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Honor closed the message file on her screen, tipped hack her chair, and sipped her cocoa with a sense of mingled relief and regret. Yesterday's unexpected arrival of the light cruiser Anubis with dispatches from Admiral Danislav had brought Admiral Sarnow (and his flag captain) up to date on the latest information available to the Admiralty, and that information was downright frightening. There was no longer any doubt, in the Admiralty's view, that the PRH intended to launch an all-out attack . . . soon.

Honor agreed, and that agreement left her more worried than ever by Parks' dispersal. But at least Danislav had also confirmed that his dreadnought squadron, reinforced by an extra division the Admiralty had scared up, would arrive in a maximum of seventy-two hours. Unfortunately, Danislav had a reputation as an unimaginative, though determined, tactician . . . and he was senior to Sarnow.

She grimaced at the thought. Even with his ten dreadnoughts, Danislav was going to be far too weak to hold the system against serious attack. He'd need all the imagination he could find, and she hoped he'd have the sense to recognize Sarnow's capabilities and rely upon them.

Unlike Parks.

She grimaced again and rolled another sip of cocoa over her tongue. Nimitz made a soft sound, and she smiled as he yawned, twitched his ears, and stretched along his perch, curling his tail in an oddly disdainful gesture to express his own opinion of Parks.

"My sentiments exactly," she told him with a chuckle. Much though she respected Nimitz's intelligence, she entertained no illusions about his ability to judge an admiral's fitness for command. Except, of course, when his judgment matched hers.

She grinned at herself, then let her chair swing in a gentle arc, and her grin faded. The last few days had carried their own undertone of strain for her as Pavel Young settled in among the task force's officers. She'd been able to avoid much direct contact with him, but simply knowing he was there cast a pall over her spirits that even Paul and Mike had trouble lifting. At least she hadn't had to put up with him outside the bounds of formal conferences, though, and she was guiltily aware that Sarnow had handled Young's necessary background briefs through his staff channels, not her. Ernie Corell had been stuck with most of them, and while the chief of staff had been careful about her choice of words, her tone whenever she mentioned Young spoke volumes about her own opinion of him.

Honor frowned and rubbed the tip of her nose, wondering (far from the first time) how someone like Young had survived so long in the Queen's service. She'd seen Corell's reaction to him mirrored in too many other officers, many of them male, to believe her own opinion of him was unique.

She sighed and tipped her chair further back. In light of her troubles with him, she'd researched his background more carefully than she cared to admit, and what she'd found appalled her. She'd always known a certain segment of the aristocracy (not all of them conservatives, by a long mark) believed the rules didn't apply to them, that they were above the constraints lesser beings had to accept, but the Young family was outstanding even among the scum element of the nobility. From all reports, Pavel's father, the current Earl of North Hollow, was as bad as Pavel himself . . . and the record suggested his grandfather might actually have been worse! Three entire generations of the same family had gone their self-centered way, as if determined to single-handedly prove the depths to which "nobility" could sink, and somehow they'd gotten away with it.

Wealth, birth, and political influence, she thought sourly. Power they took so completely for granted that the responsibilities which went with it had no bearing on their lives. Power they abused with a casual lack of concern that sickened her. That it revolted the majority of their peers, as well, did little to protect less eminent persons from them, and sometimes that made her wonder about her entire society. Yet even at her most depressed, a stubborn part of her insisted that the very reason they stood out so disgustingly was because they were the exceptions, not the rule.

She twitched her shoulders and took herself to task. Why Young acted as he did and how he got away with it were less important than the consequences, and one thing had become clear to her. Paul was right; Young was afraid of her. It showed in his eyes, now that she knew to look for it, on the rare occasions when he found himself within her reach, and she was a little ashamed by her intense satisfaction at that discovery. Not even the fact that he and Houseman obviously were doing their best to alienate Commodore Van Slyke from her could impair her grim pleasure—though it might have, she conceded honestly, if Van Slyke had been willing to pay them the least attention.

She smiled again, bleakly, and turned back to her terminal as thoughts of the commodore returned her attention to important things. She brought up a display of the system and the task group's current dispositions and felt herself nodding in slow satisfaction as she studied it.

