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Chapter Twelve

"Status change! Two unidentified bogies just lit off their drives at zero-eight-niner one-five-three, range five-point-six million klicks! Course two-three-four zero-niner-five relative, base velocity . . . eight-one thousand KPS, accelerating at three-point-niner-four KPS squared."


"I see them, Fred." Honor rose and moved closer to the flag deck's huge holo display. It wasn't as good as a Manticoran plot—though the sensors which fed it had been upgraded, the imagers which drove it were the original Havenite ones—but it was better than the smaller one at her command console, and she smiled. Rear Admiral Yanakov, she thought, was a sneaky devil.


The light codes of Battle Division Thirteen continued to flee with BatDivs Eleven and Twelve in hot pursuit, but she already knew what was about to happen. Walter Brentworth had let Admiral Trailman's BatDiv Twelve get too far ahead of BatDiv Eleven in its efforts to chase down Yanakov's "Aggressor Force," and he was about to pay for it.


"Identification," a voice announced. "The bogies are Courageous and Furious, Commander."


"What?" Commander Bagwell jerked around, then muttered something venomous under his breath. "It can't be! They're—"


"Howard, inform Admiral Brentworth that he's just suffered a com failure," Honor said, and Bagwell looked at her, then winced as Lieutenant Commander Brannigan passed the message. Honor met her ops officer's gaze with a slightly malicious twinkle and walked back to her command chair.


Her display changed as the computers updated it, and Bagwell crossed to stand at her shoulder.


"Would you mind telling me what Admiral Yanakov thinks he's doing, My Lady?" he asked in a low voice.


"He got sneaky," she replied. "This—" she tapped the light codes BatDiv Twelve was slowly overhauling "—is his screen and a pair of EW drones programmed to mimic SDs. He wanted his attempt to 'sneak around us' to be spotted so we'd go in pursuit while Courageous and Furious hid under their stealth systems. Now that he's sucked us out of position and separated the other two divisions, he plans to cross our sterns and pound BatDiv Eleven one-on-one before Admiral Trailman can decelerate to help out." She shook her head with a small, admiring smile. "It's a gutsy move . . . if he can pull it off."


"But it's not part of the mission brief, My Lady," Bagwell protested. "He was tasked to hit the convoy without engaging our wall."


"I know—but he counted on Admiral Brentworth to think that and rewrote his orders to go for the convoy and take out a couple of SDs if he can. That's what they call initiative, Fred."


Bagwell's soft sound might charitably have indicated agreement, and though none of it would splash on him, she hoped he'd take the lesson to heart. The whole point of the exercise was for her to observe how her other divisional COs and their staffs performed, but it could just as easily have been him and not Brentworth's ops officer who'd walked into BatDiv Thirteen's deep-space ambush.


She watched Yanakov's two isolated superdreadnoughts accelerate at over four hundred gravities on a heading to intersect BatDiv Eleven's base course. New projections appeared in the plot, and she nodded to herself again. Yanakov had guessed well when he pre-positioned his ships and went to silent running, and whoever he'd left to command his screen—Commodore Justman, perhaps?—had led Brentworth to him on the right course. BatDiv Thirteen would cross astern of BatDiv Eleven, with Brentworth's ships squarely between it and Trailman's division. That would give Trailman's missile crews a litter of kittens if they tried to engage without hitting BatDiv Eleven, and Honor's decision to take Brentworth out of the command loop dropped the entire problem squarely on Trailman's shoulders. Depriving Walter of a chance to retrieve his mistake wasn't very nice of her, but Yanakov had already blown his original plans out the lock, and she wanted to see how the squadron reacted to complete confusion.


She sat back and listened to the com net. With Brentworth out of the loop, Alfredo Yu had become BatDiv Eleven's SO, and she heard him acknowledging Trailman's orders. The admiral sounded both flustered and angry, and she frowned as the plot projected what would happen when BatDiv Eleven executed his commands. He was trying to reunite his separated divisions to engage Yanakov, just as The Book required.


