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Chapter Seven

Honor leaned back in her chair to massage her aching eyes.

She'd been quartered in Vulcan's "Captains' Row" until she could move aboard Wayfarer, and her cabin was spacious enough. Smaller than the one she would occupy aboard her Q-ship and much smaller than the one she'd given up aboard the superdreadnought Terrible, but large by Navy standards and ample for comfort. Unfortunately, she was finding little opportunity to enjoy that comfort—or, for that matter, even the time to work out in Vulcan's senior officers' gym. The paperwork always piled a light-year deep when a new captain assumed command of a ship, and it was worse when that ship came straight from yard hands. Add the sea of documents—electronic and hardcopy—involved in assembling any squadron, then put it all under the pressure of a rushed deployment date, and there was hardly time to breathe, much less exercise . . . or sleep.

She grinned wryly, for if she had reams of paper to deal with, Rafe Cardones had more. A captain commanded a ship and held ultimate responsibility for every aspect of its operation and safety, but the exec managed that ship. It was her job to organize its crew, stores, maintenance, training schedules, and every other aspect of its operations so smoothly her captain hardly noticed all she was doing. It was a tall order, but a necessary one . . . and it was also why a stint as exec was usually the Navy's final test of an officer's ability to command her own ship. That would have been enough to keep any officer busy, but the Admiralty hadn't assigned Honor a staff. It made sense, she conceded, given that her "squadron" would almost certainly be split up into divisions or individual units rather than operate as a whole, yet it meant Rafe also had to shoulder the burden of an acting flag captain's role in addition to all the duties his post as Wayfarer's exec imposed.

But even though the pressure-cooker urgency of getting the squadron ready for deployment added measurably to Rafe's arduous schedule, he was doing an exemplary job. He'd taken over full responsibility for coordinating with the yard dogs, and he and Chief Archer, her yeoman, were intercepting everything they could, whether specific to Wayfarer or to the squadron as a whole, before it reached her plate. She recognized and appreciated their efforts, but she was ultimately responsible for all of it. The best they could do was to get it so organized and arranged that all she had to do was sign off on the decisions they'd already made, and, frankly, they were proving very, very good at it.

Which wasn't going to save her from the report on her display.

She finished rubbing her eyes, took a sip of cocoa from the mug MacGuiness had left at her elbow, and returned doggedly to her duty. Archer had highlighted the summaries for each section, and it was really more Cardones' job than Honor's to deal with most of the items. He'd entered his own solutions at most of the decision points, and though one or two weren't quite the answers Honor would have chosen, she made herself consider each dispassionately. So far, they all looked workable, even if she might have done them differently, and some were actually better than her own first reaction would have been. What mattered most, though, was that they were Rafe's decisions to make. She had to sign off on them, but he had a right to do things his way as long as he handed her a ship that was an efficient, functional weapon when she needed it. Under the circumstances, she had no intention of overriding him unless he screwed up in some major way, and the chance of that happening was virtually nonexistent.

She reached the bottom of the endless report at last and sighed again, this time with satisfaction. The entire half-meg document had required only six decisions from her, and that was far better than most captains could have anticipated. She dashed an electronic signature across the scan pad, entered the command to save her own modifications, and dumped the entire document back into Archer's queue.

One down, she thought, and punched for the next. A document header appeared, and she groaned. Hydroponics. She hated hydroponic inventories! Of course they were vital, but they always went on and on and on and on. She took another sip of cocoa and cast an envious glance up at Nimitz, snoring gently on his perch above her desk, then gritted her teeth to dive back in.

But her dive was interrupted as the admittance chime sounded. Her eyes—natural and cybernetic alike—lit with pleasure at the thought of a reprieve, however temporary, from nutrients, fertilizers, seed banks, and filtration systems, and she pressed the stud on her desk.


"A visitor, My Lady," LaFollet's voice said. "Your Flight Ops officer wants to pay his respects."

"Ah?" Honor rubbed her nose in surprise. Flight Ops was one slot she and Rafe had been unable to fill, and it was one of the more important ones. So if Rafe had picked her visitor for the duty without even speaking to her, the officer in question must have excellent credentials.

