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Prologue

"It is always a bad thing when political matters are allowed to affect . . . the planning of operations."


Field Marshal Erwin Rommel
160 Ante-Diaspora (1943 C.E.)


 



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It was very quiet in the huge, dimly lit room. The Advanced Tactical Training Course's main lecture hall boasted the second largest holo tank of the Royal Manticoran Navy, and the rising, amphitheaterlike seats facing the tank seated over two thousand at full capacity. At the moment, thirty-seven people, headed by Admiral Sir Lucien Cortez, Fifth Space Lord, and Vice Admiral The Honorable Alyce Cordwainer, the RMN's Judge Advocate General, sat in those seats and watched the tank intently.


The image of a tall, strong-faced woman floated in it, sitting erect and square-shouldered yet calmly in her chair, hands folded on the tabletop before her beside the white beret of a starship's commander. The golden planets of a senior-grade captain gleamed on the collar of her space-black tunic, and she wore no expression at all as she faced the HD camera squarely.


"And what, precisely, happened after the task group's final course change, Captain Harrington?" The voice came from off-camera, and a blood-red caption in the holo tank identified the speaker as Commodore Vincent Capra, head of the board of inquiry whose recommendations had brought the audience here.


"The enemy altered course to pursue us, Sir." Captain Harrington's soprano was surprisingly soft and sweet for a woman of her size, but it was also cool, almost remote.


"And the tactical situation?" Capra pressed.


"The task group was under heavy fire, Sir," she replied in that same, impersonal tone. "I believe Circe was destroyed almost as we altered course. Agamemnon was destroyed approximately five minutes after course change, and several of our other units suffered both damage and casualties."


"Would you call the situation desperate, Captain?"


"I would call it . . . serious, Sir," Harrington responded after a moment's thought.


There was a brief silence, as if her invisible questioner were waiting for her to say something more. But her detached calm was impregnable, and Commodore Capra sighed.


"Very well, Captain Harrington. The situation was 'serious,' the enemy had altered course to pursue you, and Agamemnon had been destroyed. Were you in contact with Nike's flag bridge and Admiral Sarnow?"


"Yes, Sir, I was."


"So it was at this time he started to order the task group to scatter?"


"I believe that was his intention, Sir, but if so, he was interrupted before he actually gave orders to that effect."


"And how was he interrupted, Captain?"


"By a report from our sensor net, Sir. Our platforms had picked up the arrival of Admiral Danislav's dreadnoughts."


"I see. And did Admiral Sarnow then order the task group not to scatter?"


"No, Sir. He was wounded before he could pass any other orders," the quiet, unshadowed soprano replied.


"And how was he wounded, Captain? What were the circumstances?" The off-camera voice was almost irritated now, as if frustrated by Harrington's clinical professionalism.


"Nike was hit several times by enemy fire, Sir. One hit took out Boat Bay One, CIC, and Flag Bridge. Several members of the Admiral's staff were killed, and he himself was severely injured."


"He was rendered unconscious?"


"Yes, Sir."


"And did you pass command of the task group to the next senior officer?"


"I did not, Sir."


"You retained command?" Harrington nodded wordlessly. "Why, Captain?"


"In my judgment, Sir, the tactical situation was too serious to risk confusion in the chain of command. I was in possession of knowledge—the fact that Admiral Danislav had arrived—which might not be known to Captain Rubenstein, the next senior officer, and time was very limited."


"So you took it upon yourself to assume command of the entire task group in Admiral Sarnow's name?" Capra's question was sharp—not condemnatory, but with the air of making a crucial point—and Harrington nodded once more.


"I did, Sir," she said, without even a flicker of emotion as she admitted violating at least five separate articles of war.


"Why, Captain?" Capra pressed. "What made the situation time critical enough to justify such an action on your part?"


