allowed less than two weeks from trials to deployment. Captain MacGuire had done wonders, and he and Commander Stillman projected a confident attitude, but Honor knew both of them were concerned over the potential weaknesses—human and hardware—which they might simply have had too little time to find. For that matter, Honor shared their concerns. She'd deliberately had the old sweats with the worst records assigned to Wayfarer and Parnassus, where she and Alice could ride herd on them, yet she was acutely aware of the potential weakness of her mix of newbies and embittered rejects. Virtually all her departments were still shaking down, and she would have given two fingers off her left hand for even one more week to drill and train her people. But the Admiralty had been emphatic about the need to get TG 1037 into Breslau space, and, given her own intelligence briefings, she couldn't disagree.

Worse, other sectors were beginning to report alarming loss rates, as well, and the latest assessment of Silesian conditions from Second Space Lord Givens Office of Naval Intelligence had been blunt: the RMN's failure to respond to the Star Kingdom's rising losses was emboldening even raiders who'd previously steered clear of Manticoran vessels. Under the circumstances, the Admiralty had decided it was almost as important for the squadron to make its presence known to the Confederacy's spaceborne vermin as it was for Honor to actually start killing pirates. They hadn't ordered any changes in her mission profile, but Admiral Caparelli had made it quite clear that he needed Honor and her ships in Breslau at the earliest possible moment.

It was odd, she thought as the icon marking the invisible portal of the Junction grew in her maneuvering display. She'd never before been involved in a project with this much urgency, even when she'd helped organize the Fifth Battlecruiser Squadron on the eve of the war. The unremitting time pressure had driven her to take shortcuts she'd never taken before, and she'd never felt quite so anxious about the quality of her own crew. She'd been so busy organizing the squadron that she'd had virtually no opportunity to get to know any of her non-bridge personnel, nor had they had an opportunity to come to know her. Still, they'd performed fairly creditably in the limited maneuvers she'd been able to carry out. There were still far too many rough edges, and she harbored no illusion that she and Cardones wouldn't come up against more that they simply didn't know about yet, but despite Admiral Cortez's worries and her own concern over one or two specific personnel files, the raw material of her crews seemed fundamentally sound.

"We'll cross the fortress perimeter in eighteen minutes, Milady," Lieutenant Kanehama announced from Astrogation, and Honor nodded.

"Very good, Mr. Kanehama. Mr. Cousins, contact Junction Central and request transit clearance and priority."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am." The black-skinned communications officer spoke briefly into his boom mike, then looked back at Honor. "We're cleared to transit, Ma'am. Wayfarer is number twelve in the Gregor queue. Priorities for the rest of the squadron are at your discretion."

"Thank you. Inform the squadron that we'll transit in descending order of seniority, please."

"Yes, Ma'am." The lieutenant turned back to his panel, and Honor glanced at her helmsman.

"Slip us into the queue, Chief O'Halley."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am. Coming into the approach lane now."

Honor nodded. A Junction transit wasn't a battle maneuver, yet neither was it as simple as the casual observer might believe, and her bridge crew had had only a few weeks to drill, even in sims. But they moved with a quiet efficiency that was vastly reassuring, and she sat back, stroking Nimitz while she watched the green beads of her squadron track steadily through the Junction's protective fortresses.

The smallest of those mammoth forts massed over sixteen million tons; the space between them was thickly seeded with mines; and a quarter of them were always at full general quarters readiness. They changed off every five and a half hours, cycling through their readiness states once per Manticoran day, and the cost in wear and tear on their equipment was sobering.

Unfortunately, it was also necessary . . . at least until Trevor's Star was taken, and that underscored the absolute priority Sixth Fleet's operations held.

Those fortresses were individually more powerful than any superdreadnought, but not even Manticore Astro Control's traffic managers could know a ship was about to use the Junction inbound until it actually arrived. That meant a hostile mass transit would always take the forts by surprise, and losses among them would be heavy. The attacker's losses would probably be total, yet the new Peep regime had amply demonstrated its ruthlessness, and no one could afford to ignore the possibility that it might launch what amounted to a suicide attack.

