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Chapter Thirty

Honor sat in another pinnace and watched indigo atmosphere gave way to space-black ebony beyond the view port. The survivors of the party which had accompanied her down to the planet fifty-three hours before sat quietly behind her, and she felt them through her link to Nimitz. Felt their grief like a shadow of her own . . . and their savage satisfaction at Fitzclarence's death.


She turned her eyes to the seat beside hers, twin to the one in which Reverend Hanks had ridden to his death. A sword sat upright in that seat. Once it had been the Burdette Sword; now it was the Harrington Sword, and she tried to analyze her feelings as she gazed at it.


Exhaustion, she thought with a small, bleak smile. That was what she felt most strongly just now, through the shimmery false energy of too many stims. But under that there were other emotions.


It wasn't like her duel with Pavel Young. Then she'd felt nothing but . . . relief. A grim sense of completion, yes, but nothing more than that, for she'd known it would never bring Paul back to her. It had been something she'd had to do, something she couldn't not have done, yet in its own way it had been as empty as Young himself, for it had healed nothing. Prevented nothing.


But this time was different. Burdette's death could no more atone for his crimes than Young's had, but he'd been a danger to others, as well. He'd been a danger to Benjamin Mayhew and his reforms and to all the other people he would have destroyed in the service of his fanaticism, and now he would destroy no more. She'd managed that much, she thought. She'd stopped him from killing again, and this time no voice had condemned her actions. She'd killed him, yes, but she'd done so as Steadholder and Champion, executing the power of high justice that was hers as Steadholder Harrington in full accord with the law even as she discharged her sworn duty to her Protector.


She sighed and leaned back, hugging Nimitz against her, and felt his fierce approval. There were no qualifications in his feelings, for treecats were less complicated than humans, and for all their intelligence, they held to a simple code. For them, those who threatened them or their adopted humans came in only two categories: those who had been suitably dealt with, and those who were still alive. Nimitz accepted that it would sometimes be impossible to deal with Honor's enemies properly, for humans embraced a variety of often silly philosophical conventions, but that didn't dampen his satisfaction when it was possible. More to the point, perhaps, a dead enemy was no longer a matter of much concern to him.


Not for the first time, Honor wished her own feelings could be as straightforward, but they weren't. She felt no regret for killing Burdette, yet his hatred of her had been the catalyst for all his murderous actions, and she hadn't stopped him in time. Intellectually, she knew it was stupid to blame herself for his fanaticism; emotionally, it was hard—so hard—not to feel somehow responsible. And whoever had been to blame, killing him had undone nothing he'd already done, just as the sword in the seat beside her could never fill the emptiness left by Julius Hanks in her own life and the life of Grayson. And because of that, she thought wearily, this time Nimitz was wrong. There were debts no death could pay, and she was so tired of death.


They'd reach Terrible soon, and all those men and women in uniform would remind her painfully of how Jared Sutton had died. Yet even so she longed to get back aboard. She had too many dead to mourn; no place could be free of reminders of them all, and at least her flagship was also a refuge. It was a world she understood, one in which she could shelter while her body recovered and her soul healed, and she knew how badly she needed that refuge now.


* * *


Alfredo Yu and Mercedes Brigham stood in the boat bay gallery. Just this once, as Lady Harrington had requested, there was no side party, no honor guard of Marines. Only her flag captain and her chief of staff waited to greet her, and if that was a gross violation of naval etiquette, neither of them very much cared.


The docking tube hatch opened, and the two captains turned to face it, waiting side by side until Honor Harrington caught the grab bar and swung herself into Terrible's onboard gravity. Mercedes hid an inner wince as she saw the bruised face and cut forehead, the still haunted eyes . . . and the dark, dried spatters on her vest and skirt where her enemy's blood had splashed. She'd never seen Honor look so exhausted, and she hesitated, uncertain of what to do or say, but even as she searched for words, Yu stepped forward without them. He extended his hand, and this time Honor took it without hesitation, for his eyes were no longer opaque. She looked into them and saw his relief—felt his relief, through Nimitz—at her safety, and knew that whatever they might once have been, they were enemies no longer. A moment passed in silence, and then he smiled.