"We were approaching our preplanned scatter point, Sir. Admiral Danislav's arrival gave us the opportunity to lead the enemy into a position from which he could not escape interception, but only if we remained concentrated and offered him a target worth pursuing. Given the damage I knew Captain Rubenstein's com facilities had suffered, I judged there was too great a risk that the task group would scatter as previously planned before Captain Rubenstein could be fully apprised of the situation and assert tactical control."


"I see." There was another lengthy moment of silence, broken only by what might have been the soft, off-camera sound of shuffling paper. Then Capra spoke once more.


"Very well, Captain Harrington. Please tell the Board what happened approximately fourteen minutes after Admiral Sarnow was wounded."


The first, faint trace of emotion crossed Captain Harrington's calm face. Her almond-shaped eyes seemed to harden with a cold, dangerous glitter and her mouth tightened. But only for an instant. Then all expression vanished once more, and no hint of whatever had glittered in her eyes colored that dispassionate soprano when she replied with a question of her own.


"I assume, Sir, that you're referring to the actions of CruRon Seventeen?"


"Yes, Captain. I am."


"It was at approximately that time, Sir, that CruRon Seventeen scattered and detached from the remainder of the task group," Harrington said, and her voice was colder and even more emotionless than before.


"On whose responsibility?"


"That of Captain Lord Young, Sir, acting squadron CO following Commodore Van Slyke's death earlier in the action."


"Did you instruct him to detach?"


"No, Sir, I did not."


"Did he inform you of his intentions before he detached his squadron?"


"No, Sir, he did not."


"So he acted entirely on his own initiative and without orders from the flagship?"


"Yes, Sir, he did."


"Did you instruct him to return to formation?"


"Yes, Sir, I did."


"More than once?"


"Yes, Sir."


"And did he obey your instructions, Captain?" Capra asked quietly.


"No, Sir," Harrington replied like a soprano-voiced machine. "He did not."


"Did the remainder of CruRon Seventeen return to its station when so instructed?"


"Yes, Sir, they did."


"And Captain Lord Young's own ship—?"


"Continued to withdraw, Sir," Honor Harrington's recorded image said very, very softly, and an echo of that hard, frightening glitter gleamed in her eyes as the HD tank froze.


There was a moment of complete and utter silence, and then the tank blanked. The lights came up, and all eyes turned to the JAG Corps captain standing behind the speaker's lectern as she cleared her throat.


"That completes the relevant portion of Lady Harrington's statement to the Board of Inquiry, ladies and gentlemen." Her crisp alto carried well, with the easy courtroom manner of the experienced lawyer she was. "The entire statement, as well as all other testimony taken before the Board is, of course, available. Would you care to review any further portions of it before we proceed?"


Admiral Cordwainer glanced at Cortez and crooked an eyebrow, wondering if the Fifth Space Lord had caught the same nuances she had. Probably. She might be a jurist by training, more alive to the things that weren't said—and the way they weren't—than most people, but Sir Lucien Cortez was a line officer who'd seen combat, and it had showed in his eyes and the tightening of his lips as he listened to Lady Harrington's cold, bloodless recitation of events.


But Cortez shook his head, and the JAG looked back at the woman behind the lectern.


"If there are any questions, we can view the rest of the transcript following your brief, Captain Ortiz," she said. "Carry on."


"Yes, Ma'am." Ortiz nodded and glanced down, tapping keys to scroll through the notes in her memo pad, then looked back up. "This next portion is the real reason I asked ATC to make the main tank available to us, Ma'am. What you're about to see is a recreation of the relevant portion of the actual engagement, drawn from the sensor logs of all surviving units of Task Group Hancock-Zero-Zero-One. There are holes in the data, due to the task group's heavy losses, but we've been able to fill most of them by interpolating captured data from Admiral Chin's dreadnoughts. Using that information, ATC's computers have generated the equivalent of a combat information center display at a time compression of—" Ortiz glanced back at her memo pad "—approximately five-to-one, beginning shortly before Admiral Sarnow was wounded."


