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Chapter Six

Admiral of the Green Sir Lucien Cortez, Fifth Space Lord of the Manticoran Navy, stood behind his desk as his yeoman ushered Honor Harrington into his office.

The last three days had been a whirlwind for her. She'd managed to steal a few hours to visit her parents, but every other available instant had been spent crawling around her new ship's gizzards and discussing her modifications with Vulcan's experts. There was no time for any major changes in the original plans, but she'd been able to suggest a couple of improvements which could still be incorporated. One was an additional lift cross-connecting the two LAC holds, which would allow service personnel to move much more easily under normal conditions and cut the time required for the LAC crews to man their ships in a "scramble" situation by twenty-five percent. That was the more fundamental and labor intensive of the two, and BuShips had hemmed and hawed for thirty-six hours before authorizing it.

Her other suggestion had been much simpler and more subtle. When she'd gone after the Peep Q-ship Sirius in Basilisk, her first warning that her opponent was armed had come when the Peeps jettisoned the false plating concealing their weapons bays and her radar picked up the separating debris. Partly in response to that portion of her own after-action report, Vulcan had provided the Trojans with powered hatch covers rather than false plating and gone to some lengths to make the covers look like standard cargo hatches. It had been a laudable idea, but by the time they provided for the LAC launch bays, as well, there were far too many "cargo hatches" along Wayfarer's flanks to fool anyone who got a decent optical on her.

Unless, of course, the hatches were invisible, which was why Honor had proposed covering them with plastic patches formed and painted to blend perfectly with the surrounding hull. The patches, she'd pointed out, would be invisible to radar. They could be jettisoned for action without any betraying radar detection, they'd be cheap, they could be fabricated in mere days, and her ships could stow hundreds of them away for replacement after each action.

Commander Schubert had loved the idea, and even BuShips had offered no quibbles, which made it one of the easiest sells Honor had ever proposed. Yet even as she immersed herself in the hardware details, she'd been nigglingly aware of two things no one had yet discussed with her: personnel, and the specifics of her mission brief.

She knew, in general terms, what the Admiralty expected her to do in Breslau, but no one had made it official so far . . . just as no one had said a thing to her about her ships' companies. There could be a lot of reasons for that—after all, it would be over three weeks before Vulcan released Wayfarer for post-refit trials—but it did seem odd. She didn't even know who her exec was going to be, or who was slated to command the other three ships of her small squadron. In some ways, she was just as happy not to have to worry about that yet, but she knew she shouldn't be. Much as she might prefer concentrating on one thing at a time, it was important to start gaining a feel for her command team quickly, and she'd wondered what was causing the delay.

Now, as she crossed the Fifth Space Lord's office and reached out to take the hand he offered in greeting, she knew she was about to find out. And as she sampled Cortez's emotions through Nimitz, she also knew she wasn't going to like the reason.

"Please, Milady, be seated," Cortez offered, gesturing at the chair before his desk.

Honor sank into it, and the sharp-faced, slightly balding admiral sat back down, propped his elbows on his desk, and laced his fingers together to lean his chin on them while he regarded her. They'd met only twice before, both times more or less in passing. But he'd followed her career, and he'd wondered what she would feel like in person, for Lucien Cortez was a man who'd learned to trust his instincts. Now he absorbed her level eyes, calm and composed even though she must realize there had to be a special reason for the Fifth Space Lord to summon a mere captain to a face-to-face meeting, and gave a mental nod of approval.

Of course, he reminded himself, she wasn't actually a "mere" captain. For the past T-year and a half, she'd been a full admiral—in a relatively new navy, perhaps, but an admiral. And though she hadn't mentioned it to anyone, Cortez also knew the Grayson Space Navy had simply detached her for "temporary duty" with the RMN. As far as the Graysons were concerned, she was still on active service with their fleet, and her GSN seniority would continue to accrue. How many officers, he wondered wryly, knew that by resigning from one navy they could instantly be promoted four full ranks in another? It must give her a rather unusual perspective, but she seemed totally unaware of it as she waited, with all the respect of any captain for a flag officer.

Honor felt the intense scrutiny his mild brown eyes hid so well. She couldn't tell what he was thinking behind it, but she could feel his strange combination of amusement, curiosity, anger, frustration, and apprehension. She was reasonably certain the last three emotions weren't directed at her, yet she knew she—or her squadron—were at the bottom of them, and she waited patiently for him to explain.

"Thank you for coming, Milady," the man in charge of managing the RMN's manpower said finally. "I'm sorry we couldn't meet sooner than this, but I've been beating the bushes for the personnel to man your ships."