Unfortunately, this time The Book was wrong, and his inexperience showed. BatDiv Twelve was decelerating and diving below the plane of its original advance in a bid to clear the range, and that much, at least, Honor approved. If Trailman could generate enough vertical separation, he could fire "up" past BatDiv Eleven as Yanakov's ships crossed astern of it; it wouldn't be a very good shot—the range would be long, and BatDiv Eleven's emissions would interfere with his fire control—but at least he'd have a shot. And if BatDiv Eleven turned to bring its energy batteries to bear as Yanakov passed, the combination of missiles and beams might just do the trick.


But Trailman didn't seem to realize he needed Yu's energy weapons. Or, rather, he'd let Yanakov push him into forgetting that the defense of the convoy was his primary mission. He was intent on protecting his warships by getting both divisions out of Yanakov's energy envelope and then using his missile power advantage to nail BatDiv Thirteen if it pressed the attack on BatDiv Eleven. But if the other two divisions rendezvoused, Yanakov would simply let the maneuver take even BatDiv Eleven out of effective energy range, nip across its rear, and go straight for the convoy. His base velocity was low, but his vector was almost exactly perpendicular to Trailman's. He'd streak across the rest of the squadron's base course like a wet treecat, and Trailman could never generate enough delta vee to stay with him. Worse, the point at which BatDiv Thirteen's course would cross the other divisions' track was far enough astern of BatDiv Twelve to give Yanakov's point defense crews ample tracking time on Trailman's missiles . . . which would have too little time left on their drives for terminal attack maneuvers anyway. Yu's ships would be closer, of course; he'd undoubtedly score at least some hits, but he wouldn't get enough of them to do more than inconvenience Yanakov.


In fact, the convoy's only real chance—and that not much of one—was for Trailman to accept Yanakov's attack on BatDiv Eleven. The odds would be slightly in Yu's favor, since he had screening units in company while Yanakov's were off playing decoy, but the engagement window would be brief and the choice to engage would be Yanakov's. He could accept Yu's fire in order to return it, or he could roll up on his side to block it with the impenetrable tops or bellies of his impeller wedges and hare off after the convoy with impunity.


Only he wouldn't have to do even that. If BatDiv Eleven tried to close with BatDiv Twelve, its own maneuvers would take it beyond the range at which its energy weapons could burn through Yanakov's sidewalls. They'd be harmless to him, and while he might not get any of Trailman's SDs, he'd still sweep through the convoy and annihilate it in passing.


She listened to Yu's calm, unhurried voice accepting Trailman's orders and felt a stab of disappointment. She remained uncomfortable with the former Peep, but she'd expected better than this of him. The consequences of Trailman's maneuver were painfully obvious—to Yanakov, as well as Honor, it appeared. His course was already breaking further to port as he gave up on BatDiv Eleven to turn straight for the convoy, ignoring both of the other divisions in order to head off the scattering freighters.


Minutes ticked past, the projections tracked across the display, sporadic missile fire streaked back and forth, and Honor's disappointment with her flag captain grew. Yu had more experience than any of her Grayson admirals, but Trailman's maneuvers had already taken the ex-Peep's ships well beyond range of the point-blank passing energy engagement that was the convoy's only hope, and he wasn't even arguing about it.


But neither, she realized abruptly, was he obeying Trailman's orders! The plot seemed to swoop sideways as BatDiv Eleven went to full military power and snapped through a howling course change with absolutely no warning. The division and its entire screen swerved like a single ship, in a flawlessly coordinated maneuver, and her eyes widened with astonished respect as she realized Yu must have been busy passing directions of his own even as he acknowledged Trailman's totally different orders.


The abrupt course change completely surprised Trailman. She heard him yelp in dismay, but she herself chuckled in sudden delight. Yu had acknowledged Trailman's orders, all right, yet he'd done it less to deceive Trailman than to deceive Yanakov! The aggressor force commander had already demonstrated his cunning with his EW drones, but he'd gone one better even than that. He'd used his com section to tap Trailman's command net, as well!


