Back | Next


Honor's own sense of urgency echoed around her as she stepped into the late-night bustle of HMS Gryphon. No warship ever truly shuts down, but even spacers tend to retain a sense of "day" and "night" as dictated by their clocks. It may not make much difference to the people who actually have the watch at any given moment, but it is too easy for the human animal to lose its temporal place without some sort of agreed upon referent. And as a general rule, a flagship's "day" is defined as "the Admiral is up." When he retires, so do most of his staff and its myriad attachments, and the entire tempo of the flagship seems to relax with an appreciable breath of gratitude.

But no one was relaxed tonight. Gryphon's boat bays were brilliant with light and busy with side parties as flag officer after flag officer arrived aboard, and Honor didn't envy her boat bay control officer. Juggling that many small craft was a herculean task, even with the docking capacity of a superdreadnought.

She led Captain Corell out the hatch of Nike's pinnace behind Sarnow and hid a smile, despite her own tension, as the lieutenant assigned to greet them snapped to attention. The side party followed her example, bosun's pipes trilled, Marines saluted—nothing could have been more punctilious, but the lieutenant's harassed expression suggested another pinnace was coming in right behind them . . . as soon as their boat got out of the way, that was.

"Welcome aboard, Admiral Sarnow. Lady Harrington. Captain Corell. I'm Lieutenant Eisenbrei. Admiral Parks extends his compliments and asks you to follow me to the briefing room, please."

"Thank you, Lieutenant." Sarnow gestured for her to lead the way, and Honor could almost hear Eisenbrei's sigh of relief as she shepherded them out of the boat bay gallery. Another lieutenant tried not to hover too obviously to one side, and Eisenbrei gave her colleague a nod and made a small shooing gesture towards the gallery even as Nike's pinnace undocked. The other lieutenant vanished at a trot, Eisenbrei led her charges briskly away, and Honor managed—somehow—not to laugh as Corell looked her way and rolled her eyes heavenward.

* * *

Gryphon's main briefing room was crowded, despite its size, and heads turned to glance at the newcomers as Honor and Corell followed Sarnow through the hatch. There were dozens of admirals, commodores, and senior captains, all glittering with braid, and Honor extended a silent but profound thanks to Henke and MacGuiness as she took in the hectares of dress uniforms awaiting her.

She brought her cybernetic eye's magnification up slightly, studying the assembly while they walked toward it, and she saw her own puzzlement and curiosity on most of those faces. Most but not all—and those which didn't look puzzled wore masked expressions that looked ominously like anxiety. Even fear.

Admiral Parks was bent over a holo display with a commodore—probably Commodore Capra, the chief of staff, she thought, noting the braided aiguilette hanging from his left shoulder—but he, too, looked up at their entry. Looked up and raised a hand, interrupting Capra in mid-sentence.

His eyes narrowed as he straightened. The distance was too great for anyone without the advantage of Honor's enhanced vision to notice it, but those cold, blue eyes clung to her for just a moment, and the lips below them tightened. Then Parks moved his gaze to Sarnow, and his mouth tightened still further before he made it relax.

Honor snapped her eye back into normal vision and schooled her own face into careful nonexpression, but mental warning signals buzzed, and Nimitz shifted uneasily. That wasn't the way an admiral looked at someone he was happy to see, and her memory replayed her week-old supper conversation with Henke. Parks didn't seem any too pleased with Admiral Sarnow, either, but he'd looked at Honor first. Did that mean she was somehow the source of his unhappiness with the admiral?

Sarnow, at least, seemed unfazed by any potential hostility. He led Honor and Corell across the deck to Parks, and his voice was respectful but relaxed when he spoke.

"Admiral Parks."

"Admiral Sarnow." Parks returned the greeting in a tone which sounded just a bit too normal against the background of an emergency fleet conference, but he extended his hand. Sarnow shook it, then nodded to his subordinates.

"Allow me to introduce Captain Harrington, Sir. I believe you've already met Captain Corell."

"Yes, I have," Parks replied, nodding at Corell, but his eyes were on Honor, and she sensed a tiny hesitation before he extended his hand to her turn. "Welcome aboard Gryphon, Lady Harrington."

"Thank you, Sir."

"Please, find your seats," Parks went on, returning his attention to Sarnow. "I expect Admirals Konstanzakis and Miazawa momentarily, and I'd like to get started as soon as they arrive."