Admiral Sarnow had rethought his deployments in the last week or so, and the task group was no longer clustered tightly about the base. He'd left the minelayers there, for he'd evolved a plan for their use that was both subtler and safer than the one Honor had envisioned, but he'd moved his battlecruisers and heavy cruisers to the far side of the primary from the base to cover the most probable approach vectors from Seaford Nine.

There was an element of risk in that, Honor acknowledged. If the bad guys came at them from the opposite direction, they might find themselves badly placed to meet the threat, but they were close enough in that they should have time to intercept short of the base. It would be tight on the least favorable approach, since towing the pods slowed them to a max accel of less than 359 gees, and the interception would come at a dangerously low range, yet the edge their FTL sensor capability gave them should make it possible. On the other hand, it was unlikely Admiral Rollins would get too tricky. If he believed he had the strength to take the system, he'd feel no real need for sneakiness; if he doubted that he could do it, then he'd have every reason for caution and conservatism in any attack he might launch.

She nodded again, then looked up at the admittance signal's chime. She checked her chrono, and her eyebrows rose as she pressed the stud. She hadn't realized it was quite so late in the morning.

"Yes?" she said.

"Executive Officer, Ma'am," her Marine sentry announced.

"Thank you, Corporal. Come on in, Exec."

The hatch slid open almost instantly, and Mike Henke grinned at her.

"Ready for the weekly reports, Ma'am?" Henke took the memo pad from under her arm and waved it, and Honor groaned.

"As ready as I ever am." She sighed, and pointed to a chair across from her desk. "Take a seat and let's see how quickly we can get through them this time."

* * *

"All right, then." Henke nodded and tapped a note into her memo pad. "That takes care of the hardware side of the engineering department. Now—" she scanned a fresh screen of data "—about those promotions. Chief Manton is definitely due for senior chief, but if we bump him up we'll be over establishment in electronics."

"Um." Honor tapped a finger gently on her crossed knee as she leaned back in her chair. The captain of a Queen's ship had broad power to authorize enlisted and noncom promotions, as long as she stayed within the establishment laid down by BuPers for her command. If a promotion exceeded her establishment, she was required to return the "overly senior" personnel to Admiralty control for reassignment as soon as possible. It was a pain in the posterior, but Honor knew it was also intended to prevent captains from showing too much favoritism.

"His efficiency report is top drawer, Mike," she said at last. "And Lord knows he's done an outstanding job ever since we commissioned. I don't want to lose him, but I don't want to hold him back, either. Besides, we'll still be over establishment whenever he gets his rocker, even if we wait until BuPers acts, and he'll spend another ten months in grade, easy. If we bump him now, at least we can get him the salary and seniority he deserves."

"Agreed. The only problem is that regs are going to require that either he or Senior Chief Fanning be reassigned out of Nike." 

"Unless we get the Admiral to sign off on letting us hang onto him 'in the interests of the Service,' " Honor mused. "After all, he's about the best gravitic tech I've ever seen, and we do have the pulse transmitter to worry about. That's been his baby from the outset, so—"

She broke off with a grimace as her terminal chimed.

" 'Scuse me a minute, Mike," she said, and swung her chair back upright. She punched the acceptance key, and her terminal flicked to life with Evelyn Chandler's face. Honor took one look at her expression and stiffened.

"Yes, Eve?"

"The outer sensor net's just reported a hyper footprint, Ma'am—a big one, about thirty-five light-minutes out from the primary. It's right on the mark for a least-time approach from Seaford."

"I see." Honor felt Henke's sudden tension and was astounded by how calm her own voice sounded. "How big is 'big,' Eve?"

"We're still getting the preliminary readings, Ma'am. At the moment, it looks like thirty to forty capital ships, plus escorts," Chandler said flatly, and Honor's mouth firmed.

"Does Flag Plot have your data?"

"Yes, Ma'am. CIC is feeding it to them now, but—"

A brilliant scarlet override icon flashed in the corner of Honor's screen, and her raised hand halted the tac officer in mid-sentence.

"This is probably the Admiral now, Eve. Don't go away."

She accepted the emergency call and straightened her shoulders as Mark Sarnow's face replaced Chandler's. His heavy eyebrows were tight, his mouth grim under his mustache, and Honor made herself smile a welcome even though she knew he saw the tension in her own expression.

"Good morning, Sir. I assume you've seen the scanner data?"