She pressed buttons, and the lights dimmed once more. There was a brief blur of light in the stupendous HD tank; then everything snapped into sharp focus once more, and Cordwainer felt Cortez stiffen beside her as the glowing icons of a battle display burned before them.


The larger portion of the two-level projection displayed the inner system of the red dwarf star called Hancock, as far out as the eleven-light-minute hyper limit. The widespread light codes of planets and the green dot of the fleet repair base that was the heart of Hancock Station blazed within it, but three brighter, flashing light codes drew the eye like magnets. Not even ATC's huge tank was able to display individual warships on such a scale, but only one of the flashing lights was the bright green of friendly units; both of the others glared the sullen crimson of hostiles, and funnel-like cores of light joined each of them to exploded-view projections which could display individual ships and their formations.


The JAG was no trained tactician, but it didn't take one to understand Cortez's sudden tension. One crimson smear—the larger, by far—hung all but motionless, barely halfway from the hyper limit to Hancock Station, and the icons of the projection linked to it identified a blood-chilling number of superdreadnoughts of the People's Navy. But the second enemy force was far closer to the repair base, closing on it rapidly even as it slowly overhauled Task Group H-001, and the handful of green dots representing Manticoran units was horribly outnumbered—and even more horribly outgunned—by the glaring red dots of the warships pursuing them. The heaviest Manticoran units were six battlecruisers, three of them already circled by the flashing yellow bands of combat damage, and six superdreadnoughts led the Peeps charging up their wakes.


Cordwainer winced as the glittering sparkles of missiles streaked back and forth between the two formations. The Peeps poured fire into TG H-001 on at least a three-for-one ratio. It was hard to be certain—the compressed time scale reduced missile flight times drastically and made any real estimate of numbers impossible—but it looked as if the Manticorans were scoring at least as many actual hits. Unfortunately, the Peeps could take a great many more hits.


"The task group has already lost two battlecruisers at this point," Captain Ortiz's detached, invisible voice said from out of the darkness. "The Peeps have lost much more heavily thanks to Admiral Sarnow's initial ambush, but it's important to note that the Admiral has lost both his senior divisional commanders and Commodore Van Slyke. In short, there are no surviving flag officers, other than Admiral Sarnow himself, in the task group at this time."


Cordwainer nodded silently, listening to Cortez's harsh breathing beside her, and winced as another Manticoran ship—this one a light cruiser—vanished from the display with heart-stopping suddenness. Two of the damaged battlecruisers took more hits, as well. The yellow band around one of them—she squinted her eyes to make out the name HMS AGAMEMNON beside its icon—was tinged with the red of critical damage, and she shuddered as she tried to imagine how it must feel to know eight or nine times your own firepower had you in killing range.


"We're coming up on the task group's final course change," Ortiz said quietly, and the JAG watched TG H-001's vector suddenly angle away from its previous course by at least fifteen degrees. She bit her lip as the Peep dreadnoughts turned to cut the chord of the angle, and the tank suddenly froze.


"This is the point at which Admiral Sarnow made his final bid to draw the enemy away from the repair base and its personnel," Captain Ortiz said, and the tank flickered once more. The exploded-view formation displays burned unchanged, but the system-scale display shrank into a tiny fraction of its former volume to make room for three new projections. Not of battle codes and warships, this time, but of command decks and Manticoran officers eerily frozen in midmotion, as if awaiting the restoration of the time stream.


"We're now approaching the actions significant to the board of inquiry's determinations," Ortiz went on. "A perusal of Admiral Sarnow's pre-battle briefings and discussions with his squadron commanders and captains will, I feel, make it abundantly evident that all of them understood his intention to divert the enemy from the base by any means possible, specifically including the use of his own ships as decoys. At the same time, in fairness to Lord Young, I should perhaps also point out that those same discussions had also covered the Admiral's intention for his force to scatter and evade independently once it became evident that further diversion had become impossible, although execution of such an evolution was, of course, contingent upon express orders from the flagship."


