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Admiral Lady Dame Honor Harrington stood in the gallery of
ENS Farnese's boat bay and tried not to reel as the silent emotional hurricane thundered about her.
She gazed through the armorplast of the gallery bulkhead into the brilliantly lit, perfect clarity of the bay itself, and tried to use its sterile serenity as a sort of mental shield against the tempest. It didn't help a great deal, but at least she didn't have to face it alone, and she felt the living side of her mouth quirk in a wry smile as the six-limbed treecat in the carrier on her back shifted uneasily, ears half-flattened as the same vortex battered at him. Like the rest of his empathic species, he remained far more sensitive to others' emotions than she, and he seemed torn between a frantic need to escape the sheer intensity of the moment and a sort of euphoric high driven by an excess of everyone else's endorphins.
At least the two of them had had plenty of practice, she reminded herself. The stunned moment when her people realized their scratch-built, jury-rigged, half-derisively self proclaimed "Elysian Space Navy" had destroyed an entire Peep task force and captured the shipping to take every prisoner who wanted to leave the prison planet of Hades to safety lay over three standard weeks behind them. She'd thought, then, that nothing could ever equal the explosion of triumph which had swept her ex-Peep flagship at that instant, but in its own way, the emotional storm seething about her now was even stronger. It had had longer to build on the voyage from the prison the entire People's Republic of Haven had regarded as the most escape-proof facility in human history to freedom, and anticipation had fanned its strength. For some of the escapees, like Captain Harriet Benson, the CO of ENS Kutuzov, over sixty T-years had passed since they'd breathed the air of a free planet. Those people could never return to the lives they'd left behind, but their need to begin building new ones blazed within them. Nor were they alone in their impatience. Even those who'd spent the least time in the custody of the Office of State Security longed to see loved ones once more, and unlike the escapees who'd spent decades on the planet inmates called "Hell," they could pick up the threads of the lives they'd feared they would never see again.
Yet that hunger to begin anew was tempered by a matching emotion which might almost have been called regret. An awareness that somehow they had become part of a tale which would be told and retold, and, undoubtedly, grow still greater in the tellings . . . and that all tales end.
They knew the impossible odds they had surmounted to reach this moment, in this boat bay gallery, in this star system. And because they did, they also knew that all the embellishments with which the tale would be improved upon over the yearsby themselves, as likely as notwould be unnecessary, peripheral and unimportant to the reality.
And that was what they regretted: the fact that when they left Farnese, they would also leave behind the companions with whom they had built that tale's reality. The unvoiced awareness that it was not given to human beings to touch such moments, save fleetingly. The memory of who they'd been and what they'd done would be with them always, yet it would be only memory, never again reality. And as the heart-stopping fear and terror faded, the reality would become even more precious and unattainable to them.
That was what truly gave the emotions whirling about her their strength . . . and focused that strength upon her, for she was their leader, and that made her the symbol of their joy and bittersweet regret alike.
It was also horribly embarrassing, and the fact that none of them knew she could sense their emotions only made it worse. It was as if she stood outside their windows, listening to whispered conversations they'd never meant to share with her, and the fact that she had no choicethat she could no longer not sense the feelings of those about heronly made her feel perversely guilty when she did.
Yet what bothered her most was that she could never return what they had given her. They thought she was the one who'd achieved so much, but they were wrong. They were the ones who'd done it by doing all and more than all she'd asked of them. They'd come from the military forces of dozens of star nations, emerging from what the Peeps had contemptuously believed was the dustbin of history to hand their tormentors what might well prove the worst defeat in the history of the People's Republic. Not in tonnage destroyed, or star systems conquered, but in something far more precious because it was intangible, for they had delivered a potential deathblow to the terror of omnipotence which was so much a part of State Security's repressive arsenal.
And they'd done it for her. She'd tried to express even a fraction of the gratitude she felt, but she knew she'd failed. They lacked the sense she'd developed, the ability to feel the reality behind the clumsy interface of human language, and all her efforts had made not a dent in the storm of devotion pouring back at her.