Honor's mental antennae twanged at his half-acid, half-apologetic tone, and she sat up straighter, hands buried in Nimitz's fluffy coat, and eyed him sharply. Cortez saw it and grimaced, then leaned back in his chair and raised his hands in a throwing away gesture.

"We've got a problem, Milady," he sighed. "Specifically, the pressure to expedite your deployment is playing merry hell with my manning plans."

"In what way, Sir?" Honor asked carefully.

"Essentially," Cortez replied, "we've been asked to deploy your ships six months ahead of schedule, and we hadn't allowed for it in our personnel assignments. No doubt you're aware of how tightly stretched we are just now?"

"In a general way, Sir, but I have been out of the Star Kingdom—and the Queen's uniform—for three T-years." She managed, with difficulty, to keep a residual edge of resentment out of her voice.

"I'll summarize briefly, then." Cortez braced his elbows on the arms of his chair and steepled his fingers across his middle. "As I'm sure you do know, we have something like fifty thousand RMN officers and ratings currently on loan to the GSN, not including the purely technical support personnel we've assigned to their Office of Shipbuilding and R&D sections. Given their own critical shortage of trained manpower, that's barely enough for them to fully man their fleet, and the situation's gotten worse since they started commissioning home-built SDs.

"I mention the situation in Yeltsin only as an example—one of many, I'm afraid, though certainly the largest single one—of the personnel we've been forced to loan out to our allies. All told, we've got a hundred and fifty thousand Manticorans in other people's uniforms right now. Add in all the technical support staffs, and the number comes to about a quarter million."

He regarded Honor intently, and she nodded slowly.

"In addition to that, we have our own manpower needs. We've got roughly three hundred of the wall in commission, with an average crew of fifty-two hundred. That uses up another million and a half men and women. After that, we've got a hundred and twenty-four forts covering the Junction, with another million plus people aboard them. Then there's all the rest of the Fleet, which uses up another two and a half million, our own shipyards, fleet bases on foreign stations like Grendelsbane, R&D, ONI, and so on and so on. Add in all the people we need for routine personnel rotations, and we've got something on the order of eleven million people in Navy and Marine uniforms. That's only a bit over three-tenths of a percent of our total population, but it comes out of our most productive population segments, and our projections call for the figure to double over the next two T-years. And, of course, we have to worry about manning both the Army and the merchant marine, as well."

Honor nodded again, even more slowly, as she began to see where Cortez was headed. The Royal Manticoran Marines were specialists who held shipboard duty assignments as well as providing boarding parties and emergency ground combat components. Heavy planetary combat was the role of the Royal Army, which, undistracted by the need to master shipboard systems, could concentrate solely on planetary combat hardware and techniques. In peacetime, the Army was usually severely downsized, since the Marines could handle most peacekeeping roles, but in time of war, it had to be recruited back up to strength for garrison duty, if nothing else. The Marine Corps, for example, had handed the planet Masada over to an Army commander just a T-year earlier, with a profound sigh of relief, and the Army was also currently responsible for garrisoning no less than eighteen Peep worlds. In fact, for Manticore actually to win this war, the Star Kingdom was going to have to take—and garrison—a lot of Peep planets, and that meant the Army's appetite for personnel was going to grow in direct proportion to the Navy's successes.

That was a serious enough diversion of manpower, but the Manticoran merchant marine was the fourth largest in the galaxy. It was far larger than that of the People's Republic—indeed, the only people with bigger merchant fleets were all members of the Solarian League. In terms of sheer mass, it dwarfed the RMN's warship tonnage, and those merchant ships were the true foundation of the Star Kingdom's wealth. They could be found all over known space, for they dominated the carrying and passenger trades outside the League. And while most merchantmen used far smaller crews than warships of the same displacement, the aggregate of those ships also demanded an enormous number of trained spacers.

"The reason I've gone into this, Milady," Cortez said, "is so that you can understand what sort of numbers BuPers has to juggle. You may not be aware that we've doubled class sizes at the Academy because of our need for trained officers. Even so, we've been forced to recall a much larger percentage of reservists from the merchant fleet than we'd like, and in the not too distant future we're going to have to set up OCS programs to turn merchant spacers without previous military experience into Queen's officers, as well. Despite that, we're keeping up with demand, however barely, and our new training programs have been planned to keep pace with the requirements of our new construction. But our entire manpower management plan is a very carefully orchestrated—and fragile—edifice.

"Now, we incorporated Trojan Horse into our schedules, but we anticipated six more months of lead time. As you know, your own ship—and her LACs—require twenty-five hundred officers and ratings and another five hundred Marines, and the total unit strength for Trojan Horse is projected at fifteen. That's forty-five thousand more people, Milady, almost as many as we have on loan for GSN fleet duty, and we don't have them. In six months we will; right now, we don't."