"Of course, Sir." Sarnow nodded, but waved his subordinates on toward the huge conference table while he paused for a word with an admiral Honor didn't recognize. She and Corell found the chairs marked with their names, and Honor glanced around to confirm that no one was immediately at hand.

"What was that all about, Ernie?" she murmured softly, and Corell mirrored her own precaution with a quick glance, then shrugged.

"I don't know," she replied. Honor cocked an eyebrow, and the other captain shrugged again. "Really, Honor, I don't know. All I know for sure is that the Admiral was getting upset with Admiral Parks ab—"

She broke off as another officer slid into the chair beside hers, and her silent eyes begged Honor not to pursue it.

Honor nodded. This was neither the time nor the place, but if there was a problem, she intended to find out what it was. And soon.

At that moment, Admiral Konstanzakis walked—jogged, really—through the hatch with Admiral Miazawa. Konstanzakis was barely shorter than Honor, and she was also much heavier-boned and stockier. She probably out-massed Honor by at least fifty percent, whereas Miazawa was barely a hundred and sixty centimeters tall and couldn't have weighed much more than fifty kilos. They looked like a mastiff and a Pekingese, but the sudden increase in background tension as their peers realized everyone had now arrived depressed any temptation to humor.

Admiral Parks moved to his own place and watched the late arrivals find their chairs, then rapped lightly—and superfluously—on the tabletop and cleared his throat.

"Thank you all for coming so promptly, ladies and gentlemen. I apologize for summoning you on such short notice. As you've no doubt surmised, I wouldn't have done so without a most pressing reason. Vincent?"

He nodded to Commodore Capra, and the chief of staff stood.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we've just received an urgent priority dispatch from the Admiralty." The tension clicked even higher, and he keyed a message board to life and began to read.

"To Commanding Officer, Hancock Station, repeated to all station and task force commanders. From Admiral Sir Thomas Caparelli, First Space Lord. Reports have been received here of widespread and apparently orchestrated incidents along the outer arc of the Alliance's frontline systems. While PRH involvement cannot be confirmed in all instances, units of the People's Navy have been positively—repeat, positively—identified in three incursions into Alliance space at Candor, Klein Station, and Zuckerman."

A soft sound ran around the table, a sound of collectively indrawn breath, but Capra continued reading in the same level voice.

"At this time, we have no confirmed reports of exchanges of fire between RMN and PN units, but the PN force which violated Zuckerman's territorial limit extensively damaged one quadrant's outer sensor platforms before withdrawing. In addition, member systems of the Alliance have suffered both material and personnel losses in incidents which cannot be attributed to any positively identified force. To date, confirmed RMN losses to parties unknown consist of destroyers Turbulent and Havoc and the complete destruction of Convoy Mike-Golf-Nineteen."

This time the sound wasn't of indrawn breath. It was a growl, throaty and ugly, and Admiral Parks' face tightened as he heard it.

"At this moment, ONI is unable to suggest with any confidence a motive which might lead the People's Republic to seek a deliberate confrontation," Capra went on. "Nonetheless, in light of positive identification of PN involvement at Candor, Klein, and Zuckerman, we see no alternative but to assume at least the possibility—repeat, possibility—of PRH responsibility for all such incidents. Accordingly, you are instructed to take all reasonable and prudent precautions within your area of responsibility. You are cautioned to avoid any actions which might unilaterally escalate or exacerbate the situation, but your primary concern must be the security of your command area and the protection of our allies."

The commodore paused for just a moment, then continued in a flatter, deeper voice.

"This dispatch is to be considered a war warning. You are authorized and directed to go to Readiness State Alpha Two under Rules of Engagement Baker. God bless you all. Signed, Admiral Sir Thomas Caparelli, First Space Lord, Royal Manticoran Navy, for Her Majesty the Queen."

Capra switched off the message board and laid it gently on the conference table as he sank back into his chair amid an absolute silence. Alpha Two was only one step short of open hostilities, and ROE Baker authorized any squadron commander to open fire, even preemptively, if he believed his command was under threat. By repeating those orders to every station commander, Admiral Caparelli had just formally put the trigger to the war every RMN officer had feared for decades in the hands of some junior grade captain commanding a light cruiser flotilla picketing some nameless star system in the back of beyond, and an icy chill danced up and down Honor's spine.

