Back | Next


The faces in Nike's briefing room were unhappy, and Honor leaned back in her chair as Commander Houseman unburdened himself.

" . . . realize the gravity of the situation, Admiral Sarnow, but surely Sir Yancey must realize we can't possibly hold this system against an attack in force! We don't begin to have the firepower, and—"

"That's enough, Commander." There was no expression at all in Mark Sarnow's voice, but Houseman closed his mouth with a snap, and the admiral bestowed a wintry smile upon the assembled commodores, captains, and staff officers of what was about to become Task Group Hancock 001.

"I asked for your frank opinions, ladies and gentlemen, and I want them. But let us stick to the relevant, if you please. Whether or not our orders are the best possible ones is beside the point. Our concern has to be making them work. Correct?"

"Absolutely, Sir." Commodore Van Slyke gave his chief of staff a rare public look of disapproval and nodded emphatically.

"Good." Sarnow ignored Houseman's flush and looked at Commodore Banton, his senior divisional commander. "Have you and Commander Turner completed that study Ernie and I discussed with you Monday, Isabella?"

"Just about, Sir, and it looks like Captain Corell and Dame Honor are right. The sims say it should work, anyway, but we've got to nail down exactly what fire control modifications will be required, and the availability numbers are still up in the air. I'm afraid Gryphon has other things on her mind than our data requests just now." Banton allowed herself a smile that matched her admiral's, and one or two people actually chuckled.

"At the moment, Sir, I'd have to say that, unless Admiral Parks changes his mind and takes them with him, there should be enough pods to pull it off. I gave Captain Corell our latest figures when we came aboard this evening, and Commander Turner is working out the software changes now."

Sarnow glanced at Corell, who nodded in confirmation. A few people—notably Commander Houseman—looked skeptical, but Honor felt a trickle of satisfaction. The concept might be a tactical antique, yet its very outdatedness should keep the Peeps from expecting it in the first place.

A parasite pod was nothing more than a drone slaved to the fire control of the ship towing it astern on a tractor. Each pod mounted several, usually a half-dozen or so, single-shot missile launchers similar to those LACs used. The idea was simple—to link the pod with the ship's internal tubes and launch a greater number of birds in a single salvo in order to saturate an opponent's defenses—but they hadn't been used in a fleet engagement for eighty T-years because advances in antimissile defenses had rendered them ineffective.

The old pods' launchers had lacked the powerful mass-drivers which gave warships' missiles their initial impetus. That, in turn, gave them a lower initial velocity, and since their missiles had exactly the same drives as any other missile, they couldn't make up the velocity differential unless the ship-launched birds were stepped down to less than optimal power settings. If you didn't step your shipboard missiles down, you lost much of the saturation effect because the velocity discrepancy effectively split your launch into two separate salvos. Yet if you did step them down, the slower speed of your entire launch not only gave the enemy more time to evade and adjust his ECM, but also gave his active defenses extra tracking and engagement time.

It was the tracking time that was the real killer, for point defense had improved enormously over the last century. Neither LAC launchers nor the old-style pods had been able to overcome the advantage it now held (which was one reason the Admiralty had stopped all new LAC construction twenty Manticoran years ago). Moreover, the RMN's data on the People's Navy's point defense, available in no small part thanks to Captain Dame Honor Harrington, indicated that the Peeps' missile defenses, while poorer than Manticore's, were still more than sufficient to eat old-style pod salvos for breakfast.

But the Weapons Development Board, not without opposition from its then head, Lady Sonja Hemphill, had resurrected the pods and given them a new and heavier punch. Hemphill rejected the entire concept as "retrograde," but her successor at the WDB had pushed the project energetically, and Honor couldn't quite see the logic behind Hemphill's objections. Given her vocal advocacy of material-based tactics, Honor would have expected her to embrace the pods with enthusiasm . . . unless it was simply that something inside the admiral equated "old" weapon systems with "inherently inferior' ones.

As far as Honor was concerned, an idea's age didn't necessarily invalidate it—especially not with the new launchers, whose development Hemphill herself had overseen. Of course, Hemphill hadn't intended them to be used in something as ancient as pods. She'd been looking for a way to make LACs effective once more as part of the tactical approach her critics called the "Sonja Swarm." The new launchers were far more expensive than traditional LAC launchers, which was the official core of Hemphill's opposition to "wasting" them in pods, but expense hadn't bothered her where the LACs were concerned. Building one with the new launchers pushed its price tag up to about a quarter of a destroyer's, especially with the fire control upgrades to take full advantage of the launchers' capabilities, yet Hemphill had lobbied hard for the resumption of LAC construction, and she'd succeeded.

