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The ship-wide elation which had followed the "destruction" of Admiral D'Orville's flagship was noticeably absent as Honor watched her steward pour coffee. The rich aroma of the beverage filled the small briefing room's silence, but the cup Steward First Class MacGuiness placed at Honor's elbow contained hot cocoa. She never had understood how something that smelled as nice as coffee could taste so foul, and she wondered yet again if perhaps Manticoran coffee trees hadn't mutated somehow in their new environment. Such things happened, but she doubted that was the answer in this case, given the appalling relish with which most RMN officers imbibed the loathsome stuff.

Not that anyone was showing much relish today.

She hid a sigh behind her expressionless face and sipped her cocoa. Things had gone far better than she'd dared hope in the major Fleet problem of the recent maneuvers, but, as if to compensate, the subsequent problems had worked out even more disastrously than she'd feared. As expected, D'Orville and his squadron commanders had realized exactly what Fearless had done to them, and their humiliating showing had inspired them to make certain it never happened again. More than that, it had given them a personal grudge against Fearless (whatever Admiral D'Orville might have had to say about his personal admiration for their maneuver), especially after Hemphill's detached dreadnoughts turned up and battered the surviving Aggressors into ignominious retreat with forty-two percent losses.

D'Orville's captains had been waiting for Honor in the follow-up exercises. Indeed, she suspected some of them had been more concerned with nailing Fearless than winning the exercise! In a total of fourteen "engagements," the light cruiser had been "destroyed" thirteen times, and she'd only succeeded in taking someone with her (aside from King Roger, of course) twice.

The moral effect on Honor's people had been brutal. Being pounded on that way would have been hard for anyone, but it was especially painful after their elation over picking off the enemy flagship, and Admiral Hemphill's signals had made it even worse. Lady Sonja had been livid at how easily her secret weapon (and, no doubt, hopes for advanced promotion) were countered once the other side knew about it, and her messages to Fearless's captain had descended from congratulatory to querulous to scathing . . . and downhill from there. She had to know it wasn't Honor's fault, but knowing didn't seem to make her any happier.

Nor had it made Fearless's crew any happier with their new skipper. Their respect for her initial success had turned into something far less admiring, and their pride in their ship (and themselves) had eroded badly. Being "killed" that many times was sufficiently depressing for anyone, but the Aggressor crews had made it far worse with their undisguised gloating in the intervals between exercises. Her crew's loss of confidence would have been bad enough under any circumstances; for a ship with a new captain, it might well prove catastrophic. Perhaps, they thought, Captain Harrington hadn't been so brilliant after all that first day. What if it had been pure luck, not skill? What if they found themselves in a real combat situation and she dropped them in the toilet?

Honor understood what they were thinking. In their place, she might have been thinking the same thing; and if they thought they were unhappy they should try it from the captain's chair for a while.

"All right, ladies and gentlemen," she said finally, setting her cup back on its saucer and turning to her assembled officers. Coffee cups imitated her cocoa, and wary eyes looked back at her.

Honor made a point of meeting jointly with all of her senior officers on a regular basis. It wasn't required, and many captains preferred to leave all such activities to their first officers, since it was the exec's job to insure the ship ran smoothly. Honor, on the other hand, preferred to receive regular reports directly. It might require a little extra effort to avoid the appearance of undercutting her exec's traditional authority, but it seemed to her that a ship's officers generally worked more efficiently with one another (and for their CO) when they had a chance to air their problems and achievements and discuss their departments' needs together with their captain. The system had served her well in Hawkwing, where the enthusiastic collaboration of her officers had contributed measurably to the destroyer's successes. In Fearless's case, however, it wasn't working. Honor's new subordinates were more afraid she'd lash out at them for their ship's failures than interested in the opportunity to brainstorm with her.

Now she looked at their faces and felt her own failure in their wooden postures and set expressions. Lieutenant Webster, her communications officer, had the watch, but all the others were present . . . for all the good it seemed likely to do.