A clear, musical chimenot loud, but penetratingbroke into her thoughts and she drew a deep breath as the first pinnace began its final approach. There were other small craft behind it, including dozens of pinnaces from the three squadrons of the wall which had come to meet Farnese and more than a dozen heavy-lift personnel shuttles from the planet San Martin. They queued up behind the lead pinnace, waiting their turns, and she tried not to let her relief show as she thought about them. She and Warner Caslet, Farnese's exec, had packed the battlecruiser, like all the other ships of the ESN, to the deckheads to get all of the escapees aboard. The massive redundancy designed into warship life-support systems had let them carry the overload (barely), but it had done nothing about the physical crowding, and the systems themselves were in serious need of maintenance after so long under such heavy demand. The personnel shuttles outside the boat bay were but the first wave of craft which would transport her people from the packed-sardine environment of their battlecruiser to the mountainous surface of San Martin. The planet's heavy gravity scarcely qualified it as a vacation resort, but at least it had plenty of room. And after twenty-four T-days crammed into Farnese's overcrowded berthing spaces, a little thing like weighing twice one's proper weight would be a minor price for the glorious luxury of room in which to stretch without putting a thumb into someone else's eye.
But even as she felt her crew eagerly anticipating the end of its confinement, her own attention was locked upon the lead pinnace, for she knew whose it was. Over two T-years had passed since she'd last faced the officer to whom it belonged, and she'd thought she'd put her treacherously ambiguous feelings about that officer aside. Now she knew she'd been wrong, for her own emotions were even more confused and turbulent than those of the people about her as she waited to greet him once again.
Admiral of the Green Hamish Alexander, Earl of White Haven and Commanding Officer, Eighth Fleet, forced his face to remain immobile as GNS Benjamin the Great's pinnace approached rendezvous with the battlecruiser his flagship had come to meet. ENS Farneseand just what the hell is an "ENS?" he wondered. That's something else I should have asked herwas a Warlord-class unit. The big ship floated against the needle-sharp stars, well out from San Martin, where no unauthorized eye might see her and note her Peep origin. The time to acknowledge her presence would come, but not yet, he thought, gazing through the view port at the ship logic said could not be there. No, not yet.
Farnese retained the lean, arrogant grace of her battlecruiser breed, despite the fact that she was even larger than the Royal Manticoran Navy's Reliant-class. Small compared to his superdreadnought flagship, of course, but still a big, powerful unit. He'd heard about the Warlords, read the ONI analyses and appreciations of the class, even seen them destroyed in combat with units under his own command. But this was the first time he'd ever come close enough to see one with the unaided human eye. To be honest, it was closer than he'd ever anticipated he might come, except perhaps in that unimaginable time somewhere in the distant reaches of a future in which peace had come once more to this section of the galaxy.
Which isn't going to happen any time soon, he reminded himself grimly from behind the fortress of his face. And if I'd ever had any happy illusions in that respect, just looking at Farnese would disabuse me of them in a hurry.
His jaw set as his pilot, obedient to his earlier orders, swept down the big ship's starboard side and he studied her damage. Her heavy, multilayered armor was actually buckled. The boundary layers of antikinetic armor seemed to have slagged and run; the inner, ablative layers sandwiched between them were bubbled and charred looking; and the sensors and antimissile laser clusters which once had guarded Farnese's flank were gutted. White Haven would have been surprised if half her starboard weapons remained functional, and her starboard sidewall generators couldn't possibly have generated any realistic defense against hostile fire.
Just like her, he thought moodily, almost angrily. Why in Christ's name can the woman never bring a ship back intact? What the hell is it that makes her
He chopped the thought off again, and this time he felt his mouth twist in sardonic amusement. His was not, he reflected, the proper mood for an officer of his seniority at a moment like this. Up untilhe glanced at his chronoseven hours and twenty-three minutes earlier, he, like all the rest of the Manticoran Alliance, had known Honor Harrington was dead. Like everyone else, he'd seen the grisly HD of her execution, and even now he shuddered as he recalled the ghastly moment when the gallows trapdoor sprang and her body
He shied away from that image and closed his eyes, nostrils flaring while he concentrated on another image, this one on his own com less than eight hours earlier. A strong, gracefully carved, half-paralyzed face, framed in a short mop of half-tamed curls. A face he had never imagined he would see again.