Like most of her jeune école fellows, she still regarded LACs as expendable, single-salvo assets (which didn't endear her to their crews), but at least she'd seen the virtue in increasing their effectiveness while they lasted. The fact that it also gave them a better chance of survival was probably immaterial to her thinking, but that was all right with Honor. She didn't care why Horrible Hemphill did something, on the rare occasions when it was the right something. And however loudly the cost effectiveness analysts might complain, Honor had a pretty shrewd notion how LAC skippers felt about the notion of living through an engagement.

But the point at hand was that the same improvements could be applied to parasite pods, and, despite Hemphill's objections, they had been. Of course, the new pods—with ten tubes each, not six—were intended for ships of the wall, which had plenty of redundant fire control to manage them, not battlecruisers. But it sounded like Turner was finding the answer to that, and their missiles were actually heavier than the standard ship-to-ship birds. With the new lightweight mass-drivers BuShips had perfected, their performance could equal or even exceed that of normal, ship-launched missiles, and their warheads were more destructive to boot. The pods were clumsy, of course, and towing them did unfortunate things to a warship's inertial compensator field, which held down maximum accelerations by twenty-five percent or so. They were also vulnerable to proximity soft kills, since they carried neither sidewalls nor radiation shielding of their own, but if they got their shots off before they were killed, that hardly mattered.

"Good, Isabella." Sarnow's voice recalled Honor to the conversation at hand. "If we can get him to leave them here, we can put at least five on tow behind each of our battlecruisers—six, for the newer ships. Even the heavy cruisers can manage two or three." He smiled thinly. "It may not help in a long engagement, but our initial salvos should make anyone on the other side wonder if they've run into dreadnoughts instead of battlecruisers!"

Unpleasant smiles were shared about the table, but Houseman wasn't quite finished, though he was careful about his tone when he spoke up again.

"No doubt you're correct, Admiral, but it's the idea of a long engagement that worries me. With the repair base to protect, we won't be able to mount a real mobile defense—they can always pin us down by going straight for the base—and once the pods are exhausted, your battlecruisers are going to find themselves hard-pressed by ships of the wall, Sir."

Honor's eyes narrowed as she examined Houseman's face. It took nerve for a commander to keep arguing after two different flag officers, one his own immediate CO, had just more or less told him to shut up. What bothered her was where Houseman's nerve came from. Was it the courage of his convictions, or was it arrogance? The fact that she disliked the man made it hard to be objective, and she warned herself to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Sarnow seemed less charitably inclined.

"I realize that, Mr. Houseman," he replied. "But at the possible expense of boring you, let me repeat that the purpose of this conference is to solve our problems, not simply to recapitulate them."

Houseman seemed to shrink into himself, hunching down in his chair with a total lack of expression as Van Slyke gave him an even colder glance, and someone cleared his throat.

"Admiral Sarnow?"

"Yes, Commodore Prentis?"

"We do have one other major advantage, Sir," Battlecruiser Division 53's CO pointed out. "All our sensor platforms have the new FTL systems, and with Nike and Achilles to coordinate—"

The commodore shrugged, and Sarnow nodded sharply. Nike was one of the first ships built with the new grav pulse technology from the keel out, but Achilles had received the same system in her last refit, and their pulse transmitters gave both battlecruisers the ability to send FTL messages to any ship with gravitic sensors. They had to shut down their own wedges long enough to complete any transmission, since no sensor could pick message pulses out of the background "noise" of a warship's drive signature, but they would give Sarnow a command and control "reach" the Peeps couldn't hope to match.

"Jack has an excellent point, Admiral, if you'll pardon my saying so." This time Van Slyke didn't even glance at Houseman as he spoke—which suggested there was going to be a lively discussion when they returned to Van Slyke's flagship. "If we can't match them toe-to-toe, we'll just have to use our footwork to make up the difference."

"Agreed." Sarnow leaned back and rubbed his mustache. "Do any other advantages we've got—or that we can create—spring to mind?"

Honor cleared her throat quietly, and Sarnow cocked an eyebrow at her.

"Yes, Dame Honor?"

"One thing that's occurred to me, Sir, is those Erebus-class minelayers. Do we know what Admiral Parks intends to do with them?"

"Ernie?" Sarnow passed the question to his chief of staff, and Captain Corell ran one fine-boned hand through her hair while she scrolled through data on her memo pad. She reached the end and looked up with a headshake.

