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Captain Honor Harrington, Royal Manticoran Navy, stood once more in a spacedock gallery aboard HMSS Hephaestus. Her hands were clasped behind her, and Nimitz sat very tall and straight on her shoulder. One hand-paw rested lightly atop her beret—the plain, black beret of the RMN undress uniform—and his green eyes were dark mirrors of her emotions as she stared through the thick, armored plastic.

HMS Fearless floated beyond the window, her hull broken and shattered, like a toy stepped on by some careless child. The gaping hole where Dominica Santos had died faced the window, stretched back along the cruiser's flank in a long, ink-black wound of broken bulkheads and melted frames. Other wounds marred that once sleek and immaculate hull. Small, some of them looked, hiding the reality of the ruin within them, and Honor felt her eyes sting as she recalled once more the people who had died under her command.

She blinked angrily, drew a deep breath, and straightened her spine, and her mind went back—back to the numbed moment when she and her surviving crew had realized they'd won while the terrible fury of Sirius's destruction lingered in the visual display like a curse. Judging by the Q-ship's performance and the weaponry she'd revealed, Sirius must have had a crew of at least fifteen hundred, and there had been no survivors. Even now, Honor could close her eyes and resummon that cauldron of light and energy in every hideous detail and feel the same sick revulsion at the work of her own hands and mind . . . and the vaulting exultation and triumph.

But triumph at such cost. She bit her lip again, feeling the pain. One hundred and seven of her crew, more than a third of those aboard at the start of that terrible pursuit and slaughter, had died. Another fifty-eight were wounded, though the medics and base hospital teams would probably return most of them to duty in the next few months.

The cost in blood and pain had been terrible enough, but that had been fifty-nine percent of her total crew, even before detachments, including Dominica Santos and two of her three commissioned assistant engineers. She'd had barely a hundred and twenty uninjured people left for her repair parties, and Fearless had been a shambles. Her forward impeller nodes had failed completely within seconds of Sirius's destruction, and this time there had been no way to repair them. Worse, her after impeller ring had gone for over forty-five minutes, as well—three-quarters of an hour in which she had coasted another ninety-four million kilometers outward while damage reports flooded in to her airless bridge.

For a time, Honor had believed her crew would follow Sirius's into death. Most of Fearless's life support was down, three-quarters of her computer support was inoperable, the grav lance had shorted out three of her after beta nodes, the inertial compensator was off line, and seventy percent of her normal engineering and damage control personnel were casualties. Crewmen, many of them wounded, had been trapped in airless compartments all over the ship. Her own quarters had taken a direct hit that left them without pressure for over six hours. Only Nimitz's shielded life-support module had saved him, and her sailplane plaque was heat-warped and twisted, one corner blown completely away. It had been that close for Nimitz, and she reached up to touch the treecat yet again, reassuring herself of his survival.

But Alistair McKeon and Ilona Rierson, Dominica Santos's sole surviving lieutenant, had labored like Trojans amid the wreckage, and Petty Officer Harkness and his missile-loading party had been in Missile One's magazine when Missile Two was wiped away. They'd survived, and Harkness had needed no orders to begin working his way aft to meet McKeon and Rierson. Between them, they'd not only gotten the compensator back up but even managed to get two of the damaged after nodes back on line, giving her a deceleration capability of over two and a half KPS2.

Honor's wounded ship had taken four more hours just to decelerate to rest relative to Basilisk, but her people had used the time well. McKeon and Rierson had continued their repair activities, bringing more and more of the internal control systems back on line, and Lieutenant Montoya (and thank God she'd gotten rid of Suchon!) and his medical parties had labored beyond collapse, dragging the wounded out and laboring over their broken bodies in sickbay. Too many of Montoya's patients had slipped away from him, far more than he would ever find it easy to live with, but it was thanks to him that people like Samuel Webster and Sally MacBride had lived.

And then there had been the long voyage home. The long, slow voyage that had seemed to crawl, for Fearless's communications had been out. There was no way to tell Dame Estelle or the Admiralty what had happened, who had won, or the price her people had paid. Not until Fearless limped brokenly back into Medusa orbit thirteen hours after she'd left it and a white-faced Scotty Tremaine brought his pinnace alongside her air-bleeding wreck.

It had taken two months for the Fleet maintenance ships to make enough repairs for Honor even to bring her ship home through the Junction to Hephaestus at last. Two months during which the entire Home Fleet, summoned by her desperate Case Zulu, had conducted "unscheduled war games" in Basilisk—and greeted the three Havenite battle squadrons who'd arrived on a "routine visit" six days after Captain Papadapolous's Marines and Barney Isvarian's NPA had annihilated the rifle-armed Medusan nomads.