He blinked and inhaled deeply once again. A billion questions teemed in his brain, put there by the raw impossibility of Honor Harrington's survival, and he knew he was not alone in that. When word of this broke, every newsie in Alliance spaceand half of those in Solly space, no doubt, he thoughtwould descend upon whatever hiding places Honor or any of the people with her might have found. They would ask, plead, bully, bribe, probably even threaten in their efforts to winnow out every detail of their quarry's incredible story. But even though those same questions burned in his own mind, they were secondary, almost immaterial, compared to the simple fact of her survival.
And not, he admitted, simply because she was one of the most outstanding naval officers of her generation and a priceless military asset which had been returned to the Alliance literally from beyond the grave.
His pinnace arced down under the turn of Farnese's flank to approach the boat bay, and as he felt the gentle shudder when the tractors captured the tiny craft, Hamish Alexander took himself firmly in hand. He'd screwed up somehow once before, let slip some hint of his sudden awareness that the woman who'd been his protégée for over a decade had become something far more to him than a brilliant junior officer and an asset of the Royal Manticoran Navy. He still had no idea how he'd given himself away, but he knew he had. He'd felt the awkwardness between them and known she'd returned to active duty early in an effort to escape that awkwardness. And for two years, he'd lived with the knowledge that her early return to duty was what had sent her into the Peep ambush in which she had been captured . . . and sentenced to death.
It had burned like acid, that knowledge, and he'd watched the Peep broadcast of her execution as an act of self-punishing penance. In an odd way, her death had freed him to face his feelings for her . . . which only made things immeasurably worse now that he knew she wasn't dead, of course. He had no business loving someone little more than half his age, who'd never shown the least romantic interest in him. Especially not while he was married to another woman whom he still loved deeply and passionately, despite the injuries which had confined her to a life-support chair for almost fifty T-years. No honorable man would have let that happen, yet he had, and he'd been too self-honest to deny it once his face had been rubbed sufficiently in it.
Or I like to think I'm too "self-honest" to lie to myself, he thought mordantly as the tractors urged the pinnace from the outer darkness into the illuminated boat bay. Of course, I had to wait until she was safely dead before I got around to that sudden burst of honesty. But I did get there in the end . . . damn it.
The pinnace rolled on thrusters and gyros, settling towards the docking buffers, and he made himself a silent promise. Whatever he might feel, Honor Harrington was a woman of honor. He might not be able to help his own emotions, but he could damned well see to it that she never knew about them, and he would. That much he could still do.
The pinnace touched down, the docking arms and umbilical locked, and Hamish Alexander pushed himself up out of his comfortable seat. He looked at his reflection in the view port's armorplast and studied his expression as he smiled. Amazing how natural that smile looked, he thought, and nodded to his reflection, then squared his shoulders and turned towards the hatch.
A green light glowed above the docking tube, indicating a good seal and pressure, and Honor tucked her hand behind her as the gallery-side hatch slid back. It was amazing how awkward it was to decide what to do with a single hand when it had no mate to meet it halfway, but she brushed that thought aside and nodded to Major Chezno. The senior officer of Farnese's Marine detachment nodded back, then turned on his heel to face the honor guard drawn up behind the side party.
"Honor guard, attennnnnn-hut!" he barked, and hands slapped the butts of ex-Peep pulse rifles as the ex-prisoners snapped to parade-ground attention. Honor watched them with a proprietary air and wasn't even tempted to smile. No doubt some people would have found it absurd for men and women packed into their ship like emergency rations in a tin to waste time polishing and perfecting their ceremonial drill, especially when they all knew they would be broken up again once they reached their destination. But it hadn't been absurd to Farnese's ship's company . . . or to Honor Harrington.
I suppose it's our way of declaring who and what we are. We're not simply escaped prisoners, huddled together like sheep while we run from the wolves. We are the "wolves" of this piece, and we, by God, want the universe to know it! She snorted in amusement, not at her Marines and their drill, but at herself, and shook her head. I think I may be just a wee bit guilty of hubris where these people are concerned.