"Ask him to come in, Andrew," she said, and rose behind her desk as the hatch slid open. To her surprise, LaFollet didn't precede the newcomer through it. She was quite certain she was safe from assassins aboard Vulcan, yet for Andrew to let anyone into her presence unescorted unless she specifically instructed him to constituted a shocking breach in his professional paranoia. But then she saw the young lieutenant who stepped through the hatch, and she smiled hugely.

"Lieutenant Tremaine, reporting for duty, Ma'am," Scotty Tremaine said, and braced to attention with Saganami Island precision. A burly, battered looking man in the uniform of a senior chief petty officer followed him and came to attention to his right and a half pace behind him.

"Senior Chief Gunner's Mate Harkness, reporting for duty, Ma'am," the petty officer rumbled, and Honor's smile became a grin.

"If it isn't the dreadful duo!" she chuckled, moving quickly around her desk and reaching out to grasp Tremaine's hand. "Who agreed to let you two aboard my ship?"

"Well, Commander Cardones said he was getting desperate, Ma'am," Tremaine replied with an irrepressible twinkle. "Since he couldn't find any qualified personnel, he figured he'd just have to make do with us."

"What is the Navy coming to?" Honor gave Tremaine's hand a final squeeze and released it to offer her own hand to Harkness in turn. The SCPO with the prizefighter's face looked acutely embarrassed for a moment, then took it in a powerful grip.

"Actually, Ma'am," Tremaine said more seriously, "I was overdue for reassignment from Prince Adrian, anyway. We were in Gryphon at the time, and Captain McKeon was under orders to ship directly out to Sixth Fleet or he'd have come by in person. But when BuPers told him he had to come up with fifteen people, including an officer, for your squadron, he decided he could spare my services. As a matter of fact, he said something about getting me out of his sight and into the hands of someone he knew could 'restrain my impetuosity'." The lieutenant wrinkled his brow. "I don't have any idea what he meant," he added innocently.

"Of course not," Honor agreed with another smile. Ensign Prescott Tremaine had made his very first cruise out of the Academy with her. In fact, he'd been with her in Basilisk when it all came apart . . . and again in Yeltsin, she thought, smile fading. He'd been there when she learned what the Masadan butchers had done to the crew of HMS Madrigal, and though they'd never discussed it—and never would—he'd saved her career. Not many junior-grade lieutenants would have had the guts to physically restrain their squadron CO from an act of madness.

"Well," she said, giving herself a mental shake and turning her attention to Harkness. "I see you've managed to keep the extra rocker, Senior Chief."

Harkness blushed, for his had been a checkered career. He was far too good at his job for the Navy to dispense with his services, but he'd been up for chief petty officer over twenty times before he made it and kept it. His encounters with customs officers—and any Marine he met in a bar off-duty—were legendary, but he seemed to have reformed since entering Tremaine's orbit. Honor didn't understand exactly how the make-over had worked, but wherever Tremaine went, Harkness was sure to turn up shortly. He was a good thirty years older than the lieutenant, yet the two of them seemed to constitute a natural pair not even BuPers could break up. Which, she reflected, might be because BuPers recognized what a formidable pair they made.

"Uh, yes, Ma'am—I mean, Milady," Harkness said.

"I'd like to see you go on keeping it," she said a bit repressively. "I don't anticipate any problems with customs"— Harkness' blush deepened—"but we will have a full battalion of Marines on board. I'd appreciate your not trying to reduce their numbers if we manage to find someplace for liberty."

"Oh, the Senior Chief doesn't do that anymore, Ma'am," Tremaine assured her. "His wife wouldn't like it."

"His wife?" Honor blinked and looked back at Harkness, and her eyebrows rose as the petty officer turned a truly alarming shade of crimson. "You're married now, Chief?"

"Uh, yes, Milady," Harkness mumbled. "Eight months now."

"Really? Congratulations! Who is she?"