Lieutenant Commander McKeon faced her from the table's far end, tense and blank-faced, an enigma hiding some inner reserve that went beyond the maneuvers' disastrous outcome. Lieutenant Commander Santos, chief engineer and junior only to McKeon, sat expressionlessly at her right hand, eyes fixed on the blank screen of her memo pad as if to shut the rest of the briefing room away. Lieutenant Stromboli, the astrogator, fleshy, dark-browed, and physically powerful, sat hunched down in his chair like a child afraid to sulk. Dapper, slim Lieutenant Venizelos sat facing him, eyes unfocused, waiting with manifest resignation for the discussion to begin. Yet the resignation held an edge of bravado, almost defiance, as if the tactical officer dared her to blame him for Fearless's poor showing—and feared she did.

Captain Nikos Papadapolous sat beside Stromboli, meticulously neat in the green and black of the Royal Manticoran Marines, and, unlike the others, he seemed almost comfortable yet oddly detached. But, then, the Corps was a law unto itself in many ways, for Marines were always outsiders aboard ship. They were army troops in a naval setting and aware of the distinction, and unlike her naval personnel, Papadapolous's Marines had nothing for which to reproach themselves. They went where the ship went and did what they were told; if the effete Navy types who crewed it screwed up, that was their lookout, not the Corps'.

Surgeon Commander Lois Suchon faced Papadapolous across the table, and Honor tried not to feel a special dislike for Fearless's doctor. It was hard. Both of her own parents were physicians, and her father had reached Suchon's own rank before retiring, which meant Honor had a pretty fair notion of just how much help a good doctor could be. Suchon, on the other hand, was even more detached than Papadapolous. Doctors were specialists, not line officers in the chain of command, and the thin-faced, petulant Suchon seemed totally disinterested in anything beyond her sickbay and dispensary. Worse, she seemed to regard her responsibility for the crew's health as a sort of nagging inconvenience, and Honor found it very difficult to forgive any physician for that.

Her eyes swept past Suchon to the two officers flanking McKeon. Lieutenant Ariella Blanding, her supply officer, junior to every other officer present, looked as if she expected her captain to spring upon her at any moment, despite the fact that her department had performed flawlessly throughout. Blanding was a small woman, with a sweet, oval face and blond hair, but her eyes moved back and forth endlessly, like a mouse trying to watch too many cats.

Lieutenant Mercedes Brigham sat facing Blanding, as if she'd been placed deliberately to accentuate the contrast between them. Blanding was young and fair; Brigham was almost old enough to be Honor's mother, with dark, weathered-looking skin. She was Fearless's sailing master, a position that was being rapidly phased out of the service, but she seemed unconcerned by the fact. She'd never caught the attention to rise above lieutenant, yet her comfortable, lived-in face normally wore an air of quiet competence, though she had to know she would never advance beyond her present rank after so long in grade. And if she was as withdrawn as the others, at least she didn't seem physically afraid of her captain.

That was something, Honor thought, completing her survey and forcing herself not to bark a demand that they show some backbone. It wouldn't help, and it would convince them their anxieties were justified. Besides, she knew exactly where their defensiveness came from; she herself had known captains who certainly would have taken out their own frustrations on their officers. After all, someone had to be at fault for things to go this wrong, and their concern that Honor would do just that was so palpable she'd started leaving Nimitz in her quarters for these meetings. The treecat was far too sensitive to emotions to subject him to something like this.

"What's the status of our request to reprovision, Exec?" she asked McKeon. The executive officer glanced at Blanding, then straightened in his chair.

"We're cleared to take on supplies Monday, beginning at twelve-thirty hours, Ma'am," he said crisply. Too crisply. McKeon was holding his personal contacts with Honor to an absolute minimum, erecting a barrier she couldn't seem to break through. He was brisk, efficient, and obviously competent—and there wasn't a trace of rapport between them.