She paused a moment, as if awaiting comment, but there was none, and her voice resumed.


"From this point on, the time scale drops to one-to-one, and the command deck projections—drawn from the relevant ships' bridge recorders—are synchronized with the events in the tactical display. For the record, this—" one of the projections flashed brighter "—is the flag deck of HMS Nike. This—" another projection flashed "—is Nike's bridge deck, and this—" the third projection flashed "—is the bridge deck of the heavy cruiser HMS Warlock." She paused again to invite questions, then the entire complex light sculpture in the tank sprang back to life as if she'd touched it with a magic wand, and this time the silence was shattered by the wail of alarms, the beep of priority signals, and the frantic background crackle of battle chatter.


The command deck projections were frighteningly lifelike. They weren't things of cool, lifeless light; they were real, and Cordwainer knew she was leaning forward on the edge of her comfortable chair as their reality swept over her. Nor was she alone. She heard someone groan behind her as at least four Peep missiles scored direct hits on the heavy cruiser Circe and the ship blew apart under their bomb-pumped x-ray lasers, but her eyes were riveted to Nike's bridge and a woman who was nothing at all like the cool, detached captain whose testimony they'd already viewed.


"Formation Reno, Com—get those cruisers in tighter!"


Honor Harrington's snapped order crackled with authority, and the entire task group shifted like a machine in the tactical display, realigning itself instantly. The change made the formation's missile defenses far more effective—even Cordwainer could tell that—yet the observation was peripheral, almost unimportant, as she watched Harrington ride her command chair like a valkyrie's winged steed. As if it were inevitable she should be there—impossible that she should be anywhere else in the universe. She was the heart and core of the frantic, disciplined activity of her ship's bridge, yet there was nothing frantic about her. Her face was cold—expressionless not with detachment but with purpose, a killer's total, focused concentration—and her brown eyes flashed frozen flame. Cordwainer could feel the tendrils of her concentration reaching out to every officer on her bridge like a maestro gathering a superbly trained orchestra into her hands and driving its musicians to perform on a plateau they could never have reached without her. She was in her element, doing the one thing she'd been born to do and carrying the others with her as she fought her ship and her ship led the embattled task group.


The white-faced, sweating man in HMS Warlock's command chair was a nonentity beside Harrington, something so small, so trivial, it barely registered, but a corner of the JAG's eye watched Admiral Sarnow and his staff. Her intellect recognized the admiral's skill and a purpose at least as focused as Harrington's, his uncanny ability to carry the entire complex tactical situation in his head, the authority radiating from him, yet even he seemed strangely distant. Not diminished, but . . . pushed back, set at one remove beside the icy, brighter than life fire of Nike's captain. His was the task group's brain, Cordwainer thought, but Harrington was its soul, and something deep inside her was amazed by her own thoughts. Such dramatic metaphors were alien to her, clashed with all her jurist's cold, analytical training, yet they were the only ones that fit.


"We've lost Agamemnon, Skipper!" someone snapped from Nike's bridge, and Cordwainer bit her lip as another green icon vanished, but her eyes were fixed on Harrington's face, watching the slight tick at the right corner of her mouth as her ship's division mate died.


"Close us up on Intolerant. Tactical, tie into her missile defense net."


Acknowledgments rattled back, but her eyes were fixed on the com screen linking her to Admiral Sarnow's flag bridge, and there was something else in those eyes. A bitter something, raw as poison, as her admiral looked back at her. The price the task group was paying was too high for a mere diversion from a base it couldn't save, and both of them knew it. Their ships were dying for nothing, and Sarnow opened his mouth to order them to scatter.


But he never gave that order. A shout from his staff jerked him around, and new green light codes pocked the holo tank's system and tactical displays. Forty—fifty!—new ships appeared on the hyper limit, Manticoran ships led by ten dreadnoughts, and Sarnow watched tautly as they swept around onto an intercept course and began to accelerate.