Honor had once participated in a Fleet maneuver built around the assumption that the PN might employ some of the enormous number of battleships it had built for area defense to do just that. Everyone knew BBs were too weak to engage superdreadnoughts or dreadnoughts—as Honor had demonstrated once again in the Fourth Battle of Yeltsin—which was why Manticore had none. The RMN could afford to build and crew only ships that could lie in the wall of battle, but if a navy had them, BBs were ideal for covering rear areas against raiding squadrons of cruisers or battlecruisers. They were also potent tools for keeping restive systems from asserting their independence—a major reason the old regime had built them and a task upon which the new one was currently employing something like two-thirds of them.

But the maneuver's authors had assumed that since battleships were useless in fleet actions, the PN might throw them at the Junction from Trevor's Star for the sole purpose of whittling down the fortresses, instead. The umpires had calculated that the Peeps could have put roughly fifty through the Junction in a single transit. That was little more than thirteen percent of their total battleship strength, which meant—in theory—that they could do the same thing more than once if it worked . . . and for their sacrifice, the "Peep CO" in the war games "destroyed" thirty-one fortresses, or a quarter of the entire Junction Defense Force. In purely material terms, that was a sacrifice of roughly two hundred million tons of shipping and, assuming no survivors from any of their ships, 150,000 men and women in return for destroying four hundred and eighty million tons of fortresses and killing over 270,000 Manticorans. If one simply looked at the numbers and ignored the human cost, that had to be a bargain, especially for a fleet which was larger to begin with, though Honor had never been able to believe any sane navy would accept the catastrophic damage such a suicidal operation would wreak on fleet morale.

Unfortunately, no one could rely on an enemy's rationality when the risk was the crippling of your capital system's defenses. Especially when, unlike the People's Republic, that system was also the only one you had. The need for the Junction forts had eaten so deeply into the RMN's budget for decades that the Star Kingdom had started the war with a marked inferiority in ships of the wall, and their ongoing cost and manpower demands continued to suck resources away from the front. The ability to stand down even half of the Junction forts would have released the trained personnel to man twenty-four squadrons of SDs and added over fifty percent to the RMN's strength in that class—a thought, given her own experience of BuPers' manning problems, which was more than enough to boggle Honor's mind.

Yet none of that could be done until Admiral White Haven captured Trevor's Star, which meant the Peeps were going to fight desperately to stop him . . . and explained why her ships were all the Admiralty could spare for Breslau.

Wayfarer's light bead came neatly to a halt, motionless relative to the Junction, and a red number "12" glowed under it in the display. The number changed quickly to "11" as the ship at the head of her queue made transit, and Honor punched a stud on her command chair's arm. The small screen at her right knee blinked alight with the face of a red-haired, green-eyed man, and the right corner of her mouth twitched in amusement as Nimitz sat up straighter in her lap and pricked his ears. The slim, six-limbed shape on the other human's shoulder also sat up straighter, and once again Honor felt the very edge of a deep, complex exchange as the two treecats' eyes met.

"Engineering, Commander Tschu," the deep-voiced man said, and Honor smiled.

"Stand by to reconfigure to Warshawski sail, Mr. Tschu."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am. Standing by," Tschu replied.

Like Admiral Georgides, Harold Tschu was a fellow Sphinxian, but his companion was an even more unusual off-Sphinx sight than Nimitz or Odysseus, for she was female. Most 'cats who adopted humans were male. Honor, who knew more adoptees than most humans, could think of only half a dozen females who'd established the bond, and all of them had adopted Forestry Service rangers who never left Sphinx. Yet Tschu's companion was not only female, but she'd adopted him when he was only ten years older than Honor had been. In fact, he'd been just half-way through his third form at the Academy when he came home on leave and met Samantha, and Honor shuddered to think how adjusting to that must have complicated the balance of his time on Saganami Island. No doubt it would have been far more convenient if his companion had waited, but as a long line of Sphinxians had discovered before him, 'cats had minds of their own.