She bit her tongue against a fresh urge to snap at him. A warship's executive officer was supposed to be the essential bridge between its captain and her officers and crew, the skipper's alter ego and manager as well as her second in command. McKeon wasn't. He was too good an officer to encourage any open discussion of Fearless's failings—or her captain's—among his subordinates, but silence could speak volumes. McKeon's silence was more eloquent than most, and not only was it contributing powerfully to her isolation from her officers, but that isolation was transmitting itself to the rest of her crew, as well.

"Any word on those extra missile pallets we requested?" she asked him, trying once more to break through the icy formality.

"No, Ma'am." McKeon tapped a brief notation into his memo pad. "I'll check with Fleet Logistics again."

"Thank you," Honor managed not to sigh, and abandoned the attempt. She turned to Dominica Santos, instead. "What's the status of the grav lance upgrade, Commander?" she asked in a cool, even voice that hid her near despair.

"I think we'll have the replacement convergence circuits in place for an on-line test by the end of the watch, Ma'am," Santos responded, keying her own memo pad to life. She studied the screen, never looking up at Honor. "After that, we'll have to—"

Alistair McKeon sat back and listened to Santos's report, but his attention wasn't really on it.

He watched Harrington's profile, and dull, churning resentment burned at the back of his throat like acid. The captain looked as calm and collected as she always did, spoke and listened as courteously as ever, and that only made him resent her more. He was a tactical officer himself by training. He knew precisely how impossible Harrington's task had been, yet he couldn't rid himself of a nagging suspicion that he could have done better at it than she. He certainly couldn't have done any worse, he thought spitefully, and felt himself flush guiltily.

Damn it, what was wrong with him? He was supposed to be a professional naval officer, not some sort of jealous schoolboy! It was his job to support his captain, to make her ideas work, not to feel a corrosive satisfaction when they didn't, and his inability to overcome his personal feelings shamed him. Which, of course, only made them worse.

Santos finished her report, and Harrington turned with equal courtesy to Lieutenant Venizelos. That should have been another of McKeon's jobs. He was the one who ought to be keeping the meeting moving, bringing out the points he knew should be called to the captain's attention and subtly shoring up her authority. Instead, it was one more task he avoided, and he knew, deep inside, that he was painting himself into a corner. Habit would make it impossible for him to reclaim responsibilities he left undischarged long enough, and as Harrington came to believe, with cause, that she simply could not rely upon him, she would stop giving him the chance to prove she could.

Alistair McKeon knew where that would end. One of them would have to go, and it wouldn't be the captain. Nor should it be, he told himself with scathing, inherent honesty.

He looked around the briefing room again and felt something very like panic. He could lose all this. He'd known he couldn't hope for command of Fearless, but his own actions—and inactions—could take even this away from him. He knew it, yet knowing wasn't enough. For the first time in his career, recognizing where his duty lay wasn't enough for him to do it. Try as he might, he couldn't break through his resentment and the dislike springing from it.

He felt a sudden, terrible temptation to confess his feelings and his failures to the captain. To beg her to find a way through them for him. Somehow, he knew, those dark brown eyes would listen without condemning, that calm soprano would reply without contempt.

And that, of course, was what made it impossible. It would be the final capitulation, the admission that Harrington deserved the command he had known from the start could not be his.

He ground his teeth together and stroked the cover of his memo pad in silence.

The attention signal chimed, and Honor pressed the com button.

"Communications Officer, Ma'am," the traditional Marine sentry announced crisply, and she felt an eyebrow rise.

"Enter," she invited, and the hatch hissed open to admit Lieutenant Samuel Houston Webster.

Honor gestured at the chair across her desk from her, and Nimitz sat up on his hindquarters with a welcoming "bleek" as the gangling lieutenant crossed the day cabin to take it. As always, the 'cat was a sure barometer of Honor's own feelings. She despised captains who played favorites among their officers, but if she'd been the sort to let herself do things like that, Webster would have been her choice.

Of all Fearless's officers, he was the most cheerful and seemed least wary of his captain. Or, she thought wryly, perhaps he was simply less worried about being splattered by Admiral Hemphill's evident displeasure with the said captain. He was a young, overly-tall redhead who seemed to have too little meat on his bones, but he was also very, very good at his job—and a third cousin of the Duke of New Texas. Honor often felt ill at ease with subordinates from such rarefied aristocratic heights, but no one could feel that way around Webster, and she gave him a slight smile as he sat.