"Welcome home, My Lady," he said softly, and she returned his smile.


"Thank you, Alfredo." She saw a flash of pleasure as she used his first name at last and squeezed his hand, then looked past him as her chief of staff followed him over.


"Mercedes." She gripped Brigham's hand in turn while her armsmen followed her from the tube. They looked as battered as she did, and Andrew LaFollet and Arthur Yard moved even more stiffly than she, but the major also carried a sheathed sword. His bandaged hands were almost reverent on the gemmed scabbard, and his gray eyes were grimly satisfied.


Honor felt herself drooping and squared her shoulders, then started for the lift, accompanied by her officers and her armsmen.


"I spoke to Jared's parents," she said quietly to Mercedes. "They deserved to know how he died, but—" She closed her eyes for just a moment. "I hadn't realized he was an only son, Mercedes. He never told me."


"I know, Milady," Mercedes said equally quietly. "I commed them as soon as you notified us."


"It's never easy, My Lady," Yu said. Honor looked at him, and he shook his head. "I'm twenty T-years older than you, and it's never easy, and it never gets any easier. Or I never want to serve under an officer for whom it does."


The lift doors sighed open, and Yu stepped aside. He and Mercedes stood and watched Honor step into the lift, and she felt a weary glow of gratitude. They'd come down to greet her not simply because regs required it, but because they truly cared, yet they also knew she needed to be alone, to recuperate before she turned her mind once more to the squadron.


She waited while her armsmen joined her in the lift, then sighed.


"I'm going to my quarters," she said. "Mercedes, would you buzz Mac and tell him I'm on the way?"


"Of course, Milady."


"Alfredo, please set up a conference link with all our divisional and unit COs for tomorrow morning. Make it eleven hundred, if you would." She smiled wanly. "I don't think I'm going to be good for much before then."


"I'll see to it, My Lady," her flag captain assured her, and she gave him a grateful nod and glanced back at Brigham.


"Mercedes, I'll sit down with the staff forty-five minutes before the conference. Ask Fred and Greg to have a quick, thumbnail brief ready to bring me back up to speed."


"It'll be ready when you are, Milady."


"Thank you. Thank you both," she said, and let the lift doors close.


* * *


"ETA now one hour fifteen minutes, Citizen Vice Admiral."


Citizen Vice Admiral Thurston blinked and looked up from his tactical plot. He'd expressly requested the reminder, yet he'd been so deep in his review of the final task force exercises that he'd actually managed to forget, temporarily, at least, and put aside the tingling mixture of anticipation and tension.


But it was back now . . . and its elements seemed to have grown stronger while they'd been away. He smiled wryly at the thought and nodded to the petty officer who'd spoken.


"Thank you, Citizen Chief," he said, and glanced at Preznikov. "Well, Citizen Commissioner, it's about time. I'll be sending the task force to battle stations in thirty minutes. Do you have any final suggestions?"


Preznikov returned his gaze for several seconds, and Thurston saw a shadow of his own tautness in the other's eyes and wondered how much the commissioner truly understood about what they were about to do. Preznikov had attended all the briefings, studied the plans, even offered a few worthwhile suggestions, but he was a civilian, a politician, and he'd never seen a naval battle. Thurston had. Operation Dagger was only the first step in his own personal campaign—one whose full extent he devoutly hoped neither Preznikov nor his superiors had figured out—and the outcome he anticipated would be the Republic's first offensive victory of the war. The prestige of that should position him nicely to begin the other campaign, but first he had to win the battle. And while the citizen vice admiral was confident his firepower could crush the Grayson Navy, he also knew that navy was going to fight. It had to, for this was its home star system, and he refused to make the mistake of underestimating the Graysons' courage or skill.


And that meant that, preponderance of firepower or no, Task Force Fourteen would take losses, possibly even among the battleships. Possibly even aboard a battleship named Conquistador.


It was odd how difficult it was actually to believe that. Oh, he accepted it intellectually—but to actually believe he himself might be among the thousands of dead his battle plan was about to create? No, that was more than he could truthfully do. Dying, he thought with a wry mental smile, would be so inconvenient, after all. But if it was hard for him to accept the possibility when he knew what could happen, then how much harder must it be for civilians like Preznikov or LePic or DuPres?