Physically, Samantha was a bit smaller than Nimitz, with a coat of dappled brown and white that would have been even harder to see in her native environment than his solid cream and gray. She was also younger than him, and by treecat standards, an extremely handsome young lady. A point, Honor thought wryly, which wasn't lost on Nimitz. 'Cats paired up in the spring, which was what most Sphinxians meant when they spoke of treecat "mating season," but like humans, they were sexually active year 'round . . . and it had been something like three T-years since Nimitz had last seen a female of his own kind. Honor wasn't certain she wanted to think about just where that might lead, but given the disproportionate adoption rates of male and female 'cats, it was probably a situation Tschu had dealt with before. She hoped so, at any rate.

Nimitz turned his head, looking away from the screen to gaze up at her with twinkling green eyes, and she grinned and tugged on one of his ears. It might complicate her life if he chose to dally with the companion of one of her subordinates, but nothing in regulations prohibited it. Besides, she would never dream of trying to stand in the way of any arrangement Nimitz and Samantha might decide suited them, and Nimitz knew it.

"Coming up on transit, Milady," Kanehama announced, and Honor roused from her thoughts to discover that the number under Wayfarer's icon had worked its way down to "3."

"Thank you, Mr. Kanehama. Put us in the transit lane, Chief O'Halley."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am. Entering transit lane now."

The helmsman sent Wayfarer creeping forward once more, following sedately behind the two ships still in front of her, and Honor felt herself tense inwardly, ever so slightly. Although it was called a "wormhole" by spacers and the public, astrophysicists decried the misuse of that term. It wasn't totally inappropriate, but in effect the Junction was a crack in the universe where a grav wave even more powerful than one of the "Roaring Deeps" had breached the wall between hyper-space and normal-space. For all intents and purposes, it was a frozen funnel of h-space, and not a calm one, for the grav wave twisting endlessly through it was extremely potent. Impellers couldn't be used for the actual transit, and proper alignment required exquisitely accurate astrogation. One of Honor's Academy instructors had described it as "shooting a tsunami in a kayak," and she'd never encountered a better analogy.

But the right support could make even that routine, and Lieutenant Kanehama sat relaxed and calm before his panel as Central's traffic control computers projected his exact track into the Junction's heart. Chief Coxswain O'Halley took Wayfarer down that track with the polished competence of fifteen years of naval service, and Honor looked back at Tschu.

"Reconfigure foresail now."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am. Reconfiguring to foresail—now. Hyper generator standing by for transit mode."

"Very good," Honor replied, and turned her attention to her engineering repeaters.

Engineering had more than its share of rough spots, but Tschu had put his best people on the duty roster for the transit, and Wayfarer's impeller wedge dropped to half strength as her forward nodes reconfigured smoothly. They no longer produced their portion of the wedge's total strength; instead, their beta nodes were out of the circuit entirely while their alpha nodes generated the all but invisible, three-hundred-kilometer-wide disk of a Warshawski sail, and Honor watched red numerals dance as her ship continued creeping forward under the power of her after nodes alone and the sail edged deeper into the Junction.

"Stand by for aftersail," she murmured to Tschu, never looking away from her repeaters.

"Standing by," the engineer replied

At this velocity there was a safety margin of almost fifteen seconds either way before the grav wave's interference would blow Wayfarer's after nodes, but a poorly executed transit could produce nausea and violent dizziness in a crew. Besides, no captain wanted to look sloppy, and Honor watched the numbers for the foresail spin upwards with steadily mounting speed until, suddenly, they crossed the threshold. The sail was now drawing enough power to provide movement independent of the wedge, and she nodded sharply.

"Rig aftersail now!"