To her surprise, he failed to return it. In fact, his homely face (dominated by the craggy Webster chin) wore an expression of acute unhappiness as he laid a message board on the blotter.

"We've just copied a dispatch from the Admiralty, Ma'am," he said. "Orders to a new station."

Something about the way he said it—and the fact that he'd brought it in person instead of sending it by messenger or over the intercom—filled Honor with dread. She schooled her features into calm interest and picked it up, then bit her lip in dismay as she scanned the display and the brief, terse directive.

Basilisk Station. God, she knew she'd disappointed Hemphill, but the admiral must be even more upset than she'd thought!

"I see," she said calmly. She laid the electronic message board down and tipped her chair back. Nimitz leapt lightly from his perch to her shoulder, wrapping his fluffy tail protectively about her throat, and she reached up to stroke his head.

Webster said nothing. There was very little he could say, after all.

"Well," Honor inhaled deeply, "at least we know." She pressed her thumb to the message board scanner, formally receipting her new orders, then handed it back to Webster. "Pass it on to Commander McKeon, please. And inform him with my compliments that I would appreciate his getting together with Lieutenant Stromboli and Lieutenant Brigham to recheck and update the Basilisk charts."

"Yes, Ma'am," the communications officer said quietly. He rose, braced to attention, and turned away. The hatch slid shut behind him, and Honor closed her eyes in pain.

The Basilisk System picket wasn't a duty station—it was exile. Oblivion.

She rose to pace the cabin, cradling Nimitz in her arms, and felt him purr against her chest, but this time not even his efforts could stave off her black depression. Officers who were frightened of her, an executive officer less approachable than a Sphinx iceberg, a crew who blamed her for their ship's failures, and now this.

She bit her lip until her eyes watered, remembering how happy and proud she'd been the day she assumed command. Now that joyful anticipation had become unreal and untouchable, even in memory, and she wanted to cry.

She stopped her pacing and stood rigid, then sucked in a tremendous breath, gave Nimitz one last squeeze, and set him on her shoulder. All right. They were sweeping Fearless—and her captain—under the rug, running them out of town because they were an embarrassment to Admiral Hemphill. There was nothing she could do about that, except to take her medicine, however undeserved, and do the very best she could with the duties she'd been given. And, she told herself firmly, the fact that Basilisk Station had become the RMN's purgatory didn't mean it wasn't important.

She returned to her desk, trying not to think about how her crew would react when they learned of their new orders, and punched up the Basilisk entry on her data terminal. Not so much because she needed the information as in the vain hope that rereading it would make the pill less bitter.

It wasn't as if being sent to Basilisk should be a disgrace. The system was of great and steadily growing economic value to the Kingdom, not to mention its strategic military importance. It was also Manticore's sole extra-system territorial possession, and that alone should have made it a prestigious assignment.

The Manticore System was a G0/G2 distant binary, unique in the explored galaxy in possessing three Earth-like planets: Manticore, Honor's own Sphinx, and Gryphon. Given that much habitable real estate, there'd never been much pressure, historically, for the Kingdom to expand into other systems, and for five T-centuries it hadn't.

It probably still wouldn't have but for the converging pressures of the Manticore Wormhole Junction and the Havenite threat.

Honor swung her chair gently from side to side, listening to Nimitz's less anxious purr, and pursed her lips.

The Manticore Junction was as unique as the system itself, with no less than six additional termini. That was one more than any other junction so far charted, and the astrophysicists argued that the survey readings suggested there should be at least one more undiscovered terminus, though they had yet to work out the math and isolate it.

In no small part, the Junction explained Manticore's wealth. The best effective speed in hyper of most merchantmen was little more than twelve hundred times light-speed. At that apparent velocity, the voyage from Manticore to Old Earth would require over five months; the Beowulf terminus of the Junction, on the other hand, delivered a ship to Sigma Draconis, little more than forty light-years from Sol, in no measurable elapsed time at all.