"I have, indeed."

"I've just been discussing it with Commander Chandler, Sir. May I bring her back into the circuit?"

"Certainly!" Sarnow agreed, and the screen flickered as Honor brought Chandler into a three-way conference. A moment later, a second flicker split Honor's screen into fifths, not halves, as Captain Corell, Commander Cartwright, and Lieutenant Southman, Sarnow's intelligence officer, plugged into the same circuit.

"All right. Exactly what do we know?" Sarnow's clipped voice was brisk but clear. Chandler cleared her throat, and Honor nodded to her.

"We're getting fairly decent information now, Sir," the tac officer reported. "At the moment, we're calling it thirty-five capital ships. The count's less positive on their screening elements, but CIC's current projection makes it—" Chandler glanced to the side to doublecheck her display "—roughly seventy destroyers and cruisers. Our best call on the capital ships is twenty-two superdreadnoughts, seven dreadnoughts, and six battlecruisers." Chandler met Sarnow's eyes with a grim expression, and Lieutenant Southman pursed his lips in a silent whistle.

"What, Casper?" the admiral asked, and the lieutenant shrugged.

"That's damned close to everything he's got, Sir. He can't have left more than a couple of ships of the wall home—assuming, of course, that this is Admiral Rollins."

"Assuming," Corell half-snorted, and Southman's taut mouth twitched in an almost-smile.

"I think we can surmise it is, Ma'am," he acknowledged, "but my point is that our worst-case estimate only gives him thirty-seven capital ships, and some of them almost have to be down for refit. So unless he's been heavily reinforced, he must've stripped Seaford down to the fixed fortifications. And surely our pickets would have reported it if he had been reinforced."

"Oh, really?" Cartwright growled. The ops officer's expression was as grim as his tone. "The point that springs to my mind is where the hell our pickets are. They should've gotten here hours ago—at least—to warn us Rollins was moving out!"

"They may have gotten too close, Joe," Honor said quietly. Cartwright's eyes flicked to her, and she raised a hand at the screen. "Our picket commanders know their responsibilities. The only thing that could've prevented them from warning us would be for the Peeps to figure out some way to intercept them, and the most likely way for them to get caught would be to shadow Rollins' main body too closely. I don't see any other way the Peeps could've picked them off, and even if there were one, it wouldn't change Casper's point. This really does look like everything Rollins has, which—"

"Which suggests it's no probe," Admiral Sarnow agreed with a sharp nod. "He wouldn't be here in such strength or leave Seaford uncovered unless he had a decisive operation in mind—and he wouldn't think he could get away with it if he hadn't figured out we've left Hancock uncovered."

"But how could he, Sir?" Corell half-protested, and Sarnow shrugged.

"It might be any of a number of things. The first that comes to mind is that he probed one of the other systems and spotted units that should have been here somewhere else. But right now how he tumbled to it matters less than what he's likely to do about it. And what we're going to do about him." Sarnow's green eyes switched back to Chandler. "Do we have a projected vector for them, Commander?"

"Not yet, Sir. They made a very low-velocity transit, and they've been sitting more or less at rest relative to the primary ever since."

"At that range?" The admiral's eyebrows arched, and he and Honor regarded one another with surprised speculation. No shipboard sensor could see Hancock's inner system from that range, so what were the Peeps waiting for? Assuming they didn't know about the FTL sensor net, they should have started building the highest velocity they could before light-speed transmissions from the out-system sensor platforms warned the defenders of their arrival.

"Yes, Sir. I—" Chandler broke off as a buzzer sounded. She dropped her gaze to her display again, then looked back up at the admiral. "They're moving now, Sir. Looks like they're splitting into two elements and sending the dreadnoughts and battlecruisers in ahead. That could change, but at the moment they're opening a definite gap between them, though both groups are coming in at low acceleration. Their lead element looks like about two KPS squared—call it two-zero-four gees—and the SDs are trailing at about half that."

"Two KPS squared." Sarnow's voice and frown were thoughtful.

"Not very daring of them, Sir," Corell observed dryly. "It's not like we're going to be able to stop them."

"Their intelligence may not be definite," Cartwright suggested. "If they only think they've got the edge, they might not want to get in too deep until they're positive they can carry through."