The seconds ticked past while Preznikov gazed at him, and it suddenly occurred to Thurston that perhaps the citizen commissioner was looking for something in his eyes even as he looked for the same thing in Preznikov's. Now there was an amusing thought, but if his civilian watchdog searched for signs of weakness, he failed to find them, and he shook his head.


"No, Citizen Vice Admiral. I'm satisfied."


"Thank you, Sir," Thurston said, and looked at his ops officer. "Citizen Captain Jordan," he said formally, "have Communications pass the word to bring all units to battle stations at nineteen hundred hours."


* * *


An alert bell rang, and the rear admiral who had the duty in Command Central looked up. His eyes found the blinking yellow light of a hyper footprint on the master plot, then moved automatically to the scheduled arrivals on System Control's status boards, and he grimaced as he found none listed. Great. Just great. Like himself, every other man in the vast command center had been glued to his HD before coming on duty. They'd all seen the traumatic events in the Conclave Chamber, and they'd been half-distracted by them, and now he had a whole damned unscheduled convoy to—


The yellow light code turned abruptly blood red as the FTL sensor net began to report, and the admiral's irritation was suddenly a thing of the past.


* * *


The two-toned priority buzz of Honor's bedside com yanked her awake with all the gentleness of a garrote. She hissed in pain as broken ribs and bruised muscles protested their abuse, but the spinal-reflex reactions of thirty years of naval service were ruthless, and she shoved the pain aside and swung her feet to the deck even as she rubbed at sleep-gummy eyes. She didn't need the querulous sound Nimitz made from his nest in the blankets to tell her they'd gotten barely an hour's sack time. Her thoughts felt slow and logy, floating on a drift of fatigue, and she made herself take another few seconds to fight herself awake before she pressed the audio-only acceptance key.


"Yes?" She heard the husky weariness of her voice and cleared her throat.


"Sorry to disturb you, Milady," Mercedes Brigham said tensely, "but Command Central just sent out a Flash One."


Honor's nostrils flared as a jolt of adrenaline punched at her foggy brain. She touched the vision key, and the terminal flashed alight in the darkened sleeping cabin. Mercedes looked out of it at her, and she saw the flag bridge, already coming fully on-line, behind her chief of staff.


"Numbers and locus?"


"Numbers are still rough, Milady. It looks like—" Mercedes paused and looked up as Fred Bagwell appeared at her shoulder. The ops officer handed her a message board, and she glanced at it, then looked back at Honor with a grim expression. "Update from Central, Milady. They make it one-sixty-plus point sources approximately two-four-point-four-seven light-minutes from the primary at zero-eight-five, right on the ecliptic. The sensor net's still reporting in, but it looks like a standard Peep task force formation."


Honor tried to keep her face from reacting, but her mind raced, despite the streamers of fatigue which clogged it. Although the sensor platform's grav-pulse transmitters were FTL capable, each pulse took time to generate, which meant their data transmission rate was slow. At the moment, all Mercedes' information was based on the intruders' hyper footprint and impeller signatures, both of which were also FTL and could be directly observed from Grayson, but which told very little—other than raw numbers—about the ships who'd made them. It would be several minutes yet before the closest sensor platforms could send Central anything definite on the Peeps' light-speed emissions, but if it was a standard Peep formation, that high a unit count argued for at least twenty-five ships of the wall . . . and she had six.


"All right, Mercedes," she heard her own voice say calmly. "Send the squadron to quarters, then tell Central I'm activating Sierra-Delta-One." Brigham nodded. System Defense One was the emergency contingency plan which put every unit in Yeltsin under Honor's direct command in support of BatRon One . . . for whatever good it was going to do. "After you've done that, set up the Sierra-One net; I want every squadron and division commander tied into our command net—and be sure we include every SD's skipper, as well as the flag officers."


"Aye, aye, Milady."