The Navy side party snapped to attention as the first passenger floated down the tube, and Honor drew another deep breath and braced herself. The Royal Manticoran Navy's tradition was that the senior passenger was last to board and first to exit a small craft, and she knew who she would see well before the tall, broad-shouldered man in the impeccable black-and-gold of an RMN admiral caught the grab bar and swung himself from the tube's weightlessness into the gallery's one standard gravity.
Bosun's pipes twitteredthe old-fashioned, lung-powered kind, out of deference to the traditionalists among the Elysian Space Navy's personneland the admiral came to attention and saluted Farnese's executive officer, standing at the head of the side party. Despite sixty years of naval service, the admiral was unable to conceal his surprise, and Honor could hardly blame him. Indeed, she felt an urchinlike grin threatening the disciplined facade of her own expression at the sight. She'd deliberately failed to mention her exec's identity during the com exchanges which had established her ships' bona fides for the Trevor's Star defensive forces. The Earl of White Haven deserved some surprises, after all, and the last thing he could possibly have expected to see aboard this ship was a side party headed by a man in the dress uniform of the People's Navy.
Hamish Alexander made his expression blank once more as the side party's senior officer returned his salute. A Peep? Here? He knew he'd given away his astonishment, but he doubted anyone could have faulted him for it. Not under the circumstances.
His eyes swept the rainbow confusion of the ranks beyond the Peep as the bosun's pipes continued to squeal, and another surprise flickered through him. That visual cacophony had never been designed for color coordination, and for just an instant, the assault on his optic nerve kept him from understanding what he was seeing. But realization dawned almost instantly, and he felt himself mentally nodding in approval. Whatever else Hades might have lacked, it had obviously possessed fabric extruders, and someone had made good use of them. The people in that bay gallery wore the uniforms of the militaries in which they had served before the Peeps dumped them in the PRH's "inescapable" prison, and if the confusion of colors and braid and headgear was more visually chaotic than the neatly ordered military mind might have preferred, so what? Many of the navies and planetary combat forces those uniforms belonged to hadn't existed in well over half a T-century. They had gone down to bitter defeatoften clawing and defiant to the end, but still defeatbefore the juggernaut of the People's Republic, and again, so what? The people wearing them had won the right to resurrect them, and Hamish Alexander rather suspected that it would be . . . unwise for anyone to question their tailoring.
The pipes died at last, and he lowered his hand from the band of his beret.
"Permission to come aboard, Sir?" he asked formally, and the Peep nodded.
"Permission granted, Admiral White Haven," he replied, and stepped back with a courteous welcoming gesture.
"Thank you, Commander." White Haven's tone was equally courteous, and no one could have been blamed for failing to realize it was an absent courtesy. But then, no one else could have guessed at the emotions raging behind his calm, ice-blue eyes as he glanced past the Peep to the tall, one-armed woman waiting just beyond the side party.
They clung to her, those eyes, but again, no one could reasonably have faulted that. No doubt people had stared at Lazarus, too.
She looks like hell . . . and she looks wonderful, he thought, taking in the blue-on-blue Grayson admiral's uniform she wore instead of her Manticoran rank. He was glad to see it for at least one intensely personal reason. In the Grayson Space Navy, her rank actually exceeded his own, for she was the second ranking officer of that explosively growing service, and that was good. It meant that at least he would not have to address her from the towering seniority of a full admiral to a mere commodore. And the uniform looked good on her, too, he thought, giving her unknown tailor high marks.
But good as she looked, he could not pull his eyes away from the missing left arm, or the paralyzed left side of her face. Her artificial eye clearly wasn't tracking as it was supposed to, either, and he felt a fresh, lavalike burn of fury. The Peeps might not actually have executed her, but it seemed they'd come close to killing her.
She has got to stop doing this kind of thing, he thought, and his mental voice was almost conversational. There are limits in all things . . . including how many times she can dance on the edge of a razor and survive.