It wasn't something he could expect to do against real Peeps, but that wasn't the point. A good officer took every advantage he could find, then manufactured more of them any way he could, and it was as audacious as the rest of his plan. But it had just backfired, because Alfredo Yu was even more cunning than he was. Yu couldn't have known what Yanakov was doing, yet he'd allowed for the possibility. Trailman had used omnidirectional transmissions to keep all units simultaneously updated on his plans, and Yanakov's com section would have found it fairly easy to tap those. But Yu must have been using tight, directional whisker lasers to coordinate his own units, and Yanakov's people had never noticed. Why should they, when they already knew what his orders from Trailman were? The flag captain's maneuver might have worked even without the added element of deception; with it, his sudden move changed from possibly effective to certainly devastating.


BatDiv Thirteen's heading changed again, shifting crazily as Yanakov realized he'd been out-sneaked, but it was too late, for Yu had timed his turn perfectly. True, the range was too great for his energy weapons to burn through BatDiv Thirteen's sidewalls, but Yanakov had been too sure of what his opponents intended to consider what else they might do. He'd let his ships' sterns point just a bit too close to Yu, secure in the knowledge BatDiv Eleven was heading away from him; now his overconfidence betrayed him as BatDiv Eleven cleared its broadsides and, for one fleeting moment, two superdreadnoughts, four heavy cruisers, six light cruisers, and six destroyers had perfect "up the kilt" shots through the wide open after-aspect of his impeller wedges.


Lasers and grasers clawed at their targets in brief, titanic fury, with no sidewalls to stop them, and the superdreadnought Courageous blew up in a spectacular boil of light. Admiral Yanakov went with his flagship, and more hits ripped into her consort. A wounded Furious rolled frantically, twisting through a radical skew turn that snatched her stern away from Yu and interposed the top of her wedge against the incoming fire. But Honor heard Trailman's suddenly exultant voice snapping fresh orders as BatDiv Twelve laid into her with missiles, and the only course that could protect her from Yu's fire turned the open throat of her wedge barely thirty degrees away from Trailman. She went to full military power as she fought to crab away from her enemies, but she was already badly hurt, and without Courageous's support, her point defense was too weak. A quarter of Trailman's laser heads detonated squarely in front of her, and debris and atmosphere vomited into space. Eight minutes after Courageous blew up, Furious followed suit, and Honor drew a deep breath of approval.


"All right, Fred. Kill the sim."


The plots died, and she rose and stretched. The visual display showed her the other ships of her squadron, and she grinned at the two SDs which had just been "destroyed," still riding placidly in Grayson orbit as they ran through the computer-generated simulation.


Commander Bagwell shook himself, still a bit dazed by how ruthlessly Yanakov—and Yu, she thought with a broader grin—had violated the exercise's parameters. Walter was going to be upset with himself, she thought, but he wasn't the sort to hold it against Yanakov. Or, for that matter, to let himself be suckered a second time. And Yanakov was going to be miffed with himself, too. He'd pulled off a brilliant ambush, then let his initial success go to his head, and Yu had exacted a devastating price for his overconfidence. He'd waited a bit too long to make his move—if Yanakov had changed heading even a few seconds sooner BatDiv Eleven would have lost its chance for an up the kilt shot, and the range had been too long for anything else to work—but she'd make that point to him in private. It had worked, after all, and he deserved the respect it was going to earn him from the rest of the squadron.


As a matter of fact, Yanakov deserved a pat on the back, too. He might have blown it at the last minute, yet he'd shown imagination and nerve, as well as skill, in even attempting the ambush. All in all, she was pleased. There'd been too many mistakes, but mistakes were what people learned from. Better they should make them in sims than against the enemy, and she was delighted by the independence Yanakov and Yu had displayed. Too much initiative could be disastrous, but too little was more dangerous . . . and far more common. She vastly preferred officers she might need to rein in occasionally to being stuck with ones too timid to act on their own.


She turned away from the visual display.


"Well, that was certainly exciting," she said to Bagwell, and Nimitz bleeked a quiet laugh from his perch on the back of her command chair.