"Sergeant Major Babcock," Tremaine supplied while Harkness positively squirmed, and Honor giggled. She couldn't help it. She hated it when she giggled, because she sounded like an escapee from high school, but she simply couldn't stop herself. Harkness had married Babcock? Impossible! But she saw the confirmation on the senior chief's face and fought her giggles sternly into silence. She had to hold her breath a moment to be certain they were vanquished, and her voice wasn't quite steady when she spoke again.

"T-that's wonderful news, Senior Chief!"

"Thank you, Milady." Harkness stole a sideways look at Tremaine, then grinned almost sheepishly. "Actually, it is good news. I never thought I'd meet a Marine I even liked, but, well—" He shrugged, and Honor felt her levity ease at the glow in his blue eyes.

"I'm glad for you, Senior Chief. Really," she said softly, squeezing his shoulder, and she was. Iris Babcock was the last person in the world she would have expected to marry Harkness, but now that she thought about it, she could see the possibilities. Babcock's career had been as exemplary as Harkness' had been . . . colorful, and she was one of the best combat soldiers—and practitioners of coup de vitesse—Honor had ever encountered. Honor would never even have considered Babcock and Harkness as a pair, but the sergeant major was precisely the sort of woman who would make certain the senior chief stayed on the straight and narrow. And, Honor thought, she was also a woman who'd obviously been wise enough to look past Harkness' exterior and realize what a truly good man he was.

"Thank you, Milady," the petty officer repeated, and she nodded briskly to them both.

"Well! I see why the Exec plugged you into Flight Ops, Scotty. Have you had a chance to look over your new boat bay?"

"No, Ma'am. Not yet."

"Then why don't you go do that—and take the Senior Chief with you. I think you'll like what the yard dogs have done for you. You'll be working with Major Hibson—I'm sure you remember her—for the boarding parties, and Commander Harmon, our senior LAC commander, but neither of them have reported in yet. Sergeant Major Hallowell is around somewhere, though. Page him and get him to go with you. We've still got a few days before the yard turns us loose, so if you see any minor changes you want, let me or the Exec know about them by supper."

"Yes, Ma'am." Tremaine braced to attention once more, returning to the attentive officer he always was on duty, and Harkness followed suit.

"Dismissed, gentlemen," Honor said, and smiled fondly as they left. She was glad she'd been able to meet them here, where she could relax the formality which would be the rule aboard ship without seeming to play favorites, and she was delighted to have them. The squadron's crew lists were beginning to fill up, and while the officers and senior ratings looked just as solid as Admiral Cortez had promised, the junior petty officers and enlisted personnel looked just as green—or problematical—as the admiral had feared. It was good to pick up a few unanticipated bright spots along the way.

She shook her head with another chuckle. Iris Babcock! Lord, that must have been an interesting courtship! She considered it for another moment, then sighed, squared her shoulders, and marched back around her desk to the hydroponics report.

The waiting officers rose as Honor entered the briefing room aboard Vulcan. Cardones and LaFollet flanked her, and Jamie Candless, the number two armsman of her normal travel detachment, took up his position outside the hatch as it closed. She crossed to the data terminal at the head of the long conference table and sank into her chair. The other officers waited until she'd been seated, then sat back down themselves, and she let her eyes sweep over them.

The squadron's personnel were still coming in, but the core of her senior officers was now in place, and Captain of the List Alice Truman faced her from the far end of the table, golden blonde and green-eyed, still the same sturdily built woman who'd been her second in command in Yeltsin six years before. Commander Angela Thurgood, Parnassus' exec, sat beside Alice, and Honor suppressed a small smile, for Thurgood was just as golden-haired as Alice. Blondes weren't all that rare in the Star Kingdom, but they weren't especially common, either. Yet it seemed to be a tradition that whenever Honor saw Truman, her senior subordinate—male or female—would be one of them.