He raised his hands again, and Honor bit her lip. This was an aspect of the manning problem she hadn't considered, and she kicked herself for it. She darned well should have thought about it, and she wondered if some subconscious part of her had deliberately avoided doing so.

"Just how bad is it, Sir Lucien?" she asked finally, and he shrugged unhappily.

"Your four ships shouldn't be that much of a problem. We're only talking about twelve thousand people for all of them, after all. Unfortunately, it is a problem. To make up the numbers, we're going to have to draft people from existing ships' companies. I estimate something like a third of your total strength will have to come from there, and you know no captain voluntarily gives up his better people. We'll do our best for you, but the majority of your crews will consist of totally inexperienced newbies fresh from training or old sweats whose current skippers are delighted to be rid of them. Your Marine complements should be solid, and we'll do the best we can to weed real troublemakers out of the drafts from other ships, but I'd be lying if I said you'll have the sort of crews I'd want to take into action."

Honor nodded once more. She understood Cortez's emotions now. The Fifth Space Lord was an experienced combat commander. He understood the implications of what he was telling her, and he felt personally responsible for them. He wasn't, but that didn't change the way he felt.

Her brain ticked with a curious detachment as she considered the news. No captain wanted to take an ill-prepared crew into combat, and, in a way, that was more true of a Q-ship's CO than any other. Q-ships normally operated solitaire. There wouldn't be anyone else to bail them out if it hit the fan, and they would live or die by how well their own people did their jobs. Worse, the rush to deploy her squadron meant there would be next to no time for the drilling misfit crews required. She felt confident of her ability to convince even the worst troublemaker to do things her way, but she'd need time to do it, and people whose sole shortcoming was lack of experience would need even more careful handling. If she didn't have that time. . . .

"I'm sorry, Milady," Cortez said quietly. "I assure you my staff and I will do the best we can, and, frankly, I delayed this meeting as long as I could in hopes that one of my people would come up with some brilliant solution. Unfortunately, no one did, and, under the circumstances, I felt it was my duty to explain the situation to you personally."

"I understand, Sir." Honor gazed down at Nimitz for a moment, stroking his spine, then looked back up at the admiral. "All you can do is the best you can do, Sir Lucien, and every captain knows it's up to her to kick her crew into shape, if that's what it takes. We'll manage."

She heard the false confidence in her own voice, but it was the only possible response, for it was a captain's responsibility to turn whatever manpower she was given into an effective fighting force. It was also a job she'd done before—but not, a small inner voice said coldly, under quite this severe a handicap.

"Well," Cortez looked away for a moment, then met her eyes once more, "I can offer you one thing, Milady. Short as we are on experienced personnel, I've managed to scrape together a core of solid officers and NCOs. Frankly, most of them are a bit junior for the posts we'll be assigning them to, but their records are excellent, and I believe you'll find several have served with you before." He took a data chip from his desk drawer and leaned over the desk to hand it to her. "I've listed them on the chip here, and if there are any other officers or ratings you'd care to specifically request, I'll do my utmost to get them. I'm afraid it'll be a case of whether or not they're available, but we'll certainly try. As far as the newbies are concerned, your squadron has first call. They may still be wet behind the ears, but at least we'll give you the ones with the highest efficiency ratings."

"I appreciate that, Sir," Honor said, and she did.

"I have managed one other thing I think you'll pleased to hear," Cortez said after a moment. "Well, two, actually. Alice Truman's just made list, and we've assigned her to command Parnassus as your second in command."

Honor's eyes lit at that, but there was an edge of concern under her delight. Despite the anticipation she'd begun to feel over the past three days, she remembered how she'd first seen her command. An officer of Truman's caliber, especially one who'd just made the senior captain's list which virtually assured her of future flag rank, might well regard assignment to a Q-ship as a slap in the face. Honor wouldn't blame her, but if she held Honor responsible for it—

"I think I should mention," Cortez added, as if he could read her mind, "that we explained the situation fully to her and she volunteered for the slot. She was slated to assume command of Lord Elton, but Elton's in for a five-month overhaul. When we asked her if she'd consider a transfer to Parnassus instead and explained she'd be serving with you, she accepted immediately."

"Thank you for telling me that, Sir," Honor said with a smile of mingled gratitude and pleasure. "Captain Truman is one of the finest officers I've ever known." And, she reflected, the fact that Alice had volunteered even knowing the immense task they faced warmed her heart.