She swallowed and felt the cold, hollow fear deep in her belly. Unlike the majority of the officers at this table, she'd seen recent, brutal combat. She understood exactly what that message meant; they didn't. Not really. They couldn't without her own experience.

"Under the circumstances," Admiral Parks' voice broke the hush, "an immediate reconsideration of our own posture and responsibilities is in order. Particularly since at least some of the incursions by 'unknown forces' almost certainly account for the Caliphate Navy's losses in Zanzibar." He gazed around the table, then leaned back and folded his arms with deliberate calm.

"Along with the message Commodore Capra just read, we've received a dispatch detailing additional forces which Admiral Caparelli is deploying to Hancock. In addition to sufficient heavy and light cruisers to bring all of our screening squadrons and flotillas up to full strength, the Admiralty is sending us the Eighteenth Battle Squadron under Admiral Danislav." One or two faces showed a tinge of relief, and Parks smiled thinly.

"Unfortunately, it will require time to concentrate Admiral Danislav's dreadnoughts. Admiral Caparelli estimates that we cannot expect their arrival here for a minimum of three weeks.

"At the same time," the admiral went on, ignoring any fresh signs of dismay among his listeners, "our light cruisers have continued to picket the Seaford Nine approaches. While our patrols have reported the recent arrival of a third superdreadnought squadron there, they have not reported any major changes in the PN's operational patterns. Since the only reported incidents in this region have been the attacks on Zanzibaran naval units, in the course of which the Peeps—if, indeed, they're responsible—have very carefully hidden any sign of complicity, the lack of any activity on Admiral Rollins' part may indicate they aren't yet ready for precipitate action in our command area. Or—" he bared his teeth in a humorless smile "—those same signs could indicate they plan to launch a major attack in our area and are simply being careful to deny us any clue as to their intentions."

Someone made a sound that was more than a sigh but not quite a groan, and Parks' grim smile flickered with a hint of true amusement.

"Come now, ladies and gentlemen! If the answer were easy to guess, anyone could play." That won an uneasy mutter of laughter, and he unfolded his arms and propped an elbow on the conference table.

"Better. Now, we're all aware of the sensitivity of our command area. I'm certain the Admiralty is, as well. Unfortunately, we're here, and Their Lordships aren't. Moreover, they're going to have to cope with all the other 'sensitive' areas, so I think we must assume that what we have now, plus BatRon Eighteen, are all we're going to have if the missile goes up. Assuming that to be the case, what are our options?"

He raised his eyebrows and scanned his flag officers. There was another moment of silence, and then Mark Sarnow raised an index finger in an attention-gathering gesture. Parks' mouth might have tightened just a bit, but he nodded to the rear admiral.

"I'd like to renew my suggestion for a forward deployment against Seaford, Sir Yancey." Sarnow picked his words—and tone—with care. "While it's true our cruiser pickets should spot any movement of their forces out of the system, they'll still have to report to us before we can act. That probably won't matter if the Peeps move against Hancock, since our cruisers should get here first and alert us. But if they strike at one of our allies in the region, our interception window will be much narrower. In fact, if they move against Yorik, we'd have virtually no chance of intercepting them short of the system."

Parks started to reply, but Admiral Konstanzakis spoke up first.

"With all due respect, Sir Yancey, I still feel that's the wrong move," she said bluntly. "Admiral Caparelli specifically instructed us to avoid any unilateral escalation. I hardly see what else we could call moving the entire task force to the edge of the Seaford territorial limit!"

"Admiral Caparelli's dispatch took a week to get here, Dame Christa, and the information on which it's based is older still." Sarnow turned his head to meet the admiral's brown eyes. "It's entirely possible—even probable—that the situation has worsened in that time. Under the circumstances, I believe the need to adopt 'reasonable and prudent' measures by insuring Admiral Rollins and his ships can't leave Seaford without our being able to intercept them outweighs the possibility that our actions might be seen as provocative, especially by the people who seem to be pushing the crisis in the first place."

"But you're talking about blockading Seaford," Admiral Miazawa protested. "That's not just a provocation; it's an outright act of war."

"I'm not suggesting a blockade." Sarnow kept his mellow tenor reasonable, but a certain undeniable edge crept into it. "What I am suggesting, Sir, is that we concentrate our force in company with the pickets already watching the system, not that we interfere with their movements in any way. But the unpalatable fact is that once a fleet goes into hyper, we can only guess where it's going to come out again. In my opinion, the only way to be positive that we can deliver our entire wall of battle, concentrated and ready for action at need, is to keep it in such close proximity to their wall that they can't possibly elude us."