"Maybe. But all we can do is guess," Sarnow pointed out. "What's their course, Commander?"

"Commander Oselli's working it up now, Sir. It looks like they're heading to intercept the repair base." Someone said something behind Chandler, and she nodded. "Confirmed, Sir. Assuming they hold their present acceleration and heading with turnover for the lead element in about five and a half hours, the DNs and BCs will be just about at rest relative to the base at range zero in ten hours and forty minutes."

"I see." Sarnow leaned back, green eyes narrow while his thoughts raced. "All right, let's assume for the moment that Joe's right. They're not certain about their data. Maybe they even think it's some kind of trap. Their lead element can pull a higher accel than their SDs, so that would make them the logical ships to use as a probe. And, of course, they've got more than enough firepower to deal with us if, in fact, we are unsupported." He shrugged. "It's the cautious approach, but I'm afraid that doesn't help us a lot."

Heads nodded, and Honor heard the soft tapping of his invisible fingers as they drummed on his console.

"At least their accel gives us time." He raised his voice. "Commander Oselli?"

"Yes, Sir?" Charlotte Oselli's reply came faint but clear from beyond the range of Chandler's visual pickup.

"Unless something changes, we're looking at an ideal opening for Sucker Punch, Commander. Please plot our course on that assumption and get back to me as soon as you've got it."

"Aye, aye, Sir."

Sarnow rubbed his mustache for a minute, then looked back at Honor.

"I'll have Samuel pass the preliminary orders to the minelayers over the pulse transmitter, Honor. Once we've got everyone in motion, we'll shift to the regular command net and run it through your com channels."

"Yes, Sir."

Sarnow turned to look over his shoulder.

"You heard, Samuel?" Honor couldn't hear Webster's acknowledgment, but Sarnow nodded. "Good. As soon as Commander Oselli completes her calculations, I'll give them their base course and coordinates for their field."

"Now," he went on, turning back to the screen, "once they get moving on that—"

"Excuse me, Sir," Oselli's voice interrupted, "but I've got our vector. I assume you want to hold our signatures to a minimum?"

"You assume correctly, assuming we can still make it into position."

"It'll be a little tighter than optimum, Sir," Honor's astrogator said, "but we can make it. If we get underway within ten minutes, we can match courses at one-four-one-zero-eight KPS in three hours and five-two minutes. They'll be approximately three-five minutes past turnover at a velocity of three-four-two-seven-eight KPS."

"Range at course merge?"

"Just over six-point-five light-minutes, Sir. Call it one-zero-zero-point-niner million klicks. We'll be about two-zero-three million from the base at that point."

"I see." Sarnow's expression had tightened as Oselli spoke. Honor kept her own face blank, but she could almost read his thoughts. Six and a half light-minutes was ONIs best estimate for the PNS's detection range against a low-powered impeller wedge covered by Manticoran EW systems. But it was only an estimate, and if they were picked up sooner than that . . .

"Assume we maneuver as suggested, Commander Chandler. When do we hit the powered missile envelope?"

"Almost exactly two hours after course merge, Sir." Chandler's instant response indicated she'd already worked the numbers. Sarnow's mouth twitched in a quick smile, and the tac officer went on speaking. "Assuming they maintain their projected vector—and that we aren't detected early, of course—we'll be right on a hundred million klicks from the base when the range hits seven million. That should put them over half a million klicks inside our envelope."

"I see." Sarnow rubbed his mustache again, then nodded. "All right, let's do it. Samuel, inform the minelayers' senior officer that I want his field laid ninety-eight million klicks out. And—" the admiral's green eyes slipped, almost against their will, toward Honor "—further inform him that he is to execute Carry Out as soon as he's done that."

"Aye, aye, Sir." This time Webster's response was audible over the com, and Honor caught Sarnow's gaze and nodded slightly, acknowledging the sense of his orders. Operation Carry Out would remove all the noncombatants the minelayers could cram aboard from the base. It would only be about fifty percent of the total base personnel—and wouldn't include Paul Tankersley—but there was no point pretending they had any other option. Eight battlecruisers couldn't possibly stop the firepower accelerating toward them.

"Very well, ladies and gentlemen. I believe that takes care of the preliminaries," Sarnow said, and bared his teeth at the pickup. "Now let's see just how much we can hurt these bastards."


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