"There's nothing in the flagship's current download, Sir. Of course, we haven't received their finalized dump yet. They're still thinking things over, just like us."

"It might be a good idea to ask about them, Sir," Honor suggested, and Sarnow nodded in agreement. The minelayers weren't officially assigned to Hancock—they'd simply been passing through on their way to Reevesport when Parks read Admiral Caparelli's dispatch and shortstopped them. It was probably little more than an instinctive reaction, but if he could be convinced to hold them here indefinitely . . . 

"Assuming we can get Admiral Parks to steal them for us, how were you thinking of using them, Captain?" Commodore Banton asked. "I suppose we could mine the approaches to the base, but how effective would it really be? Surely the Peeps would be watching for mines when they finally closed on the base."

The objection made sense, since the mines were simply old-fashioned bomb-pumped lasers. They were cheap but good for only a single shot each, and their accuracy was less than outstanding, which made them most effective when employed en masse against ships moving at low velocities. That meant they were usually emplaced for area coverage of relatively immobile targets like wormhole junctions, planets, or orbital bases . . . where, as Banton had just pointed out, the Peeps would expect to see them. But putting them where the Peeps expected wasn't what Honor had in mind.

"Actually, Ma'am, I've been looking at the drive specs on the layers, and we might be able to use them more advantageously than that."

"Oh?" Banton cocked her head—consideringly, not in challenge—and Honor nodded.

"Yes, Ma'am. The Erebus-class ships are fast—almost as fast as a battlecruiser—and they're configured for rapid, mass mine emplacement. If we could make the Peeps think they are battlecruisers and operate them with the rest of our force, then kick the mines out in the Peeps' path . . ."

She let her voice trail off suggestively, and Banton gave a sudden, fierce snort of laughter.

"I like it, Admiral!" she told Sarnow. "It's sneaky as hell, and it might just work."

"Assuming the Peeps don't shoot at them and give the show away," Commodore Prentis observed. "Minelayers don't have much in the way of point defense, and their sidewalls aren't much, either. You'd be asking their captains to run an awful risk, Dame Honor."

"We could cover them fairly well against missile attack by tying them into our divisional tac nets, Sir," Honor countered. "There are only five of them. We could include one in each division's net and hook the odd man out into Nike's and Agamemnon's net. The Peeps won't be able to tell exactly where our defensive fire is coming from, so they shouldn't be able to ID them at any extended range. And for us to make the mines work, we'd have to use them before we got to beam range, anyway."

"And if they spot the mines?" Prentis was thinking aloud, not arguing, and Honor allowed herself a small shrug.

"Their fire control's a hundred percent passive, Sir. They don't have active emission signatures, and they're mighty small radar targets. I doubt the Peeps could spot them at much more than a million klicks, especially if they're busy chasing us."

Prentis nodded with growing enthusiasm, and Sarnow gestured to Corell.

"Make a note of Dame Honor's suggestion, Ernie. I'll float the idea to Sir Yancey; you get hold of Commodore Capra. Bug the hell out of him if you have to, but I want authorization to use those ships in the event of an attack on Hancock."

"Yes, Sir." Corell tapped at her memo pad, and the admiral tilted his chair back and swiveled slowly from side to side.

"All right. Let's assume we can steal the minelayers from Reevesport and that we can talk Admiral Parks into leaving us enough parasite pods for at least the opening broadsides. I don't see any option but to hold our main striking power in a central position—right here with the base, probably—to allow us to respond to a threat from any direction. At the same time, I want to go on concealing the existence of our pulse transmitter technology. I'm sure—" he allowed himself a wry smile "—Their Lordships would appreciate it if we can manage it, at any rate. But that means we've got to give the Peeps something they can see to explain how we can know where they are. We're not going to have as many light units as I'd like for that, but I think we're going to have to split them up as pickets."

Heads nodded, and he let his chair snap back upright.

"Commodore Van Slyke, your squadron's our next heaviest tactical unit, so we'll have to keep you concentrated with the battlecruisers. Ernie," he turned to his chief of staff once more, "I want you and Joe to figure the most economical way to use the light cruisers and tin-cans for perimeter coverage."

"Yes, Sir. We'll do our best, but there's no way we can get complete coverage with so few units for a sphere that size."

"I know. Do your best, and concentrate on the most likely approach vectors from Seaford. Even if we don't have anyone in position to 'spot' them the minute they arrive, we may be able to maneuver someone into position using the pulse transmitters."

Corell nodded and punched more notes into her pad, and the admiral smiled at his subordinates.