"Calmly, ladies and gentlemen." Admiral Parks held Sarnow's eyes for a moment, then continued.

"Admiral Sarnow has made an excellent point. So, unfortunately, have Admiral Konstanzakis and Admiral Miazawa, which illustrates the impossibility of forming detailed plans in the absence of concrete information. By the same token, however, our out-system sensor platforms have detected no sign that the Peeps have been picketing Hancock, so it would seem Admiral Rollins doesn't have such information on us—and the fact that they can't see our main force sitting on their doorstep leaves Rollins ignorant of our dispositions. In which case, he's probably playing the same sort of guessing game I am."

He smiled another wintry smile, and Konstanzakis snorted in wry agreement.

"If we adopt your forward deployment, Admiral Sarnow, we'll have the advantage of knowing exactly what their force at Seaford Nine may do and being in position to engage it at a time of our choice. That's a major plus. On the debit side, Admiral Konstanzakis is correct about the potential for escalation. Perhaps even more importantly, concentrating to watch the force we know about would leave nothing here to protect Hancock—or any of our allies in the region—should the Peeps run in a second force. If all of our ships of the wall are tied down watching Seaford Nine, they could snap up any or all of our allies with relatively light forces, in which case Seaford would have become a magnet to suck us out of position at the critical moment. Correct?"

"The possibility would certainly exist, Sir," Sarnow conceded. "But if the Peeps committed weak forces to such an operation, they'd face almost certain destruction if they were intercepted. If they pay the kind of attention to Murphy's Law I'd expect of someone with their experience, I strongly doubt they'll try for finesse or fancy coordination across that many light-years."

"So you believe that if they move in this region at all, they'll do so in force from Seaford."

"More or less, Sir. I won't deny that they might choose to do otherwise, but if they do, I believe they'll commit a force which in their opinion would be sufficient to take us on in its own right. Under those circumstances, I feel it would still be better to cover our allies with light pickets while we concentrate off Seaford. If word of an attack elsewhere comes in, we should then move in and crush the Seaford force before responding to any other threats. In the long run, the crucial objective must be to eliminate or whittle down their overall tonnage advantage by bringing them to action on terms most advantageous to us as quickly and decisively as possible."

"You sound like we're already at war, Admiral!" Miazawa snapped.

"For all we know, Sir, by now we are," Sarnow replied, and Miazawa's nostrils flared.

"That will be all, gentlemen," Parks said softly. He regarded both men for some seconds, then sighed and rubbed his forehead.

"In many ways, Admiral Sarnow, I would actually prefer to adopt your proposal." He sounded as if the admission surprised him, but then he shook his head. "Unfortunately, I believe the suggestion that we avoid further escalation also has merit. And unlike you, I can't quite free myself of the suspicion that, Murphy's Law or no, they might be attempting to suck us out of position to strike with light forces behind us. Moreover, my first and foremost responsibility is to protect the civilian populations and territorial integrity of our allies. For all of those reasons, I'm afraid the idea of a forward deployment is out of the question."

Sarnow's mouth tightened briefly, but then he nodded and leaned back in his chair. Admiral Parks gazed at him a moment longer, then let his eyes trail across Honor's face before he continued.

"At the moment, and barring any further reinforcement of Seaford Nine, we have at least parity with the known enemy forces in our area. As Admiral Sarnow points out, however, a sudden lunge against Yorik could slip past us unintercepted, which would make our margin of superiority moot. An attack against Alizon or Zanzibar, on the other hand, would have to move almost directly across us here, giving us an excellent opportunity to intercept it short of its objective.

"Accordingly," he drew a deep breath and committed himself, "I intend to dispatch Admiral Konstanzakis' and Admiral Miazawa's superdreadnought squadrons and Admiral Tolliver's dreadnoughts to Yorik. That will preposition twenty-four ships of the wall to cover our most vulnerable responsibility in the event that someone does slip past us, and will also protect Yorik against an attack by lighter forces inserted into the area for that purpose.

"Admiral Kostmeyer," he turned to the CO of Battle Squadron Nine, "you'll take your dreadnoughts to Zanzibar. I'm not comfortable about the losses the Caliph's units have been taking, and with so much of our strength at Yorik, they'll be the next most exposed target."