The commercial advantages were obvious, and the Junction's far-flung termini had become magnets for trade, all of which must pass through the central junction point (and Manticoran space) to take advantage of them. Manticore's tolls were among the lowest in the galaxy, but simple logistics meant they generated enormous total revenues, and the Kingdom served as a central warehousing and commercial node for hundreds of other worlds.

Yet logistics also made the Junction a threat. If multi-megaton freighters could pass through it, so could superdreadnoughts, and the economic prize it offered was sufficient to make for avaricious neighbors. Manticorans had known that for centuries, but they hadn't worried about it overmuch before the People's Republic of Haven become a threat.

But Haven had become a threat. After almost two T-centuries of deficit spending to shore up an increasingly insolvent welfare state, Haven had decided it had no choice but to turn conquistador to acquire the resources it needed to support its citizens in the style to which they had become accustomed, and the People's Navy had proven its capacity to do just that over the course of the last five decades. Haven already controlled one terminus of the Junction—Trevor's Star, conquered twelve T-years ago—and Honor had no doubt the "Republic" hungered to add the rest of them to its bag. Especially, she thought with a familiar chill, the central nexus, for without Manticore itself, the other termini were of strictly limited utility.

Which was why the Kingdom had annexed Basilisk following its discovery twenty-odd Manticoran years before. The G5 star's single habitable (if one used the term loosely) planet had complicated the decision, for it boasted a sentient native species, and the Liberals had been horrified at the notion of Manticore "conquering" an aboriginal race. The Progressives, on the other hand, had opposed the annexation because they already realized Haven would someday turn its sights on the Silesian Confederacy, which would take them straight past Basilisk. Manticoran sovereignty, they feared, would be seen as a direct threat—a "provocation"—in Havenite eyes, and their idea of foreign policy was to buy Haven off, not irritate it. As for the Conservative Association, anything that threatened to embroil them in galactic affairs beyond their nice, safe borders was anathema in their eyes.

All of which explained why Basilisk had become a bone of incredibly bitter contention among the major political parties. The Centrists and Crown Loyalists had carried the annexation by only the slimmest margin in the House of Lords, despite ample evidence that the Commons (including many of the Liberals' staunchest allies) strongly favored it. But to get it through the Lords at all, the Government had been forced to agree to all sorts of restrictions and limitations—including the incredibly stupid (in Honor's opinion) provision that no permanent fortifications or Fleet bases should be constructed in the system, and that even mobile units there should be kept to a minimum.

Under the circumstances, one might have expected the restriction on the number of ships which could be stationed there to call for sending only the very best, particularly since the volume of trade through the newly discovered terminus had grown by leaps and bounds. In fact, and especially since Sir Edward Janacek had become First Lord of the Admiralty, the opposite was the case.

Janacek wasn't the first, unfortunately, to denigrate Basilisk's importance, but his predecessors at least seemed to have based their feelings on something besides personal politics. The pre-Janacek theory, as far as Honor was able to determine, had been that since they were barred from putting in forces which might stand a chance of holding the system, there was no point making the effort. Thus, even many of those who supported the annexation saw the picket as little more than a trip-wire, advanced scouts whose destruction would be the signal for a response by the Home Fleet direct from Manticore. In short, some of them had argued, if any serious attack was ever mounted, there was no point sacrificing any more ships than necessary simply for the honor of the flag.

Janacek, of course, felt even more strongly than that. Since assuming control of the Admiralty, he had reduced the Basilisk picket below even the stipulated levels, for he saw it as a threat and a liability, not an asset. Left to his own devices, he would no doubt have simply ignored the system completely, and since he couldn't (quite) do that, he could at least see to it that he didn't waste any useful ships on it. And so Basilisk Station had become the punishment station of the Royal Manticoran Navy. Its dumping ground. The place it sent its worst incompetents and those who had incurred Their Lordships' displeasure.

People like Commander Honor Harrington and the crew of HMS Fearless.

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