Captain Junior-Grade Allen MacGuire, Gudrid's CO and the squadron's third in command, sat to Alice's left. MacGuire was a small man, twenty-five centimeters shorter than Honor, and another blond. He was the only one of her captains she hadn't known previously, but she'd already discovered he had a lively sense of humor which would probably stand a Q-ship's commander in good stead. He was also sharply intelligent, and he'd worked closely with Commander Schubert since his arrival. Between them, they'd managed to shave three more days off Gudrid's projected completion date, which would have been enough to endear him to Honor even if she hadn't been aware of what an asset he would be in other ways.

Like Honor herself, Commander Courtney Stillman, MacGuire's exec, was considerably taller than he was. She might be ten or twelve centimeters short of Honor's height, but that still made her seem to tower over her CO. They were an odd-looking pair, and not just because of the altitude differential. Stillman was dark-skinned, with eyes an even darker brown than Honor's, and she wore her close-cropped black hair at least as short as Honor had worn hers up until four years ago. She also seemed to have absolutely no sense of humor, yet she and MacGuire obviously got along together well.

And then there was Captain (JG) Samuel Houston Webster, Scheherazade's CO. He was another officer who'd served with her in Basilisk, and he'd very nearly died of his wounds there. They'd served together again on Hancock Station at the start of the present war, when she'd commanded Admiral Mark Sarnow's flagship. Webster had been on Sarnow's staff, and it was good to see he'd gotten the promotion he deserved since. Not that the tall, gangling redhead had ever been likely not to be promoted. He had the distinctive "Webster Chin" that marked him as a scion of one of the RMN's more powerful naval dynasties; fortunately, he also had the ability to deserve the advantages that chin brought with it.

Commander Augustus DeWitt, Webster's exec, completed the gathering. DeWitt was another officer Honor didn't know, but he looked competent and confident. He was brown-haired and brown-eyed, but his skin was as dark as Stillman's, with the weathered look that seemed to mark all natives of Gryphon—otherwise known as Manticore-B V. Gryphon had the smallest population of any of the Manticore System's inhabited planets (which, inhabitants of Sphinx and Manticore declared, was because only lunatics would live on a world with Gryphon's climate), but it seemed to produce a disproportionate number of good officers and NCOs . . . most of whom seemed to feel a moral obligation to keep the sissies who lived on their sister worlds in line.

It was a good team, Honor thought. No doubt it was early to be making such judgments, yet she trusted her instincts. None of them thought it was going to be a picnic, but none of them seemed to see their assignment as some sort of exile, either. That was good. In fact, that was very good, and she smiled at them.

"I've just received an update from BuPers," she said. "Another draft of five hundred personnel will be coming aboard Vulcan for us at zero-five-thirty. We don't have complete packages on them, but it looks like we'll at least be able to make a start on bringing your engineering section up to strength, Allen." She paused, and MacGuire nodded.

"That's good news, Milady. Commander Schubert's ready to test Fusion Two tomorrow, and I'd like to have a full crew section available when he does."

"It looks like you will," Honor said, then looked at Truman. "I've also just received our official mission brief," she said more soberly, "and it's going to be as tough as we thought."

She tapped a command into her terminal, and a star chart blinked into existence above the conference table. The rough sphere of the Silesian Confederacy glowed amber, its nearest edge a hundred and thirty-five light-years to galactic northwest of Manticore. The slightly larger sphere of the Anderman Empire glowed green, a bit further away from Manticore and below and to the southwest of Silesia but connected to the Star Kingdom by the thin, crimson line that indicated a branch of the Manticore Wormhole Junction. One scarlet edge of the enormous, bloated sphere of the People's Republic was just visible a hundred and twenty light-years northeast of Manticore and a hundred and twenty-seven light-years from Silesia at its closest approach, and the golden icon of the Basilisk System terminus of the Wormhole Junction glowed squarely between Haven and the Confederacy. One look at that chart was enough to make all the advantages—and dangers—of the Star Kingdom's astrographic position painfully clear, Honor thought, studying it for a moment, then cleared her throat.

"First," she said, "we've finally received our unit designation. As of zero-three-thirty today, we're on the list as Task Group Ten-Thirty-Seven." She smiled wryly. "'Task group' may be a bit grand for the likes of us, but I thought you'd like to know we have a name now."