"Rigging aftersail, aye," Tschu replied instantly, and Wayfarer twitched gently as her wedge disappeared entirely. She moved forward more quickly, gathering way under Warshawski sail alone even though she was still technically in normal space, and a time-to-transit icon flashed brightly, ticking downward in the corner of Honor's display.

"Stand by for hyper," she said. Then—"Hyper now!"

"Aye, aye, Ma'am."

Tschu threw power to the generator at precisely the right instant, and HMS Wayfarer vanished. For a fleeting instant no chronometer or human sense could measure, she simply ceased to exist, and then, suddenly, she was no longer in Manticore but seven hundred light-minutes from the F9 furnace known as Gregor-A, one hundred and eighty light-years distant from Manticore in Einsteinian space. The disks of her sails were blazing blue mirrors as they bled transit energy, and her hyper generator kicked back off at the conclusion of its programed burst of power. The ship slid forward once more, this time riding out of the terminus instead of into it, and Honor nodded in pleasure at how smoothly it had gone.

"Transit complete," Chief O'Halley announced, and Honor nodded again.

"Thank you, Chief. And you, Mr. Kanehama. That was well executed." She saw the astrogator's pleasure at her compliment and looked back at Tschu.

"Reconfigure to impeller, Mr. Tschu."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am. Reconfiguring to impeller now."

Wayfarer folded her wings as she slid free of the grav wave, and Chief O'Halley needed no instruction to bring her wedge up quickly. The ship accelerated clear of the transit threshold, clearing the way for Parnassus to follow her as she headed down the Gregor arrival lane, and Honor checked her plot once more.

The Gregor terminus had its own fortresses, although they were far smaller and less numerous than those in Manticore, and Lieutenant Cousins cleared his throat.

"Gregor Defense Command is challenging, Milady."

"Send our number," Honor replied. Every ship was subject to the same challenge, even though it was largely a formality. Ships could move to or from Manticore via any of the Junction's termini, but it was impossible to move directly from one secondary terminus to another, so any arrival here must have been cleared by Junction Central. But Gregor Defense had its own responsibilities, and Honor approved of how promptly the challenge had come.

"We're cleared, Milady," Cousins reported. "Rear Admiral Freisner welcomes you to Gregor and regrets the fact that you won't be able to dine with him," he added, and Honor smiled.

"My compliments to the Admiral. Thank him for the thought and tell him I'll look forward to dining with him on the way home."

"Yes, Milady."

Honor watched her plot as Parnassus flicked into existence behind her, accelerating down Wayfarer's wake, and wished she could have accepted Freisner's hospitality. Unfortunately, as far as anyone outside Gregor Defense Command knew, the squadron was simply a small, four-ship convoy, and it would have been totally outside the profile for Gregor's CO to invite a passing merchant skipper to dine with him. Besides, the rest of the convoy TG 1037 was slated to join for the trip to Sachsen, the closest nodal system of the Confederacy, was waiting for her. The senior officer of the convoy's two-destroyer escort knew what Honor's ships truly were, but she was the only person in the convoy who did, and Honor hoped Commander Elliot would remember to treat her with the sort of brusquely impatient courtesy she would show to any other merchie.

"Do you have the convoy beacon, Ms. Hughes?"

"Yes, Milady," Lieutenant Commander Jennifer Hughes, Wayfarer's tactical officer, replied. "Beacon bears zero-one-three by one-zero-one. Range two-point-three million klicks."

"Thank you. Take us to join the neighbors, Mr. Kanehama."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am. Helm, come to zero-one-three one-zero-one at fifty gravities."

"Coming to zero-one-three one-zero-one at fifty gravities, aye," Chief O'Halley responded, and Honor Harrington crossed her legs while anticipation hummed in the back of her brain. Despite all the rush, all the thousands of details, all the still unanswered questions about the quality of her crew or the exact nature of the threats she must face and overcome, she was on her way, once more in the Queen's uniform, and she allowed herself to luxuriate in the feeling of homecoming as her ship moved to meet whatever lay ahead.

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