"I'm beginning to feel a little better about this," he announced. "Not a lot, you understand, but a little. Now I want you to make me feel even better by suggesting the best possible way to use the tactical resources we hope to have available. The floor is open, ladies and gentlemen."

* * *

It was quiet on Nike's flag bridge. Twenty-six hours of frantic conferences and frenzied staff work had translated intentions into reality, and now Vice Admiral Sir Yancey Parks' forces moved to execute his orders.

No one seemed inclined to casual conversation as Admiral Sarnow and his staff watched the massive dreadnoughts and superdreadnoughts form up in their loose cruising formations, each ship well clear of her sisters' impeller wedges. The flag deck holo sphere blazed with the crawling fire of their light codes as their drives came on-line, and far flung necklaces of light cruisers and destroyers glowed ahead of them and on either flank, sensors probing the endless dark as they guarded their massive charges. The stronger drive signatures of heavy cruisers, still infinitely lighter than the ships of the wall, formed closer, tighter necklaces about each squadron, and the whole, enormous formation began to move, like a newborn constellation crawling across the sphere.

It was impressive, Honor thought, standing at Sarnow's elbow and staring down into the display with him. Very impressive. But all that ponderous firepower was headed away from them, and Battlecruiser Squadron Five's handful of emission sources seemed shrunken and forlorn as they were left to defend Hancock Station alone. She felt the chill of abandonment in her heart, and took herself sternly to task for it.

"Well, there they go," Captain Corell said quietly, and Commander Cartwright grunted agreement beside her.

"At least he left us the pods and the minelayers," the ops officer remarked after a moment, and it was Sarnow's turn to grunt. The admiral brooded down on the sphere for a long, silent minute, then sighed.

"Yes, he left them, Joe, but I don't know how much good they're going to do." He turned his back on the display, the gesture somehow deliberate and almost defiant, and looked at Honor. His mustache twitched as he smiled, but his face looked wearier and far more worn than she'd ever seen it before.

"I'm not knocking your input, Honor," he said quietly, and she nodded. He didn't omit the honorific "Dame" often. Whenever he did, she listened very carefully, for she'd learned it meant he was speaking to his tactical alter ego, not simply his flag captain.

"That was a brilliant idea about the minelayers," he went on, "and you and Ernie were right to suggest we might be able to modify our fire control to handle the pods, too. But even though Houseman may be an asshole—hell, even though he is an asshole—he was right, too. We may dazzle them with our footwork at the start, even get in a few good licks they don't expect. But if they bring in ships of the wall and keep coming, we're dead meat."

"We could always abandon the system, Sir," Cartwright suggested wryly. "After all, if Admiral Parks is willing to give up Zanzibar, he shouldn't have much room to complain if we make an, um, tactical withdrawal from Hancock."

"Mutinous sentiments if ever I heard them, Joe." Sarnow smiled again, tiredly, and shook his head. "And I'm afraid it's just not on. The Admiral overlooked a couple of points, you see—like how we evacuate the base personnel if we withdraw."

A deeper, colder chill touched Honor's heart, for that was a thought she'd tried hard not to consider. The ongoing expansion of Hancock's facilities had swelled the station's work force enormously, and the ungainly repair base was home to almost eleven thousand men and women. The squadron and its screening units might squeeze sixty or seventy percent of them aboard—assuming none of the ships were lost or badly damaged in action first—but only at the expense of ruinously overloading their environmental services. And even if they did, thirty or forty percent of the yard dogs would simply have to be left behind. And she knew one officer who would insist that it was his duty to remain if any of his people did.

"He did sort of miss out on that one, didn't he?" Captain Corell murmured, and this time Sarnow chuckled. It wasn't a very pleasant sound, but there was a germ of true humor in it, and Honor felt strangely moved after the confident front he'd projected at the squadron meetings.

"I noticed that," he agreed, and stretched his arms in an enormous yawn. "On the other hand, he had a point about the relative value of Hancock. If we lose all our allies in the area, there's not much need for a base here. More to the point, there's no way we could hold it if they set up strong blocking positions to cut us off from the rear and come at us full bore. Besides, he has to balance the possible loss of thirty or forty thousand Manticorans in Hancock against the risk to billions of civilians in the inhabited systems we're here to defend." He shook his head. "No, I can't fault that part of his reasoning. It's cold, I grant you, but sometimes an admiral has to be cold."

"But he could have avoided it, Sir." Deferential stubbornness edged Corell's voice, and Sarnow looked her way.