Several of her officers chuckled, and she nodded to the star chart as she went on in a more serious voice.

"As you all know, our destination is the Breslau Sector, here." She highlighted a section near the Confederacy's western edge in darker amber. "The shortest route for us would be to use the Junction's Basilisk terminus, then head west across the Confederacy, but the Admiralty's decided to send us out through Gregor, down here in Andermani space." The green dot at the end of the crimson line blinked, and a broken green line extended itself from Gregor to the Breslau Sector. "Our total voyage time will be about twenty-five percent longer, which is regrettable, but it offers certain offsetting advantages."

She leaned back in her chair, watching their faces as they studied the chart.

"From the perspective of readiness, it won't hurt to extend the trip by thirty or forty light-years, since it will give us that much longer to shake down, but that's not the main reason the Admiralty wants us to use this routing. Traffic over the Triangle Route"— she pressed another key, and a green line extended itself from Manticore, down the scarlet line to Gregor, up to the heart of the Confederacy, across to the Basilisk System, and down its terminus link to return to Manticore—"is way down. In fact, commerce through Basilisk in general has declined since the war began. There's still a lot of it, but a large percentage of merchant lines are diverting from their normal routes—including the Triangle—to stay well clear of the war zone. The Basilisk Station picket is powerful enough to handle most Peep raiding squadrons, and Home Fleet is only a Junction transit away, but merchies don't get paid to risk their cargos.

"Because of that, most of our own commerce is passing through Gregor, then looping up to Silesia from the south. Of course, that's been a normal pattern for us for years, since it lets us call at Andermani ports first. The big change is that our shipping comes back down to Gregor rather than continuing on to Basilisk to complete the Triangle. But since that's where most of our shipping is, and since the Admiralty wants us to look like any other merchant ships until we've gotten our teeth into a few pirates, we'll be following the same pattern." Captain Truman raised two fingers, and Honor nodded to her. "Yes, Alice?"

"What about the Andies, Milady?" Truman asked. "Do they know we're coming?"

"They know four merchies are coming."

"Their navy's always been a bit on the proddy side about Gregor, Milady," MacGuire observed, "and we're going to have to cross a lot of their sphere, as well."

"I understand your point, Allen," Honor said, "but it shouldn't be a problem. The Empire recognized our preexisting treaty with the Gregor Republic when it, ah, acquired Gregor-B forty years ago. They may not exactly be delighted about it, but for all intents and purposes, Gregor-A belongs to us, and they've always acknowledged our legitimate concern over the security of the Junction terminus there. They also know what kind of trouble we've been having in Silesia. I don't say they're shedding any tears over it, since anything that decreases our presence there increases theirs, but they've been generous about granting our convoy escorts free passage. As far as they'll know, we'll just be one more convoy, and, since we won't be landing cargo on any imperial worlds along the way, customs inspection will be a moot point. They should never realize we're armed at all."

"Until we start killing pirates, Milady," Truman pointed out. "They'll know then, and they'll know where we came from and how we got to Breslau. I'd think there could be repercussions about that after the fact."

"If there are, they'll be the Foreign Secretary's concern. I suspect the Andermani will let it pass. There won't be anything they can do about it, after all, without risking an incident with us, and they won't want that."

Heads nodded soberly. All of them knew the Anderman Empire had cast covetous eyes on the Silesian Confederacy for over seventy years. It was hard to blame the Empire, really. The chronic weakness of the Silesian government and the chaotic conditions it spawned were bad for business. They also tended to be more than a little hard on Silesian citizens, who found themselves in the way of one armed faction or another with dreary regularity, and the Andermani had been faced with several incidents along their northern frontier. Some of those incidents had been ugly, and one or two had resulted in punitive expeditions by the Imperial Andermani Navy. But the IAN had always walked carefully in Silesia, and that was the RMN's fault.