He turned back to his link to Captain Harrington, his eyes bright . . . and in that instant Nike heaved and twisted like a mad thing as x-ray lasers smashed through her armor and gouged deep into her hull. Displays flashed and died on her bridge as her combat information center was blown apart, but her flag bridge was a holocaust.


Cordwainer rocked back in her seat, hands clenching in fists of shock, as the flag bridge's after bulkhead exploded with an ear-shattering roar. White-hot chunks of battle steel screamed across it, smashing through computers, displays, command consoles, and flesh with gory abandon while a hurricane of outraged atmosphere screamed through the rents in Nike's hull. The JAG had never seen combat. She was an imaginative, keenly intelligent woman, yet nothing less than reality could have prepared her for the horror and chaos of that moment, for the appalling fragility of human beings before the elemental destruction they commanded, and her stomach heaved as Admiral Sarnow was blown out of his command chair, legs horribly mutilated, skinsuit soaked in sudden blood.


She ripped her eyes from the smoke and the wail of alarms, the shouts of the survivors and the screams of the dying, and saw the shock in Honor Harrington's face. The awareness of what had happened to her admiral and her ship. Cordwainer saw it all in that moment—the recognition of what it meant and the instant, instinctive decision that went with it. No inkling of it shadowed Honor's voice as she acknowledged the torrent of damage reports, but the JAG knew. Harrington was Sarnow's flag captain, his tactical exec, but authority passed with the admiral. She had no legal choice but to inform the next senior officer he was in command, yet she made herself lean back in her command chair as the damage reports ended . . . and said nothing.


The task group raced onward, flailed with fire, and hit after hit screamed in on HMS Nike. Whether the Peeps had realized she was the flagship or simply that she was the largest and most powerful of their enemies was immaterial; their missiles ripped at her like a whirlwind of flame, and Nike writhed at its heart. The heavy cruisers Merlin and Sorcerer clung to her flanks, joining their defensive fire with hers and Intolerant's, but they couldn't stop it all, and the holo of Harrington's command deck shuddered and jerked again and again and again as the hits got through. Her ship twisted in agony, but a new icon glowed ahead of the task group in the display, a brilliant crosshair that even Cordwainer recognized: the point at which it would become mathematically impossible for the pursuing Peeps to evade the freshly arrived Manticoran dreadnoughts still beyond their own onboard detection range.


Minutes oozed past, slow and terrible, written in thunder and the death of human beings, twisting the hushed audience's nerves in pincers of steel, and the bleeding survivors of TG H-001 swept toward that crosshair, paying in blood and courage to lure their enemies to their doom. Debris and atmosphere streamed from Nike's wounded hull as the enemy battered her slowly toward destruction, and Cordwainer crouched in her chair, watching the blazing purpose in Harrington's eyes, seeing the anguish as her people died, and urged her silently on, straining with her to reach her objective.


And then it happened.


A single missile targeted HMS Warlock. It evaded the so far unwounded heavy cruiser's point defense, racing in to attack range. It detonated, and two lasers slashed into the ship. The damage was sudden and shocking, if minuscule compared to what other ships had suffered, but a shrill, terrified tenor voice wrenched all eyes from Nike's command deck to Captain Lord Pavel Young.


"Squadron orders! All ships scatter! Repeat, all ships scatter!"


Cordwainer snapped her gaze back to the tactical display, watching in horror as Heavy Cruiser Squadron Seventeen obeyed its orders. Its units arced away from the main formation—all but HMS Merlin, who clung grimly to Nike's flanks, fighting desperately to beat aside the fire screaming in upon her flagship—and chaos struck the fine-meshed, interlocking network of the task group's missile defenses. The light cruiser Arethusa blew apart under a direct hit, more hits battered the suddenly exposed target of HMS Cassandra, lacerating the battlecruiser's hull, knocking out her entire port sidewall and leaving her naked and vulnerable, and Honor Harrington's voice rose through the chaos like a cold, clear trumpet.