Honor's grief for her own dead would never fade entirely, yet it had been worth every moment of heartbreaking labor, every instant of self-doubt and determination, to witness that. To hear the hidden consternation in the Havenite admiral's voice as he acknowledged Admiral D'Orville's courteous welcome. To watch the faces of the Havenite officers as they endured the remorseless barrage of courtesy visits D'Orville had arranged to make them comfortable—and to drive home the warning that Basilisk was Manticoran territory and would remain so—before they were finally allowed to depart once more with their tails figuratively between their legs.

And then, at last, there had been the voyage home, accompanied by an honor guard of an entire superdreadnought battle squadron while the Manticoran anthem played over every Navy transmitter in the system. Honor had thought her heart would burst when D'Orville's stupendous King Roger flashed her running lights in the formal salute to a fleet flagship as Fearless entered the terminus to transit home, yet under her pride and bittersweet joy had been a fear she dared not admit. All the time the repair ships had labored upon her battered command, Honor had made herself believe Fearless might be returned to service, but the yard techs' survey had killed that hope.

Fearless was too old. She was too small, and she'd taken too much. Given too much. Repair would require virtual rebuilding and cost as much as a newer, bigger ship, and so the decision had been made. Within the week, she would be towed out of her slip once more and delivered to the breakers at one of the orbital recovery stations, where she would be stripped, cut into jagged chunks of alloy by workers who could never truly understand all she had been and meant and done, and melted down for reclamation.

She deserved better, Honor thought, blinking on her tears once more, but at least she'd ended as a warrior. Ended in combat and then brought her surviving people home, not died in her sleep after decades in mothballs. And even when she was gone, something of her would remain, for HMS Fearless had been added to the RMN's List of Honor, the list of names kept perpetually in commission by new construction to preserve the battle honors they had earned.

She drew another deep breath and turned from the window, and her melancholy eased as she looked at the three men who stood with her. Alistair McKeon looked very different and yet utterly right, somehow, with the three gold cuff bands of a full commander and the white beret of a starship's captain, and the destroyer Troubadour lay waiting for him, already under orders for the new, heavily reinforced Basilisk Station picket. Not a single over-aged light cruiser, but a task force, covering the terminus while construction of its own network of forts got under way.

She smiled at him, and he smiled back. Then she turned her gaze to the other two officers standing with her. Lieutenant Commander Andreas Venizelos looked as dapper and darkly handsome as ever beside a Lieutenant (Senior Grade) Rafael Cardones, who no longer seemed quite so young. They wouldn't be leaving with McKeon. They had a new assignment to a new ship, just as Honor did. It would be another few months before she exchanged her black beret for a white one once more, but when she did, Venizelos would be with her as her executive officer, with Cardones at Tactical. Honor had insisted on that, despite Cardones's lack of seniority, and no one at BuPers had dared argue with her.

"Well, Alistair," she held out her hand, "I'll miss you. But Troubadour is lucky to have you—and the Fleet will need an old Basilisk hand to keep them straight. Make sure Admiral Stag stays on his toes."

"I will, Ma'am." McKeon's smile became a grin, and he squeezed her hand, then frowned quickly as his wrist com beeped. "That's my boarding shuttle, Ma'am. I've got to run."

"I know. Good luck, Captain McKeon."

"The same to you, Captain Harrington." McKeon stepped back, saluted sharply, and vanished down the passage, and Honor smiled after him. Then she turned back to Venizelos.

"Did you get that crew list glitch straightened out, Andreas?"

"Yes, Skipper. You were right—it was a snafu at BuPers. They promised to have it corrected by tomorrow morning."

"Good." She cocked her head in thought for a moment, then shrugged. "I suppose you'd better get back to the slip, then. These yard dogs need a real officer keeping an eye on them."

"Yes, Ma'am." Venizelos grinned and beckoned to Cardones, and the two of them trotted off towards the building slip at the far end of Hephaestus where Honor's new command, the Star Knight-class heavy cruiser HMS Fearless, was nearing completion. She watched them go, then turned back to the old Fearless with another sigh.

Taken all in all, it had ended well, she thought a bit sadly. Too many good people had died to undo the mistakes and greed and stupidity of others, but they'd done it. The Hauptman Cartel had been cleared of knowing collusion in Basilisk, but the Queen's Bench had decided they ought to have known what their employees were doing and slapped them rather firmly on the wrist with several million dollars worth of fines. And the Court of Admiralty had condemned Mondragon as a legitimate prize for smuggling—a decision which had, just incidentally, made Captain Honor Harrington a millionaire. Most importantly of all, Haven's attempt to grab off Medusa and the Junction terminus had galvanized the political situation. Fear that Haven might try again had turned the Conservative rank and file against Janacek's long fight to downgrade Basilisk Station, and the Liberals and Progressives had been driven into full retreat. In fact, the Act of Annexation had been amended in ways that neither Countess New Kiev nor Baron High Ridge had ever imagined in their worst nightmares.