"I thought you'd be pleased," Cortez replied with a small smile of his own. "And, in addition, I think I've found you an executive officer you'll like."

He pressed a button on his com panel and leaned back in his chair again. A few moments later, the door opened once more and a tall, dark-haired commander walked through it. He was built on long and lean lines, with a hawk-like nose and a ready smile. The breast of his tunic bore the white-barred blue ribbon of the Order of Gallantry and the red and white ribbon of the Saganami Cross, and, like Honor herself, the blood-red stripe of the Monarch's Thanks marked his right sleeve. He looked decidedly on the young side, even for a prolong recipient, to have acquired two of the Star Kingdom's four top medals for valor, and even as Honor rose in pure delight, her mind's eye could still see the awkward puppy of a junior-grade lieutenant she'd taken to Basilisk Station with her just eight years before.

"Rafe!" she cried, cradling Nimitz in the crook of her left arm to extend her right hand.

"I believe you two have met, Milady," Cortez murmured with a small smile as Commander Cardones gripped her hand fiercely.

"I didn't get the chance to serve with you very long in Nike, Skipper," he said. "Maybe this time will work out better."

"I'm sure it will, Rafe," she said warmly, and turned to look at Cortez. "Thank you, Sir. Thank you very much."

"He was due for a stint as someone's exec, Milady," the Fifth Space Lord said, waving off her thanks. "Besides, you seem to be making something of a career out of completing his training. It would be a pity to break up the team when you clearly still have so far to go."

Cardones grinned at the comment which, eight years before, would have reduced him instantly to red-faced, mumbling incoherence, and Honor smiled back at him. For all his youth, Rafael Cardones was one of the best tactical officers she'd ever seen, and he'd clearly gone right on maturing in the time she'd spent in Yeltsin.

Cortez watched her evident pleasure and Cardones' matching happiness—and respect for his new CO—and wondered if Lady Harrington realized how deliberately the younger officer had modeled himself on her. Cortez had gone to some lengths to find her the right executive officer, and a simple comparison of Cardones' record before and after first serving under her showed that his own teasing comment wasn't far off the mark. In fact, Cortez had run similar comparisons on several officers who'd served under her, and he'd been impressed by what he'd found. Some of the RMN's most effective combat commanders had never been good teachers; Honor Harrington was. In addition to her sterling battle record, she'd shown an almost mystic ability to pass her own dedication and professionalism on to subordinates, and to the officer commanding the Bureau of Personnel, that was almost more precious than her own combat skills.

Now he cleared his throat, recapturing their attention, and nodded to Cardones.

"The Commander has a partial roster of Wayfarer's company, Milady. It's very rough so far, but at least it may serve as a beginning. He's already suggested a few other officers and petty officers to help flesh it out, and my staff is currently running a records search to see how many, if any, of them are available. I understand Admiral Georgides estimates another three weeks before you can power up and begin moving personnel aboard?"

"Approximately, Sir," Honor replied. "I think he's being pessimistic, but I doubt he'll be able to shave more than a few days off his estimate. Parnassus and Scheherazade will complete about the same time, but it looks like Gudrid will need at least another ten days."

"All right." Cortez pursed his lips, then nodded to himself. "I'll have at least a captain and an exec for all four of them by Thursday. By the time you can actually start putting people aboard, we should have all your commissioned personnel either on hand or designated and en route. We'll try to have your warrant and petty officers all lined up by then, too, and General Vonderhoff assures me your Marine complements won't present any problem. As far as your enlisted personnel are concerned, however, it's going to be catch as catch can. I have no idea how quickly, or in what order, we'll be able to assemble them, though we'll do our best."

"I'm sure you will, My Lord, and I appreciate it," Honor said sincerely, well aware of how unusual it was for Cortez to personally discuss the manning problems of a single squadron with the officer designated to command it.

"It's the least we can do, Milady," Cortez replied, then grimaced again. "It's never a good thing when partisan politics interfere in military operations, Milady, especially when it costs us the services of an officer with your record, and I regret that your return to Manticoran uniform has to take place under such circumstances. But in case no one else has told you, we're all delighted to have you back."

"Thank you, Sir." Honor felt her cheekbones heating once more, but she met his gaze steadily and saw the approval in his eyes.

"In that case, Milady, I'll let you and Commander Cardones get started." Cortez held out his hand once more. "You've got a big job ahead of you, Captain, and you're facing some constraints you shouldn't have to. But if anyone can get it done, I feel certain you're the one. In case we don't see one another again before you ship out, good luck and good hunting."

"Thank you, Sir," Honor repeated, squeezing his hand hard. "We'll do our best."

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