More than one Manticoran prime minister had looked as longingly at Silesia as his or her imperial counterparts. Economically, Silesia was second only to the Empire itself as a market for the Star Kingdom, and chaos there could have painful repercussions on the Landing Stock Exchange. That was an important consideration for Her Majesty's Government, and so—though only, Honor was prepared to admit, in a lesser way—was the continual loss of life in Silesia. Eventually, unless there was a major change in the Confederacy's central government's ability to govern, something was going to have to be done, and Honor suspected Duke Cromarty would have preferred to take care of the problem years ago. That, unfortunately, would have involved one of those "aggressive, imperialist adventures" which all the current Opposition parties decried for one reason or another. So instead of cleaning up the snakes' nest once and for all, the RMN had spent over a century policing the Silesian trade lanes and letting the Confederacy's citizens slaughter one another to their homicidal hearts' content.

That same fleet presence was all that had deterred the last five Andermani Emperors from grabbing off large chunks of Silesian territory. At first, the deterrence had stemmed solely from the fact that the RMN was a third again the size of the IAN, but since the Peeps had turned expansionist, the Empire had discovered an additional reason to exercise restraint. The Emperor must be tempted to try a little smash and grab while Manticore was distracted, but he couldn't be certain what would happen if he did. The Star Kingdom might let it pass, under the circumstances, but he could also find himself in a shooting war with the RMN, and he didn't want that. For sixty years, the Star Kingdom had been the roadblock between his own empire and Peep conquistadors, and he wasn't about to weaken that barricade now that the shooting had started.

Or that, at least, was the Foreign Ministry's analysis, Honor reminded herself. The Office of Naval Intelligence shared it, and she tended to agree herself. Yet Alice and MacGuire had a point, and given the independent nature of the squadron's operations, it was going to be up to Honor to handle any diplomatic tiffs that arose. It wasn't a thought calculated to make her sleep well, but it came with the territory.

"At any rate," she went on, "the real job starts once we get to Breslau. The Admiralty's agreed to leave our operational patterns up to us, and I haven't decided yet whether I want to operate completely solo or in pairs. There are arguments both ways, of course, and we'll run some sims to see how it looks. I hope we'll have time for some actual maneuvers once we've completed our trials, as well, but I don't advise anyone to hold her breath. As I see it now, however, the strongest point in favor of splitting up is the greater volume it would let us cover, and as long as we're dealing only with the normal, run of the mill scum, we should have the individual firepower to deal with anything we're likely to meet."

Head nodded once more. Aside from Webster, all of Honor's captains had personal command experience in Silesia. Policing Silesian space had been the main shooting occupation of the RMN for a hundred T-years, and the Admiralty had developed the habit of blooding its more promising officers there. Rafe Cardones had amassed two years' experience in the Confederacy as Honor's tactical officer aboard the heavy cruiser Fearless, and Webster, DeWitt, and Stillman had all served there in subordinate capacities, as well. Between them, Honor's senior officers, despite their relatively junior ranks, had spent almost twenty years on the station . . . which no doubt had something to do with their selection for their current mission.

"All right," she said more briskly. "None of us has ever commanded a Q-ship before, nor has any Navy officer ever commanded a vessel with the armament mix we'll have. We're going to be learning as we go, and our operations will form the basis the Admiralty uses to formulate doctrine for the rest of the Trojans. In view of that, I'd like to begin our skull sessions right now, and I thought we'd start by considering how best to employ the LACs."

Most of her subordinates produced memo pads and plugged them into the terminals at their places, and she tipped her chair further back.

"It seems to me that the biggest concern is going to be getting them into space soon enough without doing it too soon," she went on. "We'll need to get some idea of how fast we can manage a crash launch, and I'm going to try to get us enough time to practice it against some of our own warships. That should give us a meterstick for how easy our parasites are to detect and whether or not we can conceal them by deploying them on the far side of our own impeller wedges. After that, we need to take a good look at tying them into our main fire control, and, given our own lack of proper sidewalls or armor, our point defense net.

"Alice, I'd like you to take charge of setting up a series of sims to—"

Fingers tapped notes into memo pads as Captain Lady Dame Honor Harrington marshaled her thoughts, and she felt her mind reaching out to the challenge to come.

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