And then there was Pavel Young.

Honor allowed herself a rare, gloating smile as she considered Young, and Nimitz echoed it with a purr. His family and political connections had saved him from a court martial or even a court of inquiry, but nothing could save him from the judgment of his peers. There wasn't an officer in uniform who didn't realize exactly what he'd tried to do to Honor, and surprisingly few of them, given his family's power, bothered to hide their opinion of him. Bad enough that he'd used his rank to knife a junior in the back, but it was also Lord Pavel Young who had completely ignored the situation on Medusa itself. It was Lord Pavel Young who had never bothered to board Sirius, never even suspected she was armed, and personally certified the Q-ship's false engineering report and cleared her to remain indefinitely in Medusa orbit. And no one seemed to have the least doubt what the outcome of Haven's plans would have been had Lord Pavel Young remained the senior officer on Basilisk Station.

He and Warlock had been banished to escort duty, poking along through hyper to guard tramp freighters plying back and forth to the Silesian Confederacy. Not even First Lord Janacek or his father had been able to save him from that. He was lucky they'd been able to keep him on active duty at all.

As for the People's Republic of Haven, Queen Elizabeth's Government and Navy weren't yet strong enough to embrace open war, especially not when the battered Opposition could still point out—accurately—that all evidence linking Haven to the mekoha and rifles on Medusa was circumstantial. It was highly suspicious to find a member of the Havenite Consulate's staff (and a full colonel in the Republic's army, no less), supplying the shaman's army, but he was dead, and the Republic had insisted—and produced the splendidly official documentation to "prove"—that Colonel Westerfeldt had been discharged from his consular position for peculation weeks before the unfortunate incident. No doubt he had been involved even then with the Manticoran criminals who had really supplied the natives. The criminals in question, captured by Papadapolous's Marines, hadn't been able to prove Haven had been their paymaster, nor would they ever be able to prove anything again. The last of them had faced the firing squad over a month ago.

Not that anyone who mattered doubted Haven's involvement. The Opposition parties might claim that they did in their determination to avoid the war they dreaded, but they knew the truth as well as Honor did. Nor would anyone who had been on Medusa—who had seen what the Medusans had done to Lieutenant Malcolm's patrol, who remembered the drug lab explosion or the slaughter to which Haven had delivered the Medusan nomads—forget or forgive, and in the meantime, the Queen had taken steps to express her displeasure.

By Crown Proclamation, any Haven-registered ship passing through the Junction, regardless of destination or normal diplomatic immunity, must submit to boarding and search before she would be allowed passage. Moreover, no Havenite warship would be permitted transit under any circumstances. There had been no negotiation on those points; Haven could take it or leave it . . . and add months to every cruise their freighters made.

The Republic had accepted the deliberate, calculated humiliation, for refusal would have driven even their own cargoes into freighters which could use the Junction, with disastrous effects upon their carrying trade. But because there was no proof, Haven had still been able to protest its innocence and scream to galactic public opinion over the Kingdom's "highhanded discrimination" and the lengths to which Manticore had gone to smear its good name.

No Manticoran believed them, of course, just as no one in the Kingdom believed their violent protests about one Commander Harrington's unprovoked attack upon an unarmed merchantman and her callous murder of its entire crew. It wasn't as if they'd had much choice about protesting, unless they wanted to admit what they'd actually been up to, but they'd gone so far as to demand Honor's extradition to stand trial for murder in a Havenite court. She'd been amused by that, until one of the government's foreign affairs experts explained the propaganda theory of the "big lie" to her.

She found it difficult to credit, even now, that anyone, anywhere, could possibly believe the nonsense being spouted by the Haven Information Ministry, but the expert had only shaken his head and sighed. The bigger the lie, apparently, the more likely the uninformed were to accept it, simply because they couldn't believe any government would tell such an absurd story unless it were true. And, she supposed, the fact that Haven had tried her in absentia (legal under what passed for Havenite law when Manticore refused to extradite her), found her guilty, and condemned her to death, had been the frosting on the cake.