Not that she would pay him any attention if he said as much. Not any more than he would have paid if their roles had been reversed. Yet even as he admitted that, he knew it wasn't the same. He'd commanded squadrons, task forces, and fleets in action, in an almost unbroken series of victories. He'd seen ships blown apart, felt his own flagship shudder and buck as fire blasted through its defenses. At least twice, he'd come within meters of death. Yet in all that time, he'd never once been wounded in action, and not once had he ever actually faced an enemy. Not hand-to-hand. His battles had been fought across light-seconds, with grasers and lasers and nuclear warheads, and for all that he knew his personnel respected and trusted him, they did not idolize him.
Not the way Honor Harrington's people idolized her. For once, the newsies had gotten something exactly right when they dubbed her "the Salamander" from her habit of always being where the fire was hottest. She'd fought White Haven's sort of battle all too often for someone of her comparative youth, and she had the touch, the personal magic, that made her crews walk unflinchingly into the furnace beside her. But unlike the earl, she had also faced people trying to kill her from so close she could see their eyes, smell their sweat, and God only knew what she'd been doing when she lost her arm. No doubt he'd find out soon enough, and, equally no doubt, it would be one more thing for him to worry that she might be crazy enough to repeat in the future. Which was irrational of him. It wasn't as if she actually went out looking for ways to get herself killed, no matter how it sometimes seemed to those watching her. It was just
He realized he'd been motionless just a moment too long. He could feel the curiosity behind the countless eyes watching him, wondering what he was thinking, and he forced a smile. The one thing he couldn't have any of them do was to actually figure out what had been going through his mind, and he held out his hand to her.
"Welcome home, Lady Harrington," he said, and felt her long, slender fingers tighten about his with the careful strength of a native heavy-worlder.
"Welcome home, Lady Harrington."
She heard the words, but they seemed tiny and far away, at the other end of a shaky com link, as she gripped his extended hand. His deep, resonant voice was just the way she'd remembered itremembered, in fact, with rather more fidelity than she might have desiredyet it was also completely new, as if she'd never heard it before. And that was because she was hearing him on so many levels. Her sensitivity to others' emotions had increased yet again. She'd suspected that it had; now she knew it. Either that, or there was something special about her sensitivity to his emotions, and that was an even more disturbing possibility. But whatever the cause, she heard not simply his words, or even the messages communicated by the smile in the blue eyes. No, she heard all the things he didn't say. All the things he fought so hard, and with such formidable self-control, against allowing himself even to hint that he might want to say.
All the things he might as well have shouted at the top of his lungs yet didn't even guess he was giving away.
For a fleeting moment of pure self-indulgence she let the emotions hidden behind his face sweep her up in a dizzying whirl. She couldn't help it as his joyous surprise at her survival swept over her. His soaring welcome came on its heels . . . and his desire to sweep her into his arms. Not a trace of those things showed on his face, or in his manner, but he couldn't possibly hide them from her, and the sheer lightning-strike intensity of the moment burned through her like an explosion.
And on its heels came the knowledge that none of the things he longed to do could ever happen.
It was even worse than she'd feared. The thought rolled through her, more dismal still for the moment of joy she had allowed herself to feel. She'd known he'd stuck in her mind and heart. Now she knew that she had stuck in his, as well, and that he would never, ever admit it to her.
Everything in the universe demanded its own price . . . and the greater a gift, the higher the price it carried. Deep inside, in the secret places where logic seldom treads, Honor Harrington had always believed that, and she'd realized over the last two years that this was the price she must pay for her bond with Nimitz. No other 'cat-human bonding had ever been so close, ever spilled across to the actual communication of emotions, and the depth of her fusion with her beloved companion was worth any price.
Even this one, she told herself. Even the knowledge that Hamish Alexander loved her and of what might have been had the universe been a different place. Yet just as he would never tell her, she would never tell him . . . and was she blessed or cursed by the fact that, unlike him, she would always know what he had never said?
"Thank you, My Lord," Lady Dame Honor Harrington said, and her soprano was cool and clear as spring water, shadowed only by the slight slurring imposed by the crippled side of her lips. "It's good to be home."
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|Title:||Ashes of Victory|
|Copyright:||© 2000 by David Weber|