"Ah, yes, My Lady, it was," the commander replied, and Honor's eyes gleamed. Bagwell was just as correct and precise—and tactically formal—as her initial impression had suggested, and he still sounded bemused by it all.


"Indeed it was . . . and I can hardly wait to hear your analysis at the debrief," she said, and her chuckle echoed Nimitz's fresh laugh at the ops officer's expression.


* * *


William Fitzclarence, Steadholder Burdette, glowered as Deacon Allman stepped into his office. Burdette House was even larger than Protector's Palace, and far older, as befitted the capital of one of Grayson's original steadings. It was a massive structure of native stone, built when fortresses were needed against fellow steadholders as well as a hostile environment, and his office mirrored its stark, uncompromising presence. One of his first orders as Steadholder had been to strip away the tapestries and paintings the last two steadholders had allowed to soften the office's spartan simplicity. He'd loved his father and grandfather, but they'd let themselves be seduced away from the iron simplicity God expected of His people, and William Fitzclarence had no intention of repeating their error.


Deacon Allman's heels clicked on bare stone as he crossed to Burdette's desk, and something flickered in his otherwise mild eyes as the Steadholder remained seated. Official protocol didn't require a steadholder to rise to greet even a deacon of the Church, but courtesy was something else. Lord Burdette's refusal to stand was a calculated insult, and Allman's exquisitely correct half-bow returned it with interest.


"My Lord," he murmured, and Burdette's nostrils flared. The Sacristy messenger's bland voice offered no overt cause for complaint, but he heard bared steel within it.


"Deacon," he returned shortly, and Allman straightened. The Steadholder didn't offer him a chair, and the churchman folded his hands behind him as he studied the man he'd come to see.


Burdette had the Fitzclarence look—tall for a Grayson, broad-shouldered and square, and he'd succeeded to his dignities at an early age. His strong-jawed, handsome face and hard, ice-blue eyes bore the confident stamp of a man accustomed to command . . . and of one unaccustomed to being thwarted.


The silence stretched out, and despite the moment's tension, Allman was tempted to smile. His high church office had brought him into contact with too many steadholders to be awed by Burdette's birth, and the man's obvious attempt to disconcert him with that steely blue glare amused him. Or would have, he thought more somberly, had the situation been less serious.


"Well?" Burdette growled finally.


"I regret, My Lord, to inform you that the Sacristy has denied your petition. The decision to bar Brother Marchant from his offices will not be rescinded until such time as he makes public acknowledgment of his errors."


"His errors!" Burdette's fists clenched on the desk, and his jaw tightened like a steel trap. "Since when has it been a sin for a man of God to speak God's will?"


"My Lord, it is not my place or wish to debate with you," Allman replied calmly. "I am simply a messenger."


"A messenger?" Burdette barked a laugh. "A lap dog, you mean, yapping the 'message' you were ordered to deliver!"


"A messenger," Allman repeated in a harder voice, "charged to deliver the decision of God's Church, My Lord."


"The Sacristy," Burdette said coldly, "is not the whole body of Father Church. It consists of men, Deacon—men who can fall into error as easily as anyone else."


"No one claims otherwise, My Lord. But the Tester requires men to do their best to understand His will . . . and to act upon that understanding."


"Oh, indeed He does." Burdette's smile was thin, cold, and ugly. "The pity is that the Sacristy chooses to forget that in Brother Marchant's case!"


"The Sacristy," Allman said sternly, "has not forgotten, My Lord. No one has attempted to dictate to Brother Marchant's conscience. The Sacristy has found him in error, but if he cannot in good faith agree with the judgment of the Church, then his refusal to do so does him credit. Matters of personal faith are the most difficult Test any of God's children—even those who serve His Church—must face, and the Sacristy is well aware of that. Yet Father Church also has the duty to expose error when it perceives it."