But the Kingdom had responded to Haven's claims in unambiguous fashion. Honor smiled and straightened her cuffs, brown eyes glinting as she savored the four gold rings of a Captain of the List. They'd jumped her two full grades, clear past captain (junior grade), and Admiral Cortez had been almost apologetic about the fact that she hadn't been knighted. He'd talked his way around the point for several minutes, concentrating rather unconvincingly on the diplomatic repercussions and the effect on "neutral opinion" should the Crown knight someone Haven's courts had sentenced to death as a mass murderer, but the way he'd said it had carried quite another message. It wasn't Haven or the Solarian League which concerned the Government; it was the Liberals and Conservative Association. They'd taken a beating over Basilisk, but their power hadn't been broken, and in typical politico fashion, they blamed all their trials on Captain Harrington and not their own stupidity and short-sightedness.

Honor didn't mind. She looked down at the ribbon of the Manticore Cross, the Kingdom's second highest award for valor, gleaming blood-red against her space-black tunic. She had that to signify the Navy's and her Queen's opinion of her, just as she had her new ship, and she'd made list at last. Her feet were firmly on the ladder to flag rank, and no one—not Pavel Young, not the Republic of Haven, and not Countess New Kiev or Sir Edward Janacek—could ever knock her off it again.

She sighed and raised a hand, pressing it to the plastic as if to bid Fearless farewell, then turned to leave, only to pause as someone called her name.

"Captain Harrington?"

She turned back to see a portly commodore puffing his way along the gallery towards her. She'd never seen him before, but he came to a halt before her and beamed, almost as if he intended to throw his arms about her.

"Yes, Sir?" she replied in a puzzled voice.

"Oh, excuse me. You wouldn't know. I'm Andrew Yerensky." He held out his hand, and Honor took it.

"Commodore Yerensky," she said, still wondering why he'd obviously sought her out.

"I wanted to talk to you about your action in Basilisk, Captain," Yerensky explained. "You see, I'm on the Weapons Development Board down at BuShips."

"Oh." Honor nodded. Now she understood; it was about time somebody finally took official notice of the stupidity of Fearless's armament alterations.

"Yes, indeed," Yerensky beamed. "I've read your combat report. Brilliant, Captain! Simply brilliant the way you sucked Sirius in and took her out! In fact, I'm hoping that you'd be willing to address a formal meeting of the board about your action and tactics next week. Admiral Hemphill's our chairman, you know, and she's placed consideration of the demonstrated effectiveness of the grav lance/energy torpedo weapons mix on the agenda."

Honor blinked. Admiral Hemphill? He couldn't possibly mean—!

"We were delighted by the outcome of your action, Captain," Yerensky burbled on. "It was a brilliant vindication of the new armament concept! Just think—your old, undersized little cruiser took on and defeated an eight-million-ton Q-ship with the armament of a battlecruiser! Why, when I think how impossible that would have been with one of the old, traditionally-armed cruisers, I can hardly—"

Honor stared at him in disbelief as he babbled on and on about "new thinking" and "proper weapon systems for modern warships" and "gave you the edge you really needed, didn't they?"—and something hot and primitive boiled deep within her. Her eyes hardened, and Nimitz hunkered down on her shoulder and bared his fangs while her fingers twitched with the physical urge to throttle the pompous twit. His "new thinking" had gotten over half her crew killed or wounded by forcing her to close straight up Sirius's wake, and it wasn't "proper weapons" which had saved what was left of Fearless—it had been Honor's people, their guts and blood and pain, and the definite partiality of Almighty God!

Her nostrils flared, but the commodore didn't even notice. He just went on and on, patting himself on the back so hard she expected him to sprain his shoulder, and the corner of her mouth began to twitch.

Talk to his board members? He wanted her to talk to his board members and tell them what a stroke of genius Fearless's refit had been?! She glared at him, sucking in breath to tell him exactly where he could put his invitation, but then a new thought struck her. She reared back to consider it, and the tick died. Her eyes began to twinkle instead of glare, and she fought back a sudden urge to giggle in his face as he slithered to a halt at last.

"Excuse me, Commodore," she heard herself say, "but let me be sure I've got this straight. You want me to address an official panel of the Weapons Development Board and give them my combat evaluation of Fearless's weapon systems?"

"Precisely, Captain!" Yerensky enthused. "Our more progressive members—the whole Navy, in fact—would be eternally in your debt. The personal testimony of an officer who's proven their efficacy in actual combat would have tremendous weight with the more reactionary, stick-in-the-mud board members, I'm sure, and God knows we need all the help we can get. Why, some of those die-hards actually refuse to admit it was your weapons—and skill, of course—which made your victory possible!"

"Shocking," Honor murmured. She cocked her head, and her glowing brown eyes danced while her firm lips blossomed into an immense smile. "Well, Commodore Yerensky, I don't see how I could possibly turn your request down. It happens that I do have very strong feelings about the new armament—" her smile grew even broader "—and I'd be delighted to share them with Admiral Hemphill and her colleagues."


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