"After that—" Honor looked up as MacGuiness appeared in her quarters, carrying her skinsuit "—get with Fred and CIC. I need strength estimates and course projections soonest."


"You'll have them, Milady."


"Good. I'll see you on the flag bridge in ten minutes."


* * *


"Well, Citizen Commissioner," Thomas Theisman murmured to Dennis LePic, "they know we're here."


"How soon do you expect a response?" LePic asked a bit nervously, and Theisman looked up from his plot with a wry smile.


"Soon enough, Citizen Commissioner. Soon enough. It's not like they can just ignore us and we'll go away, now is it?"


"Message from Conquistador, Citizen Admiral," Theisman turned his head and cocked an eyebrow, and his com officer cleared his throat. " 'From CO TF Fourteen to all units. Stand by to execute Bravo-One on my signal.' "


"Very well." Theisman looked at his ops officer. "Bravo-One, Megan. Execute on the Flag's signal—but be sure our own net is tied in with Citizen Admiral Chernov's, and have Astro run a continuous course update in case we get an alpha revision."


"Aye, Citizen Admiral."


* * *


Terrible's flag bridge was a scene of orderly fury when Honor stepped onto it with Simon Mattingly at her heels. Mercedes Brigham and Fred Bagwell had their heads together and looked up simultaneously at her entry, but she held up her right hand to fend them off long enough to cross to the master plot and take a quick glance. For the first time in all their years together, she'd brought Nimitz to action stations rather than closing him in the life support module in her cabin. She cradled the 'cat against her side with a crooked left arm, the helmet of the skinsuit Paul Tankersley had designed for him hanging down his back, and rubbed his ears while she gazed down into the holo tank.


It did look like a standard Peep task force, but there was something . . . odd, about it. She tried to put her finger on that oddness, but it eluded her, and she gave herself an angry mental shake at her inability to pin it down. She knew she was exhausted. She couldn't have been anything else, under the circumstances, and Terrible's doctor had flatly refused to allow her more stims. She knew he was right, but she also knew the energy lift of adrenaline rushing through her system was a false friend. There was a limit to how long it could sustain her, and when it ran out . . .


She closed her eyes and braced her right hand on the frame of the tank as traitor knees tried to betray her. Her ribs spasmed as her arm took her weight, and she felt a matching spasm of terrible, futile rage at the universe. Why, she thought bitterly. Why now? Why does it have to be right this minute?


The universe returned no answer, and she felt a deep, cowardly temptation to pass responsibility to Command Central. She'd been through too much, lost too much, built up too vast a debt of physical and emotional exhaustion. Barely an hour before, she'd looked desperately forward to a period of rest and recovery; now she had this to deal with, and it was too much to expect of her. Let Command Central handle it. They were fresh. They hadn't been shot out of the sky, seen people they cared about blown into bloody meat, fought a duel on the floor of the Conclave Chamber, so let them make the decisions. That was what they were there for, wasn't it?


Shame twisted her, and she gritted her teeth, forced her eyes back open, and commanded her knees to support her as she glared down into the tank and cursed her own self-pitying cowardice. So she was tired, was she? Well, no rule required the enemy to wait till they were sure she was fresh as a daisy, did it? And while she was whimpering about how unfair it was to her, what about the Graysons? It was their star system which was about to be blown apart, and High Admiral Matthews had offered her this job because she had more experience than any of them did. How would he feel if she told him he'd been wrong after all? That she needed a little rest—that she'd get back to him after the battle, if there was still a star system to defend?


Humiliation straightened her spine, and she turned from the master plot. She crossed to her command chair and set Nimitz on its back, and the 'cat's nimble true-hands snapped the specially installed safety harness to its attachment points on his skinsuit while she racked her helmet. Then she seated herself and tapped the activation code into the keypad on the chair's right arm. Displays flickered to life before her, and she gazed at them for one more moment through almond eyes hard with contempt for her own cowardice. Then she drew a deep breath, leaned back in her chair, and turned it to face her chief of staff and her ops officer.


"All right, people." Admiral Lady Honor Harrington's unflustered soprano went through the bridge like a magic wand of calm confidence. "It seems it's time for us to earn our princely salaries."


 



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