"The Sacristy has been seduced by political expedience," Burdette said flatly, "and it, not Brother Marchant, has set itself in opposition to God's will." The Steadholder's voice went harsher and deeper, and his eyes glared. "This foreign woman—this harlot who fornicates outside the bonds of holy marriage and poisons us all with her ungodly ways—is an abomination in the eyes of God! She and those who would turn our world into no more than an echo of her own degenerate kingdom are the servants of evil, and the Sacristy seeks to spread their unclean ways among the true children of God!"


"I will not debate your beliefs with you, My Lord. That is not my function. If you disagree with the Sacristy's ruling, it is your ancient right—both as Steadholder and as a child of Father Church—to argue your case before it. It is also the Sacristy's responsibility, as the elected, ordained stewards of Father Church, to reject your arguments if they conflict with its understanding of God's will." Burdette snarled something under his breath, and Allman continued in the same dispassionate tone. "The Sacristy regrets its inability to grant your petition, but the Elders cannot turn aside from their joint understanding of God's will for any man. Not even for you, My Lord."


"I see." Burdette's eyes, harder—and more contemptuous—than ever, surveyed Allman from head to toe. "So the Sacristy and Protector command me to strip Brother Marchant of the offices God has called him to?"


"The Sacristy and the Protector have already removed Edmond Marchant from the offices he held in trust from God and Father Church," Allman corrected without flinching. "Until he heals the breach between his own teachings and those of Father Church, someone else must discharge those offices for him."


"So you say," Burdette said coldly. Allman made no reply, and he bared his teeth. "Very well, Deacon, you may now bear my message. Inform the Sacristy that it may be able to drive a true man of God from his pulpit and publicly humiliate him for remaining true to his Faith, but that it cannot compel me to join its sin. In my eyes, Brother Marchant retains every office of which he has been wrongfully deprived. I will nominate no replacement."


The cold blue eyes glittered as a flash of anger crossed the deacon's face at last. Allman clenched his hands behind him, reminding himself he was a man of God and that Burdette was a steadholder, and clamped his teeth on a hot retort. He took a moment to be sure he had command of his voice, then spoke in the calmest tone he could manage.


"My Lord, whatever your differences with the Sacristy, you, too, have a responsibility. Whether the Sacristy is in error or not, you have no right as a ruler anointed by God to leave the offices of His Church unfilled and His children unministered to."


"The Sacristy has done that by removing the man of my choice—and God's—from those offices, Deacon. For myself, I, as the Sacristy, have a duty to act as I believe God wishes me to act. As you say, I am a steadholder, and, as such, as much His steward as the Sacristy. To defy God's manifest will is a sin in any man, but especially in one called to carry the steadholder's key, and I refuse to do so. If the Church wishes those offices filled, the Sacristy has only to return them to the man God wishes to hold them. Until the Sacristy does so, however, I will never nominate a man repugnant to God to hold them! Better that my people should have no priest than a false one!"


"If you refuse to nominate anyone to the pulpit of Burdette Cathedral, then Father Church will make its own choice, My Lord," Allman said in a voice of steel, and Burdette lunged to his feet at last.


"Then do it!" he shouted. He planted his fists on the desk and leaned over it towards the deacon. "Tell them to do it," he hissed in a voice more deadly still for its sudden icy chill. "But they cannot compel me to attend services there or to accept any man not of my choosing as my chaplain, Deacon! We'll see how the people of Grayson who remain true to God react when a steadholder spits on whatever gutless weakling the Sacristy chooses to foist upon Father Church's holy offices!"


"Beware, Steadholder." Allman's voice was less passionate but equally cold. "God denies no man who seeks Him with an open heart. The only path to Hell is that of a man who chooses to cut himself off from God, but that path exists, and you set your feet upon it at your peril."


"Get out," Burdette said in a flat, frozen voice. "Go back to your boot-licking masters. Tell them they may fawn on this foreign whore and attempt to pervert the order God has ordained if they will, but that I refuse. Let them profane their own souls if they so choose; they will never take mine into damnation with them!"


"Very well, My Lord," Allman said, and bowed with frozen dignity. "I will pray for you," he added, and strode from the office while Burdette glared after him in fury.


 



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