"Contact Warlock! Get those ships back in position!"


Cordwainer's head turned back to Warlock's bridge in automatic reflex as Harrington's com officer relayed her orders . . . and Pavel Young said nothing. He only stared at his com officer, unable—or unwilling—to respond, and his executive officer's face hardened in disbelief.


"Orders, Sir?" the exec asked harshly, and Young wrenched his wild eyes back to his own display, face white and stark with terror, and watched the Peeps savage the ships his desertion had exposed to their fire.


"Orders, Sir?!" the exec half-shouted, and the muscles of Captain Lord Pavel Young's face ridged as he clamped his jaw and hunkered down in his command chair and stared at his display in silence.


"No response from Warlock, Ma'am." Stunned surprise echoed in the voice of Harrington's com officer as Nike quivered to yet another hit, and the captain's head whipped up.


The com officer flinched back from her, for her face was cold and focused no longer. Shock and fury and something more—something raw and ugly with hate—blazed in her eyes, and her voice was a lash.


"Give me a direct link to Captain Young!"


"Aye, aye, Ma'am." Her com officer stabbed buttons, and a screen at Harrington's knees lit with Young's sweat-streaked face.


"Get back into formation, Captain!" Harrington snapped. Young only stared at her, his mouth working soundlessly, and Harrington's soprano was harsh with hatred and contempt.


"Get back into formation, damn you!" she barked . . . and the screen went dead as Young cut the circuit.


Harrington stared at the blank com for one shocked second, and even as she stared, her ship heaved and shuddered to fresh hits. Frantic damage reports crackled, and she wrenched her eyes from the screen to her com officer.


"General signal to all heavy cruisers. Return to formation at once. Repeat, return to formation at once!"


The system tactical display shifted and changed once more as four of the five fleeing cruisers reversed course. They socketed back into the task group formation, locking back into the point defense net. All of them but one. HMS Warlock continued to flee, racing away from the rest of the formation while Young's exec shouted curses at him from the holo of his command deck and Young returned a screaming torrent of invective raw with panic, and then the entire holo tank went blank and the lights came up once more.


"I believe," Captain Ortiz said into the dead, stunned silence, "that that concludes the relevant portion of the evidence." A JAG Corps commander raised his hand, and Ortiz nodded to him. "Yes, Commander Owens?"


"Did Warlock return to formation at all, Ma'am?"


"She did not." Ortiz's voice was flat, its very neutrality shouting her own opinion of Pavel Young, and Owens sat back in his chair with a cold, hard light in his eye.


Silence returned, hovering for long, still moments, and then Vice Admiral Cordwainer cleared her throat and looked at Sir Lucius Cortez.


"I don't think there's any question that Lady Harrington exceeded her own authority in failing to pass command, Sir Lucius. At the same time, however, there can be neither doubt about nor excuse for Lord Young's actions. I endorse Admiral Parks' recommendation without reservation."


"Agreed." Cortez's voice was grim, his eyes and mouth even tighter than what they'd just seen seemed to justify, then he shook himself. "As for Lady Harrington's actions, Admiral Sarnow, Admiral Parks, the First Space Lord, Baroness Morncreek, and Her Majesty herself have all endorsed them. I don't think you need to concern yourself over them, Alyce."


"I'm relieved to hear that," Cordwainer said softly. She drew a deep breath. "Shall I have Data Services begin officer selection for the court-martial board?"


"Yes. But let me add something—something for everyone here." The Fifth Space Lord stood and turned to the white-faced JAG officers seated behind the two admirals, and his expression was stern. "I wish to remind you—all of you—that what you have just seen is privileged information. Lady Harrington and Lord Young have not yet even returned from Hancock, and neither this briefing nor anything else which you have heard, seen, or read concerning this case is for public consumption until the formation of the court itself is announced by my office. Is that clear?"


Heads nodded, and he jerked a nod of his own, then turned once more and walked slowly from the silent, shaken amphitheater.


 


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