"Now, now, Ernie. I'm his most junior admiral. It's easy for the low man on the totem pole to urge an aggressive response—after all, it's not his head that'll roll if his CO takes his advice and screws up. And Dame Christa was right about the potential for a collision neither side really wants."

"Maybe. But what would you have done in his place?" Cartwright challenged.

"Unfair supposition. I'm not in his place. I'd like to think I'd have taken my own advice if I were, but I can't be sure of it. Heavy lies the head that wears a vice admiral's beret, Joe."

"Nice evasive action, Sir," Cartwright said sourly, and Sarnow shrugged.

"Part of the job description, Joe. Part of the job description." He yawned again and waved a weary hand at Corell. "I need some rack time, Ernie. You and Dame Honor mind the store for me for a few hours, okay? I'll have my steward haul me out in time for that conference on defensive exercises."

"Certainly, Sir," Corell said, and Honor seconded her with a nod.

The admiral walked from the bridge without the usual springy energy Honor associated with him, and his three subordinates exchanged glances.

"There," Captain The Honorable Ernestine Corell said softly, "goes a man who just got royally screwed by his own CO."

* * *

Vice Admiral Parks stood watching his display as his detachments' vectors began to diverge, and his face was grim. He didn't like what he'd just done. If the Peeps came at Sarnow before Danislav arrived—

He suppressed the thought with a mental shudder. The nagging possibility that Sarnow had been right, that he'd persuaded himself into less than the optimal response, worried at him, but there were too many imponderables, too many variables. And Sarnow was too damned aggressive. Parks allowed himself a small snort. No wonder the rear admiral got along so well with Harrington! Well, at least if he had to delegate a possible fight to the death to one of his squadrons, he'd just picked the one with the command team best suited to the task.

Not that he expected it to help him sleep any better if it turned out he'd been wrong.

"Admiral Kostmeyer will hit the hyper limit on her vector in another twenty minutes, Sir. We'll hit it seventy-three minutes after she does."

Parks glanced up at his chief of staff's report. Capra looked even more exhausted than the admiral felt after dealing with the tidal wave of last-minute details. His dark eyes were rimmed with red, but he was freshly shaved and his uniform looked as if he'd donned it ten minutes before.

"Tell me," Parks said softly. "Do you think I made the right call?"

"Frankly, Sir?"

"Always, Vincent."

"In that case, Sir, I have to say that . . . I don't know. I just don't know." The commodore's own weariness showed in his headshake. "If the Peeps do run forces in behind Hancock to take out Yeltsin, Zanzibar, and Alizon, we'd have a hell of a time kicking them back out with Seaford threatening our rear. But by the same token, we've surrendered the initiative. We're reacting, not pushing them." He shrugged. "Maybe if we knew more about what's going on elsewhere we'd be in a better position to judge, but I have to tell you, Sir, I'm not happy about stripping Hancock so clean."

"Neither am I." Parks turned away from the master display and sank into his command chair with a sigh. "But worst case, Rollins is still going to have to assume we're concentrated here until he scouts Hancock and learns positively that we're not, and he's been mighty slack about that for months. He can't move his main force out to support his scouting elements without our pickets picking up on it, and if he sends them out unsupported, Sarnow may just be able to pick them off before they get close enough to confirm that we aren't there. Even if he can't, they'll take at least three T-days each way to make the run and report back, then another three or four days for Rollins to move. We can be back from Yorik in just over three—seven from the minute one of our pickets hypers out of Seaford space to tell us his fleet is moving."

"Eight, Sir," Capra corrected quietly. "They'll have to shadow him long enough to confirm he isn't headed for Yorik before we can move."

"All right, eight." Parks shook his head wearily. "If Sarnow can just keep them occupied for four days . . ."

His voice trailed off, and he met his chief of staff's gaze almost pleadingly. Four days. It didn't sound like all that much—unless you were a squadron of battlecruisers up against four squadrons of ships of the wall.

"It's my decision," Parks said at last. "Maybe it is the wrong one. I hope not, but right or wrong, I've got to live with it. And at least the Peeps don't know what we're up to yet. If Danislav expedites his movement and gets here before they figure it out, he and Sarnow will have a fair chance."

"And at least they'll have the capacity to lift the construction workers out if they have to run," Capra said in that same quiet voice.

"And lift the workers out if they have to run," Parks agreed, and closed his eyes with a sigh.

* * *

The massive squadrons vanished into the trackless wastes of hyper-space, and in their wake, a frail handful of battlecruisers took up the task they'd just abandoned.


Back | Next