Kostmeyer nodded, not entirely happily, and Parks smiled thinly.

"I won't leave you quite alone out at the end of your limb, Admiral. I intend to recall and reassemble Admiral Tyrel's battlecruisers and send them all to join you there as quickly as possible. Deploy your sensor platforms and use those battlecruisers to patrol as aggressively as you like. If an attack comes at you in overwhelming force, yield the system but remain concentrated and in contact with them if at all possible until the remainder of the task force can come to your assistance."

"Yield the system, Sir?" Kostmeyer couldn't quite keep the surprise out of her voice, and Parks smiled frostily.

"It's our responsibility to protect Zanzibar, Admiral, and we will. But, as Admiral Sarnow says, we must engage them as a coherent whole, and moving back in to retake the system with our full strength would probably result in less actual damage to its people and infrastructure than would a desperate but unsuccessful defense of it."

Honor chewed the inside of her lip and reached up to stroke Nimitz's ears. She could not but respect the moral courage it took for any commander to order one of his admirals to voluntarily surrender an allied star system to the enemy. Even if Parks was correct and his concentrated forces sufficed to take it back undamaged, his actions would provoke a furor, and the consequences to his career could be catastrophic. But resolution or no, the idea of splitting their forces in the face of potential attack appalled her. All her instincts insisted that Sarnow was right and Parks was wrong about the best way to bring the enemy to action, but perhaps even more frighteningly, that disposed of all thirty-two of Hancock Station's ships of the wall. In fact, it disposed of everything . . . except Battlecruiser Squadron Five.

"In the meantime," Parks continued evenly, as if he'd heard her thoughts, "you, Admiral Sarnow, will remain here in Hancock with your squadron as the core of a light task group. Your function will be to cover this base against attack, but, even more importantly, Hancock will continue to function as the linchpin of our entire deployment. I'll leave detailed orders for Admiral Danislav, but for your planning information, I intend to hold his battle squadron here, as well. The two of you will be well placed as our central information relay and to cover Alizon against direct attack, and I'll detach another light cruiser flotilla to thicken up our Seaford pickets. That should enable them both to retain sufficient strength to shadow the enemy as a precaution against deception course changes and to alert you in time for you to move to reinforce Admiral Kostrneyer should Haven attack Zanzibar. I realize Admiral Kostmeyer will be much more poorly placed to come to your assistance, but so long as Admiral Rollins doesn't know we've pulled any substantial forces out of Hancock, he'll have to scout the system before committing himself to attack it, and that should alert us in time to bring one or both of the detached forces back to Hancock."

He paused, watching Sarnow's face, then went on quietly.

"I realize I'm leaving you exposed here, Admiral. Even after Admiral Danislav's arrival, you'll be heavily outnumbered if Admiral Rollins' units slip by us before we can redeploy to cover you, and I'd prefer not to put you in that kind of position. But I don't think I can avoid risking you. The overriding function of this base is to protect our allies and maintain control of this general area. If we lose Zanzibar, Alizon, and Yorik, Hancock will be effectively isolated and cut off from relief, in which case it loses both its value and its viability, anyway."

"I understand, Sir." Sarnow's clipped voice was free of rancor, yet Honor noted that he hadn't said he agreed with Parks.

"Very well, then." Parks pinched the bridge of his nose and looked at his staff ops officer. "All right, Mark, let's look at the nuts and bolts."

"Yes, Sir. First, Admiral, I think we have to consider how best to distribute our available screening units between Admiral Kostmeyer and the rest of our wall. After that—"

Captain Hurston went on speaking in crisp, professional tones, but Honor hardly noticed. She sat back in her chair, hearing the details and recording them for future reference but not really listening to them, and she felt Captain Corell's matching stiffness beside her.

Parks was making a mistake. For the best of reasons and not without the support of logic, but a mistake. She felt it, sensed it the same way she sensed the sudden fusion of a complicated tactical problem into a single, coherent unity.

She could be wrong. In fact, she hoped—prayed—that she was. But it didn't feel that way. And, she wondered, just how much of Admiral Parks' final decision was based on logic and how much on the desire, conscious or unconscious, to leave Admiral Mark Sarnow and his bothersome flag captain safely on a back burner, unable to upset his peace of mind?


Back | Next